Nothing could exceed Rosamund’s amazement, and a scream almost rose to her lips, when she entered and saw, curled up snugly in Jane’s bed, no less a person than Irene Ashleigh. Irene’s exceedingly bright face peeped up above the clothes. She gave a low, impish laugh, and then said slowly:
“Don’t scream. Keep your nerve. I climbed up by the wistaria. I have been in bed for the last hour, expecting you. I happened to be hiding just below the window, clinging on for bare life to the wistaria and the thick ivy, and I heard the conversation between you and Mrs. Merriman, so I knew that you would have your room to yourself, and decided that I would share it with you. Now lock the door, for I have a great deal to say.”
“But we are not allowed to lock our doors,” said Rosamund.
“You will lock it to-night, because I order you to,” said Irene.
“I shall do nothing of the sort. It is my room, and I will do exactly as I like.”
Irene sat up in bed. Nothing could be more picturesque than her general appearance. She was in the red frock that she usually wore; her wild hair curled in elf-locks all over her head; her eyes, bright as stars, shone in the middle of her little elfin face; her charming lips pouted just for a moment. Then she said in a clear tone, “What if I get up and strike you right across the face? Will you lock the door in preference to that?”
“I will not lock the door.”
Like a flash, Irene was out of bed and had struck Rosamund a resounding blow on her cheek. Rosamund felt the blow tingling, but she stood firm.
“Will you lock the door now?”
“What if I give you a blow on the other cheek?”
“Here it is for your majesty,” said Rosamund, turning her other cheek to the foe.
Irene burst into a laugh.
“What a creature you are! But you know we are in danger. I have such a lot to say to you, and any one may nab us. Won’t you lock the door just to please me? I won’t slap you any more. I am sorry I hurt your dear cheek. I came because I could not help myself, and because I could not live without you any longer. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and no sign of you, and I just hungered for you. I am pining for you through all the days and all the nights, through every hour, in the midst of every meal; not speaking about you, for that is not my way, but just hungering and hungering, and yet you say you will not lock the door.”
“No, Irene; and you ought not to be here. What is to be done?”
Poor Rosamund had never felt more bewildered in her life. She had given her word of honor; and her word of honor was, to her, worthy of respect. She had never yet broken it. Should she break it now? Irene looked at her for a few minutes in wonder. The two girls were standing in the centre of the room, for, of course, Irene was fully dressed. Compared to Rosamund, she was a small girl, for Rosamund was tall and exceedingly well developed for her age. Irene was a couple of years younger, but she was as lithe as steel. Her little fingers could crush and destroy if they pleased. Her thin arms were muscular to a remarkable degree for so young a girl. She had not a scrap of superfluous flesh on her body. At this moment she looked more spirit than girl; and if Rosamund could have got herself to believe that there were such creatures as changelings, she might almost have given credence to Irene’s own story of herself.
…Before Rosamund could utter a word, Irene had sprung upon her, seized her round the waist, and compelled Rosamund to seat herself upon the side of the bed, which she herself had been occupying a few minutes ago.
“Now, darling,” she said, “you are not going to get away from me, and I believe in your heart you don’t want to.”
Poor Rosamund! a great wave of longing to help this queer child swept over her heart; but there was her word of honor. She was a passionate, head-strong, naughty girl; but she could not give that up. Besides, she could not do anything with Irene in the future if she did not conquer her now.
…”As a matter of fact,” said Rosamund, “I like you very much.”
“There, then, I am satisfied,” exclaimed Irene, and she flung her thin arms round Rosamund’s neck, squeezed herself up close to her, and kissed her again and again.
“Ah!” she said, “I knew that all my life I was waiting for somebody; and that somebody was you, just you, so big, so brave, so—so different from all the others. I should not be the horrid thing I am if the others had not been afraid of me. I got worse and worse, and at last I could not control myself any longer. I did things that perhaps I ought not to have done; but if you give me up I don’t know what will happen—I don’t know where things will end. Are you going to give me up?”
“I will tell you now exactly what has happened, Irene, and will leave it to you to judge how you ought to act for my sake at the present moment. You say you love me——”
“I suppose that is what I feel,” said Irene. “It is a queer sort of sensation, and I have never had it before. It seems to make my heart lighter, and when I think of you I seem to get a sense of rest and pleasure. When you are away from me I feel savage with every one else; but when you are near I think the best of others. And I think it is just possible that if I saw much of you I’d be a sort of a good girl—not a very good one, but a sort of a good girl, particularly if you’d manage mother and manage the servants, and tell them not to be such geese as to be afraid of me. For, of course, you know, I can’t help being a changeling.”
“Now, Irene, you must listen to me. I ought to be in bed and asleep. People will hear us talking, and I won’t allow the door to be locked, whether you like it or not, because it is against the rules.”
“Gracious!” said Irene, “couldn’t we both get out of the window, and climb down by the wistaria and the ivy, and reach the ground, and go and hide in the plantation? We could spend the night there, locked in each other’s arms, so happy—oh, so happy! By the way, I saw a little summer-house—we could spend the night in the summer-house, couldn’t we? Couldn’t we?”