Chapter XVII. The Stone Melting.
 

It was with a strange feeling that Dolores woke on the New Year's morning, that something was very sad and strange, and yet that there was a sense of relief. For one thing, that terrible confession to her father was written, and was no longer a weight hanging over her. And though his answer was still to come, that was months away. There was Uncle Regie greatly displeased with her; there was Constance treating her as a traitor; there was the mischief done, and yet something hard and heavy was gone? Something sweet and precious had come in on her! Surely it was, that now she knew and felt that she could trust in Aunt Lilias--yes, and in Mysie. She got up, quite looking forward to meeting those gentle, brown eyes of her aunt's, that she seemed never before to have looked into, and to feeling the sweet, motherly kiss which had so mud, more meaning in it now, as almost to make up for Uncle Reginald's estrangement.

She even anticipated gladly those ten minutes alone with her aunt, which she used to dislike so much, hoping that the holiday-time would not hinder them. Really wishing to please her aunt, she had learnt her portion perfectly, and Lady Merrifield showed that she appreciated the effort, though still it was more a lesson than a reality.

'My dear!' she said, 'I am afraid this is another blow for you--it came this morning.'

It was the account from Professor Muhlwasser's German publisher, amounting to a few shillings more than six pounds. And an announcement that the books were on the way.

'Oh,' cried Dolores, 'I thought he was dead! He told me so! Uncle Alfred, I mean! And it was only to get the money! How could he be so wicked?'

'I am afraid that was all he cared for.'

'And what shall I do. Aunt Lily? Will you pay it, please, and take all my allowance till it is made up?'

'I think it will be more comfortable for you if I do something of that sort, though I don't think you should go entirely without money. You have a pound a quarter. I was going to give you yours at once.'

'Oh, take it--pray--'

'Suppose I give you five shillings, instead of twenty. I do not think it well to leave you with nothing for a year and a half, and this is nearly what Mysie has.'

'A shilling a month--very well. I wish I could pay it all at once!'

'No doubt you do, my dear, but this will keep you in mind for a long time what a dangerous thing you did in giving away money you had no right to dispose of.'

'Yes,' said Dolores. 'Mother earned money for him. I know she never took father's without asking him; but I couldn't earn, and couldn't ask.'

Lady Merrifield kissed her, for very joy, to hear no sullenness in her tone; and then all went to church together on the New Year's day that was to be the beginning of better things. Lord Rotherwood had just time to go before meeting the train which was to take him to High Court, leaving his Fly too much used to his absences to be distressed about them, and, in fact, somewhat crazy about a notion which Gillian had started that morning, of getting up a little play to surprise him when he came back for Twelfth Day, as he promised to do.

Mamma declared that if it was in French, and the words were learnt every morning before half-past eleven, it should supersede all other lessons; but such was the hatred of the whole boy faction to French, that they declared they had rather do rational sensible lessons twice over than learn such rot, and this carried the day. The drama proposed was that one in an old number of 'Aunt Judy,' where the village mayor is persuaded by the drummer to fine the girls for wearing lace caps. The French original existed in the house, and Fly started the idea that the male performers should speak English and the female French; but this was laughed down.

In the midst Uncle Reginald came to the door and called, 'Lilias, can you speak to me a minute?'

Lady Merrifield went out into the hall to him.

'Here's a policeman come over, Lily. They have got the fellow!' 'Flinders?'

'Yes; arrested him on board a steamer at Bristol.'

'Oh, I wish they had let it alone!'

'So do I. They are bringing him back. The Darminster City bench sits to-day, and they want that unlucky child over there to make her deposition for his committal.'

'Can't they commit him without her?'

'Not for the forgery. The bank people are bent on prosecuting for that, and we can't stop them. I suppose she can be depended on?'

'Reginald, don't! I told you the deceit was an unnatural growth from Constance's pseudo sentiment.'

'Well, get her ready to come with me,' said the colonel, with a gesture of doubt; 'we must catch the 12.50. The superintendent brought a fly.'

'You will frighten her out of her senses. I can't let her go alone with you in this mood.'

'As you please, if you choose to knock yourself up. I'll tell the superintendent, and walk on to the station. You've not a moment to lose, so don't let her stand dawdling and crying.'

It was a hard task for Lady Merrifield. She called Dolores, whom Mysie was inviting to be one of the village maidens, and bade her put on her things quickly. She ordered cold meat and wine into the dining-room, called Gillian into her room, and explained while dressing, and bade her keep the others away. Then, meeting Dolores on the stairs took her into the dining-room and made her swallow some cold beef, and drink some sherry, before telling her that the magistrates at Darminster wanted to ask her some questions. Dolores looked pale and frightened, and exclaimed,

'Oh, but he has got away!'

'My dear, I am grieved to say that he has not.'

Dolores understood, and submitted more quietly and resignedly than her aunt had feared. She was a barrister's daughter, and once or twice her father had taken her and her mother part of the way on circuit with him, and she had been in court, so that she had known from the first that if her uncle were arrested there was no choice but that she must speak out. So she only trembled very much and said--

'Aunt Lily, are you going with me?'

'Indeed I am, my poor child. Uncle Regie is gone on.'

No more was spoken then, but Dolores put her cold hand into her aunt's muff.

Gillian kept all the flock prisoned in the schoolroom. Wilfred, Val, and Fergus rushed to the window, and were greatly disappointed not to see a policeman on the box, 'taking Dolores to be tried'--as Fergus declared, and Wilfred insisted, just because Gillian and Mysie contradicted it with all their might. He continued to repeat it with variations and exaggerations, until Jasper heard him, and declared that he should have a thorough good licking if he said so again, administering a cuff by way of earnest. Wilfred howled, and was ordered not to be such an ape, and Fly looked on in wonder at the domestic discipline.

The superintendent had, in fact, walked on with Uncle Reginald, and Dolores saw nothing of him, but was put into an empty first-class carriage, into which her aunt followed her, but her uncle, observing, 'You know how to manage her, Lily,' betook himself to a smoking- carriage, and left them to themselves.

Dolores was never a very talking girl, and the habit of silence had grown upon her. She leant against her aunt and she put her arm round her, and did not attempt to say anything till she asked,

'Will he be there?'

'I don't know, I am afraid he will. It is very sad for you, my poor Dolly; but we must recollect that, after all, it may be much better for him to be stopped now than to go on and get worse and worse in some strange country.'

Dolores did not ask what she was to do, she knew enough already about trials to understand that she was only to answer questions, and she presently said,

'This can't be his trial. There are no assizes now.'

'No, this is only for the committal. It will very soon be over, if you will only answer quietly and steadily. If you do so, I think Uncle Regie will be pleased, and tell your father! I am sure I shall!'

Dolores pressed up closer and laid her cheek against the soft sealskin. In the midst of her trouble there was a strange wonder in her. Could this be really the aunt whom she had thought so cruel, unjust, and tyrannical, and from whom she had so carefully hidden her feelings? Nobody got into the carriage, and just before reaching Darminster, Lady Merrifield made a great effort over her own shyness and said,

'Now, Dolly, we will pray a little prayer that you may be a faithful witness, and that God may turn it, all to good for your poor uncle.'

Dolores was very much surprised, and did not know whether she liked it or not, but she saw her aunt's closed eyes and uplifted hands, and she tried to follow the example.

The train stopped, and her uncle came to the door, looking inquiringly at her.

'She will be good and brave,' said her aunt; and quickly passing across the platform, Dolores found herself beside her aunt, with her uncle opposite in another fly.

Things had been arranged for them considerately, and after they came to the Guildhall, where the city magistrates were sitting, Colonel Mohun went at once into court; the others were taken to a little room, and waited there a few minutes before Colonel Mohun came to call for his niece. It was a long room, with a rail at one end, and Dolores knew, with a strange thrill which made her shudder, that Mr. Flinders was there, but she could not bear to look at him, and only squeezed hard at the hand of her aunt, who asked, in a somewhat shaky voice, if she might come with her niece.

'Certainly, certainly. Lady Merrifield,' said one of the magistrates, and chairs were set both for her and Colonel Mohun.

'You are Miss Mohun, I think--may I ask your Christian name in full?' And then she had to spell it, and likewise tell her exact age, after which she was put on oath--as she knew enough of trials to expect.

'Are you residing with Lady Merrifield?'

'Yes.'

'But your father is living?'

'Yes, but he is in the Fiji Islands.'

'Will you favour us with his exact name?'

'Maurice Devereux Mohun.'

'When did he leave England?'

'The fifth of last September.'

'Did he leave any money with you?'

'Yes.'

'In what form?'

'A cheque on W----'s Bank.

'To bearer or order?'

'To order.'

'What was the date?'

'I think it was the 31st of August, but I am not sure.'

'For how much?'

'For seven pounds.'

'When did you part with it?'

'On the Friday before Christmas Day.'

'Did you do anything to it first?'

'I wrote my name on the back.'

'What did you do with it.'

'I sent it to--' her voice became a little hoarse, but she brought out the words--'to Mr. Flinders.'

'Is this the same?'

'Yes--only some one has put 'ty' to the 'seven' in writing, and 0 to the figure 7.'

'Can you swear to the rest as your father's writing and your own?'

The evidence of the banker's clerk as to the cashing of the cheque had been already taken, and the magistrate said, 'Thank you. Miss Mohun, I think the case is complete, and we need not trouble you any more.'

But the prisoner's voice made Dolores start and shudder again, as he said,

'I beg your pardon, sir, but you have not asked the young lady'--there was a sort of sneer in his voice--'how she sent this draft.'

'Did not you send it direct by the post?' demanded the magistrate.

'No; I gave it to--' Again she paused, and the words 'Gave it to--?' were authoritatively repeated, so that she had no choice.

'I gave it to Miss Constance Hacket to send.'

'You will observe, sir,' said Flinders, in a somewhat insolent tone, 'that the evidence which the witness has been so ready to adduce is incomplete. There is another link between her hands and mine.'

'You may reserve that point for your defence on your trial,' rejoined the magistrate. 'There is quite sufficient evidence for your committal.'

There was already a movement to let Dolores be taken away by her uncle and aunt, so as to spare her from any reproach or impertinence that Flinders might launch at her. She was like some one moving in a dream, glad that her aunt should hold her hand as if she were a little child, saying, as they came out into the street, 'Very clearly and steadily done, Dolly! Wasn't it, Uncle Regie?'

'Yes,' he said, absently. 'We must look out, or we shan't catch the 4.50 train.'

He almost threw them into a cab, and made the driver go his quickest, so that, after all, they had full ten minutes to spare. It made Dolores sick at heart to go near the waiting and refreshment-rooms where she and Constance had spent all that time with Flinders; but she could not bear to say so before her uncle, and he was bent on getting some food for Lady Merrifield.

'Not soup, Regie; there might not be time to swallow it. A glass of milk for us each, please; we can drink that at once, and anything solid that we can take with us. I am sure your mouth must be dry, my dear.'

Very dry it was, and Dolores gladly swallowed the milk, and found, when seated in the train, that she was really hungry enough to eat her full share of the sandwiches and buns which the colonel had brought in with him; and then she sat resting against her aunt, closed her eyes, and half dozed in the rattle of the train, not moving in the pause at the stations, but quite conscious that Colonel Mohun said, 'Not a spark of feeling for anybody, not even for that man! As hard as a stone!'

'For shame, Regie!' said her aunt. 'How angry you would have been if she had made a scene.'

'I should have liked her better.'

'No, you wouldn't, when you come to understand. There's stuff in her, and depth too.'

'Aye, she's deep enough.'

'Poor child!' said Lady Merrifield, tenderly. And then the train went on, and the noise drowned the voices, so that Dolores only partly heard, 'You will see how she will rise,' and the answer, 'You may be right; I hope so. But I can't get over deliberate deceit.'

He settled himself in his corner, and Lady Merrifield durst not move nor raise her voice lest she should break what seemed such deep slumber, but which really was half torpor, half a dull dismay, holding fast eyes, lips, and limbs, and which really became sleep, so that Dolores did not hear the next bit of conversation during the ensuing halt.

'I say, Lily, I did not like the fellow's last question. He means to give trouble about it.'

'I was sorry the other name was brought in, but it must have come sooner or later.'

'That's true; but if she can't swear to the figures on the draft, ten to one that the fellow will get off.'

'You don't doubt--'

'No, no; but there's the chance for the defence, and he was sharp enough to see it.'

'There is nothing to be said or done about it, of course.'

'Of course not. There's nothing for it but to let it alone.'

They went on again, and when the train reached Silverton, Dolly was dreaming that her father had come, and that he said Uncle Alfred should be hanged unless she found the money for Professor Muhlwasser. She even looked about for him, and said, 'Where's father?' when she was wakened to get out.

Gillian came up to her mother's room to hear what had happened, and to give an account of the day, which had gone off prosperously by Harry's help. He had kept excellent order at dinner, and 'there's something about Fly which makes even Wilfred be mannerly before her.' And then they had gone out and had made Fly free of the Thorn Fortress.

'My dear, that must have been terribly damp and cold at this time of year.'

'I thought of that, mamma, and so we didn't sit down, and made it a guerrilla war; only Fergus couldn't understand the difference between guerrillas and gorillas, and would thump upon himself and roar when they were in ambush.'

'Rather awkward for the ambush!'

'Yes, Wilfred said he was a traitor, and tied him to a tree, and then Fly found him crying, and would have let him out; but she couldn't get the knots undone; and what do you think? She made Wilfred cut the string himself with his own knife! I never knew such a girl for making every one do as she pleases. Then, when it got dark, we came in, and had a sort of a kind of a rehearsal, only that nobody knew any of the parts, or what each was to be.'

'A sort of a kind, indeed, it must have been!'

'But we think the play will be lovely! You can't think how nice Fly was. You know we settled for her to be Annette, the dear, funny, naughty girl, but as soon as she saw that Val wanted the part, she said she didn't care, and gave it up directly, and I don't think we ought to let her, and Hal thinks so too; and all the boys are very angry, and say Val will make a horrid mess of it. Then Mysie wanted to give up the good girl to Fly, and only be one of the chorus, but Fly says she had rather be one of the chorus ones herself than that. So we settled that you should fix the parts, and we would abide by your choice.'

'I hope there was no quarrelling.'

'N--no; only a little falling upon Val by the boys, and Fly put a stop to that. Oh, mamma, if it were only possible to turn Dolly into Fly! I can't help saying it, we seemed to get on so much better just because we hadn't poor Dolly to make a deadweight, and tempt the boys to be tiresome: while Fly made everything go off well. I can't describe it, she didn't in the least mean to keep order or interfere, but somehow squabbles seem to die away before her, and nobody wants to be troublesome.'

'Dear little thing! It is a very sweet disposition. But, Gill, I do believe that we shall see poor Dolly take a turn now!'

'Well! having quarrelled with that Constance is in her favour!'

'Try and think kindly of her trouble. Gill, and then it will be easier to be kind to her.'

Gillian sighed. Falsehood and determined opposition to her mother were the greatest possible crimes in her eyes; and at her age it was not easy to separate the sin from the sinner.

New Year's night was always held to be one of especial merriment, but Lady Merrifield was so much tired out by her expedition that she hardly felt equal to presiding over any sports, and proposed that instead the young folk should dance. Gillian and Hal took turns to play for them, and Uncle Reginald and Fly were in equal request as partners. It was Mysie who came to draw Dolores out of her corner, and begged her to be her partner--'If you wouldn't very much rather not,' she said, in a pleading, wistful, voice.

Dolores would 'very much rather not;' but she saw that Mysie would be left out altogether if she did not consent, as Hal was playing and Uncle Regie was dancing with Primrose. She thought of resolutions to turn over a new leaf, and not to refuse everything so she said, 'Yes, this once,' and it was wonderful how much freshened she felt by the gay motion, and perhaps by Mysie's merry, good-natured eyes and caressing hand. After that she had another turn with Gillian and one with Hal, and even one with Fergus because, as he politely informed her, no one else would have him for a quadrille. But, just as this was in progress, and she could not help laughing at his ridiculous mistakes and contempt of rules she met Uncle Reginald's eye fixed on her in wonder 'He thinks I don't care,' thought she to herself. All her pleasure was gone, and she moved so dejectedly that her aunt, watching from the sofa, called her and told her she was over-tired, and sent her to bed.

Dolores was tired, but not in the way which made it harder instead of easier to sleep, or, rather, she slept just enough to relax her full consciousness and hold over herself, and bring on her a misery of terror and loneliness, and feeling of being forsaken by the whole world. And when she woke fully enough to understand the reality, it was no better; she felt, then, the position she had put herself into, and almost saw in the dark, Flinders's malicious vindictive glance Constance's anger, Uncle Regie's cold, severe look and, worse than all, her father reading her letter'

She fell again into an agony of sobbing, not without a little hope that Aunt Lily would be again brought to her side. At last the door was softly pushed open in the dark, but it was not Aunt Lily, it was Mysie's little bare feet that patted up to the bed, her arms that embraced, her cheek that was squeezed against the tearful one--'Oh, Dolly, Dolly! please don't cry so sadly!'

'Oh! it is so dreadful, Mysie!'

'Are you ill--like the other night?'

'No--but--Mysie--I can't bear it!'

'I don't want to call mamma,' said Mysie, thoughtfully, 'for she is so much tired, and Uncle Regie and Gill said she would be quite knocked up, and got her to come up to bed when we went. Dolly, would it be better if I got into your bed and cuddled you up?'

'Oh yes! oh yes! please do, there's a dear good Mysie.'

There was not much room, but that mattered the less, and the hugging of the warm arms seemed to heal the terrible sense of being unloved and forsaken, the presence to drive away the visions of angry faces that had haunted her; but there was the longing for fellow-feeling on her, and she said, 'That's nice! Oh, Mysie! you can't think what it is like! Uncle Regie said I didn't care, and he could never forgive deliberate deceit--and I was so fond of Uncle Regie!'

'Oh! but he will, if you never tell a story again,' said Mysie--and, as she felt a gesture implying despair--'Yes, they do; I told a story once.'

'You, Mysie! I thought you never did?'

'Yes, once, when we were crossing to Ireland and nurse wouldn't let Wilfred tie our handkerchiefs together and fish over the side, and he was very angry, and threw her parasol into the sea when she wasn't looking; and I knew she would be so cross, that when she asked me if I knew what was become of it, I said 'No,' and thought I didn't, really. But then it came over me, again and again, that I had told a story, and, oh! I was so miserable whenever I thought of it--at church, and saying my prayers, you know; and mamma was poorly, and couldn't come to us at night for ever so long, but at last I could bear it no longer, I heard her say, 'Mysie is always truthful,' and then I did get it out, and told her. And, oh! she and papa were so kind, and they did quite and entirely forgive me!'

'Yes, you told of your own accord; and they were your own--not Uncle Regie. Ah! Mysie, everybody hates me. I saw them all looking at me.'

'No, no! Don't say such things. Dolly. None of us do anything so shocking.'

'Yes, Jasper does, and Wilfred and Val!'

'No! no! no! they don't hate; only they are tiresome sometimes; but if you wouldn't be cross they would be nice directly--at least Japs and Val. And 'tisn't hating with Willie, only he thinks teasing is fun.'

'And you and Gillian. You can only just bear me.

'No! no! no!' with a great hug, 'that's not true.'

'You like Fly ever so much better!'

'She is so dear, and so funny,' said Mysie, the truthful, 'but somehow, Dolly dear, do you know, I think if you and I got to love one another like real friends, it would be nicer still than even Fly--because you are here like one of us, you know; and besides, it would be more, because you are harder to get at. Will you be my own friend. Dolly?'

'Oh, Mysie, I must!' and there was a fresh kissing and hugging.

'And there's mamma,' added Mysie.

'Yes, I know Aunt Lily does now; but, oh! if you had seen Uncle Alfred's face, and heard Uncle Regie,' and Dolly began to sob again as they returned on her. 'I see them whenever I shut my eyes!'

'Darling,' whispered Mysie, 'when I feel bad at night, I always kneel up in bed and say my prayers again!'

'Do you ever feel bad?'

'Oh yes, when I'm frightened, or if I've been naughty, and haven't told mamma. Shall we do it, Dolly?'

'I don't know what that has to do with it, but we'll try.'

'Mamma told me something to say out of.'

The two little girls rose up, with clasped hands in their bed, and Mysie whispered very low, but so that her companion heard, and said with her a few childish words of confession, pleading and entreating for strength, and then the Lord's Prayer, and the sweet old verse:--

         'I lay my body down to sleep,
          I give my soul to Christ to keep,
          Wake I at morn, as wake I never,
          I give my soul to Christ for ever.'

'Ah! but I am afraid of that. I don't like it,' said Dolores, as they lay down again.

'It won't make one never wake,' returned Mysie; 'and I do like to give my soul to Christ. It seems so to rest one, and make one not afraid.'

'I don't know,' said Dolores; 'and why did you say the Lord's Prayer? That hasn't anything to do with it!'

'Oh, Dolly, when He is our Father near, though our own dear fathers are far away, and there's deliver us from evil--all that hurts us, you know-and forgive us. It's all there.'

'I never thought that,' said Dolores. 'I think you have some different prayers from mine. Old nurse taught me long ago. I wish you would always say yours with me. You make them nicer.'

Mysie answered with a hug, and a murmured 'If I can,' and offered to say the 121st Psalm, her other step to comfort, and, as she said it, she resolved in her mind whether she could grant Dolores's request; for she was not sure whether she should be allowed to leave her room before saying her own, and she I knew enough of Dolores by this time to be aware that to say she would ask mamma's leave would put an end to all. 'I know,' was her final decision; 'I'll say my own first, and then come to Dolly's room.'

But by that time Dolores was asleep, even if Mysie had not been too sleepy to speak.

She meant to have rushed to the room she shared with Valetta before it was time to get up, but Lots found the black head and the brown together on Dolores's pillow, wrapped in slumber; and though Mysie flew home as soon as she was well awake, Mrs. Halfpenny descended on her while she was yet in her bath, and inflicted a sharp scolding for the malpractice of getting into her cousin's bed.

'But Dolly was so miserable, nurse, and mamma was too tired to call.'

'Then you should have called me, Miss Mysie, and I'd have sorted her well! You kenned well 'tis a thing not to be done and at your age; ye should have minded your duties better.'

And nurse even intercepted Mysie on her way to Dolores's room, and declared she would have no messing and gossiping in one another's rooms. Miss Mysie was getting spoilt among strangers.

Mysie went down with a strong sense of having been disobedient, as well as of grief for Dolores's disappointment. Happily mamma was late that morning, and nobody was in her room but Primrose. Poor Mysie had soon, with tears in her eyes, confessed her transgression. Her mother's tears, to her great surprise, were on her cheek together with a kiss. 'Dear child, I am not displeased. Indeed, I am not; I will tell nurse. It must not be a habit, but this was an exception, and I am only thankful you could comfort her.

'And, mamma, may I go now to her. She said I could help her to say her prayers, and I think she only has little baby ones that her nurse taught her and she doesn't see into the Lord's Prayer.'

'My dear, my dear, if you can help her to pray you will do the thing most sure to be a blessing to her of all.'

And when Mysie was gone, Lady Merrifield knelt down afresh in thankfulness.