Chapter IV. Hester's Playroom.
 

"'Thar!' said the Deacon. 'Naow she'll dew!'"

Hildegarde spoke in a tone of satisfaction, as she looked about her room. She had been setting it to rights,--not that it was ever "to wrongs" for any length of time,--for Bell and Gertrude Merryweather were coming to spend the morning with her, and she wanted her own special sanctum to look its best. She was very fond of this large, bare, airy chamber, with its polished floor, its white wainscoting, and its quaint blue-dragon paper. She had made it into a picture gallery, and just now it was a flower-show, too; for every available vase and bowl was filled with flowers from wood and garden. On the round table stood a huge Indian jar of pale green porcelain, filled with nodding purple iris; the green glass bowls held double buttercups and hobble-bush sprays, while two portraits, those of Dundee and William the Silent, were wreathed in long garlands of white hawthorn. The effect was charming, and Hildegarde might well look satisfied. But Bell Merryweather, when she came into the room, thought that its owner was the most beautiful part of it. Hildegarde was used to herself, as she would have said frankly; she knew she was pretty, and it was pleasant to be pretty, and there was an end of it. But to Bell, in whose family either brown locks or red were the rule, this white and gold maiden, with her cool, fresh tints of pearl and rose, was something wonderful. Hildegarde's dress this morning was certainly nothing astonishing, simply a white cambric powdered with buttercups; but its perfect freshness, its trim simplicity, made it so absolutely the fit and proper thing, that Bell's honest heart did homage to the lovely vision; there was something almost like reverence in her eyes as she returned Hildegarde's cordial greeting. As for the young Gertrude, all the world was fairyland to her, and Hildegarde was the queen, opening the door of a new province. The most important thing in life was not to fall or drop anything on this first visit to the strange and wonderful old house, as all the Merryweathers persisted in calling Braeside. Gertrude was always falling and dropping things. At home nobody expected anything else; but here it was different, and the poor child was conscious of every finger and toe as she stepped along gingerly. Gerald's parting words were still ringing in her ears:

"When you feel that you must fall down, Dropsy, be careful not to fall into shelves of china,--that's all. Bookcases are the best things to fall into, you'll find; and a book is the best thing to drop, too, my poor child. When you feel the fit coming on, put down the teacup and grab a dictionary; then choose the toe you want it to fall on,--superfluous aunt of the family, or some one of that sort,--and you are all right. Bless you, Dropsy! Farewell, my dear!"

Hildegarde took the girls directly up to her room, and they admired all her arrangements as heartily as she could wish. Bell exclaimed with amazement at the size of the room.

"To have all this for your own, your castle and defence," she cried. "What would the girls at college say if they could see such a room as this, and one girl living in it! Twelve by fourteen is our rule, and two girls to that."

"Dear me!" said Hildegarde. "Why, I couldn't live without room."

"Oh yes, you could!" said Bell, laughing. "One gets used to everything. It's rather good fun seeing how closely one can pack. We have sixty-five pictures in our room, my chum and I. Oh, you have my William! I didn't know anyone else had just exactly that portrait."

"Your William, indeed!" cried Hildegarde, laughing. "Why, he is mine, my very own, and no one ever began to love him as I do."

The two girls fell into a friendly discussion, and ran lightly over the history of the Netherlands, with occasional excursions to Italy, the Highlands, or the south of France, as one picture or another claimed their attention. Hildegarde was enjoying herself immensely, and did the honours with ardour, delighted to find that the "college girl" knew all about the things she loved, without being in the least bookish or prosy.

"I thought you would be 'primmed up with majestic pride,'" she said, laughing. "I was frightened when your little brother said you were at college, and I instantly saw you with spectacles, and pale, lank hair done up in a bob on the top of your head. And then--then you came over the top of the fence, looking like--like- --"

"Like what?" said Bell. "I insist upon knowing."

"You are sure you don't mind?" asked Hildegarde, as Bell herself had asked the day before. "You looked like an apple,--so exactly like a nice red and white Benoni I was sure you must be good to eat. Oh, I am so glad you came!"

"So am I!" said Bell.

"Do you think we might drop the 'Miss' part?" inquired Hildegarde, "or are you too dignified?"

"Apples must not stand on dignity," replied Bell, gravely. "But I have wanted to say 'Hildegarde' ever since I came into this room, because the name just fits the room--and you."

At this point Gertrude, who had forgotten her destiny in the joy of pictures, and was backing round the walls in silent ecstasy, saw--or rather did not see--her opportunity, and fell quietly downstairs. One special feature of Hildegarde's room was the staircase, her own private staircase, of which she was immensely proud. It was a narrow, winding stair, very steep and crooked, leading to the ground floor. When Gertrude disappeared down this gulf with a loud crash, Hildegarde was much alarmed, and flew to the rescue, followed more leisurely by Bell.

"Are you much hurt, my dear?" cried Hildegarde. "Wait till I come and pick you up, poor child!"

"Oh no!" replied Gertrude, softly, from the foot of the stairs, where she lay doubled up against the door. "Thank you, but I never hurt myself. I hope I haven't hurt the stairs."

Bell came along, laughing. "Dear Dropsy!" she said. "Here, come up! She really never does hurt herself," she added, in response to Hildegarde's look of astonishment. "She falls about so much, and has done so since she was a baby, that she keeps in training, I suppose, and her joints and bones are all supple and elastic. This was a good one, though! Sure you are not bruised, little girl?"

Gertrude picked herself up, declining assistance, and maintained stoutly that she was sound in wind and limb. "If only I did not break anything," she said, anxiously. "I came a terrible crack against the panel here, and it seemed as if something gave as I fell past it."

Bell bent down, in spite of Hildegarde's assurance that everything was right, and passed her hand along the wall of the staircase. "There is no crack," she said. "I think it is all right, Toots." She tapped the panel critically. "The wall is hollow here," she said. "Is this your secret chamber, Hildegarde?"

"Hollow?" cried Hildegarde. "What do you mean, Bell? I know of no hollow place there."

"Have you ever looked for one?" Bell inquired. "Search would reveal something in there, I am pretty sure."

Thrilled with curiosity, Hildegarde came down, and the three girls crouched together on the narrow stair, and tapped and rapped here and there. Beyond a doubt, one panel was hollow. What could it mean?

Bell meditated. "What is on the other side of this place?" she asked.

"I--don't know," said Hildegarde. "Stop a moment, though! It must be,--yes, it is! The old chimney, the great square stack, comes near this place. Can there be any space--"

"Then it is a secret chamber, most likely," said Bell. "I have heard of such things. Shall we try?"

They tried eagerly, pressing here, pushing there, but for some time in vain. At length, as Hildegarde's strong fingers pressed hard on one spot of moulding, she felt it quiver. There was a faint sound, like a murmur of protest; then slowly, unwillingly, the panel moved, obedient to the insistent fingers, and slid aside, revealing a square opening into--the blackness of darkness.

"Oh, it's a dungeon!" cried Gertrude, starting back. "Perhaps the floor will give way, and let us down into places with knives and scythes. You remember 'The Dumberdene,' Bell?"

"No fear, Gertrude," said Hildegarde. "Nothing more horrible than the dining-room is under our feet. But this,--this is very mysterious. Can you see anything, Bell?"

"I begin to get a faint glimmer," said Bell. "Of course, if it is a chimney-room there cannot be any particular light. Shall we creep in? There is evidently a good deal of space."

"By all means," cried Hildegarde. "But let me go first, to bear the brunt of any horrors there may be. Spiders I would not face, but they must all be dead years ago."

She crept in on her hands and knees, closely followed by the two Merryweathers. Growing accustomed to the dimness, they found themselves in a small square chamber, high enough for them to stand upright. The walls were smooth, and thick with dust; the floor was carpeted with something that felt soft and close, like an Eastern rug.

"We simply must have light!" cried Hildegarde. "Wait, girls! I will bring a candle and matches."

"No! no!" cried Bell. "Wait a moment! I think I have found a window, or something like one, if I can only get it open."

Again there was a soft, complaining sound, and then a sliding movement; a tiny panel was pushed aside, and a feeble ray of light stole in. The girls' faces glimmered white against the blackness.

"Something obstructs the light," said Hildegarde. "See! this is it." She put her arm out through the little opening, and pushed away a dense mass of vines that hung down like a thick curtain. "That is better," she said. "Now let us see where we are."

It was a curious place, surely, to lie hidden in the heart of a comparatively modern house. A square room, perhaps eight feet across, neatly papered with the blue-dragon paper of Hildegarde's own room; on the floor an old rug, faded to a soft, nameless hue, but soft and fine. On the walls hung a few pictures, quaint little coloured wood-cuts in gilt frames, representing ladies and gentlemen in scant gowns and high-shouldered frock-coats. There were two little chairs, painted blue, with roses on the backs; a low table, and a tiny chest of drawers. The girls looked at each other, a new light dawning in their faces.

"It is a doll's room," said Gertrude, softly, with an awe-stricken look.

"I know! I know whose room it was!" cried Hildegarde. "Wait, oh, wait! I am sure we shall find something else. I will tell you all about it in a moment, but now let us look and find all we can."

With beating hearts they searched the corners of the little chamber. Presently Hildegarde uttered a cry, and drew something forward into the light of the little window; a good-sized object, carefully covered with white cloth, neatly stitched together. Hildegarde took out her pocket scissors, and snipped with ardour, then drew off the cover. It was a doll's bedstead, of polished mahogany, with four pineapple-topped posts, exactly like the great one in which Hildegarde herself slept; and in it, under dainty frilled sheets, blankets and coverlid, lay two of the prettiest dolls that ever were seen. Their nightgowns were of fine linen; the nightcaps, tied under their dimpled chins, were sheer lawn, exquisitely embroidered. One tiny waxen hand lay outside the coverlid, and in it was a folded piece of paper.

"Oh, Hildegarde!" cried Bell, "what does it mean?"

Gertrude was in tears by this time, the big crystal drops rolling silently down her cheeks; her heart was wrung, she did not know why.

"Hester Aytoun," said Hildegarde, softly. "This must have been her playroom, Bell. She used to live here; it is about her that I wanted to tell you. But first let us see what she has written here. I think she would be willing; we are girls, too, and I don't think Hester would mind."

There were tears in Hildegarde's voice, if not in her eyes, as she read the writing, now yellow with age:

"I, Hester Aytoun, being now sixteen years old, am putting away my dear dolls, the dearest dolls in the world. Sister Barbara says I am far too old for such childish things; but I shall never be too old in my heart, though I may well busy myself with household matters, especially if I must marry Tom in three years, as he says. So I put away my dear dolls, and I shall shut up the playroom, also, for I could not think to pass by it each day and not go in to see them, and that Sister Barbara will not allow. It may be that no one will find my playroom till I show it myself to my little children, if God wills that I have them, which I shall pray always, now that I may not have my dolls any more. But if that should not be, or I should be taken away, then I think no harm to pray that a girl like myself may one day find my playroom that father made for me,--my own room, where I have been a very happy child. A man would never know what it meant, but a girl would know, and if it should so hap, I pray her to be gentle with the bedstead, for one leg is weakly; and if she will leave my dear dolls, when she has well played with them, I shall bless her always for a gentle maiden, wherever I be. So farewell, says
"HESTER AYTOUN."

All three girls were crying by this time, and little Gertrude laid her head on her sister's shoulder and sobbed aloud. Bell smoothed her hair with light, motherly touches, drying her own eyes the while. Hildegarde sat silent for a while, the letter in her hand; then she folded it again, and gently, reverently laid it again in the doll's hand.

"Dear Hester!" she said, "we do know, dear; we do understand, indeed."

And then, sitting on the floor by the pretty bedstead, and speaking softly and tenderly, she told the two girls of that other maiden who had lived and died in this old house,--the bright, beautiful Hester Aytoun, who faded in her springtime loveliness, and died at eighteen years; who had left everywhere the traces of her presence, soft, fragrant, like the smell of the flowers in her own garden.

"I chose my bedroom, that you like," said Hildegarde, "because I felt sure, somehow, that it had been hers. I never had a sister, girls, but Hester seems to me like my sister; and sometimes"--she hesitated, and her voice fell still lower--"sometimes I have felt as if she wished it to be so,--as if she liked to come now and then and see the old home, and give a loving look and word to the things she used to care for so much. I am glad we found this place, but I don't think I shall tell anyone else about it, except mamma, of course, and Jack, when he comes home."

Very gently the three girls laid the white covering back over the little dolls, who lay quiet and rosy, and seemed as content as ever was Sleeping Beauty in her tower. They peeped into the chest of drawers, and found it full of dainty frocks and petticoats, all exquisitely made; there was even a pile of tiny handkerchiefs, marked "Annabel" and "Celia." This sight made Gertrude's tears flow afresh; she was a tender-hearted child, and tears fell from her eyes as softly and naturally as dew from a flower.

When all was seen, they closed the little window, and with a mute farewell to the sweet guardian spirit of the little place,--the girl who had loved her dolls, and so made herself dear to all other girls,--the three withdrew, and softly, reluctantly drew the sliding panel after them.

"I shall not forget," whispered Hildegarde, who was the last to leave the secret chamber; "I shall come sometimes, Hester dear, and sit there, just I myself, and we will talk together, the dolls and I. I shall not forget."

The panel slid into its place with a faint click; no sign was left, only the white wainscoting, one panel like another, and the crooked stair winding up to the open, airy room above.