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Title: Vivian's Lesson
Author: Grierson, Elizabeth W. (Elizabeth Wilson)
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 "Vivian's Lesson" ***

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Internet Archive)



VIVIAN’S LESSON

[Illustration: They made such a pretty picture that there was quite a
burst of applause.

V. L. PAGE 33.]



VIVIAN’S LESSON

    By
    ELIZABETH W. GRIERSON
    Author of
    ‘Children’s Tales from Scottish Ballads,’
    ‘The Children’s Book of Edinburgh,’ &c.


    WITH TEN ILLUSTRATIONS
    by
    Hilda Cowham


[Illustration]


    LONDON AND EDINBURGH
    W. & R. CHAMBERS, LIMITED
    Philadelphia: J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
    1907



    Edinburgh:
    Printed by W. & R. Chambers, Limited.



CONTENTS.


    CHAPTER                                      PAGE
        I. WHAT BEGAN IT                            1
       II. AN INVITATION                           11
      III. GOING TO LONDON                         19
       IV. THE CHRISTMAS TREE                      29
        V. A FALSE STEP                            40
       VI. A GAME OF HIDE-AND-SEEK                 54
      VII. ANOTHER INVITATION                      70
     VIII. THE BROKEN WINDOWS                      80
       IX. THE MAN IN THE SUMMER-HOUSE             92
        X. BURGLARS                               103
       XI. THE DOCTOR’S VISIT                     121
      XII. THE DARK SHADOW                        135
     XIII. A DREARY HOMECOMING                    156
      XIV. VIVIAN CONQUERS                        166
       XV. ANOTHER MYSTERY                        179
      XVI. A VAIN SEARCH                          193
     XVII. MADAME GENVIÈVE                        203
    XVIII. RUNNING AWAY                           214
      XIX. THE JOURNEY                            223
       XX. MONSIEUR THE VICOMTE DE CHOISIGNY      236
      XXI. THE OPINION OF DR JULES                245
     XXII. MR MAXWELL FINDS OUT THE TRUTH         254
    XXIII. A HAPPY MEETING                        265
     XXIV. A FRESH BEGINNING                      277
      XXV. WESTWARD HO!                           285



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


                                                                PAGE
    They made such a pretty picture that there was
          quite a burst of applause                    _Frontispiece._

    They were a merry party as they walked across
          the snowy meadow to church                              17

    The children set to work and transformed the
          hall into a perfect bower                               29

    ‘But what is that bundle of rags for?’ went on
          Vivian, putting up his hand to pull them
          down                                                    59

    Isobel lay down with a story-book on the
          schoolroom sofa, and soon fell into a
          heavy sleep                                             64

    There, to his horror, looking through the gap,
          was a rough-looking man, with a stubbly
          beard, and a dirty white muffler twisted
          loosely round his neck                                  92

    At last a tiny red speck appeared under the yellow
          lamp, and began to move slowly up the road             162

    ‘Thou lazy dreamer!’ she said, pulling him to his
          feet by the collar of his blue cotton blouse           205

    He sank gratefully into the soft bed of straw
          which the kind countryman made up for him,
          and had fallen into a feverish sleep                   231

    ‘Mother, oh mother!’ he cried.... ‘Can you forgive me?’      266



VIVIAN’S LESSON.



CHAPTER I.

WHAT BEGAN IT.


‘COME on, Vivian. It is high time we were going home; you know we
promised mother that we would come off the ice at half-past four.’

‘Well, so we will; but it is only five-and-twenty past now, so we
have plenty of time for one turn more. Come on, old stupid; you are
always frightened of being late;’ and the younger of the speakers, a
brown-eyed, mischievous-looking lad of about eleven, swung off with
his three companions, leaving his brother standing watching them, a
troubled look on his face.

He hated to make a fuss, and he did not want to leave the ice a moment
sooner than he could help; but a promise is a promise, and he had
given his word that they would be ready to leave the pond at the
half-hour. It was later than they were generally allowed to stay; but
it was Saturday afternoon, and there were signs of a thaw, so, as the
ice might not last till Monday, their father had agreed to an extra
half-hour on condition that they left the ice punctually and hurried
home.

Vivian had given his word readily enough, and had meant to keep it; but
now, as he flew round and round the pond, crying ‘Just one turn more,’
he seemed to have forgotten all about his promise.

Ronald sat down and took off his skates, then stepped on the path, and
stood buckling them together.

‘Come on, Vivi,’ he entreated. ‘It is the half-hour now, and you know
how anxious mother will be.’

‘All right,’ said Vivian a little sulkily, ‘I suppose I must; but it
is an awful nuisance, when we may not have such lovely ice all winter
again.’

‘I should think so,’ struck in Fergus Strangeways. ‘I am thankful that
father doesn’t make us come in so soon. Why, the moon will be up in no
time, and we will stay on quite late. Captain Laing and he are coming
down before dinner, and Captain Laing promised to show us how to cut
the “Figure Eight.”’

‘How jolly!’ said Ronald a little wistfully, while Vivian bent his head
over his straps and pretended not to hear.

‘Couldn’t you stay, really?’ asked Charlie Strangeways, Fergus’s
elder brother; ‘you could come in and have tea with us. I dare say Dr
Armitage would know where you were; it is going to be lovely moonlight,
and it isn’t as if we were to be alone all the time. I don’t suppose
that he would have minded if he had known that the dad and Captain
Laing were coming.’

‘Oh, do let us stay, Ronald! I’m sure father wouldn’t mind. You know he
did say that he would have taken us out by moonlight himself if he had
not been so busy,’ pleaded Vivian.

‘No, Charlie,’ said Ronald firmly. ‘It is very good of you to ask us,
and it would have been splendid fun; but father didn’t know about your
father and Captain Laing, and he would wonder where we were. Besides,
we promised.—So hurry up, Vivian.’

‘What a stick you are, Ronald!’ said Fergus; ‘you can’t change a bit,
even when circumstances change. Just because Dr Armitage said that you
couldn’t be out alone here after dark, you spoil all the fun by going
off, although it is very different now that father and Captain Laing
are coming.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Fergus,’ put in Charlie good-naturedly. ‘If they
promised, they must go. Besides, it is a long way over to Holmend; it
is easy for us with our house close by.’

Charlie was fifteen, and a public school boy, so his word carried
weight with it, and his brother was silent, while Vivian took up his
skates more cheerfully.

‘We’ll see you in the beginning of the week,’ went on Charlie; ‘we are
going to practise shooting on Tuesday if the frost doesn’t hold, we
have got such jolly little pistols from Uncle Don; they carry quite a
long way, and one can kill a bird with them. You must come over and
bring yours; the Doctor is going to give you a pair for Christmas,
isn’t he?’

Poor Vivian turned hot all over. If there was one thing in the world he
was frightened of, it was being laughed at. As a rule, the boys were
at liberty to choose their Christmas presents; and when, a fortnight
before, Fergus had told him of his uncle’s intended present, he had
instantly agreed to ask his father for the same, and great had been his
disappointment and dismay when his request met with a grave refusal.

‘A pistol for your Christmas present! Not if I know it, my boy. What!
Fergus and Vere and Charlie going to have them? Well, if I mistake
not, they will be in my hands shortly. No, no; if their father likes
to risk their lives, that is no reason why I should risk yours. Now,
don’t look so glum; I know what I am talking about. If you had seen the
case I saw over at Whitforth the other day: a lad older than either
Ronald or you had got hold of one of these pistols, and it went off in
his little brother’s face. I don’t want to harrow your feelings, but,’
and the Doctor’s voice dropped, and he spoke sadly, ‘that poor little
chap will never be able to see again. No; I’ll give you anything you
like, in reason, for your Christmas present, but a pistol is out of the
question.’

At the time the explanation had been sufficient, but now Vivian’s eager
little spirit felt very rebellious.

Fergus Strangeways was just a year older than he was, and surely he
was as capable of being careful as Fergus. How Fergus and Vere would
laugh at him if they knew the whole story! He flashed a warning look at
Ronald, but Ronald did not seem to understand.

‘We may come out to watch,’ he said in his quiet voice; ‘but father
won’t let us have pistols yet. He says we are too young. He has
promised to give us proper guns when we are sixteen. He will not let us
shoot before that.’

The pitying looks on his companions’ faces were quite lost on Ronald,
who was only thinking of his promise to be home in good time; but they
stung Vivian even more than the words that followed.

‘What a nuisance it must be to be so well looked after! You’ll grow
into regular muffs if you don’t look out.’

‘I would give you a licking for that, just to judge if the symptoms are
beginning, but I haven’t time to-night,’ said Ronald, with a laugh,
conscious that none of the boys could stand up against him; and he
walked off whistling through the woods, followed by Vivian, who was
fuming with rage and injured pride.

‘What made you go and give me away like that?’ he asked presently.
‘You know there is a talk of our going to Aunt Dora’s next week. I
know, anyhow, because mother had a letter, and if only you had held
your tongue I would have said that very likely we would be away from
home, and they need never have known anything about father not letting
us have these pistols. Now Fergus will go all over the place laughing
at us for a couple of babies;’ and he kicked at the fallen leaves
viciously in his vexation.

‘As if I minded what Fergus Strangeways says!’ retorted Ronald
scornfully; ‘why, he’s the veriest little ass going. He may get a
pistol, but I bet you a sixpence that he daren’t let it off, in spite
of all his bluster. Besides, I knew nothing about any invitation to
Aunt Dora’s; and if I had, I wouldn’t have been such a sneak as to
pretend that that was the reason that we couldn’t go to shoot with
them. Of course it is a nuisance. I would have liked a pistol as well
as you; but father would not have hindered us having one if he had not
had good reasons, and now that he has promised us that lovely camera
I’m sure we can’t grumble.’

‘That’s all very well for you,’ growled Vivian; ‘you always were a bit
of a muff, with your music, and your photographs, and your collections.
“The paragon” the other boys call you behind your back, for they say
that you haven’t enough spirit in you to do anything wrong.’

‘They had better say it to my face then, and I’ll give them what for,
and you too for listening to such rot,’ said Ronald hotly; and then he
laughed at his own vehemence. ‘Don’t let us quarrel on Christmas Eve,’
he went on pleasantly; ‘I’ll race you across the meadow.’

They set off at a run, and by the time they had reached the garden
gate, hot and breathless, they had almost forgotten the cause of their
anger.

‘There is mother at the window, and Dorothy,’ cried Vivian, waving his
cap. ‘Doesn’t a lit-up room look jolly and comfortable when one is
outside? After all, I am rather glad that we didn’t stay any longer at
the lake, for I am awfully hungry, and I expect there is a scrumptious
tea in the schoolroom.’

As they went into the hall of the long, low red house, a little figure
in white ran out to meet them.

‘Hurry, quick!’ she lisped, ‘we’s going to have tea wif muvver, an’
then we’s going to dec’rate. Black has brought in such a lot of green
stuff, heaps an’ heaps, all p’ickles. Dorothy knows, ’cause she hurted
her fingers.’

‘Dorothy was well warned, so it was her own fault,’ said a clear voice
behind her, and Mrs Armitage appeared in the hall. Tall, slim, and
graceful, with a wealth of rippling hair and a sweet pale face, it was
no wonder that to the boys mother was the centre of their world.

‘Quickly, boys, run upstairs, get off those dirty boots, and get ready
for tea. Father has been called out, and may not be home till quite
late, so I will have it with you in the schoolroom, and afterwards we
will try to get the hall decorated before he comes back. You know how
he loves to see the greenery.’

After tea, Ellen the housemaid was pressed into the service, so the
decorations went on merrily; and as Vivian stood on a ladder fastening
up the wreaths of bright holly which his mother’s quick fingers wove so
rapidly, while little Dorothy ran about, proud in the belief that she
was helping every one, he thought quite pityingly of the Strangeways,
who had no mother or little sister, although they might possess pistols
and skate in the moonlight while he had to come home.



CHAPTER II.

AN INVITATION.


CHRISTMAS Day dawned clear and bright. All prospects of a thaw seemed
to be gone, for the frost had been very keen during the night, and
every little twig on the trees glittered in the sunshine as if it were
set with diamonds.

‘What a day for skating!’ said Ronald at breakfast-time, after
good-mornings and good wishes had been passed round. ‘It almost makes
one wish that Christmas had not fallen on a Sunday this year.’

‘Oh Ronnie!’ said little Dorothy aghast. ‘You touldn’t go skating
to-day. Tink of the pudding, and we’s going to have ’sert. I saw muvver
putting it out—oranges, an’ nuts, an’ ’nannas.’

‘Yes; but, Pussy, Christmas dinner is like the frost, it doesn’t last
for ever,’ said Ronald, lifting his little sister into her place
between his mother’s chair and his own, while everyone laughed at her
remark.

‘Never mind,’ said Mrs Armitage, ‘even if it had been a week-day—what
with church, and dinner, and presents—there would not have been much
time for skating; besides,’ glancing out of the window as she spoke, ‘I
do not think that it will last like this all day. I fancy we will have
a fresh fall of snow ere night. Here comes father, so you may begin,
boys.’

Dr Armitage was a pleasant-looking man, of about middle age, with a
kind, open face, and keen gray eyes. The likeness between him and his
eldest son would have told a stranger at once what relationship there
was between them.

‘Well, boys,’ he said cheerfully, turning over a pile of letters as he
spoke, ‘has mother told you the news yet?’

‘What news?’ they asked eagerly, while their mother shook her head in
mock displeasure.

‘Oh Jack, you cannot keep a secret!’ she said, laughing. ‘I did not
mean to tell them till after church. It will keep running in their
heads all through the service. However, there is no help for it
now.—How would you like to go to London, boys? To Aunt Dora’s, for a
whole week by yourselves?’

‘To Aunt Dora’s, mother? Has she asked us? Oh yes, I remember, Vivian
said’—— Ronald broke off abruptly.

Vivian’s remark of the previous afternoon about an invitation to Aunt
Dora’s had flashed into his mind, and he was just going to ask him how
he had heard the news when a frightened, warning look on his brother’s
face checked him.

‘Oh, how jolly!’ he went on, in some embarrassment, after a moment’s
hesitation; ‘we have never been away ourselves before. Will you let us
go, mother?’

His mother did not seem to notice his confusion, nor the puzzled
look which he wore as he relapsed into silence, and sat watching his
brother, who was talking rapidly, his eager little face flushed and his
eyes sparkling.

‘Yes, I think so,’ she replied, ‘if you promise to be very good boys.
You are old enough now to be trusted away from home alone, so father
and Dorothy and I must make up our minds to a quiet house for a week,
for I wrote to Aunt Dora yesterday to say that you will be at Victoria
at four o’clock on Monday afternoon.’

Breakfast was finished amidst much excited discussion as to what should
be taken in the way of garments and portmanteau. A listener would have
thought that the boys were going to America at least; but to lads of
eleven and thirteen a first visit to London alone is a treat indeed.

As they were running upstairs to get ready for church, Mrs Armitage
laid her hand on Vivian’s shoulder and drew him into her room.

‘What did Ronald mean at breakfast by saying that you had told him
about Aunt Dora’s invitation, Vivian?’ she asked. ‘How did either of
you come to hear of it?’

The little boy rubbed the point of his toe uneasily on the carpet.

‘Ronald is always thinking that I say things,’ he answered evasively,
‘and getting a fellow into a scrape. If he would only mind his own
business.’

‘Nay, Vivian, that is unjust; you know Ronald would be the last person
in the world to get you into a scrape; and in this case there is no
scrape to get into, unless you choose to make one. If by any chance
you found out anything about the invitation, as it seems you must have
done, it probably was a mistake.’

‘Yes, mother, that was just it, it was a mistake,’ said Vivian,
interrupting her eagerly. ‘There was a letter of Aunt Dora’s lying
on your desk, and I saw a bit of it when you sent me to get those
receipts.’

‘But you must have taken time to read it, did you not?’ said his mother
gravely; ‘that could not be a mistake. I thought perhaps you had heard
father talking to me about it; we sometimes hear things that are not
intended for us to hear, but then the honourable thing to do is to say
frankly that you did hear it. To read a letter that is not intended for
you is quite a different matter. I did not think a son of mine would
have done that.’

The tears came into Vivian’s eyes. He loved his mother passionately,
and any appeal from her touched his proud little heart.

‘It really was a mistake at first, mother. When I was looking about for
those receipts, I saw the letter lying spread out, and I could not help
seeing one sentence. “I hope you will let the boys,” it began, and I
did so much want to know what it was that Aunt Dora wanted you to let
us do, so I took up the piece of paper and looked over on the other
side. I was sorry in a moment, but I did not like to tell.’

‘No, that is just it,’ said his mother. ‘You did not like to tell, and
so you were tempted at breakfast this morning to talk as if you knew
nothing about it. That was not exactly telling a lie, Vivian; but do
you not think that it was acting one? I think that is your besetting
sin, my boy. You know that we all have a sin that we must specially
fight against, and I want you to try and fight against yours. You have
not the moral courage to confess when you have done something wrong,
but you try to shuffle and explain things away, so as to hide what you
have done. You have plenty of courage in other ways, quite as much, if
not more, than Ronald. You have the kind of courage that would make you
fight, or face danger; but there is a higher kind of courage than that,
and I want you to try and gain it. I mean the courage that will tell
the truth, even when the truth is not pleasant, and when you may get
laughed at for telling it, and which will own up to a fault rather
than try to hide it.

[Illustration: They were a merry party as they walked across the snowy
meadow to church.

V. L. PAGE 17.]

‘You are so quick and impulsive, you often do things without thinking,
not because you do not mean to do what is right, but because you do not
take time to see that it is wrong; and that leads to the worse sin of
covering up the matter and telling half-lies to shield yourself. Now,
as this is Christmas Day, we won’t say anything more about it; only,
dearie, try and remember who came this day to help us—to save us from
our sins. That is what His name means.’

‘Yes, mother,’ said Vivian, beginning to fidget with all a healthy
boy’s dislike to a ‘sermon,’ and his mother let him go with a sigh.

‘Will I ever be able to train him to be a brave and honourable man,’
she thought to herself, ‘with his quick, ambitious nature, his love of
being first, coupled with his moral cowardice and fear of being laughed
at?’

They were a merry party as they walked across the snowy meadow to
church. Little Dorothy, who looked like a white woolly ball in her fur
coat and cap, clinging to her father with one hand and to Ronald with
the other, as they gave her slides along the slippery footpath, while
Vivian hovered round, now sliding himself, now threatening to snowball
the others, all trace of the late conversation seeming to have vanished
from his mind. But the good thoughts came back again in the old church,
where there was an atmosphere of sober gladness, its gray stone pillars
being wreathed with glistening holly, and brightly coloured banners
hanging over the pulpit and choir-stalls.

The rector took for his text the very verse that his mother had spoken
about; and as the old man talked simply to the congregation of the
battle that each one of us has to wage against the sin in ourselves
before we can hope to fight successfully against the sin that is in the
world, and how the Bethlehem Babe came to help and save us, Vivian,
sitting in his dark corner of the old-fashioned pew, gave his mother’s
hand a little squeeze, and, crushing his face against her cloak, made
more good resolutions for the future than ever he had done before in
the whole course of his happy, careless, light-hearted life.



CHAPTER III.

GOING TO LONDON.


WHO does not know the excitement of a first visit away from home,
unaccompanied by any grown-up person?

The following morning the boys were downstairs twenty minutes before
any one else, and it seemed as if Ellen would never bring in the
coffee; while so many important messages came to take up their father’s
attention, it appeared as if it must be at least ten o’clock before
breakfast and prayers were over, and they were at liberty at last to
run upstairs to the schoolroom, where nurse was busy folding their
clothes into their father’s portmanteau, which had been called into
service for the occasion.

And yet—when that was done, and the straps all fastened up, and Ronald
had run down to the surgery to get a clean white label, and had printed
‘Armitage, Victoria, London,’ on it in his best printing, and Vivian
had tied it on, while little Dorothy watched the proceedings in silent
admiration—there remained nearly four hours before the time came for an
early lunch and the drive to the station.

The hours passed somehow, however, and at last the carriage was brought
round, and the portmanteau was tucked away beside Black on the box,
while father packed the boys inside, with mother and Dorothy, who were
going to see them off. Just at the last moment he slipped two little
paper packets into their hands, telling them not to open them until
they were in the train. Then he shut the carriage door and nodded to
Black, and they had actually started at last.

They felt quite important at the quiet little station, when mother went
to get the tickets, and old Timms the porter came up, and, touching his
cap, asked ‘Where for, sir?’ and Ronald answered, ‘London, Victoria,’
in a careless tone as if going to London were quite an everyday event.
Old Timms noticed the tone, and his eyes twinkled, but he only touched
his cap again, and said, ‘Very good, sir,’ and put the portmanteau
beside the other luggage which was waiting ready for the London train.

Perhaps their hearts failed them a little, although they both would
have scorned the suggestion, as the train came roaring round the curve,
and mother gave them a last kiss, saying, ‘Give my love to Aunt Dora,
and all the others, and enjoy yourselves, and be my own good boys; and,
Vivian, remember our talk yesterday.’ Then the guard hustled them into
a carriage, the door banged, and the train moved on.

Now they had time to think about the little packets which their father
had given them, and on opening them each was found to contain two
half-crowns. This discovery quite raised their spirits again, for what
may not be bought for five shillings in the wonderful shops in London!

It was a foggy afternoon, and Victoria Station looked very big, and
dark, and bustling, as the train steamed into it; and as a porter threw
open the door of their carriage, and they stepped on to the platform,
the boys felt somewhat bewildered with the crowd of people who were
running about in all directions.

‘Supposing Aunt Dora has mistaken the train? I don’t see her anywhere,’
said Ronald, who was always rather anxious-minded.

‘Oh, we’ll just take a cab,’ said Vivian confidently; ‘that’s the way
people do, and give the man the address—“Eversley, Hampstead Heath.” He
will take us there all right. Hadn’t we better go and look after our
portmanteau? The porters are taking all the luggage out of that van.
Some one may steal ours.’

‘No; no one would dare do that; but, all the same, we had better see to
it.—Here, porter!’

But the words were too gentle for the hurrying man to heed, or perhaps
he had more important people in his eye, for he took no notice, and the
boys were standing, feeling rather helpless, with a homesick longing
for old Timms’s honest red face, when Aunt Dora’s cheery voice sounded
just behind them.

‘Well, boys, how are you? Did you think that I had forgotten you? Not
a very cheerful welcome, was it—eh, Vivian—to let you arrive all by
yourselves? But you must blame the fog and not me. It was quite clear
when I started, and it is so foggy in some parts now that we had to
drive very slowly. I am afraid it will take us quite a long time to get
home; but never mind, you will enjoy your tea all the more when you get
it.’

If it took a long time to get home, the boys hardly noticed it. It was
impossible to be shy with Aunt Dora. She was so bright and full of fun,
and so eager to hear all the home news—how mother and little Dorothy
were, and how father’s patients were getting on. She was Dr Armitage’s
sister, and had lived with him when he first settled at Sittingham, and
she took as great an interest now in the old women at the almshouses
and the new babies in the village as she had done in the old days when
she had carried soup to one and milk to the other.

‘Here we are at last!’ she exclaimed, interrupting a graphic
description which Vivian was giving of the latest village concert; and
as she spoke the carriage turned in at an ivy-covered lodge, and drew
up in front of a large square house which looked as if it were capable
of holding a very large party indeed.

The instant the carriage stopped, the front door opened, and two eager
faces appeared, peeping out behind the trim parlour-maid, who came down
the steps to open the door and take the wraps.

‘Isobel and Claude have been on the lookout, you see,’ laughed their
mother. ‘Their excitement has known no bounds ever since they knew that
you were coming. But I don’t see Ralph; I expect he will be deep in a
book as usual. Run in out of the cold, boys, and Ann will bring your
portmanteau.’

‘We thought that you were never coming,’ said Isobel, taking possession
of her cousins at once, and leading the way upstairs to the schoolroom.
‘Claude and I have been watching for the carriage ever since five
o’clock, and it is a quarter to six now. Aren’t you just famishing for
your tea? It is all ready in the schoolroom, and I’ve to pour it out.’

‘What will Miss Ritchie say to that?’ asked Ronald, laughing. ‘You
remember you told us last Easter how particular she was about spots on
the tablecloth, and a teapot is rather a heavy thing.’

‘She’s gone,’ said Claude, who was contentedly bringing up the rear,
with a broad grin on his rosy face, ‘right away to Wales to spend
her holidays. Mother said if we were very good we might do without a
governess this Christmas, for I’m eight now you see, and that is quite
big.’

‘Who is quite big?’ said a mocking voice as they entered the
schoolroom, where a blazing fire and a table covered with delicious
home-baked cakes were awaiting them, and a tall, thin boy, with a
somewhat peevish expression, rose from a corner where he had been
poring over a book, and came forward to shake hands. This was Ralph,
the eldest of Mrs Osbourne’s children. He was just a little older than
Vivian, though he might have been Ronald’s age from his very grown-up
manner. As a little boy he had been very delicate, and had been abroad
a great deal with an old French governess who had taught his mother
when she was a child. He was at a boarding-school at Eastbourne now;
and, having the idea in his own mind that he had seen a great deal of
the world, he was rather inclined to patronise his cousins, who had
always lived in the country, and to whom even a visit to London was an
event.

They, on their part, did not like him nearly so much as they did Isobel
and Claude, and could have told many a story of the want of pluck which
he showed in outdoor games; but they admired him for the way in which
he could ‘jabber French,’ as Vivian termed it, and for the grown-up
books which he read, and politeness made them careful not to stir up
questions which might lead to quarrels.

Isobel they adored. She was such a jolly little tomboy, who could climb
trees and play cricket as well as any boy, and yet she was such a
dainty little maiden, with a very tender conscience and a peace-loving
disposition, who often smoothed down angry words which might otherwise
have led to blows. ‘My little peacemaker,’ her mother called her,
and Ronald thought to himself, as they sat at tea, that the name was
well chosen, as he saw the quick colour flash into Claude’s rosy,
determined little face at some scoffing remark of Ralph’s, and noticed
how cleverly Isobel changed the subject by talking about the party
which they were to have the next night, and to which they were looking
forward with eager anticipation.

‘There is to be a Christmas tree,’ she explained, pausing in her
eagerness, with the teapot in her hand, in the middle of pouring out
tea. ‘Last year we had a cinematograph, and the year before a conjurer;
but this year mother has promised us a real Christmas tree, with
candles all lit up, and presents on it for every one.’

‘Yes; and I think it is ready in the little drawing-room now,’ said
Claude, ‘for we have been forbidden to go in. We mustn’t even go into
the big drawing-room; and I saw Jane carrying in heaps and heaps of
parcels.’

‘Did you?’ said Aunt Dora, who had come into the room unobserved: ‘and
what do you think will be inside the parcels, pray?’

‘Presents, heaps and heaps of them,’ replied Claude, his big blue eyes
growing bigger at the thought.

‘But not all for you,’ said Ralph, in his calm, superior way, which
always made Ronald feel inclined to punch him; ‘there’s a microscope
for me, and a writing-case for Isobel, and books or something or other
for Ronald and Vivian; and for the little ones, about seven or eight
years old, you know, there are tins of toffee. I saw cook making it.’

‘Oh mother, there isn’t!’ said Claude, looking ready to cry at the
suggestion. ‘I wrote to Santa Claus and told him I wanted a man-of-war,
and I posted it in the chimney myself, and it went right up.’

Mrs Osbourne laughed as she patted him on the head.

‘Ralph doesn’t know what he is talking about,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he
will not get his microscope, and perhaps you will get your man-of-war;
but you must wait till to-morrow night to see. I cannot tell you
beforehand.’



CHAPTER IV.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE.


THE next day was a busy one. In the morning the gardener brought in
a load of evergreens; and while Aunt Dora and the maids prepared the
long table in the dining-room, and superintended Davis the coachman as
he carried all the drawing-room furniture into the study and the hall,
with the help of the gardener’s boy, so as to leave the room clear to
dance in, the children set to work and transformed the hall into a
perfect bower.

[Illustration: The children set to work and transformed the hall into a
perfect bower.

V. L. PAGE 29.]

They twisted ivy round the balusters and polished oak stair-rails, and
hung it in festoons over the sides of the gallery which ran round three
sides of the house. They framed the pictures with glistening holly and
scarlet berries, and crowned the great marble statue in the hall with a
crown of mistletoe.

It was a very tired and grubby little party who gathered round
the dinner-table, which to-day was set in the servants’ hall; but
Aunt Dora’s pleased appreciation of their efforts made up for all
the trouble; and after a quiet hour spent in the schoolroom over
story-books they were quite fresh again at three o’clock, when Mary
came up to help Claude to dress, and brush Isobel’s hair for her and
tie her sash.

‘I wish we had Etons,’ said Vivian to his brother when they were alone
in their own room, turning over his summer suit of dark-green cloth
with rather a dissatisfied air. ‘I was in Ralph’s room washing my hands
before dinner, and he has a proper suit, with gray trousers and a short
coat with a peak at the back, just like those Charlie Strangeways had
last summer.’

‘That’s because he’s at school,’ said Ronald, who was splashing away
vigorously at the washhand-stand. ‘Probably a lot of the fellows will
have Etons on; I know they wear them in London a lot. But I think these
green suits of ours are rather nice; besides, it doesn’t matter what
boys wear, and mother has promised to get us Etons for next summer. I
say, won’t Isobel look a duck in that stunning white frock, with that
pale-blue sash? I hope Dorothy will grow up as pretty as she is.’

‘Isobel is just perfect,’ said Vivian emphatically. ‘I hope Aunt Dora
will let her come down to us again in spring for the Easter holidays;
she will make the Strangeways look astonished. They were not at home
the last time she came. They always laugh at girls, but they won’t
laugh at her when they see how she plays cricket. She is not like the
Lister girls, who daren’t catch a ball in case it hurts their fingers.
I only wish Ralph were like her,’ he added, going back to the vexed
question of clothes. ‘You should have seen his face when I told him
that we had only our last year’s summer suits to wear. He muttered
something about “country cousins,” and offered to lend me his last
year’s suit. It is too little for him, but he said it would just do for
me.’

‘And I hope you snubbed him well for his impudence. I tell you what,
Vivi, he is our cousin, and we must be civil to him because of Aunt
Dora and Uncle Walter and Claude and Isobel; but he is a cad, an
out-and-out cad, with his airs and his conceit. So don’t let me find
you copying him, or I’ll give you a good licking. Wear his old clothes
indeed! You had better try it.’

Ronald spoke so sharply that Vivian, who had had a sneaking hope in
his heart that his brother would agree to Ralph’s proposal, dropped the
subject hastily, and began to scramble into the despised green suit
in a very great hurry, feeling a little ashamed of himself as he did
so for despising the clothes which his mother had chosen for him, and
of which, until his conversation with Ralph, he had been not a little
proud.

He quite forgot his momentary vexation, however, when Isobel, a slim
little white fairy, with soft blue ribbons, knocked at the door to
see if he were ready to go down and practise the minuet which he had
promised to dance with her.

Mrs Armitage had made a point of having her boys taught to dance, for
she always maintained that it taught them to hold themselves well, and
hindered them from looking as if they did not know what to do with
their arms and legs when they came into a room full of strangers.
Vivian especially danced exceedingly nicely for a boy of his age, and
later on, as Isobel and he went through the stately measures, bowing
and curtsying to each other in the middle of the great drawing-room
with its brilliant lights, they made such a pretty picture that there
was quite a burst of applause from the grown-ups, who had come to look
after the little ones and share the fun.

‘You did that splendidly, old fellow,’ whispered Ronald, with real
brotherly pride, when the performance was over, and Vivian came up to
the corner where he was standing along with some of the bigger boys. ‘I
shall write and tell mother that you have taken all the ladies’ hearts
by storm. I heard that old dame with the eye-glasses, who is standing
next Aunt Dora, ask, “Who that exceedingly nice-looking boy is?”’

‘Fudge!’ said Vivian, laughing; but he was pleased all the same, for he
felt that he had shown Ralph that even a ‘country cousin’ could do some
things better than he could, in spite of the fact that he did not wear
an Eton suit.

The event of the evening was the Christmas tree, and there was a
breathless silence as all the children gathered in the drawing-room,
and were arranged in rows, the little ones in front, before the drawn
curtain which separated the two rooms.

There were mysterious whisperings going on behind the curtain, and
stifled laughter; but at last the bell rang, and the lights were turned
down, and in another moment the curtain flew back, and there stood the
tree, blazing with coloured candles and laden with presents.

An old man, with snow-white hair and a long beard, stood beside it,
wearing a white cloak which sparkled as if it were covered with
hoar-frost. ‘Father Christmas!’ shouted all the children at once.
‘Three cheers for Father Christmas!’ while Claude, who, in his
eagerness, had crawled very near the green tub in which the Christmas
tree was planted, cried out in a tone of surprise, ‘Oh, it’s father; I
know his boots.’

A roar of laughter greeted this discovery.

‘Hush, Claude,’ said his mother, catching the little fellow by his belt
and swinging him back to his place beside the others. ‘Take care, or
Santa Claus will have no present for you. He only brings them for the
children who sit still in their places.’

Then Father Christmas held up his hand for silence, and made a little
speech, telling them how glad he was to see them all, and how he hoped
that they were enjoying themselves, and that they would all be good
children in the year that was coming; then he took up a long white
wand, with a hook at the end of it, and began to take down the presents
from the tree and call out the names which were printed on them.

It seemed as if Aunt Dora must be a witch, for she had thought of just
the right thing for every one. For the tiny tots there were woolly
bears, and rabbits, and long-haired dolls; while for older children
there were clever mechanical toys, useful glove-boxes and hand-bags,
and prettily bound books. Ralph had his microscope, and Claude his
man-of-war, while Ronald, who was fond of all country pursuits, hugged
two beautifully bound volumes of _British Birds_ in silent delight.

‘I see two Brownie kodaks; I do wish one of them would come to me,’
said Robin Earlison, a boy of about Vivian’s age, who was sitting next
him. ‘I don’t want to be greedy; but I do want one badly, if only I
could have the luck to get it. What do you want?’ he went on, trying
to look as if he did not care when one of the coveted kodaks went to
Pierce Dumot, a delicate-looking boy with a slight limp, who was
sitting at the other end of the row. ‘But I expect you know what you
are to get, for you are staying in the house, aren’t you?’

Vivian scarcely heard him. His eye had fallen on a toy pistol which
was hanging on one of the lower branches. It was not quite so large as
those which the Strangeways boys had got, but what joy it would be if
it fell to his lot! He held his breath and sat very still as one after
another of the children went up to get their presents. Seven, six,
five—there were only four things left on the tree now—the other kodak,
the pistol, a bright blue book, and a box of soldiers.

He felt hot all over with the suspense. The soldiers could not be for
him, he was too big for them, so that left only three things. Now
Santa Claus was unfastening the kodak. Ah, it was Robin’s name that
was called, so Robin had got his heart’s desire; and now there only
remained the blue book and the pistol.

He was so intent listening for the next name he forgot to rise and let
Robin pass to his seat, and Robin, noting the strained look on his
eager face, hoped that he was not disappointed because he had not got
the kodak.

Now Father Christmas had the pistol in his hand, and was turning it
over seeking for the name. Would he never find it? Vivian felt angry at
the noise that the other boys, who had already received their presents,
were making. But his suspense did not last long. In another moment his
name was called out, and the wished-for toy was in his hand.

He turned it over and over in delight, examining every part of it,
while some of the other boys stretched over the seats to admire it.
Evidently a toy pistol was a coveted possession.

‘It’s not a very big one,’ said one lad, with rather a mean desire to
depreciate a present which he had wished for, but which had not fallen
to his lot.

‘All the better,’ said Ronald, who had left his seat and come round to
see what his brother had got. ‘Father would not have let him use it if
it had been bigger.’

‘It will shoot very well, all the same,’ broke in the good-natured
Robin, relieved to find that it was not the kodak that his companion
had been longing for. ‘My cousin had one like that, and he could shoot
sparrows with it. He found it very useful in the spring, when they
tried to eat up all the seeds that he had sown in the garden.’

‘Vivian Armitage. No, it is not for him. It is for Vivian Gray, who
isn’t here. This book is for Vivi.’

It was Aunt Dora’s voice, and she looked over the boys’ clustering
heads as she spoke. ‘No, Vivi dear, that is not for you,’ she said,
stretching out her hand. ‘You are rather a little chap for that. I am
afraid that mother would not thank me if I sent you home with such a
dangerous toy. This book is for you; I think you will like it. It is
one of Henty’s. Claude got it for a birthday present a year ago, and he
was quite delighted with it.’

Poor Vivian! he handed back the pistol and took the book instead with
the best grace he could; but it was a bitter disappointment, and Aunt
Dora’s kind heart was troubled as she saw how his face fell, and with
what difficulty he winked back the tears which were perilously near
filling his eyes.

‘It serves me right,’ she thought, ‘for having such a thing on the
tree, only I knew that Mr Gray had no objection to Vivian having it,
and it took my fancy when I was buying the presents. I must try to
remember to ask Jack if he would mind if I give Vivi one on his next
birthday; he will be a year older then, and more careful.’

Thinking that a change of occupation would be the best thing to
divert the little boy’s thoughts, she wrapped up the pistol with its
accompanying box of caps, and calling Basil Gray, Vivian’s younger
brother, she gave it to him, asking him to take it home, and give it
to Vivian, who was in bed with a chill; then she proposed a game of
charades, choosing Vivi for one of the actors; and as she saw his face
brighten as he ran upstairs with the others to dress, she hoped that
the disappointment was only temporary, and that by the next morning he
would have forgotten all about it.



CHAPTER V.

A FALSE STEP.


BREAKFAST was late next morning, for it had been nearly midnight
before the party was over and the last of the guests had gone, so Aunt
Dora had made the welcome announcement, when she said good-night,
that no one need be called before half-past eight, or be expected to
be downstairs before nine o’clock. Isobel was dressed before that,
however, and so was Vivian, and they amused themselves playing ‘touch’
round the gallery, making so much noise that at last Aunt Dora opened
her bedroom door.

‘Parties do not seem to have any power to tire you two,’ she said,
laughing. ‘I wish my bones were as free from aches; but I must have a
little less noise when Claude comes in to say his prayers, so I think
I shall set you to do something for me. It just wants five minutes
till breakfast-time, and perhaps in these five minutes you could carry
up all the things that were brought down for the charades from the
cloakroom to the schoolroom. The maids will be busy putting the hall in
order, and there will be so much dust. We can put them back in their
places after breakfast.’

The two children ran obediently downstairs, followed by Ronald, who had
just finished dressing; and by the time Anne appeared in the hall with
the breakfast-tray, bringing with her a most tempting odour of bacon
and eggs, the cloakroom was quite tidy, and the last armful of toys,
rugs, and cloaks had been carried into the schoolroom.

‘I think we had better take up our caps and greatcoats, Vivi,’ said
Ronald taking his own garments down from the peg where they were
hanging. ‘You know mother told us to keep our things all together in
our own bedroom, so that we might find them easily when we come to
pack. Your things are all over the place already; I saw your woollen
gloves in the schoolroom, and your silk neckerchief on the window-ledge
in the back hall.’

‘What a nice time you would have if Miss Ritchie were here!’ laughed
Isobel, trying to see how long she could hop on one foot without losing
her balance; ‘she always fines us a halfpenny for everything that we
leave about. She warns us once, then if we don’t put it away we have to
pay the fine.’

‘I’m afraid that I’d lose an awful lot of money if mother did that to
me,’ said Vivian. ‘Somehow I never can remember to put things in their
right places. As for Ronald, I think he must have been born tidy, for
he can always find anything he wants, even in the dark.’

‘You are much quicker, though,’ said Ronald, not to be outdone in
brotherly generosity; ‘you can do things in half the time that I take
to do them. But hurry up, old chap; run along and find your things, or
the bell will ring before you get down again.’

‘All right,’ answered Vivian; and as he spoke he threw his coat over
his arm, and ran across the front hall, and disappeared through the
swing door which separated it from the back staircase, in order to
gather together the rest of his belongings as he went upstairs.

But although Ronald had plenty of time to go upstairs and hang
everything in his wardrobe in his leisurely way, and come down again
and join the others in the dining-room before the breakfast-bell rang,
it was fully five minutes before Vivian reappeared.

‘Whatever can he be doing?’ asked Uncle Walter, as he rapidly cut
slices of bread and served out the bacon and eggs. ‘His coffee will be
quite cold.’

‘Gathering all his things together, in case mother fines him a
halfpenny for each of them,’ laughed Isobel. ‘I have frightened him by
telling him what Miss Ritchie does to us.’

‘But you are a girl, and girls have always to learn to keep the house
tidy,’ said Ralph in his lofty way. ‘It is of far more consequence for
a woman to be tidy than for a man.—Isn’t it, mother?’

‘Certainly not,’ said his mother; ‘and if those are the notions that
you are learning at St Chad’s we will have to put on the halfpenny fine
in the holidays to counteract them. I expect you to be just as tidy as
Isobel—tidier, in fact, because you are older.’

At this moment Vivian appeared, and his entrance put an end to the
discussion, for every one began laughingly to ask him if it had taken
him five minutes to hang up his coat, but he did not seem to be as
ready with an answer as he generally was, and, slipping into his place
between Ralph and Claude, he began to eat his breakfast hurriedly, as
if to make up for lost time. He kept his face bent so steadily over his
plate that no one noticed until breakfast was over that he had a big
blue bruise on one of his temples, which looked as though he had struck
his face against something sharp. It was little Claude who saw it
first, and he cried out at once, in spite of Vivian’s hurried whisper
to keep quiet.

‘Come here, mother, and see how Vivian has hurt himself; he has got a
great bump over one of his eyes. Hadn’t he better have eau de Cologne
on it?’

To Claude, the idea of being petted by mother, and having nice-smelling
stuff put on his knocks and bruises, quite compensated for the pain of
them, and he could not understand why Vivian tried to escape upstairs
before his aunt came hurriedly from the kitchen, where she had gone to
have an interview with cook.

‘Why, Vivi, boy,’ she said, drawing him to the light, and pressing her
fingers gently over the ugly mark, ‘why did you not tell me of this,
and have it seen to, when you came downstairs? However did you manage
to do it?’

‘I slipped, and knocked it against the corner of the washstand in
our room, Aunt Dora; and I am very sorry, but I broke the glass for
drinking water out of. I knocked it on to the floor.’

‘Yes, and you must have upset the ewer too,’ said Ralph, who had been
upstairs for a book, ‘for I heard Mary tell Anne that your carpet was
soaking, and that you had scrubbed it up with one of mother’s best
damask towels.’

Vivian’s face turned scarlet.

‘I’m very sorry,’ he stammered; ‘but the ewer got upset as well, and I
did not know what to do. I never thought about the towel. But the ewer
isn’t broken, Aunt Dora.’

Mrs Osbourne felt a little troubled. She had always tried to impress
upon her own children that the straightforward way, when any mishap
occurred, was to come to her at once, and tell her about it; and she
could not help wishing that her little nephew had done this instead of
saying nothing about the accident until it was found out, and he was
compelled to do so, and then try to shrink from inquiries.

But, after all, it was rather an ordeal for a little boy to come down
in a strange house and publicly own to having nearly swamped his
bedroom, besides having broken a glass; so she contented herself by
saying, as she bathed the wounded head, ‘It would have been better if
you had told me at once, dear, and then I could have sent Mary to dry
up the water; and, perhaps, if your head had been bathed at once there
would not have been such a bump.’

She kissed him and sent him away, little dreaming how miserable the
poor boy really was, or what a battle was going on in his heart.

In a moment of temptation he had taken a false step, a terribly false
one, and that better self which dwells within us all was urging him to
retrace it while yet there was time, and it was easy to do so. As he
went upstairs to the schoolroom his mother’s words of the Sunday before
came into his mind: ‘You have not got the courage to confess when you
have done something wrong;’ and, child as he was, he felt the truth of
them, and he wished he could make up his mind now to confess everything
to Aunt Dora.

Not that it need seem like a confession at all, for he had only to
tell her that he had found a parcel in his greatcoat-pocket which was
not his, and which must have been put there by some one in mistake.
If he ran into his bedroom for a moment, and took the parcel from its
hiding-place and put it back in his coat-pocket, he need not tell her
that he had intended to keep it, and had hidden it on the top of the
wardrobe, and in so doing had tipped over the chair he was standing on
and overturned the ewer.

For five long minutes he stood at the top of the stairs debating with
himself. He even went the length of going into his room with the
half-formed intention in his mind of getting down the parcel; but Mary
the housemaid was in possession, and she spoke to him rather tartly.

‘Now, Master Vivian,’ she began, ‘be a good boy, and don’t go messing
all over the place again just when I’ve got it all cleaned up.’

Colouring at the sharp words, and at the sight of the dark, wet patch
on the carpet, Vivian drew back and went into the schoolroom.

There every one was busy, and took little notice of him. Ralph and
Ronald were curled up in two basket-chairs by the fire, deep in books,
while Isobel was writing a letter, and Claude was playing happily on
the floor with his man-of-war.

‘Come into the bathroom and see how well she sails,’ he cried; but
Vivian was in no mood to attend to him. The conflicting voices were too
strong in his heart, and he went out and wandered restlessly downstairs
again.

Aunt Dora had finished her business with the cook, and was now seated
at her desk in the study, making out lists for the stores. Looking up,
she caught sight of her little nephew’s white, anxious face.

‘Do you feel sick, dearie?’ she asked kindly, laying down her pen. ‘A
bump like that is a nasty thing, and if you like you can lie down for a
while. Come, and I will tuck you up on the couch, and we will not let
any of the others in to make a noise until lunch-time.’

‘I’m not sick, thank you,’ said Vivian, drawing pictures slowly with
his fingers on the window-pane; ‘but I want to tell you something,
auntie.’

‘Yes, dearie?’

At that moment Anne appeared in the doorway. ‘If you please, mum,
there’s a young gentleman in the hall who wishes to speak to you. It is
one of the young gentlemen who were here last night, and I think he has
lost something.’

Mrs Osbourne rose and left the room, and Vivian followed her, sick and
miserable. He would fain not have gone at all, for he knew too well who
it was, and what he wanted; but something within him compelled him to
go and hear what was said.

As he expected, Basil Gray stood outside, a look of anxiety on his
boyish face.

‘Good-morning, Mrs Osbourne. I’ve come very early, but mother sent me
round. The fact is, I’m afraid that I have lost that parcel which you
gave me to take home to Vivian—the pistol and caps, you know. It was
awfully careless of me, and yet I can’t think how I lost it. I put it
in my greatcoat-pocket in the cloakroom, as you told me, and I never
thought anything more about it until I got home, and ran upstairs to
give it to Vivian, and when I put my hand in my pocket it wasn’t there.
Of course it may have fallen out on the way home, but it doesn’t seem
likely; my pocket is too deep, and mother thinks that I may have put
it in some one else’s pocket. There were some coats hanging in the
cloakroom just like mine, almost the same, made of gray tweed. This is
the coat I had on last night,’ and he unbuttoned it to let Mrs Osbourne
see it better.

‘Why, it is almost exactly the same as those that Ronald and you have,
Vivian,’ she said, stooping down to examine it. ‘It is just possible
that Basil may have put it in one of your pockets. Run into the
cloakroom, like a good boy, and see, and we will go upstairs, and send
Ralph to search his coat, although I hardly think that you could put it
there, Basil, for he has a dark-brown coat, quite different from this.’

Clearly Aunt Dora had forgotten that the coats had been carried
upstairs in the morning, but Vivian did not remind her of the fact.
He crept away into the cloakroom and waited there, feeling as he had
never felt in his life before. He realised that he had lost the chance
of retrieving that first wrong step, for he knew only too well that
he would never have the courage now to confess that the pistol had
been put in the wrong pocket, and that when he had found it there, as
he was carrying his coat upstairs, the sudden temptation had been too
strong for him, and that, almost without intending to keep it, he had
hidden it where no one would dream of looking for it. At least he hoped
so; but supposing Mary took it into her head to dust the top of the
wardrobe? The very idea made him shiver; and, in case Aunt Dora might
wonder why he was lingering downstairs, he started and ran out of the
cloakroom so suddenly that he knocked up against Anne, who was dusting
in the hall, and, muttering an apology, hurried up into the schoolroom.

‘We took our coats upstairs in the morning, Aunt Dora,’ he said
breathlessly, ‘and I don’t see any parcel lying about.’

‘No,’ said his aunt; ‘if it had been downstairs the maids must have
noticed it, and Ronald has just been searching his own pockets and
yours, and it is not there.—So, I am afraid, Basil, you must either
have dropped it on your way home, or else you have put it in some
other boy’s coat. I will write and ask if any of them have found it,
although I think if they have, they will be honourable enough to bring
it back.’

‘Honourable enough!’ The words fell on Vivian’s ears like burning drops
of lead, reminding him of some words which his father had once spoken
when Ronald and he had been discussing what they meant to be when they
were men.

‘Well, boys,’ Dr Armitage had said, putting his hands on their
shoulders, ‘I may not have much money to leave you, but I will give
you a good education, and after that you shall choose a calling for
yourselves. I do not much mind what you are, as long as you grow up
God-fearing, honourable men.’

Ronald, always slow to speak, had merely answered, ‘Yes, father, we’ll
try to be that;’ but Vivian had hugged the Doctor in his impulsive way,
and had promised readily what seemed to him an easy task.

Alas! what claim had he to the word ‘honourable’ now?

The thought stung him to the quick, and yet he had not the courage to
slip downstairs to the study, after Basil had gone, and his aunt had
resumed her writing, and finish the confession which Anne’s entrance
had interrupted.

In spite of his self-loathing, it was a relief to him to think that the
risk of discovery was averted in the meantime, for every one seemed
satisfied that the pistol had not been lost in the house; so he tried
recklessly to stifle his conscience, and presently, when they went
out to play hide-and-seek in the garden, his voice was so loud and
merry that Aunt Dora, watching them from the study window, wondered at
the buoyancy of childhood, and thought with a smile of the miserable
white-faced little lad of an hour ago.



CHAPTER VI.

A GAME OF HIDE-AND-SEEK.


THE grounds round Eversley were unusually large for a suburban house,
and there was plenty of room for a good romping game.

First came the garden with the greenhouses and vineries, with a large
tennis-green at the side, then two small paddocks almost large enough
to be honoured by the name of fields, with a walk all round bordered
by a row of fruit-trees. These were separated from the Heath by a
double fence, enclosing a tangled hedge which in summer was a mass of
wild-roses and honeysuckle, but which now lay bare and dead under its
covering of snow.

At the far corner of one of the paddocks, quite hidden from the house,
was a little summer-house, where in summer the children kept their
gardening tools and played on rainy days, and behind it stood a fine
old oak-tree, with low spreading branches, along which any one might
creep, and drop down on the other side of the hedge on to the Heath.

Altogether it was a delightful place for a game of hide-and-seek, and
the children found it so, as they chased each other round and round the
paddock, or dodged out and in among the narrow paths which separated
the vineries and potting-houses from the stables.

The game was at its height when Isobel and Vivian, hot and breathless,
found a convenient hiding-place between the summer-house and the trunk
of the old oak, and were resting, safe from pursuit, while Ronald and
Claude were searching for them in all directions round by the stables
and the kitchen-garden—Ralph, who had been taken, watching them from
the shelter of the ‘home.’

‘This is a lovely place to hide in, and no one knows of it but myself,’
said Isobel, brushing the snow from her skirts, ‘and it is even
better in summer, when the leaves are on the trees. When I crawl in
here no one can see a trace of me, no matter how close they come. If
Ralph had been on our track he might have thought of coming round the
summer-house, and he might have seen our footprints, but I don’t think
Claude ever will.’

‘Yes, it is a jolly place for hiding, and that looks a jolly tree to
climb,’ answered Vivian, looking with longing eyes at the low spreading
branches. ‘Suppose we crawl along one of those branches and drop over
on to the Heath, and then get “home” by the gate, wouldn’t Claude look
astonished? He would think we had fallen from the clouds.’

‘Yes, do let us,’ said Isobel, always ready for any deed of daring,
and, quick as thought she was up the tree and crawling carefully along
one of the wide branches.

Vivian watched her with admiring eyes.

‘You are a brick, Isobel,’ he said; ‘you can climb as well as any
boy, and yet you are so nice and dainty. I wish the Lister girls down
at home saw you, they are such stiff, starched, stuck-up prigs; they
think that no girl can climb and do that sort of thing and yet be what
they call ladylike. If they have got to get over a wall, no matter how
low it is, they cry out and make such a fuss. We fellows hate them.
They spoil all the parties and picnics with their silly ways, and yet
they have to be asked, for their mother lets them have awfully jolly
parties, and they always ask us.’

‘Silly things!’ said Isobel, turning round now that she had reached the
end of the branch, and trying to bob up and down so as to get a swing.

‘But I am rather sorry for them all the same, for I expect they have no
brothers. I always pity girls who have no brothers. I can tell them as
soon as I see them, they walk so straight and proper, one on each side
of their governess.’

‘But supposing there are three of them,’ said Vivian, laughing.

‘Oh, then two walk in front, and one with the governess,’ said Isobel;
‘but they all have the same proper look. If you like, I’ll point some
of them out to you when we go down the Finchley Road.’

‘You would point out girls you knew, who have no brothers,’ said
Vivian, trying to tease her.

‘I’m not so mean,’ answered Isobel, the delicate colour rising to her
face at the imputation; ‘but if you intend to come along this branch
you had better come quickly. I see Claude’s cap past the end of the
hen-house.’

Vivian began crawling along the branch, but presently he stopped short.

‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to something that looked like a bit
of dirty rag, which stuck out of the side of a thick branch just over
his head. Isobel frowned and hesitated.

‘You make me tell you all my secrets,’ she said at last, laughing; ‘but
if I tell you, you must promise, honour bright, not to tell any one
else.’

‘I promise,’ said Vivian solemnly, looking curiously at the odd-looking
bundle, which was partly covered with snow.

‘Well, then, that’s my very own private hiding-place. I found it out by
myself, and no one else knows of it. I was up here one day last summer,
and was walking along this branch and holding on to that one—you can do
that in summer, when the branches are not slippery—and all at once my
fingers went into a hole. The wood felt quite rotten, and I broke it
away, and made it bigger, and I found that the whole branch was hollow,
so I began to use it to put things in—story-books and things. Then, on
half-holidays when I wanted to be alone, I used to climb up here,
and sit and read, and nobody knew where I was.’

[Illustration: ‘But what is that bundle of rags for?’ went on Vivian,
putting up his hand to pull them down.

V. L. PAGE 59.]

‘But what is that bundle of rags for?’ went on Vivian, putting up his
hand to pull them down.

‘Oh, don’t touch them!’ cried Isobel, almost overbalancing herself in
her anxiety; ‘that is an old duster that I borrowed from Mary. I stuck
it in to prevent the rain and snow getting inside the branch and making
the hole all wet. It would spoil my books, you see, if it got damp.’

‘I won’t touch it; I just want to see,’ said Vivian, stretching his
neck and regarding the place with keen interest. ‘Do you ever keep
things in it just now?’

‘No, never,’ said Isobel; ‘it’s far too wet; besides, it would be no
fun sitting up a tree at Christmas time.’

At that moment Claude caught sight of Isobel’s bright scarlet tam o’
shanter over the top of the summer-house, and, with a shout to Ronald,
he bore down on them as fast as his fat little legs would let him.

‘Caught!’ cried Ronald as he raced up; ‘fairly caught, for you cannot
get off that branch without our getting hold of you.’

‘Can’t we?’ cried Isobel mischievously, as she rocked her end of the
branch gently up and down. ‘Just wait and see.’

‘Let me go first, Isobel,’ said Vivian, crawling along to where she
stood, and trying to pass her; ‘the ground may be harder than we think,
and my boots are thicker than yours, so I won’t feel the jump so much,
and you can see how I get on.’

‘Fudge!’ replied Isobel, refusing to give up her point of vantage.
‘It looks high from here; but if I let myself down, and hold on by my
arms, I can drop quite easily. Robin Earlison and I did it one day last
summer, and got round to the “home” before the others knew where we had
gone.’

She was stooping down preparing to lower herself, when all at once
there was a sudden crack, and, before either of the children could
move, the branch gave way, and fell with its burden on the hard path,
which at this point bordered the Heath.

Ronald in great alarm ran forward and tried to find an opening in the
thick, snow-covered hedge through which he could squeeze himself.

‘Are you hurt?’ he cried anxiously, finding that his efforts only
resulted in scratched hands and ruffled hair. ‘I can’t get through, but
I will run into the house and call somebody if you are.’

‘No, we’re not,’ answered Vivian, scrambling to his feet, anxious only
that the news of this new escapade should not reach his aunt’s ears;
for, although no one had said so, he felt that she would not like the
idea of any of the children getting out of bounds in this way.

‘Then we shall come and catch you,’ shouted Ronald, and Vivian
could hear the sound of his retreating footsteps going round by the
apple-tree. He had answered for Isobel and himself when he had said
that neither of them were hurt; but Isobel, who had sat up at first,
was now lying back on the path again, with a funny, dazed look in her
eyes.

‘You’re not hurt, Isobel, are you?’ he asked, kneeling down beside her,
and feeling frightened all at once; ‘for if you are, I had better run
for Aunt Dora.’

‘No, I don’t think I am,’ said Isobel bravely, although she did not
attempt to move, ‘not really hurt, but I think I have knocked the back
of my head against something.’

‘Can’t you sit up?’ said Vivian. ‘If you could just sit up, and get
into the house, we would bathe it with tepid water. That’s good for a
bump I know. Mother always bathes Dorothy’s head with tepid water if
she knocks it.’

‘I’ll try,’ said the little girl, and with his help she struggled to
her feet, but when she tried to walk she turned so sick and giddy she
was glad to sit down on the broken branch again. She was still sitting
there when Ronald ran up triumphantly, out of breath with his long run
round by the lodge. His look of triumph faded away, however, when he
saw her.

‘Hallo, Isobel!’ he exclaimed, ‘I thought you were not hurt. You
haven’t broken your arm or anything?’

‘Of course she hasn’t,’ answered his brother impatiently. ‘She is only
feeling queer because she fell on the hard path and bumped her head.
She’ll be all right in a minute.’

But Ronald did not like the look on his cousin’s face.

‘I think I’ll just run in for Aunt Dora,’ he said; and, without heeding
Isobel’s protest, he turned and ran off.

Aunt Dora had gone out, however, and when he told his tale to Ralph,
who had grown tired of waiting for the others to be taken, and had gone
indoors, he only laughed at his cousin’s grave face and anxious voice.

‘Don’t be a muff,’ he said in his languid, patronising way. ‘If you
were at school you would learn not to be so squeamish over every little
knock that every one gets. I expect Isobel will be all right by now,
and it will teach both Vivian and her not to get out of the garden like
that. Father would be in a wax if he knew, I can tell you.’

Ronald felt inclined to remind Ralph that, if he were not in the habit
of feeling squeamish over other people’s knocks, he made quite enough
fuss over his own, for Isobel or Claude would laugh over a bruise or a
cut which would send their elder brother into the house in tears; but
he remembered that he was Ralph’s guest, so like a gentleman he kept
back the hasty words, and set off in silence to see how it was faring
with the party outside.

[Illustration: Isobel lay down with a story-book on the schoolroom
sofa, and soon fell into a heavy sleep.

V. L. PAGE 64.]

He met them just beyond the lodge; and, although Isobel was walking
slowly, the colour had come back to her face, and she replied cheerily
to his anxious question that she was all right, and that her head did
not ache so badly now.

Perhaps if Mrs Osbourne had come home in time for the children’s early
dinner she might not have been deceived so easily by the little girl’s
assurances; but, thinking that the children would be quite safe as
long as Ronald and Ralph were with them, she had stayed to spend the
afternoon with an old aunt of Mr Osbourne’s whom she found in bed
with a bad attack of bronchitis; and although Anne, who waited on the
children at dinner-time, noticed the child’s dull eyes and listless
manner, she only said, ‘Surely you are not hungry, Miss Isobel,’ as she
took away her almost untouched plate; and Isobel, after dawdling about
with Claude for a little, helping him to set out all his soldiers in a
row on the edge of the bath, ready to salute as his new man-of-war was
launched, lay down with a story-book on the schoolroom sofa, and soon
fell into a heavy sleep.

The frost had given way, and the afternoon was dull and wet, so there
was no prospect of getting out, and employment had to be found indoors.
Soon Ralph, tired of his book, and more sociably inclined than usual,
proposed that they should go up to an unused room at the top of the
house, where he had a carpenter’s bench and a set of tools, and begin
to hollow out a log which he intended making into a boat. Both Ronald
and he were good craftsmen, and they were soon busy with hammer and
chisel, while Vivian found employment for his fingers in whittling the
corners off a piece of wood which was destined to form a funnel.

The noise of hammering prevented much talking, and his own thoughts
did not seem to be very pleasant, for the cheery whistling, which Mrs
Armitage was wont to say always told her when Vivian was about, soon
stopped, and a frown gathered on his handsome little face. Presently he
laid down the piece of wood and left the room.

The lie that he had told, or acted rather, in letting his aunt believe
that he knew nothing of the lost pistol was weighing heavily on his
conscience, and the remembrance of the paper parcel lying on the top
of the wardrobe in his room, ready to be found by any prying servant,
haunted him.

The very thought of the pistol was hateful to him now. He wondered
why he had ever wanted it, and he wished that he could get rid of it
anyhow, anywhere. But to do so was not so easy. He was never out alone,
or he might have thrown it into one of the ponds on the Heath; and
although the idea of burying it came into his mind, he remembered what
Isobel had told him about Monarch the great watch-dog hiding bones in
the corners of the flower-beds whenever he had a chance, and scraping
them up again just when the gardener had sown some special kind of seed
there or bedded out some favourite plant. No, it certainly would not be
safe to hide the packet in the ground.

Suddenly a new idea flashed through his brain, and he quickened his
steps. The hole that Isobel had let him see—that would be the very
place to hide it in. If once he could put it there, without any one
seeing him, and replace the old duster, it might lie for months before
it was discovered; and even if it were discovered no one could trace
the theft back to him. He would push it well along inside the hollow
branch, so that even Isobel would not be likely to find it. How stupid
of him not to have thought of it sooner! But there was time to do it
yet, if only Aunt Dora would stay out a little longer. It was getting
dark, and the gardeners would have gone home to tea. It was a splendid
chance, if only he could slip out without being seen.

While these thoughts were passing through his mind he had gone to
his room, and noiselessly locked the door and drawn a chair up to
the wardrobe. He dared not put the chair on the washstand, as he had
done in the morning, in case of another accident, but he dragged his
father’s portmanteau forward and lifted it on to the chair, and when
he was mounted on that he found he could, with an effort, just touch
the parcel with the tips of his fingers. He looked round for something
which would raise him a little higher. The travelling-rug—but that
had been left downstairs; a pillow—that would do. Quick as thought he
jumped to the floor, and pulled one of the pillows from under the
coverlet. Taking off his slippers in case he soiled it, he mounted the
unsteady pile. How soft and uneven the pillow was. His feet slipped and
sank in it. And there were footsteps on the staircase. Was it Anne, or
was it Aunt Dora come back? With a desperate effort he raised himself
on tiptoe, and seized the parcel; and then, overbalancing himself, he
fell with a crash, carrying both the pillow and the portmanteau with
him.

At that moment a knock came to the door.

‘What in all the living world are you doing, Master Vivian?’

It was only Anne after all, and Vivian breathed freely again.

‘One moment, Anne,’ he cried; and, quick as lightning, he pushed the
pillow under the coverlet again and returned the portmanteau to its
place. Then he hid the little packet containing the pistol and caps
under his jacket, and unlocked the door.

Anne, tired of waiting, had gone on to Ralph’s bedroom, and when she
came back Vivian was gone and the room was empty.

‘Whatever has he been up to now?’ she said to herself, as she noted
the tumbled bed-clothes and the overturned chair, which Vivian in his
haste had forgotten to pick up. ‘That boy is up to mischief, or my name
is not Anne Martin. This is the second time that he has fallen in this
room to-day, and it’s clear that it was that chair he fell from.’

So saying, she picked up the chair, and, getting on to it, she
proceeded to take a survey of the top of the wardrobe and the
bed-hangings, but she found no trace of anything to arouse her
suspicions; and with a shake of her head at the sight of the dust which
had accumulated since she looked up there last, she got down again,
muttering to herself as she did so, ‘If that young gentleman lived in
this house I would see that the mistress put an end to the overturning
of ewers and crumpling of pillows, especially when he was sleeping in
the very best bedroom.’



CHAPTER VII.

ANOTHER INVITATION.


‘WELL, chickens,’ said Mrs Osbourne, as she came into the schoolroom
about half-past four, ‘and what have you been doing all afternoon? Did
you think I had gone off altogether and left you?’

The gas had not been lit, but the room looked warm and cosy by the
light of a blazing fire.

Claude looked up from the hearthrug, where he was looking at pictures
in the ruddy glow. ‘The others are up in the top room, making a boat,’
he answered, ‘and Isobel’s asleep on the sofa.’

At the sound of her name the little girl roused herself and sat up
rubbing her eyes.

‘Why, Isobel,’ said her mother, ‘what is the matter with you? You are
not generally a sleepy-head.’

‘I lay down with a story-book after dinner, and I must have gone to
sleep,’ said Isobel vaguely. ‘I suppose it was the party.’

She seemed to have forgotten all about her tumble, and the explanation
made her mother laugh.

‘It is a good thing that it is holiday time, missy,’ she said, ‘if you
are going to sleep half the day after every party. I think we will
have to send you to bed two hours earlier on Monday night, for I have
just got an invitation for all of you to go to Mrs Seton-Kinaird’s on
Tuesday. She is going to give a very fine party indeed, and I am sure
you will enjoy it. There is to be a conjurer and performing dogs.’

‘Oh mother!’ cried Claude in great excitement, springing to his feet,
‘and am I asked too? I have never seen dogs perform in my life.’

‘Yes, you too,’ said his mother, smiling, ‘and Ronald and Vivian. Mrs
Seton-Kinaird asked you all to come.’

‘To come where?’ asked Ralph, who had just entered the room, followed
by Ronald.

‘To a party with performing dogs and a conjurer,’ replied Claude; ‘and,
Ronald, you are asked too, and Vivian. Isn’t it a pity you are going
home?’

‘Perhaps they needn’t go,’ said Isobel. ‘Couldn’t you write to Aunt
Margaret, mother, and beg her to let them stay until Wednesday?’

‘Perhaps I may,’ said Mrs Osbourne, smiling.—‘What would you say to
that, eh, Ronald? Or do you think that you will have had enough of
London by that time, and be wearying to get home?’

‘Indeed I won’t,’ said Ronald eagerly. ‘I would love to stay, and so
would Vivian, I know, if mother will let us. It is awfully good of you
to ask us.’

‘Where is Vivian?’ asked his aunt, noticing his absence for the
first time. ‘Ah, here he comes,’ as Vivian came running up the back
stairs.—‘Why, you are quite wet, my boy,’ she said in surprise as she
laid her hand on his shoulder. ‘You surely have never been outside in
that pouring rain?’

‘I ran out into the summer-house to see if I had not left my knife
there,’ said Vivian, wriggling from under her grasp. ‘It was not very
wet, auntie, and I ran the whole way.’

‘All the same, you must go and change your coat and your stockings,’
said Mrs Osbourne, running her hand rapidly over his clothes, ‘and your
knickerbockers too, I think. Don’t run out in such rain again, dearie,
for you are quite damp, and there are a lot of colds about. I don’t
want you to catch one, for I have heard of more gaieties for you. But
run off now; you shall hear all about it when you come back.’

‘There is a splendid party at Mrs Seton-Somebody’s,’ cried Claude,
always eager to be the first to tell any piece of news, ‘and we are all
invited, and mother is going to write to Aunt Margaret to ask if Vivian
and you can stay.’

Fond as he was of parties, Vivian almost hoped that his mother would
insist on Ronald and him returning home on the day that had been
originally fixed, for the thought of the stolen pistol still lay like
a load on his mind, in spite of the fact that it was no longer in the
house, and he felt that he would never shake the load off until he
was safely home, and it was left behind him—left hidden in the hollow
branch which Isobel had shown him that afternoon.

For that was the true errand that had taken him out in the rain,
although he had glanced hastily into the summer-house for an excuse, in
case any one asked him what he had been doing, and then he had seen an
old cap lying on the floor, and wrapped it round the pistol to protect
it from the wet. Then it had been an easy matter to slip behind the
summer-house, in the growing dusk, and jump up on the branch, and pull
the old duster out of its place, and drop the bundle into the hole, and
then close it up again, and run back to the schoolroom with the easy
lie about the knife upon his lips.

‘And indeed it was not a lie at all,’ he reasoned to himself, as he
slipped off his wet clothes and tried to rub out the marks which the
wet branches had left on them, ‘for I had lost my knife, and I did
look into the summer-house, and it might have been there;’ and with
a feeling of relief that the parcel was now safe from any risk of
discovery by the servants, he went into the schoolroom and joined the
others at the tea-table.

Saturday morning brought a reply to Mrs Osbourne’s letter, and loud
were the exclamations of delight when she announced at breakfast-time
that Aunt Margaret consented to the two boys staying a couple of days
longer.

Even Vivian felt glad for the moment, for the party on Tuesday night
bade fair to eclipse any that even Ralph had been to as yet; and now
that the excitement of their own Christmas tree was over, the Eversley
children could talk of little else.

Mrs Seton-Kinaird was a rich young widow who lived in a large
old-fashioned house at the top of the Heath. She had had two children,
a boy and a girl, but the girl had died of consumption, and the boy was
very delicate; and his mother, haunted by the fear that someday she
might lose him as she had lost his sister, indulged him more, perhaps,
than was wise. His lungs were weak, and as soon as the Christmas
holidays were over she intended to shut up her house and go to Egypt
with him, in order to avoid the cold spring months at home.

The doctors, indeed, had advised her to go away in December; but
Cedric, as the boy was called, hated the idea. He was tired, poor
little man, of being dragged from one foreign country to another in
search of the health that did not come, and he had cried so bitterly at
the prospect of spending Christmas away from home, that his mother had
given in to him, and had promised him this birthday party, agreeing to
have performing dogs, or conjurers, or any novelty that he liked, so
long as he made up his mind to the prospect of the journey afterwards.

The children at Eversley knew him slightly. Claude and Isobel often
met him on the Heath, walking with his mother or his governess; but
the friendship did not grow rapidly, their boisterous health and high
spirits rather alarmed him, for he did not care to rush all over the
grass, playing hide-and-seek among the bushes, while they, on their
part, soon grew tired of his sober face and peevish, complaining ways.

‘He’s a silly, fretful boy,’ said Isobel emphatically, when, after
listening to a detailed account of the beauties of Mrs Seton-Kinaird’s
house, and the wonderful playroom full of marvellous toys that Cedric
possessed, Vivian had asked her what kind of boy he was. ‘He is always
grumbling about something. Just now it is because his mother and he are
going away to Egypt, to live on the Nile in a boat, and do no lessons.
Catch me grumbling if Dr Robson said that I was to do that. Only think
of having no lessons to do, and seeing the Sphinx and the Pyramids!’

‘Ah, but my girlie, you are quite well, and don’t know what it is to
be always tired and have bad headaches, as poor Cedric has,’ said Mrs
Osbourne, who had overheard the last remark. ‘It is one thing having a
holiday when one is strong and able to enjoy it, and another thing to
have to take one when one is too tired to find pleasure in anything.’

Isobel coloured at the gentle tone of reproof, and thought rather
rebelliously that if her mother only knew how her head was aching at
that moment, or what queer little jerks of pain had been running up and
down her back for the last two days, she would not have spoken like
that, but would think her a brave girl for running about and making so
little fuss. Then, next moment, being a conscientious little mortal,
and having a habit of looking her faults straight in the face, she
owned to herself that she was only making no fuss because they were all
going to the Hippodrome that evening with father, a very great treat
indeed, for Mr Osbourne was generally too busy to pay much attention to
the children, and she knew that if she told her mother how funny she
felt, she would probably make her stay quietly at home and go early to
bed.

So she held her tongue like a Spartan, although her head grew worse
and worse, and went to the Hippodrome along with the others. But by
that time the pain was almost unbearable, and the glare of the electric
light hurt her eyes so badly that sometimes she could hardly help
crying out. She was glad to change seats with Ralph, and sit close to
a pillar which he declared spoilt his view, and lean her burning head
against it, for it felt nice and cool, and its shadow shielded her eyes
from the light.

If her mother had been there she would have noticed the poor child’s
discomfort; but being, as she had laughingly said before they
started, too old for entertainments of that kind, except when she was
needed as a chaperone, she had gone to sit for a few hours with poor
old Miss Osbourne, whose bronchitis did not as yet show any signs
of improvement. As it was, when the merry party returned full of
excitement at all the wonderful things they had seen—the performing
seals, and dancing goats, and the cyclist who rode a bicycle along a
tight-rope with his hands tied behind him, the little girl’s flushed
cheeks and bright eyes passed unnoticed; and when, next morning, she
felt too sick and queer to get up, and had to confess how badly her
head ached, her mother did not feel at all anxious, thinking that the
excitement and the late hours had been too much for her, and that a day
spent quietly in bed, with nothing to eat but bread-and-milk, would
soon put matters right again.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE BROKEN WINDOWS.


‘I HOPE you won’t be lonely, Pussy,’ said Mrs Osbourne, looking into
Isobel’s bedroom for a moment on her way to dress for church. ‘I would
have stayed at home with you myself if it had not been New Year’s Day.
You know how father likes us all to be at church together to begin
the New Year, and Claude could not go if I did not, and he would be
so disappointed. He had his little red prayer-book laid out before
breakfast.’

‘Yes, here it is,’ said Claude, who had come into the room on tiptoe
behind his mother, looking like a jolly little Jack Tar in his long
blue trousers and new reefer coat, into whose pocket the bright-red
prayer-book—a present from his godmother—was squeezed; ‘and I have got
markers in at all the places. Ronald put them in.’

‘Ronald is very good to you,’ said his mother. ‘And now that you are
such a big boy, and have a prayer-book of your own, you will try and
sit quite still, and not fidget in the sermon.’

‘I won’t, if it isn’t very long,’ answered Claude gravely, setting his
fat legs wide apart and shaking his head until the wealth of golden
curls which covered it bobbed up and down like yellow fluff; ‘but if it
gets very tiresome, mother, you must let me move my legs about just a
little; they get all prickly if they keep still too long.’

Both Isobel and her mother laughed.

‘He means pins and needles,’ said Isobel. ‘I remember I used to get
them if my legs hung down too long.’

‘I will give you two footstools, sir, and then you will have no excuse
for fidgeting,’ said Mrs Osbourne; ‘and perhaps, who knows, if you
sit very still for the first ten minutes of the sermon there may be
a picture somewhere in mother’s prayer-book, which she will let you
look at.—But I must be off and get on my bonnet, for the carriage will
be round in no time. Good-bye, dearie. I will send Anne up with some
story-books for you, although I think it would be better for your head
if you lay quite quiet, and did not read.’

Bending down and giving her little daughter a kiss, Mrs Osbourne left
the room, followed by Claude; and a few moments afterwards Isobel heard
the carriage come round, then the sound of voices and footsteps on the
gravel, then the door was shut, and the carriage drove away, and a
stillness fell over the house. She felt very drowsy; and when presently
a tap came to the door she did not turn her head, but murmured a sleepy
‘Thank you,’ as some one—Anne, she supposed—laid down an armful of
books on the little bamboo table at the side of her bed, and stole
quietly away.

It was not Anne, however, who had brought them, but Vivian, who had
been seized with such a violent fit of coughing at the last moment
that he had been left behind. He had clearly caught a little cold; and
as it was a beautifully sunny morning, his aunt wisely thought that a
sharp run round the garden would be better for him than sitting for an
hour and a half in a heated church. Besides, he could run up now and
then and see how Isobel was getting on. She charged him not to sit all
morning in her room; but she felt that it would not be so lonely for
the little girl if she knew that he was at home too.

New Years Day is generally a day of good resolutions. We have turned
over a page in our lives, as it were, and the old sheet with its blurs
and its blots lies behind us. It cannot be recalled, or changed, no
matter what mistakes, or failures, or sins are written upon it; and we
turn with relief to the fresh page which lies so stainless, and smooth,
and white before us, and we determine that, so far as in us lies, we
will fill it with records of more strenuous endeavours after goodness,
with fewer blots and rubbed-out lines. It is a solemn call to ‘forget’
the things that are behind, and reach forward to those that are before;
and our hearts are dull indeed if we do not respond to it.

Vivian was not slow to feel the influence of the day. He felt that
there was so much that he wanted to forget, and he tried, as it were,
to turn over this black page of his life and glue it down, forgetting,
as so many of us do, that the blots on the old page are apt to show
through the paper, and reappear on the nice clean sheet in front of
us, unless we have repented of the sins that caused them, and have done
everything in our power to repair the trouble and mischief that they
have caused.

It was Sunday morning, and he determined to spend it as he thought the
old Rector at home would say Sunday morning ought to be spent by a
boy who could not go to church; so, after he had carried up the books
to Isobel’s room, he went to the schoolroom, and taking down a big
illustrated copy of _The Children of the Bible_, which belonged to
Claude, he turned over the pages and tried to settle down to read. But
the stories brought with them the thought of his mother, who had read
them to Ronald and him when they were younger, and with the thought
came the remembrance of the guilty secret which he must carry home with
him on Wednesday, and the ugly words ‘Thief’ and ‘Liar’ floated through
his brain.

Restlessly he pushed aside the book and wandered to the window. The
sun was shining brightly outside, and the hoar-frost on the grass
was beginning to melt. Aunt Dora had said that he might go out, and
anything was better than hanging about idly, listening to thoughts
which he could not silence; so he ran upstairs for his coat and
muffler, peeping into Isobel’s room as he passed; but although she
was tossing about in her bed she seemed to be asleep, for she took no
notice of him.

Outside in the garden all was quiet. The greenhouses were locked up,
so were the stables; but Monarch the big black retriever, which was
kept as a watch-dog, and was looked after by Mason the coachman, was
wide-awake in his kennel in the yard, and allowed the little boy to
make friends with him.

For some time he amused himself with the great curly animal, which,
although it could bark so fiercely at every errand-boy or beggar who
came to the door, was in reality the mildest-tempered dog in the world.
Mason’s house adjoined the stables, and presently Mrs Mason appeared.
Evidently she was going out for the day, for she wore her best bonnet
and cloak, and, after locking the door behind her, she proceeded to
hide the key under an old mat on the doorstep, where Mason could find
it when he came back with the carriage.

All at once she noticed Vivian, who had run into the kitchen for a
piece of stale bread, and was now proceeding to break it into small
pieces, and hold them out to Monarch, so as to make him jump the full
length of his chain.

‘Please do not give him any more, sir,’ she said. ‘We have had to stop
the children giving him scraps. He got so fat and lazy as never was,
and Mason couldn’t think what was the matter with him till he found
out that little Master Claude had coaxed cook to gather all the bones
and broken victuals from the late dinner, and that he used to carry
them out and hide them in the straw in the kennel, and then watch to
see Monarch hunting for them. Very vexed the poor little kind-hearted
gentleman was, too, when he was told that he mustn’t do it; but ’tis
true what Mason says, that if a dog is to be a watch-dog it mustn’t
have more than two meals a day, given regular, with a bone thrown in
once or twice a week as a relish.’

The worthy woman hurried away, afraid that she might miss her bus;
and Vivian, finding that the great watch-dog went quietly back to
his kennel now that he had no more morsels to offer him, set out to
look round the greenhouses, in the hope of finding Joe Flinders the
gardener’s boy; but all was quiet and deserted, so he went on to the
paddock and amused himself for some time throwing stones at a broken
bottle which some one had apparently thrown over from the Heath, and
which had lodged in the branches of an elm-tree which stood next the
great oak behind the summer-house.

He tried to hit it, but without success, and suddenly he remembered the
toy pistol lying hidden in the hole close by.

Dare he take it out and try it?

He hesitated for a moment, and looked all round. Not a soul was in
sight, and the house was quite hidden; no one could see him from the
windows. The clock on the church tower at the top of the Heath rang out
twelve, so he had a full half-hour before any one came out of church.
Here was an opportunity for trying, for once, the toy for which he had
forfeited so much.

For a moment the thought that it was Sunday held him back, but the
temptation was too great. He slipped behind the summer-house, and
swung himself into the branches of the oak-tree, and soon he stood
on the path again with the parcel in his hand. He had never undone
the paper and string in which the pistol and caps were rolled, but he
did so now with fingers which trembled, partly through haste, partly
through fear of discovery.

The wrappings were off at last, and he fingered the shining little
toy lovingly, wondering if after all he dare not smuggle it into the
portmanteau and take it home with him. If once he had it there, he
thought to himself, there were plenty of places where he could hide it,
and no one need know anything about it.

Then he opened the box of caps, and carefully loaded it. He knew the
way—Fergus Strangeways had shown him that—and he remembered also that
Fergus had told him that his father had said that the pistols were
quite safe, for ‘the caps were made up of a pinch of powder and one or
two pellets that wouldn’t hurt a baby.’ The thought reassured him as he
raised the pistol to his eye, and cocked the trigger in a knowing way.
All the same, he felt a little nervous in case there should be a very
loud report.

Taking the best aim he could at the broken bottle, he drew the trigger,
but a harmless _click_ was all that followed. He tried again and again,
but with no better result. Clearly the caps had become damp, in spite
of the fact that the parcel had been wrapped in the old ragged cap
which he had found in the summer-house. Taking it out, he proceeded
to pick a fresh one from the very middle of the box, where it might
be drier. Putting the fresh cap in the pistol, he drew the trigger
carelessly, half expecting that it would not go off.

But this time the cap was all right, and there was a flash and a sharp
report, and then a crash of broken glass.

Deceived by the failure of his first attempts, he had foolishly taken
no proper aim, forgetting that the summer-house stood straight in front
of him, and the pellets had gone through two of its windows, shivering
the glass into a thousand fragments.

There were four panes of glass in the little house, representing, so
Isobel had told him, the four seasons, for if one looked through them
in order, everything took on a different tint, just as it did in the
four seasons of the year. There was green for spring, and deep-red
for summer, yellow for autumn, and blue for winter. The children were
fond of playing here, and of choosing the colours they liked best, and
claiming that window with the seat under it for their own; and Vivian
had always chosen the amber yellow, which threw such a warm tint over
everything, and made one dream of the mellow days of autumn. Now,
however, there was nothing but a hideous gap where the autumn window
had been, and Claude’s favourite, the bright green spring one, was
utterly destroyed as well.

For a moment Vivian stood rooted to the spot, gazing at the havoc he
had wrought with blanched face and great frightened eyes, and then he
hastily picked up the piece of brown paper and the ragged cap which
were lying at his feet, and crumpled them into a parcel anyhow with the
pistol and the caps. If only he could get them hidden away again, he
thought in his terror, and steal into the house, perhaps no one would
know that he had been out.

To replace them in their hiding-place was easily done, but when, with
shaking limbs he had swung himself down from the tree, and was turning
to run into the house, the sound of a low cough made him start suddenly
and face quickly round again.



CHAPTER IX.

THE MAN IN THE SUMMER-HOUSE.


THERE, to his horror, looking through the gap which had been filled by
Claude’s spring window, and framed, as it were, by the jagged points of
glass which were still sticking to the framework, was a rough-looking
man, with a stubbly beard, and a dirty white muffler twisted loosely
round his neck. He had only one eye; at least, if the other were there
it was hidden by a greasy green patch which was tied round his head by
a piece of old string, while his rough, sandy-coloured hair looked as
if it had not been touched by a brush and comb for years.

[Illustration: There, to his horror, looking through the gap, was a
rough-looking man, with a stubbly beard, and a dirty white muffler
twisted loosely round his neck.

V. L. PAGE 92.]

Clearly this strange-looking individual must have been in the
summer-house all the time, and have seen the whole of Vivian’s
movements, and the little boy found himself wondering, in spite of
his terror, how he had escaped being struck by a pellet or cut by a
fragment of broken glass. He would fain have turned and run away, but
something in the man’s one visible eye held him rooted to the spot,
and he remained stock-still, furtively rubbing one foot against the
other, longing, and yet half-dreading, to hear the stranger speak and
to discover how much he had seen.

‘A pretty mess you’ve made of it, young gentleman,’ said the man at
last with a chuckle; ‘and what will the gentleman as you’re staying
with say when he sees all this?’

‘It was a mistake,’ stammered Vivian, at a loss what other answer to
make.

‘Ho, ho! a mistake was it, young gentleman? And was it a mistake that
you took the pistol out of the hole, and put it back again after the
smash, looking as scared as ever was, instead of bringing it boldly out
of the house with you, like as you would have done if it had been all
square?’

‘You’ve no business whose pistol it is, or where I got it,’ said Vivian
defiantly, driven to bay by this unexpected retort; ‘and, besides, you
have no right to be in my uncle’s garden, and I’ll tell him about you
as soon as he comes home from church.’

The man laughed unpleasantly.

‘All very good, young sir,’ he said; ‘but what if I take the first
step, and go in and volunteer to tell him all about those blessed
windows, and about how nearly you shot me; and, to prove that I am
speaking the truth, what if I let him see that nice little hole up
there behind, and show him what is hid in it?’

Now, as his mother had said to him on Christmas morning, Vivian had
plenty of physical courage, and under other circumstances he would have
been quite brave enough to have watched the man until some one either
came into the garden or passed outside on the Heath, to whom he might
have shouted for help; but, as she had also told him, he was sadly
wanting in that other kind of courage which ‘grown-ups’ call ‘moral,’
and the mere threat of exposure made him cringe and beg for mercy from
this unwashed, unshaved, evil-looking stranger.

‘Oh, don’t tell—please don’t tell,’ he entreated. ‘It was really a
mistake; but I will be punished if it is found out. If you will not
tell, and will go quietly away, I’ll give you five shillings. They are
in the house, but I can soon get them and they are my very own; my
father gave them to me when I came here, and I have never spent them.’

The man laughed again, with a look that was not good to see.

He had lain concealed in the summer-house all morning with an object
in view which seemed as if it would be very difficult to carry out,
and things had played into his hands in a manner that he had little
expected. From his place of concealment he had watched all Vivian’s
movements from the time he had come out of the house, and he knew that
he had the frightened boy in his power, and could work on his feelings
as he would.

‘Five shillings!’ he said contemptuously; ‘five shillings aren’t enough
to shut my mouth. You might have killed me with that blooming pistol
of yours; more than likely you would have, had I not seen how you were
aiming, and lain down on the floor. No, no; you wouldn’t be hiding
that pistol if you had come by it in any right way, and I’ll consider
it my dooty to report to the master of the house, no matter what the
consequences be to myself.’

The man spoke in such a tone of virtuous indignation that Vivian felt
that his uncle would believe his word at once, in spite of his ragged
clothes and the dirty green patch over his eye.

‘How much would it take to make you go quietly away, and hold your
tongue?’ he asked. ‘I have more money in my purse at home, and if you
gave me your address I would send it to you.’

The man shook his head in a decided way.

‘It would take pounds and pounds to make me hold my tongue,’ he said,
‘for I am a determined man when once I have made up my mind what it
is my dooty to do. But I tell you what, young gentleman. There is one
little job which I came in here to do, but which I may not have a
chance of doing—’twould keep me too long, and I am a very busy man.
Perhaps if you could manage it for me I might not tell after all. It’s
a very simple thing, and I only promised to do it to please a little
cripple girl of mine at home.’

‘And what is it?’ asked Vivian eagerly, catching at any straw which
promised escape from the disclosures which he felt were staring him in
the face.

‘Well,’ said the man slowly, and his voice sounded quite soft and
gentle, ‘I make a living by breeding dogs, and I have a little cripple
girl at home, and she has nothing to do but to lie in bed all day, and
it gets wearisome for her at times; and to cheer her up I sometimes
put the puppies on her bed, and she plays with them, and she grows as
fond of them as if they were human beings like herself. There was one
black retriever puppy in particular, which was born on her birthday,
which I used to tell her she treated as if it were a baby, for she
would save bits of her own supper for it, and it grew so fond of her
it always slept at the foot of her bed. If I had been rich I would
always have kept it for her; but I am a poor man, young gentleman, and
when it got big it ate a lot, and I had to sell it, and the parting
well-nigh broke Tottie’s heart. The coachman here came and bought it
for his master for a watch-dog, and whenever I come on business to this
part of London—I live down Shoreditch way—Tottie always asks if I have
seen her pet. Generally I have to tell her “No,” for the coachman here
is a disobliging cove, an’ if he saw a poor man like me hanging about
the gates he’d order me off; but to-day, being Tottie’s birthday,
an’ the dog’s too of course, an’ I happening to come up to ’Ighgate
on business, she gave me two of her birthday cakes as a neighbour had
given her, an’ she says, “Daddy,” she says, “you’ll see Monarch, an’
you’ll give him these from me, an’ when I am eating mine at supper-time
I’ll know he’ll be eating his share.”’

The man paused, and drew two curious little brown buns from his pocket.

‘What queer-looking cakes!’ said Vivian, who had grown interested in
the story in spite of his own fears.

‘Yes,’ replied the man; ‘these are German cakes. The woman as lives
below us, and is kind to Tottie, is a German, and she bakes the most
curious cakes. She has a shop, and makes quite a business of it. Tottie
just loves this kind, and to think of the precious child being so
unselfish, and denying herself, and she with such a poor appetite too,
and sending two of them to Monarch, and here am I spending my whole
Sunday away from her, waiting for a chance to give them to the dog. I
climbed the fence, and laid myself open to being took up, just to try
and please the darling, for I couldn’t bear to go home and meet her
sweet face when she says, “Daddy, have you given my cakes to Monarch?”
and I having to say “No.”’

The man drew his ragged sleeve across his eyes.

‘It’s very hard, young master,’ he added in a broken voice, ‘that an
honest man can’t go boldly up to the coachman’s door, and ask to see
the dog, without being called names, and turned away as a beggar, just
because he’s poor, and his coat isn’t as whole as it might be.’

‘I could manage to give the dog your little girl’s cakes,’ said Vivian
eagerly. He was very kind-hearted, and, besides, he began to see a way
of escape for himself. ‘I could give him the cakes, only you would have
to promise’——

‘To promise not to tell about the window?’ interrupted the man, looking
up with a gleam in his eye. ‘I would gladly promise you that, for,
after all, it is none of my business. So we will make a bargain. If you
will take these cakes, and give them to Monarch about the darkening,
just when my little girl is having her supper—for it will please her
to think that he is eating them then—I will go right away, and never
tell a word about all I have seen this morning; no, not though I read
about it in the papers. But you must give me your Bible oath as you
will be true, and give them to the dog, and not guzzle them yourself.’

‘Oh, you may be sure that I won’t eat them,’ said Vivian hastily,
shuddering at the mere thought of eating anything that had been in
contact with the man’s dirty coat; ‘and I promise to give them to
Monarch. I can easily run out at tea-time, and put them in his kennel.’

‘Say “I take my Bible oath not to eat them myself, and to give them to
the dog at tea-time,”’ said the man sternly, ‘else I’ll stay here and
tell the gentleman.’

Vivian hesitated. To say that he took his Bible oath seemed to him very
much like swearing, and that would be to sink one step deeper into the
mire of despair and wickedness into which he had already fallen.

Just then the clock on the Heath rang out the half-hour.

‘You’d better choose quick, for they’ll be coming home from church,’
said the man, who had no desire to be found in the grounds, and who yet
wished to carry his point.

The warning had its due effect on Vivian. With trembling haste he
stumbled over the hated words, and then, reaching out his hand for the
two little cakes, he thrust them into his trousers-pocket, and turned
and ran into the house, feeling dully that fate was all against him,
while the man, with a satisfied smile on his face, swung himself up
into the branches of the oak-tree, and after a careful survey of the
Heath to see that there was no one in sight, let himself lightly on the
path on the other side of the hedge, and walked quickly away.

All through dinner-time, and through the short winter afternoon that
followed, Vivian waited in sickening anxiety for some one to come in
with the news of the broken windows. He knew that they must soon be
discovered, for the first person who walked round that way could not
fail to notice them, and then he would be sure to be questioned, and
he would need to tell lies to shield himself. Poor little boy! he was
fast finding out how true the saying is, that ‘one lie needs six to
cover it,’ and the hot tears came into his eyes as he thought of last
Sunday’s talk with his mother, and of the many good resolutions he had
made in church, ay, and which he had meant with all his heart to keep.

The discovery was not destined to be made that day, however. The
summer-house stood right away from the stables and greenhouses, so that
none of the men needed to go near it; and as the frost gave way again,
as it had done on so many other days during the week, and an afternoon
of heavy rain succeeded the brilliant sunshine of the morning, Aunt
Dora did not insist on the children going out for their usual run,
but sent them up into the schoolroom, where they spent the afternoon
quietly with Sunday puzzles and story-books, so as not to disturb
Isobel, who was still much more inclined to sleep than to talk.



CHAPTER X.

BURGLARS.


NEXT morning Vivian awoke to find Ronald standing on a chair peering
through a crevice of the blind. The remembrance of yesterday’s disaster
flashed into his mind, and he was wide awake at once.

‘Whatever are you doing?’ he asked querulously. ‘It’s gray-dark, so you
can’t see anything.’

‘I can’t think what in the world is the matter,’ answered Ronald in an
excited whisper. ‘I’ve been awake since five—I heard it strike on the
hall clock; and I think every one else in the house has been awake too.
They have been opening and shutting doors, and talking in the hall, and
some one went right out of the house and down to the lodge. I think it
must have been Uncle Walter, for I heard footsteps on the gravel, and
it was his cough, and after a while he came back with some one, for I
heard them talking. They came upstairs, for I heard Aunt Dora’s voice,
and now they are outside again. Somehow, I fancy it is a policeman;
I can just see the top of his helmet. He is walking up and down the
gravel.’

A policeman! Vivian turned cold with terror. He had dreamt of discovery
and punishment, but he had never dreamt of anything as bad as this.
Surely Uncle Walter would never be so cruel as to send him to jail,
even although he had broken two windows and taken a toy pistol.

But the pistol was stolen, and Uncle Walter could be very strict.
The thought made him desperate, and he sat up in silence, and began
to grope about for his clothes. If he could only dress quickly, he
thought, before it grew quite light, he might slip unnoticed down the
back stairs and run away. Where he could run to could be settled later.
Vague ideas of getting to the docks crossed his mind; he knew that
there were docks somewhere in London, and if he once reached them he
might get on board one of the boats as cabin-boy or something, and sail
to America or Australia. At present his one mad wish was to escape from
the policeman and from the discovery which was sure to come—nay, which
had come already.

‘There are two of them,’ whispered Ronald excitedly, ‘and they seem
to be looking for something among the bushes. I do wonder what has
happened. Now they have gone round to the garden, and there is Uncle
Walter standing on the doorstep talking to a gentleman in ordinary
clothes. I can see him, for the gas in the hall is lit.’

Receiving no answer, he turned round, wondering if his brother had gone
to sleep again.

‘Whatever are you doing?’ he asked in astonishment, for it was just
light enough for him to see his brother sitting on the edge of the bed
drawing on his stockings.

‘I’m going to get up,’ said Vivian slowly, ‘to see what’s the matter.’

His voice sounded harsh and broken, partly through terror, partly from
his cold, which was decidedly worse.

‘You’re going to do nothing of the sort,’ said Ronald. ‘Aunt Dora said
last night that you were to stay in bed to breakfast, if your cold was
not quite better, and you are croaking like a raven. Look out, I’m
coming back to bed, or I’ll catch cold too; I have stood here until I
feel like a block of ice.’ With a flying leap he was back among the
blankets. ‘Isn’t it lovely to come back to bed on a cold morning?’ he
said, laughing. ‘I can understand what Dorothy meant when she said to
mother that “the comfiest bit of bed is when one has to get up;”’ and
then he rolled over, and settled himself for a nap before Anne came to
pull up the blinds and bring in the hot water.

Poor Vivian had been obliged to lie down again too, but all his chances
of sleep had been banished effectually; and as he lay, with wide-open
eyes, watching the light in the room grow clearer and clearer, and
listening to the unusual sounds which were still going on outside the
room, he wondered what would have happened and where he would be by the
time the darkness came again. Seven o’clock struck on the cuckoo clock
in the hall, and a quarter past, and then the half-hour, and at last
Anne came in without knocking, and pulled up the blinds, but she had on
an old dirty apron, and no cap, and was so unlike her usual trim self
that Ronald could not help asking, ‘Is there anything wrong, Anne? We
have been hearing such a lot of talking all morning. Every one seemed
to be up long before it was daylight.’

‘There’s plenty wrong, Master Ronald,’ was Anne’s somewhat grim answer.
‘The house has been broken into, and every morsel of silver taken, not
to mention the master’s watch and a lot of the mistress’s jewellery.
How the scoundrels have done it dear only knows, for they must have
been in nearly every room in the house, and they have forced open the
very safe itself, which stands in the master’s dressing-room. ’Tis a
wonder we were not all murdered in our beds, for they seem to have been
carrying firearms. And as if all that wasn’t enough, here is little
Miss Isobel taken ill, and Doctor Robson shaking his head over her
quite serious-like. So get up as quiet as you can, like good boys, and
give no more trouble to any one than you can help.’

The boys needed no second bidding to get up. The news which Anne had
brought was too exciting for them to linger a moment longer in bed.
Vivian’s cold and his aunt’s injunction about it were alike forgotten,
and indeed, as the little boy hurried into his clothes, he began
to feel much better, for a weight of anxiety was lifted from his
mind. Always quick to note the probable consequences of things, he
saw at once that this unexpected development would divert suspicion
from himself, even when the broken windows in the summer-house were
discovered. Who was to know that the damage had not been done by the
burglars for some reason of their own? The police were much more likely
to suspect them than some one who was living in the house.

When the boys arrived downstairs, after a somewhat hasty toilet, they
found everything in a state of dire confusion. Breakfast was laid in
the servants’ hall, but no one seemed to have time to attend to it.

Little Claude, with a tearful, scared face, was standing holding Mary’s
hand at the foot of the stairs, silently watching two policemen who
were down on their knees on the parquetry floor, carefully examining
some marks which had been made on the polished surface. It was plain
that some one had walked across it with heavy boots on. In the opposite
corner stood Mr Osbourne, his face stern and grave; and Anne, who had
now got into a clean cap and apron, and was giving a concise account
of how she had locked up the house on the previous evening to a tall
man in a plain blue uniform, evidently a police inspector, who was
taking down her story in a note-book. Aunt Dora was nowhere to be seen.
The dining-room door was open, and they could see how the drawers in
the sideboard and plate-cupboard had been forced, and their contents
rifled, and most of them carried away.

Vivian would have gone into the room, but Mary pulled him back.

‘No one has to go in there, Master Vivian,’ she whispered; ‘it has to
be left as it is until some very clever man, a detective from Scotland
Yard, comes. They have telegraphed for him, and they expect him every
minute. Till he comes, none of us has to go out or even up to our
bedrooms.’

Mary spoke with a sort of gasp, and her rosy face was whiter than
usual. She was an honest country girl, brought up in a quiet Suffolk
village, and this was her first experience of service in London; and
although her conscience was quite clear, and she could prove where she
had been, and what she had done every minute of yesterday afternoon,
she dreaded the interview, which she knew must come, with the
detective, ‘who,’ Anne had informed her, ‘would begin by suspecting
them all, and looking in all their boxes before he made up his mind
that it had been none of them who had done it.’

Yesterday had been her Sunday out, so she felt that she would have even
more questions to answer than the rest of her fellow-servants, and she
kept saying over and over again to herself that she could tell him
quite easily where she had been. She had gone to church in the morning,
and then she had spent the rest of the day with a cousin who lived at
Cricklewood, and her cousin’s husband, a respectable joiner, had seen
her home at nine o’clock.

Presently Ralph came running in, looking flushed and important. He had
been downstairs early, and had just been out for a tour of inspection
on his own account.

‘I say, father,’ he cried, ‘do you know what I have discovered? The
fellows have smashed two of the summer-house windows. The glass is
lying all over the path.’

In his haste he had forgotten to wipe his shoes, and a muddy mark on
the polished floor, which completely hid a tiny scratch, made one
of the policemen glance up at his superior officer with a look of
annoyance. Ralph had taxed their patience severely already, for he had
been following closely at their heels for the last half-hour, pouring
out remarks and suggestions in his own superior, self-confident way,
quite regardless of their civil hints that they could get on better
with their work if he left them to find out things for themselves.

The inspector noticed the glance at once. There was very little that
his sharp eyes did not notice.

‘I think, sir,’ he said, turning to Mr Osbourne, ‘we would get on
quicker without the children. The fewer people who are about at this
sort of thing the better.’

‘Yes, to be sure,’ replied Mr Osbourne, who had not noticed that there
were any of them downstairs until Ralph’s noisy interruption.—‘Go and
have your breakfast at once, boys.—Mary, will you go with them and see
to it? We will call you if we want you. And afterwards, see that they
all go up to the playroom, or somewhere where they will be out of the
way.’

‘But, father,’ began Ralph lingering behind the others, not choosing to
consider himself included in an order to the children, ‘do you hear
what I am saying? I found out that the summer-house windows are broken,
and surely that is a clue.’

‘Hold your tongue, Ralph, and do as you are bid,’ said his father
sharply. ‘We found all that out long before you were up; so go along
and have your breakfast with the others, and don’t let me find you
bothering about down here again.’

Ralph, who was afraid of his father, dared not argue the point further,
but he went out of the hall with a frown on his face. He had a great
idea of his own importance, and he did not care to be snubbed in this
way before the servants, and told to stay out of the way as if he
were six years old. There was no help for it, however, so he followed
the others to the servants’ hall with the best grace he could, and
found that Mary had already poured out the tea and was good-naturedly
answering the many questions which Ronald and Vivian were showering
upon her.

‘’Tis clear that the thieves got in by the conservatory, Master
Vivian,’ she was saying as Ralph entered and sat down sullenly in the
place which had been left vacant for him, ‘for they have cut a great
circle clean out of the glass just behind the stables; and then I
suppose one of them put in his hand and unlocked the door, for Hunter
found it open this morning, and he locked it himself last night. They
seem to have carried out the silver that way too, and a nice lot of it
they have got, more’s the pity, for Mason picked up one of the best
silver forks just a stone’s-throw down the drive. None of us maids have
been allowed to go out; but we heard the policeman say as how a cart
must have waited on the road just outside the gate—the wheel-marks can
be seen quite plainly—and they must have put it all into that, and
carted it away. Like as not it is all melted down by this time. I’ve
heard people say that these thieves are such sharp ones they melt all
their things at once.’

‘What for?’ asked Claude, pausing with his mug of milk half-way to his
mouth. ‘It would spoil all the things if they were melted.’

‘Not to let people know whose things they were,’ explained Ronald
with a smile, taking up a teaspoon. ‘You see, Claude, here is W. O.
on the end of this, or ought to be, though I can’t see it. Well, if
the police found a teaspoon with W. O. on it in any one’s house—any
one whom he thought was likely to steal, I mean—he would know that the
teaspoons were Uncle Walter’s, and that the people in the house had
stolen them.’

‘You won’t find any letters on the end of any of these teaspoons,
worse luck! Master Ronald,’ said Mary. ‘These are the kitchen spoons,
the only ones that are left. The rogues knew what to take and what to
leave, and they did not touch any of the kitchen things.’

‘Where’s my christening-mug?’ asked Claude suddenly, noticing for the
first time that he was using a plain white china cup instead of the
solid silver mug which his godfather, a rich old gentleman in India,
had given him.

‘Melted,’ said Ralph maliciously, while Mary murmured, ‘I’m afraid it
has gone with the rest of the things, Master Claude. You know it always
stood on the sideboard in the dining-room, along with the really good
silver.’

‘But my name was on it,’ said Claude, the tears rising in his round
blue eyes at the thought of losing his mug, which he had had all his
life, and of which he was very proud. ‘My whole name is on it, “Claude
Alexander Osbourne,” and my date.’

‘All the more reason why they should melt it,’ went on Ralph, who was
in the mood to tease his little brother, and with whom the Indian mug
had always been rather a sore subject. He was the eldest, and he had
always felt that the mug, and the rich godfather too, should have
belonged to him, instead of to Claude; for his godfathers, two old
clergymen, had only given him a Bible and a prayer-book, which in his
mind were very mean gifts compared to Isobel’s case containing a silver
knife and fork and spoon, which she had got at her christening, and
Claude’s silver mug.

‘Hush, Master Claude,’ said Mary, as she saw the big tears begin to
roll down the little boy’s face at his brother’s unkind words; ‘don’t
vex your heart about the mug. They say that the man from Scotland Yard
can find out anything, and he will be sure to catch the thieves long
before they have had time to melt all the things. And your mug was so
solid it would take a long time to melt.

‘As for you, Master Ralph,’ she went on, ‘if I were a big boy like you
I would be ashamed to tease a little one and make him cry, when there
is so much trouble and worry in the house. Dear, dear! there, you have
set him off, and you know how long it will be before he stops; and what
will your father say, with Miss Isobel so ill?’

‘How is Isobel?’ asked Ronald, suddenly remembering what Anne had
said when she called him, and noticing almost for the first time that
neither she nor Aunt Dora had ever appeared.

‘She isn’t at all well,’ said Mary gravely. ‘The mistress has been up
since five o’clock with her. ’Twas then the robbery was found out.
Mistress went down into the dining-room to get some soda-water—Miss
Isobel was sick—and she found it all in an upturn.—Oh, do be quiet,
Master Claude,’ she added in a worried tone. ‘The doctor said that Miss
Isobel was to be kept quiet, and here you are roaring like a bull of
Bashan.—It’s all your fault, that’s what it is, Master Ralph. And, oh
dear, there’s the master calling!’

Just then Uncle Walter’s voice sounded sharply from the hall.

‘Who is that making such a noise?’ he asked. ‘Be quiet, Claude, at
once, do you hear?—Mary, surely you can keep him quiet. We cannot have
a noise like that in the house to-day.’

But the sharp note in his father’s voice only made matters worse, and
in spite of Mary’s threats and promises and offers of sundry lumps of
toffee which she would get out of her box when the policemen would let
her go upstairs, if he would only be quiet, Claude went on crying till
he bade fair to go into one of the screaming-fits for which he had been
noted as a baby, but which he seemed quite to have outgrown.

As a matter of fact, the confusion and mystery which had suddenly
overtaken his usually orderly home had quite upset the little fellow’s
nerves, and it needed very little to make him lose his self-control.
Poor Mary was in despair; but Ronald, who had a wonderful way with
children, came to the rescue. His own little sister Dorothy was a very
excitable child, and Mrs Armitage often said that she did not know what
she would have done without her eldest son, who could soothe and quiet
the little girl when every one else was helpless.

‘Come on, Claude,’ he said cheerily, pushing back his chair, ‘I’ve
finished breakfast now, and we will go out and see Monarch. We will
take these bits of sausage, and perhaps Mrs Mason will allow us to
give them to him to-day. I shouldn’t wonder if his breakfast had been
forgotten when every one has been so busy.’

‘Oh, Master Ronald, haven’t you heard?’ began Mary, ‘poor Monarch’——
and then she stopped, for Claude ceased crying for a minute to listen
to what she had to say about his pet. It had suddenly occurred to her
that the news she had to tell would not help to comfort the little boy.

‘I think you had better not go into the courtyard,’ she went on
hurriedly, with a warning look at Ronald, ‘not just now, at least, for
the hole they cut in the conservatory is just above Monarch’s kennel.
You know how the conservatory comes quite close to the courtyard near
there, and the inspector didn’t seem to want any one about. He says
that if there are any footsteps they will be all trodden away if any
one goes to look.’

‘All right,’ said sensible Ronald, who saw clearly that there was some
other reason which Mary did not wish to give. ‘We’ll go into the
greenhouse instead, and see if we can catch any little green frogs
among the ferns by the tank.’

This was a favourite occupation of Isobel’s and Claude’s, though it
was not very often allowed; but to-day Ronald thought that he could
take the responsibility upon himself, and Mary heartily seconded his
proposal. So Claude went off quietly with his big cousin to get his
boots and gaiters, while the two other boys only waited till the door
was shut behind them to fall on Mary with eager questions.

‘Why did I not want him to go into the courtyard, Master Ralph? Because
the poor beast that he is so fond of is stone dead, murdered by those
scoundrels so that he couldn’t bark and they might begin their work in
peace. If Monarch had been alive I warrant they wouldn’t have cut their
hole so easily; he would have roused the whole of Hampstead first.’

‘Monarch dead!’ said both the boys at once. Ralph felt a lump rise in
his throat at the news, for the gentle animal had been a favourite
with all the children, while Vivian sat and gazed vaguely out of the
window, a great fear rising in his heart.

‘How did they kill him?’ asked Ralph at last, and his voice was rather
husky.

‘They poisoned him,’ said Mary, beginning to put the plates together
with great energy. ‘Mason found half of a bit of nasty yellow pastry
lying in his kennel; he had eaten the rest. It had been made with some
poisonous stuff, the policeman said, and the poor brute was stone dead,
and quite stiff when they found him. But, anyway, he did not suffer,
for a mercy, for he was curled up quite peaceful like, just as if he
had gone to sleep.—But, bless me, Master Vivian, whats the matter with
you next?’ she exclaimed in alarm, for Vivian, who had risen suddenly
to his feet, turned perfectly white, and, after one or two feeble
attempts to steady himself by holding on to the back of a chair, fell
forward on the floor in a dead faint.



CHAPTER XI.

THE DOCTOR’S VISIT.


WHEN Vivian came to himself he was lying flat on his back on his bed
upstairs, and some one was bathing his head with cold water, while Mary
stood by the side of the bed holding a basin.

‘He is better now, mum,’ he heard her say; ‘he has opened his eyes, and
the colour is coming back into his face.’

‘Poor little fellow!’ It was Aunt Dora who spoke. ‘I would not have
thought that he was so easily upset. He must have been feeling ill all
morning. I told him to stay in bed for his cold; but I suppose every
one forgot to see after him, and he just got up like the others.’

‘I don’t think it was exactly that, mum,’ answered Mary; ‘for he ate a
good breakfast, and seemed all right till some one began to talk about
Monarch; and I think it was the shock when he heard that the poor brute
had been poisoned that did it.’

At her words the whole hideous story, and the share he had unwittingly
taken in it, flashed across Vivian’s mind. ‘Oh Aunt Dora!’ he cried, ‘I
did not do it. I did not know that it would hurt him.’

Had his aunt been able to understand his words he would have confessed
everything there and then, he felt so weak and miserable and
broken-down; but she only looked at Mary in perplexity.

‘Do what?’ she asked in a puzzled way. ‘What is he thinking of, I
wonder?’

‘About killing Monarch, I should say, mum,’ said Mary. ‘Mrs Mason said
to me that he had been feeding the dog with some scraps while you were
all at church; but of course that had nothing to do with the nasty bits
of cake that poisoned him.—They must have been given to him at night,
after it was dark, Master Vivian, when every one was safe in the house,
and there was no one to see what was going on.’

‘Yes; it could not possibly be anything that you gave the poor dog
that did him harm, dearie,’ said Aunt Dora, kissing him and laying a
soft handkerchief steeped in eau de Cologne on his brow. ‘They found a
piece of strange-looking cake in his kennel which had evidently been
put there by some strangers, and we expect there was poison in it. The
police inspector is going to take it to a chemist and have it analysed.
So don’t think about it any more, but lie still and try to have a
little sleep, for I must go back to Isobel, and I hear your uncle
calling for Mary downstairs.’

Mary gave a little gasp. She knew that the summons meant that she
must go down and be questioned as to her movements yesterday, by the
detective who had arrived just as she was carrying Vivian to his room.
She had heard that in London the policemen and lawyers were so clever
that they asked questions until they made people say the exact opposite
to what they meant, and the prospect was very alarming to her simple
country mind.

Her mistress saw her anxiety, and reassured her kindly.

‘Just tell the plain truth, Mary; tell him where you were, and what
you did all yesterday; and remember no one here suspects you, but
detectives always like to question every one in the house before they
do anything else.’

Then they went outside, closing the door behind them, and Vivian was
left to his own thoughts.

He saw the whole thing clearly now. The man with the green patch over
his eye had evidently been prowling about, spying how the land lay, and
seeing how he could best reach Monarch’s kennel and give the poor dog
the poisonous cakes. When Vivian appeared he had hidden himself in the
summer-house, in the hope of not being seen; and, while he was there,
Vivian’s own foolishness in taking out the pistol and firing the fatal
shot that shattered the windows had put him completely in his power;
and the threats of exposure, and the cleverly contrived cock-and-bull
story, which the little boy had believed implicitly, about the lame
daughter at home and her fondness for puppies, had insured the cakes
being given at the right moment.

He ground his teeth as he realised how completely he had been duped and
made a fool of, and for a moment he almost wished that the detective
downstairs would begin to question him, and draw out the whole story.
But he knew that there was little chance of that. If the confession
came, it must come from himself alone; and he turned his face on the
pillow with a sob as he thought what a web of deceit, and lies, and
wrongdoing he had woven round himself, for to confess to having seen
the man, and to having slipped out in the darkness and given Monarch
the cakes, would lead to awkward questions about the broken window, and
to confess to having broken that would lead to the whole story of the
pistol and its concealment.

No, he had not courage to face it all; he must go on living with
the weight of these black sins on his conscience; and as he tossed
restlessly up and down he wondered to himself if this was the way in
which thieves and other wicked people began their lives of crime, and
if he would go on getting worse and worse, until at last he became
quite a wicked man who did not care what he did, and in due time would
break his mother’s heart.

Presently Ronald came into the room, looking grave and anxious.

‘Why, Vivi, boy, what came over you?’ he asked, sitting down on the bed
and putting his arm round his brother. ‘They tell me that you turned
quite funny when you heard about Monarch, and Aunt Dora says that she
can’t understand what put it into your head that you had hurt him. You
only gave him some scraps of bread, didn’t you?’

There was something in Ronald’s voice as he asked this question which
seemed to irritate his brother—a vague trace of anxiety, as if he would
like to hear from Vivian’s own lips that this was all that he had had
to do with the dog—for Vivian pushed away his arm roughly.

‘Of course it was all I gave him,’ he answered pettishly, ‘and I never
thought they would do him any harm. I was confused and funny when I
said that to Aunt Dora. Do go away, Ronald, my head aches so, and
auntie said I was to be quiet.’

Ronald was silent for a moment, but there was a worried look on his
face. There had been one or two things in his brother’s conduct that
had puzzled him during the last few days, and he could not help
remembering how he had noticed, the evening before, that Vivian’s
house-shoes looked muddy, as if he had been outside with them, but
clearly he was not in the mood for further questioning, so when he
spoke again he wisely chose another subject.

‘Do you know, I think that Isobel is awfully ill, worse than we think,’
he said. ‘I haven’t seen Aunt Dora at all; but I asked Anne, and
she told me that Isobel woke auntie up quite early this morning by
beginning to scream, and when auntie went into her room she didn’t know
her in the least. They got the doctor at once, and he gave her some
stuff that made her quieter, but she has never been properly awake, and
he is coming back at ten o’clock. I’m wondering,’ he went on slowly,
‘if we shouldn’t tell Aunt Dora about that fall she had on Wednesday?
I’ve heard of people hurting their heads when they fell like that.’

In a moment all Vivian’s fears of discovery were reawakened, and all
his dreams of confession had vanished. If Isobel’s fall were spoken of,
the oak-tree behind the summer-house might come to be examined, and the
hole and its hidden contents would be almost sure to be discovered.

‘Oh Ronald, don’t be a fool!’ he said sharply, sitting up in bed in his
excitement; ‘that can’t have anything to do with Isobel’s illness. She
has been as well as possible since then, and it is no use bothering
Aunt Dora about it now. You’re nothing but an old woman, always going
and imagining things.’

Ronald’s face flushed at the taunt. Always conscientious, and almost
morbidly afraid of telling an untruth, he was apt to be called
‘womanish’ and ‘silly’ by the Strangeways, who could not understand a
boy who preferred to be laughed at or punished rather than get out of
a scrape by shuffling or making an excuse. Their teasing had little
effect on him; but when the taunt came from his own sharp little
brother’s lips, whom he admired with an unselfish admiration which few
elder boys would have accorded to a younger one, it hurt him deeply,
but he stuck to his point.

‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘I may either be an old woman or not; but I
once heard father say that injuries to people’s heads don’t always show
at first, that’s why doctors often don’t know what is the matter with
people. So I think that Aunt Dora ought to know, and I’m going to tell
her.’

‘Aunt Dora ought to know what?’ asked a voice, and Mrs Osbourne
entered the room. ‘I hoped to find this boy asleep,’ she said, laying
her hand on Vivian’s hot cheek, and here he is chattering away as fast
as he can. What are you discussing, and what is it that you think I
ought to know?’

‘It is about Isobel, Aunt Dora,’ said Ronald bravely. ‘Did you know
that she had had a fall?’

‘A fall? When? here? Tell me quickly, Ronald.’ His aunt’s voice sounded
so sharp and strained that even Ronald was frightened, and Vivian hid
his face in the clothes and wondered what was going to happen next.

‘It was last Wednesday. We were playing hide-and-seek, and Vivi and
Isobel climbed up on one of the branches of the old oak-tree behind the
summer-house, and when Claude and I caught sight of them they began to
crawl along the branch, and all at once it broke, and they both fell on
to the path.’

‘And why was I not told this before?’ asked Aunt Dora in grave
displeasure. ‘The others were younger; but I thought you were to be
trusted, Ronald.’

The tears came into Ronald’s eyes, but he made no attempt to justify
himself; that would have been to have blamed Ralph.

‘Isobel said she was not hurt, Aunt Dora,’ he said simply; ‘and though
she looked a little bit white at first, she seemed all right in a
moment.’

‘That did not matter. You should not have listened to her; you should
have come straight to me.’ The words were spoken so passionately that
Ronald was dumb; but Vivian spoke out loyally:

‘It wasn’t Ronald’s fault, auntie, whosever fault it was. He ran into
the house to tell you, even although Isobel begged him not to, and
Ralph laughed at him for making a fuss. But you were not in; you had
gone to see that old lady, and you did not come back till tea-time, and
then Isobel seemed all right, and we never thought any more about it
till just now.’

Mrs Osbourne laid her hand quickly on her elder nephew’s shoulder.
‘Forgive me, my boy,’ she said; ‘but I am so anxious I hardly know what
I am saying, and this only confirms what the doctor feared. He asked me
if she had not had a fall, and of course I did not know. He is coming
back at ten—there is his ring—and he talked—he talked—of her head and
her back.’

The last words were spoken so low that they were scarcely audible; but
as Mrs Osbourne hastily rose and left the room they heard her murmur to
herself, ‘My little girl, my only little girl!’ and they gazed at one
another in awe-struck silence.

‘Aunt Dora was crying,’ said Vivian at last. ‘She can’t think that
Isobel is going to die, can she? Oh Ronald!’ he repeated, taking hold
of his brother’s arm, and shaking it, as if to force an answer from
him, ‘do say something; do say that she isn’t going to die.’

‘Oh, I hope it isn’t as bad as that,’ said Ronald, trying to speak
cheerfully. ‘Lots of people get their heads hurt, and come all right
afterwards; but, all the same, I wish we had told at the time. She
might not have been so bad now.’

In a very few minutes the door opened again, and Aunt Dora came back,
accompanied by an elderly gentleman, who glanced sharply at the two
boys. Aunt Dora seemed quite herself again, although her voice trembled
slightly.

‘This is Dr Robson, Vivian,’ she said, ‘and I want him just to see you
for a moment, to make sure that you are all right after your faint turn
in the morning; and then I want you both to try and remember exactly
what happened on Wednesday, when the branch broke, and Isobel fell.’

The doctor felt Vivian’s pulse, and asked him a few questions. ‘He’s
all right,’ he said, nodding briskly to Mrs Osbourne. ‘His nerves have
got the better of him with the excitement of the robbery and all the
turn-up in the house. Send him out for a good walk on the Heath; it
will do his cold no harm, and he will come in looking like a different
boy.

‘And now, my lad,’ he went on, turning to Ronald, ‘I want you to tell
me exactly what happened last Wednesday, and how far little Miss Isobel
fell, and what she looked like when she got up.’

‘I will tell you what I can, sir,’ replied Ronald; ‘but Vivian knows
better than I do, for he was with her on the branch, and when she fell,
he fell along with her. It took me a few minutes to get round to them,
for of course they fell over on to the Heath, and I ran round by the
lodge. Isobel was sitting on the branch then, and she said she was not
hurt, but her face was so white I thought that she had broken her arm
or something, and there was a queer look in her eyes as if she wasn’t
seeing anything. I was frightened, and I ran in to see if I couldn’t
find Aunt Dora; but she had gone out, and Isobel walked home herself,
so I thought it was all right.’

The doctor listened to his story attentively, nodding his head once
or twice when Ronald spoke of the curious look he had noticed in his
little cousin’s eyes. Then he turned to Vivian.

‘When the branch broke, who was underneath?’ he asked; but Vivian could
not answer this question.

‘I think we both fell together,’ he said; ‘only Isobel fell on her back
and I fell on my face. I remember that because my hands were skinned,
and she said she thought she had bumped the back of her head.’

‘Ah,’ said the doctor quickly, ‘did she say that at once?’

‘No,’ said Vivian; ‘at first she lay quite still, with her eyes
half-open, and then she got up and said she wasn’t hurt, and then she
got awfully white and sat down again, and said that about her head;
then Ronald came, and we all went home.’

‘Did you run home?’

‘No, we didn’t. Claude and I wanted to run, but Isobel said she
couldn’t, for her legs felt as if she were going to take pins and
needles, and she had jumpy pains up her back.’

‘Thank you,’ said the doctor, rising. ‘You have told your story very
clearly.’ Then he glanced at Aunt Dora and said gravely, ‘I am afraid
that this explains a great deal.’



CHAPTER XII.

THE DARK SHADOW.


THE doctor’s prophecy proved true, for after a game of hockey on the
Heath with Ralph and Ronald and one or two other lads whom they met,
and whom Ralph knew, Vivian felt like a different boy. Indeed, all
three boys felt better for the game, and more disposed to look on the
bright side of things, and they were returning home for dinner in
fairly good spirits when Ralph stopped short with a sudden exclamation.

‘Hallo! What on earth is up now?’ he said. ‘There’s a policeman walking
off with our Joe. Surely they don’t think that it was he who stole the
silver?’

They all stopped and gazed with wondering eyes in the direction in
which Ralph was pointing. Sure enough, just leaving the lodge gates was
one of the stalwart policemen who had been about the house all morning,
and the lad whose arm he was holding with a not very friendly grasp
was certainly Joe Flinders the lad who had worked under Hunter the
gardener for more than a year, and who was a great favourite with the
children. He was the only son of a widowed mother, and a nice, civil,
obliging boy, with a cheery word for every one, and endless patience
with little Claude, who would follow him for hours at a time with a
wheelbarrow and spade which his father had bought for him.

As a rule, Joe was always whistling, and walked about with a certain
self-satisfied swagger, with his cap on the back of his head; for was
he not earning good wages, and did he not bid fair to become as good a
gardener as Mr Hunter?

But to-day things were very different. He dragged his feet along with a
hopeless slouch, and his cap was pulled right over his eyes, as if to
hide his face from the passers-by.

With one accord the boys raced after them, and overtook the strangely
mated couple just as they turned the corner at the grocer’s shop and
turned up the path which led over the Heath to the police station.

‘What’s the matter, Joe?’ asked Ralph, who had been fairly startled out
of his indifference by the events of the day, looking pityingly at
Joe’s swollen and tear-stained eyes, for the big lad was crying like a
baby.

‘They say that I had sommat to do with the robbery, Master Ralph,’ he
sobbed, ‘because when master sent Mr Hunter to cut down the branches
where Miss Isobel fell, in case some one else climbed up the tree
and hurt themselves, he found a hole in one of the branches, and a
pistol in it, which it seems had been lost, and it was wrapped up in
one of my old caps, the one I spoilt with the white paint when I was
a-painting the fence round the far paddock. I threw away the cap, and
never thought about it again; but ’tis mine sure enough, though ’ow it
came to be in the ’ole I don’t know no more than an infant. And now my
situation and my character is gone, and who is to tell mother—she that
trained me up always to be honest?’

Here poor Joe fairly broke down, and Ralph said indignantly, in his
most grown-up way, ‘I don’t believe a word of it, policeman; there must
be some mistake.’

‘Don’t you indeed, young sir?’ said the giant policeman, smiling
contemptuously. ‘If you had lived as long as me you wouldn’t be so
quick to say you didn’t believe things. Besides, I’m only taking him
up on suspicion, so he needn’t be in such a taking. If he can prove
that he is innocent, let him prove it. But it appears that this pistol
must have been stolen out of the house, and it’s found hidden in a hole
in a tree, wrapped in a cap which ’e owns is ’is, and to my mind it’s
as plain that he stole it as that two and two make four, though as to
connecting it with the robbery, well, that’s a different matter.’

‘It’s all the same,’ sobbed Joe, ‘whether I’m taken up on suspicion or
whether they are sure of it. My character’s gone, for who will take a
lad in who has been took up by the police? And who will look after my
mother, for she is so bad with the rhumatiz that she can’t do anything
for herself?’

‘Come, come,’ said the policeman, stepping forward a little quicker,
for already a small crowd of children was gathering, and he did not
want a scene. ‘Hold your tongue, and come along.—As for you, young
gentlemen, I would advise you to go home. What he says may be true
enough. He may know nothing about it, but that remains to be proved;
and often the most innocent-looking ones are the most artful.’

‘It’s a blooming shame, Joe,’ repeated Ralph.

Ronald took the lad’s hand kindly in his own. ‘I believe what you say,
Joe, and if you tell the truth it will all come right,’ he said.

But Vivian stood silent, utterly tongue-tied. It was true that he had
not been found out; but already his punishment was heavy, for it was
almost more than he could bear to have to stand by and see an innocent
lad led off to prison for his fault.

‘What a nice finish up to the holidays!’ said Ralph as they walked
slowly homewards. ‘The house broken into, and every one as cross as two
sticks, and Isobel ill, and now Joe taken up. It is enough to give a
fellow the blues. It is a good thing that there is Mrs Seton-Kinaird’s
party to look forward to.’

‘Do you think that we will go,’ said Ronald gravely, ‘now that Isobel
is so ill? I was just wondering if I oughtn’t to write and tell mother
that we are going home. I’m sure Aunt Dora would be glad to have fewer
of us in the house.’

‘Oh, don’t do that till after the party,’ said Ralph, who did not like
the idea of being left alone with only little Claude for company. ‘You
are going home on Wednesday anyhow, and I expect Isobel will be a lot
better to-morrow. It isn’t as if it were anything infectious.’

But when they reached the house they were met by news that put all
thoughts of the party out of their minds. The door was opened by Mary,
and her eyes were as red and swollen as Joe’s had been, but from a very
different cause.

‘You have to go up the back stairs,’ she said in a husky whisper, ‘and
be as quiet as you possibly can. Poor little Miss Isobel is dreadfully
ill, and they say that it all depends upon her being kept quiet; and
she does get so excited at the least little bit of a sound.’

‘Have they sent for Dr Robson again?’ asked Ralph, for they could hear
the doctor’s voice as he stood talking to Mr Osbourne in the corridor
just outside Isobel’s room.

‘Yes,’ said Mary with a sob; ‘the poor lamb took much worse just after
he had gone; she got so excited, and talked so fast, we could hear
her all over the house. She would have it that she was playing in the
garden with you, Master Vivian, and with little Master Claude, and
Master Claude heard her, and began to cry, and that made her worse, so
Anne put on his coat and has taken him over to Mrs Anstey’s. He will be
quite happy there playing with the other children, and I am to go and
sleep with him at night.’

‘And has Dr Robson been here all this time?’ asked the boys, awed and
startled by the thought that Isobel _could_ be ill enough to need such
attention, and yet feeling somehow that it was all a bad dream, and
that they would suddenly wake up and find her merry, mischievous face
at their elbows.

‘Yes, he has,’ said Mary with a sigh; ‘and they have sent for an
hospital nurse and a big doctor from London, Sir Somebody Something—I
forget his name. And they have telegraphed for your father, Master
Ronald; I heard master order the carriage to go and meet him at
Victoria; they expect him by the four o’clock train.’

Vivian waited to hear no more. Regardless of Mary’s warning, ‘You were
to stay here in the schoolroom, Master Vivian,’ he rushed away as
noiselessly as he could to his own room, feeling that he must be alone,
and that he must have time to think. He was not crying—tears seemed far
away; but he felt as if some terrible darkness were settling round him,
a darkness with no light in it. He was a thief, Joe had been taken up,
and now Isobel was dying. In after years Vivian looked back on that
moment as the blackest and most desperate of his whole life.

‘You’d better go after him, Master Ronald, and see where he has gone
to,’ whispered Mary, ‘and I will stay here with Master Ralph. Only keep
him quietly in his room, or else bring him back here, for you mustn’t
be waiting about the corridor. Master said you weren’t to do that on
any account. They have Miss Isobel’s door and window open, and she
hears the slightest sound, though she doesn’t know anybody.’

‘Mary, will she die?’

The question forced itself from Ronald’s quivering lips in spite of
himself, and in spite of a protesting groan from Ralph, who had flung
himself face downwards on the hearthrug. He had never realised before
how dear the unselfish little sister was to him; and now his conscience
was speaking very plainly, and telling him that it was she who had
always done things for him, and that he had taken very little trouble
to try and give her pleasure.

‘Girls are made to fag for their brothers’ had been the cry of the boys
at school, and he had thought it a fine thing to believe it, and to act
upon it; but somehow everything looked different to-day.

‘She is in God’s hands, Master Ronald,’ answered Mary unsteadily, ‘and
everything will be done for her that they can do, but’—— She did not
finish the sentence, and her kind eyes filled with tears.

The same question which he had just asked Mary awaited Ronald when he
reached his room, where Vivian sat huddled up on the deep window-seat,
looking out at the bright sunshine with dull, unseeing eyes.

Ronald did not answer him. He could not; the whole thing seemed too
terrible to be true, and yet in his heart he knew that Mary thought
that his little cousin was dying. That was why she was crying, and
that was why they had telegraphed for his father.

He crossed the room in silence, and stood beside his brother, looking
out like him at the golden sunlight, which was turning every frosted
twig into a spray of diamonds, and wondering at the contrast between
the brightness which lay over everything out of doors, and the shadow
which was darkening and saddening the house.

But Vivian would not let him remain silent. ‘Speak, Ronald, speak!’ he
cried, taking hold of Ronald’s arm and shaking it in his excitement.
‘She won’t die; she mustn’t. Why, she was at the Hippodrome the other
night, and she was as well as any of us. She can’t die yet; people
don’t die so quickly.’

Just then a sound reached their ears which made the words die away
on Vivian’s lips. It was the sound of a weak, quavering little voice
calling out ‘Vivian, Vivian! let us run and hide.’ It was Isobel, poor
child, thinking, in her delirium, that she was once more playing in the
garden.

The boys knew her voice in a moment, but how sadly it was changed!
Somehow the sound of it calmed Vivian’s excitement, and he laid
his head against his brother’s shoulder and began to sob in a dull,
hopeless way.

God was beginning to punish him, he thought, not in the way he had
expected by the discovery of his sin, but in a far more terrible way.
First of all he had caused suspicion to fall on Joe, and Joe was
going to be put in prison, and now He was taking Isobel away, and the
punishment which should have fallen on him—Vivian—alone, was going to
fall on Aunt Dora, and Uncle Walter, and Ralph, and little Claude.

‘Suppose we say our prayers, Vivi,’ said Ronald with a break in his
voice. ‘If Jesus could bring back Jairus’ little daughter, He can make
Isobel better; and it is the only thing we can do to help.’

‘You can if you like,’ said Vivian, hopeless; ‘but it would be no good
for me to do it. I’m not good enough.’

‘No more am I,’ said Ronald humbly; ‘but mother says that it isn’t our
goodness or badness that matters; it is if we really mean what we say,
and it is “for Jesus’ sake,” you know,’ he added shyly, for neither of
the boys were wont to talk much about religion.

Vivian made no answer, so Ronald knelt down and said some simple
prayers for both of them—the prayers he had learned to say at his
mother’s knee when he was a little fellow, and which he had never
changed: ‘Our Father,’ and then the Collect for protection from danger,
and then he hesitated, and added a little broken prayer in his own
words that Isobel might be made better, then came the Benediction.

The solemn words brought a curious feeling of strength and safety to
Ronald, and he rose from his knees with fresh hope and trust. The
same loving Master who had healed the little Galilean maiden so many
hundreds of years ago was as near and as powerful to-day, only Vivian
and he could not see Him, but they had told Him their trouble, and
already to Ronald’s boyish heart came the promise of relief.

But Vivian felt none of this. The words which had comforted Ronald only
made him feel more miserable. How could he pray to ‘be kept from sin,
and from falling into any kind of danger,’ or how could he expect God
to hear him or to answer his prayer for Isobel’s recovery when a burden
of falsehood and theft lay on his conscience, which he had not the
courage to confess, and for which innocent people were suffering?

No, Ronald’s prayer might be heeded, for Ronald was always true and
loving and dutiful, even although he was a trifle slow at times; but
there was no chance whatever of God hearing, or at least paying any
attention to, the prayers of a liar and a thief.

Poor little miserable boy! he could not imagine that the mere fact that
he had faced his sin, and called it by its right name, and had not
tried to make excuses even to himself, was the first step towards that
repentance and confession which at present seemed so impossible to him.

Presently Mary came quietly in to tell them that dinner was ready; and
although they all protested that they could not eat anything, it is
wonderful how a boy’s appetite comes back at the sight of roast turkey
and a rolly-polly pudding. Afterwards, however, when the table was
cleared, and Mary had disappeared downstairs with the dishes, time hung
heavily enough.

Ralph, as usual, took refuge from his troubles in a book; and Ronald,
acting on a remark which Mary had made, that if Dr Armitage returned
home that night he would probably take the two boys with him, went back
to his room to put his own clothes and his brother’s in something like
order, in case his father decided to do this. So Vivian was left to his
own thoughts, and very sad and sorrowful ones they were.

The long afternoon wore slowly away. Now and then a door opened or
shut, but the watchers by Isobel’s bed were far too anxious to spare
a thought for the three lonely boys in the schoolroom. At half-past
three Mason wheeled the carriage out, and began to get it ready for the
station. Vivian could see him from the schoolroom window; could see,
too, Monarch’s empty kennel, and the great round hole in the glass of
the conservatory which the burglars had cut last night. The sight sent
his thoughts back to the summer-house and the man with the green patch
over his eye. Could it have been only yesterday morning he had spoken
to him? What a long, long time ago it seemed! Even the burglary seemed
an old story, something that happened long ago, before the awful news
had been told to him that Isobel was dying, that God was going to take
her away as a punishment for his wickedness. Poor little mistaken lad,
how the Great Father must have pitied him as He looked down and saw the
image of Himself which Vivian was forming in his heart, an image so
different from the Perfect Love which the Christ had come to earth to
declare.

At last the carriage rolled out of the yard, and everything was quiet
again, and presently Ronald came back and joined him at the window.

‘I have packed everything except our brushes and combs and our sleeping
suits,’ he said. ‘They can be put in in a moment if father wants us to
go home; but somehow I fancy he will wait till to-morrow to hear what
the big doctor says. He can’t come till late this evening. He has had
to go into the country. Anne told me so; I met her on the stairs.

‘Just look at poor Monarch’s kennel,’ he went on. ‘It is a good thing
that Isobel doesn’t know that he is dead; it might vex her. I heard her
calling out to him as I passed her door just now. I expect she thinks
that she is playing with him.’

‘And he is dead and buried,’ said Vivian, and then he shivered. That
was his doing, as well as the rest.

Ronald looked at him anxiously. ‘Come nearer the fire,’ he said. ‘You
have stood there until you are cold, and it is dreary looking out now
that the sun is gone. I wish Mary or some one would come and light the
gas.’

It was five o’clock, and they were having tea when the carriage came
back. The table looked just as it had done at the same time a week
before, for Mary, anxious to make things as cheerful as possible, had
been generous with cakes and jam.

‘It is just a week ago to-night since you came,’ said Ralph, as the
wheels stopped, and a subdued bustle was heard in the hall, then he
stopped abruptly as the contrast between that night and this struck
him, and for a moment nobody spoke except Mary, who suddenly woke up to
the fact that it was time that somebody was asking for more tea.

Dr Armitage must have gone right upstairs with Uncle Walter, for no one
came near the schoolroom for nearly half-an-hour, and when the door
opened at last it was not he who came softly in, but his wife; and at
the sight of her dear sweet face her two boys realised all at once how
long it was—a whole week—since they had seen her, and wondered how they
could have stayed away from her so long.

‘Oh mother!’ cried Ronald, jumping up in surprise and pulling her down
beside him on his seat; and then for a moment he could say no more,
but could only squeeze her hand; while Vivian, much to every one’s
astonishment, turned his face away from the table and burst into a
torrent of loud, frightened sobs.

‘Hush, Vivian!’ said his father, who had come into the room unnoticed
along with Mr Osbourne. ‘You must control yourself, my boy; we cannot
have a noise like that here.’

But his mother had stretched out her hand and drawn him gently to her.

‘Take Jack down to the study and have your tea there, Walter,’ she
said; ‘Anne will see after you, and we will stay up here a little by
ourselves. We can have a quarter of an hour’s talk; and I will have the
boys quite ready by half-past six.

‘Now we will be cosy,’ she said, drawing up a low chair to the fire,
and sitting down on it. ‘You too, Ralph; here is room for you on the
floor at this side. Vivi can sit on my knee if he doesn’t think he is
too big.’

Vivian, however, who was still sobbing, preferred to sit on the floor,
and to hide his hot face in his mother’s dress, and she wisely took no
notice, knowing that he would recover himself more quickly if she left
him alone. ‘What a long, weary, troubled day you must have had!’ she
said softly; ‘but Aunt Dora has told me how good you have been, and how
little trouble you have given.’

‘How did you manage to leave Dorothy, mother?’ asked Ronald,
instinctively keeping clear of the subject which was uppermost in all
their minds.

‘Nicely,’ answered his mother with a smile. ‘I promised her that, if
she would be a very good girl, father would bring her her Ronnie back,’
and she looked down at her eldest son with a little smile, ‘and Vivi
too,’ she added, putting her hand tenderly on the little black head
which was half-hidden in the folds of her soft gray gown. ‘She has
missed you both so terribly that she was willing to promise anything
so long as she had the prospect of getting you back. I am sure I don’t
know what she will do when you go to school.’

‘Then we are going home with father,’ said Ronald. Mary thought we
might, so I have packed nearly all our things.’

‘That was my good, thoughtful boy,’ said his mother. ‘I asked Anne to
see to your things; but she is so busy I am glad there will not be much
for her to do.’

‘Are you going to stay here then?’ asked Vivian, speaking for the first
time.

‘Yes, sonnie, for a day or two, to help auntie to nurse Isobel. So
Ronald and you must do the best you can at home, and look after father
and little Dorothy.’

The tears came into Mrs Armitage’s eyes as she thought how very little
more nursing her little niece was likely to need, but for every one’s
sake she tried to speak as cheerfully as possible. It was clear that
Isobel, in falling, had hurt her back as well as her head, and Dr
Armitage had only been able sorrowfully to confirm what Dr Robson had
feared: that there was very little hope that she would live through the
night. It was evident from the symptoms that inflammation had set in,
and if that could not be speedily checked the end could not be far off.

‘Is father not going to stay too?’ asked Ronald; but his mother shook
her head.

‘He must go home, dearie. He had a very anxious case down in the
village, and can’t be spared; besides, he can do no good here. All
is being done that can be done, and we are going to wire Sir Antony
Jones’s opinion to him. He will be here at eight o’clock, so the
message will be at home almost as soon as you are.’

‘What does Uncle Jack say about Isobel?’ The question came from Ralph,
and Mrs Armitage hesitated before she answered it.

‘She is very ill, dearie,’ she said at last gently; ‘but she is in
God’s hands, and we must try to be content to leave her there. We can
be quite sure that He will do what is best for us all.’

‘Would it have made any difference if we had told,’ asked Ronald—‘if
they had known at the very first—that she had fallen?’

‘Perhaps it might, but we cannot say. That is past now, and it is
no good looking back. You did not mean to conceal anything, so you
cannot blame yourselves; but remember it is always better to be open
and frank, for you never know what mischief may follow if you try to
hush a matter up. But I think it is time that you were getting on your
greatcoats, boys, and seeing if Anne has finished your packing, and
strapped your portmanteau. The carriage will be round in ten minutes,
and I have some things I must say to your father.’



CHAPTER XIII.

A DREARY HOMECOMING.


TO the end of their lives Ronald and Vivian never forgot that journey
home. For one thing, they had never travelled in the dark before, and
everything looked strange and unreal.

Aunt Dora came down into the hall before they left, to kiss them and
say good-bye; but her face was so white and drawn that Vivian almost
shrank from her in fear, and the hopes that Ronald would have expressed
for his little cousin’s recovery died away on his lips. It was such a
contrast to the bright, happy woman who had been like a playmate to
them ever since they arrived.

They drove through the lighted streets in silence, for Dr Armitage was
deep in thought, thinking about the sorrow that was threatening his
favourite sister, and wondering if Sir Antony Jones, whose experience
in such cases was very great, could possibly give her a ray of hope. At
Victoria he bought the boys a handful of illustrated papers; but the
light in the carriage was so uncertain that they soon stopped looking
at them, and sat back in their corners, staring into the shadowy
darkness as it rushed past.

Ronald’s mind was full of problems which he could not solve, the
problems of life and death, which are so mysterious that in the face
of them the oldest and wisest among us are but children, and can only
trust where we cannot see; while Vivian was slowly fighting his way to
a decision, which was very real and tangible, but which seemed so far
above what his courage could attain to that as yet it was only a dream.

‘Here we are, boys; gather up your things. It is a cold night, and I do
not want to keep Black and the horse waiting.’

Both boys started at their father’s words, and jumped up so quickly
that they were flung against each other as the train drew up with a
jerk at the well-known little station, and old Timms the porter came
along the platform swinging his lamp, and crying out ‘Sitt-ingham,
Sitt-ingham!’ at the top of his familiar voice.

He stopped when he came to their carriage and opened the door.
Apparently they were the only passengers who were going to alight.

‘Well, young gentlemen,’ he said heartily, lifting out the rugs, ‘and
how have you enjoyed yourselves up in London? And how did you leave
Miss Dora—I beg her pardon, Mrs Osbourne? The other name always comes
most familiar to me; ’twas the name we knew her by when she used to
come and help the missus to nurse the little ones the year they were
all down wi’ the fever. Maria often says that if it hadn’t been Miss
Dora’s soups and puddings Belinda wouldn’t have been alive to-day.’

‘Then Maria must think of Miss Dora to-night, Timms,’ said the doctor
sadly, ‘for she is in great trouble. Her little girl, her only
daughter, is very ill—almost hopelessly so, it seems to me. I have just
been up to see her, and have left my wife there.’

‘Eh, but I’m sorry to hear you say so, sir; very sorry!’ said the
old man, shouldering the portmanteau, and turning through the little
white gate to where the carriage was standing; ‘and so will Maria be
when she hears. The only little lass, say you? But that is a heavy
sorrow. It seems to me, sir, it’s always the best beloved that’s took
first. Though we’ll hope that the little miss may be spared yet awhile.
Children get over a lot.’

‘I hope so, I’m sure. Good-night, Timms. Remember me to Maria.’

‘Good-night, sir, and maybe you’ll let us know what news they be in the
morning, sir.’

Ronald and Vivian had already taken their seats, and it did not seem
long until the carriage turned in at the lodge gates, and soon it
drew up at the front door. A bright fire was blazing in the hall, and
Lucy, little Dorothy’s nurse, was waiting to help them off with their
coats and see that everything was comfortable. But, oh, what a lonely
homecoming it seemed without mother’s cheery voice and bright face!

Even father seemed to notice the silence, for after having hurriedly
glanced at one or two notes which were lying on his desk waiting for
him, he turned to the maid. ‘Where is Dorothy, nurse?’ he asked. ‘If
she is awake we will have her down. The little lady must act mother for
us to-night.—Mustn’t she, boys?’

‘Oh yes, father, do have her down,’ they both cried eagerly. ‘We were
afraid she might be asleep, but it would seem so much more “homey” if
she were here.’

‘I’m afraid she is asleep, sir,’ said Lucy. ‘I put her in her crib just
before the carriage came. She had been watching for it since before
six o’clock, and she got so tired she went to sleep in my arms, so I
undressed her and put her in bed.’

‘Then we must just do the best we can without her,’ said the doctor,
sitting down and beginning to pour himself out a cup of tea, while Lucy
saw to the wants of the boys before she left the room.

It was a very silent meal, and it was a relief when it was over,
although no one seemed quite to know what to do next. The doctor
sat restlessly turning over the leaves of a medical journal; the
boys wandered out into the hall, and stood looking out of the long,
low window at the end of it without speaking. The window overlooked
the road which led to the village, and from it they could see the
bright yellow light which burned over the little shop which served as
stationer’s shop and book-club, as well as post-office. They knew that
old Giles Masterton, who acted as postman, would bring up the telegram
as soon as it came; and as he always carried a lantern they would be
able to mark his progress up the road in the darkness.

Nine o’clock struck at last, and yet they waited, huddled together
behind a curtain; and when Lucy appeared and hinted at the advisability
of going to bed they looked so distressed that she had not the heart to
insist.

‘The message will come all the same as if you were up, Master Vivian,’
she said persuasively, ‘and I’m sure your father will come and tell you
what it is at once.’ But Vivian only shook his head determinedly, and
pressed his face a little closer to the pane.

‘It must come soon if it is coming at all, Lucy,’ said Ronald, ‘for the
office shuts at nine, and I think we can stay up until it comes. Father
does not seem to mind, and we could never go to sleep until we know.’

‘I’m going to stay up until it comes, no matter what any one says or
thinks, so you needn’t bother any more, Lucy,’ broke out Vivian so
fiercely that both Lucy and Ronald looked at him in surprise.

[Illustration: At last a tiny red speck appeared under the yellow lamp,
and began to move slowly up the road.

V. L. PAGE 162.]

To Ronald, in the face of the trouble that was hanging over them,
any outburst of temper seemed almost irreverent; but Lucy understood
better, and with rare tact took no notice of the angry words. Instead
of remonstrating with Vivian, as she might have done, or threatening
him with his father’s displeasure, she went quietly into the cloakroom
and took down two greatcoats.

‘Put this on, Master Ronald,’ she said; ‘and here is yours, Master
Vivian; ’tis a hard frost to-night, and this hall is as cold as can be.

‘There now,’ as the boys silently obeyed her, and buttoned up the
coats, ‘you won’t get cold with these on; and if you would like a good
hot drink of cocoa before you go to bed come into the nursery. Miss
Dorothy is sleeping so soundly you won’t wake her, and I’ll have the
kettle boiling.’

Then she left them to wait in the darkness.

At last, just as the clock was chiming the half-hour, a tiny red speck
appeared under the yellow lamp, and began to move slowly up the road.
It was old Giles’s lantern, and both boys drew a shuddering breath of
suspense. What would the news be—life or death?

They had not long to wait. Dr Armitage’s listening ears had already
caught the sound of the old postman’s limp as he came up the frosty
road, and he laid down his newspaper hastily; and, crossing the hall
without noticing the two little figures behind the curtain, he opened
the front door, letting in a gust of clear cold air as he did so, and
went down the drive to meet him.

The boys crept to the door and watched breathlessly as he tore open the
flimsy orange-coloured envelope and read its contents by the light of
old Giles’s lantern. When he had read it he crumpled it up in his hand
and came slowly back to the house.

‘What does it say, father?’ asked Ronald. But he hardly needed to ask;
he knew by the sad look on his father’s face that the message was not
one of hope.

‘Ha, my boys!’ said the doctor, starting at the sound of his eldest
son’s voice, ‘I had almost forgotten you. It is time that you were both
in bed. Come into the study, to the fire. Vivian, you look blue with
cold.’

Then, when they had followed him into the study, he sat down in his
arm-chair and drew them gently to him. ‘It is bad news, boys,’ he said
gravely, and his voice shook as he spoke. ‘Sir Antony Jones can only
say what Dr Robson and I said; I am much afraid that if dear little
Isobel is living now she will not last through the night.’

‘Oh father!’ said Ronald, the tears running down his cheeks, ‘how will
Aunt Dora bear it? She never said so, but I feel sure that Isobel was
more to her almost than Ralph or Claude. It was not that she loved them
less, but Isobel was her only little girl. Oh, just think if it had
been Dorothy!’

‘God forbid,’ said Dr Armitage involuntarily, and he pressed his arm
round the boys who were so precious to him, and there was silence for a
moment, broken only by Ronald’s sobs, for Vivian, who was generally the
more easily moved to tears, stood perfectly still and quiet.

When the doctor spoke again it was in his usual tone, though his manner
was grave and sad. ‘Well, boys, it is more than time that you were in
bed. I must write some letters, and then go down and have a look at
Widow Dallas’s grandchild. She is ill too—very ill—but I hope she will
pull through. I will look in and see you when I come back, and say
good-night if you are not asleep.’

He kissed them tenderly, whispering to them not to forget Isobel’s name
in their prayers, and then he went out, and they went slowly up to bed.

At the head of the stairs Ronald turned off, and went quietly towards
the nursery, stifling his sobs as best he could.

‘I’m going to give little Dorothy a kiss,’ he whispered. ‘I never knew
before what a blessing a little sister is. Aren’t you coming?’

But Vivian shook his head, while a curious stifled sound like a groan
broke from his lips, and he went straight along the passage to his own
room.



CHAPTER XIV.

VIVIAN CONQUERS.


WHEN Ronald returned from the nursery, some ten minutes later, he
was surprised to find that the room was in darkness, and that Vivian
had not begun to undress, for as a rule he was so quick in all his
movements that he had expected to find him already in bed.

As he lit the candles on the dressing-table the misery in his little
brother’s face startled him, it was so white and drawn and hopeless.

‘You look awfully cold, Vivi,’ he began. ‘Come along into the nursery
and have some cocoa. Lucy gave me a cup to drink; awfully jolly and
sweet it was, and I feel heaps better. I got awfully shivery and queer
downstairs.’

‘No, thanks, I don’t want any, not to-night,’ said Vivian shortly,
pulling out a drawer with so much vehemence that Ronald took it as
a hint that he wanted to be quiet, and began to undress without any
further remark.

The boys generally read a short portion of the Bible to their mother
before they came upstairs, and when she happened to be away from home—a
very rare occurrence indeed—they read it to themselves in their own
room; but to-night Ronald felt that somehow he dare not ask his brother
to join him. He hardly knew how to treat him in this new, silent mood
that had come over him, and he longed for his mother, who always
understood people, and knew what to say to them.

And still, ever since he could remember, they had never gone to bed
without the nightly lesson, and he did not like to do so on this night
above all others, when the shadow of death had come nearer them than
ever it had done in their lives before. Nervously he took up the two
little Bibles which lay on a small table near the fireplace, under a
beautiful print of Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World.’

‘Aren’t you going to read, Vivi,’ he said timidly, holding out one of
them to his brother; but Vivian only shook his head and began pulling
off his shoes.

Ronald sighed, but he felt that further words were useless. He knew
that Vivian never liked to be argued with, especially when it was he,
Ronald, who argued, so in silence he read his verses to himself, and
knelt down to say his prayers. When he rose from his knees he found his
brother in bed, with his face buried in the pillows.

He stood for a moment, perplexed how to act, and then he blew out the
candle and went and sat down in the dark on the edge of Vivian’s bed.

‘Vivi, old chap,’ he said softly, ‘can’t you tell me what’s wrong? I
feel sure that there is something worse than even Isobel’s illness. You
haven’t said good-night to me, and you haven’t said your prayers.’

The only answer was a restless movement, and another sharp, strangled
sob, and then, just as Ronald was making up his mind to go back to bed,
feeling it was no use to ask any more questions, Vivian burst out, ‘I
can’t say my prayers, Ronald; I daren’t. I have been so wicked. Oh, if
you only knew!’

‘But God knows,’ said Ronald. ‘He knows how wicked we all are, and yet
that doesn’t hinder Him listening to us. He will forgive us and give
us strength to be better afterwards. I wish mother were here; she can
explain things so much better than I can.’

‘Yes—but—if one has done something, and he doesn’t want to tell, God
won’t hear him till he does,’ said Vivian desperately. ‘Do you remember
that text that mother told us about, which says that if we have
wickedness—iniquity or something is the word—in our heart, God won’t
hear us? Oh Ronald, I’m like Achan the son of Carmi, who hid the golden
wedge in his tent. I’ve hidden a golden wedge, and now God is cursing
everybody for my sake. First Joe, then Isobel, and perhaps He’ll take
mother and Dorothy and father and you.’

Ronald was really frightened. He remembered how Vivian had fainted in
the morning, and he began to fear that all the excitement and trouble
had turned his brain. He had heard of people getting brain-fever, and
losing their reason when they had had some terrible shock or a great
deal of worry. If his father had only been in the house! But he had
heard the front door close a few minutes before, and he knew that he
had gone out to see the sick girl of whom he had spoken. He thought of
going for Lucy, and had turned towards the door to do so when it struck
him that if there was any truth in what Vivian said, if he really had
done something wrong, then it was not a thing to speak to a servant
about, so he turned back to his brothers bedside instead.

‘It’s never too late to tell things, Vivi,’ he said soothingly. ‘Father
has gone out just now, else you could have told him; so if I were you
I should just tell God instead, and then go to sleep. Perhaps things
may look different in the morning. Would you like me to call Lucy?’ he
added doubtfully. ‘If you feel really ill I could go for her.’

‘No, no, not Lucy!’ cried Vivian in alarm. ‘Just leave me alone,
Ronald; you can’t help me.’

And Ronald, who by this time was shivering with cold, crept into his
own little bed at the other side of the room, feeling sorely perplexed.
He lay and strained his ears for any sign of his father’s return,
intending when he heard his step to creep downstairs and tell him what
a funny state Vivian was in; but he must have fallen asleep, for when
he was awakened by hearing Vivian moving on the other side of the
room, he fancied that it was morning.

‘Whatever are you doing, Vivian?’ he asked, all his fears about his
brother returning. ‘It is not time to get up yet; it is quite dark, and
I don’t hear any one stirring in the house.’

‘Yes, there is,’ said Vivian, and there was a determined ring in his
voice which reassured Ronald. Anyhow it was quite clear that his
brother knew what he was doing. ‘Father has just come in, and I’m going
down to tell him all that I have done. Perhaps none of you will speak
to me again when you know, and perhaps I’ll be sent to prison; but I
can’t stand this any longer, and perhaps God will spare Isobel.’

There was a glimmer of light from the passage as he opened the door,
and the next moment he was gone, leaving Ronald sitting up in his bed
in astonishment. Either Vivian was going to be ill—and the thought
crossed his mind that what had been so fatal to Isobel might have hurt
Vivian more than any one had supposed—or there was some great ugly
mystery which had yet to be explained; and as he remembered one or two
little things which had troubled him at Eversley, but which he had
forgotten—the muddy indoor shoes, the wet coat, and Vivian’s evening
excursion out into the rain, and his fright when he heard of Monarch’s
death—he felt sick with apprehension as to what new trouble might be
coming to mar the happiness of their pleasant family-life.

‘Eh, what?’ said Dr Armitage, looking in perplexity at the little
white-robed, white-faced figure which stood just inside his study door.
He had returned from his late visit to Widow Dallas’s granddaughter,
and had been gathering up his papers and putting out the lamps, when
the sound of Vivian’s voice arrested him, and, turning round, he saw
the startling apparition.

‘My dear, are you ill? You should have sent Ronald down,’ he said in
alarm, and crossing the room, he would have taken the little boy on his
knee, but Vivian pushed his arm away and shrank back against the wall.

‘You won’t touch me when you know, father,’ he began, and his voice did
not seem as if it belonged to him at all, ‘for I’m a thief, and a liar,
and a murderer, or at least as good as one, for it is all my fault that
Isobel is dying; and I thought—I thought—if I told all about it, God
might make her better.’

Here he stopped to moisten his lips, for they were so dry he could not
go on.

‘My dear, you do not know what you are saying!’ said his father
starting forward, greatly alarmed, fearing, like Ronald, that the
excitement of the past day had affected the little fellow’s brain.

‘No, no, father,’ cried Vivian passionately, putting out both his
hands to keep him back, ‘I’m quite sensible, and you must listen, for
it’s all true. I stole the pistol, and I told lies, and they think it
was Joe, and I talked to the burglar, and he got me to give cakes to
Monarch. That is the only bit I didn’t _mean_ to do, for I believed
the man’s story, and I never thought that the cakes would poison the
dog. And I hid the pistol in a hole in the branch of the old oak-tree.
Isobel was showing the hole to me when we fell off.’

‘Come here, Vivian, and tell me all about it, just as it happened from
the beginning. Nay, my boy, do not shrink from me; surely you know
father better than that. If this story is true, I shall be deeply
grieved and deeply disappointed; but you are doing all you can to set
things right, and I will stand by you. I promise you that.’

For a moment Vivian swayed backwards and forwards, and his father
caught hold of him, fearing another faint attack, then with a hoarse
cry the little boy threw himself into his arms and broke into a perfect
passion of tears. After the strain and dread of the last few days the
note of kindness in his father’s voice was almost more than he could
bear.

‘Oh father,’ he gasped, ‘you won’t send me to prison, will you? You
won’t send me out of the house, not even when you hear the whole story?’

‘Certainly not, my boy,’ and the arm that was round him tightened its
hold. ‘Fathers are not like that. I may be angry—very likely I shall
be—if you have done anything to deserve it; but remember nothing would
make me turn against you. Now, as soon as you are calm enough you will
tell me everything.’

Both the boys had been well trained in self-control since their
babyhood; but it was nearly five minutes before Vivian could steady his
voice sufficiently to speak, and it was in sadly broken words that he
told his tale. He did not spare himself. The burden of concealment had
lain too heavily on his conscience for that, and now that he had broken
the ice, it was a relief to tell out the whole sad story.

Dr Armitage listened in silence, only asking a question now and then to
make some point clear, his grief and dismay increasing every moment.
He had been prepared for some confession of childish wrong-doing,
and had set down Vivian’s agitation as a necessary result of all the
day’s excitement, and had thought that the same reason had led him to
exaggerate his fault; but the tale he heard was far different from
that. For a moment he forgot the sharp temptation which the finding
of the pistol must have been to a boy of Vivian’s temperament, and
was almost stunned to find that his own son, who had been brought up
with so much care, could have practised and carried out such a tangled
scheme of lies and deceit.

When the story was fully told there was silence for a minute.

‘Oh Vivian, Vivian! what will mother say?’ said Dr Armitage at last;
and at his question, and the grieved tone in which it was spoken, the
little boy shivered.

‘I don’t think she will ever love me again,’ he sobbed, ‘and I don’t
deserve that she should.’

‘Oh yes, she will, old man,’ said the doctor, trying to speak gently in
spite of his bitter disappointment. ‘You have owned up your fault, and
that is the first step towards making amends; only remember you must
face the consequences whatever they are. Uncle Walter and Aunt Dora
must be told, and Joe must be set at liberty and his name cleared at
once; and you must tell the police exactly what happened on Sunday, and
describe the man who gave you the cakes for Monarch. It won’t be easy
for you, I’m afraid.’

But Vivian was too broken-down and exhausted to take much thought for
the morrow. ‘If only Isobel would get better!’ he sobbed. ‘Surely God
will see that I’m sorry, and give her back?’

‘That must be as God wills,’ said his father gravely; ‘and now you must
go to bed, and try to sleep, and to-morrow we will talk about it again
and decide what is to be done. I think perhaps that you had better
go back with me to London, for the policemen must be told about the
man in the summer-house at once, and they will want you to give them
his description; but whether Aunt Dora is told at present or not will
depend on the news that we get in the morning.’

Then, seeing how worn out Vivian was, he lifted him in his arms as if
he were a baby, and gave him a fatherly kiss. ‘Don’t despair, old man,’
he said. ‘Remember every one can build fresh beginnings on the ruins
made by their old faults;’ and then he carried him up to bed, as he
used to do in the far-off days before Dorothy was born. He pushed the
door of the bedroom gently open so as not to disturb Ronald; but Ronald
was awake, and eager to know what had happened, and why Vivian had been
so long downstairs.

‘Shall I tell him?’ asked Dr Armitage. He felt that this at least
should be left to Vivian to decide. The answer was soon given.

‘Oh Ronnie, Ronnie!’ cried Vivian, going back to his baby name for
his brother, ‘let me come into your bed;’ and, clinging to the elder
brother, whom he had so often laughed at but whom he loved with all
his heart, he sobbed out his confession for the second time, and then
fell asleep with his head on Ronald’s shoulder, comforted by his simple
words of encouragement:

‘Never mind, you’ve been brave and confessed; and I’m sure God will
make it all right about Isobel.’



CHAPTER XV.

ANOTHER MYSTERY.


THOROUGHLY worn out by all he had gone through, it was late next
morning before Vivian awoke. As his eye fell on his empty bed he
wondered drowsily what had happened, and why he had slept with Ronald,
and why Ronald was up and about while he had not even been called.

Then, with a flash, his homecoming last night and his confession to
his father came into his mind, and with it the thought of his little
cousin’s illness, and all the sorrow and trouble and disgrace which he
had brought not only on himself but on his friends.

He was wide awake now, and he turned over on his pillow with a groan,
for he knew that in a short time he would have to meet his father once
more, perhaps even go back to London with him, and the whole sad story
would need to be told over again, and it would be much harder to tell
it to-day than it had been last night, when he was excited and his
feelings strung up by the thought of Isobel’s danger.

‘Isobel will probably be dead by now,’ he thought dully. ‘Well, she
would never know how wicked and false her playfellow had been; but it
would be all the harder to have to face Uncle Walter and Aunt Dora and
tell the miserable truth to them in the midst of their terrible trouble.

Then he began to wonder what punishment he would get; perhaps he would
be sent to some very strict school where only bad boys were sent—he had
heard of such places—and perhaps little Dorothy, and even Ronald, would
not be allowed to see him or to talk about the brother who had brought
such disgrace on them all.

Bitter tears filled his eyes at the thought; and yet, mingling with the
bitterness and deep sense of shame, there was a feeling of relief that
now, at all events, the truth was known, and he need not go about with
the awful fear of discovery hanging over him.

A footstep sounded on the stair. Was it his father? His face flushed at
the thought of seeing him again. But no, it was too light a step for
his, and it was Ronald who pushed the door open and looked cautiously
into the room.

His face brightened when he saw that his brother was awake. ‘Look here,
old fellow,’ he said, crossing over to where Vivian lay, and shaking a
yellow envelope in his face, ‘this came in half-an-hour ago, and father
said I might bring it up to you when you were awake. It’s good news
this time,’ and his voice shook a little. ‘It’s to say that Isobel is
better, so you see God has answered our prayers after all.’

With trembling hands Vivian took the piece of flimsy paper, and read
the words which it contained: ‘Isobel distinctly better. Doctors
hopeful.’ Then he lay back on his pillow and gazed out of the window
without speaking, but with such a curious gladness on his face that
Ronald, standing by, dared not break the silence.

To Vivian that message of good news seemed a sign and seal of
forgiveness. After all, God had not forsaken him in spite of his sin.
‘And when he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and had
compassion on him.’ The old story seemed very real to the little boy
then. It had been told by holy lips, many hundreds of years ago, to a
crowd of eager listeners in Galilee; but with a great rush of gladness
he felt that it was as true to-day as it was then. He was the prodigal
son. He had wandered into a far country—a country of sin and shame and
falsehood—and yet, the moment he had turned his face in the direction
of the Father’s home, the moment he had shown his repentance by his
confession, the Father had heard him, and had had compassion on him,
and had answered the unspoken prayer which he had not even dared to
offer. And if God had been so ready to help him in his sore need and
anxiety, would He not also help him in the ordeal which lay before him,
when every one who up till now had loved him and thought much of him
would learn what manner of boy he really was.

‘They were your prayers, Ronnie,’ he said at last; ‘but perhaps God saw
that I was really sorry, and perhaps that did as well.’

‘Yes, and saw that you had made up your mind to own up,’ said Ronald;
‘and you know that mother always says that the real test of being
sorry is the owning up and the trying to put things right as far as we
can.’

‘There will be an awful lot to put right,’ said Vivian sadly, a sudden
fit of depression coming over him. ‘Even if Isobel gets well, there is
all Aunt Dora’s silver gone, and Joe Flinders put in prison.’

‘But Joe Flinders needn’t stay in prison when they know that it wasn’t
he who took the pistol,’ said Ronald; and then he wished he had not
spoken when he noticed the distressed look that came to his brother’s
face at the mention of the pistol, and remembered all that must happen
before Joe could be set at liberty.

‘Never mind, old chap,’ he said tenderly, putting his arm round
Vivian’s shoulder; ‘just set your teeth, and go through with it. Father
will help you, and I will stand by you for all that I am worth.’

The conversation was interrupted by Lucy’s entrance with a
breakfast-tray.

‘There’s good news this morning, isn’t there, Master Vivian?’ she said
cheerfully, noticing the little boy’s pale cheeks and heavy eyes, which
she set down to the excitement of yesterday and the anxiety about his
cousin. ‘You must try to eat a good breakfast, for it seems that you
have to go back to London with the master.’

Vivian started at the words, and turned his face away from the kindly
girl who was arranging his pillows comfortably behind him, and fussing
over him as though he were ill.

So there was to be no pause, no respite. He was to go up to London this
very day, and even before he had set out the ordeal had begun, for he
saw from Lucy’s wondering tone that every one would at once begin to
ask the reason for this sudden return to town, and the truth was bound
to come out. To have Lucy, and cook, and old Black (who had known him
ever since he was a baby) all know him now as a thief and a liar would
be intolerable.

But Ronald, true to his promise of a minute before of ‘standing by him
for all he was worth,’ answered for him.

‘Yes, Vivian has to go back with father because he was not at church
on Sunday, and he saw a man in the garden who may have been one of the
thieves. And the police want to hear more about him.’

The words were strictly true, and yet they explained everything so
naturally that Vivian wondered how he had ever thought Ronald stupid.

‘Dear, dear,’ said Lucy, looking admiringly at Vivian, ‘so you really
saw him, Master Vivian! No wonder you look white and shaken. He might
have murdered you, he might, when there was no one about. London must
be a dreadful place. I am glad I don’t live there. Have another cup
of tea? No? Even if I put two lumps of sugar in it? Well, to be sure,
it has taken away your appetite, and little wonder. And you must be
ready for the twelve o’clock train too! It is almost time that you were
getting up. See, here comes little Miss Dorothy. She shall sit on your
bed till I take down the tray and get you some hot water, and then she
must come into the nursery while you dress.’

Vivian was not destined, however, to meet his father before he started,
or to go to London with the twelve o’clock train. If he had done so
things might have fallen out very differently from what they did.

Many a time in the dreary days that followed did Dr Armitage wish with
a groan that the miller’s pony had not taken it into its head to run
away just on that particular morning. As it was, the pony took fright
at an innocent old woman who was walking down the road with a bundle
of sticks on her back, and it threw its rider, the miller’s only son,
who had his leg broken and his head cut, besides being bruised all
over, so that the doctor, who was sent for in hot haste by the boy’s
frantic parents, found it absolutely impossible to go to London by the
train he had intended travelling by. Indeed, he did not even go home to
lunch, but had some bread and cheese in the miller’s kitchen; and then,
having set the boy’s leg, and seen him come back to consciousness, he
sent a message home by a passing labourer to bid Vivian meet him at
the station at three o’clock, and went on to make one or two important
visits which needed to be made.

Indeed, in the end, he nearly missed the train, for it had come into
the station before he appeared; and Ronald, who had driven down with
Vivian to keep up his courage and give him a cheery set-off, was at his
wits’ end whether to take his brother’s ticket or not.

‘All right; jump in, Vivi,’ said his father, as he took his handbag
from his eldest son.—‘You were a thoughtful boy, Ronald, to bring me
this. I forgot all about sleeping things when I sent the message, and
we won’t get back to-night now.—Tickets? Oh, I will pay at the other
end.—Good-bye, Ronald, you will have a dull evening, I am afraid, my
boy.—All right, Timms.’ And then the train moved out of the station,
and Ronald made his way slowly back to the carriage, feeling very sorry
for his little white-faced brother, and wishing that he could have gone
along with him.

Poor Vivian wished the same wish a great many times as the express
flew quickly along towards London. He had dreaded being alone with
his father, and yet to have been alone with him now would have been a
relief, for there were two other gentlemen in the carriage, both of
whom knew Dr Armitage, and were eager for any fresh news he could give
them respecting the robbery.

So the little boy had to sit in silent misery and hear every detail
of the robbery, of which the newspapers were full, talked over from
every point of view. His father tried to spare him, and to direct the
conversation to other topics; but it was not easily done, for both the
gentlemen were old and fussy, and they had to argue over every point,
and discuss every mysterious circumstance until Dr Armitage was at his
wits’ end how to answer their questions and yet hide from them how much
he knew, and poor Vivian was in such a state of nervousness that he
could have screamed aloud.

The journey came to an end at last, however, as all things do, whether
they be pleasant or unpleasant, and the train steamed into Victoria
Station, where the electric lamps were already blazing.

‘Now for a cab, my boy!’ said Dr Armitage, turning and laying his hand
on Vivian’s shoulder kindly, after he had helped the two garrulous
old gentlemen to get all their belongings out of the carriage, and
had shaken hands with them, and said good-bye. ‘All those questions
were rather hard on you, weren’t they? It is what you must expect, I
fear, for a time. But never mind, you have fought the first bit of
your fight, and you must just make up your mind to be brave and to go
through with it.’

The kind words brought the tears to Vivian’s eyes. ‘It is mother,’ he
said huskily. ‘I don’t feel as if I could meet her.’

‘Nonsense,’ said his father cheerily, for he saw that the little fellow
had had enough to bear, and needed some encouragement if he were not to
break down altogether, ‘mother is never hard on any one who has owned
up and said that they are sorry; and I am sure that Aunt Dora and Uncle
Walter will not be too hard on you either, although, of course, you
must expect to find them both angry and disappointed with you at first.
But we mustn’t stand talking here.—Hi, cabman!’

The cabman noticed the doctor’s signal, and turned his horse’s head;
but just at that moment there was a cry, and a rush of people to
another part of the station.

A man had slipped while coupling a moving engine to a train, and the
two first carriages had gone over his legs. Some one came running along
calling for a doctor, and Dr Armitage immediately offered his services.

‘Wait here till I come, my boy,’ he said. ‘See, the man will let you
get into his cab, and will wait for me at the end of the station.—I
may be some time, cabby,’ he added, looking up at the red-faced man on
the box. ‘If the poor fellow is badly hurt I may have some bandaging to
do before they can remove him to the hospital; but I’ll be back again
as quickly as I can.’

‘All right, sir,’ said the man, touching his hat. ‘I will wait for you
under the great clock yonder.’

The doctor hurried away without wasting more time. As he expected,
the accident was a serious one. The poor man’s legs were both badly
crushed, and it was some time before he could check the hæmorrhage
sufficiently to make it safe for him to be removed to the hospital.
When at last the sufferer had been made as comfortable as possible, and
the doctor had helped to place him in a station ambulance, and had seen
it start swiftly for its destination, he hurried back to find his cab.

There it was, waiting, as its driver had promised, just opposite the
great clock, the man apparently half-asleep on the box.

The doctor glanced up at the clock as he passed it.

‘Sorry to keep you, cabby; but I couldn’t help it,’ he said pleasantly
to the man, who must have been sleeping with one eye open, for he
straightened himself and gathered up the reins as soon as he saw his
fare appear. ‘And we have a long drive before us too. We wish to go
to Hampstead, to a house called “Eversley,” just on the Heath. I will
direct you to it when we get there.’

The man touched his hat with a smile which somehow lit up the whole of
his rough, weather-beaten face. ‘My horse will soon take you over the
ground. She’s a rare good little beast, and knows how to go. I hope the
young gentleman isn’t very cold. I thought once of saying to him that
he should go to the waiting-room over there, and then I thought as ’ow
you might be here at any minute.’

‘Oh, he’ll be all right,’ said the doctor, opening the door.—‘Are you
asleep, old fellow?’ he asked briskly. ‘I have been as quick as I
could; but it has taken me fully a quarter of an hour.’

There was no answer, and he sprang into the cab with an exclamation of
alarm. Had Vivian really gone to sleep, or, worn out with the strain
and excitement, had he suddenly been taken ill? Impatiently he groped
all round in the darkness. There was the travelling-rug, and there was
the hand-bag on the floor—he tripped over it, and for one horrible
moment thought it was his son. Then he struck a match and looked round.
The truth which had been dawning on him for the last few seconds, and
which he had refused to believe, was now quite plain, quite certain.
The cab was empty. Vivian had disappeared.



CHAPTER XVI.

A VAIN SEARCH.


‘THE young gentleman not there? Why, sir, that’s impossible,’ said the
cabman, astonishment written on every feature of his honest red face,
as the excited doctor jumped out of the cab again and demanded rather
sharply where his son had gone. ‘You shut the door yourself when you
left, and he was inside right enough then, and I would have heard him
if he had opened the door since, and shut it again behind him.’

‘But I tell you he is gone,’ said the doctor. ‘Here is the bag, and
the rug, and even his gloves; but the boy has got out, that is clear
enough.’

‘I can hardly think as ’ow I didn’t hear him,’ answered the man,
rubbing his head in perplexity. ‘But, anyhow, he can’t be far away.
He has got tired of waiting, no doubt, and slipped out, and has gone
to the bookstall or the waiting-room. He’ll be there all right, sir,
never fear;’ and he smiled to himself at the nervousness of ‘country
folk,’ as Dr Armitage set off, almost at a run, in the direction of the
bookstall.

But neither there nor in any of the waiting-rooms did he find Vivian;
and although he scoured every nook and cranny of the station,
accompanied by a policeman whom he sent for in hot haste, and made
inquiries at the booking-office and the bookstall, and questioned
all the outside porters, it was all in vain. No one had seen a boy
answering to Vivian’s description. The little fellow had vanished,
leaving no trace behind him.

The half-frantic doctor wished to set out at once to search for him in
the adjoining streets, but the policeman dissuaded him.

‘’Twould do no good, sir,’ he said. ‘If the young gentleman has run
away—given you the slip for any reason—he’ll be half-a-mile or more
from here now, and you may as well look for a needle in a haystack
as look for him in the network of streets that lie between here and
the river. We’ll go to a telephone-office and we’ll telephone his
description to all the police stations in London. I’ll take the
cabman’s number, although he’s all right; I know him for as decent a
man as ever lived, and you go quietly home, and probably you will have
news of the youngster by midnight.’

‘But he wouldn’t run away. He couldn’t run away,’ argued the doctor,
although a horrible suspicion began to come over him that Vivian,
tempted by the fear of the exposure that lay before him, might have
done so. ‘He has only been in London once before in his life; he does
not know a soul in it except the friends whose house we are going to;
and, besides, he has not a penny in his pocket that I know of.’

Policeman X10 shook his head. ‘Lads are queer, sir,’ he said. ‘One
never knows what they are up to. You say you have had no disagreement
or anything? He wasn’t being took to school, or anything of that sort?
Of course you know best; but to me it looks pretty like as if ’e had
given you the slip. It ain’t likely that a boy of his age could be
lifted bodily at this time of day. ’Tain’t as if ’e had been a little
un. Hadn’t a notion of the sea, had he? It’s jolly cold weather to try
that little tip. All the same, we had better keep a lookout at the
docks.’

‘No, I was not taking him to school,’ replied Dr Armitage, ignoring the
man’s hint about ‘any disagreement,’ and feeling almost angry with him
for coming so near the truth in his conjectures; but during the long,
cold drive up to Hampstead he was forced to admit to himself that in
all probability he was right, and that Vivian, goaded on by the thought
of the ordeal that lay before him, had taken the desperate step of
running away.

Bitterly did he blame himself for leaving the boy alone under the
circumstances, although he felt that he could not honestly accuse
himself of being harsh or unkind to him, and he remembered gladly the
few words which had passed between them at the station, and the promise
he had held out to Vivian that, now that he had spoken out and told the
truth, his mother and he would stand by him, and help him through the
rest.

Up at Eversley bright faces greeted him. The improvement which had set
in in Isobel’s condition in the early morning had been maintained, and
Sir Antony Jones, who had just paid a second visit, had declared his
belief that, if she went on as she was doing, the danger would be over
by the following morning. The threatened inflammation had subsided.

‘Of course she will need care for a considerable time, and may have to
be kept on her back for a month or two. I suspect a slight injury to
the spine. But nothing permanent—nothing permanent. And with a garden
like yours, Mrs Osbourne, she could not be better situated.’

And with this favourable verdict, the great man had departed, leaving
thankful hearts behind him.

In the face of such relief from pressing anxiety—for there seemed no
reason to fear that Isobel would not pass a good night—Dr Armitage
shrank from telling his story and bringing another cloud down on the
hearts which had gone through so much already.

Even if he had wished to remain silent, however, he could not have done
so, for his wife’s loving eyes soon saw that something was amiss, and
the whole sad story had to come out. And a startling story it was.

To Mrs Armitage, with her faith in her boys’ truthfulness and
high-mindedness, the news of Vivian’s deceit came as a great shock,
and for the moment everything else seemed to fade from her mind. His
disappearance, his probable danger even, did not seem to touch her as
the knowledge of his falseness did.

‘Oh my boy!’ she moaned, ‘my little boy, whom I have prayed for all his
life, and tried to lead in the right way! I have seen it all along, his
moral cowardice, his love of praise. And it has led to this. And now
he has run away because he dare not face his own mother! Oh Jack,’ she
cried piteously, turning to her husband, ‘I think I would almost rather
he had died when he had that fever so badly three years ago than that
you should have to tell me all this terrible story.’

‘Come, come, Margaret,’ said Uncle Walter kindly, for he saw that his
sister-in-law scarcely knew what she was saying, ‘this is unlike you.
All the strain and anxiety has been too much for you, and now this news
on the top of all! It is a bad business, and I don’t wonder that you
are surprised and grieved. I know what we would have felt if it had
been Ralph. But, after all, the poor little chap is only eleven, and he
has owned up like a brick, remember that. This will be a lesson to him
that he will remember all his life, and he will make a fine man yet, or
my name is not Walter Osbourne. Faith, I doubt if I would have had the
courage to have made a clean breast of it myself, as he has done, at
his age, after getting so far down in the mud. It shows that he has the
right sort of grit in him.

‘But the first thing is to find him, and bring him back, and then let
the police know all he has to tell us about the rascal whom he saw in
the summer-house. I expect the whole gang will soon be caught once they
have his description. And I promise you that Vivian will hear no more
than is necessary about the whole business from any one in this house.
Of course the police will have to know about the pistol, in order to
release Joe; but we can hush it up in some way.

‘In the meantime, I’ll run up and tell Dora, and do you get Jack and
me something to eat—something solid remember—and we will go down to
Scotland Yard, and see that everything is being done to trace the poor
little chap. Probably they have got him by now. Very likely he only
ran out of the station to have a look at the lighted streets, and
took a wrong turning. We will take a look round the hospitals too,’
he added, for he wanted to break the strange calm hardness which had
fallen on Vivian’s mother, which was so unlike her, and so unlike the
passionate love which she had for her children.

The words had their expected effect.

‘The hospitals!’ she said sharply. ‘Surely you don’t think that an
accident can have happened? You don’t know Vivian. He is much too
wide-awake to allow himself to be run over.’ But the mother-love, which
the shock seemed almost to have deadened, was awake again, and when
in a few minutes Aunt Dora came down, full of sympathy, and thinking
of nothing but Vivian’s mysterious disappearance, making all possible
excuses for him, and blaming herself bitterly for not noticing his
doings more closely, and thus making it impossible for such things to
happen, her sister-in-law blessed her in her heart for her kind words,
and, laying down her head on her shoulder, relieved her overburdened
heart by a good cry, after which she was once more her calm,
practical, hopeful self again.

But although every police station in London was warned, and every
railway station watched, every hospital visited, and every city
missionary told of Vivian’s mysterious disappearance, day after day
passed, and nothing was heard of him.

Hope dies hard, however, and long after the detectives who had been
employed to try to solve the mystery had given it up, and expressed
their opinion that the lost boy had wandered from the station down
to the river, either out of pure boyish curiosity, or in the hope of
finding a boat in which he could embark as cabin-boy, and so escape any
possible punishment which might await him, and had missed his footing
in the fog, which it was remembered had come down rather thickly that
Tuesday night, and had fallen into the river and been drowned, the
members of the two households where he had been known and loved still
clung to the hope that some day he would turn up again.

But month succeeded month, and when at last Easter arrived, and no
clue was to be had to the mystery, they were compelled to give up
their slender hope, and to mourn for him as dead—mourn him all the more
bitterly because he had left them with a cloud hanging over him, and
perhaps lost his life in trying to hide from them, because he dreaded
their anger.



CHAPTER XVII.

MADAME GENVIÈVE.


SPRING comes early in Brittany, and by the end of May the apple-blossom
is already almost over, while the hedgerows on each side of the smooth,
broad roads are one tangled glory of golden broom, sweet-smelling
honeysuckle, and delicate bramble-blossom.

But up in the mountains of Basse Bretagne, the _Montagnes Noirs_ as
they are called, it is different. The climate is colder there, and the
seasons later, reminding one more of Scotland. Indeed, the scenery is
not unlike certain parts of Scotland; for, as one winds up the lonely
roads that lead to the heart of these hills, one leaves the vegetation
of the south behind them, and reaches a region of bare, heather-covered
moors, peat-bogs, and low, scrubby fir-trees.

The country is sparsely populated. The traveller only comes across a
cottage at long intervals, and when he does pass one he looks at the
low walls and thatched roof, wondering what sort of lives the people
live who dwell inside.

At the door of one of these lonely cottages a woman was standing one
bright May morning—in the May that followed the events which we have
described in the last chapters—shading her eyes from the sun.

She was dressed in the ordinary Breton peasant’s dress—a black gown,
with a great white cap and a white plaited collar, and her face was
wrinkled and weather-beaten.

‘Pierre, Pierre, where art thou?’ she cried, scanning the bare moorland
with her keen black eyes; ‘it is already seven o’clock, and the pigs
are not fed, nor the chickens, and the cow waits in her stall to be led
out to pasture.’

There was no answer, and she shrugged her shoulders impatiently.

‘Plague upon the boy,’ she muttered, ‘and upon those who brought him!
Three francs a week doth not go far on his food, for he eats like an
ox, and as for trouble—_hein!_’ And she shrugged her shoulders again in
the expressive way only practised by a Frenchwoman or an Italian, then
she proceeded to search the wretched little outhouses which adjoined
her cottage for the delinquent.

[Illustration: ‘Thou lazy dreamer!’ she said, pulling him to his feet
by the collar of his blue cotton blouse.

V. L. PAGE 205.]

She found him at last, a little white-faced, dark-haired lad, clad in a
blue cotton suit, and wearing the wooden sabots of the country. He was
lying asleep in the sun behind a diminutive haystack, which looked as
if hay-crops in that part of the country were wont to be scanty.

He woke with a start as the woman shook him roughly, and shrank away
from her with a look of fear in his brown eyes.

‘Thou lazy dreamer!’ she said, pulling him to his feet by the collar
of his blue cotton blouse, and giving him a push in the direction of
the pig-sty, ‘there is all thy work to do, and instead of doing it thou
liest and sleepest as if thou wert the son of a lord. Make haste now,
and feed the cow and the chickens, and take the cow to the pasture over
by the bog-side yonder. See, if thou lingerest I shall take the stick,
as I took it yesterday.’

Apparently the threat was no idle one, for the little boy went off
hurriedly. He entered the cottage, and in a few minutes he returned
dragging a pail which was evidently too heavy for him, and with
much exertion managed at last to empty its contents into a great
stone trough. Then he let down some low wooden bars, and from a rough
enclosure two or three long-legged, bony pigs rushed out, jostling one
another, and almost knocking the little fellow over in their haste to
get at their food.

He stood watching them dully, leaning against the gate almost as if he
had not energy to go on to his next task.

Perhaps the woman noticed this, and perhaps the thought rose in her
mind that it would not pay to work the little foreigner—whom her son
Jacques had brought from Paris one cold January day, bidding her at
all costs to keep him safely, and guard against any possibility of his
escape—too hard. For he had already been ill once, and he might fall
ill again; and if anything happened to him then the three francs which
Jacques sent her regularly for his board would cease to arrive, and
the little hoard of silver which she was gathering in the old cracked
coffee-pot which stood on the shelf above her bed would grow no bigger,
and that would be a thousand pities, for she cared more for silver
francs than for children.

‘See here, Pierre,’ she said, going into the cottage and returning with
two thick slices of rye-bread, between which she had placed a morsel
of meat and a sliced shalot, ‘it is fine and warm in the sun, so thou
and Nanette shall have a little _fête_. Here is thy dinner; thou canst
carry it with thee, and lie out in the sun all day on the hillside,
while Nanette grazes to her heart’s content. See, thou canst go at
once. I can attend to the poultry.’

The boy took the sandwich, which the old woman wrapped up in a piece
of greasy paper, and put it carefully away in a little wallet which he
wore slung over his shoulder.

‘Shall I tether Nanette, madame, or shall I let her go free?’ he asked.
He spoke in the same patois in which the woman had spoken, but his
accent was strangely foreign.

‘Thou canst lead her with the rope until thou reachest the other side,
and then thou canst let her graze where she will,’ replied the woman;
‘only thou must keep in sight of the cottage, and be home ere the sun
goes down.’

She turned away, and the boy took down a length of rope from the wall,
and deftly slipped it over the horns of a gentle-looking little dun
cow which had come forward, and was licking the sides of the trough
where the pigs had fed, in the vain hope that she might find some of
their food still sticking to the edges.

He led her away, and the docile animal followed him quietly, for Breton
cows are accustomed to being led out to graze, and soon the two were
picking their way gingerly over the quaking bog, which was still soft
with the winter rain. Once arrived at the other side, where there was
a strip of short, sweet grass, the boy slipped the rope from Nanette’s
horns, and, climbing a short way up the side of the hill, he lay down
in the sun and began to think.

Poor little fellow! his thoughts were always the same, and they were
sometimes so confused that he could hardly tell whether the things he
thought about were real or not. They floated through his brain, broken
up and confused, like the colours in a kaleidoscope, and there were
only two things that he was ever quite certain about. One was that he
had not always lived in the low thatched cottage which he had just
left; the other, that he was an English boy, and not a French one.

There were other things which he remembered vaguely, and which he was
sure were real, although the old woman at the cottage, Madame Genviève,
as she was called, always said that they were but feverish dreams that
had fixed themselves in his brain during the illness which he had had
after he had come to live with her.

This illness had taken away his memory, so she told him, and had filled
his head with strange fancies, and had made him forget that he was her
grandson, and had always lived in Paris until his mother died, and his
father—her son Jacques—had brought him to the little cottage in the
_Montagnes Noirs_ to be the comfort of his old grandmother’s failing
years.

But somehow Pierre did not believe all this, although he had learned to
hold his tongue: for at first, when he used to talk of a strange memory
which was always in his mind, and would speak the language which came
easiest to his tongue, she would look round anxiously as if she feared
that some one might hear him, and then she would fly into a passion,
and scold him, and even beat him; and afterwards, when her anger had
cooled, and the fear had gone out of her eyes, she would stroke his
head, and tell him that those were but sick fancies, which he must be
careful to hide, in case the inspector down at Châteauneuf should hear
about him, and take him away and shut him up in an institution, as he
did to all people who thought such thoughts.

So Pierre learned to hold his tongue and keep his thoughts to himself.
This had been easy at first, when the least effort to think made his
head ache as though it would split; but it was more difficult now that
the fine weather, and the long days spent in the open air, were making
his poor little body, and his mind too, stronger.

To-day as he lay on the hillside in the sun these thoughts were clearer
than ever. He remembered a big station, all lit up, and he was there
with some one else, a grown-up man it seemed to him, who did not call
him Pierre, but some other name which had quite a different sound. Bah!
he did not remember, but that did not matter. Perhaps the name would
come into his mind later, as other things had come. The gentleman had
gone away somewhere, and had told him to wait, and he had waited. Then
some other men had passed, carrying bags, and talking to one another.
They were gentlemen, he could remember that, wearing warm coats with
fur collars. As he was looking at them, suddenly the face of one of
them grew into a coarse, bad face, with a stubbly beard and a patch
over one eye, and it seemed to him that he wanted to catch that man
very much. So he ran after him, and cried, ‘I know you! I know you!’
The man had passed, but he turned round, and, lo and behold! he had
a gentleman’s face once more. Then, somehow, Pierre was in a railway
carriage with the gentleman and his friends, and the train was moving,
and he wanted to get out; but one of the men laughed and said something
about his knowing too much. And then it seemed that in this strange
memory he struggled, and tried to scream, and some one put his hand
over his mouth. And then he tried to bite the hand; he remembered his
teeth going into the soft flesh, then he must have fallen, for he felt
a dreadful pain at the back of his head, and everything stopped for a
while; and when he woke up he was in the little box-bed in the thatched
cottage on the moor, and the old woman was sitting cowering over the
peat-fire talking to a stranger, who presently put some money in her
hand and went away.

The story was very vague and confused. There was much about it which he
could not understand, and when he tried to remember any more his head
always ached; but somehow he knew that it was true, and he knew too
that he was an English boy, though why an English boy should be living
with an old woman in the heart of the _Montagnes Noirs_ was more than
he could make out.

But slowly a great determination was forming itself in his poor
confused mind, and that was that one day he would run away. He knew
that somewhere, to the north, over these hills, lay St Brieuc, and St
Brieuc was near the sea. So much he had learned from the neighbouring
peasants whom he saw occasionally, though very, very rarely, and they
knew, because at Easter-time they drove their lean pigs and cows to
sell at the market there. And over the sea was England.

‘Some day,’ thought Pierre, as he opened his satchel and broke off a
corner of his sandwich, ‘when the days are longer, and my legs do
not feel so tired—in a month perhaps—I will run away, and walk to St
Brieuc, and there perhaps I may find a boat, and I will go to England.
And when I am in England, then I will remember.’



CHAPTER XVIII.

RUNNING AWAY.


FOR another hour or two Pierre lay still in the sun, munching his black
bread slowly, and keeping a watchful eye on Nanette; then he suddenly
bethought himself that if he went to the top of the hill he would be
able to see the high road which he knew lay on the other side, and
which ran from Carhaix to Londéac. He had only twice caught a glimpse
of it: once when he had been sent up the hillside after some goats
which had strayed, and another time when the old woman had gone with
the post-cart to Carhaix, and he had walked to meet the cart with her,
to help her to carry her butter and eggs.

As a rule he was so closely watched that he had never had time to
wander so far alone; but to-day he saw his opportunity, for if he lay
just on the top of the hill he would still be in sight of the cottage,
and he could keep one eye on Nanette, while he watched the road with
the other in the hope of seeing something unusual to break the dreary
monotony of his life.

He climbed up to his point of vantage, and found it was as he had
thought. While he could see the whole length of the secluded little
valley in which the cottage stood, he could also see, on the other
side, a long range of hills over which the highway ran, white, and
winding like a serpent, until it was lost in a richly wooded plain far
in the distance.

Pierre followed its course with longing eyes.

‘If one follows that road one comes to Carhaix,’ he thought, ‘then from
Carhaix one can go to St Brieuc, and after that one can go to England.
I wonder how long it would take me to walk to St Brieuc?’

Just then his attention was arrested by a couple of cyclists who came
spinning along the smooth road. Evidently they were making their way to
Londéac, for their faces were set in the other direction from that in
which the post-cart went to Carhaix.

The sight of them brought back a flood of the ghost-like memories which
always puzzled Pierre. It seemed to him that sometime, long ago, he
too had ridden a bicycle, but he could not remember where or when.

He was puzzling over this, in a dreamy way, when a shout from one
of the men made him start, and brought his mind quickly back to the
present. Something had plainly happened to the travellers, for they had
both dismounted, and one of them had noticed him and was waving to him.
Here indeed was a piece of good luck—a great adventure, in fact—for
Madame Genviève could not scold him for going down to the road, seeing
that the men had called to him.

With a hurried look to see that Nanette was grazing quietly, he slid
from the rock on which he had been lying, and ran down the hillside.
The strangers were two young Frenchmen, artists from Paris apparently,
for they carried paint-boxes and canvas strapped to their bicycles.
Their pure Parisian French smacked of the capital. It was lost on
Pierre, however, for he only spoke the patois of the district, which is
as distinct from French as Welsh is from English.

No words were needed to show what had happened, however. A great
broad-headed nail from a passing peasant’s sabot had pierced the back
wheel of one of the bicycles, and the tire was flat and useless, every
bit of air having escaped. The owner of the bicycle had got out all his
appliances for mending the puncture, but had been unable to locate it,
and he was looking round in despair for water.

With lively gestures and torrents of voluble French he tried to make
Pierre understand what was wanted, and patted him gratefully on the
back when the boy led him to a little spring which he had noticed on
his way down the hill.

Alas! the first difficulty had been overcome, only to be followed by a
second; for how was the water to be conveyed to the roadside?

Taking off his cap, the gentleman tried to use it as a basin, but the
water ran through it as if it were a sieve, and with a gesture of
despair he shouted to his friend to carry the injured bicycle over the
grass to the spring.

‘Stop! this will do,’ said Pierre suddenly in such good English that
the artist started. He had studied art in a London studio, and knew the
language fairly well.

‘Do you talk English?’ he asked in surprise.

But Pierre did not seem to hear the question. He had taken off one of
his wooden sabots, and had filled it with water, and, giving it to the
gentleman to carry, he proceeded to fill the other also.

‘Capital!’ said the cyclist. ‘Thou art a boy of understanding. True, a
sabot doth not hold much water, but there may be enough;’ and, shouting
to his companion to leave his machine where it was, he proceeded to
pick his way carefully over the rough grass, carrying one of the sabots
with its precious contents, while Pierre followed behind him with the
other.

‘Curious that the boy talks English,’ he remarked to his companion
in his native tongue as they bent over the punctured tire; ‘and good
English too. I wonder where he picked it up?—Here, my lad,’ he went on
in the Breton patois, ‘where hast thou learned to talk English?’

Pierre hesitated; his life for the last five months had made him
strangely suspicious.

‘I am an English boy,’ he said at last slowly; ‘and some day I go to
England.’

The strangers glanced at one another. Certainly no one could look less
English than Pierre did at that moment, with his closely cropped head
and his blue tunic and trousers.

‘Poor child! his brain is touched,’ they whispered; ‘he must have
picked up the phrases from some travellers. Many English artists come
to live in the summer at Pont Aven, down on the way to Quimper. Perhaps
he has lived there at some time. It is sad, is it not? And he is such a
handsome child if he did not look so ill.’

Poor Pierre! if he had understood what they said he might have tried
to talk to them, and tell them of the memories which haunted him. But
their French was unintelligible; and, as he gathered from the glances
that they stole at him that they were talking about him, he only grew
more suspicious, and relapsed into silence, and stood rubbing one foot
against the other, pretending not to hear when the strangers plied him
with more questions, talking the patois as best they could.

‘Ah yes, he is quite silly,’ said the man who had spoken to him first,
when at last the puncture was mended and he was blowing up his tire.
‘It is no use trying to talk to him any more. But doubtless he knows
the value of money—most people do, whether their brains are strong
or not; and, after all, he was marvellously quick to understand what
I needed.—Here is thy sabot, my child,’ he went on, ‘and here is
something inside it;’ and to Pierre’s amazement he handed him back his
wooden shoe with two bright silver francs inside it.

The look of delight on the little boy’s face made both the men laugh.
He had not had even a sou in his possession all the time he had been at
the cottage. The time when he had had money of his own seemed to belong
to the vague, shadowy life—not to the present.

‘And here is thy other sabot,’ said the second stranger, shaking the
water out of it, and handing it back to the boy; and lo! in it also
there were two shining silver francs.

Pierre turned a couple of somersaults on the grass. A little Italian
boy with a monkey, tramping his way from Cherbourg to sunny Savoy,
had called at the cottage one cold April day, and had turned a series
of such somersaults on the turf, in the hope of softening Madame
Genviève’s heart and inducing her to let him sleep beside Nanette all
night. Madame Genviève had refused his request, but Pierre had seen
the somersaults and had practised them in private ever since.

Both the artists laughed heartily at the little amateur acrobat, and
then, making signs to him not to lose the money, they mounted their
bicycles once more, and rode away, leaving the little blue-clad figure
standing motionless by the roadside, staring down at the bright silver
coins which he held in his hand. Little they knew what hopes had been
raised in the poor little clouded brain by the mere sight of the money,
or what a sudden determination Pierre had arrived at.

He would run away. Yes, he would, this very day. Had he not the money
now? And with care it would take him to England. He had still half of
his sandwich, and that would last quite a long time, so he need not
buy very much food. Such a chance might never come again. Had he not
the whole of the long afternoon before him before madame would expect
him home? And then she would have Nanette to look for, for probably by
that time Nanette would have strayed a bit away, and she would have
to be found and taken home before madame had any time to think of
him. And then it would grow dark, and she must needs wait until the
morning before setting out to go after him. Yes, assuredly this was
the opportunity to try to run away, and go to England; and when he got
there his head would not feel so queer, and he would remember.

Taking up his sabots, he hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should
take them with him or not. He would walk quicker without them, and the
sun was very hot, so he decided to leave them. He took them over to the
little spring and pressed them down out of sight in the soft mud which
surrounded it, and then, glancing all round to see that there was no
one within sight, he set off, running as hard as he could along the
road, in the direction in which he knew Carhaix lay.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE JOURNEY.


PIERRE went on running as fast as he could until he was quite sure that
he was out of sight of the place where he had left Nanette, so that,
even if the old woman missed him, and climbed up to the top of the hill
where he had been lying when he first saw the two cyclists, she would
see nothing of him. Then he brought his pace down to a gentle trot, and
then to a walk, for he was sorely out of breath.

Moreover, he had run away on the impulse of a moment, and now that the
awful deed was done he felt that he must pause and consider what he
should do next.

So by-and-by, after he had been walking and running for more than two
hours, and knew that he must at least have put eight kilos between
himself and Madame Genviève, he crawled into a little plantation which
bordered the road, and burying himself in the thick undergrowth which
formed a delicious shade after the hot, dusty highway and the burning
mid-day sun, he lay down, intending only to remain for a short time,
and make his plans, as it were, and then, when he was rested, set out
again on his walk to Carhaix.

But, as was to be expected, he soon gave up his efforts to think, and,
closing his eyes, in five minutes he was fast asleep.

When he awoke the afternoon was nearly gone, and the trees were casting
long shadows across the road. He started to his feet in alarm, feeling
that he had lost much precious time by his laziness. For by this time
the old woman would be expecting Nanette and him to return, and when
they did not appear she would set out to look for them, and if Nanette
happened to have strayed in the direction of the cottage, instead of
away from it, she might discover his absence sooner than he had counted
on.

Drawing the belt of his blouse a shade tighter, and pulling his
cap well over his eyes, in case he happened to meet any of the few
neighbours whom he knew, he climbed over the fence, and set off once
more along the high road at a dogged trot.

But the trot did not last long this time, for he felt strangely tired,
and, what was stranger still, he was shivering all over, just as if
some one were pouring cold water down his back. He could not understand
at all how this should be, for he did not consider, as an older person
might have done, that to lie down and go to sleep in a damp, shady wood
when one’s blood is at fever-heat with running in the sun is a very
certain way of getting a chill, if not something worse.

In spite of his tired limbs and aching head, however, he went on
doggedly hour after hour, until at last he left the bare hilly country
and reached the wooded plain in which he had always imagined Carhaix
lay. He was almost dead-beat now, poor little fellow! for he had long
since finished the sandwich of black bread, which was all the food he
had had that day, and a lump rose in his throat as turn after turn of
the road went by, and yet there was no sign of any village.

At last he was fain to sit down by the roadside and take a drink of
water from a little brook which ran by the side of it just at that
point.

If only some one would come along, he thought to himself, he would
ask them how far he had yet to walk before he reached Carhaix; for
surely, now that he had come so far, he was safe from the danger of
being recognised. The road which he had travelled had been strangely
deserted; he had only met one man and a couple of peasant girls,
and they had been going in the opposite direction; but as he was
sitting there he heard the rumbling of wheels, and one of the roughly
constructed carts of the district came in sight. It contained a huge
wooden barrel which completely filled it all but the corners, and its
driver, a pleasant-looking young peasant, was sitting in front, his
legs dangling over the edge, singing to himself at the top of his voice.

He paused, and drew up his horse with a jerk as Pierre rose from his
seat and ran forward with his eager question.

‘How far is it to Carhaix?’ he repeated.

‘It is yet seven kilos, my child. Ah, thou art going there, art thou?
Thou lookest more fit to be going to thy bed at home. What takes a
little roundhead like thee to travel the roads alone? Hast friends in
Carhaix?’

‘I am going to St Brieuc, and then I am going to England. I am an
English boy,’ said Pierre, the dull look which always came on his face
when he tried to think, showing all the more plainly by reason of his
utter weariness.

The kindly peasant crossed himself.

‘Ah,’ he muttered, ‘he is one of the good God’s Innocents; but all the
more reason why I should care for him as far as I can.

‘See here, _mon enfant_,’ he went on in a louder voice, ‘I also go to
Carhaix. I have nine little pigs in that barrel, which I go to sell at
the market to-morrow. If thou hast a mind thou mayst climb in, if thou
canst, behind the barrel, and nestle down among the straw. It is easier
to drive than to walk, is it not?’

With grateful thanks, Pierre accepted the welcome offer, and, climbing
in at the tail of the cart, he squeezed himself down in one of the
corners where the straw was deep, and a couple of sacks afforded him
some shelter from the night air. For although the rays of the sun were
strong and fierce through the day, when it set the air was sharp and
chilly.

‘So thou art an English boy—hey?’ said the man good-naturedly, pulling
the sacks more comfortably over the little waif whom he had befriended.
But Pierre was too utterly worn out to answer him; and, now that the
necessity for exertion was over, he lay back in the straw, speechless
and exhausted, conscious only of the ever-increasing pain in his head,
which the jolting of the cart made almost intolerable.

‘Poor little one, he is nearly dead with fatigue!’ thought this Good
Samaritan. ‘I wonder where he has come from, and if he has had any
food? Here is a morsel of sausage and a roll left, and a mouthful of
red wine at the bottom of my flagon. My Marie, bless her heart! is
always afraid that I starve before I reach Carhaix.—Here, my child,
take a drink of this,’ and he stretched over and put the mouth of the
flagon to Pierre’s parched lips.

It was but the red wine of the country, poor and thin and sour, but it
revived the weary little traveller wonderfully, and by the time he had
eaten the roll of bread and the bit of sausage he felt much stronger,
and the pain in his head was not quite so bad as it was before.

‘I come from the mountains. I am going to England. I am an English
boy.’ This was all the information the honest countryman could glean
from him, although he plied him with questions until the roofs of
Carhaix came in sight, a gray, uninteresting-looking place, composed of
concrete houses built round a square.

‘But to go to England thou must go to St Brieuc, and thence to St
Malo,’ said the man, ‘and it is a long, long way, nigh fifty kilos.’

‘But I can walk; I am strong,’ said Pierre hopefully; ‘and perhaps some
one else will give me a ride as thou hast done. And I have money. See
here!’ and, with a confiding look he drew out of his pocket the four
shining francs. ‘See. I will give thee one for the ride,’ he said,
holding one out in his hand.

‘The good God forbid,’ said the man. ‘Nay, nay; keep thy money, my
child. Thou wilt need it all. For when thou arrivest at St Malo thou
wilt need some to give to the man on the steamer, if so be thou art
really going to England. Put it away again, deep down in thy pocket,
and let it not be seen by every man. Else wilt thou be robbed, and what
will follow then, eh?’

By this time the cart had rumbled into the square, and driven through
an archway into the courtyard of a little inn which stood somewhat back
from the rest of the houses. The man got down, and so did Pierre. His
legs were aching worse than ever now, and oh, how he wished that he
might spend the night among the straw, instead of having to go and look
for a sleeping-place! Indeed, he hardly knew how to go and look for
one, for it had never entered into his calculations that he would need
to spend a night on the road.

Perhaps the man saw the wistful look in his eyes, for after he had
called to the landlord of the inn, and with his help had lifted down
the great round tub-like barrel, with its living burden, and had
carried it carefully into a small outhouse, where, apparently it was
to remain during the night, and had seen his old gray horse safely tied
up in one of the stalls in the stable, he turned to the little boy, who
was still lingering near the archway.

[Illustration: He sank gratefully into the soft bed of straw which the
kind countryman made up for him, and had fallen into a feverish sleep.

V. L. PAGE 231.]

‘Wouldst like a night’s lodging, little one?’ he said. ‘For if so, I
could let thee lie in the same house as my piglets. I pay a few sous
for the use of the outhouse; the owner of the inn is a cousin of my
wife’s, and he lets me have it cheaply. I can put what I like in it,
and I take the key, so, if thou wilt, I can take the straw from the
cart and spread it down in a corner, and thou canst sleep there as
safely and at less cost than if thou went somewhere and paid for a bed.’

Needless to say, Pierre agreed to this offer gladly. He was feeling so
tired and ill that he would have been content to lie down in the open
street, and he sank gratefully into the soft bed of straw which the
kind countryman made up for him, and had fallen into a feverish sleep
long before the little piglets had finished their supper of oatmeal and
milk.

Nor did the good man’s kindness stop there. In the gray dusk of the
morning he was back again, his honest face beaming with excitement. He
stooped down and roused the sleeping boy. ‘See here, _mon enfant_,’ he
whispered, ‘there is a chance, an unexpected chance, for thee to travel
to St Malo—to Dinard, at least, and, once there, St Malo is just across
the mouth of the river. Late last night one of these new-fashioned
machines arrived—automobiles they call them. There is no one travelling
in it but the driver; he is in the employment of a rich Vicomte who
lives near St Malo. The car is a new one, and he has been sent to bring
it home from the makers; so much he told last night to Jean Coudart, my
wife’s cousin. And I sat, and I smoked, and I listened. Now, said I to
myself, here is a chance, if the good God wills, for my little friend
who desires to go to England. And before I went to rest I slipped out
into the courtyard, on pretence of visiting my piglets, and I visited
the car instead, and I found that it is a large one, with a great
deep part behind, all covered over with tarpaulin, and underneath
the tarpaulin are some soft rugs and other bundles which the man is
carrying with him. So it seems to me that if thou wert to rise now,
and hide in the car under the tarpaulin, thou wilt have an easy journey
to Dinard; and when thou arrivest, if thou art quick, and slippest out
when the driver is not looking, he need never know, and it will be all
the same.’

Half-asleep and half-dazed, Pierre jumped up and followed his friend,
hardly understanding all the plan, and yet understanding enough to
know that if it were successful he would soon be quite out of reach of
pursuit, the fear of which had dogged his broken slumbers all night.

Swiftly and noiselessly the man undid one of the cords that fastened
down the tarpaulin cover, and, lifting one corner of it, he helped
Pierre to climb up on the soft tired wheel, and crawl under it, and
drop down into the deep well of the car, which was shaped something
like a wagonette. The space between the seats was almost filled with
soft rolls of cloth, horse-wraps they seemed to be; but Pierre managed
to squeeze in among them, and, with the man’s help, to make himself a
very comfortable little nest.

‘That is good,’ whispered the peasant triumphantly. ‘Thou wilt lie
there as comfortably as my little piglets in their tub, and the good
God, I doubt not, will find a way for thee to creep out unobserved when
thou reachest Dinard. Thou must trust to thy brains to know when thou
hast arrived there. And see, I have remembered thy breakfast and thy
dinner. Catch,’ and he tossed down a parcel of bread and cheese into
Pierre’s lap. ‘Now, little one,’ he said ‘I must shut thee up, and say
adieu, and wish thee a good voyage; and if ever thou passest through
the mountains again, do not forget to ask for Baptiste Guinaud and his
wife Marie.—The saints preserve him!’ he said to himself as he fastened
down the tarpaulin cover once more, and turned in the direction of
the outhouse. ‘I scarce know if I have done right in letting him go.
But he is one of God’s Innocents, and Monsieur the Curé says that for
such there is special protection. I love not the reports I hear of the
institution at Châteauneuf for such as he. They were none too kind to
my cousin’s grandmother when she had the misfortune to require to be
taken there. And if the lad be English, as he says he is, they will
know better what to do with him in Dinard or St Malo, where there are
many English people, than a poor man like me. Anyhow, the good God
guard him! say I, and I know that Marie would say the same if she were
here.’



CHAPTER XX.

MONSIEUR THE VICOMTE DE CHOISIGNY.


IT was just after lunch, and Monsieur the Vicomte de Choisigny had
drunk his coffee, which in summer was always carried out to a table in
a vine-covered arbour, just by the window of the great salon, and was
walking up and down the terrace, carrying on an animated discussion
with a friend of his.

The Vicomte was a dark-haired, lively little Frenchman, who, all the
time he was talking, shrugged his shoulders and made signs with his
fingers as if he found that his tongue alone could not express all he
meant it to express.

The man who walked beside him, his arm linked in his, was utterly
unlike him. From his dress one could see at once that he was a
clergyman, and from an indescribable something in his whole appearance
one could also tell that he was an Englishman. He was tall and slight,
with iron-gray hair, and a clean-shaven, delicate face, which, however,
was shrewd and kindly, but which seemed to tell a tale of strenuous
and trying work.

No two men could have presented a greater contrast to each other, and
yet the two were bosom friends. They had been at Oxford together, for
Arnauld de Choisigny was a Protestant, a descendant of an old Huguenot
family, and his father had wished him to be educated at an English
university, so they had played in the same cricket matches and pulled
in the same boat; and although their ways in life had lain far apart
the old friendship still existed as close and true as ever.

No one looking at them would have judged them to be contemporaries in
age, for the years that had been spent by Nigel Maxwell in fighting
with the sin and misery of an East London parish, and that had broken
down his health for a time, and made his hair whiter than it need have
been, had passed lightly over the Vicomte, who, nevertheless, had done
his duty nobly in his own way, and was known by all the peasants on his
large estates as a model landlord and a kind and just master.

‘Yes, my friend,’ he was saying in perfect English, ‘I am glad for
your sake that the Bishop has insisted on filling up your place in
Bethnal Green, and is sending you down to rusticate for a year or two
in that seaside parish in Cornwall. He is a wise man your Bishop, and
knows what he is doing. In a year or two you will be as strong and well
as ever you were, and fit to take up work in the city again if you
still wish to do so. And for the present, a couple of months’ idleness
at the Château de Choisigny will do you no end of good before you take
up your new work of preaching to the fisherfolks!’

Nigel Maxwell smiled, and shook his head with a sigh. No one but
himself knew what a trial this enforced idleness was, or what a wrench
it had been to him to leave his London parish and the poor people
there who had learned to love and trust him, and whose lives had been
brighter and better because of his presence among them.

‘You know how I am enjoying my visit, Arnauld,’ he said. ‘I have not
seen so much of you since the old Oxford days. Indeed, I have never had
such a lazy time since then; but I have run too long in harness to
take kindly to an idle life, so you must excuse me if sometimes I seem
a little restless.’

The Vicomte shrugged his shoulders and laughed a good-natured, cheerful
laugh.

‘Thou wilt learn, _mon ami;_ thou wilt learn,’ he said. ‘Already I
begin to see in you traces of an idleness which I would not have
suspected a month ago. For instance, I noted that you did not open a
book this whole morning, but sat and smoked, with your hands folded.
The veriest loafer in the world could not have been worse.’

‘It was the lovely scenery that tempted me,’ replied his friend. ‘If
there was one thing I used to long for in Bethnal Green it was to see
green fields and a blue sky, undimmed and unclouded by dirt or smoke.’

‘Ah, if it is scenery you want, wait until the new auto comes,’ said
his companion. ‘Then I shall take you about, and let you see my
country. What say you to a run through Brittany and down the Loire? We
need not go too quickly; we could rest where we liked.’

Just then a servant came along the terrace. It was evident that he had
some news to tell, for ill-concealed eagerness was written on his
face, and he was hurrying as much as was compatible with the dignity of
a well-trained servant.

‘Ha, Jacques!’ said the Vicomte, turning to him and speaking in rapid
French, ‘hast thou come to tell us that the car has come? If it left
Carhaix, as it ought to have done, this morning, it has had plenty of
time to have arrived by now.’

The man bowed respectfully.

‘But yes, sire,’ he answered, ‘it has even now arrived. It is in
the courtyard. I was hurrying to inform you when Jean-Marie called
me back. He had begun to undo the wrappings, and he had made a most
extraordinary discovery—a discovery both strange and startling. In
the car, in the back of it, among the rugs which your honour ordered
Jean-Marie to bring with him from Nantes, was a child, a little boy.
The poor child seems ill; his head is gone. In short, sire, he raves;
and Jean-Marie called out to me, “Go, Jacques, go quickly, and call the
Vicomte; he will know what to do.” So I came, sire, as quickly as I
could.’

‘So we see,’ said the Vicomte laughing. ‘Thou wert always one who
loved a mystery, Jacques. Doubtless it is some little garçon who wanted
a cheap ride and who now feigns illness as an excuse for his deed. But
go—we will follow—and frighten the little rogue well.’

But one glance at the tiny huddled-up figure, with its flushed face
and wild, unseeing eyes, showed the Vicomte that this was no case of
imposture. Whatever had been the boy’s reason for concealment, whatever
had been his state when he crept under the tarpaulin cover, it was
evident that now he was very ill.

‘Poor little fellow! Hast thou any idea where thou pickedest him up,
Jean-Marie, or how long he hath lain under that heavy covering? It may
be a case of sunstroke; the heat must have been terrible.’

But Jean-Marie, who was standing in the middle of a group of his
fellow-servants, gazing in amazement at the strange little passenger
whom he had so unwittingly carried in his master’s new car, shook his
head stupidly.

‘That I cannot tell, sire,’ he answered. ‘He could not be there when I
left Nantes, because I put in the rugs and fastened up the tarpaulin
just before I started; and he can scarce have got in at Dinard, the
distance is too short. Mayhap he crawled in at Carhaix, for he looks
like a little peasant from the mountains of Bretagne. But how he pulled
down the cover over himself, and fastened it so carefully—that is what
I cannot understand, sire.’

‘He is dressed like a little peasant; but I hardly think he is,’ said
Mr Maxwell, who had been examining the little stowaway carefully. ‘It
seems to me, Arnauld, that there is more here than meets the eye. Just
listen to what he says, and his accent is as pure as mine.’

‘I am an English boy, an English boy,’ moaned Pierre, in a low
monotonous voice, as if he were repeating a lesson, ‘and I am going to
England. I have forgotten much, my head always feels queer; but I am
going to England, and then I will remember.’

These broken sentences were repeated over and over again, and then the
weak voice wandered off into a jumble of words, at the sound of which
the clergyman shook his head.

‘That is not French,’ he said. ‘Who or what can he be, I wonder?’

‘It is the Breton patois,’ said the Vicomte; ‘I understand it, for old
Suzette my foster-mother—my housekeeper now—came from the mountains,
and I learned the language ere I could speak my own. He is talking
now like any peasant child about cows, and pigs, and other animals;
and, look, he shrinks from something as if he expected a blow. But we
must do something; we cannot let him lie here.—Go, Jacques, and call
Suzette; she is a good nurse, and she will know what to do.’

Mr Maxwell had already lifted the little waif in his arms, however.

‘With your leave, Arnauld,’ he said, ‘I will carry him up to my room.
It is big enough for me and half-a-dozen sick children if necessary.
It is not the first time by any means that I have tried my hand at
nursing, and it will make me feel that I am not quite a cumberer of the
ground. Perhaps you will allow old Suzette to come to my help with some
fresh tepid water. If we had him out of the sun, and some of this dust
washed away, perhaps the little lad may revive. I confess I shall be
deeply interested to hear his story.’

But all that the kind clergyman, aided by old Suzette, who came in in
her quaint peasant costume, eager to lend her aid, could do, could not
bring back sense to poor little Pierre’s wandering brain. They hoped
that it would do so, for after they had undressed him, and sponged him
tenderly all over with vinegar and water, and laid him in Mr Maxwell’s
own bed, which they drew to the open window, so that he should have as
much of the air as it was possible to get on that sultry afternoon, he
fell into a heavy sleep; but when he awoke he seemed more feverish than
ever, and tossed from side to side, throwing off the spotless coverings
which Suzette would fain have kept tucked neatly round him, and talked
brokenly in English of how he was an English boy, and must get up and
go home.’



CHAPTER XXI.

THE OPINION OF DR JULES.


‘TIENS!’ said old Monsieur Croite, the family doctor and trusted friend
of the Choisigny family, who had been hastily summoned from Dinard,
and who stood looking down at his little patient, with Mr Maxwell and
the Vicomte at his elbow. ‘At the first there has been a chill, a most
severe one, and that has brought on a slight attack of rheumatic fever.
Not bad, that is to say, but still it is there. And on the top of that,
as it were, there are signs of irritability of the brain. That may
arise from one thing, or it may arise from another. The lad may have
been ill-treated, or he may have been frightened, which after all is
but another form of ill-treatment, or he may be of weak intellect. That
I cannot say for certain, but I suspect much. See!’ And laying his hand
on Pierre’s little closely cropped head, he parted the hair just above
the right ear, and showed an ugly scar which looked as if it were only
newly healed.

‘I do not know,’ he repeated; ‘but I suspect that the boy has had a
blow, and that the skull has been fractured, not badly, but a little,
and that the skull presses on the brain. I am no surgeon; I leave that
to those who are more skilful in that branch of our profession than I
am. But by your leave, Monsieur the Vicomte, I will return to-morrow
with my son; he, as you know, has just returned from work in the
hospitals of Vienna and Paris. He has had the experience. He shall tell
us what he thinks.’

So next morning Dr Croite brought his tall, grave son with him to
the château, and together they made a careful examination of the
unconscious child.

‘It is as my father says, monsieur,’ said Dr Jules gravely, when the
patient had been left in Suzette’s hands, and all four gentlemen had
assembled downstairs in the Vicomte’s private room. ‘The boy has had an
injury to his head, inflicted by some one, I should say, rather than by
a fall. It must have occurred within the last six months, the condition
of the wound tells me that, and there is something—a tiny splinter of
bone mayhap—which presses on the brain. Had this been all, I would have
operated at once, and removed the cause of the pressure, whatever it
may be. Such operations are dangerous, but in a large hospital they are
done every day. But in the boys present condition I dare not attempt
it; it would mean certain failure. If with careful nursing you can
subdue the fever, and maintain his strength, which I very much doubt,
for he is very weak, poor little one! then in three weeks or a month it
might be attempted.’

‘If Monsieur the Vicomte desires it, I can have him removed to the
little hospital at Dinard,’ broke in the old doctor. ‘Such nursing as
this must be puts a household to great inconvenience, and the good
Sisters at the hospital are very kind.’

‘The boy is very weak,’ remarked his son suggestively; ‘he has suffered
great hardships.’

‘Eh, what?’ said the Vicomte, suddenly recognising the drift of the
conversation. ‘But he cannot be removed from here. Old Suzette is a
splendid nurse. She nursed me through all my childhood’s ailments; and
these were not few, as you, Monsieur Croite, know. And if there has to
be any operation, Monsieur Jules, you must just bring one of the good
Sisters up from the hospital to help you. It shall never be said that
Arnauld de Choisigny turned any sick thing, even if it be only a poor
wandering child, from his house.’

‘I was not suggesting that, monsieur,’ said Dr Jules humbly; ‘but the
case is very critical. The child may die, to put it plainly, and it
will cause you a great deal of trouble. He must be watched night and
day if he has to have a chance.’

‘I will watch him,’ said Mr Maxwell, ‘and the Vicomte and old Suzette
will help me. If, as I suspect,’ he went on, with flashing eyes, ‘the
child is really English, then there has been grave wickedness done
somewhere; but, please God, we will pull him through and put it right.’

Faithfully did the three Good Samaritans into whose hands Pierre had
fallen carry out their self-imposed task.

To Mr Maxwell, whose life had been one long fight against sin, with its
accompaniments disease and death, it was simply a piece of the day’s
work, a duty that had fallen to his hands, an opportunity for service;
and had it not been for the Vicomte, who insisted that he should go out
for a daily walk, and have his proper hours for sleep, he would have
spent every minute in the sick-room, watching beside the unconscious
boy, as he had often watched beside the bed of some little street arab
in some wretched den in the slums of his city parish.

When, to please his friend, he would go out for a walk up and down the
terrace, or go down to the little landing-stage for a row on the river,
the Vicomte was always ready to take his place, or old Suzette, who was
a born nurse, and who sat up all night and was quite ready to sit up
all day too if need be. Indeed, they let her be beside Pierre as much
as possible, for when she talked to him and soothed him in her homely
patois he seemed quieter and less excited than when Mr Maxwell was
by his bedside. One would have thought then that he knew that he was
in the presence of an Englishman, for he would stop his low rambling
Breton talk and turn to English phrases, and grow so hot and eager that
the good clergyman had often to slip out of the room, and let Suzette
take his place in the big arm-chair at the head of Pierre’s bed.

For three long weeks this went on, and often it seemed that the little
waif would drift out of life without being able to give the slightest
clue to his identity. But at last the fever subsided, and one sunny
morning, early in June, Dr Croite came from Dinard, accompanied by his
son and another doctor, and a blue-robed Sister from the hospital, and
with great care they performed the operation which Dr Jules had called
trepanning; while out on the terrace the Vicomte and Mr Maxwell paced
silently up and down, making no effort to conceal their great anxiety,
and old Suzette knelt in her own little turret chamber at the top of
the château, and prayed with simple fervour over her beads.

For, in spite of the fact that he had not spoken one sensible sentence
to them since the moment when he had been discovered in the car, they
had all grown to love the little fellow, with his pathetic brown eyes
and gentle ways, which, shown as they were unconsciously, made his
nurses all the surer that he was no mere peasant-boy.

At last the great glass doors which separated the hall of the château
from the terrace opened, and the doctors came out.

‘Well, how is it? Will he live?’ eagerly asked the two men who had
waited for them with so much impatience.

‘It seems so; everything points to it,’ replied Dr Jules, proud in
the consciousness of appearing as a fully fledged surgeon before the
Vicomte, who had known him ever since he was a little lad in blue
blouses, who used to drive up in his father’s gig to the gates of the
château, and wait under the lime-trees with Gustave the coachman and
the old brown horse while his father, paying his daily visit, walked
up the short avenue on foot, and vanished through the great doors,
which to little Jules, gazing after him, seemed like the entrance of an
enchanted palace.

The old Vicomte was alive then, though he was on his deathbed, and the
young Seigneur, Monsieur Arnauld, would walk slowly back with Dr Croite
to where his gig stood, discussing his father’s illness with him, and
would notice the little blue-bloused boy, and pat him on the head, and
ask his name, and go into the orchard and fetch him an apple.

All that seemed very far away to Dr Jules nowadays, though it seemed
but yesterday to the simpler Vicomte; and he liked to have the
opportunity to show the older man that he had grown up, and had taken
his place in the world, and was no more a mere country youth, but a
learned young doctor, whose name was well known among men of science.

‘The operation has been very successful,’ he went on, with a touch of
importance in his tone, while his father and the other doctor nodded
their heads to show that they agreed with him. ‘It is just as I—as
we—thought. There had been a hurt, a blow most likely, and a splinter
of the skull was pressing on the brain. That caused the loss of memory,
the want of intellect as it were. That ought to be gone now, and when
he awakes he ought to be as alive to everything that passes as any one
else. Only, I would advise,’ and here he held up his hand, and blinked
solemnly through his spectacles in a way that brought a twinkle to
Mr Maxwell’s gray eyes, and made him look ten years younger for the
moment, ‘that for the first six days or so he be left entirely to the
good Sister and to the old serving-woman Suzette. They will talk to him
in the Breton tongue so long as he is weak, and he will not be so apt
to remember or to ask questions. Whatever his past history may have
been, we must try to give his brain as much rest as possible before it
is troubled by his beginning to think.’

To which advice, in spite of his amusement at Dr Jules’s manner, Mr
Maxwell heartily agreed.



CHAPTER XXII.

MR MAXWELL FINDS OUT THE TRUTH.


‘WELL, my friend, and what hast thou found out?’

It was the Vicomte who spoke, and the question was addressed to Mr
Maxwell, who had just come down from Pierre’s room with a puzzled look
on his face.

Ten days had passed since the operation, and the boy was recovering
rapidly. At his last visit, Dr Jules had pronounced him out of danger,
and had predicted that he would be able to be outside in a fortnight;
and he had added, ‘There is now no reason why monsieur may not see
him, and try to learn something about his history, if only monsieur is
careful not to press things too far. Let everything come naturally,
just as the boy seems inclined to talk about the past.’

The good clergyman had eagerly availed himself of the permission, and
had gone twice to Pierre’s room—hoping to hear what strange chance had
brought him to the château disguised as a Breton peasant, for, from
certain things he had said to Sister Lucie, there was no doubt whatever
that he was not French—but each time he had returned grievously
disappointed.

Pierre answered his inquiries as to his health and comfort in perfect
English, and would talk freely about any little incident which had
happened in his sick-room; but when Mr Maxwell tried to lead the
conversation back to the past, and to find out carefully how much the
little boy remembered, he grew flushed and restless, and relapsed into
an uneasy silence, and the anxious listener was too good a nurse to
disobey the doctor’s orders and press the matter, although he grew more
and more puzzled as he saw that Pierre certainly remembered more than
he was willing to talk about.

‘I am completely puzzled, Arnauld,’ he said, in answer to the Vicomte’s
question. ‘The boy is English, so much I know; he has owned to that.
But who he is, or how he came here, is a mystery, and it is a mystery
that for some reason he is unwilling to clear up. As yet he is too
weak for it to be safe for me to force matters. He seems to be so
suspicious of my questions, and to be always on his guard, and yet I
see such a longing look in his big brown eyes. Ah well! we must have
patience. Perhaps when he knows me better he will confide in me of his
own accord. I shall make no attempt, for the present at least, to find
out his secret.’

So the wise man waited patiently, determined to win the little boy’s
confidence by kindness and not by force, trying in the meantime to make
the tedious time of convalescence as easy as possible, by reading to
him, and playing simple games with him, and talking as if Pierre’s life
had only begun with his illness, and all his past life had been one
long blank.

But all the time he was watching and waiting, and when occasionally, at
night, he heard a restless movement in the little bed, that had been
placed so close to his that he could stretch out his hand to make a
position easier or turn a hot pillow, or heard a stifled sob, he knew
that sooner or later the strange reserve would break down, and the
story, whatever it was, be told. So he watched and waited, and at last
his patience was rewarded.

It had been a glorious summer day, and Pierre had been well enough
to be carried down and laid on a couch under a great lime-tree, where
he could see the river, and watch the boats with their loads of gaily
attired holiday-makers gliding up or down, on their way to Dinan or St
Malo.

It was all so bright and sunny, such a change from the darkened
sick-room in which he had lain for so many weeks, that he felt almost
well again, and chatted away quite brightly to the Vicomte, who spent
most of the day at his side, for the post had brought Mr Maxwell
some important letters which had caused him to go into St Malo after
_déjeuner_.

But as evening came on, one of the subtle changes which come so quickly
to any one who is recovering from a severe illness fell over the little
boy. He grew tired and listless, and could hardly touch the glass of
warm milk which old Suzette carried out to him on a dainty tray.

‘You are tired, my boy,’ said Mr Maxwell, who had just returned.
‘Remember, you have made a great step in advance to-day, so you must
not wonder if you are ready for bed an hour earlier than usual.’

Pierre shook his head.

‘I am not so very tired, sir,’ he said slowly; ‘but—but—I was thinking
that I will soon be well again.’

‘And that ought to make you feel very thankful,’ said Mr Maxwell
cheerfully, although Pierre’s words, and the hopeless tone in which
they were spoken, made him wonder more than ever what the mystery was
which surrounded the little waif who had been so suddenly thrown on his
care.

‘But we will not stop to moralise to-night,’ he went on, stooping down
and lifting Pierre gently in his arms, ‘for _I_ know that you are
tired, if you don’t, and the best place for tired boys is bed. You will
see how much brighter you will feel in the morning.’

He did not say any more, but when the little boy was safely in bed, and
he took up his Bible to read a few verses aloud, as he had always done
since Pierre was well enough to listen, he hesitated, and turned over
the leaves slowly. At last he began to read softly, in the dim light,
the beautiful old story of the son who went into the far country, and
of the father who was waiting so tenderly to welcome him, when as yet
he was a long way off, but when his face was once more turned towards
home.

When it was finished he rose, and, crossing the room, he stooped down
to give Pierre his customary good-night kiss; but the little face was
buried in the pillow, and he could feel that the boy was shaking from
head to foot in his endeavours to keep back the sobs.

‘This will never do,’ he thought to himself; ‘this will throw him back
for days. It is better to have it out, even at the risk of a lecture
from Dr Jules.’

So, seating himself on the bed, he put his arm very tenderly round the
little huddled-up figure, and drew it towards him.

‘My child,’ he said softly, ‘can you not trust me? Would it not be
better to tell me everything, instead of hiding it up in your own
heart? Besides, though I do not know everything about you, I think
I know a good deal. Nay, I have not been prying,’ he went on, as he
felt the little boy start at his words; ‘but you know I have been
accustomed to meet all sorts of people in my work, and to hear all
sorts of stories, very sad ones most of them, and one learns to read
between the lines. For instance, I know that you are an English boy and
a gentleman’s son—your voice and manners tell me that; and am almost
certain that your name is not Pierre. I am almost certain, too, that
you have got into some trouble—done something wrong, perhaps—and you
are just like the son in the story, you are thinking of home, and your
father there, or perhaps your mother; only it seems so difficult to go
back that you have almost lost heart.’

‘It’s mother. Father knows,’ gasped Pierre between his sobs. ‘But I’ve
been thinking all this time, since I could remember, that perhaps it
would be better if I were always Pierre. I could go away and work, when
I am better. The Vicomte might give me something to do, and you know I
learned to work with Madame Genviève. For they must have lost me since
Christmas time, and perhaps mother thinks that I am dead, and it would
be better for them all, Ronald and Dorothy too, if they thought so
always. For I’ve been a thief and a liar; and, although Isobel didn’t
die, I’m sure mother’s heart must be broken. Besides, Ronald is going
to school next year, and all the other boys would get to know what
sort of brother he has.’

‘Poor little chap!’ said Mr Maxwell—who had been able to pick out
Vivian’s story pretty accurately from his confused sentences—lifting
him into a more comfortable position, and stroking his bandaged head;
‘so you think that lives are ruined at eleven years old, and that
mothers feel like that? Why, I hope that you have many years to live
yet—many years in which to undo the past; and as for your mother, my
boy, I think she is far more likely to be breaking her heart because
she does not know where you are or what has happened to you. But tell
me all about it, from the very beginning, and then I will try to help
you to do what is right. You need not be afraid that it will make any
difference to me; my lads at Bethnal Green always came to me in their
troubles.’

So Pierre told all the long story which had seemed so perplexing and
confused during the months that he had lived with Madame Genviève,
but which had pieced itself together in his mind and become clear and
distinct since the operation.

‘I can understand it all, sir,’ he said when he had finished, ‘except
what happened at the station. I do not see what the gentleman with the
bag had to do with the man with the green patch over his eye, whom I
saw in the summer-house, or how I could be so stupid as to jump out of
the cab and run after him when father told me to stay in it till he
came back. And I don’t see why the gentleman wanted to take me with him
in the train, even although he must have thought me very rude to run
after him like that, saying that I knew him. Do you think that I was
beginning to be ill then? For I remember saying that I would call a
policeman, and I meant to do so. I saw one along the platform. It was
when I turned to go for him that one of the gentlemen pulled me into
the carriage. Do you think that my head must have been getting queer
then? I almost think that it must.’

‘No, your head was not queer. It was quite clear and sensible, and you
were a brave little fellow, Vivian,’ replied Mr Maxwell, a curious
light coming into his keen gray eyes, ‘for the man in the summer-house
was the same person as the gentleman on the platform, and he and his
friends were on their way to France. Probably they had a great deal of
your aunt’s silver hidden about them, and if you had been able to get a
policeman soon enough they would have been arrested; so the scoundrels
preferred to carry you off with them, and to knock you on the head when
you were likely to prove troublesome. Oh, I see it all, and so will
the men at Scotland Yard when they hear the story; and, please God,
the rascals will get their deserts. But you must not talk any more
to-night, my boy; you will go to sleep quietly now, and we will discuss
it in the morning. And as for your father and mother, why, when they
hear everything, I think they will be quite proud of you. For, you
know, Vivian, after all, you had owned up before all this happened.’

The little fellow’s face brightened as he heard his long-lost name
again.

‘I feel as if I wanted mother dreadfully, all of a sudden,’ he said, as
he nestled down drowsily among the pillows. ‘How long will it take her
to come?’

Mr Maxwell smiled to himself at the question, which showed how strong,
after all, was the childish faith in the mother-love which would
forgive so much, and be so ready to start out at once to meet the
little prodigal.

Ten minutes later, when he had satisfied himself that Vivian was
sleeping peacefully, he went downstairs to the Vicomte, a slip of
paper in his hand on which was written an address, and in other ten
minutes the two friends were speeding away to Dinard as fast as the new
motor-car could take them, in order to send away two telegrams, one of
which was a message of good tidings to an English home, and the other
an urgent summons to an officer at Scotland Yard.



CHAPTER XXIII.

A HAPPY MEETING.


THE whole of the next day Vivian lay under the lime-tree, hardly
speaking at all, a look of happy expectancy on his face. All his
dread of meeting his parents seemed to have vanished, and in spite of
Mr Maxwell’s assurances that Mrs Armitage could not possibly arrive
that night, even if she were at home and able to start the moment she
received the telegram, he pleaded to be allowed to remain up an hour
later than usual, and only consented to go to bed when his eyes were
growing so heavy that he could hardly keep them open.

Perhaps this was the reason why he was not disturbed by the bustle
of an arrival early next morning, although the window of his bedroom
looked straight down into the courtyard; and why he did not wake when
his bedroom door was gently opened, and some one entered the room and
sat down in the great arm-chair at the head of his bed.

It was quite half-an-hour afterwards when he opened his eyes, and fixed
them in a half-wondering way on the sweet face that was bent down over
his.

[Illustration: ‘Mother, oh mother!’ he cried.... ‘Can you forgive me?’

V. L. PAGE 266]

‘Mother, oh mother!’ he cried, throwing up a pair of thin arms and
clasping them round his mother’s neck as if he would never let her go
again. ‘Can you forgive me? I am so sorry—so terribly sorry.’

‘Yes, indeed, I can,’ said Mrs Armitage in a broken voice, pressing her
lips to the little face which she had given up all hopes of ever seeing
again. ‘God has been very good to us, Vivi, in giving you back; and we
will begin all over again, dearie, and forget all that has passed.’

For a moment there was silence, mother and son clinging to each other
in a happiness that was too deep for words.

Then Vivian spoke again.

‘And Aunt Dora and Uncle Walter,’ he asked rather anxiously, ‘will they
ever speak to me again? And how is Isobel? And what about Joe Flinders?’

‘Isobel is almost well again,’ answered Mrs Armitage cheerfully,
determined that after the first natural emotion there should be
nothing but gladness in the meeting, and that the little prodigal who
had suffered so much and repented so deeply should feel that there was
nothing but rejoicing at his return. ‘She is still lying on her chair,
but she is to be allowed to walk about next month when they go to the
seaside.’

‘On her chair! Has she been lying on a chair all this time?’ asked
Vivian in surprise, his radiant face growing grave with the sense of
this new calamity.

‘Ah, it will take you quite a long time to pick up the threads of
family life again,’ laughed his mother; ‘but do not look so distressed.
Isobel is quite happy, and is really almost well; and as for Uncle
Walter and Aunt Dora—well, look here—here is a telegram which they have
sent all this way to you, just to let you know how glad they are that
we have found you again.’

Tears came into Vivian’s eyes as his mother held up the flimsy paper
and he read the kind words which it contained for himself.

‘Every one is too good to me, mother,’ he said, his lips quivering;
‘I don’t deserve it. It is just like the Bible story—the ring, and
the best dress; and yet all the time Mr Maxwell was reading it to me
the other night I felt that it could not turn out the same for me, and
I was afraid to tell him my proper name. He has been so good to me,
mother; he made me feel that I must tell him, even though I was afraid,
for he began talking about you, and saying that you might be breaking
your heart because you had lost me. Somehow I had never thought about
that before; I had only thought of the trouble and the disgrace I had
been to you all. And yet it is true what he said. You are just as kind
and jolly as ever, just as if I hadn’t done anything.’

His mother kissed him softly.

‘And remember, dearie,’ she whispered, ‘if it is true of mother and
father, it is far more true of God, and of the dear Lord who first told
the story as an example of what love and forgiveness really are. But we
must not have any more serious talk just now. Why, you have never asked
for father, or Ronald, or little Dorothy!’

‘Oh yes, how are they?’ asked Vivian eagerly, looking half-ashamed of
his omission. ‘And Joe Flinders,’ he repeated anxiously, ‘how is he?’

‘Joe is very well indeed,’ replied his mother, seeing that it would
ease his mind to have this sore subject spoken of. ‘But he is not with
Uncle Walter now; he has got a place as groom-gardener at a country
rectory in Dorsetshire, and his mother has gone with him to keep the
lodge and look after the hens. Joe is quite elated, I can tell you; his
wages are almost double what he had at Eversley, and we hear such good
reports of him! As for Dorothy, she is blooming; she sent a hundred
kisses to you, and would have sent her own special dolly Rose-Marie if
I had had room for her in my bag. As for father and Ronald, they must
speak for themselves, for I hear them coming upstairs.’

‘Father and Ronald! Have they come all this way to see me?’ asked
Vivian, his eyes wide open with astonishment.

His mother had no time to answer before the door was thrown open, and
the smiling faces of his father and brother were beaming down at him.

Ronald’s smile was rather misty, to be sure, in spite of the warning
Dr Armitage had given him about not breaking down or exciting Vivian,
and his ‘Hallo, old chap!’ sounded rather choked; but what did it
matter to Vivian, who pulled the dear curly head down on the pillow
beside him, feeling that he could face the world again now that he had
all his dear ones with him, and they had forgiven him freely!

They all talked for a little time, and then his mother cleared the
room, and insisted that he should lie still and rest quietly for an
hour after all the excitement which he had passed through, while she
sat beside him in happy silence, holding his hand in hers.

Then she helped him to dress, and his father came and carried him out
to his usual place under the lime-tree, where he spent a long happy
morning, talking to his mother and Ronald, listening to all that they
had to tell him of the events of the last six months, and pouring out
his own story about the little cottage away in the _Montagnes Noirs_,
and old Madame Genviève, and the gentle Nanette (of whom he had been
really fond), and the kind peasant who had acted the Good Samaritan to
him, and who had so unwittingly led him to safe shelter by suggesting
that he should travel hidden in the Vicomte’s motor-car.

‘Father must find him out and give him something, mother,’ he said;
‘for if it had not been for him I would never have come here. Indeed, I
think I would have turned ill by the roadside, for I can just remember
how my legs ached and how funny my head felt. As for Madame Genviève, I
don’t want ever to see her again,’ and he gave a little shudder as he
remembered the dark days he had spent with her.

‘No, you need never see her again, my boy,’ said his mother, ‘and I
think the best thing you can do is to put all thoughts of her out of
your head.’

She did not add that although Vivian would not see the unkind old woman
again, unless he had to go into the witness-box and witness against
her, other people would make a point of finding her out, and making
her explain how it was that Vivian came to live with her; for, after
discussing the matter, the Vicomte and Mr Maxwell and Dr Armitage had
all agreed that there was little doubt that she was in league with
her son who had brought Vivian to the cottage, and who in his turn
was doubtless in league with the gang of burglars who had broken into
Eversley with such disastrous results.

The three gentlemen had gone to Dinard to meet the detective whom the
Vicomte had telegraphed for; but Vivian was not told this, as it was
thought better not to excite him more than could be helped; and when
at last they returned in time for afternoon-tea (which the Vicomte
had ordered out of courtesy to Mrs Armitage), bringing a stout,
rosy-cheeked little man with them, who spoke French and English equally
well, and who looked exactly like a farmer, it was quite a long time
before the little boy grasped the fact that the stranger who listened
so attentively, and seemed so interested in all his adventures, was
really one of the cleverest detectives in Europe.

‘Bravo!’ he said at last, when, almost unknown to Vivian, the whole
story had been drawn forth once more. ‘You are a very plucky fellow,
Master Vivian, for I fancy that few grown men would have dared to
tackle Jim Strivers as you did. Why, he is one of the best-known
burglars in England, and a most dangerous man. It was a desperate
step, even for him, to smuggle you into a carriage, and to tap you on
the head to keep you still. I wonder they did not discover you at the
Custom-House. One of them carried you like a baby, I dare say. However,
he will find he has gone just one step too far this time. We will get
rid of him for ten or fifteen years.’

‘Do you know his name?’ asked Vivian in surprise.

‘Yes, I do, now that you have described him to me,’ said the man,
laughing. ‘I have a very large acquaintanceship with people of that
kind, young sir; if I showed you my visiting-list you would be
astonished. I wonder none of us thought of Jim before; but we didn’t
know that he was in London just then, and his giving us the slip, and
getting across to Paris like that, threw us off the scent.—However,
I’ll be off to Paris as soon as is convenient to you, monsieur,’ and he
bowed to the Vicomte. ‘There is no time to be lost if we want to catch
the whole gang. For, now that the young gentleman has escaped, the old
woman may give the alarm, though we will hope that she is in too great
fear of her son to let him know a moment sooner than she could help.—I
don’t expect she could write. Could she?’ he went on, turning sharply
to Vivian.

‘I don’t know; I never saw her try,’ said Vivian doubtfully.

‘I do not expect she could,’ said the detective; ‘the stupider she is,
the safer for the gang. I shouldn’t be a bit astonished if they took
part of the swag there, as well as the young gentleman. With such a
hue-and-cry as there was over the robbery, it would not be very safe
for them to try to sell it.’

‘What do you mean by the swag?’ asked Ronald.

‘Why, the silver, to be sure, young sir, and the other things that they
took. Experienced men like them always know that it is safer to let the
noise die down before they try to sell the swag, even if it is melted
silver in a lump. Now, I shouldn’t be at all astonished if there were
some very pretty nuggets of metal hidden about that old dame’s house.
What might tell tales in Paris or London may be quite safe in the heart
of Brittany, you know.’

‘I’ll tell you where it is,’ cried Vivian, starting up suddenly. ‘It is
hidden in the little outhouse where Nanette stays.’

He looked so flushed and excited that Mr Maxwell glanced hastily at
Dr Armitage, thinking that all the events of the day had brought on a
return of the fever.

‘No, it is all right; he knows what he is saying,’ said the doctor,
laying a restraining hand on Vivian’s shoulder.—‘Lie down again, my
boy, and tell us quietly what makes you think that the silver is there.’

‘Because one day, just when I first began to get about, I was in
Nanette’s stall, and I thought I heard a rat. You know how I hate
rats,’ and he shivered at the remembrance. ‘Well, I was poking about
in the thatch with a stick to see if I could see its hole, when Madame
Genviève came in, and, oh, she was so angry! She looked frightened too,
and she shook me until I was so giddy I could hardly see, and she said
that if ever she found me poking there again she would beat me with her
little stick.’

‘Ah, she did, did she?’ said the little rosy-faced man grimly, while
Mrs Armitage took Vivian’s thin white hand in hers and held it fast.
‘Well, we shall see what we shall see. I fancy Madame Genviève will
need to put up with a variety of people who want to poke about in her
thatched roof.—But by your leave, Monsieur the Vicomte, I shall say
adieu, or rather _au revoir_. The train for Paris leaves Dinard at six
o’clock sharp, and I think I hear the man bringing round the motor.’
And with a cheery nod and smile the little man departed, eager to be
on the track of the men for whom he and his colleagues had searched so
diligently for the last six months.



CHAPTER XXIV.

A FRESH BEGINNING.


AFTER this Vivian made rapid progress. Happiness is a great restorer,
and the little boy was very happy in those days.

Dr Armitage had soon to go back to his work; but Vivian’s mother stayed
with him for a whole month, until he was almost quite well and able
to run about the beautiful grounds of the château, and even to go to
Dinard; and when at last she had to go home, and would have taken her
boys with her, the hospitable Vicomte, who was really rather a lonely
man, begged so earnestly that they might both be allowed to remain a
little longer that their father and she agreed to his request, all the
more readily perhaps as the detective’s words had proved true; and
the newspapers in England were full of the romantic story of Vivian’s
reappearance, the capture of the gang of burglars in Paris, and the
recovery of most of the silver which had been stolen from Mr Osbourne’s
house in January.

The thieves had not taken the precaution to melt it down, thinking, no
doubt, that it was safe enough for the present in the thatch of Madame
Genviève’s cowhouse, so Aunt Dora had got most of her forks and spoons
back again without their being any the worse, and Claude, to his great
joy, had his christening-mug to drink out of once more.

Needless to say, every one who read the newspapers, and especially
those who knew the principal actors in the story, were deeply
interested in every detail of it; and, although Dr and Mrs Armitage
would have liked their two boys at home with them once more, they felt
that it was much better that Vivian should remain quietly where he was
not known until the excitement had passed over.

So all through the long summer days he and Ronald remained at the
Château de Choisigny, learning to speak fluent French with the Vicomte,
and boating on the river with Mr Maxwell, who proved himself to be the
most delightful companion, entering into all their plans and interests
as if he had been a boy himself.

At school and college he had been a clever sketcher, and in this time
of enforced idleness he took up the pastime again, and gave lessons to
the boys, Ronald proving an apt pupil; while Vivian could, as he said,
‘at least draw things well enough to let the people at home know what
they were meant for.’

Under his guidance, too, they began a collection of butterflies and one
of wild-flowers, and altogether the time passed so happily that it was
almost with regret that they saw the end of August approaching.

Mr Maxwell was going to take up his work in his new parish in the
beginning of September, and the happy party must then be broken up.

‘Another month, and you will be quite settled down in Cornwall, _mon
ami_,’ said the Vicomte one evening, as they were idly drifting down
the Rance in a little white rowing-boat, ‘and I will be preparing to
set out to visit you and to rub up my English a little.’

‘And we will be home again,’ said Ronald in such a melancholy voice
that every one laughed. ‘Of course,’ he went on apologetically, ‘I
shall be very glad to be back with father and mother and little
Dorothy, especially now that Vivi will be there too; but it has been so
jolly here, and after the holidays it may be rather dull at home, for
the Strangeways are going to school, and we will need to do our lessons
alone.’

‘I thought you never much liked the Strangeways, and didn’t mind their
going away,’ said Vivian.

‘No; I didn’t much care for them as long as I had you; but they were
better than nobody,’ said Ronald candidly. ‘We will be the only boys in
the neighbourhood now, and I don’t think we will go to school till next
year at least. But, anyhow, they will not be gone for a week or two
after we go back, so it won’t be so very quiet just at first, and we
will get used to it after a bit.’

Vivian said nothing, but his face flushed. No one knew how he was
dreading the return home and the shower of questions which he knew
would be poured upon him by Fergus, and Vere, and Charlie. He would
have done anything in the world to have avoided the meeting; but he
knew it was unavoidable, so he was trying to accept it as part of his
punishment, and to face it as bravely as he could.

Perhaps Mr Maxwell read his thoughts, for he laid his hand kindly on
his shoulder.

‘I wonder how you two boys would like to come straight down to
Cornwall with me?’ he said, smiling. ‘I have been thinking lately that
I shall be very lonely after all the companionship which I have had
here.—What say you, Ronald; do you think that we could do Latin and
Greek together, and you could go on with your sketches?’

‘It would be jolly, sir,’ said Ronald; ‘but I am afraid we must go home
now. The holidays are nearly past, and we can’t go everywhere.’

But Vivian saw what Mr Maxwell meant more clearly.

‘I believe you are in earnest, sir, and that you have asked father and
mother to let us go and do lessons with you,’ he cried, clasping his
friend’s hand in his excitement. ‘Oh, I hope they will let us go; you
don’t know how I dread going home.’

‘Gently, gently, old fellow,’ said Mr Maxwell, as he noted Vivian’s
quivering lips. Any sudden excitement was apt to bring on severe
attacks of headache, which still caused anxiety to the little boy’s
friends, for they showed that the bad effects of the long period of
strain which he had passed through were not completely gone. ‘The fact
is, I have arranged matters with your father and mother, and you are
both going to keep me company for the next year or so, and do lessons
with me. And, unless you very much want to go home first, we think it
better that you should go straight to Cornwall with me next week. Do
you like the plan, eh?’

‘I think it splendid, sir,’ said Ronald, feeling all at once that he
was raised to the status of a public school boy; for was not living
and doing lessons with a private tutor quite as good as being at
school? While Vivian only squeezed Mr Maxwell’s hand very tightly,
and whispered so softly that no one else could hear, ‘It is the new
beginning you told me about, isn’t it, sir?’ And although the words
were vague, Mr Maxwell knew what he meant.

‘But had we better not go home for a day or two?’ asked Ronald after
a pause. ‘Will we not be rather in the way when you are settling your
things in the Rectory? You told us that all your things were packed up,
and that you would not have them sent down from London until you were
there to see to them yourself.’

‘Ha, you luxurious fellow!’ laughed Mr Maxwell, ‘so you are afraid that
you will arrive to find nothing but bare boards, and perhaps one plate
and one cup amongst us. Well, for your comfort, I may tell you that the
Rectory is furnished already, and I have only my books and pictures to
arrange, and I shall expect you to help me with those.’

‘Oh, I didn’t mean that,’ said Ronald; ‘for even if the house hadn’t
been furnished, Vivi and I could have roughed it; but I thought perhaps
we might be in the way just at first. You will have such a lot to see
to when there is no lady’—— And here he stopped and grew red, feeling
that it was not very polite to allude to Mr Maxwell’s bachelor ways.

But the clergyman only laughed.

‘So you think that I would need a wife to arrange my belongings, or
a sister, eh, Ronald? Well, I am sorry I have neither; but a very
charming lady has promised to go down and get things ready for us—a
lady and a dear little girl.’

Something in his voice made both boys look up.

‘Do you mean mother and Dorothy?’ they asked in one breath.

Mr Maxwell’s eyes twinkled. ‘Wild horses will not drag any more
particulars out of me,’ he said; ‘only I think that you will find when
you get there that there will be at least sheets on the beds, and
perhaps even a cup of tea waiting for you.’ And with that the boys had
to be content.



CHAPTER XXV.

WESTWARD HO!


IT is a far cry from Dinard to the west of Cornwall; and by the time
they were nearing their destination on the second day of their journey
both boys were feeling rather tired. But they brightened up when at
last they left the train, and took their places in the coach which was
to carry them over the twenty miles which lay between the last station
to which the railway ran and the little fishing-village of Polwherne.

It was a lovely drive up and down steep country roads and over wide
stretches of moorland, where the heather grew like a purple pall, and
the wild moorfowl circled over their heads uttering shrill cries as
they passed. All at once, just as the sun was setting, they seemed to
come to the end of the land, for without any warning, at the top of a
steep ascent, the moorland suddenly stopped, and they found themselves
looking down on a wide expanse of dark-blue sea, over which the last
rays of the sun shone like burnished gold.

Down below them, to the right, the cliffs fell back a little, forming
a tiny bay, and here, nestling to the sides of the rocks, lay a tiny,
red-roofed village, which was reached by a steep, straggling road.

It was evidently a fishing-village, for the main street ran down to a
miniature harbour, which was full of boats. Farther on, running along
the foot of the cliffs, was a long stretch of yellow sand, which,
however, showed signs of being covered by the sea at high-tide.

‘So this is Polwherne, boys,’ said Mr Maxwell, as the driver drew
up his horses for a moment’s breathing-space before they began the
descent. ‘I hope you will not find it too dull. There will be lots of
boating to be had, and long tramps on the moors, and in winter we must
keep ourselves busy with work and books.’

‘Oh no, we sha’n’t be dull; it looks a jolly place,’ cried both the
boys at once, for they were passionately fond of the sea, and were
never at a loss to find occupation when they were within reach of it.
‘Why, we will soon learn to know all about a boat, and we can make a
model of one in the winter. We tried to make one once at home, but we
had nothing to copy from. But what a road for a carriage! Do you think
the man will ever manage to get down with all those boxes?’

‘He is accustomed to it, I expect,’ said Mr Maxwell. See, he has long
skids to put on the wheels to keep the coach back. He comes over here
three days a week, so he knows the road well. Besides, the Rectory is
not very far down; that is it, that big red house among the trees at
the top of the main street. Well, I hope that the lady I spoke of has a
good tea waiting for us.’

The driver had arranged his skids and climbed up to his seat once more;
glancing over his shoulder with a cheery ‘To the Rectory, sir?’ he
cracked his whip, and the coach began its lumbering descent. It needed
skilful driving; but the man knew what he was about, and in less than
five minutes he had turned his horses in at the low wooden gate which
led to the Rectory grounds.

‘Hallo! there are quite a lot of people at the door,’ said Ronald in a
bewildered voice, and then he gave a shout of glad surprise. ‘Look,
Vivi, look!’ he cried. ‘There is father and mother, and Uncle Walter
and Aunt Dora, and all the others. Even Isobel, not on a chair at all,
but walking about like the rest.’

And there, indeed, they all were, crowding round the coach, with eager
greetings helping the boys to jump down, and lifting out their numerous
packages.

‘Vivi has comed back to me, mine own Vivi!’ cried little Dorothy,
forsaking for once her elder brother in her joy at finding her
younger one; while Isobel, taller and thinner than she had been at
Christmas-time, and with closely cropped hair, linked her arm in
Vivian’s, whispering in delight, ‘Isn’t this jolly? And aren’t you
astonished to see us all here? We came to give you a surprise, and we
are to stay a whole month. Uncle Jack only arrived this afternoon; but
auntie and Dorothy came two days ago, and we came last night. We are
living in that white house down there; you can see the chimneys just
over the garden wall, and I have left my stupid old chair behind me.
The doctor says I do not need it any more.’

Then they all went in to tea, in the low, old-fashioned dining-room,
with its mullioned windows which looked out over the sea.

And such a tea it was, to be sure! There was newly baked bread, and
fresh boiled eggs, and a great dish of shrimps which the children had
caught in the pools that morning; and delicious butter and honey, and a
pile of hot girdle cakes, and a round orange-cake, Vivian’s favourite,
which Aunt Dora had brought all the way from London with her.

Mrs Armitage sat at the head of the table, and Mr Maxwell at the foot,
and it seemed as if every one laughed and talked and ate as they had
never laughed and talked and eaten in their lives before.

‘I think I have never been at such a jolly tea-party,’ said Ronald,
when at last he had to own that he was satisfied, and could not tackle
even a tiny piece more of Aunt Dora’s orange-cake.

‘Nor I!’ ‘Nor I!’ ‘Nor I!’ echoed Isobel and Vivian and Claude.

‘It reminds me of the tea-party we had the night you came to us at
Christmas, Ronald,’ said Ralph, ‘before all the fuss began. We had
orange-cake that night, and I don’t believe I have tasted it since. Do
you remember, we had the silver cake-knife upstairs to cut the icing
and to make the table look nice—mother’s best silver cake-knife, which
the thieves took, and which she has never got back?’

It was an unfortunate remark, for it brought back much that every one
was trying to forget. Somehow, Ralph had a habit of making such remarks.

There was a moment’s pause, and then all the elders began to talk at
once, hoping that Vivian had not heard Ralph’s words, for they had
determined that no shadow of reproach should mar his home-coming.

But he had heard it, and his face turned crimson. ‘I thought all the
silver had been found, Aunt Dora,’ he began timidly, looking across the
table to where his aunt was seated.

‘So it has, dearie,’ she answered brightly, ‘all but one or two things
which are of no moment. The most important is a great silver epergne
which my great-uncle Joseph gave me when I was married, and which I
felt I must keep out on the sideboard, as he is always popping in to
lunch in the most unexpected fashion, and his feelings would have been
deeply hurt if he had missed it. He thought it a most wonderful work
of art, while I sometimes felt as if I would like to give it to a
bazaar or something, just to get it out of the way. So now it is gone
without hurting anyone’s feelings, and I do not mourn it. Besides,’ she
went on, ‘that party was not nearly as nice as this one—was it, Isobel?
We had not Uncle Jack, nor Aunt Dora, nor little Dorothy; and we did
not even know Mr Maxwell’s name then.’

‘Me don’t know him now,’ said little Dorothy, who always said straight
out what she thought, and who had been studying the strange gentleman
all tea-time, with great wondering eyes, from her place of honour at
Vivian’s right hand.

‘Don’t you, young lady,’ said Mr Maxwell, pushing back his chair, among
general laughter, and coming round to where she sat. ‘Ah, then I cannot
take you round the garden pickaback; I only do that to people whom I
know.’

‘Oh, but me will know you now,’ cried Dorothy, who dearly loved this
mode of travelling, stretching out her arms to the kind, worn face
which always exercised a peculiar fascination over children; and, in
the roars of laughter which greeted this sudden change of opinion, the
threatened cloud was forgotten, and Vivian’s face grew bright once more.

So once again the old story proved true all through, and the little
prodigal coming back to his own country found, instead of the stern
welcome which he had expected, only laughing and feasting and
rejoicing. And here, in his new home, we may say good-bye to him for
he has learned his bitter lesson, and learned it well. And no truer
resolve was ever made, or more faithfully kept, than the one he made
that night when he was alone with his mother in the little bedroom
which opened out of Ronald’s, and which was to belong to him, that from
henceforth he would strive with all his might against his besetting
sin, and that when he was overcome by it—as all of us are, many times,
by our own special temptations—he would not try to hide it, but would
own up at once fully and freely, and then begin again with fresh energy
to fight his battle with all his might.


    THE END.


    Edinburgh:
    Printed by W. & R. Chambers, Limited.


       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber’s Notes:

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Page 195, repeated word “as” removed from text (’Tain’t as if ’e had)

Page 226, paragraph break inserted after (‘How far is it to Carhaix?’
he repeated.)





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