Miss Egerton opened it slowly now, smiling as she did so at the quaint inscription on the cover. A folded sheet of paper lay within—she spread the paper before her, expecting to see the three five-pound notes folded within its leaves—blankness and emptiness alone met her view—no money was inside the envelope—the whole thing was a cruel fraud. The poor governess fairly gasped for breath—there lay the bill for six pounds nineteen shillings which she had incurred, making sure that she could meet it out of Primrose’s money. Primrose had spoken so confidently about her little nest-egg, and behold, she had not any!—the envelope was a fraud—the girl had been subjected to a cruel practical joke.
Miss Egerton was extremely poor—it was with the utmost difficulty she could make two ends meet. She thought hard for a minute—then her brow cleared, and she rose to her feet.
“Better I than those orphan girls!” she said, under her breath, and then she went to her desk again, and filled in a cheque for the amount.
“I can do without my winter cloak, and my black merino dress will last me for some weeks longer if I sponge it with cold tea, and re-line the tail,” she said to herself. “Any little privation is better than to hurt the hearts of the orphan girls.”
She paid the man, who signed the receipt, and then she let him out herself. As she did so a young man came hastily up the steps—he had a bright face, and running up to the governess, he seized both her hands in his.
“Oh, Arthur, how glad I am to see you!” said Miss Egerton.
Miss Egerton took Arthur Noel—for it was he—straight back into her little sitting-room, and sitting down on her worn little horse-hair sofa, and raising her eyes anxiously to the young man’s face, she told him the story of the attic upstairs, of the furniture she had purchased, of the girls she had meant to serve. She showed him, with hands that trembled, the envelope with its queer inscription, and she unfolded for his benefit the empty sheet of blank paper. She told her story at once without any reservation, even relating with a little hasty blush how she felt obliged to pay for the furniture herself.
Perhaps Arthur Noel was the only person in the world to whom she would have made this confession; for she was one of those who made it a practice never to let her right hand know what her left did, but she had known Arthur from his boyhood, and he was one of those men who inspire trust and sympathy at a glance.
He listened to the story with interest, and even excitement—he was naturally enthusiastic, but even Miss Egerton had never seen him so perturbed and so moved as he was at present.
“I know about those girls,” he said at last; “what are their names?—I am sure I know about them. Nay, let me ask you a question—Is not one called Jasmine? Has she not a piquant face, and very soft and yet bright eyes, and a great lot of curly brown hair? Yes, Miss Egerton, I am sure the girls you speak of are in a certain sense my girls; for if they are the ones I mean I took them under my protection long ago.”