She was looking at plans one day in the following spring–they had finally decided to go down into Sussex and build–when Mrs. Charles Wilcox was announced.
“Have you heard the news?” Dolly cried, as soon as she entered the room. Charles is so ang–I mean he is sure you know about it, or, rather, that you don’t know.”
“Why, Dolly!” said Margaret, placidly kissing her. “Here’s a surprise! How are the boys and the baby?”
Boys and the baby were well, and in describing a great row that there had been at the Hilton Tennis Club, Dolly forgot her news. The wrong people had tried to get in. The rector, as representing the older inhabitants, had said–Charles had said–the tax-collector had said–Charles had regretted not saying–and she closed the description with, “But lucky you, with four courts of your own at Midhurst.”
“It will be very jolly,” replied Margaret.
“Are those the plans? Does it matter my seeing them?”
“Of course not.”
“Charles has never seen the plans.”
“They have only just arrived. Here is the ground floor–no, that’s rather difficult. Try the elevation, We are to have a good many gables and a picturesque sky-line.”
“What makes it smell so funny?” said Dolly, after a moment’s inspection. She was incapable of understanding plans or maps.
“I suppose the paper.”
“And which way up is it?”
“Just the ordinary way up. That’s the sky-line and the part that smells strongest is the sky.”
“Well, ask me another. Margaret–oh–what was I going to say? How’s Helen?”
“Is she never coming back to England? Every one thinks it’s awfully odd she doesn’t.”
“So it is,” said Margaret, trying to conceal her vexation. She was getting rather sore on this point. “Helen is odd, awfully. She has now been away eight months.”
“But hasn’t she any address?”
“A poste restante somewhere in Bavaria is her address. Do write her a line. I will look it up for you.”
“No, don’t bother. That’s eight months she has been away, surely?”
“Exactly. She left just after Evie’s wedding. It would be eight months.”
“Just when baby was born, then?”
Dolly sighed, and stared enviously round the drawing-room. She was beginning to lose her brightness and good looks. The Charles’s were not well off, for Mr. Wilcox, having brought up his children with expensive tastes, believed in letting them shift for themselves. After all, he had not treated them generously. Yet another baby was expected, she told Margaret, and they would have to give up the motor. Margaret sympathised, but in a formal fashion, and Dolly little imagined that the stepmother was urging Mr. Wilcox to make them a more liberal allowance. She sighed again, and at last the particular grievance was remembered. “Oh, yes,” she cried, “that is it: Miss Avery has been unpacking your packing-cases.”
“Why has she done that? How unnecessary!”
“Ask another. I suppose you ordered her to.”
“I gave no such orders. Perhaps she was airing the things. She did undertake to light an occasional fire.”
“It was far more than an air,” said Dolly solemnly. “The floor sounds covered with books. Charles sent me to know what is to be done, for he feels certain you don’t know.”
“Books!” cried Margaret, moved by the holy word. “Dolly, are you serious? Has she been touching our books?”
“Hasn’t she, though! What used to be the hall’s full of them. Charles thought for certain you knew of it.”
“I am very much obliged to you, Dolly. What can have come over Miss Avery? I must go down about it at once. Some of the books are my brother’s, and are quite valuable. She had no right to open any of the cases.”
“I say she’s dotty. She was the one that never got married, you know. Oh, I say, perhaps, she thinks your books are wedding-presents to herself. Old maids are taken that way sometimes. Miss Avery hates us all like poison ever since her frightful dust-up with Evie.”
“I hadn’t heard of that,” said Margaret. A visit from Dolly had its compensations.
“Didn’t you know she gave Evie a present last August, and Evie returned it, and then–oh, goloshes! You never read such a letter as Miss Avery wrote.”
“But it was wrong of Evie to return it. It wasn’t like her to do such a heartless thing.”
“But the present was so expensive.”
“Why does that make any difference, Dolly?”
“Still, when it costs over five pounds–I didn’t see it, but it was a lovely enamel pendant from a Bond Street shop. You can’t very well accept that kind of thing from a farm woman. Now, can you?”
“You accepted a present from Miss Avery when you were married.”
“Oh, mine was old earthenware stuff–not worth a halfpenny. Evie’s was quite different. You’d have to ask any one to the wedding who gave you a pendant like that. Uncle Percy and Albert and father and Charles all said it was quite impossible, and when four men agree, what is a girl to do? Evie didn’t want to upset the old thing, so thought a sort of joking letter best, and returned the pendant straight to the shop to save Miss Avery trouble.”
“But Miss Avery said–”
Dolly’s eyes grew round. “It was a perfectly awful letter. Charles said it was the letter of a madman. In the end she had the pendant back again from the shop and threw it into the duck-pond.”
“Did she give any reasons?”
“We think she meant to be invited to Oniton, and so climb into society.”
“She’s rather old for that,” said Margaret pensively.
“May she not have given the present to Evie in remembrance of her mother?”
“That’s a notion. Give every one their due, eh? Well, I suppose I ought to be toddling. Come along, Mr. Muff–you want a new coat, but I don’t know who’ll give it you, I’m sure;” and addressing her apparel with mournful humour, Dolly moved from the room.
Margaret followed her to ask whether Henry knew about Miss Avery’s rudeness.
“I wonder, then, why he let me ask her to look after the house.”
“But she’s only a farm woman,” said Dolly, and her explanation proved correct. Henry only censured the lower classes when it suited him. He bore with Miss Avery as with Crane–because he could get good value out of them. “I have patience with a man who knows his job,” he would say, really having patience with the job, and not the man. Paradoxical as it may sound, he had something of the artist about him; he would pass over an insult to his daughter sooner than lose a good charwoman for his wife.
Margaret judged it better to settle the little trouble herself. Parties were evidently ruffled. With Henry’s permission, she wrote a pleasant note to Miss Avery, asking her to leave the cases untouched. Then, at the first convenient opportunity, she went down herself, intending to repack her belongings and store them properly in the local warehouse; the plan had been amateurish and a failure. Tibby promised to accompany her, but at the last moment begged to be excused. So, for the second time in her life, she entered the house alone.