Read CHAPTER II - Under the horses’ feet of Hetty Gray, Nobody's Bairn, free online book, by Rosa Mulholland, on

Mrs. Kane’s cottage stood on a pretty bend of one of the village roads, and belonged to an irregular cluster of little houses with red gables and green palings. It was among the poorest dwellings in Wavertree, but was neat and clean. The garden was in good order, and a white climbing rose grew round the door, that sweet old-fashioned rose with its delicious scent which makes the air delightful wherever it blows.

The cottage door stood open, and the afternoon sunlight fell across the old red tiles of the kitchen floor. The tiles were a little broken, and here and there they were sunk and worn; but they were as clean as hands could make them, as Mrs. Kane would have said. A little window at one side looked down the garden, and across it was a frilled curtain, and on the sill a geranium in full flower. On the other side was the fire-place, with chintz frill and curtains, and the grate filled with a great bush of green beech-leaves. A table set on the red tiles was spread for tea, and by it sat Mrs. Kane and her friend Mrs. Ford enjoying a friendly cup together.

“She is late this evening,” Mrs. Kane was saying; “but she’ll turn up all right by and by. If she’s wild she’s sharp, which is still something. She never gets under horses’ feet, nor drops into the pond, or anything of that sort. If she did those sort of things, being such a rover, Mrs. Ford, you see I never should have an easy moment in my life.”

“I must say it’s very good of you to take to do with her,” said Mrs. Ford, “and she nobody belonging to you. If she was your own child ”

“Well, you see, my own two dears went to heaven with the measles,” said Mrs. Kane, “and I felt so lonesome without them, that when John walked in with the little bundle in his arms that night, I thought he was just an angel of light.”

“It was on the Long Sands he found her, wasn’t it?” asked Mrs. Ford, balancing her spoon on the edge of her cup.

“On the Long Sands after the great storm,” said Mrs. Kane; “and that’s just four years ago in May gone by. How a baby ever lived through the storm to be washed in by the sea alive always beats me when I think of it, it seems so downright unnatural; and yet that’s the way that Providence ordered it, Mrs. Ford.”

“I suppose all her folks were drowned?” said Mrs. Ford.

“Most like they were, for it was a bad wreck, as I’ve heard,” said Mrs. Kane. “Leastways, nobody has ever come to claim her, and no questions have been asked. Unless it was much for her good I would fain hope that nobody ever will claim her now. Wild as she is, I’ve grown to love that little Hetty, so I have. Ah, here she is coming along, as hungry as a little pussy for her milk, I’ll be bound!”

Hetty came trudging along the garden path, her curls standing up in a bush on her head, her little fat fingers stained green with grass, and her pinafore, no longer green, filled with moon-daisies. She was singing with her baby voice lifted bravely:

“Dust as I am I come to zee ”

“Dust indeed!” cried Mrs. Kane, “I never saw such dust. Only look at her shoes that I blacked this morning!”

“Poor dear, practising her singing,” said Mrs. Ford. “Well, little lass, and what have you been seeing and doing all day long?”

“I saw big Ben poking his fire,” answered Hetty after a moment’s reflection. “He put me out, and then I saw him hurting the horses’ feet with his hammer. I wanted the horses to come along with me, but they shook their heads and stayed where they were. Then I tried to catch the butterflies, and they flew right past my eyes. And I thought the yellow lilies could fly too, and they wouldn’t. Then I pulled their heads off ”

“And were you not at school at all?” asked Mrs. Ford. “Well, well, Hetty, you are wild. If you saw my little boys going so good to their school! What more did you do, Hetty?”

“I went into school, and schoolmistress put me in a corner. Then I drew marks with my tears on the wall; and afterwards I said my spelling. And I came home and got some daisies; and I saw Charlie Ford standing in the pond with his shoes and stockings on.”

“Oh my! oh my! well I never!” cried Mrs. Ford, snatching up her bonnet, and getting ready to go home in a hurry. “Charley in the pond with his shoes and stockings on! It seems, Mrs. Kane, that I’ve been praising him too soon!”

While Mrs. Ford was running down the road after Charley, Mrs. Enderby, up at Wavertree Hall, was directing her servants to carry the table for tea out upon the lawn under the wide-spreading beech-trees; and her two little daughters, Phyllis aged eight and Nell aged seven, were hovering about waiting to place baskets of flowers and strawberries on the embroidered cloth. Mrs. Rushton, sister-in-law of Mrs. Enderby and aunt of the children, was spending the afternoon at the Hall, having come a distance of some miles to do so.

Mrs. Enderby was a tall graceful lady, with a pale, gentle, but rather cold face; her dress was severely simple and almost colourless; her voice was sweet. Mrs. Rushton was unlike her in every respect, low in size, plump, smiling, and dressed in the most becoming and elegant fashion. Mrs. Enderby spoke slowly and with deliberation; Mrs. Rushton kept chattering incessantly.

“Well, Amy,” said the former, “I hope you will talk to William about it, and perhaps he may induce you to change your mind. Here he is,” as a gentleman was seen coming across the lawn.

Mrs. Rushton shrugged her shoulders. “My dear Isabel,” she said, “I do not see what William has to do with it. I am my own mistress, and surely old enough to judge for myself.”

The two little girls sprang to meet their father, and dragged him by the hands up to the tea-table.

“William,” said Mrs. Enderby, “I want you to remonstrate with Amy.”

“It seems to me I am always remonstrating with Amy,” said Mr. Enderby smiling; “what wickedness is she meditating now?”

Mrs. Rushton laughed gaily, dipped a fine strawberry into cream and ate it. Her laugh was pleasant, and she had a general air of good humour and self-complacency about her which some people mistook for exceeding amiability.

“Isabel thinks I am going to destruction altogether,” said she, preparing another strawberry for its bath of cream; “only because I am thinking of going abroad with Lady Harriet Beaton. Surely I have a right to arrange my own movements and to select my own friends.”

Mr. Enderby looked very grave. “No one can deny your right to do as you please,” he said; “but I hope that on reflection you will not please to go abroad with Lady Harriet Beaton.”


“Surely you know she is not a desirable companion for you, Amy. I hope you have not actually promised to accompany her.”

“Well, I think I have, almost. She is very gay and charming, and I cannot think why you should object to her. If I were a young girl of sixteen, instead of a widow with long experience, you could not make more fuss about the matter.”

“As your brother I am bound to object to such a scheme,” said Mr. Enderby.

Mrs. Rushton pouted. “It is all very well for you and Isabel to talk,” she said, “you have each other and your children to interest you. If I had children had only one child, I should not care for running about the world or making a companion of Lady Harriet.”

Mrs. Enderby looked at her sister-in-law sympathetically; but Mr. Enderby only smiled.

“My dear Amy,” he said, “you know very well that if you had children they would be the most neglected little mortals on the face of the earth. Ever since I have known you, a good many years now, I have seen you fluttering about after one whim or another, and never found you contented with anything long. If Phyllis and Nell here were your daughters instead of Isabel’s, they would be away at school somewhere, whilst their mother would be taking her turn upon all the merry-go-rounds of the world.”

“Thank you, you are very complimentary,” said Mrs. Rushton; and then she laughed carelessly:

“After all, the merry-go-rounds, as you put it, are much better fun than sitting in a nursery or a school-room. But I assure you I am not so frivolous as you think; I have been going out distributing tracts lately with Mrs. Sourby.”

“Indeed, and last winter I know you were attending lectures on cookery, and wanted to become a lecturer yourself.”

“Yes, and only for something that happened, I forget what, I might now be a useful member of society. But chance does so rule one’s affairs. At present it is Fate’s decree that I shall spend the next few months at Pontresina.”

Mr. Enderby made a gesture as if to say that he would remonstrate no more, and went off to play lawn tennis with his little girls. Mrs. Rushton rose from her seat, yawned, and declared to Mrs. Enderby that it was six o’clock and quite time for her to return towards home, as she had a drive of two hours before her.

Shortly afterwards she was rolling along the avenue in her carriage, and through the village, and out by one of the roads towards the open country.

Now little Hetty Gray ought to have been in her bed by this time, or getting ready for it; but she was, as Mrs. Kane told Mrs. Ford, a very wild little girl, though sharp; and while Mrs. Kane was busy giving her husband his supper Hetty had escaped from the cottage once more, and had skipped away from the village to have another little ramble by herself before the pretty green woods should begin to darken, and the moon to come up behind the trees.

Hetty had filled her lap with dog-roses out of the hedges, and wishing to arrange them in a bunch which she could carry in her hand, she sat down in the middle of the road and became absorbed in her work.

Near where she sat there was a sharp turning in the road, and Hetty was so busy that she did not hear the sound of a carriage coming quite near her. Suddenly the horses turned the corner. Hetty saw them and jumped up in a fright, but too late to save herself from being hurt. She was flung down upon the road, though the coachman pulled up in time to prevent the wheels passing over her.

Poor Hetty gave one scream and then nothing more was heard from her. The footman got down and looked at her, and then he went and told the lady in the carriage that he feared the child was badly hurt.

“Oh dear!” said the lady, “what brought her under the horses’ feet? Can you not pick her up?”

The footman went back to Hetty and tried to lift her in his arms, but she uttered such pitiful screams at being touched that he was obliged to lay her down again.

Then the lady, who was Mrs. Rushton, got out and looked at her.

“You must put her in the carriage,” she said, “and drive back to the village. I suppose she belongs to some of the people there.”

“I know her, ma’am,” said the footman; “she is Mrs. Kane’s little girl, little Hetty Gray.”

Mrs. Rushton got into the carriage again and held the child on her lap while they were being driven back to the village to Mrs. Kane’s cottage door. It was quite a new sensation to the whimsical lady of fashion to hold a suffering child in her arms, and she was surprised to find that, in spite of her first feelings of impatience at being stopped on the road, she rather liked it. As Hetty’s little fair curly head hung back helplessly over her arm, and the round soft cheek, turned so white, touched her breast, Mrs. Rushton felt a motherly sensation which she had never before known in all her frivolous life.

Mrs. Kane was out at the garden gate looking up and down the road for the missing Hetty. When she saw Hetty lifted out of the carriage she began to cry.

“Oh my! my!” she sobbed, “I never thought it would come to this with her, and she so sharp. Thank you, madam, thank you, I’m sure. She’s not my own child, but I feel it as much as if she was.”

Mrs. Rushton then sent the carriage off for the doctor and went into the cottage with Mrs. Kane. The child was laid as gently as possible on a poor but clean bed covered with a patchwork quilt of many colours, and the lady of fashion sat by her side, bathing the baby forehead with eau de Cologne which she happened to have with her. It was all new and unexpectedly interesting to Mrs. Rushton. Never had she been received as a friend in a cottage home before, the only occasions when she had even seen the inside of one were those on which she had accompanied Mrs. Sourby on her mission of distributing tracts; and on those occasions she had felt that she was not looked on as a friend by the poor who received her, but rather as an intruder. It was evident now that good, grieved Mrs. Kane took her for an angel as she sat by the little one’s bed, and it was new and delightful to Mrs. Rushton to be regarded as a benefactress by anyone.

The doctor arrived, set the child’s arm, which was found to be broken, and gave her something to make her fall asleep. Then he charmed Mrs. Rushton by complimenting that lady on her goodness of heart.

“Remember, all the expense is to be mine,” she said to him, “and I hope you will order the little one everything she can possibly require. I will come to see her to-morrow, Mrs. Kane, and bring her some flowers and fruit.”

The pretty green woods which Hetty loved had grown dark, the butterflies had flown away to whatever dainty lodging butterflies inhabit during the summer nights, the yellow wings of the flag-lilies fluttered unseen in the shadows, and the moon had risen high above the tall beech-trees and the old church tower. Mrs. Rushton stepped into her carriage once more, and was driven rapidly through the quiet village, away towards her own luxurious home, feeling more interested and excited than she had felt for a long time.

Little Hetty Gray, her scare of fright and pain gone for the time like a bad dream, lay sound asleep upon her humble bed, and Mrs. Kane, trimming her night-light, paused to listen, with that fascination which many people feel at the sound, to the hoarse boom of the old church clock calling the hour of midnight, across the chimneys of the village and away over the silent solemn woods.

Mrs. Kane felt with a sort of awe that another day had begun, but she little knew that with it a strange new leaf had been turned in the story of her little Hetty’s life.