Oswald Bastable and Others/Molly, the measles, and the missing will
MOLLY, THE MEASLES, AND THE
We all think a great deal too much of ourselves. We all believe—every man, woman, and child of us—in our very insidest inside heart, that no one else in the world is at all like us, and that things happen to us that happen to no one else. Now, this is a great mistake, because however different we may be in the colour of our hair and eyes, the inside part, the part that we feel and suffer with, is pretty much alike in all of us. But no one seems to know this except me. That is why people won't tell you the really wonderful things that happen to them: they think you are so different that you could never believe the wonderful things. But of course you are not different really, and you can believe wonderful things as easily as anybody else, For instance, you will be able to believe this story quite easily, for though it didn't happen to you, that was merely an accident. It might have happened, quite easily, to you or any else. As it happened, it happened to Maria Toodlethwaite Carruthers.
You will already have felt a little sorry for Maria, and you will have thought that I might have chosen a prettier name for her. And so I might. But I did not do the choosing. Her parents did that. And they called her Maria after an aunt who was disagreeable, and would have been more disagreeable than ever if the baby had been called Enid or Elaine or Vivien, or any of the pretty names that will readily occur to you. She was called Toodlethwaite after the eminent uncle of that name who had an office in London and an office in Liverpool, and was said to be rolling in money.
'I should like to see Uncle Toodlethwaite rolling in his money,' said Maria, 'but he never does it when I'm about.'
The third name, Carruthers, was Maria's father's name, and she often felt thankful that it was no worse. It might so easily have been Snooks or Prosser.
Of course no one called Maria Maria except Aunt Maria herself. Her Aunt Eliza, who was very refined, always wrote in the improving books that she gave Maria on her birthday, 'To dearest Marie, from her affectionate Aunt Elise,' and when she spoke to her she called her Mawrie. Her brothers and sisters, whenever they wanted to be aggravating, called her Toodles, but at times of common friendliness they called her Molly, and so did most other people, and so shall I, and so may you.
Molly and her brothers and sisters were taken care of by a young woman who was called a nursery-governess. I don't know why, for she did not nurse them, and she certainly did not govern them. In her last situation she had been called a lady-help—I don't know the why of that, either. Her name was Simpshall, and she was always saying 'Don't,'and 'You mustn't do that,' and 'Put that down directly,' and 'I shall tell your mamma if you don't leave off.' She never seemed to know what you ought to do, but only what you oughtn't.
One day the children had a grand battle with all the toy soldiers, and the little brass cannons that shoot peas, and the other kind that shoot pink caps with 'Fortes Amorces' on the box.
Bertie, who always liked to have everything as real as possible, did not like the soldiers to be standing on the bare polished mahogany of the dining-table.
'It's not a bit like the field of glory,' he said. And indeed it was not.
So he borrowed the large kitchen knife-box and went out, and brought it in full of nice real clean mould out of the garden. Half a dozen knife-box-fulls were needed to cover the table. Then the children made forts and ditches, and brought in sprigs of geranium and calceolaria and box and yew and made trees and ambushes and hedges. It was a lovely battle-field, and would have melted the heart of anyone but a nursery-governess.
But she just said, 'What a disgusting mess! How naughty you are!' and fetched a brush and swept the field of glory away into the dustpan. There was only just time to save the lives of the soldiers.
And then Cecily put the knife-box back without saying what it had been used for, and the knives were put into it, so that at dinner everything tasted of earth, and the grit got between people's teeth, so that they could not eat their mutton or potatoes or cabbage, or even their gravy.
This, of course, was entirely Miss Simpshall's fault. If she had not behaved as she did Bertie or Eva would have remembered to clean out the knife-box. As it was, the story of the field of glory came out over the gritty mutton and things, and father sent all the battlefield-makers to bed.
Molly was out of this. She was staying with Aunt Eliza, who was kind, if refined. She was to come back the next day. But as mother was on her way to the station to meet Aunt Maria for a day's shopping, she met a telegraph boy, who gave her a telegram from Aunt Eliza saying:
'Am going to Palace to-day instead of to-morrow. Fetch Marie.—Elise.'
So mother fetched her from Aunt Eliza's flat in Kensington and took her shopping with Aunt Maria. There were hours of shopping in hot, stuffy shops full of tired shop-people and angry ladies, and even the new hat and jacket and the strawberry ice at the pastry-cook's in Oxford Street did not make up to Molly for that tiresome day.
Still, she was out of the battlefield row. Only as she did not know that it could not comfort her.
When Aunt Maria had been put into her train, mother and Molly went home. As their cab stopped, Miss Simpshall rushed out between the two dusty laburnums by the gate.
'Don't come in!' said Miss Simpshall wildly.
'My dear Miss Simpshall——' said mother.
The hair of the nursery-governess waved wildly in the evening breeze. She shut the ornamental iron gate in mother's face.
'Don't come in!' said Miss Simpshall again. 'You shan't, you mustn't——'
'Don't talk nonsense,' said mother, looking very white. 'Have you gone mad?'
Miss Simpshall said she hadn't.
'But what's the matter?' said mother.
'Measles,' said Miss Simpshall; 'it's all out on them—thick.'
'Good gracious!' said mother.
'And I thought you'd perhaps just as soon Molly didn't have it, Mrs. Carruthers. And this is all the thanks I get, being told I'm insane.'
'I'm sorry,' said mother absently. 'Yes, you were quite right. Keep the children warm. Has the doctor seen them?'
'Not yet; I've only just found it out. Oh, it's terrible! Their hands and faces are all scarlet with purple spots.'
'Oh dear, oh dear! I hope it's nothing worse than measles! I'll call in and send the doctor,' said mother; 'I shall be home by the last train. It's a blessing Molly's clothes are all here in her box.'
So Molly was whisked off in the cab.
'I must take you back to your aunt's,' said mother.
'But Aunt Eliza's gone to stay at the Bishop's Palace,' said Molly.
'So she has; we must go to your Aunt Maria's. Oh dear!'
'Never mind, mother,' said Molly, slipping her hand into mother's; 'perhaps they won't have it very badly. And I'll be very good, and try not to have it at all.'
This was very brave of Molly; she would much rather have had measles than have gone to stay at Aunt Maria's.
Aunt Maria lived in a lovely old house down in Kent. It had beautiful furniture and beautiful gardens; in fact, as Bertie said, it was a place
'Where every prospect pleases,
And only aunt is vile.'
Molly and her mother arrived there just at supper-time. Aunt Maria was very surprised and displeased. Molly went to bed at once, and her supper was brought up on a tray by Clements, aunt's own maid. It was cold lamb and mint-sauce, and jelly and custard.
'Your aunt said to bring you biscuits and milk,' said Clements, 'but I thought you'd like this better.'
'You're a darling!' said Molly; 'I was so afraid you'd be gone for your holiday. It's not nearly so beastly when you're here.'
Clements was flattered, and returned the compliment.
'And you aren't so bad when you're good, miss,' she said. 'Eat it up. I'll come back and bring you a night-light by-and-by.'
One thing Molly liked about Aunt Maria's was that there were no children's bedrooms—no bare rooms with painted furniture and Dutch drugget. All the rooms were 'best rooms, with soft carpets and splendid old furniture. The beds were all four-posters with carved pillars and silk damask curtains, and there were sure to be the loveliest things to make believe with in whatever room you happened to be put into. In this room there were cases of stuffed birds, and a stuffed pike that was just like life. There was a wonderful old cabinet, black and red and gold, very mysterious, and oak chests, and two fat white Indian idols sitting cross-legged on the mantelpiece. It was very delightful; but Molly liked it best in the daytime. And she was glad of the night-light.
She thought of Bertie, and Cicely, and Eva, and baby, and Vincent, and wondered whether measles hurt much.
Next day Aunt Maria was quite bearable. The worst thing she said was about people coming when they weren't expected, and upsetting everything.
'I'll try not to upset anything,' said Molly, and went out and got the gardener to put up a swing for her.
Then she upset herself out of it, and got a bump on her forehead the size of a hen's egg, and that, as Aunt Maria very properly said, kept her out of mischief for the rest of the day.
Next morning Molly had two letters. The first was from Bertie. It said:
It is rough lines on you, but we did not mean to keep it up, and it is your fault for coming home the day before you ought to have. We did it to kid old Simpshall, because she was so beastly about us making a real battlefield. We only painted all the parts of us that show with vermilion, and put spots—mixed crimson lake and Prussian blue—all over, and we pulled down the blinds and said our heads ached, and so they did with crying—I mean the girls cried. She was afraid to come near us; but she was sorry she had been such a beast. And when she had come to the door and said so through the key-hole we owned up, but you had gone by then. It was a rare lark, but we've got three days bedder for it. I shall lower this on the end of a fishing-line to the baker's boy, and he will post it. It is like a dungeon. He is going to bring us tarts, like a faithful page.
Your affectionate bro.,
'Bertrand de Lisle Carruthers.'
The other letter was from mother.
'My darling Molly,
It was all a naughty hoax, intended to annoy poor Miss Simpshall. Your brothers and sisters had painted their faces red and purple—they had not measles at all. But since you are at Aunt Maria's I think you may as well stay . . .'
'How awful !' said Molly. 'It is too bad!'
'. . . stay and make it your annual visit. Be a good girl, dear, and do not forget to wear your pinafores in the morning.
'Your loving Mother.'
Molly wrote a nice little letter to her mother. To her brother she said:
I think you are beasts to have let me in for this. You might have thought of me. I shall not forgive you till the sun is just going down, and I would not then, only it is so wrong not to. I wish you had been named Maria, and had to stay here instead of me.
Your broken-hearted sister,
When Molly stayed at the White House she was accustomed to read aloud in the mornings from 'Ministering Children' or 'Little Pilgrims,' while Aunt Maria sewed severely. But that morning Aunt Maria did not send for her.
'Your aunt's not well,' Clements told her; 'she won't be down before lunch. Run along, do, miss, and walk in the garden like a young lady.'
Molly chose rather to swagger out into the stable-yard like a young gentleman. The groom was saddling the sorrel horse.
'I've got to take a telegram to the station,' said he.
'Take me,' said Molly.
'Likely! And what ud your aunt say?'
'She won't know,' said Molly, 'and if she does I'll say I made you.'
He laughed, and Molly had a splendid ride behind the groom, with her arms so tight round his waistcoat that he could hardly breathe. When they got to the station a porter lifted her down, and the groom let her send off the telegram. It was to Uncle Toodlethwaite, and it said:
'Please come down at once urgent business most important don't fail bring Bates.—Maria Carruthers.'
So Molly knew something very out of the way had happened, and she was glad that her aunt should have something to think of besides
'Molly had a splendid ride behind the groom.'—Page 134
In the afternoon Uncle Toodlethwaite came, and he and Aunt Maria and a person in black with a shining black bag—Molly supposed he was Mr. Bates, who was to be brought by Uncle Toodlethwaite—sat in the dining-room with the door shut.
Molly went to help the kitchenmaid shell peas, in the little grass courtyard in the middle of the house. They sat on the kitchen steps, and Molly could hear the voices of Clements and the house-keeper through the open window of the servants' hall. She heard, but she did not think it was eavesdropping, or anything dishonourable, like listening at doors. They were talking quite out loud.
'And a dreadful blow it will be to us all, if true,' the housekeeper was saying.
'She thinks it's true,' said Clements; 'cried her eyes out, she did, and wired for her brother-in-law once removed.'
'Meaning her brother's brother-in-law—I see. But I don't know as I really understand the ins and outs of it even yet.'
'Well, it's like this,' said Clements: 'missis an' her brother they used to live here along of their uncle, and he had a son, a regular bad egg he was, and the old master said he shouldn't ever have a penny of his money. He said he'd leave it to Mr. Carruthers—that's missis's brother, see?'
'That means father,' thought Molly.
'And he'd leave missis the house and enough money to keep it up in style. He was a warm man, it seems. Well, then the son's drowned at sea—ship went down and all aboard perished. Just as well, because when the old man died they couldn't find no will. So it all comes to missis and her brother, there being no other relations near or far, and they divides it the same as the old man had always said he wished. You see what I mean?'
'Near enough,' said the housekeeper; 'and then?'
'Why, then,' said Clements, 'comes this letter—this very morning—from a lawyer, to say as this bad egg of a son wasn't drowned at all: he was in foreign parts, and only now heard of his father's decease, and tends without delay to claim the property, which all comes to him, the deceased have died insensate—that means without a will.'
'I say, Clements,' Molly sung out, 'you must have read the letter. Did aunt show it to you?'
There was a dead silence; the kitchenmaid giggled. Someone whispered inside the room. Then the housekeeper's voice called softly, 'Come in here a minute, miss,' and the window was sharply shut.
Molly emptied the peascods out of her pinafore and went in.
Directly she was inside the door Clements caught her by the arm and shook her.
'You nasty mean, prying little cat!' she said; 'and me getting you jelly and custard, and I don't know what all.'
'I'm not,' said Molly. 'Don't, Clements; you hurt.'
'You deserve me to,' was the reply. 'Doesn't she, Mrs. Williams?'
'Don't you know it's wrong to listen, miss?' asked Mrs. Williams.
'I didn't listen.' said Molly indignantly. 'You were simply shouting. No one could help hearing. Me and Jane would have had to put our fingers in our ears not to hear.'
'I didn't think it of you,' said Clements, beginning to sniff.
'I don't know what you're making all this fuss about,' said Molly; 'I'm not a sneak.'
'Have a piece of cake, miss,' said Mrs. Williams, 'and give me your word it shan't go any further.'
'I don't want your cake; you'd better give it to Clements. It's she that tells things—not me.'
Molly began to cry.
'There, I declare, miss, I'm sorry I shook you, but I was that put out. There! I ask your pardon; I can't do more. You wouldn't get poor Clements into trouble, I'm sure.'
'Of course I wouldn't; you might have known that.'
Well, peace was restored; but Molly wouldn't have any cake.
That evening Jane wore a new silver brooch, shaped like a horseshoe, with an arrow through it.
It was after tea, when Uncle Toodlethwaite was gone, that Molly, creeping quietly out to see the pigs fed, came upon her aunt at the end of the hollyhock walk. Her aunt was sitting on the rustic seat that the crimson rambler rose makes an arbour over. Her handkerchief was held to her face with both hands, and her thin shoulders were shaking with sobs.
And at once Molly forgot how disagreeable Aunt Maria had always been, and how she hated her. She ran to her aunt and threw her arms round her neck. Aunt Maria jumped in her seat, but she let the arms stay where they were, though they made it quite difficult for her to use her handkerchief.
'Don't cry, dear ducky darling Aunt Maria,' said Molly—'oh, don't! What is the matter?'
'Nothing you would understand.' said Aunt Maria gruffly; 'run away and play, there's a good child.'
'But I don't want to play while you're crying. I'm sure I could understand, dear little auntie.'
Molly embraced the tall, gaunt figure of the aunt.
'Dear little auntie, tell Molly.'
She used just the tone she was used to use to her baby brother.
'It's—it's business,' said Aunt Maria, sniffing.
'I know business is dreadfully bad—father says so,' said Molly. 'Don't send me away, auntie; I'll be as quiet as a mouse. I'll just sit and cuddle you till you feel better.'
She got her arms round the aunt's waist, and snuggled her head against a thin arm. Aunt Maria had always been one for keeping children in their proper places. Yet somehow now Molly's proper place seemed to be just where she was—where she had never been before.
'You're a kind little girl, Maria,' she said presently.
'I wish I could do something,' said Molly. 'Wouldn't you feel better if you told me? They say it does you good not to grieve in solitary concealment. I'm sure I could understand if you didn't use long words.'
And, curiously enough, Aunt Maria did tell her, almost exactly what she had heard from Clements.
'And I know there was a will leaving it all to your father and me,' she said; 'I saw it signed. It was witnessed by the butler we had then—he died the year after—and by Mr. Sheldon: he died, too, out hunting.'
Her voice softened, and Molly snuggled closer and said:
'Poor Mr. Sheldon!'
'He and I were to have been married,' said Aunt Maria suddenly. 'That's his picture in the hall between the carp and your Great-uncle Carruthers.'
'Poor auntie!' said Molly, thinking of the handsome man in scarlet next the stuffed carp—'oh, poor auntie, I do love you so!'
Aunt Maria put an arm round her.
'Oh, my dear,' she said, 'you don't understand. All the happy things that ever happened to me happened here, and all the sad things too; if they turn me out I shall die—I know I shall. It's been bad enough,' she went on, more to herself than to Molly; 'but there's always been the place just as it was when I was a girl, when he used to come here: so bold and laughing he always was. I can see him here quite plainly; I've only to shut my eyes. But I couldn't see him anywhere else.'
'Don't wills get hidden away sometimes?' Molly asked; for she had read stories about such things.
'We looked everywhere,' said Aunt Maria—'everywhere. We had detectives from London, because there were things he'd left to other people, and we wanted to carry out his wishes; but we couldn't find it. Uncle must have destroyed it, and meant to make another, only he never did—he never did. Oh, I hope the dead can't see what we suffer! If my Uncle Carruthers and dear James could see me turned out of the old place, it would break their hearts even up in heaven.'
Molly was silent. Suddenly her aunt seemed to awake from a dream.
'Good gracious, child,' she said, 'what nonsense I've been talking! Go away and play, and forget all about it. Your own troubles will begin soon enough.'
'I do love you, auntie,' said Molly, and went.
Aunt Maria never unbent again as she had done that evening; but Molly felt a difference that made all the difference. She was not afraid of her aunt now, and she loved her. Besides, things were happening. The White House was now the most interesting place in the world.
Be sure that Molly set to work at once to look for the missing will. London detectives were very careless; she was certain they were. She opened drawers and felt in the backs of cupboards; she prodded the padding of chairs, listening for the crackling of paper inside among the stuffing; she tapped the woodwork of the house all over for secret panels; but she did not find the will.
She could not believe that her Great-uncle Carruthers would have been so silly as to burn a will that he knew might be wanted at any moment. She used to stand in front of his portrait, and look at it; he did not look at all silly. And she used to look at the portrait of handsome, laughing Mr. Sheldon, who had been killed out hunting instead of marrying Aunt Maria, and more than once she said:
'You might tell me where it is; you look as if you knew.'
But he never altered his jolly smile.
Molly thought of missing wills from the moment her eyes opened in the morning to the time when they closed at night.
Then came the dreadful day when Uncle Toodlethwaite and Mr. Bates came down, and Uncle Toodlethwaite said:
'I'm afraid there's no help for it, Maria; you can delay the thing a bit, but you'll have to turn out in the end.'
It was on that night that the wonderful thing happened—the thing that Molly has never told to anyone except me, because she thought no one could believe it. She went to bed as usual and to sleep, and she woke suddenly, hearing someone call 'Molly, Molly!'
She sat up in bed; the room was full of moonlight. As usual her first waking thought was of the missing will. Had it been found? Was her aunt calling her to tell the good news? No, the room was quite still. She was alone.
The moonlight fell full on the old black and red and gold cabinet; that, she had often thought, was just the place where a will would be hidden. It might have a secret drawer, that the London detectives had missed. She had often looked over it carefully, but now she got out of bed and lighted her candle, and went over to the cabinet to have one more look. She opened all the drawers, pressed all the knobs in the carved brasswork. There was a little door in the middle; she knew that the little cupboard behind it was empty. It had red lacquered walls, and the back wall was looking-glass. She opened the little cupboard, held up her candle, and looked in. She expected to see her own face in the glass as usual, but she did not see it; instead there was a black space, the opening to something not quite black. She could see lights—candle-lights—and the space grew bigger, or she grew smaller, she never knew which. And next moment she was walking through the opening.
'Now I am going to see something really worth seeing,' said Molly.
She was not frightened—from first to last she was not at all frightened.
She walked straight through the back of the cabinet in the best bedroom upstairs into the library on the ground-floor. That sounds like nonsense, but Molly declares it was so.
There were candles on the table and papers, and there were people in the library; they did not see her.
There was great-uncle Carruthers and Aunt Maria, very pretty, with long curls and a striped gray silk dress, like in the picture in the drawing-room. There was handsome, jolly Mr. Sheldon in a brown coat. An old servant was just going out of the door.
'That's settled, then,' said Great-uncle Carruthers; 'now, my girl, bed.'
Aunt Maria—such a young, pretty Aunt Maria, Molly would never have known her but for the portrait—kissed her uncle, and then she took a Christmas rose out of her dress and put it in Mr. Sheldon's buttonhole, and put up her face to him and said, 'Good-night, James.' He kissed her; Molly heard the loud, jolly sound of the kiss, and Aunt Maria went away.
Then the old man said: 'You'll leave this at Bates' for me, Sheldon; you're safer than the post.'
Handsome Mr. Sheldon said he would. Then the lights went out, and Molly was in bed again.
Quite suddenly it was daylight. Jolly Mr. Sheldon, in his red coat, was standing by the cabinet. The little cupboard door was open.
'By George!' he said, 'it's ten days since I promised to take that will up to Bates, and I never gave it another thought. All your fault, Maria, my dear. You shouldn't take up all my thoughts; 'I'll take it to-morrow.'
Molly heard something click, and he went out of the room whistling.
Molly lay still. She felt there was more to come. And the next thing was that she was looking out of the window, and saw something carried across the lawn on a hurdle with two scarlet coats laid over it, and she knew it was handsome Mr. Sheldon, and that he would not carry the will to Bates to-morrow, or do anything else in this world ever any more.
When Molly woke in the morning she sprang out of bed and ran to the cabinet. There was nothing in the looking-glass cupboard.
All the same, she ran straight to her aunt's room. It was long before the hour when Clements soberly tapped, bringing hot water.
'Wake up, auntie!' she cried.
And auntie woke up, very cross indeed.
'Look here, auntie,' she said, 'I'm certain there's a secret place in that cabinet in my room, and the will's in it; I know it is.'
'You've been dreaming,' said Aunt Maria severely; 'go back to bed. You'll catch your death of cold paddling about barefoot like that.'
Molly had to go, but after breakfast she began again.
'But why do you think so?' asked Aunt Maria.
And Molly, who thought she knew that nobody would believe her story, could only say:
'I don't know, but I am quite sure.'
'Nonsense!' said Aunt Maria.
'Aunty,' Molly said, 'don't you think uncle might have given the will to Mr. Sheldon to take to Mr. Bates, and he may have put it in the secret place and forgotten?'
'What a head the child's got—full of fancies!' said Aunt Maria.
'If he slept in that room—did he ever sleep in that room?'
'Always, whenever he stayed here.'
'Was it long after the will-signing that poor Mr. Sheldon died?'
'Ten days,' said Aunt Maria shortly; 'run away and play. I've letters to write.'
But because it seemed good to leave no stone unturned, one of those letters was to a cabinet-maker in Rochester, and the groom took it in the dog-cart, and the cabinet-maker came back with him.
And there was a secret hiding-place behind the looking-glass in the little red lacquered cupboard in the old black and red and gold cabinet, and in that secret hiding-place was the missing will, and on it lay a brown flower that dropped to dust when it was moved.
'It's a Christmas rose,' said Molly.
'So, you see, really it was a very good thing the others pretended to have measles, because if they hadn't I shouldn't have come to you, and if I hadn't come I shouldn't have known there was a will missing, and if I hadn't known that I shouldn't have found it, should I, aunty, should I, uncle?' said Molly, wild with delight.
'No, dear,' said Aunt Maria, patting her hand.
'Little girls,' said Uncle Toodlethwaite, 'should be seen and not heard. But I admit that simulated measles may sometimes be a blessing in disguise.'
All the young Carruthers thought so when they got the five pounds that Aunt Maria sent them. Miss Simpshall got five pounds too because it was owing to her that Molly was taken to the White House that day. Molly got a little pearl necklace as well as five pounds.
'Mr. Sheldon gave it to me,' said Aunt Maria. 'I wouldn't give it to anyone but you.'
Molly hugged her in silent rapture.
That just shows how different our Aunt Marias would prove to be if they would only let us know them as they really are. It really is not wise to conceal everything from children.
You see, if Aunt Maria had not told Molly about Mr. Sheldon, she would never have thought about him enough to see his ghost. Now Molly is grown up she tells me it was only a dream. But even if it was it is just as wonderful, and served the purpose just as well.
Perhaps you would like to know what Aunt Maria said when the cabinet-maker opened the secret hiding-place and she saw the paper with the brown Christmas rose on it? Clements was there, as well as the cabinet-maker and Molly. She said right out before them all, 'Oh, James, my dear!' and she picked up the flower before she opened the will. And it fell into brown dust in her hand.