After tea the little company fell into groups—some out of doors beneath the apple-trees, others near the piano at which Virginia was playing Mendelssohn. Monica ran about among them with her five-year-old prattle, ever watched by her father, who lounged in a canvas chair against the sunny ivied wall, pipe in mouth. Dr. Madden was thinking how happy they made him, these kind, gentle girls; how his love for them seemed to ripen with every summer; what a delightful old age his would be, when some were married and had children of their own, and the others tended him—they whom he had tended. Virginia would probably be sought in marriage; she had good looks, a graceful demeanour, a bright understanding. Gertrude also, perhaps. And little Monica—ah, little Monica! she would be the beauty of the family. When Monica had grown up it would be time for him to retire from practice; by then he would doubtless have saved money.
He must find more society for them; they had always been too much alone, whence their shyness among strangers. If their mother had but lived!
‘Rhoda wishes you to read us something, father,’ said his eldest girl, who had approached whilst he was lost in dream.
He often read aloud to them from the poets; Coleridge and Tennyson by preference. Little persuasion was needed. Alice brought the volume, and he selected ‘The Lotus-Eaters.’ The girls grouped themselves about him, delighted to listen. Many an hour of summer evening had they thus spent, none more peaceful than the present. The reader’s cadenced voice blended with the song of a thrush.
’"Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All thing’ are taken from us—“’
There came an interruption, hurried, peremptory. A farmer over at Kingston Seymour had been seized with alarming illness; the doctor must come at once.
’Very sorry, girls. Tell James to put the horse in, sharp as he can.
In ten minutes Dr. Madden was driving at full speed, alone in his dog-cart, towards the scene of duty.
About seven o’clock Rhoda Nunn took leave, remarking with her usual directness, that before going home she would walk along the sea-front in the hope of a meeting with Mr. Smithson and his daughter. Mrs. Nunn was not well enough to leave the house to-day; but, said Rhoda, the invalid preferred being left alone at such times.
‘Are you sure she prefers it?’ Alice ventured to ask. The girl gave her a look of surprise.
‘Why should mother say what she doesn’t mean?’
It was uttered with an ingenuousness which threw some light on Rhoda’s character.
By nine o’clock the younger trio of sisters had gone to bed; Alice, Virginia, and Gertrude sat in the parlour, occupied with books, from time to time exchanging a quiet remark. A tap at the door scarcely drew their attention, for they supposed it was the maid-servant coming to lay supper. But when the door opened there was a mysterious silence; Alice looked up and saw the expected face, wearing, however, so strange an expression that she rose with sudden fear.