Read CHAPTER THIRTY THREE - PAYING THE PIPER of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

“You must ask Mr Canninge, Hazel, or else Mr Burge or Mr Lambent,” said Mrs Thorne dictatorially.  “Either you must ask one of those gentlemen, or I shall certainly feel that it is my duty to leave Plumton and seek a refuge at the home of one of my relatives.”

“Mother,” said Hazel decidedly, “I cannot ask one of those gentlemen.  Can you not see that it would be a degradation that I could not bear?”

“If you would think less of your own degradation, Hazel, and more of mine,” said Mrs Thorne, “I think it would be far more becoming on your part.”

It was breakfast-time, and, hot-eyed, feverish, and weary, Hazel was trying to force down a few morsels of dry bread as she sipped her weak tea.

She made no reply, but was working hard to find some solution of the difficulty in which she found herself, but could see none.

One thing was evident to her, and that was the fact that she must take the full blame of the pence being missing, and undertake to pay it out of her next half-year’s salary.  It was impossible for her to accuse her mother, and she could think of no relatives who would advance the money.  Her head ached violently, and she was suffering from a severe attack of lassitude that deadened her brain-power making her ready to go back to her bed and try to forget everything in sleep.

But there was the day’s work to meet and at last, in a dreary, hopeless spirit, she went to the school, seeing Mr Chute on his way to the duties of the day, and meeting his eye, which was full of an ugly, malicious expression, that made her shrink and feel that she had indeed made this man her enemy.

The children were more tiresome than usual, or seemed to be, and it was only by a great effort that she was able to keep her attention to the work in hand.

At another time she would not have noticed it, but now every tap at the schoolhouse door made her start violently, and think that it was the churchwarden, Mr Piper, come for the school pence.

“A guilty conscience needs no accuser,” she thought to herself, as she set to once more trying to see her way to some solution of her difficulty, but always in vain; and at last she found herself letting the trouble drift till it should find bottom in some shallow shoal or against the shore, for nothing she could do would help her on.

The only thing she could hit upon was to say to the churchwarden that she would bring him up the money shortly, and in the meantime she might find out some means of raising it wishing the while that the jewellery of which she once had a plentiful supply was still her own.

She could think of no other plan, and was drearily going on with her work, when there came a loud tap from one of the lower classes, presided over at that time by Feelier Potts, and followed by a howl.

“What is that?”

“Please, teacher, Feely Potts hit me over the head with a book.”

“Please, teacher, I kep’ on telling her you’d got a bad headache, teacher, and told her to be quiet, and she would keep on making a noise, and ­and ­and I think I did box her with the Testament, teacher.”

“But you know, Ophelia how strictly I have forbidden any monitor to touch one of her class.”

“Yes, please, teacher; and I wouldn’t have touched her now, only I knew you’d got such a bad headache, and she would be so tiresome I felt as if I could knock her head right off.”

“Ophelia!” exclaimed Hazel, as she felt ready to smile at what was evidently a maternal expression.

“Please, teacher, I won’t do so no more.”

“Then go to your class.  I shall trust you, mind.  You have given me your word.”

“Yes, teacher,” cried the girl eagerly; “and is your head better, please, teacher!”

“No, Ophelia; it is very bad,” said Hazel wearily.

“Then, please, teacher, let me run home and get mother’s smelling-salts.  She’s got a new twopenny bottle.  Such strong ’uns.  Do, please, let me go and fetch ’em, teacher.”

“Thank you; no, Ophelia,” said Hazel, smiling at the girl, whose eyes were sparkling with eagerness.  “I have a bottle here.  Now, go back to your class, and remember that you will help me most by being attentive and keeping the girls quiet, but not with blows.  I do not keep you quiet and attentive, Ophelia, by striking you.”

“No, please, teacher; but mother does.”

“I prefer gentle means, my child.  I want to rule you, if I can, by love.”

Feelier looked sharply round to see if she was observed, and then bobbed down quickly, and before Hazel knew what the girl intended to do, she had kissed her hand and was gone.

It was a trifling incident, but in Hazel’s depressed condition it brought the tears into her eyes, and made her think for the first time of how hard it would be to leave her girls if fate said that through this terrible defalcation she must give up the school.  The toil had been hard, the work tiresome, but all the same there had been a something that had seemed to link her to the children, and she began to find out now how thoroughly her heart had been in her daily task.

There were endless little troubles to encounter; even now there was a heap of confiscations taken from the children, petted objects that they carried in imitation of their brothers ­sticky pieces of well-chewed indiarubber, marbles, buttons; one girl had a top which she persisted in bringing to school, though she could never get it to spin, and had twice been in difficulties for breaking windows with it ­at times when its peg stuck to the end of the string.  There were several papers of sweets, and an assortment of sweets without papers, and in that semi-glutinous state that comes over the best-made preparations of sugar after being submitted to a process of biscuiting in a warm pocket.  Half-gnawed pieces of cake were there too, and fancy scraps of a something that would have puzzled the keenest observer, who could only have come to the conclusion that it was comestible, for it displayed teeth-marks.  Without analysis it would not have been safe to venture upon a more decisive opinion.

It had been imperceptible, this affection for her school, coming on by slow degrees; and as in the middle of her morning’s work Hazel suddenly found herself face to face with the possibility of having to resign, she felt startled, and began to realise that in spite of the many troubles and difficulties with which she had had to contend, Plumton had really been a haven of rest and the thought of going completely unnerved her.

She started violently several times over as tap after tap came to the door; but the visitors were always in connection with the children.  “Please, may Ann Straggalls come home?  Her mother wants her.”

“Please I’ve brought Sarah Jane Filler’s school money.”  Then there were calls from a couple of itinerant vendors of wonderfully-got-up illustrated works, published in shilling and half-crown parts, to be continued to infinity, if the purchaser did not grow weary and give them up.

At last there came a more decided knock than any of the others, and Hazel’s heart seemed to stand still.  She knew, without telling, that it was the churchwarden, and she was in no wise surprised at seeing him walk in with his hat on, without waiting to have the door opened, but displaying a certain amount of proprietorship only to be expected from an official of the church.

Mr Piper was the principal grocer of Plumton, and in addition to the sale of what he called “grosheries,” he dealt largely in cake ­not the cake made with caraways or currants, but linseed oil-cake, bought by the farmers for fattening cattle and giving a help to the sheep.  Mr Piper “did a little,” too, in corn, buying a lot now and then when it was cheap, and keeping it till it was dear.  There were many other things in which Mr Piper “did a little,” but they were always bits of trading that meant making money; so that take him altogether, he was what people call “a warm man,” one who buttoned up his breeches-pockets tightly, and slapped them, as much as to say, “I don’t care a pin for a soul ­I’m too independent for that.”

This was the gentleman who, tightly buttoned up in his best coat, and looking, all the same, as if he still had his shop-apron tied, walked importantly into the school with his hat on, and nodded shortly as the girls began to rise and make bobs, the curtseys being addressed to the broadcloth coat more than to Mr Piper himself, a gentleman of whom all the elder girls had bought sweets, and who was associated in their minds with the rattling and clinking of copper scales with their weights.  For a goodly sum per annum was expended by the Plumton school children in delicacies, a fact due to the kindness of Mr William Forth Burge, who always went down the town with half-a-crown’s worth of the cleanest halfpennies he could get, a large supply of which was always kept for him by Mr Piper’s young man, who even went so far as to give them a-shake-up in a large worsted stocking with some sand and a sprinkling of vitriol, knowing full well that these halfpence were pretty sure to come to him again in the course of trade.

It was, then, to Mr Piper’s best coat that the girls made their bobs, that gentleman being held in small respect.  In fact as soon as he entered Feelier Potts went round her class, insisting upon every girl accurately toeing the line; and then, whispering “Don’t laugh,” she began to repeat the words of the national poet who wrote those touching, interrogative lines beginning, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” and finishing off with, “Please, Mr Piper, I want a pen’orth of pickled peppers.”

“’Morning, Miss Thorne,” said Mr Piper importantly, and speaking in his best-coat voice, which was loud and brassy, and very different to his mild, insinuating, “what’s-the-next-article, ma’am, yes-it-is-a-fine-morning” voice, which was used behind the counter, and went with a smile.

“She ain’t ready with that money, I’ll lay a crown,” said Mr Piper to himself.  Then aloud ­“I have been getting Mr Chute’s school pence, Miss Thorne, to put in my accounts.  I always collect the school money once a year.”

Just then the school-door opened quietly, unheard by Hazel and the churchwarden, and also unnoticed by Miss Feelier Potts, who, forgetting all promises of amendment, was delighting her class by asking Mr Piper in a low voice for half-ounces and pen’orths of all sorts of impossible articles suggested by her active young brain, beginning with sugared soap, and on through boiled blacklead to peppermint mopsticks.

The terrible moment had come, and Hazel said, as firmly as she could ­

“I am not ready with the accounts, Mr Piper; but I will see to them at once, and ­”

“Oh, all right:  I’m in no hurry,” he replied; and Hazel’s heart gave a leap of relief, but only to sink down heavily the next moment, as he continued ­“I always give one morning a year to this job, so get the money and a pen and ink, and I’ll soon run through it with you.”

“You misunderstood me, Mr Piper,” faltered Hazel, whose cheeks began to burn before turning pale with shame.  “I have made up the account but I have not the money ready.”

“Couldn’t have made out the account properly without the money counted out ready,” he said triumphantly.

“I checked it by the sums I had put down each week, Mr Piper,” said Hazel.

“To be sure.  Well, it won’t take us long to count the money out.”

“But I have not the money by me,” said Hazel desperately, for she could make no excuse at the moment.

“Oh!” said Mr Piper slowly, as he made a curious rasping noise by rubbing a rough finger upon his closely-shaven cheek:  “have not got the money by you.”

“No; not at present,” faltered Hazel; and once more the tell-tale blush came flushing to her cheeks.

“Oh!” said Mr Piper again; and his interjection was as long as a ten-syllable word.

“I will send or bring it up to you in a few days.”

“Oh!” said Mr Piper once more, and he took out his pocket-book at the same time, but made no attempt to go.  He slowly took a pencil from a sheath at the side, and examined its point before thrusting it in again, as if trying very hard to make sure that it was a fit.

Hazel was in agony, and would have given anything to be alone, but Mr Piper went on testing the depth of his pencil-sheath in the leather pocket-book, and drawing the pencil out again.

“You see, it always has been paid upon the morning I said I’d call.  I’ve got Mr Chute’s money in here.”

He slapped his breeches-pocket twice in a very emphatic manner, and looked at Hazel the while, as if asking her to deny it if she dared.

“I ­I was taken rather by surprise,” faltered Hazel.

“Nay, nay,” said the churchwarden; “I gave you a day’s notice.”

“Yes,” said Hazel, “but I was not ready.  I will send or bring the amount in a few days, Mr Piper.”

“I wanted to have made up my accounts,” he said, gazing still at his pencil and pocket-book in a meditative way.  “You see, it puts me out, being a business-man.  I have all this churchwarden work to do, and don’t get nothing by it, and it puts me wrong when things go contrary like, and I can’t get in the accounts.  Now, your pence, for instance ­I ought to have had them a month ago.”

“I am very sorry, sir, but I was not aware when they ought to be paid in.”

“You see, I make up all these parish things regular like, and if I can’t get the money in it throws me all out.”

“I am very sorry, Mr Piper.”

“Yes,” he said, turning his pencil upside down, and trying whether it would go in the reverse way; “but, you see, that don’t help a busy man.  I give up one morning like this every year to the school accounts, and dress myself” ­he glanced at the sleeve of his black coat ­“and come down, and if the money isn’t ready, you see, it throws me out.”

“Yes, I understand, Mr Piper,” faltered Hazel; “and I am very sorry.”

“Yes,” he continued, trying to coax the pencil down by giving it a revolving movement, which succeeded better, though not well, for the leather of the pencil-sheath was getting worn with use, and it went into so many folds that Mr Piper had to withdraw the pencil and try it in the proper way ­“Yes, it is a nuisance to a busy man,” he continued.  “I don’t know why I go on doing this parish work, for it never pleases nobody, and takes up a deal of a man’s time.  I wouldn’t do it, only Mr Lambent as good as begs of me not to give it up.  P’r’aps you’ll give me what you have in hand, miss.”

“Give you what I have in hand?” said Hazel.

“Yes!  Part on account you know, and send me the rest.”

“I cannot, Mr Piper.  I am not prepared,” said Hazel, who felt ready to sink with shame, and the degradation of being importuned at such a time.

“Can’t you give me any of it on account ­some of your own money, you know, miss!”

“I really cannot sir; but I will endeavour to pay it over as soon as possible.”

“Within a week?”

“I ­I think so,” faltered Hazel.

Rap went the book open, and Mr Piper’s pencil was going as if it was taking down an order for “grosheries,” making a note to the effect that Miss Thorne could not pay the school pence upon the proper day, but would pay it within a week.

Hazel stood and shivered, for it was horrible to see how business-like Mr Piper could be; and though she could not see the words he wrote, she mentally read them, and wondered how it would be possible to meet the engagement.  Still, it was a respite, disgraceful as it seemed, and she felt her spirits rise as the churchwarden wrote away as busily as a commercial traveller who has just solicited what he calls a “line.”

All this time the school-door was standing partly open, as if some one was waiting to come in, but Hazel was too intent to see.

“That’ll do, then, for that,” said the churchwarden, shutting his book on the pencil and then peering sidewise like a magpie into one of the pockets, from which he extracted a carefully folded piece of blue paper, at the top of which was written very neatly, “Miss Thorne.”

“As I was coming down, miss, I thought it would be a good chance for speaking to you about your account, miss, which keeps on getting too much behindhand; so p’r’aps you’ll give me something on account of that and pay the rest off as quick as you can.”

“Your account, Mr Piper?” said Hazel, taking the paper.

“Yes, miss.  Small profits and quick returns is my motter.  I don’t believe in giving credit ­’tain’t my way.  I should never get on if I did.”

“But you mistake, Mr Piper; everything we have had of you has been paid for at the time, or at the end of the week.”

“Don’t look like it, miss.  When people won’t have nothing but my finest Hyson and Shoesong, and a bottle of the best port every week, bottles regularly returned, of course a bill soon runs up.”

“But surely ­” cried Hazel.

“Oh, you’ll find it all right there, miss; every figure’s my own putting down.  I always keep my own books myself, so it’s all right.”

“Have you nearly done, Mr Piper?” said Miss Lambent, speaking sweetly, as she stood with Beatrice at the door.  “Pray don’t hurry:  we can wait.  Our time’s not so valuable as yours.”

“Just done, miss ­just done, miss.  You’ll find that quite right, Miss Thorne ­eleven pun fifteen nine and a half.  S’pose you give me six this morning and let the other stand for a week or two?”

“Mr Piper, I must examine the bill,” said Hazel hoarsely.  “I did not know that I was indebted to you more than half-a-sovereign.”

“Oh, you’ll find that all right miss, all right.  Can you let me have a little on account?”

“I cannot this morning!” cried Hazel desperately.

“May we come in now?” said Rebecca Lambent.

“Yes, miss, come in,” said the churchwarden, closing his pocket-book as Hazel crushed this last horror in her hand in a weak dread lest it should be seen.

“So you’ve been collecting the school accounts as usual, Mr Piper,” said Beatrice, smiling.  “How much do they amount to this time?  My brother will be so anxious to know.”

Out came Mr Piper’s pocket-book again, the pencil was drawn from its sheath, and the page found.

“Boys’ pence for the year ending the blank day of blank eighteen blank,” read Mr Piper, “thirty-two pound seven shillings and eightpence-ha’penny:  though I can’t quite make out that ha’penny.”

“And the girls’, Mr Piper ­how much is that?”

“Well, you see, Miss Thorne ain’t ready ’m yet so I can’t tell.  It’s no use for me to put down the sum till I get the money.  Good morning, miss.  Good morning, miss.  It’s a busy time with me, so I must go.”

The churchwarden left the schoolroom, his hat still upon his head, and Hazel was left face to face with her friends from the Vicarage.

“Had you not better call Mr Piper back, Miss Thorne,” said Rebecca.

“Shall I call him, Miss Thorne?” said Beatrice eagerly.

“No, ma’am, I thank you,” replied Hazel.  “I explained to Mr Piper that I was not ready for him this morning.”

“But did he not send word that he was coming?” said Rebecca suavely.  “I know he always used to send down the day before.”

“Yes, Miss Lambent; Mr Piper did send down, but I have not the money by me,” said Hazel desperately.  “My ­I mean we ­had a pressing necessity for some money, and it has been used.  I will pay Mr Piper, in the course of a few days.”

Rebecca Lambent appeared to freeze as she glanced at her sister, who also became icy.

“It is very strange,” said the former.

“Quite contrary to our rules, I think, sister,” replied Beatrice, “Are you ready?”

“Yes, dear.  Good morning, Miss Thorne.”

“Yes; good morning, Miss Thorne,” said Beatrice; and they swept out of the school together, remaining silent for the first hundred yards or so as they went homeward.  “This is very extraordinary, Rebecca,” cried Beatrice at last, speaking with an assumption of horror and astonishment, but with joy in her heart.

“Not at all extraordinary,” said Rebecca.  “I am not in the least surprised.  Unable to pay over the school pence and deeply in debt to the grocer!  I wonder what she owes to the butcher and baker?”

“And the draper!” said Beatrice malignantly.  “A schoolmistress flaunting about with a silk parasol!  What does a schoolmistress want with a parasol?”

“She is not wax,” said Rebecca.  “I rarely use one.  And now look here, Beattie; it is all true, then, about that boy.”

“What!  Miss Thorne’s brother?”

“Yes; Hazel Thorne’s brother.  He was in trouble, then, in London, and fled here, and it seems as if the vice is in the family.  Why, it is sheer embezzlement to keep back and spend the school pence.  I wonder what Henry will say to his favourite now?”

Meanwhile Hazel, whose head throbbed so heavily that she could hardly bear the pain, had dismissed the girls, for it was noon, and then hurried back to the cottage to seek her room, very rudely and sulkily, Mrs Thorne said, for she had spoken to her child as she passed through, but Hazel did not seem to hear.

“I sincerely hope, my dears, that when you grow up,” said Mrs Thorne didactically, “you will never behave so rudely to your poor mamma as Hazel does.”

“Hazel don’t mean to be rude, ma,” said Cissy in an old-fashioned way.  “She has got a bad headache, that’s all.  I’m going up to talk to her.”

“No, Cissy; you will stay with me,” said Mrs Thorne authoritatively.

“I may go, mayn’t I, ma?  I want to talk to Hazel,” said Mab.

“You will stay where you are, my dears; and I sincerely hope to be able to teach you both how to comport yourself towards your mamma.  Hazel, I am sorry to say, has a good deal changed.”

A good deal, truly; for she looked ghastly now, as she knelt by the bed, holding her aching head, and praying for help and strength of mind to get through her present difficulties and those which were to come.