Read CHAPTER TWENTY SIX - A SURPRISE of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

Hazel’s first impulse was to hurry up to her room, but to her astonishment, she became aware of the fact that her mother had been watching both interviews, by her manner, for she was standing inside the room door, and throwing her arms round her daughter she kissed her on both cheeks.

There was another surprise for Hazel though, for a loud voice exclaimed ­

“Oh, I say, Hazel, ar’n’t you going it?  I shall tell Geringer you’re going to marry the parson.”

“Percy!  You here!” she cried, completely ignoring his words.

“Looks like it, don’t it?  I say, how jolly white you’ve got.”

“Have you asked for a holiday, Percy!” she said, responding to his caress, and noting at the same time how tall and manly he was growing, for he was passing from the tall, thin boy into the big, bony, ill-shaped young man, with a hoarse voice and a faint trace of down upon his lip and chin.

At the same time she noted a peculiarly fast, flashy style of dress that he had adopted, his trousers fitting tightly to his legs, his hair being cut short, and his throat wrapped in a common, showy-looking tie, fastened with a horseshoe pin.

“Have I asked for a what?” he said, changing countenance a little ­“a holiday?  Well, yes, I suppose I have ­a long one.  Eh, ma?”

He looked at Mrs Thorne as if asking for help, and she responded at once.

“I wouldn’t let Percy come into the school, my dear, but let him wait till you came out,” she said.  “The fact is, Hazel, my dear, the poor boy has been so put upon and ill-used at the place where he consented to act as clerk, that at last, in spite of his earnest desire to stay there for both our sakes, my dear ­I think I am expressing your feelings, Percy?”

“Right as the mail!” he replied quickly.

“He felt that as a gentleman he could submit no longer, and so he has left and come down.”

“Left and come down?” said Hazel mechanically, as she thought of the narrowness of her present income, and the impracticability of making it feed another hearty appetite as well as those at home.

“Yes; they were such a set of cads, you know,” said Percy, sticking a cheap glass in one eye and holding it there by the brow.  “Regular set of cads, from the foreman down to the lowest clerk.”

“Did you have a quarrel with your employer, Percy?” said Hazel gravely.

“I don’t know what you mean by having a quarrel with my employer, Hazel,” replied the boy.  “I told him that he was a confounded cad, and that I wouldn’t stand any more of his nonsense.”

“What had you been doing, Percy?”

“Doing? ­doing?  Why, nothing at all.  It was impossible to get on with such a set of cads.”

“There must have been some reason for the quarrel,” said Hazel.

“Really, my dear, this is very foolish of you,” cried Mrs Thorne quickly.  “You do not understand these things.  For my part, I think Percy has done quite right.  It was bad enough for the poor boy to have to submit to the degradation of going to work, without putting up with the insults of a ­of a ­a ­”

“Set of cads, ma,” said the lad.

“Yes, my boy ­cads,” said Mrs Thorne, getting rid of the word with no little show of distaste.

“I think, mamma, that out of respect to Mr Geringer, who has been so kind to us, you ought to write to Percy’s employer.”

“Haven’t got an employer now, so you can’t write to him,” said the boy sharply.  “Nice sort of a welcome, this, from one’s own sister.  If I’d known it was coming to this, I’d have jolly soon gone down Charles Street.”

“Charles Street!  Oh, my dear Percy, pray, pray don’t think of going there!” cried Mrs Thorne.  “What is going down Charles Street?”

“Going to enlist, mamma ­taking the shilling.”

“Oh, my boy! ­oh, Percy!”

“Well, what’s the good of coming down here to have your own sister turn dead against you, like the confounded cads at the office.”

“I do not turn against you, Percy,” said Hazel; “but I cannot help thinking there is something wrong.”

“That’s right; go it.  Nice opinion you’ve got of your brother.  Something wrong, indeed!  Why, what do you suppose is wrong?”

“For shame, Hazel!  How dare you!” cried Mrs Thorne.  “It is cruel to him, and an insult to me.  Why do you think such things of your poor orphaned brother?  If your father had been alive, you would never have dared to speak so harshly.  Oh, Hazel, Hazel, you make my life a burden to me, indeed, indeed.”

“My dear mother, those words are uncalled for.  I only asked Percy for some explanation of his conduct.  We have had no warning of this; not one of his letters has hinted at the possibility of his leaving his situation; but we do know that he has been extravagant.”

“Go it,” cried Percy sulkily; and he began to rummage in his pockets.

“Really, Hazel, I think he has managed on very little,” said Mrs Thorne indignantly.

“I differ from you, mother; for I had hoped that my brother would have striven to help us, and not found himself compelled to drain our resources more and more.”

“Look here,” cried Percy, “I sha’n’t stand this.  There’s plenty more posts to be obtained, I dare say, and then I shall be a burden to no one.”

“Don’t talk like that, my dear,” cried Mrs Thorne.  “Hazel is only a little tired and cross, and she’ll be as different as can be, when she has had her meal.  There, I won’t be angry with you, my dear; sit down and have some tea.  Poor Percy was nearly starved, and I got some ready for him myself.  I was afraid you would not like to be called out of the school.”

Hazel glanced at the little table where the remains of the tea were standing, with empty egg-shells, a fragment of bacon, the dirty cups, and a large array of crumbs.

“I made him a good cup, poor fellow! he was so worn out; so if you fill up the pot, my dear, I dare say you’ll find it all right.”

This was the first time that Mrs Thorne had attempted to prepare the tea, and when she had performed her task it was in an untidy way.  Now that the meal was over, everything looked wretchedly untempting to a weary person seeking to be refreshed.

Hazel looked at Percy, but he avoided her eye, and sitting down with his back to her, he began to fill a little cutty pipe from an indiarubber pouch.

“My dear Percy, what are you about?” cried Mrs Thorne.

“Only going to have a pipe,” he said, striking a vesuvian and holding it to the bowl; “a fellow can’t get on without his weed.”

Hazel’s eyes flashed as she saw the thick puffs of smoke emitted from her brother’s lips, but she did not speak; she waited for her mother, whose forehead looked troubled, but who made no remark.

“If I speak now,” thought Hazel, “it will only make more unpleasantness.”  So she filled up the teapot which was half full of leaves, and then sat down to her comfortless meal.

Finding that she was silent, Percy took it that she had repented, so he assumed the offensive as he sat and smoked, showing himself an adept at the practice, and soon half-filling the little room with the pungent vapour.

“Precious mean little place this for you to have to live in, mamma,” he said contemptuously.

“Yes, it is, my boy, and I feel it very deeply,” said Mrs Thorne in a lachrymose tone.

“Ah, just you wait a bit,” he said.  “I’ve left that old office, but don’t you be afraid.  A fellow I know has put me up to a few things, and perhaps I shall astonish you one of these days.”

“You mean you will get on well, my dear?”

“That’s it.  Only you wait.  There’s plenty of money to be picked up by any one with nous.  Ten times as much as any one can get by keeping his nose to a desk and trying to please a set of cads.”

“Yes, dear, I suppose so.”

“Some people have no more spirit than a fly,” continued Percy.  “Fancy a girl like our Hazel settling down in a bit of a hut like this, when she might have been the making of us all.”

“Ah, yes, my dear,” sighed Mrs Thorne, “that is what I often tell your sister, who might, if she had liked, have married ­”

“My dear mother, will you kindly discuss that with Percy when I am not here!”

“Oh, of course, if you wish it, Hazel,” cried Mrs Thorne.  “I am not mistress here, Percy.  This is Hazel’s home, where I and your poor little sisters are allowed to live on sufferance and ­”

Sob ­sob ­sob.

“Oh, I say, Hazy, it’s too bad,” cried Percy.  “You know how weak and ill poor mamma has been, and yet you treat her like this.”

“Yes, my boy; I’m a mere nonentity now, and the sooner I am dead and put beneath the sod the better.  I’m only a useless burden to my children now.”

“Don’t talk like that, ma dear,” cried the lad.  “You only wait a bit, and as soon as I’ve got my plans in order I’ll make you a regular jolly home.”

“That you will, I know, my dear boy,” cried Mrs Thorne; “and I hope you will try hard to do something to redeem our lost position.”

“What are your plans, Percy?” said Hazel suddenly.

“Oh, nothing that you could understand,” he said haughtily.  “I don’t wonder at poor ma being miserable, if you treat her as you are treating me!”

“Percy,” said Hazel gently, “only a few months ago you had no secrets from me, and we planned together how we would work and make mamma a happy home.”

“And nicely you’ve done it,” cried the lad ungraciously.

“You declared, upon your honour as a gentleman, that you would never turn from me, but that you would strive to take poor papa’s place, and be a help and protector to your mother and sisters.  I ask you, how are you keeping your word?”

Percy fidgeted about in his chair, glanced at his mother, and then began playing with his pipe.

“If you have made some grievous mistake, dear, tell us at once, so that we may join with you in trying to repair it; but do not weakly take umbrage at my asking you rather searchingly what you have been doing.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said the boy sulkily.

“Tell me exactly how you came to leave your office?”

“I did tell you.  A set of cads!”

“Then I shall write to Mr Geringer, and ask him to send me the full particulars.  Perhaps we can make peace for you so that you can go back.”

“Go back, Hazy?”

“Yes:  go back.  I do not wish to seem unkind, Percy, but you will not be able to stop here.”

“And why not, pray?” cried the lad defiantly.

“There is one reason why not,” said Hazel, pointing to the pipe.  “You ought not to have lit that here, Percy.  This is not my house, but the cottage attached to the school, in which, while I teach the children, I am allowed to live.”

“Now you’re beginning about my bit of tobacco,” cried the lad.  “You’re as bad as old Geringer!”

“Really, Hazel, you are in a very, very cruel frame of mind to-night,” said Mrs Thorne, whimpering; “but never mind, my boy, you shall share my home as long as your poor mamma has one.  Perhaps Hazel will give us a refuge here to-night ­to-morrow we will seek one elsewhere.”

“You will do no such foolish thing, mamma,” said Hazel with spirit; “and as for you, Percy, I insist upon knowing the whole truth.”

The boy flushed and threw up his head defiantly; but Hazel rose from her place, crossed to him, and laid her hands upon his shoulders.  Then, bending down, she kissed him, and stood by him with her arm round his neck.

“Tell me everything, dear,” she said; “it is your sister who asks.”

For answer Percy dashed his pipe beneath the grate, laid his arms upon the table, his head went down, and he began to cry like a great girl.

“Oh, Hazel, Hazel, what have you done?” cried Mrs Thorne.  “Percy, Percy, my boy, come here.”

“Hush, mother!” said Hazel sternly; and, kneeling down, she drew the boy’s unresisting head upon her shoulder, and held it there, smoothing his hair the while.

“Oh, Hazy, Hazy,” he sobbed at last.  “I’m a beast ­a brute ­a wretch; and I wish I was dead.”

“There ­there!  Hazel, see what you have done!” cried Mrs Thorne angrily.  “Oh, my boy, my boy!  Come here to me, Percy; I will stand by you whatever comes.”

But Percy seemed to be quite satisfied to stay where he was, for he made no movement beyond that of yielding himself more and more to his sister’s embrace.

“Hush, dear!” she said tenderly.  “If you have done wrong, be frank and outspoken.  Let us hear the truth.”

For answer, the lad, approaching manhood in stature, but with his child-nature still greatly in the ascendant, wept more bitterly; but at last, perfectly heedless of his mother’s plaints and appeals, he raised his head, wiped his eyes, and, flinging his arms round his sister, kissed her passionately again and again.

“There; now you will tell us all, Percy,” said Hazel, responding to his caresses.

“You’ll turn your back on me if I do,” he groaned.

“Is it likely that I should, Percy!  There, speak out frankly ­is it something about money!”

“Yes,” said the lad, hanging his head.

“You have been getting in debt!”

“Well, not much.  Hazy ­not more than I could soon pay off,” said the boy, looking timidly in her face, and then shrinking from her searching eyes.

“There is something more?”

“Ye-es,” he faltered; and then, desperately, after a few moments’ hesitation, “It was all Tom Short’s fault.”

“Who is Tom Short?” asked Hazel.

“A fellow in our office.  He won seventy pounds by putting money on horses, and it seemed so easy; and I thought it would be so nice to get some money together so as to be able to help poor mamma.”

“There, Hazel, you hear!” cried Mrs Thorne triumphantly.

“And so you began betting on horse-races, Percy ­a habit poor papa used to say was one of the greatest follies under the sun.”

“Well, no, dear, it wasn’t exactly betting, but going to a bookmaker and putting money on any horse you chose.  He did the betting.  You only give him your money and wait.”

“Till you know it is lost, Percy!”

“Well, yes; it was so with me, because I was so terribly unlucky.  Some fellows win no end that way.”

“And you have always lost, Percy?”

“Yes, Hazy; and it does lead you on so,” he cried earnestly, “you lose, and then you think your luck must turn, and you try again, because one winning means making up for no end of losses.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Hazel sadly.

“And so I kept on and kept on, trying so hard; but the luck hasn’t turned yet.  I’m sure it would, though, if I had been able to keep on.”

“That is what all gamblers think, Percy.”

“Don’t call me a gambler, Hazel, because I’m not that.”

“And that is where the money went that poor mamma borrowed for you, Percy?”

“Yes,” he said despondently; “but I mean to get it all back again some day, and to pay it, and interest too.”

“That is quite right, Percy; but not by betting.”

“I don’t see why not,” he said.  “Other fellows do.”

“Let them,” replied Hazel; “but it is not a course to be followed by my brother.  Tell me, did your employers find out that you were engaged in betting?”

“Ye-es,” faltered Percy; “and it was all through that sneak, Tom Short.”

“And they dismissed you?”

“Well, I think I dismissed myself; I resigned, you know.”

“Call things by their right names, Percy.  Well, I am glad you have told us.  We will say no more now.  But to-morrow we must begin to take steps to get you another engagement.”

“But look here, Hazel,” cried the lad, “if you and mamma could knock together twenty pounds for me to start with, I feel as sure as sure that I could make no end by putting it on horses at some of the big races.  You’ve no idea what a pot of money some fellows handle that way.  Ah, you may smile, but you are only a girl, and very ignorant of such things.  You wouldn’t laugh if I was to turn twenty pounds into a thousand.”

“No, Percy, I should not laugh if you turned twenty pounds into a thousand,” said Hazel.  “But there, we will say no more now; only promise me this, ­that you will not smoke again in this cottage, nor yet make any more bets.”

“Yes, I’ll promise,” said the boy sulkily.  “I suppose I must.”

“I’m sure no one could have behaved better than Percy has, my dear,” said Mrs Thorne.  “He has been perfectly open and frank.  All that you can find against him is that he has been unlucky.  Poor boy!  If your father had been alive!”

Here Mrs Thorne entered into the performance of a prose dirge upon her sufferings, and the cruelty of fate ­of what would have happened if Mr Thorne had lived, and finished up during a resume of her prospects when she was Hazel’s age by finding that Percy had gone fast asleep, Hazel being upstairs, making arrangements for the accommodation of this addition to their family, a task of no small difficulty to people with their limited means.