responsibility came in. Penelope was sideways to the Rectory, and the sunbonnet hid the smoke from the Rectory chimneys. Now if Penelope had seen the smoke she would have remembered Mrs. Crigby and lessons. Often, coming along the road, she had eyed that smoke; it was connected inseparably in her mind with the spare black figure of her austere teacher. But the sunbonnet's huge sides hid it from the eyes within, and Penelope pursued the calf possessed with but one thought— one desire to touch him. Her staid legs grew riotous; they twinkled and stumbled in the eagerness of their pursuit.

Her small mouth was tight determined effort. Forgotten was the French verb. Forgotten were Mrs. Crigby and lessons. In the world just then there was nobody but the little calf and Penelope. Again and again her heart beat high with hope. Again and again the calf flung up his absurd legs and skipped off, just as the eager little hand, outstretched to the fullest straining point, was tingling with joy of the warmth that came from his thick, soft coat.

Earnestly Penelope followed over three fields. In the third the distracted lowing of a cow became discernible. With his legs at acute angles the calf stood still. Penelope drew nearnearer eagerly she stretched out her hand. The calf gave a final high kick and raced awkwardly in the direction from whence the lowing came.

The calf's foolish mother, instead of scolding him as he deserved, hailed his frisky, unabashed approach with joy. Penelope, seeing him stop at his mother's side, had a fresh glimmering of hope. She toiled eagerly on.

But the mother chose to turn nasty. Perhaps she blamed Penelope for her son's bad behavior, some mothers being blind to the truth where their own children are concerned. Anyhow, she

watched the approach of the graycottoned figure with a baleful glare. And when Penelope, renewed hope shining in her eyes, drew near, she put down her head, and came forward in such a threatening manner that even Penelope's great longing gave place to fear, and her legs went scurrying and stumbling across the grass till they had landed their small owner safe in the next field. Then, as she paused, frightened and breathless, a thin spiral of gray filmy smoke rose accusingly to the skies from the Rectory chimney— and Penelope saw it. She gave a gasp and stood staring, wide-eyed and petrified. Her world came tumbling in a threatening chaos about her ears. She saw Mrs. Crigby, tall and severe, seated behind the pile of books at the head of the dining-room table—waiting. She put up her hands to her eyes and tried to shut the vision out; but it would not go. Momentarily the long, lean face at the head of the table grew longer and leaner. Side by side with it Penelope saw another, a pale, peevish face whose light eyes pierced her through with their cold gleam.

Penelope's legs gave way and she sank down on to the grass, in overwhelming despair. The little calf never once glanced her way; he was so busy over his own concerns that he had forgotten all about her. Penelope realized his desertion with an acquiescent throb of misery. It was only in the order of things that she should be left utterly alone in the world. She began to cry, subduedly, drearily, on and on. She knew that every minute she stayed there she was making matters worse, yet she stayed. She thought night must be getting very near; she shivered all over at the thought, but she dared not go home or to the Rectory. The shadows lengthened on the grass tilr they enveloped the little gray heap, and in their coolness Penelope expe rienced acuter misery.

The cow had led her calf back to his proper place.

There was nothing to break the hushed solitude, save the mournful piping of a bullfinch flitting in and out of the hedge. Perhaps if Penelope had raised her head and seen him, with his cheerful scarlet breast, he would have brought a ray of alleviation to her teardrenched misery. But the white sun. bonnet, all its stiff primness outraged, lay crushed upon the ground. Inside it, wet cheeks and tragic eyes were hidden by clutching little hands. Penelope was alone, and in the uttermost depths of despair.


Meanwhile things had happened. The village fly had drawn up at the small gray house where Penelope's stepmother had lived since the death of her second husband. The fly had been followed by a queue of interested urchins and urchinesses, for in Haywold the fly was a vehicle of grandeur and importance, seldom used and much admired.

From its interior a tall girl had descended and disappeared into the gray house. Whereupon the immaculate Fielding, who cherished an incongruous affection for her mistress, had appeared to help the driver with the boxes and other travelling impedimenta. Lastly, the driver had emerged, smiling at a coin he held in the palm of his hand. He had mounted to his seat and driven away. The urchins and urchinesses had dispersed slowly.

Inside the gray house the young lady, who was Mrs. Hardy's sister, stood looking down on the sofa in the shaded, scented room, where Penelope's step-mother lay assiduously smelling at a silver vinaigrette.

"Sorry I startled you," the girl was saying in a pleasant, brisk sort of voice, "it's over two years since I've seen you."

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

"How absurd you are, Helen," the light greenish eyes on the sofa looked with a cold sort of fire upon her. Helen remembered with a whimsical smile her terror at that look when she was much younger. She wondered suddenly if Penelope were affected by it.

There was a pause. Helen's thoughts wandered; their wandering brought a softness to her eyes.

"You know I'm engaged?" she said. "Yes; to Sir Ralph Bennington," the name rolled lingeringly from her tongue, "it is a very good marriage for you, Helen."

Helen frowned. She rose and walked to the window.

"When is it to be?" asked her sister. "I don't know. I haven't decided yet."

"It ought to be soon; I see nothing to prevent it, and much to render it

advisable. You are homeless now that Mrs. Willoughby has her cousin to travel with her."

A curious look shone in Helen's gray eyes for a moment.

"I can get another post as companion," she said quietly.

"But how ridiculous it would be. And I cannot offer you a home here, Helen. If you will stay a few weeks I shall be pleased. But I am so poor; my bad health is so expensive—”

Helen's eyes swept the crowded room; the vases of flowers; the scent bottles; the fans; the screens and cushions and yellow-backed novels.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

"Oh, I don't know," Helen shrugged her shoulders slightly, her short upper lip curled wilfully, "I won't be hurried," she said; "he's too masterful."

Upon the peevish remonstrances of Mrs. Hardy broke the immaculate Fielding.

"Please, ma'am, it's after five and Miss Penelope has not returned. She 'didn't come home to dinner neither."

Fielding spoke in hushed tones that reminded Helen irresistibly of a death chamber.

"Really, Fielding, I do not see why I should be troubled. She is at the Rectory-"

"Does Miss Penelope always return to dinner?" broke in Helen's voice. "Yes, miss'

"Then why wasn't your mistress told that she had not returned to-day?"

"I didn't want to trouble her, miss. I never vex her with little things; and I knew Miss Penelope would be quite safe at the Rectory."

There was a hint of defiance in Fielding's hushed tones.

"She is quite right," murmured her mistress feebly, "my nerves will not stand-"

A thought had struck Helen.

"Does she return alone?" she said. "I do wish you would not speak so abruptly, Helen. Fielding, my lavender salts."

Fielding handed the bottle to her mistress and answered Helen.

"I can't be spared to take and fetch her, miss, nor cook neither."

"She is perfectly safe," moaned Mrs. Hardy, "all this is so upsetting—" "Someone must go to the Rectory at once," said Helen.

"Fielding must not go," the peevish voice grew energetic, "it is nearly time for my egg in milk, and I am hot. You must fan me, Fielding."

"Yes, ma'am. And cook can't go yet, because she's just cutting the bread for your buttered toast, and you don't fancy anyone else's toast-" Helen walked to the door.

"I will go," she said, and went. When she returned Fielding met her in the hall. “Oh, miss, you mustn't go to the boodoor, mistress is terribly upset"

"Hasn't Miss Penelope been heard of yet? She hasn't been to"

"Oh, yes, miss. Mr. Parker, the farmer, brought her back soon after you'd started. And mistress is that upset over her naughtiness—

"What has she been doing?"

[ocr errors]

"Hiding and playing truant, and didn't want to come home, and mistress "

"Where is she now?"

"She's locked into the box-room, miss, for a punishment."

A vast pity for the small prisoner swept over Helen's soul.

She looked round the darkening hall, and through her mind flashed those words of Charles Lamb anent his

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

"No, no, miss! She's quieted down now," Fielding held out the key in an agitated hand.

Helen took it and swept up the stairs.

She knew she might be disquieting herself vainly, but the mere idea of a child's suffering terror hurt her. She had been a nervous child herself.

When she opened the door of the boxroom silence and dim shadows greeted her. She peered round the room, which was filled with boxes and trunks and rubbish. She recognized with a thrill the ghostly possibilities of the place to a nervous prisoner.

"Penelope," her charming voice rang out clear and comforting.

Over in a corner she descried a bundle that looked despairingly human. She made her way swiftly to the corner and bent over the bundle.

[ocr errors]

"Darling.' She touched the little figure, and a scream of terror echoed amongst the empty boxes.

Helen saw that Penelope was lying huddled up, face hidden against the floor, and both ears covered tight with agonized hands. Quickly, and with a firm touch, Helen pulled the hands away.

She felt a long shiver pass through the little body, but no more screams rang out. "Penelope, I am Aunt Helen. Darling, don't you remember me?" She held her close to her warm heart, "Aunt Helen, dear."

Slowly the figure in her arms relaxed. In a trembling whisper Penelope muttered, "They will get you too-you too

"We'll come downstairs now," Helen said cheerfully.

A pair of arms clung round her neck with stifling fervor.

"Will you lock the door?" Penelope whispered, "there are such a lot of them-oh, do lock the door!"

"Yes, dear," answered Helen soothingly, "but it's only bad dreams, sweetheart."

She turned the key with reassuring creaks in the lock, and they went downstairs. Helen's gray eyes were blazing.

"Did you have your tea, darling?" she asked briskly, as they entered the dining-room.

"There was the one with the light green eyes," whispered Penelope, "and he was ever so long and he crept along round the boxes- 99

"Penelope," Helen's voice was very firm, "he was a bad dream, they were all bad dreams: none of them were real. You must not talk about them. I shall be vexed with you if you do."

Penelope's arms tightened. "Oh, no! Oh, no!"

"Very well. Now tell me did you have a good tea?"

Penelope shook her head. "Why not?"

"I-I was too bad to have tea." "What did you have for dinner?" The arms clung. "I was on the grass."

"Do you mean that you have had no dinner?"


For a moment Helen's lips shut in a straight line. Then she said gently, "Will you stay here a minute, dear? I want to get you something nice and hot to eat."

Penelope's short life had been one of obedience. She struggled valiantly and loosened her arms. When Helen saw the small white face for the first time in the light, her upper lip quiv

ered, and she caught Penelope to her again.

Penelope's courage gave way; her arms clung round Helen's neck. "Please-oh, please," she whispered, "I don't want anything to eat- ever."

"We will ring for cook," said Helen tenderly.

When cook came she quailed under the gray eyes and made voluble ex<cuses. Helen cut her short.

"Where is her dinner?"

"Cook did so 'ate waste, and that Fielding 'ad such a big appetite you wouldn't believe, and nat'rally they thought when Miss Peniloppy didn't come 'ome as 'ow she were dining at the Rectory."

"You mean you have eaten it. What have you in the house?"

It appeared that there was mistress's beef tea for that night and for to-mor


"Make half of it hot at once for Miss Penelope."

Cook looked scared at that. She began a feeble remonstrance, but "I will take all blame," said Helen; and cook bustled away in a sudden hurry of sympathy for Penelope now that all responsibility was removed from her shoulders.

Helen sat down with Penelope on her knee, and kissed the soft little neck and cheeks and hair. Helen was rarely demonstrative, but there was an ache in her heart for her small niece.

Penelope said politely, "Thank you, Aunt Helen," and looked up at her with heavy, dazed eyes.

"Don't, child!" Helen's voice was sharp.

Penelope of course misunderstood. "I-am sorry," she said.

It was a formula she was continually called upon to use without understanding why.

Helen's brows contracted. She kissed her gently, and began to talk to her pleasantly on cheerful subjects. She

doubted if Penelope followed what she said, but she achieved her object of making the atmosphere less electric and charged with invisible horrors.

When cook brought in the tray she set it down on the table with a beaming air of self-approval. "There, dearie, all strong and 'ot, and two pieces of toast with it!"

"Thank you, cook," Penelope said politely, but she did not want the food. However, she took it obediently, and when she had begun, liked it. When it was finished Helen put her arms round her close and warm. "Now tell me all about it, dear," she said.

And Penelope, her usual staid selfrestraint swept away in a mighty whirlwind of emotions, poured it all out in a torrent of sob-broken words. It was a queer jumble of pathos and humor, of tragedy and comedy, but to Penelope it was all tragedy. It was not only of that day she told; unknowingly she told of other days too. With the utter abandon of a sensitive nature meeting with an unexpected wealth of sudden love and sympathy, she poured out all without reservation. Many expressions shone in Helen's eyes as she listened. The little calf brought a pitiful smile to them, and they were often filled with sorrow; but there was anger, too, deep anger, and scorn and disgust and wonder.


But when the breathless, broken voice ceased there was only love. nelope lay exhausted in her arms, and a feeling of restful happiness stole over her. "Aunt Helen," she said earnestly, "you are heaps comfortabler than a bed."

Two minutes later Helen laid the small sleeping figure down on the sofa, covered it with a rug, and sought her sister.

Five minutes later still a bell was pealing wildly from the boudoir, and Mrs. Harding was calling feebly for Fielding and sal volatile. Helen, her

« VorigeDoorgaan »