Penelope and the Others; or, A Story of Five Country Children
By Amy Walton ___________ This is another story by Amy Walton about life in the English countryside towards the end of the nineteenth century. It is a sequel to "The Hawthorns", except that, for some reason, the name has become "Hawthorne".
On the whole the principal dramatis personae, the Hawthorne household, are unchanged. The additions are Miss Barnicroft, an eccentric old lady from the village; Kettles, an impoverished child from Nearminster, the cathedral city close by; Dr Budge, a learned old man in the village, who takes on the grounding of one of the boys in Latin; Mrs Margetts, who had spent her life in the Hawthorne family's employment as a children's nurse; the Dean of the Cathedral and his family, particularly Sabine, who is the same age as Pennie; and Dr Budge's pet Jackdaw.
There is no reason why a child of today should not read this story and profit by it. They will perhaps be surprised to find how much more civilised life was a hundred years ago and more, than it is today. NH ___________
PENELOPE AND THE OTHERS; A STORY OF FIVE COUNTRY CHILDREN
BY AMY WALTON
Penelope Hawthorne sat in the school-room window-seat at Easney Vicarage, one afternoon, looking very gravely out at the garden.
She had sat there for some time, with her hands in her lap and a little troubled frown on her forehead, and anyone who knew her well would have guessed at once that she was thinking over a "plan."
Penelope was just thirteen years old, the eldest of the Hawthorne children, and as she was a thoughtful girl and fond of reading, she often made very good plans for her brothers and sisters' amusement, partly out of her own head, and partly out of books. But this particular plan quite puzzled her, for it had nothing to do with amusement, and she did not at all see how it was to be carried out. Yet it was much too good to be given up.
The plan was this. To buy a new Chinese mandarin for Miss Unity Cheffins.
Now Miss Unity was Pennie's godmother, and lived in the Cathedral Close at Nearminster, which was two miles away from the village of Easney. Amongst her knick-knacks and treasures there used to be a funny little china figure called a mandarin which had always stood on her sitting-room mantel-piece since the children could remember anything. This had unfortunately been broken by a friend of Pennie's whilst the two girls were on a visit at Nearminster; and though it had not been her fault, Pennie felt as if she were responsible for the accident. She found out that her godmother had a great affection for the queer little mandarin, and it made her sorry whenever she went to Nearminster to see his place empty, and to think that he would never nod his head any more.
She felt all the more sorry when one day, in the cupboard by the fireplace, she caught sight of a little heap of china fragments which she knew were the remains of the poor mandarin, and saw by the bottle of cement near that her godmother had been trying vainly to stick him together. After this she began to wonder whether it would be possible to replace Miss Unity's favourite. Could she, if she saved all her money, get another figure exactly like it? Where were such things to be bought? No doubt in London, where, she had heard her father say, you could get anything in the world. It would therefore be easy to get another mandarin so like the first that Miss Unity would hardly know the difference, and to set it up on the mantel-piece in her room.
Pennie thought and thought, until this beautiful idea grew to perfect proportions in her mind. She pictured Miss Unity's surprise and pleasure, and had settled the new mandarin in all his glory at Nearminster, before one serious drawback occurred to her—want of money. If she were to save up her money for years, she would not have enough, for though she did not know the cost of the figure, she had heard it spoken of as "valuable." What a very long time it would be before sixpence a week would buy anything you could call "valuable!" Pennie did not see her way out of it at all, though she worked endless sums on scraps of paper, and worried over it both in play-hours and lesson-time.
This afternoon it was still in her mind when Miss Grey, the governess, came into the school-room with the other children and called her away from the window-seat where she had sat so long. Pennie gave up her thoughts with a sigh and prepared to write out her French translation, while her sister Nancy and her two brothers Ambrose and David were reading history aloud. She gave her task only half her attention, however, and sat staring at the words for some time without thinking of their meaning. It was one of Aesop's fables that she had to put into French. "Union is strength," said the motto; and as she read it over for the twentieth time a sudden and splendid idea flashed across her mind.
"Of course!" she exclaimed aloud in triumph.
"Another bad mark, Pennie," said Miss Grey; for talking in school hours was one of Pennie's failings.
But she was now so possessed with her new idea and so eager to carry it out, that bad marks did not seem of much consequence. She scrambled through her other lessons, straining her ears all the while for the first tinkle of the four o'clock bell sounding from the village school, for that was the signal that lessons at the rectory were also over for the afternoon. There then remained one precious hour before tea-time, and in summer there was an immediate rush into the garden and fields.
At last the welcome sound came. Nancy was generally the first to announce it, but to-day Pennie was beforehand.
"It's begun, Miss Grey," she exclaimed, starting up so hastily that cotton, scissors, and thimble, all fell on the ground.
"More haste worse speed, Pennie," said Miss Grey. "Now you will have to stay and pick up all those things and put them neatly away."
Poor Pennie gathered up her property as quickly as she could, but the hateful thimble, as if it knew she was in a hurry, rolled into a dark corner and could not be found.
"Oh, does it matter to-day?" she asked pleadingly, as Nancy, Ambrose, and David, having put away their books, rushed headlong past her, and she heard their first yells of delight as they burst into the garden. "I'll find it afterwards—I really will."
But Miss Grey was firm.
"You are too careless, Pennie. I must have it found before you go out."
Pennie groped about the school-room floor, groaning with vexation. The others would be all scattered about, and she would never get them to listen to her plan. What did a stupid thimble matter in comparison? If it were lost for ever, so much the better. Nancy at least might have stayed to help. While she was peering and poking about, and fuming and grumbling, Dickie came into the room ready for the garden, in her round holland pinafore, and grasping a basket and spade.
Dickie, whose real name was Delicia, was only five years old and not yet admitted to the school-room, but she was fond of escaping from the nursery whenever she could and joining the others in their games. She at once cast herself flat on the floor to help in the search, and in this position not only spied the thimble under the fender, but by means of the spade succeeded to her great delight in poking it out.
In another minute she and Pennie were running across the lawn to a part of the garden called the Wilderness, where only Ambrose was to be found soberly digging in his garden, and quite ready for conversation. But Pennie would not unfold the plan unless the others heard it too. David at any rate was sure to be in the barn feeding his rabbits, and perhaps Nancy might be with him. So to the barn they all took their way.
The barn was large and roomy, quite unused except by the children, who kept all their pets and a good deal of what Andrew the gardener called "rubbage" there. At one end the boys had fixed a swing and some rope-ladders, on which they practised all sorts of monkey-like feats. At the other lived David's rabbits in numerous hutches, Ambrose's owl, a jackdaw, a squirrel, and a wonderfully large family of white mice. Besides those captives there were bats which lived free but retired lives high up in the rafters, flapping and whirring about when dusk came on. Pigeons also flew in and out, and pecked at the various morsels of food left about on the ground, so that the barn was a thickly-peopled place, with plenty of noise and flutter, and much coming and going through its wide doors.
When the children entered, Nancy was lazily swinging herself backwards and forwards while she watched David, who moved steadily from hutch to hutch, with a box of bran under one arm and a huge bunch of green meat under the other.
"Come and hear Pennie's plan," said Ambrose; "she won't tell it till you all listen."
"I can't come," said David, "I've got to finish feeding the rabbits, and after that I must do up my pig for the night. There's only just time before tea."
"Why don't you come in and tell it here if you want to?" said Nancy, shoving herself off with her foot. "Look here. Ambrose, I've touched the rafters twice. You couldn't."
It did not seem a very promising moment.
"If I do will you really listen?" said Pennie, sitting down on a packing-case midway between David and Nancy, "because it's an important plan."
David nodded, and Nancy in her wild passage through the air, now high up in the roof, now low down on the floor of the barn, screamed out "All right! Go on." It was not of much consequence, but Pennie felt vexed with her. She might at least have stopped swinging. Turning her full attention therefore on Ambrose and David, whom she hoped to impress, she began:
"It's not exactly a pleasure plan, it's a sort of sacrificing plan, and I want you to help me."
"I don't know a bit what you mean," said Nancy; "but if it isn't pleasant, what's the good of it?"
"It is pleasant," said Pennie hurriedly, for she saw a cold look of disapproval on David's face; "not at first, but afterwards."
"I like a plan that's pleasant first, and afterwards, and all the time," said Nancy, who was now standing still on the swing.
It was worse for Nancy to listen in this mood than to pay no attention.
"I wish you'd go on swinging, Nancy," said Pennie impatiently, "you only interrupt."
"Oh, all right!" said Nancy. "I thought you wanted us to listen. I don't like the beginning at any rate."
She launched herself into motion again, but Pennie was uneasily conscious that she could still hear every word, and though she explained her plan as well as she could, she felt she was not doing it justice. She got through it, however, without any further interruption.
"Wouldn't it be nice," she said after dwelling on Miss Unity's attachment to the mandarin, "if we all saved up some money and put it into a box, and when we got enough if we all bought a new mandarin, and all gave it her? I wanted to do it by myself, but I never could. It would take too long."
She looked anxiously at her hearers. No one spoke at first. David seemed entirely occupied in picking out the choicest bits of parsley and carrot for Goliath, his biggest rabbit; but at last he said moodily:
"Ethelwyn broke it."
"Mean thing!" exclaimed Nancy's voice on high.
"Yes, I know," murmured Pennie.
"Then," continued David, "she ought to pay for a new one. Not us."
"But she never would," said Ambrose. "Why, I don't suppose she even remembers doing it."
"If there ever was," put in Nancy, "anyone I hated, it was that stupid Ethelwyn."
"You oughtn't to say that, Nancy," said Pennie reprovingly. "You know mother doesn't like you to say you hate people."
"Well, I won't say so, then; but I did all the same, and so did you at last."
"Will anyone agree to the plan?" asked Pennie dejectedly, for she felt that the proposal had been a failure. To her surprise David turned round from the row of hutches.
"I will," he said, "because she was so kind once, but I can't give it every week. I'll give it when I don't want it very much for something else."
Ambrose remained silent a little while. He was rather vexed that David had made this offer before he had spoken himself, for he did not like his younger brother to take the lead.
"I don't call that much of a sacrifice," he said at length. "I shall give some every week."
Dickie had listened to all this without any clear idea as to what it meant, but she could not bear to be left out of any scheme, and she now said firmly:
"Me will too."
Her offer was received with laughter.
"You've got no pocket-money, Dickie," said Pennie.
"She's got her slug-money," observed David. This property of Dickie's consisted of the payment for slugs and snails which she collected in a flower-pot and delivered to Andrew for execution. He kept the account chalked up in the potting shed, and when it reached a hundred, Dickie was entitled to ask her father for a penny.
"I call it a shame to take her slug-money," cried out Nancy from the swing.
"No one wants to take it," replied Pennie, "but she shall give it if she likes."
"I call it a stupid old plan, with nothing pleasant about it at all," were Nancy's last words as they all left the barn.
Pennie tried to treat those remarks with indifference, but she was in truth wounded and discouraged by them, and felt, moreover, that they were likely to affect the boys unfavourably. She observed that Ambrose became very thoughtful as they approached the house, and presently he asked in an off-hand manner:
"How long do you suppose it will take us to buy a mandarin?"
Pennie could not say, but she thought it might be a long while, because she had heard that china figures of that sort were expensive, "and of course," she added, "we must get one of the very best."
"Oh, of course!" said Ambrose at once. But he began to reflect that it would be very dull never to have any pocket-money to spend, and to wish that he had followed David's prudent example. He could not possibly draw back now, but he hoped the mandarin might not prove quite so expensive as Pennie thought.
Pennie herself hardly knew what to think about the success of her plan. It certainly had not been received very heartily, but there was no reason why it should fail if Ambrose and David would remain true to their promise. That was the question. Much patience and self-denial would be needed, and it was unfortunate that next month there would be a great temptation in the way—Cheddington Fair.
David had only agreed to give his share when he did not want to spend it on anything else. Now even without the attractions of a fair there are plenty of ways of spending 4 pence a week, and though he had a thrifty nature, David had never found any difficulty in laying out his money. Again, Nancy's behaviour had been most disappointing. She had always been so fond of the old mandarin, who had so often nodded his head for her pleasure, that Pennie had counted on her support, but instead of this she had only displayed a most perverse and provoking spirit.
Pennie sighed to remember all these drawbacks, but she determined not to be beaten without an effort, and directly after tea she set about preparing a box to receive all possible contributions. Would David lend his china cottage for the purpose? This being graciously given she printed the words, "For the Mandarin" in large letters on a piece of paper, pasted it on the front, and set the house up on the school-room mantel-piece that it might be constantly before the general eye.
THE ROMAN CAMP.
It was about a week after this that the children one day persuaded Miss Grey to go home across Rumborough Common after a walk. She never liked to do so, because it was a lonely, desolate place frequented by gypsies and tramps, but the boys had a special reason for wishing it. There were the remains of what was called a Roman camp there, which, they felt sure, was full of strange and curious things—coins, medals, bones, beads, all manner of desirable objects to add to their collection for the museum. They had never been lucky enough to find any, but hope did not forsake them, and as often as they could persuade Miss Grey to cross the common, they lingered behind the others as much as they possibly could and kept an eager look-out.
Unfortunately, Miss Grey never walked so fast as in that particular spot, and was always urging them to quicken their pace, so that it was possible to miss many valuable curiosities. Otherwise, with time before them, and the aid of a spade and a pickaxe, Ambrose and David felt that they could have unearthed treasures which would have filled their museum easily. To-day they were so far behind that Miss Grey and their sisters were almost out of sight. Ambrose had been giving David a little solid information about the Romans, their wars, customs, and personal appearance, when he was suddenly interrupted by his brother.
"I suppose," said David, "you forgot the museum when you told Pennie you'd give your money every week?"
Ambrose did not want to be reminded of that promise, which he had already begun to regret; besides, this question showed that David had not been attending to the Romans.
"Why, of course," he said impatiently; "we sha'n't buy things for the museum. We shall just find them by degrees."
"I don't believe we shall ever get enough things before the winter," replied David, with his eyes fixed on the short dry turf at his feet. "Oh, look!" he exclaimed suddenly, "there's a funny snail."
Ambrose stooped to examine it. It was an empty white shell with curious black stripes on it.
"It's a Roman snail," he said rising with a superior air. "You know they used to eat them."
David stood with his short legs wide apart, his hands in his pockets, his grave eyes fixed on the shell in his brother's hand.
"Did the Romans bring it?" he asked. "How very old it must be!"
"How stupid you are!" said Ambrose. "Of course I meant they brought some like it, and then there got to be more and more snails—like Sir Walter Raleigh and the potato."
"It'll do nicely for the museum, won't it?" said David, "and we'll write a label for it with 'Roman snail, found near Rumborough Camp.'" By this time it was no longer possible to avoid seeing that Miss Grey was waving her parasol in the far distance. Probably one of the girls would be sent back to fetch them if they did not go at once, so with the snail carefully secured they set off towards her at a quick trot.
"Don't you wish," jerked out Ambrose in short sentences as he ran, "that father would bring us—with a spade—and dig—and find things?"
"It would be splendid," gasped David. "Do you think he would?"
"I say," called out Ambrose, without replying to this, as they got near to the others, "guess what we've found."
"A skull," said Nancy at once, mentioning the thing which the boys wanted most for their museum.
"How could it be a skull, silly?" said Ambrose scornfully, "when I'm holding it inside my hand?"
More guesses followed, but in vain, and at last the Roman snail was displayed to the wondering gaze of Pennie and Nancy. Not that they had any part or lot in matters concerning the museum. That belonged to the boys alone, and was jealously guarded as their very own. Ever since Ambrose had been with his father to the museum at Nearminster he and David had made up their minds to have one, and had begun with great fervour to collect objects for it. Other interests, however, had come in the way, and the museum languished until one day Mrs Hawthorne had offered them a tiny empty room at the top of the house for their own. It was not much bigger than a cupboard, and had a very sloping roof, but to the boys it seemed a palace.
What a place for the museum! They at once set to work to put up shelves, to write labels, and to give it as much as possible the appearance of the one at Nearminster. Ambrose hit upon an idea which added a good deal to this. He printed the words "To the Museum" on some cards, with an arrow to point the way, and when these were pasted on the staircase wall they had a capital effect. But though it began to have quite a business-like air, the museum was still woefully empty. Even when spread out to their widest extent, it was impossible to make three fossils, a few birds' eggs, and one dried snake's skin look otherwise than meagre even in a small room. The boys arranged these over and over again in different positions, and wrote very large labels for them, but they were disturbed by the consciousness that it was not an interesting collection, and that it must be increased before the 1st of November. This would be their mother's birthday, and they then intended to invite her to see the museum and to declare it open.
All this, therefore, made Rumborough Common, with its store of hidden treasure, an unusually interesting place, and it was almost too tantalising to be hurried past the camp with only a longing glance. Ambrose especially, since his visit to the Nearminster museum, had been fired with ambition to make a thorough search. Visions of strange-shaped daggers and spears, bronze cups and bowls with mysterious inscriptions on them, rusty ornaments, and other relics floated continually before him. There they were, all waiting hidden below, ready to fill the empty shelves of the museum. If only father would consent to go with him and David, and let them poke about as much as they liked. That would be the only plan, and after much consideration and many talks together both the boys came to the conclusion that the vicar must be asked. Who was to ask him? The question was as usual settled by casting lots, and it fell to Ambrose.
Now, unluckily, the vicar was at this time specially busy. There was to be a clerical meeting at Nearminster at which he had promised to read a paper, and the preparation of this filled up all his spare time. At such moments it required courage to knock at his door and ask questions, and Ambrose drew back a little. Urged, however, by David, and by the thoughts of the treasure, he at length made the effort. Directly he got into the room he saw by all the great books his father had open on the table, and by the frown on his brow, that he was deeply engrossed. He looked up, certainly, and seemed to listen, but he was evidently very far-away from anything connected with Rumborough Common. Gathering, however, that he was asked to go somewhere, he looked back at his papers and shook his head.
"My dear boy," he said, "I will listen to you another time, but none of you are to come and ask me questions just now. Run away to your mother."
His pen began to scratch away over the paper at a dreadful rate, and Ambrose returned dejectedly to tell David of his failure. They felt quite cast-down by it. Mother and father were both going away next week. They were invited to stay at Miss Unity's house during the clerical meeting, taking Dickie with them, and would not be home for four days. This would make a terrible long delay, and it seemed impossible to wait all that time before asking their father again. Yet what could be done?
Ambrose felt the disappointment more severely than David. His mind was so fixed on carrying out his idea that he brooded over it by day and even dreamed of it at night. Often he saw the shelves of the museum crowded with all his heart could desire in the way of curious and ancient objects. But this did not advance matters at all. They remained in the cold light of day as bare as ever, with great spaces between the few specimens, and by degrees, as he gazed mournfully at them, a thought began to take shape in his mind and to become more and more enticing.
Why should not he and David go to Rumborough Camp alone? Certainly he had an impression that it would be wrong, but as far as he could remember it had never been distinctly forbidden, so what harm could there be in it? He tried to remember if his father or mother had ever said, "You are not to go alone to Rumborough Common." No. Try as hard as he could he remembered no such words. In his heart of hearts Ambrose was conscious all the time that if known such a thing would not be allowed, for he and David never went beyond the fields round the house unless Miss Grey or nurse were with them: they had occasionally been as far as Farmer Hatchard's with a message, but that was the extreme limit.
He would not, however, let his mind dwell on this, for the expedition began to appear so attractive, so bold, daring, and altogether delightful, that all other considerations seemed dull and tame. He was almost tempted to undertake it quite alone, but a little reflection showed him that a companion would be decidedly useful. Rumborough Common was a desolate and somewhat alarming place, and besides he might find too many valuable curiosities to carry home by himself. David's advice and help must certainly, therefore, be asked.
What would he think of it? Ambrose felt a little bit doubtful. Not that David wanted either courage or enterprise for such an undertaking, and if once started upon it he would be sure to carry it through with undaunted perseverance, but—he was so matter-of-fact. He would certainly say at once that it would be against rules, for he had a tiresome way of looking things straight in the face, instead of turning his eyes a little to one side when it was more convenient or pleasant to do so.
At any rate, he must be asked to go; but Ambrose went on to consider that this need not be done until Monday after their father and mother had gone to Nearminster. That would be two days hence, which would give him time to think over his plan and make preparations, so that all might be ready to meet any difficulties from David. Ambrose began to feel very important when he had settled all this in his mind; it was such an immense idea that it was most difficult to keep it all within himself, and he went about with such an air of superiority to daily events that the other children knew at once he had a secret.
"You look just like Dickie's bantam hen when she has laid an egg," said Nancy; "but I sha'n't try to guess what you're thinking about. It's sure to have something to do with that stupid museum."
Ambrose meanwhile began his preparations. He and David both possessed garden spades, which would be useful; but the ground on Rumborough Common was hard and chalky, and he felt sure that they would require a pickaxe as well. Andrew had one, but he was surly about lending his tools, and there was no chance of getting at them, for he kept them carefully locked up, and never left any lying about in the garden.
"I say, Andrew," said Ambrose in a careless manner, "I wish you'd just lend me your pickaxe, please; just to break up some hard ground."
"You're not man enough to use it, Master Ambrose," said Andrew. "It's too heavy for ye. There's a nice light hoe now, I'd let ye have that for a bit."
"That wouldn't do," said Ambrose. "It's very hard ground. A hoe would be of no use at all. I want the pickaxe particularly."
Andrew shook his head.
"Can't loan ye the pickaxe, young master. You'd be doing yourself a mischief;" and he took up his barrow and went his way.
So that was of no use. Ambrose began to long for Monday to come that he might tell David and have his help and advice. It was an odd thing to wish for his father and mother to go away. They seldom left home, and when they did there was a general outcry and lamentation among the children, because it was so dull without them. Yet now Ambrose felt it would be a decided relief when they had gone to Nearminster, for then he might unburden himself of his great secret.
The time came at last. Ruby, the grey horse, stood waiting with the waggonette at the door. Andrew sat on the box, ready to drive his master and mistress into Nearminster. He looked quite a different Andrew on these occasions from the one who worked in the garden, because he wore his best coat and hat, which were a size too large for him, and a roomy pair of white gloves.
The children were all in the hall watching the departure.
"Don't stay longer than you can help, mother," said Pennie; "it's horrid when you're away."
Mrs Hawthorne kissed them all and said good-bye. She hoped they would be quite obedient to Miss Grey while she was away, and Ambrose thought she looked specially at him as she spoke. He flushed a little as he joined with the others in promising to remember this.
"Now, then," said the vicar coming out of his study, "are we ready? Where's Dickie?"
Dickie came steadily down-stairs just then, step by step, rather encumbered in her movements by a large Noah's ark, which she clutched to her breast. She was calmly triumphant. Nurse followed her, still suggesting all manner of other toys as more convenient to carry—"a pretty doll now"—but Dickie was firm. The Noah's ark was her last birthday present; she must and would take it to Nearminster, and moreover she would carry it down-stairs herself. So it had to go; but the moment she was lifted with it into the waggonette she pulled out the sliding lid in the roof to find the efilant, as she called it, and most of the animals tumbled out. This made it necessary for all the children to throw themselves into the carriage to pick them up, so that there was a good deal of delay in starting. At last, however, all was really settled, and they drove off, Ambrose and David rushing on in front, as usual, to open the gate and scream out the last good-byes.
"Remember to be good boys," said their mother, leaning towards them as she passed; and again Ambrose felt as though she were speaking specially to him. He was not going to be a good boy. That he knew, but he would not think about it. It was pleasanter to fix his thoughts on all the advantages to be gained if David would only agree to his proposal, and make no awkward objections. He would tell him that very evening after tea, when they were going to fix a new shelf in the museum. Both the boys had been taught the use of saw and plane by the village carpenter, and were quite used to doing odd jobs for themselves. David in particular excelled in anything requiring neatness of finish, and took great pride in the fittings of the museum, which he was continually adding to and altering. The shelves were made of any bits of wood the boys had been able to get, so that at present they were all of different colours, and did not please him. He had it in his mind to ask Andrew for some white paint, with which he could produce a very superior effect, and indeed he was far more engrossed just now with the fittings of the museum than with objects to be put into it.
Armed with a large hammer, which he wielded with great skill and determination for so small a boy, he set to work in the museum directly after tea. Ambrose looked on listlessly. How should he introduce the subject with which his mind was full? There was certainly no room for it just now between the energetic blows which David was dealing, as he fastened up the new shelf into its place. At last he stopped and fell back a little to look at his work.
"Is that straight?" he asked.
"It's straight enough," answered Ambrose moodily, "but I don't see much good in putting it up."
David turned round with a face of wonder. "We must have shelves," he said.
"But we haven't got anything to put on them," replied Ambrose. "It looks silly to have them all empty."
David looked rather mournful.
"Of course they'd be much better full," he agreed; "but what can we do? How can we get things?"
"Isn't it a pity," said Ambrose, "that we couldn't ask father to take us to Rumborough? We could find enough there to fill the museum easily in half an hour."
David nodded and sighed.
"Why shouldn't we go alone?" said Ambrose, making a bold plunge. "I know the way." He looked full at his brother.
David did not seem at all startled. He merely said, as he put his hammer into the tool-box—"Miss Grey wouldn't let us."
"But," continued Ambrose, feeling it easier now that he had begun, "suppose we didn't ask her?"
David's attention was at last stirred. He turned his blue eyes gravely towards Ambrose.
"Father and mother wouldn't like that," he said.
Ambrose was quite ready for this objection. "Well," he said, "we don't know whether they would or not, because we can't ask them now."
"They wouldn't," repeated David decidedly.
"Mother would like the museum to be full," continued Ambrose; "we know that. And we can't get things anywhere else. She never said we were not to go to Rumborough alone."
David sat cross-legged on the floor beside his tool-box in an attitude of the deepest thought. The idea began to be attractive, but he had not the least doubt that it was wrong.
"We know, all the same, that she wouldn't let us go if we did ask her," he said at last.
Ambrose felt that it was time to strike a decided blow.
"Well," he said, with the air of one who has made up his mind, "I shall go—and of course you needn't if you're afraid. I shall bring home the things and put my name on all the labels, because they'll all belong to me. It'll scarcely be your museum at all."
David's face fell. A vision rose before him of Ambrose returning from Rumborough laden with antiquities, and writing his name large upon each. He, David, would have no right to any of them. Besides, how could he miss the intense joy of digging in Rumborough Camp, of hearing his spade strike with a hollow "clink" against some iron casket or rusty piece of armour? Perhaps they might even be lucky enough to find a skull! It was too much to resist.
"I'll come," he said slowly. "I know it's wrong, but I'll come. And I'm not a bit afraid, so you needn't think that."
This settled, they continued to talk over the details of the expedition—the time, the tools, and so on. Here, as Ambrose had hoped, David proved of much service. He fixed at once on the best hour to start. It must be quite early in the morning, between five and six o'clock, so that they might be there and back before they were missed.
"We can get out by the garden door," he said; "and if they do see us coming back it won't matter much, because we shall have got the things."
David further suggested that a sack would be useful to bear home the treasure, laid a deep plan for the capture of Andrew's pickaxe, and threw himself by degrees heart and soul into the project.
Ambrose had not the least fear now that he would draw back or relax his efforts. He knew that once David had made up his mind he would prove a stout support all the way through, and this was a great relief, for he began to see that there were dangers attending the expedition, and would not have gone alone on any account. It occurred to him, especially when he was in bed and it was quite dark, that Rumborough Common was a favourite haunt of gypsies, tramps, and all sorts of lawless wandering people.
In old days it had been a noted spot for highwaymen, and though Ambrose liked to read about them and their daring exploits, he shivered to think of meeting them in person alone. It was some comfort to remember that there were no highwaymen now, but there were plenty of perils left to think of and make him uncomfortable, and at such times he half regretted having planned the expedition at all. Now, however, he could fall back on the thought that David was going too, and there was such support in this that it lost half its terrors.
On the evening before the day fixed for the expedition all was ready. The pickaxe, secured in one of Andrew's unguarded moments, two spades, and a large sack lay hidden in the thick ivy which covered the wall near the garden gate. Nothing remained but to wake early enough the next morning, before anyone was up, and creep out unobserved. The person most to be feared was Andrew, who had an awkward habit of coming to his work at all sorts of odd hours. The boys were inclined to doubt sometimes if he ever went to bed, for he seemed to know exactly what kind of weather it had been all night. However that must be risked, although it would be most undesirable to meet him with the pickaxe in their possession.
Ambrose went to bed in a fever of excitement, with a mind firmly fixed on keeping his eyes wide open until morning, for that was the only way to be sure of being awake at the right time. It depended on him alone, for David was such a profound sleeper that he could not be relied on at all: it would most likely be very difficult even to rouse him at the proper hour. Very soon, from the little bed next to him, Ambrose heard the deep regular breathing, which showed that he was in the land of dreams. How could he sleep on such an exciting occasion?
Hour after hour sounded from the old church tower; shadows from the sprays of ivy outside danced on the window-blind in the moonlight; now and then a dog barked a long way off, and was answered by a nearer one. What a long, long while the night lasted if you were not asleep! Ambrose tossed restlessly on his pillow, and longed for the morning to come. It seemed very soon after this that the next hour sounded. He counted the strokes: these ought to have been 12, but there were only 5. Could the clock be wrong? He started up and looked round the room; it was not lighted by the moon now; it was broad daylight, and he had been to sleep after all!
The first thing was to waken David, who was lying in a tranquil slumber with a smile on his face, as though Rumborough Camp had no existence. Ambrose called him gently and then shook him, but though he half-opened his eyes he immediately shut them again, turned on his side with a deep and comfortable sigh, and was faster asleep than ever. Some decided step must be taken. Without an instant's hesitation Ambrose got a wet sponge and laid it on his brother's face. David woke with a snort of disgust and started up.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Hush-sh-ush!" said Ambrose, holding up a warning finger; "it's time to start. Rumborough, you know."
Thoroughly wakened by these words David was out of bed in an instant, and the two boys, creeping stealthily about the room, quickly huddled on their clothes. Then they went on tiptoe down the stairs, which creaked under their guilty footsteps as though they cried "Stop thief!" and on through the wide, silent hall, where Snuff the terrier, coiled on his mat, looked at them with an air of sleepy surprise, but did not stir.
But then came a difficulty. The garden door closed with a bolt high above their reach, so that David had to mount upon his brother's back to get at it. Even then he could not manage to move it at first, for it was rusty, and when he did succeed it shot back with sudden violence and made enough noise to waken the whole household. The boys stared horror-stricken at each other, but there was no movement to be heard in the house. Recovering courage they quickly picked up their tools, and were soon fairly started on their way. This led for a short distance along the high-road until, crossing a stile, they came to broad meadows, where Farmer Hatchard's cows were munching peacefully away at the short dewy grass. So far they were not beyond the allowed limits, and though they instinctively drew closer together as they passed through the herd of cows, they felt that none of the perils of the adventure had begun.
It was all familiar ground until they had passed the farm. Then came Blackberry Lane, which was a short cut to Rumborough Common. Blackberry Lane was so narrow that the straggling brambles and honeysuckles in the tall hedges almost met overhead. It was very steep, very stony, and always rather dark, a place, where it was easy to imagine any number of robbers lying in wait. The boys climbed slowly up the steep ascent, casting awed glances to right and left. The pickaxe weighed heavily on Ambrose's shoulder, and David had quite as much as he could do to trudge along with two spades and a sack.
It was a relief when they came suddenly out of the gloomy shadows of the lane on to the broad expanse of Rumborough Common. There it lay stretched out before them, with a rough cart track across the middle of it. A lonely, cheerless-looking place! Bare of trees, except for one group of ragged firs, which marked the position of what was called the Camp. Not a house in sight, not a sign of life anywhere, nothing to break its even surface but some pools of water glimmering coldly grey in the morning light.
A sudden fear seized on Ambrose as he and David stood still for a moment to take breath. Brought face to face with Rumborough Common in this way, it seemed to present all manner of possible perils, which might come to light at any moment. He would willingly have turned back, and had he been alone would certainly have done so; but—David was there. It would not do to show any want of courage before his younger brother, who, moreover, had given no sign of wishing to give up the expedition. They must go on; they must cross that wide space which lay between them and the camp; they must reach those dark threatening fir-trees, and encounter, very likely, some desperate characters lying there in ambush, ready to spring upon the lonely traveller. All the romantic tales he had ever read, all the worst stories of bloodshed and horrors crowded upon Ambrose's mind as the two boys plodded steadily along the cart track, bending a little under their burdens.
"Andrew said once that there used to be a ghost here," said David, breaking the silence.
"Don't," said Ambrose, giving him a sharp dig with his elbow.
"He was a tinker," continued David, "and he drowned himself in one of the ponds."
"I wish you wouldn't be so silly," said Ambrose impatiently. "You know there aren't any ghosts. You know father says so—and besides they never stay out after cock-crow—and besides, if there were they couldn't hurt us."
"Mother says nothing will hurt us if we're not doing wrong," said David; "but we are doing wrong, aren't we?"
Ambrose gave a nervous laugh, which sounded to himself very thin and funny.
"If there are any ghosts here, I should think they'd be Roman ghosts," he said.
A Roman ghost was a new idea to David. He dwelt on it a little before he asked:
"How should you think a Roman ghost would look?"
"Oh, how should I know?" exclaimed Ambrose irritably. "I wish you'd talk about something else."
"Well," concluded David thoughtfully, "if there are any Roman ghosts about, I shouldn't think they'd like to see us digging up their things."
The Camp reached, they stood still a moment gravely surveying it. It was formed by two low banks of turf, one within the other, almost complete circles, but broken here and there; the tall, black fir-trees stood near like sentinels on guard.
Ambrose dropped the pickaxe off his shoulder with a sigh of relief and sat down by it on the ground. He felt strangely indifferent to beginning the search now that he was really here, and might dig as long as he liked without anyone to say him nay. David's remarks about ghosts had not made him more at his ease. Ghosts were all very well when you were safe at home, with well-known people and things all round you; but here, on this lonely Common, no subject could have been worse chosen. It was stupid of David. He sat beside his pickaxe feeling more creepy and nervous and uncomfortable every moment, until David, who had been carefully examining the inclosed space, struck his spade firmly on a certain spot and exclaimed:
"Here's a good place to begin!"
"Why?" asked Ambrose moodily, without moving.
"It looks," said David, kneeling down to see more closely, "as if it had been dug up before."
"Well, then," returned Ambrose, "it wouldn't be a good place, because they'll have found all the things."
It was a bare spot in one side of the bank where there was no turf, and the earth looked loose and crumbling. David rose and struck his spade into it.
"You try somewhere else," he said, "I mean to dig here."
A little roused by this example Ambrose took up the heavy pickaxe again and went over to David's side. He was making a good deep hole, but it was very narrow because his spade was so small.
"Wait a minute," said Ambrose, "let me have a go at it."
He raised up the pickaxe with all his strength, down it came, and stuck so fast that he and David together could hardly get it out again. But when it was dislodged they found it had done good service, for it broke up the earth all round the hole, so that they could now get both their spades into it and work away together. For some minutes they went on in silence, David with even steady strokes and Ambrose with feverishly quick ones. Nothing came to light but little round stones and chalky mould, not even a coin or a bone!
"I believe this isn't a good place," said Ambrose hopelessly, resting on his spade, "let's try somewhere else."
Just as he spoke David's spade struck against something with a sharp clinking sound.
"What's that?" exclaimed Ambrose.
All his excitement returning he threw himself on the ground and scratched away the earth with his hands.
"Wait a moment!" he cried; "don't dig. I see something shining."
"What's it like?" asked David breathlessly. He could see nothing, for Ambrose had thrust his head right into the hole. He presently withdrew it, and looked up at David nearly choking and almost speechless with eagerness.
"I don't know yet," he managed to say, "we must get the earth away from it."
He scooped up handful after handful, and David, sitting on his heels, watched the operations with deep solemnity. He could see a bit of this mysterious object now, and presently he remarked:
"I believe it's only a bit of broken china."
"Nonsense!" said Ambrose hoarsely. His face was scarlet; he could hardly speak. Ghosts, robbers, and all other terrors forgotten, his whole soul was bent on unearthing this long-dreamed-of treasure.
"I can feel it," he said at last. "I can get my fingers round it. But it sticks fast."
"Take my knife," said David, producing a stout weapon from his pocket.
Ambrose gently eased away the earth round the unknown object. Trembling with triumph he extracted it from its bed and raised it on high:
"Broken china indeed!" he exclaimed scornfully.
It was a small earthenware crock of quaint shape with two very tiny handles or ears, and so incrusted with mould that only here and there you could see that it was of a deep-red colour. The top was covered by a lid.
Ambrose laid it on the grass between himself and David, and both the boys surveyed it with awe. They had really made a discovery in Rumborough Camp!
"Do you suppose it's Roman?" said David at last, drawing a long breath and speaking very softly.
"What else should it be?" said Ambrose. He scraped away some of the earth clinging to the jar, touching it reverently as though it were a sacred object. "It's just as Roman as it can be. Look at the shape!"
"It's something like the pot Miss Unity sent us the honey in last summer," said David, with his eyes fixed on the crock.
"Nonsense!" said Ambrose sharply. "I tell you it's an antique. Why, I saw rows and rows like it in the museum at Nearminster. How stupid you are!" He spoke with some heat. David, on his side, did not like to be treated with scorn, which he felt he had not deserved.
"I found it," he said quietly, "I was digging."
"I got it out," said Ambrose, still bending over the treasure.
"You'd have given up digging without me," persisted David. "It's just as much mine as yours."
"Well, anyhow, we settled to go halves in all we found," said Ambrose, "and you wouldn't have known it was valuable without me. A honey-pot indeed!"
He laughed jeeringly.
David was becoming more and more hurt in his mind. He sat looking sulkily at the antique, and when Ambrose laughed he had half a mind to take up his spade and smash it. Instead of this he suddenly put out his hand, took off the lid, and felt inside it. His fingers touched something cold.
"There's money in it!" he exclaimed. "Oh, Ambrose, look!"
On his outstretched palm there glittered three bright golden pieces.
"Coins?" said Ambrose, looking impressively at his brother.
He took one in his hand and examined it carefully, turning it over and over. There was a head on it, and some queer figures he could not understand, but he knew they were numbers.
"I told you it was Roman," he said; "here's a date in Roman figures."
"What is it?" asked David.
Unfortunately Ambrose could not tell. There was a v and an x, and a great many straight strokes, but he had no idea what they represented. He sat, puzzling over it with a deep frown.
"They look just like sovereigns, don't they?" said the matter-of-fact David; "and I thought old coins were never bright. They're generally all green and brown and ugly."
"Well," said Ambrose, putting the pieces of money back into the crock; "we've got some splendid things for the museum at last. Aren't you glad we came?"
David had not quite recovered his temper. He felt that it ought to be more thoroughly understood that it was he who had made both the discoveries; then he should be satisfied. But he could not bear Ambrose to take this tone of superiority. As they picked up their tools and prepared to start homewards he said, "I should think you're glad I came, because I found the pot, and the money too."
"You ought to say 'coins,' not 'money,'" said Ambrose loftily.
It is sad to record that, before they were half-way home, the partners had fallen into open dispute over their booty. David wished to carry it; Ambrose refused; wrangling followed for the rest of the way, and when they stole guiltily in at the vicarage gate David was in tears, and Ambrose flushed and angry. No one was in the garden to notice their return, and, having replaced the tools, the crock was carried upstairs hidden in the breast of Ambrose's tunic. In the passage they met Nurse.
"You've been out early, Master Ambrose," was all she said, and passed on, unsuspicious.
So far the adventure had been attended with golden success at every step, yet, strange to say, it had not brought much pleasure with it. There was the crock of gold certainly in the museum upstairs; but there was also a load on the boys' minds which hindered all enjoyment of it. How could they display it to their mother when it was the price of disobedience?
Meanwhile Pennie's plan did not make much progress. The china-house on the school-room mantel-piece stood ready for contributions, with the slit in its roof and the label on its front door; it looked very well outside, but she feared that it was poorly furnished within, though she dropped all her own money into it with great regularity. This fear became certainty soon, for Dickie came to her one day with a penny clasped in her fat hand, and said:
"Dickie will put it into the house."
Pennie hesitated, for she knew it was the price of real hard work.
"Does Dickie really want to give it?" she asked.
Dickie nodded, gazing up at the money-box with large solemn eyes.
"You're sure you wouldn't rather buy hard-bake?" persisted Pennie.
Dickie was quite sure. Her mind was bent on dropping the penny into the slit. When, however, the china-house was lifted down, and she saw her money disappear through the roof for ever, she burst into sobs and tears, and refused comfort till the box was opened and the money returned. In this way Pennie became aware of the very low state of the funds; there was indeed hardly anything beside her own contributions, and at this rate Miss Unity would never get her new mandarin. So far her plan had failed.
"If only I could earn some money!" she said to Nancy.
"P'r'aps father will want some sermons copied when he comes back," suggested Nancy, "or mother may want some dusters hemmed."
"I should love to do the sermons," said Pennie; "but, oh," with a face of disgust, "how I do hate needlework!"
"Well," said Nancy composedly, "if people want to be paid they've got to work, whether they like it or not."
"But there's nice work and nasty work," said Pennie; "now, to write books—that must be splendid!"
"I should hate it," said Nancy. "I'd much rather dig potatoes, or make chairs and tables."
"Girls can't do that sort of work," remarked Ambrose, who was sitting in the window-seat with a book. "Girls can't do many things. They're not brave enough, or strong enough, or clever enough. Boys and men earn money, not girls."
Nancy never wasted words on Ambrose when he talked in this way. She at once looked round for the nearest thing to throw at him. Quite aware of her intention, he quickly added holding up one arm to shield himself:
"Boys can do everything better than girls."
The school-room ruler whizzed through the air, and, without touching Ambrose, crashed through the window behind him.
"Girls can't even throw straight!" he exclaimed exultingly, jumping down from the window-seat.
With a very sober face Nancy advanced to examine the mischief. The ruler had broken one pane of glass, and cracked two others right across.
"There, you see!" said Ambrose tauntingly, "you've done it again. You're always smashing things."
It was quite true. Nancy had a most unfortunate faculty for breaking glass, china, and any other fragile thing she came near. She looked sadly at the window.
"It'll be at least two weeks' pocket-money, Nancy," said Pennie, drawing near.
"I don't so much mind about that," said poor Nancy dejectedly; "but I do so hate telling mother I've broken something else. I did mean not to break anything while she was away this time."
"Mother's never really angry when we tell her," said Pennie, trying to give comfort.
"I wish someone else had broken something, or done something wrong," continued Nancy. "It's so horrid to be the only one."
Ambrose became suddenly grave. What was a broken window compared with his and David's disobedience in the matter of Rumborough Common? Each day the possession of that little crock with its gold pieces weighed upon his mind more heavily. They had not even dared to place it openly in the museum, but after hiding it for a while in the tool-house, had agreed to bury it in the garden as the only secure place. It might just as well, therefore, have remained in the Roman Camp; and with all his heart Ambrose wished it could be transported there again, for he had not known one happy minute since its discovery. It haunted him in lesson and play-hours, and visited him in feverish dreams at night; but, most of all, it spoilt his enjoyment of the garden. He got into a way of hovering round the spot where it was buried, and keeping a watchful eye on all Andrew's movements, for he felt that he might some day be seized by a whim to dig just there, and bring the dreadful thing to light. The only person he could talk to on the subject was David, but there was little comfort in that, for the conversation was sure to end in a quarrel. David had been excited and pleased at first; but now that the treasure was buried away, quite out of his sight, his interest in it became fainter and fainter.
"I don't see any good at all in it," he said; "the museum's just as empty as it was before. I think we'd better break it all up into tiny bits and throw it away."
"But the coins—" said Ambrose.
"Well, then," was David's next suggestion, "we'd better tell."
"If ever you dare to be so mean as that, I'll never speak to you or play with you again," returned Ambrose. "So there!"
David looked very sulky.
"I hate having it in my garden," he said. "I'm always wanting to plant things just where it is."
Disputes became so frequent between the boys that at length, by a silent agreement, they avoided the subject altogether, and by degrees the crock ceased to be so constantly in Ambrose's thoughts. But even when he had managed to forget it entirely for a little while, something always happened to bring it back to his memory, and this was the case after Nancy had made her confession of the broken window.
"My dear Nancy," said Mrs Hawthorne when she was told of it, "you knew it was wrong to throw things at your brother, didn't you?"
"Why, yes, mother," said Nancy; "but I didn't think of it till after the window was broken."
"But it would have been just as wrong if the ruler had not hit anyone or broken anything. The wrong thing was the feeling which made you throw it."
"I shouldn't have minded so much, though," said Nancy, "if it hadn't hit anything."
"I suppose not; and the next time you were vexed you would have been still readier to throw something. Each wrong thing makes it easier to do the next, and sometimes people go on until it comes to be more natural to do wrong than right. But when they find that the wrong-doing gets them into trouble, and gives them pain, they remember to stop in time when they are most tempted. So it is not altogether a pity that the window is broken."
"There are two panes," said Nancy, "it'll take three weeks' pocket-money. You couldn't ask Mr Putney to put in very cheap glass, could you, mother?"
Ambrose had listened attentively to all this, though he was apparently deeply engaged in scooping out a boat with his penknife. It brought all his old trouble about the crock back again with redoubled force. He envied Nancy. Her fault was confessed and paid for. What was the loss of three weeks' money compared with the possession of unlawfully got and hidden treasure? And yet he felt it impossible to tell his mother that he had not only disobeyed her, but persuaded David to do so also. No. The crock must take its chance of discovery. Perhaps in a little while he should be able to forget its existence altogether and be quite happy again.
But it was not easy, and, as if on purpose to prevent it, Pennie's stories had just now taken the direction of dire and dreadful subjects. They varied a good deal at different times, and depended on the sort of books she could get to read. After a visit to Nearminster, where Miss Unity's library consisted of rows and rows of solemn old brown volumes, Pennie's stories were chiefly religious and biographical, taken, with additional touches of her own, from the lives of bygone worthies. When she was at home, where she had read all the books in the school-room over and over again, she had to fall back on her own invention; and then the stories were full of fairies, goblins, dwarfs, and such like fancies. But lately, peering over the shelves in her father's study, where she was never allowed to touch a book without asking, she had discovered a thick old volume called Hone's Miscellany. To her great joy she was allowed to look at it, "although," her father added, "I don't think even you, Pennie, will find much that is interesting in it."
Pennie had soon dived into the inmost recesses of the Miscellany, where she found much that was interesting and much that she did not understand. There were all sorts of queer things in it. Anecdotes of celebrated misers, maxims and proverbs, legends and pieces of poetry, receipts for making pickles and jams, all mixed up together, so that you could never tell what you might find on the next page. She thought it a most wonderful and attractive book, and picked out a store of facts and fancies on which to build future stories.
Unfortunately for Ambrose, those which most attracted her were of a dark and grim character. One poem, called "The Dream of Eugene Aram," So thrilled and excited her that she learned it at once by heart and repeated it to her brothers and sisters. It would have had a great effect upon Ambrose at any time, but just now he saw a dreadful fitness in it to his own secret. Pennie added a moral when she had finished, which really seemed pointed directly at him.
"We learn by this," she said, "that it is of no use to hide anything, because it is always found out; and that if we do wrong we are sure to be punished."
Pennie was fond of morals, and they were always listened to with respect, except when they came into Dickie's stories, who could not bear them, and always knew when they were coming. At the least hint of their approach, however artfully contrived, she would abruptly leave her seat and run away, saying, "No more, no more." Ambrose, however, was deeply impressed both by the poem and the moral, and felt quite as guilty as Eugene Aram.
True, it was only a crock he had buried, and as far as he knew he had not robbed anyone of the gold, except the ancient Romans, who were all dead long ago. But he began to be troubled with doubts as to whether the coins were really so old. David had said they looked bright and new; perhaps they belonged to someone alive now, who had buried them in Rumborough Camp for safety. If this were so, he and David were robbers! There was no other name for them.
This was such a new and terrible idea that he felt unable to keep it entirely to himself. He must have someone's opinion on the matter; and after some thought he resolved to try if Pennie could be of any service. "If I say, 'Suppose So-and-so did so-and-so,'" he said to himself, "she won't know it really happened, and I shall hear what she thinks. I'll do it to-morrow on the way to Cheddington Fair."
For the time for Cheddington Fair had come round again, and as it was the only entertainment of any kind that happened near Easney, it was looked forward to for weeks beforehand, and remembered for weeks afterwards. It was indeed an occasion of importance to all the country-side, and was considered the best fair held for many miles round. The first day was given up to the buying and selling of cattle, and after that came two days of what was called the "pleasure fair," when all the booths and shows were open, and many wonderful sights were to be seen.
There was a wild-beast show of unusual size, a splendid circus, numbers of conjurers, places where you might fire off a rifle for a penny, merry-go-rounds where you might choose the colour of your horse, Aunt Sallys where you could win a cocoa-nut if you were skilful—no end to the attractions, no limit to the brilliancy and bustle of the scene. The gingerbread to be bought at Cheddington Fair had a peculiar excellence of its own, whether in the form of gilded kings and queens, brandy-snap, or cakes; everything else tasted tame and flat after it, as indeed did most of the events of daily life for some days following these exciting events.
The children were glad when it was settled this year that they were to go on the first day of the pleasure fair, for they had an uneasy fear that if they waited till the second all the best things would be bought from the stalls and booths. They set out therefore in very good spirits, under the care of Nurse, and Jane the nursery-maid, to walk from Easney to Cheddington, which was about a mile.
Pennie did not join in the chatter and laughter at first: she walked along with unusual soberness, for though she liked going to the fair quite as much as the others, she had just now something to think about which made her grave. The children, she reflected, would certainly spend every penny of their money to-day, besides that which mother had given them for the wild-beast show. There would be nothing at all for the mandarin. Should she make up her mind to save all hers, and buy nothing at all for herself? As she gradually resolved upon this, she began to feel that it would certainly be a very unselfish thing to do, and she held her head a little higher, and listened with superiority to her brothers and sisters as they chattered on about their money.
"I haven't got much," said Nancy, "hardly anything really, because I've got to pay for that horrid window."
"I expect David's got most," said Ambrose, "he's as rich as a Jew."
"Jews aren't always rich," remarked David slowly. "Look at Mr Levi, who stands in the door of the rag-and-bone shop at Nearminster."
Pennie could not help striking in at this point. "He doesn't look rich," she said, "but I dare say he's got hoards buried in his garden."
"He hasn't got a garden," objected Nancy.
"Well, then, in his chimney, or perhaps sewn up in his mattress," she answered.
"If that's all he does with it he might just as well be poor," said David.
"But he isn't a poor man for all that," said Nancy, "if he's got a mattress full of gold."
Ambrose became silent as the dispute about the poverty or wealth of Mr Levi proceeded, and presently, edging close up to Pennie, who was a little behind the others, he said wistfully:
"I say, Pennie, I want to ask you something."
"Well," said his sister rather unwillingly. "Suppose—you found something," began Ambrose with an effort.
"What sort of thing?"
"Oh, something valuable," said Ambrose, thinking of the glittering gold coins.
"What then?" asked Pennie, looking at him with a little more interest.
"What would you do with it?" continued Ambrose earnestly.
"Do with it!" repeated his sister. "Why, I should give it back to the person who lost it, of course."
"But suppose you couldn't find out who it belonged to, or suppose the people were dead."
Pennie was tired of supposing.
"Oh! I should ask mother what to do," she said, dismissing the question. "I can hear the band," she suddenly added.
Ambrose gave a little sigh, as all the children quickened their footsteps at this welcome sound.
There was no advice to be got from Pennie. He must shake off the thought of his tiresome secret and enjoy himself as much as he could to-day. Afterwards there would be time to trouble about it. And now they were getting quite near to the tents and flags and gaily-painted caravans and confused noises of men and beasts. Nurse seized Dickie's unwilling hand as they reached the turnstile which admitted them into the field.
"Keep close together, my dears," she said anxiously. "You stay along with me, Miss Pennie, and Miss Nancy and Jane, you come after me with the other two."
She looked distractedly at the little faces smiling with delight and eager to plunge into the pleasures of the fair. Since Dickie had once run away quite alone to go to the circus she had always been more nervous about the children.
"Jane," she said sharply to the small nursery-maid, "what are you gaping at? Keep your wits about you, do."
Jane, who had never been inside a fair before, was gazing open-mouthed at an enormous portrait of the "Living Skeleton." She turned to Nurse with a face from which all expression had gone but one of intense surprise.
"You're not a bit of use," said Nurse. "See here, Master David, I can depend on you. Keep with Master Ambrose and Jane as close to me as you can. And if you lose sight of me in the crowd be at the gate by four o'clock and wait there for the carriage."
David nodded, and Nurse, with one more severe look at Jane, plunged into the crowd with Dickie toddling beside her.
How gay, how enchanting it all was! Boom, boom went the drums. "Walk in, ladies and gentlemen. Here you will see the performing seal, the Circassian beauty, the Chinese giant, and the smallest dwarf in the world." Next to those attractions came the circus, outside of which, on a raised platform, stood harlequin, clown, and columbine, all in a row, and in full dress.
"Here we are again," cried the clown. "How are you to-morrow?"
How kind and inviting all the showmen were! Bang! Bang! "Two shots with a rifle for a penny. Who'll win a cocoa-nut?" "This way for Signor Antonio, the famous lion-tamer!" And so on, till the brain reeled, and choice amongst all these excitements became almost impossible.
Mother had given money for one entertainment, and the children had agreed beforehand that the wild-beast show would be far the best to see, but now that they were in the midst of the fair they began to waver. It was painful to think that whichever entertainment they fixed on the others might be better. On one point Nurse was firm. Wherever they went they must all go together, and at last, after a harassing consultation and some difference of opinion, it was decided that on the whole the menagerie would be best.
"Though I did want," said David, rather regretfully, as they entered, "to see that performing pig who knows his letters and dances a hornpipe."
The wild-beast show over, there remained a great deal to be seen outside; and now in the bustle and struggle of the narrow ways the party became separated, the three little girls remaining with Nurse and the boys with Jane.
"And I hope to goodness," said Nurse anxiously, "that Jane won't lose her head. Master David's there—that's one comfort. No, Miss Dickie, you don't let go of my hand for one minute, so it's no good pulling at me."
Up till now Pennie had had no difficulty in keeping her money in her pocket, for she had seen nothing she specially wanted to buy. Nancy had spent hers before she had been five minutes in the fair, had won a cocoa-nut, and was now hugging it triumphantly under her arm. No doubt Ambrose and David would also part with theirs before long.
"There's a funny stall," said Nancy suddenly, "nothing but rubbishing old books."
"Let's go and look at it," said Pennie.
They were very shabby old books indeed. Some of them with cracked bindings and the letters on the backs rubbed off; others with no binding at all, in soiled paper covers. There were piles and piles of them, not neatly arranged, but tossed about anyhow, and behind the stall stood an old man with a withered face and a pointed chin—a sort of wizard old man, Pennie thought. Nancy seemed struck with his appearance too.
"He's just like pantaloon, isn't he?" she said in a loud whisper as they stopped in front of the stall.
The old man peered sharply at the two little girls over the open book he held in his hand.
"What do you want, Missie?" he asked in a cracked voice.
"We don't want anything, thank you," said Pennie politely. "What a lot of old books you have!"
"Ah! they're too old for such as you," said the old man, glancing at the watchful form of Nurse in the background; "but I've got a pretty one somewheres that'd just suit you."
"Come along, do, Miss Pennie," said Nurse entreatingly, "there's nothing like old books for fevers."
But the old man had dived beneath his stall, and now produced a book on which Pennie's eyes were immediately fastened with the deepest interest.
"There!" he said, laying it before her, "there's the book to suit you, my little lady." It was a square book in a gaily-coloured parchment cover, somewhat faded, but still showing attractive devices of shields, swords, and dragons. On it was emblazoned in old English letters the title, "Siegfried the Dragon Slayer."
Pennie gazed at it in silent rapture.
"Full of 'lustrations," continued the old man slowly turning the leaves, and leaving it open to display a picture.
Pennie and Nancy both bent over it. It was a wonderful picture. There was a man with wings on his shoulders flying high up above a great city, and shooting arrows from a bow at the crowd of people beneath. How did he get wings? Who was he?
Pennie cast her eyes hurriedly on the next page to find out, but before she could master one sentence the old man turned over the leaf; "That's the book for you, Missie," he repeated, "you're a scholard, I can see that."
Much flattered, Pennie asked quickly, "Does it cost much?"
"Dirt cheap," said the old man. "I'll let you have it for eighteenpence."
Pennie had exactly that sum in her purse. "Do come away, Miss Pennie," said Nurse's voice behind her.
"Why don't you buy it?" said Nancy; "you won't have such a chance again."
Pennie gulped down a sort of sob. "I should love to," she said, "but I want to keep my money."
"Well, if you're not going to buy, you'd better not look at it any more," said Nancy; "I haven't got any money."
With an immense effort, and a parting glance full of affection at "Siegfried the Dragon Slayer," Pennie turned away from the stall, much to Nurse's relief. Soon the old man and his books were lost to sight, but they remained very clearly and distinctly in Pennie's mind. She saw the picture of that flying man more vividly than all that was going on round her, and would have given worlds to be acquainted with his history. If only she had more money, enough to buy the book and the mandarin too!
Then she began to wonder how the boys had spent theirs. No doubt they had bought just what had taken their fancy, and she would be the only one to go back empty-handed. It was a little hard. The only drop of comfort in it was that she would be able to tell them what a real sacrifice she had made. Yesterday she had seen David writing ten times over in his copy-book, "Virtue is its own reward." If that meant feeling good, better than other people, Pennie had no doubt she was tasting the reward of virtue now, and it consoled her not a little for the loss of "Siegfried the Dragon Slayer."
It was now nearly four o'clock, and Nurse was not sorry to turn towards the entrance, where Andrew was to wait with the carriage, and where she hoped to join the boys and Jane.
"They're there already," cried Nancy as they approached the turnstile, bobbing her head from side to side to see through the crowd, "and oh! what has David got?"
"Something he oughtn't to have, I make sure," she said.
"It's something alive!" exclaimed Nancy, giving a leap of delight as they got nearer, "I can see it move. Whatever is it?"
David was standing as still as a sentinel with his back against the gate-post and a look of triumph on his face, clutching firmly to his breast a small jet-black kitten. It was mewing piteously, with some reason—for in his determination not to let it go, he gripped it hard, so that it was spread out flat and could hardly breathe. The children gathered round him in an ecstasy.
"What a little black love!" exclaimed Nancy; "where did you get it?"
"I saved its life," was all David answered as Nurse packed them all into the waggonette.
"I helped," said Ambrose.
It was not until they were fairly on their way and had shaken down into something like composure, that the history of the kitten could be told. It then appeared that David and Ambrose had heard feeble cries proceeding from a retired corner behind a caravan. They had at once left Jane, and gone to see what it was.
Finding two gypsy boys about to hang a black kitten, they had offered them sixpence to let it go, at which they had only laughed. The price had then risen to two shillings besides all the marbles Ambrose had in his pocket, and this being paid David had seized the kitten, and here it was.
"And so," said Pennie, "you've both spent every bit of your money."
"We couldn't let them hang the kitten, you see," remarked Ambrose.
At another time Pennie would have been the first to agree to this, and to feel interested in the rescue of the kitten; but now she was so full of her own good deed, that she only said coldly:
"It wasn't worth nearly all that. Why, you can get a kitten for nothing—anywhere."
David, still grasping his treasure, stared at her solemnly, for this speech was strangely unlike Pennie.
"What did you buy?" he asked.
The moment had come. Pennie looked round her with conscious virtue as she replied, "I saw a book I wanted very much, quite as much as you wanted the kitten, but I saved all my money for the mandarin."
"How stupid!" said Ambrose.
"It's much better to save someone's life than to buy a mandarin," said David.
Pennie felt hurt and disappointed; the reward of virtue was not supporting under these circumstances. She wanted a word of praise or admiration. If someone had only said, "That was good of you," she would have been satisfied; but no one seemed even surprised at what she had done. And yet how much she would have liked to buy Siegfried! The boys had the kitten; Nancy had her cocoa-nut, even Dickie was clasping a rabbit on a green stand, and a gingerbread man. Pennie alone had brought nothing home from the fair; she was very sorry for herself.
A sudden outburst from Dickie roused her, as she sat sad and silent in the midst of chatter and laughter. No one could make out at first what was the matter, and Dickie could not tell them: she only kicked out her fat little legs and sobbed more convulsively at every fresh attempt to comfort her. But at last she managed to make them understand that her gingerbread man was spoilt; she had eaten his head, and he would never, never be whole again. This was followed by a torrent of tears, for Dickie never did anything by halves, and when she cried she put her whole heart into it.
"Bless the child, she'll make herself ill," said Nurse, taking her upon her knee. "Now, Dickie, my dear, don't give way. You know you can stop if you like. Look at your pretty rabbit!"
Dickie dealt the offered rabbit a blow on the nose with her doubled fist.
She did not want the rabbit, she sobbed out, but she thought she could stop if she had the black kitten to hold. To this David had a decided objection. It was his kitten, and if Dickie had it she would let it go. Fresh screams from Dickie.
"Lor, Master David," said Nurse in despair, "let her have it, do. I'll take care it don't get away."
Peace was somewhat restored after Dickie had been allowed to stroke the kitten on Nurse's lap; but it was not a cheerful carriageful that arrived shortly afterwards at the Vicarage, every one seemed to have something to grumble at and be injured about.
"I'm thankful to be home," said Nurse to Jane as they went upstairs. "I'd rather anyday have a week's work than an afternoon's pleasure."
As for Pennie, she dropped her money into the china-house, and went to bed that night with the feelings of a martyr. She would not give up her plan, but she was now beginning to see that it was a failure. No one showed any real interest in it—no one except herself was willing to sacrifice anything in the cause. It was certainly lonely and uncomfortable to stand so high above other people.
Pennie was haunted for days after the fair by the bright pages of "Siegfried the Dragon Slayer," for she became more and more conscious that she had made a useless sacrifice. She might just as well have bought it, she sadly reflected; none of the others seemed the least likely to help her in her plan, and certainly she could not carry it out alone. The more she thought of it the more injured and disappointed she felt. It was certainly a good plan, and it was certainly right to sacrifice one's self; of those two things she was sure, and it both hurt and surprised her to be unable to impress this on her brothers and sisters. Pennie was used to command, and accustomed to success in most of her little schemes, and it seemed hard to be deserted in this way. She stood on a lonely height of virtue, conscious of setting a good example of generosity; but it was not a cheerful position, and, besides, no one seemed to notice it, which was vexatious and trying. This made her by turns condescending and cross, so that she was neither so happy herself nor so pleasant a companion as she had been.
"I can't think why you're so disagreeable," said Nancy at last. "If it's because you've put all your money into the box, I wish you'd take it out again and be as you were before."
"You don't understand," said Pennie, "you never give up anything."
"Yes, I do," replied Nancy quickly, "I've given up three weeks' money for that broken window."
"That wasn't sacrifice," answered Pennie; "you had to do that. Sacrifice means giving up something you like for the sake of other people."
"Well, if it makes you cross and tiresome I wish you wouldn't sacrifice things," replied Nancy; "I don't see the good of it. Do you know," she added, seizing hold of David's black kitten, "that mother says we may go and see old Nurse?"
Pennie's brow cleared at once, the peevish look left her face.
"Oh, when?" she exclaimed joyfully.
"This afternoon," said Nancy. "Mother's going to drive into Nearminster, and leave us at the College while she goes to see Miss Unity. Isn't it jolly?"
"I suppose we shall have tea with Nurse," said Pennie; "but," she added, "I hope Dickie isn't to go this time. She does spoil everything so."
"Only you and me," said Nancy, rolling the kitten tightly up in a newspaper so that only its head appeared. "Doesn't it look like a mummy cat? There's one just like it at Nearminster. It would do for the boys' museum."
"It wouldn't stay there long," said Pennie, as the kitten writhed and wriggled itself out of the paper. "I am real glad we're going to see old Nurse."
"Do you like going in winter or summer best?" asked Nancy.
"Oh, I don't know!" said Pennie. "I like both. But I think perhaps it looks nicer in summer, because you see the flowers are in bloom and the old people are sitting on the benches, and all that."
"I like winter best," said Nancy, "because of making the toast."
All the year round a visit to old Nurse was one of the children's greatest pleasures, but it was specially so to Pennie. She now felt quite cheerful and happy in the prospect, not only because she was very fond of her, but because she lived in such an extremely delightful and interesting place. For Mrs Margetts, who had been Mrs Hawthorne's nurse when she was a child, had now left service for many years and taken up her abode in the almshouse at Nearminster, or The College as it was called. Next to the cathedral Pennie thought it the nicest place she had ever seen, and there was something most attractive to her in its low-arched massive doors, its lattice windows with their small leaded panes, and its little old chapel where the pensioners had a service and a chaplain all to themselves.
The College was built in the form of a quadrangle, one side of which faced the High Street, so that though they were snugly sheltered within from noise and turmoil, the inmates could still look out upon the busy life they had quitted. As you passed the entrance you caught glimpses of bright green turf, of trim borders of flowers, of neat gravel paths and quaint old figures standing about, or sitting on stone benches against the walls. Over it all rested the air of peace and stillness. It was a place where neither hope nor fear, labour nor struggle could come. These were left outside in the troublesome world, and all who entered here had nothing more to do with them. They might sit in the sun with folded hands, talk over their past hardships, grumble a little at their present aches and pains, gossip a great deal, and so get gently nearer and nearer to the deepest rest of all.
The bishop, who had founded the College long ago, still stood carved in stone over the doorway, crozier in hand, watching the many generations of weary old souls who crept in at his gate for refuge. Pennie thought he had an expression of calm severity, as if he knew how ungrateful many of them were for his bounty, how they grumbled at the smallness of the rooms, the darkness of the windows, and the few conveniences for cooking. It must be hard for him to hear all those murmurs after he had done so much for them; but he had at any rate no want of gratitude to complain of in old Nurse, who was as proud of her two tiny rooms as though they had been a palace.
Mrs Margetts was in all matters disposed to think herself one of the most fortunate people upon earth. For instance, to be settled so near her dear "Miss Mary," as she still called Mrs Hawthorne, and to have the pleasure of visits from the little "ladies and gentlemen," was enough to fill anyone's heart with thankfulness. What could she want more? She was indeed highly favoured beyond all desert. Other people may have thought that a life of faithful service and unselfish devotion to the interests of her employers had well earned the reward of a few quiet years at its end. But old Nurse did not look upon her good fortune as due to any merits of her own, but to the extraordinary kindness and generosity of others, so that she was in a constant state of surprise at their thoughtfulness and affection.
Not less did she cherish and respect the memory of the days which came before Mrs Hawthorne's marriage, and this was what the children liked best to hear. Stories of Miss Mary, Master Charles, Miss Prissy, and the rest, who were now all grown-up people, never became wearisome, and certainly Nurse was never tired of telling them. Her listeners knew them almost by heart, and if by any chance she missed some small detail, it was at once demanded with a sense of injury.
Pennie, in particular, drank in her words eagerly, and would sit entranced gazing with an ever-new interest at the relics of the "family" with which the little room was filled. Hanging by the fireplace was a very faded kettle-holder, worked in pink and green wool by Miss Mary, now Mrs Hawthorne; on the mantel-piece a photograph of a family group, in which Miss Mary appeared at the age of ten in a plaid poplin frock, low in the neck and short in the sleeves, with her hair in curls; on each side of her stood a brother with a grave face and a short jacket.
There was a great deal to be told about this picture. Nurse remembered, she said, as if it was yesterday, the day it was "took." Master Owen had a swollen cheek, and had cried and said he did not want his picture done, but he had been promised a pop-gun if he stood still, and had then submitted. And that was why he stood side-face in the photograph, while Master Charles faced you. It was almost past belief to Pennie and Nancy that Uncle Owen, who was now a tall man with a long beard, had ever been that same puffy-cheeked little boy, bribed to stand-still by a pop-gun.
There were also on the mantel-piece two white lions or "monsters," as Nurse called them, presented by Miss Prissy, and quite a number of small ornaments given from time to time by the Hawthorne children themselves. But perhaps the crowning glory of Nurse's room was a sampler worked by herself when a girl. Pennie looked at this with an almost fearful admiration, for the number of tiny stitches in it were terrible to think of. "I'm glad people don't have to work samplers now," she often said. This was indeed a most wonderful sampler, and it hung against the wall framed and glazed as it well deserved, a lasting example of industry and eyesight. At the top sat the prophet Elijah under a small green bush receiving the ravens, who carried in their beaks neat white bundles of food. Next came the alphabet, all the big letters first, and then a row of small ones. Then the Roman numerals up to a hundred, then a verse of poetry:—
"Time like an ever-rolling stream Bears all its sons away, They fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the break of day."
And then Nurse's name, "Kezia Margetts," and the date when this great work was completed.
Dickie's favourite amongst all Nurse's curious possessions was what she called her "weather-house," a building of cardboard covered with some gritty substance which sparkled. The weather-house had two little doors, out of one of which appeared an old woman when it was fine, and out of the other an old man when it was going to be wet. They had become rather uncertain, however, in their actions, because Dickie had so often banged the naughty old man to make him go in, supposing him to have a bad influence on the weather. Nurse spoiled Dickie dreadfully, the other children considered, and they were pleased when she did not make one of the party.
"I suppose Nurse knows we're coming?" said Pennie, as they were driving from Miss Unity's house, where they had left their mother, to the College.
"Of course," replied Nancy; "you know we never take her by surprise, because she always likes to get something for tea."
"I don't think surprises are nice," said Pennie. "I like to have lots of time to look forward to a thing. That's the best part."
"I like to surprise other people though," said Nancy; "it's great fun, I think. Here we are!"
There were no old people standing about in the garden, and all the benches were empty, for it was a chilly autumn afternoon. As the children crossed the quadrangle they saw here and there, through the latticed panes, the cheerful glow of a fire.
"It must be very nice to be an old woman and live here," said Pennie.
"Well, I don't know," said Nancy. "How would you like to be Mrs Crump?"
Mrs Crump was a discontented old lady who lived in the room beneath Nurse. For some reason Nancy took a deep interest in her, and even in the middle of Nurse's best stories she was always on the alert for the least sound of the sharp complaining tones below.
"Oh, of course not!" said Pennie hastily; "I mean some contented, good-natured old woman."
"Mrs Crump says," continued Nancy, "that she never knew what it was to be quick in her temper till she felt the want of an oven. She thinks it's the baker's bread that makes her cross. She turns against it, and that makes her speak sharp."
"She's a tiresome old woman," said Pennie, "and I can't make out why you like to hear about her, or talk to her. Let's go up softly, else she'll come out."
"I should like her to," said Nancy as the little girls climbed the steep carpeted stairs which led up to Nurse's room. "She's just like an old witch woman."
The children were warmly received by Nurse, who was waiting for them with all her preparations made. A snug round tea-table, with a bunch of chrysanthemums in the middle, a kettle hissing hospitably on the hob, and something covered up hot in the fender. She herself was arrayed in her best cap, her black silk gown, and her most beaming smiles of welcome.
"It's my turn to make the toast," said Nancy, pulling off her gloves briskly. "You've got a lovely fire. You cut the bread, Pennie. Thick."
"And how's Miss Dickie?" said Nurse, watching these preparations with a delighted face. "Bless her dear little heart, I haven't seen her this long while."
"She wanted to come," said Pennie, "but she's got a cold, so mother wouldn't let her."
"A little dear," repeated Nurse. She sat with her hands folded on her waist, turning her kind round face first on Pennie and then on Nancy, who, kneeling on the hearth, was making toast in a business-like serious manner.
"How's Mrs Crump?" inquired the latter.
"Well, she's rather contrairy in her temper just now, my dear," answered Nurse.
"She always is, isn't she?" returned Nancy.
"I can't altogether deny that, Miss Nancy," said Nurse, chuckling comfortably; "but you see it's a constant trouble with her that her room window don't look on the street. She's been used to a deal of life before she came here, and she finds it dull, and that makes her short. When you've been used to stirring and bustling about, charing and so on, it do seem a bit quiet, I daresay."
"I should have thought," said Nancy, "that she'd have been glad to rest after all that; but I think I'd rather have a room looking on the street too. I should like watching people pass."
Pennie was sitting in her favourite place, the window-seat, where Nurse's flower-pots stood in a row—a cactus, a geranium, and some musk. She looked out into the garden.