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Anne with many gentle laments and "poor dears" and "such a pity's, Grannie still with a resolute front, though she quailed a little as she looked at the scorched raw toast. Rack her brains as she might, she could think of no one to fill the breach; Brierly-Stoke was ill supplied with notable women waiting emergencies, and as for the itinerant char-woman, Grannie had all an oldfashioned housekeeper's horror of her slipshod services.
"Cole shall come up and put Jane in the way of things, and see about dinner," she decided, "and John must bring his friends to the White House. They shall have a plain, well-cooked meal, and if they can't eat it, why, then, they deserve to go without."
As she was leaving the room Miss Anne called after her in a flutter. Aunt Anne was one of the women who always reserve the tit-bits of their news for a postscript.
"Oh, Emily, I heard yesterday-Eliza heard it from the milkman in the morning before she gave in and was forced to go to bed-that Nancy Seaward is home again. She has lost her situation through no fault of her own, poor dear, and is looking out for something else." "Dear me," said Grannie, "I wish I had known. She should have spent the day with us yesterday."
Nancy Seaward was only a third cousin, but she had Whipp blood in her veins on her mother's side, and, diluted as it was, Grannie loyally recognized its claim.
"We might drive to Roots," she thought as she walked daintily down between the laurels, holding up her silken skirts; "it wouldn't take long, and it would please the children, and I can explain to Nancy that I didn't know she was at home."
The three white sun-bonnets nodded delighted acquiescence as Grannie propounded her scheme. They had behaved beautifully, only Prissy had fallen out
by mistake and soiled her little white cotton gloves; but she hadn't cried. Grannie dusted the gloves with her handkerchief, kissed the heroine, and, when the direction had been distinctly repeated to old Peter the coachman, they proceeded very comfortably on their way.
"Never shout to a deaf person," said Grannie, improving the occasion, "a clear enunciation is much more important."
The little scholars never minded Grannie's mild lectures; they did not. suppose for a moment they were meant to understand them.
The farm of Roots lay about three miles outside the town. It was small and not very productive, and hard times had pressed sorely on Thomas Seaward, who had, indeed, never been a prosperous man. That was why Nancy, the youngest, went out to help other people; the five sisters remaining at home more than sufficed for all there was to do. Grannie, seated in the prim best parlor, greeted them in detachments as they bustled in from dairy and poultry yard-big, bouncing, voluble, fresh-faced young women with hearty manners that just a little overwhelmed her. She was glad when they carried the children off to drink bowls of cream and see the ducklings, and Nancy came to her alone. Nancy was altogether different from her sisters; she looked like nothing in the parlor except the flowers in the blue bowl which were due to her inspiration. She had their freshness, their unconsciousness. She was tall and straight, her hair dark brown, her eyes the deep gray which looks black in certain lights. In her lavender print she had a certain air of Quakerish sobriety and reliance that met with Grannie's approval.
"My dear," she said, "if had only known you were at Roots you should have been asked to the White House yesterday. Of course I knew that Susan and Martha and the others could not be spared; but you are holiday making, I hear."
"I am looking out for some work. Henry, the dairyman, brought the news yesterday that Mr. John Whipp's housekeeper is ill. Do you think he would allow me to supply her placeas cook, of course, and under her directions, until she recovers?"
The appeal was simple and direct; hope flashed into Grannie's face, and faded again.
"You are very young," she said anxiously.
"Twenty-two," said Nancy calmly. "So much? You have the Whipp knack of keeping your youth, child. But even at twenty-two you cannot have much experience, and Mr. John is very, very particular."
"I can cook a little," said Nancy modestly.
"But, my dear, I thought you were a lady help!"
"A help, but not a lady," said Nancy, with a little smile. "I don't think the two go together; at least, you cannot be a help if you put the lady first."
"What, then, were your duties?" "Something of everything." Nancy looked at her hands, which seemed to know the meaning of work. "Colonel and Mrs. Purchase were as nice as possible to me; they would have liked me to go abroad with them, but father objected. They are both old and delicate, and-rather dependent on others"-she smiled again. "Colonel Purchase liked dainty food, and I think I learned to please him."
Grannie listened with growing approval. Nancy was modest and yet self-reliant; she had no false pride. It would be tempting Fate to refuse so manifest a gift at her hands.
"If I could be sure it was quite right," she murmured wistfully, “but I am afraid you will find Eliza's temper trying. To be sure there is Miss Whipp; she would be very kind to you, but she is an invalid too, and would only add to your cares. You are so young, and"-Grannie did not add "pretty," but all at once it struck her with a kind of shock that Nancy with the pink color of excitement in her cheeks. and her earnest black-lashed gray eyes was beautiful. "My dear, I don't know if it would be right."
"Let me try," said Nancy. “If I don't suit him then I can come home again."
But Grannie would not consent without a family consultation, and as many of the Seawards as could be gathered at such short notice were summoned to the parlor. Thomas Seaward was at market, but his eldest daughter would answer for him. They relinquished Nancy with the utmost cheerfulness; she was always happiest when she was busy, and there was really nothing for her to do at home but to idle about in the garden. If she had been a boy it would have been another story, but there were girls enough and to spare at Roots already! In the end Nancy found herself seated by Grannie in the carriage, the children opposite, and her little portmanteau on the box beside Peter.
"I hope the experiment will answer," said Grannie to herself, as for the second time that day she left Laurel Grove, "but"-She pursed her lips and shook her head.
John Whipp was dining with a friend that night and did not return to Laurel Grove till late. The occasion was not one of ceremony, and he went straight from the bank without going home to dress. So that the clock in the hall was striking one and his household was hushed in sleep by the time he discov
ered Grannie's little note secured to the pin-cushion in his bedroom. Nancy Seaward-which was Nancy? He had a confused memory of a number of bouncing, dark-eyed, roguish young women seen in the rare visits paid by him to Roots, and it crossed him with a faint sense of annoyance that one of them should be presiding over his disorganized household. Aunt Emily had surely failed in her usual perfect tact. If the girl had not been a relative-but a cousin, even if it were but in the third degree-how could one give her orders, or criticise her amateur efforts without a chance of wounding her susceptibilities?
"Please, sir," the little maid Jane (who had taken up his shaving water at eight) knocked at her master's door at a quarter to nine on the following morning, "will you come down soon, sir?-there is an omelette for breakfast."
John was accustomed to this formula from Eliza, and smiled to himself at Jane's foolish confidence. As if any other omelette in the world but one of Eliza's making would suffer by delay. He knew what to expect!
Breakfast was neatly laid for one. "Where is Miss Seaward?" he asked of Jane.
"She has breakfasted, sir."
John was conscious of a great sense of relief. He could pardon an insufferably bad meal so long as he had not to eat in the company of a giggling Miss Seaward, who would want to be talked to.
But what was this? The omelette itself, a golden brown glory, light, fragrant, delicious! He traced Eliza's hand in it. Eliza at her very best. Poor woman, how faithful she was; but he really must, in common humanity, forbid her to toil for him while she was so ill. The coffee, of course, would pay for the excellence of the omelette. Who ever tasted good coffee in a farm
house? But no, the coffee was perfection, the milk absolutely boiling, the cream in the old-fashioned pitcher whipped to a froth till it lay like snow on the top of the cup.
"Really, really," said John, munching the crisp flakes of toast with an infinite relish, "this will never do."
He rang for the little maid.
"Jane," he said almost sternly, "I am afraid you have been troubling Eliza about breakfast, and she so ill. Now remember, I cannot permit it. A boiled egg, not too hard, will do very well for me, and if you cannot manage coffee, a cup of tea"
Jane opened a pair of frightened eyes. "Please, sir, Miss Jones is feeling very bad, and she hasn't done a hand's turn, not since yesterday morning when the pain come on."
"Then who-cooked breakfast?" "Miss Seaward, sir, the lady as come yesterday."
John looked as he felt, dumfounded. "Will you ask Miss Seaward if she will kindly allow me to speak to her?" he said at last.
"She is out, sir; this is market-day, and she said it was best to go early. But I am to ask you, sir, what you would like for dinner."
"Anything, anything," said John, making a sudden bolt from the room, for the first time treating this important question as if it were a thing of naught.
He returned from the bank in a state of suspended curiosity. Now, of course, it would be necessary to see Miss Seaward. He pictured their tête-à-tête meal; she would be rather red with her efforts over the fire, she would probably wear a high-necked velveteen with a good deal of white lace about it as an easy compromise between morning and evening dress, she-well, the situation was not an easy one, still he felt bound to face it. Any one who could set before him such a breakfast as he
had eaten that morning deserved his gratitude.
The table was again laid for one. In the few minutes he had dutifully spent in Aunt Anne's room she had told him she did not feel equal to coming downstairs. John was accustomed to her absences from his board and inquired sympathetically for her neuralgia. Was she being looked after?
"Yes, indeed," the invalid assented warmly, "she had every possible attention."
"Had she seen Miss Seaward?"
Yes, Nancy had run up to consult her and had been most careful of her comfort, but the dear girl had really a good deal to do. Eliza, she feared, was exacting, but Nancy had so much good sense, and did not John think she managed beautifully?
John certainly thought she did by the time he had eaten his solitary dinner. There was a new sauce which he highly approved for the salmon, the cutlets were done to a turn, and when the cheese soufflé turned out to be as light as the omelette of the morning he felt that Eliza's illness was not such a serious calamity after all. He had sent a polite message by Jane to say he hoped to have the pleasure of Miss Seaward's company at dinner, but Jane demurely returned with the reply that Miss Seaward had dined already and hoped he would excuse her.
This singular behavior piqued and puzzled John Whipp. It annoyed him to think he had so misjudged the character of the cousins at Roots. Could he be mistaken? Surely there he had been received with a somewhat embarrassing enthusiasm. There had been no reticence, no shy self-effacement, in the welcome of Susan and Martha and Kate-how many of them were there? Had they not rather alarmed and overwhelmed him-the womanavoiding bachelor-with the volubility and eagerness with which they pressed
refreshment on him, the readiness they displayed to remain in the parlor and talk to him when he only desired to be walking over the farm with their father?
Nearly a week passed-a week of charming and varied menus, and still the new housekeeper remained invisible. One evening, after the fragrant cup of black coffee with which he concluded his meal, he lit a cigar and walked over to the White House. Grannie sat under the roses with her usual court around her, but she asked John to give her his arm and said she would show him the golden pheasants, the latest addition to her aviary. She had a lively curiosity to know what John thought of his new manager, but she was a wily old lady and seemed to be interested in nothing but her birds. John gave but a distracted attention to the splendor of the new inmates.
"Aunt Emily," he said, as soon as decency permitted, "I am awfully obliged to you for securing Miss Seaward's services, but she is a regular puzzle to me."
"Isn't she suiting?" said Grannie tranquilly. "I had hoped she might manage till Eliza got better, though of course I told her how very particular you were. But there was really no choice between her and the charwoman Nichols, and with your fastidious tastes, John-"
He gave a shudder at the mention of the charwoman.
"I felt," she went on, "that Nancy would at least be the better of the two."
"The better of the two!" cried John; "why, if I weren't the most easily pleased man in the world, if I were indeed the epicure you love to make me out, Aunt Emily, I couldn't but be more than satisfied. I thought Eliza a treasure, but Miss Nancy beats her hollow." "Really?" Grannie's fine brows were lifted.
"What puzzles me is that I can't get hold of her to thank her. Now, should you say that the Seaward girls were shy?"
"No," she admitted, "I should scarcely characterize them as diffident."
"Exactly," he cried, with triumph; "you would agree with me, in short, that they are rather the other way! This Nancy must be the eldest, I suppose?"
"Not the eldest," Grannie murmured, but he did not heed her.
"She certainly cannot be young, since she has acquired such a mastery over her art, though how she has found occasion to practice it at Roots is a mystery. Now, how old would you say the eldest Miss Seaward was?"
Grannie made a little calculation. "There are six of them alive and several have died. I should think she is about thirty-seven."
"Just what I supposed, almost my own age and-not diffident, as we have agreed; and yet if she were in hiding for a crime she could not more persistently keep out of my sight. I have sent message after message, and she always has some excuse, and of course I can't invade her privacy even to thank her."
"Certainly not," said Grannie with delicate emphasis, "you must remember her position, John; she cannot be your cook and your cousin at the same time, and indeed I quite approve of her devotion to the duties she has undertaken. For the moment she is your paid housekeeper, and if she prefers that you should look upon her in that light you must respect her wishes."
"Well, if you are sure she won't think it unkind," he said, conscious of a great relief-for somehow he still dreaded the velveteen-clad boisterous Nancy of his dreams-"but it does seem uncommonly cool to be sending her out orders as if she were a servant."
"I am sure she would prefer it," said Grannie, "and," she added adroitly, "it may make her position easier with Eliza. Naturally Eliza does not like a rival in her kingdom."
"Eliza will have to look to her laurels," said John, with a shaken head, "or she will find herself dethroned. Poor woman!-from what Gibson tells me she doesn't seem much better, but of course"-easily-"now that her place is so well supplied she can take every care of herself without worrying. I suppose"-a cold doubt crossed him-"Miss Seaward can stay as long as she is wanted? There are enough of them at home."
"I should think she can," said Grannie, with caution, "at least as long as you do not obtrude yourself on her, John."
"Of course I shan't do that," he declared genially; "now that I have you to back me up, Aunt Emily, I'll let her severely alone. To tell you the truth, I am not particularly anxious to claim her acquaintance; as a cook she is after my own heart, but as a relative she leaves something to be desired."
Grannie was also secretly relieved at the turn affairs had taken, though her scrupulous conscience was not quite easy at the self-deception John was unconsciously practising. Still, Nancy's prudence lifted a weight from her mind. She had not realized until her recent daily visits to Laurel Grove how very handsome Nancy was, and cousin Anne was after all but an indifferent chaperon. Matchmaker as she loved to be, Grannie had the correctest regard for the proprieties, and if John -But a Seaward would never do! In her matrimonial schemes for him she had soared to the highest circles. It had not occurred to her that good housekeeping might find more favor in his eyes than an accredited position in the county. But John certainly did not care for the Seaward connection,