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The Lady of the Forest: A Story for Girls, Page 2

L. T. Meade


  The moment the two little girls found themselves outside theirgrandfather's door they wrenched their little hands away from MissGriselda's and Miss Katharine's, and with a gay laugh like two wild,untamed birds flew down the wide oak staircase and across the hall to aroom where a woman, dressed very soberly, waited for them. She wassitting on the edge of a hard cane-bottomed chair, her veil was down,and her whole attitude was one of tense and nervous watchfulness. Thechildren ran to her with little cries of rapture, climbed together onher knee, pulled up her veil, and nearly smothered her pale dark facewith kisses.

  "Mother, mother, mother, he was so cross!"

  "He had pain, mother, and him's eyes was wrinkled up so."

  "But, mother, we gave him a kiss, and he said I was strong and Kitty wasweak. We have not seen the tower yet, and we haven't got our grapes, andthere are two old ladies, and we don't like them much, and we ran awayfrom them--and--oh, here they are!"

  The children clung tightly to their mother, who struggled to her feet,pushed them aside with a gesture almost of despair, and came up at onceto the two Miss Lovels.

  "I know this visit is unwarranted; I know it is considered an intrusion.The children's father was born here, but there is no welcome for them;nevertheless I have brought them. They are beautiful children--look atthem. No fairer daughters of your house ever were born than these two.Look at Rachel; look at Kitty. Is it right they should be brought upwith no comforts in a poor London lodging? Rachel, kiss your aunts.Kitty, little one, kiss your aunts and love them."

  Rachel skipped up gayly to the two stiff old ladies, but Kitty began atlast to be influenced by the frowns which met her on all sides; shepouted, turned her baby face away, and buried it in her mother's lap.

  "Look at them--are they not beautiful?" continued the mother. "Is it fairthat they should be cooped up in a London lodging when their fatherbelonged to this place? I ask you both--you who are my husband's sisters;you who were children when he was a child, who used to play with him andkiss him, and learn your lessons out of the same book, and to sleep inthe same nursery--is it fair?"

  "It is not fair," said Miss Katharine suddenly. She seemed carried quiteout of herself; her eyes shone, and the pink of a long-gone beautyreturned with a transient gleam to her faded cheek. "It is not fair,"she repeated. "No, Griselda, I am not afraid of you. I will say what isin my mind. Valentine's face speaks to me again out of the baby face ofthat dear little child. What was Rupert Lovel to us that we should placea likeness to him before a likeness to our own dead brother? I say it isunfair that Valentine's children should have neither part nor lot in hisold home. I, for one, am willing to welcome them to Avonsyde."

  Miss Griselda had always a most placid face; she now said in her calmesttones:

  "There is no need to excite yourself, Katharine. I too think thechildren have a claim on us. An arrangement can easily be made about thechildren--their mother is the difficulty."

  The face of the plainly dressed young woman could scarcely grow anypaler. She gave a quick, very quick glance at handsome little Rachel,who stood with her head thrown back and her eyes eagerly watching eachmovement of the excited group around her; then the mother's hand touchedKitty's golden head with a very faint caressing touch, and then shespoke:

  "I have come to make terms. I knew I should be considered an obstacle,but that is a mistake. I will be none. I am willing--I am willing toobliterate myself. I would talk to you and make terms, but I would makethem alone--I mean I would rather not make them in the presence of thechildren."

  "I will take the children," said Miss Katharine eagerly; "they want tosee the house; I will take them round. They want grapes; I will takethem to the vineries."

  "Oh, yes, we want grapes," said Rachel in an excited voice; "we wantlots of grapes--don't we, Kitty?"

  "Yes; lots," answered Kitty, turning her flushed little face once moreto view. She had been hiding it for the last few minutes against hermother's black dress.

  "That is my father's bell," said Miss Griselda suddenly. "I must hurryto him. I will see you presently, Mrs. Lovel; and, Katharine, you toomust be present at our interview. I must ask Mrs. Martin to take thechildren round the place."

  Miss Griselda opened the thick oak door of the squire's bedroom and wentin. Her face was changed in expression and her usual self-possession hadto a certain extent deserted her.

  "What an age you have been away, Grizel," said the old man testily. "Youmight have known that I'd want you. Did I not tell you to take thechildren out of the room and to come back to me presently? Did you nothear me when I said, 'Come back to me presently?' Oh, I see how thingsare!" continued the irate old man, with a burst of fury. "I am weak andill now and my commands are nothing--my wishes are not of the slightestconsequence. I know how it will be when I'm gone. You and Katharinepromise faithfully to obey me now, but you'll forget your promises whenI'm gone. Even you, Griselda, who have always had the character of beingstrong-minded, will think nothing of your given word when I'm in mygrave."

  "You're tired, father," said Miss Griselda, "and the unexpectedintrusion of the children has excited you. Let me pour you out a dose ofyour restorative medicine. Here, drink this; now you will feel better."

  The old squire's hand shook so much that he could not hold the glasswhich Miss Griselda tendered to him; but she held it herself to hislips, and when he had drained off its contents he grew a shade calmer.

  "One of those children is very like Rupert Lovel," he murmured. "Astrong girl, with a bold, fine face. You never would have supposed thatthat weak stripling Valentine would have had a child of that build,would you, Grizel?"

  "No, father. But the little girl has a likeness to her mother, and it isabout the mother I have now come to speak to you. Oh, come now, you musttry and listen to me. You must not get over-excited, and you must notbegin to talk absolute rubbish about my disobeying your wishes; for youhave positively got to settle something about Valentine's children."

  "I said I'd have nothing to say to them."

  "Very likely; but you said so before you saw them. Having seen them, itis absolutely impossible for you to turn Valentine's orphan childrenfrom the doors. Their mother cannot support them, and she has broughtthem to us and we must not turn them away. I may as well tell youplainly that I will never consent to the children being sent away fromAvonsyde. I won't wait to disobey you until you are dead in that matter.I shall do so at once, and quite openly, for I could never have anothereasy night on my pillow if I thought Valentine's children werestarving."

  "Who wants them to starve?" grumbled the squire.

  But Miss Griselda's firm words had an effect, and he lowered his chin onhis chest and looked gloomily straight before him.

  "The mother has come here to make terms," said Miss Griselda. "Now whatshall they be?"

  "At least she shall not sleep under my roof! A low girl--no match forValentine! If I said it once I repeat it fifty times. I will never lookon that woman's face, Grizel!"

  "I don't want you to, father. I agree with you that she had better go.Now let me tell you, in as few words as I can, what I intend to proposeto Katharine and to Mrs. Lovel, with your sanction, presently. Thechildren must stay at Avonsyde. If the heir is never found, well andgood; they are provided for. If, on the other hand, the heir turns up,they are, according to the present conditions of your will, absolutelypenniless. Now I don't choose this. Valentine's children must beprovided for under any emergency, and you must make a fresh codicil toyour will."

  "I will not!"

  "Father, you must. Valentine was your own son; these children are yourrightful and legitimate heirs. I am heart and soul with you in your wishto find the lawful descendant of Rupert Lovel--I promise to devote mylife to this search; but Valentine's children must not go penniless. Youmust make a codicil to your will providing comfortably for them in casethe lawful heir turns up."

  "How can I? The doctor says I have not many hours to live."

ong enough for that, no doubt. We cannot, unfortunately, send for Mr.Baring from London, but I will send a man on horseback to Southampton,and Mr. Terry, the Barings' country partner, will be here in two orthree hours."

  "I tell you I have only a few hours to live," repeated the squire,sinking his head lower on his chest and looking daggers at his daughter.

  "Long enough for that," she repeated.

  She rose from her seat and went across the room to ring the bell. Whenthe servant entered the room she gave some very clear and emphaticdirections, and then desiring the nurse who waited on her father to besummoned, she left the room.

  Her interview had scarcely been a peaceable one, and as she wentdownstairs her usually calm expression was considerably disturbed.

  "I can make terms with the mother now," she murmured. "But I am notgoing even to tell my father what they are." And she went downstairs.

  Floating in through the open window came the sound of gay, childishmirth, and looking out she saw the little strangers dancing and laughingand chatting merrily to old Mrs. Martin, the housekeeper, as she tookthem round the grounds.

  Then Miss Griselda went downstairs, and she and Miss Katharine had theirinterview with the grave, quiet young mother, who had come, as she said,to make terms. No one heard what they said to her nor what she said tothem; no one knew what arrangements were arrived at between the three;no one guessed either then or long years afterward what the terms were.When the somewhat protracted interview had come to an end, the youngmother left Miss Griselda's study with her veil drawn tightly over herface. If her eyes were red and her lips trembled, no one noticed thosesigns of grief through her thick crape veil. Miss Griselda offered herfood, and Miss Katharine wanted to take her hand and wring it with akindly pressure; but she shook her head at the one and drew back proudlyfrom the other's proffered hand-shake.

  The dog-cart was waiting at a side entrance, and she got into it anddrove away. Nor did she once look back as she drove down the longstraight avenue under the shade of the old forest trees.

  That night Squire Lovel said a word or two to his daughters.

  "So you have kept the children?"

  "We have kept the children," repeated Miss Griselda tersely.

  "It is nothing to me. I have made that codicil to my will. You have hadyour way in that."

  "You have done justice, father--you will die happier," replied MissGriselda.

  "Have you made arrangements with the mother?" questioned the squire.

  "The mother will not trouble us; we have arranged with her," answeredthe elder Miss Lovel.

  "We have made arrangements with her," echoed Miss Katharine, and hereshe bent her head and gave vent to a little choking sob.

  The squire was very restless all night, and several times the words"Kitty" and "Valentine" escaped his lips. The end was near and the poorold brain was wandering.

  Toward morning he was left alone for a few moments with Miss Katharine.

  "Father," she said suddenly, kneeling by his bedside, clasping his hand,and looking at him imploringly, "father, you would bid us be kind toValentine's children?"

  "Valentine's children?" repeated the old man. "Ay, ay, Kitty. My headwanders. Are they Valentine's children or Rupert's children?--the Rupertwho should have inherited Avonsyde. Somebody's children were hereto-day, but I cannot remember whether they belonged to Valentine orRupert."

  "Father, they belong to Valentine--to your son Valentine. You are dying.May I bring them to you, and will you bless them before you go?"

  The old squire looked up at his daughter with dim and fading eyes. Shedid not wait to listen for any assent from his lips, but flying from theroom, returned presently with two rosy, cherub-like creatures.

  "Kiss your grandfather, Kitty; his pain is bad. Kiss him tenderly, dearlittle child."

  Kitty pursed up her full red lips and gave the required salute solemnly.

  "Now, Rachel, kiss your grandfather; he is very ill."

  Rachel too raised herself on tiptoe, and bending forward touched the oldman's lips lightly with her own.

  "Rupert's child," he murmured; "ay, ay, just like Rupert."

  Shortly afterward he died.