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Wild Heather

L. T. Meade




  With a Frontispiece in Colourand Three Black-and-White Plates

  Cassell and Company, Ltd.London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne1911

  All Rights Reserved


  HEATHER _Frontispiece_







  There are all kinds of first things one can look back upon; I mean bythat the first things of all. There is the little toddling journeyacross the floor, with father's arms stretched out to help one, andmother's smile to greet one when the adventurous journey is over. Andthere are other baby things, of course. Then there come the big thingswhich one can never forget.

  My big thing arrived when I was eight years old. I came home with fatherfrom India. Father's name was Major Grayson, and I was called Heather. Iwas petted a great deal on board ship, and made a fuss about, and, inconsequence, I made a considerable fuss about myself and gave myselfairs. Father used to laugh when I did this and catch me in his arms andpress me close to his heart, and say:

  "My dearest little Heather, I can quite perceive that you will be amost fascinating woman when you grow up."

  I remember even now his words, and the look on his face when he saidthese things, but as I did not in the least comprehend them at the time,I merely asked in my very pertest voice for the nicest sweetmeats hecould procure for me, on which he laughed more than ever, and, turningto his brother officers, said:

  "Didn't I say so? Heather will take the cake some time."

  I suppose at that period of my life there was no one in the wide worldwhom I loved as I did father. There was my nurse, but I was notspecially devoted to her, for she was fond of teasing me and stickingpins into my dress without being careful with regard to the points. WhenI wriggled and rushed away from her she used to say that I was a verynaughty and troublesome child. She never praised me nor used mysteriouswords about me as father did, so, of course, I clung close to him.

  I very, very dimly remembered my mother. As I have just said, my firstmemory of all was running across the nursery floor and being caught bymy father, and my mother smiling at me. I really cannot recall her afterthat, except that I have a very dim memory of being, on one occasion,asked to stoop down and kiss her. My father was holding me in his armsat the time, and I stooped and stooped and pressed my lips to hers andsaid: "Oh, how cold!" and shuddered and turned away. I did not know thenthat she was dead. This fact was not told me until long afterwards.

  We had a most prosperous voyage home on board the _Pleiades_, with nevera storm nor any unpleasant sea complication, and father was in highspirits, always chatting and laughing and playing billiards and makinghimself agreeable all round, and I was very much petted, although onelady assured me that it was on account of father, who was such a verypopular man, and not because I was little Heather Grayson myself.

  By and by the voyage came to an end, and we were safe back in oldEngland. We landed at Southampton, and father took Anastasia and me to abig hotel for the night. Anastasia, my nurse, and I had a huge room allto ourselves. It did look big after the tiny state cabin to which I hadgrown accustomed.

  Anastasia was at once cross and sorrowful, and I wondered very much whyshe was not glad to be back in old England. But when I asked her if shewere glad, her only answer was to catch me to her heart and kiss me overand over again, and say that she never, oh never! meant to be unkind tome, but that her whole one desire was to be my dearest, darling "Nana,"and that she hoped and prayed I would ever remember her as such. Ithought her petting almost as tiresome as her crossness, so I said, inmy usual pert way:

  "If you are really fond of me, you won't stick any more pins in me,"when, to my amazement, she burst into a flood of tears.

  Now I had a childish horror of tears, and ran out of the room. Whatmight have happened I do not know; whether I should have lost myself inthe great hotel, or whether Anastasia would have rushed after me andpicked me up and scolded me, and been more like her old self, andforbidden me on pain of her direst displeasure to ever leave her sidewithout permission, I cannot tell. But the simple fact was that I sawfather in the corridor of the hotel, and father looked into my face andsaid:

  "Why, Heather, what's the matter?"

  "It's Anastasia who is so queer," I said; "she is sorry about something,and I said, 'If you are sorry you will never stick pins in meagain'--and then she burst out crying. I hate cry-babies, don't you,Daddy?"

  "Yes; of course I do," replied my father. "Come along downstairs withme, Heather."

  He lifted me up in his arms. I have said that I was eight years old, butI was a very tiny girl, made on a small and neat scale. I had little,dark brown curls, which Anastasia used to damp every morning and convertinto hideous rows of ringlets, as she called them. I was very proud ofmy "ringerlets," as I pronounced the word at that time, and I had browneyes to match my hair, and a neat sort of little face. I was not theleast like father, who had a big, rather red face and grey hair, which Iloved to pull, and kind, very bright, blue eyes and a big mouth,somewhat tremulous. I used to wonder even then why it trembled.

  He rushed downstairs with me in his usual boisterous fashion, while Ilaughed and shouted and told him to go faster and faster, and then heentered a private sitting-room and rang the bell, and told the man whoappeared at his summons that dinner was to be served for two, and thatMiss Heather Grayson would dine with her father. Oh, didn't I feelproud--this was an honour indeed!

  "I need not go back to the cry-baby, then, need I?" I said.

  "No," replied my father; "you need not, Heather. You are to stay withme."

  "Well, let's laugh and be very jolly," I said. "Let me be a robber,pretending to pick your pockets, and you must lie back and shut youreyes and pretend to be sound, sound asleep. You must not even start whenI pull your diamond ring off your finger. But, I say--oh, Daddy!--where_is_ your diamond ring?"

  "Upstairs, or downstairs, or in my lady's chamber," replied Daddy."Don't you bother about it, Heather. No, I don't want to play at beingburgled to-night. Sit close to me; lay your little head on my breast."

  I did so. I could feel his great heart beating. It beat in big throbs,now up, now down, now up, now down again.

  Dinner was brought in, and I forgot all about the ring in the delight ofwatching the preparations, and of seeing the grand, tall waiter layingthe table for two. He placed a chair at one end of the table for father,and at the other end for me. This I did not like, and I said so. Thenfather requested that the seats should be changed and that I should sit,so to speak, in his pocket. I forget, in all the years that have rolledby, what we had for dinner, but I know that some of it I liked and someI could not bear, and I also remember that it was the dishes I could notbear that father loved. He ate a good deal, and then he took me in hisarms and settled me on his knee, sitting so that I should face him, andthen he spoke.

  "Heather, how old are you?"

  I was accustomed to this sort of catechism, and answered at once, verygravely:

  "Eight, Daddy."

  "Oh, you are more than eight," he replied, "you are eight and a half,aren't you?"

  "Eight years, five months, one week, and five days," I said.

  "Come, that is better," he said, his blue eyes twinkling. "Always beaccurate when you speak. Always rememb
er, please, Heather, that it waswant of accuracy ruined me."

  "What is ruined?" I asked. "What in the world do you mean?"

  "What I say. Now don't repeat my words. You will be able to think ofthem by and by."

  I was silent, pondering. Daddy was charming; there never was his like,but he did say puzzling things.

  "Now," he said, looking full at me, "what do you think I have come toEngland for?"

  I shook my head. When I did not know a thing I invariably shook my head.

  "I have come on your account," he replied.

  "On mine, Daddy?"

  "Yes. I am going back again to India in a short time."

  "Oh, what fun!" I answered. "I love being on board ship."

  He did not reply at all to this.

  "Why don't you speak?" I said, giving his grizzled locks a lusty tug.

  "I am thinking," was his answer.

  "Well, think aloud," I said.

  "I am thinking about you, Heather. Have you ever by any chance heard ofa lady called Aunt Penelope?"

  "Never," I answered. "Aunt Penelope--Aunt Penelope--what is an aunt,Daddy?"

  "Well, there is an Aunt Penelope waiting to see you in old England, andI am going to take you down to her to-morrow. She is youraunt--listen--think hard, Heather--use your brains--because she is yourmother's sister."

  "Oh!" I answered. "Does that make an aunt?"

  "Yes, that makes an aunt; or if she were your father's sister she wouldalso be your aunt."

  I tried to digest this piece of information as best I could.

  "I am taking you to her to-morrow, and you must learn to love her asthough she were your mother."

  I shook my head.

  "I can't," I said.

  "Well, don't think about it," was Daddy's reply. "Love her, withoutknowing that you love her. I believe she is a very good woman."

  "I 'spect so," I said. "I don't much care for good womens."

  As a rule I spoke quite correctly, but when excited I did make somelapses.

  "Well, that's all," said father, suddenly putting me down on the floor."Run up to bed now and to sleep. You will see Aunt Penelope to-morrow;you will like her very much. I have brought you all the way to Englandin order that you might see her."

  I was a bit sleepy, and it was very late for me to be up. So I kissedDaddy two or three times and ran upstairs all alone. Anastasia waswaiting for me at the head of the stairs.

  "Anastasia," I shouted, "we are going to have a real jolly time. We aregoing to Aunt Penelope to-morrow. She is aunt because she is mother'ssister; she would be aunt, too, if she was father's sister. I wonder howmany people she is aunt to? Is she your aunt, Anastasia?"

  "No, my dear child," said Anastasia, in quite a gentle tone.

  "And isn't it fun, Anastasia?" I continued. "Daddy has brought me allthe way to England just to see Aunt Penelope, and we are going back toIndia almost immediately--Daddy said so."

  "Said what, Miss Heather?"

  "That we were going back to India almost--almost at once. Isn't it justlovely? You will come too, of course, only you might remember about thepins."

  Anastasia, who had placed me on a little chair, now went abruptly to thefire and stirred it into a brilliant blaze. I stared at it as a childwill who has seldom seen fires. Anastasia stood with her back to me fora long time, even after she had done poking the fire, and when sheturned round I thought her eyes looked funny.

  "Are you going to cry again?" I said. "I don't like cry-babies."

  "Of course not, Miss Heather. Now let me undress you."

  A minute later I was in bed, the firelight playing on the walls. The bedwas big and warm and soft. I felt tired and very happy. I dropped intoprofound slumber. When I awoke it was broad daylight, and Anastasia wasshaking me.

  "Get up, miss," she said. "If you want to be off in time you must bestirring."

  "Oh, hurrah!" I answered. "This is Aunt Penelope's day. Are we allgoing, Anastasia? And when we go, shall I ask her at once if she is youraunt, too?"

  "Now, for goodness' sake, stay still, Miss Heather, while I tie yourthings. You are such an awful fidget."

  I was dressed in an incredibly short space of time, and I had eaten agood breakfast, and Anastasia had taken me by the hand and brought medownstairs. Daddy was waiting for me in the hall, and he looked very bigand broad and important. He went up to Anastasia and said a few words toher, and I think he slipped something into her hand, but I am not sure.She turned abruptly and walked away, and I said:

  "Where is she going, father?"

  "Never mind."

  Then we got into a cab, and I said:

  "But where's Anastasia?"

  "Oh, if she's quick we may meet her at the railway station," saidfather; "and if she is slow she must come on by the next train."

  "Oh, dear, what a nuisance!" I answered. "I did want her to come withus."

  "It all depends upon whether she is quick or slow," said father.

  "Well, at any rate," I answered, with a child's easy acceptance of asituation which she cannot understand, "it is lovely to go to AuntPenelope."

  We reached the railway station. Anastasia was slow--she was nowhere tobe seen. Father said, in his cheerful voice:

  "All right, little woman, she'll catch the next train." And then wefound ourselves facing each other in two padded compartments of afirst-class carriage, and the train moved out of the station, and wewere off. There happened to be no one else in the carriage, but Daddywas very silent, and almost pale, for him. Once he said, bendingtowards me and speaking abruptly:

  "Promise me one thing?"

  "Yes, Daddy," I answered.

  "You will never think badly of me whatever you hear?"

  Now this was such a queer speech that I could not in the leastunderstand it, but I answered at once, in the queer sort of metaphorthat a child might use:

  "I would not think badly of you, father, if the world rocked."

  He kissed me two or three times after I said this, and so far recoveredhis usual self that he allowed me to sit on his knee and play with hiswatch chain. I was greatly taken with a little charm he wore, and when Isaid I liked it he told me that it had once belonged to a great idol inone of the most marvellous temples in the historic town of Delhi. Hesaid it was supposed to be a charm and to bring luck, and then hedetached it from his chain and slipped it on to a narrow gold chainwhich I wore round my neck. He told me to keep it always, for it wascertain to bring luck. I said:

  "What's luck?"

  He answered: "Fair gales and a prosperous sail."

  I nodded my head satisfactorily at that, and said:

  "Then I will wear it, and you and me, Daddy"--I went wrong again with mygrammar--"will have fair gales and a prosperous sail when we arereturning to India."

  He thrust his head out of the carriage window when I said this, and whenhe put it back again I noticed that for some reason his face was as redas ever.

  Aunt Penelope's name was Penelope Despard, and she lived in a prettylittle place outside a pretty little town about fifty miles away fromSouthampton. We got out at the station, which was called Cherton, andthere a cab awaited us, which had evidently been sent by order, and someluggage was put on the roof. I was too excited by then to make anycomment with regard to the luggage, although I noticed it afterwards andobserved that it was all marked "H. G.," and there was nothing marked"G. G.," for father's name was Gordon Grayson. I said to father, as wegot into the cab:

  "I do wonder when Anastasia's train will arrive." And he said:

  "So do I. I must make inquiries presently." But although I expected himto make these inquiries at once he did not do so, and the cab startedoff in the direction of Miss Despard's cottage.

  Miss Penelope Despard lived in a little house with a little gardenattached. The little house went by the name of Hill View, and the gardenand tiny lawn were very pretty and very neatly kept. But I wasaccustomed to big things--that is, except on board ship, when, ofcourse, I had the sea to look at, whi
ch seemed to go on for ever andever. So I was not excited about Aunt Penelope's garden. Father's facecontinued to be very red. He held my hand and took me up the neatly-keptgravel walk, and pushed a very brightly-polished brass button, which wasinstantly answered by a neat-looking boy, with a perfectly round face,in buttons.

  "Is Miss Despard in?" asked father. And then a lady in spectacles cameout of a room at one side of a narrow hall, and father said:

  "Hallo, Penelope! It is years since we met, and, Penelope, this isHeather. Heather, my darling, here is your Aunt Penelope."

  "I hope you are a good child and do what you are told always," said AuntPenelope.

  She spoke in a very prim voice, and stooping down, kissed me, hurting myface as she did so with the rim of her spectacles. I disliked her on thespot and told her so with the frank eyes of a child, although I was notquite rude enough to utter any words by my lips.

  "Well, Gordon," said my aunt, "you were a little late, and I wasbeginning to fear that you had missed your train. We shall just havetime to arrange everything before you return to Southampton."

  "I am going to London to-night," said father.

  "Well, well, it really doesn't matter to me. Child, don't stare."

  I looked away at once. There was a parrot in a cage, and the parrotsaid, in his shrill voice at that moment: "Stop knocking at the door."

  I burst into a peal of laughter and ran towards him. I was about toapproach his cage with my finger, when Aunt Penelope said:

  "He bites."

  I did not want him to bite my finger, for his beak was so sharp. So Isaid:

  "Please, Aunt Penelope, are you aunt also to Anastasia?"

  "I have never heard of her," said Aunt Penelope. "Little girls should beseen and not heard."

  At that moment the parrot again shouted out, "Stop knocking at thedoor," and I was so amused by him that I did not mind Aunt Penelope.After all, nothing much mattered, for I would be going to Londonimmediately with Daddy.

  I stood and stared at the parrot, hoping much that he would speak again.The parrot cocked his head to one side and looked at me, but he did notutter a word.

  "Speak, oh! do speak," I said in a whisper; the parrot turned his backon me.

  Aunt Penelope said, "Sit down, Heather."