A Gypsy Child?
The sun was streaming through Mary's small window when she woke up somewhat later than usual the next morning. For a minute she lay with half-closed eyes, feeling very snug and comfortable, quietly gazing at all the well-known objects in the room--at the picture of the little girl reading, which hung opposite her bed, at the book-shelf with all the brightly-covered books she was so fond of, at her canary hopping restlessly in his cage, at the cuckoo clock, and finally at the little clog in the middle of the mantel-piece. But when she came to this her eyes opened wide, she sat up, rubbed them, and looked at it again; for all in a minute, just as we remember a dream, there came back to her the dreadful events of yesterday. The gypsies, the dimly-seen room, the flickering fire, Seraminta's dark face as she described the little shoe. "Ours you'll be for ever." Could it possibly be true that she, Mary Vallance, was the child of such people? What a dreadful thing! She did not feel so frightened this morning, and, her natural spirit partly returning after her night's rest, she was more inclined to believe that Seraminta had spoken falsely. "If I told father all about it," she said to herself, "I don't believe she'd dare to take me away." And yet, when she thought it over, how could the woman have known about the shoe? And besides, Rice's remark flashed across her, "brown as a berry," certainly that would apply to Seraminta, she was a darker brown than anyone Mary had ever seen. It was true, then, she really was a gypsy child, and if so, they had a right to claim her if they wished. How could she escape it? Her only chance lay in keeping perfect silence as they had told her, and also in taking them the money she had promised this evening. How much had she? Mary wondered. Her money-box, a small red post-office, stood on the mantel-piece; she jumped out of bed and counted the contents; more than usual, because she had been saving it up for Jackie's present. Now it must all go to those wicked people, and Jackie could have no present--Jackie, who was always so good to her, and who had not grudged the savings of a whole year in pennies to buy her a couple of white bantams. How unkind, how mean he would think it! Mary gazed mournfully at the money-box. It was a great trial to her, for she had a generous nature and was very fond of Jackie. Might she not leave just a little in the box? But no--she dared not. Perhaps even now there were dark eyes peering in at the window, and at night, who could tell from what unexpected quarter Perrin might appear to take her away? She must give them every penny of it. With a sigh she put all the money back, dressed herself and went down-stairs. Mr Vallance was speaking as she entered the breakfast-room, and she just caught these words:
"Such a fine fellow! I can't think how the wretches managed to kill him without noise."
Mary stopped short and turned very white; she looked anxiously at Mrs Vallance, who was pouring out tea. Was it Squire Chelwood they had killed, or was it Hamlet? She did not dare to ask any questions.
"Is anything the matter, my dear child?" asked Mrs Vallance. "You look frightened, and so pale."
Mary murmured something about being tired, and crept into her place at the table.
"I never like those expeditions to Maskells," continued Mrs Vallance; "you all run about so wildly and excite yourselves so much."
"Morris says," said Mr Vallance, turning round from the window, "that all his finest pullets are gone, too, and some of his ducks."
Morris was the poultry-man at the White House.
"Do you hear that, Mary?" said Mrs Vallance. "Morris has just been down to tell your father that the poultry-yard was robbed yesterday."
"And your old enemy the great turkey gobbler was found dead on the ground," added Mr Vallance.
Mary breathed again. If it were only the turkey gobbler.
"Was anything else killed?" she asked in a trembling voice.
"How they managed it I can't think," repeated Mr Vallance; "and they appear to have got clear off with their spoil, there's no trace of them."
"Except the poor turkey gobbler," said Mrs Vallance.
"Did they get into the house?" Mary now ventured to ask.
"No, my dear, no; they were not so daring as that. This sort of tramps is not too fond of going where there are likely to be dogs and pistols."
"We must take warning by this, Mary," said Mrs Vallance, "and be careful about our fowl-house; it would not do to lose my cochin-chinas or your pretty white bantams in the same way."
"I don't suppose there's much fear of their attempting a second robbery in the same place," said Mr Vallance. "They're probably far enough away by this time; still, I'm sorry we've no dog now. Poor old Brutus! We miss him, don't we?"
While all this was going on Mary felt as guilty as if she had stolen the fowls and killed the turkey gobbler. She knew where the thieves were, safely hidden in the old house, and no doubt planning some other dreadful deed. If she could only have spoken! Her food tasted like dry chips in her mouth, she swallowed it with the utmost difficulty, and it was only by taking great gulps of tea that she could get on at all. Mrs Vallance noticed her disturbed looks.
"I think you ran about in the sun too much yesterday, Mary," she said at last. "I will send up to Fraulein and ask her to excuse your lessons this morning. You will be better for a quiet day at home with me."
Mary was relieved not to go to the White House, for she dreaded more questions from the children, but as to spending a "quiet" day at home, that was not possible. It never would be possible any more, she thought, for now she had to consider and contrive how to get her money to the appointed place at six o'clock that evening. She knew the spot well, it was only a little distance beyond the White House. Just where the four roads met there stood a sign-post; near this was a large old oak-tree, and at its foot a broad flat stone with a hollow under one side. It was there she had to put her money, but how to get it there without observation?
Her mind was so full of this as the day went on that everything else seemed like a sort of dream; she heard Mrs Vallance talking to her, and answered, but so absently that her mother looked at her in surprise. "She is certainly very much over-tired," she said to herself; "I always knew that Maskells was not a place for the children, and I shall tell Mrs Chelwood so."
Meanwhile the dreaded hour drew nearer and nearer, the bell was ringing for evening service, and Mr Vallance came out of his study and put on his wide-awake.
"Would you rather not go to church this evening, Mary?" said Mrs Vallance.
"My head aches," answered Mary. "If they will only go without me," she said to herself, "I can do it."
"Very well, darling," said kind Mrs Vallance; "I will stay with you, and we will go on with that nice book you like so much."
Mary's face became as red as it had been white a moment ago.
"Oh, no," she stammered; "I'd rather be alone. May I go and lie down on my bed until you come back?"
What a strange request from the ever-active Mary!
"Do as you like, dear," said Mrs Vallance, and as she left the house she added to her husband, "I hope the child's not going to be ill, she looks so dull, and flushes up so."
Mary listened until she heard the click of the garden gate, then she sprang up from her bed, wrapped all her money in a piece of paper and put it in her pocket. She looked at the clock, in five minutes they would be in church, then she would start, and if she ran all the way she would be in time.
Concealment was so new to her that she felt as though she were doing something very wicked as she ran quickly along the familiar road; she met no one, but every rustle in the hedge, every innocent sound, made her start and tremble, and when in the distance she saw the tall sign-post standing there with outstretched arms she shook with fear. She reached it; no one in sight; all the four roads silent and bare; and having hidden her packet tremblingly under the broad stone she turned to go, with guilty footsteps, when suddenly, from the tree above, there fell at her feet a small screwed-up piece of paper. She looked up; amongst the thick leafy branches in the very heart of the oak there was a freckled face peering down at her. It was the youth Bennie. She stood motionless with terror, staring at him, and he pointed at the piece of paper, making signs that she was to pick it up. As she stooped to do so there sounded in the distance the steady trot of a horse, and looking round the tree she saw, coming along the road from Dorminster, a sturdy grey cob with a broad-shouldered man on his back. Even at that distance Mary knew the cob and she knew the man. It was Squire Chelwood: Bennie's quick eye saw him too.
"Hide!" he said, in a low threatening voice, and pointed to a gap in the hedge opposite.
Mary's brain reeled. Should she stop Mr Chelwood and betray Bennie? But then the gypsies would claim her, she would belong to them, they would take her away. Anything was better than that. She jumped through the gap, and crouched down behind the hedge.
On came the squire, nearer and nearer, his square shoulders rising and falling with his horse's movement, his jolly brown face puckered with a frown of annoyance; no doubt he had been trying to find out the thieves. How strong he looked, how ready he would be to help her, how glad to know where Bennie was! Now he was passing close, close to her hiding-place; if she sprang out now she could stop him. But no, she could not; in another minute it was too late, the cob had turned briskly into the Wensdale Road, and the sound of his hoofs soon became faint in the distance.
She now saw Bennie slide nimbly to the ground, cast one quick glance round, and snatch the money from under the stone; then stooping low, he ran swiftly along under the hedge in the direction of Maskells, like some active wild animal, and disappeared.
Left alone, Mary also crept out of her hiding-place and took her way back to the vicarage as fast as she could. Humble and crest-fallen, how different to the Mary of two days ago, who had such lofty ambitions! How foolish now seemed those vain dreams and fancies! No "Lady Mary," but a gypsy child; it was a change indeed. She got home before service was over, threw herself on her little bed, and hid her face on her pillow. How unhappy she was! No one could help her, and yet she had many kind friends near, who would be so sorry for her if they knew. But they must not know, that was the worst part of it, she must bear this dreadful thing all alone. She had been fond once of having "a secret," a mystery she could share with Jackie only, and talk about in corners. What a different matter it was to have a real one to keep!
Presently she heard Mrs Vallance's step on the stairs; Mary felt that she could not answer any questions about her headache, so she shut her eyes and pretended to be asleep. When her kind mother bent over her and kissed her, how hard it was not to put her arms round her neck and tell her how miserable she was; but she must not, she must lie quite still, and soon she knew that Mrs Vallance was going softly out of the room. It grew gradually dusk; Mary got up and began to undress herself, she would not go down-stairs again that night, she would go to bed at once, she thought. As she put her hand into her pocket, she felt something there beside her handkerchief, and drew it quickly out. There was the dirty scrap of paper Bennie had thrown from the tree, and which she had quite forgotten. What did it mean? Was there anything inside it? With a thrill of fear she darted to the window, untwisted the paper, and by the dim light could just make out the following scrawl: "Leeve the en roost oppen nex Munday nite." Mary gazed at it with horror, unable for the first few minutes to take in the sense, but when she did so she sank down on the ground and burst into tears. What wicked, wicked people they were! Not content with taking all her money, they wanted to rob the hen-roost, to steal her pretty bantams and Mrs Vallance's splendid white cochin-chinas. It was too cruel. She clenched her fist passionately. "They sha'n't do it," she said to herself starting to her feet. "I will tell the squire; I will have them punished. They shall be put in prison."
Then another thought came, and she drooped her head mournfully. "If I do that they will claim me for their child. `Not all the parsons and all the squires as ever was could prevent it,' Seraminta had said. What would happen then? I should have to go away from Wensdale, from father and mother, from Jackie, and all of them at the White House. They would all know that I belonged to thieves--not only to common, poor people, but to bad people. I should have to tramp about the country in dirty old clothes, and perhaps no shoes. Anything would be better. I would rather they stole all the chickens. Perhaps after that they will go away, and I shall never see them again."
She seized the scrap of paper and spelt it over a second time. Monday night--that was Jackie's birthday, a whole week off. Surely something might happen before then. The squire might find out the gypsies' hiding-place, and lock them up. Oh, if she might only give him the least little hint!
But she soon made up her mind firmly that she would risk nothing. She would do all they told her, she would leave the door unlocked, and help them to steal the chickens, and neither by word or look would she do anything to lead to their discovery. For she felt certain of what would follow if she did--disgrace, ragged clothes, and utter misery.
After many sorrowful thoughts of this kind she at last sobbed herself to sleep, and dreamed that she saw Perrin the gypsy man stealing stealthily out of the garden with a hen under each arm.
During the week that followed she felt as though she were dreaming still, though everything went on as usual with quiet regularity. She worked in her garden and fed her chickens, and went to the White House for her lessons with Fraulein. Outwardly it was all exactly the same, but within what a heavy heart she carried about with her! If she forgot her troubles for a few minutes in a merry game or a book, they all came back to her afterwards with double force. She belonged to gypsies; Monday they would steal the chickens; it was Jackie's birthday, and she could give him no present. Those three things weighed on her mind like lead and altered her in so many ways that everyone was puzzled. She was submissive at home and obedient to Fraulein at the White House, never even smiling at her funniest English words; she was ready to give up her own will and pleasure to the other children; and more than once Jackie had discovered her in tears--she was "proud Mary" no longer.
As the days went on it became almost impossible to be so unhappy without telling someone. Often, when she and Jackie were alone together, her heart was so full that the words were on the very tip of her tongue, but fear kept them back. It was a heart-rending thing just now to feed the chickens and to hear Mrs Vallance talk so unconsciously about them, and say how many eggs they laid. Only three more days and they would all be gone; the fowl-house would be empty, and there would be no white cock to waken her in the morning with his cheerful crow.
There seemed no chance now that the gypsies would be discovered, for the stir which the robbery had caused had quite quieted down. No other theft had been heard of, and the village people had ceased to talk about the affair, and settled their minds to the idea that the scamps had got off to some great distance. Only Mary knew better.
The Chelwood children did not let the matter drop so lightly. They had composed a game founded on the event, which they called "Robbers," and were much disappointed when Mary steadily refused to join them in it, for they had counted on her help in adding interesting details and finishing touches. She seemed, however, to shudder at the very idea.
"I believe Mary's afraid," said Patrick jeeringly; but even this taunt failed to rouse her. She took it quite quietly. What could be the matter with Mary?
"I shouldn't be a bit surprised," was Rice's remark, "if Miss Mary's sickening for something."
The days flew past. Saturday now, and Mary came down to breakfast in a state of dull despair.
"Mary, dear," said Mrs Vallance, smiling as she entered the room, "I have just made a plan for you that you will like. Your father is going to drive in to Dorminster, and you are to go with him and buy Jackie's present."
She waited for the look of delight which she felt sure of seeing, for she knew what Mary had set her heart on for Jackie--the squirrel out of Greenop's shop.
Poor Mary! Her thoughts flew to the empty post-office upstairs. Not a penny in it. No squirrel for Jackie, no drive to Dorminster for her. As she remembered what a jolly little squirrel it was, what bright eyes it had, what soft red-brown fur, and how Jackie would have liked it, her heart swelled. Now, she must go to his birthday party empty-handed, and it would have been the best present there.
With eyes full of tears and a scarlet flush on her cheeks she muttered very low:
"I've changed my mind. I don't want to buy the squirrel."
"You don't want the squirrel!" repeated Mrs Vallance in great surprise.
"N-no," stammered Mary, and she put her head suddenly down on the table and cried.
Mrs Vallance was much perplexed and very sorry for Mary's distress, for she knew how she had looked forward to giving the squirrel to Jackie. It was not like her to change her mind about such an important matter for any slight cause.
"I'm afraid you and Jackie have been quarrelling," she said, stroking Mary's hair gently; "but if I were you I should take this opportunity of making it up. Give him the squirrel and be friends, and then you'll be happy again."
How Mary wished she could! She made no answer, only sobbed more bitterly, and felt that she was the most miserable child in the world.
For now she had no longer any hope. Evidently nothing would happen to discover the gypsies and save the chickens. The days went on with cruel quickness, and Monday would be here in no time--a black Monday indeed.
Sunday morning came, and she sat with those thoughts in her mind by Mrs Vallance's side, and looked round at all the well-known objects in church with a half feeling that one of them might help her. They were such old friends. From the painted window opposite the twelve apostles in their gorgeous coloured robes had gazed seriously down at her every Sunday for the last five years. Much study of them during sermon time, though she always tried to attend, had made her quite familiar with their faces, and to-day she fancied that Peter would be the one she would choose to ask for advice and assistance. Turning from these her eye fell on another acquaintance of her earliest childhood--the life-size stone figure of a man. He lay in a niche in the chancel, peacefully at rest on his side, with closed eyes and one hand under his cheek. He had a short peaked beard and wore an enormous ruff; his face looked very grave and quiet--so quiet that it always filled Mary with a sort of awe. He had lain there for more than three hundred years, undisturbed by pain, or trouble, or joy. Would he be sorry for her, she wondered, if he knew how unhappy she was? But no--he would not mind-- his calm face would not alter; "nothing matters any more," it seemed to say. There was no comfort for her there. With a sigh she turned a little to the right where the Chelwoods sat--the Squire and Mrs Chelwood in front, and Fraulein with the children behind. Restless Jackie, to whom it was torture to sit still so long, was not ready as usual to catch her eye, for he was following with breathless interest, which Patrick shared, the progress of a large black spider towards Fraulein's ungloved hand. Fraulein was very frightened of spiders, and there was every reason to hope that, when it touched her hand, she would give a great jump and shriek out "Himmel!"
Mary's glance wandered further, but suddenly it stopped short, for at last it was met and answered by another pair of eyes, dark and eager, with such longing earnestness in their gaze, that she felt as though she could not look away again. For a minute, which seemed a long, long time, she stared fixedly at them, and then began to wonder who it was that took so much interest in her. It was a tall woman of about thirty, who sat among the servants from the White House; a stranger, with nothing remarkable about her except the extreme plainness of her dress, and a certain hungry expression in her eyes. "I wonder who she is," thought Mary, "and why she stares at me like that."
She turned her head away again, and five minutes afterwards the service was over and the congregation clattering out of the church. As she stood in the porch waiting for the Chelwood children the strange woman came quickly up to her, and, bending down, said hurriedly:
"Might I ask, missie, what your name is?"
"My name's Mary Vallance," said Mary.
The woman shrank back, and the eager light died out of her eyes.
"Thank you, missie. I ask pardon," she murmured, and passing on went quickly down the churchyard to the gate.
What an odd woman! When the children were all walking together towards the vicarage they passed her, and Mary asked who she was.
"That?" said Agatha. "Oh, that's our new school-room maid."
"She only came yesterday," added Jennie. "She comes from Yorkshire. And what do you think? When Patrick first heard she was coming he said he was sure he shouldn't like her; and when Rice asked him why, he said, `Because I hate Yorkshire pudding so.'" "Well," said Patrick, "it's the only thing I know about Yorkshire."
"But you oughtn't to judge people by puddings," said Agatha reprovingly.
"Anyhow," returned Patrick, "she doesn't look nice--there's such a great big frown on her forehead. I expect she's cross."
"No, she's not cross," said Jackie, "she's sorry; mother told us all about it. She lost her child a long while ago. That's what makes her look grave. Mother says we ought to be very kind to her."
"Jennie and I shall have most to do with her," remarked the matter-of-fact Agatha, "because she's going to brush our hair instead of Rice."
They had now reached the vicarage gate, and Jackie lingered after the rest to have a few last words with Mary.
"You'll come early to-morrow afternoon, won't you?" he said, "because I want to show you my presents before the others come. I know what two of 'em are going to be. Jolly! Something you'll like as well."
Jackie cut a high caper of delight as he spoke, in spite of its being Sunday and Fraulein quite near. His pleasure in anything was always doubled if Mary could share it. That was so nice of Jackie. It made it all the more distressing at that moment to remember that she could give him no present to-morrow, besides the mortification of appearing mean and stingy to the other children. She began to think that it would be almost better to give up going to his birthday party. But what excuse could she make? Then another idea came to her. Was there anything among her own possessions that he would like to have? She ran them over in her mind. Books? Jackie hated books; it was only under strong pressure that he would ever open one, and she could not pretend to be ignorant of this. If only Jackie were a girl! Then she could give him her work-box, which was nearly new, or a doll, or a set of tea-things, but it was no use to think of that. Still pondering the matter she went upstairs into her own little room, and the moment she entered her eye fell on the little clog standing in the middle of the mantel-piece. The very thing! Jackie had often and often admired it, and though everyone would know that she had not spent any money in getting it, still it would be much much better than having nothing at all to give. She took it off the mantel-piece and polished it up with her pocket-handkerchief. Dear little clog, she would be sorry to part with it, and it would leave a great gap among the other ornaments, but still it must go--after all it would not go far, only to the White House. Thinking thus, and rubbing it meanwhile, she noticed for the first time that there were two letters faintly scratched on the wooden sole, "BM." Who was BM? "Perhaps that's my name," she thought; "but I don't want to know it if it is. I'd rather be Mary Vallance." And then the dark faces of Perrin and Seraminta came before her and she frowned. How hateful it was to belong to them! She, Mary Vallance, who had always been so proud and delicate in her ways, so vain of her white skin, and so sure, only the other day, that her people were rich and great. That was all over now; even Rice could not call her "Tossy" any more.
It was in a very humble and downcast spirit that she paid a farewell visit to the fowls on Monday afternoon, before starting for the White House. The white bantams had become very tame, and when they pecked the corn out of her hand it was almost too much to bear. It was the last time she should feed them! Angry tears filled her eyes as she thought how they would be stolen that night; she longed to punish the gypsy people, and yet she was powerless in their hands, and must even help them in their wickedness. Poor Mary! She was very unhappy, and surprised that nothing happened to prevent it. It seemed so hard and cruel. Nevertheless, every step she took that afternoon towards the White House was bringing her nearer to help and comfort, though she did not know it.
Jackie came running to meet her in the hall, arrayed in his best suit and best manners.
"Come along into the school-room," he said, "and see the presents."
While he was showing them to her, two little heads looked in at the open window from the garden. They were Patrick and Jennie.
"We've guessed what your present is, Mary," they both cried at once.
The twins were such tiresome children! If there was an uncomfortable thing to say, they always said it.
"I'm sure you haven't," answered Mary sharply.
"It comes from Dorminster," said Patrick grinning.
"And it begins with S," added Jennie.
"It lives in a cage," chimed in Patrick.
"And eats nuts," finished Jennie in a squeaky voice of triumph.
Their little eager tormenting faces came just above the window sill: Mary felt inclined to box their ears.
Jackie, who was a polite boy, pretended not to hear. He knew quite well that Mary had brought him a present, and he more than suspected what it was, but this was a most improper way to refer to it.
"Shut up, will you," he said, and just at that minute Agatha came into the room with some visitors. They had all brought presents, and Mary knew by the way Agatha stared at her that she was wondering where hers was. Perhaps it would be better to give the clog now, though she had intended to wait until she and Jackie were alone. She was drawing it out of her pocket when Fraulein, who had been admiring the various gifts and chattering away in broken English, said suddenly:
"And vair is Mary's present? It is zumzing ver pretty, ver nice, ver wot you call `jollie,' I suppose. Zumzing better zan all, as she and Jean are so attach."
This speech changed Mary's intention. She was ashamed to produce the clog now. She drew her hand out of her pocket empty, gave a proud toss of the head, and said with crimson cheeks:
"I haven't brought anything."
There was silence in the room. Every eye was fixed upon her; it was the most cruel moment of her life. Even Jackie flushed hotly, turned away, and began to pull out all the blades of a new pocket-knife someone had given him.
How stupid it was of Fraulein not to let the matter drop, without saying anything more! Instead of this she held up her hands and exclaimed:
"Est-ce possible? Do I onderstand? Nozing? You have not brought nozing for Jean's jour de fete? But perhaps I do not onderstand?"
It was so irritating to see her standing there waiting for an answer, that Mary, never very patient, lost her temper completely.
"No, you don't understand. You never do," she said, and rushed out of the room into the garden. She ran quickly when she once got outside, for she felt that she could not get far enough away from the whole party in the school-room; from Fraulein with her stupid remarks, from the visitors who had all stared in surprise, even from Jackie who misunderstood. But it was natural, after all, that he should do that. How could he know she had brought anything for him? And now she had been rude to Fraulein, and made his party uncomfortable. She wondered presently whether they would come after her, and persuade her to go back; it would be unkind if they did not, and yet she would rather be alone just then. There was no one following her, and she thought she would go somewhere out of sight. The nut-walk would be best. So she turned into the kitchen-garden, and soon came to the nut-walk; the trees grew on each side of it with their branches meeting overhead, and in one of the biggest Jackie had contrived to fix a sort of perch made out of an old board. There was a convenient notch a little lower down, where you could place your feet, and it was considered a most comfortable seat, amply large enough for two. Mary was fond of sitting there, and now it seemed a sort of refuge in distress; she swung herself up into it, sat down, and leaned her bare head against the branches at the back. Through the thick leaves she could see a long way--all over the kitchen-garden, and a bit of the lawn near the house, and the brown roof of the stables, where the pigeons sat in a long row. When the children came out she should see them too, she thought, but she need not join them unless she liked. For some time the garden was very quiet, and she began to think that perhaps they meant to play indoors. That was not at all like Jackie, who always liked a game with a good deal of running in it, and besides, he must want to know where she was. It was rather dull, after all, to sit there alone, while the others were enjoying themselves. Should she go a little nearer the house? Just as she thought this, she was startled by a distinct cry of "Whoop!" which seemed to come from the walk below. She peeped down through the leaves. There was Jackie crouching in a frog-like attitude behind a tree, with his limbs gathered into the smallest possible compass. The rustling made him look up, and he held out his hand with all the fingers outstretched, and a sudden grimace which meant "Don't speak." They were playing hide-and-seek.
Mary knew better than to spoil the game, but she gave a beseeching glance at him, and beckoned. Jackie shook his head; evidently his feelings were hurt, and he did not mean to be friends just yet. Mary was in despair. How could she manage to speak to him? Perhaps this was her only chance of doing so alone. From her perch she could see the pursuers scouring wildly about in a wrong direction at present, but soon they could not fail to search the nut-walk, and then it would be too late. She took the little clog from her pocket, cautiously descended the tree, and creeping up to Jackie, placed the parcel noiselessly at his side. It was neatly folded in white paper, and had his name written on it in elegant fancy letters. Jackie turned his head and saw the inscription:
"For Jackie, with Mary's love."
His screwed-up mouth widened into a grin, he picked it up, turned it round and round, and at last whispered hoarsely:
"Why didn't you give it before?"
"Because of Fraulein," answered Mary in the same tone; "they're a long way off. Come up into the tree."
Both children were soon tightly wedged into the nut-tree seat, and Jackie at once began to examine his package; watching his face, Mary could see that he was surprised when the clog appeared, though he tried to hide it by another grin.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"It's the only thing I had," explained Mary hurriedly. "I meant to give you such a nice thing. I saved my money, and I had enough. You would have liked it so--" She stopped and sobbed a little under her breath.
Jackie said nothing. He was evidently wondering why she had not given him this nice thing. The reason was such a dreadful reason, and it was so hard not to be able to explain it all to him, that Mary could not keep back her tears: she bit her lip, and screwed up her face, but it was useless, they would come, so she leant her forehead against Jackie's velveteen shoulder, and cried in good earnest, without saying another word. Jackie was both startled and uncomfortable; the tree quite shook with the violence of Mary's sobs, and her long hair got into his eyes and tickled his face as he sat, screwed up close to her in the narrow perch. He did not mind that, but he was very sorry indeed to see her so unhappy, and could not think how to comfort her. Lately he had seen her cry several times, but never as badly as this. What could be the matter? With some difficulty he tugged out of his pocket a small handkerchief, which by a lucky chance was perfectly clean, and, raising her face a little, dabbed her eyes softly with it.
"Don't," he whispered. "I like the shoe awfully--much better than the other thing you were going to give me. Don't cry."
But Mary cried on.
"You don't surely mind what that owl of a Fraulein said, do you?" continued Jackie.
"N-no," said Mary.
"What are you crying for, then?"
If she could only tell him!
"Is it anything about the Secret?" asked Jackie.
"I expect it is," he went on in an excited whisper. "But you ought to tell me, you know, however horrid it is. Is it horrid?"
Mary nodded. There was comfort even in that, though she must not say anything.
Jackie leant eagerly forward. Splash! Fell a great rain-drop on the tip of his nose, and a pelting shower quickly followed. Patter, patter, fell the fast-falling rain on the leaves above the children's heads, sprinkling Mary's yellow hair and Jackie's best velveteen suit.
"We must go in," he said; "all the others have gone. Won't you just tell me first?"
"I can't tell you," said Mary mournfully. "And I don't want to go in. I should like to stop here always."
"Well, you couldn't do that, you know," said Jackie gravely. "There's no roof, and you'd get wet through, and hungry too. Come along."
He gave her hand a gentle pull, and prepared to descend. As he cautiously lowered one leg, a woman with a shawl over her head came running down the nut-walk; it was Maggie, the new school-room maid.
"Why, there you are, Master Jackie," she said; "we've been looking everywhere for you. You're to come in out of the rain this minute, please. And have you seen Miss Mary? Marcy me, my dear, where did you get yon?"
She pointed excitedly to the little shoe which Jackie still held.
"Mary gave it me," he answered.
Without further ceremony this strange woman seized the shoe from him, and with trembling hands turned it over and looked closely at the wooden sole. Then she clasped it to her breast, and with a sudden light in her eyes exclaimed:
"I knew it. I felt it was her. Heaven be praised!" and before Jackie had at all regained his breath, she had rushed away down the nut-walk, and was out of sight.
Mary, who had remained unseen, looked down from the tree.
"Isn't she an odd woman?" she said. "Do you think she's mad? Or perhaps those are Yorkshire ways."
"If they are," replied Jackie much ruffled and discomposed, "I don't like Yorkshire ways at all. What business has she to cut away like that with my shoe?"
There was something mysterious altogether about Maggie's behaviour, for when the children reached the house they found that the others were full of excitement and curiosity. She had been seen to rush wildly in from the garden with the little shoe hugged to her breast, and now she had been talking to mother alone for a long while. But soon tea-time came, all manner of games followed, and the school-room maid was forgotten in more interesting matters. Even Mary was able to put away her troubles for a little while, and almost to enjoy herself as she had been used before they began. She was to stop at the White House that night, because it was still wet and stormy, so she resolved not to think of the chickens or Perrin or Seraminta just for that one evening. It would be time enough to be miserable again when morning came.
Everything went on merrily until Jackie's guests were all gone away.
"What shall we do now?" he said, yawning a little, for there was still an hour to be filled up before bed-time. Just as he spoke Mrs Chelwood came into the school-room.
"Children," she said, "would you like me to tell you a story?"
Nothing could possibly be better, and the offer came at the right moment when things were feeling a little flat; the children received it joyfully, and gathered round their mother eagerly, and yet with a certain seriousness, for it was an honour as well as a delight to have a story from her--it happened so seldom.
"This is a story," began Mrs Chelwood when they were all settled, "which I have only just heard myself, and it is a true one. It has something to do with one of Jackie's presents to-day."
"I wonder which?" said Jackie, rubbing his knees.
"You shall hear," said his mother. "Now, listen.
"Once there was a poor mother who lived far away from here in the north of England, and worked in a factory. She had only one child, which she loved so fondly that it was more than all the world to her, and though she had to work very hard all day, it seemed quite light and easy for the child's sake."
"Why didn't the father work?" asked Agatha.
"The father was dead."
"Was it a boy or a girl?" asked Patrick.
"And what was its name?" added Jennie.
"It was a little girl," said Mrs Chelwood, "and she was called Betty."
"But Betty isn't a name," objected Agatha, "it's short for something."
"In the north it is used as a name by itself," replied Mrs Chelwood; "many of the children there are christened Betty, and so was this little girl, though she was very seldom called so."
"Why?" asked Mary.
"Because the people in the village had given her a nickname. They called her `Little Clogs.'"
"What a frightful name to give her!" said Agatha. "What did they do it for?"
"Because she was so proud of a tiny pair of shoes which someone had made for her. They were exactly like that one Mary gave Jackie, and they are properly called `clogs.'"
"They're not a bit like the clogs Mrs Moser, the charwoman, wears," said Agatha.
"If you interrupt me so often I shall never finish my story," said her mother. "Well, this poor mother couldn't take her child with her into the factory, so she used to leave her with a friend close by, and fetch her after her work. But one evening when she went as usual there was no baby to be found--she was gone!"
"Where?" said Mary.
"No one knew. She had been stolen away, or lost, and on the door-step, where she had been playing, there was one little clog left."
"Who had stolen her?" asked Mary anxiously.
"They heard later that a fair-skinned child had been seen with gypsies on the road to London, but that was not till long afterwards. For years the mother heard no news of her, and wandered up and down the country with the one little clog in her hand seeking her: she felt sure she should know her again, though all this time the child was growing up, and was a baby no longer. But the mother never quite despaired, and she had a feeling that somehow the little clog would help her in her search: on its wooden sole, as well as on that of the lost one, she had scratched two letters--BM.
"So the time went on and on. It was seven long years after she had lost her child that the mother heard of a situation in a place called Wensdale, and went there to live. Now you can tell me the mother's name."
"Why, of course, it must be Maggie," said Jackie, who had been staring fixedly at Mary for the last two minutes with his mouth wide open; "and that's why she caught hold of my shoe and--"
"Let me finish the story," said Mrs Chelwood, "and then you shall talk about it as much as you like. In this very place there was a little girl living at the vicarage who had been left in the garden there by gypsies seven years ago. She had a funny little shoe with her when she was found, and had kept it ever since; and now, perhaps, you know who that little girl is."
"It's me!" cried Mary, starting up--"it's my shoe--and I saw the letters--and I don't belong to the gypsies after all, and--"
"My dear," said the squire, putting his head in at the door, "I'm too muddy to come in, but you'll all be glad to hear that we've caught those rascals and they're all in Dorminster jail."
Mrs Chelwood hurried out of the room, and the children all began to talk at once, to ask questions, to exclaim, to wonder if the gypsies would be hanged, and so on. Presently, however, it was found that Mary had strange and dreadful experiences to relate. A silence fell upon the others until she had finished, and then they looked at her with a sort of awe.
"So our chickens won't be stolen," she repeated, "and that dreadful Seraminta can't take me away."
"It's a tremendously puzzling thing though," said Jackie reflectively; "here you've got two mothers, you see, and two names. How will you manage, and where will you live?"
"She's only got one real mother," cried Patrick.
"And one real name," said Jennie.
"And shall you mind," continued Jackie seriously, "about not being grand? You're not Lady anything, you see, but just `Betty.'"
"I don't want to be grand any more," said Mary earnestly, "and I don't mind anything else one bit, now I don't belong to the gypsies."
"How glad your last mother--no, I mean your first mother--must be," said Agatha, "that someone made you that Pair of Clogs."
This was only one of many and many a conversation amongst the children on the same subject during several following weeks. And what a wonderful subject it was! Surely never had such a strange thing happened in a quiet village as this discovery of Mary's mother, and as to Mary herself, she was now surrounded by an air of romance which was more interesting than any story-book. If she could only have remembered a little about that time she passed with the gypsies! But none of Jackie's earnest appeals to "try hard" produced any results, for all that part of her life was wiped as clean out of her memory as when one washes marks off a slate with a sponge. It was all gone, and when she looked back it was not Seraminta and Perrin and the donkey-cart she saw, but the kind faces of Mr and Mrs Vallance and her happy, pleasant home at the vicarage. And yet, though her earliest recollections were of these, she did not in truth belong to them; they were not her people, and sunny Wensdale was not her place; Maggie was her mother, and cold, grey Haworth on the hillside was her real home. It was, as Jackie had said, a most puzzling thing, and the important question arose--would Mary have to go away? It was wildly irritating to be shut out from all the talks and conferences which were always going on now between Mary's two mothers and Mrs Chelwood. The children felt that it was more their concern than anyone's, but they were told nothing, and the air of the school-room was so full of excitement and curiosity that Fraulein was in despair. The slightest noises in the house during lesson time now seemed to carry deep meaning--perhaps only a bell ringing, or some one shutting the door of mother's sitting-room, but it was enough to make Jackie put down his slate-pencil and look at Mary with an awestruck and impressive gaze. She would give an answering nod of intelligence, and Patrick and Jennie, not to be left out in the cold, would at once begin to nod rapidly at each other, as much as to say, "We understand too." It was only Agatha who took her placid way undisturbed. But the day came when, matters being at last arranged, the children were told all about it, and this is what they heard:
Mary was to spend a year with her real mother at Haworth, and a year with Mrs Vallance at Wensdale, alternately, until she was eighteen years old. On her eighteenth birthday she might choose at which of these two homes she would live altogether.
"If you could choose," Jackie had once said to her in jest, "whose daughter would you be?"
And now, in years to come, the choice would really have to be made--the choice between Haworth and Wensdale, hard work and idleness, poverty and riches. Which would it be?
"Of course," was Jackie's first remark, "you'll choose Wensdale, won't you?"
But so many strange things had happened lately to Mary that she did not just now feel as if anything was "of course." (End)