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Nurse Heatherdale's Story

Mrs. Molesworth

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  LINDFIELD, _August_ 22, 1891.

  She was sitting in the dame's old-fashioned armchair, inthe window of the little room; the bright summer sunshine streaming inbehind her.--P. 31.]


















  'Hasn't her a nice face?' 14

  She was sitting in the dame's old-fashioned armchair, in the window of the little room; the bright summer sunshine streaming in behind her 31

  Then there burst upon the view a wonderful surprise 74

  Miss Bess and Master Francis were talking eagerly with old Prideaux 82

  'Poor F'ancie,' she said pitifully. 'So tired, Baby wants to kiss thoo' 113

  'Auntie!' he said, smiling a very little; 'how pretty you look!' 129

  Sir Hulbert, holding Master Francis with one arm and the side of the ladder with the other, followed 179




  I could fancy it was only yesterday! That first time I saw them. And tothink how many years ago it is really! And how many times I have toldthe story--or, perhaps, I should say the _stories_, for after all it isonly a string of simple day-by-day events I have to tell, though to meand to the children about me they seem so interesting and, in some ways,I think I may say, rather out of the common. So that now that I amgetting old, or 'beginning to think just a tiny bit about some daygetting old,' which is the only way Miss Erica will let me say it, andknowing that nobody else _can_ know all the ins and outs which make thewhole just as I do, and having a nice quiet time to myself most days(specially since dear tiresome little Master Ramsey is off to schoolwith his brothers), I am going to try to put it down as well as I can.My 'as well as I can' won't be anything very scholarly or fine, I knowwell; but if one knows what one wants to say it seems to me the wordswill come. And the story will be there for the dear children, who arenever sharp judging of old Heather--and for their children after them,maybe.

  I was standing at our cottage door that afternoon--a beautiful summerafternoon it was, early in June. I was looking idly enough across thecommon, for our cottage stood--stands still, perhaps--I have not beenthere for many a year--just at the edge of Brayling Common, where itskirts the pine-woods, when I saw them pass. Quite a little troop theylooked, though they were scarcely near enough for me to see themplainly. There was the donkey, old Larkins's donkey, which they hadhired for the time, with a tot of a girl riding on it, the page-boyleading it, and a nursemaid walking on one side, and on the other anolder little lady--somewhere about ten years old she looked, though shewas really only eight. What an air she had, to be sure! What a grandway of holding herself and stepping along like a little princess, forall that she and her sisters were dressed as simple as simple. Pinkcotton frocks, if I remember right, a bit longer in the skirts than ouryoung ladies wear them now, and nice white cotton stockings,--it waslong before black silk ones were the fashion for children,--andankle-strap shoes, and white sun-bonnets, made with casers and cords,nice and shady for the complexions, though you really had to be close tobefore you could see a child's face inside of them. And some way behind,another little lady, a good bit shorter than Miss Bess--I meant to giveall their names in order later on, but it seems strange-like not to sayit--and looking quite three years younger, though there was really nottwo between them. And alongside of her a boy, thin and pale anddarkish-haired--that, I could see, as he had no sun-bonnet of course,only a cap of some kind. He too was a good bit taller than Miss ----,the middle young lady I mean, though short for his age, which was elevenpast. They were walking together, these two--they were mostly alwaystogether, and I saw that the boy was a little lame, just a touch, butenough to take the spring out of his step that one likes to see in ayoung thing. And though I couldn't see her face, only some long faircurls, long enough to come below the cape of her bonnet, a feeling cameover me that the child beside him was walking slow, keeping back as itwere, on purpose to bear him company. There was something gentle andpitying-like in her little figure, in the way she went closer to the boyand took his hand when the nurse turned round and called backsomething--I couldn't hear the words but I fancied the tone wassharp--to the two children behind, which made them press forward alittle. The other young lady turned as they came nearer and saidsomething with a sort of toss-up of her proud little head to the nurse.And then I saw that she held out her hand to her younger sister, whokept hold all the same of the boy's hand on the other side. And that washow they were walking when they went in among the trees and were lost tomy sight.

  But I still stood looking after them, even when there was nothing moreof them to be seen. Not even the dog--oh, I forgot about him--he was thevery last of the party--a brisk, shortish haired, wiry-looking roughterrier, who, just as he got to the entrance of the wood, turned roundand stood for a moment barking, for all the world as if he might besaying, 'My young ladies have gone a-walking in the wood now, andnobody's to come a-troubling of them. So I give you fair notice.' He didthink, did Fusser, that was _his_ name, that he managed all the affairsof the family. Many a time we've laughed at him for it.

  'Dear me,' thought I to myself, 'I could almost make a story out ofthose young ladies and gentleman, though I've only seen them for aminute, or two at the most.'

  For I was very fond of children even then, and knew a good deal abouttheir ways, though not so much--no, nor nothing like--what I do now! ButI was in rather a dreamy sort of humour. I had just left my firstplace,--that of nursery-maid with the family where my mother had beenbefore me, and where I had stayed on older than I should have done byrights, because of thinking I was going to be married. And six monthsbefore, my poor Charles had died suddenly, or so at least it had seemedto us all. For he caught cold, and it went to his chest, and he was gonein a fortnight. The doctor said for all he looked strong,
he was reallysadly delicate, and it was bound to be sooner or later. It may have beentrue, leastways the doctor meant to comfort me by saying so, though Idon't know that I found much comfort in the thought. Not so much anyhowas in mother's simple words that it was God's will, and so it must beright. And in thinking how happy we had been. Never a word or a coldnessall the four years we were plighted. But it was hard to bear, and itchanged all my life for me. I never could bring myself to think ofanother.

  Still I was only twenty-one, and after I'd been at home a bit, the youngladies would have me back to cheer me up, they said. I travelled withthem that spring; but when they all went up to London, and Miss Marianwas to be married, and the two little ones were all day with thegoverness, I really couldn't for shame stay on when there was no need ofme. So, though with many tears, I came home, and was casting about in mymind what I had best do--mother being hale and hearty, and no call fordress-making of a plain kind in our village--that afternoon, when Istood watching the stranger little gentry and old Larkins's donkey andthe dog, as they crossed the common into the firwood.

  It was mother's voice that woke me up, so to say.

  'Martha,' she called out in her cheery way, 'what's thee doing, child?I'm about tidied up; come and get thy work, and let's sit down a bitcomfortable. I don't like to see thee so down-like, and such brightsummer weather, though mayhap the very sunshine makes it harder forthee, poor dear.'

  And she gave a little sigh, which was a good deal for her, for she wasnot one as made much talk of feelings and sorrows. It seemed to spiritme up somehow.

  'I wasn't like that just now, mother,' I said cheerfully. 'I've beenwatching some children--gentry--going over the common--three littleyoung ladies and a boy, and Larkins's donkey. They made me think of MissCharlotte and Miss Marian when first I went there, though plainerdressed a good deal than our young ladies were. But real gentry, Ishould say.'

  'And you'd say right,' mother answered. 'They are lodging at WidowNutfold's, quite a party of them. Their father's Sir----; dear, dear,I've forgot the name, but he's a barrowknight, and the family's name isPenrose. They come from somewhere far off, near by the sea--quite furrinparts, I take it.'

  'Not out of England, you don't mean, do you?' I asked. For mother, ofcourse, kept all her old country talk, while I, with having been so manyyears with Miss Marian and her sisters, and treated more like a friendthan a servant, and great pains taken with my reading and writing, hadcome to speak less old-fashioned, so to say, and to give the propermeaning to my words. 'Foreign parts really means out of this country,where they talk French or Italian, you know, mother.'

  But mother only shook her head.

  'Nay,' she said, 'I mean what I say. Furrin parts is furrin parts. Iwouldn't say as they come from where the folks is nigger blacks, or fromold Boney's country neither, as they used to frighten us about when Iwas a child. But these gentry come from furrin parts. Why, I had it fromSarah Nutfold's own lips, last Saturday as never was, at Braylingmarket, and old neighbours of forty years; it's not sense to think she'dgo for to deceive me.'

  Mother was just a little offended, I could see, and I thought to myselfI must take care of seeming to set her right.

  'Of course not,' I said. 'You couldn't have it surer than from Mrs.Nutfold. I daresay she's pleased to have them to cheer her up a bit.They seem nice little ladies to look at, though they're on the outsideof plain as to their dress.'

  'And more sense, too,' said mother. 'I always thought our young ladiestoo expensive, though where money's no consideration, 'tis a temptationto a lady to dress up her children, I suppose.'

  'But they were never _over_-dressed,' I said, in my turn, a littleruffled. 'Nothing could be simpler than their white frocks to look at.'

  'Ay, to look at, I'll allow,' said mother. 'But when you come to look_into_ them, Martha, it was another story. Embroidery and tucks and realWalansian!' and she held up her hands. 'Still they've got it, andthey've a right to spend it, seein' too as they're generous to those whoneed. But these little ladies at Sarah's are not rich, I take it. Therewas a deal of settlin' about the prices when my lady came to take therooms. She and the gentleman's up in London, but one or two of thechildren got ill and needed country air. It's a heavy charge on SarahNutfold, for the nurse is not one of the old sort, and my lady askedSarah, private-like, to have an eye on her.'

  'There now,' I cried, 'I could have said as much! The way she turnedjust now so sharp on the poor boy and the middle little lady. I couldsee she wasn't one of the right kind, though I didn't hear what shesaid. No one should be a nurse, or have to do with children, mother,who doesn't right down love them in her heart.'

  'You're about right there, Martha,' mother agreed.

  Just then father came in, and we sat round, the three of us, to our tea.

  'It's a pleasure to have thee at home again, my girl, for a bit,' hesaid. And the kind look in his eyes made me feel both cheered and sadtogether. It was the first day I had been with them at tea-time, for Ihad got home pretty late the night before. 'And I hope it'll be alongish bit this time,' he went on.

  I gave a little sigh.

  'I'd like to stay a while; but I don't know that it would be good for meto stay very long, father, thank you,' I said. 'I'm young and strong andfit for work, and I'd like to feel I was able to help you and mother ifever the time comes that you're laid by.'

  'Please God we'll never need help of that kind, my girl,' said father.'But it's best to be at work, I know, when one's had a trouble. Theday'll maybe come, Martha, when you'll be glad to have saved a littlemore for a home of your own, after all. So I'd not be the one to standin your way, a few months hence--nor mother neither--if a good placeoffers.'

  'Thank you, father,' I said again; 'but the only home of my own I'llever care for will be here--by mother and you.'

  And so it proved.

  I little thought how soon father's words about not standing in my way ifa nice place offered would be put to the test.

  I saw the children who were lodging at Mrs. Nutfold's several times inthe course of the next week or two. They seemed to have a great fancyfor the pine-woods, and from where they lived they could not, to get tothem, but pass across the common within sight of our cottage. And onceor twice I met them in the village street. Not all of themtogether--once it was only the two youngest with the nurse; they werewaiting at the door of the post-office, which was also the grocer's andthe baker's, while she was inside chattering and laughing a deal morethan she'd any call to, it seemed to me. (I'm afraid I took a realright-down dislike to that nurse, which isn't a proper thing to dobefore one has any certain reason for it.) And dear little ladies theylooked, though the elder one--that was the middle one of the three--hadrather an anxious expression in her face, that struck me. The baby--shewas nearly three, but I heard them call her baby--was a little fatbundle of smiles and dimples. I don't think even a cross nurse wouldhave had power to trouble _her_ much.

  Another time it was the two elder girls and the lame boy I met. It was awindy day, and the eldest Missy's big flapping bonnet had blown back, soI had a good look at her. She was a beautiful child--blue eyes, verydark blue, or seeming so from the clear black eyebrows and thick longeyelashes, and dark almost black hair, with just a little wave in it;not so long or curling as her sister's, which was out-of-the-waybeautiful hair, but seeming somehow just to suit her, as everythingabout her did. She came walking along with the proud springing step Ihad noticed that first day, and she was talking away to the others as ifto cheer and encourage them, even though the boy was full three yearsolder than she, and supposed to be taking charge of her and her sister,I fancy.

  'Nonsense, Franz,' she was saying in her decided spoken way, 'nonsense.I won't have you and Lally treated like that. And I don't care--I mean Ican't help if it does trouble mamma. Mammas must be troubled about theirchildren sometimes; that's what being a mamma means.'

  I managed to keep near them for a bit. I hope it was not a meantaking-advantage. I have often told them of i
t since--it was really thatI did feel such an interest in the dear children, and my mind misgave mefrom the first about that nurse--it did so indeed.

  'If only----' said the boy with a tiny sigh. But again came thatclear-spoken little voice, 'Nonsense, Franz.'

  I never did hear a child of her age speak so well as Miss Bess. It'spretty to hear broken talking in a child sometimes, lisping, and some ofthe funny turns they'll give their words; but it's even prettier to hearclear complete talk like hers in a young child.

  Then came a gentle, pitiful little voice.

  'It isn't nonsense, Queen, darling. It's _howid_ for Franz, but itwasn't nonsense he was going to say. I know what it was,' and she gavethe boy's hand a little squeeze.

  'It was only--if aunty _was_ my mamma, Bess, but you know she isn't. And_aunts_ aren't forced to be troubled about not their own children.'

  'Yes they are,' the elder girl replied. 'At least when they're insteadof own mammas. And then, you know, Franz, it's not only you, it's Lallytoo, and----'

  That was all I heard. I couldn't pretend to be obliged to walk slowlyjust behind them, for in reality I was rather in a hurry, so I hastenedpast; but just as I did so, their little dog, who was with them, lookedup at me with a friendly half-bark, half-growl. That made the childrensmile at me too, and for the life of me, even if 'twas not good manners,I couldn't help smiling in return.

  'Hasn't her a nice face?' I heard the second little young lady say, andit sent me home with quite a warm feeling in my heart.

  'Hasn't her a nice face?']

  It was about a week after that, when one evening as we were sittingtogether--father, mother, and I--and father was just saying there'd bedaylight enough to need no candles that night--we heard the click of thelittle garden gate, and a voice at the door that mother knew in a momentwas Widow Nutfold's.

  'Good evening to you, Mrs. Heatherdale,' she said, 'and many excuses fordisturbing of you so late, but I'm that put about. Is your Martha athome?--thank goodness, my dear,' as I came forward out of the dusk tospeak to her. 'It's more you nor your good mother I've come after;you'll be thinking I'm joking when you hear what it is. Can you slipon your bonnet and come off with me now this very minute to help with mylittle ladies? Would you believe it--that their good-for-nothing girl isoff--gone--packed up this very evening--and left me with 'em all on myhands, and Miss Baby beginning with a cold on her chest, and MasterFrancis all but crying with the rheumatics in his poor leg. And even thepage-boy, as was here at first, was took back to London last week.'

  The good woman held up her hands in despair, and then by degrees we gotthe whole story--how the nurse had not been meaning to stay longer thansuited her own convenience, but had concealed this from her lady; andhaving heard by a letter that afternoon of another situation which shecould have if she went at once, off she had gone, in spite of all poorWidow Nutfold could say or do.

  'She took a dislike to me seein' as I tried to look after her a bit andto stop her nasty cross ways, and she told me that impertinent, as Iwanted to be nurse, I might be it now. She has a week or two's moneyowing her, but she was that scornful she said she'd let it go; she hadbeen a great silly for taking the place.'

  'But she might be had up and made to give back some of her wages,' saidfather.

  'Sir Hulbert and my lady are not that sort, and she knows it,' said Mrs.Nutfold. 'The wages was pretty fair--it was the dulness of the life downin Cornwall the girl objected to most, I fancy.'

  'Cornwall,' repeated mother. 'There now, Martha, if that isn't furrinparts, I don't know what is.'

  But I hadn't time to say any more. I hurried on my shawl and bonnet, androlled up an apron or two, and slipped a cap into a bandbox, and there Iwas.

  'Good-night, mother,' I said. 'I'll look round in the morning--and Idon't suppose I'll be wanted to stay more than a day or two. My lady'ssure to find some one at once, being in London too.'

  'I should think so,' said old Sarah, but there was something in her toneI did not quite understand.