The Stokesley Secret by Charlotte M. Yonge
What an entirely different set of beings were those Stokesley children in lesson-time and out of it! Talk of the change of an old thorn in winter to a May-bush in spring! that was nothing to it!
Poor, listless, stolid, deplorable logs, with bowed backs and crossed ankles, pipy voices and heavy eyes! Who would believe that these were the merry, capering, noisy creatures, full of fun and riot, clattering and screeching, and dancing about with ecstasy at Sam's information that there was a bonfire by the potato-house!
"A bonfire!" said the London governess, thinking of illuminations; "what can that be for?"
"Oh, it is not for anything," said Susan; "it is Purday burning weeds. Don't you smell them? How nice they are! I was afraid it was only Farmer Smith burning couch."
All the noses were elevated to scent from afar a certain smoky odour, usually to be detected in July breezes, and which reminded Miss Fosbrook of a brick-field.
"Potatoes! Potatoes! We'll roast some potatoes, and have them for tea!" bellowed all the voices; so that Miss Fosbrook could hardly find a space for very unwillingly saying,
"But, my dears, I don't know whether I ought to let you play with fire."
"Oh, we always do," roared the children; and Susan added,
"We always roast potatoes when there's a bonfire. Mamma always lets us; it is only Purday that is cross."
"Yes, yes; Mamma lets us."
"Well, if Sam and Susan say it is right, I trust to them," said Miss Fosbrook gladly; "only you must let me come out and see what it is. I am too much of a Londoner to know."
"Oh yes; and we'll roast you some potatoes."
So the uproarious population tumbled upstairs, there to be invested with rougher brown-holland garments than those that already concealed the sprigged cottons of the girls; and when the five came down again, they were so much alike in dress, that it was not easy to tell girls from boys. Susan brought little George down with her, and off the party set. Sam and Hal, who had been waiting in the hall, took Miss Fosbrook between them, as if they thought it their duty to do the honours of the bonfire, and conducted her across the garden, through the kitchen-garden, across which lay a long sluggish bar of heavy and very odorous smoke, to a gate in a quickset hedge. Here were some sheds and cart-houses, a fagot pile, various logs of timber, a grindstone, and--that towards which all the eight children rushed with whoops of ecstasy--a heap of smoking rubbish, chiefly dry leaves, and peas and potato haulm, with a large allowance of cabbage stumps--all extremely earthy, and looking as if the smouldering smoke were a wonder from so mere a heap of dirt.
No matter! There were all the children round it, some on their knees, some jumping; and voices were crying on all sides,
"O jolly, jolly!" "I'll get some potatoes!" "Oh, you must have some sticks first, and make some ashes." "There's no flame--not a bit!" "Get out of the way, can't you? I'll make a hot place." "We'll each have our own oven, and roast our own potatoes!" "Don't, Sam; you're pushing me into the smoke!"
This of course was from Elizabeth; and there followed, "Don't, Bessie, you will tread upon Georgie.--Yes, Georgie, you shall have a place."
"Sticks, sticks!" shouted Henry; while Sam was on his knees, poking out a species of cavern in the fire, where some symptoms of red embers appeared, which he diligently puffed with his mouth, feeding it with leaves and smaller chips in a very well practised way. "Sticks, Annie! Johnnie! Davy! get sticks, I say, and we'll make an oven."
Annie obeyed; but the two little boys were intent on imitating Sam on another side of the fire, and Johnnie uttered a gruff "Get 'em yourself," while David took no notice at all.
Perhaps Hal would have betaken himself to no gentle means if Susan had not hastily put in his way a plentiful supply of dead wood, which she had been letting little George think he picked up all himself; and there was keen excitement, which Christabel could not help sharing, while under Sam's breath the red edges of the half-burnt chip glowed, flushed, widened, then went sparkling doubtfully, slowly, to the light bit of potato-stalk that he held to it, glowing as he blew--fading, smoking, when he took breath. Try again--puff, puff, puff diligently; the fire evidently has a taste for the delicate little shaving that Annie has found for it; it seizes on it; another--another; a flame at last. Hurrah! pile on more; not too much. "Don't put it out!" Oh, there! strong flame--coming crackling up through those smothering heaps of stick and haulm; it won't be kept down; it rises in the wind; it is a red flaring banner. The children shriek in transports of admiration, little George loudest of all, because Susan is holding him tight, lest he should run into the brilliant flame. Miss Fosbrook is rather appalled, but the children are all safe on the windward side, and seem used to it; so she supposes it is all right, and the flame dies down faster than it rose. It is again an innocent smouldering heap, like a volcano after an eruption.
"We must not let it blaze again just yet," said Sam; "keep it down well with sticks, to make some nice white ashes for the potatoes. See, I'll make an oven."
They were all stooping round this precious hot corner, some kneeling, some sitting on the ground, David with hands on his sturdy knees--all intent on nursing that creeping red spark, as it smouldered from chip to chip, leaving a black trace wherever it went, when through the thick smoke, that was like an absolute curtain hiding everything on the farther side, came headlong a huge bundle of weeds launched overwhelmingly on the fire, and falling on the children's heads in an absolute shower, knocking Johnnie down, but on a soft and innocent side of the fire among the cabbage-stumps, and seeming likely to bury Sam, who leant over to shelter his precious oven, and puffed away as if nothing was happening, amid the various shouts around him, in which "Purday" was the most audible word.
"Ah, so you've got at he, after all," said Purday, leaning on the fork with which he had thrown on the weeds. "Nothing is safe from you."
"What, you thought you had a new place, Purday, and circumvented us!" cried Hal; "but we smelt you out, you old rogue; we weren't going to be baulked of our bonfire."
Miss Fosbrook here ventured on asking if they were doing mischief; and Purday answered with an odd gruff noise, "Mischief enough--ay, to be sure--hucking the fire all abroad. It's what they're always after. I did think I'd got it safe out of their way this time."
"Then," in rather a frightened voice, for she felt that it would be a tremendous trial of her powers, "should I make them come away?"
"Catch her!" muttered Hal.
There was horror and disapprobation on Susan's face. Annie stood with her mouth open; while John, throwing himself on the ground with fury, rolled over, crying out something about, "I won't," and "very cross;" and David lay flat on his face, puffing at his own particular oven, like a little Wind in an old picture. Sam waited, leaning on the ashen stick that served him as a poker. It was the most audacious thing he had ever heard. Rob them of their bonfire! Would that old traitor of a Purday abet her?
Perhaps Purday was as much astonished as the rest; but, after all, much as the children tormented his bonfires, overset his haycocks, and disturbed his wood-pile, he did not like anyone to scold them but himself, much less the new London Lady; so he made up an odd sort of grin, and said, "No, no, Ma'am, it ain't that they do so much harm; let 'em bide;" and he proceeded to shake on the rest of his barrowful, tumbling the weeds down over David's cherished oven in utter disregard; but the children cried with one voice, "Hurrah! hurrah! Purday, we don't do any harm, so don't ever grumble again. Hurrah!"
"And I don't care for her, the crosspatch," said Johnnie to Annie, never hearing or heeding Miss Fosbrook's fervent "I am so glad!"
And as long as the foolish boy remembered it, he always did believe that Miss Fosbrook was so cross as to want to hinder them from their bonfire, only Purday would not let her.
Miss Fosbrook did not trouble herself to be understood; she was relieved to have done her duty, and be free to rejoice in and share the pleasure. She ran about and collected materials for Sam till she was out of breath, and joined in all the excitement as the fire showed symptoms of reviving, after being apparently crushed out by Purday. Sam and Susan, at least, believed that she had only spoken to Purday because she thought it right; but even for them to forgive interference with their bonfire privileges was a great stretch.
At last she thought it time to leave them to their own devices, and seize the moment for some quiet reading; but she had not reached the house before little steps came after her, and she saw Elizabeth running fast.
"They are so tiresome," she said. "Sam won't let me stand anywhere but where the smoke gets into my eyes, and George plagues so! May I come in with you, dear Christabel?"
"You are very welcome," said Miss Fosbrook, "but I am sorry to hear so many complaints."
"They are so cross to me," said Bessie; "they always are."
"You must try to be cheerful and good-humoured with them, and they will leave off vexing you."
"But may I come in? It will be a nice time for my secret."
Christabel saw little hope for her intended reading, but she was always glad of a space for making Bessie happy, so she kindly consented to the bringing out of the little girl's treasury, and the dismal face grew happy and eager. The subjects of the drawings were all clear in her head; that was not the difficulty, but the cardboard, the ribbon, the real good paints. One little slip of card Miss Fosbrook hunted out of her portfolio; she cut a pencil of her own, and advised the first attempt to be made upon a piece of paper. The little bird that Bessie produced was really not at all bad, and her performance was quite fair enough to make it worth while to go on, since Miss Fosbrook well knew that mammas are pleased with works of their children, showing more good-will than skill. For why? Their value is in the love and thought they show.
The little bird was made into a robin with the colours in a paint-box that Bessie had long ago bought; but they were so weak and muddy, that the result was far from good enough for a present, and it was agreed that real paints must be procured as well as ribbon. Miss Fosbrook offered to commission her sisters to buy the Prussian blue, lake, and gamboge in London, and send them in a letter. This was a new idea to Bessie, and she was only not quite decided between the certainty that London paints must be better than country ones, and the desire of the walk to Bonchamp to buy some; but the thought that the ribbon, after all, might be procured there, satisfied her. The little doleful maid was changed into an eager, happy, chattering child, full of intelligence and contrivance, and showing many pretty fancies, since there was no one to tease her and laugh at her; and her governess listened kindly and helpfully.
Miss Fosbrook could not help thinking how much happier her little companion would have been as an only child, or with one sister, and parents who would have made the most of her love of taste and refinement, instead of the hearty busy parents, and the rude brothers and sisters, who held her cheap for being unlike themselves. But then she bethought her, that perhaps Bessie might have grown up vain and affected, had all these tastes been petted and fostered, and that perhaps her little hardships might make her the stronger, steadier, more useful woman, instead of living in fancies. It was the unkindness on one side, and the temper on the other, that made Miss Fosbrook uneasy.
The work had gone on happily for nearly an hour, and Bessie was copying a forget-me-not off a little painted card-board pincushion of her own, when steps were heard, little trotting steps, and Susan came in with little George. He had been pushed down by Johnnie, and was rather in a fretful mood; and Susan had left all her happy play to bring him in to rest and comfort him, coming to the school-room because Nurse Freeman was out. Before Elizabeth had time to hide away her doings, George had seen the bright pincushion, and was holding out his hands for it. Bessie hastily pocketed it. George burst out crying; and Susan, without more ado, threw herself on her sister, and, pinioning Bessie's slight arm by the greater strength of her firm one, was diving into her pocket in spite of her struggles.
"Susan, leave off," said Miss Fosbrook; "let your sister alone. She has a right to do what she likes with her own."
"It is so cross in her," said Susan, obeying however, but only to snatch up little George, and hug and kiss him. "Poor dear little man! is Betty cross to him? There! there! come with Sue, and she'll get him something pretty."
"Susie, Susie, indeed it's only that I don't want him to spoil it," said Elizabeth, distressed.
"A foolish thing like that! Why, the only use of it is to please the children; but you are just such a baby as he is," said Susan, still pitying George.
"You had better put your things away, Bessie," said Miss Fosbrook, interfering to stop the dispute; and as soon as Elizabeth was gone, and George a little pacified by an ivory ribbon-measure out of Miss Fosbrook's work-box, she observed to Susan, "My dear, you must not let your love for the little ones make you unjust and unkind to Bessie."
"She always is so unkind to them," said Susan resentfully.
"I don't think she feels unkindly; but if you tyrannize over her, and force her to give way to them, you cannot expect her to like it."
"Mamma says the elder must give way to the younger," said Susan.
"You did not try whether she would give way."
"No, because I knew she wouldn't; and I could not have my little Georgie vexed."
"And I could not see my little Susie violent and unjust," said Miss Fosbrook cheerfully. "Justice first, Susan; you had no right to rob Bessie for George, any more than I should have to give away a dinner of your papa's because he had refused a beggar."
"Papa never would," said Susan, rather going off from the point.
"Very likely; but do you understand me, Susan? I will not have Bessie forced out of her rights for the little ones. Not Bessie only, but nobody is to be tyrannized over; it is not right."
"Bessie is so nonsensical," was all Susan said, looking glum.
"Very likely she may seem so to you; but if you knew more, you would see that all is not nonsense that seems so to you. Some people would admire her ways."
"Yes, I know," said Susan. "Mrs. Greville told Mrs. Brownlow that Bessie was the only one among us that was capable of civilisation; but Mrs. Greville is a fine lady, and we always laugh at her."
"And now," as Bessie returned, "you want to go out to your play again, my dear. Will you leave Georgie with us?"
Susan was a little doubtful about trusting her darling with anyone, especially one who could take Bessie's part against him; but she wished exceedingly to be present at the interesting moment of seeing whether the potatoes were done enough, and George was perfectly contented with measuring everything on the ribbon, so she ran quickly off, without the manners to thank Miss Fosbrook, but to assure the rest of the party that the governess really was very good-natured, and that she would save her biggest and best potato for Miss Fosbrook's tea.
Christabel managed very happily with little George, though not quite without offending Elizabeth, who thought it very hard to be desired to put away her painting instead of tantalizing her little brother with the sight of what he must not have. Miss Fosbrook could not draw her into the merry game with little George, which made his shouts of glee ring out through the house, and meet Nurse Freeman's ear as she came in-doors with the baby, and calling at the school- room door, summoned him off to his tea, as if she were in a pet with Miss Fosbrook for daring to meddle with one of her own nursery children.
Nothing more was heard of the others, and Christabel and Elizabeth both read in peace till the tea-bell rang, and they went down and waited and waited, till Miss Fosbrook accepted Bessie's offer of going out to call the rest. But Bessie returned no more than the rest; and the governess set forth herself, but had not made many steps before the voices of the rabble rout were heard, and they all were dancing and clattering about her, while Susan and Hal each carried aloft a plate containing articles once brown, now black, and thickly powdered with white ashes, as were the children themselves up to their very hair.
As a slight concession to grown-up people's prejudices, they did, at the risk of their dear potatoes getting cold, scamper up to perform a species of toilette, and then sat down round the tea-table, Susie, David, and Sam each vociferous that Miss Fosbrook should eat "my potato that I did on purpose for her." Poor Miss Fosbrook! she would nearly as soon have eaten the bonfire itself as those cinder-coated things, tough as leather outside, and within like solid smoke. Indeed the children, who had been bathing in smoke all day, had brought in the air of it with them; but their tongues ran fast on their adventures, and their taste had no doubt that their own bonfire potatoes were the most perfect cookery in art! Miss Fosbrook picked out the most eatable bits of each of the three, and managed to satisfy the three cooks, all zealous for their own. Other people's potatoes might be smoky, but each one's own was delicious--"quite worthy of the pig when he was bought," thought Miss Fosbrook; but she made her real pleasure at the kind feeling to cover her dislike of the black potatoes, and thus pleased the children without being untrue.
"Line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little." That is the way habits are formed and characters made; not all at once. So there had been an opportunity for Susan to grow confirmed in her kindness and unselfishness, as well as to learn that tyranny is wrong, even on behalf of the weak; and Bessie, if she would take home the lesson, had received one in readiness to be cheerful, and to turn from her own pursuits to oblige others. Something had been attempted toward breaking her habit of being fretful, and thinking herself injured. It remained to be seen whether the many little things that were yet to happen to the two girls would be so used as to strengthen their good habits or their bad ones.