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Black, White and Gray: A Story of Three Homes, Page 2

George Manville Fenn



  Before the clock had finished striking six the next morning, Dennis andMaisie were in the stable-yard. Tom was there, pumping water into apail, and Jacko the raven was there, stalking about with gravity, anduttering a deep croak now and then. Jacko was not a nice character, andmore feared than liked by most people. He was a thief and a bully, andso cunning that it was impossible to be up to all his tricks. Inmischief he delighted, and nothing pleased him more than to frighten andtease helpless things, yet, with all these bad qualities, he had beenallowed to march about for many years, unreproved, in Aunt Katharine'sstable-yard. Maisie had been very much afraid of him in the days whenshe wore socks, for he had a way of digging at her little bare legs withhis cruel beak whenever he could get near her. She was not frightenedof him now that she was older, especially when Dennis was with her, butstill she did not trust him, and took care this morning not to cross hispath on her way to speak to Tom.

  "If Jacko knew about the kittens," remarked Dennis as they passed, "he'dgo and peck out their eyes."

  "Oh!" shuddered Maisie; "but," she added in a whisper, for she alwaysfancied Jacko understood, "their eyes aren't open yet, and besides Madamwould claw and scratch at him."

  "He can claw and scratch too," said Dennis. "I expect he could killMadam and her kittens easily. And then he'd bury them, just as he doeshis food, you know, and then."

  Fortunately for Maisie, who was listening with horror to this picture ofcruelty and crime, Dennis stopped at this point, for they were now closeto Tom, who with his back towards them was making a dreadful noise witha creaking pump handle.

  "I say, Tom," he called out. Tom slowly turned his freckled face overhis shoulder, but did not leave off his work. "Madam's kittens are_not_ to be drowned," shouted Dennis at the top of his voice.

  "They're _all_ to be saved," added Maisie in a shriller key.--"OhDennis, I don't believe he has taken it in. Do tell him to leave offpumping."

  But just then, Tom's pails being full, he left off of his own accord,and proceeded to carry them into the stable.

  "You _do_ understand, Tom," said Maisie anxiously, for she had an ideathat Tom rather liked drowning kittens. "_Not_ to be drowned."

  Tom's voice having answered indistinctly from one of the stalls, sheturned to follow Dennis, who was already half-way up the steep ladderwhich led to the loft. After all, Madam could not be told the goodnews, for she had gone out for a stroll, leaving her family in a littlewarm furry heap in their bed.

  "Just fancy how dreadful it would be for her if she came back and foundonly one left," said Maisie, touching the little round heads softly withher finger. "I _am_ so glad they're not to be drowned."

  "I'm tremendously glad we're going to keep the black one ourselves,"said Dennis. "What do you think of the name of Smut?"

  "I don't like it a bit," said Maisie.

  They had got no further towards a name by breakfast time. All thosewhich Maisie liked, Dennis thought silly, and those which Dennisproposed, Maisie thought ugly, so it promised to be a difficult matterto settle. As soon as they were seated at breakfast, however, AuntKatharine made a suggestion which put the black kitten out of theirheads for the present.

  "Children," she said, "I am going to drive over to Haughton Park tolunch this morning. If you like, you may both go with me and seePhilippa."

  There was a moment's pause, and then Dennis asked seriously:

  "Shall you go anywhere besides, Aunt Katharine, or just straight there?"

  "I shall only stop at Mrs Broadbent's on my way," she replied, "to askabout so some fowls."

  The children looked at each other, but made no answer.

  "Well," said their aunt, smiling, "I dare say you'd like to talk it overtogether. I shall start at twelve o'clock, and if you decide to go, youmust be ready to the minute, for I shall not wait for you. Do just asyou like about it."

  To go or not to go to Haughton was always a matter which requiredthought. There were things against it, and things for it. In Maisie'sopinion, there was a great deal to be liked in the visit. There was alarge, beautiful house, much larger than Fieldside, and a park with deerin it: there were all sorts of dolls and toys and pretty things whichshe enjoyed playing with, and--there was Philippa. Philippa was perhapsa doubtful pleasure, for if she was in a cross mood she was notagreeable, but there was always the chance that she would be pleasant,and then she and Maisie got on very well together with their dolls.Dennis was disposed to be rather scornful about going to Haughton, butin his case there was the attraction of the drive, when Aunt Katharinesometimes let him hold the reins, and there was the chance of herstopping at somewhere interesting on the way. Mrs Broadbent's would bebetter than nothing to-day, though it was not his favourite farmhouse.

  "I don't think I want to go _much_," he said, as soon as he and Maisiehad reached the play-room. "Aunt Trevor's sure to have a headache, andthen we shall have to be as quiet as mice."

  "P'raps she'll let us go out with Philippa," said Maisie.

  "Not without Miss Mervyn comes too," said Dennis. "I don't care aboutthat--it's no fun. She's always saying, `You mustn't do this, or youmustn't do that.'"

  "Well," said Maisie, "should I go with Aunt Katharine then, and you stayat home?"

  But this did not suit Dennis at all. It would never do for Maisie tocome back and describe all manner of enjoyments which he had not shared.It would be better to go and grumble than to be left at home alone.

  "Oh, I'll go," he said, condescendingly. And so it came to pass thatwhen the ponies, Jack and Jill, came round, the children were bothwaiting in the hall, fully prepared for the drive. As she drew on herdriving gloves, Aunt Katharine gave a glance at them to see that theywere warmly wrapped up, for it was a fresh day in early spring.

  "Jump in, children, and let Mary tuck you well up; it's rather cold,"she said.--"Give me the reins, Tom. All right."

  Then came a dash down the short avenue, with Tom running before to openthe gate, and then they were in the village street, where Jack and Jillalways thought it right to plunge and shy a little. From their seat atthe back Dennis and Maisie nodded at their various acquaintances as theypassed, for they knew nearly every one. There was Mrs Gill at thepost-office, standing at her open door; there was Mr Couples, who keptthe shop; and there was Dr Price just mounting his horse, with his twoterriers, Snip and Snap, eager to follow. Above this little cluster ofhouses stood the church and the vicarage close together, on a gentlyrising hill; and the rest of the village, including two or three largefarms, was scattered about here and there, with wide spaces between.

  "Why are you going to Mrs Broadbent's, Aunt Katharine?" asked Dennis, asthey turned sharply to the right.

  "Because I want to ask her to let me have a setting of Minorcas,"replied his aunt, "and no one else keeps them."

  "And we might ask her, you know," said Maisie, "whether she'd like oneof the kittens. I should _think_ that would be a good home, shouldn'tyou?"

  "P'raps she doesn't like cats," said Dennis carelessly. "We've gotthree weeks, so it really doesn't matter much yet."

  The Broadbents' square white house now came in sight. It had a trimgarden, a tennis ground, and a summer-house, and was completely screenedfrom the farm-buildings by a gloomy row of fir-trees. The children didnot as a rule care to pay visits to Mrs Broadbent, for there were noanimals or interesting things about; but to-day Maisie asked leave to goin, for she had the kittens on her mind, and felt she must not lose achance.

  Mrs Broadbent was a thin little widow, who wore smart caps, and had ageneral air of fashion about her person. She was sharp and clever, wellup to the business of managing her large farm, and familiar with everydetail of it. Unfortunately she considered this a thing to be ashamedof, and, much to Miss Chester's annoyance, always pretended ignorancewhich did not exist. What she was proud of, and thrust foremost in herconversation, were the accomplishments of two highly-educated daughters,who pain
ted on china, and played the violin, and on this subject shereceived no encouragement from Aunt Katharine.

  "I shouldn't have thought of disturbing you so early, Mrs Broadbent,"she said briskly, when they were seated in the smart littledrawing-room, "but I've come on business. I want to know if you've asetting of Minorca fowls to dispose of. I've a fancy to rear some."

  Mrs Broadbent simpered a little and put her head on one side.

  "I've no doubt we can oblige you, Miss Chester," she said. "I'll speakto my poultry-man about it, and let you know."

  "How many Minorcas have you?" asked Miss Chester.

  "Oh, I really couldn't tell you, Miss Chester," replied Mrs Broadbentwith a little laugh. "I never thought of inquiring."

  "Not know how many of each sort of fowls you have!" exclaimed AuntKatharine. "Why, if I had a farm, I'd know every one of them by sight,and how many eggs they each laid. I suppose, though," she added, "youleave that to your daughters. They must be a great help to you."

  Mrs Broadbent bridled:

  "Emmeline and Lilian are far too much engaged," she said, "with theirstudies and their artistic work. Emmeline's quite devoted herself toart. I've given her a large room at the top of the house for a studio."

  "Indeed," said Miss Chester coldly. "And what does she do in it?"

  "Just now she's painting some lovely plaques," said Mrs Broadbent, "andLilian's quite taken to the new poker-work."

  "What is that?" asked her visitor.

  "You haven't seen it, Miss Chester? Well, it _is_ quite new, and as Iwas saying the other day, in these remote parts we don't see anything,do we? But Lilian's been staying in London, and she learned it there.She did that frame."

  It seemed that poker-work was intended to have the effect of carving,which was produced by burning patterns on wood with a red-hotinstrument.

  "Well, if you ask my candid opinion," said Aunt Katharine, rising tolook at the frame, "I should like it much better plain; but it's aharmless amusement, if wasting time is ever harmless.--Come Maisie,Dennis will be quite tired of waiting.--You'll let me know about theeggs, Mrs Broadbent, and their price. I shall be much obliged if youcan spare me a setting."

  In another moment Aunt Katharine would have swept out of the room, withher usual activity, but after waiting so long for a pause in theconversation, Maisie could not give up her purpose.

  "Do you want a cat, please?" she said, standing in front of MrsBroadbent--"that is, a nice little kitten. One of our cat Madam's."

  But Mrs Broadbent was quite certain that she did not want a cat, andsaid so with some sharpness, for she was never pleased at Miss Chester'soutspoken opinions, though she was used to them. She had too many catsabout the place now. She supposed as long as there were mice there mustbe cats, but to her mind there was not much to choose between them.

  "I don't really suppose it would have been a good home," said Maisie,when she was tucked in again beside Dennis; "Mrs Broadbent doesn't likecats, and she looked quite cross when I asked her, but I think that wasbecause Aunt Katharine didn't like Lilian's poker-work frame."

  Haughton Park, towards which Jack and Jill were now quickly making theirway, was about four miles from Fieldside, and just outside the littletown of Upwell. It was a large house, standing in a park of someextent, and was built in what was called the Italian style, withterraces in front of it, and stone balustrades, and urns and vaseswherever they could be put. Inside, the rooms were very large andlofty, and there was a great hall with marble pillars, and a hugestaircase with statues in niches all the way up. Perhaps from someassociation with the sound of the name, Maisie always thought it was aproud cold house, which could not stoop to notice any one who came inand out of its doors, and did not mind whether they went or stayed.Yet, from its very unlikeness to Fieldside, it had a certain fascinationfor her, and she could not help admiring it.

  Here, in lonely grandeur, lived Aunt Katharine's widowed sister, MrsTrevor, with her daughter Philippa, who was just ten years old. MrsTrevor had always wondered why her brother, Captain Chester, had notsent Dennis and Maisie to Haughton to be educated with Philippa. Surelynothing could have been more suitable or better for the children!

  But by some extraordinary blindness, he had passed over his elder sisterand all her possessions, and chosen Katharine as their guardian untilhis return from India. When he did return, thought Mrs Trevor, he wouldsee what a mistake he had made; even now, if he knew what odd ideasKatharine had, and how she allowed the children to run wild, andassociate with the villagers, he would regret his choice--but it was noaffair of hers. Nevertheless, it always gave her a sense of injury tosee Dennis and Maisie with their Aunt Katharine. It was not that sheenvied her the charge of them, for she was, or fancied she was, somewhatof an invalid, and would have disliked the trouble. But she felt shehad been slighted when the children were sent to Fieldside, and a slightwas a thing she could not forget.

  Mrs Trevor received her visitors this morning in her boudoir, and roseto greet them languidly from her low chair--a tall elegant figure, insoft clinging robes. The room was full of the heavy scent of hyacinths,and warm with the spring sunshine and a bright fire. As Aunt Katharineentered with her usual alert step, she seemed to bring a great deal ofcold air and life into it from the outside world. The children followedher rather shyly.

  "Here we are, you see," she said, in her loud, cheerful voice. "How areyou, Helen? You look rather white."

  "I am suffering from my old enemy to-day," replied Mrs Trevor, with aforced smile; "my head is very painful."

  "Ah," said Aunt Katharine, pulling off her gloves briskly, "a littlefresh air is the best cure for that. To be shut up in this warm roomwith all those flowers is enough to poison you. Wouldn't you like awindow open?"

  "Pray, Katharine!" exclaimed Mrs Trevor, putting up her hand with ashudder; "the very idea destroys me. It is an east wind. Warmth andrest are the only cure." She put up her double eye-glasses, and lookedat Dennis and Maisie. "Did you drive over? How are the children?"

  "As jolly as possible," said Aunt Katharine. She stood on thehearthrug, flapping her gloves against one hand. Maisie always thoughtthat her aunt wore shorter skirts, rougher tweed dresses, and stouterboots when she came to Haughton, than at any other time. Also, sheseemed to speak louder, and to look rosier and broader altogether.Perhaps this only seemed to be so, because Aunt Trevor's skin was sofair, and her voice so gentle, and because she wore such graceful softgowns, and such tiny satin slippers. Maisie was very fond of AuntKatharine, but she admired Aunt Trevor's appearance immensely, andalways gazed at her as though she were a picture hanging on the wall.Dennis did not share in this. He fidgeted about in his chair, fingeredthe things in his pockets, hoped it would soon be time for luncheon, andwondered whether he and Maisie would be allowed to go out first.

  "Ah, here is Philippa!" said Aunt Katharine.

  A little girl of about Maisie's age--but so much taller and slighterthat she looked a great deal older--came into the room. She had ratherlong features, a pointed chin, and a very pure white complexion, withhardly a tinge of colour; and, as she ran forward to kiss her littlebrown-faced cousins, she was a great contrast to them in every way. Herdress, which was prettily made and fanciful, and her gleaming bronzeshoes added to this; for Dennis and his sister seldom wore anything butserge or holland, and their boots were of strong country make, whichmade their feet look rather clumsy.

  "If the children _must_ wear such thick boots, Katharine," Mrs Trevoroften said, "you might at least have them made to fit. It gives themthe air of little clodhoppers."

  But Miss Chester went her own way, and Aunt Trevor's objections had noeffect on her arrangements.

  "Ask if we may go out!" said Dennis, in an urgent whisper to his cousin,who at once ran up to her mother, and repeated the request in the midstof her conversation with Aunt Katharine. Mrs Trevor cast an anxiousglance out the window.

  "Well, my darling, as you have a cold and the wind is in the east,
Ithink you had better play indoors. You can take your cousins into thelong gallery and have a nice game."

  Philippa frowned and pushed out her lower lip:

  "I want to go out," she murmured.

  "But your cough, my dearest," said her mother in a pleading tone.--"Whatdo you say, Katharine? Would it not be more prudent for her to keepindoors?"

  "I think it would be best for her to do as you wish," said AuntKatharine, with a half smile at Philippa's pouting lips.

  "I _must_ go out with Dennis and Maisie," said the little girl in awhining voice.

  "Dennis and Maisie will be quite happy indoors," said Mrs Trevorentreatingly; "you can show them your new violin, you know, and playthem a tune."

  "I don't want to," said Philippa, with a rising sob.

  Mrs Trevor looked alarmed.

  "My darling, don't excite yourself," she said; "we will see--we will askMiss Mervyn. Perhaps if you are very warmly wrapped up."

  Philippa's brow cleared at once.

  "Then we may go?" she said.

  "Ask Miss Mervyn to come and speak to me a moment," said her mother."Such a difficult, delicate temperament to deal with," she continued, asthe door closed on her daughter. "Not like a commonplace nature," witha glance at Dennis and Maisie; "so excitable, that it makes her ill tobe thwarted in any way. Indeed the doctor forbids it."

  "How bad for her!" said Aunt Katharine bluntly. "Children are neverhappy until they learn to obey."

  "That sort of system may answer with some children," said Mrs Trevor;"but my poor delicate Philippa requires infinite tact."

  "What do you think, Miss Mervyn," as a thin, careworn-looking ladyentered, "of Philippa going out to-day? She wants to take her cousinsinto the garden for a little while."

  Miss Mervyn looked anxiously from mother to daughter.

  "She _has_ been coughing this morning, and the wind _is_ cold," shebegan, when she was interrupted by an angry burst of tears fromPhilippa.

  "I _must_ go out," she cried between her sobs. "You're a cross thing tosay it's cold. I _will_ go out."

  "There, there, my darling," said Mrs Trevor; "do control yourself. Youshall go.--Pray, Miss Mervyn, take care that she is warmly dressed, andhas goloshes and a thick veil. You will, of course, go with thechildren, and keep to the sheltered places, and on no account allowPhilippa to run on the grass or to get overheated."

  Philippa's tears and sobs ceased at once, and soon muffled up to theeyes, she was ready to go out with her cousins, followed by the patientMiss Mervyn, and Mrs Trevor was left at liberty to bestow some attentionon her guest. As soon as they were out of sight of the windows,Philippa's first action was to tear off the white knitted shawl whichwas wrapped round her neck and mouth.

  "If you don't keep that on, we must go in again," said Miss Mervyn.

  "I won't wear it, and I won't go in," said Philippa. "If you teaseabout it, I shall scream, and then I shall be ill; and then it will beyour fault."

  Poor Miss Mervyn shook her head, but after a few mild persuasions gavein, and Philip had her way as usual, not only in this, but in everythingthat she wished to do throughout the walk. Dennis and Maisie were usedto seeing this whenever they came to Haughton, but it never ceased tosurprise them, because it was so very different from their unquestioningobedience to rules at Fieldside. It certainly did not seem to makePhilippa happy or pleasant. Although she did what she liked, she neverappeared to like what she did, and was always wanting somethingdifferent, and complaining about everything.

  "Let's go back now," she said at last, dragging her feet slowly througha puddle as she spoke; "my feet are wet."

  "I should think they were," sighed Miss Mervyn. "Come, let us makehaste home, so that you may have your boots and stockings changed."

  But the perverse Philippa would not hurry. She now lingered behind theothers, and even stood still now and then, causing Miss Mervyn greatmisery. "She will certainly take cold," she murmured. "Cannot youpersuade her, my dears, to come on."

  "Let's have a race, Philippa, as far as the house," called out Dennis.

  Running fast had been forbidden, so it was perhaps on that accountattractive to Philippa, who at once consented to the proposal, and MissMervyn, thinking it the less of two evils, made no objection.

  "Maisie must have a start because she's the smallest," said Dennis,placing his sister a little in front; "now, one, two, three, off!"

  The little flying figures sped away towards the house, and Miss Mervynfollowing, was pleased to see that Dennis allowed Philippa to win therace; that would perhaps make her more good-tempered.

  "Ha, ha!" exclaimed Philippa, pointing a scornful finger at Maisie asshe came panting up last, with her round cheeks very red. "What a slowcoach! Maisie's too fat to run."

  "She's younger than we are," said Dennis, who did not allow any one buthimself to tease his sister.

  "There's not much difference," said Philippa, as the children walked upto the house; "in three weeks it will be my birthday, and I shall benine."

  "Mine isn't for three more months," said Maisie.

  "Any one would think me quite twelve years old," said Philippa, with herchin in the air, "because I'm tall and slight. Maisie has such a babylook.--I'm going to have a party on my birthday."

  "Are you?" said Maisie with sudden interest.

  She gave Dennis's arm a squeeze, to make him understand she had just gota good idea; but he only stared round at her, and said, "Don't pinchso," and Philippa continued:

  "Yes, I shall have a party, and a birthday cake, and magnificentpresents."

  "Can you guess what they will be?" asked Maisie.

  "Mother says she won't tell me what hers is," said Philippa; "but Ishall make her."


  "Oh," said Philippa carelessly, "if I want to know very much, I shallcry, and then I always get what I want."

  Philippa was not in a nice mood to-day, and did not improve at luncheon,for her wants and whims seemed to engross every one's attention. IfAunt Katharine tried to turn the conversation to something moreinteresting, Philippa's whining voice broke in, and Mrs Trevor at onceceased to listen to anything else.

  It was a relief to the whole party, when, early in the afternoon, AuntKatharine and her charges were settled once more in the pony-cart, andon their way home to Fieldside.

  "Don't you know why I poked you just after the race?" said Maisie to herbrother, as they drove out of the lodge gates.

  "Because Philippa said such stupid things, I suppose," said Dennis.

  "It wasn't that at all," she replied earnestly; "it was because I'd justthought of a good home for one of the kittens. Wouldn't it be splendidto give it to Philippa for a birthday present? It will be just threeweeks old."

  "H'm," said Dennis doubtfully. He really thought it a capital idea, buthe never liked to encourage Maisie too much.

  She looked round at him, her brown eyes bright with excitement.

  "It would be a magnificent home," she continued, "_more_ than a goodone. It would have nice things to eat, and soft things to lie on, and acollar round its neck, and all those beautiful rooms to run about in!"

  "I suppose they'd be kind to it," said Dennis. "I don't think _I_should like to live at Haughton Park."

  "Of course not, without Aunt Katharine agreed," said Maisie; "butsupposing Haughton Park was hers, wouldn't you like it better thanFieldside?"

  "No," said Dennis promptly; "not half so well. At Fieldside you've onlyto run down the avenue, and there you are in the middle of the village,and only a short way off the Manor Farm. And at Haughton you have to gothrough the Park, where no one lives, and through three gates, and thenyou're only in the Upwell road. It's much duller."

  "There are the deer," said Maisie.

  "But you can't talk to the deer," replied Dennis; "and though they'retame, they're rather stupid, I think."

  "Well," said Maisie, "_I_ like some things at Haughton very much, and Idaresay the kitten will. A cat's quite differe
nt from a boy, isn't it?"

  "Which shall we give?" asked Dennis, warming a little to the idea.

  "The white, _of course_," said Maisie at once.

  She spoke so decidedly, that Dennis felt she must have some good reason,though he could not see why the white should be preferred to the grey.

  Maisie could not explain herself, however. She only repeated that _ofcourse_ the white kitten was the right one to go to Haughton, and thoughshe generally yielded to Dennis, she remained firm in this, and by thetime they reached home the matter was quite settled. The white kittenwas thus provided with a good home; and though, on thinking it over,Maisie doubted whether Philippa would consider it a "magnificentpresent," she had no misgivings as to its future happiness.