Chapter X.
 

"There!" exclaimed Susan, "I really have got a letter from Papa himself. What a prize!"

"You'll have to mind your Grosvenor when you answer him," said Sam; "but hollo, what's the matter?"

For Susan's eyes had grown large, and her whole face scarlet, and she gave a little cry as she read.

"Your Mamma, my dear?" asked Miss Fosbrook.

"Oh, Mamma--Mamma is so very ill!" and Susan throw the letter down, and broke into a fit of sobbing.

Sam caught it up, and Elizabeth came to read it with him, both standing still and not speaking a word, but staring at the letter with their eyes fixed.

"What is it, my dear?" said Miss Fosbrook, tenderly putting her arm round Susan; but she sobbed too much to make a word distinct, and Bessie held out the letter to her governess, looking white, and too much awed to speak.

Captain Merrifield wrote in short, plain, sad words, that he thought it right that his children should know how matters stood. The doctors' treatment, for which their mother had been taken to London, had not succeeded, but had occasioned such terrible illness, that unless by the mercy of God she became much better in the course of a day or two, she could not live. If she should be worse, he would either write or telegraph, and Susan and Sam must be ready to set out at once on the receipt of such a message, and come up by the next train to London, where they should be met at the station. He had promised their mother that in case of need he would send for them.

God bless you, my poor children, and have mercy on us all!
Your loving father,
H. MERRIFIELD.

That was all; and Christabel felt, more than even the children did, from how full and heavy a heart those words had been written.

Though she hardly knew how to speak, she tried to comfort Susan by showing her that her father had evidently not given up all hope; but Susan was crying more at the thought of her Mamma's present illness and pain than with fear of the future; and Sam said sadly, "He would not have written at all unless it had been very bad indeed."

"Yes," said Miss Fosbrook; "but I believe, in cases like this, there is often great fear, and then very speedy improvement."

"Oh dear," said Bessie, speaking for the first time, "I know it will be. Little girls in story-books always do have their mammas--die!"

"Story-books are all nonsense, so it won't happen," said Sam; and really it seemed as if the habit of contradicting Bessie had suggested to him the greatest consolation that had yet occurred.

Just then Henry and the younger ones came in, and learnt the tidings. Henry wept as bitterly as his elder sister, and John and Annie both did the same; but David did not speak one word, as if he hardly took in what was the matter, and, going to the window, took up his lesson- books as usual.

"It is nine o'clock, Hal," said Sam presently.

"Oh, we can't go to Mr. Carey to-day," said Hal.

"Yes, we shall," returned Sam.

"Oh don't," cried Susan. "Suppose a telegraph should come!"

"Well, then you can send for me," said Sam. "Come, Hal."

"How can you, Sam?" said Henry crossly; "I know Mr. Carey will give us leave when he knows."

"I don't want leave," said Sam; "I don't want to kick up a row, as you'll do if you stay at home."

"Well then, if the message comes, I shall take Susie to London instead of you. I'm sure they want me most!"

"No, go down to Mr. Carey's with your brother, if you please, Hal," said Miss Fosbrook decidedly. "If he should tell you not to stay, I can't help it; but you will none of you do any good by hanging about without doing your daily duties."

Hal saw he had no chance, and marched off, muttering about its being very hard. Sam picked up his books, and turned to go, with a grave steady look that was quite manly in its sadness, only stopping to say, "Now, Jackie, you be good!--Please Miss Fosbrook, let him run down after me if the message comes, and I'll be back before the horse is out."

Miss Fosbrook promised, and could not help shaking hands with the brave boy, if only to show that she felt with him.

"Then must we all do our lessons?" asked Annie disconsolately, when he was gone.

"Yes, my dear; I think we shall all be the better for not neglecting what we ought to do. But there is one thing that we can do for your dear Mamma; you know what I mean. Suppose you each went away alone for five minutes, and were to come back when I ring the little bell?"

The first to come back was Annie, with the question in a low whisper, "Miss Fosbrook, will God make Mamma better if we are very good?"

Miss Fosbrook kissed her, saying, "My dear little girl, I cannot tell. All I can certainly tell you is, that He hears the prayers of good children, and if it be better for her and for you He will give her back to you."

Annie did not quite understand, but she entered into what Miss Fosbrook said enough to wish to be good; so she took up her book, and began to learn with all her might.

Elizabeth would have thought it much more like a little girl in a book to have done no lessons, but have sat thinking, and perhaps reading the Bible all day; but on the whole Elizabeth had hardly thoughts enough to last her so long; nor was she deep or serious enough to have done herself much good by keeping the Bible open before her. In fact she did lose her verse in merely reading the chapter for the day! So it was just as well that she had something to do that was not play, and that was a duty, and thus might give the desire to be good something to bear upon.

But Christabel saw by Susan's face, and heard in the shaken voice with which she took her turn in the reading, that she could not have given her mind to her tasks, and did not need them to keep her out of mischief. It would have been cruel to have required her to sit down to them just then, and her governess was glad to be able to excuse her on account of the packing-up. All her things and Sam's must be got ready in case of an immediate start, and she was sent up to the nursery to take care of the little ones, while Nurse and Mary mended, ironed, and packed.

To be sure Nurse Freeman made poor Susan unnecessarily unhappy by being sure that it was all the fault of the London doctors; but she was a kind, tender old woman, and her petting was a great comfort to the poor girl. What did her most good, however, was sitting quite quiet with the little ones while they were asleep, and all alone; it seemed to rest and compose her, and she always loved to be in charge of them. Poor child! she might soon have to be their little mother! She was able to play with them when they awoke, and cheered herself up with their pretty ways, and by finding how quickly Baby was learning to walk. Ah! but would Mamma ever see her walk?

If any of the children thought it unjust that Susan's lessons should be let off, they were wrong. Parents and teachers must have the power of doing such things without being judged. Sometimes they see that a child is really unable to learn, when the others perceive no difference; and it would be very harsh and cruel to oppress one who is out of order for fear little silly, idle, healthy things should think themselves hardly used.

At any rate, the lessons were capitally done; and when the children met again, they were all so much brighter and more hopeful, that they quite believed that their Mamma was going to get better very fast. Bessie especially was so resolved that thus it should be, that she shut herself into Miss Fosbrook's room, and drew and painted with all her might, as if preparing for Mamma's birthday made it certain that it would be kept.

The boys brought word that they would have a holiday the next day, as it was the Feast of St. Barnabas, and after morning service Mr. Carey was going to meet his brother and bring him home.

"I shall be all the more certain to get the sovereign, or two sovereigns," said Henry to David, the only person whom he could find to listen to him, "if Sam is gone; and everyone will be caring about me."

"And then you'll give it to the pig," said David.

"Oh yes, to be sure. You will grow into a pig yourself if you go on that way, David."

However, David, partaking the family distrust of Hal's birds-in-the- bush, and being started on the subject of the hoard, ran up to Sam, who was learning his lessons by way of something to do, and said, "If you go to London, Sam, may I have your sixpence on Monday for the pig?"

"I don't know that I am going."

"But if you do--or we sha'n't get the pig."

"I don't care."

"Don't you care if we don't get the pig?"

"No. Be off with you."

David next betook himself to his eldest sister, who was trying to write to her father, and finding such a letter harder and sadder work than that to Ida Greville, though no one teased her about writing, blots, or spelling.

"If you go to London, Susie," said he, in the very same words, "may I have your sixpence on Monday for the pig?"

"Oh, Davie, don't be tiresome!"

David only said it over again in the same words, and put his hand down on her letter in his earnestness.

"Come away, Davie," said Miss Fosbrook; "don't tease your sister."

"I want her to say I may have her sixpence on Monday for the pig."

"No, you sha'n't, then," said Susan angrily; "you care for the nasty pig more than for poor Mamma or anyone else, and you sha'n't have it."

So seldom did Susan say anything cross, that everyone looked up surprised. Miss Fosbrook saw that it was sheer unhappiness that made her speak sharply, and would not take any notice, except by gently taking away the pertinacious David.

He was very much distressed at the refusal; and when Miss Fosbrook told him that his brother and sister could not think of such things when they were in such trouble, he only answered, "But Hannah Higgins won't get her pig."

Miss Fosbrook was vexed herself that her friend David should seem possessed with this single idea, as if it shut out all others from his mind. He was consoled fast enough; for Susan, with another great sob, threw down her pen, and coming up to stroke him down with her inky fingers, cried out, "O Davie, Davie, I didn't mean it; I don't know why I said it. You shall have my sixpence, or anything! But, oh dear, I wish the message was come, and we were going to dear Mamma, for I can't write, and I don't know what to do."

Then she went back to her place, and tried to write, and sat with her head on her hand, and dawdled and cried and blotted till it grew so near post-time that at last Miss Fosbrook took the longest of her scrawls, and writing three lines at the bottom to say how it was with them all, directed it to Captain Merrifield, thinking that he would like it better than nothing from home, sent it off, and made Susan come out to refresh her hot eyes and burning head in the garden.

Sam presently came and walked on her other side, gravely and in silence, glad to be away from the chatter and disputes of the younger ones. That summons had made them both feel older, and less like children, than ever before; but they did not speak much, only, when they sat down on a garden bench, as Miss Fosbrook held Susan's hand, she presently found some rough hard young fingers stealing into her own on the other side, and saw Sam's eyes glistening with unshed tears. She stroked his hand, and they dropped fast: but he was ashamed to cry, and quickly dried them.

"I think," she said, "that you will be a man, Sam; take care of Susan, and be a comfort to your father."

"I hope I shall," said Sam; "but I don't know how."

"Nobody can tell how beforehand," she said. "Only watch to see what he may seem to want to have done for him. Sit quietly by, and don't get in the way."

"Were you ever so unhappy, Miss Fosbrook?" asked Susan.

"Yes, once I was, when my father was knocked down by an omnibus, and was very ill."

"Tell us about it?" said Susan.

She did tell them of her week of sorrow and anxious care of the younger children, and the brightening ray of hope at last. It seemed to freshen both up, and give them hopes, for each drew a long sigh of relief; and then Sam said, "Papa wrote to Mr. Carey. She is to be prayed for in church to-morrow."

"Oh," said Susan, with a sound as of dismay, which made Christabel ask in wonder why she was sorry, when, from Susan's half-uttered words, she found that the little girl fancied that a "happy issue out of all her afflictions" meant death.

"Oh no, my dear," she said. "What it means is, that the afflictions may end happily in whatever way God may see to be best; it may be in getting well; it may be the other way: at any rate, it is asking that the distress may be over, not saying how."

"Isn't there some other prayer in the Prayer-book about it?" said Sam, looking straight before him.

"I will show you where to find it, in the Visitation of the Sick. I dare say it has often been read to her."

The boy and girl came in with her, and brought their Prayer-books to her room, that she might mark them.

This had been a strange, long, sad day of waiting and watching for the telegram, and the children even fancied it might come in the middle of the night; but Miss Fosbrook thought this unlikely, and looked for the morrow's post. There was no letter. It was very disappointing, but Miss Fosbrook thought it a good sign, since at least the danger could not be more pressing, and delay always left room for hope.

The children readily believed her; they were too young to go on dwelling long on what was not in sight; and even Susan was cheerful, and able to think about other things after her night's rest, and the relief of not hearing a worse account.

The children might do as they pleased about going to church on saints' days, and on this day all the three girls wished to go, as soon as it had been made clear that even if the message should come before the short service would be over, there would be ample time to reach the station before the next train. Miss Fosbrook was glad to prove this, for not only did she wish to have them in church, but she thought the weary watching for the telegram was the worst thing possible for Susan. Sam was also going to church, but Henry hung back, after accompanying them to the end of the kitchen-garden. "I wouldn't go, Sam; just suppose if the message came without anyone at home, and you had to set out at once!"

"We couldn't," said Sam; "there's no train."

"Oh, but they always put on a special train whenever anyone is ill."

"Then there would be plenty!"

"At least they did when Mr. Greville's mother was ill, so they will now; and then you may ride upon the engine, for there won't be any carriages, you know. I say, Sam, if you go to church, and the telegraph comes, I shall set off."

"You'll do no such thing," said Sam. "You had much better come to church."

"No, I sha'n't. It is like a girl to go to church on a week-day."

"It is much more like a girl to mind what a couple of asses, like the Grevilles, say," returned Sam, taking up his cap and running after his sisters and their governess.

"It is quite right," observed Henry to John and David, who alone remained to listen to him, "that one of us should stay in case the telegraph comes in, and there are any orders to give. I can catch the pony, you know, and ride off to Bonchamp, and if the special train is there, I shall get upon the engine."

"But it is Sam and Susan who are going."

"Oh, that's only because Sam is eldest. I know Mamma would like to have me much better, because I don't walk hard like Sam; and when I get there, she will be so much better already, and we shall be all right; and Admiral Penrose will be so delighted at my courage in riding on the engine and putting out the explosion, or something, that he will give me my appointment as naval cadet at once, and I shall have a dirk and a uniform, and a chest of my own, and be an officer, and get promoted for firing red-hot shot out of the batteries at Gibraltar."

"Master Hal!" exclaimed Purday, "don't throw them little apples about."

"They are red-hot shot, Purday!"

"I'll red-hot shot you if you break my cucumber frames, young gentleman! Come, get out with you."

Probably anxiety made Purday cross as well as everyone else, or else he distrusted Henry's discretion without Sam, for he hunted the little boys away wherever they went. Now they would break the cucumber frames; now they would meddle with the gooseberries, or trample on the beds; and at last he only relented so far as to let David stay with him on condition of being very good, and holding the little cabbages as he planted them out.

"Master Davie was a solemn one," Purday said, and they were great friends; but Hal and Johnnie were fairly turned out, as their idle hands were continually finding fresh mischief to do in their sauntering desultory mood.

"I think," said Hal, "since Purday is so savage, we'll go and look out at the gate, and then we shall see if the telegraph comes."

Johnnie had no clear idea what a telegraph was, and was curious to know how it would come, rather expecting it to be a man in a red coat on horseback, blowing a horn--a sight that certainly was not to be missed; so he willingly strolled down after Henry to the gate leading to the lane.

"I can't see any way at all," said Henry, looking out into the lane. "I shall get up, and so see over into the bend of the road;" and Hal mounted to the topmost bar of the gate, and sat astride there, John scrambling after him not quite so easily, his legs being less long, and his dress less convenient. Both knew that their Papa strongly objected to their climbing on this iron gate, the newest and handsomest thing about the place; but thought Hal, "Of course no one will care what I do when I am so anxious about poor Mamma!" and thought Johnnie, "What Hal does, of course I may do!"

So there the two young gentlemen sat perched, each with one leg on either side of the new iron gate. It was rather like sitting on the edge of a knife; and John could scarcely reach his toes down to rest them on the bar below, but he held on by the spikes, and it was so new and glorious a position, that it made up for a good deal to be five feet above the road; moreover, Hal said it was just like the mast-head of a man-of-war--at least, when the waves didn't dash right overhead, like the picture of the Eddystone Lighthouse.

"Hollo! what, a couple of cherubs aloft!" cried a voice from the road; and looking round, Henry beheld the two Grevilles.

"Yes," he answered; "it's very jolly up here."

"Eh! is it? Riding on a razor, to my mind. Come down, and have a lark," said Osmond; while Martin, undoing the gate, proceeded to swing it backwards and forwards, to John's extreme terror; but the more he clung to the spikes, and cried for mercy, the quicker Martin swung it, shouting with laughter at his fright. Henry meanwhile scrambled and tumbled to the ground, and caught the gate and held it fast, while he asked what his friends had been about. One held up a scarlet flask of powder, the other a bag of shot.

"You haven't got a gun!"

"No, but we know where gardener keeps his; and the governor's out for the day. Come along, Hal: you shall have your turn."

"I don't want to go far from home to-day."

"Oh, stuff! What was it Mamma heard, Osmond? That your mother was ever so much better, wasn't it?"

"I thought it was worse," said Osmond.

"Well, never mind: your hanging about here won't do her any good, I suppose."

"No; but--"

"Oh, he'll catch it from the governess!--I say, how many seams shall you have to sew to-day, Hal?"

"I don't sew seams: I do as I please."

"Ha! Is that them coming out of church!"

"Oh, it is! it is!" cried John from his elevation. "Oh, help me down, Hal!"

But Henry did not want Miss Fosbrook to find him partaking in gate- climbing; and either that desire, or the general terror a bad conscience, made him and the Grevilles run helter-skelter the opposite way, leaving poor little John stuck on the top of the gate, quite giddy at the thought of coming down alone, and almost as much afraid of being there caught by Miss Fosbrook coming home from church.

It was a false alarm after all, that the congregation were coming out. John would have been glad if they had; for nothing could be more miserable than sitting up there, his fingers tired of clutching the spikes, his feet strained with reaching down to the bar, his legs chilled with the wind, his head almost giddy when he thought of climbing down. He would have cried, could he have spared a hand to rub his eyes with; he had a great mind to have roared for help, especially when he heard feet upon the road; but these turned out to belong to five little village boys, still smaller than himself, who, when they saw the young gentleman on his perch, all stood still in a row, with their mouths wide open, staring at him. Johnnie scorned to let them think he was not riding there for his own pleasure; so he tried to put a bold face of the matter, and look as much at ease and indifferent as he could, under great bodily fear and discomfort, the injury of his brother's desertion, the expectation of disgrace, and the reflection that he was being disobedient to his parents in the height of their trouble!

There is nothing in grief that of necessity makes children or grown people good. Sometimes, especially when there is suspense, it fills them with excitement, as well as putting them out of their usual habits; and thus it often happens that there are tremendous explosions of naughtiness just when some one is ill in a house, and the children ought to be most good. But it is certain that unless trouble be taken in the right way, it makes people worse instead of better