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Title: Temptation on a Tower Author: J. D. Hennessey * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201541h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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Embosomed in stately fir and pine trees, Stewart Towers stood upon the brow of a low hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
If sombre, the place was romantic enough to have satisfied the soul of a poet, or painter, or modern writer of fiction, and it would have satisfied its owner, Malcolm Stewart, but for one thing.
The condition on which Malcolm Stewart inherited Stewart Towers was, that until marriage he should reside there for not less than three months in every year; or to be more precise, that he should reside there during the three summer months, from December to February inclusive, which, it will be seen included Christmas Day. He was to reside in any portion of it, said the will, except the Northern Tower rooms, which were to be reserved for the occupation of two nieces of the legatee.
The strange old man had further decided in his will, that Malcolm Stewart should marry one of these two ladies.
And unless by their own free choice they married other men the will bound him to remain free to wed one or the other. On the day that he discontinued residence, during this special three months, or married any other woman, there passed from him Stewart Towers and the greater part of a large fortune.
For the first three months of Malcolm's enforced residence, the two maidens had at the same time in company with an aunt, as chaperon, occupied the Tower rooms.
This was exasperating to Malcolm, for his dislike of the two girls almost amounted to hatred. When he met them in the grounds, he seldom looked at or spoke to them. One of these two, by his father's will, he had to marry, and both seemed to be waiting for him. His soul dwelt in a wilderness at the thought of it, the knowledge that they lived in the Tower rooms of his romantic residence made life lonely and uncongenial. It was no company for him to have them there; nor could he, for fear of ridicule invite friends to stay with him, and in his heart he almost cursed the girls, and the will, and Christmas time.
He determined however, to hold his own, and live it out, and force "the ladies of the Tower," as the neighbourhood who knew about the affair, delighted to call them, to tire of waiting and marry someone else.
Now it was strange that he should dislike them so, for they were young and not uncomely. He had not known them in his father's life time, indeed had never heard of them until the will was read to him under peculiar and somewhat unfortunate circumstances; and they had never made themselves in any way unpleasant to him, except that in obedience to their uncles stupid will, they for three months in the year came to reside there.
It was no doubt a stupid will, an extraordinary will, a most unseemly and aggravating will, but it was the will and Malcolm Stewart and Alice and Winifred Stewart had to abide by it, or half a dozen claiments would have stepped in to dispossess them of the property at once. This was the state of affairs when there dawned the second Christmas day of this singular story.
To make our story clear to the reader, it will be wise, perchance, to put back the clock of time from the 25th of December, 18--, for a trifle over twenty years. A baby boy had just awakened in a cottage by the sea, not more than a quarter of a mile away from Stewart Towers. Blinking his eyes, he gazed wonderingly from out of his soft cambric and fleecy woollen wrappings at his nurse. The room was meanly furnished, but spotlessly clean. The personal surroundings of the infant were rich and costly, as though he was a child of expectancy and promise, whose advent had been desired and waited for, and who was destined to a fortune and a name.
But the homely face of the nurse looked down pitifully upon the little stranger as she whispered to herself rather than to the child:
"It's a hard, sad world you've come to, little beauty; you'd better have stayed in the country where they wear no clothes."
At this she soothed the child with a motherly hand and placed some food beside it in the cradle, and pressed the rubber teat into the little rosebud mouth; the child sucked vigorously, and the kindhearted woman wished that it had been its mother's breast instead.
"The wee things drink in love with their mother's milk," she thought, looking disdainfully at the bottle.
"The child's the very image of its mother," said the good nurse to herself, as she commenced her household work, "and I shall love the mite for its mother's sake; but dear me! to think that this is Christmas Eve and she has come and gone again and left this little mite behind her, and it's no more than three months and a day. She was very close about herself--very close--and that stupid Peter of mine seemed just as gone upon her as I was afterward myself--and he knows no more about her. But she was a lady, and has some one that loves her, but I don't know that she was married, although I am not going to tell Peter. Men guess and think a lot themselves, and often know more than they say, but I don't think that could have occurred to him."
At this Mrs. Sampson stepped across to the window to take a look at Peter, for this morning she could see him occasionally, although he was a mile or more away. In full view of the cottage window there stretched the great waters Of the South Pacific Ocean, and far out at sea like a speck upon its placid bosom was a fisherman's boat.
The good woman stood and watched it, as indeed well she might, for it contained not only Peter Sampson, her husband, but Sonny Sampson, as the neighbours called her only child, now grown to be a strong limbed youth, nearly as tall as his father. They were schnapper fishing.
The woman stood and watched the boat, as now and again it would disappear for a full half minute as it sank in the hollow between two waves. It was the long roll of the Pacific across thousands of miles of open water to the south east which caused these great waves to break in thunder and foam upon the iron bound coast of south-eastern Australia.
The scene which spread itself before Nurse Sampson (for thus was she known among the people of the place) was singular and romantic, if not actually beautiful. A tiny bay had been formed by a cleft in the rugged, rock bound shore. Here, for centuries and more, the ocean had washed up yellow sand between the two rock strewn shores, which, in turn, a fresh water stream washed back again. The miniature bay was a mere cleft in the rocky coast, so narrow that a strong-armed man might have thrown a stone from the pile of water-worn rocks on the one side to the dwarfed cliffs upon the other. There were a few cottages overlooking the sea in addition to Peter Sampson's, and on the city side, looking down upon the lowly homes of the fishermen, was the residence of the eccentric Donald Stewart.
But, as Catherine Sampson stood there dreamily watching her husband's boat, and also a distant coasting schooner, and the smoke of a steamer still hull down on the distant horizon, she saw other things. There were grey clouds above the land and sea, and they set her thinking about the mother and the child. Of the mother of whom she knew so little, of the child she had yet to learn about and understand. She was a woman of active temperament and cheerful disposition, but the grey of the morning seemed to have cast its sombre tints upon her mind.
It was good, perhaps, that it was so, for it is only as we see life under varied aspects that we truly understand it. Sunshine hides as well as reveals. There are things which will never be seen except in a darkened landscape; never be learned except under sombre skies. The stars which lie hid in the daytime shine out in the night, and we want to look at life under all conditions to know it truly. This morning the grey side of it was uppermost to Peter Sampson's wife.
"Ah me!" ejaculated the woman at last, as a sigh escaped her lips, "the wee mite will be a sight of trouble and responsibility to me. I wonder why the good God allows bairns to be born into a world as doesn't want them."
"But he's come to stay," continued the good woman, bustling about her work to make up for lost time, "and he'll need to be cared for. Besides," she said, "to-morrow will be Christmas Day."
Malcolm grew up a stirring child, under Nurse Sampson's fostering care. Not that either she or Peter, or Sonny Sampson exactly understood him.
"Nothing tires his little limbs; from morn to night he runs and jumps and plays, he needs one to be always watching him; and for mischief, I never saw such a child, but I cannot whip him; if he is scolded he looks so penitent and wise. He repeats everything we say and knows far too much for his little head." Thus spake Mrs. Sampson to a neighbour, and they all knew that Malcolm Sampson was not her child--but true woman that she was, she never wholly gave away the secret of the child she loved. He was her child now she said, that was enough; but none the less he was a child "out of Nazareth."
He found this out a few years afterward when he attended the public school of the adjoining village. He had been taught at home as long as possible, for it was a mile and a half away, and Mrs. Sampson dreaded sending him there alone.
"Can'st fight?" said the big school bully to the little fellow, the first afternoon at close of school. The words were accompanied by a stinging slap across the face.
The tears sprang to the youngster's eyes for the blow was painful, and he was unused to such punishment; but although he knew it not, he was the child of pluck and culture, and he threw himself back in fighting attitude--Malcolm against the school.
The crowd of youngsters cheered him and pushed in to separate him from the bully, for all but the baser sort appreciate spirit and courage; but the latter were too numerous by far, and the bully and his chums waylaid Malcolm later on as he went home, and dragged him into the bush and beat him brutally.
He struck back as well as he was able; but they were five to one.
Nurse Sampson simply raged on his return with cut and swollen face.
"The wretched beasts of boys," she cried.
"There were five of them," said Malcolm, gravely, "all bigger than myself. I did not cry very much, mother, and I hit them back."
He learned everything quickly. It was his nature to learn. He had to; it came to him, both good and bad. The first he wished to know, the latter he could not avoid; it forced itself upon him, for he had knowledge of good and evil, as hath every child of genius. His schoolmaster took a great fancy to the boy; he was "out of Nazareth," for the fisherman's cottage was evidently not his natural home; and the thoughtful man of letters questioned with himself on many occasions as to the pros and cons of Malcolm's origin. "It is strange," he thought, "that this boy, named by his mysterious mother Malcolm Stewart, (for he had obtained from Nurse Sampson a fragmentary account of his birth, etc.) should be living in a fisherman's cottage under the shadow, as it were, of Stewart Towers."
It has been said that Donald Stewart was the great man of the place. He was supposed by the neighbours to be deeply interested in mines; but all agreed that he was a rich man, for he kept servants and carriages; and when away for months at a time, as was not infrequently the case, kept up Stewart Towers just as though he had been living there.
He was a cultured, reserved man, and was generally understood to be a widower without children, he had relatives in Scotland, and possibly in Australia; but he talked little about himself to anyone. A few gentleman, at rare intervals, were the only visitors known at the Towers. At which times the sound of hilarious laughter, slightly suggestive of old Scotch whiskey, might be heard.
Mrs. Mortimer, the housekeeper, who looked well after the appointments of the mansion, was always to be found quietly supervising affairs, dressed in black silk.
Mr. Stewart's confidential man acted both as bailiff and butler, and took a general oversight of the men about the stables and grounds. He collected the rents of the estate, and generally represented the Towers to the people of the neighbourhood.
Malcolm was nearing his fourteenth birthday, when a noteworthy event altered the whole aspect of his life. That was the meeting of Malcolm one morning with the master of the Towers.
A long avenue of trees led from the entrance gate into the grounds, and one hot day in summer, Donald Stewart was smoking as he paced up and down under the shady trees, absorbed in thought. Suddenly he found himself confronted by a boy. The two stood for a moment and looked at each other, for on the face of the elder there was depicted the most complete surprise.
"Good heaven! my lad, who are you, and where have you come from?"
Malcolm lifted his cap respectfully, and explained that he was a foster son of Peter and Sarah Sampson. He hoped that he had not offended Mr. Stewart, he had a message for Mrs. Mortimer at the Towers.
Donald Stewart still stood looking at him. Then throwing away his cigar, and pulling the old felt hat he wore down on his head, he caught Malcolm by the arm and said: "Boy, you are strangely like some one I once knew, take me to where you live."
With his face buried in his hands, the proud master of Stewart Towers listened for fully half an hour to the story nurse Sampson had to tell him.
The woman loved the boy and at once scented a secret, which might prove to the boy's advantage; she grew garralous as the incidents of the boy's birth came back to her recollection; but the man listened to the very end without a word.
Then he said simply: "The boy is mine, the lady was my wife, it is a most remarkable story; you have been kind to the lad and I will recompense you. Call him in."
When the boy came in the old man broke down utterly, and wept as he embraced and kissed his son. "My God!" he ejaculated, "what a thing to do, and to think that I never knew of it."
It became known in the neighbourhood that Donald Stewart had adopted Peter Sampson's boy, and that he was henceforth to be known as Malcolm Stewart. He was sent to the city university; then was taken by his father for a year or two of travelling in the old land. It was no wonder that Donald Stewart was proud of him, he had thought himself childless, and suddenly found a son; who was endowed with his mother's beauty and wit, and more than his father's cleverness.
But just when gratification was at its highest, and prospects brightest, and Malcolm about to celebrate his twenty-first birthday, Donald Stewart died, and left a will which before taking up the thread of the story needs a few words of explanation.
Prior to the discovery of Malcolm, Donald Stewart had promised an only brother when dying to make provision for two nieces.
Nellie and Winifred Stewart were at school in South Australia when their father died, and their Uncle's first will was made immediately afterward, under which they inherited the Towers and other property.
Malcolm's appearance on the scene, had resulted in a long codicil which practically annulled the will, and by its singular conditions as explained in a previous chapter, seemed very likely to bring those most concerned into serious difficulty with each other.
The girls heard of the codicil to the will through their aunt Mrs. Shrimpton, some time before Malcolm did, and not unnaturally, although anxious to see and know more about their new found cousin, felt very much disappointed.
The sudden death of Malcolm's father was a great blow to him, and as at the time he was suffering from over study, the executors advised him to leave for a trip to New Zealand immediately after the funeral.
When he returned he settled down with a college friend at the Towers, but, through some carelessness on the part of the executors, he was not advised as to the singular conditions under which he was to inherit the property.
Malcolm was of a studious disposition, fond of reading, and music, and literature, and at the time referred to, was collaborating with his friend Frank Robertson in the writing of a book.
Jonas Brown, the butler, looked well after matters in the household and outside, and Mrs. Mortimer attended to their residential comforts and wardrobes, so that with an occasional day off for fishing or other amusement, Malcolm lived a very quiet life.
Nurse Sampson was not forgotten, but she preferred her own cottage home; or her foster son would have brought her to live at the Towers. Malcolm's one grief was that he could find no authentic trace of his mother. The attempts he had made to obtain information about her from his father had been unfortunately unsuccessful. Not that Donald Stewart had actually refused to tell Malcolm, but the subject had been deferred, until death suddenly intervened, and it was too late.
While matters were thus quietly proceeding at Stewart Towers, one afternoon, while Malcolm and his friend Frank Robertson were out for a days fishing, Alice and Winifred, in charge of their aunt Mrs. Shrimpton, put in a sudden and most unexpected appearance.
They had come up from South Australia by steamer, and been delayed several days, much to Mrs. Shrimpton's alarm, who knew all about the conditions of the will, for the day was the 30th of November; only one day before they were actually required to be in residence to fulfil its conditions.
Mrs. Shrimpton was tall, spare, and angular, with sharp cut features, and an aggressive chin and nose. Her thin mouth bespoke determination and her grey eyes resolution. She was dressed in a fashionable travelling gown, and as she stepped out of the carriage and passed under the entrance portico she gave a quick glance around, which might have intimated to a beholder that the Towers would soon know of her arrival.
Closely following her were two intelligent bright faced girls also fashionably dressed.
"It looks a jolly sort of place," whispered Alice, to her sister, "I wonder whether Malcolm will be as nice as his residence?"
The ladies were at once shown into a large handsomely furnished reception room, while the housemaid who opened the door, went to call "Mr. Brown the butler."
"Mr. Stewart is not at home Madam," said the butler in answer to Mrs. Shrimpton's inquiry.
"That's unfortunate," said the lady. "I presume, however, that the North Tower rooms are ready for our occupation?"
"I beg your pardon madam--I don't understand you," stammered Brown.
"You have a housekeeper," said Mrs. Shrimpton, "you had better send her to me, no doubt she knows about our coming. These young ladies are cousins of Mr. Malcolm Stewart."
Mrs. Mortimer, on ordinary occasions, was a very amiable woman, but she was now thoroughly bewildered; she knew nothing of any such arrangement as that referred to by Mrs. Shrimpton.
She had not heard of any nieces of her late Master; she instinctively resented the proposed residential arrangement; and suggested that the ladies might leave their luggage in the carriage and await Mr. Malcolm's return.
But Mrs. Mortimer had not taken the exact measure of Mrs. Shrimpton. The latter at once saw, as she thought, a deeply laid scheme to deprive her sister's children of their claim upon their Uncle's property. The following day was the first of December when, according to the will, they had to be in residence in the Tower rooms.
The trustees had been notified that they were coming a week before (unfortunately the letter had been mislaid by Mr. Gordon the trustee); here was an evident attempt to hustle the girls out of their interest in the property. But she would let them see!
She could not possibly give them possession of the Tower rooms; they might wait for an hour or so, and she would have refreshments brought to them.
Mrs. Shrimpton asserted however, that they had come to stay, and was about to discharge the carriage, when the housekeeper interposed again.
"You had better keep the carriage Ma'am, I feel sure that you will not be able to stay here."
For three long hours they waited, but no Malcolm appeared; both the housekeeper and butler were evidently getting fidgety and had come in and out of the room on one pretext and another several times.
At last, when Mrs. Mortimer suggested that Mr. Malcolm Stewart might not be back that night and they had better call again on the morrow, Mrs. Shrimpton aroused herself and drawing out of her handbag a pair of spectacles, and a copy of the will, commenced to peruse the document with eagerness. Jonas and Mrs. Mortimer the while staring at her with the greatest interest.
"Shall be in residence in the northern Tower rooms from the month of December inclusive." Here she stopped her reading, and turning around to Alice said, "you hear that my dear, and tomorrow is the first, and this woman says your cousin Malcolm may not be back tonight, and that we cannot remain."
Here she stepped into the hall.
"Coachman!" she screamed at the top of her voice, "unharness the horses, and leave the carriage at the front door. Put the horses into some paddock adjoining the house."
"I beg pardon, ma'am; but I would advise him to do nothing of the sort," said Jonas, "the carriage will block up the entrance."
Mrs. Shrimpton had meant to sleep in it if necessary.
"Are you the butler?" queried Mrs. Shrimpton, ignoring the interruption.
"Yes," he said, somewhat sulkily.
"And you're the housekeeper?" she said, looking at Mrs. Mortimer.
The latter nodded her head.
"Is there a steward of the estate or any one over you?" she asked, speaking this time to the butler.
"Only Mr. Malcolm, and Mr. Gordon the Trustee."
"Well then, as Malcolm Stewart is away, send for Mr. Gordon."
"I beg your pardon ma'am," said Jonas; "but what reason can I give for troubling the gentleman? He lives nearly two miles away."
"Good reason you idiot," said the lady, "call the rest of the servants and listen to Donald Stewart's will."
"I beg your pardon ma'am; but I am not an idiot and I'll do nothing of the sort," said Jonas.
But Mrs. Shrimpton paid no heed to him, and commenced to read the will aloud, at which Jonas and the house-keeper listened with the utmost eagerness.
As she proceeded their faces became pictures of astonishment.
"Are you sure Ma'am, that's a true copy of the old masters will," gasped Jonas, when she had finished.
Mrs. Shrimpton deigned no reply, but simply said "send straight away and fetch Mr. Gordon."
On the arrival of that gentleman, an hour afterward, possession of the four rooms, in, and adjoining, the northern Tower, were given to the ladies; Malcolm's things being tumbled out very unceremoniously.
"What an unfortunate thing it is," said Winifred, nearly crying to her sister. "If I were cousin Malcolm I am sure I should hate to have my things served so badly. Aunt has broken several of his trinkets, and I am sure there will be a dreadful disturbance when he comes back."
"But it's great fun," replied Alice. "It's my opinion Mr. Gordon has kept him in ignorance of the will on purpose. No doubt, was afraid to tell the young man. Of course the whole thing is most absurd and stupid; but if Aunt Rhoda does not go too far and spoil things, there is no reason why one of us should not marry him."
"But what an unfortunate mistake it is that he did not know of our coming," said Winifred. "Aunt and Sally are unpacking our trunks downstairs, and bundling all his nice things out most unceremoniously. I hate it all, and feel more like a burglar than a visitor or resident."
"Don't be soft, Winnie. We are not bad looking girls, and my opinion is that Malcolm will be very pleased to find us here. I am going to be as sweet as sugar, and set my cap straight at him, and when we are married you can live with us until Sir James Grant comes from India to marry you."
"What nonsense you talk. I don't believe Cousin Malcolm will take to either of us. The very fact that he is expected to marry one of us will settle that, and, as for Sir James Grant, you know there is nothing in it, and you ought not to say such things."
This conversation, it may be said, took place on the summit of the North Tower, from which there was a fine view of the grounds and bay and the great waters of the Pacific Ocean. The girls had again and again exclaimed at the beauty of the romantic scenery around them.
"Uncle was not so foolish, after all," said Alice. "Why, it would be impossible to live in a place like this for a fortnight with any sort of a nice young man without falling in love with him. And as for a boy like Malcolm, if he has any romance or poetry in him, he'll capitulate to one of us before Christmas, I think that I shall bring him up here to propose."
As she spoke, the western sky was flaming with the glory of a splendid sunset. All around the roofs of the mansion were the great trees; while a steamer, and a sailing vessel, and some fishermen's boats dotted the distant waters.
"It's perfectly lovely," said Winifred.
"Yes," retorted Alice, "and loveliness has a singular tendency to make people loving and loveable. Now, who could resist the temptation of making love on a Tower like this?"
"But it's no use talking to you," said the lively girl, laughing at her sister; "you are a regular Miss Prim, but I know that I'll either make Malcolm marry me or have some fun out of him. I am going downstairs to ask Aunt Rhoda whether we ought not to kiss him when we first meet. One of the girls at school told me that cousins always kiss."
It need scarcely be said, however, that there was no kissing on Malcolm's return. In fact, largely through Mrs. Simpson's lack of tact and judgment, the great disturbance feared by Winnie actually took place.
Malcolm upbraided Mr. Gordon for not having previously made him acquainted with the contents of the will; he stormed at Jonas for allowing his things to be bundled out of his favourite rooms; and positively refused to meet either Mrs. Shrimpton or his cousins, or have anything to do with them.
"Does the will really say that it is to be a joint occupation for three months out of the twelve?" asked Malcolm, pacing angrily up and down the big dining-room.
Mr. Gordon was a gentlemanly little man who did not like scenes, and was terribly given to putting off an evil day.
"Look, Malcolm," he replied, "don't talk about it any more to-night, you are only upsetting yourself. I don't care to ask Mrs. Shrimpton to lend me her copy of the will, but I will get a copy from Smith, the lawyer, to-morrow, and in the meantime, ask the ladies into dinner and be friendly. They are your cousins, remember."
"But I have Robertson here, and would not let him know of the miserable will for the world. Dine with them, indeed! after the way that woman has invaded the place, and turned me out of my rooms. I'll put a six foot fence between us!"
"But, Malcolm," remonstrated Mr. Gordon, "remember your father made this will on purpose to throw you and your cousins into each other's society, and they will have to be boarded by the establishment, and have a right to the use of the dining room."
"Then I'll clear out and live in the servants' quarters, as far away as I can get from them. Why, Robertson's mother and sisters were coming in to-night after dinner."
"And I suppose Miriam Robertson," said Mr. Gordon, gloomily.
"And why not?" said Malcolm. "Do you think, Mr. Gordon, that I would sell myself, soul and body, for the sake of Stewart Towers."
"What nonsense! There's no selling yourself about it; but if you marry Miriam Robertson, you'll lose the property."
Malcolm went out and dined with the Robertsons that night, and flirted desperately with Miriam. He was an "eligible," and ought to have known better, and certainly felt thoroughly ashamed of himself afterward, both for his attention to Miriam and his inattention to his cousins. He told his friend, Frank Robertson, as much as he cared to about the whole thing, and wound up by saying, "I am afraid that I have made a great fool of myself to-night old fellow, in more ways than one; but that Mrs. Shrimpton would aggravate a saint."
Malcolm did not erect a fence between himself and his cousins, nor was he in love with Miriam Robertson, but things went far from smoothly.
During the first month of his cousins' residence he had taken up his abode in rooms as far from the North Tower end of the mansion as possible. He made for himself and friend a study and bachelor's den in the South Tower. Only once had he met Mrs. Shrimpton and the girls inside the house, which was on Christmas Day--for the will actually specified that the cousins should then dine together.
Malcolm was certainly somewhat ashamed of the attitude he had taken up toward his relations, and showed himself more polite, but there were no other visitors, and the meal passed in embarrassed silence. Malcolm wanted to say something, and Alice was dying to have some fun, but Winifred was actually trembling with nervousness, and scarcely ate anything, while Mrs. Shrimpton was on her dignity, which had been seriously affronted by Malcolm's behaviour to them. Mentally, she hoped that the "handsome young fool," as she pleased to call him, would marry Miriam Robertson, of whom she had heard, and then her nieces would step into the full enjoyment of Stewart Towers and other property.
It was a wretchedly dull Christmas evening, however, for the girls. Mrs. Shrimpton was in her own room writing to her husband, and the two sisters went up the Tower and sat down upon the cosy seats they had there made for themselves. The cool sea breeze was grateful that warm summer's night, and the moon, just past the full, rose with a silver wake behind it from the sea.
The girls talked in low tones about other Christmas's, when, instead of being in a sombre place like Stewart Towers, at variance with a sombre cousin, they were surrounded by merriment and fun.
"It's Christmas," said Winifred at last, "and you are quite out in your calculations; Cousin Malcolm hasn't proposed to either of us."
"I'm afraid we have been too good to him," said Alice, despondently.
"Anyhow, he lifts his hat now when he meets us, and he opened the drive gate for me the other morning," said Winifred.
"I suppose you bowed, and blushed, and thanked him," said Alice.
"Really, I am afraid I only bowed, I was too nervous to thank him. I tried to, but, however it was, no words would come."
"You are a goose, Winnie," said her sister. "I am thinking of writing him a polite little note to ask him to take us out sailing."
"You will do nothing of the sort, Alice."
"Yes, I will, though, I am tired of this kind of a life; fancy not being jolly with your own cousin. I shall tell him just what I think about him one of these days, and also about that horrid will. I shall tell him, too, that I would not marry him on any account, and that I'll just live in Stewart Towers as long as I like, if only to plague him. They say he is eccentric because he is writing a book, and so on; my own belief is that he is eccentric because he is made too much of. Just see how Mrs. Mortimer fusses around him, and that stupid Jonas, the butler. Frank Robertson is the only one that seems to dare to say anything to him. I was in the shrubbery the other day when they were coming up the drive together, and I stood behind a bush when they passed. Frank was talking to him like a father."
"Some people like to be talked back to a little," said Winnie reflectively.
"Malcolm Stewart is one of them," replied Alice, "and it's my belief he would worship a girl that was really clever enough to boss him, and show him his faults without actually making him think little of himself. He's really a handsome, clever fellow, but he's regularly spoilt."
"And are you positively going to give him up?"
"Yes, Winnie, dear, you may have him. I'll tell you as a great secret because it's Christmas, which, you know, is a time of tender confidences, I believe I'm half in love with Frank Robertson."
The weeks slipped by and Alice was as good as her word. She managed somehow to let her cousin see that she cared as little about him as he seemed to care about them. One thing puzzled them, however, Malcolm might often be seen walking about on the north terrace, within sight and hearing of the Tower apartments.
The ladies were at last informed by Mrs. Mortimer that Mr. Malcolm was writing a book and had to walk about there when he was thinking out a chapter, as it had been a favourite spot of his, and was in full view of the bay, near which he had been born. He had tried other parts of the grounds, but he could always think best just there.
"He is very particular to explain to us why he frequents our end of the Towers," said Mrs. Shrimpton.
The three months, however, were nearly up and Mrs. Shrimpton and her nieces had arranged to leave the Towers on the very day following that prescribed for their residence by the will.
Alice was in high spirits at the idea of a change from their quiet life, and, as she put it, her literary-smitten cousin.
She was on fairly friendly terms, now, with Frank Robertson, somewhat to Malcolm's annoyance. Frank had asked her who it was sang the semi-sacred songs he often heard, and she had gravely informed him that Winnie was the songstress, but that she usually played.
"And who is it does the comic business, Miss Stewart?"
"Oh that's Mrs. Shrimpton," was Alice's reply.
"You don't say so," said Frank, "Malcolm would not believe it."
"Were they very rowdy songs?" asked Alice, demurely,
"H'm--somewhat rowdy," said Frank.
"Then, I must have been out," said Alice, "when they were sung. Did Mr. Malcolm want to know who sang them?"
"He was a bit surprised at hearing such songs at your end of the house," said Frank, smiling.
"Well, Mr. Robertson, we are going away to-morrow, and you can tell my cousin that we are not at all sorry to go, and you may say too that it's my sister, Winifred, that sings those very rowdy comic songs. Good Night."
No matter how much you are opposed to people, there is always something about a place which makes the word good-bye pathetic, and when Frank told Malcolm over dinner in their accustomed bachelors quarters at the south end of the house that the girls were going, he seemed to eat his food less heartily.
"I'll be bound the girls will be sorry to go after all; but we've been awfully bearish Malcolm, and it's your fault."
"You mean that it's Mrs. Shrimpton's fault," replied Malcolm.
"No I don't," said Frank.
"They will be back again in nine months time," said Malcolm, and it was hard to know by the tone of his voice whether he was glad or sorry.
"I've been talking to Alice to-night," said Frank, "she says that it's Mrs. Shrimpton sings those rollicking comic songs."
"I don't believe it."
"But Alice says that she plays and the others sing."
"Well," said Malcolm, "if Alice does not sing at all, it may be Mrs. Shrimpton; but I would not have given her credit for possessing such a voice. But a shy creature like Miss Winifred would never sing such songs as I have sometimes heard there. I have wished them at Jericho; those wretched songs have spoiled some of the best chapters of our book."
The night was warm and Frank rose from the table and threw up a window; they had sat late over dinner--they could hear a city clock striking eight.
Just then the rich tones of the piano in the North Tower drawing-room were heard, and a moment afterward a rich contralto voice commenced to sing "Listening."
"Light a cigar and come round under the trees," said Frank, "the grass is thick and they won't hear us."
Malcolm obeyed without a word, and the two young men stood in entranced silence, as the voice sang--
I am thinking of the old days
Of the woodland on the hill, etc.
"That's Winnie singing," said Malcolm, as the voice hushed. "I am afraid that I have been extremely uncivil to the girls," he continued.
It was not much of an apology to make, but Frank knew there was more meant than was said. Malcolm was regretting his absurd and uncousinly behaviour. "I wish she'd sing again," said Malcolm, sentimentally. "You know--some really sweet thing that it would please one to remember."
Just then some one drew near to the open window, and looked out a bit suspiciously, and then said, "Now, Winnie, sing a nice pathetic farewell song to Stewart Towers; something to make us all cry, as did 'The Old Folks at Home' at that first concert on board the steamer in the Mediterranean."
"That's Alice," said Frank, in an undertone, "so it's Winnie that will sing again."
Malcolm was extremely fond of good music, and he leaned against a tree that he might the better listen.
A skilful hand touched a few chords on the piano; then came a quaint, pathetic prelude; and then, to the horror and dismay of the listeners, the same rich voice warbled forth the following farewell doggerel to Stewart Towers:--
Oh, who will smoke my meerschaum pipe--
Oh, who will smoke my meerschaum pipe--
Oh, who will smoke my meerschaum pipe
When I am far away!
Some other man. Some other man.
Bad man! Bad man!
Oh, who will wear my cast-off boots--
Oh, who will wear my cast-off boots--
Oh, who will wear my cast-off boots
When I am faraway!
Some other man. Some other man.
Bad man! Bad man!
Oh, who will darn my poor old socks--
Poor old socks!
Oh, who will darn my poor old socks--
Poor old socks!
Oh, who will darn my poor old socks
When I am far away!
Some other man. Some other man.
Bad man! Bad man!
Oh, who will kiss her cherry lips--
Oh, who will kiss her cherry lips--
Oh, who will kiss her cherry lips
When I am far away!
Some other man. Some other man.
Bad man! Bad man!
The emphasis on the last "Bad man! Bad man!" was most pronounced.
The two men turned away as the window was closed and the lights suddenly extinguished.
"It must have been Mrs. Shrimpton," said Malcolm, but his voice belied his words. Frank, very wisely, said nothing.
The following morning cards were laid upon Malcolm Stewart's plate at breakfast. They announced the departure, by an early train, of Mrs. Shrimpton and the Misses Stewart to South Australia.
That song provoked more controversy between Malcolm and Frank as to its authorship and general accuracy, and suitableness to the occasion, than did ever the song of Solomon or the Book of Job. Frank named it "The lady's farewell to a bad man," and said it was no more than they both deserved.
Malcolm contented himself with arguing that Winifred could not possibly have sung it, as was suggested by what they heard Alice say at the window.
"Of course not," said Frank. "It was Mrs. Shrimpton that sang it. She knows that you occasionally smoke a meerschaum pipe."
"I don't believe it," said Malcolm, "it was Alice, and she has a wonderful voice; but it is, unfortunately, associated in my mind with this very vulgar song."
Vulgar or not, however, Frank discovered the whole four verses written on Malcolm's blotting pad the next morning. And the funny thing was, that he said nothing about it, but refreshed his memory where he had forgotten a line or two, and hummed a snatch of the tune until Malcolm expostulated with him later on in the morning.
Frank took it very quietly, but reported to his sister when he next went home that their book was not progressing very satisfactorily. They had been out fishing a good bit, and Malcolm had taken to writing poetry, which he thought a bad sign in an author.
"And pray what do you do now the Miss Stewarts and Mrs. Shrimpton have left the Towers?" asked his sister, somewhat maliciously.
"Oh, I've taken to darning my poor old socks and smoking a meerschaum pipe, until they come back again," said Frank.
"What rubbish!" said his sister.
Then Frank could not resist the inclination to tell his sister about the ladies' farewell song to Stewart Towers, and the two of them went into fits of laughter.
But Frank afterward felt a bit sorry and ashamed of himself for telling about it it was like repeating something he had surreptitiously overheard, and in his heart of hearts, he knew that it was Alice who had sung that song.
* * * * * * * *
Six months had passed, the routine of things was very much as usual at the Towers, Malcolm had been talking of taking a trip to Melbourne, but somehow he had not gone, when one morning the mail bag was found to contain a fairly bulky parcel.
Opening it, Malcolm discovered two books, one addressed to himself and the other to Frank. They were at breakfast, so he pushed Frank's book over to him saying "that's the report I expect from the University."
Frank cut open the inner paper-cover leisurely, as Malcolm proceeded with his breakfast.
"Jerusalem!" he suddenly exclaimed.
"What is it?" asked Malcolm.
"Open your parcel," he said. "I think you will find a new book in it, written by some one you know."
Malcolm tore off the cover of the parcel, and there lay in his hand a new book--a brand new book, a book fragrant with the odour of the publishing house. He thought the title seemed strange, but on perusing it further he was simply dumb-founded. It was a new novel entitled 'Bad Man's Land' presented with the compliments of the author, and on the title page he read "written after a three months enforced residence on a Tower." It was a clever book, full of humour, and wisdom, and smart biting things. It was superbly illustrated; many of the pictures being reproductions of familiar scenes around the Towers, and they were almost all signed A. J. S., which both men knew to be Alice's initials.
It was a woman's book, Malcolm said, as though in disparagement; but they spent the whole morning reading it, and when Frank finally closed it, it was with a sigh of relief.
"It's a remarkably clever book," he said, "and is bound to catch on, and it serves us both jolly well right; but does she not rub it into the men."
"I am very glad," said Malcolm, "that she does not make any personal references to us."
"Oh, that's nothing, I was prepared for that, an author's personal friends or personal enemies, expect it! I was afraid we should find our portraits somewhere in it."
The following December the three ladies were again in residence in the North Tower rooms in compliance with Donald Stewart's will.
There had been no correspondence between the cousins and both Alice and Winifred had the book upon their consciences, for Winnie had written it assisted by Alice's suggestions and clever illustrations. Both girls felt somewhat shy of the meeting.
Malcolm and Frank both called on the day of their return, but the young ladies deputed Mrs. Shrimpton to receive their visit, and she intimated somewhat cooly that they thought it best to preserve intact their former household arrangements.
"By George! Malcolm," said Frank, "it does not look as though either of your cousins wanted very badly to marry you, does it? That was a mere excuse about being tired and not very well."
"I expect it's 'swelled head' they are suffering from, the result of successful authorship," said Malcolm, who was much mortified at the reception they had had.
For a whole week the only sight they could get of the girls was when in the cool of the evening they occupied their favorite seats on the Tower, and then Mrs. Shrimpton was always with them.
The young men, however, never neglected to take an evening stroll together under the terrace, where they could both see and be seen.
"I believe Winifred has grown," said Malcolm.
"And so has Alice," said Frank. "I should not be a bit surprised to hear that they are both engaged."
"Nor I either," said Malcolm, moodily.
It was growing dusk, but the figures of the girls, who were dressed in white, could be seen above the Tower battlements.
"They have got up," said Frank, "and are going down. You may depend upon it, it's Mrs. Shrimpton that has got them to promise not to speak to us."
"She always spoils everything," said Malcolm. "I don't believe Eve would have tempted Adam if Mrs. Shrimpton had been about."
Frank laughed at this, and said something about there having been neither Towers nor Mrs. Shrimpton's in those days. It might have been better for Adam's posterity if there had been.
That night, however, Malcolm was wandering about the grounds alone, searching for inspiration for his book, when he thought he heard an unusual commotion at the North Tower end of the mansion. It was the sound of girls' laughter. He hurried along, for, to his surprise, he saw a white figure descending by a rope from the summit of the Tower to the ground. The lady was evidently a bit of an athlete, for she let herself down with much deliberation. Presently, however, he heard Winifred call out, "Alice, this rope is not long enough. I am at the end of it, and I must be six feet from the ground."
"You'll hurt yourself," called out Malcolm, rushing forward to where his cousin hung in mid-air, a few feet only from the grass.
"Oh!" she called out, with a scream at being discovered, and then loosed the rope, and a moment afterwards Malcolm found his arms full of soft frills and flounces and his cousin Winifred.
"You are not hurt?" he said, holding her quite an unnecessarily long time in his arms.
"Of course not, put me down Malcolm."
It was fortunately dark so Malcolm could not see his cousins blushes as she explained that in some fit of absent-mindedness their aunt had bolted the Tower door, and not wishing to create a disturbance, Alice had proposed that they should let themselves down by a rope.
"Then why did not Alice make the descent," said Malcolm.
"Oh she said that I was afraid, so I showed her that I wasn't."
Needless to say that after this affair the cousins were on a very different footing. As Malcolm confessed afterward, too, he had fallen in love with his cousin over her book. But Alice would have it that the descent from the Tower had a good deal to do with Malcolm's prompt proposal and early marriage. "Why," she said, "I watched you both, and the way he held you in his arms told me that he loved you. I almost wished that I had gone down myself instead, and that Frank had been there ready to have caught me." However, in due time, either she caught Frank or Frank caught her, it does not much matter which.
As both girls were orphans, and Mrs. Shrimpton wanted to get back again to her husband and family in South Australia, an early double marriage was arranged for, and both proved happy ones.
It should be added that the following Christmas-day at Stewart Towers was a very different one to the first, also that the two husbands gave up collaborating together, and never finished the book. Malcolm was clever enough, and distinguished himself in other ways, and he said that he thought one author was quite enough in a family.
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