"There's no doubt about it, we really must economize somehow!" sighedMrs. Woodward helplessly, with her housekeeping book in one hand, andher bank pass-book in the other, and an array of bills spread out on thetable in front of her. "Children, do you hear what I say? The war willmake a great difference to our income, and we can't--simply _can't_--goon living in exactly the old way. The sooner we all realize it thebetter. I wish I knew where to begin."
"Might knock off going to church, and save the money we give incollections!" suggested Percy flippantly. "It must tot up to quite adecent sum in the course of a year, not to mention pew rent!"
His mother cast a reproachful glance at him.
"Now, Percy, _do_ be serious for once! You and Winona are quite oldenough to understand business matters. I must discuss them withsomebody. As I said before, we shall really have to economize somehow,and the question is where to begin."
"I saw some hints in a magazine the other day," volunteered Winona,hunting among a pile of papers, and fishing up a copy of _TheHousewife's Journal_. "Here you are! There's a whole article on WarEconomies. It says you can halve your expenses if you only try. It givesten different recipes. Number One, Dispense with Servants. Oh, goody! Idon't know how the house would get along without Maggie and Mary! Isn'tthat rather stiff?"
"It's impossible to be thought of for a moment! I should never dream ofdismissing maids who have lived with me for years. I've read thatarticle, and it may be practicable for other people, but certainly notfor us. Oh, dear! Some of my friends recommend me to remove to the town,and others say 'Stay where you are, and keep poultry!'"
"We can't leave Highfield! We were all born here!" objected Winonadecisively.
"And we tried keeping hens some time ago," said Percy. "They laid on anaverage three-quarters of an egg a year each, as far as I remember."
"I'm afraid we didn't know how to manage them," replied Mrs. Woodwardfretfully. "Percy, leave those papers alone! I didn't tell you to turnthem over. You're mixing them all up, tiresome boy! Don't touch themagain! It's no use trying to discuss business with you children! I shallwrite and consult Aunt Harriet. Go away, both of you, now! I want tohave a quiet half-hour."
Aunt Harriet stood to the Woodward family somewhat in the light of aDelphic oracle. To apply to her was always the very last resource.Matters must have reached a crisis, Winona thought, if they wereobliged to appeal to Aunt Harriet's judgment. She followed Percy intothe garden with a sober look on her face.
"You don't think mother would really leave Highfield?" she asked herbrother anxiously.
"Bunkum!" replied that light-hearted youth. "We always have more or lessof a fuss when my school bills come in. It'll soon fizzle out again!Don't you fret yourself. Things will jog on as they always have joggedon. There'll be nothing done, you'll see. Come on and bowl for me,that's a chubby one!"
"But this time mother really seemed to be in earnest," said Winonameditatively, as she helped to put up the stumps.
Mrs. Woodward had been left a widow three years before this story opens.She was a fair, fragile little woman, still pretty, and patheticallyhelpless. She had been accustomed to lean upon her husband, and now, forlack of firmer support, she leaned upon Winona. Winona was young to actas prop, and though it flattered her sense of importance, it had put arow of wrinkles on her girlish forehead. At fifteen she seemed mucholder than Percy at sixteen. No one ever dreamt of taking Percyseriously; he was one of those jolly, easy-going, happy-go-lucky,unreliable people who saunter through life with no other aim than toamuse themselves at all costs. To depend upon him was like trusting to aboat without a bottom. Though nominally the eldest, he had little moresense of responsibility than Ernie, the youngest. It was Winona whoshouldered the family burdens.
The Woodwards had always lived at Highfield, and in their opinion it wasthe most desirable residence in the whole of Rytonshire. The house wasold enough to be picturesque, but modern enough for comfort. Its quaintgables, mullioned windows and Cromwellian porch were the joy ofphotographers, while the old-fashioned hall, when the big log fire waslighted, would be hard to beat for coziness. The schoolroom, on theground floor, had a separate side entrance on to the lawn, leadingthrough a small ante-room where boots and coats and cricket bats andtennis rackets could be kept; the drawing-room had a luxurious inglenook with cushioned seats, and all the bedrooms but two had a southernaspect. As for the big rambling garden, it was full of delightfulold-world flowers that came up year after year: daffodils and violetsand snow-flakes, and clumps of pinks, and orange lilies and Canterburybells, and tall Michaelmas daisies, and ribbon grass and royal Osmundafern, the sort of flowers that people used to pick in days gone by, puta paper frill round, and call a nosegay or a posy. There was a lawn fortennis and cricket, a pond planted with irises and bulrushes, and a wildcorner where crocuses and coltsfoot and golden aconite came up as theyliked in the spring time.
Winona loved this garden with somewhat the same attachment that a Frenchpeasant bears for the soil upon which he has been reared. She rejoicedin every yard of it. To go away and resign it to others would betragedy unspeakable. The fear that Aunt Harriet might recommend thefamily to leave Highfield was sufficient to darken her horizonindefinitely. That her mother had written to consult the oracle she waswell aware, for she had been sent to post the letter. She had aninstinctive apprehension that the answer would prove a turning-point inher career.
For a day or two everything went on as usual. Mrs. Woodward did notagain allude to her difficulties, Percy had conveniently forgotten them,and the younger children were not aware of their existence. Winona livedwith a black spot dancing before her mental eyes. It was continuallyrising up and blotting out the sunshine. On the fourth morning appeareda letter addressed in an old-fashioned slanting handwriting, and bearingthe Seaton post mark. Mrs. Woodward read it in silence, and left hertoast unfinished. Aunt Harriet's communications generally upset her forthe day.
"Come here, Winona," she said agitatedly, after breakfast. "Oh, dear, Iwish I knew what to do! It's so very unexpected, but of course it wouldbe a splendid thing for you. If only I could consult somebody! I supposegirls nowadays will have to learn to support themselves, and the warwill alter everything, but I'd always meant you to stop at home and lookafter the little ones for me, and it's very--"
"What does Aunt Harriet say, mother?" interrupted Winona, with a catchin her throat.
"She says a great deal, and I dare say she's right. Oh, this terriblewar! Things were so different when I was a girl! You might as well readthe letter for yourself, as it concerns you. I always think she's hardon Percy, poor lad! I was afraid the children were too noisy the lasttime she was here, but they wouldn't keep quiet. I'm sure I try to do mybest all round, and you know, Winona, how I said Aunt Harriet--"
But Winona was already devouring the letter.
"10 Abbey Close,
"MY DEAR FLORITA,--You are quite right to consult mein your difficulties, and are welcome to any advice which I amable to offer you. I am sorry to hear of your financialembarrassments, but I am not surprised. The present increase inthe cost of living, and extra taxation, will make retrenchmentsnecessary to everybody. In the circumstances I should not adviseyou to leave Highfield.
"Oh, thank goodness!" ejaculatedWinona.
The expense of a removal would probably cancel what youwould otherwise save. Neither should I recommend you to takePercy from Longworth College and send him daily to be coached byyour parish curate. From my knowledge of his character Iconsider the discipline of a public school to be indispensableif he is to grow into worthy manhood, and sooner than allow thewholesome restraint of his house master to be removed at thiscritical portion of his life, I will myself defray half the costof his maintenance for the next two years.
"Now as regards Winona. I believe she has ability, and it ishigh time to begin to think seriously what you mean to do withher. In the future women will have to depend upon themselves,and I consider that all girls should be trained to gain theirown living. The foundation of every career is a goodeducation--without this it is impossible to build at all, andWinona certainly cannot obtain it if she remains at home. Thenew High School at Seaton is offering two open Scholarships togirls resident in the County, the examination for which is onSeptember 8th. I propose that Winona enters for thisexamination, and that if she should be a successful candidate,she should come to live with me during the period of herattendance at the High School. The education is the bestpossible, there is a prospect of a University Scholarship to becompeted for, and every help and encouragement is given to thegirls in their choice of a career. With Winona off your hands, Ishould suggest that you should engage a competent nurserygoverness to teach the younger children the elements of orderand discipline. I would gladly pay her salary on theunderstanding that I should myself select her.
"Trusting that these proposals may be of some service, andhoping to hear a better account of your health,
"Your affectionate Aunt
Winona laid down the letter with an agitated gasp. The propositionalmost took her breath away.
"What an idea!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Mother, of course you won'teven dream of it for an instant! I'd _hate_ to go and live with AuntHarriet. It's not to be thought of!"
"Well, I don't know, Winona!" wavered Mrs. Woodward. "We must look at itfrom all sides, and perhaps Aunt Harriet's right, and it really would befor the best. Miss Harmon's a poor teacher, and I'm sure your music, atany rate, is not a credit to her. You played that last piece shockinglyout of time. You know you said yourself that you were getting beyondMiss Harmon!"
Whatever impeachments Winona may have brought against her teacher, shewas certainly not prepared to admit them now. She rejected the projectof the Seaton High School with the utmost energy and determination,bringing into the fray all that force of character which her motherlacked. Poor Mrs. Woodward vacillated feebly--she was generally swayedby whoever was nearest at the moment--and I verily believe Winona'sarguments would have prevailed, and the whole scheme would have beenabandoned, had not Mr. Joynson opportunely happened to turn up.
Mr. Joynson was a solicitor, and the trustee of Mrs. Woodward'sproperty. He managed most of her business affairs, and some of herprivate ones as well. She had confidence in his judgment, and she atonce thankfully submitted the question of Winona's future to hisdecision.
"The very thing for her!" he declared. "Do her a world of good to go toa proper school. She's frittering her time away here. Send her to Seatonby all means. What are you to do without her? Nonsense! Nobody'sindispensable--especially a girl of fifteen! Pack her off as soon as youcan. Doesn't want to go? Oh, she'll sing a different song when once shegets there, you'll see!"
Thus supported by masculine authority, Mrs. Woodward settled thequestion in the affirmative, and replied to her aunt by return of post.
Naturally such a stupendous event as the exodus of Winona made asensation in the household.
"Well, of all the rum shows!" exclaimed Percy. "You and Aunt Harriet indouble harness! It beats me altogether!"
"It's atrocious!" groaned Winona. "I'm a victim sacrificed for the goodof the family. Oh! why couldn't mother have thought of some other way ofeconomizing? I don't want to win scholarships and go in for a career!"
"Buck up! Perhaps you won't win! There'll be others in for the exam.,you bet! You'll probably fail, and come whining home like a whippedpuppy with its tail between its legs!"
"Indeed I shan't!" flared Winona indignantly. "I've a little more spiritthan that, thank you! And why should you imagine I'm going to fail? Isuppose I've as much brains as most people!"
"That's right! Upset the pepper-pot! I was only trying to comfort you!"teased Percy. "In my opinion you'll be returned like a bad halfpenny,or one of those articles 'of no use to anybody except the owner.' AuntHarriet will be cheated of her prey after all!"
"If Win goes away, I shall be the eldest daughter at home," said Lettyairily, shaking out her short skirts. "I'll sit at the end of the table,and pour out tea if mother has a headache, and unlock the apple room,and use the best inkpot if I like, and have first innings at the piano."
"You forget about the nursery governess," retorted Winona. "If I go, shecomes, and you'll find you've exchanged King Log for King Stork. Oh,very well, just wait and see! It won't be as idyllic as you imagine. Ishall be saved the trouble of looking after you, at any rate."
"What I'm trying to ascertain, madam," said Percy blandly, "is whetheryour ladyship wishes to take up your residence in Seaton or not. Withthe usual perversity of your sex you pursue a pig policy. When I ventureto picture you seated at the board of your venerable aunt, you protestyou are a sacrifice; when, on the other hand, I suggest your return tothe bosom of your family, you revile me equally."
"You're the most unsympathetic _beast_ I've ever met!" declared Winonaaggrievedly.
When she analyzed her feelings, however, she was obliged to allow thatthey were mixed. Though the prospect of settling down at Seaton filledher with dismay, Percy's gibe at her probable failure touched her pride.Winona had always been counted as the clever member of the family. Itwould be too ignominious to be sent home labeled unfit. She set herteeth and clenched her fists at the bare notion.
"I'll show them all what I can do if I take a thing up!" she resolved.
In the meantime Mrs. Woodward was immersed in the subject of clothing.Every post brought her boxes of patterns, amongst which she hesitated,lost in choice.
"If I knew whether you're really going to stay at Seaton or not, itwould make all the difference, Winona," she fluttered. "It's no usebuying you these new things if you're only to wear them at home, but I'dmake an effort to send you nice to Aunt Harriet's. I know she'llcriticize everything you have on. Dear me, I think I'd better risk it!It would be such a nuisance to have to write for the patterns all overagain, and how could I get your dresses fitted when you weren't here tobe tried on? Miss Jones is at liberty now, and can come for a week'ssewing, but she'll probably be busy if I want her later. Now tell me,which do you really think is the prettier of these two shades? I likethe fawn, but I believe the material will spot. What have you done withthe lace collar Aunt Harriet gave you last Christmas? She's sure to askabout it if you don't wear it!"
Having decided that on the whole she intended to win a scholarship,Winona bluffed off the matter of her departure.
"I've changed my mind, that's all," she announced to her home circle."It will be a great comfort to me not to hear Mamie scraping away at herviolin in the evenings, or Letty strumming at scales. Think what arelief not to be obliged to rout up Dorrie and Godfrey, and haul themoff to school every day! I'm tired of setting an example. You needn'tsnigger!"
The family grinned appreciatively. They understood Winona.
"Don't you worry! I'll set the example when you're gone," Letty assuredher. "I'll be as improving as a copy-book. I wish I'd your chance; I'dstand Aunt Harriet for the sake of going to a big High School. Youngersisters never have any luck! Eldests just sweep the board. I don't knowwhere we come in!"
"Don't you fret, young 'un, you'll score later on!" cooed an indulgentvoice from the sofa, where Percy sprawled with a book and a bag ofwalnuts. "Remember that when you're still in all the bliss and sparkleof your teens, Winona'll be a mature and _passée_ person of twenty-two.'That eldest Miss Woodward's getting on, you know!' people will say, andsomebody'll reply: 'Yes, poor thing!'"
"They won't when I've got a career," retorted Winona, pelting Percy withhis own walnut-shells.
"You assured us the other day that you despised such vanities."
"Well, it depends. Perhaps I'll be a lady tram conductor, and punchtickets, or a post-woman, or drive a Government van!"
"If those are careers for girls, bag me for a steeple jack," chirpedDorrie.
It was perhaps a good thing for Winona that such a short intervalelapsed between the acceptance of Aunt Harriet's proposal and the dateof the scholarship examination. The ten days were very busy ones, forthere seemed much to be done in the way of preparation. Miss Jones, thedressmaker, was installed in the nursery with the sewing-machine, anddemanded frequent tryings-on, a process Winona hated.
"I shall buy all my clothes ready made when I'm grown up!" she declared.
"They very seldom fit, and have to be altered," returned her mother. "Dostand still, Winona! And I hope you're learning up a few dates and factsfor this examination. You ought to be studying every morning. If onlyMiss Harmon were home, I'd have asked her to coach you. I'm afraidshe'll be disappointed at your leaving, but of course she can't expectto keep you for ever. I heard a rumor that she means to give up herschool altogether, and go and live with her uncle. I hope it's true, andthen I can take the little ones away with an easy conscience. I don'twant to treat her badly, poor thing, but I'm sure teaching's not hervocation."
Winona really made a heroic effort to prepare herself for the comingordeal. She retired to a secluded part of the garden and read over herlatest school books. The process landed her in the depths ofdespondency.
"I'll never remember anything--never!" she mourned to her family. "Totry and get all this into my head at once is like bolting a week's mealsat a single go! I know a date here and there, and I've a hazy notion ofFrench and Latin verbs, and a general impression of other subjects, butif they ask me for anything definite, such as the battles of the Wars ofthe Roses, or a list of the products of India, I'm done for!"
"Go in for Post-Impressionism, then," suggested Percy. "Write from aromantic standpoint, and don't condescend to mere facts. Stick in aquotation or two, and a drawing if possible, and make your paper soundeloquent and dramatic and poetical, and all the rest of it. They'll markyou low for accuracy, but put you on ten per cent. for style, you bet! Iknow a chap who tries it on at the Coll., and it always pays."
"It's worth thinking about, certainly," said Winona, shutting her bookswith a weary yawn.