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´╗┐Title: The Girl and her Fortune
Author: Meade, L.T.
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 "The Girl and her Fortune" ***

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The Girl and her Fortune
By L.T. Meade
Published by Hodder and Stoughton.
This edition dated 1906.

The Girl and her Fortune, by L.T. Meade.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
THE GIRL AND HER FORTUNE, BY L.T. MEADE.

CHAPTER ONE.

LEAVING SCHOOL.

Brenda and Florence had both finished their school life.  No pains had
been spared to render them up to date in every particular.  They had
gone through the usual curriculum of a girl's education.  Brenda was a
little cleverer than Florence and had perhaps dived deeper into the
heart of things, but Florence was the prettier of the two.

Now the last day of school was over.  The last good-byes had been said.
The last teacher had whispered words of affection in Brenda's ear, and
the last and most loved school-fellow had kissed Florence on her pretty
cheek and had hoped in that vague way which meant nothing at all that
they should meet again.  School belonged to the past.  They had the
world before them.

Florence was eighteen years of age, Brenda nineteen.  To all intents and
purposes they were children.  Nevertheless, they regarded themselves as
full-fledged women.

They were expecting an interview any day with their lawyer, Mr Timmins.
Mr Timmins had provided the funds necessary for their education.  He
had arranged everything for them since the time when Florence at
thirteen and Brenda at fourteen had lost their father and mother.  Since
then they depended on Mr Timmins--that is, as far as pounds, shillings
and pence was concerned.  He had seen them, not very often, but at
intervals.  He had always been nice and fussy and good, and had begged
them to work hard.  He had said to them over and over, "Be sure you
don't miss your chance," and they invariably replied in the affirmative,
and had assured him that they had no intention of missing it.

They had grieved for their parents, but that grief was now over.  They
were accustomed to the fact that they were fatherless and motherless.
They had their dreams of the future, as most girls have.  But the rough
ways of the world had never hitherto assailed them.

In the holidays they always went to stay with a certain Mrs Fortescue.
She was no relation; in fact, they were quite without relations.  They
were not only orphans, but they were relationless.  The only children of
an only son and an only daughter, they were solitary in the world, but
that fact did not trouble them.  They had never taken to their hearts
the old proverb, that "blood is thicker than water."  They were happy,
healthy, everyday girls.

Florence was pretty, Brenda clever.  They were really well-educated.
Florence could sing very nicely--that is, for a girl of eighteen years
of age.  Her voice had possibilities which could even rise to a
marketable value, but no one thought of the Heathcotes as people who
required to make money by their accomplishments.  They were supposed to
be quite well off.  They dressed well, the school they went to was
expensive, and Mrs Fortescue charged quite a good sum for them in the
holidays.

Mrs Fortescue was quite ordinary, but a lady.  She knew nice people,
and she introduced her young friends to them.  The girls were welcomed
by Mrs Fortescue's friends as desirable and even pleasant
acquaintances.  Mrs Fortescue took them out a little, and in her heart
of hearts she thought of herself as their chaperone until they married.
Of course they would marry.  When their school-days were over, Mr
Timmins, who arranged all their money matters, would take a house for
them in London; and who so suitable to chaperone these nice, well
brought up girls as Mrs Fortescue?  She intended to suggest this to Mr
Timmins when she saw him after their school work was over.

It had been arranged all along that they were to leave school when
Florence was eighteen and Brenda nineteen.  Some people said it was
rather young, and that Florence ought to have an extra year of training
in her special department.  But then, when one came to consider it, she
had no special department, she was good all round--that is, fairly good.
Brenda was different.  Brenda had real talent--well, perhaps that was
the wrong word, but a real bias towards philosophy.  She liked to read
books on ethical subjects.  She was fond of the works of Tyndale,
Huxley, and Darwin.  Sometimes she startled her acquaintances and
friends by her ideas, all borrowed, of course, from these great writers.
Nevertheless, even Brenda was not in the least remarkable, and as she
was much plainer than Florence, it was the younger sister who was looked
at, who was smiled at, who was approved of.

Well, the last day at school was over, and, as usual, the Misses
Heathcote arrived at Mrs Fortescue's house at Langdale.

Langdale was a pretty town situated not very far from Tunbridge Wells.
It was winter when the girls left school, and the snow was lying as a
pure and beautiful mantle all over the fields when they drove up to
Sunny Side, as Mrs Fortescue called her somewhat unpretentious house in
the suburbs of Langdale.  She came out to meet the girls and spoke to
them with her usual affection.

"Ah, here you are!" she cried, "and welcome, welcome as flowers in May.
You must be frozen, both of you.  I have desired Jane to light a fire in
your room; it is burning quite brightly.  Come in, come in, my loves.  I
have been suffering a good deal from neuralgia, so won't go out into the
porch.  Higgins, take the young ladies' trunks round to the back
entrance, where Bridget will attend to them."

The well-known cabman of the district said he would, and the girls found
themselves shut into a warm hall, where a fire was lighted in the grate
and where the place looked as homelike as it always did when they came
back to it.  They both kissed Mrs Fortescue as in duty bound.  They
liked her without loving her.  She had never done anything for them
except for a money consideration, and they knew this fact, although they
did not speak of it.  Somehow it seemed to keep their hearts at arm's
length from her.

She was a pretty little woman of about forty years of age, with a keen,
very keen eye to the main chance.  Her own means were small.  She was
always glad to have the Heathcotes to help her to pay her Christmas
bills and to enable her to take her summer holidays free.  She looked
upon them now as her property, and she always spoke of her house as
their home.

The girls went up to their room.  There Bridget, the one servant, who
had served Mrs Fortescue for so long, was waiting for them.  The room
looked very pretty.  There were two little beds side by side, ornamented
with pink draperies at the back of the brass bedsteads, pink draperies
at the foot, pretty pink eiderdowns covering the beds themselves, a nice
green felt carpet on the floor, and green art serge window curtains,
which were drawn now to keep out the wintry blast.  The fire crackled
and roared merrily.  The room was sweet and fresh and clean.  It had the
fragrant smell of lavender.  Mrs Fortescue grew a lot of lavender in
her garden, and kept bags of it profusely sprinkled through her linen.
The girls always associated the smell of lavender with Mrs Fortescue.

Bridget welcomed them back as she had done three times a year for so
long now.  They seemed never to remember anything else.

"How are you, Bridget?" said Florence, in her bright voice.  "As well as
ever, I hope?"

"Oh, yes, miss; what should ail me?" said Bridget.

She showed her teeth as she laughed, and looked gleesome and good
tempered and pleasant.  She felt as though she would like to kiss her
two young ladies, as she invariably called the Misses Heathcote.

"Here is your hot water, miss," she said, turning to Brenda; "and I
think the fire is all right, and dinner will be ready in ten minutes.
If you want anything else, you can ring for me."

She knew all about their trunks.  There were invariably three trunks,
two of which were kept in the storeroom downstairs, one of which came
upstairs and was for immediate use.  This trunk contained the girls'
pretty blouses and ribbons, their sponge-bags, their night-cases, their
brushes and combs, their slippers for use in the bedroom, and their
pretty embroidered shoes to wear at dinnertime.  Bridget had already
unfastened this trunk.  She glanced round the room just as she had done
three times a year for the last four or five years, and then went away,
leaving the young ladies to themselves.  They were her young ladies; of
course they would always come to Sunny Side.  As far as she was
concerned, this was only one more home coming, just like all the rest.

The girls hastily changed and made themselves smart, as was their wont,
for dinner.  Mrs Fortescue wanted them to look smart.  She hated dowdy
people.  She always dressed extremely well herself, following the
fashion as far as lay within her means, powdering her face, and
arranging her dyed hair to the best possible advantage.  She imagined
that she did not look more than thirty years of age, but the girls knew
quite well that her hair was dyed and her face powdered.  They did not
like her any the less for that, however.  If she chose to be so silly,
it was no affair of theirs.  She was a good old thing.  That is what
they said to each other when they spoke of her at all--quite
good-natured, and kind to them.

But Florence brushed out her radiant hair now with a kind of viciousness
which she had never exhibited before, and as she coiled it round her
stately young head, she turned and spoke to her sister.

"Do you like that new shade of Mrs Fortescue's hair or do you not,
Brenda?"

"I did not notice it," said Brenda.

"Well, I did; and I think it is hideous.  What blouse will you put on,
Brenda?"

"I don't know: that pink one; won't that do?"

"No, it doesn't suit you.  Wear white; I am going to."

Both sisters put on white blouses made in the extreme of the fashion.
Florence's hair was one of her great beauties.  It was of a very rich
golden brown.  She had quantities of it, and it had the natural
fussiness and inclination to wave which made artificial means of
producing that result unnecessary.  Brenda's hair was of a pale brown,
without any wave or curl, but it was soft and thick and glossy.
Brenda's eyes were exactly the same colour as her hair, and she had
rather pale eyebrows.  Her face was quite a nice little one, but not
beautiful.  Florence's face was beautiful--that is, it was beautiful at
times.  It could flash with animation, and her eyes could express scorn.
She had a changing colour, too, and full red lips which revealed pearly
teeth.  Her looks were decidedly above the average, and there was a
mocking light in her eyes which repelled and captivated at the same
time.

Arm in arm, the two sisters went downstairs to the cosy drawing-room,
where Mrs Fortescue was waiting for them.

"Ah, that is right, my loves.  It is nice to see you both.  Now I think
I am entitled to a kiss, am I not?"

Florence went straight up at once and kissed the good lady on her
forehead.  Brenda did likewise.

"Aren't you hungry?" said Mrs Fortescue.

"Yes," said Brenda, "I am starving."

"And so am I," said Florence.

"Dinner is quite ready.  Shall we all go into the dining-room?"

They went, the two fresh girls and the woman with the dyed hair, who
imagined herself just as young as they--or rather tried to imagine
herself their equal with regard to age.  Mrs Fortescue looked at them
with approval.  She fancied she saw great success both for herself and
Florence in Florence's face.  Of course Florence would make a brilliant
match.  Some one would fall in love with her--if possible, some one with
a title.  Brenda must be content with a humbler fate, but she, too,
would secure a mate.  When Florence was not by, she was an exceedingly
nice-looking girl, so placid and gentle and clever-looking.  Mrs
Fortescue was very proud of Brenda's cleverness.  She liked to draw her
out to talk on philosophical subjects.  It was quite wonderful to hear
her; and then that little tone--not of unbelief, oh no; but doubt, yes,
doubt--was quite exciting and charming.

Brenda could talk better than Florence.  The clergyman of the parish,
Mr Russell, was unmarried.  He would be an excellent husband for
Brenda, just the very man, who would begin by converting her to truly
orthodox views, and then would assure her how deeply he loved her.  She
would settle down at Langdale as the rector's wife.  It would be an
excellent position and very nice for Mrs Fortescue, who, of course,
would be always dear Brenda's right hand, her mainstay in any
perplexity.  She knew that the rector's wife would hold an excellent
position in a small town like Langdale.  She would be the first lady in
the place.  To her would be given the task of leading what society there
was to lead.  She would have to discern the sheep from the goats.  Those
who were not admitted within the charmed circle would not be worth
knowing.

Mrs Fortescue thought of all these things as she looked at Brenda
across the dinner-table.

Presently, Florence laughed.

"What is the matter, dear?" said Mrs Fortescue.

"It seems quite incomprehensible," said Florence.

"What, my love?  What do you mean?"

"Why, that our school-days are over.  Things seem so exactly like they
have always seemed.  This is two days before Christmas.  To-morrow we
will go as usual to help with the church decorations.  The next day will
be Christmas Day.  Then I suppose there'll be some sort of festivities
going, and--and--But what I want to know is this?"

"Yes?" said Mrs Fortescue.

Bridget had left the room.  An excellent dessert was on the board.  The
fire glowed red; the light was good.

"Yes?" she repeated.

"I want to know what is the end of it all.  We are not going back to
school at the end of January.  We have done with school."

"Yes, darling," said Mrs Fortescue.

She rose as she spoke.  She went swiftly up to the girl and put her arm
round her neck.

"You have done with school in one sense, but all your beautiful future
lies before you.  You forget that Mr Timmins is coming to-morrow."

"I had forgotten," said Florence.  "Had you, Brenda?"

"No," said Brenda, "how could I forget?  I had a letter from him at
Chester House this morning."

"What time did he say he would come, dear?" asked Mrs Fortescue.

"He said he would be here in the morning and he wanted us both to be
in."

"He wants to talk to you about your future, darlings," said Mrs
Fortescue; "very natural, very right.  You had no idea, had you, Brenda,
of going to Newnham or Girton I do trust and hope you had no thoughts in
that direction.  Men don't like women who have led collegiate lives: I
know that for a fact; my own dear Frank often said so.  He said he could
not bear really learned women."

"I should have thought," said Brenda, "that men preferred women who
could think.  But I am afraid," she added, "that I don't very much care
what men think on the subject.  All the same, I am not going to either
Newnham or Girton, so you can make your mind easy on that score, Mrs
Fortescue."

"That is right, darling, that is right.  I haven't an idea what Mr
Timmins particularly wants to say to you, but I trust whatever he does
say will be confided to me."

"Why, of course," said Florence.

"And in your future, darlings, I hope that I, your old friend, will bear
a part."

The girls were silent, looking at her intently.  She had expected an
eager rush of words from those young lips, and their silence made her
uneasy.

"I have done all I can for you, haven't I, my sweet ones?"

"Oh yes!  You have been very kind, Mrs Fortescue," said Brenda.

"But that is not all," said Mrs Fortescue, her voice dropping.  "I--and
you must know it--I love you both."

Florence's fine dark eyes were opened to their fullest extent.  Brenda
looked very gently at the little woman with the dyed hair.  Neither said
a word.  Mrs Fortescue sprang to her feet.

"We will go into the drawing-room now," she said.  "You will tell me
when you are sleepy and want to go to bed; would you like a game of
cut-throat bridge first?"

The girls said they would like a game of bridge, and cards were
produced.  They played for about an hour, Mrs Fortescue invariably
holding the best hand and the girls laughing good-humouredly at her
luck.  They played for love, not money.  Mrs Fortescue thought the game
uninteresting.

It was between ten and eleven when the sisters went up to their room.
They said good-night to Mrs Fortescue on the landing.

They reached the comfortable bedroom where they had slept during the
holidays for so many long years, and looked around them.

Florence suddenly said--

"Brenda, what should I do without you!" and Brenda flew to Florence,
flung her arms round her neck and burst into tears.

"Why, what is it?" said the younger and taller sister of the two.

"I don't know," said Brenda.

She stopped crying almost immediately, mopped her eyes and smiled.  Then
she said, abruptly--

"I don't think I like Mrs Fortescue."

"That is wrong of you, Brenda.  She has always been good to us."

"I know it is wrong of me," said Brenda, "not to like her, but all the
same, I don't.  I was never sure about it till to-night.  Now I am
practically certain I don't like her."

"But why?" said Florence.  "Is it because she dyes her hair?"

"That is one thing," said Brenda.  "The character of the woman who dyes
her hair must be objectionable to me.  I don't want her to have anything
to do with my future.  I shall tell Mr Timmins so to-morrow."

"Oh, will you really?  She will be so terribly disappointed."

"I can't help it," said Brenda.

Florence had seated herself in a very comfortable easy-chair and Brenda
was kneeling at her feet.

"You see," she said solemnly, "we have only one life in this world--one
life and one youth, and I don't want mine to be commonplace.  I think
Mrs Fortescue would make it so.  I can stand her for four weeks at
Christmas; I can even endure her for seven weeks in the summer.  But
always!  No, Flo, no: I couldn't endure her always, could you?"

"Oh," said Florence with a laugh, "I mean to get married very soon and
have done with her.  She will be quite useful until I am married.  Why--
how shocked you look, Brenda!"

"You are only eighteen; how can you think of such a thing as getting
married?" said Brenda.

Florence laughed and stroked her sister's hair.

"I think of it very often," she said, "almost every day; in fact, it is
the only thing before me.  I mean to marry a rich and great man."

"But you must love him," said Brenda.

"I dare say I shall be able to manage that too," cried Florence.

CHAPTER TWO.

A STARTLING ANNOUNCEMENT.

The next day Mr Timmins arrived.  He came by the train which reached
Langdale at three o'clock.  He invariably did come by that train.  There
was nothing at all remarkable in his paying the girls a visit.  He was
their business man.  It was his custom to have an interview with them
and with Mrs Fortescue at least once a year.  It is true he had come
last to see them in the summer, so that it was somewhat remarkable for
him to state his intention of coming to Langdale again so soon.  But the
girls thought nothing at all about this, and if Mrs Fortescue did, she
was more pleased than otherwise.  Of course, now that her dear young
charges had left school for ever, there would be a good deal to talk
over and their future to be arranged.  She would probably have to take a
larger house.  The cottage where she lived was very nice and quite
sufficiently good to receive schoolgirls in the holidays; but it was not
a fit home for young heiresses, who would naturally want to entertain
company when they were at home, and who would also naturally require to
visit the great world.

Mrs Fortescue felt excited.  There were two years yet of her lease to
run; but she thought she might manage to induce her landlord to take the
little house off her hands, or she might sublet it.  In all probability
Mr Timmins would require her to live in London with the Misses
Heathcote.  He would himself choose a pretty house for her there.  Her
eyes shone as she thought of her future.  In London she would have to
dress better.  She would, in all probability, have to visit one of those
celebrated beauty shops in Bond Street in order to get herself quite up
to the mark.  There were all kinds of inventions now for defying the
ravages of age, for keeping a youthful bloom on the cheek and a youthful
lustre on the hair.  It would be necessary for Mrs Fortescue to look as
charming as ever in order to take her young charges about.  How pleasant
it would be to go with them from one gay assembly to another, to watch
their innocent triumphs!

As she lay down in bed on the first night after their arrival she
appraised with a great deal of discernment their manifest charms.
Florence was, of course, the beauty, but Brenda had a quiet distinction
of her own.  Her face was full of intellect.  Her eyes full of resource.
She was dignified, too, more so than Florence, who was all sparkling
and gay, as befitted the roses in her cheeks and the flashes of light in
her big brown eyes.  Altogether, they were a charming pair, and when
dressed as they ought to be (how Mrs Fortescue would love that part of
her duty!) would do anybody credit.

Mrs Fortescue and the Misses Heathcote!  She could hear their names
being announced on the threshold of more than one notable reception
room, could see the eager light in manly eyes and the deference which
would be shown to her as the chaperone of the young heiresses!

Yes, Mr Timmins' visit was decidedly welcome.  He should have the very
best of receptions.

On the day when Mr Timmins had elected to come it was Christmas Eve.
In consequence, the trains were a little out of order, and Mrs
Fortescue could not tell exactly when he would arrive.

"He said three o'clock, dears," she remarked to her young charges as
they sat together at breakfast, the girls wearing pretty brown dresses
which suited their clear complexions to a nicety.  "Now, as a rule, the
three o'clock train is in to the moment, but of course to-day it may be
late--in all probability it will be late.  I shall order hot cakes for
tea; Bridget is quite celebrated for her hot cakes.  We will have tea
ready for him when he comes.  Then when he has had his chat with me, he
will want to say a word or two to you, Brenda, and you, Florence.  You
had better not be out of the way."

"We thought of going for a good walk," said Florence.  "It is you, after
all, he wants to see, Mrs Fortescue.  He never has had much to say to
us, has he?"  Here she looked at her sister.

"No," said Brenda, thoughtfully.  "But," she added, "when he wrote to me
this time, he said he particularly wanted to see you and me alone, Flo.
He didn't even mention your name, Mrs Fortescue."

"Ah well, dear," said Mrs Fortescue, with a smile; "that is quite
natural.  You have left school, you know."

"I can't quite believe it, can you, Brenda?" said Florence.  "It seems
just as if we must be going back to the dear old place."

"Oh, I don't know," said Brenda.  "We are not going back: we said
good-bye to every one, don't you remember?"

"You are never going back, dears, and for my part, I am glad," said Mrs
Fortescue.  "You will be my charge in future; at least, I hope so."

The girls were silent, looking hard at her.  "As I have taken care of
you since you were quite young girls, you will naturally wish for my
protection until you are both married."

Brenda was silent.  Florence said eagerly--"I mean to marry as soon as
possible."  Here she laughed, showing her pearly teeth, and a flashing
light of anticipated triumph coming into her eyes.

"Of course you will marry soon, Florence," said Mrs Fortescue.  "You
are far too pretty not to be somebody's darling before long.  And you,
Brenda, also have an exceedingly attractive face.  What are your dreams
for the future, my love?"

"I cannot tell you," said Brenda.

She got up as she spoke, and walked to the window.  After a time, she
said something to her sister, and the girls left the room arm-in-arm.

Mrs Fortescue felt rather annoyed by their manners.  They were very
independent, as independent as though they were of age; whereas at the
present moment they had not a shilling--no, not a shilling in the world
that she did not supply to them under Mr Timmins' directions.  Were
they going to prove troublesome?  She sincerely hoped not.  They were
good girls but that house in London might not be quite so agreeable as
her dreams had pictured if Brenda developed a very strong will of her
own and Florence was determined to marry for the sake of marrying.
Still, Mr Timmins would put all right, and he would be with them at
three o'clock.

The girls absented themselves during the whole of the morning, but
appeared again in time for lunch, which they ate with a healthy
appetite.  They praised Mrs Fortescue's food, comparing it with what
they had at school to the disadvantage of the latter.  Mrs Fortescue
was pleased.  She prided herself very much on Bridget's cooking.

"And now," she said, when the meal had come to an end, "you will go
upstairs and put on your prettiest dresses and wait in the drawing-room
for Mr Timmins.  I shall not be far off.  He will naturally want to see
me as soon as he has had his talk with you both, so I shall remain
writing letters in the dining-room.  There are so many letters and cards
to send off at Christmas time that I shall be fully occupied, and when
you touch the bell, Brenda, I shall know what it means.  In any case, I
will send tea into the drawing-room at a quarter to four.  That will
give you time to get through your business first, and if you want me to
come in and pour out the tea, I shall know if you will just touch the
bell."

"Thank you," said Brenda.  "But it isn't half-past one yet, and the day
is a lovely one.  Florence and I want to take a good brisk walk between
now and three o'clock.  We shall be back before three.  We cannot be
mewed up in the house until Mr Timmins chooses to arrive."

"Oh, my dear children!  He will think it queer."

"I am sorry," said Brenda, "but he had no right to choose Christmas Eve
as the day when he was to come to see us.  His train may not be in till
late.  Anyhow, we want to take advantage of the sunshine.  Come,
Florence."

The girls left the room and soon afterwards were seen going out
arm-in-arm.  They walked down the little avenue, and were lost to view.

There was a certain style about them both.  They looked quite different
from the ordinary Langdale girls.  Florence held herself very well, and
although she acknowledged herself to be a beauty, had no self-conscious
airs.  Brenda's sweet face appeared to see beyond the ordinary line of
vision, as though she were always communing with thoughts deeper and
more rare than those given to most.  People turned and looked at the
girls as they walked up the little High Street.  Most people knew them,
and were interested in them.  They were the very charming young ladies
who always spent their holidays with Mrs Fortescue.  They were, of
course, to be included in all the Christmas parties given at Langdale,
and Mrs Fortescue would, as her custom was, give a party on Twelfth
Night in their honour.

That was the usual state of things.  The girls did not seem in the mood,
however, to greet their old friends beyond smiling and nodding to them.
As they were returning home, Brenda said--

"We are more than half an hour late.  I wonder if he has come."

"Well, if he has, it is all right," said Florence.  "Mrs Fortescue is
dying to have a chat with him all by herself, and she will have managed
to by this time.  She will be rather glad, if the truth may be known,
that we are not in to interrupt her.  I can see that she is dying with
curiosity."

"I don't want her to live with us in the future," said Brenda.

"But she has set her heart on it," said Florence.

"I know," remarked Brenda; "but, all the same, our lives are our own,
and I don't think we can do with Mrs Fortescue.  I suppose Mr Timmins
will tell us what he has decided.  We are not of age yet, either of us.
You have three years to wait, Flo, and I have two."

"Well, we must do what he wishes," said Florence.  "I intend to be
married ages and ages before I am twenty-one; so that will be all
right."

While they were coming towards the house, an impatient, white-headed old
lawyer was pacing up and down Mrs Fortescue's narrow drawing-room.
Mrs Fortescue was sitting with him and doing her utmost to soothe his
impatience.

"Dear Mr Timmins, I am so sorry the girls are out.  I quite thought
they would have been back before now."

"But they knew my train would be in by three o'clock," said Mr Timmins.

He was a man of between fifty and sixty years of age, rather small, with
rosy cheeks and irascible eyes.  His hair was abundant and snow-white,
white as milk.

"I said three o'clock," he repeated.

"Yes," said Mrs Fortescue, "but on Christmas Eve we made sure your
train would be late."

The lawyer took out his watch.

"Not the special from London; that is never late," he remarked.  "I want
to catch the half-past four back; otherwise I shall have to go by one of
those dreadful slow trains, and there's a good deal to talk over.  I do
think it is a little careless of those girls not to be at home when they
are expecting me."

Mrs Fortescue coughed, then she 'hemmed.

"It might--" she began.  The lawyer paused in his impatient walk and
stared at her.  "It might expedite matters," she continued, "if you were
to tell me some of your plans.  For instance, I shall quite understand
if you wish me to leave here and take a house in London.  It is true the
lease of this house won't be up for two years, but I have no doubt my
landlord would be open to a consideration."

"Eh?  What is it you were going to say?  I don't want you to leave your
house," blurted out Mr Timmins.  "I have nothing whatever to do with
your future, Mrs Fortescue.  You have been kind to my young friends in
the past, but I think I have--er--er--fully repaid you.  And here they
come--that is all right.  Now, my dear madam, if you would leave the
young ladies with me--no tea, thank you; I haven't time for any--I may
be able to get my business through in three-quarters of an hour.  It is
only just half-past three.  If I leave here at a quarter-past four, I
may catch the express back to town.  Would you be so very kind as to
order your servant to have a cab at the door for me at a quarter-past
four--yes, in three-quarters of an hour I can say all that need be said.
No tea, I beg of you."

He was really very cross; it was the girls' doing.  Mrs Fortescue felt
thoroughly annoyed.  She went into the hall to meet Brenda and Florence.

"Mr Timmins has been here for nearly twenty minutes.  His train was in
sharp at three.  He is very much annoyed at your both being out.  Go to
him at once, girls--at once."

"Oh, of course we will," said Florence.  "Who would have supposed that
his train would have been punctual to-day!  Come, Brenda, come."

They went, just as they were, into the pretty little precise
drawing-room, where a fire was burning cheerily in the grate, and the
room was looking spick and span, everything dusted and in perfect order,
and some pretty vases full of fresh flowers adding a picturesqueness to
the scene.  It was quite a dear little drawing-room, and when the two
girls--Florence with that rich colour which so specially characterised
her, and Brenda a little paler but very sweet-looking--entered the room,
the picture was complete.  The old lawyer lost his sense of irritation.
He came forward with both hands outstretched.

"My dear children," he said; "my poor children.  Sit down; sit down."

They were surprised at his address, and Florence began to apologise for
being late; but Brenda made no remark, only her face turned pale.

"I may as well out with it at once," said Mr Timmins.  "It was never my
wish that it should have been kept from you all these years, but I only
obeyed your parent's special instructions.  You have left school--"

"Oh yes," said Florence; "and I am glad.  What are we to do in the
future, Daddy Timmins?"

She often called him by that name.  He took her soft young hand and
stroked it.  There was a husky note in his voice.  He found it difficult
to speak.  After a minute or two, he said abruptly--

"Now, children, I will just tell you the very worst at once.  You
haven't a solid, solitary hundred pounds between you in this wide world.
I kept you at school as long as I could.  There is not enough money to
pay for another term's schooling, but there is enough to pay Mrs
Fortescue for your Christmas holidays, and there will be a few pounds
over to put into each of your pockets.  The little money your father
left you will then be quite exhausted."

"I don't understand," said Brenda, after a long time.

Florence was silent--she, who was generally the noisy one.  She was
gazing straight before her out into Mrs Fortescue's little garden which
had a light covering of snow over the flower-beds, and which looked so
pretty and yet so small and confined.  She looked beyond the garden at
the line of the horizon, which showed clear against the frosty air.
There would be a hard frost to-night.  Christmas Day would come in with
its old-fashioned splendour.  She had imagined all sorts of things about
this special time; Christmas Day in hot countries, Christmas Day in
large country houses, Christmas Day in her own home, when she had won
the man who would love her, not only for her beauty, but her wealth.
She was penniless.  It seemed very queer.  It seemed to contract her
world.  She could not understand it.

Brenda, who had a stronger nature, began to perceive the position more
quickly.

"Please," she said--and her young voice had no tremble in it--"please
tell me exactly what this means and why--why we were neither of us told
until now?"

Mr Timmins shrugged his shoulders.

"How old were you, Brenda, when your father and mother died?" he asked.

"I was fourteen," she answered, "and Florence was thirteen."

"Precisely; you were two little girls: you were relationless."

"So I have always been told," said Brenda.

"Your father left a will behind him.  He always appeared to you to be a
rich man, did he not?"

"I suppose so," said Brenda.  "I never thought about it."

"Nor did I," said Florence, speaking for the first time.

"Well, he was not rich.  He lived up to his income.  He earned a
considerable amount as a writer."

"I was very proud of him," said Brenda.

"When he died," continued Mr Timmins, taking no notice of this
remark--"you know your mother died first--but when he died he left a
will, giving explicit directions that all his debts were to be paid in
full.  There were not many, but there were some.  The remainder of the
money was to be spent on the education of you two girls.  I assure you,
my dears, there was not much; but I have brought the accounts with me
for you to see the exact amount realisable from his estate and precisely
how I spent it.  I found Mrs Fortescue willing to give you a home in
the holidays, and I arranged with her that you were to go to her for so
much a week.  I chose, by your father's directions, the very best
possible school to send you to, a school where you would only meet with
ladies, and where you would be educated as thoroughly as possible.  You
were to stay on at school and with Mrs Fortescue until the last hundred
pounds of your money was reached.  Then you were to be told the truth:
that you were to face the world.  After your fees for your last term's
schooling have been met and Mrs Fortescue has been paid for your
Christmas holidays, there will be precisely eighty pounds in the bank to
your credit.  That money I think you ought to save for a nest-egg.  That
is all you possess.  Your father's idea was that you would live more
happily and work more contentedly if you were allowed to grow up to the
period of adolescence without knowing the cares and sorrows of the
world.  He may have been wrong; doubtless he was; anyhow, there was
nothing whatever for me to do but to obey the will.  I came down myself
to tell you.  You will have the Christmas holidays in which to prepare
yourselves for the battle of life.  You can tell Mrs Fortescue or not,
as you please.  She has learned nothing from me.  I think that is about
all, except--"

"Yes?" said Florence, speaking for the first time--"except what?"

"Except that I would like you both--yes, both--to see Lady Marian Dixie,
a very old client of mine, who was a friend of your mother's, and I
believe, would give you advice, and perhaps help you to find situations.
Lady Marian is in London, and if you wish it, I will arrange that you
shall have an interview with her.  What day would suit you both?"

"Any day," said Brenda.

Florence was silent.

"Here is a five-pound note between you.  It is your own money--five
pounds out of your remaining eighty pounds.  Be very careful of it.  I
will endeavour to see Lady Marian on Monday, and will write to you.  Ah,
there is my cab.  You can tell Mrs Fortescue or not, just as you
please.  Good-bye now, my dears, good-bye.  I am truly sorry, truly
sorry; but those who work for their own living are not the most unhappy
people, and you are well-educated; your poor father saw to that.  Don't
blame the dead, Brenda.  Florence, think kindly of the dead."

CHAPTER THREE.

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE.

Mrs Fortescue was full of curiosity.

The girls were absolutely silent.  She talked with animation of their
usually gay programme for Christmas.  The Blundells and the Arbuthnots
and the Aylmers had all invited them to Christmas parties.  Of course
they would go.  They were to dine with the Arbuthnots on the following
evening.  She hoped the girls had pretty dresses.

"There will be quite a big party," said Mrs Fortescue.  "Major Reid and
his son are also to be there.  Michael Reid is a remarkably clever man.
What sort of dresses have you, girls?  Those white ones you wore last
summer must be rather _outre_ now.  It was such a pity that I was not
able to get you some really stylish frocks from Madame Aidee in town."

"Our white frocks will do very well indeed," said Florence.

"But you have grown, dear; you have grown up now," said Mrs Fortescue.
"Oh my love!"  She drew her chair a little closer to the young girl as
she spoke.  "I wonder what Mr Timmins meant.  He did not seem at all
interested in my house.  I expressed so plainly my willingness to give
it up and to take a house in town where we could be all happy together;
but he was very huffy and disagreeable.  It was a sad pity that you
didn't stay in for him.  It put him out.  I never knew that Mr Timmins
was such an irascible old gentleman before."

"He is not; he is a perfect dear," said Florence.

"Well, Florence, I assure you he was not at all a dear to me.  Still, if
he made himself agreeable to you, you two darling young creatures, I
must not mind.  I suppose I shan't see a great deal of you in the
future.  I shall miss you, my loves."

Tears came into the little woman's eyes.  They were genuine tears, of
sorrow for herself but also of affection for the girls.  She would, of
course, like to make money by them, but she also regarded them as
belonging to her.  She had known them for so long, and, notwithstanding
the fact that she had been paid for their support, she had been really
good to them.  She had given them of those things which money cannot
buy, had sat up with Florence night after night when she was ill with
the measles, and had read herself hoarse in order to keep that difficult
young lady in bed when she wanted to be up and playing about.

Of the two girls Florence was her darling.  She dreamed much of
Florence's future, of the husband she would win, of the position she
would attain, and of the advantage which she, Mrs Fortescue, would
derive from her young friends--advancement in the social scale.  Beauty
was better than talent; and Florence, as well as being an heiress, was
also a beauty.

It cannot be said that the girls did much justice to Bridget's hot
cakes.  They were both a little stunned, and their one desire was to get
away to their own bedroom to talk over their changed circumstances, and
decide on what course of action they would pursue with regard to Mrs
Fortescue.  In her heart of hearts, Florence would have liked to rush to
the good lady and say impulsively--

"I am a cheat, an impostor.  I haven't a penny in the world.  You will
be paid up to the end of the Christmas holidays, and then you will never
see me any more.  I have got to provide my own living somehow.  I
suppose I'll manage best as a nursery governess; but I don't know
anything really well."

Brenda, however, would not encourage any such lawless action.

"We won't say a word about it," said Brenda, "until after Christmas
Day."

She gave forth this mandate when the girls were in their room preparing
for dinner.

"Oh," said Florence; "it will kill me to keep it a secret for so long!"

"It won't kill you," replied Brenda, "for you will have me to talk it
over with."

"But she'll go on asking us questions," said Florence.  "She will want
to know where we are going after the holidays; if we are going to stay
on with her, or what is to happen; and unless we tell her a lot of lies,
I don't see how we are to escape telling her the truth.  It is all
dreadful from first to last; but I think having to keep it a secret from
Mrs Fortescue is about the most terrible part of all."

"It is the part you feel most at the present time," said Brenda.  "It is
a merciful dispensation that we cannot realise everything that is
happening just at the moment it happens.  It is only by degrees that we
get to realise the full extent of our calamities."

"I suppose it is a calamity," said Florence, opening her bright eyes
very wide.  "Somehow, at the present moment I don't feel anything at all
about it except rather excited; and there are eighty pounds left.
Eighty pounds ought to go far, oughtn't they?  Oughtn't they to go far,
Brenda?"

"No," said Brenda; "they won't go far at all."

"But I can't make out why.  We could go into small lodgings and live
quite by ourselves and lead the simple life.  There is so much written
now about the simple life.  I have read many books lately in which very
clever men say that we eat far too much, and that, after all, what we
really need is abundance of fresh air and so many hours for sleep and
very plain food.  I was reading a book not long ago which described a
man who had exactly twenty pounds on which he intended to live for a
whole year.  He paid two and sixpence a week for his room and about as
much more for his food, and he was very healthy and very happy.  Now, if
we did the same sort of thing, we could live both of us quite
comfortably for two years on our eighty pounds."

"And then," said Brenda, "what would happen at the end of that time?"

"Oh, I should be married by then," said Florence, "and you would come
and live with me, of course, you old darling."

"No; that I wouldn't," said Brenda.  "I am not at all content to sit
down and wait.  I want to do something.  As far as I am concerned, I am
rather glad of this chance.  I never did care for what are so-called
`society pleasures.'  I see now the reason why I always felt driven to
work very hard.  You know father was a great writer.  I shall write too.
I will make money by my books, and we will both live together and be
happy.  If you find your prince, the man you have made up your mind to
marry, why, you shall marry him.  But if you don't, I am always there.
We will be very careful of our money, and I will write a book; I think I
just know how.  I am not father's daughter for nothing.  The book will
be a success, and I shall get an order for another book, and we can live
somehow.  We shall be twenty thousand times happier than if we were in a
house with Mrs Fortescue looking out for husbands for us--for that is
what it comes to when all is said and done."

"Oh, you darling!  I never thought of that," said Florence.  "It is
perfectly splendid!  I never admired you in all my life as I admire you
now, Brenda.  Of course, I never thought that you would be the one to
save us from destruction.  I used at times to have a sort of idea within
me that perhaps you would have to come and live with me some day when
all our money was spent.  I can't imagine why I used to think so often
about all our money being spent; but I used to, only I imagined it would
be after I had got my trousseau and was married to my dear lord, or
duke, or marquis--anyhow, some one with a big place and a title; and I
used to imagine you living with me and being my dear companion.  But
this is much, much better than any of those things."

"Yes; I think it is better," said Brenda.  "I will think about the book
to-night, and perhaps the title may come to me; but in the meantime, we
are not to tell Mrs Fortescue--not at least till Christmas Day is over;
and we've got to take out our white dresses and get them ironed, and see
that they look as fresh as possible.  Now, we mustn't stay too long in
our room: she is dying with curiosity, but she can't possibly guess the
truth."

"No; she couldn't guess the truth, that would be beyond her power," said
Florence.  "The truth is horrible, and yet delightful.  We are our own
mistresses, aren't we, Brenda?"

"As far as the eighty pounds go," replied Brenda.

"What I was so terrified about," said the younger sister, "was this.  I
thought we should have to go as governesses or companions, or something
of that sort, in big houses and be--be parted."  Her lips trembled.

"Oh no; we won't be parted," said Brenda; "but all the same, we'll have
to go to see Lady Marian Dixie--that is, when she writes to ask us.  Now
may I brush your hair for you?  I want you to look your very prettiest
self to-night."

The white frocks were ironed by Bridget's skilful fingers.  It is true,
they were only the sort of dresses worn by schoolgirls, but they were
quite pretty, and of the very best material.  They were somewhat short
for the two tall girls, and Brenda smiled at herself when she saw her
dress, which only reached a trifle below her ankles.  As to Florence,
she skipped about the room in hers.  She was in wonderfully high
spirits.  For girls who had been brought up as heiresses, and who
expected all the world to bow before them, this was extraordinary.  And
now it was borne in upon her that she had only forty pounds in the
world, not even quite that, for already a little of the five pounds
advanced by Mr Timmins had been spent.  Mrs Fortescue insisted upon
it.  She said, "You ought to wear real flowers; I will order some for
you at the florist's round the corner."

Now flowers at Christmas time are expensive, but Florence was reckless
and ordered roses and lilies of the valley.  Brenda looked unutterable
things, but after opening her lips as though to speak, decided to remain
silent.  Why should not Florence have her pretty way for once?  She
looked at her sister with great admiration.  She thought again of her
beauty, which was of the sort which can scarcely be described, and deals
more with expression than feature.  Wherever this girl went, her bright
eyes did their own work.  They drew people towards them as towards a
magnet.  Her charming manners effected the rest of the fascination.  She
was not self-conscious either, so that women liked her as much as men
did.

But now Christmas Day had really come, and Mrs Fortescue, in the
highest of high spirits, accompanied her young charges to Colonel
Arbuthnot's house.  Year by year, the girls had eaten their Christmas
dinner at the old Colonel's house, which was known by the commonplace
name of The Grange.  It was a corner house in Langdale, abutting
straight on to the street, but evidently at one time there had been a
big garden in front, and just before the hall door was an enormous oak
tree, which spread its shadows over the low stone steps in summer, and
caused the dining-room windows which faced the street to be cool even in
the hottest weather.

At the back of the house was a glorious old garden.  No one had touched
that.  It measured nearly three acres.  It had its walled-in enclosure,
its small paddock, and its wealth of flower garden.  The flowers, as far
as Florence and Brenda could make out, seemed to grow without expense or
trouble, for Colonel Arbuthnot was not a rich man, and could not even
afford a gardener every day, but he worked a good deal himself, and was
helped by his daughter Susie, a buxom, rather matronly young woman of
six or seven and thirty.  The girls liked Susie very much, although they
considered her quite an old maid.

No; Colonel Arbuthnot was by no means rich--that is, as far as money is
concerned; but he possessed other riches--the riches of a brave and
noble heart.  He was straight as a die in all his dealings with his
fellow-men.  He had a good deal of penetration of character, and had
long ago taken a fancy to Mrs Fortescue's young charges.  It did not
matter in the least to him whether the girls were heiresses or not.
They were young.  They were both, in his opinion, pretty.  He liked
young and pretty creatures, and the idea of sitting down to his
Christmas dinner without these additions to his party would have annoyed
him very much.

Colonel Arbuthnot's one extravagance in the year was his Christmas
dinner.  He invited all those people to it who otherwise might have to
do without roast beef and plum pudding.  There were a good many such in
the little town of Langdale.  It was a remote place, far from the world,
and no one was wealthy there.  Money went far in a little place of the
sort, and the Colonel always saved several pounds out of his income in
order to give Susie plenty of money to pay for a great joint at the
butcher's, and to make the old-fashioned plum pudding, also to prepare
the mince pies by the old receipt, and to wind up by a sumptuous
dessert.

It was on these rare occasions that the people who came to The Grange
saw the magnificent silver which Colonel Arbuthnot possessed.  It was
kept wrapped up in paper and baize during the remainder of the year: for
Susie said frankly that she could not keep it clean; what with the
garden and helping the young servant, she had no time for polishing
silver.  Accordingly, she just kept out a few silver spoons and forks
for family use and locked the rest up.

But Christmas Day was a great occasion.  Christmas Day saw the doors
flung wide, and hospitality reigning supreme.  The Colonel put on his
best dinner coat.  He had worn it on more than one auspicious occasion
at more than one famous London club.  But it never seemed to grow the
least bit old-fashioned.  He always put a sprig of holly with the
berries on it in his button-hole, and would not change this symbol of
Christmas for any flower that could be presented to him.

As to Susie, she also had one dinner dress which appeared on these
auspicious occasions, and only then.  It was made of a sort of grey
"barege," and had belonged to her mother.  It had been altered to fit
her somewhat abundant proportions, and it was lined with silk.  That was
what Susie admired so much about it.  The extravagance of silk lining
gave her, as she expressed it, "a sense of aristocracy."  She said she
felt much more like a lady with a silk lining in her dress than if she
wore a silk dress itself with a cotton lining.

"There is something pompous and ostentatious about the latter," she
said, "whereas the former shows a true lady."

She constantly moved about the room in order that the rustle of the silk
might be heard, and occasionally, in a fit of absence--or apparent
absence--she would lift the skirt so as to show the silk lining.  The
dress itself was exceedingly simple; but that did not matter at all to
Susie.  She wore it low in the neck and short in the sleeves; and it is
true that she sometimes rather shivered with cold; for on no other day
in the remaining three hundred and sixty-four did she dream of putting
on a low dress.  In the front of the dress she wore her mother's diamond
brooch--a treasure from the past, which alone she felt gave her
distinction; and round her neck she had a string of old pearls, somewhat
yellow with age, but very genuine and very good.

Susie's hair was turning slightly grey and was somewhat thin, but then
she never remembered her hair at all, nor her honest, flushed, reddish
face, hardened by exposure to all sorts of weather, but very healthy
withal.

From the moment she entered the drawing-room to receive her guests, she
never gave Susie Arbuthnot a thought, except in the very rare moments
when she rustled her grey barege in order to let her visitors know that
the lining was silk.  That silk lining was her one vanity.  As a rule,
we all have one, and that was hers.  It was a very innocent one, and did
no one any harm.

On this special Christmas Day, the Reids were coming to dinner.  Major
Reid was an army man who had retired a long time ago.  He was always
expecting his promotion, but had not got it yet.  He was somewhat
discontented, but liked to talk over old days with Colonel Arbuthnot.
His son Michael had been a favourite with the Heathcote girls as long as
they could remember.  He was considered to be of their own rank in life,
and Mrs Fortescue, in consequence, asked him to dine, and play with
them during the holidays.  When he was very small, he rather bullied
them; but as he grew older, he began to think a great deal of Florence's
beauty, and even to imagine himself in love with her.  He was the sort
of young man who always kept his father in a state of alarm with regard
to money, and spent a great deal more than he had a right to do.  He was
a good-looking fellow, and popular in his regiment; and as he could make
himself very agreeable, was a great favourite.

When Christmas Day dawned on the snowy world, Major Reid spoke to his
son.

"Well, Michael," he said, "it's a great pleasure to have you with me.  I
consider myself a particularly lucky fellow to be able to say that I
haven't missed a single Christmas since your birth without having you by
my side.  But I don't suppose this state of things will go on.  You are
sure to accept foreign service between now and next year, and, all
things considered, I should like you to marry, my boy."

"Oh, I'm a great deal too young for that kind of thing," said Michael,
helping himself to some kidneys on toast as he spoke, and eating with
great relish and appetite.

"Well, my boy, I don't know about that, there's nothing like taking time
by the forelock.  Why, how old are you, Mike?"

"I shall be twenty-four my next birthday," said the young man.

"Well," said the major; "many a man has married before then, and done
none the worse."

"And a great many have ruined their lives by marrying too young," said
Reid.  "Besides, I am only a lieutenant, father; I ought not to think of
such a thing until I get my captaincy."

Major Reid looked attentively at his son.

"The fact is, Michael," he said, "you ought to marry money.  Of course,
to engage yourself to a girl who has not plenty of money would be sheer
madness."

Michael Reid looked at his father with a twinkle in his grey eye.  He
had quite a nice face, although it was very worldly.  He could read
through the old man's thoughts at the present moment as though they were
spread before him on an open page.

"What are you thinking of, dad?" he said.  "Out with it, whatever it
is."

"This," said the Major, colouring as he spoke; "those two girls have
come back to Mrs Fortescue's.  Florence is remarkably pretty.  They
must both be exceedingly well off.  I spoke to Mrs Fortescue the other
day, and she told me that she doesn't know the extent of their fortune,
but believes it to be something quite considerable.  In fact, I should
imagine from the way they have been brought up, that they must have
something which runs into at least four figures a year.  Now, the moment
such girls go into society, they will be surrounded by adventurers, men
who wish to secure them simply for the sake of their money.  You, my
dear boy, I understand, have already paid attentions to Florence, and
why not carry them on?  This is your chance; she is an exceedingly
attractive girl: in fact, she is a beauty.  She will be rich.  At
present you are not supposed to know anything about her fortune; but if
it comes as a surprise, why, so much the better."

Lieutenant Reid, of His Majesty's --th, thought of certain debts he had
incurred, debts which if he explained their full significance to his
father, would ruin the old man.  He sat silent for a time, thinking.

"When last I saw Florence," he said, after a minute's pause, "she was
just a pretty little hoyden of a girl; but, as you say, we were always
good friends.  Did you say they were still with Mrs Fortescue?"

"Of course they are," said Major Reid, tapping his foot impatiently.
"Don't they always spend their holidays with her?  But they are leaving
school now, in fact, they have left school.  Mrs Fortescue quite
expects to go to London with them in order to take them into the gay
world.  If ever you have a chance, it is now; and if I were you, I would
make the best of it."

Michael Reid was silent, but he broke a piece of toast, and ate it
reflectively.  His father saw that he need say no more, and after a
minute's pause left the room.

As to the young man, he went to church on that Christmas Day although he
had no previous idea of doing so.  He did not dare even to say to
himself that his object was to see the Misses Heathcote.  But he looked
very hard at both girls as they walked up the aisle of the church,
accompanied by Mrs Fortescue.  Even in her plain school dress, Florence
had an air of distinction, and Brenda looked quiet and charming.
Michael Reid felt his heart beating quite agreeably.  His father's
advice, after all, was sound.  If he could secure a wife who had four,
five, six, or seven hundred a year--and, of course, there was a great
likelihood that she would have much more--why, his fortune would be
made.  Florence had seen no other man as yet, but she had a schoolgirl
friendship for him.  Now was his opportunity.  He would strike while the
iron was hot.

Accordingly, in the course of the afternoon, as he and his father were
pacing up and down in the sheltered corner by the laurel hedge beside
the Major's old house, Michael linked his hand within the old man's arm,
and said--

"If you will allow me to manage things my own way, and will not appear
in the very least to interfere; why--I--I will do my best."

"Thank you, my boy.  I knew you would," said the Major.  "God bless you,
my son; and God grant you success."

Michael did not think it necessary to reply to these remarks, which were
really uttered as a matter of course; but he went upstairs early to his
bedroom, and took great care in selecting the white tie he would wear
with his dinner suit that evening.  Instead of the morsel of mistletoe,
which was considered the correct thing among the young ladies at
Langdale for the gentlemen to wear at the Arbuthnots' dinner parties, he
went out and purchased a rose.  He paid a shilling for a rose with a bud
attached, and put it with care into his button-hole.  When he had
finished dressing, he surveyed himself in the glass with great
satisfaction.  He was a good-looking fellow, and might, he thought,
attract the admiration and affection of any girl.  He tried hard to
remember what colour Florence's eyes were; but hers was an evasive face,
which baffled inquiry.  It was full of subtle changes.  The eyes looked
brown one moment, green the next; and then again a careful observer
would swear that they were grey.  But they had a story in them at all
times.  So Michael thought to himself.  He thought that to compare them
to the stars of heaven would be a happy metaphor, and that he might use
it with effect that evening.  He hoped the night would be fine, so that
they could go out between the dances.  They always danced at Colonel
Arbuthnot's on Christmas night.  When dinner was cleared away, the
tables were pushed to one side, and the polished floor left ready for
the tread of the dancers.

Then was Susie's really proud moment.  She would sit at the old piano--
never in perfect tune--and play one old-fashioned waltz and
old-fashioned polka after another.  She played a set of the Lancers too
when she was pressed to do so; but was often heard to say she considered
them too rompy.  Notwithstanding, she was never tired of rattling out
her old tunes on the old piano; and Reid thought of the dancing and of
the happy minute when he would get Florence to himself under the stars
and compare her bright eyes to those luminaries.

When he had finished dressing, he went downstairs and spoke to his
father.

"You are going in a cab, I suppose, as usual?"

"Well, yes; there's a good deal of snow on the ground, and it is some
little distance to the Arbuthnots', so I told Hoggs to call.  Dinner is
at seven.  The cab will be here at ten minutes to the hour."

"You don't greatly mind if I walk on in advance?"

"Of course not, my boy, if you prefer it.  But be sure you put on good
stout walking shoes, and change them for your pumps when you get in."

"All right, Dad," said this soldier of his Majesty's --th Foot; and,
slipping on an overcoat, he stepped out into the frosty night.

Yes; the stars at least would be propitious.  Although there were great
banks of cloud coming up from the west, they were moving slowly, and he
did not think they would interfere with the enjoyment of that Christmas
dinner.

Lieutenant Reid was the very first of the guests to arrive at the
Arbuthnots' house.  In fact, he was so much too early that the little
maid who was hired for the occasion had not her cap on, and kept him
waiting at the hall door for a considerable time.  But at last he was
admitted, and was ushered into the Colonel's smoking-room, that
apartment being set aside for the accommodation of the gentleman guests.
There Reid changed his walking shoes for his pumps, took off his
overcoat, looked at his face in the glass, saw that his button-hole was
in perfect order, and was the very first to enter the drawing-room.

There he saw to his immense satisfaction Susie Arbuthnot standing by the
fire quite alone.  The Colonel had not yet come downstairs.  Susie, in
that grey barege, with a flush of excitement all over her face, Susie
with her very stout figure, her diamond brooch, her pearl necklace, gave
Reid an extraordinary desire to laugh.  While all the world was going
on, poor Susie was standing still.  It flashed through his mind after a
minute's reflection that when he and Florence were married, they would
send her anonymously a fashionable new dinner dress.  He began to
consider what colour it ought to be--purple, mauve, red, violet?  He
decided to leave the choice of the dress to Florence, who, of course,
would know all about such things.  Meanwhile, he went eagerly up to
shake hands with the little lady.

"You are early, Captain," she said.

She invariably called him "Captain," and although he had no right
whatever to the name, he enjoyed the sound very much, and never dreamed
of correcting her.

"I do hope," she continued, her brow puckering slightly, "that nothing
has occurred to keep your dear, good father from joining in our
Christmas festivities.  I don't know what the Colonel would say if the
Major were not present at our Christmas dinner.  Do tell me at once,
Captain, that nothing is wrong with your esteemed father."

"Nothing whatever," said Reid; "he is coming along presently in one of
Hoggs' cabs.  I thought I would come first for the simple reason that I
want to have a word alone with you, Miss Susie."

"Oh, I am only too delighted," said Susie; and she rustled her silk
petticoat as she spoke, getting closer to the young man, and looking
redder in the face than ever.  "What is it?  If there is anything in my
power--"

"Oh, it is quite a simple matter," he said.  "You know I dine out a
great deal, but I may say without verging a hair's line from the truth,
that I never enjoy any dinners as I do yours--a little old-fashioned of
course--but so good, the food so--A.1.  Now I noticed last Christmas
that you, Miss Susie--ah!  Miss Susie!--you must have been in London
since I saw you last and picked up some of the modes of the great world.
I noticed that you had adopted some of the latest London fashions: for
instance, the names of the guests put beside their plates."

"It was Lady Lorrimer, when she was here two years ago, who told me
about that," said Susie.  "I generally use a number of correspondence
cards, cutting them very carefully to the necessary shape, and printing
the names in my very best writing.  It helps our servants, and our
visitors know where to sit."

"Quite so.  I think it is an excellent idea.  But please tell me--where
am I to sit at dinner to-night?"

She laughed, and half blushed.  She had meant this good "Captain Reid"
to take herself in to dinner, having reserved a much more elderly lady
for Major Reid.  But somehow, as she looked into his face, an intuition
came to her.  She was a woman with very quick intuitions, and she could
read a man's thoughts in a flash.

"Never mind whom you were to take in," she said.  "Tell me quickly--
quickly--whom you wish to sit next.  Ah, there's another ring at the
bell!"

"Well, to tell you the truth, I want to take Florence Heathcote into
dinner to-night.  Can you manage it?"

"I certainly can, and will.  Dear, beautiful Florence!  No wonder you
admire her.  I will give directions this minute.  Just sit down, won't
you, near the fire.  I will go and alter the dinner-table."

Lieutenant Reid seated himself with a smile round his lips.  He had
achieved his purpose.

"I thought she would help me," was his inward reflection.  "I was to
take her in--poor Susie! but I am flying for higher game.  'Pon my word!
the pater is right, and Florence is worth making an effort to secure.
Now, it's all right.  We'll go into the garden after dinner, and during
dinner I can begin to lay my little trap for the entanglement of that
gentle heart.  She looked very beautiful in church to-day, but I do wish
I could remember the colour of her eyes."

CHAPTER FOUR.

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.

At night there was no doubt whatever that Florence Heathcote's eyes
looked their best.  By night they were invariably dark; their brightness
was enhanced by artificial light.  They were softened, too, particularly
at such a table as Colonel Arbuthnot and his daughter prepared for their
guests.  For nothing would induce the Colonel to have anything but
candles on his dinner-table.  Candles, in large silver branches, adorned
the board; and if girls don't know, they ought to be informed that there
is no possible light so soft and becoming to eyes and complexion as that
caused by these minor stars of illumination.  There is no garishness in
the light of a candle, and it does not make hideous revelations like
electricity nor cause the deep shadows that a gaselier flings on your
head.

Florence, in spite of herself, was feeling a little sad to-night, and
that sadness gave the final touch to her charms.  She was quite pleased
to be taken into dinner by her old playmate, Michael Reid.  She told him
so in her sweet, bright, open way.

"What a lot we shall have to talk of!" she said.  "How long is it since
I have first known you?"

He tried to count the years on his fingers and then, moved by an
inspiration, said--

"No; I won't count--I can't count.  I have known you for ever."

"Oh," she said, with a laugh; "but of course you haven't."  And then,
rather to his horror, she called across the table to Brenda--"When did
we first meet Michael?  I mean, how old were you?"

Brenda was talking very gently to an elderly clergyman--a dull sort of
man, who always, however, appealed to Brenda because, as she said to her
sister, he was so very good.  She paused and looked thoughtful; and
Susie, at the bottom of the table, gave her silk lining a swish.  After
a minute's thought, Brenda said--

"We have known you, Michael, for four years."  And then she related in a
gentle but penetrating voice the occasion of their first meeting.
"Florence was," she said, "fourteen at the time.  She is eighteen now.
You pulled her hair: you were a very rough boy indeed, and you made Flo
cry."

"No, that he didn't!" interrupted Florence.  "He put me into a towering
passion."

"Yes," pursued Brenda, "and you cried while you were in the passion."

"I don't know how to apologise," said the somewhat discomfited
lieutenant: "but I suppose boys will be boys."

"And girls will be girls," said Florence.  "You would not pull my hair
now, would you?"

He looked at her lovely hair, arranged in the most becoming fashion and
yet so simply, and murmured something which she could not quite catch
but which caused her ears to tingle, for she was quite unaccustomed to
compliments except among her school-fellows, and they did not count.

After dinner, the pair found themselves alone for a few minutes.  Then
Reid drew a chair close to Florence's side, and said--

"I wish with all my heart and soul that you were as poor as a church
mouse, so that I might show you what a man's devotion can do for a
girl."

Florence found herself turning pale--not at the latter part of his
speech but at the beginning; for was she not quite as poor as a church
mouse? in fact, poorer, for even the church mouse manages to exist; and
she could not exist beyond quite a limited time on the small amount of
money which the girls possessed between them.

By and by the dance began, and they did go out under the stars.  Reid
felt almost in love.  He had always admired pretty Florence, and
to-night she looked so charming--so young, so very girlish, and yet
there was a certain stateliness about her.  She was an unopened bud as
yet, but full of rare promise.  He thought of what she might be in a
year--in two years.  Other men would discover her charms.  Oh, if only
she would promise herself to him!

He did not dare to say too much that night; but while he was thinking
about her, and she was looking up at the stars, and his chance of making
that remark about her eyes was so very easy, she suddenly said something
which put the whole idea out of his head.

"You have made a remarkable statement since we came here this evening,
and I do just wonder if you meant it."

"I meant every single word I said.  How could I possibly mean anything
else to you?"

"That is what I want to find out.  I am very young, and you are the only
man I have ever known.  At school we used to talk about men and what
they did and said and thought; and, of course, we always had our
dreams."

"Of course you had," said Reid.  "All girls have.  Do whisper to me what
yours were like."

"No; I can't do that, for they were so fleeting.  One day I imagined one
thing about a man, another day, another.  But you said the sort of thing
to me to-night which--which I did not expect, and which--which I can't
forget."

"Do tell me what it was," asked the puzzled lieutenant.  He was racking
his own brain to remember.

"You expressed a wish that I were as poor as a church mouse.  What a
very funny thing to say!"

"Oh, it's that you are thinking of," said Reid.  "Well, I meant it.  I
meant that I should like you to be poor in order to show you what a
fellow will do for a really lovely girl whom he--" and then he drew
himself up abruptly and said no more, for he was afraid of going too
far.

"Thank you," said Florence.  "Then you are one of the men who do not
care for a girl because she is rich?"

"I!" said Reid, being certain by Florence's manner that she must have
over a thousand a year.  "I should hate myself if I did."

"I am so glad to hear it," said Florence.  "I respect you very much."

"I am glad--" he said, in a gentle tone.

"Do let us walk up and down by the laurel hedge; we needn't go in for
the next dance, need we?"

"I promised it to Mr Cunliffe."

"Oh--cut his dance.  Never mind him; stay with me.  Surely I am more
interesting to you than Cunliffe."

"Yes, you are; far more interesting: in fact, I don't care about him at
all.  Nevertheless, I don't like to cut men's dances."

"You will have plenty of opportunity to make up for all omissions when
you go to London.  I suppose you will be going there soon."

"Perhaps so," said Florence; who, however, by no means wished to revert
to her future.

"When you go," pursued Lieutenant Reid, "you will see plenty of me, for
I am quartered at Knightsbridge for the present.  I shall come to see
you whenever I can."

"That will be very kind of you."

"Not at all.  It is not a kindness to give oneself a pleasure--at least,
I don't think so."

Florence made no reply.  After a time she said, suddenly--

"I _am_ glad you made that remark.  I shall never forget it--never."

Again he had to ask her what it was.

"About your feeling just the same to me if I were as poor as a church
mouse."

"So I should," he answered, with enthusiasm.  "How could riches enhance
your value?  A man likes a girl for herself.  He is indifferent, quite
indifferent as to whether she has money or not."

"That is the sort of man I admire," said Florence.

"Well, always remember that I have said it of you.  Don't forget, will
you?"

"I shall never forget," she replied; and then they went back to the
house where Susie, being tired out with strumming on the old piano, had
begged for round games.  There was a great deal of fun; and altogether
Christmas night passed with _eclat_.  The girls went back in high
spirits, and as they were going to bed that evening, Florence said to
Brenda--

"How did you enjoy yourself?"

"Fairly well," she replied; "but I saw that you looked happy."

"I was," said Florence.  "I have found one true man in the world."

"Michael Reid?" remarked Brenda.  "You talked and danced with him a good
deal."

"Yes; he said one queer thing--in fact, he said it three times.  He must
be a very good fellow, better even than--than we imagined."

"What did he say?" asked Brenda, as she unfastened her sister's white
frock, and slightly yawned, for she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

"He said that he would like a girl quite as well if she were as poor as
a church mouse.  He said it so earnestly, too.  He knows nothing about
us, but you know that sort of remark would not have been believed by the
girls at school; would it, Brenda?"

"No; I expect not.  Well, you are as poor as a church mouse, Flo, but
you didn't tell him so?"

"Of course I didn't.  No one must know before poor Mrs Fortescue, and I
suppose she must be told after we have been to London to see Lady Marian
Dixie.  All the same, Brenda, I can't realise it a bit.  Things are
going on just as usual, and we are to stay here till the end of our
holidays.  We have till at least the twentieth of January to be happy
in.  Why should we be miserable till then?"

"I have no intention of being miserable," was Brenda's remark.

A few minutes later, the girls got into bed and slept with that sound
refreshing sleep which only comes to most of us in early youth.  The
next day, Lieutenant Reid did himself the pleasure of calling on Mrs
Fortescue.  He said he came to see her, but he looked decidedly
disappointed when he was told that both the girls were out.

"They are with Susie Arbuthnot," she said.  "They went early this
morning and won't be back until late.  I think they are going to have
tea at the Arbuthnots'."  Mr Reid's face decidedly fell.  "But you and
I will have tea together," said Mrs Fortescue; "and I can tell you
about the dear girls.  I can see that you are much interested in them."

"Can you?" he asked, looking at her critically.

She laughed.

"Of course I can," she said.  "Why, you hardly left my beautiful
Florence's side the whole of yesterday evening.  You ought not to pay
such marked attentions if you don't mean anything by them."

"But suppose I do mean something," he said, all of a sudden.

Then Mrs Fortescue drew her chair nearer to that of the gallant
lieutenant and spoke with great earnestness.

"I have not the least idea," she said, "what the girls' fortunes will
be; but I know, of course, that they must be exceedingly well off.  No
expense has been spared during their school-days.  Their dress has been
quiet but of the most expensive make, and they have been taught every
possible accomplishment, even riding, which you know is always a serious
item in school bills.  Mr Timmins is a very reserved man, and has told
me nothing of what is now to happen to them."

"But surely, you must know something?" said the lieutenant, who at that
moment seemed quite to forget that he would like Florence equally well
if she were as poor as a church mouse.

"As a matter of fact, I know nothing.  Mr Timmins came down to see the
girls on Christmas Eve, and was with them for a little time, but he had
no talk with me.  Still, I make not the slightest doubt that I shall
hear from him soon and, in all probability, we shall leave Langdale and
go to London.  I am quite willing to go with the dear children and to
help them any way in my power."

"They will both marry young," said the lieutenant, with exceeding gloom
in his voice.  "They will be surrounded by suitors of all sorts.  A
homely sort of fellow like--like--"

"Oh, you mustn't compare yourself to a homely sort of fellow," said Mrs
Fortescue.

"An officer in His Majesty's army!  A soldier can take his place with
any man."

"I know; but then I have nothing of my own, nothing at all, except what
my dear old father allows me.  I ought not to think about the girls--
about either of them."

Mrs Fortescue paused to consider.

"I don't know that you ought," she said.  She had her own ideas for her
young charges, and Lieutenant Reid, a native of Langdale, would bring no
special credit to her management.  People would say that it was a pretty
romance; the girl and the young man met when they were still children.
But that was all they could say about a young and beautiful heiress
marrying a penniless man.  After a pause, she said--

"You have not really confided in me, and, of course, if there is true
and passionate and real love, I am the last person to stand in the way;
but without it I think both those young girls ought to have their
chances."

Mrs Fortescue spoke with precision and reserve.  Reid thought her a
tiresome woman, and hoped sincerely that some one else would chaperone
the girls when they first went to London.  His intention, however, was
to secure Florence before that date.  He thought he had already made an
impression on her, and if Mrs Fortescue did not help him, Susie
Arbuthnot would.  Susie was the very soul of romance.  Behind Susie's
red face shone a soul, the kindest and most chivalrous in the world; and
Susie's true heart beat for all that she considered true in love and
bravery.  A man must be brave, and a man must be loving.  That was all
she considered necessary, and surely Lieutenant Reid, the young man she
had known from a boy, possessed these two attributes.  Yes, he would
give up Mrs Fortescue, and consult Susie on the subject of Florence
Heathcote.

Accordingly, he declined tea, although some special hot cakes were being
made for him in the kitchen, and went away holding his head very high
and looking, as Mrs Fortescue said to herself, "quite distinguished."

"I must be careful not to allow my dear Florence to see too much of
him," she said to herself.  "It would never do for her to fall in love
with him before she has seen other men."

Reid strolled about in the neighbourhood of the Arbuthnots' house until,
as it were quite by accident, he came across the merry girls and equally
merry Miss Arbuthnot returning home from their walk.  They were carrying
sprays of holly and quantities of mistletoe, and looked each one of
them, in her own way, quite charming.  Reid fell naturally to Florence's
share, and Brenda and Susie walked on in front.

When they got to the front door, Susie invited "dear Captain Reid" to
come in and have tea with them, and dear Captain Reid accepted the
invitation with alacrity.

"It is so funny," said Florence, "to hear her invariably call you
`Captain': and you never correct her; why don't you?"

"Because I like the sound," he answered.  "I shall be Captain, I hope,
before long; and I like it, for your sake."

"For my sake?" she said, colouring faintly.

"Yes; there is nothing I would not do for you.  There is no ambition
that would not fill my heart and soul for your sake.  You know that,
Florence, don't you?"

"I don't," said Florence, rather bluntly.  "I can't imagine for a single
moment why you talk as you do."

"I only felt that you must know," he answered.  He was a little piqued
by her manner; but then, when he looked into her eyes--yes, they were
dark grey to-day, and he did admire dark grey eyes, they were so
expressive--he felt that she, herself, alone, independent of thousands,
was a girl worth winning.  He really began to be quite in love with her.
He delighted in the feeling which she gave him.  He wondered if it was
really true, and if he would be steadfast to her if she were as poor as
a church mouse.  But then he thought again with a throb of delight how
unnecessary that feeling was, for Florence would be rich; only he must
secure her before she went to London.

Tea was brought in, and the tea was excellent.  There were several nice
cakes and choice little dainties left after the dinner of the day
before, and Colonel Arbuthnot joined the social gathering and made
himself extremely agreeable, and in the end Reid accompanied the young
ladies back to Mrs Fortescue's house.

With Brenda by his side, he could not say anything special to Florence,
but it was already quite perceptible that he liked her and had singled
her out for attention.  Susie Arbuthnot noticed it; so did the Colonel;
and so certainly also did Mrs Fortescue.

Mrs Fortescue was the only one who was annoyed.  The Reids were a good
old family.  Michael Reid, as far as any one knew, had always been an
excellent fellow.  He had done well at school, and had passed into the
Army with ease.  There was no reason why he should not marry a girl with
money, particularly as he liked her.

So said Colonel Arbuthnot, who knew nothing about the young fellow's
debts.  Susie, who had been talking the matter over with her father,
quite started and coloured a somewhat ugly red when Major Reid was
announced.

Major Reid sat down in the chair which his son had just occupied, and
immediately began to talk about the Heathcote girls.

"How different they are from others," he said.  "I have seldom seen any
one quite--to my ideas--so beautiful as Florence."

Then Colonel Arbuthnot said something which made Susie long to wear her
grey barege in order that she might rustle the silk.  He said gravely--

"Your son seems to agree with you, Major."

"Ah!" said the Major.  "Do you think so?  Well, nothing could give me
greater happiness."

After that Susie got up to leave the room, but her father called her
back.

"We have no secrets from you, Tabby," he said.

Tabby was his favourite name for her, and she sat down again near his
side.

"The fact is," said the Major, "I want Mike to settle down, and I don't
believe that anything will do him real good, or bring out the best that
is in him, like marriage.  I think that Florence Heathcote would make
him an admirable wife.  Of course, he could not afford to marry without
money, but as she has plenty, that would make no difficulty.  I think,
too, he would care for her for herself."

"Oh, I know he would; he loves her dearly?" said romantic Susie.  "Now
that you have spoken, I will tell you a little incident.  He came here
on purpose last night, before any one else, in order to make sure that
he was to take her in to dinner.  I don't mind confessing to you, Major
Reid, that I had arranged differently; but after he had spoken of it,
there was no help for me.  I made the change quite easily--"

"Good girl; good girl!" said the Major.  "Well, if he asks me to give
him my blessing on such a match, you may be quite sure I shall do so.
But we must await events; things cannot be hurried; the girl is very
young."

"She is indeed," said Colonel Arbuthnot; "nothing more than a child."

It was on the next day that the girls received a letter from Mr
Timmins.  It was addressed to Miss Heathcote, and was sealed with a
large red seal.  It had a thick and massive appearance, and caused Mrs
Fortescue pangs of intense curiosity as she handled it before her young
charges came downstairs to breakfast.  There was no other letter that
morning, so she was able to turn it round and look at the seal, which
bore the inscription of "Timmins and Co, Solicitors, Chancery Lane," and
also to feel the bulk of the epistle.  It was a long envelope, and Mrs
Fortescue felt absolutely devoured with curiosity with regard to the
contents.  To open, however, a sealed envelope was an impossibility, and
she did not dare even to attempt the work.

She was seated quietly in front of her copper urn when the girls came
in.

"Well, my dears," she said; "how are you?  I hope you have slept well."

"Capitally, thank you," said Brenda; and then her eyes flew to her
plate, and she saw the long letter lying on it.  She turned a little
pale, and a swift contraction went through her heart.

Florence, however, did not even glance at the letter.  She danced into
the room in her usually gay and sprightly manner and sat down, saying as
she did so--

"Oh, I am so hungry.  I do hope that we have something very nice for
breakfast."

"You know I always think of your tastes, dears," said Mrs Fortescue,
who felt more than ever inclined to pet the girls that morning.  "I have
got the most delicious kippers and that special porridge with cream
which you like so much.  There will be hot cakes afterwards, so I hope
you will have enough to eat."

"Oh yes, yes!" said Florence.  "Am I not hungry!"

She glanced at her sister as she spoke, and saw that Brenda's grave eyes
were fixed on the letter.  Brenda had not attempted to open it.  She had
laid it quietly by her plate.

"Who is your correspondent?" asked Florence.

"I don't know," said Brenda; "but I suppose it is from Mr Timmins."

Then Florence somehow felt her appetite going and a coldness stealing
over her.  But Mrs Fortescue was in the best of spirits.

"I am delighted the man has written," she said.  "It was so queer of him
to come down on Christmas Eve and have a long talk with you two girls
and not say a word to me.  Of course, you know, my darlings, that you
are to me as my very own children, and there is nothing I would not do
for you--"

"You would keep us with you if we were as poor as church mice, for
instance," said Florence, raising her eyes (they looked brown this
morning) and fixing them with a saucy air on the good lady's face.

"Indeed I would.  I love you far beyond mere money.  But what I want to
say to you is this,"--Mrs Fortescue broke a piece of toast as she
spoke, and her voice became a little nervous--"that whatever Mr Timmins
intends to do for your future, I do trust he will not leave me out of
it.  I do not think it would be right of him, seeing that I have had the
care of you ever since you have been both little children."

"We have been most of our time at school, have we not?" said Brenda.

"Yes, dear; that is quite true; but who has prepared you for your
school, and who has done her utmost to make your holidays happy?"

"Indeed, you have!" said Brenda, her voice full of feeling.  "You have
been most kind."

"That is all I want you to say, Brenda.  Well, what I wish is to go on
being kind.  You will probably go to London, and I should like to go
with you.  Until you marry, my dears--and alas!  I fear that auspicious
event will take place soon with you both,"--here she glanced at
Florence, who grew quite red--"until you marry, you will need a
chaperone, and who so suitable as me?  If you see Mr Timmins, will you
mention to him, dears, that I am more than anxious to do for you in the
future what I did in the past?"

"Yes, oh yes; we will be sure to say it," said Florence in a glib tone.

Breakfast went on.  Brenda did not attempt to open her letter.

"I wonder why you don't read what the good man has said," remarked Mrs
Fortescue.  "He probably, to judge from the size of that letter, has
given you full directions with regard to your future plans.  I cannot
imagine why he does not write to me."

"I will read the letter, if you like," said Brenda in her gentlest
voice.

"Do so, dear; I should be so much obliged."

Brenda opened it.  There was a long foolscap sheet which, as far as Mrs
Fortescue's acute vision could discern, was filled with accounts; and
then there was a letter.  The accounts pleased her, only she was puzzled
that they had not been sent to her.  Hitherto, she had always been
consulted about the dear girls.

The letter was very short, and when Brenda had run her eyes over it, she
folded it up and put it back into its envelope, placing the accounts
also there for future study.

"Well, well?" said Mrs Fortescue, with great interest.

"Mr Timmins wants us both to go up to London to-morrow to see him."

"And, of course, I am to go with you."

"He does not say so; in fact, I know he wishes us to go alone."

"That is very odd."

"He tells us the train to go by," pursued Brenda, "and also the train by
which we can return.  If we leave here at nine o'clock to-morrow
morning, we shall get to London a little before twelve.  We can be back
with you in time for dinner or supper."

"And he says nothing about my going?"

"He does.  He says he wishes us to go alone; that we are to travel
first-class.  He sends us a postal order for our fares."

"First-class!" said Mrs Fortescue, with a sniff.  "Of course girls in
your position will travel first-class.  It is absurd even to think of
any other mode of travelling."

"Yes," said Brenda calmly, "he says first-class, and he has sent us the
money."

"He wants to talk to you about your future, dears."

"Probably," said Brenda.  "We shall have to go," she continued, and she
looked across at Florence.

Florence said "Yes," but her tone was not very lively.  Mrs Fortescue
glanced at her.

"She is thinking of Lieutenant Reid," was her thought.  "Poor child!
Well, of course, he is handsome and well-born, and she has plenty of
money, only I always did think that with her great beauty she would be
the one to make the best match.  However, there is no interfering with
nature, and if she loves him--and beyond doubt he loves her--it will be
all right."  Aloud Mrs Fortescue said--

"You had better send a telegram to Mr Timmins to tell him you will go
up by the train you mention.  I will prepare sandwiches for you for the
journey, and take you to the station and come again to meet the train by
which you return.  Nothing will induce me to neglect even a particle of
my duty: you may be certain of that, my loves.  Only I do hope, Brenda,
that if you can put in a word for one who truly loves you, during your
interview with Mr Timmins, you will mention me as the chaperone you
would like best."

"I will mention you with real affection," said Brenda; and she got up as
she spoke and, going up to the little woman, kissed her on her forehead.
Then she said, gently: "Mr Timmins specially says not to send a
telegram--that a postcard will do equally well."

CHAPTER FIVE.

A PROPOSAL AND A PROMISE.

Soon after lunch on that day Florence went out alone to execute some
small commissions for Mrs Fortescue.  She was wearing a sealskin cap
and very _chic_ little sealskin jacket.  No one could look nicer than
she did in her pretty and expensive dress, and nothing could become her
radiant complexion and those changeful eyes of hers better than the
sealskin cap, which revealed beneath its narrow brim just a touch of
that bright chestnut hair which Lieutenant Reid thought of by day and
dreamed of by night.  It was only last night that he dreamed he was
touching that hair and even kissing it and calling it his own.  Now it
was a queer dream, for his locks were harsh and, of course, very short,
and although he had thick hair, it was not exactly beautiful.  He could
only have called Florence's chestnut locks his own in one sense.
Somehow, as he lay in bed that morning and thought about the girl, he
imagined himself more than ever in love with her.

"I do care for her, quite independently of her money," he thought.  "She
is the happiest, happiest girl on earth, and the most beautiful.  I
always had a _penchant_ for her, but now I am in love with her."

In love.  He smiled to himself at the thought.  He had read a lot about
that passion which sometimes destroys a man's life, and sometimes
blesses it, but which, when it is strong and all-enduring, has a very
great effect either for good or for evil.

Lieutenant Reid, as he luxuriously stretched himself in bed, thought it
an agreeable feeling, and that those who talk about it exaggerate its
importance a good deal.  Of course he had had his fancies before now.
He had liked to flirt like other men, but never, never before had he
thought of any one as he thought of Florence.  She was all that his
fancy could desire--

A creature not too bright and good For human nature's daily food.

For daily pleasures, simple wiles.

Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles.

He was quite delighted with himself for remembering Wordsworth's ideal
of the perfect woman, and said to himself that he must really be in
love.  He showed symptoms of the complaint that morning by not taking
quite such a large breakfast as usual, and also by being strangely
silent while Major Reid chatted on the invariable subjects which now
interested him--those local matters which he as a magistrate of the
peace was engaged in, viz the poachers in the neighbourhood, the state
of the autumn crops, the distress amongst the poor, his own extremely
light purse.

His remarks with regard to his purse did rouse Michael Reid's attention.
There was not the slightest doubt that he would have to speak to his
father about that five hundred pounds which he owed.  It must be met
somehow, and that before very long.  He owed it to one man in
particular, a money-lender, who had no pity and no idea of allowing the
debt to lie over beyond the day when it was due.  Exactly five hundred
pounds would be expected to be paid to him in a month's time, therefore
before that date he must be properly engaged to his darling Florence.
He would then be absolutely a free man.  Five hundred pounds was such a
trifle.  No young man in his position could exist in the Army without
getting into debt.  Florence need never know about it.  His father would
pay it gladly when once he knew that his son was securing over a
thousand a year.  Florence's income would probably be fifteen hundred a
year at the least.  If that was the case, he would pay his father back
with interest during the first year of their marriage; and she, his
darling Florence, need know nothing at all about it.  It was not likely
that a sharp old card, as he designated Mr Timmins, would allow
Lieutenant Reid the full control of Florence's fortune.  But her
income--dear innocent child!--she would only too gladly put it into his
hands to use as he thought best.  Her tastes, sweet girl, were quite
simple.  No; he must not lose his chance--not that there was any special
hurry, but still, before she went to London he must secure her.  He was
thinking of her, therefore, of her fortune, of that dreadful debt which
was still, however, quite a month off as he walked down the High Street
and suddenly met the pretty, radiant creature in her becoming sealskin
cap and jacket, and muff to match.

She was all in brown to-day, for her dress was made of some brown stuff
too, and her boots were brown, and very small and pretty.  He liked a
woman to have pretty feet, and beyond doubt Florence had.  Altogether,
she was, as he expressed it, admirably turned out.  She was a charming
young creature.  His heart beat with the intoxication of first love as
he drew close to her side.  He took off his hat and came up to her
eagerly.

"This is luck!" he said.

She coloured.  She was really interested in him.  A man who could care
for a girl who was as poor as a church mouse must be worth something,
and she had never before in her young experience met any young man--that
is, on terms of equality.  Major Reid's son had been indifferent to her
as a boy, but as a man he was quite agreeable and--yes--very
good-looking.  So she, too, stopped, and expressed pleasure in her
dancing brown eyes (yes, they were brown to-day; he thought, after all,
he liked them when they were brown best) and said--

"I am glad I have met you.  Are you going anywhere in particular?"

"I am going wherever you are going," he said, taking his cigarette from
his mouth and throwing it away.

She laughed in a very soft and musical way.  "If you go with me," she
said, "you will have a very dull time.  I am only out to do some
shopping for Mrs Fortescue.  She has given me a list of things to get
from James, the grocer, and also, I am to buy a duck for dinner at
Henderson's.  You won't care to accompany me on these stupid
expeditions."

"Oh yes, I shall," he answered.  "I will stay outside while you go in
and shop.  I will be ever so patient.  I know what a long time young
ladies take shopping.  But it won't matter to me; that is, if you give
me my reward."

"What is that?" she asked, raising her dancing eyes, filing them on his
face, and then looking down again and colouring faintly; for his bold
black eyes had said something to hers which caused her heart to beat and
which she did not in the least understand.

"Well," he said, "my reward is this.  The day is lovely.  Why won't you
take a walk with me afterwards?"

"But I shall be late for lunch.  Mrs Fortescue always has lunch ready
at one o'clock."

"Never mind: if you are out she and Brenda will lunch alone.  Do come
with me, Florence, do.  I want to talk to you so badly."

Florence remembered his speech about the church mouse.  He did like her
for herself.  Of course he must not be told yet.  No thought of her
money had ever entered into his unworldly soul.  He was nice.  After
all, why should she not have a bit of fun?  It was tiresome walking with
him in the presence of Susie Arbuthnot and Brenda.  Why not walk with
him all alone?

"I will go with you," she said, "if you will give me lunch somewhere.
For when one o'clock comes, I shall be very hungry and will want
something to eat."

"Then I tell you what we'll do," said the gallant lieutenant in a
resolute tone, and thinking with great satisfaction that he had an
unbroken sovereign in his pocket.  "I will take you as far as Johnson's,
by the river side; it is two miles from here, and we will have the very
choicest little lunch I can possibly order, and have a good time by
ourselves."

"But what will Mrs Fortescue think?" said Florence.

"You can send her a note, if you like.  James would send it with the
groceries."

"So he would--so he would!" said Florence.  "Very well: I will go with
you; it will be great fun!"

She skipped along by his side; it seemed impossible to her to walk like
other girls; she was always upheld by a sort of inward spring which made
her appear almost like a creature with wings.  Her extreme youth and
childishness were made more than ever apparent by the way she walked.

They reached the shop.  Florence gave orders with regard to the
groceries and scribbled a line to Brenda, telling her that she had met
Michael Reid, and was going for a walk with him and would be back before
dusk.  The duck was also ordered for late dinner, and then the pair sped
away into the country as fast as their legs could carry them.  Florence
said she liked to walk fast, and Michael agreed with her.  He hated
girls who were not strong: he hated delicacy of any sort.  Florence was
quite perfect.  She had such magnificent health.  He did not believe she
even had the faintest idea what it was to be tired.  Florence, with a
smile, assured him that such was the case--she _did_ not know; she was
always well.  Brenda, poor darling, sometimes had headaches, but she,
Florence, never had.

"It is a good thing that I am strong, isn't it?" she said with a laugh.

He replied in the affirmative.

By and by they reached Johnson's, an inn by the river side, much
frequented in the summer by all sorts and conditions of people, and in
the winter carrying on a fair trade by bicyclists.

On this special day, however, the inn parlour was empty and the young
pair had it to themselves.  Reid felt more in love than ever as he
showed the _menu_ to Florence, and consulted with her over the special
dainties they were to have for lunch.  She said she would like beefsteak
best and plenty of onions.  She hoped he did not mind onions.  He said
he adored them, and Florence laughed and showed her white teeth.

She really was an adorable girl; and her tastes were so simple.  He
asked her what she would like to drink, and she said water.  He ordered
water, therefore, for her and a bottle of Guinness' stout for himself.

While they were partaking of their lunch, Florence told him that she and
Brenda were going to London on the following day.

"We are going to see Mr Timmins," she said.

"Oh, your lawyer?" he remarked at once.  "He is going to arrange with
you about your future?"

"Yes," she replied, very gravely; and she looked him full in the face.

He returned her glance.

"You are not going to stay in London, are you?"

"Oh no," she answered.  "Oh no; we are both going up by the nine o'clock
train.  We are travelling first-class."

"Why, of course," said Lieutenant Reid.  "I only wish I might come with
you."

"Oh no," said Florence, "you must not do that.  He does not even wish
poor Mrs Fortescue to come.  He wants to see us quite alone."

"He is going to make arrangements about you; I quite understand," said
the lieutenant.

It was there and then he made up his mind.  If he did not seize the
present opportunity, Florence, beautiful Florence would be snatched from
him.  Some one else, perhaps some horrid City magnate with lots of
money, would come forward and win the darling girl.  It could not, it
must not be.

They had finished their lunch and the lieutenant had paid for it,
gallantly giving a substantial tip to the red-elbowed girl who had
waited on them.  They then left the cottage and went slowly along by the
river side.

The river was very full just now and made a babbling sound.  The snow
and cold of Christmas had given place to milder weather.  There was
quite a spring-like feel in the air, and the lieutenant felt more in
love than ever.

"Florence," he said suddenly, "do you remember what I said to you on
Christmas night?"

"You said a great many things to me then," she answered, somewhat
flippantly; "I cannot remember them all."

"But there was one very special thing, and I think I said it several
times."

"Oh, now I remember," she said colouring, and a different expression
came into her face.  Her eyes grew large and dark and were turned upon
him with a certain solemnity, with a look as though she would read him
through.

"Tell me, tell me with your own lips what I said," was his answer.  He
trembled as he spoke; he was feeling desperately in love.

"You said," answered Florence, "that you wished I was as poor as a
church mouse in order that you could show me what--what you would do for
me."

"And--and I repeat it now," he said.

He looked at her again.  Her eyes filled with sudden tears.

"What is the matter, darling?" was his next remark.  "Oh, Florence!  I
love you with all my heart and soul.  I love you for yourself--
absolutely and entirely.  Say you will love me; do--do give me hope.
Don't throw yourself away on some worthless fellow.  Give me a chance,
Florence."

Florence was a good deal startled.  All girls have dreamt of their first
proposal, and when the proposal comes it is generally as unlike their
dreams as any one thing can be unlike another.  But there was something
about this one, coming as it did at this special time, which touched the
girl inexpressibly.

"Will you give me," she said, "one month in which to consider the
matter?"

He thought of his debt, that debt which must be met in a month's time.
He could not keep his father in uncertainty until then.

"No," he said.  "No; say now that you will marry me--now; promise me
now, my own little Florence.  If you care for me the least bit now, you
will love me twice as well in a month's time."

"Give me a week then," she answered.

"I must think the matter over for a week--and say just once again to me
that you would like me to be as poor as a church mouse in order to show
me how much you care for me."

He was obliged to be satisfied with this, but he talked love to her all
the way home, and before they reached the village of Langdale he had
even kissed her once on her forehead.  Oh yes; he was in love.  All was
right.

"Remember, in one week I come to you for the fulfilment of your promise,
Florence," was his answer when at last they parted outside Mrs
Fortescue's door.

CHAPTER SIX.

AT MR TIMMINS' OFFICE.

That evening late, Florence, in the seclusion of their chamber told
Brenda what had happened.

"You know," she said, "that we have nothing.  I think it is dreadful of
Mr Timmins to make a mystery about it, and to let us appear before the
good folks at Langdale as apparently wealthy girls; but on one matter,
at least, I am obliged to him.  This has given me the opportunity of
finding a true heart."

"A true heart, Flo?" said Brenda.  "What do you mean?"

"What I say," answered Florence.  "You know I took a walk to-day with
Michael Reid."

"Oh, with poor old Michael," said Brenda, in a tone as much as to say
that Michael at least did not count for much, that he was a poor sort of
fellow, and need not agitate the girls just then.  But Florence's next
words astonished her elder sister very much.

"I am a year younger than you," said Florence, "and I have been proposed
for before you, Brenda.  Michael cares for me; he cares for me for
myself alone.  He absolutely wants me to be poor, very poor, as poor as
a church mouse, he says, in order that he may show to all the world how
deeply he loves me.  He doesn't care for me in the very least because he
thinks I have money.  He wants me to be poor: he told me all about it
to-day.  He mentioned the subject first at the Arbuthnots' Christmas
party, but he spoke of it again to-day when we were walking home.  He
looked very, very handsome; and I--I quite think I like him."

"Oh, you poor little innocent Florence!" said Brenda.  "But you don't
know anything about men at all.  It was very mean of him to speak to
you, very mean of him to take advantage of you.  Yes, it was, Flo; I
cannot help saying it.  It was wrong of him; he ought not to have done
it."

"He did nothing wrong," said Florence; "he spoke up like a man.  I
suppose a man can't help loving a girl."

"He ought not to have done it like that," repeated Brenda.  "I know I am
right: he ought on no account to have done it like that."

"It is very queer of you to speak to me in that tone, Brenda," said her
sister, "and I must say that I am very much astonished.  I cannot
understand what you mean.  Why should not Michael care for me?  He is a
gentleman: he is an officer in the King's army.  We know his father; we
know his people.  I don't know why you should talk to me like that.  I
suppose a man will propose to me some day, just as some one will propose
to you, darling Brenda; and you will love him with all your heart and
soul."

"Oh, I don't know," said Brenda.  "I am not beautiful like you, Flo.
But tell me all about it, darling.  You startled me very much when you
first spoke, and I suppose I did wrong to be a little bit annoyed.  It
hurts me to think that my only darling sister should care for any one
else better than me."

"But I don't know that I do," said Florence; "only of course," she
added, "he was very nice, and he did say so emphatically that he only
cared for me for myself."

"And what did you say to him, Flo?"

"I told him that he had startled me, and that I wanted a month to think
it over.  He would not give me a month, but he gave me a week.  What I
feel is this, Brenda: that he must know all about our changed
circumstances before I give him my true answer.  Then if he comes
forward, as indeed I know he will, I shall feel at least assured that he
cares for me for myself."

"And who would not care for you for yourself," said her sister, putting
her arms round the girl's neck and kissing her with great affection.
"Why, aren't you just the dearest creature in the world?  Won't you make
the very sweetest wife?  But all the same," she added, "I don't know how
Mr Reid can marry any one at present, for he can't be well off.  I know
the Major has barely enough to live on."

"We should be very poor, of course," said Florence; "but he seems to
like that.  After all," she continued, "what I thought was this: that I
might, if I go on liking him as much as I do now, be engaged to him, and
we could wait a year or so while I--I was earning money.  It does seem
so queer to think that I should have to earn money in any way; and I am
sure I haven't the faintest idea how to set about it--not the very
faintest.  But I suppose Mr Timmins will give us some sort of
directions to-morrow."

"I suppose he will," said Brenda.  "It is queer, the whole thing.  We
have been allowed to grow up, you and I, as though we were rich girls.
We have had every possible luxury and every possible educational
advantage, and I know the people at Langdale think us rich enough, and
yet we haven't a penny in the world."

"Oh yes!" said Florence; "we have seventy-five pounds; don't forget
that: that is quite a good sum--at least, it seems so to me."

"Half of it would buy your trousseau--at least some sort of trousseau
for you, if you decide to marry the lieutenant at once," said Brenda.
Then she added: "It is all very puzzling; but you must do what you think
right; only we won't tell Mrs Fortescue anything whatever about it."

After this conversation, the girls went to bed, and both slept the sleep
of the just, pretty Florence looking prettier than ever in her happy
innocent dreams--for was she not loved just for her very self alone, and
was not that something to be proud of?

They were awakened early in the morning by Mrs Fortescue, who herself
brought them tea to their room, and fussed over them, and paid them a
vast amount of attention, and begged of them, as they were getting ready
for their journey, not to forget to put in a good word for her when Mr
Timmins talked about their future plans.  She was quite excited about
them, and her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes had a hard, worried
look.  Brenda felt as though they were exceedingly deceitful to her, but
Florence was thinking of Lieutenant Reid, and had not much time to
consider Mrs Fortescue and her future.

A cab arrived in good time to take them to the station.  Mrs Fortescue
herself accompanied them to the train, and purchased their tickets for
them out of the postal order which had been cashed the day before, and
which left enough over to provide them with cabs when they got to
London.  She herself saw them into a first-class carriage marked "For
Ladies only," and she gave them also into the charge of the guard,
paying him five shillings in advance for looking after them.  It is true
she paid him this money out of the girls' own little fund, but it quite
looked as if she were spending her own worldly goods for their
advantage.  The last thing they saw as they left the little station was
her kind and yet anxious face gazing after them.  She was blowing kisses
to them, and wondering most anxiously what would happen between now and
the evening when she was to meet their train again.

"I do feel," said Florence, as the train brought them beyond the narrow
confines of the little town of Langdale, "that we are deceiving dear
Mrs Fortescue most horribly."

"Well, it's no fault of ours," said Brenda; "we'll have to undeceive her
to-morrow.  But, after all, she won't suffer, for Mr Timmins will pay
her in full for keeping us until the end of the holidays; and then,
instead of going back to school, we'll begin our life's work.  I do feel
excited about what is going to happen to-day, don't you, Florence?"

Florence said she did, and sat book in her seat.  But her thoughts were
considerably absorbed with Lieutenant Reid.  She was wondering what he
was doing, and how he was spending his time, and considering how she
would pass her own time until that day next week, when she could tell
him that he might have his very heart's desire, and that a girl, poor as
the poorest church mouse, would be willing to marry him.

"How glad he will be," thought Florence.  "He is very nice, very nice
indeed; but, of course, we must be engaged for some time before we think
of marrying, for I could not leave darling Brenda until she was safely
secure with some sort of livelihood."

They arrived in London between eleven and twelve o'clock, and were met
at the station by one of Mr Timmins' clerks--a grave, elderly-looking
man of the name of Andrews.  The girls had never seen him before, but he
had been given explicit directions by Mr Timmins to look out for young
ladies bearing a certain appearance, and as no other girl quite so
pretty as Florence stepped out of the train, he went up to her at once
and asked if she was Miss Heathcote.

Florence replied in the affirmative.

They were then ushered by Mr Andrews into a very comfortable private
brougham which belonged to Mr Timmins, and were taken straight to his
office in Chancery Lane.

Mr Timmins was the head of a large firm of solicitors, and the girls
passed through many rooms full of clerks, both old and young, who looked
up as they passed by and gazed at them with admiration.  Even Brenda was
a pretty girl, but Florence was quite above the ordinary with regard to
good looks.  There was something so fresh and innocent, and withal
pathetic, about the young creatures, that the men who watched them felt
their hearts softening both with admiration and affection.  Those who
were old thought that they would like such girls to be their daughters,
and those who were young felt instinctively that such girls would make
good wives and sisters.  The girls passed through the different rooms,
and were presently ushered into Mr Timmins' own private sanctum.

He was waiting for them, and was quite alone.  He gave them both a very
hearty welcome, and desired them to take off their hats and jackets and
sit near the fire.  Brenda obeyed at once, but Florence looked restless
and impatient.

"I suppose," she said, after a minute's pause, while she was fiddling
with a feather boa which she wore round her neck, "you will tell us
to-day, Mr Timmins, just what we are to do in the future."

"I have sent for you for that purpose," he replied.

"We have got to earn our living, haven't we?" said Florence.

"Well," he replied, speaking slowly, "girls who have no money have, as a
rule, to earn their living."

Florence looked at Brenda and half smiled, but Brenda's sweet face was
very grave.

"Sit down, Florence," she said: "don't be impatient.  Let us wait until
we hear what Mr Timmins has to say."

"Yes; that is quite right, Brenda," said Mr Timmins.  "Florence, please
take your sealskin jacket off, and your hat: you will be much too hot in
this room if you don't."  Florence now hesitated no longer.  She took
her pretty cap off, pushed back her chestnut hair, and unfastened her
sealskin jacket.  She then sank book in the easy-chair provided for her
by Mr Timmins.

"Now, my dears," said the good man, "I told you the other day that I
would send for you when I had something in my mind's eye for your
benefit; and I think I have something.  It is my proposal, therefore,
that we shall first of all partake of a little lunch.  You must be very
hungry, both of you, for I know you started from Langdale at nine
o'clock; and afterwards we will go to see Lady Marian Dixie."

"But what can she want with us?" said Brenda.

"She will tell you herself," said Mr Timmins, in his grave voice.

"And we have just seventy-five pounds to live on," said Florence.  "It
seems a good deal of money, for although, Mr Timmins, although you were
always very generous, you did not give us a lot of pocket money; you
just bought our clothes for us, and paid our school bills, and paid Mrs
Fortescue in the holidays; but we ourselves never had much, had we,
Brenda?"

"Good gracious!" said Mr Timmins--he threw up his hands as he
spoke--"you cost hundreds a year, girls--hundreds a year."

"Then," said Florence, still speaking gravely and taking the lead, which
completely astonished her sister Brenda, "don't you think you did
exceedingly wrong to waste all that money on us when you knew that by
and by we should have nothing?"

Mr Timmins turned rather red.

"I sent you the account in full, didn't I, Brenda?" he said.

"You sent me an account," said Brenda; "but, to tell you the truth, I
haven't read it yet."

"Oh!" said Mr Timmins, with a groan.  "How exactly like all other women
you are.  Nothing will make a woman careful with regard to money.  The
fact is, she needs a husband to look after her.  I wish you two were
provided with good husbands, that I do.  But there--no one will look at
a penniless girl in these days, even though she is as pretty as my
friend Florence."

Florence coloured very high.  She looked full at Brenda.  Then she said
quickly--

"There is one man who will look at a penniless girl, and marry her too,
if she wishes to marry him."

"What do you mean?" said Mr Timmins.  "I am glad you have spoken of it,
Florence," said Brenda.  "Even if you had not, I should feel it my duty
to do so."

"Oh, tell him yourself, tell him yourself!" said Florence.  She sprang
from her seat by the fire.  "Tell Him when I am not in the room.  I want
him to know: I want you two to talk it over.  Is there no private room
where I can go while you are talking it over, Mr Timmins?  Is this your
only private room?"  Mr Timmins looked quite excited: nay, more--he
looked delighted.

"Do you see that door, Florence?" he said.  "Open it; and you will find
a little room with a fire.  A clerk may be sitting at his table writing
letters for me, but he won't trouble you.  Here is to-day's copy of _The
Times_, my dear: you can take this with you to read.  An intelligent,
well-educated girl ought to read her _Times_ every day.  I have ordered
lunch to be here in a quarter of an hour; so you had better go at once
if you really wish Brenda to tell me your story."

Florence got up.  She felt red all over.  There was a tingling sensation
down her back.  She was half ashamed and half proud.  Her lover was
assuming a magnitude in her eyes.  He must really be a most heroic
person to wish to marry her even though she had not a penny.  According
to Mr Timmins, men never did marry penniless girls in these days, even
though the girls were beautiful.

She quickly reached the shelter of the little room, shut the door behind
her and, sitting down with her back to the clerk, pretended to read _The
Times_.  Meanwhile, Mr Timmins turned anxiously to Brenda.

"What does this mean? what is it, Brenda?" he said.  "Why, Flo--she is
quite a child: how old is she, Brenda?"

"Eighteen," said Brenda at once.  "Just a year younger than I am."

"Well, tell me all about it."

"I will tell you what I know," said Brenda.  "We have been, as you know,
visitors at Langdale for several years.  It is true that Mrs Fortescue
has taken us to the seaside in the summer, but we have invariably spent
our Easter and Christmas holidays at Langdale, and we have got to know
the people.  In especial, we have got to know the Arbuthnots, who are,
in my opinion, absolutely sweet; and there are the Misses Salter, who
are very kind and very, very nice; and there is Major Reid--a dear old
gentleman--and Major Reid's son.  It is about Major Reid's son I want to
tell you."

"Yes--yes!" said Mr Timmins, in an impatient and very anxious voice.

"He is in the Army," continued Brenda.  "He is quite young--I don't know
his age, but he cannot be twenty-five yet.  He is a lieutenant in one of
His Majesty's regiments of foot, and we have known him since he was a
young lad and we were children.  I never did notice that he especially
cared about Florence; but this Christmas his manners were completely
changed--in fact, the other day, he asked her to marry him."

"Thinking that she would be an heiress, no doubt, the young scoundrel!"
said Mr Timmins, with an angry twist of his person as he spoke.

"Oh no; there you wrong him.  He told Florence most emphatically that he
cared for her only for herself, and he would marry her gladly if she
were as poor as a church mouse.  Now, I don't know why church mice
should be especially poor; but that was his expression, and it has had a
great weight with Florence, who knew the truth all the time, but could
not tell him on account of her promise to you."

"Ha!" said Mr Timmins.  "She never told him--the little witch--did
she?"

"Of course she didn't.  She had faithfully promised you not to breathe
it to a soul."

"And what sort is he, Brenda?  You can tell me, because you are not in
love with him.  Now, give me a fair and unbiassed opinion of what sort
the young man is."

"He is quite good-looking, and quite gentlemanly," said Brenda at once.
"His father is a dear old gentleman, and I believe the family is a good
one.  He is the only child, and his mother has been dead for a long
time.  His father thinks a lot about Michael, I know."

"Then I suppose the father will be able to leave the son something?"

"I don't know anything about that.  I fancy they are both poor.  Major
Reid has his pension, of course, but I should not imagine they have much
private means.  They live in a little house, but they are quite nice
people."

"You wouldn't mind your sister marrying him, would you?"

"Not if she loved him."

"Thank you very much, Brenda.  You can't tell me any more for the
present."

"Do you think he will propose to her when he knows--or rather do you
think he will renew his proposal?" asked Brenda anxiously.

"That remains to be proved, my dear.  Ah! here comes lunch.  We will,
for the time at least, consider that the young man is faithful and means
what he says.  Time alone can prove what his true sentiments are.  Call
your sister back; this will make a little change in my arrangements for
you both."

Florence re-entered the room.  She had not found the copy of the day's
_Times_ particularly interesting.  Her cheeks were still flushed.  She
looked with apprehension at Mr Timmins, but kind Mr Timmins patted her
on the shoulder and said, "Good girl, good girl!" in an appreciative
way, which put her at her ease at once; so much so, that she thoroughly
enjoyed the very excellent repast which was sent in from a neighbouring
restaurant, and of which both girls ate with appetite.  When it was
over, Mr Timmins said--

"Now, my dears, I want to say something to you."

They both looked at him attentively.

"I am going to take you, Florence, and you, Brenda, to see my old
friend, Lady Marian Dixie.  She is an elderly woman and full of the milk
of human kindness.  She will talk to you herself, and I will not tell
you beforehand what she is likely to say: indeed, it would be difficult
for me to do so, for I do not know myself.  Afterwards, the
probabilities are that you, Florence, will go back to Langdale, and that
Brenda will stay with Lady Marian."

"What?" said Brenda with a start.

Mr Timmins looked at her with affection.

"That is what is most likely to happen," he said: "but I can't tell you
anything.  You must both be obedient and good, for the present, and
allow me to guide you.  I have your very best interests at heart.  I am
a friend to you both, as I was to your father and your mother before
you.  Lady Marian also knew your mother well.  Don't forget that when
you are talking to her to-day."

"And I," said Florence, "am I to tell Mrs Fortescue--"

"Nothing of the sort, my dear: I should be sorry to give you such a
piece of work.  I will myself write to Mrs Fortescue, and tell her that
her services, as far as you both are concerned, will come to an end on
the twentieth of January, that Brenda has found a home--as I expect will
be probable--with Lady Marian Dixie, and that she will be paid for you
both until that date."

"And I?" said Florence, once more.

"Ah, Florence," said the old lawyer; "better things may be in store for
you; but time will prove.  There is nothing, my dear, in all the world,
like disinterested affection, like the true, true homage of the heart,
which has nothing to do with money nor outward accessories.  In fact, my
dear girls, I may as well tell you that I have the greatest horror of
those men who are known as fortune seekers, the men who court girls
simply because they want their money.  A girl who has not money has a
very poor chance in the society in which she usually moves.  I do not
know which is the worst off, the handsome poor girl who is attracted by
the rich _parvenu_ and marries him for his wealth, or the handsome poor
man who marries the rich girl because of her money.  You, my dears, will
at least be saved from this calamity.  But now, come; I have ordered the
brougham to be ready for us at a quarter-past one, and I think the time
is up.  I will ring for Andrews.  You, Florence, will be on your way
back to Langdale soon after three o'clock, so we have not too much time
to spare."

Andrews answered the summons of his chief, and assured him that the
brougham was waiting just outside the little court where the celebrated
firm of Timmins and Co conducted their highly successful business.  He
himself accompanied his chief and the two young ladies to the carriage.
Mr Timmins looked critically at his young charges.

"Is there anything you both happen to want in the world of dress?" he
said.  "I don't say for a single moment that you have any means to buy
yourselves luxuries, but just now it might be just possible for me--Oh,
by no means as a present! but, nevertheless, it might be possible for me
to give you some little things that you might require.  Just say the
word, my dears: do not hesitate.  I know girls want so many pretty
things--gloves, shoes, boots, hats, handkerchiefs, etc, etc."

But the Heathcote girls assured good Mr Timmins that they were well
supplied with all these necessaries.  They took care to assure him that
there was not a single thing that they required, and he was forced to
accept their word, although he seemed more uneasy than pleased when they
rejected any sort of help on his part.

They drove across St James' Park, and then down a quiet street, until
at last the carriage stopped before Lady Marian Dixie's door.  Here a
grave man in livery and with powdered hair immediately answered the
bell.  He assured Andrews that his mistress was within.  Mr Timmins got
out of the carriage and had a private word with him.  He then turned to
the girls.

"Hudson," he said, "will show you into the dining-room for a few minutes
while I talk to Lady Marian."

He went upstairs quite lightly, two steps at a time, and the girls stood
and faced each other in the great dining-room of the house in Cadogan
Place.  Florence looked full at Brenda.

"Brenda," she said, "if I had thought for a single moment that this sort
of half engagement--for it scarcely amounts to that--which now exists
between Michael Reid and myself would part me from you, I should never
have consented to it.  I don't want to go back to Langdale alone.  I
don't want to, I don't wish to, I won't go back without you.  You must
come back with me, Brenda, darling Brenda!"

"No," said Brenda; "we must do what is right: we are not choosers any
longer and you know, Florence, that we are in the position of girls who
have to earn their own living, and if I can earn mine here, why, I must;
and if you can bring yourself to get engaged to Michael Reid, why then,
some employment will be found for you until he is well enough off to
marry.  I assure you, Mr Timmins seemed quite pleased when he heard of
all that Michael had said to you."

"I do like him myself!--the more I think of him, the more I like him,"
said Florence.

"But all the same," she added, "it is odious going back to Langdale
without you! and then when Mrs Fortescue finds out, it will be awful,
awful!"

"No: I don't think it will," said Brenda.  "I am sure Mr Timmins will
be exceedingly careful not to make anything awful for you, Florence.
Ah! and here he comes."

The door was opened, and Mr Timmins came in.  He was accompanied by a
beautiful old lady, whose hair was snowy white.  She wore a white cap
made of Brussels lace.  She was dressed in soft grey and wore a white
embroidered scarf round her shoulders.  Any one more elegant and
altogether lovely than this old person the girls had never seen.  She
was as far removed from the people at Langdale as light is from
darkness.  Each movement was aristocratic, and in addition to that, she
had one of the kindest faces in the world.

"How do you do, my dears?" she said, coming forward at once and taking a
hand of each.  "Now, let me guess to whom I am speaking.  Yes, this must
be Brenda.  Brenda, you have such a look of your mother.  I used to know
her very, very well indeed a long time ago; and this, of course, is
Florence; she has got her father's eyes.  Well, come upstairs with me,
dears, won't you? and let us have a chat together."

The girls followed the old lady upstairs, but when they reached the
drawing-room landing, they were astonished to find that Mr Timmins had
not followed them.

"Where is Mr Timmins?" asked Florence at once.

"He will see you back to the railway station presently, Florence," was
Lady Marian's reply.  "He would rather we had a chat all alone for the
time being."

She took them both into a snug room, made them seat themselves, and then
began to talk in an easy and pleasant way.  When the girls had both got
over their first shyness, she asked Brenda if she would come to her on a
visit for three months.

"It is quite a short time," she said; "but I name three months because I
know you would like a limit to the time you propose to spend with me.
During that period, I hope you will consider yourself in every respect
my guest.  I don't offer you any salary, my dear, but I will give you
what clothes are necessary, and you in return will write some letters
for me and occasionally read aloud to me.  I hope to make you quite
happy.  I would do more, far more than this for your mother's daughter."

"But what about Florence?" said Brenda, her pretty eyes filling with
tears.

"Ah well," said Lady Marian; "I did intend to offer the same hospitality
to Florence, and she is at liberty to come to me if she wishes; but I
think it is only fair to her to let her return to Langdale; at least for
the present.  If you do want to come to me, Florence, you have only to
send me a letter."

"To come on a visit?" asked Florence.

"Well, yes," said the old lady.  "I do not want a companion.  You see, I
have my maid Pearson, who has been with me for many long years, and who
understands all my requirements.  But I will do far you what I do for
your sister, and it is only a matter of three months.  At the end of
that time you must, of course, both of you find some means of earning
your living."

Florence rose proudly to her feet.

"Very well," she said.  "I do not think I will trouble you."

There was a distressed look on her face, and Brenda never felt nearer
crying in the whole course of her life.

"Oh, Florence," she said, "I would give all the wide world to be going
back with you to Langdale to-day!"  Then she turned to Lady Marian.  "I
know well," she said, "that you mean to be kind, but you cannot possibly
tell what this means to homeless girls who have never been parted before
in the whole course of their lives."

"I can quite understand what you are suffering, dear," said Lady Marian;
"but we all have to go through pain; it is part of our great purgatory,
but it draws out the good in us and develops qualities which without it
might perish.  Now I know you have plenty to say to each other, and Mr
Timmins will come back for Florence in less than an hour.  I will leave
you here to talk to each other until he arrives."

As Lady Marian spoke, she left the room.  The moment they were alone,
Florence flung herself into Brenda's arms and burst out crying.

"I never felt so wretched in all my life!" she said.  "I almost hate
Michael!  But for him I should be staying with you here; and yet how
could I stay just on a visit with that old lady?  It is all very well
for her to say that she was a friend of our mother's, but she is no
friend of ours."

"She seems very kind, very kind indeed," said Brenda; "and I know she
will be good to me.  I will write to you every day, Florence."

"Yes, do," said Florence.  "But oh!  I am a miserable girl!"

She cried long and hard, and when at last Mr Timmins came to fetch her,
her face was quite disfigured by her bitter sobbing.

"Come, come," he said, "this will never do.  You will smile at this dark
hour some day, Miss Florence.  But now we have just barely time to reach
the railway station.  I am going to send Andrews with you as far as
Langdale, as I prefer your not travelling alone."  Florence could not
help thinking how strange the circumstances of their lives had become.
They were very poor girls.  They were absolutely without a penny in the
world--that is, almost without a penny; and yet they had to travel
first-class, and one girl would not be allowed to go back to Langdale
alone.  She turned to Mr Timmins.  An idea came to her.

"If we are to be poor," she said, "and to earn our living, why don't you
let us begin at once?  It is far, far kinder than allowing us to spend
our last penny and then starting us on this cold world with nothing to
protect us against its rebuffs."

"But you, Florence," said the old man, "have secured the love of an
honest heart.  You surely, at least, are not to be pitied."

"That is true," she said; and the thought certainly did give her
comfort.  Michael--dear, handsome Michael--wished her to be as poor as a
church mouse.  Well, she was: there was no doubt of that.

As Mr Timmins was parting from her at the railway station, he slipped
ten pounds into her hand.

"You must have a little ready money to spend," he said.  "Be exceedingly
careful of it."

"Is it part of our seventy-five pounds?" she asked.

He nodded.  There was a strange expression on his face.

"Good-bye for the present, dear child," he said.  "Tell Mrs Fortescue
to-night when you see her, that your sister is staying with Lady Marian
Dixie, and that I will write to her myself to-morrow or next day.  It is
quite unnecessary that she should know anything about your
circumstances.  Whatever you do in the future, Langdale is scarcely
likely to be your home."

CHAPTER SEVEN.

AN EXCHANGE OF CONFIDENCES.

While the girls were in London, Mrs Fortescue had by no means passed an
idle day.  She had meant to visit several friends with the avowed
intention of talking about her young heiresses, as she invariably
alluded to Brenda and Florence.  She would at least amuse herself
hinting at the possibilities which lay before her; but it so happened
that she had scarcely got through her ordinary household duties before
she had an unexpected visitor.  This was no less a person than Major
Reid.

Major Reid was, as a rule, considered a woman-hater.  Since the death of
his wife he had certainly never paid attentions to any woman.  On the
contrary, he had avoided the society of the fair sex, and had employed
himself in his library and garden, living almost entirely alone, except
when his son bore him company.  For him to visit Mrs Fortescue,
therefore, on this special day was a great surprise to the good lady.

She had not the least idea that Michael Reid cared for Florence.  She
had, it is true, observed his attentions to her on Christmas Eve, but
had not given them any serious thought.  The young man was an
acknowledged flirt, and was fond of the society of all pretty girls; and
what pretty girl at Langdale could compare with Florence?  That she had
taken a walk with him on the following day had scarcely aroused any
suspicions.  The young people were old friends.  Florence would make a
great match some day.  So beautiful, so rich, so well-born--what had she
not to give a husband?  Poor Michael Reid would indeed be a silly man if
he fell in love with a girl like Florence.  The visit, therefore, of
Major Reid did not in the least connect itself with Florence in Mrs
Fortescue's mind.

She was up in her bedroom rearranging some of her drawers; for she was a
very busy, active little woman, who kept her place in immaculate order
and never was a moment unemployed.  She was so engaged when Bridget came
to inform her that Major Reid would like to see her in the drawing-room.

"Dear, dear!" thought Mrs Fortescue.  "What does the man want?"

She said aloud to Bridget--

"Go down to the Major; give him my compliments, and say that I will be
with him in a moment."

She then proceeded to put on a clean collar and a fresh and becoming tie
of cherry-coloured ribbon at her throat.  Her dress was dark brown.  She
looked a very neat and comely little person when she entered the Major's
presence.  The Major, however, had no special eye for Mrs Fortescue's
comeliness.  He looked rather excited.  He was holding his stick in his
hand as though he did not wish to part with it, and when he stood up, it
was with considerable difficulty that Mrs Fortescue could get him to
sit down again.

"Dear, dear!" he said.  "Dear, dear!  I don't know how to apologise for
coming to you at such an hour before lunch.  I do hope you will forgive
me."

Here he deliberately paced from the door to the mantelpiece.  The room
was small, and he accomplished the distance in a couple of strides; but
his whole manner was so confused and _distrait_ that Mrs Fortescue
wondered if the good man had taken leave of his senses and was about to
propose to her.  She was, however, thoroughly sensible and practical;
and, knowing that the Major had certainly no money wherewith to support
a second wife, turned her mind from the subject and endeavoured to set
him at his ease.

"Do sit down," she said.  "Do you know--I am sorry to have to say it--
but it fidgets me dreadfully to see people pacing about my
drawing-room."

The Major dropped in the nearest chair as though he had been shot.

"May I take your stick from you?" said Mrs Fortescue.

He resigned it with the expression of one who was about to suffer
martyrdom.

"Now, that is much better," she said.  "But I would suggest an
easy-chair; there is one near the window.  You can then lean back and
cross your legs.  My late dear husband said he never felt comfortable
unless he could lean back in his chair and cross his legs.  Ah! how well
I remember him; such a dear fellow, so devoted to me.  I have never
ceased to mourn for him.  I could never put another in his place."

"Now I have set him at his ease, and got him to abandon the ridiculous
idea of proposing to me," thought the widow.  "Yes; he looks quite
happy, but I do wonder what he wants.  I could have taken the
opportunity in the absence of the dear girls of looking over the house
linen; but he will dawdle on--I know he will.  What can he have to say?"

The Major was staring hard at Mrs Fortescue, but she soon perceived
that though he was looking at her, he was not seeing her.  He was, in
fact, looking through her at something which considerably disturbed,
excited, and delighted him.

"The Heathcotes have gone to London, have they not?" he said.

"Yes," she replied at once.  "My children have left me for the day; but
they are coming back to-night--my Brenda and my Florence, as I call
them--for they are to me, I assure you, Major Reid, just as though they
were my very own children.  For years I have given them a mother's care,
and--sweet girls!--they have repaid me amply."

"They are fine girls, both of them," said the Major.

"Fine!" said Mrs Fortescue.  "I should scarcely express what the girls
are by that word.  Aristocratic--I should call them; more particularly
Florence, and yet in some ways Brenda has a rare dignity of her own--
like a sweet winter rose: that is what I call her; whereas Florence is
like the passion-flower.  Marvellous grace that child possesses!  He
certainly will be a happy man who secures her."

"I am coming to that," said Major Reid.  "I am coming to that.  I want
to confide in you."

Mrs Fortescue became intensely interested.  She had not looked for a
confidence in this visit of the Major's; but now she saw by his red face
and by the way his lips twitched that he had really come on special
business.

"The fact is this," he said.  "That young dog of mine, Michael, has had
the audacity to fall in love with your--well, your adopted child.  He is
madly in love with Florence, and I have an idea that she responds to his
attachment.  There; I have told you the truth.  I thought it only
right."

"You will excuse me for a minute," said Mrs Fortescue.

She got up abruptly and left the room.  The moment she had done so, the
Major sprang from his easy-chair, took hold of his stick, and began to
pace about more energetically than ever.

"If that woman puts a spoke in Mike's wheel, I shall hate her as long as
I live!" he thought.  "She is just the spiteful sort to do it.  I shall
have to be very wary when I talk to her."

Meanwhile, Mrs Fortescue had really left the room to recover her
self-control.  But she was a woman, and could quickly achieve her
object.  She came back looking as calm as though the Major had not
brought her any special information.

"You will, Major Reid, forgive me," she said, "for having left you so
suddenly, but your news startled me."

"Naturally, quite naturally," he answered.

He was clasping his stick between his two hands and leaning on it.  His
stick gave him a lot of support.

"Quite naturally," he repeated.

"As my dear Florence's mother--we will assume for the time being that I
hold that position--you are quite right to tell me, Major Reid.  But
when--when did Michael give my dear girl to understand that he cared for
her!"

"As far as I can make out, he has always cared for her," said the Major;
"but I don't think he showed her any serious attention until Christmas
Day.  You must have noticed that they were a good deal together then."

"Oh well--I naturally observed that your son was pleased to be with the
prettiest girl in the room."

"Quite so; most natural, most natural," said the Major.  "Well,
yesterday they took a walk together, and then he told her that he--he
loved her."

"He ought to have spoken to me or to Mr Timmins."

"I don't agree with you, madam," said the Major.  "I think the person
most concerned ought to be first talked to on so essential a matter.  My
boy is the very soul of honour.  You know what a good family we belong
to.  The Reids of Ardnacarrick can hold up their heads with any one.  It
is true, I am only the younger son; but there is never any saying what
my boy may inherit by and by.  Anyhow, he is a good boy, a brave boy, a
true soul.  He spoke openly to the girl, and she--"

"Yes; that is the important part," said Mrs Fortescue.  "What did
Florence say?"

"She was wonderfully careful, all things considered."

"I have taught her that," said Mrs Fortescue, drawing herself up.  "I
have taught her that of all qualities self-control is the most essential
in the case of a woman."

"She asked him," continued the Major, "to give her a week to decide.
She has gone to town to-day.  Most probably she will tell her guardian."

"Oh dear, oh dear!" said Mrs Fortescue.  Then she added, the colour
rushing into her cheeks: "Do you think it was quite fair of your son to
try to entangle Florence before she met any other man?"

"Madam," said Major Reid, "I must not permit such a word.  You must
excuse me if I ask you to recall it.  The Reids of Ardnacarrick may very
justly unite themselves with any family in England."

"I am saying nothing against you, Major; nor indeed against your son.
But Florence has only just left school: she is but eighteen years of
age, and will be, I understand, exceedingly well off.  She has also
great beauty.  My hope was that I could take a house in London during
the spring and bring both girls out."

"Yes!" said the Major, his face hot with indignation.  "And marry
Florence to some dissipated _roue_ or some horrible American
millionaire!  My son is a gentleman, and surely," he added, the anxiety
in his face causing him to clutch his stick more violently than ever,
"they will have money enough between them."

"I do not know," said Mrs Fortescue, "why you call it between them,
when it happens to be entirely on one side."

The Major was quite silent for a minute.  He felt the indignity of his
present position, and would have given a good deal to put himself
outside Mrs Fortescue's house at the present moment.  But as he had
come there with the express intention of finding out what Florence's
fortune would be, it seemed absurd to go away without doing so.
Accordingly, he said, after a pause--

"My dear madam, we have known each other for years."

"We have," said Mrs Fortescue.

"And neither you nor I are to blame if the young people fall in love
with each other."

"That is certainly true," said Mrs Fortescue.  "I never encouraged it."

"Oh!" said the Major.  "Can you say that?  You were always asking my boy
over to play tennis or croquet with the girls during their holidays: in
fact, he was always in and out of the house.  He was the only young man
you admitted into their society."

"True--very true," she said.  "I did wrong; I did not think.  I hope,
Major, you won't use this knowledge to my disadvantage."

"By no means," he replied.  "I should be more than sorry to injure your
position at the present moment: my entire desire, my one object is to be
as friendly with you as possible.  I have come to you at the first
possible moment to tell you what I myself know--that the young people
are much attracted each to the other, and that a marriage is likely to
take place between them.  It is impossible for either you or me to
prevent such a union: indeed, we should be doing wrong were we to
attempt it.  It is best, therefore, for us to be friends in the matter.
Two heads are better than one.  Florence need never be ashamed of
herself as Mrs Reid.  As my daughter-in-law she will have a good
position, and as my son's wife she will be a truly happy woman.  You
can, of course, make yourself disagreeable at the present moment, but
that will not prevent the marriage; for, after all, you were only paid
to be good to the girls."

Mrs Fortescue sprang indignantly to her feet.  People never spoke
directly about money at Langdale.  No one ever before had alluded to the
fact that she had made a nice harvest out of the girls.  No one had been
so ill-bred; but now it flashed across her mind that it was true: it
also came over her that she had been envied amongst the most
aristocratic members of society in Langdale, because of her chaperonage
of Brenda and Florence Heathcote.  Accordingly, she sank down again with
a faint smile on her face.

"After all," she said, her words coming out with a pause between each,
"we had best, as you say, be friendly in the matter."

"Yes; that is just what I think.  I can help you if you can help me--"

"Won't you stay and have lunch with me?" said Mrs Fortescue suddenly.

The Major loathed having lunch anywhere except at home, where he
invariably ate a chop specially prepared, and drank a glass of old port.
The present occasion was too serious, however, to make him consider
either his chop or port.

"I shall be delighted to have lunch with you," he said.

Mrs Fortescue thought of her cold mutton and the very sour claret which
she usually had on the sideboard but never drank.  Still, what did food
matter?  The moment was too important.  She reflected with satisfaction
that she had one or two bottles of champagne in her wine cellar.  She
would have one opened for the Major.  He was fond of good champagne--
that she knew.  Afterwards he would talk to her; they would, as he
expressed it, get to understand each other.

She left the room to give some directions with regard to lunch, and came
back in a few minutes ready to listen to the Major.  On purpose, she
drew him into other channels of conversation, chatting lightly and
agreeably about the girls and about other matters, even going to the
length of asking his advice as to what port of town would be the best
for her to take a house for the coming season.

Lunch, after all, was a poor affair, when it did arrive; but the Major
gallantly ate his cold mutton and drank enough champagne to put him into
good humour.

After the meal was over, they went into the drawing-room again, where
excellent black coffee was served, and then the Major found courage to
ask Mrs Fortescue that question which was burning on the top of his
tongue.

"You know," he said, "that my boy Michael could not possibly marry at
present, deeply as he loves Florence, were she not an heiress."

"I quite understand that," said Mrs Fortescue.

"You, my dear madam, probably know something of what her expectations
are.  She is a very young girl, only eighteen, but there is no sense in
her waiting to marry until she is twenty-one; for marriage, as a rule,
has an equal effect with coming of age, as far as money is concerned.
Can you give me the least idea what she is likely to inherit?"

"No; I can't," said Mrs Fortescue bluntly.  "I have often and often
tried to find out, but have never succeeded.  My idea, however, is--
seeing that the girls have been spared no expense whatever since the
death of their parents, and knowing that their parents, during their
lifetime, were very well off--that they will both be rich.  I know that
Mr Timmins has spent hundreds a year on their education, and as to the
amount he has devoted to their dress, it has really amazed me, although
it has been no affair of mine.  Florence now possesses a set of sealskin
which would delight any duchess in the land, and there was a little talk
last year of giving her a similar set of chinchilla.  She looks better
in furs than her sister, who requires altogether a simpler style of
dress.  The girls travelled up to town first-class to-day and were met
by Mr Timmins' man--his confidential clerk: that I happen to know; but
I have not the slightest idea whether Florence Heathcote's fortune
represents a pound a year, or two or three thousand."

"Two or three thousand!" murmured the Major.

A greedy look came into his old eyes.  He suddenly rose to his feet.

"I am very much obliged," he said.  "You have frankly told me all you
know."

"Most frankly; most unreservedly.  You will regard our conversation as
confidential?"

"Certainly: it would not be fair to mention it to anybody else until the
week for which Florence has stipulated expires," said the old man.  "But
now; let me assure you, that were the dear girl blessed with nothing at
all in the way of money she would be equally precious both to my son and
to me."

"Oh, you old hypocrite!" murmured Mrs Fortescue under her breath, but
she did not say the words aloud: people don't in polite society.

The Major took his leave.

"Your champagne was excellent," he said, as the widow saw him to the
door.  "You must let me know some day where you get it, and, of course,
when the week is up and everything is comfortably arranged, you and
Brenda and Florence will give us the pleasure of dining with us at the
Moat."

"Thank you so much, Major," said Mrs Fortescue.

The Major walked down the street, murmuring to himself--

"Two or three thousand a year!  It is true--it must be true.  She has
practically admitted it."

He met his son, who was, in fact, waiting for him.

"Come for a walk, Mike," said the old man.  "Give me your arm, my boy.
I have been busy over your affairs during the morning, and the fact is,
that woman's sweet champagne has got into my head.  I can't imagine how
it is that women never know the difference between dry champagne and
sweet.  I shall have a bilious attack after this, as sure as fate."

"Where in the world have you been, dad?" said the lieutenant, looking
with apprehension at his father's flushed face.

"Why, my boy," said the Major, "I have been eating the most abominable
lunch I ever tasted in the whole course of my life at Mrs Fortescue's."

"At Mrs Fortescue's?" said the young man.  "You surely have not been
there about--about Florence and me!"

"Yes, I have, Mike, and you can't blame me; and I have got the most
satisfactory information for you.  The girl's income will run into
thousands, my boy--yes, into thousands."  Now, of course, Lieutenant
Reid was delighted to hear this, but he felt all the same annoyed at his
father's lack of circumspection in going to see Mrs Fortescue.

"The news will be all over the place," he said.  "That woman is the most
inveterate gossip in Langdale.  She will tell all her friends just what
has happened, and if Flo chooses to give me up, you will be the one to
blame."

"Oh, she won't give you up.  She loves you dearly, my boy; and no other,
no other," said the Major.  "I really congratulate you, Mike; and if
there is any possible way in which I can help you at the present moment,
you have but to command it.  Some thousands a year!  Three, four, five--
I should not be the least surprised if it was five thousand a year.  The
girls have been brought up as if they might expect that income at the
very least.  You're a lucky dog--a very lucky dog, Mike."

CHAPTER EIGHT.

A TEMPTING TEA.

Mrs Fortescue's morning had been so exciting that she really could not
settle down at searching through her house linen for possible or
impossible holes during the afternoon.  It was her bounden duty to go to
see the Arbuthnots.  She ought to visit them after the delightful dinner
they had given her on Christmas Day.  Accordingly, putting on her most
becoming dress, she started off between three and four o'clock in the
direction of their house.  She must meet the train which would bring her
darlings back to her between six and seven, but during the intervening
hours she might spend her time quite comfortably with Susie, chatting to
her, of course--not on _the_ subject, but on every possible subject
which led towards it, approaching it, as it were, by every devious path
within her knowledge.

Susie was upright, honest as the day.  Mrs Fortescue was a
crooked-minded woman; but very straight people are, as a rule, apt not
to see the crookedness of their friends.  Susie liked every one at
Langdale, just as much as the Colonel liked them.  She was heartily
pleased to see her friend, and told her so, frankly.  Susie was not
wearing her grey barege, and the supporting silk lining could not
therefore sustain her; but she was very neatly dressed in an old black
serge which she had altered with her own clever fingers, and which
fitted her plump form to perfection.  Round her neck she were a neat
linen collar, and had linen cuffs round her plump wrists.  Her hands
were ringless and very fat.  Her face, always highly coloured, was a
little redder than usual, because she had been taking advantage of the
fine morning and spending it in the garden.  She loved gardening, and
there was not a day, either summed or winter, which did not give her
something to do in her favourite employment.

"Now," she said, when she saw Mrs Fortescue; "this _is_ good!  You have
come to tea, of course.  I will order some hot cakes.  They can be made
in a twinkling.  I have desired cook to do them from a new recipe which
I happened to cut out of a penny paper last week.  How nice you look,
Mrs Fortescue! and how are the darling girls?  What a decided beauty
Florence is turning into!"

"Of course you know," said Mrs Fortescue, throwing meaning into her
tone, "that both girls went to London this morning to spend the day with
their guardian and lawyer, Mr Timmins, of Pye's Court."

"No, I didn't know it," said Susie.  Then she added, seeing that
something was expected of her: "Did they go alone?"

"Well, they went together first-class, and were met at the station by
Mr Timmins' confidential clerk.  They are coming back to night."

"Dear children!" said Susie, in her sweet voice.  "I am so fond of them
both."

"And they are fond of you, Susie."

"I wonder what they will do in the future," said Susie.  "Is it really
true that they have left school?"

"Yes, it is quite true," said Mrs Fortescue.  "I am sorry," answered
Susie.

"Sorry?  What do you mean?  Florence is eighteen and Brenda nineteen."

"Yes," said Susie; "but one only begins to appreciate school at that
age.  Before, one is too young and lessons seem a useless drudgery.
One's mind is not big enough or broad enough to take in the advantages
of learning.  It is a great, great pity that Mr Timmins does not give
them two more years at Newnham or Girton or some such place."

"Oh, my dear?" said Mrs Fortescue, throwing up her hands.  "How can you
say anything so horrible!  Newnham or Girton!  They would be simply
ruined; and men do so hate learned women."

"Do they?" said Susie.  She paused reflectively.  "I have known one or
two," she said, after a pause, "whom men have loved very much.  I don't
think it is the learning part that men hate; it is something else which
now and then the learned woman possesses.  Perhaps it is pride in her
own attainments.  Surely no sensible man can dislike a woman for knowing
things."

"They do--they all do," said Mrs Fortescue.  "My dear late lamented
did.  He told me he could not even have looked at me if I had had a
smattering of Latin or Greek; and I have heard many other men say the
same."

"Then they must be quite worthless," said Susie, "and we needn't bother
about them.  Ah! and here comes the tea.  Put it here, please, Peters."

The servant arranged the very tempting tea on a little table, and Susie
stood up to perform her duties as hostess.  She was certainly remarkably
plain, but, somehow, no one ever thought her plain when they looked at
her, for goodness shone out of her eyes and seemed to radiate from her
stout little person.  Mrs Fortescue was quite ready to do justice to
the excellent tea, the rich cream, the plum cake, and that new recipe
for hot cakes which Susie's cook had so successfully carried out and
which resulted in such appetising, melting morsels, that the good woman
was consoled for the loss of one of her few bottles of champagne, and
for the fact that she knew very well that Major Reid had hated his
lunch.

"Do you know," she said, as she finished her meal, "that I never enjoy
my tea anywhere as I do here.  Besides, I had a hot lunch to-day.  Who
do you think came and had lunch with me?"

"How can I guess?" said Susie.  "I suppose you were all alone, as the
girls were in London."

"No: I was not alone.  I had a visitor--a man."

"A man?" said Susie, opening her round eyes.

"Yes; no less a person than Major Reid.  Now, what do you think of
that?"

"Oh; I like him very much," said Susie.

"Do you, now?  I wonder why?"

"Why," said Susie, "because I think he is nice.  He is very poor, of
course, but he makes the best of his poverty, and he is very intelligent
and fond of reading."

"Perhaps you like Michael too," said Mrs Fortescue.

"I am exceedingly fond of Michael," said Susie.  "He is a dear boy."

"A boy?" said Mrs Fortescue.  "Do you call him that?  He is a man; he
is twenty-four."

"I call twenty-four quite a boy," answered Susie.  "Mike is a great
friend of mine: we have always been chums, and always will be, for that
matter."

Mrs Fortescue sat quite still.  She longed to add something further;
but Susie sat smiling to herself, for she remembered Michael's request
that he might take Florence into dinner on Christmas night, and she also
remembered the fact that he had walked through the snow and slush in
order to secure his heart's desire.  It would in Susie's eyes be a
delightful match if Mike and Florence married.  But she was not going to
speak of it.  Mrs Fortescue's small black eyes sparkled.

"Well, well," she said; "we all have our tastes.  I will own that in a
place like Langdale one is apt to appreciate any fairly good-looking
young man.  But out in the great world where one meets them in shoals--
simply in shoals--a person like Michael Reid would not have much
chance."

"Do you think so?" said Susie very quietly.  "I am sorry for the great
world, then."

"You know nothing about it, Susie."

"That is true," answered Susie, who might have retorted, "No more do
you," but it was not her habit ever to say anything unkind.

"Well," said Mrs Fortescue, "I suppose I must be going.  I have to meet
the dear girls, and they will have lots to tell me.  In all probability,
Susie, I shall be leaving Langdale myself this spring, for no doubt Mr
Timmins will wish me to undertake the chaperonage of my two sweet girls
until they marry.  I look to their both making great matches, with their
wealth and good looks; for they are both good-looking.  They ought to do
exceedingly well in the marriage market."

"If you mean by that," said Susie, the colour rushing into her face,
"that they will marry men worthy of them--I mean good in the best sense
of the word--good, and true and brave, then I trust they will.  But if
you mean anything else, Mrs Fortescue; if you mean men who will seek
them for their wealth--for I presume they are rich, although really I
know nothing about it, and what is more, I don't care--then I sincerely
trust they won't marry that sort of man."

"Oh," said Mrs Fortescue, "you don't understand--you don't care whether
they are rich or not--"

"Not one scrap," said Susie.  "How can riches add to the brightness of
Florence's eyes or the affection of Brenda's manner?  But if riches make
them a little more comfortable, I hope they will have sufficient, though
we don't require much money, do we, Mrs Fortescue?  I know that is not
what the world would call rich," (Mrs Fortescue hated Susie for making
this remark) "and most certainly father and I are not.  We just contrive
and contrive, and always have enough for a jolly Christmas dinner when
we can really entertain our friends.  I don't believe any two people in
all the world are happier than my darling dad and myself, and it doesn't
come from riches, for we have to be very careful.  Oh, no; rich people
are not the happiest, I do assure you on that point."

Mrs Fortescue could not help saying, "I do not agree with you, Susie,"
and she could not help giving a contemptuous glance at the
old-fashioned, very plump little figure with the red face and honest
round eyes.  But having eaten as much as she could of Susie's very
excellent food, and found it quite impossible to draw Susie Arbuthnot
into any conversation of what she considered a truly interesting nature,
she left the house and amused herself doing some shopping until it was
time to go to the railway station to meet the girls.

There Florence alone confronted her--Florence, with a white and anxious
face, although all trace of that fit of weeping which had overcome her
when she parted from Brenda had disappeared from her features.

"Why, Flo--Flo, darling!  Where is your sister?  Where is my Brenda?"

"Brenda is staying for a few days with Lady Marian Dixie."

"But I knew nothing of this.  She did not take up any clothes."

"We are to send her some.  Mr Timmins has sent his clerk down with me,
and he is coming back to the house with us now in order that I may pack
some of Brenda's things and send them to town by him.  If we are quick
we shall catch the half-past seven train, and she will get what things
she most requires by to-night."

"I have a cab waiting for you, my love.  This is very unexpected.  Did
you say Lady Marian Dixie?"

"Yes," said Florence; "an old friend of my mother's."

"Well, you will have a great deal to tell me," said Mrs Fortescue; "and
how very tired you look, dear."

"I am not specially tired, but I should like to get home as fast as
possible in order to give Andrews a trunk full of clothes to take back
to Brenda."

"Oh, surely Brenda won't be away so long as that."

Florence made no reply.  She motioned to Andrews to get on the box
beside the driver, and they returned to Mrs Fortescue's house almost in
silence.  Mrs Fortescue felt that something had happened, but did not
dare to inquire.  She kept repeating to herself at intervals during
their drive back--

"Lady Marian Dixie--a friend of the girls' mother!  It sounds very nice;
still, it is queer.  Surely, surely Mr Timmins could not be so mad as
to allow Lady Marian to conduct the girls about in London society!  It
would be too cruel to me, after all I have done for them."

When they reached the house, the cabman was desired to wait.  Florence
ran up to their room and, with Mrs Fortescue's help, filled a trunk
with Brenda's smartest things.  Mrs Fortescue talked all the time, but
Florence was almost silent.  The trunk was speedily packed, and the old
clerk took it back to London with him.

Then the two ladies, the old and the young, went into the drawing-room
and faced each other.

CHAPTER NINE.

MRS FORTESCUE SEEKS ENLIGHTENMENT.

"Now, Florence," said Mrs Fortescue, "I suppose you have got something
to tell me."

"I have," answered Florence.  She spoke almost flippantly.  "I am very,
very hungry.  I hope you have a nice dinner, a specially nice dinner for
us both to enjoy together to-night, Mrs Fortescue."

"I have got a duck," said Mrs Fortescue; "and ducks at present are
exceedingly expensive; but I never think of expense when I am providing
luxuries for you and your dear sister.  You deserve all the good things
of life, my darlings, and I trust they will fall to your portion.
Nevertheless, I think, I do think you might have confided in me."

Florence coloured and then turned pale.  She wondered if anyone had, in
some miraculous way, become acquainted with the fact of their own great
poverty; but no, the whole thing seemed impossible.  Florence herself
had been careful not to breathe a word on the subject, and she was
pretty sure that Brenda had not done so.  What, therefore, could Mrs
Fortescue mean?  As to the other matter--that which related to
Lieutenant Reid, it is sad to have to confess that Florence, for the
time being, had forgotten the gallant lieutenant.

"I am hungry!" she said; "and I would rather talk to you after dinner
than before: that is, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind at all, dearest," said Mrs Fortescue.  "You would like to
go upstairs and change your travelling dress.  I will send Bridget in to
help you."

"Thank you," said Florence.

She was about to refuse this offer, but suddenly remembered that all her
dresses fastened behind, and that she could not manage this part of her
toilet now that Brenda was away.  She ran upstairs at once, locked her
door and flung herself on her knees by her bedside.  There she uttered a
strangled sort of prayer to God to give her help; but she had not been
more than a minute on her knees before Bridget's knock was heard.
Florence went to the door and opened it.

Bridget was always respectful to the Misses Heathcote, for they were
liberal with their tips and were, she considered, exceedingly nice,
lively young ladies, who made the house pleasant and enabled her to stay
on with Mrs Fortescue.  She would long ago have left that good lady but
for the fact that the Misses Heathcote came to Langdale in the holidays,
and made the place bright and cheerful, and caused her mistress to
provide the best food, and, in short, to give every one in the house a
good time all round.

"I have come to help you, miss," said Bridget now.  "You will be that
lonely without dear Miss Brenda.  We none of us knew she was going to
stay in town when you both left this morning."

"Oh, it's all right, Biddie dear," said Florence.  "Brenda had to stay:
I don't want to talk too much about it, for it makes me so very sad."

"Then it ain't all right, if it makes you sad," said Bridget.

"We have all of us to bear pain in our turn, haven't we?" said Florence,
looking full at the elderly servant with her bright eyes.

"I suppose so," said Bridget, who felt interested in this talk and
inclined to concur.  "My poor mother, who died a very lingering and
painful death, always said that pain was the will of Providence.  I
couldn't see it, miss; but I suppose she was right."

"Yes, Bridget," said Florence; "she was quite right.  Please fasten me
into my white dress--this one, please.  Thank you so very much."

"We have had quite an entertaining day," said Bridget.  "You wouldn't
believe it--but we had company to lunch."

"Company?" said Florence, in some astonishment.  "What do you mean?"

"No less a person than Major Reid."  Florence felt herself colouring
violently.

"He came comparatively early," continued Bridget, "and had a long talk
with my missis, and afterwards stayed to lunch.  I can't say there was
much for lunch--only the mutton bone and some fried potatoes; but my
missis got up a bottle of champagne from the wine cellar, and the Major
drank three or four glasses.  He was very friendly indeed with my
missis, and seemed a good bit excited--indeed, they both were."

Florence longed to ask more questions, but refrained, and after a time,
Bridget left the room.  Then the girl stood with her hands clasped
together gazing straight before her into the long mirror which was
fastened to the wall.  She saw a very charming reflection there.  The
form of a girl, with the extreme grace of youth and altogether well
made, stood upright before her.  She saw sparkling eyes, and a wealth of
hair and delicate colour on the softly rounded cheeks.  She knew that
she was looking at herself, and it occurred to her all of a sudden that
there was no wonder at all that Michael Reid should love her just for
herself and not in the very least for her gold.  Was not her face her
fortune?  She now felt quite gay and happy.  She forgot her loneliness
with regard to her sister and ran downstairs humming a gay song.

Dinner was announced almost immediately, and the two ladies went into
the dining-room and partook of it.  Florence was really hungry and
enjoyed the carefully prepared meal.  Mrs Fortescue watched her as she
ate.  At last the dinner came to an end and they both retired to the
drawing-room.

"Now," said Mrs Fortescue, the moment the door had closed behind the
two, "I must ask you, Florence, to enlighten me.  There is a great deal
you ought to tell me.  I have been kept in the dark too long.  What
arrangements has Mr Timmins arrived at with regard to your future?"

"He said he would write to you.  I expect you will hear from him in the
morning."

"But you can tell me, darling: I need not be kept on tenter-hooks until
the morning."

"I would much, much rather he told you himself," said Florence, moving
restlessly in her choir.

"But why, dearest?  Did he ask you not to tell me?"

"He did not exactly do that; but he said he would write.  From his whole
tone I know he expects me to say nothing until you hear from him."

Then Florence got up.  She approached Mrs Fortescue's side, and bending
down, kissed the good lady on her forehead.

"You have been very, very kind to Brenda and me," she said; "and we will
never forget it, never."

"I trust indeed you won't, my dear," said Mrs Fortescue.  "It is my
wish to continue my kindness to you both.  And now, Florence, I have
something to say to you on my own account.  A little bird has told me a
secret with regard to you.  Of course, dear--with regard to Mr Timmins,
he must please himself as to whether he chooses to let me know what our
future plans are to be, although I maintain that if I am kept much
longer in the dark, I shall think he is not treating me fairly.  But as
to you and your dear sister--you, at least are different.  Florence, I
did not think, I could not imagine that you would have a love affair--
you, such a child as you are too! and keep it dark from me."

Florence found herself blushing very hotly.

"Who told you that I had a love affair?" she said.

"My dear Florence, there is not the least manner of use in your hiding
the matter from me any longer.  We at Langdale know each other so well
that we are, in fact, like one big family.  What affects one affects
all.  The sorrows of one try the hearts of all the others.  The joys of
one equally rejoice the hearts of all the others.  In your happiness, my
darling, the rest of us rejoice.  It was Major Reid who told me; he came
himself to-day to speak of his son's attachment to you.  He was
delighted himself; he has a great, great affection and a deep admiration
for you, Florence; and I--I also think Michael an excellent young man."

"Oh--do you?" said Florence.  "Do you, really?"

She had meant to go back to her seat at the opposite side of the hearth,
but instead of doing this, she now dropped on her knees close to Mrs
Fortescue.  She had never felt so near that good lady before--so drawn
to her, so part of her: in fact, the one comfort at present in her
desolate position was the knowledge of Michael's love.  She must, of
course, not mention her own great poverty, but she could at least listen
to what Mrs Fortescue had to say about him.

"I don't mind your knowing at all," she said.  "I felt shy about
speaking to you, but as the Major has called, it makes all the
difference.  And he is not angry--really?  You are quite, quite sure?"

"Sure? my dear child.  I am certain the Major is delighted, Florence.
He loves you as a daughter.  But now, take this little chair close to me
and tell me all you have to say."

Florence found that she had not a great deal to say.  There was
something about Mrs Fortescue which seemed to shut her up.  The first
dawning of that young love which had awakened in her heart did not
respond to the touch of the eager, selfish, worldly woman.  Of course
she did love--yes, she was certain now she loved Michael; but she hated
talking about him.  She would rather put him in the background, and when
Mrs Fortescue--instead of answering her many questions with regard to
the young man's youth, his early history, his dead mother, his father
when he was young, and those various things about his early life which
Mrs Fortescue knew and Florence did not--preferred to talk about the
girl's own future, the way Michael and she would live (as Michael would
probably leave the Army), and how nice it would be to settle in
Langdale, Florence found a wall of separation rising up between herself
and her quondam friend.  She pleaded fatigue at last, and went to her
room, where she spent a great part of the night in secret tears.  For,
notwithstanding the fact that the Major had visited Mrs Fortescue, and
that Michael himself had told Florence that he would love her just the
same if she were as poor as a church mouse, Florence felt certain that
neither the Major nor Mrs Fortescue thought of her as a desirable wife
for the young man except as a rich heiress.

"Well," she said to herself finally, as she turned on her pillow for the
fifth time, "if, after hearing everything, he cares for me, I will stick
to him and work hard to save a little money until we can marry; but if
he doesn't--oh, oh--"

Florence would not allow herself even to finish the latter thought which
came into her mind.

CHAPTER TEN.

"AS POOR AS A CHURCH MOUSE."

On the following morning, Mrs Fortescue received her promised letter
from Mr Timmins.  He sat down to write it almost immediately he had
seen Florence off by the train, and it arrived by first post the next
day.  Mrs Fortescue was in the habit of having her letters brought up
to her bedroom, where she used to read them, luxuriously sipping her tea
and eating her thin bread and butter the while.

Florence was sound asleep in bed while Mrs Fortescue was reading the
most startling information she had perhaps ever got in the course of her
life.  Mr Timmins' letter ran as follows--

  "My dear Madam,--

  "I do not know whether the contents of this letter will surprise you,
  but, after all, they need scarcely do so, for I have never for a
  single moment given you to understand that you would have anything
  further to do with the Misses Heathcote after the period devoted to
  their education was over.  That time has now been reached, and the sum
  of money left by their late father for their education has been
  expended in strict accordance with his directions.

  "I have been happy enough to find a suitable home for the next three
  months for dear Brenda Heathcote, who will stay with my friend, Lady
  Marian Dixie, in London.  Florence is at liberty to join her sister
  there whenever she wishes to do so.  But from what I heard yesterday I
  rather gather that she may have inducements to remain on at Langdale
  for a short time.  I am the last person in the world to interfere with
  any young girl's predilections, provided they are in themselves
  innocent and suitable, and from what Brenda has mentioned to me, the
  man who has given his heart to Florence appears to be worthy of her.
  He will certainly be submitted to as severe a test as can be given to
  any man; but if he is worthy, he will not, I am sure, regret the noble
  and true wife that such a beautiful and good girl as Florence
  Heathcote will make him.  If, on the other hand, he is unworthy of
  her, the sooner he shows himself in his true character, the better.
  As you probably know of this affair, I need not allude to it further.
  But what I have now to say to you is that your guardianship of my
  wards comes to an end on the twentieth of January.  Until that date, I
  should be glad if you would keep Florence with you, and I will, of
  course, pay you in full for the maintenance of both girls, as Brenda's
  leaving you at an earlier date was an unforeseen coincidence over
  which you had no control.

  "You will receive your cheque weekly as heretofore, and if you have
  been in any way obliged to go to additional expense for the girls,
  pray add it to your account.

  "Thanking you for all you have done for them in the past,--

  "I am, yours faithfully,--

  "James Timmins."

Mrs Fortescue read this letter the first time in great bewilderment of
mind.  She did not in the least take it in.  She had, in short, to read
it from three to four times before its contents were in the least made
clear to her.  Even then she felt, as she expressed it, all in a muddle.
She was also in a great rage, and considered herself most badly
treated.  The fact of the girls' being poor did not once enter into her
calculations.  She only thought of herself.  She, who had worked and
slaved for these two young girls for long and anxious years, was to have
nothing whatever to do with their future.  They were to be handed over
to nobody knew who.  Brenda had already been taken from her.  She was
living with a rich woman--a person of title, who was doubtless paid an
extravagant sum for her support.  Florence might marry Michael Reid if
she pleased.  Where was she, Mrs Fortescue, to come in?  She was left
out of everything!

The angry woman was too indignant to finish her dressing.  She hastily
smoothed her hair, put on a becoming dressing-gown, and, with the open
letter in her hand, went straight to Florence's room.  She gave a
peremptory knock at the door and, when the girl said "Come in," entered
without ceremony.

"Mr Timmins' letter has arrived, Florence.  I must say that I consider
both you and your sister have treated me shamefully--shamefully!"

Florence, who was half way through her toilet, and looked very sweet and
pretty with her rich hair hanging about her neck and shoulders, and in a
neat white embroidered dressing-gown, sank into a choir and looked full
at Mrs Fortescue.

"I thought you would be sorry," she said; "but I don't think, after all,
you are as much to be pitied as we are."

"Now what in the world do you mean by that?"

"Why, didn't he tell you?" said Florence.  "You said you had heard from
him."

"Yes; I have.  You are to stay with me till the twentieth of January,
and then I have nothing further to do with you."

"But surely, surely," said Florence; "you would not wish to have
anything to do with me after then, would you?"

"What in the world do you mean?"  Florence coloured.

"I see he has not told you," she said.  "He ought to.  It was not right
of him to leave it to me.  But I will tell you: I don't really mind."

"Oh--do speak out, child!  You keep me so frightfully in suspense I can
scarcely endure myself."

"Well," said Florence, "you would not care to keep us for nothing, would
you?"

"Nothing! nothing!  What does the girl mean?  Why, surely you are rich?
I gave Major Reid to understand yesterday that your yearly income must
run into four figures.  We were divided as to the amount, but I thought
fifteen hundred a year each.  Florence, what are you alluding to?"

Florence turned very white.

"It is awful only to be cared for because one has money," she said.
"Well, there is one person who cares for me quite independently of that.
And now I will tell you the truth.  I have not any money--that is, I
have a few pounds.  Mr Timmins gave me ten pounds yesterday, and I
shall have a few more pounds before all our affairs are wound up, but
something quite inconsiderable.  I am as poor as a church mouse, and so
is Brenda.  Our money was spent on our education.  Now it is finished,
all used up.  We are penniless.  Now--now--you know all about us."

Florence stood up as she spoke and extended her arms wide as though to
emphasise her own words.

"We are penniless," she repeated.  "Now you know."

Mrs Fortescue was absolutely silent for a minute.  Then she uttered a
violent ejaculation and, turning round on her heel, left the room.  She
slammed--absolutely slammed the door after her.  Florence sat very still
after she had gone.

"She would like me to leave at once," thought the girl.  "But Michael--
dear Michael: he at least will be true to his word.  Oh, what am I to
do!  I hate beyond everything in the world staying here--staying on with
her when she can look at me like that.  Is it my fault that I am poor!
I think that I am very cruelly treated."

Tears rushed to her eyes.  She stayed for a time in her room, then
finished her dressing.  She went downstairs to breakfast.  To her
surprise Mrs Fortescue was not in the room.  After a moment's
hesitation, she rang the bell.  Bridget appeared.

"What is it, missie?" she asked.

"I want my breakfast, please," said Florence.

"My missis sent to tell you that there were no fresh eggs in the house,
so that perhaps you would do with the cold ham.  I don't see why fresh
eggs should not be bought for you, but those were her orders, I'll make
you some new coffee, nice and strong, and bring it in, in a few
minutes."

Florence laughed.  Her laughter was almost satirical.  In a short time,
Bridget came in with the coffee and a bone of ham which had been cut
very bare.

"I can't make out," said Bridget, "what is the matter with my missis.  I
never saw anybody in such a raging temper."

"But where is she?" asked Florence.

"Oh, gone out, my dear--gone out.  She has been out nearly an hour."

"Did she eat any breakfast?" asked Florence.

"That she did--the eggs that were meant for you, too; for you know she
never takes eggs in the winter; she considers them too dear.  But she
ate your eggs this morning, and said that you might do with the ham
bone."

"Thank you," said Florence.

She carved a few slices from the bone, then looked up at the old servant
with a smile.

"It is such a relief," she said, "not to conceal things any longer.  I
will tell you, Bridget.  I wonder if you are going to be just as horrid
to me as Mrs Fortescue."

Bridget stood stock still staring at the girl.

"The fact is," said Florence, "Brenda and I haven't got any money.
We're not heiresses at all.  We are just very poor girls who have to
earn our own living.  We have nothing to live on--nothing at all.  I
expect if all were known, you have more money at the present moment than
I have, Bridget.  I shouldn't be a scrap surprised if you had."

Bridget stared open-mouthed.

"You poor thing!" she said, after a pause.  "You ain't a bit fit to earn
your own living."

"No; I am not," said Florence; but here a ghost of a smile crossed her
face.

Bridget after a time went out of the room.  Florence did not feel at all
inclined to eat the dry ham and stale bread, which were all that was
left for her breakfast.  She had a certain sense of the great injustice
of being treated in this manner; for was not Mr Timmins paying Mrs
Fortescue just as much for her support as though she and her sister were
both living with the good lady?

After a time, she got up and left the dining-room.  Things were very
dreary.  It was so strange of Mrs Fortescue to go out.  Mrs Fortescue
had always fussed a good deal about the girls, and had made their
arrangements for the day her first consideration.  Now she did not seem
to think Florence of the slightest importance, and had gone away without
alluding to her.  She had not come back either.  Florence felt restless.
She wanted to go and see Susie Arbuthnot, but thought it was too early.
She left the room, however, prepared to put on her outdoor things.  She
would have liked it if Michael had called.  Now was the opportunity for
Michael to show his devotion, to assure her of the great truth of his
own words; then if she were as poor as a church mouse, she would still
be all the world to him.

But Michael did not come.  Florence ran up to her room.  She put on her
hat and jacket.  They were just as becoming as yesterday, and her young
face looked just as pretty--prettier, indeed; for sorrow had brought out
fresh charms and had added to her loveliness.  Her eyes, always bright
and capable of varying expressions, were now filled with intense pathos.

She had just run downstairs, and was crossing the hall, when she saw
Mrs Fortescue come in.  To her relief, she perceived that this good
woman was accompanied by Susie Arbuthnot.

"Oh Florence--dear!" said Susie.

She went straight up to the girl, folded her arms round her and kissed
her.

"I have a proposal to make to you," she continued, "and if it is
agreeable, we will carry it out at once.  I don't think Mrs Fortescue
will object, will you, Mrs Fortescue?"

"Well, really!" said Mrs Fortescue; "I don't think that _my_ wishes are
worth consulting.  I am of no importance--no importance whatever.  But
all I insist upon is that until the twentieth of the month I receive the
ten guineas a week which Mr Timmins owes for you and your sister.  You
are welcome to stay at my house, or to do what Susie Arbuthnot--who is
quite extraordinary and unlike other people--proposes.  But I will have
my ten guineas a week, or I go to law with Mr Timmins.  I will at least
have that much money at my disposal."

"What do you want me to do, Susie?" said Florence, with that new-born
dignity which suited her so very well, and with that wonderful, new
pathos in her eyes which made her look altogether lovely.

"I want you to do this," said Susie; "to come straight back with me to
the Grange.  Neither father nor I want ten guineas, nor one penny a
week, and you are to stay as long as ever you like.  I want you to come
now.  Why, Flo, it is you I love just for yourself, not because you are
an heiress.  As a rule, I hate heiresses--not that I have met many."

"Nor have I," said Mrs Fortescue, with a snap.  "They are mostly
creatures of imagination.  They don't exist outside story-books.  Well,
Florence, say what you will do.  Of course you can stay here if you
wish; I want you clearly to understand that I don't turn you out."

"Of course you don't," said Florence; "and I know that you will get your
money in full.  I'll see to that.  But I should love to go with you,
Susie; and--may I go at once?"

"Indeed you may, darling.  I have come for you," said Susie Arbuthnot.

"Who will pack her things?" said Mrs Fortescue.  "Bridget has no time
to spare; when a woman is as poor as I am and has only one servant, she
can't have that servant's time being given up doing odds and ends for
penniless girls.  Penniless girls ought to understand how to manage
their own affaire; otherwise, they are no use in the world."

"Hush!" said Susie, in so stern a voice that Mrs Fortescue turned and
looked at her in some amazement.  "You will be sorry another time that
you spoke like this.  Come upstairs with me, Florence; we will soon put
your things into their trunks, and then we can drive to the Grange.  I
will order a fly."

"I can pay for it, you know, Susie," said poor Florence.  "I have plenty
of money, plenty, until the twentieth of January--"

"And after that, nothing--nothing at all," said Mrs Fortescue.  "Did
ever any one before in all the world hear of such improvidence--girls
who have had hundreds a year spent on them to be brought down to
nothing!  Oh, I have been shamefully deceived!  But you'll rue it--both
of you.  Yes, you will.  That sister of yours, Florence, is just as
improvident as you are, and has just as little power of making herself
useful to any one.  This fine woman.  Lady Marian Dixie, will soon
discover her uselessness.  But go upstairs, my dear, do.  I shall be
very glad to have your room.  I cannot afford, however, to give you any
of Bridget's valuable time."

Florence ran upstairs as if in a dream.  Susie accompanied her.

"Don't fret, Florence," she said, when they entered the pretty bedroom.
"She is a very hardened, money-loving woman, and you have managed to
disappoint her; but she will get over this, of course."

"And you are not disappointed?" said Florence.

"Oh no, darling," said Susie with a smile.  "I never in the very least
cared about your money.  It was you I loved, and you are not changed."

Here she took the bright girl's face between both her hands and kissed
her on her lips.

"Oh, Florence!" she said.  "Talk of _you_ as penniless--you, with those
eyes, that youth, that beauty and that true heart!  Florence, darling;
you are rich in great possessions!"

"I think I am," said Florence, joyfully, "now that I have found a
friend.  Oh yes," she added, "I am sure I am."

It took but a short time to pack the different articles of Florence's
wardrobe into the neat trunks which were waiting to receive them.  Susie
herself went out to fetch a cab, and before lunch time Florence was
installed at the Grange.  The Colonel was delighted to see her, and
received her with the same graceful old-fashioned courtesy he had done
on Christmas Day.  This was perhaps, if anything, slightly accentuated.
He did not once allude to the subject of money, nor did he express any
commiseration for Florence's poverty.  On the contrary, he expected her
to be in an excellent humour, and took her about the garden showing her
his favourite plants, and pointing out different mysterious little plots
of ground which would, as he expressed it, "blossom like the rose" when
the spring arrived.

"Ah," he said, "it is a great mystery--a very, very great mystery, that
of death and resurrection.  All the seeds in the ground down there are
apparently dead, and there is nothing as far as we can tell to call them
into life again.  Frost night after night, snow on the ground, biting
cold rains, no growth, no movement--and yet the germ is safe within,
folded in each of the little seeds; and when the right moment comes, it
will begin to fructify, and there will come out the little tender
plants--just the merest little shoots at first--which will grow together
day by day; and then there will come the hardy plant, and then the bud,
and then the blossom, and then again the seed; and that same must die in
order to bring forth fresh life.  It is all lovely and all true and like
our own life, isn't it, Florence?"

"Yes," said Florence; "it does seem so."

"You are lonely without your sister, my dear."

"I am rather lonely," said Florence.  But it was not the thought of
Brenda which was depressing her.  She had got over her separation from
her sister for the time being: besides, they could meet, and would meet,
at any time.  She was expecting Michael Reid and wondering if he would
look in at the Arbuthnots'.  So far he had not come, nor had his name
been alluded to.

While Florence and the old Colonel were pottering about the garden, out
came Susie with her red and yet sunshiny face.

"Now," she said, "you two have talked long enough, and I want Florence.
Florence, we are going to do a lot of preserving this afternoon.  I mean
to make more marmalade than I have ever made before, and it is a
tremendous business; but I have managed to get a hundred Seville oranges
at quite a moderate price at Johnson's.  We'll begin our preparations as
soon as ever lunch is over.  But now it is on the table; so do come in,
good folks, both of you, and eat."

"I should like to help with the marmalade too," said the Colonel.

Susie laughed.

"Oh no, you won't," she said.  "You did last year, don't you remember?
and nobody would eat the Colonel's marmalade.  Each jar had to be marked
`Colonel Arbuthnot' on account of the thickness of the rinds.  You had
it all to yourself, and I think you are about sick of it."

"But I'll do better this time; I really will, Susie," said the poor
Colonel.

"Oh, it does seem so very silly to cut up that beautiful rind so thick;
it isn't men's work," said Susie, "and that's the truth; but it's meant
for women like Florence and me.  If Flo cuts the rinds thick, she will
feel the full impetus of my wrath.  You go into the library and get your
books in order, father.  I dare say Flo and I will come in and read to
you presently; but between lunch and tea-time we are going to be busy
over our marmalade, and we don't want you hovering round."

"There, there!" said the Colonel, "there, there!  What is the good of an
old man who is always in the way?"

"Things are being done for him all the time," said Susie.  "Now, how do
you like that curry, sir?  Let me tell you that I made it myself."

"It is delicious, my dear," said the Colonel.  "I could almost fancy
myself back in Bengal.  It has got the true oriental flavour.  Where did
you discover that knack of blending the ingredients so that you don't
get one flavour over and above the others?  Really--this curry is a
_chef-d'oeuvre_.  Try some, won't you, Florence?"

But Florence declared that she could not eat curry with the true eastern
flavour and preferred some cold mutton, which Susie out for her with
right good-will.

"I like your food," she said.  "It is so good and wholesome.  I hate
messy things.  Mrs Fortescue was always making things up for us,
imagining that we could not eat plain things."

"You will get very plain things here," said Susie.  "It's only father
who has to be petted and fussed over.  But then he is worth it--he is
such an old dear," and she looked at him with her honest eyes beaming
with affection.

When the meal had come to an end, Florence and Susie were immediately
supplied with two large linen aprons, and the work of making marmalade
began.  For a time, Florence pretended to enjoy it, then her knife
slackened, and Susie shouted to her that her pieces of orange peel were
almost if not quite worthy of the Colonel's own.

"I am not going to have it," she said.  "We can only manage to live
comfortably by never wasting anything, and if you can't cut the oranges
better than that, you had better stop."

"Oh, Susie, I am sorry!  I will be good."  Florence made a violent
effort to do better, but ended in cutting her finger, and then Susie had
to spend a long time in binding up the wound and pitying the sufferer.

"You are not a bit yourself to-day," she said.  "What is the matter with
you?"

"Well, I don't know," said Florence.  "I am both happy and unhappy."

"I shouldn't have thought," said Susie gravely, "that you were a bit the
sort of girl to care whether you had money or not."

"I shouldn't mind in the least," answered Florence, "only that it seems
to make such a wonderful difference with people.  Mrs Fortescue has
turned out so horribly nasty."

"Oh no," said Susie.  "She is quite natural; she will be all right in a
day or two, and as affectionate to you as ever.  She is a little
disappointed, that is all.  She takes her disappointments badly: some
people do."

"But you, Susie--you and your father--you are so sweet."

"Well, dear," said Susie, "I do trust that our sweetness does not depend
on the fact that you and Brenda are entitled to so many hundreds a year.
I have always been fond of you just for your two selves and for nothing
else."

"There is one thing that makes me a little anxious," said Florence;
"but, of course, it is all right--of course it is."

"What is it, darling?" asked Susie.  "You may as well out with it, for I
can see plainly that you are harbouring a very uncomfortable and anxious
thought in your heart."

"Well," said Florence, "it is this way.  I am thinking about Michael.  I
am wondering if--if he will mind."

"Do you mean Michael Reid?"

"Yes."

Susie was silent, but she laid down the sharp knife with which she had
been cutting her orange peel and looked full at the girl.

"What do you think yourself, Florence?"

"I think this," said Florence.  "I think that if I doubt him I am about
the most unworthy, the most cowardly girl in all God's world.  For when
he told me--oh yes, Susie, he did tell me--for when he told me so
plainly that he loved me, he said it was for myself, and that if I were
as poor as a church mouse, he would love me just, just the same."

"Then, of course, it is all right," said Susie.  She spoke cheerfully.

"Yes; of course it must be all right," said Florence; "but I knew at the
time that I was poor, although I was not allowed to say a word about it.
Mr Timmins had given us such explicit directions, and Brenda and I
felt ourselves in quite a false position.  So I told him I would not
give him his answer for a week.  I shall probably know nothing about him
for at least a week."

"Probably not," said Susie.  "And now, let me give you a word of advice.
I have known Michael since he was a boy.  He is a good fellow, as young
men go; but he has plenty of faults--"

"Oh no--I am sure he hasn't."

"He has," said Susie.  "Every one has.  You have, and I have, and even
daddy has--particularly when it comes to cutting the orange peel.  But
now, I will tell you what I feel.  If Michael finds when he is put to
the test that he doesn't care for you, although you are as poor as a
church mouse, you are very well rid of him; and if he does care for you,
he is worth waiting for."

"Yes, yes," said Florence; "that is what I think.  And oh, Susie, I mean
to work so hard just to help to earn money for him."

"You poor little thing!" said Susie.  "I wonder how you will earn
money."

"I don't know; but there must be lots of ways.  A girl can't be given
hands, and arms, and legs, and a brain, and a head all for nothing."

"A great many are, it seems to me," said Susie, with a sigh.  "But
there--we have cut enough orange peel for to-day.  We must go and get
tea for daddy.  Come with me into the kitchen, and I will complete your
education by teaching you how to make a proper tea-cake."

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

RICH IN LOVE.

As long as she lived, Florence Heathcote never forgot that week which
she spent with the Arbuthnots.  They belonged to that noble race of
people who live for others.  They were not rich--indeed, far from that,
they were extremely poor.  Had any one been told the exact extent of
Colonel Arbuthnot's income, that person would have stared and refused to
believe it.  But then the person would not have known Susie's saving
powers, her wonderful capability for making tenpence do the work of a
shilling, for never losing a penny's worth in any transaction, and for
renovating her old garments so that they looked almost like new.  The
money she was allowed for clothes she spent, as a rule, on other people.
What did it matter if her hat was last year's fashion when poor Mrs
Jones and Mary Bryce got their nourishing soup, and when the orphan
child of that gallant fellow, William Engelhart, was taught by her to
read and write, and she paid the necessary money for his small
education?  The fact was, fashionable hats, jackets, and skirts would
not have become Susie in the very least: she would have looked
absolutely out of place in them.  No one ever looked at Susie
Arbuthnot's clothes: the eye was arrested by the kindliness in the
kindly face, by the smile round the good-natured lips, by the strength
and firmness of purpose of that hand grip, by the noble soul that
radiated from that somewhat homely countenance.

And if Susie was good and could do good, she was but her father's
complement.  Each seemed to complete the character.  There never had
been before, nor ever since, a father and daughter so wholly and
completely one.  They had the same tastes, the same desires.  Life with
them was a little season to be spent in the school of the Almighty.  It
was the will of God that they should learn His lessons, and they learned
them with submission, with cheerfulness, and without a thought of
grumbling.  The books they liked best were books that spoke about a
future state.  Often on Sunday evenings they sat close together, talking
of that period when they should lay down for ever this vile body, and
put on the celestial body.  But they were not morbid in their
conversations.  They were always simple, and homely and direct.  It was
their pleasure to do what little good they could.  Every one loved them
at Langdale, and they were the life and light of the place.

The Colonel was just as economical in the matter of clothes as Susie.
That winter overcoat of his must have seen the light for long years--one
might almost say, generations.  Its original black had changed to a
musty green, but at one time it had been cut by a fashionable tailor,
and, somehow or other, the Colonel looked well in it.  He was very
upright, as all well-drilled men are, and he walked with a certain
martial stride, holding his head erect, and looking all the world in the
face.  He was not ashamed of himself or of anybody else.  He hated sin
and wickedness, and smallnesses and the love of riches, and would fight
against these things to his dying day.  But he sincerely pitied those
who had sinned and had repented.  As to the poor of this world--those
who were a little poorer than himself--he took them under his special
protection.

"Dear me, Susie," he would say; "I think we might ask little Miss Hudson
on a visit.  The weather is so cold, and I am persuaded the little
creature cannot afford a fire in her bedroom.  It would never do to ask
her the question, but while the intense cold lasts, it would be nice to
have her here.  She could go on teaching the Hibbert children, and come
to us for her meals, and have the enjoyment of her snug little room with
a bright fire in it in the evenings.  I could fancy how she would
luxuriate at the flicker of the firelight as she dropped asleep."

Susie acquiesced, of course, but Florence, who was present, said--

"That is all very well; but what is Miss Hudson to do when she leaves
you, Colonel?"

"We'll keep her as long as the cold weather lasts," said the Colonel,
rubbing his hands.  "She can go back to her own rooms when the weather
becomes mild.  Run round to her early this morning, Susie, my love; and
be sure you have something specially appetising for dinner."

Susie promised with that bright glance of hers and a smile which
irradiated her face for a moment and then left it grave and practical.
She meant to have a dinner of bones that day, and a bone dinner would
not do for Miss Hudson.  Florence had been initiated into the bone
dinners, and they were really quite remarkable.  They were so good that
she quite enjoyed them; but they were never spoken about.  They
consisted of two or three pennyworth of bones, which were boiled down to
make a strong soup, into which was introduced every known vegetable that
Susie could lay her hands on out of the garden.  No one ever spoke of
the absence of meat on the day when the bone dinner appeared.  Each
person received a portion of bone with the rich gravy and vegetables,
and it would have been considered very incorrect not to praise the
delicious, tender repast.  The Colonel as a rule said, "What good meat
we get from our butcher," and Susie nodded, picking at her bone
viciously as she did so, knowing quite well that she would not get one
morsel of meat from it.

Florence had been told the mystery of the bone dinner.

"We have it sometimes three times a week," said Susie.  "We need not
have it at all, you know, but the price of the meat goes to certain very
poor widows in the village.  I could not manage to give it to them in
any other way, and I cannot tell you what sustenance father and I get
from our bones and vegetables.  You will have the same, and you won't
mind, will you, Florence?"

Florence was delighted, but rather overdid the occasion in the first
instance of the bone dinner, declaring that the meat was almost too
tender.  But the Colonel gave her a keen glance which was almost stern,
and she found herself colouring and was silent.

Now the day on which Miss Hudson was to be asked to go and stay with the
Arbuthnots was a bone dinner day, and Susie was a little perplexed as to
how to manage the matter.  She consulted Florence on the subject.
Florence was very much excited on her own account, for that was the very
day of the week on which Michael Reid had promised to come to receive
her answer.  Nevertheless, Susie's anxious face drew her at once, and
she said, after a pause--

"You could have some little special thing for her alone, couldn't you?"

"No; that would never do," said Susie, frowning.  "She would not touch
it.  She would push the bones about in her plate, and make a noise with
them, and pretend she was delighted, and the special thing would go out
of the room, for not one of us would look at it.  What is to be done?"

"I tell you what," said Florence, blushing very deeply.  "I have got
such a lot of money.  May not I provide the dinner to-day?  You have
been, oh, so kind to me, so sweet, so angelic.  Do, do, _do_ let me!
The darling Colonel won't notice, I know he won't.  It will be just our
secret.  Why may not I have this pleasure?"

"There now," said Susie; "why, of course you may.  Give me half-a-crown,
and I will get something excellent for dinner."

So Florence broke into the first of her ten sovereigns, and Susie
started off to market, determined to buy beef which should not be
rivalled by any other beef that had ever been cooked before in the
United Kingdom.  When she had gone, Florence went away by herself.  She
was afraid to go out; she did not care to stay still.  She was restless
and unhappy.  Michael ought to have arrived.  He knew quite well where
she was, for she had met him once during the week, and had even told him
that she was staying with the Arbuthnots.  On this occasion the gallant
lieutenant had been seen walking down the High Street with two or three
young ladies.  But he had stopped at sight of Florence looking so
radiant, so different from any other girl, in her beautiful sealskin
jacket with that becoming sealskin cap.  He had looked at her, but had
said nothing, cruelly contenting himself with taking off his hat.  But
his eyes--and Michael had very handsome eyes--seemed to express volumes,
and Florence had gone back again to the Arbuthnots' house feeling warm
and happy.

Yes; she knew now quite well that she loved him, and love was beautiful.
She was not a poor girl, after all; she was rich, far richer than
Brenda, far richer than Susie or the Colonel.  In a short time she would
be publicly engaged to Michael, and then would begin the delightful task
of working for their future home.  She had heard of girls who, when
engaged, spoke of the bottom drawer in their room as containing
treasures which they amassed for the time when they would be married.
Florence would have her bottom drawer; and oh! how many and what
beautiful things she would put into it!--a wealth of love, a world of
devotion; courage, hope, steadfastness.  She could scarcely believe her
own heart: she was learning so much, oh, so much during that week she
spent with the Arbuthnots.

For the first time in all her young life Florence did perceive how very
little value money really was.  It could not buy the great things of
life.  She had hitherto never thought about it at all.  She had had it
in abundance; it had been but to ask to obtain.  When she wanted a
pretty dress, it was given to her.  When she wished for a trinket, it
became her own.  The best rooms at school were kept for Brenda and
herself; the best seats at table were theirs.  The headmistress made a
fuss about them: the other teachers regarded them with affection, and
spoke of them as they would of princesses.  Florence supposed, and
rightly, that this was because they were rich.  In the holidays they had
a really glorious time.  Who could fuss more about them than Mrs
Fortescue?  What lovely lodgings she took for them at the seaside,
paying more than one dared to think for the spacious rooms where they
lived and looked out upon the sparkling waves.  Once she had taken them
to Paris, and they had had a truly glorious time.

Yes; nothing had been denied them up to the present.  They had been
urged to learn, too, just because it was such poor fun for rich girls to
be ignorant.  Rich girls ought to know things.  They ought to be rich in
mind as well as in body.

Well, Florence had done her best.  She was a fairly clever girl.  She
had certain talents, and she had made the most of them.  She was, of
course, very young, but she felt, on the whole, rather old.  This last
week had made her old.  She had learned a great deal during this week--
the immense, the terrible difference between extreme poverty and extreme
wealth.  It never once occurred to her that Mr Timmins had behaved
badly in not describing to them more accurately the true state of
affaire.  Brenda had not blamed him, nor did she.  He had acted
according to her father's will; and her dear father must have known what
was beat.  No one was to blame.  They had had their good time--as far as
wealth was concerned.  But oh, how joyful! she had discovered something
else: the wealth, the great wealth of love--love; which could exist in a
poorly furnished house between an old man and a middle-aged woman; love,
which could rejoice the hearts of those who were poorer than itself.
And had she not also found her own true love? her lover, who cared for
her just because she was herself, just because she was Florence
Heathcote, a young girl with a heart to respond to his heart, a love to
return for his love?  Oh yes, she was happy!

The day of days had come.  After Florence had given her half-crown to
Susie Arbuthnot, she ran up to her room to prepare for her lover's
visit.  He was quite sure to come.  He had promised to come to-day for
her answer: and she had it ready.  She had not put it on paper, she had
folded it up inside her heart.  It was waiting for him.  She would open
the door of her heart and just let him peep in and see what it was
like--rosy, red, glorious with the tint of the morning; and his--all
his!

As she entered the house, she was singing under her breath.  She had a
sweet voice, and her gay notes thrilled through the old house and
brought the Colonel out of his study.

"Well, Florence," he said.

"Well, Colonel," she answered.  She went up to him and took his hand.
Then she said, looking full into his face: "I am so awfully happy!"

"I am glad of it, dear," he replied.  "I am more than glad to find that
there is a young girl in this world who has been brought up as you have
been brought up, and who thinks nothing at all of riches.  It takes most
of us many long years to learn the lesson which you have learned at
once."

"I am not thinking about riches at all," said Florence.  She looked at
him again, and then she resolved to tell.  "May I come with you into
your study for a few minutes?" she said.

"Why, certainly, my dear child," he replied; and he took her hand and
led her into the study.  He shut the door and turned and faced her.

"Well, Florence," he said; "what is it?"

"You say I am not rich, Colonel Arbuthnot," was Florence's answer; "but
I am just about as rich as any girl can be."

She blushed, and her beautiful eyes grew bright--bright with that sort
of look which made it impossible to tell what their colour was, only
there seemed to be a great deal of gold about them--a sort of golden
brown.  Then she dropped her long, black lashes, and her face, which had
been so rosy, grew pale.  She lifted her eyes again, and fixed them on
the Colonel's face.

"He is coming to-day," she said; "that is why I am happy.  He may be
here at any hour--at any minute.  I am most awfully happy.  A week ago I
was astonished when he said what he did say; but now I am just happy.  I
am very rich, Colonel, because he loves me so much."

"Who in the world is the girl talking about?" said the Colonel, for he
at least knew nothing about Florence's attachment.

Florence looked at him half shyly.

"Can't you guess?" she said.  "Didn't you see us together on Christmas
Day?"  But the Colonel still looked puzzled.  A good many people had
dined in their hospitable house on Christmas Day, and he had not
particularly noticed either Brenda or Florence at that time.

"You must explain a little more, dear," he said very gently.

"Well," said Florence, "I will tell you, for you will know all about it
very, very soon.  It is Michael--Michael Reid."

"What?" said the Colonel.

"We have been friends always, but I never guessed--in fact, I have never
had the smallest idea that he--he cared for me; I did not think about
those sorts of things; but on Christmas Day he did seem a little
different from other men, and the next day we took a walk--a long walk--
and he told me--oh, that is what makes it so beautiful!--that he loved
me just, just for myself alone."

The Colonel looked rather uneasy.

"Michael Reid!" he said.  "Of course I know the lad, I have known him
since he was a boy.  He is not well off, Florence."

"That is just it," said Florence.  "That is the beautiful part.  We
neither of us care twopence whether he is well off or not.  He says that
he would love me if I were as poor as a church mouse, and I feel just
the same for him.  We are very rich, both of us, because we love each
other so much.  That is about it, Colonel.  How can you call me a poor
girl, when I am so rich in love?"

"God grant it, my darling!  God grant that you are," said the Colonel in
a reverent tone.  Then, bending over her, he kissed her on her white
forehead.  "You have no father living, so I must take his place for the
time being," he added.

"Michael is coming to see me to-day," said Florence.  "He may be here
any minute.  I want to put on my very prettiest frock for him.  There is
nothing one would not do for the man who loves you, is there?"

"Nothing, nothing, of course," said the Colonel.

Very soon afterwards Florence left the room.  As she was going away, the
Colonel said--

"I must see about this: I must be a father to you; I feel that I stand
in the place of a father to you at the present moment."

"Oh, how sweet you are!" said Florence.  "He will be here himself--any
minute; for the week is up to-day, and he is coming to get my answer.
He knows all, all about my being poor, and he is coming to-day for my
answer.  I must go upstairs now to make myself look my very best for
him."

She went away, closing the door very softly behind her.  The Colonel
heard her singing as she ran upstairs.  He then sank heavily into his
accustomed armchair.  He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and
gazed straight before him with a deep frown between his brows.  In
truth, he was more troubled than he had ever been before.

After a long time, during which he had been thinking deeply, he went to
his desk and wrote a short note to Susie.

  "Dear Susie,--

  "I may not be in to lunch.  Don't wait for me.

  "Your loving,--

  "Father."

He then put on his greatcoat, that shabby coat which had grown green
with age, took up his hat and gold-headed stick, and marched out into
the little street of Langdale.  The Colonel had never looked fiercer,
nor yet more dignified than he did now.  His moustaches had taken quite
a formidable military curl.  His white hair was white as snow, but his
black brows, and the gleam in his eyes under them, made him look quite a
remarkable and imposing figure.  One or two people spoke to him, but he
did not answer.  They wondered afterwards what was the matter with
Colonel Arbuthnot.  He was certainly very upright.  He was an amazing
figure for a man of his age--so the women said who watched him from
their cottage doors.  He was bent on something, just as bent as he had
been when he was young and was fighting the battles of his country.

He went straight to Mrs Fortescue's house.  He rang the bell, and when
Bridget answered his summons, he said--

"You needn't tell me that your mistress is at home, because I see her in
her dining-room window.  I want to say something to her."  Then Bridget
made way for him, and he went into Mrs Fortescue's presence uninvited.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

TRIED AND FOUND WANTING.

Mrs Fortescue was busily engaged answering letters which had come to
her owing to an advertisement which she had put into _The Times_ and
other daily papers to the effect that she wished to mother young orphan
girls to whom she could give undying care and devotion.  She was
emphasising these special qualities in her replies, and looked up with
decided annoyance and a frown between her brows when Colonel Arbuthnot
appeared.  One glance at him, however, caused her manner to change.  She
by no means wished to make an enemy of the Colonel; although he was
poor--never for a moment pretending to be anything else--he was quite
the most respected person in the whole of Langdale.  He was influential,
too, and his name as one of her late Majesty's most esteemed soldiers
would carry weight in any circle.  She wanted to secure him as a
reference, and was therefore very mild and gentle when she stood up to
give him her cordial greeting.

"Sit down, Colonel; do sit down," she said.  "I am so glad to see you.
How very fortunate that I was not out.  I told Bridget to say that I
could not be disturbed this morning, for I am specially engaged; but
never to you, dear Colonel; never to you."

The Colonel made no response of any sort.  He sat and stared moodily at
Mrs Fortescue.  Mrs Fortescue was puzzled at the expression on his
face.

"And how is my dear child?" she said.  "You know I call both the dear
Heathcote girls my children.  They have been as children to me for many
years now, and ah! how fondly I have tried to act a mother's part to
both of them, God alone can tell."

"If I were you, madam," said the Colonel somewhat severely, "I would
leave the name of the Almighty out of this business.  There are times
and seasons for everything, and this, in my opinion, is not the time to
speak of God, except, indeed, to beg for His forgiveness, which all we
poor sinners need--all, all of us."

The Colonel's voice changed as he uttered the last words, but only for
an instant.  Once again his black brows came beetling down over his
eyes, and once more he looked like one ready to fight to the death in a
losing cause.  Mrs Fortescue was not, however, a woman possessed of any
insight to character.  She was as essentially worldly minded as Colonel
Arbuthnot was the reverse.

"How is my Florence?" she repeated.

"Florence Heathcote is well, thank you."

"It was so noble of you to take her into your house as you have done,"
said Mrs Fortescue.  "Few in your circumstances would have done it.  It
was just the very thing for the dear child--a sort of stepping stone for
her, in fact, to--"

"To what?" asked the Colonel.

His tone slightly startled Mrs Fortescue.

"To her future life, my dear friend.  Alack and alas! to think that
those poor children should be the sport of poverty.  How cruel was their
father's will!  How much, much more sensible it would have been to send
them both to a charity school, and keep the little money for their needs
when they grew up, that has been lavishly wasted year after year on
their education.  I have been counting carefully, and I make not the
least doubt--"

"Excuse me," said the Colonel: "I have come just to ask you a question
and then to leave you.  I am somewhat busy, and have not a moment to
spare.  Did you, or did you not, Mrs Fortescue--"

"Why, what is it?" asked Mrs Fortescue.  "What a severe tone you are
taking, my dear Colonel--and we have been such old friends."

"_Will you listen_?" said the Colonel, and he thumped his hand on the
table with such force that one of the letters which Mrs Fortescue was
answering dropped on the floor.

"Of course I will listen," she said gently.  "Do calm yourself, dear
Colonel.  What can be wrong?"

"Nothing; at least, I hope nothing.  I simply want to ask you one
question, and I am then going."

"Of course I will answer it."

"Did you let Major Reid and his son know the change with regard to
Florence Heathcote's fortune?"

Now this was about the very last question which Mrs Fortescue expected
to be asked.  She changed colour and turned rather white.

"I--" she began.

"I see you did," said the Colonel.  "It doesn't matter in the least--on
the contrary, I regard it as a good thing, an excellent thing.
Good-morning: I won't keep you another moment."

"But--really, Colonel--you are so strange--"

Mrs Fortescue spoke to empty air.  The Colonel had left her.  He stood
for a minute or two in the street, pondering.  He was making up his mind
whether he would himself go straight to see Major Reid or leave things
alone.  While he was so deliberating in his mind, he saw Michael Reid
coming down the street.  Michael's well-groomed figure, his dainty
dress, his spotless turn-out, the very way he twirled his cane, the very
manner in which he smoked his cigar irritated the Colonel almost past
bearing.

"Insolent puppy!" he said to himself.  He crossed the street, however,
and went straight up to the young man.

"I presume you are on your way to my house?"

"Well, I--ar--I did not intend to call this morning," said Reid, turning
red as he spoke.

The Colonel gave him a shrewd glance.

"Florence Heathcote is expecting you.  When I was young, it was
considered extremely ungallant to keep young ladies waiting.  We may as
well walk together.  What a pleasant morning, isn't it, for the time of
year?"

Reid murmured something.  He wondered how he could possibly escape the
Colonel.  He did not wish to displease him, and yet he certainly had no
desire to see Florence on that special morning.  While he was
deliberating, the Colonel stole his hand inside the young man's arm.

"We are old friends, aren't we, Michael?" he said.  "I have known you
from your birth.  I am exceedingly glad to hear that you have formed an
attachment to so excellent a girl as Florence.  Now, my dear fellow,
pray don't blush: who minds the words of an old soldier like myself?  I
was young once: I loved once.  My Susie's mother and I married when we
were very poor.  But, God knows! there never was a happier union.  The
only sad thing about it--the only sad thing was, its brevity.  God took
my angel to Himself.  But he left me Susie, and I am the last to
complain.  There's nothing, my dear young fellow, like roughing it a bit
in the early years of marriage, provided, of course, there is true love;
and you, Michael, could not be such a dog as to pretend to love a woman
when you do not love her all the time.  Ah--and here we are.  See
Florence; she has noticed us.  A sweet girl, Michael--a sweet girl.  I
can see you afterwards, that is, if you wish it.  I stand in the
position of a father to Florence, for the time being, her own father
having left us--gone to join the majority--ah, what a majority it is!
Now you go right in.  You will find her all alone.  The best girl in the
world, true as steel, afraid of nothing.  God bless you, Michael."

Certainly Michael Reid had not the faintest idea when he started on his
walk that morning of going near the Grange.  He knew perfectly well,
however, that it was the day when Florence was prepared to give him her
answer.  He was uncomfortably aware of the fact.  It had stayed with him
in his dreams on the previous night, and disturbed him a good deal.  He
knew all about the Heathcotes' reverse of fortune--that was how his
father chose to express it.  The girls were, his father said, a pair of
impostors.  They had been palmed off on the people as heiresses.  They
did not own a penny in the world.  As to their good looks--Brenda was,
if anything, a plain girl, and Florence was just moderately
good-looking.  Of course, Michael must never give her a thought again.

The Major had urged his son to leave Langdale; but something, he could
not tell what, kept Michael on the spot.  He wanted to see Florence once
more, and yet he dreaded seeing her inexpressibly.  Well, now he was
caught--fairly caught by Colonel Arbuthnot, dragged to the house against
his will.  What a position for a man, a man who was terribly in debt and
who required all the assistance that a rich wife could give him.  Surely
rich wives were to be had, although they might not be as taking as
pretty Florence.  There was no help for it, however; he could not
possibly marry her.  He had absolutely forgotten that remark of his,
that he would love her and make her his wife if she was as poor as a
church mouse.

Florence had put on her very prettiest frock, and Florence's prettiest
frock was one to wonder at, for it was made by a dressmaker who was also
an artist; it was somewhat the colour of an autumn leaf--seeming to
shade away from her dear and radiant complexion; and her sunny brown
hair seeming to add to the glories in her brown eyes (oh, how brown they
were this morning!), and to bring out the bewitching sparkles of her
face.

When Michael entered the room, Florence ran up to him joyfully.

"So you have come!" she said.  "I was expecting you.  Sit down, won't
you?  How are you, Michael?"

She looked at him with a certain pathos in her pretty eyes.  He came
eagerly to her.  He could not help himself.  He forgot, just for a
minute or two, that she was a penniless girl; she looked so radiant, so
different from anybody else.

"Oh, Florence!" he said.

She clasped both his hands, holding them tightly and standing close to
him.

"I know, dear," she said, "I know you are sorry for me.  But I am not
one to be sorry for myself: I am not really, Mike.  You have heard, of
course, that Brenda and I, instead of being rich, are poor.  But that
doesn't matter.  At first I thought perhaps it did a little.  I knew, of
course, darling, it would never matter with you after what you said.
You remember what you said, don't you, Mike?"

"What--what was it?" said the young man.

"That you would love me all the same, and marry me all the same if I
were as poor as--as a church mouse?  Do you know that at the time I
absolutely knew that I was as poor as a church mouse?"

"And you never told me?" he said, trying to let go her hands and yet
feeling attracted by her as he had never been attracted before.

"I was not allowed to," she answered.  "Mr Timmins had enjoined Brenda
and me not to breathe a word of it to any one until he thought it best
that the secret should be known."

"Everybody knows it now--my father and every one," said Michael; and his
voice was very gloomy.

"But it doesn't matter a scrap," she answered.  "You don't think I mind?
Why, you know in some ways it makes it far more exciting; and I will
tell you one of the ways, Michael.  It makes me so sure and certain that
you love me, not for my money, but for myself.  It would be perfectly
awful for a girl to marry a man just because he liked her money and did
not care for herself."  Michael Reid winced.  "But you are not like
that, darling, and if you want me--why, here--here I am.  I made up my
mind fully a day or two ago.  It is all right; I am quite willing to be
poor with you.  I know we can't be married for a little, but that
doesn't matter.  I am going to work ever so hard: we'll both work, won't
we, darling Michael?  We'll do our very best, and I know we'll win in
the end.  I don't mind being engaged at all, even if it's for a long
time."

"Florence," said Michael.

He dropped his hands to his sides and looked full at the girl.

"What is it?" she asked, a queer expression darkening her eyes.  She
stepped a little away from him.

"I must write to you, dear," he said.  "I--I will explain things by
letter.  You are good to me--very, very good--but I will explain things
by letter."

"But--Michael, can't you speak?  Don't you--don't you--really love me?"

"Of course I do--of course I do--"

Just then the door was opened, and in came Colonel Arbuthnot.

"I am sorry to interrupt you two young people," he said, "but the fact
is, I want to hear what arrangements you have made.  I stand in the
place of father to this young girl, Michael Reid.  Are you willing to be
her husband; to wait for her until you can afford to marry; to live a
clean and good life for her sake, sir; to make yourself worthy of her?
She is a very precious gem, sir--a girl hard to match: she has purity of
heart and honesty of motive.  She is innocent, sir, as the dawn, and
beautiful, sir, as the sunrise.  Do you think you are fit for her?  Tell
me so, honestly, and at once: otherwise, I shall not be able to give my
consent."

"I am not--I am not fit for her; I am not worthy," said Michael.

"That is for yourself to decide, of course--"

"Oh--but Michael--" said poor Florence.

"Florence, dear, be silent.  Michael Reid must speak now from his full
heart.  Michael, I know all about this little affair."

"_Little_ affair!" said Florence.  She felt indignant at the word
"little" being introduced.  The Colonel turned to her with a very gentle
smile.  He laid his hand on her arm.

"You are very young, my darling," he said; "only a child--little more
than a child.  You don't understand the world at all."

"He said he wanted me for myself; that--that he would love me if I were
as poor as a church mouse," said Florence.

"You did say those words, didn't you, Michael Reid?" said the Colonel.

Michael dropped his eyes.

"One says a great many things," was his reply, "that one--doesn't--"

"Ah, I see," said the Colonel.  "You thought Florence Heathcote would be
rich.  Florence, don't leave the room,"--for Florence was moving towards
the door--"I wish you to stay, my dear.  There is a little lesson which
you two young people must learn, and you must learn it now, and in my
presence.  It will hurt you both for a time, but in the end you will
both recover.  Now, Michael, you made love to Florence Heathcote,
believing her to be well off."

"Everybody else thought the same," said Michael Reid.

"Then you didn't mean that about the church mouse?" said Florence.

"To tell the truth," said Michael, desperately, "it was quite
impossible--I mean, it _is_ quite impossible.  I am not at all well off
myself--"

"But I said I was willing to wait," said Florence.

"_Let him_ speak, Florence; don't interrupt," said the Colonel.

"There is no use in a long engagement," said Reid.  "I am exceedingly
sorry--I cannot pretend that I am in a position to marry a penniless
girl.  I--I have debts; I am desperately sorry--I would have written--I
ought to have written--I have been a fearful coward, but--"

"Then you resign all claim to Florence Heathcote's hand?" said Colonel
Arbuthnot.

"Yes; I am obliged to; I am terribly, terribly sorry; it is fearfully
bad of me."  Michael raised his eyes, met the flashing ones of Florence,
then lowered them again.  She was quite still for a minute.  All the
colour had gone out of her face.  She was only eighteen; but a girl's
first love is sacred, and something was burned and withered, never to be
restored again, in her young heart at that moment.  She went straight up
to Michael Reid.

"You didn't mean a word that you said.  You deceived me that day when we
walked home by the river."

"I didn't mean to," he said in a shamefaced way.

"Well, it is at an end," said Colonel Arbuthnot.  "There is no use in
prolonging this scene.  After all, Florence, you are years and years too
young to be married; and as to you, Reid, you are not in any way worthy
of Florence Heathcote.  Some day, I trust, my dear child, you will find
a man to love you for yourself, who will not think of your money, but of
you."

"My money?" said Florence.  "I have no money."

"That is not the point at present," said Colonel Arbuthnot.  "The point
is that you have discovered--as many another girl does--that you have
loved some one who is unworthy of you.  I don't say that you are all
bad, Reid, I hope you are very far from it; but when you and your father
schemed to secure this young girl simply because she was, as you
imagined, rich, you overshot the mark, sir, both of you, understand me,
you overshot the mark.  And now I shall have the pleasure of showing you
the door, Michael Reid.  While Florence is here, you don't enter my
house--no, sir; you don't enter it.  Go, sir; go at once."

It was impossible, under such circumstances, even for a lieutenant in
His Majesty's army to make a graceful exit, and Michael Reid looked
uncommonly like a beaten hound as he went out of the house.  As to
Florence, she did not glance at either the Colonel or Michael, but
rushed up to her room.  There she bolted the door and flung herself on
her bed.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

LADY MARIAN EXPLAINS.

Whether she was weak or not, whether she was angry or indifferent,
Florence Heathcote shed very few tears.  She came downstairs in that
frock which was so like the colour of a rich autumn leaf.  She partook
of lunch with the Colonel and Susie, and afterwards went into the
kitchen with Susie in order to prepare as good a dinner as possible for
Miss Hudson.

Whenever Susie spoke to her, she laughed.  Susie wondered if she felt
anything.  It was not until that evening that any of Florence's real
feelings came out.

It was late in the evening when something very unexpected happened.  No
less a person than Brenda appeared on the scene.  She had come down from
London by the last train and come straight to the Arbuthnots' house by
the invitation of the Colonel and Susie.  They had said nothing to
Florence on the subject.  Florence had indeed gone up to bed.  She
expected to spend the whole night in those transports of grief which the
overthrow of all hopes must induce.  But somehow, when she saw Brenda,
the tears were dry in her eyes, and a feeling of lightness visited her
heart.

"Oh, Brenda, darling!" she said.  "Why ever have you come?  Did Lady
Marian Dixie allow you to visit me so soon?  How perfectly sweet of
her!"

"Mr Timmins has brought me," said Brenda.  "He had a telegram in the
course of the morning from Colonel Arbuthnot, and came to see me, and
has brought me down.  I don't quite understand what it all means; but he
is talking to Colonel Arbuthnot now, and you and I are to share that
little bed, Flo.  Do you mind, just for one night?"

"It's all over between Mike and me," said Florence.  "Did you know that,
Brenda?"

"Oh, you poor, poor darling!" said Brenda.

"But he said--"

"Yes, he said," interrupted Florence--and her tone was one of
scorn--"but he didn't mean it--he was put to the proof to-day--and--he
didn't mean a word of it.  He wanted my money, not me.  Oh--don't let's
talk about him!  I'd have got engaged to him; I had made up my mind to,
and I--I'd have loved him--yes--most truly I'd have loved him--and
waited for him--oh! years and years, and worked and worked to save money
for him.  But he didn't want it; he didn't want poor little me at all.
Oh, how I hate all men, Brenda!"  Brenda flung her arms round her
sister's neck and kissed her many times.

"I have got you," said Florence; "we'll work together somehow.  If I had
been engaged, it would in a sort of way have divided us."

"It would certainly," said Brenda; "that is quite true."

"It is lovely to be close to you," said Florence; "and you look happier
than ever.  Oh!  I should have had a perfectly awful time since I parted
from you if it had not been for the dear Arbuthnots.  I never knew any
one like Mrs Fortescue; she was so angry when she found we had no money
that she wouldn't even give me eggs for my breakfast; I had nothing but
a little bit from that ham bone.  Don't you remember that ham bone,
Brenda?"

"Yes," said Brenda.  "I remember Bridget told me how sick she was of it,
how she had to make her dinner from it almost every day."

"As far as I can tell, I dare say she is still making her dinner from
it," said Florence.  "But anyhow, I told you in my letter, didn't I? how
dear, darling Susie came and brought me away to stay here.  I have been
here for a week--I mean newly a week; and oh!  I have been so happy--
that is, until to-day.  I have been finding out that money means nothing
at all.  No one who lived in the house with the Arbuthnots would think
anything at all about money; for they are poor, but they never make a
fuss.  They manage on so little, and they give away every penny they can
to those who are still poorer than themselves.  But to-day has been
awful--quite, quite awful!"

"You mean about Michael Reid?"

"Oh yes: I don't think I can ever be the same girl again."

"Do you know," said Brenda, "when Mr Timmins and I arrived at the
station this evening, we saw Michael in the distance.  Michael was going
away with a lot of luggage and the Major was with him; he was saying
good-bye to him.  I don't think Michael saw me."

"Don't speak of him; I hate him even to be spoken about!" said Florence.

"He was subjected to a test," said Brenda, "and he certainly did not
stand the ordeal.  Well, you and I will do the best we can; and I
somehow think we'll be happy together."

"How does Lady Marian treat you?  You look awfully well, Brenda," said
Florence.

"Yes, I am well, and if it were not for you and that terrible Michael, I
would be quite happy.  I never could know, as Lady Marian's guest, that
I was not as rich as ever.  She has bought me lots of new things, and
whenever she gets me anything, she gets the same for you.  It is really
quite ridiculous; I told her so.  But her only remark was that our
figures were the same and that it saved a lot of trouble.  You will find
almost a trousseau of clothes waiting for you when you come up to town
to-morrow."

"Oh, I don't want them; I hate finery," said Florence.

"It would hurt Lady Marian very much indeed if we didn't accept her
presents," said Brenda.  "She wants to talk to us to-morrow about our
future, and we are going back to town, both of us, by an early train
with Mr Timmins."

"Oh," said Florence, "must we leave the dear Arbuthnots?"

"I have no doubt they will ask you to visit them sometimes in the
holidays," said Brenda.  "But we are going back to town, both of us,
to-morrow, because Lady Marian particularly wants to see us."

After this conversation, the girls undressed and got into bed.
Notwithstanding her grief, and the soreness at her heart, Florence slept
soundly.  In her sleep she had a dream that Michael Reid was at her
feet, that he had repented of his pusillanimity of the day before, and
was offering her once again his heart and hand, but that now she was
refusing them with great scorn.  She awoke from her dream to find her
cheeks wet with tears and saw Susie looking down at her and smiling.

"I am so very sorry to wake you, Florence," she said, "but the fact is,
you and Brenda must get up at once in order to catch the train.  I've
got a lovely breakfast ready for you both downstairs--real fresh eggs
and broiled ham."

"Oh--but so expensive!" said Florence.

"I managed splendidly out of the money you gave me yesterday," said
Susie.  "You know what a delicious dinner we had, and how Miss Hudson
did enjoy it.  Well, there was enough over to make this good breakfast.
And now you must hurry down, both of you, to eat it."

Florence sprang to her feet.

"I don't mind poverty, after all," she said, "if only I could spend it
with you, Susie, and with your father."

"You shall come back to us, and whenever you come, you shall have a
welcome--the best in all the world," said Susie.  "And oh! do, my dear
Florence, remember, when you are making orange marmalade that you cut
the peel thin enough!"

"Yes, yes," said Florence.  "But I don't think somehow," she added, with
a dash of her old spirit, "that making orange marmalade is my _metier_."

The girls dressed and went downstairs.  The Colonel was waiting to
receive them.  Miss Hudson had had her breakfast and gone off to her
pupils.  The new-laid eggs were duly appreciated.  The ham was
pronounced delicious.

Presently, a cab came to the door and Brenda and Florence got in.  Mr
Timmins was to meet them at the railway station.  The Colonel took both
their hands as they were leaving.

"Good-bye, my dears," he said.  "God bless you both.  From what Mr
Timmins tells me, I think you will be able to manage in the future; but
if ever in any possible way you need a friend, you have but to remember
me, who would love you both, my dear girls, were you as poor as the
proverbial church mouse.  And now, may a father have his privilege?"

He kissed each girl on her forehead, wrung their hands, and put them
into the cab.  As to Susie, she was wiping the tears from her eyes.  The
cab started on its way to the railway station and the pretty brown house
disappeared from view.  The different inhabitants of Langdale, who had
known the girls in their wealth, saw them as they went by.  Mrs
Fortescue's Bridget was so much excited that she opened one of the
bedroom windows and shrieked out--

"God bless you both, darlings!"  But Mrs Fortescue only gazed at them
severely from behind a wire blind.

She was thinking that there would be a good riddance at Langdale, and
was comfortably feeling her purse, which was heavy with some money which
Mr Timmins had paid her in person on the previous night.  Yes, she had
got rid of the Heathcotes; she must now find other girls to devote
herself to with all a mother's care.

Bridget entered the room with her mistress' breakfast.

"Did you see the young ladies, madam?" she asked.

"What young ladies?" asked Mrs Fortescue.

"_Our_ young ladies, madam--the Misses Heathcote.  They've gone, both of
them, poor darlings!"

"It's a very good thing they have gone," said Mrs Fortescue, in a
severe voice.  "They were quite nice girls, but were unfortunately
brought up to deceive other people.  They are now going to begin the
battle of life in earnest, and I, for my part, am glad of it.  They have
plenty of faults, and will, I fear, find the lessons of life hard to
learn."

"Oh, madam," said Bridget, "I never saw any one so good-natured as Miss
Florence was about that ham bone--"

"That will do," said her mistress.  "I expect," she added, "other young
ladies to come and stay with me before long, and trust that you will
exert yourself to cook well and to look after their interests."

"I was going to say, madam," said Bridget demurely, "that now that Miss
Florence and Miss Brenda have gone, I should wish to give a month's
notice."

Mrs Fortescue stared at her elderly servant.  "What _do_ you mean?" she
said.  "Give me your reasons."

"Well, madam, to tell you the truth--I don't like treating ladies, just
because they ain't as rich as one expected them to be, with ham bones
for breakfast.  You will get some one else to help you when the new
ladies come, madam," and Bridget flounced out of the room.

Meanwhile, Mr Timmins met the girls at the station.  He took them up to
town first-class and treated them with great respect and consideration.
Florence could not help whispering to Brenda--

"Seeing that we are so very poor, it does seem absurd that we should
always travel first-class."

"It's Mr Timmins' way," said Brenda.  "I don't think he'd like," she
added, "Lady Marian to know that we travelled in any other way."

"Well, we shall have to in the future," said Florence; "and," she added,
"as far as I am concerned, I think it is almost more exciting to be
poor.  It is so delightful to manage.  You can't imagine, Brenda, what
fun Susie and I had contriving the dinners, more particularly the bone
dinners."

"What _are_ you talking about, children?" said Mr Timmins, waking up
from a nap in which he had temporarily indulged.

Florence went and sat by his side and told him the story of the bone
dinner.

"They are so delicious!" she said.  "I never enjoyed anything more."

Mr Timmins seemed much interested in the story.

"'Pon my word!" he said; "if that is not about the very highest form of
charity I have ever heard of.  He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the
Lord.  It's a mighty good security, young ladies, mighty good.  No fear
of that security coming to smash."

Then he returned to his sheet of _The Times_, and did not speak again
until the journey came to an end.  When it did, Mr Timmins' own
brougham was waiting for them.  They got in, and drove straight to Lady
Marian Dixie's house in Cadogan Place.  Brenda seemed quite at home
there, but Florence felt a little shy.

"Now," said Mr Timmins, "I will say goodbye to you both.  Lady Marian
has something to say to you, and if you want to see me later on in the
day, you have but to telephone, and I will be with you.  But I think
Lady Marian would rather see you by herself."

"Come, Flo, come," said Brenda.  "Oh, she is such a darling; you will
love her soon as much as I do."

The girls both entered the pretty boudoir where old Lady Marian Dixie
was waiting for them.  She drew Brenda close to her and kissed her.
Then she looked at Florence.

"Why, I have heard all about that young man," she said, "and the week is
up; it was up yesterday.  Is everything settled?  Are you engaged to
him?  He has stood the test, has he?"

Poor Florence!  The tears trembled in her eyes.

"No," she said, "no.  Oh, tell her, Brenda, tell her.  I can't, I
can't!"

Florence walked to the window and looked out.  Brenda said something in
a low tone to Lady Marian.  After a very short time Florence came back.
Her cheeks were bright, and so were her eyes.

"I wouldn't have him now," she said, "if--if he were to go on his knees
to me--as the saying is.  I wouldn't have him at any price.  I don't
suppose I really loved him."

"It was a good thing you found it out in time," said Lady Marian.  "And
besides, Florence, you are a great deal too young to marry yet.  Why, my
dear good child, you are not half educated.  Now, my plan for you both
is this: that you should go to either Newnham or Girton in the autumn
and take a proper course of training there; afterwards, we might go
abroad for a bit.  In these days, uneducated women are unbearable, and
no girl of eighteen, however clever she is, can be properly educated.
You can spend your holidays with me, and go and see the Arbuthnots
sometimes if you like.  But that must be as you please."

"But--but," said Florence in amazement; "of course I'd adore to go to
Girton; I have always had the greatest hankering for it.  But we can't
earn our living in that way."

Lady Marian smiled.

"You don't need to earn your living, my dear child," she said.

"I don't need--Brenda and I don't need!  What do you mean, Lady Marian?"

"I mean what I say," answered Lady Marian.  "Mr Timmins told you the
truth with regard to your father.  He unfortunately lost a very large
fortune shortly before his death, and could only leave enough by will to
be spent on your education.  His will was a somewhat extraordinary one.
In this, he said that he wished you to be educated to enable you to take
your proper position in the world, not only in the world of fashion but
also in that better world of refinement and culture: in the world where
good people live and valiant efforts are made to maintain the right and
suppress the wrong.  He wished you to be carefully prepared for this
position, for he knew only too well that youth--the early days of
youth--is the time for such a preparation.  But when you left school (he
mentioned the exact age when this was to take place), you were both to
be put to the test; and not only you, but your friends.  You were to be
told the truth, but only a part of the truth.  Your father's money, with
the exception of a small sum which I believe Mr Timmins mentioned to
you, has nearly been exhausted.  You were to face the world, prepared in
one sense, but unprepared in another.  You were to look at the world,
for a short time, as poor girls, not as rich ones.  Your own characters
were to be submitted to this trial and, still more important, the
characters of your so-called friends.  Do sit down, Florence; how white
your face is!  Brenda, come and kneel by me, darling."  Florence dropped
into a chair.  Her heart was beating almost to suffocation.  Brenda
knelt by Lady Marian and looked at her sister with a world of pity in
her own eyes.

"You were to find out your friends, my dear children," said Lady Marian;
"and you could only find them out through this test.  The girl who has
money is often surrounded by so-called friends, who see much in her
because her gold casts a sort of false halo round her.  Your father
wanted you to learn a lesson, so that you could, all through your future
years, discern the true from the false.  As to the length of the test to
which you were to be submitted, that was left altogether to Mr Timmins'
and to my discrimination; for I, my dear children, by your father's and
mother's will, am appointed your guardian, and have now absolute power
to arrange for your future."

"Still--still," said Brenda, speaking with hesitation, "I cannot see
where the money comes in.  Not that we want it," she continued; "for we
have found--oh! such a true friend in you, and Mr Timmins is good--"

"And the Arbuthnots," said Florence suddenly; "they are just more than
splendid!"

"And we don't mind a bit earning our own living," said Brenda.

Lady Marian bent forward and kissed Brenda on her brow.

"I know that quite well, my darling," she said; "and I know also that
Florence has learnt her lesson.  You have discovered your true friends,
and also discovered your false ones.  What about Mrs Fortescue?  What
about--" here she glanced at Florence.

"I know, I know," said Florence.  "I thought Michael was--oh! so
different; and I--I did care for him a little!"

Tears rose to her eyes.  She pressed her handkerchief to them and sat
still for a minute, trying to recover from her emotions; then she
continued--

"I have not broken my heart."

She looked up with a smile which was half piteous.

"I know that," said Lady Marian, briskly, "and you will recover it
altogether soon.  Now the facto of the case are these.  Your father
wished his money to be spent on your education.  Meanwhile, your
mother's money, which represented a very large sum--many thousands of
pounds: I cannot go into full particulars, but Mr Timmins will, if
necessary, enlighten you--was to lie at compound interest awaiting the
moment when you were to receive it.  My dear girls, a certain portion of
that money is to be devoted to what may be called your _higher_
education--that which you will receive during the next three years--and
afterwards you will be rich, dears, I trust; not only rich in money, but
rich in the better things, which mean courage, and endurance, and faith,
and sympathy.  You will understand the real poor a little better because
for a short week of your lives you considered yourselves poor, and you
will discern the true from the false also because of this week, which
has taught you a lesson.  Now go up to your rooms, dears; I think I have
explained all that is necessary for the present."

"But one thing," said Florence, as they rose.  "May I write and tell
Susie Arbuthnot?"

"Certainly; I should like you to do so."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

MRS FORTESCUE RECEIVES A SHOCK.

At Langdale, several people missed Florence and Brenda Heathcote.  Susie
and her father missed them most, because they were the sort of people
who would love the girls for themselves, and not for the money they had
been supposed to possess.  But there were others who missed them in
different degrees and according to their different characters.  Bridget,
for instance, was extremely sulky when she found that Mrs Fortescue had
let Miss Florence go without even one word of farewell, nor one allusion
to the sorrow she ought to feel at giving her up.  Mrs Fortescue
herself had her qualms of conscience.  The advertisements she had put
into the papers were not receiving satisfactory replies.  The ladies,
old or young, who suggested residing with Mrs Fortescue offered
comparatively small sums for the privilege of dwelling under her roof.
Mrs Fortescue felt almost snappish.  She did not think that she would
make much solid gold out of the young ladies whom she was hoping to have
to reside with her.  She began to murmur at the dispensations of
Providence, and to think it cruelly hard on Brenda and Florence that
they should be deprived of their fortunes.  She began for the first time
to see matters from the girls' point of view.  It would, in short, be
difficult, almost impossible, for her to find any other pair of girls so
nice as these, and so well able to pay her for the great trouble she had
taken on their account.

She even did not like to think of that morning when she had insisted on
depriving Florence of her poached eggs, and giving her a breakfast which
under ordinary circumstances would have been partaken of by Bridget.
She was also much annoyed at Bridget's determination to leave her; for
Bridget was a cheap, as well as a valuable servant; and Mrs Fortescue
knew well that such people were rare.

She therefore, when she went into the street, had on an injured and
melancholy air, and spoke with sadness about the poor _dear_ Heathcotes,
wondering what the sweet girls would now do with themselves, and how the
cold world would receive these dear orphans, who were so unfitted to
plunge into its stormy waves.

One of the people she met, as she walked down the street a couple of
days after Florence had left Langdale, was Major Reid.  Major Reid felt
about as cross as man could feel.  He had been worked up to a state of
intense excitement during his last memorable interview with Mrs
Fortescue.  He had hoped great things not only for his son, but for
himself, after he had heard what in all probability Florence's fortune
would be.  He had returned home in a genial mood, and in consequence he
and the Lieutenant had engaged that evening in a very amicable
conversation.  Michael found his father much more approachable on
certain subjects than he had ever found him before, and in a fit of
confidence he had acquainted his parent with part of the truth, but not
all, with regard to his financial difficulties.

The Major swore a good deal when he discovered that his son was
hopelessly in debt.  Nevertheless, he cooled down after a time, and said
that although it would be almost an impossibility, he would endeavour to
raise a few hundred pounds to set Michael straight--in short, to put him
on his legs again, provided he secured that dazzling young heiress,
Florence Heathcote.  But now--alack and alas! the dazzling young heiress
did not exist.  The girl herself was there, with her bright eyes and
radiant face and all the fine qualities which the Major had given her
credit for.  But the glitter of gold no longer surrounded her, and she
was therefore an impossible mate for Michael.  The Major was choking
with rage.  Things were much worse than they had been at the Moat, for
now the Major and the Lieutenant were scarcely on speaking terms, the
Major furiously declaring that he would not advance a penny to help his
son, and the son threatening all sorts of disastrous consequences in the
future.

Eventually, Lieutenant Reid left Langdale, intending to visit certain
money-lenders who, he trusted, would help him temporarily out of his
difficulties.

After he had gone, Major Reid cooled down a little.  The boy was his
only son: he had hoped to see him a useful and popular member of
society--a country gentleman, no less; for surely if Florence was as
well off as Mrs Fortescue had given him to understand, the boy need not
continue in the Army.

All these dreams had now come to an end, and the Major felt that there
were few women in the world he hated as he did Mrs Fortescue.  He would
have given a great deal not to meet her, but he suddenly found himself
face to face with her in the little High Street.  She came up to him
sorrowfully.  She was the sort of woman who could never, under any
circumstances, imagine herself _de trop_, and she certainly believed
herself to be irresistible to all men.

"Ah, Major!" she said.  "What a blow--what a terrible blow we have
received! and where is your dear boy?  I pity him from my heart."

"My son has left Langdale," said the Major freezingly.  "I will not
detain you any longer, Mrs Fortescue.  I am going for a brisk walk, and
the morning is too chilly to stand still long in the street."

He raised his hat and walked on.  He looked very stiff and disagreeable.

"Old curmudgeon!" whispered Mrs Fortescue under her breath.  "What a
selfish person! he has no thought for the poor girls themselves; or for
me, or for any one but just himself and that conceited puppy, Michael."
Mrs Fortescue continued her morning shopping, and eventually found
herself in the neighbourhood of the Grange.  Surely there, at least, she
would receive all possible sympathy.  When had Susie turned an unwilling
ear to any one's grief?  She--Mrs Fortescue--would show herself this
morning in the most amiable light, suffering with the penniless girls
and not thinking of herself at all.  It would be very forgiving of her,
too, to call at the Arbuthnots' after the Colonel's visit to her.  It
would show, that she at least bore no ill-will to any human being on
earth.

Accordingly, she paused before the well-known door.  She would be
obliged to ask Colonel Arbuthnot before long for a reference, and would
like to smooth the way by means of an interview with Susie first.

When the servant answered her summons she inquired, therefore, if Miss
Arbuthnot was within.  She was replied to in the affirmative, and was
shown into the parlour looking out on the street.  There Susie was
performing all kinds of useful arts.  It was not at all a pretty room--
as pretty rooms go: it was made for use, not for ornament.  The table in
the centre was an old deal one--in fact, nothing better than a large
kitchen table, and at this moment Susie was busy finishing the marmalade
which she and Florence had begun.

She looked up when Mrs Fortescue appeared.  Her eyes were a little red,
as though she had been crying: otherwise, her face was quite cheerful,
it even wore a jubilant expression.

"How do you do?" she said in her kind voice.  "You will forgive me if I
go on cutting my oranges.  All this supply of marmalade has to be boiled
early to-morrow morning, and the orange peel must soak for a certain
time."

"Yes, yes," said Mrs Fortescue; "I quite understand.  There are so many
recipes for marmalade."

"Mine is the best that is known," said Susie, in her quick voice,
cutting her orange peel as she spoke into fine, almost imperceptible
wafers.  "You don't slake your own marmalade, do you?" she said.

"No; I really haven't time; and that reminds me--Bridget is leaving.  It
is too bad: she is such a good faithful creature, and I don't know how
to replace her."

Susie helped herself to some more orange peel and continued her work.

"You don't know of any one you could recommend, do you, Susie?" said
Mrs Fortescue.

"No," said Susie bluntly.  "I do not."

Mrs Fortescue heaved a deep sigh.  She quite understood what Susie
Arbuthnot meant to imply by her brief words.  Even if she did know a
nice honest girl she would not send her to Mrs Fortescue.

"Susie," said Mrs Fortescue, after a pause, "I fear, I greatly fear
that I was a little hard on dear Florence.  I have come here to tell you
so."

Susie laid down her knife and raised her honest brown eyes to fix them
fully on Mrs Fortescue's face.  The widow pushed her chair round so
that the light should not fall too full on her countenance.

"Yes," she continued, "and I have come here to own my fault.  I fear
your father was deeply annoyed with me.  Is that true?"

"`Annoyed' is not exactly the word," said Susie, in a low tone.

"Well--well, dear," said Mrs Fortescue, who did not wish Susie to say
too much and trembled also with regard to her future reference.  "You,
who have your fixed and settled income can scarcely understand what it
is to be a woman of my means--a woman with an uncertain, a fluctuating
supply of money; enough just for her bare needs one year, and too little
for them the next.  I lost my temper--not, indeed, with the girls
themselves, but with that exceedingly deceitful man, Mr Timmins, who
might have told me how the dear children were placed long, long before
he did.  He deceived me, he deceived us all."

"The girls were not to blame, were they?" said Susie, resuming the
cutting of her orange peel with considerable energy.

"Oh, no, no--indeed no!" said Mrs Fortescue; "and that is just what I
have come to talk about.  I have recovered my temper and repented of my
injustice.  I am now thinking, not so much of myself, although I shall
have to find some young girls to mother, in the future--"

Susie again looked at her attentively--"but I have not come here to talk
of that now.  I am anxious about the Heathcotes, poor dears!  Poor
dears! the world will receive them coldly--"

"I do not think so," said Susie.

Mrs Fortescue shook her head.

"You do not know the world, Susie Arbuthnot.  You think you do; but you
don't.  The fact is--it shudders at the poor, and the older it grows,
the more it despises poverty, the more it requires every one whom it
takes to its heart to be rich--_rich_."  Susie was silent.  "Those poor
young things," continued Mrs Fortescue--"if there is any way in which I
can help them--I came here this morning.  Susie, to tell you that I am
willing to do it."

"Are you really?" said Susie.  She looked at her abruptly.  "Would you,
for instance, give them a home if they required it?"

"I--" said Mrs Fortescue, hesitating--"well, not for long--but just for
a little visit perhaps.  What I really meant to say was that I could
furnish them with excellent references, and--what is the matter, Susie?"

"Nothing," said Susie, rising.  "I am going to find father.  I think he
is in the house."

She abruptly left the room, closing the door after her.

"What a very queer look Susie Arbuthnot has on her face!" thought Mrs
Fortescue.  "I wonder if those people have made up their minds to shun
me.  If so, and if Major Reid means to continue to be as abominable as
he has been this morning, I had better leave Langdale."

As the last thought flashed through her mind Susie returned with the
Colonel.  They came in together, and the Colonel held a letter in his
hand.  He was somewhat shabby in his dress.  He always was shabby in the
house; but he never stooped in body, being a soldier; and he never
stooped in mind, being a gentleman.  He came forward quite simply, and
held out his hand to Mrs Fortescue.

"How do you do?  It is a beautiful day, is it not?"

Mrs Fortescue felt immensely relieved.  The Colonel had evidently quite
forgiven her.  He was a nice man and--yes, she acknowledged it to
herself--such a gentleman.  Susie was very blunt; but the Colonel had
exquisite manners when he liked, and he seemed to like now, for he
invited Mrs Fortescue to take a warm seat near the fire and poked it up
for her benefit.  Then, turning his own back to it, he looked at her
with a whimsical expression on his pleasant face.

"Susie tells me that you have been good enough to express regret with
regard to Brenda and Florence Heathcote."

"Oh, yes--yes!" said Mrs Fortescue, clasping her hands.  "I am so sorry
for them."

"Well, there is no possible reason why you should not be relieved of any
feeling of uneasiness with regard to my two young friends.  Florence did
not wish her letter to be kept a secret, did she, Susie?"

"No, father; quite the contrary," said Susie.  She had not returned to
her marmalade.  She was standing not far from her father, one of her
hands resting on the mantelpiece.

"I have had a letter from Florence Heathcote this morning," said the
Colonel.  "It was really written both to my daughter and myself."

"Has she found employment?" asked Mrs Fortescue.

"Well--yes; that is, her future plans and those of her sister are
practically arranged for the next few years."

"I am very glad," said Mrs Fortescue, speaking in a cold, disappointed
voice.

"Ah, well," said the Colonel, "and so am I--very glad.  But you haven't
heard all yet.  You don't know, far instance, what the girls mean to
do."

"I do not," said Mrs Fortescue; "and I am so much interested in them--
so very much--dear children, dear children!"

"You had an opportunity of showing your interest a week ago," said the
Colonel, very gravely--"your interest and your sympathy.  The fact is,
Mrs Fortescue, both that interest and sympathy have come now rather
late in the day--in short, they are not required.  The girls go to
Girton in the autumn, and until that time, they will be preparing for
their life there, under the best masters that London can provide.  They
will live, until they go to Girton, with Lady Marian Dixie."

"Then she has taken them up!" said Mrs Fortescue, quivering rage in her
voice.  "She has in a sort of way adopted them?  Yes," she continued,
half-choking with futile anger; "but they need not trust to the whims of
rich women.  She may change her mind a thousand times and leave all her
money in the end to some one else.  I have seen it done--I have known it
done times out of number."

"Yes; quite so," said the Colonel; "quite so.  In this case the matter
is different."

"Has she already made a will in their favour?" inquired Mrs Fortescue.

"I don't know anything whatever with regard to Lady Marian's
intentions," said the Colonel, speaking less affably and flashing his
eyes sternly at the widow.  "The fact is this--you will be as surprised
as Susie and I were and, I hope and trust, for the sake of your better
nature--as glad.  Brenda and Florence Heathcote have no need to earn
their bread."

"No need?  Oh!" said Mrs Fortescue.  "But I was told they were
penniless."

"You received a letter from Mr Timmins in which he informed you that
the money their father had left for their education was practically
exhausted, and that your services would not be required after their
winter vacation."

"I was given to understand that they were penniless girls.  What do you
mean?" said Mrs Fortescue.

"You will be glad to hear that they are very far from penniless.  Their
mother has left them a large fortune which they will come into as soon
as they attain their majority.  Meanwhile, Lady Marian Dixie is
appointed their guardian.  She wishes them to continue their education,
and they are going to Girton for the purpose.  It is good news--yes, it
is very good news.  Florence and Brenda will, I make no doubt, be fitted
to bear the awful responsibility of wealth."

"But--but," said Mrs Fortescue, almost blue with rage; "how can you
justify--"

"I justify nothing, my dear madam; I simply state a fact; you are
welcome to tell it to whom you please.  As far as I can make out, the
girls were not told anything absolutely untrue.  As far as their
father's money was concerned, they were penniless.  There was no mention
made of their mother's fortune.  It was, I gathered, a test to discover
who were their true friends.  Rich young girls are often surrounded by
those who simply prey on them for the sake of what they can get.  Susie,
don't you think we had better come out while the sun shines?  You won't
think me rude, Mrs Fortescue, if I ask you to call at some future
date."

"Oh no; I won't think you rude," said Mrs Fortescue.  "I--I am
astonished--stunned--"

But she spoke to empty air, for Susie and her father had left the room.
"They did not even show me out!" thought the furious widow.  "Langdale
won't see _me_ long!"

Perhaps very few people suffered more exquisite torture than did Mrs
Fortescue after she left Colonel Arbuthnot's house.  Oh! if only she had
been good to Florence during that week.  Oh! if only she had done just--
just what she had not done!  She was like many another unfortunate man
or woman in this world which contains so many failures!  She had acted
in the worst possible way at the crucial moment.  She had missed her
chance.  The girls were rich after all, and yet she had given Florence a
ham bone for breakfast!  She walked fast, trying to cool down after the
blow which, it is to be feared, Colonel Arbuthnot rather rejoiced in
giving her.

Suddenly, an idea came to her.  If she was suffering, why should not
Major Reid share her tortures?  How impertinent he had been to her that
morning!  But she was right after all--right, not wrong.  That silly
fool of a Michael--if only he had been true to his heart's instincts--
would have won an heiress, and perhaps an heiress to a far greater
extent than even Mrs Fortescue's dreams had pictured.

"I will go to see the man.  This is really a good story and one worth
telling," thought the widow.

She turned in the direction of the Moat.  The Moat was a little way
outside Langdale, and you had to go up a somewhat steep hill to reach
it.  It was an old-fashioned house, surrounded by overshadowing trees.
Even in summer it was not very bright, and in winter it was a hopelessly
damp, deserted-looking place.

Mrs Fortescue marched up the avenue with a determined stride and rang
the bell by the front door.  It was opened by a slatternly-looking
servant.  The Major's house was not kept well.  In all respects, it was
a contrast to the Grange, where the Arbuthnots managed to make every
penny do its utmost work.  Nobody cared what became of things at the old
Moat, and there was hardly a more miserable old man than Major Reid, as
he sat now at his lunch table, trying to find something tasty and
agreeable in his badly-done chop.  Mrs Fortescue, who was feeling so
fierce that she would dare anything, followed in the steps of Colonel
Arbuthnot and said quickly--"I know your master is in: I must see him at
once on important business."

The girl made way for her, and Mrs Fortescue's instinct drew her to the
dining-room.  She opened the door and burst in.

"I have news--great news for you, Major Reid."

"Madam!" said the Major.  He started to his feet.  His first furious
request to ask this interloper to make herself scarce died on his lips.
He looked into her face.  She came close to him and looked into his.

"Major," she said; "we have been the victims of a conspiracy--yes, of a
base, base conspiracy.  It is my opinion that the Arbuthnots were in the
secret from the first, and that hat accounts for their sneaking, fawning
ways.  How I do loathe people of that sort.  So different from you and
me--so, so different!"

"You astonish me," began the Major.  "The Arbuthnots--pray take a
seat--"

He pushed his plate away from him and looked hard at his visitor.

"You were abominably rude to me in the street a couple of hours ago,"
said Mrs Fortescue.

"I was in no mood to be civil, and even now, if you have anything to say
except to abuse my old friend Arbuthnot, I--"

"But I have something to say; something that will astound--_astound_
you!  When you came to my house a very short time ago and asked me to
give you some idea of the extent of Florence Heathcote's fortune, I told
you--"

"A lie, madam!  The girl is penniless: pray don't revert to that most
annoying scene."

"I told you no lie, Major Reid."

"What?"

"I told you the truth.  I doubtless understated the sum which will
eventually belong to Florence Heathcote."

"What is this?" said the Major, turning very pale.

"The conspiracy has been at last explained," said Mrs Fortescue, "and
my opinion is that those Arbuthnots, who set up such lofty standards,
knew all about the matter from the first.  Those miserable girls are
heiresses, after all.  Their father's fortune, it is true, has been
already expended on their education, but they inherit a large sum--
doubtless many thousands--from their mother.  It seems, Major Reid, that
for some extraordinary, unfathomable reason we, their old and trusty
friends, were to be put to the test--to the test with regard to their
future: and I--_I_ treated Florence, that beautiful, gifted spirited,
_rich_ girl, to--a ham bone!"

Angry tears rose to Mrs Fortescue's eyes.  The Major looked at her with
a face very nearly as pale as her own.

"Are you certain of what you are saying?"

"I am positive.  I have been to the Arbuthnots'.  I received the news
from the Colonel himself.  He had a letter from Florence in his hand.
He spoke of it as a test--a test; but I call it the vilest of all
conspiracies!  I could still have had those girls with me, and your son
would have married Florence and been rich."

"Good Heavens!" said the Major.  "If I thought--but it isn't too late.
Michael--that young dog!  Mrs Fortescue; don't say a word; don't
breathe anything.  Keep my secret and I vow I will help you in the
future.  I will go to London to see Michael this evening.  All is not
lost."

The Major, trembling exceedingly, crossed the room.  He rang the bell
and desired the servant to bring him an A B C.  He looked up a train in
Mrs Fortescue's presence.  She was no longer hateful to him.  If she
could help him at this juncture, he would be her friend for the rest of
her life.

"Never mind the Arbuthnots," he said.  "Yes; they doubtless did know.
Just like the Colonel.  It _is_ a conspiracy--it is shameful!  But let
me make an effort in my poor boy's cause.  Don't breathe to any one that
I have gone to London.  I will just walk in the direction of the
station, and slip in when no one is observing, and take the next train
to town."

"I will keep your secret, trust me," said Mrs Fortescue.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF.

The Major arrived in town towards evening.

He knew where his son was lodging.  Lieutenant Reid would have to join
his regiment in two or three days, but the last few hours of his leave
would be spent in his old rooms in St James' Street.

Reid was heavily in debt--up to his very eyes, in fact--but that was no
reason whatever for his taking poor rooms or allowing himself to be in
the least uncomfortable.  He had a very little money in hand, which he
had extorted from a rascally old Jew at enormous interest, and was
therefore, as he called it, rather flush, and inclined to make the best
of things.  He was about to go out to dine at a certain club where he
would meet some of his brother officers when the Major walked in.  It is
sad to have to relate that Lieutenant Reid was by no means glad to see
his father.

"Why, dad!" he said; "whatever has brought you up to town? and how queer
you look and in the name of fortune, what is the matter?"

"I have had the most astounding news," said the Major.  "Let me sit
down, I am quite breathless.  Michael, where are you going to dine?"

Michael Reid mentioned a fashionable club where he hoped to meet his
friend.

"You will not go there; you will stay with me.  Send a messenger to
Hudson to say you are prevented dining with him this evening."

"But why?  I have arranged the matter," said Michael, speaking crossly.

"That does not signify in the least," answered Major Reid.  "I want to
speak to you, and there is not a moment--let me tell you frankly--not a
moment to lose."

Michael looked very hard at his father, and something in the old
gentleman's agitation seemed at last to acquaint him with the fact that
a matter of importance had occurred.  He accordingly rang his bell, and
gave the necessary directions with regard to securing a messenger boy to
take a note to Captain Hudson.  He then scribbled a few lines, delivered
the note to the servant, and turned to his father.

"I see you are in the old rooms," said the Major.

"Yes; I always come here when I am in town.  Why should I change?"

"They are expensive," said the Major.  "How do you mean to pay for
them?"  Michael Reid turned rather white.

"Sir," he said, "you have decided not to help me in the future, you have
therefore forfeited the right to inquire into my financial position.  It
is nothing to you, surely, how and in what manner I manage to obtain a
living."

"You cannot go on in the Army, swamped in debt as you are," said the
Major.  "It is disreputable, and impossible."

Michael, who had been exceedingly annoyed at his father's visit, now
stared at him with a certain defiance.  Then he looked at him again, and
it seemed to him that there was a meaning under the old gentleman's
words.  He wondered vaguely if his old father was softening towards him,
and if, notwithstanding that unpleasant _fracas_ with regard to Florence
Heathcote, he would help him after all.  Accordingly, he sank into a
chair, and gazed at his parent.

"You have something to say; you have not come up to town for nothing?"

"Most assuredly I have not.  Michael--be prepared for astounding news."

"What, what?" said the young man, his heart beginning to beat.

"You remember that Heathcote girl."

"Florence?" said Michael.  "I shall never forget her."

"Oh, Michael," said the Major; "we have been duped, and we have been
fools, all of us!  I thought when first I heard the news, that Arbuthnot
and Susie were in the conspiracy; but in the train, somehow, I changed
my mind.  Arbuthnot could not do anything mean, nor could Susie.  They
were the only people at Langdale who treated Florence Heathcote with
equal love and kindness in her supposed poverty as in her supposed
riches."

"Well, sir," said Michael; "you yourself were the one who said that I
must not consider Florence for a single moment as a suitable wife for
me."

"I did--I did, my boy.  And oh! my God--how I have repented!"

"But why?" said Michael.  "Do you want me, after all, to many a
penniless girl?  But I; father, I can't see her again!  I--I behaved
abominably to her--abominably.  What is the matter with you, dad?  Why
do you stare at me?  What are you so put out about?"

"Put out--put out!" said the Major.  "I--I should think I am put out.
If the truth must be known, I feel nearly mad.  Why, Michael, my boy,
the Heathcotes are heiresses after all--richer, far richer than we ever
dared to hope.  Michael--what is it?"

Michael Reid started to his feet.  He stared for a moment across the
room as though he felt inclined to do something desperate: then he sank
down in a state almost of collapse.  In that instant, there came a
vision before him of a radiant young face, of speaking and beautiful
eyes, and of words he had said--oh! words he had never meant--never
meant at all!  He had another vision of that face when he had acted
cruelly, brutally--towards the sweetest girl in the world.

"You want to hear particulars?" said the Major.  "I will tell them.
That horrid woman, Mrs Fortescue, was the first to hear the news.
Florence wrote to Colonel Arbuthnot.  The facts are simply these.  The
girls inherit a very considerable fortune from their late mother.  It
was their father's money which was mostly spent on their education and
which was nearly exhausted."

It seemed to Michael Reid that Florence's pathetic face looked at him
more and more sorrowfully.  The room seemed full of her face, full of
her young presence, full of the trust she had once given him, and then
of the horror and distress which his conduct had caused her.

"Why have you come all the way to London to tell me this?" he said
faintly, turning as he spoke to address his father.

"Because--because," said the Major eagerly, "you are a clever young
fellow, Michael, and it may not be too late.  You love the girl--you
have said so--and the girl loves you.  Think what it means Michael:
don't lose such a golden chance.  Is there any possible way in which you
can explain your last interview to Florence, and--and win her back?  I
can assure you that if such a thing can be done, there is no step that
I, on my part, will not take to help you."

It was just at that moment that Michael Reid felt something new and
strange stirring within him, something he had _never_ in his whole life
felt before--a germ, the first germ of true nobility and true manliness.
The stirring of this new something was very slight at first--so slight
that it seemed to him that he had hardly felt it at all.  Nevertheless,
the colour of shame did dye his face.  He rose from his chair, and said
in a choking voice--

"Thank you for coming up, dad.  I know you mean well.  And now, you must
be tired out.  Shall we go and have something to eat?"

"But you haven't answered me," said the astonished Major.  "You allow
the precious moments to fly.  My idea is this: I thought it all out
carefully in the train.  Florence need have no reason to suppose that
you know anything about her unexpected change of fortune.  You can still
approach her, as it were, in her state of poverty.  Don't look at me
like that, my boy.  Men have done such things before.  You told her
once--"

"Yes, father--yes," interrupted Michael, "I told Florence a very, very
short time ago--a few days ago, in fact--that were she as poor as a
church mouse it would be all the same to me."

"You told her that, Michael, really?"

"I did--I did!" said the young man; "and if you had only seen how her
eyes shone and how she looked at me.  She thought then that she was
poor--poor as I have described.  She believed in me then.  I told her a
lie, of course."

"Your path is clear," said the Major, becoming so excited that he began
to pace up and down the room.  "You can easily explain away the
impression you unfortunately made upon her on that miserable day.  You
can tell her that however great her poverty, she is all the world to
you.  Do it, Michael; do it!"

"You want me to tell her another lie," said Michael Reid.

The Major laid his hand, his shrivelled old hand, on Michael's firm,
broad shoulder.

"You are young," he said; "you have the world before you.  You have the
chance of winning the love of a beautiful and very rich girl.  You have
got into many difficulties which many other young men in your station
have, alas! also plunged themselves in.  There is a way out; but there
is not an hour to lose.  Write to her to-night: beg for an interview.
She is with Lady Marian Dixie in Cadogan Place.  You can see her in the
morning.  Speak to her quickly--before she gives you her news.  You can
retrieve your position: all is not lost.  No one knows at Langdale, with
the exception of Mrs Fortescue, that I have come up to town; no one
shall know.  I will take the evening train and creep back to the Moat
under shadow of the darkness.  You cannot possibly have heard the news--
so people will say.  Act on my advice, Michael--act on my advice."

"Come out and have something to eat," was Michael Reid's response.  And
now he took his father by the arm and drew him down stairs, and took him
to a good restaurant not far off.

The old man was full of the most intense excitement.  The young man was
calm and looked collected and firm.  That germ of true manliness was
growing bigger.  That little flickering flame of real nobility was
beginning to warm his hitherto frozen heart.

After the meal was over, the Major again spoke on the subject of
Florence.

"I understand exactly what you want me to do," Michael replied.  "Don't
say another word.  Keep your own counsel till you hear from me," and
this was all the Major could get out of his son Michael.

But he himself felt that his hurried journey to town had not been thrown
away.  He was almost sure that Michael's future was secure.  He trembled
with delight.

"If only it is never, never known that I rushed up to town to acquaint
the lad, all will be well," was his last thought as he lay down very
late that night to sleep.  "Mrs Fortescue won't dare to tell; I'll take
precious good care that it is not worth her while.  No one else has seen
me: it will never be known."

So, while the old man slept, dreaming wonderful dreams with regard to
Michael, Michael Reid himself fought with temptation and, to his credit
be it pronounced--conquered.

In the course of the next day two letters were received by two different
people.  They were both in the Lieutenant's well-known handwriting.  The
Major trembled much when his reached him.  He looked at it, almost
fearing to open it, but by degrees he calmed down sufficiently to wrest
the contents from the envelope, and read Michael's few words.  They ran
as follows:--

  "My dear Father,--

  "Thank you for coming to see me, and for opening my eyes.  They have
  been opened very wide.  I have had a look at myself: I don't like what
  I have seen, but there is always such a thing as turning over the
  proverbial new leaf.  I have been a cad in the past; I will make a try
  for being a gentleman in the future.  I can't do what you suggest.
  Burn this, and try to forget our interview of to-night.  I have got
  into a mess, and I will scramble on to my own legs somehow; but not in
  that way.

  "Good-bye, dad.  You will hear from me as soon as I have any news
  worth relating.

  "Your affectionate son,--

  "Michael."

There is no use in describing the Major's rage.  It lasted for about an
hour.  At the end of that time, he burned his son's letter and said to
himself that he would try and forget him.  But this was not at all easy:
on the contrary, for the first time since his birth, the Major truly
respected Michael, and in consequence could not get him out of his head.

There was one other letter written that same evening by the young man.

  "Florence,--

  "I have heard of your great fortune.  God bless you.  I was never
  worthy of you.  I am going to exchange immediately into foreign
  service; but before I go, I want to take this opportunity to thank you
  for teaching me a lesson which to my dying day I shall never forget.
  I was tried in the fire, and was found unworthy.

  "Michael."

Florence cried over this letter.  She never showed it to any one.  Even
Brenda to her dying day never knew that Florence had received it.  But
although the Major burned his son's letter, Florence put hers away into
a secret place where she kept her treasures.

"The letter smooths out _some_ of the pain," she whispered to herself;
"and I can think of him now without sorrow."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

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