The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

A Study.
by B. M. Peirse.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 678-687

She was not an attractive little girl, so Miss Wood thought; but then Miss Wood saw her with prejudiced eyes; eyes filled with a vision of four bright, cheery children sparkling with merriment, good health and good looks, the remembrance of their hugs and kisses warm in her heart. Naughty of course they were, but anything was preferable to dullness!

Mary was dull, quiet, colourless, inoffensive. Meekmouse her father called her, and the name stayed.

Poor little Meekmouse eight years of age, her beloved nurse dispensed with, awaited with an eager yet apprehensive heart the advent of her governess. To Miss Wood's warm greeting Meekmouse scarcely responded, dropped her big grey eyes after the first shy glance and her little limp hand at the same time.

Sometimes shyness is fascinating: Miss Wood did not find Mary's so. She saw a pale dejected child with insignificant features and straight straw-coloured hair. Meekmouse was tall and thin, her clothes unbecoming in make and tone.

The child longed to respond to Miss Wood's cheery welcome, but self-repression is difficult to break through, and the sensitive pride of a child hardest of all.

The governnes did not find Mrs. Darnley lacking in vivacity--hard, bright, polished; at meals the little girl shrank when her mother spoke to her.

Her mother's tone was that of cold contempt and Meekmouse withered before it. Mr. Darnley was a student, a reserved quiet man who frequently made no remark throughout a meal; he admired his beautiful wife immensely and was barely conscious of the blank she left in his life, perhaps because of Meekmouse; now that the nurse had gone what love and sympathy she got was from her father, to whom she would steal silently like the mouse she was.

Miss Wood tried at first to animate the child, to rouse her interest, but it seemed useless; Meekmouse had her little formula ready, "Yes, Miss Wood," "No, Miss Wood." The child was never naughty, never careless, never rude or rough or disobedient, she made progress with all her lessons, but she was apathetic. Her one pleasure was needlework, and a very beautiful and artistic little needlewoman she promised to be.

No one knew that at night Meekmouse lay awake with wide grey eyes, or that her pillow was often soaked with tears as she pined for her dear kind comforting Nannie, or wondered why neither mother who was so beautiful, nor Miss Wood who was so pretty liked her; Meekmouse was quite sure they did not, quite! Sometimes other mothers would bring their children to call and she noted jealously the caressing way in which they were spoken to, and her mother's cold tone to her.

"If it weren't for papa" --and then perhaps Meekmouse would fall asleep.

"Been out to-day, Meekmouse," her father asked at lunch.

"Yes--no--yes, papa," the child stammered confused with a startled glance at her mother and a fervent wish that they would leave her to eat her meal in silence.

"Yes--no--yes, papa," mimicked her mother; "my dear child, do you or don't you know if you have been out? Pray be accurate, answer your father properly and clearly, so that we can all hear."

But the child's tongue refused utterance, her eyes gazed appealingly at her mother.

"Say it," commanded Mrs. Darnley,the voice a trifle harder--a pause:--

"If you are disobedient as well as silly you had better leave the room"; and Meekmouse left, but her heart was ready to burst.

"I think the child is nervous"; said her father.

"Nervous!" laughed the mother, "she has never been hurt or had an angry word in her life. To think I am the mother a child dull, as well as plain!" Mrs. Darnley shrugged her shapely shoulders and sighed. Miss Wood felt a certain distaste towards her, but by degrees the mother's attitude influenced the girl, and, her early endeavors to interest and rouse Meekmouse having failed, she too allowed her tone and treatment to be indifferent and disparaging.

It fell out one day that she was entertaining a friend at schoolroom tea. Meekouse was more silent than usual and Miss Wood raised her eyebrows in mock despair; the child saw and the colour flamed in her small white face. The friend, who was kindly, tried to thaw the little girl and succeeded in persuading her to produce her needlework. The sad little face touched her, and the shadows made by the long black lashes appealed to her artistic nature. "What a length," said she, indicating the child's one beauty.

Miss Wood shrugged her shoulders in feeble imitation of Mrs. Darnley.

"Absolutely straight hair, too, but is it likely there could be a trace of a curl in such a personality, no vivacity, no vitality?" Her friend gave her a warning glance.

Meekmouse did not altogether understand the speech, but that it concerned her and was depreciating she realized perfectly, and as she moved away with her sewing it took all her childish pride to keep from tears. Presently she stole out of the room, to shiver in her little cold bedroom in helpless sorrow.

"What is the matter with that child, is she snubbed?" asked the guest. "She looks very clever and very sensitive, a fragile piece of china, I should say. I should like the moulding of her, a most interesting child"; she continued.

Miss Wood stared, it was a new light and it was to return and vex her many a time in the future, for already she was not without some conscience pangs about the child.

            *             *             *             *

In the evenings Meekmouse sewed until Jane, the schoolroom maid, brought in her supper of milk and bread and butter; later on Jane undressed her, brushed her hair and saw her into bed, she slept alone now Nannie was gone, and the hours of darkness were full of dread to the nervous child though Miss Wood's room was near.

"As queer a child as ever I see"; remarked Jane in the kitchen, "and most uninteresting."

"Her ma don't seem to set much store by 'er" said the parlourmaid; "makes my blood boil, that it do, to hear her baited at meals as she is sometimes."

"La! you don't say so?"

"It's a fact cook, that child's bullied; most unnatural it is to see a child so quiet, was she always like it?" for the parlourmaid was new.

"Not when 'er Nannie was here," replied cook, "laugh and romp she would in the nursery like the best, though for sure she'd always turn like a little image if she heard her ma's step or voice." Cook sighed, and the maids busy with their work soon forgot.

"Please, Miss Wood, I've lost my silver thimble..

"Where can you have put it, Mary?"

"I don't know."

"You must have a good hunt, can you work without it?"

"The needle hurts my finger." Meekmouse drew near the fire and her work lay on her knee. She longed to talk, to ask Miss Wood to tell her a fairy tale like Nannie used, and her lips moved as she tried to screw up courage. Her governess looked up.

"My dear child," she cried irritably, "don't stare at me, your eyes are like saucers," she picked up a book and began to read, keeping it a screen between herself and Meekmouse!

The little girl's breast heaved as she pressed her delicate lips together. At this moment her mother came into the schoolroom and explained that her grandfather had been taken suddenly ill and that she would leave home early the next morning to see him. She talked over some plans and made arrangements about Meekmouse during her absence--her face had lost some of its hard brightness and the child's tender heart yearned towards her mother, some force in her great grey eyes made Mrs. Darnley turn and look at her.

"What an idle little girl," she said, "what are you dreaming of? That bag will never be finished for grandmamma!"

"She has lost her thimble and the needle hurts her finger, shall I get her another thimble tomorrow?" asked Miss Wood.

"Nonsense," replied her mother. "careless little people who lose silver thimbles must learn to work without." She gave the child a light kiss, bade her "good-bye" and left the room.

The Mouse was very meek and humble-minded as a rule, but that night her thoughts were rebellious.

"When I'm a mother, if my chidren are ugly, I won't let them hurt themselves," she thought and--"I am glad mother is going away," followed.

"Jane, have you a mother?" she asked at bedtime, startling that person considerably.

"Why! yes, Miss Mary."

"Is she nice, does she love you?" asked the child.

"It was a kiss and a blow when we was little," replied Jane, "but she is a good mother and we love her."

"I don't think I should mind a blow," sighed Meekmouse.

"Lor sakes! why, you miss your Nannie, I believe," cried shrewd Jane, but the result alarmed her, for the child burst into a storm of tears and the bell had rung three times to fetch the maid for supper before she dared to leave the little sobbing creature.

            *             *             *             *

Meekmouse was invited out to tea; her mother didn't approve of such dissipations, she held it true that children pick up tricks from one another, but mother was away and her father gave a willing consent; he thought his little daughter was pale and needed young companions and amusement. The invitation came from Mrs. Dunn, the wife of the family doctor, both of whom had a warm affection for Mary, and whose merry boisterous family loved the shy little girl. Meekmouse was in terror lest anything should cause the permission to be withheld. No bolt fell from the blue, and she and Miss Wood accordingly found themselves at the Dunn's a little before tea-time.

"Why, what have you been doing to this child," asked the blunt doctor by way of greeting, "too many lessons and no play makes Mary a pale girl, eh?"

"We only work exactly according to a table Mrs. Darnley has drawn out," exclaimed Miss Wood, nettled.

"Mrs. Darnley, pooh!" snorted the doctor, "Mrs. Darnley" --he continued confidentially as the child went with his eldest daughter Hylda to take off her hat and coat--"Mrs. Darnely don't know how to manage that child, never forgave her being a girl, thinks her plain and don't forgive her that either, but you mark my words, that child will be a beauty yet and beat her mother in brains and looks--if she lives."

Miss Wood was not best pleased at the turn the conversation had taken, and the last words gave her conscience the little twinge it had felt once or twice before.

"Do you think her very delicate?" she asked, "she never complains."

"Do--I--think--her--delicate, do I think that delicate?" indicating a piece of egg-shell china; "complain no, that I'll bet she never does, but I warn you to go carefully to work over lessons; a good romp would be far better."

"Romp," Miss Wood's eyes opened, "the idea of Meekmouse romping!" But sure enough after tea she saw for herself that the child could play as other children, be as bright as they, though never noisy, something of distinction, something that marked her apart belonged to Mary.

They ended with a game of "hunt the thimble," and it must be confessed that Mary's eyes rested rather hungrily upon that thimble, such a pretty silver one, brought from Venice, Mrs. Dunn said; it had coral round the base and a pretty scroll of leaves. Meekmouse thought of her sore finger and wished she possessed one like it; and in the warmth of the moment ventured to express that wish to Miss Wood.

"Good-bye," said Mrs. Dunn at parting, "you have a great responsibility and you are young, but I am sure you are kind and sympathetic and will bring some colour and love into that poor starved little one's life"; yet those words vexed Miss Wood and made her so curt in manner that the springs of happiness unsealed in Meekmouse that blissful afternoon froze again.

            *             *             *             *

"I don't, I really don't know how it got there," cried Meekmouse miserably.

Miss Wood stood like an accusing angel before her, the coral and silver thimble in her hand; Jane had just turned out the pockets of the little girl's dress and it was at the bottom.

Miss Wood fixed her sternly with her eyes and before her look Meekmouse crimsoned stormily and her eyes fell.

The Dunns had riled the governess, otherwise she never afterwards could account to herself for her cruelty.

"Plain and dull and uninteresting I've always found you," said she, "but at least I thought you were honest and truthful. I shall write to your mother tonight and tomorrow we will return the thimble to Mrs. Dunn."

"No, no, no," cried the child, throwing out her hands, and then she fainted. When she revived she was in bed and Miss Wood, suitably meek, asked her if she required anything.

"Go away," the child found courage to say, "and send papa."

Miss Wood changed colour. "Your father has gone to your mother, dear." The child made no reply at first.

"Send Jane, then," she said weakly, for her last prop had failed.

Meekmouse awoke early the next morning, her head ached badly and she struggled with a hideous nightmare, unable to remember who or where she was. Gradually however all her trouble began to shape itself in her mind. Father had gone suddenly away, and she was accused of lying and stealing and was to be dragged like a pickpocket to the Dunns and mother was to be told, mother from whom there was no appeal. It was like Josephh's brethren with the money in their sacks, she said to herself, and hot tears scalded her eyes, tears of sympathy for them and herself. After the tears her little head felt clearer and her plan of action too; she struggled up and lit a match, very slowly and noiselessly she dressed herself, put on her shoes (she could not find her boots), wrapped a cloak which had a hood over her head and round her small person and candle in hand, looked round the room to see if the thimble were there. Yes! in the excitement of her fainting attack it had been left on the table. A clock struck seven and she heard a maid stirring in the hall, swiftly the child sped downstairs and out of the front door unobserved, the thimble in her hand.

"Why! bless my soul, here's little Mary Darnley, mother!" cried Dr. Dunn as the garden gate clicked.

"My darling child, what has happened?" asked Mrs. Dunn, as the doctor who rushed to meet her carried the exhausted little wanderer into the breakfast room. "Run away chicks, all but Hylda," said their mother, "I fear Mary is ill."

"It's--your--thimble," gasped the child; "it was--in my pocket--Miss Wood said--I stole--it. I didn't," --passionately, and the Meekmouse fainted again.

"Oh! mother," sobbed Hylda, "it's all my fault, Mary liked it so much, I slipped it into her pocket when she was going, so that it should be a surprise."

Her mother comforted Hylda as best she might, while the doctor sat with Mary's tiny wrist in his hand, his face set and stern.

"Shall we send to let them know at the Hall?" ventured his wife.

"Certainly not," replied he grimly, "let 'em wait and reap the results of their crass idiocy till I think her ready to be moved. Mother's a knave and the governess is a fool," he snapped angrily. "She'll need a capable nurse," he concluded, and then and there sent Hylda with a wire to recall Meekmouse's beloved Nannie. When he thought her fit, he drove the little girl home.

"I hope you are satisfied," was all he vouchsafed Miss Wood, who had been seeking the child in every possible and impossible place with all the household, in the house and grounds. She was too crushed to retort and Dr. Dunn, who was an astute reader of character, allowed her to be installed as nurse under Nannie who arrived later on.

"For," he said, "even if a serious illness is avoided, she will need the greatest care for some days to come."

But the illness was not avoided.

            *             *             *             *

Meekmouse had a valiant struggle for life and reason, and during those days when the weight of a hair might have tipped the balance over to death, Miss Wood worked bravely and did not spare herself. Night and morning and at noontide, and many another time beside, her prayer went up for the life of the child. If only she could live her time in the Darnley household over again; or if she could prove to the child in the future her love and repentance! The doctor saw her remorse and spared his caustic words. But old Nannie eyed her askance over the rims of her "specs," as she kept watch and ward by her darling's bed.

Meekmouse's delirium was very innocent and pathetic and wrung more hearts than one, and her constant cry of "Why did papa go and never say 'Good-bye'?" harrowed poor Mr. Darnley as he stood by his little daughter and met her unseeing eye.

At length it seemed to Meekmouse herself that she emerged from a prolonged painful dream; the haunting worries faded from her mind; she no longer sought unceasingly for silver thimbles or tried over and over again to find out how to put on a certain shoe. Too weak to speak or make herself observable, she was aware of Nannie sitting and watching her, but she felt no surprise, surely it was a mistake to think she had ever gone away. Had she? The mere question sent the child asleep, when she awoke Miss Wood was feeding her, she was dimly conscious that Miss Wood had been very kind, very subservient for a long time. Another gap. Papa came and kissed her, and then Dr. Dunn, and there were murmurs of conversation from far away. A clock ticked somehwhere and firelight flickered on the walls and Meekmouse could not tell how the days and nights passed. She had no wish to talk, only just to lie and rest; she did not feel frightened of people any longer, something had happened and it had left another little girl, she thought.

"Where is my hair?" was her first speech; Miss Wood hesitated--

"You had bad headaches, dear, so it was all cut off."

"I like to hear you say, dear," murmured Meekmouse, "Nana, hold my hand." The she slept again; but the same idea woke up with her--"Have they cut off my eyelashes too?"

"You vain little thing, no!" said Miss Wood.

"Will my hair curl when it grows? and shall I be pretty?" asked Meekmouse wistfully. The girl's mind flashed back to a schoolroom tea party, so the child had understood.

And sure enough when it grew again it curled, with golden tints gleaming in the soft rings.

And as Meekmouse gained strength and played car's cradle with Miss Wood, a new-born independence of spirit and a fearlessness peeped out, and dimples would sometimes lurk at the corners of her lips.

It was in the middle of a joyous game, in which Nannie could not or would not understand the rules, that Mrs. Darnley arrived. Arrived white and tired and in deep mourning, to find her unappreciated daughter on the sofa, with dainty wraps, soft curls over her high clear forehead, a little flush upon her cheeks, holding forth brightly and merrily while her laughter rang through the room.

Then she caught sight of her mother and there was a pause--what would the child do and what the mother? Miss Wood and Nannie rose, each wondering what the moment would bring forth. But a new Mary had arisen from the grave where Meekmouse lay.

The new Mary cried gaily, "I'm sorry I can't get up, mamma, you'll have to come here to kiss me." Her eye fell on the black dress.

"Has grandpapa died?" she asked, "Oh! poor little mamma," and with the absolute generosity of childhood she opened her arms.

Nannie and Miss Wood crept outside; when a little later tea was taken in they returned, it was to find Meekmouse with her head on her mother's arm--kisses on her lips--smiles and consoling prattle.

What pangs of self-reproach and shame the mother suffered, Miss Wood was perhaps able to guess.

But thereafter and for ever the past was buried and Meekmouse ceased to exist where Mary reigned.

Typed by Rondalyno, Jan. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024