Chapter XIII.
 

The Monday after the loss of the pence was a pouring wet day. The whole court was like a flood, and the drops went splashing up again as if in play; Purday wore his master's old southwester coat, and looked shiny all over; and when the maids had to cross the court, they went click, click, in their pattens under their umbrellas.

But it was baking day, and Susan and Annie had been down to coax the cook into making them a present of a handsome allowance of dough, and Miss Fosbrook into letting them manipulate it in the school-room. Probably this was the only way of preventing the dough from being turned into bullets, and sent flying at each other's eyes, or possibly plastered on somebody's nose, and the cook and kitchenmaid from being nearly driven crazy.

The dough was justly divided, and an establishment set up in each locker. Bessie declined altogether; Sam had lent her his beautiful book of The British Songsters, and she was hard at work at the table copying a tom-tit, since she no longer carried on the work in secret; but at one locker were the other three elders, at the other the three lesser ones, and little George in a corner by Susan, pegging away at his own private lump, and constantly begging for more. Susan's ambition was to make a set of real twists, just like Cook's; and she pulled out and twisted and plaited, though often robbed of her dough by the two boys, whose united efforts were endeavouring to produce a likeness of Purday, with his hat on his head, plums for eyes, a pipe in his mouth, and driving a cow; but unluckily his neck always got pinched off, and his arms would not stay on! No matter; the more moulding of that soft dough the better! Johnnie and Annie had a whole party of white clammy serpents, always being set to bite one another, and to melt into each other; and David was hard at work on a brood of rabbits with currant eyes, and would let no one interfere with him.

"Didn't I hear something!" asked Bessie, looking up.

"Oh, it's only the roller," said Sam; "Purday always rolls on a wet day."

Something, however, made the whole party of little bakers hold up their heads to listen. There was a gleam on their faces, as a quick alert step sounded on the stairs, and Bessie, the nearest to the door, and not cramped like the rest, who were sitting on their heels, sprang forward and opened it with a scream of joy.

There he was--the light, alert, weather-beaten man, with his loose wavy hair, and bright sailor face! There was Papa! Oh, the hurly- burly of children, tumbling up as well as they could on legs crooked under them, and holding out great fans of floury doughy paws, all coming to be hugged in his arms in turn, so that before he had come to the end of the eight in presence, Bessie had had time to whisk off to the nursery, snatch Baby up from before Nurse's astonished eyes, rush down with her, and put her into his arms. Baby had forgotten him, and was taken with such a fit of screaming shyness, that Susan had to take her, and Annie to play bo-peep with her, before she would let anyone's voice be heard.

"I've taken you by surprise, Miss Fosbrook," said the Captain, shaking hands with her in the midst of the clatter.

"Oh, it is such a pleasure!" she began. "I hope you left Mrs. Merrifield much better."

"Much better, much better, thank you. I hope to find her on the sofa when I go back on Thursday. I could only run down for a few days, just to settle things, and see the children, before I join the Ramilies. Admiral Penrose very good-naturedly kept it open for me, till we could tell how she was," said the Captain, with rather a trembling voice.

"Then you are going! O Papa!" said Susan, looking up at him; "and Baby will not know you till--"

"Hold your tongue, Miss Croaker," said the Captain, roughly but kindly; and Miss Fosbrook could see that he was as much afraid of crying himself as of letting Susan cry; "I've no time for that. I've got a gentleman on business down stairs, and your Uncle John and I must go down to them again. We sha'n't want dinner; only, Sue, tell them to send in some eggs and bacon, or cold meat, or whatever there may be, for tea; and get a room ready for your uncle."

He would have gone, but Susan called out, "O Papa, may we drink tea with you, Georgy and all!"

"Yes, to be sure, if you won't make a bear-fight, any of you, for your uncle."

"Mayn't I come down with you?" added Sam, looking at him as if he wanted to make the most of every moment of that presence.

"Better not, my boy," said the Captain; "I've got law business to settle, and we don't want you. Better stay and make yourselves decent for tea-time. Mamma's love, and she hopes you'll not drive Uncle John distracted." And he was gone.

"Bother Uncle John!" first muttered Sam (I am sorry to say).

"I can't think what he's come for," sighed Annie.

"To spoil our fun," suggested Johnnie disconsolately.

"To take Sam to school," added Hal, "while I go to sea."

"You don't know that you are going," said Elizabeth. "Papa said nothing about it."

"Oh! but I know I shall. Admiral Penrose promised."

"You know a great many things that don't happen. You knew Colonel Carey would give you two sovereigns."

Henry looked as if he could bite.

"Well, I shall finish Purday," said Sam, turning away with a sigh; "and they shall have him for tea."

"Tea will be no fun!" repeated Annie. "Oh dear! what does Uncle John come here for?"

"May not he come to be with his brother?" suggested Christabel.

"Oh! but they are grown up," said Annie.

"Can't he have him in London, without coming here to worry us in our little time!" added Johnnie.

"Perhaps he will not worry you."

"Oh! but--" they all cried, and stopped short.

"He plagues about manners," said Annie.

"He wanted Susie and me to be sent to school!" said Bessie.

"He said it was like dining with young Hottentots."

"He told Papa it was disgraceful, when we had all been sliding on the great pond in the village," added Annie.

"And he gave Sam a box on the ear, for only just taking a dear little river cray-fish in his fishing-net to show Aunt Alice."

"The net was dripping wet," observed Bessie.

"Yes," said Anne; "but Aunt Alice is so finikin and fidgety; she never wets her feet, and can't get over a stile, and is afraid of a cow; and he wants us all to be like her."

"And he makes Papa and Mamma mind things that they don't mind by nature," said Susan.

"Mamma always tells us to be good, and never play at hockey in the house when he's there," said Anne.

"She has not told us so this time," said John triumphantly.

"No, but we must mind all the same," said Susan; and Sam silenced some independent murmurs, about not minding Uncle John, by saying it was minding Mamma.

Miss Fosbrook herself was a little alarmed, for she gathered that Mamma was in some fear of this terrible uncle, that he had much influence with his brother, and was rather a severe judge of the young family. She sincerely hoped that he would not find things much amiss, for the honest goodness of the two eldest had won so much regard from her, that she could not bear them to be under any cloud; and indeed she felt as if the whole flock were her own property, as well as her charge, and that she, as well as they, were about to be tried. She would have felt it all fair and just before their kindly father, but it seemed hard that all should be brought before the school-master uncle; and she was disposed to be tender for her children, and exceedingly anxious as to the effect they might produce. She was resolved that the Captain should hear of the affair of the pence; but the presence of his brother would make the speaking a much greater effort. Meantime, she saw that all the fingers were clean, and all the hair brushed. She flattered herself that Susan's yellow locks had learnt that it was the business of hair to keep tidy, and had been much less unmanageable of late; but she had her fears that they would ruffle up again when their owner, at the head of a large detachment, rushed out to take the "fancy bread" out of the oven, and she came half-way down stairs, in case it should be necessary to capture them, and brush them over again.

While thus watching, the door of the dining-room (the only down stairs room in order) opened suddenly, and the Captain came forth. "Oh, Miss Fosbrook," he said, "please come in here: I was just coming to look for you. My brother--Miss Fosbrook."

To her surprise, Miss Fosbrook received a very pleasant civil greeting from a much younger man than she had expected to see, looking perhaps more stern about the mouth and sharp about the eye than his elder brother, and his clerical dress very precise; but somehow he was so curiously like his niece, Elizabeth, that she thought that his particularity might spring from the same love of refinement.

"All going on well?" asked the Captain.

"Fairly well," she answered. "Sam and Susan are most excellent children. There is only one matter on which I should like to speak to you, at some time when it might suit you."

"Is it about this?" he said, putting into her hand a sheet written in huge round-hand in pencil, no words misspelt, but the breaks in them at the end of the lines perfectly regardless of syllables:-

My dear Papa,

Please let me
have a poli
ceman. Bet h
as got at Toby
and stole our
pence which was
for a secret. Nu
rse says she is a
favourite and Miss
Fosbrook will not
find them.

Your affectionate son

DAVID DOUGLAS MERRIFIELD.

"Oh! this was the letter David insisted on sealing before I put it into mine!" exclaimed Miss Fosbrook, as soon as she had made out the words. "We have been in great trouble at the loss; but we agreed not to write to you, because you had so much on your mind."

"Is Bessie in fault?"

"No, no; none of us believe it; but I am very anxious that you should make an investigation, for the maids suspect her, and have made the younger children do so."

"And who is Toby?"

"Toby is only a jug--called Toby Fillpot, I believe--shaped like a man."

"I know!" put in Mr. John Merrifield, laughing. "Don't you remember him, Harry? We had the like in our time."

"Well?" interrogated the Captain.

"Just after you left home," said Christabel, as shortly and clearly as she could, "the children agreed to save their allowance to buy a pig for Hannah Higgins. They showed great perseverance in their object; and by the third week they had about seven shillings in this jug, which, to my grief and shame, I let them keep in the glass cupboard, not locked, but one door bolted, the other buttoned. On Friday morning, the 11th, I know the cup was full of coppers and silver, for I took it down to add something to it. On the next Monday morning the money was gone, all but one farthing."

"Can you guess who took it?"

"I should prefer saying nothing till you have examined the children and servants for yourself."

"Right!" said the Captain. "Very well.--I am sorry to treat you to a court-martial, John, but I must hold one after tea."

Christabel pitied the children for having to speak before this formidable uncle; but there could be no help for it, since no other sitting-room was habitable, and there were torrents of rain out-of- doors.

There was just time to show the glass cupboard, and the shelf where Toby had stood, and to return to the dining-room, before the children began to stream in and make their greetings to their uncle, Susan with George in one hand, and her plate of bakings in the other. Very fancy bread indeed it was! as Uncle John said. The edge of Purday's hat had been quite baked off, and one of his arms was gone; he was black in the wrong places, and was altogether rather an uncomfortable-looking object. David's brood of rabbits were much more successful, though the ears of many had fallen off. Uncle John was very much diverted, and took his full share of admiring and tasting the various performances. On the whole, the meal went off much better than Christabel had feared it would. She had really broken the children of many of the habits with which they used to make themselves disagreeable; there was no putting of spoons into each other's cups, nor reaching out with buttery fingers; lips were wiped, and people sat still upon their chairs, even if they fidgeted and sighed; and there was only one slop made all tea-time, and that was by Johnnie, and not a very bad one. Indeed, it might be hoped that Mr. Merrifield did not see it, for he was talking to Sam about the change of footpath that Mr. Greville was making. There was indeed no fun, but it might be doubted whether Papa would have been in a mood for fun even had his brother not been there; and Miss Fosbrook was rather glad there was nothing to make the children forgetful of propriety.

As soon as Mary had carried off the tea-things and wiped the table, Uncle John put himself as much out of the way as he could behind the newspaper in the recess of the window; and Miss Fosbrook would have gone to the school-room, but Captain Merrifield begged her to stay.

"I hear," he said, "that a very unpleasant thing has taken place in my absence, and I wish to learn all that I can about it, that the guilty person may be brought to light, and the innocent cleared from any suspicion."

The children looked at one another, wondering how he had heard, or whether Miss Fosbrook had told him; but this was soon answered by his calling out, "David! come here, and tell me what you meant by this letter."

David walked stoutly to his father's knee, nothing daunted, though his brothers muttered behind him, "So he wrote!" "Little sneak!" and "He knew no better!" Not that it was wrong to lay the case before his father; but boys had usually rather suffer injustice than make an accusation.

"Why did you write this letter, David?" said his father.

"Because I want my pence for the pig."

"Tell me how you lost them?"

"Bess took them!"

Elizabeth sprung up, crimson, and with tears in her eyes, and Sam and Susan were both bursting out into an angry "No, no!" but their father made a sign to all to keep still; and they obeyed, though each of the elder ones took hold of a hand of their sister and squeezed it hard.

"Did you see her take them?" asked the Captain.

"No!"

"Then why do you say she did? I don't want to frighten you, David; I only want to hear why you think she did so."

David was getting alarmed now, and his childish memory better retained the impression than what had produced it. He hung down his head, scraped one foot, and finding that he must answer, mumbled out at last, "Nurse said it, and Hal."

"Henry, come here. Did you accuse your sister to David?"

"No!" burst out Henry at once; but there was a rounding of everyone's mouth to cry out Oh! and he quickly added, in a hasty scared way, "At least, when Davie came bothering me, I said he had better ask Betty, because she had been prying about, and meddling with the baby-house. I never meant that she had done it; but Davie is such a little jack- ass!"

"Did you see her meddle with the baby-house!"

"She said that herself," muttered Henry.

"Yes, Papa," said Elizabeth, starting forward, "I did find the doors of the baby-house open, and shut them up, but I never touched anything in it! Sam and Susie know I would not, and that I would not tell a story now, though I once did, you know, Papa!"

Captain Merrifield still kept his grave set face, and only asked, "When did you find the doors open?"

"On Friday, Papa--Friday week--St. Barnabas' Day--just after dinner."

"Was no one with you?"

"No, Papa."

"You came up-stairs first?"

"Yes; I wanted my pencil before--" and she stopped short.

"Before what?"

"Before Miss Fosbrook went in to speak to Hal," said Elizabeth, getting red all over.

"Hal had been dining in the school-room," said Miss Fosbrook, "on account of a little bit of disobedience."

Captain Merrifield looked keenly at Henry, who tried to return the look, but shuffled uncomfortably under it.

"Then Hal had been dining in the school-room? Was he there when you came in?"

"No."

"Were the doors open when you were dining there, Henry?"

"N--no."

"You are sure that you did not meddle with them?"

"I do not know why I should," said Henry, hastily and confusedly. "It is only the girls and the babies that have things there--and--and Miss Fosbrook herself had been at the cupboard in the morning; why shouldn't she have left it undone herself, and the doors got open?"

"No, no!" cried Susan; "if they aren't fastened they always burst open directly; and we never could have been in the room half the morning without noticing them!"

"Then you are certain that they were closed when you went down to dinner?"

Everyone was positive that the great glass doors flying out must have made themselves observed in that room full of children, especially as Susan remembered that she had been making a desk of the sloping part under them.

"Does anyone remember how long it was between Hal's leaving the room and Bessie's coming up?"

"I don't know when he went out," said all those who had been in the dining-room; but there spoke up a voice, quite proud of having something to tell among the others--"I saw Hal go out, and Bessie come up directly."

"You, Johnnie! How was that?"

"Miss Fosbrook made me dine in the nursery, Papa, because Hal and I had been riding on the new iron gate, to see if the telegraph would come in while the others were at church; and then Hal ran away with the Grevilles, and I couldn't get down till Sam came and helped me; and so Miss Fosbrook made me dine in the nursery; and when I had done, I went and sat upon the top of the garret stairs, to watch when they came out from dinner, and ask if I might come down again."

"And what did you see, Johnnie?"

"First, I saw a wasp," said Johnnie.

"Never mind the wasp. Did you see when Henry went out?"

"I saw him come in first," said John, "and Miss Fosbrook order him up and say she would send him his dinner, and come and speak to him presently. So I watched to catch her when she was coming up to him, and I saw Mary bring him up some mince veal, and the last bit of the gooseberry pie; and then, very soon, he bolted right downstairs. I didn't think he could have had time to eat the pie; and I was going to see if there was a bit left, when I saw Bessie coming up, and I whipped up again."

"Then nobody went into the room between Henry and Bessie?"

"No; there wasn't any time."

The whole room was quite silent. There was no sound but a quick short breathing from the Captain: but he had rested his brow upon his hand, and his face could not be seen. It was as if something terrible had flashed upon him, and he was struggling with the first shock, and striving to deal with it. If they had seen him in a tempest, with his ship driving to pieces on a rock, he would not have been thus shaken and dismayed. However, by the time he looked up again, he had brought his face back to its resolute firmness, and he spoke in a clear, stern, startling voice, that made all the children quake, and some catch hold of each other's hands: "Henry! tell me what you have done with your theft!"

Miserable Henry! He did not try to deny it any longer; but burst out into a loud sobbing cry, "O Papa! Papa! I meant to have put it back again! I couldn't help it!"

"Tell me what you have done with it!" repeated the Captain.

"I--I paid it to Farmer Grice; I was obliged; and I thought I could have put it back again; and some of it was my own!"

"Fivepence-farthing!" cried David. "You thief, you!"

The child's fists were clenched, and his young face all one scowl of passion, quite shocking to see. His father put him aside, and said, "Hush, David! no names.--Now, Henry, what do you say to your sister for your false accusation, which has thrown your own shame on her?"

"Oh, no, no, Papa; he never did accuse me!" cried Bessie, for the first time bursting into tears. "He never said I did it; that was only Davie's fancy; and it has made Susie and Sam so kind, I have not minded it at all. Please don't mind that, Papa!"

"Come away, Henry!" said the Captain; "now that your sister has been cleared, we had better have the rest out of the sight of these tender-hearted little girls."

He stood up, and without a word, stroked down Elizabeth's smooth brown hair, raised her face up by the chin, and kissed her forehead, the only place free from tears; then he took Henry by the shoulder, and marched him out of the room. Bessie could not stop herself from crying, and was afraid of letting Uncle John see her; so she flew out after them, and straight up-stairs to her own room. Miss Fosbrook and Susan both longed to follow her, but they had missed this opportunity; and the sound of voices outside showed so plainly that the Captain and Henry were in the hall that they durst not open the door.

Everyone was appalled, and nothing was said for a few seconds. The first to speak was Annie, in a low, terror-stricken whisper, yet with some curiosity in it: "I wonder what Papa will do to him?"

"Give him nine dozen, I hope!" answered David through his small white teeth, all clenched together with rage.

"For shame, Davie!" said Susan; "you should not wish anything so dreadful for your brother."

"He has been so wicked! I wish it! I will wish it!" said David.

"Hush, David!" said Miss Fosbrook; "such things must not be said. I will talk to you by and by."

"I am glad poor Bessie is cleared!" added Susan; "though I always knew she could not have done it."

"To be sure--I knew it was Hal!"

"Sam! you did?--why didn't you tell?" cried Annie.

"I wasn't--to say--sure," said Sam; "and I couldn't go and get him into a scrape. I thought he might tell himself, if he could ever make up the money again!"

"Yes," said Susan; "he would have done that. He always fancied he should get a sovereign from Colonel Carey."

"He talked till he thought so," said Sam.

"But what made you guess he had done so, Sam?" said Miss Fosbrook. "I did suspect him myself, but I never felt justified in accusing him of such a thing."

"I don't know! I saw he had been getting into a fix with those Grevilles, and had been sold somehow. They said something, and got out of my way directly, and I was sure they had done some mischief, and left him to pay the cost."

"Did you ask him?" said Susan.

"What was the use? One never knows where to have him. He will eat up his words as fast as he says them, with his at least, till he doesn't know what he means. Nor I didn't want to know much of it."

"Still I can't think how you could let poor Bessie live under such a cloud," said Christabel.

"You didn't believe it," said Sam, "nor anyone worth a snap of my finger. Besides, if I had known, and had to tell, what a horrid shame it would have been if the naval cadetship had been to be had for him! I knew Bessie would have thought so too, and then he would have been out of the way of the Grevilles, and would have got some money to make it up."

"Then is there no chance of the cadetship now?"

"Oh, we should have heard of it long ago if there had been! So I mind the coming out the less; but it's perfectly abominable to have had all this row, and for Papa to be so cut up in this little short time at home."

"I never saw him more grieved," said Mr. Merrifield. "He was hardly more overcome when your mother was at the worst."

They started, for they had forgotten Uncle John, or they would never have spoken so freely; but he now put down his newspaper, and looked as if he meant to talk.

Susan ventured to say, "And indeed they had all been so very good before. The pig made them so."

"A learned pig, I should think," said her uncle, laughing good- naturedly.

"We were obliged to take care," said Susan, "or we got so many fines."

Christabel, finding that Mr. Merrifield looked at her, helped out Susan by explaining that various small delinquencies were visited with fines, and that the desire to save for the pig had rendered the children very careful.

"Indeed," she said, "I was thankful for the incentive, but I am afraid that it was over-worked, and did harm in the end:" and she glanced towards David.

"It is the way with secondary motives," was the answer.

Here Captain Merrifield came back alone; and his brother was the only person who ventured to say, "Well?"

"I have sent him to his room," said the Captain. "It is a very bad business, though of course he made excuses to himself."

The Captain then told them Henry's confession. He had been too much hurried by the fear of being caught, to take out his own share of the hoard, and had therefore emptied the whole cupful into his pocket- handkerchief, tied it up, and run off with it, intending to separate what was honestly his own. What that was he did not know, but his boastful habits and want of accuracy had made his memory so careless, that he fancied that a far larger proportion was his than really was, and his purposes were in the strange medley that falls to the lot of all self-deceivers, sometimes fancying he would only take what he had a right to (whatever that might be), sometimes that he would borrow what he wanted, and replace it when the sovereign should be given to him, or that the Grevilles would make it up when they had their month's allowance.

When he came to the farm Mr. Grice was resolved to take nothing less than the whole sum that he had with him. Perhaps this was less for the value of the turkey-cock than for the sake of giving the boys such a lesson as to prevent them from ever molesting his poultry again. At any rate, he was inexorable till the frightened Henry had delivered up every farthing in his possession; and then, convinced that no more was forthcoming, he relented so far as to restore the gun, and promise to make no complaint to either of the fathers.

At first Henry lived on hopes of being able to restore the money before the hoard should be examined, but Colonel Carey went away, and, as might have been expected, left no present to his brother's pupils. Still Henry had hopes of the Grevilles, and even when the loss was discovered, hoped to restore it secretly, and make the whole pass off as a joke; but the 1st of August came, Martin and Osmond received their pocket-money, but laughed his entreaty to scorn, telling him that he had shot the turkey-cock, not they. Since that time, his only hope had been in the affair blowing over--as if a sin ever did blow over!

"One question I must ask, Miss Fosbrook," said the Captain, "though after such a course of deceit it hardly makes it worse. Has he told any direct falsehood?"

She paused, and recollected. "Yes, Sir," she said, "I am afraid he did; he flatly told me that he had not touched the baby-house."

"I expected nothing else," said the Captain gravely. "What has become of Bessie?"

"She ran up-stairs. May I go and call her?" said Susan.

"I will go myself," said her father.

He found Elizabeth in the school-room, all flushed and tear-stained in the face; and he told her affectionately how much pleased he was with her patience under this false accusation. Delight very nearly set her off crying again, but she managed to say, "It was Miss Fosbrook and Sam and Susie that made me patient, Papa; they were so kind. And nobody would have believed it, if I wasn't always cross, you know."

"Not cross now, my little woman," he said smiling.

"Oh! I said I never could be cross again, now Mamma is better; but Miss Fosbrook says I shall sometimes feel so, and I do believe she is right, for I was almost cross to Georgie to-day. But she says one may feel cross, and not be cross!"

He did not quite know all that his little girl was thinking of; but he patted her fondly, and said, "Yes, there is a great deal to be thankful for, my dear; and I shall trust to you elder ones to give your Mamma no trouble while I am afloat."

"I will try," said Bessie. "And please, Papa, would you tell Nurse about it? She doesn't half believe us, and she is so tiresome about Miss Fosbrook!"

"Tiresome! what do you mean?"

"She always thinks what she does is wrong, and she puts nonsense into Johnnie's head, and talks about favourites. Mary told Susan it was jealousy."

The Captain spoke pretty strongly to Nurse Freeman that evening, but it is doubtful if she were the better for it. She was a very good woman in most things, but she could not bear that the children should be under anyone but herself; and just as Henry lost the truth by inaccuracy, she lost it by prejudice.

Miss Fosbrook was glad to get away from the dining-room, where it was rather awful to sit without her work and be talked to by Mr. Merrifield, even though she liked him much better than she had expected.

When David came to bed, she sat by him and talked to him about his angry unforgiving spirit. She could not but think he was in a fearful temper, and she tried hard to make him sorry for his brother, instead of thirsting to see the disappointment visited on him; but David could not see what she meant. Wicked people ought to be punished; it was wicked to steal and tell stories, and he hoped Henry would be punished, so as he would never forget it, for hindering poor Hannah from getting her pig.

He would not understand Henry's predicament; he was only angry, bitterly angry, and watching for vengeance. Miss Fosbrook could not reason or persuade him out of it, nor make him see that he could hardly say his prayers in such a mood. Indeed, he would rather have gone without his prayers than have ceased to hope for Henry's punishment.

Perhaps in this there was sense of justice and indignation against wrong doing, as well as personal resentment. Miss Fosbrook tried to think so, and left him, but not without praying for him, that a Christian temper of forgiveness might be sent upon him.

All the others were subdued and awe-struck. It was not yet known what was to happen to Henry; but there was a notion that it would be very terrible indeed, and that Uncle John would be sure to make it worse; and they wished Miss Fosbrook good-night with very sad faces.