A Pair of Clogs, and other stories, by Amy Walton.
In the first of the stories a young girl-child is stolen by the gypsies. Yet they decide to give the child up, and they leave it in an out-house owned by a young clergyman. The latter isn't very pleased at this, but his wife certainly is, and they bring the child up.
After a few years, and in a particularly tense moment, the true mother is found. An agreement is reached, whereby the child is shared.
As with Amy Walton short stories, there is not only a well-told tale but also a moral.
A PAIR OF CLOGS, AND OTHER STORIES, BY AMY WALTON.
STORY ONE, CHAPTER 1.
HER FIRST HOME.
"My! What a pretty pair of clogs baby's gotten!"
The street was narrow and very steep, and paved with round stones; on each side of it were slate-coloured houses, some high, some low; and in the middle of it stood baby, her curly yellow head bare, and her blue cotton frock lifted high with both fat hands. She could not speak, but she wanted to show that on her feet were tiny new clogs with bright brass tips.
She stopped in front of all her acquaintances, men, women, children, and even dogs. Each of them, except the last, made much the same remark, and she then toddled cheerfully on, until nearly everyone in the village of Haworth knew of this wonderful new thing.
The baby's mother lived in Haworth, but all day long she had to work in the town of Keighley down below in the valley, for she was a factory-girl. From the hillside you could see the thick veil of smoke, never lifted, which hung over the tall chimneys and grey houses; the people there very seldom saw the sky clear and blue, but up at Haworth the wind blew freshly off the wide moor just above, and there was nothing to keep away the sunshine. This was the reason that Maggie Menzies still lived there, after she had taken to working in the factory; it was a long walk to and from Keighley, but it was healthier for the "li'le lass" to sleep in the fresh air. Everything in Maggie's life turned upon that one small object; the "li'le lass" was her one treasure, her one golden bit of happiness, the reason why she cared to see the sun shine, or to eat, or drink, or rest, or to be alive at all. Except for the child she was alone in the world, for her husband had been killed in an accident two years ago, when the baby was only a month old. Since then she had been Maggie's one thought and care; no one who has not at some time in their lives spent all their affection on a single thing or person can at all understand what she felt, or how strong her love was. It made all her troubles and hardships easy merely to think of the child; just to call to mind the dimples, and yellow hair, and fat hands, was enough to make her deaf to the whirr and rattle of the restless machinery, and the harsh tones of the overseer. When she began her work in the morning she said to herself, "I shall see her in the evening;" and when it was unusually tiresome during the day, and things went very wrong, she could be patient and even cheerful when she remembered "it's fur her." The factory-girls with boisterous good-nature had tried to make her sociable when she first came; they invited her to stroll with them by the river in the summer evenings, to stand and gossip with them at the street corners, to join in their parties of pleasure on Sundays. But they soon found it was of no use; Maggie's one idea, when work was over, was to throw her little checked shawl over her head, and turn her steps quickly towards a certain house in a narrow alley near the factory, for there, under the care of a neighbour, she left her child during the day.
It would have been much better, everyone told her, to leave her up at Haworth instead of bringing her into the smoky town; Maggie knew it, but her answer was always the same to this advice:
"I couldn't bring myself to it," she said. "I niver could git through the work if I didn't know she was near me."
So winter and summer, through the damp cold or the burning heat, she might be seen coming quickly down the steep hill from Haworth every morning clack, clack, in her wooden shoes, with her child in her arms. In the evening her pace was slower, for she was tired, and the road was hard to climb, and the child, generally asleep, weighed heavily. For the baby was getting beyond a baby now; she was nearly two years old. How pretty she was, how clever, what dear little knowing ways she had, what tiny feet and hands! How yellow her hair was, how white her skin! She was unlike any child in Haworth; she was matchless!
And indeed, quite apart from her mother's fond admiration, the baby was a beautiful child, delicately formed, and very different from the blunt-featured children of those parts; she was petted by everyone in the village, and had in consequence such proud, imperious little ways that she was a sort of small queen there; the biggest and roughest man among them was her humble subject, and ready to do her bidding when she wished to be tossed in the air or to ride pickaback. She could say very few words yet, but nothing could exceed her brightness and intelligence—a wonderful baby indeed!
She had been christened Betty; but the name was almost forgotten in all sorts of loving nicknames, and lately the people of Haworth had given her a new one, which she got in the following manner:—
Nearly at the bottom of the steep village street there was a cobbler's stall which Maggie passed every day in her journeys to and from Keighley. It was open to the road, and in it hung rows and rows of clogs of all sizes—some of them big enough to fit a man, and some for children, quite tiny. They all had wooden soles, and toes slightly turned-up tipped with gleaming brass, and a brass buckle on the instep; nearly all the people in Haworth and all the factory-girls in Keighley wore such shoes, but they were always called "clogs." Inside the stall sat an old man with twinkling blue eyes, and a stumpy turned-up nose: he sat and cobbled and mended, and made new clogs out of the old ones which lay in great heaps all round him. Over his stall was the name "T Monk," but in the village he was always known as Tommie; and though he was a silent and somewhat surly character, Tommie's opinion and advice were often asked, and much valued when given. Maggie regarded him with admiration and respect. When she passed with her child in her arms he always looked up and nodded, though he seldom gave any other answer to her "Good-day, Master Monk." Tommie never wasted his words: "Little words mak' bonnie do's," he was accustomed to say.
But one evening the sun happened to shine on the row of brass-tipped clogs, and made them glisten brightly just as Maggie went by. It caught the baby's attention, and she held out her arms to them and gave a little coo of pleasure.
"T'little lass is wantin' clogs, I reckon," said Tommie with a grim smile.
Maggie held out the baby's tiny foot with a laugh of pride.
"Here's a foot for a pair of clogs, Master Monk," she said; "t'wouldn't waste much leather to fashion 'em."
Tommie said nothing more, but a week afterwards he beckoned to Maggie with an important air as she went by.
"You come here," he said briefly.
Maggie went into the stall, and he reached down from a nail a pair of tiny, neatly finished clogs. They had jaunty brass-bound toes, and a row of brass nails all round where the leather joined the wooden sole, and on the instep there gleamed a pair of smart brass clasps with a pattern chased on them.
"Fur her," said Tommie as he gave them to Maggie. As he did so the baby stretched out her hands to the bright clasps.
"See!" exclaimed the delighted Maggie; "she likes 'em ever so. Oh, Master Monk, how good of yo'!"
"Them clasps is oncommon," said Tommie, regarding his work thoughtfully, his blue eyes twinkling with satisfaction, "I cam' at 'em by chance like."
Maggie had now taken off her baby's shoe, and fitted the clog on to the soft little foot.
"Ain't they bonnie?" she said.
The baby leaned forward and, seizing one toe in each hand, rocked herself gently to and fro.
Tommie looked on approvingly.
"Yo'll find 'em wear well," he said; "they're the best o' leather and the best o' workmanship."
After six months more were gone the baby began to walk, and you might hear a sharp little clatter on the pavement, like the sound of some small iron-shod animal. Tommie heard it one morning just as it was Maggie's usual time to pass, and looked out of his stall. There was Maggie coming down the road with a proud smile on her face, and the baby was there too. But not in her mother's arms. No, she was erect on her own small feet, tottering along in the new wooden clogs.
"My word!" exclaimed Tommie, his nose wrinkling with gratification; "we'll have to call her Little Clogs noo."
It was in this way that Maggie's child became known in the village as "Little Clogs." Not that it was any distinction to wear clogs in Haworth, everyone had them; but the baby's feet were so tiny, and she was so eager to show her new possession, that the clogs were as much noticed as though never before seen. When she stopped in front of some acquaintance, lifted her frock with both hands, and gazed seriously first at her own feet and then up in her friend's face, it was only possible to exclaim in surprise and admiration:
"Eh! To be sure. What pretty, pretty clogs baby's gotten!"
It was the middle of summer. Baby was just two years old and a month, and the clogs were still glossy and new, when one morning Maggie took the child with her down to Keighley as usual. It was stiflingly hot there, after the cool breeze which blew off the moor on the hillside; the air was thick with smoke and dust, and, as Maggie turned into the alley where she was to leave her child, she felt how close and stuffy it was.
"'Tain't good for her here," she thought, with a sigh. "I reckon I must mak' up my mind to leave her up yonder this hot weather."
But the baby did not seem to mind it. Maggie left her settled in the open doorway talking cheerfully to one of her little clogs which she had pulled off. This she filled with sand and emptied, over and over again, chuckling with satisfaction as a stray sunbeam touched the brass clasps and turned them into gold. In the distance she could hear the noise of the town, and presently amongst them there came a new sound—the beating of a drum. Baby liked music. She threw down the clog, lifted one finger, and said "Pitty!" turning her head to look into the room. But no one was there, for the woman of the house had gone into the back kitchen. The noise continued, and seemed to draw baby towards it: she got up on her feet, and staggered a little way down the alley, tottering a good deal, for one foot had the stout little clog on it, and the other nothing but a crumpled red sock. By degrees, however, after more than one tumble, she got down to the end of the alley, and stood facing the bustling street.
It was such a big, noisy world, with such a lot of people and horses and carts in it, that she was frightened now, put out her arms, and screwed up her face piteously, and cried, "Mammy, mammy!"
Just then a woman passed with a tambourine in her hand and a bright coloured handkerchief over her head. She shook the tambourine and smiled kindly at baby, showing very white teeth.
"Mammy, mammy!" said baby again, and began to sob.
"Don't cry, then, deary, and I'll take you to mammy," said the woman. She looked quickly up the alley, no one in sight. No one in the crowded street noticed her. She stooped, raised the child in her arms, wrapped a shawl round her, and walked swiftly away. And that evening, when Maggie came to fetch her little lass, she was not there; the only trace of her was one small clog, half full of sand, on the door-step!
The woman with the tambourine hurried along, keeping the child's head covered with her shawl, at her heels a dirty-white poodle followed closely. The street was bustling and crowded, for it was past twelve o'clock, and the workpeople were streaming out of the factories to go to their dinners. If Maggie had passed the woman, she would surely have felt that the bundle in her arms was her own little lass, even if she had not seen one small clogged foot escaping from under the shawl. Baby was quiet now, except for a short gasping sob now and then, for she thought she was being taken to mammy.
On and on went the woman through the town, past the railway-station, and at last reached a lonely country road; by that time, lulled by the rapid, even movement and the darkness, baby had forgotten her troubles, and was fast asleep. She slept almost without stirring for a whole hour, and then, feeling the light on her eyes, she blinked her long lashes, rubbed them with her fists, and stretched out her fat legs.
Next she looked up into mammy's face, as she thought, expecting the smile which always waited for her there; but it was not mammy's face, or anything like it. They were sharp black eyes which were looking down at her, and instead of the familiar checked shawl, there was a bright yellow handkerchief over the woman's head, and dangling ornaments in her ears. Baby turned up her lip in disgust, and looked round for someone she knew, but everything was strange to her. The woman, in whose lap she was lying, sat in a small donkey-cart, with two brown children and some bundles tightly packed in round her; a dark man walked by the side of it, and a dirty-white poodle ran at his heels. Discovering this state of things baby lost no time, but burst at once into loud wailing sobs and cries of "Mammy, mammy; me want mammy."
She cried so long and so bitterly that the woman, who had tried at first to soothe her by coaxing and petting, lost patience, and shook her roughly.
"Be still, little torment," she said, "or I'll throw you into the pond."
They were the first angry words baby had ever heard, and the experience was so new and surprising that she checked her sobs, staring up at the woman with frightened tear-filled eyes. She soon began to cry again, but it was with much less violence, only a little distressed whimper which no one noticed. This went on all day, and by the evening, having refused to touch food, she fell into an exhausted slumber, broken by plaintive moans. It was now dark, and being some miles from Keighley, the tramps thought it safe to stop for the night; they turned off the main road, therefore, tethered the donkey in a grassy lane, and crept into an old disused barn for shelter. The two children, boys of eight or nine years old, curled themselves up in a corner, with Mossoo, the poodle, tucked in between them, and all three covered with an old horse-cloth. The gypsy and his wife sat talking in the entrance over a small fire of dry wood they had lighted.
"You've bin a fool, Seraminta," said the man, looking down at the baby as she lay flushed with sleep on the woman's lap, her cheeks still wet with tears. "The child'll git us into trouble. That's no common child. Anyone 'ud know it agen, and then where are we? In quod, sure as my name's Perrin."
"You're the fool," replied the woman, looking at the man scornfully. "Think I'm goin' to take her about with a lily-white skin like that? A little walnut-juice'll make her as brown as Bennie yonder, so as her own mother wouldn't know her."
"Well, what good is she to us anyhow?" continued the man sulkily. "Only another mouth ter feed. 'Tain't wuth the risk."
"You hav'n't the sperrit of a chicken," replied the woman. "One 'ud think you was born yesterday, not to know that anyone'll give a copper to a pretty little kid like her. Once we git away down south, an' she gives over fretting, I mean her to go round with the tambourine after the dog dances in the towns. She'll more than earn her keep soon."
The man muttered and growled to himself for a short time, and said some very ugly words, but presently, stretched on the ground near the fire, he settled himself to sleep. The short summer night passed quickly away, and nothing disturbed the sleepers; the owls and bats flitted in and out of the barn, as was their custom, and, surprised to find it no longer empty, flapped suddenly up among the rafters, and looked down at the strangers by the dim light of the moon; at the two children huddled in the corner, with Mossoo's tangled head between them; at the dark form of Perrin, near the ashes of the fire; and at the fair child in Seraminta's arms, sleeping quietly at last. Before the cock in the farmyard near had answered a shrill friend in the distance more than twice, the whole party, except the baby, was awake, the donkey harnessed, and the journey continued.
Day after day passed in the same manner, and baby still cried for "Mammy," but every day less and less, for the tramps were kind to her in their rough way, and fortunately her memory was short, and soon ceased to recall Maggie's loving care and caresses. So before she had led her new life a week, she had found things to smile at again; sometimes flowers which the freckled Bennie picked for her in the hedges, sometimes the gay rattle of the tambourine, sometimes a ride on the donkey's back; the poodle also, from having been an object of fear, had now become a friend.
Mossoo was a dog who had known trouble. He well remembered the days when he had had to learn to dance, and what it was to shrink from blows, and to howl with pain and fear under punishment. Times were not so bad for him now, because his education was over, but still he had to work hard for his living. In every town they passed he must stiffen his long thin back, raise himself on his small feet, and dance gravely to the sound of the tambourine; if this happened at the end of a long day's tramp, it was both difficult and painful, but he seldom failed, for he knew the consequences—no supper and a beating.
Accordingly, until a certain sign was given, he kept one pink-rimmed eye on his mistress's face, and revolved slowly round and round, with drooping paws and an elegant curtsying movement, the centre of an admiring ring. Sometimes, when the performance was over, and he carried round a small tin plate for coppers, the spectators would drop off one by one, and give him nothing; sometimes he got a good deal, and took it to his mistress with joyful wags of his ragged tasselled tail. Now, Mossoo had noticed the addition of baby to the accustomed party, and also her passionate sobs and cries. She was in trouble, as he had often been, and one day this trouble was even deeper than usual. They had stopped to rest in a little wayside copse, and after the donkey was unharnessed the man and the two boys had started off on a foraging expedition, or, in other words, to see what they could beg or steal from the farmyards and houses near. Mossoo was left behind. Crouched on the ground, with his nose between his paws, he kept a watchful eye on Seraminta, who was busying herself with the child. She was going to make her "so as her own mother wouldn't know her." And first with a piece of rag she smeared over her pretty white skin with some dark juice out of a bottle; next she took off the little frock and underclothes which Maggie had always kept so neatly, and put on her a frock and petticoat of stiff striped stuff. Then she proceeded to remove the one little clog, but this baby resented. She had been quiet till now, and allowed her things to be changed without resistance, but this last indignity was too much. She fought, and kicked, and cried, and pushed at the woman with her tiny hands. Poor baby! They were far too small and weak to be of any use. In no time the friendly little clog, with its glistening clasp and bright toe, was gone, and in its place there was an ugly broken-out boot which had once belonged to Bennie. Her work done, Seraminta put the child on the ground and gave her a hard crust to play with. Baby immediately threw it from her with all her strength, cast herself flat on her face, and shrieked with anger and distress. She was heartbroken to have the clog taken from her, and cried as violently for it as she had done for mammy.
"You've got a fine temper of yer own, my young queen," said Seraminta, looking down at the small sobbing form. She did not attempt to quiet her, but turning away proceeded to arrange some bundles in the cart which stood at a short distance.
Mossoo was not so indifferent; he had watched the whole affair, and if he did not understand why the baby cried, at least he knew she was in trouble. True he had not seen a stick used, but here was the same result. He went and sat down near her, and wagged his tail to show he sympathised, but as she was lying on her face she did not even know he was there, and the sobs continued. Finding this, Mossoo sat for some time with his tongue hanging out, uncertain how to proceed, but presently noticing a little bit of bare fat neck he gave it a gentle lick. Baby turned her head; there were two bright eyes with pink rims close to her, and a ragged fringe of dirty-white hair, and a red tongue lolling out; she was so startled at this that she screamed louder than ever, and hid her face again. Unsuccessful, but full of zeal and compassion, the poodle next bethought himself of finding her a stick or a stone to throw for him; Bennie was never tired of playing this game with him, and perhaps the baby might like it too. He ran sniffing about with his nose to the ground, and presently caught sight of something that glistened, lying in the grass near the cart. It was the little clog. Quite unconscious of making a lucky hit, he took it in his mouth, carried it to her, and placed it with gentle care close to her ear. This time Mossoo had done the right thing, for when she saw what he had brought, a watery little smile gleamed through baby's tears, her sobs ceased, she sat up and seized the clog triumphantly. Waving it about in her small uncertain hands, she hit the friendly poodle smartly on the nose with it as he stood near; then leaning forward, grasped his drooping moustache and pulled it, which hurt him still more; but he did not cease to wag his tail with pleasure at his success.
From that day "Mossy," as she called the dog, was added to the number of baby's friends—the other two were Bennie and the little clog. To this last she confided, in language of her own, much that no one else understood, and Seraminta did not again attempt to take it from her. She was thankful that the child had something to soothe her in the stormy fits of crying which came when she was offended or thwarted in her will. At such times she would kick and struggle until her little strength was exhausted, and at last drop off to sleep with the clog cuddled up to her breast. Seraminta began to feel doubtful as to the advantages of her theft, and Perrin, the gypsy man, swore at his wife and reproached her in the strongest language for having brought the child away.
"I tell you what, my gal," he said one day, "the proper place for that child's the house, an' that's where she'll go soon as I git a chance. She've the sperrit of a duchess an' as 'orty in her ways as a queen. She'll never be no good to us in our line o' bizness, an' I'm not agoin' to keep her."
They wrangled and quarrelled over the subject continually, for Seraminta, partly from obstinacy, and partly because the child was so handsome, wished to keep her, and teach her to perform with the poodle in the streets. But all the while she had an inward feeling that Perrin would outwit her, and get his own way. And this turned out to be the case.
Travelling slowly but steadily along, sometimes stopping a day or so in a large town, where Seraminta played the tambourine in the streets, and Mossoo danced, they had now left the north far behind them. They were bound for certain races near London, and long before they arrived there Perrin had determined to get rid of the child whom he daily disliked more; he would leave her in the workhouse, and the burden would be off his hands. Baby's lucky star, however, was shining, and a better home was waiting for her.
One evening after a long dusty journey they came to a tiny village in a pleasant valley; Perrin had made up his mind to reach the town, two miles further on, before they stopped for the night, but by this time the whole party was so tired and jaded that he saw it would be impossible to push on. The donkey-cart came slowly down the hill past the vicarage, and the vicar's wife cutting roses in her garden stopped her work to look at it. At Seraminta seated in the cart with her knees almost as high as her nose, and her yellow handkerchief twisted round her head; at the dark Perrin, striding along by the donkey's side; at Mossoo, still adorned with his last dancing ribbon, but ragged and shabby, and so very very tired that he limped along on three legs; at the brown children among the bundles in the cart; and finally at baby. There her eyes rested in admiration: "What a lovely little child!" she said to herself. Baby was seated between the two boys, talking happily to herself; her head was bare, and her bush of golden hair was all the more striking from its contrast with her walnut-stained skin. It made a spot like sunlight in the midst of its dusky surroundings.
"Austin! Austin!" called out the vicar's wife excitedly as the cart moved slowly past. There was no answer for a moment, and she called again, until Austin appeared in the porch. He was a middle-aged grey-haired clergyman, with bulging blue eyes and stooping shoulders; in his hand he held a large pink rose. "Look," said his wife, "do look quickly at that beautiful child. Did you ever see such hair?" The Reverend Austin Vallance looked.
"An ill-looking set, to be sure," he said. "I must tell Joe to leave Brutus unchained to-night."
"But the child," said his wife, taking hold of his arm eagerly, "isn't she wonderful? She's like an Italian child."
"We shall hear of hen-roosts robbed to-morrow," continued Austin, pursuing his own train of thought.
"I feel perfectly convinced," said his wife leaning over the gate to look after the gypsies, "that that little girl is not theirs—she's as different as possible from the other children. How I should like to see her again!"
"Well, my dear," said Austin, "for my part I decidedly hope you won't. The sooner that fellow is several miles away from here, the better I shall be pleased."
"She was a lovely little thing," repeated Mrs Vallance with a sigh.
"Well, well," said her husband; "I daresay. But here's something quite as lovely. Just look at this Captain Christie. It's the best rose I've seen yet. I don't believe Chelwood has a finer."
"Not one of the little Chelwoods was ever a quarter as pretty as that gypsy child, even when they were babies," continued his wife gazing absently at the rose, "and now they're getting quite plain."
She could not forget the beautiful child all that evening, though she did not receive the least encouragement to talk of her from her husband. Mr Vallance was not so fond of children as his wife, and did not altogether regret that he had none of his own. His experience of them, drawn from Squire Chelwood's family who lived a little further up the valley, did not lead him to think that they added to the comfort of a household. When they came to spend the day at the vicarage he usually shut himself into his study, and issuing forth after they were gone, his soul was vexed to find footmarks on his borders, his finest fruit picked, and fragments of a meal left about on his smooth lawn. But Mrs Vallance grudged them nothing, and if she could have found it in her heart to envy anyone, it would have been Mrs Chelwood at the White House, who had a nursery and school-room full of children.
On the morning after the gypsies had passed, the Reverend Austin Vallance was out even earlier than usual in his garden. He was always an early riser, for he liked time for a stroll before taking the service in his little church. Just now his roses were in full perfection, and the weather was remarkably fine, so that it was scarcely six o'clock before he was out of doors. It was certainly a beautiful morning. By and by it would be hot and sultry, only fit for a sensible man to sit quietly in his study and doze a little, and make extracts for his next sermon. Now, it was deliciously cool and fresh. The roses were magnificent! What a pity that the blaze of the sun would soon dim their glorious colours and scorch their dewy fragrance. It would be a good plan to cut a few at once before they were spoilt by the heat. He took his knife out of his pocket and hesitated where to begin, for he never liked to cut his roses; but, remembering that Priscilla would insist on having some indoors, he set to work on the tree nearest him, and tenderly detached a full-blown Baroness Rothschild. He stood and looked at it complacently.
"I don't believe," he said to himself, "that Chelwood, with all his gardeners, will ever come up to my roses. There's nothing like personal attention. Roses are like children—they want individual, personal attention. And they pay for it. Children don't always do that."
At this very moment, and just as he was turning to another tree, a little chuckling laugh fell on his ear. It was such a strange sound in the stillness of the garden, and it seemed so close to him, that he started violently and dropped his knife. Where did it come from? He looked vaguely up in the sky, and down on the earth—there was nothing living to be seen, not even a bird. "I must have been mistaken," he thought, "but it's very odd; I never heard anything more clearly in my life." He picked up his knife, and moved further along the turf walk, a good deal disturbed and rather nervous. At the end of it there was a rustic sort of shed, which had once been an arbour, but was now only used for gardening tools, baskets, and rubbish: over the entrance hung a mass of white climbing roses. Walking slowly towards this, and cutting a rose or two on his way, Mr Vallance was soon again alarmed by the same noise—a low laugh of satisfaction; this time it came so distinctly from within the shed, that he quickened his pace at once and, holding back the dangling branches, looked in with a half feeling of dread. What he saw there so astonished him that he stood motionless for some moments, as though struck by some sight of horror. On the floor was a large wooden marketing basket, and in this, wrapped in an old shawl, lay a little child of two years old. She had bright yellow hair, and a brown skin, and in her fat hands she held a queer little shoe with brass nails in it and brass clasps; she was making small murmuring sounds to herself, and chuckling now and then in perfect contentment. Mr Vallance stared at her in great perplexity; here was a puzzling thing! Where did the child come from, and who had left it there? Whoever it was must come and take it away at once. He would go and tell Priscilla about it—she would know what to do. But just as he let the creepers fall back over the entrance a tiny voice issued from the basket.
"Mossy," it said; "me want Mossy."
"Now, who on earth is Mossy?" thought the troubled vicar, and without waiting to hear more he sped into the house and told his tale to. Priscilla.
In a very short time Priscilla was on the spot, full of interest and energy. She knelt beside the basket and looked at the child, who stared back at her with solemn brown eyes.
"I suppose it's one of the village children," said her husband, standing by.
"Village children, Austin!" repeated his wife looking round at him; "do you really mean to say that you don't recognise the child?"
"Certainly not, my dear; I never saw it before to my knowledge."
"Why, of course it's the gypsy child we saw yesterday. And now you see I was right."
"What an awful thing!" exclaimed Mr Vallance. He sat down suddenly on the handle of a wheel-barrow close by, in utter dejection. "Then they've left it here on purpose!"
"Of course they have," said Mrs Vallance; "and you see I was right, don't you?"
"I don't know what you mean," said the vicar getting up again, "by being right. Everything's as wrong as it can be, I should say."
"I mean, that she doesn't belong to those gypsies. I was sure of it."
"Why not?" asked her husband helplessly.
"Because no mother would have given up a darling like this—she would have died first."
Mrs Vallance had taken the child on her knee while she was speaking and opened the old shawl: baby seemed to like her new position, she leaned her curly head back, stretched out her limbs easily, and gazed gravely up at the distracted vicar.
"Well," he said, "whoever she belongs to, there are only two courses to be pursued, and the first is to try and find the people who left her here. If we can't do that, there only remains—"
"What?" asked his wife looking anxiously up at him.
"There only remains—the workhouse, my dear Priscilla."
Priscilla pressed the child closer to her and stood upright facing him.
"Austin," she said, "I couldn't do it. You mustn't ask me to. I'll try and find her mother. I'll put an advertisement in the paper; but I won't send her to the workhouse. And you couldn't either. You couldn't give up a little helpless child when Heaven has laid it at your very threshold."
Mr Vallance strode quickly up and down the garden path; he foresaw that he would have to yield, and it made him very angry.
"Nonsense, my dear," he said testily; "people are much too fond of talking about Heaven doing this and that. That ill-looking scamp of a gypsy fellow hadn't much to do with Heaven, I fancy."
"Heaven chooses its own instruments," said Priscilla quietly; and Mr Vallance made no answer, for he had said that very same thing in his last sermon.
"I'll have those tramps looked after at any rate," he said, rousing himself with sudden energy. "I'll send Joe one way, and drive the other way myself in the pony-cart. They can't have got far yet."
He hurried out of the garden, and Mrs Vallance was left alone with her prize. It was almost too good to be true. Already her mind was busy with arrangements for the baby's comfort and making plans for her future—the blue-room looking into the garden for the nursery, and the blacksmith's eldest daughter for a nurse-maid, and some little white frocks and pinafores made; and what should she be called? Some simple name would do. Mary, perhaps. And then suddenly Mrs Vallance checked herself.
"What a foolish woman I am!" she said. "Very likely those horrible people will be found, and I shall have to give her up. But nothing shall induce me to believe that she belongs to them."
She kissed the child, carried her into the house, and fed her with some bread and milk, after which baby soon fell into a sound sleep. Mrs Vallance laid her on the sofa, and sat near with her work, but she could not settle at all quietly to it. Every moment she got up to look out of the window, or to listen to some sound which might be Austin coming back triumphant with news of the gypsies. But the day went on and nothing happened. The vicarage was full of suppressed excitement, the maids whispered softly together, and came creeping in at intervals to look at the beautiful child, who still clasped the little clog in her hands.
"Yonder's a queer little shoe, mum," said the cook, "quite a cur'osity."
"I think it's a sort of toy," replied Mrs Vallance, for she had never been to the north of England and had never seen a clog.
"Bless her pretty little 'art!" said the cook, and went away.
It was evening when Mr Vallance returned, hot, tired, and vexed in spirit. His wife ran out to meet him at the gate, having first sent the child upstairs.
"No trace whatever," he said in a dejected voice.
"Dear me!" exclaimed Priscilla, trying not to look too pleased, and just then a casement-window above their heads was thrown open, a white-capped head was thrust out, and an excited voice called out, "Ma'am! Ma'am!"
"Well, what?" said Mrs Vallance, looking up alarmed.
"It's all come off, mum—the brown colour has—and she's got a skin as white as a lily."
Mrs Vallance cast a glance of triumph at her husband, but forebore to say anything, in consideration of his depressed condition; then she rushed hurriedly upstairs to see the new wonder.
And thus began baby's life in her third home, and she brought nothing of her own to it except her one little clog.
STORY ONE, CHAPTER 2.
The village of Wensdale was snugly shut in from the rest of the world in a narrow valley. It had a little river flowing through it, and a little grey church standing on a hill, and a rose-covered vicarage, a blacksmith's forge, and a post-office. Further up the valley, where the woods began, you could see the chimneys of the White House where Squire Chelwood lived, and about three miles further on still was Dorminster, a good-sized market-town. But in Wensdale itself there was only a handful of thatched cottages scattered about here and there round the vicarage. Life was so regular and quiet there that you might almost tell the time without looking at the clock. When you heard cling, clang, from the blacksmith's forge, and quack, quack, from the army of ducks waddling down to the river, it was five o'clock. Ding, dong from the church-tower, and the tall figure of Mr Vallance climbing the hill to read prayers—eight o'clock. So on throughout the day until evening came, and you knew that soon after the cows had gone lowing through the village, and the ducks had taken their way to bed in a long uneven line, that perfect silence would follow, deep and undisturbed.
In this quiet refuge Maggie's baby grew up for seven years, under the name of Mary Vallance. She was now nine years old. As she grew the qualities which had shown themselves as a baby, and made Perrin call her as "orty as a duchess," grew also, though they were kept in check by wise and loving influences. To command seemed more natural to her than to obey, and far more pleasant, and this often caused trouble to herself and others. True, nothing could be more thorough than her repentance after a fit of naughtiness, for she was a very affectionate child; but then she was quite ready on the next occasion to repeat the offence—as ready as Mrs Vallance was to forgive it. Mary was vain, too, as well as wilful; but this was not astonishing, for from a very little child she had heard the most open remarks about her beauty. Wensdale was a small place, but there were not wanting unwise people in it, who imagined that their nods and winks and whispers of admiration were unnoticed by the child. A great mistake. No one could be quicker than Mary to see them, to give her little neck a prouder turn, and to toss back her glittering hair self-consciously. So she knew by the time she was nine years old that she had beautiful hair and lovely eyes, and a skin like milk—that she walked gracefully, and that her feet and hands were smaller and prettier than Agatha Chelwood's. All this strengthened a way she had of ordering her companions about imperiously, as though she had a right to command. "No common child," she often heard people say, and by degrees she came to think that she was very uncommon indeed—much prettier and cleverer than any of the other children. "You've no call to be so tossy in your ways, Miss Mary," said Rice, the outspoken old nurse at the White House; "handsome is as handsome does." But Mary treated such a remark with scorn.
If the little clog, standing on the mantel-piece in her bed-room, could have spoken, what strange and humbling things it would have told her! For to belong to poor people would have seemed dreadful to Mary's proud spirit. As it could not, however, she remained in ignorance of her real condition, and even in her dreams no remembrance of her real mother, or of the gypsies and her playfellows Bennie and Mossy, ever came to visit her.
Things at Wensdale had not altered much since Mary had been left there as a child of two years old. The roses still flourished in the vicarage garden under Mr Vallance's loving care, and he still thought them much finer than Chelwood's. At the White House there were now three children in the nursery and four in the school-room, of whom the eldest was a girl of ten named Agatha. These were Mary's constant companions; she joined them in some of their lessons and in all their pleasures and plans of amusement. Not a picnic or a treat of any kind took place without her, and though quarrels were not unknown, Mary would have been very much missed on these occasions. It was she who invented the games and gave names to the various playgrounds in the woods; she could climb well, and run swiftly, and had such a daring spirit of adventure that she feared nothing. In fact, her presence made everything so much more interesting, that, by common consent, she was allowed to take the lead, and no expedition was considered complete without her. Perhaps her contrast to the good, quiet, brown Agatha, who was so nearly her own age, made her all the more valued. Agatha was always ready to follow, to give up, to yield. She never tore her frocks, always knew her lessons, was always punctual; but she never invented anything, and had to be told exactly what to say in any game requiring imagination. So it came to pass naturally that Mary was at the head of everything, and she became so used to taking the command that she sometimes did so when it was neither convenient nor becoming. There were indeed moments when even Jackie, her most faithful supporter among the Chelwood children, rebelled against her authority, and found it poor fun for Mary always to have her own way and arrange everything.
Jackie was nine years old, and felt in himself a large capacity for taking the lead: after all, why should Mary always drive when they went out in the donkey-cart, or settle the place for the fire to be made when they had a picnic, and choose the games, and even order about Fraulein Schnipp the governess? Certainly her plans and arrangements always turned out well, but still it became tiresome sometimes. Jackie grew restive. He had a quarrel with Mary, who flew down the garden in a rage, her hair streaming behind her like the tail of an angry comet. But it did not last: Jackie had a forgiving spirit, and was too fond of her to be angry long. He was always the first to make up a dispute, so that Mary was not at all surprised to see him soon afterwards waiting outside the vicarage door in a high state of excitement. He was going to drive with father in the dog-cart to Dorminster—might Mary come too? Consent given, Mary lost no time in throwing on a hat and jacket, while Squire Chelwood's tall horse fretted and caught impatiently at his bit: then she was lifted up to Jackie on the back seat, and they were soon rolling quickly on their way. It was good of Jackie to have asked for her to go, Mary thought, after she had been so cross. She could not have done it in his place, and she determined to give him a very handsome present on his birthday, which was coming soon.
There were few things the children liked better than going into Dorminster with the squire. Beside the pleasant rapid drive, perched up on the high dog-cart, there was so much to see, particularly if it happened to be market-day; and, above all, Mr Greenop lived there. Mr Greenop was a bird-fancier, and kept an interesting shop in the market-place, full of live birds and stuffed animals in glass cases. There was always a pleasant uncertainty as to what might be found at Greenop's, for he sometimes launched out in an unexpected manner. He often had lop-eared rabbits to sell, and Jackie had once seen a monkey there: as for pigeons, there was not a variety you could mention which Greenop could not at once produce.
He was a nice little man, very like a bird himself, with pointed features and kind, bright eyes; when he wore a dash of red in his neck-cloth the resemblance to a robin was striking. The children applied to him when any of their pets were ill, and had the utmost confidence in his opinion and treatment. The most difficult cases were successfully managed by him; he had even saved the life of Agatha's jack-daw when it had swallowed a thimble. Mr Greenop was an object, therefore, of gratitude and admiration, and no visit to Dorminster was complete without going to his shop.
So when Jackie asked in an off-hand manner, "Shall you be going near Greenop's, father?" the squire knew that his answer was waited for with anxiety, and said at once:
"Yes, I'm going to the gunmaker's next door."
That was all right. Jackie screwed up his shoulders in an ecstasy.
"Father's always an immense long time at the gunmaker's," he said; "we shall have time to look at all Greenop's things. I hope he's got some new ones."
"And I want to buy some hemp-seed," said Mary.
Mr Greenop welcomed the children with his usual brisk cheerfulness, and had, as Jackie had hoped, a good many new things to show them; the nicest of all was a bullfinch which piped the tune of "Bonnie Dundee" "at command," as his owner expressed it. The children were delighted with it, and immediately asked the price, which was their custom with every article of Mr Greenop's stock, and being told, proceeded to examine further. They came upon a charming squirrel with the bushiest tail possible, and while they were admiring it Mr Greenop was called to attend on a customer.
"Jackie," said Mary suddenly, "if you might choose, what would you have out of all the shop?"
Jackie looked thoughtful. His birthday was approaching, and though he would not have hinted at such a thing, it did pass through his mind that Mary's question might have something to do with that occasion. He studied the matter therefore with the attention it deserved, for he had to consider both his own inclinations and the limits of Mary's purse. At last he said deliberately:
"The squirrel. What would you choose?"
"The piping bullfinch," said Mary, without an instant's hesitation.
"Why," exclaimed Jackie, "that's almost the most expensive thing in the shop!"
"I don't see that that matters at all," answered Mary. "You asked me what I liked best, and I like that best—much."
More customers and acquaintances had now crowded in, and the little shop was quite full.
"I believe we've seen everything," said Jackie; "let's get up in the dog-cart and wait there for father. Oh," he continued with a sigh, when they were seated again, "how jolly it must be to be Greenop! Wouldn't you like to be him?"
"No," said Mary decidedly, "I shouldn't like it at all; I couldn't bear it."
"Why?" asked Jackie.
"Oh, because he's quite a common man, and tucks up his shirt sleeves, and keeps a shop."
"Well, that's just the nice part of it," said Jackie eagerly—"so interesting, always to be among the animals and things. And then his shop's in the very best part of Dorminster, where he can see everything pass, and all his friends drop in and tell him the news. I don't expect he's ever dull."
"I daresay not," said Mary, with a shrug of contempt; "but I shouldn't like to be a common vulgar man like that."
Jackie got quite hot.
"I don't believe Greenop's vulgar at all," he said. "Look how he stuffed those pheasants for father. I heard father say, 'Greenop's an uncommonly clever fellow!' Father likes to talk to him, so he can't be vulgar."
Mary did not want another quarrel; she tried to soften her speech down.
"But you see I couldn't be Mr. Greenop," she said, "I could only be Mrs. Greenop, and sit in that dull little hole at the back of the shop and darn all day."
"Oh, well," Jackie acknowledged, "that might not be so pleasant; but," he added, "you might be his daughter, and help to feed the birds, and serve in the shop."
Mary tossed her head.
"What's the good of talking like that?" she said; "I'm not his daughter, and I'm sure I don't want to be."
"But you're always fond of pretending things," persisted Jackie. "Supposing you could change, whose daughter would you like to be?"
"Well," said Mary, after a little reflection, "if I could change I should like to be a countess, or a princess, or a Lady somebody. Lady Mary Vallance sounds rather nice, I think."
Just then the squire came out of the shop, and they soon started rapidly homewards.
"Mary," said Jackie, squeezing himself close up to her, when they were well on the way, and lowering his voice mysteriously, "I've got a secret to tell you."
Jackie's secrets were never very important, and Mary was not prepared to be interested in this one.
"Have you?" she said absently; "look at all those crows in that field."
"Oh, if you don't want to hear it—" said Jackie, drawing back with a hurt expression; "it's something to do with you, too."
"Well, what is it?" said Mary; "I'm listening."
"I haven't told Agatha, or Jennie, or Patrick," continued he in an injured voice.
"Why, it wouldn't be a secret if you had," said Mary. "Go on; I really want to hear it."
"It was yesterday," began Jackie, lowering his voice again; "I was sitting in the school-room window-seat reading, and Rice came in with a message for Fraulein. And then she stayed talking about lots of things, and then they began to talk about you." Jackie paused.
"That's not much of a secret," said Mary. "Is that all?"
"Of course not. It's only the beginning. They said a lot which I didn't hear, and then Rice told Fraulein a long story in a very low voice, and Fraulein held up her hands and called out 'Himmel!' But the part I really did hear was the last bit."
"Well," said Mary, "what was it? I don't think anything of what you've told me yet."
"'These awful words fell upon my ears,'" said Jackie gloomily, quoting from a favourite ghost story: "'As brown as a berry, and her name's no more Mary Vallance than mine is!'"
"But I'm not as brown as a berry," said Mary. "You must have heard wrong. They couldn't have been talking about me at all."
"I know they were," said Jackie with decision, "for when Fraulein saw me she nodded at Rice and put her finger on her lip, and Rice said something about 'buried in his book.' You see," added Jackie, "I didn't really listen, but I heard—because I couldn't help it."
Wensdale was now in sight, and five minutes afterwards the dog-cart stopped at the vicarage gate.
"Don't tell anyone else," whispered Mary hurriedly as she clambered down. "I'm going to ask mother about it."
She ran into the house feeling rather excited, but almost sure that Jackie was mistaken. He often made muddles. What was her astonishment, therefore, after pouring out the story breathlessly, when Mrs Vallance, instead of laughing at the idea, only looked very grave and kept silence.
"Of course I am Mary Vallance, ain't I, mother?" she repeated.
"You are our dear little adopted daughter," said Mrs Vallance; "but that is not really your name."
"What is it then?" asked Mary.
"I do not know. Some day I will tell you how you first came here, but not until you are older."
How mysterious it all was! Mary gazed thoughtfully out into the quiet road, at the ducks splashing about in the river; but she was not thinking of them, her head seemed to whirl. Presently she said:
"Do you know my real mother and father?"
"No," answered Mrs Vallance.
"Perhaps," continued Mary, after a pause, "they live in a big house like the Chelwoods, and have a garden and a park like theirs."
"Perhaps they have," said Mrs Vallance, "and perhaps they live in a little cottage like the blacksmith and his wife, and have no garden at all."
"Oh, I shouldn't like that at all," said Mary quickly; then she suddenly threw her arms round Mrs Vallance's neck and kissed her.
"Whoever they are," she said, "I love you and father best, and always shall."
She asked a great many more questions, but Mrs Vallance seemed determined to answer nothing but "yes" and "no." It was very disappointing to know so much and yet so little, and it seemed impossible to wait patiently till she was older to hear more. At last Mrs Vallance forbade the subject:
"I don't want you to talk of this any more now, Mary," she said. "When the proper time comes, you shall hear all I have to tell; what I want you to remember is this: Whoever you are, and whatever sort of people you belong to, you cannot alter it; but you may have a great deal to do with what you are. We can all make our characters noble by goodness, however poor our stations are; but if we are proud and vain, and despise others, nothing can save us from becoming vulgar and low, even if we belong to very high rank indeed. That is all you have to think of."
Excellent advice; but though Mary heard all the words, they did not sink into her mind any more than the water on the ducks' backs in the river outside; they rolled off it at once, and only the wonderful, wonderful fact remained, that she was not Mary Vallance. Who was she, then? And, above all, what could Rice have meant by "brown as a berry?" Who was brown as a berry? Certainly not Mary herself; she was quite used to hearing that she was "as white as snow" and "as fair as a lily"—it was Agatha Chelwood who had a brown skin. Altogether it was very mysterious and deeply interesting; soon she began to make up long stories about herself, in which it was always discovered at last that she belonged to very rich people with grand titles. This was what people had meant when they whispered that she was "no common child." Mary's foolish head was in a whirl of excitement, and filled from morning to night with visions of grandeur. If the little clog could only have spoken! Mute, yet full of expression it stood there, while Mary dreamed in her little white bed of palaces and princesses.
"I was not made," it would have said, "for foot of princess or lady, or to tread on soft carpets and take dainty steps; I am a hardworking shoe made by rough hands, though the heart they belonged to was kind and gentle; I have nothing to do with luxury and idleness."
But no one understood this silent language. The clog was admired, and wondered at, and called "a quaint little shoe," and its history remained unknown.
Mary longed now to tell Jackie her mighty secret, which began to weigh too heavily to keep to herself; but when he did come to the vicarage again, he was not nearly so much impressed by it as she had hoped. This was partly, perhaps, because his mind was full of a certain project which he wished her to join, and she had scarcely bound him by a solemn promise not to breathe a word to the other children of what she had told him, than he began eagerly:
"We're going to spend the day at Maskells to-morrow—the whole day. Will Mrs Vallance let you go too?"
"Come and ask her," said Mary; and Jackie, rather breathless, for he had run the whole way from the White House, proceeded with his request:
"The donkey-cart's going," he said, "and the three little ones, and Rice, and Fraulein, and all of us, and we're going quite early because it's so hot, and we shall stop to tea, and make a fire, of course, and mother hopes you'll let Mary go."
"Well, I can't say no," said Mrs Vallance, smiling at Jackie's heated face; "but I'm not very fond of Maskells, there are so many dangerous places in it."
"Oh, you mean the forbidden rooms," said Jackie; "we don't go into those now. There are three of them, where the floor's given way, you know, with great holes in them. Maskells is such a jolly place," he added pleadingly; "we don't like any other half so well."
"You say Fraulein is going?" said Mrs Vallance.
"Yes, and Rice, too; but they won't be in the way, because Fraulein's going to sketch, and Rice will have to be with the little ones."
"I hope they will be in the way," replied Mrs Vallance, "and prevent you heedless children climbing about in unsafe places and breaking your limbs."
"Then Mary may go? And we start punctually at nine, so she mustn't be late."
Consent once given, Jackie took his departure, and his stout knickerbockered legs were soon out of sight.
Mary was delighted, for Maskells was the most charming place possible to spend a day in, and the prospect of going there made her forget for a time the one subject which had lately filled her mind—herself.
Maskells was a deserted house standing near the high-road between the White House and Dorminster; it had once been a place of some consequence, and still had pleasant meadows round it, sloping down to a river at the back; but the garden and orchard were tangled and neglected—much more interesting, the children thought, than if they had been properly cared for.
The house had two projecting wings, and quaint latticed windows; outside, it had the appearance of being in tolerable repair, but there was in truth scarcely a whole room in it, floors and ceilings had given way, and great rifts and gaps yawned in them. The rotten old staircases were all the more dangerous because they still looked firm enough to bear a light weight, and though Jackie had once crawled up to the top of one, out on to the roof, the attempt was never repeated. He had remained there for half an hour clinging on to the side of a tall chimney, unable to move, until a farmer had fetched a ladder and got him down. Since then staircases and upper rooms had been forbidden, and the children had to content themselves with playing on the ground floor and in the outhouses. There was a mystery hanging about the old place which added to its attractions, for they had heard that it had fallen into this decay and been uninhabited so long because it was "in Chancery." A mysterious expression, which might mean anything, and was more than enough to clothe it with all the terrors which belong to the unknown.
When dusk came on, and the owls and bats flapped their wings in shadowy corners, it was desirable to cling closely together and feel afraid in company—a tremor was excusable in the boldest. Patrick, indeed, always declared he had once seen a ghost in Maskells. Pressed for details, he had been unable to give any clear account of it, and was a good deal laughed at, especially by Mary; but it was dimly felt by all that there might be truth in it—anything was possible for a place "in Chancery."
Mary liked to imagine things about Maskells; it would do for the Tower of London with dungeons in it, or for Lochleven with Mary Queen of Scots escaping by night, or for a besieged castle, and hundreds of other fancies. She invented games founded on those scenes which were popular at first, but as she always took the leading parts herself, the other children soon tired of them.
"Don't let's pretend anything else," Jennie would say, who had a practical mind; "let's have a game of hide-and-seek."
And certainly no place could have been better fitted than Maskells for the purpose.
STORY ONE, CHAPTER 3.
Mary did not fail to start in good time for the White House on the morning after Jackie's invitation, and reached the gates leading into the stable-yard just as the clock was striking nine. The donkey-cart was standing there ready, and the four elder children were busily engaged round it stowing away large parcels to the best advantage, and thrusting in a variety of small ones. There was an anxious look on all their faces, for they had so many things to remember and the cart was small. Rice, the old nurse, stood by with the youngest child in her arms; she was to ride in the cart with her three charges, who were too small to walk so far, but it seemed more than doubtful at present if there would be room by the time the packing was finished. Taught by experience, however, she wisely forebore to interfere with the arrangements and waited patiently.
"Have you got everything?" asked Mary as she entered.
There was not much more visible of Jackie than his boots, for he was making great exertions head-foremost in the cart, but he answered in a muffled voice:
"I think so. Read the list, Agatha."
"Potatoes and apples to roast—" began Agatha.
"There, now!" said Jackie, and the next minute he was plunging in at the kitchen door.
"I knew you'd forget something," said Mary triumphantly. "What a good idea it was of mine to have a list!"
Jackie soon came back with a knobbly-looking canvas bag in his hand, and followed by Fraulein Schnipp the German governess.
"I say," he said, "we've forgotten Fraulein's camp-stool and sketching things; and she says she can't go without them."
"Well," said Jennie in a low tone, "I don't believe you can get them in. I should think she might carry them herself."
"Don't," said Patrick with a nudge of his elbow; "you'll make her cry."
It was a puzzling habit that Fraulein had, to weep silently at unexpected moments, and say her feelings were hurt. This was so distressing that the children were always anxious to avoid it if possible. She stood looking on now with a pleased smile, grasping her camp-stool, and understanding very little of the chatter going on round her. Fraulein was very good-natured looking, with large soft blue eyes and a quantity of frizzy fair hair.
At last the packing was done; camp-stool, sketching-books, and three small children on the top of everything. Rice would have to walk by the side of the cart. It really was a wonderfully hot day, and there was scarcely any shade; the donkey went even slower than usual, and by the time they reached Maskells the whole party was rather exhausted— Fraulein more so than anyone, and she sank at once on the ground under some beech-trees opposite the house. It was in this spot that the cart was always unpacked, the cloth laid, and dinner spread. Later on in the day a fire was made here to boil the kettle for tea, but until then the children were free to roam about and do as they liked.
As Jackie had said, Fraulein was anxious to make a sketch of the old house, and after dinner was over and she had a little recovered from her fatigue she planted her camp-stool conveniently and set to work. The children knew now that neither she nor Rice would be "in the way" that afternoon; they were both comfortably settled and would not be likely to stir for hours.
But it was almost too hot to play, and the games went on languidly until four o'clock, when it began to get cooler, and there were pleasant shadows round about.
"We ought to begin to pick up wood," said the careful Agatha, "or the fire won't be ready for tea-time."
"Well, we'll just have one game of hide-and-seek first," said Jackie; and so it was agreed.
Agatha hid first, but she was soon found, for she was not fond of venturing far into the dark corners round Maskells; then it was Jackie's turn, and then it came to Mary.
Determined to distinguish herself, and find a more difficult place than the others, she wandered round to the side of the house which looked upon the neglected orchard, and was furthest away from where Fraulein and Rice were sitting. She would not cry "Whoop!" for a long while, she thought, till she had found a very good place indeed. As she pushed her way among the low boughs of the apple-trees, and through the tall tangled grass which reached nearly to her waist, she felt very bold and adventurous, for the children seldom ventured on this side—it was unknown ground. Certainly the house looked far more mournful and ruinous here than it did in front. Wooden shutters were fastened outside most of the windows, and one of them had swung back and gave a dismal creak now and then on its rusty hinges. Trailing masses of convolvulus and ivy and Virginian creeper were hanging about everywhere, and the walls were covered so thickly that for some time Mary looked in vain for an entrance. But at last she saw a little low-arched door. How inviting it looked! No doubt it would be locked; but at least she would try it, and if she could get in it would be a splendid hiding-place. The others would never, never find her. She lifted the iron ring which hung from the lock, gave a little twist and a push, and was surprised to find that it yielded easily. Before her was an almost entirely dark room with a low vaulted ceiling; through the cracks in the closed shutters came faint streaks of light, and she could just see that at the end of it there was another door like the one she had entered.
Mary's heart beat fast with excitement. What was on the other side of that door? Hidden treasure, perhaps, or a dungeon where some captive had been pining for years! Here was an adventure, indeed! Everything else was now completely forgotten. She had no doubt that she was on the very edge of some great discovery; and though she did wish for a second that Jackie was there too, she decided directly afterwards that there was more honour and glory in being quite alone.
So she went boldly up to the door with a fast-beating heart and turned the handle. Wonderful! It opened at once, and straight in front of her there rose a short steep flight of stone steps, with another door, partly open, at the top. But here she stopped uncertainly, and for the first time fear was mingled with curiosity, for plainly to be heard through that half-open door came the sound of voices. It was unpleasant to remember Patrick's ghost just then. Was this where it lived? If so, she thought she would go back. Yet it would be a pity, now that she had got so far, and something urged her strongly to go and peep into the room above. Mary had many faults but she was no coward, and besides this, her proud spirit made her ashamed to run away, so after a little hesitation she crept softly up the stone steps. She hardly dared to breathe lest she should be heard, and as she went the voices became clearer and clearer: they certainly sounded just like a man and woman talking. When she reached the top she paused a minute to gather courage, and then peeped cautiously round the door.
It was a large room—one of those which Jackie had called forbidden rooms—for there was quite a big hole in one corner where the floor had given way. There was a wide open fireplace with a high carved stone mantel-piece, and on the hearth a fire of sticks crackled away under a black pipkin which stood on legs; from this there came a strange and savoury smell. A woman was crouching on the ground in front of it with her back to the door, and a tall dark man leant against the mantel-piece and fed the fire with some dry boughs which he broke into pieces. Here were no ghosts at any rate. There was something reassuring in the sight of the fire and the black pot and the smell of food; but what were they doing here, and who were they? It was perhaps some dark affair connected with "Chancery."
Mary felt frightened. She could not see the woman's face, but the man looked so evil and dark, and had such bright black eyes! She drew back her head and prepared to creep softly down the steps and make her way out. Now that she had seen these ghosts she would have plenty to tell Jackie and the others, and they would all think her very brave. She began to feel anxious to be with them again.
Just then the woman spoke.
"Bennie's late," she said. "Supper's most ready."
"He's havin' a look round," answered the man, "against to-night."
"What's the old chap's name?" continued the woman.
"Chelwood," said the man. "He's a JP."
"A bloke wot sits in court and sends yer to prison," answered the man.
Mary listened with all her ears and her eyes starting with horror. Here was some dreadful plot—they were going to murder Squire Chelwood, perhaps! Should she run at once and give the alarm, or wait to hear more? While she hesitated the woman spoke again.
"I suppose it's best to begin there?"
"There's nowhere else, not to speak of," answered the man, "'cept the parson's."
The woman gave a low laugh. "I wonder how he liked the present you made him this time seven years back," she said.
She got up as she spoke to lift the lid of the pot and stir its contents; and Mary, afraid of being discovered, turned to go, trembling with excitement. Treading with great care, and feeling her way with one hand on the wall, she was almost half-way down when there fell on her ear a sound which brought her to a sudden stand-still. Towards her, coming through the empty room at the bottom of the stairs, there were footsteps plainly to be heard! Without doubt it was "Bennie" returning. The thought darted through Mary's mind, leaving her cold with terror. What could she do? To go backwards or forwards was equally dreadful— she was caught in a kind of trap. Oh for Jackie, Fraulein, Rice, who were so near, and yet powerless to help her! All her courage gone, she sank down on the stone step, covered her face with her hands, and waited. The footsteps came nearer. In another minute the door at the foot of the stairs swung back, and a youth of eighteen or twenty came quickly up, almost stumbling over Mary in the dim light.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, "it's a child!" He put his fingers in his mouth and gave a low strange whistle, and in a moment the gypsy and his wife came out of the room above.
"Here's a shine!" said Bennie.
He pointed to Mary, who still crouched motionless on the step with her hair falling over her shoulders. They all stood staring at her in surprise.
"Belongs to a party outside, I bet," said Bennie. "There's a lot of 'em t'other side of the house. Seed 'em as I wur comin' back."
"Did they see you?" asked the man.
"No fear," answered Bennie shortly. "Got over the wall."
They muttered hoarsely together over Mary's head, using a strange language which she could not understand; but she made out that they were annoyed, and that they could not agree what should be done. At last the woman stooped down to her.
"Where do you come from, my pretty?" she said in a wheedling tone.
Mary did not answer, but still kept her face hidden.
"Come alonger me, darling," continued the woman. She took Mary's arm, and half-dragged, half-led her into the room above. The child's hat had fallen off, and the light streamed down upon her bright yellow hair and her frightened brown eyes, as she raised them timidly to the dark faces round her. The woman started and gave a quick significant glance at her husband.
"You live at the parson's house in Wensdale, don't yer, dearie?" she said coaxingly.
"Yes," said Mary. She wondered how the woman knew.
"But you're not the parson's child," continued the woman. "Give me your hand." She bent, muttering over it: "No, no, not the parson's child— you belong to dark people, for all so white and fair you are."
Was the woman a witch? Mary gazed at her with eyes wide with fear, and the man and boy stood by with a cunning grin on their faces.
"Seven years ago," the woman went on in a sing-song tone, "you was lost. Seven years ago you was found. Seven years you've lived with strangers, and now you've come to yer own people."
What did she mean? These dirty, dark, evil-looking tramps her own people! Mary took courage and drew herself haughtily upright.
"You're not my people," she said boldly. "I live at the vicarage, with Mr and Mrs Vallance. I must go back to the others—it's getting late."
"Not so fast, my little queen," said the woman, still holding her hand and gazing at the palm. "What's this 'ere little token I ketch sight on? Why, it's a little shoe! A little leather shoe with a row o' brass nails an' a brass toe. Now, by that 'ere token I know you belongs to us. Yonder's yer father, and yonder's yer brother; nobody and nothin' can't take you from us now."
Mary burst into tears. It was too dreadful to find that this woman knew all about her; was it possible that she belonged to her in any way?
"I can't stay with you," she sobbed, "I must go back. They wouldn't let you keep me if they knew."
"They couldn't help it," said the woman with a scornful laugh, "not all the parsons and squires as ever was couldn't."
Poor Mary! All her spirit had gone from her now, she stood helplessly crying in the middle of the room.
"Wouldn't yer like to come back to pore Seraminta, yer own mother, what brought yer up and took care on yer?" the woman said in coaxing tones, "an to father Perrin, and dear brother Bennie."
"No—no—no," sobbed Mary, "I must go home."
"Well, now," said the woman, with a side wink to the two men, "suppose we was to go agen our nateral feelin's and let you go back, what would you promise to do in return?"
"Anything—I'll do anything," said Mary, checking her tears and looking up with a gleam of hope.
"Then, look you here," said Seraminta, changing her soft tone to a threatening one, and frowning darkly. "First you've got to promise not to tell a soul of yer havin' bin in this room an' how you got 'ere. Next, to keep a quiet tongue about what you heard us say; and last, to bring all the money you've got and put it under the flat stone where the four roads meet, to-morrow at six o'clock in the evening. An' if yer do all these things we'll let you bide at the parson's. But if you breathe a word about what you've seen an' heard, whether it's in the dark or the light, whether it's sleeping or waking, whether it's to man, woman, or child, that very minute you'll be claimed for ours, and ours you'll be for ever."
The room was getting dark by this time, and the fire burning low gave a sudden flicker now and then, and died down again; by this uncertain light the dark figures standing round, and the lowering frown on Seraminta's crafty face, looked doubly awful.
Mary was frightened almost out of her wits, for she believed every word the woman had said, and thought her quite capable of carrying out her threat. The one thing was to escape. If she could only do that, she would gladly keep silence about these dreadful people and their possible relation to her.
"I promise," she said eagerly. "I never, never will. Not to anybody."
The gypsies drew together near the fire and talked in low tones, using the language which Mary could not understand: after a minute the woman came back to her.
"Give me yer handkercher," she said, and when Mary drew it tremblingly out of her pocket she tied it over the child's eyes and took hold of her hand.
"Come along," she said, and Mary followed meekly.
Although she could see nothing, she knew that they went down the stone steps and along the way she had come, and presently they were outside the house, for she felt the wind in her face and the long grass under her feet. Suddenly the woman stopped.
"Now," she said, "remember; if you speak it will be the worse for you and for your friends, an' you'll be sorry for it all your life long. An' it's Seraminta as tells you so."
"I won't," said Mary, "if you'll only let me go."
"It goes agen me," said Seraminta, pretending to hesitate, "it naterally goes agen me. But I dessay you'll be better off at the parson's than yer could be with yer pore mother. Don't forgit the money. Now count fifty, an' then take off the handkercher."
Mary began obediently; she had never been so submissive in her life. When she was half-way through the number she fancied she heard a rustle, and as she said the last one she pulled off the handkerchief and looked round. To her great relief she was quite alone, in the thickest part of the orchard; the woman had vanished, and it seemed for a moment as though it might have been some ugly dream. But no, it was too true. It had all really happened. "Ours you'll be for ever" echoed in Seraminta's harsh tones close to her ear. She shuddered, and began with feverish eagerness to push her way out through the thick growing boughs. Oh to be with the others again! After searching for some time she found a gate which led into the open fields. She could now see where she was. Oh joy! There in the distance was the well-known group of beech-trees and the blaze of a fire, round which were small figures dimly moving. Mary could have shouted for delight and relief; she set off running as hard as she could, never pausing till she arrived breathless in the midst of them. They all crowded round her, exclaiming and asking questions.
"Here she is! Where have you been? Fraulein and Rice are still looking for you. Did you lose yourself? Did you tumble down? Have you been into the forbidden rooms?"
Fortunately for Mary it was impossible to answer all these questions, so she did not attempt to answer any of them.
"Anyhow you didn't find me," she managed to say as she threw herself on the ground near the fire.
"Oh, but isn't Fraulein in a state of mind?" said Jackie. "She says she's 'out of herself' with anxiety, and she's been crying. Here she comes."
Poor Fraulein now appeared with Rice. She was so greatly agitated, and yet so relieved to find that Mary had come back, that she could not express herself in English. For some moments she poured forth a torrent of German and French, half laughing and half crying, but Rice looked very cross, and said severely at once:
"You've given us all a deal of trouble and anxiety, Miss Mary, with them foolish pranks."
Mary felt as though she must cry; it was hard to be scolded when she had just come through such a terrible trial. Her eyes filled with tears, and Jackie saw them; as usual, he was her comforter in distress, and drawing near, with a blackened potato and a roasted apple in his hand, he seated himself close to her in a friendly manner.
"I cooked 'em for you myself," he said, as he made his offering; "they're awfully good ones."
This attention consoled Mary a little, and she managed to bear up, but a dulness had fallen over the whole party; Fraulein was still tearful, and Rice cross, so that none of the children were sorry when the wagonette arrived to take them back to Wensdale. To Mary it was the greatest possible relief; she never never wished to see Maskells again. When she found herself tightly squeezed in between Fraulein and Jackie, with friendly faces all round her, she began to feel safer, and very soon the last glimpse of the tall chimneys was lost to sight in a turn of the road. What a comfort it was to be with them all again! At another time she would have complained that Jackie was taking up too much room, and digging his elbow into her, but all that was altered. He could not possibly be too close, her only dread was to be left alone. She was so unusually meek, and looked so white, that presently Patrick, who was sitting opposite and staring at her with large round eyes, remarked:
"I expect Mary saw the ghost, only she won't say so."
This interesting subject once started, lasted for some time, and Mary was tortured with all manner of minute questions. She managed to answer them all somehow, but with so much less spirit than usual that it was plain to see something was wrong. Jackie made up his mind to ask her afterwards, and meanwhile Fraulein interfered.
"You shall not tease any more with your questions," she said. "Mary is fatigue."
But the questions had reminded Mary of something which till now she had forgotten—Squire Chelwood's danger. She ought to warn Jackie; but if she did, the gypsies would come and take her away, perhaps that very night. She could not risk that. And yet, Jackie's father! It would be too dreadful. "Ours you'll be for ever" seemed to sound in her ear: she shuddered; no, she could not do it. Suddenly a thought struck her, and she pulled Jackie gently by the sleeve.
"Jackie," she said softly, very softly, so that Seraminta might not hear, "where does Hamlet sleep at night?"
Hamlet was a Danish boar-hound belonging to the squire.
"Hamlet," said Jackie. "Why, he sleeps just outside father's bed-room door, and sometimes in the night he walks up and down the corridor, and his tail goes flop up against the door. Once father thought it was thieves."
"I suppose Hamlet's very strong?" said Mary earnestly.
"I should just rather think he was," said Jackie. "He wouldn't make much of a robber. He'd just rear up on his hind-legs and take him by the throat—so." He launched himself forward as he spoke, and seized Patrick by the neck.
"And that would kill the robber?" asked Mary.
"Dead as a nail," replied Jackie with decision.
"Don't you wish robbers would come some night," suggested Jennie.
"What would you do if they did?" said Agatha.
"I know what she'd do," put in Patrick quickly; "she'd hide her head under the bed-clothes and keep on screaming for Rice."
"If I had a pistol I should shoot them," said Jackie, "only mine won't go off."
"And perhaps," said Agatha, "they'd have pistols that would go off."
"Oh! I say," exclaimed Jackie suddenly, "if here isn't Mary actually crying away like anything. What's the matter with her?"
It was quite true. Overwrought and frightened, these dreadful pictures of robbers and pistols had a reality for her which was too much to bear. Mary the courageous, the high-spirited, who scorned tears and laughed at weakness, was now crying and sobbing helplessly, like the greatest coward of them all.
Fraulein put her arm round her compassionately. "She is quaite too tired," she said; "it is an attack of nerfs. Nefer mind, dear shild. When you will sleep to-night you shall feel quaite better to-morrow."
She drew her closely to her side; and Mary, who generally despised Fraulein and laughed at her broken English, was thankful now to feel the comfort of her kind protecting arm.
STORY ONE, CHAPTER 4.
A GYPSY CHILD?
The sun was streaming through Mary's small window when she woke up somewhat later than usual the next morning. For a minute she lay with half-closed eyes, feeling very snug and comfortable, quietly gazing at all the well-known objects in the room—at the picture of the little girl reading, which hung opposite her bed, at the book-shelf with all the brightly-covered books she was so fond of, at her canary hopping restlessly in his cage, at the cuckoo clock, and finally at the little clog in the middle of the mantel-piece. But when she came to this her eyes opened wide, she sat up, rubbed them, and looked at it again; for all in a minute, just as we remember a dream, there came back to her the dreadful events of yesterday. The gypsies, the dimly-seen room, the flickering fire, Seraminta's dark face as she described the little shoe. "Ours you'll be for ever." Could it possibly be true that she, Mary Vallance, was the child of such people? What a dreadful thing! She did not feel so frightened this morning, and, her natural spirit partly returning after her night's rest, she was more inclined to believe that Seraminta had spoken falsely. "If I told father all about it," she said to herself, "I don't believe she'd dare to take me away." And yet, when she thought it over, how could the woman have known about the shoe? And besides, Rice's remark flashed across her, "brown as a berry," certainly that would apply to Seraminta, she was a darker brown than anyone Mary had ever seen. It was true, then, she really was a gypsy child, and if so, they had a right to claim her if they wished. How could she escape it? Her only chance lay in keeping perfect silence as they had told her, and also in taking them the money she had promised this evening. How much had she? Mary wondered. Her money-box, a small red post-office, stood on the mantel-piece; she jumped out of bed and counted the contents; more than usual, because she had been saving it up for Jackie's present. Now it must all go to those wicked people, and Jackie could have no present—Jackie, who was always so good to her, and who had not grudged the savings of a whole year in pennies to buy her a couple of white bantams. How unkind, how mean he would think it! Mary gazed mournfully at the money-box. It was a great trial to her, for she had a generous nature and was very fond of Jackie. Might she not leave just a little in the box? But no—she dared not. Perhaps even now there were dark eyes peering in at the window, and at night, who could tell from what unexpected quarter Perrin might appear to take her away? She must give them every penny of it. With a sigh she put all the money back, dressed herself and went down-stairs. Mr Vallance was speaking as she entered the breakfast-room, and she just caught these words: