"However could you do it?
Some day, no doubt, you'll rue it!"
Meg's troubles were not quite over, however, even yet. When she got into the house Nellie met her in the hall and stared at her.
"Where have you been?" she said, a slow wonder in her round eyes. "I've been hunting and hunting for you."
"What for?" said Meg shortly.
"Oh, Dr. Gormeston and Mrs. Gormeston and two Miss Gormestons are in the drawing-room, and I think they'll stay for ever and ever."
"Well?" said Meg.
"And the General is ill again, and Esther says she won't leave him for a second, not if Gog and Magog were down there dying to see her."
"Well?" said Meg again.
"And Father is as mad as he can be, and is having to keep them all amused himself. He's sung 'My sweetheart when a boy' and 'Mona,' and he's told them all about his horses, and now I s'pose he doesn't know what to do."
"Well, I can't help it," Meg said wearily, and as if the subject had no interest for her.
"But you'll just have to!" Nell cried sharply, "I've done my best: he sent out and said we were to go in, and you weren't anywhere, so there was only Baby and me."
"And what did you do?" Meg asked, curious in spite of herself.
"Oh, Baby talked to Miss Gormeston, and they asked me to play," she returned, "so I played the 'Keel Row.' Only I forgot till I had finished that it was in two sharps," she added sadly. "And then Baby told Mrs. Gormeston all about Judy leaving the General at the Barracks, and being sent to boarding school for it, and about the green frog Bunty gave her, and, then Father said we'd better go to bed, and asked why ever you didn't come in."
"I'll go, I'll go," Meg said hastily, "he'll be fearfully cross to-morrow about it. Oh! and, Nell, go and tell Martha to send in the wine and biscuits and things in half an hour."
She flung off her cloud, smoothed her ruffled hair, and peeped in the hall-stand glass to see if the night wind had taken away the traces of her recent tears. Then she went into the drawing-roam, where her father was looking quite heated and unhappy over his efforts to entertain four guests who were of the class popularly known as "heavy in hand:"
"Play something, Meg," he said presently, when greetings were finished, and a silence seemed settling down over them all again; "or sing something that will be better—haven't you anything you can sing?"
Now Meg on ordinary occasions had a pleasant, fresh little voice of her own, that could be listened to with a certain amount of pleasure, but this evening she was tired and excited and unhappy. She sang "Within a mile of Edinboro' town," and was exceedingly flat all through.
She knew her father was sitting on edge all the time, and that her mistakes were grating on him, and at the end of the song, rather than turn round immediately and face them all, she began to play Kowalski's March Hongroise. But the keys seemed to be rising up and hitting her hands, and the piano was growing unsteady, and rocking to and fro in an alarming manner; she made a horrible jangle as she clutched at the music-holder for safety, and the next minute swayed from the stool and fell in a dead, faint right into Dr. Gormeston's arms, providentially extended just in time.
The heavy, heated atmosphere had proved too much for her, in her unhinged state of mind. Captain Woolcot was extraordinarily upset by the occurrence; not one of his children had ever done such a thing before, and as Meg lay on the sofa, with her little fair head drooping against the red frilled cushions, her face white and unconscious, she looked strangely like her mother, whom he had buried out in the churchyard four years ago. He went to the filter for a glass of water, and, as it trickled, wondered in a dull, mechanical kind of way if his little dead wife thought he had been too quick in appointing Esther to her kingdom. And then, as he stood near the sofa and looked at the death-like face, he wondered with a cold chill at his heart whether Meg was going to die, too, and if so would she be able to tell the same little wife that Esther received more tenderness at his hands than she had done.
His reverie was interrupted by the doctor's sharp, surprised voice. He was talking to Esther, who had been hastily summoned to the scene, and who had helped to unfasten the pretty bodice.
"Why, the child is tight-laced!" he said; "surely you must have noticed it, madam. That pressure, if it has been constant, has been enough to half kill her. Chut, chut! faint indeed—I wonder she has not taken fits or gone into a decline before this."
Then a cloud of trouble came over Esther's beautiful face—she had failed again in her duty. Her husband was regarding her almost gloomily from the sofa, where the little figure lay in its crumpled muslin dress, and her heart told her these children were not receiving a mother's care at her hands.
Afterwards, when Meg was safely in bed and the excitement all over, she went up to her husband almost timidly.
"I'm only twenty; Jack; don't be too hard on me!" she said with a little sob in her voice. "I can't be all to them that she was, can I?"
He kissed the bright, beautiful head against his shoulder, and comforted her with a tender word or two. But again and again that night there came to him Meg's white, still face as it lay on the scarlet cushions, and he knew the wind that stirred the curtains at the window had been playing with the long grass in the churchyard a few minutes since.