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   Chapter 1 FATE AND A RUSTY NAIL.

Kitty Trenire By Mabel Quiller-Couch Characters: 13573

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


On such an afternoon, when all the rest of the world lay in the fierce glare of the scorching sun, who could blame the children for choosing to perch themselves on the old garden wall, where it was so cool, and shady, and enticing? And who, as Kitty often asked tragically in the days and weeks that followed, could have known that by doing so "they were altering their fates for ever"?

The four of them talked a great deal in those days of their "fates;" it sounded so mysterious and grand, and so interesting too, for, of course, no one could know what lay in store for them all, and the most wonderful and surprising events might happen. They did happen to some people, and why not to them?

"I am quite sure something will happen to me some day," said Betty, with a very wise and serious look.

"I shouldn't be surprised," said Dan with mock seriousness, "if something did."

"I mean something wonderful, of course," added Betty. "Don't," with a superior air, "be silly, Dan. Things must happen to somebody, or there would never be any."

Later that same day they realized for the first time that small events could be interesting and important too, and that while they were thinking of their "fates" as something to be spun and woven in the mysterious future, the shuttle was already flying fast.

As I said before, the old wall was particularly cool and tempting-looking that sunny afternoon, for the high, untrimmed laurel hedge on the other side of the path behind them threw a deep broad shadow over the flat top of it, and shade was what one appreciated most on that hot day. All the ground in Gorlay sloped, for Gorlay was built on two hills, while the gardens of all the houses on either side sloped either up or down another and a steeper hill. Dr. Trenire's house was on the left-hand side of the street, as one walked up it, and it was the steep slope up of the garden behind it that made the old wall so fascinating.

To reach the garden from the house one had to pass through a cobbled yard, with the back wing of the house and a stable on one side of it, and a coach-house and another stable on the other. The garden and the garden wall were at the end. From the yard the wall ran up to a good height-to the children it seemed immense, as high as the tower of Babel, though were they to go back now and look at it I dare say they would find it quite insignificant, for walls have a curious way of decreasing an inch or two with every year one grows older.

To the children, though, its two chief charms were that it had a broad flat top on which one could sit and dangle one's legs over the abyss below, and that from the garden it was so low that by just walking over a flower-bed one could step right on to it, while from that eminence one could command a view of the back door, the side door, the stables, and all that went on in the yard. So that, in addition to being cool and shady, it really was a most attractive and alluring spot.

A vine with a wealth of pretty leaves and long graceful tendrils covered the front of the stable and side of the house, and some years there would be a few bunches of little green grapes hanging amongst the leaves. Through the open stable window, festooned by the vine, dear old Prue, Dr. Trenire's well-beloved and faithful mare, would thrust out her head and gaze dreamily at the life in the yard, or at nothing; and the children, if they were about, would rub her nose and fondle her lovingly, and bring her handfuls of grass, or carrots, or sugar. Sometimes, too, "Pinkie," the yellow cat, would seat herself on the narrow sill of the stable window, close to Prue's cheek, until, finding the air too chilly, or the children too noisy, or sleep overcoming her, she would go inside and curl herself up on Prue's back for a nap.

To-day, though, neither Prue nor Pinkie were to be seen. Apparently they were both indulging in an afternoon nap in the shady stable, for it really was a very hot day, and the sun fell full on the vine and the stable window.

Unfortunately it fell on the door too, and showed up a most inviting and enticing-looking spot where the sun had once raised a blister on the paint.

Every one will admit that there is a wonderful fascination about a nice soft paint-blister, and busy fingers had quickly peeled this one off, with the result that to-day there was a spot which made as good a target as any one could possibly desire, and just within range of their perch on the wall. There was also, unfortunately, quite close at hand a supply of perfect ammunition in the shape of a heap of small stones and rubbish which they had swept together a few days before when seized by a sudden mania for tidying up the garden. Of course, had they been really good children, they would have finished their job by shovelling up the heap and carrying it away; but they grew very tired, and the work was hard, and they felt they really had done a great deal for one day. So the heap was left in the path until, on this hot afternoon, they found a new and not at all tiring way of disposing of most of it.

They kept up such a sharp fire, and made such a noise, that presently Jabez, the coachman and general factotum, was dancing with rage in the yard below-rage at the noise they were making and the litter he foresaw he would have to sweep up before "the master" saw the place, and added rage at the calm unconcern with which they ignored his commands.

The children, though really very much attached to Jabez, unfortunately felt no fear of him, and above all things they loved to tease him. They would not willingly have hurt him on any account whatever, but, as they said afterwards, when he deliberately placed himself between them and their target, and dared them to throw another stone, why of course he had to put up with what he got; and what he got most particularly was a nasty blow on the forehead from a piece of old wood that Dan threw at him.

Dan, as he explained at the time, really selected the wood out of pure humanity, because he thought it would be softer than a stone if it should happen to strike any one; and, as he argued emphatically, "it was ridiculous to think he could have known that Jabez was going to duck his silly head at the very wrong moment, and it was even more ridiculous of Jabez to accuse him of knowing that there was a large rusty nail in the wood, for Jabez knew as well as possible that he, Dan, would have been only too jolly glad to have had the nail, for he was collecting old iron as hard as he could, intending to sell it the very next time the 'old-iron' man came round."

Instead of which it was taken by Jabez, along with his bleeding head, straight into the presence of Dr. Trenire, who happened at the moment to be sitting in

his study, trying to get a little sorely-needed rest. The doctor had been out all the previous night at a most trying case, and body and brain were weary, his nerves all on edge, his patience nearly exhausted, and he had no time or inclination for unpleasant interruptions and unnecessary worries. Altogether there could not have been a much more unpropitious moment for any one to have gone to him than that which Jabez chose.

As a rule Dr. Trenire was only too gentle and kind and patient with his four motherless children; but to-day, when they slowly, and at a discreet distance, followed Jabez into the study, Kitty felt a sudden conviction that things were not going to be quite as simply and easily got over as usual. She saw a look cross her father's face such as she had never seen on it before, and for the first time in her careless, happy-go-lucky life realized with keen compunction what a sad, tired, patient face it was, and suddenly she found herself wanting to do things for him to try to cheer and help him, and wished most heartily that they had done anything but bring fresh worry and unpleasantness to him.

But before he inquired into the particulars of the squabble, Dr. Trenire attended to the wound. It was only a surface one, but the skin was torn rather badly, and Jabez was bleeding a good deal, and groaning with all his might.

"Get me some hot water."

Only too glad to be able to do anything to help, Kitty ran off; but to run for hot water was one thing, to get it was quite another. The fire was out, the kitchen was littered with dishes and pots and pans, and Fanny the cook, with a dirty apron on and no cap, was fast asleep in her chair by the window, just as though she had not a care or a duty in the world. The squalor and muddle of the whole place could not fail to strike any one, even casual Kitty; and to her it brought a deeper feeling, one of trouble and remorse, for, in response to her own pleading, her father had made her his housekeeper-and this was how she had fulfilled her duties! In fact, she had given herself no duties; she had shirked them. She had left everything to the servants, and as long as she had been free and untroubled, and meals of a kind had been served at more or less regular intervals, had bothered no further.

"Fanny!" she called sharply, "do wake up! Why haven't you got a fire, and a kettle boiling?"

Fanny awoke with a start, which in itself is enough to make a person cross; and to have been caught asleep, with her work not done, made her crosser. "I don't want a great fire burning on a hot afternoon like this," she answered sharply. "You wouldn't like it yourself if you had to sit by it, Miss Kitty; and if it's your tea you'm wanting, well, it isn't tea-time yet. When 'tis, you will find 'tis ready."

"Um-m!" said Kitty loftily, in a tone that expressed most emphatic doubt of Fanny's statement.

"What is it you're routing about in the cupboards for, miss? I don't like to have folks coming into my kitchen, turning everything over and rummaging round. I shan't know where to find a thing when I wants to. What is it you'm looking for?"

"The methylated spirit and the little stove," said Kitty. "I must have some hot water, Fanny, and quickly. Father wants some. There has been an accident."

Fanny changed her tone, and her expression grew a little milder.

"We haven't got a leak, miss. We ran out of it a week ago. I told

Emily to tell you-but there, I might as well talk to the wind as talk

to her-"

"Oh dear," interrupted Kitty, "whatever shall I do? Jabez is bleeding so he will bleed to death-"

"Jabez! Oh my! Whatever has happened, Miss Kitty?" Suddenly Fanny's whole manner changed to one of anxious eagerness and deep concern. "Is it-is it dangerous, miss? How did it happen? What's he done?" Fanny had been so sound asleep that she had not noticed the noise in the yard, or the little procession pass the kitchen window on its way to the study.

"I don't think it is very bad," said Kitty. "Dan threw a piece of wood, and it-it hit Jabez on the forehead, and-and oh, Fanny, what will father think? I believe he is angry with us already, and you know he was out all night and is very tired, and he will be more angry if there's no hot water or anything he wants, and I-I did so want to help him."

Fanny, who appeared more concerned about Jabez than about her master, was, with a lavish use of sticks, kindling a big blaze under a small kettle, and soon had water ready as hot as it was needed. Kitty, greatly relieved, ran back with it to her father.

"I suppose, as usual, there was none," he said gravely, "though I have said until I am tired that in a doctor's house there should always be a supply;" and Kitty could find nothing to say.

Jabez by this time was seated in a chair, facing the light. He was looking very pale and subdued. The thought of having his wound washed and dressed upset him far more than did the wound itself. Betty and Anthony were sitting on two of the stiffest and most uncomfortable-looking chairs in the room, with very grave expressions on their pale but not too clean faces. Dan was standing by the window looking intensely nervous and uncomfortable. He glanced frequently from Jabez to his father, and back again, and Kitty could see he was longing to say something, but did not know how to. She was very sorry that it had been Dan who had dealt the fatal blow. She almost wished that it had been she herself who had done it, for their father was never quite so severe with her or Betty as with the boys.

With the feeling still on her that trouble was coming, she fried to make herself as useful as possible; but as she knew little or nothing as to where anything was kept, she was more of a hindrance than a help, and her hopes were blighted by her father's order to them all to leave the room.

"I will see you presently," he said sternly. "I will either come to you or send for you when I am ready;" and, feeling very crushed, they made their way to the old nursery, now called "the schoolroom," and there waited with curiously mingled feelings for what was to happen next. They did not expect it to be anything very serious; but they hated to vex their father, and they felt that now they really had vexed him.

Oh how slowly the minutes passed, and what a lot of them there were! It seemed to them that time enough had elapsed in which to have set every limb that Jabez possessed, and to hear the recital of every wrong he had ever received at their hands; and by the time they heard their father's footstep coming their hopes and fears had gone up and down again many times, and they had pictured themselves sentenced to every possible and impossible punishment that their minds could imagine.

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