Miss Mignon by John Strange Winter

It was a week before Christmas. There were no visitors at Ferrers Court, although a couple of days later the great hall would be filled to overflowing with a happy, light-hearted set of people, all bent, as they always were at Ferrers Court, on enjoying themselves to the uttermost.

The weather was cold and cheerless, though not cold enough to stop the hunting, and Captain Ferrers had been absent all day, and might now come home at any moment. Mrs. Ferrers was, in fact, rather putting on the time, hoping he might return before Browne brought in the tea. The children meantime were clamouring loudly for a story.

"A story?" said Mrs. Ferrers doubtfully; she never thought herself very good at story-telling, and often wondered that the children seemed to like hearing her so much.

"Yes, a story," cried three or four fresh young voices in a breath.

"I'm afraid I've told you all my stories," Mrs. Ferrers said apologetically. "And I have told them all so many times."

"Tell us about Mignon," cried Maud, for Mignon, their half-sister, was still their favourite heroine.

Mrs. Ferrers pondered for a moment. "I don't believe," she remarked, "that I have ever told you about Mignon being lost."

"Mignon--lost!" cried Maud. "Oh! never."

"Lost!" echoed Pearl. "And where was she lost, Mother?"

"Tell us," cried Bertie.

"Yes; do tell us," echoed Cecil.

"Tell us," cried Madge and Baby in the same breath.

So Mrs. Ferrers gathered her thoughts together and began.

"It was when Pearl was about four months old"--at which Pearl drew herself up and looked important, as if she, too, had had a share in the adventure--"we went to London for the season. That was in April. We had not the house we have now, for that was let for a term, so your father took a house near the top of Queen's Gate."

"That's where the memorial is," said Pearl. "I know."

"Yes; we know," echoed Maud.

"Well, Humphie, who had attended Mignon ever since she was a year old, had, of course, the entire care of Pearl, and I engaged a very nice French maid--half-maid, half-nurse--for Mignon. She was under Humphie, of course, but she had to take Mignon out--not very often, for she was accustomed to going out a great deal with your father--and to dress her, and so on.

"Well, one day your father and I were going to a large afternoon party where we couldn't very well take Mignon. We stayed rather late, rushed back and dressed and went to a dinner-party, not really having time to see the children at all. We had a party or two later on, but to them we never went, for just as we ladies were going through the hall on our way up into the drawing-room, I caught sight of Browne at the door of the inner hall. I turned aside at once.

"'Is anything the matter, Browne?' I asked. Indeed, I saw by his white face that something dreadful had happened.

"'Oh, yes, ma'am, something dreadful!' he answered. 'I scarcely know how to tell you. Miss Mignon is lost.'

"'Miss Mignon lost, Browne! What do you mean?' I said. 'How can she be lost?'

"'I only know she is,' he said, in a shaking voice. 'That silly idiot Hortense went out with her about three o'clock, with orders to go into the Park. She--this is her story, I cannot vouch for the truth of it, ma'am--she admits that she took her first to look at the shop-windows in the High Street, and that then she thought she would like to go into the Gardens, and that while there she fell asleep. The afternoon being so warm, she sat on a bench asleep till half-past five, and when she woke up with a start, feeling very shivery and cold--and serve her right, too!--Miss Mignon was gone; there was not a trace of her to be seen.'

"'If the silly creature had come straight home,' Browne went on, 'something might have been done; but instead of doing that, she must go into hysterics--with nobody to see her, even!--and then go crying about from one gate to the other, wandering about, as if Miss Mignon would be likely to be sitting on the edge of the pavement waiting for her. At last--I suppose when she began to get hungry'--Browne went on savagely, 'she bethought herself of coming home, and there she landed herself at nine o'clock, and has been steadily going out of one faint into another ever since. I have sent James round to the police station,' he said, 'but I thought I had better come straight away and fetch you, ma'am.'

"Well," Mrs. Ferrers went on, "I said good-night to our hostess and sent for your father, and we went back at once. We were five miles from home, and it was half-past eleven when we got there. And there was no trace of Mignon. James had taken a cab and gone round to all the police stations within reach of the house, and Humphie was waiting for us, shaking like a leaf and as white as death, and at the sight of us Hortense went off into wild hysterics again and shrieked till--till--I could have shaken her," Mrs. Ferrers ended severely.

"Well, your father and I just stood and looked at one another. 'Where can she be?' I said. 'Can't you get any information out of Hortense? Surely the woman must know where she was last with her.'

"But, as your father said, the Gardens were all deserted and closed hours ago. She was not at all likely to be there. Almost without doubt she had strayed out into the busy street, had then found herself in a strange neighbourhood, and--and I simply shuddered to think what might have happened to her after that.

"For the time we were helpless; we did not know, we could not think what to do next. A policeman came up from the nearest station as we stood considering what we should do. But he had no news; he shook his head at my eager inquiry. 'No, madam,' he said, 'I'm sorry we have no news of the little lady; but we telegraphed to all the stations near, but no lost child has been brought in. She must have fallen in with some private person.'

"As you may imagine," Mrs. Ferrers went on, "I felt dreadfully blank--indeed, your father and I simply stood and looked at one another. What should we, what could we do next? To go out and search about the streets at nearly midnight would be like looking for a needle in a truss of hay--we could not send a crier out with a bell--we were at our wits' end. Indeed, it seemed as if we could do nothing but wait till morning, when we might advertise.

"Then just as the policeman was turning away, another policeman came and knocked at the door. A little girl had been taken into the police station at Hammersmith, a pretty fair-haired child about six years old, who did not know where she lived, and could not make the men there understand who she was.

"'That's not Miss Mignon,' cried Humphie indignantly; 'Miss Mignon knows perfectly well who she is and who she belongs to. That's never Miss Mignon.'

"'Ah, well, Humphie,' said your father, 'Miss Mignon has never been lost at dead of night before; it's enough to frighten any child, and though she's as quick as a needle, she's only a baby after all.'

"The carriage was still at the door, and we went down as quickly as the horses could go to Hammersmith, feeling sure that we should find Mignon there, frightened and tired, but safe. And when we got there the child wasn't Mignon at all, but a little, commonly-dressed thing who didn't seem even to know what her name was. However, its mother came whilst we were there, and scolded her properly for what she called 'running away.'

"I couldn't help it," Mrs. Ferrers went on. "I was in such trouble, wondering what had got Mignon, and I just spoke to her straight. 'Oh,' I said, 'you ought only to be thankful your little girl is safe and sound, and not be scolding the poor little frightened thing like that. How can your speak to her so?'

"'Well,' she said, 'if you had seven of them always up to some mischief or other, and you'd been running about for hours till you were fit to drop, and you hadn't a carriage to take her home in, I daresay you'd feel a bit cross, too.'

"And I felt," Mrs. Ferrers went on reflectively, "that there was a great deal in what she said. They didn't live more than a mile off, and it was our way back, so we drove them home, and the little girl went to sleep on her mother's knee; and I told her what trouble we were in about Mignon. She was quite grateful for the lift, and I promised to let her know if we found Mignon all right.

"Well, we reached home again, and there wasn't a sign of Mignon anywhere. With every moment I got more and more uneasy, for Mignon was turned six years old, and was well used to going about and seeing strange people. I knew she wasn't a child to get nervous unduly, or be frightened of any one who offered to take care of her, only I was so afraid that the wrong sort of people might have got hold of her, and might have decoyed her away for the sake of her clothes or a reward.

"Oh, dear, what a dreadful night it was! Your father went out and got a cab and went round to all the police-stations, inquiring everywhere for traces of her. And then he went and knocked up all the park-keepers, but none of them had noticed her either.

"And Humphie and I sat up by the nursery fire; and about two in the morning, Hortense crept down and went on her knees to me, praying and imploring me to forgive her, and saying that if anything had happened to little missie, she would make away with herself."

"What's that?" asked Madge suddenly.

"Hanging herself," answered Pearl. "Judas hanged himself."

"Judas went out and hanged himself," corrected Maud, who had a passion for accuracy of small details.

"Yes, of course, but that doesn't matter," said Pearl. "The hanging was the principal thing. He could have hanged himself without going out, but going out without hanging himself would not have been anything."

"Go on, Mother," cried a chorus of voices. "What happened next?"

"Well, nothing happened for a long time," Mrs. Ferrers replied. "We all stayed up; I think nobody thought of going to bed that night at all--I know Humphie and I never did--and at last the morning broke, and your father and Browne began to make arrangements for putting notices in all the papers, and when they had written them all, they went off in the grey dim light to try to get them put into that day's papers. Oh! it was a most dreadful night, and a terrible morning.

"I didn't like to put it into words, but all night long I had thought of the Round Pond, and wondered if my Mignon was in there. I found out afterwards that your father had thought of it too, and had made all arrangements for having it dragged, though he wouldn't speak of it to me, because he fancied I had not thought of it.

"And over and over again Humphie kept saying, 'I'm sure my precious lamb knows perfectly well who she is and all about herself. I'm sure of it. Why, we taught her years ago, ma'am, in case it ever happened she got lost. "I'm Miss Mignon, and I belong to Booties," and "Captain Ferrers, the Scarlet Lancers." She knew it all, years since.'

"'Yes, but, Humphie, has any one taught her 304, Queen's Gate, S.W.?' I asked.

"'No,' said Humphie. 'I can't say that we have.'

"'Then she might fall in with hundreds and thousands of people in London who wouldn't know Captain Ferrers from Captain Jones; and she might be too frightened to remember anything about the Scarlet Lancers. It isn't as if we were with the regiment still.'

"The morning wore on; nothing happened. Your father went to Scotland Yard, and detectives came down and examined Hortense, who went off into fresh hysterics, and threatened to go right away and drown herself there and then; but there was no news of Mignon. And then Algy came in and told me they had dragged the pond, and, thank God, she wasn't there; though the suspense was almost unbearable as it was.

"But we seemed no nearer to hearing anything of her, and hardly knew what to be doing next, though the day was wearing away, and it was horrible to think of going through such another night as the one we had just passed.

"And then--just at four o'clock--a handsome carriage drew up at the door, and I heard Mignon's voice: 'Yes, I'm sure that's the house,' she said.

"Oh! I don't know how I got to the door; I think I tore it open, and ran down the steps to meet her. I don't remember what I said--I think I cried. I'm sure your father nearly choked himself in trying to keep his sobs back. We nearly smothered Mignon with kisses, and it was ever so long before we had time to take any notice of the strange lady who had brought her home.

"'I'm afraid you've had a terrible night,' she said, with tears in her eyes. 'I found your dear little maid wandering about in South Kensington--oh! right down in Onslow Gardens. I saw that she was not a child accustomed to being out alone, and I asked her how it was. She was perfectly cool and unconcerned.

"'"I've lost my maid," she said. "She sat down on a seat, and I was picking daisies, and I don't know how, but I couldn't find her again."

"'"And what is your name?" I asked her.

"'"Oh! I'm Miss Mignon," she answered.

"'"And where do you live?" I inquired.

"'"Well, that's just what I can't remember. When I'm at home I live at Ferrers Court, and when we were with the regiment, our address was, "The Scarlet Lancers"--just that. But now we are in Town, I can't remember the name of the street. I thought when I lost Hortense that I should know my way back, but I missed it somehow. And Mother will be so uneasy," she ended.

"'Well,' said the lady, 'I told her she had much better come home with me, and that I would try to find out Captain Ferrers; and so I did, but without success. Then it occurred to me that as soon as the offices were open I would telegraph to the Scarlet Lancers, asking for Captain Ferrers' address. And so I did; and when the answer came back, it was your country address--

"CAPTAIN FERRERS, Ferrers Court,

Farlington, Blankshire."

"'So I had no choice but to telegraph to Ferrers Court for your town address. And oh, dear lady! my heart was aching for you all the time, for I knew you must be suffering agonies," she ended, holding out her hands to me.

"And so, of course, I had been," Mrs. Ferrers went on; "but 'all's well that ends well'; and we at once taught Mignon the name of the house she lived in, and, indeed, for a long time we sewed a little ticket on to the hem of her frock, so that if she did forget it, she would easily make some one understand where she wished to be taken."

"And Hortense--what did you do with her?" Pearl asked.

"Oh! we gave her a month's wages, and sent her away," Mrs. Ferrers answered; "and now here is Browne with the tea, Pearl. Can you manage it?"

"Oh! yes, Mother," Pearl answered. She was nearly fourteen, and loved to make the tea now and then. "Oh! here's Miss Maitland coming! Miss Maitland, I am to pour out the tea. Mother says so."

"Willingly, so long as you don't scald yourself," said Miss Maitland, smiling.

"And here is Father," cried Maud. "Bootles, Mother has been telling us the dreadful story of how Mignon was lost."

"Has she, sweetheart? Well, we don't want to go through that particular experience any more, do we, darling?"

"No! once was once too often," said Mrs. Ferrers, slipping her hand into his.

"Two lumps of sugar," said Pearl, bringing her father his cup.

"And muffins!" added Maud.