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Betty's blue eyes filled with tears of helpless misery, Kitty's gray
ones with rebellion. Why should they be tormented in this way? It was
so cruel, so unjust! They had not suffered from the cold more than had
other people, certainly they had not complained of it - not half as much
as had Mrs. Pike and Anna, who were clad in wool from their throats to
their toes.

Tony sat looking at his poor little legs disgustedly, but it was the
ugliness of his new footgear that struck him most; he did not feel the
torment as his sisters did. Then quite suddenly Betty stripped off the
detestable things.

"Thank you," she said, "I'll wear my old ones. I prefer the cold."

Mrs. Pike coloured with annoyance and set her lips firmly. "How dare
you defy me in that way, Elizabeth!" she cried. "I have told you to
wear those stockings, and you _are_ to wear them. Remember, I mean what
I say. I wonder your father has not insisted long before this on your
wearing flannel next your skin. Don't you know that by going about in
flimsy cotton things in all weathers you are laying up for yourself a
rheumatic old age, and all kinds of serious illness?"

Kitty shuddered, but not at the prospect drawn for her by her aunt.
"Father knows that we can't," she said seriously, "so he never tried to
make us."

Betty, who had been absorbed in thought, looked up eagerly. "I would
much rather have rheumatism than itchy stockings," she protested quite
gravely. "I don't mind a bit, Aunt Pike. And - well, you see we can't
be sure that we shall have an old age, or rheumatics."

Mrs. Pike grew really angry. "Put on those stockings at once, miss,
and fasten them to your suspenders. - Kitty, fasten yours too."

"Oh, please let me wait," cried Kitty, "before I pull them tight; it is
so awful."

"Nonsense! It is more than half of it fancy. Remember you are to wear
them until the warm weather comes," and with that Aunt Pike walked away
triumphant.

"Oh, how hideous they are!" groaned Kitty, as she looked disgustedly at
her striped legs; "how perfectly hideous! I shall be ashamed to go out
in them. What will Dan say when he sees them?"

"It is worse for me," wailed Betty, "my dress is so short. O Kitty, how
can we ever walk in these dreadful things?"

"I don't know," said Kitty bitterly, "but we've _got_ to. It is a good
thing we have something nice to do to-day, for it may help us to
forget." But nothing made them do that; the discomfort went with them
everywhere, and destroyed their pleasure in everything.

Earlier in the day Dr. Trenire had said that they might all go to the
station to meet Dan; and they went on top of the 'bus, and alone too,
for Anna did not break up until the next day, and the weather was
lovely, and everything might have been perfect, if only they could have
forgotten their tortured legs. But to do that was more than they were
capable of, for, in addition to the torture of them, there was the
consciousness of their extraordinary ugliness, an ugliness which caught
every eye.

"What on earth have you all got yourselves up in?" was almost Dan's
first greeting. "I say, you aren't going to do it often, are you?"

And Betty straightway explained with much vehemence and feeling the
torment of mind and body to which they had been condemned.

"They look like Aunt Pike," said Dan. "No one else could have unearthed
such things. There is one comfort - we shall always be able to see you
coming when you have them on. Now then, mount, or we shan't get outside
seats."

But when Kitty, more than ever conscious after Dan's comments, looked at
the steps and the little crowd of people who would witness her ascent,
and thought of her dreadful stockings, her heart failed her.
"I - I think I will go inside," she said hastily.

"So will I," said Betty, shamefaced too.

"Nonsense," cried Dan, guessing at once what was the matter. "You two
skip up first, and I'll follow close to hide your le - retreat, I mean.
I am not going to be done out of our drive home together. Now then,
courage - up you get!"

And up they did get, but it did require courage: and the getting down
was even worse - their cheeks blazed and their hearts grew hot with
anger, and oh! the irritation of their poor unhappy legs.

"Kitty," whispered Betty eagerly, as they hurried into the house, "come
upstairs, quick; I've thought of something. It's a splendid idea!"

With the excuse that they were going to take off their hats and coats,
they rushed up to their bedroom and shut themselves in. Aunt Pike was a
little surprised at their neatness; Dan was a little hurt at being left
so soon, but Betty could not think of that then.

"Kitty," she breathed, as she closed the door and leaned against it,
"I know what we will do. We will wear our cotton stockings underneath
these horrors! They won't scratch us then, will they? And our holidays
won't be spoilt, and Aunt Pike won't know, and - don't you think it's a
perfectly splendid idea?"

"Splendid," cried Kitty enthusiastically, dropping on to the floor and
beginning to unlace her boots that very moment. "Oh, quickly let us
make haste and change them; I cannot, cannot endure this torment a
minute longer. O Betty, why didn't you think of it sooner?"
Then, holding up one of the offending gray stockings between the tips
of her fingers, "Did you - did any one ever see anything in all this
world so hideous?"

"We can do away with their itchiness, but we shall never, never be able
to hide their ugliness," said Betty ruefully. "_Nothing_ could do
that."

But the ugliness did not seem to matter so much when the irritation was
stopped; and they had such a grand time that evening, there was so
much to tell, and hear, and do, and show, that all other things were
forgotten, at least for the time.

And how lovely it was to wake in the morning and remember at once that
the holidays had come, and Dan was home; and then to wander about the
house and garden with him, looking up old haunts, and visiting Prue and
Billy and Jabez in the stables; for Aunt Pike had allowed them that much
licence on this the first day of the holidays. Then after dinner they
all went up to Dan's room to help him to unpack, and there was no end of
running backwards and forwards, looking at new treasures and old ones,
and talking incessantly until the afternoon had nearly worn away without
their realizing it.

"Um!" said Dan at last, pausing on the landing to hang over the
banisters and sniff audibly. "A - ha! methinks I smell the
soul-inspiring smell of saffron! For thirteen long, weary weeks I have
not smelt that glorious smell. Oh yes, I have though, once. There was
a saffron cake in the hamper. Fanny's own, too. Why," with sudden
recollection, "I haven't had a good talk with Fanny yet. Aunt Pike was
about all the time, and dried up the words in my throat. I'm going down
to see her this very moment as ever is." And that moment he went.

The other three followed swiftly but silently, for Anna was at home and
in her bedroom, resting, preparatory to going to a party that evening -
the break-up party at Hillside - at least she was supposed to be resting.
Her sharp ears, though, were ever on the alert, and if she guessed what
was going on, she would come out and spoil everything. Mrs. Pike was
shopping - buying gloves, and elastic for Anna's shoes, and a few trifles
for herself, for she too was going to the party.

The kitchen was very snug and warm and full of business, as well as
savoury odours, when they reached it. Fanny had a large Christmas cake
out cooling on the table, and mince pies and tartlets all ready to go
into the oven, while on a clean white cloth at one end of the table were
laid half a dozen large saffron cakes and a lot of saffron nubbies to
cool.

"O Fanny, how I adore you!" cried Dan, hugging her warmly. "No one in
the world reads my thoughts as you do. The one thing I wanted at this
moment was a nubby, and here it is." And seizing a couple he began to
eat them with a rapidity that was positively alarming. "I know, though
you don't say much, that you are overjoyed to see me home again; I can
see it in your eyes. The house is a different place when I am home,
isn't it?"

"It is _different_ certainly," said Fanny with emphasis and a sniff, but
not quite the emphasis Dan had asked for. Her coolness did not put him
out, though. Fanny had a soft spot in her heart for him, and he knew
it, the scamp; but though Dan was perhaps her favourite, at any rate for
the moment, the others benefited by the favour shown to him.

"I knew you would feel it," he said sympathetically; "I was afraid it
would tell on you. How thin you have gone, Fanny," with an anxious
glance at Fanny's plump cheeks.

"Get along with your iteming. Master Dan," she said severely.
"I should have thought they'd have learnt you better at school; and if
anybody'd asked me, I should have said that the kitchen wasn't the place
for young gentlemen."

"But nobody has asked you," said Dan. "And how," melodramatically,
"could you expect me to keep away when you are here, and I smelt new
saffron cake?"

"And how do you expect me to do all I've a-got to do with the lot of you
thronging up every inch of my kitchen?" she went on, ignoring his
flattery.

"Ask me another," said Dan, handing nubbies the while to all the others.
"I give that one up. But I knew you would be frightfully cut up if I
didn't come."

Fanny snorted in a most contemptuous manner, and tossed her head with
great scorn. "Oh! I'd have managed to survive it, I dare say, and I
don't suppose I should break down if you was to go."

"Do you know, Fanny dear," said Dan, suddenly growing very serious,
"when I went away I never expected to see you still in this dear old
kitchen when I came home, and the thought nearly broke my heart; it did
really. I didn't think you could have stood - you know who, so long."

"Well, I reckon you won't see me here next time you comes home," said
Fanny, trying hard not to look pleasant; "and as for this 'dear old
kitchen,' as you call it - dear old barn, I call it, with its draughts
and its old rough floor - it isn't never no credit to me, do what I will
to it, and Mrs. Pike is always going on at me about the place. I says
sometimes I'll give up and let it go, and then some folks'll see the
difference."

Kitty remembered the time when Fanny, not so many months back, had let
it go, and she had seen the difference. But she said nothing, and
munched contentedly at her nubby; and Fanny, who really loved her big,
homelike old kitchen almost as well as she did the children, continued
to talk.

"I wish Jabez would come in," said Dan. "He used to love hot cake, and
I have hardly had a chance to say anything to him since I came."

"Nobody gets a chance to nowadays," said Fanny sharply. "He gets his
head took off - not by me - if he so much as sets foot inside these doors;
and Jabez isn't partial to having his head took off."

"I should think his foot should be taken off, not his head," giggled
Betty; but no one but herself laughed at her joke.

Kitty, who had been sitting on the corner of the table which stood in
the window, munching her nubby and thinking very busily, suddenly looked
up, her face alight with eagerness.

"Fanny," she cried, "don't you want to do something very, very nice and
kind and - and lovely, something that would make us all love you more
than ever?"

Fanny glanced up quickly; but as she was always suspicious that some
joke was being played on her, she, as usual, made a cautious answer.
She was not going to be drawn into anything until she knew more. "Well,
I dunno as I wants to do more than I'm doing - letting 'ee eat my cake so
fast as I bakes it."

"But, Fanny, listen!" Kitty was so eager she scarcely knew how to
explain. "You know that Aunt Pike and Anna are going out this evening?"

"Yes, miss," with a sigh of relief; "from four to ten."

"Well," springing off the table in her excitement, "let us have a party
too; a jolly little one at home here by ourselves. Shall we?"

Betty slipped down from her perch on the clothes-press, Tony got off the
fender, and all clustered round Kitty in a state of eager excitement to
hear the rest of her plan. They felt certain there was more.
Fanny could not conceal her interest either.

"And what will be best of all," went on Kitty, "will be for you to ask us
to tea in the kitchen, and we will ask Jabez too, and Grace, of course"
- Grace was Emily's successor - "and we will have a really lovely time,
just as we used to have sometimes. Shall we? O Fanny, do say yes!"

"Seems to me," said Fanny, "there isn't no need. 'Tis all settled, to
my thinking." But there was a twinkle in her eye, and a flush of
excitement on her cheek, and any one who knew Fanny could see that she
was almost as pleased as the children.

"You are a Briton!" cried Dan, clapping her on the back resoundingly.

"I ain't no such thing," said Fanny, who usually thought it safest to
contradict everything they said to her. "I'm a Demshur girl, born and
bred, and my father and mother was the same before me. I ain't none of
your Britons nor Cornish pasties neither, nor nothing like 'em."

"No, you are a thoroughbred Devonshire dumpling, we know," said Dan
soothingly, "and not so bad considering, and you can make a pasty like a
native, though you aren't one, and never will be. It is a pity too, for
Jabez only likes - "

"I don't care nothing about Jabez, nor what he likes, nor what he
doesn't," cried Fanny, bending down over her oven to hide a conscious
blush which would spread over her round cheeks. "There's good and bad
of every sort, and I don't despise none. I only pities 'em if they
ain't Demshur."

"That is awfully good of you," said Dan solemnly. "We can cheer up
again after that. Fanny," more eagerly, "do tell us what you are going
to give us to eat."

But Fanny could not be coaxed into that. "I haven't said yet as I'm
going to give 'ee anything," she said sharply; but there was a twinkle
in her eye, and matters were soon settled satisfactorily. There was to
be a substantial "plate tea" in the kitchen at half-past five, which
would allow plenty of time for the laying of the cloth and other
preparations after Mrs. Pike and Anna had departed. Then they were to
have games and forfeits, and tell ghost stories, and anything else that
came into their minds to do, and a nice supper was to wind up the
evening, and by ten o'clock all signs of their feast were to be tidied
away, and the children were to go as quietly to bed as though Aunt Pike
stood at their doors.



CHAPTER XIII.


AN EXCITING NIGHT.

Had Aunt Pike had even the faintest suspicion of what was to happen
during her absence he would have given up her party then and there and
have remained at home, even though Anna was to receive a prize and to
recite.

But, fortunately for her peace of mind, she suspected nothing, and they
both went off quite cheerful and excited through the cold and mist of
the December evening to the scene of the triumph of Anna's genius -
Anna with her head enveloped in shawls, her feet in goloshes, her muslin
skirts covered with a mackintosh and a fur-lined cloak.

When it came to the moment of departure she felt so sorry for those left
behind that she could not help expressing it. "I wish you could have
come too, and had some of the fun," she said excitedly.

"Do you?" said Betty bluntly. "Well, I don't. So you needn't feel
unhappy about it. We would rather have 'bread and scrape,' or nothing
at all, at home. We shall enjoy ourselves, you may be quite sure.
Don't worry about us," which was wickedness on Betty's part, for she
knew that Anna always suspected that they enjoyed themselves more
without her, and resented it.

And there was no denying that Anna's suspicions were correct.
Before she and her proud mamma had reached the gates of Hillside, Kitty
and Betty had stripped off the detested stockings, and were arraying
themselves in their last summer's muslin frocks, intending to be quite
as partified as Anna; and Kitty tied her hair with a red ribbon, and
Betty's with a blue one to match her turquoise locket, and down they
went to the feast.

Jabez had not yet arrived, but he was momentarily expected. Dan was
already there in his new "Eton's," with a sprig of mistletoe in his
button-hole. Tony was in his best white sailor suit, and Fanny and
Grace had holly in their caps, and wore their Jubilee medals. The table
was loaded with cakes and pasties, and "splits" with cream and jam on
them; and then, just as they were getting tired of waiting, Jabez
arrived. He was in his best suit, and was very shy, very embarrassed,
yet very pleased at having been invited.

"Simmeth like old times, don't it!" he gasped, seating himself on the
extreme edge of the hard chair nearest the door, a chair and a position
no one ever dreamed of occupying at any ordinary time.

To Kitty, who always felt shy if others were, it was as little like old
times as could be, for every one seemed borne down with an unnatural
politeness and quiet, and of them all Jabez suffered most. He had never
been asked to a party before, not a full-dress party, and he found it
embarrassing. But Dan came to the rescue, and with his jokes and his
laughs and his funny stories soon made them all feel more at ease, so
that by the time the first cups of tea were drunk, and the dish of
"splits" emptied, the ice had been melted and all was going well.

"Jabez," said Dan, turning to him with a very solemn face, "it is you we
have to thank for this feast."

Jabez stared, bewildered. "I don't take your meaning, sir," he answered
in a puzzled voice. "Tedn't nothing to do with me. I am the invited
guest, I am, and proud so to be. I only wishes I'd a-got a bit of a
place fitty for to ask 'ee and the young leddies to come to, sir."

"Never mind, Jabez; we can wait. Perhaps you'll have one soon," said
Dan consolingly, and he glanced knowingly round the table, letting his
eye rest for a moment longer on Fanny than any one else. "By another
Christmas we may - dear me, I think this room must be very hot," he
remarked, breaking off abruptly to look at Fanny's rosy cheeks. But
Fanny rather tartly told him to "go on with his tea and never mind
nothing 'bout hot rooms, nor anything else that didn't concern him," and
quite unabashed he turned to Jabez again.

"You see," he explained, "if you hadn't gone to father that day I shied
the wood at you, we shouldn't have had Aunt Pike here, and Fanny
wouldn't have asked us out here to tea because Aunt Pike was out,
because, you see, she wouldn't be here to go out, and we couldn't be
glad about her going, for we shouldn't know anything about it to be glad
about, and so there wouldn't be anything special to ask us here for, and
so - "

"Master Dan," cried Jabez piteously, "if you don't stop to once, the
little bit of brain I've got'll be addled! Iss, my word, addled beyond
recovery, and me a poor man with my living to get."

"It do put me in mind of my old granny," said Grace, laughing, "when
poor grandfather died, and she was getting her bit of mourning. 'Well,'
she saith, 'if my poor dear Samuel had died a week sooner or later, and
Miss Peek had put her clearance sale back or fore a week, I should have
missed that there remlet of merino and lost a good bargain, whereas now
it'll always be a pleasure to me to look at and feel I saved two
shillings on it.'"

"Now, Fanny," cried Dan, "a story from you, please."

Fanny demurred a little, of course. People never like to be told to
tell stories. They prefer to drift naturally into them, without a lot
of people waiting expectantly for what they are going to say.

But Fanny had such stores of tales of ghosts, fairies, witches, and
other thrilling subjects, that she never failed to fascinate her
listeners. She did so now, when once she had begun, until they were all
almost afraid to look round the dim kitchen, and Jabez wished, though he
would not have owned it, that he had not got that walk home in the dark.

Then they burnt nuts, and melted lead in an iron spoon and poured it
into tumblers of cold water, and Fanny's took the shape of the masts and
rigging of a ship, though Jabez declared it wasn't nothing of the sort,
but was more like clothes-postens with the lines stretched to them, yes,
and the very clothes themselves hanging to them. All but Jabez, though,
preferred to think it a ship; it was more exciting. Grace's lead formed
tents of all sizes, and Grace seemed quite pleased.

Of Kitty's they could make nothing at all.

"That looks to me like a rolling-pin lying at the bottom," cried Dan
excitedly, "and a beautiful palace, almost like a fairy palace, and - but
I don't know what all those little pieces can be meant for. I think it
must mean that you are going to be a cook in a large house - a palace,
perhaps."

"I fink those are fairies," chimed in Tony thoughtfully, "and that's a
fairy palace, and - and - "

"And the rolling-pin is me in the midst of it all," cried Kitty,
throwing her arm round her little brother. "Tony, you are a dear; you
always say something nice."

"I shouldn't think it very nice to be called a rolling-pin," said Betty.
"But do tell me what mine is, Kitty!"

"I really can't," said Kitty, after they had each gazed at it solemnly.
"I can't tell whether it is meant for a ship, or an iceberg, or a tent.
Perhaps it is all three, and means that you are going to travel,
Bettikins."

"Oh yes," said Betty, "I shouldn't be surprised. I mean to travel when
I am grown up, and I always feel that I shall do something some day."

"I feel I shall do something to-night if I don't get something to eat
soon," interrupted Dan, in a tone intended to touch Fanny's heart.
"It is half-past eight, and tea has been over for more than two hours."

"Well," said Jabez, as the tumblers and the mysterious lead figures were
whisked away, "'tis just as well nobody couldn't attempt to tell what
mine was, for I wouldn't 'ave 'urt anybody's ingenooity with trying to.
If 'twasn't a blacksmith's shop, 'twas a vegetable stall; and if
'twasn't that, 'twasn't nothing; and things when they'm like that is
best left alone, it's my belief."

"P'r'aps it was the table with supper laid on it," suggested Kitty.

"P'r'aps 'twas, Miss Kitty; but I'm sorry for us all if 'twas, for the
dishes, if dishes they was, was empty, and that wouldn't suit us at the
present minute."

But it exactly depicted the state of the dishes half an hour later, for,
as Fanny said when they wanted the kitchen cleared for games, "there
wasn't nothing to clear but empty things."

By that time all stiffness had worn away, every one was in the highest
spirits, and the games went on furiously, so furiously that the striking
of the hall clock and the town clock were overlooked, and the first
thing that recalled them to themselves was a loud ringing of the
front-door bell.

For one second they stood looking at each other in utter dismay, then - "
The back stairs," whispered Dan. "Fly, children, scoot, and hop into
bed as you are. - Jabez - "

But Jabez had already vanished through the back door and had shut
himself in Prue's stable. Up the back stairs the children scuttled,
shoes in hand, and melted away into their various rooms without a sound.
Kitty stayed a moment with Tony to help him into bed, and as she crept
out of his room the sound of voices in the hall reached her.

"Grace needn't have hurried so to let them in," she thought. "She could
at least have pretended she was asleep and didn't hear the knock, and so
have given us a few minutes more." But Grace's promptness was such that
Kitty had barely time to draw her nightgown on over her frock and creep
into her bed before she heard her aunt's footsteps on the stairs.

Mrs. Pike went first to Tony's room, and Kitty, leaning up, listened in
a perfect tremor of nervousness for what might follow. Tony was no good
at pretending, but, as good luck would have it, there was no need of
make-believe on his part, for he had been so tired he had fallen fast
asleep as soon as he had cuddled down under the bedclothes, and Mrs.
Pike, after just a glance, came away quite satisfied. Then Kitty heard
her approaching their room.

"Oh!" she thought with dismay, "she is bringing Anna with her;" for
Mrs. Pike was talking to some one in a low voice. "What bad luck; Anna
sees through everything. I wonder if Betty hears too. If she doesn't
she is sure to jump. Betty! Betty!" she called, as loud as she dared,


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