THE RECTORY CHILDREN
BY MRS MOLESWORTH
London MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1897
TO MY NIECE AND GOD-DAUGHTER Helen Louisa Delves Walthall
85 LEXHAM GARDENS Shrove Tuesday, 1889.
PAGE CHAPTER I THE PARLOUR BEHIND THE SHOP 1
CHAPTER II THOSE YOUNG LADIES 18
CHAPTER III A TRYING CHILD 34
CHAPTER IV BIDDY HAS SOME NEW THOUGHTS 51
CHAPTER V CELESTINA 66
CHAPTER VI THE WINDOW IN THE WALL 83
CHAPTER VII ON THE SEASHORE 99
CHAPTER VIII A NICE PLAN 117
CHAPTER IX A SECRET 134
CHAPTER X BIDDY'S ESCAPADE 151
CHAPTER XI AND ITS CONSEQUENCES 169
CHAPTER XII ANOTHER BIRTHDAY 186
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PAGE '——and—oh, Alie, I have so torn my frock, and it's my afternoon one—my new merino' 27
'Little girl,' she called, when she got close to the other child 75
'It's like a magic-lantern; no, I mean a peep-show' 89
'I would like to go there,' she said 115
A secret 148
——carrying between them a little dripping figure, with streaming hair, white face, and closed eyes 161
'Now, Biddy. Open your eyes' 195
'O little hearts! that throb and beat, With such impatient, feverish heat, Such limitless and strong desires.'—LONGFELLOW.
THE RECTORY CHILDREN
THE PARLOUR BEHIND THE SHOP
'I was very solitary indeed.' (Visit to the Cousins).—MARY LAMB.
The blinds had been drawn down for some time in the back parlour behind Mr. Fairchild's shop in Pier Street, the principal street in the little town of Seacove. And the gas was lighted, though it was not turned up very high. It was a great thing to have gas; it had not been known at Seacove till recently. For the time of which I am writing is now a good many years ago, thirty or forty at least.
Seacove, though a small place, was not so out-of-the-way in some respects as many actually larger towns, for it was a seaport, though not a very important one. Ships came in from all parts of the globe, and sailed away again in due course to the far north, and still farther off south; to the great other world of America, too, no doubt, and to the ancient eastern lands. But it was the vessels going to or coming from the strange mysterious north—the land of everlasting snow, where the reindeer and, farther north still, the white bear have their home, and where the winter is one long, long night—it was somehow the thought of the north that had the most fascination for the little girl who was sitting alone in the dull parlour behind the shop this late November evening. And among the queer outlandish-looking sailors who from time to time were to be seen on the wharf or about the Seacove streets, now and then looking in to buy a sheet of paper and an envelope in her father's shop, it was the English ones belonging to the whalers or to the herring smacks bound for the north who interested Celestina by far the most.
This evening she was not thinking of sailors or ships or anything like that; her mind was full of her own small affairs. She had got two new dolls, quite tiny ones—Celestina did not care for big dolls—and long as the daylight lasted she had been perfectly happy dressing them. But the daylight was gone now—it was always rather in a hurry to say good-night to the back parlour—and the gas was too dim for her to see clearly by, even if she had had anything else to do, which she had not, till mother could give her a scrap or two for the second dolly's frock. It was mother she was longing for. She wanted to show her the hats and cloaks she had made out of some tiny bits for both the dollies—the cloaks, that is to say, for the hats were crochet-work, crocheted in pink cotton. Celestina's little fingers were very clever at crochet.
'Oh, mother, mother,' she said half aloud, 'do come.'
She had drawn back the little green baize curtain which hung before the small window between the shop and the parlour, and was peering in, her nose flattened against the glass. She was allowed to do this, but she was not allowed to run out and in of the shop without leave, and at this time of the day, or evening, even when there were few customers, she knew that her father and mother were generally busy. There were late parcels to put up for the little errand-boy to leave on his way home; there was the shop to tidy, and always a good many entries to make in the big ledger. Very often there were letters to write and send off, ordering supplies needed for the shop, or books not in stock, which some customer had asked for.
It was a bookseller's and stationer's shop; the only one worthy of the name at Seacove. And Mr. Fairchild did a pretty good business, though certainly, as far as the actual book part of it was concerned, people read and bought far fewer books thirty years ago than now. And books were much dearer. People wrote fewer letters too; paper and envelopes were dearer also. Still, one way and another it was not a bad business of its kind in a modest way, though strict economy and care were required to make a livelihood out of it. And some things had made this more difficult than would otherwise have been the case. Delicate health perhaps most of all. Mr. Fairchild was not very strong, and little Celestina had been fragile enough as a baby and a tiny girl, though now she was growing stronger. No wonder that a great share of both work and care fell on Celestina's mother, and this the little girl already understood, and tried always to remember.
But it was dull and lonely sometimes. She had few companions, and for some months past she had not gone to school, as a rather serious illness had made her unable to go out in bad weather. She did not mind this much; she liked to do lessons by herself, for father or mother to correct when they had time, and there was no child at school she cared for particularly. Still poor Celestina was pining for companionship without knowing it. Perhaps, though mother said little, she understood more about it than appeared.
And 'Oh, mother, mother, do come,' the child repeated, as she peered through the glass.
There were one or two customers in the shop still. One of them Celestina knew by sight. It was Mr. Redding, the organist of the church. He was choosing some music-paper, and talking as he did so, but the pair of ears behind the window could not hear what he said, though by his manner it seemed something not only of interest to himself but to his hearers also.
'I wish I could hear what he's saying,' thought the little maiden, 'or most of all, I wish he'd go and that other man too—oh, he's going, but Mr. Redding is asking for something else now! Oh, if only mother would come, or if I might turn on the gas higher. I think it would be nicer to have candles, like Fanny Wells has in her house. Gas is only nice when it's very high turned on, and mother says it costs such a lot then. I do so want to show mother the cloaks and hats.'
She turned back at last, wearied of waiting and watching. The fire was burning brightly, that was some comfort, and Celestina sat down on the rug in front of it, propping her two little dolls against the fender.
'To-morrow,' she said to herself, 'as soon as I've made a frock for Eleanor, I'll have a tea-party. Eleanor and Amy shall be new friends coming to tea for the first time—if only the parlour chairs weren't too big for the table!' she sighed deeply. 'They can't look nice and real, when they're so high up that their legs won't go underneath. People don't make our tables and chairs like that—I don't see why they can't make doll-house ones properly. Now, if I was a carpenter I'd make a doll-house just like a real house—I could make it so nice.'
She began building doll-houses—her favourite castles in the air—in imagination. But now and then she wanted another opinion, there were knotty points to decide. As 'all roads,' according to the old proverb, 'lead to Rome,' so all Celestina's meditations ended in the old cry, 'If only mother would come.'
The door opened at last—gently, so gently that the little girl knew it could be no one else but mother. She sprang up.
'Oh, mother, I am so glad you've come. I've been so tired waiting. I do so want to show you the cloaks and hats, and can you give me a bit to make Amy's frock? She looks so funny with a cloak and hat and no frock.'
'I will try to find you a scrap of something when I go upstairs,' mother replied. 'But just now I must see about getting tea ready. Father is tired already, and he has a good deal to do this evening still. Yes, you have made the cloaks very nice, and the little hats too. I'll turn up the gas so as to see better.'
Celestina gave in without a murmur to waiting till after tea for the piece of stuff she longed for so ardently, and she set to work in a neat, handy way to help her mother with the tea-table. They understood each other perfectly, these two, though few words of endearment passed between them, and caresses were rare. People were somewhat colder in manner at that time than nowadays perhaps; much petting of children was not thought good for them, and especially in the case of an only child, parents had great fear of 'spoiling.' But no one who looked at Mrs. Fairchild's sweet face as her eyes rested lovingly on her little girl could have doubted for a moment her intense affection. She had a very sweet face; Celestina thought there never could be anybody prettier than mother, and I don't know that she was far wrong. If she ever thought of herself at all—of her looks especially—it was to hope that some day she might grow up to be 'like mother.'
Tea was ready—neatly arranged on the table, though all was of the plainest, a little carefully-made toast to tempt father's uncertain appetite the only approach to luxury—when Mr. Fairchild came in and sat down in the one arm-chair rather wearily. He was a tall thin man, and he stooped a good deal. He had a kindly though rather nervous and careworn face and bright intelligent eyes.
'Redding is full of news as usual,' he said, as Mrs. Fairchild handed him his tea. 'He is a good-natured man, but I wish he wouldn't talk quite so much.'
'He had some excuse for talking this evening,' said Celestina's mother; 'it is news of importance for every one at Seacove, and of course it must affect Mr. Redding a good deal. I shall be glad if the new clergyman is more hearty about improving the music.'
Celestina so far had heard without taking in the drift of the conversation, but at the last words she pricked up her ears.
'Is there going to be a new clergyman—is old Dr. Bunton going away, mother?' she asked eagerly, though the moment after she reddened slightly, not at all sure that she was not going to be told that 'little girls should not ask questions.' But both Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild were interested in the subject—I think for once they forgot that Celestina was only 'a little girl.'
'Yes,' the mother replied; 'he is giving up at last. That has been known for some weeks, but it is only to-day that it has been known who is to succeed him. Mr. Vane, that is the name, is it not?' she added, turning to her husband.
'The Reverend Bernard Vane, at present vicar of St. Cyprian's, somewhere in the west end of London—that is Redding's description of him,' Mr. Fairchild replied. 'I don't know how a fashionable London clergyman will settle down at Seacove, nor what his reasons are for coming here, I'm sure. I hope the change will be for good.'
But his tone showed that he was not at all certain that it would prove so.
'Is he married?' asked Celestina's mother. 'Oh yes, by the bye, I remember Mr. Redding spoke of children, but old Captain Deal came in just as he was telling more and I could not hear the rest.'
'There are several children and Mrs. Vane a youngish lady still, he said. The old Rectory will want some overhauling before they come to it, I should say,' remarked Mr. Fairchild. 'It must be nigh upon forty years since Dr. Bunton came there, and there's not much been done in the way of repairs, save a little whitewashing now and then. The doctor and Mrs. Bunton haven't needed much just by themselves—but a family's different; they'll be needing nurseries and schoolrooms and what not, especially if they have been used to grand London ways.'
Celestina had been turning her bright brown eyes from one parent to another in turn as they spoke.
'Is London much grander than Seacove?' she asked. 'I thought the Rectory was such a fine house.'
Mrs. Fairchild smiled.
'It might be made very nice. There's plenty of room any way. And many clergymen's families are very simple and homely.'
'I wonder if there are any little girls,' said Celestina. 'And do you think they'll go to Miss Peters's to school, mother?'
Her father turned on her rather sharply.
'Dear me, no, child. Of course not,' he said. 'Miss Peters's is well enough for plain Seacove folk, but don't you be getting any nonsense in your head of setting up to be the same as ladies' children. Mrs. Vane comes of a high family, I hear; there will be a French ma'amselle of a governess as like as not.'
Celestina looked at her father with a world of puzzle in her eyes, her little pale face with a red spot of excitement on each cheek. But she was not the least hurt by her father's words. She simply did not understand them: what are called 'class distinctions' were quite unknown to her innocent mind. Had she been alone with her mother she might have asked for some explanation, but she was too much in awe of her father to question him.
Her mother turned to her somewhat abruptly.
'I want some more water; the kettle, Celestina love,' she said; and as the little girl brought it, 'I will explain to you afterwards, but don't say any more. Father is tired,' she whispered.
And Celestina quickly forgot all about it; the sight of Eleanor and Amy still reposing on the hearthrug as she replaced the kettle drove out of her mind all thoughts of the possible little Misses Vane.
After tea, when the things were cleared away and Celestina had helped her mother to make the room look neat and comfortable again, fox the little servant in the kitchen was seldom seen in the parlour, as she fidgeted Mr. Fairchild by her awkward clattering ways, Mrs. Fairchild went upstairs to fetch some sewing that needed seeing to.
'I will look for a scrap or two for you,' she said to Celestina as she went. 'But I'm not sure that you should sew any more to-night. It's trying for your eyes.'
'And what about your sums, child?' said her father. 'Have you done all I set you?'
'Yes, father, and I've read the chapter of Little Arthur's History too,' Celestina replied.
'Well, then,' said Mr. Fairchild, drawing his chair nearer to the table again—he had pushed it close to the fire—'bring your slate and your books. I'll correct the sums and set you some more, and then we'll have a little history. I will question you first on the chapter you have read to yourself.'
Celestina could not help an appealing glance at her mother—she had the two little dolls in her hand, poor Amy still looking very deplorable in her skirt-less condition. Mrs. Fairchild understood her though no word was spoken.
'I thought you were going back to write in the shop,' she said gently to her husband. 'The stove is still hot.'
'I am too tired,' he replied, and indeed he looked so. 'There is nothing so very pressing, and it's too late for the London post. No—I would rather take Celly's lessons; it will be a change.'
Mrs. Fairchild said no more, nor did Celestina—father's word was law. The little girl did not even look cross or doleful, though she gave a tiny sigh as she fetched her books. She was a docile pupil, thoughtful and attentive, though not peculiarly quick, and Mr. Fairchild, in spite of his rather nervously irritable temper, was an earnest and intelligent teacher. The sums were fairly correct and the multiplication table was repeated faultlessly. But when it came to the history Celestina was less ready and accurate in her replies.
'My dear,' said her mother, who had sat down beside them with her sewing by this time, 'you are not giving your full attention. I can see you are thinking of something else. If it is anything you do not understand ask father to explain it.'
'Certainly,' Mr. Fairchild agreed. 'There is nothing worse than giving half attention. What are you thinking about, child?'
Celestina looked up timidly.
'It wasn't anything in the lesson—at least not exactly,' she said. 'But when father asked me who was the king of France then, it made me think of what father said about a French ma'amselle, and I wondered what it meant.'
'Ma'amselle,' said her father, 'is only our English way of saying "mademoiselle," which means a miss, a young lady.'
'But those young ladies, the Rectory young ladies, aren't French,' Celestina said.
'Of course not. What I meant was that very likely they have a French governess. It's the mode nowadays when every one wants to speak French well.'
'Oh,' said Celestina, 'I didn't understand. I'd like to hear somebody speak French,' she added. 'Did you ever hear it, mother?'
'Yes,' Mrs. Fairchild replied. 'When I was a girl there was a French lady came to live near us that I was very fond of; and she was very kind to us. She sent me a beautiful present when I married. I called you after her, you know, Celestina—I'm sure I've told you that before. Her name was Celestine.'
'I remember,' the little girl replied; 'but I forgot about her being French. I would like to see her, mother.'
'I do not know if she is still alive,' said Mrs. Fairchild. 'She must be an old lady by now, if so. She went back to France many years ago; she was in England with her husband, who had some business here. They had no children, and she was always asking mother to let her adopt me. But though there were so many of us, mother couldn't make up her mind to spare one.'
'Things would have turned out pretty different for you, Mary, if she had. You'd have been married to a French "mounseer" by now,' and he laughed a little, as if there was something exceedingly funny in the idea. Mr. Fairchild did not often laugh.
'Maybe,' his wife replied, smiling.
'I do hope they'll have a French governess,' said Celestina.
'Who? oh, the Miss Vanes,' said her father. 'Why, you are putting the cart before the horse, child! We don't even know that the new clergyman has any daughters—his family may be all boys. Besides, I don't know when you'd be likely to see them or their governess either.'
'They'd be sure to come to the shop sometimes, father,' Celestina replied eagerly. 'Even old Mrs. Bunton does—I've often seen her. And there's no other shop for books and stationery at Seacove.'
Mr. Fairchild smiled at the pride with which she said this.
'It would be a bad job for me if there were,' he said, 'for as it is there's barely custom for a shop of the kind,' and an anxious look came over his face. But Mrs. Fairchild reminded him that if they did not finish the chapter of Little Arthur quickly, it would be Celestina's bedtime, so the talk changed to the Black Prince and his exploits.
THOSE YOUNG LADIES
'Leave me alone—I want to cry; It's no use trying to be good.'—ANON.
Six weeks or so later—Christmas and New Year's day were past; it was the middle of January by this time—a little group of children might have been seen standing on the shore about half a mile from Seacove.
Though midwinter, it was not very cold. There is a theory that it never is very cold at the seaside. I cannot say that I have always found this the case, but it was so at Seacove. It lay in a sheltered position, out of the way of the east wind, and this was one reason why Mr. Vane had decided to make it for a time the home of himself and his family.
These were his children—the group on the seashore. Rumour had exaggerated a little in saying he had 'several.' There were but three of them, and of these three two were girls. So Celestina Fairchild's thoughts about them had some foundation after all.
'It looks just a little, a very little dreary,' said the eldest of the three, a girl of thirteen or so, slight and rather tall for her age, with a pretty graceful figure and pretty delicate features; 'but then of course it's the middle of winter. Not that spring or summer would make much difference here; there are so very few trees.'
She glanced round her as she spoke. It was a bare, almost desolate-looking stretch of country, down to the sea, which was still and gray-looking this morning. Yet there was a strange charm about it too—the land, though by no means hilly, was undulating. Not far from where the children stood there was a grand run of sand-hills, with coarse, strong grass and a few hardy thistles, and, in its season, bindweed with its white and pinky flowers, growing along their summit. Farther off was a sort of skeleton-like erection, looking not unlike the gaunt remains of a deserted sail-less ship: this was a landmark or beacon, placed there to point out a sudden turn in the coastline. And out at sea, a mile or so distant, stood a lighthouse with a revolving lantern; three times in each minute the bright light was to be seen as soon as night fell. A kind of natural breakwater ran out in a straight line to the lighthouse, so that in low tides—and the tides are sometimes very low at Seacove—it was difficult to believe but that you could get on foot all the way to the lighthouse rock.
But all these interesting particulars were not as yet known to Mr. Vane's children. They had arrived at Seacove Rectory only the night before.
The boy—he was next in age to his elder sister Rosalys—followed the direction of her glance.
'No,' he said, 'there's very few trees, certainly. But I think it's going to be very jolly all the same. When I get my pony I'll be all right any way; and on Saturdays, or odd half-holidays—there always are odd half-holidays at every school, you know—I'll take you girls out a drive in that funny little donkey-chaise, or whatever it is, that's standing in the coach-house.'
'I don't fancy there are many places to drive to,' Rosalys replied. 'Papa said there would be no use in having any sort of proper carriage. The only good road is the one to your school, Rough, and you'll have enough of that morning and evening.'
'Papa said Seacove was a—I can't remember the word—something French—cool—cul——'
'Cul-de-sac,' said Rosalys; 'leading to nowhere, that means.'
'Except to the sea, I suppose,' added the little girl who had stumbled at the French word. 'It would be nice to have a ship of our own instead of a carriage. Don't you think we might ask papa to get us one?'
'A ship, Biddy—I suppose you mean a boat,' said Rosalys, in a rather 'superior' tone. 'No; I don't fancy papa would trust us to go about in a boat. Mamma would be frightened out of her wits about us.'
'The sea looks so quiet,' said Bridget, gazing out at it. 'I don't think it could ever be tossy and soapy here like it used to be at Rockcliffe.'
'Couldn't it just?' said Randolph. 'Wait a bit, Bride. It may look quiet on a day like this, and inside the shelter of the bay, but I can tell you there's jolly rough work outside there sometimes. I was talking to an old sailor this morning when I ran out before breakfast.'
'I'd like to see a shipwreck—I mean,' as she caught sight of a shocked expression on her sister's face—'I mean of course one that nobody would be drowned in.'
'But how could any one be sure of that? You should be more careful what you say, Bride; you are so heedless.'
Bridget's face puckered up. It was rather given to puckering up, funny little face that it was. She was eight years old, short and rather stout, with thick, dark hair and a freckled complexion. Her nose turned up and her mouth was not small. But she was not ugly; she had merry gray eyes and very white teeth. Somehow, thorough little English girl though she was, she reminded one of the small Savoyard boys one sees with a box of marmots slung in front of them, or a barrel organ and a monkey.
'I didn't mean to say anything naughty, Alie,' she began, in a plaintive tone. 'I'm always——'
'Oh, come now, Biddy, stop that, do,' said her brother; 'don't spoil the first morning by going off into a howl for nothing. No one supposes you wanted to drown a lot of people for the sake of watching a shipwreck, only, as Alie says, you should be more careful. Strangers might think you a very queer little girl if they heard you say such a thing.'
Bridget still looked melancholy, but she did not venture to complain any more. She was a good deal in awe of Rough, who was twelve and a big boy for his age. He had been at school for two years, and now he was going as a day-scholar to a large and very excellent public school, which was only about two miles from Seacove, quite in the country. Mr. Vane had bought a pony for him to ride backwards and forwards, so Randolph was in capital spirits. But he was not an unkind or selfish boy, and though his pet name 'Rough' suited him sometimes as regarded his manners, his heart was gentle. And indeed the name had been given to him at first on account of his thick shaggy hair, as a very little boy.
'It's rather cold standing about,' said Rosalys. 'Don't you think we'd better walk on or take a run?'
'Let's have a race,' said Rough. 'The sand's nice and firm about here. I'll give you a good start, Alie, and Biddy can run on in front and wait till we call to her that we're off.'
Bridget trotted off as she was told, obediently. She did not care much for running. Her legs were short and she was rather fat, but she did not like to complain. She ran on, though slowly, till at last Randolph shouted to her to stop. Then she stood still waiting till he called to her again, for he and Rosalys took some time to settle how much of a start Alie was to have—from where she stood, Biddy heard them talking and measuring.
'I wish they wouldn't run races,' thought the little girl. 'They're so big compared with me—they've such much longer legs. I shan't like Seacove if they're going always to run races. In London they couldn't in the streets; it was only when we went in the gardens, and that wasn't every day, it was too far to go. I wish I had a brother or a sister littler than me; it's too much difference between Alie and me, thirteen and eight. I wish——'
But here came a whoop from behind.
'Off, Biddy; look sharp—one, two, three.'
Poor Biddy—off she set as fast as she could go, which is not saying much. She puffed and panted, for she was not without a spirit of her own and did not want to be overtaken too soon. And for a time Rough's cries of encouragement, 'Gee-up, old woman,' 'Famous, Biddy,' 'You'll win yet,' and so on, spurred her to fresh exertions. But not for long; she felt her powers flagging, and as first Alie and then Rough, both apparently as fresh as ever, passed her at full speed, she gave in.
'It's no use. I can't run races. I wish you wouldn't make me,' she said, as in a minute or two the two others came flying back again to where she stood, a convenient goal for their return race.
'But you ran splendidly for a bit,' said Randolph; 'and I'll tell you what, Biddy, it would be a very good thing for you to run a good deal more than you do. It'll make you grow and stop you getting too fat.'
'I'm not fatter than you were when you were as little as me, Roughie. Nurse says so—you were a regular roundabout till you had the measles; mamma says so too,' replied Bridget philosophically.
'I'm quite hot,' said Rosalys; 'fancy being hot in January! But we'd better not stand still or we'll get a chill. Isn't it nice to come out alone? I'd like to walk to Seacove—I want to see what it's like, but of course we mustn't go so far. Mamma said we must stay on the shore.'
'If it was summer we might dig and make sand-castles,' said Biddy regretfully. Digging in the sand was an amusement much more to her taste than running races.
'I think that's stupid—it's such baby play,' Rosalys replied. 'But come on, do. I'm going to climb up to the top of that bank—that's the sand-hills papa was speaking about.'
It was more tiring work than she had expected. Before they got to the top of the bank Alie had decided that they would have done better to remain where they were, on the smooth firm sand down below, but once at the top she changed again. What fun can be more delightful than playing in sand-hills, jumping from a miniature summit to the valley beneath with no fear of hurting one's self even if one comes to grief and rolls ignominiously as far as one can go! How helplessly one wades in the shifting, unstable footing—tumbling over with a touch, like a house built of cards! The children's laughter sounded merrily in the clear cold air; Bridget plunged about like a little porpoise in the water, and Rosalys quite forgot that she had attained the dignity of her teens.
But a bell ringing suddenly some little way off caught their ears.
'That's papa ringing,' said Randolph. 'He said he'd have the big dinner-bell rung when it was time for me to go in. I'm going to walk to the town or the village, or whatever it is, with him. Good-bye, girls. It's only three o'clock—you can stay another half-hour,' and off he ran.
'Let's go down to the shore again,' said Alie. 'Mamma said perhaps she'd come out a little, and she'd never see us up here.'
Bridget hung back a little.
'I daresay she won't come out,' she said. 'Do stay up here, Alie. If mamma comes out she'll only talk to you and I'll be all alone. I don't want her.'
'Oh, Bride, that's not nice. I'm sure mamma likes to talk to you too, only you see I'm older, and there's often things you wouldn't understand about perhaps, and——'
'I know—it's always the same. I'm too little to be any use. I know you're older and sensibler, and I don't mean that mamma's not kind. But families should be settled better—and—oh, Alie, I have so torn my frock, and it's my afternoon one—my new merino.'
Rosalys looked much concerned.
'What a pity!' she exclaimed. 'I wish we hadn't played in the sand. But really, Biddy, you are very unlucky. I've been jumping just as much as you, and I've got no harm.'
'You never do—I don't know how it is that I always get torn,' said Bride dolefully. 'And oh, Alie, there is mamma'—they were down on the shore by this time, coming down being a much speedier affair than climbing up,—'she will be so vexed, for I've got this frock new, extra to yours, you know, because of the stain on the other the day I spilt my tea all down it. I am so sorry, Alie. Could you pin it up?'
Rosalys stooped to examine the damage. It was not very great, still under the circumstances of its being a new frock, it was vexing enough.
'You've got it so sandy, too—that makes it look worse,' said the elder sister, giving the unlucky skirt a shake as she spoke.
'I wish mamma hadn't come out,' said Bridget. 'Then I could have got it brushed and mended before I told her, but perhaps it's best to tell at once,' and she gave a little sigh.
'Much best,' her sister agreed, and they went on to meet their mother. Suddenly Bride gave a little cry of satisfaction.
'Oh, Smut's with mamma,' she exclaimed. 'I'm so glad. You can walk with mamma alone then, Alie, and Smut and I will come after you. I'm always quite happy with Smuttie—I wish he was my very own.'
It was rather unlucky that just as they got up to Mrs. Vane, Bridget was so occupied in calling to Smut, who came careering forward to meet the girls, that the dilapidated frock went quite out of her mind. At the first moment her mother did not notice it.
'Well, dears, here I am!' she began brightly. 'I got my letters finished more quickly than I expected. What a quantity of things there are to order when one first comes to a new house! And I do so miss M'Creagh! Did you see me coming, Alie darling?'
'Yes, mamma—not very far off though. We were up on the sand-hills when papa rang for Rough, and——'
But Mrs. Vane interrupted her.
'Oh, Bridget,' she exclaimed in a tone of vexation, 'what have you been doing to yourself? Do you see, Alie? Her skirt is torn from top to bottom—the stuff torn, not the seam. And so dirty. Your new frock too—really, child, you are too provoking.'
Biddy's round rosy face grew longer and redder, and her eyes filled with tears. She opened her mouth to speak, but Rosalys came before her.
'It isn't so very bad, dear mamma,' she said eagerly. 'I've been looking at it. It looks worse because of the sand, but it isn't really dirty; it will brush off. She rolled down one of the sand-hills. I'm afraid it was my fault. It was my idea to play about there.'
Mrs. Vane glanced at Alie's own garments.
'Your frock is none the worse,' she said. 'I do not see that Bride need have hurt hers if she had been the least careful. But you are so incorrigibly heedless, Bridget, and so thoughtless. Why, you were dancing and jumping and calling to Smut when I met you as if there was nothing the matter! I suppose you had forgotten all about your frock already.'
Mrs. Vane's voice was rather sharp as she spoke thus to the little girl. It sounded quite differently from the bright sweet tone in which she had greeted them. And it did not seem to suit her to speak sharply. She was very pretty and sweet-looking, and she seemed young to be tall Alie's mother; indeed, people often said they looked more like sisters: stout, sturdy little Bridget was quite unlike them both.
Rosalys looked up at her mother anxiously. She could not bear her to be troubled, and though she was sorry for Bridget, she was vexed with her too. She slipped her arm inside Mrs. Vane's and drew her on.
'It's too cold to stand still, mamma dear,' she said. 'Let us walk on to that beautiful smooth piece of sand—it's rather stony just here. Biddy, take care of Smut.'
That meant, 'You may stay behind and keep out of the way a little.' Biddy had no objection to do so.
'Come, Smuttie, stay by me,' she said coaxingly to the little shaggy black dog. Smut was very fond of Bridget, who had a very big heart for all dumb animals. He wagged his tail and looked up in her face with inquiring sympathy, for he saw quite well that Biddy was in trouble. This was nothing new; many and many a time had the little girl buried her tearful face in his rough coat and sobbed out her sorrows to him. They were never very big sorrows really, but they were big to her, and rendered bigger by the knowledge in her honest little heart that they were generally and mostly, if not entirely, brought about by her own fault.
She could not stoop down to cry on Smut's back now; it would have risked considerable more dirtying of her poor frock. But she stayed some way behind her mother and sister, so that she might talk without being overheard by any one save her four-legged companion.
'Smuttie,' she said, 'I'm very unhappy. This is only the second day at Seacove and I've vexed mamma already. I made good resol—— never mind; you know what I mean, Smut—to begin new here, and it's all gone. I don't know what to do, Smuttie, I truly don't. Alie means to be kind, but it's quite easy for her to be good, I think. And it's no good me trying. It really isn't, so I think I'll just leave off and be comfortable.'
Smut looked up and wagged his tail. He was quite ready to agree with anything Biddy proposed, so long as she spoke cheerfully and did not cry.
'Good little Smuttie, kind little Smut,' said the child; 'you're so nice and understanding always.'
But Smut seemed restless; he fidgeted about in front of Bride, first running a step or two, then stopping to wag his tail and look back appealingly at her in an insinuating doggy way of his own. Biddy pretended not to know what he meant, but she could not long keep up this feint.
'I do know what you want,' she said at last with a sigh. 'It's a scamper, and I hate running, and I'm sure you know I do. But I suppose I must do it to please you. You won't roar after me like Rough, anyway.'
And off she set, her short legs exerting themselves valiantly for Smuttie's sake. He of course could have run much faster, but he was far too much of a gentleman to do so, and he stayed beside her, contenting himself every now and then by stopping short to look up at her, with a quick cheery bark of satisfaction and encouragement.
A TRYING CHILD
'I think words are little live creatures, A species of mischievous elves.' Child Nature.
Bride and Smuttie did not overtake Mrs. Vane and Rosalys, for they were running towards the sea, whereas the others were walking straight along the shore. But the dog's bark and the sound once or twice of the child's voice speaking to him came clearly through the still winter air.
Mrs. Vane stopped for a moment and looked after them. She and Alie had been talking about Bridget as they walked.
'There she is again,' said her mother, 'as merry and thoughtless as can be. That is the worst of her, Alie, you can make no impression on her.'
'I don't think it's quite that, mamma,' Rosalys replied, 'though I know it often seems so. She was really very, very sorry about her frock. And she's so young—she's not eight yet, mamma.'
'You were quite different at eight,' answered Mrs. Vane. 'Just think—that time I was so ill and papa was away. You were barely seven, and what a thoughtful, careful little body you were! I shall never forget waking up early one morning and seeing a little white figure stealthily putting coal on the fire, which was nearly out; taking up the lumps with its own little cold hands not to make a noise. My good little Alie!' and she stroked the hand that lay on her arm fondly.
Rosalys smiled up at her. She loved her mother to speak so to her, but still her heart was sore for Biddy.
'I believe—I know Biddy would be just as loving to you, mamma, if she knew how,' she said. 'But it is true that she's very provoking. Perhaps it would be different if she had brothers and sisters younger than herself—then she'd have to feel herself big and—as if it mattered what she did.'
'Responsible, you mean,' said Mrs. Vane. 'Yes, that is the best training. But we can't provide small brothers and sisters ready-made for Biddy, and I am very well contented with the three I have got! It might be a good thing if she had some companions nearer her own age, but even that has its difficulties. Just think of the scrapes she got into that time I sent her to your aunt's for a fortnight! Why, she was sent home in disgrace for—what was it for—I forget? Biddy's scrapes are so many.'
'For taking the two smallest children to bathe in the pond before breakfast, wasn't it?' said Alie.
'Oh yes—after having half killed their valuable Persian cat by feeding it with cheese-cakes, or something of the kind,' added Mrs. Vane.
But she could not help smiling a little. Alie had already seen that she was softening; whenever mamma called Bridget 'Biddy,' she knew it was a good sign.
'There is one comfort,' said the elder sister, in her motherly way, 'Biddy has a terribly kind heart. She is never naughty out of—out of naughtiness. But oh, mamma, let us wait a minute; the sunset is beginning.'
And so indeed it was. Over there—far out, over the western sea, the cold, quiet, winter sea, the sun was growing red as he slowly sank, till he seemed to kiss the ocean, which glowed, blushing, in return. It was all red and gray to-night—red and gray only, though there were grandly splendid sunsets at Seacove sometimes, when every shade and colour which light can show to our eyes shone out as if a veil were drawn back from the mysterious glory we may but glimpse at. But the red and gray were very beautiful in their way, and the unusual stillness, broken only by the soft monotonous lap, lap, of the wavelets as they rippled themselves into nothing on the sand, seemed to suit the gentle tones of the sky. And some way off, nearer the sea, seeming farther away than they really were, as they stood right in the ruddy trail of light, were two little figures, both looking black by contrast, though in point of fact only one was so. They were Bridget and Smut, both apparently absorbed in admiring the sunset.
'Isn't it beautiful, Smuttie?' Biddy was saying. 'It's the sun going to bed, you know, dear.'
Smut wagged his tail.
'It's so pretty,' she continued, 'that it makes me think I'd like to be good. P'raps I'd better fix to try again after all—what do you think, Smut?'
Repeated and more energetic tail-wagging, accompanied this time by a short sharp bark. Smut has had enough of the sunset and standing still; he wants to be off again. But Bride interprets his response in her own way.
'You think it would be better?—thank you, dear, for saying so. You are so nice, Smut, for always understanding. Well, I will then, and I'll begin by telling mamma I'm dreadfully sorry about my frock. Good-night, sun—I wish I lived out in the lighthouse—one could see the sun right down in the sea out there, I should think. I wonder if he stays in the sea all night till he comes up at the other side in the morning? No—I don't think he can though, for it says in my jography that it's sunshine at the other side of the world when it's night here, so he can't stay in the sea. I must ask Alie—p'raps it's not the same sun as in London.'
She turned, followed by Smut, who, failing to persuade her to another scamper, consoled himself by poking his nose into the sand in search of unknown dainties which I fear were not to be found. The pair came up to Mrs. Vane and Rosalys, who seemed to be waiting for them.
'Mamma,' Biddy began, in a very contrite tone, 'I've been thinking and I want to tell you I am truly and really very, very sorry about my frock. I didn't mean not to seem sorry. I can't think how it got torn, for Alie didn't tear hers, and she was playing about just the same.'
'I don't know either, Biddy,' said her mother. 'It is just the old story, you must be more careful. Perhaps, to go back to the beginning, it would have been better to change to an old frock if you meant to romp about; or, it would have been better still perhaps, not to romp when you knew you had a good frock on.'
'That was my fault, mamma,' Alie put in.
'Well, we must try and get the mischief repaired, and let us hope it will be a reminder to you, Biddy, every time you wear this frock.'
Bridget murmured something; she meant to be very good. But when she got a little behind her mother and Alie again she gave herself a shake.
'I shouldn't like that at all,' she thought. 'I should hate this frock if it was always to remind me. I think mamma is rather like the mamma in Rosamund when she speaks that way, and I'm like Rosamund on her day of misfortunes, only all my days are days of misfortunes. But I do think I'm nicer than she was.'
As they reached the edge of the shore, where a gate opened into a pathway through a field to the Rectory itself, Mrs. Vane stopped to look across once more at the sunset.
'Yes, he is just going—just. Look, children.'
Alie turned too, but Biddy walked on.
'I don't want to look again,' she said. 'I've said good-night to him once.'
Mrs. Vane glanced at Rosalys.
'What's the matter now?' her glance seemed to say.
Rosalys smiled back.
'It isn't naughtiness,' she whispered. 'It's only some fancy.'
And so it was.
'I said good-night to him when I'd fixed to try to be good,' Bride was saying to herself, 'and if I look at him again now it'll undo the fixing. Besides, I've begun to feel a little naughty again already—I don't like Rosamund's mamma.'
As they walked up the path, Smut, who was really Mrs. Vane's dog and had got his own ideas as to etiquette, returned to his mistress's side and trotted along gravely. He knew that his chances of scampers were over for the day, for not even the most ardent runner could have crossed the field at full speed without coming to grief. It was rough and stony, and to call it a field was a figure of speech; the soil was nothing but sand, and the grass was of the coarsest. But the Rectory stood on rather rising ground, and old Dr. Bunton and his wife had fortunately been fond of gardening. The lawn on the farther side of the house was very respectable, and more flowers and shrubs had been coaxed to grow than could have been expected. Still, to newcomers fresh from a comfortable town-house—and there is no denying that as far as comfort goes a town-house in winter has many advantages over a small country one—it did look somewhat dreary and desolate. All the brightness had gone out of the sky by now; it loomed blue-gray behind the chimneys, and a faint murmuring as of wind in the distance getting up its forces began to be heard.
Mrs. Vane shivered a little.
'I do hope your father and Randolph will be in soon,' she said. 'It may be very mild here, but it strikes me as chilly all the same. I really don't think it is wise to stay out so late, and it has been so almost unnaturally still all day, I shouldn't wonder if it was setting in for stormy weather.'
Biddy's eyes sparkled.
'I would so like,' she was beginning, but she suddenly checked herself. 'Are there always shipwrecks when there's storms?' she asked.
'I fear so,' her mother replied.
'Then I mustn't like storms, I suppose,' said the child. 'It's very tiresome—everything's made the wrong way.'
'Bridget, take care what you're saying,' Mrs. Vane said almost sternly.
Biddy's face did not pucker up, but a dark look came over it, taking away all the pleasant brightness and the merry eagerness of the gray eyes. She did not often look like that, fortunately, for it made her almost ugly. And though her face cleared a little after a while, still it was gloomy, like the darkening sky outside, when she followed Alie downstairs to tea, after they had taken off their things and the torn frock had been changed.
Things had hardly got into their regular order yet at Seacove Rectory. The Vanes had only been there three days, and every one knows that the troubles of a removal, especially to a considerable distance, are very much aggravated when it takes place in midwinter. It was not to be wondered at that 'mamma' felt both tired and rather dispirited. She was a little homesick too, for mammas can feel homesick as well as both boys and girls; and indeed I would not take upon myself to say that 'papas' are quite above this weakness either. Christmas time had been spent at Mrs. Vane's old home, a warm, cheery, old-fashioned country-house, where grandpapa and grandmamma were still hale and hearty, and never so happy as when surrounded by their grandchildren. This old home of mamma's was within easy access of London too; no wonder, therefore, that the remote seaside rectory seemed a kind of exile to Mrs. Vane, though the reasons that had made Mr. Vane accept the offer of Seacove had been very important ones.
Rosalys, and Randolph too, though in a less thoughtful way, understood all this, and both of the elder children were anxious to help and cheer their parents to the best of their ability. And as all children love change, and most children enjoy, for a time at least, the freedom and independence of the country, it was much less trying for them than for their father and mother. To Bridget the idea of coming to live altogether at the seaside was one of unmixed pleasure. She dearly loved the sea, and all she had hitherto known of it was in pleasant summer weather, and at a bright amusing little place called Rockcliffe. Seacove was certainly not exactly what she had expected; still, sand-hills and a great stretch of splendid shore were not to be despised. I feel sure, however, that young as she was she would have sympathised with her mother, and tried 'extra' hard not to vex her, had she known more about it all. But very little had been explained to her; indeed, Rosalys had been forbidden to say much about the reasons for the change to her little sister. 'She is such a baby for her age, and so heedless,' said Mrs. Vane. In treating Bride thus, I think her mother made a mistake.
The children's tea was laid out in the dining-room, for the schoolroom was still in a chaotic state, and Miss Millet, the governess, was not coming back for another week yet. And in the meantime mamma, and papa too, sometimes had tea with the little girls and Randolph.
The fire was burning brightly and the table looked inviting when Mrs. Vane came downstairs. Alie had hurried down to see to it all; she knew what a difference a little care makes sometimes—how a crumpled-looking table-cloth or untidily placed dishes will add to low spirits when any one is not feeling as bright and cheerful as usual. There were still some of grandmamma's good things, which she had had packed in a hamper for the first start at the new rectory—home-made cakes and honey and fresh butter, the very sight of which made one hungry!
Rosalys glanced at her mother, and was pleased to see that the sweet face looked rather brighter and less anxious as she stood for a moment at the fire warming her hands.
'There is one comfort in this house, inconvenient though it is in many ways,' said Mrs. Vane, 'the chimneys don't smoke. And close to the sea as it is, one could scarcely have wondered if they had done so. If only it really does your father as much good as the doctors said, I am sure I shall get to like it.'
'Yes indeed,' Alie agreed. 'Mamma dear, won't you sit down and let me pour out your tea?'
'The wind is really rising,' said Mrs. Vane. 'I wish they would come in—papa and Rough. It would be such a pity if he caught cold,' she added with a little sigh.
Something in the tone and the sigh caught Biddy's attention. She was sitting at the table more silent than usual, very much absorbed, in fact, with her own grievances. What did mamma mean?
'Is papa ill?' she asked abruptly.
Alie glanced at her, frowning slightly. Her mother turned quickly.
'What a strange question to ask, Bride,' she said; 'it is just like you—you cannot but know that papa is not at all strong.'
Biddy looked puzzled. 'Strong' to her meant vaguely being able to lift heavy weights, or things of that kind.
'I didn't know he was ill,' she replied. 'I didn't know big people were ill except for going to die, like our 'nother grandmamma. Papa's had the measles and chicken-pox when he was little, hasn't he? I thought it was only children that could be ill to get better like that.'
Mrs. Vane glanced at Rosalys in a sort of despair. But before Alie could say anything to smooth matters, her mother called Bridget from her seat and made her stand before her.
'Bridget,' she said, 'I don't know what to say to you. Have you no heart or feeling at all? How can you say such things. I do not believe in your not understanding; you can understand when you choose, and you are nearly eight years old. You must know how miserably anxious I have been and still am about your father; you must know it is for his health we have come to this strange, dreary place, away from every one we care for, and you can talk in that cold-hearted, cold-blooded way about dying and not getting better and—and——' Mrs. Vane's voice trembled and quivered. She seemed almost as if she were going to cry. Alie came and stood beside her, gently putting her arm round her mother and looking daggers at Bride. Mamma was nervous and over-tired, she knew; she had had so much to go through lately. How could Biddy be so naughty and unfeeling? And yet, as the words passed through her mind, Rosalys hesitated. Biddy was not really unfeeling—it was not the word for her. It was more as if she would not take the trouble to feel or to understand anything that was not her own special concern; there was a queer kind of laziness about her, which led to selfishness. It was as if her mind and heart were asleep sometimes.
But she could feel. Her face was all puckered up now; there was no temper or sullenness about it, but real pale-faced distress.
'Mamma,' she said brokenly, 'I didn't, oh, truly, I didn't mean it that way. I know papa isn't old enough to die; but I thought he was too big to be ill like that.'
'Biddy,' said Alie sternly, 'you are talking nonsense again. You know big people are ill often, and sometimes they get better and sometimes they die. Don't you remember Mrs. Hay—Meta Hay's mamma? She was ill and——'
'Yes, I quite forgot,' exclaimed Biddy eagerly; 'I didn't think. Yes, Meta's mamma was very ill, and she died. I wish I'd remembered; and she wasn't at all old like Grandmamma Vane.'
She spoke almost cheerfully. Again Mrs. Vane glanced at her elder daughter.
'It's no use,' she was beginning, but Alie interrupted. How she wished the unfortunate Mrs. Hay had not been the first instance to occur to her!
'Children get ill and die too sometimes,' Alie went on, 'and big people very often get better. There was Captain Leonard next door to us at home——'
'And—I know—the boy-that-brought-the-potatoes' papa,' cried Biddy. 'I am so glad I thought of him. I was in the kitchen one morning fetching sand for Tweetums's cage and he came in, and cook asked how was his papa, and he said, "Finely better, I thank ye, mum." I think cook said he was a Hirish boy,' Bridget hurried on in her excitement—and when she was excited I am afraid her 'h's' were apt to suffer—Mrs. Vane gasped! 'I am so glad I thought of him. Papa will get better like the potato boy's father. I'll say it in my prayers. Dear mamma, I won't forget. And I will try to be good and not tear my frocks nor speak without thinking.'
The tears were coming now, but Biddy knew mamma did not like her to begin to cry, and truly it was no wonder, for once she began it was by no means easy to say when she would leave off! She choked them down as well as she could. And the little face, hot and flushed now, was timidly raised to her mother's for a kiss of forgiveness.
It was not refused, but a sigh accompanied it, which went to the child's heart. But there was no time for more, as at that moment the hall door was heard to open and Mr. Vane's and Rough's voices sounded outside.
Quite subdued, desperately penitent, Bridget went back to her place. Her head was full as well as her heart. She had so many things to think over that she felt as if she could not eat. First and foremost was the strange newly awakened anxiety about her father. She looked at him as he came in as she had never looked at him before, almost expecting to see some great and appalling change in his appearance. But no—he seemed much as usual—his face was indeed reddened a little by his brisk walk in the chill air, and his voice was as cheery as ever. Biddy gave a loud, most audible sigh of relief. Mr. Vane started and interrupted himself in the middle of a lively account of the adventures he and Randolph had met with in their walk.
'My dear Biddy,' he said. 'What can you have to sigh about in that appalling way?'
Bridget opened her mouth as if to speak, but Rosalys, trembling as to what she might not be going to say, interrupted.
'Please, papa, don't ask her just now,' she said; 'do go on telling us about what sort of a place Seacove is,' and she added in a whisper, as she gave a little private tug to his sleeve, 'Biddy's been rather—tiresome, and if she begins to cry——'
BIDDY HAS SOME NEW THOUGHTS
'O, children take long to grow.' JEAN INGELOW.
Mr. Vane nodded in token of comprehending Alie's hint.
'You must walk to Seacove to-morrow and see it for yourselves,' he said.
'That is to say if it is fine,' said Mrs. Vane. 'Doesn't it look stormy to-night?'
'The wind is getting up, but that one must expect at this time of the year, and a good blow now and then won't hurt the girls. I feel ever so much the better for the touch of it we had this afternoon. I'm certain it is a very healthy place.'
Mrs. Vane smiled a little.
'I have noticed that that is generally said of places that have nothing else to recommend them. But no,' she went on, 'I must not begin by finding fault. If it proves to us a health-giving place I certainly shall like it, whatever else it is or is not. Did you go into the church this afternoon?'
'Just for a moment. Rough wanted to glance at it,' Mr. Vane replied, his tone sounding rather less cheerful.
'It looked very dingy and dismal,' Randolph said. 'It's all high pews and high-up windows, you know, mamma. Papa says it must have been built at the very ugliest time for churches, before they began to improve at all.'
'And there is nothing to be done to it,' said Mr. Vane. 'Even if we could attempt it and had the money, there would be endless difficulties in the way of prejudice and old associations to overcome.'
'And it is not as if we were really settled here,' said the children's mother. 'You must not take the church to heart, Bernard; you could scarcely expect anything better in a place like this.'
'No—it will be slow work to bring about any improvement in outlying places of this kind certainly,' Mr. Vane agreed. Then he brightened up a little. 'There is a very good organ, and I met the organist. He seems very hearty and eager.'
'That's a good thing. How did you come across him?' asked Mrs. Vane.
'We went to the stationer's to order the newspapers. I might of course have had them straight from town, but I think it is right to get what one can in the place, and it helps me to get to know the people a little. The organist—Redding is his name—was in the shop; I fancy he's a bit of a gossip, for he looked rather guilty when we went in, just as if they had been talking about us, and then he introduced himself. He's coming up to have a talk with me to-morrow.'
'It is quite a nice shop,' said Randolph. 'I expect it has some of the College custom. I saw some books with the College crest on lying about. You can get painting things there, Alie,' he added.
Rosalys looked interested, and Biddy's face grew some degrees less long.
'Is there a toy-shop?' she asked.
'There's better than a toy-shop—a wonderful sort of place they call a bazaar,' Rough replied. 'You may walk all round and look at the things without having to buy, and there's one part where all the toys are only a penny.'
Biddy clasped her hands in ecstasy.
'Oh, mamma,' she said, 'may we go and see it to-morrow? Oh, I'm sure Seacove is ever so much nicer than London!'
Mr. Vane smiled.
'How many pennies have you got to spend, Biddy?' he said.
Biddy's face sobered again, and the corners of her mouth went down.
'I've got two,' she said in a very meek voice, 'and there would have been another to-morrow, that's Saturday, if—I—hadn't——'
'What?' asked Mr. Vane.
'Tore my frock,' said Biddy very slowly.
'Torn, if you please,' said her father. 'Well, suppose mamma lets you off as it's the first Saturday at Seacove, that will be threepence, and suppose I give you three pennies more, that will be sixpence—with sixpence you could make important purchases at the penny counter, could she not, Rough?'
'Certainly, I should say,' Randolph replied.
Bridget's face crimsoned with pleasure. She got up from her seat and ran round to the arm-chair by the fire where Mr. Vane was quietly sipping his tea, and at the imminent risk of throwing it all over him, flung her arms round his neck.
'Oh, thank you, papa, dear papa,' she said, 'dear, dear papa, and I do so hope you'll be like the boy-that-brought-the-potatoes' papa, and I'm going always to be good now, always.'
Poor Mr. Vane disengaged himself and his tea-cup with some difficulty from his little daughter's embraces. To his surprise, when he could manage to see her face, there were tears in her eyes. He was touched but at the same time rather apprehensive; it was ticklish work when Biddy's floodgates were opened.
'My poor little woman,' he said; 'yes, it's quite right to make good resolutions. But, remember, Rome wasn't built in a day, Bride; you'll have to keep up your courage and go on trying. But what's all that about boys and potatoes?'
Biddy grew red; she felt by instinct that she must not tell over all the conversation; mamma would be vexed.
'I only meant——' and she hesitated.
'Biddy knew a little greengrocer boy in London who was very fond of his father,' said Rosalys quickly.
'Never mind about that just now,' Mrs. Vane added. 'I have several things I want to ask you about your study. If you have finished your tea, will you come in there with me? The work-people about here are rather stupid, I'm afraid, Bernard. They don't the least understand about the book-shelves.'
'Don't worry yourself about it,' Mr. Vane replied. 'Things will get straight by degrees. I'm afraid you have much more trouble now that M'Creagh's gone.'
M'Creagh was Mrs. Vane's 'old maid,' as the children called her. She had been with her since Mrs. Vane's childhood, and had lately given up her right to the title by getting married, to the great regret of everybody except, I fear, Biddy. For M'Creagh had 'managed' the little girl in a wonderful way; that is to say, she had kept her in order, and Biddy very much preferred being left to her own devices.
Mrs. Vane sat down on the low couch—one end of which was covered with piles of books,—they were in the study by this time.
'Yes,' she said, 'I miss M'Creagh, but my real trouble just now, Bernard, is Biddy. I am afraid I don't take the right way with her, somehow. She is so tiresomely heedless and provoking, and sometimes I really wonder if she has any heart.'
Mr. Vane looked up in surprise, in which there was a little touch of indignation, at this. Fresh from Bridget's loving hugs and the sight of the tears in her eyes, he could hardly be expected to agree with this opinion of her.
'My dear,' he said, 'I think you are not fair upon her. I really can't help saying so. The poor child is heedless and provoking to a degree, but she is very affectionate.'
Mrs. Vane did not seem annoyed; she was, on the contrary, rather glad of what Mr. Vane said.
'Yes, she seems so sometimes, and I hope it is only her childishness—but it is so impossible to make any lasting impression on her. And I don't see how things are to improve with her. Rosalys was a perfect little woman at her age. Bridget thinks of nothing—I have seen it so much since we came here and during the bustle of the removal from London. She lives like a complete baby—perhaps it is partly that Alie is so unusually thoughtful and helpful, a real right-hand to me, and Rough too for a boy is very sensible. So Biddy goes her own way, nothing is expected of her, and she certainly fulfils the expectation,' she wound up with a half smile.
Mr. Vane sat silent.
'She might be better with some companionship of her own age,' he said in a few minutes. 'The give-and-take of even childish companionship is a kind of training and discipline. As it is, she is almost like an only child. Now, if Alie were away for a while, Bridget would have to try to take her place.'
'I could not do without Alie, not just now certainly,' said Mrs. Vane decidedly. 'We must just hope that somehow time will improve Bridget.'
'And don't be too hard on her,' said her father. 'I feel sure she means well.'
'When she means anything,' replied Mrs. Vane; 'but she seldom thinks enough for that.'
'I don't know about that,' said Mr. Vane doubtfully, 'still——'
But then something in the arrangement of the book-shelves caught his eye, and no more was said of Biddy for the time.
Papa did not forget. Bridget got her fourpence the next day, a penny from mamma and threepence from papa. And all troubles were thrown to the winds, torn frocks and everything disagreeable forgotten, when she set off with Rosalys and Randolph, under their maid's charge, for a visit to Seacove, the wonderful bazaar being the real object of the walk.
Only a very slight misgiving came over her as papa stooped to kiss her in the doorway; they met him on their way out.
'Be a sensible little woman to-day, my Biddy,' he said, 'and don't get into any scrapes to worry your mamma.'
The child looked up into his face. Was it the yellowish morning light from over the sea—for it was clear and bright though cold—that made papa's face so pale? And yesterday he had looked so nice and rosy—Biddy felt rather strange; for the first time in her little life there came over her a faint, very faint shadow of the shadow which, as we grow older, we learn cannot be avoided; the wings of the solemn angel seemed for an instant to brush her softly. Biddy trembled without understanding why.
'Papa, dear papa,' she said, but somehow no other words would come.
He kissed her again, and he smiled. It seemed to brighten up his face. Bridget gave a sigh of relief: the potato boy's papa had got well, and very likely he too looked pale sometimes. Still that strange breath of feeling had left some result.
'Alie,' she said, as she trotted down the garden path beside her sister, the sixpence tightly clasped in her hand, 'is there anything I could get for a present for two of my pennies? I want to get some of the toys for myself with papa's three pennies, and I want to get a thimble with one, 'cos I've lost mine, and my workbox is messy-looking.'
'You can't get a proper one for a penny, not a silver one, and mamma says imitation ones are bad to wear,' said Rosalys. 'I've got my first thimble that's too small now—it's real silver. I'll give it you, and that'll leave you threepence for your present. But who's it for?'
'Three pennies won't do,' said Biddy. 'It must be two pennies, 'cos it's for papa, and he gave me three pennies, and it would just be like giving it him back again.'
Rosalys and Randolph glanced at each other. They could scarcely believe it was thoughtless Biddy speaking.
'Yes, I quite understand,' said Alie. 'Let's see—what could you get for papa? Can't you help us, Rough?'
Rough considered deeply.
'A purse—no, that would be too dear—or an inkstand?' he said.
'I'm sure an inkstand would be far dearer,' said Alie sharply. 'You're no good, Rough. I daresay we'll see something there, Biddy dear. I'll not forget.'
Bride felt very pleased. She was in high favour with Rosalys, she could see. She began jumping up and down the little grass-covered sandy hillocks that bordered the road, scarcely more than a cart-track, across the common between the Rectory and the little town.
'There's a shorter way if we turn, a little farther on,' said Rough. 'We can either get on to the road above the shore—it's a proper road—or cut across a very sandy place, much sandier than the common.'
'No,' said Alie, 'I'd rather go along the road even if it's farther. Walking on sand is so tiresome, and spoils one's boots so. Biddy, I think you'd better walk quietly: remember what papa said, and you know you are rather unlucky.'
It was pleasant walking along the firm, hard road, and the fresh air was exhilarating—the sunshine, thin and wintry though it was, gilded palely the little shallow lakes and pools left by the outgoing tide along the shore, for it was almost low water now. Even the bare stretches of sand did not look ugly, as they sometimes do—a touch of sunshine makes all the difference! And the even stony path—a sort of natural breakwater running out towards the lighthouse—here and there caught a gleam or two from the sky.
'It looks quite different to last night,' said Alie. 'That's one thing I like the seaside for; it's always changing.'
'And the wind's gone down with the tide,' said Randolph, 'though it did blow last night. There'll be rough weather before long, everybody says.'
'I would so like to be in the lighthouse if there was a storm,' said Biddy. 'That isn't naughty to wish, Alie, for the lighthouse is to keep away shipwrecks. And if there just was one, you know, it would be nice to be there to help the poor wet people, and carry them in to the fire, and rub them dry with hot blankets, like in that story, you know.'
'A lot you'd be able to carry,' said Rough contemptuously. 'Why, you're so fat and roundabout, and your legs are so short you can scarcely carry yourself.'
'Rough,' began Rosalys warningly. And
'Alie,' began Bridget at the same moment in her whining tone, 'do listen to him.'
But a peremptory 'Hush' from Randolph checked her. Both the girls looked up. A short, rather stout, pleasant-faced man was at that moment overtaking them.
'Good-morning, sir,' he said as he passed, and 'Good-morning, Mr. Redding,' returned Rough courteously, as the other lifted his hat. Rough had very nice manners.
'That is Redding, the organist,' said Rough. 'He's something else as well—a tailor or a draper——'
'"A butcher, a baker, or candlestick-maker,"' interrupted Rosalys laughingly. She did not mean to make fun of good Mr. Redding, but she wanted to make the others laugh too, to restore their good humour.
'Well, something, any way,' Randolph went on. 'Papa says he's an awfully good sort of man; he gives all his spare time to the organ for nothing.'
'That's very nice,' said Alie approvingly.
They were near the actual town of Seacove by this time—town or village, it was difficult to say which, though the rows of tall masts a little way off in the docks and the paved streets hardly seemed to suit the idea of a village. And a few minutes more brought them to what was ambitiously called the 'Parade,' where stood the long low bazaar, with a large placard at the door announcing that 'entrance' was 'free.'
In summer the bazaar blossomed out into twice its winter size, thanks to a tentlike canvas front; at present it was a building of not very imposing appearance. But it was long in proportion to its width, and one or two gas-jets lighted up the innermost end, even in the daytime. This gave it a rather mysterious air, and added much to Biddy's admiration.
'It's a lovely place,' she whispered to the others in an almost awestruck tone. Rough felt much gratified; he considered the bazaar his own 'find.' He set to work very graciously to do the honours of it, and led the way slowly between the two sloping-upwards counters or tables at each side, on which were arranged the more important and expensive wares—china vases, glass, English and foreign, some of it really quaint and uncommon, such as was not, in those days at least, to be often met with in regular shops, workboxes and desks of various kinds; papier-mache writing-books, a few clocks; jewelry, a little real, a great deal imitation, in glass-lidded cases; and so on. And down the centre stood groups of walking-sticks, camp-stools, croquet-sets, and such like.
'Usefuller' things, as Biddy afterwards told her mother, were not wanting either. Hair-brushes and combs, metal teapots, and lots of gaily painted trays were among them. And some very magnificent dolls gazed down with their bright unblinking eyes at the whole from a high position, where they and the larger, more costly toys were placed.
It was all very imposing, very breath-taking-away, and Biddy's eyes were very eager and her mouth wide open as she trotted after Alie. For London shops were not as magnificent forty years ago as they are now; and, besides it was not often that the little Vanes had paid a visit to Cremer's or the arcades, which are children's delight. And then it was here so delightfully uncrowded and quiet. The shopwoman, knowing who they were, felt not a little honoured by their prompt visit, and beyond a civil 'Good-morning, young ladies,' left them free to stare about and admire as they chose.
But they did not linger long before the objects which they knew to be quite beyond their reach. It was the penny counter for which they were really bound, and to which Rough piloted them with an air of great pride.
'There, now,' he said, waving his hand like a show-man; 'what do you say to that, girls? All these things—everything you can see as far as here—for a penny!'
Biddy gasped; even Alie was impressed.
'They're really very nice, Biddy,' she said. 'And oh, look, what nice dolls' furniture! What a pity, Biddy, you don't care for dolls!'
'Little china tea-things and delightful dinner-sets; Trumpets, drums, and baby-horses; balls in coloured nets.' What the Toys do at Night.
Just as she said these words Rosalys became conscious that some one else was standing beside her. She looked round. A little girl, simply but neatly dressed, had come into the bazaar, and had made her way noiselessly up to where the Rectory children stood. She was a slight, delicate-looking child, taller than Bridget, though not seemingly much older. She had large, earnest, perhaps somewhat wistful, brown eyes, which made her face attractive and interesting when you looked at it closely, though at first sight it was too small and pale to catch one's attention. She stood there quietly and very grave, her eyes fixed on Alie Vane's lovely and sweet face, yet without the slightest shadow of forwardness or freedom in her gaze. An expression of great surprise, mingled with a little pity, flitted across her when she heard the elder girl's words—'What a pity, Biddy, you don't care for dolls!' and it was with intense interest she listened to Bridget's reply.
'I would care for them, Alie, if I had any one to play at them with me. But you think you're too big—I think you've always thought yourself too big—and Rough's a boy. So how could I care for dolls all alone?'
Bride's voice had taken the peculiar little whine it always did when she was at all put out. It was comical and yet a little irritating; but just now neither Rosalys nor Randolph was inclined to be irritated. Alie only laughed.
'Well, I'm not forcing you to play with dolls, nor to buy them,' she said. 'Only these little tiny chairs are so funny.'
A voice behind her made her start. Yet it was a very soft, rather timid little voice.
'You can play much nicer with little dolls alone—a good many little dolls—than with one or two big ones,' it said.
Biddy turned round and stared at the small maiden. She did not mean to be rude; she was only surprised and curious; but her rosy cheeks and round eyes looked much less sweet and gentle than Alie's pretty face and soft long-lashed blue eyes, which had always a rather appealing expression. Biddy opened her mouth but did not speak. The little stranger grew very red. Rosalys spoke to her gently.
'Yes,' she said, 'I should think little dolls would be much more amusing to play with alone. You could make them act things, and you could make houses for them. Biddy, wouldn't you like to furnish our old doll-house fresh?'
'I don't know,' said Biddy rather surlily. 'You'd call me a baby.'
'Indeed I wouldn't,' said Alie eagerly. 'It would be such a nice play for you. You might buy two or three of those sweet little chairs as a beginning.'
'They are particular nice,' put in the shopwoman. 'It isn't often they're made so small, not so cheap. And what were you wanting this morning, my dear?' she went on to the little newcomer.
'If you please, I want two of them—of the chairs,' the child replied, holding out two pennies. Her face was still rather red, but she glanced with admiration mingled with gratitude at Rosalys.
The shopwoman handed her the two little chairs, but she did not seem quite satisfied.
'Would you like to choose for yourself?' said the woman with a smile. She seemed used to the ways and manners of small customers—of this small customer especially, perhaps—and she made way for her as the little girl, well pleased, came close to the counter. Then for a minute or two the child stood absorbed, weighing the comparative merits of blue and pink cotton chair seats, and of dark and light coloured wood. At last, with a little sigh of mingled anxiety and satisfaction, she held out two to the woman.
'These, please,' she said; and, without waiting for her purchases to be wrapped up, she turned, and with a glance at the other children, a shadowy smile for half an instant wavering over her face, she quietly made her way out of the shop.
'Poor little girl,' said Rosalys. 'You quite frightened her when she spoke, Bridget. Why did you glare at her so?'
'I didn't glare at her; you're very unkind, Alie, to say so,' said Biddy, in her complaining tone.
'Oh, I say, Biddy, don't be so grumpy,' Randolph put in, 'and do fix what you're going to buy. There's something over here that papa would like, I know. A whistle, such a jolly strong one, and only two-pence. It would do for him to call me in by, and much less trouble than ringing that clumsy bell.'
Biddy went off to look at the whistle. It was a very neat one, in the shape of a dog's head, and she at once decided upon it, for she had great faith in Rough's opinion as to what papa would like. Then ensued another weighty consultation at the penny stall, where Alie had meantime bought a pair of tiny dolls, which she meant to dress in secret as a 'surprise' for her little sister—'it would be so nice if she took to dressing dolls for herself,' she thought—and a yard measure for herself. Bridget's perplexities ended in the purchase of one of the neat little chairs and a small table and a tiny china dog.
'They'd be pretty as ornaments on my mantelpiece even if I never have a doll-house,' she said. 'And if I did have the doll-house done up, it must have a dog, to keep watch, you know, Alie.'
At the entrance of the bazaar they ran against Mr. Redding. He looked hot and hurried and was walking very fast, but at sight of them he stopped suddenly, and then, came up to Randolph.
'Would you excuse me, sir,' he began, 'if I were to ask you a great favour? I have just been at the Rectory to see Mr. Vane and I am hurrying off to Brewton by the next train, for unfortunately there is something wrong with one of the organ stops and I must get a man to come over at once. It would never do not to be able to use the organ properly the first Sunday Mr. Vane is here. I find it later than I thought, and I had undertaken to leave this note at Mr. Fairchild's in Pier Street for the rector. You will pass there on your way home, unless you particularly want to go by Sandy Common?'
'Oh no,' said Rough, 'we don't mind. Of course I'll leave it for you, Mr. Redding. Is there an answer?'
But Mr. Redding, having thrust the note into the boy's hands, was already some paces off. He called out some rather incoherent reply, of which 'thank you, thank you,' were the only intelligible words.
'What a fussy little man,' said Alie. 'But papa said he was proud of his organ, and it would be horrid at church without it. Which is Pier Street, Rough, do you know?'
'Not a bit of it—nor which is Mr. Fairchild's shop, or if it is a shop. He only said at Mr. Fairchild's,' replied Randolph. 'I suppose any one can tell us however; it's not like London.'
The 'Parade' at its farther end turned into the docks. The children walked on, tempted by the sight of the tall masts in front of them.
'Wouldn't I like to see over some of those ships,' said Rough. Just then a little group of sailors, looking little more than boys for the most part, in spite of their bronzed and sunburnt skin, passed them, chattering and whistling cheerily. They belonged to a vessel but newly arrived from some southern port. One could see how happy they were to be on English ground again—some of them maybe belonged to Seacove itself.
'Would you like to be a sailor, Rough?' said Alie.
'No, I don't think so, but I like seeing ships and hearing about voyages.'
'I'd like to be a sailor,' said Bridget suddenly. Rosalys and her brother could not help laughing.
'What a funny sailor you'd make,' they said. And indeed it was not easy to imagine her short, compact, roundabout figure climbing up masts and darting about with the monkey-like swiftness of a smart little middy.
'I don't think you'd like it for long, Miss Biddy,' said Jane, the young maid. 'I came once, in my last place, from Scotland by sea, and though I wasn't at all ill, it was dreadful rough work. I was glad to feel my feet on firm land again.'
'Was it very stormy?' asked all the children together. 'And how long were you in the ship? Oh, do tell us about it, Jane.'
Jane's value rose immensely on the spot. She was not a particularly lively girl generally, but this was quite a discovery.
'Was it a very big ship?' asked Bridget, 'or quite a teeny-weeny one, just big enough to hold all of us like?'
'You stupid little goose,' said Rough. 'You mean a boat—a ship is never as little as that.'
'Boats and ships is all the same,' Biddy persisted; 'and I heard papa say there was a Scotch boat to Seacove twice a week—there now, Rough.'
'Oh well—but that's only a way of speaking. Papa didn't mean a real boat—a little boat. Now, if we could go down those steps right among all the ships I'd soon show you the difference.'
'But we mustn't, Rough,' said Alie anxiously. 'Not without papa or somebody big—any way we must ask leave first.'
'Well, I suppose it would hardly do for you girls,' Rough replied. 'But of course papa would let me go. He and I walked all round the docks last night, and we should have gone to the end of the pier if——'
'Oh, that reminds me,' said Rosalys. 'Haven't we passed Pier Street? I believe that must be it opposite. Yes, I see it put up. Now we must find out Mr. Fairchild's. Can't you ask somebody, Rough?'
Randolph, though he would not have confessed it, was a little shy of accosting any of the few passers-by. Just because there were so few and the place was so quiet, the children felt themselves rather uncomfortably conspicuous, and they could not help noticing that here and there the inhabitants came rather unnecessarily to their doors to look at them as they passed. It was not done rudely, and indeed it was only natural that the arrival of a new rector and his family at Seacove should attract a good deal of attention, considering that old Dr. Bunton and his wife had been fixtures there for more years than Mr. Vane himself had been in the world.
'Oh yes,' said Rough in an off-hand way, 'I can ask any one. But we may as well walk on a little and look about us. If it is a shop we'll see the name.'
Just then there came out of a shop in front of them—a baker's, I think it was—a small figure which walked on slowly some paces before them.
'That's the little girl of the dolls' chairs,' exclaimed Bridget. 'Shall I run on and ask her? I don't mind.'
'You never do,' said Alie, and indeed Biddy was most comfortably untroubled with shyness.
'Yes, run on and see if she knows where it is.'
Off trotted Biddy, her precious purchases tightly clasped in her hands.
'Little girl,' she called, when she got close to the other child.
The little girl turned, and looked at Biddy full in the face with her grave earnest eyes without speaking. And for half a moment Bridget did feel something approaching to shyness, but it gave her a comfortable fellow-feeling to see that the small stranger was also still carrying the little chairs she had bought. They were not done up in paper like Biddy's—she had not waited for that,—but she had covered them loosely with a very clean, very diminutive pocket-handkerchief, and Bridget saw quite well what they were.
'Please,' Biddy went on, slightly breathless—it did not take much to put Biddy out of breath—'please can you tell us where Mr. Fairchild's is in this street? Rough's got a letter for him, but we don't know if it's a shop or only a house.'
'Mr. Fairchild's,' repeated the little girl, 'he's my father; it's our shop. I'll show it you,' and a faint pink flush of excitement came into her pale face. These were the Rectory young ladies, she had been sure of it when she saw them in the bazaar. Fancy—wouldn't mother be surprised to see them coming in with her? And father, who had said she'd maybe never see them. Was that the French ma'amselle with them?—and Celestina glanced back at honest Jane Dodson, from 'grandmamma's' village, walking along in her usual rather depressed fashion—if so, French ma'amselles were very like English nurse-maids, thought her little observer.
'How funny!' said Biddy, quite interested. And Celestina began to like her better—she had been rather disappointed in Biddy at the bazaar. She was not pretty, and Celestina, though she scarcely knew it, was very much taken by beauty, and she had been rather, almost a little rude—at least Celestina knew that she would have been told she was rude had she behaved as Bridget had done. But now she seemed so bright and natural—'She is quite a little girl,' thought Celestina; 'and perhaps if she's the youngest she's treated rather like a baby.' 'How very funny!' Biddy repeated. 'I must run back and tell Alie and Rough. And have you a doll-house, little girl, and will you show it me? I've bought a chair too and a table. Perhaps if I saw your doll-house and teeny-weeny dolls I'd get to like to play with them too. We have a—— Oh, Alie,' as Alie, surprised at the length and apparent friendliness of the conversation proceeding between the two children, hastened up. 'Oh, Alie, isn't it funny? She's his little girl. The note's for her house.'