The Stokesley Secret by Charlotte M. Yonge
Miss Fosbrook soon knew what Mrs. Merrifield meant by saying that visits at the Park unsettled the children. Susan indeed, though liking anything that shortened lessons by an hour, and made a change, was not so fond of being on her good behaviour at the Park as to be greatly exalted at the prospect; but Elizabeth and Annie were changed beings. They were constantly breaking out with some new variety of wonder. They wondered whether they should dine in the school-room, or at Mrs. Greville's luncheon; they wondered if Mr. Greville would speak to them; they wondered whether Fraulein Munsterthal would be cross; they wondered if Ida still played with dolls; and they looked as if they thought themselves wonderful, too, for going out for a day!
Nay, the wonders were at their tongues' end even when lessons began, and put their farthings in great peril; and when they had nothing else to wonder at, they wondered when it would be twelve o'clock, and took no pains to swallow enormous yawns. Once, over her copy, Elizabeth exclaimed, "Now! yes, this is necessary, Miss Fosbrook! May not we wear our white frocks?"
"They are not ironed," answered Susan.
"Oh, do let me go and tell Mary! There's lots of time," said Bessie, who had lately thought it cruel of the clock to point only to half- past ten, and never bethought herself how Mary would like to be called off from her scrubbing to iron three white frocks.
"Would your Mamma wish it?" asked Christabel.
"Oh dear no," was Susan's answer; "we always wear clean ones of our every-day frocks. Our white ones are only for dinner-parties and Christmas-trees."
Bessie grumbled. "How cross! I hate those nasty old spotty cottons;" and Johnnie returned to the old story--"Little vain pussy- cat."
Up went Miss Fosbrook's warning pencil, she shook her head, and held out her hand for two fines. Elizabeth began to gulp and sob.
"Oh, don't, Betty!" cried Susan. "Stop while you can. You won't like going up with red eyes. There, I'll pay your fine; and there's another for my speaking."
"No, Susie; that was not foolish speaking, but kind words," said Miss Fosbrook; "but no more now; go on, Annie."
But Annie, who was reading a little history of St. Paul, would call Cilicia, Cicilia, and when told to spell it she began to cry too decidedly for Susan's good-nature to check her tears. And not only did Elizabeth's copy look as if she had written it with claws instead of fingers, but she was grieving over her spotted cotton instead of really seeking for places in her map. Thus the Moselle obstinately hid itself; and she absolutely shed tears because Miss Fosbrook declared that Frankfort was on the Maine. For the first time she had her grammar turned back upon her hands. How many mistakes Annie made would be really past telling; for these two little girls had their whole minds quite upset by the thought of a day's pleasure; and as they never tried to restrain themselves, and to "be sober, be vigilant," they gave way before all the little trials in their paths- -were first careless, and then fractious. Perhaps when they were older they would find out that this uplifted sense of excited expectation is the very warning to be heedful.
If Miss Fosbrook had been a strict governess, she would have told them they did not deserve to go at all; or at any rate, that Bessie must repeat her grammar better, and re-write her copy, and that Annie's unlucky addition sum must be made to prove; but she had seen her little sisters nearly as bad in prospect of a pantomime, so she was merciful, and sent them in good time to brush their hair, put on their spotted cottons, and wash off as much as possible of the red mottling left by those foolish tears.
Their spirits rose again as fast as they had sunk; and it was a lively walk through the park to the great house, with a good deal of skipping and jumping at first, and then, near the door, a little awe and gravity.
They were taken through a side-door of the hall to the school-room, where Ida and her governess received them. It was the first time that Christabel had seen her out of her beplumed hat, and she thought her a pleasant, bright-looking little girl, not at all set up or conceited. Her mauve muslin, flounced though it was up to her waist, showed that it had been wise to withstand Bessie's desire for the white muslins; but Miss Fosbrook had enough to do on her own account with the endeavour to understand the German governess's foreign accent, without attending to the children more than was necessary.
It was not a very remarkable day, and the pleasures of it seemed hardly enough to justify the little girls' great excitement. There was first the dinner at the luncheon of the parents, where the children sat up rather formal and subdued, and not quite certain what all the dishes might contain, a little afraid of getting what they could not eat, though desirous of making experiments in this land of wonders. None of them had forgotten, and they thought no one else had, how Bessie had once come to disgrace by bursting out crying over the impossibility of finishing some terrible rice-bordered greenish yellow stuff that burnt her mouth beyond bearing, and which Ida called curry, and said people in the East Indies liked. However, that was when Bessie had been a very little girl; and she still continued adventurous, saying, "Yes, if you please," to cutlets set round in a wreath, with all their bones sticking up, and covered with a reddish incrustation that Susan and Annie thought so unnatural, that they preferred the boiled chicken that at least they could understand, though it had funny-hooking accompaniments in the sauce. And Hal's report of some savoury jelly which he had once encountered would have deterred them from the pink transparency in the shape of a shell, if they had not seen Bessie getting on very well with it, Miss Fosbrook happily perceiving and cutting short Annie's intended inquiry whether it were nice. To her great relief, this was the only want of manners betrayed by her little savages, and she was able to keep her attention tolerably free from them, so as to look at the pictures on the walls, observe the two boys, Hal's friends, and talk to Mrs. Greville, who made conversation with her very pleasantly.
She was much grieved to perceive, from what that lady said, that Mrs. Merrifield was thought to be much more ill, and in a far more alarming state, than she had at all understood. The girls were too young to enter into the tone of sad sympathy with which Mrs. Greville spoke, and the manner in which a doubt was expressed whether the Captain would be able to sail with Admiral Penrose if he should have the offer; and as soon as she saw that they and their governess were in ignorance, she turned it off; but she had said enough to fill Christabel with anxiety and desire to know more; and as soon as the dinner was over, and the little girls had run off together to visit Ida's beautiful cockatoo in the conservatory, she turned to Fraulein Munsterthal, and begged to hear whether she knew more than had been said.
Fraulein Munsterthal did not quite know that such a person as Mrs. Merrifield was in existence; but she was very amiable and warm- hearted, and said how sad it was to think of the trouble that hung over "these so careless children," and was doubly kind to the girls when they came back from their conversation with pretty "Cocky," who set up his lemon-coloured crest, coughed, sneezed, and said "Cocky want a biscuit!" to admiration, till the boys were seen approaching; when Ida, knowing that some torment would follow, took herself and her visitors back to the protection of the governesses in time to prevent the cockatoo from being made to fly at the girls, and powder them with the white dust under his feathers.
The afternoon was spent in the garden, the little girls betaking themselves to a pretty moss-covered arbour, where there was a grand doll's feast. Ida had no less than twenty-three dolls, ranging from the magnificent Rosalind, who had real hair that could be brushed, and was as large as little Sally at home, down to poor little china Mildred, whose proper dwelling-place was a bath, and who had with great difficulty been put into petticoats enough to make her fit to be seen out of it. Now nobody at home could have saved the life of a doll for a single day, and Susan and Elizabeth were both thought far above them; but these beautifully arrayed young ladies had always been the admiration of the heart of Bessie as well as of Annie, and they were not too old for extreme satisfaction in handling their elegant ladyships, and still more their beautiful dinner and tea- service of pink and white ware.
Susan, though she could not write a note, or do lessons like Ida, was older in the ways of life, and played rather as she did with the little ones at home than for her own amusement. She would much rather have had the fun of "cats and mice" with her brothers; and but for the honour of the thing, so perhaps would Annie. However, they were all very happy, getting the dolls up in the morning, giving Mildred washing enough for all the twenty-three, making them breakfast, hearing lessons, in which Ida was governess, and made them talk so many languages that Annie was alarmed. Of course one of the young ladies was very naughty, and was treated with extreme severity; then there was dinner, a walk, an illness, and a dinner-party. While all the time the two real governesses sat in the shade outside, and talked in English or German as best they might, the Fraulein understanding Christabel's English the best, as did Christabel the Fraulein's German. They began to make friends, and to wish to see more of one another.
There was a walk round the garden, and admiration of the beautiful flowers, and the fountain and pond of gold-fish, till the boys came home, and got hold of the garden-engine for watering, crying out, "Fire! fire!" and squirting out the showers of water very much in the direction of the girls.
Ida became quite crimson red, and got hold of Susan's hand to drag her away; then, as the foremost drops of another shower touched her, she faced about, and said, "Osmond! don't, or I'll tell Mamma." There was a great rude laugh, as of boys who well knew the threat was never put in execution; and poor Fraulein Munsterthal only shook her head at Miss Fosbrook's look of amaze, and said in German that "die Knaben" were far too unartig for her to keep in order. She pitied Miss Fosbrook for having so many in charge as to destroy all peace. And if Sam and Hal had been like these two, Christabel felt that she could have done nothing with them. To her dismay, Osmond and Martin came in to the school-room tea; and she never had thought to feel so thankful for poor dear Susan's slowness of comprehension, for, from their whispers among themselves, and from their poor tormented sister's blushes, she was clear that the "fire" was a piece of bad wit on Susan's red hair. Boys who could so basely insult a guest, and that a girl, she was sure must be bad companions for Sam and Henry. Such little gentlemen as they had been at dinner too, so polite and well-behaved before their father and mother! There could be no doubt that something must be very wrong about them, or they would not change so entirely when out of sight. It is not always true that a child must be deceitful who is less good in the absence of the authorities; because their presence is a help and a restraint, checking the beginning of mischief, and removing temptation; but one who does not fall by weakness, but intentionally alters his conduct the instant the elder is gone, shows that his will has been disobedient all along
By and by Mr. Greville's voice was heard calling, "Martin! Osmond!" As they went out to meet him in the passage, Miss Fosbrook clearly overheard, "Here is the spring of the garden-engine spoilt. Do you know anything about it?"
"You have not been meddling with it?"
"No." And they ran downstairs.
The colour flushed into Christabel's cheeks with horror. She was glad that her little girls were all in Ida's room, listening to a musical-box, and well out of hearing of such fearfully direct falsehoods, as it seemed to her, not knowing that the boys excused it to their own minds by the notion that it was not the spring of the engine that they had been meddling with, and that so they did not know how the harm had been done--as if it made it any better that they lied to themselves as well as their father! The German saw her dismay, and began to say how unlike her Ida was to her brothers--so truthful, so gentle, and courteous; but poor Christabel could not get over the thought of the ease and readiness with which deceit came to these boys. Could their daily companions, Samuel and Henry, have learnt the same effrontery, and be deceiving her all this time? No, no, she could not, would not think it! Assuredly not of Sam! She was very glad not to see the boys again, and went home with her pupils, rather heavy-hearted, at eight o'clock, just as Ida was to put on her white muslin and pink ribbons, and go down after dinner for half an hour.
There were many kisses at parting, and a whole box of sweets, done up in beautifully coloured and gold and silver paper, presented to the little visitors; but it might be supposed that the girls were tired, for there was a fretful snarling all the way across the park, because Elizabeth insisted that the gifts should be called bon-bons, and the others would hear of nothing but goodies. Nobody looked at the beautiful evening sky, nor at the round red moon coming up like a lamp behind the trees, nor at the first stars peeping out, nor even at the green light of the glow-worm--all which were more beautiful than anything Ida had shown them, except perhaps the hothouse flowers; and at last two such cross ill-tempered voices sounded from Bessie and Annie, that Christabel turned round and declared that she should not let the sugar-plums be touched for a week if another word were said about them.
She hoped that when the visit was over it would be done with; but no such thing. Though Susan was her own good hearty self, Elizabeth had not recovered either on that day of the next from the effects of the pleasuring. On each she cried over her lessons, and was cross at whatever the boys said to her, made a fuss about keeping the ornamental cases of the bon-bons, and went about round-backed, peevish, and discontented, finding everything flat and ugly after her one peep at the luxuries of the Park. Her farthings melted away fast; but she seemed to think this her misfortune, not her fault. She did not try to talk to Miss Fosbrook, feeling perhaps that she was in a naughty mood, which she would not try to shake off; and she made no attempt to go on with her present for her Mamma, it looked so poor and trumpery after the beautiful things she had seen.
Nor did Christabel like to remind her of it, fearing that the occasion for giving it might never come; but she did feel that it was a mournful thing to see the child, who was in danger of so fearful a sorrow, wasting her grief in pining after foolish fancies, and turning what should have been a refreshing holiday into an occasion of longing after what she thus made into pomps and vanities of this wicked world. Christabel had heard that people who murmur among blessings often have those blessings snatched away, and this made her tremble for poor little discontented Elizabeth.