Read CHAPTER NINE - EXCITEMENT AT PLUMTON of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

“I don’t know what has come to Henry,” said Miss Lambent.  “If I had been in his place I should have immediately called a meeting of the governors of the school, paid Miss Thorne, and let her seek for an engagement elsewhere.”

“I quite agree with you, Rebecca,” replied Miss Beatrice.  “Henry is behaving weakly and foolishly in all these matters.  But we cannot be surprised.  He is so profound a thinker and so deeply immersed in his studies that these little matters escape him.”

“I think it unpardonable.  Here is a strange girl ­for she is a mere girl, and far too young, in my estimation ­appointed to the school, and just because she has rather a genteel appearance, everybody is paying her deference.  Henry is really absurd.  He says that Miss Thorne is quite a lady, and that allowances should be made.  No allowances are made for me.”

“Don’t be angry, Rebecca.”

“I am not angry, Beatrice.  I never am angry:  but in a case like this I feel bound to speak.  There is that absurd Miss Burge ready to praise her to one’s very face, and Mr William Forth Burge actually told me yesterday, when I went up to him to talk about the preparations, that we ought to congratulate ourselves upon having found so excellent a mistress.  I haven’t patience with him.”

“Are the Canninges coming?” said Miss Beatrice, changing the conversation; and as she spoke, standing in the vicarage drawing-room, with her eyes half-closed, a faint flush came into her cheeks, and she looked for the moment a very handsome, graceful woman.  A connoisseur would have said that she was too thin, but granted that it showed breeding and refinement while her dress was in perfect taste.

“Yes; Mrs Canninge told me yesterday that she should certainly drive over, and that she would persuade George Canninge to come.  He ought not to want any persuasion, Beatrice,” and Rebecca accompanied her words with a very meaning look.

“Nonsense, dear!  What attraction can a school-treat have to a gentleman like George Canninge?”

“He might find pleasure in proceedings that are watched over by his friends.  And now look here, Beatrice, I am never angry, I never quarrel, and I never say cruel things, but I must say that I do not think George Canninge is so attentive to you as he used to be.”

“Hush, Rebecca,” cried Beatrice; “how can you speak like that?  There is no engagement between us.”

“But there ought to be,” said Miss Lambent tartly.  “Marriage is a subject upon which I have never thought for myself.”


“Well, not directly,” replied the lady.  “I may perhaps have given such a matter a thought indirectly, but in your case I have thought about it a great deal.”

“Pray say no more, Rebecca.”

“I must say more, Beatrice, for in a case like this, your welfare is at stake, and for my part, I do not see how George Canninge could do better than by making you mistress of Ardley.”

“My dear Rebecca!”

“It would be rather stooping on our side, for the Canninges are little better than traders; but Mrs Canninge is very nice, and I said to her, yesterday ­”

“Surely, Rebecca, you did not allude to ­to ­”

“George Canninge and yourself?  Indeed, I did, my dear.  Mrs Canninge and I thoroughly understand one another, and I feel sure that nothing would please her better than for George Canninge to propose to you.”

Miss Beatrice sighed softly, and soon after the sisters went up to dress.

For it was a festival day at Plumton All Saints, being that of the annual school feast.

This school feast or treat was rather an ancient institution, and was coeval with the schools, but it had altered very much in its proportions since its earlier days, when the schoolmaster invested in a penny memorandum-book, and went round to all the principal inhabitants for subscriptions, which rarely exceeded a shilling, and had to be lectured by each donor upon the best way of teaching the children under his charge.  Those treats first consisted of a ride in one of the farmers’ waggons as far as a field, where the children were regaled with very thin milk and water, and slices of large loaves spotted with currants, which slices were duly baptised in the milk and water, and called by the children ­“cake.”

Then there was a great advance to a real tea in a barn, and again a more generous affair through the generosity of one vicar, who had the children all up to the vicarage, and after they had done no little mischief to his flower-beds, sent them home loaded with fruity cakes, and toys.

Then there was a decadence with a tendency towards thin milk and water and country buns, followed by a tremendous rise when Mr William Forth Burge came upon the scene; and the present was the second feast over which he had been presiding genius.

In preparation for this festival, probably for reasons of his own, the patron had gone about smiling a great deal, and rubbing his hands.  He had obtained carte blanche from the vicar to do as he pleased, and it had pleased him to say to Miss Burge: 

“Betsy, we’ll do the thing ’andsome this time, and no mistake.  Money shan’t stand in the way, and I want Miss Thorne ­and Mr Chute,” he added hastily, “to see that we know how to do things at Plumton.”

The result was that for a whole week the children nearly ran mad, and attention to object, or any other lessons, was a thing impossible to secure; and once every day ­sometimes twice ­Mr Chute was obliged to go into the girls’ school and confide to Miss Thorne the fact that he should be heartily glad when it was all over.

Hazel Thorne participated in his feelings, but she did not feel bound to go to the boys’ school to impart her troubles, having terrible work to keep her scholars to their tasks.

For to a little place like Plumton the preparations were tremendously exciting, and between school hours, and afterwards, the entrance to Mr William Forth Burge’s garden was besieged with anxious sightseers, the wildest rumours getting abroad amongst the children, who were ready to believe a great deal more than they saw, though they had ocular demonstration that a large marquee was being erected, that ropes were stretched between the trees for flags, that four large swings had been made; and as for the contents of that marquee the most extravagant rumours were afloat.

One thing was notable in spite of the inattention, and that was the fact that the schools were wonderfully well filled by children, who came in good time, and who duly paid their pence, many of the scholars having been absentees for months, some since the last school-treat, but who were coming “regular now, please, teacher.”

The morning had arrived when, after receiving strict orders to be at the schools punctually at eleven, fully half the expected number were at the gates by nine, clamouring for admittance; and at last the noise grew so loud that Mrs Thorne cast an appealing look at her daughter, and sighed.

“Ah, Hazel,” she murmured, “if you had only listened to poor Mr Geringer, we should have been spared this degradation.”

“Oh, hush, dear,” whispered Hazel.  “Pray say no more.  Indeed I don’t mind, and the poor children seem so happy.”

“But I mind it, Hazel,” sighed Mrs Thorne.  “It is a degradation indeed.  Of course you will not be expected to walk with the children as far as those people’s?”

“Oh, yes,” said Hazel, trying to speak lightly.  “They are all going in procession with flags and banners.”

“Flags and banners, Hazel?” exclaimed Mrs Thorne, with a horrified look.

“Yes, dear.  Mr Burge wants to give the children a great treat, and there is to be a brass band that he has engaged on purpose.  I have just had a note from Miss Burge.  She says her brother wished to keep it a secret to the last.”

“But not a regular brass band, Hazel?”

“Yes, dear.  It will be at the head of the procession, and the children are to be marched all round the town.”

“But not a brass band with a big drum, my dear?  Surely not.  Don’t say with a big drum?”

“Really, mother, dear, I don’t know,” replied Hazel, bending down and kissing her.  “I suppose so.”

“Thank Heaven, that my poor husband was spared all this!”

“Oh, hush, dear,” whispered Hazel piteously.

“But you will not stoop to walk round the town with them, Hazel?  And surely you are never going to put that ridiculous bunch of cowslips in your dress?”

“Mother, dear,” said Hazel quietly, “I am the mistress of the girls’ school, and it is my duty to walk with them.  I am going to wear the bunch of spring flowers, for they were brought for me by the girls, who will all wear a bunch like it.  Here is a bouquet, though, that Mr Burge has sent for the mistress out of his greenhouse.  I suppose I must carry that in my hand.”

“Oh, my poor girl! my poor girl!”

“Now, mother, dear mother, do not be so foolish,” said Hazel.  “Why should I be ashamed to walk with my girls?  Are we not living an honourable and independent life, and is it not ten thousand times better than eating the bread of charity?”

“Ah me! ah me!” sighed Mrs Thorne.

“Now, dear, you will dress and come up to the treaty and I will see that you are comfortable.”

“I come?  No, no, no!”

“Yes, dear, Mr Burge begs that you will.  Come, girls.”

This was called up the stairs to her little sisters, who came running down, dressed in white with blue sashes for the first time since their father’s death.

“What does this mean?” exclaimed Mrs Thorne.

“They are coming with me, dear, each carrying a great bouquet.”

“Never!  I forbid it!” cried the poor woman.

“It was Mr Burge’s particular request,” said Hazel gently; “and, mother dear, you will nearly break their hearts if you forbid them now.”

“There, there, there,” sobbed Mrs Thorne; “it’s time I died and was taken out of your way.  I’m only a nuisance and a burden to you.”


Only that one word, but the way in which it was uttered, and the graceful form that went down upon its knees before her to draw the head she kept rocking to and fro down upon her breast proved sufficient to calm the weak woman.  Her sobs grew less frequent, and she at last began to wipe her eyes, after kissing Hazel again and again.

“I suppose we must accept our fate, my dear,” she said at last.  “I’m sure I do mine.  And now mind this.  Cissy ­Mabel!”

“Yes, mamma!  Oh, sister Hazel, isn’t it time to go?”

“I say you will mind this.  Cissy ­Mabel, you are to ­But must they walk in procession with those terrible children, Hazel?”

“Why not, dear?  They will be with me, and what can be more innocent and pleasant than this treat to the poor girls?  There, there, I know, for my sake, you will come up and lend your countenance to their sports.”

“Well, well,” sighed Mrs Thorne.  “I’ll try.  But mind me, Hazel,” she exclaimed sharply, “I’m not coming up with that dreadful woman, Mrs Chute.  I am coming by myself.”

“Yes, dear, I would,” said Hazel.

“And mind this.  Cissy and Mabel, though you are going to walk behind the school children and carry flowers, you are not to forget that you are young ladies.  Mind that.”

“No, mamma!” in duet.

“And ­Oh dear me, Hazel, there is some one at the front door, and I’ve only got on my old cap.  I really cannot be seen; I ­Good gracious me, Hazel, don’t let any one in.”

Too late.  Hazel had already opened the door and admitted little Miss Burge, who came trotting in with her face all smiles.

“I thought I should never get through the children,” she panted; “and ain’t it ’ot?  How well you do look, my dear!  Lavender muslin suits you exactly.  And how are you, my bonny little ones?” she cried, kissing the two girls.  “But there, I’ve no time to lose.  The band will be here directly, and my brother is with the boys; and, Mrs Thorne, he sends his compliments to you.”

Mrs Thorne had drawn herself up very stiffly in her chair, and was preserving a dignified silence, feeling offended at their visitor’s want of recognition; but Mr Burge’s compliments taught her that this patron of the school acknowledged her status in society, and she smiled and bowed.

“And he said that he hoped you would excuse his not calling to invite you himself, but ­now, bless my heart, what was the rest of it?”

She looked in a perplexed way at Hazel, and then at the ceiling, as if expecting to read it there.

“Oh, I know ­but he had been so busy over the preparations, and he hoped you would come and look on; and the pony carriage will be here to fetch you at twelve.”

“I’m sure ­really ­I am greatly obliged to Mr Burge ­”

“Mr William Forth Burge,” said Miss Burge correctively.

“To Mr William Forth Burge for his kindness, and of course I shall be most happy.”

Hazel’s eyes had filled with tears at the quiet unassuming kindness of these people, and she looked her gratitude at their visitor.

“My brother’s in such spirits, my dear, and he’s next door; and he said at breakfast that he was proud to say he came to Plumton Schools himself when he was a boy, and nobody should say he was too proud to march round the town with them to-day.”

“And ­and is he going to walk in the procession.  Miss Burge?” asked Mrs Thorne.

“That he is, ma’am,” said the little lady.  “So I said to him at breakfast, `well, Bill,’ I said ­you see I always call him `Bill,’ Mrs Thorne, though he has grown to be such a rich and great man.  It seems more natural so ­`well, Bill,’ I said, `if with all your money and position you’re not too proud to walk with the boys, I won’t be too proud to walk with the girls.’”

“And ­and are you going to walk with them, Miss Burge?” said Mrs Thorne, with trembling eagerness.

“That I am, ma’am,” cried Miss Burge, rustling her voluminous blue silk dress, “and I’ve come down to ask Miss Thorne if she would allow me to walk with her, and ­Oh, my gracious!  How it did make me jump!”

The cause of Miss Burge’s start was the preliminary boom boom, boom of Mrs Thorne’s horror, the big drum, for the band had been marched up silently to the front of the schools, and the next moment the place was echoing with the brazen strains.