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Grandmother Dear Part 21

"No, of course not. What does it matter to us? Of course it was all properly done. If it hadn't been, how would grandmother have known about it?"

"I never thought of that. Still I would like to know. I think," said Molly meditatively, "I think I could get grandmother to tell without exactly asking--for fear, you know, of seeming to remind her about poor Uncle Jack."

"You'd much better not," said Sylvia, as she left the room.

But once let Molly get a thing well into her head, "trust her," as Ralph said, "not to let it out again till it suited her."

That very evening when they were all sitting together again, working and talking, all except aunty, busily writing at her little table in the corner, Molly began.

"Grandmother dear," she said gently, "wasn't the old lady _dreadfully_ sorry when she heard he was dead?"

For a moment grandmother stared at her in bewilderment--her thoughts had been far away. "What are you saying, my dear?" she asked.

Sylvia frowned at Molly across the table. Too well did she know the peculiarly meek and submissive tone of voice assumed by Molly when bent on--had the subject been any less serious than it was, Sylvia would have called it "mischief."

"Molly," she said reprovingly, finding her frowns calmly ignored.

"What is it?" said Molly sweetly. "I mean, grandmother dear," she proceeded, "I mean the mother of the poor nice man that uncle was so good to. Wasn't she _dreadfully_ sorry when she heard he was dead?"

"I think she was, dear," said grandmother unsuspiciously. "Poor woman, whatever her mistakes with her children had been, I felt dreadfully sorry for her. I saw her a good many times, for your uncle sent me home all the papers and directions--'in case,' as poor Sawyer had said of himself--so my Jack said it."

Grandmother sighed; Sylvia looked still more reproachfully at Molly; Molly pretended to be threading her needle.

"And I got it all settled as her son had wished. He had arranged it so that she could not give away the money during her life. Not long after, she went to America to her other son, and I believe she is still living.

He got on very well, and is now a rich man. I had letters from them a few years ago--nice letters. I think it brought out the best of them--Philip Sawyer's death I mean. Still--oh no--they did not care for him, alive or dead, as such a man deserved."

"What a shame it seems!" said Molly. "When _I_ have children," she went on serenely, "I shall love them all alike--whether they're ugly or pretty, if _anything_ perhaps the ugliest most, to make up to them, you see."

"I thought you were never going to marry," said Ralph. "For you're never going to England, and you'll never marry a Frenchman."

"Englishmen might come here," replied Molly. "And when you and Sylvia go to England, you might take some of my photographs to show."

This was too much. Ralph laughed so that he rolled on the rug, and Sylvia nearly fell off her chair. Even grandmother joined in the merriment, and aunty came over from her corner to ask what it was all about.

"I have finished my story," she said. "I am so glad."

"And when, oh, when will you read it?" cried the children.

"On the evening of the twenty-second of December. I fixed that while I was writing it, for that was the day it happened on," said aunty. "That will be next Monday, and this is Friday. Not so very long to wait. And after all it's a very short story--not nearly so long as grandmother's."

"Never mind, we'll make it longer by talking about it," said Molly.

"That's how I did at home when I had a very small piece of cake for tea.

I took one bite of cake to three or four of bread and butter. It made it seem much more."

"I can perfectly believe that _you_ will be ready to provide the necessary amount of 'bread and butter' to eke out my story," said aunty gravely.

And Molly stared at her in such comical bewilderment as to what she meant, that she set them all off laughing again.

Monday evening came. Aunty took her place at the table in front of the lamp, and having satisfied herself that Molly's wants in the shape of needles and thread, thimble, etc., were supplied for the next half-hour at least, she began as follows:--

"A CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE.

"On the twenty-second of December, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty----" "No," said aunty, stopping short, "I can't tell you the year.

Molly would make all sorts of dreadful calculations on the spot, as to my exact age, and the date at which the first grey hairs might be looked for--I will only say eighteen hundred and _something_."

"_Fifty_ something," said Molly promptly. "You did say that, aunty."

"Terrible child!" said aunty. "Well, never mind, I'll begin again. On the twenty-second of December, in a certain year, I, Laura Berkeley, set out with my elder sister Mary, on a long journey. We were then living on the western coast of England, or Wales rather; we had to cross the whole country, for our destination was the neighbourhood, a few miles inland, of a small town on the _eastern_ coast. Our journey was not one of pleasure--we were not going to spend 'a merry Christmas' with near and dear friends and relations. We were going on business, and our one idea was to get it accomplished as quickly as possible, and hurry home to our parents again, for otherwise their Christmas would be quite a solitary one. And as former Christmases--before we children had been scattered, before there were vacant chairs round the fireside--had been among the happiest times of the year in our family, as in many others, we felt doubly reluctant to risk spending it apart from each other, we four--all that were left now!

"'It is dreadfully cold, Mary,' I said, when we were fairly off, dear mother gazing wistfully after us, as the train moved out of the station and her figure on the platform grew smaller and smaller, till at last we lost sight of it altogether. 'It is dreadfully cold, isn't it?'

"We were tremendously well wrapped up--there were hot-water tins in the carriage, and every comfort possible for winter travellers. Yet it was true. It was, as I said, bitterly cold.

"'Don't say that already, Laura,' said Mary anxiously, 'or I shall begin to wish I had stood out against your coming with me.'

"'Oh, dear Mary, you couldn't have come alone,' I said.

"I was only fifteen. My accompanying Mary was purely for the sake of being a companion to her, though in my own mind I thought it very possible that, considering the nature of the 'business' we were bent upon, I might prove to be of practical use too. I must tell you what this same 'business' was. It was to choose a house. Owing to my father's already failing health, we had left our own old home more than a year before, and till now we had been living in a temporary house in South Wales. But my father did not like the neighbourhood, and fancied the climate did not suit him, and besides this we could not have had the house after the following April, had we wished it. So there had been great discussions about what we should do, where we should go rather, and much consultation of advertisement sheets and agents' lists. Already Mary had set off on several fruitless expeditions in quest of delightful 'residences' which turned out very much the reverse. But she had never before had to go such a long way as to East Hornham, which was the name of the post-town near which were two houses to let, each seemingly so desirable that we really doubted whether it would not be difficult to resist taking _both_. My father had known East Hornham as a boy, and though its neighbourhood was not strikingly picturesque, it was considered to be eminently healthy, and he was full of eagerness about it, and wishing he himself could have gone to see the houses. But that was impossible--impossible too for my mother to leave him even for three days; there was nothing for it but for Mary to go, and at once. Our decision in the case of one of the houses must not be delayed a day, for a gentleman had seen it and wanted to take it, only as the agent in charge of it considered that we had 'the first refusal,' he had written to beg my father to send some one to see it at once.

"And thus it came about that Mary and I set off by ourselves in this dreary fashion only two days before Christmas! Mother had proposed our taking a servant, but as we knew that the only one who would have been any use to us was the one of _most_ use to mother, we declared we should much prefer the 'independence' of going by ourselves.

"By dint of much examination of Bradshaw we had discovered that it was possible, just possible, to get to East Hornham the same night about nine o'clock.

"'That will enable us to get to bed early, after we have had some supper, and the next day we can devote to seeing the two houses, one or other of which _must_ suit us,' said Mary, cheerfully. 'And starting early again the next day we may hope to be back with you on Christmas eve, mother dear.'

"The plan seemed possible enough,--one day would suffice for the houses, as there was no need as yet to go into all the details of the apportionment of rooms, and so on. That would be time enough in the spring, when we proposed to stay at East Hornham for a week or two at the hotel there, and arrange our new quarters at leisure. It was running it rather close, however; the least hitch, such as failing to catch one train out of the many which Mary had cleverly managed to fit in to each other, would throw our scheme out of gear; so mother promised not to be anxious if we failed to appear, and we, on our part, promised to telegraph if we met with any detention.

"For the first half--three-quarters, I might say--of our journey we got on swimmingly. We caught all the trains; the porters and guards were civility itself; and as our only luggage was a small hand-bag that we carried ourselves, we had no trouble of any kind. When we got to Fexel Junction, the last important station we were to pass, our misfortunes began. Here, by rights, we should have had a full quarter of an hour to wait for the express which should drop us at East Hornham on its way north; but when the guard heard our destination he shook his head.

"'The train's gone,' he said. 'We are more than half an hour late.'

"And so it proved. A whole hour and a half had we to sit shivering, in spite of the big fire, in the Fexel waiting-room, and it was eleven at night before, in the slowest of slow trains, we at last found ourselves within a few miles of East Hornham.

"Our spirits had gone down considerably since the morning. We were very tired, and that has _very_ much more to do with people's spirits than almost any one realises.

"'It wouldn't matter if we were going to friends,' said Mary. 'But it does seem very strange and desolate--we two poor things, two days before Christmas, arriving at midnight in a perfectly strange place, and nowhere to go to but an inn.'

"'But think how nice it will be, getting home to mother again--particularly if we've settled it all nicely about the house,'

I said.

"And Mary told me I was a good little thing, and she was very glad to have me with her. It was not usual for me to be the braver of the two, but you see I felt my responsibilities on this occasion to be great, and was determined to show myself worthy of them.

"And when we did get to the inn, the welcome we received was worthy of Dr. Johnson's praise of inns in general. The fire was so bright, the little table so temptingly spread that the spirits--seldom long depressed--of one-and-twenty and fifteen rose at the sight. For we were hungry as well as tired, and the cutlets and broiled ham which the good people had managed to keep beautifully hot and fresh for us--possibly they were so accustomed to the railway eccentricities that they had only cooked them in time for our arrival by the later train, for we were told afterwards that no one ever _did_ catch the express at Fexel Junction,--the cutlets and ham, as I was saying, and the buttered toast, and all the other good things, were _so_ good that we made an excellent supper, and slept the sleep of two tired but perfectly healthy young people till seven o'clock the next morning.

"We awoke refreshed and hopeful. But alas! when Mary pulled up the blind what a sight met her eyes! snow--snow everywhere.

"'What _shall_ we do?' she said. 'We can never judge of the houses in this weather. And how are we to get to them? Dear me! how unlucky!'

"'But it has left off, and it can't be very thick in these few hours,'

Chapter end

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