THESE happy days had lasted for a month or more, when, one bright day in February, I remember it well, a little cloud arose. This is how it was: Dorothy had promised Elsie that she would drive her in the pony-carriage to Banford to choose a doll for May’s birthday. Now, it happened that I wanted the little carriage to take my “Mothers” at Ditchling the clothing I had bought in London with their club money. My errand could not be deferred; it must be done that day or a week later. But I did not see why the children’s commission would not do as well to-morrow; and so I said, in good faith, as I was stepping into the carriage, hardly noticing the silence with which my remark was received.
I came home tired, after a long afternoon, looking forward to the welcome of the girls. The two seniors were sitting in the firelight, bright enough just then to show me Dorothy, limp and pale, in a low chair, and Elsie watching her with a perplexed and anxious expression. Dorothy did look up to say, “Are you tired, mother?” but only her eyes looked, there was nothing behind them.
“You look tired and cold enough, my dear; what has been the matter?”
“Oh, I’m very well, thank you; but I am tired, I think I’ll go to bed.” And she held up a cold cheek for the mother’s kiss for which she offered no return.
Elsie and I gazed at one another in consternation; our fairy princess, our idol—was it indeed so?—what had come to her?
“What is the matter with Dorothy? Has she a headache?”
“Oh, mother, I don’t know,” said the poor child on the verge of tears. “She has been like this ever since you went, saying ‘Yes,’ and ‘No,’ and ‘No, thank you,’ quite kindly, but never saying a word of herself. Has any one been grieving our Dorothy, or is she going to be ill? Oh, mother, mother!”
“Nay, child, don’t cry. Dorothy is overdone; you know she has been out twice this week, and three times last, and late hours don’t suit her. We must take better care of her, that’s all.”
Elsie was comforted, but not so her mother. I believed every word I had said to the child; but all the time there was a stir in my heart like the rustling of a snake in the grass. But I put it from me.
It was with a hidden fear that I came down to
breakfast. Dorothy was in the room already, doing the little duties of the breakfast table. But she was pale and still; her hands moved, her figure hung, in the limp way I had noticed the night before. Her cheek, a cold “Good-morning, mother,” and a smile on her lips that brought no light to her eyes, was all the morning salutation I got. Breakfast was a uncomfortable, constrained meal. The children wondered what was the matter, and nobody knew. Her father got on best with Dorothy, for he knew nothing of the evening’s history, so he petted her as usual, making all the more of her for her pale looks.
For a whole week this went on, and never once was I allowed to meet Dorothy eye to eye. The children were hardly better served, for they, too, had noticed something amiss; only her father could win any of the old friendliness, because he treated her as the Dorothy who had come home to us, only a little done up.
“We must have the doctor for that child, wife. Don’t you see she is beginning to lose flesh, and how the roses she brought home are fading! She has no appetite and no spirits. But, why, you surely don’t think our dainty moth has singed her wings already? There’s nobody here, unless it’s young Gardiner, and she would never waste herself on a gawky lad like that!”
This was a new idea, and I stopped a moment to consider, for I knew of at least half-a-dozen young men who had been attentive to Dorothy, all to be preferred to this hobbledehoy young Gardiner. But, no! I could trace the change from the moment of my return from Ditchling. But I jumped at the notion of the doctor; it would, at any rate, take her out of herself, and—we should see.
The doctor came; said she wanted tone; advised, not physic, but fresh air, exercise, and early hours. So we all laid ourselves out to obey his directions that day, but with no success to speak of.
But the next was one of those glorious February days when every twig is holding itself stiffly in the pride of coming leafage, and the snowdrops in the garden beds lift dainty heads out of the brown earth. The joy of the spring did it. We found her in the breakfast-room, snowdrops at her throat, rosy, beaming, joyous; a greeting, sweet and tender, for each; and never had we known her talk so sparkling, her air so full of dainty freshness. There was no relapse after this sudden cure. Our good friend Dr Evans called again, to find her in such a flourishing health that ten minutes’ raillery of “my poor patient” was the only attention he thought necessary. But, “H’m! Mighty sudden cure!” as he was going out, showed that he, too, found something odd in this sudden change.
In a day or two we had forgotten all about our bad week. All went well for awhile. At the end of five weeks, however, we were again pulled up—another attack of sudden indisposition, so outsiders thought. What did I think? Well, my thoughts were not enviable.
“Father, I wish you would call at Walker’s and choose me some flowers for this evening.” It was the evening of the Brisbanes’ dance, and I had half an idea that Arthur Brisbane had made some impression on Dorothy. His state of mind was evident enough. But, without thinking twice, I interrupted with—
“Don’t you think what we have in the ‘house’ will do, dear? Nothing could make up better than stephanotis and maidenhair.”
Dorothy made no answer, and her father, thinking all was right, went off at once; he was already rather late. We thought no more of the matter for a minute or two, when, at the same moment, Elsie and I found our eyes fixed upon Dorothy. The former symptoms followed—days of pallor and indisposition, which were, at the same time, days of estrangement from us all. Again we had in Dr Evans, “just to look at her,” and this time I noticed—not without a foolish mother’s resentment—that his greeting was other than cordial. “Well, young lady, and what’s gone amiss this time?” he said, knitting his bushy brows, and gazing steadily at her out of the eyes which could be keen as well as kind. Dorothy flushed and fidgeted under his gaze, but gave only the cold unsatisfactory replies we had been favoured with. The prescription was as before; but again the recovery was sudden, and without apparent cause.