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It never occurred to her as she got up and hurried after her father to
his room that the trouble might be of her causing. When she reached the
study she found Dr. Trenire standing by the table holding a letter which
he was reading. He looked up from it when she entered, and in answer to
the alarmed questioning in her eyes, he, after hesitating a moment, put
the letter into her hand. "Read that," he said sternly, "and tell me
what it means."

Kitty took the letter, but she was so bewildered and troubled by her
father's manner, and the mystery, and her own dread, that she gazed at
it for seconds, unable to take in a word that it contained.

"Well?"

"I - I haven't read it yet, father," she stammered. "Do tell me; is it -
is it anything about Dan?"

Dr. Trenire looked at her very searchingly. "This is not the time for
trifling, Kitty," he said. "The letter is about you, I am sorry to say.
I am so shocked, so grieved, and astonished at what it tells me, that
I - I cannot make myself believe it unless you tell me that I must.
Read it."

Kitty read it this time - read it with the blood rushing over her face
and neck, her eyes smarting, her cheeks tingling; and as she more and
more clearly grasped the meaning, her heart beat hot and fast with
indignation.

When she looked up, her hurt, shamed eyes struck reproach to Dr.
Trenire's heart. "Father, you didn't - you didn't think that I - I - that
what that letter says is true?" The feeling that he had, if only for a
moment, done so hurt her far more than did the letter, which was from
Miss Richards.

"It had been discovered," wrote Miss Richards, evidently in a great
state of wrath and indignation, "that one of the boarders had been in
the habit of writing to and receiving surreptitious letters from a
person with whom she had been forbidden to correspond. This she could
only have accomplished with the aid of some one outside the school.
On that very evening a letter had been intercepted, and the messenger
almost caught; but though she had escaped she had been partially
recognized by the governess, who had fortunately discovered these
shocking and flagrantly daring misdoings, and the governess had no doubt
in her mind that the culprit was Dr. Trenire's elder daughter."
Miss Richards was deeply grieved to have to write such unpleasant
tidings to him, but she begged he would make strict inquiries into the
matter at once. In the meantime Miss Lettice Kitson, who was forbidden
to leave her room, refused to make any communication on the matter.

"How dare she!" cried Kitty. "How dare she accuse me of doing such a
thing! I hardly ever speak to Lettice. We are not at all friendly, and
Miss Richards knows it. I have never liked her, and - and," she broke
off hotly - "as if, even if I did like her, I would behave so.
Father, you know I wouldn't; don't you?" she entreated passionately.

"Have you any idea who the real culprit is?" asked her father, greatly
troubled. In his heart he implicitly believed her, but he had to
inquire into the matter without prejudice. "If you have a suspicion, do
give me the clue, that you may be cleared. Of course it wouldn't be
Betty - "

"Oh no, of course not," cried Kitty emphatically. "She has been in the
playroom with me all the evening; besides, Betty wouldn't behave so.
Why, only the other day she was fearfully disgusted with - "

Kitty stopped abruptly, a flood of colour pouring over her face as a
sudden suspicion rushed over her mind with overwhelming force.

Dr. Trenire was watching her closely. "You have some suspicion?"

Kitty opened her lips, then closed them. "I - I have nothing I can say,
father," she said at last in a muffled tone.

"But you must clear yourself, Kitty," he said gravely.

"Lettice Kitson can clear me," she replied. "She knows, and of course
she will tell Miss Richards when she hears that they are accusing me.
You believe me; don't you, father?" she asked again, looking up at him
pleadingly.

"Certainly, Kitty," he said heartily, unable to withstand the appeal in
her gray eyes. "I would not believe you capable of such dishonourable
conduct unless you yourself told me you were guilty."

In the joy and relief of her heart Kitty forgot all about any suspicions
others might entertain, until Dr. Trenire mentioned Mrs. Pike. At the
mention of that name her heart sank down and down. "O father," she
cried, "Aunt Pike need not know anything about it, need she?"

"Of course she need, dear. Why should she not? You have nothing to
fear from her knowing it. When you deny the guilt there will be an
inquiry into the matter, of course, so that it must come to the
knowledge of, at any rate, the elder girls and the parents, and Anna
will be amongst the elder ones, I suppose. At any rate she is as tall
as you are, and in your class."

"As tall as you are." The words struck Kitty with a new suggestiveness.
She remembered suddenly that Anna had not been with them all the
evening; that she had left the schoolroom soon after they had begun
their work, and had not returned.

"Oh, where was she? What had she been doing? Where had she been?"
Kitty was in a fever of alarm, and could barely conceal her dismay.

"Well," said Dr. Trenire, "that will do, dear. I shall write to Miss
Richards at once, and tell her that you absolutely deny any knowledge of
or part in the matter, and that you have given me your word that you
have not left the house since you returned from school at four-thirty.
That should settle the matter as far as you are concerned."

"Yes," said poor trusting Kitty, "that must set it all right for me, of
course." It did not occur to her then that any one could refuse to
accept her word; and with no further fears for herself, she hurried away
in search of Anna.

First she went to her bedroom, but a glance showed her that no one was
there; and as it never occurred to Kitty to look under the bed, she did
not see a pair of shoes covered with wet mud, and a splashed skirt and
cloak. All, to her, looked neat and orderly, and with puzzled sigh she
went thoughtfully down to the schoolroom again. If Anna had not been in
her bedroom all the evening, where had she been? she thought anxiously.
And when, a second later, she opened the schoolroom door and saw Anna
sitting at the table facing her, her books spread out before her, her
head bent low over them, she really wondered for the moment whether she
was mad or dreaming. Betty was in her big chair, just as she had left
her, her book in her hand, but she was glancing beyond it at Anna more
than at the pages, and her face was full of grave perplexity.

"Anna has such a cough," she said, when Kitty appeared, "and she can't
breathe, and her face is so red. I'm sure she has got a bad cold."

Anna was certainly very flushed, and she held her handkerchief up to her
face a good deal.

"Have you a cold?" asked Kitty. She could not control her feelings
sufficiently to speak quite naturally, and her voice sounded
unsympathetic. She was vexed, and puzzled, and full of fears as to what
might be to come. She could not help feeling in her heart a strong
distrust of Anna, yet she felt sorry for her, and dreaded what might be
in store for her.

"No - at least I don't think so. Perhaps I have, though. I don't feel
well," she stammered. She spoke confusedly, and did not look at Kitty.

"I should think you had better go to bed and have some hot milk," said
Betty in her serious, old-fashioned way.

"Oh no. I am all right, thank you," said Anna, shrinking from the
thought of her mother's visits to her room, and her searching inquiries
as to how she could possibly have got a cold. "Do be quiet, Betty, and
let me do my work. You know it is nearly bedtime."

"Well, you haven't seemed in a hurry till now," said Betty sharply.
"You haven't been learning your lessons in your room, because I saw your
bag and your books on your bed just now, and you hadn't touched them
then."

"I do wish people wouldn't always be prying after me," said Anna
angrily, and this time it was Kitty who looked guilty.

Supper was a very silent meal that night, and soon after it the three
went to bed, scarcely another word having been spoken.

Kitty and Betty had been in bed an hour perhaps, and Betty was fast
asleep, when Kitty, restless and sleepless with the new trouble she had
on her mind, was surprised by the gentle opening of the door of the
room. Half alarmed, she rose up in bed, peering anxiously through the
gloom. Then - "O Anna!" she cried, "what is the matter? Are you ill?"

"No - o, I don't think I am, but I - I am sure I shall be. O Kitty, I am
in _such_ trouble. I _must_ tell some one."

"I think I know what it is," said Kitty gently.

"Oh no, you don't," groaned Anna. "You can't. It is worse than copying
my sums, or - or cribbing, or anything."

"I know," said Kitty again.

But Anna did not hear her. She was looking at Betty. "Come to my room,
do!" she said. "Betty may wake up, and I don't want her to hear."

"Very well," said Kitty, slipping out of bed and into her dressing-gown.
"I expect, though, she will have to know. It is bound to reach all the
girls. I only wish it wasn't."

Anna, creeping back to her room, did not answer till she got there.
Then she turned round sharply. "What do you mean? Know what?" she
demanded.

Kitty looked surprised. "Why, about Lettice and - and you, and those
letters, of course."

Anna dropped on to a chair, her face chalk-white, her eyes starting.
"Lettice and - and - and me - and - who told - what do you mean? I don't
understand."

"Anna, don't!" cried Kitty, ashamed and distressed. "Don't try to
pretend. There is no mistake, and every one must know soon about
Lettice. Whoever it was who nearly caught you made a mistake, for she
thought it was me, and Miss Richards wrote to father accusing me, but,
of course - "

"Accusing you!" cried Anna in astonishment. But her voice had changed.
It was less full of terror than it had been. For a moment after Kitty
ceased speaking she sat lost in thought.

"Of course father does not believe it, and he has written to tell Miss
Richards so, and that I was at home all the evening, so there would have
to be an inquiry of course, to try and find out which of the other girls
it was, and everybody would have to know all about it; but now, when you
tell Miss Richards that it was you, it needn't go any farther.
Of course there will be a row, and probably you and Lettice will be
punished, but no one else need ever hear anything more about it."

"Oh, but I couldn't!" cried Anna. She was so intensely relieved to find
that, as yet, she was not suspected, that much of her courage and
boldness came back. "And, of course, I shouldn't, unless they asked me,
and - and for mother's sake it would be very foolish to - to get myself
into a scrape when I needn't."

"But - but, Anna" - Anna's speech left Kitty almost voiceless - "it is - it
is so dishonourable, so dishonest, so - "

"No, it isn't," snapped Anna crossly. She bitterly regretted now that
she had taken Kitty into her confidence. She had done it in a moment of
panic when she felt that detection was certain, and she must get help
from somewhere. As soon as she knew that she was not suspected her
courage and hopes had rallied. "You need not mind; you will be cleared;
and they can't find and punish any one else, for there is no one else to
find, so it can't do any one any harm."

"There is Lettice," said Kitty coldly. "You know you can't trust her,
and if she tells, things will look ever so much worse for you than - "

"I don't think Lettice will tell," interrupted Anna meaningly.
"She knows that if she tells tales I can tell some too."

"You count on other people having some honour, though you have none
yourself," said Kitty scathingly, and she turned away, choking with
disgust. Anna made her feel positively ill. When she got to the door
she stood and looked back. Her face was very white and stern, her eyes
full of a burning contempt. "I do think, Anna," she said slowly and
scornfully, "that you are the meanest, most dishonourable girl I ever
heard of in all my life. You are going to leave all the girls in the
school under suspicion because you haven't the honesty or courage to own
up."

"It isn't anything to do with honesty," muttered Anna, very white and
angry and sullen. "You have no right to say such things, Kitty. If you
didn't do it, it can't do you any harm; and if no one suspects me, it
isn't likely that I shall make them. I shan't be telling a story.
I simply shan't say anything."

"I see no difference between telling a lie and acting one," flashed
Kitty, and she walked back to her own room without another word.
She had not been there long, though, before Anna came creeping in again.

"Kitty," she said anxiously, "you won't tell any one, will you, even if
you are mad with me? You know I never _said_ I - I - you accused me, but
I didn't say - "

"I am not a sneak," said Kitty coldly. "Now go away. Go out of my
room. I don't like to see you near Betty. Go away, do you hear!" and
Anna vanished again into the darkness.

Though strong and secure in her own innocence, Kitty awoke in the
morning with the feeling weighing heavily on her that though the matter
would soon be ended, yet something very painful had to be faced first.
Kitty, though, was counting too much on her own guiltlessness, and the
certainty of others believing in it; and she had more cause than she
imagined for waking with a weight on her mind.

When the dreaded inquiry took place, and all the senior girls were
called into the "study" to undergo a rigorous cross-examination, she
soon found that Miss Richards was very far from accepting her
unsupported denial as conclusive.

"Yes, but who can bear out your statement that you did not leave the
room or the house throughout the evening?" she asked sternly.

"Betty can," said Kitty. "Betty was in the room with me all the time."

"Ah! Betty! But she is very young, and very attached to you, and would
of course be prejudiced."

Kitty's cheeks flamed with indignation, and she had to set her teeth to
keep herself from answering.

"Have you no older - more responsible witnesses?"

"No one could be more honest and truthful than Betty," said Kitty
proudly. "She wouldn't dream of saying I was there if I wasn't."

"But your father, or your aunt - "

"They were both out," said Kitty. "Anna saw me go to the schoolroom,
and saw me begin my lessons, and I never moved until father came to me."

So Anna was called.

"Can you support your cousin's statement that she was in the schoolroom
all the evening, and never once left it?"

Anna was about to say "yes," when she hesitated, and grew very red and
confused. "I - I couldn't say," she stammered, and those listening
thought she was embarrassed by her desire to shield Kitty, and at the
same time tell the truth. Kitty looked at her with wide, horrified
eyes. Surely Anna would say why she could not give the required
assurance. But only too soon the conviction was borne in on her that
Anna did not mean to tell, and Anna was an adept at saying nothing, yet
conveying a stronger impression than if she had said much.
Those looking on read in Kitty's horrified eyes only a fear of what Anna
might admit, and opinion was strengthened against her.

"Speak out frankly, Anna," said Miss Richards encouragingly. "Did you
notice her absence?"

"She - a - Kitty wasn't there once when I went back to the room," murmured
Anna, apparently with great reluctance.

Kitty's head reeled. She could not believe that she had heard aright.
Anna was not only concealing her own guilt, but was actually fastening
it on to her. "I think I must be going mad, or going to faint," she
thought to herself. "I can't take in what they are saying."
"But, Anna," she cried, in her extremity forgetting judge and jury,
"you know father had come to me with Miss Richards's letter. I was with
him when you came in."

"No," said Anna, with a look of injured innocence, "I didn't know.
You didn't tell me. Of course I - I knew you were somewhere," she
stammered lamely. "I don't say you were out of the house, only - well I
couldn't say you were in the room if you weren't, could I?" with a
glance at Miss Richards for approbation, and a half-glance at Kitty,
whose gray eyes were full of a scorn that was not pleasant to meet.

Kitty could not speak for a moment, her indignation and disgust were too
intense. She felt herself degraded by stooping to ask for evidence as
to her own innocence.

Miss Melinda whispered to Miss Richards. Miss Richards looked at Kitty
and bade her turn round. Kitty, wondering, obeyed.

"How do you account for the fact that your dress is splashed to the
waist with mud?" Miss Richards asked frigidly. "Yesterday was quite
fine until after you had all gone home from school, then heavy rain
fell."

Poor Kitty. Here was Nemesis indeed! Two days ago that skirt had been
put aside to be brushed, and now, to-day, without giving a thought to
the mud on it, she had put it on and worn it. With crimsoning cheeks
she wheeled around. "That mud has been there for days, Miss Richards,"
she said shamefacedly. "I ought to have brushed it yesterday, but I
didn't, and to-day I forgot it." But she saw and felt that no one
believed her, and Betty, the only one who could have borne out her
words, was not there.

"You can all go back to your classes - all but Katherine Trenire," said
Miss Richards, ignoring her speech; and the girls, with looks of
sympathy or alarm, filed out, leaving Kitty alone.

"Now, Katherine," said Miss Richards firmly, "be a sensible, honest girl
and tell the truth, and my sister and I will consult together as to the
punishment we feel we must inflict. We do not wish to be too severe,
but such conduct must be punished. Now, tell us the truth."

"I have told the truth," said Kitty proudly, "and I have no more to
tell. Lettice can clear me if she likes, so can - the girl who was with
her, but I can't do any more. If you won't believe me, what can I do?"
and suddenly poor Kitty's proud eyes filled with tears.

Miss Melinda took this as a sign of relenting. She thought confession
was coming, and unbent encouragingly. "There, there, that is better,
Katherine. Now be advised by us, and get this dreadful load off your
mind. You will be so much happier when you have."

Kitty drove back her tears and her weakness, and her gray eyes grew
clear enough to show plainly the hurt and the anger which burnt in her
brain as she listened to this insulting cajoling, as she termed it in
her own mind.

"How dare you!" she cried indignantly. "How dare you fasten it on to
me! I know who the girl was, and she knows that I know, but you _want_
to believe that I did it, and - and you can if you want to. You are both
very wicked and unjust, and - and I will never set foot in your house
again!" And Kitty, beside herself with indignation, her head very
erect, her face white, her eyes blazing, marched out of the room and out
of the house, and not even her mud splashes could take from the dignity
of her exit.



CHAPTER XII.


THOSE DREADFUL STOCKINGS.

Dr. Trenire was extremely annoyed and very indignant when he heard of
the inquiry and the result - so indignant that Kitty's words came true,
and she never did set foot within the doors of Hillside again, for her
father removed her, and Betty too, from the school at once. Of course
Betty could not continue there after all that had happened.

He did not tell the girls what he thought about the matter, but he told
Miss Richards plainly that he considered the inquiry was a prejudiced
one, and that an injustice had been done. They had made up their minds
that Kitty was guilty, and had not made sufficient inquiries as regarded
the other pupils.

Miss Richards was, of course, indignant and greatly upset, and Aunt Pike
was in a great dilemma. She scarcely liked to keep Anna at the school
after her cousins were withdrawn from it, yet she was very loth to
deprive her of the companionship of such desirable friends as she
considered she was thrown amongst there. Also, in her heart of hearts,
Aunt Pike did not feel at all sure that Kitty was innocent.

"They are such extraordinary children," she said to herself, "I would
not be surprised at anything they did - not from bad motives, perhaps,
but from sheer ignorance of the difference between right and wrong."

So Anna was to stay on at Hillside, at any rate until the term and the
term's notice should be up; and Miss Pooley came again to teach Kitty
and Betty and Tony, greatly to Tony's delight, for he had been having a
dull time, poor little man, and had not found much joy in doing lessons
with Aunt Pike.

So the rest of the term wore away, and time healed the wound to some
extent; and by-and-by the Christmas holidays drew near and the date of
Dan's return, and that was sufficient to drive unwelcome thoughts from
their minds and lighten every trouble.

"When the day comes, the real right day," said Kitty, "I shall be quite
perfectly happy - "

"Touch wood," said Betty anxiously; "you know it is unlucky to talk like
that. Fanny says so."

"Pooh! nonsense!" cried Kitty, growing daring in her excitement.
"What could be lovelier than for Dan to be coming home, and Christmas
coming, and the holidays; and oh, Betty, it does seem too good to be
true, but it _is_ true, and I am sure nothing could spoil it all."

But Kitty had not touched wood, and had reckoned without Aunt Pike; and
even when that lady came into their room with a paper parcel in her hand
they suspected no harm - in fact, they looked at the parcel with pleasure
and excitement for a moment, even after she had said, "Children, I have
got you some winter stockings, and you must put them on at once, the
weather has become so cold." They even agreed heartily, and Betty
plumped right down on the floor there and then, and bared one foot in
readiness by the time the parcel was opened.

And then the parcel was opened, and dismay and horror fell on them, for
the stockings were not only of an ugly pale gray, with white stripes
going round and round the legs, but they were woollen ones! - rough,
harsh, scratchy woollen ones! The colour was bad enough, but that was
as nothing compared with the awful fact of their being woolly; for two
children with more painfully sensitive skins than Katherine and
Elizabeth Trenire could not be found in the whole wide world, and for
them to wear anything in the shape of wool was a torture more dreaded
than any other.

Betty instinctively drew her pretty bare feet under her for protection,
and looked from Aunt Pike to Kitty with eyes full of horror. Kitty was
desperate.

"I am very sorry, Aunt Pike," she said, quite gently and nicely, but
very emphatically, "but we cannot wear woollen stockings. They drive us
nearly mad - "

"Nonsense," interrupted Aunt Pike, with the complete indifference of a
person not afflicted with a sensitive skin. "You will get over that in
an hour or two. If you don't think about it you won't notice anything.
Try them on at once. I want to see if they fit."

"It - it would really be better not to put them on," urged Kitty,
"for we really couldn't wear them if you bought them, aunt, and the
people won't take them back if they are creased."

"They will not be required to take them back," said Mrs. Pike firmly.
"I have bought you six pairs each" - Betty groaned - "Don't make that
noise, Elizabeth - and if they fit they will be kept. They are very fine
and quite soft; any one could wear them quite comfortably, and so can
you, unless, of course," severely, "you make up your minds not to."

Persons who are not afflicted with sensitive skins cannot, or will not,
be made to understand how great and real the torment is, and young
though Kitty was, she had, already learned this, and her heart sank.

"I hate light stockings too," said Betty; "they look so ugly with black
shoes."

It was an unfortunate remark to make just then.

"Ah," said Aunt Pike triumphantly, "I suspected that vanity was at the
bottom of it all! Now try on this one at once, Katherine; make haste."
She went to the door. - "Anthony," she called, "come here to Kitty's
room, I want you," and she stood over the three victims until their poor
shrinking legs were encased in the hideous, irritating gray horrors.

Oh, the anger of Kitty and the dismay of Betty! Oh, the horrible, damp,
sticky feeling that new stockings seem never to be without!


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Online LibraryMabel Quiller-CouchKitty Trenire → online text (page 9 of 18)