“By-the-bye,” began Colonel Follitt, looking at his wife across the tea-things, “have you done anything about getting a governess?”
“No,” answered Lady Jane, and a short pause followed, for the subject was a sore one. “I have not done anything about getting a governess,” she added presently, in the tone suitable to armed neutrality.
“Oh!” ejaculated the Colonel.
Aware that it would be hardly possible to find fault with the monosyllable, he slowly stirred his tea. He took it sweet, with cream, for in spite of a fairly successful military career and a well-developed taste for sport, he was a mild man. He was also a ladies’ man, and preferred feminine society, even in his own home, to that of fellow-sportsmen and former brother officers. Lady Jane had, indeed, no other fault to find with him; but this one sometimes constituted a serious grievance.
“You talk,” said Lady Jane presently, “as if the matter was urgent.”
“I said ‘oh,’” answered her husband mildly.
“Precisely,” retorted the lady; “but I know very well what you meant.”
“If I meant anything, I meant that those two girls are all over the place and need some one to look after them.”
“I really think I’m able to take care of them myself for a few days,” answered Lady Jane stiffly.
“No doubt, no doubt. But, all the same, I caught them potting rooks in the park this morning with my best gun; and Barker tells me that yesterday, when the men were at dinner, they managed to get Schoolboy and Charley’s Aunt out of the stables on the sly and rode races bareback in the paddock, till he came back. I don’t know why they did not break their necks.”
Lady Jane did not seem much moved by this intelligence, for the Follitts were a sporting family, and she had been used to their ways for a quarter of a century.
“I will speak to them,” she said, as if that would insure their necks.
At this point their eldest son came in quietly and sat down half-way between his father and mother. Colonel Follitt was a well-set-up, tough-looking man, who looked younger than his age and dressed just a little younger than he looked. There were a few lines in his face, his well-trimmed moustache was only just beginning to turn grey, and he had the eyes of a boy. His wife was neither fair nor dark, and quite as well-preserved as he, besides having the advantage of being ten years younger. But the eldest son of this good-looking couple seemed prematurely old. He was tall, thin, and dark, and had the general air and cut of a student. He could ride, because all the Follitts rode, and he shot as well as the average man who is asked to fill a place for a couple of days with an average shooting-party; but he much preferred Sanskrit to horses, and the Upanishads to a day on the moors. From sheer love of study he had passed for the Indian Civil Service after taking his degree; but instead of taking an appointment he had plunged into the dark sea of Sanskrit literature, and was apparently as much at home in that element as a young salmon in his native stream. His father mildly said that the only thing that might have made him seem human would have been a little of the family susceptibility to feminine charm. But though he was heir to a good estate, he had not yet shown the least inclination to marry, and pretty governesses came and went unnoticed by him. Like most students, he was very fond of his home, but he made frequent journeys to London at all times of the year for the purpose of making researches in the British Museum. Even the most careful mother could feel little or no anxiety about such a son, and Lady Jane, for reasons of her own, sometimes wished that his brothers would take up their quarters in the neighbourhood of the British Museum for six months at a time.
She gave him his tea now, just as he liked it, and a long silence followed. He sat quite still, looking into his cup with the air of pleasant but melancholy satisfaction peculiar to students who have just left their books.
He looked up at last, towards his mother, with a far-away expression.
“By-the-bye,” he asked, “when is the new governess coming?”
A vague smile just moved Colonel Follitt’s neat moustache, but Lady Jane’s fine brow darkened.
“I am considering the question,” she answered, as a judge sometimes replies to a barrister’s clever insinuation, saying that the Court will “bear the point in mind.”
Noting her manner, and well understanding what it meant, Lionel thought it necessary to make some explanation.
“I was thinking of those girls,” he said with profound gravity.
“A little holiday will do them good,” said Lady Jane.
“So far as that goes,” answered Lionel thoughtfully, “a woman’s education is complete when she has forgotten her arithmetic and has learned to play the piano well enough to drive people out of the house.”
“My dear,” retorted Lady Jane, “your sisters are not learning to play the piano.”
“Thank goodness! That is spared us. But they are forgetting their arithmetic.”
“According to you,” replied his mother, “it is a step in the right direction.”
“It’s all very well, but that’s no reason why they should climb to the top of the King’s Oak by the lodge and pepper every horse that passes with buckshot from a catapult.”
Again the Colonel’s moustache moved; but his son wore none, and not the shadow of a smile disturbed the grave lines of his mouth.
“I will speak to them,” said Lady Jane.
“I wonder what you’ll say!”
Before Lady Jane had time to explain what she would say, her second son appeared. He was a startling contrast to his elder brother and less than two years younger: he was a sort of red-haired Hermes; his colouring completely spoiled his beauty, which would have been, perhaps, too perfect for a man, if his complexion had not been freckled like a trout’s back and if his hair had been of any colour but that of inflamed carrots. As it was, he was just a very fine specimen of young humanity, and it would never have occurred to any one to call him even handsome. He was a credit to the family, though he had only got a pass degree at Oxford, for he had been Captain of the boats at Eton, and had pulled Four for the ‘Varsity in a winning year. It is true that he showed no taste for any profession or career, and seemed to have made up his mind to spend the rest of his life at home, because there was no finer hunting country in Great Britain; but then, there would always be bread-and-butter and horses for him, without seeking those necessities elsewhere, and if Lionel did not marry, he, Jocelyn, would take a wife. In the meantime he seemed quite unconscious of the admiration that was plentifully accorded to him by that large class of young women who prefer a manly man to a beauty-man. At all events he was absolutely reticent about his own affairs, and neither his mother nor his brothers could be sure that he had ever said a word to a woman which might not be repeated by the town crier. But there was no mistaking the glances that were bestowed upon him, nor the tone of voice in which some of the very nicest girls spoke to him. They could not help it, poor things. Jocelyn sat down on a low stool between his mother and Lionel, with his heels together, his knees apart, his shoulders bent forward, and his eyes fixed hungrily on the buttered toast. He looked like a big, cheerful mastiff, expecting to be fed by a friendly hand.
Lady Jane proceeded to satisfy his very apparent wants.
“I say,” he began, as he watched the cream mingling with the tea, “what is the new Miss Kirk’s name?”
Miss Kirk had been the last governess—a lovely creature with violet eyes and hair that curled at her temples. Lady Jane had found her photograph in the pocket of a shooting-coat belonging to the Colonel which had been brought to her maid to have a button sewn on, and the circumstance had led to the young lady’s abrupt departure. More or less similar circumstances, in some of which her two younger sons had been concerned, had produced similar results in a number of cases. That is why the question of the new governess was a sore point at King’s Follitt.
“No one has yet answered my advertisement,” answered Lady Jane, “and none of our friends seem to know of just the right person.”
“How very odd!” observed the Colonel. “We generally get so many more answers than we want.”
“What those girls need is a keeper,” said Jocelyn, with an audible accompaniment of toast-crunching.
“You might get one from the County Lunatic Asylum,” suggested Lionel thoughtfully. “You could get one for about the same price as a good governess, I should think.”
“I don’t mean that,” answered Jocelyn. “I mean a gamekeeper. They’ve gone in for poaching, and it’s time it was stopped.”
“Eh? What?” Colonel Follitt did not understand.
“They’ve been snaring hares all over the park. That’s one thing. Then, they are catching all the trout in the stream with worms. If that isn’t poaching, what is? Rather low-down form, too. Worms!”
This roused the Colonel. “Really! Upon my word, it’s too bad!”
“What becomes of the game and the fish?” inquired the Colonel.
“They give them to the postman, and he brings them chocolates in exchange,” answered Jocelyn. “They lie in wait for him behind the hedge on the Malton road.”
“Upon my word!” cried the Colonel again. “There’s no doubt about it, Jane, you must get a governess at once. By-the-bye, where are they now?”
“Poaching,” answered Jocelyn, crunching steadily.
“They are welcome to the hares,” said the Colonel; “but catching trout with worms is a little too much! In March, too!”
While he was speaking his youngest son had entered—a lean young athlete who bore a certain resemblance to both his elder brothers, for he had Lionel’s quiet, dark face, together with something of Jocelyn’s build and evident energy. “I think so too,” he said crossly, as he sat down beside his brother at the corner of the tea-table. “It’s high time that governess came.”
“What’s the matter now?” asked Jocelyn.
Every one looked at Claude, who seemed slightly ruffled, though he was usually the most even-tempered of the family.
“Oh, nothing! At least, I suppose not. They had the new motor out on the moor this afternoon.”
“My new motor!” cried Lady Jane, roused at last.
Motoring was her contribution to the list of the family sports.
“Yes,” answered Claude, very quietly now. “Ferguson and I were out looking after the young birds. Rather promising this year, I should say.”
He vouchsafed no further information, and began to sip his tea, but Lady Jane was trembling with anger.
“Do you mean to say that they were actually out on the moor—off the road? Where was Raddles? You can’t mean to say that he let those two——” Lady Jane was unable to express her feelings.
“Oh, yes. As soon as I got home I went to see about it, for I supposed you wouldn’t be pleased. They had locked the poor devil up in the storeroom of the garage, and he couldn’t get out. It’s really time something was done.”
“But didn’t you try to stop them?” asked Lady Jane. “Why didn’t you get in and bring them home yourself?”
“They bolted as soon as they saw us,” answered Claude, “and a pony sixteen years old is no match for a new motor. When I last saw them they were going round Thorley’s at about twenty-five miles an hour.”
“How long ago was that?” asked Lady Jane, for to tell the truth her anger was mingled with some anxiety.
“About three o’clock,” answered Claude.
Colonel Follitt rose. “We had better go and look for them at once,” he said gravely.
But at that moment the subjects of his uneasiness walked in together, pink and white, smoothed and neat, and smiling innocently in a way that would have done credit to a dachshund that had just eaten all the cake on the table when nobody was looking.
They were a pretty pair, about fourteen and fifteen, the one fair, the other dark, with a fresh complexion. In the dead
silence they stood quietly beside the tea-table, apparently waiting for their mother to fill their cups.
“Do you mind telling us where you’ve been?” she inquired, in a tone that boded no good.
The two girls looked at each other and then looked at her. “We’ve been on the moor,” they said together, with a sweet smile.
“So I gathered from what Claude has just told us.”
Lady Jane looked from Gwendolen to Evelyn, and then at Gwendolen again. She had always found it hard to face the air of mild innocence they put on after doing something particularly outrageous.
“Oh, well, since Claude has told you all about it, of course you know. I hope you don’t mind very much.”
“Raddles says the motor’s all right, and that it’s a very good test, because if it will stand that it will stand anything.”
This reassuring statement was vouchsafed by Evelyn, who was the elder sister and the fair one, and, if anything, the calmer of the two. Both had the sweetest possible way of speaking, and seemed quite surprised that their doings should not be thought quite normal.
“It was awfully low-down of you to go and tell, all the same,” Gwendolen observed, smiling at Claude.
“I thought it rather natural,” he answered, “as it seemed quite probable that you had broken your necks.”
“You deserved to, I must say,” said Lady Jane tartly, “though I’m glad you didn’t. I shall send you both to a boarding-school to-morrow.”
But this appalling threat had been used too often to produce anything more than an excess of meek submissiveness. The delinquents at once assumed the air and bearing of young martyrs, took their cups quietly, and sat down side by side on a little sofa.
“I’ll tell you what, you two,” said the Colonel: “I won’t have any one fishing with worms in my trout streams.”
“Why? Is it any harm?” asked Evelyn, apparently surprised.
“Harm!” cried Jocelyn. “It’s poaching, it’s spoiling the fishing outright, and it’s against the law in the close season—that’s all.”
“We didn’t know,” said Gwendolen.
“And you’d better not ride Schoolboy without my leave,” put in Jocelyn.
“Nor take Charley’s Aunt out of her box without asking me,” added Claude.
“Nor borrow my best gun to pot rooks with,” said the Colonel.
“Nor dare to go near any of the motors, and especially not the new Mercèdes,” enjoined Lady Jane very severely.
But by-and-by, when she was dressing for dinner, and had reached the stage of having her hair done, she looked through the evening paper, as she usually did during that tedious process, and she found in the column of advertisements the one she had last inserted, and she read it over.
Governess Wanted, to take charge of two girls of 14 and 15 respectively; family residing in Yorkshire and London. Must have first-rate degree and references. Charm of manner, symmetry of form, and brilliancy of conversation especially not desired, as husband and three grown-up sons much at home.—Apply by letter to J. F., P.O. Hanton, Yorks.