THE LITTLE BIRD
Two days later Keith Harford arrived. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy adjusted the red shawl once more, securing it fore, aft, and centre with safety pins capable of holding a second-class cruiser. Then she set a wonderful bird-of-paradise hat rakishly over one eye, ordered her own private team of piebald ponies, and finally drove down to the station to meet her favourite guest.
Marcus smiled a quiet smile as he watched her depart.
"The mater thinks no end of poor old Keith," he confided to his wife. "I am afraid though, he is in for a shocking bad time. But I expect he knows!"
Usually the lady of the house paid no attention to the exits and entrances of her visitors, contenting herself with summoning them to her chamber to be interviewed whenever she desired their presence. Many of those who most regularly attended the séances, were lodged in a rambling unattached barracks built in the early days of the water-cure, and now made self-sustaining by an impost of two guineas a week levied upon those adepts who could afford it — and upon neophytes whether they could afford it or not.
The vast stone and iron alleys of the castle itself were honeycombed with bedrooms like a rabbit warren, but the servants attended to none of the guests, excepting a few who dwelt in Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's own private wing, and were under her immediate protection. The rest shifted for themselves in the intervals between the three regulation meals in hall, of which all partook in common.
At these the lady of the house ate little, claiming ascetic privileges, and (apart even from the society of her intimates) making her truly sustaining meals in the privacy of her own chamber.
Marcus and his guests continued to occupy their fortress in the garden wing, and enjoyed there a delightful combination of runaway match and picnic, which was particularly agreeable to the feelings of the newly-married pair.
"I never thought a Home for Cranks could be so interesting," said Idalia. "Do you know, Ione, I actually saw a man to-day who looked as if his clothes had been made for himself, and a woman who seemed to have got into her gown right side first."
It was a shy, pale, shattered Keith Harford who stood on the Rayleigh station platform that night and looked out eagerly for his friend Marcus. He turned to give some directions concerning his luggage, and when he faced about again he found himself almost smothered in the portly eighteen-stone embrace of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy.
"Mr. Harford, Marcus is at home. But it is I who am the little bird to welcome you. I could not rest till I had told you the first news of the dear place, and of us all!" cried the widow romantically as she shook his thin hand. "But bless my life, dear, de-e-ar friend, how pale you look! Marcus told me that you had been ill, but had the little bird known how ill you really were — well — I will not confess, but perhaps — perhaps she would have flown to you. No matter, it is all over now. The breezes of the Channel, and the manifestations of the healing POWER will soon restore you again. For now the little bird can watch over and cherish you all by itself!"
Keith, upon whose faculties the journey and the weakness had acted disastrously, could not achieve anything more sentimental in reply to this, than a spasmodic and semi-articulate ejaculation that he must go and look after his luggage.
"Oh, the servants will assuredly have attended to that already!" said Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, promptly checkmating this move. "But if, like a naughty, unkind, fidgetty man, you are set on going—why, the little bird will come too!"
At this point she gave a skip intended to represent the charming innocence of her birdlike nature but which was more suggestive of a sportive circus elephant privately practising on tubs, or of a haycock which late in life had taken to step-dancing.
It was as his companion had predicted. Keith's shabby old travelling bags, rescued by Ione from the tender mercies of Mrs. Horehound, were already being driven away in the luggage cart towards the vast bulk of the Abbey, which rose against the sky like a veritable St. Michael's Mount, its lighted windows in serried array, tier above shining tier.
The lady life-renter of Rayleigh and the financial mainspring of all these mysteries, conveyed Keith to the carriage by means of a tender compelling pressure upon his arm. The sleek piebalds stood twitching their long tails at the white-painted gates. The lamps were lighted, and shed a soft radiance forward upon shining harness and well-groomed horseflesh. A trim-buttoned tiger held the door, while Caleb himself sat immovable on the low box looking his woodenest into the darkness.
“Now confess,” whispered Martyria Evicta, archly, "wasn't this a sweet surprise to you? You thought it would be Marcus or someone else — instead of me!"
She cooed the last words like a turtle-dove coquetting with its mate, and bent rapturously over so that she might look into Keith's eyes. By this time they had started, and already the carriage was passing swiftly and evenly over fine roads of hard sand upwards to the Abbey. The lamps shone on the swinging gait of the ponies, whose sides flashed out and in alternately white and tan as the lights from the burnished reflectors and the shadows of the trees fell upon them. Invincibly fixed in his place, as if stanchioned to the seat with iron rods, sat Caleb the sphinx, and beside him Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's tiger folded his arms inscrutably like one of the junior divinities upon Olympus, or, perhaps, (more exactly) a party-leader at question time.
Presently the widow laid a plump soft hand on the back of Keith's buckskin glove, with an enticing pressure which made the favoured swain wince as if he had accidentally trodden upon a toad in the heather.
"Is Marcus quite well?" he said lamely, to break the silence. Then he laughed to himself. The question reminded him of the homecomings of boyhood in vacation time. For when he met his father at the station, he could never think of anything to say all the way home, except "Is mother quite well?" "I have been quite well." "Is Charlie quite well?" "Thomson Major is quite well." "Is Mary the cook quite well?" "Is old Snoggins still quite well?"
"Do not trouble about Marcus," replied the widow, smiling, "he will answer for himself, all in good time. But tell me about your illness. How came you to be so poorly, and never to write and tell me? You know that there is nothing I would not have done for you. I would have brought you here at once, and if you had been too weak to come, I should have brought the POWER to you, and nursed you myself."
Her hand was stroking the back of his glove undisguisedly now, and making him as jumpy and nervous as if a steam-roller had been playing with it as a cat plays with a mouse.
"Miss March is with you, is she not?" he ventured at last. For his heart cried out, shy and reticent lover though he was, for news of the Beloved.
"Miss March," said the lady, evidently puzzled, but with a colder strain apparent in her voice, "I don't know Miss March. Is she a patient at the Abbey? There are scores I do not know even by name or sight. But Mrs. Howard-Hodge will doubtless be able to inform you."
"She is the young lady who came with Marcus and his wife," explained Keith, with a certain indignation that any one should profess ignorance of a girl so remarkable as Ione March.
"Oh, the tall pale-faced companion!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy. "Yes, I remember now — I believe I did see her. She looks rather like a lamp-post rigged out in an umbrella cover, doesn't she? Poor thing! Mrs. Howard-Hodge tells me she is not long for this world. Her position must be a very trying one. It is so hard to be dependent on the charity of others. She was at the same school as my daughter-in-law, I think — who is, you know, the daughter of the famous John Cyrus Judd, the American millionaire. It is very good of Mrs. Marcus Hardy to countenance her. For she does look dreadfully like a monitor, or a charity scholar, or something of that kind."
"I assure you. Miss March is the daughter of one of the best - " Keith began, indignantly, and then paused. He felt that he had no right to inform his hostess of facts which Ione might wish to keep concealed, and of which, at all events Marcus knew quite as much as he.
"Come, Keith," murmured the widow, "do not let us talk of Miss March or any one else! Tell me all about yourself! That is the only subject of real interest between us."
The time was short and the lady was anxious to bring the conversation back to legitimate lines.
"Oh, it was nothing much," said Keith. "I have had a serious illness, but I have been well looked after."
"Ah," said Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, "the usual doctors I suppose — mere ignorant butchers. And such nasty flirting nurses as they have in common hospitals — not women of Grace and Power!"
"Well," smiled Keith, "my doctor was an M.D. of Edinburgh, with three stars after his name in the calendar — before he was twenty-eight. And as to nurses - "
"All the worse — the more wedded to their despicable superstition," interrupted the widow decidedly. "In the coming manifestation of the True POWER, all surgical instruments of every kind will be banished from the land under the pain of death. Nothing but prayer and the application of God's bountiful provision of cold water, mustard plasters, and anointing oil on suitable linen dressings, will be permitted in all cases. An M.D. of Edinburgh, dear Mr. Harford, will no more be tolerated than a mad dog which runs the streets inoculating rich and poor alike with the froth of his own rabies!"
The widow was quoting now from one of the addresses of Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge upon the physical manifestations of the POWER.
"At all events I had the best of nursing!" said Harford. For alas! Jane Allen had not been quite as discreet as Ione might have wished. And as he glanced up at the gloomy embrasures of the battlements of the Abbey, and then at the lighted windows ranged below, he wondered behind which flake of light was the dear and shapely head of the girl who had saved his life. Ah, if only he were well and a success in life — instead of a wreck and a failure! But what had he to offer to such a girl!
With an easy movement of C springs and rubbered tires, the carriage rolled smoothly into the courtyard, and round under the arches of iron and glass, till it stopped at Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's private entrance to her own wing of the Abbey of New Religions.
The well-buttoned wasp-waisted tiger was at the door obsequiously touching his scalloped hat. Mrs. Hardy descended with the tread of a festive buffalo.
"You shall have all the privileges of illness," she said, smiling, "the little bird will be your nurse — and guardian! And a greater power — a dearer and a sweeter, I might say, than that of any M.D. of Edinburgh — will have the felicity of sustaining your wearied steps."
And she cast her eyes upward as if she had been singing one of the especial hymns of the new cult. For Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy had had a choir of orphan girls trained, who sang at all the fairs and harvest festivals for miles round — and who were expected to pay the cost of their keep by the fees and gratuities they received. Each of these choristers was conspicuously placarded on the back with her name as follows:--
received on the
"Come to my own rooms, dear Mr. Harford," said the enamoured widow, "a little confection awaits us there, just a trifle of beef-tea, and, ah — sparkling wine — nothing more. The latter is not generally partaken of in this establishment, because — ahem — I hold (as did my dear father before me) somewhat strict views on the subject. But in cases of necessity like yours and mine, dear Keith — I mean Mr. Harford — some allowance must surely be made."
"Certainly, certainly! I — I should like to see Marcus," Keith began, with a nervous dread of any further tête-à-tête manifestations of interest.
"Marcus is very well. Your friendly anxiety does you credit!" replied the widow, patting his arm affectionately, "but in the meantime you and I are much better company by ourselves. Who came and met you at the station — Marcus or I? Who brings you to our home (she dwelt lovingly upon the pronoun), Marcus or I? Which — ahem — respects you most, Marcus or I?"
"You are very kind," stammered the unfortunate Keith, as they found themselves in the privacy of the boudoir of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, hung with white and gold, cosy and radiant with light and the glitter of silver ranged on the board. "You are too kind, Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy!”
"Ah," yet more softly cooed the widow leaning her head towards her victim, "call me by a dearer, a sweeter name! Call the little bird by her own pet name — say 'Tiny.' Call me 'Tiny ' — dear Keith!'
And with a sigh of amorous content eighteen stone of devotion (and ‘Tiny’) laid its head upon Keith Harford's shoulder.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.