Brotherly Breezes

There was no doubt that Egbert was the odd one in the Saxon family. He had inherited a testy strain of temper, and was frequently most obstinate and perverse. It was unfortunate that he was an articled pupil in his father’s office, for he fretted and tried Mr. Saxon far more than Athelstane would have done in the circumstances. Egbert’s saving quality was his intense love for his mother. Her influence held him steadily to his work, and smoothed over many difficult situations. He was apt to quarrel with Quenrede, but he had a soft corner for Ingred, and sometimes made rather a pet of her.

A few days after the incident at the Abbey he turned up at school, to her immense astonishment, and asked leave from Miss Burd to take her out to tea at a café. It had been an old promise on his part, ever since Ingred went to the hostel, but it had hung fire so long that she had come to regard it as one of those piecrust promises that elder members of a family frequently make, and never find it convenient to carry out. She had reminded Egbert of it at intervals all through the autumn term, then had given it up as “a bad job.” To find him waiting for her in Miss Burd’s study, ready to escort her to the Alhambra tearooms, seemed like a fairy tale come true. She whisked off at once to make the best possible toilet in the circumstances, and reappeared smilingly ready. When you have tea every day at a long table full of girls, the meal is apt to grow monotonous, and it was a welcome change to take it instead in a gay Oriental room with Moorish decorations and luxurious armchairs, and a platform in a corner, where musicians were giving a capital concert. Ingred leaned back on an embroidered cushion and ate cakes covered with pink sugar, and listened to a violin solo followed by some charming songs, and watched the gay crowd sitting at the other small tables. It was really delightful to be out just with Egbert alone. It made her feel almost grownup. Moreover, he was in such a remarkably generous mood. He set no limit to the supply of cakes, and he stopped at the counter as they went downstairs and bought her a box of chocolates and a large packet of Edinburgh rock. He even went further, for as they walked round the square together, and looked into the window of a fancy shop, he told her to choose her birthday present, and agreed amicably when she selected a morocco-leather bag which was for the moment the summit of her dreams. She parted from him at the College gates in deepest gratitude. This was indeed something like a brother!

“You’re an absolute trump!” she assured him.

“Well, a fellow’s always got a decent sister to take about, anyway,” he replied enigmatically, a remark over which Ingred pondered, but could not fathom.

She mentioned the jaunt at the family supper-table on Friday evening. To her immense surprise her innocent remark had somewhat the effect of a bomb. Mr. Saxon turned to his son with a sudden keen expression, as if he had convicted him of a crime. Mrs. Saxon’s face also was full of suppressed meaning, while Egbert colored furiously, looked thunderous at his sister, and relapsed into sulky silence. Poor Ingred felt that she had, quite unconsciously, put her foot in it, though how or why she could not tell. She said no more at the time, and when, afterwards, she ventured to refer again to the subject, she was so tremendously shut up that she saw clearly it was discreet to make no further inquiry. Plainly there was some tremendous quarrel between Egbert and his father, for they were barely on speaking terms.

Mr. Saxon threw out occasional inuendoes that caused his son finally to stump from the room. Mrs. Saxon went about with a cloud of distress on her face, and Quenrede, to whom Ingred applied for enlightenment, promptly and pointedly changed the subject. It was miserably uncomfortable, for father and son were like two Leyden jars charged with electricity, and ready to let fly at any moment. It was only the mother’s influence that averted a family thunderstorm. Athelstane, too, seemed in the depths of gloom. He was willing, however, to communicate his woes.

“I want a whole heap more medical books,” he confided to his sister, “and Dad says he can’t get them, and I must manage without. How on earth can I manage without. What’s the use of my going to College if I haven’t the proper textbooks? I can’t always be borrowing. If I fail in my exams, it will be his fault, not mine. He’s the most absolutely unreasonable man anybody could have to deal with. Of course I know they’re expensive, and funds are low, but I’ve simply got to have them, or chuck up medicine!”

“It’s so terrible to be poor!” sighed Quenrede, thinking of the old, happy prewar days at Rotherwood, when everything came so easily, and there were no struggles to make ends meet.

She talked the matter over afterwards with Ingred.

“If I could only help somehow!” she mourned. “I’ve often thought I might go out and earn something, but Mother’s not strong, and I really do a great deal in the house. If I went away and left her with only ‘The Orphan,’ she’d be laid up in a fortnight. As it is, she tries to do far too much. How could we possibly get some money for Athelstane’s books? We’d rather die than ask our friends!”

Ingred shook her head sadly. Wild ideas surged through her mind of disguising herself and sweeping a crossing⁠—there were stories of wealthy crossing-sweepers⁠—or rivaling Charlie Chaplin on the cinema stage, but somehow they did not seem quite practicable for a girl of sixteen. She left Quenrede’s question unanswered. It was only late on Saturday afternoon that a great idea came to her. Great⁠—but so overwhelming that she winced at the bare notion. It was as if some inner voice said to her: “Sell Derry!” Now Derry, the fox terrier, was her very own property. He had been given to her two years before by a cousin as a birthday present. He was of prize breed, and had brought his pedigree with him. He was a smart, bright little fellow, and on the whole a favorite in the household, though he sometimes got into trouble for jumping on to the best chairs and leaving his hairs on the cushions. It had never particularly struck Ingred that Derry was of value, until last week, when Mr. Hardcastle noticed him. Relations with that precise old neighbor next door had been rather strained for a long time, since the unfortunate episode when Hereward had unwittingly discharged the contents of the garden syringe in his face. For months he studiously avoided them, calling his collie away with quite unnecessary caution if they happened to pass him on the road, and bolting into his own premises if they met near the gate. But one day, about Christmastime, Sam, the collie, who was a giddy and irresponsible sort of dog, given to aimless yapping at passing conveyances, overdid his supposed guardianship of his owner’s property, and blundered into a motor that was whisking by. The car did not trouble to stop, and when it was a hundred yards away, Sam picked himself up and limped on three legs to show his bleeding paw to his agitated master. Fortunately Athelstane, from the bungalow garden, had witnessed the accident, and came forward like a Good Samaritan with offers of help. His elementary acquaintance with surgery stood him in good stead, and he neatly set the injured limb, and bound it up with splints and plaster. There had been many inquiries over the hedge as to the invalid’s progress, and congratulations when the bandages were able at last to be removed. Old Mr. Hardcastle had waxed quite friendly as he expressed his thanks, and one day, catching Ingred by the gate with Derry, he had volunteered the information that “that fox terrier of yours is a fine dog, and no mistake, and would be worth something to a fancier!”

“Sell Derry!” the idea, though she hated it, had taken possession of Ingred’s brain. He was the only thing she had that was of marketable value. To part with the poor little fellow would be like selling her birthright, but, after all, brothers came first, and how could Athelstane study without books? Something Mother had said the other day clamored in her memory. “If we’ve lost our fortune we’ve got our family intact, and we must stick tight together, and be ready to make sacrifices for one another.” Ingred had quite made up her mind. She put on her hat, took Derry from his cozy place by the kitchen fire, kissed his nose, and, carrying him in her arms, walked to the next-door house, rang the bell, and asked to see Mr. Hardcastle.

She found the old gentleman in a cozy dining-room, seated by a cheery fire, and reading the evening paper. He looked a little astonished when she was ushered in, but received her politely, as if it was quite a matter of course for a young lady, hugging a dog, to pay him an afternoon visit.

Ingred put Derry down on the hearth rug, took the armchair that was offered her, and with a beating heart and a very high color plunged into business, and inquired if it were possible to find a fancier who wished to buy a prize fox terrier.

“I’ve his pedigree here,” she finished, “and he really is a nice little dog. If you know of anybody, I’d be so glad if you would tell me please!”

Mr. Hardcastle, evidently much electrified, knitted his bushy eyebrows in thought, and pursed his mouth into a button.

“There was a vet. in Grovesbury who told me a while ago that he wanted one, but I saw him yesterday, and he said he had just bought one, so that’s no good! You might try the advertisements in The Bazaar. He looks a bright little chap. Why are you in such a panic to get rid of him? Been killing chickens?”

“No,” said Ingred, turning pinker still; “it isn’t that⁠—I don’t want to sell him, of course⁠—only⁠—only⁠—”

And then to her extreme annoyance, her brimming eyes overflowed, and she burst into stifled sobs.

The old gentleman shot his lips in and out in mingled consternation and sympathy.

“There! There! There!” he exclaimed. “Don’t cry! For goodness’ sake, don’t cry! Tell me, whatever’s the matter?”

It was, of course, a most unorthodox thing for Ingred to blurt out family affairs, and Father and Mother would have been justly indignant had they known, but she was impulsive, and without much worldly wisdom, and Mr. Hardcastle seemed sympathetic, so on the spur of the moment she told him the urgency of Athelstane’s need, and how she was trying to meet it. He sat quite quiet for a short time, staring into the fire, then he said, very gently and kindly:

“My dear little girl, you needn’t part with your dog. I believe I can lend your brother all the medical books he wants.”

“You! But you’re not a doctor?” exclaimed Ingred.

“No, but my boy was studying medicine at Birkshaw. He had just passed his intermediate M.B. when he was called up. I’ve got all his books. He won’t want them again now. He was flying over the German lines, and his machine crashed down. One comfort, he was killed instantly! He had always hoped he’d never be taken prisoner. I think he’d have liked his books to be put to some use. I’ll hunt them out, and send them across to your brother, and the microscope, and any other things I can find. He may just as well have them.”

There was a huskiness in the old gentleman’s voice, but he coughed it away.

“I don’t know how to thank you!” stammered Ingred.

“I don’t want any thanks. It’s only a neighborly act. Take your dog home, and say nothing about all this. I’ll write to your brother. I wonder I never thought about it before!”

Mr. Hardcastle was as good as his word, for next Monday evening quite a large consignment arrived for Athelstane, with a note offering the loan of books and microscope if they would be of any service in his medical studies.

“Why, they’re absolutely the very things I wanted!” exclaimed that youth rapturously. “What a trump he is! A real good sort! I say, you know, it’s really most awfully kind of him! I wonder what the Dickens put it into his head?”

But on that point none of the family could enlighten him, for only Ingred and Derry knew the secret, and Ingred was at school, while Derry, belonging to the dumb creation, expressed his opinions solely in barks.

When the household was reunited for next weekend, the clouds had cleared from Athelstane’s horizon, but seemed to have settled more darkly than ever round Egbert. There was a horrible feeling of impending storm in the home atmosphere. It lent a constraint to conversation at meals, and put an effectual stopper on the fun which generally circulated round the fireside. It was all the more uncomfortable because nobody voiced the cause.

“Father looks unutterables, Mother’s plainly worried to death, Egbert is sulks personified, Queenie won’t tell, Athelstane and Hereward either don’t know or don’t care what’s the matter, but it makes them cross. What is one to do with such a family?” thought Ingred on Sunday afternoon.

It had been wet, and, though a detachment of them had ventured to church in waterproofs, they had not been able to take their usual safety valve of a walk across the moors. Seven people in a small house seem to get in one another’s way on Sunday afternoons. Father was dozing in the dining-room, Mother, Athelstane and Hereward were in the drawing-room, interrupting each other’s reading by constant extracts from their own books; Ingred, who hated to pause in the midst of The Scarlet Pimpernel to hear choice bits from The Young Visiters or Parisian Sketches, sought sanctuary in her bedroom, only to find the blind drawn and Quenrede with a bad headache, trying to rest. There seemed no comfortable corner available, so she slipped on her thick coat, put her book in the pocket, and walked down the garden to sit in the cycle-shed. Even in the rain it was nice out of doors; clumps of purple and yellow crocuses showed under the gooseberry bushes; lilies were pushing up green heads through the soil; the flowering currant was bursting into bud; roots of polyanthus flaunted mauve and orange blossoms; under a sheltered wall were even a few early violets, whose sweet fresh scent seemed as the first breath of spring. A missel-thrush on the bare pear tree sang triumphantly through the rain, and a song-thrush, with more melodious notes, trilled forth an occasional call; the robin, which had haunted the garden all the winter, was scraping energetically for grubs among the ivy on the wall, and scarcely troubled to fly away at her approach.

Ingred drew great breaths of sweet-scented wet air, and, with almost the same instinct as the thrush, broke into “Thank God for a Garden!” the song that Mother loved to hear Quenrede sing in the evenings when the day’s work was over.

Delightful and refreshing and soothing as Nature may be, however, it is rather a wet business to stand admiring crocuses in the streaming rain, so Ingred made a dash through the dripping bushes to the cycle-shed. If she had calculated upon finding solitude here she was disappointed. It was occupied already. Egbert, looking as gloomy as Hamlet, was tinkering with the motor-bicycle. He greeted his sister with something between a sigh and a grunt, whistled monotonously for a moment or two, then burst into confidence.

“Look here, Ingred; I can’t stand this any longer. I wish I were back in the army! I’ve a jolly good mind to chuck everything up, and re-enlist!”

“Is it as bad as all that?” asked Ingred.

“Yes, I’m about fed up with life. If it weren’t for the little Mater I’d have cleared out before this. Perhaps she’ll miss me, but I don’t know that anybody else will, and I don’t care!”

“How about Miss Bertrand?” asked Ingred, obeying a sudden impulse of mischief.

Egbert flung down a spanner, and turned to her the most astonished face in the world.

“What do you know about Miss Bertrand?” he queried.

Ingred chuckled delightedly. To use her own schoolgirl expression, she felt she “had him on toast.”

“More than you imagine! Who went into the Abbey Church, I should like to know, and sat in a pew for ever so long, and looked tender nothings? Oh yes! I saw you, and a pretty sight it was, too!” she teased.

Egbert was gazing at her as if he could scarcely believe his senses.

“But⁠—but⁠—where were you?” he stuttered.

“In the peephole!” exploded Ingred. “I could see right down into the church, and I watched you come in! I’ve been saving this up!”

Egbert drew a long breath.

“If I’d only known before!” he said slowly. “Ingred, stop laughing! You don’t understand. Look here, will you go and tell Dad that you saw me there, and the exact day and time when it happened. You can remember that?”

“Why, surely Father’s the very last person you want to know?” said Ingred, sobering down.

“No, he isn’t, he’s the one it’s most important should hear about it from a reliable witness whom he can believe. I don’t mind telling you about it now” (as Ingred expressed her astonishment in her face), “I’d got myself into a jolly old mess, and you’ll be able to clear me! It was this way; I slipped out from the office one afternoon for an hour, and went into the Abbey as you saw. Well, when I got back, somebody had been into Dad’s room during his absence, and a small sum of money was missing. He taxed me with taking it!”

You! But why you?” exclaimed Ingred indignantly.

“Because I was the only person who had access to his private room. I told Dad I had been out⁠—which made him angrier still⁠—but none of the clerks had happened to see me go or come back, and I had no other witness to prove my words. As a matter of fact, I went out before Father, and came back after he had returned, but he wouldn’t take my word for it. You know what he is when he’s angry. You simply can’t argue with him! Then you made things ever so much worse by blurting out how I’d taken you to tea at the café, and bought you a bag. Father glared as if it proved I’d been spending stolen money!”

“You were rather flush of cash that day,” commented Ingred.

“Yes, the fact is I’d been writing a short story, and it had been accepted by a newspaper. It’s a poor enough thing, and I didn’t sign my own name to it. I didn’t want to tell them at home I was trying to write until I could do something better. Anyhow, I’d just cashed the check, and thought I’d give you a treat for once. I knew it was no use to explain to Father. Mother has stuck up for me, but I can tell you I’ve been having a time of it this last fortnight.”

“But, Egbert,” said Ingred, frankly puzzled, “couldn’t you have got Miss Bertrand to tell Dad where you were? It would have been better after all than letting him think you took the money.”

Egbert’s face darkened again tragically.

“I wouldn’t appeal to Miss Bertrand to clear my character if it were a charge of murder. I’d be hanged first! I met her the very day after we were in the Abbey together⁠—she was walking with some idiot of an airman⁠—and she stared straight in my face and cut me. I’ve done with girls! They’re all of them alike!” and the gloomy young misanthrope picked up the spanner and began energetically tightening nuts on the motorcycle.

Ingred shook a sympathetic head. She had not much experience in love affairs, but she fancied that this one did not go very deep.

“You’ll get over it,” she consoled. “And she wasn’t a very nice girl, anyway. Queenie always loathed her. If Dad’s had his nap, I’ll go and tell him how I saw you in the Abbey. I know it was a Tuesday, because I’d had my music lesson, and was taking the books that Dr. Linton left behind him.”

“Good! That’s what’s called proving an alibi. I don’t know who walked off with those notes, but as long as Dad’s satisfied I had nothing to do with it, that’s all I care. He can thrash it out with the clerks now, or leave it alone.”

Mr. Saxon questioned Ingred closely, but accepted her account of the matter, which set his doubts at rest concerning his son. The relief in the family circle was enormous. Mother’s face was beaming, and it seemed as if the storm-clouds had blown away, and the sun had shone out. Tea was the most comfortable meal that the household had taken together for a fortnight.

“I haven’t spent quite all that check I got from the Harlow Weekly News,” whispered Egbert to Ingred that evening, “and I’m going to buy you a box of chocolates on Monday. I’ll leave them for you at the Hostel. You deserve them!”

“You mascot! I can’t quite see that I do deserve them, for I really meant to rag you about that Abbey business. But I won’t say ‘No, thank you!’ to chocks! Rather not! We’ll have a gorgeous little private feast in No. 2 tomorrow night.”