The Stokesley Secret by Charlotte M. Yonge
Mrs. Merrifield had taught her children herself, till Samuel and Henry began going to the Curate for a couple of hours every day, to be prepared for school. Lessons were always rather a scramble; so many people coming to speak to her, and so many interruptions from the nursery; and then came a time when Mamma always was tired, and Papa used to come out and scold if the noises grew very loud indeed, and was vexed if the children gave Mamma any trouble of any kind. Next they were told they were to have a governess--a sort of piece of finery which the little savages had always despised--and thereupon came Miss Fosbrook; but before she had been a week in the house Mamma was quite ill and in her bed-room, and Papa looked graver than he had ever done before; and Mr. Braddon, the doctor, came very often: and at last Susan was called into Mamma's room, and it was explained to her that Mamma was thought so ill, that she must go to be under a London doctor, and would be away, she could not tell how long; so that meantime the children must all be left to Miss Fosbrook, with many many injunctions to be good and obedient, for hearing that they were going on well would be poor Mamma's only comfort.
It was three days since Captain and Mrs. Merrifield had gone; and Miss Fosbrook stood at the window, gazing at the bright young green of the horse-chestnut trees, and thinking many various thoughts in the lull that the children had left when they rushed out of doors.
She thought herself quite alone, and stood, sometimes smiling over the odd ways of her charges, and at what they put her in mind of, sometimes gravely thinking whether she had said or done the wisest things for them, or what their mother would have most approved. She was just going to move away from the window, when she saw a little figure curled up on the floor, with her head on the window-seat. "Bessie, my dear, what are you doing here? Why are not you gone out?"
"I don't want to go out."
"I thought they were to have a great game at whoop-hide."
"I don't like whoop-hide. Johnnie pulls the clothes off my back."
"My dear, I hope you are not staying in because they called you those foolish names. It was all in good humour."
"It was not kind," said Elizabeth, her throat swelling. "It was not true."
"Perhaps not; but you did not speak to give your reasons; and who could tell how good they might be?"
"I've a right to my secrets as well as they have," said the little maiden.
Miss Fosbrook looked kindly at her, and she turned wistful eyes on the young governess.
"Miss Fosbrook, will you keep a secret?"
"That I will."
"I want my money to buy some card-board--and some ribbon--and some real true paints. I've got some vermilion, but I want some real good blue. And then I want to make some beautiful bands with ties--like what Papa has for his letters--for all Mamma's letters in her desk. There's a bundle of Papa's when he was gone out to the Crimean War, and that's to have a frigate on it, because of the Calliope--his ship, you know; and there's one bundle of dear Aunt Sarah's--that's to have a rose, because I always think her memory is like the rose in my hymn, you know; and Grandmamma, she's to have--I think perhaps I could copy a bit of the tower of Westminster Abbey out of the print, because one sees it out of her window; and, oh! I thought of so many more, but you see I can't do it without a real good paint-box, and that costs three and sixpence. Now, Miss Fosbrook, is it stingy to wish to do that?"
"Not at all, my dear; but you could not expect the others to understand what they never were told."
"I'd have said something if they had not called me stingy," said Bessie.
"It certainly was rude and hasty; but if we bear such things good- naturedly, they become better; and they were very eager about their own plan."
"Such a disagreeable thing as a pig!" continued Bessie. "If it had been anything nice, I should not have minded so much."
"Yes; but, my dear, you must remember that the pig will be a more useful present than even your pretty contrivances. You cannot call them doing good, as the other will be."
"Then you are like them! You think I ought to spend all my money on a great horrid pig, when Mamma--" and the tears were in the little girl's eyes.
"No, indeed, my dear. I don't think anyone is called on to give their all, and it is very nice and quite right for a little girl to try to make a pretty present to please her mamma. There is plenty of time before you, and I think you will manage to have some share in the very kind action your brothers and sisters are contriving."
Elizabeth had not forgiven, as she should have done, the being called stingy; it rankled on her feelings far more than those who said the word understood; and she presently went on, "If they knew ever so much, they would only laugh at me, and call it all Bessie's nonsense. Miss Fosbrook, please, what is affectation?"
"I believe it is pretending to seem what we are not by nature," said Miss Fosbrook; "putting on manners or feelings that do not come to us of themselves."
"Then I shall tell them they make me affected," exclaimed she. "If I like to be quiet and do things prettily, they teaze me for being affected, and I'm forced to be as plain and blunt as their are, and I don't like it! I wish I was grown up. I wish I was Ida Greville!"
"And why, my dear?"
"Because then things might be pretty," said Elizabeth. "Everything is so plain and ugly, and one gets so tired of it! Is it silly to like things to be pretty?"
"No, far from it; that is, if we do not sacrifice better things to prettiness."
Elizabeth looked up with a light in her dark eyes, and said, "Miss Fosbrook, I like you!"
Miss Fosbrook was very much pleased, and kissed her.
She paused a moment, and then said, "Miss Fosbrook, may I ask one question? What is your name? Mamma said it must be Charlotte, because you signed your letter Ch. A. Fosbrook, but your little sister's letter that you showed us began 'My dear Bell.' If it is a secret, indeed I will keep it."
"It is no secret at all," said Miss Fosbrook, laughing. "My name is Christabel Angela."
Elizabeth opened her eyes, and said it by syllables. "Christabel Angela! that's a prettier name than Ida. Does it make you very glad to have it?"
"I like it for some reasons," said Miss Fosbrook, smiling.
"Oh, tell me!" cried Bessie. "Mamma always says we should not be a bit happier if our names were pretty ones; but I don't know, I feel as if one would; only the others like to make things plainer and uglier than they are."
"I never could call your name ugly; it is such a dignified, old, respectable name."
"Yes; but they call me Betty!"
"And they call me Bell, and sometimes Jelly-bag and Currant-jelly," said Miss Fosbrook, laughing and sighing, for she would have liked to have heard those funny names again.
"Then it is no good to you!" exclaimed Elizabeth.
"I don't know that we talk of good in such a matter. I like my name because of the reason it was given to me."
"Oh, why?" eagerly asked the little girl.
"When I was born, my papa was a very young man, and he was very fond of reading poetry."
"Why, I thought your papa was a doctor."
"I thought only ladies, and poets, and idle silly people, cared for poetry."
"They can hardly be silly if they care rightly for real poetry, Bessie," said Miss Fosbrook; "at least, so my papa would say. It has been one of his great helps. Well, in those days he was very fond of a poem about a lady called Christabel, who was so good and sweet, that when evil came near, it could not touch her so as to do her any harm; and so he gave his little daughter her name."
"How very nice!" cried Elizabeth.
"You must not envy me, my dear, for I have been a good deal laughed at for my pretty name, and so has Papa; and I do not think he would have chosen anything so fanciful if he had been a little older."
"Then isn't he--what is it you call it--poetical now?"
"Indeed he is, in a good way;" and as the earnest eyes looked so warmly at her, Christabel Fosbrook could not help making a friend of the little maiden. "He has very little time to read it; for you know he is a parish surgeon in a great parish in London, full of poor people, worse off than you can imagine, and often very ill. He is obliged to be always hard at work in the narrow close streets there, and to see everything sad, and dismal, and disagreeable, that can be found; but, do you know, Bessie, he always looks for the good and beautiful side; he looks at one person's patience, and another person's kindness, and at some little child's love for its mother or sister, that hinders it from being too painful for him."
"But is that poetry? I thought poetry meant verses."
"Verses are generally the best and most suitable way of expressing our feelings about what is good and beautiful; but they are not always poetry, any more than the verses they sang to-night about the bread and butter, because, you know, wanting thick butter was not exactly a beautiful feeling. I think the denying themselves their little indulgences for the sake of giving the poor woman a pig, is much more poetical, though nobody said a word in verse."
They both laughed; and Elizabeth said, "That wasn't what you meant about your papa. Susy cares for goodness."
"No, it was not all I meant; but it was seeing high and noble thoughts expressed in beautiful verses that gives him pleasure; and when he has a little bit of leisure, it is his great treat to open a book of that sort, and read a little bit to us, and tell us why we like it. He says it makes him young again, and takes him out of the dingy streets, and from all his cares as to how the bills are to be paid."
"Did you like coming here?" was Bessie's home question; and Miss Fosbrook winked away a little moisture, as she said,
"I was glad to be growing a woman, and to be able to help about some of those bills; and then I was glad to come into the beautiful country that Papa has so often told us about."
"I did not know there was anything beautiful here."
"O Bessie, you never lived in London! You can't think how many things are beautiful to me here! I want to be writing about them to Papa and Kate all day long."
"Are they?" said Bessie. "Mamma has pretty things in the drawing- room, but she keeps them out of the way; and everything here is so dull and stupid!" and the little girl gave a yawn.
Miss Fosbrook understood her. The wainscoted room in which they were sitting had been painted of a uniform creamy brown; the chairs were worn; the table was blistered and cracked; the carpet only covered the middle of the room, and was so threadbare, that only a little red showed here and there. All that was needful was there, but of the plainest kind; and where the other children only felt ease and freedom, and were the more contented and happy for the homely good sense of all around them, this little girl felt a want that she scarcely understood, but which made her uncomfortable and discontented, even when she had so much to be thankful for.
Miss Fosbrook moved nearer to the window. Down below there was certainly not much to be seen; only Pierce cleaning the knives in the knife-house, and Martha washing out her pans before the dairy-door; but that was not where she looked. She turned the little half- fretful face upwards. "Look there!" she said; "and talk of seeing nothing pretty!"
"I see nothing--"
"Do you not see the pale clear green of those noble horse-chestnut leaves just sprung into their full summer dress--not in the least worn nor stained yet? And those fine spikes of white blossom, all tending up--up--while the masses of those leaves fall so gracefully down, as if lifting them up, and then falling back to do them honour." Bessie smiled, and her eye lighted up. "And see the colour against the sky--look at the contrast of that bright light green with the blue, so very deep, of the sky--and oh! see that train of little clouds, red with soft sunny light, like a little soft flock of rosy lambs, if there were such things, lying across the sky. O Bessie! you can't talk of wanting the sight of pretty things while you have that sky."
Bessie was coming closer to her, when in burst Sam and Johnnie.
"Hello, Bess! moping here, I declare! I suppose you and Miss Fosbrook are telling each other all your secrets."
"I was just coming out," said Miss Fosbrook. "I want to make out something about those noble flowers of the horse-chestnut, and why they don't look whiter. Could you gather one for me, Sam?"
Sam was only too glad of an excuse for climbing a tree, however cheaply he might hold one who cared for flowers; and by the time Bessie had put on her lilac-spotted sun-bonnet--a shapeless article it must be confessed, with a huge curtain serving for a tippet, very comfortable, and no trouble at all--he had scrambled into the fork, and brought down a beautiful spire of blossoms, with all the grand leaves hanging round in their magnificent fans.
"What will you do with it?" said the children, standing round.
"Do you think you could ask Mary to spare us a jug, Susan? If I might put it in water in the schoolroom fireplace, it would look fresh and cheerful for Sunday."
"Oh, yes," said Susan, pleased with the commission, "that I will;" and away she ran, while Miss Fosbrook examined the spike to her own great enjoyment. "I see," she said, "the flowers are not really white, they each have a patch of pink or yellow on them, which gives them their softness. Yes; and do you see, Bessie, they are in clusters of three, and each three has one flower with a pink spot, and two with a yellow one."
"That is very curious," said Bessie: the fretfulness was very much gone out of her tone, and she stood looking at the beautiful flower, without a word, till Susan came back, when she began to show her what Miss Fosbrook had pointed out. Susan smiled with her really good nature, and said, "How funny!" but was more intent on telling Miss Fosbrook that she had brought the jug, and then on hauling Elizabeth away to a game at Tom Tittler's ground.
Miss Fosbrook said she would put away the flower and come back again; and she settled the branch in the chimney, where it looked very graceful, and really did enliven the room, and then walked out towards the lawn.
There was a lawn in front of the house, part of which had been formerly levelled for a bowling-green, and was kept clear of shrubs or flower-beds. Beyond was a smooth, rather rapid slope towards a quiet river, beyond which there rose again a beautiful green field, crowned above by a thick wood, ending at the top in some scraggy pine-trees, with scanty dark foliage at the top of their rude russet arms. Fine trees stood out here and there upon the slope of the field; and Captain Merrifield's fine sleeked cows were licking each other, or chewing the cud, under them.
There was a white Chinese bridge, the rails all zigzags, and patterns running this way and that, so that it must have been very ugly and glaring before the white paint had faded so much.
The house was a respectable old stone building, rather brown and grey, and the stone somewhat disposed to peel off in flakes; the windows large sashes, set in great projecting squared stones, the tallest and biggest at the top. It was a house of a very sober pleasant countenance, that looked as if it had always been used to have a large family in it; and there was a vine, with all its beauteous leaves, trained all across the garden front, making a pleasant green summer-blind over the higher half of the drawing-room windows, that now stood open, telling of the emptiness within.
Christabel stood for a few moments looking round, and thinking what a paradise of green rest this would be to her hard-worked father and anxious mother; and how she should like to see her little brothers and sisters have one free run and roll on that delicious greensward, instead of now and then walking to one of the parks as a great holiday. Yet hers was a very happy home, and, except her being absent from it, nothing had befallen her to sadden her merry young spirits; so when she heard the joyous cry behind her -
"I'm on Tommy Tittler's ground, Picking up gold and silver,"
she turned about, and laughed as she saw the gold-finders stooping and clawing at the grass, with eyes cast round about them for Hal, who was pursuing Susan in and out, up and down till, with screams of exultation, she was safely across the ridge of the bowling-green, that served as "home."
When Hal turned back, Miss Fosbrook was as heedfully and warily picking up gold and silver as any of the rest of them. He was resolved on capturing her; but first David was such a tempting prize, with his back so very near, and so unconscious, that he must be made prisoner. A catch at the brown-holland blouse--a cry--a shout of laughter, and Davy is led up behind the standard maiden-blush rose, always serving as the prison. And now the tug of war rages round it, he darts here and there within his bounds, holding out his hand to any kind deliverer whose touch may set him free; and all the others run backwards and forwards, trying to circumvent the watchful jailor, Tom Tittler, who, in front of the rose-bush, flies instantly at whoever is only coming near his captive.
Ha! Susan had nearly--all but done it, while Hal was chasing away Annie. No, not she; Hal is back again, and with a shriek away she scours. Sam! oh, he is very near; if that stupid little Davy would only look round, he would be free in another moment; but he only gapes at the pursuit of Susan, and Sam will touch him without his being aware! No--here's Hal back again. Sam's off. What a scamper! Now's the time--here's Miss Fosbrook, lighter-footed than any of the children, softly stealing on tip-toe, while Hal is scaring Johnnie. Her fingers just touch Davy's. "Freed! Freed!" is the cry; and off goes he, pounding for home! but Hal rushes across the path, he intercepts Miss Fosbrook, and, with a shout of triumph--There is the sound of a rent. Everybody stands a little aghast.
"It is only the gathers," says Miss Fosbrook good-humouredly. "I'll tuck them up and sew them in by and by; but really, Hal, you need not pull so furiously; I would have yielded to something short of that."
"Gowns are such stuff!" said Hal, really meaning it for an apology, though it did not sound like one, for her good-natured face abashed him a little.
"Touch and take used to be our rule," said Miss Fosbrook.
Bessie eagerly said that would be the best way, the boys were so rude; but all the rest with one voice cried out that it would be very stupid; and Miss Fosbrook did not press it, but only begged in a droll way that some one would take pity on her; and come to release her; and so alert was she in skipping towards her allies from behind the rose-bush, that Bessie presently succeeded in giving the rescuing touch, and she flew back quick as a bird to the safe territory, dragging Bessie with her, who otherwise would have assuredly been caught; and who, warm with the spirit of the game, felt as if she should have been quite glad to be made prisoner for her dear Christabel's sake.
An hour after, and all the children were in bed. Susan and Annie agreeing that a governess was no such great bother after all; and Elizabeth lying awake to whisper over to herself, "Christabel Angela, Christabel Angela! That's my secret!" in a sort of dream of pleasure that will make most people decide on her being a very silly little girl.
And Christabel Angela herself sat mending her gathers, and thinking over her first week of far greater difficulties than she had contemplated when she had left home with the understanding that she was to be entirely under Mrs. Merrifield's direction. Poor Mrs. Merrifield had said much of regret at leaving her to such a crew of little savages, and she had only tried to set the mother's mind at rest by being cheerful; and though she felt that it was a great undertaking to manage those great boys out of lesson-hours, she knew that when a thing cannot be helped, strength and aid is given to those who seek for it sincerely.
And on the whole, she felt thankful to the children for having behaved even as well as they had done.