Before Robin had been taken to the seaside to be helped by the bracing air o_he Norfolk coast to recover her lost appetite and forget her small tragedy, she had observed that unaccustomed things were taking place in the house.
Workmen came in and out through the mews at the back and brought ladders wit_hem and tools in queer bags. She heard hammerings which began very early i_he morning and went on all day. As Andrews had trained her not to as_iresome questions, she only crept now and then to a back window and peepe_ut. But in a few days Dowson took her away.
When she came back to London, she was not taken up the steep dark stairs t_he third floor. Dowson led her into some rooms she had never seen before.
They were light and airy and had pretty walls and furniture. A sitting-room o_he ground floor had even a round window with plants in it and a canary bir_inging in a cage.
"May we stay here?" she asked Dowson in a whisper.
"We are going to live here," was the answer.
And so they did.
At first Feather occasionally took her intimates to see the additiona_partments.
"In perfect splendour is the creature put up, and I with a bedroom like _oalhole and such drawing-rooms as you see each time you enter the house!" sh_roke forth spitefully one day when she forgot herself.
She said it to the Starling and Harrowby, who had been simply gazing abou_hem in fevered mystification, because the new development was a thing whic_ust invoke some more or less interesting explanation. At her outbreak, al_hey could do was to gaze at her with impartial eyes, which suggeste_uestion, and Feather shrugged pettish shoulders.
"You knew _I_ didn't do it. How could I?" she said. "It is a queer whim o_oombe's. Of course, it is not the least like him. I call it morbid."
After which people knew about the matter and found it a subject for edifyin_nd quite stimulating discussion. There was something fantastic in th_ituation. Coombe was the last man on earth to have taken the slightest notic_f the child's existence! It was believed that he had never seen her—except i_ong clothes—until she had glared at him and put her hand behind her back th_ight she was brought into the drawing-room. She had been adroitly kept tucke_way in an attic somewhere. And now behold an addition of several wonderful, small rooms built, furnished and decorated for her alone, where she was t_ive as in a miniature palace attended by servitors! Coombe, as a purveyor o_ursery appurtenances, was regarded with humour, the general opinion bein_hat the eruption of a volcano beneath his feet alone could have awakened hi_omewhat chill self-absorption to the recognition of any child's existence.
"To be exact we none of us really know anything in particular about his menta_rocesses." Harrowby pondered aloud. "He's capable of any number of things w_ight not understand, if he condescended to tell us about them—which he woul_ever attempt. He has a remote, brilliantly stored, cynical mind. He owns tha_e is of an inhuman selfishness. I haven't a suggestion to make, but it set_ne searching through the purlieus of one's mind for an approximatel_easonable explanation."
"Why 'purlieus'?" was the Starling's inquiry. Harrowby shrugged his shoulder_ver so lightly.
"Well, one isn't searching for reasons founded on copy-book axioms," he shoo_is head. "Coombe? No."
There was a silence given to occult thought.
"Feather is really in a rage and is too Feathery to be able to conceal it,"
"Feather would be—inevitably," Harrowby lifted his near-sighted eyes to he_uriously. "Can you see Feather in the future—when Robin is ten years older?"
"I can," the Starling answered.
* * * * *
The years which followed were changing years—growing years. Life an_ntertainment went on fast and furiously in all parts of London, and in n_art more rapidly than in the slice of a house whose front always presented a_ir of having been freshly decorated, in spite of summer rain and winter soo_nd fog. The plants in the window boxes seemed always in bloom, bein_agically replaced in the early morning hours when they dared to hint a_lagging. Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, it was said, must be renewed in some suc_ysterious morning way, as she merely grew prettier as she neared thirty an_assed it. Women did in these days! Which last phrase had always been a usefu_ne, probably from the time of the Flood. Old fogeys, male and female, ha_sed it in the past as a means of scathingly unfavourable comparison, growin_lushed and almost gobbling like turkey cocks in their indignation. Now, as _hrase, it was a support and a mollifier. "In these days" one knew better ho_o amuse oneself, was more free to snatch at agreeable opportunity, less i_ondage to old fancies which had called themselves beliefs; everything whirle_aster and more lightly—danced, two-stepped, instead of marching.
Robin vaguely connected certain changes in her existence with the change_hich took place in the fashion of sleeves and skirts which appeared t_roduce radical effects in the world she caught glimpses of. Sometimes sleeve_ere closely fitted to people's arms, then puffs sprang from them and gre_ntil they were enormous and required delicate manipulation when coats wer_ut on; then their lavishness of material fell from the shoulder to the wrist_nd hung there swaying until some sudden development of skirt seemed t_istract their attention from themselves and they shrank into unimportance an_kirts changed instead. Afterwards, sometimes figures were slim and encased i_heathlike draperies, sometimes folds rippled about feet, "fullness" crep_ere or there or disappeared altogether, trains grew longer or shorter o_ider or narrower, cashmeres, grosgrain silks and heavy satins were suddenl_one and chiffon wreathed itself about the world and took possession of it.
Bonnets ceased to exist and hats were immense or tiny, tall or flat, tilted a_he back, at the side, at the front, worn over the face or dashingly rolle_ack from it; feathers drooped or stood upright at heights which rose and fel_nd changed position with the changing seasons. No garment or individual wor_he same aspect for more than a month's time. It was necessary to change al_hings with a rapidity matching the change of moods and fancies which altere_t the rate of the automobiles which dashed here and there and everywhere, through country roads, through town, through remote places with an unsparin_wiftness which set a new pace for the world.
"I cannot hark back regretfully to stage coaches," said Lord Coombe. "Even _as not born early enough for that. But in the days of my youth and innocenc_xpress trains seemed almost supernatural. One could drive a pair of horse_wenty miles to make a country visit, but one could not drive back the sam_ay. One's circle had its limitations and degrees of intimacy. Now it i_ossible motor fifty miles to lunch and home to dine with guests from th_emotest corners of the earth. Oceans are crossed in six days, and the eage_lit from continent to continent. Engagements can be made by cable and th_ruly enterprising can accept an invitation to dine in America on _ortnight's notice. Telephones communicate in a few seconds and no one i_ecure from social intercourse for fifteen minutes. Acquaintances an_orrespondence have no limitations because all the inhabitants of the glob_an reach one by motor or electricity. In moments of fatigue I revert to th_ays of Queen Anne with pleasure."
While these changes went on, Robin lived in her own world in her own quarter_t the rear of the slice of a house. During the early years spent with Dowson, she learned gradually that life was a better thing than she had known in th_reary gloom of the third floor Day and Night Nurseries. She was no longe_eft to spend hours alone, nor was she taken below stairs to listen blankly t_ervants talking to each other of mysterious things with which she herself an_he Lady Downstairs and "him" were somehow connected, her discovery of thi_act being based on the dropping of voices and sidelong glances at her an_udden warning sounds from Andrews. She realized that Dowson would never pinc_er, and the rooms she lived in were pretty and bright.
Gradually playthings and picture books appeared in them, which she gathere_owson presented her with. She gathered this from Dowson herself.
She had never played with the doll, and, by chance a day arriving when Lor_oombe encountered Dowson in the street without her charge, he stopped he_gain and spoke as before.
"Is the little girl well and happy, Nurse?" he asked.
"Quite well, my lord, and much happier than she used to be."
"Did she," he hesitated slightly, "like the playthings you bought her?"
Dowson hesitated more than slightly but, being a sensible woman and at th_ame time curious about the matter, she spoke the truth.
"She wouldn't play with them at all, my lord. I couldn't persuade her to. Wha_er child's fancy was I don't know."
"Neither do I—except that it is founded on a distinct dislike," said Coombe.
There was a brief pause. "Are you fond of toys yourself, Dowson?" he inquire_oldly.
"I am that—and I know how to choose them, your lordship," replied Dowson, with a large, shrewd intelligence.
"Then oblige me by throwing away the doll and its accompaniments and buyin_ome toys for yourself, at my expense. You can present them to Miss Robin as _ersonal gift. She will accept them from you."
He passed on his way and Dowson looked after him interestedly.
"If she was his," she thought, "I shouldn't be puzzled. But she's not—tha_'ve ever heard of. He's got some fancy of his own the same as Robin has, though you wouldn't think it to look at him. I'd like to know what it is."
It was a fancy—an old, old fancy—it harked back nearly thirty years—to th_ark days of youth and passion and unending tragedy whose anguish, as it the_eemed, could never pass—but which, nevertheless, had faded with the years a_hey flowed by. And yet left him as he was and had been. He was no_entimental about it, he smiled at himself drearily—though never at th_emory—when it rose again and, through its vague power, led him to do strang_hings curiously verging on the emotional and eccentric. But even th_hild—who quite loathed him for some fantastic infant reason of her own—eve_he child had her part in it. His soul oddly withdrew itself into a fa_emoteness as he walked away and Piccadilly became a shadow and a dream.
Dowson went home and began to pack neatly in a box the neglected doll and th_oys which had accompanied her. Robin seeing her doing it, asked a question.
"Are they going back to the shop?"
"No. Lord Coombe is letting me give them to a little girl who is very poor an_as to lie in bed because her back hurts her. His lordship is so kind he doe_ot want you to be troubled with them. He is not angry. He is too good to b_ngry."
That was not true, thought Robin. He had done THAT THING she remembered!
Goodness could not have done it. Only badness.
When Dowson brought in a new doll and other wonderful things, a little han_nclosed her wrist quite tightly as she was unpacking the boxes. It wa_obin's and the small creature looked at her with a questioning, hal_ppealing, half fierce.
"Did he send them, Dowson?"
"They are a present from me," Dowson answered comfortably, and Robin said again,
"I want to kiss you. I like to kiss you. I do."
To those given to psychical interests and speculations, it might hav_uggested itself that, on the night when the creature who had seemed t_ndrews a soft tissued puppet had suddenly burst forth into defiance an_earless shrillness, some cerebral change had taken place in her. From tha_our her softness had become a thing of the past. Dowson had not found a baby, but a brooding, little, passionate being. She was neither insubordinate no_rritable, but Dowson was conscious of a certain intensity of temperament i_er. She knew that she was always thinking of things of which she said almos_othing. Only a sensible motherly curiosity, such as Dowson's could have mad_iscoveries, but a rare question put by the child at long intervals sometime_hrew a faint light. There were questions chiefly concerning mothers and thei_abits and customs. They were such as, in their very unconsciousness, reveale_ strange past history. Lights were most unconsciously thrown by Mrs. Gareth- Lawless herself. Her quite amiable detachment from all shadow o_esponsibility, her brilliantly unending occupations, her goings in and out, the flocks of light, almost noisy, intimates who came in and out with he_evealed much to a respectable person who had soberly watched the world.
"The Lady Downstairs is my mother, isn't she?" Robin inquired gravely once.
"Yes, my dear," was Dowson's answer.
A pause for consideration of the matter and then from Robin:
"All mothers are not alike, Dowson, are they?"
"No, my dear," with wisdom.
Though she was not yet seven, life had so changed for her that it was a fa_ry back to the Spring days in the Square Gardens. She went back, however, back into that remote ecstatic past.
"The Lady Downstairs is not—alike," she said at last, "Donal's mother love_im. She let him sit in the same chair with her and read in picture books. Sh_issed him when he was in bed."
Jennings, the young footman who was a humourist, had, of course, heard witt_eferences to Robin's love affair while in attendance, and he had equally, o_ourse, repeated them below stairs. Therefore,
Dowson had heard vague rumours but had tactfully refrained from mentioning th_ubject to her charge.
"Who was Donal?" she said now, but quite quietly. Robin did not know that _onfidante would have made her first agony easier to bear. She was not reall_eing confidential now, but, realizing Dowson's comfortable kindliness, sh_new that it would be safe to speak to her.
"He was a big boy," she answered keeping her eyes on Dowson's face. "H_aughed and ran and jumped. His eyes—" she stopped there because she could no_xplain what she had wanted to say about these joyous young eyes, which wer_he first friendly human ones she had known.
"He lives in Scotland," she began again. "His mother loved him.
He kissed me. He went away. Lord Coombe sent him."
Dawson could not help her start.
"Lord Coombe!" she exclaimed.
Robin came close to her and ground her little fist into her knee, until it_lumpness felt almost bruised.
"He is bad—bad—bad!" and she looked like a little demon.
Being a wise woman, Dowson knew at once that she had come upon a hidden chil_olcano, and it would be well to let it seethe into silence. She was not _lever person, but long experience had taught her that there were occasion_hen it was well to leave a child alone. This one would not answer if she wer_uestioned. She would only become stubborn and furious, and no child should b_oaded into fury. Dowson had, of course, learned that the boy was a relativ_f his lordship's and had a strict Scottish mother who did not approve of th_lice of a house. His lordship might have been concerned in the matter—or h_ight not. But at least Dowson had gained a side light. And how the littl_hing had cared! Actually as if she had been a grown girl, Dowson foun_erself thinking uneasily.
She was rendered even a trifle more uneasy a few days later when she came upo_obin sitting in a corner on a footstool with a picture book on her knee, an_he recognized it as the one she had discovered during her first exploitatio_f the resources of the third floor nursery. It was inscribed "Donal" an_obin was not looking at it alone, but at something she held in he_and—something folded in a crumpled, untidy bit of paper.
Making a reason for nearing her corner, Dowson saw what the paper held. Th_ontents looked like the broken fragments of some dried leaves. The child wa_azing at them with a piteous, bewildered face—so piteous that Dowson wa_orry.
"Do you want to keep those?" she asked.
"Yes," with a caught breath. "Yes."
"I will make you a little silk bag to hold them in," Dowson said, actuall_eeling rather piteous herself. The poor, little lamb with her picture boo_nd her bits of broken dry leaves—almost like senna.
She sat down near her and Robin left her footstool and came to her. She lai_he picture book on her lap and the senna like fragments of leaves on its ope_age.
"Donal brought it to show me," she quavered. "He made pretty things on th_eaves—with his dirk." She recalled too much—too much all at once. Her eye_rew rounder and larger with inescapable woe; "Donal did! Donal!" And suddenl_he hid her face deep in Dowson's skirts and the tempest broke. She was s_mall a thing—so inarticulate—and these were her dead! Dowson could only catc_er in her arms, drag her up on her knee, and rock her to and fro.
"Good Lord! Good Lord!" was her inward ejaculation. "And she not seven!
What'll she do when she's seventeen! She's one of them there's no help for!"
It was the beginning of an affection. After this, when Dowson tucked Robin i_ed each night, she kissed her. She told her stories and taught her to sew an_o know her letters. Using some discretion she found certain little playmate_or her in the Gardens. But there were occasions when all did not go well, an_ome pretty, friendly child, who had played with Robin for a few days, suddenly seemed to be kept strictly by her nurse's side. Once, when she wa_bout ten years old, a newcomer, a dramatic and too richly dressed littl_erson, after a day of wonderful imaginative playing appeared in the Garden_he morning following to turn an ostentatious cold shoulder.
"What is the matter?" asked Robin.
"Oh, we can't play with you any more," with quite a flounce superiority.
"Why not?" said Robin, becoming haughty herself.
"We can't. It's because of Lord Coombe." The little person had really n_efinite knowledge of how Lord Coombe was concerned, but certain servants'
whisperings of names and mysterious phrases had conveyed quite an enjoyabl_ffect of unknown iniquity connected with his lordship.
Robin said nothing to Dowson, but walked up and down the paths reflecting an_uilding a slow fire which would continue to burn in her young heart. She ha_y then passed the round, soft baby period and had entered into that phas_hen bodies and legs grow long and slender and small faces lose their firs_urves and begin to show sharper modeling.
Accepting the situation in its entirety, Dowson had seen that it was well t_irst reach Lord Coombe with any need of the child's. Afterwards, the form o_resenting it to Mrs. Gareth-Lawless must be gone through, but if she wer_irst spoken to any suggestion might be forgotten or intentionally ignored.
Dowson became clever in her calculations as to when his lordship might b_ncountered and where—as if by chance, and therefore, quite respectfully.
Sometimes she remotely wondered if he himself did not make such encounter_asy for her. But his manner never altered in its somewhat stiff, expressionless chill of indifference. He never was kindly in his manner to th_hild if he met her. Dowson felt him at once casual and "lofty." Robin migh_ave been a bit of unconsidered rubbish, the sight of which slightly bore_im. Yet the singular fact remained that it was to him one must carefull_ppeal.
One afternoon Feather swept him, with one or two others, into the sitting-roo_ith the round window in which flowers grew. Robin was sitting at a low tabl_aking pothooks with a lead pencil on a piece of paper Dowson had given her.
Dowson had, in fact, set her at the task, having heard from Jennings that hi_ordship and the other afternoon tea drinkers were to be brought into the
"Palace" as Feather ironically chose to call it. Jennings rather liked Dowson, and often told her little things she wanted to know. It was because Lor_oombe would probably come in with the rest that Dowson had set the low, whit_able in the round windows and suggested the pothooks.
In course of time there was a fluttering and a chatter in the corridor.
Feather was bringing some new guests, who had not seen the place before.
"This is where my daughter lives. She is much grander than I am," she said.
"Stand up, Miss Robin, and make your curtsey," whispered Dowson. Robin did a_he was told, and Mrs. Gareth-Lawless' pretty brows ran up.
"Look at her legs," she said. "She's growing like Jack and the Bea_talk—though, I suppose, it was only the Bean Stalk that grew. She'll stic_hrough the top of the house soon. Look at her legs, I ask you."
She always spoke as if the child were an inanimate object and she had, by thi_ime and by this means, managed to sweep from Robin's mind all the old, babyish worship of her loveliness and had planted in its place anothe_eeling. At this moment the other feeling surged and burned.
"They are beautiful legs," remarked a laughing young man jocularly, "bu_erhaps she does not particularly want us to look at them. Wait until sh_egins skirt dancing." And everybody laughed at once and the child stoo_igid—the object of their light ridicule—not herself knowing that her whol_ittle being was cursing them aloud.
Coombe stepped to the little table and bestowed a casual glance on the penci_arks.
"What is she doing?" he asked as casually of Dowson.
"She is learning to make pothooks, my lord," Dowson answered. "She's a chil_hat wants to be learning things. I've taught her her letters and to spel_ittle words. She's quick—and old enough, your lordship."
"Learning to read and write!" exclaimed Feather.
"Presumption, I call it. I don't know how to read and write—least I don't know how to spell. Do you know how to spell, Collie?" to the young man, whose name was Colin. "Do you, Genevieve? Do you, Artie?"
"You can't betray me into vulgar boasting," said Collie. "Who does in thes_ays? Nobody but clerks at Peter Robinson's."
"Lord Coombe does—but that's his tiresome superior way," said Feather.
"He's nearly forty years older than most of you. That is the reason," Coomb_ommented. "Don't deplore your youth and innocence."
They swept through the rooms and examined everything in them. The truth wa_hat the—by this time well known—fact that the unexplainable Coombe had buil_hem made them a curiosity, and a sort of secret source of jokes. The part_ven mounted to the upper story to go through the bedrooms, and, it was whil_hey were doing this, that Coombe chose to linger behind with Dowson.
He remained entirely expressionless for a few moments. Dowson did not in th_east gather whether he meant to speak to her or not. But he did.
"You meant," he scarcely glanced at her, "that she was old enough for _overness."
"Yes, my lord," rather breathless in her hurry to speak before she heard th_igh heels tapping on the staircase again. "And one that's a good woman a_ell as clever, if I may take the liberty. A good one if—"
"If a good one would take the place?"
Dowson did not attempt refutation or apology. She knew better.
He said no more, but sauntered out of the room.
As he did so, Robin stood up and made the little "charity bob" of a curtse_hich had been part of her nursery education. She was too old now to hav_efused him her hand, but he never made any advances to her. He acknowledge_er curtsey with the briefest nod.
Not three minutes later the high heels came tapping down the staircase and th_mall gust of visitors swept away also.