MRS. OVERTHEWAY'S REMEMBRANCES.
BY JULIANA HORATIA EWING.
LONDON: SOCIETY FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE, NORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE, W.C. NEW YORK: E. & J.B. YOUNG & CO.
[Published under the direction of the General Literature Committee.]
TO MY HUSBAND A.E. IN REMEMBRANCE OF 1866 AND 1867 J.H.E.
THE SNORING GHOST
... "Thou shall not lack The flower that's like thy face, pale Primrose."
The little old lady lived over the way, through a green gate that shut with a click, and up three white steps. Every morning at eight o'clock the church bell chimed for Morning Prayer—chim! chime! chim! chime!—and every morning at eight o'clock the little old lady came down the white steps, and opened the gate with a click, and went where the bells were calling.
About this time also little Ida would kneel on a chair at her nursery window in the opposite house to watch the old lady come out and go. The old lady was one of those people who look always the same. Every morning her cheeks looked like faded rose-leaves, and her white hair like a snow-wreath in a garden laughing at the last tea-rose. Every morning she wore the same black satin bonnet, and the same white shawl; had delicate gloves on the smallest of hands, and gathered her skirt daintily up from the smallest of feet. Every morning she carried a clean pocket-handkerchief, and a fresh rose in the same hand with her Prayer-book; and as the Prayer-book, being bound up with the Bible, was very thick, she seemed to have some difficulty in so doing. Every morning, whatever the weather might be, she stood outside the green gate, and looked up at the sky to see if this were clear, and down at the ground to see if that were dry; and so went where the bells were calling.
Ida knew the little old lady quite well by sight, but she did not know her name. Perhaps Ida's great-uncle knew it; but he was a grave, unsociable man, who saw very little of his neighbours, so perhaps he did not; and Ida stood too much in awe of him to trouble him with idle questions. She had once asked Nurse, but Nurse did not know; so the quiet orphan child asked no more. She made up a name for the little old lady herself, however, after the manner of Mr. John Bunyan, and called her Mrs. Overtheway; and morning after morning, though the bread-and-milk breakfast smoked upon the table, she would linger at the window, beseeching—
"One minute more, dear Nurse! Please let me wait till Mrs. Overtheway has gone to church."
And when the little old lady had come out and gone, Ida would creep from her perch, and begin her breakfast. Then, if the chimes went on till half the basinful was eaten, little Ida would nod her head contentedly, and whisper—
"Mrs. Overtheway was in time."
Little Ida's history was a sad one. Her troubles began when she was but a year old, with the greatest of earthly losses—for then her mother died, leaving a sailor husband and their infant child. The sea-captain could face danger, but not an empty home; so he went back to the winds and the waves, leaving his little daughter with relations. Six long years had he been away, and Ida had had many homes, and yet, somehow, no home, when one day the postman brought her a large letter, with her own name written upon it in a large hand. This was no old envelope sealed up again—no make-believe epistle to be put into the post through the nursery door: it was a real letter, with a real seal, real stamps, and a great many post-marks; and when Ida opened it there were two sheets written by the Captain's very own hand, in round fat characters, easy to read, with a sketch of the Captain's very own ship at the top, and—most welcome above all!—the news that the Captain's very own self was coming home.
"I shall have a papa all to myself very soon, Nurse," said Ida. "He has written a letter to me, and made me a picture of his ship; it is the 'Bonne Esperance,' which he says means Good Hope. I love this letter better than anything he has ever sent me."
Nevertheless, Ida took out the carved fans and workboxes, the beads, and handkerchiefs, and feathers, the dainty foreign treasures the sailor-father had sent to her from time to time; dusted them, kissed them, and told them that the Captain was coming home. But the letter she wore in her pocket by day, and kept under her pillow by night.
"Why don't you put your letter into one of your boxes, like a tidy young lady, Miss Ida?" said Nurse. "You'll wear it all to bits doing as you do."
"It will last till the ship comes home," said Miss Ida.
It had need then to have been written on the rock, graven with an iron pen for ever; for the "Bonne Esperance" (like other earthly hopes) had perished to return no more. She foundered on her homeward voyage, and went down into the great waters, whilst Ida slept through the stormy night, with the Captain's letter beneath her pillow.
Alas! Alas! Alas!
* * * * *
Two or three months had now passed away since Ida became an orphan. She had become accustomed to the crape-hung frock; she had learnt to read the Captain's letter as the memorial of a good hope which it had pleased God to disappoint; she was fairly happy again. It was in the midst of that new desolation in her lonely life that she had come to stay with her great-uncle, and had begun to watch the doings of the little old lady who lived over the way. When dolls seemed vanity, and Noah's Ark a burden, it had been a quiet amusement, demanding no exertion, to see what little she could see of the old lady's life, and to speculate about what she could not; to wonder and fancy what Mrs. Overtheway looked like without her bonnet, and what she did with herself when she was not at church. Ida's imagination did not carry her far. She believed her friend to be old, immeasurably old, indefinitely old; and had a secret faith that she had never been otherwise. She felt sure that she wore a cap indoors, and that it was a nicer one than Nurse's; that she had real tea, with sugar and cream, instead of milk-and-water, and hot toast rather than bread-and-treacle for tea; that she helped herself at meals, and went to bed according to her own pleasure and convenience; was—perhaps on these very grounds—utterly happy, and had always been so.
"I am only a little girl," said Ida, as she pressed her face sadly to the cold window-pane. "I am only a little girl, and very sad, you know, because Papa was drowned at sea; but Mrs. Overtheway is very old, and always happy, and so I love her."
And in this there was both philosophy and truth.
It is a mistake to suppose that the happiness of others is always a distasteful sight to the sad at heart. There are times in which life seems shorn of interests and bereaved of pleasure, when it is a relief, almost amounting to consolation, to believe that any one is happy. It is some feeling of this nature, perhaps, which makes the young so attractive to the old. It soothes like the sound of harmonious music, the sight of harmonious beauty. It witnesses to a conviction lying deep even in the most afflicted souls that (come what may), all things were created good, and man made to be blessed; before which sorrow and sighing flee away.
This was one of many things which formed the attraction for Ida in the little old lady who lived over the way. That green gate shut in a life of which the child knew nothing, and which might be one of mysterious delights; to believe that such things could be was consoling, and to imagine them was real entertainment. Ida would sometimes draw a chair quietly to the table beside her own, and fancy that Mrs. Overtheway was having tea with her. She would ask the old lady if she had been in time for church that morning, beg her to take off her bonnet, and apologise politely for the want of hot tea and toast. So far all was well, for Ida could answer any of these remarks on Mrs. Overtheway's behalf; but it may be believed that after a certain point this one-sided conversation flagged. One day Nurse overheard Ida's low murmurs.
"What are you talking about, Miss Ida?" said she.
"I am pretending to have Mrs. Overtheway to tea," said Ida.
"Little girls shouldn't pretend what's not true," replied Nurse, in whose philosophy fancy and falsehood were not distinguished. "Play with your dolls, my dear, and don't move the chairs out of their places."
With which Nurse carried off the chair into a corner as if it had been a naughty child, and Ida gave up her day-dream with a sigh; since to have prolonged the fancy that Mrs. Overtheway was present, she must have imagined her borne off at the crisis of the meal after a fashion not altogether consistent with an old lady's dignity.
Summer passed, and winter came on. There were days when the white steps looked whiter than usual; when the snowdrift came halfway up the little green gate, and the snowflakes came softly down with a persistency which threatened to bury the whole town. Ida knew that on such days Mrs. Overtheway could not go out; but whenever it was tolerably fine the old lady appeared as usual, came daintily down the steps, and went where the bells were calling. Chim! chime! chim! chime! They sounded so near through the frosty air, that Ida could almost have fancied that the church was coming round through the snowy streets to pick up the congregation.
Mrs. Overtheway looked much the same in winter as in summer. She seemed as fresh and lively as ever, carried her Prayer-book and handkerchief in the same hand, was only more warmly wrapped up, and wore fur-lined boots, which were charming. There was one change, however, which went to Ida's heart. The little old lady had no longer a flower to take to church with her. At Christmas she took a sprig of holly, and after that a spray of myrtle, but Ida felt that these were poor substitutes for a rose. She knew that Mrs. Overtheway had flowers somewhere, it is true, for certain pots of forced hyacinths had passed through the little green gate to the Christmas church decorations; but one's winter garden is too precious to be cropped as recklessly as summer rose-bushes, and the old lady went flowerless to church and enjoyed her bulbs at home. But the change went to Ida's heart.
Spring was early that year. At the beginning of February there was a good deal of snow on the ground, it is true, but the air became milder and milder, and towards the end of the month there came a real spring day, and all the snow was gone.
"You may go and play in the garden, Miss Ida," said Nurse, and Ida went.
She had been kept indoors for a long time by the weather and by a cold, and it was very pleasant to get out again, even when the only amusement was to run up and down the shingly walks and wonder how soon she might begin to garden, and whether the gardener could be induced to give her a piece of ground sufficiently extensive to grow a crop of mustard-and-cress in the form of a capital I. It was the kitchen garden into which Ida had been sent. At the far end it was cut off from the world by an overgrown hedge with large gaps at the bottom, through which Ida could see the high road, a trough for watering horses, and beyond this a wood. The hedge was very thin in February, and Ida had a good view in consequence, and sitting on a stump in the sunshine she peered through the gap to see if any horses came to drink. It was as good as a peep-show, and indeed much better.
"The snow has melted," gurgled the water, "here I am." It was everywhere. The sunshine made the rich green mosses look dry, but in reality they were wet, and so was everything else. Slish! slosh! Put your feet where you would, the water was everywhere. It filled the stone trough, which, being old and grey and steady, kept it still, and bade it reflect the blue sky and the gorgeous mosses; but the trough soon overflowed, and then the water slipped over the side, and ran off in a wayside stream. "Winter is gone!" it spluttered as it ran. "Winter is gone, winter-is-gone, winterisgone!" And, on the principle that a good thing cannot be said too often, it went on with this all through the summer, till the next winter came and stopped its mouth with icicles. As the stream chattered, so the birds in the wood sang—Tweet! tweet! chirrup! throstle! Spring! Spring! Spring!—and they twittered from tree to tree, and shook the bare twigs with melody; whilst a single blackbird sitting still upon a bough below, sang "Life!" "Life!" "Life!" with the loudest pipe of his throat, because on such a day it was happiness only to be alive.
It was like a wonderful fairy-tale, to which Ida listened with clasped hands.
Presently another song came from the wood: it was a hymn sung by children's voices, such as one often hears carolled by a troop of little urchins coming home from school. The words fell familiarly on Ida's ears:
"Quite through the streets with silver sound, The flood of life doth flow; Upon whose banks on every side The wood of life doth grow.
"Thy gardens and thy gallant walks Continually are green; There grow such sweet and pleasant flowers As nowhere else are seen.
"There trees for evermore bear fruit, And evermore do spring; There evermore the Angels sit, And evermore do sing."
Here the little chorus broke off, and the children came pouring out of the wood with chattering and laughter. Only one lingered, playing under a tree, and finishing the song. The child's voice rose shrill and clear like that of the blackbird above him. He also sang of Life—Eternal life—knowing little more than the bird of the meaning of his song, and having little less of that devotion of innocence in which happiness is praise.
But Ida had ceased to listen to the singing. Her whole attention was given to the children as they scampered past the hedge, dropping bits of moss and fungi and such like woodland spoil. For, tightly held in the grubby hands of each—plucked with reckless indifference to bud and stalk, and fading fast in their hot prisons—were primroses. Ida started to her feet, a sudden idea filling her brain. The birds were right, Spring had come, and there were flowers—flowers for Mrs. Overtheway.
Ida was a very quiet, obedient little girl, as a general rule; indeed, in her lonely life she had small temptation to pranks or mischief of any kind. She had often been sent to play in the back garden before, and had never thought of straying beyond its limits; but to-day a strong new feeling had been awakened by the sight of the primroses.
"The hole is very large," said Ida, looking at the gap in the hedge; "if that dead root in the middle were pulled up, it would be wonderfully large."
She pulled the root up, and, though wonderful is a strong term, the hole was certainly larger.
"It is big enough to put one's head through," said Ida, and, stooping down, she exemplified the truth of her observation.
"Where the head goes, the body will follow," they say, and Ida's little body was soon on the other side of the hedge; the adage says nothing about clothes, however, and part of Ida's dress was left behind. It had caught on the stump as she scrambled through. But accidents will happen, and she was in the road, which was something.
"It is like going into the world to seek one's fortune," she thought; "thus Gerda went to look for little Kay, and so Joringel sought for the enchanted flower. One always comes to a wood."
And into the wood she came. Dame Nature had laid down her new green carpets, and everything looked lovely; but, as has been before said, it certainly was damp. The little singer under the tree cared no more for this, however, than the blackbird above him.
"Will you tell me, please, where you got your primroses?" asked Ida.
The child made a quaint, half-military salute; and smiled.
"Yonder," he said laconically, and, pointing up the wood, he went on with the song that he could not understand:
"Ah, my sweet home, Jerusalem, Would God I were in thee! Would God my woes were at an end, Thy joys that I might see!"
Ida went on and on, looking about her as she ran. Presently the wood sloped downwards, and pretty steeply, so that it was somewhat of a scramble; yet still she kept a sharp look-out, but no primroses did she see, except a few here and there upon the ground, which had been plucked too close to their poor heads to be held in anybody's hands. These showed the way, however, and Ida picked them up in sheer pity and carried them with her.
"This is how Hop-o'-my-Thumb found his way home," she thought.
At the bottom of the hill ran a little brook, and on the opposite side of the brook was a bank, and on the top of the bank was a hedge, and under the hedge were the primroses. But the brook was between!
Ida looked and hesitated. It was too wide to jump across, and here, as elsewhere, there was more water than usual. To turn back, however, was out of the question. Gerda would not have been daunted in her search by coming to a stream, nor would any one else that ever was read of in fairy tales. It is true that in Fairy-land there are advantages which cannot always be reckoned upon by commonplace children in this commonplace world. When the straw, the coal, and the bean came to a rivulet in their travels, the straw laid himself across as a bridge for the others, and had not the coal been a degree too hot on that unlucky occasion, they might (for anything Ida knew to the contrary) still have been pursuing their journey in these favourable circumstances. But a travelling-companion who expands into a bridge on an emergency is not to be met with every day; and as to poor Ida—she was alone. She stood first on one leg, and then on the other, she looked at the water, and then at the primroses, and then at the water again, and at last perceived that in one place there was a large, flat, moss-covered stone in the middle of the stream, which stood well out of the water, and from which—could she but reach it—she might scramble to the opposite bank. But how to reach it? that nice, large, secure, comfortable-looking stone.
"I must put some more stones," thought Ida. There were plenty in the stream, and Ida dragged them up, and began to make a ford by piling them together. It was chilly work, for a cloud had come over the sun; and Ida was just a little bit frightened by the fresh-water shrimps, and some queer, many-legged beasts, who shot off the stones as she lifted them. At last the ford was complete. Ida stepped daintily over the bridge she had made, and jumped triumphantly on to the big stone. Alas! for trusting to appearances. The stone that looked so firm, was insecurely balanced below, and at the first shock one side went down with a splash, and Ida went with it. What a triumph for the shrimps! She scrambled to the bank, however, made up a charming bunch of primroses, and turned to go home. Never mind how she got back across the brook. We have all waded streams before now, and very good fun it is in June, but rather chilly work in February; and, in spite of running home, Ida trembled as much with cold as with excitement when she stood at last before Mrs. Overtheway's green gate.
Click! Ida went up the white steps, marking them sadly with her wet feet, and gave a valiant rap. The door was opened, and a tall, rather severe-looking housekeeper asked:
"What do you want, my dear?"
A shyness, amounting to terror, had seized upon Ida, and she could hardly find voice to answer.
"If you please, I have brought these for—"
For whom? Ida's pale face burnt crimson as she remembered that after all she did not know the little old lady's name. Perhaps the severe housekeeper was touched by the sight of the black frock, torn as it was, for she said kindly:
"Don't be frightened, my dear. What do you want?"
"These primroses," said Ida, who was almost choking. "They are for Mrs. Overtheway to take to church with her. I am very sorry, if you please, but I don't know her name, and I call her Mrs. Overtheway because, you know, she lives over the way. At least—" Ida added, looking back across the road with a sudden confusion in her ideas, "at least—I mean—you know—we live over the way." And overwhelmed with shame at her own stupidity, Ida stuffed the flowers into the woman's hand, and ran home as if a lion were at her heels.
"Well! Miss Ida," began Nurse, as Ida opened the nursery door (and there was something terrible in her "well"); "if I ever—" and Nurse seized Ida by the arm, which was generally premonitory of her favourite method of punishment—"a good shaking." But Ida clung close and flung her arms round Nurse's neck.
"Don't shake me, Nursey, dear," she begged, "my head aches so. I have been very naughty, I know. I've done everything you can think of; I've crept through the hedge, and been right through the wood, and made a ford, and tumbled into the brook, and waded back, and run all the way home, and been round by the town for fear you should see me. And I've done something you could never, never think of if you tried till next Christmas, I've got some flowers for Mrs. Overtheway, only I did it so stupidly; she will think me a perfect goose, and perhaps be angry," and the tears came into Ida's eyes.
"She'll think you a naughty, troublesome child, as you are," said Nurse, who seldom hesitated to assume the responsibility of any statement that appeared to be desirable; "you're mad on that old lady, I think. Just look at that dress!"
Ida looked, but her tears were falling much too fast for her to have a clear view of anything, and the torn edges of the rent seemed fringed with prismatic colours.
To crown all she was sent to bed. In reality, this was to save the necessity of wearing her best frock till the other was mended, and also to keep her warm in case she should have caught cold; but Nurse spoke of it as a punishment, and Ida wept accordingly. And this was a triumph of that not uncommon line of nursery policy which consists in elaborately misleading the infant mind for good.
Chim! chime! went the bells next morning, and Mrs. Overtheway came down the white steps and through the green gate with a bunch of primroses in her hand. She looked up as usual, but not to the sky. She looked to the windows of the houses over the way, as if she expected some one to be looking for her. There was no face to be seen, however; and in the house directly opposite, one of the upper blinds was drawn down. Ida was ill.
How long she was ill, and of what was the matter with her, Ida had no very clear idea. She had visions of toiling through the wood over and over again, looking vainly for something that could never be found; of being suddenly surrounded and cut off by swollen streams; and of crawling, unclean beasts with preternatural feelers who got into her boots. Then these heavy dreams cleared away in part, and the stream seemed to ripple like the sound of church bells, and these chimed out the old tune
"Quite through the streets, with silver sound," &c.
And then, at last, she awoke one fine morning to hear the sweet chim-chiming of the church bells, and to see Nurse sitting by her bedside. She lay still for a few moments to make quite sure, and then asked in a voice so faint that it surprised herself:
"Has Mrs. Overtheway gone to church?"
On which, to her great astonishment, Nurse burst into tears. For this was the first reasonable sentence that poor Ida had spoken for several days.
To be very ill is not pleasant; but the slow process of getting back strength is often less pleasant still. One afternoon Ida knelt in her old place at the window. She was up, but might not go out, and this was a great grief. The day had been provokingly fine, and even now, though the sun was setting, it seemed inclined to make a fresh start, so bright was the rejuvenated glow with which it shone upon the opposite houses, and threw a mystic glory over Mrs. Overtheway's white steps and green railings. Oh! how Ida had wished to go out that afternoon! How long and clear the shadows were! It seemed to Ida that whoever was free to go into the open air could have nothing more to desire. "Out of doors" looked like Paradise to the drooping little maid, and the passers-by seemed to go up and down the sunny street in a golden dream. Ida gazed till the shadows lengthened, and crept over the street and up the houses; till the sunlight died upon the railings, and then upon the steps, and at last lingered for half an hour in bright patches among the chimney-stacks, and then went out altogether, and left the world in shade.
Twilight came on and Ida sat by the fire, which rose into importance now that the sunshine was gone; and, moreover, spring evenings are cold.
Ida felt desolate, and, on the whole, rather ill-used. Nurse had not been upstairs for hours, and though she had promised real tea and toast this evening, there were no signs of either as yet. The poor child felt too weak to play, and reading made her eyes ache. If only there were some one to tell her a story.
It grew dark, and then steps came outside the door, and a fumbling with the lock which made Ida nervous.
"Do come in, Nursey!" she cried.
The door opened, and someone spoke; but the voice was not the voice of Nurse. It was a sweet, clear, gentle voice; musical, though no longer young; such a voice as one seldom hears and never forgets, which came out of the darkness, saying:
"It is not Nurse, my dear; she is making the tea, and gave me leave to come up alone. I am Mrs. Overtheway."
And there in the firelight stood the little old lady, as she has been before described, except that instead of her Prayer-book she carried a large pot hyacinth in her two hands.
"I have brought you one of my pets, my dear," said she. "I think we both love flowers."
The little old lady had come to tea. This was charming. She took off her bonnet, and her cap more than fulfilled Ida's expectations, although it was nothing smarter than a soft mass of tulle, tied with white satin strings. But what a face looked out of it! Mrs. Overtheway's features were almost perfect. The beauty of her eyes was rather enhanced by the blue shadows that Time had painted round them, and they were those good eyes which remind one of a clear well, at the bottom of which he might see truth. When young she must have been exquisitely beautiful, Ida thought. She was lovely still.
In due time Nurse brought up tea, and Ida could hardly believe that her fancies were realized at last; indeed more than realized—for no bread and treacle diminished the dignity of the entertainment; and Nurse would as soon have thought of carrying off the Great Mogul on his cushions, as of putting Mrs. Overtheway and her chair into the corner.
But there is a limit even to the space of time for which one can enjoy tea and buttered toast. The tray was carried off, the hyacinth put in its place, and Ida curled herself up in an easy chair on one side of the fire, Mrs. Overtheway being opposite.
"You see I am over the way still," laughed the little old lady. "Now, tell me all about the primroses." So Ida told everything, and apologized for her awkward speeches to the housekeeper.
"I don't know your name yet," said she.
"Call me Mrs. Overtheway still, my dear, if you please," said the little old lady. "I like it."
So Ida was no wiser on this score.
"I was so sorry to hear that you had been made ill on my account," said Mrs. Overtheway. "I have been many times to ask after you, and to-night I asked leave to come to tea. I wish I could do something to amuse you, you poor little invalid. I know you must feel dull."
Ida's cheeks flushed.
"If you would only tell me a story," she said, "I do so like hearing Nurse's stories. At least she has only one, but I like it. It isn't exactly a story either, but it is about what happened in her last place. But I am rather tired of it. There's Master Henry—I like him very much, he was always in mischief; and there's Miss Adelaide, whose hair curled naturally—at least with a damp brush—I like her; but I don't have much of them; for Nurse generally goes off about a quarrel she had with the cook, and I never could tell what they quarrelled about, but Nurse said cook was full of malice and deceitfulness, so she left. I'm rather tired of it."
"What sort of a story shall I tell you?" asked Mrs. Overtheway.
"A true one, I think," said Ida. "Something that happened to you yourself, if you please. You must remember a great many things, being so old."
And Ida said this in simple good-faith, believing it to be a compliment.
"It is quite true," said Mrs. Overtheway, "that one remembers many things at the end of a long life, and that they are often those things which happened a long while ago, and which are sometimes so slight in themselves that it is wonderful that they should not have been forgotten. I remember, for instance, when I was about your age, an incident that occurred which gave me an intense dislike to a special shade of brown satin. I hated it then, and at the end of more than half a century, I hate it still. The thing in itself was a mere folly; the people concerned in it have been dead for many years, and yet at the present time I should find considerable difficulty in seeing the merits of a person who should dress in satin of that peculiar hue.
"What was it?" asked Ida.
"It was not amber satin, and it was not snuff-coloured satin; it was one of the shades of brown known by the name of feuille-morte, or dead-leaf colour. It is pretty in itself, and yet I dislike it."
"How funny," said Ida, wriggling in the arm-chair with satisfaction. "Do tell me about it."
"But it is not funny in the least, unfortunately," said Mrs. Overtheway, laughing. "It isn't really a story, either. It is not even like Nurse's experiences. It is only a strong remembrance of my childhood, that isn't worth repeating, and could hardly amuse you."
"Indeed, indeed, it would," said Ida. "I like the sound of it. Satin is so different from cooks."
Mrs. Overtheway laughed.
"Still, I wish I could think of something more entertaining," said she.
"Please tell me that," said Ida, earnestly; "I would rather hear something about you than anything else."
There was no resisting this loving argument. Ida felt she had gained her point, and curled herself up into a listening attitude accordingly. The hyacinth stood in solemn sweetness as if it were listening also; and Mrs. Overtheway, putting her little feet upon the fender to warm, began the story of ——
"It did not move my grief, to see The trace of human step departed, Because the garden was deserted, The blither place for me!
"Friends, blame me not! a narrow ken Hath childhood 'twixt the sun and sward: We draw the moral afterward— We feel the gladness then."
E. BARRETT BROWNING.
"I remember," said Mrs. Overtheway, "old as I am, I remember distinctly many of the unrecognized vexations, longings, and disappointments of childhood. By unrecognized, I mean those vexations, longings, and disappointments which could not be understood by nurses, are not confided even to mothers, and through which, even in our cradles, we become subject to that law of humanity which gives to every heart its own secret bitterness to be endured alone. These are they which sometimes outlive weightier memories, and produce life-long impressions disproportionate to their value; but oftener, perhaps, are washed away by the advancing tide of time—the vexations, longings, and disappointments of the next period of our lives. These are they which are apt to be forgotten too soon to benefit our children, and which in the forgetting make childhood all bright to look back upon, and foster that happy fancy that there is one division of mortal life in which greedy desire, unfulfilled purpose, envy, sorrow, weariness and satiety, have no part, by which every man believes himself at least to have been happy as a child.
"My childhood, on the whole, was a very happy one. The story that I am about to relate is only a fragment of it.
"As I look into the fire, and the hot coals shape themselves into a thousand memories of the past, I seem to be staring with childish eyes at a board that stares back at me out of a larch plantation, and gives notice that 'This House is to Let.' Then, again, I seem to peep through rusty iron gates at the house itself—an old red house, with large windows, through which one could see the white shutters that were always closed. To look at this house, though only with my mind's eye, recalls the feeling of mysterious interest with which I looked at it fifty years ago, and brings back the almost oppressive happiness of a certain day, when Sarah, having business with the couple who kept the empty manor, took me with her, and left me to explore the grounds whilst she visited her friends.
"Next to a companion with that rare sympathy of mind to mind, that exceptional coincidence of tastes, which binds some few friendships in a chain of mesmeric links, supplanting all the complacencies of love by intuition, is a companion whose desires and occupations are in harmony, if not in unison, with one's own. That friend whom the long patience of the angler does not chafe, the protracted pleasures of the sketcher do not weary, because time flies as swiftly with him whilst he pores over his book, or devoutly seeks botanical specimens through the artist's middle distance; that friend, in short—that valuable friend—who is blessed with the great and good quality of riding a hobby of his own, and the greater and better quality of allowing other people to ride theirs.
"I did not think out all this fifty years ago, neither were the tastes of that excellent housemaid, Sarah, quite on a level with those of which I have spoken; but I remember feeling the full comfort of the fact that Sarah's love for friendly gossip was quite as ardent as mine for romantic discovery; that she was disposed to linger quite as long to chat as I to explore; and that she no more expected me to sit wearily through her kitchen confidences, than I imagined that she would give a long afternoon to sharing my day-dreams in the gardens of the deserted manor.
"We had ridden our respective hobbies till nearly tea-time before she appeared.
"'I'm afraid you must be tired of waiting, Miss Mary,' said she.
"'Tired!' I exclaimed, 'not in the least. I have been so happy, and I am so much obliged to you, Sarah.'
"Need I say why I was so happy that afternoon? Surely most people have felt—at least in childhood—the fascination of deserted gardens, uninhabited houses, ruined churches. They have that advantage over what is familiar and in use that undiscovered regions have over the comfortable one that the traveller leaves to explore them, that the secret which does not concern me has over the facts which do, that what we wish for has over what we possess.
"If you, my dear, were to open one of those drawers, and find Nurse's Sunday dress folded up in the corner, it would hardly amuse you; but if, instead thereof, you found a dress with a long stiff bodice, square at the neck, and ruffled round the sleeves, such as you have seen in old pictures, no matter how old or useless it might be, it would shed round it an atmosphere of delightful and mysterious speculations. This curiosity, these fancies, roused by the ancient dress, whose wearer has passed away, are awakened equally by empty houses where someone must once have lived, though his place knows him no more. It was so with the manor. How often had I peeped through the gates, catching sight of garden walks, and wondering whither they led, and who had walked in them; seeing that the shutters behind one window were partly open, and longing to look in.
"To-day I had been in the walks and peeped through the window. This was the happiness.
"Through the window I had seen a large hall with a marble floor and broad stone stairs winding upwards into unknown regions. By the walks I had arrived at the locked door of the kitchen garden, at a small wood or wilderness of endless delights (including a broken swing), and at a dilapidated summer-house. I had wandered over the spongy lawn, which was cut into a long green promenade by high clipt yew-hedges, walking between which, in olden times, the ladies grew erect and stately, as plants among brushwood stretch up to air and light.
"Finally, I had brought away such relics as it seemed to me that honesty would allow. I had found half a rusty pair of scissors in the summer-house. Perhaps some fair lady of former days had lost them here, and swept distractedly up and down the long walks seeking them. Perhaps they were a present, and she had given a luck-penny for them, lest they should cut love. Sarah said the housekeeper might have dropped them there; but Sarah was not a person of sentiment. I did not show her the marble I found by the hedge, the acorn I picked up in the park, nor a puny pansy which, half way back to a wild heartsease, had touched me as a pathetic memorial of better days. When I got home, I put the scissors, the marble, and the pansy into a box. The acorn I hung in a bottle of water—it was to be an oak tree.
"Properly speaking, I was not at home just then, but on a visit to my grandmother and a married aunt without children who lived with her. A fever had broken out in my own home, and my visit here had been prolonged to keep me out of the way of infection. I was very happy and comfortable except for one single vexation, which was this:
"I slept on a little bed in what had once been the nursery, a large room which was now used as a workroom. A great deal of sewing was done in my grandmother's house, and the sewing-maid and at least one other of the servants sat there every evening. A red silk screen was put before my bed to shield me from the candlelight, and I was supposed to be asleep when they came upstairs. But I never remember to have been otherwise than wide awake, nervously awake, wearily awake. This was the vexation. I was not a strong child, and had a very excitable brain; and the torture that it was to hear those maids gossiping on the other side of the dim red light of my screen I cannot well describe, but I do most distinctly remember. I tossed till the clothes got hot, and threw them off till I got cold, and stopped my ears, and pulled the sheet over my face, and tried not to listen, and listened in spite of all. They told long stories, and made many jokes that I couldn't understand; sometimes I heard names that I knew, and fancied I had learnt some wonderful secret. Sometimes, on the contrary, I made noises to intimate that I was awake, when one of them would rearrange my glaring screen, and advise me to go to sleep; and then they talked in whispers, which was more distracting still.
"One evening—some months after my ramble round the manor—the maids went out to tea, and I lay in peaceful silence watching the shadows which crept noiselessly about the room as the fire blazed, and wishing Sarah and her colleagues nothing less than a month of uninterrupted tea-parties. I was almost asleep when Aunt Harriet came into the room. She brought a candle, put up my screen (the red screen again!), and went to the work-table. She had not been rustling with the work things for many minutes when my grandmother followed her, and shut the door with an air which seemed to promise a long stay. She also gave a shove to my screen, and then the following conversation began:
"'I have been to Lady Sutfield's to-day, Harriet.'
"'Indeed, ma'am.' But my aunt respectfully continued her work, as I could hear by the scraping of the scissors along the table.
"'I heard some news there. The manor is let.'
"I almost jumped in my bed, and Aunt Harriet's scissors paused.
"'Let, ma'am! To whom!'
"'To a Mrs. Moss. You must have heard me speak of her. I knew her years ago, when we were both young women. Anastatia Eden, she was then.'
"I could hear my aunt move to the fire, and sit down.
"'The beautiful Miss Eden? Whom did she marry at last? Was there not some love-affair of hers that you knew about?'
"'Her love-affairs were endless. But you mean Mr. Sandford. She treated him very ill—very ill.'
"There was a pause, while the fire crackled in the silence; and then, to the infinite satisfaction of my curiosity, Aunt Harriet said:
"'I've forgotten the story, ma'am. He was poor, was he not?'
"'He had quite enough to marry on,' my grandmother answered, energetically; 'but he was not a great match. It was an old story, my dear. The world! The world! The world! I remember sitting up with Anastatia after a ball, where he had been at her side all the evening. We sipped hot posset, and talked of our partners. Ah, dear!' and here my grandmother heaved a sigh; partly, perhaps, because of the follies of youth, and partly, perhaps, because youth had gone, and could come back no more.
"'Anastatia talked of him,' she continued. 'I remember her asking me if "her man" were not a pretty fellow, and if he had not sweet blue eyes and the greatest simplicity I ever knew but in a child. It was true enough; and he was a great deal more than that—a great deal more than she ever understood. Poor Anastatia! I advised her to marry him, but she seemed to look on that as impossible. I remember her saying that it would be different if she were not an acknowledged beauty; but it was expected that she would marry well, and he was comparatively poor, and not even singular. He was accomplished, and the soul of honour, but simple, provokingly simple, with no pretensions to carry off the toast of a county. My dear, if he had been notorious in any way—for dissipation, for brawling, for extravagance—I believe it would have satisfied the gaping world, and he would have had a chance. But there was nothing to talk about, and Anastatia had not the courage to take him for himself. She had the world at her feet, and paid for it by being bound by its opinion.'
"Here my grandmother, who was apt to moralize, especially when relating biographies of young ladies, gave another sigh.
"'Then why did she encourage him?' inquired Aunt Harriet; who also moralized, but with more of indignation and less of philosophy.
"'I believe she loved him in spite of herself; but at the last, when he offered, she turned prudent and refused him.'
"'Poor man! Did he ever marry?'
"'Yes, and very happily—a charming woman. But the strange part of the story is, that he came quite unexpectedly into a large property that was in his family.'
"'Did he? Then he would have been as good a match as most of her admirers?'
"'Better. It was a fine estate. Poor Anastatia!'
"'Serve her right,' said my aunt, shortly.
"'She was very beautiful,' my grandmother gently recommenced. She said this, not precisely as an excuse, but with something of the sort in her tone. 'Very beautiful! How stately she did look that night, to be sure! She did not paint, and her complexion (a shade too high by day) was perfection by candlelight. I can see her now, my dear, as she stood up for a minuet with him. We wore hoops, then; and she had a white brocade petticoat, embroidered with pink rosebuds, and a train and bodice of pea-green satin, and green satin shoes with pink heels. You never saw anything more lovely than that brocade. A rich old aunt had given it to her. The shades of the rosebuds were exquisite. I embroidered the rosebuds on that salmon-coloured cushion downstairs from a piece that Anastatia gave me as a pattern. Dear me! What a dress it was, and how lovely she looked in it! Her eyes were black, a thing you rarely see, and they shone and glittered under her powdered hair. She had a delicately curved nose; splendid teeth, too, and showed them when she smiled. Then such a lovely throat, and beautifully-shaped arms! I don't know how it is, my dear Harriet,' added my grandmother, thoughtfully, 'but you don't see the splendid women now-a-days that there were when I was young. There are plenty of pretty, lively girls (rather too lively, in my old-fashioned judgment), but not the real stately beauty that it was worth a twenty miles' drive there and back, just to see, at one of the old county balls.'
"My aunt sniffed, partly from a depressing consciousness of being one of a degenerate generation, and of a limited experience in the matter of county balls; partly also to express her conviction that principle is above beauty. She said:
"'Then Miss Eden married, ma'am?'
"'Yes, rather late, Mr. Moss; a wealthy Indian merchant, I believe. She lost all her children, I know, one after another, and then he died. Poor Anastatia! It seems like yesterday. And to think she should be coming here!'
"My grandmother sighed again, and I held my breath, hoping for some further particulars of the lovely heroine of this romance. But I was disappointed. My uncle's voice at this moment called loudly from below, and Aunt Harriet hurried off with a conscious meritoriousness about her, becoming a lady who had married the right man, and took great care of him.
"'Supper, ma'am. I think,' she said, as she left the room.
"My grandmother sat still by the fire, sighing gently now and then, and I lay making up my mind to brave all and tell her that I was awake. In the first place (although I was not intentionally eavesdropping, and my being awake was certainly not my fault), I felt rather uneasy at having overheard what I knew was not intended for my hearing. Besides this, I wanted to hear some more stories of the lovely Mrs. Moss, and to ask how soon she would come to the manor. After a few seconds my grandmother rose and toddled across the room. I made an effort, and spoke just above my breath:
"But my grandmother was rather deaf. Moreover, my voice may have been drowned in the heavy sigh with which she closed the nursery door.
"The room was empty again; the glare of the red screen was tenderly subdued in the firelight; but for all this I did not go to sleep. I took advantage of my freedom to sit up in bed, toss my hair from my forehead, and clasping my knees with my arms, to rock myself and think. My thoughts had one object; my whole mind was filled with one image—Mrs. Moss. The future inhabitant of my dear deserted manor would, in any circumstances, have been an interesting subject for my fancies. The favoured individual whose daily walk might be between the yew-hedges on that elastic lawn; who should eat, drink, and sleep through the commonplace hours of this present time behind those mystical white shutters! But when the individual added to this felicitous dispensation of fortune the personal attributes of unparalleled beauty and pea-green satin; of having worn hoops, high heels, and powder; of countless lovers, and white brocade with pink rosebuds—well might I sit, my brain whirling with anticipation, as I thought: 'She is coming here: I shall see her!' For though, of course, I knew that having lived in those (so to speak) pre-historic times when my grandmother was young, Mrs. Moss must now be an old woman; yet, strange as it may seem, my dear, I do assure you that I never realized the fact. I thought of her as I had heard of her—young and beautiful—and modelled my hopes accordingly.
"Most people's day-dreams take, sooner or later, a selfish turn. I seemed to identify myself with the beautiful Anastatia. I thought of the ball as one looks back to the past. I fancied myself moving through the minuet de la cour, whose stately paces scarcely made the silken rosebuds rustle. I rejected en masse countless suitors of fabulous wealth and nobility; but when it came to Mr. Sandford, I could feel with Miss Eden no more. My grandmother had said that she loved him, that she encouraged him, and that she gave him up for money. It was a mystery! In her place, I thought, I would have danced every dance with him! I would have knitted for him in winter, and gathered flowers for him in the summer hedges. To whom should one be most kind, if not to those whom one most loves? To love, and take pleasure in giving pain—to balance a true heart and clear blue eyes against money, and prefer money—was not at that time comprehensible by me. I pondered, and (so to speak) spread out the subject before my mind, and sat in judgment upon it.
"Money—that is, golden guineas (my grandmother had given me one on my birthday), crowns, shillings, sixpences, pennies, halfpennies, farthings; and when you come to consider how many things a guinea judiciously expended in a toy-shop will procure, you see that money is a great thing, especially if you have the full control of it, and are not obliged to spend it on anything useful.
"On the other hand, those whom you love and who love you—not in childhood, thank God, the smallest part of one's acquaintance.
"I made a list on my own account. It began with my mother, and ended with my yellow cat. (It included a crusty old gardener, who was at times, especially in the spring, so particularly cross that I might have been tempted to exchange him for the undisputed possession of that stock of seeds, tools, and flower-pots which formed our chief subject of dispute. But this is a digression.) I took the lowest. Could I part with Sandy Tom for any money, or for anything that money could buy? I thought of a speaking doll, a miniature piano, a tiny carriage drawn by four yellow mastiffs, of a fairy purse that should never be empty, with all that might thereby be given to others or kept for oneself: and then I thought of Sandy Tom—of his large, round, soft head; his fine eyes (they were yellow, not blue, and glared with infinite tenderness); his melodious purr; his expressive whiskers; his incomparable tail.
"Love rose up as an impulse, an instinct; it would not be doubted, it utterly refused to be spread out to question.
"'Oh, Puss?' I thought, 'if you could but leap on to the bed at this moment I would explain it all to our mutual comprehension and satisfaction. My dear Sandy,' I would say, 'with you to lie on the cushioned seat, a nice little carriage, and four yellow mastiffs, would be perfection; but as to comparing what I love—to wit, you, Sandy!—with what I want—to wit, four yellow mastiffs and a great many other things besides—I should as soon think of cutting off your tail to dust the dolls' house with.' Alas! Sandy Tom was at home; I could only imagine the gentle rub of the head with which he would have assented. Meanwhile, I made up my mind firmly on one point. My grandmother was wrong. Miss Anastatia Eden had not loved Mr. Sandford.
"Smash! The fire, which had been gradually becoming hollow, fell in at this moment, and I started to find myself chilly and cramped, and so lay down. Then my thoughts took another turn. I wondered if I should grow up beautiful, like Mrs. Moss. It was a serious question. I had often looked at myself in the glass, but I had a general idea that I looked much like other little girls of my age. I began gravely to examine myself in detail, beginning from the top of my head. My hair was light, and cropped on a level with the lobes of my ears; this, however, would amend itself with time; and I had long intended that my hair should be of raven blackness, and touch the ground at least; 'but that will not be till I am grown up,' thought I. Then my eyes: they were large; in fact, the undue proportions they assumed when I looked ill or tired formed a family joke. If size were all that one requires in eyes, mine would certainly pass muster. Moreover, they had long curly lashes. I fingered these slowly, and thought of Sandy's whiskers. At this point I nearly fell asleep, but roused myself to examine my nose. My grandmother had said that Mrs. Moss's nose was delicately curved. Now, it is certainly true that a curve may be either concave or convex; but I had heard of the bridge of a nose, and knew well enough which way the curve should go; and I had a shrewd suspicion that if so very short a nose as mine, with so much and so round a tip, could be said to be curved at all, the curve went the wrong way; at the same time I could not feel sure. For I must tell you that to lie in a comfortable bed, at an hour long beyond the time when one ought naturally to be asleep, and to stroke one's nose, is a proceeding not favourable to forming a clear judgment on so important a point as one's personal appearance. The very shadows were still as well as silent, the fire had ceased to flicker, a delicious quietude pervaded the room, as I stroked my nose and dozed, and dozed and stroked my nose, and lost all sense of its shape, and fancied it a huge lump growing under my fingers. The extreme unpleasantness of this idea just prevented my falling asleep; and I roused myself and sat up again.
"'It's no use feeling,' I thought, 'I'll look in the glass.'
"There was one mirror in the room. It hung above the mantelpiece. It was old, deeply framed in dark wood, and was so hung as to slope forwards into the room.
"In front of the fire stood an old-fashioned, cushioned arm-chair, with a very high back, and a many-frilled chintz cover. A footstool lay near it. It was here that my grandmother had been sitting. I jumped out of bed, put the footstool into the chair that I might get to a level with the glass, and climbed on to it. Thanks to the slope of the mirror, I could now see my reflection as well as the dim firelight would permit.
"'What a silly child!' you will say, Ida. Very silly, indeed, my dear. And how one remembers one's follies! At the end of half a century, I recall my reflection in that old nursery mirror more clearly than I remember how I looked in the glass before which I put on my bonnet this evening to come to tea with you: the weird, startled glance of my eyes, which, in their most prominent stage of weariness, gazed at me out of the shadows of the looking glass, the tumbled tufts of hair, the ghostly effect of my white night-dress. As to my nose, I could absolutely see nothing of its shape; the firelight just caught the round tip, which shone like a little white toadstool from the gloom, and this was all.
"'One can't see the shape, full face,' I thought. 'If I had only another looking-glass.'
"But there was not another. I knew it, and yet involuntarily looked round the room. Suddenly I exclaimed aloud, 'Mr. Joseph will do!'
"Who was Mr. Joseph?—you will ask. My dear Ida, I really do not know. I have not the least idea. I had heard him called Mr. Joseph, and I fancy he was a connection of the family. All I knew of him was his portrait, a silhouette, elegantly glazed and framed in black wood, which hung against the nursery wall. I was ignorant of his surname and history. I had never examined his features. But I knew that happily he had been very stout, since his ample coat and waistcoat, cut out in black paper, converted the glass which covered them into an excellent mirror for my dolls.
"Worthy Mr. Joseph! Here he was coming in useful again. How much we owe to our forefathers! I soon unhooked him, and climbing back into the chair, commenced an examination of my profile by the process of double reflection. But all in vain! Whether owing to the dusty state of the mirror, or to the dim light, or to the unobliging shapeliness of Mr. Joseph's person, I cannot say, but, turn and twist as I would, I could not get a view of my profile sufficiently clear and complete to form a correct judgment upon. I held Mr. Joseph, now high, now low; I stooped, I stood on tiptoe, I moved forward, I leant backward. It was this latest manoeuvre that aggravated the natural topheaviness of the chair, and endangered its balance. The fore-legs rose, my spasmodic struggle was made in the wrong direction, and I, the arm-chair, and Mr. Joseph fell backwards together.
"Two of us were light enough, and happily escaped unhurt. It was the arm-chair which fell with such an appalling crash, and whether it were any the worse or no, I could not tell as it lay. As soon as I had a little recovered from the shock, therefore, I struggled to raise it, whilst Mr. Joseph lay helplessly upon the ground, with his waistcoat turned up to the ceiling.
"It was thus that my aunt found us.
"If only Mr. Joseph and I had fallen together, no one need have been the wiser; but that lumbering arm-chair had come down with a bump that startled the sober trio at supper in the dining-room below.
"'What is the matter?' said Aunt Harriet.
"I was speechless.
"'What have you been doing?'
"I couldn't speak; but accumulating misfortune was gradually overpowering me, and I began to cry.
"'Get into bed,' said Aunt Harriet.
"I willingly obeyed, and Aunt Harriet seated herself at the foot.
"'Now, think before you speak, Mary,' she said quietly, 'and then tell me the truth. What have you been doing?'
"One large tear rolled over my nose and off the tip as I feebly began—
"'I got into the chair—'
"'Well?' said Aunt Harriet.
"'—to look in the glass.'
"'What for?' said Aunt Harriet.
"Tears flowed unrestrainedly over my face as I howled in self-abasement—
"'To look at the shape of my nose.'
"At this point Aunt Harriet rose, and, turning her back rather abruptly, crossed the room, and picked up Mr. Joseph. (I have since had reason to believe that she was with difficulty concealing a fit of laughter.)
"'What have you had this picture down for?' she inquired, still with her back to me.
"'I couldn't see,' I sobbed, 'and I got Mr. Joseph to help me.'
"My aunt made no reply, and, still carefully concealing her face, restored Mr. Joseph to his brass nail with great deliberation.
"There is nothing like full confession. I broke the silence.
"'Aunt Harriet, I was awake when you and Granny were here, and heard what you said.'
"'You are a very silly, naughty child,' my aunt severely returned. 'Why don't you go to sleep when you are sent to bed?'
"'I can't,' I sobbed, 'with talking and candles.'
"'You've got the screen,' said Aunt Harriet; and I cannot tell why, but somehow I lacked courage to say that the red screen was the chief instrument of torture!
"'Well, go to sleep now,' she concluded, 'and be thankful you're not hurt. You might have killed yourself.'
"Encouraged by the gracious manner in which she tucked me up, I took a short cut to the information which I had failed to attain through Mr. Joseph.
"'Aunt Harriet,' I said, 'do you think I shall ever be as beautiful as Mrs. Moss?'
"'I'm ashamed of you,' said Aunt Harriet.
"I climbed no more into the treacherous arm-chair. I eschewed the mirror. I left Mr. Joseph in peace upon the wall. I took no further trouble about the future prospects of my nose. But night and day I thought of Mrs. Moss. I found the old cushion, and sat by it, gazing at the faded tints of the rosebuds, till I imagined the stiff brocade in all its beauty and freshness. I took a vigorous drawing fit; but it was only to fill my little book with innumerable sketches of Mrs. Moss. My uncle lent me his paint-box, as he was wont; and if the fancy portraits that I made were not satisfactory even to myself, they failed in spite of cheeks blushing with vermilion, in spite of eyes as large and brilliant as lamp-black could make them, and in spite of the most accurately curved noses that my pencil could produce. The amount of gamboge and Prussian blue that I wasted in vain efforts to produce a satisfactory pea-green, leaves me at this day an astonished admirer of my uncle's patience. At this time I wished to walk along no other road than that which led to my dear manor, where the iron gates were being painted, the garden made tidy, and the shutters opened; but, above all, the chief object of my desires was to accompany my grandmother and aunt in their first visit to Mrs. Moss.
"Once I petitioned Aunt Harriet on this subject. Her answer was—
"'My dear, there would be nothing to amuse you; Mrs. Moss is an old woman.'
"'Granny said she was so beautiful,' I suggested.
"'So she was, my dear, when your grandmother was young.'
"These and similar remarks I heard and heeded not. They did not add one wrinkle to my ideal of Mrs. Moss: they in no way whatever lessened my desire of seeing her. I had never seen my grandmother young, and her having ever been so seemed to me at the most a matter of tradition; on the other hand, Mrs. Moss had been presented to my imagination in the bloom of youth and beauty, and, say what they would, in the bloom of youth and beauty I expected to see her still.
"One afternoon, about a week after the arrival of Mrs. Moss, I was busy in the garden, where I had been working for an hour or more, when I heard carriage wheels drive up and stop at our door. Could it be Mrs. Moss? I stole gently round to a position where I could see without being seen, and discovered that the carriage was not that of any caller, but my uncle's. Then Granny and Aunt Harriet were going out. I rushed up to the coachman, and asked where they were going. He seemed in no way overpowered by having to reply—'To the manor, Miss.'
"That was to Mrs. Moss, and I was to be left behind! I stood speechless in bitter disappointment, as my grandmother rustled out in her best silk dress, followed by Aunt Harriet and my uncle, who, when he saw me, exclaimed:
"'Why, there's my little Mary! Why don't you take her? I'll be bound she wants to go.'
"'I do, indeed!' I exclaimed, in Cinderella-like tones.
"'But Mrs. Moss is such an old lady,' said Aunt Harriet, whose ideas upon children were purely theoretical, and who could imagine no interests for them apart from other children, from toys or definite amusements—'What could the child do with herself?'
"'Do!' said my uncle, who took a rough and cheery view of life, 'why, look about her, to be sure. And if Mrs. M. is an old lady, there'll be all the more Indian cabinets and screens, and japanned tables, and knick-knacks, and lap-dogs. Keep your eyes open, Miss Mary. I've never seen the good lady or her belongings, but I'll stake my best hat on the japan ware and the lap-dog. Now, how soon can you be dressed?'
"Later in life the selfish element mixes more largely with our admirations. A few years thence, and in a first interview with the object of so many fancies, I should have thought as much of my own appearance on the occasion, as of what I was myself to see. I should have taken some pains with my toilette. At that time, the desire to see Mrs. Moss was too absorbing to admit of any purely personal considerations. I dashed into the nursery, scrubbed my hands and face to a raw red complexion, brushed my hair in three strokes, and secured my things with one sweep. I hastily pocketed a pincushion of red cloth, worked with yellow silk spots, in the likeness of a strawberry. It was a pet treasure of mine, and I intended it as an offering to Mrs. Moss. I tied my hood at the top of the stairs, fastened my tippet in the hall, and reached the family coach by about three of those bounds common to all young animals.
"'Halloa!' said my uncle, with his face through the carriage door. 'You've not thanked me yet.'
"I flung my arms round his starched neck-cloth.
"'You're a darling!' I exclaimed, with an emphatic squeeze.
"'You're another,' he replied, returning the embrace upon my hood.
"With this mutual understanding we parted, and I thought that if Mrs. Moss were not certain to fulfil my ideal, I should have wished her to be as nearly like Uncle James as the circumstances of the case would permit. I watched his yellow waistcoat and waving hands till they could be seen no longer, and then I settled myself primly upon the back seat, and ventured upon a shy conciliating promise to be 'very good.'
"'You're quite welcome to come, child,' said Aunt Harriet; 'but as I said, there are neither children nor playthings for you.'
"Children or playthings! What did I want with either? I put my arm through the loop by the window and watched the fields as they came and vanished, with vacant eyes, and thought of Mrs. Moss. A dozen times had I gone through the whole scene in my mind before we drove through the iron gates. I fancied myself in the bare, spacious hall, at which I had peeped; I seemed to hear a light laugh, and to see the beautiful face of Mrs. Moss look over the banisters; to hear a rustle, and the scraping of the stiff brocade, as the pink rosebuds shimmered, and the green satin shoes peeped out, and tap, tap, tap, the high pink heels resounded from the shallow stairs.
"I had dreamed this day-dream many times over before the carriage stopped with a shake, and Aunt Harriet roused me, asking if I were asleep. In another minute or so we were in the hall, and here I met with my first disappointment.
"To begin with, I had seen the hall unfurnished, and had not imagined it otherwise. I had pictured Mrs. Moss in her beauty and rose brocade, the sole ornament of its cold emptiness. Then (though I knew that my grandmother and aunt must both be present) I had really fancied myself the chief character in this interview with Mrs. Moss. I had thought of myself as rushing up the stairs to meet her, and laying the pincushion at her green satin feet. And now that at last I was really in the hall, I should not have known it again. It was carpeted from end to end. Fragrant orange-trees stood in tubs, large hunting-pictures hung upon the walls, below which stood cases of stuffed birds, and over all presided a footman in livery, who himself looked like a stuffed specimen of the human race with unusually bright plumage.
"No face peeped over the banisters, and when we went upstairs, the footman went first (as seemed due to him), then my grandmother, followed by my aunt, and lastly I, in the humblest insignificance, behind them. My feet sank into the soft stair-carpets, I vacantly admired the elegant luxury around me, with an odd sensation of heartache. Everything was beautiful, but I had wanted nothing to be beautiful but Mrs. Moss.
"Already the vision began to fade. That full-fed footman troubled my fancies. His scarlet plush killed the tender tints of the rosebuds in my thoughts, and the streaky powder upon his hair seemed a mockery of the toupee I hoped to see, whose whiteness should enhance the lustre of rare black eyes. He opened the drawing-room door and announced my grandmother and aunt. I followed, and (so far as one may be said to face anything when one stands behind the skirts of two intervening elders) I was face to face with Mrs. Moss.
"That is, I was face to face with a tall, dark, old woman, with stooping shoulders, a hooked nose, black eyes that smouldered in their sunken sockets, and a distinct growth of beard upon her chin. Mr. Moss had been dead many years, and his widow had laid aside her weeds. She wore a dress of feuille-morte satin, and a black lace shawl. She had a rather elaborate cap, with a tendency to get on one side, perhaps because it would not fit comfortably on the brown front with bunchy curls which was fastened into its place by a band of broad black velvet.
"And this was Mrs. Moss! This was the end of all my fancies! There was nothing astonishing in the disappointment; the only marvel was that I should have indulged in so foolish a fancy for so long. I had been told more than once that Mrs. Moss was nearly as old as my grandmother. As it was, she looked older. Why—I could not tell then, though I know now.
"My grandmother, though never a beauty, had a sweet smile of her own, and a certain occasional kindling of the eyes, the outward signs of a character full of sentiment and intelligence; and these had outlasted youth. She had always been what is called 'pleasing,' and she was pleasing still. But in Mrs. Moss no strength, no sentiment, no intellect filled the place of the beauty that was gone. Features that were powerful without character, and eyes that glowed without expression, formed a wreck with little to recall the loveliness that had bewildered Mr. Sandford—and me.
"There is not much more to tell, Ida. This was the disappointment. This is the cause of my dislike for a certain shade of feuille-morte satin. It disappointed me of that rose brocade which I was never to see. You shall hear how I got through the visit, however. This meeting, which (like so many meetings) had proved the very reverse of what was hoped.
"Through an angle of Aunt Harriet's pelisse, I watched the meeting between my grandmother and Mrs. Moss. They kissed and then drew back and looked at each other, still holding hands. I wondered if my grandmother felt as I felt. I could not tell. With one of her smiles, she bent forward, and, kissing Mrs. Moss again, said:
"'God bless you, Anastatia.'
"'God bless you, Elizabeth.'
"It was the first time Mrs. Moss had spoken, and her voice was rather gruff. Then both ladies sat down, and my grandmother drew out her pocket-handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Mrs. Moss began (as I thought) to look for hers, and, not finding it, called,
on which a faded little woman, with a forefinger in a faded-looking book, came out from behind some window-curtains, and, rummaging Mrs. Moss's chair with a practised hand, produced a large silver snuff-box, from which Mrs. Moss took a pinch, and then offered it to Granny, who shook her head. Mrs. Moss took another and a larger pinch. It was evident what made her voice so gruff.
"Aunt Harriet was introduced as 'My daughter Harriet,' and made a stiff curtsey as Mrs. Moss smiled, and nodded, and bade her 'sit down, my dear.' Throughout the whole interview she seemed to be looked upon by both ladies as a child, and played the part so well, sitting prim and silent on her chair, that I could hardly help humming as I looked at her:
'Hold up your head, Turn out your toes, Speak when you're spoken to, Mend your clothes.'
I was introduced, too, as 'a grandchild,' made a curtsey the shadow of Aunt Harriet's, received a nod, the shadow of that bestowed upon her, and got out of the way as soon as I could, behind my aunt's chair, where, coming unexpectedly upon three fat pug-dogs on a mat, I sat down among them and felt quite at home.
"The sight of the pugs brought Uncle James to my mind, and when I looked round the room, it seemed to me that he must be a conjuror at least, so true was everything he had said. A large Indian screen hid the door; japanned boxes stood on a little table to correspond in front of it, and there were two cabinets having shallow drawers with decorated handles, and a great deal of glass, through which odd teacups, green dragons, Indian gods, and Dresden shepherdesses were visible upon the shelves. The room was filled with knick-knacks, and here were the pug-dogs, no less than three of them! They were very fat, and had little beauty except as to their round heads and black wrinkled snouts, which I kissed over and over again.
"'Do you mind Mrs. Moss's being old, and dressing in that hideous brown dress?' I asked in a whisper at the ear of one of these round heads. 'Think of the rosebuds on the brocade, and the pea-green satin, and the high-heeled shoes. Ah!' I added, 'you are only a pug, and pugs don't think.' Nevertheless, I pulled out the pincushion, and showed it to each dog in turn, and the sight of it so forcibly reminded me of my vain hopes, that I could not help crying. A hot tear fell upon the nose of the oldest and fattest pug, which so offended him that he moved away to another mat at some distance, and as both the others fell fast asleep, I took refuge in my own thoughts.
"The question arose why should not Mrs. Moss have the pincushion after all? I had expected her to be young and beautiful, and she had proved old and ugly, it is true; but there is no reason why old and ugly people should not have cushions to keep their pins in. It was a struggle to part with my dear strawberry pincushion in the circumstances, but I had fairly resolved to do so, when the rustle of leave-taking began, and I had to come out of my corner.
"'Bid Mrs. Moss good-day, Mary,' said my grandmother; and added, 'the child has been wild to come and see you, Anastatia.'
"Mrs. Moss held out her hand good-naturedly. 'So you wanted to see me, my dear?' said she.
"I took my hand out of my pocket, where I had been holding the pincushion, and put both into Mrs. Moss's palm.
"'I brought this for you ma'am,' I said. 'It is not a real strawberry; it is emery; I made it myself.'
"And the fact of having sacrificed something for Mrs. Moss made me almost fond of her. Moreover, there was an expression in her eyes at that moment which gave them beauty. She looked at my grandmother and laid her hand on my head.
"'I lost all mine, Elizabeth.'
"I thought she was speaking of her pincushions, and being in a generous mood, said hastily,
"When that is worn out, ma'am, I will make you another.'
"But she was speaking of her children. Poor Mrs. Moss! She took another huge pinch of snuff, and called, 'Metcalfe.'
"The faded little woman appeared once more.
"'I must give you a keepsake in return, my dear,' said Mrs. Moss. 'The china pug, Metcalfe!'
"Metcalfe (whose face always wore a smile that looked as if it were just about to disappear, and who, indeed, for that matter, always looked as if she were just about to disappear herself) opened one of the cabinets, and brought out a little toy pug in china, very delicately coloured, and looking just like one of my friends on the mat. I fell in love with it at once, and it was certainly a handsome exchange for the strawberry pincushion.
"'You will send the child to see me now and then, Elizabeth?' said Mrs. Moss as we retired.
"In the end Mrs. Moss and I became great friends. I put aside my dream among the 'vain fancies' of life, and took very kindly to the manor in its new aspect. Even the stuffed footman became familiar, and learnt to welcome me with a smile. The real Mrs. Moss was a more agreeable person than I have, I fear, represented her. She had failed to grasp solid happiness in life, because she had chosen with the cowardice of an inferior mind; but she had borne disappointment with dignity, and submitted to heavy sorrows with patience; and a greater nature could not have done more. She was the soul of good humour, and the love of small chat, which contrasted so oddly with her fierce appearance, was a fund of entertainment for me, as I fed my imagination and stored my memory with anecdotes of the good old times in the many quiet evenings we spent together. I learnt to love her more heartily, I confess, when she bought a new gown and gave the feuille-morte satin to Mrs. Metcalfe.
"Mrs. Metcalfe was 'humble companion' to Mrs. Moss. She was in reality single, but she exacted the married title as a point of respect. At the beginning of our acquaintance I called her 'Miss Metcalfe,' and this occasioned the only check our friendship ever received. Now I would, with the greatest pleasure, have addressed her as 'My Lord Archbishop,' or in any other style to which she was not entitled, it being a matter of profound indifference to me. But the question was a serious one to her, and very serious she made it, till I almost despaired of our ever coming to an understanding on the subject.
"On every other point she was unassuming almost to non-entity. She was weak-minded to the verge of mental palsy. She was more benevolent in deed, and more wandering in conversation, than any one I have met with since. That is, in ordinary life. In the greenhouse or garden (with which she and the head-gardener alone had any real acquaintance) her accurate and profound knowledge would put to shame many professed garden botanists I have met with since. From her I learnt what little I know of the science of horticulture, and with her I spent many happy hours over the fine botanical works in the manor library, which she alone ever opened.
"And so I became reconciled to things as they were, though to this day I connect with that shade of feuille-morte satin a disappointment not to be forgotten."
* * * * *
"It is a dull story, is it not, Ida?" said the little old lady, pausing here. She had not told it in precisely these words, but this was the sum and substance of it.
Ida nodded. Not that she had thought the story dull, so far as she had heard it, and whilst she was awake; but she had fallen asleep, and so she nodded.
Mrs. Overtheway looked back at the fire, to which, indeed, she had been talking for some time past.
"A child's story?" she thought. "A tale of the blind, wilful folly of childhood? Ah, my soul! Alas, my grown-up friends! Does the moral belong to childhood alone? Have manhood and womanhood no passionate, foolish longings, for which we blind ourselves to obvious truth, and of which the vanity does not lessen the disappointment? Do we not still toil after rosebuds, to find feuilles-mortes?"
No voice answered Mrs. Overtheway's fanciful questions. The hyacinth nodded fragrantly on its stalk, and Ida nodded in her chair. She was fast asleep—happily asleep—with a smile upon her face.
The shadows nodded gently on the walls, and like a shadow the little old lady stole quietly away.
When Ida awoke, she found herself lying partly in the arm-chair, and partly in the arms of Nurse, who was lifting her up. A candle flared upon the table, by the fire stood an empty chair, and the heavy scent that filled the room was as sweet as the remembrance of past happiness. The little old lady had vanished, and, but for the hyacinth, Ida would almost have doubted whether her visit had not been a dream.
"Has Mrs. Overtheway been long gone, Nursey?" she asked, keeping her eyes upon the flowerpot.
"Ever so long!" said Nurse, "and here you've been snoring away, and the old lady's been downstairs, telling me how comfortably you were asleep, and she's coming again to-morrow evening, if you're good."
It was precisely twelve minutes since Mrs. Overtheway left the house, but Nurse was of a slightly exaggerative turn of mind, and few people speak exactly on the subject of time, especially when there is an opportunity of triumphing over someone who has been asleep before bed-time. The condition of Ida's being good was also the work of Nurse's own instructive fancy, but Ida caught eagerly at the welcome news of another visit.
"Then she is not angry with me for falling asleep, Nursey? I was so comfortable, and she has such a nice voice, I couldn't help it; I think I left off about the pugs. I wish I had a pug with a wrinkled black snout, don't you, Nursey?"
"I'm sure I don't, Miss Ida. My father kept all sorts of pigs, and we used to have one with a black snout and black spots, but it was as ugly as ugly could be; and I never could fancy the bacon would be fit to eat. You must have been dreaming, I'm sure; the old lady would never tell you about such rubbish, I know."
"It's pugs, not pigs, Nursey; and they're dogs, you know," said Ida, laughing. "How funny you are! And indeed she did tell me, I couldn't have dreamt it; I never dreamt anything so nice in my life."
"And never will, most likely," said Nurse, who was very skilful in concluding a subject which she did not want to discuss, and who was apt to do so by a rapid twist in the line of argument, which Ida would find somewhat bewildering. "But, dear Miss Ida," she continued, "do leave off clutching at that chair-arm, when I'm lifting you up; and your eyes 'll drop out of your head, if you go on staring like that."
Ida relaxed the nervous grasp, to which she had been impelled by her energy on the subject of the pugs, let down her eyebrows, and submitted to be undressed. The least pleasant part of this ceremony may be comprised in the word curl-papers. Ida's hair was dark, and soft, and smooth, but other little girls wore ringlets, and so this little girl must wear ringlets too. To that end her hair was every night put into curl-papers, with much tight twisting and sharp jerking, and Ida slept upon an irregular layer of small paper parcels, which made pillows a mockery. With all this, however, a damp day, or a good romp, would sometimes undo the night's work, to the great disgust of Nurse. In her last place, the young lady's hair had curled with a damp brush, as Ida well knew, and Nurse made so much of her own grievance, in having to use the curl-papers, that no place was left for Ida's grievance in having to sleep upon them. She submitted this night therefore, as other nights, in patience, and sat swinging her feet and accommodating her head to the sharp tugs, which always seemed to come from unexpected quarters. Perhaps, however, her mind may have been running a little upon grievances, which made her say:
"You know, Nursey, how you are always telling me I ought to be thankful for having things, and not having things, and—"
"I wish you'd talk sense, and not give way with your head so when I pull, Miss Ida," retorted Nurse, "having things, and not having things; I don't know what you mean."
"Well, you know, Nursey, the other day when I said I didn't like bread-and-treacle treacled so long before, and soaked in, and you said I ought to be thankful that I had bread-and-treacle at all, and that I hadn't a wooden leg, and to eat anything I could get, like the old sailor man at the corner; well, do you know, I've thought of something I am so thankful for, and that is that I haven't a red screen to my bed."
"I really do think, Miss Ida," said Nurse, "that you'll go out of your mind some day, with your outlandish fancies. And where you get them, I can't think. I'm sure I never put such things into your head."
Ida laughed again.
"Never mind, Nursey, it all belongs to the pug story. Am I done now? And when you've tucked me up, please, would you mind remembering to put the flower where I can see it when I wake?"
Nurse did as she was asked, and Ida watched the hyacinth till she fell asleep; and she slept well.
In the morning she took her old post at the window. The little old lady had never seemed so long in making her appearance, nor the bells so slow to begin. Chim! chime! chim! chime! There they were at last, and there was Mrs. Overtheway. She looked up, waved a bunch of snowdrops, and went after the bells. Ida kissed her hand, and waved it over and over again, long after the little old lady was out of sight.
"There's a kiss for you, dear Mrs. Overtheway," she cried, "and kisses for your flowers, and your house, and everything belonging to you, and for the bells and the church, and everybody in it this morning, and—"
But, at this point of universal benevolence, Nurse carried her off to breakfast.
The little old lady came to tea as before. She looked as well as ever, and Nurse was equally generous in the matter of tea and toast. Mrs. Overtheway told over again what Ida had missed in the story of Mrs. Moss, and Ida apologized, with earnest distress, for her uncivil conduct in falling asleep.
"There I was snoring away, when you were telling me such a delightful story!" she exclaimed, penitently.
"Not snoring exactly, my dear," smiled the little old lady, "but you looked very happy."
"I thought Nursey said so," said Ida. "Well, I'm very glad. It would have been too rude. And you know I don't know how it was, for I am so fond of stories; I like nothing so well."
"Well, shall I try again?" said Mrs. Overtheway. "Perhaps I may find a more amusing one, and if it does put you to sleep, it won't do any harm. Indeed, I think the doctor will say I'm very good company for you."
"You are very good! That I can tell him," said Ida, fervently, "and please let it be about yourself again, if you can remember anything. I like true stories."
"Talking of snoring," said Mrs. Overtheway, "reminds me of something that happened in my youth, and it is true, though, do you know, it is a ghost story."
Ida danced in her chair.
"That is just what I should like!" she exclaimed. "Nurse has a ghost story, belonging to a farm-house, which she tells the housemaid, but she says she can't tell me till I am older, and I should so like to hear a ghost story, if it isn't too horrid."
"This ghost story isn't too horrid, I think," laughed the little old lady, "and if you will let me think a few minutes, and then forgive my prosy way of telling it, you shall have it at once."
There was a pause. The little old lady sat silent, and so sat Ida also, with her eyes intently fixed on Mrs. Overtheway's face, over which an occasional smile was passing.
"It's about a ghost who snored," said the little old lady, doubtfully.
"Delicious!" responded Ida. The two friends settled themselves comfortably, and in some such words as these was told the following story:—
THE SNORING GHOST.
Clown. Madman, thou errest: I say there is no darkness but Ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.... What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl?
Malvolio. That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.
Clown. What thinkest thou of his opinion?
Malvolio. I think nobly of the soul, and in no way approve his opinion.
Twelfth Night, iv. 2.
"I remember," said Mrs. Overtheway, "I remember my first visit. That is, I remember the occasion when I and my sister Fatima did, for the first time in our lives, go out visiting without our mother, or any grown-up person to take care of us."
"Do you remember your mother?" asked Ida.
"Quite well, my dear, I am thankful to say. The best and kindest of mothers!"
"Was your father alive, too?" Ida asked, with a sigh.
The old lady paused, pitying the anxious little face opposite, but Ida went on eagerly:
"Please tell me what he was like."
"He was a good deal older than my mother, who had married very early. He was a very learned man. His tastes and accomplishments were many and various, and he was very young-hearted and enthusiastic in the pursuit of them all his life. He was apt to take up one subject of interest after another, and to be for the time completely absorbed in it. And, I must tell you, that whatever the subject might be, so long as his head was full of it, the house seemed full of it too. It influenced the conversation at meals, the habits of the household, the names of the pet animals, and even of the children. I was called Mary, in a fever of chivalrous enthusiasm for the fair and luckless Queen of Scotland, and Fatima received her name when the study of Arabic had brought about an eastern mania. My father had wished to call her Shahrazad, after the renowned sultana of the 'Arabian Nights' but when he called upon the curate to arrange for the baptism, that worthy man flatly rebelled. A long discussion ended in my father's making a list of eastern names, from which the curate selected that of Fatima as being least repugnant to the sobriety of the parish registers. So Fatima she was called, and as she grew up pale, and moon-faced, and dark-eyed, the name became her very well."