Bess at Home

The Pilgrims, after a glorious tramp down the dale of Beechcombe, reached Pursborough without further adventure, and spent the night there. They gave an hour next morning to inspecting the glorious old church and the ruins of the castle, then once more resumed the Roman road. It was the last day of their tour, so they made the best of it. They explored some delightful woods, followed the course of a fascinating stream, ate their lunch in a picturesque quarry, had an early tea at a wayside inn which rivalled “The Pelican” in quaintness, and finally reached Ribstang in time to catch the 5:20 train to Grovebury. The conclusion of the excursion meant the close of the holiday, for school would begin again on the following Monday. Everybody had enjoyed it immensely, and everybody was only too sorry it was over. To Ingred it marked an epoch. She had suddenly made friends with Bess Haselford. Now she viewed Bess with unprejudiced eyes she realized what an exceedingly nice and attractive girl she really was. The adventure in the field had flung them together, and⁠—much to the astonishment of the others, who did not know their secret⁠—they had walked the whole way from Pursborough to Ribstang in each other’s company.

“I can’t make out Ingred!” declared Verity. “Here she’s been abusing Bess, and calling her a bounder, and now she’s hanging on her arm! The way some people turn round is really most extraordinary⁠—”

“ ‘There’s naught so queer as folks!’ ” quoted Linda. “Glad Ingred’s come to her senses, at any rate. I always thought she was perfectly beastly to Bess!”

“So she was. I wonder Bess will put up with her now. I’m sure I wouldn’t!”

Bess, however, was of a forgiving disposition, and let bygones be bygones. It is the only plan at schools, for girls are generally so frank in the nature of their remarks that if you begin to treasure up the disagreeable things said to you, and let them rankle, you will probably find yourself without a chum in the world. Though the fashion may be for plain speaking, it is often a matter of mood, and the mate who genuinely believes you a “blighter” one day, will claim you as a “mascot” with equal persuasion on the next. It is all part of the wholesome rough-and-tumble of your education, and proves of as much use in training you and rounding your projecting corners as the lessons you learn in your form. The girls thought Ingred’s new infatuation would soon wear off, but it had come to stay. She herself was quite surprised at the force of the attraction. It was almost like falling in love. She marched with Bess at drilling, chose her for her partner at tennis, and would have changed desks to sit next to her, had not Miss Strong refused permission. As a natural result of this new state of affairs came a shy invitation from Bess asking Ingred to tea at Rotherwood. After the many previous refusals she would hardly have ventured to give in but for several hints which paved the way. Circumstances, however, alter cases, and Ingred, who had declared that nothing should induce her to set foot in her old home, was now all eagerness to go. She was delighted to find that she was to be the only guest. She felt that on this particular visit even Verity would be de trop.

On a certain Tuesday afternoon, therefore, with full permission from Miss Burd, she absented herself from the hostel tea-table, and walked home with Bess instead. It gave her quite a thrill to turn in at the familiar gate of Rotherwood. The lawns were in beautiful order, and the beds gay with tulips, aubrietias, forget-me-nots, and a lovely show of hyacinths. So far from being neglected, the place seemed even better kept than in the old days. The house, with its pretty modern black-and-white front, its many gables, and its cheerful red-tiled roof, looked the same as formerly; but indoors there were great changes. The hall, which used to be Moorish, was now hung with tapestry, and furnished in old oak; the drawing-room was yellow instead of blue, with a big brocade-covered couch and a Chappell piano; the dining-room had rows of bookcases and some good oil-paintings; the morning-room was a cheerful chintz boudoir with a gilt mirror and Chippendale chairs; the conservatory was full of choice flowers, and an aviary had been added to it.

“Mother is so fond of birds,” explained Bess. “They amuse her when her head’s bad and she doesn’t care to see anybody. She’s made most of them wonderfully tame.”

Mrs. Haselford proved to be a gentle pleasant lady who shook hands kindly with Ingred, then excused herself on the score of ill-health, and retired to her room, leaving the girls to have tea by themselves.

“Mother’s never been really well for three years,” said Bess. “Not since Bert and Larry⁠—”

She did not finish her sentence, but her eyes turned to the wall where hung two portraits of lads in khaki. Ingred understood. She knew that Bess had lost both brothers in the war, and she had heard that poor Mrs. Haselford had shut herself up in her grief and refused all comfort, sometimes even to the extent of remaining for days upstairs, and neglecting the company of husband and child. Her attitude to Bess was often peculiar, it was almost as if she resented her daughter being left when her adored boys had been taken from her. Bess never knew how she would be received, for sometimes her mother would seem unable to bear her presence, and at other times would unreasonably chide her for neglect. It began to dawn on Ingred how very lonely her friend must be. She had secretly envied her the possession of Rotherwood, but now she realized how little the house itself would mean without the happy home life in which brothers and sister had borne their part.

“I’d rather have the bungalow with the family, than Rotherwood all alone!” she ruminated. “As for Muvkins, she’s one in a million. I believe she’d be cheery in a coal cellar, so long as she’d a solitary chick to keep under her wing. Why, if we’d lost our boys, she’d have been trying to make it up to Queenie and me for not having brothers. I know her! That’s her way!”

Bess had much to show to her visitor when tea in the dainty morning-room was over. There were her books, and her photographs and postcard albums, and all kinds of girlish possessions, and a cocker spaniel with three puppies as fat as roly-poly puddings, and a fern-case opening out of one of her bedroom windows, and a collection of pressed wild flowers, and a green parroquet that would sit on her wrist, and allow her to stroke its head, though it snapped at strangers. They had been working upwards through the house, and finally Bess led the way to the top landing of all. She paused for a moment before the door of an attic room.

“I expect you’ll know this place!” she remarked shyly, ushering in her guest.

Ingred looked round in amazement. It was a little sanctum which she and Quenrede had shared in the old days as a kind of studio. Here they had been allowed to try experiments in poker work, painting, fret-carving, spatter-work, or any other operations which were considered too messy to be performed in the schoolroom downstairs. They had loved their “den,” as they called it, and had taken a particular pleasure in covering its walls with pictures, cut, most of them, from magazines, and stuck on with glue or paste. During the occupation of Rotherwood by the “Red Cross,” this room had been locked up, and Ingred had imagined that Mr. Haselford would have had it papered when the rest of the house was decorated. She was delighted to find it in this untouched condition. All her dear former treasures adorned the walls, and she ran from one to another rejoicing over them. There was even a further surprise. Years ago an artist cousin had sketched her portrait in pastel crayons upon the color-wash of the wall. It had been done as a mere artistic freak, but like many such spontaneous drawings it had been an admirable likeness and a very pretty picture. It bore her name, “Ingred,” in flourishy letters underneath. The whole of this had now been protected with a sheet of glass and enclosed by a frame. A table in the room, an easy chair, and a gas-fire seemed to point to its occasional occupation.

“You actually haven’t had this changed!” exclaimed Ingred. “I thought it must all have been swept away by now!”

“No. You see, Father took me over the house when first he decided to come here, and when he was arranging what papers to choose. I fell in love with this dear wee room just as it was, and begged that it mightn’t be touched. Father let me have it for my very own. It was so different from all other rooms. I liked the pictures pasted on the walls, and the bits of poker-work nailed up. I knew some other girls must have been here, and it gave me a homely feeling, as if you had only gone away for a few minutes, and might come back any time and talk to me. Then there was your portrait. I wondered who ‘Ingred’ was! The name struck my fancy immensely, and so did the face. You remember we removed to Rotherwood at the end of July, and all the rest of the summer I wondered about the portrait. I used to come up here and sit when I felt very lonely, and it seemed company, somehow. You can’t think how fond I got of it. I suppose I was rather silly and absurd, but I knew nobody in Grovebury then, and Mother was ill in her room, and Father away all day⁠—anyhow I got into the habit of talking to it as if it were a girl friend, and showing it my paintings, and my pressed flowers, and everything I was doing. I pretended it liked to see them. Sometimes I even brought up my violin and played to it. That was nicer than being quite by myself. It grew to be as dear to me as the little sister I had always longed to have.

“Then in September I went to the College. You can imagine what a start it gave me when somebody called you ‘Ingred.’ I looked at you, and I saw at once that you were the ‘Ingred’ of my picture, only grown older. I was absolutely thrilled. It was very foolish of me, but I thought somehow you’d understand. Of course you didn’t! How could you? It was idiotic of me to expect it. The ‘Ingred’ on the wall was simply the friend of my fancy.”

“And the real one was just hateful to you!” said Ingred sorrowfully. “I know I was a perfect beast! I was ashamed of myself all the time, only I wouldn’t confess it. Lispeth used to slate me sometimes for my nastiness. She called me ‘a jealous blighter,’ and so I was! The girl of your fancy is a great deal nicer than I am, or ever can be, but I’ll try to live up to her as well as I can, Bess, if you’ll let me!”

“Let you!” echoed Bess, linking her arm affectionately in that of her friend. “You’re a perfect dear nowadays.”

The girls tore themselves away quite regretfully from the little attic studio, but time was passing only too quickly, and they wished to try a game of tennis before Ingred returned to the hostel.

“So you like the house in its new dress?” asked Bess as they walked down the steps into the garden. “Father thinks it’s beautiful. He says Mr. Saxon is the best architect he knows. He’s simply put everything in exactly the right place. Does he only design houses, or does he go in for anything bigger?”

“He would if he got the chance,” replied Ingred. “What sort of things do you mean?”

“Oh, a church, or a museum, or an art gallery.”

“I know he’s done most splendid designs for these, but he’s never had the luck to get them accepted. There’s generally so much influence needed to get your plans taken for a big public building like that. At least, that’s what Dad says. If you have a relation on the City Council, it makes a vast difference to your chances. We’ve no friends at Court.”

“Oh!” said Bess, rather abstractedly, and the subject dropped.

The girls had only time for one game of tennis, when the stable-clock, chiming half-past six, reminded Ingred that if she wished to do her preparation that evening she must rush back to the hotel. She bade Bess a reluctant goodbye.

“You’ll come and see me again?” asked the latter.

“Rather! And I’ll send thought-waves to animate my portrait, and let it talk for me in my absence,” laughed Ingred. “Perhaps you’ll get more than you bargain for⁠—I’m an awful chatterbox.”

“You’ll never talk too much for me,” said Bess, as she kissed her goodbye.