Read CHAPTER FORTY TWO - BAD NEWS of The New Mistress A Tale , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

The news of Hazel Thorne’s imprisonment, for it could be called little else, was not long in reaching Ardley, and Mrs Canninge watched her son’s countenance to see what effect it had.  There had been an increasing coolness between mother and son, and it seemed as if it were rapidly approaching estrangement.  Their old affectionate intercourse had given place to a chilling politeness, and though, time after time, in the bitter annoyance she felt, Mrs Canninge had felt disposed to ask her son how soon it would be necessary for her to vacate her position of mistress of the old hall, she had never been guilty of the meanness, but waited her time.

“He shall never marry her,” she said over and over again; and in spite of her better self, the news of the money trouble had been like balm to her wounded spirit.  Now, then, the tidings of Hazel’s visit to the sick child had come, and again, in spite of herself, she felt a sensation akin to satisfaction, for this seemed as if it might act as a safeguard to her son.

It was a flimsy one, she knew ­a broken reed upon which to lean; but it was something, and every trifle that appeared likely to keep George Canninge and Hazel apart, if it were only for a few days longer, was like a reprieve, and might result in something better to her mind.

The matter was not discussed, but Mrs Canninge noted that her son rode over to the town every morning, and found afterwards that he called at the Burges’ day after day, where he incidentally learned that Hazel was still nursing the fever-stricken child.

It was pleasant to him at this juncture to talk to little Miss Burge, and to listen to her simple prattle about Hazel, and what trouble she and her brother took in sending down everything that was necessary for the invalid and her nurse, so that Hazel might be comfortable.

“It is very kind of you and Mr Burge,” said Canninge one day.

“Oh, I don’t know, Mr Canninge,” she replied; “we want to do all the good we can, and one can’t help loving Miss Thorne.”

“No,” said George Canninge quietly; and as he rode home he repeated little Miss Burge’s words to himself over and over again ­“One can’t help loving Miss Thorne.”

But he made no further advances ­he did not go to the schoolhouse to make inquiries, nor yet ask at the cottage where Hazel was a prisoner; he contented himself with visiting the Burges day by day, to start back almost in alarm one morning as he saw a look of trouble in little Miss Burge’s face, and before he could ask what was wrong the little woman burst out with ­

“Oh, Mr Canninge, that poor, dear girl!”

“What?” he said excitedly.  “She has not ­”

“Yes, sir, and badly.  My brother has been down there this morning, and she is delirious.  And oh, poor girl! poor girl!  I cannot let her lie there alone.  I’m dreadfully afraid of the fever, Mr Canninge; but I shall have to go.”

“You?  What! to nurse her?” said George Canninge, with a face now ghastly.

“Yes, sir; I must go.  My brother has been down every day, and I’ve never been once!” she cried, bursting into a fit of sobbing.  “It’s dreadful cowardly, I know; but I could not help it then.”

“And she may die!” said George Canninge as he rode slowly home; “and I have never told her I loved her.  Dare I go to see her now?”

He asked himself that question many times, and again many times on the succeeding days; but he did not go near the place where Hazel Thorne lay now, in the shabby room, upon the bed roughly made up for her by Mrs Potts; while Feelier, the very shadow of herself, lay watching “teacher,” and the tears stole down her wasted cheeks as she listened to Hazel Thorne’s excited talking, for the most part incoherent; but here and there a word came to Feelier’s ears, and she wept again, because she was too weak to get up and wait upon “teacher,” whose attack was rapidly assuming a serious form.

By special arrangement with the doctor, the news as to Hazel’s state was sent to the Burges’ after every visit.  Not that this was held to suffice, for little Miss Burge was constantly calling at the doctor’s house, and asking for fresh information when there was none to give.

“I can’t bear this no longer, Bill dear,” said Miss Burge one morning.  “There’s that poor girl lying there in that wretched place, and no one but strangers to tend her; and it seems as if all her friends had left her now she is in distress.”

“Not all,” said Burge, raising his drooping head.  “I’m down there every day; only I can’t be admitted to her room, poor dear!  I wish I might be.”

“And I’ve been holding back,” sobbed little Miss Burge, “because I felt afraid of catching the complaint, and the doctor said it would be madness for me to go; but I’m going down this morning, Bill dear, and if I die for it I won’t mind ­at least not very much ­for I’m sure I shouldn’t be any good to live if I couldn’t help at a time like this.  Hasn’t her poor ma been to her yet?”

“No; she isn’t fit to go,” said Burge.  “She is ill, and weak, and foolish, and the doctor told her that if she went she would only take the disease home to the little girls.  She would only have worried her poor child and been in the way.”

“I’m glad I’ve never been a mother, Bill, to turn out no more use than that in trouble,” sobbed the little woman.  “Now, do drink your tea, dear; it will do you good.”

“Nothing won’t do me no good, Betsey,” said the poor fellow dejectedly.

“But it looks so bad, dear, to see you like this.  I declare you haven’t washed and shaved this mornings and your hair ain’t been brushed.”

“No,” he said drearily; “I forgot Betsey ­I forgot.”

“Why, Bill!” she exclaimed, looking at him scrutinisingly.

“Yes, dear.”

“Why, you haven’t been to bed all night!”

“No, dear.”

“Why, if you haven’t been watching down there by that cottage!” she cried.

“Yes, dear,” he said quietly.  “It seemed to do me good like.”

“Oh, Bill!”

“And then I went to the post-office, and I’ve telegraphed for Sir Henry Venner to come down by special train.”

“You have, Bill dear!  Why, that’s the Queen’s doctor, ain’t it.”

“Yes, dear.”

“But won’t it cost a heap of money?”

“I’d give every penny I’ve got and sell myself too,” he said, with a ring of simple pathos in his voice, “if it would bring that poor darling back to herself.”

He laid his arms upon the table, and his forehead went down upon them, as he said softly, as if to himself ­

“I don’t want any return ­I’m not selfish ­and I’d ask nothing back.  I could go on loving her always, and be glad to see her happy, only please God to let her live ­please God let her live!”

Little Miss Burge, with the tears streaming down her honest round face, rose from her seat at the breakfast-table, and went down upon her knees beside her brother, to lay her cheek against one of his hands.

“I’m going down to her now, Bill dear,” she said softly; “and I’ll watch by her night and day; for I think I love her, poor dear! as much as you.”

“God bless you, Betsey dear!” he said, drawing her to his breast, and speaking now with energy.  “I couldn’t ask you to go, for it seemed like sending you where I daren’t go myself; but if you could go, dear, I should be a happier man!”

“And go I will, Bill; and I will do my best.”

“And look here, dear!” he cried, quite excitedly now, “you don’t know how you’re helping me, for now I can do what I want.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“Why, I thought, dear, if the big doctor would give leave, we might bring the poor girl on here; but I daren’t even think of it before, on account of you.  You, see, dear, I could send away the servants, and get a nurse to come.”

“Oh yes; do, Bill dear!” cried the little body eagerly.  “We’d put her in the west room, which would be so bright and cheerful, and ­There, I’m standing talking when I ought to go.”

In fact, within five minutes little Miss Burge was ready, with her luggage on her arm; the said luggage consisting of a clean night-dress, “ditto” cap, a cake of soap, and a brush and comb; with which easily portable impedimenta she was soon after settled in Mrs Potts’s dreary low-roofed room.

“No, miss,” whispered the rough woman, “never slep’ a wink all night; but kep’ on talk, talk, talk, talking about her mother and father, and Squire Canninge, and the school pence, and that she was in disgrace.”

“And teacher kep’ saying Mr William Forth Burge was her dearest friend,” put in Feelier, in a shrill, weak voice.

“Hush!” whispered little Miss Burge, for their voices had disturbed Hazel, who, till then, had been lying in a kind of stupor.

She opened her eyes widely, and stared straight before her.

“Are you there, Mr Burge? ­are you there?” she said in a quick, excited whisper.

“No, my dear; it’s me, Betsey Burge.  I’ve come to stop with you.”

“I didn’t know how good and kind you were then ­when I spoke as I did.  I was very blind then ­I was very blind then,” sighed Hazel wearily.

“And you’ll soon be better now,” said little Miss Burge in a soft, cheery way.  “There ­let me turn your pillow; it’s all so hot, and ­Mrs Potts, send up for two pillows out of our best room directly.”

“Yes, mum; I’ll go myself;” and Mrs Potts hurried away.

“There, my dear, you’ll be nicer and cooler now, and ­Oh, dear me, what a lot of things I do want!  Mrs Potts, call at the druggist’s for some eau-de-cologne ­a big bottle mind.”

“Yes, mum,” came from below.

“Her poor head’s like fire.  There, dear ­there, my poor dear, let me lay your hair away from you; it will cool your head.”

“Please, Miss Burge, don’t let them cut off all teacher’s hair,” whispered Feelier from the other bed.

“No, my dear; not if I can help it.”

“I want to tell you I was so ungrateful when you spoke to me as you did, Mr Burge,” said Hazel in her low excited whisper.

“No, no, my darling, not ungrateful,” said little Miss Burge, in the soothing voice any one would adopt to a child. ­“Poor dear, she don’t know what she’s saying.”

“I have lain here and thought of what you have done,” continued Hazel, “and how self-denying you have always been to me; and I was ungrateful for it all.  I know now I was ungrateful.”

“She is wandering, poor girl!” said little Miss Burge, with a sob, as she busied herself in making the room more comfortable, after she had smoothed Hazel’s pillow and opened the window wide to give her more air.  After this she turned her attention to poor Feelier, rearranging her pillow, and ending by bathing her face and hands, the poor girl uttering a sigh of relief and pleasure, sinking back afterwards upon her cool pillow, too weak almost to raise her arm.

“There, now you feel more comfortable, don’t you, my dear?” whispered the busy little woman.

“Oh, yes, and ­and ­and ­please ­please I’ll never do so no more.”

Poor Feelier burst into a passionate fit of tearful remorse, sobbing wildly in spite of little Miss Burge’s efforts to calm her.

“Oh! hush, hush, my dear; pray be still.”

“I ­I ­I used to make faces at you in school,” sobbed Feelier.

“Yes, yes, yes; but hush my dear.  You only did it in fun.”

“N-no, I didn’t,” sobbed Feelier; “I did it to make ­make the other girls laugh.”

“But hush, pray hush, or you’ll hurt poor Miss Thorne.”

Feelier’s sobs ended in one large gulp, as if by magic, and she lay perfectly still, staring at the other bed.

“Please, Miss Burge,” she whispered, “will you bring some of your roses and put in water by teacher’s pillow?”

“Yes, my dear, that I will,” said the little lady, patting Feelier’s hand.  “And now lie still, and don’t talk; let’s keep the room quiet, and try to make her better.”

“Yes, Miss Burge; but please will teacher get well?”

“Why, surely, my dear; and very soon.”

“Because mother said I was a little wretch and gave teacher the fever, and I wish I may die instead.”

“But you shall both get well, my dear, very soon; and then you shall both go down to the sea, and you shall be Miss Thorne’s little maid.”

“Shall I?” cried the girl, with her eyes sparkling and a flush coming into her thin, sunken cheeks.

“Yes, that you shall, my dear; only lie very still, and don’t talk.”

“Please, Miss Burge,” whispered Feelier, “let me tell you this.”

“Well, only this one thing, and then you must be very quiet, my dear.”

“Yes, I will,” whispered Feelier, in a quiet, old-fashioned way; “but that’s how teacher keeps on all night and all day; she keeps on wanting Mr William Forth Burge to come to her, and mother says I kep’ on just the same, asking for teacher to come, and I was quiet when she did, and then” ­sob ­“she caught the fever too.”

“Yes, yes, my dear; but you’ll soon do better now.”

“But you’d better let old Billy Burge ­”

Feelier stopped short, conscious of the slip of her guilty tongue, and looked up at her gentle attendant as if she expected a blow.

“I won’t call him that name agen,” she said demurely, “but if he come he’d do teacher good; only if he did come, he’d ketch the fever too, and I don’t know what’s best, only we mustn’t let teacher die.”

“No, no, my dear; of course not,” whispered little Miss Burge hastily.

“But if she did die I know what I should do,” said Feelier dreamily, and with a drowsy look in her eyes, the effect of being washed and the cooler atmosphere of the room inducing sleep.

“What should you do, my dear?” said Miss Burge, pressing down the pillow to let the cool air blow upon her cheek.

“I should set violets and primroses all over her grave; and if any of the other girls was to pick any of ’em, oh, I would give ’em such a banging!  And then ­then ­then ­”

And then poor, weak Ophelia Potts sank into a profound sleep, and little Miss Burge wiped her eyes and sat and watched Hazel’s weary, restless head; listening to her broken sentences and the incoherent mutterings, all of which were to the same tune ­that she had been weak and cruel and ungrateful to one who had been all devotion to her, and that she would never rest till she had tried to make him some amends.

“Poor Bill, if he could only hear her now, how glad he’d be!” sighed the watcher; “but this will all pass away, and when she gets well she’ll never know she said a word.  Poor Bill; it won’t never ­it couldn’t ever be!”

“I want Mr Burge,” cried Hazel suddenly, and her voice sounded hard and strange.  “Tell him to come to me ­tell him to come.”

“Yes, yes, yes, my darling; he shall come soon.”

“He would catch the fever, do you say?  No no; I could not give it to him; he is so kind and good.  Tell Mr Geringer, mother, it is impossible; I could not be his wife.”

“Oh, my poor dear!” whispered Miss Burge, bathing Hazel’s burning forehead with the eau-de-cologne that Mrs Potts had now brought; “that poor, poor, burning, wandering brain.  Why don’t the doctor come?”