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´╗┐Title: Maud Florence Nellie - Don't care
Author: Coleridge, C.R.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Maud Florence Nellie - Don't care" ***

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Maud Florence Nellie
Don't care
By C.R. Coleridge
Illustrations by C.J. Staniland
Published by National Society's Depository, London.

Maud Florence Nellie, by C.R. Coleridge.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
MAUD FLORENCE NELLIE, BY C.R. COLERIDGE.

CHAPTER ONE.

MAUD FLORENCE NELLIE.

Maud Florence Nellie Whittaker was standing before her little
looking-glass, getting ready for her afternoon Sunday school.  She was a
fine tall girl of fifteen, rather stoutly made, with quantities of light
brown hair, which fell on her shoulders and surrounded her plump rosy
face with a perfect halo of fringe and friz.  She had hazel eyes, which
were rather bold and rather stupid, a cocked up nose, and full red lips,
which could look sulky; but which were now curved in smiling
satisfaction at the new summer hat, all creamy lace and ribbons, which
she was fixing at exactly the right angle above her curly hair.  She had
on a very fashionable cream-coloured costume to match the hat, and
altogether she was justified in considering herself as one of the best
dressed girls in her class, and one whose good looks were not at all
likely to pass unnoticed as she took her way along the sunshiny road
that led into the large country town of Rapley.  Her fine frock, her big
girlish form, and her abundant hair seemed to fill up the little bedroom
in which she stood; which had a sloping roof and small latticed windows,
though it was comfortably furnished and had no more appearance of
poverty than its inhabitant.  Florrie Whittaker lived in the lodge at
the gate of the great suburban cemetery, which had replaced all the
disused churchyards of Rapley.  Her father was the gatekeeper and
caretaker, and as the cemetery was a very large one the post was
important and the salary good.  Florrie and her brothers and sisters had
run up and down the rows of tomb-stones and played in the unoccupied
spaces for as long as most of them could recollect.  They saw many
funerals everyday, and heard the murmur of the funeral service and the
toll of the funeral bell whenever they went out, but it never occurred
to them to think that tomb-stones were dismal or funerals impressive;
they looked with cheerful living eyes at their natural surroundings, and
never thought a bit more of the end of their own lives because they so
constantly saw the end of other people's.  Florrie finished herself up
with a red rosebud, found her hymn-book and a pair of new kid gloves,
and then with a bounce and a clatter ran down the narrow stairs into the
family sitting-room below; where the din of voices betokened the
father's absence, and the bustle attendant on starting for school on the
part of a boy and two girls younger than herself.

"You'll all be late, children, and get bad marks from your teachers,"
cried Florence, in a loud gay voice.

"And what'll you be?" was the not unnatural retort of the next sister,
Sybil.

"It ain't the same thing in _my_ class," returned Florrie.  "Teacher
knows that girls of my age can't be punctual like little ones.  They've
to clear away, and mind the children, and all sorts of things to do."

"And what have you been clearing away?"

"And who have you been minding of?"

"And what have _you_ had to do but put your fine hat on?" rose in a
chorus from the indignant children; while another voice put in--

"When _I_ went to school the elders came punctual for the sake of an
example."

"Oh my!  Aunt Lizzie, I didn't see you," said Florrie.  "How d'ye do?
There's plenty of examples nowadays if one wanted them, which I don't."

"I'm sure, Aunt Lizzie," put in the eldest sister, a tall young woman of
nineteen or so, "there isn't harder work in the world than in trying to
set an example to _Florrie_."

"You don't set a nice one," said Florrie.

"It would be a deal better for you, Florence," said her aunt, "if you
did take example by some one.  You're getting a big girl, and that hat
and frock are a deal too smart to run about the roads in.  When I was a
girl, I had a nice brown mushroom hat and a neat black silk jacket, and
pleased enough I was with them as a new thing."

"And did _your_ aunts wear mushroom hats and black silk jackets?" said
Florrie.

"My aunts? no, indeed!  Whatever are you thinking of, Florence?  My
aunts were most respectable women, and wore bonnets, when bonnets _was_
bonnets.  Hats, indeed!"

"Your hat was in the fashion then, and mine's in the fashion now," said
Florence saucily; but Aunt Lizzie, refusing to perceive that her niece
had made a point, continued, "Aunt Eliza Brown was married to a man in
the grocery way, and Aunt Warren, as you very well know, was housekeeper
to Mr Cunningham at Ashcroft Hall, and married the head keeper, which
her son has the situation to this day."

"I do tell Florrie," said the elder sister again, "that she'd look a
deal more like a real lady if she dressed a bit quieter than she does."

"I don't want to look like a lady.  I want to have my fun," said
Florrie.  "Come on, Ethel, if you're coming; I want to catch up with
Carrie and Ada.  Good-bye, aunt; I like lessons best in school."

And off dashed Florrie through the summer sunshine, between the avenue
of monuments, her hair flying, her skirts swinging, and her loud lively
voice sounding behind and before her as she scurried along.

"Well!" said Aunt Lizzie, "she be a one, surely.  That girl wants a
tight hand over her, Martha Jane, if ever a girl die yet."

Aunt Lizzie--otherwise Mrs Stroud--was an excellent person, and had
"kept her brother's family together," as she expressed it, ever since
their mother's death; but she was not invariably pleasant, and her
eldest niece disliked being called Martha Jane much more than Florence
disliked being scolded for her finery.  When all the younger ones had
such beautiful names--Maud Florence Nellie, Ethel Rosamond, and Sybil
Eva Constance--it was hard upon her that she had been born before her
mother's love of reading, and perhaps her undeveloped love of the
beautiful things of life, had overcome the family traditions.  "Martha"
was bad enough, and she did not know that the children's use of "Matty"
was a fashionable variation of it.  But "Martha Jane!"

She was not, however, saucy like Florence, so she only sighed a little
and said:

"I do my best, indeed, aunt; but won't you lay off your mantle and sit
down comfortably?  Father won't be in yet.  He likes to be round, when
so many friends come to visit the graves and put flowers, in case of
mischief, and the children won't be back for near two hours."

Mrs Stroud was a stout comfortable woman, not very unlike what her
niece Florence might be after five and thirty more years in a workaday
world had marked and subdued her beaming countenance.  She was glad to
sit down after the hot walk, take off her cloth mantle, which, though an
eminently dignified and respectable garment, was rather a heavy one for
a June day, and fan herself with her pocket-handkerchief, while she
inquired into the well-being of her nieces and nephews.  Martha Jane was
of a different type--dark and slim, with pretty, rather dreamy grey
eyes, and a pale refined face.  She was a good girl, and tried to do her
duty by her young brothers and sisters; but she had not very strong
health or spirits, and in many ways she wished that her life was
different from what fate had made it.

"That there Florrie," said Mrs Stroud, "ain't the sort of girl to be
allowed to _stravage_ about the roads by herself for two hours."

"Why, aunt, she must go to her Bible class," said Martha meekly.

"Well," said Mrs Stroud, "there's girls that aren't calculated for
Bible classes, in my opinion.  Does she come in punctual from her work
on weekdays?"

"Oh, yes, aunt, and it's supposed that George meets her.  Not that he
always does; but she has to look out for him.  And Mrs Lee keeps her
very strict at the shop.  She don't have her hair flying about on
weekdays, nor dress fine, and she's a good girl for her work and very
civil, Mrs Lee says.  You wouldn't know Florrie when she's behaving."

"Pity she don't behave always then," said Mrs Stroud.

"That's just the thing," said Martha, "I tell her, aunt, constant.  I
tell her to read the tales out of the library, and see what the young
ladies are like that are written about in them.  And she says a tale may
be a tale, but she ain't in a book, and she don't want to be.  Florrie's
always got an answer ready."

"Well, Martha Jane, I don't hold much with wasting time over tales and
novels myself.  You read a deal too many, and where's the good?"

"I should waste my time more than I do but for some talcs I've read,"
said Martha, colouring.

"Well, `Waste not, want not.'  Read your Bible, I say."

"That's not in the Bible, Aunt Lizzie."

"It might be," said Mrs Stroud; "there's a deal of truth in it.  But,
bless you, Martha, it ain't talcs nor nonsense of that kind that
signifies.  Florrie must be held in.  She's that saucy, and that
bouncing and set on her own way, that there's only one in the family
she's like, Martha Jane, and that's 'Enery himself."

"Harry!  Oh, Aunt Lizzie!  But she's a girl."

"Well, Martha Jane, and if she is?  There's plenty of ways for girls to
trouble their families.  You wasn't more than eleven or so when 'Enery
went; but surely you can recollect him, ramping round.  Why, when he
come to sit with his family he was like an engine with the steam up for
starting off again!  And he went about that audacious!"

"I can remember his jumping me off the tomb-stones," said Martha.

"Ah!  He jumped off tomb-stones once too often.  It all came of ramping
about and reading, so there's lessons in it for you and Florence both.
Well, I promised a call on Mrs Taylor at the upper lodge, so I'll
stroll up quietly and meet your father, and come back for a cup of tea."

Martha made no objection to this proposal; for though she never
"answered back," nor asserted herself against her elders, she strongly
resented the connection between ramping about and reading, and between
herself and the troublesome Florence, and was very glad to get rid of
her aunt for the present.

She sat still when Mrs Stroud, having assumed her mantle and opened her
parasol, walked up the cemetery to meet her brother.  She really wished
to be a good elder sister; but what could she do with a girl only three
years younger than herself, and with more "go" in her little finger than
poor Martha had in her whole body?

Surely Florence was not going to be like poor Harry!  Martha called him
"poor Harry" in her thoughts--it is an epithet often applied half in
kindness and half in contempt to the family ne'er-do-weel; but she had
not a very pleasant recollection of this absent brother.  If Florrie was
rude, inconsiderate, and bouncing, she was nothing to Harry at fifteen.
Martha recollected his utterly unscrupulous teasing and bullying
alternating with rough good-nature, which had made her hopelessly afraid
of him.  He got situations, and lost them by practical jokes.  He was
started in a good place at a large printing establishment in Rapley,
and, after sundry smaller feats, had sent the rector of the parish a
packet of playbills announcing the performance that night of "The
Corsican Brothers" and "Cut off with a Shilling;" while the manager of
the theatre received the rector's notices of a missionary meeting, also
being got up in a hurry on some special occasion.  Neither the rector
nor the manager spared the printer, and as Harry Whittaker had been
heard sniggering with a companion over the exchange, it could not pass
as a mistake, so that situation came to an end.  Then he had to content
himself with being errand-boy at a linen-draper's.  There somehow the
ball dresses which should have been delivered to Lady Temple in time for
the county ball floated down the river instead, and were landed the next
afternoon mashed up in their cardboard boxes.

And worst of all, a dreadful night, which Matty never did forget, when
some poor people, coming in the dusk to one of those sad hurried evening
funerals which terrible infection sometimes necessitates, had been
frightened--how she did not know, but cruelly and unfeelingly by Harry's
means.  Martha remembered her father's just annoyance and anger.  Harry
had been sent away to his Uncle Warren's, where something else
happened--Martha never knew what--and that was the last she heard of her
eldest brother.

A little while before, mother had died, and father grew severe and
strict, and Aunt Lizzie bustled them about till a year ago, when, late
in life, she married a well-to-do ironmonger, and turned her energies on
to her step-children.

Since then Martha Jane had done her best for her three sisters, for the
brother, George, who had a good post as clerk on the railway, and for
Johnnie and Arthur, the youngest of the family, who still attended the
day school.  The Whittaker girls had never been sent to a national
school, but had got, or were getting, their education at one of the many
"Establishments for Young Ladies" which prevailed at Rapley.  It was
supposed that in this way they would be less likely to "make
acquaintances;" but acquaintances are very easily made by sociable
people, and Mrs Stroud had always thought it the proper thing to send
them all to Sunday school.  Martha, however, had had very little of
this.  She was a good girl, with a turn for church-going, and the
interest of most well-disposed girls of her day in varieties of church
services, church music, and church decorations; but she had no personal
tie to the church which the Whittakers attended, and she had not found
the connection between these tastes and the duties of life.

She was rather imaginative, and she read every story book she could lay
her hands on--religious domestic tales from the parochial library,
novels from that provided for the servants of the railway company, which
her brother brought home, and quantities of penny serial fiction.  Very
little of it was absolutely bad.  Martha would not have read it if she
had known it to be so, but a great deal of it was extremely unreal,
silly, and frivolous.  Martha's taste and critical powers were so
uncultivated that she hardly knew that one book was of a higher tone
than another, any more than she knew that it was better written.  There
were fine sentiments which she admired in all of them about love and
constancy and self-devotion, and perhaps Martha was not to blame if she
thought that people usually died in carrying out these virtues.  Still,
the character of the books did make a difference to her; for she was not
one to whom a tale was nothing but a tale, and if she learnt from some
that ladies wore wonderful and ever-varying costumes, and spent their
time in what she would have called "talking about the gentlemen," she
learnt from others that they studied hard, and devoted themselves much
to the good of their fellow-creatures and the comfort of their families.

Martha, when she might have been attending to the comfort of hers, was
sometimes lost in imagining herself reading to a mothers' meeting in "a
tightly fitting costume of the richest velvet," etc, etc; but, confused
as were her notions, she had ideas and aspirations, and was ready for a
guiding hand if only she could have found one.

CHAPTER TWO.

A SUNDAY WALK.

Florrie was troubled with no aspirations and with very few ideas.  She
was just like a young animal, and enjoyed her life much in the same way
and with as little regard to consequences.  When she and her little
sisters came out of the great cemetery gates into a broad, cheerful,
suburban road, the children ran on, afraid of being late.  Florrie
caught up, as she had expressed it, with Carrie Jones and Ada Price,
also in the full glory of their new summer things, and both eagerly
looking out for her.  For Florrie was bigger, smarter, and more daring
than any of them; she was the ringleader in their jokes, and bore the
brunt of the scrapes consequent upon them; she was therefore a favourite
companion.  The three girls hurried along the sunny road, chattering and
laughing, with their heads full of their new clothes, their friends, and
themselves, so that there was not an atom of room left for the Bible
lesson which they were about to receive.  They came with a rush and a
bounce into the parish room, where their class was held, just as the
door was unfastened after the opening hymn, found their places with a
scuffle and a titter, pulled some Bibles towards them, and looked all
round to greet their special acquaintances, as the teacher began her
lesson.

Florrie Whittaker did not behave worse than several others of the young,
noisy, irrepressible creatures who sat round the table; but there was so
much of her in every way that the teacher never lost the sense of her
existence through the whole lesson.  Miss Mordaunt was a clever,
sensible lady, not very young, nor with any irresistible power of
commanding attention, but quite capable of keeping her class together,
and of repressing inordinately bad conduct.  Sometimes her lessons were
interesting and impressive, and, as she was human, sometimes they were
rather dull; but the girls liked her as well as they liked anyone, and
if they had been aware that they wanted a friend would have expected her
to prove a kind one.  But they were mostly young and well-to-do, with
life in every limb and every feeling; and the Bible class was a very
trifling incident to them.

Florrie felt quite good-naturedly towards her, but she did like to make
the other girls laugh, and to know that she could upset nearly all of
them if she liked.  She was not clever enough to care with her mind for
the history of Saint Paul, and she was no more open to any spiritual
impression than the table at which she sat, new gloves to button and new
hats to compare effectually occupying her attention.  She jumped up when
her class was over, a little more full of spirits for the slight
restraint, and rushed out in a hurry with Carrie and Ada, that they
might be round on the other side when the boys' class came out, and see
who was there.

It was general curiosity on Florrie's part, and the desire to do what
was disapproved of; her family were above the class who were likely to
"walk with" anyone at fifteen, and she only hurried along giggling and
whispering towards the riverside.

A pretty, sleepy, flat-country river ran through the meadows that lay
round about Rapley, and the towing-path beside it was a favourite Sunday
walk, and in its quieter regions was the resort of engaged couples, and
of quiet families walking out with their babies in their perambulators.
But the stretch of river between the suburban region where the cemetery
lay and the church of Saint Jude, in the district of which it was
included, was near the lower parts of the town, and on Sundays was full
of roughs, and idle lads on the way to become roughs.  No girls who were
careful of their conduct and wished to keep out of noisy company would
have gone there in the afternoon.  Florrie Whittaker and her two friends
knew quite well that they had no business to be in that direction; but a
feint of pursuit from some of the lads as they hung about the classroom
door sent them scurrying and looking behind them down the street, and
they soon found themselves, in all their conspicuous finery, walking
along the towing-path by the river.  It was a shabby region; new and yet
dirty little houses bordered it, their back yards and back gardens, each
one less ornamental than the last, stretching down to the path, between
which and the river were a few pollard willows.  On the other side
spread out a low-lying marshy region, which was generally flooded in the
winter.  A small public-house ended the row of houses where a swing gate
led into the fields beyond.

"I say," said Carrie, "we didn't ought to have come down here.  Mother
'll give it me when I get back."

"No more we'd ought," said Ada.  "If Miss Simpson were to hear of it,
she'd say I was letting down the school.  Come through the gate and
across the fields, Florrie; this ain't nice at all."

"I don't care," said Florrie, stimulated by sundry remarks caught in
passing; "we can take care on ourselves.  I ain't a-going to speak to
anyone; but I'll walk here as long as I like.  Oh my! what fun it'd be
if your governess did catch you, Ada!"

"You wouldn't think it fun if Mrs Lee was to catch you," said Ada.

"Oh my! shouldn't I though?" said Florrie, with her beaming face all in
a twinkle.  "I'd like to see her coming through the gate.  There's a
boat on the river; let's stop and see it go by."

"Don't, Florrie Whittaker," said Carrie.  "There's Liza Mason and Polly
Grant, and I ain't a-going to be seen with _they_."

"Well, I am then," said Florrie, delighted at teasing her friends, and
quite indifferent to the fact that the two girls who joined them were of
a much rougher, lower stamp than themselves--girls whose Sunday finery
consisted of an artificial flower to enliven their weekday dirt, and
who, poor things, were little general drudges in places which no
respectable girl would take.  Liza and Polly were nothing loth, when
Florrie chose to acknowledge an old Sunday school fellowship in mischief
by stopping to speak.  Liza was saucy, and called out loudly that she
thought they'd all be too proud to take any notice.

"Not I," said Florrie.  "I don't care for no one.  You come into our
shop, Liza, any day, and I'll show you all the best things in it."

"That you won't," said one of a group of the Sunday school lads who had
followed.  "I'd dare you to do that--you'd be afraid."

"I dare," said Florrie.  "You come in with an errand and see.  I dare do
anything I've a mind to; I don't care for no one!"

"Florence Whittaker," said Ada Price, the pupil-teacher getting the
better of the mischievous, idle girl in her, "I'll never walk with you
again, you're too bad--and--oh my, come on, for there _is_ your Mrs Lee
coming through the gate.  Florrie, Florrie!  She'll see you in another
minute!"

Ada and Carrie were indifferently behaved and common-minded girls, but
they were not without some sense.  A moderate amount of misbehaviour at,
and on the road to and from their Sunday class was their way of enjoying
their rather scanty bit of freedom; but risking their weekday occupation
and their means of earning their living was another thing altogether.
They pulled away from Florence, held up their heads, and walked on.

But Florence Whittaker was daring with a different degree of folly from
that of most silly girls.  The sense of when to stop was lacking in her,
as it had been woefully lacking in her eldest brother, and the sense of
how delightful her employer's face of horror would be kept her standing
in the midst of the group of rough lads and girls, and tempted her to
raise her voice and call out again, "You see if I don't!"

Mrs Lee, a most respectable-looking tradeswoman, walking through the
fields with a friend, stopped short at sight of the "young lady" who
served in her fancy shop thus surrounded.  "Miss Whittaker!" she said in
a voice of blank amazement.

"Good afternoon, Mrs Lee," said Florence pertly.  "Isn't it a nice
afternoon?"

"Miss Whittaker, I am surprised."

"Are you, Mrs Lee?  Our class is just over."  Mrs Lee looked her up
and down, and walked on in silence.  This was no place for an
altercation.

"Go on, Florence Whittaker," said one of the bigger lads.  "The old
lady's right enough, and this ain't the place for young ladies--"

"'Twas all along of you we came," said Florence.  "Well, good-bye, Liza;
don't you forget."

She ran off after her companions, who were now walking soberly enough
across the field path which led back into the high road.  But Florrie's
spirits were quite unchecked.  She laughed at the thought of Mrs Lee's
amazement, she laughed at Carrie and Ada's fright, she repeated with
more laughing the various vulgar jokes which had passed with the lads
and with Polly and Liza.

"I never thought," said Ada indignantly, "that you'd join company,
Florence Whittaker, with such as them.  It's as much as I'd do to pass
the time of day with them."

"Now then," said Florrie, "didn't Miss Mordaunt say last Sunday as it
was very stuck up and improper to object to Maria Wilson coming to the
class because she's a _general_? and she said I was a kind girl to let
her look over my Bible, so there!"

"Maria Wilson do behave herself," said Carrie.

"Well, Carrie Jones, don't you talk about behaviour!  Do Miss Mullins
always behave herself?  Don't she walk out at the back with the young
men in the shop, and wait outside the church for them?  And you're glad
enough to walk with _her_.  I don't care how people behave so long as I
can have my fun, and I don't care who they are neither."

Ada and Carrie, brought face to face with one of the practical puzzles
of life for girls of their standing, the difficulty of "keeping oneself
up" in a right and not in a wrong way, were far too conscious of
inconsistency to have anything to say, and Ada changed the subject.

"Well, anyway, I wouldn't be you to-morrow morning, Florrie," she said.

"I like to get a rise out of Mrs Lee," said Florrie, "and I don't care
a bit for her.  I shall just enjoy it."

Carrie and Ada did not believe her, but, worse luck for Florence, it was
perfectly true.  She did not care.  The power of calculating
consequences was either absent from her nature or entirely undeveloped
in it.  She was not a bit put out by her companions' annoyance, and
laughed at them as she parted from them at the upper gate of the
cemetery.  The sun was still shining brightly on the clean gravel walks,
the white marble crosses and columns, and on the many flowers planted
beneath them.  Apart from its associations, Rapley cemetery was a
cheerful, pleasant place, and Florence, as she noted a new-made grave,
heaped up with white flowers, only thought that there was an extra
number of pretty wreaths there, without a care as to the grief which
they represented.

Mr Whittaker was very proud of the good taste and good order of his
cemetery, and took a great deal of trouble to have everything kept as it
should be.

Even Martha, in whose favourite literature lonely churchyards and silent
tombs were often to be met with, never thought of connecting the
sentiment which they evoked with the nice tidy rows of modern monuments
among which she lived.  Aunt Lizzie occasionally pointed a moral by
hoping her nieces would remember that they might soon be lying beneath
them; but they never regarded the remark as anything more than a flower
of speech.

Florence got in just in time for tea, to find her father giving Mrs
Stroud the history of some transactions he had lately had with the
"Board," in which he had brought over all the gentlemen to see that he
was right as regarded certain by-laws.

Mr Whittaker was a round-faced, rosy man, like his younger children.
He was a very respectable, hard-working man, and a kind father; but he
thought a good deal of his own importance and of the importance of his
situation, and a good deal of his conversation consisted in impressing
his own good management on his hearers.  He would have been almost as
much put out with Martha for wanting what she had not got as he had been
with the one of his children who had brought him into disrepute.
Florrie's misdemeanours had never come across him, and she did not know
what his displeasure would be like.  She knew quite well what that of
her brother George could be, and enjoyed provoking it.  George was an
irreproachable youth, and aimed at being a gentleman.  He was of the
dark and slender type, like Martha, and cultivated a quiet style of
dress and manner.  He sang in the choir of another church in the town,
and was friendly with the clergy and church officials.  It was a new
line of departure for the Whittakers, and an excellent one; but somehow
George rather liked to keep it to himself, and did not encourage his
sisters to attend his church, or follow his example in religious
matters.

Florrie came in, and as soon as tea was over, and her father and aunt
were out of hearing, she amused herself with scandalising George and
Martha by boasting of how she had shocked Carrie and Ada through
stopping to talk to Liza and Polly.  She omitted to mention either Mrs
Lee or the cause of the walk by the river.  There were limits to the
home endurance, and even Florence, when not worked up to delightful
defiance, was aware of their existence.

CHAPTER THREE.

DON'T CARE!

Mrs Lee was a widow.  She kept a small, but very superior, `Fancy
Repository' in a good street in Rapley.  Her daughter helped her to
manage the business, and Florence Whittaker was being trained up as an
assistant.  Idleness was not one of Florrie's failings, and, as she was
quick, neat-handed, and willing, she gave tolerable satisfaction, though
Mrs Lee considered her lively, free and easy manners to pleasant
customers, and her short replies to troublesome ones, as decidedly
"inferior," and not what was to be expected in such an establishment as
hers.  Florence, however, was gradually acquiring a professional manner,
which she kept for business hours, as too many girls do, apparently
regarding refinement and gentleness as out of place when she was off
duty.

She presented herself as usual on Monday morning, in a nice dark frock
and hat, and with her flying hair tied in a neat tail, and began
cheerfully to set about her duties, which were not at all distasteful to
her.  But she wondered all the time what Mrs Lee was going to say.
Perhaps, if that lady had been a keen student of human nature, she would
have disappointed the saucy girl by saying little or nothing.  But she
knew that most girls disliked being found fault with, and had not
discovered that Florrie Whittaker rather enjoyed it.  She believed, too,
in the impressiveness of her own manner, and presently, summoning
Florence into the parlour, said majestically:

"Miss Whittaker, it is not my intention to say much of what I witnessed
yesterday, except that it was altogether unworthy of any young lady in
_my_ employment.  Should it occur again I shall be obliged to take other
measures."

"I'm very sorry, ma'am, I'm sure," said Florence meekly, and hanging
down her head.

"No one can say more.  I will not detain you from your duties."

"Thank you, ma'am.  I'll remember," said Florrie, retreating, and
leaving Mrs Lee much pleased with the result of her admonitions.  Miss
Lee, who caught sight of the young lady's face as she passed behind the
counter, did not feel quite so well satisfied.

There was, however, very little fault to be found with Florence in
business hours; and all went well till about twelve o'clock, when, there
being several customers in the shop, Miss Lee became aware of an unusual
bustle at one end of it, and beheld Florence opening boxes, spreading
out fine pieces of needlework, and showing off plush and silk, with the
greatest civility and a perfectly unmoved countenance, to a shabby
little girl in an old hat and a dirty apron, while a boy with a basket
on his arm stood just inside the door, open-mouthed with rapturous
admiration.

"What are you doing, Florence Whittaker?" whispered Miss Lee in an
undertone.

"Waiting on this young lady, Miss Lee.  This peacock plush, miss, worked
with gold thread is very much the fashion; but some ladies prefer the
olive--"

"What do you want here?" said Miss Lee to the customer, as her mother,
suddenly perceiving what was going on, paused with a ball of knitting
silk in her hand and unutterable things in her face.  "Have you a
message?"

But Polly fled at the first sound of her voice, and was out of sight in
a moment, while the errand-boy's loud laugh sounded as he ran after her.

"Put those things up, Miss Whittaker," said Mrs Lee, turning blandly to
her customer.  "Some mistake, ma'am."

"Why, Miss Lee," said Florence, "I thought I was to be civil just the
same to everyone, and show as many articles as the customers wish."

"You had better not be impertinent," said Miss Lee.  "Wait till my
mother is at leisure."

In the almost vacant hour at one o'clock Mrs Lee turned round to her
assistant, and demanded what she meant by her extraordinary behaviour.

Florrie looked at her.  She did feel a little frightened, but the
intense delight of carrying the sensation a stage farther mastered her,
and she said:

"The boy there, yesterday, when you saw us down by the river, dared me
to show Polly the fine things in the shop, or to notice her up here.  So
I said, `Let her come and try.'  And she came just now, so I kept my
word.  There ain't no harm done."

It was the absolute truth, but telling the truth under the
circumstances, with never a blush or an excuse, was hardly a virtue.

"Do you mean to say you have dared to play a practical joke on me and my
establishment--that you have been that audacious?" exclaimed Mrs Lee.

"I didn't know it was a joke," said Florrie.  "You didn't laugh."

"No, Florence Whittaker, I did not.  I am much more likely to cry.  I
have a regard for your father, but there have been too many practical
jokes in your family.  It is your brother Harry over again, and I could
not--could not continue to employ you if _that_ kind of spirit is to be
displayed."

"There's other occupations," said Florrie.  "I ain't so fond of fancy
work."

"Oh, Florrie, don't be such a silly girl," said Miss Lee.  "Ask mother's
pardon, and have done with it.  Then maybe she'll overlook it this time,
as you've never done such a thing before."

"I don't know what I've done now," said Florrie.  "I only showed the
articles to a customer."

Mrs Lee looked at her.  If she had appeared tearful or sulky she would
have sent her away to think the matter over.  But Florrie looked quite
cool, and as if she rather enjoyed the situation.

"Well," said Mrs Lee, "I must speak to your father."

"I don't care if you do," said Florence.

"Then, Florence Whittaker, I _shall_," said Mrs Lee with severe
emphasis.  "Go back now and attend to your business."

Florence revenged herself by doing nothing but what she was told.

"Why didn't you show the Berlin wools to that lady?"

"I didn't know as I might, Miss Lee."

Towards the end of the afternoon Mrs Lee went out, and her daughter was
so quiet a person that Florrie had very little opportunity of being
saucy to her.

She came up as the girl was putting on her hat to go home.

"Florence," she said, in a rather hesitating voice, "tell mother you're
sorry.  She'll not be hard on you.  Don't be like your poor brother, and
throw all your chances away.  You _are_ like him, but there's no need to
follow in his steps."

"If Harry was like me he must have been a deal nicer than George," said
Florrie, who knew nothing about her eldest brother's history.

"I don't care," she said to herself as she walked home.  "I ain't done
nothing, and I won't stay to be put upon.  If she've gone to father!"

The guess was too true.  When Florence opened the parlour door, there
sat Mrs Lee, her father, and Martha, all looking disturbed and worried.

"Oh," said Florence, "if you please, father, I was just coming home to
tell you as how I'd rather leave Mrs Lee's shop, as she ain't satisfied
with me, and I ain't done nothing at all."

"You've taken a great liberty, Florence, as I understand," said her
father, "and you will certainly not leave if Mrs Lee is good enough to
give you another trial."

"If Florence will express herself sorry," said Mrs Lee.

"I ain't sorry," said Florence coolly.

"And I shall put a stop to your Bible class at once, and forbid you to
go out without your sister if I hear of such behaviour as yours on
Sunday afternoon."

"Martha'd have a time of it," said Florence.  "Well, Mr Whittaker,"
said Mrs Lee, rising, "I know what girls' tempers are, and if Florence
has come to a better mind by to-morrow, and will come down and tell me
so, I will overlook it this once, but no more."

"Bless me, Florrie," said little Ethel, as her father took Mrs Lee out,
"what a piece of work to make!  It ain't much to say you're sorry and
have done with it."

"I ain't sorry, and I mean to have done with it.  I'm tired of the shop,
and I'm tired of the Lees.  Mrs Lee's an old cat and Miss Lee's a young
one!  She ain't so very young neither."

"Oh my, Florrie!" repeated Ethel.  "What a deal you'll have to say
you're sorry for before you've done!  For you'll have to say it first or
last."

"Why?" said Florence.

"Why, one always has to."

"You'll see."

Florence remained stubborn.  She did not look passionate or sulky, but
say she was sorry she would not.  She was tired of the business, and she
didn't care for losing her situation.  She didn't care at all.

"Don't care came to a bad end," said Matty angrily.

"Don't care if he did," said Florence.

George had come back from his walk by this time, and had added his voice
to the family conclave.  Now he gave an odd, half-startled look at his
father, and to the supreme astonishment of the naughty girl her sally
was received in silence.  Nobody spoke.

Back on Martha's mind came an evening long ago, and the sound of a
sharp, aggravating, provoking whistle, a boy's face, too like Florrie's,
peeping in first at the door and then at the window, and a voice
repeating, "Don't care--don't care--don't care!" in more and more saucy
accents, as the speaker ran off across the forbidden turf of the
cemetery, jumping over the graves as he came to them.  That night had
brought the explosion of mischief which had resulted in Harry's
departure from home and in his final banishment.  Where was that saucy
lad now?  And had he learnt to care out in the wide world by himself?
But Florence was a girl and if _she_ said "Don't care" once too often
her father could not say to her, "Obey me, or you shall do for yourself
in future."

And she had no sense of responsibility sufficient to give her a good
reason for conquering herself.  She had a child's confidence in the care
she was childishly defying.  People so proud and so respectable as the
Whittakers could not even send their girl to a rough place where she
would "learn the difference" between Mrs Lee's "fancy shop" and general
service.  Poor Martha felt that to have Florence at home, doing nothing
but give trouble, would be nearly intolerable; while what she would do
if Mrs Stroud's suggestion was adopted, and she was sent to stay with
her, passed the wildest imagination to conceive.

"You'll be very sorry, Florrie," she said, "when it's too late."

"No, I shan't," said Florence; "I like a change.  I'm tired of serving
in the shop.  Dear me! there's a many situations in the world.  I'll get
a new one some time."

Florence got her way, and though she was supposed to be in disgrace, she
declined to recognise the fact.  She fell back into the position of an
idle child at home, worried Matty, set her little sisters a very poor
example, and enjoyed as much half-stolen, half-defiant freedom as she
could.  When she found that Carrie and Ada had been forbidden by their
respective mothers to "go with her," as they expressed it, she made it
her delight to tease and trap them into enduring her company, and
finally, after about a fortnight, walked coolly down to see Mrs Lee and
ask how she got on with the new assistant!

CHAPTER FOUR.

ASHCROFT.

Some twenty miles away from Rapley, in a less flat and dull and more
richly wooded landscape, was the little village of Ashcroft, where Mr
Whittaker's cousin, Charles Warren, was head keeper to Mr Cunningham,
of Ashcroft Hall.

The keeper's lodge was a large, substantial cottage, with a thatched
roof and whitewashed walls, standing all alone in a wide clearing in the
midst of the woods that surrounded the Hall.  It was nearly a mile from
the great house, and had no other cottages very near it, being situated
in what was sometimes grandly called "the Forest"--a piece of unenclosed
woodland, where the great ash-trees that gave their name to the place
grew up, tall and magnificent, with hardly any copse or brushwood at
their feet--only ferns, brambles, and short green turf!  Right out on
this turf the keeper's cottage lay, with never a bit of garden ground
about it, the idea being that, as the rabbits and hares could not be
kept out of the way of temptation, temptation had better be kept out of
the way of the rabbits and hares.

There were no flowers, except in the sitting-room window, but there were
tribes of young live things instead--broods of little pheasants, rare
varieties of game and poultry, and puppies of different kinds under
training.  The barking, twittering, and active movements of all these
little creatures made the place cheerful, and took off from the lonely
solemnity of the great woodland glades, stretching out from the clearing
as far as eye could reach.

It was a very beautiful place, but "it weren't over populated," as Mrs
Stroud remarked one fine July evening, as she sat at the door looking
out at the wood, having come to spend a couple of nights with her
cousins.

"We don't find it lonesome," said Mrs Warren.  "It's not above half a
mile down that path to the village, and there's a good many of us
scattered about in the lodges and gardens to make company for each
other."

Mrs Warren was a pleasant-looking woman, well spoken, with a refined
accent and manner, being indeed the daughter of a former gardener at
Ashcroft Hall.

"Well," said Mrs Stroud, "there's something about them glades as I
should find depressing.  With a street, if you don't see the end of it,
at least you know there's fellow-creatures there, if you did see it; but
there's no saying what may be down among those green alleys.  To say
nothing that one does associate overhanging trees with damp."

"Well, we have to keep good fires, but, you see, there's plenty of fuel
close by.  And how did you leave your brother and his young family?
I've often thought I'd like to renew the acquaintance."

"Well, they have their health," said Mrs Stroud.  "But there,
Charlotte, young people are always an anxiety, and them girls do want a
mother's eye."

"No doubt they do, poor things.  Why, the eldest must be quite a young
woman."

"I don't know that there's much to be said against Martha Jane," said
Mrs Stroud.  "She's a good girl enough in her way, though too much set
on her book, and keeps herself to herself _too_ much, to my thinking.
If that girl ever settles in life, she'll take the crooked stick at
last, mark my word for it."

"Has she any prospects?" asked Mrs Warren.

"She _might_," said Mrs Stroud with emphasis.  "Undertaking is an
excellent trade, and she sees young Mr Clements frequent at funerals--
or might if she looked his way, as I'm certain sure he looks hers."

"Well, girls will have their feelings," said Mrs Warren.  "And isn't
the next one growing up too?"

"Ah," said Mrs Stroud, with a profound sigh.

"There's worse faults than being too backward after all, and that there
Florence is indeed a trial.  I tell my brother that good service is the
only chance for her, and that I should consult you about it."

"I thought she was in a shop."

"She _were_.  But she've thrown up an excellent chance."

Here Mrs Stroud entered on a long account of Florence's appearance,
character, and recent history, ending with: "So, Charlotte, seeing that
she's that flouncy and that flighty that she'll come to no good as she
is, I thought if you could get her under the housekeeper here for a bit
it would be a real kindness to my poor brother."

"But Mrs Hay would never look at a girl that was flighty and flouncy.
The servants are kept as strict and old-fashioned as possible--plain
straw bonnets on Sunday, and as little liberty as can be.  No doubt they
learn their business well, but I do think if there was a lady at the
head she might see her way to making things a bit pleasanter for young
people.  'Tis a dull house, even for Miss Geraldine herself, and has
been ever since the time you know of."

"Ay," said Mrs Stroud mysteriously, "and it's that there unlucky Harry
that Florence takes after--more's the pity.  Well, tell me about your
young folk."

"Well, Ned, you know, is under his father--his wife is a very nice
steady girl--and Bessie's got the Roseberry school; she got a
first-class certificate, and is doing well.  And Wyn--we're rather
unsettled in our minds about Wyn.  He don't seem quite the build, the
father thinks, for a keeper, and he don't do much but lead about poor
Mr Edgar's pony chaise and attend to his birds and beasts for him.  Mr
Edgar seems to fancy him, and we're glad to do anything for the poor
young gentleman.  But Bessie, she says that it's all very well for the
present, but it leads to nothing.  Wyn declares he'll be Mr Edgar's
servant when he grows up.  But there, poor young gentleman! there's no
counting on that--but of course Wyn might take to that line in the end,
and be a gentleman's valet."

"And Mr Alwyn, that Wyn was named after, haven't never come home?"

"Never--nor never will, to my thinking.  The place is like to come to
Miss Geraldine, unless Mr Cunningham leaves it to Mr James, his
nephew."  Mrs Warren was only relating well-known facts, as she
delivered herself of this piece of dignified gossip with some pride even
in the misfortunes of the great family under whose shadow she lived, and
Mrs Stroud sighed and looked impressed.

"Well," she said, "small and great have their troubles, and Mr Alwyn
were no better than Harry, and where one is the other's likely to be."

"I've always felt a regret," said Mrs Warren, "that we couldn't take
better care of Harry when he was sent to us here.  And I've been
thinking, Elizabeth, that if John Whittaker would trust us with Florence
I should be glad to have her here for a time, and see if I could make
anything of her.  It would be a change, and if she's got with idle
girls, it would separate her from them."

"Well, there'd be no streets here for her to run in," said Mrs Stroud.
"You're very kind, Charlotte, but I doubt you don't know what a handful
that there girl is!"

"I've seen a good many girls in my time," said Mrs Warren, smiling,
"though my Bessie is a quiet one; and if she finds herself a bit dull at
first, it's no more than she deserves, by your account of her, poor
thing!"

"I believe my brother 'll send her off straight," said Mrs Stroud.
"It's downright friendly of you, Charlotte, and Florrie shall come, if I
have to bring her myself."

Mrs Warren was a kind and conscientious woman; but she would hardly
have proposed to burden herself with such a maiden as Florence was
described to be but for circumstances which had always dwelt on her mind
with a sense of regret and responsibility.  When Harry Whittaker had, as
his aunt put it, made Rapley too hot to hold him, he had been sent to
Ashcroft to try if his cousin could make him fit for an under-keeper's
place, alongside of his own son Ned.  Harry's spirit of adventure and
active disposition were not unfitted for such work, and the plan looked
hopeful.

At that time Ashcroft Hall had been a gayer place than it was now.  Mr
Cunningham was still a young man, taking his full share in society, and
his two sons were active, high-spirited youths of sixteen and twenty,
devoted to sport and to amusements of all kinds.  Alwyn, the eldest, was
at home at the time when Harry Whittaker was sent to Ashcroft.  He had
the sort of grace and good-nature which wins an easy pardon, at any rate
among old friends and dependents, for a character for idleness and
extravagance, and naturally he and his brother were intimate and
companionable with the young keepers, side by side with whom they had
grown up.  It was quite new to Harry Whittaker to spend long days in a
gentleman's company, fishing and shooting, joining in conversation, and
often sharing meals together; but he contrived, with tact, to adapt
himself to the mixture of freedom and deference with which his cousin
treated the young squires.

It was a happy relation, and one which is often productive of much good
to both parties; but neither Alwyn Cunningham nor Harry Whittaker was
good company for the other.  Alwyn took a fancy to the saucy, sharp lad,
and encouraged him in talcs of mischievous daring, and Harry was quick
to perceive that, as he put it, "the young gentleman was not so mighty
particular after all."

A good deal went on that was not for the good of any of the lads, and at
last came a great crash, the particulars of which no one except those
actually involved ever knew.

There was an old house near Ashcroft Hall called Ravenshurst, which had
the reputation of being haunted.  It belonged to a Mr and Mrs
Fletcher, who came there occasionally with their one daughter and
entertained the neighbourhood.  At last, on the occasion of a great
ball, there was an alarm of the Ravenshurst ghost, a pursuit, and, it
was said, a discovery that Alwyn Cunningham, assisted by Harry
Whittaker, had played a trick.  The affair was hushed up, and no one
ever knew exactly what had happened; but a little girl had been
frightened into serious illness, and at the same time some valuable
jewels belonging to Mrs Fletcher had disappeared.

All that was known to the Ashcroft public was that Harry Whittaker was
brought before Mr Cunningham and other magistrates the next morning on
the charge of having stolen the jewels, but that the case was dismissed
from absolute want of evidence, and also on Alwyn Cunningham declaring
on oath that Harry Whittaker had never been near the place from which
the jewels had disappeared.  Ned Warren was out of the scrape, having
been with his father all night.  All that he could or would say of the
matter was that he had told Harry that "it wasn't their place to
frighten the gentlefolk, whatever Mr Alwyn might say," and had so kept
out of the affair.

But the lost jewels were never found, and the exact mode of their
disappearance was never clearly known outside the families of those
concerned, and the magistrates who had refused to commit Harry
Whittaker.  But after that interview neither Alwyn Cunningham nor Harry
Whittaker had ever been seen in Ashcroft again.  It was known that the
young gentleman and his father had had a desperate quarrel, and that Mr
Cunningham never intended to forgive him.

In spite of Alwyn's oath and the magistrates' decision, the loss of the
jewels hung over the memory of the two foolish youths with a cloud of
suspicion.  Most of the Ashcroft people thought that young Whittaker had
stolen them, and had been screened by Alwyn Cunningham.

Mr Fletcher, the owner of the jewels, soon after died, and the family
in the natural course of things left Ravenshurst at the end of their
tenancy.

Whether Edgar Cunningham had had any share in the practical joke or knew
anything of the fate of its authors no one could tell, for shortly after
his health had failed from an unexplained accident in which his spine
had been injured, and he had been an invalid ever since.

Since those events Ashcroft Hall had been a very dull and dreary place.

Mr Cunningham went very little into society, and only entertained a few
old friends in the shooting season.  Mr Edgar found what interests he
could for himself, when his health allowed him to pursue any interests
at all; and the girl, Geraldine, lived entirely apart from her father
and brother, under charge of a governess who had been with her for many
years.

Mr Cunningham was not popular or intimately known.  The vicar of
Ashcroft was a stranger, who had come to the place since the break-up at
the Hall, and was only on terms of distant courtesy with its
inhabitants, excepting with little Geraldine, who was brought up by her
governess to the ordinary village interests of a squire's daughter.

CHAPTER FIVE.

A NEW EXPERIENCE.

Mrs Stroud and Mrs Warren before they parted arranged the details of
Florence's proposed visit.  She was to come for three months, during
which time her father was to pay a small sum for her board, and put her
entirely in the hands of her cousin, Mrs Warren.  If the latter thought
fit, she would send her to learn "the dressmaking" in the village, and
if she did not choose to trust her out of her sight, she could teach her
dairy-work, and employ her as seemed best.  At the end of three months,
if Florence behaved herself, and appeared likely to be of any use, a
situation in a superior line of service should be found for her, and if
she proved incurably troublesome it was always possible to send her
home.

"Well, Charlotte," said Mrs Stroud, "'tis a work of charity, and I hope
you won't repent undertaking of it."

"I'd be sorry to think that another of those young things was to be
thrown away," said Mrs Warren.  "There was a deal to like in poor
Harry.  Maybe he's doing well in foreign parts, and has pushed himself
up again; but that's what a girl never can do, once she lets herself go.
I'll try my best for Florence."

If anything could have set Florence against any scheme, it would have
been the fact that it was proposed for her benefit by her Aunt Stroud;
but she dearly loved novelty, and, being of an active temper, was
getting very tired of hanging about at home with nothing to do, and with
a general sense of being in disgrace; so when Mrs Stroud arrived full
of the idea, so far from opposing it, she rushed upstairs at once, and
began to turn over her things to see if they were fit for her visit.

"I'm sure, Aunt Lizzie," said Matty gratefully, "it's a real kindness of
anyone to take Florrie.  I couldn't say how tiresome she is, with
nothing to do.  I know she isn't growing up the sort of girl she ought
to be, and yet I don't see how to help it."

"Well, she's got a chance now, Martha Jane.  No one can say I don't do
my duty by my nieces.  I always have, and I always _shall_, until I see
you all comfortably settled in life, which it is every girl's duty to
look to."

"I don't think it's a girl's duty to think of anything of the sort,"
said Martha colouring angrily.

"It ain't her duty to be forward and peacocky, Martha Jane," said Mrs
Stroud impressively, "far from it; but when a good chance offers itself,
and a respectable young man comes forward, she should turn him over in
her mind."

"He don't want any turning," said Matty, with a toss of the head.  "What
you're alluding to, aunt, wouldn't be to my taste at all."

"Hoity-toity, your taste indeed!  You're nearly as perverse in your way
as Florrie, Martha Jane.  Young Mr Clements is a very steady young man,
and a very good match for you, and looks at you constant whenever he has
the chance.  It's your duty to let him say his say, and turn the thing
over--"

"No, no!  Aunt Lizzie," said Martha, in tears.  "I don't want him to say
anything--I don't want him to say anything at all--it quite upsets me!"

"Upsets you, indeed!  No, Martha Jane, there's no one more against
flirty ways than I am; but a young woman should be able to receive
proper attentions without being shook to the foundations either!  A good
offer is to her credit, and she can say yes or no, civil and lady-like.
But in my opinion, Martha Jane, this is a case for saying yes."  Matty
offered no explanation, but if she had had Florence's tongue at that
minute she might have surprised Mrs Stroud.  Perhaps if she had not had
a sneaking kindness for the attentive Mr Clements, his striking
dissimilarity to every hero who ever adorned the pages of fiction would
not have struck her so forcibly, nor would his attentions have been so
upsetting.

Love of novelty was a strong element in Florence's adventurous nature,
and she started off for Ashcroft in very good spirits, and enjoyed the
short journey by rail from Rapley to Ashdown Junction exceedingly.  She
had never been away from home before.  The mere sitting in the railway
carnage and watching her fellow-travellers was a delight; her round,
rosy face beamed with satisfaction, and she had nursed a crying baby,
and put it to sleep, and screamed out of window to ask questions of the
porter for a nervous old lady before she arrived at her destination, and
jumped out on the platform at Ashdown, where she was to be met.

There was a little bustle of arrival.  A gentleman got out, and the
porters ran for his luggage, and presently one came up to Florence,
saying:

"Young woman for the keeper's lodge at Ashcroft?  You're to go back in
the trap that fetched Mr James's luggage.  He's riding himself."

"And who's Mr James?" said Florence cheerfully, as her box was found
and she was conducted out of the station.

"Mr James Cunningham for the Hall," said the porter, evidently
surprised at any explanation being needed.

The trap was driven by a stolid-looking lad, and spinning along behind
the big horse was the newest sensation Florence had ever experienced.
She was fairly silenced, and next door to frightened, as they passed
along the narrow woodland roads, where the branches brushed her hat, and
trees--trees--seemed to go on for ever.

She had had no sort of image in her mind of the place she was going to,
or of the sort of people she was likely to see, and when they came out
into the open clearing, and stopped in front of the roomy, low-lying
cottage, she echoed unconsciously her Aunt Stroud's sentiments, by
saying to herself:

"Well!  It's a queer spot."

"So here you are, my dear," said a pleasant voice, as Mrs Warren came
out of the house.  "The master and Ned couldn't come to meet you, so we
were glad of the chance of the trap for the luggage."

Florence jumped down and received Mrs Warren's kiss, looking about her
curiously.  She was bigger and more grown-up looking than her cousin had
expected; but her cheerful face with its look of pert good-nature was
very familiar, and it was at least evident that she had arrived with the
intention of being good-humoured.

"I hope you won't find yourself dull, my dear," said Mrs Warren, as she
offered tea and a new-laid egg to her visitor.  "It's quiet here, no
doubt, but we shall have Bessie home come harvest, and Gracie Elton, the
gardener's daughter, is a nice girl that you could go with now and
then."

"Oh, I ain't the sort that gets dull," said Florence; "leastways, not
when things are new.  Most things are dull you have to do every day
constant."

"I dare say," said Mrs Warren, "that your own home may be a little
gloomy sometimes for young folks."

"Oh, it's very cheerful in the cemetery," said Florence, "and there's a
deal going on with funerals and folks coming to walk there on Sundays;
but I was getting tired of staying at home.  I think I'd have gone back
to Mrs Lee if she'd have took me."

She spoke in a voice of complete unconcern, and presently asked if she
might go and look round outside.

Mrs Warren agreed, and Florence stepped out on to the short smooth turf
and looked about her.

The sun was getting low, and threw long golden shafts of light under the
trees across the grass; above the waving branches the sky was blue and
still.

Florence was an observant girl, who walked the world with her eyes open,
and she was aware that she had never seen anything so pretty as this
before.

"'Tis like a picture," she said to herself.  Presently a pony chair came
up one of the green alleys, drawn by a little grey pony and led by a
pretty fair-haired boy, younger and smaller than herself.  A young man
was lying back in the chair, and Florence stood staring in much
curiosity as the boy led the pony up to the cottage and Mrs Warren came
out curtseying.

"Here's Mr Edgar," she whispered.  "You were best to go in, Florence."

Florence retreated a few steps under the shadow of the porch, but
watched eagerly as the little boy said:

"Mother, I'm going to fetch the puppies for Mr Edgar to see."

"Very well, Wyn; bring them round directly.  Good evening, Mr Edgar.
How are you, sir, to-night?"

"Oh, pretty well, Mrs Warren, thank you.  Wyn's had a long tramp with
the pony, but he wants me to see how much the little dachshunds have
grown.  I want to give one to Miss Geraldine for herself."

"They're too wrigglesome for my taste, sir," said Mrs Warren, smiling,
"but Warren, he says they're all the fashion."

Mr Edgar laughed, and raised himself a little as Wyn Warren returned
with a couple of struggling tan-coloured puppies in his arms.

"They're nearly as slippery as ferrets, sir," he said, "but they're very
handsome.  They've no legs at all to speak of--and their paws are as
crooked as can be."

Mr Edgar turned over the puppies and discussed their merits with
evident interest, finally fixing, as Wyn said, on the "wriggliest" to
give his sister.

Florence had been far too curious to keep in the background, and had not
the manners not to stare at the young gentleman's helpless attitude and
white delicate face.  Wyn, being engaged with his master, had not
thought it an occasion to notice anyone else; but Mr Edgar caught sight
of her as he handed the puppies back, and gave a slight start as he
looked.  Mrs Warren coloured up and looked disturbed.

"My cousin, sir," she said, "come to pay me a visit, and to learn the
dairy-work."

"Ah!" said Mr Edgar, with rather a marked intonation.  "Good evening,
Mrs Warren.  Come along, Wyn--if you've got rid of the puppies."

Mrs Warren looked after the pony chair as it passed out of sight.

"My master did say I was in too great a hurry--but there, they'll never
see anything of her.  But she do take after poor Harry!"

"You should have made the gentleman a curtsey, Florence, when he saw
you, and I had to name you," she said repressively, for she was annoyed
at Florence's bad manners in coming out and staring.

"Law!" said Florence good-humouredly, but quite coolly, "should I?  I
never seen it done."

CHAPTER SIX.

MR EDGAR.

On the morning after Florence's arrival at Ashcroft little Wyn Warren
stood on the terrace of a pretty piece of walled garden on the south
side of the great house, with the wrigglesome puppy in his arms, waiting
for his master to come out and give him his orders for the day.  Wyn was
devoted to Mr Edgar, and to all the birds and beasts and flowers, which
were the chief diversion of a very dull life.  Edgar Cunningham was not
naturally given to intellectual pursuits.  He had been fond of sport and
athletic exercises of all kinds, and there was a good deal of
unconscious courage in the way in which he amused himself as much as
possible, especially as there was no one but Wyn to care much about his
various hobbies.  Winter was a bad time for the poor young fellow, but
in the summer, he was often well enough to get about in his pony chair,
and visit the water-fowl or the farm, or hunt about in the woods for
lichens, ferns, and mosses; sometimes, if he was able to sit up against
his cushions, stopping to sketch a little, not very successfully in any
eyes but Wyn's perhaps, but greatly to his own pleasure.  Wyn managed to
lead that pony into very wonderful places, and he and his master liked
best to take these expeditions by themselves; for when the grave and
careful Mr Robertson, who waited on Mr Edgar, went with them, they
were obliged to keep to smooth ground, as he did not approve of Mr
Edgar being tired and shaken, and when they had once got stuck in a bog
it was difficult to say whether master or boy felt the most in disgrace
for such imprudence.  But Wyn secretly thought that an occasional jolt--
and really he was so careful that it very seldom happened--was not half
so bad for Mr Edgar as lying all alone on his sofa, with no one to
speak to but the grave father, who always looked at him as if his
helpless state was such a dreadful disappointment and trouble that he
could not bear to see more of him than could be helped.  Mr Edgar's
tastes opened a good deal of desultory information to Wyn, and though
the young gentleman was not of the sort to think much about teaching and
educating the boy, the study of botany and natural history seemed to
come naturally, books of travels interested them both, and Wyn got more
knowledge than he was aware of.  Edgar was scrupulously careful not to
interfere with the boy's church-going and Sunday school, so that he did
well enough, and had a very happy life into the bargain.  The garden in
which he stood was arranged according to Mr Edgar's special fancies,
and contained many more or less successful attempts to domesticate wild
flowers, and Wyn was noticing the not very flourishing condition of a
purple vetch when Mr Edgar came out from the open window of his
sitting-room, and, leaning on his servant's arm, walked slowly to a long
folding-chair at the end of the terrace, on which he lay down, then,
spying Wyn, called him up at once.

"Ha, Wyn, so you've got the puppy?  Miss Geraldine will be out directly.
What a jolly little chap he is!  Put him down on my knee.  No--no, sir,
you don't eat the newspaper!  Anything else new, Wyn?"

"Yes, sir, the wild duck's eggs are hatched, and there are seven of them
on the lower pond.  Should you like to go and see them, sir?"

"Yes, I should.  Get the pony round in half an hour.  It's a lovely
day."

As he spoke a tall girl of about fourteen, in a blue linen frock made
sailor fashion and a sailor hat stuck on the back of her long dark hair,
came running up the broad walk in the middle of the garden, sprang up
the shallow steps that led to the terrace with one bound, and pounced on
the puppy.

"Oh! what a little darling!  What a perfect pet!  Oh, how jolly of you
to get him for me, Edgar!  I'll teach him to walk on his hind legs and
to die--and to bark when I ask him if he loves me--"

"Have you got Miss Hardman's leave to keep him?" said her brother.

"No, not yet.  I thought I'd put him in the cupboard in my room, and
introduce him gradually."

"He'll howl continually, Miss Geraldine, if you shut him up," said Wyn.

"Nonsense," said Edgar; "go and ask her if you may have him as a present
from me."

"Oh, must I?  It would be such fun to have him in a secret chamber, and
visit him at night and save the schoolroom tea for him as if he was a
Jacobite," said Geraldine.

"More fun for you than for the puppy, I should say," said Edgar.

"Well, I think a secret prisoner would be delightful--like the `Pigeon
Pie.'  Edgar, didn't you ever read the `Pigeon Pie'?"

"No," said Edgar, "I haven't had that pleasure."

"Please, ma'am," said Wyn with a smile, "I have.  My sister Bessie
brought it me out of her school library."

"I'm sure," said Geraldine, "it's a very nice book for you to read, Wyn.
But what shall I call the puppy?"

"Please, ma'am, we calls them Wriggle and Wruggle."

"Rigoletto?" suggested Edgar.

"No," said Geraldine, "it ought to be Star or Sunshine, or something
like that, for I'm sure he'll be a light in a dark place.  I know--
Apollo.  I shall call him Apollo.  Well, I'll take him and fall on my
knees to Miss Hardman, and beg her and pray her.  And oh, Edgar! it's
holidays--mayn't I come back and go with you to see the creatures?"

Edgar nodded, and Geraldine flew off, but was stopped in her career by
her cousin James, who came out of the house as she passed, and detained
her to shake hands and look at the puppy.  He came up to Edgar's chair
as Wyn went off to fetch the pony.

"Good morning, Edgar," he said; "pretty well to-day?  I see you are
teaching Geraldine to be as fond of pets as you are yourself."

"Poor little girl! she has a dull life," said Edgar.  "I wish she had
more companions."

"She is beginning to grow up."

"She is.  She ought soon to be brought more forward, I suppose.  But we
never see anyone, or do anything.  I don't see much of Geraldine--
often--and she is kept very tight at her lessons."

"It's dull for you, too," said his cousin compassionately.

"Oh, I don't care when I get out and about a bit."

"My uncle doesn't look well, I think?"

"Doesn't he?" said Edgar quickly.  "Ah, I haven't much opportunity of
judging."

There was a touch of bitterness in his voice, and a look that was not
quite pleasant in the bright hazel eyes, that were usually wonderfully
cheery, considering how much their owner had to suffer, and keen as a
hawk's into the bargain.

"I say, Edgar," said James Cunningham, sitting down on the wall near
him, and speaking low, "people do get into the way of going on and
taking things for granted.  It's a long time since the subject was
mentioned, but do you really think my uncle doesn't know where poor
Alwyn is?"

"I don't know," said Edgar, flushing.  "I've no reason to think he
does."

"It has always seemed to me," said James, with some hesitation, "that if
not, some one ought to find out."

"Do you think I should rest without knowing if I could help it?" said
Edgar, starting up so suddenly, that the pain of the movement forced him
to drop back again on his cushions and go on speaking with difficulty.
"I did ask my father once, and he forbade me to mention him again.
Don't talk of him."

James Cunningham was silenced.  The situation was an awkward one.  The
estate had always gone in the male line, and he would have liked to know
what had become of the next heir, after whom only a life as fragile as
Edgar's stood between himself and the great estates of Ashcroft.  He did
not even know how deep in the eyes of father and brother was the
disgrace that rested on the exile.  But Edgar did not look approachable,
and any attempt at further conversation was checked by the appearance of
Mr Cunningham himself, a tall, pale, grey-haired gentleman, with dark
eyes and long features, like his son and daughter.

He spoke to Edgar, rather distantly, but with a careful inquiry after
his health, and Edgar answered shortly, and with a manner that was
remarkably repellent of any sympathy his father might be inclined to
offer.  Geraldine came rushing back with Apollo clasped tenderly in her
arms, but she stopped and walked demurely down the terrace at sight of
her father.

"Miss Hardman says I may have him, Edgar," she said, "if I don't let him
distract my attention at lesson-time."

"That's all right then," said Edgar, "and here is Wyn with the pony, so
we had better come and see the wild duck."

The servant came out, Edgar was helped into the pony chair, on which
rather pitiful process Mr Cunningham turned his back and walked away,
discussing the morning news with his nephew; and presently they started
off, Wyn leading the pony along the broad walk with Geraldine and Apollo
frisking beside it.  They turned down a shrubbery, stopping at intervals
to admire the gold and silver pheasants, the doves and pigeons, and rare
varieties of foreign poultry, which all had their separate
establishments in what Geraldine called the Zoological Gardens.  Wyn
hunted them into sight, fed them, and discussed their growth, plumage,
and general well-being; while Geraldine smothered the puppy in the
carriage rug to keep him from frightening them with his barking and
yapping.

Then they came out into an open space, where the pea-hens had their
nursery--several of the ordinary coloured sort, and one rarer white one,
whose two little white chicks were watched with much anxiety; while, to
Geraldine's delight, the great white peacock himself appeared with his
wide tail, with its faintly marked eyes like shadows in the whiteness,
spread in the sun.

Then round towards the back of the farm-buildings, where, in a little
square court, lived a yellow French fox, tied up with a long chain--a
savage and unhappy little beast, which "might as well have been back in
France for all the pleasure he gave himself or anyone else," as
Geraldine said.

"Who's to take him?" said Edgar.  "He was funny when he was a little
cub.  Being tied up isn't soothing to the temper."

A family of hedgehogs, fenced round into their own little domain, amused
Geraldine mightily, as she watched the smallest curl himself up into a
ball at the approach of Apollo, who thought him a delightful plaything
till the prickles touched his tender tan nose, and he fled howling.

There was no time to-day to visit all the varieties of poultry, and the
horses were in another direction, and formed another object for Edgar's
drives; for though he could never mount one of them, the love of
horseflesh was in his nature, and he liked to have them led out for his
inspection, and had always plenty to say about their condition and
management.  To-day the little party crossed over the open turf of the
park to a large pond, where Edgar cultivated varieties of aquatic birds.
He was very proud of the black swans and the beautiful Muscovy ducks,
the teal and the widgeon, which he had induced to breed among the reeds,
rushes, and tangled grass that clothed its banks.  Geraldine stood at
the pony's head, while Wyn plunged into the rushes, waded and scrambled
till he had driven the little flock of tiny dark ducklings into his
master's range of vision.

Edgar was pleased; but his attention was less free than usual, and
presently he said abruptly to Wyn:

"So you've got a cousin come to stay with you?"

"Yes, sir.  Mother's got her to see what she's made of, and get her
suited with a place."

"What's her name?  Where does she come from?"

"Florence Whittaker--leastways, she says it's Maud Florence Nellie,
which is a many names, sir, for one girl, don't you think?"

"Will she come to the Sunday school?" asked Geraldine.

"I don't know, ma'am.  Shall I say as you desire her to come, Miss
Geraldine?"

"Yes, do.  There are never any new girls in Ashcroft.  She isn't too
old, is she?"

"She's only going in her fifteen, ma'am, but she's very big."

"Oh, well, Bessie Lee and Grace Elton are sixteen, quite.  Yes, tell her
to come."

"Thank you, ma'am, I will," said Wyn.  "Do you want to go home, sir?"

"Yes, I'm tired this morning.  Go straight back.  I don't want to go
round the wood."

He fell into silence.  Geraldine played with her puppy, and Wyn trudged
cheerily at the pony's head, thinking of an expedition he wanted to
propose some day when Mr Edgar was very well and fresh, and there was
no one to interfere with them.  Mr Edgar had been so weak all the
spring, and had had so many headaches and fits of palpitation--once he
had even fainted after an attempt to walk a few steps farther than
usual--so that he and Wyn had not been trusted to make long excursions
alone together.

But now that he was better again, and the weather was so fine, Wyn
longed to take Dobbles to a certain spot recently laid open to his
approach.  He had been thoroughly imbued with his young master's tastes,
knew the haunts of every bird and beast in the wood, every hollow in the
old ash-trees where owls or squirrels could nest and haunt.  He watched
the growth of all the wild flowers, and at the autumn cottage show
intended to win the first prize for a collection of them--a new idea in
Ashcroft which had been recently suggested by a lady whose husband, Sir
Philip Carleton, had just taken Ravenshurst for the shooting.

CHAPTER SEVEN.

SUNDAY SCHOOL.

Entirely unfamiliar surroundings will exercise a subduing effect on the
most daring nature; and Florence Whittaker for the first few days of her
stay at Ashcroft felt quite meek and bewildered.  She really had nothing
to say.  She was quite unused to so small and quiet a family.  The
eldest son, Ned Warren, had recently married, and did not live at home,
Bessie was away at her school until the harvest holidays, and Wyn was
busy all day and had lessons to do in the evening.  She had never seen
so civil and well-mannered a little boy; while Mr Warren was a great
big man over six feet high, with an immense red beard, very silent and
grave, and good manners gained from the gentlemen with whom he
associated.  Her Aunt Charlotte, as she was directed to call Mrs
Warren, was very kind to her, and never aggravated her, a fact which
upset Florence's previous ideas of aunts.  There really was no
opportunity of distinguishing herself by "answering back," for Mrs
Warren never said anything that gave her a chance.  As she was neither
idle nor unhandy, she acquitted herself well in all the little tasks her
aunt set her; but she was dull enough to look favourably on the idea of
the Sunday school.

"Miss Geraldine's been inquiring about you, Florence," said Wyn when he
came in to dinner.

"She says she wishes you to come down to Sunday school with Gracie
Elton."

"I don't mind if I do," said Florence, "but I attend a Bible class at
home."

"The girls in the first class here are quite as old as you," said Mrs
Warren, "but I dare say you are accustomed to a much larger number."

"Oh, I don't mind," said Florence, with cheerful condescension.  "Our
teacher says we ought not to be stuck up, so, though we're nearly all
business young ladies, we ain't exclusive.  There's two _generals_
attend the class, and I think it's a shame to make them sit by
themselves, don't you?"

"I think it would be very ill-mannered," said Mrs Warren quietly, "if
you did.  I dare say you are very fond of the lady who teaches you?"

"Oh, she's as good as another--better than some.  She knows us, you see,
and don't expect too much of us.  But there, last spring, when she went
away and Miss Bates took us, we weren't going to go to _her_.  Why, she
gave us bad marks for talking, when she'd only just come.  She hadn't
any call to find fault with us; she were just there to keep us together
till teacher came back."

"Well, I suppose, as she was kind enough to teach you, you were careful
not to give any trouble to a stranger," said Mrs Warren, "because that
would have been rude."

"We ain't so rude as the Saint Jude's girls," said Florence virtuously.
"_They_ locked the door and kept their teacher waiting, and pretended
they'd lost the key.  That's going _too_ far, _I_ say.  If ever I'm a
teacher I'll not put up with such as that."

"Could you be a teacher?" said Wyn, who had listened open-mouthed.

"Well," said Florence, "they'll always give little ones to the Bible
class if we apply, and I'd keep 'em strict if I had 'em.  But I don't
think as I'm religious enough."

"Yes," said Mrs Warren, "my Bessie says that we never feel our own
defects so much as when we come to think of teaching others."

"I ain't confirmed yet," said Florence, "but I mean to go up next
spring.  I say our church is good enough for anyone but George; he don't
think nothing of us.  His place is a deal higher; he says we're as
old-fashioned as old-fashioned can be."

Here Florence entered on a lively description of the ritual practised at
the different churches of Rapley, showing considerable acquaintance with
their external distinctions, while Wyn, who had never thought the Church
services concerned him in any way except to behave properly at them,
stared in amazement.  Neither he nor his young master knew much about
Church matters outside of Ashcroft.

Mrs Warren listened and pondered, and for the time being said nothing.
Silence was a weapon with which Florrie's chatter had never yet been
encountered.

She resolved to make a good impression at the Sunday school, and show
these ignorant rustics a little of what a young lady attending a Bible
class was accustomed to.  Indeed, as she stood by herself on the Sunday
morning under the great overarching trees of the silent summer wood,
something not very unlike a feeling of affection came into her heart for
grave Miss Morel aunt and the dusty classroom and the gay girls sitting
round the table.

"They _will_ be quiet without me," she thought and with more eagerness
than the writer expected she began to read a letter from Matty which she
had just received.  After a little information as to the home news the
letter went on:--"Dear Florrie you are not a little girl now, and I am
going to write to you about something that I shouldn't like mentioned to
father or Aunt Stroud.  I am sure you must remember poor Harry, as used
to jump you up and down when you were little.  You know he ran away, and
I am afraid he did something very wicked; but only father knows what it
was.  But he went away from Ashcroft, and, dear Florrie, do remember
about it, for everyone says it was a daring spirit led to his ruin, so
do be a good girl, and mind what Mrs Warren say; for think of Harry,
wandering in a cruel world."

Florence only remembered a little and knew nothing of her eldest
brother.  She had no fear of touching on a tender subject, and thought
that the simplest plan was to ask for an explanation; so as she and Wyn
walked down to the Sunday school together that afternoon--they did not
go in the morning--she broached the subject before they reached the
gardener's cottage, where Grace Elton was to join them.

"I say, Wyn, do you remember my brother Harry?"

Wyn coloured up and answered shyly, "We don't ever talk about _him_."

"No more do we.  Why," said Florence, staring at him with her great
round eyes, "where is he?"

"I don't know," said Wyn.

"Who does?"

"Maybe the master do."

"Mr Cunningham?  What did Harry do?"

"Well, Florrie, so far as I know--only I don't think mother knows I know
it--he ran away with poor Mr Alwyn."

"Ran away?  What for?"

"Well, they was up at Ravenshurst having a lark--which they oughtn't to
have had anything to do with--and the lady's jewels were all stolen at
the same time.  So folks say Harry did it--but whether Mr Alwyn knew--
they never came back again."

"Why should they put it on Harry?"

"He was always playing tricks."

"Playing tricks isn't stealing," said Florence.

"Well, but," said Wyn, "it isn't as if he'd stood his trial--he ran
away.  And they say master had never have banished Mr Alwyn if he
hadn't done something downright disgraceful."

"Does no one ever talk about him?"

"Well, old Granny do sometimes to mother; and once I saw his picture,
and Harry's too."

"Where?"

"Well," said Wyn, lowering his voice, "since you're his sister I'll tell
you.  One day last winter Mr Edgar was ill, and couldn't come out of
doors, and I went to tell him how all the creatures were; but he didn't
seem to take much interest, his back ached so.  But he asked me to fetch
him a little leather case out of a drawer, and he opened it and looked
at it, and he let it fall.  And when I picked it up I saw it was a
photograph, and suddenly Mr Edgar said, `Look at it, Wyn;' and there
was my brother Ned and your brother Harry--I knew it must be--and a tall
young gentleman, all sitting in the forest under the big beech with
their guns, and Mr Edgar sitting swinging on the bough behind them,
like other people, and Mr Edgar put his finger on Mr Alwyn's picture
and said, `If ever you see him again, Wyn, tell him I showed this to
you.  Don't you forget.'  I ain't likely to forget."

"May be they're dead," said Florrie.

"Why, Florence, I look at it like this: It ain't very likely two young
men would both die.  I think it over often," said Wyn, "for I know Mr
Edgar thinks of it.  There's places in the wood where I know he thinks
of it, and I'd like to hunt all over the world to find Mr Alwyn and
bring him back."

Florence was older than Wyn, and a good deal more versed in the world's
ways.

"I expect they were a couple of bad ones," she said, "or they'd have
been back before now.  Well, people may say I take after Harry; but I'll
never run away, not if they tell any number of talcs of me."

"Hush," said Wyn, "here's Grace Elton.  Don't you say nothing, Florence,
to _no_ one."

"I ain't given to blabbing," said Florence coolly.

Grace Elton was a pleasant, well-dressed girl, though in a far quieter
style than Florence.  Wyn fell behind with a pair of boy Eltons, and the
girls chatted until they reached the little whitewashed school--close by
the church, with a great climbing rose hanging over its rustic doorway.

Ashcroft was a very small village, and the school was a mixed one.  On
Sunday two classes of boys, under charge of the clergyman, Mr Murray,
and Miss Hardman, occupied one side of the room.  The day-school
mistress taught the younger girls at the other; and under the pretty
latticed window on a square of forms sat the elder ones.  They were a
flaxen-haired, rosy-faced set of children, simple and rather
stolid-looking, among whom Wyn Warren, Grace Elton, and others of the
head servants' children were decidedly the superiors.  As Florence and
Grace came up to their class, a girl in a straight white frock, with a
red sash and a large straw hat, came and sat down on the teacher's
chair.  "Miss Geraldine'll take us," whispered the girls, as they stood
up and curtseyed; "Mrs Murray's got a cold."

The kind-faced, white-haired old clergyman read the prayer, and then the
first class began to repeat fluently, but with an accent that Florence
could hardly follow, a surprising number of lessons.

"Can you say your collect?" said Miss Geraldine to Florence.

"No, teacher.  We don't learn lessons at home--we've no time for it,"
said Florence.

"You can learn it for next week," said Miss Geraldine, with a calmness
that astonished Florence as much as the other girls were amazed at
hearing Miss Geraldine called "teacher."

But there was something in the unconscious composure of this slip of a
girl, who looked as if she had never been disobeyed in her life, and did
not know what a struggle to keep order meant, that impressed Florence
with a curious sense of fellow-feeling.

"She's got a spirit of her own," she thought; but Geraldine was only
secure of her position and unquestioned in her relation to the girls she
was teaching.

"Yes, teacher; and I'll look over a hymn too if you like, teacher," said
Florence with alacrity.

"A psalm.  Grace Elton will show you."

When the lessons were over the young lady asked questions on them in a
clear, steady little voice, which were nicely answered by the girls, and
then proceeded to hear the Catechism, and, thinking to be polite to the
new-comer and give her an easy piece, asked her her name, to begin with.

Florence was not accustomed to say lessons standing up, nor to say the
Catechism at all, and at the first attempt to repeat her long name she
went off into a hopeless giggle, and stuffed her pocket-handkerchief
into her mouth.  Some of the other girls giggled also.  Miss Geraldine's
dark eyes gave a little flash.

"When you have done laughing, Florence, I'll ask you again.  Grace, go
on."

Florence did not know the next answer that came to her turn, and it soon
became apparent that a great girl of fifteen could not say her
Catechism--a fact common enough at Rapley, but unknown at Ashcroft.

She pouted and shook her shoulders; but there was an odd fascination for
her in this young, firm little teacher, and when the marks were given at
the end of school she anticipated notice for her giggling by saying with
a benevolent smile:

"Law, teacher, I'll say my Catechism next Sunday.  I ain't a-going to
give you any trouble."

Geraldine had never seen anyone in the least like Florence before.  Her
smiling absence of deference and good-natured patronage amazed her.

"I suppose you don't _intend_ to give trouble," she said.  "I am sorry
you don't know your Catechism, but we'll try and teach you while you're
here.  Learn the first three answers for next Sunday."

The two pair of bright eyes met, a little defiantly, but somehow
Florence felt uncomfortable.

"Well, she is a plucky little thing," she said to her neighbour as they
rose.  "_She_ ain't afraid of us."

"Miss Geraldine!"

"I like the look of her," said Florrie.  "I shall try behaving myself.
I can if I choose; some girls can't."

CHAPTER EIGHT.

GRANNY.

After church Wyn went to attend to the supper of some of the animals
which were in his special charge, and Mrs Warren took Florence up to
the great house to see her old mother-in-law, who had once been
housekeeper, but was now old and rheumatic, and confined to one room.
As they walked through the park they met Geraldine and her governess.
Mrs Warren made her dignified little curtsey, and Florrie grinned from
ear to ear with extreme good-nature, and what she felt to be the kindest
notice of her new teacher.  Mrs Warren noticed, but again said nothing.
They walked through the great fruit-gardens round to the back entrance
and into the servants' hall, from which they went first to visit Mrs
Hay in the housekeeper's room.  Mrs Warren was a welcome guest, and
there was plenty of politeness to her young friend.  Florence was an
observant girl; her ideas of superior service had risen hitherto to a
villa "where three were kept."  These solemn upper servants, with their
vast comfortable premises, their handsome clothes, and their intense
sense of superiority, were more overawing to her than their masters and
mistresses would have been.

"They can't have much to do but look at each other," she thought, with
some truth; for the establishment at Ashcroft had never been reduced
when the gay rush of social life, for which it had been calculated, had
stopped altogether.

Aunt Stroud had certainly talked of the Ashcroft household, but Florence
had been rather in the habit of supposing that all these respectable
ladies and gentlemen had been invented for her edification.  Like all
girls of her sort, Florence, if she _did_ feel shy, had absolutely no
manners at all and when Mrs Hay spoke to her she only sniggered and
stuck out her foot, feeling relieved when they went upstairs to see
"Granny."

Mrs Warren was a little old woman in a black gown and old-fashioned
frilled cap.  She had been in the family when the present Mr Cunningham
was born, and she was always treated by him with the greatest respect.
Her great trouble was that she was too lame to go and see Master Edgar,
and it had been no small loss to the lonely Edgar when old "Bunny," as
by some childish play on her name of Warren she was always called, was
no longer able to pay him visits, and give him all the petting which,
poor fellow, he ever got.

She knew all the family troubles, and regarded them as her own; if she
could have brought Alwyn back or cured Edgar, she would have sacrificed
herself with entire and unconscious devotion.  That Miss Geraldine "did
not have the advantages nor the company of other young ladies" was a
constant regret to her.  She had a cat and a canary bird which lived in
harmony together; and in her room Wyn frequently nursed white mice, or
dormice, on the plea that they would amuse Mr Edgar; they certainly
amused himself, and possibly Granny too.  When Mrs Warren and Florrie
arrived Wyn was already established, eating buttered toast, with his
infant dormice asleep on his pocket-handkerchief.  Granny never thought
that animals or babies were dirty, noisy, or troublesome.  She preferred
her cat to her carpet, and her young masters and mistresses and
grandchildren to her afternoon nap.

As she was filling up her brown teapot, which had already for some time
been drawing on the hob, and was setting Wyn and Florence to fetch out
various delicacies from her cupboard, a quick step sounded, and
Geraldine came rushing in, and, flinging her arms round the old woman's
neck, kissed her heartily.

"How d'ye do, Bunny?  Oh! good afternoon, Mrs Warren.  I didn't know
you were having tea.  Sit down, please."

Florence had stood up because all the others did.

"Have a bit of cake, Miss Geraldine, my dear?" said Granny coaxingly.

"Miss Geraldine grows a tall young lady," said Mrs Warren.

"They don't give us half such nice cake in the schoolroom.  Oh!--baby
dormice!  How lovely!"

"Would you be pleased to accept of a pair, Miss Geraldine?" said Wyn.

"You don't think Apollo would eat them?  He _has_ eaten my German
exercises and half a sheet of music."

"There now, you'd better bring him up to me, Missy, and only have him
out sometimes," said Granny.

"He likes German--I don't," said Geraldine.  "Wyn, if you like you can
take Florence Whittaker to see the peacocks."

"Thank you, ma'am, I will," said Wyn, while Florence grinned and
sniggered.

Geraldine went off in a whirlwind as she had come, and after tea Wyn and
Florence went out together, leaving daughter and mother-in-law for a
comfortable chat.

"That's a fine girl of poor Jane Whittaker's, but she don't seem to have
no manners at all," said Granny.

"She hasn't," said Mrs Warren.  "She don't seem to know how to behave
to anyone, except as if they were girls like herself.  Liza Stroud wants
to get her into good service, but she ain't anyhow fit for it.  No lady,
nor no lady's housekeeper, would put up with her for a week with them
manners.  But I'm in hopes to stroke her down gradually and
unconscious-like, for she's very like her poor brother, and 'tis no
manner of use driving her.  Miss Geraldine's a fine young lady too, and
favours poor Mr Alwyn remarkably."

"Yes, there it is again," said the old lady.  "Miss Geraldine's kept so
strict in the schoolroom that she don't know what to do when she gets
out of it.  She ought to be with ladies in the drawing-room, as would
bring her on to receive company like her dear mamma, and sit down nice
with her needlework.  Oh, dear! that was a sore time, that there unlucky
night at Ravenshurst."

"Granny," said Mrs Warren, "I've often wondered what _you_ thought
became of the jewels."

"My dear, I've thought of they jewels day and night, nor never could
give a guess about them.  I knew the young gentlemen had some mischief
on hand, laughing and plotting, and Mr Edgar told me some of the tricks
as they played on each other up at Ravenshurst--which I told him weren't
such as young gentlemen and ladies should condescend to.  But there,
they all went off on their visit, and only the master and Mr Edgar came
back."

"I was sitting here," pursued Granny, "in the dusk that next evening,
when Mr Alwyn came rushing up the stairs--dear, dear!  Miss Geraldine
do fly up them just as he used--and told me to fetch Edgar to wish him
good-bye, as he'd never see or speak to his father again.  So I found
Mr Edgar, and he came, but slow, and looking as white as that
handkerchief.  But they joked and laughed, and tried to be the one as
fierce as the other.  Then Mr Alwyn turned round to me, and swore Harry
Whittaker never saw the jewels.  `And you don't think I've got 'em,
Bunny?' said Mr Alwyn, laughing.  But they wouldn't say not another
word, and they was both awful hard when they spoke of master.  But they
made believe to laugh and make a mock of it when they was wishing each
other good-bye, only I could see poor Mr Edgar was half-choking all the
time, and when his brother was gone he near fainted.  But never did I
think when he laughed again, and said he'd had a slip and twisted his
back, and the pain took him sudden, of all that was to come of it, and
that he'd never come running up they stairs again."

"Well, then," said Mrs Charles Warren, "all we ever knew was that there
was that bit put in the paper about a foolish and unjustifiable trick
had been taken advantage of by dishonest people--valuable jewels, hidden
in play, had disappeared.  The person who hid them had owned that it had
been done without the connivance of the young men whose names had been
mentioned.  But who _were_ that person?"

"Well," said Granny, "I don't know, and I don't know as even Mr Edgar
knows.  But there, the fact's against them, and 'twas a terrible ending
to a foolish trick."

"Ravenshurst is full again this summer," said Mrs Warren.  "Sir Philip
and Lady Carleton are coming down, and if Florrie were a sensible girl I
might get her a temporary place under the housekeeper there; but it do
go against me to have anything to do with that house."

"Well, I'd not send her _there_," said Granny; "she's a deal too
bouncing now for any lady's house."  Mrs Warren saw no occasion for
some time to change this verdict.  Florence "bounced" more as she became
more at her ease.  She did not mean to misbehave herself, but her
notions of behaviour were so very unlike Mrs Warren's.  The kindest
thing that could be said of her was that she meant well, but
unfortunately she did very badly.  Moreover, she did not appear to have
a single aspiration after better things.  She had lived the life of a
little animal, bent on nothing but on pleasing herself; but as she was
not a mere animal, but a human soul, with human powers for good or evil,
evil was getting terribly the upper hand.  It was not so much what
Florence did as what she was that was the pity.  Girls are refined and
softened, sometimes by intellectual tastes and a mental power of
choosing the better part, and more often, in Florence's rank of life, by
the many self-denials, the care of little ones, the constant
unselfishness born of the hard struggle of life in the working class.
Florence had no intellectual tastes, and had never known any struggle.
She had been ignorant and comfortable all her life, and her mind was
full of silly common thoughts and fancies, and thoughts and fancies
worse than merely silly.  She was vain and selfish, saucy and curious.
She did not love anyone very much; she had no wants or wishes except to
please herself.  She was so much bolder than other girls that she
attracted more notice, but she was not at all exceptional, unhappily.
As for religion, what religion can a creature have who never felt a
superior and never knew a need?  And religion had not come much before
Florence except in the form of respectable observance.  Mrs Warren, who
in a still and quiet way was a religious woman, wondered how to teach
her better, before, as she put it to herself, "the poor thing was taught
by trouble."

There was teaching of an unusual kind coming to Florence, and the
absence of irritation caused by Mrs Warren's quiet management was
laying her open to new impressions.  But the attraction she felt to
Geraldine Cunningham was really the only new idea that at present
touched her, and it took the form of an intense curiosity.  She stared
at her whenever she had the chance--at school, in church, wherever she
met her; she tried to find out what the young lady did; she questioned
Wyn, and at last was suddenly struck by a connecting link.  Both their
brothers were missing.  Florence had never cared a straw about Harry,
nor, indeed, had Geraldine for Alwyn; but the idea was quite pleasant.
They each had a strict father and a lost brother.  The odd touch of
romance was Maud Florence Nellie's first awakening and softening.

CHAPTER NINE.

IN THE WOOD.

One night, about a fortnight after Florence Whittaker's arrival at
Ashcroft, Edgar Cunningham had a dream--a vivid dream--of his brother
Alwyn's face.  Edgar could scarcely have called up the face before his
mind's _eye_; but this dream-face was as vivid and as real as Alwyn's
own had been when he planned out the fatal trick that had led to so much
misery.  Only, instead of the bold mocking eyes, half mirthful, half
scornful, of the old Alwyn, these eyes were earnest and full of
tenderness.  Edgar woke, feeling as if his brother had really been near
him.  He had never dreamed of him in any marked way before.  Although he
had been fond of him in a boyish way, he had no reason to think well of
him, and, though he could make many excuses for him, he would never have
imagined him with such a look on his face as this.  Edgar bore his own
troubles with the same defiant gaiety that had marked his brother--he
hardly ever pitied himself, and he had never blinked the fact that Alwyn
was not likely to have improved during his absence.  He resented his own
ignorance of what he believed his father to know, but, except on the
occasion of which he had spoken to his cousin, he had been willing to
let matters alone.  It was the Cunningham way; his father went about his
business, and thought as little as he could of his disgraced son, saw as
little as he could of his sick one; his brother had gone off with a
laugh and a bitter joke from his home and his heirship.  Geraldine sang
when she was kept indoors, and made rhymes of the lesson she was told to
learn for a punishment, and he himself prided himself on never
complaining, never giving in, and taking his sufferings as a matter of
course.  The dream was accountable enough; Florence Whittaker's name and
face had recalled old days to him; his cousin had stirred up his
thoughts on the subject, but nothing had ever so roused his feelings as
the look on that dream-face.  He got out the photograph, which in a rare
moment of depression he had once shown to Wyn Warren.  Yes--he had seen
Alwyn; but Alwyn, as if with another soul.  And then an awful thought
came into Edgar's mind, that in life Alwyn never could have looked at
him so.  Be that as it might, he took a sudden resolution, he would
speak again to his father, and he felt that this time he should get a
hearing.  His father always visited him in the morning, either in his
room or on the terrace, asking him how he was--commented on the news in
the paper, or talked a little about local matters.  The effort should be
made on the first opportunity.  James Cunningham had been perfectly
right, and Edgar felt that only the passive languor of ill-health could
have induced him to acquiesce so long in uncertainty.

It was very hard to begin when Mr Cunningham came in as usual, and
talked in dry, short sentences about the harvest and about a foreign
battle that had taken place, as if he had to think between his words of
something else to say to his son.  Want of resolution, however, was not
a Cunningham failing.

"Father," said Edgar presently, "will you be kind enough to shut the
window for me?  I want to speak to you--quite alone.  I want to ask you
to tell me exactly what you yourself know about Alwyn.  It is a painful
subject; but I think I ought to know."

Mr Cunningham came back and sat down opposite his son's couch.

"You're right," he said, "you should.  I have been thinking so.  A few
words will do it.  You recall, I dare say, that your brother and I were
on very bad terms.  His conduct had been unprincipled, and his behaviour
to me was unfeeling.  He was perfectly hard and reckless.  You know how
the scandalous practical joke at Ravenshurst was cut short by the terror
of Mrs Fletcher's little niece and the illness caused by it.  When Mrs
Fletcher came up to bed she missed such of her jewels as she had not
worn at the ball; which she had carelessly left on her dressing-table.
Some of the servants knew that Alwyn had had a confederate in Harry
Whittaker, as another absurd figure was seen close to the ball-room
windows.  He was at once suspected, and the next morning Lilian Fletcher
confessed that she had hidden the jewels in the garden for fun, and had
intended to pretend that the ghost had stolen them, to heighten the
excitement.  When she took her mother to the place--of course no jewels.
She vowed that no one knew what she had done.  Alwyn had declared
himself when the child was frightened, and between him and Ned Warren
they made out so good an _alibi_ for Whittaker that it was impossible to
commit him.  The thing was investigated privately; but Mrs Fletcher was
ill at the time, and very much afraid of her daughter's share in the
business being made public.  Nothing was discovered.  But you know all
this."

"Most of it," said Edgar.  "But I do not know what you believe about the
jewels."

"It is my belief that somehow Whittaker had them, after all!  _I_ should
have committed him for trial.  Alwyn took his part, violently swore I
insulted him by having such an idea in connection with his companion.
He chose to misinterpret what I said, and swore he would never come home
till the jewels were found or I had begged his pardon.  He behaved as if
I had accused him of the theft himself."

"Father," said Edgar, "you have at least allowed other people to imagine
that you thought so."

"No, Alwyn left his home.  I did not cast him off, nor cut him off with
a shilling.  I told him that I could not allow him to associate with
you--he said he wished to emigrate.  I lodged a sum of money for him in
a New York bank, and told him he could communicate with me through the
bankers.  He never did communicate with me; but he drew the money."

"And you don't know where he is now?"

"No.  I never saw him after that night--Beresford did the business with
him in London.  Whittaker went away with him.  Now for what I suppose
you really want to know.  You are my heir, and have been so, ever since
that occurrence."

"Father," said Edgar again, "you must know that I am very unlikely to
outlive you."

"In that ease the estates will pass to your cousin James.  I object to
the idea of marrying Geraldine for the sake of a master for Ashcroft,
and she is amply provided for."

"Father," said Edgar, "I don't see that Alwyn has done anything to
forfeit his heirship.  As for his dissipations--I was quite ready to
follow his example had I had the chance.  A practical joke, however
improper, is not cause sufficient.  Will you take no steps to find him?"

"No," said Mr Cunningham, "it is in his power to find me if he
chooses."

"It is right to tell you that, should I ever have the power, I should
try to find him."

"That would be as you please," said Mr Cunningham, "but the estate is
secured to your cousin.  He doesn't know it, though, and I don't wish
him to find it out."

It was an odd, hard scene.  Edgar's manner was rather polite than
respectful; his father showed no feeling whatever.

"I think," said Edgar with one last effort, "that the matter has been
made to appear more disgraceful than it is."

"I never thought much of appearances," said Mr Cunningham.  "But there
is no more I can tell you.  If there is anything that you wish for
yourself, you have only to name it.  That night's business cost you much
as well as myself."

"Nothing but the fall kept me out of the scrape myself," said Edgar,
"and Alwyn never knew that he startled me."

"I never understood your share in the matter," said Mr Cunningham.

"Alwyn tried to get some fun out of me, by refusing to tell me his plan.
When I missed him from the dancing, I ran upstairs to find out; but the
old monk's figure made me jump, and I fell backwards down the stairs.  I
didn't know I was hurt, and guessed directly who it was.  I was going
back to see the effect, when I turned so faint that I had to get away
into my room instead."

As Mr Cunningham looked down at his son's prostrate figure it was
perhaps inevitable that the bitterness of his recollection should
increase rather than otherwise, especially as he knew that Edgar's
determined concealment of the extent of his injury for weeks afterwards
had destroyed his chance of recovery.

"I'll leave you to rest now," he said.  "The past is beyond recall, and
nothing is gained by dwelling on it."

Edgar lay still when his father left him, and reflected.  He had hoped
that more had been known about his brother.  His father's last words had
been the key of his own life.  Was nothing to be gained by a recall of
the past?  The Cunninghams had been brought up to a correct performance
of such religious observances as were suitable to their position; but of
vital religion they knew little or nothing.  They "set a proper example"
in the village, but all Edgar's endurance and pluck had wanted the help
that might have made it go so much deeper, and be so much more real.  He
could ignore his troubles, but he did not know what spiritual comfort or
inward strength was.  He held his tongue and disliked pity, even from
himself.  He was clear-headed and sensible, but neither a thinker nor a
reader.  It was strange to him that the thought of Alwyn's death, which
his dream had brought into his mind, impressed him so much.  It would
simplify the family complication, and he never, most likely, would see
him again.  Edgar had often faced his own probable early death as the
loss of life here--he had never faced it as opening out a life
hereafter.  He was glad to be roused from thoughts that troubled him by
Wyn's appearance, looking eager and happy as usual.

"Please, sir, if you're pretty well to-day, there's a part of the wood I
know I can take Dobbles to.  And please, sir, there's a pond and
water-lilies, and I believe, that odd sort of flowering rush as you
wanted.  And, sir, wouldn't you like to see it growing?"

"Well--I should, Wyn," said Edgar.  "Bring Dobbles round directly after
lunch, and we'll make a long afternoon of it."

It was a lovely summer afternoon; the wood was green and cool, with long
shafts of golden light penetrating the boughs overhead.  Wyn led the
sober Dobbles slowly along the green walks, explaining, as he went,
that, some underwood having been cut down, the pond was now for the
first time approachable by the pony.

"So you've never seen it, sir, and it's uncommon pretty."

"Oh yes, I have, Wyn; I remember it quite well.  Last time I was there I
waded in after the lilies, and started a heron.  He'd come over from the
Duke's heronry.  I can't think how Dobbles is to get there."

"Please, sir, he can; even Mr Robertson would say it was quite safe
since they made the clearing."

If Edgar loved anything on earth, it was the wood; the great trees, the
birds and the squirrels, the ferns and the flowers, gave him real
pleasure, and he never felt so nearly independent and, as he called it,
locomotive, as when he was out in this way with no one but Wyn.

It was perhaps as well that Mr Robertson was not there to express an
opinion on the nature of the ground over which Dobbles was taken; but at
last they came almost to the edge of the little woodland pond, and Edgar
exclaimed with delight at the white and yellow lilies on its surface,
the tall reeds round the edge.  He raised himself up as much as
possible, and looked eagerly over it.

"Wyn," he cried, "there are all sorts of treasures on the opposite
bank--real yellow loose-strife and rosebay willow herb.  That's not
common cream and codlins.  There's none of it about elsewhere in the
wood.  And all sorts of flowering grass.  Go round and get a great bunch
of whatever you can see--I'll wait here; give me the rein--but Dobbles
knows his duty."

Wyn ran off and plunged into the brushwood.  He had been trained to have
keen eyes, and he had soon collected a large bunch of reeds and flowers.
Dobbles and his master were quite out of sight, and Wyn had got to the
other side of the pond, among a mass of ferns and brambles not likely to
yield much out of the common, when he heard a rustling and saw a tall
man standing on the little track beyond him, with his back turned.  Wyn
was a keeper's son, and as soon as he perceived that the man was a
stranger he at once jumped to the conclusion that he was after no good,
and that he, Mr Edgar's only protector, had left him alone at some
distance.  And, though Mr Edgar was only game in the sense that nothing
would frighten him, he had a watch and a purse, and was of course
perfectly defenceless.  As he prepared to hurry back to him the man
turned, showing a sunburnt face and a long yellowish beard.  He looked
at Wyn.

"I say, boy, do you belong to these parts?" he said.

"Yes," said Wyn, "do you?  For this wood ain't open to the public."

"Do you happen to know if Mr Edgar Cunningham's at home just now?"

"What do you want of him?" said Wyn.

"Well, I want you to give him this note if you could see him by himself
any time.  Here's a shilling."

"No, thank ye," said Wyn.  "I can give my master a note; but this wood
_ain't_ open to the public, and you'd best turn to the left, and go out
by the stile."

"All right," said the stranger.  "I've missed my way."

He turned to the left and walked off, and Wyn hurried back to his
master, relieved to see Dobbles exactly where he had left him, and Mr
Edgar lying, looking up at the trees overhead, evidently perfectly safe
and undisturbed.

"Oh, please, sir," said Wyn, "here are the flowers.  But please, sir,
we'd best go home.  There's characters about, and--why--wherever can it
be?"

"Why, what's the matter?  You look quite scared.  What's missing?"

"Please, sir, I met a chap as I don't think had any business there, and
he gave me a note for you, and, sir, I can't find it nowhere.  I had it
in my hand, and I must have dropped it."

"I suppose it was one of the men from Ashwood or Raby," said Edgar,
mentioning two places in the neighbourhood.  "Very careless of you, Wyn,
to lose the note, and very silly to get a scare about it.  Well," after
some time spent in searching, "we must get back now, and to-morrow, if
it's fine, I'll come here again, and you can have a hunt for it."

Wyn was so upset, or, as he would have expressed it, "put about," by the
sight of the stranger, the loss of the note, and by Mr Edgar's rare
reproof, that he quite forgot at the moment either to realise to himself
or to tell his master that the man could have been no one from the
neighbourhood, since he had asked if Mr Edgar was at home, which
everyone knew was invariably the case.

CHAPTER TEN.

FLORENCE'S DUTY.

On the same afternoon that Wyn and his master went to see the water-lily
pond, Florrie Whittaker, seized with a fit of impatience, went off
without leave for a ramble in the wood.

She didn't think she could bear it much longer.  There was no one to
chatter to, there was no one to chatter about.  Mrs Lee's shop was far
more lively than Mrs Warren's parlour, and Carrie and Ada were much
more congenial than Grace Elton.  Florence, lazy and sociable, had made
a strong effort to strike up a friendship with that pretty, pleasant
girl, but Grace, as Florence put it, was "_that_ particular," and so
often blushed and said, "Mother wouldn't like it," when Florence's
ill-trained tongue went its natural way, that Florence would have been
quite disgusted with her but for the thought that "Miss Geraldine"
wouldn't like it either.  Florence had once begun to astonish Grace with
the history of how she had run after the boys down to the canal, and had
then stopped with an odd new feeling that she wouldn't like Miss
Geraldine to know she had done _that_.  Should she write home and say
she would be a good girl, and go into any business Father and Aunt
Stroud wished, knowing that some sort of fun could be got out of life at
Rapley; or should she wait and let Aunt Charlotte "comb her down," as
she vigorously put it, till she thought her fit for a place at Ashcroft
or at "The Duke's?"  That implied lilac cotton gowns in the week and a
neat bonnet on Sundays; but then she had heard of servants' dances and
parties, and the great household wouldn't be _very_ dull, surely.
Florence strolled on, thinking of one thing and another, swinging her
hat in her hand, and now and then snatching at a foxglove or a bit of
honeysuckle, till she suddenly became aware that she had lost her way.
She stopped and looked round her.  Which little green track would take
her home?  There was a good deal of undergrowth in the part of the wood
to which she had wandered, and, so far as she knew, she might be miles
from any outlet but the one by which she had come.  The great trees
arched over her head, the green solemn light was all around her.  The
tap of a woodpecker, the coo of a wood-pigeon or the whir of its wing,
the soft indefinite murmur of the leaves, were all the sounds that broke
the stillness of the August wood.  If Florence had lost her way in a
town she would have asked it of a policeman with perfect composure.  No
crowd of passengers, no bustle of life, would have impressed her in the
least, but this stillness and silence and loneliness struck on her
unaccustomed nerves, and an unaccountable fear _took_ possession of her.
What was there to be afraid of?

Snakes and water-rats were the only definite objects of terror that
occurred to her; and, as she had never seen a specimen of either of
these animals, they were not very present to her imagination.  She did
not know what she was afraid of, but for the first time in her life she
knew what fear was.  She stood quite still at the turn of the little
foot track, suddenly afraid to go to the right or the left; her heart
beat, her breath came in gasps, tears filled her eyes, and she burst out
crying like a baby--she, who never cried except from bad temper or
toothache, cried with fear.

Suddenly a rapid, light step ran down the track, and Geraldine
Cunningham, in her blue cotton frock, and a basket in her hand, came
into view.

"Why!  Florence Whittaker!  What's the matter?"

"I've--I've lost my way, Miss; I can't get out!" sobbed Florence, still
too much scared to be ashamed of her fright.

"Lost your way!  Dear me, you're standing in the way back to Warren's
lodge.  Come, don't cry, I'll show you."

"Oh, thank you, Miss," said Florence with unwonted meekness, and wiping
her eyes.  Then, recovering a little, "I'm a great silly, but the trees
is so tall, and there ain't nobody about."

"Why, that's the beauty of it," said Geraldine.  "One couldn't run about
in the wood if there _was_ anybody about.  But it's just like the
garden, nobody ever comes here."

As Geraldine said this in her clear, outspoken voice, a tall man came
into view along the opposite track: he was dark and slight, and dressed
in a rough suit that might have belonged to anyone, gentle or simple, in
a country place.

"We'll go on," whispered Geraldine, straightening herself up, and taking
Florence by the hand.

The man came up to the two girls and looked at them rather keenly; then
he touched his hat, and said: "Excuse me, young ladies, can you tell me
the way out of the wood?"

"Yes," said Geraldine, with her straightforward gaze; "if you go
straight back and turn to the right, you'll come into the Raby road."

The stranger lingered a moment as if he would have liked to say more,
but contented himself with saying rather oddly, "Thank you--Miss," and
walking away.

"How very odd!" said Geraldine, "that there _should_ be a stranger in
the wood.  Who can he be?"

"He was very civil in his speech," said Florrie.  "Yes; but the wood's
private; he oughtn't to be here.  Come along, Florence, we'll tell Mr
Warren we saw him."

The two girls talked a little as they walked on together, Florence
feeling suddenly shy, and as if she had nothing to say for herself.
Presently, as they came near the lodge, they met Wyn, looking hot and
hurried.  "Oh, if you please, Miss Geraldine," he said, touching his
cap, "you haven't seen anything like a letter lying about in the
forest?"

"A letter in the forest?  Why, Wyn, how ever could a letter get there?"

"I've lost one, ma'am, as a man gave me for Mr Edgar, and I'm going to
look for it again."

"Oh," said Geraldine, "that must be the man that spoke to us just now,
and asked his way.  If you run right on, Wyn, you could catch him."

Wyn rushed off, but presently came back, overtaking the girls again as
they came up to the lodge.

"It wasn't the same man, Miss Geraldine," he said.  "The man I met was a
stout party with a red beard, and this one was a deal thinner, and a
black-haired chap, too."

"Then there's two strange men in the wood," said Florence.

At this moment the keeper himself appeared, carrying his gun, and
saluting his young lady; and all three children began to tell their
stones.  Warren took them very quietly.  "I'll keep a look-out, ma'am,"
he said to Geraldine; "but strangers do pass through the wood.  There's
artists about nowadays.  They scare the birds dreadful.  And, as for
you, Wyn, you'd best go and look for that there note first thing in the
morning: you'd no business to let it drop."

"I think the man who spoke to me looked like an artist," said Geraldine
as she went off.

"Florrie," said Wyn, as his father went into the house, "I don't think
that the man who gave me the letter for Mr Edgar _was_ one of the Raby
or Ashwood keepers or gardeners; he hadn't the cut somehow, and he'd
have known Mr Edgar was at the Hall.  And he did stare _that_ hard at
me."

"So did the other man at us," said Florence.

"Was he a bird-catcher down from London, do you think?" said Wyn
astutely.

"No," said Florence, "he looked too much the gentleman."

"I'm sure he hadn't a red beard, aren't you?" said Wyn.

"Red beard?  No--d'ye think I haven't eyes in my head?  He'd a pointed
sort of black beard--same shape as Mr Cunningham's--only his is grey;
and black eyes, looking right at you, like the squire's do.  But, dear
me, _I_ think a fellow creature or two's a great improvement in that
there lonesome wood.  I'd sooner meet a man than a snake any day.  And I
believe I'd sooner meet a snake than nothing among all them trees!"

"The trees don't set no traps nor springs," said Wyn, "and snakes aren't
common in our wood, and wriggles off pretty quick if you do meet with
one."

"Do you think your man was a poacher?" said Florence.

"Well, Florrie," said Wyn, "there's all sorts of people come after game
in these days.  _I_ shall keep my eyes open.  Hallo! here's mother
calling us in to supper."

In pursuance of this resolve, Wyn kept his eyes the next day open at
their widest, but neither red beard, black eyes, nor letter came into
his view, and the only thing he did see when he came disconsolately back
again was a great owl's nest that had apparently been pulled out of an
old hollow tree on the Ravenshurst side of the wood and thrown on the
ground.  Wyn was sorry; he thought the owls would never nest there
again, and he would have had a chance next spring of getting a young one
for Mr Edgar.

"You're to take the pony round again this afternoon, Wyn," said his
mother when he got back, "and don't you be careless and drop any more
letters about, anyhow."

Florence was very much interested in the mysterious strangers in the
wood, and in the lost letter.  She went for a stroll with Wyn before it
was time for him to fetch the pony, and they worked themselves up into a
state of excitement, and a general idea that their keen observation of
suspicious characters was highly to their credit.  In the course of
their walk they met two of the under-keepers, and Wyn stopped and asked
them if they had seen anybody about.  He described his man with the red
beard much as if he had been a giant, and Florence chimed in with her
suspicions of the dark man who had spoken to Miss Geraldine, till her
description of him would have befitted the villain in a melodrama.  The
boy and girl succeeded in setting the young men on the look-out, and
preparing discomfort for the strangers if they were seen.  Florence
found a chat with the young keepers a pleasant variety in her quiet
life, especially when it was so justifiable, and she lingered, talking
and joking, till Wyn pulled her skirts, and said Mr Edgar would be
ready.

"You see what we'll bring you, Miss," said one of the lads as he went
off.

"You ain't men enough to get them there poachers," said Florence.

"Ain't we though?" cried the other youth.

"They'd best not come our way in a hurry."

Florence laughed, and ran off after Wyn, who remarked virtuously:

"We've done our duty, I'm sure, in spreading about all we've noticed."

"Your father knows too," said Florrie.

"Yes," said Wyn, with a slight suspicion that his father could have
warned his own under-keepers for himself; "but father can't be
everywhere at once.  They might rob Mr Edgar."

"Or frighten Miss Geraldine," said Florence, "so it's quite our duty to
give a warning."

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

MEETING.

If Wyn Warren had chanced to be in the right part of the wood at the
right time on the afternoon after he found the owl's nest, he might have
seen all the three objects of his search.  For while he was leading
Dobbles across the park towards the wood in order that Mr Edgar might
try to sketch the lily pond, and hoping while his master was so engaged
to get another chance of hunting for the letter, a respectable-looking
nurse with a little boy and girl in pretty summer clothes came along the
path from Ravenshurst to the stile in the Raby road.  They passed the
tall red-bearded man who had given Wyn the letter; but, being strangers
to Ashcroft, his appearance there struck them as nothing remarkable; the
nurse was holding the little boy by the hand, and the girl, running
round her, was picking up moss and twigs, when her eyes fell on the spot
which Wyn's had failed to find, and on which the red-bearded stranger's
had never lighted.  She had found one pretty, funny, white puff-ball,
and she thought this other white object lying under the ferns was such
another, till she took it in her hand and found that it was something
much more familiar to her, namely, a letter in an envelope, moistened,
and ready to break with the damp of the woods.

Lily Carleton poked her little fat fingers under the seal till the paper
gave way and the open letter was in her hand, and she threw the envelope
away and spread out the letter.

"It's a letter from the fairies," she thought, nodding her head, for she
was a fanciful little person.  "I'll take it home and get mother to read
it to me."

She stuffed the letter into her little pocket, and, all unknowing,
passed the writer of it, close to the stile in the Raby road, talking to
the man with the red beard--a combination which would certainly have led
Wyn to think that the two mysterious strangers were plotting mischief.

"Shall you go then, sir, as you have had no answer?" said he of the red
beard.

"Yes, on the chance.  It can do no harm; it's all a chance, you see.
You're sure the lad said he was at home?"

"Yes, he undertook to deliver the note.  But he was so sure I was going
to set night-lines, or do some damage here, that I had to walk off as
straight as I could."

"Ay, we can't lurk about here in secret.  That's why I take this step.
Maybe I'm going on a fool's errand, but we'll meet at the station in any
case.  I don't look altogether like a poacher, do I, Harry?"

"Well, Mr Alwyn, if you do," said Harry, laughing, "poachers must have
improved since our time.  Perhaps they have, for I didn't think I was
quite the cut of one myself, and, for sure, that lad took me for some
such customer.  Keep up heart, sir, I'll be on the look-out."

So saying, he jumped over the stile, while his companion turned round
and walked slowly through the wood.  He threaded the tracks and glades
with perfect case; but at the point where the next turn would bring him
into view of the great ash-tree and the open space overlooking the
water-lily pond he paused and grew visibly paler.

"I must remember that it cannot be much to him; if he has answered my
appeal it cannot be _much_ to him--it cannot be agreeable.  I wish I'd
asked a little more about him.  However, now for it."  He turned round
the dump of trees by which he stood, and stopped with a start.

"What! someone else!  Oh, of all the ill luck," he thought, as he saw
under the tree a grey pony and a wheeled chair, in which was a young man
sketching the pond and the trees beyond it.

Edgar was half sitting up against his cushions, and had pushed the soft
cap which he wore back from his brows, so that his face was clearly
visible; but he himself was looking the other way, and, intent on his
sketch, did not observe that anyone was approaching.

The new-comer looked at him at first without any recognition.  Who could
the invalid be who had permission to sketch in the Ashcroft wood and
seemed so much at home there?  He had better walk quietly on, and pass
by as if by accident.  But, as he came nearer, Edgar threw back his head
to look at his drawing, and something in the gesture struck on the
stranger with a sudden thrill.  He saw the dark hair, the long, delicate
features.  Could it be--was it possible?  Was _this_ the one he came to
meet--evidently unwarned and unexpectant--and--like _this_?

As he paused, bewildered, doubtful how to proceed, Edgar turned his head
and saw him.  He saw the dark man with a pointed beard, whom Wyn had
described on the authority of Florence as having been in the wood the
day before, and, laying down his pencil, said, courteously, but with
some decision, and in a voice at once recognisable:

"Excuse me, but perhaps you are not aware that this wood is private?"

The stranger made three or four steps forward, till he stood close
beside the pony chair.

"Oh yes," he said, "of course I know that.  You--you did not receive my
letter?"

"You are--you are _Alwyn_!" gasped Edgar, breathless and dizzy with the
shock that came without a moment's doubt or a moment's warning.

"Edgar!  Yes, yes, I wrote.  I did not mean to take you by surprise.
But it is I--prepared for what welcome you will give me."

Edgar was so near fainting that welcome of any sort was beyond his
power; but, as his senses came back, he saw Alwyn leaning over him,
looking at him with frightened eyes, not daring to lift, hardly to touch
him, and almost as much taken aback as himself by the unexpected state
in which he found him.

Edgar lay looking at him for a moment or two.

"Then--you are alive?" he said slowly.

"Yes," said Alwyn, "I wrote to you to ask you if you would see me.  I
gave the letter to a boy, here in the wood--"

"He lost it," said Edgar, still as if half awake.

"What can I do for you?" said Alwyn anxiously.  "Are you better? but
no--rest a little don't mind about it yet."

Edgar still looked at him.  Yes, it was Alwyn--perfectly unmistakable--
only as much altered as the eight years made inevitable--with the face
he remembered so clearly; yes, and with the softened look he had seen in
his dream.

He put out his hand, and Alwyn took it timidly, and still with the same
shocked, startled look.

"Of course," he said gently, "I did not know you had been ill, or I
would not have written to you, nor risked startling you."

"I'm not ill," said Edgar, still rather confusedly.  "It's only my back,
you know--quite an old thing."

"But when--how?"

"I fell downstairs," said Edgar; "never mind, tell me--"

"Not _then_?  Not _that flight_?  You did fall, I remember.  What? then
I was the cause."

Alwyn started up and turned his back on his brother, evidently shocked
and overpowered almost beyond control.  The meeting was utterly unlike
what either of them had fancied to himself as probable.

"Alwyn," said Edgar, "there's nothing to mind--I'm quite used to it.  It
was a mere chance, and it's not so very bad.  I _can_ walk--a little,
and I can get out here and have very jolly times, you see."

But the boyish language, and the still boyish voice, so well remembered,
completely overcame Alwyn, who had not expected to be agitated, only
perhaps embarrassed, at seeing his brother.  He struggled hard with
himself before he could turn round, and, coming back and leaning against
the tree beside Edgar, said:

"What would you like me best to do?"

"Why!" said Edgar, with recovered energy, "tell me something.  I am
dazed with surprise.  Tell me everything."

"I went to New York, as I suppose you know," said Alwyn; "Whittaker with
me.  I wasn't altogether a fool, and I accepted the introductions the
New York bankers gave me, and with the money my father had lodged there
for me I bought some land in Massachusetts.  Well, after a good deal of
uncertainty it not only proved a success in the farming way, but we
found coal on it, which proved well worth working, and, in short, we
have done well.  Whittaker is what I suppose you would call my agent and
manager, and a good friend into the bargain.  Well, two years ago he
married--well.  He had quite made up his mind to give up the old
country.  And I--I only wished to be independent.  We made no effort,
you understand, at concealment--used our own names always.  Anyone could
have found us out.  Well, I must tell you very briefly.

"I made an acquaintance in Boston--an Episcopal clergyman.  We took a
walking tour together--had sundry adventures.  I went home with him.  He
has a sister.  After a little while I felt what it was to have such a
past behind me.  And a Boston gentleman such as Mr Dallas was not
likely to accept a wandering Englishman for a son-in-law without
inquiry, nor to think it natural that my father's eldest son should be
living over there.  I knew what sort of thing a few inquiries would tell
him, and I knew what I had flung away."  Alwyn paused for a moment and
then went on hurriedly--"All my views changed--changed utterly."

"You decided to come home," said Edgar.

"Yes," said Alwyn, "but then something else happened."

He took a pocket-book out of his pocket, opened it, and, unrolling a
little packet of tissue paper, laid something bright and glittering on
Edgar's hand.

"Did you ever see that before?" he said.  "Yes," as Edgar looked at him
with startled eyes, "I see you remember it.  But say what it is."

"It is one of Mrs Fletcher's lost jewels," said Edgar, as if under a
spell.

It was a curious enamelled bird with a great ruby in its breast, and set
in a sort of frame of emeralds, a curiosity as well as an object of
intrinsic value.

"Yes.  I didn't steal it, though," said Alwyn; "nor did Harry
Whittaker."

The cool dry tone in which this was said was exactly that of the old
Alwyn.

"I know who did, though," he said, "and I have come back to try to prove
it.  Curious proof, don't you think, of innocence, to produce the stolen
object?"

"What proof can be needed?" said Edgar, warmly.

Alwyn smiled.

"I never thought there would be--for you," he said.  "But it's a very
long story.  I think I must write it for you.  There are some things I
must ask.  Shall we be interrupted?  How can I see you again alone?  My
father--is he well--is he altered?"

"He is pretty well," said Edgar, "and--not altered.  Wyn Warren will be
back directly, I think I must tell him.  You see I can't get anywhere
alone.  I couldn't even post a letter for myself.  And my father, you
know, unlocks the post-bag.  I hardly ever get letters."

Edgar spoke merely as if considering the difficulties of the case--quite
cheerfully; but to Alwyn the words sounded most pitiful.

"Then try not to trouble about me," he said; "you have given me a
welcome.  I must manage for myself.  Of course I am only keeping quiet
till I can get one or two things in train.  I am staying in London.  You
mustn't have to bear the brunt of any discovery."

"I don't care a straw for that," said Edgar.  "I'll answer for little
Wyn.  He shall bring me here again to-morrow, if possible; in any case
he shall come himself.  When I understand dearly I can tell my father
that I've seen you, and everything else you think proper."

"No, no," said Alwyn, almost laughing at the coolness with which this
fragile, helpless brother proposed to face the difficulty for him.  "You
were always a plucky fellow, but when the time comes I'll make my own
confession.  I'll go now."

But he still lingered.

"Ought you to be alone?" he said.  "Do you want anything?  You will not
be the worse for the fright I gave you?"

"No.  I'm quite jolly.  If you'll just put this cushion lower for me,
that's all, so that I can lie down."

"I am too rough to touch you.  There--is that right, dear boy?" said
Alwyn, anxiously.

"Oh yes, you are very clever!" said Edgar.

He spoke lightly; but suddenly tears filled the keen eyes at the touch
that was more tender than all the skilled attention at his command.

"I'm glad you're found, Val; it's been rather lonely," he said.

"If I had guessed!" said Alwyn hoarsely; but at this moment a tremendous
rush was heard, and Wyn's voice in loud tones of dismay broke in on
them.

"What are you about--you?  Here I am, Mr Edgar.  Father ain't far off."

Alwyn, who had been bending over his brother, started up, and Edgar
began to laugh.

"All right, Wyn," he said, "stop that row.  This gentleman isn't
smothering me, nor stealing my watch; look at him--you'll see him again.
You'd better ask his pardon for losing his letter."

Wyn's mouth and eyes opened wider and wider.

"Please, sir," he stammered, "he ain't the one that gave me the letter;
and please, sir, I've lighted on the envelope, and someone has took the
letter out."

Alwyn and Edgar looked at each other in dismay.

"There is my address," said Alwyn, after a moment; "if anything
unexpected turns up, send a telegram to me.  But I shall be here
to-morrow, and then you shall know all.  Here, boy, Mr Edgar will tell
you what you're to do.  Be sure you are very careful of him.  Can you
lead the pony safely?"  Edgar laughed again at Wyn's indignant stare,
first at the speaker, and then at the half-sovereign dropped into his
palm.

"All right, Wyn," he said, "he has every right to order you; yes, and
give you a tip too.  Put it in your pocket, and come along."

Wyn unfastened Dobbles, and turned him round, a light slowly breaking in
on him as his master put both hands into the stranger's, and a few rapid
whispers were exchanged between them.  Then Edgar made a sign to him to
go on, and Wyn, with one shrewd glance at the face and figure of the
object of his suspicions, drew a long breath and said:

"Sir--sir--that's Mr Alwyn!"

CHAPTER TWELVE.

AUNT STROUD'S SURPRISE.

That same evening, while Alwyn Cunningham at his hotel in London was
writing the story of his life to his brother, hardly able to fix his
thoughts on anything but the interview of the afternoon, Harry Whittaker
was walking through the streets of Rapley.  Nobody noticed him there, or
wondered to see a stout, good-looking man, with a long beard, and rather
a rough coat, among the passers-by.  Certainly no one identified him
with the saucy errand-boy who had idled at street corners and engaged in
a free fight, with parcels and bandboxes for missiles and weapons, eight
years or so before.  He walked on till he came to the small but
respectable-looking ironmonger's shop, over the door of which was
painted the name of Stroud.  He walked in, glanced round, and a
well-dressed woman came forward.

"What can I show you, sir?"

Harry asked for a clasp knife, looked at her keenly for a moment, then
said:

"That's an American mowing machine, I think, ma'am?"

"Yes, sir, the newest patent, very light and handy.  Anything in the way
of garden tools, sir?"

Harry Whittaker was Harry Whittaker still; he appreciated the exquisite
joke of being ceremoniously treated by his Aunt Stroud.  But he could
not afford to indulge it.  He looked at her, smiled a little, and said:

"No, thank you, my farm's across the water in State.  It'd hardly pay to
take over machinery from the old country."

Mrs Stroud gave a start, and, as she afterwards expressed it, "nearly
sunk down upon the rakes."

"Could I have a word in private?" said Harry.

"Step this way--sir," she said, still in a state of doubt, and leading
him into the comfortable parlour behind the shop.

"Aunt Eliza," said Harry, as the door closed behind them, "I felt sure
that _you_ would know me at once."

Mrs Stroud did sink down into an arm-chair exclaiming:

"Bless us and save us, it's Harry!"

"Yes, aunt," said Harry, "it is; and I've come first to you, knowing
your influence with father, and that you could be trusted with an
important secret; to ask you to give me a welcome, and to overlook my
past undutiful behaviour."

"Oh, my!  And I'd imagined you a convict, or drowned dead!"

"Not at all," said Harry, "I never was drowned, and I haven't yet been
hanged.  On the contrary, finding myself well-to-do in the world, and
happily settled in life, I felt that it was time to endeavour to undo
the past."

Harry spoke quite earnestly, but with a boldness of manner, and
confidence of look, that established his identity at once.  He put out
his hand; but Mrs Stroud, bursting into tears, launched herself on his
neck.

"You were always my favourite, Harry, and if you've done well for
yourself I'm most glad to see you."

"Thank you, Aunt Eliza, you're very good, I'm sure; it's more than I
deserve.  My father, my sisters and brothers?"

"Your father's very hearty, and your brothers and sisters doing well,
except Florrie, who gives a deal of trouble, as you did yourself.  But
what'll you take, Henry?  Sit down and tell me where you've been living.
What will you have?"

"A cup of tea, aunt, if it's your tea-time; I'm a teetotaller," said
Harry, unable to help a twinkle of fun at his aunt's astonished rapture
at this evidence of virtue.

As she got the tea he began to tell his story much as Alwyn had already
related it to Edgar; but at greater length, and with many interruptions
from his aunt.

"Mr Alwyn," he went on, after some preliminaries about the buying of
the land, and the discovery of the coal upon it, "never played the fool
any more after he was on his own hands as it were.  He seemed to want to
justify himself, and prove those mistaken that thought we should both go
to the bad.  He never let on that he felt parting from home and being
cut off from his expectations, nor did I.  But, when there's no longer
anyone to pull a young fellow up, it's one of two things: either he goes
down altogether, or he has to pull up himself.  And I can tell you,
aunt, if all the graceless young chaps knew what a much easier sort of
thing it is to get a good blowing up at the time, and the consequences
saved you afterwards, than to go scot-free and find out for yourself
what you've brought about, they'd not be in such a hurry to kick over
the traces.  But Mr Alwyn said that he'd brought suspicion and trouble
on me, and he wouldn't be the ruin of me further.  So we kept straight
and got on, and thought a deal of ourselves for doing it."

"It's what no one never expected!" ejaculated Mrs Stroud.

"No," said Harry.  "Well, I got married, as I'll tell more about
by-and-by, and I thought I'd done with the old country altogether, and
went on as comfortable as could be till my little boy came.  Then, Aunt
Eliza, somehow it came over me more and more what it would be to have
that little chap hear that there were those over here that thought I was
a thief, and have him know that I was an undutiful son that left my
father in his old age.  If that there baby was for eight years without
so much as thinking of me, or caring what I thought of him, why, it'd go
near to break my heart, and I'd sooner follow him to his grave now, and
never see him again.  God forgive me!  I'd been a bad son, but `don't
care' was a word I couldn't say before the little chap, nor have him say
after me.

"Well, when all this was waking in me, Mr Alwyn was away in Boston, and
I'd reason to guess what kept him there, and how there was a young lady
in the case.  He came back sudden, and while I was thinking how to tell
him what was in my mind he turned round upon me and said, says he
`Harry, I'm going home to beg pardon.'

"`If you do,' says I, `I'll go with you.'

"And then he told me how he couldn't ask Miss Dallas to marry him till
he had told about his quarrel with his father; but his pride had held
him back from trying to make it up, and going to seek for what he'd
thrown away.  He'd had a very hard time, he told me, what with the oath
he'd made, and all that lay behind him.  And he did look pale and
changed, I can tell you, and seemed as if he couldn't speak what was in
his mind.  But he should go, he said, whether the jewels were found or
not, and even if the opening up of all the old scandal put him further
off the young lady.  And then I told him the thoughts I'd had on the
subject, and he said: `There's more than that, Harry, for through all
this I've come to see that I sinned against God.'"

"Well," said Mrs Stroud, "I never did think to hear as Mr Alwyn was a
converted man!  It's a miracle!"

"Well," said Harry gravely, "as you may say it was; but 'twas that
conviction that conquered his pride and made him resolve to go home
again.  Just as we'd settled on this conclusion, and were wondering what
to do next, there was an accident with some paraffin, and a young fellow
working for us was near burnt to death, and would have been killed on
the spot but for Mr Alwyn.  Now we knew that this young man Lennox had
been footman at Ravenshurst, and had left the place about a week before
we did, to go abroad with a gentleman.  He told us he came to seek work
because he had known us formerly.

"To make a long story short, Mr Alwyn, worse luck, sent the only other
man about for the doctor, and he and I stayed with Lennox.  Then, says
he, he'd been a great sinner, and he'd like to own it before he died.
And he told Mr Alwyn a number of dishonest actions, small and great,
and at last he said he'd taken the Ravenshurst jewels.  He'd come back
on the sly to see his sweetheart after he left the place, and saw the
young lady come down and slip the jewels under the ferns on the rockery,
and he took them on the spur of the moment.  Well, he was just off with
his new master on a trip to India; but he contrived to hear how I was
suspected before he started."

"And took the jewels with him?"

"Well--it's all in the confession Mr Alwyn wrote down.  But one of the
jewels he had still, and that he gave us, and Mr Alwyn has it row.  But
he said it had been on his conscience all the time he was knocking about
the world, and that when he heard our names he came and got work with us
on purpose, though he put off owning his guilt from day to day.  He'd
near put it off too late, for before he'd told us all we wanted to know
the death struggle came on him and he could tell us no more.  And 'twas
then, Aunt Eliza, by the words Mr Alwyn said, and the prayers he made
that I knew of the change that had come on him and first thought of my
sin against God, as well as against the little one.

"Well, the doctor came as Lennox died, and Mr Alwyn made him stay with
us and keep us in sight while, without a word to one another, we each
wrote down what the dying man had said to us; and the doctor witnessed
that we had written it without speech with one another since Lennox's
death.  Then we took the papers before the nearest judge, and made our
affidavits that they contained a true confession.  But it's all on our
words after all; howsoever, on that confession we came back."

"Well, Harry," said Mrs Stroud, "I'd take my dying oath you was
innocent.  But whatever made you decamp just at that moment?"

"My father knew where I was," said Harry.  "He knew I joined Mr Alwyn.
But he declared that after the jewels had been named in connection with
us he'd never go home, if they were found twenty times over, without the
squire made him an apology."

Mrs Stroud sat and looked at her recovered nephew, at his good clothes,
his watch chain, his air of undoubted respectability, and also at the
unembarrassed and cheerful air with which he faced her.

"What are you going to do now?" she said.

"That must depend on Mr Alwyn.  He thought Mr Edgar would perhaps have
helped him search, or told him how the land lay, anyhow; so he wrote him
a note appointing a meeting, which I gave to little Wyn Warren in the
wood.  It seems he lost it; and, though the meeting came about, Mr
Alwyn was so distracted at the state in which he found his poor brother
that he never laid any plans at all.  When I joined him he couldn't
hardly speak of him.  'Twas the heaviest punishment of all, he said."

"Ah, poor young gentleman," said Mrs Stroud; "it's a sad business, and
I doubt he's not long for this world.  But do I take you to say, Harry,
that you're a family man?"

Harry nodded, and produced a photograph of his wife and baby, and
another of the substantial house in which he lived; and over the tea a
great many more questions and answers were interchanged.  Harry heard
all about his sisters, and where Florence was, and what his brother
George was doing.  He couldn't help enjoying the joke of appearing to
his aunt in so new a light--even while he asked with real affection
after Mattie, and studied the photographs of his family in his aunt's
book.  He could not make himself known to his father, he said, until Mr
Alwyn had taken some action, and, of course, he could not but hope that
the explanation of the lost jewels would be accepted at Ashcroft.

His coming to see his aunt had been, he said, a sudden thought, prompted
by Mr Alwyn's shock and distress at his brother's illness.

"I didn't know then what I might find at the old place," he said.  "But
if you could keep my coming quiet for a few days, aunt, it would be all
for the better."

"Well, Henry," said Mrs Stroud, "there's nothing declares to me that
you're a reformed character so much as your coming and consulting _me_,
as was your true friend in the past always.  It's a lucky thing that
Stroud has gone down the line to-day to his cousin's funeral.  I'll keep
your secret, Harry, though the thought of _you_, sitting there so
broad-shouldered, and so well-to-do looking, is so amazing that I feel
as if it would ooze out of me at the seams of my gown!"

"Well, aunt," said Harry, "you're very good, and I hope in a couple of
days the concealment will be over."

"It's well," said Mrs Stroud, "that that unlucky Florrie knows nothing
of it, or she'd have controverted your intentions to a dead certainty."

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

MOST HASTE, WORST SPEED!

Unfortunately for his scheme of meeting with his brother again, poor
Edgar awoke the next morning to one of the blinding and overpowering
headaches to which over-fatigue and excitement always rendered him
liable.  There was no chance of getting that day to the trysting-place,
no possibility of anything but lying still.  He could not write a note
to be given to Alwyn, he could hardly even think of a safe message for
him.

"Tell Wyn--I cannot go out--tell him to--get what I told him--in the
wood--he will understand," he said, with a great effort at something
that would be comprehensible.

"Yes, sir; don't trouble yourself, sir," said Robertson; "it shall be
attended to."

"And tell him to come for orders to-morrow; I shall be able to go
to-morrow."

"Very well, sir," said Robertson, privately thinking that his master
would be quite unequal to such fatigue to-morrow, or probably for two or
three days to come.

Edgar chafed and fretted at his incapacity in a way that of course
aggravated the headache.  It was such a disappointment, besides the
anxiety and suspense, not to see Alwyn again.  He had not known how much
he should care about it.  Robertson thought that he had never known his
master so restless and impatient.

The message to Wyn did not strike anyone as of paramount importance, and
was sent down by the footman.

"Tell little Warren the pony won't be wanted.  Mr Edgar is ill.  Warren
is to get something, I believe, in the wood--flowers, I suppose--but
they won't be wanted to-day."

This information was finally shouted out to Wyn by the stable-boy as he
fed the peacocks before coming up for orders:

"Mr Edgar's ill and can't go out, but he says you're to pick him some
flowers instead."

"Is that all?" said Wyn, horrified.

"That's all, as I knows on."

"But I say, what's the matter with Mr Edgar?"

"Didn't hear--that was my message."

Wyn was a very sharp boy.  He had been told by Edgar as little as
possible, except as to the identity of the two strangers whom he had
seen in the wood, as to which he was sworn to secrecy; but after
puzzling a little over the message about the flowers he came to the
conclusion that the best thing he could do was to keep Mr Edgar's
appointment for him.  He was detained all the morning by Mrs Elton,
under whose superintendence he attended to the fancy poultry, to give
them an extra cleaning, as Mr Edgar did not want him; and when he went
home to dinner he found his own family in a state of excitement and
hurry.

Lady Carleton, at Ravenshurst, wanted a girl to help her nurse for a few
weeks, and by favour of the wife of the Ravenshurst keeper had sent to
see if Mrs Warren's niece could come over.

Mrs Warren thought it a wonderful chance for Florence to try her hand
at service in a good family, without being bound to a regular place, and
Florence was just tired enough of the keeper's lodge to think that she
should like the change.

"I must take you over myself," Mrs Warren said, "and explain to her
ladyship that you haven't things suitable at present for her household,
but they shall be soon provided.  She'll excuse it, as they want you to
come this afternoon.  You can put on your grey dress, and turn your hair
up and brush back your fringe."

"My fringe!  Why, even the _generals_ at Rapley are allowed their
fringes!" said Florence indignantly.

"Very likely.  But it's not the custom in good families," said Mrs
Warren dryly.  "I look to you, Florence, to do me credit where you go."

Florence pouted a little, but just then Warren, who had come in to his
dinner, said rather meaningly to his wife:

"Mother, have you forgotten as Lady Carleton is Miss Lilian Fletcher
that used to be?  Maybe that will make an objection; it'd be best to
name Florence, and make sure as she understands about her."

Florence caught the words, and the confidence she had received about her
brother from Wyn came, into her mind.  So this was one of the owners of
the jewels which Harry had been accused of stealing.  Intense curiosity,
and a sort of impulse for which she could not account, determined her on
going to Ravenshurst at all costs.  She went upstairs after dinner,
screwed her hair up into a neat knot behind, brushed it back from her
brows, and generally stroked herself down into a much tidier-looking
young person than she had ever before appeared.

Wyn had also heard the hint, and sat listening, open-eared, to the
strange coincidence.

"Wyn," said his mother, "it's a good thing Mr Edgar doesn't want you
to-day.  You get out the trap and bring it round by four o'clock so as
to drive Florrie and me over to Ravenshurst, and then you can take it on
to the junction and pick up Bessie and her things; I'll walk back
through the wood."

"But--but Mr Edgar sent word I was to get flowers."

"Mr Edgar can't want the flowers to-day.  It can't matter when you get
them--if you have them ready for him to-morrow morning.  Now don't make
difficulties, Wyn, you get idle with going after flowers and dawdling
about."

Wyn rushed out of doors in despair.  There was nothing for it but to go
at once to the ash-tree in the hope that Mr Alwyn might be there before
his time, and if he did not appear to write a message on a bit of paper
and leave it where he could find it.  Alwyn, however, impatient for the
meeting, was already sitting under the ash-tree on the look-out for his
brother, and started up in dismay as Wyn appeared alone.

"Please, sir, Mr Edgar's ill to-day.  He can't come.  I think he meant
me to come and tell you so."

"Ill?  What is the matter with him?  What did he say?"

"Please, sir, I expect it's only one of his headaches, and I only got a
message, but I thought I'd better come and tell you."

"Is he likely to be able to come to-morrow?"

"No, sir, I don't expect so.  He often doesn't come out for a long time
when he takes to having his headaches, except just to lie on the
terrace."

"But you can see him?"

"Yes, sir, when he's a bit better.  He likes to have me come and tell
him about the ducks and the peacocks and all the creatures, and
sometimes I take him the dogs to look at."

"My poor boy!  Is that all he has to amuse him?" murmured Alwyn, half to
himself.

"No, sir, there's the garden, and the wild flowers I get him.  But,
sir--please, sir, I've got to go.  Is there anything for me to take him,
sir?  Most likely I shall see him to-morrow."

Alwyn hesitated; but the fear of disappointing Edgar prevailed, and he
gave Wyn the thick packet, to be kept with the greatest care, and to be
delivered to his master in private.  Mr Alwyn looked so miserable as he
delivered it up that Wyn tried to say something consolatory.

"Please, sir, Mr Edgar ain't no worse than usual.  Often and often he
has his headaches and a pain in his back.  I don't think he minds it
much, sir.  He'll talk quite cheerful most times."  Alwyn did not look
much consoled by this information.

"Tell him not to think of me," he said; "not to make any exertion to see
me.  Come here again to-morrow, and bring me news of him."

Wyn hurried off without more words to get the trap up for his mother,
and it was not till he had deposited her safely with Florence at
Ravenshurst, and was waiting for his sister's train at the distant
junction, that it suddenly flashed into his mind how much he and
Florence had done to set the keepers on the track of the strangers whom
they had met in the wood.  What had he done?  It was worse than losing
the letter.  Suppose they caught Mr Alwyn or Harry, whom he had himself
taken for a suspicious character, and took them up to the squire or to
his father, saying that they had been warned by Wyn Warren.  What would
Mr Alwyn and Mr Edgar think of him?  He must go and put them off it
somehow.  Would the train never come?  What possessed it to be so late?
And when it did come groaning into the station what a time Bessie was
before she appeared with her box behind her, well-dressed, smiling, and
dignified, the sister Bessie that he was ordinarily so glad to see.

Now he could think of nothing but getting home quick, and started off at
a rattling pace before Bessie had had time to remark on his growth or
inquire for mother.

"You ought not to drive that young horse so fast downhill, Wyn," said
Bessie presently; "the road's so bad, you'll have him down.  Isn't it
the one father says isn't sure-footed?"

"All right, I understand him," said Wyn; but as he spoke there was a
stumble and a lurch, the horse fell, the trap tilted over, and Bessie
Warren, frightened, shaken, but otherwise unhurt, rolled out on to the
high bank beside the road.

She knew quite well enough what she was about to slip down the bank to
the horse's head and seize the rein as the beast righted himself with a
great struggle; then floundered, and stood up with broken knees,
dragging the trap, which had been turned right over, and scattering on
the bank all its contents, Wyn included.

"Wyn, Wynny darling, are you hurt?" cried Bessie, seeing little at the
first moment but her brother's heels.

It was a lonely road, and great was her relief when a gentleman on
horseback trotted up, and exclaiming, "Hullo! what's the matter?"
dismounted hastily, and displayed the features of Mr Cunningham
himself.

"Oh, sir," said Bessie as he took the reins from her hand, "there's been
an accident."

"So I perceive," said Mr Cunningham.  "What, Wyn, my lad, let the young
horse down, have you?  Are you damaged too?" as Wyn struggled up on to
his feet, looked at the horse's knees, and burst into a roar of crying,
while his nose began to bleed violently from the shake and the blow, and
he would have fallen back again if Bessie had not caught him, and,
sitting on the bank, laid him down with his head on her lap, and tried
to stop the bleeding.

"Is he hurt?" said the squire.

"Not much, sir, I think; he'll come round directly.  Keep quiet, Wyn.
Where's your pocket-handkerchief?  On the bank?  Oh, sir, thank you," as
Mr Cunningham handed it to her, and saw the letter beside it with his
son's name on it.

"A letter for Mr Edgar," he said, picking it up.  He gave a second
glance, and put it in his pocket.  "I'll give it to him," he said.

Wyn was giddy and a little faint, and did not see what was passing; but
presently he sat up, and Mr Cunningham said:

"Well, my boy, you'd better keep to Mr Edgar's pony for the future."

"Mr Stapleton won't never forgive me," said Wyn, feeling the horse's
knees of far more importance than his own nose, and referring to the
stud-groom.

"Well, I hope there's nothing worse than Rex's knees on your
conscience," said the squire in the peculiar dry tone which made his
displeasure so appalling.  "You had better wait here, Elizabeth Warren.
I'll ride back and send someone to help you."

"Thank you, sir;" then, as he rode on, "Surely nothing could be worse
than breaking the horse's knees!  What will father say?  What's the
matter, Wyn? here's your handkerchief."

"But--but--where's--where's--"

"Mr Edgar's letter?  Mr Cunningham took it, so that's all right."

Wyn jumped up with a positive howl.

"Oh! oh! oh!  Whatever have I done!  Oh, I am the unluckiest boy in the
world!  Oh, whatever will he say to me?  But there--"

Wyn suddenly stifled his lamentations and sat perfectly still, only
sobbing at intervals.

"Why," said Bessie, "if anyone lets a horse down they must expect to
catch it.  But there, Wyn, it's a mercy, to be very thankful for, that
we're neither of us killed.  I feel all of a tremble still.  There,
isn't that one of the stablemen coming?  The master must have met him.
Wipe your face, Wyn, dear, and don't cry; we'll go home to mother, and
she'll see to you."

"Oh," sobbed Wyn, burying his face in the bank as his sister went
forward to meet the stableman, "I'd rather have let down all the hunters
and broken all my bones than have let master have the letter.  And I
lost the other, and I've set on the keepers!  I'm--I'm a regular
traitor, and Mr Edgar'll never trust me no more--never!"

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

THE FAIRY LETTER.

In the meantime Florence Whittaker and her aunt, having been set down by
Wyn, waited in the housekeeper's room at Ravenshurst till Lady Carleton
was ready to see them.  Mrs Warren was by no means confident of
Florence's success, and felt that she stretched a point in recommending
her.  But Maud Florence Nellie was not quite the same girl as she had
been three weeks or a month before.  Many new influences had been
brought to bear on her some very ordinary, and others not quite so
commonplace, and, like all young people, she was greatly influenced by
her surroundings.  If she had found herself on the Rapley road beside
Carrie and Ada, she would probably have talked and acted exactly like
her old self; but she had thoughts that did not belong to her old self
at all.  Her head had been filled with wider, other ideas than her own
little follies, faults, and pleasures.  The mystery of the lost jewels,
the excitement of the strangers in the wood, the old grandmother, the
Cunningham family--the trees, even the birds and beasts--were all apart
from her own little selfish narrow interests, and were a great
improvement on Carrie's new hat, Ada's new acquaintance, and her own
newest scrape.  Moreover, Mrs Warren's quiet refinement had a subduing
influence; Wyn was a thoroughly well-behaved little boy.  Nobody nagged
at the keeper's lodge, and nobody quarrelled.  To be saucy at Sunday
school to gentle old Mrs Murray, who taught the girls with all the
assured ease of long custom, was so out of keeping with the place that
she never dreamed of it.  Besides, she was usually occupied with the
pleasure of sitting beside Miss Geraldine, who, when Mrs Murray was
there, took her place in the class with the others.  All these
influences were doing Florence a great deal of good; and an odd sort of
partisanship for the lost Harry was stirring up all sorts of new ideas
in her mind.

It did not begin very worthily: chiefly consisting of the notion that he
was probably much nicer than George, and wondering whether he would have
been down upon herself for her tricks; but the thought of him, and of
"Miss Geraldine's brother," filled Ravenshurst with interest.  Besides,
"dressing up to frighten people," if they were so silly as to be
frightened, was a proceeding with which Florrie had far too much
sympathy.

"Florrie, my dear," said Mrs Warren gently as they waited, "it's a good
deal that I'm undertaking for you.  You've all to learn, remember, and
the nurse must tell you if you make mistakes; don't think to answer her
back.  Remember she's your better, and set over you.  And when you're
trusted with the little lady and gentleman you'll be a careful girl, and
never let them hear a word from you that isn't fitting.  Put it in your
prayers, my dear, that you may do your duty by them.  I'm not one to
talk, Florrie, but there's nothing _but_ praying can help us through
life."

"I'll try, Aunt Charlotte," said Florrie, colouring Mrs Warren's
gentleness always subdued her, and when the summons came she followed
her aunt, and made a sort of imitation of Mrs Warren's country curtsey
at the drawing-room door, as a proof that she meant to mind her manners.

Lady Carleton was very young and very pretty.  Her manner was lively as
she asked a few questions about previous experience, and said that her
nurse preferred a girl who had not been out before.

"So you have only to attend to her directions.  What is your name?"

"Her name is Florence Whittaker, my lady," said Mrs Warren.  "My
husband wished me to name that at once.  But she has been brought up
very careful, and her brother George is a clerk on the railway and most
respectable."

Lady Carleton coloured up, and a curious look came into her face.

"I should like to do something for Florence _Whittaker_," she said with
a slight emphasis.  "We will consider it settled, Mrs Warren, that your
niece comes on trial."

"Your ladyship is very good.  Florence will do her best, I am sure,"
said Mrs Warren.

Accordingly, in the course of an hour or so Florence found herself in
Lady Carleton's nursery, under the orders of a well-mannered superior
nurse, making friends with Lily and Malcolm, and admiring the baby.

"Things are not so tidy as they should be, Florence," said the nurse,
"for our last girl began with the mumps, and was sent off in a hurry.
Before you undress Miss Lily, please to straighten out her walking
things and put her toys to rights.  I couldn't see properly to them
yesterday or to-day."

Lily Carleton was quite ready to make friends with the new nursemaid,
and Florence, who was good-natured with children, had soon told her the
names of her little sisters, and was hearing in return about the wood
and the squirrels, and the pretty puff-balls, and all the delights of a
London child in the country.

"What's this, Miss Lily?" said Florence, putting her hand into the
pocket of the little jacket which she was folding.  "Have you been
putting a puff-ball in your pocket?"

"No," said Lily, "that's a letter from the fairies.  I found it in the
wood; I told mother that I'd found a fairy letter, but she was too busy
to look and see."

Florence straightened out the crushed ball of damp paper, which, in
company with bits of moss and lichen-covered stick, filled Lily's little
pocket.

"Why, Miss Lily," she began, "this ain't a fairy letter," when she
suddenly stopped, catching sight of her own name in the short, clearly
written note: "Whittaker."  "Whittaker has come with me.  Remember I am
still your brother.--Alwyn Cunningham."

Florence would not have taken a letter off the table and read it; but in
the case of this mysterious paper no such scruple occurred to her.  She
saw that it began, "Dear Edgar"--that it stated that the writer had
returned, had satisfactory explanations to give, and asked for a meeting
at the old ash-tree on the following day.  Two things flashed at once
into Florence's mind: one that this was the letter Wyn had lost; the
other that the man who had spoken to herself and Miss Geraldine was Mr
Alwyn.

"Miss Lily, where did you find the letter?  When was it you got it?"

"I found it down under the ferns," said Lily.  "It wasn't yesterday--
mother took us out yesterday.  It was Friday."

Florence stared at the letter.  Wyn's poacher with the red beard--that
must have been Harry himself!  And, oh! she and Wyn had set the keepers
to look out for him.

Florence turned quite pale.  She had derived vague and awful notions of
Mr Cunningham's power from the way in which everything at Ashcroft was
referred to his pleasure.  She did not know what he would do to a
"poacher"--also a vague character to the town-bred girl.

"You had better undress Miss Lily," said the nurse, fearing that her new
underling was a dawdle.

"Read me what the fairies say," said Lily.

"Not to-night," said Florence, stuffing the letter in her pocket.  "You
tell Florrie about the fairies to-morrow."

She bustled about and did her work, till, Lily's toilet being complete,
she knelt up in her bed in her little nightgown, and said her prayers.
She went through the usual baby prayers, which were pretty much all that
Florence herself had to say, since she had never felt the need of any
others; but when she had finished she still knelt with her two little
hands clasped together, and said in a clear, parrot-like little voice:

"Please, God, make all wrongs right, and bring travellers safe home, for
Jesus' sake."

"Miss Lily--who's a traveller?" said Florence, startled.

"I don't know; mother told me to say that prayer always," she said as
she curled herself up in her little white bed and shut her eyes.

Florence stood by the window looking out over the garden into the mass
of trees that bounded it, under which the level evening light was
pouring.  If she could only get that letter back to Wyn! only tell him
to stop the keepers from minding her foolish talk!  With the letter in
her pocket, she really did feel a sense of great responsibility; she
really did try to think what it would be right to do.  She had never
felt so serious in her life.  Come what come might, she must get at Wyn.
She must run home across the forest.  Lose her place for it!  Perhaps
she would; but, if she had lost one place to amuse herself, she could
lose another to prevent such dreadful mischief.

"I don't care," said Florence, as she had said once before.  There was
good in her motive now, but it was the old daring, heedless Florence
that never stopped to think.  She slipped out of the bedroom by an outer
door that did not lead through the nursery, downstairs along the
passage, out at a side door, open to the summer evening, across the
grass of the garden, and right into the wood.  She ran on through the
band of fir trees that divided Ravenshurst from Ashcroft, and, crossing
the stile between the two properties, found herself, though she did not
know it, close to the place where the letter had been picked up, and not
far from the ash-tree named in it.

Then she began to grow puzzled about the way.  The long yellow lines of
light faded, the tall trees rustled overhead, the heavy whir and flap of
a startled pheasant sounded close at hand.  Deadly fear seized on
Florence.  If she had been frightened in the sunny morning, she was
doubly frightened now in the twilight.  Besides, it would really get
dark soon, and then what would become of her?  She had said "I don't
care!" but where was the use of saying "don't care" to darkness and
silence and confusion as to the right way?  Should she go back? she knew
the way back.

"No," said Florence to herself, "I may have been a silly to come; but
I'll get that there letter to Wyn if I walk all night.  And I'll not be
afraid of the wood.  Miss Geraldine ain't--but oh, dear, I wish I had to
go down the broad path in the cemetery at home, all nice and straight,
instead.  If I go on I'll have to get somewhere at last!"

Florence knew quite well that she had done a very serious thing, for
which she would have to answer, and in the midst of her fear of the
solitude came an involuntary fear of the scolding that would meet her
arrival anywhere.  She had rather enjoyed scolding when she knew she was
wrong: why did she dread it when she thought she was right?  The wood
did grow darker, much darker than Florence had expected, judging by the
light that she knew was outside it; and the poor girl's knees trembled
as she hurried along.  It was a perfectly formless terror that seized on
her; she had had too utterly matter-of-fact a training to fill the wood
with any imaginary inhabitants, and she was too old and had too much
sense to people it with wolves or bears.  It did occur to her that the
keepers she had herself stirred up might shoot her through the bushes,
and her cheeks tingled at the thought of being seen and recognised by
them; while, if she met her Uncle Warren--

"I'll go through with it--rather than bring my own brother to the
gallows," she thought with a vividness worthy of her Aunt Stroud.  But
which _was_ the way? what _should_ she do?  Florence was so accustomed
to trust to her own wits that where her wits were perfectly useless she
felt like another person.  She did not know the way, she could not get
at Wyn, she could not undo the mischief!  There was no one to help her!
Suddenly there struck into her mind a new thought:

"God."

Now Florence had never _thought_ about God in her life.  She knew about
Him: on the very last Sunday before she left Rapley she had answered
Miss Mordaunt's questions about His nature with a glib tongue, but
without a trace of reverence in her manner or of awe in her heart.  He
was everywhere; He could see her in the dark and in the light; He knew
her thoughts; He could hear her prayers.  Such awful truths had been
taught to her, and had been just as much a lesson as the multiplication
table.  But now, in the greatest need she had ever known, it did
suddenly strike Florence that perhaps God would help her if she asked
Him.  She looked up--up through the dark trees to the pale clear sky
above them, and associating praying with nothing but with "saying her
prayers," she began to repeat the childish formulary which she was in
the habit of scurrying over every night, and with a sudden thought added
the words which little Lily had been taught to say: "Set wrongs right,
bring travellers home."

"Oh, God," whispered Florence, clasping her hands, "bring _me_--there!
Save _them_ somehow."  Something seemed let loose within her, and for
the first time in her life she really prayed.  And "Oh say not, dream
not," that those unrealised lessons, that formal habit of prayer, had
been hitherto all in vain.  How could she have heard without a teacher?
There was the knowledge, there was the instinct, so soon as the naughty,
graceless girl felt the need.

As she looked round, with a somewhat calmer inspection of the various
footpaths, suddenly, in the stillness of the summer evening, she heard
the tramp of a foot, and in a moment, round the great tree by which she
stood, came the tall broad figure of a man with a long beard--surely the
"character" who had given Wyn the letter.

"Hullo, my girl," he said, stopping with a start at sight of a hatless
maiden in a white apron, "what's the matter?  Have you lost your way?"

"Oh!" cried Florence, precipitating herself towards him, "I've got your
letter--but--but, if you're my brother Harry that's come home--the
keepers are going to seize you for a poacher!"

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

FATHER AND SON.

Edgar Cunningham got somewhat the better of his headache as the day went
on, and late in the afternoon insisted on getting out into the fresh air
on the terrace, in the hope that Wyn might make some excuse for coming
up to speak to him.  He was hardly fit even for this exertion; but the
open air was always the one thing he cared for, and the suspense was
more endurable so than when he was shut up in the house.

When his cushions were raised he could see across the flower garden,
over the low wall that bounded it, to the road that led from the wood
and the village, up to the stables, and to the back of the house; and as
his bright eyes were keen and long-sighted, he often amused himself with
watching the comers and goers, noticing all that went on, as only those
people do who are confined to one place.

To-day, however, as he lay almost flat on his back, he could not see the
road, and it was with a start of surprise that he looked up and saw his
father standing by him.

"I hope, as you are out of doors, that you are better, Edgar?" he said.

"Oh yes, thanks, almost well," said Edgar.

"Your boy, little Warren, has been getting into trouble.  He has let
down the young bay horse and broken his knees."

"Wyn!  Has he?  What had he to do with the horse?" said Edgar, very much
startled as he thought of what Wyn should have been doing.

"He had been driving his mother and her niece to Ravenshurst as I
understand, and went to fetch his sister from the station.  He let down
the horse in Coombe Lane.  That is what I am _told_," said Mr
Cunningham with emphasis, and using all the advantage his position gave
him to look straight down into Edgar's face.

"Was he hurt?" said Edgar, looking straight up in return.

Mr Cunningham was very angry with his son, and little disposed to be
merciful to him, though he had not meant to enter on the subject of the
letter if Edgar had been more manifestly unequal to a discussion.

"He broke his head; I believe nothing serious.  He had a letter for you,
which I undertook to deliver myself," and Mr Cunningham laid Alwyn's
unopened packet in Edgar's hand.

Edgar caught his breath, but his face never flinched as his father went
on:

"I was not aware, when you spoke to me the other morning, that you were
already in communication with your brother."

"I dare say you think it possible that I might have so deceived you,"
said Edgar bitterly.  "But my brother made himself known to me for the
first time yesterday.  I should not be waiting here if I had the use of
my limbs like other people.  As things are, I'll beg you to open that
letter and read it at once yourself."

Edgar's manner and face were alike defiant, and he was so indignant at
the imputation cast on him that he never saw that his father's lips were
twitching and that his face was pale, nor took advantage of the moment
of softening.

Mr Cunningham took up the packet, and turned round as if to open and
read it, when his attention was caught by three figures coming up the
road towards the house.  They evidently saw him on the terrace, and
after a pause and a word or two came through the gate up the garden.

"What is it?  Who is there, father?" cried Edgar, expectant of any turn
of events.

"It is--your brother!" said Mr Cunningham, laying his hand on the wall,
with pale lips, and his eyes fixed on the first figure approaching him.

Alwyn stood still at the top of the steps and took off his hat.

"I see you know me, sir," he said; "I did not mean to come here against
your wish.  But your keepers have made a mistake, which perhaps you will
explain to them."

"That will do, blockheads; don't you know a gentleman when you see one?"
said Mr Cunningham, as the two men, greatly crestfallen, and muttering
a "Beg pardon, I'm sure, sir," retreated in haste.

"It is right, sir, that I should explain myself," said Alwyn, speaking
with evident effort.  "I had no intention of forcing myself on you.  If
you will have the goodness to read the letter I gave to my brother, I
will go back to London and wait--"

"No, no, no!" interposed Edgar, struggling up on to his elbow.  "I'd
stand by your side if I could stand anywhere.  At least I'll claim the
right to own you."

Alwyn had not meant to make any advance to Edgar which might be
construed as a defiance, but he now crossed over to the couch and took
the offered hand gently in both his own.

"My father will understand," he said, "that I should not have made any
approach to you if I had known of the fatal mischief for which I am
responsible.  Dear Edgar, lie still; no one could have done more for me
than you have."

There was a pause.  Mr Cunningham moved and sat down in a chair
opposite his sons.  Edgar lay back, but with eyes still fronting his
father, while he still held Alwyn's hand.  Alwyn himself hardly knew
what next to do.  There was, however, something about him so unlike the
wild youth from whom the father had parted, so unlike what Mr
Cunningham had imagined as his probable condition, that all previous
ideas were upset.

"Your reappearance," said Mr Cunningham at length, "is very sudden
after so complete a silence.  What is your reason for coming here?"

Alwyn hesitated, his mouth quivered, and he pointed to the letter which
still lay on Edgar's knee.  Then he dropped his brother's hand and made
a step or two forward.

"Father," he said, "I--I beg your pardon.  That first, nothing else.  I
have made a position for myself, as you will see.  I came partly because
I hope to set Whittaker's character right with his friends here and to
leave no mystery about my own.  But I have nothing to say for myself--as
to the past.  I was inexcusable all through."

"Give me your letter," said Mr Cunningham.  "I will read it; I make no
promises.  I--I am glad; it is a satisfaction to me to hear that you
have done well.  But personal intercourse is another question, to which
you once attached conditions to which I am not likely to see my way."

"The conditions, sir," said Alwyn, "are, I know now, entirely for you to
make.  Without your desire I shall not come here again.  Indeed, of
course, I cannot."

"I never felt till now," burst out Edgar passionately, "what it is to be
helpless.  I'll not ask you to stay without a welcome.  But what my
father told me is not with my goodwill.  I would blot out the past I
must say--wait--oh!  I cannot even speak for you," as his breath came in
panting gasps and his voice failed him.

"Hush, hush!  I understand," said Alwyn, much distressed; "there is no
need to tell me.  Hush!"

"Don't linger here for me," gasped Edgar, resolute still.  "It is--all--
nothing."

But the last word died away in deadly faintness.  Mr Cunningham gave a
hasty call.  Robertson came out of the house, and Alwyn could do nothing
but help to carry his brother into his room.  He could not go till Edgar
revived, which was not for some time, and then it was hardly to full
consciousness, certainly not to his ordinary self-control, for he clung
to Alwyn's hand, entreating him not to leave him.

"Don't go, Alwyn, don't!  You know I can't come to you--you know I can't
come to the wood to-day."

"Can you say nothing to quiet him, sir?" whispered Robertson.  "He has
no strength for such excitement.  His heart is very weak."

"I shall stay," said Alwyn; "don't fret, my dear boy; indeed, I won't
leave you now."

"You know that I'll never take your place; even if I live I will not!"
said Edgar vehemently.

"No, no," said Alwyn, without much perception of the sense of what Edgar
was saying.  "Never mind it now.  There, that's better.  Hush! we will
talk by-and-by."

Edgar grew quieter at last, and Alwyn, as he sat beside him, began a
little to realise the situation.  His father had retired as soon as the
first alarm was over, and no word came from him.

Presently some soup was brought for Edgar, and Robertson deferentially
offered Alwyn a tray with sandwiches and some claret.

"You will need it, sir, if you remain with Mr Edgar," he said.

Alwyn hesitated, but he had had nothing since morning, and for Edgar's
sake he must accept the situation in full.  It was a long strange night.
Edgar was restless and feverish, only soothed by Alwyn's voice and
touch; but towards morning he fell asleep quietly, and Alwyn, as the
sweet summer morning dawned, looked round about him, and recognised that
the room in which he sat had been the old "study"--full of how many
memories!  All the furniture was changed to suit Edgar's requirements,
but the lines of the window, the panels on the wall, had a strange
familiarity.  When Edgar, half waking, looked at him, and murmured
something about a dream, Alwyn felt that either this night, or all the
past eight years, were as a dream to him.  He heard the sounds of the
rousing household, familiar as no other sounds in the world could be,
and presently Robertson, who had gone to lie down in the outer room,
where he usually slept, came back and said:

"Mr Cunningham has sent word, sir, to say that breakfast will be served
at nine in the dining-room.  Will you let this man show you a room?  I
think my young master will be quite easy now."

"I don't like to leave him while he is asleep, he might wake and miss
me.--What, Edgar, awake?  I am going to get some breakfast; I shall be
back soon."

He spoke in as matter-of-course a voice as possible, and Edgar only
smiled a little and assented.

Alwyn went out into the new old house.  The servants, who came to him
also with a curious new old deference, unknown across the water, were
strange to him; but he almost laughed to see how, evidently, they
accepted him, and noticed that the man who had been attending on him did
not offer, when he came out, to show him the way to the dining-room; he
watched him as he turned naturally towards it.  The room was empty.

"Mr Cunningham begged you to take some breakfast, sir, and to come to
him afterwards in his library."

Alwyn sat down and silently accepted the breakfast.  He recognised the
gold-edged, deep-coloured china, the plate, even the special variety of
hot cakes which was offered to him.  He was too much absorbed to be
embarrassed, and was just deciding that it would be better to get the
interview with his father over before he saw Edgar again, when a quick
step sounded in the hall, and Geraldine stood before him, her tall
figure upright as a dart, and her dark eyes recalling Edgar's youth so
vividly, that she seemed more familiar to Alwyn than poor Edgar's own
altered countenance.

He rose, colouring, and hardly knowing what to do; but Geraldine walked
straight up to him.

"Are you my brother Alwyn?" she said in her clear outspoken voice.

"Yes--you are Geraldine?" said Alwyn.

"Why didn't you tell me so in the wood?  I am very glad you are come
home.  I'll be friends with you anyhow."

Her bold, defiant voice sounded to Alwyn like an echo of his own old
self, and it struck him how ready both his father's children were to
side against him.

Geraldine came close to him and offered to kiss him, and he kissed her
tenderly but very quietly, and looked at her as if learning her face.

"I am very glad I have seen my sister," he said.  "But now I must go to
my father.  I must not talk to you now."

"I told Miss Hardman that I _would_ come and speak to you," said
Geraldine.  "I shall write to you if you go away again.  I won't be
prevented."  Alwyn said nothing, and she looked at length a little awed
by his silence and gravity.  He moved away towards the door, then came
back and kissed her again, this time in a warm hasty fashion that
brought the tears to her eyes, then went across the hall and knocked at
the door of his father's library.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

HARRY AGAIN.

Harry Whittaker, when suddenly claimed by Florrie as her long-lost
brother, felt an immediate sense of recognition of the fair, fat,
bouncing-ball of a seven years child, whom he remembered in the equally
bouncing and fully proportioned damsel of fifteen.

"If you're my little sister Florrie," he said, taking hold of her hands,
"how do you come to be out here by yourself at this time in the
evening?"

"'Twas I went and chattered to the keepers and set 'em upon you.  And
when little Miss Lily found this here letter, I knew as how it was you
and Miss Geraldine's brother, and I run away to tell Wyn to stop 'em."

"Run away from the Warrens?"

"No--from Ravenshurst; I was to help the nurse there."

"Run away from your situation!"

"Well," said Florrie with more spirit, "it was a deal better to run away
than have you put in prison.  I ain't so set on situations, either."

"Well, Florence, you're a plucky girl I see, and I'm greatly obliged to
you; but now I must just take you back to the keeper's lodge, that they
may be able to say to the lady that your own brother brought you home
again."

He gave a little squeeze to the hand he held, which brought a curious
thrill to Florence's heart.  "But--but won't they take you up?" she
said.

"No; I shan't play hide-and-seek any longer.  Anyway, if you came out to
take care of me I'm bound to take care of you.  So come along."

"I ain't afraid to go back to Ravenshurst and face it out," said
Florrie.

"No; you shall go back with a good account to give of yourself
to-morrow, and now you do as I tell you."

Harry was so uneasy as to what had become of Mr Alwyn that he was not
sorry for any chance of finding out.

Florence walked along by his side more subdued than she had ever been in
her life.  She answered all the various questions which Harry asked her
about home and their father quite meekly and as they neared the keeper's
lodge, to which he knew the way much better than she did, he heard a
little sniffle.

"Don't be afraid, I'll stand by you," said Harry good-naturedly, and
Florence for once did not reply that she never was afraid in her life.

There was a light still burning in the lodge, and Harry went boldly up
and knocked at the door.  It was opened by Charles Warren himself, who
looked the tall burly figure up and down.

"If you're Henry Whittaker," he said, "walk in, and we'll hear what
you've got to say."

"I thank you kindly," said Harry; "I shouldn't have intruded, but I've
brought back my sister, who--"

"Mercy on us, Florrie!" exclaimed Mrs Warren, coming forward, while
Wyn, looking very pale and red-eyed, with a large patch of brown paper
on his nose, almost fell upon Florence.

"Oh, Florrie I have they sent you home in disgrace, for--for thinking
Mr Alwyn was a poacher?  It's all over now, and we've been the ruin of
everything, and Mr Edgar's heart will be broke, and all through me."

"It ain't ruined at all," said Florence, "and I've found the letter for
you, and here it is."

"That's nothing near so bad as the other letter what master's got!" said
poor Wyn.

"Now shut up, Wyn," said his father.  "Mr Alwyn's at the house, and the
matter's out of your hands, which never ought to have been mixed up in
it.  Get you to bed at once.  And what has brought Florence back again?"

"I went and carried on with Jim Blake and young Benson, and I set 'em on
thinking the men in the wood were poachers, and when I found the letter
in Miss Lily's pocket, and saw it was Mr Alwyn and my brother, I
thought I'd better run away than have their deaths on my shoulders.  But
I was settling down, Aunt Charlotte, I was indeed, and folding up the
clothes quite regular."

"Could a note be sent to tell the lady what is become of her?" said
Harry.  "I'll go myself if that's all; but it's late, perhaps, to
disturb them with a long story."

"I'll take the note," said Ned Warren, who had been standing in the
background, "if Bessie 'll write it."

Bessie accordingly indited a note in her mother's name, in which she
begged to inform her ladyship that Florence Whittaker had come home, but
that circumstances had occurred in part to excuse her and that she (Mrs
Warren) would wait on her ladyship the next morning with a full
explanation.

This note despatched, Bessie good-naturedly went upstairs to bathe Wyn's
face and to hear Florence's story, and to leave the elders free to come
to an explanation with the returned stranger.  "Would you be good
enough," said Harry, "to tell me what has occurred as to Mr
Cunningham?"

"It's just this," said Charles Warren.  "Strangers are scarce in these
parts, and my boy and the girl took it into their heads as they must be
after mischief, and chattered about what was none of their business to
the two young fellows that Ned and I have got in to help us.  So when
they saw a stranger, as they expressed it, ferreting in a tree, they
clapped him on the shoulder and asked him his business.  He looked them
in the face, as they put it, as cool as you please, and asked them if
they thought he was looking for pheasants' eggs in a hollow tree in
August?  Which they took for cheek, which it sounded like, and told him
they'd walk him up here to me.  So he says, says they, `I'm glad you
mind your business so thoroughly.  Just walk up to the house with me,
and I'll explain matters to Mr Cunningham myself.'  So they walked him
up, and Jim Blake, who has the most gumption of the two, says he did
begin to feel uncommon uncomfortable, and when they came to the garden
side, there was the master on the terrace.  So says their man, `There's
your master, alone, I think.  We'll go and speak to him at once.'  And
he unlatched the gate, quite natural-like, and walks up to the terrace.
And there they saw Mr Edgar lying, and he gave a start and held out his
hands, and the master sent them off with a flea in the ear.  And they
come straight to me, full of misgivings; they're new in these parts,
but, of course, _I_ knew who it must be at once."

"It did sound like Mr Alwyn all over," said Mrs Warren.

"Then back comes Wyn, and hears the story, and begins to cry, and bursts
out about the letter that Mr Alwyn had given him and the master took."

"And is Mr Alwyn at the house now?" asked Harry.

"Yes," said Warren, "he is.  But now, perhaps, you'll tell us where you
come from, and what's brought you here, and why in the wood?"

"That last," said Harry, "came about unfortunate.  Mr Alwyn and I came
down here straight from London, knowing nothing of any one.  And,
thinking I was least likely to be recognised, he sent me with the letter
to his brother, asking him to meet him in the wood, or come to London to
see him, and to tell him how the land lay before he made himself known
to his father.  I gave the letter to Wyn, who dropped it: here it is.
Mr Alwyn met Mr Edgar by chance, and was so knocked down by the state
in which he found him, that he couldn't tell what to do next.  He was
afraid, you see, of his brother having to bear the brunt of a discovery,
and he not there.  That made him delay."

"But, why hollow trees, which seem to have occurred in everybody's
story?" said Warren.

"Oh!" said Harry, "to pass the time," repeating much of what he had told
Mrs Stroud, omitting, however, Alwyn's experiences, but showing the
copies of the certificates and attestations of Lennox's confession,
giving proofs by letters and documents of his respectable position in
the States, and expressing with the frankness which, while it was like
his old daring, had yet a different note in it, how, being a father
himself, he had repented of his hardness and neglect towards his home.
"But," he concluded, "if people don't believe us, there's no more to be
said about it at present."

Warren was a shrewd man; he had never thought it at all likely that
Harry had stolen the jewels, and he saw plainly that there was no reason
to induce him to return to his native country unless the story was true.

"I take it," he said, "that the gentlemen before whom these affidavits
were made believed in the story."

"Why, certainly," said Harry, "which they are prepared to say in
writing.  Mr Warren," he added, standing up, "there's a deal in the
past I have to ask your pardon for.  I was a young scamp that cared
neither for man nor God, and I was downright ungrateful for all your
kindness.  But I'm clear from that theft, and if you and my father can
say you think so, you'll clear away a trouble from me which not all my
good fortune has made me forget."

"Well, Harry," said Warren, "I see nothing against your story, and I'm
prepared to help you to make it out."

After this Bessie came down, and the conversation took an easier turn,
the exhibition of the family photograph, with the well-dressed wife and
comfortable baby, having its due effect on Mrs Warren.  A shakedown was
offered to Harry in the kitchen, and at a late hour they all went to
bed, if not to sleep, after the day's excitement.

The next morning, as Wyn, though he was still rather sick and headachy,
and anything but presentable, was preparing to go about his work and to
inquire for Mr Edgar, and as Mrs Warren was making Florence tidy, in
Bessie's hat, to accompany her on a penitential errand to Ravenshurst,
there was a tap at the open door, and there stood Alwyn Cunningham
himself, as Mrs Warren said afterwards, for all the world as if he had
come to give his orders for a day's shooting.

"I heard you were here, Harry," he said, grasping his comrade's hand.
"Warren, I hope you'll give me a welcome also."

"Indeed I will, sir, and glad to see you.  Hope you'll overlook the
young fellow's mistake yesterday."

Alwyn laughed a little.

"They were quite in the right of it," he said.  "Hullo, Wyn, you have
punished yourself as well as the horse."

"Please, sir, if I hadn't been stupid-like with my nose bleeding, I'd
never have give up the letter.  I'd have eaten it first!" burst out Wyn
miserably.

"It was all for the best," said Alwyn, "and you're a faithful little
fellow."

He paused a moment, then went on, aside to Harry:

"My father wishes me to remain here for the present, and he will give
facilities for the search in the wood which we wished to make.  What are
your plans, Harry?"

"Well, sir, since things are settled here, I think I ought to go to
Rapley."

"Can you go to London as well, and give orders for my things to be sent
here?  I could telegraph, but they are all in confusion.  I don't wish
to leave my brother to-day.  And you know I must not delay in going to
Ravenshurst."

"Is Mr Edgar better, sir?" asked Wyn timidly.  "Not much, I'm afraid,
as yet.  He must be very quiet for the present."

"Is all right, Mr Alwyn?" said Harry, as he followed him out of doors.

"As right as may be.  My father acknowledges me, and asks me to stay
with him.  Friendliness and forgiveness are another matter.  He read and
heard all I had to say, and I believe he thinks your character cleared.
Perhaps the sudden meeting was as well for him as any other, but poor
Edgar fainted; all plans and scruples had to give way.  It has been a
terrible shock for him, and he is quite worn out, only wanting to keep
me in sight I'll go back to him.  I can't think of anything else just
now."

He turned off with a hasty "Good morning."

"He's as grave as his father," said Mrs Warren, "only the master never
spoke so gentle.  Well, I'd like to have seen Mr Alwyn's merry face
again."

"When folks have to right themselves after they've gone as wrong as Mr
Alwyn and I did," said Harry, "there ain't so much merry-making left in
them.  Not but what a light heart, thank God, is very persevering.  And
Mr Alwyn's got a twinkle in him yet.  But coming home's bitter hard to
him, and everybody ain't as forgiving as you, Cousin Charlotte, nor as
comfortable to ask pardon of."

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

TO SET WRONGS RIGHT.

The abrupt disappearance of the new nursemaid had naturally caused
considerable excitement at Ravenshurst, and Lily's story, when she was
asked to repeat what the new girl had said to her, did not throw much
light on the subject.  It seemed, however, to be clear that the child
had really picked up a letter in the forest, and that, on its being
shown to Florence, the girl had at once decamped.  When Mrs Warren's
note came, promising an explanation, Sir Philip Carleton hummed and
hawed, but told his wife that, as Cunningham's keeper's wife seemed so
respectable a person, she had better hear the explanation.  As to taking
the girl back, that was another thing altogether.

Lady Carleton had no idea what the explanation was to be, and when Mrs
Warren appeared at the door of her morning-room with Florence behind,
hanging her head, her reception was not encouraging.

"I hope, Mrs Warren, that you have some reason to give for your niece's
extraordinary conduct.  She has behaved in a most unheard-of manner."

"She has, my lady, and I am going to trouble your ladyship with the
excuse for it.  Some strangers were seen in the wood, and Florence here
and my little boy took it into their heads, which was none of their
business, to warn the keepers about them.  Then, my lady, when Florence
was putting Miss Lily to bed, the little lady showed her a letter which
she said she had found in the wood."

"Yes," said Lady Carleton; "Miss Lily told me something about that
letter, but I had no time to attend to her.  Well?"

"My lady, she saw in that letter the name of her own brother, Harry
Whittaker, and perceived it was written by Mr Alwyn Cunningham, whose
story, my lady, she had heard, it seems, from my Wyn.  And Florence put
two and two together, and saw that 'twas her own brother and Mr Alwyn
that she had set the keepers upon, and off she ran, without another
thought to send Wyn to warn them.  And indeed, my lady, I hardly know
whether it was her place or not; certain sure she ought to have
mentioned that she was going; but her brother met her and brought her
home; and if your ladyship can overlook her behaviour, she'll be a good
girl for the future, I do think."

"But, Mrs Warren," exclaimed Lady Carleton, to whom Florence's conduct
was the least part of the matter, "do you mean to say that Mr Alwyn
Cunningham has returned?"

"Yes, my lady, he has, and Henry Whittaker too; and I may say, your
ladyship, that Henry appears to be a reformed character, and well-to-do
also.  And very remarkable things he had to tell us.  But those it is
not my business to trouble your ladyship with."

Mrs Warren said no word about the confession and the jewels; that, she
thought, was not her business.  And now that Mr Alwyn was once more in
his proper place, she had no call to discuss his character.

"Of course, my lady," she said, "if your ladyship feels that you cannot
overlook such a breach of propriety, I will take Florence back at once."

Lady Carleton looked at the girl for a moment.

"I should like Florence to stay," she said.  "Will you please leave her
with me now, Mrs Warren?  I see that the case was exceptional."  Mrs
Warren thanked her ladyship, and with a discreet hope that Florence
would be grateful and obedient, withdrew at once.

"Come here, Florence," said Lady Carleton in the softest voice Florence
had ever heard.  "It was a very serious thing to do, you know, to run
away without leave.  It is because I think that you are a good steady
girl in general that I overlook it, as you had a reason."

"I ain't a good girl, Lady Carleton," said Florence.  "I ain't steady,
but I wasn't after nothing wrong last night."

"What do you mean by saying you are not steady?" said Lady Carleton,
somewhat taken aback by Florence's town-bred use of her name and by her
queer manner.

"I was always the one to lead the rest," said Florence, "and I've always
liked a bit of fun.  But I had to go and try to step them from taking
Harry up for a poacher, and--and he says it ain't no manner of use to
say `Don't care,' and I'm very sorry."

"If you were able to stop the harm you had begun to do, that is a thing
to be very thankful for--to thank God for!" said Lady Carleton with some
emotion in her tone.

Florence looked up with a certain solemnity in her round eyes never seen
there before.

"I did say my prayers in the wood," she said, "when I lost my way, and
then Harry came."

"Tell me about it," said Lady Carleton kindly.  Thus encouraged,
Florence volubly, according to her nature, but with a friendliness of
manner which was really the nearest approach to respect that she had
ever exhibited, told her tale.

"And my heart was in my mouth, ma'am, the trees were that black and that
awful.  I'd have run back, for I wouldn't have cared if nurse had given
me ever so much of the rough side of her tongue.  But there, I couldn't
have it on my mind that I'd set the keepers on my brother and dear Miss
Geraldine's too.  But I didn't know one path from another no more than
if there hadn't been none.  And then I thought of little Miss Lily's
prayer about setting wrongs right and travellers, and I said it, Lady
Carleton; and there was Harry."

"Did you, Florence?  Oh, thank God for it!" said Lady Carleton
tearfully.

"And he took me right back, and he said this morning that the best thing
I could do was to come back here and be trained a bit.  And so I've
come, please, ma'am--my lady.  Please, aunt said I was to say `my lady,'
and I will, but I forgot; and I'll be a good girl, and not gossip on the
sly, nor answer nurse back, nor make the other girls saucy.  And I'll
trim up my hat quiet, if you like, my lady.  I--I want to be good."

Florence cried as she finished speaking, and wiped her eyes and blew her
nose noisily.  Perhaps, but for the circumstances that appealed so
strongly to her sympathy, Lady Carleton would never have recognised how
real this confused desire "to be good" was in this extraordinary girl,
so unlike any well-trained maiden whom she had ever encountered.

"Well," she said, "you shall try.  You had better talk as little about
the matter as possible, and I trust you never will `gossip on the sly,'
or do anything of the kind, for I couldn't have a girl who was not nice
and modest near my little ones.  I will speak to nurse."

"Thank you--my lady."

But as Lady Carleton rose to take her back to the nursery, Florence's
round face suddenly beamed all over, and she said sympathetically:
"They've found out who stole the jewels, my lady, and it was not Harry
nor Mr Alwyn.  They were as innocent as lambs."

"I think we had better not talk about that just now," said Lady
Carleton; and then, with a sudden inspiration and effort, she added:
"Florence, perhaps you don't know that it was partly my fault that those
jewels were lost, that I helped to put some one in the way of
temptation.  It was because I was so silly, that I only thought of what
you call `a bit of fun.'  That is why I was so glad you were able to
prevent the mischief you started, and why I taught Miss Lily to say
those prayers.  The good God has heard them.  You see, I shall be very
glad if you _are_ good."

Lady Carleton had a very simple manner, but Florence looked up at her
with the first sense of real respect--she had begun to have real
likings--that she had ever known.

"I _will_ try," she said softly, with her bold eyes cast down; and Lady
Carleton took her by the hand and led her up to the nursery.

An hour or two later, when Florence, whose reception by the nurse had
not been particularly cordial, was sitting demurely in the nursery
window, putting her best needlework, such as it was, into Miss Lily's
new pinafore, a note was brought to Lady Carleton.  "The gentleman was
waiting."  Lady Carleton had thought of nothing but the half-heard story
of the returned travellers, of the hint about the jewels, and of the
hope that the consequences of her girlish folly might be undone at last.

The note ran thus:--

"Ashcroft: August 5th.

"Dear Lady, Carleton,--My eldest son has returned from abroad.  He asks
your permission for a short interview, either with yourself or with Sir
Philip Carleton, concerning the circumstances under which he left
England.

"I remain sincerely yours,--

"George Cunningham."

Lady Carleton handed the note to her husband, to whom she had already
related Florence's story.

"You will see him?" said Sir Philip.  "Ask the gentleman to walk in."

It was a very uncomfortable moment both for Lady Carleton and for Alwyn
Cunningham, who had been boy and girl together, and now hardly knew how
to meet; but Sir Philip carried it off by ordinary greetings as to the
son of a neighbour, whose acquaintance he was ready to make, and Alwyn
hardly waited a moment before he entered on the matter in hand.

He took out the jewel that he had shown to Edgar in the wood and laid it
on the table.

"I can at least return to you this piece of your family property, Lady
Carleton," he said.

"My mother's jewel, the ruby bird!" faltered Lady Carleton, hardly
knowing what this implied.

"And," said Alwyn, "I will ask Sir Philip Carleton to be good enough to
read these papers."

These contained the confession of Lennox, already alluded to by Harry
Whittaker to his aunt, and the attestations of it, of which he had shown
copies to the Warrens.

"That Lennox stole the jewels, and returned one of them on his death-bed
to me, Whittaker has told some of his relations," said Alwyn, "but the
main fact of the matter has only been confided to my father, as you will
see that it would not do to make it public.  This Is the substance of
what he told me as nearly as possible in his own words:

"`I put the jewels for safety in a hollow tree near the entrance to
Ravenshurst.  I thought they were safer there than in my keeping.  I
kept one back to take it up to London, and see if I could dispose of it,
but before I could do so the alarm was given.  I was afraid to come back
without a reason, and I went off with my new master, leaving the jewels
in the tree, and thinking they'd either be found (I have never been in
England since), or I should get a chance of coming back for them.  But I
put it off and I put it off.  I took service with Mr Alwyn Cunningham
because I thought I could find out how things had gone; and I hope he
will go home and find the jewels.'"

"This is a most extraordinary story," said Sir Philip.

"It is," said Alwyn.  "Of course it rests finally on the unsupported
words of myself and Whittaker, who alone heard it.  These other papers
and letters may show what worth is attached to our words in our own
neighbourhood, but that is all."

"Then do you mean to say," ejaculated Sir Philip, "that these missing
jewels are--are in an old tree trunk in Ashcroft Wood?"

"Well," said Alwyn, "all I can say is that Lennox said that he put them
in one."

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Sir Philip.

"But, of course," Alwyn continued, "some one _may_ have lighted on them
during these eight years and carried them off, to say nothing of the
difficulty of finding them.  For he had done it, he said, in the dark,
and though he could have found the tree himself, he could not tell me
anything about it, except that it was near Ravenshurst.  You see he was
dying fast, and spoke with great difficulty."

"Do you remember the man, Lily?" asked Sir Philip.

"I think I remember something about a servant who went to America.  Oh,
Philip, you will have every place searched--you will help Mr
Cunningham?  If the jewels could be found!  But I don't mind so much
after all about that if no one is accused falsely."

"As to that," said Sir Philip, "I know Mr Dallas, of Boston, and the
Bishop of.  I knew them when I was once in the States, the year before I
married.  What they say here is quite sufficient to establish the worth
of Mr Alwyn Cunningham's testimony and the character of his foreman,
who is more concerned in the matter.  You will allow me to call on you,
Mr Cunningham, and to express my pleasure at your return."

"Thank you," said Alwyn, a little stiffly, for the situation sorely
tried his pride.  "I am much obliged to you," he added, after a moment.

"And, Alwyn," said Lady Carleton, with tears in her eyes, "can you ever
forgive me for my silly trick, and for being too frightened to tell of
it at once?  Oh, I have never--never forgiven myself."

"I don't think it is easy for any of us to forgive ourselves, Lady
Carleton," said Alwyn, "for that night's work.  But your share was a
very small one."

"The fact is," said Sir Philip, "the thing was never properly
investigated.  Mr Fletcher was afraid that the silly trick would come
to my ears--too soon.  I needn't say--since you know my wife--that I at
once heard of it from her.  The chance was lost.  But what is to be done
now?  You yourself believe this story?"

"Oh yes," said Alwyn, "I do.  There was no object in deceiving me.  No;
I am sure Lennox had not sold the jewels, and made up the story of the
old tree."

"We cannot let it get about that the wood is full of diamonds," said Sir
Philip.

"No," returned Alwyn with a laugh; "neither Whittaker nor myself could
resist a little bird's-nesting, but it was, of course, unwise.  That was
partly why I wished to make myself known first to my brother.  I did not
know then that part of our misfortunes."

"Ah! poor fellow," said Sir Philip, "he is sadly helpless.  But your
return will be a capital thing for him.  His life must be rather
solitary."

"Yes, I fear so," said Alwyn.  "I will go back to him now, with many
thanks for a most kind reception."

"Lily," said Sir Philip, when their guest was gone, "I believe young
Cunningham told the truth and the whole truth, to-day.  But I didn't."

"What in the world do you mean, Philip?"

"Why, only yesterday I got a letter from old Dallas, giving a wonderful
account of him and his high character out there, but wanting naturally
to know how Mr Cunningham's eldest son came to be there at all.  I was
wondering what I could say, for it was very evident that he had a reason
for asking--there's a lady in question, I imagine--when to-day he turns
up."

"Oh, Philip, we _must_ find the jewels!"

"We must; but it passes me to know how to set about it."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

SUNDAY AT HOME.

On the next Sunday morning the bells of Ashcroft Church were ringing for
an early celebration of the Holy Communion.  Many eyes were turned on
Alwyn Cunningham as he walked down the village in the fresh sweetness of
the summer morning.  Such early church-going was not according to Mr
Cunningham's habits, and probably Alwyn was the last person that any one
expected to see practise it, for the formal confirmation of a careless
public schoolboy had never been followed up, and in old days he had
never been a communicant.  The change from former habits was so marked
that the conservative villagers of Ashcroft looked at him very
distrustfully, as if they wondered why he came.

Perhaps Alwyn had forgotten what it was to be the observed of all
observers; perhaps he had learnt that only thus would he obtain the help
he needed in a most painful position.  His father had accepted his
statements as to Lennox's confession, and had allowed such a search for
the jewels as could be made without publicity to be commenced at once.
He also acknowledged in a more indirect way that his son had become a
respectable member of society, fit to visit at his house; but he did not
open his heart to him, nor forgive him, except in a formal manner.
Alwyn felt that his father did not trust him, he knew that his
engagement to an American lady would not tell in his favour, and he
guessed that the marked and complete change of attitude as to religious
matters, the account of which, indeed, had been intended for Edgar only,
would be viewed with suspicion.  Mr Cunningham, after reading the
letter, had touched on no point but the lost jewels, and Alwyn had
accepted his silence and the situation, and talked diligently when they
met, and at meal times, of general topics.

But when old Mr Murray saw him this morning he wondered if the
inaccessible Cunninghams, who had always been so polite, and on such
stiff term with him since his coming to Ashcroft, would approached by
the unlikely channel of the returned exile.

Certainty anything less like the irreverent, light-minded youth whom he
had heard described than Alwyn's serious face could hardly be imagined,
and Bessie Warren could not help wondering what he was thinking of, as
she saw him look round before he turned away, as if noting the once
familiar scene.

Edgar had been so weak and so much shaken by all that had passed that he
had been content to take his brother's presence for granted, and when
Alwyn realised how very solitary such hours of languor and suffering
must usually have been, he cared little what his presence there cost
himself, if the sight of him made Edgar's eye brighten and gave him any
pleasure, however small.

To-day, however, Edgar was better, and his interest and curiosity began
to revive.  He had been lifted on to his couch by the open window, and
had sent a message to Wyn to bring his black eyes to be looked at, and
after a little space of the eager watching of the outdoor world that was
always so much to him, he said to Alwyn:

"Where is that letter that you wrote for me?  I could read it now, and
I'm as much in the dark as the first day I saw you."

"Here it is," said Alwyn; "shall I read it to you or tell you about it?
Is your head well enough to read it?"

"Oh yes; I can stop if I'm tired.  I had rather have it."

Alwyn gave him the letter, and went on with the one that he was himself
writing, while Edgar studied the long document for some time in silence.

Presently Edgar talked a little about the jewels and the chances of
their discovery, observing that whoever poked about in the dark or on
the quiet, hunting for them, would certainly get shot by the zealous
keepers who had laid hands on Alwyn.

"There's nothing for it but setting the forest on fire," he said.

"No, no," said Alwyn, "the jewels are not worth a tree of it."

Edgar gave him one of his keen glances, under which the colour mounted
to Alwyn's brow.

"My father has given Warren orders to be thorough over it," he said.

Edgar said nothing, and returned to the letter.

"Are--are you writing to Miss Dallas?" he said presently, with a rather
shy intonation.

"No; I have not that privilege.  To her brother."

"Tell me about her.  What's her name?" said Edgar.

Alwyn was nothing loath.

"Corinne is her name," he said; "they use it in America."  And then he
went on and told Edgar a great deal, for which there is no space in this
story, and as he talked his face grew happy and eager, and Edgar
listened a little wistfully.

"Now it will be all right for you?" he said.

"I think so--I hope so.  Mr Dallas only wished to be certain that no
complications could occur in the future.  He does trust me, and is
satisfied with my position there.  My father has said all that is
needful."

"And when shall you go back, Val?" said Edgar.

The bright eyes were still resolute and clear and the voice steady,
though with a little strain in it.

Alwyn looked at the white fragile face, and could not find voice for a
moment to answer.

"You mustn't stay too long and spoil me," said Edgar, "unless you come
back again very quickly."

Alwyn came nearer and sat down by his side.

"My boy," he said, "you know I did not come home only to clear my way
for my great hopes.  I did come to seek for pardon and to try to undo a
little of the past.  There's a long time to make up for; there is no
hurry.  You need not think about parting yet; that is, if my father--"

Alwyn broke off, and Edgar lay still, twisting his long weak fingers
round the hand he was holding.

"I think you might promise to stay--as long as I want you," he said.  "I
shall let you go--soon."

"I promise," said Alwyn gently, and again Edgar was silent, till he said
in a different tone:

"Well, that's all as it may be.  One must take what comes."

"What is sent," said Alwyn.

"Val," said Edgar after another silence, "it was very curious.  Just
before you came back I dreamed about you.  I saw you.  I knew you
directly.  But I saw that you were changed; your face was like it is
now--not as it used to be.  You _are_ different."

"Yes," said Alwyn, "I am different."

"Tell me," said Edgar.

Perhaps Alwyn had never found anything so hard as to enter on an account
of what some people would call his "experiences" to his brother, but he
said quietly:

"When I grew to love Corinne I found out what I had made of myself by my
life.  Beforehand, I thought since I had pulled myself together and all
my offences had been before I was twenty that all was right.  But I
can't tell how, through loving her, my sin against my father, and the
bad example I set you, came back upon me.  I felt how hard and selfish
and callous I had been all along.  Whether she cared for me or not, I
wasn't worthy to know she existed."

"Go on," said Edgar, as Alwyn paused, conscious that Edgar was not
exactly a comprehending listener.

"Well," said Alwyn, "as for religion, you know I never had thought about
it.  I don't believe as a family, we're given to thinking, and, apart
Corinne, young Dallas was a new idea to me.  Of course his ways and
words put much into my head.  But it was the earthly love that was
granted to me that showed me what that Higher love might be.  And when I
had once said to my Heavenly Father, `I have sinned,' there was nothing
for it but to come and say the same to my earthly one, even--even if he
is less merciful."

Edgar listened with great surprise, but with no doubt whatever of the
absolute sincerity of the speaker.

"Well," he said, "as for me, I've had something to make up my mind to.
I was determined no one should say I was beaten.  I had to give up the
army and to know I could never walk, but I've got along and put a good
face on it.  `Never say die' is not a bad motto.  Well now, you see,
I've known for some time that I should _have_ `to say die,' sooner
rather than later--very soon, I fancy.  When I was last laid up, I made
old Hartford tell me the truth, and I've faced that out too.  What must
be, must."

"It would have taken less pluck, my boy, to face the enemy, if you had
gone into the army, than to face your life here," said Alwyn tenderly.
"I thank God, who made you of that sort of stuff."

Edgar looked somewhat struck by this remark.

"One got through things by saying, `I don't care how they go,'" he said.
"And so, Alwyn, it's been great good luck to have seen you, and you
mustn't stay here if things are not smooth.  I shall pull along--so
remember you haven't made any rash promises.  Corinne mustn't think
you're not in a mortal hurry to get back to her."

"Corinne will understand," said Alwyn with a smile.  "Come, I mustn't
let you over-talk yourself.  There's Wyn on the terrace."

"I say," exclaimed Edgar, "he has made a spectacle of his little red
phiz.  Here, Wyn!  Are you ready to take me out again?"

"Yes, sir; oh yes, sir.  Are you ready to come?"

"Very soon, I hope.  And how are all the creatures?  Has the fox been
behaving himself?"

"Yes, sir, but one of the little hedgehogs has got away, and the
moor-fowl, sir, I'm sorry to say they constantly diminish.  Father
thinks there's rats about--or a cat, sir."

"Whew!  That's a bad look-out.  Alwyn, you haven't seen the Zoological
Gardens?"

"Please, sir, should I bring anything up for you and Mr Alwyn to look
at?"

"Let's have the little Scotch terriers.  I'm thinking, Wyn, of taking up
those beetles that live in decayed wood--in old trees.  You'll have to
hunt 'em up for me."

"Very well, sir, but I don't know as even Granny would like _them_
about," said Wyn, as he went after the dogs.

"Granny?  You have seen old Bunny, Val?"

"Oh yes.  That was a real welcome.  But, Edgar, surely it could be
managed for her to come and see you; she wishes it so much."

"I should like to see her again," said Edgar.  "I missed her when she
was crippled, too, poor old dear!"

As he spoke, Geraldine, having come back from church and let out Apollo,
joined them, and presently Mr Cunningham, walking home by himself,
paused a moment in front of the terrace, as a sound, unheard for many a
year, fell on his ears--the clear ringing laugh of his first-born son.
So had Alwyn laughed in days before they quarrelled, so had he laughed
when his mother had been alive to hear him, and when Mr Cunningham, if
a rather cold father, had been at least a proud one.

The three puppies, Apollo, a young fox terrier, and a little rough Skye,
were sitting up on their hind legs in a row, under the tuition of Wyn,
who squatted on the ground opposite them.  Geraldine was looking on,
holding her breath with delight, while Alwyn, leaning against the window
by Edgar's side, was laughing heartily and teasing Geraldine about her
pet.

"Three to one on the little ruffian!  Apollo's nowhere.  His back's too
long, and the fox terrier's too frisky.  Bravo, Wyn!  You ought to keep
a circus; they're steady yet."

"I should like to, sir, uncommon, and train the performing dogs, sir,"
said Wyn.

"You look as if you had been practising for the clown," said Edgar, as
his father came forward on to the terrace.

Down tumbled the puppies and up jumped Wyn, retreating hastily.  Alwyn
grew stiff and grave in a moment, offering his father a chair, and
Geraldine looked, as she felt, disappointed at the interruption.

Mr Cunningham sat down.  It was the first time that the family had been
thus all together, the first time he had seen his three children side by
side for more than eight years.  He noticed them.  He observed that
Geraldine was growing a tall, stately girl, with the promise of
distinction if not of beauty.  He noticed the hopeless delicacy of
Edgar's look, the son whom he had made his heir; and he looked at the
handsome, grave, strong face of the son he had disinherited, and for the
first time he confessed to himself that he looked fit, at any rate, to
be the master of Ashcroft.

And why were they all so grave in his presence?  That Alwyn should be
reserved was right enough, but the others?  He had heard them laughing
and at case together.  He saw Edgar turn naturally to Alwyn to do him
some trifling service, and for the first time it struck Mr Cunningham
that something more might be made out of his relations to Edgar and
Geraldine than was the case at present.  Surely they were unusually
stiff, and not shy, but distant with him.

He did not wish for any approach from Alwyn; but it was none the less
true that these feelings had come to him on Alwyn's return, because
Alwyn was the only one of his three children that he had ever greatly
loved.

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

AFTER EIGHT YEARS.

Life was certainly a much more peaceable thing in the Whittaker
household while Florence was undergoing the process of being "stroked
down" by Mrs Warren at Ashcroft, Ethel and Sybil were much less
perverse and saucy without her, and went their several ways like
rational girls, Ethel looking forward to a clerkship in the post-office,
and Sybil to an apprenticeship to a good dressmaker in Rapley.  They
contrived to walk about without staring or being stared at, and as they
behaved with ordinary common sense, the respectability of their superior
home showed, and they were thought well of by their various teachers,
and began to take the lead at their Sunday school in better things than
mischief.  Miss Mordaunt found her Bible class comparatively harmless,
and could not honestly feel that she regretted Florence Whittaker;
while, at home, Mattie enjoyed unwonted peace and quiet.

She knew that she had not managed Florrie very well, but the relief of
feeling no longer responsible for her was great.  After a longish
interval, Florence had replied to the letter in which she had urged her
to keep in mind the lesson of Harry's misconduct.

The girl could write rather a good letter, and her descriptions of her
life at Ashcroft were amusing.  "I should like it very well if there was
anything but trees and live stock about," she said, "but I get on right
enough.  Aunt Charlotte ain't made up her mind that I'm going to `harry
her up,' as Aunt Stroud calls it.  As for Harry, I remember him well
enough, and there's others that haven't forgotten him neither, and maybe
I'm taking example more than you think."

Mattie could make nothing of this sentence, but it recalled Harry to her
mind; and one evening, when George had come back from his work, she
began to talk about him.

"It seems a bit heartless of us, George," she said, "to think so little
about him.  He might be in trouble and poverty, and we so comfortable."

"I expect we should have heard of him if he had been," said George.  "Of
course, if he turned up, I should do the right thing by him--after
proper inquiries.  But I don't suppose we should be much the better for
him."

"I wonder if father ever frets after him," said Mattie.

"I don't think he does," said George dryly; "he put him out of the way
too much.  But Aunt Stroud made a pet of him."

"I wish Aunt Lizzie wouldn't talk so mysterious!" said Mattie
impatiently.  "She came down here to-day and talked about bursting
clouds and Providence, till one would have thought she knew something
particular."

"She's a talker, worse than Florrie," said George.  "I declare I'll be
off, Mattie--if there isn't Aunt Stroud again!"

George was a worthy and useful young man, and if trouble or poverty had
come upon his sisters he would have done his part by them well.  But he
liked his life very well as it was, and he naturally thought that the
scapegrace Harry, though he knew nothing of the jewel story, would come
into it as a disturbing element.  Even Mattie, who was much more
tender-hearted, felt afraid of the idea of him, and would have welcomed
him from duty rather than from love.  The father, too, was a good,
conscientious, but rather selfish man, whose life consisted in the
routine of his duties.  He had been much more comfortable without Harry
than with him.  People cannot vanish for years, leaving trouble behind
them, and always find a spontaneous welcome on their return.  Neither
Alwyn Cunningham nor Harry Whittaker had left to them in the world the
one friend who would never have forgotten them.  Their mothers were
dead.  Their places were filled up.  Had poor Edgar been the gay young
officer that Alwyn had pictured him, the place his brother held in his
memory would probably have been much smaller, and when Harry Whittaker
walked down the broad road in the middle of the cemetery, no dream had
given notice of his return, nobody had any special desire to see him.

And for himself, he had come home more for the sake of his child than
for that of his family.  He recalled them all with an effort, even as he
walked along counting the new tomb-stones that had appeared since he
went away.  His Aunt Stroud had arranged to come to the Lodge a few
minutes before him, so as to prepare his family for his arrival.
Suddenly, however, he perceived his father walking towards him by a side
path, with his order-book under his arm, on his way from a meeting of
the Board.  A little greyer-haired, elderly middle-aged instead of young
middle-aged, but far less altered than Harry himself, at whom he looked
without any recognition.  Harry had to choose between letting him pass
and making himself known; but, before he could resolve what to say, some
agitation in his manner, a look that was not that of the ordinary
passer-by in his face, arrested Mr Whittaker's attention, and he paused
and looked at him.

"I think I'm speaking to Mr Whittaker?" said Harry, in his strong
outspoken voice, which nevertheless shook a little.  Then he suddenly
put out his hand.

"Father, do you know me?  I've come back to ask your forgiveness and
friendship, and to clear my character as to the past."

"My son Henry!" exclaimed Mr Whittaker.  He faced him with a look of
great surprise and of uncertain welcome, and yet, perhaps, he had often
enough wondered whether Henry would come back, not to feel the utter
strangeness of an event never looked forward to.

"It's your place to explain a little, Henry," he said, neither giving
nor withholding a welcome.

"If you are willing to hear me," said Harry.

"Come with me," said Mr Whittaker.

He turned and led the way into the little office where business was
transacted, and where the relatives and friends sometimes waited for
funerals.  In this not very cheerful spot Harry's papers and letters
(including one from Mrs Warren) were once more produced, and, under
promise of secrecy for the present, he told his father of the search for
the jewels, and how he would willingly have held back till they were
found, but for his encounter with Florence.

"And," said Harry, "after what passed I was justified, I think, in
holding aloof, while I was a vagabond and times were so hard.  And after
I settled down comfortable and got on, thanks to Mr Alwyn's kindness,
I'd made up my mind to forget the old country; but you see, father, I
thought, what if little Georgie, when he grows up, were to keep away
from me for eight years, and live _happy_?  Why, let us have quarrelled
as we would, it'd break my heart to think he could forget me so.  And
so--and so, father--I hope you'll let me take him his grandfather's
blessing.  Mother would have set great store by him if she'd lived to
see him, and he shall be taught to set store by you."

The father and son sat looking at each other for a moment or two in
silence.  For the big, half-grown, trouble-town of a boy the father
could not say that his heart had broken; but the thought of the little
grandchild brought back early days, when Harry's rosy face and sandy
curls had been the mother's pride, and when his father's heart would
have nearly broken if he had died in that scarlet fever from which he
had barely recovered.  Perhaps he had been too ready to think ill of the
lad, and to cast him upon his own resources.

"If you were wronged about the jewels, Henry," he said, "it's you that
have the advantage of us."

"I'd acted so as to be easy wronged," said Harry, "but I'd be glad to go
back with all fair behind me."

Mr Whittaker put out his hand with something like tears in his shrewd
grey eyes.  After all, he had not quite forgotten Harry.  Harry gave the
hand a great squeeze and walked over to the window, from which he
presently turned round, saying:

"There's my aunt, father; she was coming to tell you."

Mr Whittaker went out to the door and beckoned Harry after him.  There
stood Mrs Stroud, beaming; Mattie, flushed and eager; George by no
means so well pleased; and all the four younger ones eager and excited.

Harry's coolness returned as soon as he had settled matters with his
father, and he greeted them all as composedly as if he had returned from
a short excursion abroad, and presently they all went in to sit down to
supper and take each other's measure as well as they could.

Mrs Stroud at once called for the photograph and Ethel and Sybil
giggled with delight at finding themselves possessed of a nephew, while
Mattie began to think that some of the romance she was so fond of had
found its way into real life.

"And how long do you mean to stay this side of the water, Harry?" asked
his aunt.

"Only till the matter of which I spoke to my father is concluded or
given up.  Mr Alwyn and myself could not both be away for long
together, and I think he will not leave his brother again so quickly.
Alberta would be very glad to make your acquaintances.  Will you come
back with me and pay us a visit, Mattie?"

"No, Henery," said Mrs Stroud; "if Mattie knows which side her bread's
buttered she'll stay on this side of the ocean.  But if you want to do a
brother's part by your own family, you'll take Florrie off their hands.
For there's no room for that girl--not in the High Street of Rapley.
Perhaps there might be in Ameriky."

"Aunt Eliza!" said Mattie indignantly, "Harry only meant so as to make
acquaintance."

"Well, well," said Harry, "we'll talk it all over.  But Florence did her
best to get me out of a scrape--"

"Which I make no doubt she got you into," said Mrs Stroud.

Harry's eyes twinkled a little, but he did not betray Florence, and the
suggestion dropped into his mind.  He would be glad to do something for
one member of his family, and he rather inclined to the unpopular
Florence, though, of course, he remembered Mattie much better, and felt
pleased when at last she shyly came up to him and said that she was glad
he had come home.  But it was all uncomfortable and full of effort, and
Harry felt glad when the time came to say "Good night," and he went off
to catch the last train for London.  But, as he walked along at full
speed to the station, the feeling of his father's hand-shake lingered on
his palm, and he felt that he could think of his child with peace and
satisfaction.

CHAPTER TWENTY.

GLAD AND THANKFUL.

There now set in at Ashcroft a period trying to the feelings of all
concerned.  No trace of the lost jewels was discovered.  The number of
hollow trees in the forest was limited, and so were their hollows, which
were searched as thoroughly as was possible, and in vain.  One or two
old trees had been previously cut down and sawn up; the lost treasure
could not be in them.  Alwyn began to wish that the jewels had all been
disposed of in America, and that this search, the folly of which seemed
to throw a sort of doubt on the whole story, had never been undertaken.
Lady Carleton was most anxious and eager over the matter, and as the
search could hardly be kept quite secret, its cause came to the ears of
Florence, who, when she was out with little Lily, spent her time in
poking her fingers into the smallest knot or rent in perfectly sound
trees, and started a theory that the jewels were probably in some of the
jackdaws' nests about the chimneys of Ravenshurst, having been carried
there after the manner of the various thimbles, rings, etc, which had
been so disposed of in the story books with which she was acquainted.
Florence was behaving wonderfully well, and little Lily was very fond of
her; and she perhaps owed some popularity with the other servants to the
fact that she was the sister of the Henry Whittaker whose name was in
every one's mouth.  Harry was very anxious to get home again.  He took a
room at Ashcroft, and visited his family sometimes; but he was often at
a loss what to do with himself.  The Warrens were very kind to him, and
all the heads of departments at the great house took up the cue and
showed him civility; Alwyn always treated him with the same friendly
consideration, and was often glad of a chat with him on matters familiar
to them both.

Alwyn had, however, much else to take up his time and thoughts.  The
neighbourhood accepted him and paid him attentions; which, as it soon
became apparent, his father was anxious that he should accept.  The
Carletons especially came forward in a marked manner, and all this
gradually changed and undermined Mr Cunningham's feelings about him.
He saw that it was impossible to treat such a son as in disgrace, and
perhaps his continued stiffness was more shyness than displeasure.
James Cunningham behaved admirably, and invited Alwyn to visit him in
London, and he went, though very unwillingly, for all this while poor
Edgar was growing more and more dependent on him, and though he eagerly
urged the acceptance of his cousin's invitation, he could not conceal
his delight when Alwyn came back again.  Alwyn was touched beyond
measure at the affection that Edgar showed him, and repaid it with the
tenderest devotion.

Poor little Wyn was always hoping that his master would be well enough
to come into the wood; but the drives in the pony chaise had been very
short of late, and often Edgar was only fit to lie quite still on the
terrace, looking at the sky and the trees, still enjoying the sense of
"out of doors," which was like life to him.

One splendid afternoon, early in September, when the sky was one
glorious sheet of blue, and the red creepers and purple clematis were
covering the side of the old house with colour, Wyn came up the garden
with a carefully constructed basket of lichens and wild flowers in his
hand.  He had brought it up to show it to Mr Edgar; and, by good luck,
there lay Mr Edgar, alone on his couch, for once without Mr Alwyn by
his side, to take up his attention.

"Ha, Wyn!" he said; "what have you there?  What splendid affair is
that?"

"Please, sir, Lady Carleton has offered a prize for the best wild-flower
collection at the flower show to-morrow, and this is mine.  There are
grasses and lichens too, sir."

"Yes.  Capital!  How well you have arranged it!  All the three sorts of
heath too!"

"Yes, sir.  Please, sir, last year we went right through the wood to see
the heather in bloom."

"Ah, yes; but, you see, just lately the pony chair seems to shake me, so
I have to lie still."

"When you're better, sir, there's a new bit of clearing that's very
pretty.  There'll be plenty of anemones there in the spring."

"Yes, in the spring!  We've had some very good times out with Dobbles,
Wyn, haven't we?  You must bring him up for me to look at some day, if I
can't go out.  Now tell me about all the creatures."

Wyn began a long list of the various birds and beasts under his charge,
as had often been his custom; but there was something in the intent way
in which his young master looked at him that made it difficult for Wyn
to go on.  Edgar lay so still, and made so little comment.

"Thank you," he said, when Wyn paused, which was not at all his usual
way of receiving the reports, as he used to call them.  "Alwyn, is that
you at last?" he said, as a step sounded.

"Yes; did you wonder where I was?" said Alwyn, standing over him.  His
colour was high and his look quite radiant.  He held some letters in his
hand.  Edgar's attention was caught at once.

"Your basket is first-rate, Wyn," he said; "I wish I could have helped
you to get the flowers.  Are you going to take it in now?"

"Yes, sir, and to take some flowers to little Miss Lily, who wants to
send up a bunch, `not for competition,' she says, sir, because she can't
get them all herself."

"Well, you must come and tell me about the show.--What is it, Alwyn?" he
added eagerly, as Wyn went his way.

"It is the best of good new's.  Mr Dallas writes the kindest letter!
My letter from here and one from Sir Philip Carleton have fully
satisfied him that all is clear as to the past.  For the future, he
says, he can trust me _there_; and _here_ he cares nothing.  When I go
back I shall find a welcome home, and I may write to _her_."

"That's right," said Edgar.

He looked up bravely, but Alwyn felt the congratulating hand tighten
close upon his own.  Edgar's nerves were too weak now for him to be
allowed to dwell on any agitating topic, and Alwyn just added a word or
two of detail, and then said: "Now I shall read to you; you'll hear
enough about it all in time, no doubt."

"No," said Edgar, "go and write your letter.  I see father coming; he
will tell me the news.  Just lift me up a little bit and give me some
drink.  Yes, so--I am quite comfortable."

Alwyn was naturally very eager to write his letter, and went into the
house, grateful to Edgar for understanding his hurry.

But he did not know that Edgar had wound up all the remains of his
resolute spirit to an effort he was determined to make.  Poor fellow!
`Don't care' was no easy saying to him now.  His heart beat fast, and he
could scarcely conquer the dread of making matters worse by speaking.
"Father," he began, after Mr Cunningham had said a few ordinary words
about the weather, "I can't say very much now; you'll forgive me for
being short and sudden.  You know, father--I shall _never_ be your
heir--never.  You will not let any one think that you wait for the
chance of finding those jewels before you set Alwyn in his right place.
What can a man do but repent?  I know it must come right finally; but,
father, will you give me the happiness of seeing it?"

"The jewels are neither here nor there," said Mr Cunningham.

"But, if they are found, it will look as if Alwyn needed that to
reinstate him.  Don't you see how scrupulous he is--that he will hardly
pick a flower or ask a question?  He puts off all his own happiness for
me; he stays because I need him so much.  But that won't be for so very
long.  Oh, father, make it right for him to stay here; make it right for
yourself.  I know that you know how it _must_ be, as things have turned
out.  But say so, father, say so.  Things get clear when one is forced
to think.  I know now that you really missed him; he feels how much
cause for anger you had.  Father, I care so very much that you should
really take him back and forgive him!"

"You distress yourself needlessly," said Mr Cunningham, stiffly still,
but not unkindly.  "I was justified, I think, in taking time to
consider.  I greatly regret Alwyn's American connections.  But you are
quite right in feeling that I should not now be justified in diverting
the property from the direct line.  That will I spoke of has been
destroyed for some weeks."

"I did not mean to distrust you, father," said Edgar.  "I knew that you
would see it so, but you will let people know that it is so."

"Did your brother know that you meant to speak to me?"

"No, oh no!  We have never touched on the subject."

"Don't distress yourself," said Mr Cunningham; "I will take
opportunities.  Here is Alwyn coming."

Perhaps Alwyn thought the echo of the voices through the window a little
too eager, for he came out with an anxious look at Edgar, making an
excuse of pushing the couch more into the shade.

"Alwyn," said Mr Cunningham, "my agent has been making a proposal to
pull down the cottages and farm-buildings on Ashurst Farm, and throw it
into one concern with Croppings.  What do you think?"

"I--really, sir--I cannot judge," said Alwyn, turning round and
considerably startled at this appeal.

"I shouldn't wish to do it if you disliked the notion.  Perhaps, if
Edgar does not want you, you would walk down with me and look at the
place."

"Go--go," whispered Edgar.  "Go with him at once."

Alwyn and his father were a long while away.  Edgar had been taken
indoors while they were out, and, weak as he was, had grown weary of
waiting before Alwyn came in, much too late to send his half-written
letter by that day's post.

"Edgar," he said in a low voice, "it is all right.  My father shall not,
if I can help, repent it."

"Tell me," said Edgar eagerly.

"We didn't get on much with settling about the farms," said Alwyn, half
laughing.  "As we walked down he said that he begged me to spare him
conversation on the subject.  I was to understand that my place was
ready for me.  And then, when brooks came up about the farms, he
referred him to me in a sort of matter-of-course way that I could have
laughed at.  A fine notion Brooks must have formed of my knowledge of
the subject!  We met Sir Philip Carleton, and when he said that the
search in the wood seemed hopeless, my father answered that, for Lady
Carleton's sake, he was sorry.  It did not, of course, particularly
concern himself.  Then he walked round by the stables and made me say
which of his young horses should be sold.  I could only say I would come
to-morrow and look more particularly.  I couldn't have told a racer from
a cab-horse then.  But, Edgar, the best of it was that I--I knew that he
liked it, that he felt it good to have me to ask and to care.  And at
last he said something about `my friends in America.'  I don't think he
liked the notion much, but he ended by saying that he would write to Mr
Dallas, and that he should be glad to make the young lady's acquaintance
at no distant date."

"Yes," said Edgar.  "Alwyn, you ought to go and fetch her--you will one
day--and bring her to see Ashcroft.  But--"

"Some day, perhaps," said Alwyn.  "Just now I'm going to take care of
you, and do what I can to please my father.  He was very good."

"I couldn't let you go," said Edgar.  "It used to come across me what it
would be like to die alone.  I was afraid of getting worse always,
though I wouldn't own it to myself.  Afraid of having to lie here shut
up from the air and the light, and just the things that made life
bearable--with never any change.  But now that I have you--"

"I have had much that I don't deserve," said Alwyn very low; "but of all
these mercies, the one I am most glad, most thankful for, is that I can
help you, my dear, dear boy!  Thank God for that!"

"I am glad," said Edgar; "oh, how glad!  But I am afraid I don't know
much about being thankful, Val; you must teach me."

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

IN A "RIFT IMPRISONED."

Wyn gave up his basket of wild flowers to Mr Elton, who had charge of
the arrangements for the flower show, and then went on to Ravenshurst
with those he had collected for Lily.  He had been sent over there once
or twice with parcels or messages for Florence, and the nurse, thinking
him a well-behaved little boy, allowed him to stop and give his opinion,
whether the white flowers gathered in the hedges were all, as Florence
said, "hemlock," or would rank as different specimens.  Wyn sorted out
yarrow and wild parsley, cow parsley, and several others, and then said:

"Miss Lily hasn't got any honeysuckle.  That's not rare, but it is very
sweet, and suitable for a young lady's basket.  You should put the
climbing things round the edge for her, Florrie; different sorts of
brambles, and dog-rose berries, and traveller's joy."

"There's some honeysuckle on the old oak tree," said Florrie, "but we
can't get it, it's too high up."

"I'll fetch it down for you," said Wyn, scrambling up the lower branches
of the tree.  "Why," he said, putting his hand into a hole a few feet
up, "how clean someone's scraped out this hole--taken all the old nests
out of it!"

"There ain't nothing in it, Wyn, is there?" said Florrie.

"No; I once tried to make that hole ever so nice and soft with moss and
stuff, and put acorns and nuts in it to get the squirrels there.  I even
went and got a bit of putty and stopped up the hole in the bottom and
put decayed wood over it; but, bless you, they never came."

"_What_ did you do, Wyn?" said Florence, coming close.

"Stopped a great hole.  It's stopped still; I can put my hand down, and
you feel nothing but wood."

"Could you get the hole open, Wyn?  Was it a hole that things could be
hidden in?"

"I suppose so.  Whatever is the matter, Florrie?  You look downright
scared!"

The hole was wide and shallow.  Wyn took the knife with which he had
meant to cut the honeysuckle, scraped and cut, and, the soft decayed
wood giving way, the piece of putty yielded to his pull and came out.

"There's a hole, but I can't feel the bottom of it," he said.

"Put in my sunshade; feel with the hook."

"My stars, Florrie, there'll be nothing alive in _there_!" said Wyn;
but, boy like, to fish in a hole with a hook was delightful to him.
"There's--there's something down at the bottom.  I can just reach.  It's
hard--it's loose.  Hi!  I've got it; it's coming up.  Oh, my eyes!  Oh,
my stars!  It's--it's _diamonds_!"

"It's _them_!" cried Florence, clasping her hands as a long band of
flashing stones came up into the sunlight on the hook of her parasol,
and Wyn tumbled right out of the tree in his amazement, dropping his
treasure-trove most appropriately at the feet of Lady Carleton, who,
unseen by Wyn and Florence, had come up, and was watching them under the
tree.

"Found!" she exclaimed; "found at last!"

"Is it the lost jewels?" said Wyn, bewildered.  "Why, who ever would
have thought of looking in a tree for _them_?"

"As if they hadn't been looking in all the holes in the wood," said
Florence, "and you could have told them of another.  Didn't you know?"

"I hated coming here without Mr Edgar," said Wyn.

"Now, not another thing must be done till Sir Philip knows, and Mr
Cunningham, and Harry Whittaker too.  Stay there, Wyn Warren; don't
touch the tree.  Come, Florence, and tell Sir Philip we have got them,"
said Lady Carleton.

Sir Philip declared that the rest of the jewels must be taken out in the
presence of those most nearly concerned, and hurried messengers were
sent to summon them; while Sir Philip, the Ravenshurst keeper, and Wyn
patrolled round the tree, as if they thought that the jays and the
wood-pigeons would carry off the precious discovery.

The short September evening had closed in, and the wood was all dusky
and dewy, when at last Mr Cunningham and Alwyn, Harry Whittaker, Sir
Philip and Lady Carleton, Wyn and Florence by right of discovery, the
two head-keepers, and the village constable, all gathered, by the light
of the rising moon and of some half-dozen lanterns, round the tree.

"Now, Warren," said Mr Cunningham, "cut away till you lay the bottom of
the hole open."  Wyn held the light, the keeper gave two or three cuts
with a small axe, and a great piece of the rotten bark gave way under
the stroke.

"You can look in now, sir," he said.  "Give us the lantern, Wyn."

Sir Philip and Mr Cunningham peered into the hole, which seemed to be
full of decayed wood, soft and crumbling.

"Will Lady Carleton see if she can find anything?" said Alwyn.

Lady Carleton came forward and put her hand into the hole.

"It's like a bran pie!" she said, with a nervous little laugh.  "But
yes--here is a prize!"  Out came something, discoloured and tarnished,
but a gold bracelet; then something else, which, as the dust was shaken
off and the light fell on it, flashed and dazzled--a diamond star,
rings, brooches, everything.  The lost jewels were found at last!

"Begging your pardon, gentlemen," said Harry Whittaker, "I can't
understand now how they came to be hidden so completely."

"It is clear enough at last," said Sir Philip.

"Lady Carleton, as she wishes every one fully to know, hid the box in
which she had put the jewels among the ferns on the rockery.  Lennox,
who had left the place the week before, came back on the sly to see his
sweetheart, and, according to his statement to you, stole the jewels,
threw the box into the pond, and put the jewels for security into that
great hole, just within a man's reach.  You explained why he never came
back for them, and if he had I don't see how he would have got them out,
for of course they slipped through the smaller hole in the bottom of the
visible hollow, of which he was not aware.  Wyn Warren stopped that hole
up to make a nesting-place for the squirrels, little thinking what he
was burying away.  He did his work so cleverly that the other day, when
his father inspected this great shallow hole, he never thought of the
cave beneath.

"And now this great discovery has been made by so strange a set of
accidents that they must be called Providential: the losing of the
letter, my little girl picking it up and this young woman finding it,
which, I suppose, led to her knowing of the search for the jewels; Wyn's
good-nature in getting Lily the honeysuckle; your offer of the
wild-flower prize--all these trifles have worked in to clear up a most
unhappy perplexity.  And, Mr Henry Whittaker, I beg to congratulate
you."

"And I," said Mr Cunningham, holding out his hand to Harry, "to
apologise for having misjudged you."

Harry touched his hat first and then took the extended hand.

"Thank you, sir," he said.  "It's very handsome of you to say so; but,
under the circumstances, I should certainly have suspected myself."

"You will all come in to Ravenshurst and get some supper, and look at
the jewels in a better light?" said Sir Philip.

"Thank you," said Alwyn, "but my brother will want me, and Whittaker and
I would like to walk back together, if you don't mind driving home
alone, father."

"As you will," said Mr Cunningham; then, in a lower tone, "I am glad we
had it out to-day, Alwyn.  That was poor Edgar's doing; he will be glad
of this."

So the group, so strangely gathered together, dispersed.  Harry and
Alwyn walked away through the wood together.  Theirs had been a strange
comradeship, first for evil and then for good, in bad fortune and good
fortune.  It was hardly likely that they could be as close companions in
the future as they had been in the past, but there would always be a tie
between them that nothing could loosen.

And when Lady Carleton, taking Florence by the hand, led her into her
own room, and kneeling down with her gave thanks that the undoing of her
childish folly had come through the sister of the man who had been most
injured by it, and that all doubt and mystery were over, Florence never
thought of being elated at her discovery; she felt grateful and quiet,
and went to bed thinking chiefly of the hearty kiss with which Harry had
parted from her, and his words: "I'm heartily grateful to you, Florence.
You've been the means of doing me a real good turn."  Even while, as
she thought how she would try and deserve my lady's kind words, and be
worth the friendly treatment she had had from her, the girlish thought
pressed in between:

"Oh, my! what _would_ Carrie and Ada think if they'd have known I'd had
the finding of a real diamond necklace!"

The flower show next day in a tent in the park was an occasion never to
be forgotten, for there, in the centre of the tent, above Mr Elton's
best orchids, and the geraniums from Sir Philip's garden, under a glass
case, and with Mr Warren on guard beside them, lay the lost jewels of
Ravenshurst, still tarnished and dusty, with the bits of touchwood
clinging to them still, and testifying to the prison from which their
brightness had been released, that all the world might know that they
were found at last.

And there all the country round came to look at them; Mr Cunningham,
with his eldest son, looking more bright and genial than he had ever
been seen before, telling the story to Mr and Mrs Murray.  And there
were Harry Whittaker and his father, to whom he had sent an urgent
telegram, and Florence walking round with them, an object of
astonishment to her Aunt Stroud and to Mattie, who had come also to see
the wonderful jewels.  And there were Geraldine and her governess--
Geraldine calling Florence eagerly to look at the wild-flower baskets
sent by "our class."  And at last in the afternoon, to the intense joy
of Wyn Warren, came Mr Edgar himself.  How carefully Wyn led the pony
across the smooth turf and round the tent, where every one made way, and
Edgar lay back quite still, not nodding and half raising himself and
looking about, as had been his wont, but resting on his pillows, with
only his bright eyes watching everything!  He stopped in the middle of
the tent, and Alwyn lifted down the jewels and showed them to him, one
by one; and Harry, who had never yet seen him, came up to shake hands
with him, and Edgar smiled at him and said in his old lively way:

"Found at last, you see!" and then, "My brother talks to me often about
you."

Harry could hardly speak, the white face and bright eyes quite overcame
him.

"I want to see the wild flowers," said Edgar, and the various
collections were shown to him, with Wyn's with the words "First Prize"
on it.

"I'm so fond of wild flowers, you know," he said.  "I want all the
children who collected them to have a shilling from me, besides their
prizes.  Wyn shall give them away."

So the dozen or so of children who had competed were called up and
named, and Alwyn gave Wyn the shillings to distribute as they bowed and
curtsied and smiled at Mr Edgar.

Then Alwyn said that that was enough and he must come home, and Wyn led
the pony back across the turf, while Alwyn walked beside it, looking sad
and anxious, bright as the day should have been for him.

Before he was lifted out of the chair, Edgar called Wyn up to him and
took his little red fist in his long white fingers.

"I've liked my drive very much," he said.  "Take care of old Dobbles."

Wyn could not speak a word, and when Edgar had been carried away, and he
had led the pony safely out of sight, he suddenly flung his arms round
Dobbles' neck and burst into a passion of tears; for he knew, as well as
if any one had told him, that all their long pleasant days were over,
and that he would never take Mr Edgar out again.  He could not go back
to the tent, to the tea that was to come, and the merry-making.  He sat
on the straw in Dobbles' stable and cried as if his heart would break.

Here he was discovered by Alwyn, who had come to fulfil his father's
wish, by looking at the horses.  Wyn jumped up in a hurry and feigned to
be absorbed in the contents of Dobbles' manger.  Alwyn, although he saw
pretty well what was amiss, did not want to face the boy's grief just
then, so he only patted Dobbles, and said that Mr Edgar was resting
comfortably and did not seem overtired, and that Wyn had better go and
play cricket and come up to-morrow to tell him how many runs he had
made.

The half-realised fears of youth are easily soothed by cheerful words
from an elder.  Wyn, partly perhaps from Edgar's influence and
theoretical instructions, was an excellent cricketer for his age and
station, and now went off quite cheerfully to share in the game; and as
the boys, and indeed all the village, were much fuller of the discovery
of the jewels than of Mr Edgar or of anything else, the flower show and
fete concluded joyously.

Florence remained at the Lodge that night to see her relations, and as
she walked back with Harry from the station after seeing them off by the
last train for Rapley, he had a long talk with her, and told her, being
an outspoken person, a good deal about his own history, and of his
feelings when he had contemplated his returning.

"I'd never have got over it, Florrie," he said, "if father hadn't been
there to make it up."

He did not lecture Florrie nor allude to any of her misdemeanours, but
somehow the tone he took influenced her and made her feel that the
results of sauciness and defiance were not matters to be laughed at.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

WILD FLOWERS.

Wyn saw Mr Edgar many times after the day of the flower show, though he
never took him out again with Dobbles.  The weather continued fine and
bright, and Edgar, in every interval of pain and faintness, insisted on
getting on to the terrace or near the window, saying that the feeling of
the air and the sight of the sky and the trees kept the life in him.

Then Wyn would bring him a flower or two or tell him some anecdote about
his pets, and it was very seldom that Edgar did not smile and brighten
at these reminders of his old solaces.

It seemed as if with the jewels some spirit of kindliness and affection
had also been released from long imprisonment.  The Cunninghams drew
nearer to each other, and it was not so much that Alwyn's presence made
the house more cheerful or might fill up the gap that Edgar would leave,
as that the melting of the hardness of displeasure made them all more
able to feel a common grief.  Mr Cunningham was gentler to Edgar, and
spoke of him tenderly; Geraldine softened down and began to have
thoughts of making herself her father's companion as time went on.  They
remembered, and seemed to feel for the first time, how faithful the love
of old Granny Warren had been for them all and to know the value of such
lifelong love.  The master himself, and Geraldine, to say nothing of
Alwyn, went to give her accounts of Edgar, and once she was taken down
to see him, and to look at her two dear boys together again.

All the village had a feeling of sympathy with the trouble at the great
house which was much warmer than the old respect.  Mr Murray found that
his squire could give him more than courtesy and the necessary
subscriptions.  He visited Edgar frequently, and when Geraldine
Cunningham, Florence Whittaker, and Alwyn Warren were put under
instruction for an approaching confirmation, it was for all of them
something more than a piece of ordinary propriety, an occasion for dress
and companionship, or a mere act of obedience, as it might have been
once.  But on poor Edgar himself the shadow of the valley of death fell
heavily.  He had indemnified himself for the long years of physical
dependence, so peculiarly trying to one of his temper, by the
unconquerable self-reliance of his spirit.  He had doffed aside his
suffering and given it the go-by with unfailing courage.  And now, with
his bodily strength, the strong nerves failed too; every trifle startled
and fretted him.  All his gay indifference was gone.

He could not meet the thought of death now as he might perhaps have done
once, with unrealising boldness.  He was brave still, and in moments of
suffering would often whisper the old formula "I don't care--it will
soon be better;" but the time came when he answered Alwyn's words of
comfort with an altogether new look in his eyes, and with the faltering
confession, "I am afraid."

"Of what, my boy?" said Alwyn, pressing the clinging fingers tenderly.

"Of Death," whispered Edgar; "when I must let you go."

He listened dutifully to Mr Murray, and without any mental dissent, but
his words did not seem to make much impression.  In fact, it was
difficult to know what to say to him; for the difficulty was hardly in a
region where words could reach.

"If I am afraid I'll face it," he said once.

But at last the intense conviction that had been sent into Alwyn's soul,
and which had power to change his whole self--how, it was hard to say--
by words or looks or tender hand-clasp, slid also into Edgar's heart.
Alwyn never thought himself that it was anything that he said or did
that brought peace to Edgar at last.

But there came a morning bright and blue, when the ash trees were
touched with gold, and the smooth turf was thick with dew, and the clear
autumn air blew through the open window--when Edgar lay in his brother's
arms with the life ebbing fast away from him.

Then he opened his eyes once more and looked up into Alwyn's face:

"I don't care, Val," he said, "for He careth for me."

Those were his last conscious words, and with the daylight that he loved
on his face, and, by great mercy, the day spring in his heart, Edgar
Cunningham died.

Late on that same afternoon Alwyn was sitting alone on the terrace.  He
was very tired with the long strain of watching, and so sad at heart
that he could scarcely turn with comfort to the thought of the love and
the life that awaited him in future; he could only feel the want of the
hand that had clung to his so constantly, could only think of the
pitifulness of Edgar's story.

He looked up, and there stood Wyn Warren with his eyes red with crying,
and with a great wreath of wild flowers in his hand.

"Please, sir, he liked these best.  And there's a bit of everything
here."

Alwyn looked at the wreath, which was constructed with great skill and
of an infinite variety of leaves, berries, and blossoms.  Every summer
flower lingering in shady corners of the wood had been brought together.
There were bits of every different kind of tree--autumn berries,
curious seed vessels, grasses and rushes, heather and ferns, moss and
lichen--all the woodland world was represented.  It could not be a gay
wreath with its infinite mixture of tints and forms, but there was the
very spirit of the wood in its sober colouring and fresh woody smell.

"It is very beautiful," said Alwyn.  "Yes, he would have liked it very
much."

"He liked the wild things," said Wyn, "and the creatures; it's the birds
and beasts that ought to follow him."

"Come," said Alwyn, "you helped him to all his pleasure in them; come
and give him the wreath yourself."

He took Wyn's hand and led him, through the sitting-room window, into
the room where his young master lay, calm and still, with the bright
eyes closed for ever.  But the window was uncurtained, and the sun and
the sky looked through.

Wyn trembled as he looked.  The little carefully-reared boy had never
seen death before, and the awe of the sight choked back his tears.
Alwyn helped him to lay the wreath on Edgar's breast, above the white
cross already placed there, and then took him out again on to the
terrace.  Wyn touched his cap and went away; but Alwyn's silent grief
was more comfort to him than any words of consolation would have been,
and perhaps Alwyn too was soothed by the sense of fellow-feeling.  He
was glad to think that the great family vault under the floor of the
church, where so many Cunninghams had been laid, could not be opened
now, and that Edgar would lie under the turf in the churchyard, with the
sky over his head, and the great trees of the wood near at hand.

All the servants and most of the villagers were at that funeral.  Wyn
Warren was set to walk by Robertson's side, next after the friends and
the family, in which position he felt, in all his trouble, a sort of
childish pride.  The day was bright, and there was a fresh wind blowing
such as Edgar was wont to love, and over the grave, instead of the
ordinary hymn, the choir sang some verses about the Heavenly Jerusalem,
which seemed to Wyn to picture just the sort of "happy home" where he
could fancy that his dear Mr Edgar would dwell.

  Thy gardens and thy gallant walks
      Continually are green;
  There grow such sweet and pleasant flowers
      As nowhere else are seen.

  Quite through the streets, with silver sound,
      The flood of Life doth flow;
  Upon whose banks on every side
      The Wood of Life doth grow.

  There trees for evermore bear fruit,
      And evermore do spring;
  There evermore the angels sit,
      And evermore do sing.

"Ah," thought Wyn, "Mr Edgar would like that sort of Paradise."

Later in the day Alwyn asked Harry Whittaker to meet him in the park and
walk with him through the wood.  He had several matters, he told him, to
talk about.

But when they met he put his arm through his old comrade's, and walked
on for a long time in silence.  At last Harry said:

"Things have been different from what we looked for, sir, haven't they?
But there's comfort waiting at home for us.  At least, it seems like
home over there now to me."

"Ah, yes," said Alwyn.  "I have gained more than I ever thought for.
But I don't seem able to think of anything now but my poor boy and the
lonely years that I might have made brighter for him if I had not held
out so long."

"You came when he most wanted you," said Harry.

"Yes, thank God for that!  But he _had_ been lonely, though he was such
a plucky fellow that he hardly knew it.  And I miss--"

Alwyn's voice faltered, and he brushed his hand across his eyes.

"That was not what I wanted to talk of," he said, rousing himself.
"What are your plans, Harry?  I must not hurry away from my father; but
I shall soon be going back now--for a time, at least."

"I am ready to go back at once," said Harry.  "I've heard from my wife,
and she's willing to have my sister Florence out to live with us."

"Your sister who found the jewels?"

"Yes.  Lady Carleton's very good to her; but she told me--for I went to
speak to her ladyship about it--that the girl don't exactly fit in for
service.  There's no one to look after her at home, specially if, as
seems likely, my eldest sister settles in life.  And I declare, sir, the
way the young girls at Rapley run about together is worse for her than
any rough company she might see out our way.  She gets into mischief for
want of something bigger to do.  And mischief for girls--well, it is the
mischief indeed!"

"So you mean to take her out?"

"No, not with me.  They want to have her home a bit first; and she'd be
better to wait for this Confirmation.  She's set her heart on being
confirmed with Miss Geraldine."

"Oh, yes, I heard my sister speak of it.  But how shall you get her out
to you?"

"Markham's mother and sister are coming out in the spring, and would
bring her.  You see, sir, Alberta must have some one--we can't get girls
out our way.  There'll be plenty for Florrie to do, and I make no doubt
she'll be happy, and what my aunt calls work off her bouncing."

Alwyn laughed.  "It seems a very good place," he said; "and certainly
she did us a good turn.  What--what are the Warrens thinking about for
little Wyn?  I wish we could give him an opening."

"I don't think his parents would part with him," said Harry.  "He's a
nice little chap, but it is a bit difficult to say what next for him.
He's too small and not the sort for a gamekeeper, and, as his father
says, he'd never have the heart to kill the vermin.  Then he thought of
getting him taken into the garden under Mr Elton; but I'm afraid he'd
fret and not be much good here."

"Edgar asked me to take care of him," said Alwyn.  "He said that perhaps
he had spoiled him for other work.  But he was very fond of him."

"Ah, sir, he'll be none the worse for having thought of some one before
himself.  You know they had had a notion, as he was so handy and quiet,
to let him be put under a butler for a time and then be trained up to
wait on invalid gentlemen.  But--"

"Well?" said Alwyn.

"Well, his sister Bessie said something to him, but he hid his face and
said, `They'd _all_ die.  Robertson says _five_ have.'"

"Poor little chap," said Alwyn.  "It's too soon to tease him about it.
But I must talk to his father, and think what can be done."

The matter was not settled very easily.  Mr Cunningham's ideas were
bounded by giving Wyn a sovereign, and letting him run about the place
in any capacity that might turn up.

Bessie, thinking this very undesirable, wanted him to come and board
with her, and be apprenticed to the schoolmaster as pupil-teacher.  Wyn
said that he hated teaching, and couldn't bear to be shut up indoors.
Alwyn hardly knew enough of English life to judge what would be best,
but he could not bear the notion that Edgar's favourite should be left
to run to waste, or to a life in which he would not be happy, and at
last Sir Philip Carleton made a suggestion.

If the boy really had a turn for plants and flowers, and they wanted to
get him into a superior line, why should not an appointment be got for
him when a little older at Kew or some other great public garden?  If he
was clever and took to the work, there were all sorts of openings.  And
in the meantime, as his education by all accounts consisted chiefly of
the names of mosses and lichens, and the habits of birds, field-mice,
and other wild creatures of the woods, send him to school--to the great
Church public school at Ardingly for boys of his standing--where he
would meet other sons of gentlemen's servants, besides boys of a
superior class.  He could learn Latin and science, it would be a
complete change for him, and the tutors there would soon find out what
he was fit for.

Alwyn liked the idea very much.  He thought that Wyn had capabilities,
and there was an affectionate simplicity about the little fellow that
was very engaging.  So, as Mr and Mrs Warren gave their grateful
consent, it was at once settled that he should go to Ardingly after the
Christmas holidays, about the same time as Florence's passage was taken
for New York.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

THE COLOUR OF THE JEWELS.

Before the Confirmation day came the lost jewels were safely restored to
Lady Carleton's keeping, and the diamonds that had been hidden for eight
years in a hollow tree were likely to be handed down as heirlooms to her
children with additional care and interest.

But over the bent heads of the three young people who had had so much
interest in their loss and their recovery, there flashed a glory of
mystic light and colour.  For the great west window of Ashcroft Church
was filled with painted glass, jewel-like in pattern and colour.  In the
centre was the form of Him who made the lame to walk, and, as the winter
afternoon sun streamed through the window, the earthly colours seemed
transmuted into heavenly jewels.

Underneath was an inscription:--

"To the glory of God, in memory of Edgar Cunningham, and in thanksgiving
for undeserved mercies, this window is given by all concerned in the
losing and the finding of the jewels hidden in Ashcroft Wood."

Lilian Carleton, Alwyn Cunningham, Harry Whittaker, Florence, and Wyn
had all in their very different proportions contributed to the offering.

When in after life the three children looked back on their Confirmation
day, it was lighted up for them by that wonderful colouring, and sweet
with the recollection, for Florence, of the first person she had eared
to please; for Geraldine, of the first she had much eared to help; and
for Wyn, with a far deeper, tenderer memory of one who had not perhaps
had the best things to give him, but who had given him all he could, the
love of the beautiful things of Nature, and the example of uncomplaining
courage and endurance.

Before that day came Alwyn had gone back to Boston, intending to return
in the spring and bring his wife to visit Ashcroft.  There was a great
deal in his future life that would be difficult of adjustment, and
perhaps those parts of it which he would spend under his father's roof
would not be the easiest to manage.  But pardon and reinstatement were
worth much, and he knew well that if his father had really disinherited
him, apart from the obvious loss, the bitterness would have been
unspeakable.  And, as the sorrow of his brother's loss turned into a
sweet and tender memory, he felt that those three months with him had
been worth any pain.  He might well say:

My days with others will the sweeter be For those brief days I spent in
loving thee.

To Mr Cunningham the reconciliation had cleared away a cloud of which
he had never acknowledged the blackness.  It was perhaps inevitable that
the sense that poor Edgar had no more to suffer should transcend the
grief for his loss; but Geraldine had a much kinder father in the
future, and her welfare became his chief consideration, as she tried to
brighten his home.  She rode and walked with him; the occasional visits
of Alwyn and his lively, earnest-tempered wife would oblige society and
friendly intercourse, and Miss Cunningham of Ashcroft bade fair as time
went on to find her life full of interest and occupation.

Sir Philip and Lady Carleton settled permanently at Ravenshurst, and one
great anxiety was lifted off Wyn Warren's shoulders when a happy home
was found there for poor Dobbles, who drew the nursery donkey-cart or
carried little Lily on his back through the woodland walks once so
familiar to his steady feet.

For Wyn will never forget Mr Edgar, though he prospered at school, and
found many hopes and interests open to him.  He treasured the botany
books that had been given to him as a remembrance; and if, as his new
masters think, a career as a naturalist should be open to him in the
future, he will never make a new discovery in wider fields, never see
with his own eyes the wonders he has read of, without feeling an echo of
Mr Edgar's pleasure when some specimen which he was sure could be found
in the wood actually came to light there.

When Florence went home to Rapley before she sailed for America, her
father said that she had grown into a woman.  The naughty-girl period
was over.  She looked at everything from a different standpoint; and
Miss Mordaunt never received such a surprise in her life as when
Florence Whittaker called to say good-bye, and to thank her, with
manners learnt at Ravenshurst, for all past kindness.  Now that she knew
how to be polite her broad and genial smile and warm-hearted, outspoken
voice were pleasant, and in after days it is not certain that Miss
Mordaunt did not look back on Maud Florence Nellie as having had her
good points after all.  She had a satisfactory parting also with Mrs
Lee.  She was not so entirely a changed character as to receive her Aunt
Stroud's good advice with perfect submission, and the form in which she
couched her excellent resolutions for the future was:

"Well, I shall be as meek as any lamb to Alberta, and `fly round,' as
Harry calls it, whenever she tells me, just because Aunt Stroud declares
I shall make them repent of their kindness!  And if I were you, Mattie,
I'd say yes to Mr Clements to-morrow, for the very reason that Aunt
Stroud says you'll never have the sense to see which side your bread's
buttered."

Whether Mattie availed herself of this ingenious excuse, whether on a
closer acquaintance Mr Clements developed traits in common with her
favourite heroes, or whether, as was most probable, fiction finally
faded before fact, Mattie did bring herself to a favourable answer
before Florence sailed.

"And who's going to look after Sybil and Ethel?" said Florence
virtuously.  "My lady and Aunt Charlotte would say it was a great
disadvantage to them to be left to themselves."

"Well, Florrie," said the aggravated Sybil, "I don't see as _you_ were
much the better for having Mattie to look after you."

"Florrie is just like Aunt Stroud," said Ethel.  "She'll be just as
_good advicey_ when she's old enough."

For energy will have a vent, and Florence had expended some of her
new-found wisdom in endeavouring to regulate her younger sisters'
conduct.

"Don't quarrel, girls," said Mattie, "when Florrie's going away so soon.
I'm not going away from you yet--perhaps not till Sybil's near as old
as I was when Aunt Stroud married."

Nobody expressed a desire that Florence should give up her new prospects
to undertake the responsibility.

"No, Martha Jane," said Mrs Stroud, "that would never do.  I grant that
Florrie's a much better girl than I ever thought to see her.  But
nothing ever will eradicate the snap and the bounce of her altogether.
It's very well for Henery that he has his hands full, and I hope he'll
fill up hers.  She'll do a turn of work in her day.  But young people
should be managed quiet and peaceable, and as for the girls--George may
marry or Mary Whittaker, your cousin, might want a home.  Or, at any
rate, there'll be my eye and your eye on them, to keep them straight."

But on the evening before she was to start--she was to go to Ashcroft
for a day, and meet her escort in London afterwards--Florrie, as she
stood in her little room for the last time, felt the awe of a great
change coming over her.  If he came back after long years as Harry had
done, perhaps the younger ones wouldn't know her; perhaps she would feel
strange and uncomfortable as he did.

Florrie went downstairs and back into the sitting-room, acting at once,
as was her way, on the thought that came into her mind.  "Father," she
said, "I'm very sorry I was such a naughty girl.  Harry and Mr Alwyn
came home to say they were sorry--but--but--I'd rather say it before I
go.  And please, father, don't forget what I'm like.  I'll have my photo
took every year and send you."

"My dear, I didn't forget Harry," said her father; "you mistake--and
certainly I'm not going to forget you."

"Oh, Florrie dear," said Mattie, taking her in her arms and crying, "I
thought you didn't care a bit about leaving us all."

"Oh yes, I do," said Florrie, sobbing; "I never said I didn't care.  But
when things have got to be done they've got to be gone through with
whether people care or not!"

And with this sentiment, which no one could say was not a turning of her
bold spirit to the use for which it was given to her, Maud Florence
Nellie Whittaker went out to her new life.





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