Ellen knocked at the door of Lady Jane’s morning room and composed her face for the coming interview. She was quite sure that her request to be allowed to leave at once would be granted with enthusiasm, but it was necessary to play her little part with circumspection and dignity.
She found Lady Jane armed to the teeth: to be plain, she was dressed for motoring, and presented a formidable appearance, besides being evidently in a hurry. But Miss Scott was not intimidated; on the contrary, she judged that the interview would be the sooner over.
“I’ve come to ask if you will let me off my engagement, and allow me to go home,” she said quietly.
Lady Jane stared hard at her for a moment, before speaking.
That was all; but the question was not exactly easy to answer, and she was quite unprepared for it.
“I shall be very grateful if you will let me go,” she said.
“But why? You must have a reason, and I think I have a right to know what it is.”
Ellen felt inclined to recall to Lady Jane the tone of the advertisement, but was afraid that she might be thought vain of her present improved appearance.
“You have been very kind to me,” she said, after a moment’s thought; “I shall never forget it. But the greatest kindness of all will be to let me go home.”
Lady Jane was still standing; she made a step forward, so that she was quite close to the governess, and she gazed steadily into her eyes.
“Some one has annoyed you,” she said suddenly, with great decision. “I am quite sure of it. No, my dear, you need not shake your head. I know it. The fact is, that from being perfectly”—she was going to say hideous, but checked herself—“from being distinctly plain, you have grown to be as pretty as a picture! And the usual result has followed! You’ve turned all their heads!”
“Really, Lady Jane!” cried Miss Scott in a tone of deprecation, and she could not help blushing in the most charming way possible.
“It’s quite true.” Lady Jane sat down and looked disconsolately at her neat gaiters. “It’s all my fault for giving you my lotion and making you dress better,” she added, evidently in extreme dejection.
Ellen bit her lip. “I can’t help being grateful to you for it,” she said.
“The worst of it is that I’ve grown to like you,” responded Lady Jane in evident despair. “If it was only because you’re such a good governess, and have such wonderful influence over the girls, it wouldn’t matter much, would it?”
Ellen smiled, in spite of herself, but could find nothing to say.
“You see,” Lady Jane continued, “I have never had a governess I liked, till now. If you knew what I’ve been through with them! There was that Miss Kirk, with her violet eyes—oh, that Miss Kirk! I wonder I did not beat her! One of the most delightful moments of my life was when I told her to go. But you! You’re the ideal! What possessed me, to give you my lotion! I might have known it would cure you.”
She was really distressed, but Miss Scott did not know what to say.
“I saw it coming,” Lady Jane went on, presently. “I’ve seen this coming for days and days! Why in the world must all my men be such utter butterflies—the whole hive of them! I mean—of course, butterflies don’t live in hives, do they?—oh, you know what I mean! But when I saw how well you behaved—with such dignity, so unlike that Miss Kirk—well, I thought you would give them all a lesson, and that there would be peace. But I suppose that was impossible.”
“But it’s not that, I assure you,” objected Ellen.
“Nonsense! It’s very nice of you to say so, of course, and you may be sure that I shall not ask you to go into details. That wouldn’t be quite nice of me, would it? But you can’t go! You simply can’t, for I won’t let you; and I’m sure I don’t know what is to be done if you stay.”
“I really think I must go, Lady Jane.”
“Oh, no!” cried Lady Jane, with the utmost decision. “That’s quite ridiculous, you know, so we needn’t talk about it. The question is, what will happen next? Do you think, perhaps, that if you stop using the lotion, your complexion will—er——”
“Get blotchy again?” asked Ellen, completing the sentence. “It may, I suppose; but I think the thing is quite gone. Will you look at my cheek?”
Lady Jane bent down a little, for she was much the taller, and carefully examined the cheek in question, poking it with one of her heavily gloved fingers.
“No,” she said regretfully, “it’s just like a healthy baby’s. Of course,” she added, with what seemed a happy inspiration, “you could do your hair as you used to again, like a skinned rabbit. And I suppose you could wear your clothes in a bunch; and it’s not necessary for your health for you to stuff out your shoulder. By-the-bye, it’s awfully well done!”
She put out her hands with the evident intention of touching the stuffing; but as there was none, Ellen sprang back, dodging away from her and laughing.
“Oh, please don’t!” she cried.
“What’s the matter?” asked Lady Jane in surprise.
“I’m so dreadfully ticklish about the neck! I really cannot bear to have any one touch me. I should have a fit!”
“How very odd! Were you always like that? But some people are. Never mind, I won’t touch you, my dear. Only, if you were willing just to make those little changes in your appearance—er—it’s a great deal to ask, I suppose, isn’t it?”
“Well—frankly, it is, Lady Jane,” Ellen laughed, in spite of herself.
But she was immensely disturbed by the unexpected difficulty that faced her, and she had a vision of being obliged to run away as the only means of escaping.
“I don’t see what else we can do,” returned Lady Jane. “As for parting with you, it’s out of the question. My girls are different beings since you have had them in hand. If you knew what my life has been, since they were out of the nursery, compared with what it is now, you really wouldn’t have the heart to talk of leaving me, nor the conscience either!”
“I’m very, very glad that you are pleased,” Ellen answered, with an air of meek gratitude, “but I assure you I must——”
“No doubt, but you shan’t, my dear, and there’s an end of it!” Lady Jane was ready to lose her temper, but laughed to hide the fact. “It’s out of the question at this moment,” she continued. “We are all going off to-day, and you must see yourself that the girls cannot be left alone in the house with Lionel! They would set the place on fire, or go to town by themselves and get lost, or do some dreadful thing. Don’t you see?”
“I did not know you were all going away,” said Ellen, somewhat disturbed.
“Yes. We only made up our minds last night, or I would have told you. Jocelyn is going up with the Trevelyans in their balloon to-morrow morning, and my husband and I want to see the start; and Claude is to play for Yorkshire at Lords to-morrow, and when we’ve seen the ascent, the Colonel wants to watch the match, and I mean to chase the balloon in the new motor. I’ve got an electric searchlight, with accumulators, fitted up so that I can see it all night. Rather sporting, that, isn’t it? We may fetch up at John O’Groat’s House, or at Land’s End, you know—so delightfully uncertain—you cannot tell which way the thing will go. But just fancy my anxiety if I knew all the time that those little pickles were riding steeplechases in the park, or motoring across country and breaking their necks. It’s too awful to think of!”
“Quite too dreadful,” assented Ellen. “But you won’t be away long, I suppose? I will stay till you come home, at all events, if you wish it.”
“Wish it? I should think I did! Besides, you must, my dear. So that’s settled, and we’ll be off, for it’s getting late.”
A quarter of an hour later the huge motor was bowling down the Malton road, and King’s Follitt was left to Lionel, Miss Scott, and the two girls, very much to the surprise of all four. For on the previous evening Lionel had gone off to his books soon after dinner, and had finished breakfast with his sisters and the governess before any of the others appeared. Indeed, it was not till luncheon that he knew of their abrupt departure.
At the first opportunity, Ellen told him about the interview in the morning, and added that she meant to disappear as soon as the family returned. That would be the only way open to her.
Lionel was as much surprised as she had been by Lady Jane’s attitude, but it seemed promising for the future. At all events, when the time came for him to declare his intention of marrying Miss Scott, he could remind his mother that she had liked Ellen for her own sake; and as she was a truthful and just woman, she would not deny it. That would be something, at all events: matters would have been far worse if she had hated the governess, as she had hated the former ones, each and all.
“We must be married in June,” Lionel said again, for having once made up his mind he was not likely to change it. “We will spend the summer abroad, and go to India next winter. By that time they will have got used to the idea, and a year hence we can come home.”
“That sounds delightful,” Ellen answered. “I wish we could take my father, for no one knows India as he does. But then, we couldn’t be alone all the time, if he came.”
“I should like to take him,” said Lionel. “Perhaps we could bargain for so many hours a day!”
But they did not take Mr. Herbert Scott of the British Museum to India, or anywhere else; for things turned out very differently. The Fate of the Follitts had been dozing comfortably for some time, but now she suddenly woke up refreshed with sleep, and got into the balloon with Jocelyn and the Trevelyans, and did queer things, which nobody else could have done.
The wind was fresh from the south-west, with rain, and the night was dark. The balloon was driving along at a dangerous rate, considering the low altitude.
“I give it up,” said Bob Trevelyan, who had not spoken for a long time. “We’ve been travelling five hours, and I haven’t the vaguest idea where we are.”
“Does it matter much?” inquired Jocelyn lazily.
For he was comfortable where he was, and hoped that it would go on a long time, since he was pleasantly close to Anne Trevelyan in the bottom of the car. No one who has not been up in a gale can have any idea of the profound quiet which seems to enfold the balloon as it is borne noiselessly along in the arms of the wind, perhaps at thirty or forty miles an hour. If it rains, you hear the drops pattering on the envelope overhead; if you are near the ground at night, the howling of the wind through the unseen trees comes up to you in a rather dismal way; but no matter how hard it blows, there is peace and tranquillity in the car.
Anne Trevelyan and her friend Lady Dorothy Wynne were poring over a map, by the light of an electric lamp which Jocelyn held for them.
“It might matter a little,” Anne said, looking up with a laugh as she spoke; “for the only thing that is quite certain is that we are bound to get to the sea pretty soon. I think I’ll have a look.”
She got up, and all three scrambled to their feet and peered over the edge of the car.
“It really is rather a dirty night,” observed Lady Dorothy, with great calm.
“Distinctly,” said Anne, admitting what could not be denied.
Jocelyn said nothing, for he knew that a woman who is inaccessible to physical fear is much more reckless than any brave and sensible man has a right to be, and he was beginning to wonder what the end would be like, and how many arms and legs, or even necks, would be broken before morning. For it was his first ascent, and though he was not scared he realised that there was danger.
There had been a good deal of delay at the start, and the breeze had been light from the south during most of the afternoon, though the sky had been threatening. The wind had strengthened, however, as it hauled to the south-west, and at dusk it had freshened to a gale. Then the darkness had come on quickly, almost suddenly, as it does even on land, when the sky blackens with heavy clouds just at sunset. It was now quite impossible to distinguish anything on the face of the earth below, but all around the horizon there was a faint belt of grey, which was not light, but was not quite pitch darkness. The ominous moaning of the wind amongst the trees began to make itself heard.
“It’s not wildly gay here,” said Lady Dorothy. “Can’t you manage to get above the clouds?”
Bob pointed to the inky sky overhead. “Those clouds are half a mile thick,” he said quietly. “There you are! We’re in another!”
“How are we off for ballast?” inquired Anne, as the chilly fog filled the car.
“Six bags gone already, and only two left,” Bob answered with grim calm.
“Not really?” cried Dorothy in some dismay.
“Yes. How can you expect any balloon to keep up in this rain? She’s being battered down by it. We are getting lower every minute.”
At that moment the balloon shivered like a live thing, and flapped her loose sides. Bob shovelled some sand overboard.
“We’ll keep the last bag,” he said; “but to-morrow’s breakfast must go. Pass me the bottle of milk—that’s heavy.”
Jocelyn got a big stoneware bottle from the basket by the light of the electric lamp, and gave it to Trevelyan.
“Don’t murder anybody below,” he said.
Bob dropped the thing overboard, and almost immediately a dull thud was heard out of the darkness as it struck the earth. But there was no sound of breaking; they were over a meadow or a ploughed field.
“Give me that pie,” said Bob. “Wasn’t there a magnum of champagne somewhere? It’s got to go too.”
“Hullo! What’s that?” cried Anne joyfully. “I believe it’s the moon, and we’re out of the clouds!”
“By Jove!” ejaculated Jocelyn, who was not easily surprised, and was not at all enthusiastic about the beauties of nature.
The inky cloud had not been so deep as Bob had supposed, and the balloon, responding the instant her ballast was lightened, had struck upwards to the clear outer air; the moon had risen, and was still almost full, and in the far sky, beyond her radiance, the stars twinkled softly as on a summer night.
The four young people almost held their
breath while they were silently borne along in a vision of transcendent beauty. Beneath them, the dark clouds had been whirling in the gale that tore and churned and wrung them with its unseen airy hands; above, there was the peace of heaven itself and the loveliness of earth’s first moonlight on the evening after the first day. The moving mass of cloud below looked suddenly motionless, vast and solid as grey rock, and the huge black shadow of the balloon and the car ran swiftly over it, clear and sharply outlined.
It only lasted a few minutes, for the heavy rain had soaked everything and a descent was inevitable. Soon the wet fog rose and closed overhead again, the moon took strange opalescent colours, and was dimmed and then disappeared, as the balloon sank steadily into the storm.
“If we had only had a fine night, we could have got to Scotland,” said Dorothy Wynne, in a tone of profound regret.
“Don’t you be too sure!” answered Bob. “With this wind it looks more like the North Sea!”
“Then if our ballast had held out we could have got across to Norway,” retorted the young lady, who was not to be daunted by trifles.
But at this moment the car jerked violently, throwing all its four occupants against one side of itself. It turned and rolled and jumped like a skiff in a breaking sea.
“Hang on, girls!” cried Bob Trevelyan. “We’re on our trial rope already!”
The two young women were already hanging on by the rigging for dear life; and Jocelyn was making it especially easy for Anne to hang on. Indeed, she had a sensation which was very like being carried along in his arms—which surprised her, for she knew she was not particularly light in spite of her slim waist. A slender ash sapling can be as heavy as a common pine nearly twice its size.
Presently the jerking was varied by a violent wrench, which laid the car on its side, and almost upset it.
“Bad for that tree-top,” observed Bob, as the balloon sailed away again. “What next, I wonder? Does any one see anything? One ought to, with that moon up there; but it’s as dark as Erebus.”
“It’s the blackest moonlight night I’ve ever known,” laughed Anne.
Possibly she found it more amusing than the other did, and she certainly felt more safe than Lady Dorothy possibly could. Jocelyn was a surprisingly strong young man, and may have exaggerated her danger a little.
“I believe we are over a desert island,” said her friend cheerfully. “I’ve not seen any lights for an age.”
The conversation was interrupted by a tremendous wrench, and the car was wrestling with another tree-top.
“That was a rather thrilling moment!” laughed Anne Trevelyan.
“I tell you what,” said Bob, not laughing at all, “at the first open space we come to, down we go! We’re sinking every minute, and I don’t want to stop her with my nose against the next oak we strike.”
He spoke quietly, but the others understood their danger, and all four peered down over the edge of the car in breathless silence, while the balloon moved on in a series of irregular bounds, as the trail-rope encountered more or less resistance. A faint grey line now became visible ahead, where the belt of trees ended.
“If we clear the trees, I’ll pop the valve,” said Bob quietly. “There must be open ground beyond. Be ready with the anchor, Anne; Jocelyn will help you. It’s a night for the ripping line, and I’ll manage that myself.”
All four clung to the rigging in silence for some moments. Then the report of the suddenly opened valve rang through the air like a muffled gunshot. Two seconds passed, not more, and Bob ripped.
“Look out for the bump, girls!”
The fast sinking car descended, slanting on the wind, till it struck the ground with considerable force and was instantly overturned. The four clung on with all their might, almost where they were, while Trevelyan ripped again; the balloon swayed wildly, darted forward a couple of yards, wrenching the car along after it, and then collapsed like a dying game-cock.
Bob crawled out of the wreck first, and then helped the others, and in the gloom the two young girls silently straightened their hats; for that is the first impulse of feminine humanity after an accident. If a woman could be raised from the dead by radium, which begins to look possible, she would straighten her hat before doing anything else.
“This is all very well, but where are we?” asked Lady Dorothy, as soon as that was done.
“In a meadow,” answered Jocelyn. “Lucky it’s not a ploughed field.”
“What a night!” groaned the young girl.
For they had been dry and comfortable under the vast shelter of the inflated balloon, but they were now almost instantly soaked through and through by the lashing rain, and the two girls staggered as they stood up and faced the raging gale. Again Jocelyn’s arm was very useful to Miss Anne.
“We must make for shelter at once,” her brother said. “After all, we are in England, and we can’t be very far from civilisation. No one will steal the balloon on a night like this.”
“The old thing looks comfortable enough,” observed Jocelyn. “Rather done, though!”
He and Anne followed her brother and Dorothy, who led the way, linking arms and bending their heads to the storm, while they waded through what felt like a field of wet bathing sponges. Against the dim grey light they could see the trees over which they had lately passed, writhing and twisting in the gale.
“If this is a meadow, it’s a pretty big one,” said Anne.
At that moment Bob uttered an exclamation: he and his companion had struck a narrow path covered with fine white gravel that gleamed in the uncertain light.
“We’re in a park!” cried Trevelyan. “What luck! That means a good-sized house, at all events.”
“And a possible dinner,” added Lady Dorothy cheerfully.
But Jocelyn and Anne said nothing, because they were so busy in helping each other to walk. All four tramped steadily along the path for a couple of hundred yards or more, till they brought up short before an insurmountable obstacle that suddenly loomed up out of the dark; it was nothing less than a stone wall, at least fifteen feet high, which evidently enclosed the grounds, and seemed to be topped by a row of murderous-looking split spikes. The path turned aside some twenty feet from it, and seemed to wander away aimlessly towards the trees.
“This is an odd sort of place we’ve dropped into!” said Lady Dorothy; and all four stood in a row and stared at the forbidding wall.
“They evidently don’t encourage trespassers,” observed Trevelyan.
“Only an idiot would waste all that money,” said Jocelyn, who was still hard up, and momentarily looked at everything from the financial point of view.
“I rather wish we were on the other side of it,” Anne said.
“You’ll be left waiting, dear,” answered Lady Dorothy, who adored American slang.
“Follow the path,” Jocelyn advised. “It must lead to the house in the end.”
There was clearly nothing else to be done, and for some minutes no sound was heard but the regular tread of four pairs of strong shoes crunching the fine gravel, and the swish of the driving rain, and the howling of the wind in the trees not far off. They could still see the wall stretching away into the gloom.
Suddenly, there were lights in the distance, and a big house loomed against the stormy sky; an ugly, square, uninviting house, as they saw in a few minutes, for the sight had revived their spirits, and they walked faster. Before long they struck the drive, towards which the path led, and across the gravelled space to the front door. Trevelyan rang, and the others huddled round him on the steps, to get shelter from the rain.
A footman in a quiet brown livery opened in a few moments, and they did not notice that he seemed exceedingly surprised when he saw them; indeed, his astonishment was altogether out of proportion to the circumstances, for his jaw dropped, and he gasped audibly. All the four were dazzled by the blaze of light from the vestibule, after having been so long out of doors in the dark, and did not notice the man’s manner. Trevelyan at once explained what brought them; and as soon as the footman understood, he let them in, shut and locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and went off, muttering something about the master of the house.
A few moments later the latter appeared in person, in evening dress, and carrying his napkin in his hand, having evidently left his dinner in the utmost haste. Though tired and half stupefied by the storm, the four aëronauts were strongly impressed by his personality. He was by no means an ill-looking man, yet there was something extraordinary and almost terrifying in his appearance. He was tall, lean, strongly made, and of a dark complexion, with smooth iron-grey hair; his jaw was broad and square, his lips thin and determined. One sees many such men in England, but not with eyes like his. They were round, but deep-set, and they were at once luminous and hard, like those of the nobler birds of prey. I know a tamer of wild beasts who has just such eyes as those; one would almost say that he could not shut the lids if he tried, even for sleep, and it is easy to
understand why the big tigers slink down and crouch under them, watching him cautiously, as if his look would kill.
Trevelyan spoke first. “We are awfully sorry to intrude on your privacy in this way,” he said, remembering the spiked wall of the park, and reflecting that it looked as forbidding as its owner. “We are balloonists, and were caught in the storm, and had to come down where we could, for fear of being blown out to sea—and it happened to be in your grounds. Is the sea far off?”
“A quarter of a mile,” answered the master of the house, in a deep, quiet voice, much as a tamer speaks to his lions.
Anne and Dorothy exchanged glances.
“Then, considering what a narrow escape we’ve had,” Trevelyan continued, “I hope you won’t mind our having trespassed.”
At the last word a smile dawned on the grim face of the master of the house. “I fancy you are the first people who have ever succeeded in trespassing here,” he said.
“I should think so!” cried Lady Dorothy. “We saw your wall.”
They were beginning to think it strange that they were not asked to come in, and Trevelyan was a trifle impatient. “Should you mind very much if we came in and dried ourselves a bit?” he asked. “The ladies are soaking.”
“And I am very sorry to bother you,” added Dorothy, “but really we are starving. We had to throw all our eatables overboard as ballast, you see.”
The master of the house did not answer at once, and seemed absorbed in his reflections. He thoughtfully stroked his long upper lip. “By all means,” he said at last, very slowly. “Of course! Come in, and make yourselves as comfortable as you can.”
The vestibule in which this conversation had taken place opened upon a hall of moderate size and plainly furnished, where a coal fire was burning brightly. The host drew aside to let them pass in, and they began to warm themselves. He looked up, apparently in some inexplicable perplexity.
“Where have you come from?” he asked.
“From London,” Trevelyan answered. “Is there any way of going back to-night? By-the-bye, where are we?”
“You’re in Yorkshire, and the nearest station is Hamley, six miles from here.”
“By Jove!” ejaculated Jocelyn, on learning that he was not forty miles from King’s Follitt. “What’s the last train to York?”
“Eight thirty-seven,” answered the host, and he looked at his watch. “It’s almost that now. No train before to-morrow morning, I’m sorry to say. You’re nearly five miles from any other house, too.”
Then Lady Dorothy Wynne, who had a sweet low voice, turned it to its most persuasive tone. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, “but I’m afraid we shall have to trespass on your kindness still further, and ask shelter for the night.”
Again the master of the house stroked his upper lip with a thoughtful expression before answering. His reluctance to offer any hospitality to the dripping party was quite apparent, and he looked at the waiting footman, who looked at him.
From far away the sound of voices, talking and laughing, reached the hall in the silence that followed Dorothy’s speech. Clearly there was a large party at dinner.
“By all means! Of course!” The host used the very words he had used before. “I can certainly put you up, though I’ve rather a large party in the house. Never mind; there is always room for more. John, call Mrs. Williams.”
During the footman’s absence Trevelyan thought it was at last time to introduce the party. “My name is Trevelyan,” he said. “This is Lady Dorothy Wynne, and this is my sister.”
“My name is Follitt,” said Jocelyn, speaking for himself.
The man’s peculiar eyes turned from one face to the other as he heard the names, and nodded slightly. A tamer might inspect a new set of wild beasts with much the same look while making up his mind how to treat each. “My name is Steele,” he answered. “I hope you will soon be none the worse for your wetting.”
The arrival of Mrs. Williams at this juncture rendered an answer unnecessary. She looked half a governess and half a housekeeper; she was a quiet, superior sort of person, with a stiff starched collar and gold-rimmed eye-glasses, and she wore a black silk dress, with a large bunch of keys at her side.
Mr. Steele spoke to her very slowly and distinctly. “These ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “have descended in the grounds with their balloon. There is no train to-night, as you know, and there is no other place to which they can go, so they must tarry here till to-morrow morning. There are still some empty bedrooms, I think?”
“Three, sir. There are Five, Six, and Seven in the new wing unoccupied.”
Mr. Steele nodded, and looked at Mrs. Williams, and then at the footman. Trevelyan was sure that they exchanged a glance of intelligence.
“You may find my house-party rather mixed,” said the host, almost with geniality, now that he had at last made up his mind. “The fact is, I have a sort of gathering of relations and distant connections. I like to see many people about me, of all ages. You won’t mind dining with us? We had just sat down when you came, so that there is plenty of time. I daresay you will be glad to go to bed directly afterwards. You must be very tired, I’m sure.”
He said a few words to Mrs. Williams in an undertone, leading the way with her to the stairs, and she answered by a quick succession of nods. The others followed, and went up after her, while Mr. Steele went back to his guests.
The bedrooms to which the housekeeper showed the party lacked individuality, and though they were thoroughly comfortable, there was not the least attempt at luxury, or even good taste. The furniture was new, but very plain, and the chintz was fresh, but utterly uninteresting, if not quite hideous. A few cheap prints hung on the walls.
“I’m sure there’s no lady of the house,” said Anne to Dorothy, and she proceeded to extract information from the housekeeper.
Mr. Steele was not married. He had no near relations—at least, not in the house; but he liked to be surrounded by many people, and the place was generally full. Mrs. Williams would say no more, or possibly there was nothing more to be said; but she did her best to make the newcomers comfortable, and produced dry skirts and shoes for the ladies.
A few minutes later they were all ushered into the dining-room, where at least five-and-twenty men were seated at a big table. All turned their heads and looked curiously at the newly-arrived guests.
Mr. Steele rose to meet the latter as they entered. There were four vacant places on his left.
“Will you and Miss Trevelyan sit together by me,” he said, speaking to Lady Dorothy, “and the two gentlemen beyond?”
The arrangement seemed a singular one; but the four took their seats, and as Jocelyn slipped in next to Anne, her brother was the only one who found himself beside a stranger.
He glanced at his neighbour, who was a mild-eyed, benevolent old gentleman, whose smooth grey hair was neatly parted and brushed over his ears. He wore a single stud with a large carbuncle set in it, and he had black silk mittens on his bony little hands. He returned Trevelyan’s glance pleasantly, and then went on eating his fish with a faint smile.
Mr. Steele began to talk with Lady Dorothy, and though his voice was not loud, it seemed to dominate the conversation as far as she was concerned, so that she heard no one else.
“May I ask if Mr. and Miss Trevelyan are connected with the Dorsetshire family of that name?” he inquired, after a few preliminary phrases.
“They are the Dorsetshire Trevelyans themselves,” answered Lady Dorothy. “He is the eldest son.”
“Oh, indeed—indeed,” repeated Mr. Steele, thoughtfully. “Thank you,” he added quietly; “it was mere curiosity. Do you go in for any sport besides ballooning? Golf, for instance? We have excellent links here, and we play a good deal.” He spoke louder, and looked down the table. “Mr. Weede over there is one of our crack players.”
At this remark a pale young clergyman in spectacles, who sat at the other end of the table, looked up with a deprecatory smile.
“You will make me vain of my poor accomplishment, if you say such things,” he said humbly. “Remember the Preacher, Mr. Steele: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is not vanity that glitters!’”
Lady Dorothy laughed kindly in an encouraging way, because he seemed so humble. But every one at once began to talk of golf, almost excitedly.
“My friends are almost all very fond of out-of-door games,” said Mr. Steele to Lady Dorothy, as if in explanation.
“Do you mind telling me who that good-looking man is?” she asked. “The third from the other end on the left? The one with the grey moustache and a tired face, who looks like an old soldier.”
“Trevelyan is his name, and he is an old army man. But do tell me something about your trip,” Mr. Steele went on quickly: “you must have had a terrible time of it in such a storm.”
“It wasn’t very successful,” the young girl answered carelessly; “but we get used to all sorts of weather in balloons, you know. The last time I was up, we came down rather suddenly in a cricket field where there was a match going on. I remember that I got some most extraordinary bruises! I can’t help looking at that man—Mr. Trevelyan, you say he is. I see why you asked about my friend here—they may be connections. Where does this one belong?”
“He’s a Lincolnshire man,” answered the host briefly, and as if he did not care about him.
“Oh, the ‘mad’ Trevelyans, we call them! Then he is really a connection of my friend. Their grandfathers were cousins, I believe. What is this one’s first name?”
“Randolph, I believe. I’ve never made an ascent in a balloon. I should really like to know whether it’s a new sensation worth trying. Do you mind telling me how it struck you, the first time you rose above a cloud?”
“Cosy,” Lady Dorothy answered without hesitation—“distinctly cosy! There’s never any tiresome wind in a balloon, you know, as there is on a yacht, to blow you about. It goes along with you, and it’s so amusing to travel very fast and yet not feel that you are moving at all. And there’s always some excitement when you come down, for it’s never twice alike, and of course bones are only bones after all, and you always may break one or two. I suppose that’s where the sport comes in.”
At this moment a distant peal of thunder was heard above the general conversation. Lady Dorothy looked at her host, as if expecting him to say something in answer to her explanations; but his expression had changed, and he seemed suddenly preoccupied.
“I’m glad we’re not in the balloon now,” she said. “The gale is going to end in a regular thunderstorm!”
Mr. Steele was speaking to the butler in a low voice. “Have those curtains drawn closer,” Lady Dorothy heard him say, “and be quick as you can with the rest of the dinner!”
It was clear that either he, or some of his guests, were nervous about thunder and lightning. A second peal, much nearer than the first, made the windows rattle. The conversation, which had already dropped to a lower key, now ceased altogether, and a sort of embarrassed silence followed, while most of the diners glanced nervously round the room and towards the tall windows. Mr. Steele looked as if he were bracing himself to meet an unexpected danger; his brows were knitted, his stern mouth was tightly shut, and he was evidently scanning the faces of his guests with anxiety.
“Do you often have bad thunderstorms here?” Lady Dorothy asked, to attract his attention and break the silence.
“Seldom,” he answered abstractedly, and not looking at her. “Most of my guests dislike them very much.”
“How very odd!”
She glanced down the table, and saw the nice-looking Mr. Trevelyan leaning far back in his chair, his eyes half closed and his face very white.
Mr. Steele made an attempt to revive the conversation, talking in loud tones to the whole table about a lawn tennis tournament, for which he said there would be a number of pretty prizes.
Bob Trevelyan was eating steadily, and took no interest in what was going on. Suddenly he felt that the benevolent old gentleman was plucking at his sleeve very quietly. He turned, and saw that his neighbour was earnestly gazing at him. At that moment a third peal rang out, and the glasses on the table trembled.
“Did he tell you who I am?” asked the old gentleman in an undertone, and bending his head towards the master of the house.
“I beg your pardon: no—I don’t think I was introduced,” Bob answered.
“He would have told you that I am Mr. Simpson; and so I was,” said the grey-haired man. “But that,” he added in low and tragic tones, “was by another mother. I am the Dowager Empress of China, and I am here incognito, disguised as a man.”
“What in the world do you mean?” asked Trevelyan, very much taken aback.
“It is a sad story, and a long one.” The old gentleman shook his head mysteriously. “They thought I took too active a part in politics. Possibly I did, but at the time of the Boxer riots many outrageous doings were unjustly traced to me. I give you my solemn assurance, on the word of an empress, that I did not order the attack on the Legations! Do you believe me, or not?”
He gazed at Bob with fixed eyes, but Trevelyan could only stare back in blank surprise.
“They brought me here in tea chests,” he continued earnestly, “disguised as a Chinese idol. It was a terrible humiliation. The Empress-mother in Pekin, who gives audiences, is a painted doll with a gramophone inside her, which quite accounts for her remarkably accurate memory.”
Mr. Steele overheard this singular statement. “Really, Mr. Simpson,” he said in stern tones, “I must beg you not to poke fun at Mr. Trevelyan.”
“Trevelyan!” cried the nice-looking man at the other end, bending forward in his chair to see Bob’s face. “Did you say Trevelyan?”
“Yes,” Bob answered, also leaning forward—“that’s my name. Why?”
“It’s mine too,” answered the other excitedly. “Are you Dorset or Lincolnshire?”
“Dorsetshire,” Bob answered promptly.
Every one was listening now, and Mr. Steele seemed very anxious, to judge by his face.
“If you were a Lincolnshire Trevelyan I’d break your neck directly after dinner,” observed the nice-looking man, and he suddenly grew calm again, and seemed to take no further interest in Bob.
The latter began to understand; and when the Empress of China suddenly dissolved in tears and repeated that hers was a very, very sad story, he had no doubts left as to where he and his friends were.
At this point the Rev. Mr. Weede pointed a thin finger at Lady Dorothy, and addressed the company in pulpit tones. “Providence,” he said, “in its inscrutable wisdom, has been pleased to afflict our dear sister with the delusion that she entered these consecrated precincts in a balloon. The prayers of the congregation are requested for—”
“Mr. Weede,” cried Mr. Steele in ringing tones, “I must insist that you do not indulge in jests unworthy of a gentleman and not befitting your cloth!”
The young golfing clergyman smiled blandly, quite unabashed, and answered in a single syllable, sharp and clear—“Fore!”
At this wholly unexpected and irrelevant retort, Anne Trevelyan broke into a laugh.
“One to the parson!” observed Jocelyn in an undertone.
Things might have ended then, but at this moment an old gentleman with a very beautiful white beard and smooth snowy hair began to sing to himself a music-hall song of forty years ago in a thin and quavering tenor voice:
All among the little stars, sailing round the moon!”
“Silence!” roared Mr. Steele from the head of the table.
The old gentleman broke down under the rebuke, and began to weep piteously.
“I know my voice isn’t what it was,” he whined, between his sobs—“when I used to sing the late Mr. Gladstone to sleep, after his great speeches—‘Lullaby baby, on the tree-top.’”
He began to sing again, through his tears.
Mr. Steele struck the table with his fist.
“Stop that immediately!” he shouted. “Lady Dorothy—Miss Trevelyan,” he continued, in the silence that followed, “I don’t know what you must think! The thunderstorm is to blame——”
At that moment the howling squall broke open the window at the other end of the room, and a clap of thunder followed instantly. The shaded candles on the table were almost all out, and only a few electric lights illuminated the scene of indescribable panic and confusion that followed a second later.
“Fire! Fire! Save the child!” yelled old Randolph Trevelyan above the noise.
Chairs were overturned, shrieks of laughter and wailing sobs filled the air, men rushed wildly hither and thither, falling over each other and rolling on the floor; the dismal, long-drawn howl of a famished wolf pierced the babel of sounds, and a heavy man, running round the room on all fours, stumbled against Lady Dorothy’s feet, and lay there in a heap, suddenly silent. But still above all the rest rang Randolph Trevelyan’s despairing yells: “Save the child! Save the child! I’ll give you ten thousand pounds if you can save the child!”
Bob Trevelyan had Lady Dorothy fast by the wrist. Jocelyn held Anne Trevelyan by the waist close against him, and she did not feel at all frightened; but it is true that she was naturally courageous.
“I believe we’re in a mad-house!” cried Lady Dorothy; but only Bob heard her through the noise, and she laughed rather nervously.
“Come along!” Trevelyan called out to Jocelyn.
They made for the nearest door at once. Mr. Steele had picked up the young man who thought he was a wolf, and was holding him firmly. The numerous servants, who were trained men, were already leading the most noisy of the party towards another door. Old Trevelyan’s wild yells rent the air as he was carried off: “The child! The child!”
None of the four aëronauts ever forgot the cry, repeated in heart-rending tones, almost without a break. They heard it after they had left the dining-room, but when they had got to the foot of the staircase it ceased suddenly.
They reached their rooms, high up in the new wing. Each of the young girls had one to herself, and the two men were to sleep in the third. But in their haste they all four rushed into the last; Bob turned up the electric light and Jocelyn locked the door.
“A lunatic asylum!” laughed Anne. “Of all places to come down in! You told me it was,” she added, speaking to Jocelyn, “but it seemed so absurd that I couldn’t believe it.”
“And our cousin Randolph is the showpiece, poor chap,” said Bob.
Lady Dorothy and Jocelyn looked at him, expecting more.
“What happened to his child?” asked Dorothy.
“I was going to ask the same question,” said Jocelyn.
“It was burnt to death. It’s rather an awful story, and I don’t wonder he went mad. I believe he had only been married two or three years when it happened. He was in the Carabineers, I believe; at all events they went to India as soon as they were married, and it was while they were there that his father died and he came into the estate. But he did not mean to leave the service, and he sent his wife to England with the little baby, six months before the regiment was ordered home. Half an hour before he got to his place, when he came home himself, the house took fire, and his wife and child were burnt to death. He went mad then and there, and there was nothing to be done but to lock him up.”
“How awful!” exclaimed Dorothy. “I shall never forget his voice.”
The four were silent, and as nothing happened Jocelyn unlocked the door and opened it a little. In the distance sounds of footsteps could still be heard in the passages, and the opening and shutting of a door now and then, and voices from different directions, but that was all. The patients who occupied the nearest rooms were either already locked in, or were of a quieter sort and had been allowed to stay downstairs.
Jocelyn was just going to shut the door again, when Mrs. Williams appeared. He admitted her, and she looked round quietly before speaking.
“Of course, you must have understood where you are,” she said gravely. “This is a private asylum—Dr. Steele’s Sanatorium. The patients who are considered harmless play games and dine together, and the Doctor takes none who are already violent or have shown homicidal or suicidal tendencies. It is a very exclusive establishment, especially for gentlemen of position and means. I may say that I was housekeeper at the late Duke of Barchester’s before I came here. The Doctor wishes me to say how sorry he is that there was trouble just this evening. Lunatics don’t mind anything so much as a thunderstorm, and thunder and lightning just drive them out of their poor senses, such as they are, which isn’t much to boast of. There’s that poor Mr. Weede, for instance, such a quiet gentleman, and a Christian soul if ever there was one. They never knew he was at all queer till one day, while he was preaching, he just stopped a minute and called out ‘Fore!’ as the gentlemen do when they play; and then he went on preaching about golf being the only salvation for sinners’ souls, till the congregation all ran out and the sexton and policeman got him into a cab, still preaching.”
“Something like a sermon, that,” observed Jocelyn stolidly.
“Yes, sir,” answered Mrs. Williams gravely; “they say he was at it for more than half an hour, and hadn’t half finished when they took him away. But I came to say,” she went on, speaking to Bob Trevelyan, “that the Doctor would like to speak to you alone, sir, if you don’t mind. He will come to your room, or see you in his study, as you prefer, but he is very anxious to see you.”
“It must be about cousin Randolph,” Bob said, glancing at his sister. “I’ll go to the Doctor’s study, Mrs. Williams, if you’ll show me the way.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll be back directly,” she added, “to see that the ladies have everything quite comfortable for the night.”
Trevelyan followed the housekeeper through many passages and down a good many stairs, till she brought him to the door of Dr. Steele’s study and knocked, and then opened the door for him to go in.
The Doctor was standing before the fire; when he saw Bob he came forward and moved a comfortable chair into position while he spoke.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” he said, “but I am so placed that I think it is my duty to ask your advice in a very important matter.”
Trevelyan smiled pleasantly, and sat down.
“If it’s my advice you want, I warn you that I’m not thought clever,” he said. “Unless it’s about balloons.”
Dr. Steele’s face was very grave, and he paid no attention to what Bob said.
“I understood at dinner that you were a distant cousin of Sir Randolph Trevelyan’s,” he said. “I am sorry to say that he is just dead.”
“Dead! How awfully sudden!”
The poor man’s despairing cry still rang in Bob’s ears.
“He had an aneurism of the heart,” Dr. Steele explained, “and this last attack killed him. He fell dead as he reached the door of his room. I have two good physicians in residence here, and they came at once. He was quite dead.”
“I’m exceedingly sorry to hear it,” Bob said gravely; “but I don’t quite see how I can be of use. I’m not his heir. There are several of the Lincolnshire people alive.”
“Precisely. But do you know his story?”
“Of course. His wife and child were burnt to death, and he went mad.”
“That is not the point,” answered Dr. Steele. “They found the mother’s body, or what was left of it, but they found no trace of the child.”
“Poor little thing! It was probably burnt to ashes. There was nothing to find!”
“I’m not sure. There is a possibility that it may have been kidnapped, for you may remember that the house was found to have been set on fire by thieves, who got away with a large quantity of valuables in the confusion, and afterwards wrote to the family, offering to produce the child for a ransom of five thousand pounds. Sir Randolph had been in India and had not seen the baby for many months, and he was already in an asylum, and much worse than when you saw him this evening, before the thunderstorm. Babies a year old are very much alike, he could not have recognised his daughter, a large estate was involved, and a lunatic’s evidence is worth nothing, of course. The relations declared that none of them had ever seen the infant, and as a recognition was out of the question, their counsel advised them to pay no attention to the blackmailers. Thieves would be quite capable of producing a child as the heir, and of keeping some hold on it, in order to extract more blackmail when it grew up. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly. I’m inclined to think that the heirs did right, though it was to their own future advantage.”
“No doubt. But within the last few weeks the situation has changed. I am morally persuaded that Sir Randolph’s daughter is alive and well, and that at the present moment, since her father is dead, she is the sole heir to the great Lincolnshire estate.”
“By Jove!” cried Bob. “That’s interesting. Of course I’ll help her to get her own in any way I can! Where is she? And how are you sure she’s the right baby?”
“It’s just a common criminal story. The baby had a nurse, of course, and she was no better than she should be. The leader of the gang that burnt and robbed the house had begun operations by establishing himself in the village as a travelling photographer with a van. He had a proper license for the van, and took very good photographs, and he got permission from Lady Trevelyan to make a series of views of the park and the house. By way of strengthening his position he made love to the nurse, and she became his accomplice, and shared the profits afterwards. But she was soft-hearted about children, and insisted that the baby should not run any risk. She handed it over to the photographer-burglar just before the house was set on fire. That’s the story.”
“How do you know it’s true?”
“Simple enough. Being a born criminal, she afterwards committed other crimes, and was at last caught and sent to penal servitude. And now she is dying of cancer, and has ‘experienced religion,’ as those people call it, and has confessed the whole story to the chaplain, who has written about it to me. For she had always kept track of Sir Randolph, and knew that he had been brought here some years ago.”
“But what proof is there that she is telling the truth?”
“This. Before she parted with the baby, she broke a sixpence in two, sewed half of it into the baby’s clothes and kept the other half.”
“But the clothes must have disappeared long ago!”
“No: they didn’t. When the thieves found that they could not get any ransom, they left the baby on the doorstep of an old bachelor in Kensington, who took care of it and ultimately adopted it. I suppose he is a sentimental person, for he kept the clothes in which he found the child, and, what is more, he has now discovered the half-sixpence sewn up in the little frock, just where the dying woman says it was.”
“Jolly good luck for the girl! Where is she?”
“She goes by the name of Ellen Scott, and is governess in Colonel Follitt’s family here in Yorkshire.”
“Miss Scott! Why, I saw her at King’s
Follitt a month ago! And young Follitt, who is with us, is one of the Colonel’s younger sons. He can tell you all about her.”
“It’s a singular coincidence, to say the least,” answered Dr. Steele, “but I know more about Miss Scott at present than she knows herself. In communicating with her adoptive father I have begged him not to let her know anything till all is quite certain; but it will be impossible to conceal the facts from her any longer, since Sir Randolph is dead. The relations, who believe themselves the heirs, must be informed that his daughter has been found and will claim the estate. They must know that as soon as they know of his death, and I cannot put off writing to them.”
“What can I do?” inquired Bob.
“Do you know any of your Lincolnshire relations?”
“Yes, I fancy I know most of them. They’ll show fight, you may be sure.”
“Perhaps, if you explained the case to them, and showed them these copies of the more important documents, they would change their minds. Sir Randolph’s solicitors have been very active. We have the sworn evidence of the woman, who is still alive, and of Mr. Herbert Scott as to the date when the infant was left on his doorstep, and he has produced the baby’s frock, with the half-sixpence sewn up in the hem, and the woman has sworn to that also. Besides, the handwriting of the letters written to the family after the fire, offering to give up the child for a ransom, has been declared by experts to be that of the travelling photographer, of whose writing several specimens have been found in the village, on the backs of photographs he sold. There is also evidence that he disappeared on the night of the fire, leaving his van and all his belongings. In fact, everything was ready, and Sir Randolph’s solicitors were about to begin proceedings to establish Miss Ellen Scott’s identity as Diana Trevelyan.”
“Nice name,” observed Bob.
“Very. Are you inclined, as a member of the family, to run over to Lincolnshire and lay the case before your cousins? If they can be persuaded to give up their claim without a suit, a vast amount of money will be saved—and it can only end in one way, I can assure you. There’s not a link missing.”
“All right,” answered Trevelyan. “Who are poor Randolph’s solicitors? I shall have to know the name and address.”
Dr. Steele handed him the neat package of copies that lay tied up on the desk. The lawyer’s name was stamped on the outside of the first paper.
“I suppose I had better say nothing to my sister and our friends?” said Bob in a tone of interrogation.
“I think not. Miss Scott should be informed by the solicitors.”
“She’ll have a surprise,” observed Bob, thinking of the blotched face and red nose of the pimping governess he had seen at King’s Follitt. “I’ll just tell my party that you wanted to inform me of poor Randolph’s death.”
“Precisely. That will explain our interview.”
So that was the end of the ballooning adventure. After thanking Dr. Steele very warmly for his hospitality the party left on the following morning, the balloon having been duly packed and carted to the station and put on the London train.
It will be clear to the most simple-minded reader that the descent of the party in the grounds of the asylum was not the grand incident which really led to the identification of Miss Scott by establishing the long-sought link in the evidence. That would have been thrilling, of course; but such things do not happen in real life, and when they do people do not believe they do. The simple result of the coincidence was that Bob Trevelyan took the affair in hand, and managed it so that it; was all settled very quickly and out of court, which saved ever so much time and money, to the great disappointment of several solicitors.
Lady Jane Follitt had last seen the balloon driving through rain-clouds at dusk, somewhere between Peterborough and York. It had not been nearly such good sport as she had anticipated, for the breeze had been light during the early part of the afternoon, and she had been obliged to go slowly in order not to outrun the aëronauts, and when they had begun to travel faster it had grown dark, and she could not see them even with her searchlight! She made up her mind that there was nothing in ballooning after all, and she was wet and tired when she got back to London late at night, and found Claude and her husband waiting for her. The Colonel talked of going down to King’s Follitt the next day.
“And leave me here to do my shopping alone?” said Lady Jane indignantly. “Not much! We’ll go down in the motor on Thursday, if you don’t mind.”
She had almost always done her shopping alone, but that did not matter. When she said “if you don’t mind” in that tone, the mild Colonel knew his place and did his duty.
Claude’s match was not over yet, and he must stay in town another day; Jocelyn was with the Trevelyans, and was hardly likely to get home for twenty-four hours or more; but the Colonel was at leisure, and could not be allowed to go home alone in order to make love to Miss Scott. Lady Jane had never felt any anxiety about Lionel, because he knew the governess’s father, and had been just as kind to her when she was hideous.
So he and Ellen had another day to themselves, and though she hardly let the girls go out of her sight, the two had plenty of opportunity of talking together. The result of their confabulations was that Ellen was to do her best to get away from King’s Follitt with Lady Jane’s consent, but that if she did not succeed within a fortnight Lionel should tell his mother that he intended to marry the girl, and if there was a terrible fuss, then it could not be helped, that was all. Ellen, on mature consideration, made up her mind that it would be cowardly to run away, but that she would leave after the inevitable interview with the infuriated Lady Jane.
That was what they both thought best, after long consideration, and they made up their minds to do it.
Herbert Scott was determined that his adopted child should not suffer a bitter disappointment after her expectations had been raised to the highest pitch, and he accordingly took care that no hint of what was coming should reach her, till all was settled beyond any possibility of failure—at least, if that could be managed. His sense of humour, too, was delighted by the prospect of the surprise which the change in her prospects would produce in the Follitt household, accompanied as it would be by the announcement of her long-standing engagement to Lionel. But after all, the excellent Mr. Scott himself could not quite believe that a noble estate and a good old name had been the rightful dowry of the poor little doorstep baby he had taken in so long ago. His only fear for the future had been lest her own father should become sane again, as suddenly as he had gone mad, and claim his daughter; and when Dr. Steele wrote him that old Trevelyan was dead, Herbert Scott made incomprehensible observations aloud to himself in several oriental dialects, not one of them expressive of regret.
Things did not turn out exactly as he expected. Lady Jane and the Colonel came home in due time, when the shopping in London was done. Claude returned in a very good humour from the cricket-match, for Yorkshire had won and he himself had brought up his average; but he went off almost immediately to ride the promised steeplechase. Jocelyn came back one morning, rather silent and uncommunicative, to claim the fifty pounds he had won of Lionel, and immediately departed again, saying that he would write. He said something about having been in a madhouse, which the others took for chaff.
Therefore, when the crisis came the two younger sons were not at home, and it happened in this way: the Colonel lost his head, Lady Jane lost her temper, Lionel lost his patience, and Miss Scott lost her position as governess.
There was no doubt about Colonel Follitt’s admiration for the once Undesirable One. He talked to her at table, he brought her books from the library, he accidentally found himself in the way when she passed; and one day he announced his intention of going for a walk with her and his two daughters, as Lionel had done several times.
“That you shall not do!” said Lady Jane with severity.
“Why not, my dear?” asked her mild husband.
“It’s not decent,” answered Lady Jane with disgust. “I won’t have it!”
“Really!” cried the Colonel, with polite surprise. “If a man cannot walk out with his own daughters——”
“Not with Miss Scott. Thank goodness, I still have some authority! The idea of such a thing! Besides, it’s growing on you. When vice doesn’t disappear it always grows worse with old age.”
“Old age, indeed!” The Colonel was mildly indignant.
“Now, that Miss Kirk,” Lady Jane exclaimed, not heeding him, “at least she was pretty. No one ever denied that, I suppose. Well, that was some excuse; but it’s positively disgusting to see a man of sixty——”
“Fifty-five,” interrupted the Colonel.
“—of nearly fifty-six devoting himself to a miserable, dowdy little rat of a London governess, who came here with a blotchy face and a hump on one shoulder, and her hair drawn back like a skinned rabbit’s!”
“Dear me!” exclaimed the Colonel, with exasperating mildness.
“And besides,” Lady Jane concluded, sticking up her aristocratic nose in wrath, “she’s distinctly plebeian!”
“I’m sorry, mother, but you’re quite mistaken,” said Lionel, looking up from his paper, and bending his brows. “She talks just as we do, and nobody could possibly tell that she didn’t belong to our set.”
Lady Jane stared at her eldest son in surprise. They were all three in the mess-room after luncheon. “My dear Lionel,” she retorted, with pitying scorn, “if you don’t know a lady when you see one, I really can’t teach you the difference, can I?”
“Miss Scott is a lady in every way,” Lionel answered, with a good deal of emphasis, and fixing his eyes on his mother’s in an odd way.
“Good heaven!” cried Lady Jane. “I believe you’re another of her victims!”
“I am going to marry Miss Scott in June,” Lionel said, rising suddenly, and looking down at her and his father—for he was very tall.
“What?” cried Lady Jane, her jaw dropping.
“What?” cried the Colonel, no longer mild.
And the walls of the mess-room echoed “what” in the name of the absent members of the family.
“Are you quite mad?” asked Lady Jane, breathless in her amazed surprise.
“Impudent puppy!” the Colonel cried, getting red in the face. “My dear, the girl must leave the house this instant!”
“I’ll send for her and tell her so at once!”
“It’s not of the least use to get so excited,” said Lionel, calmly sitting down and taking up his paper again. “We shall be married in June, and there’s nothing more to be said.”
Thereupon he appeared to go on reading, without paying any more attention to his father and mother.
“This is monstrous!” Lady Jane was beside herself. “Lionel!” She came and stood beside his chair. “You’re not in earnest! This is some silly attempt at a joke!”
“Drop it, my boy!” cried the Colonel, taking the cue from his wife.
“I’m not joking.” Lionel looked up quietly. “You’ll be very fond of her some day, when you get over the idea that she’s been governess to the girls. Really, there’s nothing to be said. I made up my mind long ago; and as the estate is entailed you can’t even cut me off with a shilling! Happily, you are quite powerless, for we can live very comfortably on my five hundred a year.”
Lady Jane glared, and the Colonel put on that singularly disagreeable expression which has come into use amongst Englishmen since they gave up swearing as a means of showing what they are thinking about. It is a particularly unpleasant look, and bodes evil when it appears.
“Miss Scott will go at once, of course,” Lionel added, as they said nothing. “I only ask you not to be rude to her.”
“As if one could be rude to a governess!” cried Lady Jane, stalking off with her head in the air and going out.
“All that Sanskrit stuff has gone to your head, my boy,” said the Colonel, following her.
Lady Jane went to her morning room and rang the bell. Her hand trembled a little. “Ask Miss Scott to come to me before going out with the young ladies,” she said to the footman.
Ellen lost no time in answering the summons, and appeared dressed for walking, and wearing a plain grey felt hat, which happened to be very becoming. As soon as she entered, she saw that Lady Jane was in a rage, and guessed that it concerned her.
“My son has just given me to understand that he has—er—agreed to marry you. What have you to say to this amazing statement?”
Miss Scott looked much taller than usual, and held her head quite as high as Lady Jane herself; but she answered very quietly, and almost gently. “Yes,” she said, “it’s quite true. That’s all I have to say.”
“And you have the assurance to tell me so to my face?” cried Lady Jane.
“Oh, yes, since it’s true,” answered the young girl sweetly.
“It’s not to be believed!”
Lady Jane’s face was as hard as a portrait done in enamel; her eyes glittered like pale sapphires, and she began to walk up and down the room, looking straight in front of her.
“I’m afraid you must believe it, unless your son changes his mind,” said Miss Scott with great gentleness.
“Oh, he shall change his mind! Never fear! A governess! There are laws to prevent such things—I’m sure there are!”
“And a foundling, too,” said Ellen, more sweetly than ever. “I’m sure you will think that makes it much worse,” she added, as Lady Jane stopped suddenly in her walk and glared at her. “Yes, I was left on Mr. Scott’s doorstep early one morning when I was a baby, and he adopted me and gave me his name, and called me Ellen. It’s rather dreadful, isn’t it?”
“Dreadful! It’s vile, the way you have played on his feelings in secret and led him to this! But, thank Heaven, he is my son. He must have some sense, somewhere!”
“He has a great deal,” said Miss Scott, unmoved. “I’m sure of it.”
“If anything could make matters worse, it is your brazen assurance,” cried Lady Jane, beside herself. “There is no reason why I should put up with it another moment, and I shall expect you to leave the house in an hour. Do you understand?”
“I was going to ask your leave to do so,” answered Ellen; “for the truth is, I have some very urgent business in town, and my solicitors have written begging me to come at once.”
Lady Jane’s face assumed an expression of blank astonishment. “Your solicitors! What nonsense is this?”
“In view of the fact that Lionel has told you about our engagement, it may have some importance—even in your eyes.”
There was something so extraordinarily calm about the young person’s manner, that Lady Jane began to take another view of the matter. “I believe you must be an escaped lunatic,” she said with deliberation, and fixing her cold eyes on the governess’s pretty face.
But nothing happened; she did not shrink and cower under the glance, as Lady Jane supposed that an escaped lunatic would, on being found out.
“Perhaps you would like to see the last letter I have received?” said Miss Scott.
Lady Jane hesitated, for it seemed beneath her dignity to prolong the interview. She would have turned her back on the governess if she had not been made really curious by her calm and dignified manner, and by her allusion to “solicitors.” Just then, too, it occurred to the injured matron that the girl might have committed some offence for which she was to be tried, and that the “solicitors” were those whom her adopted father had engaged for the defence. This was ingenious, if it was nothing else. Lady Jane, who was both very angry and at the same time very curious, suddenly contracted her eyelids, as if she were short-sighted, and held her head higher than ever. “I am willing to look at the letter,” she said, “on the mere chance that it may show your—er—atrocious conduct—in a somewhat less—er—unfavourable light!”
Miss Scott smiled sweetly, and produced a large envelope from the inside of her coat—for, being a governess, she possessed a pocket. She handed the paper to Lady Jane, who saw at a glance that it was a genuine solicitor’s letter, from a highly respectable firm of whom she had often heard. The envelope was addressed to “Miss Ellen Scott,” but when Lady Jane took out and unfolded the contents, she saw that they were addressed to “Miss Diana Trevelyan.”
“Trevelyan?” she cried angrily. “Diana Trevelyan? What absurdity is this? What have you to do with any Diana Trevelyan, pray?”
“It’s me,” Miss Scott answered patiently, in a small voice.
“You?” Lady Jane’s eyes glittered and glared again.
“Yes. I was a doorstep baby, as I told you; and now they’ve found out at last that I am Diana Trevelyan, the only child of Sir Randolph, who died in an insane asylum a few days ago.”
“You? The daughter of Sir Randolph? You’re mad!”
“No, I’m not mad, though my father was. If you will only read the letter, you will understand. You see, all his Lincolnshire estates come to me, so it makes rather a difference, doesn’t it?”
“Rather a difference!”
No words could describe Lady Jane’s tone as she repeated the words. At the mere thought that, instead of speaking out her irate mind to a poor little governess with whom her son had been silly enough to fall in love, she had been railing at Miss Diana Trevelyan, a charming girl and an heiress, quite as good as herself, and the most desirable daughter-in-law she could wish for, she suddenly got red in the face, and buried herself in the documents, in which she presently became absorbed.
As she read the wonderful story, and learned that the other Lincolnshire Trevelyans had thought it best not to question Ellen’s right—or Diana’s—her wrath subsided, and joy rose in its place, as it would in any mother’s heart, over what could only be a genuine love match, though it had turned out so vastly advantageous. At last she folded the many sheets together and put them back into the envelope, which she held in one hand while she covered her eyes with the other for a moment. “I don’t quite know what to say,” she said simply, and then looked up with a rather shy smile. “I was awfully nasty, I know. I’m sure you would have been a very good wife to Lionel without a name or a fortune, my dear. I can’t imagine why it seemed so dreadful to me five minutes ago! I was quite stupidly angry, and you must forgive me, please. You will, won’t you?”
She was almost pathetic in her defeat, though she was quite ridiculous too, and knew it.
Ellen laughed gaily. “My dear Lady Jane,” she said, “I’ll forgive you with all my heart if you’ll only forgive me for something much worse that I did to you?”
“I’ll forgive you anything—I’m so happy!” answered the elder woman, smiling.
“I’ve been a fairly good governess to the girls, haven’t I?” asked the young girl. “And well-behaved, too? And if I wanted it, you’d give me a good character, wouldn’t you? That is, if I hadn’t fallen in love with your eldest son?”
“Oh, that wouldn’t have mattered,” said Lady Jane. “It was his falling in love with you that I couldn’t stand! Of course I would give you a good character!”
“Thank you. Now I’ll make my confession. I used to be good at theatricals, and when I saw your advertisement I made up for the place.”
“Made up? It was all a sham?”
Lady Jane started in surprise.
“The limp was a sham, the hump was a little pillow, the blotches were liquid rouge, my eyes never wander unless I choose to make them do it, and I had never worn my hair like that in my life! Can you forgive me for having cheated you all, when I read your advertisement? I suppose it was just devilry that made me do it—and I wanted to see more of Lionel, since we were engaged. After all, I was quite fit for the place, wasn’t I? All I had to do was to make myself thoroughly undesirable; and I did!”
“And to think that I wasted all that good lotion on you!” cried Lady Jane, laughing.
She would have thought the whole trick an abominable fraud on the part of Ellen Scott, but quite entered into the fun of the practical joke, since it had been played by Miss Diana Trevelyan. After all, she never made any pretence of being magnanimous or bursting with noble sentiments. She was just an ordinary woman of the world, and a very good mother, who had been horrified at the idea that her eldest son should marry badly, and was delighted to find that he was going to marry well after all; and let any natural mother who would not feel just as she did, find fault with her and call her worldly!
That is the story of that Undesirable Governess they had at King’s Follitt last year, and it explains why Lionel and Jocelyn were married on the same day to two Trevelyan girls who were only very distantly related. In a nice story-book it would of course have been the penniless younger son who would have married the governess-heiress, and the heir of King’s Follitt would have married Anne Trevelyan, who was not particularly well off. But in real life things do not happen in that way, and yet people are happy just the same—when they are.
The darker side of the whole affair was that, after Ellen turned into somebody else, those girls ran perfectly wild, and fell back into their old ways of poaching and exchanging game for chocolates with the postman; and they sat up in the King’s Oak by the lodge and peppered the passing horses on the Malton road with catapults, and potted rooks, and rode steeplechases in the park on the best horses in the stable; and they strenuously did all those things which they should have left undone, to the total exclusion of the other things, till Lady Jane felt that she was going mad, and it looked as if no one but the matron of a police station could ever be satisfactory as a governess at King’s Follitt.