"She is not yet so old
But she may learn: happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn."
Meg's hair had always been pretty, but during the last two months she had cut herself a fringe, and begun to torture it up in curl papers every night. And in her private drawer she kept a jam tin filled with oatmeal, that she used in the water every time she washed, having read it was a great complexion beautifier. And nightly she rubbed vaseline on her hands and slept in old kid gloves. And her spare money went in the purchase of "Freckle Lotion," to remove that slight powdering of warm brown sun-kisses that somehow lent a certain character to her face.
All these things were the outcome of being sixteen, and having found a friend of seventeen.
Aldith MacCarthy learnt French from the same teacher that Meg was going to twice a week, and after an exchange of chocolates, hair-ribbons, and family confidences a friendship sprang up.
Aldith had three grown-up sisters, whom she aped in everything, and was considerably wiser in the world than simple-minded, romantic Meg.
She lent Meg novels, "Family Herald Supplements", "Young Ladies' Journals", and such publications, and the young girl took to them with avidity, surprised at the new world into which they took her; for Charlotte Yonge and Louisa Alcott and Miss Wetherall had hitherto formed her simple and wholesome fare.
Meg began to dream rose-coloured dreams of the time when her fair, shining hair should be gathered up into "a simple knot at the back of her head" or "brushed into a regal coronet," these being the styles in which the heroines in the novels invariably dressed their hair. A pigtail done in three was very unromantic. That was why, as a sort of compromise, she cut herself a fringe and began to frizz out the end of her plait. Her father stared at her, and said she looked like a shop-girl, when first he noticed it, and Esther told her she was a stupid child; but the looking-glass and Aldith reassured her.
The next thing was surreptitiously to lengthen her dresses, which were at the short-long stage. In the privacy of her own bedroom she took the skirts of two or three of her frocks off the band, inserted a piece of lining for lengthening purposes, and then added a frill to the waists of her bodices to hide the join. This dropped the skirts a good two inches, and made her look quite a tall, slim figure, as she was well aware.
And none of these things were very harmful.
But Aldith gradually grew dissatisfied with her waist.
"You're at least twenty-three, Marguerite," she said once, quite in a horrified way. She never called her friend Meg, pronouncing that name to be "too domestic and altogether unlovely."
Meg glanced from her own waist to her friend's slender, beautiful one, and sighed profoundly. "What ought I to be?" she said in a low tone; and Aldith had answered, "Eighteen—or nineteen, Marguerite, at the most; true symmetrical grace can never be obtained with a waist twenty-three inches round."
Aldith had not only made statements and comparisons, she had given her friend practical advice, and shown her how the thing was to be done. And every night and morning Meg pulled away ruthlessly at her corset laces, and crushed her beautiful little body into narrower space. She had already brought it within a girdle of twenty-one inches, which was a clear saving of two, and she had taken in all her dresses at the seams.
But she gave up the evening game of cricket, and she never made one at rounders now, much to the others' disgust. No one, to look at the sweet blossom-like face, and soft, calm eyes, could have guessed what torture was being felt beneath the now pretty, welt-fitting dress body. To walk quickly was positive pain; to stoop, almost agony; but she endured it all with a heroism worthy of a truly noble cause.
"How long shall I have to go on like this, Aldith?" she asked once faintly, after a French lesson that she had scarcely been able to sit through.
And the older girl answered carelessly, "Oh, you mustn't leave it off, of course, but you don't feel it at all after a bit."
With which assurance Meg pursued her painful course.
Esther, the only person in a position to exercise any authority in the matter, had not noticed at all, and, indeed, had she done, so would not have thought very gravely of it, for it was only four years since she, too, had been sixteen, and a "waist" had been the most desirable thing on earth.
Once she had said unwittingly,
"What a nice little figure you are getting, Meg; this new dressmaker certainly fits better than Miss Quinn"; and foolish Meg, with a throb of delight, had redoubled her efforts.
Lynx-eyed Judy would have found her out long ago, and laughed her to utter shame, but unfortunately for Meg's constitution she was still at school, it being now the third month of her absence.
Aldith only lived about twenty minutes' walk from Misrule, so the two girls were always together. Twice a week they went down to town in the river-boat to learn how to inquire, in polite French, "Has the baker's young daughter the yellow hat, brown gloves, and umbrella of the undertaker's niece?" And twice a week, after they had answered irrelevantly, "No, but the surgeon had some beer, some mustard, and the dinner-gong," Aldith conducted her friend slowly up and down that happy hunting-ground of Sydney youth and fashion—the Block. "Just see how many hats I'll get taken off," Miss Aldith would say as they started; and by the end of the time Meg would say longingly, "How lovely it must be to know crowds of gentlemen like you do."
Sometimes one or two of them would stop and exchange a word or two, and then Aldith would formally introduce Meg; often, however, the latter, who was sharp enough for all her foolishness, would fancy she detected a patronizing, amused air in these gentlemen's manners. As, indeed, there often was; they were chiefly men whom Aldith had met at dances and tennis in her own home; and who thought that young lady a precocious child who wanted keeping in the schoolroom a few more years.
One day Aldith came to Misrule brimming over with mysterious importance. "Come down the garden, Marguerite," she said, taking no notice whatever of Baby, who had, with much difficulty, beguiled her eldest sister into telling her the ever delightful legend of the three little pigs.
"Oh, no, by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin, then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in," had only been said twice, and the exciting part was still to come.
Baby looked up with stormy eyes.
"Go away, Aldiff," she said.
"Miss MacCarthy,—Baby, dear," Meg suggested, gently, catching Aldith's half-scornful smile.
"ALDIFF," repeated Baby obstinately. Then she relented, and put one caressing little arm round her sister's neck.
"I will say Miff MacCarfy iss you will say ze uzzer little pig, too."
"Oh, send her away, Marguerite, do," Aldith said impatiently, "I have an enthralling secret to tell you, and I'll have to go soon."
Meg looked interested immediately.
"Run away, Baby, dear," she said, kissing the disappointed little face; "go and play Noah's Ark with Bunty, and I'll finish the piggies to-night or to-morrow."
"But I want them NOW," Baby said insistently.
Meg pushed her gently aside. "No, run away, pet—run away at once like a good girl, and I'll tell you Red Riding Hood, too, to-morrow."
Baby looked up at her sister's guest.
"You are a horrid old pig, Aldiff MacCatfy," she said, with slow emphasis, "an' I hates you hard, an' we all hates you here, 'ceps Meg; and Pip says you're ze jammiest girl out, an' I wis' a drate big ziant would come and huff and puff and blow you into ze middlest part of ze sea."
Aldith laughed, a little aggravating grown-up laugh, that put the finishing touch to Baby's anger. She put out her little hand and gave the guest's arm in its muslin sleeve a sharp, scientific pinch that Pip had taught her. Then she fled madly away down the long paddocks, to the bit of bush beyond.
"Insufferable," Aldith muttered angrily, and it needed all Meg's apologies and coaxings to get her into an amiable frame of mind again, and to induce her to communicate the enthralling secret.
At last, however, it was imparted, with great impressiveness. Aldith's eldest sister was engaged, engaged to be married! Oh! wasn't it heavenly? Wasn't it romantic?—and to the gentleman with the long fair moustache who had been so much at their house lately.
"I knew it would come—I have seen it coming for a long time. Oh! I'm not easily blinded;" Aldith said. "I know true love when I see it. Though certainly for myself I should prefer a dark moustache, should not you, Marguerite?"
"Ye—es," said Meg. Her views were hardly formed yet on the subject.
"Jet black, with waxed ends, very stiff," Aldith continued thoughtfully, "and a soldierly carriage, and very long black lashes."
"So should I," Meg said, fired in a moment. "Like Guy Deloraine in 'Angelina's Ambition'." Aldith put her arm more tightly round her friend.
"Wouldn't it be HEAVENLY, Marguerite, to be engaged—you and I?" she said, in a tone of dreamy rapture. "To have a dark, handsome man with proud black eyes just dying with love for you, going down on his knees, and giving you presents, and taking you out and all—oh, Marguerite, just think of it!"
Melt's eyes looked wistful. "We're not old enough, though, yet," she said with a sigh.
Aldith tossed her head. "That's nonsense; why, Clara Allison is only seventeen, and look at your own stepmother. Plenty of girls are actually married at sixteen, Marguerite, and a man proposed my sister Beatrice when she was only fifteen." Meg looked impressed and thoughtful.
Then Aldith rose to go. "Mind you're in time for the boat to-morrow," she said, as they reached the gate; "and, Marguerite, be sure you make yourself look very nice—wear your cornflower dress, and see if Mrs. Woolcot will lend you a pair of her gloves, your grey ones are just a little shabby, aren't they, dear?"
"H'm," said Meg, colouring.
"And Mr. James Graham always comes back on that boat, and the two Courtney boys—Andrew Courtney told Beatrice he thought you seemed a nice little thing; he often notices you, he says, because you blush so."
"I can't help it," Meg said, unhappily. "Aldith, how ought the ribbon to go on my hat? I'm going to retrim it again."
"Oh, square bows, somewhat stiff, and well at the side," the oracle, said. "I'm glad you're going to, dear, it looked just a wee bit dowdy, didn't it?" Meg coloured again.
"Have you done your French?" she said, as she pulled open the gate.
"In a way," Aldith said carelessly. Then she put up her chin, "Those frowzy-looking Smiths always make a point of having no mistakes; and, Janet Green, whose hats are always four seasons behind the fashions; I prefer to have a few errors, just to show I haven't to work hard and be a teacher after I—"
But just here she stumbled and fell down her full length in a most undignified manner, right across the muddy sidewalk.
It was a piece of string and Baby's vengeance.