FAR STRANGER THAN FICTION.
“I was sitting one day in her ladyship’s bedroom mending some lace, when I heard voices of people talking on the other side of the partition. The rooms were divided with wood panelling, and every word came as quite distinct to me as if spoken in my very ear. I might not have taken so much notice, only it seemed strange to hear English spoken in France; and besides, I felt as if I knew the voice.”
“It seems you did too.”
Yes, It was my old mistress’s voice, Mrs. Wilkins. She said,
We ought to leave here at once. It will never do to run the risk of meeting her at such close quarters.”
Then the other lady answered, in the slow sort of drawling way Miss Emily had of talking, and with her little lisp,
You are sure you made no mistake ? “
Do you think 1 am purblind or doting? ” asked Mrs. Wilkins. “ I saw her going out with her mistress this morning. Mistake ! One can’t mistake a face one has lived in the house with for years. She must not meet you again. I would rather run the gauntlet of a dozen detectives than one lady’s maid. There are a hundred little things they notice about one of their own sex a man would never see.”
“ It was a true observation,” remarked Mr. Ramsden, “ and one which did credit to the old lady’s astuteness. Well, what did the other answer ? ”
“ They were interrupted, I think—at any rate, I heard no more ; but what I had heard excited my curiosity, I asked Lady Poplett if she would kindly ask whether a Mrs. Wilkins was in the hotel, and the number of the room. I can’t think what possessed me, for I am sure I did not want to be mixed up with them ; but I sent a message t say I should like to pay my duty to Mrs. Mason.”
“ Yes ; and the answer ? ”
“ I had leave to do so ; but I did not see Mrs. Mason then, only Mrs. Wilkins, and she was chatty and pleasant, to be sure. She was so sorry her daughterwas out (but I knew she was not out), and didn’t 1 think her altered ? She said poor dear Mr. Mason had been a great trial, and there was no disguising the fact his death had’proved a great relief. Emily had been very ill for a long time after she was left a widow, and all that sort of thing; and then she asked lots of questions about what I was doing and how I happened to be in Paris.
“ 1 told her how I was leaving almost immediately, and asked if I could take anything back for her to England ; and then she was civil. She thought she would trouble me with a small parcel, and she only only wished Miss Emily was in ; but she had gone to see some friends in the outskirts, and would be away for a few days. Before I started, however, I managed to make sure Mrs. Mason was in the hotel all the time, and myself unseen to get a good look at her.
“ She is very like Miss Emily. I declare, even after what I had heard, I could riot have said for certain it was not my young mistress grown older, stouter and better looking.”
There was a moment’s pause. Mr. Ramsden turned his eyes upon Mr. Mason’s anxious face, then he looked at Mrs. Calcey, and said briskly,
“ We come, now, to the time when you went out of town with Master Arthur Montrelle. Tell me about what happened at the lodgings then, please.”
“ I had not a thought in my mind then about Mrs. Wilkins or her daughter,” answered Mrs. Calcey. ” I was troubled at having the whole care of Master Arthur, and yet I felt glad too. When he began to get stronger I did not stay in his room at night; and often after he was in bed I went down into the landlady’s parlor and had a chat with her, or else into the kitchen ; for the servant was a nice respectable young woman, well spoken and good principled.
“ One night it^o happened she had brought a little fancy sort of trunk—a kind of minature trunk, small enough to carry about easily and set on a table—into the kitchen to look out some buttons she wanted to trim a dres6.
“ They had got scattered about among the other things, and she turned out several articles in order to find them more easily.
« At last she put a funny box bffore my eyes, and said,
“ Did you ever see anything like that before? ” Evidently meaning that I never had.
I looked at it, and I looked again.
” May I take off the lid ? ” I asked.
“ And turn over everything there is inside, if you like,” she answered.
“ Where on earth did you get it ? ” I said.
“ A lady that is dead gave it to me,” she explained, going on looking for her buttons. ” It is more curious than pretty, I think ; but I havc kept it for her sake. Poor Mrs. Mason, she did suffer.”
“ Her words gave me such a turn, I could not see for a minute Lamp, table, box, everything seemed to go round and round ; but at last my head steadied, and there was Alice still hunting for buttons.
I asked her to tell me all about Mrs. Mason. I said I once lived with a lady of that name; and she told me all quite straight. How she was living in London at the time with a Miss Gresham, who let out apartments, and Mrs. Mason and her mother came up from somewhere in the country, so as to be near medical advice.
“ They were going abroad as soon as the younger lady got well eriough to travel; “ But, Lor,” said Alice, “ she soon went a far longer journey. When the doctor came, he said she was in a galloping consumption ; and sure enough it was all over within a couple of months. The poor mother did take on dreadful; it might have touched a heart of stone to see her. 1 heard her say one day to her daughter. “ 1 don’t know, Emilv, what will become of me when you are gone.’ And Mrs. Mason answered quite indifferent like ; but then she was so bad and ill that no doubt she did not care much about anything. “ It is unfortunate, certainly, mamma, but it is not my fault.” There was no shortness of money, but they seemed friendless and all alone in the world. Not a soul came to see them, and not a creature ‘ followed ’ but the mother.’ ”
“ Humph ! ” said Mr. Ramsden dryly. “ Do you happen to remember, Briart, where this Miss Gresham lived ? ”
“ I took it all down, sir, as I got it from Alice—leastways 1 wrote it in a book when I got to my own room. The name of the street and the number, the address of the doctor—everything you will find set down here, sir;” and Mrs. Calcey handed him an old diary bound in red morocco, which had been given to her years and years previously.
“ You have no idea, I suppose,” asked Mr. Ramsden, as he took the book from her, “ who this lady is that you suppose cannot be Miss Emily, otherwise Mrs. Mason ? ”
“ Yes, sir, I have,” was the unexpected reply; “ and that came about in a most curious way too. A mate of my poor dear husband’s was born and reared in that part of the country whe’e all the Wilkinses belonged. He used to lodge with us, and many a time has talked about Mrs. Wilkins and her mean ways, and Miss Emily, afterwards Mrs. Mason. He remembered her from a child.
“Well, after I came to London, to Mr. Montrelle’s, 1 saw him two or three times at my cousin’s, and once he chanced to say he had been working on the line near Purling; and at church there he had seen my former mistress, Mrs. Wilkins.
“And Mrs. Mason too, I suppose?” I said.
“No,” he answered ; ” she was not there, but her cousin was—old Mat. Wilkins’ daughter; she would make two of Miss Emily, and has the loveliest head of hair you ever looked at.”
“ I asked a few questions, and found out all he could tell me; and that is all sir, I think.”
“ Very good,” commented Mr. Ramsden ; and now turning to Mr. Mason, he added, “ I suppose you will leave the matter with me.”
“ Heavens knows I do not desire to have any say in it,” answered the young man ; then, turning to Mrs. Calcey, he added, “ You will not mention the affair to any one without my pertnission, Ellen.”
” No, sir. I never have said a word about it except to my mother; and I should not have spoken now, only that 1 could not rest with the weight of it on my mind.”
A MF.RRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR.
CHRISTMAS-EVE came to the great world of London, and especially, so it seemed to Mrs. Calcey, to the large house in the unfashionable square.
Such a season for gifts was never beheld. Such people for giving as the Montrelles it would have been difficult to find.
Out of their small income they contrived to make more homes happy than many with ten times their wea.th.
As for Miss Molly, a sum of money had been sent to her on the morning of the 24th, anonymously, which quite turned her head.
On the inside of the envelope was written in an unknown hand ;
“A trifle to aid in helping your humble friends to spend a merry Christmas.”
And be sure that money did not long burn her pockets.
To one she sent coals; to another a joint; to a third some warm apparel; where there were children, toys ; where there was illness, the nourishment or the attendance which seemed most needed. Ellen was about with her all that day ; and Ellen watched her in the evening, when Mr. Mason came and kissed her, not under the jmistletoe, but away from all the others.
“ My darling,” he said, “ I wonder if before this time next year you will agree to make me as happy as you have those poor people today.”
And there was a hopeful tone in his voice, and a glad light in his eye, Ellen had never heard in the one, or seen before in the other.
That night, as they gathered round the hearth, after all the guests had departed, his talk ran on Martinly Hall.
“Now would be the time for you to see the place, Mrs. Montrelle,” he said, “ while it is tenantless;” and then they all laughed at the idea, as though it were a capital joke; and one of the boys insisted upon the ghost story associated with the Hall being repeated at length, and the younger girls said they should be afraid to go to bed after bearing it, and Molly smiled softly with a tender love-light shining in her sweet face.
The next morning what kissing and making of presents there was before breakfast! It was a pretty sight to see the family gathered about their mother, wishing her a merry, merry Christmas, and papa wiping his spectacles with suspicious persistency, and saying. “ There, there, that will do! Why you might still be babies !”
Not a servant in the house was forgotten. Even the boy who cleaned the knives and polished the boots found his present lying ready directed beside his brushes, and a bright half-crown folded in tissuepaper for him to take home to his grandmother.
They all went to church, and after an early dinner spent a quiet cosy evening.
They never had much company on a Christinas day; only their own, very own, people—mamma’s sister’s and brothers, and papa’s onlynephew and niece. There were no reconciliations, because there were no preceding quarrels ; but all family ties seemed to be knit more closely upon each succeeding Christmas-day ; and the children learnt from the looks they saw passing amongst their elders many ami many a lesson, which served them in good stead when the time came for them to go into the world, and to strive and keep their hearts untainted by it.
Before they separated, Mr. Mason pressed into the hand of each person present a little note.
“ It is only an invitation,” he explained ; and then went away, to let them read his words at their leisure.
“I want you all to do me the great favor of spending Twelfth-day at Martinly Hall,” that was what he said ; “ Mr. Montrelle will arrange about the journey, if you can do me this kindness.”
Then there was a great cry.
He had not been jesting, then ; something wonderful had happened, and papa was in the secret.
“ And Molly too,” added the boys.
“ No,” said Molly. “ I know nothing ; but I think there is something to know, and that papa knows it.
“And papa is not going to tell it,” answered that gentleman. “ However, I may inform you that a most wonderful twelfth-cake is going to be ordered to-morrow, and that I for one mean to accept the invitation.”
“You would like to know what has been done, and how Mrs. Wilkins took it all,” remarked Mr. Ramsden to Ellen, when he asked to see her for a minute ere leaving town. “ There is not going to be any trial or any prison or any punishment. We ought not, of course, to have shown mercy; but Mr. Mason’s heart is softer than the typical nether millstone, and he found it easier to forgive your old mistress than to send her to prison.
“ I went down and had a quiet chat with her; remarked that sve knew es’erything, even to the fact of her having vainly tried to insure her daughter’s life. (I heard that quite accidentally, and it was refused because her lungs were hopelessly gone.)
“ She is a wonderful old lady. She listened tome without saying a word till I had quite finished; then she asked.
Can’t you give me a fortnight? By that time Mrs. Mason will be transformed into Mrs. Glive.”
“ No,” I answered, “ not an hour.”
“ You will leave us our savings, at any rate,” she persisted.
“Yes,” I said, “ we would do that.”
And you will keep it out of the newspapers.”
“ 1 agreed to do that also, if she promised to make some excuse to the vicar at Purling for breaking off the match.”
If you like to live honestly for the future,” I said, “ we will not prevent you doing so ; but we will not allow you to spoil any more lives— do you understand ?”
” Miss Wilkins was even easier to manage. She reproached her aunt in no measured terms, and wrote and signed a full confession of the rise and progress of the imposition. That is all I have to say about them. There will be a wedding in the spring, I hope, and a bride at Martinly, God bless her!”
As for the Twelfth-day at Martinly, was there ever such a Twelfthday spent any where before or since ? Such cartloads ot holly, such piles of red berries, such miles of green wreaths, such lavish adornment of the old portraits, such fires, such logs of wood, such a welcome, such fare, such a cake, only eclipsed by one which was cut when the primroses were dotting the hedgerows, and the snowdrops were blooming above the bare earth.
The master had come to his own, and not a heart could be so cold or envious as to refrain from wishing him joy.
And flitting about the dear old house, half frightened, half pleased, too simple to be over-elated, and yet too wise to realize the magnitude of the change which had so suddenly been wrought, was that dear Miss Molly, who had, so her father said, made poverty seem sweeter to him, and who would enhance all the pleasures his riches could bring to the owner of Martinly.
*’ You arc to keep the lodge, Ellen, if you will,” said Mr. Mason to Mrs. Calcey, pointing to a dear little house, built of dark stone and covered all over with roses and creepers.
“ And bring your mother and the children to live with you,” supplemented Miss Molly.
But Ellen could not answer either of them for happy tears. She fell it would be easier for her to leave the cottage by the canal than to part from Miss Molly.
That was a Twelfth day 1 It is remembered and talked about still in many a home, from which the shadows were lifted when the owner crossed the threshold of the house he had hitherto scarcely looked upon as his own.