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THE HISTORY OF
MABEL DACRE'S FIRST LESSONS.*
"GOOD-BY, my little Mabel; be a good child, and a comfort to your poor old grandfather!" So saying, Mr. Dacre put back the thick brown curls, which, to-day, a most unusual circumstance, hung over her face; and kissed her eyes, which were closed, for Mabel had resolved not to cry; still the long, dark lashes were moist with the tears they repressed.
Mabel was lifted, in silence, into the carriage, when instantly jumping out again, she ran to her grandfather and almost sobbed, though the childish voice was steadied with a resolution which would have done honour to nineteen, instead of nine. "My dear grandfather, I did not say good-by; I will do everything I am told-;I will be so very, very good!" and our little heroine ran back eagerly, to the carriage.
Mabel Dacre was an orphan, but utterly unsaddened by the memories which make the sorrow of an orphan. The darling and delight of her grandfather, she had never known a grief which had not been shared-;a care which had not been soothed. Her whole life had been spent in the country, and her cheek was as red as the roses that had grown up with her, and her step as light as the wind; and, to say the truth, nearly as unchecked. Little, affectionate, kind-hearted thing! having her own way was not so bad for her as it usually is-;still it was bad enough. The warm feelings, uncontrolled, had degenerated into passionate ones; the lively temper, uncurbed, was grown wayward and violent: the mind, uncultivated, became idle and vacant; and, at the age of nine, Mabel Dacre was headstrong, rude, ignorant, and awkward; in short, running as wild as any neglected shrub in the garden. Day after day was spent in scampering over the grounds, her only companion a white greyhound as wilful as herself. Companions she had few; far from neighbours of their own station, they lived at a distance; and the children of the peasantry shrank from one whose extreme indulgence had, as extreme indulgence always does, rendered selfish and overbearing. Mabel saw she was disliked, and also felt her own deficiencies; for, only last Christmas, she had been taught her first lesson, in mortification. Now, bitter, but useful, mortification is the steppingstone to knowledge, even in a child.
Mr. Dacre had a daughter, Mrs. Harcourt, who together with a fine family, lived at a distance; but last Christmas she and her four daughters had volunteered Mr. Dacre a visit. Mabel had been impatient for the arrival of her cousins, to a degree that had put a stop do either sleeping, eating, playing, or, indeed, any faculty but talking: she would do this, that, and the other (to use a favourite phrase of her nurse's,) when her cousins arrived. Nay, her generosity had arrived, in imagination, even to letting them have her pony-;a little, rough, wild animal, which had once or twice nearly broken her neck, but was, nevertheless, a prodigious favourite. The day arrived-;she was awake long before, and up as soon as it was light, though she had been duly informed it was impossible they could arrive before evening.
Expectation makes a long delay. Her poor old grandfather was worried almost out of his life, and quite out of his arm-chair. First she thought dinner never would be ready, which, when it came, she was too impatient to eat. Tea was expected and passed in precisely the same manner; and, as the evening closed in, her impatience was quite unbearable. At last, to put a stop to the incessant opening and shutting the door, and the still more incessant questioning, one of the servants gave her some chestnuts to roast, and Mabel drew her stool to the fire.
A soft drizzling mist prevented the carriage from being heard as it drove up the avenue, and the bustle in the hall first announced the arrival of the visiters. Mabel threw her stool down, and her chestnuts into the fire, and flew to welcome them. A most noisy welcome it was. Mr. Dacre thought to himself, "five children! Why the old house will be about our ears."
"What is the matter?" said the clear cold voice of Mrs. Harcourt, as Mabel threw her arms round her second cousin's neck, and dragged her forward with an energetic hospitality worthy the feudal times. Miss Harriet was disengaged from her cousins's embrace, and Mabel shrunk back with a feeling of surprise, if not of fear.
Mrs. Harcourt proceeded towards the dining-room, where her father was sitting, unable to move with the gout, followed, in the quietest manner possible, by her daughters. She approached Mr. Dacre, regretted that there should be such a drawback, as the gout, to the happiness of their meeting, observed he looked well in the face, and requested permission to present the young ladies. Each severally stepped up to their grandfather, said they were glad to see him, and presented their cheek to be kissed; princesses could not have done it with more courtesy or more coldness. Mrs. Harcourt then asked for her niece, and Mabel, for the first time in her life, felt reluctant to be noticed; she was kissed by her aunt, afterwards by her cousins; and each young lady then took a chair, where they set upright and silent, as if they had been images of good behaviour.
"As the night is so very cold, you may come a little nearer the fire," said their mother.
The four moved their chairs forward at once, and then resumed their silence and stillness. Mabel, almost unconsciously, pushed back her stool which was drawn close to the fender. Mrs. Harcourt talked to her father, and the young ladies looked at each other, and at the stranger, slightingly enough. Mabel felt rather than saw, that the looks had more of contempt than it was quite agreeable to suppose directed to herself. She glanced at them from time to time, when she thought herself unobserved; the Misses Harcourt seemed beings of another nature; and naturally enough, exaggerating their advantages, found her self-estimate greatly lowered in the contrast. She felt a secret consciousness of being ridiculous-;a fear singularly prompt to enter a childish mind; and, moreover, she was disappointed, though she knew not well how. With what joy did she hear supper announced!-;and hastily assuming a seat, began to heap her cousin's plates with every delicacy in her reach. Faint "No, thank you's" rewarded her trouble, when Mrs. Harcourt said, in her chilly, but dictatorial manner, "Do you allow Miss Dacre to eat all this pastry? I never allow my daughters to touch any thing so unwholesome!" And Mabel saw with dismay, her cousins sup upon a roast apple, a piece of bread, and a glass of plain water.
Nine o'clock struck. "Young ladies, you will bid your grandfather good night."
"Mabel, love," said Mr. Dacre, "show your cousins their room."
"I thank you," interposed their mother, "but the Misses Harcourt's maid is in attendance." The young strangers courtesied and withdrew.
It must be owned Mabel had been accustomed to loiter at her grandfather's knee, nay, even to sip out of his oldfashioned cut-glass goblet of wine and water, but to-night she disappeared as quietly and even more silently than her cousins. She left the room with an intention of visiting them, but paused from sheer timidity as she reached the door. While hesitating, she heard Miss Harriet's voice in a much louder key than was used downstairs:
"Well, did you ever see such an uncouth creature as our new cousin-;dressed such a figure? Why she's a complete Hottentot!"
Mabel withdrew indignantly to her bed, and there fairly cried herself to sleep. Not, however, till she had reflected a full hour touching what "a Hottentot" could possibly be. "Give me my darkest frock," said Mabel to the old servant who dressed her. She had already contrasted her appearance with that of her guests, and, in her mind's eye, saw herself in-;alas, for poor Mabel's taste! a frock of brocaded silk, where each large flower covered half a breadth; it had been a gown of her grandmother's, its gay colours had marvellously attracted her childish admiration, and she had never rested till a best frock had been made from its ample folds. Besides the hues of the rainbow in her garb, she had also decorated herself with divers strings of coloured beads and bugles, twisted about her neck and arms which eagerness and cold had dyed a double red. Moreover, she contemplated her curled head (her hair curled naturally) with no sort of satisfaction. She recalled the strangers dressed in dark green merino frocks, up to the throat and down to the wrist; the gloves, which were almost part of the hands they covered; the neat black slipper. Mabel thought to herself, "mine were down at heel;" and then their heads, the youngest had the hair simply parted back; in the second it was allowed to curl in the neck; the third had it also curled in the front, while Miss Harcourt, the eldest, had arrived at the dignity (and an epoch it is in a young lady's life) of having her hair turned up behind, and a comb. "She is hardly three years older than I am," thought Mabel.
Mabel's step was always light, and her voice always soft, when she tripped into her grandfather's dressing-room to make her daily inquiries. To-day, her manner was more than usually subdued.
"I expect my little girl," said Mr. Dacre, "will learn a great deal from her cousins. Mrs. Harcourt, my daughter, tells me they are uncommonly forward in their education."
"Pray," said our heroine, "do tell me what is meant by a Hottentot."
"They are a peculiarly hideous and brutal race of savages in Africa.
Poor Mabel asked no farther questions. Mrs. Harcourt now arrived to breakfast with her father. The young ladies had taken theirs an hour before, but just came in to wish Mr. Dacre good morning, and then departed. Mabel looked after them, and felt as if she had no right to her usual place. "Is it possible," exclaimed Mrs. Harcourt, "that you suffer Miss Dacre to have chocolate for breakfast? It is what I would not allow one of my own children to touch." To be called "Miss Dacre," to be eating what her visiters would not be allowed to partake!-;She could not swallow another spoonful. chocolate was no indulgence to her, at all events, to-day. Mrs. Harcourt, after breakfast, proposed her niece should accompany her to what was to be the school-room. "During Miss Dormer's holidays, I take the office of governess on myself." How endless the morning seemed to Mabel!-;how wearisome the various catechisms out of which they recited dates, names, &c., in the driest and the most didactic order. And as for the harp, which the eldest Miss Harcourt practised for two hours, Mabel wondered how she had ever liked music. The hours of study were succeeded by those of relaxation, and the four sisters proceeded to walk up and down the terrace in the sun; beyond this their young hostess could not allure them. All her efforts for their entertainment were equally fruitless; they screamed when her greyhound came bounding towards them; shuddered with half real, half affected, horror, when she proposed a ride on her pony; and, when she challenged her youngest cousin to a race, she was struck dumb with their answer-;that such very violent exercise was only fit for boys.
But the climax of all was when Miss Elizabeth, the eldest, who drew, admired the bright red berries of a bunch of holly, and lamented that it was out of her reach. Immediately Mabel, with much good-nature, and a little of the pride of usefulness, began scrambling up the tree, quite regardless of the prickly leaves, and succeeded in obtaining the desired branch; but, by the time she began her descent, the cries and ejaculations of the Misses Harcourt had brought their mother to the window to the terrace itself, Mabel swung by a bough to the ground, and found herself in the awful presence of her aunt. Blushing even deeper than the crimson which exertion had brought into her face, Mabel hesitatingly offered Elizabeth the stalk with its red berries; Mrs. Harcourt, however, repulsed the proffered gift.
"I can permit no daughter of mine to take what has been procured in so disgraceful a manner. Young ladies, you will return with me to the house." Poor Mabel was left standing by herself, equally dismayed and disconsolate, on the terrace. But the mortifications of the ensuing day were even more acute. It was her grandfather's birthday, and each of the Misses Harcourt had some pretty present of their own work to offer him. The eldest brought a drawing-;her latest and best performance; the second had netted him a brown silk purse; the third had embroidered a velvet case for his spectacles; and the youngest had hemmed a silk handkerchief, and neatly marking it with his name. And poor Mabel had nothing to give. Her little heart swelled even to bursting, and she stole out of the room to hide her tears, that came thick and fast.
"Come back, my little girl," said her too indulgent grandfather.
"Excuse me," said Mrs. Harcourt, "young ladies, you may leave the room." The Misses Harcourt retired.
"A very bad sign; Miss Dacre's crying shows so much envy."
Mr. Dacre did not quite agree with his daughter, but as he had never contradicted her as a child, it was not very likely he should do so now.
"You are quite ruining poor Frederick's child: she is quite a little Hottentot!"
"O!" thought Mr. Dacre, "I now understand poor Mabel's question!" It is unnecessary to dwell quite as long as Mrs. Harcourt did upon Mabel's deficiencies; but the result of the conversation was that with which our narrative commences, viz. Mabel's going to school.
Drearily did the weeks pass with her grandfather, his existence suddenly missed its interest, and, with all her faults, Mabel was kind-hearted and most affectionate. In the mean time his grandaughter found the novelty of her situation, at the Misses Smythe's, not so pleasant as novelties generally are.
The silence, the stillness, the order, to say nothing of the lessons, were very dreadful in Mabel's eyes. Then she had the mortification of being behindhand with the very youngest of her companions. She had no available knowledge. True, her habit of reading aloud to her grandfather had given her a stock of information really uncommon at her age; but it was very miscellaneous, and not at all useful as regarded her present course of study. The rest of the girls, finding that at the age of ten, she could do nothing more than read and write, immediately set her down as a dunce, and a new feeling, that of timidity, interfered sadly with her progress-;for Mabel was really a quick child.
All beginnings are very troublesome things, and such she found them. But all the early cares of education were nothing compared to her other sorrows. For the first time in her life she found herself utterly alone, an object neither of importance nor affection.
Shy, keenly alive to ridicule, and unaccustomed to girls of her own age, she experienced insuperable difficulties in the way of getting acquainted with her school-fellows; they were to her strangers, if not enemies. The trees in the garden seemed her only friends; a dwarf oak was an especial favourite-;it reminded her of one at the hall. Her rural tastes at last led her into a great error. The gardener, a good-natured old man, whose heart inclined to a young lady whose interest in a patch of mustard and cress seemed almost as great as his own,one unlucky morning made her a present of a wicker cage containing a young owl, and a little frightful creature it was, to be sure. Still, had it been the celebrated queen bird of the fairy tales, it could not have been more highly valued.
In the first place, there wa a mystery about keeping it, and we all know mysteries are very fascinating things. Moreover, it was something to love, and Mabel soon loved it very dearly. But, alas! the necessary feeding of an evening involved a terrible breach of school discipline. Every night, after the teachers had carried away the lights from the young ladies' room, Mabel used to slip out of her bed, steal down to the garden, and feed the owl. For nearly a week no suspicion was excited, but, one bright moonlight night, Miss Smythe, who had forgotten some order to the gardener, walked herself down to his cottage, which stood at the further extremity of the garden. As she returned, her attention was attracted to a figure in white, gliding among the trees.
"Dear, dear! what mischief is going on now?" exclaimed Miss Smythe, whom long experience had made sage. In another minute she was at the culprit's side. "Gracious goodness! she will catch her death of cold. Miss Dacre, you tiresome child, come with me into the house this minute!"
In silence Miss Dacre obeyed, and in silence was put to bed again, and Miss Smythe departed with an assurance that the offence would be duly visited with punishment the next day. Every variety of punishment visited Mabel's sleep that night. The next day she passed in solitary confinement.
"Not so much," said Miss Smythe, "for keeping the bird-;that I might have permitted-;but for the deception of the concealment." It made Mabel's sorrows more acute to know herself how improperly she had acted. The day after she was seriously ill with a sore throat, and cough, and had to get well on the cold comfort that it was entirely her own fault. Gradually, however, she was becoming more popular with her schoolfellows. The first fortnight had taught the useful lesson that she was of no consequence, the second brought with it the want of friends, and the third, the wish to acquire them. She soon saw that she must put herself out of the way for the sake of others, and that kindness must be reciprocal; now, she was not naturally selfish, and its acquired habit soon wore off. From one extreme she ran into another, and the desire of popularity became an absolute passion. Her injudicious desire of obliging, right or wrong, led her into continual scrapes. The last was the worst. There was an old woman who was allowed, once a week, to supply the school with cakes, fruit, &c.; but, besides this regular commerce, unhappily a good deal of smuggling went on, and divers sweet things entered the house unknown to the Misses Smythe. One evening, Mabel's ingenuity had been exerted in procuring a cherry pie, for which her purse also had paid. As soon as the teachers had gone their usual rounds, and descended to supper, the pupils prepared to eat their pie, for which the long summer evening afforded ample light: the road to the mouth is a very obvious one. Suddenly a staid and well-known step was heard on the stairs. It was that of the younger Miss Smythe.
"What shall we do with the pie?"
"Put it on the top of the bed," said one of the girls.
Mabel jumped up, placed it rapidly on the bed head, and when Miss Smythe entered, all was seeming sleep and quiet. Her unexpected visit turned out to be one of great length: a press stood in the room, and its whole contents that night were put to rights. All were too sleepy when their governess departed to even think of the pie.
The next morning, an exclamation of horror from Mabel awoke all the girls. The pie, turned upside down in the scuffle, had let all its juice run through on the bed-;the pretty French bed, white as snow, on which the Misses Smythe so prided themselves-;the furniture was utterly spoiled. In the midst of their dismay, and their unkindly reproached to Mabel, who was called "such a stupid awkward thing," one of the teachers entered. The alarm was given, and Miss Smythe's anger at its height. The next day, when Mr. Dacre called to take Mabel home for the holidays, he was told that his granddaughter was quite incorrigible, and really required severer discipline than was practised at the Misses Smythe's establishment. Mabel came there weeping, and so she left it. But her sorrow yet admitted of augmentation.
Mrs. Harcourt and daughters were coming to the hall. They arrived fully aware of why their cousin had left the Misses Smythe. The next morning, Mrs. Harcourt said, in her most ungracious manner, "Young ladies, I permit you still to offer Miss Dacre the presents you have brought her, though I fear, from what I hear, they will be of little use." It must be owned, the presents themselves were unreasonable enough, if six months at school were held sufficient to insure their being a benefit. The eldest gave her a piece of music, scientific enough to have puzzled an advanced performer; the second gave her a box of colours (for drawing Mabel had not the least taste;) the third, a volume of erudite patterns for lace, bead, and other work; and the youngest presented her with an elegantly bound French treatise on botany, not a word of which she could read. Alas, poor Mabel! Tow days (but they were very long ones) only did Mrs. Harcourt stay. After her departure it was gradually discovered that, softened and subdued, Mabel was much improved by her having been at school. But a second absence from home was preparing for her. Mrs. Harcourt stayed two days again on her way home. She had heard of a firstrate school; Mabel's deficiencies were sedulously brought forward; and Mr. Dacre again convinced of the propriety of a remedy.
This time Mrs. Harcourt herself consigned her to the care of Mrs. Weston, certainly with a very unflattered character. Depressed at parting with her grandfather, mortified by her aunt, and remembering the ill success of her first trial, Mabel sat and cried in the window-seat. The first week was very miserable. Embarrassed by so many strangers, hopeless with observing so much of accomplishment, Mabel was in a state of depression that any person less in the habit of making allowance than Mrs. Weston would have taken for absolute sullenness.
One morning, while gazing sorrowfully on the parapet, and thinking how melancholy a window was that only looked to the tops of houses, she observed something dark on the wall. She opened the casement, and saw that it was a robin, lying apparently dead. A robin! it was like an old friend: forgetting all the trouble of which her last bird had been the cause, Mabel caught it up and found that it still showed faint signs of life. She wrapped it up in a handkerchief, and, putting it in her work-basket, hurried down stairs, with the intention of trying to relieve it with warm milk at breakfast. Previous to this there were some lessons to be said; and, while they were in progress, the robin, reanimated by the warmth, escaped from the basket. No slight confusion ensued, and, in her hurry to secure the captive, which only fluttered very faintly, Mabel threw down a form. Of course an inquiry was made as to what caused the noise and our heroine was brought, bird in hand to Mrs. Weston. To Mabel's extreme surprise, she met with no reprimand, but praise for her humanity, and Mrs. Weston herself helped to revive the poor bird. It was a tame one, and Mabel's delight and gratitude were unbounded on being permitted to keep it.
The system of kindness thus begun was most rapidly pursued; our heroine now discarded from her mind the belief that it was quite in vain for her to attempt to do any thing; she found that inclination and ability went hand in hand. Mrs. Weston easily saw that Mabel Dacre had been at once over indulged, and yet over blamed; and that, while there were in her character the elements of much good, they were yet of a kind that were the soonest turned to evil. She was therefore repressed, but not discouraged; and industry gradually became an enjoyment, and order a habit.
But, at the end of the first six months, a heavy disappointment awaited her. Mr. Dacre had written to say he would fetch her the following week; but, alas! that week only brought a letter from Mrs. Harcourt, saying that her father had been very ill, and that she had prevailed on him to accompany the family to Bath. Miss Dacre would, therefore, remain at school during the holidays. Poor Mabel! Perhaps, however this very untoward circumstance proved one of the most fortunate events in her life. Being the only young person left during the holidays under Mrs. Weston's care, much attention was directed to a disposition that well repaid the cultivation. Mabel was conversed with as a sensible and a responsible being, and her naturally affectionate temper called into action by the discovery that she was really liked for herself. School met again, and Mabel was among the most gentle and the most assiduous. Christmas came at last, and with it her grandfather. Mabel cried for joy as she threw herself into his arms; and Mr. Dacre could hardly believe that the tall, elegant girl, who had prizes in every one of her studies to exhibit, could be the little, rude, ignorant Mabel. The pain of parting with Mrs. Weston was the only drawback to her content. it may be doubted whether Mrs. Harcourt was quite so delighted with Miss Dacre's improvement; and the accomplishments of her daughters were brought more sedulously forward than ever. Perhaps the secret why Mabel's little stock were so much more efficient, in her grandfather's eyes at least, was that her cousins' were produced in display, and hers from affection.
Early lessons are invaluable ones, and Mabel never forgot her first experiences. Out of mortification grew the desire of improvement; and the desire of amendment soon produced its effect. All the better qualities of her nature were now called into action by Mrs. Weston's judicious kindness. Frank, kind, and affectionate, at sixteen-;when Mabel Dacre was the constant comfort and companion of her grandfather-;feeling within herself at once the desire and capability of excellence; feeling, too, all the happiness both to itself and others which a well regulated disposition and a cultivated mind is capable of diffusing-;Mabel often said, laughing, "I used to call Mrs. Harcourt my evil, but I ought to have called her my good, genius."