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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 30/65 -
were simple things, but Robin was ready enough to like them.
"Did YOU give them to me?" she asked.
"Yes, I did, Miss Robin."
The child drew near her after a full minute of hesitation.
"I will KISS you!" she said solemnly, and performed the rite as whole-souledly as Donal had done.
"Dear little mite!" exclaimed the surprised Dowson. "Dear me!" And there was actual moisture in her eyes as she squeezed the small body in her arms.
"She's the strangest mite I ever nursed," was her comment to Mrs. Blayne below stairs. "It was so sudden, and she did it as if she'd never done it before. I'd actually been thinking she hadn't any feeling at all."
"No reason why she should have. She's been taken care of by the clock and dressed like a puppet, but she's not been treated human!" broke forth Mrs. Blayne.
Then the whole story was told--the "upstairs" story with much vivid description, and the mentioning of many names and the dotting of many "i's". Dowson had heard certain things only through vague rumour, but now she knew and began to see her way. She had not heard names before, and the definite inclusion of Lord Coombe's suggested something to her.
"Do you think the child could be JEALOUS of his lordship?" she suggested.
"She might if she knew anything about him--but she never saw him until the night she was taken down into the drawing-room. She's lived upstairs like a little dog in its kennel."
"Well," Dowson reflected aloud, "it sounds almost silly to talk of a child's hating any one, but that bit of a thing's eyes had fair hate in them when she looked up at him where he stood. That was what puzzled me."
Before Robin had been taken to the seaside to be helped by the bracing air of the 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 with them and tools in queer bags. She heard hammerings which began very early in the morning and went on all day. As Andrews had trained her not to ask tiresome questions, she only crept now and then to a back window and peeped out. But in a few days Dowson took her away.
When she came back to London, she was not taken up the steep dark stairs to the 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 on the ground floor had even a round window with plants in it and a canary bird singing 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 additional apartments.
"In perfect splendour is the creature put up, and I with a bedroom like a coalhole and such drawing-rooms as you see each time you enter the house!" she broke forth spitefully one day when she forgot herself.
She said it to the Starling and Harrowby, who had been simply gazing about them in fevered mystification, because the new development was a thing which must invoke some more or less interesting explanation. At her outbreak, all they could do was to gaze at her with impartial eyes, which suggested question, and Feather shrugged pettish shoulders.
"You knew _I_ didn't do it. How could I?" she said. "It is a queer whim of Coombe'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 edifying and quite stimulating discussion. There was something fantastic in the situation. Coombe was the last man on earth to have taken the slightest notice of the child's existence! It was believed that he had never seen her--except in long clothes--until she had glared at him and put her hand behind her back the night she was brought into the drawing-room. She had been adroitly kept tucked away in an attic somewhere. And now behold an addition of several wonderful, small rooms built, furnished and decorated for her alone, where she was to live as in a miniature palace attended by servitors! Coombe, as a purveyor of nursery appurtenances, was regarded with humour, the general opinion being that the eruption of a volcano beneath his feet alone could have awakened his somewhat 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 mental processes." Harrowby pondered aloud. "He's capable of any number of things we might not understand, if he condescended to tell us about them--which he would never attempt. He has a remote, brilliantly stored, cynical mind. He owns that he is of an inhuman selfishness. I haven't a suggestion to make, but it sets one searching through the purlieus of one's mind for an approximately reasonable explanation."
"Why 'purlieus'?" was the Starling's inquiry. Harrowby shrugged his shoulders ever so lightly.
"Well, one isn't searching for reasons founded on copy-book axioms," he shook his 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," said Starling.
"Feather would be--inevitably," Harrowby lifted his near-sighted eyes to her curiously. "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 and entertainment went on fast and furiously in all parts of London, and in no part more rapidly than in the slice of a house whose front always presented an air of having been freshly decorated, in spite of summer rain and winter soot and fog. The plants in the window boxes seemed always in bloom, being magically replaced in the early morning hours when they dared to hint at flagging. Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, it was said, must be renewed in some such mysterious morning way, as she merely grew prettier as she neared thirty and passed it. Women did in these days! Which last phrase had always been a useful one, probably from the time of the Flood. Old fogeys, male and female, had used it in the past as a means of scathingly unfavourable comparison, growing flushed and almost gobbling like turkey cocks in their indignation. Now, as a phrase, it was a support and a mollifier. "In these days" one knew better how to amuse oneself, was more free to snatch at agreeable opportunity, less in bondage to old fancies which had called themselves beliefs; everything whirled faster and more lightly--danced, two-stepped, instead of marching.
Robin vaguely connected certain changes in her existence with the changes which took place in the fashion of sleeves and skirts which appeared to produce radical effects in the world she caught glimpses of. Sometimes sleeves were closely fitted to people's arms, then puffs sprang from them and grew until they were enormous and required delicate manipulation when coats were put on; then their lavishness of material fell from the shoulder to the wrists and hung there swaying until some sudden development of skirt seemed to distract their attention from themselves and they shrank into unimportance and skirts changed instead. Afterwards, sometimes figures were slim and encased in sheathlike draperies, sometimes folds rippled about feet, "fullness" crept here or there or disappeared altogether, trains grew longer or shorter or wider or narrower, cashmeres, grosgrain silks and heavy satins were suddenly gone 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 at the back, at the side, at the front, worn over the face or dashingly rolled back from it; feathers drooped or stood upright at heights which rose and fell and changed position with the changing seasons. No garment or individual wore the same aspect for more than a month's time. It was necessary to change all things with a rapidity matching the change of moods and fancies which altered at the rate of the automobiles which dashed here and there and everywhere, through country roads, through town, through remote places with an unsparing swiftness which set a new pace for the world.
"I cannot hark back regretfully to stage coaches," said Lord Coombe. "Even I was not born early enough for that. But in the days of my youth and innocence express trains seemed almost supernatural. One could drive a pair of horses twenty miles to make a country visit, but one could not drive back the same day. One's circle had its limitations and degrees of intimacy. Now it is possible motor fifty miles to lunch and home to dine with guests from the remotest corners of the earth. Oceans are crossed in six days, and the eager flit from continent to continent. Engagements can be made by cable and the truly enterprising can accept an invitation to dine in America on a fortnight's notice. Telephones communicate in a few seconds and no one is secure from social intercourse for fifteen minutes. Acquaintances and correspondence have no limitations because all the inhabitants of the globe can reach one by motor or electricity. In moments of fatigue I revert to the days of Queen
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