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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 20/65 -


of her kind. His strength, his beauty, his fearless happiness-claiming temperament. How could one--with dignity and delicacy--find out why she had this obvious air of belonging to nobody? Donal was an exact little lad. He had had foundation for his curious scraps of her story. No mother--no playthings or books--no one had ever kissed her! And she dressed and soignee like this! Who was the Lady Downstairs?

A victoria was driving past the Gardens. It was going slowly because the two people in it wished to look at the spring budding out of hyacinths and tulips. Suddenly one of the pair--a sweetly-hued figure whose early season attire was hyacinth-like itself--spoke to the coachman.

"Stop here!" she said. "I want to get out."

As the victoria drew up near a gate she made a light gesture.

"What do you think, Starling," she laughed. "The very woman we are talking about is sitting in the Gardens there. I know her perfectly though I only saw her portrait at the Academy years ago. Yes, there she is. Mrs. Muir, you know." She clapped her hands and her laugh became a delighted giggle. "And my Robin is playing on the grass near her--with a boy! What a joke! It must be THE boy! And I wanted to see the pair together. Coombe said couldn't be done. And more than anything I want to speak to HER. Let's get out."

They got out and this was why Helen Muir, turning her eyes a moment from Robin whose hand she was holding, saw two women coming towards her with evident intention. At least one of them had evident intention. She was the one whose light attire produced the effect of being made of hyacinth petals.

Because Mrs. Muir's glance turned towards her, Robin's turned also. She started a little and leaned against Mrs. Muir's knee, her eyes growing very large and round indeed and filling with a sudden worshipping light.

"It is--" she ecstatically sighed or rather gasped, "the Lady Downstairs!"

Feather floated near to the seat and paused smiling.

"Where is your nurse, Robin?" she said.

Robin being always dazzled by the sight of her did not of course shine.

"She is reading under the tree," she answered tremulously.

"She is only a few yards away," said Mrs. Muir. "She knows Robin is playing with my boy and that I am watching them. Robin is your little girl?" amiably.

"Yes. So kind of you to let her play with your boy. Don't let her bore you. I am Mrs. Gareth-Lawless."

There was a little silence--a delicate little silence.

"I recognized you as Mrs. Muir at once," said Feather. unperturbed and smiling brilliantly, "I saw your portrait at the Grosvenor."

"Yes," said Mrs. Muir gently. She had risen and was beautifully tall,--"the line" was perfect, and she looked with a gracious calm into Feather's eyes.

Donal, allured by the hyacinth petal colours, drew near. Robin made an unconscious little catch at his plaid and whispered something.

"Is this Donal?" Feather said.

"ARE you the Lady Downstairs, please?" Donal put in politely, because he wanted so to know.

Feather's pretty smile ended in the prettiest of outright laughs. Her maid had told her Andrews' story of the name.

"Yes, I believe that's what she calls me. It's a nice name for a mother, isn't it?"

Donal took a quick step forward.

"ARE you her mother?" he asked eagerly.

"Of course I am."

Donal quite flushed with excitement.

"She doesn't KNOW," he said.

He turned on Robin.

"She's your Mother! You thought you hadn't one! She's your Mother!"

"But I am the Lady Downstairs, too." Feather was immensely amused. She was not subtle enough to know why she felt a perverse kind of pleasure in seeing the Scotch woman standing so still, and that it led her into a touch of vulgarity. "I wanted very much to see your boy," she said.

"Yes," still gently from Mrs. Muir.

"Because of Coombe, you know. We are such old friends. How queer that the two little things have made friends, too. I didn't know. I am so glad I caught a glimpse of you and that I had seen the portrait. GOOD morning. Goodbye, children."

While she strayed airily away they all watched her. She picked up her friend, the Starling, who, not feeling concerned or needed, had paused to look at daffodils. The children watched her until her victoria drove away, the chiffon ruffles of her flowerlike parasol fluttering in the air.

Mrs. Muir had sat down again and Donal and Robin leaned against her. They saw she was not laughing any more but they did not know that her eyes had something like grief in them.

"She's her Mother!" Donal cried. "She's lovely, too. But she's--her MOTHER!" and his voice and face were equally puzzled.

Robin's little hand delicately touched Mrs. Muir.

"IS--she?" she faltered.

Helen Muir took her in her arms and held her quite close. She kissed her.

"Yes, she is, my lamb," she said. "She's your mother."

She was clear as to what she must do for Donal's sake. It was the only safe and sane course. But--at this age--the child WAS a lamb and she could not help holding her close for a moment. Her little body was deliciously soft and warm and the big silk curls all in a heap were a fragrance against her breast.

CHAPTER X

Donal talked a great deal as he pranced home. Feather had excited as well as allured him. Why hadn't she told Robin she was her mother? Why did she never show her pictures in the Nursery and hold her on her knee? She was little enough to be held on knees! Did some mothers never tell their children and did the children never find out? This was what he wanted to hear explained. He took the gloved hand near him and held it close and a trifle authoritatively.

"I am glad I know you are my mother," he said, "I always knew."

He was not sure that the matter was explained very clearly. Not as clearly as things usually were. But he was not really disturbed. He had remembered a book he could show Robin tomorrow and he thought of that. There was also a game in a little box which could be easily carried under his arm. His mother was "thinking" and he was used to that. It came on her sometimes and of his own volition he always, on such occasion, kept as quiet as was humanly possible.

After he was asleep, Helen sent for Nanny.

"You're tired, ma'am," the woman said when she saw her, "I'm afraid you've a headache."

"I have had a good deal of thinking to do since this afternoon," her mistress answered, "You were right about the nurse. The little girl might have been playing with any boy chance sent in her way--boys quite unlike Donal."

"Yes, ma'am." And because she loved her and knew her face and voice Nanny watched her closely.

"You will be as--startled--as I was. By some queer chance the child's mother was driving by and saw us and came in to speak to me. Nanny--she is Mrs. Gareth-Lawless."

Nanny did start; she also reddened and spoke sharply.

"And she came in and spoke to you, ma'am!"

"Things have altered and are altering every day," Mrs. Muir said. "Society is not at all inflexible. She has a smart set of her own--and she is very pretty and evidently well provided for. Easy-going people who choose to find explanations suggest that her husband was a relation of Lord Lawdor's."

"And him a canny Scotchman with a new child a year. Yes, my certie," offered Nanny, with an acrid grimness. Mrs. Muir's hands clasped strongly as they lay on the table before her.

"That doesn't come within my bailiewick," she said in her quiet voice. "Her life is her own and not mine. Words are the wind that blows." She stopped just a moment and began again. "We must leave for Scotland by the earliest train."


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