The Stokesley Secret by Charlotte M. Yonge
The most part of church-time Johnnie was eating Nurse Freeman's plum- cake. Perhaps this did not make him any easier in the conscience, but he had a very unlucky sentiment, that as he was already naughty and in disgrace, it was of no use to take the trouble of being good till he could make a fresh beginning; and after what the Grevilles had said, he did not think that would be till Papa and Mamma came home; he did not at all mean to give in to a girl that was not even twenty. So he would not turn to the only wise thing he could have done, the learning of his Collect, but he teased Nurse out of more cake and more, and got what play he could out of little George, and that was not much, for Johnnie was not in a temper to be pleasant with a little one.
Coming home from church, Collects were to be learnt and said before tea: but Hal, after glancing over his own, took up his cap and said, "Come along, Sam, Purday will be feeding the pigs; I want to choose the size of ours."
"I've not done," said Sam.
"Papa never said we were to say them to Miss Fosbrook."
"He meant it though," was all Sam's answer. "Don't hinder me."
"Well, I've no notion of being bound by what people mean," continued Hal; and no one could imagine the torment he made himself, neither going nor staying, arguing the matter with his elder brother, as if Sam's coming would justify him, and interrupting everyone; till at last Miss Fosbrook gathered all her spirit, and ordered him either to sit down and learn properly at once, or to go quite away. She was very much vexed, for Henry had been the most obliging and good- natured of all at first, and likely to be fond of her; but such a great talker could not fail to be weak, and his vanity had been set against her. He looked saucy at first, and much inclined to resist; if he had seen any sympathy for him in Sam he might have done so, but Miss Fosbrook's steady eye was too much for him, so he saved his dignity, as he thought, by exclaiming, "I'm sure I don't want to stay in this stuffy hole with such a set of owls; I shall go to Purday." And off he marched.
The others stayed, and said their Collects and Catechism very respectably, all but John, who had not learned the Collect at all, and was sent into another room to finish it, to which he made no resistance; he had had enough of actual fighting with Miss Fosbrook.
Then she offered to read a story to the others, but she found that this was distasteful even to her friend Sam; he thought it stupid to be read to, and said he should see after Hal; David trotted after him, and Susan and Anne repaired to the nursery to play with the little ones and the baby. She minded it the less, as they all had some purpose; but she had already been vexed to find that all but Davy preferred the most arrant vacant idleness to anything rational. To be sure, Susan sometimes, Bessie and Hal always, would read any book that made no pretensions to be instructive, but even a fact about a lion or an elephant made them detect wisdom in disguise, and throw it aside. She thought, however, she would make the most of Bessie, and asked whether she would like to hear reading, or read to herself.
"To myself," said Bessie; and there was a silence, while Miss Fosbrook, glad of the quiet, began reading her Christian Year. Presently she heard a voice so low that it seemed at a distance and it made her start, for it was saying "Christabel!" then she almost laughed, for it seemed to have been an audacious experiment, to judge by little Elizabeth's scared looks and the glow on her cheeks.
"May I say it sometimes when we are alone together?" she said timidly. "I do like it so much!"
"If it is such a pleasure to you, I would not deprive you of it," said Miss Fosbrook, laughing; "but don't do so, except when we are alone, for your Mamma would not like me to seem younger still."
"Oh, thank you! Isn't it a nice secret?" cried Bessie, clinging to her hand: "and will you let me hug you sometimes?"
A little love was pleasant to Miss Fosbrook, when she was feeling lonely, and she took Bessie in her lap, and they exchanged caresses, to the damage of the collar that Miss Fosbrook's sister had worked for her.
"And you don't call me silly?" cried Bessie.
"That depends," was the answer, with some arch fun; but Bessie had not much turn for fun, and presently went on -
"And you saw Ida Greville?"
"What did you think of her?"
"I had not much opportunity of learning what to think."
"But her parasol, and her bird! Did you think her mama very silly to give her pretty things?"
"No, certainly not, unless she wore them at unsuitable times, or thought too much about them."
"Ida has so many, she does not think of them at all. And she has shells, and such a lovely work-box, and picture-books; she has all she wants."
"Are you quite sure?"
"Oh, yes, quite sure! and they don't tease her for liking pretty things; her brothers keep quite away, and never bother about the schoolroom; but she learns Italian and German, and drawing and singing. Mr. Greville said something about our spending the day there. Oh! if we do but go! Won't you, Miss Fosbrook?"
"If I am asked, and if your Mamma would wish it."
"Oh, Mamma always lets us go, except once--when--when--"
"When I cried," said Elizabeth, hanging down her head; "I couldn't help it. It did seem so tiresome here, and she said I was learning to be discontented; but nobody can help wishing, can they?"
"There must be a way of not breaking the Tenth Commandment."
"I don't covet; I don't want to take things away from Ida, only to have the same."
"Yes; but what does the explanation at the end of the Duty to our Neighbour say, filling out that Commandment?"
"I think I'll go and see what Susie is doing," said Elizabeth.
Christabel sighed as the little girl walked off, displeased at having her repinings set before her in a graver light than that in which she had hitherto chosen to regard them.
She saw no more of her charges till tea-time, when the bell brought them from different quarters, Johnnie with such a grimy collar and dirty hands, that he was a very un-Sunday-like figure, and she would have sent him away to make himself decent, but that she was desirous of not over-tormenting him.
Sunday was always celebrated by having treacle with the bread, so the butter riot was happily escaped; and Bessie was not in a gracious mood, and the corners of her mouth provoked the boys to begin on what they knew would make her afford them sport. Hal first: "I say, Bet, didn't Purday want his gun to-day at church?"
Elizabeth put out her lip in expectation that something unpleasant was intended, and other voices were not slow to ask an explanation.
"Shooting the cocky-olly birds!"
A general explosion of laughter.
"I say (always the preface to the boy's wit), shall I get a jay down off the barn to stick into your hat, Betty?"
"Don't, Hal," said such a deplorable offended voice, that Sam, who had really held his tongue at first, could not help chiming in,
"No, no; a cock-sparrow, for her London manners."
"No, that's for me, Sam," said Christabel good-humouredly. "A London-bred sparrow; a pert forward chit."
She really had found a safety-valve; the boys were entertained, and diverted from their attack on their favourite victim, by finding everyone an appropriate bird; and when they came to "Tomtits" and "Dishwashers," were so astonished at Miss Fosbrook's never having seen either, that they instantly fell into the greatest haste to finish their tea, and conduct her into the garden, and through a course of birds, eggs, and nests, about which, as soon as she was assured that there was to be no bird's-nesting, she was very eager.
Bessie ought to have been thankful that her persecutors were called off, but she was in a dismal mood, and was taken with a fit of displeasure that her own Christabel Angela was following the rabble rout into the garden, instead of staying in the school-room at her service.
The reason of her gloom was, that Miss Fosbrook had spoken a word that she did not choose to take home, and yet which she could not shake off. So she would neither stay in nor go out cheerfully, and sauntered along looking so piteous, that Johnnie could not help making her worse by plucking at her dress, by suddenly twisting her cape round till the back was in front, and pushing her hat over her eyes, till "Don't Johnnie," in a dismal whine, alternated with "I'll tell Miss Fosbrook."
Christabel did not see nor hear. She had gone forward with a boy on either side of her, and Susan walking backwards in front, all telling the story of a cuckoo,--or gowk, as Sara called it in Purday's language,--which they had found in a water-wagtail's nest in a heap of stones; how it sat up, constantly gaping with its huge mouth, while the poor little foster-parents toiled to their utmost to keep it supplied with caterpillars, and the last time it was seen, when full-fledged, were trying to lure it to come out of the nest by holding up green palmers at some little distance before it. This was in the evening; by morning it was gone, having probably taken flight at sunrise.
Miss Fosbrook listened with all the pleasure the boys could desire. She had read natural history, and looked at birds stuffed in the British Museum, or alive at the Zoological Gardens, on the rare days when her father had time to give himself and his children a treat; and her fresh value and interest in all these country things were delightful to the boys.
It was a lovely summer evening. The sun was low enough to make the shadows long and refreshing, as they lay upon the blooming grass of the wilderness, softly swaying in the breeze, all pale with its numerous chaffy blossoms, and varied by the tall buttercups that raised up their shining yellow heads, or by white clouds of bold- faced ox-eye daisies.
The pear-trees were like white garlands; the apple-trees covered with white blossoms and rosy buds; the climbing roses on the wall were bursting into blossom; the sky was one blue vault without a cloud.
Surely Elizabeth had no lack here of what was pretty. Then why did she lag behind, unseeing, unheeding of all, but peevishly pushing off John and Anne, thinking that they always teased her worst on Sundays, and very much discomfited that Miss Fosbrook was not attending to her? Surely the fault was not altogether in what was outside her.
"See!" cry the boys. Miss Fosbrook must first look up there, high upon the side of the house, niched behind that thick stem of the vine. What, can't she see those round black eyes and little beak? They see her plain enough. Ah! now she has them. That's a fly- catcher. By and by they shall be able to show her the old birds flying round, catching flies on the wing, and feeding the young ones, all perched in a row.
Now, can she scramble up the laurels? Yes, she hopes so; though she wished she had known what was coming, for she would have changed her Sunday muslin. But a look of anxiety came on Sam's face as he peeped into the clump of laurels; he signed back the others, sprang upon the dark scraggy bough of the tree, and Hal called out,
"Gone! has Ralph been there?"
"Ay, the black rascal; at least, I suppose so. Not an egg left, and they would have hatched this week!"
"Well, Purday calls him his best friend," said Harry. "He says we should not get a currant or a gooseberry if it wasn't for that there raven, as Papa won't have the small birds shot."
"Bring down the nest, Sam," cried Susan; "Georgy will like to have it."
The children behind, who never could hear of anything to be had without laying a claim to it, shouted that they wanted the nest; but Sam said Sue had spoken first, and they fell back discontented, and more bent on their unkind sport. Miss Fosbrook was rather shocked at the tearing out the nest, and asked if the old bird would not have another brood there; but it was explained that a thrush would never return to a forsaken nest; and when Sam came down with it in his hand, she was delighted with the wonderful cup that formed the lining, so smooth and firm a bason formed of dried mud set within the grassy wall. She had thought that swallows alone built with mud, and had to learn that the swallows used their clay for their outer walls, and down for their lining, whereas the thrush is a regular plasterer.
Sam promised her another thrush to make up for her disappointment, and meantime conducted her to a very untidy old summer-house, the moss of whose roof hung down loose and rough over a wild collection of headless wooden horses, little ships with torn sails, long sticks, battered watering-pots, and old garden tools. She was desired to look up to one of the openings in the ragged moss, and believe that it housed a kitty wren's family of sixteen or eighteen; but she had to take this on trust, for to lay a finger near would lead to desertion; in fact, Sam was rather sorry to be able to point out to her, on coming out, the tiny, dark, nutmeg, cock-tailed father kitty, popping in and out of the thorn hedge, spying at the party.
Now then for a wonder as they came out. Sam waved everybody away-- nay, waved is a small word for what he did--shouted, pushed, ordered, would be more like it. He was going to give Miss Fosbrook such a proof of his esteem as hardly any one enjoyed, not even Hal, twice in the summer.
Everybody submitted to his violent demonstrations, and Christabel followed him to the back of the summer-house. There stood a large red flower-pot upside down.
"Now, Miss Fosbrook!"
Sam's finger hooked into the hole at the top. Off came the flower- pot, and disclosed something flying off with rushing wings, and something confused remaining,--a cluster of grey wings all quill, with gaping yellow mouths here and there opening, a huddling movement always going on in the forlorn heap, as if each were cold, and wanted to be undermost.
"Tits, my tits!" said Sam triumphantly; "they've built their nest here three years following."
"But how do they get in and out?"
"Through the hole. Take care, I'll show you one."
"Won't you frighten away the bird?"
"Oh dear no! Ox-eyes aren't like wrens; I go to them every day. See!" and he took up in his hand a creature that could just be seen to be intended for a bird, though the long skinny neck was bare, and the tiny quills of the young wings only showed a little grey sprouting feather, as did the breast some primrose-coloured down. Miss Fosbrook had to part with some favourite cockney notions of the beauty of infant birds, and on the other hand to gain a vivid idea of what is meant by "callow young."
Sam quickly put his nestling back, and showed her the parent. She could hardly believe that the handsome bird in the smooth grey coat and bright straw-coloured waistcoat, with the broad jet-black line down the centre, the great white cheeks edged with black, and the bold knowing look, could be like what the little bits of deformity in the nest would soon become.
"Ay, that's an ox-eye," said Sam. "You'll hear them going on peter-- peter--peter--all the spring."
But Sam was cut short by a loud and lamentable burst of roaring where they had left the party.
Miss Fosbrook hurried back, hearing Hal's rude laugh as she came nearer, it was Elizabeth, sobbing in the passionate way in which it is not good to see a child cry, and violently shaking off Susan, who was begging her to stop herself before Miss Fosbrook should come.
What was the matter?
"Oh! Betty's nonsense."
"She only cried that Miss Fosbrook might hear."
So shouted the little Babel, Bessie sobbing resentfully between her words, till Miss Fosbrook, insisting that everybody should be quiet, desired her to tell what had happened.
"Johnnie--Johnnie called me a toad."
The others all burst out laughing, and Miss Fosbrook, trying to silence them with a frown, said it was very rude of John, but she saw no reason why a girl of Bessie's age should act so childish a part.
"He's been teasing me, and so has Anne, all this time!" cried Bessie. "They've been at me ever since I came out, pulling me and plaguing me, and--"
"Well," said Susan, "I told you to walk in front of Miss Fosbrook, where they could not."
"I didn't do anything to her," said John.
"He only pulled her frock and poked her ankles," said Anne pleadingly
"Only--and why did you do what she did not like?"
Johnnie looked sturdy and cross. Anne hung her head; and Elizabeth burst out again,
"They always do--they always are cross to me! I said I'd tell you, and now they said Ida was a conceited little toad, and stingy Bet was another;" and out burst her howls again.
"A very sad and improper way of spending a Sunday evening," said Miss Fosbrook, who had really grown quite angry. "Anne and John, I will put an end to this teasing. Go to bed this instant."
They did not dare to disobey, but went off slowly with sulky footsteps, muttering to one another that Miss Fosbrook always took pipy Betty's part; Nurse said so, and they wished Mamma was at home. And when they came up to the nursery, Nurse pitied them. She had never heard of a young lady doing such a thing as ordering off two poor dear children to bed for only just saying a word; but it seemed there were to be favourites now. No, she could not put them to bed; they must wait till Mary came in from her walk; she wasn't going to put herself out of the way for any fine London governess.
So Johnnie had another conquest over Miss Fosbrook; but Anne was uncomfortable, and went and sat in a corner, wishing she had had her punishment properly over, and kicking her brother away when he wanted to play with her.
As for Bessie, she only cried the more for Miss Fosbrook's trying to talk to her. It was a way of hers, perhaps from being less strong than the others, if once she started in a cry she could not leave off.
Susan told Miss Fosbrook so; and the boys tried to drag her on with a promise of a blackbird's nest; but she thought them unfeeling to such woeful distress, and first tried to reason with Bessie, then to soothe her, till at last, finding all in vain, she thought bed the only place for the child, and led her into the house, helped her, still shaking with sobs, to undress, and was going to see her lie down in the bed which she shared with Susan. Elizabeth was still young enough to say her prayers aloud. The words came out in the middle of choking sobs, not as if she were much attending to them. Miss Fosbrook knelt down by her as she was going to rise, and said in her own words,
"Most merciful God, give unto this Thy child the spirit of content, and the spirit of love, that she may bear patiently all the little trials that hurt and vex her, and win her way as Thy good soldier and servant. Amen."
Elizabeth held her breath to listen. It was new and odd. She did not like to say Amen; she did not know if the governess were not taking a liberty. Perhaps it was a new way of telling her she was wrong--Christabel, whom she had thought on her side.
The bad temper woke up, and would not let her offer a friendly kiss. She hid her face in the pillow, and as soon as Miss Fosbrook had shut the door, went off into a fresh gust of piteous sobs, because Miss Elizabeth Merrifield was the most miserable ill-used child in all the world.
She might be one of the most miserable, but it was not because of her ill-usage, but because she had no spirit to be cheerful, and had turned away from comfort of the right kind. She was in such a frame as to prefer thinking everyone against her, to supposing that anything she could do would mend matters.
Christabel was much grieved at this unfortunate end to the Sunday evening. She looked over all the boys' birds' eggs--they were allowed to keep two of every sort as curiosities--and listened to some wonderful stories of Henry's about climbing trees, and shooting partridges, and she kept the remaining children quiet and amused; but she was not happy in her mind.
She thought she must have been wrong in not watching them more closely, and she felt more dislike and indignation against Johnnie than she feared was altogether right in his governess. Also, she feared to make too much of Elizabeth, and was almost afraid that notice taught her to be still more fretful. And yet there was a sense of being drawn to her by their two minds understanding each other, by likeness of tastes, by pity, and by a wish to protect one whom her little world oppressed.
Nurse Freeman could not be more afraid of Miss Fosbrook making favourites than she was herself.
All she could do in the matter was that which she had already done at Bessie's bedside, and much more fully than when the little girl was listening to her.