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Mrs. Lester, for a few days, while you paper the room. (I am sure you would rather do that yourself; wouldn't you?) And then, when it is dry, and we have put in a few other little things, to make it quite cosy, we will take her back to it, and see how pleased and surprised she will be. I think that will be quite charming; don't you?'
Poor sulky Bill felt much inclined to resent the kindness which was being shown to him, because he had always a lurking spite against ladies and gentlemen; he had removed himself so far from their society, and fancied it was they who had neglected him. But with that sweet face smiling on him, and those beautiful lips speaking so pleasantly to him, yet withal in so dignified a way, he could not retain his surliness, but had to let the grin come glowing from ear to ear, and tell Miss Charteris that she was very kind to his little 'un, and he was obliged to her.
The plan was carried out.
A few days later, Miss Charteris showed Nella a nice little carpet-bag, and told her that Mrs. Lester was going to pack her clothes in that, and take her to stay for a week at the school.
The child looked very glad.
'Shall you like that better than Bill's cottage?' asked her friend.
'Oh yes!' cried Nella. 'It is like being in a little corner of Paradise, to be at Mrs. Lester's-when school is over.'
But when asked to explain what she meant, she could only say that the place seemed always bright, and yet quiet, like angels' faces.
The Rector and his niece, having thought well on the matter, had agreed that it would be better for Nella to spend the week, during which her room would be prepared for her, at the school-house, rather than at the Rectory. For, since her lot seemed now to be cast in so poor a dwelling, Mr. Dykes thought it would be unwise to accustom her for a short time to the refinements of a lady's home.
Nella seemed to be very happy throughout that week, in her own quiet way, spending the mornings with her dear Miss Charteris, and afterwards patiently working at her task of knitting or sewing by Mrs. Lester's side; or, if she was permitted, escaping to sit alone in some sunny corner of the garden. When there was no sunshine, which often happens in England, even in July, she liked to sit quite still, speaking to no one, on a little stool before the fire, where the school-mistress's plump little kettle was boiling. She could read wonderful things in the red coals, things almost as wonderful as those which the sunset showed to her. She went less often to sit alone on the church tower, now that she was less friendless, and had more to do.
At last, the great day came, on which the little attic-room, in all its new glories, was to be shown to its small mistress, who had heard nothing of the changes that had been made there. It was meant that they should be a pleasant surprise to her. The week had lengthened itself out to ten days, during which Bill Waters had been wonderfully
busy, in a way that was quite new to him. He had grown to be much interested in his work, and to enjoy it; and he and Miss Charteris had had many little interviews and consultations. He had even, at last, knocked at the back door of the Rectory, on purpose to ask for her; although he wondered greatly at himself for doing it, and felt as if, somehow, he must have been changed for the time into someone else, some decent man, to whom it was a natural action to stand knocking at the Rector's gate.
When the maid opened to him, he was looking very red and awkward; and seeing how surprised she was to find him there, he used bad language to himself for his pains, and did not make the bold attempt a second time; but when he wanted to see Miss Charteris, waited about for her (so losing a great deal of time) in places where he thought her likely to come.
His friends had not ventured to rally him much on his new occupation, at least in his hearing, since he had proved himself so clearly to be no saint yet. All his spare time, therefore, had been spent in Nella's room, and now she was to be introduced to it in its new dress.
It was five o'clock; afternoon school was over; Mrs. Lester, panting a little because the sun was warm, and she herself was stout, came trotting up the tangled lane to Bill's cottage, beside sweet Miss Charteris, who held little Nella's hand. The child walked on with a serious face; she was not glad to leave the 'little corner of Paradise,' where she had been staying for ten happy days. There was, as usual, a puddle before Bill's gate; and the cabbage stalks still stood up like a row of headless necks, above a net-work of weeds. It had not occurred to Bill that his garden also needed improvement; besides, there had not been time for great improvements as yet. But Bill's face, as he came to the door to meet his visitors, was as clean as need be, and very red; and his hair was stringy with wet, for he had been pumping on his head for five good minutes. He felt rather uncomfortable as to his neck, for instead of the blue neckerchief, whose ends he had so often chewed when in any difficulty, shone the most gorgeous of the Chinese silks. It was tied in a tight knot, and the ends were tucked down into Bill's jacket; and little fat men, with umbrellas, were walking all over his chest. He scraped a leg.
The women greeted him pleasantly. And then Miss Charteris said, 'We have brought your little Nella back, to see all the pretty things.
I am sure she will be so pleased.'
They all went into the kitchen; and there, on the table, quite unconscious of Mrs. Lester's scruples, Bill had set the little black tea-pot, with some of that naughty smuggled tea brewing in it very comfortably; and beside the tea-pot, a great square sticky slab of plumcake, bought by the pound, at a small cook-shop.
Miss Charteris, unfortunately, did not observe these splendid preparations; but there was little time for Bill's spirits to be checked by that
oversight, for she said at once, 'Will you go up first, please? then you will see how glad Nella looks when first she sees her room.'
Bill went up the steps as he was told, clambering with a great noise. He was so big and clumsy, that he knocked his head against something as he went, and so stood in the attic rubbing the place, and grinning, while he watched the others pop up one by one through the trapdoor.
Mrs. Lester came after Bill, and Nella next to her; then Miss Charteris last of all.
When Nella reached the top, she stood still with wonder, and rubbed her eyes. It seemed to her that she had suddenly fallen asleep, and was dreaming, the room was so changed.
On the wall, Miss Charteris's roses twisted and twined, and pressed their pink heads against one another; a piece of canvas, of a pleasant yellowish grey, had been stretched all across above the lower beams, to make a ceiling. Only a canvas ceiling. It was coarse enough, yet it hid the gloomy darkness, hung with spiders' webs, which had dwelt so dismally among the rafters of the open roof. The poor spiders, however, had been expelled from their ancient family residence by the ruthless broom of Mrs. Lucas. There was a square of Chinese matting in the middle of the room; the jug and bason were removed to a little green painted wash-stand; and the box on which they had stood, was covered all over with a piece of white dimity, and honoured with a small lookingglass, a pincushion, and a glass with roses in it. The little bed stood in the corner, clean and straight, with a green chair beside it, and over it a picture. There was a white curtain to the window, which had its due allowance of panes, all bright and clear; and on the window-sill stood two red pots, in one of which grew a lady-fern, in the other a fuschia, dangling its little scarlet tassels.
When Nella had grown quite sure that she was not dreaming, but that all these wonderful new things really existed, she clasped her soft little brown hands, and cried, 'Ah! com' è bella!'
Although Bill could not understand her words, he could see well enough from her looks that she was pleased; and he laughed, and rubbed his head harder.
'It was Bill Waters who took the trouble to make your room so pretty,' said Miss Charteris.
Nella needed no bidding, but with a grace which came natural to the little Italian, went up to Bill at once, with a shy movement, saying, slowly and carefully, 'It is much beautiful. Thank you.'
This delighted Bill. He laughed again; and repeated to Miss Charteris and Mrs. Lester, as though they had not heard, that the little 'un said it was much beautiful. In fact, he was altogether clumsy and sheepish and happy; a man whom no one would have recognized for fierce Black Bill, the smuggler, who spread terror among all the Brentholm children.
Presently, he went down to prepare the little feast, which he meant to offer to the ladies; and plump Mrs. Lester began to follow, thinking it well to seize an opportunity when she could take her own time in descending those break-neck steps, being very careful lest Bill, already below, should catch any glimpse of her plump little legs.
Meanwhile, Miss Charteris remained above, showing Nella all the new glories of her domain, and as much pleased at the child's admiration as was Nella herself. Lastly, she pointed out to her the picture over the bed, and spoke to her about it in a few words, warm from the depth of her heart.
It represented a holy Jesus, surrounded by smiling children, clustered in His arms, and about His knees, very happy in the presence of such deep tender love, and having a kind of sweet solemnity in all their faces, as though their child-like spirits had caught, by contact with His, some of the dignified calm which comes through perfect purity.
A CLERKLY IDYLL.
THE VICARAGE, EYTHORPE ST. LOIS, MAY 1790.
THE DREAM BEGUN.
A MOTHER sat beside the hearth,
A thrush, without the window-panes,
It was the merry month of May,
In golden promise free.
The mother sat beside the hearth,
Upon her knee her son;
Her husband in his early walk
Lost some deep point upon;
She watched, and waiting called to mind
How she had first met Roger Bourne
Since then some clouds had crossed their hopes,
But never yet their love;
For life had been a waiting-time
To let the clouds remove,
And show, once more, Faith's azure sky
So sat the mother by the hearth,
'Its'-nay, 'twas his; ah, happy wife!
The fullest crown of joy
Had fallen first upon thy lap,
In that it was a boy
Who first within thy mother heart
And so the mother's tale of Life
But if her life's tale told, not his,
In vain kind nature's balm;
Ah no! she glanced without to see
The lilacs glowing in the sun,
All pure and sweet the May;
Kind nature with the mother's heart
She took the soft plump hand in hers,
Half smiling, half reproachfully,