THE HOUSE OPPOSITE

“Still on the spire the pigeons flutter;
Still by the gateway flits the gown;
Still on the street, from corbel and gutter,
Faces of stone look down.

Faces of stone, and other faces….”
A. T. QUILLER-COUCH.

Mrs. Griffin was not in the least like her name. She was a sidling,
snuffling, apologetic little woman, who, whenever a suggestion was made,
always acquiesced with breathless enthusiasm, gasping: “Yessir;
suttingly sir; _any_think you please sir.”

That night they dined at the comfortable King’s Arms for the last time
and moved in after breakfast on the morrow. Mrs. Griffin did not shine
as a cook. Their first meal consisted of burnt chops, black outside and
of an angry purple within, watery potatoes and a stony cauliflower.
This was followed by a substantial apple dumpling whose paste strongly
resembled caramels in its consistency, while the apples within were
quite hard. Even the lumpy white sauce that tasted chiefly of raw
flour, hardly made this an appetising dish.

She had, it is true, by Mr. Wycherly’s order, lit fires in all four
front rooms. The bedrooms were over the two living-rooms, and, like
them, were wainscotted, irregular in shape, and fairly large, light and
well-proportioned, each with wide casement window. Except the study,
every room in the house had at least two doors, and between the two
front bedrooms there was yet another, in a delightful, passage-like
recess. In Mr. Wycherly’s study, which was on the first floor at the
back—with a high oriel window that looked forth on the garden—no fire
had been put as yet, for his books were not unpacked but stood in great
wooden cases, stacked against the wall, one on the top of the other,
three deep. Wisps of straw and pieces of paper still lay about; and
where his books were concerned Mr. Wycherly was quite practical.

During the day Mrs. Griffin, as she put it, “swep’ up the bits” in the
other rooms (Mr. Wycherly locked the study and carried the key), and
volunteered to go out and “get in some stores” for the morrow. This
offer he gratefully accepted, entrusting her with a couple of sovereigns
to that end. It took her the whole afternoon, and she seemed to have
patronised a variety of shops, for Mr. Wycherly, who remained in the
house to look after it, was kept busy answering the side door and
receiving parcels.

He had sent the boys to explore Oxford. They found the river and didn’t
get back till tea-time, a meal where the chief characteristics consisted
of black and bitter tea and curiously bad butter.

They supped on tinned tongue and dry bread, and even the boys were glad
to go to bed early in their grand new room.

The night before Mr. Wycherly left for England the minister came to see
him. At first they talked of the move; of Oxford; of the great change
it would make in the lives of the three most concerned. Then it was
borne in upon Mr. Wycherly that Mr. Gloag was there for some special
purpose and found it difficult to come to the point.

At last he did so; cleared his throat, looked hard at his host, and then
said gravely: “I hope you fully realise, that in undertaking the sole
guardianship of those two boys you must carry on the excellent religious
training given them by Miss Esperance. There must be no break, no
spiritual backwardness….”

“I assure you,” Mr. Wycherly interposed, “that there is no lack of
religious training in our English schools; it forms a large part….”

“That’s as it may be,” the minister interrupted. “It’s the home
religious training to which I referred, and it is that counts most in
after life. For instance, now, did not Miss Esperance daily read the
Bible with those boys when they were with her?”

“I believe she did,” Mr. Wycherly replied meekly.

“Well, then, what is to prevent you from doing the same and so carrying
on her work?”

“I will do my best.”

“Remember,” said the minister, “we are bidden to search the scriptures,
and the young are not, as a rule, much given to doing it of their own
accord.”

“That is true,” Mr. Wycherly agreed, wishing from his heart that they
were, for then he would not be required to interfere.

“Then I may depend upon you?” asked the minister.

“As I said before, I will do my best,” said Mr. Wycherly, but he gave no
promise.

And now as he sat in his dusty dining-room—Mrs. Griffin’s ministrations
were confined to “the bits” and did not extend to the furniture—on this,
the first evening in their new home, he heard the scampering feet over
his head as the boys got ready for bed, and the minister’s words came
back to him. “He’s right,” he thought to himself, “it’s what she would
have wished,” and spent as he was he went upstairs.

Their room was in terrible confusion, for both had begun to unpack, and
got tired of it. Thus, garments were scattered on every chair and most
of the floor. There were plenty of places to put things; all the deep
old “presses” and wardrobes had come from Remote, and the house abounded
in splendid cupboards; but so far nobody ever put anything away, and Mr.
Wycherly wondered painfully how it was that Remote had always been such
an orderly house.

He sat down on Edmund’s bed. “Boys,” he said, “you used always to read
with Miss Esperance, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Guardie,” Montagu answered; then, instantly understanding, he
added gently: “Would you like us to do it with you?”

“I should,” said Mr. Wycherly gratefully; “we’ll each read part of the
Bible every day, and I’d like to begin now. Can you find your Bibles?”

This entailed much searching and more strewing of garments, but finally
the school Bibles were unearthed.

“Let’s begin at the very beginning,” Edmund suggested, “then it’ll take
us years and years only doing it in the holidays.”

“Oh, but we’ll read a good bit at a time,” said Montagu, who disliked
niggardly methods where books were concerned. “It won’t take so long
really.”

“Well, anyway, Guardie, we can miss the ’begats,’ can’t we? and the
’did evils in the sight,’” Edmund said beseechingly.

“We’ll see when we come to them,” Mr. Wycherly answered. “Who will
begin?”

Edmund elected to begin, and read Chapter I. of Genesis.

Montagu read Chapter II. and Mr. Wycherly Chapter III.; but he got
interested and went on to Chapter IV. He had just reached the verse,
“_And Cain talked with Abel, his brother: and it came to pass when they
were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew
him,_” when the book was pulled down gently by a small and grubby hand,
“Thank you, Guardie, dear,” Edmund said sweetly, “I don’t want to tire
you, and you know we never did more than _one_ chapter with Aunt
Esperance. One between the three of us!”

“I always sympathise with Cain,” Montagu remarked thoughtfully. “I’m
perfectly certain Abel was an instructive fellow, always telling him if
he’d only do things some other way how much better it would be. Younger
brothers are like that,” he added pointedly, looking at Edmund.

“That view of the case never struck me,” said Mr. Wycherly.

“It always strikes me every time I hear it,” Montagu said bitterly.
“It’s just what Edmund does. He makes me feel awfully Cainish
sometimes, I can tell you; always telling me I ought to hold a bat this
way, or I’d jump further if I took off that way, or something.”

“Well, you’re such an old foozle,” cried Edmund with perfect good
nature. “So slow.”

“I do things differently from you, but I do most of ’em every bit as
well.”

“So you ought, you’re so much older.”

“All the more reason for you to shut up.”

The conversation threatened to become acrimonious, so Mr. Wycherly
intervened by asking mildly: “Is there anything either of you would like
me to explain?”

“Oh, dear, no,” Edmund exclaimed heartily. “Not till we come to
Revelations. Then it’s all explanation. It takes Mr. Gloag an hour to
explain one wee verse, so I fear we’ll only be able to do about a word
at a time.”

“But you must not expect me,” Mr. Wycherly cried in dismay, “to be able
to explain things as fully as Mr. Gloag, who is a trained theologian.”

“We shouldn’t _like_ you to be as long as Mr. Gloag, Guardie dear; we
shouldn’t like it at all,” Montagu answered reassuringly.

Whereupon, much relieved, Mr. Wycherly bade his wards good-night, and
departed downstairs again where he sat for some considerable time
pondering Montagu’s view of the first fratricide. “It seems to me,” he
said to himself, “that it is I who will be the one to receive
enlightenment.”

It was three days since they had, as Mr. Wycherly put it, “come into
residence,” and during that time Mrs. Griffin’s cooking had not
improved. Neither had the house become less dusty or more tidy. The
time was afternoon, about five o’clock, and they sat at tea; a
singularly unappetising tea.

Smeary silver, cups and plates all bearing the impress of Mrs. Griffin’s
thumb, two plates of thick bread-and-butter and a tin of bloater-paste
were placed upon a dirty tablecloth. Neither Mr. Wycherly nor the boys
liked bloater-paste, but Mrs. Griffin did. Hence it graced the feast.

Edmund was tired of bad meals. The novelty, what he at first called the
“Swissishness,” was wearing off, and as he took his place at table that
afternoon there flashed into his mind a vivid picture of the tea-table
at Remote. Aunt Esperance sitting kind and smiling behind the brilliant
silver teapot that reflected such funny-looking little boys; the white,
white napery—Aunt Esperance was so particular about tablecloths—laden
with scones, such good scones, both plain and currant! Shortbread in a
silver cake-basket; and jam, crystal dishes full of jam, two kinds,
topaz-coloured and ruby.

Somehow the sight of that horrid tin of bloater-paste evoked a
poignantly beatific vision of the jam. It was the jam broke Edmund
down.

He gave a dry sob, laid his arms on the table and his head on his arms,
wailing: “Oh, dear! oh, dear! I wish Aunt Esperance hadn’t gone and
died.”

Mr. Wycherly started up, looking painfully distressed. Montagu ran
round to his little brother and put his arm round his shoulder—at the
same time he murmured to his guardian: “It’s the butter, it really is
very bad.”

“It’s all bad,” lamented Edmund; “we shall starve, all of us, if it goes
on. One morning that bed-making body will come in and she’ll find three
skeletons. I know she will.”

Mr. Wycherly sat down again. “Edmund, my dear little boy,” he said
brokenly, “I am so sorry, I ought not to have brought you here yet….”

“Look, look at poor Guardie,” whispered Montagu.

Edmund raised his head.

“Would you like me to telegraph to Lady Alicia and ask her to have you
for the rest of the holidays? I know she would, and by-and-bye, surely,
by-and-bye we shall find some one less incompetent than that—than Mrs.
Griffin.”

Edmund shook himself free of his brother’s arm and literally flung
himself upon his guardian, exclaiming vehemently: “No, no, I want to
stay with you. It’s just as bad for you.”

It was worse, for Mr. Wycherly could not restore exhausted nature with
liberal supplies of Banbury cakes and buns. For the last three days he
had eaten hardly anything and was, moreover, seriously concerned that
the boys were assuredly not getting proper food. He would have gone
back with them to the King’s Arms immediately he discovered how
extremely limited were Mrs. Griffin’s powers had it not been that just
then he received the furniture removers’ bill, and, as Lady Alicia had
warned him, it was very heavy.

He had come in to tea with a sore heart that afternoon, for Mrs. Griffin
had half an hour before informed him that she could not come on the
morrow; so that now even her poor help would be lost to them. She was
going, she said, to her “sister-in-law” at Abingdon for Sunday, as she
needed a rest.

“So much cookin’ and cleanin’ is what I ain’t used to; no, not if it was
ever so; and I can’t keep on with it for long at a stretch. I’ll come
on Monday just to oblige you if so be as I’m up to it.”

“I wish you had told me this sooner,” Mr. Wycherly remonstrated, “then
perhaps I might have been able to obtain help for to-morrow elsewhere.”

But what they were to do on the morrow was no concern of Mrs. Griffin’s.
It was an easy and lucrative place and she wanted no interlopers. But
she also wanted her outing to Abingdon, and she was going.

Mr. Wycherly poured out the black tea and Edmund attacked a piece of
bread-and-butter.

The red rep curtains from the dining-room at Remote were hung in the
dining-room at Oxford, but they in no way shrouded its inmates from the
public gaze except when they were drawn at night. The house stood right
on the pavement; even a small child could see in, and a good many
availed themselves of the privilege.

Over this room was the boys’ bedroom. Here there were no “fixtures” on
which to suspend curtains, nor did it strike either of the three most
concerned that blinds or curtains were an immediate necessity. They had
all lived in a house that stood so far from other houses (as its name
signified) that such a contingency as prying neighbours never occurred
to them and it never entered their heads to concern themselves with
those on the other side of the road.

Presently Mrs. Griffin brought in a note held gingerly between her
finger and thumb, remarking that it was from the “lady as lives
hopposite.”

Mr. Wycherly opened it hastily, found he had mislaid his glasses, and
handed it to Montagu to read.

Edmund immediately rushed round to assist Montagu, thinking it was
probably an invitation, and Edmund liked invitations.

Montagu read it slowly and impressively as follows:—

“DEAR SIR,

“I think it only right to inform you that I can see the young gentlemen
performing their ablutions and dressing and undressing both when the
light is on and in the morning. Such publicity is most distressing, and
I venture to suggest that blinds or curtains should be affixed in their
room without delay.

“Yours faithfully,
“SELINA BROOKS.”

Mr. Wycherly sank back in his chair with a groan. “I quite forgot
curtains and blinds,” he exclaimed in bitter self-reproach. “There are
none in my room either; do you suppose the people in the next house can
see _me_?”

“Sure to!” cried Edmund gleefully; “they’ll be writing next that they
can see an _old_ gentleman ’paforming his ablutions’; but I can’t see
how they do for we all wash in the bath-room, and that’s at the back. I
suppose they see us washing our teeth and you shaving. I wonder if
that’s more depressing or they don’t mind so much?”

“But what can we do?” Mr. Wycherly exclaimed despairingly. “It is
already Saturday evening and we ought to have blinds or something now,
to-night. How do they fix blinds, by the way?”

Montagu went and stood at the window and gloomily surveyed the houses
opposite.

“You can’t see a thing in her house,” he said sadly. “There’s white
curtains with frills downstairs and a straight thing right across the
windows upstairs, and a looking-glass in one window shows just above the
straight thing. You’ve got that, you know, for shaving; we might put
ours there too; it would fill up a bit. It’s against the wall just now
because we liked to see out.”

“Oh! they’d just peek round it,” said Edmund. “We’d best nail a sheet
across for to-night.”

“But won’t that look funny from outside?” Montagu objected.

“Not half so funny as us skipping about with nothing on,” Edmund
retorted.

Mr. Wycherly sat, his elbows on the table, his head in his hands: “Boys,
boys, it is appalling that at the very outset we should have scandalised
a neighbour and made ourselves a nuisance.”

“Not a nuisance, Guardie,” Edmund remonstrated; “she must have _liked_
to watch us or she wouldn’t have done it. If Mrs. Thingummy had kept
behind her own curtains she couldn’t have seen us so plain.”

Here Mrs. Griffin tapped at the door again, opened it about three
inches, and called through: “A lady to see you, sir.”

“That’ll be your one come to complain,” Edmund whispered to his
distracted guardian.

“Am I interrupting you? May I come in?” asked an exceedingly pleasant
voice which was followed by a kind-looking, pretty young lady, who was
rather surprised at her reception.

What she saw was a handsome, white-haired old gentleman seated at a
table with his back to the light. Ranged on either side of him were two
boys who regarded her with looks of dark suspicion, and on the faces of
all three dismay and consternation were writ large, while Edmund’s face
was both tear-stained and exceedingly dirty.

Mr. Wycherly rose hastily as she came in.

Pretty Mrs. Methuen, wife of one of the youngest dons in Oxford, was
quite unused to manifestations other than those of pleasure at her
approach, and she stopped abruptly just inside the door to remark rather
incoherently:

“Perhaps it is too soon; it may be inconvenient, but my husband asked me
to call directly you arrived to see if I could be of any use…. He is
still fishing in Hampshire, and as I passed I saw that you were here.”

Mr. Wycherly let go of the table, which he had seized nervously, and
advanced to shake her outstretched hand. Montagu pulled out a chair for
her.

“Pray be seated,” said Mr. Wycherly. “It is most kind of you to
call…. These are my wards.”

The lady took the proffered chair and shook hands with the boys, who
still looked dubious, although Edmund was distinctly attracted.

On Mr. Wycherly’s gentle, scholarly face bewilderment struggled to break
through the mask of polite interest through which he regarded his
visitor.

“You’ve only just come, haven’t you?” she asked.

“We’ve been living in the house for three days, but we are far from
being properly established; our servant has not arrived yet….”

“And we keep on finding out things we haven’t got,” Edmund interpolated.

“We hope to be a little more settled before term begins,” Mr. Wycherly
continued, ignoring Edmund.

“Have you been able to get everything you want?” asked the lady.
“Should you need any information about the best shops … or the people
who do things …”

“Ask about blinds!” whispered the irrepressible Edmund.

“You are most kind,” Mr. Wycherly began, again ignoring his younger
ward, “but…”

“Mr. Wycherly,” the lady said suddenly, “I don’t believe you have a
ghost of an idea who I am. Did the woman not announce me? My husband
is Westall Methuen, son of your old friend, and my father-in-law wrote
saying that I was to be sure and call directly you arrived in case I
could be of any use.”

“I am ashamed to say,” replied Mr. Wycherly, in tones full of courteous
apology, “that if Mrs. Griffin did announce your name I did not catch
it. I assure you…”

“She never said any name, just ’a lady,’” Edmund again interrupted, “and
we thought you must be _her_.”

“Were you expecting somebody dreadful that you all looked so horrified
when I walked in?” asked Mrs. Methuen with laughter in her eyes as she
turned to Edmund as being plainly the most communicative of the party.

“Well, we thought it very likely you had come to complain,” Edmund
continued, “and that is always rather beastly.”

Mrs. Methuen did not possess six brothers without a familiarity with
such possibilities. She did not press for an explanation, but tactfully
changed the subject. Nor had she been in the room five minutes before
she discovered that man and boys were all equally incapable of starting
to housekeep, and that everything was in a desperately uncomfortable
state. She herself had been at a “Hall.” She knew Mrs. Griffin’s type,
and the very tea-table told its own dismal tale. She was young,
kind-hearted, and energetic; nor had she been in Oxford long enough to
achieve the indifference to the affairs of outsiders that is said to
characterise the inhabitants of that city. So she promptly asked them
all three to lunch on the morrow, nor would she take any denial; and she
further suggested that the boys should walk back with her there and then
so that they would know where to come.

The boys were charmed, and the three set off down the street, while Mr.
Wycherly watched them from the front door till they turned the corner
into Mansfield Road. He went up to his study unaccountably cheered and
comforted.

“After all,” he reflected, “I might ask that most charming young lady
for advice if we fall into any serious dilemma. She looks so extremely
alert and capable. Nevertheless, we must try to manage our own affairs
without plaguing kind friends to assist us.”

He forgot all about the curtainless windows, and set himself to unpack
the large case marked “Earlier Latin Authors” that stood by itself
nearest the door.

Mrs. Methuen took Edmund by the arm, asking confidentially: “Now what
mischief had you been up to when I came in? What did you expect the
people to complain about? Don’t tell me if you’d rather not, but I know
a good deal about boys, and I might be able to help.”

“It wasn’t us,” Edmund answered quite seriously. “It was Guardie. He
was afraid of them grumbling. Our one had complained already.”

“Mr. Wycherly!” Mrs. Methuen repeated in astonishment. “Oh, nonsense!
I’m perfectly sure he would never do anything anyone could complain of.”

“Not willingly,” said Montagu, who began to think it was time he took a
small part in the conversation, “but, you see, people in this town seem
rather huffy about curtains and blinds and things, and we’ve always
lived in the country, where no one could see in, so we never thought of
it. We were so proud of having the electric light too, but now it seems
we’d have been better with just candles, for then, perhaps, Miss Selina
Brooks wouldn’t have written to complain. We’d best go to bed in the
dark to-night.”

“But do you mean to tell me someone wrote to complain that they could
see you?”

“Yes, she did,” cried Edmund. “’Paforming our ablutions’ and ’it was
very depressing,’ and Guardie thinks the lady in the house opposite him
will be writing next—you see, there’s two houses opposite us; we’re kind
of between them, and one can see right into our room and the other right
into his; but his bed’s in a deep recess, so perhaps he wasn’t quite so
depressing.”

Mrs. Methuen stood still in the middle of the road, seemingly not quite
sure whether to laugh or to cry. Finally she laughed, but her voice was
not very steady as she said: “Oh, poor dear Mr. Wycherly; how dreadful!”

“Oh, do you think,” cried Montagu, “that you could tell us where we
could buy blinds or something now, to-night? Such things do worry him
so, and then he blames himself and remembers Aunt Esperance is away, and
it feels so sad somehow. You see she always did everything like that.”

“But that’s the very sort of thing I can help in,” cried this kind and
understanding young lady, and this time she took Montagu’s arm, so that
they all three were linked confidingly together. “Did you bring no
curtains from Scotland?”

“I don’t know what we brought. There’s boxes and boxes not unpacked
yet. Perhaps it will be better when the servant comes, but you never
saw such a muddle as there is just now,” groaned Montagu.

“But why isn’t your servant there to help you? It seems to me that just
now is the time when she could be of the very greatest use.”

“She was coming,” Edmund said gloomily, “but her miserable mother went
and got ill, and now she won’t come at all, and there’s only Mrs.
Griffin. Do you know Mrs. Griffin?”

“I do not,” Mrs. Methuen replied decidedly, “and from what I saw of her
when she let me in, I don’t desire her further acquaintance. How did
you get her?”

“It was the man in the blue cotton jacket; we asked him, and he gave us
a lot of names, but we chose Mrs. Griffin ’cause she lived so near and
we liked her name. We got her, not Guardie.”

“That, I should think, is a comforting reflection for Mr. Wycherly,”
Mrs. Methuen murmured; “but here we are. Now I’ll take you in to see my
baby and meanwhile I’ll find some curtains and come back with you, and
we’ll put them up with tapes; that’ll do anyway until Monday. You’ll be
well shrouded from the public gaze and can depress nobody—what a curious
way to put it though.”

“It was ’distressing,’ not ’depressing,’” Montagu explained.

“Well, she depressed Guardie anyhow. I’ll go into the attic when I get
home, and if I can see the least little bit of her doing anything _I’ll_
write and complain.”

“You won’t be able to see,” Montagu said sadly; “she sleeps at the top,
and her house is higher than ours—I saw her open her window yesterday
while I was in bed.”

“You wait,” said Edmund, wagging his curly head. “I bet you I’ll see
something somehow—and then I’ll punish her for vexing Guardie.”

“I expect she only meant to be kind,” Mrs. Methuen suggested. “She
probably realised that you, none of you, had thought of anyone seeing
in.”

“She might have waited a wee while,” said Edmund, not at all disposed to
take a charitable view of Miss Selina Brooks; “one can’t have everything
straight in a new house all in a minute. Why is your house like a
church outside?”

Mrs. Methuen laughed. “It isn’t in the least like a church inside.
Come and see!” and as she opened the front door the boys followed her
into a square hall furnished like a room. It was a big house, and
extremely comfortable, with wide staircase and easy steps not half so
steep as those in Holywell.

Mrs. Methuen ran up very fast, the boys after her.

She took them into a room where a plump, pink baby, about eighteen
months old, had just been bathed and was sitting smiling and majestic on
the nurse’s knee. His clothing, it was a boy baby, as yet consisted of
a flannel band; while a dab of violet powder on one cheek gave him a
rakish air.

“My precious,” said Mrs. Methuen, kissing the scantily attired one; “you
must look after these gentlemen for me for a few minutes;” and she
forthwith vanished from the room.

The nurse smiled and nodded to them. The baby remarked, “Mamma!” to no
one in particular, and looked puzzled and hurt that she could tear
herself away so soon. He wasn’t used to it.

Edmund and Montagu advanced shyly towards their youthful host.

“Say how d’you do to the nice young gentlemen, like a good baby,” said
the nurse in tones that subtly combined command and supplication.

“Do,” said the baby obediently.

“Will I turn for him?” asked Edmund, who had an idea that infants must
always be amused or else they cried. Without waiting for an affirmative
he flung himself over on his hands and turned Catherine wheels right
round the room. Edmund was light and active and an adept in the art.
The baby was charmed. His fat sides shook with delighted laughter, and
he shouted gleefully, “Adain!”

Nurse deftly slipped a little shirt over his head and a flannel
nightgown over that, and behold! he sat clothed and joyous on her knee
before Edmund had finished his second acrobatic feat.

Edmund walked on his hands. He did handsprings. He turned somersaults,
and finally played leap-frog with Montagu, but whatever he did that
insatiable baby shouted, “Adain,” bouncing up and down on his nurse’s
knee in enthusiastic appreciation of the entertainment.

Meanwhile Mrs. Methuen had found and packed up two pairs of thick
cream-coloured casement curtains. She ran tapes in them ready to put
up, for she was convinced there would be no rods; she also packed a
hammer and nails, but she never knew what it was caused her to slip her
travelling flask of brandy into the pocket of her coat.

She fetched the boys, and her small son roared in indignation at their
departure, which upset her extremely.

However, it was getting late and the windows in Holywell were bare.

Meanwhile Mr. Wycherly had been working very hard: stooping and lifting,
carrying and stretching, to arrange the Earlier Latin Authors in the top
shelf of an empty bookcase. Some of the authors were heavy and
calf-bound and Mr. Wycherly, who had eaten hardly anything at all that
day, began to feel very tired. He was quite unused to violent exercise
of any kind, and presently he became conscious of a most unpleasant pain
in his left side. “A stitch, I suppose,” he said to himself and went on
stooping and lifting, for he had come to the last layer of books and
wanted to feel that one case at any rate was unpacked.

The boys and Mrs. Methuen returned, but he didn’t hear them.

“I’ll go upstairs and begin at once,” said Mrs. Methuen, “and you
needn’t tell Mr. Wycherly anything about it till I’ve gone.”

She and Edmund went up into Mr. Wycherly’s bedroom while Montagu tried
to find his guardian. He was not in either of the sitting-rooms. That
they had seen from the windows before they came in. Nor was he in the
kitchen or the garden. At last Montagu bethought him of the hitherto
unused study, climbed the steep, crooked staircase, and went down the
sloping passage to look.

Mrs. Methuen was standing on a chair at one side of the window fastening
the tape of a curtain round a nail she had just knocked in, while Edmund
stood on another chair at the other side, holding the rest of the
curtain that its fairness might not be sullied by contact with the
extremely dusty floor, when Montagu burst into the room looking very
frightened.

“D’you think you could come?” he asked breathlessly. “I’m afraid
Guardie’s ill or something, he’s so white and he doesn’t seem able to
speak for gasping.”

Down went the nice curtains in an untidy heap on the dressing-table as
Mrs. Methuen leapt off the chair, seized something from her coat which
was lying on the bed, and followed Montagu. Edmund had already gone.

Mr. Wycherly was sitting huddled up in his chair. His face looked wan
and drawn in the fading light; he certainly was breathing heavily and
with great difficulty. But when he saw Mrs. Methuen he made an
ineffectual attempt to rise. She tore the silver cup from the bottom of
the flask and tumbled the contents hastily into it.

“Don’t try to get up,” she said as she knelt down beside him; “you’re a
little faint; drink this, please, at once.”

She literally poured the brandy down Mr. Wycherly’s throat. “Clear
those books off the sofa, boys,” she commanded; “carefully now! Ah,
that’s better. Now you must lie down for a few minutes; it’s bad to sit
forward like that.”

Somehow in three minutes this energetic young lady had taken entire
command of the situation. Mr. Wycherly was helped on to the sofa,
Edmund had fetched a rug to cover him, and she and Montagu were
wrestling with the huge gothic window, which should have opened like a
door in the centre and was, apparently, hermetically sealed. At last it
yielded to their combined efforts, and the sweet, fresh evening air
rushed into the room.

“Please finish the brandy,” said Mrs. Methuen in precisely the same
voice in which she would have adjured her baby not to leave any milk in
his bottle. “You’re completely done up; no proper food, no fresh air.
I never felt anything like the atmosphere of this room; and then
stooping and lifting heavy books on the top of all the rest. No wonder
your heart gave out. I can’t think why they make the cups of flasks
such an awkward shape.”

Mr. Wycherly meekly took the cup from her hand and drained it. Already
his face looked less ashy and he could speak.

“I cannot tell you,” he began——

“Don’t try to tell us anything yet; for five minutes you are to stay
perfectly quiet. I’ll leave Montagu in charge, and he is not to allow
you to stir till I come back. Come, Edmund.”

Edmund’s round face was very serious as he followed Mrs. Methuen back to
the bedroom. Aunt Esperance, as he always put it, “was away.” Aunt
Esperance, who had seemed a necessary part of life—beneficent,
immutable, inevitable. Yet she had gone, and her place knew her no
more. Might not a like thing happen to Mr. Wycherly? And, if so, what
was to become of him and Montagu?

Edmund was not imaginative. He lived his jolly life wholly without
thought of the morrow. But at that moment he was startled into a
realisation of how much he loved his guardian.

As once more he and Mrs. Methuen mounted their two chairs and started to
put up the curtains again he looked across at her and noted with a
sudden painful contraction of the heart that her face was very grave.

“You don’t think, do you,” he asked in a low voice, “that Guardie is
going to die?”

Mrs. Methuen started and nearly dropped the curtain. “Oh, dear, no,”
she exclaimed hastily; “but you must take more care of him and not let
him lift books or anything of that sort. When people are not very young
they have to take things easily. You and Montagu must unpack the books
and he can arrange them, but you must not let him stoop over the cases.
Do you understand? He mustn’t do it.”

They finished the curtains in no time, and when Mrs. Methuen went back
to the study Mr. Wycherly hastily arose from the sofa, where he had lain
obediently ever since she put him there.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” he began——

“Please don’t try,” Mrs. Methuen said briskly. “The boys and I are
having such fun, but I’m sorry to say that I must—I simply must—give you
a little lecture. Boys! someone is knocking at the front door; go down
and see who it is while I scold Mr. Wycherly.”

Mrs. Methuen’s own kitchen-maid, accompanied by a stout, fresh-coloured
woman, carrying a large brown-paper parcel, were at the door, and Mrs.
Methuen herself came down in a minute or two, when she explained that
the rosy woman was one Mrs. Dew, that she had come “to look after them,”
and would stay with them till they got a proper servant. Moreover, the
kitchen-maid carried a large basket of provisions. The fires had gone
out in both kitchen and dining-room, and the evening was growing chill.
That kitchen-maid lit both in no time. Mr. Wycherly was brought
downstairs and installed in his big chair by the dining-room fire, and
Mrs. Methuen went home. Yet once more she came back that night, and she
swept the two boys up to their room and insisted on their putting all
their clothes in drawers and cupboards under her supervision, and she
and Mrs. Dew did the same by Mr. Wycherly without informing him of the
fact.

Nothing could less have resembled the methods of Mrs. Griffin than those
of Mrs. Dew. With her advent everything was changed at the house in
Holywell. Order was evolved out of chaos, dust disappeared as if by
magic, boxes were unpacked and removed empty to the attic, while, most
important of all, meals were punctual and appetising.

Mrs. Dew had the extremely deferent manner of the well-trained servant
who has “lived in good families.” To Mr. Wycherly this manner was
immensely soothing, coming as it did after his long experience of the
dictatorial and somewhat familiar bearing of the Scottish servants at
Remote. Mrs. Dew “knew her place” and kept to it rigidly, and Edmund
found her rather unapproachable. Anything like reserve in his
intercourse with his fellow-creatures was abhorrent to Edmund, and he
pursued Mrs. Dew with questions as to her past, her present, and her
future, getting, however, but small satisfaction for his pains.

“Have you any children, Mrs. Dew?” he demanded one day, when he had
sought her in the kitchen for social purposes.

“No, sir, not of my own.”

“Any grandchildren?”

“Certainly not, sir.”

“No one belonging to you at all?”

“Of course, sir, I ’ave my relations, same as other folks.”

“What sort of relations?”

“Well, for one, sir, I have a niece.”

“Big or little?”

“About your own size, sir, though, I daresay, she’s a bit older.”

“Where does she live?”

“With me, sir, when she isn’t at school. She’s an orphan.”

“Oh, like us. Where is she now?”

“Here, in Oxford.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jane-Anne, sir; but if I may say so, I don’t think the kitchen’s the
proper place for a young gentleman like you.”

“When shall I see Jane-Anne?”

“I don’t suppose as you’ll see her at all, sir, your paths in life
being, so to speak, different.”

Edmund sighed. “I wish you were a more telling sort of person, Mrs.
Dew,” he said sadly. “If you like to ask me any questions, you’ll soon
see what a lot I’d tell you.”

“I hope I know my place better, sir!” Mrs. Dew remarked primly.

That afternoon he gave it up as a bad job.

Edmund did not forget his grudge against Miss Selina Brooks. By some
curious mental process of unreasoning he traced Mr. Wycherly’s sudden
faintness, that had frightened them so much, to that good lady’s letter
about the curtainless windows. She had worried his Guardie, and
therefore she was his enemy.

It did not in the least affect Edmund’s opinion of her that Mr. Wycherly
wrote a most courteous note thanking her for hers.

Edmund intended to be even with Miss Selina Brooks, but he bided his
time.

The attics in Holywell were particularly large and splendid. There were
only two, and they occupied the whole of the top floor, while each was
reached by a separate staircase, and had no communication with the
other. In all, there were five different sets of stairs in that old
house. One attic was dedicated to the reception of empty boxes; but the
other—which possessed a heavenly little crooked room opening out of it,
in that third gable which boasted the small square window looking
sideways down the street—Mr. Wycherly had given to the boys for their
very own play-room.

At present there was nothing in it save two or three derelict chairs and
a four-post bed with canopy and voluminous white dimity curtains. For
some reason best known to herself, Mrs. Griffin had put up the curtains
belonging to this bed which nobody wanted.

Just outside one of the doors on that landing was a curious little
cupboard with strong oak doors, not more than three feet high. This
cupboard was very dark, apparently very deep, and quite devoid of
shelves or pegs.

During their first uncomfortable days the boys had not felt particularly
interested in cupboards; but as things grew more peaceful and accustomed
Edmund of the inquiring mind discovered this particular cubby-house.
Montagu was not with him at the time, as now that they were settled, he
did Greek for an hour every morning with Mr. Wycherly just before
luncheon.

Edmund thrust his arm in as far as it would go, but couldn’t reach the
back, though the floor seemed to slope upwards. Carefully propping the
door open with a chair, he crawled in on hands and knees. Once in, he
found that floor and roof sloped steeply upwards and the roof was just
over his head, he couldn’t even kneel. He crawled further in, quite a
long way, and the tunnel turned sharply to the right. He could no
longer see the glimmer of light from the landing, but he had reached the
end of the tunnel. At the same moment his head struck something that
stuck out, and when he put up his hand he felt that it was a key by its
shape. This was most exciting and must be investigated at once. There
was no room to turn, so Edmund half crawled, half slid backwards out of
the sloping tunnel, and flew downstairs to get some matches. To his joy
he met nobody, which was as well, for he was covered with dust and
cobwebs from head to foot. He rushed upstairs again feeling very
adventurous and important, and once more crawled into the cupboard to
the very end of the tunnel. He struck a match and found that he was up
against another door, in the roof this time and precisely like the first
one in every respect except that it had a large, heavy lock at one side,
and in the lock was the rusty key that had hit him on the head. By no
endeavour could Edmund get that key to turn. He lit match after match,
throwing them carelessly on the old oak floor in a fashion that would
have made Mr. Wycherly’s hair stand on end had he seen it, and finally
decided that alone he could not manage that door, and that Montagu must
be taken into the secret.

Montagu was still closeted with Mr. Wycherly, so Edmund wandered into
the kitchen, where Mrs. Dew, exclaiming at his appearance, promptly
dusted, brushed, and washed him, much to his annoyance. However, he
bore it with as good grace as possible, and then with disarming meekness
asked: “What do you do, Mrs. Dew, when a key won’t turn; an old sort of
key in an iron lock?”

“Have you been down in the cellar, Master Edmund?” Mrs. Dew asked
suspiciously. “Is that where you got all that dust and cobwebs? You’ve
no business there, you know, meddlin’ with locks.”

“I haven’t been near the cellar,” Edmund answered indignantly; “dust and
cobwebs seem just to come and sit on me wherever I go; I can’t help it.
But what do you do to a box, now, that won’t open?” he added
diplomatically, “when the key sticks and won’t turn?”

“You wait till afternoon, sir, and I’ll help you to open any box you
want opened. But you might go and oil the lock if you like, then it can
soak in till I come.”

Edmund joyfully accepted the little bottle of oil and the feather that
Mrs. Dew offered him, and flew upstairs again. This time he borrowed
the candle from beside Mr. Wycherly’s bed, lighted it, and took it with
him.

Into his cupboard he went. He oiled and oiled: himself, the lock, the
door, and the floor. He tried the key with one hand, he tried it with
two. He got fearfully hot and exceedingly cross, and still that key
refused to turn. Finally, in a rage, he put his shoulders under the
door and heaved with all his might. The door in the roof seemed to
yield a little, and this inspired Edmund to further efforts. He shoved
and shoved, and pushed and pushed, till at last, quite suddenly, the
whole thing gave, opening upwards and outwards. Edmund’s head emerged
into the light of day, and with rapture he discovered that he had only
to step out on to the flat roof of a portion of the next house, which
was considerably higher than Mr. Wycherly’s.

His mysterious door was a skylight that had been boarded in. Why that
curious tunnel was cut off from the rest of the house they never knew,
but the little square of leads was a source of infinite joy to Edmund
and Montagu till they grew too wide to wiggle through the passage. Nor
did Edmund, with the curious reticence of children, inform either Mr.
Wycherly or Mrs. Dew of his find.

A low parapet faced the street, and sloping slate roofs formed the two
other sides of this delightful square. Edmund advanced to the edge of
the parapet. He found that he looked straight across the road into a
top bedroom of the house opposite. A bedroom so high that it had only
curtains, ordinary dark curtains, not drawn at all; no short blind, and
only a low dressing-table and small looking-glass to fill up the window.
Edmund sat down hastily lest he should be seen, for there was somebody
in the room opposite. Somebody with bare arms who was doing her hair.

Cautiously Edmund’s head appeared above the parapet, and a look of
vindictive glee overspread his hot and dirty face.

It was Miss Selina Brooks herself, and fate had delivered her into his
hands.

The hair of Miss Selina Brooks was not abundant, and she added to it
sundry tresses such as are described by fashion-papers as “graceful
adjuncts.” Edmund waited till the adjuncts were all in their proper
place. Then he descended into his passage, shut the oak skylight, shut
also the little gothic door leading to this undreamt-of paradise,
retired to the bath-room to wash, lest Mrs. Dew should catch him again;
and then, very quietly, went downstairs to the parlour, where, in the
words of the French exercise, he sought “pens, ink and paper.”

Edmund did not possess the pen of a ready writer; it was some time
before he drafted a letter to his liking, but in its final form the
missive ran thus:—

“DEAR MADDUM,

“I think it only right to inform you that I can see you doing your hair,
both what is on and what is off, and I find it very depressing. I
therefore venture to suggest that a blind should be affixed without
delay. It’s worse than ablushuns.

“Yours truly,
“EDMUND BETHUNE ESQRE.”

This Edmund folded and placed in an envelope, which he sealed with his
great-grandfather’s seal. He then trotted across the road and dropped
it into Miss Selina Brooks’ letter-box.

Unlike Mr. Wycherly, Miss Brooks did not write to thank Edmund Bethune,
Esqre. for his information; but that afternoon Nottingham lace curtains
were put up at that top window, so closely drawn that not even a chink
remained between them. When he beheld them Edmund smiled seraphically.