THERE is scant consolation in the reflection that for the main part our misfortunes are our own fault, and Beatrice Dainton was realising this as she drove up the avenue leading to Lawdon Priory. It was all very well for her to try and feel a glow of satisfaction in the knowledge that she had left a comfortable home to gain her own living. But she could not lose sight of the fact that it was her own headstrong folly and miserable pride which had made it necessary for a Dainton to go out into the world and accept a situation which was practically nothing better than that of a nursery governess. It was not even as if Mrs. Wybrow were a lady of any distinguished position; in fact, Beatrice had every reason to believe that the Wybrows were quite new. They had only come to Lawdon Priory recently, and Beatrice could perfectly well remember the time when the Lawdons themselves were quite as great and distinguished as were the Daintons.
But the lapse of time had changed all this. Now the old family house had passed into the hands of strangers, and Mrs. Dainton had found herself forced to take a small house and there to live on the slenderest possible income. It was all very well to reflect with pride on the fact that the head of the family had been the Earl of Stangrave, but it was the only consolation which the Daintons possessed. They were suffering, like a good many other people, from the extravagances of their ancestors. Everything depends on the point of view, and, whilst Mrs. Dainton regarded herself as the high-bred victim of misfortune, her neighbours spoke of her as a proud, silly old woman who had done her best to spoil her daughter and utterly unfit her for the sphere of life which she now occupied.
But, on the whole, mother and daughter had been fairly content. They lived in a charming old cottage belonging to Mrs. Dainton, where the flowers and garden were picturesque. It was in every respect a delightful house, and Mrs. Dainton might have augmented considerably her slender income by letting it furnished in the summer, but this she refused steadily to do. Mother and daughter, however, were not unhappy—indeed, they were too selfishly wrapped up in themselves to be otherwise, There were one or two discriminating people who maintained that Beatrice Dainton, in happier circumstances, would have been a really warm-hearted and attractive girl. All she needed was a sharp, stinging adversity to bring her to her senses.
It was indirectly Beatrice herself who brought this about. Her particularly distressing circumstances were uppermost in her mind now as she drove along the avenue. It seemed to be only yesterday that she had walked into the garden, intent on her roses, when she found the young man there. He had looked something like a superior type of workman; he was dressed in a shabby suit of clothes, and was more or less plastered in mud from head to foot. It had been raining the night before, and the garden soil was heavy. It must be admitted that he did not present himself in a favourable light. He was by no means bad-looking, and he spoke quite good English. But it was his air of self-possession, almost a suggestion of familiarity, which chafed Beatrice's pride on the tenderest spot. He had not blushed or hesitated when Beatrice demanded coldly what he was doing there. On the contrary, he told her coolly and collectedly that he was there on behalf of the Mid-Central Railway, which proposed to run a branch line right through the beloved rose-beds. He seemed to take the thing absolutely for granted, and ventured an opinion to the effect that it would be a great nuisance, no doubt, but that, on the other hand, the railway company would have to pay a handsome sum as compensation—indeed, he seemed rather to imply that Mrs. Dainton would be getting considerably the best of the bargain.
All this left Beatrice in a kind of dumb fury. She was annoyed to find that she could not put this good-looking workman in his place, and soon ended by losing her temper and ordering him off the premises. He went obediently enough, and, as far as Beatrice could see, there was an end of the matter.
It was by no means the end. At the expiration of a couple of months Mrs. Dainton, acting foolishly on her daughter's advice, had fought the railway company through her solicitors. In vain they pleaded and expostulated, and it was not until Mrs. Dainton had found herself to be £600 or £700 the poorer that she realised what she had done. That money represented a good deal to her. To begin with, it would now be utterly impossible for her to go abroad for the winter months, which her doctor had told her was absolutely necessary. There was still the probability of getting back this money and more from the railway company; but at the last moment they changed their minds and diverted their line to the bottom of Mrs. Dainton's garden, which meant that in future she would have all the hideous discomfort of the new venture without any pecuniary advantages. Beatrice could not disguise from herself that she was the author of all this trouble, simply because she had chosen to quarrel with the young man who refused to bow down and recognise the greatness of the Daintons even in their hour of adversity. It was quite impossible now that Mrs. Dainton could go abroad. She was just a little inclined to turn on Beatrice and blame her for this unhappy state of affairs; and Beatrice, who, behind all her pride and prejudice, had a naturally just mind, made no attempt to defend herself from the charge.
"Very well, mother." she had said, "I am afraid you are right. I suppose it is all the fault of the way I have been brought up. I know that people laugh and call us old-fashioned—perhaps we are. And now the end seems to have come to everything, and our family counts for nothing at all. I see that I am to blame, and I suppose I must pay the penalty. You shall have your trip abroad, and I will pay for it."
"My dear child!" Mrs. Dainton cried.
"I shall be able to manage it all right. I am told that those people who have lately come to Lawdon Priory want somebody to look after Mrs. Wybrow's children. I fancy she is a young widow. She says she doesn't want a governess or a nurse exactly, but something between the two. She is offering £100 a year. It seems a lot of money. I daresay it will be horrible. I expect I shall be looked on as a kind of upper servant."
"But you haven't got the situation," Mrs. Dainton said.
"Oh, there won't be any trouble," Beatrice said. "Of course, those sort of people arc always anxious to get on, and Mrs. Wybrow will see the advantage of having a Dainton under her roof. She will jump at the chance of getting me. At any rate, I have made up my mind, and I have already written my letter. Mrs. Wybrow is sure to ask me to go and see her."
But, as a matter of fact, Mrs. Wybrow did nothing of the sort. She wrote from London, saying that from what she could gather Miss Dainton would suit her very well, and asking Beatrice if she could make it convenient to take up her residence at Lawdon Priory on the following Saturday week. Therefore it came about that in due course Beatrice found herself driving up the avenue of Lawdon Priory with somewhat mixed feelings.
She had made up her mind exactly what she was going to find. She would find a pretentious woman, artificial and conceited, overdressed and disposed to overrate the importance of her position. Doubtless she would go out of her way to keep Beatrice in her place, and therefore the girl's face was a little hard and set as Mrs. Wybrow came into the drawing-room. There was nothing the matter with the drawing-room, at any rate, as Beatrice could see for herself. The place looked refined and homelike; it had the same blend of dignity and simplicity which it had possessed in the days of the Lawdons. And when Mrs. Wybrow came forward and shook hands warmly with Beatrice, and thanked her with evident sincerity for undertaking these arduous duties. Beatrice began to unbend at once. It was so entirely unlike what she had expected that she felt confused and embarrassed.
"Really. I am exceedingly fortunate," Mrs. Wybrow said. "I have seen you several times in the village, and I took quite a fancy to you. I said to myself more than once what a lucky thing it would be for me if I could get a lady like Miss Dainton to look after my children, and when I got your letter I jumped at the chance at once. You see, the children have a governess, but, excellent as she is, she is not what I call a companion to young children. She is a little too much of the schoolmistress. That is why I arranged for her to have the children only in school hours, and I don't like them to be left too much to nurses. You won't mind being one of the family, will you? I mean, you will lunch and dine with us, and help us to entertain our friends. As a matter of fact, you will have very little to do."
Beatrice murmured something in reply. She felt just a little inclined to be tearful. All this was so different from what she had expected, and, so far as Mrs. Wybrow was concerned, she would have passed muster anywhere. There was nothing about her in the least to suggest the parvenu.
"You see." she went on to explain, "this isn't my house at all. It really belongs to my brother. Most of our lives we have passed abroad. My father was an Australian engineer; indeed, most of the great engineering works in that part of the world were carried on by him. My brother is, if possible, a greater genius than his father. He really loves his work, though now he has bought this place I hope he will marry and settle down. There is not the least occasion for him to do any more work, and yet no man ever stuck to it closer than he does. I ask him what is the use of having a place like this if he can't enjoy it. The only thing I can do is to induce him to come down here for week-ends, and he makes a favour of it then. But he really is a splendid fellow, and I know you will like him. He is not coming down this Saturday, unfortunately, so that you must possess your soul in patience for another week."
Another week went by all too pleasantly. Every day seemed to open up some fresh interest to Beatrice. She found Mrs. Wybrow to be just as charming as she had promised, and the children were delightful. Beatrice had not come across many children in her life; she had been proud and self-contained, and now she found herself expanding and enjoying existence as she had never enjoyed it before. The proud, discontented look had entirely vanished from her face; there were moments when she asked herself questions which she could not answer to her own advantage. She was beginning to realise that she was at best but a girl who had been silly and foolish, and had closed her eyes wilfully to some of the greatest pleasures in life. What did it matter, after all, that these people were the offspring of a man who had made his own fortune? They were just as delightful, just as good-mannered, and far more warm-hearted and easy than the dull, proud persons with whom Beatrice had mixed during the best part of her colourless existence. She was prepared to like Mrs. Wybrow's brother, Gerald Flockton, when he came down on Saturday. He must be a really good fellow, she told herself, or the children would not have looked forward so eagerly to his coming.
That evening Beatrice smiled to herself to find that she was taking a little more pains than usual with her toilette. How different it would have been but a week ago!
SO far as Beatrice could see, there was nobody in the big inner drawing-room when she entered. In a half-amused sort of way she asked herself if Gerald Flockton would be anything like the young engineer who had been the indirect cause of her being at Lawdon Priory at all. At that moment she felt that she should like to see the imperturbable engineer again and beg his pardon for her rudeness. Then a tall, manly figure in evening dress emerged from the conservatory, intent on fixing a crimson carnation in his coat. Beatrice surveyed him with complacent satisfaction. Evidently this was Gerald Flockton, and evidently he would come up to her fastidious standard. She looked at him again, then a wave of colour came over her face. Beyond all doubt Gerald Flockton and the engineer were one and the same. He came forward now in an easy, natural way, and held out his hand.
"I am very glad to sec you again, Miss Dainton." he said. "Quite a little romance in its way, isn't it? I hope you have forgiven me for the unwarrantable way in which I trespassed on your garden some few months ago, but I assure you it was no fault of mine. A great railway company is almost as important in its way as a government. They go where they like, and they take what they like, and when they give me instructions I have to obey them. I was delighted to find that my sister had had the good fortune to get you to take charge of those children of hers. I don't think its a bad thing for you, either."
The cool audacity of the speech brought the blood back into Beatrice's face.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked with a touch of her old manner. "I am afraid I don't quite understand you."
"Oh. I think you do. You sec. I've knocked about the world a good deal, and I have come in contact with all sorts of people. I don't think it's good for anybody, especially anybody young, to lead such a life as you have led. It's—well, it's selfish. I think everybody's meant to be some use in the world, and I can respect and admire a girl who turns out bravely and gets her own living much more than one who stays at home and fancies that nobody's good enough for her."
"There's something in that," Beatrice said meekly.
She ought, of course, to have been furiously angry. She ought to have spoken with the dignity of the Daintons and put this young man in his place. Instead of that, she found herself agreeing with every word he said, and inclined to regard him as one of the wisest men of her acquaintance. Truly. Beatrice had learnt a good deal during the few days she had been at Lawdon Priory. She was destined to learn a good deal more before the following Monday morning. It was a revelation to listen to Mr. Flockton's experiences, which he had gained in every part of the world. He was modest enough about his own exploits, so that when Monday morning came and he drove off in the direction of the station it seemed to Beatrice that something had gone out of her; as if in some subtle way something had passed out of her life. She found herself looking forward quite eagerly to the following Friday, when Flockton had promised to come again.
"But he doesn't always keep his promises," one of the children said; "sometimes he forgets."
"Oh, no, he doesn't," Flockton laughed. "Business is a stern task-mistress, and she has to be obeyed. But I think I can promise deliberately for next Friday."
As Flockton spoke he glanced in Beatrice's direction, and Mrs. Wybrow smiled significantly. At that particular moment Flockton was contrasting in his mind the smiling, pink, flushed Beatrice standing opposite him with the tall, frigid girl who had treated him with such contempt on their first meeting.
So far as Beatrice was concerned, she was unhappy in the knowledge that her mother was still in England. It was getting late in the autumn now, and Mrs. Dainton's doctor was growing impatient. Still, living with the greatest economy during a winter in the South was impossible without a certain amount of means. Besides. Mrs. Dainton could not go alone. True, Beatrice was getting money enough to make the path smooth, but in no circumstances could she ask a favour of Mrs. Wybrow, and it would be the best part of three months before she would receive any portion of her salary. There was nothing for it, therefore, but for Mrs. Dainton to wait till the week or so before Christmas. It was this probably that caused a certain shade of anxiety to cloud the girl's happiness, and with her usual quick instinct and kindly feeling Mrs. Wybrow detected it immediately. Almost before Beatrice knew what she was doing she had told the whole story.
"That was very foolish of you," Mrs. Wybrow said sympathetically.
"Oh, I can see it now," Beatrice replied penitently. "How stupid you must have thought me!"
"What do you mean?" Mrs. Wybrow asked.
"Why, your brother, of course."
"My brother! What has he got to do with it?"
"I'm afraid I am rather a bad hand at telling a story," Beatrice said
unsteadily. "Didn't I say that the young man whom I took to be a kind of
foreman was your brother? I meant to have told you. I spoke to him as if he
had been a servant. And he didn't seem to mind in the least. That night I met
him here for the first time he was as nice as anybody could possibly be. And
I am sure he gave me the best advice. If I hadn't been headstrong and
foolish, my mother would have accepted the offer of the railway company, and
she would have had no more anxiety as to the future. We could have gone
abroad for the winter and enjoyed ourselves. After all, there are plenty of
nice cottages about
with beautiful gardens. It isn't as if we had been born and bred in the place, or anything of that sort. Now I have the unhappiness of knowing that it is all my fault, and that my mother can't go away until I have managed to—"
Beatrice stopped as if the words choked her. She had not entirely lost all her pride. She was thankful that the words remained unspoken. But in her quick way Mrs. Wybrow seemed to divine exactly what was passing in the girl's mind. She bent over and kissed her affectionately.
"I think I understand," she said gently. "And, if you don't mind my interfering, I daresay we shall find a way. Besides, if you hadn't behaved as you did, we should not have been fortunate enough to have you here. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any luck, you know. And now I really must go off and write some very important letters."
It was only one letter, however, that Mrs. Wybrow wrote, and that one was to her brother, with certain information which brought him down to Lawdon Priory a day before his time. It was just after dinner that he made his suggestion. In a matter-of-fact way he said he had something on which he wanted Beatrice's advice and assistance.
"It's like this, Miss Dainton." he said. "I have an aunt living in London who always declines to spend the winter in England. She generally goes to the South of France with her maid, and hitherto she has been accompanied by her friend, who cannot possibly travel this year. Now, I wonder if you know anybody who would take pity on my relative, and accompany her abroad? She is a most charming old lady, and her villa at Nice is a little paradise in its way. Anybody who accompanied my aunt would go as her guest, of course. Do you know anyone who would like to undertake the journey? Do you think, for instance, that your mother would mind? You might suggest it to her."
Beatrice glanced swiftly at the speaker. But he declined to meet her eye, however. He was speaking in quite a business tone, but the whole thing was as plain to Beatrice as if she had heard the conversation and listened to the conspiracy between brother and sister by means of which this thing was to be brought about. Just for the moment she felt a certain sense of obligation, a little touch of the old pride which hitherto had spoilt her life. Then she put it resolutely aside.
"I am sure of it," she said unsteadily. "My mother would be both foolish
and ungrateful if she declined a chance like this. She has to go abroad every
year, but she couldn't go this winter because she has no means. It's no fault
of hers that she has no means, because I am entirely to blame. And nobody
knows that better than you do, Mr. Flockton. You know how stupidly I
behaved, and I don't suppose you have forgotten how rude I was to you on a certain occasion. It is really very good of you to go out of your way to help us in this kindly fashion. Oh, I know what it all means. I know that unless—"
Beatrice said no more. Flockton gave a little glance in her direction, then he began to speak again.
"Well, I'm glad that's off my mind, anyway," he said. "That has been worrying me a good deal lately. Now you go home to-morrow, Miss Dainton, and sec your mother, and if you can manage for her to travel by the middle of next week I shall be glad. I want you to feel that this is a personal favour to us all."
"I know exactly what you want." Beatrice murmured.
"Yes, I think you do." Flockton said significantly. "I shall go with them. I think. Perhaps when I get out there I shall be induced to stay a week or two."
There was less trouble than Beatrice had anticipated, and, with a feeling of relief and happiness she had not experienced for some time, she saw her mother off on the following Wednesday. There was nothing to mar her pleasure now, except a certain vague feeling that there was something missing. She was quite at a loss to understand what the sensation meant till at the expiration of a fortnight or so Flockton suddenly appeared in the drawing-room where Beatrice was sitting. He came forward and held out his hand. There was no mistaking the look on his face, and then in a moment of illumination Beatrice knew what it was that she had missed during the past few days.
"I came straight back here," Flockton said. "Your mother is perfectly happy, and I am glad to say that she and my aunt seem to get on famously together. They won't he back before March, and when they do return I think you will find that they will make up their minds to share a house together."
"But what is to become of me?" Beatrice smiled.
She was half glad and half regretful almost before the words were out of her mouth, for Flockton had her hands in his again, and held them in his strong, masterly grasp.
"I think we could find some way out of that," he said. "Besides, you owe me something."
"My mother—" Beatrice murmured.
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of your mother just then," Flockton said. "I was thinking about the first time we met. Do you know, even then, I flattered myself that I could sec what sort of a girl you really were. It has done you a lot of good to come to Lawdon Priory. You have been very happy here, I believe?"
"Never quite so happy before," Beatrice confessed.
"Ah, that's why I want you to stay here altogether," Flockton murmured. "You can't stand in the path of progress, you know. And you will stay, won't you?"
And at that they left it.