Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Advent of the ‘Hirelings’
By Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915)
From ‘The Christmas Hirelings’

EVERYTHING had been made ready for the little strangers. There were fires blazing in two large bedrooms overhead—rooms with a door of communication. In one there were still the two little white beds in which Lilian and Sibyl had slept when they were children; poor Lilian, whose bed was in the English cemetery at Florence, under a white marble monument erected by her sorrowing husband, and whose sorrowing husband had taken to himself a second wife five years ago. Every one knew where Lilian was lying, but no one at Penlyon Castle knew where Sibyl’s head had found rest. All that people knew about the disobedient daughter was that her husband had died within three or four years of her marriage, worn to death in some foreign mission. Of his luckless widow no one at Penlyon had heard anything, but it was surmised that her father made her an allowance. He could hardly let his only daughter starve, people said, however badly she might have treated him. Lady Lurgrave’s early death had been a crushing blow to his love and to his pride. She had died childless.
*        *        *        *        *
  Sir John had heard the carriage stop, and the opening of the hall door; and although he pretended to go on reading his paper by the lamp placed close at his elbow, the pretense was a poor one, and anybody might have seen that he was listening with all his might.  2
  The footman had opened the hall door as the wheels drew near; it was wide open when the carriage stopped. The red light from the hall fire streamed out upon the evening gray, and three little silvery voices were heard exclaiming:—  3
  “Oh, what a pretty house!”  4
  “Oh, what a big house!”  5
  And then the smallest voice of the three with amazing distinctness:—  6
  “What an exceedingly red fire.”  7
  The carriage door flew open, and two little girls all in red from top to toe, and one little boy in gray, rolled out in a heap, or seemed to roll out, like puppies out of a basket, scrambled on to their feet and ran up the steps,—Mr. Danby, slim and jaunty as usual, following them.  8
  “Good gracious, how tiny they are!” cried Adela, stooping down to kiss the smaller girl, a round red bundle, with a round little face, and large dark gray eyes shining in the firelight.  9
  The tiny thing accepted the kiss somewhat shrinkingly, and looked about her, awed by the grandeur of the hall, the large fireplace and blazing logs, the men in armor, or the suits of armor standing up and pretending to be men.  10
  “I don’t like them,” said the tiny girl, clinging to Danby and pointing at one of these mailed warriors with a muffled red hand: “they’re not alive, are they, Uncle Tom?”  11
  “No, no, no, Moppet, they’re as dead as door-nails.”  12
  “Are they? I don’t like dead people.”  13
  “Come, come, Moppet, suppose they’re not people at all—no more than a rocking-horse is a real live horse. We’ll pull one of them down to-morrow and look inside him, and then you’ll be satisfied.”  14
  The larger scarlet mite, larger by about an inch, older by a year, was standing before the fire, gravely warming her hands, spreading them out before the blaze as much as hands so tiny could spread themselves. The boy was skipping about the hall, looking at everything, the armed warriors especially, and not at all afraid.  15
  “They’re soldiers, aren’t they?” he asked.  16
  “Yes, Laddie.”  17
  “I should like to be dressed like that, and go into a battle and kill lots of people. I couldn’t be killed myself, could I, if I had that stuff all over me?”  18
  “Perhaps not, Laddie; but I don’t think it would answer. You’d be an anachronism.”  19
  “I wouldn’t mind being a nackerism if it saved me from being killed,” said Laddie.  20
  “Come, little ones, come and be presented to your host,” said Mr. Danby, as the footman opened the library door; and they all poured in—Danby, Adela, and the children—the smallest running in first, her sister and the boy following, considerably in advance of the grown-ups.  21
  Moppet ran right into the middle of the room as fast as her little red legs could carry her; then seeing Sir John sitting where the bright lamplight shown full upon his pale elderly face, with its strongly marked features, black eyebrows, and silvery-gray hair, she stopped suddenly as if she had beheld a Gorgon, and began to back slowly till she brought herself up against the silken skirt of Adela Hawberk’s gown; and in that soft drapery she in a manner absorbed herself, till there was nothing to be seen of the little neatly rounded figure except the tip of a bright red cap and the toes of two bright red gaiters.  22
  The elder mite had advanced less boldly, and had not to beat so ignominious a retreat. She was near enough to Mr. Danby to clutch his hand, and holding by that she was hardly at all frightened.  23
  The boy, older, bolder, and less sensitive than either of the girls, went skipping around the library as he had skipped about the hall, looking at things and apparently unconscious of Sir John Penlyon’s existence.  24
  “How d’ye do, Danby?” said Sir John, holding out his hand as his old friend advanced to the fire, the little red girl hanging on to his left hand, while he gave his right to his host. “Upon my word, I began to think you were never coming back. You’ve been an unconscionable time. One would suppose you had to fetch the children from the world’s end.”  25
  “I had to bring them to the world’s end, you might say. Boscastle is something more than a day’s journey from London in the depth of winter.”  26
  “And are these the children? Good heavens, Danby! what could you be thinking about to bring us such morsels of humanity?”  27
  “We wanted children,” said Danby, “not hobbledehoys.”  28
  “Hobbledehoys! no, but there is reason in everything. You couldn’t suppose I wanted infants like these—look at that little scrap hidden in Adela’s frock. It’s positively dreadful to contemplate! They will be getting under my feet. I shall be treading upon them, and hurting them seriously.”  29
  “No you won’t, Jack; I’ll answer for that.”  30
  “Why not, pray?”  31
  “Because of their individuality. They are small, but they are people. When Moppet comes into a room everybody knows she is there. She is a little scared now; but she will be as bold as brass in a quarter of an hour.”  32
  Sir John Penlyon put on his spectacles and looked at the little hirelings more critically. Their youth and diminutive size had been a shock to him. He had expected bouncing children with rosy faces, long auburn hair, and a good deal of well-developed leg showing beneath a short frock. These, measured against his expectations, were positively microscopic.  33
  Their cheeks were pale rather than rosy. Their hair was neither auburn nor long. It was dark hair, and it was cropped close to the neat little heads, showing every bump in the broad, clever-looking foreheads. Sir John’s disapproving eyes showed him that the children were more intelligent than the common run of children; but for the moment he was not disposed to accept intelligence instead of size.  34
  “They are preposterously small,” he said—“not at all the kind of thing I expected. They will get lost under chairs or buried alive in waste-paper baskets. I wash my hands of them, Take them away, Adela. Let them be fed and put to bed.” Then turning to Mr. Danby as if to dismiss the subject, “Anything stirring in London when you were there, Tom?”  35
  Before Danby could answer, Moppet emerged from her shelter, advanced deliberately, and planted herself in front of Sir John Penlyon, looking him straight in the face.  36
  “I’m sorry you don’t like us, Mr. Old Gentleman,” she said. Every syllable came with clear precision from those infantine lips. Moppet’s strong point was her power of speech. Firm, decisive, correct as to intonation came every sentence from the lips of this small personage. Ponderous polysyllables were no trouble to Moppet. There was only an occasional consonant that baffled her.  37
  “Who says I don’t like you?” said Sir John, taken aback, and lifting the animated bundle of red cloth on to his knee.  38
  He found there was something very substantial inside the wooly cloak and gaiters: a pair of round plump arms and sturdy little legs, a compact little figure which perched firmly on his knee.  39
  “You said so,” retorted Moppet, with her large gray eyes very wide open, and looking full into his. “You don’t like us because we are so very small. Everybody says we are small, but everybody doesn’t mind. Why do you mind?”  40
  “I didn’t say anything about not liking you, little one. I was only afraid you were too small to go out visiting.”  41
  “I went out to tea when I was two, and nobody said I was too small. I have real tea at parties, not milk-and-water. And I have been out to tea often and often—haven’t I, Lassie?”  42
  “Not so many times as I have,” replied the elder red thing, with dignity.  43
  She was standing in front of the wide old fireplace, warming her hands, and she was to Sir John’s eye somewhat suggestive of a robin-redbreast that had fluttered in and lighted there.  44
  “Of course not, because you’re older,” said Moppet, disgusted at this superfluous self-assertion on her sister’s part. “I am always good at parties—ain’t I, Uncle Tom?” turning an appealing face to Mr. Danby.  45
  “So these Lilliputians are your nieces, Danby!” exclaimed Sir John.  46
  “Well, no, they are not exactly nieces, though they are very near and dear. I am only a jury uncle.”  47
  “A jury uncle!” cried Moppet, throwing her head back and laughing at the unknown word.  48
  “A jury uncle!” echoed the other two, and the three laughed prodigiously; not because they attached any meaning to the word, but only because they didn’t know what it meant. That was where the joke lay.  49
  “You know that in Cornwall and in Sicily all the elderly men are uncles, and all the old women aunts—everybody’s uncles and aunts,” concluded Mr. Danby.  50
  Moppet still occupied Sir John’s knee. She felt somehow that it was a post of honor, and she had no inclination to surrender it. Her tiny fingers had possessed themselves of his watch-chain.  51
  “Please show me your watch,” she said.  52
  Sir John drew out a big hunter.  53
  Moppet approached her little rosy mouth to the hinge and blew violently.  54
  “Why don’t it open as Uncle Tom’s watch does when I blow?” she asked. “Is it broken?”  55
  “Blow again, and we’ll see about that,” said Sir John, understanding the manœuvre.  56
  The big bright case flew open as Moppet blew.  57
  “Take care it doesn’t bite your nose off.”  58
  “How big and bright it is—much bigger and brighter than Uncle Tom’s.”  59
  “Uncle Tom’s is a lady’s watch, and Uncle Tom’s a lady’s man,” said Sir John, and the triple peal of childish laughter which greeted this remark made him fancy himself a wit.  60
  Small as they were, these children were easily amused, and that was a point in their favor, he thought.  61
  “Tea is ready in the breakfast-room,” said Adela.  62
  “Tea in the breakfast-room. Oh, how funny!” And again they all laughed.  63
  At any rate, they were not doleful children—no long faces, no homesick airs, no bilious headaches—so far.  64
  “I dare say they will all start measles or whooping-cough before we have done with them,” thought Sir John, determined not to be hopeful.  65
  “Oh, we are to come to tea, are we?” he said, cheerily, and he actually carried Moppet all the way to the breakfast-room, almost at the other end of the rambling old house, and planted her in a chair by his side at the tea-table. She nestled up close beside him.  66
  “You like us now, don’t you?” she asked.  67
  “I like you.”  68
  “And you’ll like her,” pointing to her sister with a small distinct finger, “and him,” pointing to her brother, “to-morrow morning. You’ll know us all to-morrow morning.”  69
  “To-morrow will be Christmas,” said Laddie, as if giving a piece of useful information to the company in general.  70
  “Christmas!” cried Danby; “so it will. I mustn’t forget to hang up my stocking.”  71
  This provoked a burst of mirth. Uncle Tom’s stocking! Uncle Tom hoping to get anything from Santa Claus!  72
  “You needn’t laugh,” said Mr. Danby, seriously. “I mean to hang up one of my big Inverness stockings. It will hold a lot.”  73
  “What do you expect to get?” asked Laddie, intensely amused. “Toys?”  74
  “No: chocolates, butter-scotch, hardbake, alecompane.”  75
  “Oh, what’s alecompane?”  76
  The name of this old-fashioned sweetmeat was received with derision.  77
  “Why, what an old sweet-tooth you must be!” exclaimed Moppet; “but I don’t believe you a bit. I shall come in the middle of the night to see if your stocking is there.”  78
  “You won’t find my room. You’ll go into the wrong room most likely, and find one of the three bears.”  79
  Moppet laughed at the notion of those familiar beasts.  80
  “There never were three bears that lived in a house, and had beds and chairs and knives and forks and things,” she said. “I used to believe it once when I was very little”—she said “veway little”—“but now I know it isn’t true.”  81
  She looked round the table with a solemn air, with her lips pursed up, challenging contradiction. Her quaint little face, in which the forehead somewhat overbalanced the tiny features below it, was all aglow with mind. One could not imagine more mind in any living creature than was compressed within this quaint scrap of humanity.  82
  Sir John watched her curiously. He had no experience of children of that early age. His own daughters had been some years older before he began to notice them. He could but wonder at this quick and eager brain animating so infinitesimal a body.  83
  Moppet looked round the table; and what a table it was! She had never seen anything like it. Cornwall, like Scotland, has a prodigious reputation for breakfasts; but Cornwall, on occasion, can almost rival Yorkshire in the matter of tea. Laddie and Lassie had set to work already, one on each side of Miss Hawberk, who was engaged with urn and teapot. Moppet was less intent upon food, and had more time to wonder and scrutinize. Her big mind was hungrier than her little body.  84
  “Oh, what a lot of candles!” she cried. “You must be very rich, Mr. Old Gentleman.”  85
  Eight tall candles in two heavy old silver candelabra lighted the large round table, and on the dazzling white cloth was spread such a feast as little children love: cakes of many kinds, jams and marmalade, buns, muffins, and crisp biscuits fresh from the oven, scones both white and brown, and the rich golden-yellow clotted cream, in the preparation of which Cornwall pretends to surpass her sister Devon, as in her cider and perry and smoked pig. It is only natural that Cornwall, in her stately seclusion at the end of Western England, should look down upon Devonshire as sophisticated and almost cockney. Cornwall is to Devon as the real Scottish Highlands are to the Trosachs. Besides the cakes and jams and cream-bowl there were flowers: Christmas roses, and real roses, yellow and red—such flowers as only grow in rich men’s greenhouses; and there was a big silver urn in which Laddie and Lassie could see their faces, red and broad and shining, as they squeezed themselves each against one of Adela’s elbows.  86
  “O Uncle Tom,” suddenly exclaimed Lassie, in a rapturous voice, “we shall never die here!”  87
  “Not for want of food, certainly, Lassie.”  88
  The children had eaten nothing since a very early dinner in Plymouth, and on being pressed to eat by Miss Hawberk and Mr. Danby, showed themselves frankly greedy. Sir John did nothing but look on and wonder at them. They showed him a new phase of humanity. Did life begin so soon? Was the mind so fully awakened while the body was still so tiny? “How old are you, Mistress Moppet?” he asked, when Moppet had finished her first slice of saffron-cake.  89
  “Four and a quarter.”  90
  Not five years old. She had lived in the world less than five years. She talked of what she had thought and believed when she was little, and she seemed to know as much about life as he did at sixty-five.  91
  “You are a wonderful little woman, not to be afraid of going out visiting without your nurse.”  92
  “Nurse!” echoed Moppet, staring at him with her big gray eyes. “What’s a nurse?”  93
  “She doesn’t know,” explained Laddie: “we never had a nurse. It’s a woman like the one Julie has to take care of her, Moppet,” he explained, condescendingly, “a bonne we call her. But we’ve never had a bonne,” he added, with a superior air.  94
  “Indeed?” exclaimed Sir John, “then pray who has taken care of you, put you to bed at night, and washed and dressed you of a morning, taken you out for walks, or wheeled you in a perambulator?”  95
  “Mother,” cried the boy. “Mother does all that—except for me. I dress myself—I take my own bath. Mother says I’m growing quite inde—in-de—”  96
  “Pendent!” screamed Moppet across the table. “What a silly boy you are: you always forget the names of things.”  97
  Moppet was getting excited. The small cheeks were flushed, and the big eyes were getting bigger, and Moppet was inclined to gesticulate a good deal when she talked, and to pat the tablecloth with two little hands to give point to her speech.  98
  “Moppet,” said Mr. Danby, “the hot cakes are getting into your head. I propose an adjournment to Bedfordshire.”  99
  “No! no! NO! Uncle Tom. We ain’t to go yet, is we?” pleaded the child, snuggling close up to Sir John’s waistcoat, with a settled conviction that he was the higher authority. The lapse in grammar was the momentary result of excitement. In a general way Moppet’s tenses and persons were as correct as if she had been twenty.  100
  “I think you ought to be tired, after your long journey,” said the baronet.  101
  “But it wasn’t a long journey. We had dinner first, and in the morning we walked on the Hoe. Isn’t that a funny name for a place? And we saw the sea, and Uncle Tom told us of the—”  102
  “Spanish Arcadia,” interrupted Laddie, who felt it was his turn now, “and how Drake and the other captains were playing bowls on the Hoe, just where we were standing that very minute, when the news of the Spanish ships came and they went off to meet them; and there was a storm, and there was no fighting wanted, for the storm smashed all the ships and they went back to King Philip without any masts, and Queen Elizabeth went on horseback to Tilbury, and that was the end of the Arcadia.”  103
  “For an historical synopsis I don’t call that bad,” said Mr. Danby; “nevertheless, I recommend Bedfordshire if our little friends have finished their tea.”  104
  “I have,” said Lassie, with a contented yawn.  105
  Moppet did not want to go to bed. She had eaten less than the other two, but she had talked more, and had slapped the table, and had made faces, while Lassie and Laddie had been models of good manners.  106
  “I wish you wouldn’t call it Bedfordshire,” she said, shaking her head vindictively at Mr. Danby. “It makes it worse to go to bed when people make jokes about it!”  107
  Mr. Danby came around to where she sat, and took her up in his arms as if she had been a big doll instead of a small child.  108
  “Say good-night to Sir John,” he said.  109
  Moppet stooped her face down to the baronet’s, and pursed up her red lips in the prettiest little kiss, which was returned quite heartily.  110
  “Take her away, Danby: she is much too excited, and she is the funniest little thing I ever saw. Good-night, my dears,” he said to the others, as he rose and walked toward the door. “I hope you will spend a happy Christmas at Place. Adela, be sure the little things are comfortable, and that Nurse Danby’s instructions are obeyed.”  111
  The children laughed at this rude mention of Mr. Danby, and went off to bed repeating the phrase “Nurse Danby” with much chuckling and giggling.
*        *        *        *        *
  Sir John Penlyon had just seated himself on the great oaken settle in the chimney-corner, after somewhat languidly performing his duty as host. Moppet walked straight to him, clambered on his knee, and nestled her head in his waistcoat, gazing up at him with very much the same dumb devotion he had seen in the topaz eyes of a favorite Clumber spaniel.  113
  “Why, Moppet, are you tired of your new little friends?” he asked kindly.  114
  “I don’t like children: they are so silly,” answered Moppet, with decision. “I like you much better.”  115
  “Do you really, now! I wonder how much you like me. As well as you like junket?”  116
  “Oh, what a silly question! As if one could care for any nice thing to eat as well as one cares for a live person.”  117
  “Couldn’t one! I believe there are little boys in Boscastle who are fonder of plum-pudding than of all their relations.”  118
  “They must be horrid little boys. Laddie is greedy, but he is not so greedy as that. I shouldn’t like to live in the same house with him if he were.”  119
  “For fear he should turn cannibal and eat you?”  120
  “What is a camomile, and does it really eat people?”  121
  “Never mind, Moppet; there are none in our part of the world,” said Sir John, hastily, feeling that he had made a faux pas, and might set Moppet dreaming of cannibals if he explained their nature and attributes.  122
  He had been warned by his friend Danby that Moppet was given to dreaming at night of anything that had moved her wonder or her fear in the day, and that she would awaken from such dreams in a cold perspiration, with wild eyes and clinched hands. Her sleep had been haunted by goblins, and made hideous by men who had sold their shadows, and by wolves who were hungry for little girls in red cloaks. It had been found perilous to tell her the old familiar fairy tales which most children have been told, and from which many children have suffered in the dim early years, before the restrictions of space and climate are understood, and wolves, bears, and lions located in their own peculiar latitudes.  123
  Sir John looked down at the little dark head which was pressed so lovingly against his waistcoat, and at the long dark lashes that veiled the deep-set eyes.  124
  “And so you really like me?” said he.  125
  “I really love you; not so much as mother, but veway, veway much.”  126
  “As much as Danby—as Uncle Tom?”  127
  “Better than Uncle Tom! but please don’t tell him so. It might make him unhappy.”  128
  “I dare say it would. Uncle Tom has a jealous disposition. He might shut you up in a brazen tower.”  129
  Another faux pas. Moppet would be dreaming of brazen towers. Imagination, assisted by plum-pudding, would run readily into tormenting visions.  130
  Happily, Moppet made no remark upon the tower. She was thinking—thinking deeply; and presently she looked up at Sir John with grave gray eyes and said:—  131
  “I believe I love you better than Uncle Tom, because you are a grander gentleman,” she said musingly, “and because you have this beautiful big house. It is yours, isn’t it—your veway, veway own?”  132
  “My very, very own. And so you like my house, Moppet? And will you be sorry to go away?”  133
  “Oh no, because I shall be going to mother.”  134
  “Then you like your own home better than this big house?”  135
  “No I don’t. I should be very silly if I did. Home is a funny little house, in a funny little sloping garden on the side of a hill. Uncle Tom says it is very healthy. There is a tiny salon, and a tiny dining-room, and a dear little kitchen where the bonne à tout faire lives, and four tiny bedrooms. It was a fisherman’s cottage once, and then an English lady—an old lady—bought it, and made new rooms, and had it all made pretty, and then she died; and then Uncle Tom happened to see it, and took it for mother.”  136
  “And was my little Moppet born there?”  137
  “No; I was born a long, long way off—up in the hills.”  138
  “What hills?”  139
  “The northwest provinces. It’s an awful long way off—but I can’t tell you anything about it,” added Moppet, with a solemn shake of her cropped head, “for I was born before I can remember. Laddie says we all came over the sea—but we mustn’t talk to mother about that time, and Laddie’s very stupid—he may have told me all wrong.”  140
  “And doesn’t Lassie remember coming home in the ship?”  141
  “She remembers a gentleman who gave her goodies.”  142
  “But not the ship?”  143
  “No, not the ship; but she thinks there must have been a ship, for the wind blew very hard, and the gentleman went up and down as if he was in a swing. Laddie pretends to remember all the sailors’ names, but I don’t think he really can.”  144
  “And the only house you can remember is the house on the cliff?”  145
  “Where mother is now—yes, that’s the only one, and I’m very fond of it. Are you fond of this house?”  146
  “Yes, Moppet: one is always fond of the house in which one was born. I was born here.”  147
  Moppet looked up at him wonderingly.  148
  “Is that very surprising?” he asked, smiling down at her.  149
  “It seems rather surprising you should ever have been born,” replied Moppet, frankly: “you are so veway old.”  150
  “Yes; but one has to begin, you see, Moppet.”  151
  “It must have been a twemendously long time ago when you and Uncle Tom began.”  152
  The explosion of a cracker startled Moppet from the meditative mood. It was the signal for the rifling of the Christmas tree. The crackers—the gold and silver and sapphire and ruby and emerald crackers—were being distributed, and were exploding in every direction before Moppet could run to the tree and hold up two tiny hands, crying excitedly, “Me, me, me!”  153

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