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"Have you been telling tales out of school?"

"Lucy and I have been explaining _the plan_ to Fred, and he won't
believe it."

Gertrude felt a little vexed at this lack of reticence on their part;
but then, she reflected, if the plan was to be carried out, it could
remain no secret, especially to the Devonshires. Assured that there
really was some truth in what he had been told, Fred relapsed into an
amazed silence, broken by an occasional chuckle, which he hastened, each
time, to subdue, considering it out of place in a house of mourning.

He had long regarded the Lorimer girls as quite the most astonishing
productions of the age, but this last freak of theirs, as he called it,
fairly took away his breath. He was a soft-hearted youth, moreover, and
the pathetic aspect of the case presented itself to him with great force
in the intervals of his amusement.

Constance had brought a note from her mother, and having delivered it,
and had tea, she rose to go. Fred remained lost in abstraction,
muttering, "By Jove!" below his breath at intervals, the chuckling
having subsided.

"Come on, Fred!" cried his sister.

He sprang to his feet.

"Are you slowly recovering from the shock we have given you?" asked
Lucy, demurely, as she held out her hand.

"Miss Lucy," he said, solemnly, looking at her with all his foolish
eyes, "I'll come every day of the week to be photographed, if I may, and
so shall all the fellows at our office!"

He was a little hurt and disconcerted, though he joined in the laugh
himself, when every one burst out laughing; even Lucy, to whom he had
addressed himself as the least puzzling and most reliable of the Miss
Lorimers.

Gertrude walked down the drive with the brother and sister, a
colourless, dusky, wind-blown figure beside their radiant smartness, and
let them out herself at the big gate. Here she lingered a moment, while
the wind lifted her hair, and fanned her face, bringing a faint tinge of
red to its paleness.

Phyllis and Lucy opened the door of the studio which led to the garden,
and stood there arm-in-arm, soothed no less than Gertrude by the chill
sweetness of the April afternoon. The sound of carriage wheels roused
them from the reverie into which both of them had fallen, and in another
moment a brougham, drawn by two horses, was seen to round the curve of
the drive and make its way to the house.

The two girls retreated rapidly, shutting the door behind them.

"Great heavens, Aunt Caroline!" said Lucy, in dismay.

"She must have passed Gertrude at the gate; Fanny, do you hear who has
come?"

"Kettle must take the tea into the drawing-room," said Fanny, in some
agitation. "You know Mrs. Pratt does not like the studio."

Phyllis was peeping through the panes of the door, which afforded a
view of the entrance of the house.

"She is getting out now; the footman has opened the carriage door, and
Kettle is on the steps. Oh, Lucy, if Aunt Caroline had been a horse,
what a hard mouth she would have had!"

In another moment a great swish of garments and the sound of a metallic
voice were heard in the drawing-room, which adjoined the conservatory;
and Kettle, appearing at the entrance which divided the two rooms,
announced lugubriously: "Mrs. Septimus Pratt!"

A tall, angular woman, heavily draped in the crispest, most aggressive
of mourning garments, was sitting upright on a sofa when the girls
entered the drawing-room. She was a handsome person of her age,
notwithstanding a slightly equine cast of countenance, and the absence
of anything worthy the adjectives graceful or _sympathique_ from her
individuality.

Mrs. Septimus Pratt belonged to that mischievous class of the community
whose will and energy are very far ahead of their intellect and
perceptions. She had a vulgar soul and a narrow mind, and unbounded
confidence in her own judgments; but she was not bad-hearted, and was
animated, at the present moment, by a sincere desire to benefit her
nieces.

"How do you do, girls?" she said, speaking in that loud, authoritative
key which many benevolent persons of her sex think right to employ when
visiting their poorer neighbours. "Yes, please, Fanny, a cup of tea and
some bread-and-butter. Cake? No, thank you. I didn't expect to find
cake!"

This last sentence, uttered with a sort of ponderous archness, as though
to take off the edge of the implied rebuke, was received in unsmiling
silence; even Fanny choking down in time a protest which rose to her
lips.

With a sinking of the heart, Lucy heard the handle of the door turn, and
saw Gertrude enter, pale, severe, and distant.

"How do you do, Gerty?" cried Aunt Caroline, "though this is not our
first meeting. How came you to be standing at the gate, without your
hat, and in that shabby gown?"

For Gertrude happened to be wearing an old black dress, having taken off
the new mourning garment before clearing out the dusty papers.

"I beg your pardon, Aunt Caroline?"

The opposition between these two women may be said to have dated from
the cradle of one of them.

"You ought to know at your age, Gertrude," went on Mrs. Pratt, "that
now, of all times, you must be careful in your conduct; and among other
things, you can none of you afford to be seen looking shabby."

Mrs. Septimus spoke, it must be owned, with considerable unction. She
really meant well by her nieces, as I have said before, but at the same
time she was very human; and that circumstances should, as she imagined,
have restored to her the right of speaking authoritatively to those
independent maidens, was a chance not to be despised. Gertrude, once
discussing her, had said that she was a person without respect, and,
indeed, a reverence for humanity, as such, could not be reckoned among
her virtues.

There was a pause after her last remark, and then, to the surprise and
consternation of every one, Fanny flung herself into the breach.

"Mrs. Pratt," she said, vehemently, "we are poor, and we are not
ashamed that any one should know it. It is nothing to be ashamed of; and
Gertrude is the last person to do anything wrong; and I believe you know
that as well as I do!"

Poor Fan's heroics broke off suddenly, as she encountered the steel-grey
eye of Mrs. Pratt fixed upon her in astonishment.

Opposition in any form always shocked her inexpressibly; she really felt
it to be a sort of sacrilege; but Frances Lorimer was such a poor
creature, that one could do nothing but pity her, trampled upon as she
was by her younger sisters.

"Fanny is right," said Gertrude, trusting herself to speak, "we are very
poor."

"Now do you know exactly how you stand?" went on Aunt Caroline, who
allowed herself all the privileges of a near relation in the matter of
questions.

"It is not known yet, exactly," answered Lucy, hastily, "but Mr.
Devonshire and our father's lawyer, and, I thought, uncle Septimus, are
going into the matter after the sale."

"So your uncle tells me. He tells me also that there will be next to
nothing for you girls. Have you made up your minds what you are going
to do? Which of you goes out to the Sebastian Lorimers? I hear they have
telegraphed for two. I should say Fanny and Phyllis had better go; the
others are better able to look after themselves."

Silence; but not in the least disconcerted, Aunt Caroline went on.

"It is a pity that none of you has married; girls don't seem to marry in
these days!" (with some complacency, the well-disciplined, well-dowered
daughters of the house of Pratt being in the habit of "going off" in due
order and season) "but India works wonders sometimes in that respect."

"Oh, let me go to India, Gerty!" cried Phyllis, in a very audible aside,
while Gertrude bent her head and bit her lip, controlling the desire to
laugh hysterically, which the naïve character of her aunt's last remark
had excited.

"Now, Gertrude and Lucy," continued the speaker, "I am empowered by your
uncle" (poor Septimus!) "to offer you a home for as long as you like.
Either as a permanency, or until you have found suitable occupations."

"_We_ are in India, Fan, that's why there is no mention of us,"
whispered naughty Phyllis.

"Aunt Caroline," broke in Gertrude, suddenly, lifting her head and
speaking with great decision. "You are very kind, and we thank you. But
we contemplate other arrangements."

"My dear Gertrude, other arrangements! And what 'arrangements,' pray, do
you 'contemplate'?"

"Fanny, Lucy, Phyllis, shall I tell Aunt Caroline?"

They all consented; Fanny, whose willingness to join them had seemed
before a doubtful matter, with the greatest promptness of them all.

"We think of going into business as photographers."

Gertrude dropped her bomb without delight. For a moment she saw herself
and her sisters as they were reflected in the mind of Mrs. Septimus
Pratt: naughty children, idle dreamers.

Aunt Caroline refused to be shocked, and Gertrude felt that her bomb had
turned into a pea from a pea-shooter.

"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Pratt. "Gertrude, I wonder that you haven't more
common sense. And before your younger sisters, too. But common sense,"
with unpleasant emphasis, "was never a family characteristic."

Lucy, who had remained silent and watchful throughout the last part of
the discussion, if discussion it could be called, now rose to her feet.

"Aunt Caroline," she said in her clear young voice; "will you excuse us
if we refuse to discuss this matter with you at present? We have decided
nothing; indeed, how could we decide? Gertrude wrote yesterday to an old
friend of our father's, who has the knowledge and experience we want;
and we are waiting now for his advice."

"I think you are a set of wilful, foolish girls," cried Mrs. Pratt,
losing her temper at last; "and heaven knows what will become of you!
You are my dead sister's children, and I have my duties towards you, or
I would wash my hands of you all from this hour. But your uncle shall
talk to you; perhaps you will listen to _him_; though there's no
saying."

She rose from her seat, with a purple flush on her habitually pale face,
and without deigning to go through the formalities of farewell, swept
from the room, followed by Lucy.

"A good riddance!" cried Fan. She too was flushed and excited, poor
soul, with defiance.

Lucy, coming back from leading her aunt to the carriage, found Gertrude
silent, pale, and trembling with rage. "How dare she!" she said below
her breath.

"She is only very silly," answered Lucy; "I confess I began to wonder if
I was an ill-conducted pauper, or a lunatic, or something of the sort,
from the tone of her voice."

"She spoke so loud," said Gertrude, pressing her hand to her head.

"I never felt so labelled and docketed in my life," cried Phyllis;
"_This is a poor person_, seemed to be written all over my clothes. Poor
Fred's chuckles and 'By Joves' were much more comfortable."

Kettle came into the room with a letter addressed to Miss G. Lorimer.

"It is from Mr. Russel," she said, examining the postmark, and broke the
seal with anxious fingers.

Mr. Russel was the friend of their father to whom she had applied for
advice the day before. He carried on a large and world-famed business
as a photographer in the north of England; to the disgust of a family
that had starved respectably on scholarship for several generations.

Gertrude's mobile face brightened as she read the letter. "Mr. Russel is
most encouraging," she said; "and very kind. He is actually coming to
London to talk it over with us, and examine our work. And he even hints
that one of us should go back with him to learn about things; but
perhaps that will not be necessary."

Every one seized on the kind letter, and the air was filled with the
praises of its writer, Fanny even going so far as to call him a darling.

Gertrude, walking up and down the room, stopped suddenly and said: "Let
us make some good resolutions!"

"Yes," cried Phyllis, with her usual frankness; "let us pave the way to
hell a little!"

"Firstly, we won't be cynical."

The motion was carried unanimously.

"Secondly, we will be happy."

This motion was carried, with even greater enthusiasm than the preceding
one.

"Thirdly," put in Phyllis, coming up behind her sister, laying her
nut-brown head on her shoulder, and speaking in tones of mock pathos:
"Thirdly, we will never, never mention that we have seen better days!"

Thus, with laughing faces, they stood up and defied the Fates.

[Illustration: Decoration]


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER III.

WAYS AND MEANS.

_O 'tis not joy and 'tis not bliss,
Only it is precisely this
That keeps us all alive._
A. H. CLOUGH.


"So you are really, really going to do it, Gerty?"

"Yes, really, Con."

It was the day before the sale, and the two girls, Gertrude Lorimer and
Constance Devonshire were walking round the garden together for the last
time. It had been a day of farewells. Only an hour ago the unfortunate
Fan had rolled off to Lancaster Gate in a brougham belonging to the
house of Pratt. Lucy was now steaming on her way to the north with Mr.
Russel; and upstairs Phyllis was packing her boxes before setting out
for Queen's Gate with Constance and her sister.

"If it hadn't been for Mr. Russel," went on Gertrude, with enthusiasm,
"the whole thing would have fallen through. Of course, all the kind,
common-sense people opposed the scheme tooth and nail; Mr. Russel told
me in confidence that he had no belief in common sense; that I was to
remember that, before trusting myself to him in any respect."

"Well, I don't think that particularly reassuring myself."

Gertrude laughed.

"At least, he has justified it in his own case. Delightful person! he
actually appeared here in the flesh, the very day after he wrote. Common
sense would never have done such a thing as that."

"You are very intolerant, Gertrude."

"Oh, I hope not! Well, Mr. Russel insisted on going straight to the
studio, and examining our apparatus and our work. He turned over
everything, remained immersed, as it were, in photographs for such a
long time, and was throughout so silent and so serious, that I grew
frightened. At last, looking up, he said brusquely: 'This is good work.'
He talked to us very seriously after that. Pointed out to us the
inevitable risks, the chances of failure which would attend such an
undertaking as ours; but wound up by saying that it was by no means a
preposterous one, and that for his part, his motto through life had
always been, 'nothing venture, nothing have.'"

"Evidently a person after your own heart, Gerty."

"He added, that our best plan would be, if possible, to buy the
good-will of some small business; but, as we could not afford to wait,
and as our apparatus was very good as far as it went, we must not be
discouraged if no opportunity of doing so presented itself, but had
better start in business on our own account. Moreover, he says, if the
worst comes to the worst, we should always be able to get employment as
assistant photographers."

"But, Gerty, why not do that at first? You would be so much more likely
to succeed in business afterwards," said Conny, for her part no opponent
of common sense; and who, despite much superficial frivolity, was at
heart a shrewd, far-seeing daughter of the City.

"If I said that one was life and the other death," answered Gertrude,
with her charming smile, "you would perhaps consider the remark unworthy
a woman of business. And yet I am not sure that it does not state my
case as well as any other. We want a home and an occupation, Conny; a
real, living occupation. Think of little Phyllis, for instance, trudging
by herself to some great shop in all weathers and seasons!"

"Little Phyllis! She is bigger than any of you, and quite able to take
care of herself."

"I wish - it sounds unsisterly - that she were not so very good-looking."

"It's a good thing there's no person of the other sex to hear you,
Gerty. You would be made a text for a sermon at once."

"'Felines and Feminines,' or something of the sort? But here is Phyllis
herself."

Cool, careless, and debonair, the youngest Miss Lorimer advanced towards
them; the April sunshine reflected in her eyes; the tints of the
blossoms outrivalled in her cheeks.

"My dear Gertrude," she said, patronisingly, "do you know that it is
twelve o'clock, that my boxes are packed and locked, and that not a rag
of your own is put away?"

Gertrude explained that she did not intend leaving the house till the
afternoon, but that the other two were to go on at once to Queen's Gate,
and not keep Mrs. Devonshire waiting for lunch. This, after some
protest, they consented to do; and in in a few moments Gertrude Lorimer
was standing alone in the familiar garden, from which she was soon to be
shut out for ever.

Pacing slowly up and down the oft-trodden path, she strove to collect
her thoughts; to review, at leisure, the events of the last few days.
Her avowed contempt of the popular idol Common Sense notwithstanding,
her mind teemed with practical details, with importunate questionings as
to ways and means.

These matters seemed more perplexing without the calm and soothing
influence of Lucy's presence; for Lucy had been borne off by the
benevolent and eccentric Mr. Russel for a three-months' apprenticeship
in his own flourishing establishment.

"I will see that your sister learns something of the management of a
business, besides improving herself in those technical points which we
have already discussed," had been his parting assurance. "While, as for
you, Miss Lorimer, I depend on you to look round, and be on a fair way
to settling down by the time the three months are up. Perhaps, one of
these days, we shall prevail on you to pay us a visit yourself."

It had been decided that for the immediate present Gertrude and Phyllis
should avail themselves of the Devonshires' invitation; while Fan, borne
down by the force of a superior will, had been prevailed upon to seek a
temporary refuge at the house of Mrs. Septimus Pratt.

Poor Aunt Caroline had been really shocked and pained by the firm,
though polite, refusal of her nieces to accept her hospitality. Their
differences of opinion notwithstanding, she could see no adequate cause
for it. If her skin was thick, her heart was not of stone; and it
chagrined her to think that her dead sister's children should, at such a
time, prefer the house of strangers to her own.

But the young people were obdurate; and she had had at last to content
herself with Fan, who was a poor creature, and only a spurious sort of
relation after all.

Reviewing one by one all those facts which bore upon her present case;
setting in order her thoughts; and gathering up her energies for the
fight to come; Gertrude felt her pulses throb, and her bosom glow with
resolve.

Of the darker possibilities of human nature and of life, this girl - who
believed herself old, and experienced - had no knowledge, save such as
had come to her in brief flashes of insight, in passing glimpses
scarcely realised or remembered. Even had circumstances given her
leisure, she was not a woman to have brooded over the one personal
injury which had been dealt her; her pride was too deep and too delicate
for this; rather she recoiled from the thought of it, as from an unclean
contact.

If the arching forehead and mobile face bespoke imagination and keen
sensibilities, the square jaw and resolute mouth gave token, no less, of
strength and self-control.


"And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,"


said Gertrude to herself, half-unconsciously. Then something within her
laughed in scornful protest. Sorrow? on this spring day, with the young
life coursing in her veins, with all the world before her, an
undiscovered country of purple mists and boundless possibilities.

There were hints of a vague delight in the sweet, keen air; whisperings,
promises, that had nothing to do with pyrogallic acid and acetate of
soda; with the processes of developing, fixing, or intensifying.

A great laburnum tree stood at one end of the lawn, half-flowered and
faintly golden; a blossoming almond neighboured it, and beyond, rose a
gnarled old apple tree, pink with buds. Birds were piping and calling to
one another from all the branches; the leaves of the trees, the lawn,
the shrubs, and bushes, wore the vivid and delicate verdure of early
spring; life throbbed, and pulsed, and thrust itself forth in every
available spot.

Gertrude, as we know, was by way of being a poet. She had a rebellious
heart that cried out, sometimes very inopportunely, for happiness.

And now, as she drank in the wonders of that April morning, she found
herself suddenly assailed and overwhelmed by a nameless rapture, an
extreme longing, half-hopeful, half-despairing.

Sorrow, labour; what had she to do with these?


"I love all things that thou lovest
Spirit of delight!"


cried the voices within her, with one accord.

"Please, Miss," said Kettle, suddenly appearing, and scattering the
thronging visions rather rudely; "the people have come from the
Pantechnicon about those cameras, and the other things you said was to
go."

"Yes, yes," answered Gertrude, rubbing her eyes and wrinkling her
brows - curious, characteristic brows they were; straight and thick, and
converging slightly upwards - "everything that is to go is ready packed
in the studio."

They had decided on retaining a little furniture, besides the
photographic apparatus and studio fittings, for the establishment of the
new home, wherever and whatever it should be.

"Very well, Miss Gertrude. And shall I bring you up a little luncheon?"

"No, thank you, Kettle. And I must say good-bye, and thank you for all
your kindness to us."

"God bless you, Miss Gertrude, every one of you! I have made so bold as
to give my address-card to Miss Phyllis; and if there's anything in
which I can ever be of service, don't you think twice about it, but
write off at once to Jonah Kettle."

Overcome by his own eloquence, and without waiting for a reply, the old
man shuffled off down the path, leaving Gertrude strangely touched by
this unexpected demonstration.

"We resolved not to be cynical," she thought. "Cynical! What is the
meaning of the current commonplaces as to loss of friends with loss of
fortune? How did they arise? What perverseness of vision could have led
to the creation of such a person as Timon of Athens, for instance? If
misery parts the flux of company, surely it is the miserable people's
own fault."

Balancing the mass of friends in need against one who was only a
fair-weather friend, Gertrude refused to allow her faith in humanity to
be shaken.

Ah, Gertrude, but it is early days!

[Illustration: Decoration]


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER IV.

NUMBER TWENTY B.

_Bravant le monde et les sots et les sages,
Sans avenir, riche de mon printemps,
L'este et joyeux je montais six étages,
Dans un grenier qu'on est bien a vingt ans!_
BERANGER.


The Lorimers' tenacity of purpose, backed by Mr. Russel's support and
countenance, at last succeeded in procuring them a respectful hearing
from the few friends and relatives who had a right to be interested in
their affairs.

Aunt Caroline, shifting her ground, ceased to talk of the scheme as
beneath contempt, but denounced it as dangerous and unwomanly.

She spoke freely of loss of caste; damage to prospects - vague and
delicate possession of the female sex - and of the complicated evils
which must necessarily arise from an undertaking so completely devoid of
chaperons.

Uncle Septimus said little, but managed to convey to his nieces quiet
marks of support and sympathy; while the Devonshires, after much
preliminary opposition, had ended by throwing themselves, like the
excellent people they were, heart and soul into the scheme.

To Constance, indeed, the change in her friends' affairs may be said to
have come, like the Waverley pen, as a boon and a blessing. She was the
somebody to whom their ill wind, though she knew it not, was blowing
good.

Like many girls of her class, she had good faculties, abundant vitality,
and no interests but frivolous ones. And with the wealthy
middle-classes, even the social business is apt to be less
unintermittent, less absorbing, than with the better born seekers after
pleasure.

Her friendship with the Lorimers, with Gertrude especially, may be said
to have represented the one serious element in Constance Devonshire's


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