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Title: Girls of the True Blue
Author: Meade, L. T., 1854-1914
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: “He is not horrid at all,” said Nan, very cross.]



GIRLS OF THE TRUE BLUE

BY

L. T. MEADE

Author of

“Miss Nonentity,” “The Odds and the Evens,” “Light o’ the Morning,”
“The Girls of St. Wode’s,” etc.

WITH TEN ILLUSTRATIONS

BY

PERCY TARRANT

W. & R. CHAMBERS, Limited



LONDON AND EDINBURGH

1901

Edinburgh:

Printed by W. & R. Chambers, Limited



CONTENTS.

    I. “I PROMISE”
    II. “I WON’T EVER GO TO YOU”
    III. THE FROCK WITH CRAPE
    IV. THE BEST GIRL
    V. THE MYSTERY-GIRL
    VI. THE BULL-PUP
    VII. THE FALL
    VIII. PIP
    IX. UNDER HER THUMB
    X. A MYSTERY
    XI. THE MIDDLE WAY
    XII. “I SHALL STAY FOR A YEAR”
    XIII. UNCLE PETER
    XIV. “IT WAS NOT WORTH WHILE”
    XV. SOLDIERS OF THE TRUE BLUE
    XVI. TIGHTENING HER CHAIN
    XVII. AUGUSTA’S RESOLVE
    XVIII. AUGUSTA’S SIGNATURE
    XIX. THE ASPRAYS
    XX. THE ORDERLY-BOOK
    XXI. THE PICNIC
    XXII. THE BROKEN LOCK
    XXIII. “PRIZE-DAY COMES IN A MONTH”
    XXIV. THE GIPSY TEA
    XXV. THE PACKET OF LETTERS
    XXVI. SUNBEAM
    XXVII. “WAS THAT THE REASON?”
    XXVIII. “IS WRONG RIGHT?”
    XXIX. DOWN BY THE WISTARIA
    XXX. AUGUSTA IS FRIGHTENED
    XXXI. UNCLE PETER’S CONSIDERING CAP
    XXXII. THE BEGINNING OF THE SHADOW
    XXXIII. THE CROSS
    XXXIV. THE LETTER
    XXXV. THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS IS HARD



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.

    “He is not horrid at all,” said Nan, very cross.

    Nan was perfectly satisfied to sit near the fire holding the
    kittens.

    “Cross!” he said to himself; “why, it is one of the dearest
    little faces in the world.”

    “Here is some paper,” said Nancy, “and here is a pencil. Write
    the words down, Augusta, and let me keep the paper.”

    Augusta nearly fell back as she read the words.

    “What are you doing by that drawer, Gussie!”

    “I have brought a bird for her—my own bird. May I go in and see
    her at once?” said Nancy.

    Augusta in terror was hiding behind a bush of laurustinus.

    “As to your shilling, miss, you can keep it, for I don’t want
    none of it.”

    “Let me fasten it round your neck, Nan, then I shall feel
    better.”



GIRLS OF THE TRUE BLUE.



CHAPTER I.

“I PROMISE.”


“And how is she to-day, Nan?” said the kindly voice of Mrs. Richmond.

The time was early spring. The lady in question had come into a dark
and somewhat dismal room; she herself was richly wrapped in furs and
velvet; her large, smooth face was all beams and smiles. A dark little
girl with thin cheeks, about eleven years of age, clasping a battered
doll in her arms, looked full up at her.

“She is no better,” said Nan; “and I think perhaps it would be a good
plan for you to go.”

“What a little monkey you are!” said Mrs. Richmond. “But I do not mind
you, my dear Anna; I have known you too long. Come here, dear, and let
me look at you.”

Nan laid her doll on the table and approached slowly. Her dress was
untidy, her hair unkempt. There were traces of tears round her eyes,
but none showed at that moment; the sad eyes looked bold and full and
defiant into the kindly face of the lady.

“You are not too tidy, my dear little girl; that pinafore would be the
better for the wash-tub. And must you play with that horrid old doll?”

“I would not give up dear Sophia Maria for anybody on earth,” said Nan
in a determined voice; and now she went back and clasped her ragged
and disreputable-looking baby to her breast.

“But you might have a new one.”

“I would not like a new one, thank you.”

“And you are rather old to play with dolls. Now, my Kitty and my
Honora have long ceased to make babies of themselves; you must when
you come.”

“I must when I come!” repeated Nan; and now, her eyes grew very big
and bright and angry. “Oh! please,” she added, “will you excuse me? I
want to go up to mother.”

“Certainly, dear. Tell her I am here, and would be glad to have a talk
with her.”

Nan vouchsafed no reply to this, and left the room. Mrs. Richmond sat
on in thought; she folded her hands in her lap.

“I will do my duty,” she said to herself; “it is my duty. Poor, dear
Amy was always improvident, and careless of her health. She married
without means; her husband died within a year; there is this child now
eleven years of age and with no provision. Ah!”

There came a tap at the door, and the wizened and somewhat cross face
of a middle-aged woman appeared.

“How do you do, Mrs. Vincent?” said Mrs. Richmond. She always spoke
cordially to every one; her face beamed kindness itself on all the
world.

Mrs. Vincent came in slowly.

“I am glad you have called, ma’am; the poor thing upstairs is very
bad—very bad indeed—not likely to live many hours, the doctor says.”

“Oh! my good soul, I had not an idea that it was so near as that.”

“I am telling you the truth, madam; and the fact is, her poverty is
excessive, and”——

“Now listen to me, Mrs. Vincent. Everything she needs as far as you are
concerned will be paid for; see that she has every imaginable comfort.
And leave the room.”

Mrs. Richmond’s kindly eyes could flash when occasion arose, and Mrs.
Vincent, curtsying and mumbling, but highly delighted all the same,
went downstairs.

There was no sign of Nan coming back, and Mrs. Richmond, after waiting
for a quarter of an hour, determined to go upstairs to her sick
friend’s room. The door was a little ajar; she pushed it open and went
in. Nan was lying across the bed, her face close to the very white
face of a woman whose features were wonderfully like her own. The
woman’s eyes were open, and her lips were moving. Mrs. Richmond came
and, without saying a word, lifted the child off the bed. Nan turned
in a wild fury; she felt very much inclined to strike the intruder,
but the look on her visitor’s face restrained her.

“You can stay, dear, if you like,” said Mrs. Richmond; and then she
went round to the other side of the bed.

“Have you anything to tell me, Amy, before you go?” she asked.

There came a low—very low—murmur, and a glance of the dying woman’s
eyes in the direction of the child.

“Only—only”——she began.

“I will see to everything, dear; I have promised.”

“And if—if at the end of a year—— You remember—you remember that
part, don’t you, Caroline?”

“I remember it. It will not be necessary.”

“But if it is—if it should be—you will send her”——

“I faithfully promise.”

“You are so good!” said the dying woman.

“God bless you! You have made things easy for me.”

“Come here, Nan, and kiss your mother,” said Mrs. Richmond suddenly.

The child, overawed by the entire scene, advanced. She pressed her
lips to the lips growing colder moment by moment.

“And now leave the room,” said Mrs. Richmond. “Go—obey me.”

Nan went.



CHAPTER II.

“I WON’T EVER GO TO YOU.”


But she only went as far as the landing; there she crouched down in a
corner and waited. She did not know what she feared, nor exactly what
was going to happen; it seemed to her that there was a great darkness
everywhere, and that it pressed her round and shut away the light.

The outward circumstances of Nan Esterleigh’s life had never been too
bright, but all the same she had been a happy little girl; she had
been petted and fussed about and loved, and her battered doll, Sophia
Maria, had been the greatest imaginable comfort to her. She was quite
accustomed to scanty meals and poor rooms and cross landladies. She
was, alas! too, poor little girl, thoroughly accustomed to her
mother’s state of miserable health. Mother had been often as bad
before. Ever since Nan could remember, her mother had ached and
shivered and moaned with pain; she had spent restless nights, and had
stayed in bed to breakfast, and had struggled against the illness
which crept on her more and more day by day. Nan in her heart of
hearts supposed that very few people were well; she thought children
enjoyed good health as a rule, and that grown people had illness. It
was the law of life, she supposed. Now and then she confided her
thoughts to Sophia Maria.

“My darling,” she used to say, “you must be as happy as you can while
you are young, because there is no chance at all when you are
grown-up. You will have pains then, Maria, and aches, and you will
grow old, and you won’t have any strength. I’ll be the same; there’ll
be two of us to keep each other company—that is one comfort.”

Now she crouched in the corner, feeling a little more depressed and a
little more anxious than usual, but not really alarmed or stricken or
subdued. She wondered, however, what her mother meant by the curious
words she had spoken, with long pauses between, to Mrs. Richmond. They
certainly pointed to a future for Nan herself; she was to go
somewhere, and if all was not well she was at the end of a year to go
somewhere else.

“But I am not going to leave my own mother,” thought the little girl.
“Oh dear! oh dear! I know now why I am lonely; I want my poor darling
Sophia.”

She ran downstairs, clasped her doll to her heart, and crouching over
the fire, presently fell asleep.

It was during Nan Esterleigh’s sleep that her mother died. Mrs.
Esterleigh died without a pang or a struggle—she just ceased to
breathe; and Mrs. Richmond, with tears in her eyes, came downstairs.

Nan had stretched herself full length on the hearth-rug. The doll was
clasped to her breast; her sallow little face looked more sallow than
usual, and Mrs. Richmond noticed how black and long were the lashes
that rested against her cheeks.

“Poor little girl, she is my care now,” thought the good woman. “I
know what I should like to do; I should like to pick her up, and wrap
a shawl round her, and take her right away in the cab with me. Nora
will be nice to her, and Kitty will show her her favourite kittens. I
have a great mind to try.”

But just then the big black eyes were opened wide, and Nan sat up and
stared at Mrs. Richmond.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “Is mother no better? Has nobody
thought of giving her her tea?”

“Come here, Nancy,” said Mrs. Richmond. “I have something I want to say
to you.”

“But I don’t want to listen,” answered Nan; and she clutched her doll
tightly in her embrace, staggered to her feet, and stood, with
defiance in her eyes, a few feet away from Mrs. Richmond.

“Dear, dear! she is an extraordinary child,” thought the good lady.
“She will be very difficult to manage. I should not be a scrap
surprised if she felt this very much; some children do, and I should
not be astonished if she was the sort, she is so stubborn and
self-contained—not a pleasant child by any means. But Amy’s little
girl shall always have a warm corner in my heart—always, always.”

“Come here, Nan,” she said again.

“If you want to say anything to me, please, Mrs. Richmond, be quick,”
said Nan, who was now wide awake and felt absolutely composed; “I must
go up to mother. This is the hour for her tea; I always make it myself
for her. I know just how much she wants put into the little brown
teapot, and the right quantity of milk and sugar; and, oh! I am going
to toast her bread for her, for Mrs. Vincent does send it up so hard
and untempting. Perhaps you will come another day, Mrs. Richmond, and
talk to me then.”

“I must talk to you now, Nancy, my poor little girl; I have something
to say.”

Curious emotions stirred in the child’s breast. She stood quite still
for a moment; then she said slowly:

“You had better not say it.”

“I must; it is about your mother.”

“What! is mother worse?”

“She is better, Nancy.” Mrs. Richmond’s eyes brimmed over with tears.

“Then how silly of you to cry!” said the child, her face brightening
up, and smiles dawning round her lips. “If she was worse you might
cry—not that you ought ever to cry, for she is no relation of yours;
but if she is better, Sophia Maria and I will sing.”

“Nancy dear, I cannot break it to you. I must tell it to you at once,
and God help you to bear it. Your mother is better in one sense—in
the sense that God has taken her away from all her pains. She won’t
ever be tired or ill or sorry any more, and she will never again have
aches or wakeful nights or sad days; she has gone to God. There is a
beautiful heaven, you know, Nan, and—— Oh, good gracious! what ails
the child?”

Nan had given one smothered scream and had rushed from the room.
Fast—very fast—did the little feet run upstairs. Mrs. Esterleigh’s
room was on the third floor. Past the drawing-room landing she ran,
where a good-natured-looking old gentleman resided. He was coming out
of his comfortable drawing-room, and he saw the scared little face. He
knew, of course, what had happened, and he wondered if the child knew.
He called to her:

“Nancy, come in and sit by my fire for a little.”

But she did not heed him. She ran past the second floor; no one called
her here or detained her. There was a very cross old maid who lived on
that floor, and Nancy had always hated her. She ran on and on.
Presently she reached her mother’s room.

“It is not true,” she gasped. “It is that dreadful Mrs. Richmond trying
to frighten me. It is not a bit true—not a bit.” And then she took
the handle and tried to turn it and to open the door, but the door was
locked.

“Mother, mother!” she shrieked. “Mother, it is me—it is Nan. Don’t
let them keep me out. Get some one to open the door. Mother, mother!”

Footsteps sounded in the room, and an elderly woman, whom Nancy had
never seen before, opened the door, came quickly out, and stood with
her back to it.

“You must go away, my dear little girl,” she said. “I will bring you
to see your mother presently. Go away now, dear; you cannot come in.”

“But I will. You shall not keep me out. You are hurting mother. You
have no right to be in the room with her;” and Nancy pommelled at the
woman’s hands and arms. But she was strong and masterful, and
presently she picked up the exhausted child and carried her right
downstairs.

“Oh! give her to me,” said Mrs. Richmond. “Poor little child! Nancy
dear, I am so sorry for you! And I promise, darling, to be a mother to
you.”

“Don’t!” said Nan. “I don’t want you as a mother—no, I don’t want
you.”

“Never mind, I will be a friend to you—an aunt—anything you like. I
have promised your own dear mother; and she is quite well, and it
would be selfish to wish her back.”

“But I want to be selfish; I want to have her back,” said Nan. “I
don’t believe that God has come and taken her. He would not take
mother and leave me; it is not likely, is it?”

“God sometimes does so, and He has His wise reasons.”

“I don’t believe it. You only want me not to go to her, and you are
telling me lies.”

“It is the truth, Nancy; and I wish for your sake it were not. Will
you come back with me to-night, dear?”

“I won’t. I won’t ever go to you. I will always stay just outside
mother’s door until they let me in. I do not believe she is dead—no,
not for a moment.”

In vain Mrs. Richmond argued and pleaded and coaxed; Nan was firm.
Presently the good lady had to consult with Mrs. Vincent, who promised
to look after the child. The landlady was now all tears and
good-nature, and she assured Mrs. Richmond that Nan should have all her
wants attended to.

“I have got a very nice, good-natured servant-girl,” she said. “Her
name is Phoebe. I will send her upstairs, and she shall sit in the
room with Miss Nan, and if necessary stay with her to-night.”

“Very well,” said Mrs. Richmond. “It is the best that I can do; but, oh
dear! how anxious I feel about the unhappy child!”



CHAPTER III.

THE FROCK WITH CRAPE.


All the lodgers in the house, the landlady, and the servants were
extremely kind to Nan that night; but Nan would have none of them.
Presently Phoebe was sent to sit in the parlour with her. The lamp,
which usually smoked, burned brightly, and there was quite a good fire
in the grate—of late it had been a miserable one—and the curtains
were drawn, and a clean cloth had been put on the table, and Nan was
treated as if she were a princess. Phoebe, too, dressed in her Sunday
best, came and sat with her. Phoebe was sixteen years of age; she had
left her country home about two months ago, and felt now wonderfully
important. She took a sorrowful, keen, and at the same time
pleasurable interest in Nan. She put the bowl of bread and milk, which
Mrs. Vincent considered the best solace for grief, inside the fender to
keep warm, and then she sat on a hard-bottomed chair, very erect, with
her hands folded in her lap. For a long time her eyes sought the
ground, but then curiosity got the better of her. She began to watch
Nan. Nan sat with her back to her. Sophia Maria was lying on the table
near. As a rule this battered and disreputable doll was clutched tight
in her little mistress’s embrace, but even the doll could not comfort
Nan now. Phoebe gave a groan.

“What are you doing that for?” said the child. She raised her eyes;
there came a frown between her brows; she looked full at Phoebe.

“I am so sorrowful about you, missy!” replied Phoebe.

There was something in Phoebe’s hearty tone that interested Nan. She
hated Mrs. Richmond and Mrs. Vincent when they expressed their grief;
even the dear old gentleman, Mr. Pryor, on the first floor was
intolerable to her to-night. As to Miss Edgar, the old maid who lived
on the second floor, Nan would have fled any distance from her; but
there was something about Phoebe’s country tone, and her round face,
and the tears which filled her blue eyes which touched Nan in spite of
herself.

“I wish you would eat your supper, miss,” was Phoebe’s next remark.

Nan shook her head. After a time she spoke.

“If your mother had just gone to heaven, would you eat a big bowl of
bread and milk?”

“Oh, lor’, miss! I don’t know.”

“Has your mother gone to heaven?” was Nan’s next question.

“Indeed and she has not, miss; I would break my heart if she had.”

“Oh!” said Nan.

For the first time tears rose to her eyes. She looked again at Phoebe,
then she glanced at the fire, then at the doll.

“Sophia Maria does not comfort me any longer,” she said. “Would it
kill you, Phoebe, if your mother went to heaven?”

“I ’spect so, miss. Oh dear, missy! I ’spect so.”

“Then,” said Nan—and the next instant she had tumbled from her seat,
had tottered forward, and was clasped in Phoebe’s arms—“let me cry.
Don’t say anything to comfort me; I want to cry such a big, big lot.
Let me cry, and clasp me tight—very tight—Phoebe.”

So Phoebe did clasp the motherless little girl, and the two mingled
their tears. After that affairs moved better. Phoebe herself fed Nan,
and then they cuddled up on the sofa, which Phoebe drew in front of
the fire. Phoebe found her occupation intensely interesting. She was
very, very sorry for Nan, and very comfortable in the thought that her
own mother was alive. Nan began to ask her questions, and Phoebe
answered.

“Did you ever know a little girl whose mother died ’cept me—did you,
Phoebe?”

“Oh yes, miss; there was a girl in our village. It was a more mournful
case than yours, miss, for there were two little brothers—they were
young as young could be, nothing more than babies—and she was left to
mind them, so to speak.”

“That must have been very nice for her. I wish I had two little
brothers to mind. And did she mind them, Phoebe? Was she good to
them?”

“No, miss; that she warn’t. She were for a bit, but afterwards she
took to neglecting of them, and they were sent to an orphan school,
and the girl went to service.”

“Oh! she was not a lady,” said Nan in a tone of slight contempt.

“We ’as our feelings even if we ain’t ladies,” was Phoebe’s somewhat
sharp retort.

“Dear, dear Phoebe, I know you have; but tell me more about her. What
happened just immediately afterwards, before she began to be cross to
the little brothers?”

“Well, miss, there was the funeral and the funeral feast.”

“A feast!” interrupted Nan.

“In the country, miss, and amongst us we always take the occasion to
have a big and hearty meal; but that ain’t interesting to you.”

“I could not eat—not now that mother is dead.”

“Well, miss, that was in the country; it is different there—grief
makes us hungry. And she had her mourning to get.”

“Her mourning! What is that?”

“Black, miss—black from head to foot—and crape. She went into debt
for the crape.”

“Did she? What is crape?”

“Something they put on black dresses to make people know that you are
mourning for a near relative; and according to the amount of crape you
puts on, so is the relation between you and the deceased,” said Phoebe
in a very oracular voice.

Nan became intensely interested.

“Then I ought to get a black dress at once,” she said.

“As you will, miss. Mrs. Richmond will see to that.”

“I don’t want Mrs. Richmond to. I would rather get it myself. I have a
little money. Don’t you think I could get my own dress?”

“Of course, miss, if you have the money.”

“Are you anything of a dressmaker, Phoebe?”

“Well, miss, I made the dress I am now wearing.”

“And it is awfully nice,” said Nan. “And Sophia Maria ought to wear
black too.”

“To be sure, miss.”

“I wish I could get it to-night. But you might go out early in the
morning and get the stuff, and we could begin to make it.”

“So we could,” said Phoebe, who wondered much if her mistress would
allow her to devote all her time to Nan.

“I know a little bit about dressmaking myself; we could easily make
the dress,” continued Nan. “And we need not let any one into the room;
I could keep the door locked, and we could both make the dress that I
am to wear for my own mother. Phoebe, would it make her happier to
know I was putting stitches into a black, black dress with crape on it
to wear because of her, because she has gone to God?”

“It would make a wonderful difference,” said Phoebe.

“Would it indeed? Then I will have it very black, and a lot of crape.
If I have a lot of crape, would she be glad?”

“If anything could make her more glad than she is now, that would,”
said Phoebe; “I know it for a fact.”

“And Sophia Maria would wear crape and a black dress too?”

“Yes, miss.”

After that the two girls talked on until they grew sleepy, and finally
Phoebe wrapped her little mistress in a warm blanket, and lay down
herself on the rug; and so the first night passed away.

Nan possessed exactly two pounds, which she had saved, sixpence by
sixpence. She broke into her little savings-bank now and gave the
money to Phoebe, who went out at an early hour and purchased coarse
cashmere and the poorest crape she could get, and brought the
materials to Nan.

They kept the parlour door locked, and sewed and sewed. Nan was
interested, and although her tears often dropped upon the black stuff,
yet, when Phoebe assured her that her mother was growing happier each
moment at the thought of the very deep mourning her little daughter
was to wear, she cheered up.

“You are quite, quite certain you are telling me the truth, Phoebe?”
said Nan at last.

“Certain sure, miss. Didn’t I live through it all when poor Susan
Fagan lost her mother? This is a dress for all the world the same as
Susan appeared in at the funeral.”

After two or three days’ hard work the dress was finished. It was
certainly not stylish to look at. Then there came an awful time when
carriages drove up to the house, and all that was left of poor Mrs.
Esterleigh was borne away to her long home. Nan could never afterwards
quite recall that dreadful day. Mrs. Richmond arrived early. She had
borne with Nan’s wish to stay locked into the parlour with what
patience she could; but on the day of the funeral she insisted on the
door being opened, and when Nan appeared before her in her lugubrious
dress, badly made, with no fit whatever, the good woman gave a shocked
exclamation.

“My dear child,” she said, “I have got a suitable dress for you. I
found a frock of yours upstairs and had it measured. Take off that
awful thing.”

“This awful thing!” said Nan. “I bought it with my own money. I won’t
wear anything—anything else. And Sophia Maria is in mourning too,”
she added; and she pointed to her doll, which was attired in crape
from head to foot.

“Let her wear it,” said a voice behind her; and raising her eyes, Nan
saw the kindly face of Mr. Pryor looking at her.

He had always been a strange sort of character, and it seemed now that
in one glance he understood the child; he held out his hand and drew
her towards him.

“You bought this out of your own money?” he asked,

“Yes,” answered Nan.

Tears trembled on her eyelashes; she raised her eyes and looked full
at Mr. Pryor.

“And there is a lot of crape,” she said. “Everybody must know that she
was a very near relation.”

“And you made it yourself?”

“Phoebe and I made it ourselves; and Maria is in black too.” She
touched the doll with her finger.

“Then you shall go to the funeral in that dress,” said Mr. Pryor. “I
take it upon me to say that your mother would wish it, and that is
enough.”

So Nan attended her mother’s funeral in the dress she had made
herself, and stood close to the grave, and tried vaguely to realise
what was taking place. But what chiefly impressed her was the depth of
the shabby crape on her little skirt, and the fact that she had bought
her mourning out of her very own savings, and that the doll, Sophia
Maria, from whom she would not be parted for a single moment, was also
in mourning.



CHAPTER IV.

THE BEST GIRL.


Immediately after the funeral Mrs. Richmond took Nan’s hand.

“Now, dear,” she said, “you come home with me.”

Nan turned first red and then very white. She was just about to reply
when Mr. Pryor came forward.

“Madam,” he said, “may I make a request? I want to ask a very great
favour.”

“If possible I will grant it,” replied Mrs. Richmond.

“I have known Mrs. Esterleigh, this dear little girl’s mother, for two
or three years; and on the whole, although I am not specially fond of
children, I think I also know Nan well. Now, I want to know if you
will grant me the great favour of allowing me to take Nan home to my
rooms until this evening. I will promise to bring her to you this
evening.”

“Oh yes, I will go with you and with Phoebe,” said Nan. She clasped
hold of Mr. Pryor’s hand and held it to her heart, and she looked round
for Phoebe, who in her shabby frock was standing on the outskirts of
the group.

Phoebe was nodding to Nan and making mysterious signs to her. Mrs.
Richmond looked full at Mr. Pryor.

“I do not wish to make Nan more unhappy than I can help to-day,” she
said; “so if you will bring her to my house by six o’clock this
evening I will be satisfied.”

She turned away and entered her own carriage, and Mr. Pryor looked at
Nan.

“It is only two o’clock,” he said; “we have four hours. A great deal
can be done in four hours. What do you say to our spending the day out
here in the country?”

“Oh,” said Nan, “in the country! Is this the country?”

“This is Highgate. I have a carriage, and I will get the man to drive
us quite out into the country parts—perhaps to Barnet. The day
happens to be a lovely one. I have a kind of desire to go into the
Hadleigh Woods with you; what do you say?”

Nan gave a vague nod, and looked round for Phoebe.

“You would like your little friend Phoebe to come too?”

Nan’s whole face lit up.

“Oh, very, very much!” she said.

“Well, she is standing there; go and ask her.”

So Nan rushed up to Phoebe.

“Phoebe,” she said, “shall we go into the country with Mr. Pryor? I
need not be back till six o’clock.”

“I don’t know if my mistress would wish it,” said Phoebe.

“I will take upon myself to say that Mrs. Vincent will not be angry
with you,” said Mr. Pryor, coming up at this moment. “Now, children,
get into my carriage; I will give the driver directions.”

So they left the cemetery and drove away and away into the heart of
the country. It took them some little time to reach it, but at last
they got where the trees grew in numbers and houses were few and far
between; and although it was winter the day was a lovely one, and
there was a warm sunshine, and it seemed to Nan that she had come out
of the most awful gloom and misery into a peace and a joy which she
could scarcely understand.

Mr. Pryor dismissed the carriage when it set them down at a pretty
little inn, and he took Nan by the hand and led her into the parlour,
and asked the landlord for a private room; and there he and Nan and
Phoebe had dinner together.

It was a simple dinner—the very simplest possible—and Sophia Maria
sat on Nan’s lap while she ate, and Mr. Pryor talked very little, and
when he did it was in a grave voice.

Phoebe looked somewhat awed; and as to Nan, the sense of grief and
bewilderment grew greater each moment.

“Now, Phoebe,” said Mr. Pryor when the meal was over, “I want our
little party to divide. There are four of us, for of course I consider
Sophia Maria quite one of the family.”

“Oh, she is quite, the darling!” said Nan.

“Will you take charge of her for a little, Phoebe,” said Mr. Pryor,
“while Nan and I go for a walk?”

“Oh, must we?” said Nan, looking full at him.

He smiled very gravely at her.

“We will not be long,” he said. “There are a few things your mother
has asked me to say to you. I would rather say them to you alone,
without even Sophia Maria listening.”

Then Nan’s little white face lit up.

“Phoebe,” she said, “Mr. Pryor and I have something most important to
say to each other. Be sure you take great care of Maria, and don’t let
her catch cold.”

Phoebe promised, and Mr. Pryor and Nan, hand in hand, walked in the
direction of the Hadleigh Woods.

They walked in absolute silence until they reached the woods, and then
their steps became slower, and Nan looked up into the face of her
companion and said:

“I wish you would tell me. What did mother say?”

“My dear Nan, your mother knew very well that the day was soon coming
when God would send for her. She did not like to talk to you about it,
although she often tried to; she was anxious about you, but not very
anxious.”

“I wonder mother was not very anxious when she thought of leaving me
so far, far behind,” said Nan.

“You see, she did not think that, for in reality those who go to God
are not separated very far from those they leave.”

“Then is mother near me?”

“You cannot see her, nor can you realise it, but I should not be
surprised if she were quite near you.”

“She knows all about my black dress and my crape?” said Nan. “Phoebe
said she would be so glad about the crape!”

“Well, Nan, the fact is that the crape could not make her glad, nor
the black dress; but the thought that you, her little girl, made it
and wore it for love of her would make her glad. It is not the colour
of the dress makes her happy; it is the love you put into it.”

“Oh! I don’t quite understand,” said Nan.

“You will when you think it over. You see, she is in white; she has a
crown and a harp. That is what we have learnt about those who leave
us—that if they have loved God they go into His presence, and their
dress is white and glistening, and they have harps to sing to and
crowns to wear; and we know the more we love the nearer we get to
them. So, Nan, the message your mother has left me is this: ‘Tell Nan
to be as good as girl can be—to be the best girl she knows. By being
the best she must be the most loving, she must be the most unselfish.
She must not wish to be the best to be thought well of by her
fellow-men, but she must be the best because God loves those who try
to follow Him.’ Do you follow me, Nan, when I say these words?”

“I follow you,” said Nan. “You want me to be good, but I do not think
I can; and as to being the best, that I can never be. You want me to
have a great deal of love, and I only love mother and Phoebe a little
bit. And to-night everything is to be changed; I won’t even have you.”

“I am going to ask Mrs. Richmond to send you to see me
sometimes—perhaps once a fortnight or so.”

“Will you?” said Nan. “I think if I could like anything I should like
that.”

“I will arrange it then; and perhaps although you do not exactly love
me now, you will regard me as your friend and love me presently. But
there is something else I want to say. Your mother wished all these
things for you, but she knew that you would have certain difficulties
in your life. I am sorry to have to tell it to you, my dear little
girl, but it is the fact: your mother left you without any money.”

“But mother could scarcely do that, because we had something to live
on,” said Nan. “Has mother taken our money away with her up to God?”

“No, dear. In the home where she is now money is not needed; but the
little money she had was only to be here during her lifetime. It was
what is called an annuity; that means, she could have the use of it
for her life, but only for her life. So, my dear little girl, you have
no money.”

“Then I expect,” said Nan, drawing herself up and fixing her eyes full
on Mr. Pryor’s face, “that I had best go to the workhouse. I can go to
the workhouse until I am old enough to take a place as servant; and I
would like, please, to go into the same house with Phoebe. Perhaps Mrs.
Vincent would have me as her little servant, and Phoebe could teach
me.”

“That is not necessary; you are not suited for that kind of life, and
God does not require it of you. Mrs. Richmond is very well off; she has
more money than she knows what to do with, and she always loved your
mother, so she is going to take you to bring you up with her two
little girls. You will be trained and educated, and have everything
that a little girl can require, and all Mrs. Richmond wants in return
is your love and your obedience.”

“But I don’t think I can love her. I wish—oh, I wish she would not do
it!” said Nan.

“Now, Nan, the first proof of your love for your mother has arrived,
for she wanted you to go to Mrs. Richmond. She would be dreadfully
pained—far, far more pained, if trouble could reach her in heaven, by
your not going there than even if you still wore a coloured frock.”

“Oh, how puzzling it is, and how difficult!” said Nan. “I shall quite
hate to go to Mrs. Richmond. I never liked her much, and now to think
that I owe everything to her!”

“I have something more to say. There is a man who owed your father
money long ago, and he has promised to adopt you in case you are not
happy with Mrs. Richmond; but you must spend quite a year with her
before you go to him. You would have a different life with him—freer,
wilder. Your mother preferred the idea of your being with Mrs.
Richmond, but if you are unhappy with her you are to go to the
Asprays; when last I heard of them they lived in Virginia, in the
States of America.”

Nan pressed her hand to her forehead.

“That does not seem much better,” she answered; “and I think my head
aches, but I am not sure. Shall we go back again now, Mr. Pryor?”



CHAPTER V.

THE MYSTERY-GIRL.


Kitty and Honora Richmond were in high spirits. Even the knowledge
that Nan’s mother had been buried that day could scarcely depress
them. They had heard of Nan a great deal for the last couple of years
of their lives, but they had never seen her. Honora called her the
little mystery-girl, and Kitty invariably made the same remark when
her name was mentioned.

“I wonder if her eyes are blue or brown. If she has brown eyes she
will be like me, and if she has blue eyes she will be like you, Nora.”

“As if the colour of her eyes mattered!” said Honora. “For my part,”
she added, “I do not think any girl matters, and I do not see why you
are so excited about her. If she were a dog it would be a different
thing.”

“Yes, of course it would,” answered Kitty, looking wistfully round.
“But you see she is a girl, and mother will not let us keep any more
dogs.”

“The darlings!” cried Honora; “what a sin! Oh Kitty! do you know, I
saw a dear little fox-terrier to-day when I was out. I know he was
lost. He had one of those darling little square heads, and he did look
so sweet! I would have given anything to bring him home, but when I
spoke to nurse she said, ‘There are enough waifs and strays coming to
the house without having stray dogs.’”

“I do wonder what she meant by that!” said Kitty.

“I expect,” said Nora in a thoughtful voice, “she must have meant poor
Nan. It was not nice of her—not a bit. Do you know that Nan has no
money? Nurse told me so last night; she said that if mother had not
adopted her she would have had to go to the workhouse. Is it not
awful?”

“Poor darling!” said Kitty. “Then we will be good to her; and it is
almost as nice as if she were a dog. I like her twice as well since I
know that. If she were a rich girl I should hate her coming, but as
she is a poor one we will give her the very best—won’t we, Noney?”

“The best we could do,” said Honora in a thoughtful voice, “would be
to give her Sally’s pup—you know, little Jack; would she not love
it?”

Kitty looked very thoughtful.

“I thought perhaps I might keep Jack,” she said. “Do you think I ought
to give Jack to Nan—do you, Nora?”

“Yes,” replied Nora in an emphatic voice. “We have just said that we
ought to give her the best, and as Jack is your best, you ought to
hand him over. Come, now, let us make the schoolroom look pretty.
Mother said she would be here at six o’clock. She will be very sad,
you know, Kitty; you must not laugh or be at all gay this evening. You
must try to feel as if mother were in her coffin.”

“Oh, don’t!” said Kitty. “How horrid of you, Noney! How could I think
of anything so awful?”

“But poor Nan has to think of it. Oh dear! oh dear! it is exciting. Do
you know what I should like to do? I’d like to rush downstairs and
fling my arms round her neck, and drag her up to the schoolroom, and
say, ‘You poor little motherless, penniless creature, here is Jack to
comfort you.’ That is what I should like to do; but, of course, I
suppose it would not be right.”

Miss Roy, the children’s governess, now entered the schoolroom. She
was a kindly, good-natured woman. They went to school for most of
their lessons, but she looked after their dress, and took them for
walks, and saw to their comforts generally.

“What are you two puzzling your little heads over?” she said. “Oh
Nora, my dear, why is the schoolroom in such a mess?”

“We were teaching Jack some of his tricks,” said Nora. “Do you know,
Miss Roy, he begs so beautifully, and he quite winks one of his dear
little eyes when he sits upright and takes his biscuit.”

“But he sulks a good bit when we teach him to trust,” interrupted
Kitty.

“Well, dears, get the brush now and sweep away the crumbs; when your
little friend comes she will not like to see an untidy room.”

“I hope she will,” said Kitty. “It will be very much the worse for her
if she is of the tidy sort.”

“What nonsense, Kitty! You know I have always trained you to be most
careful and tidy.”

“Yes,” answered Kitty, with a sigh; “and when you do train us, Miss
Roy, do you know what Nora and I think of?”

“What, dear?”

“Of the happy, happy days when we are quite grown-up, and can be as
awfully untidy as we like, and sweep all our things into bundles, and
never have a tidy drawer, and never be able to find anything; and have
six or seven dogs, all in baskets, sleeping about the room; and a few
cats, more particularly if they are sick cats, to bear them company;
and birds, of course; and mice, and white rats, and”——

Miss Roy put her hands to her ears.

“Don’t introduce your menagerie until I am out of the country. I would
rather leave England, although I am devoted to my native land, than be
anywhere near such an awful room.”

“We told mother on Sunday,” said Nora, “and she quite laughed. I think
she was ever so glad.”

Just then there came a sound of commotion downstairs. Nora drew
herself up to her full height, and her heart beat a little faster than
usual. Kitty rushed to her sister and clasped her hand.

“Oh Noney, has the little mystery girl come?”

“I think so,” said Nora; and just then her mother’s voice was heard
shouting, and the two children ran downstairs.

Once again Honora thought of the impulse which she longed to give way
to—the impulse to rush to the forlorn little figure in its quaint and
peculiar frock and clasp it tightly in her arms, and sweep the child
upstairs to the warm schoolroom, where Kitty would sit at her feet,
and Nora would hold her round the waist, and Jack would sit on her
lap, and they would talk and talk, and be happy and free, and even
mingle their tears together. But Mrs. Richmond, although the most
good-natured and kindest of women, would have been much shocked by
such a proceeding on Honora’s part. She had lectured the little girls
with regard to Nan’s arrival for the last couple of days, and had
given them so many things to be careful about, so many subjects on
which they must on no account touch, that now they felt quite
constrained, and it was a rosy-faced and apparently unconcerned little
girl who came up now and took Nan’s cold hand in hers; and a little
girl in all respects her ditto, except that her eyes were brown,
followed suit; and Nan gave one forlorn, frightened glance at the two
little sisters, and then turned aside, a look of almost sullenness on
her face.

“Take her upstairs, dears, and ask nurse to get her hot water; and
then you shall all come downstairs to supper with me,” said Mrs.
Richmond.

Kitty said in a very low and frightened voice, “Will you come,
please?” and the three children went upstairs.

They went through the cheerful schoolroom, where a fire was blazing
brightly, and a lamp making a pleasant glow on the centre-table, and
where there was a fascinating basket, out of which a bull-terrier
raised his head and growled, and another basket with a cat and a heap
of kittens in it; and there was a huge cage in the window in which
swung a parrot, who called out the moment he saw them, “Here comes the
naughty girl—here comes the naughty girl!” Nan, notwithstanding her
misery, would have given worlds to rush to the bull-terrier’s basket
to examine its pups, or to the cat’s basket to look at the kittens, or
to laugh when Poll the parrot said, “Here comes the naughty girl!” But
she did not dare to do any of these things, and she was led swiftly
past the impertinent bird, and the dog, and the cat, into her own
little room.

Nan’s room opened out of the pretty bedroom where the sisters slept,
and there was a fire here also, and a nice white bed, and pretty
furniture, and even a few flowers on the dressing-table; and nurse, a
stout, shrewd-looking woman, was standing in the room; and there was a
jug of hot water on the washing-stand. The moment Nan appeared, nurse
spoke to the little girls.

“Now go away, my dears,” she said. “I will look after Miss Esterleigh.
Come, miss, you would like me to wash your face and hands, would you
not?”

What reply Nan made the little sisters did not hear, for they found
themselves pushed out into the schoolroom and the door was shut.

“Oh Nora, what do you think of her?” said Kitty.

“Well,” replied Nora, “I suppose it is because she is unhappy, but she
looks rather cross.”

“I do not think she is really. Did you see how her eyes danced when
Sally growled?”

“Sally has very bad manners,” said Nora.

“And, oh Noney, Noney, was it not shocking of Poll to say, ‘Here comes
the naughty girl’? She will think always now, to her dying day, that
he meant her.”

“You know Poll always says that whenever we bring a stranger into the
schoolroom,” said Nora. “But come, Kitty; let us wash our hands and
get ready for supper. I suppose we’ll like her after a bit—although
I’m not sure.”

“Did you notice the doll she had in her arms? Was it not too funny?”
said Kitty.

“I expect she loves it,” said Nora, “but she won’t do so for long; we
gave up dolls when we were ever so young. A doll is no fun when you
have got a live thing to pet.”

At this juncture Nora rushed to Sally’s basket, took Jack from his
mother, and clasped him tight in her arms.

“Oh! is he not just an angel?” she said; and then the little girls
went to their room to get ready for supper.

Nan appeared, just as pale and just as unsmiling, in the schoolroom
after she had submitted to nurse’s ministrations. She hated the bright
fires and the gay lamp and the comforts.

“It is all charity,” she thought.

That afternoon she had questioned Phoebe as to the position of a girl
whose mother had died without leaving any money behind; and Phoebe,
who had no idea that her remarks would have any personal meaning, had
said at once:

“Why, she is nothing in the world but a girl, miss; I’d not like to be
her—that I wouldn’t.”

So Nan stood now with a bitter smile on her face. But as she stood
alone in the schoolroom, looking wistfully about her, and wondering
how she was to please her mother, and how by any possibility she could
ever be the best girl whom Mr. Pryor spoke about, there came a funny
little yap, and behold! Jack the bull-pup was at her feet.

Now, even a charity-girl could scarcely resist a bull-pup of six weeks
old, and Nan felt a shiver of longing and delight creeping over her.
She forgot Sophia Maria (the neglected doll was thrown on the nearest
chair), and the next instant the little pup was clasped in the girl’s
arms. She was hugging it and petting it when Kitty came back. If there
was one creature on earth whom Kitty loved it was Jack, and she had
been wondering if another of the pups, little Flo or Tommy, would do
equally well for Nan’s possession. But Flo and Tommy were not nearly
as perfect as Jack, for Jack was a little prince of bull-pups, perfect
in every respect, with one white ear and one black, and with the most
impudent face it was possible for a dog to have; and now Nan was
smiling at him, and pressing his little cheek against hers, and then
Kitty knew it was all up with her as far as Jack was concerned. She
ran quickly forward.

“Oh! you have got Jack; he is yours, you know.”

She panted out the words, being anxious to get the presentation over,
to have the thing done beyond recall. Nan’s face turned a little
whiter.

“I am so sorry!” she said. “I know I ought not to have touched your
pup, but he came to my feet, and he is so sweet!”

“Oh! you would like him, would you not?” said Kitty.

“Like him!” cried Nan. “I love him!”

“Then he is yours—yours! You may have him altogether.”

“I—what!” cried Nan.

“I mean that he is mine, and I give him to you. We have got plenty
more; will you take him? Say so—quick!”

Nan looked full into Kitty’s eyes. Now, this was the last thing Kitty
wished, for in spite of all her heroism and her desire to be as
generous as possible, her eyes were full of tears.

“Oh, as if I could take him!” cried Nan. “But thank you—thank you.”

“You are to take him; Nora and I wish it. We said so; we made up our
minds that you must be comforted by Jack. We cannot comfort you,
because we do not know, and—— Anyhow, we are not dogs. No person can
comfort like a dog can. So, will you have him—will you, please?”

“Oh, I will!” said Nan; and then Kitty went up to her and kissed her;
and Nan dropped Jack, and flung her arms round Kitty’s neck, and said:

“Thank you—and thank God!”



CHAPTER VI.

THE BULL-PUP.


But when the little girls went down to supper, Jack had to stay
behind. Had he come downstairs, cuddled up contentedly on Nan’s
forlorn little shoulder, she might have been able to bear things; but
as it was, all her miseries returned to her in a full tide. For the
first time she observed how very peculiar and remarkable the dress was
which Phoebe had made.

Nan was rather a small girl of eleven years of age, and the dress came
down to her ankles. It was, of course, made without any attempt at
style. The bodice fitted anyhow; the crape was put on in rucks instead
of smoothly; the sleeves were too wide for the fashion, and too long
for the little girl’s arms; the neck was too big, the part which
covered her chest too narrow. She was, as nurse expressed it, all
askew in that frock, and poor Mrs. Richmond quite shuddered as she
looked at her.

If Nan had been a dazzlingly fair child, black might have been
becoming to her; but as she was sallow, with quantities of jet-black
hair, and big, very black eyes, there was not a scrap of beauty about
her little face just now, although it was possible she might grow up
handsome by-and-by.

Little, however, Nan recked about her appearance either in the future
or the present. Just then she kept repeating to herself, “I am only a
charity-girl;” and then she sat down and ate her supper without well
knowing what she ate. Mrs. Richmond was very kind, and the two girls
were as grave and sober as possible. They were not the least like
themselves; they only spoke when they were spoken to; even the subject
of the dogs did not draw them out. Kitty’s merry eyes kept looking
down, and Honora’s sweet, bright face, with its wealth of light hair
and smiling lips, seemed transformed into that of a very sober little
girl indeed. Towards the end of supper Nan yawned once or twice. Mrs.
Richmond suddenly rose.

“Come here, Nancy,” she said.

She took the little girl’s hand and drew her to her side.

“Nancy, you are my little girl henceforward.”

Nancy’s lips quivered.

“And these are your little sisters. This is Honora, aged twelve; and
this is Kitty, aged eleven. You will be, I hope, the very best of
friends; everything that Kitty has you have, and everything that
Honora has also belongs to you. There will be three little sisters in
this house instead of two. You will learn with the same kind
governess, and go to the same nice school; and except that you will
wear black and Kitty and Honora colours, you will be dressed alike.
You will have the same pleasures and the same duties. I promised your
mother that this should be the case, and all I ask of you in return
is”—Mrs. Richmond paused and looked full at Nan-“happiness.”

“I cannot be happy,” whispered Nan then.

“Not yet, dear—no, not yet; but I want you to be contented, and to
feel that I love you and will do what I can for you. I do not want you
to feel that”——

“I am a charity-girl, and I hate it,” suddenly burst from Nan’s lips.

Mrs. Richmond took both the little hands very firmly in hers and drew
the unwilling child to sit on her knee.

“Nan,” she said, “you must get that thought out of your head once and
for ever. I am going to tell you something. Years and years ago, when
I was young and when your mother was young, your mother did something
for me which I can never repay—never. I will tell you what that thing
was when you are older. Your mother died; and when dying, I asked her
to let me adopt you as my own little girl. To do that does not
anything like repay her for what she did for me, for she saved all my
life and all my happiness. But for her I might not be alive now; and
if spared, certainly be a most miserable woman. Sometime I will tell
you everything; but what I want you clearly to know is this, that in
taking you to live with me I still owe your mother something. You have
a right to my home and my love for her sake. Now, does this make
things any better?”

“Oh yes!” said Nan. “And, oh” she added, “I am a horrid girl not to
feel very glad! I will try to be very glad, but do not ask me any more
to-night.”

“Poor little darling!” said Mrs. Richmond.

She kissed Nan, and nodded to Kitty to run up to Nan and take her
hand.

“You are my sister, you know, and I love you already,” said Kitty; and
so Nan went upstairs to bed.

Early the next morning, when the little girl felt that she had already
only enjoyed her first sleep, she was awakened by some one pulling her
rather violently by the arm. She looked up in astonishment. Just at
first she could not in the least remember where she was, nor what had
happened. Then it all rushed over her—her mother’s funeral of the day
before, her own great misery, the change in her life. But she had
scarcely time to realise these things, and certainly had not a moment
to fret about them, when the eager voice of Kitty was sounding in her
ears.

“Get up, please, Nan; dress yourself as fast as ever you can in the
dark, and come into the schoolroom. If you are not very quick you will
miss seeing the animals getting their breakfasts, and that is the best
fun of the day. Now, be quick—be quick! I will come back again in a
few minutes. I have lit the candle for you; here it is. Hot water? No;
you must do without that. Fly—dash into your clothes, and be in the
schoolroom in a quarter of an hour.”

Kitty disappeared, and Nan got up. She felt quite excited; she could
not help herself. It was useless to pretend that she felt anything but
a sense of rejoicing as she thought of the animals. When with human
beings she must remember her mother, and her own suffering, and her
great loss, but with the animals she could only rejoice. She scrambled
into her clothes, making, it is true, a very sorry spectacle of
herself.

“Sophia Maria, my darling,” she said to her doll, “you had better get
warm into bed, and lie tucked up there while I am attending to the
animals. I will never love them better than I love you, but I must see
how they get their breakfasts. They are alive, Maria darling—they are
alive; you understand, don’t you?”

Sophia Maria stared with her vacant smile at her little mistress.

“How good she is! she never frets,” thought the little girl; and then
she went into the schoolroom, where a fire was lighted—a dull,
dim-looking fire, which certainly gave forth no heat whatever just
yet—and the gas was turned on.

“Is it not a good thing we have gas?” said Kitty.

Honora and Kitty were both in the schoolroom. They were wearing a long
kind of holland smocks over their dresses; their faces looked quite
serene and important.

“Now, Nan, which will you take? I think this morning, if you were to
hold all the kittens in your lap, you might just watch us. We have to
be ever so busy; Miss Roy only gives us a quarter of an hour at this
time of day to clean out all the animals’ homes, and I can tell you it
is exciting when you have got pups and kittens and birds and mice and
rats. Is it not nice of Miss Roy? The mice and rats she will not allow
in the room, but she allows the others. We keep them upstairs in the
top attic. Sometimes the rats bite, and the mice too; but who minds a
little pain when it is an animal—a darling—that has to be attended
to?”

[Illustration: Nan was perfectly satisfied to sit near the fire
holding the kittens.]

Nan was perfectly satisfied to sit near the fire holding the kittens.
There were two Persian kittens, and their names were Lord and Lady.
They were very handsome, with long, soft chinchilla fur, tiny tails at
present, and big heads. Nan stroked them in ecstasy; there was not the
slightest doubt that thrills of comfort went through her heart which
Sophia Maria had never yet been able to bestow.

Kitty and Honora meanwhile were very busy. The parrot’s cage required
a great deal of attention. The parrot was inclined to be rather
fierce; he would fly frantically after the little hands when they were
put in to take out the seed-trough, and he would cock his head to one
side, and then shout out, “Here comes the naughty girl!” and fix his
eyes on Nan all the time.

“He does mean me,” said Nan, forgetting the kittens and going up to
the cage in her excitement. “Oh dear! is it not funny of him? And I
suppose I am a naughty girl.”

“Well, I hope so,” said Kitty. “We don’t want you to be a goody girl;
we should not like that at all. We don’t want you to be mournful and
sulky and anything like that; we like you to have some spirit in you.
You know your darling little Jack who belongs to you altogether? Well,
you are to have all the trouble of him; and you are to take the blame
also if he is naughty and fidgety, and tears our dresses, and bites
the tablecloth. You will be the one to be reprimanded; don’t forget
that.”

“I don’t think I shall like that.”

“Well, but surely you do not expect us to be blamed about your animal!
I never heard of such a thing!” said Nora “Now we have done
everything; go back and get as tidy as you can for breakfast.”

Nan went back to her room feeling much excited. While she was out
nurse had entered.

“So you are going to have an animal, miss; and you are going to get up
every morning to help the young ladies to feed their pets and clean
out their cages?”

“Yes; they have asked me to,” said Nan.

“That is right, my dear; and I hope you will have a happy time and
make yourself one of the family.”

“I will try to,” said Nan.

“The first thing you have to do is to give me the frock you wore last
night.”

“But, oh!” said Nan, “that is my own frock, bought out of my own
money. Please, I would rather—I would rather not give it.”

“I am afraid if you are one of the family you have got to obey Mrs.
Richmond, and she does not intend you to wear that ugly frock any
more.”

“It is not ugly,” said Nan, colouring high.

“Well, miss, I am afraid it is; and anyhow you cannot wear it, for I
am going to take it away. Here is a nice little suitable dress—black,
of course, and made the same way as Miss Kitty’s dresses are made.
Here, put it on, miss, or you will be late for breakfast.”

All poor Nan’s misery returned to her at these words. She felt as if
she were most unjustly treated; she could scarcely bear her own
feelings. The pretty frock in which she looked so nice and fresh, and
in which she had once again the appearance of a lady, did not appeal
to her. She shrugged her shoulders discontentedly, and was only
comforted when nurse insisted on her wearing a white pinafore which
nearly covered the frock.

Just as she was leaving her bedroom she turned and spoke.

“If you will not let me wear my own frock—and I bought all my own
mourning for my own mother—may I at least keep it?”

“Oh yes, poor little girl!” said nurse, much touched by these words.
“I will put it in the bottom of the little trunk you brought with you.
You might give it to a poor girl some day, and she might make it fit
her; it is not fit for any one to wear at present.”

Nan was fain to be comforted with this sort of half-promise of
nurse’s, and entered the school-room, where she stood, looking
somewhat forlorn, by the fire. But this mood was not to be of long
duration, for Nora and Kitty came bounding in. They had made up their
minds: the time of gloom was past; they were going to be their own
riotous, gay, merry, rebellious, fidgety, almost unruly little selves
once again to-day.

Miss Roy was almost as merry as her pupils. At breakfast they screamed
with laughter; animals, of course, were the subjects of conversation.
The virtues of Jack, the vices of Poll the parrot, the exquisite
beauties of Lord and Lady and the bad manners of their mother, the
good manners of the bull-terrier—all were discussed with animation.
Each little point was noted. Nan listened, her eyes growing wider and
wider.

“What is the matter? Why do you not talk?” said Kitty at last.

“I am so astonished,” answered Nan.

“What about?”

“Why, you speak, you and Honora, as if—as if there were no girls and
boys in the world.”

“Oh! I suppose there are,” answered Honora. “I am afraid there are,”
she continued after a pause. “They are great worries, are they not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Compared to animals, I mean. Who would compare them?”

“I don’t know,” said Nan again.

“You will when you have been here a little longer.—Oh, Miss Roy,
Kitty has given Jack to Nan. He is her very own bull-puppy. She has
got to train him; and, please, if he does anything naughty you are to
blame her.”

“Well, now, children,” said Miss Roy, “put on your hats and coats and
get ready for school. Nan, my dear, Mrs. Richmond has not arranged for
your school until next week, so will you please stay in the schoolroom
until I come back to you? I will hear you a few lessons then, and we
can go out for a walk together.”

“And may she take Jack for a little airing?” asked Kitty.

“Yes, if she has a leash—not otherwise.”

“Oh! I can lend her a leash,” said Kitty. “You will find it hanging up
in the passage outside the schoolroom,” she added, turning to the
little girl; “and there is a collar as well. Now we must be off.”

In a moment they dashed away, Miss Roy following them. From intense
excitement and vigorous conversation and loud noise and hearty laughs
the schoolroom was reduced to absolute silence. Nan felt a sense of
relief. She crept into her bedroom, took Sophia Maria from between the
sheets, clasped her in her arms, and sitting down by the fire, called
to Jack to come and make friends.

Now, Jack was of the most sociable nature, but it is, alas! true that
he was possessed with a petted little dog’s invariable infirmity—that
of intense jealousy. He had taken to Nan; he had liked the position on
her shoulder, and had quite slobbered with bliss when she had kissed
him on his little cheek the night before. But Nan was now hugging a
hideous object in her arms, and Jack did not see why such a thing
should be permitted. He was wary, however, and did not intend to give
himself away. He knew by experience that in small puppies
mischievousness was reproved by two-footed creatures who had the
control of them; but in all the world what could be more delicious
than the sort of mischief which meant tearing and rending, using his
teeth and puppy paws to some purpose? That horrid thing in Nan’s arms
could be rent and torn and demolished and worried, and what a time of
enjoyment he would have while doing it! Accordingly he raised his
dancing eyes to Nan’s face, and jumped backwards and forwards,
inviting her as bewitchingly as puppy could to a game of romps. She
played with him for a little, trying to catch him, which he avoided,
for it was quite beyond the dignity of puppydom to repose in the same
lap with the hideous doll dressed in crape. The dog was biding his
time. Nan looked again at Maria. She still wore her inane smile. Nan
kissed her. She was so cold; she did not seem to take any interest.

“She is not so nice as Jack,” thought the little girl, “but of course
I like her best. Did not mother give her to me, and have not I over
and over and over again cried with her in my arms? She comforted me,
then, but not as little Jack does.”

Presently Miss Roy came in, bustling and fresh from the outside world.

“Now, get on your things, Nan,” she said. “I will take you for a walk
first of all, as it may rain later on; it is a beautiful morning, and
we will go for a walk in Hyde Park. You had better leave little Jack
at home; dogs are not allowed in Hyde Park except on a leash.”

Nan got up joyfully. Sophia Maria was put comfortably sitting in the
arm-chair in which the little girl had herself reposed, and a few
minutes later Nan and her governess went out.

Now was Jack’s opportunity. The schoolroom was silent; the mother
bull-terrier was sound asleep, with the other pups nestling up to her.
Jack, bent on mischief, was practically alone. The Persian cat turned
her back upon him with the most lofty disdain in her attitude; the
parrot winked at him out of her wicked eye, and said, “Here we are
again!” another favourite expression of hers. Jack cared little; with
a dexterous leap he secured Sophia Maria, and what immediately
followed may be left to the imagination of the readers.

When Nan returned from her walk there were morsels of crape on the
floor, and tiny pieces of coarse black cashmere, and a naked doll,
which, rent and torn and injured, lay in a distant corner; but her
clothes—alas! where were they? Jack waggled up to his little
mistress, coaxing and canoodling, and saying by a thousand pretty
motions, “You must forgive me if it was wrong. I am sorry, but I would
do it again if I had the chance; only please forgive me.” And then Nan
uttered a sudden shriek and flew towards the battered remains of her
doll, which she clasped in her arms.

“Oh, Miss Roy—oh, Miss Roy!” screamed the little girl.

“What is it, my dear?” said the astonished governess.

“Oh, see what Jack has done!”

“Naughty Jack!” said Miss Roy. “But really, Nan, it was a very ugly
doll; if you wish to dress it again I will find some pieces for you
some half-holiday. Put it in the cupboard now and forget about it.
Come to me in a few minutes for your lessons.”



CHAPTER VII.

THE FALL.


Nan had gone about for the remainder of the day with a lump in her
throat. It was not the least like the heavy weight of sorrow which
pressed on her yesterday—but nevertheless it was a curious and
strange sensation. To all intents and purposes Sophia Maria no longer
existed; that battered and torn and disreputable doll in the cupboard
could not be the darling whom she had pressed to her heart and loved
and worshipped during all the sorrowful days when her mother lay dead
in the lodging-house in Bloomsbury.

But although the lump was there, and the sorrow and the dismay there
also, Nan’s day was one rush, one continued succession, of excitement;
there was literally no time in Mrs. Richmond’s happy house for brooding
or grieving.

“I must try and forget Sophia Maria for the present,” thought the
child; “there is such a lot to be done! But when I get into bed
to-night, oh! won’t I have a good cry?”

She made up her mind also not to tell either Nora or Kitty what had
happened to her dear baby.

“As for Jack,” she said to herself, “I shall hate him all the rest of
my days.”

But when he came up to her, and sprang with great appreciation into
her lap and cuddled down there, and licked her hand with his little
red tongue, she found that, far from hating him, she was loving him
better and better each moment. At last bedtime came, and Nan as she
laid her head on her pillow and said “Good-night” to nurse, who had
come in to put out her candle, whispered to herself:

“Now I _must_ have a tremendous cry for my darling Sophia Maria.”

But, behold! the very next instant she was sound asleep. So Maria lay
neglected in the cupboard. Some day, of course, Nan would dress her,
and make her a pet and an idol once more, but meantime she was too
busy.

As the days flew on she grew busier and busier, for on the following
Monday she went to school with Nora and Kitty. It was discovered at
school that she was a very clever and well-informed little girl for
her age, and she was put into quite a high-up class for a girl of
eleven, and had many lessons to learn, and much to attend to. And as
Nan had not only school-hours to live through, but private lessons in
music to work for at home, and walks to take, and romps to enjoy, and
the animals one and all to idolise, she had not been a month in Mrs.
Richmond’s house before she became a very merry and a very happy
little girl. Not that for a single moment she forgot her mother; but
she was wise enough and sensible enough to know that if she would
really please that mother she would do it best by being happy and
contented. Once she saw Mr. Pryor; and when Mr. Pryor said to her, “Are
you trying to be the best girl?” Nan coloured, and squeezed his hand,
and said:

“Oh! but I have got such a darling little puppy—all my very, very
own—and his name is Jack. And I do love Kitty and Nora! And Mrs.
Richmond is very kind.”

Then Mr. Pryor looked straight into the dancing, dark eyes of Nan, and
he laid his hand for a moment on her head and said:

“I think you are going to be the best girl.”

“I wonder what he really means,” thought Nan. “It is nice to be happy;
even in mother’s time I was never as happy as I am now. In mother’s
time there was always the pain—her pain—to remember, and the empty
purse, and Mrs. Vincent, who was so cross, and—— Oh! lots and lots of
such things. But now nothing seems sad, and no one seems sorry; and
the animals alone would make any girl happy.”

But as it is not appointed in this life for any one to pass from the
cradle to the grave without anxiety and troubles and temptations and
fears, so was Nan Esterleigh no exception to the general rule.

She had been two months at Mrs. Richmond’s, and in that time had grown
strong and healthy, and a pretty rose colour had beautified her dark
little face, and her eyes were very bright, and her whole appearance
that of an intelligent and happy child. During those two months the
spring had advanced so far that it was now the daffodil and primrose
time, and the children had arranged to go to the nearest woods to
gather baskets of primroses on a certain Saturday, which was of course
a whole holiday. Saturday was the most delightful day of the seven in
Nan’s opinion, for there was no school and there were no classes of
any sort. It was the animals’ special day, when extra cleanings had to
be given and extra groomings gone through; when the cages and baskets
had to get fresh flannels and fresh gravel; when the mice and the rats
had in especial to be looked after. Nan always enjoyed Saturday best
of all, and this special Saturday was to be indeed a red-letter day,
for Miss Roy had decided to take the children to the country by a
train which left Victoria at one o’clock. They would get to Shirley
Woods in half-an-hour; there they could pick primroses to their
hearts’ content, and bring them back in basketfuls. Nan was very much
excited. She had never been to Shirley Woods, and the thought of some
hours in the country filled her with the wildest glee.

“Why, you dance about and make more fuss even than we do,” said Nora,
looking at her as she skipped up and down the room.

“Yes; I am in very high spirits,” said Nan, “and I am ever so happy.”

“I wonder how you will enjoy it when our cousin Augusta comes.”

“Who is your cousin Augusta? I have never heard of her.”

“I dare say not; but she is coming for a couple of months, either
to-night or to-morrow morning—to-night, probably. Mother had a letter
from our aunt, and she wants mother to take care of Augusta until she
comes back from the Riviera. Her name is Augusta Duncan. She is a very
handsome girl, and has a lot of spirit. She is the fashionable sort,
and thinks a lot of her dress and her appearance. What fun we shall
all have together!”

“But is she coming to school with us? How will she spend her day?”
asked Nan.

“No, she is not going to school, for she has not been quite strong,
and is to have a complete holiday. I expect she will stay here a good
bit and amuse herself.”

“How old is she?” said Nan again.

“She is a year and a half older than me,” replied Nora, “so she is
going on for fourteen. She is a very big girl for her age. I am quite
curious to see her.”

“Well, don’t let us bother about her now,” said Nan. “Let us get ready
to go off for our happy day in the country.”

Kitty looked at the clock.

“I had not the least idea it was so late,” she said. “What is to be
done? Mother wants us to get some flowers for the drawing-room before
we start. Cannot you go, Nan? Just run and ask Susan the housemaid to
go with you. You have very nice taste, and can choose just the flowers
mother would like. Get them at Johnson’s at the corner. I know mother
wants heaps of violets, and as many yellow flowers as you can put
together. You had better select about five shillings’ worth, for some
people are coming to tea with mother this afternoon.”

“Very well,” said Nan, in high good-humour. “I’ll be off at once.”

She put on her hat and jacket and ran downstairs, calling to Susan to
accompany her. Susan, however, was very busy, and grumbled when the
little girl made her request.

“Dear me, Miss Nan!” she said; “nurse has given me a lot to do, and I
am very late as it is. Cannot the flowers wait?”

“Oh! it does not matter,” answered Nan.

A daring idea rushed through her mind. Why should she have Susan, to
keep her company? It was only a step from the Richmonds’ house to
Johnson’s shop; she could easily go there alone. The fact that she was
forbidden ever to go out by herself was completely forgotten. In her
mother’s time she had constantly been sent on messages, and surely she
was just as sensible a little girl now. So, calling Jack the puppy to
accompany her, she started on her mission. She arrived at the shop in
good time, and there she saw two girls standing by the counter. They
were ordering flowers too, and talking to each other in a somewhat
excited manner. Their accents were not the accents of London girls;
they had a high-pitched note in them, which Nan at first thought very
disagreeable, and then considered fascinating. The girls were
beautifully and extravagantly dressed. They were taller and older than
Nan. They wore velvet frocks of a rich blue, and fawn-coloured
jackets, and they had blue velvet hats which drooped over their faces.
The hats were trimmed with enormous ostrich-feathers, also a deep
royal-blue. The girls had quantities of very thick and very bright
golden hair, which hung in curly masses down their backs and over
their shoulders. They had each of them deep-blue eyes—very deep and
very dark—and long, curly black lashes. Nan considered them quite the
most lovely human beings she had ever looked at. They would not have
taken the least notice of the quiet, grave-looking little girl who had
come into the shop but for the fact that Jack suddenly made a dive at
one of their dresses, and catching it in his teeth, pulled at it, as
much as to say, “Now for a game of play!”

The girl whose dress was attacked immediately tried to shake the
bull-terrier off; but the bull-terrier would not let go. It was the
mission of all bull-pups never to let go, and here was his
opportunity. He hung on as if for grim death, and the girl’s face got
red and her eyes flashed with temper. She turned to Nan and said in an
imperious voice:

“Do take your dog off, please. What a horrid little beast he is!”

“He is not horrid at all,” said Nan, very cross at anything
disparaging being said of Jack; but she caught the pup in her arms,
and stood red and panting, waiting for the girls to leave the shop.

The elder girl, whose dress had been the subject of Jack’s attack,
found that it was slightly torn, and she turned to her sister and
said:

“What an insufferable little dog, and what a still more insufferable
girl!”

“Oh, hush, Flora!” said the girl so addressed.

“Where shall I send the flowers to, miss?” asked the man who was
serving the girls, bending over the counter as he did so.

“Send them to Mrs. Aspray, Court Mansions,” was the elder girl’s reply.
“Be quick, please,” she added; “you had better send a man round with
all those flowers in pots. We are expecting company this afternoon,
and mother says the flowers must arrive before two o’clock.”

The man promised; and the girls, the elder one still very cross and
angry, left the shop.

Just as she was doing so she flashed her handsome blue eyes in Nan’s
direction, and Nan gave her back quite as indignant a glance.

“Well, miss, and what can I do for you?” said the shopman, now turning
to Nan.

Nan gave her order; the man promised to attend to it immediately, and
the little girl returned home.

Now, how it happened she never knew, but going back, she trod suddenly
on a piece of orange-peel. The next moment she was lying on her face,
white and sick and dizzy with pain. She had sprained her ankle. For a
moment or two she lay still. Then a man rushed up and raised her to
her feet. She made a frantic effort, and leaning on his arm, got as
far back as Mrs. Richmond’s house. When the door was opened for her,
great was the astonishment of Caroline the parlour-maid.

“Why, Miss Nan,” she cried, “how white you are! What has happened?”

“I have sprained my foot. I fell when I was out; I trod on a piece of
orange-peel.”

“And you were out, miss, all alone?”

“Yes, yes; Susan was not able to come.”

“My mistress will be angry, miss.”

“I am ever so sorry; but please don’t tell her—please don’t,
Caroline.”

“She will find out when she discovers that you have sprained your
foot.”

“Please don’t tell her; I will manage somehow,” said the child; and
she limped upstairs.

In consequence of her escapade, however, she could not possibly go to
the country that day. Kitty and Nora decided that they would not tell
about her naughtiness in going out alone. They were really fond of
Nan. They said that she was very silly to have disobeyed their mother,
and very wrong, but they would make some excuse about her not going
into the country; and as Mrs. Richmond was extremely busy, what with
Augusta’s expected arrival and her visitors of that afternoon, it was
unlikely that she would miss Nan or say anything about her.
Accordingly, at half-past twelve Miss Roy and the two little Richmonds
started alone for their country expedition, and Nan was left in the
schoolroom.



CHAPTER VIII.

PIP.


The sunshiny morning brought a still more lovely afternoon in its
train. Nan felt cross and discontented. She had looked forward for
long to that happy day in Shirley Woods; she had a passionate love for
all flowers, and for primroses in especial. She had gone
primrose-hunting when quite a little child with her mother in the
happy, happy days when they were not so poor, and mother was not so
ill, and their home had been in the country. As she lay in bed at
night for the past week she had thought of the intense joy of picking
primroses.

“Even if mother is dead,” she had said to herself, “I shall love to
hold them in my hands; and if it is true that mother is in a beautiful
country where there are spring flowers that never wither, perhaps she
is picking primroses too.”

But now everything had come to an end. She had been good-natured
although disobedient, and her punishment had come. Her foot did not
ache very badly except when she walked on it; still, she felt very
impatient alone in the schoolroom—forgotten, doubtless, by every one
else in the house, for even nurse had taken the opportunity to go and
visit an old friend, and Susan the housemaid just peeped in once to
see if there were enough coals to put on the fire. But the day was too
warm for Nan to need much fire. Her book did not interest her; she
knew her lessons already by heart. She did not care to practise on the
piano. Even Jack tired her by his constant and officious attentions.

“Oh dear!” she said to herself, “was there ever such a long afternoon?
How I wish Phoebe would come to see me! How I wish that I had my
darling Sophia Maria again! I might make some more clothes for her;
there are all kinds of odds and ends in nurse’s basket, and she would
not mind my rummaging in it. But there! I really have not the energy.
How dull it is! I wonder if Kitty will bring me a special bunch of
primroses, and if they will be big ones with long stems, the sort
mother used to love. Oh dear! I am tired.”

She yawned, shut up the book which she had already read, and taking
Jack into her arras, kissed him on his little round forehead.

Just then a memory came to her. Kitty had been anxious about one of
the white rats that morning. It was her favourite rat, Pip. Pip had
not been well; he had refused his breakfast—an almost unheard-of
thing in the annals of the rat world. Even a nut did not tempt him,
and he had turned away from a piece of cheese. Kitty adored Pip. He
was a large, rather dangerous rat. Nan as a rule kept a wide berth
when she was asked to visit the rats and mice, for Pip had very sharp
teeth, and a vicious way of darting at you and giving you a sharp
bite. But Nan now thought of him with much interest. The very last
thing Kitty had said before she went out was this:

“I sha’n’t enjoy myself very much after all, for Pip is not well. I
cannot think what is the matter with him. I should just break my heart
if anything happened to my darling Pip.”

Nan had asked one or two questions, and Kitty had turned round and
looked at her.

“Oh! you can do nothing,” she said. “I have put him away from Glitter
and Snap. I think he looks very bad indeed; he must have eaten
something poisonous. No, please, do not go near the room, Nan,
whatever you do, for you know you have not the slightest control over
the rats and mice.”

Now Nan thought of the sick rat, and a curious and ever-increasing
desire to go and look at him, to find out if he were better, if he had
eaten the cheese which Kitty had last tried to tempt him with, took
possession of her.

“It can do no harm,” she thought. “I will just go and have a peep; it
certainly can do no harm. I shall be very careful; I will just open
the door and look in.”

Notwithstanding the pain in her foot, Nan contrived to limp up to the
attics. There were five or six attics on the next floor—large rooms,
all of them. The smallest one, that facing the stairs, had been given
over to the girls for their pets. They owned several boxes of mice,
different kinds of breeds—harvest mice, dormice, Japanese mice, white
mice. Nan considered all the mice most fascinating. At the opposite
side of the room were the cages where the rats reposed.

Nan knew Pip very well by appearance. He was snowy white, had a long,
hairless tail, and a little patch of black just behind his left ear.
It was a tiny patch of black, and Kitty considered it one of his
beauties. Nan opened the door softly now and went in. She had left it
a little ajar, not thinking much of what she was doing. When she
entered the room her dullness vanished on the spot. She could examine
one cage after the other; could poke in her hand and draw it away
again when the mice tried to bite her. There were a lot of little baby
mice in one cage. She thought it would be nothing short of bliss to
examine them, to count them, and to see what they were really like.
But of course the sick rat, Pip, must have her first attentions. He
was in a cage all alone—by no means a perfect cage, for it was broken
at one side. Kitty, however, had secured it against the chance of the
rat’s escape by leaning a bit of board up against the broken side. Nan
knew nothing of this; she moved the cage so as to get it into a better
light, and peering down, looked at the sick rat. He was lying curled
up in the bottom of his cage, but the sudden movement and the sight of
Nan’s comparatively unfamiliar face gazing at him caused Pip to become
wide awake. At that instant a thrill of fear shot through his rodent
heart. Nan, without knowing it, had caused the piece of wood to slip.
The very next instant the rat was out of his cage, and was scuttling
as fast as ever he could rush across the floor.

Now, this was bad enough—for nothing would induce poor Nan to catch
him—but worse was to follow; for Jack, grown a large pup now and full
of spirit, had followed his little mistress, unknown to her, into the
attic. The next moment there was a cry, a scuffle, and Jack had caught
the sick rat by the neck. Nan screamed, rushed at the dog and rat, and
tried to separate them. Alack and alas! the spirit of his ancestors
was in Jack’s veins at that moment; his hairs bristled in excitement.
It did not take him long to shake the life out of poor Pip, who lay
dead and torn on the floor of the attic.

Nan’s consternation exceeded all bounds.

“What shall I do? What shall I do?” she exclaimed.

She said the words aloud. A light, low laugh falling on her ears
caused her to turn quickly, and she saw, standing in the doorway, a
fair-haired girl with large blue eyes and an exceedingly amused
expression on her face.

“Oh!” said Nan, giving a jump.

“What is the matter?” said the girl.

“Who are you?” said Nan.

“I am Augusta Duncan. But what have you been doing? You are a funny
girl, ratting up here all by yourself.”

“Oh! you don’t know what it means. It is perfectly awful! I came up to
see Kitty’s sick rat, Pip. She just worships Pip. She has had him
almost since he was born; and he was ill to-day, and she put him into
a separate cage, and while I was looking at him he escaped, and my
bull-terrier killed him.— Oh Jack! oh Jack! what have you done?”

The smile on the strange girl’s face became a little broader; she
slowly crossed the room, looked at the rat, and then going away, came
back with a pair of tongs. With the tongs she lifted the rat and laid
him on a shelf.

“He does not look bruised,” she said; “at least not much—a little
perhaps. His fur is wet, but I do not suppose Kitty will know what has
killed him. Have you courage to put him back into his cage?”

“Why should I do that?” asked Nan.

“Well, have you courage? I could not touch the horror.”

The laughing, curious eyes were fixed on Nan’s face. She did not know
why—she often wondered afterwards what had ailed her during that
miserable day—but the next instant she had slipped the rat back into
his cage.

“That is all right,” said the girl. “You need not tell; I will not.
Come, let us lock the door. Have you done any further mischief in the
room? I see not. Come downstairs to the schoolroom and amuse me.”

Nan followed the girl as though she were mesmerised, Jack trotting
behind her heels. They went into the schoolroom; the girl turned full
round and looked at Nan.

“Now, who are you?” she said.

“I am Nan Esterleigh.”

“Oh! And has my aunt adopted you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know that I am tired? I have had a very long journey; I have
come all the way from France. Aunt Jessie is very busy, and said that
I might come up to the schoolroom and amuse myself. She did not know
that you were here; she said nothing about you. Now, what I want to
say is this: if I keep your secret, will you make things pleasant to
me?”

“But—but,” said Nan, “I don’t know that I want it to be kept a
secret.”

“Oh! you would like Kitty to know that you had stolen into her
preserves when she was out, and that your dog had killed her pet rat?
It would be so pleasant for you, would it not?”

“It would not be pleasant at all,” replied Nan. “Why are you speaking
in that tone?”

“I only thought that perhaps you were going to enjoy it. And what good
would it do making Kitty unhappy? The rat was ill when she left; she
would take its death as a matter of course. She would not know that
Jack had killed it.”

“But suppose—oh, suppose she ever finds out!”

“How can she find out if you do not tell and I do not tell?”

“You tempt me,” said Nan; “but it does not seem right.”

“Never mind whether it is right or not; do it.”

“Very well,” said Nan.

She sat down on the hearth-rug and began poking up the fire.

“That is right. If I do it, you must do things for me. Build up that
fire to begin.”

Nan looked round at the insolent young figure stretched out in the
easiest chair which the room contained. She built up the fire without
a word.

“That is right; you can make yourself very useful. Now, run downstairs
and ask one of the servants to bring me up some tea and toast, and a
new-laid egg, and a little marmalade. Do not forget—toast, butter,
tea, new-laid egg, and a little marmalade. I must say I think it was
very thoughtless of Aunt Jessie not to order any food for me when I
arrived.”

“Oh! did not she? Of course I will go and order the tea,” said Nan in
a good-natured voice.

She left the room. Her heart was beating loudly. She did not like the
position of things a bit, but she seemed to be whirled along by an
influence stronger than her own.

“I am not even trying now to be one of the best girls,” she said under
her breath.

When she came back to the schoolroom, Augusta was curled up close to
the fire with Jack in her lap.

“What a nice little dog!” she said. “I should rather like to have him
for my own.”

“Oh! but you can’t,” said Nan. “He is mine.”

Augusta gave her a quizzical glance.

“You can call him yours,” she said. “While I am here he is to be my
dog—hey, you little beauty?” and she caught up Jack and pressed his
head against her cheek.

Presently Susan appeared with the tea, which was nicely prepared,
Augusta’s instructions being carried out to the letter.

“Here, Jack,” said Augusta; “stand on your hind-legs and beg. You
shall have some sugar.”

“Oh! please, sugar is not good for him at all,” said Nan in a tone of
entreaty.

Augusta laughed, picked out the largest lump, and presented it to
Jack. He crunched it with appetite; when he had finished she gave him
another, and another.

“You will ruin him. He will get to be a horrid dog at this rate,” said
Nan.

“Well, when I leave here you can do what you like with him. While I am
on the spot it is my will and pleasure to treat little Jack exactly as
I think best.”

Nan turned away. She felt a strange, sick sensation round her heart.

“I cannot allow myself to get into the power of this horrid girl,” she
said to herself. “It would be better to have Kitty quite furiously
angry with me for an hour or two; yes, it would be much better than to
have that girl spoiling Jack, and ordering me about just as though I
were her slave.”

“I wish you would get me something to read,” called out Augusta.

“There is a shelf full of books there,” replied Nan. “You can choose
which one you like. I am not allowed to walk much because I have hurt
my foot.”

“How did you hurt it?”

“I was out to-day getting flowers for Mrs. Richmond, and I fell.”

“Oh, how stupid! Did you go out by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Hum! Where did you go?”

“Not very far off; just round the corner. There is a beautiful
florist’s shop just at that corner.”

“I dare say; but you are rather young to go out alone. Did Aunt Jessie
say you might?”

Nan coloured and bit her lips. Augusta noticed the expression on the
little girl’s face.

“Perhaps you would rather I did not say anything about this either,”
she remarked. “I won’t, you know, if you tell me not. I never make
mischief. I would not do so for all the world.”

“Well,” said Nan, “I did disobey Mrs. Richmond; but I was in such a
hurry because we were all going to the country—we were to have such a
lovely, lovely afternoon! I was very sorry afterwards that I did not
insist on Susan’s coming with me.”

“We are mostly sorry when we do wrong things,” said Augusta. “I am;
but then, you see, I do not get into scrapes. I would not for all the
world. I am the sort of girl who gets other girls out of scrapes. I
sometimes think that is my mission in life. What a lot of wrong things
you have done to-day! Gone out without permission, and been the cause
of poor Kitty’s favourite rat’s death. I would not be in your shoes
for a good deal—that is, unless I had a girl like me to help me. Now,
like a good child, bring me the least objectionable of the books on
that shelf.”

“Augusta,” said Nan.

“What a portentously solemn voice! Well? Augusta is listening.”

“I think it is better to say that—that I do not want you to keep
secrets for me.”

“Oh! all right, my dear—all right; you can please yourself exactly.
I’ll be able to explain just how I saw you with the dog in the room,
and the dead rat. Kitty will think you did it on purpose.”

“She could not think such a thing.”

“Well, you must admit that it looks like it; you up there, and the rat
dead, and Jack—_your_ Jack—having done it. However, please
yourself. We will see when the time comes what you will choose. We
will not decide at present. Now then, which is the best of the books?”

“I don’t know. Here is _The Fairchild Family_.”

“Never heard of it. It sounds goody-goody.”

“It is rather nice,” said Nan. “And here is _Ministering
Children_.”

“Oh! I do not want anything of the religious order.”

“And here is—oh! here is a charming book—_The Heir of Redclyffe_,
by Miss Yonge.”

“I have read it before, but I will glance through it again; just toss
the volume across to me.”

Nan brought it in a meek fashion to Augusta, who took it, raised her
eyes to the little dark face, and smiled.

“You are not a bad sort,” she said; “and you can be useful to me. I
mean to make you useful. Now sit down, Nan, and do not make a noise.
Read anything you like, only don’t disturb me.”

Augusta buried herself against some comfortable cushions, opened her
book, and was lost in its contents. Nan, feeling sick and miserable,
her ankle aching terribly, took the next most comfortable chair.

By-and-by there came a message for Augusta to go downstairs to Mrs.
Richmond.

“That is right,” she said, jumping up. “How do I look, Nan? Hair
tidy—eh?”

“Oh yes,” said Nan; “it is pretty well.”

“Pretty well! If you talk in that tone I shall send you for a brush
and comb and glass. Let me look at myself through your eyes. What big,
dark eyes you have! They are very pretty. You will be a handsome girl
by-and-by.”

“Shall I?” replied Nan, much comforted, not to say charmed, by these
words.

“Of course you will. And you are a nice little thing—quite nice. Now,
keep the fire alive, and look after _my_ Jack until I return.”



CHAPTER IX.

UNDER HER THUMB.


Augusta Duncan was considered by her elders to be one of the best
girls in existence. She was always neat and nice to look at; she had
refined, gracious, gentle manners. At school she learnt her lessons
correctly, and took place after place in form, rising by slow but sure
degrees to the head of the school. But Augusta was not a favourite
with her companions. Even they themselves did not always know why this
was the case. The fact is, they were a little afraid of her; she had
a way of getting them under her thumb, as she expressed it. Augusta
was never happy in any house until she had got the other girls into
this position. She had no special reason to make Nan Esterleigh’s life
a misery; but the moment she saw the little girl she grasped the
opportunity, and her favourite passion being immediately fed, her
appetite grew greater every moment. She was now resolved to have
complete power over Nan, who, she felt certain, could be very useful
to her.

“My dear Gussie,” said her aunt, coming forward and kissing her
affectionately as she entered the room, “you must have thought me
terribly rude on your arrival to send you upstairs; but I was
expecting some special friends, and was anxious to finish a lot of
letters. My friends will be with me in about half-an-hour, and
meantime you and I can have tea cosily together. How is your mother,
dear?”

“She and father are very well indeed. Is it not hard lines that I
cannot be with them?”

“Well, I hope you will be happy with me. We will all do what we can to
make you so.”

“Thank you, Aunt Jessie; I am always happy when I am with you and the
girls.”

“That is right, my love. You have grown a good deal, Augusta. I see
you are going to take after your father’s family; you will be tall.”

“I am glad of that,” said Augusta. “I would rather be tall than short;
it gives one more power in the world.”

“You silly child,” laughed her aunt; “what do you want with power?”

“I love to feel that I have power, Aunt Jessie. I always like to
exercise it when I can.”

“Well, the time may come when it will be useful, but at present your
lot in life is to obey your elders, and to be happy with your young
companions.”

“Of course, Aunt Jessie—of course. May I sit on this little footstool
at your feet, and may I hold your hand?”

“Indeed you may, my darling child. I am so happy to have you with me
for a little!”

“Thank you, Aunt Jessie.”

“It must be lonely for you, dear, up in the schoolroom at present, but
the three girls will be in to supper; they have gone to Shirley
Woods—a long-promised treat.”

“The three girls!” said Augusta, raising her calm blue eyes. “Then
there are four girls now in the house?”

“Counting you, there are.”

“But I mean without me.”

“I do not understand you, dear.”

“Well, Aunt Jessie, there is a girl up in the schoolroom. She says
her name is Nan—Nan Esterleigh.”

“Little Nan,” cried Mrs. Richmond. “Did not she go with the others?”

“No; I found her in the schoolroom when I arrived.”

“I wonder what can be wrong with the child.”

“I don’t think much; she has slipped and hurt her foot, but it is
nothing.”

“I must go up to see about her.”

“Oh! please, not now, just when you have sent for me, and I am longing
to have a talk with you. Nan was as happy as possible when I came down
here. I left her playing with her little dog, and seated by the fire.”

“If you can assure me she is not in pain I will not go to her till
after tea,” said Mrs. Richmond; “I am rather tired, having had a lot of
running about this morning. But what a pity the poor child never told
me of this! How strange of Miss Roy to have gone off without her!”

“I know nothing about that, of course,” replied Augusta. “But tell me
about her, Aunt Jessie. Is she any relation? Does she live here now? I
never heard of her before.”

“She does live here, Augusta, and I hope she will continue to do so.”

“How mysterious you look, Aunt Jessie! Is there any story about her?”

“In one sense there is, Augusta; but I do not care to talk about it.
The dear child is a great pleasure to me. We all love her very much.”

“But do tell me, please, Aunt Jessie—do. I so love to hear anything
mysterious!”

“There is nothing mysterious, darling; but perhaps, as you have asked
me, I may as well tell. Nan is the dear little daughter of a great
friend of mine, a Mrs. Esterleigh, who died about three months ago. At
her death Nan came here.”

“Oh!” said Augusta.

She was silent for a minute, thinking.

“And is she no relation?” she asked then.

“No; only the daughter of a very great friend.”

“Is she, Aunt Jessie, a—rich little girl?”

“Rich in friends, I hope, Augusta; but rich, poor darling, in nothing
else. Her mother did not leave any money behind her. But it is a great
pleasure to have Nan, and I hope she will live here always.”

“Then you have adopted her.”

“Practically; only the matter cannot be fully arranged for a time.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“There are some other people—friends of her father’s—who have also
the right to adopt Nan.”

“What a curious, romantic story! People do not as a rule want to adopt
little penniless girls.”

“I want to adopt her; and I do not quite like that tone in your voice,
Augusta. Nan is not under the slightest obligation to me, and I wish
you to understand that. Her mother once on a most important occasion
in my life did me a kindness which I can never, never forget, and for
her sake nothing that I could do for her child would be too much.”

“And you will not tell me what it is?”

“I have told no one yet. When Nan is older she shall know.”

“And these other people?”

“The Asprays. I hope Nan will not go to them. They have quite another
reason for wishing to have her as one of the family. Now, do not ask
me any more. I hear our guests arriving. Will you stay with me, or go
upstairs to Nan?”

“I think I will stay if you do not mind; I can go up to Nan later on.
What an interesting story! And what a dear aunty you are!”

Augusta rose as she spoke, and kissed Mrs. Richmond on her cheek.

Several ladies came into the room, and one and all admired Augusta;
for her manners were good, and she had an attentive, thoughtful way
which stood her in excellent stead with her elders. By-and-by she went
upstairs of her own accord, and then the ladies turned to Mrs.
Richmond and praised her, saying what a very nice girl they considered
her.

When Augusta went back to the schoolroom she found that Nan’s foot was
really very painful.

“I must not walk any more,” she said. “What have you been doing,
Augusta? Have you had a good time?”

“I have been listening to a story about you,” said Augusta in a marked
voice.

She looked full at Nan, who felt her heart beat, and who coloured
uncomfortably. Just then there came the sound of laughter and of
voices, and the next instant the two little girls and their governess
entered the room. They brought big baskets of violets and primroses.
The air of the schoolroom was full of the sweet scent of the violets.
Kitty rushed up to Nan and kissed her: then they both saw Augusta, who
was standing in the background, and uttered a shout of delight.
Augusta went up to them, kissed them both, and stood close to Nan.

“I must run up at once to see how Pip is,” cried Kitty. “I have been
thinking of the darling all the time I have been coming home. I wonder
if he is better. Do not keep me, please, Nan. I won’t be a minute, but
I want just to see how he is.”

She was dashing out of the room when Nan’s voice came faintly—very
faintly—on the air:

“Kitty, one minute first!”

“Little fool!” said Augusta. She bent down close to the child and laid
her hand across her mouth.

Nobody else had heard Nan’s low tones. Nora followed Kitty out of the
room; she also ran upstairs to see the sick rat.

“You are too late now,” said Augusta. “Just keep your own counsel.
Pretend that your foot is aching; that will account for your queer
looks. And, by-the-bye, I let Mrs. Richmond understand that you had
slipped on the stairs and strained your foot, and you must stick to
the story when she asks you about it. Now then, just keep your
courage, hold your tongue, and all will be well.”

There came a piercing cry from poor Kitty, who rushed into the room,
her face white, and tears in her big eyes.

“Pip is dead!” she said.

She flung herself into a chair, panting slightly. It was not her
nature to cry, and she did not cry now; but her face looked white and
startled. Augusta gave her a quick look. Nan shivered all over with
sympathy for Kitty and longing to speak; but Augusta’s eyes met hers,
and there was such a world of warning and determination in their
glance that she succumbed.

“Why, what is the matter,” said Miss Roy, who at that moment entered
the room. “What a tragic group! Nan looking as though the world were
coming to an end, and Kitty—— Why, my darling, what is wrong?”

“It is Pip,” said Kitty. “He is dead. He died when I was out. He must
have had a fit or something, for he looks so queer; and nothing could
have got at him, for the cage is firmly fastened, and just as I left
it. I will never love another rat. I want to go away by myself for a
little. Do not talk to me. Oh! I will not make a fuss, but I cannot be
very cheerful to-night.”

She went sadly out of the room.

“And Nan, what is wrong with you?” said her governess. “You were not
well when we left, and you look worse now.”

“It is my foot,” said Nan. “I said that I had hurt it—don’t you
remember? And it has got worse; it hurts very much indeed.”

“Poor little girl! You must let me look at it.”

Nan pulled down her stocking and showed a much-swollen ankle.

“My dear child, this will never do. I must bandage it immediately. You
have given yourself quite a nasty sprain; for the next few days you
must keep your foot up. Have you been using it much this afternoon?”

“Only a very little.”

“I am afraid I have been to blame,” said Augusta, speaking at this
juncture in her most amiable voice. “I did not know that poor little
Nan was suffering from a sprained ankle, and asked her to go a few
messages for me. I am ever so sorry!”

“But why did you go, Nan? Why did you not tell Augusta?”

“I did not want to,” replied Nan.

“Well, you were very silly. Now, dear, I am going to bathe your poor
ankle and bind it up.”

This was done very skilfully. Nan’s foot was supported on a chair; and
soon, had it not been for the dead rat, and for the fact that she was
concealing the truth, she might have been almost happy.



CHAPTER X.

A MYSTERY.


All in good time Nan’s foot got better, but for a week she was kept
away from school, and during that week Augusta contrived to rivet her
chains. At the end of that time she was able to walk again, and, to
her own infinite relief, she went back to school. She learnt her
lessons just as carefully as ever; she was pronounced by her teachers
to be a remarkably clever and intelligent child; but there was a
change in her face. It had not the look that it had worn when first
she had come to the Richmonds’, but in some respects its expression
was even sadder. Then it was just grief, absolute and terrible, for
the loss of her mother; now there was a new expression in the frank
eyes and sensitive lips, which puzzled those who looked at her. In
process of time Kitty had got over the death of Pip. Her affections
were deep, and nothing would induce her to talk about the rat; but she
was a merry and happy child in other respects. She would not have a
rat again, she said—at least, not for a very long time; but she
attended to her mice, and looked after Nora’s rat, and saw that the
dogs and kittens were comfortable, and that Polly had a good time in
her cage. Not the faintest gleam of suspicion attached itself to Nan.
Jack’s share in the death of Pip was likely to remain a secret to the
end of time; so also was the true story of Nan’s sprained foot. But
what ailed Nan herself? Kitty remarked on the change in her one day to
Nora.

“She is not a bit the same, and I cannot make out what is wrong with
her,” she said. “Do you think by any chance, Noney, that Augusta has
anything to do with it?”

“Oh no!” replied Nora. “Augusta is a very nice girl, and she is
extremely fond of Nan: she often says so.”

“Well, I am not quite so sure,” replied Kitty. “I saw her two days
ago”——

“Yes; what did you see two days ago?”

“I do not like to tell tales, but I came into the schoolroom quite
unexpectedly. I slipped away, and no one saw.”

“Well, go on; you always are so mysterious, Kitty.”

“Nan was crying.”

“Yes.”

“And Augusta was scolding her. I heard Augusta say, ‘If you tell you
will be the biggest little fool that I ever heard of.’ Now, why should
she say that?”

“Are you sure you heard those words?” asked Nora in a tone of great
astonishment.

“Yes, I am certain she said them; and she meant them. And Nan’s face
was—oh, so miserable! I got out of the room, and no one knew that I
was listening; but I have a great mind to speak to Nan about it.”

“I wish you would. If Nan has a secret on her mind she had much better
tell us. She is looking so pale! She seems to have no life in her—no
interest in anything.”

“Very well; I will. I will tell her what I overheard.”

Nora and Kitty were as downright and honest as Augusta was the
reverse. But Augusta was very clever; she knew well what sort of
characters she had to deal with in the two little sisters; and whereas
she secretly bullied Nan, held her secret for her, and had her
absolutely in thrall, she was careful not to pursue any such methods
with the sisters. With them she was open and above-board, delighting
them with her apparent frankness, telling good stories, taking their
parts, laughing with them—making the schoolroom party a very merry
one indeed.

On the evening of the very same day that Kitty had made her small
confidence to Nora, Nora and Augusta were walking home together. In
consequence of Augusta’s superior age they were allowed to go as far
as the Park by themselves, and they were hastening home now to be in
time for the schoolroom tea.

“How nice it will be when I am grown-up,” said Augusta. “I shall be
fifteen before very long, and then it will not take many years before
I am out and enjoying myself. I mean to get mother to take me a great
deal into society. I should love balls and parties, and gay frocks,
and—and admirers.”

“Oh dear! it is more than I would,” said Nora. “I do not a bit want to
be grown-up.”

“You will when the time comes; and of course you are too young to
think of it at present. I expect you will look very nice when you grow
up, Nora.”

“I don’t care whether I do or not. I don’t care twopence about my
looks. I want to do my lessons well, and to learn a good bit, and then
to devote myself to natural history. I shall never care for human
beings as I care for animals. I want some day to own a complete
menagerie or a sort of Zoo. If ever I have money in the future I will
buy a great big garden, and have high—very high—walls round it; and
I will keep all sorts of animals in great cages—wild creatures, you
know—leopards and tigers and pumas. Oh! and wild-cats. And I will
have a deep, deep sunken pond with alligators. I suppose I must not
venture on a crocodile. I’ll have a snake-house, too. And of course
I’ll have lots of domestic animals. I think Kitty will share what
money she has with me, so we will make it quite a big thing. We will
not want to have anything to do with men and women; we will live alone
with our darlings. Oh! I think they are so sweet—so very, very
superior to men and women.”

“You are an extraordinary girl,” said Augusta; “but of course you will
change when the time comes. You cannot be different from the rest of
the world. When I am married, and have a beautiful carriage, and a
very rich husband, and heaps and heaps and heaps of money, I will come
and see you, and drag you out of your Zoo, and take you about and show
people what a pretty face you have; and then a prince will come along
and make love to you, and—and you will forget your animals because of
the beautiful words of the prince, and the poor animals will be
neglected and they will die off because you will have married the
prince and have gone away with him. That will be the end of your
day-dream, my dear, funny Nora.”

Nora laughed.

“We will see,” she answered. “But, talking of pretty girls, do you not
think that Nan will be very, very pretty when she is grown-up,
Augusta?”

“Hum!” said Augusta. “Well, yes, if she is happy I suppose she will.
Don’t you think there is something funny the matter with Nan, Nora?
Can you account for it?”

“I cannot,” said Nora, startled and amazed at Augusta’s words. “I wish
you could tell me. Can you throw any light on the change in her?”

“Oh! you have observed the change?”

“Of course I have. And, do you know, it all began the day you came
here. Of course, dear little Nan was very sad when first she came to
live with mother, but she had got over it, and we were all so fond of
her; we thought her such a darling! And she was so merry; she used to
laugh so heartily. And she was quite comforted because we gave her
Jack as her own special little dog; but now it seems to us that Jack
is more your Jack than hers, and Nan is very sad.”

“Poor Nan! I have noticed it myself. I am anxious about her.”

“Then you do not know what is the matter?”

“I think I do partly, but I must not say; perhaps she will tell you
herself.”

“Oh! but won’t you say? It does seem unkind to have a weight of care
on her dear little mind and not to have it relieved.”

“Why do you always talk about her as though she were such a tiny
creature? She is nearly as old as you.”

“She is the same age as Kitty, but somehow she looks and feels
younger.”

“Well, if I were you I would not take much notice,” said Augusta. “She
will come right all in good time. Of course, you know, it is not as if
she had been brought up with you; she was brought up by her mother,
who was a very poor woman.”

“It is not poverty that makes Nan so strange and queer at present,”
answered Nora.

“I know it is not. I cannot make her out myself, poor child; I am
afraid she is naturally of a very melancholy disposition.”

The girls chatted a little longer. Nora had obtained no light whatever
on Nan’s trouble, and went into the house feeling worried and
distressed.

Augusta managed to rush into the schoolroom before the sisters
appeared.

“You must try to be cheerful, Nan,” she said; “they are both
suspecting that there is something amiss. You must really rouse
yourself or the whole thing will be discovered, and where would you be
then?”

“What would happen if it were?” said Nan.

“Happen! I suppose they would forgive you; but, seeing the peculiar
circumstances under which you live in this house, I should not like to
be in your shoes. Whoever could think well again of a girl who is
deceitful?”

“But I am not. Oh! I would tell now—I would tell gladly were it not
for you.”

“It certainly would not be very kind of you to get me into a scrape
when I did what I could to get you out of one,” was Augusta’s answer.
“But come! cheer up—do. We will have some jolly games after dinner;
and, if you are an awfully good girl, I have something rather exciting
to tell you to-morrow. No, not to-day—to-morrow.”

The girls came in; Miss Roy followed. They had all high tea together
at half-past six, and immediately afterwards Augusta proposed games.

She was a splendid leader when there was anything of that sort for her
to do, and soon the children—even Nan—were laughing merrily and
enjoying themselves to their hearts’ content. It was not until bedtime
that Kitty ran up to Nan, put her arms round her neck, looked into her
eyes, and said in her sweetest, most coaxing voice:

“Nancy, I am coming into your room early tomorrow morning—quite
early. When I come, may I creep into your bed, and put my arms round
your neck, and kiss you a lot of times?”

“I should like it ever so much,” said Nan.

“I will come. Good-night, Nan darling.”

Augusta was standing near when Kitty made her petition of Nan.

As Augusta herself was going to bed she went up to Nan and kissed her.

“What did Kitty say to you?” she asked in a whisper.

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense! Tell me at once.”

“She said that she was coming to see me to-morrow morning early, to
get into my bed.”

“Oh,” said Augusta, “that sort of thing means confidences. Be careful,
Nan; be careful what you are doing.”

Nan said nothing, but went away to her room. When she got there she
fell on her knees by the open window and looked out.

It had been a lovely day in spring, and the night was clear, fine, and
balmy. Nan opened her window and let the soft air blow on her hot
little face.

“It is four months since mother died,” she said to herself; “a great,
great deal has happened, and I scarcely know myself. I have learnt to
love Mrs. Richmond and the two girls. As to Jack, I think he is the
dearest little thing in the world; and I have forgotten Sophia Maria.
I have almost forgotten Phoebe; but I still love Mr. Pryor. And, oh!
mother, mother, up in heaven, do you see Nan now, and are you pitying
her, and are you telling me what is right to do? For I am not a good
girl; and as to being the best girl that Mr. Pryor speaks about—oh
I—I am more like the worst. And I am so afraid of Augusta! I think I
do really, out and out, hate her. I do not know what she means by
frightening me and making me so unhappy. Oh! I wish I had never
yielded to her. I wish I had the courage to tell Kitty the truth.”

As Nan knelt at the window it came into her head that she might ask
God to give her the necessary courage, but then a wild sensation of
terror swept over her.

“If Augusta were not in the house I might tell, but Augusta would make
it out to be so bad; she told me she would. She told me that if I ever
told what I had done she would say that I implored of her not to tell,
and she said that her word would be believed before mine; and I know
it would, of course, because she is quite old beside me. What a
miserable girl I am!”

Nan went to bed, and after a time, wretched as she felt, she fell
asleep. But her sleep was haunted by dreams, and it was with a cry
that she woke on the following morning when Kitty touched her.

“Here I am, Nancy,” said Kitty. “Just push over to the left side and
let me get into your bed.”

Nan made room, and the two little girls lay side by side.

“Now, this is quite cosy,” said Kitty.

“Isn’t it?” replied Nan.

“You are very fond of me, are you not, Nancy?”

“Oh yes; very—very.”

“And of Nora too?”

“Very; I love you both most dearly.”

“And you love mother?”

“Not as I love you two, but I do love her.”

“And you love Augusta?”

Nan was silent.

“I thought you did; you are so much together, and you do such a lot of
things for her. Sometimes Nora and I are rather angry when we see you
trotting here and there, up and down stairs, fetching and carrying for
Gussie. It is all very well, but Gus ought not to put things on you.
If you do not like her, why do you do it?”

“Oh! never mind, Kitty. I do it because”——

“Well, because of what?”

“Because I do.”

“That is a very silly reason—and for such a clever girl to give!”

“I cannot help it; that is why I do it.”

“Then let me tell you why you do it,” said Kitty: “because you are
afraid of her.”

Nan gave a sudden shrink into herself, and the little start all over
her frame was not lost on Kitty, who lay so close to her.

“Nan,” said Kitty after a pause, “why are you afraid of her?”

“I did not say I was.”

“But I know it; and so does Nora.”

“You know it! Oh—oh! please—please do not know it any more.”

“I am going to tell you something. Two days ago I came into the
schoolroom; it was in the dusk, before the lamps were lit. You were
standing up, and Augusta was lying back in the easy-chair. Your face
was turned towards the door, and Augusta’s back was to the door, but
neither of you saw me; and I heard Augusta say to you, ‘If you tell
you will be the biggest little fool that I ever heard of.’ Yes, Nan,
those were her words; and you—you began to cry. You had been crying
before, and you cried harder than ever. I slipped out of the room; but
I want to know the meaning—yes, I want to know the meaning, Nancy.”

When Kitty finished speaking Nan suddenly flung both her arms very
tightly round her neck.

“Why, you are trembling all over, Nan; what does it mean?”

“It means this,” said Nan—“this.”

“But what? You are not saying anything; you are only just shivering
and clinging to me. What is the matter? Of course, Nora and I notice
how terribly changed you are and how unhappy you look.”

“Never mind about that; please answer me one question.”

“Yes; what is it?”

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. We all do—I mean Nora and mother and I; we
love you dearly—dearly.”

“Better than the animals?”

“Oh, well! I am not sure, but in a different way, anyhow.”

“Better than your white rat that died?”

“I wish you would not talk about Pip. He is dead, poor darling. I
think of him often at night. I loved him. I love him still. Do not let
us talk about him.”

“Kitty, will you promise?”

“What, Nan—what?”

“That you will not ever say anything again about—about Augusta and
me.”

“What about you?”

“What you overheard.”

“Well, if you do not wish it. But why will you not tell? You are
afraid of her; what power has she over you?”

“I do not know. I mean I do; I want to tell you, but I don’t dare to.
Let us talk about your rat—poor Pip.”

“How very queer you are, Nan! If there is a subject that I hate
talking about it is about Pip.”

“But why?”

“I will tell you why. I have not told anybody else, not even Nora, but
I will tell you. I ought not to have gone away that day in the country
when Pip was so ill. It was awfully selfish of me! Perhaps if I hadn’t
gone he would not have had that fit, poor dear! and he might have been
alive still.”

“He might, of course,” said Nan, who knew well that he would have been
alive, for certainly Jack would not have got at him had Kitty remained
at home.

“That is why I am so absolutely miserable when I think about it,”
continued Kitty. “The poor darling died quite neglected; even you did
not go up to see him, because I asked you not.”

“And if,” said Nan, trembling very much—“if Pip had not died in the
way you think, but from a sort of an accident, how would you feel
then?”

“How would I feel if Pip had met with an accident? But he did not meet
with an accident.”

“But let us suppose,” said Nan—“it is fun sometimes to suppose—let
us suppose that he did, that that was the way he died.”

“I cannot suppose what did not happen, and I hate to talk of it.”

“But if it had, and—and somebody was to blame, how would you feel
towards that somebody?”

“You really are too extraordinary, Nan! I should hate that somebody. I
tell you what it is,” continued Kitty, “I would never forgive that
person—never, never. But there! what nonsense you are talking!
Nothing of the kind did happen. That is not your secret, is it?”

“Oh! of course not—of course not,” said Nan, frightened, and plunging
into the biggest lie she had yet told. “No, no—of course not; only I
like to wonder and think things out. It amuses me; I was always given
that way.”

“Well,” said Kitty, “you gave me a fright. You talked as if it might
be the case; and your voice was so queer and shaky! I do believe there
is a mystery, but of course it is not that.”

“No, it is not that.”

“You did not go up to see Pip?”

“Of course not.”

“I am sorry I asked, for of course you would not do it, as I told you
not. Nan darling, do please tell me what makes you so unhappy; please
tell me. Let us forget about my little Pip. He is in his grave, poor,
darling little rat, and all his troubles are over. He was so
affectionate, and I was so fond of him! But he will never feel any
pain ever again. And I love you, Nan; and Noney and I are wretched to
think that you are so unhappy.”

“It is all right,” said Nan. “I will try not to be unhappy in the
future. I have things that worry me now and then.”

“I will tell you what one of them is: you are afraid of Augusta; she
has a power over you. You will be all right again when she goes away.”

“I don’t know,” said Nan; “perhaps so.”

Kitty could get nothing further out of Nan, and as it was now time to
get up, she went slowly back to her own room.

Nora raised her head when Kitty came.

“Well,” she said, “have you discovered anything?”

“Nothing. I begin to think Nan a very strange little girl. Do you
know, she asked me such a funny question! She said, ‘Suppose Pip had
died by an accident, and somebody was to blame, how would you feel
towards the somebody?’”

“What did you say?”

“That I would hate that somebody, and never forgive her.”

“I wonder why she said it,” continued Nora.

“Oh! I am sure I don’t know. I asked her point-blank if Pip had come
by an accident, and she said ‘No,’ and that nobody had been upstairs.
She is a very strange girl, but I love her all the same.”



CHAPTER XI.

THE MIDDLE WAY.


On the following Sunday Nan came to Mrs. Richmond with a request.

“I do so want to see Mr. Pryor!” she said. “I have not seen him for two
or three months; and he said that he was always at home on Sundays.
May I go there this afternoon with Susan? Do, please, let me, Mrs.
Richmond.”

“Certainly, Nan dear; I am always glad that you should see your
mother’s dear old friend.”

So after early dinner, Nan, dressed in her pretty and neat mourning,
started off, accompanied by Susan, to visit Mr. Pryor. She had not
ventured to the house where her mother had died before, for on the
last occasion of their meeting Mr. Pryor had come to see her. The door
was opened by Phoebe, who, in her delight at seeing Nan, forgot all
decorum, and shocked Susan almost out of her wits by flinging her arms
round the little girl’s neck and hugging her tightly.

“Oh, Miss Nan! it is good to see you; and my missus, Mrs. Vincent, will
be that pleased! You will come down, miss, and have a cup of tea with
my mistress before you go back, won’t you? Oh! it is elegant you look.
What a pretty frock, miss! It ain’t cut by our pattern, be it, miss?”

“No,” said Nan. “Please, Phoebe, can I see Mr. Pryor?”

“It is delighted he will be to see you, darling. I’ll just run up and
ask him. Won’t you come into the parlour, dear? The parlour lodgers
has gone, and there is no one there at present. Wait a minute, love,
while I inquire whether Mr. Pryor is in. Oh! of course he must be; but
I’ll go and find out.”

Nan and Susan went into the parlour, and presently Phoebe rushed
downstairs.

“Mr. Pryor says you are to go up this very minute, miss. And he has
ordered tea for two, and muffins and cream. And perhaps this young
person would come to the kitchen.”

Poor Phoebe glanced with admiring eyes at Susan. Susan’s manners were
staid and of a rebuking character. She did not think Phoebe at all the
sort of girl she would care to associate with; but as Nan said in a
careless tone, “Yes, Susan, go downstairs,” and then ran by herself to
the drawing-room floor, there was nothing for it but to obey.

“What an elegant young lady Miss Nan has grown,” said Phoebe. “Come
downstairs, won’t you, miss? My mistress will make you right welcome.”

So Susan had to make the best of it, and tripped down, accompanied by
Phoebe.

Upstairs a very hearty welcome had taken place. Mr. Pryor had kissed
Nan, and taken her hand and made her seat herself in the most
comfortable armchair in the room; and then he had stood in front of
her and looked her all over, from her head to the points of her neat
little shoes.

“Well, Nancy,” he said, “and how goes the world?”

“I am very unhappy,” replied Nan at once. “For a time I felt better,
but I am unhappy now. I have a great big secret, and it weighs on me
and gets heavier and heavier every day; and I can never tell it, not
to you nor to anybody; and I can never, never, never now be the best
girl that mother wanted me to be.”

“That is very sad indeed, Nancy,” replied her friend; “and I cannot
understand it, my dear. Nobody ought to be in the position you have
just described yourself to be in, far less a little girl who is
treated with such kindness and love.”

“It is because I am loved, and because they are so sweet, that I am so
dreadfully unhappy,” said Nan. “I have told a lot of lies, Mr. Pryor,
and I can never unsay them. I can never tell the truth, for if I did
those whom I love would cease to love me. When it began I did not
think it would be such a big thing, but now it has grown and grown,
and I can think of nothing else. My lessons, and my play, and my
walks, and even dear little Jack, are not a bit interesting to me
because of this big Thing. There is no way out, Mr. Pryor; there is no
way out at all.”

“That is not true, Nancy, my dear.”

Mr. Pryor sat down and looked thoughtful. The little girl’s face, the
tone of her voice, the suffering which filled her eyes, showed him
that her sorrow, whatever its nature, was very real.

“Suppose we ask God to help us out of this,” he said after a moment’s
pause.

“I don’t want to ask God, for I know what He will say, and I cannot do
it.”

“What will God say, Nancy?”

“That I must tell—that I am to tell the people what I did. And they
will never, never forgive me, and I cannot tell—I cannot tell, Mr.
Pryor.”

“Then, my dear Nancy, why did you come to see me?”

“Because I thought perhaps you would find the middle way.”

“The middle way, Nancy?”

“The way between the very naughty and the very good. There must be a
middle way, and I want to get into it and to keep in it. Cannot you
find it for me?”

“I have never heard of it, Nancy—never. I am afraid there is no
middle way. You have done, I take it, something wrong; and you have,
I take it, told a lie about it.”

“That is it.”

“And one lie, as is invariably the case, has led to another, and to
another, and to another.”

“Oh yes, Mr. Pryor, that is certainly it.”

“And each lie makes your poor little heart feet more sad, and each lie
shuts out more and more of the beautiful sunshine of God’s love from
your spirit. Nancy, there is no middle way. You must go on telling
those lies, and adding to the misery of your life, and getting lower
and lower and your heart harder and harder, until after a time that
happens which”——

“What?” said Nan. “You frighten me.”

“That happens which is the result of sin. You do not suffer any more
pain; your conscience ceases to prick you; that voice within you is
tired, and will not speak any more because you have treated it so
badly. That is what will happen in the lower path on which you are
preparing to walk.”

“You terrify me. I am sorry I came. I will not stay any longer. I
could not tell.”

“Come here, Nancy, and let us talk it over.”

“I cannot—I do not want to say any more. Let us forget it.”

“My dear child, you would not have come to me if you had not
hoped”——

“Yes; I hoped that you would show me the middle path.”

“There is none. Nancy dear, will you not confide in me if I faithfully
promise that I will not tell any one what you have done.”

Nan paused to think.

“I should like to,” she said, “but I have promised not to tell.”

“Who did you promise?”

“I cannot even tell you that. Perhaps I will some day; perhaps I will
get the person to allow me to tell you. It is a dreadful thing, and it
seemed so small at the beginning! I am a very unhappy girl.”

“It requires a little pluck to get out of this dilemma, Nancy. But the
strong hand of God would help you over this crisis in your life, and,
lo and behold! the darkness would go, and sunshine and joy would be
yours again.”

“I hoped so once, but I spoke to Kitty the other morning. I made up a
sort of case, and I tried to find out what she would feel; and she
said that if anybody had done such an awful thing, that person would
be her enemy, and she would never, never forgive her. And then she
asked me what I meant, and if anybody had done it; and I told a lot of
fresh lies, and said no—nobody had done it; and I cannot go to Kitty
now and tell her that I did it after all.”

“You are very mysterious, Nancy, and you make me very unhappy; but if
you have quite made up your mind to go on being a naughty girl and
adding to this burden of lies, I will not talk about it any more just
now. But I will pray a great deal for you, and beg of God not to let
your conscience go to sleep.”

“Oh, please, do not, for I am so miserable!”

“Here comes the tea. Will you pour me out a cup?” was Mr. Pryor’s
answer.

Phoebe, with her beaming face, brought in the tray.

“If you please, miss, Mrs. Vincent would like to see you very much
before you go away. Susan is having an agreeable time in the kitchen
with a new-laid egg and buttered toast to her tea; and Mrs. Vincent
will be so glad to see you once again, miss!”

Nan murmured something. Phoebe left the room. Even Phoebe noticed the
shadow on the little face.

“Now, come,” said Mr. Pryor; “you know exactly how I like my tea; pour
it out for me. One lump of sugar and a very little cream. Ah! that is
right.”

Nan ministered to the dear old gentleman, and as he chatted upon every
subject but the one closest her heart, she tried to cheer up for his
sake.

By-and-by her visit came to an end. She bade Mr. Pryor good-bye. He
told her that he would be in any day if she wished to speak to him,
but he did not again allude to her secret. Mrs. Vincent was enraptured
with Nan’s appearance, and made her turn round two or three times in
order to get a good view of the cut of her dress.

“I declare, Phoebe,” she said, “you could take the pattern of that in
your mind, so to speak. It is a very stylish little costume; most
elegant it would look on my little granddaughter, Rosie Watson.”

Phoebe sniffed in a somewhat aggressive way; she did not consider that
Rosie Watson had any right to the same pattern as Nan. Soon afterwards
Susan and Nan left the house and went back to Mayfield Gardens.



CHAPTER XII

“I SHALL STAY FOR A YEAR.”


Nan was so unhappy that night that she could not sleep. She was glad
that she had a room to herself, for it did not matter how often she
tossed from side to side, or how often she turned her pillow, or how
often she groaned aloud. Mr. Pryor’s words, “There is no middle path,”
kept ringing over and over in her ears. She thought of her mother,
too, and of what her mother would feel if she saw her now—a little
girl surrounded by every kindness, surrounded by luxuries and the good
things of life, and yet, because she was afraid, going down and down
and down the broad and steep path which led to destruction.

“It means that I will not see mother if I do not tell,” thought the
child; and then she burst into tears. Towards morning she made up her
mind that she would try to overcome her terrors; she would at least
see Mr. Pryor and tell him exactly what had happened—she would tell
him the whole truth—and be guided by his advice.

“Perhaps he will not think it necessary for me to tell everything,”
thought the child. “Anyhow, I know he will not be hard on me, for I do
not think he could be that on any one.”

Having finally made up her mind to confide in Mr. Pryor, she became
soothed and comparatively happy, and dropped off towards morning into
a quiet sleep.

She overslept herself, as was but natural, and had to jump up and
dress in a hurry; but hurry as she would she was late for breakfast.
Miss Roy said:

“Nancy, this is not as it should be.”

But she was a very gentle and considerate person, and when she saw how
pale Nan’s face looked, and how sad was the expression round her lips,
she forbore to chide her further.

The children started off for school immediately after breakfast, and
the day’s routine proceeded as usual. In the afternoon Nan went up to
Miss Roy and made a request.

“I want to know if you will do something for me; there is something I
want very, very badly.”

“What is it, my dear?” asked the governess.

“Will you walk with me as far as Mr. Pryor’s? I want to see him.”

“But, my dear Nancy, you saw him yesterday.”

“But I want to see him awfully badly again to-day.”

“That sounds rather absurd.”

“He was a great friend of mother’s, and it is most important; may I
go, Miss Roy?”

Just at that moment Augusta strolled into the schoolroom.

“Ah, Nancy!” she said, “you promised to hold this wool for me. There
is a great lot to be wound; it will take us quite half-an-hour. Come,
we may as well start; I have got to wind all the coloured balls and
put them in order for Lady Denby’s bazaar.”

“I cannot do it this evening,” replied Nan, shrugging her shoulders
and turning back in sheer desperation to speak to Miss Roy.

“And I am afraid,” said Miss Roy, “I cannot go with you, dear, so
there is an end of it.”

“What is it?” said Augusta. “What does she want, Miss Roy?”

“Why, this silly little girl,” said Miss Roy, who saw no reason for
keeping Nan’s request a secret, “wants me to walk with her as far as
Mr. Pryor’s.”

“Who in the name of fortune is Mr. Pryor?” asked Augusta.

“A friend of mine, and you have nothing to do with him,” said Nan,
speaking fast, and her cheeks flushing with anger.

“Hoity-toity!” cried Augusta. “But I rather think I have something to
do with all your friends; for are you not my very own most special
friend—are you not, Nan? Come here and tell me so; come and tell me
so now before Miss Roy.”

“I won’t,” said Nan.

“But I think you will, darling. Just come along this minute.”

Nan went as if some one were pulling her back all the time. She got
within a foot of Augusta; there she stood still.

“Nearer still, sweet,” said Augusta. “You are my very great friend,
and I am your very great friend.”

“How mysterious you are, Gussie,” said Miss Roy. “Why, of course,
everybody knows that you and Nancy are great friends.”

“That is all right,” said Augusta, “I just wish to proclaim it in
public. I am very proud of our friendship.—I like you immensely,
Nancy; all my life long I hope to be good to you. And now, kneel; you
will oblige me by winding this wool.”

“I cannot. I must go out this evening.”

“And I cannot go with you, Nancy, so there is an end of it, I fear,”
said Miss Roy; and she walked out of the room, feeling rather annoyed
with Nancy.

“Now, Nancy, what is it?” asked Augusta.

“Nothing. I will hold your wool while you wind.”

“What a cross face! It is not at all agreeable to me to have a girl
like you standing in front of me. And I am so good to you, and
absolutely soiling my conscience for your sake—for, of course, I
ought to tell what I know; I ought, but I will not. Now then, smile,
won’t you?”

“I cannot.”

“Well, then, you need not smile. Here, hold this wool.”

The next half-hour was occupied by poor Nan in holding skeins of wool
until her arms ached. At the end of that time, to her great relief,
Augusta was called by Mrs. Richmond to go downstairs. Nan had the
schoolroom to herself. She stood still, pressing her hand to her eyes.
The next instant Augusta dashed into the room.

“Hurrah!” she said, “my dear aunty Jessie is going to take me to the
theatre. I shall be out the whole evening. What fun! We are to get
ready immediately; we will be off in no time.”

Augusta ran off to her own bedroom, and Nan went slowly into hers.
Quick as thought she made up her mind. If no one would take her to Mr.
Pryor, she would go to visit him alone. Miss Roy would be busy
downstairs for some time and would not miss her; Mrs. Richmond and
Augusta would be out; the two girls were spending the evening with
friends.

“The thing is too important. All my future hangs on it. I must see
him, and soon,” thought the child.

She put on her hat and coat, watched her opportunity, and slipped
downstairs. She got out without any one noticing her, and having a
very good eye for locality, in course of time found her way to Mr.
Pryor’s lodgings. She had walked the entire distance; it took her
exactly half-an-hour. Trembling in every limb, she mounted the steps
and rang the bell. How often she had stood on those steps by her
mother’s side! That failing form, that wan face, those loving eyes,
all returned to her memory now.

“It is for mother’s sake—for mother’s sake,” she said to herself; and
then Phoebe opened the door. She gave a start of rapture, and catching
hold of Nan’s hand, pulled her into the house.

“Why, Miss Nan,” she said, “this is better and better. Yesterday
evening you came unexpected, and to-day you come again. But you are
all alone, miss; where is Susan?”

“I ran away this time, and you must not tell anybody, Phoebe.”

“Oh, ain’t you got spirit just?” said Phoebe in a tone of admiration.
“But, miss, I hopes you won’t get into trouble.”

“No, no. I mean it does not matter. I want to see Mr. Pryor at once.”

“Oh, Miss Nancy! ain’t you heard, miss?”

“No. What—what?”

“Why, my dear, I am afraid you will be disappointed. He got a telegram
this morning from his son, who is took very bad in Spain, and he has
gone off to him. You know he had only one son, and he lives most of
his time at Madrid, and he is took shocking bad—almost at death’s
door—with some sort of fever; and the dear old gentleman was near off
his head all day, and he has gone to him. He is away, Miss Nan, in the
train, being whirled out of London by this time. You cannot see him,
miss, however hard you try.”

“It does not matter,” said Nan. She spoke in a low tone; there was a
sense at once of relief and of disappointment in her breast. It seemed
to her at that moment that her good angels left her, and that her bad
angels drew near. Nevertheless, she was relieved.

“I will see you back if you wish, miss.”

“No; it does not matter. I will get home as soon as I can.”

“Have you any message, miss? Perhaps mistress has Mr. Pryor’s address.”

“No; I could not write anything. Good-bye, Phoebe.”

“And you will not see my mistress?”

“No; I cannot.”

“And you would not like me to see you back?”

“No, no; I will go alone.”

Before Phoebe could utter another word, Nan was running up the street
in the direction of Mayfield Gardens.

“God did not want me to tell, and there must be a middle path—there
must,” thought the child.

She got back to the house without any one missing her. She went
upstairs again to the schoolroom. A moment or two later she had taken
off her hat and jacket, put them away neatly in the orderly little
room which nurse insisted on her keeping, and sat down by the
schoolroom fire. The day had been a warm one and the fire had only
been lit an hour ago, but Nan felt cold, and was grateful for its
warmth. She crouched near it, shivering slightly.

“I would have done it,” she said to herself, “if Mr. Pryor had been at
home; but God sent him away, and—well, I cannot do it now. I hope my
conscience will not trouble me too badly. I will try to be awfully
good in every other way, and I must forget this; I must—I must.”

It was a few days after Nan’s stolen visit to Mr. Pryor that great
excitement reigned in the house in Mayfield Gardens. In the first
place, there had come a letter which greatly concerned Augusta. This
letter was from her mother, begging of Mrs. Richmond to look after
Augusta for a year, for Mrs. Duncan and her husband were going to South
America on special business. They would be wandering about from place
to place for quite that time, and it would suit Mrs. Duncan uncommonly
well if Augusta remained with her sister. Mrs. Richmond herself spoke
to Augusta about it.

“If you can put up with me, dear,” she said, “I shall be glad to have
you; but you know that ours is a somewhat humdrum life, and you are
older than my girls. Your mother proposed as an alternative that you
should go to a very fashionable finishing-school, where you would have
a good deal of excitement and interest and be prepared for your
entrance into society.”

“It does not matter,” said Augusta. “I am just fifteen. When father
and mother come back I shall be only sixteen; it will be time enough
then to go to a finishing-school. And I am very happy with you, Aunt
Jessie.”

“I am glad of that, my dear; and I like to have you. Well, you can run
upstairs to the schoolroom and tell the children; I am sure they will
be delighted.”

“The only one who may not be delighted is Nan Esterleigh,” remarked
Augusta in a dubious voice.

“Come, my dear child, what do you mean? Nan not delighted! Why, I
thought you were such special friends!”

“To tell you the truth, Aunt Jessie, I do not quite understand Nan;
she is a very strange little girl. I have done my utmost to be
friendly with her.”

“That you certainly have, darling.”

“And although to all appearance she is devoted to me, that is not the
case in reality. I think if you were to question her you would find
she does not like me at all. It is the fact of Nan’s extraordinary
attitude towards me that makes me have any doubt of staying with you
for the next year, sweet Aunt Jessie.”

“Then, my dear child, if such is the case I will have a talk with Nan
myself. You certainly must not be made unhappy by any such ridiculous
reason. Nan is a dear little girl, and I promised her mother to bring
her up and do for her and make her happy, but I certainly did not mean
her to be rude or unpleasant to my own sister’s child.”

“Oh! I do not mind, Aunt Jessie; do not worry her. I just thought I
would mention it. Perhaps I shall win her in the end if I continue to
be awfully kind, as I have been in the past. I take a lot of notice of
her, as you know.”

“That you certainly do, dear.”

“And you are so good to her—so wonderfully good!” continued Augusta.

“Never mind that, my child; I could never be anything else. And Nan
owes me nothing; I have said that before.”

Augusta kissed her aunt, and presently ran upstairs to the schoolroom.
The children were having breakfast when she entered.

“Hurrah! Good news,” said Augusta. “Of course, that is how people take
it. You thought, all of you, that I would be going back to father and
mother in a few weeks’ time. Well, I am not; I am to stay here for a
year—a year, positive. I am to be with you day and night for twelve
whole months. When you go to the country I will go with you, and when
you come back from the country I will come back with you. And I am to
have regular lessons from this at school; and—— Oh, dear me! Nancy,
you are glad, whoever else is sorry.”

“Yes—of course,” said Nancy. She said it in a trembling voice, and
her face turned from white to red, and then from red to white again.

“Does she not look enraptured,” said Augusta, turning with laughing
eyes to Kitty.

Kitty made no reply. She was glad on the whole that her cousin should
stay. “The more the merrier” was her motto. She felt almost annoyed
with Nan for the peculiarity of her attitude.

But the tidings that Augusta was to stay with them was completely
eclipsed by other news, which filled the hearts of the two little
girls, Kitty and Nora, with untold bliss.

“What do you think?” said Kitty, rushing into the room just as Nora
and Nan were putting on their hats to go to school. “Uncle Peter is
coming here to-day. He will stay for a fortnight or three weeks,
mother says. Oh, this is heavenly! I am nearly off my head with
delight.”

“Who is Uncle Peter? What does it mean?” said Nan.

“You will know what it means when you have seen him,” said Kitty; “but
I will try and tell you something. It means the height of happiness;
it means the extreme of joy; it means—oh, everything delightful! He
is just perfect! He will be so sweet to you, too, Nan! He will be
sweet to Augusta. He will be sweet to us all. He is father’s youngest
brother—much, much younger than father. He is quite young still, and
he is a captain in the army. And he is great fun—oh! great fun—and
the house gets full of sunshine when he is with us.”

“I have never seen him,” said Augusta; “I should like to.”

“He will be sweet to you, Gussie. He will be delightful to us all. Oh,
it is too good news! You never saw anything like the delight mother is
in. I must rush off now and tell nursey; won’t she be glad!”

That day as she walked to school, and worked at her lessons, and came
back again, there were three pieces of news rushing backwards and
forwards in poor Nan’s heart. Two of them were bad, and one was good.
Mr. Pryor was away, therefore there was no middle path; Augusta—the
terrible Augusta, whom she hated and feared—was absolutely to live in
the house for a whole year; and the children’s uncle Peter, the man
who made everything right and turned gloom into sunshine, was coming
to stay with them.



CHAPTER XIII

UNCLE PETER.


On her way to school Nan made up her mind to a certain course of
action. When she had done so she was full of a sense of relief. She
resolved to tell Augusta what she had determined to do as soon as
possible. And as the two girls generally had the schoolroom to
themselves after early dinner, her opportunity was not far to seek.

On this special day the whole house was more or less in a state of
excitement; the spare room—the best spare room of all, the room which
was called the Blue Room—was being got ready. The housemaids were
busy turning out all the furniture, sweeping and dusting, polishing
and cleaning.

“We never give that room except to some one who is very, very sweet,”
said Nora; “but nothing is good enough for Uncle Peter.”

Mrs. Richmond’s face fairly shone with pleasure, and her little
daughters laughed often for no special reason, the invariable remark
being, “It is only because of Uncle Peter.” But they had gone back to
school, and the midday meal was over, and Nan and Augusta were alone
in the schoolroom. Augusta was seated in a rocking-chair in the
window, Jack curled up in her lap. Jack had long ceased to take any
notice of Nan, and Nan had sorrowfully resigned him to his real
mistress.

“He is my dog no more,” the little girl thought; but the weight on her
heart prevented her feeling the loss of Jack as she otherwise would
have done.

Nan sat at the table, her lesson-books piled up in front of her;
Augusta was buried in a new story-book, and forgot every one but
herself. Presently Nan spoke.

“Augusta,” she said, “I have been thinking.”

“Well?” said Augusta. She put down her book and glanced at Nan.

Nan had a frown between her brows, but notwithstanding this fact her
handsome little face looked very striking.

“She will be far more beautiful than any of us when she is grown-up,”
thought Augusta. “Why should she have such a remarkable face? I hate
her for it.”

“Unless you have something very important to say, please reserve your
conversation until I get to a less fascinating part of my book,” said
Augusta. “The hero is on the eve of proposing to the heroine, and I
cannot make out whether she will accept him or not.”

“That is only a book, and I am real,” was Nan’s answer. “I want to say
something to you.”

“Yes?”

“I have been making up my mind. You know what happened on the day you
came.”

“Oh, that old story over again!” said Augusta. “Well, of course I
know.”

“I cannot forget it.”

“So I see. You certainly have a terribly tender conscience, seeing the
way you abuse it.”

“Oh, you do not know how unhappy I feel! You were surprised when, a
night or two ago, I wanted to see Mr. Pryor. I will tell you what I
did; I do not mind confessing to you. No one would take me, and I ran
there all the way by myself.”

“You did, Nan! You are a daring little piece. Upon my word, there is
something I rather admire about you. I could not be so out and out
wicked—not for anybody.”

“All the same, I think you are wickeder than me, Augusta,” said Nan.

“You do, do you? Well, now, do you think that is a very polite thing
to say, particularly when you have put yourself in my power as you are
doing?”

“I am so much in your power,” replied poor Nan, “that a little more or
a little less does not matter. I did go and see Mr. Pryor.”

“And whoever is this wonderful Mr. Pryor?”

“He is an old gentleman—awfully good.”

“Awfully dull, you mean.”

“No; that he is not. He is not a bit dull; he has always been great
fun. He lived in the house with me and mother, and when mother died he
was so kind! And when mother was ill he often talked to her, and he
told me—— Oh Augusta! please—please listen. He told me that mother
wanted me to be the best girl.”

“Poor thing! it is well that she is out of the world,” said Augusta.

“I know it is, Augusta—I know it is—for I am not a bit good; but Mr.
Pryor wants me to be good, and I went to see him, but—— Oh, well!
never mind; he is gone.”

“What! has he died too?”

“No, he is not dead, but it is as bad as if he were to me. He has gone
to Spain to see his son, who is very ill. I went to visit him all for
nothing.”

“You disobeyed Aunt Jessie for nothing. Certainly you are a nice girl!
Don’t you think you owe something to her?”

“I owe a lot to her. Now, Augusta, I am coming to what I want to say
to you. I want to forget what happened that time, and I want to live
quite straight from this out. I am going to put all the past away from
me, and I want to live straight.”

“What do you mean by straight?”

“Oh! how am I to explain? I want to get in the middle of the road, you
know—always in the middle, never going the least bit to the left or
the right.”

“That sounds very pretty, but the meaning of it is beyond me,” said
Augusta.

“You would understand if you tried to; you are not at all stupid, you
know.”

“Thanks, dear, for the compliment.”

“And I wanted to tell you I am going to keep straight; and as you are
to be here for a year”——

“Ah! I thought the shoe pinched in that direction,” said Augusta, with
a laugh.

“It does, Gussie—it does. I am ever so sorry! I could have loved you,
of course; but I have always been just afraid of you.”

“And you will go on being afraid of me, honey, won’t you?”

“That is what I do not want to be. I want you never, never again to
tempt me to be naughty. Do not tempt me any more, Augusta; that is
what I want to ask.”

“You are a nice girl! I tempt you! What next?”

“Oh! you know you did. You know but for you I would have told all
about Pip. You know but for you—— Oh Augusta! how can you pretend?
You know; you must know.”

“I know you are a very stupid, silly little girl, and that you grow
more troublesome and more silly every day. Why, what is the matter
now?”

“I cannot bear it,” said Nan.

She gave a cry and burst into floods of tears.

Now, this was by no means what Augusta wished. Nan in tears—in
violent tears—was intolerable. She put down her book. She advanced
towards Nan; then she stood still.

She stood absolutely still, staring straight before her; for the door
was open, and a tall young man, with slim and graceful figure, bright
blue eyes, curly hair, and the pleasantest face in the world, was
standing on the threshold.

“I am Uncle Peter,” he said in the gayest of voices. “Is anybody at
home?”

Poor Nan dashed away her tears. The stranger—this delightful uncle of
the little girls—even he was to see her in disgrace and in tears.
Augusta spoke at once.

“I am Augusta Duncan,” she said. “I am no relation of yours, but I do
hope you will take me for a niece too. Aunt Jessie will be so sorry to
miss you! But she will be back again in an hour or two.”

“And this little girl?” said Uncle Peter. He glanced with the kindest
of expressions in his eyes at Nan. “She is a little bit troubled about
something.”

“Nan darling, do cheer up now,” said Augusta; “do, darling—do.”

Augusta went up to Nan and kissed her.

“What a kind—hearted girl!” thought Captain Richmond. “And what a
cross face the little one has! But she seems to be in trouble all the
same.”

“Come!” he said in a pleasant voice; “no one cries when I am by. I
hate tears so much that they never flow when I am in the
neighbourhood. You must cheer up now that I have come to the house.
And is no one else at home? Is there no one to welcome me but a
pretence niece, and the other”——

“Oh! no niece at all—no niece at all,” said poor Nan; “but I wish I
was.”

“Then you shall be; you shall be little niece—— What is your name?”

“Nancy.”

“Little new niece Nancy. Come over here.”

So Nan went to the Captain, and he put his arm round her waist, and
she leant up against him while he chatted to Augusta.

He did not say another word to her, but once he took her little hand
and squeezed it. What was the matter with her? All her sorrows seemed
to go, and all her anxieties to melt into thin air. Augusta was doing
the grown-up young lady, chatting on all sorts of subjects, and Nan
did not speak a word—not even once did she open her lips—but when
Captain Richmond looked down at her she raised her eyes and looked
full at him.

“Cross!” he said to himself; “why, it is one of the dearest little
faces in the world. But who is the poor little one, and why was she so
very sad when I put in my appearance?”

“We must get you tea; you shall have it in the schoolroom,” said
Augusta. “Aunt Jessie will not be in till about six o’clock; you know,
no one expected you until the evening.”

“It is my way always to do the unexpected,” replied Captain Richmond.
“I took an earlier train and got here about six hours before I was
expected. And where are my nieces proper? Why do not they come to
embrace their uncle?”

“They are at school; but, oh! won’t they be delighted? I am afraid
your room is not ready. Nan, go and tell the servants that Captain
Richmond has come. Go at once, dear, and order tea up here.—Do you
greatly mind, Uncle Peter (because I must call you that), having tea
in the schoolroom with us?”

“I should love it,” replied Captain Richmond. “But see, Nan, little
one, that you order a big tea. I want a whole pot of sardines—there
is nothing on earth I love like sardines—and a couple of new-laid
eggs, and toast and cream. Do you understand?”

[Illustration: “Cross!” he said to himself; “why, it is one of the
dearest little faces in the world.”]

“Oh yes,” said Nan, colouring very high; “and may you not have
muffins, don’t you think?”

“I do quite think I might. Now be quick, little woman, and order the
biggest tea cook will send up.”

“He is good,” thought Nan as she went singing down the passage. “He is
nice. He is quite as nice as Kitty said he was; I think he is even
nicer. It is not what he says; it is the look in his eyes. I am sure
he keeps in the middle of the road, and I will—I will keep there
notwithstanding Augusta. Oh! I am glad he has come. He makes me feel
strong. I was so shaky, as if I had no backbone, but I think he will
give it to me—I am sure he will give it to me—and I will keep in the
middle of the road. Oh! he is nice—he is.”

While Nan was away Captain Richmond asked one or two questions about
her of Augusta.

“Who is that dear little mite?” he said. “What a sweet little face she
has!”

“She is a little girl to whom Aunt Jessie is very kind,” replied
Augusta.

“Any one would be kind to her; she looks such a sweet little thing!”

Augusta longed to give some of her true opinions of Nan, but she was
far too astute for this.

“Of course, she is a very nice child,” she said; “and she is greatly
to be pitied.”

“Poor little thing! What was she crying about? Her sobs were so
bitter!”

“She is very sensitive; I was just trying to put a little common-sense
into her.”

“She wants very special treatment,” said Captain Richmond. “I am glad
I have come; I always like children of that sort. She is in deep
black, too.”

“She is in mourning for her mother.”

“Oh! an orphan? Poor little one! Is her father alive?”

“No. I think perhaps, Uncle Peter, you ought to know: dear Aunt Jessie
is supporting her for nothing. Is it not splendid of her?”

“It is the sort of thing my sister-in-law would do,” replied the
Captain; and he gave Augusta a very straight and cold look out of his
eyes. She saw that he did not think the better of her for having made
this speech, and jumped up to get the table ready for tea.

The meal was in full progress; Nan, at Captain Richmond’s special
request, was pouring out cup after cup for his benefit; Augusta was
seated near, with flushed cheeks, entertaining him to the best of her
abilities, when shouts and whoops were heard, and Nora and Kitty
danced into the room.

Then indeed there were high-jinks.

“Oh, for shame! Uncle Pete—oh, for shame! to come
beforehand.—Augusta, how long have you had him?—Nan, is he not
just—just as nice as I said?” These words came from Kitty.

“You really make me blush, Kitty; you must be careful what you say,”
remarked her uncle. “Do not mind her, Nancy; I am a very ordinary
person, with lots of faults.”

“You have not a fault—not one,” said Nora.

“Oh! haven’t I? I will just declare to you now a very big fault of
mine. It is this—I hate being praised.”

The Captain looked as if he meant this, for his bright blue eyes
flashed fire just for an instant, but then they resumed their old
merry expression.

“I have all kind of plans to propose,” he said. “I shall be here for
at least a fortnight, and then I am not going very far away—only as
far as Aldershot—so you will see a good bit of me.”



CHAPTER XIV.

“IT WAS NOT WORTH WHILE.”


It was a week later. Every one in the house had got accustomed to the
presence of Captain Richmond, and Nan more fully, day by day, endorsed
Nora’s and Kitty’s verdict with regard to him. He was delightful; he
was kind; he was sunshiny. It seemed much easier to be good now that
he was there. The children—even Augusta—were all anxious to please
him, and at odd moments when lessons were over, and on half-holidays,
he always had a pleasant scheme to propose, and would take his four
nieces, as he called them, to all kinds of places which Nan had never
seen before. When there, he had a way of singling her out, taking her
hand, and explaining things to her, so that from the first she was his
very special little friend.

A week went by in this fashion, and then all of a sudden, just when
they least wished for it, came a pouring wet Sunday. It was early in
June and the weather ought to have been fine. Captain Richmond said
the clerk of the weather-office was seriously to blame; but whoever
was wrong, the clouds were unmistakably there, and out of their sullen
depths poured the rain without a moment’s intermission. The children
had managed to go to church in the morning, but in the afternoon it
was hopeless.

“Uncle Peter,” said Kitty, “come up to the schoolroom and let us have
a cosy time.”

“I am quite agreeable,” replied the Captain.

“But, Peter,” said his sister-in-law, “I am expecting quite a number
of guests this afternoon; you surely will not leave me in the cold!”

Uncle Peter put on a very wry face.

“You know, Jessie,” he answered, “that I am not at all fond of what
may be called callers; I never know what to say to them, and I do not
think they find me at all agreeable. May I not go and be happy in my
own way with the children?”

“Very well,” said Mrs. Richmond in a resigned voice; “but please send
Augusta downstairs, for she always helps me so nicely to entertain my
Sunday visitors.”

“And now come, Uncle Peter—do not let us delay—come at once,” said
Kitty.

So, with Kitty hanging on one arm and Nora appropriating the other,
the Captain made his way to the schoolroom. Here he was welcomed with
shouts of glee by Nan and Augusta. Chairs were pulled forward, and the
little party settled themselves in a happy circle.

“Oh Gussie!” said Kitty all of a sudden, “I quite forgot; mother wants
you to go downstairs and help her entertain the Sunday visitors.”

“Oh, but I won’t! It is quite too bad,” said Augusta, flushing with
indignation. “Why should I?”

“You do most Sundays, and you always said you liked it so much.”

“Well, I won’t go now; it is not fair.—I need not go, need I, Uncle
Peter?”

“You must arrange that with your aunt, Augusta; it is not my affair.”

Once again Captain Richmond put on that straight look which Augusta
both adored and feared. It always caused her heart to palpitate, and
gave her a sensation of longing to be quite a different girl from what
she really was. She got up now, frowning as she did so.

“It is too bad,” she said—“just when we were going to have real fun.”

“If you like, Augusta,” suddenly said Nan, “I will go down when half
the time is up, and you can come back. I dare say Mrs. Richmond will
not mind; she only wants some one just to hand round the cups of tea.”

“Oh no; that would never do,” said Captain Richmond. “I will go down
when half the time is up and send you back, Augusta. Nan is too young
to be initiated into the ways of drawing-room folks.”

So Augusta had to go, very unwillingly, and the two little sisters and
Nan were alone with the Captain.

“Now, Uncle Peter,” said Kitty the moment the door closed behind
Augusta, “we want you to be your very nicest self.”

“And what is my nicest self?” he answered.

“We want you to be your exciting self.”

“You quite mystify me, Kitty. I should like to know when I am nicest.
And I never knew before that I was exciting.”

“But you are when you make schemes.”

“Oh! that is it, is it?”

“And we want a big, big scheme now—something to last us for
months—something to—— You know what I mean, don’t you, Noney?”

“To rouse us all up—to make us walk with our heads in the air,” said
Nora.

“Dear me! How very funny!”

“We want to be soldiers. Do you not remember you talked to us before
about being soldiers? Let us be soldiers for a bit, and make lovely
plans, and you be our captain,” said Kitty again.

“Well, of course you can be soldiers; that is easy enough.”

“But you must settle a sort of victory time for us—a great big reward
time—and let it come three months from now, after we come back from
the summer holidays, or _perhaps_ before. Plan it all out, Uncle
Peter; plan everything out as straight as possible. Make us soldiers,
and give us a battle to fight.”

“Dear me!” said Uncle Peter, “this is quite a Sunday afternoon talk.
Do you mean it in the religious sense?”

“Oh yes, if you like; but what we want is to have something to fight
hard about.—Don’t you think so, Nan?”

Nan’s face had turned very white; her eyes, shining with intense
earnestness, fixed themselves on Captain Richmond’s face.

“A sort of moral battle,” said the Captain. “Well, of course it can be
done. I will plan it all out and tell you what we will do to-morrow; I
cannot think of it in an instant. Those who wish to join must be
regularly enrolled as soldiers.”

“Soldiers under Captain Richmond,” laughed Nora—“or Captain Peter, as
we always call you. You will have to set us things to do, and you will
have to write to us from Aldershot, and you must make a whole lot of
punishments if we go wrong. Oh! it will be exciting—quite splendid.”

Just then Miss Roy came into the room.

“How cosy you all look!” she said “What is up?”

“We are frightfully excited,” said Nan. “We are going to be turned
into soldiers, and we are going to fight under the banner of Captain
Peter. This is our captain,” she added, touching the young soldier’s
arm with great affection; “there is nothing we would not do for
him—nothing.”

“I declare you quite touch me,” said the good-natured fellow. “Well, I
will think something out and let you know to-morrow. Now let us talk
of something commonplace.”

The conversation was merry and full of laughter; the wet afternoon was
forgotten. Augusta came back long before they expected her.

“There are no visitors,” she said, “and Aunt Jessie did not want me.”

“I was just coming down, but this is much pleasanter,”—said the
Captain.

“Oh Augusta! we have something wonderful to tell you,” said Nora. “Sit
right down here in this comfortable chair.—Please, Uncle Peter, tell
her.”

“Oh! it is a wild scheme of these little folk,” he answered. “I do not
suppose a great tall girl like Augusta will join under any
consideration whatever. Well, it is this, my dear niece Gussie—these
children want to become soldiers.”

“Play soldiers?” asked Augusta.

“No, not exactly, but good, tough, moral soldiers; and they want to
enlist under me, and I am to help them, forsooth! I will draw up
plans, and those who want to join can be enrolled to-morrow afternoon.
But I do not suppose you will care about it.”

“Oh yes, but I will!” said Augusta. Her eyes wore a startled look; a
red flush came into her cheeks. She looked at Nan, who shuffled
uneasily and looked down.

“I shall join,” she said the next moment; “it sounds very exciting,
and the sort of thing I should like.”

“Then there will be four of us.—Perhaps Miss Roy will join too?” said
Kitty.

“Yes, dear; I should quite like to,” said the governess. “I want
something to stimulate me, and I should like to serve under Captain
Peter.”

“Then I shall deserve my captaincy,” said the young man.—“And now,
chicks, I am going away, for you have given me a pretty nut to crack.
We will arrange to meet here at six o’clock tomorrow, when I shall
have all my plans drawn up.”

When the Captain left the room the four children were silent for a
short time; then Miss Roy burst in.

“My dears,” she said, “the clouds are breaking; there is a ray of
sunshine. We will have tea immediately, and then get ready to go to
evening service.”

As Nan knelt in church she thought of Captain Peter, and wondered what
sort of soldier she would turn out under his leadership.

“If it were not for Augusta I should be the happiest of girls,” she
thought. “I do hope that to be one of his soldiers will mean lots of
hard lessons and stiff sort of things to do, and it won’t mean being
good and straight and honourable. Oh! I do hope and trust he won’t
want us to be any of those, for I am not straight, Gussie is not
straight. Oh dear! oh dear! it is exciting. I am afraid.”

Augusta rather avoided Nan that evening, to Nan’s own great relief.
The next day brought as usual a rush of work, with no opportunity for
any private talks, and it was not until a few minutes to six that
Augusta and Nan found themselves alone.

Nan had gone into her room to brush her hair, preparatory to the
Captain’s visit, when there came a tap at her door and in walked
Gussie.

“Well, Nan,” she said, “are you prepared for this?”

“Prepared for what?” asked Nancy.

“You know what I mean: for this sort of soldier business—folly, I
call it. Of course, I am going to join; but are you?”

“Yes, Augusta, I am,” said Nancy. She spoke in a very firm voice.

“Well, all right; you know what it means, I suppose. There will be a
lot of morality in the matter.”

“What do you mean by morality?”

“Keeping straight—keeping in the centre of that road where you want
to walk, but where you never do walk. I thought I would warn you. If
you are thinking of doing what the others are going to do, you will
have an impossible time; but do not say I did not warn you.”

“No, I won’t, Augusta. Oh! please remember that you are not”——

“That I am not what?”

“That you are not going quite straight yourself.”

“You little wretch!” said Augusta. “If you ever dare—dare to breathe
what I in a moment of kindness helped you to do, won’t you catch it
from me? You do not know what I can be when I am really your enemy.
Your own position, too; what are you in this house? A nobody. There! I
will say no more.”

Augusta ran out of the room. Nan stood white and trembling. She
clasped her hands together; her eyes, brimful of tears, were fixed on
the window.

“How am I to bear it?” she thought. “Just when I was beginning to be
so happy! Why am I so awfully miserable? I wonder what it means. I do
think that I really quite hate Augusta.”

Just then Kitty’s gay voice was heard.

“Come, Nancy; our captain will arrive in a minute or two, and he will
want all the soldiers to be waiting for him.”

Kitty’s laughing face, wreathed in smiles, was poked round the door.
Nan made an effort to cheer up.

“How white you look!” said Kitty. “Is anything worrying you?”

“Oh no; nothing really.”

“I thought you would be so glad about this! You do not know what
heavenly plans Uncle Peter is always making up. I will tell you about
some of his funny plans when we were children another time; but of
course there is nothing like this, and it was my thought to begin. You
will see how splendidly he will draw up his rules, and how easy and
yet how difficult it will be to obey them. He has a sort of way of
searching through you, and dragging the best out of you, and crushing
down the bad in you. Oh, he is a darling! He is like no one else in
the world.”

“I think so too,” said Nan.

“And yet you look so sad, Nancy! I am sure you need not be, for every
one is so fond of you! And as for Uncle Peter, there is hardly
anything he would not do for you. He always calls you his dear little
new niece; he is quite as fond of you as if you were his real niece.”

“Is he—is he really?” said Nan. “Would he be as fond of me if he
knew”——

“Knew what, Nan?”

“That I—— Oh Kitty! you know that I have no money, and you know
that”——

“Now stop,” said Kitty. “If you do want to make me angry you will talk
of that sort of thing again; it is very unfair of you after what
mother said.”

“Oh, then, I won’t—I won’t!”

“If that is all that is worrying you, cheer up; Uncle Peter does not
want sad faces.”

“And if—— Suppose—suppose I was not good at any time, would he hate
me then?” asked the little girl.

“I am sure he would not. Once, do you know, I did such a naughty
thing! I spilt a lot of ink on the carpet. I was a tiny child, and
when Miss Roy came in—Miss Roy had not been with us more than a
month, and I did not know how kind she would be—I said pussy had
jumped on the table; and I had scarcely said it before Uncle Peter
came in—he was staying in the house, you know. He sat down by the
fire. It was wintertime, and he asked me to come and sit on his knee;
and he put his arm round me, and I sat there so cosy, though I had a
big, big ache in my heart. Miss Roy quite believed me about pussy, and
she got the ink wiped up, and washed the carpet with milk, so that it
should not show; and then she went out of the room, and I nestled up
close to Uncle Peter. There was a big pain in my heart. Uncle Peter
looked straight down at me.

“You see how the milk has taken out the ink; you can scarcely see it
at all now,” he said; and then he raised my face and looked into my
eyes, and he said, “Kitty, it was not worth while.”

Then I knew that he knew; and, oh, I cried so! And I said, “Did you
hear?” And he said, “I saw you spill the ink, and I heard.”

“And, oh! I was so sad, and he comforted me. He was not angry after
the first, but he got me to go straight up to Miss Roy and tell her
the truth. It was awfully hard to do, but I did it; and then he
forgave me, and I had no more pain in my heart. Come now, Nan—come.”

“I want to kiss you first,” said Nan. “Kitty, you do not know how much
I love you. I love you better at this moment than I have ever done
before.”



CHAPTER XV.

SOLDIERS OF THE TRUE BLUE.


The schoolroom was very daintily arranged; there were flowers on the
mantelpiece and on a little table, near which an arm-chair had been
placed for Uncle Peter. On the table were some sheets of foolscap
paper, a bottle of ink, pen, blotting-paper, &c. Just as the children
entered, the door was opened and Uncle Peter himself came in. He
generally wore a smiling face, but now he looked grave and determined.
He walked across the room with, as Nan expressed it, his most military
step. He stopped when he came opposite the children, and bowed gravely
to them, and then sat down in the chair.

“It is too exciting for anything!” thought Kitty. “How is he going to
begin? I am sure he has made all his plans. I can judge that by his
face; it is the sort of face which makes me thrill and want to do
anything in the world for him.”

Miss Roy had taken her place with the children. She looked grave and
earnest, too, and Augusta for a wild moment wished she was out of it.
Then the Captain raised his eyes. He had been arranging the paper
before him, and trying the pen to see if it would write smoothly. Now
he began to address the little group in front of him.

“I have been thinking over our scheme,” he said in his most pleasant
voice; “and if you are all determined, I want you to take, not an oath
to me—nothing of that sort—but to take a promise, by which you will
be enrolled. The regiment in which you will be members we will call
the Royal True Blue. I am its captain, general, or what you will; and,
as far as possible, the rules which will guide your conduct will be
much the same rules as a real regiment which serve our King would
have. Loyalty will be its motto. There are three ways in which the
soldiers can serve in the Royal True Blue. They can serve by keen
attention to intellectual matters, by keen attention to physical
matters, and by keen attention to morals.”

Miss Roy nodded her head as each of these remarks fell from the
Captain’s lips.

“I quite agree with you,” she said; and then she coloured slightly.

The Captain looked at her and gave a smile.

“There will be,” he said, “different grades, of course; month by month
the soldiers will rise to higher and higher responsibilities. There
will be an orderly-book, in which Miss Roy, in my absence, must write
down the events of every day truthfully, exactly as they occur to her.
Neglect of the different heads under which the soldiers serve will
merit punishment; careful attention to these details will merit
rewards. I shall visit the soldiers’ camp at least every month, have a
consultation with Miss Roy, who will be my sergeant, and measure out
my rewards and punishments accordingly. I should like this scheme to
continue until the end of the summer holidays, when to the victorious
soldier I will award, if she deserves it, something similar to the
Victoria Cross. It will be a cross made of silver, tied with blue
ribbon, and will be as far as possible an imitation of the cross which
her late beloved Majesty gave to her most distinguished soldiers.
Perhaps you all understand what alone wins a Victoria Cross? It is
given ‘for valour’—for valour, as a rule, in the field of battle.
Now, as you are all soldiers you must have a field of battle. Your
battlefield is in this house; wherever you are together, whether you
are in the country or in town; in your school; in your own rooms, when
you lie down and when you rise up: at all times you soldiers of the
Royal True Blue will be in the battlefield, and doubtless a time for
valour will arrive—when one of you will endanger herself for the sake
of another. It is possible that none of these soldiers will win the
Royal Cross, but I mean to hold it out as an incentive—the very best
I can give. And now, children, I have lectured enough; will you each
in turn come forward and make the necessary promise?”

“Oh, this is dreadful!” said Augusta; she squeezed Nan’s hand in her
excitement. “I—I do not think I can.”

“But I can,” said Nan. “I can; I mean to.”

“What is it, Augusta—are you frightened?” said the Captain. “Oh,
come! you promised to join; do not draw back now. You do not know what
a world of good it will do you. This scheme means bracing; it means a
strong effort to do the right. Come! if you live in this house you
will have a dull time if you are not a soldier.”

“All right,” said Augusta; “but I will not be the first to take the
promise.”

“Then you shall be the first, Kitty,” said the Captain; “that is only
right, for it is your scheme.”

Kitty rose from her chair and came forward. Captain Richmond had some
small pieces of blue ribbon fastened with silver mottoes. He held one
of these up, and Kitty approached. He took her hand, looked solemnly
into her eyes, and said:

“Are you willing to serve in the Royal True Blue as a soldier of the
King of Heaven? Are you willing to obey the rules of the regiment, to
be loyal and true, to shun what is deceitful and wrong? Are you
willing?”

“Yes,” said Kitty.

Then the Captain bent forward and kissed her.

“This is our seal of consecration,” he said; “and here is your motto.
Wear it openly when you like, or when you do not care to show it to
the world keep it safely hidden, but never lose it. On the day it is
taken from you you are disgraced; you lose this ribbon as a soldier
loses his sword—only by public disgrace.”

Kitty went back to her seat trembling and with tears in her eyes. The
same promise was exacted from the others, and then Captain Richmond
looked at the four.

“I am very proud of my battalion,” he said, “and I think you will all
do well, soldiers of the Royal True Blue. Now, I want to give you a
few directions. There are three distinct paths in which the soldiers
must walk. First, there is the path of intellect. Now, that means
great attention to your lessons at school; it means diligent reading.
I do not mean that kind of slippery reading which goes on when one is
thinking of a hundred things at the same time: I do not mean the
reading of silly novels. I mean the reading of good books,
stimulating, with nice thoughts in them. There is nothing to my mind
like the life of a soldier, and there is nothing more splendid than to
read accounts of what brave soldiers have done; and as you five are
now soldiers, you might, during the months that you servo under me,
read as many books about soldiers as possible. I can furnish you with
a list. I believe such reading will do you a lot of good. This, of
course, is not a command of mine; it is a suggestion which you may
like to carry out. In the orderly-book there will be careful reports of
your transgressions in intellectual respects; the number of bad marks
at school, the getting down to the bottom of your form, lateness also
in attending your different classes, will all mean marks against you.
On the other hand, diligence in learning, briskness and anxiety to
excel, will mean good marks. I will explain the marks to my sergeant,
Miss Roy, presently. So much for intellect. Now we come to the
physical part of the scheme. I believe very strongly in physical
exercise. I do not mean the sort of exercise which tires one to
death—over-cycling, for instance, or playing lawn-tennis too
long—but I do mean steady exercise every day; and part of your duties
will be your drill. I will speak to Mrs. Richmond, and she will get a
real army sergeant to come here daily to drill you. You will feel as
you are marching, and turning from right to left, and going through
the different manœuvres that you are real soldiers, and it will do
you a world of good. Other exercise ought also to be taken, and under
this head I would advocate early rising. I would also advocate order
and neatness. Each day ought to be planned out, and there ought to be
very little time for idling, for a real soldier in the enemy’s country
has to be on the alert morning, noon, and night. He ought never to be
away from his post; he ought to watch for the approach of the enemy at
every corner, at every unexpected point. We now come to the third
head, which surely is the most important of all, for in my regiment,
the Royal True Blue, I want to have soldiers worthy of the name: a
coward would be detestable to me; a liar could not be borne. I want my
soldiers to be straight, to be upright, to be honourable; I want them
to walk in the middle of the road.”

“Oh! oh!” suddenly came from Nan’s lips.

The Captain gave her a long, penetrating glance. She coloured, and
dropped her head.

“It can be done,” he said, “but it is not specially easy; and I hope
it will be done. And now, surely we have had enough morality and
enough solemn talk even for the soldiers of the True Blue. I propose
an entertainment this evening. I have consulted with your mother, and
she gives me leave to take you all to the theatre—yes, every single
one of you—to see a fine play about a soldier and how he acted under
difficulties.”

The wild delight of the children at this last announcement can be
better understood than explained. Captain Richmond knew what he was
about; he knew that the eager young minds had gone through sufficient
strain. The girls rushed off to their rooms, and the Captain and Miss
Roy were alone.

“It is very good of you to join this,” he said, turning to the
governess.

“I like it,” she replied. “Whether the children can stand this
somewhat severe discipline remains to be proved.”

“I believe they can; they have all character,” replied the Captain. “I
shall be deeply interested to know how this experiment progresses. I
will give you your orderly-book to-morrow, and explain to you how the
marks are to be put down. There is only one thing, however, Miss
Roy—there must be no favouritism; you must be as strict and as severe
with your favourite, Kitty, as you are with Augusta, whom I do not
think you much care about.”

“I do not,” replied Miss Roy. “I do not understand her. She is popular
with most people; Mrs. Richmond is very much attached to her, and Kitty
and Nora are fond of her.”

“But Nan is not,” said the Captain.

“No,” replied Miss Roy; “Nan is afraid of her.”

“I have seen that from the first,” replied Captain Richmond; “and, to
tell you the truth, in planning my rules I thought a good deal both of
Nancy and Augusta. This thing will try them both pretty stoutly; I
have no doubt that in the end all will be well. And now, one more word
in your ear: I do not think I ever met a dearer little girl than Nancy
Esterleigh.”

“She is a sweet child,” replied Miss Roy; “and she was very, very
happy with us before Augusta came.”

The children, now all dressed for their evening’s entertainment, came
into the room. Captain Richmond had ordered a carriage; it was now at
the door, and the happy party, including Miss Roy, started off for
their evening’s pleasure.

In the play a soldier received the Victoria Cross. He was one who had
been snubbed and looked down upon, and always shoved into the cold: he
had been overlooked when others were promoted; when others were
ordered to the front, he was expected to stay behind in England; the
girl he loved was given to a man over his head. Everything seemed to
be against him, but never once through all these trying circumstances
did he lose his brightness, his freshness, his courage. He had a gay
and cheerful word for each comrade and for each friend, and in the end
his chance came: he managed to get to the front—how, it does not
matter; he rescued another at the risk of his own life—how, does not
matter either; the thing that matters is that he received that
decoration of all others the most thrilling, the most ennobling, the
Cross of the Order of Victoria.

Nan’s little face turned white with excitement as she watched the
progress of the play; and at last, when the happy soldier was
decorated for valour in the field, she burst into tears.

Captain Richmond took her hand, and bent and whispered to her:

“Odds against, but he won,” was his remark. “Cheer up, Nancy; you too
can win.”

“Even if the odds are against me?” she whispered back.

“Ah! of course. Look well to the front, soldier of the True Blue.”



CHAPTER XVI.

TIGHTENING HER CHAIN.


In about a week’s time Captain Richmond went away. By then the brigade
of the Royal True Blue was in full working order: the rules had been
carefully drawn up, the orderly-book was given to Miss Roy, the
drill-sergeant had arrived, and the soldiers were enjoying the life.
The vigorous eyes of the Captain kept everything in order; he promised
to come once a month to see his soldiers, and left them, having won
every heart in his little brigade. It was now towards the end of June,
and in a month’s time the entire party would go into the country. This
was the last month of school, and the girls were busy. Nan was working
with tremendous diligence for a prize; she did not much care about it
before she became a soldier, but now she was keen in order to ensure
the marks which Miss Roy would give her if she were successful.

“Suppose you do win the prize,” said Augusta, “what will it mean to
you? Nothing whatever but a stupid book. For my part, I think the
prize-books at school are all too dull for anything—a dreadful old
Macaulay’s History of England, or Tennyson’s Poems, or something of
that sort. I do not see why the girl who wins the prize should not be
consulted.”

“But we do not win it just for the sake of the book,” said Nan,
colouring and trembling a little.

“Well, I do. I am not going in for a prize this term, of course; I
cannot.—Miss Roy, I am sure our captain would not like Nan to read so
hard as to make her eyes ache. Do you know what I found her doing last
night?”

“Oh! please—please do not tell; it is not right,” said Nan.

“I will, for I must. We are supposed not to read after we get to bed,
but there was Nan reading away by the light of a night-light. She had
borrowed it from nurse, I believe. She was half-sitting up in bed
devouring her book, and the night-light was on a little table near. I
found her.—I did, you know, Nan; and I said I would tell.”

“It was not at all right, Nan,” said Miss Roy; “and it must not happen
again.”

“But I wanted to work up my lesson; I was not at all sure of my
French,” replied Nan. “And the prize will be given in ten days now.
There is so little time!”

“You must remember,” said Miss Roy, “that in the orderly-book, even
though you do get high marks for intellect, your merit marks will go
down if this sort of thing occurs again. Nan, it was a distinct act of
disobedience.—But at the same time, Augusta, I would rather you did
not tell tales.”

Augusta flushed with indignation.

“I thought you would like to keep the house from being burnt down,”
she said. “Of course, in future Nan can do as she pleases.”

Miss Roy said nothing more, and Augusta left the room.

“What is the matter, Nan?” said her governess suddenly. “I often
wonder, my dear, why you look so sad and troubled.”

“You would if you were me,” said Nan then.

“Why? Is it because your mother has died, my poor little girl? I have
great sympathy for you.”

“No; it is not only that,” said Nan, making a great effort to be
honest. “It is because I have a load at my heart, and I cannot ever
tell you; and if all was known I ought not to be a soldier of the
Royal True Blue at all—I ought not—but I cannot draw back now.”

“The past is past,” said Miss Roy. “Go straight forward in the future;
try and believe that the future is yours, that you can be a very brave
and a very good girl.”

“But is the past past?” asked Nan.

“There may come a day when you will be able to tell me all about it;
go straight forward now into the future. And, Nancy, my dear, nothing
has been said, but I cannot help using my eyes. Do not be afraid of
Augusta; give her back in her own coin. Show her that you are not in
the slightest degree under her control.”

“Oh, but I am!” thought poor Nancy. “And I can never tell—less now
than ever—for to lose that splendid chance of winning the Royal
Cross, and to be deprived of my blue ribbon, would break my heart.”

“Nancy,” said Augusta, a few evenings after this, as the two girls
were alone in the schoolroom.

Nan was toiling steadily through the books which she had to prepare
for her examination; she raised her eyes when Augusta spoke, and a
slight frown came between her brows.

“Now, stop that,” said Augusta, petulance in her tone.

“Stop what?” asked Nancy.

“Frowning when I speak to you.”

“Oh, I will—I will! What is it? I wish I did not feel so cross.”

“You are not much of a soldier if you give way to your passions every
moment. But now, to the point. I want you to read aloud to me while I
am making a copy of this stupid old cast. It is too dull for anything,
and I want to finish the story-book which I took from the
drawing-room.”

“But I have to go on with my lessons. Don’t you see that I am awfully
busy?”

In reply to this Augusta got up and put the book in question into
Nan’s hand.

“Read,” she said. “I will let you off in half-an-hour; in half-an-hour
I shall have done as much as I can of this horrible drawing. I do
positively hate drawing. Now then, start away. If you do not read,
there is something I can tell you which you will not at all like to
hear.”

“You are always frightening me. I do not see why I should be under
your control,” said Nan.

“Get out of it, then, my dear, your own way. Remember what will happen
if you do.”

“What?”

“I shall be obliged to tell all that occurred in the attic when the
white rat died.”

“All? But you won’t leave out your own part, Augusta?”

“Yes, but I shall. I shall tell that you implored and begged of me to
keep it a secret, and that I listened to you. You know what this
means, Nan. Your blue ribbon is given back; you are a soldier without
his sword, disgraced for life. Now then, do not fret; I am not going
to be too hard, but I must be read to, for I am suffering from
irritation of the nerves, and nothing soothes me like a real jolly
story-book.”

“If I must, I must,” said Nan. She opened the book languidly. “Where
is the place?” she asked.

“Page 204. Read from the top, and go straight on until I tell you to
stop.”

Nan began. She could read well when she liked, but now her voice was
little more than a gabble, for she was thoroughly annoyed and also
decidedly cross.

“That will not do at all,” said Augusta. “Read as if you enjoyed it.
Is it not a splendid scene? Does not Rudolf speak up to Bertha? Now
then, go on. I am sure he will propose to her in the end; I am certain
of it.”

Nan read to the bottom of the next page; then she put down the book.

“Where did you get this book from?” she asked.

“What does it matter to you, Nancy? Go on reading—do. Oh, I am just
dying to hear what will happen! I adore Rudolf; don’t you?”

“No; I do not like him at all. I don’t like the book. I don’t think
Uncle Peter—I mean Mrs. Richmond—would want me to read this book; it
is not a nice book.”

“And what do you know about books, whether they are nice or nasty?”

“I don’t like this book. I am sure Mrs. Richmond would not like you to
read it. May I go down and ask her?”

For answer to this Augusta rose and snatched the book from Nan’s hand.

“You troublesome little thing!” she said. “You really rouse me to be
provoked with you. There! go back to your stupid lessons; but
remember, you shall pay for this.”

“I wonder how,” thought Nan. “Oh dear! oh dear!”

She sighed deeply.

“Really, Nancy, your sighs and groans are past bearing. What is the
matter with you?”

“You make me very unhappy.”

“I make the house too hot for you; is not that it?”

“No, Augusta, that is not it. I have a right to be here; Mrs. Richmond
says so.”

Augusta gave a taunting laugh.

“A right to be here!” she said. “A pretty right; but still, if you
like to think so, I am not going to interfere. If you are unhappy in
the house with Aunt Jessie and Kitty and Nora you can say so; you have
the remedy in your own hands.”

“I! How? What do you mean?”

“You can go to the Asprays, of course.”

“But who are the Asprays?”

“You little goose! don’t you know?”

“No. Please, do tell me.”

“Well, I will, for it is only fair that you should know. Have you
never heard that there are other people who would take care of you,
and pet you, and adopt you, and bring you up as one of the family
besides my poor, darling aunt Jessie?”

“Yes, I have heard of it. Mr. Pryor spoke of some people, but he said
they did not live in England.”

“But they do; they live close here. Their name is Aspray. They are
Virginians, and have just settled in London. They live within a
stone’s-throw of here.”

“And are you certain I could go to them?”

“Certain? Of course I am certain. You can really go any day, but you
have a right to go when a few months are up—six or eight months, or
something like that. You have a right to go and stay with them, and to
make your own choice as to whether you will be Mrs. Richmond’s child or
Mr. Aspray’s child in the future; it rests with you altogether.”

Into Nan’s cheeks now there had come a very brilliant colour, and her
eyes were large and bright. She stood still, thinking deeply. After a
time she got up and left the room; she left her lesson-books behind
her. She entered her bedroom and shut the door. In this tiny room Nan
often battled out her troubles, and struggled hard to know what was
right to be done. She felt much puzzled on this occasion. As to
Augusta’s sharp words and tones of authority, she was accustomed to
them by this time; she saw there was no chance of her ever getting
away from her influence.

“And she is ruining me,” thought the child. “I did hope a fortnight
ago that I should do better, that I should be a worthy soldier. But I
must write to Uncle Peter; I cannot do right with Augusta always near.
What is to be done? What is to be done? Oh, it would kill me to leave
the Richmonds now! But what does this mean about the Asprays? I know
what I’ll do; I’ll go down and see Mrs. Richmond, and ask her straight
out to tell me the truth.”

No sooner had this resolve come to Nan than she ran downstairs.

It was Mrs. Richmond’s at-home day; callers had stayed until late, but
they had all gone now. She was preparing to go upstairs to dress for
dinner when Nan appeared.

“Ah, Nancy!” said the good woman. “Do you want me, darling?”

“Please, Mrs. Richmond, may I say something?” asked Nan.

“Of course you may, dear.”

Mrs. Richmond sat down and drew Nan towards her.

“Well, Nancy,” she said, “you look well; you have grown, and have got
more colour in your cheeks.”

Here she bent forward and kissed Nan on her forehead.

“Oh, I love you so much!” said Nancy; and she put up both her soft
arms, and kissed Mrs. Richmond with passionate fervour on her cheeks.

“That is very pleasant to hear, my dear little girl; and I think we
may all say with truth that we love you. Now, what is the trouble,
dear?”

“Oh, there is a trouble!” said Nan; “and I must ask you a question.”

“You are going to tell me about the trouble?”

“I wish I could, but I cannot. I have only just heard something, and I
want you to explain, please, oh, so very badly! Who are the Asprays,
Mrs. Richmond?”

“The Asprays!” said Mrs. Richmond. “What Asprays?”

“The Asprays who have the right to adopt me.”

“No, darling—no. You are my little girl, adopted by me. They have no
right over you unless you will it.”

“But who are they?”

“Rich people from Virginia.”

“And are they living near us?”

“I believe so; but I do not know them—I mean, we do not visit.”

“And I can go to them if I like?”

“That is true; but then, you would hardly like to go away to
strangers—to strangers from those who love you.”

“No,” said Nan in a smothered sort of voice; “I should hate it—hate
it.”

Here she squeezed up closer to Mrs. Richmond, who put her arm round the
child’s waist and drew her up tightly to her side.

“Who has been talking to my little Nancy? Who has been troubling you
in this matter?”

“Please, I would rather not tell.”

“I cannot force you to speak, my darling; but I want you to put the
Asprays out of your head.”

“Perhaps I will after you have answered me a few questions.”

“What questions, Nancy?”

“How is it that I can go to them if I like?”

“They are friends of your father’s.”

“And you are?”

“I am a friend of your mother’s.”

“But are they related to my father?”

“No; but Mr. Aspray once made your father a promise that if you were
really in difficulties or thrown on the world he would adopt you,
because your father had lent him a very considerable sum of money when
he was in great difficulties. He could not pay back the money during
your father’s life-time, so he gave him a letter instead, which your
mother left with me. That letter promises to adopt you, if necessary.
That, I understand, is the story. Mr. Aspray made the promise, and if
you ask him you could claim it and go to him as his adopted daughter;
but from the little I have heard of the family I do not think they
would suit you.”

“But still,” said Nan, puckering her brows and looking very anxious,
“I should have a sort of right there, should I not?”

“Nancy, my dear, have you no right here?”

“No, no, Mrs. Richmond,” said Nancy—“no right at all, because there
is no money, and you have just taken me out of kindness.”

“Now, Nancy, listen. I have not taken you out of kindness. I have
taken you, it is true, because I am fond of you, and because I loved
your mother, but I take you also to relieve my own mind. I should be
quite unhappy if you were not with me.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I owe your mother a debt which, even with you in the house, I
can never repay.”

“Won’t you tell me what it is?”

“I will when you are old enough—not now. You must take it on trust
for the present. Now, dear, this sort of conversation is very bad; you
are my happy little girl, a child of the house, petted and loved by us
all. Cease to fret, my dear; rouse yourself to do your duty and to be
happy. Kiss me, darling, now, and go upstairs. Forget about the
Asprays. I should be sorry if you went to them.”

Mrs. Richmond patted Nan on her cheek, and rising, she dismissed her
with a good-natured nod. Nan went slowly upstairs.

For the rest of the evening she was a very sad and silent little girl,
and during the night which followed she dreamt of the Asprays. After
all, in that house she might have a chance of doing right; and they
ought to take her. If Mr. Aspray owed her father money, it was but fair
that he should bring Nan up; and there would be no Augusta there to
taunt her and keep her from doing right.

“Oh! even being a soldier in Captain Peter’s regiment does not make me
do right,” thought the child. “I am always going to the side of the
road. I shall never, never be the best girl. What is to become of me?
What am I to do?”



CHAPTER XVII.

AUGUSTA’S RESOLVE.


The four girls in Mayfield Gardens were very busy just now. From
morning to night there was not a moment to spare, for the holidays
were drawing near, and the prizes were to be competed for. It is true
that Augusta was not competing for any prize, but somehow in this
busy, energetic, lively household she did not count for as much as she
herself believed she ought. Nan was trying hard, with all her might,
with every scrap of energy she possessed; and so was Kitty trying, and
so was Nora. Nora was perhaps less energetic than Kitty, but she was a
very honourable, downright, straight sort of girl. She knew her mother
wished her to bring home a prize after the final examinations at her
school, and she was determined, if girl could succeed, to do so.

Immediately after the school broke up, Mrs. Richmond was going to take
the four children to her country place in Devonshire. This was a
lovely place within a hundred yards or so of the seashore. Mrs.
Richmond kept boats, and even a little yacht, and Kitty and Nora were
never tired of telling the other two of the happy, happy time which
lay before them. But Nan, although she was working so hard, had a care
on her mind; never, day or night, did it leave her. It is true her
reports in the orderly-book were first-rate; she seemed, as far as
Miss Roy could make out, to do everything not only well, but with
spirit. Her drill was splendid; she held herself erect like a real
soldier; she understood her drill-sergeant’s directions as if by
magic. Then there were other exercises to be gone through, and Nan
never failed in her early rising. No one could be more attentive and
earnest over her lessons than Nan Esterleigh; and as to her morals,
Miss Roy could find no fault with them. Sometimes, it is true, as
night after night she put down most justly and fairly the marks of
each young soldier, she would look up after her invariable question,
“Well, any special thing on your consciences, or may I mark ‘Good’
against your character for to-day?”

A wild light would come into Nan’s eyes, and her face would turn pale;
but ever and always, before she could say the fatal word, Augusta
would manage to fix her bold, bright eyes on the little girl’s face,
and Nan would drop her head and say:

“Oh yes—at least, I mean, I have tried.”

Nevertheless, she was anything but happy, and she thought of the
Asprays as a possible means of relief. She made up her mind to see
them for herself before she went to the country; not to speak to
them—oh no! she would not do that for worlds: that time would not
come until she had fully made up her mind that she would give up the
Richmonds, whom she so dearly loved, and would cast in her lot with
the Asprays. But she must see them.

One day, with her heart beating, and with great outward
_sang-froid_, she asked Mrs. Richmond if she knew where they
lived. Mrs. Richmond told her.

“Quite close to this,” she said; “just at the corner turning into the
square. It is a very large house with green railings round it; but, my
darling, you need have nothing to do with them.”

“Oh! I know. I only wanted to be sure where they lived,” answered Nan.

By-and-by, when tragic things happened, Mrs. Richmond remembered this
remark of Nancy’s.

That day the little girl was sent out for a message with Susan. Susan
the housemaid was very fond of Nan; she had quite a respect for her
since that interesting time when she went with her to see Mr. Pryor and
Phoebe and Mrs. Vincent gave her tea in the kitchen.

“I am so glad we are out together, Susan!” said Nan. “You need not
hurry back very soon, need you?”

“No, miss—that is, I expect not. I don’t think there is anything very
special doing this afternoon. I can stay with you for a little—an
hour or so, anyhow.”

“Oh! that will do splendidly,” said Nan. “You know, Susan, I like you
very much.”

“And so do I like you, Miss Nancy; but it is more than I do Miss
Augusta. We none of us can bear her—nasty, sly young lady!”

Poor Nan felt a fierce desire to corroborate these words, but she
remembered her duty as a soldier prevented her speaking evil even of
her enemies, and she restrained herself.

“We need not talk about Augusta now, need we?” she said.

“No, my dear Miss Nancy; but anybody with half an eye can see that she
worries you almost past bearing. Dear, dear! there are things I could
tell of her if I liked; but I don’t want to be spiteful.”

“It would be very wrong indeed to tell tales, Susan.”

“I ain’t telling them,” said Susan somewhat tartly. “Now miss, hadn’t
we best do our messages first?”

Nan agreed to this. They went to one or two shops for Mrs. Richmond,
and Susan put her purchases into a bag which hung upon her arm.

“Now then, Miss Nancy, shall we go home, or what shall we do?”

“I know what I want to do,” said Nancy. “I want to walk up and down
outside a house.”

“Oh, lor’, Miss Nancy! that do sound queer.”

“And there is another thing,” continued Nancy, speaking very eagerly,
and a spot of bright colour coming into each of her cheeks; “I want
you, Susan, not to tell anybody what we are going to do. Do not gossip
about it when you get back to the servants’ hall. You won’t, will you?”

“Not me,” said Susan; “I ain’t that sort.”

“I know you are not,” said Nancy in a sweet tone of voice, touching
Susan’s arm for a minute with her hand; “and because I know it, that
is why I like you so much. Now then, this is the house.”

Nan found herself outside the Asprays’ dwelling. She looked up with a
beating heart. The house was handsome, large, and commodious; compared
with the Richmonds’ house, which was also a very handsome one, it
looked palatial. There were balconies to most of the windows; and
awnings were put up now, and sun-blinds, and a lot of people were
seated in the drawing-room balcony chatting and laughing. Their
laughter was borne down on the breeze, and it reached Nan’s ears. They
were having tea on the balcony, and a couple of girls were seated
close together talking eagerly. One of them turned to her companion
and said:

“Do you see that odd-looking child? She keeps walking up and down just
outside our house. I suppose the person with her is her maid. Don’t
you recognise her, Flora?”

“No, I am sure I do not, Constance.”

“Well, you have a very short memory. Don’t you know that time when we
were at the florist’s round the corner, and a nasty, horrid
bull-terrier came and pulled your skirt? It belonged to that child.
Oh, see! oh, see! She has raised her eyes and is looking at us. Of
course it is she.”

“Of course; I remember quite well now,” said Constance. “How funny!
She is a strange-looking little girl! I do not admire her at all. I
trust we may never see her again.”

Down in the street, Nancy said in a faint voice to Susan:

“I have walked up and down long enough now, Susan; I should like to go
home.”

For she, too, had recognised the girls with golden hair and handsome
faces. They were the Asprays! Would she exchange to a better fate if
she threw in her lot with theirs? She felt very sad and lonely.

But the busy time was at hand; the very next day the school
examinations began. These continued for nearly a week, and then came
the prize-day, when all the parents and friends of the girls were
invited; and Nan had the extreme felicity of winning a prize for her
French studies. Oh, how proud she felt as she walked up to receive the
handsome volume from the hands of her mistress! She trembled all over
as she clasped it to her heart, bowed to her mistress, said “Thank
you” in a tremulous voice, and went back to her seat. She was so happy
and pleased that she even forgot Augusta in her joy. Kitty and Nora
had also won prizes, and three happy, almost riotous schoolgirls
assembled in the schoolroom that night. Augusta came in with her head
in the air.

“Hoity-toity!” she cried; “what a noise! Well, let me see the books. I
trust they are novels, for I have read through all my own store, and
want some fresh ones to amuse myself with.—Nan, you come and show me
yours. Why, child, you look as if you were standing on your head; what
is the matter with you?”

“I am so awfully delighted,” said Nan, “that I did get it.—Oh Kitty,
Kitty, I almost wonder if it is true!”

“It is true enough, Nan,” said Kitty. “Don’t be over-excited, darling.
Oh! I know you want to write to Uncle Peter.”

“Indeed I do: and I will, too. I expect he will be pleased.”

“He will,” said Kitty. “He will be extra pleased with you, for you
worked so very hard.”

“Well, show me the book, and do stop talking,” said Augusta.

Nan put her treasured volume in Augusta’s hands. It was a beautifully
bound copy of the works of Racine. Augusta tossed it back.

“Beyond words tiresome,” she said. “Who wants to read that stupid
thing?”

“But I do; I mean to read every word of it. And, oh, it is so
beautifully bound! And see—do see where they have put my name—‘Nancy
Esterleigh, Prize I. for’”——

“Oh! don’t go on,” said Augusta.—“Show me your book, Kitty.”

“You need not be so ungracious,” said Kitty. “I do not think I will
show you my book. Nancy has got a darling, lovely prize.—Have you
not, Nancy pet?”

Kitty’s prize consisted of a vellum-bound copy of Macaulay’s History,
and Nora had the works of Shakespeare in several small volumes.
Augusta pronounced all the prizes not worth considering, and
ensconcing herself in a low chair in the window, continued to devour a
volume which she had secreted from the drawing-room. Nan was not the
only one who had noticed this habit of Augusta’s. Miss Roy was also
aware of it; but she had made up her mind to say nothing yet.

On the very day before the little party were to go to the country,
Augusta received a letter from her mother. It was written from South
America, and evidently caused the young recipient a good deal of
consternation.

“My dear Augusta,” wrote her mother, “I have been wishing for some
time to send you a really serious letter. I am leaving you at present
in Aunt Jessie’s care, and I have no doubt that all has been done for
your benefit. My dear, we left home in a great hurry, and a quick
change had to be made in all our plans. You know, Augusta, that one or
two things occurred at home before we left which displeased your
father and me very much. I allude to a certain matter when you were
not quite straight with us. If there is one thing more than another
which your father and I would break our hearts over, it is that you,
our precious only child, should be guilty of want of openness or want
of regard for the truth. Now, my dear, I wish to say that we intend to
put you on trial during your stay with Aunt Jessie. I have not
breathed a word to her of that fault which, alas! most undoubtedly
lies in your character—you are arrogant and selfish, and if it were
to further your own interests you would not hesitate to tell a lie. It
is terribly painful to me to have to write like this to you whom I so
dearly love; there is a dreadful pain in my heart, and I could cry
over it. But now, Augusta, your father and I have made up our minds.
If during your stay with Aunt Jessie you are discovered to have
swerved in the very least from the path of truth and honour, we will
not send you to school in Paris, which it is our present intention to
do on our return to England; on the contrary, we will keep you at home
with a very strict governess. My dear, I am obliged to say this, and
you must take what comfort you can out of this letter. It remains with
you whether you go to Paris or not; all, all depends on your conduct
while we are away from you. Pray to God to help you, my dear girl. I
write in great sorrow of mind.—Your affectionate mother.”

Augusta read this letter over twice; then she took it to her room and
put it away in a little drawer, which she locked. That night as she
lay down to, rest she thought a good deal over what her mother had
said. She was quite determined, at any cost, to go to Paris. If her
conduct with regard to Nan were ever known she would lose her chance
of this delightful plan being carried out. Far from going to Paris,
she would be immured at home with a dull, old-fashioned, and tiresome
governess to look after her. Augusta knew by past experience what such
a life would mean. She had more than once already tried the patience
and half-broken the hearts of different governesses who had been
engaged to instruct her. She was fully resolved to have nothing more
to do with so dull an existence. At any cost, therefore, Nan must be
silenced. For if Nan brought herself to confess what lay so heavily on
her conscience, Augusta must be implicated; therefore Nan must keep
silence.

“What a tiresome little girl she is! I have met no one like her. How
swiftly she fell! and ever since she has been in a wretched state of
mind—making my life quite a misery. Well, I have her pretty much in
my power. I will cosset her up a little when I get to the country, and
make a fuss over her. With all her faults, she is affectionate, and if
I coax and flatter her a bit she will come over to my way of thinking.
But I do wish one thing, and it is this—— Why did that tiresome
Uncle Peter propose that extraordinary plan of his? I am sure I don’t
want to be a soldier. Tiresome, stupid man! But I have promised, and I
must go on with it. To be degraded from the ranks now would be as good
as a failure; to have bad marks in the orderly-book would stamp me for
ever in mother’s eyes. Captain Richmond’s plan is just what would
delight the mother; and father too would be pleased. Of course, when
they both come back they will hear all about it. Yes, I see what must
be done: Nan must be encouraged and petted and fussed over, and I must
take my laurels modestly; and then, when the good parents come back
from America, hurrah for Paris and a good time!”



CHAPTER XVIII.

AUGUSTA’S SIGNATURE.


A few days later the four girls went into the country. At first Nan
was so delighted with the change that she forgot all her trials and
worries; the air was so fresh, and the gardens round the house so
beautiful; the woods, which were near by, were so fragrant, so shady,
so delicious to roam about in; and last but not least came the walks
by the seashore, the long rambles on the yellow sands, the hours when
the girls floated away in their little boats on the surface of the
blue waters. But still happier hours were those when the yacht carried
them like a white bird over the dancing waves. Oh! all day and every
hour was perfect with bliss. Nan sometimes wondered what had happened
to her. Was she indeed the little girl who had lived a sad and anxious
and lonely life in a back-street in London; who had wanted for clothes
and for nourishing food; who had been satisfied with the delights of
her doll, and who had known no better joys? Indeed, she was very far
from being the same. It is true that in the old days she had mother,
and mother counted for a good deal in Nan’s loving heart. But mother
had suffered sorely, and God and the good angels had taken her away.
Yes, Nan was happy now. She did not mind confessing it—she was happy;
and the world was good, and all the friends she had made were very
kind to her.

Miss Roy accompanied the children into the country, and for the first
fortnight all went well. Night after night the marks were put down in
the orderly-book, and day after day the Captain’s scheme for the
improvement of his little band of soldiers was carried out, and at the
end of each week Miss Roy sent to the Captain a report of progress.
But the good-natured, kind-hearted governess was going for her
holidays, and Mrs. Richmond was coming to the country to take her
place. On the day before Miss Roy left Augusta came into the pretty
room which was used as a schoolroom at Fairleigh. Miss Roy was just
closing the orderly-book; she raised her eyes as Augusta advanced.

“Well, dear,” said the governess, “can I do anything for you?”

“I have been wondering,” Augusta answered, “who will put down our
marks in your absence.”

“I believe,” said Miss Roy, “that Mrs. Richmond will undertake that
duty.”

“But why trouble Aunt Jessie? I could do it so nicely if you would
entrust it to me.”

Miss Roy looked full up at Augusta.

“I think not,” she said slowly; “it would not be fair to the others.”

“But why? I should be absolutely fair to them and to myself.”

“It is not to be thought of,” said Miss Roy a little sharply. “Mrs.
Richmond must undertake this responsibility.”

Augusta said no more, and early the next morning the governess went
away. A week or so after her departure Uncle Peter was expected. If
Nora and Kitty had been wild with delight at the thought of his visit
when he came to London, now there were four eager and anxious girls
waiting to welcome him. What would he say? How would he look? What
expeditions would he plan? In what manner would he add to the
fascination and happiness of these long summer days?

Mrs. Richmond raised her eyes from the letter which announced his
arrival, and looked at the four eager faces.

“Well, dears,” she said, “it is a great relief to me that your uncle
should be coming. You see,” she added, “I call him your uncle
indiscriminately, for I am given to understand that Peter has adopted
you all as nieces.”

“I love him fifty times better than an ordinary uncle,” cried Nan,
with extraordinary fervour.

Augusta gave her a spiteful glance, and Mrs. Richmond, for a wonder,
noticed it. She noticed it, and it disturbed her. She had a great
affection for her sister’s child, and believed fully in Augusta,
having never yet encountered any of that young lady’s acts of deceit;
but the look on her face was arresting and disturbing, and she thought
about it when the children went out for their “morning walk.

“What could it have meant?” thought the kind-hearted woman; and then
she rose and went slowly to the secretaire in her study, and opening a
drawer, she took out her sister’s last letter. The sentences which her
eyes rested on ran as follows:

“I am very loath, my dear Jessie, to put any suspicious thoughts into
your head with regard to my darling and only child, but her father and
I both feel that you ought to know that there have been times in her
life when she has not been quite straight. Say nothing of this,
Jessie, but perhaps in dealing with her character you will be more just
to her, more fair to her, and more able to influence her if you get a
hint of the truth.”

“Not quite straight,” murmured Mrs. Richmond; and she put the letter
back into its envelope and locked the drawer in which she kept it. An
hour afterwards she went out. She was walking slowly through a
shrubbery which ran at the back of the house when the sound of voices
fell on her ears. There was a high-pitched voice which undoubtedly
belonged to Augusta, and there were the low and sweet tones of Nan.

Augusta was holding Nan by both her hands. She was a great deal taller
than the little girl, and a great deal stronger, and she had drawn the
child close to her.

“I would kill you if you told,” she said, with extraordinary passion.
“But there! you know you daren’t. Go—I hate you!” and she pushed Nan
from her, who ran fast and quickly out of sight.

Mrs. Richmond waited for a moment, too stunned to move or to speak.
Then she went quickly round the tall holly which had hidden her from
Augusta’s view, and putting her hand on the girl’s shoulder, turned
her round.

“My dear,” she said.

“Yes, Aunt Jessie,” said Augusta; “what is it?” She had managed to
control herself, and her face looked almost as usual.

“I happened to overhear you just now, Gussie, and I must say that your
words displeased me very much. I do not understand what you were
talking about, but you used the most cruel and unjustifiable
expressions. I wish to say, my dear, that I cannot permit you to bully
little Nancy. The child is an orphan, and I should be very angry if
any one were unkind to her. As to the meaning of your words, Augusta,
I think they demand an explanation.”

“Oh, Aunt Jessie!” said Augusta, “Nan is terribly provoking; she is
such a peculiar little thing that she sometimes almost drives me wild.
She has been fretting and fidgeting about a trifling matter for days.”

“Something she wants to tell?” interrupted Mrs. Richmond. “And why
should she not tell? Why should you be so violent as to terrify the
poor child by informing her that you would kill her if she told? How
dared you say anything so wicked?”

“I lost my temper, Aunt Jessie, and that is the truth. The whole thing
referred to a little matter with regard to myself which I do not want
any one to know. You surely would not encourage Nancy to be a
tell-tale!”

“I feel it is my duty to speak to her,” said Mrs. Richmond.

“Oh no, no, Aunt Jessie! I beseech you not;” and going close up to
her, Augusta raised her hand to her lips and kissed it.

“Please—please, Aunt Jessie, don’t say anything about it. I will make
it up with Nan, and I promise never to be so nasty again. You cannot
speak to her, you know, for you happened to overhear us; and it would
not be fair, would it?”

“No; perhaps not,” said Mrs. Richmond a little doubtfully. “Well, my
dear, I don’t want to be hard on you, and you know I have always loved
you very much.”

“And I am away from my parents, too,” said Augusta, eager to take
advantage of Mrs. Richmond’s softening mood. “And I am really awfully
sorry that I lost my temper that time. I will go this very minute to
Nan and make it up with her. You won’t speak to her about it, will
you, Aunt Jessie?”

“I suppose not; but I hope very much that I am doing right.”

“Why, Aunt Jessie, you have never found me out in any meanness yet,
have you? Why should you doubt me now?”

“I will try not to doubt you, dear. I will try to believe in you.
Only, one thing, Augusta, your unkindness to Nan will have at least to
undergo this punishment—you will receive a bad mark in the
orderly-book for your conduct tonight.”

Now, up to the present Augusta’s marks in the orderly-book had been
good, and she had done her utmost to fulfil the letter at least of
Captain Richmond’s conditions. She had abstained from rudeness or
roughness in her manner. She had—to the Richmond girls at least—been
good-natured. Her private cruelties and unkindnesses to Nancy were not
known to the rest of the party. Nancy herself never told. Augusta had
therefore received good marks for conduct as well as for general
intelligence and physical discipline. Her great hope was that Captain
Richmond would bestow upon her what he called the Victoria Cross of
his scheme; for after having received so valuable a proof of her
excellent conduct, her father and mother would be abundantly
satisfied, and would send her, on their return, to the longed-for
school in Paris. But a bad mark for conduct just the day before the
Captain’s return would seriously interfere with Augusta’s schemes. She
walked down the shrubbery in deep thought and very much disturbed in
her mind. Through the shrubbery there was a winding and very pretty
path straight to the seashore. On the shore the Richmonds had arranged
a tent. The tent was placed above high-water mark, and it was not only
used for bathing purposes, but was also a favourite resort of the
children’s for all kinds of picnics and pleasure expeditions. They
used to sit there with their work and storybooks. They often brought
their tea there. It was their favourite place of retirement, too, be
the weather wet or fine. Augusta now approached the tent, wondering if
Nancy were there. Nan had withdrawn far back into its darkest corner;
she was not reading, although a story-book lay at her side. She had
evidently been crying very bitterly, for her face was disfigured and
her eyes swollen. Augusta looked at her with great dislike; then it
occurred to her that Nancy might be very useful to her, and in short
that there was no use in making her unhappy. She sank down on a
cushion near the little girl’s side, and said in a voice which she
tried to make very sad and sympathetic:

“I am awfully angry with myself, Nancy. I know I ought not to have
spoken to you as I did. I hope you will forgive me and let bygones be
bygones.”

Nancy was naturally of a forgiving temperament; she looked up at
Augusta now, and said in a low tone:

“Why do you say such dreadful things to me? Why must I keep my
conscience burdened because of you?”

“Now, listen, Nancy,” said Augusta; “I am speaking quite frankly to
you. I will be as open to you as you are to me.”

“Well, what are you going to say?” asked Nancy.

“This: it might do me great harm if you were to tell now, but if you
will only wait until the holidays are over and we are back in town,
why, I will give you leave to say anything you please.”

“Why would my telling now injure you? I need not mention your name. I
just want to tell dear, kind Mrs. Richmond about my own part. And of
course I want to tell Uncle Peter. It is so dreadful to look into his
eyes and to know that I am not what he thinks me! May I not tell my
part and leave yours out? Please—please let me, Gussie. You can’t
know the pain of the burden I am bearing, and how miserable I am.”

“You couldn’t tell your part without telling mine,” said Augusta, “and
I don’t wish mine spoken about at present. You will have to be silent.
But never mind, Nancy; you—shall tell, as I promised you, when we get
back to London. Won’t you be kind to me and keep the secret until
then?”

“And may I positively—certainly—tell when we get back to London?”
asked the child.

“Yes; have I not said it? And now, let us talk no more of the matter.”

“But, Augusta,” said Nancy, rising, “will you do something for me—if
I agree to this, will you do something definite?”

“Oh, what a queer child you are!” said Augusta. “What am I to do?”

“Will you write it down?”

“I write it down! Why should I do that?”

“Will you give me the words in writing? _Nancy may tell when she
gets back to town_: just those words, and sign them ‘_Augusta_’.”

Augusta had her own reasons for wishing to please the little girl.

“And here is some paper,” said Nancy, “and here is a pencil. Write
the words down, Augusta, and let me keep the paper.”

[Illustration: “Here is some paper,” said Nancy, “and here is a pencil.
Write the words down, Augusta, and let me keep the paper.”]

“You will never show any one?” said Augusta.

“Indeed—indeed I won’t.”

“And if I do this for you, will you do something for me?”

“If I can.”

“Very well.” Augusta spoke in quite a cheerful tone. “I will do what
you wish and sign the paper, and you can keep it and show it to me to
remind me of my promise when we get back to London. In the meantime
you mustn’t talk any more of this nonsense. You mustn’t worry me from
morning to night as you have been doing ever since I have had the
pleasure of knowing you. And there is still something more.”

“I won’t talk of it; and I’ll be very, very grateful,” said Nancy.

“Well; child, so far so good; but now for my real condition. Do you
know, Nancy, that you—you little wretch!—have just got me into a
most horrible scrape?”

“How?” asked Nancy, fixing her wondering eyes on Augusta’s face.

“You have, you monkey—you have. This is what you have done. When I
was talking to you just now in the shrubbery, and giving you some
plain words with regard to your conduct, you put on the airs of a
martyr, and, lo and behold, little Miss Martyr! somebody listened, and
somebody was very angry.”

“Whom?” asked the child.

“No less a person than my aunt Jessie. You ran away in one of your
fits of passion and left me to face the brunt of the storm. Didn’t I
get it, too? Oh, Aunt Jessie was in a rage! She spoke of you as if you
were a poor, half-murdered angel. I declare it was sickening to hear
her. And there is worse to follow. You know what we all think of Uncle
Peter and his scheme, and how anxious we are to get the best that he
can give us; and I want the Royal Cross that he has promised to the
most victorious.”

“Oh no, Augusta,” said Nancy, with a faint and quickly suppressed
smile; “you can’t mean that you are going in for that.”

“And why not, miss? I mean to go in for it.”

“Well, but the Royal Cross is for valour and noble conduct,
and—Augusta, you can’t mean it.”

“You are a nice child!” said Augusta, her eyes flashing with fury.
“How dare you speak to me like that, you poor little charity-girl,
kept here by Aunt Jessie—kept here out of kindness”——

“Oh, don’t! You dare not say that! It is not true.”

“Well, I won’t. But really, Nancy, you have the power of nearly
driving me mad; a more irritating creature I have never come across.
But now, what I want you to do is this. Aunt Jessie is angry, and she
is going to give me a bad mark to-night in the orderly-book; and if I
get it I am done for, for a bad mark for conduct will be talked about
and commented on, and my chances of the great prize will be
practically _nil_. Now, I want you, Nancy, to tell her that I was
not to blame this morning, or at least _scarcely_ to blame; that
you were very naughty and irritating, and it was no wonder I got
cross. You must do everything in your power to prevent her giving me a
bad mark. And remember another thing, Nancy; if she asks you what was
the matter, you are not to let out _anything_. Simply say:
‘Augusta is rather quick-tempered, and I worried her and talked
nonsense. I was to blame, and not Augusta, and she ought not to have a
bad mark.’ Do you promise? Surely you can do nothing else when you
have got me into this horrid scrape.”

Nancy thought hard for a minute.

“I do want to get that paper signed!” she said to herself. “It will
make things quite right when we get back to London, for Gussie cannot
go back from her own written promise; and then, too, I need tell no
lie to Mrs. Richmond.” So after a moment she said:

“Very well; I will do my best. Of course, I can’t promise to succeed,
but I will do my best.”

“That is all right,” said Augusta. “Here, give me that half-sheet of
paper.”

Nan did so.

Augusta wrote quickly, finishing with a dashing signature.

“There!” she said; “keep it carefully. Don’t, for goodness’ sake, let
any one see it. And now, run off as fast as you can and find Aunt
Jessie.”



CHAPTER XIX.

THE ASPRAYS.


Mrs. Richmond had just finished lunch, and was preparing to go out for
a drive, when Nancy, her cheeks flushed and her eyes very bright,
rushed into the room.

“Well, my dear child,” said the good lady, drawing the little girl
towards her, “and what do you want now? I am so glad to see my dear
little Nancy with that bright face! I was sorry that you were troubled
this morning, my dear. I have promised Augusta not to say anything
about it, nor will I; but I conclude from your face now that the
trouble, whatever it was, is over.”

“Yes,” said Nancy, “it is quite over.”

“And you are really happy, my darling?”

“I am, Mrs. Richmond. I cannot help it; you are so kind to me.”

“Come close to me, dear; I want to say something to you.” As Mrs.
Richmond spoke she drew Nancy to her side, and put her arm round the
little girl’s waist and kissed her. “Why do you call me Mrs. Richmond?”
she said. “I want to be as a mother to you.”

“Oh!” said Nancy, with a gasp.

“I know, dear, that your own dear and sweet mother is no longer here.
But my wish is, as far as possible, to take her place. I cannot really
take her place, I know, Nancy, but I can at least be to you a good and
kind and loving aunt. Now, Nancy, what I wish is this—I want you to
promise to call me Aunt Jessie. Will you, dear?”

“I will if I may,” said Nancy, with her eyes shining; “I’d like to
just awfully.”

“That is all right. And will you give your Aunt Jessie a kiss?”

Nancy flung her arms round Mrs. Richmond’s neck.

“How much I love you! How very, very good you are to me?” she said.

“What is it you specially want to say to me, Nancy?”

“It is about Augusta,” said the child. “I think perhaps I made too
much fuss this morning. I know Augusta was—— I mean that it sounded
cruel, but—— I don’t know how to express it. If you would not mind,
Aunt Jessie, just _quite_ forgiving her.”

“What do you mean by quite forgiving her, little woman?”

“She is in great trouble. She spoke to me about it. We are good
friends now, she and I. She spoke to me, and I told her I would come
and plead for her. If, Aunt Jessie, you would quite forgive her!”

“Well, dear child, I have quite forgiven her; we will let bygones be
bygones.”

“If that is the case, you won’t give her a bad mark in the
orderly-book?”

A look of great surprise came over Mrs. Richmond’s face when Nancy said
this. She rose and said hurriedly:

“I am going for a drive, and cannot talk any more; but tell Augusta
she ought not to have sent you.”

“Are you angry?” asked Nancy.

“Not with you, but with Augusta.”

“Then you won’t do what I ask”——

“I cannot, and Augusta knows the reason why. When you four girls
enrolled yourselves as soldiers in Captain Richmond’s battalion you
were in earnest; it was not a joke. Augusta behaved badly to-day, and
she deserves the punishment which a bad mark in the orderly-book will
bestow. Say no more about it, Nancy. Run away and play; you are
looking quite pale and ill.”

As Mrs. Richmond uttered the last words she left the room.

Nancy stood still for a moment with her hands clasped; then she went
very slowly in the direction of the seashore. The children were to
have tea in the tent this afternoon, and Kitty and Nora were busy
bringing down baskets of picnic things: cups and saucers, plates,
knives and forks, cakes innumerable, jam, bread and butter, &c. When
they saw Nancy they shouted to her to come and help them. The three
children went quickly down the steep path through the shrubbery, and
soon found themselves by the sea. The tide was half out, and the whole
place looked perfect. There was a gay town not far from Fairleigh, and
at this time of the year the sands were strewn with children and
nurses—in short, with the usual holiday folks. But the part of the
shore just beside Mrs. Richmond’s place was considered more or less to
belong to her young people, and as a rule no other children came there
to play. To-day, however, as the girls, heavily laden with the
materials for their afternoon picnic, approached, they saw Augusta
talking to two rather showily dressed girls, whose long golden hair
hung down their backs. Augusta seemed in high spirits, and her gay
laughter floated on the breeze.

“Who can she be talking to?” said Kitty. “I never knew such a girl for
picking up friends.”

“Well, don’t mind her now,” said Nora, going into the tent and making
preparations. “We are going to boil the kettle on the sands and have
real, proper tea.—Nancy, if you have nothing better to do, you might
go along by the shore and pick up bits of firewood.”

Nancy ran off immediately.

“What can be the matter with her?” Nora said. “Her eyes look as if she
had been crying. I wonder if Gussie has been worrying her again.”

Before Kitty had time to reply, Gussie was seen coming towards them.
“Kitty,” she said, raising her voice, “I want to introduce Miss Aspray
and her sister. They are so anxious to know us, and they seem so very
nice! You know, of course, who they are—the Americans who live at the
corner of our street.”

“But what would mother say?” asked Nora. “You know, Augusta, she
doesn’t want us ever to make acquaintance with people that she herself
does not know.”

“Oh! I can’t help that now,” said Augusta. “Here they are coming to
meet us. Don’t you think we might ask them to tea?”

The two girls now approached the tent. Flora, the elder, looking
prettier and more full of spirit than any one Kitty had seen for a
long time, held out her hand.

“How do you do, Miss Richmond?” she said. “Constance and I know you
quite well by sight. We have often looked at you four girls with great
envy; and just now, when we found Miss Duncan standing by herself on
the sands, it seemed almost too good to be true. She seemed to us, in
this outlandish, out-of-the-way spot, to be quite an old friend. May
we join you; or will you join us? Mother is having a grand picnic on
the rocks round the other side of the bay, and I know she will be
delighted to see you all. Will you come or not?”

Augusta’s eyes were sparkling, and she evidently longed to accept the
Asprays’ invitation. But Nora, drawing herself up, said in her very
quiet tone, “We shall be pleased if you will join us. We are just
having tea on the sands; it is not a regular picnic.”

“But quite too lovely!” said Constance. “Of course we will stay—only
too glad. And is this your tent? How charming!” As she spoke she
entered the tent, and flung herself down on a large cushion covered
with an Oriental brocade. “Dear, dear!” she said, “you do seem to
enjoy things.”

“Of course we do,” said Kitty, viewing her with some disfavour. “Why
else should we come to the seashore?”

“Do you live in that nice place which I see through the trees?”

“Yes,” answered Nova. “It is our own place. We come here every year.”

Just then Nancy appeared, holding a lot of brushwood in the skirt of
her frock. She coloured and started when she saw the Asprays, who had
now both taken possession of the tent.

“Nancy,” said Kitty, going up to the little girl and putting her arm
round her waist, “Augusta has met the two Miss Asprays, and has
invited them to tea here.—Miss Aspray, may I introduce my great
friend, Nancy Esterleigh?”

The elder Miss Aspray coloured brightly when Kitty made this remark.
The younger shrugged her shoulders and poked her sister in the side.
Augusta’s eyes sparkled, and Nancy turned very white.

“How do you do?” she said in a low voice.

“Why, if it isn’t—— Yes, it is, Constance.”

“It is what?” said Constance. “I do wish you would mind your manners,
Flora.”

“But it is quite too funny!” said Flora.— “Why, little girl, don’t
you remember us? How is your dog? Does he bite as well as ever? Is he
as vindictive as he was on a certain day in a florist’s shop? Oh, if
you only knew how poor Constance’s ankle ached after his very
gentlemanly attentions! And you, my dear, were not quite as
sympathetic as might have been expected.”

“Explain—explain!” cried Augusta. “This sounds most interesting.”

“Let me tell,” said Nancy. She turned suddenly, faced the group, and
told her little story. “I was sorry,” she said in conclusion, “and I
would have said so, only you were both so terribly angry, and you
seemed to think—— But there! I won’t say any more.”

“No, no,” said Kitty; “of course you won’t say any more. And the Miss
Asprays are our guests, remember.—Now then, let us hurry with tea.”

The girls, their party augmented to six, had on the whole a jolly
time. Nancy was only too glad to bustle about in order to keep her
excited heart quiet. Were these the girls with whom she might have to
spend her life? Were these the girls whose father had a right to
maintain her and adopt her as his own child? Oh, how thankful she was
that Mrs. Richmond had already adopted her!

“I would rather be a charity-child with Mrs. Richmond,” thought the
little girl, “than have the greatest right in the world to live with
the Asprays, for, oh dear! I don’t like them a bit—no, not a bit.
What a comfort it is that I have got that promise in writing from
Augusta!—for now I need never leave my darling Aunt Jessie. Yes, she
asked me to call her Aunt Jessie; and how much I do love her!”

While these thoughts were passing through Nancy’s head, she was busy
spreading bread and butter and opening pots of jam. She was kneeling
on the sands to perform these offices, and happened to be a little
away from the rest of the party.

Suddenly Augusta approached with the excuse of wanting to borrow a
knife from her.

“Well,” she said in a whisper, “and what do you think of them? You
would like awfully to live with them, wouldn’t you?”

“No, no,” said Nancy, shaking her head.

“No, no,” echoed Augusta, mimicking her. “And why not, my little
beauty?”

“Don’t tease me, Gussie; you know what I mean.”

“No, indeed, I don’t. I like the Asprays immensely. How stylish and
handsome they both are, and so well dressed! I trust we shall see a
great deal of them. They are going to stay at Fairlight for a month,
and they say a great many friends are going to be with them—American
friends—gentlemen and ladies also. I know that they mean to see a
good deal of us—of me in especial. So, little Nancy, as you are my
special friend, you must be extremely nice to Flora and Constance
Aspray, and pay them a considerable amount of attention.”

“What do you mean, Gussie?”

“What I say, little woman. Now, for instance, when we are all taking
tea in the tent, you are to see that Constance and Flora get the
strongest cups of tea, the most cream, and the most richly buttered of
the scones, and the thickest pieces of cake. I am rather famous for
reading character, and I am positively sure that these two girls are
possessed by greediness. You will remember my injunctions, won’t you,
Nancy?”

“I don’t mind helping them to the nice things if they really want
them, Augusta. But, oh! please, Gussie, you won’t say anything about
me—I mean anything special?”

Augusta laughed. “I am not at all sure,” she said; “it all depends on
your behaviour. And, oh, by the way, have you seen Aunt Jessie?”

“Yes—yes, I have; and I am ever so sorry!”

“What! you have not succeeded?”

Nancy shook her head.

Augusta’s face grew black with anger; she also looked seriously
alarmed.

“You must talk to her again,” she said. “I cannot have that bad mark
entered in the orderly-book. Do you hear? I cannot!”

“I am very sorry, Augusta. You had better speak to Aunt Jessie
yourself, for I can do nothing.”

“I don’t believe you have pleaded with her. You had got what you
wanted, and did not care twopence for me and my fate. It is just like
you—just.”

“No; that is not true,” answered Nancy. “I did my very, very best; and
I am terribly sorry. I tell you what it is, Gussie, I would take that
bad mark for myself—I would gladly—if only you need not have it.”

“Oh! it is all very fine to talk,” said Augusta; “but acts tell more
than words.”

“What are you two chattering about?” suddenly burst from Nora’s lips.
“The kettle has boiled, and the tea is made, and we are all waiting
for the bread and butter.”

Nancy rose at once, and Augusta followed her. The picnic tea
commenced, and no one noticed in the general mirth that one girl was
looking perturbed, cross, and anxious, and that another was strangely
silent and depressed. The Asprays, whatever their faults, were the
gayest of the gay, and very merry and witty. Nora was not inclined to
be too cordial to girls whom her mother did not know, but Kitty
quickly succumbed to their charm. The picnic tea came to an end, and
when the Asprays took leave, it was with warm assurances that they
would soon come again, and that their mother should call on Mrs.
Richmond if Mrs. Richmond did not first call on her—in short, that
during their stay at Fairlight, the Richmonds of Fairleigh and they
themselves must be bosom friends.



CHAPTER XX.

THE ORDERLY-BOOK.


The children returned to the house only just in time to dress for late
dinner, for while in the country Mrs. Richmond had the four young
people to dine with her. As they walked up through the shrubbery the
one topic of conversation was the guests who had just picnicked with
them.

“I don’t believe mother will like it,” said Nora. “We ought not to
have done it without asking her permission. It was your fault,
Augusta; you should not have done it.”

“Nonsense!” said Augusta. “I could not help myself. Americans are not
so frightfully formal and stuck-up as we English. For my part, I think
the Asprays are the most charming girls? Nancy, don’t you agree with
me?”

“I don’t know anything about them,” replied Nancy.

“Well, dear, you can know all about them if you like,” said Augusta in
a very marked tone.

Kitty opened her eyes in bewilderment. What did Augusta mean? Nancy
was colouring again painfully. As they reached the house the first
thing they saw was a pile of travelling-cases in the hall.

“Uncle Peter must have come,” cried Kitty. “Now everything will be all
right. How glad I am!” But the next moment she saw her mother, whose
face was very grave and disturbed.

“My darlings,” she said, “since you went out I have had a telegram
from my special friend in the north, Mrs. Rashleigh. She has just lost
her only son, and is in the most terrible grief. She has begged me to
go to her. I shall have to go up to town to-night, and shall go down
to Yorkshire to-morrow. I am terribly sorry to leave you four to your
own devices, particularly as Miss Roy is away. But fortunately Uncle
Peter arrives in the morning, and I have no doubt that you will all be
as good as possible under your uncle’s care.”

“Isn’t Uncle Peter coming to-night?” said Nancy, speaking very slowly,
and with great anxiety in her tone.

“Oh, you thought so because his luggage has arrived!” said Mrs.
Richmond. “No. I have had a wire from him. He has sent his luggage on,
but is staying with an old friend at Tiverton till the morning.”

“Oh mother, how we shall miss you!” here exclaimed Kitty.

“And I you, my darlings; but I am so shocked at my dear friend’s
trouble that I cannot really stay away from her. Now, my own two
little girls, will you come upstairs and help mother to finish her
packing?”

Kitty and Nora both quickly complied. Their mother’s room was in a
great state of confusion. Her maid was strapping boxes and writing
labels, and looking very much put out. Mrs. Richmond tied on her
bonnet; then she turned to the girls.

“You will find the orderly-book,” she said, “in the chiffonier in the
drawing-room; here is the key. I have just entered your marks for
to-day. When Uncle Peter comes, give him the book. He will be
responsible for it and for you until I come back. Now I hear the
wheels of the carriage on the gravel. I must be off.”

“Oh mother! one word first,” said Nora.

“It must be a very brief word, then, Nora, or I shall miss my
train”——

“We met the Asprays on the beach, mother.”

“The Asprays, dear? I don’t understand.”

“If you please, mum,” said the parlour-maid at this moment, “Harris
says that unless you come at once you won’t catch your train.”

“I am quite ready,” said Mrs. Richmond. “Come, Merton, you cannot waste
any more time over the packages.—Darlings, the Asprays, whoever they
are, must keep. Good-bye, my pets—good-bye.”

In two minutes more the carriage was bowling down the avenue, Mrs.
Richmond was gone, and the four girls looked at each other.

“It is most provoking,” said Nora. “She never told us anything about
the Asprays. What are we to do?”

“To do!” said Augusta. “To take all the fun we can out of them. What
else could we do?”

“All the same, I don’t think they are a bit the sort of girls that
mother would like,” said Kitty. “But there! it doesn’t matter, for
when Uncle Peter comes he will know what we ought or ought not to do.”

The rest of the evening passed somewhat sadly. Not only Kitty and
Nora, but Nancy, too, missed the gentle presence of kind Mrs. Richmond.
Augusta’s mind, too, was full of many things, and she was as silent as
her cousins. Nancy was the first to suggest an early retirement to
bed, and the others quickly followed her example.

Fairleigh was a large, rambling, old-fashioned house. It had belonged
to the Richmonds for many generations, and had been added to and
altered from time to time. The bedrooms were numerous but small.
Augusta had been given a very tiny room leading out of Mrs. Richmond’s
larger bedroom. Kitty, Nora, and Nancy had also bedrooms apiece, but
their rooms were in the opposite wing of the house.

Augusta was tired and her head ached. The day through which she had
just lived had been anything but to her taste. It is true there had
been a certain amount of excitement, which had carried her through the
long hours. But her mind was ill at ease. That bad mark in the
orderly-book came between her and her rest. To receive a bad mark for
conduct in Captain Richmond’s orderly-book would, she knew, be all but
fatal for her chance of the Royal Cross. He was anxious and particular
with regard to physical training and intellectual training, but first
of all came conduct—conduct straight and conduct honourable. Augusta
admired him very much, but at the same time she was afraid of him; for
the Captain had a look in those blue eyes of his which caused her own
to drop. She had an uncomfortable sensation when she saw him looking
at her that he was reading right down into her heart. When he saw the
bad-conduct mark he would not rest until he found out all particulars
with regard to it. Mrs. Richmond, if she had given it at all, had given
it for cruelty—for cruelty to Nancy, who was a special favourite of
the Captain’s. But had Mrs. Richmond given that mark? That was the
question which tormented Augusta and kept her from sleep. She got into
bed, it is true, but instead of dropping off, as was her usual custom,
into happy and healthy slumber, she tossed from side to side, thinking
and thinking of Captain Richmond, and the bad mark. He would arrive in
the morning, and would naturally inquire how his battalion was
progressing—how his soldiers were conducting themselves. He would be
very jolly, very agreeable, and a great acquisition, but at the same
time he would come on Augusta at that moment of her career as a sort
of Nemesis. “Notwithstanding all his agreeableness,” she said to
herself, “I do wish he would not come just now. He is certain to make
a fuss, too, about the Asprays; and from what Flora and Constance tell
me, we are likely to have a splendid time with them—that is, _I_
shall have a splendid time. Brilliant, handsome, gay sort of girls
like Constance and Flora are not likely to meet with my painfully
old-fashioned cousins’ approval. And as to Nancy, of course, she
doesn’t count. But _I_ should enjoy their society, and if Uncle
Peter were not coming _I_ should have it. Oh! I know they won’t
suit him. Dear, dear! what a nuisance and worry everything is!”

At this juncture in her thoughts Augusta dropped into an uneasy doze,
but she awakened in an hour or two to see the moonlight streaming into
her room, and to find herself more awake than ever.

“I wonder if Aunt Jessie has given me that bad mark,” she thought. “I
do wish I could see for myself. It is quite possible that in the hurry
of her departure she forgot to make the entry. What a rare bit of luck
it would be if such were the case!—for she is certain to forget all
about it when she returns. I wish I could see the book; it would be
such a tremendous rest to my mind?”

The more Augusta thought over this suddenly conceived idea, the more
she longed to put it into execution. Sleep would not again visit her.
It was dull beyond words to lie awake all night. Now that Mrs. Richmond
was away, she was in a part of the house quite away from the rest of
the family. If she got up no one would hear her. She would get up. She
would go downstairs and examine the orderly-book, and find out the
truth for herself.

She jumped out of bed, put on her dressing-gown and slippers, and
going very softly up the three steps which communicated with Mrs.
Richmond’s room, opened the door and went in. This room was also
bright with moonlight. Augusta crossed the room and opened the door
which led on to the landing, and a moment later found herself in the
drawing-room. She knew where Mrs. Richmond kept the orderly-book. There
was a very pretty old Sheraton chiffonier in one corner of the room,
which contained many old-world drawers and queer hiding-places. Its
legs were thin and spindly. It was a frail piece of furniture, but
very good to look at. Mrs. Richmond was charmed with it, and as it was
a recent acquisition she made use of it to keep her letter-paper and
writing materials, and many other things, besides the orderly-book.
But Augusta had quite forgotten that the drawer in which this book was
always kept was locked, and she tugged and tugged now with a feeling
of great irritation. To go so far and risk so much and to meet failure
after all was anything but to her mind. She could be at times almost
reckless in her desire to carry out her own wishes. She entered the
dining-room now, opened a drawer in the sideboard, and taking out a
stout knife, she returned to the Sheraton chiffonier. The chiffonier
was old, and the locks not of the strongest. A little manipulation
with the knife caused the hasp to go back, and without seriously
injuring the piece of furniture, Augusta managed to open the drawer.

While upstairs she had not dared to strike a match, but in the
drawing-room she was too far away to run any risk of being overheard.
Accordingly she lit a couple of candles, and taking the heavy book,
she laid it on Mrs. Richmond’s desk. Never before had she been
permitted to see the entries made in the orderly-book, and she was
deeply interested now. In particular the pages devoted to “Augusta
Duncan” claimed her attention. After all she need not have been
nervous, for Augusta had done well—very well—and, oh, wonder of
wonders, delight of delights! there were so far no bad marks set
against her name. On the contrary, the words “Good—good—good”
appeared as she turned page after page.

“What a blessing!” she said to herself. “Aunt Jessie did forget; and
now I can face the whole world with an easy mind.”

She was about to shut the book when it occurred to her to see what
sort of marks the other girls had got. Captain Richmond had so
arranged his orderly-book that day by day each girl had a page devoted
to herself. These pages might be filled up or left blank according to
the wishes and inclination of the person who entered the daily record.
But for Kitty, for Nora, for Augusta, and for Nancy there was for each
day a complete and separate page. Upon that page stood the record of
the young life which had been lived during that special day. Now, the
day which had just gone by was the 24th of August. Augusta amused
herself reading the different remarks with regard to her cousins. Both
Nora and Kitty had scored high. Their industry was considerable; they
had risen early; they were neat in their persons and with regard to
their rooms. Finally, the conduct of each girl was excellent. Yes,
that was the word.

Augusta turned back to the page which recorded her own life on this
special day. She too had “excellent” put against her conduct. She had
not noticed this before.

“It is too funny!” she thought. “Nancy must have been very persuasive
although she knew it not. Aunt Jessie has never spoken of my conduct
before as excellent. Dear, dear! I could hug the dear old aunty were
she here. Why, she could not have said better of Nancy herself. She
was evidently in a hurry, for she has not filled up the page. But my
conduct is excellent. I declare it is a huge joke. Well, this sets my
mind absolutely at rest. I will just glance at Nancy’s page. If Aunt
Jessie considered my conduct excellent to-day, what will she have to
say with regard to the little favourite?”

Augusta turned the leaves of the book, and soon arrived at Nancy’s
page. It looked strangely empty. There were no remarks about early
rising, nor intelligence, nor order, nor neatness. There were only
blanks there, and under the heading “Conduct” Augusta read, “_Bad
conduct_—_guilty of cruelty_.”

[Illustration: Augusta nearly fell back as she read the words.]

She nearly fell back as she read the words. The colour rushed in a
crimson tide to her face, and just for an instant she felt strangely
giddy. Then she shut the book, and putting it back into the
chiffonier, stole softly and quietly upstairs to bed. She knew, of
course, exactly what had happened. Aunt Jessie in her hurry had made
an extraordinary and inexplicable mistake. She had written Nancy’s
record on Augusta’s page.

“Well, I never!” said Augusta to herself. She quite panted in her
excitement and flurry. When she first lay down in bed she was cold and
trembling, and her impulse was to explain the matter to every one and
clear Nancy.

But, alas! to do this required some nobility of nature, and Augusta
was not noble enough. To expose herself, to show herself in her true
light in the eyes of Captain Richmond, was more than she could stand;
and she had not been half-an-hour in bed before she began to
congratulate herself on her lucky—most lucky—escape.

“They will never, never know that I know,” she said to herself. “I
have but to remain quiet and allow things to run their course. No
chance of the Royal Cross for you, little Miss Nancy; but there are
great chances of my obtaining the longed-for prize. I am in luck. I
declare I am quite sleepy, the relief is so great.”

She turned on her side, and a moment later was sleeping as innocently
as a baby.



CHAPTER XXI.

THE PICNIC.


At breakfast next morning the children were in high spirits.

Augusta had awakened without any headache or any pricks of conscience.
“Let Uncle Peter come now,” she said to herself; “I won’t be afraid of
him.”

It happened to be a lovely morning, and the windows of the pretty
breakfast-room were wide open. The gardener was mowing the grass on
the tennis-lawn; the roses and other climbing flowers peeped in at the
lattice-window, and sweet summer scents filled the room.

“Poor, poor darling mother,” exclaimed Kitty as she seated herself at
the breakfast-tray; “how awfully fagged she must be! I do hope she
will soon come back.”

“We ought not to wish her to come back too soon,” said Nora, who
always happened to say just the right thing; “for if Mrs. Rashleigh is
very sad mother can comfort her.”

“Do see what you are doing!” cried Augusta at that moment. “You have
overfilled the teapot, and the tea is running out on the tray.”

Kitty laughed gleefully, and soon rectified her mistake, and the meal
progressed, accompanied by gay remarks of all sorts.

“Uncle Peter ought to be here by eleven o’clock,” said Nora. “The
train arrives at Fairlight at half-past ten; he is sure to come by
it.”

“What are we to do to-day?” asked Augusta. “Have we any plans, girls?
I think we might”——

“Oh! I know what you are going to say,” exclaimed Nora. “You want to
go to see those tiresome Aspray girls. But we can’t do anything until
Uncle Peter arrives. He will direct us, and we will do exactly what he
wishes.”

“Tiresome man!” muttered Augusta under her breath. Aloud she said:
“Pass me that brown scone, Nancy. And for goodness’ sake, child, don’t
open your eyes so wide whenever I speak to you!”

“I tell you what it is,” said Nora—“I have lacked courage to say it
for some days, but I will say it now—I do wish you would not scold
Nancy whenever you speak to her.”

“I don’t; I know I don’t,” said Augusta.—”Do I scold you whenever I
speak to you, Nancy, _mignon_?”

“_I_ don’t mind,” said Nancy; and before anything else could be
said the servant entered, bearing a note and also a telegram on a
salver. She handed the telegram to Nora, and the note to Augusta.

“The messenger is waiting, miss,” said the girl, speaking to Nora.

“What can it mean?” cried Nora; while Kitty craned her neck forward to
watch her sister as she read.

“Oh dear!” exclaimed Nora; “how very provoking! It is from Uncle Pete.
He says he cannot arrive before dinner-time.—There is no answer,
thank you, Ellen.”

Ellen left the room, and Augusta now turned her attention to her note.
She tore it open, and the next moment she exclaimed in great
excitement:

“Oh, I say, this is jolly! Here is a line from Flora Aspray. They want
us to join them all for a big picnic. They are going to Fairlight
Towers—you know, that charming old ruin that we have always wanted to
see. They are starting at eleven o’clock, and they ask us to meet them
at the crossroads. They say they will have carriages enough to take us
all, and we shall be back soon after dusk. Isn’t it quite too
heavenly? Of course we will go—eh, Nora?—eh, Kitty?”

“I wish Uncle Peter were here,” said Kitty; “he would tell us whether
it were right or wrong.”

“What folly! If Aunt Jessie were at home she would certainly allow us
to go. Anyhow, I intend to go, whether you are silly or not.”

“I am sure it is not right, and I am sure mother would not like it,”
said Kitty again. “May I look at Flora’s letter, please, Gussie?”

Augusta handed the letter across to her cousin.

“There is no mention of Mrs. Aspray. Flora seems to have asked us quite
from herself,” said Kitty. “What do you say, Nora? What do you say,
Nancy?”

“I don’t want to go at all. To be frank with you, Gussie, I don’t care
for those girls,” said Nora.

“Well, you do like to spoil one’s pleasure whenever you can. I suppose
there is nothing for it but for Nancy and me to go alone.”

“Must I go with you?” cried Nancy.

“Yes—certainly,” replied Augusta.

“She sha’n’t go unless she wishes to,” here interposed Kitty. “Why do
you bully her? I think you are very unkind.”

“And I think you are all perfectly hateful!” said Augusta, who was red
with passion. “Well,” she added, “have it your own way. I shall go by
myself; I do not intend to miss the fun.”

She marched out of the room as she spoke, and the three other girls
glanced at one another.

“Perhaps I had better go with her,” said Nancy. “What do you think,
Kitty? It doesn’t matter so much for me, you know; I am not your real
sister. I mean that Aunt Jessie would be more particular about you and
what you did than about what I do.”

“You may go, of course, if you like,” said Kitty; “but you shall not
go if you do not like. Gussie shall not make your life a burden to
you.”

“I think I’ll go,” said Nancy. She rose very slowly and left the room.

“What a darling little thing she is!” said Kitty; “always so
self-denying and so anxious to please others. Now, I know she is
merely doing this to please Gussie; and why Gussie should be humoured
at every turn is more than I can understand. Nancy would have enjoyed
a long, quiet, happy day with us; and why should she make herself
perfectly miserable?”

“Augusta has a power over her which I can never understand,” replied
Nora. “She does very wrong indeed to accept the Asprays’ invitation;
but perhaps it is as well, since she insists on going, that Nancy
should go with her. She won’t be quite so daring and so unladylike if
Nancy is by.”

“Oh dear!” cried Kitty, “do you really think our cousin Augusta
unladylike?”

“When she does underhand things I do,” replied Nora. “But there, Kit!
don’t let us worry any more. We have a lot to do, and on this day of
all days we must not be idle, with dear Uncle Peter coming in the
evening.”

“Do you know,” exclaimed Kitty, “that I cannot find the key of the
chiffonier where the orderly-book is kept. Mother put it into my hand
just when she was going, and I can’t imagine where I placed it. Let us
go up and search mother’s room. It will never do for the key to be
lost just when Uncle Peter arrives.”

The girls ran upstairs and began to search in their mother’s room, but
nowhere, high or low, could they find the missing key. They questioned
the servants, and begged them to have a good search for it, and
presently, absorbed by other matters, forgot the circumstance.

Meanwhile Augusta was putting on her gayest and most becoming
costume.

When Nancy put her sad little face round the door and said “I am
going with you, Gussie,” just for a moment Augusta’s conscience did
give her a sharp prick.

“You are good-natured,” she said, “and I won’t forget it. Put on
something nice. Wear your pretty white dress and your white hat. You
look so nice all in pure white!”

Nancy nodded and went off to her room.

“She is a good-natured little soul,” thought Augusta. “It will be much
nicer for me to go with her than alone. If by any chance anything is
said, she must naturally take her share of the blame. What a blessing
that tiresome captain put off his visit till to-night! I only wish,
for my part, he would put it off altogether. Now, do I look best in
pink or blue? Pink, I think. Pale pink suits almost any one. My white
hat with the blush-roses will look sweet with this frock. I don’t want
those handsome girls to outshine me. Now I fancy I’ll do. I shall be
quite as smart as they are, and that is all I am going to trouble my
head about.”

At a quarter to eleven Augusta and Nancy left Fairleigh, and walked
down the dusty road until they came to the cross-roads where they were
to wait for the Asprays’ picnic party.

Punctual almost to the moment, a wagonette, a pony-carriage, and a
phaeton appeared in sight. The gaily dressed party shouted welcomes to
the two girls; and Mrs. Aspray, an exceedingly stout woman with a timid
face and a good-natured expression, bent forward and held out her hand
to welcome Augusta and Nancy.

“Why, I thought there were four of you,” she said. “Florrie said
four.—Didn’t you, Flo? You mentioned four girls; I am certain of it.”

“Yes, mother,” replied Flora; “but you can see for yourself that there
are only two waiting for us at the cross-roads.”

“I am so sorry,” here interrupted Augusta, speaking in her most
ladylike, company, and grownup manner, “but my cousins, Kitty and
Nora, are both suffering from bad colds, otherwise they would have
been delighted to come.”

Nancy’s face first grew red and then white when Augusta told this
falsehood. She was about to say something, but receiving a sharp nudge
on her elbow from the irrepressible Augusta, she held her peace.

Room was made for the two girls in the wagonette, and the party
proceeded gaily on their way. The day was a perfect one—neither too
hot nor too windy; the great heat of the summer’s sun was tempered by
refreshing breezes. The destination of the party was an old castle
which hung over the sea at the edge of a great promontory. The castle
was one of the show-places of the neighbourhood, and picnic parties
there were very common.

The custodian was very pleased to receive the Asprays and their
friends, and he told Mrs. Aspray that they could all have dinner in the
great stone hall where once upon a time, many ages ago, the monks of
the order of Ethelbert used to feed.

Augusta was in wild spirits, and Nancy tried hard to enjoy herself.
There were one or two quiet, gentle sort of girls who attached
themselves to her, and they walked about, examining the old place and
trying to piece together its past history.

Augusta meanwhile scarcely left Flora’s side. She liked her even
better than Constance. Flora was so gay, so hearty in her manner—so
daring, too. She was absolutely astonished when Augusta told her that
she, in her own sheltered life, had to conform to rules and to obey
conditions.

“But you are too old,” said Flora. “Why, you are seventeen, are you
not?”

“No,” answered Augusta; “I am only just sixteen.”

“As if that mattered! Why, in America we often marry as young as
sixteen, and we certainly do exactly what we like. Oh! I am so anxious
to introduce you to a great friend of ours—Mr. Archer. I did so hope
he would be here to-day! He is an American, and such fun! He will put
you up to a wrinkle or two. We heard from him this morning, and he
will arrive to-morrow. I know you would admire him; and what is more
to the point, I am certain he would like you. You are exactly the sort
of English girl to take his fancy.”

Augusta blushed when Flora talked about Mr. Archer and the extreme
likelihood of his taking a fancy to her.

“I don’t suppose he would for a minute. And I don’t know—this is
quite between ourselves—that I shall see much more of any of you.”
she answered.

“What do you mean by that? Don’t you like us?” asked Flora bluntly.

“Need you ask?” replied Augusta. “I cannot express to you what a
blessing it is to me having people like you close to us; but the
Richmonds have very funny ideas, and the fact is, as my aunt has not
called on your mother—— Oh, you understand, don’t you?”

“But your aunt is away. How can she call on mother? She would,
naturally, if she were at home.”

“Yes—yes; I know.”

“And being away,” continued Flora, “the necessary formalities cannot
be gone through. Surely we can all have fun together. There is
Constance.—Constance, I want to say a word to you.”

Constance danced up to her sister.

“Here is Miss Duncan,” continued Flora, “hinting to me that she won’t
be able to see much of us in future. Don’t you think that would be a
vast pity, Connie? And with David Archer coming, too!”

Constance laughed.

“You will like him immensely if you see him,” she said, staring full
at Augusta.

Once more the colour rushed into her guest’s face.

“Well,” said Augusta, “I must do my best. You may be sure I should
like to come. I have said so to your sister already. But there is a
Captain Richmond coming this evening—I call him Uncle Peter, although
he is not my real uncle—and he is awfully particular, and may prevent
me.”

“Captain Richmond!” cried both the girls.

“Is he young, and is he nice?” questioned Flora.

“Yes; I expect you would think him both young and good-looking. As to
his being nice, I expect he is that too, only he might not fulfil your
ideas.”

“I should like to see him,” said Flora. “Now, I tell you what, Gussie
(oh! you must let me call you Gussie—‘Miss Duncan’ is far too stiff),
you must manage—quite by accident, you know—to meet us to-morrow, or
next day, with your dear, particular Captain Richmond; then you will
be forced, you know, to introduce us, and we will introduce you to
David Archer.”

“All right. I will see what I can do,” answered Augusta.

A shout from another member of the party caused the three girls to
look up.

Mr. Aspray, a very stout man with a pale face, was calling to them to
hurry down and help to make tea, and no further private conversation
was possible. But as the carriages drew up at the crossroads for the
two girls to alight, Flora whispered in Augusta’s ear:

“Don’t forget, Gussie. Constance and I will be walking in the
Fairleigh woods to-morrow. Now, be as clever as you look, and do what
we want.”



CHAPTER XXII.

THE BROKEN LOCK.


It was quite dusk when Augusta and Nancy found themselves once more
back at Fairleigh. From the moment they left the cross-roads to the
time they reached the house neither of the girls spoke.

Augusta was full of the delights of the past day, and was turning over
in her mind what possible stratagems she might employ to enable her to
see more of the Asprays.

Nancy was equally busy wondering if Uncle Peter had yet arrived; and
when they turned the corner and saw Kitty and Nora each hanging on the
arm of the Captain, she uttered a glad cry and ran forward.

“Ah! here you are. Good-evening, little niece Nancy.—And how are you,
Augusta?”

“I am so sorry we were not here when you arrived, Uncle Peter!” said
Augusta. “We were away at a picnic.”

“I told Uncle Peter you were having a gay time and I did not know when
you would be back,” remarked Nora, “but we waited supper for you all
the same. Shall we go in now?—for I am sure Uncle Peter must be very
hungry.”

“Hungry is no word for it,” cried Captain Richmond. “I am starving.
Don’t stay long tittivating, girls, but come down as soon as ever you
can, for the patience of a hungry man has its limits.”

The four girls ran upstairs laughing merrily.

“Isn’t he nice?” thought Nancy to herself. “Doesn’t he make the whole
house seem breezy and happy? I am glad that he has come. Gussie won’t
dare to tell any more lies now. And I hope—oh! I do hope she won’t
often expect me to go with her to see the Asprays. Oh, to think that I
might have had to live with them! I should indeed have been a most
miserable girl. I would not exchange such darlings as Nora and Kitty
for Flora and Constance Aspray.”

“Are you ready?” cried Kitty at that moment, tapping at the door of
the little girl’s room.

“Yes. Just come in, please, Kitty,” cried Nancy.

Kitty entered. She wore a white dress with a pale-blue sash, and she
looked most sweet and charming.

“Oh, you darling!” said Nancy, running up to her. “I must kiss you—I
must. Oh, how different you are! Oh, it is such a relief to get home
again!”

“What queer, broken sentences, Nancy!” exclaimed Kitty. “Why is it
such a relief to get home; and who am I different from?”

“The Asprays,” said Nancy.

“Then you had not a happy day?”

“Oh, never mind! I suppose I ought to have had.”

“You need not see any more of them; you may be sure of that, Nancy.
Uncle Peter was rather surprised at your both going. I think Uncle
Peter is what you call punctilious—yes, that is the word. I am sure
he won’t let us have anything to say to them until mother returns. But
now let us hurry down to supper. Do you know, Nancy, that he is nicer
than ever, and he has got no end of lovely schemes. I can see that we
are going to have a most heavenly time.”

“Did he—did he say anything,” said Nancy slowly “did he say anything
about our battalion?”

“No; not a single word. I expected him to, and so did Nora; but I
could see that it was in the back of his head all the time. I expect
the grand prize-day, when the best girl receives the Royal Cross, will
take place before we return to town. And, oh, Nancy darling! I have a
shrewd suspicion that you will win.”

“I!” said Nancy. “Certainly not. _I_ am not better than you or
Nora.”

“In some ways you are better. You are more patient; and then, you have
more to put up with. Uncle Peter is the sort of man to take all that
into consideration. He is very just—very just _indeed_—and he
is quite safe to give the cross to the person who has really earned
it.”

“What _are_ you two chattering about?” now came from Augusta. “We
are all waiting downstairs. Do hurry up.”

The girls flew down, their arms encircling each other.

“Oh,” thought Nancy to herself, “how sweet, how delightful is Kitty!
How happy she makes me!”

The dining-room table was prettily laid; the supper was good and
abundant; Uncle Peter had a joke for every one. Never was there a more
delightful meal. When the Captain assured the girls he felt quite like
a paterfamilias with four grown-up daughters, they considered it the
hugest fun in the world, and laughed with uncontrolled delight. But
the gayest of meals come to an end, and once again the little party
went out and paced up and down on the moonlit lawn.

It was now Nancy’s turn to clasp her hand inside Captain Richmond’s
arm, and with Nora on the other side, to walk backwards and forwards
in front of the old house. Meanwhile Kitty and Augusta fell behind the
others.

“I hope you had a good time, Gussie,” said her cousin.

“You mean to-day,” said Augusta. “There is only one word for
to-day—it was _ripping_. Yes; I can call it nothing else. Oh
Kit, you will help me, won’t you?”

“In what way, Gussie?”

“I want to see some more of them—oh, so badly! You won’t put an
obstacle in my way, will you?”

“I am not the one to do it,” answered Kitty; “but, of course, you can
understand, Gussie, that we have all got to obey the Captain.”

“I wish he hadn’t come,” said Augusta suddenly.

“You wish that Uncle Peter—_darling_ Uncle Peter—hadn’t
_come_?”

“Yes; but you need not cry it out quite so loud. I don’t, of course,
want _him_ to hear. I am sorry he has come because he is sure to
be very strict and proper, and perhaps he won’t like the Asprays.”

“I don’t believe he will have anything to do with them. Oh dear! there
is ten o’clock striking, and we must go to bed.”

“Girls,” said the Captain as they re-entered the house, “this night
has been pure pleasure; but, you know, business awaits us to-morrow,
and before I retire for the night I should just like to run my eye
over the orderly-book. Can you get it for me, Nora? Your mother must
have left it where you could find it.”

Nora’s face turned white and then pink.

“I am so dreadfully sorry, Uncle Peter,” she exclaimed, “but we have
lost the key of the drawer in mother’s chiffonier in which she keeps
the orderly-book. It is altogether my fault and Kitty’s. Mother was
going off in a great hurry, and she gave us the key, and we can’t find
it high or low.”

“You had better have a good search for it to-morrow,” answered the
Captain. “Never mind about it now. Good-night to you all. We will
begin brisk and early to-morrow, soldiers of the True Blue.”

He gave the little party a military salute, and going to the
drawing-room, he shut the door.

The girls went upstairs, Augusta thanking her stars that the key was
lost.

“So much the better for my purposes,” she said to herself. “It will
never occur to him to try that special drawer; if he did it would open
fast enough. What a bit of luck that Kitty and Nora should have lost
the key!”

The girls had now reached the broad landing which led by different
corridors to their bedrooms. Here they said good-night, and Augusta
quickly entered her own room. She felt excited and not at all disposed
to sleep. The Asprays had fascinated her, and the thought of meeting
that delightful American, Mr. David Archer, the man whom Flora had
assured her would take a great fancy to her, very nearly turned the
silly girl’s head.

“I wonder if I am really handsome,” she said to herself. “I wonder if
there is something remarkable and fascinating about me. I should like
so much to know! Perhaps if I met him he would tell me. I wonder if he
would. It would be very nice to be pretty; pretty girls have such a
jolly time. Now, Nancy is pretty. It is horribly unfair, but although
she is nothing but a charity-child, she has far and away the most
charming face of any of us. What would I not give for her complexion,
and those beautiful wide dark eyes of hers, and that thick, thick
ebony-black hair? But I dare say I am very passable myself. I observed
Flora looking at me quite with approbation to-day. I shall light some
candles and see how I look before I go to bed.”

Augusta accordingly lit two candles which stood in heavy oak stands on
the mantelpiece. These she placed one on each side of her
looking-glass, and then, drawing the glass forward, she sat down and
stared into her face. But the glass was somewhat dim from age, and the
light altogether inefficient.

“Why, I see nothing but a blur,” thought the girl; and then it
occurred to her to go into her aunt’s room and fetch some more candles
from there.

The thought had no sooner come than she acted on it, bringing in a
heavy pair of candlesticks with tall wax candles in them. Just as she
reached her own door her foot knocked against something metallic. She
stooped and picked up a little key.

“The lost key,” she murmured under her breath; and then she slipped it
into her pocket.

With the aid of the four candles Augusta got a good view of her
features. Her face was well shaped, and her eyes of a nice colour. She
was altogether, as she expressed it, “more than passable.”

“If only I grow tall, and have a good figure, and am dressed as I
ought to be, I shall be a success,” she said to herself. “Those two
years in Paris will do wonders for me. Parisian polish is so
effective! Yes, I shall have a good time when I do go into society.
But, dear, dear! why should I wait for two or three years to have a
good time when I may have it now? What fun to talk to a man like David
Archer! Flora will do her best for me if I introduce Uncle Peter to
them. I suppose they think they will fascinate Uncle Peter, but they
don’t know him. Yes, he is a charming man, only I do wish he were not
quite so awfully good.”

Augusta put out her candles and got into bed. As she laid her head on
the pillow she remembered that she had just found the missing key.

“I am in luck,” she said to herself—“in rare luck. The first thing
to-morrow I shall lock the chiffonier, and then I can throw the key
down—the well in the garden. That orderly-book won’t be found then
until Aunt Jessie returns.”

But man proposes, God disposes. This trite proverb proved its right to
existence just at the time when Augusta thought all things were
moulding themselves in her favour. For while the four girls slept
peacefully in their different rooms, Captain Richmond thought and
pondered in the drawing-room. He paced up and down until he had
finished his cigarette. He then went and stood by the window, which
was open.

He was thinking of his girls, and wondering how his battalion had
behaved. In particular his thoughts were occupied with Nancy. He had
taken a great fancy to Nancy when he had met her in London. He was
sorry for her, and he thought he understood her character. His own
nieces had always been to him as an open book, but Nancy puzzled while
she interested him. “As to Augusta—I cannot make her out. Quite down
in the bottom of my heart I don’t like Augusta,” said the Captain to
himself. “It is very uncharitable of me not to like her, for I know
nothing whatever to her discredit. But one is not accountable for
these sort of feelings. Why do I like Nancy so much? Why am I certain
that she is straight and noble and sweet and generous? I do believe
that it was mostly on account of Nancy I thought of my little scheme
to enroll the girls in my battalion. Well, I suppose as that key is
lost I had better go to bed. We shall have a good time to-morrow. Yes,
I must make those children happy. Jessie has entrusted them to my
care, and they sha’n’t see more of those objectionable Asprays than I
can help.”

The Captain was about to leave the room, having first shut the window
and fastened the shutters, when his attention was attracted by the
chiffonier. He was fond of Sheraton furniture, and saw at once that
this was a particularly fine specimen. During his last visit to
Fairleigh this handsome piece of furniture had not been in the
drawing-room. He went up to it now, put down his candle, and looked it
over with great care.

“I wonder where Jessie picked it up,” he said to himself, “and what
she paid for it. It is certainly genuine. And how particularly fine
these brass mountings are.” The chiffonier contained many drawers,
some shallow and some deep. Each drawer was opened by a small brass
handle, the lock being just above the handle. Captain Richmond took
hold of one of the handles and pulled the drawer, which immediately
slid out, and there, staring him in the face, was the well-known
orderly-book.

“What a piece of luck!” he cried. “I am not a bit sleepy. So Jessie
never locked the drawer. As I have found the book I may as well run my
eye over its contents to-night. I shall make a more careful
examination to-morrow, but I am curious to know how my soldiers have
got on.”

The Captain lit another pair of candles, and drawing a comfortable
chair forward, seated himself and opened the book. His practised eyes
ran quickly over the pages. Augusta’s entries were very much what he
had expected; they were fairly good without being anything remarkable.
His own two nieces were also creditable soldiers—neat, punctilious as
to behaviour, early risers, well forward in their athletics, and each
girl bore marks of excellent conduct.

“Now for Nancy,” thought the Captain.

Nancy’s pages came last, as she was the youngest girl of the four. As
Captain Richmond read the entries, made first by Miss Roy and then by
his sister-in-law, he smiled to himself.

“Well done, Nancy!” he said more than once. “Brave little soldier. I
rather gather that you had a tussle with yourself on this day, and
that you conquered again on this day. Strange that I should read
between the lines! I was not mistaken in my estimate of your
character, little Nancy. But, oh! what have we here?”

The Captain was now reading the brief entry made in Mrs. Richmond’s
writing on 24th August. He read the few remarks, once in puzzled
bewilderment, twice in incredulity, and a third time with the colour
mounting to his face and apprehension in his eyes.

“It can’t be true,” he said to himself. “Nancy guilty of cruelty!
_Impossible_.”

He shut the book as if he were thoroughly dissatisfied, and returning
it to its drawer, he went up to bed.



CHAPTER XXIII.

“PRIZE-DAY COMES IN A MONTH.”


The next day at breakfast Kitty began to talk of the lost key.

“It is most provoking,” she said. “What shall we do without having our
orderly-book properly signed? I cannot find the key anywhere.”

“I have spoken to the servants,” interrupted Nora, “and they have
searched mother’s room, and even taken up the rugs and shaken them. I
know for a positive fact,” she added, “that neither Kitty nor I took
the key from mother’s room.”

“What did I hear you say about the orderly-book?” asked Captain
Richmond.

“Why, Uncle Peter, how funny of you, and what a peculiar expression
your eyes have! The orderly-book is locked up in the Sheraton
chiffonier; and we cannot get it from a locked drawer, can we?”

“No, unless we break the lock or find that the drawer is already
open.”

“But it can’t be; mother always kept it locked, and when she gave us
the key she spoke about its being locked.”

“She _thought_ she locked it,” said Captain Richmond; “but as a
matter of fact I found it open. I read the orderly-book last night.”

There was something very grave in his tone, and Kitty stopped talking
and stared at him with knitted brows. Nora went calmly on pouring out
tea. Augusta got very red, and as she helped herself to a piece of
toast her hand trembled; while Nancy, with her wide-open, innocent
dark eyes, looked full into the Captain’s face.

He did not return Nancy’s gaze.

“I hope we have all been good enough soldiers to satisfy you, Uncle
Peter,” said Kitty. “You won’t tell us what you think, will you?”

“No,” he answered—“not now; prize-day comes in a month.”

“Oh, Uncle Pete, what shall we do on prize-day? We must have a gay
time.”

“The prizes will be given in the evening. The greatest prize—the
Royal Cross—will be presented with the others. But do not ask me to
tell you any more; that would be giving myself away.”

He got up as he spoke and left the room. When he got to the hall he
stood still for a moment, raised his hand, and pushed his short, crisp
hair up on his head. He then turned in the direction of the
drawing-room. There was a very wide and spacious hall to the Fairleigh
house. The dining-rooms opened into one end, the great drawing-room,
the library, and morning-room into the other. Captain Richmond
strolled now through the big drawing-room. The French windows were
wide open; the sunlit lawn blazed outside. The sun-blinds had been
already drawn down, and the cool effect of the room itself compared to
the heat on the lawn was most refreshing. Captain Richmond opened the
drawer of the chiffonier and examined it carefully. His practised eye
easily detected the marks of a tool which had forced the lock. He saw
also that the lock itself was poor and of a very simple make. He
pushed the drawer in and sat down by the window. Who could possibly
have meddled with the lock? He took up the newspaper, opened it, and
pretended to read it, but in reality his thoughts were far from the
news of the day. He continued wondering over the open drawer, over the
lost key, and most of all did his thoughts puzzle over the
orderly-book itself.

Nancy, whom he had trusted, had failed him; she had been guilty of the
sin of all others most terrible and grave in his eyes—the sin of
cruelty. That gentle, kind, and loving child guilty of so grave a
fault! He could scarcely believe it.

Just at this juncture in his thoughts the door opened and Augusta came
in. Augusta was in reality very nervous and troubled, and she had come
now, as she expressed it, to take the bull by the horns.

“Well, Uncle Peter,” she said; and she chose a seat opposite to that
in which the Captain was sitting. “Oh, how hot it is outside,” she
continued, “and how beautifully cool here! I have brought my knitting.
I am making a tie for you, Uncle Peter. May I work here while you read
the paper?”

“Of course, Augusta; just as you like,” answered Captain Richmond.

Augusta took her work from its bag and began slowly to knit. Presently
she dropped a stitch, which caused her to utter an exclamation of
annoyance.

“What is it?” said the Captain; and he flung down his newspaper and
looked at her.

“I have dropped a stitch in my knitting. But it doesn’t matter; Nancy
will find it for me by-and-by.”

“Has Nancy such good sight?”

“Yes. My eyes ache very often. And Nancy is very good-natured; she
always does what I ask her.”

The Captain looked both pleased and relieved.

“You have found Nancy good-natured?” he asked.

“He is thinking of the report in the orderly-book,” Augusta thought to
herself. “I won’t do poor little Nancy more harm than I can help.”

“Nan is certainly good-natured,” she said aloud.

“I am glad you like her,” continued the Captain; and he sighed a very
little as he spoke.

Augusta fiddled with her knitting. After a time she looked up.

“As we are quite by ourselves, may I speak to you?” she said suddenly.

“Why, of course, Gussie. What is it?”

“Well, you know that father and mother are away?”

“So my sister-in-law has told me.”

“And I am their only child, and I feel being parted from my parents
very much.”

“Of course you do,” said the Captain; and he looked with sudden
interest at Augusta. Hitherto he had not admired her in any way. “When
will your parents be back?” he asked.

“Next year; and when they come back they are going to send me to
Paris.”

“To Paris! What for?”

“Oh, Uncle Peter, don’t you know? To be educated—to be finished—to
get Parisian French and Parisian deportment and dancing, you know, and
all the rest.”

“I am afraid I do not know, Augusta. I am unacquainted with any young
ladies who have been educated in the French capital. I have no
particular love for the French ways. You see, I am an Englishman to
the backbone.”

“But I shall still be an English girl even if I have got a little bit
of French polish. Besides, it will so please father and mother! If I
go it will be because”—— Here she dimpled and smiled and looked full
at the Captain.

“Because of what?”

“Because of you, Uncle Peter.”

“Now I do fail to understand you. What on earth can I have to do with
it?”

“You have a great deal more to do with it than you can guess. If my
marks are very good—particularly my marks as regards conduct—I shall
go. And, oh, I am so anxious to go! And if by any chance I could win
the Royal Cross, then indeed I should be safe.”

“And suppose you did win it, would that be your object?”

“Oh! besides that there would be many others; but that too. Can you
blame me, Uncle Peter? It would so please my parents!”

“No, I cannot blame you, Augusta; and, without giving myself away in
any manner, I may as well say that you have at least as good a chance
as the others.”

“Have I indeed? Have I truly? Oh, how very happy you have made me!”

“Continue to behave well, Augusta, and nobody knows what will happen.”
He rose as he spoke.

“I am bound,” he thought, “after the excellence of Augusta’s marks, to
give her that much encouragement, but surely never before was there
man so disappointed.—I am going into the woods,” he said aloud.
“Good-bye for the present.”

“Oh! one word, please, before you go. What do you say to our walking
through the woods and having a gipsy tea there this afternoon?”

“If your cousins like it, Augusta, I am quite agreeable. Do you prefer
the woods to the seashore?”

“Yes; it will be so very hot on the sands to-day,” said Augusta.

“I am, as I said, at your disposal.”

The Captain strolled away, and the moment he had gone Augusta flew to
the chiffonier, pulled open the drawer, and looked at it.

“Any one can see that it has been tampered with,” she said to herself.
“I am certain by his manner that he has discovered it. But one thing
at least is clear—he has not the remotest suspicion of me.—Oh Nancy,
what are you doing here?”

“I thought Uncle Pete was here,” said Nancy, who had entered the room
and looked with disappointed eyes all over it; “Kitty said he was, and
I wanted to talk to him. What are you doing by that drawer, Gussie? Is
it not very strange that it should be open—that Aunt Jessie left it
unlocked?”

[Illustration: “What are you doing by that drawer, Gussie?”]

“Solve the mystery if you can, Nancy,” said Augusta, quite vexed at
being discovered. “But if you want your darling Captain, he has just
strolled through the woods.”

“Of course I want him,” replied Nancy; “I love him so much.”

She ran out of the open window, and was soon seen flitting across the
lawn in the direction of the cool and sheltered woods. Captain
Richmond was not far off. Nancy called his name, and he whistled to her
to come to him. She ran quickly to his side.

“It is so lovely to have you here!” she exclaimed. “And, oh, Uncle
Pete, I _have_ tried! It has been very hard, but I have tried.”

Her eyes were raised to his face. There were dimples in her cheeks and
smiles round her lips.

“What a face!” thought the Captain. “Angelic is the only word for it.
And yet, my eyes cannot deceive me—she is a hypocrite;” and in spite
of himself he shook off the loving hand which touched his arm, and
began to talk quickly of indifferent matters.

For a moment a cold, curious sensation visited Nancy’s heart, but it
soon passed off! She was so sympathetic that she could throw herself
with zest and interest into almost any conversation. Notwithstanding
his grief and displeasure, the Captain could not help confiding in
her, telling her some of his own worries, and laughing when she gave
childish but practical advice.

“I am so excited about the prize!” she said as the two presently
returned to the house. “I don’t believe I have any chance of getting
the Royal Cross, but I have tried for it.”

“Have you indeed, Nancy?”

“Yes, Uncle Pete. Why do you look at me with such a sad face? Do you
think I would not try?”

“I always thought you would try,” he answered. “But remember, it is a
cross _for valour_. Do you know what that means?”

“Bravery,” said Nancy.

“I think it means rather more than ordinary bravery. It needs both a
tender and gallant heart to really aspire to valour; it needs a rare
unselfishness. I want you all to forget the prize in the joy of
attaining to it. It is the attainment that really matters; the prize
in itself is but a symbol.”

“Yes,” said Nancy gravely, “but the symbol testifies to the
attainment.”

“What a serious subject for a little girl!” said the Captain.

Nancy’s eyes were full of tears.

“Sometimes it is rather hard for me,” she said, “but when you are here
I can do almost anything.”

“Is it possible that that child can be cruel?” thought the Captain
after she had left him. “It certainly seems inconceivable; and yet
Jessie would not have put such a mark in the orderly-book for nothing.
If there is a very capable, careful, and trustworthy person it is my
sister-in-law. And she loves Nancy, too; she would not act so to her
unless there were some very grave reason. Poor little girl, when did
everything fail and the great crash come? She doesn’t look a bit like
it.”

At early dinner the four girls and the Captain were, to all
appearance, in the highest spirits; and soon afterwards they started
on their expedition to the woods.

Augusta had now fully and absolutely made up her mind to obtain the
Royal Cross, and for this reason she was determined to show to the
utmost advantage in Captain Richmond’s eyes.

It was arranged they were to have their gipsy tea in a part of the
pine-woods about two miles away from the house. This part was just
above the seashore. The place of rendezvous was not only sheltered
from the rays of the sun, but freshened by the sea-breezes.

The picnic basket was packed, and the kettle, spirit-lamp, &c. were
put into another basket.

“Come,” said the Captain, seizing the heavy basket and striding
forward; “you girls must take turns in carrying the edibles.”

“I will carry the basket first,” said Augusta.

She dragged it out of Nancy’s hands, who gave it up in some
astonishment, for, as a rule, the office of carrying Augusta’s things
devolved upon her. Having secured the basket, Augusta ran forward and
joined Captain Richmond. The three other girls walked together behind.

Augusta’s heart beat hard, for not only had she to play the part of a
good and unselfish girl for the Captain’s benefit, but she was looking
forward to meeting her fascinating friends, the Asprays, and their
delightful companion, Mr. Archer. What would happen when the meeting
took place she must leave to circumstances.

But she was quite resolved that if it lay within the realm of
possibility she would get the Captain to admire her friends and to let
them join their picnic party. By-and-by Kitty ran up to her.

“Come, give me the basket now, Augusta,” she said; “you are looking
very hot and red in the face. Nancy and I will carry it between us.”

“No, thank you,” said Augusta, “I don’t feel its weight at all, and
you are so pale it would tire you to carry it. Leave it to me,” she
added. “I really like it; I assure you I do.”

“Then leave her the basket by all means,” said the Captain. “It is
such a pity to take from us what we like, particularly when we are
doing a service to others.”

Augusta could not be quite sure whether Uncle Peter was laughing at
her or not. But in another moment a sudden bend in the road
effectually diverted her thoughts, for coming to meet them were the
two Aspray girls, looking remarkably pretty in white embroidered
dresses and big shady hats; and walking between the two girls was a
tall young man of about two-and-twenty years of age. The moment Flora
Aspray saw Augusta she gave a shout of welcome, and rushing to meet
her, kissed her with great _empressement_.

“How very nice!” she said. “Oh, so you are all here! Now I do think
this is a rare piece of luck. Let me introduce Mr. Archer.”

“Captain Richmond, this is my friend, Flora Aspray; and this is my
other friend, Constance Aspray,” said Augusta.

The Captain talked to the two girls in a polite and pleasant fashion;
Mr. Archer began to notice Augusta; and the three girls from behind
came and joined the group. In a very short time, no one quite knew
how, the Asprays and Mr. Archer found themselves invited to join the
Richmond party. They now all turned in a mass and walked in the
direction where the picnic was to take place.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE GIPSY TEA.


The gipsy tea was pronounced afterwards to have been a great success.
Mr. Archer was agreeable, bright, and witty. He talked with a slight
American twang, which added to his fascination in Augusta’s eyes.
Whenever he looked at you his eyes seemed to laugh. He had white
teeth, too, which he showed constantly. His hands were strong and
muscular, and also very white. He was slenderly made, and looked years
younger than Captain Richmond.

Augusta, determining to be her very best, her most amiable, and her
most fascinating self, won approval on all sides. She was really a
clever girl, and having been in her father’s and mother’s house more
or less accustomed to society, knew better what to say and how to act
than either her cousins or Nancy. The Richmond girls were only too
pleased to remain in the background, and Nancy of course kept them
company.

When the kettle boiled, and the hot cakes, mysteriously toasted by a
special arrangement of cook’s, not only appeared on the scene, but
vanished; when the tea itself had come absolutely to an end, the
little party strolled in twos and threes through the wood. The great
heat of this lovely summer’s day was tempered by a slight breeze, and
under the trees the shade was a comfort. Captain Richmond could not
help remarking on the great beauty of the scene. He turned as he spoke
and met the clear, wide gaze of Nancy. He was about to say something
to her when a laugh from Flora Aspray diverted his attention.

“Ah!” she said, “who will race with me to catch that admiral
butterfly? I am collecting butterflies, and I must have it to add to
my collection.”

“I hate that sort of thing,” said Captain Richmond; and as he spoke he
again looked at Nancy. Her colour was coming and going.

“Oh! never mind, Captain Richmond; you must put up with it,” said the
American, with a slight laugh. “And I am not so cruel after all. I
generally use a chloroform-bottle. Now, who will take this net and try
and catch that beauty?—Will you, little Miss Nancy? You would oblige
me so much!”

“I could not for worlds,” said Nancy. She coloured crimson, and then
turned very pale.

“But if I make it a request, and a very great request; if I ask it as
a personal favour,” continued Flora.

“Nancy shall not be pressed,” said Captain Richmond.—“Go back to the
others, Nancy, and leave this matter to me.—Suppose, Miss Aspray,
that I request the life and liberty of the beautiful admiral
butterfly, will you, instead of hunting it down, take a walk with me
through the woods?”

Flora Aspray gave an indignant toss to her head, but Captain Richmond
looked both handsome and gentlemanly, and she found it impossible to
resist him, and soon was walking rapidly away from the others by his
side.

Augusta found herself between Mr. Archer and Constance, and the three
had a very gay time.

“I wonder what this all means,” said Kitty. “I want to ask you a
direct question, Nancy. Do you, or do you not, like the Asprays?”

“I wish you had not asked me,” said Nancy; “but I don’t.”

“What is the matter with you, child? You look so queer and nervous.
What can the Asprays have done to you?”

“Nothing—nothing. Of course, I ought not to dislike them, but I do. I
wish they were not here. I had hoped that when Uncle Peter came
everything would be all right, but I sometimes think that nothing will
ever be right any more.”

“Why, Nancy,” said Nora—“why are you so miserable?”

“I wish—I _wish_ I could tell you.”

“But can’t you, darling—can’t you?”

“No—no, I can’t—not now; perhaps in a few months’ time, but not now.
Don’t ask me. Don’t take any notice of me. I will try and keep it to
myself.”

“Oh, whatever is worrying you?” said Nora. “You are getting quite pale
and thin. Kitty and I have noticed it, and we don’t like it at all. We
feel somehow that Augusta is to blame, but we are not sure.”

“Don’t blame anybody,” said Nancy. “It was my own fault in the first
instance, and nothing can remedy it—at least until the holidays are
over.”

“Well, let us forget it,” said Kitty, going up to her little friend
and kissing her. “It is so lovely in these darling woods! Don’t you
just adore that peep of the blue, blue sea between those trees? And,
oh, how pretty the butterflies look flitting from flower to flower! I
don’t think it is right to be unhappy in such a perfect place as
this.”

Nancy tried to smile.

“There, that is better,” said Nora; “come and sit between us. Let us
talk about prize-day. Won’t it be exciting when it comes?”

“Yes—very,” said Nancy.

“Do you know what Kit and I are quite certain about?” continued Nora.
“We are positively sure that you will get the Royal Cross.”

“Oh no, I sha’n’t! Why should I?”

“Well, you see, as far as we can tell, you have never had even what
might be called a _dubious_ mark for conduct. Your conduct every
single day has been good, or very good, or excellent.”

“But how do you know?” said Nancy. “Have you seen the marks?”

“I did once, when Miss Roy was here. She just let me look at a page or
two, and then shut the book and said I must not see any farther; but I
saw quite enough to perceive how high you were on the ladder of good
conduct. Neither Nora nor I will grudge you the great honour, Nancy;
but I am afraid if Gussie took the prize we should be green with
jealousy.”

“She has not a chance,” said Kitty. “And now let us pack up the
baskets. It will soon be time to return to the house.”

The little girls busied themselves. The crockery was washed and put
carefully away, the tablecloth folded, the knives and forks and spoons
wrapped in tissue-paper.

“Wasn’t it funny Gussie insisting on carrying this heavy basket all
the way here? Why did you offer to help her, Nancy? I quite loved to
see her dragged down by the weight,” said Kitty.

“There is one thing certain,” said Nora—“_we_ shall have to
carry the things back. Why, even Uncle Peter has deserted us. I did
think he would have stayed. I suppose he has fallen a victim to the
charms of the Asprays.”

Now, Captain Richmond had done nothing of the sort. He was a grave
man, with lofty views on all subjects. He also had considerable
insight into character. Augusta was a girl who could never be in the
very least to his taste, but as she happened to be his sister-in-law’s
niece, he was bound to be kind to her. She was also living in the same
house with Nora, Kitty, and Nancy. He had not taken to the Asprays,
nor did he consider them suitable companions for his nieces; and it
gave him a certain sense of satisfaction to see that Nora, Kitty, and
Nancy were as indifferent to these gay young ladies as he was himself.
It was Augusta who liked them. Now, in the absence of his
sister-in-law he felt it his duty to look after Augusta, and it was
really for her sake that he took this walk alone with Flora Aspray.

Flora found him exceedingly fascinating. A red colour had come to her
cheeks, and her eyes were bright. She put on her most up-to-date
society airs for his benefit, and felt sure in her silly little heart
that she was making a conquest, for the Captain replied to her light
and silly nothings with such politeness. He was determined to perform
for her benefit those thousand and one little attentions which mark,
as a rule, the gentleman and the soldier. She laughed merrily about
nothing at all, and was highly pleased with herself. But when Captain
Richmond began to talk of graver matters Flora quickly got out of her
depths. She did not know that she was being weighed in the balance and
found wanting. From one subject to another did the Captain lead her,
and more and more did she disappoint him. None of his feelings,
however, were allowed to appear, and they said good-bye to each other
apparently the best of friends.

Augusta and Captain Richmond walked home together. As soon as they
were out of earshot of the Asprays, Augusta turned to her companion
and said eagerly:

“Didn’t you have a delightful afternoon? I am sure I did. I do think
Constance the most charming girl! And as to Mr. Archer, he is so
American, is he not? You like him very much, don’t you?”

“What a quantity of liking I have to do, Gussie!” said the Captain.
“Now, do you want the truth, or just a polite remark?”

“Oh! the truth—the truth, of course,” said Augusta, colouring, and
then dropping her eyes under Uncle Peter’s steadfast gaze.

“Very well; I will give it to you, for I think I ought. I don’t care
about Mr. Archer. He may be harmless, but that is the most that can be
said of him. I don’t like Miss Flora, and I have a strong persuasion
that Miss Constance is as like her as one pea resembles another.”

“And why don’t you like Flora? I am sure she tried to be nice to you.”

“She was extremely nice to me, but she is not the sort of girl I care
about. Why need we talk about them any more? They are not our friends;
they are only chance acquaintances.”

“But I want them to be our friends,” said Augusta; “it is so lonely
and dull here, and their society would make such a great difference.
At the worst you have to admit that they are harmless, Uncle Peter,
and you cannot possibly object to our seeing a good deal of them.”

“I will write to your aunt to-night, Augusta, and ask her what are her
views on the subject. Until I hear from her you must not have much to
do with the Asprays. Of course, if you meet them by accident, as we
did to-day, you will be polite and all that. But you are not to go to
Fairlight; neither are they to come here until I hear from your aunt
Jessie.”

“Oh dear!” said Augusta, “I did hope you would have liked them.”

“I am here to look after you all,” said the Captain, “and I want your
companions to be worthy.”

“But how are they unworthy?”

“Ask yourself, Augusta; you are not without common-sense. And now,
don’t talk to me any more on this matter.”

Augusta had to make a great effort to keep back her temper, but the
prize, which was so near, had to be thought of. She remained silent
for a few minutes, and then spoke as cheerfully as she could on other
subjects.

Immediately after supper that night Augusta went up to her own room,
and Nancy too disappeared; thus the Captain found himself alone with
his nieces.

“Now, this is really cosy,” said Kitty, taking his right side. “Sit
here, Nora.—You are not to stir, Uncle Pete; we are each going to sit
on an arm of this exceedingly comfortable chair. You are going to have
your nieces very, very near to you. Oh, isn’t it quite delicious?”

The Captain smiled and patted Kitty’s soft white hand.

“How are you getting on?” he said. “How does the soldiering
prosper—or are you both tired of the campaign?”

“No; we both love it,” said Nora. “But I am afraid we are poor
soldiers—very; still, I think we do our best. Uncle Pete, may we talk
to you about something? Are we to see a lot of these new people, the
Asprays, during the holidays?”

“I cannot tell you. Augusta wishes it, and her desires ought not to be
altogether ignored. But nothing can be done until I hear from your
mother.”

“I hope you will tell mother the exact truth about them,” said Kitty.
“I am most anxious to have nothing further to do with them.”

“Well, you had very little to do with them to-day, Kit; you talked to
Nora or Nancy all the time.”

“They didn’t want me. I am nothing but a child compared to Flora and
Constance. But it isn’t that, Uncle Pete. I should not really greatly
care if they came or not were it not for Nancy.”

“And what about Nancy?”

“Ah! I wish I could tell you, for I don’t think she likes them at all,
but she is too good-natured to say a word against any one.”

“I wish you could find out what ails her,” said the Captain, with
interest. “Does she admit that something does?”

“Yes—oh yes, poor darling; and she looked so sad when she just
alluded to it! She is awfully patient, you know, and I think—— Nora,
may I tell?”

“Of course you may,” said Nora. “Uncle Pete is like one of our very
own selves.”

“Well, what Nora and I think is that Gussie worries her; that she has
got a sort of hold over her. We can’t make it out, but we have thought
it for some time.”

“I don’t see how that is possible,” said the Captain. “Perhaps there
may be some other reason for Nancy’s unhappiness.”

“But what can there be?”

“How can I tell you?”

“Uncle Pete, why do you get up from your chair and look so funny? You
almost tossed me on the floor.”

“A thousand pardons, Kit.—I am going to have a smoke on the terrace,
and I think it is time for you little women to go to bed.”

“But have you nothing to propose about Nancy?”

“I am afraid not.”

“Are not you interested in her, Uncle Peter? You always seemed to like
her so very much.”

“I am interested, but sometimes one cannot see an inch beyond one’s
own nose.”

“Oh, Uncle Pete, you are not so blind as all that!”

“At the present moment I am, Kitty. Don’t say any more to-night.
Justice must be done to Nancy; of that rest assured.”

The Captain left the room, and the little girls stared at each other;
presently they went hand in hand up to bed.

It was not until they left the room that a girl suddenly stepped out
from behind a screen, where she had been hiding for the last quarter
of an hour. The girl was Augusta.

“Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves,” was her inward comment;
“but all information is useful. So those impudent little chits think I
am bullying Nancy, and they will try to persuade Uncle Pete to their
way of thinking if I don’t put a spoke in their wheel. I must, and
will, or my name is not Augusta. Uncle Pete thinks at the present
moment that that pretty and fascinating Nancy is guilty of cruelty. I
will prove it before his very eyes between now and the day when the
prizes are given away. Nancy, I have no dislike to you personally, but
I am determined to get the Royal Cross, for it means Paris and a good
time in the future; and I am also determined to get you more than ever
into my power, for you must help me with regard to the Asprays. See
them again I will—ay, many times. I am not going to be balked of the
first bit of genuine fun that has come across my path.”



CHAPTER XXV.

THE PACKET OF LETTERS.


Two or three days later Captain Richmond received a long letter from
his sister-in-law. The post arrived at breakfast-time, and the four
girls watched him with more or less interest while he read.

He read the letter very carefully over to himself, and his face
expressed no emotion whatever. Mrs. Richmond, in reply to a long letter
from him, had written as follows:

    “My Dear Peter,—I am so thankful that you are able to stay
    with the children at Fairleigh for the present; you understand
    Nora and Kitty so well, and I am quite certain that you
    equally understand our dear little Nancy. As to Augusta, she
    is more difficult, but I trust the dear child will behave well
    and not give you any anxiety. Before I reply to your letter,
    just received, I must tell you that my own plans are somewhat
    puzzling; and were it not for you, and also for the fact that
    Miss Roy will be almost immediately returning to Fairleigh, I
    could not carry them out. My dear friend is in the most
    alarming condition both of body and mind. The death of her son
    has completely shattered her, and the doctors have ordered her
    to go to South Africa immediately to pay a visit to her
    married daughter. She is quite incapable of taking the voyage
    alone, and I am forced to go with her. I shall only stay to
    see her settled, and after putting her into the care of her
    daughter, will return home by the first boat possible to
    England. But the whole thing will probably take a couple of
    months, and during that time I want you and Miss Roy to keep
    house for me. I have not even time to come home to say
    good-bye to the dear children, but they are quite well and in
    the best of hands. I am writing to my own girls, and they will
    receive their letter by the next post. Please tell them so,
    and give them my dear love. My maid, Justine, will return to
    Fairleigh to pack some things for me, for I cannot leave my
    poor friend even for a day. We sail, all being well, on
    Monday.

    “Now to come to the subject of your letter. I do not know the
    Asprays personally, although their name is familiar to me. My
    dear brother, I have something curious to tell you with regard
    to them. You know how fond I am of Nancy Esterleigh. I have
    adopted her as my own dear child, and trust she will never
    give her affections to any other so-called mother. But this is
    the state of the case: By her father’s will she is entitled,
    should she ever wish to claim it, to a permanent home and also
    to provision for the future from Mr. Aspray. Were she to leave
    me and go to him he could not refuse her this home. The matter
    was arranged many years ago, when dear Nancy was only a baby.
    It has something to do with a considerable sum of money which
    Mr. Aspray borrowed from Nancy’s father. He was unable to pay
    it back at the time, but offered, if ever necessary, to take
    his little daughter and to do for her and bring her up with
    his own children, and to provide for her future. Nancy’s
    mother told me all about this when she herself was dying, and
    she gave me the letter which Nancy, if necessary, is to take
    to Mr. Aspray. Nancy’s mother anything but wished that her
    little girl should be adopted by the Americans, and implored
    of me to do all in my power to prevent such a contingency. I
    feel, therefore, that any intimate acquaintance is scarcely
    desirable. Not that I am in the least afraid that Nancy would
    prefer those people to my little girls or me.

    “What I have told you with regard to Nancy is for yourself
    alone, and you will be guided how best to act under the
    circumstances.

    “Yes, Peter, Augusta is certainly the one who troubles me,
    and I am going to write her a special and private letter. She
    is sure to take a fancy to the Asprays, for she is more
    worldly-minded than my own dear children. Now I think I have
    explained everything to you. Of course, we cannot be rude to
    them, but any intimacy with the Asprays is the reverse of
    desirable.—Your affectionate sister-in-law,

                                              “Jessie Richmond.”

Having read this letter once, Captain Richmond slowly and carefully
perused it again, and then raised his eyes.

“Oh, Uncle Pete! that is good,” cried Nora; “you have looked up at
last. We have been watching you by the clock, and you have been a
quarter of an hour and two minutes reading mother’s letter. What can
she possibly have to say? We expected to hear from her this morning,
but she has not written. Is anything wrong, Uncle Pete? How funny you
look! You have your half-glad and half-sorry face on.—Hasn’t he,
Kitty?”

“Yes,” said Kitty; “and we can’t keep in our curiosity any longer, so
please read that long, long—wonderfully long—letter aloud.”

Captain Richmond rose.

“No,” he said; “the letter is private. But if you will all come to me
on the terrace in a quarter of an hour I will tell you what parts of
it you ought to know. Be sure you come, Nancy—and you, Augusta. Ta-ta
for the present.”

He blew a kiss to his nieces, nodded to the other girls, and left the
room.

“Then it is something very exciting,” said Kitty. “I thought so when
he frowned and his brows met in a line, and then when he gave that
quick little jerk and sort of sigh. Oh dear! aren’t you nearly mad
with curiosity, Nancy?”

“I should like to know what Aunt Jessie has written about,” said
Nancy. “But, after all, Uncle Pete will tell us in a very short time;
and I must go now and feed my canary.”

Nora and Kitty had given Nancy a very beautiful canary a few days
before. The bird was a splendid specimen of its kind, and sang
magnificently. She had hung it up in her own bedroom, and now went up
to give it fresh seed and groundsel.

The quarter of an hour soon passed, and the four girls met Captain
Richmond on the terrace, which at that hour in the morning was quite
cool and sheltered from the fierce rays of the sun. He was seated
reading that wonderful letter for the third time; but when he saw the
girls he thrust it into his pocket and came to meet them.

“Now then,” he said, “for my news, which is somewhat startling. We
shall not have your dear, kind mother here for the present.”

“Why?” said Kitty. “Is her friend so very ill?”

“Poor thing, she is very ill indeed, Kitty—I fear alarmingly so; and
your mother—just like her kindness—is going to accompany her to
South Africa. They start on Monday, and your mother says she has no
time to return home between now and then. Indeed, even if she had, she
could not leave Mrs. Rashleigh. Justine will arrive to-day or
to-morrow and pack her things.”

“Don’t cry, Kitty,” said Nora; “mother would not go if she could help
it.”

“Of course not,” said Kitty; but as she sat down on the nearest seat
her pretty little face was white and tears were brimming over in her
eyes.

Nancy immediately seated herself next to Kitty, and flung one
protecting arm round her neck.

“I understand—I understand,” she whispered in her ear.

The low and intensely sympathetic words comforted the little girl, and
she squeezed Nancy’s hand and nestled up against her.

“Well,” continued Captain Richmond, “that is one part of the letter.
Miss Roy returns to resume her duties next week, and between now and
then I shall be in charge. You have been very good girls in the past,
and I trust you will be equally good in the future. You may be certain
I shall do all I can to promote happiness and good-will amongst us.”

Here he laughed, and his eyes met those of Augusta, who was gazing at
him as if she would read him through.

“Now to take the bull by the horns,” thought Captain Richmond to
himself. He paused for a minute, and then he said slowly and
emphatically:

“With regard to the subject about which I wrote to your mother, Nora
and Kitty, and to your aunt, Augusta, she—as I thought she
would—agrees with me. We are to be polite to the Asprays, but there
is to be no intimacy. We cannot dispute my sister-in-law’s wishes; we
may therefore regard that subject as a closed book.” Captain Richmond
put on his most determined air as he spoke, and held out his hand to
Kitty. “Who will come for a walk with me in the woods?” he said.

“No, thank you; I don’t want to go,” cried Augusta; and she turned and
went very sulkily into the house.

She ran up to her own room. Shutting the door and turning the key in
the lock, she took out of her pocket a letter which she had slipped
into it unperceived by any one that morning. The letter had been lying
on her plate at breakfast, but she had managed to secrete it before
the other girls had come down. She had read it once, and now she
proceeded to read it again. It was from Flora Aspray, and its contents
were of the deepest interest to Augusta. Flora wrote with great
earnestness and spirit.

    “Oh, we want you so badly!” explained the letter. “I don’t
    like to say too much, but, you dear, bewitching girl, you have
    made a _conquest._ However, more of that anon. Yours is
    the very first invitation sent out. We are getting up a little
    dance—quite a scratch affair. It is to be this day week—only
    a poor little Cinderella, from eight to twelve o’clock. There
    will be several girls quite as young as yourself, so the most
    fastidious could not object. If you could come to us we could
    give you a bed for the night; and if you must have company, do
    ask any of the other three girls you like to come with you.
    But, to be frank, we only want _you._ David Archer says
    that your cousins and your queer little friend are too funny
    for anything. You know, David is quite a mimic; you would
    die with laughter if you saw him taking off that funny, prim
    little Nancy. Oh! and, my dear girl, that precious Captain
    Richmond of yours is too good for life. I never had a duller
    walk than the one we took together. David Archer takes him
    off, too, with his saintliness and goody-goody airs. Oh, it is
    killing! But there, Augusta; how my pen runs on! The main
    thing that all this leads up to is, _will_ you come? Will
    you give us the great pleasure of your company? Oh, of course
    you will! You cannot help yourself. If you were not present it
    would nearly break the heart of your most devoted—Flo.

     “_P.S._ If you have not a suitable dress with you,
    either Constance or I can give you a big selection to choose
    from, so don’t worry on that score—only come.”

“Go I will,” said Augusta to herself when she had finished reading the
letter. “I would not lose the fun for all the world. But now, how
shall I manage it?”

She sat with Flora’s letter upon her lap and gave herself up to
meditation. It was a lovely day, and the window of her pretty bedroom
was wide open. The sky was blue, and the trees a brilliant green. The
lawns, which rolled away right down to the end of the paddock, were
smooth as velvet. Presently a little figure crossed one of them and
came slowly towards the house. Augusta’s eyes contracted and her brows
met in a frown as she watched the little figure.

“It is odd how I dislike Nan,” she said to herself. “Poor child, I
suppose she is quite passable, and even agreeable to others, but she
always does manage to rub me the wrong way. She could be wonderfully
useful now, however. If I could get her to run to the post with my
answer I should feel more or less relieved; and if things are
eventually found out, and it is discovered she has a finger in the
pie, so much the better for me.”

Augusta sprang up, put her head out of the window, and called to
Nancy.

“Come here, Nancy; I want you,” she cried.

Nancy ran towards her, standing under the window and looking up.

“What are you doing?” asked Augusta.

“Oh! lots of things; but nothing very, _very_ special. Do you
want me, Gussie?”

“Yes; there is no one else to send, and I just want some one to run to
the village and put a letter I am about to write into the post for me.
Will you go? It would be awfully good-natured of you.”

“Yes; of course I will.”

“Well, come up to my room in ten minutes and I’ll have the letter
ready.”

Augusta seated herself at her little table, and wrote quickly:

    “My Dear Flo,—The fat is in the fire, and we are forbidden
    all intercourse with you. Mean, horrid, disgraceful,
    unbearable, I call it! Don’t think for a single moment that I
    submit. I love you better than any girl I have ever met. I
    love Constance, too. But, oh! I must hurry, for I want you to
    get this letter by the middle of the day. Don’t come near the
    place at present, and don’t walk in the woods, for if I met
    you I might be discovered, and I don’t want anything to be
    known until after the Cinderella. Of course I am going, but
    how I do not know at the present moment. I can’t sleep at your
    house; that is certain. You will hear from me nearer the time.
    And now, good-bye.—Your affectionate friend,

                                                “Augusta Duncan.”

Augusta had scarcely finished her letter before Nancy’s tap was heard
at her door.

“Come in,” called out the young lady; and Nancy entered.

“Is the letter ready, Augusta?” she asked.

“Yes; I am directing it. Have you got a stamp about you?”

“Yes.”

“Lend me one, like a good child.”

Nancy took out her purse, produced a stamp, and gave it to Augusta.

Augusta proceeded to affix it to the letter, which she then gave to
Nancy.

“It is private,” she said; “don’t for the life of you show it to any
one. And now be off; put wings to your feet, or you will lose the
half-past ten clearance.”

“But it is to one of the Asprays,” said Nancy, taking up the letter
and looking at it, and then putting it down again.

“Well, and what of that?” asked Augusta, turning very red, and looking
extremely angry.

“Oh! nothing, of course; only you heard what Uncle Peter said this
morning.”

“Certainly I did; I am not deaf.”

“And after hearing what he said, ought you to write to them?”
stammered Nancy.

“What a silly child you are! Have I not told them we are to keep out
of their way in the future? How comfortable we should feel if they
were haunting our woods and we could not talk to them! Now, as I have
explained matters, I suppose you will post the letter.”

“I don’t know; I don’t think it is quite right. Can’t you post it
yourself?”

“I can’t, and won’t. There are things I could tell about you. I could
give you an uncommonly hot time. You had better be off. Drop that
letter into the pillar-box and you will be worried by no more Asprays.
Refuse to drop it in and you will have a pleasant time in the future.”

Nancy took up the letter very gingerly. She stood still for a moment;
then she turned and left the room.

“Be sure you don’t show it to any one.”

“No.”

“And be quick.”

“Yes.”

“There! that’s a good thing,” said Augusta to herself. “If I am
discovered I can prove that Nancy posted my letter for me. When they
rouse my worst passions as they are doing in this house they little
know what it means. Where my own interests are concerned I stop at
nothing—nothing. Go to that dance. I will. Oh dear, what a worry
things are, all the same! I wish I could see the whole of Aunt
Jessie’s letter. I am sure there are allusions to me in it; I guessed
as much by the expression in our gallant captain’s eyes.”

Augusta left her room and went downstairs and joined the rest of the
party. The remainder of the day passed without anything special
occurring. Kitty and Nora, having got over the fact that their mother
was not returning home at present, gave themselves up to the
delightful time Uncle Peter always managed to arrange for them.
Augusta pretended to be equally cheerful; and Nan, though a little
pale and silent, behaved quite in an unremarkable fashion.

Late that evening a telegram came from Justine to say that she was
travelling all night, and would arrive at Fairleigh between nine and
ten the following morning.

She did arrive at the time stated, and went immediately up to her
mistress’s room to pack the things necessary for the voyage. She had
not been long there before Augusta appeared at the door.

“Can I help you, Justine?” she asked. “The others have all gone out
boating, but I had a headache. It is better now, and therefore I can
do anything you like, if you will only tell me what.”

“Thank you very much, miss,” replied the woman. “I should be pleased
if you would help me. My mistress wants a lot of things, not only for
herself but for Mrs. Rashleigh, for the poor lady had no time to get
any sort of wardrobe for so unexpected a voyage, and my mistress is
going to lend her some of her things. What I want to do is this,
miss—to make two separate lists, one of my mistress’s things, and one
of those which are to be lent to Mrs. Rashleigh. I am going to pack the
things for Mrs. Rashleigh in one trunk, and the things for my mistress
in another; and as I have got to catch the three o’clock train back to
town on my way to the north, there is not too much time to spare.”

“Of course there is not, Justine. How glad I am I asked if I could
help you! Shall I make out the lists for you?”

“Will you, miss? That was just what I wanted to propose.”

Augusta went to her room, fetched paper and pens, and was soon seated
beside a small table, writing out lists of different garments under
Justine’s directions.

Augusta could be both quick and orderly, so she was of substantial
help to the maid.

“I am sure, miss, I don’t know how to thank you; your help makes all
the difference,” said the good woman. “Oh dear, Miss Gussie! we have
had a terrible time. I never saw a poor lady in such an awful state.
Me and her maid, Fanny, thought she was going off her head. It was
terrible, miss—terrible.”

Augusta listened, and asked several questions. She was by nature very
curious, and Justine’s narrative gave her some pleasant and exciting
thrills.

“I could make a splendid story out of this and frighten Flora so that
she would scream,” thought Augusta to herself. “It is such fun
frightening people, particularly in the dark, or just when you are
going to bed. I do wish I could sleep at the Asprays’ house next week.
However, that is not to be thought of.”

“Now, miss,” said Justine, “there is only one thing more of any
importance to-day. Do you see these keys?”

“Yes,” said Augusta. “Why, these are Aunt Jessie’s special private
keys.”

“They are, miss, and she trusted me with them. I am sure I feel highly
honoured. She said I was to give them to Captain Richmond, and that he
would do what she wanted; but I do declare, what with being up all
night and being dead fagged, I forgot it. What is to be done? I
suppose the Captain will be in soon, miss?”

“Indeed he won’t,” answered Augusta. “They have all gone across to the
Sovereign Islands, and have taken some lunch with them. They can’t be
back, for the tide won’t let them—at least, not before five o’clock.”

“And I hope to be getting towards London by that hour, so whatever is
to be done?” said Justine.

“Oh, can’t I do it?” said Augusta. “If those are the keys, you can
give me the same directions you were to have given to Captain
Richmond.”

“To be sure,” said Justine. “But I could do it myself, for that
matter.”

“No, no, Justine; you had better let me. You know, I am Aunt Jessie’s
very own niece, and you are only her servant.”

“Thank you, miss, but servants can be faithful.”

“I know that; and there never was a more faithful creature than you.
If you think you are to be more trusted than me, do what is necessary,
Justine; I have not a word more to say.”

Justine stood silent, pressing her hand to her cheek. She had never
known anything against Augusta, whose manners were pleasant enough
when she chose to make herself agreeable. Augusta certainly was Mrs.
Richmond’s niece, and as the matter in question was of some
importance, and Captain Richmond could not possibly be got at, she
decided to trust her.

“Here, miss,” she said; “you know the Sheraton chiffonier in the
drawing-room?”

“Yes,” said Augusta.

“And you know that all the drawers have different keys?”

“Have they?”

“Yes, miss, they have. My missus keeps her valuable papers and things
of importance in the different drawers of the Sheraton chiffonier, and
she told me to ask the Captain to open the top drawer at the
right-hand side, and press a spring, which reveals a secret drawer,
and take out from it a little box, which he was to give me to take
back to my mistress. Mrs. Richmond only thought of this box at the last
minute. It has some jewels in it which she wants to have set in a
particular way at the Cape for the young ladies, and she had not even
a minute to write. Do you understand, Miss Augusta?”

“Am I stupid?” said Augusta. “Why, it is the simplest thing in the
world. Give me the keys, please, Justine.”

“Thank you, miss; here they are. And I think, while you are getting me
the little box, I will go down to the servants’ hall and have my
dinner, for I am not only tired but faint.”

Augusta nodded, and in high spirits, her heart beating, went down to
the drawing-room. She had no special desire to possess herself of her
aunt’s secrets. The contents of the little box did not interest her in
the least, but she was the sort of girl who liked to put her finger
into every pie.

“There is never any saying _what_ I may come across,” she
whispered to herself; “and knowledge is power. I have always felt
that, and I have always proved it. Dear, dear! I am lucky. No one
suspects me of having broken open one of these precious drawers. Aunt
Jessie is going away, so Uncle Peter will not have an opportunity of
asking her about that curious mark against Nancy’s conduct. And long
before Aunt Jessie comes back the prize-day will have come and gone.
Yes, I certainly am in luck. And now, if I can but keep up my
character for good and excellent conduct, and at the same time have my
bit of fun, then I shall regard myself as one of the luckiest girls in
the world.”

Augusta closed the drawing-room door after her, walked up the long
room and standing before the chiffonier, she inserted the key which
Justine had given her into the lock, opened the little drawer, and
proceeded to press the spring which revealed the secret drawer. Her
pressure acted immediately; the bolt shot back, and another drawer was
discovered behind it. She pulled it open. It contained a small
jewel-case, a little wooden box, and also a packet of letters. Augusta
took out the box, which she thought must be the one described by
Justine. She was about to shut the drawer when her attention was
attracted by the handwriting on the letters. They were all tied
together by a piece of ribbon, and the words “About Nancy and the
Asprays” were written across them.

“Nancy and the Asprays,” said Augusta to herself. “Ah! I may indeed
find out something to my own advantage now. I have plenty of time,
too, for Justine won’t hurry with her lunch.”

Accordingly, Augusta seated herself calmly on a small chair which
stood by, and untying the packet, proceeded to read the letters. She
read them one after the other. There were only three or four, and
nothing could be plainer than their meaning. The colour rushed into
Augusta’s cheeks as she perused them, and her eyes grew very bright.
Having finished them, she sat silent for a minute; then, tying them up
again so as to look exactly as they had done before, she returned them
to their place in the secret drawer. She pushed back the hinge, shut
the outer drawer and locked it, and, with the little box in her hand,
went upstairs. She had been longer than she thought, for Justine, in
some impatience, was waiting for her.

“I was just coming down to the drawing-room to look for you, Miss
Augusta,” she said.

“Oh! I didn’t hurry,” said Augusta; “I thought you would be at your
dinner.”

“I could not eat, miss, my head was that bad. And, oh dear! time is
going; I have to leave here not a minute later than half-past two. Is
that the box, miss?”

“Yes; and here is the key. I wonder, Justine,” she added——

“Yes, miss.”

“I don’t know whether I ought to say it, but—don’t you think it would
simplify matters if you _didn’t tell_ that you had forgotten to
speak to Captain Richmond of this?”

Justine coloured.

“But if I kept it secret you would tell.”

“Indeed I would not. Why should I get you into a scrape, poor Justine,
situated as you are?”

“Indeed, Miss Gussie, that is true, for I have had a time since I left
here, and me expecting my holiday and all. I know mistress will be
vexed with me if I tell, but I don’t like, somehow, to make a secret
of it.”

“If I were you I would not tell,” said Augusta; “you will only get
into a scrape. And, of course, I will never breathe it to a soul. But
please yourself, of course.”

“Well then, miss, if you promise it won’t pass your lips, I don’t see
why I should get myself into hot water.”

“I won’t speak of it, Justine. And now, do lie down for a minute. I
have some lovely aromatic vinegar in my room; I will bathe your face
and hands.”

“Oh miss! but I am sure I could not let you.”

“Nonsense! Why shouldn’t I help you? Even though you are a servant,
you are a fellow-creature. There! lie down on this little bed; there
is lots of time—it is not two o’clock yet.”

So Augusta waited on Justine, and soothed and comforted her, and made
her forget her headache; and when at last she left the house the good
woman said to herself that a dearer and nicer young lady than Miss
Gussie never walked the earth.

“All the same,” said Justine, “it would not have occurred to me to
keep my forgetfulness from my mistress if she hadn’t put it into my
head; but as she did, doubtless it is the best way. She is a very
clever young lady for her years; and very thoughtful, too.”



CHAPTER XXVI.

SUNBEAM.


Mrs. Richmond sailed for the Cape on the following Monday; sending a
telegram to her daughters to announce her departure just before she
left England; and on the following Wednesday evening Miss Roy came
back.

Miss Roy had been in the Richmond family for five years. She was a
woman of about forty years of age, extremely kind, most faithful, most
devoted to the interests of her employer, and most affectionate to her
little charges. She was not a finishing-governess by any means. But
she was just the sort of useful person who could be invaluable in
times of difficulty or distress. Mrs. Richmond felt that in her absence
Miss Roy would act almost as a mother to her children, and she went
away happily in consequence.

The good governess had debarred herself from a whole fortnight of her
usual holiday to meet this time of need.

Nora, Kitty, and Nancy hailed her return with delight; and Augusta,
who in her heart of hearts regarded her as a tiresome, tyrannical old
maid, was equally loud in her affectionate expressions on the night of
her return.

On the following day Captain Richmond asked Miss Roy to have a private
interview with him. No one was better pleased than he that she should
come back to help him in the management of his battalion, as he still
in fun called the four girls.

“Well, sergeant,” he said, coming into the schoolroom, and speaking in
as cheerful a manner as possible, “I want to talk over things with
you.—Soldiers, I must deprive you of your sergeant for a short
time.—This way, please, Sergeant Roy.”

He opened the door as he spoke, and Miss Roy, laughing heartily, went
out with him.

“Isn’t Uncle Pete funny?” said Kitty. “He is always making us laugh. I
do think he is a darling.”

“You don’t call that sort of talk, funny, do you?” said Augusta, who
was by no means pleased at the Captain’s desire for a private
interview with Miss Roy. “If that is your idea of fun I pity you. Uncle
Peter forgets that we are growing up very fast, and are not babies to
be amused by infant talk.”

“Uncle Pete could not be silly,” replied Nora.

“If you don’t like him, why don’t you hold your tongue?” replied
Kitty.

“And why do you pretend to like him so much?” said Nora again.

“Of course I like him,” cried Augusta, who feared that she might have
gone too far. “Well, let’s go on with our history; we may as well have
good marks. All these sort of things will tell when the great day of
the prize-giving arrives.”

Meanwhile Captain Richmond had conducted Miss Roy to the drawing-room.
They both stood close to the chiffonier. Captain Richmond pushed
forward a chair and asked the governess to seat herself.

“I want to show you something,” he said, “and I should be extremely
glad if you could throw some light upon it. It has troubled me a good
bit.”

“What do you mean?” said Miss Roy.

“I allude to an entry in the orderly-book.”

“An entry in the orderly-book!”

“Yes—made in your absence—made by my sister-in-law. Perhaps you can
explain it.”

As Captain Richmond spoke he opened the drawer of the chiffonier where
the orderly-book was kept, took out the book, and placed it on a small
table before the governess; then opening the book, he pointed to the
page where poor Nancy’s cruel conduct was testified to.

“Look,” he said. “You would not have supposed that _she_ could be
cruel.”

“Nancy cruel!” said Miss Roy. “Excuse me one moment, Captain Richmond;
I will put on my glasses. This puzzles me.”

Miss Roy adjusted her glasses and bent over the book. She was
naturally a very calm woman, and was in no hurry to give herself away.
She turned page after page and examined the marks of the other girls.
Finally, she took the marks for conduct, diligence, intellectual
employments on the 24th of August by themselves, looking separately at
the page devoted to each girl.

“Well?” said Captain Richmond, who was watching her with interest.

“I cannot understand it,” she said. “It cannot possibly be true.”

“So I thought,” said the Captain.

“It cannot be true,” repeated Miss Roy. “A mark for carelessness, for
forgetfulness, even for untidiness, might be possible in the case of
Nancy Esterleigh, but cruelty—— No, Captain Richmond, the child
could not be cruel.”

“And yet,” said the Captain, “the mark is there—most distinctly
written. You observe how empty the page is—blanks in most
departments—and this terrible mark for conduct. We cannot get over
it.”

“It is very unaccountable,” said Miss Roy. “There must be a mistake.”

“I have thought of that,” said the Captain; “but I don’t see how there
can be. My sister-in-law is extremely particular, and not at all
careless.”

“You must remember,” said Miss Roy, “that she entered these marks on
the very day when she was sent for in a hurry to Mrs. Rashleigh.”

“That might account for something, but not for this—this gross act of
injustice. Miss Roy, I have watched little Nancy; this mark caused me
anxiety. I have watched the child at all hours. I have never seen a
trace of cruelty. But there is something the matter. She is not at her
ease. She is unhappy. She is like a child who carries a secret.”

“Augusta again,” said Miss Roy.

“I think not,” answered the Captain. “I have observed them together,
and have noticed that Augusta is extremely kind to Nancy. I don’t
personally care for Augusta. She is not at all to my taste. But one
must not be unjust to her. No, it is not that. Nancy carries a secret.
Why should she carry a secret, Miss Roy? Painful as it is to say, does
it not rather point to the truth of this terrible report?”

“The thing to do,” said Miss Roy, “is to appeal to Mrs. Richmond. I
wonder you did not think of this before, Captain Richmond.”

“I did; but I did not want to worry her while she was away, and with a
great deal of care on her shoulders. And remember, we expected her
home about now. Her sudden visit to South Africa upset all our
calculations, and as a matter of fact put this thing out of my head.
But even if I had thought of asking for an explanation, I should
scarcely like to have done so just at present. She would naturally
say, ‘You ought to accept my plain statements without comment.’”

“Not in this case, and with such an extraordinary accusation against a
most tender-hearted child,” was Miss Roy’s answer. “Well, what is to
be done now? Even if we were to write to Mrs. Richmond, we could not
get an answer for six weeks.”

“We cannot wait for that,” said the Captain; “the prizes are to be
given in three weeks’ time from to-day.”

“And you will let this influence you, Captain Richmond?” said Miss
Roy.

“What am I to do?” he answered, shrugging his shoulders; and as he
spoke he shut the orderly-book. “I am glad I have confided in you,” he
said. “You may throw light on the matter; I sincerely hope you will.
But for this dreadful mark, Nancy would get the Royal Cross. As it
is”——

He paused and shrugged his shoulders again. “There is just one thing
more,” he added. “Some one has broken open this drawer in the
chiffonier. See for yourself.”

The open drawer showed the marks where a knife had been used, making
distinct indentations in the delicate wood.

“The mystery thickens,” said Miss Roy. “Well, I will watch and do what
I can.”

“You will be very careful not to let any one know I have spoken to
you,” said Captain Richmond.

“Certainly, Captain Richmond; I will be most careful.”

Miss Roy went away. She felt very much troubled and perplexed. The
Captain’s remarks with regard to Nancy troubled her almost as much as
the extraordinary and unaccountable entry in the orderly-book.

“What can it all mean? There are some crimes which it is impossible to
associate with certain natures,” was her thought. “Nancy would not
hurt a fly. She is over-sensitive and over-affectionate; if any one
could be over-kind it would be Nancy. And yet—and yet—— Oh, I do
trust light will be thrown on this mystery! I hope Captain Richmond
will not give away the prizes before Mrs. Richmond returns. I am quite
sure she can explain what is wrong. Then, who opened the drawer
without a key? It would be an act of cruel injustice to deprive Nancy
of the prize until we discover who has done that. Poor, dear little
girl; I will try and find her, and see if I can lead her to talk of
this matter. Of course, I am bound by my promise to Captain Richmond
not to ask her any direct questions.”

Miss Roy entered the schoolroom. It was empty. She went into the
shrubbery, and walked round the grounds. She could not find any of the
girls. Finally, she went back to the house, and went into Nancy’s
bedroom.

Nancy’s room was a very small one, and was entered through the larger
room occupied by Nora and Kitty. Nancy was always neat, and her little
room was in absolute order. Her bird’s cage hung in the window. The
canary, which had been in full feather and lively song, sat upon its
perch. Miss Roy was very fond of birds, and she went up now to this
one to speak to him.

“Ah, Sunbeam,” she said, “and how are you?”

As she said this she noticed that the bird was not in his usual
spirits. His feathers were ruffled, and he looked at the governess
with a dull expression in his eye.

“Poor dicky—poor Sunbeam,” said Miss Roy—“what can be wrong with
you?”

The cage was hung high to be out of the way of the cats. Miss Roy
lifted it down off its hook, and put it on a little table which stood
near. The next moment she uttered a shocked exclamation.

No wonder the bird was dull and unable to sing. His water-trough was
empty, and he had scarcely any seed left in his seed-drawer.

“Impossible!” said Miss Roy. “Nancy to forget the bird she loves so
much! And yet I must believe my own sight.”

She felt very angry. Cruelty to dumb animals was the one sin she could
not overlook. Taking the trough, she proceeded to fill it with water;
and she was just replenishing the seeds when the door opened, and
Augusta, singing a gay song, and carrying a bunch of groundsel in her
hand, entered the room.

“Oh, Miss Roy, you here!” she cried. “I was bringing a piece of
groundsel for Sunbeam. Why, what is the matter? Is the bird ill?”

“It looks like it,” said Miss Roy.

She did not want Augusta to share her discovery. But that young lady
was a great deal too astute to be easily hoodwinked.

“Why, what is it?” she said. “What can be the matter?”

Then she went up to the cage, and made precisely the same discovery
Miss Roy had made.

“Oh, I say!” exclaimed Augusta. “How downright wicked!”

“I will put it right,” said Miss Roy, trembling a little. “Leave me
the groundsel. Go—please go.”

A voice below shouted Augusta’s name, and she ran off. Miss Roy
attended to the suffering bird, giving him seed and water and a nice
bunch of groundsel. He began to eat and drink at once, and before she
left the room she had the satisfaction of seeing that he was much
revived.

“I will see to this matter myself,” she said under her breath. “There
must be no dumb creature in this house liable to such neglect. Alas,
how little one knows any one! Mrs. Richmond may have given that bad
mark for just such another act of carelessness. It seems to explain
things. But who would have thought it of Nancy?”

At lunch that day Augusta suddenly looked up and fixed her bright eyes
on Nancy.

“I have a crow to pluck with you,” she said.

“What is it?” asked the little girl.

“Come, Augusta,” said the Captain, “none of this! I am sure Nancy has
not done anything wrong.”

“Oh, hasn’t she? You ask Miss Roy.—Miss Roy, don’t you think the
little favourite wants a word of caution?”

“You ought not to call Nancy by that silly name,” said Miss Roy; but
she looked uneasy and troubled.

Augusta said nothing more, but nodded in a very knowing way to Nancy.
Immediately after dinner she rushed up to the child, slipped her hand
through her arm, and pulled her aside.

“Well, Nancy,” she said, “it will be all up with you if you are not
careful.”

“What do you—what _do_ you mean, Augusta?”

“Listen. I don’t think Miss Roy is going to tell. She really is kind,
and I don’t fancy she will tell; and if she doesn’t, the Captain, who
has now charge of the orderly-book, will know nothing about it.”

“Oh Augusta, you are so mysterious! What are you talking about?”

“I am surprised at you,” said Augusta. “I hate cruelty myself.”

“And you think that I am cruel!” said Nancy. “What next?”

“I don’t trouble myself to think about what I know,” said Augusta. “A
girl who had any love for dumb creatures would not starve her pet
bird.”

“My canary! I starve my canary! What do you mean?”

“Ask Miss Roy. She went into your bedroom and found poor old Sunbeam
anything but sun-shiny—all ruffled up and dull and drooping. The
reason was not far to seek. There was no water in his trough and no
seed in his drawer. Now then, Miss Nancy, what do you say to that?”

“That it is a lie—an awful lie,” said Nancy, her gentle face quite
transformed with rage. “What do you mean? I fed my bird this morning.
I gave him water, and plenty of seed, and a lump of sugar. What are
you talking about?”

“Ask Miss Roy, my dear, if you don’t believe me. I happened to come
into the room with some groundsel. I had been getting some to give the
birds in the aviary downstairs, and I thought of Sunbeam. Miss Roy was
in the room, and before she could stop me I had discovered what was
wrong. Make what use you can of my information. Speak to her about it.
She saw with her own eyes. Who else is responsible for the bird? Why,
what is the matter, Nancy? Where are you going to?”

“To Miss Roy. I cannot stand this. I have an enemy, and I can’t make
it out. Oh, I am a very unhappy girl! Augusta, what have I done to
you? Why do you make my life so miserable?”

“Make your life miserable!” said Augusta, who by no means wished to
bring things to a crisis. “I am sure I am very far from doing that. Do
you think I would really tell the Captain? You may be sure Miss Roy
won’t; and I will go to her this minute, if you like, and _beg_
her not to. Now, am I not kind?”

“Don’t go; I would rather speak to her myself. I would rather brave
things out;” and Nancy suddenly rushed away from Augusta. She went
into the house and looked for Miss Roy, whom she found in the
schoolroom.

“Miss Roy, I want to say something,” cried the little girl, the colour
mantling her cheeks.

“What is it, Nancy?” said Miss Roy just a trifle coldly, for the
incident of the starving bird had troubled the governess a great deal.

“Augusta told me,” continued Nancy; “and it is not true. There is not
a word of it true. Oh, what is to be done? I did feed my canary this
morning. I gave him water and seed, and cleaned out his cage. I have
never neglected my bird yet—never.”

“My dear Nancy, I am sorry even to appear to doubt you, but I saw with
my own eyes that the bird was without seed. Seeing is believing, you
know.”

“And you believe that I could be so cruel?” said Nancy.

“Seeing is believing,” repeated Miss Roy.

“I didn’t do it. Oh, you will drive me wild! I did not think that you
would turn against me.”

“No one attends to the bird except yourself. Who in this house would
be so wicked and malicious as to take away the seed and water? No, my
dear Nancy; you forgot. It was unlike you, and I am disappointed in
you. But I have decided not to tell Uncle Peter; I will give you
another chance. Had I been in charge of the orderly-book I should have
been obliged to enter this circumstance in the book; but as I am not I
do not hold myself responsible. Go away now, dear. Don’t keep me. Try
and be more careful another time.”

Nancy stood perfectly still. Her face, which had been red with anger,
was now white. She turned abruptly and walked out of the room.

“It is all most unaccountable,” thought the governess to herself. “But
to suppose for a single instant that any one could have removed the
seed and water is not to be thought of. Yes, I am sorry for Nancy. She
forgot the bird: such things have happened even with tender-hearted
and considerate children. She forgot the bird, and has not the courage
to own to her fault. Poor, poor child; I fear that remark in the
orderly-book is correct.”

Meanwhile Nancy went up to her room. Never before had such mad passion
seized her. She felt like a wounded creature in a trap. But of one
thing she was resolved.

“My dicky-bird, my darling, shall not run such a risk again,” she
thought. “Oh, of course it must be Augusta! No one else could do such
a fiendish thing. But my darling shall not suffer. I know who will
care for him.”

She put on her hat, took the cage down from the hook, threw a
handkerchief over it, and went out.

About a mile away there lived a woman with a sick child. Nancy and
the two Richmond girls had visited this woman once or twice. And Nancy
had spoken to little Grace of her bird. Grace had been deeply
interested.

“Oh, if only my poor little Grace could have a bird all to herself!”
said her mother. “But there! I cannot afford it. I offered to buy her
a linnet—one can get linnets quite cheap—but she would not have it.
‘No, mother,’ she said, ‘I would not take the liberty from an English
bird. It is a canary I want. I’d like to have one more than anything
else in the world.’”

Nancy had made up her mind now to give her treasured bird to Grace.
She was relieved to see that no one was about. She walked slowly for
fear of spilling the water in the cage. Presently she entered the
woods, and setting the cage down on the ground, she removed the
handkerchief, and threw herself on her face and hands close to the
bird. She pressed her pretty, gentle face up against the bars of the
cage, whistling softly to Sunbeam. He sidled up to her, and presently
printed a soft kiss from his beak on her rosy lips.

“They say that I starve you, darling,” said Nancy. “You know better,
don’t you? But you sha’n’t ever run such an awful risk again, my own
little bird. You sha’n’t be at the mercy of any cruel girl. I would
sooner part from you. You will soon forget me, my little dicky-bird,
but I will never, never forget you. Come, you shall go to a good
home—to a little girl who will be kind to you.”

She walked on through the wood holding the cage, and presently she
reached Mrs. Hammond’s cottage. The day was hot with a languorous sort
of heat. There was little or no wind, and thunder rumbled in the sky.

Grace had been very tired all that morning; her back ached, and life
seemed weary. She had refused her dinner, and had turned away from all
her mother’s attempts at consolation. When Nancy’s tap was heard on
the door, Mrs. Hammond threw down her sewing and went to open it. A
pale little girl with bright eyes, holding a cage in her hand, stood
without.

“Why, if it ain’t one of the dear little ladies from Fairleigh!” cried
the widow. “My Grace is very poorly to-day, but a sight of you will do
her a lot of good, miss.”

“I have brought a bird for her—my own bird. May I go in and see her
at once?” said Nancy.

[Illustration: “I have brought a bird for her—my own bird. May I go
in and see her at once?” said Nancy.]

“A bird!” cried the mother. “Oh, won’t it be just heaven to her? Yes,
she is very poorly, and so dull; but a bird all her own—— Oh, I say,
miss! come this way at once.—Grace, here is somebody to cheer you
up,” continued Mrs. Hammond.—“Come right in, miss; I will stay in the
kitchen while you talk to her.”

So Nancy entered with Sunbeam in his pretty coloured cage.

Grace, who had been lying down, started up in her delight.

“For me! It can’t be,” she exclaimed. “You have brought him to see me,
miss. Oh, ain’t he just pretty?”

“I have brought him to give him to you,” cried Nancy. “He is your very
own from this minute. You will be kind to him, won’t you?”

“Kind to him! Oh miss—oh miss!”

“You will never forget his water nor his seed?”

“As if I could, miss!”

“And you won’t let the cats get to him?”

“We ain’t got a cat, miss. He shall stay with me morning and night.
Oh, Miss Nancy, I’ll get well now; I feel that I will. Oh, the joy of
having him! How can I thank you? But there! I can’t even try to.”

“Don’t try, Grace; your face is thanks enough. No, I won’t stay. He
will want lots of water; and here is a whole canister of seed—every
sort. You must dry his cage after he has his bath. I give him his bath
every morning before I clean and feed him.—Good-bye, my Sunbeam.”

Nancy bent towards the cage. Her curly hair fell across her face, and
even the little sick girl did not notice the tears in her eyes. She
ran out of the cottage before Mrs. Hammond could interrupt her.



CHAPTER XXVII.

“WAS THAT THE REASON?”


After breakfast the next morning Miss Roy felt a strong desire to go
into Nancy’s bedroom. The fact was, she had dreamt of the starving
bird the night before. She quite longed to see for herself that the
little prisoner was attended to, that he was bright and cheerful and
happy. But she scarcely liked to do this, for it seemed like doubting
Nancy.

Nancy was avoiding Miss Roy. She was spending most of her time in the
open air, and very often she would go away quite by herself. As she
complained of nothing, however, and ate her meals all right, no one
remarked on her strange conduct. Miss Roy said to herself that Nancy
was repenting of what she had done.

“I shall try to find out from her if she has ever neglected the bird
before,” she thought.

The morning pursued the even tenor of its way. The four girls went out
on the water with Captain Richmond; and Miss Roy, at last overcome by
her desire to see the canary, went into Nancy’s bedroom. She uttered
an exclamation when she saw the hook on which the cage used to hang.
What could have happened? Where was the bird? She went downstairs to
see if it had been removed to the schoolroom. It was not there. She
then questioned the housemaid, but beyond the fact that she had not
seen the bird when she went to draw down the blinds on the previous
evening, the girl could tell her nothing.

“This must be inquired into,” said Miss Roy to herself; and when the
girls came in she spoke to Nancy, doing so openly before the others.

“Nancy,” she said, “I happened to go into your bedroom, and I could
not see your bird there. What have you done with Sunbeam?”

Augusta immediately fixed her bold eyes on Nancy’s face. The other
girls looked up, wondering. They knew how passionately Nancy adored
her bird.

“Well, Nancy, why don’t you speak?” said her governess.

Just then Captain Richmond appeared.

“Why, Miss Roy,” he said, “what is this solemn conclave? I heard you
ask Nancy something.—What is it, Nancy?”

“You asked me about my bird,” said Nancy, raising her head and
speaking bravely. “I have given him away.”

“Nancy! you have given Sunbeam away?” cried Kitty.

“Yes. I took him yesterday to a little girl—you know her, Nora—you
remember her, Kitty—Grace Hammond. She wanted a bird, and I gave her
Sunbeam. He was my own, and I could do what I liked with him. Don’t
keep me, please.”

She pushed past the girls. Her manner was almost rude. Before any one
could utter an additional word she had left the room.

“What does this mean?” said Captain Richmond.

“I think it is very generous of Nancy,” here exclaimed Augusta.

But no one else applauded Nancy for her generosity. There was a weight
in the air which every one felt.

Immediately after lunch Captain Richmond went away to pay a round of
calls. Miss Roy retired to her own room—she happened to have a very
acute headache—and the four girls were alone.

Kitty fixed her eyes on Nan. Nan shuffled uncomfortably with her feet.

“Where are you going?” cried Nora. “It is such a lovely day,” she
continued, “can we not all go for a ramble on the seashore?”

“I am not going with you,” replied Nancy. Her tone was almost rude.
She left the room, slamming the door after her.

Augusta raised her brows. Getting up daintily, she went out by the
open window. The two little Richmond girls thus found themselves
alone.

“Oh Kit,” cried Nora, “what can be happening? I am quite unhappy; I
don’t like this at all.”

“Come out, Nora,” answered Kitty; “we can talk better in the open
air.”

They went out, linking their arms round one another, and paced slowly
up and down. Augusta was lying lazily in a hammock near by. She
watched them.

“How they love each other!” she said to herself. “I never saw such
affectionate sisters. But they are a dull little pair all the same.
They are the sort of girls who will never do anything very wrong, and
perhaps, on the other hand, never do anything very good. I know the
sort. They will be medium all their days—medium pretty, too. Even Nan
is better fun than Kitty and Nora. Now they are discussing her. I see
it by the way Kitty nods her head, and Nora looks at her and then
looks away again; and they are twining their arms tighter round each
other. They are very sorry for Nan, but they don’t understand her.
Even I understand that poor, miserable mite better than they do. I
have a hold over my little lady, and I must tighten the knot—and very
quickly, too, for Miss Nancy must help me to-morrow night. But now to
find out what they are really saying, for Nancy will have to be
protected by me in one sense in order that I may use her in another.”

So Augusta slipped out of her hammock, and approached the little
girls.

“What a wonderful confab!” she said. “Shall I guess what it is all
about?”

“Oh no, Gussie; I wish you would go away,” exclaimed Nora. “Kitty and
I are having _quite_ a private talk all by ourselves.”

“But do let me guess what it is about,” answered Augusta. “Now then,
see if I am not right. You are talking about the little favourite and
her pet canary.”

“Yes; but what has that to do with you?” answered Kitty.

“My dear Kit, what a way to speak to your cousin! Now, let me tell you
that it has a great deal to do with me. If I were you I would not
worry Nancy; she has reasons for what she has done.”

“But why give her canary away?” said Kitty. “Nora and I subscribed
together and gave it to her, and she seemed so pleased. It was rather
difficult to get enough money, but when we saw how _awfully_
delighted she was, we felt that that made up for everything.”

“It was good-natured of you,” said Augusta. “I forgot that you had
given it to her. Poor old Nan!”

“But why do you call her poor old Nan? I don’t see that she is to be
pitied at all. We have always been very fond of her, but we cannot see
that she has done right in giving away her bird.”

“Dear me,” said Augusta, “what a fuss! If you gave her the bird it was
her own, to do what she liked with. She took a fit of pity for that
poor sick girl, Grace Hammond, and gave her the bird. Grace wants the
bird far more than Nancy does, for she lies on her back most of the
day in a shabby little room. I think it was extremely kind and
self-sacrificing of Nan, and she ought to be petted, not scolded.”

“I never thought of that,” said Nora. “Of course, Gussie, you are
right. Dear old Nan! Yes, it was sweet of her, and I suppose she felt
it awfully.”

“Couldn’t you see for yourselves? Why, she scarcely ate any lunch, and
ran off to her room soon afterwards. Oh, for goodness’ sake,” added
Augusta, “don’t make a mystery out of nothing! She gave the bird
because the girl was ill and wanted it, and there the matter ends.”

Augusta ran off, and Kitty and Nora owned that they felt considerably
cheered.

When they saw Nancy next, Kitty ran up to her, kissed her, and said:

“We are neither of us angry now.”

“What do you mean?” answered Nancy.

“About the bird, you know.”

“But were you angry with me, Kitty?”

“Why, yes, Nancy; we both were a little. We gave it to you, you know,
and we had to save up a good bit to get a really nice one.”

“I forgot about that,” said Nancy.

“But you did quite right, Nancy,” said Nora; “and we are not a scrap
angry now. We are so glad that the little girl should have it; she
must have wanted it far more than you did. It was very brave of you to
give it to her, Nan, and we both love you more than ever.”

“But I didn’t give it to Grace to comfort her—not for a single
moment,” said Nancy; and then she stopped short and faced the two
little Richmond girls, and said emphatically: “Don’t let us talk any
more about Sunbeam, for if you do I shall break my heart. Oh, how you
do stare, Kitty! You look quite silly with your mouth open. Come, who
will race me to the end of the avenue?”

Away the three went, flying as if on the wings of the wind. They came
bang up against Captain Richmond, who was returning from his calls.

“Hullo!” he said. “Well won, Nancy; you are considerably ahead of the
others. Is it a race or what?”

The three were now all laughing heartily; but when she got back her
breath, Nancy’s face looked paler than its wont. The Captain noticed
it, and holding out his hand, clasped hers.

“Come here,” he said. “Are you fretting about your bird? What is
wrong?”

Tears filled Nancy’s eyes; she could not speak.

“Don’t question her, please, Uncle Pete,” said Kitty. “She has been
quite, quite darling and sweet about Sunbeam. But she must not be
questioned. Only if you stoop down I will tell you in a whisper.—Go
on, Nancy; walk on with Nora.”

“Please don’t talk about it,” said Nancy in an imploring voice; but
she took Nora’s hand and walked on in front.

“Stoop, Uncle Pete; she must not hear,” said Kitty. “She gave her
darling Sunbeam, whom she loves so passionately, to that little sick
girl in the wood—Grace Hammond—because the little girl wants the
bird more than she does.”

“Was that the reason? Oh, how pleased I am!” said the Captain.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

“IS WRONG RIGHT?”


The day arrived when Augusta was to go to the Cinderella dance at the
Asprays’. All her plans were made. She was to go unknown to her
family. She was to return equally unknown. As far as she was
concerned, not a single member of the Richmond family was ever to
discover this escapade.

How delicious the whole thing sounded! How she would enjoy herself!
She was to be daring and disobedient: she was to defy all the laws
which ruled her life. She was to slip away under cover of the
darkness, and come back again in the small hours, and no one was to
know. She was to wear her prettiest dress, and dance, and be merry;
and no one was to find out. And all the time she would pose as the best
of girls—the noblest member of Captain Richmond’s battalion—the
soldier who on the great day of the prize-giving would be presented
with the Royal Cross.

“Some day, perhaps, I will tell them,” she said to herself—“some
long, happy, delicious day in the future, when I have been to Paris
and got all my fun out of that; when I am engaged to a sort of prince,
when my trousseau is being made, when my wedding presents are
arriving. When life can scarcely present me with anything more, then,
_perhaps_, I will tell how I slipped out and went to a dance in
the dead of night, and came back, and no one ever found out. I will
tell then of my pleasure. But, oh, the present fun—the present fun!”

Now, for a long time Augusta had made up her mind that she would tell
her secret to no one; but on looking into matters she feared it would
be absolutely impossible for her to get back again into the house if
she had not a confederate. The right person to share it—the only one,
indeed, who could possibly help her—was Nan. Nan must make things
possible for her. She thought she knew a way of making her do this.

Accordingly, after breakfast on the auspicious day, Augusta called the
little girl into her room.

“Come here, Nancy,” she said. “Come close to me; I want to look at
you. Do you know that you are an extremely pretty girl? When you are
grown-up you will be very much better-looking than either Kitty or
Nora. I only wish I had a face like yours. Such splendid eyes, and such
thick hair, and—— Why, what is the matter?”

“Only I hate being flattered,” answered Nancy.

“Oh, as to that,” replied Augusta, giving her head a toss, “I am
the last person to flatter any one; but you are so strange, Nancy,
one doesn’t know how to take you. However, to the point. I am in
reality, although you don’t think it, your very good friend. I am
always taking your part—_always_, Nancy. Oh! it is useless for you to
shake your head and look so glum and obstinate; it is a fact. And
now—— Why, child, how you stare!”

“What do you want me to do, Augusta?” said Nan.

Augusta could not help bursting out laughing.

“What a cute young un it is!” she said. “You are quite right, Nancy
mine; I do require a little favour, which I hope you will grant—just
a tiny thing, Nancy. Will you grant it to your own poor Gussie who
loves you so much?”

“Tell me what it is, Augusta.”

“Oh, how downright we are! Well, listen; it is for your private ear,
little Nan. Your dear Augusta is disposed to have a bit of a
spree—just a tiny morsel of adventure on her own account—something
not a bit wrong, but something that no one in the house, except sweet
Nancy, is to know about. Will Nancy help Augusta, or will she not?”

“I would rather not, Gussie. I would rather not, really. I know it is
not right. I am so tired—oh, so dreadfully tired!—of doing naughty
things for you. Please don’t ask me; and please don’t do it,
Gussie—please, please don’t.”

Augusta laughed again.

“What a sweet, touching little plea!” she said. “But just too late, my
dear. Augusta is going to have her fun, and whether you help or not,
she intends to go through with it. You can make things easy for me,
and I shall get into no scrape, and be your humble and devoted servant
for ever after; or you can refuse, and I shall still do the naughty
thing—although, in that case, with a certain amount of risk. Will you
subject me to that, Nancy, when _you_ alone can make it quite
safe?”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” replied Nancy. “If you choose to be
very naughty, why should I be naughty too?”

“Oh darling, you are quaint; you really are the most _naïve_
creature I have ever come across. Now let me explain. I shall really
not be naughty at all. It is not as if my own father and mother or
Aunt Jessie were here. I owe no oath of fealty to that delightful
model, Uncle Peter; if he disapproves, that is his own lookout. In
short, Nancy, this is it (I will let the cat out of the bag): I want
to go to-night to a small dance—the most harmless, childish little
dance—at the Asprays’. Flora and I have arranged everything, and I am
to meet her at the other side of our wood. She drives me to their
house in a dogcart, and will bring me back again. And what I want you,
sweet Nancy, to do is to open the door for me—the hall door,
darling—yes, no less. I shall fling some gravel up to this
window—for you must sleep here to-night, Nancy—and when you hear it
you must patter, patter, patter downstairs on your ten little pink
toes and open the door for your darling, who will slip in and bless
you ever after.”

“I am not going to do it,” said Nancy. “It is very, very wicked
indeed, and I won’t do it.”

“Oh, come, how high and mighty we are!”

“I won’t do it, Gussie. I won’t tell, of course; but let me go,
please. I don’t want to be in the room with you. I don’t like you at
all, Augusta. I don’t want to have anything more to do with you.”

Nancy backed away; her eyes were full of fear. Augusta’s eyes flashed
with downright anger.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said, “whether you like me or not.
Before long now our dealings with each other will be at an end. But I
should like to keep in the good graces of the family till after
prize-day. Nancy, I could make it worth your while. You have done a
good many wrong things since you and I made each other’s acquaintance.
You have been unhappy about it. Do you remember that paper you made me
write, in which I promised to give you leave to tell your own story
when we got back to town?”

“Of course,” said Nancy, “I remember all about it; it is the comfort
of my life.”

“I thought so, and that is why I saved it for you.”

“_You_ saved it for _me_! _You!_ I have it myself in my desk in
my room.”

“Once that little desk was left open,” said Augusta, “and a bird of
the air came and informed somebody of the fact; and somebody, guided
by that mischievous little bird, went to see, and found that the
songster was right. Behold!”

As she spoke Augusta opened a drawer and took out a sheet of paper,
and held it high above Nancy’s head.

“Oh, how mean and dreadful you are!” said Nancy. “Give it back; give
it back.”

“Certainly—to-morrow morning, after you have let me in.”

“Gussie, what am I to do? I cannot”——

“Now listen. I will give this back to you to-morrow morning. I will do
more for you—to-morrow morning. You are in trouble about your bird
Sunbeam. The supposition all over the house is that you neglected
it—forgot its water and its seed—in short, that but for Miss Roy
your pretty bird would have died of starvation. Now, I can put that
right for you—to-morrow morning. And there is another thing. Has it
never occurred to you to wonder why Mrs. Richmond, who is no relation
at all, is so good—so very good—to you? I can tell you that story,
and I can also explain about something with regard to the Asprays
which will put you into such a comfortable position that you will
literally have two homes to choose from, having absolute and complete
right to live in either. Few girls are as lucky as that. You can hold
up your head very high, Nancy Esterleigh, after I have told you what I
shall tell you—to-morrow morning. Now, having had several little
escapades with your conscience, will you have one more—the last—and
so put yourself into such a position that the worries of the past need
be worries no longer?”

“Is it true that you can tell me all these things?” said Nancy.

“True as I am standing here.”

“All about Mrs. Richmond?”

“All about Mrs. Richmond.”

“And the true story about my darling, darling bird?”

“I can clear you as regards the charge of cruelty; is not that
sufficient? There, Nancy, you are yielding; I thought you were.”

“I don’t know whether I am yielding or not,” said Nancy, “_but_
you are tempting me;” and she ran across the room to the window. She
looked out. Kitty was going past with her apron full of corn; she was
about to feed the fowls in the farmyard. Seeing Nancy, she called out
to her:

“There is a fresh brood of the downiest and sweetest little chicks
out, Nancy; won’t you come and see them?”

“Yes,” called back Nancy; “in five minutes.”

“I will wait for you under the window if you will be quick,” cried
Kitty.

Nancy turned with an eager face to Augusta.

“Tell me exactly—exactly what you want me to do,” she said.

“Oh, you little duck, you darling!” said Augusta. “How happy you will
be this time to-morrow! And _how_ obliged to you I am!”

“Only tell me quick, Augusta.”

“Well, it is this, you little love—this, and this only. You must be
pretty loving to me to-day. You must, as it were, fawn on me, come
close to me after dinner and snuggle up to me, slip your hand inside
my arm, and all that sort of thing—you understand. And you are to say
to me before the others—Uncle Peter and all the rest—you are to say,
‘Gussie darling, _may I_ sleep with you to-night?’ And I am to
say ‘No;’ and you are to coax and coax me, and in the end I am to
yield. You are to do it in your very, very prettiest way, Nancy, and
the others are to hear you. Then, to-night I am going to pretend to
have a bit of a headache, and go to my room quite early. And you are
to say, ‘Poor Gussie, her head is bad; I think I will go and bathe it
with aromatic vinegar;’ and you are to slip up to my room, and you
need not come out again as far as the others are concerned. Then,
after I am gone, if any one comes to the door, you are to say, ‘Hush!
Gussie’s head is very bad;’ and of course the some one will go away.
And then, oh! you are not to sleep, for that would be fatal; you are
to lie awake thinking over the wonderful things I am going to tell you
to-morrow. And at about half-past twelve, or perhaps nearer one
o’clock, I will throw a little gravel up to the window; and then you
are to slip down, softly, softly, and open the door and let me in.
Afterwards we _will_ have a time. I will tell you about my
partners, and how much Mr. Archer, that distinguished American, admires
me; and I will even repeat to you the compliments they have made to
me. And then in the morning you will have your reward. This is simple
enough, isn’t it, Nan?”

“Yes,” said Nan.

“And you will do it, darling—you will do it?”

“Nancy, Nancy,” shouted Kitty from below, “the five minutes are up.”

“Yes, I’ll do it,” answered Nancy. “It is very wicked—awfully
wicked—but I’ll do it;” and she walked out of the room.

“How flushed your cheeks are, Nancy!” said Kitty when the little girl
joined her.

“Never mind, Kit,” answered Nancy in an almost cross tone for her.
“Come and let us look at the pretty chicks. I am so sick of being
flattered!”

“Has Augusta been doing that?”

“Oh yes—no—I mean I don’t know; but don’t let us bother about her.”

“You are getting quite fond of Gussie, aren’t you, Nan?”

Nan opened her eyes very wide. An emphatic “No” was on her lips, but
instead she said, “Yes—of course.”

They went to the farmyard and spent an hour of what was perfect bliss
to Kitty, examining the birds. Then they each occupied a hammock in
the garden. Kitty read a new story-book, and Nancy lay with her eyes
shut, thinking of the dreadful thing which had befallen her.

“I was wicked before,” she said to herself, “but never as wicked as I
shall be to-night. Oh, how I hate myself! But she has got my paper
which has her promise that I may tell. She can put things right about
my darling bird; and she can tell me the story which Mrs. Richmond has
promised to tell me some day. Oh! she has tempted me, and I will do
it; I must, for I am too miserable to stay any longer as I am.”

“Nancy,” said Uncle Peter’s voice at that moment, “will you come for a
walk with me? I want to go down to the seashore; will you be my
companion?”

“Won’t you go, Kitty?” asked Nancy, for the Captain’s society was by
no means to her taste just then.

“I can’t,” answered Kitty, “for I have promised to go to the village
with Miss Roy and Nora.”

“Do you refuse me?” asked the Captain, putting on his most quizzical
expression.

“No; of course not, Uncle Peter. I shall be delighted,” she answered.

He took her hand and helped her out of her hammock, and they were soon
going by their favourite walk in the woods to the seashore.

“How silent you are, Nancy! Are you not going to cheer me up and make
my walk pleasant?” asked Uncle Peter.

“I think I have a headache,” replied Nancy. “Anyhow, I feel rather
dull.” Then she looked suddenly up at the Captain, and said with eager
emphasis, “I know what I really want. I want to ask you a question.”

“Certainly, my dear little girl; what is it?”

“Will you answer it without thinking that it has anything to do with
me?”

“I will try, Nancy.”

The Captain’s eyes were dancing as he fixed them on Nancy’s flushed
face.

“Oh! please don’t look at me like that; it is just an ordinary
question. Perhaps I was reading a book and came to it; anyhow, that
explanation will do.”

“Yes, as a _preface_; now for the question.”

“Is it right,” said Nancy—“I mean, could a boy—say a boy, or perhaps
a girl, or a man, or a woman—could they, any of them, be put in the
sort of position that they must do wrong to make things come right?
Would it be possible?”

“I have never heard of the occasion where wrong could be put right by
that means,” said the Captain. “Can you give me an instance? Then,
perhaps, I could explain better.”

“No, I can’t give you any instance. I was just thinking about it.”

“And it has made you very grave.”

“It—oh no, it hasn’t made me grave.”

“Nancy, it has troubled you.”

“Please, Uncle Peter, I was telling you, you know, because of the
book.”

“The book of your heart, Nancy; why don’t you confide in me
altogether?”

“There is nothing to confide; _indeed_ there is not.”

“Only if you had known of such a case you would be quite happy?”

“I should be _happier_.”

“Then let me tell you quite frankly that I don’t think there is such a
case. When people do wrong they have got to turn round and do right in
future. But it is impossible, at least to my way of thinking, to do
further wrong in order to make the old wrong come right.”

“I see,” said Nancy. Her brow cleared; she took the Captain’s hand and
pressed it warmly. “I am very glad I belong to your battalion,” she
said—“very, very glad.”

“Has the fight been difficult, Nancy?”

“You don’t know—you will never know—— _Difficult_! Oh yes.”

“I am your captain, and again I say you ought to confide in me.”

“I will, whatever happens, when we go back to town. And thank you so
much, Uncle Peter!”

“You will be able to go on reading that book now with a sense of
satisfaction.”

“The book is the story of a fight,” said Nancy very slowly. “I think,”
she added, “the poor, mangled soldier won’t cave in to the enemy.”



CHAPTER XXIX.

DOWN BY THE WISTARIA.


Augusta came down to lunch in high spirits. All was going swimmingly.
She would have no difficulty now in carrying out her daring scheme.
The point of danger was practically passed. Nancy sat during lunch at
the same side as Augusta, so that astute young lady could not manage
to see her face; but after lunch the beginning of the little programme
which she had sketched out for Nancy’s benefit ought to have been
begun. The endearing words, the suggestion of the night to be spent
together, ought to be spoken. But immediately after the meal was over
Nancy jumped up and ran out of the room.

“Tiresome little thing, is she forgetting?” said Augusta to herself.
“Oh! perhaps it will do equally well at tea-time.”

But at tea-time Nancy was not there, and when Augusta inquired in
solicitous tones where the little favourite could have hidden herself,
Nora said:

“Oh! Nancy is not coming back to tea; she has gone for a walk in the
woods with Miss Roy. She has gone, I think, to see little Grace
Hammond, and to find out how her bird is.”

“Did you want her for anything?” asked Kitty.

“No,” replied Augusta crossly; “I just asked where she could be. I am
very fond of little Nancy.”

All Augusta’s plans had now to be rearranged. Having got over her
first wild anger against Nancy, she determined to ignore her, to do
exactly what she pleased in spite of her, and trust to the little
girl’s promise not to tell unless she were obliged to.

“Of course, she will never be obliged to,” said Augusta to herself; “I
shall take good care of that.”

She then sat down and thought over matters. Yes, there was nothing
whatever for it but to get out of her window, to climb down by the
wistaria, and at night to return the same way. She could not possibly
risk the chance of a window being open downstairs.

Fairleigh was an old-fashioned house, with shutters to all the lower
windows, which were fastened by iron bars. It was situated quite by
itself, and in a somewhat lonely part of the country, and these
precautions were considered advisable. Night after night the servants
closed the shutters and barred them, so there was no possible ingress
by any of the lower windows.

Augusta considered herself in luck to have a room practically in a
wing all by herself. She went to the window and looked down. Neither
Nora nor Kitty would have thought anything of descending to the ground
and climbing up again by the thick arm of the wistaria which ran all
round this part of the house. But Augusta was not athletic, and had
she been less set upon her evening’s amusement, she might have
hesitated at the peril of letting herself down and of returning again
by such romantic means.

“Nothing venture, nothing have,” however, and to go to the party she
was resolved. She went downstairs, saw Kitty, and said in a voice
which she rendered quite hollow:

“I am very ill indeed, Kitty; I have one of my desperate headaches. Do
say good-night to the others, and forget all about me until you see me
to-morrow morning.”

“Are you going to bed?” said Kitty. “It is not seven o’clock yet.”

“I must lie down; I cannot hold my head up another moment.”

“But can’t I do something for you? May I come and bathe your head,
Gussie? I should like to, really.”

“No, thanks,” replied Augusta. “I would far rather be alone; quiet is
all that I require. Don’t send me up anything to eat. Don’t have me
disturbed on any account whatever. Good-night, Kitty, and say
good-night to the others for me; what I want is quiet.”

“You do look bad,” said Kitty in an affectionate tone. She kissed her
cousin, and then ran into the grounds. Nora and Uncle Peter were
enjoying themselves under the shade of a big elm tree.

“I am so sorry about poor Augusta!” said Kitty.

“What about her?” said Uncle Peter.

“She has gone to bed with a bad headache; she says she is not to be
disturbed. Oh! there is Nancy.—Come right over here, Nancy, and tell
us about the bird.”

“The bird is quite well,” answered Nancy.

Her pretty face was pale, and there were big dark shadows under her
eyes. Uncle Peter stretched out his hand and made room for her to seat
herself near him.

“Has the wrong been put right?” he whispered.

She coloured and looked up at him.

“No,” she answered slowly, speaking almost into his ear. “But the
wrong is not _more_ wrong than it was this morning.”

“What a conundrum!” he said, with a laugh; but his laugh was uneasy,
and he looked seriously at the child.

“There is something more the matter with her than I had any idea of,”
was his thought.

“Augusta is ill,” here called out Kitty; “she has gone to her room,
and is not to be disturbed.”

Captain Richmond had his arm round Nancy, and he felt a shiver run
through her frame as Kitty uttered these words.

“What _can_ it all mean?” he said to himself.

Meanwhile Augusta upstairs, even the mere thought of a headache
forgotten, was getting ready for her party. She put on her prettiest
white dress; the idea of borrowing a dress from the Asprays was not to
be thought of for a moment. She tied a pale gold sash round her waist,
and arranged her hair simply. Finally, she encircled her round and
pretty throat with a single row of valuable pearls, and slipped a gold
bangle on her arm. Her dress was pretty and suitable, and she looked
well in it. She gazed at her own reflection in the glass with
complacency. As a rule she had very little colour, but it was mounting
now with a rich damask hue into each of her cheeks. Having attired
herself all but her dancing-shoes, her gloves, and her fan, she
slipped on her waterproof. This completely covered the white dress.
She buttoned it right down, put a cap on her head, and looked out. The
ground was about five-and-twenty feet away, but it seemed to Augusta
then to be quite at a giddy distance. For a careful climber there was
no difficulty in the descent. It was but to place a foot on one branch
after the other of the wistaria, which spread forth its branches to
within three feet of the ground, and the deed was done.

In order to make things more safe Augusta had tied a strong cord to
her window-sash; and then, the time being come and the home party all
in the house enjoying their supper, she locked her door, put out the
light, and began her descent. With the aid of the rope she was able to
manage it, and trembling very much, she finally reached the ground.

Were the moon to come out brightly, and were any one to walk round to
that part of the house, that person might observe the rope hanging
from the window, and the window itself a little open. But Augusta must
take her chance of that. The sky was clouded over, too; it would
probably rain before long. So much the better for her.

She ran quickly across the grounds and entered the woods. How dark and
solemn they were at this hour! Had she been less excited she might
even have felt a little bit afraid. But her excitement kept all
nervousness at bay.

She ran on and on. Once she stumbled upon the stump of a tree which
was sticking out of the ground. She fell and slightly grazed her arm,
jumped up again, and went on.

At last she had reached the farther entrance to the wood. Here Flora,
with the dogcart, ought to have met her; but there was no Flora and no
vehicle of any sort in sight. What was to be done? Was it possible
that Flora could have forgotten? Oh no, that would not be like her
friend.

Augusta stood still, panting slightly, and feeling, for the first
time, subdued and a little alarmed. Should she go back and give up all
her glorious fun for which she had risked so much, or should she go
forward?

The Asprays’ house was two miles away. She made up her mind to walk
there.

“Oh, how unkind of Flora—how horrid of her!” thought Augusta. “What
can—what can be the meaning of this? Well, I will get there somehow,
and shame her to her face.”

Accordingly, she started off to walk as fast as she could over the
dusty roads. It was nearly ten o’clock when she reached the Asprays’.
She was surprised to see no signs of festivity. A few lights were
burning in the drawing-room, and a few also in the dining-room. But
the place wore no air of expectancy or bustle or gaiety.

“What can it mean? Have I come on the wrong night?” thought Augusta.

She ran up the steps and sounded the front-door bell. In a moment the
butler threw open the door.

“Is Miss Flora in?” asked Augusta, in some wonder.

“Yes, miss; but——

“I want to see her. I must see her at once. Show me somewhere,” said
Augusta in peremptory tones.

“My mistress said, miss, no one was to come into the house, but”——

“Nonsense!” said Augusta. “I will see Miss Flora, and immediately.”

The man took Augusta into a small room on the ground floor, switched
on the light, and left her. In a minute or two Flora rushed in.

“Gussie,” she said, “how madly dangerous! What have you done it for?”

“What have you neglected me for?” said Augusta, opening her mackintosh
and revealing her pretty evening-dress. “What is the matter? This is
the night of your party, and you promised to meet me outside our wood.
You never came, and I have walked all the way; and, oh, I am so tired,
and so dreadfully frightened! What is it, Flo? What is wrong?”

“Then you never got my letter?” said Flora.

“Oh no; but please explain this mystery. I am so tired. Is not there a
party to-night? Oh, I have gone through such a lot to come! And now
what can this mean?”

“I am ever so sorry,” said Flora. “Mother would be quite mad if she
knew you had come into the house, Gussie. It is too late for the rest
of us, unfortunately; but for you”——

“Oh, what is it?”

“It is Constance. She is awfully ill—most fearfully, dangerously ill.
We have all been with her until this morning, and the doctor says the
whole house is infected. It is smallpox. Oh, isn’t it frightful?”

“Smallpox!” said Augusta.

She would not have feared scarlet-fever or diphtheria. But
smallpox—that ghastly disease which did not always kill, but which
took the lovely and the graceful and the gracious and defiled them;
which made the fair face hideous, destroyed the right proportions, and
stamped them for life!

Augusta, like every other girl in all the world, was afraid of
smallpox.

“How was it I never got your letter?” she said.

“It was only known this morning,” continued Flo. “Even last night we
did not think much about it. She was fearfully ill, of course, and I
slept in her room. But she is subject to bad feverish attacks, and we
hoped she would get well, and that we need not put off the party. The
doctor came early this morning; and—she is covered with it. Oh, it is
frightful! I have been vaccinated, and so has every one else in the
house. But the doctor says we have all run the gravest risk. There is
no use in our going away, however, for no one would take us in.”

“And is she—is she in danger?” Augusta cried, feeling a slight pang
of remorse as she remembered Constance’s delicate and lovely features.

“Oh, I don’t know. They say it is a very bad case; she is quite
delirious. Oh, it is awful! I saw her this morning, and I would not
have known her. I am awfully upset, and I feel sick with terror.
Gussie, you ought not to have come in.”

“Perhaps I had better go away,” said Augusta. “I am very sorry, of
course. It was a pity you didn’t let me have the letter.”

“Mother gave it to the groom to take to you, but I suppose in the
scare he forgot it. I will speak to him in the morning. Would you like
him to drive you back now, Gussie? But the dogcart is not quite safe,
for poor Constance drove in it the day before yesterday. She fainted
before we brought her home; that was the beginning of her illness.”

“I had better walk,” said Augusta. “Good-night.”

“Good-night. I won’t tell mother that you came, as she would be in
such an awful fright. But I hope you have not run any danger. Perhaps
you had better tell your doctor and be vaccinated at once.
Good-night—good-night.”

Augusta went away. She did not even turn to kiss Flora. She nodded to
her vaguely, as though she were not thinking about her, and walked
down the avenue. When she had gone down a little way she turned and
looked up at the windows of the room where the sick girl lay
struggling with death. She gave a shudder, and hurried her footsteps.

What an end to her mad adventure!

She was very tired, and all the excitement which had kept her up
during the past day was now merged into a great terror. What should
she do? Had she contracted infection in that terrible house? Ought she
to be vaccinated?

All her thoughts were for herself. She was more angry with Constance
than sorry for her. How severely that groom ought to be blamed for not
delivering the note!

It was after eleven o’clock when she got back to Fairleigh. Had things
turned out as she expected she would not have got back nearly so soon.
The house was in darkness except for a light in the library window.
The window was shut, and so were the shutters, but the light came out
on the gravel through one or two of the chinks.

Augusta knew that Captain Richmond was there. He generally stayed in
the library for an hour or so after the others had gone to bed. Just
for a moment a wild longing came over her to tell him what had
happened—to seek his advice. If she were infected, had she any right
to infect the others?

She must not attempt to go back to her room while Captain Richmond was
in the library, for the library was almost immediately under her room.

“What a nuisance his sitting up so late!” she thought.

She was too tired to walk another step. She sank down on a garden
seat, wrapped her mackintosh round her, and tried to think; but her
head was giddy, and her brain in a whirl. Her one and only desire was
to get back safely to her room—to fling herself on her bed and lose
consciousness in sleep.

Even the prize, the great and glorious prize, was as nothing to her
now. Even school in Paris seemed remote and uninteresting. Suppose she
sickened for smallpox. Suppose her face, so smooth and fair and
attractive-looking, was altered and made ugly. Suppose she—died.

“Oh, why doesn’t that horrid man go to bed?” thought the girl. She
jumped up and paced about on the grass. She had been too hot; she was
now too cold.

After a time, to her horror, she heard the shutters being unbarred.
The window opened, and Captain Richmond put out his head.

“Is anybody there?” he said. “I thought I heard some one speak. Is
anybody there?”

There was no answer.

Augusta, in terror, was hiding behind a bush of laurustinus.

[Illustration: Augusta in terror was hiding behind a bush of
laurustinus.]

“I must have fancied it,” thought the Captain,

He waited for another minute, then shut the window, refastened the
shutters, put out the light, and went up to his own room.

Augusta breathed a sigh of relief. Creeping carefully forward, she
reached the wistaria, and clutching the cord, began cautiously to
ascend. But if she had been nervous descending from her window, that
was nothing at all to her present feelings. She was thoroughly
unstrung, and very tired. When she had nearly reached the top she gave
a sudden lunge forward, missed the rope, and only saved herself by
clutching hold of the bare arm of a part of the vine.

In doing so she gave her wrist intolerable pain, and very nearly
fainted. But the danger in which she found herself steadied her nerves
sufficiently to enable her to make another great effort, and a moment
later she was safe inside her room.

“So much for stolen pleasures,” thought the miserable girl. “Here I am
back again, battered, torn—oh, how my wrist aches!—and having run
into the gravest danger of my whole life. But there! I must only hope
for the best. Now to untie the cord, put it carefully out of sight,
shut the window, take off my horrid, useless finery, and get into
bed.”



CHAPTER XXX.

AUGUSTA IS FRIGHTENED.


The next day Augusta’s wrist was considerably swollen, and she was in
such pain that when Miss Roy went to see her she immediately said the
doctor had better be sent for. Augusta herself was scarcely thinking
of her wrist.

“If I can only see the doctor by himself,” she thought, “and get him
to vaccinate me and say nothing about it. But that is quite
impossible. And yet, it certainly ought to be done.”

The girls were all very kind to Augusta, whose head ached, and who was
quite willing to remain in bed. But the one question on all the pairs
of lips was:

“How did you do it, Gussie? How did you give your wrist such an awful
sprain?”

“I did it shutting the window,” said Augusta, jumping at the first
excuse she could think of. “Oh, it is nothing; I shall get up
presently. It is not my wrist that I mind so much, but the headache I
had yesterday evening has not quite gone.”

The doctor came, and said the wrist was badly sprained. He bandaged it
carefully, and told Augusta she must wear her arm in a sling.

“How did you say you did it?” was his final remark.

“In shutting the window,” said Augusta. “I slipped somehow.”

The doctor made no reply, but he gave Augusta a somewhat searching
look.

“He doesn’t believe me,” thought the girl. “I wonder what he thinks I
have been up to. Have I really such a wicked look? For one who means
to win the Royal Cross that would never do. That dear, sanctimonious
Uncle Peter would scent mischief, and my chances would be over.”

Augusta put on a very mournful expression. The doctor took his leave,
assuring her that he would return on the following morning.

“I wish he were a nice, young, handsome doctor,” thought Augusta;
“then perhaps I could coax him to keep my secret for me, and to
vaccinate me without telling the others. But he is just the most
stupid sort—middle-aged and matter-of-fact.”

She lay back on her pillows, feeling exhausted and languid. She had
gone through a great deal more than she had any idea of herself on the
previous night.

The other girls took turn about to come and sit in her room. Nancy
came early in the afternoon. The day was hot and one of the windows
was wide open. Nancy sat with her elbows on the window-sill, and now
and then she looked out.

Augusta pretended to read a book; she did not care to talk to Nancy.
Presently the little girl’s voice sounded in her ear.

“You didn’t really sprain your wrist when you shut the window, did
you?” she asked.

“The less you know, Nancy, the better for you.” Augusta answered.

Nancy coloured, and shut her lips. Augusta again took up her book.

“What trash this is!” she said. “I do hate children’s books. Is there
nothing racy and lively in the house?”

“I will go to the library and look,” said Nancy.

“Get a novel—a good, rousing love story.”

“I don’t know what sort of books those are,” replied Nancy.

“Oh, you are too good to live, Nancy! You make me perfectly sick. Get
one of Mrs. Henry Wood’s books. I don’t much care for her, but she is
better than no one.”

Nancy left the room. She went down to the library and searched for a
long time, but could not find any of Mrs. Henry Wood’s novels, and was
returning again to Augusta’s room when she met the Captain.

“Whither away, Nancy?” he asked in a cheerful tone.

“I am sitting with Augusta,” answered Nancy. “She is better, but she
is not at all like herself. I wanted something exciting for her to
read.”

“Have you found what you wanted?”

“No.”

“Come back to the library and we will look together.”

They searched along the well-lined walls, and presently Nancy took
_King Solomon’s Mines_ up to Augusta.

“Little stupid! I have read it,” said Augusta; and she flung the book
with passion to the other side of the room.

“You will hurt your wrist if you are so rough,” said Nancy. She went
and stood by the window. She looked out, and suddenly made an
exclamation.

“Why, Gussie!” she cried.

“Well, what now?”

“How did you do—— Oh, I say! there is your gold bangle hanging on
one of the small branches of the wistaria—just half-way down. How
_did_ it get there?”

“Can it be seen?” asked Augusta.

“Seen!” answered Nancy. “Of course it can; it shines like anything.”

“Run down at once; go under my window and find out if you can see it
from below.”

“But I am sure I can. Why should I go?”

“Go to oblige me; and be quick, Nancy—be quick.”

Nancy went. She returned in a few minutes.

“It can be seen,” she said; “and very plainly, too.”

“Then you must manage to get it off that branch, Nancy. Do you hear?
You must.”

“I!” cried Nancy. “But how, Gussie? How am I to get down? It is ever
so many feet away.”

“You must climb down.”

“But I am afraid of climbing. I always get giddy when I look from any
height. I daren’t do it, Gussie; I should fall on my head and get
killed.”

“You really are the most tiresome child,” said Augusta. “Here, stand
out of my way. Let me look for myself.”

Augusta got out of bed, and peeped over the window-sill.

“How very awkward!” she said. “How could it have got there? It must
have dropped from my arm last night when I went to look out.”

“Just before you shut the window?” said Nancy.

“Well, yes. Do you think any one will believe that story?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Nancy after a moment’s pause.

Augusta laughed. “Goosey, goosey, gander!” she said. “I might have
known that you were not quite such a goose as all that. Now, could we
not hook it up with an umbrella handle? Do let’s try.”

Both girls tried, but in vain.

“There is nothing for it, Nancy, but to get the gardener to bring a
ladder. You must point it out to him, and ask him to take it down.
Where is the gardener to-day?”

“I don’t know,” replied Nancy. “I have not seen him.”

“Well, you must go and look for him. What are the rest of them doing?”

“We are all going to have tea in the woods.”

“And leave me! How unkind!”

“Miss Roy said she would sit with you.”

“No, Nancy; she must not. You will have to stay with me. Do you hear?
You must make up some sort of excuse, and then when they are all away
we will ask the gardener to get us back the bracelet. Do you hear,
Nancy? You must do it. I should get into the most horrible scrape
otherwise; and after the way you deserted me last night it is the very
least you can do.”

“Very well,” said Nancy in a low tone. “But I did want to go to the
woods,” she murmured under her breath.

“I know you are to be trusted,” said Augusta. “And now I think I may
have a few minutes’ sleep. You can wake me when tea arrives.”

Nancy went downstairs and told the others that she intended to stay
with Augusta. Miss Roy exclaimed:

“My dear, you are looking quite pale. I often feel anxious about you.
You want the air. You have been with Augusta for ever so long to-day.”

“Indeed, I would rather stay,” answered Nancy; and she coloured so
painfully, and there was such an eager, supplicating glance in her
eyes, that Miss Roy said nothing further.

“What a dear, sweet, unselfish little soul she is!” thought Captain
Richmond. He was disappointed not to have her company in the woods;
but as he passed her side he patted her on the shoulder.

“I can quite understand that the brave soldier sometimes denies
himself,” he said.

A lump came into Nancy’s throat, but she made no reply.

The party went off, carrying a kettle and a tea-basket. Their voices
faded away in the distance, and Nancy went up to Augusta.

“They have gone; I have heard them,” cried Augusta. “Now fetch the
gardener, and be very, very quick.”

Nancy went downstairs. She raced all over the place, and at last she
found Simpson, the very worthy old gardener whom Mrs. Richmond always
employed.

“Can you come with a ladder, and can you come at once?” asked the
little girl.

“Well now, miss, I am particular busy to-day,” was Simpson’s answer;
“but if so be as you want me very bad, why, I’ll do what I can for
you, miss. But if it is for that other young lady——”

“Is it for the other young lady, miss?”

“It is for me, because I want to help her,” said Nancy. “She has
dropped a bracelet—a gold bangle—into the wistaria which grows up to
her window.”

“Oh! I know that wistaria,” said Simpson, with a laugh. “It is a good,
steady sort of tree, and afore now it has been made useful. Well,
missy, if Miss Augusta has dropped her bangle into the wistaria it can
wait till to-night. I need not lug a ladder all that way in the midst
of my other work.”

“Oh! she wants you to come _now_; she does indeed, Simpson.”

“Then I must go,” replied the old man; and presently he and his ladder
appeared under the window of Augusta’s room. Augusta had partly
dressed, and stood by the window giving directions. When the bangle
was handed in to her she seized it, but not very graciously.

“Here,” she said to Simpson, “is a shilling; and I am much obliged to
you. You will never speak of it, of course; it is _quite_ a
private matter, and you must never on any account tell.”

“I ain’t likely to tell what don’t concern me,” replied Simpson—“that
is, I don’t tell unless I am arsked. But as to your shilling, miss,
you can keep it, for I don’t want none of it.”

[Illustration: “As to your shilling, miss, you can keep it, for I
don’t want none of it.”]

He stepped down from the ladder and moved slowly away.

“What a horrid, impertinent old man!” said Augusta when he had
gone. “But there! the bangle is all right. Put it into my jewellery
drawer, Nancy. Oh dear! I wonder, Nancy, if you have ever felt
frightened—scared, you know.”

“Yes; once I did,” replied Nancy.

“Did you? Oh! I wish you would tell me about it. It would interest me;
it would be as good as a novel.”

“It was when mother was alive,” said Nancy. “The doctor said she was
very ill, that she might be dead in the morning. She did not
die—not—not then; but I spent an awful night. Yes, I was scared.”

“I don’t think the account of your being scared sounds very
fascinating, Nancy,” said Augusta. “It is not like my scare.”

“But are you scared about something?”

“Yes; I have had a great and terrible scare.”

“Won’t you tell me?”

“Not yet; I will some time, but not yet. I think I’ll get up now; I am
much better. Come, help me into my dress. We will both be downstairs
when they come back from the woods.”

Nancy helped Augusta to dress, and the two girls went downstairs.

The party from the woods returned about eight o’clock. They were all
excited, and brimful of news. Miss Roy was the first to speak of it.

“How lucky,” she said—“how very, very lucky it is that Mrs. Richmond
has forbidden you girls to have anything to do with the Asprays!”

“Why?” asked Nancy.

“My dear, a terrible—most terrible—thing has happened. That poor,
pretty girl Constance is down with malignant smallpox. She is terribly
ill, and the doctors say not likely to recover. The doctors are
terribly anxious, and they have sent for a specialist from town.”

“How did you hear it?” asked Augusta. She was standing in the shadow,
and as she spoke she pulled Nancy towards her.

“Keep quiet,” she whispered in her ear.—“How did you hear it, Miss
Roy?” she repeated; and she fixed her eyes, bold and restless, on the
governess’s face.

“Some friends of ours passed through the woods, and they told us,” she
answered. “How terrible it all is! I only wish we could help them,
poor creatures, but that is not to be thought of. They say the whole
family are liable to catch it, as the unfortunate girl was with them
during the first stage of the disease. There is no more fearful
disease than smallpox. I almost wonder, girls, if your mother would
like you to remain here.”

“Oh! the girls are perfectly safe at Fairleigh,” said the Captain. “I
can take it upon myself to say that. But it may be better for them not
to go into the town until we find out how the poor girl got the
complaint.”

“Nancy, I am not quite well; will you help me back to my room?”
Augusta tottered as she spoke, and fell into a chair which stood near.

Both Kitty and Nora rushed up to her, and Miss Roy went to the
sideboard and fetched a glass of wine.

“Your wrist has hurt you very much, dear,” she said. “You ought not to
have come down. What a very excellent thing that you have not been
near the Asprays for a long time! It is quite a fortnight since you
saw any of them.”

“Oh, quite—quite!” answered Augusta.

“And now, as you suggested,” said Miss Roy, “you had better go to your
room.—Kitty, you go with your cousin. Nancy ought to have a run in
the fresh air before night.”

“No; I want Nancy. I can’t—I won’t have any one else,” said Augusta.

“And I don’t want to go out, really,” said Nancy, looking full at Miss
Roy as she spoke.

The two girls left the room and went upstairs.

The moment they got to her room Augusta said, “Lock the door, Nancy;
lock it, and come over close to me. Take my hands in yours. Feel how
cold I am. Feel how I tremble.”

“Yes—yes; I know,” said Nancy.

“And you know also about my terror—my scare?”

“Yes; I think so. But, Gussie, _were_ you there last night?”

“Yes; in the house—the very house. I saw Flora, and Flora had slept
in the room with Connie the night before; and they said I ought not to
have come in, but I went. Oh! I am sure I am infected, and if I get it
I shall die. Oh Nan! I am sick with terror—sick with terror.”

“You must tell,” said Nancy. “You must tell Uncle Peter and Miss Roy
at once. I know they will forgive you and be sorry for you; but,
Augusta, you must tell.”

“Tell!” said Augusta. “You little horror, if you let it out, I don’t
know what I shall not do to you. Of course I won’t tell; why should I?
Tell! Why, that would mean no Paris, no Royal Cross. It would mean
disgrace; it would mean ruin. I am _never_ going to tell.”

“But suppose you get smallpox.”

“Will telling save me?”

“But it will save the others. You ought not to be with them. You may
give it to Kitty and Nora.”

“And to Nancy. Now I know why Nancy is so anxious that I should make a
confession. But I won’t tell; and you must not tell. Now sit close to
me, and let us think. It is a real comfort to have you to confide in.
There! put your arms round my neck and hug me. Oh dear, how miserable
I am!”

Augusta was so really wretched, and so genuinely terrified, that Nancy
could not but pity her. It was impossible to be cross in the midst of
such agony; and when Augusta crept close to the little girl, and
squeezed her tight, and laid her head on her shoulder, Nancy found
herself, in spite of everything, returning her embrace.

“You are a nice little thing,” said Augusta—“so soft and petable.
You don’t know how you comfort me and help me to bear up. What I
really ought to do is to be vaccinated. Dr Earle ought to vaccinate
me, but I am afraid to speak to him.”

“He certainly would tell the others,” said Nancy; “and,” she added, “I
must, of course, tell them. You know, Gussie, it would be very,
_very_ wrong of me to keep this a secret.”

Augusta sat still, thinking hard. Notwithstanding her softness and
gentle appearance, she knew well that Nancy could be obstinate. She
could be firm; she could be valiant for the truth. Augusta had proved
all that the day before when the little girl had refused to help her
in her escapade; so she tried to consider the best possible means of
securing poor Nancy’s silence by guile.

“After all, now that I come to think of it, there would be no use in
my being vaccinated,” she said.

“Why?” Nancy asked. “I thought it was considered a sort of safeguard.”

“Yes; but I was done two years back, and I didn’t take it. The doctor
did me twice, and I didn’t take it either time, and he said that
proved I was not liable to smallpox. What a good thing I remembered! I
am not half so frightened now, for our clever doctor at home must have
known what he was talking about. Don’t you think his opinion worth
having, Nancy?”

“Yes; it comforts me too,” said Nancy. “But still, I am sure you ought
to tell.”

“Now, why, you little goose? Do consider and be sensible, Nan. Oh, you
must squeeze your arms round my neck again; I do so love to feel them!
You know I am deeply attached to you, Nancy. I never mean to let you
go out of my life—never.”

“Oh!” answered Nancy.

“And you love me too; don’t you, little darling?”

“I—I _pity_ you,” said Nancy, her voice trembling.

“Well, well! pity is akin to love. But now to the point at issue.
Remember what my doctor said. I am almost sure I shall not take the
smallpox, and there would be no use in vaccinating me, for I certainly
should not take that; so what would be the good of frightening every
one? Think of the awful fortnight they would have, not being certain
any moment whether I should get ill or not.”

“Yes, but Nora and Kitty could go away.”

“Where would be the use of that? I cannot infect them unless I get it.
The clothes I wore when I was with Flora are hanging up in my
cupboard. I have nothing on me that I wore then. Nancy, do believe
that I am wiser than you. It would be cruel to frighten them all. I
will tell them _afterwards_—yes, I will tell them afterwards,
when the fortnight is past, when the danger is over; and meanwhile, if
you will only be silent, I will do everything for you that I promised
to do if you had helped me last night. Think what that means: the
paper I robbed you of returned; and all the story of your past life
explained. What a time we shall have together! And how wise you will
be when you know the truth!”

“And my bird—my darling Sunbeam?” whispered Nancy.

“Perhaps I will tell about that too. I am awfully sorry about it. But,
anyhow, you shall know the two other things, and we will be a good bit
together for the next few days. Nancy, the moment I feel ill, the
least little scrap ill, with a headache or anything, I will go away to
my room, and no one shall see me but you. You are not nervous about
yourself, are you?”

“Not a scrap,” answered Nancy.

“You promise that you will not tell?”

“Oh, I suppose it is frightfully wrong—I am almost sure it is
frightfully wrong—but you do tempt me; and if what you say is quite
true—I mean about the vaccination—perhaps it would do no good to
tell.”

“But I’ll tell you what you can do. Now that Miss Roy knows about
Connie, you can put it into her head to have the rest of you
vaccinated. Oh, my dear Nancy, I feel quite happy at last.”

So Nancy yielded. She was sorry enough afterwards, but she yielded,
being compelled by Augusta’s entreaties, by the look in her eyes, and
the tempting bait she held up for her acceptance.

That night Nancy was in possession of some important pieces of
information. She knew exactly the position she held with regard to the
Asprays. She could claim the Asprays’ house as her home by right at
any moment. She could leave Mrs. Richmond, and go to Mr. Aspray and say,
“You owed my father money, and now I have come to you, and you are
bound by your own solemn promise to my father to take me and provide
for me. This is my _right_, and I owe nothing to you, because my
father helped you with a large sum of money.”

This was the news that Nancy was told by Augusta, but she took good
care not to enlighten the little girl as to how she came by the
information, Nancy listened with flushed cheeks and shining eyes; and
presently, tired out, she went away to bed.

“I suppose I ought to be glad,” she thought as she laid her head on
her pillow; “but I am not glad, for I can never consider the Asprays’
house my own. And, yes—oh yes—I would _rather_ be Mrs.
Richmond’s little charity-girl than be the grandest girl in the world
as Mr. Aspray’s adopted daughter.”

This news kept her from thinking so much about the smallpox, and about
the danger which Augusta had run.

“Nan,” said Kitty as she tumbled into bed, “how hot your face is! You
tire yourself over Gussie.”

“Oh, I am all right,” said Nancy.

“Isn’t it a good thing,” said Nora, “that Augusta has not been so much
with the Asprays? She might have got into most awful danger; but, as
it is, all is safe.”

Nancy was silent, and Kitty gave her a very earnest glance.

“You know something, and you are not going to tell us,” she said
abruptly.

“I wish you would not question me. I have a headache,” pleaded Nancy.

“Well, no, we won’t. Gussie could not have been so awfully, awfully
wicked as to disobey Uncle Peter. We do know that she might be guilty
of tiny sins, but a great monstrous one like that—oh, it is
impossible! Now, Nan, get into bed and get your headache well. Oh,
what a pity you were not downstairs to-night! We were discussing all
about prize-day. Uncle Peter has arranged that it comes off on
Thursday week—that is, in about ten days from now. Oh, it will be a
day and a half, I can tell you!”



CHAPTER XXXI.

UNCLE PETER’S CONSIDERING CAP.


Certainly prize-day was to lose no outward manifestation of its great
importance. A telegram had arrived from Mrs. Richmond announcing her
safe arrival at the Cape. But when she would be back again was quite
uncertain.

The girls, however, determined to have a right good time in her
absence; and in this they were aided and abetted by the Captain, who,
for all his moral qualities, enjoyed a lark with the best.

So far as the special prizes went, they were to be bestowed upon the
successful candidates in private. “For our battalion is more or less a
secret one,” said the Captain. “We fight, you know, against
_invisible_ foes, against the powers of the air, so to speak, and
we don’t want _visible_ people—acquaintances, and so on—to
behold us either in our defeat or victory. I propose that the prizes
should wind up the day, when all the guests have gone, and the dance
is over, and the fun is at an end. Then will come the crowning event,
after which all must necessarily be bathos.”

The girls willingly agreed, and preparations were set on foot for the
festival. Captain Richmond decided that the early part of the day
should be given up to the poor people of the neighbourhood. There
should be a dinner on the lawn, followed by games and tea. Several
prizes for feats of skill were to be offered, and the usual amusements
provided.

Captain Richmond, who came down to Fairleigh almost every year,
belonged to a workmen’s club and a boys’ cricket club, and was
consequently well known by most of the people in the place.
Invitations were sent out to quite a hundred poor people, and very
busy were the Fairleigh servants preparing for the work which lay
before them. For visitors were also to arrive in the afternoon—the
several young folks whom the Richmonds happened to know. They were to
help to entertain the poor people, who were expected to take their
departure at six o’clock. Then would follow a dance in the great
drawing-room, ending by supper. Supper would usher in the departure of
the guests, and after that the successful winner of the Royal Cross
would be decorated with her great honour. This was the plan, and great
delight did it cause among the young people.

Augusta was now as gay as the others. She had forgotten all possible
danger, and except that she avoided speaking of the Asprays, turning a
little white when the subject of Connie’s terrible illness was
broached, she certainly looked as if nothing ailed her. She was quite
in her element making preparations for the great prize-day, and proved
a most useful, clever, and efficient mistress of the ceremonies; for,
being the eldest girl, Captain Richmond was forced to put her into
this position. Neither Kitty nor Nora wished for it; and as to Nancy,
she was of course quite out of the running.

“We must have new dresses for the dance,” said Augusta. “We ought to
send to town for them.”

“As to that,” replied Captain Richmond, “you must please yourselves,
girls. I never did know anything about dress; but it seems to me that
all girls look much alike—that is, as far as their dress is
concerned. Oh yes, put on something white and feathery-looking; that
is the correct thing, is it not?”

“Uncle Pete, you are quite too killing!” said Gussie; and she laughed
with great enjoyment. That afternoon she sent a long letter to her
mother’s dressmaker in town, the result of which was that an
interesting and mysterious-looking box arrived for her on the day
before the dance. It was taken straight up to her room, and she
invited the three other girls and Miss Roy to come and witness the
unpacking.

“I just do _adore_ finery,” said Gussie. “I don’t pretend for a
moment that I am made any other way. I revel in pretty things. No one
could ever give me too much dress or too many fine feathers. Now
then”——

The cord of the box was removed, the lid was lifted, and between folds
of tissue-paper a beautiful white silk, soft as quantities of delicate
lace and chiffon could make it, was unfolded.

“Isn’t it just too sweet?” said Gussie. “Fancy me in it. I wish I were
quite grown-up so that I might have a train. Well, I shall be grownup
in two years’ time. Two years don’t take _very_ long to run—do
they, Miss Roy?”

“Not when you get as old as I am,” said Miss Roy; “but at your age
they go somewhat slowly. Yes, it is a pretty frock, but, in my
opinion, a little too dressy for the occasion.—My dear Nora and Kitty
and Nancy, you will look very countrified beside Augusta.”

“Oh, we don’t mind,” said Nora, with a laugh.

“In fact,” said Kitty, “we would rather wear plain washing frocks,
which can just be put into the tub and come out as fresh as ever.”

“Sour grapes,” said Augusta. “Now, Nancy here would like a dress of
this sort.—Wouldn’t you, Nancy?”

“Yes—very much,” replied Nancy.

Miss Roy gave her a critical and somewhat surprised glance.

“I didn’t know that you cared about fine clothes, Nancy,” she said.

“Not always; but I should have liked a dress like Augusta’s for
to-morrow. All the same,” she added, “I am not going to be unhappy
about it.”

“Put your dress back, dear,” said Miss Roy. “I am glad you are
pleased. And now let us go downstairs. You know, my dears, the news
about poor Connie Aspray is very serious indeed. She was so ill last
night that she was not expected to live. If anything were to happen to
her, our party to-morrow could scarcely take place. However, we must
hope for the best.—Augusta, you are looking very white and tired; you
won’t be good for anything unless you go to bed soon. Now come down;
Uncle Peter is waiting for his supper.”

After supper that night Kitty ran up to Nora and began to whisper to
her. Nora looked excited, and nodded her head once or twice. The end
of the little girls’ confab was a sudden rushing of two eager pairs of
feet all over the grounds looking for Uncle Peter. Eventually the
Captain was discovered, smoking by himself in an arbour at one end of
the grounds.

“We knew you by the glow-worm in your mouth,” said Nora, with a peal
of laughter. “And now we want you to do something for us—oh, so very,
very badly!”

“Well, come, young monkeys,” said the Captain, making room for a
niece to sit on each side of him. “Now then, what is the news? Oh, how
your eager, silly little hearts beat! What is up, young-uns?”

“It is about Nan,” said Nora. “You know, Uncle Pete, that there never
was a little girl less vain than Nancy.”

“My dear child, I am quite willing to believe you; but why should
Nancy be vain?”

“Oh, you know she is sweetly pretty.”

“She is,” said the Captain; “she has quite a charming face.”

“And we want her to look the very prettiest girl in the room to-morrow
night. Augusta has such a grand frock, sent all the way from London—a
flounced and billowed and chiffoned dress, Uncle Pete—and she is so
conceited about it; and to-night, when we were looking at it, Nancy
said she would like a frock like that. Poor darling! we were rather
surprised—though, after all, it did seem quite natural. And, Uncle
Pete, we want her to have one; and, Uncle Pete, _can_ you manage
it?”

“Good gracious, my dear child! I know nothing about clothes.”

“Oh, couldn’t you go to town and see what the very grandest shop
has—ready-made, you know? Surely there must be something that Nan
could wear.”

“But to-morrow is the day of the festival. Even if I started now to
London I could not be back in time.”

“But couldn’t you go to Exeter? You could get to Exeter in an hour and
a half.”

“And find all the shops shut, Nora.”

“Couldn’t you take the very earliest train tomorrow morning and get
back in time?”

“I could, of course, only what state should I find this place in
here?”

“Oh! we will see to that. We will do every single thing in your
absence.”

“What devoted little friends Nan has!”

“Of course we are devoted to our darling; who would not be?” said
Nora.

“It would be so lovely to see Gussie coming in all bows and smiles and
curtsies, and with that sort of affected way she has, and then Nancy
dancing in in her pretty dress, looking more beautiful than Gussie
could ever look!” said Kitty.

“Really, Kitty, you can be quite eloquent when you please,” said the
Captain. “Well, leave the matter to me.”

“You will do it, Uncle Peter; and you will manage the money part?”

“Oh yes, child; I will manage the money part.”

“Well then, good-night, _dear_ Uncle Peter; we must be going to
bed.”

They tripped off through the darkness; and the Captain put on his
considering cap with a vengeance.



CHAPTER XXXII.

THE BEGINNING OF THE SHADOW.


The day of the party dawned on the world as sunshiny as day could
dawn. The fierce heat of the sun was tempered by just the right amount
of breeze. The sultry weather of the past ten days had given place to
a fresher and clearer atmosphere. All the world ought to have been in
the best of spirits on such a glorious day in early autumn.

About eleven o’clock Captain Richmond appeared on the scene, carrying
a square box in his hand. He entered the library, where Miss Roy
happened to be alone.

Miss Roy’s face was preternaturally grave, and when she saw the
Captain she uttered an exclamation of relief.

“I am so glad you have come!” she said. “I want to speak to you
badly.”

“What is it?” asked Captain Richmond.

“Will you shut the door and turn the key? I don’t want any of the
children to overhear us.”

“Where are the children?” asked Captain Richmond.

“Busy all over the place—busy as you might expect such little bees to
be on such an occasion. Oh, but I forgot! Gussie is lying down; she
has a slight headache and pain in her back.”

“Augusta doesn’t seem too strong,” said the Captain. “I have heard of
several headaches lately.”

“She is a very queer girl, and I don’t understand her,” said Miss Roy.

“After all, Miss Roy,” said the Captain, “she must be a very good
girl, for beyond doubt she will be the happy possessor of the Royal
Cross to-night.”

“You don’t say so! I am amazed!” answered the governess.

“To tell the truth, I am amazed myself, and a little disappointed. It
is wrong to say it, but I am. Still, there is no question with regard
to the matter. Augusta is the only one of the little battalion who has
not had a single bad mark for conduct.”

“I am sure poor Nora and Kitty have tried their best,” said Miss Roy,
standing up for her pupils, as was natural.

“Just so. I am sure you are right. Nevertheless, the poor mites have
little gray marks for carelessness, untidiness, forgetfulness,
registered against them on several occasions.”

“Yes,” said Miss Roy, “that is true. I have entered those marks
myself, and regret having had to do so.”

“What else could you do?” said the Captain. “If there was anything in
my little scheme, absolute truth and justice were essential.”

“What about Nancy?” said Miss Roy, fixing her eyes on the Captain’s
face.

“Nancy!” said the Captain. “Don’t you remember?”

“Remember? Oh yes! Could I forget? But I had hoped”——

“What, my dear lady?”

“That some explanation had been arrived at. How is it possible to
credit a child like Nancy with cruelty?”

But then Miss Roy recalled the incident of the starving canary, and
her voice faltered as she spoke.

“There is no explanation,” said Captain Richmond. “I feel nearly wild
about it, I assure you. I have thought over the matter until my head
ached; but the entry was made by my sister-in-law, a woman who does
not make mistakes. It is impossible there could be anything wrong in
the entry. What Nancy did we don’t know, but that mark takes away even
the remotest chance of her winning the Royal Cross.”

“Then you will tell her,” said Miss Roy; “you will at least give her a
chance of explaining, if any explanation is possible?”

“Yes; I shall have to speak of it at the time. It will be a painful
moment, but it is only just to the little girl.”

“I feel certain,” said Miss Roy, “that Nancy will be able to put
matters right.”

But then again she thought of the canary, and once again her speech
seemed to choke her.

“You must not worry about it,” said Captain Richmond. “And now,” he
added in a good-natured tone, “can I do anything for you? Pray command
me.”

“There is something I must speak to you about, Captain
Richmond—something very serious and painful. I cannot tell you how
grieved I am that such bad news should reach us on this auspicious
day. I think it will be our duty to keep what I am about to
communicate from the young people. Let them have one day of pleasure
at any rate. But the fact is, poor Constance Aspray is not expected to
live out the day, and a servant in the house has now developed
smallpox.”

“Indeed!” said the Captain. “How terrible!”

“We cannot put off our guests now,” said Miss Roy; “nor would it be
wise. Any kind of panic at such a time would be sure to make the
mischief worse. There have been a few other cases in the village, and
although they have been removed to hospital at once, yet it would
certainly be best for us to leave here to-morrow morning. I should not
feel I was fulfilling my duty to Mrs. Richmond if I allowed the
children to run any further risk.”

“Very well,” said the Captain, “you must do as you think best. Only
let them all be happy for this day at least.”

He was about to leave the room, when he turned suddenly:

“Could you have this box conveyed to Nancy’s bedroom?” he said. “There
is a little surprise within for her; and I only wish I were able to
give her the Royal Cross to-night.”

Miss Roy promised to attend to Captain Richmond’s request, and the
young man left the house.

Outside, Kitty, Nora, and Nancy were rushing wildly about, arranging
benches, seeing to the best position for garden chairs, and helping
here, there, and everywhere. They rushed to the Captain with glad
welcomes, and he was soon as busy as the rest making preparations for
the evening.

Lunch was extra early that day, in order to have everything in
readiness for the advent of the poor people early in the afternoon.

Nancy and the other two girls went up to their rooms, and soon a
shriek from Nancy brought Kitty and Nora running to her bedroom.

“Oh, is it a fairy—is it—is it? I don’t know whether I am on my head
or on my heels,” cried the little girl; “but such a darling, such a
beauty! Oh, isn’t it just sweet? Who gave it to me? Kitty, it can’t be
true; it must be meant for some other little girl.”

“No, it isn’t. See what is written on that piece of paper,” said
Kitty, whose face was red and her eyes dancing with joy. “See for
yourself, Nancy; see for yourself.”

Nancy read the following words on a little white card:

“From a genie to a good fairy, with compliments.”

“Oh, it is quite mysterious!” said Nancy. “But are you certain that I
am the good fairy?”

“Certain—positive,” said Kitty. “Why, I could not wear that dress; it
is a great deal too small. What a figure of fun I should look with my
long legs! But it will suit you, Nancy, to perfection. I knew
that”——

“Hush, Kitty!” said Nora.

“You are hiding something from me,” said Nancy.

“Nothing—nothing, truly: but do let us examine it. Is it not
wonderful to have a genie for a friend?”

“What is a genie?” said Nancy.

“A sort of grown-up fairy—better than a fairy, because he is
stronger, and he is quite grownup, you know. And if a little girl has
a genie for a friend, why, anything may happen to her. She might ask
for anything and she would probably get it. And, oh, what sweet little
shoes! And the stockings! Well done, Unc”——

“Kitty, you are quite incorrigible,” said Nora. “But there, Nan! you
are in luck; the dress is yours, and you are to wear it to-night. Now
do come, Kit, for if we don’t hurry we shall be late for lunch.”

Nancy folded the pretty frock and put it into its box. Kitty’s words
had enlightened her: Uncle Pete was the genie; and, of course, she was
the good little fairy.

“But am I a good fairy?” thought the child. “Oh, if he only knew! And
if he could only guess how my heart aches—often, often. I know I have
no chance of the Royal Cross to-night. I wonder who will get it.
Gussie hopes that she will. Perhaps she will, for she is so clever; no
one guesses when Gussie does wrong things—no one but me. Oh, how
unhappy she has made my life! Well, I must go to her now. I must find
out if her head is any better.”

Nan flew along the corridors, and soon reached Augusta’s room, opened
the door without knocking, and went in.

Augusta was lying in an uneasy doze, and her face was considerably
flushed.

“It is lunch-time,” said Nan; “aren’t you coming down?”

“No,” said Augusta; “I could not eat anything.”

“Are you ill?” asked Nancy in a low, terror-stricken whisper.

“No, I am not a bit ill,” said Augusta; “but I have got one of my
stupid headaches. Don’t look so scared, child. Come here, close to me,
Nan.”

“Yes,” said Nancy; and she went to Augusta’s side and bent over her.
“You are hot, Gussie; and, oh dear, how your face burns!”

“I always get hot like that when I have these stupid headaches; but it
is better. I don’t feel it when I am lying down. Nancy, has there been
any news from the Asprays?”

“I have not heard of any,” said Nancy.

“Oh, what a relief”——

“We would have heard if—if the worst——” said Nancy.

“Oh, of course; but don’t let as think any more about them,” said
Augusta. “And I am not a bit ill, really. Tell them all I am coming
down this afternoon, but I shall stay quiet until then.”

“But won’t you have anything to eat, Gussie?”

“No, no; nothing. I could not touch a morsel. Go away now; there’s a
good child.”

“Do you know, Gussie, Uncle Pete—a good genie, I mean—has brought
me such a lovely frock; very like yours, only, I think, nicer. It was
in a box, and the box was on my bed. I have just unfastened it and
looked at the frock. But isn’t it just too sweet of him?”

“Yes,” said Augusta. “Then there will be two of us to look pretty
to-night.”

“I want to look very, very pretty,” said Nancy, “just to show Uncle
Pete how grateful I am to him.”

“Well, don’t chat any more now; your silly talk makes my head worse
than ever. Run away now. Only listen; if there is any worse news, be
sure you let me know.”

“Yes,” said Nancy; and she left the room.

Augusta tossed from side to side of her bed. Troubled thoughts were
visiting her. A fear, grave and mighty, was lying dormant in her
breast; very little would make it start into full growth. She sat up
presently and pushed the thick hair from her brows.

One of the housemaids came in, and started when she saw Augusta; then
coming forward, she said in a tone of commiseration:

“Oh, Miss Gussie! I didn’t know you were here. And you do look bad,
miss. Is there much the matter?”

“Only a stupid headache,” said Augusta. “It will be all right
presently. I shall come down to have my fun when those tiresome poor
people have gone; I am not going before.”

“We are all going to have a lark,” said the girl, who saw no reason
for being extra respectful to Augusta, who was no favourite with the
servants. “There are a lot of them coming; but Gaffer Jones can’t, nor
can old Tilbury.”

“Who are they? And why can’t they come?” asked Augusta.

“Because of the sickness, miss.”

“Sickness!” said Augusta, at once on the alert. “Is any one ill?”

“Three cases of smallpox in the village, miss. But the sick people is
took to the hospital—two in Gaffer Jones’s house, and one in
Tilbury’s—three in all. It do seem sad about that poor, handsome young
lady.”

“Miss Aspray, do you mean?” said Augusta, whose face had now turned
deadly white.

“Yes, miss—of course.”

“She is not dead?”

“No, no, miss. How bad you look! But she is likely to be afore long.
There! I won’t talk to you no more, miss, if I can’t do nothing for
you; but if you would like a cup of tea”——

“No; leave me, please, Jane. All I want is to be quiet.”

Jane withdrew, and Augusta flung herself once more on her bed and
covered her head.

“Of course it is nothing,” she said to herself; “only this headache. I
am safe now, and I won’t even think there is anything to fear.
But—but, oh, the pain in my back!”

Notwithstanding the shadow of illness which rested so darkly over one
house, and which was already making its cruel and awful presence felt
in the village, the party at Fairleigh was a merry one. Everything
was done to make the guests happy. There was no selfish element at
work, and the guests were delighted—there was no hitch anywhere. Poor
Augusta upstairs, in pain and terror, was for the time forgotten.

But the gayest time will come to an end, and when the party had run
races innumerable, swarmed up greasy poles, leapt barriers, and jumped
about in sacks, and gone through the different feats which are the
pride and honour of an Englishman’s holiday, a good meal followed.
Then the children of the neighbourhood appeared on the scene, and soon
after six o’clock the first batch of guests took their leave.

It was now the turn of the young people of the house to rush off to
their rooms to get ready for the dance, which was to be, in one sense,
the greatest event of the day.

Nan, with her heart smiting her for having forgotten Augusta so long,
went first to that young lady’s room.

She knocked. Gussie said, “Come in;” and she entered.

“How do I look?” said Augusta.

Nancy started with genuine pleasure when she saw her. She was up, and
was arrayed in her beautiful frock. The maid Jane had been summoned,
and had tied all the strings and fastened the different hooks.

“You do look well now, Gussie,” said Nancy. “I am so happy!”

Augusta, always a striking-looking girl, looked distinctly handsome
to-night. The brightness of incipient fever shone in her eyes, making
them both large and dark; a rich colour mantled her cheeks, and the
very dread which filled her softened her beauty and gave character to
her face. Her lovely dress fitted her to perfection, and showed off
her young graces, making her look quite remarkable.

“How nicely you have your hair done! Did Jane do it?” asked Nancy.

“No; I did it myself.”

“And is your headache quite well now?”

“It aches now and then, but it is nothing to signify. When I have
danced a little I shall be quite all right.”

“Oh Gussie! you are shivering, and your face has turned white.”

“I must have taken a chill,” said Augusta. “I have been like this, off
and on, all day.”

“Have you had anything to eat, Gussie?”

“No; I could not eat. But I should like something to drink. My eyes
burn, and I am awfully thirsty.”

“Oh, there are such piles of ices downstairs! I will go and fetch you
a strawberry ice.”

“You really are a good little thing. But come here. Have you heard
anything fresh about the Asprays?”

“About the Asprays?” said Nancy. “No—nothing at all.”

“But I have. Jane has told me that Constance is worse—so bad that
they don’t think she can recover. And, oh! if Connie dies, I can’t—I
_can’t_ bear it.”

“Oh, but she won’t die! And please—please, Gussie, do bear up. I am
sure God will spare Constance.”

“I don’t know. I don’t seem able to believe anything—anything good, I
mean, Nancy. But did I tell you that there are cases in the village?”

“Are there?” said Nancy. “But it can’t be true,” she added, “for if
there were Miss Roy would have told us.”

“It is true; and I watched the people as they came on the lawn. I
watched them on purpose. Gaffer Jones was not there, nor was Mrs.
Tilbury, nor any of her family. Some of the Tilburys are down with it,
Nancy, and some of the Joneses. And, oh dear! I wish I could get it
all out of my head—it is so—so dreadful.”

“I must rush away to dress,” said Nancy. “It is very sad, but we are
bound to make ourselves happy to-night, and forget such things.”

She ran off, having quite forgotten about the ice which she had
promised to bring to Augusta.

Augusta stood for a long while by the window; then she went
downstairs.

The final touches had been given to the long supper-table. Nancy was
right; there were pails full of ice under the sideboard.

“I am so thirsty, Walter; will you give me some ice?” said Augusta.

The man helped her to a strawberry ice, which she ate greedily. “Now I
will have something to drink,” she said; “iced champagne—anything.”

There was no iced champagne, but iced claret-cup was forthcoming, and
Augusta drank it, declaring to herself that she felt vastly better.
She then went out on the lawn.

There she was met by Uncle Peter in his evening-dress, and soon
afterwards the three girls joined them.

Nancy looked just as sweet as the genie thought she would when he
selected her dress. Her face was pale beside the flaming colour which
painted Augusta’s cheeks, but—there was no doubt about it—the little
girl possessed the rarer sort of beauty. Nancy’s was of the spiritual
order, filling her eyes with sadness and sympathy, and making the
expression of her little face unworldly and high in tone.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE CROSS.


Never had Augusta looked so well as she did that night. She danced
quite beautifully, and was really a brilliant young mistress of the
ceremonies. Many were the admiring glances cast at her, and loud the
admiration she evoked. For the time being Augusta was unselfish. She
thought of the comfort and pleasure of her guests. She managed to make
the awkward ones feel at ease, and the shy ones feel at home; at the
same time she kept the too forward children in order—in short, she
was invaluable.

Uncle Peter was especially struck both by her conduct and her
appearance.

“She really is a fine girl,” he said to himself. “There is something
wonderfully taking about her to-night; and how good she is, and
self-forgetful! I shall have more pleasure than I had the least idea
of a few hours ago in presenting her with the Royal Cross.”

As these thoughts came to him, he observed that Augusta was standing
where the full draught of the open door blew upon her thin
evening-dress. She shivered, and sank down on the nearest chair.

Captain Richmond immediately went to her side.

“Augusta,” he said, “have you a dance to spare for me? You haven’t
given me one yet.”

“I can give you the present one,” she replied at once, “if you will
sit it out with me.”

“With pleasure! Where shall we go? You are in a fearful draught just
here, and you look positively cold.”

“I am shivering,” replied Augusta. “Let us go to the conservatory.”

They went there. The conservatory was too hot for many people on this
summer’s night, and was comparatively empty. Augusta sank down on a
seat.

“I will get you a wrap,” said the Captain. “You ought not to feel cold
on a night like this.”

“Oh, I am quite all right,” she answered. “Don’t leave me; let us sit
down and talk. You are very fond of Nancy, are you not?”

“Of course; we all are,” he replied.

“I should like to say——” stammered Augusta.

“What, my dear?”

She paused and looked full at her questioner.

“This,” she said: “you know I am not an especially nice girl, but I
can admire goodness when I see it in others. Now, no one was ever half
so good as Nancy; and even if appearances seem to have been against
her, she was far and away the best of us all.—Oh, what am I saying?
What utter nonsense am I talking? Will you take me back to the
ballroom, please? I would not miss the next waltz for anything.”

“I will take you back when you have explained your last words.”

“There is nothing to explain—nothing at all. I spoke quite at random.
Dear little Nancy! I am as fond of her as you are.”

“Listen, Augusta,” said the Captain. “I didn’t mean to confide in you,
but I will. You know of the little ceremony which is to take place
to-night when the dance is over. We are to go into the inner
drawing-room, and there it will be decided, from what I shall read
aloud out of the orderly-book, which of you four girls is to receive
the Royal Cross.”

“Of course; I know that,” answered Augusta.

“Yes; but listen. There is an entry in the orderly-book against
Nancy’s name which puts her out of the running.”

“Puts her out of the running!” whispered Augusta. Her very lips were
white.

Captain Richmond’s eyes seemed like gimlets piercing into her soul.

“There is a charge against Nancy which, made against any child, would
condemn her—condemn her so utterly that one could not think of her as
a winner of that great prize which means nobleness of conduct, valour,
and all the rest. Augusta, you will all know soon, but it does not
matter my telling you an hour or so before the others. Nancy
Esterleigh is charged with _cruelty_. Can you, Gussie, help me to
throw light upon, in her case, such an unnatural accusation?”

There was a wild beating in Augusta’s ears; her head ached so terribly
that she was almost giddy, and a cold chill ran down her back. She
turned aside and plucked a geranium blossom from a great flowering
bush near by.

“Can you?” said the Captain again.

“No. How is it possible? The accusation has astonished me.”

“There is also that curious thing which happened with regard to her
bird. Can you throw any light upon that?”

“No—no; a thousand times no. What do you take me for? Do you think I
would let little Nancy suffer _if_ I could help her?”

“Of course not,” said the Captain coldly. “I think the dance has come
to an end. May I take you back to the ballroom?”

For the rest of that evening Augusta was not still for a single
moment. When she was not dancing she was walking about. Her laugh
could be heard gay, almost shrill. Her cheeks wore pink with the flush
of fever, which those who saw her mistook for health. She was far and
away the most successful girl at the dance. Even Nancy, beautiful
little girl as she was, and lovely as she looked in the new frock, was
not to be compared with her.

But all good things, as well as bad things, come to an end, and
by-and-by the ball was over. The party broke up; the young folk put on
their wraps, said good-bye to their hosts, and left Fairleigh. The
last sound of the last carriage-wheel died away. The four girls, Miss
Roy, and Captain Richmond faced each other. It was on the stroke of
midnight.

“How tired you all look!” said Miss Roy. “Shall we defer the further
ceremony until to-morrow?”

“No,” said Captain Richmond; “this is the appointed day. Come at once,
all of you.”

The servants were rushing about, locking up and putting things in
order. Captain Richmond conducted his party to the front drawing-room,
and turned the key in the lock. The electric light made the room
bright as day. The windows looking on to the lawn were wide open. When
they all entered the room, Captain Richmond opened the drawer, the
lock of which had been injured by Augusta, and took the orderly-book
out. At the same moment he put his hand in his pocket and produced a
small morocco case, which he laid on the table.

“Now, my little soldiers,” he said, “the crucial moment of our
campaign has arrived. You have been under my command, and have also
been disciplined by my good ally, Sergeant Roy, for the last few
months; and, on the whole, I trust you feel better, morally and
physically, for the soldier’s life.”

“Oh yes, indeed!” cried Nora. “We like it awfully. I hope we are not
going to cease to be soldiers to-night, Uncle Pete.”

“Certainly not, Nora. In one sense you must always be soldiers, but
whether you remain in my battalion will depend a great deal on
yourselves. But now to business; you are tired, and we must not
linger. This book gives, in a condensed form, the history of your
lives from the moment you enlisted under my banner. Now then, soldiers
of the True Blue, we will see what it says about you.”

Here Captain Richmond opened the book. He looked quickly down the
pages which related to Nora’s life.

“An excellent report on the whole, Nora,” he said when he had
finished, “but conduct not immaculate—a few errors, dear, in the form
of untidy rooms, lost property, and forgotten duties. Nothing exactly
serious, but”——

The Captain’s “but” was emphatic. Nora turned from pink to white.

“I knew it,” she said to her sister. “I never, never expected”——

“Hush!” said Kitty, “Uncle Pete is speaking again.”

“Kitty, on the whole you have done better than Nora. Your industry has
been unparalleled, and, in short, I think you are deserving of a
prize. If you hadn’t been so inveterately careless, my little girl,
there might have been a chance of my giving you _the_ prize. But
see here, Kit—here, and here, and here.” The Captain laid his finger
against certain marks in Kitty’s record.

Kitty coloured and stepped back.

“I deserve them all,” she said.

“Well, that is something worth hearing,” he answered with heartiness,
“for when we know our faults, then is the time when we begin to mend
them.—Now then, Nancy.”

Nancy was standing by an open window. Her face looked serene and
quiet. She did not for a moment think that she would win the Royal
Cross; but, at the same time, she did not think there could be any
grave charge chronicled against her name.

“Nancy, I have something sad to say to you,” said the Captain, going
forward and taking her hand in his as he spoke. “Even still I think
there must be some explanation.”

“What—what,” cried Nancy—“what do you mean?”

“Don’t tremble so, Nancy. Listen. Your conduct has been
irreproachable, and your struggle to maintain a high level in morals
and intellect very great; but, alas! on one occasion you fell—a good
deep fall, Nancy—you fell from a high ladder.”

“I fell from a height! Oh, what do you mean?”

She looked wildly at Augusta, who glanced at Miss Roy. Miss Roy turned
aside; Augusta’s bold eyes were fixed upon her face.

“I have fallen from a height! When? Where? How?”

“Here,” said the Captain; “see for yourself. Every one need not know,
but you must know; read for yourself.”

Dizzily the little girl bent her head. For a moment she could see
nothing. Then she read, as though they were written in letters of
fire, the dreadful words, “Guilty of cruelty.”

She read this aloud and flung back her head.

“_That_ I have never been guilty of. It is a _lie_; it is a
black lie. I have never been cruel in all my life.”

The Captain sighed.

“It is in Aunt Jessie’s own handwriting. I am afraid there is no
refuge from this storm. You had better not add to”——

“Oh! don’t say any more; I cannot—cannot stand it,” said the child.

She was about to rush through the open window, when Augusta stepped
forward and held her hand.

“Be quiet,” she said—“for my sake.”

Again the extraordinary influence which Augusta had over the little
girl made itself felt. Nancy stood still, allowing Augusta to hold her
hand within her own hot clasp; she partly turned her back upon the
others.

“There is no bad mark against your name, Augusta,” said the Captain
after a pause, his voice slightly shaking. “All through these months
of training and discipline your conduct has been admirable. You have
been industrious; you have been courteous; you have been kind. You
have, I doubt not, been also unselfish; therefore I proclaim you the
happy possessor of the Royal Cross. Come here and let me fasten it
round your neck.”

Augusta came totteringly forward. All eyes were fixed upon her;
Nancy’s, no longer gentle, but fierce and defiant, were raised to
watch her face, but Augusta would not now look at Nancy.

The Royal Cross was made of deep-blue enamel, inlaid in rich silver.
It was in the shape of an Irish cross, and was very beautiful. On it
were engraved the words, _For valour in the fight_. The cross was
attached to a narrow silver chain. Captain Richmond slipped the chain
round Augusta’s throat, and the deep-blue cross shone on her bare
white neck.

Just then, before any one could speak, there came on the air the sound
of a tolling bell. It was distinctly audible. It tolled three times
and then stopped, three times again and then stopped, and then three
times once more.

“Some woman has died, poor thing!” said the Captain.

Then the solemn notes rang out again. They sounded sixteen times.

Augusta uttered a cry.

“It is Connie!” she said. “Oh, what shall I do?”

The next instant the wretched girl had fallen in a dead faint on the
floor.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

THE LETTER.


The confusion and consternation which followed poor Augusta’s utter
collapse can be better imagined than described. The sick girl was
tenderly lifted from the ground in Captain Richmond’s strong arms. She
was conveyed to a sofa, and the usual restoratives were administered;
and when she opened her eyes and cried wildly, “Oh, my head!—oh, my
back!” Miss Roy motioned to the other children to leave the
room. Nancy was about to follow the example of the two little Richmond
girls, when Augusta’s feverish eyes rested on her face.

“Don’t go. I can’t part from you—I can’t—I won’t.—Let Nancy stay,
please—please, Miss Roy.”

“Stay for the present, dear,” said Miss Roy, nodding towards Nancy.

“Oh! let her hold my hand; let her kneel by me; no one else comforts
me,” almost screamed the excited girl.

“You must control yourself, Augusta,” said the Captain, speaking now
in an almost stern voice. “We must get you to your room. If you are
too weak to walk I will carry you.”

“No; I can walk,” said Augusta. “I will lean on you if I may. My head
feels as if it would burst. Oh, is she dead? Nan—Nan, tell me the
truth. Constance can’t—no, she can’t be dead.”

“We don’t know who is dead, dear,” said Miss Roy. “We must only hope
that it is not your poor young friend. Now, don’t talk any more; just
let us get you to your room.”

It was with some difficulty that Augusta, who was half-delirious with
illness, pain, and terror, could be got to her own apartment. At last,
however, Miss Roy and the Captain succeeded in doing so. She was got
into bed, and, late as it was, Captain Richmond went for the doctor.

Dr Earle happened to be in, and returned at once with Captain Richmond
to Fairleigh.

He saw Augusta, took her temperature, examined her very carefully,
looked into her eyes, felt her pulse, and then called Miss Roy aside.

“She is very ill, poor girl!” said the doctor.

“Her temperature is high, her pulse rapid, and she is undoubtedly very
feverish. If it were not—— But no, that is impossible.”

“What do you mean?” said Miss Roy, in great alarm.

“Oh, nothing. I am sorry I alarmed you. Miss Duncan has not been near
any infection, has she?”

“No; certainly not.”

“We have a few cases of smallpox; but, of course, if she has not been
in the village she is safe. I am not attending poor Miss Aspray; Dr
Reynolds is her physician. She was frightfully ill this afternoon; and
the other sister, Flora, they say, is sickening. Miss Duncan has not
been near them, has she?”

“No; of that I am positive,” replied Miss Roy. “Mrs. Richmond did not
wish the children to make any fresh friends during her absence, and
Augusta has had nothing to do with those young people for several
weeks.”

“Oh! then, of course, it is not that—although some of the symptoms
point to it.”

“Dr Earle, you quite terrify me.”

“You need not be frightened; of that I am certain. But don’t let the
little girl, Miss Nancy, stay too much in the room; it is never wise
in these feverish cases. I will call in early in the morning. I trust
by then the fever will have abated.”

The doctor went away. When Miss Roy returned to the sickroom Augusta
was lying half across the bed, her arms flung round Nancy’s neck, who
was kneeling by her side. As Miss Roy came in she heard Augusta say:

“Take the cross off my neck, Nancy, and put it on yours. I shall die
if I wear it any longer. It is so heavy—so heavy—like lead—it goes
through me; it burns through my flesh. Wear it—wear it, to please
me—to please me.”

Nancy began to take the cross off with trembling fingers.

“Let me fasten it round your neck, Nan; then I shall feel better. Oh!
it is some sort of—some sort of”——

[Illustration: “Let me fasten it round your neck, Nan, then I shall
feel better.”]

The words gradually trailed away into silence. The miserable girl had
fallen into a broken slumber.

“Get up at once, Nancy,” said Miss Roy; “and take that off—do, my
dear. And—and go away to bed.”

Nancy rose to her feet looking pale and scared. The dark blue cross
with its silver mountings shone up against her white neck. Miss Roy
herself removed it, and laid it on the table.

“Good-night, darling,” she said to the little girl.

“Mayn’t I stay?” asked Nancy.

“No; and you are not to come back until I give you leave. Now run
away; you are looking tired.”

“It is not being just tired,” said Nan slowly; “it is—the
other—it—_it kills me_.”

“I am very sorry for you, and I don’t understand it,” said Miss Roy.
“Perhaps, if you are good and patient, God will give us an explanation
some day. Now we are all in trouble about Augusta, and must try to
forget ourselves. Goodnight, dear; go to bed.”

“I will,” said Nancy.

She walked feebly out of the room. When she reached the door she
turned and looked again at Augusta; but Augusta’s head was buried in
the bedclothes. Nancy gave another sigh, and shut the door.

All during the night that followed, Miss Roy did not leave the sick
girl. Captain Richmond waited in the anteroom to give what aid he
could.

Towards morning Augusta dropped into a more refreshing sleep; but she
presently awakened, screaming out that Connie was dead, and that she
could not bear it. Miss Roy did all she could to soothe her, and
presently called Captain Richmond to the door of the sickroom.

“The day has come,” she said. “That poor child is in a frenzy of grief
and terror about Constance Aspray. How could one guess she loved the
girl so much?—for they had seldom or never been together. I wish we
could find out if the passing-bell was tolling for her. To know that
she is still alive would give poor Augusta more rest than anything
else.”

“It is nearly seven o’clock,” said the Captain. “I will stroll down
towards the village. Doubtless, if it is true, some of the poor people
will know.”

He left the house at once. The morning was beautiful. The dew still
lay on grass and shrub and flower. The world outside seemed so pure
and restful after the miserable and restless night through which he
had just lived. But the heart of the young soldier was full of
strange, inexplicable fear. He had a dread of something which was
close at hand—something intangible. He thought of Nancy’s face of
agony the night before; the ring in her voice when she said that the
charge against her was a lie—a black lie. The words were the words of
injured innocence. It was, in truth, impossible to associate so gentle
a child with so strange a crime.

“Who can have done it?” thought the Captain. “Poor little Nancy! I am
certain—positive—that she is innocent.”

He had now reached the village. He walked down the street, and at the
farther end encountered a somewhat belated milkman hurrying by on his
rounds. Captain Richmond called out to him:

“Can you tell me for whom the bell was tolling last night?”

“Oh sir, for that poor girl of Mrs. Sherlock. She’s been given over in
consumption for many a day. She died just at midnight, and the ringers
went at once to toll for her. She had a fancy for the passing-bell,
and begged that it should be tolled the minute the breath was out of
her body, poor soul! Yes, sir; God help her, she is out of her misery
now.”

Captain Richmond said one or two suitable words, and, with a great
sense of relief, continued his walk. There was no use in returning at
once to the house, so he struck a path which brought him down to the
seashore. The tide was at the full. He walked along by the edge of the
shingle. Suddenly he heard his name called, and looking up, saw a lady
who appeared to be a total stranger.

“You are Captain Richmond, and you live at Fairleigh?” she said. “I
feel certain I am right from the description I have received of you.”

“My name is Richmond,” he answered, removing his hat, “and I am
staying at Fairleigh for the present.”

“Now, that is extremely lucky, and will prevent my having to write to
the house, which might not have been advisable under the
circumstances. Don’t come any nearer, please. You are quite safe with
six feet of pure air between us. I am Mrs. Aspray.”

“Oh, indeed!” said the Captain. “Of course, I have heard of you, Mrs.
Aspray. We have all been so terribly troubled about your great
anxiety. May I ask you how your daughter is?”

“My daughter Constance has passed the crisis. She was at death’s door
all yesterday, but about midnight she fell into a refreshing sleep. I
have left her sleeping now. I have gone through a time enough to
madden any one, but the doctor is with her at the present moment and
says that the danger is practically over. I felt I must get a breath
of fresh air before any one else was stirring. You see, I have been
with her day and night. Oh, it has been a fearful case—fearful! And
now poor Flo is down—took ill yesterday morning; the disease declared
itself last night. Poor Flo gave me a message, which I was to convey
somehow, in some fashion, to Fairleigh. Providence has brought you
here, Captain Richmond.”

“I will take the message,” said the Captain. “Who is it to?”

“To you—to the governess—to whoever has charge of the young people.
I understand Mrs. Richmond is away. There is a young girl in your house
of the name of Augusta Duncan, isn’t there?”

“Yes.”

“She has been a good deal with my girls. She was invited to a dance,
which was to have taken place on the very day that Constance took ill.
Without my knowing it, she arrived at our house late that evening.
Contrary to my orders, she was admitted and saw Flora. Flora only
confessed to it last night. Of course, Miss Duncan ran risk of
infection, but it may not be too late—I mean, that you may have time
to remove the other girls. At any rate, it is only right that you
should know.”

Captain Richmond’s face turned very white.

“I am afraid I have given you a shock,” said Mrs. Aspray; “but
perhaps—God knows how I feel this thing!—_perhaps_ I am in
time.”

“Alas! no,” he replied. “Augusta is very ill indeed, and another of
the children has been much with her. Another child who”—— He broke
off, and his lips trembled. “From what Dr Earle said last night, there
is small or, indeed, no doubt what Augusta is sickening for. But thank
you for telling me; anything is better than suspense, and I will do
what I can.”

He turned without another word and went back to Fairleigh.

Mrs. Aspray looked after his retreating figure.

“Poor fellow!” she said to herself. “My news seemed to stun him. What
an awful pity that Flo kept this thing to herself! I am afraid that
Augusta cannot be a very nice girl. I did feel annoyed when those
young people were not inclined to follow up our advances, but I would
not have one of them in the house under the rose, as it were, on any
condition whatever. Flo certainly behaved very badly.”

The anxious and burdened woman went slowly back to the infected house,
and Captain Richmond returned to Fairleigh. On his way home he met the
postman. Among the letters was one which bore the Capetown postmark.
It was addressed to himself. He looked up at the windows of the house
where the children, tired out by the excitement of the past day, still
slept.

“I may as well read what Aunt Jessie has to say out here,” he murmured
to himself.

He sat down on a garden bench and opened the letter, which ran as
follows:

    “My Dear Peter,—You will want to know all my news, which I am
    telling Nora and Kitty in the enclosure which goes with this.
    In the meantime I have something else to tell you. It is
    extraordinary what tricks memory plays one. During the voyage
    we had rather a bad storm; we tossed about a good bit, and
    some of the passengers were considerably frightened. I was not
    among the number; but as I lay awake I kept recalling
    different incidents in the happy home-life. My friend was in
    the berth above mine, and she kept moaning all the time, and
    talking to herself of her terrible loss. Although I pitied
    her, my thoughts would keep going back and back to the life at
    Fairleigh; and, do you know, a sudden quite dreadful memory
    came to me. You know, of course, the orderly-book. Well, my
    dear Peter, I am strongly under the impression that in the
    great hurry of leaving home I turned over two pages when I
    ought to have turned over one. If that is the case I have put
    certain marks into Nancy’s entry which ought to have stood
    against Augusta’s. I feel so uncomfortable about this that I
    wish you would ascertain for yourself. I don’t know whether
    you have yet bestowed the great prize, but I rather gather
    that it is to be awarded in a short time. Well, it so happened
    that on the very day I was obliged to hurry off to my poor
    friend I came across Augusta treating Nancy in a very
    high-handed and cruel manner. I was greatly distressed, and
    entered into the thing as fully as I could. It is not
    necessary, and I have no time now, to give you all the
    circumstances. But the fact is, I had no choice left but to
    give Augusta that evening a mark for cruelty. Now, it would be
    too horrible if that mark, through my carelessness, was
    entered against Nancy. If you have not awarded the prizes, you
    will look into this matter and put it straight; if you have——
    But I won’t think of that.

     “Long before this reaches you we shall be on our way to Mrs.
    Rashleigh’s daughter. I shall not make a long stay. I will
    just remain a night or two, and hurry home by the first boat.
    With much love to everybody.—Your affectionate sister,

                                                “Jessie Richmond.”



CHAPTER XXXV.

THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS IS HARD.


It is a trite saying, illustrated over and over again in many lives,
that the way of transgressors is hard; and when Augusta lay on her
sickbed, stricken down by the fell disease, she was paying a bitter
price for her days of selfishness, hypocrisy, cunning, and cruelty.

When God struck so hard it was impossible for man to say anything. No
one could have nursed the poor girl more devotedly than did Miss Roy.
Professional nurses were of course sent for; and Nora and Kitty were
sent immediately to the house of a cousin who promised to receive them
and take every care of them. The doctor said, when he learnt all
particulars, that it would not be safe to send Nancy away. She was not
allowed to go near Augusta, but she still remained at Fairleigh.

Nan and Captain Richmond had a little talk together. Nan came away
after that talk and crept into a corner by herself, and cried and
cried for a long time; then she came back to the Captain, put her arms
round his neck, and kissed him.

“I don’t mind anything now, for _you_ understand, and God
understands. And please—please forgive poor Gussie; she could not
have known what she was doing.”

But the Captain would make no promises about Augusta.

“We will leave her out for the present,” he said. “You and I are happy
together; we understand each other, and that which rested like a
nightmare on your poor little soul is lifted. The weather is fine; we
will spend all our time in the open air, and I will tell you some more
things about what soldiers do.”

So in those dark days the Captain and Nancy became better friends than
ever.

At last there came the hour when the crisis had passed for Augusta.
The danger was over—she would get well. Then both the Captain and
Miss Roy looked with fear at Nan; would she sicken, or would she
escape the danger? Ten days passed; then slowly—very slowly—the
fortnight of probation came to an end, and Nancy was still well, still
smiling, still happy.

“I do believe she will escape,” said the Captain. “It seems almost too
good to be true.”

Wonderful as it is to relate, Nancy did not become ill. And when this
point was clearly ascertained, she was taken to join Nora and Kitty at
their cousin’s house.

There the children had a gay time together while Augusta slowly came
back to convalescence. Very slow indeed was her recovery, for she had
taken the complaint badly, and for some time the fresh, fair beauty of
her face was marred. “But not for ever,” said Dr Earle. “By-and-by she
will recover her looks; but she has had a narrow escape both of her
life and of her eyesight.”

When Augusta was comparatively well again, on an evening in late
October, Mrs. Richmond arrived at her home.

Augusta was seated by herself in the drawing-room. She sat with her
back to the light. Her eyes were weak, and she did not like people to
see more of her poor disfigured face than was absolutely necessary.
But when Mrs. Richmond came in, and the girl noticed the kindly face,
so like her own mother’s, she uttered a strangled cry, and running
forward, flung her arms round her neck.

“Oh, Aunt Jessie, it _is_ good to see you. Oh, now I believe I
shall have a chance of being happy again.”

“Yes, my darling, I am glad to have got back. Oh, what I have suffered
on your account!”

“But don’t you know the truth? Hasn’t Uncle Pete told you?”

“He came down with me from London, Augusta. And—yes—he has told me
everything.”

“Then you can never really love me again.” Mrs. Richmond did not reply
for a moment; then she said slowly:

“When you lay in great pain and delirium, when you were nigh to death,
and missed your own mother, and felt, as you must have felt for a
short time at least, that God Himself was hiding His face from you,
then was your punishment, Augusta dear. If you have received it in due
submission and repentance, who am I that I should not love you?”

“And does Nan—does Nan forgive me?”

“She is in the other room. You are quite free from infection; she will
speak to you in a moment. But, Gussie, before you meet I have one
little thing to tell you: Nan will never go to the Asprays. She will
be my child always, for I owe to Nancy just as great a debt as Mr.
Aspray owed her father. It is an old story, dear, and I will not tell
it to Nancy yet for she is too young; but I think it right that you
should hear it. Long, long ago, before you were born, and before your
mother was married, Nancy’s mother and I were friends. But a great
trouble arrived, for we both—each unknown to the other—loved the
same man. He cared more for Nancy’s mother than he did for me; and
Nancy’s mother loved him with all her heart and soul and strength. I
didn’t know it at the time, although the knowledge came to me
afterwards. She refused him for my sake. She loved him, and allowed
him to think she cared nothing at all for him; and she did it
altogether for me.

“I married him: he was my husband. He was very good to me. I never
learnt the truth from him. He died, and after his death, somehow, I
learnt the truth. My dear friend married in time another man. The
marriage was not happy, and they were terribly poor. He died too, and
little Nancy was left unprovided for. So I told her mother on her
deathbed that Nancy would always be my tender care, my most cherished
darling. Now, Augusta, you know for yourself that she has a right to
my home and my love and my money. She is no charity-child, but a child
any mother would be proud of.”

“There never was any one like her,” said Augusta slowly. “There was a
time when I was mad with jealousy of her; but I know at last what she
really is. But, oh, Aunt Jessie! I am tired, and I want to be forgiven
right out. I have told Uncle Peter everything—every single thing from
the first. And now let me see Nancy, that she also may forgive me.”

THE END.

Edinburgh: Printed by W. & R. Chambers, Limited.



BOOKS BY MRS L. T. MEADE.

    SEVEN MAIDS. Illustrated by Percy Tarrant.

    THE ODDS AND THE EVENS. Ten Illustrations by Percy Tarrant.

    A VERY NAUGHTY-GIRL. Eight Illustrations by W. Rainey.

    MISS NONENTITY. Illustrated by W. Rainey.

    LIGHT O’ THE MORNING. Eight Illustrations by W. Rainey.

    THE GIRLS OF ST WODE’S. Eight Illustrations by W. Rainey

    WILD KITTY. Eight Illustrations by J. Ayton Symington.

    CATALINA. Eight Illustrations by W. Boucher.

    GIRLS NEW AND OLD. Illustrated by J. Williamson.

    BETTY: A School-Girl. Illustrated by Everard Hopkins.

    FOUR ON AN ISLAND. Illustrated by W. Rainey.

    THE CHILDREN OF WILTON CHASE. Six Illustrations by Everard Hopkins.

    PLAYMATES. Six Illustrations by G. Nicolet.

    LITTLE MARY. AND OTHER STORIES. Illustrated.

    A FARTHINGFUL. Illustrated.

    POOR MISS CAROLINA. Illustrated.

    THE GOLDEN LADY. Illustrated.



BOOKS BY MRS MOLESWORTH

Published by W. & R. Chambers, Limited.

    MEG LANGHOLME; or, The Day after To-morrow. Eight Illustrations
    by W. Rainey.

    PHILIPPA. Eight Illustrations by J. Finnemore.

    OLIVIA. Eight Illustrations by Robert Barnes.

    BLANCHE. Eight Illustrations by Robert Barnes.

    “MY PRETTY AND HER BROTHER TOO.” Illustrated by Lewis Baumer.

    THE THREE WITCHES. Illustrated by Lewis Baumer.

    THE BOYS AND I: A Child’s Story for Children. Seventeen
    Illustrations by Lewis Baumer.

    HOODIE. Seventeen Illustrations by Lewis Baumer.

    HERMY. Seventeen Illustrations by Lewis Baumer.

    ROBIN REDBREAST. Six Illustrations by R. Barnes.

    GREYLING TOWERS: A Story for the Young. Seventeen Illustrations
    by P. Tarrant.

    WHITE TURRETS. Four Illustrations by W. Raines.

    IMOGEN: or, Only Eighteen. Four Illustrations by Herbert A. Bone.

    THE NEXT-DOOR HOUSE. Six Illustrations by W. Hatherell.

    THE GREEN CASKET, AND OTHER STORIES. Illustrated.

    THE BEWITCHED LAMP. Frontispiece by R. Barnes.

    NESTA; or, Fragments of a Little Life.





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