CHAPTER I – GRANDFATHER’S STORY
OF all the incidents of her early life none had so great or lasting an effect on Betty Pole as those of that evening in Cheyne Walk on which she had been accused of breaking the blue china jar. This was one of those beautiful pieces, brought from Holland, which had been given to her grandfather by the Dutch Minister when on some diplomatic mission to King William III. Great store had been set on it by the household generally, and Betty’s mother had often, during her lifetime, enjoined on the children special care of the beautiful piece of oriental china. She always said that it was to be looked upon as a sort of heirloom in the family.
The charge against Miss Betty was made by Abigail, she coming right into the back sitting-room after supper, when the dusk was beginning to fall through the trees in the garden of the King’s House in Chelsea. Abigail’s manner was at all times a pronounced one, for all her kindness of heart; but she was not feared so much by the children, who knew the softness as well as the weight of her hand, as by the two men whom she controlled in the despotic manner which purely domestic women assume to lonely men — men who have not wives to protect them. Abigail had in the motherless household the honour and privileges of one whom the mother had trusted, and who by faithful service had earned the trust. As a rule she was a just woman, but on this occasion the violence of her demeanour almost implied to those who knew her that she was herself not quite blameless in the matter. They all knew that she would not wilfully and deliberately lie, but they felt that the occasion was a grave one, and one in which no one would willingly be under the imputation of guilt if it could be avoided. Some of them, face to face with the charge, would have held it justifiable to have deflected the current of public thought if they could not on such an occasion have stemmed it. The young people, one and all, with wonderful unanimity, denied the charge which had at first been made in the general form of ‘one of the children.’ The two men were concerned, as men ever are regarding the breakages of things they value. Betty’s father, Charles Pole, was as near anger as his gentle nature and the sorrow of his too recent loss would let him be. He spoke severely of the need of care, and reminded the children that their dear mother had ever told them to be careful of this thing that she loved; and then the sight of their little black clothes seemed to smite him and he stopped speaking, for he knew that to that mother’s heart one moment of any of his children’s happiness was dearer than all the vessels which had ever grown under the potter’s hand. She had accepted on her marriage the motherhood of the four children of her husband’s first wife, and treated them all just as she afterwards treated her own little Betty, her only child.
After a spell of silence Betty’s grandfather, Dudley Stanmore, spoke-
“I am sorry that the jar, which had for me very dear memories, has been broken; but we must not forget to be just. Tell me, children; which of you broke it?”
There was no answer. Then the old man spoke again, this time more sternly; his voice was grave and strong, despite his ninety and odd years-
“Let whoever did this, own to it!” All were still silent. For a few seconds the old man’s face looked very stern; but then came a smile and a sigh of relief, and he said quietly-
“Well, Mistress Abigail, that is all right! I am glad that none of the children did it.” This was more than Abigail could brook, so she answered hotly-
“Oh yes! saving your presence; but they did;” and turning to the children added: “Ye know, children, that God hates a liar, and that liars stand without the Gates and go into the burning Pit. Now, tell me, which done it?”
Marjory, who though not the eldest had pertness beyond the level of her years, answered-
“None of us did it, Abigail! Did you?”
“Me! Me? you wicked Miss. You! Miss Betty. You were last in the room–what do you say to it?”
Betty, who was sitting in her usual place on a little stool at her grandfather’s knee, said gently, in her sweet, old-fashioned way-
“I know nothing of it, Abigail! When I was in the room I was reading.”
“Take care, Miss Betty, take care! now take care!” said Abigail hotly, as she raised a warning finger. “Tell the truth.”
“But I am telling the truth,” said the child. Here her grandfather joined in:
“My word for Betty’s truth! She would not speak falsely! Would you, dear?” The child looked up, turning her head so that the wrinkled hand which he had laid on it slipped down on her shoulder.
“Oh no, grandfather!” she answered quietly; “how could I?”
“Old master always sticks up for Miss Betty,” said Abigail tartly, “just because she is his kin, I suppose–and so like him!” she added, with a touch of feminine causticity.
The likeness was remarkable, despite the gulf of more than fourscore years that lay between them. The old man’s face was wrinkled, his hair fell in thin, straggling flakes of snow, his eyes were dim, and his tall form was bowed with years, whilst the child’s hair was golden-brown, her eyes were sapphire, and her skin had the freshness and the warm glow of youth. But there was in each the same inward calm, the same line of profile, the same delicacy of nostril, the same resolution of mouth; and, beyond all else, that something which can hardly be put in words–the capacity of exaltation.
Betty’s father now spoke reprovingly-
“Abigail Hood, you forget yourself when you so address Mr. Stanmore. Greater respect is due to him! And beside, he would say nothing but what is true. If Betty is like him, then I thank God that it is so; for her life should be pure and strong and true, like that of her dear mother.”
Abigail was prepared to do battle only up to a certain point, and as there was nothing here to be argued she used with deadly effect her purely feminine arms. Taking up the corner of her apron and holding it to her eyes, she withdrew. Mr. Stanmore then rose, and taking Betty’s hand in his, said-
“Come! We will go and see the broken jar and find out, if we can, what is the cause of it.”
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