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Adela Cathcart - vol. 3

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"It was resolved that on the same evening, Chrissy should tell my uncle her story. We went out for a walk together; and though she was not afraid to go, the least thing startled her. A voice behind her would make her turn pale and look hurriedly round. Then she would smile again, even before the colour had had time to come back to her cheeks, and say--'What a goose I am! But it is no wonder.' I could see too that she looked down at her nice clothes now and then with satisfaction. She does not like me to say so, but she does not deny it either, for Chrissy can't tell a story even about her own feelings. My uncle had given us five pounds each to spend, and that was jolly. We bought each other such a lot of things, besides some for other people. And then we came home and had dinner tete-à-tete in my uncle's dining-room; after which we went up to my uncle's room, and sat over the fire in the twilight till his afternoon-nap was over, and he was ready for his tea. This was ready for him by the time he awoke. Chrissy got up on the bed beside him; I got up at the foot of the bed, facing her, and we had the tea-tray and plenty of etceteras between us.

"'Oh! I am happy!' said Chrissy, and began to cry.

"'So am I, my darling!' rejoined Uncle Peter, and followed her example.

"'So am I,' said I, 'but I don't mean to cry about it.' And then I did.

"We all had one cup of tea, and some bread and butter in silence after this. But when Chrissy had poured out the second cup for Uncle Peter, she began of her own accord to tell us her story.

"'It was very foggy when we came out of school that afternoon, as you may remember, dear uncle.'

"'Indeed I do,' answered Uncle Peter with a sigh.

"'I was coming along the way home with Bessie--you know Bessie, uncle--and we stopped to look in at a bookseller's window where the gas was lighted. It was full of Christmas things already. One of them I thought very pretty, and I was standing staring at it, when all at once I saw that a big drabby woman had poked herself in between Bessie and me. She was staring in at the window too. She was so nasty that I moved away a little from her, but I wanted to have one more look at the picture. The woman came close to me. I moved again. Again she pushed up to me. I looked in her face, for I was rather cross by this time. A horrid feeling, I cannot tell you what it was like, came over me as soon as I saw her. I know how it was now, but I did not know then why I was frightened. I think she saw I was frightened; for she instantly walked against me, and shoved and hustled me round the corner--it was a corner-shop--and before I knew, I was in another street. It was dark and narrow. Just at the moment a man came from the opposite side and joined the woman. Then they caught hold of my hands, and before my fright would let me speak, I was deep into the narrow lane, for they ran with me as fast as they could. Then I began to scream, but they said such horrid words that I was forced to hold my tongue; and in a minute more they had me inside a dreadful house, where the plaster was dropping away from the walls, and the skeleton-ribs of the house were looking through. I was nearly dead with terror and disgust. I don't think it was a bit less dreadful to me from having dim recollections of having known such places well enough at one time of my life. I think that only made me the more frightened, because so the place seemed to have a claim upon me. What if I ought to be there after all, and these dreadful creatures were my father and mother!

"'I thought they were going to beat me at once, when the woman, whom I suspected to be my aunt, began to take off my frock. I was dreadfully frightened, but I could not cry. However it was only my clothes that they wanted. But I cannot tell you how frightful it was. They took almost everything I had on, and it was only when I began to scream in despair-- sit still, Charlie, it's all over now--that they stopped, with a nod to each other, as much as to say--'we can get the rest afterwards.' Then they put a filthy frock on me; brought me some dry bread to eat; locked the door, and left me. It was nearly dark now. There was no fire. And all my warm clothes were gone.--Do sit still, Charlie.--I was dreadfully cold. There was a wretched-looking bed in one corner, but I think I would have died of cold rather than get into it. And the air in the place was frightful. How long I sat there in the dark, I don't know.'

"'What did you do all the time?' said I.

"'There was only one thing to be done, Charlie. I think that is a foolish question to ask.'

"'Well, what did you do, Chrissy?'

"'Said my prayers, Charlie.'

"'And then?'

"'Said them again.'

"'And nothing else?'

"'Yes; I tried to get out of the window, but that was of no use; for I could not open it. And it was one story high at least.'

"'And what did you do next?'

"'Said over all my hymns.'

"'And then--what did you do next?'

"'Why do you ask me so many times?'

"'Because I want to know.'

"'Well, I will tell you.--I left my prayers alone; and I began at the beginning, and I told God the whole story, as if He had known nothing about it, from the very beginning when Uncle Peter found me on the crossing, down to the minute when I was talking there to Him in the dark.'

"'Ah! my dear,' said my uncle, with faltering voice, 'you felt better after that, I daresay. And here was I in despair about you, and thought He did not care for any of us. I was very naughty, indeed.'

"'And what next?' I said.

"'By and by I heard a noise of quarrelling in the street, which came nearer and nearer. The door was burst open by some one falling against it. Blundering steps came up the stairs. The two who had robbed me, evidently tipsy, were trying to unlock the door. At length they succeeded, and tumbled into the room.'

"'Where is the unnatural wretch,' said the woman, 'who ran away and left her own mother in poverty and sickness?'--

"'Oh! uncle, can it be that she is my mother?' said Chrissy, interrupting herself.

"'I don't think she is,' answered Uncle Peter. 'She only wanted to vex you, my lamb. But it doesn't matter whether she is or not.'

"'Doesn't it, uncle?--I am ashamed of her.'

"'But you are God's child. And He can't be ashamed of you. For He gave you the mother you had, whoever she was, and never asked you which you would have. So you need not mind. We ought always to like best to be just what God has made us.'

"'I am sure of that, uncle.--Well, she began groping about to find me, for it was very dark. I sat quite still, except for trembling all over, till I felt her hands on me, when I jumped up, and she fell on the floor. She began swearing dreadfully, but did not try to get up. I crept away to another corner. I heard the man snoring, and the woman breathing loud. Then I felt my way to the door, but, to my horror, found the man lying across it on the floor, so that I could not open it. Then I believe I cried for the first time. I was nearly frozen to death, and there was all the long night to bear yet. How I got through it, I cannot tell. It did go away. Perhaps God destroyed some of it for me. But when the light began to come through the window, and show me all the filth of the place, the man and the woman lying on the floor, the woman with her head cut and covered with blood, I began to feel that the darkness had been my friend. I felt this yet more when I saw the state of my own dress, which I had forgotten in the dark. I felt as if I had done some shameful thing, and wanted to follow the darkness, and hide in the skirts of it. It was an old gown of some woollen stuff, but it was impossible to tell what, it was so dirty and worn. I was ashamed that even those drunken creatures should wake and see me in it. But the light would come, and it came and came, until at last it waked them up, and the first words were so dreadful! They quarrelled and swore at each other and at me, until I almost thought there couldn't be a God who would let that go on so, and never stop it. But I suppose He wants them to stop, and doesn't care to stop it Himself, for He could easily do that of course, if He liked.'

"'Just right, my darling!' said Uncle Peter with emotion.

"Chrissy saw that my uncle was too much excited by her story although he tried not to show it, and with a wisdom which I have since learned to appreciate, cut it short.

"'They did not treat me cruelly, though, the worst was, that they gave me next to nothing to eat. Perhaps they wanted to make me thin and wretched looking, and I believe they succeeded.--Charlie, you'll turn over the cream, if you don't sit still.--Three days passed this way. I have thought all over it, and I think they were a little puzzled how to get rid of me. They had no doubt watched me for a long time, and now they had got my clothes, they were afraid.--At last one night they took me out. My aunt, if aunt she is, was respectably dressed--that is, comparatively, and the man had a great-coat on, which covered his dirty clothes. They helped me into a cart which stood at the door, and drove off. I resolved to watch the way we went. But we took so many turnings through narrow streets before we came out in a main road, that I soon found it was all one mass of confusion in my head; and it was too dark to read any of the names of the streets, for the man kept as much in the middle of the road as possible. We drove some miles, I should think, before we stopped at the gate of a small house with a big porch, which stood alone. My aunt got out and went up to the house, and was admitted. After a few minutes, she returned, and making me get out, she led me up to the house, where an elderly lady stood, holding the door half open. When we reached it, my aunt gave me a sort of shove in, saying to the lady, 'There she is.' Then she said to me: 'Come now be a good girl and don't tell lies,' and turning hastily, ran down the steps, and got into the cart at the gate, which drove off at once the way we had come. The lady looked at me from head to foot sternly but kindly too, I thought, and so glad was I to find myself clear of those dreadful creatures, that I burst out crying. She instantly began to read me a lecture on the privilege of being placed with Christian people, who would instruct me how my soul might be saved, and teach me to lead an honest and virtuous life. I tried to say that I had led an honest life. But as often as I opened my mouth to tell anything about myself or my uncle, or, indeed, to say anything at all, I was stopped by her saying--'Now don't tell lies. Whatever you do, don't tell lies.' This shut me up quite. I could not speak when I knew she would not believe me. But I did not cry, I only felt my face get very hot, and somehow my back-bone grew longer, though I felt my eyes fixed on the ground.

"'But,' she went on, 'you must change you dress. I will show you the way to your room, and you will find a print gown there, which I hope you will keep clean. And above all things don't tell lies.'

"Here Chrissy burst out laughing, as if it was such fun to be accused of lying; but presently her eyes filled, and she made haste to go on.

"'You may be sure I made haste to put on the nice clean frock, and, to my delight, found other clean things for me as well. I declare I felt like a princess for a whole day after, notwithstanding the occupation. For I soon found that I had been made over to Mrs. Sprinx, as a servant of all work. I think she must have paid these people for the chance of reclaiming one whom they had represented as at least a great liar. Whether my wages were to be paid to them, or even what they were to be, I never heard. I made up my mind at once that the best thing would be to do the work without grumbling, and do it as well as I could, for that would be doing no harm to anyone, but the contrary, while it would give me the better chance of making my escape. But though I was determined to get away the first opportunity, and was miserable when I thought how anxious you would all be about me, yet I confess it was such a relief to be clean and in respectable company, that I caught myself singing once or twice the very first day. But the old lady soon stopped that. She was about in the kitchen the greater part of the day till almost dinner-time, and taught me how to cook and save my soul both at once.'

"'Indeed,' interrupted Uncle Peter, 'I have read receipts for the salvation of the soul that sounded very much as if they came out of a cookery-book.' And the wrinkles of his laugh went up into his night-cap. Neither Chrissy nor I understood this at the time, but I have often thought of it since.

"Chrissy went on:

"'I had finished washing up my dinner-things, and sat down for a few minutes, for I was tired. I was staring into the fire, and thinking and thinking how I should get away, and what I should do when I got out of the house, and feeling as if the man and the woman were always prowling about it, and watching me through the window, when suddenly I saw a little boy in a corner of the kitchen, staring at me with great brown eyes. He was a little boy, perhaps about six years old, with a pale face, and very earnest look. I did not speak to him, but waited to see what he would do. A few minutes passed, and I forgot him. But as I was wiping my eyes, which would get wet sometimes, notwithstanding my good-fortune, he came up to me, and said in a timid whisper,

"'Are you a princess?'

"'What makes you think that?' I said.

"'You have got such white hands,' he answered.

"'No, I am not a princess,' I said.

"'Aren't you Cinderella?'

"'No, my darling,' I replied; 'but something like her; for they have stolen me away from home and brought me here. I wish I could get away.'

"'And here I confess I burst into a down right fit of crying.

"'Don't cry,' said the little fellow, stroking my cheek. 'I will let you out some time. Shall you be able to find your way home all by yourself?'

"'Yes I think so,' I answered; but at the same time, I felt very doubtful about it, because I always fancied those people watching, me. But before either of us spoke again, in came Mrs. Sprinx.

"'You naughty boy! What business have you to make the servant neglect her work?'

"'For I was still sitting by the fire, and my arm was round the dear little fellow, and his head was leaning on my shoulder.

"'She's not a servant, auntie!' cried he, indignantly. 'She's a real princess, though of course she won't own to it.'

"'What lies you have been telling the boy! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Come along directly. Get the tea at once, Jane.'

"'My little friend went with his aunt, and I rose and got the tea. But I felt much lighter-hearted since I had the sympathy of the little boy to comfort me. Only I was afraid they would make him hate me. But, although I saw very little of him the rest of the time, I knew they had not succeeded in doing so; for as often as he could, he would come sliding up to me, saying 'How do you do, princess?'and then run away, afraid of being seen and scolded.

"'I was getting very desperate about making my escape, for there was a high wall about the place, and the gate was always locked at night. When Christmas-Eve came, I was nearly crazy with thinking that to-morrow was uncle's birthday; and that I should not be with him. But that very night, after I had gone to my room, the door opened, and in came little Eddie in his nightgown, his eyes looking very bright and black over it.

"'There, princess!' said he, 'there is the key of the gate. Run.'

"'I took him in my arms and kissed him, unable to speak. He struggled to get free, and ran to the door. There he turned and said:

"'You will come back and see me some day--will you not?'

"'That I will,' I answered.

"'That you shall,' said Uncle Peter.

"'I hid the key, and went to bed, where I lay trembling. As soon as I was sure they must be asleep, I rose and dressed. I had no bonnet or shawl but those I had come in; and though they disgusted me, I thought it better to put them on. But I dared not unlock the street-door for fear of making a noise. So I crept out of the kitchen-window, and then I got out at the gate all safe. No one was in sight. So I locked it again, and threw the key over. But what a time of fear and wandering about I had in the darkness, before I dared to ask any one the way. It was a bright, clear night; and I walked very quietly till I came upon a great wide common. The sky, and the stars, and the wideness frightened me, and made me gasp at first. I felt as if I should fall away from everything into nothing. And it was so lonely! But then I thought of God, and in a moment I knew that what I had thought loneliness was really the presence of God. And then I grew brave again, and walked on. When the morning dawned, I met a bricklayer going to his work; and found that I had been wandering away from London all the time; but I did not mind that. Now I turned my face towards it, though not the way I had come. But I soon got dreadfully tired and faint, and once I think I fainted quite. I went up to a house, and asked for a piece of bread, and they gave it to me, and I felt much better after eating it. But I had to rest so often, and got so tired, and my feet got so sore, that--you know how late it was before I got home to my darling uncle.'

"'And me too!' I expostulated.

"'And you, too, Charlie,' she answered; and we all cried over again.

"'This shan't happen any more!' said my uncle.

"After tea was over, he asked for writing things, and wrote a note, which he sent off.

"The next morning, about eleven, as I was looking out of the window, I saw a carriage drive up and stop at our door.

"'What a pretty little brougham!' I cried. 'And such a jolly horse! Look here, Chrissy!'

"Presently Uncle Peter's bell rang, and Miss Chrissy was sent for. She came down again radiant with pleasure.

"'What do you think, Charlie! That carriage is mine--all my own. And I am to go to school in it always. Do come and have a ride in it.'

"You may be sure I was delighted to do so.

"'Where shall we go?' I said.

"'Let us ask uncle if we may go and see the little darling who set me free.'

"His consent was soon obtained, and away we went. It was a long drive, but we enjoyed it beyond everything. When we reached the house, we were shown into the drawing-room.

"There was Mrs. Sprinx and little Eddie. The lady stared; but the child knew Cinderella at once, and flew into her arms.

"'I knew you were a princess!' he cried. 'There, auntie!'

"But Mrs. Sprinx had put on an injured look, and her hands shook very much.

"'Really, Miss Belper, if that is your name, you have behaved in a most unaccountable way. Why did you not tell me, instead of stealing the key of the gate, and breaking the kitchen window? A most improper way for a young lady to behave--to run out of the house at midnight!'

"'You forget, madam,' replied Chrissy, with more dignity than I had ever seen her assume, 'that as soon as ever I attempted to open my mouth, you told me not to tell lies. You believed the wicked people who brought me here rather than myself. However, as you will not be friendly, I think we had better go. Come, Charlie?'

"'Don't go, princess,' pleaded little Eddie.

"'But I must, for your auntie does not like me,' said Chrissy.

"'I am sure I always meant to do my duty by you. And I will do so still.-- Beware, my dear young woman, of the deceitfulness of riches. Your carriage won't save your soul!'

"Chrissy was on the point of saying something rude, as she confessed when we got out; but she did not. She made her bow, turned and walked away. I followed, and poor Eddie would have done so too, but was laid hold of by his aunt. I confess this was not quite proper behaviour on Chrissy's part; but I never discovered that till she made me see it. She was very sorry afterwards, and my uncle feared the brougham had begun to hurt her already, as she told me. For she had narrated the whole story to him, and his look first let her see that she had been wrong. My uncle went with her afterwards to see Mrs. Sprinx, and thank her for having done her best; and to take Eddie such presents as my uncle only knew how to buy for children. When he went to school, I know he sent him a gold watch. From that time till now that she is my wife, Chrissy has had no more such adventures; and if Uncle Peter did not die on Christmas-day, it did not matter much, for Christmas-day makes all the days of the year as sacred as itself."

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