Meg was looking ill, there was no doubt about it. Her pretty pink-and-white complexion was losing its fresh look, a slightly irritable expression had settled round a mouth that a few months back had seemed made for smiles only. And terribly unromantic fact, her nose was quite florid-looking at times. Now a heroine may have the largest, deepest, and most heavily lashed eyes imaginable; she may have hair in very truth like the gold "mown from a harvest's middle floor"; she may have lips like cherries and teeth like pearls, and a red nose will be so utterly fatal that all these other charms will pass unnoticed. It cost Meg real anguish of spirit. She carefully read all the Answers to Correspondents in the various papers Aldith lent her in search of a remedy, but nearly everyone seemed to be asking for recipes to promote the growth of the eyelashes or to prevent embonpoint. Not one she chanced on said, "A red nose in a girl is generally caused by indigestion or tight-lacing." She asked Aldith to suggest something, and that young person thought that vaseline and sulphur mixed together, and spread over the afflicted member, would have the desired effect. So every night Meg fastened her bedroom door with a wedge of wood, keys being unknown luxuries at Misrule, and anointed her, poor little nose most carefully with the greasy mixture, lying all night on her back to prevent it rubbing off on the pillow.
Once Pip had forced his way into demand a few stitches for his braces which had split, and she had been compelled to wrap her whole face hastily up in a towel and declare she had violent neuralgia, and he must go to Esther or one of the servants. Had he seen and known the cause there would have been no end to the teasing.
Nowadays Meg spent a great deal of time in her bedroom, that she had all to herself while Judy was away. In its privacy she trimmed and retrimmed her hats, altered her dresses, read her novels, and sat in front of the looking-glass with her hair down, dreaming of being quite grown up and in love. For just now both to Aldith, and herself that state of life seemed the only one altogether lovely and desirable. Meg used to curl herself up in a big easy-chair that had drifted to her room because its springs were broken, and dream long, beautiful, hopeless dreams of a lover with "long black lashes and a soldierly carriage." Of course it was highly reprehensible to have such thoughts at the tender age of sixteen, but then the child had no mother to check that erring imagination, and she was a daughter of the South.
Australian girls nearly always begin to think of "lovers and nonsense," as middlefolks call it, long before their English aged sisters do. While still in the short-frock period of existence, and while their hair is still free-flowing, they take the keenest interest in boys—boys of neighbouring schools, other girls' brothers, young bank clerks, and the like. Not because they would be good playmates, but because they look at them in the light of possible "sweethearts." I do not say English girl children are free from this. By no means; in every school there may be found one or two this way inclined, giggling, forward young things who want whipping and sending to play cricket or dolls again. But in this land of youthfulness it is the rule more frequently than the exception, and herein lies the chief defect of the very young Australian girl. She is like a peach, a beautiful, smooth, rich peach, that has come to ripeness almost in a day, and that hastens to rub off the soft, delicate bloom that is its chief charm, just to show its bright, warm colouring more clearly. Aldith had, to her own infinite satisfaction, brushed away her own "bloom," and was at present busily engaged in trying to remove Meg's, which was very soft and lovely before she touched it. The novels had taken away a little, and the "Block" a little more, but, Meg was naturally freshminded, and it took time to make much difference. Just now, under her friend's tutelage, she was being inducted into the delightful mysteries of sweethearting, and for the time, it quite filled her some what purposeless young life. But it all ended with an adventure that years afterwards used to make her cheeks tingle painfully at the thought.
After the bi-weekly French lesson, as I have said, the two friends used to come back together in the river-boat at five o'clock. And by this boat there always came two boys by the name of Courtney, and a third boy, Aldith's particular property, James Graham. Now the young people had become known to each other at picnics and the like in the neighbourhood, but the acquaintance, instead of ripening on frequent meeting into a frank, pleasant friendship, had taken the turn of secrecy and silly playing at love. James Graham was in a lawyer's office, a young articled cleric of seventeen in undue haste to be that delightful thing, a man. He carried a cane, and was very particular about his hat and necktie and his boots, which generally were tan. And he had the faintest possible moustache, that he caressed with great frequency; and that privately Aldith thought adorable. Aldith's pert, sprightly manner pleased him, and in a very short time they had got to the period of passing notes into each other's hands and sighing sentimentally. Not that the notes contained much harm, they were generally of rather a formal character.
"My dear' Miss MacCarthy," one would run—
"Why were you not on the boat yesterday? I looked for you till it was no use looking longer, and then the journey was blank. How charmingly that big hat suits you, and those jonquils at your neck. Might I beg one of the flowers? just one, please, Aldith.
Your devoted friend,
And Aldith's, written on a sheet of her note-book with a pink programme pencil that she always kept in her purse, might be no worse than:
"Dear Mr. Graham,
"What EVER can you want these flowers at my neck for? They have been there all day, and are dead and spoiled. I can't IMAGINE what good they'll be to you. Still, of course, if you REALLY care for them you shall have them. I am so glad you like this hat. I shall always like it NOW. Did you REALLY miss me yesterday? I had gone to have my photo taken. Marguerite thinks it very good indeed, but I am SURE it flatters me TOO much.
L. Aldith Evelyn MacCarthy."
Now Mr. James Graham had a great friend in one of the before-mentioned Courtney boys, Andrew by name. He was a handsome lad of eighteen, still a schoolboy, but possessed of fascinating manners and a pair of really beautiful eyes.
And, since his friend and companion Jim had taken to "having fun" with "the girl MacCarthy," he objected to being left out in the cold. So he began to pay marked attentions to Meg, who blushed right up to her soft, pretty fringe every time he spoke to her, and looked painfully conscious and guilty if he said anything at all complimentary to her.
The other boy, Alan Courtney, was very tall and broad-shouldered, and not at all good-looking. He had a strong, plain face, grey eyes deeply set, and brown hair that looked as if he was in a constant state of rumpling it up the wrong way. He was a University student, and a great footballer, and he never diverted himself on the long homeward journey in the way Andrew and his friend did.
He used generally to give a half-contemptuous nod as he passed the little group, uncovering his head for the shortest possible period consistent with civility, and making his way to the far end of the boat. One time as he passed them Aldith was drooping her lashes and using her eyes with great effect, and Meg was almost positive she heard him mutter under his breath, "Silly young fools!" He used to smoke at his end of the boat—cigars at the beginning of term and a short, black, villainous-looking pipe at the end—and Meg used secretly to think how manly he looked, and to sigh profoundly.
For I may as well tell you now as later what this foolish little thing had done after a few months' course of Aldith and novels. She had fallen in love as nearly as it is possible for sweet sixteen to do; and it was with Alan, who had no good looks nor pleasant manners—not Andrew, who had speaking eyes, and curls that "made his forehead like the rising sun"; not Andrew, who gave her tender glances and conversation peppermints that said "My heart is thine," but Alan, who took no notice whatever of her beyond an occasional half-scornful bow.
Poor little Meg! She was very miserable in these days, and yet it was a kind of exquisite misery that she hugged to her to keep it warm. No one guessed her secret. She would have died rather than allow even Aldith to get a suspicion of it, and accepted Andrew's notes and smiles as if there was nothing more she wanted. But she grew a trifle thin and large-eyed, and used to make copious notes in her diary every night, and to write a truly appalling quantity of verses, in which "heart" and "part," "grieve" and "leave," "weep" and "keep," and "sigh" and "die," were most often the concluding words of the lines. She endured Andrew for several reasons. He was Alan's brother for one thing, and was always saying things about "old Al," and recording his prowess on the football field; and Aldith might discover her secret if she gave him the cold shoulder altogether. Besides this Andrew had the longest eyelashes she had ever seen and she must have somebody to say pretty things to her, even if it was not the person she would have wished it to be.
One day things came to a crisis.
"No more trips on the dear old boat for a month," Aldith remarked, from her corner of the cabin.
"This is appalling! Whatever do you mean, Miss MacCarthy?" James Graham said, with exaggerated despair in his voice.
"Monsieur H—— has given the class a month's holiday. He is going to Melbourne," Aldith returned, with a sigh.
Meg echoed it as in duty bound, and Andrew said fiercely that hanging was too good for Monsieur H——. What did he mean by such inhuman conduct, he should like to know; and however were Jim and himself to maintain life in the meantime?
"It was James who speedily thought of a way out."
"Couldn't we go for a walk somewhere one evening—just we four?" he said insinuatingly.
Aldith and Andrew thought the proposal a brilliant one; and though Meg had at first shaken her head decidedly, in the end she was prevailed upon, and promised faithfully to go.
They were to meet in a bush paddock adjoining the far one belonging to Misrule, to walk for about an hour, returning by half-past seven, before it grew dusk.
"I am going to ask you for something that day, Meg," Andrew whispered just as they were parting. "I wonder if I shall get it."
Meg flushed in her nervous, conscious way, and wondered to herself for a moment whether he intended to ask for a lock of her hair, a thing Graham had already obtained from Aldith.
"What?" she said unwillingly.
"A kiss," he whispered.
The next minute the others had joined them, and there was no chance for the indignant answer that trembled on her lips. She had even to shake hands, to appear as if nothing had happened, and to part apparently good friends.
"Half-past six sharp, Marguerite. I will never forgive you if you don't come," Aldith said, as they parted at her gate.
"I—you—Oh, Aldith, I don't see how I can come," Meg faltered, the crimson in her cheeks again. "I've never done anything like it before. I'm sure it's not right."
But the curl, in Aldith's lip made her ashamed of herself.
"You're just twelve, Marguerite;" the young lady said calmly: "you're not a bit more than twelve. You'd better get a roll again, and a picture-book with morals. I'll ask Andrew to buy you one and a bit of cord, too, to tie you in your high chair in the nursery."
Such sarcasm was too much for Meg. She promised hastily and unconditionally to be on the spot at the time mentioned, and fled away up the path to obey the summons of the wildly clanging tea-bell.
But for the two intervening days her secret hung upon her like a burden of guilt, and she longed inexpressibly for a confidante who would advise her what to do at this distressing issue. Not Judy: that young person was too downright, too sensible, too much of a child and a boy—she would never dare to tell her anything of the sort. She could fancy the scorn in her sister's large clear eyes, the ringing laughter such a tale would evoke, the scathing, clever ridicule that would fall on her shrinking shoulders. Not Esther: her very position as stepmother precluded such an idea, and, besides that, the General's gums were gradually disclosing wee white double pearls, and his health thereby was affected, and causing her too much anxiety to allow her, to notice Meg's oppression of mind.
By the night decided upon, the child had worked herself up into a strong state of excitement. Half-past six was the time settled upon, and, as she knew, it was broad daylight even then. She felt she really dare not, could not go. Suppose her father or Esther, some of her scornful young sisters or brothers, should be about and see the meeting, or any of the neighbours—why, she could never survive the shame of it! Yet go she must, or Aldith would despise her. Besides, she had made up her mind fully to tell Andrew plainly she could not allow him to talk to her as he had been doing. After that last terrible whisper, she felt it necessary that she should let him understand clearly that she did not approve of his conduct, and would be "his friend," but nothing more.
But why had they not thought of deciding on an hour when it would be darker? she kept saying to herself: there would be no danger of being seen then; she could slip out of the house without any difficulty, and run through the paddocks under cover of the kindly dusk; whereas if it was light, and she tried to creep away, at least two or three of the children would fly after her and offer generously to "come too."
At last, too afraid to go in the light, and unwilling for Aldith to reproach her for not going at all, she did in her excitement and desperation a thing so questionable that for long after she could not think of it without horror.
"Dear Mr. Courtney," she wrote, sitting down at her dressing-table, and scribbling away hurriedly in pencil:
"It would be horrid going for the walk so early. Let us go later, when it is quite dark. It will be EVER so much nicer, for no one will be able to see us. And let us meet at the end of the paddocks where the bush grows thickly, it will be more private. I am writing to Aldith to tell her to go at that time, she will tell Mr. Graham.
"P.S.—I must ask you, please, not to kiss me. I should be very angry indeed if you did. I don't like kissing at all."
She wrote the last paragraph in a nervous hurry for she had a dread that he might fulfil his promise, if she did not forbid him as soon as they met. Then she slipped it into an envelope and addressed it to A. Courtney, Esq., it never having even occurred to her for a moment that there was anything at all strange or unconventional in a young girl making such a point that the meeting should be in the dark.
Next she wrote a few lines of explanation to Aldith, and told her to be sure to be in the paddock by half-past eight, and she (Meg) would slip out when the children were going to bed and unlikely to notice.
And then she went out into the garden to find messengers for her two notes. Little Flossie Courtney had been spending the afternoon with Nellie, and Meg called her back from the gate just as she was going home, and, unseen by the children, entrusted the note to her.
"'Give it to your brother Andrew the minute he comes from school," she whispered, popping a big chocolate at the same time into the little girl's mouth. Bunty was next bribed, with a promise of the same melting delicacies, to run up to Aldith's with the other letter, and Meg breathed freely ago feeling she had skilfully averted the threatening danger attendant on the evening meeting.
But surely the notes were fated! Bunty delivered his safely enough to the housemaid at the MacCarthys', and in answer to the girl's question "s'posed there was an answer, girls always 'spected one to nothing."
Aldith was confined to her room with a sudden severe cold, and wrote a note to her friend, telling her how she was too ill to be allowed out, and had written to Mr. Graham, and Mr. Courtney, too, postponing the walk for a week.
Now this note, in its pale pink triangular envelope, was transferred to Bunty's pocket among his marbles and peanuts and string. And, as might be expected, he fell in with some other choice spirits on the return journey, and was soon on his knees by the roadside playing marbles.
He lost ten, exclusive of his best agate, fought a boy who had unlawfully possessed himself of his most cherished "conny," and returned home with saddened spirits an hour later, only to find as he went through the gate that he had lost Aldith's dainty little note.
Now Meg had promised him eight chocolate walnuts on his return, and if this same boy had one weakness more pronounced than others, it was his extreme partiality for this kind of confectionery, and he had not tasted one for weeks, so no wonder it almost broke his heart to think they would be forfeited.
"I know she'll be stingy enough to say I haven't earned them, just 'cause I dropped that girl's stupid letter," he said to himself, miserably, "and I don't suppose there was anything in it but 'Dearest Marguerite, let us always tell each other our secrets'; I heard her say that twice, and of course she writes it, too." Then temptation came upon him swiftly, suddenly.
By nature Bunty was the most arrant little storyteller ever born, and it was only Judy's fearless honesty and strongly expressed scorn for equivocation that had kept him moderately truthful. But Judy was miles away, and could not possibly wither him up with her look of utter contempt. He was at the nursery door now, turning the handle with hesitating hands.
"What a time you've been," said Meg from the table, where she was mending a boxful of her gloves. "Well, what did she say?"
Just at her elbow was the gay bonbonniere containing the brown, cream-encrusted walnuts.
"She said, 'All right,'" said Bunty gruffly.
Meg counted the eight chocolates out into his little grimy hand, and resumed her mending with a relieved sigh. And Bunty, with a defiant, shamed look in his eyes, stuffed the whole of the sweets into his mouth at once, as if to preclude the possibility of a sudden repentance.
The other note was equally unfortunate. Little Flossie went home, her thoughts intent upon a certain Grannie bonnet Nell had promised to make for her new doll.
"Gween with pink stwings," she was saying softly to herself as she climbed the steps to her own door.
Alan was lying on the veranda lounge, smoking his black pipe.
"Gween what?" he laughed—"guinea-pigs or kangaroos?"
"Clawice Maud's bonnet," the little girl said, and entered forthwith into a grave discussion with him as to the colour he thought more suitable for that waxen lady's winter cloak.
Then she turned to go in.
"What's that sticking out of your wee pocket, Flossie girl?" he said, as she brushed past him. She stopped a second and felt.
"Oh, nearly I didn't wemember, an' I pwomised I would—it's a letter for you, Alan," she said, and gave Meg's poor little epistle up into the very hands of the Philistine.