The table was between us as we stood in the dining-room at Dyke Manor — I and Mrs. Todhetley — and on it lay a three-cornered article of soft geranium-coloured wool, which she called a “fichu.” I had my great coat on my arm ready for travelling, for I was going up to London on a visit to Miss Deveen.
It was Easter now. Soon after the trouble, caused by the loss of the emerald studs at Whitney Hall in January, the party had dispersed. Sophie Chalk returned to London; Tod and I came home; Miss Deveen was going to Bath. The studs had not been traced — had never been heard of since; and Lettice Lane, after a short stay in disgrace at her mother’s cottage, had suddenly disappeared. Of course there were not wanting people to affirm that she had gone off to her favourite land of promise, Australia, carrying the studs with her.
The Whitneys were now in London. They did not go in for London seasons; in fact, Lady Whitney hardly remembered to have had a season in London at all, and she quite dreaded this one, saying she should feel like a fish out of water. Sir John occupied a bedroom when he went up for Parliament, and dined at his club. But Helen was nineteen, and they thought she ought to be presented to the Queen. So Miss Deveen was consulted about a furnished house, and she and Sir John took one for six weeks from just before Easter. They left Whitney Hall at once to take possession; and Bill Whitney and Tod, who got an invitation, joined them the day before Good Friday.
The next Tuesday I received a letter from Miss Deveen. We were very good friends at Whitney, and she had been polite enough to say she should be glad to see me in London. I never expected to go, for three-parts of those invitations do not come to anything. She wrote now to ask me to go up; it might be pleasant for me, she added, as Joseph Todhetley was staying with the Whitneys.
It is of no use going on until I have said a word about Tod. If ever a fellow was hopelessly in love with a girl, he was with Sophie Chalk. I don’t mean hopeless as to the love, but as to getting out of it. On the day that we were quitting Whitney Hall — it was on the 26th of January, and the icicles were clustering on the trees — they had taken a long walk together. What Tod said I don’t know, but I think he let her know how much he loved her, and asked her to wait until he should be of age and could ask the question — would she be his wife? We went with her to the station, and the way Tod wrapped her up in the railway-carriage was as good as a show. (Pretty little Mrs. Hughes, who had been visiting old Featherston, went up by the same train and in the same carriage.) They corresponded a little, she and Tod. Nothing particular in her letters, at any rate — nothing but what the world might see, or that she might have written to Mrs. Todhetley, who had one from her on occasion — but I know Tod just lived on those letters and her remembrance; he could not hide it from me; and I saw without wishing to see or being able to help myself. Why, he had gone up to London now in one sole hope — that of meeting again with Miss Chalk!
Mrs. Todhetley saw it too — had seen it from the time when Sophie Chalk was at Dyke Manor — and it grieved and worried her. But not the Squire: he no more supposed Tod was going to take up seriously with Sophie Chalk, than with the pink-eyed lady exhibited the past year at Pershore Fair.
Well, that’s all of explanation. This was Wednesday morning, and the Squire was going to drive me to the station for the London train. Mrs. Todhetley at the last moment was giving me charge of the fichu, which she had made for Sophie Chalk’s sister.
“I did not send it by Joseph; I thought it as well not to do so,” she observed, as she began to pack it up in tissue paper. “Will you take it down to Mrs. Smith yourself, Johnny, and deliver it?”
“I— you know, Johnny, I have the greatest dislike to anything that is mean or underhand,” she went on, dropping her voice a little. “But I do not think it would be wrong, under the circumstances, if I ask you to take a little notice of what these Smiths are. I don’t mean in the way of being fashionable, Johnny; I suppose they are all that; but whether they are nice, good people. Somehow I did not like Miss Chalk, with all her fascinations, and it is of no use to pretend that I did.”
“She was too fascinating for ordinary folk, good mother.”
“Yes, that was it. She seemed to put the fascinations on. And, Johnny, though we were to hear that she had a thousand a year to her fortune, I should be miserable if I thought Joe would choose her for his wife.”
“She used to say she was poor.”
“But she seemed to have a whole list of lords and ladies for her friends, so I conclude she and her connections must be people of note. It is not that, Johnny — rich or poor — it is that I don’t like her for herself, and I do not think she is the one to make Joe happy. She never spoke openly about her friends, you know, or about herself. At any rate, you take down this little parcel to Mrs. Smith, with my kind regards, and then you’ll see them for yourself. And in judgment and observation you are worth fifty of Joe, any day.”
“Not in either judgment or observation; only in instinct.”
“And that’s for yourself,” she added, slipping a sovereign into my pocket. “I don’t know how much Mr. Todhetley has given you. Mind you spend your money in right things, Johnny. But I am not afraid; I could trust you all over the world.”
Giles put in my portmanteau, and we drove off. The hedges were beginning to bud; the fields looked green. From observations about the young lambs, and a broken fence that he went into a passion over, the Squire suddenly plunged into something else.
“You take care of yourself, sir, in London! Boys get into all kinds of pitfalls there, if they don’t mind.”
“But I do not call myself a boy, sir, now.”
“Not call yourself a boy!” retorted the Squire, staring. “I’d like to know what else you are. Tod’s a boy, sir, and nothing else, though he does count twenty years. I wonder what the world’s coming to!” he added, lashing up Bob and Blister. “In my days, youngsters did not think themselves men before they had done growing.”
“What I meant was that I am old enough to take care of myself. Mrs. Todhetley has just said she could trust me all over the world.”
“Just like her foolishness! Take care you don’t get your pockets picked: there’s sure to be a thief at every corner. And don’t you pick them yourself, Master Johnny. I knew a young fellow once who went up to London with ten pounds in his pocket. He was staying at the Castle and Falcon Hotel, near the place where the mails used to start from — and a fine sight it was to see them bowl out, one after another, with their lamps lighted. Well, Johnny, this young fellow got back again in four days by one of these very mails, every shilling spent, and his fare down not paid. You’d not think that was steady old Jacobson; but it was.”
I laughed. The Squire looked more inclined to cry.
“Cleaned out, he was; not a rap left! Money melts in London — that’s a fact — and it is very necessary to be cautious. His went in seeing the shows; so he told his father. Don’t you go in for too many of them, Johnny, or you may find yourself without funds to bring you home, and railways don’t give trust. You might go to the Tower, now; and St. Paul’s; and the British Museum; they are steady places. I wouldn’t advise a theatre, unless it’s just once — some good, respectable play; and mind you go straight home after it. Some young men slink off to singing-shops now, they say, but I am sure such places can bring no good.”
“Being with Miss Deveen, sir, I don’t suppose I shall have the opportunity of getting into much harm.”
“Well, it’s right in me to caution you, Johnny. London is a dreadful place, full of sharpers and bad people. It used to be in the old days, and I don’t suppose it has improved in these. You have no father, Johnny, and I stand to you in the light of one, to give you these warnings. Enjoy your visit rationally, my boy, and come home with a true report and a good conscience. That’s the charge my old father always gave to me.”
Miss Deveen lived in a very nice house, north-westward, away from the bustle of London. The road was wide, the houses were semi-detached, with gardens around and plenty of trees in view. Somehow I had hoped Tod would be at the Paddington terminus, and was disappointed, so I took a cab and went on. Miss Deveen came into the hall to receive me, and said she did not consider me too big to be kissed, considering she was over sixty. Miss Cattledon, sitting in the drawing-room, gave me a finger to shake, and did not seem to like my coming. Her waist and throat were thinner and longer than ever; her stays creaked like parchment.
If I’d never had a surprise in my life, I had one before I was in the house an hour. Coming down from the bedroom to which they had shown me, a maid-servant passed me on the first-floor landing. It was Lettice Lane! I wondered — believe me or not, as you will — I wondered whether I saw a ghost, and stood back against the pillar of the banisters.
“Why, Lettice, is it you?”
“But — what are you doing here?”
“I am here in service, sir.”
She ran on upstairs. Lettice in Miss Deveen’s house. It was worse than a Chinese puzzle.
“Is that you, Johnny? Step in here?”
The voice — Miss Deveen’s — came from a half-opened door, close at hand. It was a small, pretty sitting-room, with light blue curtains and chairs. Miss Deveen sat by the fire, ready for dinner. In her white body shone amethyst studs, quite as beautiful as the lost emeralds.
“We call this the blue-room, Johnny. It is my own exclusively, and no one enters it except upon invitation. Sit down. Were you surprised to see Lettice Lane?”
“I don’t think I was ever so much surprised in all my life. She says she is living here.”
“Yes; I sent for her to help my housemaid.”
I was thoroughly mystified. Miss Deveen put down her book and spectacles.
“I have taken to glasses, Johnny.”
“But I thought you saw so well.”
“So I do, for anything but very small type — and that book seems to have been printed for none but the youngest eyes. And I see people as well as things,” she added significantly.
I felt sure of that.
“Do you remember, Johnny, the day after the uproar at Whitney Hall, that I asked you to pilot me to Lettice Lane’s mother’s, and to say nothing about it?”
“Yes, certainly. You walked the whole four miles of the way. It is five by road.”
“And back again. I am good for more yet than some of the young folk are, Johnny; but I always was an excellent walker. Next day the party broke up; that pretty girl, Sophie Chalk, departed for London, and you and young Todhetley left later. When you reached your home in the evening, I don’t suppose you thought I had been to Dyke Manor the same day.”
“No! Had you really, Miss Deveen?”
“Really and truly. I’ll tell you now the reason of those journeys of mine. As Lettice Lane was being turned out of the Hall, she made a remark in the moment of departure, accidentally I am sure, which caused me to be almost certain she was not guilty of stealing the studs. Before, whilst they were all condemning her as guilty, I had felt doubtful of it; but of course I could not be sure, and Miss Cattledon reproaches me with thinking every one innocent under every circumstance — which is a mistake of hers. Mind, Johnny, the few words Lettice said might have been used designedly, by one crafty and guilty, on purpose to throw me off suspicion: but I felt almost persuaded that the girl had spoken them in unconscious innocence. I went to her mother’s to see them both; I am fond of looking into things with my own eyes; and I came away with my good opinion strengthened. I went next to Mrs. Todhetley’s to hear what she said of the girl; I saw her and your old nurse, Hannah, making my request to both not to speak of my visit. They gave the girl a good character for honesty; Mrs. Todhetley thought her quite incapable of taking the studs; Hannah could not say what a foolish girl with roving ideas of Australia in her head might do in a moment of temptation. In less than a fortnight I was back in London, having paid my visit to Bath. I had been reflecting all that time, Johnny, on the cruel blight this must be on Lettice Lane, supposing that she was innocent. I thought the probabilities were that she was innocent, not guilty; and I determined to offer her a home in my own house during the uncertainty. She seemed only too glad to accept it, and here she is. If the girl should eventually turn out to be innocent, I shall have done her a real service; if guilty, why I shall not regret having held out a helping hand to her, that may perhaps save her for the future.”
“It was very kind and thoughtful of you, Miss Deveen!”
“My chief difficulty lay in keeping the suspicion lying on Lettice Lane a secret from my household. Fortunately I had taken no servants with me to Whitney Hall, my maid having been ill at the time; but Cattledon is outrageously virtuous, and of course proportionally bitter against Lettice. You saw that at Whitney.”
“She would have been the first to tell of her.”
“Yes. I had to put the thing rather strongly to Miss Cattledon —‘Hold your tongue or leave me.’ It answered, Johnny. Cattledon likes her place here, and acts accordingly. She picks up her petticoats from contamination when she meets the unfortunate Lettice; but she takes care to hold her tongue.”
“Do you think it will ever be found out, Miss Deveen?”
“I hope it will.”
“But who — could have taken them?” And the thought of what I had said to Anna Whitney, that it might be Miss Cattledon herself, flashed over me as I put the question.
“I think”— Miss Deveen glanced round as if to make sure we were alone, and dropped her voice a little —“that it must have been one of the guests who came to Whitney Hall that night. Cattledon let out one thing, but not until after we were at home again, for the fact seemed not to have made the least impression on her memory at the time; but it came back afterwards. When she was quitting her room after dressing that evening — I being already out of mine and downstairs — she saw the shawl she had worn in the afternoon lying across a chair just as she had thrown it off. She is very careful of her clothes; and hesitated, she said, whether to go back then and fold it; but, knowing she was late, did not do so. She had been downstairs about ten minutes, when I asked her to fetch my fan, which I had forgotten. Upon going through her room to mine, she saw the shawl lying on the floor, and picked it up, wondering how it could have come there. At that time the maids had not been in to put either her room or mine to rights. Now, what I infer, Johnny, is that my jewel-case was visited and the studs were stolen before Lettice Lane and Mrs. Lease went near the rooms, and that the thief, in her hurry to escape, brushed against the shawl and threw it down.”
“And cannot Miss Cattledon see the probability of that?”
“She will not see it. Lettice Lane is guilty with her and no one else. Prejudice goes a long way in this world, Johnny. The people who came to the dance that night were taking off their things in the next room to Miss Cattledon’s, and I think it likely that some one of them may have found a way into my chamber, perhaps even by accident, and the sight of the brilliant emerald studs — they were more beautiful than any they were lying with — was too much for human equanimity. It was my fault for leaving the dressing-case open — and do you know, Johnny, I believe I left it literally open— I can never forget that.”
“But Lettice Lane said it was shut; shut but not locked.”
“Well, it is upon my conscience that I left it open. Whoever took the studs may have shut down the lid, in caution or forgetfulness. Meanwhile, Johnny, don’t you say anything of what I have told you; at the Whitneys’ or elsewhere. They do not know that Lettice Lane is with me; they are prejudiced against her, especially Sir John; and Lettice has orders to keep out of the way of visitors. Should they by chance see her, why, I shall say that as the case was at best doubtful, I am giving the girl a chance to redeem her good name. We are going there after dinner. So mind you keep counsel.”
“To the Whitneys’?”
“It is only next door, as you may say. I did not mention that you were coming up,” she added, “so there will be a surprise for them. And now we will go down. Here, carry my book for me, Johnny.”
In the drawing-room we found a grey-haired curate, with a mild voice; Miss Cattledon was simpering and smiling upon him. I gathered that he did duty in the church hard by, and had come to dinner by invitation. He took in Miss Deveen, and that other blessed lady fell to me. It was a very good dinner, uncommonly good to me after my journey. Miss Deveen carved. And didn’t she make me eat! She said she knew what boys’ appetites were. The curate took his leave, but Miss Deveen sat on; she fancied to have heard that the Whitneys were to have friends to dinner that night, and would not go in too early.
About half-a-dozen houses lay between, and Miss Deveen put a shawl over her head and walked the distance. “Such a mistake, to have taken a place for them so near Hyde Park!” whispered Miss Cattledon as we were following — and I’m sure she must have been in a gracious mood to give me the confidence. “Neither Sir John nor Miss Deveen has much notion of the requirements of fashionable society, Mr. Ludlow: as to poor Lady Whitney, she is a very owl in all that relates to it.”
Poor Lady Whitney — not looking like an owl, but a plain, good-hearted English mother — was the first to see us. There was no dinner-party after all. She sat on a chair just inside the drawing-room, which was precisely the same in build and size as Miss Deveen’s, but had not her handsome furniture and appointments. She said she was glad to see me, and would have invited me with Joe, but for want of beds.
They were all grouped at the other end of the room, playing at forfeits, and a great deal too busy to notice me. I had leisure to look at them. Helen was talking very fast: Harry shouting; Anna sat leaning her cheek on her hand; Tod stood frowning and angry against the wall; the young ones were jumping about like savages; and Bill Whitney was stuck on a stool, his eyes bandaged, and the tips of a girl’s white fingers touching his hands. A fairy, rather than a girl, for that’s what she looked like, with her small, light figure and her gauze skirts floating: Miss Sophie Chalk.
But what on earth had come to her hair? It used to be brown; it was now light, and gleaming with gold spangles. Perhaps it belonged to her fairy nature.
Suddenly Bill shouted out “Miss Chalk,” threw off the bandage, and caught her hands to kiss her! It was all in the forfeits: he had a right to do it, because he guessed her name. She laughed and struggled, the children and Helen were as wild Indians with glee, and Tod looked ready to bring the roof down. Just as Bill gave the kiss, Anna saw me.
Of course it created an interlude, and the forfeits were thrown up. Tod came out of his passion, feeling a little frightened.
“Johnny! Why, what in the world brings you here? Anything wrong with my father?”
“I am only come up on a visit to Miss Deveen, Tod.”
“Well, I’m sure!” cried Tod; as if he thought he ought to have all the visiting, and I none of it.
Sophie put her hand into mine. “I am so glad to see you again,” she said in her softest tone. “And dear Mrs. Todhetley, how is she? and the sweet children?”
But she never waited to hear how; for she turned away at some question put by Bill Whitney.
Sir John came in, and the four old ones sat down to their whist in the small drawing-room opening from this. The children were sent to bed. Sophie Chalk went to the piano to sing a song in hushed tones, Tod putting himself on one side, Bill on the other.
“Are both of them going in for the lady’s favour?” I asked of Anna, pointing to the piano, as she made room for me on the sofa.
“I think Miss Chalk would like it, Johnny.”
“How well Bill is looking!”
“Oh, he has quite recovered; he seems all the stronger for his accident. I suppose the rest and the nursing set him up.”
“Is Sophie Chalk staying here?”
“No; there’s hardly room for her. But she has been here every day and all day since we came up. They send her home in a cab at night, and one of the maids has to go with her. It is Helen’s arrangement.”
“Do you like London, Anna?”
“No. I wish I had stayed at home.”
“Well — but I can’t tell you every reason.”
“Tell me one?”
Anna did not answer. She sat looking out straight before her, her eyes full of trouble.
“Perhaps it is all nothing, Johnny. I may be fanciful and foolish, and so take up mistaken notions. Wrong ones, on more points than one.”
“Do you mean anything —there?”
“Yes. It would be-I think — a terrible misfortune for us, if William were to engage himself to Sophie Chalk.”
“You mean Tod, Anna?” I said, impulsively.
She blushed like a rose. “Down at Whitney I did think it was he; but since we came here she seems to have changed; to be-to be ——”
“Going in for Bill. I put it plainly you see, Anna.”
“I cannot help fearing that it would be a very sad mistake for either of them. Oh, Johnny, I am just tormented out of my peace, doubting whether or not I ought to speak. Sometimes I say to myself, yes it would be right, it is my duty. And then again I fancy that I am altogether mistaken, and that there’s nothing for me to say.”
“But what could you say, Anna?”
Anna had been nervously winding her thin gold chain round her finger. She unwound it again before answering.
“Of course — what could I? And if I were to speak, and — and — find there was no cause,” she dreamily added, “I should never forgive myself. The shame of it would rest upon me throughout life.”
“Well, I don’t see that, Anna. Just because you fancied things were serious when they were not so! Where would be the shame?”
“You don’t understand, Johnny. I should feel it. And so I wish I had stayed down at Whitney, out of the reach of torment. I wish another thing with all my heart — that Helen would not have Sophie Chalk here.”
“I think you may take one consolation to yourself, Anna — that whatever you might urge against her, it would most likely make not the smallest difference one way or the other. With Tod I am sure it would not. If he set his mind on marrying Sophie Chalk, other people’s grumbling would not turn him from it.”
“It might depend a little on what the grumblings were,” returned Anna, as if fighting for the last word. “But there; let it drop. I would rather say no more.”
She took up a photograph book, and we began looking over it together.
“Good gracious! Here’s Miss Cattledon? Small waist and all!”
Anna laughed. “She had it taken in Bath, and sent it to William. He had only asked her for it in joke.”
“So those studs have never turned up, Anna?”
“No. I wish they would. I should pray night and morning for it, if I thought it would do no one an injury.”
“Johnny!” called out Sir John.
“Come you, and take my hand for five minutes. I have just remembered a note I ought to have written this afternoon.”
“I shall be sure to play badly,” I said to Lady Whitney, who had fallen to Sir John in cutting for partners.
“Oh, my dear, what does it matter?” she kindly answered. “I don’t mind if you do. I do not play well myself.”
The next morning Miss Cattledon went out to ten-o’clock daily service. Miss Deveen said she had taken to the habit of doing so. I wondered whether it was for the sake of religion, or for that grey-haired curate who did the prayers. Sitting by ourselves, I told Miss Deveen of the commission I had from Mrs. Todhetley; and somehow, without my intending it, she gathered a little more.
“Go by all means, and learn what you can, Johnny. Go at once. I don’t think you need, any of you, be afraid, though,” she added, laughing. “I have seen very much of boy-and-girl love; seen that it rarely comes to anything. Young men mostly go through one or two such episodes before settling seriously to the business of life.”
The omnibus took me to Oxford Street, and I found my way from thence to Torriana Square. It proved to be a corner house, its front entrance being in the square. But there was a smaller entrance on the side (which was rather a bustling street), and a sort of office window, on the wire blind of which was written, in white letters, “Mr. Smith, wine-merchant.”
A wine-merchant! Well, I was surprised. Could there be any mistake? No, it was the right number. But I thought there must be, and stood staring at the place with both eyes. That was a come-down. Not but that wine-merchants are as good as other people; only Sophie Chalk had somehow imparted the notion of their living up to lords and ladies.
I asked at the front-door for Mrs. Smith, and was shown upstairs to a handsome drawing-room. A little girl, with a sallow face, thin and sickly, was seated there. She did not get up, only stared at me with her dark, keen, deep-set eyes.
“Do you know where your mamma is, Miss Trot?” asked the servant, putting a chair.
“You can go and search for her?”
She looked at me so intently as the maid left the room, that I told her who I was, and what I had come for. The child’s tongue — it seemed as sharp a one as Miss Cattledon’s — was let loose.
“I have heard of you, Johnny Ludlow. Mrs. Smith would be glad to see you. You had better wait.”
I don’t know how it is that I make myself at home with people; or, rather, that people seem so soon to be at home with me. I don’t try to do it, but it is always so. In two or three minutes, when the girl was talking to me as freely as though I were her brother, the maid came back again.
“Miss Trot, I cannot find your mamma.”
“Mrs. Smith’s out. But I was not obliged to tell you so. I’ll not spare you any work when you call me Miss Trot.”
The maid’s only answer was to leave the room: and the little girl — who spoke like a woman — shook her dark hair from her face in temper.
“I’ve told them over and over again I will not be called Miss Trot. How would you like it? Because my mamma took to say it when I was a baby, it is no reason why other people should say it.”
“Perhaps your mamma says it still, and so they fall into it also.”
“My mamma is dead.”
Just at the moment I did not take in the meaning of the words. “Mrs. Smith dead!”
“Mrs. Smith is not my mother. Don’t insult me, please. She came here as my governess. If papa chose to make a fool of himself by marrying her afterwards, it was not my fault. What are you looking at?”
I was looking at her: she seemed so strange a child; and feeling slightly puzzled between the other Mrs. Smith and this one. They say I am a muff at many things; I am sure I am at understanding complicated relationships.
“Then — Miss Chalk is —this Mrs. Smith’s sister?”
“Well, you might know that. They are a pair, and I don’t like either of them. There are two crying babies upstairs now.”
“Yes, Mrs. Smith’s”— with intense aggravation. “Papa had quite enough with me, and I could have managed the house and servants as well as she does. And because Nancy Chalk was not enough, in addition we must be never safe from Sophonisba! Oh, there are crosses in life!”
“Who is Sophonisba?”
“She is Sophonisba.”
“Perhaps you mean Sophie Chalk?”
“Her name’s not Sophie, or Sophia either. She was christened Sophonisba, but she hates the name, and takes care to drop it always. She is a deep one, is Sophonisba Chalk!”
“Is this her home?”
“She makes it her home, when she’s not out teaching. And papa never seems to think it an encroachment. Sophonisba Chalk does not keep her places, you know. She thought she had got into something fine last autumn at Lord Augustus Difford’s, but Lady Augustus gave her warning at the first month’s end.”
“Then Miss Chalk is a governess?”
“What else do you suppose she is? She comes over people, and gets a stock of invitations on hand, and goes to them between times. You should hear the trouble there is about her dresses, that she may make a good appearance. And how she does it I can’t think: they don’t tell me their contrivances. Mrs. Smith must give her some — I am sure of it — which papa has to pay for; and Sophonisba goes in trust for others.”
“She was always dressed well down with us.”
“Of course she was. Whitney Hall was her great-card place; but the time for the visit was so long before it was fixed, she thought it had all dropped through. It came just right: just when she was turned out of Lady Augustus Difford’s. Helen Whitney had promised it a long while before.”
“I know; when they were schoolfellows at Miss Lakon’s.”
“They were not schoolfellows. Sophonisba was treated as the rest, but she was only improving pupil. She gave her services, learnt of some of the masters, and paid nothing. How old do you think she is?” broke off Miss Trot.
“She was six-and-twenty last birthday; and they say she will look like a child till she’s six-and-thirty. I call it a shame for a young woman of that age to be doing nothing for herself, but to be living on strangers: and papa and I are nothing else to her.”
“How old are you?” I could not help asking.
“Fifteen; nearly sixteen. People take me to be younger, because I am short, and it vexes me. They would not think me young if they knew how I feel. Oh, I can tell you it is a sharpening thing for your papa to marry again, and to find yourself put down in your own home.”
“Has Miss Chalk any engagement now?”
“She has not had an engagement all this year, and now it’s April! I don’t believe she looks after one. She pretends to teach me — while she’s waiting, she says; but it’s all a farce; I won’t learn of her. I heard her tell Mr. Everty I was a horrid child. Fancy that!”
“Who is Mr. Everty?”
“Papa’s head-clerk. He is a gentleman, you know, and Sophonisba thinks great things of him. Ah, I could tell something, if I liked! but she put me on my honour. Oh, she’s a sly one! Just now, she is all her time at the Whitneys’, red-hot for it. You are not going? Stay to luncheon.”
“I must go; Miss Deveen will be waiting for me. You can deliver the parcel, please, with Mrs. Todhetley’s message. I will call in to see Mrs. Smith another day.”
“And to see me too?” came the quick retort.
“Yes, of course.”
“Now, mind, you can’t break your word. I shall say it is me you are coming to call upon; they think I am nobody in this house. Ask for Miss Smith when you come. Good-bye, Johnny Ludlow!”
She never stirred as I shook hands; she seemed never to have stirred hand or foot throughout the interview. But, as I opened the door, there came an odd sort of noise, and I turned to look what it was.
She. Hastening to cross the room, with a crutch, to ring the bell! And I saw that she was both lame and deformed.
In passing down the side street by the office, some one brushed by, with the quick step of a London business man. Where had I seen the face before? Whose did it put me in mind of? Why — it came to me all in a minute — Roger Monk’s! He who had lived at Dyke Manor for a short time as head-gardener under false auspices. But, as I have not said anything about him before, I will not enter into the history now. Before I could turn to look, Monk had disappeared; no doubt round the corner of the square.
“Tod,” I said, as soon as I came across him, “Sophie Chalk’s a governess.”
“Well, what of that?” asked Tod.
“Not much; but she might as well have been candid with us at Dyke Manor.”
“A governess is a lady.”
“Ought to be. But why did she make out to us that she had been a visitor at the Diffords’, when she was only the teacher? We should have respected her just as much; perhaps made more of her.”
“What are you cavilling at? As if a lady was never a teacher before!”
“Oh, Tod! it is not that. Don’t you see? — if she had kept a chandler’s shop, and been open about it, what should we have cared? It was the sailing under false colours; trying to pass herself off for what she is not.”
He gave no answer to this, except a whistle.
“She is turned six-and-twenty, Tod. And she was not a school-girl at Miss Lakon’s, but governess-pupil.”
“I suppose she was a schoolgirl once?”
“I suppose she was.”
“Good. What else have you to say, wise Johnny?”
Nothing; for where was the use? Sophie Chalk would have been only an angel in his eyes, though he heard that she had sold apples at a street-corner. Sophie, that very morning, had begged Lady Whitney to let her instruct the younger children, “as a friend,” so long as they were in town; for the governess at Whitney was a daily one, and they had not brought her. Lady Whitney at first demurred, and then kissed Sophie for her goodness. The result was, that a bed was found for Miss Chalk, and she stayed with them altogether.
But I can’t say much for the teaching. It was not Sophie Chalk’s fault, perhaps. Helen would be in the schoolroom, and Harry would be there; and I and Anna sometimes; and Tod and Bill always. Lady Whitney looked upon this London sojourn as a holiday, and did not mind whether the children learnt or played, provided they were kept passably quiet. I told Sophie of my visit to take the fichu, and she made a wry face over the lame girl.
“That Mabel Smith! Poor morbid little object! What she would have grown into but for the fortunate chance of my sister’s marrying into the house, I can’t imagine, Johnny. I’ll draw you her portrait in her night-cap, by-and-by.”
The days went on. We did have fun: but war was growing up between William Whitney and Tod. There could no longer be a mistake (to those who understood things and kept their eyes open) of the part Sophie Chalk was playing: and that was trying to throw Tod over for William Whitney, and to make no fuss about it, I don’t believe she cared a brass button for either: but Bill’s future position in life would be better than Tod’s, seeing that his father was a baronet. Bill was going in for her favour; perhaps not seriously: it might have been for the fun of the moment, or to amuse himself by spiting Tod. Sir John and my lady never so much as dreamt of the by-playing going on before their faces, and I don’t think Helen did.
“I told you she’d fascinate the eyes out of your head, Bill, give her the chance,” said I to him one day in the schoolroom, when Miss Chalk was teaching her pupils to dance.
“You shut up, Johnny,” he said, laughing, and shied the atlas at me.
Before the day was out, there was a sharp, short quarrel. They were all coming for the evening to Miss Deveen’s. I went in at dusk to tell them not to make it nine at night. Turning into the drawing-room, I interrupted a scene — Bill Whitney and Tod railing at one another. What the bone of contention was I never knew, for they seemed to have reached the end of it.
“You did,” said Tod.
“I did not,” said Bill.
“I tell you, you did, William Whitney.”
“Let it go; it’s word against word, and we shall never decide it. You are mistaken, Todhetley; but I am not going to ask your leave as to what I shall do, or what I shan’t.”
“You have no right to say to Miss Chalk what I heard you saying today.”
“I tell you, you did not hear me say anything of the sort. Put it that you did — what business is it of yours? If I chose to go in for her, to ask her to be the future Lady Whitney — though it may be many a year, I hope, before I step into my father’s place, good old man! — who has the right to say me nay?”
Tod was foaming. Dusk though it was, I could see that. They took no more account of my being present, than of Harry’s little barking dog.
“Look here, Bill Whitney. If ——”
“Are you boys quarrelling?”
The interruption was Anna’s. Passing through the hall, she had heard the voices and looked in. As if glad of the excuse to get away, Bill Whitney followed her from the room. Tod went out and banged the hall-door after him.
I waited, thinking Anna might come in, and strolled into the little drawing-room. There, quiet as a mouse, stood Sophie Chalk. She had been listening, for certain; and I hope it gratified her: her eyes sparkled a little.
“Why, Johnny! was it you making all that noise? What was the matter? Anything gone wrong?”
It was all very fine to try it on with me. I just looked straight at her, and I think she saw as much. Saying something about going to search for Helen, she left the room.
“What was the trouble, Johnny?” whispered Anna, stealing up to me.
“Only those two having a jar.”
“I heard that. But what was it about? Sophie Chalk?”
“Well, yes; that was it, Anna.”
We were at the front window then. A man was lighting the street-lamps, and Anna seemed to be occupied in watching him. There was enough care on her face to set one up in the dismals for life.
“No harm may come of it, Anna. Any way, you can do nothing.”
“Oh, Johnny, I wish I knew!” she said, clasping her hands. “I wish I could satisfy myself which way right lies. If I were to speak, it might be put down to a wrong motive. I try to see whether that thought is not a selfish one, whether I ought to let it deter me. But then — that’s not the worst.”
“That sounds like a riddle, Anna.”
“I wish I had some good, judicious person who would hear all and judge for me,” she said, rather dreamily. “If you were older, Johnny, I think I would tell you.”
“I am as old as you are, at any rate.”
“That’s just it. We are neither of us old enough nor experienced enough to trust to our own judgment.”
“There’s your mother, Anna.”
“What you mean is, that Sir John and Lady Whitney ought to have their eyes opened to what’s going on, that they may put an end to Miss Chalk’s intimacy here, if they deem the danger warrants it?”
“That’s near enough, Johnny. And I don’t see my way sufficiently clearly to do it.”
“Put the case to Helen.”
“She would only laugh in my face. Hush! here comes some one.”
It was Sophie Chalk. She looked rather sharply at us both, and said she could not find Helen anywhere.
And the days were to go on in outward smoothness and private discomfort, Miss Sophie exercising her fascinations on the whole of us.
But for having promised that lame child to call again in Torriana Square, I should not have cared to go. It was afternoon this time. The servant showed me upstairs, and said her mistress was for the moment engaged. Mabel Smith sat in the same seat in her black frock; some books lay on a small table drawn before her.
“I thought you had forgotten to come.”
“Did you? I should be sure not to forget it.”
“I am so tired of my lessons,” she said, irritably, sweeping the books away with her long thin fingers. “I always am when they teach me. Mrs. Smith has kept me at them for two hours; she has gone down now to engage a new servant.”
“I get frightfully tired of my lessons sometimes.”
“Ah, but not as I do; you can run about: and learning, you know, will never be of use to me. I want you to tell me something. Is Sophonisba Chalk going to stay at Lady Whitney’s?”
“I don’t know. They will not be so very long in town.”
“But I mean is she to be governess there, and go into the country with them?”
“No, I think not.”
“She wants to. If she does, papa says he shall have some nice young lady to sit with me and teach me. Oh, I do hope she will go with them, and then the house would be rid of her. I say she will: it is too good a chance for her to let slip. Mrs. Smith says she won’t: she told Mr. Everty so last night. He wouldn’t believe her, and was very cross over it.”
“Cross over it?”
“He said Sophonisba ought not to have gone there at all without consulting him, and that she had not been home once since, and only written him one rubbishing note that had nothing in it; and he asked Mrs. Smith whether she thought that was right.”
A light flashed over me. “Is Miss Chalk going to marry Mr. Everty?”
“I suppose that’s what it will come to,” answered the curious child. “She has promised to; but promises with her don’t go for much when it suits her to break them. Sophonisba put me on my honour not to tell; but now that Mr. Everty has spoken to Mrs. Smith and papa, it is different. I saw it a long while ago; before she went to the Diffords’. I have nothing to do but to sit and watch and think, you see, Johnny Ludlow; and I perceive things quicker than other people.”
“But — why do you fancy Miss Chalk may break her promise to Mr. Everty?”
“If she meant to keep it, why should she be scheming to go away as the Whitneys’ governess? I know what it is: Sophonisba does not think Mr. Everty good enough for her, but she would like to keep him waiting on, for fear of not getting anybody better.”
Anything so shrewd as Mabel Smith’s manner in saying this, was never seen. I don’t think she was naturally ill-natured, poor thing; but she evidently thought she was being wronged amongst them, and it made her spitefully resentful.
“Mr. Everty had better let her go. It is not I that would marry a wife who dyed her hair.”
“Is Miss Chalk’s dyed? I thought it might be the gold dust.”
“Have you any eyes?” retorted Mabel. “When she was down in the country with you her hair was brown; it’s a kind of yellow now. Oh, she knows how to set herself off, I can tell you. Do you happen to remember who was reigning in England when the massacre of St. Bartholomew took place in France?”
The change of subject was sudden. I told her it was Queen Elizabeth.
“Queen Elizabeth, was it? I’ll write it down. Mrs. Smith says I shall have no dessert today, if I don’t tell her. She puts those questions only to vex me. As if it mattered to anybody. Oh, here’s papa!”
A little man came in with a bald head and pleasant face. He said he was glad to see me and shook hands. She put out her arms, and he came and kissed her: her eyes followed him everywhere; her cheeks had a sudden colour: it was easy to see that he was her one great joy in life. And the bright colour made her poor thin face look almost charming.
“I can’t stay a minute, Trottie; going out in a hurry. I think I left my gloves up here.”
“So you did, papa. There was a tiny hole in the thumb and I mended it for you.”
“That’s my little attentive daughter! Good-bye. Mr. Ludlow, if you will stay to dinner we shall be happy.”
Mrs. Smith came in as he left the room. She was rather a plain likeness of Miss Chalk, not much older. But her face had a straightforward, open look, and I liked her. She made much of me and said how kind she had thought it of Mrs. Todhetley to be at the trouble of making a fichu for her, a stranger. She hoped — she did hope, she added rather anxiously, that Sophie had not asked her to do it. And it struck me that Mrs. Smith had not quite the implicit confidence in Miss Sophie’s sayings and doings that she might have had.
It was five o’clock when I got away. At the door of the office in the side street stood a gentleman — the same I had seen pass me the other day. I looked at him, and he at me.
“Is it Roger Monk?”
A startled look came over his face. He evidently did not remember me. I said who I was.
“Dear me! How you have grown! Do walk in.” And he spoke to me in the tones an equal would speak, not as a servant.
As he was leading the way into a sort of parlour, we passed a clerk at a desk, and a man talking to him.
“Here’s Mr. Everty; he will tell you,” said the clerk, indicating Monk. “He is asking about those samples of pale brandy, sir: whether they are to go.”
“Yes, of course; you ought to have taken them before this, Wilson,” was Roger Monk’s answer. And so I saw that he was Mr. Everty.
“I have resumed my true name, Everty,” he said to me in low tones. “The former trouble, that sent me away a wanderer, is over. Many men, I believe, are forced into such episodes in life.”
“You are with Mr. Smith?”
“These two years past. I came to him as head-clerk; I now have a commission on sales, and make a most excellent thing of it. I don’t think the business could get on without me now.”
“Is it true that you are to marry Miss Chalk?” I asked, speaking on a sudden impulse.
“Quite true; if she does not throw me over,” he answered, and I wondered at his candour. “I suppose you have heard of it indoors?”
“Yes. I wish you all success.”— And didn’t I wish it in my inmost heart!
“Thank you. I can give her a good home now. Perhaps you will not talk about that old time if you can help it, Mr. Ludlow. You used to be good-natured, I remember. It was a dark page in my then reckless life; I am doing what I can to redeem it.”
I dare say he was; and I told him he need not fear. But I did not like his eyes yet, for they had the same kind of shifty look that Roger Monk’s used to have. He might get on none the worse in business; for, as the Squire says, it is a shifty world.
Sophie Chalk engaged to Mr. Everty, and he Roger Monk! Well, it was a complication. I went back to Miss Deveen’s without, so to say, seeing daylight.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55