Chapter XV. The Butterfly's Ball.
 

Miss Mohun went to the Casement Cottages with Gillian to see what the elder Miss Hacket might wish and whether they could be of use to her; the young people being left to exercise themselves within call in case the Tree was to be continued.

This proved to be an act of great kindness, for poor Mary Hacket was suffering all the distress of an upright and honourable woman at her sister's abuse of confidence; and had felt as if Colonel Mohun's summons to his nieces was the close of all intimacy with such an unworthy household. Moreover, the evenings entertainment could not be given up and Gillian was despatched to summon the eager assistants, while Aunt Jane repeated her assurances that Lady Merrifield perfectly understood Miss Hacket's ignorance of the doings in Constance's room-- listening patiently even when the tender-hearted woman began to excuse her sister for having accepted Dolores's lamentations at being cut off from her so. called uncle. 'Dear Connie is so romantic, and so easily touched,' she said, 'though, of course, it was very wrong of her to suppose that Lady Merrifield could do anything harsh or unkind. She is in great grief now, poor darling, she feels so bitterly that her friend led her into it by deceiving her about the relationship and character.'

This, Aunt Jane did not think the worst part of the affair, and she said that the girl had been brought up to call the man Uncle Alfred, and very possibly did not understand that he was only so by courtesy, nor that he was so utterly untrustworthy.

'I thought so,' said Mary Hacket. 'I told Connie that such a child could not possibly have been a willing party to his fraud--for fraud, I fear, it was--Miss Mohun. Do you think there is any hope of her recovering the sum she advanced.'

'I am afraid there is not, even if the wretched man is apprehended.'

'Ah! if she had only told me what she wanted it for!'

'I hope it was all her own.'

'Oh, Miss Mohun, no doubt you know that two sisters living together must accommodate one another a little, and Connie's dress expenses, at her age, are necessarily more than mine. But here come the dear children, and we ought to dismiss all painful subjects, though I declare I am so nervous I hardly know what I am about.'

However, by Miss Mohun's help, the good lady rose to the occasion, and when once busy, the trouble was thrown off, so that no guests would have detected how unhappy she had been in the forenoon. Constance soon came down, and confided to Gillian a parcel directed to Miss D. Mohun, containing all the notes written to her, and all the books lent to her, by the false friend whom she had cast off, after which she threw herself into the interests of the present.

The London ornaments, and the residue of the gifts and bonbons, made the Christmas-tree a most memorable one to the G.F.S. mind.

As to Fly, she fraternized to a great extent with a very small maid, in a very long, brown dress, and very thick boots, who did not taste a single bonbon, and being asked whether she understood that they were good to eat, replied that she was keeping them for 'our Bertie and Minnie;' and, on encouragement, launched into such a description of her charges--the blacksmith's small children--that Lady Phyllis went back, not without regrets that she could not be a little nurse who had done with school at twelve years old, and spent her days at the back of a perambulator.

'Oh, daddy,' she said, 'I do wish you had come down; it was such lovely fun--the best tree I ever saw. Why wouldn't you come?'

'If thirty odd years should pass over that little head of yours, my Lady Fly, and you should then meet with Mysie and Val, maybe you will then learn the reason why.'

'We will recollect that in thirty years' time.'

'When our children go to a Christmas-tree.'

'And we sit over the fire instead.'

'Oh! but should we ever not care for a dear, delightful Christmas- tree?'

'If we had each other instead.'

'Then we would all go still together!'

'And tell our little boys and girls all about this one, and the Butterfly's Ball!'

'Perhaps our husbands would want us, and not let us go.'

'Oh! I don't want a husband. He'd be in the way. We'd send him off to India or somewhere, like Aunt Lily's.'

'Don't, Fly; it is not at all nice to have papa away.'

'Oh yes, it would be ten hundred times better if he were at home.'

Such were the mingled sentiments of the triad, as they went upstairs to bed, linked together in their curious fashion.

Some time later, a bedroom discussion of affairs was held by Lady Merrifield and Miss Mohun, who had not had a moment alone together all day, to converse upon the two versions of the disaster which the latter had extracted from Dolores and Constance, and which fairly agreed, though Constance had been by far the most voluble, and somewhat ungenerously violent against her former friend, at least so Lady Merrifield remarked.

'You should take into account the authoress's disappointed vanity.'

'Yes, poor thing! How he must have nattered her!'

'Besides, there is the loss of the money, which, I fear, falls as seriously on good Miss Hacket as on the goose herself.'

'Does it, indeed? That must not be. How much is it?'

'Fifteen pounds; and that foolish Constance fancies that poor Dolores assisted in duping her. I really had to defend the girl; though I am just as angry myself when I watch her adamantine sullenness.'

'I am the person to be angry with for having allowed the intimacy, in spite of your warnings, Jenny.'

'You were too innocent to know what girls are made of. Oh yes, you are very welcome to have six of your own, but you might have six dozen without knowing what a girl brought up at a second-rate boarding-school is capable of, or what it is to have had no development of conscience. What shall you do? send her to school?'

'After that recommendation of yours?'

'I didn't propose a second-rate boarding-school, ma'am. There's a High School starting after the holidays at Rockstone. Let me have her, and send her there.'

'Ada would not like it.'

'Never mind Ada, I'll settle her. I would keep Dolly well up to her lessons, and prevent these friendships.'

'I suppose you would manage her better than I have been able to do,' said Lady Merrifield, reluctantly. 'Yet I should like to try again; I don't want to let her go. Is it the old story of duty and love, Jane? Have I failed again through negligence and ignorance, and deceived myself by calling weakness and blindness love?'

'You don't fail with your own, Lily. Rotherwood runs about admiring them, and saying he never saw a better union of freedom and obedience. It was really a treat to see Gillian's ways tonight; she had so much consideration, and managed her sisters so well.'

'Ah, but there's their father! I do so dread spoiling them for him before he comes home; but then he is a present influence with us all the time.'

'They would all clap their hands if I carried Dolly off.'

'Yes, and that is one reason I don't want to give her up; it seems so sad to send Maurice's child away leaving such an impression. One thing I am. thankful for, that it will be all over before grandmamma and Bessie Merrifield come.'

At that moment there was a knock at the door, and a small figure appeared in a scarlet robe, bare feet, and dishevelled hair.

'Mysie, dear child! What's the matter? who is ill?'

'Oh, please come, mamma, Dolly is choking and crying in such a dreadful way, and I can't stop her.'

'I give up, Lily. This is mother-work,' said Miss Mohun.

Hurrying upstairs, Lady Merrifield found very distressing sounds issuing from Dolores's room; sobs, not loud, but almost strangled into a perfect agony of choking down by the resolute instinct, for it was scarcely will.

'My dear, my dear, don't stop it!' she exclaimed, lifting up the girl in her arms. 'Let it out; cry freely; never mind. She will be better soon, Mysie dear. Only get me a glass of water, and find a fresh handkerchief. There, there, that's right!' as Dolores let herself lean on the kind breast, and conscious that the utmost effects of the disturbance had come, allowed her long-drawn sobs to come freely, and moaned as they shook her whole frame, though without screaming. Her aunt propped her up on her own bosom, parted back her hair, kissed her, and saying she was getting better, sent Mysie back to her bed. The first words that were gasped out between the rending sobs were, 'Oh! is my--he--to be tried?'

'Most likely not, my dear. He has had full time to get away, and I hope it is so.'

'But wasn't he there? Haven't they got him? Weren't they asking me about him, and saying I must be tried for stealing father's cheque?'

'You were dreaming, my poor child. They have not taken him, and I am quite sure you will not be tried anyway.'

'They said--Aunt Jane and Uncle Reginald and all, and 'that dreadful man that came--'

'Perhaps they said you might have to be examined, but only if he is apprehended, and I fully expect that he is out of reach, so that you need not frighten yourself about that, my dear.'

'Oh, don't go!' cried Dolores, as her aunt stirred.

'No, I'm not going. I was only reaching some water for you. Let me sponge your face.'

To this Dolores submitted gratefully, and then sighed, as if under heavy oppression, 'And did he really do it?'

'I am afraid he must have done so.'

'I never thought it. Mother always helped him.'

'Yes, my dear, that made it very hard for you to know what was right to do, and this is a most terrible shock for you,' said her aunt, feeling unable to utter another reproach just then to one who had been so loaded with blame, and she was touched the more when Dolores moaned, 'Mother would have cared so much.'

She answered with a kiss, was glad to find her hand still held, and forgot that it was past eleven o'clock.

'Please, will it quite ruin father?' asked Dolores, who had not out- grown childish confusion about large sums of money.

'Not exactly, my dear. It was more than he had in the bank, and Uncle Regie thinks the bankers will undertake part of the loss if he will let them. It is more inconvenient than ruinous.'

'Ah!' There was a faintness and oppression in the sound which made Lady Merrifield think the girl ought not to be left, and before long, sickness came on. Nurse Halfpenny had to be called up, and it was one o'clock before there was a quiet, comfortable sleep, which satisfied the aunt and nurse that it was safe to repair to their own beds again.

The dreary, undefined self-reproach and vague alarms, intensified by the sullen, reserved temper, and culminating in such a shock, alienating the only persons she cared for, and filling her with terror for the future, could not but have a physical effect, and Dolores was found on the morrow with a bad head-ache, and altogether in a state to be kept in bed, with a fire in her room.

Gillian and Mysie were much impressed by the intelligence of their cousin's illness when they came to their mother's room on the way to breakfast, and Mysie turned to her sister, saying, 'There Gill, you see she did care, though she didn't cry like us. Being ill is more than crying.'

'Well,' said Gillian, 'it is a good deal more than such things as you and Val cry for, Mysie.'

'It was a trial such as you don't understand, my dears,' said Lady Merrifield. 'I don't, of course, excuse much that she did, but she had been used to see her mother make every exertion to help the man.'

'That does make a difference,' said Gillian, 'but she shouldn't have taken her father's money. And wasn't it dreadful of Constance to smuggle her letters? I'm quite glad Constance gets part of the punishment.'

'Certainly, that might be just, Gillian, but unfortunately the loss falls infinitely more heavily upon Miss Hacket, who cannot afford the loss at all.'

'Oh dear!' cried Mysie.

'I'm very sorry,' said Gillian.

'And, my dear girls, in all honour and honesty, we must make it up to her.'

'Can't we save it out of our allowance?' said Mysie.

'Sixpence a month from you, a shilling perhaps from Gill, how long would that take? No, my dear girls, I am going to put you to a heavy trial.'

'Oh, mamma, don't!' cried Gillian, seeing what she was driving at. 'Don't give up the Butterfly's Ball.'

'Oh, don't!' implored Mysie, tears starting in her eyes. 'We never saw a costume ball, and Fly wishes it so.'

'And I thought you had promised,' said Gillian.

'Cousin Rotherwood assumes that I did; but I did not really accept. I told him I could not tell, for you know your Grandmamma Merrifield talked of coming here, and I cannot put her off. And now I see that it must be given up.'

'It need only be calico!' sighed Gillian, sticking pins in and out of the pincushion.

'Fancy dresses even in calico are very expensive. Besides, I could not go to a place like Rotherwood without at least two new dresses, and it is not right to put papa to more expense.'

'Oh, mamma! couldn't you? You always do look nicer than any one,' said Mysie.

'My dear, I am afraid nothing I have at present would be suitable for a General's wife at Lady Rotherwood's party, and we must think of what would be fitting both towards our hostess and papa. Don't you see?'

'Ah! your velvet dress!' sighed Gillian.

'My poor old faithful state apparel,' smiled Lady Merrifield. 'Poor Gill, you did not think again to have to mourn for it, but I don't know that even that could have been sufficiently revivified, though it was my cheval de bataille for so many years.

For Lady Merrifield's black velvet of many years' usefulness, had been put on for her p.p.c. party at Belfast, when Gillian, in abetting Jasper in roasting chestnuts over a paraffin-lamp, had set herself and the tablecloth on fire, and had been extinguished with such damages as singed hair, a scar on Jasper's hands, and the destruction of her mother's 'front breadth.' There had been such relief and thankfulness at its being no worse that the 'state apparel' had not been much mourned, especially as the remains made a charming pelisse for Primrose; and in the retirement of Silverton, it had not been missed till the present occasion.

'Do gowns cost so very much?' said Mysie.

'Indeed they do, my poor Mouse. The lamented cost more than twenty pounds. I had been thinking whether I could afford the requisite garments--not quite so costly--and thought I might get them for about sixteen, with contrivance; but you see I feel it my fault that I let Dolores go and lead Constance to get cheated, and I cannot take the money out of what papa gives for household expenses and your education, so it must come out of my own personal allowance. Don't you see?'

'Ye--es,' said Gillian, apparently intent on getting a big, black- headed pin repeatedly into the same hole, while Mysie was trying with all her might not to cry.

'You are thinking it is very hard that you should suffer for Dolly's faults. Perhaps it is, but such things may often happen to you, my dears. Christians bear them well for love's sake, you know.'

'And it is a little my fault,' said Gillian, thoughtfully; 'for it was I that let the chestnut fall into the lamp.'

'I--I don't think I should have minded so much,' said Mysie, almost crying, 'if we had done it our own selves--and Fly too--for some very poor woman in the snow.'

'I know that very well, Mysie, and this is a much harder trial, as you don't get the honour and glory of it; and, besides, you will have to take care to say not a word of this reason to Fly or Valetta, or any one else.'

'Val will be awfully disappointed,' said Gillian.

'Poor Val! But I should not have taken her anyway, so that matters the less. I should have taken Jasper, for that would have been more convenient than so many girls. In fact, I did not mean anybody to have heard of it till I had made up my mind, so that there would have been no disappointment; but that naughty Cousin Rotherwood could not keep it to himself; and so, my poor maidens, you have to bear it with a good grace, and to be treated as my confidential friends.'

Mysie smiled and kissed her mother--Gillian cleared somewhat, but observing, 'I only wish it wasn't clothes;' tried to dismiss the subject as the gong began to sound, but Mysie caught her mother's dress, and said, 'Mayn't I tell Fly, for a great secret?'

'No, my dear, certainly not. Fly is a dear little girl, but we don't know how she can keep secrets, and it would never do to let the Rotherwoods know; papa and Uncle William would be exceedingly annoyed. And only think of Miss Hacket's feelings if it came round. It will be hard enough to get her to take it now.'

'Perhaps she won't,' flashed into the minds of both girls; but Mysie said entreatingly, 'One moment more, mamma, please! What can I say to Fly that will be the truth?'

'Say that I find we cannot go, and that I had never promised,' said Lady Merrifield. 'I trust you, my dears.'

And as she opened the door to hurry down to prayers, the two sisters felt the words very precious and inspiriting. Mysie lingered on the step and bravely asked Gillian whether her eyes looked like crying--

'No, only a little twinkly,' answered the elder sister; 'they will be all right after prayers if you don't rub them.'

'No, I won't, said Mysie; "I'll try to mean 'Thy will be done.' For I suppose it is His will, though it is mamma's."

'I'm glad you thought of that, Mysie,' said Gillian; 'you see it is mamma's goodness.' And Gillian added to herself, "dear little Mysie too. If it had not been for her, I believe I should have 'grizzled' all prayer-time, and now I hope I shall attend instead."

When everybody rose up from their knees, Lady Merrifield was glad to see two fairly cheerful faces. She tried to lessen the responsibility of the confidants, and to get the matter settled by telling Lord Rotherwood at once and publicly that she had thought his kind invitation over, and that she found she must not accept it. Perhaps she warily took the moment after she had seen the postman coming up the drive, for he had only time to say, 'Now, that's too bad, Lily, you don't mean it,' and she to answer, 'Yes, in sad earnest, I do,' before the letters came in, and the attention of the elders was taken off by the distribution.

But Valetta whispered to Gillian, 'Not going; oh why?'

'No; never mind, you wouldn't have gone, anyway--hush--' said Gillian, beginning, it may be, a little sharply, but then becoming dismayed as Valetta, perhaps a little unhinged by the late pleasures, burst forth into such a fit of crying as made everybody look up, and her mother tell her to go away if she could not behave better. Gillian, understanding a sign of the head as permission, led her away, hearing Lord Rotherwood observe,--

'There, you cruel party!' before again becoming absorbed in his letter.

'Oh dear!' sighed Fly, turning to Mysie as they rose from table, 'I am so sorry! It would have been so nice; and I thought we were safe, as mamma had written herself!'

'Ah! but my mamma hadn't accepted,' said Mysie.

Phyllis seemed to take this as final, and sighed, but Mysie presently exclaimed, 'I say! can't we all play at Butterfly's Ball in the hall after lessons?'

'Lessons?' said Fly; 'but it's holiday-time?'

'Mamma always makes us do a sort of little lesson, even in the holidays, as she says we get naughty. But I suppose you need not; and perhaps she will not make us now you are here.'

Colonel Mohun and Lord Rotherwood were going to Darminster to see what was the state of the investigation about Mr. Flinders. They set out directly after breakfast, and after the feeding of the pets, where Valetta joined them, much consoled by the prospect of the extemporary Butterfly's Ball at home, Lady Phyllis, with her usual ready adaptability, repaired with the others to the schoolroom, where the Psalms and Lessons were read, and a small amount of French reading in turn from 'En Quarantaine' followed, with accompaniment of needlework or drawing, after which the children were free.

Aunt Jane was going home to her Sunday school and the Rockstone festivities. She came down for her final talk with her sister just in time to perceive the folding up of three five-pound notes.

'Lily,' she said, with instant perception, 'I could beat myself for what I told you yesterday.'

Lady Merrifield laughed. 'The girls are very good about it!' she said. 'Now you have found it out, see whether that note will make Miss Hacket swallow it.'

'Can't be better! But oh. Lily, it is disgusting! Could not I rig up something fanciful for the children?'

'That's not so much the point. 'The General's lady,' as Mrs. Halfpenny would say, is bound not to look like 'ane scrub,' as she would be unwelcome to Victoria, and what would be William's feelings? I could hardly have accomplished it even with this, and the catastrophe settles the matter.'

'You could not get into my black satin?'

'No, I thank you, my dear little Brownie,' said Lady Merrifield, elongating herself like a girl measuring heights.

'Ada has a larger assortment, as well as a taller person,' continued Miss Jane, 'but then they are rather 'henspeckle,' and they have all made their first appearance at Rotherwood.'

'No, no, thank you, my dear, Jasper would not like the notion--even if there was not more of me than of Ada. I have no doubt it is much better for us.'

'Should you have liked it, Lily?'

'For once in a way. For Rotherwood's sake, dear old fellow. Yes, I should.'

'Ah, well! You are a bit of a grande dame yourself. Ada enjoys it, too, or I don't think I ever should go there.'

'Surely Victoria behaves well to you?'

'Far be it from me to say she is not exemplary in her perfect civility to all her husband's relations. Ada thinks her charming; but oh. Lily, you've never found out what it is to be a little person in a great person's house, and to feel one's self scrupulously made one of the family, because her husband is so much attached to all of them. There's nothing spontaneous about it! I dare say you would get on better, though You are not a country-town old maid; you would have an air of the world and of distinction even if you went in your old grey poplin.'

'Well, I thought better of my lady.'

'You ought not! She makes great efforts, I am sure, and is a pattern of graciousness and cordiality--only that's just what riles one, when one knows one is just as well born, and all the rest of it. And then I'm provided with the clever men, and the philanthropical folk to talk to. I know it's a great compliment, and they are very nice, but I'd ten times rather take my chance among them. However, now I've made the grapes sour for you, what do you think about Dolores? Will you send her to us?'

'Not immediately, at any rate, dear Jane. It is very kind in you to wish to take her off our hands, but I do want to try her a little longer. I thought she seemed to be softening last night.'

'She was as hard as ever when I went in to wish her good-bye.'

'I thought she had too much headache for conversation when I went in last; I think this is a regular upset from unhappiness and reserve.'

'Alias temper and deceitfulness.'

'Something of both. You know the body often suffers when things are not thrown out in a wholesome explosion at once, but go simmering on; and I mean to let this poor child alone till she is well.'

'Ah! here comes the pony-carriage. Well, Lily, send her to me if you repent.'

The sisters came out to find the Butterfly's Ball in full action. Fly had become a Butterfly by the help of a battered pair of fairy wings, stretched on wire, which were part of the theatrical stock. 'The shy little Dormouse' was creeping about on all fours under a fur jacket, with a dilapidated boa for a long tail, but her 'blind brother the Mole' had escaped from her, and had been transformed into the Frog, by means of a spotted handkerchief over his back, and tremendous leap-frog jumps. Primrose, in another pair of fairy wings, was personating the Dragon-fly and all his relations, 'green, orange, and blue.' Valetta, in perfect content with the present, with a queer pair of ears, and a tail made of an old brush, sat up and nibbled as Squirrel. The Grasshopper was performing antics which made him not easily distinguishable from the Frog, and the Spider was actually descending by a rope from the balusters, while his mother, standing somewhat aghast, breathed a hope that 'poor Harlequin's' fall was not part of the programme. But she did not interfere, having trust in the gymnastics that were studied at school by Jasper, who had been beguiled into the game by Fly's fascinations.

'A far more realistic performance than the Rotherwood Butterfly's Ball is likely to be,' said Aunt Jane, aside, as the various guests came up for her departing kiss. 'And much more entertaining, if they could only think so. Where's Gillian?'

Gillian appeared on the stairs in her own person at the moment. She said Mrs. Halfpenny had called her, and told her that 'Miss Dollars' was crying, and that she did not think the child ought to be left alone long to fret herself, but Saturday morning needments called away nurse herself, so she had ordered in Miss Gillian as her substitute. Gillian was reading to her, and had only come away to make her farewells to Aunt Jane.

'That is right, my dear,' said her mother; 'I will come and sit with her after luncheon.'

For the whole youthful family were to turn out to superintend the replantation of the much-enduring fir, which, it was hoped, might survive for many another Christmas.

However, Lady Merrifield could not keep her promise, for a whole party of visitors arrived just after the children's dinner was over.

'And it's old Mrs. Norgood,' sighed Gillian, looking over the balusters, 'and she always slays for ages!'

'One of you young ladies must bide with Miss Dollars,' said Nurse Halfpenny, decidedly, 'or we shall have her fretting herself ill again.'

'Oh, nursie, can't you?' entreated Gillian.

'Me, Miss Gillian! How can I, when Miss Primrose is going out with the whole clamjamfrie, and all the laddies, into the wet plantations? Na-- one of ye maun keep the lassie company. Ye've had your turn, Miss Gillian, so it should be Miss Mysie. It winna hurt ye, bairn, ye that hae been rampaging ower the house all the morning.'

Mysie knew it was her turn, but she also knew that nurse always favoured Gillian and snubbed her. She had a devouring longing to be with her dear Fly, and a certain sense that she was the preferred one. Must another pleasure be sacrificed to that very naughty Dolores, whose misdemeanours had deprived them of the visit to Rotherwood. She looked so dismal that Gillian said good-naturedly, 'Really, Mysie, I don't think mamma would mind Dolores's being left a little while; I must go down to see about the Tree, because mamma gave me a message to old Webb, but I'll come back directly. Or perhaps Dolly is going to sleep, and does not want any one. Go and see.'

Mysie on this crept quietly into the room, full of hope of escape, but Dolores was anything but asleep. 'Oh, are you come, Mysie? Now you'll go on with the story. I tried, but my eyes ache at the back of them, and I can't.'

Mysie's fate was sealed. She sat down by the fire and took up the book, 'A Story for the Schoolroom,' one of the new ones given from the Tree. It was the middle of the story, and she did not care about it at first, especially when she heard Fly's voice, and all the others laughing and chattering on the stairs.

'Didn't they care for her absence?' and her voice grew thick, and her eyes dim; but Dolores must not think her cross and unwilling, and she made a great effort, became interested in the girls there described, and wondered whether staying with Fly would have turned her head, after the example of the heroine of the book.

Dolores did not seem to want to talk. In fact, she was clinging to the reading, because she could not bear to speak or think of the state of affairs, and the story seemed, as it were, to drown her misery. She knew that her aunt and cousins were far less severe with her than she expected, but that could only be because she was ill. Had not Uncle Reginald turned against her, and Constance? It would all come upon her as soon as she came out of her room, and she was rather sorry to believe that she should be up and. about to-morrow morning.

Mysie read on till the short, winter day showed the first symptoms of closing in. Then Lady Merrifield came up. 'You here, little nurse?' she said. 'Run out now and meet the others. I'll stay with Dolly.' Mysie knew by the kiss that her mother was pleased with her; but Dolores dreaded the talk with her aunt, and made herself sleepy.