Read CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT - ANN STRAGGALLS TURNS MESSENGER of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

It was soon school-time, and leaving her brother, who needed no instructions to send for her should any one call, Hazel Thorne hurried to her duties, read prayers with wandering mind, and then, fully resolved upon what course to pursue, she started the children at their various lessons, and at last, in the midst of the noisy buzz, went to her desk and, quite in a fit of desperation, wrote to Mr William Forth Burge, simply saying that she was in great trouble, and would he as a friend come and give her his help and counsel?

As soon as she had finished and folded the letter she began to hesitate, asking herself whether she ought not first to have written to Miss Burge; but she came to the conclusion that she had done right and picking out the most trustworthy girl she could think of at the time, she bade her take the letter up to Mr Burge’s house.

Hazel Thorne was excited enough during all these proceedings but her excitement would have increased had she been aware of the fact that one of the partition shutters was slightly lowered, and from this point of vantage Mr Samuel Chute was from time to time inspecting her every act.

For Mr Chute was a good deal exercised in his spirit.

“If it isn’t to be friends it shall be enemies,” he said; and he not only set himself to watch, but told his mother ­to use his own words ­to have an eye on the next-door people, a commission which Mrs Chute seized upon with avidity, it being one greatly to her taste.

Samuel Chute, then, knew of Percy Thorne’s coming before Hazel, and also who the tall, overgrown lad was.  He knew of the arrival of the business letters that morning, and after due debate in his own mind, he came to the conclusion that there was something wrong.

“They won’t get over me in a hurry,” he muttered; and taking it that there was a conspiracy of some kind afloat, he went quite early into the school and lowered the shutter, ready to keep a watch upon Hazel’s movements, and to be ready ­he only knew why ­with movements of his own.

So it was there that he saw Hazel looked agitated and ill at ease, and also saw her write a letter and call up one of the girls, fat Ann Straggalls ­the slow, innocent and sure ­being selected for the task.

Mr Chute thrust his hands through his hair and made it stick up fiercely as he left his desk, frowned all round the room, said “Sh! sh!” in several classes, and then walked quickly to the door, turned and gave a glance round to find every eye in the school directed at him, and then stepped out into the front just in time to find Ann Straggalls engaged in a struggle with Hazel’s missive, which refused to be tucked down into the bosom of the stout young maiden’s dress, consequent upon the tightness of certain strings.

“Here!  Hi!  Straggalls!” cried Chute, and the girl crawled shrinkingly to him in the same way as the boys would have turned, a sharp, quick call from Mr Chute always suggesting impending punishment to the youthful mind.

“How is it you are not in school, Ann Straggalls?” said the schoolmaster importantly.

“Plee, sir, teacher, sir, sent me with this letter, sir.  I’ve got to take it, sir.”

“What letter, Straggalls?”

“This letter, sir,” said the girl, holding out the crumpled missive.

“Letter?  Ah, a letter for you to take, eh?” he said, after a glance at the direction; and his teeth gritted together as he thought that Hazel had never written to him.

He would have detained the missive, but he dared not, and half turning upon his heel, he saw that the vicar’s sisters were coming down the street, an observation which impelled him to make a quick retreat.

“There, go on,” he said; “and mind and make haste back.”

“Yes, sir, plee, sir, that’s what teacher told me to do.”

“Writing to Burge, eh?” said Mr Chute as he re-entered his school.  “That’s to tell him that I spoke out to her yesterday.  Ah! just let him take her part and I’ll soon give him a bit of my mind.  She’s carrying on with him, is she?  I know it as well as if I’d been told; but perhaps I shall be one too many with all of them yet.”

The next minute he was bitterly regretting that he had not detained and read the letter, though he knew all the time that he dared not, and he finished up for the present by having another peep at Hazel through the slit above the shutter, expecting, as his brain suggested, that she would be writing another letter, but only finding her busy with one of the classes.

Meanwhile, with her cheeks flushed and eyes brightened at the escape she had just had, Ann Straggalls stumped eagerly along to perform her commission, but only to encounter the Lambent sisters, before whom she stopped short compelling them also to stop or else turn off to right or left, unless they were willing to fall over her.  For, according to traditional instruction at Plumton Schools, it was the proper thing for every schoolgirl who met the vicar’s sisters to make a bob to each, and these two bobs Ann Straggalls diligently performed.

“Not in school, Straggalls?” said Rebecca, in a stern, inquisitorial tone of voice.

“No, ’m, please, ’m.  Teacher’s sent me with a letter, ’m.”

“Indeed!” cried Beatrice, thrown by excitement off her guard.  “To Mr Canninge?”

“No, ’m, please ’m; to Mr William Forth Burge, ’m.”

“To Mr William Forth Burge!” cried Rebecca, excited in her turn.  “What is Miss Thorne writing to him for?”

“Please ’m, I don’t know, ’m.  Teacher said I was to take this letter, ’m, and I don’t know any more.”

“It is very strange, Beatrice,” said Rebecca querulously.

“Strange indeed,” replied her sister, who felt better on finding that her suspicions were incorrect, and worse at having betrayed the bent of her own thoughts, and not troubling herself about her sister’s feelings in the least.

“Ought we to do anything, Beatrice?” said Rebecca, whose fingers itched to get hold of the letter.

“Do anything?” said Beatrice.

“Yes,” said Rebecca in a low tone, unheard by Ann Straggalls, whose large moist lips were some distance apart to match her eyelids, as she stared at the vicar’s sisters; “ought we to let that note go?”

“Oh, I could not think of interfering,” said Beatrice, shaking her head.  “Besides, it would be impossible.  Henry gives the new mistress great latitude, and possibly he might approve of her corresponding with Mr Burge.”

“I ­I don’t like letting her go,” said Rebecca, hesitating, a fact of which her sister was well aware.  “I don’t think it is proper, and it seems to me to be our duty to take some steps in such matters as these.”

“I shall not interfere with Miss Thorne in any way,” replied Beatrice.  “Henry is, I dare say, quite correct in his views respecting the mistress’s behaviour, and I certainly shall not expose myself to the risk of being taken to task again by my brother for interfering, as he called it at the schools.  You had better make haste, Straggalls, and deliver your message.”

“Please, ’m, it’s a letter, ’m,” said Ann Straggalls in open eyed delight at catching the speaker tripping.

“Make haste on and deliver your letter, child,” said the lady with dignity; and the girl made two more bobs and hurried away.

“It was quite impossible, Rebecca,” said Beatrice reprovingly.  “The letter is no business of ours.”

“Are we going down to the school to-day?” asked Rebecca.

“Not now,” replied her sister; “but we might call upon Mrs Thorne.  I wonder what Mr Chute has had to do with that letter to Mr Burge.”

“Yes, I was wondering too.  He was certainly talking to the girl Straggalls as we came into sight.”

And then, itching with curiosity, the sisters walked on.

Ann Straggalls held her head a little higher as she went on up the street through the market-place.  She felt that she was an ambassadress of no little importance, as she had been stopped twice on her way.

As luck had it, she came upon the Reverend Henry Lambent as he was leaving the Vicarage gates, looking very quiet and thoughtful, and he would have passed Straggalls unnoticed, had not that young lady been ready to recognise him, which, nerved as she was by her pleasant feeling of self-satisfied importance, she did by first nearly causing him to tumble over her, as she made the customary bob by way of incense, and then saying aloud ­

“Plee, sir, I’ve got a letter.”

“A letter, child!  Let me see ­oh, it is Straggalls.”

“Yes, sir ­Annie Straggalls, sir, plee, sir.”

“Then why don’t you give me the letter, child?  Who is it from?”

“Teacher, plee, sir.”

A flush came into the vicar’s pale cheeks, and he raised his drooping lids as he impatiently held out his hand and waited while Ann Straggalls struggled to produce the letter.  She had had some difficulty in placing it in what she considered to be a safe receptacle, forcing it down below the string that ran round the top of her frock.  That struggle, however, was nothing to the one which now took place to release the missive, for the note had crept down to somewhere about Ann Straggalls’ waist where it was lying so comfortable and warm that it refused to be dislodged, in spite of the pushing of one hand, and the thrustings down of the other.  The young lady posed herself in a variety of attitudes, reaching up, bending down, leaning first on one side, then upon the other, but all in vain.  She grew red in the face, her hands were hot, and the vicar became more and more impatient; but the letter was not forthcoming, and at last she exclaimed, with a doleful expression of countenance ­

“Plee, sir, I can’t get it out.”

“You’ve lost it,” cried the vicar angrily.

“No, sir, I ain’t, plee, sir.  I can feel it quite plain, but it’s slithered down to my waist.”

“You tiresome girl!” cried the vicar impatiently, for it was an awkward dilemma, and he was beginning to think of the penknife in his vest pocket, and the possibility of cutting the note free without injury to the young lady’s skin, when she solved the difficulty herself by running off to where she saw a little girl standing, and the result of the companion’s efforts was so successful that Ann Straggalls came running back beaming with pleasure, the letter in her hand.

“Good girl!” exclaimed the vicar, thrusting a sixpence into her palm, as he eagerly snatched the letter, devoured the address with his eyes, and the flush died out of his cheeks.

“Why, the letter is for Mr Burge,” he said excitedly.

“Yes, sir; for Mr William Forth Burge, plee, sir.”

“Take it,” exclaimed the vicar huskily, and thrusting the note hastily into the girl’s hands, he turned sharply round and walked back into the house, thoroughly unnerved by the incident, trifling as it may seem.

“He’s give me sixpence!” said Ann Straggalls wonderingly; and then ­“Didn’t he seem cross!”

At last, after these interruptions, which duly published the fact that Hazel Thorne openly wrote to Mr William Forth Burge, the note came to that gentleman’s hand, for Ann Straggalls reached the gate, pushed it wide open, and knowing from experience what a splendid gate it was, she passed through, and stopped to watch it as it swung back past the post, with the latch giving a loud click, and away ever so far in the other direction; then back again with another click; away again with another, and then to and fro, quicker and quicker, click ­click ­click ­click ­ clack, when the latch caught in its proper notch, and Ann Straggalls smiled with satisfaction, and wished that she had such a gate for her own.

The clicking of the gate took the attention of Mr William Forth Burge, who was busy amongst his standard rose-trees, with a quill-pen and a saucer, using the former to brush off the abundant aphides from the buds into the latter.  He smiled with satisfaction as he released from its insect burden some favourite rose, whose name was hanging from it upon a label like that used for the old-fashioned medicine bottles ­“one tablespoonful every four hours” ­but, all the same, it was undoubtedly unpleasant for the aphides that were being slaughtered by the thousand.

Miss Burge had her work and a garden-seat, and she was looking up from time to time, and smiling her satisfaction at seeing her brother so happy, for of late he had been dull and overclouded, and did not take to his dinners and his cigars so heartily as of old.

She too looked up as the gate clicked, and together the brother and sister watched the coming girl, who had not seen them yet, but was staring, open-mouthed, at the various flowers.  First she made a pause before one, and her fingers twitched with the intense desire she felt to pick it; then before another which she bent down to smell, and so on and on slowly, fighting hard and successfully against temptation, till she came to a rose in full bloom, before which she came to a complete standstill.

“Oh, you beauty!” she cried aloud as she bent down and began sniffing with all her might.  “Oh, don’t I wish Feelier Potts was here!”

But Feelier Potts was not there, fortunately for Mr William Forth Burge’s Gloire de Bordeaux, for that young lady would have felt no more scruple in ravaging the bush than in picking the buttercups and daisies of the fields; so at last Ann Straggalls turned with a sigh of regret, to find herself face to face, with the owner of the garden, who was smiling at her blandly.

“Plee, sir, I’ve brought a letter, sir, from teacher, sir.”

Little Miss Burge felt startled as she saw the change that came over her brother’s face, for, in place of its customary ruddiness, it grew mottled, and he stood gazing at the girl as if her words could not be true.

“A letter?  For me?”

“Yes, sir, plee, sir; teacher sent it.”

“Take her in, Betsey; give her some cake or biscuits,” he said hastily, as he almost snatched the missive.

Little Miss Burge sighed as she took the girl by the hand and led her away, Mr William Forth Burge following directly after with the letter, which he took into his study, for it was too sacred to be read out in the open air.

It only took a minute to seat Ann Straggalls in the hall with a big lump of cake in her hand, portions of which she transferred to her mouth and worked at with machine-like regularity, and then Miss Burge hurried to the study, to find her brother walking up and down in a great state of excitement.

“Betsey,” he cried hoarsely, “she’s written to me ­she’s sent for me!”

“Oh, Bill, has she?” cried the little woman sadly.

“Yes; she’s written to me ­she’s sent for me.”

“Bill dear, I don’t like that.”


“It don’t ­please don’t be angry with me ­but it don’t seem nice.”

“Not nice ­not nice!” he cried almost fiercely.  “Why, read here.  Poor gal! she’s in trouble.  There’s something wrong.  Here, where’s my best coat.  I’ll go down.”

“Oh! that’s different,” cried little Miss Burge, who seemed greatly relieved.  “Poor girl!  Why, whatever can be the matter?”

“I don’t know.  You mustn’t stop me, Betsey,” he cried.  “I must go directly ­I must.”

“Oh, Bill!  Bill!  Bill!” sobbed the little lady, throwing her arms round his neck and bursting into tears.

“I can’t help it, Betsey,” he cried; “I can’t help it.  I never had it before, but I’ve got it badly now, dear; and I ain’t a bit ashamed to own it to you.”

“Oh, Bill!”

“Don’t try to stop me, Betsey.”

“But you won’t do anything foolish, dear?”

“It wouldn’t be foolish if it was her,” he said excitedly.

“No, Bill, I suppose not; but I don’t like her sending for you to come.”

“There, there,” he cried, “I won’t hear another word.”  And he proved it by hurriedly taking his hat and going down straight to the school, leaving his sister in tears, and Ann Straggalls deep in cake.

Mr Chute was on the look-out, and saw him pass, and directly after the schoolmaster took up a slate and a pencil, and placing the slate against the partition, began to write thereon, with his back to the boys, but with his eager eyes gazing through the slit at where Hazel was busy with her pupils.

A minute later he saw Mr William Forth Burge enter the schoolroom and shake hands.  Hazel spoke to him, but the words did not reach Chute’s ears; and soon after, as the hands pointed to twelve, the children were dismissed, and Hazel and Mr William Forth Burge were alone, but, to Chute’s great disgust they went out and into the cottage.

“Well, of all the shabby ­Oh, I can’t stand this!” cried the schoolmaster, stamping his feet.  “It’s too bad.”

But, bad or good, he had to submit to it for his chance of overhearing the conversation was gone.