[Frontispiece: Betty came to a standstill, and Prince likewise, the latter putting his tongue out and looking up inquiringly, as he panted for breath.]
Amy Le Feuvre
The Religious Tract Society
4 Bouverie Street, London, E.C. 4
CHAPTER I CAGED BIRDS
CHAPTER II 'MOTHER NATURE'
CHAPTER III WAS IT AN ANGEL?
CHAPTER IV ADVENTURES
CHAPTER V PRINCE
CHAPTER VI MADE INTO A COUPLE
CHAPTER VII HAYMAKING
CHAPTER VIII GOD'S PATCHWORK
CHAPTER IX BETTY'S DISCOVERY
CHAPTER X A LITTLE MESSENGER
CHAPTER XI A DARING FEAT
CHAPTER XII UNCLE HARRY'S FRIEND
CHAPTER XIII 'WHEN WE TWO MET'
CHAPTER XIV A HERO'S DEATH
CHAPTER XV COMFORTED
It was just four o'clock on a dull grey winter afternoon. The little Stuarts' nursery looked the picture of cosiness and comfort with the blazing fire that threw flickering lights over the bright-coloured pictures on the walls, the warm carpet under foot, and the fair fresh faces of the children gathered there.
Five of them there were, and they were alone, for the old nurse who had brought them all up from their infancy was at present absent from the room.
By one of the large square windows stood one of the little girls; she was gazing steadily out into the fast darkening street below, her chin resting on one of the bars that were fastened across the lower part of the window. How the children disliked those bars! Marks of little teeth were plainly discernible along them, and no prisoners could have tried more perseveringly to shake them from their sockets than they did. Betty, who stood there now, had received great applause one afternoon when, after sundry twists and turns, she had successfully thrust her little dark curly head through, and was able to have a delightfully clear view of all the passers-by.
But the sequel was not so pleasant, for somehow or other Betty's head would not come in so easily as it went out, and when nurse came to the rescue with an angry hand, the poor little head was very much bruised in consequence, and Betty's reward for such dexterity was an aching head and dry bread for tea. She was a slight, slim little figure, with big blue eyes, and long, black curved lashes and eyebrows, which made her eyes the most beautiful feature in her face. Very soft, fine curly hair surrounded a rather pathetic-looking little face; but her movements were like quicksilver, and though all the little Stuarts were noted for their mischievous ways and daring escapades, Betty eclipsed them all.
She turned from the window soon with a sigh of relief.
'He's coming,' she said, 'old Bags is coming, and it's my turn to-day.'
There was no response. Bobby and Billy, the twins, little lads only just promoted from petticoats to knickerbockers, were deeply engrossed in one corner of the room over their bricks. Perched on the top of a low chest of drawers were Douglas and Molly, and their heads were in that close proximity that told that secret business was going on.
Betty's heart sank a little.
'Old Bags is coming,' she repeated; 'don't you hear his bell?'
'We're busy,' said Douglas, looking up; 'we won't have Bags' story to-day.'
'You promised yesterday when you put it off that you would hear it to-day. It isn't fair. I always listen to you.'
'Tell it to the babies; they'll like to hear.'
This was adding insult to injury, and when the twins trotted up to the window Betty turned a defiant back upon them, tears of disappointment dimming the blue eyes.
'She's cwying,' announced Bobby, twisting his head round to look up into her face.
Betty turned round furiously; a sharp push sent Bobby to the ground, and in falling he struck his head against one of the feet of the nursery table. There was a howl, general confusion, and nurse appeared, to discover and chastise the offender. Betty was led off in disgrace to a little room on the nursery landing, known by the children as 'Cells.' Their uncle, a young captain in the Guards, had given it that name, but in reality it was nurse's storeroom, and was heated with hot pipes, to air the linen kept there. It was a small, square room, containing a table and one chair; the window was high above the children's reach, and locked cupboards were on every side. Nurse invariably used it for punishing small offences, and being a woman of stern principles, she generally set the little culprit a text to learn whilst there. A Bible was on the table, and Betty was led up to it.
'You will stay here till tea-time, and will not come out until you have learnt a text, and said you are sorry for knocking down your little brother in a fit of wicked temper. This is the fourth time I have had to bring you here this week, and it is now only Tuesday. I have more trouble with you than all the others put together, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.'
Betty was sobbing bitterly, and when nurse left the room and turned the key behind her, the child flung herself down on the floor.
'It's a shame! It's all Douglas and Molly: they make promises and don't keep them; and it was ever so much nicer a story than Molly's. I know they'd have liked it if they'd heard it; they never think I can do anything!'
To explain the cause of Betty's grievance, I must tell you that it was a custom of the little Stuarts to await the muffin man's approach on his rounds, and as his bell would sound, they would take it in turns each day to relate to the others an account of the different houses he had gone to, and who had been the fortunate individuals to receive the muffins that had already disappeared from his tray. It was an idle hour in the nursery from four to five, and if the gathering dusk kept the active eyes still, the fertile brains were brought into requisition. Telling stories was a constant delight, and the wonderful adventures that befell the muffins on their daily rounds kept the little gathering quiet and happy till tea appeared.
Betty's stories were not inferior to her elders, and it was her childish sense of justice and consideration that was outraged. But tears will come to an end, and soon the little maiden was perched up at the table to learn the task before her. She turned over the pages till she reached Revelation, that mysterious and mystical book that so fascinates and contents a child's soul, though the wisest on earth read it with perplexity and awe. And after a moment or two Betty had found a text to learn, and when nurse appeared later on she repeated unfalteringly with shining eyes and with a note of triumph in her tone 'And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb' (Rev. vii. 14).
'That's a good child; are you sorry?'
'Yes,' was the reply, rather absently given, for Betty's mind was on the white-robed throng; and how could she let nurse know all the workings of her busy brain over the verse she had been taking into her heart and soul?
'And remember,' said nurse gravely, 'that no naughty children who quarrel and fight will ever be in heaven.'
'Not even if they've been through great tribulation?' quickly demanded Betty.
But nurse did not hear, and Betty was received into the well-lighted nursery with acclamation from the others, already seated at the round table for tea.
'We've made a new game, Molly and I,' announced Douglas.
He was a fair, curly-headed boy with an innocent baby face, and a talent for inventing the most mischievous plans that could ever be concocted, with a will that made all the others bow before him. Molly was also fair, with long golden hair that reached to her waist; extreme self-possession and absence of all shyness were perhaps her chief characteristics. 'I am the eldest of the family,' she was fond of asserting, and she certainly claimed the eldest's privileges. Yet her temper was sweet and obliging, and she could easily be swayed and led by those around her.
'Is it one for outdoors or indoors?' asked Betty with interest.
'Indoors, of course; we'll tell you after tea.'
'Your mother wants you in the drawing-room after ten,' put in nurse; 'you and Miss Molly are to go down.'
Molly looked pleased, not so Douglas. At last, putting down his piece of bread and butter, he looked up into nurse's face with one of his sweetest looks.
'Why are grown-up people so very dull, nurse? They all are just the same, except Uncle Harry. They are dreadfully heavy and dull.'
'They have so little to amuse them,' Molly said reflectively: 'no games or toys; they never make believe, or pretend the lovely things we do.'
'And their legs get stiff, and their dresses trip them up if they try to run.'
'But they never get punished, and they're never scolded, and they're never wicked.'
This from Betty.
'It's their talk that is so stupid,' went on Douglas; 'they look nice until they begin to talk; they make me dreadfully sleepy to listen to them.'
'Shall I go down instead of you to-night?' asked Betty eagerly.
'Don't chatter such nonsense; it's strange times when children begin to pick their elders to pieces. You weren't asked for, Miss Betty; and Master Douglas is to go down and behave himself.'
'The three B's aren't big enough yet to leave the nursery.'
Douglas said this with a sparkle of mischief in his eye. It was a sore point with Betty to be ranked with the twins, for she was only a year behind Douglas. Long ago he had seized hold of a laughing joke of his father's, alluding to the names by which the three youngest children were called, and had twitted her with it ever since.
'B for Baby—Baby Betty, Baby Bobby, and Baby Billy; babies must go to bed,' he explained.
Betty gave an angry kick under the table, but did not speak.
She was very silent for the rest of that evening; but when she and Molly were safely in bed, and the room was very quiet, she asked,—
'Molly, do you know what tribulation means?'
'I'm not sure that I do,' was the hesitating reply; 'I think it's something dreadful. Why do you want to know?'
'Is it like the dark valley Christian went through in the Pilgrim's Progress, or the goblin's cave we make up about?'
'I expect it is something like. Why?'
'It's on the way to heaven,' whispered Betty, in an awestruck tone; 'the Bible says so.'
There was silence, then Molly said,—
'There's a book in father's library will tell you about it. It tells the meaning of every word; father said so. A dick something it is.'
'I'll ask Mr. Roper to get it for me.'
And Betty turned over on her pillow comforted by this thought, and fell fast asleep.
Mr. Stuart was a Member of Parliament, and being a man who threw his whole soul into everything he did, was too much engrossed with business when in town to have much to do with his children. He spent a great part of his day in the library with his secretary, a quiet young fellow, who was looked upon by the children as an embodiment of wisdom and learning. Mrs. Stuart saw as little of her children as her husband; her time was fully occupied in attending committee meetings, opening bazaars, and superintending numerous pet projects for ennobling and raising the standard of social morality amongst the masses. She was not an indifferent mother; she was only an active, busy woman, who, after carefully selecting a thoroughly good and trustworthy woman as her nurse, left the children's training with perfect confidence to her. And between her social and charitable claims there was not much time for having her little ones about her. A young governess came every day for two hours to teach the three eldest ones, but their life was essentially a nursery one. And when the House was closed, and the husband and wife would go off to the Continent or to the Highlands, the children would be sent to a quiet seaside town with their nurse and the nursery maid.
The following afternoon a little figure stole quietly down to the library door. Betty knew her father was out, and Mr. Roper never repulsed any of the children. After a timid knock she passed in, and made a little picture as she stood in the firelight, in her brown velveteen frock and large white-frilled pinafore.
'Well,' said Mr. Roper, wheeling round from his writing-desk, 'what do you want, Betty?'
'I want one of father's books,' the child said earnestly, 'one that Dick Somebody wrote—a book that tells the meaning of everything.'
'I wish there was such a one in existence,' said the young man, smiling a little sadly. 'Now what is in your little head, I wonder?'
'It's a word I want to find, please.'
'Oh, a word! Bless the child, she means a dictionary!' and Mr. Roper laughed as he drew a fat volume out of a shelf, and placed it on a table by the little girl.
'May I help you to find it?'
'It's tribulation. I don't know how it's spelt.'
He did not ask questions; that was one thing that attracted Betty towards him. She was a curious mixture of frankness and reserve. She would confide freely of her own free will, but if pressed by questions would relapse at once into silence. He found the word for her, and she read with difficulty, 'Trouble, distress, great affliction.'
'Do they all mean tribulation?' she asked.
'Tribulation means all of them,' was the answer.
'And can children have tribulation, Mr. Roper?'
'What do you think?'
'I must have it if I'm to get to heaven,' she said emphatically; and then she left him, and the young man repeated her words to himself with a sigh and a smile, as he replaced the book in its resting-place.
A few evenings after this, as nurse was undressing the little girls for bed, Mrs. Stuart came into the nursery. She was going out to dinner, and looked very beautiful in her soft satin dress and pearls. She was tall and stately, with the same golden hair as Molly, but her face was somewhat cold in expression.
Sitting down in an easy chair by the fire she asked,—
'What is the matter with Betty? is she in disgrace again?'
Betty was standing in her long nightdress at the foot of her small bed; her hands were clenched, and there was a resolute, determined look upon her flushed face.
'One of her obstinate fits,' said nurse angrily; 'she generally goes to bed before Miss Molly, and because I have let her stay up a little later to-night she is as contrary as she can be! I can do nothing with her, a good whipping is what she wants!'
Betty's blue eyes wandered from nurse's face to her mother's, as if seeking consolation there; her hands relaxed, and a slight quiver came to the little lips.
'Are you going to a party, mother? may I come and kiss you?'
It was Molly who spoke. She was in the act of scrambling into bed, but upon receiving permission she made her way, a little shyly, across to where her mother was seated.
'Now keep your hands off my dress,' Mrs. Stuart said with a smile; but she put her arm round the little figure and kissed her, and sent her back to bed perfectly happy. All the children adored their mother, though it was adoration at a distance.
'Now come here, Betty; what have you been doing? How is it that I never visit the nursery without hearing complaints of your naughtiness?'
'I'm going to be good now,' said Betty, hanging her head, and coming slowly forward into the firelight.
'She has refused to say her prayers,' said nurse sternly.
'I will say them now'; and Betty raised her eyes to her mother somewhat wistfully.
'Why did you refuse to say them when nurse told you to?'
'Because Molly was saying her prayers.'
'Well, what had that to do with it?'
Betty did not answer.
The child looked round; nurse had left the room. She worked her little foot backwards and forwards in the long-haired rug rather nervously, and then, almost in a whisper, said,—
'God couldn't listen to both of us, and I wanted Him to listen to me.'
Mrs. Stuart gazed perplexedly at her little daughter, then laughed.
'You are a little goose! Go and say your prayers at once, and get into bed. I have come here to talk to nurse.'
Betty crept away. Her mother's amused laugh had hurt her more than nurse's scoldings. It was hard to have one's secret feelings brought to light and scoffed at, and her sensitive little soul felt this, though in a dim, uncertain way.
'I want to have God all to myself,' was her thought, as a few minutes later she laid her little head down on the pillow; 'I wonder if I'm very wicked. I won't say my prayers if He is not listening.'
'Now, nurse,' said Mrs. Stuart, as that worthy reappeared, 'I want to talk to you. Your master and I are going abroad after Easter; he is not well, and the doctors have ordered him away. I want to send you and the children into the country for the summer. I don't fancy them being at the seaside all that time. You were telling me some time ago of your old home; isn't it a brother of yours who has the farm? Yes? Well, do you think they have room to take you all in?'
Nurse's face glowed with pleasure.
'He has no chick or child, ma'am, and the house is large and roomy; his wife was saying in a letter to me they should like lodgers in the summer. I'm sure it would please them to take us in; and the country round there is wonderfully healthy.'
'I think that would answer very well,' Mrs. Stuart went on thoughtfully; 'we may be away six months: and the children are looking pale, a country life will do them all the good in the world. Let them run wild, nurse, they will come back to their lessons all the better for it. Miss Grant told me this morning she would have to give up teaching—her mother is very ill—so, all things combined, I think this plan will work well. Will you write to your brother and find out if he can take you in the last week in April? Let me know when you have heard from him.'
Mrs. Stuart rose as she spoke; her visits were never long, and nurse left the room with her.
'Betty,' said Molly, in an eager tone, 'did you hear? We're going into the country.'
'I heard; and no lessons, and we're to run wild; how lovely!' Betty's curly head bobbed up and down in excitement, then she said persuasively, 'Molly, let you and me keep it a secret together; we won't tell Douglas or the twins.'
This required consideration. Molly sat up in bed and looked thoughtful.
'I never do have a secret with you,' pleaded Betty. 'You and Douglas have lots; I never have any one to have secrets with.'
'Well, I'll see,' and there was a little of the elder sister in Molly's tone. 'I'll tell you to-morrow morning. Oh, it will be jolly in the country, won't it? And nurse's home that she tells us about is like our story-books: it's full of calves, and lambs, and horses, and ducks, and chickens, and haymaking, and pigs!'
'And ponds, and apple orchards, and we shall have cream, and honey, and strawberries every day!' continued Betty.
The little girls' voices were raised in their excitement, and they did not notice a door at the end of the room slowly open.
'What a row! Are you telling stories?'
It was Douglas, who slept in a little room off the nursery, and who had been roused by the sound of talking.
'Hush! nurse will hear. Come and sit on my bed,' said Molly, 'and then you will hear all about it.'
'Oh, Molly, it was to be our secret!'
'Douglas won't tell. Besides, nurse is sure to tell us; she knew we were awake and listening.'
Betty gave a little sigh, then joined eagerly in giving her brother the delightful information.
He listened, rumpling up his fair curls, and blinking his blue eyes, which were already heavy with sleep.
'Easter is years off,' he said at last. 'Why, we are still in winter. I daresay we shan't go, after all.'
'We are in February now,' said Molly, looking a little disappointed at the calm way he received such rapturous news.
'If I go,' Douglas went on meditatively, 'I shall ask father to let me have a gun, and I shall shoot rabbits and birds every day.'
'Then you'd be a wicked, cruel boy!' pronounced Betty indignantly. 'I shall catch all the rabbits I can see and tame them.'
'Then I shall let them loose again,' retorted Douglas; and taking up Molly's pillow, he flung it with all his strength at Betty, who instantly returned it, and a pillow fight commenced. Molly joined delightedly in the fray; but, alas! in the height of the excitement, Betty backed into a can of water put ready for their morning bath. Over she went, head first, on the floor, and the whole contents of the can flooded her and the carpet together. Douglas precipitately fled into his little room, and Molly into her bed, so that when nurse came hastily in Betty again was discovered as chief offender. Whilst she was being hustled into a dry nightdress nurse relieved her vexed feelings by giving her a good scolding, and Betty eventually crept into bed wondering if she was really the 'wickedest, mischievousest child on earth,' or if grown-up people sometimes made mistakes.
For the next few days nothing was talked of but the proposed country visit; but as weeks went on, and spring seemed still as far away, the children's excitement subsided, and the ordinary routine of lessons, walks, and play engrossed their whole attention.
But Easter came at last, and then packing-up began. Miss Grant took her departure, and poor Sophy, the nursery maid, had her hands full enough, for nurse's command was to keep the children quiet, and not let them come near her when packing.
Mr. Roper was leaving the library one afternoon about four o'clock, when he saw the disconsolate little figure of Betty seated on the stairs.
'Anything the matter?' he asked good-naturedly.
'We're going away to-morrow,' was the reply, 'and it is all topsy-turvy upstairs. Douglas and Molly have been lions for hours, and Bobby and Billy two monkeys, and I've been the man. I'm tired of being him, and they won't let me change. I've broken a jug and basin, and nearly pulled a cupboard over, and spilt a bottle of cod-liver oil all over Billy's hair, and upset nurse's work-basket, and then I ran away and hid, and came down here. You don't know how tiring it is to be hunted by four animals all at once.'
Mr. Roper sat down on the stairs by her and laughed heartily. 'Poor little hunter!' he said, 'and how does nurse bear all this raging storm around her?'
'Oh, nurse is with mother, in the night nursery. Sophy is running after all of us. I don't know who she pretends to be, but when I left her she was sitting on the floor wiping Billy's hair and crying.'
Betty's tone and face were grave, and Mr. Roper stopped laughing. 'Have you been thinking over tribulation any more?' he asked.
'A lot,' she said emphatically, then shut up her little lips tightly; and Mr. Roper knew he was to be told no more.
'Are you going into the country, Mr. Roper?' he was asked presently.
'No, indeed. I am not rich enough to have such a holiday as is in prospect for you. I wonder what you will do with yourselves all the time? You must come back much the better and wiser, Betty, for it.'
'You will be six months older, and old Mother Nature is the best governess for little ones like you. She will teach you many a lesson, if you keep your eyes and ears open.'
Betty's eyes were very wide open now.
'Does she live at the farm? I never heard nurse speak of her. We don't want another governess there. How do you know her?'
'I knew her when I was a little boy, and loved her. I love her now, but my work is in London, and I never get much chance of seeing her.'
'She must be very old,' Betty said meditatively.
'Very old; and yet every year she seems younger and more beautiful. You will see her at her best, Betty. I shall expect you to come home and tell me all about her.'
'Shall I give her your love and a kiss when I see her?'
'Yes,' said the young man, smiling down upon the earnest child beside him.
A rush of feet behind them, and Molly and Douglas came tearing downstairs.
'Here she is! Where have you been? Bobby has cut his head open, and Sophy has rushed to nurse, and nurse is scolding away, so we came off. Mr. Roper, do you know we're going away to-morrow?'
'And will you come and see us one day, Mr. Roper?'
'Mr. Roper, does every farmer in the country go about in his night-shirt? Douglas says they do, and we have pictures of them.'
'And are there stags and wild boar to hunt? Do tell us.'
Mr. Roper made short work of these questions, and departed. He was a reserved, reticent man, and did not understand the boisterous spirits of the little Stuarts. Betty was his favourite; he was always ready for a chat with her, but the others worried him.
Nurse was very thankful when she got herself and her little charges all comfortably settled in the railway carriage for Tiverstoke the next day. Sophy was not going with them, but the longing to be in the old home again quite compensated nurse for the additional labour and responsibility she would have.
The children had parted from their parents with great composure. Mrs. Stuart had reiterated parting injunctions to nurse, and their father had presented all five with a bright half-crown each, which gift greatly added to their delight at going.
'Not much affection in children's hearts,' said Mr. Stuart to his wife, as he watched the beaming faces gathered round the cab window to wave 'good-bye.'
'They will get through life the better for absence of sentiment and demonstrativeness,' replied Mrs. Stuart; and perhaps those words were an index to her character.
Was it an Angel?
It was a lovely afternoon in May, a week after the children's arrival at Brook Farm. They were together in the orchard, which was a mass of pink and white bloom. Bobby and Billy were having a see-saw on a low apple branch; Douglas was perched on a higher bough of a cherry tree, and the little girls were lying on the ground. Tongues were busy, as usual.
'We've seen everything round the house,' Douglas was asserting in rather a dictatorial tone; 'and now we must be busy having adventures—people always do in the country.'
'What kind?' asked Molly meekly.
'They get tossed by bulls, or lost in the woods, or drowned in ponds,' Douglas went on thoughtfully.
'I'm not going to do any of those.'
And Betty's tone was very determined.
'What are you going to do, then?'
'I shall be busy all by myself. I'm going out to look for some one.'
'Who?' asked Molly curiously.
'Some one Mr. Roper told me about. He sent his love to her and a kiss. It's a secret between me and Mr. Roper, I shan't tell you any more.'
And Betty rolled over in the grass with a delighted chuckle at the puzzled faces round her.
'It's only one of her make-ups,' Douglas said, recovering his composure. 'Let me tell you of my plans. Do you see those thick trees at the top of that hill? That's a real wood. Now, if nurse sends us out tomorrow afternoon while she takes a nap, I'm going there, and you girls must come after me.'
'And us, too,' put in Bobby, listening attentively.
'If you can walk so far, and don't go telling nurse about it.'
'How far is it? Six miles?' asked Molly, who would have been willing to walk ten, had her brother so ordained.
'It is only through three fields, Sam told me.'
Sam was one of the carters, who had already become one of Douglas's greatest friends.
'He be the pluckiest, knowingest little chap that ever oi see wi' such a baby face!' was the carter's opinion of him.
'If it's a very nice wood perhaps I'll come,' said Betty.
'You must save something from dinner to take with us, for we will have a feast when we get there.'
This sounded delightful, and all spent the rest of the day in busy confabulation as to how they could get there without being stopped by any one, and what provisions they must take.
But, alas! when the next day came, nurse announced her intention of taking Douglas and Molly with her to tea with a friend, a little distance off, and so the visit to the wood was postponed.
Betty pleaded to be allowed to go with them, but nurse refused.
'I can't have more than two; and I'm taking them more to keep them out of mischief than anything. Mrs. Giles is going to look after the little ones, so you must amuse yourself.'
Betty felt rather disconsolate after they had gone. She wandered into the farm kitchen, where Mrs. Giles, a good-natured, smiling woman, was busy making bread. The twins were in a corner playing with some kittens. Betty stood at the table watching. At last she looked up a little shyly and said,—
'Mrs. Giles, do you know a very nice governess that lives here?'
'A guviness, bless your little heart. There's Miss Tyler in the village, two mile off—but I don't think much of her. She's too giddy and smart, and the way she carries on with Dan Somers is the talk of the place! Are you after having lessons then?'
'Oh no, no, no!' cried Betty eagerly, 'that's why I don't talk about it to any one; but I should like to see her, for I have a message to give her. I don't think it can be Miss Tyler; Mother Nestor—I forget the name, but something like Nestor or Nasher—Mr. Roper called her. She's old and young together, and very pretty.'
Mrs. Giles laughed. 'Old and young together! I know of nought like that; when we gets old, youth don't stick to us. Do you think I answer to that description, Miss Betty?'
'I should say you were very old,' observed Betty reflectively, 'not a bit young; but I think your red cheeks are very pretty.'
Mrs. Giles laughed again, and Betty left the kitchen saying, 'I'll go out of doors and look for her; perhaps she'll be coming along the road.'
Into the bright sunshine she went, across a clover field, and out at a gate into the white, dusty road. She trotted along, picking flowers by the wayside, and peeping over hedges to look at the tiny lambs or young foals and heifers sporting on the green grass. Everything was new and delightful to her; the birds singing, the budding trees, the bright blue sky, and sweet fresh air, all was filling her little heart with content and happiness. Wandering on, she kept no reckoning of time or distance, until she came to a church in the midst of green elms, and rooks keeping up a perpetual chatteration on the topmost branches of the trees.
Betty was a little afraid of rooks; they were so big and strong and black that she feared they would peck her legs; but she was very tired and warm, and as the church-gate was open she thought she would venture into the cool shade of the elms inside. Her little steps took her to the church porch, and finding the door partly open, with a child's curiosity, she pushed her way in, there to stand with admiring awe in the cool, quiet atmosphere. It was a pretty old church, with stained glass windows; and the sun streaming through sent flashing rays of red and blue, golden and purple, across the old stone walls and oaken seats.
Betty felt she was in another world at once, and the very novelty and strangeness of her surroundings had a great charm for her. Slowly she made her way round the church, looking at every tablet and monument, and trying in vain to decipher the writing upon them. But one amongst them brought her to a standstill: it was the figure of a little girl sculptured in white marble, lying in a recumbent position; her hands were crossed on her breast, with a lily placed between them, her eyes were closed, and her hair curled over her brow and round her shoulders in the most natural way. Just above her was a stained glass window—a beautiful representation of the Saviour taking the children in His arms and blessing them. Below the window was written in plain black letters,—
IN LOVING MEMORY OF VIOLET RUSSELL.
Aged six years.
'Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not.'
Betty drew a deep breath; her thoughts were busy. She wished herself that little girl lying so calm and beautiful, with the red and golden rays slanting across her; and then looking up at the window, she wished still more that she was one of those happy children in the Lord's arms.
Looking up with tearful eyes, she clasped her hands, and let her buttercups and bluebells fall to the ground unheeded.
'O God, I will be good! I will be good!'
Those were all the words uttered, but He who heard them looked down into the overflowing heart, and knew all that lay behind them.
Long the child stood there, and then with flagging footsteps made her way down the aisle.
'I'm very tired,' she murmured to herself; 'I'll just sit down inside that pew.'
And a moment after, curling herself up on the cushions, Betty went fast asleep.
She was dreaming soon of a wonderful white-robed throng; she saw the little girl walk up with her white, still face to a golden throne, she tried to follow, but could not manage to walk, and then the most wonderful music began to sound; louder and clearer it came, until with a start she opened her eyes and discovered where she was. Was it all a dream? The music was still sounding in her ears, and sitting up she peered over the edge of the high pew. There, seated at the organ, was a lady, and she was pouring forth such a flood of melody and song that it did indeed seem to the half-wakened child music straight from heaven.
Betty listened breathlessly to the words—words that she knew now so well, and that were ever in her thoughts: 'These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'
It was a beautiful anthem, and a beautiful voice that was singing. Betty had never heard such singing before. She gazed with open mouth and eyes; the lady was rather a young one, she noticed, and when her voice rose in triumph and the organ pealed out in accompaniment, Betty saw that her uplifted eyes, shining as they were with such a glad light behind them, were full of tears.
'It's an angel,' she whispered to herself. And when at last the notes died away, and there was stillness in the church, when she saw the lady's face bowed in her hands, as if in prayer, Betty stole softly out of the building, and retraced her steps along the road, sobbing as she went. It had been too much for her excitable little brain; she always had been passionately fond of music, but was more accustomed to the street organs in London than to any other sort, and this was as great a contrast to those as heaven is to earth.
It was a long way back, but Betty did not feel it. Had God sent an angel to sing to her? Was there a chance of her ever being amongst that white-robed throng? If she could only go through tribulation! Had the little girl lying so white and still gone through it? These and other similar puzzling thoughts came crowding through her brain.
She was very quiet when she reached the farm. They were just sitting down to tea when she came in, and Mrs. Giles looked relieved when she saw her.
'We was wonderin' where you had got to,' she said. 'Ain't you tired? You look quite beat.'
'I've had a lovely afternoon,' was the child's answer, and the blue eyes shone up at her questioner; but not a word more could be got from her, though the little boys did their best to extract more information.
The next day was a wet one, but the little Stuarts were never at a loss for occupation, and when they were packed off into a large empty garret for the whole afternoon their delight was unbounded.
At last, tired out, their spirits began to flag, and after having exhausted all their stock of games they flung themselves down on the ground to rest.
'I'll tell you a story,' said Betty suddenly.
'All right, go on!'
Betty sat up in a corner, and rested her back against the wall. She clasped her small hands in front of her, and gazing dreamily up at an old beam across the room, on which hung many a cobweb, she began,—
'It was a beautiful day in heaven——'
'It's always a beautiful day there,' put in Douglas critically.
'I never said it wasn't. You're not to interrupt me. It was a beautiful day, the harps were playing and the angels singing, and one angel looked as if she wanted something. So God asked her what was the matter.
'"Oh, please," she said, "I want to go down to earth to-day."
'"What do you want to do there, O angel?"
'"I want to play and sing to some children there."
'Then God said she might go. So she flew down and changed her clothes——'
'What kind of clothes did she put on?' asked Molly eagerly.
Betty considered a moment 'She put on a straw hat and a grey dress; she took off her wings and folded them up.'
'Where did she put them?' demanded Douglas.
'Down a well,' was the prompt reply. 'It was a dry well, and she put her white dress and crown with it; she did them up in a paper parcel, and wrote her name on.'
'What was her name?' asked Bobby.
Betty knitted her brows. 'It was a Bible name, of course; I think it was Miriam. She felt the earth was very hot, for the sun was shining like anything, and then she wondered who she could sing to. Well, she walked along a road, and then she saw a church, so she thought that must be a good place, and she went inside. The church was dark, and cool, and still, but it was lovely; and there were red and blue and yellow and green and violet sunbeams, and beautiful painted windows, and white marble figures all about, and it was so still that you felt you must hush and walk on tiptoe. And then, what do you think she saw?'
All eyes were on Betty now, as she sank her voice to an impressive whisper.
'She saw a little girl fast asleep!'
'Go on,' said Douglas impatiently, as Betty made another pause.
'So the angel thought she would sing to her; so she went up very softly to the big organ, and began to play it, and then she began to sing. It was lovely. She sang like she did in heaven, and the little girl woke up and listened.'
'What did she sing about?' asked Molly.
'She sang about heaven, and all the people and children who had come through great tribulation. And the music went on right up to the top of the church, and her voice got louder and louder, and then softer and softer to a whisper, and then the music got softer too, and then—it was quite still.'
'Well, go on. What did the little girl do?'
'The little girl came away; she—she cried a little.'
'Why, you're crying too! What a silly!'
Betty dashed her small hand across her eyes, and threw up her head defiantly. 'That's all my story,' she said.
'Oh, what a stupid story! You must make a proper ending.'
'You shall go on! we'll make you!'
'Did the angel get her proper clothes again?'
'Yes,' said Betty, with a little sigh; 'she put them on and went up to heaven. And God asked her what she'd done. And she told Him she thought the little girl would like to come to heaven, if He would let her.'
There was a little break in Betty's voice; she slid down from her corner, and rolled over on the floor, her face hidden from the others. Then in a second she called out, 'I see a mouse! Let us catch him!'
The children were on their feet directly, and a regular scramble ensued, Betty the most boisterous of them all. And when nurse came in a little later, she found the little story-teller in the act of crawling across the oaken beam in the centre of the room, to the intense delight of those watching her below.
Nurse caught her breath at the daring feat, but waited till she had accomplished it in safety, then caught her in her arms, and taking her off, gave her a good whipping, and Betty's spirits totally subsided for the rest of the evening.
The visit to the wood came off the day after. Nurse arrayed all her little charges in large holland overalls, and sent them out into the fields for the afternoon. And the little party set out in good spirits, Bobby and Billy tramping sturdily along, under the firm conviction that they were going to meet with wild beasts, and go through the most harrowing adventures.
It was a long walk, but they reached it at last, and came to a standstill when they saw the ditch and the thick hedge that surrounded it.
'There's a castle and a princess inside, so they don't like people to come in,' asserted Douglas; 'but we'll find a hole somewhere and creep through.'
And this was soon done. The children looked round them with delight at the little winding paths, the banks of green moss, and the thick overhanging bushes and trees, that seemed so full of life and interest. Douglas was in his element.
'We'll find a place we must call home first, and then we'll see what food we've got.'
The foot of an old oak tree was chosen. Bits of cake, pudding, some biscuits, and a few lumps of sugar were then produced from different pockets, and these were given over to Douglas, who, wrapping them in paper, deposited them inside the hollow trunk of the tree.
'Now,' he said, 'we must all divide, and go in search for adventures; and when we've found them, we can come back and tell the others here, and then we'll have a feast.'
'And if we don't find any?' questioned Betty doubtfully.
'Then you must go on till you do. Why, of course a wood is full of dangers. I mean to have an awful time. We must go two and two; Molly and I will take this path, and the twins can take that one, and you, Betty, must go by yourself, because you're the odd one.'
'I always have to go alone,' murmured Betty; 'it isn't fair.'
Bobby and Billy stood clasping each other's hands, and looking with anxious though determined faces along the path mapped out for them.
'And if we should meet a cwocodile?' Billy asked, lifting his blue eyes to those of his big brother.
'Then you must either kill it or run away,' said Douglas. 'And crocodiles don't live in woods.'
'And if we lose ourselves in the wood?' questioned Bobby.
'If you're frightened, you needn't go, but stay here till we come back,' put in Molly, her conscience a little uneasy with turning such little fellows loose on their own resources.
But this gave the twins courage. Frightened! Not a bit of it! And they trotted off, calling out they were going to kill every one they met.
Betty likewise started on her journey. She was feeling rather depressed with the truth of which she was always being reminded—namely, that she was the odd one.
'I wish there had just been one more of us,' she kept saying to herself; 'I'm either one too many or one too few, and it's very dull to be always alone.'
But her thoughts soon left herself when she saw some rabbits scudding away in the distance; and the flowers on her path, and the strangeness of her surroundings, were quite enough to occupy her mind. She soon found that her path was coming to an end; right across it was some fine wire netting, and for a moment she hesitated, then, deciding to go straight on, clambered over it with great difficulty. The grass was smoother here, and the path a wide one; a little distance farther was an iron seat, and then she came to a long, straight grass walk, with trees on either side, and at the end a gate, in an old stone wall.
'I shall have to get through that gate,' she mused, 'or else I must climb the wall. I wonder what is inside! It might be anything—a castle, with an ogre or giant, or a prince and princess—and I can't go back till I find out. My adventures have come. But I'm very tired. I'll just sit down for a little before I go on.'
A few moments after Betty's little body was lying full length on the grassy path, and she was counting over a cluster of primroses with great care and precision.
'Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three—ah, what a pity! there is a little odd one, just like me!'
'What are you doing, child?'
Betty started to her feet. Looking down upon her was a tall old lady, dressed in a shady straw hat and black lace shawl; her black silk dress rustled as she moved. One hand was resting on a stick, the other was holding a sunshade. Her face was as still and cold-looking as some of the figures on the monuments in the little village church, and her voice stern and peremptory.
Wild thoughts flashed through Betty's brain. Was this a fairy godmother, a queen, a princess? Or might it possibly be the old governess that Mr. Roper loved so much?
Again the question was repeated, in the same stern tone, and Betty gazed up in awe, as she answered simply,—
'I was counting the primroses, to see if they were even or odd.'
'And what business have you to be trespassing in my private grounds?'
'I didn't know this was trespassing,' Betty faltered; 'a wood belongs to anybody in the country, and I haven't got inside your gate yet, though I was going to try.'
'And pray what were you coming inside my gate to do?'
'I'm—I'm looking for adventures; I have to do something before I go back.'
'I think you had better explain to me who you are.'
The voice was gentler, and Betty took courage. The lady listened to her attentively, and seemed interested; she even smiled when Betty, looking up, asked innocently, 'I suppose you are not a princess, are you?'
'No, I'm not a princess,' she said; 'but this is a private wood, and I cannot allow children to run wild all over it.'
'And mustn't we ever come here again?' asked Betty, with a grave face. 'We should be ever so careful, and we won't pick a flower if you'll only let us walk about. We've never seen a wood before, only read about one in our story-books; and children always go through woods in books without being stopped, unless it's an ogre or a giant that stops them.'
The lady did not speak for a minute, then she said,—
'How many are there of you?'
'Five with me; there's Molly and Douglas, and there's Bobby and Billy—I'm the odd one.'
'Why should you be the odd one?'
'Because Molly and Douglas are the eldest ones, and they always go together, and Bobby and Billy are the babies. Mother always calls them the babies, and I come in between, and I belong to no one. You see, in our games it's generally two and two; I always make everything odd, and Molly and Douglas are always having secrets, and that only leaves me the babies to play with, and they're only just four years old—much too small for me.'
'I suppose you have a doll or something to comfort yourself with? I remember I used to when I was a little girl.'
'I don't much like dolls,' said Betty, with a decided shake of her curly head; 'I like something really alive, something that moves by itself. There's a big sheepdog at our farm called Rough. I sometimes get hold of him for a game, but he likes Douglas better than me. Sam says he's always fond of boys.'
'Would you like to come inside my gate?' asked the lady, looking down upon Betty with a strange tenderness in her eyes, though her lips were still grave and stern.
Betty slipped her hand confidingly into hers.
'Yes, please; and will you tell me who you are? I think you're rather like a lady I'm trying to find. She teaches children, a governess she is, and she's old and young together. You're much more like her than Mrs. Giles is.'
But the lady did not satisfy Betty's curiosity; she only said,—
'I have never taught any children in my life,' and led her up the grassy walk to the gate in the wall.
'I am only going to let you stand inside for a moment, and then you must run away. And you must never come over the wire netting in the wood again. You and your brothers and sister can play in the other part of the wood, but I will not have children running over my private walks.'
She opened the gate, and Betty saw a lovely flower garden, with a smooth, grassy lawn, and away in the distance a great white house. The flowers were exquisite, and to Betty's London eyes they were a feast of delight. Her little face flushed with pleasure.
'Do you live here?' she asked. 'How happy you must be!'
'Do you like it better than my wood?'
Betty turned from the blaze of sunshine and brightness to look at the cool green glade behind her. She did not answer for a minute, then she said, pointing with her small finger down the grassy avenue,—
'It's something like church down there, it looks so quiet. But this garden is like heaven, I think.'
The lady smiled. 'I will give you any flower you like to take away, so choose.'
Betty was not long in making her choice. There were some beautiful white lilies close by—lilies that might have come from the same plant as that one lying between the little girl's hands in church.
'I should like one of those, please,' she said, with sparkling eyes.
She was given, not one, but several, and then was dismissed.
'And I shall never see you again,' Betty said, as she put up her mouth for a kiss. She did not say it regretfully, only as if stating a fact.
The lady stooped and kissed her. 'Not unless I send for you,' she said. 'Can you find your way back?'
Betty nodded brightly, and ran off. The lady stood watching her little figure for some minutes, then she gave a deep sigh, and her face relapsed into its usual stern and immovable expression as she entered her garden and locked the gate behind her.
Betty ran on as fast as she could to join the others. When she reached the oak tree, Douglas and Molly were already there, seated on the ground, busily employed in dividing the provisions for the feast. They exclaimed at the sight of her flowers.
'I've had a lovely adventure,' said Betty. 'Where are Bobby and Billy?'
'We don't know,' said Molly, rising to her feet and looking anxious. 'I'm sure they ought to be here by this time.'
'Perhaps they're lost,' Douglas suggested cheerfully; 'I was hoping some of us would get lost, and then we should have the fun of finding them. We'll go in a few minutes and look for them. Would you like to hear where we have been, Betty?'
'Well, it is rather a stupid wood, for we came to nothing particular; only we've found a little house. It has three sides and a roof—tumbling in. We're going to mend it up, and live there, next time we come out here. At least, I mean to live in it. I shall be a disguised prince hiding for my life, and you will all have to search the wood to get food for me. Molly and I have made it all up. She is to be my daughter, who steals out at night time to visit me; you can be a servant, who mends the roof, and makes me comfortable; and the twins can be soldiers scouring the wood for me.'
Neither Betty nor Molly showed much interest in this plan; they were both thinking of the twins, and Douglas, having said his say, was quite ready to start off on the quest.
Together they ran along the path by which the little boys had gone. It led them under some low brushwood, and then along the banks of a stream. And then calling their names aloud, they were relieved to hear an answering call. A moment later and they came upon them. The stream was broad, and rather deep here, with great boulders of stone appearing above the water. Upon one of these boulders, in the centre of the stream, sat the two little boys, wet to the skin, and looking the pictures of abject despair.
'However did you get there?' said Douglas rather angrily.
'Billy was getting some forget-me-nots, and tumbled in, and so I came over to help him, and we can't get back,' explained Bobby, not very lucidly.
'If you got over there you can get back again,' Molly said decisively.
At this both the twins began to cry.
'It's so cold; we was nearly drownded; and we've seen a shark swim along.'
Douglas laughed, but took off his shoes and stockings.
'I shall have to wade in and bring them over on my back,' he said, with rather a lordly air.
And this he did, landing both the twins safely on the bank.
'Nurse will scold awfully, they're both so wet; we shall have to go home at once,' said prudent Molly, as with very small handkerchiefs she and Betty tried to wipe some of the wet off their clothes.
'And then she'll say we're never to come to the wood again. I wish we hadn't brought them with us!'
It was a quiet little party that returned to Brook Farm; and in the excitement of receiving the vials of nurse's wrath, and the fuss made over the poor little victims, Betty's adventures remained still unheard and unknown.
She was not sorry that this was so, and was quite content to muse in the secrecy of her own heart upon the beautiful cold lady who had given her the lilies. She thought of her sleeping and waking, and with a strange longing wondered if she would ever be allowed to see her again.
The next afternoon was a very warm one; but Betty's restless little feet could not stay in the buttercup meadow close to the house, where the others were playing, and soon a small white figure in a large sun-bonnet could have been seen plodding along the dusty road towards the churchyard in the distance.
Her little determined face relaxed into wonderful softness when she entered the cool church. Going on tip-toe up the aisle, she came to the monument of little Violet Russell, and here she paused, then clambering up with a little difficulty, she laid two fresh lilies by the side of the sculptured one, across the clasped hands of the child's figure.
'There,' she said in a hushed voice; 'you shan't always hold a cold dead lily, Violet dear; I've brought them to you from my own self, because they're mine, and I'll get you some other flowers when they are dead.'
She put her soft red lips down and left a kiss on the little clasped hands, and then slipped down to the ground again, where she stood for a moment looking up at the stained window above. A noise startled her: walking up the middle aisle was the lady who had played to her before, and following her a rough country boy, who disappeared through a little door behind the organ.
Betty slipped behind a pillar, and watched eagerly. Yes, she was going to play again; and her heart beat high with expectation. She crept into one of the high, old-fashioned pews, and sitting on a hassock, leant her little head back upon the seat, and prepared herself to listen.
The music began, and sent a little shiver of delight through Betty's soul. The long, soft notes that died away like a summer breeze, the deep, grand rolls that seemed to come from a cavern below, and then blend with the clear, sweet echoes rising and falling, and at length ascending in a burst of praise and gladness—it seemed to her that the angels above would be stooping to listen to such strains.
And then, after a little, the lady began to sing; and Betty drew in one deep breath after another. It must be an angel, surely! and yet there was something in the fresh holland dress and shady hat of the singer this afternoon that seemed hardly suitable for an angel's apparel.
The lady once looked round; and Betty thought her face looked sad; but when she began to sing her face was illumined with such light and gladness that the child watched it entranced.
An hour passed, and then the singer was startled by the sound of a sob. She was singing 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove!' and turning round, was startled at the sight of a white sun-bonnet and two small hands grasping the back of one of the pews. Betty had mounted on the hassock to have a full view of the singer long ago, and was now trying in vain to restrain the pent-up feelings of her sensitive little soul.
In an instant the lady had left her seat and come up to the child.
'What is the matter, little one? How did you find your way in here?' she asked gently, as she put her arm round the sobbing child.
But Betty could not put her feelings into words; she only shook her head and sobbed, 'I like the music; don't stop singing.'
'I must stop now: my hour is up. Tell me who you are.'
Betty made an effort to recover her self-possession.
'I'm only Betty,' she said, dabbing her face with her handkerchief; 'are you an angel?'
'Indeed I am not; do I look like one?'
And the lady threw back her head and laughed in a very amused way.
'Not now,' said Betty soberly; 'but you did look like one when you were singing, and I—I hoped you might be.'
'Why did you hope so?'
Again Betty was silent; then, looking up, she seemed to gather courage from the kind face looking down upon her, and burying her face in the lady's dress, she sobbed out,—
'I thought God might have sent you; and then you could have told me lots of things I wanted to know.'
'Perhaps God may have sent me instead of an angel. Tell me some of the things you want to know.'
'I want to know about Violet, and heaven, and tribulation,' murmured Betty a little incoherently; and then she started as the church clock in the belfry began to chime five.
'It's tea-time; nurse will be looking for me.'
The lady stooped and kissed her. 'I must go too,' she said; 'will you come and see me to-morrow afternoon? I shall be here at the same time, and then we can have a little talk.'
'What is your name?' asked Betty.
'Nesta,' the young lady answered, a little briefly.
'And do you teach children?' was the next question, breathlessly put.
'Sometimes; on Sundays I do.'
Betty's face lighted up, but she said no more, and trotted out of the church and along the road as hard as ever she could.
The children were all at breakfast the next morning in the old-fashioned kitchen. Nurse and her brother were having an animated talk over some reminiscences of the past, when there was a knock at the back door, and Mrs. Giles went out. Coming back, she appeared with a small hamper under her arm, which she placed on the floor.
''Tis the queerest thing I know of,' she said; 'look at the label now, Jack; whoever is it for?'
Every one crowded round at once.
'For the little odd one at Brook Farm.'
''Tis for one of the children,' said Jack, rubbing his head; 'they be the only little 'uns that I know of.'
'It's for Betty!' shouted Douglas and Molly excitedly; 'she's the odd one! Open it quick, Betty; perhaps it's a big cake.'
'It's alive!' exclaimed nurse, as on her knees she tried to undo the fastenings. 'Come along, Miss Betty, you shall open it for yourself.'
Betty came near, and with trembling fingers cut the string.
A minute after, and out of the hamper jumped a beautiful little black and white spaniel.
There were screams of delight from all the children, and great surmises as to who could have sent it. Betty guessed, but said nothing when she found a piece of paper tied to a brass collar round his neck, with these words: 'From a friend, hoping he may prove a true companion.'
She clasped her arms round the dog's neck in ecstasy. 'He is my very, very own,' she said, looking up at nurse with shining eyes; 'and I'll have him for ever and ever.'
The little creature sniffed at her face, and then put out his tongue, and gave her a lick of satisfaction and approval. From that time the two were all in all to each other.
There was a great deal of discussion about him that morning, and Betty had to tell of the strange, stern lady who had spoken to her in the wood.
'I'm sure she sent him,' Betty kept repeating; 'I'm sure she did.'
'It was awfully mean to keep your adventure so secret, said Douglas, looking at the dog very wistfully; 'she must be a fairy godmother living in the wood. I wish she would send me something.'
'Perhaps she is a wicked fairy or witch,' suggested Molly, 'who has turned a prince into a little dog, and we must find a kind of spell to bring him back to a prince again.'
'That's what I'll call him,' said Betty, looking up; 'I'll call him Prince.'
Nurse at first demurred at having such an addition to her family, but Mrs. Giles comforted her with the assurance—'There, let the little miss enjoy him; she'll soon get tired of him—children always do—and when you go back to London you can leave him behind with us. He's a good breed, that we can see; and Jack will be able to sell him if we don't care about keeping him.'
It was fortunate Betty did not hear this suggestion. Prince was rapidly filling a void in her little heart of which only she perhaps had been dimly conscious. She was a child with strong affections and intense feelings, and a yearning to have some one to love, and to be loved in return. None of the little Stuarts were demonstrative, and few guessed how deeply and passionately the bright and mischievous Betty longed for the sympathy and love that was so rarely shown towards her.
So engrossing was the possession of Prince that the day went by, and tea-time came, before Betty thought of her new friend in the church.
But when tea was over she took Molly into her confidence. 'Molly, do you think I might take Prince for a walk? would he follow me?'
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going to see a lady that I think is the governess Mr. Roper told me about; Nesta, her name is, only I think he called her Mother Nesta. I told you about it one night, don't you remember? she's really very old, but she looks very young, and this one must be her.'
'Where did you find her?'
'In a church.'
'Oh!' and Molly's tone was indifferent; 'I don't like people in church. Nurse says she is going to take us to church to-morrow. I hoped she would forget; last Sunday it was too far, she said. And Douglas and I were going to have a beautiful church in the orchard. There's an apple tree just like a pulpit.'
'Molly,' called out Douglas, 'Sam is going down to the river to fish; he says he'll show us where we can fish too; do come on!'
Away ran Molly. The twins were playing in the garden porch, and nurse chatting in the kitchen with her sister-in-law. Betty called Prince, who had been busy with a saucer of scraps, and putting on her straw hat set off along the road to church. Prince was certainly a great charge; he was a dog of an inquiring mind, and his continual rushes into the hedge sides, and long searches after young frogs in the grass, considerably delayed his young mistress's progress.
But at length the church was reached; the evening shadows threw long, weird shapes across the darkened path that led to the porch, the rooks were noisier than usual, and Betty looked anxiously down at Prince.
'You won't bark, dear, will you?' she said stooping and lifting him into her arms; 'because church is a very quiet place, and music is the only noise allowed. I'll take you in to see the prettiest little girl you've ever seen, and she's lying so still. I've brought her some forget-me-nots.'
Prince struggled a little at first, but Betty soothed him and then crept inside.
'I'm afraid I've come too late,' she murmured, as she looked round the silent church and saw no signs of the lady; 'but I'll come another day soon and see her.'
Softly she made her way round to the stained-glass window she loved, but started in astonishment when she saw leaning against the monument a tall, strange gentleman.
He did not see Betty; his brows were knitted and his lips twitching strangely under his heavy dark moustache; with folded arms he stood leaning against the pillar, and looking down upon the fair figure of the recumbent child in front of him. Then he stooped, and taking up one of the fading lilies across the child's hands looked at it wonderingly.
'The picture more lasting than the thing itself,' he muttered; 'it is all that is left us; the fragile productions of nature cannot exist long in this hard, rough world, and yet how I tried to shield her from every blast!'
A slight whine from Prince startled him, and looking round he pulled himself together sternly.
'What are you doing here, little girl?'
Almost the same words that had been said to her in the wood the other day; and Betty began to wonder if she were again on forbidden ground.
'Does the church belong to you?' she asked, standing her ground, and looking up through her long dark lashes rather shyly; 'am I where I oughtn't to be? I came to see that little girl.'
He looked at her.
'What do you know about her?'
'I don't know anything, but I want to know. I love her, and I've brought her some more flowers.'
'Did you put these lilies here?'
'Yes; they're quite dead now, aren't they?'
'Of course they are; this is the place of death.'
Betty did not understand the bitter tone; but she said simply, pointing to the child's figure, 'She isn't really dead, is she? She has gone to sleep. I was thinking, when I was here before, if Jesus would only just walk out of that window and touch her hands with His, she would open her eyes and get up. I should like to see her, wouldn't you? I watched her the other day till I almost thought I saw her move. But she will wake up one day, won't she?'
There was no answer.
Betty slipped her little hand in his. 'Would you give her these forget-me-nots, or lift me up so that I can do it?' She had dropped Prince, who was sniffing suspiciously round the gentleman's heels, and waited anxiously for his reply. He took her in his arms, and held her there whilst she placed the flowers in the position she wished; and then, before she was lifted down, she said softly, 'I think she is really singing up in heaven. I like to believe she is there, but I'm not quite sure. Do you know if she came out of tribulation?'
'Why should she?'
'Because it says, about those in white robes with crowns, "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." It makes me feel very unhappy sometimes, because I haven't been through tribulation yet, and I shan't be ready to die till I have.'
She was set quickly down upon her feet, and without a word the gentleman left her, striding down the aisle and shutting the church door with a slam that echoed and re-echoed through the silent church.
Betty was startled at his sudden departure; she took up her dog in her arms again, and stood gazing silently up at the window above, through which the setting sun was sending coloured rays in all directions. Then with a little sigh she turned and left the church. Outside the porch was a grey-headed old man, the sexton, who was taking his evening walk amongst the graves.
'Hulloo!' he said, 'be you the one that banged this 'ere door just now? 'Twas enough to scare the owls and bats and all the other beasties from their holes for evermore.'
'No, it wasn't me; it was a gentleman.'
'Ah, was it now? Shouldn't be surprised if I knew who it was! 'Twas Mr. Russell, surely! There's no other gent that favours this 'ere building like him.'
'Is he Violet Russell's father?' questioned Betty eagerly.
The old man nodded. 'Yes, he be that little maid's parent, and he'll never get over her loss. She were the apple of his eye, and when she were took, he were like a man demented. Ah, 'tis the young as well as the old I have to dig for!'
'Does that gentleman live here?' asked Betty.
'Ay, surely, for he be the owner of the whole property hereabout. But 'tis not money will give comfort; he have had a deal o' trouble. I mind when his father turned him out o' doors for his painting and sich-like persoots. And he went to Italy, and there he taught hisself to be a hartist, and painted and carved a lot o' stone figures, and folks say he made a name for hisself in Lunnon. He were taken back by his father after a bit, and came a-coorting Miss Violet Granger, that lived over at Deemster Hall. But his brother, Mr. Rudolph, cut him out, when he went off to Germany for a spell, and he and Miss Violet runned away together, and when he come back he found his bride stolen. He were terrible cut up, and off he goes to foreign parts again, and never a sight of he did us get till the old squire were dead, and Mr. Rudolph had killed hisself out hunting. Then Mr. Frank comes home agen with a bran-new wife, and we thought as how his life were a mending, and things were looking up. He seemed brighter, too; but lack-a-day, 'twere not ten months afore I had to dig a grave for her, and she left him a two-day-old babe to bring up—and little Miss Violet were the joy of his heart—she were a purty, bright little maid, and were out on her little pony every day wi' her father. She just doated on him, and he were as lovin' as a woman wi' her. Then there come the day when the little maid got a ugly fall from her pony, and all the Lunnon doctors were sent for, but could do no good, and she were in bed a wasting away for nigh a twelve-month, and then she died. 'Twere a mercy, for she'd have been a hunchbacked cripple had she lived; and Mary Foster, what were her maid, said as 'ow she suffered terrible at times. The Lord were marciful in takin' of her. But 'tis not to be wondered at Mr. Frank takin' it sorely. And then he shut hisself up in his painting room, and never comed out of it till he had cut the little maid's figure out in stone, like as you see it in the church. Many's the visitor that I've a taken in to see it; and the ladies, they comes away sheddin' tears at the little dear. He put up the coloured window too, and comes to church reg'lar; but he's hard and cold, like the stones he cut, and 'tis his troubles have spoilt him. I mind he were a bright-faced, bonny lad once, that I used to show birds' nests to in the hedges; but now he passes me wi'out a civil word or look. Ay, it's trouble and toil and tribbylation that is man's lot here below!'
Betty listened to this long harangue breathlessly. Much of it she could not follow, but the old man's closing sentence made her look at him eagerly.
'Do you know about tribulation?' she asked.
'Me know of it! Ay, surely, when I've buried six sons and daughters, and last of all my woife, and dug all their graves mysel', save two, which were Jack in Mericky, which died of yellow fever, and only a packet of letters sent back to us belonging to him, and in them there were a bit o' his mother's grey hair which he had cut off that playful afore he went away; and then there were Rob, that were killed down a coal mine, and we could never get at his body, and he left a widder and three childer, and she were married to one o' his chums afore a twelvemonth past—the unfeeling hussy; but I've washed my hands of the lot. Ay, I've been through troubles and tribbylation, which is our lot in this world, but I've had a many more than most folks.'
'Then you must be quite ready to die?' said Betty, looking at him thoughtfully.
The old man looked at her; then rubbed his head in a puzzled way.
'I'm no so sure about that, little lassie; I've seen scores brought into this churchyard and placed in my graves, but there are toimes when I think o' seeing mysel' let down into a strange grave, and one not cut half so foine as mine, for I'm up to my trade, and none could do it better, and I'm thinkin' if that day will wait till I'm ready for it; well—'twill be a good way off yet!'
Betty knitted her brows in perplexity.
'If you've been through tribulation, you must be very nearly ready for heaven—the Bible says so.'
'Ay, do it? Let's hear, missy; for sure I've had my lot o' woe, and the Lord do be marciful!'
For a second time that afternoon Betty repeated the text that was so occupying her mind and thoughts. The old man listened attentively.
'You see,' said Betty, leaning against an old yew tree and hugging Prince close to her, 'it's the first part that's so difficult to me, but it must be quite easy for you. The end of it fits us all, but the tribulation doesn't fit me.'
'And what be the end of it?' asked the sexton.
'It says, they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'
'Ay,' said the old man, after a minute's silence, 'and 'tis the end of it don't fit me.'
The child looked up, astonishment coming into her blue eyes.
'But that's very easy,' she said, 'that is coming to Jesus and asking Him to wash our sins away in His blood. I thought everybody did that. I do it every night, because I'm an awful wicked girl. I'm always forgetting to be good.'
Again there was silence; the old man looked away over the hills in the distance. It was just the quietest time in the evening; the birds were already in their nests for the night,—even the rooks had subsided; and the stillness and peace around drew his heart and mind upwards. Betty thought he was looking at the sunset, which was shedding its last golden rays over the misty blue outlines of the hills across the horizon. Presently he drew the cuff of his sleeve across his eyes. 'And who be they that the Book says that of?' he asked.
'Why, it's the people in heaven—every one who dies, I s'pose. I like to think of them there, but I do want dreadfully to join them one day; and I'm afraid sometimes I shall be left out.'
Tears were filling the earnest little eyes, and the curly head bent over Prince to hide them.
'I mind,' said the sexton slowly, 'that my missus, before she died, told me to pray, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." I expect she knew all about the washing, but I've never done much harm to any one, and I've attended church reg'lar.'
'I wish I was as good as you.' And Betty looked up with emphatic utterance. 'I'm always doing some one harm, and nurse will scold me when I get in for being out so late—I know she will. Good-bye, old man.'
She put Prince down on the ground, and trotted off, and the old sexton looked after her with a shake of his head.
'She be a queer little lass! Ay, I would be glad to have her chance of getting to the Kingdom. But I'll have a look at the old Book, and see what it says about this 'ere washing.'
Made into a Couple
The next morning being Sunday, the three elder children were taken to church by nurse. It was a small village congregation; and Betty looked round in vain for her friend Nesta. She saw Mr. Russell standing grim and solitary in his large, old-fashioned pew; and she had a nod from the sexton at the church door. The clergyman's wife and grown-up daughter and a few grandly dressed farmers' wives were the only others who occupied seats of their own. The organ was played by the schoolmaster, and after Nesta's playing it did not seem the same instrument. Betty was quieter than her brother and sister; she could see her stained window and little Violet's figure from where she sat; she could even catch sight of her forget-me-nots—now looking withered and dead; and her thoughts kept her restless little body still. Molly and Douglas did not like church; their fair heads were close together, and occasionally a faint sniggle would cause nurse to look round with stern reproval. But at last the long service was over, and they came out into the fresh, sweet air of a June morning.
Nurse had several friends to talk to in the churchyard, and Molly and Betty walked on soberly in front of her, feeling subdued and a little uncomfortable in their stiff white frocks and best Leghorn hats and feathers.
'Where is Douglas?' whispered Betty.
'Hush! don't let nurse know; he saw a pair of legs through a little hole at the back of the organ, and he's gone to see if it is a robber hiding.'
'Will he fight him if it is?' said Betty, with an awe-struck look; then an expression of relief crossing her face, she said, 'I know; it's a boy that goes in at the back whenever a person plays. I don't know what he does, but I've seen him there before.'
'When did you see him?' asked Molly eagerly.
Betty's private adventures never remained secret for long, and she poured forth a long account of her various visits to the church. Molly was much impressed, but Douglas's return soon turned her thoughts into another channel. He looked flushed and dishevelled, and his white sailor suit was soiled and dusty; but nurse was too busy talking to notice his appearance, and he joined the others with some importance in his tone.
'I've made a discovery,' he said; 'how do you think a church organ is played?'
'Like a piano,' said Molly promptly.
'It isn't, then; you turn a handle like the organs in the street, and a man or boy does all the work behind.'
The little girls looked sceptical, and Betty said, 'I'm sure you don't, then, for we can see the person playing.'
'Well, they're only pretending; I've seen the handle myself, and the boy told me if he didn't pull it up and down the organ wouldn't play. It must be like a kind of duet, perhaps. I expect he makes all the big booming notes, and the squeaky notes are made by the person in front. I've promised him sixpence out of my new half-crown, if he'll let me play instead of him one day; and he says he will.'
'Nurse won't let you play it on Sundays,' said Molly; 'besides, you won't be able to do it properly, and if you made a mistake it would be awful.'
'I shall play it on a week-day, and I'll make the old organ sound, you see if I don't!'
Directly the children reached home, Betty flew to her dog, who had been shut up in the garret whilst they had been at church. Prince was already getting to know his little mistress, and welcomed her back with short happy barks and a great many licks. And Betty poured out all her heart's love for him in the shape of caresses and pats and kisses, whispering in his silken ears many a secret, and hugging him to her breast with a passionate vehemence which astonished and amused those who saw her.
'He is my own, my very own,' she kept repeating; 'and I shall never feel odd no more!'
She did not. It was a new and delightful sensation to be one of a couple. 'Molly and Douglas, Bobby and Billy, and Prince and I,' she would say. No longer was she to trot off alone in some of their games,—Prince was always ready to go with her; if Molly and Douglas were deep in some conspiracy, so could she and Prince be; and the pent-up feelings and thoughts of rather a lonely little heart were poured out to one who listened and sympathised with his soft brown eyes and curly tail, but who never betrayed the confidence reposed in him.
At no time in her life had Betty been so happy as she was now; her little pensive face sparkled with gladness when Prince gambolled by her side; and nurse asserted that the dog kept her out of mischief, and was a very successful addition to their party. It was some days before she visited the church again; but when she did, the organ was sounding, and she found her friend already playing. Rolling Prince up in her large holland overall, until only his little black nose peeped out, Betty crept up close to the player, and stood unnoticed for some minutes. Then Nesta Fairfax turned round and gave the child a pleased smile.
'My little friend again!' she said; 'I have been wondering what has become of you. Have you come for a talk?'
'No, only to listen to the music,' said Betty.
'Then I will go on playing.'
She turned back to the organ, and for some time Betty listened in silence, sitting on a hassock and rocking Prince backwards and forwards, till warm and exhausted with his ineffectual struggles to free himself, he fell asleep in her arms.
At last, when there was a pause in the music, Betty said earnestly,—
'Will you sing again what you did when I thought you were an angel?'
'What was it, I wonder?'
'It was about—"these are they which came out of great tribulation!"'
'Oh yes, I remember.'
And the sweet clear voice rang out through the silent church, and the organ rose and fell to the beautiful words, till Betty could hardly bear it.
'Is it over?' she asked, as the last note died away.
Nesta Fairfax turned her glowing face upon the child.
'You love it as much as I do, you little mite!' she said; 'but you mustn't cry. Do you know where those words come from?'
She put her arms round her, and drew her to rest against her as she spoke,—
'Yes,' said Betty with a nod; 'I know all about them; I've read it sixty hundred times, I think, and I know that verse by heart. I want to ask you about it.'
Nesta waited, and with a little effort Betty said,—
'I want dreadfully to be one of them one day, and I'm afraid I never shall. I was talking to the old man who digs graves, the other day; the first part of the verse doesn't fit me, and the last doesn't fit him—at least he said so. I wonder if both parts fit you.'
Nesta gazed at Betty in a puzzled kind of way; then looked away, for her eyes were filling with tears.
'Perhaps it may,' she said softly; 'I should like to think it did.'
'And can you tell me how I can go through tribulation? I want to get it over, so that I can be quite ready for heaven.'
'My dear child, if God means you to have it, He will send it in His own good time. Never wish for troubles; they will come fast enough as you grow older.'
'That's what nurse says; she tells us when we get to her age we shall know what distress and trouble is. But s'posing if I don't live to grow up? Violet didn't, and I'm so afraid I may not get inside heaven. I may be left out of those in the text, because I haven't been through tribulation. I don't want to be left out; I want to be in the very middle of them all! I want to stand singing, and have a crown and a palm, and I want to hear some one ask who I am; and then I want to hear the answer, "She came out of tribulation!" Oh! do tell me how I can go into it! Mr. Roper said you would teach me a lot of things.'
Betty's voice was eloquent in her beseeching tone, and Nesta was silent for a moment; then she said,—
'Trouble doesn't take us to heaven; tribulation, even martyrdom, does not. Don't you know what does? What did Jesus Christ come into the world for? What did He die for? Will you sing a little hymn with me? I expect you know it.'
Betty looked delighted.
'And will you play the organ?'
Then Nesta began to sing; and Betty's sweet little voice chimed in; for well she knew the words,—
'There is a green hill far away, Beyond the city wall, Where our dear Lord was crucified, Who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell What pains He had to bear; But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.
He died that we may be forgiven, He died to make us good, That we might go at last to heaven, Saved by His precious blood.
There was no other good enough To pay the price of sin; He only could unlock the gate Of heaven and let us in.
Oh, dearly, dearly has He loved, And we must love Him too, And trust in His redeeming blood, And try His works to do.'
'Now can you tell me why the Lord Jesus Christ died; what does the hymn say?'
'He died that we may be forgiven, He died to make us good,' quoted Betty slowly.
'That we might go at last to heaven, saved by His precious blood.'
'Then how can we get to heaven?'
'Because Jesus died for us.'
'Yes, He died to let you go to heaven, Betty; He did it all, and you have nothing to do with it. If you let Jesus take your little heart and wash it in His blood, nothing will ever keep you out of heaven.'
'But if I'm naughty?' asked Betty. 'I've asked God so often to give me a new heart and wash me in Jesus' blood, and sometimes I think He has done it; but then I'm always getting into mischief, and nurse says it's only the good children go to heaven.'
'I think Jesus will teach you to be good, if you ask Him, and you mustn't expect to be quite good all at once; always go to Him when you've been naughty, and tell Him about it, and ask Him to help you to be good. He loves you, Betty, and He will always listen to you and answer your prayers.'
Betty's blue eyes were looking intently at the speaker; and her little lips took a resolute curve.
'I will be good,' she said; 'I do love Jesus, and I'll ask Him all day long to keep me from being naughty.'
Then after a pause she said,—
'Have you gone through tribulation?'
'I have had a great deal of trouble.' And a sad look came over Nesta's face.
'My old man said he had had a lot of trouble, and he told me Mr. Russell had. Trouble always means people dying, doesn't it?'
'There are troubles worse than death,' Nesta said gravely; 'God grant you may never know such!' Then with a change of tone she said brightly, 'Don't look for trouble, darling; Jesus means you to be happy. Now shall we sing one more hymn, and then I must go.'
Betty joined in delightedly when Nesta began,—
'There's a Friend for little children.'
After it was finished Nesta asked,—
'What did you mean, Betty, by saying that a Mr. Roper had told you I would teach you? Who is Mr. Roper?'
Betty told her, repeating as much of the conversation she had had with him as she could remember; and Nesta laughed aloud when she discovered the origin of the 'lady who taught.'
'He meant Mother Nature, Betty; a very different teacher to me.'
'Do you know her, then? Where does she live?'
'I will take you to see her when next we meet. You see her every day, Betty. Now I must go. Good-bye. Is this a little doggie you have rolled up in your pinafore? I thought it was a doll. Now, Dick, you can come out.'
Dick Green, a heavy-looking village boy, appeared from behind the organ, and followed Miss Fairfax down the aisle. But Betty waited; she had brought two roses with her for Violet's monument, and she went to the seat upon which she had laid them, and took them round to the other side of the church, where she deposited them in the usual place. Then calling Prince, who had been awakened from his sleep, and was now inspecting every corner of the church with nose and paws, Betty set off homewards.