Here young Nick’s reflections were interrupted by the entrance of their subject

Mr. Nicholl, Chairman of the Playground Committee–commonly known as
“young Nick” to distinguish him from his brother, “old Nick,” a master
of irascible disposition–sat awaiting Tony Bevan’s collaboration in
that gentleman’s comfortable study. While he waited, young Nick indulged
in all manner of romantic surmises as to his colleague’s probable
engagement during the recent vacation. Young Nick was really young, and
was not in the least short-sighted. The brilliantly lighted dining-room
and its two occupants were almost forced upon his notice as he walked up
the drive to B. House, and it was with the greatest interest, tempered
by considerable good-natured amusement, that he beheld Tony Bevan,
shyest and, apparently, most confirmed of bachelors, in an attitude that
implied familiar, and even tender relations, with so young and
attractive a girl.

“Sly dog, old Tony,” he reflected. “Kept it uncommonly dark till he
springs the girl upon us. She must be years younger than he is–wonder
what she saw in old Tony? I’d like to know how the affair strikes Miss
Foster–suppose she cleared out to give ’em a few minutes together.
Shouldn’t have chosen that room to spoon in if I’d been them–too public
by far. Wonder how long he’ll keep me waiting here? Shouldn’t have
thought old Tony would have had the courage to face Miss Foster. I’d
have done it by letter if I’d been in his shoes; perhaps he did.
Anyway, she won’t half like it. Thought she was a fixture here for
evermore, and pitied old Tony from the bottom of my heart. Well! Well!
If ever a man was safe from matrimony, old Tony seemed that chap–but no
one’s safe. Only she really does look rather too much of a kiddie for
him. Good old Tony! he’s a thorough sportsman and deserves the best of
luck, but it’s quaint of him to spring her upon us without saying a word
first. I wonder why now—-”

Here young Nick’s reflections were interrupted by the entrance of their
subject, a little breathless; a little rumpled about the hair, for
Lallie at parting had thrown her arms about his neck with more warmth
than discretion; a little stirred out of his usual comfortable serenity.

Young Nick held out his hand, smiling broadly.

“It’s no use pretending I didn’t see, old chap, for I did. Heartiest
grats.—-”

Tony Bevan stepped back a pace, nor did he make any attempt to clasp the
proffered hand. “Look here, Nicholl. For heaven’s sake don’t let there
be any mistake of that sort; that child is Paddy Clonmell’s sister—-”

Tony paused; and young Nick, thoroughly enjoying his evident discomfort,
remarked encouragingly.

“Well, there’s no objection in that, is there?”

“Confound it!” Tony Bevan exclaimed angrily. “You’ve got hold of a
totally wrong idea; that child has been sent to me by her father–by her
father, mind you–to look after while he goes big game shooting in India
this winter. I’ve known her since she was a month old, and I’ve known
him since I was his fag here, five-and-twenty years ago. She’s always
looked on me as a sort of uncle, and she’s demonstrative, poor little
girl, like all the Irish—-”

“I beg your pardon, I’m sure,” said young Nick, with blue eyes that
would twinkle merrily in spite of all his efforts to the contrary; “but
you must confess it was a natural misconception. You see, you’d kept it
so uncommonly dark about her coming.”

“Kept it dark!” Tony echoed indignantly. “Kept it dark! Why, I only
knew myself that Clonmell wanted me to have her this morning; and in his
letter he said, ’in a week or so’; then the child appears to-night,
wholly unexpectedly, and it’s deuced awkward, for Miss Foster’s gone
away for the week-end to a niece’s wedding.”

“Can’t you get one of the married masters to have her till Miss Foster
comes back?”

“No, I can’t do that; she’d be awfully hurt. They’re all the soul of
hospitality themselves, and I could never make her understand my
reasons. I must worry through somehow, only don’t you go off with any
ridiculously wrong impression.”

“Of course not, of course not,” young Nick remarked solemnly, still
gazing at Tony with eyes that seemed unable quite to see him in this new
rôle of guardian to a young lady.

They stared at each other in silence for a minute, and what young Nick
saw was a broad-shouldered, tall man, rather short-necked, very
square-jawed, brown and weather-beaten as to complexion; a well-shaved
man with a trustworthy but by no means beautiful mouth, except when he
smiled, when two rows of strong, absolutely perfect teeth, redeemed its
plainness. Of Tony Bevan’s nose, the less said the better. It was
inconspicuous and far from classical in shape, but his eyes were really
fine: humorous, clear, very brown eyes that were in truth the mirrors of
a kind and candid soul. His head was good, with plenty of breadth and
height above the ear; his hair thick and usually very smooth and sleek.

“Clonmell senior must surely have married very young if you were his fag
here,” young Nick continued.

“Clonmell married in his second year at Balliol, and Lallie and Paddy
were born while he was still an undergraduate. He’s just twenty-three
years older than the twins–in years; in mind and conduct I do believe
he’s younger than either of them, and heaven knows they’re young enough.
Of course the Balliol authorities were furious at his marriage, but he
was so brilliant, they let him stay on, for they didn’t want to lose
him. He was up five years you know, and took all sorts of honours in
classics. It was just the same here; any other chap would have got the
sack for half the things he did, but they knew he was safe for a Balliol
scholarship and didn’t want to lose him.”

“I’ve seen his name up in the big classical. Was he like Paddy?”

“Very like Paddy. Didn’t you see him when he was down here for the last
concert, standing on a chair and singing ’Auld Lang Syne,’ long after he
ought to have shut up? Paddy’s the living image of what he was at the
same age, but hasn’t half his brains. When he was here he had his
prefect’s star taken away three times; got it back; and finally they had
to make him head of his house, for he was already captain of the eleven;
and for years won every short race in the sports. But you could never
tell what he’d do next. It wasn’t that he broke rules, so much as that
he always seemed to think of doing things no mortal had conceived
possible. No code of rules on earth could be framed to forbid the
doings of Fitzroy Clonmell.”

“Yet I suppose he was a good chap, really? Paddy was a thoroughly nice
boy, with all his vagaries.”

“So was his father. Everybody liked him; everybody likes him to this
day. He looks far too young to be anybody’s father, and is tremendously
popular wherever he is; but he’s never in one place long–he’s the most
restless fellow in the world–and now he has gone to India, and left
Lallie on my hands.”

“Surely it was an odd thing to do? A house for boys in a public school
seems an incongruous sort of place to select.”

“It’s just because it is a house for boys he has selected it. His
theory is that nowhere is a girl so safe as surrounded by boys and men.
I can see his reasoning myself, but you can’t make the world see it.
However, we’d better get those times fixed up and fit in the various
teams. All that beastly physical drill to arrange, too–but you
understand, don’t you, Nicholl?”

“I quite understand,” young Nick replied with so profound a gravity that
Tony instantly suspected him of a desire to laugh.

They lit their pipes, and for an hour or more wrestled with the problem
in hand. Then young Nick departed.

The instant Tony was left alone he sat him down in a comfortable chair,
switched on the electric light behind his head, and drew from his pocket
a letter. First of all he looked at the date, which he had not done
when he read it in the morning. It was dated eight days back, but the
postmark was that of the day before.

“Dear old Tony,” it ran, “one always thinks of you when one wants
anything done in a hurry, and done most uncommonly well. That’s what you
get by being so confoundedly conscientious and good-natured. The
combination is a rare one. I, for instance, am good-natured, but my
worst enemy couldn’t call me tiresomely conscientious. Whenever you see
my handwriting, you will say, ’Wonder what young Fitz wants now? Of
course he wants something,’ and of course I do. I want you to look
after Lallie for me till the end of March. You’ve got a magnificent big
house–far too large for a bachelor like you. You’ve got a
lady-housekeeper whose manifest propriety is so stupendous that even
Paddy is awed by it–a lady, I am sure, estimable in every respect–and
you have fifty boys ranging from thirteen to nineteen. Oh, yes! and I
forgot the worthy Paunch and Val. Now if you can’t, amongst you, look
after my little girl for six months you ought to be ashamed of
yourselves. She’s too old to put to school; I don’t want to leave her
with hunting friends where she’d be engaged and perhaps married before I
got back. Young men are for ever falling in love with Lallie of late,
and it’s a terrible nuisance. She cares not a penny for any of them, so
long as I am there to prove by comparison how inferior they all are to
her own father. But with me away, who knows but that their
blandishments might prevail? And I have other plans for Lallie–but not
yet. As you know, I’ve brought her up in a sensible reasonable human
sort of fashion. She has been taught to look upon mankind–and by
mankind I mean the male portion of humanity–as fellow creatures, just
as much deserving of kindness and trust and straightforward dealing as
girls or women; and because she looks upon them as fellow-creatures,
with no ridiculous mystery or conventional barriers between her and
them, she is far safer than most girls not to make a fool of herself or
to be taken in by cheap external attractions. Of course she’s a bit of
a flirt–what self-respecting Irish girl is not?–and your big boys will
all be sighing at her shrine, but it will neither do them nor her any
harm.

“I don’t often speak of Alice these days, but I never forget, and I know
you’ll be kind to my little girl for her sake. Let the child go to the
dancing school, though there’s little they can teach her; and she can
keep up her singing, and perhaps she’d better ride, though riding with a
master will be little to Lallie’s taste. I enclose a cheque for the
lessons, etc. She’s a good girl, Tony; and in spite of her unusually
sensible up-bringing, is as delicately feminine in all her instincts as
any old Tabby in Hamchester.

“Lord Nenogh offered me third gun in his shoot in India this cold
weather, and I couldn’t resist it. I was getting a bit musty. I’ve
been bear-leading those children for eighteen months–ever since dear
old Madame died. Lallie and I always hit it off perfectly, but Paddy’s
too like me, and gets on my nerves and reminds me that I’m not so young
as I was, and I felt I needed a complete change of scene and people, if
I am to remain the agreeable fellow I always have been; and I couldn’t
take Lallie with me tiger shooting, now could I? We sail from
Marseilles in the _Mooltan_ on the 29th; send me a line to the _poste
restante_ there, just to tell me that my property has duly reached
you–as it should about the 23rd. Till then I shall be flying about all
over the place.

“Take care of my Lallie.

“Yours as ever,
“Fitz.”

The writing was small, close, upright, and distinct. When he had read
the letter through Tony examined the envelope and found from its
appearance that it had evidently spent a considerable time in somebody’s
pocket: either that of the writer or of some untrustworthy messenger.

He lit another pipe, and as he watched the fragrant clouds of smoke roll
forth and spend themselves about the room, his mind was busy with
memories of Fitzroy Clonmell; brilliant, inconsequent, lovable failure.

“He wouldn’t have been a failure if his wife had lived,” Tony always
maintained to those who, remembering Fitz and his early promise of
notable achievements, lamented his falling off; his wholesale violation
of those youthful pledges.

Tony found himself going back to those first years at Oxford, when
brilliant Fitz did all he could to push his young schoolfellow among the
athletic set, where, reading man as Fitz undoubtedly had been then, his
place was quite as assured as in the schools. Tony remembered his shock
of surprise when in his first term he went to Clonmell’s rooms in the
High, to find them tenanted by a brown-haired, gentle-voiced girl who
informed him she was “Mrs. Clonmell”–Alice Clonmell.

“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?
Sweet Alice, with hair hazel brown”–

Fitz used to sing at a time when the whole world read “Trilby,” and make
eyes at his wife the while. She was very kind to Tony, and he adored
her with the humble dog-like devotion of a rather plain and awkward
youth whom ladies usually ignored.

He remembered the wrath of the Balliol authorities, and Fitz’s account
of his stormy interview with the little Master, and how after much of
what Fitz called “fruitless altercation,” he wheedled the Master into
coming to see Alice. Whereupon that dignitary observed that “there
were, perhaps, extenuating circumstances, which must be taken into
consideration.”




By and by there came the twins, who were known as “the Balliol Babies.”

Fitz, to the disappointment of all his friends, was called to the Irish,
not the English, Bar. But he was Irish before all else, and declared
that his brilliant abilities were far too precious and illuminating to
be taken out of his own country.

He practised with some success in Dublin. People began to talk of him as
a young lawyer who had arrived, when Alice met with the carriage
accident which caused her death.

Fitz threw up all his prospects at the Bar, left Ireland, and, with the
two children and their old nurse, wandered about Europe for a while,
finally settling them in a tiny hill-side villa near the village of
Veulettes, in Normandy, with an old French lady, in charge as governess.
It happened at that time that his own little property near Cahirciveen
in County Kerry, which had been let on a long lease during his minority,
fell vacant, and Fitz went back there for the spring months, taking
Madame, his French cook, and his children with him. He kept on the villa
at Veulettes, and the family lived alternately in Kerry and in Normandy,
as it happened to suit its erratic head. Fitz was a keen fisherman, and
a good shot. The fishing at Cahirciveen was beyond reproach. When he
wanted good hunting he took a little house for the season either in
Kildare or some hunting county in England, and wherever he went Madame
and Lallie, the Irish nurse and Celestine the French cook, went in his
train, and they were joined in the vacations by Paddy, who had been sent
to preparatory school at a very tender age.

Tony’s pipe went out as he sat thinking of the innumerable vacations he
had spent with the Clonmells; of their warm-hearted and tireless
hospitality shown to him wherever that somewhat nomadic family happened
to be. No one knew better than Tony Bevan that Fitzroy Clonmell would
gladly share all he possessed with him, to the half of his kingdom; and
looking back down the long valley of years that lay behind him, Tony
could not see one that was not brightened by a thousand kindnesses from
Fitz. From the time he came as an ugly little fourth-form boy to
Hamchester, where Fitz was the idol of the lower school, the admiration
of all the bloods, and the trial and terror of most of the masters, he
had nothing to remember of him but good-nature, good feeling, and good
friendship. Fitz was casual, erratic, eccentric; nothing was stable
about him except his affections. The affections of his friends he often
strained almost to the snapping point by his irritating incapacity for
observing regular days or hours or ordinary conventions; but somehow the
strained affections always contracted into place again, and people
shrugged their shoulders and exclaimed, “Just like Fitz!” and forgave
him in the long run, till he made them angry again, when a precisely
similar process was repeated.

Tony saw as in a vision innumerable pictures of Lallie as an elf-like
small girl who always responded with enthusiastic affection to the
rather shy advances of the strong ugly young man who was so good at
games, so popular with his fellow sportsmen, so extremely shy in any
other society.

Every stranger noticed handsome Paddy, even as a baby; but for the most
part they passed Lallie by in her childhood, and Tony’s notice and
affection were very precious to her. He and the quaint, pale-faced
little girl had much in common: they understood one another. He hadn’t
seen Lallie for over a year, and during that time she had changed and
developed. Her manner had acquired a certain poise and balance wholly
lacking to the wild, shy nymph of Irish river and Norman hillside that
he knew so well.

Old Madame’s death had made her not only more than ever the companion of
her father, but it had also made her mistress of his house, and Lallie
had found in herself all sorts of latent powers and possibilities,
hitherto wholly unsuspected, and these had crystallised into qualities.
Tony realised that while she was temperamentally the same
Lallie–subtle, sensitive, responsive to every smallest change in the
mental atmosphere–a new Lallie had arisen, who would be by no means so
easily dealt with, and a shrewd suspicion flashed across his mind that
Fitzroy Clonmell was equally aware of the change, and that with his
customary cleverness he had shifted the responsibility on to other
shoulders than his own.

Tony sat so still that Val came from under the chair, stretched himself,
and laid his head softly on his master’s knees, regarding him with
tenderly inquiring eyes. The clock on the mantelpiece struck twelve,
and Tony arose.

“Time for bed, old chap,” he said, “but we’ll have a look at the night
first.”

He and the dog went out into the garden, and Tony looked up at the black
bulk of the house against the moonlit sky. The great dormitories in the
wing lay stark and silent, all their teeming life wrapped in the silence
of healthy boyhood’s slumber; and there too, in Miss Foster’s room above
his own study, lay Lallie–Lallie, with her bodyguard of fifty boys. He
smiled at the quaint fancy. Val rubbed himself against his master’s
legs.

“Well, Val, we must do our best to take care of her,” said Tony, “but I
can’t have her flirting with my boys and upsetting them. That would
never do. However, it isn’t as if she was one of those flaringly pretty
girls that every fellow turns round to look at.”

Somehow this reflection did not seem to afford much comfort to Tony. A
vision of Lallie’s face lifted to his as she said good-night came
between him and the comfortable assurance that she, at all events, was
not pretty. How soft her dark hair was!–and it smelt of violets. Poor
little motherless, warm-hearted Lallie!

He saw Val comfortably settled in his basket, and went quietly up the
dark staircase. He paused outside Lallie’s door to listen; all was
perfectly still. In another half-hour every soul in B. House was fast
asleep.