“May I come in, Mother?” Peter was at the door of Mother’s writing room, where Mother sat at her table with two candles in front of her. Their flames looked orange and violet against the clear grey blue of the sky where already a few stars were twinkling.
“Yes, dear,” said Mother, absently, “anything wrong?” She wrote a few more words and then laid down her pen and began to fold up what she had written. “I was just writing to Jim’s grandfather. He lives near here, you know.”
“Yes, you said so at tea. That’s what I want to say. Must you write to him, Mother? Couldn’t we keep Jim, and not say anything to his people till he’s well? It would be such a surprise for them.”
“Well, yes,” said Mother, laughing, “I think it would.”
“You see,” Peter went on, “of course the girls are all right and all that–I’m not saying anything against them. But I should like it if I had another chap to talk to sometimes.”
“Yes,” said Mother, “I know it’s dull for you, dear. But I can’t help it. Next year perhaps I can send you to school–you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“I do miss the other chaps, rather,” Peter confessed; “but if Jim could stay after his leg was well, we could have awful larks.”
“I’ve no doubt of it,” said Mother. “Well–perhaps he could, but you know, dear, we’re not rich. I can’t afford to get him everything he’ll want. And he must have a nurse.”
“Can’t you nurse him, Mother? You do nurse people so beautifully.”
“That’s a pretty compliment, Pete–but I can’t do nursing and my writing as well. That’s the worst of it.”
“Then you must send the letter to his grandfather?”
“Of course–and to his schoolmaster, too. We telegraphed to them both, but I must write as well. They’ll be most dreadfully anxious.”
“I say, Mother, why can’t his grandfather pay for a nurse?” Peter suggested. “That would be ripping. I expect the old boy’s rolling in money. Grandfathers in books always are.”
“Well, this one isn’t in a book,” said Mother, “so we mustn’t expect him to roll much.”
“I say,” said Peter, musingly, “wouldn’t it be jolly if we all were in a book, and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim’s legs get well at once and be all right to-morrow, and Father come home soon and–”
“Do you miss your Father very much?” Mother asked, rather coldly, Peter thought.
“Awfully,” said Peter, briefly.
Mother was enveloping and addressing the second letter.
“You see,” Peter went on slowly, “you see, it’s not only him being Father, but now he’s away there’s no other man in the house but me– that’s why I want Jim to stay so frightfully much. Wouldn’t you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?”
Peter’s Mother put her arm round him suddenly, and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said:–
“Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing the book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right–in the way that’s best for us.”
“Do you really believe that, Mother?” Peter asked quietly.
“Yes,” she said, “I do believe it–almost always–except when I’m so sad that I can’t believe anything. But even when I can’t believe it, I know it’s true–and I try to believe. You don’t know how I try, Peter. Now take the letters to the post, and don’t let’s be sad any more. Courage, courage! That’s the finest of all the virtues! I dare say Jim will be here for two or three weeks yet.”
For what was left of the evening Peter was so angelic that Bobbie feared he was going to be ill. She was quite relieved in the morning to find him plaiting Phyllis’s hair on to the back of her chair in quite his old manner.
It was soon after breakfast that a knock came at the door. The children were hard at work cleaning the brass candlesticks in honour of Jim’s visit.
“That’ll be the Doctor,” said Mother; “I’ll go. Shut the kitchen door–you’re not fit to be seen.”
But it wasn’t the Doctor. They knew that by the voice and by the sound of the boots that went upstairs. They did not recognise the sound of the boots, but everyone was certain that they had heard the voice before.
There was a longish interval. The boots and the voice did not come down again.
“Who can it possibly be?” they kept on asking themselves and each other.
“Perhaps,” said Peter at last, “Dr. Forrest has been attacked by highwaymen and left for dead, and this is the man he’s telegraphed for to take his place. Mrs. Viney said he had a local tenant to do his work when he went for a holiday, didn’t you, Mrs. Viney?”
“I did so, my dear,” said Mrs. Viney from the back kitchen.
“He’s fallen down in a fit, more likely, said Phyllis, “all human aid despaired of. And this is his man come to break the news to Mother.”
“Nonsense!” said Peter, briskly; “Mother wouldn’t have taken the man up into Jim’s bedroom. Why should she? Listen–the door’s opening. Now they’ll come down. I’ll open the door a crack.”
“It’s not listening,” he replied indignantly to Bobbie’s scandalised remarks; “nobody in their senses would talk secrets on the stairs. And Mother can’t have secrets to talk with Dr. Forrest’s stable-man- -and you said it was him.”
“Bobbie,” called Mother’s voice.
They opened the kitchen door, and Mother leaned over the stair railing.
“Jim’s grandfather has come,” she said; “wash your hands and faces and then you can see him. He wants to see you!” The bedroom door shut again.
“There now!” said Peter; “fancy us not even thinking of that! Let’s have some hot water, Mrs. Viney. I’m as black as your hat.”
The three were indeed dirty, for the stuff you clean brass candlesticks with is very far from cleaning to the cleaner.
They were still busy with soap and flannel when they heard the boots and the voice come down the stairs and go into the dining-room. And when they were clean, though still damp–because it takes such a long time to dry your hands properly, and they were very impatient to see the grandfather–they filed into the dining-room.
Mother was sitting in the window-seat, and in the leather-covered armchair that Father always used to sit in at the other house sat–
THEIR OWN OLD GENTLEMAN!
“Well, I never did,” said Peter, even before he said, “How do you do?” He was, as he explained afterwards, too surprised even to remember that there was such a thing as politeness–much less to practise it.
“It’s our own old gentleman!” said Phyllis.
“Oh, it’s you!” said Bobbie. And then they remembered themselves and their manners and said, “How do you do?” very nicely.
“This is Jim’s grandfather, Mr. –” said Mother, naming the old gentleman’s name.
“How splendid!” said Peter; “that’s just exactly like a book, isn’t it, Mother?”
“It is, rather,” said Mother, smiling; “things do happen in real life that are rather like books, sometimes.”
“I am so awfully glad it is you,” said Phyllis; “when you think of the tons of old gentlemen there are in the world–it might have been almost anyone.”
“I say, though,” said Peter, “you’re not going to take Jim away, though, are you?”
“Not at present,” said the old gentleman. “Your Mother has most kindly consented to let him stay here. I thought of sending a nurse, but your Mother is good enough to say that she will nurse him herself.”
“But what about her writing?” said Peter, before anyone could stop him. “There won’t be anything for him to eat if Mother doesn’t write.”
“That’s all right,” said Mother, hastily.
The old gentleman looked very kindly at Mother.
“I see,” he said, “you trust your children, and confide in them.”
“Of course,” said Mother.
“Then I may tell them of our little arrangement,” he said. “Your Mother, my dears, has consented to give up writing for a little while and to become a Matron of my Hospital.”
“Oh!” said Phyllis, blankly; “and shall we have to go away from Three Chimneys and the Railway and everything?”
“No, no, darling,” said Mother, hurriedly.
“The Hospital is called Three Chimneys Hospital,” said the old gentleman, “and my unlucky Jim’s the only patient, and I hope he’ll continue to be so. Your Mother will be Matron, and there’ll be a hospital staff of a housemaid and a cook–till Jim’s well.”
“And then will Mother go on writing again?” asked Peter.
“We shall see,” said the old gentleman, with a slight, swift glance at Bobbie; “perhaps something nice may happen and she won’t have to.”
“I love my writing,” said Mother, very quickly.
“I know,” said the old gentleman; “don’t be afraid that I’m going to try to interfere. But one never knows. Very wonderful and beautiful things do happen, don’t they? And we live most of our lives in the hope of them. I may come again to see the boy?”
“Surely,” said Mother, “and I don’t know how to thank you for making it possible for me to nurse him. Dear boy!”
“He kept calling Mother, Mother, in the night,” said Phyllis. “I woke up twice and heard him.”
“He didn’t mean me,” said Mother, in a low voice to the old gentleman; “that’s why I wanted so much to keep him.”
The old gentleman rose.
“I’m so glad,” said Peter, “that you’re going to keep him, Mother.”
“Take care of your Mother, my dears,” said the old gentleman. “She’s a woman in a million.”
“Yes, isn’t she?” whispered Bobbie.
“God bless her,” said the old gentleman, taking both Mother’s hands, “God bless her! Ay, and she shall be blessed. Dear me, where’s my hat? Will Bobbie come with me to the gate?”
At the gate he stopped and said:–
“You’re a good child, my dear–I got your letter. But it wasn’t needed. When I read about your Father’s case in the papers at the time, I had my doubts. And ever since I’ve known who you were, I’ve been trying to find out things. I haven’t done very much yet. But I have hopes, my dear–I have hopes.”
“Oh!” said Bobbie, choking a little.
“Yes–I may say great hopes. But keep your secret a little longer. Wouldn’t do to upset your Mother with a false hope, would it?”
“Oh, but it isn’t false!” said Bobbie; “I know you can do it. I knew you could when I wrote. It isn’t a false hope, is it?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a false hope, or I wouldn’t have told you. And I think you deserve to be told that there is a hope.”
“And you don’t think Father did it, do you? Oh, say you don’t think he did.”
“My dear,” he said, “I’m perfectly certain he didn’t.”
If it was a false hope, it was none the less a very radiant one that lay warm at Bobbie’s heart, and through the days that followed lighted her little face as a Japanese lantern is lighted by the candle within.