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´╗┐Title: A Girl in Spring-Time
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 "A Girl in Spring-Time" ***

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A Girl in Spring-Time
By Jessie Mansergh
Illustrations by Gertrude Demain Hammond
Published by Blackie and Son Limited, London.
This edition dated 1897.
A Girl in Spring-Time, by Jessie Mansergh.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
A GIRL IN SPRING-TIME, BY JESSIE MANSERGH.


CHAPTER ONE.

THE DAY BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS.

It was the day before the midsummer holidays, and the girls of the first
form were sitting together in the upstairs school-room at Milvern House,
discussing the events of the term, and the prospective pleasures of the
next few weeks.  Lessons had been finished in the morning, the afternoon
had been given up to packing, and now they were enjoying a delightfully
unsupervised hour of rest.

A tall, slim girl was standing by the table, turning out the contents of
a desk, and filling the waste-paper basket with fragments of paper.  The
other pupils watched the movements of the small hands, and the sleek,
dark head with unconscious fascination.  There was something
delightfully trim and dainty about Bertha Faucit.  Her hair was always
neat, her actions deliberate and graceful; she reminded one irresistibly
of a sleek, well-nurtured pigeon pluming its wings in the sunshine, with
a very happy sense of its own importance.

By the window stood another girl, who was evidently a sister, for she
wore a dress of the same pattern, and held herself with a like air of
dignified composure.  Bertha and Lois Faucit were the daughters of a
dean who lived in an old cathedral town, and their school-fellows were
accustomed to account for every peculiarity on this score.  "Dean's
daughters, you know!"  It was ridiculous to expect that the children of
such a dignitary would indulge in pillow-fights, and bedroom supper,
like ordinary frivolous mortals.

Bertha was talking all the while she worked, dropping out her words with
the same delicate distinctness which characterised her actions.

"Picnics?  Oh, dear me, yes!  We have a picnic almost every week.  We
take the pony carriage and carry our own provisions, and make a fire of
sticks.  Have you ever tried to boil a kettle in the open air?  It is a
terrible experience.  First of all the wood is so damp that it won't
light, and you get all smoked and dirty; then when it does begin to
burn, and you put the kettle on the top, the whole thing collapses to
the ground, and you have to begin again from the beginning.  You prop it
up with stones, and get everything started for the second time, and then
the others come back from laying the table and say, `What! isn't the
water boiling yet?  Oh, you don't know how to light a fire!  It is not
properly laid.  Let me show you!' and down comes the whole thing again.
At the end of an hour the kettle boils, and the water is smoked!  We
always use it to wash our hands, and drink milk instead.  This year I
intend to use fire-lighters."

"We have a proper tea-basket for taking about with us," said one of the
other girls.  "The kettle hangs over a lamp which is protected from the
draught, and you can have boiling water in ten minutes without any
trouble.  We always take it when we go on the river.  I like boating
picnics best of any."

"We go to the sea-side for the whole of the holidays," said Ella Bennet,
a big girl with rosy cheeks and long, brown hair; "Mother thinks the
bathing does us so much good.  I learnt to swim last year.  An old
fisherman rowed out in a boat.  I had a strap fastened round my waist,
and he held me up with a pole while I went puffing round and round.  He
tried to teach me to dive as well, but I was too nervous.  One day I
vowed I really would try.  I climbed on to the edge of the boat six
times over, while he held me, and showed me how to put out my hands, and
each time I began to squeal, and jumped down again at the last moment.
It was band day, so there were hundreds of people sitting on the shore,
and they roared with laughter.  I was ashamed to come out of the van."

"I don't care about the sea-side.  I like the country," said another
girl.  "Last year we stayed at an old farmhouse in Derbyshire.  The
walls are of oak, and there are secret cupboards on the stairs.  There
is a legend that on moonlight nights one of the rooms is haunted by a
lady in white, who comes and sits by an old spinning-wheel.  One evening
I dressed up in a sheet, powdered my hair, and blacked my eyebrows, then
I got the landlady to suggest to the others that they should go upstairs
and look for the ghost.  They came up in a rush, and there I was
spinning away with my head bent down as solemn as a judge.  They were
awfully quiet, but the boys crept nearer and nearer, and then pretended
to faint, and toppled right over me.  Horrid things!  It turned out that
the silly old woman thought they might be frightened, so she told them
who it was before they came up.  I was so cross!"

"But they might really have been frightened.  I wouldn't go upstairs to
see a ghost for a million pounds--not by myself, at least," said Nellie
Grey, the youngest girl in the form.  "Of course it wouldn't be so bad
if you had your brothers with you.  Brothers are great teases, but they
never get frightened themselves, so it is a comfort to have them
sometimes.  My eldest brother is awfully brave.  He wanted to be a
sailor, but Father wouldn't let him, so at Christmas he confided in us
one night that he was going to run away.  He said good-bye, and divided
his things among us.  I got the paint-box, and Minnie the desk, and Phil
the books and tool-chest.  Next morning when we came down to breakfast,
there he was just the same as usual.  He hadn't run away at all.  He
said it was too cold.  But we wouldn't give the things back.  It's an
awfully nice paint-box, with a lovely big palette in a drawer
underneath.  Mildred! how quiet you are!  What are you going to do in
the holidays?"

The speaker turned to look at a girl who was seated on the edge of the
table itself, and everyone in the room followed her example with an
alacrity which showed how pleasant the sight was in their eyes.

Mildred Moore had just passed her fourteenth birthday, but she was so
big and strong that she looked older than her age.  Her long legs nearly
reached the floor, her hands were folded in her lap, and she stared
through the window, lost in happy day-dreams.  Mildred was the beauty of
the school, and as the love of all that is sweet, and bright, and lovely
is natural to girlhood, her companions placed her on a pedestal on that
account, and treated her with special marks of favour.  Eva Murray, who
was sentimental, was accustomed to declare that Mildred was exactly like
a Norse princess, and when Blanche Green, who was practical, asked what
a Norse princess was like, she replied that she had never met one in
real life, but had seen many in picture galleries, that they always had
grey eyes and golden hair, and looked strong and kind and fearless, but
also as if they could be awfully disagreeable if they liked,--which
settled the question once for all, for everyone agreed that the
description suited Mildred to a T.

"What am I going to do?" repeated the Norse princess cheerily.  "Why,
nothing at all in the way you mean.  We never go away, either to the
country or the sea-side, or have picnics, or parties, or any excitements
of that kind.  We just stay quietly at home and go on with the usual
work, but I am with Mother, you know--that's my holiday!  You have never
seen her, you girls; I wish you had, for she is quite different to other
peoples' mothers.  She is only twenty years older than I am, to begin
with, and she is awfully pretty.  She is a tiny little thing, with dark
eyes, and soft brown hair.  She comes to meet me at the station in a
sailor hat, and a little blue jacket, looking like a big school-girl
herself.  I'm so proud of her!  Last time I went home I took her up in
my arms and carried her across the room.  She kicked like anything and
said, `You disrespectful child!  How dare you!  Put me down this
instant!' but she wasn't really angry a bit, and we both tumbled over on
to the sofa, and laughed till we cried.  We do enjoy ourselves so much
when we get together--Mother and I.  She is lonely when I am away, poor
dear, with no one to speak to but the children, so we make up for it in
the holidays.  I sit up to supper every night, and we have coffee, and
hot buttered toast, and all sorts of good things that are bad for us,
and in the daytime we bribe the elder children with pennies to amuse the
younger ones, so that we may have the room to ourselves, and talk of the
good times we shall have when my schooling is over, and I go home to
stay!"

The girls gazed at Mildred as she spoke, with a mingling of envy and
compassion.  Envy,--because her intense delight in the mere prospect of
being at home made them conscious of their own selfishness in regarding
the holidays as a period when parents should occupy themselves in
providing amusement for their families;--compassion,--because it was
well known that Mrs Moore was a widow, and so poor that she could not
afford to leave the country house where she lived with her half-dozen
noisy youngsters.  Mildred had been sent to a good boarding-school so
that she might be able to teach her little brother and sisters in due
time, and the other girls were specially pitiful over this prospect.

Mary Nicoll referred to the subject now with questionable taste.

"But it won't be much fun, Mildred, if you have to teach all day long.
You won't be able to go about as you like, or have any time free except
in the evenings.  And fancy having to go over all the wretched old
lessons again, and to drill tables and dates, and latitudes and
longitudes into the brains of a lot of stupid children.  It will be
worse than being at school."

"Our children are not stupid.  They are as sharp as needles, and I don't
think it will be dull at all.  It will be fun to have the positions
reversed, and to do none of the work and all the fault-finding.  I shall
bully them fearfully.  Can't you imagine me--very proper and stiff, hair
done up--sitting at the head of the table tapping with a lead pencil...
`At-tention to the board! ...  Shoulders back, young ladies, if you
please!  Your deportment leaves much to be desired! ...  My dear, good
child, how can you be so stupid!  You try my patience to the
uttermost!'"

Mildred accompanied these remarks with contortions of the face and body
in imitation of the different teachers at Milvern House, and the bursts
of laughter with which they were greeted showed how real were her powers
of mimicry.  She joined in the laughter herself, then suddenly breaking
off, clasped her hands together, and rocked to and fro in an ecstasy of
anticipation.

"This time to-morrow--oh!  I shall be driving home from the station.  We
shall have passed the village cross, and the almshouses, and turned the
corner by the farm.  The children will be swarming out of the gate--the
table will be laid for tea, with a bowl of roses in the middle--oh!--and
strawberries--oh!--and real, true, thick, country cream.  To-morrow!  I
can't believe it.  I don't think I ever wanted to go home so badly
before.  The term from Christmas to midsummer seems so awfully long when
you don't go away for Easter.  I shan't sleep a wink to-night, I am so
excited.  I don't think I can lie down at all."

The girls were so absorbed in their conversation that they had not heard
the door open during Mildred's last speech, and the new comer had thus
an opportunity of listening undisturbed.  She was a tall, slight young
lady, with dark hair, and the sweetest brown eyes that were ever seen.
She wore a black dress, and white collar and cuffs, and looked as if she
were trying her best to appear old and dignified, and not succeeding so
well as she would have wished.  This was Miss Margaret, the younger of
the two lady principals, familiarly known among the girls as "Mardie",
because she was "such a darling" that it was impossible to address her
by an ordinary, stiff, school-mistressy title.  This afternoon, however,
Mardie's eyes were not so serene as usual, and her face clouded over in
a noticeable manner as she listened to Mildred's rhapsodies.

"Mildred, dear," she said, coming forward and laying her hand on the
girl's shoulder.  "I want you in my room for a few minutes.  I won't
keep you long.  There is something--"

"You want to say to me!  Oh, Mardie, I can guess.  I have left my
slippers in the middle of the floor, and thrown my clothes all over the
room.  I know--I know quite well, but it's the last day--I can't be prim
and tidy on the last day.  It's not in human nature!"  Mildred took hold
of Miss Margaret by the arm, and rubbed her curly head against her
shoulder in a pretty, kitten-like manner.  "To-morrow morning you will
be rid of us altogether, and then--"

"But it is not about your room, Mildred.  Come dear--come with me.  I
really want you."

"I'm ready then!"  The girl slipped lightly to the ground, and turned to
follow Miss Margaret from the room.  "You make me quite curious, Mardie.
Whatever can it be?"


CHAPTER TWO.

A GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT.

Miss Margaret's room was on the third floor, and did service both as a
bedroom and as a sanctum to which its owner could retire in rare moments
of leisure.  The bed stood in a corner, curtained off from the rest of
the room; pictures hung on the walls; little bookcases fitted into the
angles; while before the window was an upholstered seat, so long and
wide, and luxuriously cushioned, as to make an ideal sofa.  In the
girls' estimation Mardie's room was a paradise, and it seemed almost
worth while having a headache, when one could be tucked up warm and cosy
on that delightful seat, shaded from the sun by the linen blind outside
the window, yet catching delicious peeps at the garden beneath its
shelter.

Mildred made straight for the coveted position and leant back against
the cushions, her hands clasped round her knees in an attitude rather
comfortable than elegant.  For once, however, Miss Margaret had no
reproof to offer.  She had nothing to say about the awful consequences
of curving the back and contracting the chest; she did not even inquire,
with a lifting of the eyebrows, "My dear Mildred, is that the way in
which a young lady ought to sit?"  She only gazed at the girl's face and
wrinkled her brows, as if puzzled how to open the conversation.

"Go on, Mardie, dear?" said her pupil, encouragingly.  "What is it--have
I done anything wrong?  I don't know what it is, but I'm awfully sorry,
and I'll never do it any more.  Don't scold me on the last day!  I'll
promise faithfully--"

"Don't, dear!  It isn't anything like that."  Miss Margaret straightened
herself with an expression of resolution and went boldly forward.
"Mildred, are you brave?  Can you bear a great disappointment?"

Mildred raised her eyes with a start of apprehension.  There was a
moment's silence, during which a curious change came over the girlish
face.  The colour faded from the cheeks, the eyes hardened, the lips set
themselves in a thin, straight line.

"No," she said sharply, "I can't!" and Miss Margaret looked at her with
gentle remonstrance.

"Oh, Mildred, don't take it like that!  I have had to bring other girls
into this room, dear, and tell them of troubles compared to which this
disappointment of yours is as nothing--nothing!  Poor little Effie
Browning, looking forward to her parents' return from abroad, and
counting the hours to their arrival--I had to show her the telegram
announcing her mother's death.  And Mabel, and Fanny--But your mother is
well, quite well and safe.  Doesn't that make you feel thankful to bear
any lesser trouble?"

"No!" said Mildred again, more obstinately than before; "No!"  She
stared at Miss Margaret with unflinching eyes.  "If Mother is well,
there is only one other trouble which I could feel just now.  If--if it
is anything to prevent me going home, I can't bear it--it will kill me!
I shall break my heart!"

"Nonsense!  You are far too strong, and brave, and sensible to break
your heart over a disappointment of a few weeks, however hard it may be
to face.  Come, Mildred, you know I rely upon you to be my helper in
difficulties; you must not quarrel with me, for we shall have to keep
each other company.  Your little brother Robbie has taken scarlet fever,
and you will not be able--"

She did not finish the sentence, for her pupil interrupted with a cry of
bitter grief, and buried her face in her hands.  It was one thing to
imagine a thing, and another to know that it was true in solemn earnest.
Mildred had spoken of the possibility of not being able to go home as
of some appalling imaginary calamity, but she had never, never thought
it could be true.  Not go home!  Stay at school all through the
holidays!--the prospect was so terrible that it was impossible to
realise all that it meant.  Nevertheless some of the first miserable
consequences were clear enough to poor Mildred's mind:--to unpack all
her boxes, to put her clothes back in drawers and cupboards; to sleep by
herself in the deserted dormitory; to spend the days lounging about
empty school-rooms, feeling doubly lonely because of the remembrance of
the friends who had been by her side but a few days before, and who had
now dispersed to their own happy homes.  Effie Browning had spent the
holidays at school once or twice, and Mildred had pitied her so much
that she had sent weekly letters and boxes of country flowers and
mosses, to cheer her solitude.  And now she herself was to undergo this
awful experience!  To-morrow morning the other girls would fasten their
boxes and drive off to the station, but for her there would be no
excitement of farewell, no railway journey, with the delightful sense of
importance in travelling by herself all the way from the junction, no
dear little mother waiting to greet her in sailor hat and blue serge
suit!  Her heart swelled with passionate longing, but she could not cry;
the blow was too sudden, too severe.  Miss Margaret's eyes were wet,
however, as she looked down at the curly, golden head.  She did not
speak for a few minutes, then she laid her hand on the girl's arm and
pressed it to attract attention.

"I am so sorry for you--so sorry, my poor girl.  See, dear, here is a
letter which came inclosed in one to my sister.  Your mother wished us
to break the news--"

Mildred seized the letter in an almost savage grasp.  It was in her
mother's handwriting, and ran as follows:--

  My darling Mildred,

  When you get this letter, Miss Chilton will have told you of the
  trouble at home.  Poor little Robbie has been very poorly for two
  days, and this morning the doctor pronounces it to be scarlet fever.
  I could not help crying when he told me, for so many things came
  rushing into my head, and it all seemed so dark and difficult.  I was
  anxious about Robbie, and couldn't think what to do with the rest of
  the children; and you, my darling, with your holidays just beginning!
  It broke my heart to think of you.  I seem to have lived a month in
  the last few hours, but everyone has been so kind, and help has come
  from all directions.  Mrs Bewley and Mrs Ross are to take the
  children to stay with them, as they have no little ones of their own,
  and are not afraid of infection.  I will nurse Robbie, and if any of
  the others fall ill, they will be sent home at once, and we will make
  a hospital of the top floor.  I suppose, even if all goes well, and
  Robbie is the only patient, it will be six weeks before we are out of
  quarantine.  Oh, my dearest child, I am so grieved for your
  disappointment, coming upon you in the midst of your preparations; but
  there is no help for it, you must stay on at school, for there is no
  other place to which I can send you.  I can't ask either Mrs Bewley
  or Mrs Ross to take you in addition to the other children, and even
  if you were here we could not see or speak to each other, and it would
  be dreadful to know that you were so near, and not be able to be
  together.

  I am as disappointed as you, can be, dear, for I can't tell you how I
  was looking forward to having my dear, big girl back again, but this
  is a trouble which has come to us, and which we cannot help, and we
  must try to be as brave as possible.  Robbie is very hot and feverish
  to-day.  He asked when you would be at home, and I was obliged to tell
  him that you could not come now.  A little time afterwards I went back
  and found him crying, "'Cause Millie will be angry wif me!"  Poor wee
  man! if he only gets on well we must not mind any disappointment which
  his illness has caused.

  I shall not be allowed to send you letters, dear, but please write to
  me as often and as cheerfully as you can.  We shall be shut off from
  all our friends, and letters will be eagerly welcomed.  I send you a
  postal order for a sovereign for pocket-money during the holidays.  It
  is all I can afford, darling, or you should have ten times as much.
  You know that.

  I have not another minute to spare, so goodbye, dearie.  I shall think
  of you every hour of the day.  Help me by being brave!

  Mother.

Mildred read the letter through, folded it away, and looked up at Miss
Margaret with bright, dry eyes.

"Can I go to my own room, Miss Margaret, please?"

"You can if you like, Mildred, but the other girls will be there in a
moment, getting ready for tea.  Wouldn't you prefer to stay here?  I
will give you my writing-case, and you can write to your mother; she
will be longing to hear.  You shall have tea up here, a nice little
tray, and Bertha shall have it with you, unless you prefer to be alone."

"I don't want to see anyone.  They are all going home.  It would make me
feel worse than ever.  They are all happy but me--"

"They will feel your disappointment almost as much as you do yourself.
We are all so grieved; but I will do my best to make the holidays
pleasant for you, dear."

"Don't be kind to me, Mardie, please.  I can't bear it--I feel as if I
hated everyone!  Why need Robbie take ill just now of all times in the
year?  He is a tiresome little thing.  It is always the same way,--there
is more trouble with him than with all the five girls.  Why can't Mother
stay with us and send him away to be nursed?  There are five of us, and
only one of him.  I wasn't home at Easter, though almost all the girls
went.  I can't live six whole months longer without seeing Mother.  It
makes me wild even to think of it!"

"Don't think of it, Mildred.  Six months is a long way ahead; a hundred
things may happen before then.  Don't worry yourself about months, think
only of to-day, and try to be bright, and brave, and patient."

"It would be horrid of me to be bright when Mother is in trouble.  I
can't be brave when everything goes wrong; I can't be patient when my
heart is breaking."

"It is hard, dear, but there are harder trials than this, which we have
to bear as we go through life, and you know--"

"Mardie, don't preach!  Don't!  I can't bear it.  How can it make it
easier to know that other people have worse troubles?  It makes it
harder, for I have to be sorry for them as well as myself.  It's no use
trying to reason; you had better leave me alone.  If you say another
word I--I--I shall--" Mildred's voice broke, she struggled in vain
against the rising sobs, and burying her face in her hands, burst into a
storm of bitter weeping.

Miss Margaret did not try to check her, for she knew that tears would be
a relief, and that after this outburst Mildred would be calmer and more
reasonable.  She patted her heaving shoulders and murmured caressing
words from time to time.

"Dear Mildred! poor girl!  I am so sorry,--we are all so sorry for you,
dear.  You know that--don't you?"

Mildred cried on unrestrainedly, but by and by she nestled nearer to
Mardie's side, and a few broken phrases began to mingle with her sobs.

"Oh, Mardie, I don't want--to be--so horrid!  I'll try--to be good.--But
you don't know--how--I feel--inside!  All raging, desperate!  It seems--
as if--it can't be true.  I was so happy.  It was so--near."

"Yes, dear, yes; but, Mildred, listen to me.  I know that nothing can
make up for home or Mother, but I am not going away for two or three
weeks, and we will have some cosey little times together--you and I.
You shall sleep with me, we will have our meals in the south parlour,
and we will go little expeditions on our own account, have tea in
village inns, and botanise in the fields.  The doctor's daughter will be
at home from school, she shall come and spend the day with you as often
as you like, and you must help me to pick fruit and make jam.  We will
get some nice books too, and read aloud in the evenings.  It won't be so
dreadful--will it, dear?  Come, Mildred, if you cry like this I shall
think you don't care for me at all."

"Oh, Mardie, I do!  I love you, and I know you will be kind, but
I'm--_tired_ of school.  I want Mother!  I want Mother!"  And down went
the curly head once more, and Mildred burst into fresh floods of tears.

It was indeed a sad ending to a day which had dawned with such radiant
promise.


CHAPTER THREE.

FRIENDS TO THE RESCUE.

There was consternation downstairs when the news of Mildred's
disappointment was made public.  The girls clustered together in groups,
and talked with bated breath.  The number of times that the words
"fearful" and "awful" were used would have horrified Miss Chilton if she
had been present, and one and all were agreed that their friend was the
most pitiable creature upon earth.

Even the little sixth-form pupils were full of sympathy, for Mildred
took more notice of them than any of the "big girls", and even
condescended, upon occasion, to spend a holiday afternoon helping them
with their games and "dressings up."  Within ten minutes of hearing the
news little Nina Behrends had scribbled a note on a leaf of an
exercise-book, and fitted it into an envelope together with a bulky
inclosure.  She trotted upstairs and knocked at Miss Margaret's door,
and when Mildred peered out into the passage with her tear-stained eyes,
the little mite pressed the package into her hands and scuttled away as
fast as her legs would carry her.

Mildred opened the envelope with a feeling of bewilderment, which was
certainly not decreased when she drew forth an aged piece of
india-rubber, shaggy and frayed at the ends, as with the bites of tiny
teeth.  She turned to the note for an explanation, which was given in
the following words:

  Deer Mildred,

  I hope you are quite well.  I send you my injy-ruber.  The thick side
  rubs out.  I hope it will comfort you that you can't go home.

  So I remain,

  Your little friend,

  Nina.

Poor little Nina!  The "injy-ruber" was one of her greatest treasures,
and it had seemed to her that no other offering could so fitly express
her love and pity.

The same impulse visited all the other girls in their turn.  It was not
enough to sympathise in words, it seemed absolutely necessary to _do_
something; and before half an hour was over, every girl was rummaging
through the contents of a newly-tidied desk, in search of some tribute
which she might send to Mildred in her distress.  Such a curious
collection of presents as it was!  Pencil boxes (more or less damaged);
blotted blotters; "happy families" of ducks and rabbits congregated on
circles of velvet; photograph frames; coloured slate-pencils;--it would
be difficult to say what was not included in the list, while every gift
was wrapped in a separate parcel, and offered in terms of tenderest
affection.

Bertha Faucit was deputed to carry the presentations upstairs, and she
found Mildred sitting upon the window-seat, gazing out into the garden
with dreary, tear-stained eyes.  There was nothing in the least like a
Norse princess about her at this moment.  She looked just what she was--
a particularly lugubrious, unhappy, English school-girl.  Her face
lighted up with a gleam of pleasure when she saw her friend, however,
for she had been alone for nearly an hour, while tea was going on
downstairs, and was beginning to find the unusual silence oppressive.

"Oh, Mildred!" cried Bertha.  "Oh, Bertha!" cried Mildred; then they
collapsed into silence, gazing at each other with melancholy eyes.

"I can't--go home!" said Mildred at last, speaking with heaving breath
and suspicious gaps between the words.  "I have to stay here all the
holi--days--by myself!  Eight weeks--fifty-six days!  I think I shall go
mad--I'm sure I shall!  My head feels queer already!"

"That is because you have been crying.  You will be better in the
morning," said Bertha, and her quiet, matter-of-fact voice sounded
soothingly in her friend's ears.  "See, Mildred, the girls have sent you
these little presents to show how sorry they are for your
disappointment.  We couldn't go out to buy anything new, so you must
excuse us if they are not quite fresh.  I have brought my crayons,--you
said the blue was a nicer colour than yours; Lois has chosen two texts
for illuminating, and there are all sorts of things besides.  See what a
collection!  Maggie Bruce has sent an exercise-book with the used leaves
torn out.  She said it was to be used as an album; and when we go home
we are all going to ask our fathers for foreign stamps, and send them on
to you.  Don't you want to look at all the other things?"

Bertha had laid the parcels in a row along the floor, and Mildred now
took up one after another and examined the contents, while at one moment
she laughed, and at the next her eyes ran over with tears.

"How good of them all--how kind!  Poor little Nina Behrends presented me
with her `injy-ruber' before tea.  It is so dirty that it would spoil
anything it touched, but it was sweet of the little thing to think of
it.  A note from Carrie.  Poor old Elsie--fancy sending me this!  What a
nice frame; I'll put your photograph in it, Bertha.  Slate-pencils! does
she think I am going to do sums in the holidays?  Oh, Bertha, don't
think me horrid, but people seem to me to have a very queer idea of
comfort!  Miss Margaret sent up strawberry jam and cake for my tea, as
if anything to _eat_ could make up for not seeing Mother!--or pencils,
or books, or stamps.  I'd give all the stationery in the world if I
could only wake up and find it was a dream, and that I was really going
home!"

"I don't think that is quite the right way to look at it," said Bertha,
seating herself elegantly on a chair, and speaking in her precise,
little, grown-up manner.  "We don't expect these things to `make up';
they are not of much value in themselves, but you must think of their
meaning, and that is that we all love you, and are sorry for you, and
want to do everything in our power to help you."

"Yes, yes, I know; you are all angels, and I am a wretch!" cried poor
Mildred dismally.  "I don't deserve that you should be so kind.  I
should like to be grateful and patient, but I can't!  Bertha, if you
were in my place, and had to stay here at school all alone, without even
Lois or a single one of the girls, what would you do?"

Bertha reflected.

"I think I should cry a good deal at first," she said honestly, "and lie
awake at nights, and have a headache, but I should try to be resigned.
I have never had anything very hard to bear, and sometimes I have almost
wished that I had.  I don't mean, of course, that I want anyone
belonging to me to fall ill like your brother.  I should like a trouble
that affected myself alone, so that I might see how well I could bear
it.  I love to read about people who have had terrible trials, and have
been brave and heroic, and overcome them all.  I have an ambition to see
if I could imitate them."

"Well, I haven't," said Mildred, "not a bit; and you won't like it
either, Bertha, when it comes to your turn!  Besides, I don't see that
there is much chance of being heroic in living alone by yourself in a
ladies' school.  Heroes have to fight against armies, and plagues, and
terrible calamities, and I have to face only dullness and
disappointment.  Even if I bear them well it will be no more than is
expected of me. ...  There would be nothing heroic about it!"

Bertha knit her brows in thoughtful fashion.

"I am not so sure," she said.  "I think it must be pretty easy to be
brave when you are marching with hundreds of other people, while drums
are beating and flags waving, and you remember that England expects you
to do your duty, and that the whole world will talk of it to-morrow if
you do well.  It would be quite easy for you, Mildred; for you are never
afraid, and you would get so excited that you would hardly know what you
were doing.  It will be much harder for you to sit still here and be
cheerful; and to do the hardest thing must be heroic!  I will write to
you often, Mildred; all the girls will write.  You will have heaps of
letters."

"That will be nice.  I love letters," said Mildred gratefully.  She
cheered up a little at the prospect, and talked to her friend for the
next half-hour without relapsing into tears.  Nevertheless, the
remembrance of the poor, disfigured face weighed heavily on Bertha's
heart, and she could talk of nothing else, as she and Lois finished
their packing later on the same evening.

"I feel quite mean to be going home when poor Mildred is left here
alone," she said.  "And we have such a happy time.  Father and Mother
are so good, they give us almost everything we ask in the holidays.  I
wonder--" She stopped short as if struck with a brilliant idea, and
stared into her sister's eyes.

"I wonder--" echoed Lois immediately, and her voice had the same ring,
her face the same curious expression.

The pupils at Milvern House were often amazed at the instinctive manner
in which these two sisters leapt to an understanding of each other's
meaning, and the present instance it was evident that Lois needed no
explanation of that mysterious "I wonder."  "We are twins, you know,"
they were accustomed to say, when questioned about this peculiarity, and
it seemed as if this fact did indeed save them from much conversational
exercise.

"We will see!" said Bertha again, and Lois nodded her head and repeated,
"We will see!" while her face lit up with smiles.

But Mildred did not know what pleasant schemes her friends were plotting
on her behalf, and she lay, face downwards, crying heart-brokenly upon
her bed.


CHAPTER FOUR.

BAD NEWS FROM HOME.

The next morning Mildred awoke with a wail of despairing remembrance.
She hid her face in the pillow and wondered how she was to live through
the day, to see the different batches of girls leave the house at ten
o'clock, at eleven, at one, at half a dozen different times, while she
was left alone in solitary misery.

Her friends, however, were too considerate of her feelings to let her
experience such a trial.  Immediately after breakfast Miss Chilton
announced that she was going to spend the day in a neighbouring
township, and requested Mildred to get ready to accompany her.  Now,
Miss Chilton was a majestic person, with a Roman nose and hair braided
smoothly down each side of her face; and none of the girls dared to
argue concerning her decrees, as they did, on occasion, with the more
popular Miss Margaret.

So Mildred marched meekly upstairs, to put on hat and jacket, without
uttering a single protest.  She would have liked to say, "Oh, do leave
me alone!  I would far rather stay at home and mope;" and Miss Chilton
probably guessed as much, though she took no notice of her companion's
downcast expression, and sat with the same unconscious smile upon her
face all the length of the journey.

She had some shopping to do, in preparation for her own holidays, but
when that was over, she and her pupil repaired to the house of a friend,
where they were to lunch and spend the afternoon.

The friend had two daughters about Mildred's own age,--bright, lively
girls, who carried her away to their own rooms, showed her their
possessions, confided secret plans, and were altogether so kind and
friendly that she forgot to be unhappy, and chatted as gaily as they did
themselves.  Miss Chilton had probably sounded a note of warning in the
letter which announced her coming, for no one said a word to Mildred on
the subject of the holidays, but when she was leaving, the mother
invited her to spend another day with the girls, and the girls
themselves kissed her with sympathetic effusion.

It was nearly eight o'clock when the travellers reached school again, to
find the house transformed from its usual bustling aspect.  The
classrooms were closed, supper was laid in the cosy little south
parlour, and when Mildred tried to enter the dormitory which she shared
with two other girls she found that the door was locked, and Miss
Margaret came smilingly forward to lead the way to her own room.

"I have been as busy as a bee all afternoon.  Come and see how nicely I
have arranged it all," she said brightly, and Mildred, looking round,
saw her own chest of drawers in one corner, her dresses hanging neatly
in the wardrobe, while a narrow bed stood out at right angles from the
wall.

Her heart swelled at the sight, and a hundred loving, grateful thoughts
arose in her heart.  She longed to thank Miss Margaret for sparing her
the painful task of unpacking, and for letting her share this pretty,
luxurious room, but it seemed as if an iron band were placed round her
lips, and she could not pronounce the words.

"The bed spoils the look of the room!" she muttered at last, and even in
her own ears her voice sounded gruff and ungracious; but Miss Margaret
only smiled, and slipped one arm caressingly round her waist.

"Ah, but I sha'n't think that when I wake in the morning and see my
little goldilocks lying beside me, with her curls all over the pillow
like the princess in the fairy tale!" she said, and at that Mildred was
obliged to laugh too, for she was like most other mortals--marvellously
susceptible to a touch of flattery!

"A very grumpy princess!" she said penitently.  "I am really awfully
grateful, Mardie, but I can't show it.  You will excuse me if I am nasty
for a day or two, won't you, dear?"

Mardie raised her eyebrows and pursed up her lips in comical fashion.
She was always unusually lively for a school-mistress, but already it
seemed to Mildred that she was quite a different person from the "Miss
Margaret" of term time.  She wore a pretty blue dress, with lace
frillings on the bodice, and walked about with an airy tread, as though
released from a weight of responsibility.

"Well," she said, nodding her head, and looking as mischievous as a girl
herself, "I'll make allowances, of course, but I hope you won't try me
too far.  I am a delightful person out of school time, and mean to enjoy
every day of the holidays to the full--unless you prevent me I shall be
dependent upon you!"

"I prevent you,--I!"

That seemed to put the matter in a new light, and Mildred was overcome
at the thought of her own selfishness.  Whatever she might have to
suffer, she must not spoil poor Mardie's pleasure in her well-earned
rest.  That would be inexcusable.  She determined to do her utmost to be
brave for Mardie's sake.

The next day Miss Chilton departed on her travels, and a letter arrived
from Mrs Ross giving a serious account of the little invalid's
condition.  She evidently tried to write as cheerfully as possible, but
Mildred read anxiety between the lines, and was full of compunction.

She had never imagined that Robbie would be really ill, but had looked
upon the fever as a childish complaint which would make him hot and red
for a few days, and put everyone else to inconvenience for as many
weeks.  She had not only felt, but said, that it was very "tiresome" of
him to have taken ill at such a time; but now the remembrance of poor
wee Robbie lying in bed crying, "'Cause Millie would be angry wif him,"
cut her to the heart.  The day seemed endlessly long and dreary, and the
next morning's news was worse instead of better.  Robbie's life was in
danger.  The doctor hoped, however, that a change might take place
within the next twenty-four hours, and Mrs Ross promised to telegraph
in the afternoon to allay his sister's anxiety.

Miss Margaret looked very grave, but she said little, and did not
attempt to follow when Mildred fled upstairs, leaving the letter in her
hands.  There are times when we all prefer to be alone, and this morning
Mildred could not have brought herself to speak to anyone in the world
but her mother.  She lay motionless on the window-seat, her head resting
on the open sill, the summer breeze stirring the curls on her forehead,
while the clock in the hall chimed one hour after another, and the
morning crept slowly away.  For the most part she felt stupefied, as if
she could not realise all that the tidings meant, but every now and then
her heart swelled with an intolerable ache.

It was true that Robbie had caused more trouble than his five sisters
put together, but his exploits had been of an innocent, lovable nature,
and when the temporary annoyance which they caused was over, she and her
mother had laughed over them with tender pride.  He was such a manly
little fellow!  Many a boy would have been spoiled if he had been
brought up in a household composed exclusively of womenkind, but nothing
could take the spirit out of Robbie.  He had begun to domineer over his
sisters while he was still in petticoats, and now that he was promoted
to sailor suits, he gave himself the airs of the master of the house!
Mildred recalled the day when he had been discovered standing before a
mirror, making wild slashes at his curls with a pair of cutting-out
scissors.  The explanation given was that some boys had dared to call
him "pitty girl!" and he couldn't "'tand it!"  When his mother shed
tears of mortification, Robbie hugged her with sympathetic effusion, but
sturdily refused to say that he was "torry!"

A vision of the little shaggy head rose up before Mildred's eyes: she
saw the chubby face, the defiant pose of the childish figure, and
stretching out her hands, sobbed forth a broken prayer.

"Oh, God! you have so many children in Heaven--so many little boys.  We
have only one...  Don't take Robbie!"

The morning wore away, the blazing sun of noon shone in through the open
window, Mildred's head throbbed with pain, then gradually everything
seemed to sink away to an immeasurable distance, and she was lost in
blessed unconsciousness.

When she awoke the church bell was chiming for afternoon service, and
Miss Margaret knelt by her side, holding an open telegram in her hand.

"I opened it, darling!" she said; "I thought it would be better.  It is
good news, Mildred--good news!  Robbie is better.  The doctors think he
will get well now!"

Ah! that was a happy afternoon!  Mardie took Mildred in her arms and
kissed and petted her to her heart's content, then the door opened and
in came old Ellen, the cook, carrying a tea-tray with freshly-made
scones, a plate of raspberries from the garden, and a jug of thick,
country cream.  The kind old soul had been so full of sympathy that she
had insisted upon carrying it up the three flights of stairs herself,
although her breath was of the shortest, and she gasped and panted in
alarming fashion.  Mildred laughed and cried in one breath, and lay back
against the cushions, drinking tea, and eating raspberries in great
contentment of spirit.

"I was awfully hungry, though I didn't know it.  I feel as if I had been
ill.  Oh, Mardie, isn't it a lovely feeling when the pain goes, and you
can just rest and be thankful! ...  It's worse to have a pain in your
mind than in your body.  I feel ashamed now that I made such a fuss
about staying at school--it seems such a little thing in comparison, but
don't say `I told you so!'  Mardie, or that will make me feel horrid
again.  It really _is_ big, you know, only the other was so much
bigger...  Mardie, have you ever had a disappointment--as big a
disappointment as mine?"

A quiver passed over Miss Margaret's face, and for a moment she looked
very sad.

"Oh, Mildred, yes!" she cried.  "Everyone has, dear, but sometimes I
have been discontented enough to imagine that I have had more than my
share.  A disappointment, indeed! dozens,--scores,--hundreds!  But of
course some are harder to bear than others."

"Tell me about one now!" said Mildred, leaning back against the cushions
and settling herself to listen in comfort.  "Do, Mardie!  I feel just in
the humour to listen to a story; and I know it will be interesting if
you tell it.  `The Story of a Disappointment!'  Something exciting that
happened to you when you were young.  Now then, go along!  Begin at
once!"

Mardie laughed, and then pretended to look indignant.

"When I was young, indeed!  What do you call me now?  When you are my
age you will be very indignant if anyone calls you old.  Well now, let
me see!  I'll tell you the story of a disappointment which happened to--
well--not exactly to me, but to a very great friend whom I had known all
my life.  He tried to get on in business in England, but it seemed as if
there was no opening for him here, and at last he made up his mind to go
abroad.  He heard through an advertisement of an opening in a tea
plantation in Assam (Assam, Mildred!  You know where it is, of course),
and though he hated the idea of leaving home, he thought it was the
right thing to do.  Well, he went.  It was a long and expensive journey,
and when he arrived he found that things were not at all as they had
been represented.  I can't enter into details, but the advertisement had
been one of those cruel frauds by which young men are tempted abroad,
and robbed of time and money.  My friend was clever enough to see
through the deception, and refused to have anything to do with the
business.  That was all right so far as it went, but there he was, alone
in a strange land, not knowing where to turn, or what to do to earn a
livelihood.  It was just about this time that the planters in Ceylon
were beginning to grow the cinchona-tree, from the bark of which the
medicine known as quinine is made; and it happened one day that my
friend overheard two gentlemen discussing the prospects of the crops and
speaking very enthusiastically about it.  He made inquiries in as many
directions as he could, and finally decided to go south to Ceylon and
prospect.  He had some money of his own, and he was fortunate enough to
meet a man who had been in the island for years, and who had valuable
experience.  They bought an estate between them, planted it with
cinchona, and worked hard to cultivate it; and it is very hard, Mildred,
for an Englishman to work in the open air in those tropical countries!
It was a difficult crop to raise, and misfortune befell all the estates
around.  The roots `cankered', the leaves turned red and dropped off, so
that the trees had to be uprooted, and very little if any of the bark
could be used.  My friend's estate, however, flourished more and more.
His partner was a clever planter, and they were not content to leave the
work to the care of an overseer, but looked after it themselves, night
and day.  There was not a single precaution which they neglected; not an
improvement which they left untried, and as I say the place flourished--
people talked about it--it became well known in the island.  It was all
the more valuable because of the failure of the other estates, and the
sum which the estate would realise, if all went well, would be a
fortune--large enough to provide both partners for life.

"Imagine how they felt, Mildred!  How eager they were; how delighted.
They had been away from home for years by this time, and were longing to
return.  They had each their own castle in the air, and it seemed as if
this money would build it on solid earth.  For some time everything
flourished, then--one morning--"

Miss Margaret paused, and drew a difficult breath; Mildred stared at her
with dilated eyes.

"My friend wrote me all about it.  They had finished breakfast and
strolled out together, talking of what they would do when the next few
weeks were over, and the money was paid down.  They were to buy presents
in Colombo, take passages in the first steamer, and come home laden with
spoils.  The partner--his name was `Ned'--was picturing the scene which
would take place at his home when he distributed the treasures which he
had bought for his sisters--amethyst rings, tortoise-shell brushes,
brass ornaments.  He walked on ahead, gesticulating, and waving his
hands in the air.  Suddenly he stopped short, started violently, and
stared at one of the carefully-guarded cinchona-trees.

"`What is it, Ned?' cried his partner, and at that the other turned his
face.  It had been all bright and sparkling a moment before.  It was
changed now--like the face of an old, old man.  My friend looked and
saw: the leaves were shrivelling--it was the beginning of the red
blight!"

Miss Margaret jumped up from her seat and began to pace the room.  Her
voice quivered; her eyes had a suspicious brightness; while Mildred was
undisguisedly tearful.

"Oh, Mardie!  How awful!  Oh, the poor, poor fellows!  What did they
do?"

"There was nothing to be done.  They knew that by experience.  The
blight would spread and spread until the whole estate was destroyed.
They could do nothing to stop it.  They went back to the bungalow and
sat there all day long--without speaking a word or lifting their eyes
from the ground.  All the years of hard, unceasing work had been for
nothing--"

Mardie stopped abruptly.

"And after--afterwards?"

Mardie stood with her back to her companion, as if avoiding her glance.
Her voice had a curiously tired, listless expression.

"Oh!--they dug up the ground to plant tea, and began life over again."

"But, Mardie, dear, don't be so sorry!  It was terribly hard, but after
all it is over, and it did not affect your own personal happiness!"

Mardie moved the ornaments on the dressing-table with nervous fingers.

"It is getting late," she said.  "Put on your hat, Mildred, and let us
have a stroll in the garden before it is dusk."


CHAPTER FIVE.

SUNSHINE AGAIN!

The next day brought reassuring news of Robbie, who had had a good
night, and was distinctly better.  Mildred was devoutly thankful; but
now that the strain of anxiety was relieved, the loneliness of her
position began to weigh upon her with all the old intensity.  She grew
tired of reading and writing letters, and the silence of the big, empty
house weighed upon her spirits.

"Three days--and already it seemed like a month!  Then what will a month
feel like? and two months?" she asked herself in a tremor of alarm.  "It
is all very well for Mardie to say, `Take one day at a time, and don't
worry about the future.'  She wouldn't find it so easy in my place!
Bertha might send me a letter!  I didn't expect her to write the first
day she was at home, but she might have managed it the second, under the
circumstances!"

Miss Margaret was engaged with callers; the servants busy at their work.
Mildred was at her wits' end to know what to do with herself.  She
flattened her face against the window, and stared gloomily down the
drive.

"Two more visitors coming to see Mardie.  That means another half-hour
at the least before I can go downstairs to have tea.  An old lady, and a
young one in a light dress, and a hat with pink roses.  She doesn't look
a bit nice!" pronounced Mildred in critical spirit; "I shall dress much
better than that when I am grown up.  Her boots are awful!--old, shabby
things beneath a grand dress.  I would rather spend less on finery and
have respectable feet.  The old lady is as broad as she is long; her
bonnet is crooked!  Why doesn't the girl put it straight before they go
into the house?  I wouldn't allow my mother to be so untidy!  She looks
fearfully hot!"

Mildred stared at the old lady and her daughter until a sweep of the
drive hid them from sight, and felt more lonely than ever when they had
disappeared.  For ten minutes or more not another soul could be seen,
then the postman came briskly trotting towards the house.  Mildred heard
the peal of the bell, and became fired with curiosity to know whether
any of the letters were for herself.  Probably, almost certainly; for
this was the post from the south, in which direction almost all the
girls had their homes.  There might be one from Bertha among the number.
How aggravating to know that they were lying in the letter-box at the
present moment, and to be obliged to wait until the visitors took their
departure before Mardie could come out and unlock it.

"He had five or six in his hand; some of them must be for me.  Suppose
now, just suppose I could have whatever I liked--what should I choose?
A letter from a lawyer to say I had come in for a fortune of a million
pounds?  That would be rather nice.  What should I do with it, I wonder?
Mother couldn't come away with me just now, which would be a nuisance.
I think I would travel about with Mardie, and look at all the big
estates that were for sale, and buy one with a tower and a beautiful big
park, with deer, and peacocks, and sun-dials on the grass.  I'd go up to
London to buy the furniture,--the most artistic furniture that was ever
seen.  The drawing-room and library should be left for Mother to
arrange, but I'd finish all the rest, so that she could come the first
moment it was safe.  I'd have a suite of rooms for myself next to hers.
A big sitting-room,--blue,--with white wood arches over the windows;
dear little bookcases fitting into the corners, and electric lights
hanging like lilies from the wall.  Opening out of that there would be
another little room where I could amuse myself as I liked, without being
so awfully tidy.  I'd do wood-carving there, and painting, and sewing.
I might have a little cooking-stove in one corner to make toffee and
caramels whenever I felt inclined, but I'm not quite decided about that.
It would be rather sticky, and I could always go down to the kitchen.
Then there would be my bedroom--pink,--with the sweetest little bed,
with curtains draped across from one side of the top to the other side
of the bottom.  I saw one like that once, and it was lovely.  I'd have
all sorts of nice things out-of-doors, too--horses for Mother and myself
to ride, and long-tailed ponies for the children.  I'd like to send the
little ones to boarding-schools, but I am afraid Mother wouldn't consent
to that; but they could have governesses and tutors, and a school-room
right at the other end of the house.  I should have nothing to do with
teaching them, of course.  I should be called `The Heiress of the
Grange', and all the village children would bob as I passed by.  It
would be rather nice.  I would give them a treat in the grounds every
year on my birthday, and they would drink my health.  It seems a great
deal of happiness for a million pounds.  I wish I had someone to leave
it to me--an old uncle in Australia or Africa; someone I had never seen,
then I could enjoy it without feeling sorry."

The prospect of inheriting a million pounds was so engrossing that it
was with quite a shock of surprise that Mildred perceived the old lady
and her daughter retracing their steps down the drive.  Downstairs she
flew, two steps at a time, and discovered Miss Margaret emptying the
letter-box of its contents.

"Oh, Mardie, I saw the postman coming, ages ago!  I've been dying to get
that key for the last half-hour!"

"Have you, really?  I am sorry; but you are well repaid.  Three letters
for you, and only one for me.  You are fortunate to-day."

"Bertha--Carrie--Norah!"  Mildred turned over the envelopes one by one,
and skipped into the drawing-room with dancing tread.  "Now for a treat.
I love letters.  I shall keep Bertha's to the last, and see what these
other young ladies have to say for themselves."

She settled herself comfortably in an armchair, and Miss Margaret,
having read her own note, watched her with an expression of expectant
curiosity.  The two first letters were short and obviously unexciting;
the third contained several inclosures at which Mildred stared with
puzzled eyes.  One looked like a telegram, but the flash of fear on her
face was quickly superseded by amazement, as she read the words of the
message.  Last of all came Bertha's own communication, and when that had
been mastered the reader's cheeks were aglow, her eyes bright with
excitement.  She raised her head, and there was Mardie staring at her
from the other end of the room, and smiling as though she knew all about
it.

"Oh, Mardie, the most wonderful thing!  It's from Mrs Faucit; an
invitation to go and stay with them for a whole month!  She has written
to Mother, and here is a telegram which came in reply, saying that she
is delighted to allow me to accept.  I am to go at once.  There is a
note from Mrs Faucit as well as one from Bertha.  So kind!  She says
they are to be at home for a month before taking the girls to
Switzerland for a few weeks, and that it will be a great pleasure to
have me.  I wish--I wish--"

She stopped short, staring at Miss Margaret with an expression of
comical penitence.  Even when that lady inquired, "Well, what do you
wish now, you dissatisfied child?" it was several minutes before she
replied.

"Nothing; only when you have made a great fuss about a thing, and it
turns out in the end that you haven't to do it after all, you feel
rather--_small_.  I wish now that I had been good and resigned; I should
feel so much more comfortable.  I suppose my going won't make any
difference to you, Mardie?"

"Only this, that I shall hurry through my work as quickly as possible,
and go away now instead of waiting until my sister returns.  I am
delighted, Mildred! it's just as nice as it can be.  I have had a letter
from Mrs Faucit, too.  She asks you to go at once, but I am not sure if
we can manage that."  She hesitated, looking at her pupil with uncertain
eyes.  "She is so pretty, bless her!" she was saying to herself, "that
she always manages to look well; but she is shabby!  I should think her
mother would wish her to have one or two new dresses before she goes.  I
must speak about it.  You see, Mildred," she said aloud, "I am thinking
about your clothes.  You will probably be asked to a great many tennis
and garden parties while you are at The Deanery, and you will have to be
more particular than at school.  Do you think you can go with what you
have, or shall we get something new?  We might call at the dressmaker's
to-morrow."

Mildred shook her head.

"Oh, no!  I must go as I am, Mardie, or stay at school.  I wouldn't ask
Mother for money just now, not for the world.  There will be doctors'
bills, and a dozen extra expenses to meet, and she has a hard enough
time as it is.  I can buy some little things--shoes, and gloves, and a
sailor hat--with the money I have: nearly twenty-five shillings
altogether; but it is no use thinking about a dress.  I shall do very
well.  I have the blue crepe, and the brown, and the dyed green, and
this good old serge to wear with blouses.  If I see people examining my
clothes, I shall shake my hair all over my back, and stare as hard as I
can, so that they will be obliged to turn away...  If we go into town
to-morrow, I could go on Wednesday, couldn't I?"

"Say Friday, dear; it will give us a little more time."  For, to
herself, Miss Margaret was saying: "I will engage that clever little
sewing-woman to come in for a couple of days and look over her dresses.
She is quite right to consider her mother's purse, but she will feel her
own shortcomings when she is among the Faucit's friends.  I must do all
I can to make it easier for the child.  There is one comfort, she is
easy to dress."

Mildred danced away to answer her friend's letter in overflowing
spirits.  She had never before paid a visit on her own account, and it
seemed delightfully grown-up to be going to a strange house by herself.
A Deanery, too!  There was something so imposing about the sound.  One
Deanery was worth a dozen ordinary, commonplace houses, just as Bertha
was worth a hundred other friends.  Dear, darling Bertha--this was her
idea, of course!  It took three sheets of note-paper to contain all
Mildred's expressions of delight.

The next day was set apart for the shopping expedition, an occasion
calling for anxious consideration.  At Miss Margaret's suggestion
Mildred drew out a list of the articles which she wished to purchase out
of her twenty-five shillings of capital.  It was neatly written on a
sheet of note-paper, with descriptive notes attached to the various
items, and red lines ruled between, so that it presented quite a
superior appearance.  The list ran as follows:--

New shoes (pretty ones this time,--not thick).

Slippers (with buckles).

Gloves (light and dark).

Ribbons.

Something to do up the hat.

Sashes.

Lace things for evening.

Scent.

P.F.M.

Miss Margaret read the list, and shook with laughter.

"Are you sure there is nothing else?" she inquired.  "How much more do
you expect from those poor twenty-five shillings?  They can never, by
any possibility, be induced to buy so much.  What is the mysterious
P.F.M.?"

"A necessity; can't be crossed out.  Oh, dear," groaned Mildred, "what a
bother it is!"  She tore off half a sheet of paper this time, and did
not attempt any decorations.  Then she went over the items one by one,
sighing heavily as she did so.

"I can't do without shoes; I can't do without slippers; I can't do
without gloves.  I might get silk ones, of course, but they make me feel
creepy-creepy all over.  I daren't touch anything when I have them on.
I should look like one of those wax figures in shop windows, with my
arms sticking out on either side!  I can't do without ribbons; I can't
do--well, I suppose I _could_ wear the old hat as it is, and do without
scent, and a sash, and laces, or any single pretty thing to put on at
night, but I don't want to!  They are the most interesting things...
Oh, dear, here goes!" and list number two was dashed off in disgusted
haste.

Shoes.

Slippers.

Sailor Hat.

Gloves.  P.F.M.

"That's short enough now!  All the fripperies cut out, and the dull
necessities left.  I can get these, I suppose, Mardie?"

Miss Margaret believed that she could "with care", whereupon Mildred
wrinkled her saucy nose, and said she should never have any respect for
twenty-five shillings again, since it appeared that so very little could
be obtained in exchange.

The shopping expedition was a great success, however, in spite of all
drawbacks.  The purchases were pretty and good of their kind, and
Mildred felt an agreeable sense of virtue in having chosen useful things
rather than ornamental.  She had still a little plan of her own which
she was anxious to execute before returning home, and took the
opportunity to make a request while waiting for change in a large
drapery establishment.

"I want to go to another department, Mardie.  Do you mind if I leave you
for a few minutes?"

"Not at all.  I have some little things to get too.  Suppose we arrange
to meet at the door in ten minutes from now?"

Mildred dashed off in her usual impetuous fashion, but presently came to
a standstill before a long, glass-covered counter, on which was
displayed a fascinating assortment of silver and enamel goods.  For the
first few moments the assistant in charge took no further notice than a
glance of kindly admiration.  School-girls in short dresses, and with
clouds of golden hair hanging loose round their shoulders, are not given
to the purchase of valuable articles such as these; but Mildred
proceeded to ask the price of one thing after another, with an air of
such serious consideration as made it seem likely that she was to be the
exception to the rule.

The glass case was opened, little heart-shaped trays and boxes brought
forth, and such rhapsodies indulged in concerning silver-backed mirrors
that the assistant felt certain of a sale.  She was stretching
underneath the glass to reach a mirror of another pattern, when Mildred
suddenly glanced up at a clock, ejaculated "Oh, I must go!  Thank you so
much!" and rushed off at full speed in another direction.  The ten
minutes were nearly over, and Mildred had not executed the private
business which she had on hand.  She turned the corner where parasols
hung in tempting array, passed the fancy work with resolute
indifference, and making a dash for the perfumery counter came into
collision with a lady who was just turning away, parcel in hand.

The lady lifted her eyes in surprise.  By all that was mysterious and
unexpected, it was Miss Margaret herself!  Mildred blushed, Mardie
laughed.

"What are you doing here, Ubiquitous Person?" she cried, but immediately
turned aside in tactful fashion, and made her way to the door.

No reference to this encounter was made on either side, but later in the
day a comical incident occurred.  When Miss Margaret went upstairs to
dress for dinner, she found a small box lying upon her dressing-table,
on the paper covering of which an inscription was written in well-known,
straggly writing:

"_Mardie, with heaps of love and many thanks, from Mildred_."

Inside the box was a bottle of White Rose perfume, at the sight of which
Miss Margaret began to laugh with mysterious enjoyment.  When Mildred
appeared a few minutes later, blushing and embarrassed, she said never a
word of thanks, but led her across the room towards a table which had
been specially devoted to her use.  Mildred stared around, and then
began to laugh in her turn, for there lay a parcel of precisely the same
shape and size as that which she had addressed a few minutes earlier,
and her own name was written on the cover.

"Great minds think alike!" cried Mardie.  "So this is the explanation of
that mysterious `P.F.M.'!  But what are the thanks for, dear?"

"Oh, everything!  You are so nice, you know, and I've been so nasty!"
said Mildred.


CHAPTER SIX.

THE JOURNEY TO THE DEANERY.

Friday arrived in a bustle of work and excitement.  For the last two
days Miss Margaret's little sewing-woman had taken possession of the
work-room, and Mildred's well-worn dresses had been sponged and pressed,
with such wholesale renewals of braid and buttons as brought back a
remembrance of their lost youth.  And now all was ready.  Letters from
home announced further improvements in Robbie's condition; Miss Margaret
was radiant in the prospect of her own holiday; there was nothing to
shadow Mildred's expectation, and it really seemed as if it had been
worth while having those days of disappointment and anxiety, so
delightful was the reaction.

Miss Margaret and her pupil had a great many nice things to say to each
other in the few minutes before the train steamed out of the station.
Mildred had said "thank you" so many times during the last few days,
that there was little left to be done in that direction, but she was
full of warm-hearted affection.

"I shall always remember how good you have been to me, Mardie.  I think
you are the nicest person in the world next to Mother.  I shouldn't mind
being old if I could be like you."

"But my dear child, I don't consider myself old at all!  When you get to
my age you will have discovered that you are just beginning to be young.
I wonder if,--when,--if you would--"

Mardie checked herself suddenly, and Mildred, scenting one of those
secrets which are the delight of a school-girl's existence, called out
an eager: "What?  What?  What?"

"Oh, nothing!  I only wondered if you would be very much shocked if I
were betrayed into doing something very foolish and youthful one of
these days."

Mildred stared down from the altitude of the carriage window.

What could Mardie mean?  There was no secret about her age.  It was
inscribed in every birth-day-book in the school, and thirty seemed
venerable in the estimation of fourteen.  It did occur to the girl at
this moment that Miss Margaret looked unusually charming for an elderly
lady--those sweet eyes of hers were sweeter than ever when lighted by a
happy smile.

"I am sure you will never be foolish, Mardie!" she said reassuringly,
and then the engine whistled, the guard waved his flag, and there was
only time for a hurried embrace before the train was off.

So long as the platform remained in sight Mildred's head was out of the
window; then she sat down to find herself confronted by the mild-faced
old lady into whose charge she had been committed.

She was an ideal old lady so far as appearances went.  Her hair was
white as snow; her chin nestled upon bows of lavender ribbon, and her
face beamed with good nature; nevertheless Mildred found her fixed
scrutiny a trifle discomposing, and stared out of the window by way of
escape.  For ten minutes on end the old lady gazed away with unblushing
composure, then suddenly burst into conversation.

"Dear me, my love, you have a great deal of it!  Are you not afraid that
it may injure your health?"

Mildred fairly jumped with astonishment.

"Afraid?  Of what?  I beg your pardon--I don't understand--"

"Your hair, my dear!--so much of it.  They say, you know, that it saps
the strength.  A young friend of mine had hair just like yours--you
remind me very much of her--and she died!  Consumption, they called it.
The doctors said all her strength went into her hair!"

Mildred laughed merrily.

"Oh, well! it's quite different with me, I have plenty of strength left
over for myself.  I am as strong as a horse, and have hardly been ill a
day in my life."

"Dear!  Dear!" ejaculated the old lady.  "And with that complexion too--
pink and white.  Now I should have been afraid--"

She fell to shaking her head in lugubrious fashion, and watched the
girl's movements with anxious scrutiny.

"Do you think you are quite wise to sit next the window, love?" she
asked presently.  "You look a little flushed, and there is always a
draught.  Won't you come over and sit by me?  Just as you like, of
course; but I assure you you can't be too careful.  I noticed that you
cleared your throat just now.  Ah, that's just what a young friend of
mine used to say, `It's only a little tickling in my throat,' but it
grew worse and worse, my dear, till the doctors could do nothing for
her.  I am always nervous about colds--"

"She has been very unfortunate in her `young friends'!" commented
Mildred to herself, but she made no reply, and the old lady waited fully
two minutes before venturing another remark.

"Your--er--aunt seems a very sweet creature, my dear!  You must be sorry
to part from her."

"I am.  Very!  But she is not my aunt."

"You don't say so!  Not a sister, surely?  I never should have thought
it--"

"She is not a sister either."  (Now, what in the world can it matter to
her whether we are relations or not!  I suppose I had better tell her,
or she will be suggesting `mother' next).  "She is one of the
school-mistresses.  I am just leaving school."

The old lady appeared overwhelmed by this intelligence.  Her placid
expression vanished, her forehead became fretted with lines, and she
looked so distressed that it was all Mildred could do to keep from
bursting into a fit of laughter.

"A boarding-school!  Oh, my dear!" she cried.  Then in a tone of
breathless eagerness, "Now tell me--quite in confidence, you know,
absolutely in confidence,--do they give you enough to eat?  Oh, my love,
I could tell you such stories--the saddest experiences--"

"Dear young friends of her own, starved to death!  I know," said Mildred
to herself, and she broke in hastily upon the reminiscences, to give
such glowing accounts of the management of Milvern House as made the old
lady open her eyes in astonishment.

"Four courses for dinner, and a second helping whenever you like.  Now
really, my dear, you must write down the address of that school for me.
I have so many young friends.  And have you any idea of the terms?"

She was certainly an inquisitive old lady, but she was very
kind-hearted, and when one o'clock arrived she insisted upon Mildred
sharing the contents of her well-filled luncheon-basket.  Her endless
questions served another purpose too, for they filled up the time, and
made the journey seem shorter than it would otherwise have done.  It
came as quite a surprise when the train steamed into the station at B--,
and Mildred had not time to lower the window before it had come to a
standstill.  She caught a glimpse of her friends upon the platform,
however, and in another minute was out of the carriage, waving her hand
to attract attention.

Bertha and Lois were accompanied by a lady who was so evidently their
mother that there could be no doubt upon the subject.  She had the same
pale complexion and dark eyes, the same small features and dainty,
well-finished appearance.  As Mildred advanced along the platform to
meet the three figures in their trim, tweed suits, she became suddenly
conscious of flying locks, wrinkled gloves, and loose shoe-laces, and
blushed for her own deficiencies.  She could not hear Bertha's rapturous
"There she is!  Look, Mother!  Do you wonder that we call her the `Norse
Princess?'" or Mrs Faucit's "Is that Mildred?  She looks charming,
Bertha.  It is a very good description;" but the greetings which she
received were so cordial as to set her completely at ease.

On the drive home Mrs Faucit leant back in her corner of the carriage,
and listened to the conversation which went on between the three girls
in smiling silence.  She soon heard enough to prove that it was the
attraction of opposites which drew the stranger and her own daughters so
closely together, but though Mildred's impetuosity was a trifle
startling, she was irresistibly attracted, not only by her beauty, but
by the frank, open expression of the grey eyes.

"Plenty of spirit," she said to herself, "as well as honest and
true-hearted!  Miss Chilton was right.  She will do the girls good.
They are a little too quiet for their age.  I am glad I asked her--"

"What did you think, Mildred, when Mother's letter arrived with the
invitation?"  Lois asked, and Mildred clasped her hands in ecstatic
remembrance.

"Oh-h, I can't tell you!  I had just been longing for a letter, and
wondering what sort of one I would have if I could chose.  I decided
that I would hear that I had inherited a fortune, and I was just
arranging how to spend it when your letter arrived.  Lovely! lovely!  I
wanted to come off the next day, but Mardie objected.  She has been so
good to me, and I was a perfect horror for the first few days.  I was
ashamed of myself when your invitation came.  Oh, what a funny old place
this is!  What curious houses--what narrow little streets!"

Mrs Faucit smiled.

"We are very proud of our old city, Mildred," she said.  "We must show
you all the sights--the walls, and the castle, and the old streets down
which the mail-coaches used to pass on their way to London.  Some of
them are so narrow that you would hardly believe there was room for a
coach.  These newer streets seem to us quite wide and fashionable in
comparison."

Even as she was speaking the carriage suddenly wheeled round a corner,
and turned up a road leading to the Deanery gates.  Mildred was not
familiar with the peculiarities of old cathedral cities, and she stared
in bewilderment at the sudden change of scene.  One moment they had been
in a busy, shop-lined thoroughfare; the next they were apparently in the
depths of the country--avenues of beech-trees rising on either side;
moss growing between the stones on the walls; and such an air of still
solemnity all around, as can be found nowhere in the world but in the
precincts of a cathedral.

The Deanery itself was in character with its surroundings.  The entrance
hall was large and dim; furnished in oak, with an array of old armour
upon the walls.  In winter time, when a large fire blazed in the grate,
it looked cheerful and home-like enough, but coming in from the bright
summer sunshine the effect was decidedly chilling, and Mildred's eyes
grew large and awe-stricken as she glanced around.  The next moment,
however, Mrs Faucit threw open a door to the right, and ushered her
guest into the most charming room she had ever seen.

Whatever of cheerfulness was wanting in the hall without was abundantly
present here.  One bay window looked out on to the lawn, and the row of
old beeches in the distance; another opened into a conservatory ablaze
with flowering plants, while over the mantel-piece was a third window,
raising perplexing questions in the mind concerning the position of the
chimney.  Wherever the eye turned there was some beautiful object to
hold it entranced, and Mildred was just saying to herself, "I shall have
one of my drawing-rooms furnished exactly like this!" when she became
aware that someone was seated in an armchair close to where she herself
was standing.

"Well, Lady Sarah, we have brought back our little friend.  This is
Mildred.  She has accomplished her journey in safety.  Mildred, I must
introduce you to our other guest, Lady Sarah Monckton."

"How do you do?" murmured Mildred politely.  Lady Sarah put up a pair of
eye-glasses mounted on a tortoise-shell stick, and stared at her
critically from head to foot.  Then she dropped them with a sharp click,
as if what she saw was not worth the trouble of regarding, and addressed
herself to Mrs Faucit in accents of commiseration.

"My dear, you look shockingly tired!  Train late, as usual, I suppose!
It is always the way with this wretched service.  I know nothing more
exhausting than hanging about a platform waiting for people who are
behind their time.  Bertha looks white too.  You have had no tea, of
course.  You must be longing for it?"

"Oh!  I am always ready for tea, but we had only a few minutes to wait.
Sit down, Mildred dear, you must be the hungry one after your long
journey.  James will bring in the tray in another moment."

Mrs Faucit smiled in an encouraging manner, for she had seen a blank
expression overspread the girl's face as she listened to Lady Sarah's
remarks.  "She speaks as if it were my fault!"  Mildred was saying to
herself.  "How could I help it if the train was late?  She never even
said, `How do you do?'  I wonder who she can be?"

It was her turn to stare now, and once having begun to look at Lady
Sarah, it was difficult to turn away, for such an extraordinary looking
individual she had never seen before in the whole course of her life.
Her face was wan and haggard, and a perfect net-work of wrinkles; but it
was surmounted by a profusion of light-brown hair, curled and waved in
the latest fashion; her skinny hands glittered with rings, and her dress
was light in colour, and elaborately trimmed.  She had a small waist,
wide sleeves, and high-heeled shoes peeping out from beneath the frills
of her skirt.  If it had not been for her face, she might have passed
for a fashionable young lady, but her face was beyond the reach of art,
and looked pitifully out of keeping with its surroundings.

Country-bred Mildred could not conceal her amazement.  She sat on her
high-backed chair, her golden hair falling in a shower over her
shoulders, her grey eyes wider than ever as she stared transfixed at
this extraordinary spectacle.  Even when tea was handed round, she
continued to cast surreptitious glances over the brim of her cup, and to
eat bread-and-butter with divided attention.

Mrs Faucit noticed her absorption, and tried to engage her in
conversation, but in vain.  Mildred murmured a polite little answer of
half a dozen words, and turned back to stare at Lady Sarah with
fascinated curiosity.  It was a relief to her hostess when the girl
refused a second cup of tea, and she lost no time in suggesting an
adjournment upstairs.

"Bertha, I am sure Mildred will be glad to go to her own room now.  Will
you show the way, dear?  We will not expect to see you again until
dinner-time, as I know you will enjoy being alone!"

Outside in the hall Mildred stood still, and pointed through the closed
door with an outstretched finger.

"What in the world is--That?"

"`That!'  What?  Do you mean lady Sarah?  Oh, Mildred, do be careful!"
chorused the twins.  "She might come out.  She might open the door and
hear you!  She is Lady Sarah Monckton.  Her husband died in India.  He
was a sort of connection of Father's, so she comes here once or twice a
year to consult him about her affairs."

"A sort of connection!  What sort?  Near or far?  Do you know her well?
Shall I hurt your feelings if I say anything disagreeable?  No.  I'm so
glad.  I'll tell you then--I--don't--like--her--at all!"

The sisters looked at each other and smiled.  They had evidently
expected something more scathing in the way of denunciation, and were
not inclined to condemn Mildred for her opinion.

"Well, no; of course not.  Nobody could!  We always look upon her as a
Trial!" said Bertha pensively.  "She makes Mother ever so much stricter
than she would be if she were left alone, and thinks it improper for a
young lady to do anything that is nice.  We were sorry that your visits
should have come together, but it could not be helped.  Perhaps she
won't interfere so much when we have a visitor!"

"She has taken a dislike to me, so I expect I shall have the benefit!
Didn't you see the way she glowered at me through those awful glasses?
Why does she look like that?  Is she a young woman with an old face, or
an old one with young clothes?  Why can't she be contented to be one
thing at a time?  Is she going to make a long visit?"

"I don't know.  She has brought a maid and heaps of dresses, so I
suppose she is.  Mother says we must remember that she is very old, and
has had a great many troubles, and try not to annoy her--"

"Your mother is a dear!"  Mildred cried enthusiastically.  "I will be
nice to Lady Sarah to please her, but I don't believe she is at all
inclined to be nice to me.  We will see."


CHAPTER SEVEN.

LADY SARAH.

Mildred had been a week at The Deanery, and if her enjoyment during that
time had not been entirely unalloyed, the fault lay without question
with Lady Sarah, for all the members of the family vied with each other
as to who could show the young guest the most kindness.  Even the Dean
himself fell a victim to the "Norse Princess", much to his wife's
amusement, for he was, as a rule, the most unnoticing of men.  Mildred
had written to her mother that Bertha's father was "exactly like a
Dean."  She had never met such a dignitary before, it is true, but she
had an impression that he ought to look wise and studious, and Dean
Faucit fulfilled these requirements to the uttermost.

He had a thin face, with grave eyes set in a net-work of lines; his
shoulders were bowed with poring over the study-desk; and he was,
moreover, so absent-minded that he made two separate attempts before he
succeeded in grasping Mildred's hand on the occasion of their first
introduction.  She had been several days in the house before he had the
vaguest idea of her appearance, but one morning it chanced that he
raised his eyes from the breakfast-table to complain of the sunlight
which was pouring in at the window; and right opposite sat Mildred, her
eyes dancing with happiness, a soft pink flush on her cheeks, and her
hair shining like threads of gold.  The Dean started, and drew his brows
together, staring at her in curious, short-sighted fashion.  He was so
accustomed to the dim light of the Cathedral, and to the pale faces of
his wife and children, that Mildred, with her bright colouring, seemed
the embodiment of the sunshine itself.  He fumbled for his glasses,
scrutinised her furtively from time to time as the meal progressed, and
when it was over, lingered behind to speak of her to his wife.

"That friend of Bertha's seems to he--er--a nice little girl, dear!
There is something in her face which affects me very pleasantly.  I--
er--I hope you are doing all you can to give her a pleasant time.  Do
you--er--think she would like to look at my book plates?"

Mrs Faucit laughed, and slipped her hand inside his arm.

"No, my dear old man!" she said.  "I don't think she would like it all.
I think she would be profoundly bored.  Leave her to the girls.  They
are as happy as the day is long, wandering about together."

"Ah, well, you know best! but I should like the child to enjoy herself.
It has struck me once or twice that Sarah Monckton--eh?--not quite so
sympathetic to the young folks as she might be, I'm afraid.  There was
something at dinner the other night--I didn't hear it all, but I had an
impression--an impression--.  It distressed me very much.  I--er--hope
she doesn't interfere with the girls' enjoyment."

"Oh, no!  Don't worry yourself, dear.  They are quite happy," protested
Mrs Faucit soothingly; but when her husband had returned to his study
she sighed a little, as though she were not altogether so easy in her
mind as she had led him to believe.

The scene at the dinner-table to which the Dean had referred was
uncomfortably fresh in her own memory.  It had arisen through Mildred's
horrified surprise at the sight of Lady Sarah in evening dress, and the
unconscious manner in which she showed her disapproval.  Mrs Faucit
made up her mind that she would take an early opportunity of suggesting
to her young visitor that she had better not stare at the old lady in so
marked a manner, but she was too late, for before the meal was over Lady
Sarah suddenly laid her knife and fork on her plate, and transfixed
Mildred with an awful frown.

"Well, Miss Moore, what is it all about?  Pray let me hear what is
wrong, so that I may put it right at once.  If I am to have my dinner,
this sort of thing cannot go on any longer."

The girl's start of amazement was painful to behold.  The sharp voice
struck her like a blow, and she was absolutely ignorant as to her
offence.

"I--I don't understand!  What have I done?"

"Only kept your eyes fixed upon me from the moment you sat down until
now.  It is most ill-bred to stare in that undisguised manner.  Pray, is
there anything extraordinary in my appearance that you find it so
impossible to look at anyone else?"

The blood rushed into Mildred's cheeks, but she made no reply.

"Is there anything extraordinary in my appearance, I ask you?" repeated
Lady Sarah shrilly.

It was impossible to avoid answering a second time, but while the
listeners were trembling at the thought of what might happen next,
Mildred raised her head, and answered, with suddenly-regained composure:

"I did not know I was staring.  I hope you will forgive me--I am very
sorry if I have been rude."

She spoke with a certain grave dignity, which sat well upon her, and
Lady Sarah could not do otherwise than accept an apology so gracefully
offered.  Nevertheless the marked way in which the girl had avoided
answering her question was, if possible, more galling than the original
offence, and the glances which she sent across the table were the
reverse of friendly.

From this time forth it seemed impossible for Mildred to do anything
right in Lady Sarah's eyes.  Bertha and Lois were allowed to go on their
way undisturbed, while the sharp tongue, which had been wont to vent its
spleen upon them half a dozen times a day, found occupation in
criticising their friend.

She was rough, clumsy, awkward, Lady Sarah declared.  She came into a
room like a whirlwind; she ran up and downstairs more like a schoolboy
than a young lady.  As to her hair--that cloudy, golden hair which the
others so much admired,--there was no end to the lectures poor Mildred
received on this subject.  It was disgracefully untidy--such a head of
hair as no lady could possibly reconcile herself to possessing.  In vain
Mildred protested that the so-called untidiness was natural, and that no
amount of brushing or damping could reduce those rebellious waves to
order.  Lady Sarah arched her eyebrows, and wished she might only have a
chance of trying.  She would guarantee to make it smooth enough.

Mildred bit her lip and flushed indignantly.  It was on the tip of her
tongue to say that she would be happy to grant the opportunity, run
upstairs for her brushes, and force the old lady to prove the fallacy of
her statements; but she restrained herself, and felt more than repaid
for the effort when Mrs Faucit followed her out of the room a few
moments later, and said:

"I was so glad to see you keep your temper just now, dear.  It was
trying for you, for of course we all know that what you said was
perfectly true.  You couldn't possibly make your hair smooth, and it
would be a pity if you could--it is far prettier as it is, but I don't
want you to think too hardly of poor Lady Sarah.  You must remember that
she is old and ailing, and has had a lonely life in spite of all her
riches.  It is difficult to be amiable when one is old and frail, but it
is very easy when you are young and happy.  Isn't it, Mildred?"

"I don't know," said Mildred slowly.  "It isn't for me, because I am so
quick-tempered.  You don't know how dreadful I feel when anyone vexes me
like that.  My blood all goes fizz!  It seems as if I couldn't help
answering back."

"Well, that makes it all the better when you do control yourself!"  Mrs
Faucit answered, laughing a little in her gentle, amused fashion; and
Mildred ran upstairs, feeling delightfully virtuous.

At that moment she was prepared to declare that no amount of aggravation
on the part of Lady Sarah should ever induce her to answer hastily in
return.


CHAPTER EIGHT.

AN EXCITING PROSPECT.

When Mildred had been staying for a fortnight at the Deanery, a letter
arrived one morning which filled Bertha and Lois with delight, inasmuch
as it contained an invitation to what they exultantly described as "the
picnic of the year."

The girls had already attended several tennis parties, and had organised
small excursions on their own account, driving off in the pony carriage
to spend an afternoon in the country in charge of the children's
governess, but this picnic was to be on a very different scale.  Mrs
Newland, it appeared, gave one every summer, and understood how to do
things in proper style.  Her guests were to assemble at the station at a
certain hour, as the first stage of the journey was by rail, but a
couple of coaches were to be in readiness to convey them the remainder
of the way.

Their destination was a lovely little village, nestled among the hills,
where a river wound in and out, and there were woods, and dells, and
waterfalls, and caverns; everything in fact that the most exacting mind
could desire for a well-regulated picnic.

"And such delightful people--quite grown up!  You must not imagine that
it is a children's picnic," explained Bertha anxiously.  "We are always
the youngest there.  We would not be allowed to go at all except that
the Newlands are very old friends, and that Mother chaperones us
herself.  Mrs Newland takes two or three of the servants with her, and
they carry hampers, and clear away the things while we amuse ourselves.
We sit on the rocks in the middle of the river, and come home late at
night, singing part songs on the top of the coach, with mandolin and
guitar accompaniments.  Oh, it's lovely!  You will enjoy yourself,
Mildred!"

There was no question about that, for Mildred had the faculty of
enjoying every little pleasure which came in her way, and that with a
whole-heartedness and forgetfulness of drawbacks which would have been
shared by few girls of her age.

Bertha and Lois had a private consultation the first time they found
themselves alone after the arrival of the invitation.

"I am so glad Mil is to be with us for Mrs Newland's picnic," said the
former.  "I want her to see all the people, and I want them to see her.
She will chatter away and not be in the least shy, and they will be
charmed with her, for she does say such funny things!  Even Father has
to laugh sometimes.  Er--Lois!  I wonder what she is going to wear."

"So do I!" said Lois calmly.  "I've been wondering about that ever since
the invitation came, and yet I don't see why we should, for she has
nothing with her but the old school dresses, so how can there be any
choice?  She is certainly very shabby.  It must be horrid to have no
pretty clothes.  I suppose they are very poor."

"Oh, yes, I know they are!  Mildred makes no secret of it.  Poor dear!
it is hard for her, when she is so well-connected, too," returned the
dean's eldest daughter, in her funny, consequential, little voice.  "Her
grandmother was the daughter of a very well-known man--I forget who he
was, but she told me one day, and I know it was someone important.  She
married without her parents' consent, and they never acknowledged her
afterwards.  When Mildred's mother was grown up, one of the aunts wished
to adopt her as a companion, but Mrs Moore refused to go, because she
would have had to promise to have nothing more to do with her parents.
The old lady was dreadfully offended, and they have never heard of her
since that day."

"And a good thing, too, if she was like some old ladies we could
mention!" said Lois sharply, whereat her sister first laughed, and then
sighed.

"Oh, well, it's no use saying anything about that!  What were we talking
about before--Mildred's dress?  Well, there is one comfort--she always
looks sweet.  I dare say she will look one of the nicest there, though
Mrs Newland's friends are so smart.  Don't say anything to her about
our new dresses.  It might make her feel uncomfortable."

There were no signs of discomfiture in Mildred's manner, however, when
the new dresses arrived from town a week later on.  She had been romping
with the children in the garden, and came dancing in through the open
window of the library to find Mrs Faucit, Lady Sarah, and the two girls
grouped round the table on which lay two large cardboard boxes.  The
lids were thrown open, the tissue paper wrappings strewn over the floor,
and Mildred, looking at the contents, gave a cry of pleasure and
comprehension.

"New dresses for the picnic!  Oh, how lovely!  Do let me look,"--and
Lady Sarah's eye-glasses went up in horrified fashion as she swung
herself on to the corner of the table in her anxiety to have a good
view.

The new dresses were charming, everything that the heart of girlhood
could desire for the occasion; soft, creamy white, with lemon-coloured
ribbons arranged in the most Frenchified style, and with big leghorn
hats to match.  Even Lady Sarah smiled approval, but the exclamations of
the other onlookers were feeble, as compared with Mildred's ecstatic
rhapsodies.

"Oh, the darlings!  Oh, the beauties!  Aren't they sweet?  Look at the
ducky little bows at the elbows, and the little crinkly ruchings at the
neck!  And the sashes!--oh, goodness, what yards of ribbon!--and yellow
silk frills round the bottom--oh-h!  And the hats--Bertha, you will look
an angel!  If I had a dress like that I should sit up all night--I'm
sure I should!  I could never bring myself to take it off.  Oh-h!"

Mrs Faucit looked at the fair, flushed face with mingled approval and
pity.  "Poor, dear child!" she said to herself as she left the room in
answer to a summons from a servant; "very few girls of her age would be
so entirely free from envy.  I wish I had ventured to order a dress for
her at the same time; but I was afraid she might not like it.  I wonder
what she is going to wear?"

The same question had occurred to another person, and not being
possessed of the same delicacy of mind as the dean's wife, Lady Sarah
saw no reason why her curiosity should not be gratified.

"And when is your dress to arrive?" she inquired.  "What have you
ordered for yourself, my dear?"

"I--I ordered!"  Mildred fairly gasped.  The idea of "ordering" anything
was so supremely ridiculous.  "I haven't ordered anything!"

"Indeed!  You brought your dress with you, I presume.  Still I think,
Miss Mildred, that you might have honoured your hostess by making the
same preparation for yourself which she thinks it necessary to make for
her own daughters."

"Why, dear me," cried Mildred, still too much swallowed up with
amazement at the extraordinary suggestion to have room for indignation.
"Why, dear me, I'd be only too delighted to order a dozen if I could;
but where on earth should I get the money to pay for them?  I never had
a dress like that in my life.  I don't suppose I ever shall have one!"

"Then what are you going to wear, if one may ask?"

Poor Mildred smoothed down the folds of the blue crepe dress.  The romp
in the garden had not improved its condition; it was looking sadly
crumpled and out of condition, but it had been washed a dozen times, and
had a delightful knack of issuing from the ordeal a softer and more
becoming shade than before.  With certain little accessories, already
planned, she did not despair of a satisfactory result.

"Well, I thought Mrs Faucit would be so kind as to allow the laundress
to get up this dress.  It is the only suitable thing I have, and I was
going to--"

"Suitable!  That thing!  Do you mean to say that you seriously intend to
wear the dress you have on to a picnic given by Mrs Newland?"

Lois bit her lip and turned aside.  Bertha began hastily to cover up the
dainty white folds which showed the crumpled blue in such unfavourable
contrast.  Mildred drooped her eyelids, and answered with that
smouldering calm which precedes a storm.

"I am.  That is certainly my intention."

"And you mean to say you have no better dress than that in your
possession?"

"This is my best dress.  Yes!  I have no better."

"And your mother actually allowed you to come away with such a wardrobe!
Preposterous, I call it!  People who cannot provide for themselves
respectably have no business to accept invitations, in my opinion!"

Now it happened that this morning Lady Sarah had risen with a bad
headache, one of the consequences of which had been to make her even
more fault-finding towards Mildred than usual.  The old discussion about
her hair had been resumed after breakfast; she had been reproved for
leaving the door open; for shutting the door, for speaking too loudly;
for mumbling so indistinctly that it was impossible to hear; for one
imaginary offence after another, until finally she had run away in
despair and taken refuge with the children in the garden.  It was not
only the present annoyance, therefore, it was the accumulated irritation
of the morning, with which the girl had to fight at this moment, and the
conflict was too hard for her strength.

As she herself would have described it, she went hot and cold all over,
something went "fizz" in her brain, and the next moment she leapt down
from the table and confronted Lady Sarah with flaming cheeks and eyes
ablaze with anger.

"And--who--asked--_your_--opinion?  What business is it of yours what I
wear?  I didn't come here on your invitation--I was asked by Mrs
Faucit, and so long as she is satisfied you have no right to say a word.
How dare you find fault with my mother before my face?  How dare
you question what she thinks right to do? you--you unkind,
interfering,--_disagreeable old woman_!"

There was an awful silence.  Lady Sarah appeared transfixed with
astonishment; her jaw fell, her eyes protruded from their sockets.  The
twins instinctively clasped hands, and Mrs Faucit, arrested, in the act
of re-entering the room, by the sound of the last few words, stood
motionless in the doorway, her face eloquent of pained surprise.

Mildred glanced from one to the other.  She was trembling from head to
foot, her heart beat with suffocating throbs.  For one moment she
succeeded in maintaining her attitude of defiance; but when she met the
grave scrutiny of Mrs Faucit's eyes, she burst into a storm of tears
and rushed from the room.  Reaction had set in, and her own irritation
was as nothing to the shock which followed as she realised that--fresh
from Mrs Faucit's praise and her own congratulations,--she had given
way to an outburst of temper which must have horrified all who heard it.

She crouched down on a corner of her bedroom sofa and sobbed as if her
heart would break.  The old intolerable pangs of homesickness woke up
again and dragged at her heart; the longing for her own place, her own
people, above all, for the precious mother who always sympathised and
understood.

Perhaps Mrs Faucit would be so disgusted that she would send her
straight back to school.  Well! at this moment the thought of the quiet
house and of Mardie's loving kindness was by no means unwelcome.  At
school, at least, everyone was kind--the very servants went out of their
way to give her pleasure--there was no terrible Lady Sarah to stare at
her through gold-rimmed eye-glasses, and criticise and find fault from
morning till night.

It was in reality less than ten minutes, but it seemed like hours to
Mildred before the door opened to admit Bertha and Lois, and a fresh
outburst of sobbing was the only notice which she took of their
entrance.

Bertha slipped an arm round her waist.  Lois sniffed in sympathy from
afar.

"Never mind her, Mil!" she cried.  "Don't cry.  You couldn't possibly
have anything prettier than the blue crepe," but at this Mildred raised
her face in eager protest.

"Oh, I'm not crying about that!  I don't care a rap about the dress,
but--but she made me so furious.  It had been going on all morning, and
I c-couldn't bear it any longer.  I am so ashamed.  I can't bear to
think of it.  I don't know what I said."

The twins exchanged furtive glances.

"You called her `an interfering, disagreeable old woman'!" whispered
Bertha with bated breath, glancing half fearfully at the door as she
spoke.  "I--I felt as if the world were coming to an end!  As if the
ceiling would fall down over our heads!  Oh, Mil, you should have seen
her face!  I never saw anyone look so astonished in my life, but the
curious part of it is that I don't think she was angry.  She knew she
had no right to speak as she had done, and I believe she admired you for
being indignant.  Perhaps you will be better friends after this."

"No, we won't!" said Mildred, setting her chin stubbornly; "because I
won't, if she will.  I'll never forgive her.  It is not Lady Sarah I
care about--it is your mother.  Oh, I can't forget her face, she looked
so shocked!  She stared at me with such horrified eyes.  Is she awfully
angry, do you think?"

"I haven't spoken to her.  She sent us out of the room directly after
you left, but she didn't seem angry, only quiet and grieved."

"Oh, oh, oh! what shall I do?  I hate people to be grieved!  I detest
it!  It's fifty thousand times worse than being angry.  If people are
angry you can defend yourself and take your own part, but if they are
`grieved' you can only feel a wretch, as if you had no right to live.
Oh, dear, what will she think of me!  It was only the other day she was
saying that I kept my temper so well, and now I've disgraced myself for
ever!  She will never, never forgive me!"

Before the girls could say anything by way of comfort, Mrs Faucit
herself entered the room and walked straight towards the couch on which
Mildred was sitting.  She looked pale and distressed, but the manner in
which she put her arm round the girl's waist was certainly not
suggestive of anger.

"I am so very sorry that this scene should have occurred, Mildred," she
said; "but I have been having a talk with Lady Sarah, and she takes all
the blame upon herself.  She is sorry that she spoke as she did, and I
think she will be more considerate of your feelings for the future.  I
said the other day that I knew you must often feel provoked, and how
pleased I felt to know that you controlled your temper.  I wish, dear,"
she sighed heavily, "I wish you had gone on as you began!  It would have
been a great relief to me; but perhaps it was too much to expect.  You
are young and impulsive."

"Oh, no, no! don't make excuses!  I am a wretch, I know I am!" sobbed
Mildred penitently.  "It was hateful of me to speak rudely to a guest of
yours--so old, too.  Mother would be miserable if she knew.  But it was
so maddening!  I bore it as long as she found fault with me, but when
she began criticising Mother--saying that she didn't dress me properly,
and had no right to allow me to come here,--I couldn't keep quiet any
longer--I couldn't!  It made me too furious.  I was obliged to explode."

"I know!  I know.  I am sorry the girls' dresses were ever brought
down--that was the beginning of it all.  Mildred, dear, I hope you won't
think any more of what Lady Sarah said on that subject.  I noticed how
pretty your dress looked when you first arrived, and we will see that it
is made fresh and bright again for the picnic.  It came into my mind to
order a dress for you like the ones which the girls are to wear, but I
was not sure if you would like it, or if it would seem as if I were
dissatisfied with what your mother had provided."

Mildred threw her arms round the speaker with one of her bear-like hugs.

"All, you know! you understand!" she cried; "you are so different.  It
was sweet and lovely of you to think of it, but I'd rather not.  If
people don't care to have me in my old clothes, I'd rather stay away
altogether.  But I have ever so many pretty things stored away in my
box--new gloves,--ribbons,--a lace collar.  I can make myself quite
respectable.  Don't be worried, Mrs Faucit, please!  I'll try to be
good and not vex you again.  Do please take your forehead out of
crinkles."

Mrs Faucit laughed at that, and stroked the golden head with a
caressing hand.  She had grown very fond of her young visitor during the
last few weeks, and found her coaxing ways quite irresistible.

"Dear Mildred!" she cried, "Poor Mildred!  I am so sorry that your visit
should be spoiled in this way, but remember what I told you the other
day, dear, and try to avoid harsh judgments.  It is a great concession
for Lady Sarah to have acknowledged herself in the wrong in a dispute
with a girl of your age; you must show how generous and forbearing you
can be in return.  I hope that after this you may be really good
friends."

Mildred said nothing, but her lips closed with an expression which
Bertha and Lois recognised.  They had seen it at school on more than one
memorable occasion.  Mildred was the dearest girl in the world, but she
did not find it easy to forgive when her animosity had been aroused.


CHAPTER NINE.

THE FRENCH MAID.

No further reference was made to the unpleasant scene in the library.
Lady Sarah seemed disposed neither to offer nor to demand any sort of
apology.  Unnoticed by the girl, however, she constantly scrutinised her
through her gold eye-glasses with a curiosity which was almost kindly.
It seemed an impossibility for the old lady to refrain from interfering
in the affairs of others, but for the next few days Mildred was allowed
to go her own way undisturbed, while she devoted her attention to the
daughters of the house.

She assured Mrs Faucit that Lois's right shoulder was higher than the
left, and insisted that she should be made to lie down for two hours
every afternoon; she gave it as her opinion that, as the girls were now
fifteen, they should not be allowed to go about unattended by a
chaperone; and last, and worst of all, she showed the Dean a prospectus
of a German school, to which she advised they should be sent at once.

The twins were in despair, and many were the indignation meetings which
were held in the school-room or the bedrooms overhead, while poor Mrs
Faucit exhausted herself in the effort to smooth down both parties and
to keep her husband in ignorance of what was passing before his very
eyes.  Meantime the date of the picnic drew nearer and nearer, and in
connection with her own preparations Mildred met with an unexpected
display of kindness on the part of no less a person than Cecile herself.

The blue dress returned from the laundress looking crisper and fresher
than ever in its newly-ironed folds, and when Mildred went up to her
room the same afternoon she beheld Cecile seated by the dressing-table
busily engaged in sewing the lace-frills round neck and sleeves.

"Why, Cecile--you!" she exclaimed, and the Frenchwoman raised her
shoulders with a shrug of protest.

"Ah, Mademoiselle, what would you have?  They are so careless, these
servants.  Mary would iron the lace as it was, sewn in the dress, but I
say, `No, it is impossible so to do it well.  You take it off,' I say,
`and I shall sew it on.  Mademoiselle Mildred shall not go to the picnic
with frills untidy while I am in the house.'"

"But that is very kind of you, Cecile.  I'm sure I am awfully obliged,"
said Mildred warmly.  She leant up against the corner of the
dressing-table and watched the play of the nimble fingers with admiring
eyes.  "How quickly you do it, and how well!  It would take me about a
month to pleat the lace into those teeny little folds.  I just run it up
and draw the string, but of course it is far nicer this way.  The old
dress looks quite new again.  It seems to enjoy being washed."

Cecile held the skirt at arm's-length, looking at it with critical eyes.

"It is a pretty colour--soft and full--just the right shade to suit
Mademoiselle's complexion.  When it has the sash and the lace collar it
will have an air quite _chic_, but it could still be improved.  If
Mademoiselle will, I shall stiffen the sleeves and make them more--what
you say?--fashionable!  It would be much better so."

"I don't know, I'm sure.  It would be very nice, but have you time,
Cecile?" asked Mildred doubtfully.  "You have work to do for Lady Sarah,
and I should not like to interfere with that.  It is very kind of you to
offer, but--"

"Oh, indeed, I have hours to myself--hours!  I am killed with ennui in
this quiet house.  It would be a charity to give me occupation.  It is
still quite early; if Mademoiselle would put the dress on now, for one
little minute, I could then see what is required, and put in a stitch
here and there."

Mildred unfastened her dress with mechanical fingers.  She was
bewildered by this sudden display of amiability on the part of Lady
Sarah's maid, and filled with remorse for her former misjudgments.  She
had taken a dislike to Cecile from the moment when they had first met in
the corridor and the Frenchwoman's sharp eye had scanned her from head
to foot, as if taking in every detail of her attire and appraising its
value.  Once or twice, moreover, upon entering Bertha's room
unexpectedly, she had discovered Cecile turning over the ornaments upon
the dressing-table, and had not felt altogether inclined to believe the
explanation that she was looking to see if there was anything she could
do for mademoiselle; yet if Cecile were now so anxious to serve herself,
why should she not have been equally well-disposed to Bertha?

Mildred argued out this question with herself as she stood before the
glass while Cecile's clever fingers busied themselves about her dress,
putting in a pin here, a pin there, achieving thereby an improvement
which seemed almost miraculous in the girl's unsophisticated eyes.

While she worked Cecile kept up a string of flattering remarks.

"I must fasten the hair up for a moment to see the back.  Ah, the
beautiful hair! what a coiffure it will make some day!  See how it goes
itself into a coronet like a queen's!  It is easy to fit a dress when
one has the perfect model.  You have the back like an arrow,
Mademoiselle.  Most young ladies get into the bad habits at school, and
bend their shoulders like old women, but you are not so.  There are many
princesses who would give thousands of pounds to have a figure like
yours."

"They must be very silly princesses, then," said Mildred brusquely.  How
was it that she could not get over her dislike to Cecile--that the touch
of her thin fingers, the sight of her face in the glass brought with
them a shiver of repulsion?  Cecile had nothing to gain by spending time
on the renewal of a school-girl's frock, and could therefore only be
actuated by kindness.  If it had been anyone else who had done her such
a service Mildred would have been overflowing with thanks, but for some
mysterious reason her heart seemed closed against Lady Sarah's maid.
All the same she was annoyed at herself for such ingratitude, and made a
gallant effort to carry on a friendly conversation.

"Have you been maid to many other ladies, Cecile, before coming to Lady
Sarah?  You have been with her only a short time, I think." Cecile
sighed lugubriously.

"Three months, Mademoiselle.  Oh, such long, slow months!  Never before
have I known the time so long.  Before then I was with two beautiful
young ladies in London.  They went out every night--to two or three
balls very often,--and always they were the most admired among the
guests.  Miss Adeline married an officer and went to India.  She was
like you, Mademoiselle--the same hair, the same eyes--you might be her
sister.  She would that I should go to India too.  `Oh, Cecile!' she
say, `what shall I do without you?  No one shall ever suit me as you
have done.'  But I dare not risk the journey, the heat, the fatigue.
Then Miss Edith shared the same maid with her mama, and I came to my
lady here.  Ah, what a difference!  The house of Madame, it is like a
grave--no life, no sun.  With my young ladies it was all excitement from
morning till night--luncheon parties, afternoon parties, evening
parties, one thing after another, and no time to feel _triste_, but now
all is changed.  We drive in a closed carriage for amusement, and go to
bed at ten o'clock, just when my ladies were dressing for their balls,
and the evening should begin."

"Well, but, Cecile, I should think you would like it better," said
Mildred guilelessly, "because if they did not come home until two or
three in the morning it must have been terribly tiring sitting up for so
long, and very bad for your health.  Now you can go to bed at eleven and
have nothing to disturb you until the next morning."

Cecile lifted her head from her work and darted a keen glance at the
girl's face.  Her eyes were small and light, and it seemed to Mildred as
if at this moment there was something unpleasantly cunning in their
expression, but perhaps it was only the result of the strong light which
fell upon her through the open window.

"Oh, Mademoiselle, it is one thing to rest, and another to allow some
one else to do the same.  My lady goes to bed but not to sleep.  She
lies awake for hours, and she is cross sometimes, but so cross!  She
speaks so shrill, so loud, one would suppose a calamity should happen.
It is bad for the nerves to hear such sounds in the night-time.  I have
been afraid for Mademoiselle lest she should be disturbed.  Her windows
are so near, and when the house is quiet--"

"Oh, you need not be afraid for me!  I sleep like a top when I once
begin.  Sometimes we have had dreadful thunder-storms in the night at
school, and half the girls have been sitting up shivering in their
dressing-gowns, but I have known nothing about them until the morning.
Besides, it is such a long way round to get to Lady Sarah's room, that I
never realised before that her windows were so near."

Mildred craned her head as she spoke to look out of the window.  As she
had said, the entrance to Lady Sarah's room was some distance along the
corridor, and round a corner, but, as it was situated in a wing of the
house which stood out at right angles from the main wall, the window was
but a few yards from Mildred's own.

"I never realised that I was so near!" repeated the girl dreamily, and
as she busied herself with the folds of the skirt Cecile frowned and bit
her lip, as though annoyed with herself for an incautious remark.

"I am glad you have not been disturbed.  I feared it might be so, but if
Mademoiselle should any time hear a noise in the night she will
understand--she will go to sleep again quite satisfied.  I am always
there in my lady's dressing-room, ready to go when she calls."

"Oh, yes, I'll remember!" said Mildred easily; "but I am not in the
least likely to hear.  I can't understand how people can go on talking
after they are in bed.  When I go home for the holidays I sleep with my
mother, and I have so much to say that I try hard to keep awake, but I
can't.  We talk for a little time, then she says something, and I repeat
it over and over to myself, trying to understand what it means.  It is
probably the simplest thing in the world, but it seems like Greek, and
while I am still trying to puzzle it out, I fall asleep and remember
nothing more till the next day."

"Oh, yes! but you are young and my lady is old.  Sleep does not come to
her as to you, and she is so that she cannot bear anyone to have what
she has not.  If she is miserable, it is her pleasure that I also should
suffer."

Mildred knitted her brows and stared at the maid in disapproving
fashion.

"I don't think you ought to talk like that, Cecile," she said boldly.
"You are always paying Lady Sarah compliments to her face, so you ought
not to abuse her behind her back.  Besides, I don't think she is cross
to you.  She seems kinder to you than to other people.  We all notice
it."

"Ah, yes!" replied Cecile scornfully; "my lady can be amiable enough
when it suits; but to live with all day long, to have her as mistress--
ah, Mademoiselle thinks she can understand what that means!  But wait a
little time, wait until Mrs Faucit shall go away and my lady is left in
charge, then you shall see!  You will feel for me then for what I
undergo!"

Mildred's eyes widened in astonishment.

"But she is not going away!  What do you mean by saying such a thing?
How could she go away when she has visitors in the house, and her
children are home for the holidays?"

The Frenchwoman flushed and looked strangely embarrassed.

"Oh, I mean nothing--nothing!  I had the impression that it was said.
The servants talk among themselves, Mademoiselle.  But you know best--
you are of the family.  It has been a mistake.  See, then, Mademoiselle,
I have made what I can.  Do you find the dress is better?"

"It looks ever so much nicer, Cecile.  I can't imagine what you have
done to make such an improvement.  I am awfully obliged to you for all
your trouble."

"It is nothing, Mademoiselle, not worth speaking about.  When the lace
is on and the ribbon--big, full bows instead of the little, old ones--
you shall see what a difference I make.  They will say no one can tie a
bow like a Frenchwoman; and even in Paris, where I learn my business, no
one in the room could make one like me.  I had them always to arrange,
on the handsomest dresses.  Mademoiselle shall see the lovely bows I
shall make--"

Cecile lifted a roll of shimmering, satin ribbon from the table as she
spoke, and shaking out a length of two or three yards, began to gather
it up in her fingers.  It was a beautiful ribbon, soft and thick, and of
the richest texture, but Mildred flushed as she looked at it, and her
voice sounded sharp and disapproving.

"What ribbon is that?  It's not mine!  You are not going to put that on
my dress, Cecile!"

"But yes, Mademoiselle, I was told to do so.  My lady rang the bell and
asked what I did.  When I said I helped with the dress of Mademoiselle
Mildred, she took the ribbon from her drawer and asked if it should be
useful.  `Use what you will,' she say to me.  It is a beautiful ribbon,
Mademoiselle, and goes well with the lace.  You look not satisfied, but
believe me, when you see it arranged, you will agree--"

"I wasn't thinking about that.  I dare say it would look very nice, but
I can't take it, Cecile," said the girl firmly.  "I am glad you have not
cut it up, for it will not be spoiled.  I am much obliged to Lady Sarah,
and you may tell her so, but I prefer to use my own things.  If the old
ribbon is too shabby, I can do without altogether; but it's no use
putting that on, for I won't wear it."

Cecile stared in amazement, but there was no mistaking the girl's
sincerity.  Her eyes were bright with anger, she held her head at a
defiant angle, and her lips were pressed into a thin scarlet line.
Mildred was disgusted to hear that Lady Sarah had any share whatever in
Cecile's services.  She wished with all her heart that she had not
accepted the Frenchwoman's offer.  Now if the dress looked at all
respectable on the day of the picnic, Lady Sarah would take the credit
to herself, because she had allowed her maid to make alterations; and
how dare she send contributions of her own, and give instructions as to
what was to be done with them, without asking permission!

Cecile was quite awed by the young lady's air of indignation, and
carried away the white ribbon without a word of protest.  She evidently
informed her mistress of what had occurred, for after dinner the same
evening Lady Sarah detained Mildred on her way to the garden, to
question her on the subject.

"So, Miss Mildred, my maid tells me that you refused to use the ribbon
which I gave her for your dress.  Is that true, may I ask?"

"Yes, quite true.  I told Cecile to tell you that I was very much
obliged for the offer, but that I preferred to wear my own things."

"You are very independent.  Was the ribbon not to your fancy?  Have you
one of your own which you prefer?"

"Oh, no, it was beautiful; it could not have been nicer!"

"Your own is not so good?"

"Not nearly so good, Lady Sarah!"

Cecile might well have said that Mildred had the good, straight back, if
she had seen her at this moment.  Her cheeks were flushed, but her mouth
had the stubborn look which her friends knew so well.

"You refuse, then, simply because you object to receiving anything from
me?"

"I am much obliged to you, Lady Sarah, but I prefer to wear my own
things."

"Oh, well, well!" sighed the other wearily; "I won't argue with you, my
dear.  Do as you please.  I meant to do you a kindness, but, if you
choose to take it in this way, there is no use saying anything about it.
Don't let me keep you.  Run away to your friends."

She turned towards the window as she spoke, and the sun shone full on
her face.  It looked tired and grey, and very, very old; and the thin
hands crossed on her lap, how shrivelled they were!--they trembled all
the time as though they could not keep still.  Mildred walked out into
the garden, a pang of compunction at her heart.  Dreadful to be so
old!--not to be able to see without spectacles; to hear,--unless people
spoke at the pitch of their voices; to walk,--unless supported by a
stick; to feel cold even on the hottest day; to feel tired the first
thing in the morning;--how dreadful!  Lady Sarah had looked sad too--not
merely cross, as usual, but really and truly sad and lonely.

Suppose she had seriously meant to be kind--to show that she regretted
her interference in the past?  Mildred's face clouded over as this
thought passed through her mind, but before she crossed the lawn to join
her friends her lips stiffened into the old, obstinate line.

"I don't care.  She had no right to send in her scraps of finery,
without even asking my permission.  And after saying that Mother didn't
provide for me properly, too!  No, I am not a bit sorry; I would do the
same thing over again!"


CHAPTER TEN.

AN UNEXPECTED DEPARTURE.

The day before the eventful picnic the family were seated round the
breakfast-table, when the Dean looked up from a letter which he had just
been reading, and said mildly, and as if he were making the most natural
request in the world:

"Evelyn, will you get ready to go up to town by the five o'clock train
this afternoon?  The Archbishop has appointed our interview for three
o'clock to-morrow.  You had better pack for two or three nights."

Mrs Faucit gave an irrepressible start of consternation.  Was ever
anything so unfortunate!  The interview with the Archbishop had been
talked of for months past; half a dozen letters had been exchanged on
the subject within the last fortnight; the question which was to be
discussed was of pressing importance.  She realised at once that the
appointment must be kept, but her heart sank as she looked at the three
young faces beside her--aghast, and speechless with horror.

"Oh! is it really to-morrow?" she cried.  "Are you quite sure, dear?
Look again! you so often make mistakes in the date.  Does he say
Wednesday the sixteenth, or Wednesday the twenty-third?"

The Dean peered at his letter once more.

"He says: _I shall be able to meet you on Wednesday next, sixteenth
instant_.  It is certainly to-morrow.  Why, Evelyn; is there any reason
why--er--?"

"It is the day of Mrs Newland's picnic.  I have accepted her
invitation--"

"Oh, is that all!"  Her husband drew a sigh of relief.  "You must write,
of course, and explain your absence.  She will understand, and it will
be a relief to you, dear.  I--er--I have some recollection of being at a
picnic myself years ago.  Uncomfortable occasion!  Er--earwigs--meals on
the grass--baskets to carry.  You would have been very tired.  Much more
comfortable at the Metropole!"

Mrs Faucit could not restrain a smile in spite of her concern.

"Just so, Austin; but that is not the light in which the young people
look at it.  I was to chaperone the girls.  I am thinking of them, not
of myself.  It will be a great disappointment."

The Dean put up his eye-glasses, and stared at the three girls in turn.
His own daughters were white with suppressed emotion, but Mildred's face
was tragic in its agony of suspense.  She did not say a word, but she
turned her great, grey eyes upon him, piteous as those of a child who
sees a surgeon standing over her, knife in hand; and as he met that
glance the Dean rumpled his hair in perturbation of spirit.

"Dear me! dear me! this is very distressing.  Disappointed, are they?  I
don't want the children to be disappointed, Evelyn!  Let them enjoy
themselves.  If they appreciate that sort of thing, let them go by all
means.  Why should they stay away because you are obliged to do so?
Mrs Newland will look after them."

"My dear Dean!"  Lady Sarah shook out her serviette, and raised her
voice to an even shriller note than usual.  "My dear Dean, you don't
realise what you are saying.  The girls are not children any longer;
they were fifteen their last birthday.  In another two years, or three
at the outside, they will be in society.  You cannot possibly allow them
to go to a large affair of this sort without a chaperone.  Mrs Newland
will be occupied with her guests, and will have no time to look after
them.  If Evelyn is obliged to go away, let the girls stay at home.
They can surely bear a little disappointment.  They will have bigger
ones than this to bear as they go through life!"

"True, Sarah,--quite true; but that is the more reason why I wish to
postpone them as long as possible.  I don't want the girls to miss their
pleasure, Evelyn!  Can nothing be done?  Can't you think of some plan,
dear? you are so clever.  Is there no other alternative?"  And the
kindly Dean looked at his wife with a face full of anxiety.

Mrs Faucit smiled back at him in the peculiarly sweet, reassuring
manner which she reserved for himself and for Erroll, the youngest
member of the family--a mischievous little rascal, who employed himself
in getting into trouble all day long, and in rushing to throw himself
upon his mother's tender mercies after each fresh exploit.

"I think we might surely hit on some plan between us!" she said
brightly.  "Such a number of clever people!  For instance, it ought not
to be altogether impossible to provide another chaperone for the girls.
There are more people than my important self in the town, and Mrs
Newland will be quite willing to accept a representative under the
circumstances."

"If you mean me, Evelyn, I am not at all sure that I feel equal to the
exertion.  If they were going to drive from door to door, and have lunch
in an hotel in reasonable fashion, it would be different; but with so
many changes, and the whole day to be spent in the open air--"

"Oh, my dear Sarah, I never thought of such a thing for a moment!  It
would be too much to ask.  You would be terribly fatigued."  Mrs Faucit
had caught the echo of three separate gasps of consternation, and she
spoke with unusual emphasis.  "Oh, no, indeed!  I think it will answer
all purposes if Miss Turner takes the girls in charge.  Mrs Newland
knows her, and it would be a pity to look any further when we have
someone so suitable in the house.  That will be a very good arrangement,
won't it, girls?"

Then for the first time the girls' lips were opened, and they spoke.  Up
till now the tension of suspense had been so great that they seemed
scarcely able to breathe.

"Oh, yes, Mother, it will be delightful!"

"Oh, yes, Mrs Faucit, splendid!  Miss Turner will be nicer than anyone
if you can't go yourself.  But are you really obliged to go away?  Why
can't you stay at home when it is only for two days?"

"My dear Mil! and allow Father to go by himself!"  Bertha waxed quite
mischievous in the relief of the moment.  "You don't know what an
absent-minded creature he is!  If Mother were not there to look after
him, he would go to meet the Archbishop without a hat on his head, or
stand gloating over an old bookstall in the street, until he forgot all
about his appointment.  Mother has to be very careful not to let him out
of her sight.  She writes down all that he wants to say on a piece of
paper, and leads him up to the very door of the room.  Then she says:
`Now, Austin, do you know whom you are going to see?'  Father stares
blankly, and says: `Er--er--I really er--.'  And then she says very
slowly and distinctly: `You--are--going--to--see--the--Archbishop!
You--want--to--see--him--very--badly--indeed.  Here is a list of the
things you want to say!'  Then she thrusts the paper into his hands,
pushes him inside the door, and shuts it firmly behind him.  It's quite
true!  I know, because I have been with them."

"Eh? eh? eh?  What this! what's all this?"  The Dean pushed his chair
from the table, and stared at his daughter with a comical expression of
amused embarrassment upon his face.  "Upon my word, Sarah, I believe you
are right!  The children are growing up--they are growing up!  I--I
never heard such an accusation in my life!  Absent-minded!  Am I indeed,
Miss Bertha?  I see a great deal more than you imagine, young lady!"

His lips were twitching, his grave eyes twinkling with amusement.  He
was a Dean and a scholar whose fame was world-wide; who wrote books the
very names of which Mildred was unable to understand, but he had shown
himself so considerate of the young people's enjoyment, he looked, at
the moment, so kindly and mischievous that a sudden wave of affection
swelled within the girl's heart.  Up she leapt, and bounding across the
room to his side, threw her long arms round his neck, and kissed him
rapturously upon the lips.  It was an extraordinary liberty to take, but
what followed was more extraordinary still, for the Dean returned the
salute with the utmost alacrity, and keeping one arm round Mildred's
waist, twirled off with her towards the door in something that was
perilously,--perilously like a polka!

When he reached the doorway, and saw the old butler coming along the
passage, he shook himself free in a moment, and shuffled off to the
study, looking as sober as if he had never indulged in a game of romps
in his life; but when Mildred turned back into the room the twins were
clapping their hands in delight, Lady Sarah struggling in vain to
restrain a smile, while Mrs Faucit was laughing softly to herself, with
a glimmer of tears in her eyes.

There are two sorts of tears, however, and these of the Dean's wife were
certainly not those of sorrow.  Perhaps she was thinking of the days
when she was a girl herself, and of a certain lanky schoolboy who spent
the vacations with her brothers, and who behaved in such harum-scarum
fashion that an onlooker would have been ready to prophesy anything of
him, rather than that he should have developed into a sober dignitary of
the church!

But a day of busy preparation lay before Mrs Faucit.  She had no time
to waste in day-dreams, so excusing herself to Lady Sarah, she carried
the girls upstairs to her room, where she proceeded to read them a
gentle lecture on their behaviour for the next few days.

"Now do, dears, try to help me while I am away!  I shall be miserable if
I feel that things are not going on well at home, and it all depends
upon you.  Make up your minds that you will not allow little things to
annoy you, and set yourselves to be cheerful and forbearing.  The rest
will follow as a matter of course.  Bertha, I leave the children to
you--see that they are happy.  If any accident or sudden illness should
happen, telegraph at once for me.  Lois, you must take my place in the
house.  Look after the flowers, and see that a fire is lit in the small
drawing-room if the weather is at all chilly.  Mildred, I have a task
for you too.  I wonder if you can guess what it is?  I am going to leave
Lady Sarah in your care!  Yes, really, dear--I mean it!  I ask you as a
favour to look upon her as your special charge while I am away--to see
that she is comfortable and has all she wants.  She is very old,
Mildred, and in spite of her sharp manner, she appreciates kindness.
Now remember, dear, I trust you!"

"Oh, dear!" groaned Mildred; "I wish you wouldn't!  I don't like it a
bit.  I'd much sooner arrange the flowers--mayn't I arrange the flowers,
Mrs Faucit, please, and let Lois look after Lady Sarah?  You said
yourself I had quite a gift for arranging flowers!"  Then, as Mrs
Faucit only smiled and shook her head, she went off into fresh
lamentations.  "It's perfectly miserable that you have to go away at
all.  Things do happen so nastily in this world!  Just as I was going
home Robbie fell ill, and now the very day before the picnic this letter
arrives!  It's horrid.  Cecile said you were going away, but I never
believed you would!"

Mrs Faucit looked up sharply.

"Cecile said!" she repeated.  "Cecile!  What did she know about it,
pray?  The date of the interview was so uncertain that I have never
spoken of it in the house.  I hoped that, as it had been so often
deferred, it might not come off until the end of the holidays.  What did
Cecile say?"

"Oh, not much!" replied Mildred easily.  "Something about finding out
what Lady Sarah was like when you went away and she was left in charge.
I said you were not going away, and she muttered something about hearing
the servants talk.  I really forget what it was."

Mrs Faucit wrinkled her brows, and looked perturbed.  How could Cecile
know of plans which had only been discussed between husband and wife?
Could it be that the Dean, in his carelessness, had left a letter on the
subject lying about, and that Cecile had been unprincipled enough to
read the contents?  It was the only explanation of which she could
think, and it was sufficiently unpleasant to send her downstairs to
interview Lady Sarah with a fresh weight on her mind.

"Will you be kind enough to take care of the keys for me, Sarah?" she
asked.  "There are a good many valuables in the chest in the
strong-room, and I should feel more comfortable if you were in charge.
James will apply to you for anything he needs, and pray do not hesitate
to give him your instructions in return.  By the way, Mildred has just
been telling me that Cecile spoke to her some days ago of our leaving
home!  I can't imagine how she can have known about it.  I am afraid I
have never got over my first dislike to that woman, Sarah.  I don't like
her prying ways, and I don't like her manner to you.  You are not given
to spoiling your servants, but it seems to me that you are allowing
Cecile to get the upper hand; and if that goes on, it will be a great
mistake.  She does not impress me as a woman whom it is safe to
indulge!"

Lady Sarah gave an impatient toss to her head.

"Oh, my dear Evelyn!" she cried; "it is easy for you to talk.  You have
your husband and children, and are not dependent upon a servant.  I am!
Cecile has it in her power to make my comfort or misery, and she is a
capable woman, who understands my requirements.  I have suffered so much
from inefficient maids that I cannot afford to quarrel with one who
really suits me!"

She evidently did not appreciate her friend's interference, and Mrs
Faucit realised that there was no more to be said on the subject.


CHAPTER ELEVEN.

THE PICNIC AT LAST.

The next morning Mildred awoke to find the sun pouring into her room
through the uncurtained windows.  A moment of sleepy confusion, and then
remembrance awoke.  It was the day of the picnic--the all-important day
which had been dreamt of so long, and with such ardent anticipation.
She jumped out of bed and ran to the window, to see if the sky fulfilled
the promise of the sunshine.  Well, not quite! the blue was broken by
ominous clouds, which the wind drove along at a speed too rapid to be
reassuring.  Mildred knew that radiant mornings had an unpleasant knack
of settling down into gloomy days, but she was so anxious to think the
best that she would not allow herself to dwell upon unpleasant truths.
It was enough to put anyone in good spirits to dress in that delicious
blaze of sunshine, and the meeting at the breakfast-table took place
under the brightest auspices.

"Isn't it a perfectly scrumptious day?  Doesn't it make you want to skip
and dance?" cried Mildred enthusiastically.  "I feel as if I could do
anything when the sun shines like this--it's so inspiring--it makes you
feel so strong, and light, and well.  I could jump over a mountain, I
believe, if there was one in my way."  She gave a spring over a stool as
she spoke, by way of illustrating her words, and might possibly have
proceeded to further exploits had not Lady Sarah entered the room at
that moment and taken her seat at the head of the table.

She walked with an unusually brisk tread, and her face looked less lined
and tired than usual.  The brilliant morning had evidently its effect
upon her as well as on the younger members of the household, and so
amiable did she appear that the girls went on with their rhapsodies
undeterred by her presence.  They laughed, and chattered, and joked in
overflowing spirits, and when Lady Sarah found a chance to put in a
question about the scene of the day's excursion there was a race to see
who could answer first, and use the greatest number of superlatives in
doing so.

"A pretty place?--Oh, exquisite!  The most beautiful little village that
was ever seen!  A river?--Yes, indeed, the prettiest river in the world,
splashing over rocks, and with the sweetest little shady paths on either
side!  An inn?--Rather!  Like an inn in a picture--oak walls, and blue
china in corner cupboards.  Walks?--Everywhere!  In every direction?--
Impossible to take a wrong turning where every step of the country was
beautiful!"

After these rhapsodies had continued for several moments Lady Sarah's
face began to assume an expression of curiosity, and she glanced out of
the window from time to time, as if mentally considering some question.

"I am not quite sure about the day, the clouds look low.  If it were
more settled I really think I should like to come with you myself
instead of Miss Turner."

Had a bomb-shell suddenly exploded in the room its occupants could
hardly have been more bewildered than they were by the utterance of
these few, quietly-spoken words, "I should like to go with you myself."
The girls held their breath, and felt stupefied with horror.  They had
never dreamt that this would be the result of their ecstatic
description; they had imagined that the subject of a chaperone was
settled once for all, and it was a terrible awakening.  Bertha was the
first to recover her composure.  She had a strong consciousness of the
importance of her position as the Dean's eldest daughter, and in her
mother's absence was determined not to shirk her responsibility.

"But--but, Lady Sarah, Miss Turner has been asked.  Mother has written
to Mrs Newland.  Do you think it would do to alter the arrangement?"
she asked earnestly, and Lady Sarah tossed her head in derision.

"My dear child, what nonsense you talk!  I think Mrs Newland would have
little hesitation in accepting me in Miss Turner's place; I would
explain it to her myself."

"But we go for a walk in the afternoon, a long walk.  You would be
terribly tired."

"Nothing of the sort.  I am not quite paralysed yet.  Say no more on
that score, if you please.  I am able and willing, and shall be glad of
the chance of seeing the place; but, of course if you prefer the
governess--"

What could be said in answer to such a question as this?  The usages of
polite society forbidding a candid avowal of the truth, Bertha could
only protest feebly in a weak, broken-spirited voice.

"Very well, then, we will consider it settled.  We do not leave the
house until half-past eleven, by that time I shall see what the day is
going to do.  It is beginning to cloud over, and I don't like the look
of the sky.  If it shows any disposition to rain I shall certainly not
risk an attack of rheumatism by walking on damp grass, but if it keeps
fine I shall be ready when the carriage comes round.  Miss Turner will
no doubt be very glad to stay at home."

She swept from the room, and the scene which followed can be better
imagined than described.  Mildred paced up and down, her cheeks aflame,
her lips pressed together to keep back a torrent of angry words.  Lois
had hard work not to cry outright, while Bertha sat down on a chair, and
clasped her hands in despair.

"I know what it means!--I know what it means!  She went with us once
before.  She made me stay beside her all day long, and wear mufflers
round my neck; and sit inside the coach coming home.  She wouldn't let
me have an ice at lunch, or sail on the lake--or--or--do anything nice!
I'd just as soon give it up at once, and stay at home.  It will be all
spoiled!  I sha'n't enjoy it a bit!"

She was very near tears herself, but for once in her life Mildred made
no response.  There was a strange, half-triumphant smile upon her lips,
and she continued to pace up and down the room, and to take no part in
her friend's lamentations.

By and by Bertha and Lois went away, with dejected mien, to attend to
the various duties with which they had been charged.  Bertha to the
nursery, to give orders that some little friends should be invited to
take tea with the children, Lois to arrange the basket of flowers which
the gardener brought up to the house.  About ten o'clock the sky clouded
over in a threatening manner, and it seemed as if Lady Sarah's prophecy
was about to be fulfilled, but when the carriage came round to the door
at half-past eleven, the sun was shining again in all its splendour, and
the air felt warm and fragrant.

Neither of the girls had seen anything of Mildred since parting from her
in the breakfast-room, but at the last moment she came strolling
leisurely across the hall, looking such a picture of youth and beauty as
made them hold their breath in admiration.  The blue dress looked as
fresh and dainty as if it was being worn for the first time, a soft
white sash was twisted round the waist, and a bunch of ox-eye daisies
tucked into the folds of muslin round the neck.  The golden hair fell in
wavy masses down her back, and the shady hat dipped forward over her
charming face.  The Dean's daughters looked colourless and insignificant
beside her, but they were too radiantly happy to care about their own
appearance, for it was Miss Turner who came forward to seat herself
beside them in the carriage, while Lady Sarah stood within the porch
speaking her farewells in tones of ill-concealed irritation.

"Most rash and foolish I call it!  I heard the rain distinctly, I tell
you, and not satisfied with hearing, I put my head out of the window and
felt several drops upon my face.  Have you taken umbrellas and
mackintoshes?--No?  Now, my dear Lois, pray, don't make objections to
everything I say.  Your mother is away, and I feel the responsibility on
my shoulders.  Miss Turner, will you be good enough to see that
umbrellas and mackintoshes are taken, and good thick cloaks in case of
cold?  You will be starved to death on the coach coming home."

The echo of the fretful voice followed the carriage as it drove away
from the door, and as Bertha waved her hand, a shadow of compunction
fell over her face.

"She is disappointed!  Poor old lady; she looks lonely, standing there.
She daren't come because of her rheumatism; but just look at that sky,
and imagine anyone saying that it had been raining; so positive about
it, too.  She must have been dreaming."

"Well, for goodness sake don't begin to be miserable now, Bertha,
because she is _not_ coming!  Two hours ago you were nearly crying
because she was.  You said you wouldn't enjoy yourself at all, and would
just as soon stay at home.  For goodness sake be cheerful, and don't
grumble any more!"

Mildred's voice sounded so irritable that her friends stared at her in
surprise.  She looked exceedingly pretty and charming, but not quite
like herself all the same.  It was difficult to say wherein the
difference lay, yet both Lois and Bertha recognised it at once.  The air
of exuberant happiness, which was one of her chief characteristics, had
disappeared.  She looked strained, worried, ill at ease.

All through the earlier part of the day this curious depression seemed
to hang over Mildred's spirits.  At every quiet opportunity she
whispered an eager "Are you enjoying yourself?" into her friend's ear;
"You are enjoying yourself, aren't you, Bertha?" but it was not until
lunch was laid out upon the grass, and the merry scramble for knives and
forks had begun, that she herself seemed able to enter into the fun with
a whole heart.  From that time onward she was her own merry self, and
Bertha had the pleasure of seeing her prophecy fulfilled, for before the
afternoon was over, Mildred, in her old blue dress and renovated hat,
had become the principal personage in the party.  The ladies were
charmed with her because she was so pretty, and had such winsome,
coaxing little ways; the gentlemen, because she was a thorough
school-girl, free from every trace of young-ladyish affectation.  It
delighted them to see her race up the hillsides, or skip from rock to
rock across the river bed, and when the time came for the return drive,
there was quite a struggle for the seat by her side in the coach.  The
gentleman who gained it was, in Mildred's estimation, the most
interesting of the number.  He was very tall, and so thin that his
clothes hung upon him in baggy folds.  His skin was burnt to a dull
brown colour, and had a curious dried-up appearance, but his blue eyes
shone with a boy-like gleam.  Mildred could not make up her mind whether
he were old or young, but as he remarked, in the course of conversation,
that he had just returned from a fifteen-years sojourn in Ceylon, and
that he had left England shortly after his twenty-first birthday, she
was able to calculate his age with little difficulty.

"I am interested in Ceylon.  Do tell me all about it!" she said.
Whereat her companion smiled, and said that was a "large order."  He
proceeded, however, in easy, chatty manner to give some interesting
accounts of the country, and his own adventures therein.  He told, for
instance, of how darkness fell suddenly upon the land, and the tiny
streams swelled in an hour to the magnitude of a river; how, when
returning from a friend's bungalow one evening, the oil in his lantern
had given out, and he had been compelled to crawl on hands and knees
along the dangerous road; how, on the borders of a forest, he had seen
two snakes standing erect in deadly combat, and could remember a flight
of white butterflies, three miles in length and of such density that
they obscured the sun as with a cloud.  He told stories of his
elephants, too; how they had worked for him in building the big
tea-factory on which he had been engaged, dragging the heavy stones up
the hillsides, and pushing them into their own particular niche, with
their ponderous feet.  How steadily they worked, and with what
persistence, until the bell rang at four o'clock, when they instantly
turned tail, ambled off to their lines, and refused to do a stroke of
work until the next morning.  "Fifteen years!" he sighed; "fifteen
years!  It is a good slice out of a man's life.  When I went out, I had
dreams of making my fortune in a few years and coming home to spend it
in England, but the days of rapid fortune making are over, and I shall
probably end my life in Ceylon.  I wasn't much older than you are now,
Miss Mildred, when my guardian packed me off to an office in the city,
and I was obliged to sit copying letters at a desk from morning till
night.  Bah! how I hated it.  I made up my mind to go abroad the moment
I was twenty-one, and could claim my money, but when the time came, I
felt pretty bad at leaving.  I had a special chum, with whom I lived and
worked, and played, and shared every joy and sorrow.  It was a terrible
wrench to part from him--and from someone else--the lady who is now my
wife!  You have been introduced to her, I think; there she is in the
blue dress, sitting in the front of the other coach."

"With the brown hat?  Yes, I know; I like her.  She looks awfully
sweet."  Mildred nodded her head decisively, and her companion's eyes
twinkled in response.

"Oh, yes! she's quite satisfactory.  Bullies me a little now and then,
you know--between ourselves; but one can't have everything in this
wicked world.  Well, you see, she came out to me in due time.  But
before there was any talk of that, another curious thing had happened.
I was sitting in front of my bungalow one afternoon, very low and
homesick, and tired to death after a long day's work.  I was wondering
if I should ever live to get back to the old country, or to see my
friends again, when suddenly a man came round the corner of the road,
and marched up the garden path.  He was an Englishman--that was seen at
the first glance; he was tall, and broad, and had a peculiar way of
holding his shoulders.  I stared at him, not knowing if I were awake or
asleep, and when he was within a dozen yards, he raised his head to look
at me, and it was my chum!--the very fellow I had been thinking of five
minutes before, and despairing of ever seeing again!"

"Good gracious!  What did you do?  What did you say?"

Mr Muir smiled.

"Do?  Say?  I called out `Halloa!' and he called out `Halloa!' and we
shook hands and went into the bungalow.  That seems strange to you,
doesn't it?  If you had been in my place, and one of your school-fellows
had appeared upon the scene, you would have behaved rather differently,
I imagine!"

"Rather!" cried Mildred; "I can't think how you can have been so calm!
If I had been there, and had seen Bertha coming, I'd have whooped like a
red Indian, and rushed down, and simply smothered her with kisses.  Men
must be awfully cold-blooded."

"I don't know about that.  There are different ways of expressing one's
emotion.  A grip of the hand goes a long way sometimes.  Well, I was
fortunate, you see, for I had my chum with me once more.  He had been as
lonely without me as I without him, and had made up his mind to come and
join me.  We bought an estate between us, and now have a factory of our
own.  I was grieved to see these good people drinking Chinese tea this
evening.  I believe some wiseacres pretend that it is good for the
digestion, but what is that compared with encouraging the poor planters
in Ceylon?  Remember, Miss Mildred, I rely upon you to drink nothing but
Indian tea for the rest of your life."

"Oh, I will!" promised Mildred readily.  "I am quite interested in
Ceylon now, because of you, and of another planter who was a friend of a
great friend of mine.  She told me a story about him only a few weeks
ago.  He wasn't so fortunate as you.  He was quite alone, and he tried
to grow quinine--cinchona, you call it, don't you?  All the other
estates suffered from blight, except his, and he was promised ever so
much money for it--a fortune--but just when he was so happy, thinking of
coming home, the disease came on his estate too, and everything died
away before his eyes.  All his work was lost, he had to begin over
again, and dig up the land to plant tea instead."

"Now, I wonder who told you that story!"  Mr Muir cried.  "I knew a
fellow who had exactly the same experience.  Curiously enough, he came
home in the ship with me.  We only landed a week ago.  Do you mind
telling the name of your informant?"

"No, of course not.  Why should I?  It was one of my school-mistresses--
Miss Margaret Chilton.  She and her eldest sister keep the school to
which we all go--Bertha, and Lois, and I.  We were talking of
disappointments one day, and she told me this story as an illustration."

Mr Muir threw back his head, and began to laugh in a soft, amused
fashion, most mystifying to the hearer.

"Talk of coincidences!" he cried.  "Talk of coincidences!  Why, Miss
Mildred, it is the very man of whom I was speaking.  Isn't that a
curious thing?  I knew him intimately, and he has told me stories too--
about Miss Margaret Chilton among other people.  And she is your
school-mistress?  Tell me now, what is she like?  I have heard so much
about her that I am interested to hear."

"She is a darling!"

"Er--so I was given to understand!" said Mr Muir drily.  "And as to
appearance?  Dark or fair, tall or short, plain or good-looking?"

Mildred reflected.

"She has brown eyes," she said slowly.  "Oh, you may think that is not a
good description, but it is; because when you see Mardie's eyes, you
don't notice anything else.  They are so clear, and sweet, and lovely,
and they look straight at you, as if they could see through and through,
but so gently and kindly that you don't mind it a bit."

Mildred opened her own eyes at her companion as she spoke, with a
comical imitation of Miss Margaret's expression, which made him laugh in
spite of himself.

"I see!  I see!  Well, I shouldn't wonder if I were to have the pleasure
of meeting Miss Chilton one of these fine days.  If I do, I am sure I
shall recognise her by the description."

At this point the coach drew up before the railway station, and the
party separated to return to their various homes.  Mr Muir whispered a
word or two in his wife's ear, and they came together to the window of
the carriage in which the girls were seated, to wish them a last
farewell.

"_Au revoir_, Miss Mildred!" he cried, his blue eyes twinkling with
amusement.  "I am not going to say good-bye, for I expect to meet you
again, on a still more interesting occasion."

"I haven't the least idea what you mean, but I hope we shall!" returned
Mildred.


CHAPTER TWELVE.

A TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE.

When the girls reached home they found Lady Sarah awaiting them in the
drawing-room.  Her hands were lying idly on her lap, a white shawl was
wrapped round her shoulders, and the sight of her tired, dispirited face
brought with it a throb of compunction.  It was not easy to continue the
rhapsodies in which they had indulged all the way from the station in
the presence of one who had, so evidently, found the day long and
uninteresting.  Lady Sarah, however, had many questions to ask, and
received each answer with an echo of the old complaint.

"If I had only gone with you!  It has been a beautiful day, I should
have taken no harm.  If it had not been for that unfortunate shower I
should have seen it all, instead of sitting here the whole day long,
wearying to death."

"Dear Lady Sarah, haven't you been a drive?  Why didn't you order the
carriage, and go a nice long drive into the country?"

"What is the use of driving by yourself?  No, thank you, Bertha, I
prefer to stay at home.  Cecile? no--not for worlds.  I think something
must be wrong with the girl's nerves.  It seems as if it were impossible
for her to sit still the last few days.  It fidgets me to be near a
person who jumps up and down like a Jack-in-the-box.  There is some
supper waiting for you in the dining-room, my dears.  You had better
take it and let us get off to bed.  The day has been long enough."

The girls turned away obediently and hurried through their meal, not to
delay the old lady any longer than could be helped.  They had been
successful in getting their own way, and, as is usual under the
circumstances, conscience was beginning to reproach them for
selfishness, and to suggest that it might have been possible to have had
their own enjoyment, and to have allowed Lady Sarah to have had hers
into the bargain.

When the twins went into Mildred's bedroom to say good-night, Bertha
could not refrain from putting these sentiments into words.

"Poor Lady Sarah, she does look dull!  She has had a lonely day.  I must
say I feel rather--mean."

"I feel mean too," said Lois; but at this Mildred interrupted with an
impatient protest.

"What in the world have you to feel mean about?  You have done nothing.
It was not your fault.  You did nothing to prevent her going."

"No, but I didn't want her to come, even when she said it would be a
pleasure.  I was glad when she was prevented; I thought the shower was
quite a providence."

"Don't, Bertha!" cried Mildred sharply.  Her face flushed to a vivid
pink, she seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, then said
decisively, "Look here, I am going to tell you something.  You will be
shocked, but it's done now, and can't be undone, so there is no use
saying anything about it.  There was no shower.  It was a trick.  I
played the hose upon her window."

A gasp of horror sounded through the room as the twins uttered a
simultaneous question, "You--_what_?"

"I played the hose upon her window.  I'll tell you all about it.  You
had both been crying in the dining-room, saying that your pleasure was
spoiled, and that you wouldn't enjoy yourselves a bit.  Then you went
out of the room and I strolled into the garden.  I heard a noise at the
window and saw Lady Sarah standing in her room.  I didn't want her to
see me, so I slipped behind a clump of trees, and the hose was lying on
the ground all ready.  It darted into my head in a moment that I could
make her think it was raining, and I took it up and played it gently on
the panes,--just like the very beginning of a shower.  By and by I heard
the window open and saw her stretch out her hand; then I gave a flick
round the corner, so that she got quite a nice little bath.  The window
shut with a bang, and I went on pattering until it was all over drops.
She stood in the background looking out--"

"Oh, Mildred!" echoed the Dean's daughters in horrified chorus; "Oh,
Mildred! how could you, how dare you?  Suppose anyone had seen you."

"Oh, I took good care of that!  No one saw me at all--except Erroll."

"Erroll?  Good gracious!  And did you warn him not to tell?"

Mildred shook her head.

"No; Mother never allows us to tell the children anything like that.
She says it makes them deceitful.  He will forget all about it; children
always do."

"They generally remember when you want them to forget.  Oh, Mildred, I
wish you hadn't done it!  I don't like it a bit.  It makes me feel worse
than ever."

"You can't feel anything like as bad as I do," retorted Mildred
miserably.  "I was sorry the moment after I had done it.  I went
upstairs and stayed in my own room, for I thought I had done enough
mischief, and had better keep out of the way.  I was really disappointed
to see Miss Turner in the carriage instead of Lady Sarah.  I thought I
shouldn't enjoy myself at all--it worried me so; but then I got
interested and forgot all about it--until we came home."  Her voice sank
into a disconsolate whisper, "I don't know what your mother will think,
when she put her into my charge, too, but there are two days more; I'm
going to be awfully nice, and try if I can't make up."

"We will all try," said Bertha heartily.  She saw that Mildred was even
more distressed than she would admit, and was anxious to say something
comforting before retiring for the night.  "We have had our good time
to-day, she shall have hers to-morrow.  Don't worry any more, Mil dear,
but try to think of something nice that we can do for her as a surprise
before Mother comes back."

"It's awfully good of you not to scold me, Bertha.  I know you must be
disgusted with me, though you won't say so.  You would never have done
such a thing yourself."

"No, because I am never in a hurry.  I take a long time to make up my
mind about anything, good or bad.  If you had waited five minutes to
think about it, you would never have played that hose; but never mind,
Mil, some time there will be a brave thing to do, and you will have
risked your life and done it, while I am still trembling on the brink.
It works both ways, you see!"

Bertha patted her friend on the arm with an air of gracious
condescension, and bidding her an affectionate good-night, returned to
her own room.

Left to herself, Mildred began to undress in listless, disconsolate
fashion.  She was tired with the day's exertions, and sorely troubled
about the escapade of the morning.  Lady Sarah's face haunted her.  If
Bertha and Lois were shocked, what, oh! what, would be their mother's
feelings?  "She will be grieved in earnest this time," Mildred sighed to
herself.  "Oh, goodness, I wonder why it is that I am always getting
into trouble!  I mean to be good, I have the best intentions...  Mrs
Faucit will look at me as she did that day when I flew into a passion.
I hate to be looked at like that.  Great, solemn eyes, as if her heart
were broken!  And it was all my fault this time...  I wish I could be
calm and deliberate.  I'll begin to-morrow, and count twenty to myself
before I say a single word."

She crept into bed and laid her head upon the pillows with a weary sigh,
but sleep was long in coming, and even when the lids closed over the
tired eyes, the groans which forced themselves through the closed lips,
the nervous twitches of the limbs, showed that an uneasy conscience
pursued her into the land of dreams.

How long she slept Mildred never knew, but it seemed as if at one moment
she was lost in unconsciousness, and at the next she was awake--wide,
wide awake,--with her heart beating like a sledge-hammer, and an unusual
chilling of fear in her veins.  Something had aroused her--what was it?
The echo of the sound rang in her ears, shrill, piteous, beseeching.
What could it have been?  Mildred sat up in bed and looked searchingly
round the room.  The light was high enough to show the furthest corner.
The door was closed, the window as she had left it, the sash opened a
few inches at the bottom; the tick of the little clock on the
mantel-piece sounded clearly in the silence.  All looked so calm, so
peaceful, so safe, that Mildred drew a breath of relief and was
preparing to burrow down again among the clothes, when her heart leapt
at a repetition of the same mysterious sound.

There was no mistaking it this time.  It was the sound of a voice raised
in a wail of such bitter, helpless pleading as left the listener
trembling with nervousness.

In the broad light of day, with friends seated by our sides, it is
difficult to realise how keenly a sound such as this tells upon the
nerves in the dark silence of the night, but Mildred was of a fearless
nature, and after the first shock of surprise, her impulse was to find
out the source of the alarm, not to hide her head under the bedclothes
and stuff her fingers in her ears, as many another girl would have done
in her place.  She slipped out of bed, crept across the room to the
window, and kneeling on the floor, applied her ear to the open space,
listening intently.

The windows of the house were dark and lifeless, but as she waited, in
straining silence, it seemed to Mildred that a faint murmur of voices
reached her ear.  Now a long level murmur, now a broken effort of
protest, then again the smooth low voice.

Mildred turned her eye from one side to the other, calling to mind the
different rooms to which the windows belonged.  Below the
breakfast-room, above the day nursery, to the right her own
dressing-room, to the left, in the projecting wing, Lady Sarah's room
and that of her maid.  Mildred had never realised before how she was cut
off from the rest of the household, but the conviction that the voices
must come from this last-named room brought with it a throb of relief.
Cecile had said that her mistress was often irritably wakeful during the
night-time, and had warned her of a possible alarm like the present.

If it was only Lady Sarah scolding her maid, there was no reason why she
should not go back to bed and sleep comfortably, but in spite of this
conclusion she continued to kneel by the window, for the remembrance of
those two cries was not easily reasoned away.  She had not been able to
distinguish the words, but the tone could not be accounted for by mere
irritability.  Mildred had had ample opportunity of studying the
different tones of Lady Sarah's voice, but she had never heard this note
before.  Cecile had declared that her mistress treated her harshly, but
Mildred, like everyone else in the house, had been inclined to think
that the opposite view of the situation would be nearer the truth, for
the old lady seemed in dread of the clever maid, and fearful of
offending her.

The old distrust of the Frenchwoman, which had been temporarily
forgotten because of her kindness in the matter of the blue dress, awoke
afresh in Mildred's breast; she bent her head forward and strained her
ears to overhear what was going on within that further room.  It seemed
as if she had been kneeling by the window for a long time, but it was in
reality only a few minutes, before suddenly, sharply, the cry rang out
again, to be as quickly stifled, but not before the listener had
recognised the voice, and the word which it was struggling to say.

"Help!  Help!"

It was Lady Sarah's voice.  She was in trouble, someone was ill-treating
her, so that she was fain to raise her poor, quivering voice in an
appeal for help.

Mildred leapt to her feet, while the blood rushed into her cheeks and
her heart began to beat furiously.  She was not in the least frightened.
What she felt at that moment was something almost like triumph.  Lady
Sarah had been committed to her charge, and she was now in danger.  Here
was a chance of redeeming her misdoings of the day before; an
opportunity of saving her from threatened danger!  Mildred slipped on
dressing-gown and slippers and laid her hand on the knob of the door.
Before she had time to open it, however, a faint rustling from without
attracted her attention; she listened, and could discern the almost
imperceptible sound of footsteps coming along the corridor from Lady
Sarah's room, and towards her own.  Outside her door they paused, and it
seemed as if the beating of her heart must surely betray her presence.
But no, they moved on again, the swish of the trailing skirts growing
fainter and fainter, until it died away in the distance.

Mildred opened the door and peered cautiously into the passage.  All was
dark and silent, but on the wall above the staircase a faint light
flickered, now here, now there, as if reflected from a candle carried in
the hand of someone descending to the hall beneath.  Mildred darted in
pursuit along the passage, her thick padded slippers aiding her
characteristic lightness of movement, so that she reached a point where
she could get the desired view without making a sound that could have
been heard by the most watchful ears.

It was as she thought.  Someone was creeping downstairs, candle in hand,
and feeble as the flame was, it was sufficient to light up the sleek
head, the slight, sinuous figure of Lady Sarah's maid.

Mildred pressed her lips together with a look of comprehension, and
immediately faced round to retrace her steps with even more speed than
before.  This time she did not stop short at her own room, but turned
into the further passage from which Lady Sarah's room was entered.  The
key was in the lock, for Cecile had carefully fastened the old lady in
the room before she herself had taken her departure, but Mildred gave a
fine smile of contempt as she drew it out, and slipped it into the
pocket of her dressing-gown.  Another moment and she was within the
room, standing by Lady Sarah's bed and gazing upon the face which lay on
the pillow with startled eyes.

At the first glance it seemed altogether strange and unfamiliar.  Lady
Sarah's hair was brown and luxurious--these straggling locks were white
as snow; Lady Sarah had well-marked brows and regular teeth, but when
she lifted the handkerchief which covered the face, the brows were
missing and the lips fell in around toothless gums.  Mildred stood
transfixed, but even as she gazed, she became aware of a faint, sickly
odour, which seemed to rise from the handkerchief which she held in her
hand.  She raised it to her face and shuddered with disgust as the
remembrance of a dentist's operating-room came swiftly to mind.  That
wicked Cecile!  Had she been using something to make Lady Sarah
unconscious?  And was that the reason why she lay so still, and made no
attempt to open her eyes?

Mildred dared not turn up the gas in case the light might be seen from
without and excite suspicion, but she peered about the dressing-table,
discovered a bottle of salts among the litter of silver ornaments, and
with the aid of this and a plenteous sprinkling of water, managed to
arouse the old lady to consciousness.  The flattened eyelids opened, and
Lady Sarah stared upwards with dreamy unrecognising eyes, for in the
uncertain light the figure of the girl in her white robes and flowing
golden hair seemed more like a heavenly visitant than a flesh-and-blood
girl.

"Who,--who,--what are you?" she muttered, and Mildred bent nearer with a
reassuring smile.

"It is I--Mildred!  Mildred Moore.  I heard you call and came to see
what was wrong.  Don't be frightened, Lady Sarah.  You know me--you know
Mildred!  I will take care of you--No one shall do you any harm."

Lady Sarah continued to stare with those dazed, bewildered eyes, then
suddenly the light of understanding flashed over her face, her fingers
clasped the girl's arm, and she glanced wildly from side to side.

"Cecile?  Cecile?"

"She is not here, Lady Sarah.  She has gone downstairs.  I saw her go,
and came in here at once to look after you."

"Gone?  Downstairs?"  Lady Sarah pushed the girl away, and drawing
herself up in the bed, began groping hurriedly beneath her pillow.  "The
key?  It is gone--she has taken it!  Oh, Mildred, the key of the safe in
the strong-room.  I had it here.  I slept with it under my pillow.  She
tried to take it from me, and I wouldn't give it up.--She is a thief,
Mildred, a cunning, wicked woman, and when she could not get it from me
by force, she put chloroform on that handkerchief and held it over my
face.  She has accomplices downstairs.  They will open the safe and get
away before anyone knows they are here.  There are valuables of my own
there besides Mrs Faucit's.  We shall never see them again, and I was
left in charge.  The wicked woman!  She has been scheming for this.  Oh,
she is cruel, she is dangerous--she will kill you, child, if she comes
back and finds you here."

Mildred laughed shortly, and threw back her hair with a scornful
gesture: "Not she, indeed!  She would be far more afraid of me than I
should be of her.  But what is to be done, Lady Sarah?  We must do
something quickly; there is no time to be lost.  Shall I go and waken
Bertha--the servants--Miss Turner?"

"A lot of nervous women!  What good would they do?  They would go off
into hysterics, and give the alarm before you could get downstairs.  And
if you went down, what could you do, children and girls as you are,
against old practised hands?  Cecile has never planned this by herself.
There are two or three men downstairs, she let out as much in her anger.
If you could find James..."

Lady Sarah broke off, and stared into the girl's face with her haggard
eyes.  It was an intent, questioning gaze, but the girl did not shrink
before it.  She nodded her head gravely, as if recognising the force of
the suggestion, and accepting the responsibility which it thrust upon
her, for James's room was cut off from the rest of the house, and to
reach it it was necessary to descend to the ground floor, and go along
the whole length of the passage leading to the servants' hall.

"Yes, of course; James would be the best!"

"You know where he sleeps?"

"Yes, I know."

Lady Sarah leant her head against the pillow, trembling violently.

"You would have to go downstairs, to pass within a few yards of the
strong-room door--they might see you--and if they did?--No, no!  I
cannot let you go.  Poor child, poor child!  Your safety is of more
value than anything they can take.  It is too great a risk."

"Dear Lady Sarah, I am not afraid.  I will creep along so quietly that
they will never hear me, and once down, it will not take me a minute to
run along the passage.  Don't try to prevent me, I must go--I must!  I
couldn't stay quietly here while Mrs Faucit was being robbed.  See!
here is the key, Cecile left it in the lock.  Get up and fasten yourself
in, and don't open the door until I come back.  You won't be nervous?"

"Not for myself--no, no!--but for you, Mildred.  No, you shall not go, I
will not allow it!  Your mother--"

"Mother would go herself.  She is the bravest little creature in the
world.  I am not afraid.  If they see me I will make a dash for it, and
scream at the pitch of my voice.  You will hear, the others will hear,
the whole house will be in a tumult, and they will be glad to escape and
let me alone.  But I want to take them by surprise, and not let them get
away.  I'm going now.  There is not a minute to waste.  Be careful how
you shut the door.  Don't be frightened.  If you hear no noise you will
know all is well."

Mildred drew the folds of her gown round her, and stepped out into the
passage.  The lamps were out, but the moonlight poured in by the long
windows, and saved her from all danger of stumbling.  Round the corner,
past the door of her own room, along to the head of the staircase she
crept, so far with nothing more than consciousness of excitement and
enterprise; but here the dangerous part of her mission began, and she
paused for a moment to draw breath and consider how she had best
proceed.  The staircase descended in flights of six steps at a time,
during two of which only she would be within sight from the hall
beneath.  One of the steps, she knew, creaked.  Which was it?  In which
flight?  Stupid not to remember when she had noticed it so many, many
times!  There was only one thing for it; to tread each step as lightly
as possible, and to trust that the thieves might be so busily engaged
that they would not notice such a gentle sound.  She bent down to fasten
the woollen slippers more closely, then slowly, cautiously began the
descent.  No step creaked beneath her feet, but when she reached the
bottom of the second flight of stairs, it was not relief but
disappointment which she felt, for she realised that the dangerous point
must now be passed, while she was in sight of anyone who might be
standing in the hall beneath.

Suppose Cecile had stationed one of her accomplices outside the door of
the strong-room, to guard against possible discovery?  Suppose with the
next step forward she found herself confronted by a burly rascal, ready
to spring forward and silence her cries with a heavy hand pressed over
her lips?  Mildred set her teeth with the old obstinate expression, and
stepped determinedly forward.  She had known from the outset that there
was a certain amount of danger in her mission; she was not to be
dismayed by the first alarm.  Another moment and she was within sight of
the strong-room, to discover, with a thrill of relief, that the thieves
were too busily engaged getting together their spoil to have time to
play sentry.  A faint light shone from within the half-closed door;
Mildred held her breath, and could hear a murmur of voices, an
occasional clicking, as of steel instruments upon a hard substance.

In the rush of indignation which the sound brought with it she trod less
carefully than before, and the creak which followed filled her with
dismay.  Good heavens! how loudly it sounded in the stillness!  She
dared not move a step, but stood crouched against the wall, her gown
gathered up in her hand, ready at the first sign of an alarm to rush
back to the upper floor and rouse the servants by her cries; but there
was no cessation of work within the strong-room, the voices still
whispered together, the click, click went on as before.  What had
sounded so sharply in Mildred's ears had in reality been a very faint
sound, scarcely perceptible at a distance of a few yards, and the noise
made by their own movements prevented it from reaching the ears of the
thieves.

The fact that it had not been noticed gave the girl fresh courage, so
that she almost ran down the few steps that remained, her little padded
feet falling noiselessly upon the carpet.  She stood now in the hall
itself; a sharp turn to the right would take her towards James's
bedroom, but before moving forward she turned with instinctive curiosity
to cast another glance at the door of the strong-room.  It was
half-closed,--more than half-closed; the moonlight shone on the polished
handle, and on the great brass bolts above and below.  If these were
once slipped into position it would be an impossible task for those
inside the room to make their escape, for the window was small, and
protected by iron bars.  If the bolts were fastened the thieves would be
caught like rats in a trap!

Mildred stood like a figure carved in stone, staring fixedly at the
door; her heart was beating like a sledge-hammer, the blood tingled to
her finger ends.  Supposing she went on and tried to awaken James!  His
door might be locked; he was an old man, probably a heavy sleeper; by
the time he was aroused and had put on his clothes the thieves might
have escaped!  They were hard at work; at any moment they might come
out,--_but if those bolts were slipped_!--A sudden impulse leapt into
the girl's brain and refused to be shaken off.  A dozen steps to the
right, a leap forward, one hand on the knob, another raised to shoot the
bar of brass into its place, a swift, impetuous movement, and the thing
would be done, the thieves caught red-handed, and Mrs Faucit's
treasures saved!  "And I can do it," said Mildred to herself, "as well
as James or anyone else; better perhaps, for I am small and light, and
they are busy now and unsuspicious.  It is the right time, perhaps the
_only_ time.  I can do it--I _will_ do it, before I get too nervous,--
before I have time to think!"

She was nervous enough as it was, poor child, for the fear of failure
was in her heart, and a terrible dread of those wicked men; but she had
enough self-possession left to know that it must be now or never, and to
allow herself no time for wavering.

Cecile and her two accomplices, rifling the safe of its treasures and
packing the spoil together in convenient fashion for carrying away, were
all unconscious of the white figure in the hall stealing forward step by
step, the white face looking out from the veil of golden hair, the
outstretched hands creeping nearer and nearer to those two strong brass
knobs.  A little gurgling sob of emotion swelled in Mildred's throat at
that last crucial moment, her teeth gleamed between her parted lips,
then with a spring like that of a wild animal she pounced upon the
handle, and with strength born of excitement slammed the door against
the lintel, and shot the big brass bar into position.  A howl of rage
sounded from within as the thieves threw themselves against the door
with desperate force, but it was too late.  Mildred bent downwards,
secured the second fastening, and flew off to awaken James, secure in
the knowledge that, rage and struggle as they might, the strong oak door
shut them out from escape as surely as the barred window itself.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

AFTER THE ROBBERY.

There was no sleep for the inhabitants of The Deanery during the
remainder of that exciting night.  The sudden banging of the strong-room
door, with the babel which immediately followed from within, would in
themselves have been enough to alarm the household; but Mildred was
determined to leave nothing to chance.

She arrived at James's room just in time to meet that faithful servant
hurrying forth with a greatcoat fastened over his night attire, and
while he rushed across the garden to arouse the coachman, she turned
back into the hall, and began to beat a wild tattoo upon the gong.

When Bertha came rushing downstairs a moment later, followed by a flock
of terrified women-servants, she was horrified by the sight which she
beheld.  There stood Mildred in her white dressing-gown, her hair hung
round her face in wild confusion, her eyes gleamed, her long arms swung
the sticks through the air, and brought them down upon the gong with a
fierceness of triumph, which had in it something uncanny to the gentle
onlooker.  She looked strangely unlike Mildred Moore--pretty, merry
Mildred, so ready to tease and plague, to kiss and make friends, and
tease again all in a moment.  She was so carried away by the terrible
excitement of the moment that she had no eyes for what was going on
around, and seemed perfectly oblivious of the fact that her friends were
standing by her side.

It flashed through Bertha's mind that Mildred was going mad, and she
seized hold of the swinging arms in an agony of appeal.

"Mildred, Mildred--don't!  Oh, what are you doing?  We are all here; I
am here--Bertha!  What has happened? what is the matter?  Don't stare
like that, you frighten me!  You understand what I am saying, don't you,
Mildred, dear?"

"I--I--I," began Mildred blankly.  She turned her head and looked at the
strong-room door, before which James stood on guard, waiting the return
of the coachman with the policemen; then at the group of women-servants
huddled on the stairs; last of all in her friend's face, white and
anxious, and overflowing with sympathy.  "You understand me, don't you,
Mil?"  Bertha repeated gently, and at that Mildred's tense attitude
relaxed.  She put her hand to her head as one awakening from a dream,
and clutching Bertha by the arms, burst into a flood of tears.

"Take me away!" she sobbed; "take me away!" and Bertha led her forward
into the breakfast-room, followed by a murmur of sympathy from the
onlookers.

James had found time to give a brief account of what had taken place to
his fellow-servants, and they were filled with wonder and admiration.

"To come down all by herself, in the dead of night--that child!  She is
brave and no mistake!  I always liked her--she has such pretty ways of
her own,--but I never thought she would come out like this.  She seemed
so careless-like!  Poor child, to see her beating that gong!  She didn't
know what she was doing.  It's enough to upset anyone.  To fasten that
heavy door herself!"

Then the conversation took another turn, and busied itself in denouncing
Cecile and her villainies.

"The deceitful, wicked creature!  That's the end of her smooth tongue
and her deceitful ways!  Making excuses to poke about all the rooms in
turn, and pretending to help when it was nothing else than curiosity and
wicked scheming!  I saw her with a letter of the master's in her hand
one evening, and she said she had been sent to find it.  So likely, when
he had half a dozen servants of his own in the house!  Now she will have
a spell in prison for a change--not the first one either, or I'm
mistaken.  To think, if it hadn't been for Miss Mildred, she would have
been off with the pick of the valuables in the house!"

So on and so on, while within the breakfast-room the heroine of the
occasion was being soothed and petted to her heart's content, Miss
Turner and the two girls hanging round her, and vieing with each other
as to who could do most for her comfort.  In spite of her agitation,
however, it was Mildred who was the first to think of the old lady
upstairs, and her quick "Who is with Lady Sarah?" made the governess
start in compunction.

"Oh, my dear, I am so glad you reminded me!  I am ashamed to say I
forgot all about her.  One is so accustomed to depend upon Cecile."

She hurried away, sending the motherly old cook to take her place beside
the girls, while the cook in her turn despatched the kitchen-maid to
provide refreshment for the household.  So it came to pass that at three
o'clock in the morning several tea-parties were being held in The
Deanery, the guests thereat presenting a motley appearance in their
anomalous garments.

When the policemen arrived, Bertha and Mildred refused to go out into
the hall to see the capture of the thieves; but Lois could not restrain
her curiosity, and came back with a thrilling account of the two big,
wicked-looking men who were Cecile's accomplices, and of Cecile herself,
looking "so white, so terrified, so,--so _old_, that I was obliged to be
sorry for her, though I tried to be angry!  I expect she wishes now that
she had gone to bed, and slept quietly, like a good Christian!"
concluded Lois quaintly; and at that Mistress Cook lifted up her voice,
and remarked that it would be a good thing if they were all to set about
doing that without delay.

"It is nearly four o'clock," she said, "and to-morrow's work has to be
done, thieves or no thieves.  The mistress will get a telegram the
moment the office is opened, and she will be home by the first train, or
I'm mistaken.  You young ladies had better get off to bed at once, or
she will be more upset than ever if she finds you looking like ghosts!"

Miss Turner returned to the room at this moment, and warmly seconded the
motion.  She had left Mary, the pleasant-faced housemaid, in charge of
Lady Sarah, who was nervous and unstrung after her fright, and she
herself proposed to share Mildred's bed for the remainder of the night,
the twins being left to keep each other company.

Mildred was thankful to accept the offer, for the strain upon her nerves
had left her so weak that her legs trembled beneath her as she ascended
the staircase.  Even with Miss Turner lying beside her, sleep refused to
come until the sun was high in the heavens, and the noises of the day
rose from the garden beneath.  Then at last, in the blissful sense of
security brought about by light and sunshine, the tired lids closed, and
she fell into a deep, restful slumber.

Miss Turner rose and crept softly from the room; Bertha and Lois peeped
in at intervals of half an hour; Mary prepared two tempting
breakfast-trays, one after the other, and carried them down untouched,
for Mildred slept like the seven sleepers, and no one had the heart to
shorten the well-earned rest.

Shortly before one o'clock a cab drove up to the door, and the Dean and
Mrs Faucit hurried into the house.  They looked anxious and perturbed,
and had a great many questions to ask--not about the silver, however,--
that seemed quite a secondary consideration,--but about the welfare of
Mildred, Lady Sarah, and the children, and as to what had been done with
that poor, unhappy Cecile.  Miss Turner assured them in reply that the
children were as happy and as naughty as ever; that Lady Sarah was
rather nervous, but otherwise none the worse for her adventure, and that
Mildred had been sound asleep since seven o'clock in the morning.

"I must go up and see her at once--the dear child! the dear, brave
child!" cried Mrs Faucit warmly; and she hurried upstairs, the Dean
following, shaking his head in meaning manner, and treading on tiptoe as
he entered the room, and advanced to the bedside.

Mildred lay fast asleep, her hair falling over the pillow in shining
golden tangles; while one arm was thrown over the counterpane, the other
tucked under her head, so that her cheek rested in the hollow of her
palm.

There were dark shadows beneath her eyes; and she looked so white and
spent, so unlike her usual radiant self, that Mrs Faucit's eyes
overflowed with tears, and she bent involuntarily to press a kiss upon
her lips.

The scream with which Mildred started up in bed made the two hearers
fairly leap back in amazement.  The sudden awakening was too much for
the disordered nerves, and the soft touch had brought with it a hundred
nightmare dreads.  When she saw who was standing beside her, she calmed
down in a moment, and apologised in shamefaced manner.

"Oh, Mrs Faucit, I am so sorry I startled you!  I had just shut my
eyes, and I thought it was--something dreadful--I don't know what
exactly!  How did you get back?  What time is it?  Is breakfast ready?
Oh, I am so glad you are here!  It is all right!  I shut the door--they
can't get out!--"

"Yes, dear, yes--I know!  Don't think about it.  We will have a long
talk to-night when you are rested, but try to go to sleep again now.  I
am so vexed with myself for disturbing you!"

"I can't sleep.  I've tried, but it's no good.  I've been awake all
night!" sighed Mildred pitifully.  She believed that she was speaking
the truth, but in reality she was so sleepy at the present moment that
she hardly knew what she was saying.  She raised pathetic eyes to the
Dean's face, and inquired, with a yawn: "Wh-at did the Archbishop say
about Cecile?"

"Bless me!" cried the Dean in alarm.  "This is terrible--the child is
wandering!  She doesn't know what she is saying!"  He laid his hand on
Mildred's forehead, and backed out of the room, beckoning furtively to
his wife as he went.  Outside in the passage he ruffled his hair in
helpless misery.

"Her head is burning, Evelyn! the child is in a fever!  Something must
be done at once.  I don't like to see her suffering.  Er--er--what could
you give her, dear?  Aconite and belladonna?  What do you say to aconite
and belladonna--every half-hour?"

He looked so comical with his ruffled hair and distended eyes, that his
wife could not restrain a smile.

"Oh, she will be all right, dear, after a day's rest!" she said
reassuringly.  "I will keep her in bed, and not allow her to talk too
much.  You need not be anxious; Mildred is too healthy to be upset for
more than a few hours!"

"But I should try the belladonna!  I should certainly try the
belladonna!" said the Dean urgently.  He shuffled along the passage, but
before his wife had time to re-enter the room he was back again, his
face alight with inspiration.

"Evelyn, I was thinking!  A gold watch and chain--the same as we gave
the girls at Christmas.--How would that do, eh?  We might present them
to her as a small--er,--acknowledgment of--er,--gratitude!  What do you
think of that?  Does it strike you as a good idea?"

"Capital, Austin!  Much better than the belladonna!" cried Mrs Faucit.

She patted him approvingly upon the shoulder, and the Dean went off to
his study rubbing his hands, and chuckling to himself, like a kindly,
innocent child, which indeed he was, despite all the learning which had
made him famous.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

FRIENDS AT LAST!

There was a constant coming and going at The Deanery during the whole of
that day, and the very atmosphere seemed full of excitement.  Mrs
Faucit, however, kept Mildred a prisoner in her own room, gave her an
interesting book to read, and forbade the subject of the robbery to be
mentioned in her hearing, with the result that by evening she was
herself once more, chatting with the girls, and only lapsing into
melancholy at the remembrance of poor, unhappy Cecile.

The next morning Mildred saw Lady Sarah for the first time since the
eventful moment when she had started on her search for James's bedroom.

The old lady was sitting in her favourite corner by the drawing-room
window, wrapped in shawls, and supported by pillows, for at her advanced
age such an experience as she had known was not easily outlived, and as
Mildred paced the garden walks with her friends, she received a message
to the effect that Lady Sarah wished to see her alone for a few minutes,
as she had something particular to say.

"My thanks are due, Most kind and generous maiden, unto you!" quoted
Lois, from a play which had been performed at school at the beginning of
the Christmas holidays, and Mildred gave a little laugh of complacency.

The quotation sounded appropriately in her ears, for she had no doubt
that she was summoned to hear grateful acknowledgment for the help which
she had given on the night of the attempted robbery.  As she walked
across the lawn towards the house, she was rehearsing the scene to
herself, after a habit of her own on occasions like the present.  "My
dear Mildred!  How can I thank you sufficiently!"  Lady Sarah, she
imagined, cried enthusiastically.

"Oh, pray, don't mention it!  I have done nothing at all!"

She screwed her face into the very smile of polite protest with which
she would give her answer, and was proceeding to invent an emphatic
disclaimer from Lady Sarah, when she came face to face with the Benjamin
of the household--little, mischievous Erroll, who was strolling about
the garden in search of adventure.

He wore a holland blouse, and absurd little knickerbockers about six
inches long, from beneath which his bare legs emerged brown and sturdy.

A scarlet cap was perched on the back of his head, and he swung his arms
as he walked with the air of a Grenadier Guard, and a very fierce and
warlike one at that.  Mildred pinched his ear as she passed, as a mark
of affectionate remembrance, whereupon Erroll lifted his funny little
face to hers, and volunteered a piece of information.

"I telled Yady Saraw about ze pump!"

"The pump!"  Mildred's heart gave a leap of apprehension.  She seized
the child by the arm and held him firmly until he had answered her
question.  "What pump?  What do you mean, Erroll?"

"Wat zo pumped ze water wif, on ze window!" said Erroll pleasantly.

He evidently had no idea that Mildred would be discomposed by the
intelligence, and was a good deal astonished at the hasty manner in
which she shook him off and resumed her walk to the house.

Here, indeed, was a changed position.  She was going to be scolded, not
thanked--called to account for misdeeds, not praised for valour.
Mildred pressed her lips together, and her eyes shone with a gleam of
anger.

The more exciting events of the last two days had thrown the picnic into
the background, so that she had almost forgotten the unfortunate
incident to which Erroll had referred.  It had troubled her greatly at
the time, but since then she had had an opportunity of "making up",
which should surely have condoned any previous offence.  "Lady Sarah
need not have said anything about it; even if she were told.  She might
have forgiven a little thing like that, when I have perhaps saved her
life," she told herself angrily.  "I believe she is glad to have
something to blame me for, so that she may avoid saying anything nice or
grateful!"

Mildred felt thoroughly cross and out of sorts, as was not altogether
unnatural under the circumstances.  When one has been treated as a
heroine for a couple of days, it comes as an unpleasant shock to find
one's self suddenly dragged down from the pedestal and compelled to
appear in the character of a culprit.  Mildred felt it very hard indeed,
and the softened feeling with which she had thought of the old lady
during the last forty-eight hours vanished at once, and gave place to
the old bitter enmity.

Lady Sarah had seen the girl's encounter with Erroll, so that she was at
no loss to understand the sudden change in her expression, as she drew
near.  They looked at one another in silence for several minutes--Lady
Sarah with her brows drawn together, yet on the whole more anxious than
angry; Mildred erect as a dart, her head thrown back in defiant fashion.

"Is this true, may I ask, what the child tells me--that you played the
hose on my bedroom window the other morning, in order to make me believe
it was raining?"

Lady Sarah sat upright on her chair, her hands clasped together on her
lap.  The morning light gave a livid hue to the worn features, the bones
in her neck seemed more prominent than ever.  "But it is not my fault if
she is old," was Mildred's obstinate comment.  "She can't blame me for
that, I suppose?"

"Yes, it's quite true."

"It is true!  You heard me say that I was afraid of my rheumatism, and
tried to persuade me that it was raining so that I might stay at home.
You knew I was anxious to go, and you deliberately set to work to
prevent me.  Nice behaviour, indeed!  I wonder you have the audacity to
look in my face and acknowledge it!"

"I never tell lies," said the girl proudly, and Lady Sarah interrupted
with a harsh laugh.

"No; you only act them, I suppose.  It never struck you that it was
acting a lie to go out of your way to deceive an old woman and make her
stay at home on false pretences, did it?"

Mildred started.

"No, it never did.  I did not think of that.  If I had, I would not have
done it."

"And why did you do it?  To prevent my going to the picnic, of course;
but why were you so anxious about that?  What harm would it have done if
I had been there?"

There was an unwonted strain of anxiety in the sharp voice, and the
answer came but slowly.

"Oh, I don't know!  We had been looking forward to the picnic for the
last week.  We had done nothing but talk about it.  Of course we didn't
want to have it all spoiled."

"As it would have been by my presence?"

"Y-es."

Mildred did not exactly relish saying so many unpalatable things, but
all the same there was a kind of satisfaction in being obliged to tell
this disagreeable old woman what was thought of her.  Disagreeable and
ungrateful, too!  Had she forgotten all that had happened on the night
of the picnic that she could greet her deliverer without one word of
thanks?

A wave of emotion passed over Lady Sarah's face as she heard that
decisive answer.  Her throat worked, her face was full of wistful
appeal, as she looked at the unrelenting, girlish figure, but Mildred's
eyes were cast down, and she saw nothing.

"In what way were you afraid I should spoil your pleasure?"

"Oh--in every way!  You would have made us stay beside you all the time
and forbidden us to run about; or--or sit on the outside of the coach,
or--or speak to anyone--or do anything we liked.  You said that we ought
to come home by an early train.  You wanted us to wear cloaks when we
were boiling with heat.  You would have corrected us before the others,
as if we were little children.  Oh!" cried Mildred impulsively, as all
the fears of two days earlier came suddenly to remembrance, "it would
have been miserable!"

Silence.  Mildred shuffled uneasily from one foot to another, rolled her
handkerchief into a ball, and felt supremely uncomfortable.  She had
been irritated into speaking with unbecoming warmth, but the words had
no sooner passed her lips than conscience began to prick.  She longed
for Lady Sarah to say something sharper, more unreasonable than ever, so
that she might feel that she was the injured person, and get rid of this
horrible feeling of guilt.  But Lady Sarah did not speak.  Was she too
angry to find words?  Was she gathering her energies for an outburst of
indignation?  The silence grew oppressive.  Mildred longed to be allowed
to rejoin her companions, and raised her eyes with impatient defiance.

Mercy!  What was this that she saw?  This pitiful, huddled-up figure,
these trembling hands and quivering features down which the salt,
difficult tears of age were trickling?  They could never, never belong
to the self-possessed and fashionable lady of a moment before!

Mildred gave one gasp of horror, and threw herself on her knees beside
the chair.

"Oh! what have I said? what have I said?  Oh, the wicked, wicked,
detestable creature that I am!  Lady Sarah, Lady Sarah, don't cry!  Oh,
please don't cry, please don't cry!  You will break my heart if you go
on like this!"

Her voice trembled, she clasped her arms round the old lady's waist, and
swayed with her from side to side, echoing sob for sob, while ever and
anon broken utterances fell painfully on her ear.

"--Cumberer of the ground!  Cumberer of the ground!  Alone in the
world.--No one to care!  Oh, dear Lord, let me be done with it--let me
die!"

"No! no! no!" cried Mildred, in a paroxysm of remorse.  She folded the
thin figure more closely in her arms, and laid her soft, warm cheek
against the quivering face.  "Don't talk like that--don't!  I can't bear
it.  I can never be happy again as long as I live if you won't forgive
me, and promise to be friends!  I was sorry the moment after I played
that trick upon you.  It spoiled my pleasure at the picnic.  If you had
asked me gently I would have told you how sorry I was, but I have such a
dreadful temper.  I fly into a passion, and then I don't know what I
say.  Do please forgive me, and stop crying!  There--there's my
handkerchief; let me dry your eyes!"

Lady Sarah trembled.

"You are very good.  I don't blame you, poor child.  You are an honest
lassie, and I've tried your temper many a time.  I was young and bright,
too, once on a day, but that's all past now.  I am nothing but a
fretful, selfish, old woman, a burden to everybody, without chick or
child to care what becomes of me."

"Don't say that.  I'll love you!  I'd like to love you if you will let
me.  You see it has all been a mistake.  I thought you were cold and
cross, and didn't care, but if you are only sad and lonely, why, then, I
_do_ love you!" cried Mildred impetuously; "for I'm sure I should be
fifty thousand times nastier myself if I were in your place."

Lady Sarah smiled through her tears.

"I don't want to be `nasty'!  I don't want to spoil your happiness, poor
child!" she said pathetically; "but this crabbed spirit has grown and
grown, until I seem powerless to overcome it.  And you must think me
ungrateful, too.  I wanted to thank you for your help the other night.
I don't forget it, child--I shall never forget it!  I was longing to see
you this morning.  If you had been half an hour earlier, you would have
had a different reception, but that child ran in and began telling his
little stories.  I wish he had kept quiet.  I wish I had never
listened."

"I don't!  I am glad that you know, now that the scolding is over," said
Mildred frankly.  "I am not sure that I could have screwed up courage to
tell you myself, but I feel much more comfortable now that you do know.
I've never done anything else like that; I truly haven't."

Lady Sarah smiled, and laid her hand caressingly on the golden head.

"I believe you, my dear.  I am quite sure you have not, if you say so.
You are a bright, hopeful, young creature, Mildred.  My heart goes out
towards you.  Will you help an old woman to get the better of her
fretful temper?"

Mildred lifted her face, the grey eyes large and solemn.

"If you help me, too," she said.  "Let us help each other!"


CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

A HAPPY ENDING.

The Dean and Mrs Faucit duly presented Mildred with a gold watch to
match those already possessed by their own daughters.  It had a monogram
on the back, an inscription inside the cover, and was altogether the
most delightful specimen of its kind that could be imagined.

Mildred developed an absorbing curiosity to know how time was passing
during the next few days, which compelled her to pull out the watch
every two or three minutes, while the intervals were agreeably spent in
playing with the pretty little chain to which it was attached.  She
wrote enthusiastic letters to her mother and Miss Margaret, describing
her new possession and giving a dramatic description of the events which
had led to its presentation; but the answers which she received were
distinctly disappointing, for Mrs Moore could only send a verbal
message, while Mardie treated her news in aggravatingly lukewarm manner.

Mildred realised with chagrin that her thrilling description had failed
to arouse anything like the interest which she expected.  Even the
congratulations which followed were wanting in fervour, as though the
presentation of a watch and chain were an everyday occurrence.

"_And now, dear, I have something interesting to tell you_," the letter
went on, when the subject of Mildred's own adventures had been dismissed
in a few cursory sentences; and as she read the words, the girl tossed
her head with a gesture of impatience.

"Interesting indeed!  What does she call _my_ news?--A robbery,--a
capture,--a quarrel,--a reconciliation,--a watch and chain!  She has
nothing half so interesting to tell me, I am sure."  Mildred changed her
mind, however, before she finished reading Miss Margaret's letter.

  And now, dear, I have something interesting to tell you.  You remember
  the story about my friend, the planter in Ceylon, whose crop of
  cinchona died down so disastrously?  I told it to you the night when
  you were so distressed about not being able to go home for the
  holidays.  You said at the time that this disappointment was different
  to yours, because it had not affected my own personal happiness; but
  you were wrong, Mildred dear, for if that crop had been a success,
  instead of a failure, I should have been the planter's wife long ago,
  and you would not have had "Mardie" at Milvern House!  Years have
  passed since then, but now things look brighter, though there is no
  prospect of a second fortune, and I am going to live in Ceylon,
  Mildred, in the very bungalow of which we spoke together.

  I am afraid you will not find me at school when you return after the
  holidays, for we are going to be married very soon; but Mr Lytton
  will be in England for six months to come, and that wonderful person,
  his future wife, will, I feel sure, pay many visits to Milvern House,
  to see the dear girls whose affection has been a comfort to her during
  the days of her loneliness.  Are you very much surprised, Mildred?
  You must write and tell me what you think of my great news, and tell
  Bertha and Lois to write too.  By the way, Mr Lytton brought a friend
  to call upon me the other day, a Mr Muir, who is a neighbour in
  Ceylon.  He told me that he had met you at a picnic the other day, and
  intrusted me with a message which I was to give the next time I wrote:
  "Give Miss Mildred my love, and tell her that I am quite of her
  opinion."  What did he mean, dear?  I am curious.

Mildred gave a loud shriek of excitement when she came to that thrilling
word "wife", the effect of which was to bring Bertha and Lois flying to
peer over her shoulder.  Together the three girls read the letter,
together they gasped, and groaned, and exclaimed, together they burst
into a chorus of lamentation when the end was reached.

"School without Mardie!"

"Lessons without Mardie!"

"Milvern House without Mardie!  Oh, oh, oh! how shall we bear it?"

"I hate Mr Lytton!" cried Mildred vindictively, then repenting; "at
least, I don't exactly mean that.  It is only natural that he should
want Mardie if he can get her; but I call him selfish.  What are _we_ to
do, I should like to know?"

"Perhaps he would think we were selfish to want to keep her to
ourselves," said Bertha pensively.  "I am glad that Mardie is going to
be happy, but I can't imagine school without her.  Who will welcome the
new girls, and comfort them when they are homesick?  Who will take us
out on half-holidays, and read aloud in the evening?  Who will nurse us
when we are ill?"

"Who will have her room when she is gone?  I can't think how she can
find it in her heart to leave that sweet little room!" cried Lois, in
her turn.  "But she must be anxious to go, I suppose, or she would not
have promised to marry him."

"I wouldn't like to live in a country where you met snakes when you went
out for afternoon strolls; but I think Indian people are nice," declared
Mildred.  "That Mr Muir had such a nice, sunburnt face, and such kind,
twinkling eyes!  If Mardie's husband is like that, I'll forgive him for
taking her away.  But I'll work like a slave, so as to be able to leave
school as soon as possible.  `Mrs Lytton!'  Gracious!  We shall have to
give her a present.  I wish the wedding were not quite so soon, for I
have only two and twopence in the world.  Perhaps we could join
together."

"I think it would be a good thing if the whole school joined, and gave
her something really handsome--a dressing-bag, for instance."

"Oh, not a dressing-bag.  She would use that on the voyage, and perhaps
not again for two or three years.  We ought to choose something that she
would need every day.  A clock would be nice," and Mildred jingled her
watch-chain with an air of proud possession.

"I think a ring would be better than either," said Lois; and the
discussion went on with unabated energy for the next half-hour, when it
was abandoned to allow the disputants to write letters of hearty, though
somewhat lugubrious, congratulation, to the bride-elect.

Mildred had no sooner finished her letter than she ran upstairs to spend
half an hour with Lady Sarah in her bedroom.  The compact of friendship
which had been made a few days earlier had been kept all the more
faithfully on the girl's part because the old lady had been suffering
from the effect of shock and excitement, and had been confined to bed
for several days.  Mary the housemaid was deputed to act as maid in the
place of the unhappy Cecile, but half a dozen times a day Mildred would
go into the room to rearrange the pillows, and enliven the invalid with
her bright, sunshiny presence.  Lady Sarah always welcomed her with a
smile, and never allowed her to depart without the earnest "Come back
soon!" which sounded sweetly in the girl's ear.  She was growing really
fond of the old lady, and adopted little airs of authority in the
sick-room which amused and fascinated the onlookers.

On the present occasion she despatched Mary downstairs to tea, and
seated herself on the end of the bed, with her hair falling in showers
over her shoulders, and her hands clasped round her knees.  A fortnight
ago Lady Sarah would have exclaimed at the inelegance of the position,
but to-day her gaze rested upon the girlish figure as if the sight were
pleasant in her eyes.  She herself looked thin and shaken, but the
kindly expression transformed her face, and the soft, white hair was
much more becoming than the elaborate wig which she was in the habit of
wearing.  Mildred felt very strongly on this point, and did not hesitate
to put her thoughts into words.

"If you are going to be _my_ old lady I shall insist upon burning that
ugly, brown wig!" she said this afternoon.  "I love old ladies with
white hair, and yours is prettier than any imitation.  When you get up I
am going to arrange it for you over a cushion in front, and with a
pretty piece of lace falling over the back.  I don't think the brown
hair suits you a bit, and it looks so frizzled up and artificial.  You
don't mind my saying so--do you?" she concluded in an artless manner
which made Lady Sarah smile in spite of herself.

"No, my dear, no!  Whatever please you.  It is a long time since anyone
took an interest in my appearance.  But it will be awkward.  People will
make remarks--"

"What will that matter, when they will only say that you look twice as
nice?  Of course everyone knew quite well that it was a wig," said
Mildred, with an unconscious cruelty at which Lady Sarah winced.  When
the latter spoke again, however, it was to make a request which showed
that she cherished no resentment.

"I have been wondering, Mildred, if you would spend the remainder of
your holidays with me in Scotland.  The Faucits leave for Switzerland
next week, Miss Chilton will be busy preparing for the wedding of which
you have just told me, and your mother's house will be closed for three
weeks to come.  I have taken rooms in an hotel at Pitlochry, and I
should like very much to have you with me.  It is a lovely spot, and
there will be other young people in the house.  You would not be
dependent upon me for society.  Do you think you could make up your mind
to come?"

"I should have to ask Mother first, but if she said yes, I could--quite
easily," returned Mildred.  She clasped her fingers more tightly
together and sat pondering over this latest extraordinary development of
affairs--that Lady Sarah should invite her, of all people in the world,
to pay her a visit, and that she should be willing to accept such an
invitation.  If anyone had prophesied as much a fortnight before, how
she would have scoffed and jeered, and what sheets of explanation it
would take to convince the dear little mother that Lady Sarah was not
the ogress which she had been represented, and that she might be trusted
to treat her guest with kindness!

"What are you thinking of, Mildred?" asked Lady Sarah, watching the
changes in the girl's expression with curious eyes, and Mildred answered
with her usual frankness.

"I was thinking how strange it was that we should be such good friends,
when we used to dislike each other so much!  You were cross to me,--I
was rude to you, and we were always disagreeing!  I think I annoyed you
the very first night I arrived.  You seemed vexed because I was late."

"I never disliked you, child.  If I seemed to do so, it was because I
have grown into the unfortunate habit of fault-finding.  On the contrary
there is something about you which has always attracted me.  I don't
know what it is--something in your voice, your laugh, your movements,
which brings back memories of my youth.  What a long, long way off it
seems!--like another life,--and of all that large family of boys and
girls there is not one left alive but myself!  I am a lonely old woman,
Mildred!"

"But there is no need that you should be!  There are so many people in
the world who need a friend, and you are rich--you can do kind things
every day in the year!  I have often thought how nice it would be to be
a dear old lady with curls, and a beautiful big house, and lots of
money.  It is one of my castles in the air.  I would be a sort of fairy
godmother to poor people; help struggling young geniuses, pretty girls
who had to work for their living, and old women in dingy lodgings.  If I
had no people of my own, I would go outside to find them, for I couldn't
live alone, with no one to love me, and nothing to think of but myself!
I couldn't do it!"

Mildred looked at Lady Sarah with wistful eyes, as if demanding sympathy
for the very thought.  She did not know that older people than herself
had long been struggling for courage to impress these views of life upon
her companion, and was guiltless of pointing a moral.  Lady Sarah
listened, however, and pondered on her words without being in the least
offended.  She was never offended at anything that Mildred said or did
in these latter days; she seemed to have opened her heart to the girl
with an unreserved affection which made Mrs Faucit very hopeful of the
future.

She said as much in the letter to Mrs Moore which accompanied Lady
Sarah's invitation.

  I hope very much that you will allow Mildred to accept Lady Sarah's
  invitation, _she wrote_, for I believe the friendship which has grown
  up between them will be of mutual benefit.  Lady Sarah has an
  unfortunate manner, but I have always believed in her warmth of heart,
  and she has fallen deeply in love with your dear, bright girl.  They
  were not at all good friends at first, as you will doubtless have
  heard, but circumstances have drawn them together, and I can see that
  each is already beginning to exercise a beneficial influence over the
  character of the other.  Mildred's sunshiny influence is smoothing the
  wrinkles from the poor old lady's face, and the knowledge that one so
  old and frail relies upon her for comfort, will, I am sure, overcome
  the temptation to hastiness which she is ever bemoaning.  I don't
  wonder at Lady Sarah's infatuation, for we are all in love with the
  dear child.  She has been the life of our quiet house.  I hope we may
  see much of her in the future.

Mrs Moore received this letter, and the invitation which accompanied
it, one hot afternoon as she sat in the fever room with her patient.
Robbie was an invalid no longer, except in name--he was up and clothed
and in his right mind; able to amuse himself by painting frescoes on the
wall, and to scrub his obstinate little heels with pumice stone, after
the morning and evening baths.  Mrs Moore read her letters through
once, twice, and yet again; then she laid them down upon the table, took
her handkerchief from her pocket, and very quietly and deliberately
began to cry.

She was a merry little mother as a rule, in spite of her anxieties, and
had played the mountebank for Robbie's benefit with such success during
the last few weeks, that he was aghast at the sudden change of mood.

He gave a roar like a wounded bull, and rushing forward, burrowed his
head on her knee.

"Don't ky! don't ky!" he cried, "I'll never do it again! never do it
again!" for conscience pricked concerning a dozen mischievous freaks,
and he was convinced that it was his own wickedness which had brought
about this outburst of distress.

His mother seized him by the arm and stared into his face with eager
eyes.  She was the prettiest little mother in the world, and Mildred did
well to be proud of her.

"Robbie!" she cried excitedly, "am I a good mother?  Have I been kind to
you?  Do you love me with all your heart?"

Robbie pranced about in an agony of emotion.

"Boo--hoo--hoo!  Yes, I does!  Boo--hoo--"

"And supposing a rich old lady came one day--very, very rich, Robbie--
with houses, and gardens, and carriages, and horses, and ponies--
beautiful little, long-tailed ponies, and she said, `Come and live with
me, Robbie, and be my own little boy?'  What would you say?  Would you
go away and leave poor Mother all alone?"

"No--ow--ow!  Don't wants no old ladies!  Kick a nasty old pony over the
wall!"

The more his mother wept, the louder Robbie roared.  They clung together
sobbing and crying until the sound penetrated to the lower regions, and
the maid-of-all-work crept up the uncarpeted stair and listened, agape
with horror.

Then suddenly Mrs Moore shook Robbie off, bounded out of the room, and
called to the servant to run down the road to summon Mrs Ross to come
at once--at once, and to bring pencil and paper, so that she might write
down the words of a letter to be dictated from an upper window.

It was easy to see from whom Mildred had inherited her impetuosity.
Poor Mrs Ross was bewildered by the torrent of words which were hurled
at her head the moment she arrived.  She was obliged to write four
separate letters before Mrs Moore was satisfied that she had said the
right thing in the right way.

The letter seemed fated to cause excitement from beginning to end.  When
it arrived at The Deanery, Lady Sarah put up her eye-glasses to read it,
only to drop them a moment later with a cry of astonishment.  She
gasped, and panted, and gasped, and panted again, while the other
occupants of the room stared aghast, not knowing what to make of such
behaviour.

"M-M-Mildred!" she cried, and when the girl advanced to her side, she
clasped her in a passionate embrace.  "Mildred, Mildred, do you know who
you are?  My own little niece--my grand-niece,--Mary's child!  I knew
there was something familiar about you--I felt it!  I have said so over
and over again, and now Mary writes,--poor Mary!  You always spoke of me
as `Lady Sarah', and she never dreamt that it was I.  She has been
living in the depths of the country and has never heard of my husband's
honours.  She was unmarried when I saw her last--"

"Oh!  Oh!  Oh!" cried Mildred shrilly, clasping her hands together in
excitement, "It was you!  You were the rich aunt!  Oh, how dreadfully
romantic!  Then you are my aunt, too.  `Aunt Sarah!'  Goodness me, who
would ever have dreamt of such a thing!  And Mother says,--what does
Mother say?"

"She seems afraid, poor thing, that I shall try to take you from her, as
I wished to separate her from her parents long ago; but be satisfied,
Mildred, I have learned a lesson since those days.  I shall not try to
take you from your mother!"

"I am glad of that, because it would be such a waste of time," said
Mildred promptly.  "Besides, you must come and see Mother yourself, and
get to know the whole family.  You can never call yourself lonely again,
Lady Sarah, for you will have a niece, and five grand-nieces, and a
grand-nephew.  The grand-nephew is more important than all the rest put
together.  Oh-h!" she gazed round the room with big, bewildered eyes, "I
can't believe it.  My aunt!  Your niece!  If someone doesn't pinch me
this moment, I shall believe I am asleep and dreaming.  Mrs Faucit,--
Bertha,--Lois,--do you believe it?  Do I look at all altered?  Lady
Sarah's niece!  I--I suppose it doesn't make any difference in my name,
does it?  If I have come into a title, break it to me gently, please!  I
can't bear much more excitement!"

"Oh, Mildred!" cried the twins in chorus.  Mrs Faucit laughed merrily,
and Lady Sarah looked round with an air of triumph.

"Ah, my dear, you may take after your father in appearance, but you are
your grandmother over again in disposition!  My sister Edyth--the
brightest, merriest girl!  She was my friend and companion; no one knew
what I suffered when she went away and left us.  Your mother is like
her, Mildred--small and dark.  It was the resemblance which drew me to
her, but she refused to leave home, and I went off to China and we lost
sight of each other.  I was too proud to inquire what had become of her
when I came home, but I have often thought of her.  Blood is thicker
than water, and I have longed for some of my own kith and kin to be near
me in my old age.  She is poor, you say, Mildred?  Well, well!"  Lady
Sarah nodded her head in a mysterious fashion, which seemed to argue a
hundred delightful possibilities.

So it came to pass that Mildred went to Scotland with Lady Sarah, and
when Robbie was out of quarantine, returned home in company with the old
lady, who was almost as much excited at the meeting with Mrs Moore as
the girl was herself.  Aunt and niece had many consultations together,
the result of which was that Mrs Moore and her children bade farewell
to their cottage home, and went to live in a pretty house situated just
outside the gates of Lady Sarah's country seat.  Here they were near
enough to be a comfort and cheer to the old lady during her last days,
and not too near to become a burden, or to allow the children to disturb
her rest.

Lady Sarah took a great interest in her grand-nephew, and in every one
of the five grand-nieces, and treated them all with equal generosity,
but Mildred was her darling and chosen companion.

The girl spent the greater part of every day up at the big house, and
though many people shook their heads, and argued ill of such a
friendship, it endured unbroken to the end.  By this it is not meant to
imply that their lives flow on evenly, without discord or
misunderstanding.  Quite the contrary.  Neither aunt nor niece changed
their disposition in a moment; Lady Sarah's fretfulness often proved
very trying to Mildred's temper, just as the old lady in her turn was
overpowered by the girl's impetuous ways.  Old age and youth cannot live
together without such trials as these, but they had one grand point in
common which never failed to bring them together--they loved each other,
and love is the sweetest of peacemakers.  Lady Sarah would remember her
own youth, and check the hasty words on her lip.  Mildred, fretting and
fuming, would suddenly bethink herself how sad it must be to be always
tired and ailing, and struggle hard for patience.  A glance on one side,
a word on the other, and the disagreement would be over, while each
peacemaking taught a new lesson, and left more strength for the future.

Mrs Moore and her children had much cause to bless the day when Lady
Sarah became their friend, but when at last death took her away from
their side, none of the good things which she inherited could console
Mildred for the loss of the dear, cross, old lady whom she had grown to
love so truly.

The End.





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