Chapter XIV. A Cypher and a Ty.
 

Dolores was coming down to breakfast the next morning when Colonel Mohun's door opened. He exclaimed, 'My little Dolly, good morning!' stooped down and kissed her.

Then, standing still a moment, and holding her hand, he said--

'Dolly, it was not you I saw at Darminster station?'

It was a terrible shock. Some one, no doubt, was trying to set him against her. And should she betray Constance and her uncle? At any rate, almost before she knew what she was saying, 'No, Uncle Regie,' was out of her mouth, and her conscience was being answered with 'How do I know it was me that he saw? these fur capes are very common.'

'I thought not,' he answered, kindly. 'Look here, Dolly, I want one word with you. Did your father ever leave anything in charge with you for Mr. Flinders? Did he ever speak to you about him?'

'Never,' Dolores truly answered.

'Because, my dear, though it's a hard thing to say, and your poor mother felt bound to him, he is a slippery fellow--a scamp, in fact, and if ever he writes to you here, you had better send the letter straight off to me, and I'll see what's to be done. He never has, I suppose?'

'No,' said Dolores, answering the word here, and foolishly feeling the involvement too great, and Constance too much concerned in it for her to confess to her uncle what had really happened. Indeed, the first falsehood held her to the second; and there was no more time, for Lord Rotherwood was coming out of his room further down the passage. And after the greetings, as she went downstairs before the two gentlemen, she was sure she heard Uncle Regie say, 'She's all right.' What could it mean? Was a storm averted? or was it brewing? Could that spiteful Aunt Jane and her questions about the weather be at the bottom of it?

The fun that was going on at breakfast seemed a mere roar of folly to her, and she had an instinct of nothing but getting away to Constance. She soon found that there would be opportunity enough, for the tree was to be taken down in a barrow, and all the youthful world was to carry down the decorations in baskets, and help to put them on. She dashed off among the first to put on her things, and then was disappointed to find that first all the pets were to be fed and shown off to Fly, who appreciated them far more than she had done--knew how to lay hold of a rabbit, nursed the guinea-pigs and puppies in turn, and was rapturous in her acceptance of two young guinea-pigs and one puppy.

'I can keep them up in daddy's dressing-room while we are at High Court, and it will be such fun,' she said.

'Will he let you?' asked Gillian, in some doubt.

'Oh! daddy will always let me, and so will Griffin--his man, you know, only we left him in London because daddy said he would be in your butler's way, but I can't think why. Griffin would have helped about the tree and learnt to make a mummy when we have our party. Louise would not let me have them in the nursery, I know, but daddy and Griffin would, and I could go and feed them in the morning before breakfast. Griffin would get me bran! That is, if we do go to High Court; I wish we were to stay on here. There's nobody to play with at High Court, and grandpapa always keeps daddy talking politics, so that I can hardly ever get him! Mysie, whatever do you do with your father away in India?'

'Yes, it is horrid. But then, there's mamma,' said Mysie, whispering, however, as she saw Dolores near, and feared to hurt her feelings.

'Ah!' said Fly, with a tender little shake of her head; ''tis worse for her to have no mother at all! Is that why she looks so sad?'

'Cross' is the word,' said Wilfred. 'I can't think what she is come bothering down here for!'

'Oh! for shame, Wilfred!' said Fly. 'You should be sorry for her.' And she went up to Dolores, and by way of doing the kindest thing in the world, said--

'Here's my new puppy. Is not he a dear? I'll let you hold him,' and she attempted to deposit the fat, curly, satiny creature in Dolores's arms, which instantly hung down stiff, as she answered, half in fright, 'I hate dogs!' The puppy fell down with a flop, and began to squeak, while the girls, crying, 'Oh! Dolly, how could you!' and 'Poor little pup!' all crowded round in pity and indignation, and Wilfred observed, 'I told you so!'

'You'll get no change but that out of the Lady of the Rueful Countenance,' said Jasper.

Mysie had for once nothing to say in Dolores's defence, being equally hurt for Fly's sake and the puppy's. Dolores found herself virtually sent to Coventry, as she accompanied the party across the paddock, only just near enough to benefit by their protection from the herd of half- grown calves which were there disporting themselves; and, as if to make the contrast still more provoking, Fly, who had a natural affinity for all animals, insisted on trying to attract them, calling, 'Sukkey! sukkey!' and hold out bunches of grass, in vain, for they only galloped away, and she could only explain how tame those at home were, and how she went out farming with daddy whenever he had time, and mother and Fraulein would let her out.

The tree meantime came trundling down, a wonderful spectacle, with all its gilt balls and fir-cones nodding and dangling wildly, and its other embellishments turning upside down. There were greetings of delight at Casement Cottage, and Miss Hacket had kissed everybody all round before Gillian had time to present the new-comer, and then the good lady was shocked at her own presumption, and exclaimed--

'I beg your ladyship's pardon! Dear me! I had no notion who it was!'

'Then please kiss me again now you do know!' said Fly, holding up her funny little face to that very lovable kind one, and they were all soon absorbed in the difficulty of getting the tree in at the front door, and setting it up in the room that had been prepared for it.

Dolores had hoped to confide her alarms to Constance's sympathetic ear, but her friend, who had written and dreamt of many a magnificently titled scion of the peerage, but had never before seen one in her own house, had not a minute to spare for her, being far too much engrossed in observing the habits of the animal. These certainly were peculiar, since she insisted on a waltz round the room with the tabby cat, and ascended a step-ladder, merrily spurning Jasper's protection, to insert the circle of tapers on the crowning chandelier. There was nothing left for Dolores to do but to sit by in the window-seat, philosophizing on the remarkable effects of a handle to one's name, and feeling cruelly neglected.

Suddenly she saw a fly coming up to the gate. There was a general peeping and wondering. Then Uncle Reginald and a stranger got out and came up to the door. There was a ring--everybody paused and wondered for a moment; then the maid tapped at the door and said, 'Would Miss Mohun come and speak to Colonel Mohun a minute in the drawing-room?'

There was a hush of dread throughout the room. 'Ah!' sighed Miss Hacket, looking at Gillian, and all the elders thought without saying that some terrible news of her father had to be told to the poor child. They let her go, frightened at the summons, but that idea not occurring to her.

'There!' said Uncle Regie, 'she can set it straight. Don't be frightened, my dear; only tell this gentleman whether that is your writing.'

The stranger held a strip so that she could only just see 'Dolores M. Mohun,' and she unhesitatingly answered 'Yes'--very much surprised.

'You are sure?' said her uncle, in a tone of disappointment that made her falter, as she added, 'I think so.' At the same time the stranger turned the paper round, and she knew it for the cheque that had so long resided in her desk, but with dilated eyes, she exclaimed, 'But--but-- that was for seven pounds!'

'That,' said the stranger, 'then, Miss Mohun, you know this draft?'

'Only it was for seven,' repeated Dolores.

'You mean, I conclude, that it was drawn for seven pounds, and that it was still for seven when it left your handy?'

'Yes,' muttered Dolores, who was beginning to get very much frightened, at she knew not what, and to feel on her guard at all points.

'There's nothing to be afraid of, my dear,' said Uncle Reginald, tenderly; 'nobody suspects you of anything. Only tell us. Did your father give you this paper?'

'Yes.'

'And when did you cash it?' asked the clerk.

Dolores hung her head. 'I didn't,' she said.

'But how did it get out of your possession?' said her uncle. 'You are sure this is your own writing at the back. It could surely not have been stolen from her?' he added to the stranger.

'That could hardly be,' said that person. 'Miss Mohun, you had better speak out. To whom did you give this cheque?'

There was a whirl of terror all round about Dolores, a horror of bringing herself first, then Uncle Alfred, Constance, and everybody else into trouble. She took refuge in uttering not a word.

'Dolores,' said her uncle, and his tone was now much more grave and less tender, thus increasing her terror; 'this silence is of no use. Did you give this cheque to Mr. Flinders?'

In the silence, the ticks of the clock on the mantel-piece seemed like a hammer beating on her ears. Dolores thought of the morning's flat denial of all intercourse with Flinders! Then the word give occurred to her as a loophole, and her mind did not embrace all the consequences of the denial, she only saw one thing at a time, 'I didn't give it,' she answered, almost inaudibly.

'You did not give it?' repeated her uncle, getting angry and speaking loud. 'Then how did it get into his hands? Is there no truth in you?' he added, after a pause, which only terrified her more and more. 'Whom did you give it to?'

'Constance!' The word came out she hardly knew how, as something which at least was true. Colonel Mohun knocked at the door of the room she had come from. It was instantly opened, and Miss Hacket began, 'The poor dear! Can I get anything for her, I am sure it is a terrible shock!' and as he stood, astonished, Gillian added, 'Oh! I see it isn't that. We were afraid it was something about Uncle Maurice.'

'No, my dear, no such thing. Only would Miss Constance Hacket be kind enough to come here a minute?'

'Oh! My apron! My fingers! Excuse me for being such a figure!' Constance ran on, as Colonel Mohun made her come across to the room opposite, where she looked about her in amazement. Was the stranger a publisher about to make her an offer for the 'Waif of the Moorland.' But Dolores's down-cast attitude and set, sullen face forbade the idea.

'Miss Constance Hacket,' said the colonel, 'here is an uncomfortable matter in which we want your assistance. Will you kindly answer a question or two from Mr. Ellis, the manager of the .. Bank?'

Then the manager politely asked her if she had seen the cheque before.

'Yes--why--what's wrong about it? Oh! It is for seventy! Why, Dolores, I thought it was only for seven?'

'It was for seven when you parted with it, then, Miss Hacket,' said the manager; 'let me ask whether you changed it yourself?'

'No,' she said, 'I sent it to--' and there she came to a dead pause, in alarm.

'Did you send it to Mr. Alfred Flinders?' said Mr. Ellis.

'Yes--oh!' another little scream, 'He can't have done it. He can't be such a villain! Your own uncle, Dolores.'

'He is no uncle of Dolores Mohun!' said the colonel. 'He is only the son of her mother's step-mother by her first marriage.'

'Oh, Dolores, then you deceived me!' exclaimed Constance; 'you told me he was your own uncle, or I would never--and oh! my fifteen pounds. Where is he?'

'That, madam,' said Mr. Ellis, gravely, 'I hope the police may discover. He has quitted Darminster after having cashed this cheque for seventy pounds. We have already telegraphed to the police to be on the look out for him, but I much fear that it will be too late.'

'Oh! my fifteen pounds! What shall I do? Oh, Dolores, how could you? I shall never trust any one again!'

Perhaps Uncle Reginald felt the same, but he only darted a look upon his niece, which she felt in every nerve, though to his eyes she only stood hard and stolid. The manager, who found Constance's torrent of words as hard to deal with as Dolores's silence, asked for pen and ink, and begged to take down Miss Hacket's statement to lay before a magistrate in case of Flinders's apprehension. It was not very easy to keep her to the point, especially as her chief interest was in her own fifteen pounds, of which Mr. Ellis only would say that she could prosecute the man for obtaining money on false pretences, and this she trusted meant getting it back again. As to the cheque in question, she told how Dolores had entrusted it to her to send to her supposed uncle, Mr. Flinders, to whom it had been promised the day they went to Darminster, and she was quite ready to depose that when it left her hands, it was only for seven pounds.

This was all that the bank manager wanted. He thanked her, told Colonel Mohun they should hear from him, and went off in a hurry, both to communicate with the police, and to leave the young ladies to be dealt with by their friends, who, he might well suppose, would rather that he removed himself.

'Put on your hat, Dolores,' said Colonel Mohun, gravely; 'you had better come home with me! Miss Hacket, excuse me, but I am afraid I must ask whether you have been assisting in a correspondence between my niece and this Flinders?'

'Oh! Colonel Mohun, you will believe me, I was quite deceived. Dolores represented that he was her uncle, to whom she was much attached, and that Lady Merrifield separated her from him out of mere family prejudice.'

'I am afraid you have paid dearly for your sympathy,' said the colonel. 'It certainly led you far when you assisted your friend to deceive the aunt who trusted you with her.'

The movement that was taking place seemed like licence to that roomful, burning with curiosity to break out. Mysie was running after Dolores to ask if she could do anything for her, but Colonel Mohun called her back with 'Not now, Mysie.' Miss Hacket came forward with agitated hopes that nothing was amiss, and, at sight of her, Constance collapsed quite. 'Oh, Mary,' she cried out, 'I have been so deceived! Oh! that man!' and she sunk upon a chair in a violent fit of crying, which alarmed Miss Hacket so dreadfully that she looked imploringly up to Colonel Mohun. He had meant to have left Miss Constance to explain, but he saw it was necessary to relieve the poor elder sister's mind from worse fears by saying, 'I am afraid it is my niece who deceived her, by leading her into forwarding letters and money to a person who calls himself a relation. He seems to have been guilty of a forgery, which may have unpleasant consequences. Children, I think you had better follow us home.'

Dolores had come down by this time, and Colonel Mohun walked home, at some paces from her, very much as if he had been guarding a criminal under arrest. Poor Uncle Reginald! He had put such absolute trust in the two answers she had made him in the morning; and had been so sure of her good faith, that when the manager brought word that the cheque had been traced to Flinders, who had absconded, he still held that it was a barefaced forgery, entirely due to Flinders himself, and that Dolores could show that she had no knowledge of it, and he had gone down in the fly expecting to come home triumphant, and confute his sister Jane, who persisted in being mournfully sagacious. And he was indignant in proportion to the confidence he had misplaced; grieved, too, for his brother's sake, and absolutely ashamed.

Once he asked, when they were within the paddock, out of the way of meeting any one, 'Have you nothing to say to me, Dolores?'

It was not said in a manner to draw out an answer, and she made none at all.

Again he spoke, as they came near the house:

'You had better go up to your room at once. I do not know how to think of the blow this will be to your father.'

It was so entirely what Dolores was thinking of, that it seemed to her barbarous to tell her of it In fact she was stunned, scarcely understanding what had happened, and too proud and miserable to ask for an explanation, for had not every one turned against her, even Uncle Reginald and Constance--and what had happened to that cheque?

She did not see Uncle Reginald turn into the drawing-room, and letting himself drop despairingly into an armchair, say, 'Well, Jane, you were right, more's the pity!'

'She really gave him the cheque!'

'Yes, but at least it was only for seven. The rascal himself must have altered it into seventy. She and the other girl both agree as to that. There's been a clandestine correspondence going on with that scamp ever since she has been here, under cover to that precious friend of hers-- that Hacket girl.'

'Ah! you warned me, Jenny,' said Lady Merrifield 'But I'm quite sure Miss Hacket knew nothing of it'

'I don't suppose she did. She seemed struck all of a heap. Any way they've quarrelled now; the other one has turned King's evidence--has lost some money too, and says Dolores deceived her. She's deceived every one all round, that's the fact. Why she told me two flat lies this very morning--lies--there's no other name for it. What will you do with her, Lily?'

'I don't know,' said Lady Merrifield, utterly shocked, and recollecting, but not mentioning, the falsehood told to her about the note. Lord Rotherwood said, 'Poor child,' and Colonel Mohun groaned, 'Poor Maurice.'

'Then she did go to Darminster?' said Miss Mohun.

'Yes; that came out from this Miss Constance, who seems to have been properly taken in about some publishing trash. Serve her right! But it seems Dolores beguiled her with stories about her dear uncle in distress. We left her nearly in hysterics, and I told the children to come away.'

'What does Dolores say?' asked Jane.

'Nothing! I could not get a word out of her after the first surprise at the alteration of the cheque. Not a word nor a tear. She is as hard--as hard as a bit of stone.'

'Really,' said Lady Merrifield, 'I can't help thinking there's a good deal of excuse for her.'

'What? That poor Maurice's wife was half a heathen, and afterwards the girl was left to chance?' said Colonel Mohun. 'I see no other. And you, Lily, are the last person I should expect to excuse untruth.'

'I did not mean to do that, Regie; but you all say that poor Mary was fond of this man and helped him.'

'That she did!' said Lord Rotherwood, 'and very much against the grain it went with Maurice.'

'Then don't you see that this poor child, who probably never had the matter explained to her, may have felt it a great hardship to be cut off from the man her mother taught her to care for; and that may have led her into concealments?'

'Well!' said Colonel Mohun, 'at that rate, at least one may be thankful never to have married.'

'One--or two, Regie?' said Jane, as they all laughed at his sally. 'I think I had better go up and see whether I can get anything out of the child. Do you mean to have her down to dinner, Lily,' she added, glancing at the clock.

'Oh yes, certainly. I don't want to put her to disgrace before all the children and servants--that is, if she is not crying herself out of condition to appear, poor child.'

'Not she,' said Uncle Reginald.

On opening the door, the children were all discovered in the hall, in anxious curiosity, not venturing in uncalled, but very much puzzled.

Gillian came forward and said, 'Mamma, may we know what is the matter?'

'I hardly understand it myself yet, my dear, only that Dolores and Constance Hacket have let themselves be taken in by a sort of relation of Dolores's mother, and Uncle Maurice has lost a good deal of money through it. It would not have happened if there had been fair and upright dealing towards me; but we do not know the rights of it, and you had better take no notice of it to her.'

'I thought,' said Valetta, sagaciously, 'no good could come of running after that stupid Miss Constance.'

'Who can't pull a cracker, and screams at a daddy long-legs,' added Fergus.

'But, mamma, what shall we do?' said Gillian. 'I came away because Uncle Regie told us, and Constance was crying so terribly; but what is poor Miss Hacket to do? There is the tree only half dressed, and all the girls coming to-night, unless she puts them off.'

'Yes, you had better go down alone as soon as dinner is over, and see what she would like,' said Lady Merrifield. 'We must not leave her in the lurch, as if we cast her off, though I am afraid Constance has been very foolish in this matter. Oh, Gillian, I wish we could have made Dolores happier amongst us, and then this would not have happened.'

'She would never let us, mamma,' said Gillian.

But Mysie, coming up close to her mother as they all went up the broad staircase to prepare for the midday meal, confessed in a grave little voice, 'Mamma, I think I have sometimes been cross to Dolly-more lately, because it has been so very tiresome.'

Lady Merrifield drew the little girl into her own room, stooped down, and kissed her, saying, 'My dear child, these things need a great deal of patience. You will have to be doubly kind and forbearing now, for she must be very unhappy, and perhaps not like to show it. You might say a little prayer for her, that God will help us to be kind to her, and soften her heart.'

'Oh yes, mamma; and, please, will you set it down for me?'

'Yes, my dear, and for myself too. You shall have it before bed-time.'

Aunt Jane had followed Dolores to her own room the girl, who was sitting on her bed, dazed, regretted that she had not bolted her door, as her aunt entered with the words, 'Oh, Dolores, I am very sorry I could not have thought you would so have abused the confidence that was placed in you.'

To this Dolores did not answer. To her mind she was the person ill-used by the prohibition of correspondence, but she could not say so. Every one was falling on her; but Aunt Jane's questions could not well help being answered.

'What will your father think of if?'

'He never forbade me to write to Uncle Alfred' said Dolores.

'Because he never thought of your doing such a thing. Did he give you this cheque?'

'Yes.'

'For yourself?'

'N-n-o. But it was the same.'

'What do you mean by that?'

'It was to pay a man--a man's that's dead.'

'That may be; but what right did that give you to spend the money otherwise? Who was the man?'

'Professor Muhlwasser, for some books of plates.'

'How do you know he is dead! Who told you so? Eh! Was it Flinders? Ah! you see what comes of trusting to an unprincipled man like that. If you had only been open and straightforward with Aunt Lily, or with any of us, you would have been saved from this tissue of falsehood; forfeiting your Uncle Reginald's good opinion, and enabling Flinders to do your father this great injury.' She paused, and, as Dolores made no answer, she went on again--'Indeed, there is no saying what you have not brought on yourself by your deceit and disobedience. If Flinders is apprehended, you will have to appear against him in court, and publicly avow that you gave away what your father trusted to you.'

Dolores gave a little moan and start, and her aunt, perceiving that she had touched an apparently vulnerable spot, proceeded--'The only thing left for you to do is to tell the whole story frankly and honestly. I don't say so only for the sake of showing Aunt Lily that you are sorry for having abused her confidence. I wish I could think that you are; but, unless we know all, we cannot shield you from any further consequences, and that of course we should wish to do, for your father's sake.'

Dolores did not feel drawn to confession, but she knew that when Aunt Jane once set herself to ask questions, there was no use in trying to conceal anything. So she made answers, chiefly 'Yes' or No,' and her aunt, by severe and diligent pumping, had extracted bit by bit what it was most essential should be known, before the gong summoned them. Dolores would rather have been a solitary prisoner, able to chafe against oppression, than have been obliged to come down and confront everybody; but she crept into the place left for her between Mysie and Wilfred. She had very little appetite, and never found out how Mysie was fulfilling her resolution of kindness by baulking Wilfred of sundry attempts to tease; by substituting her own kissing-crust for Dolly's more unpoetical piece of bread; and offering to exchange her delicious strawberry-jam tartlet for the black-currant one at which her cousin was looking with reluctant eyes.

Mysie and Valetta were grievously exercised about their chances of returning to the G.F.S. Tree. Indeed Gillian went the length of telling them that Fly was behaving far better in her disappointment as to the Butterfly's Ball than they were as to this 'old second-hand tree.' Fly laughed and observed, 'Dear me, things one would like are always being stopped. If one was to mind every time, how horrid it would be! And there's always something to make up!'

Then it occurred to Gillian, though not to her younger sisters, that Lady Phyllis Devereux lived in general a much less indulged, and more frequently disappointed, life than did herself and her sisters.

However, there was great delight at that dinner-table. Jasper had ridden to get the letters of the second post, and Lord Rotherwood had his hands and his head full of them when he came in to luncheon--there being what Lady Merrifield called a respectable dinner in view. In the first place. Lord Ivinghoe was getting on very well, and was up, sitting by the fire, playing patience. Nobody was catching the measles, and quarantine would be over on the 9th of January. Secondly, 'Fly, shall you be very broken-hearted if I tell you.'

'Oh, daddy, you wouldn't look like that if it was anything very bad! Lion isn't dead?'

'No; but I grieve to say your unnatural grand-parents don't want you! Grandmamma is nervous about having you without mamma. What did we do last time we were there, Fly?'

'Don't you remember, daddy? they said there was nothing for me to ride to the meet, and you and Griffin put the side-saddle on Crazy Kate, and we went out with the hounds, and I've got the brush up in my room!'

'I don't wonder grandmamma is nervous,' observed Lady Merrifield.

'Will you be nervous, Lily,' said Lord Rotherwood, 'if this same flyaway mortal is left on your hands till the 9th?'

Dinner, manners, silence before company, and all, could not repress a general scream of ecstacy, which called forth the reply. 'I should think you and her mother were the people to be nervous.

'Oh! my lady has been duly instructed in Merrifield perfections, and esteems you a model mother.'

The children's nods and smiles said 'Hear, hear!'

'Well, you've got it all in her own letter,' continued Lord Rotherwood. 'You see, they've got a caucus at High Court, and a dinner, and I must go up there on Monday; but if you'll keep this dangerous Fly--'

'I can answer for the pleasure it will give,'

'Well then, I'll come back for her by the 9th, and you've Victoria's letter, haven't you?'

'Yes, it is very kind of her.'

'Then I shall expect you to be ready to start with me for the Butterfly's Ball. Eh, young ladies, what will you come out as?'

'Oh daddy, daddy, is it? Has mamma asked them? Oh! it is more delicious than anything ever was. Mysie, Mysie, what will you be?'

'The sly little dormouse crept out of his hole,' quoted Mysie, in a very low, happy voice.

'And I will be a jolly old frog,' shouted Fergus, finding the ordinance of silence broken and making the most of it, on the presumption that the whole family were invited. However, the tone, rather than the uncomprehended words of his mother's answer, 'Nobody asked you, sir,' she said, reduced him to silence, and it became understood, through Fly's inquiries, that the invitation included Lady Merrifield must make her acceptance doubtful. And besides, the question which three were to go was the unspoken drawback to full bliss, and yet the delight was exceedingly great in the prospect, great enough to make the contrast of gloom in poor Dolores's spirit all the darker, as she sat, left out of everything, and she could not now say, with absolute injustice, though she still clung to the belief that there was more misfortune than fault in her disgrace.

She crept away, shivering with unhappiness, to the schoolroom, while the others frisked off discussing the wonderful Butterfly's Ball. Lady Merrifield looked in on her, and she hardened herself to endure either another probing or fresh reproaches, but all she heard was, 'My dear, I cannot talk over this sad affair now, as I have to go out. But, if you can, I think you had better write to your father about it, and let him understand exactly how it happened. Or, if you had rather write than speak in explaining it to me, you can do so, and we can consider tomorrow what is to be done about it.'

Then she went out with her brother and cousin to drive to some Industrial schools which Lord Rotherwood wanted to see.