My name is Helena, and I am fourteen past. I have two other Christian names; one of them is rather queer. It is 'Naomi.' I don't mind having it, as I am never called by it, but I don't sign it often because it is such an odd name. My third name is not uncommon. It is just 'Charlotte.' So my whole name is 'Helena Charlotte Naomi Wingfield.'
I have never been called by any short name, like 'Lena,' or 'Nellie.' I think the reason must be that I am an only child. I have never had any big brother to shout out 'Nell' all over the house, or dear baby sisters who couldn't say 'Helena' properly. And what seems still sadder than having no brothers or sisters, I have never had a mother that I could remember. For mamma died when I was not much more than a year old, and papa six months before that.
But my history has not been as sad as you might think from this. I was very happy indeed when I was quite a little child. Till I was nine years old I really did not know what troubles were, for I lived with grandmamma, and she made up to me for everything I had not got: we loved each other so very dearly.
I will tell you about our life.
Grandmamma was not at all the sort of person most children think of when they hear of a grandmother in a story. She was not old, with white hair and spectacles and always a shawl on, even in the house, and very old-fashioned in her ways. She did wear caps, at least I think she always did, for, of course, she was not young. But her hair was very nicely done under them, and they were pretty fluffy things. She made them herself, and she made a great many other things herself – for me too. For, you will perhaps wonder more than ever at my saying what a happy child I was, when I tell you that we were really very poor.
I cannot tell you exactly how much or how little we had to live upon, and most children would not understand any the better if I did. For a hundred pounds a year even, sounds a great deal to a child, and yet it is very little indeed for one lady by herself to live upon, and of course still less for two people. And I don't think we had much more than that. Grandmamma told me when I grew old enough to understand better, that when I first came to live with her, after both papa and mamma were dead, and she found that there was no money for me – that was not poor papa's fault; he had done all that could be done, but the money was lost by other people's wrong-doing – well, as I was saying, when grandmamma found how it was, she thought over about doing something to make more. She was very clever in many ways; she could speak several languages, and she knew a lot about music, though she had given up playing, and she might have begun a school as far as her cleverness went. But she had no savings to furnish a large enough house with, and she did not know of any pupils. She could not bear the thought of parting with me, otherwise she might perhaps have gone to be some grand sort of housekeeper, which even quite, quite ladies are sometimes, or she might have joined somebody in having a shop. But after a lot of thinking, she settled she would rather try to live on what she had, in some quiet, healthy, country place, though I believe she did earn some money by doing beautiful embroidery work, for I remember seeing her make lovely things which were never used in our house. This could not have gone on for long, however, as granny's eyes grew weak, and then I think she did no sewing except making our own clothes.
Now I must tell you about our home. It was quite a strange place to grandmamma when we first came there, but I can never feel as if it had been so. For it was the first place I can remember, as I was only a year old, or a little more – and children very seldom remember anything before they are three – when we settled down at Windy Gap.
That was the name of our cottage. It is a nice breezy name, isn't it? though it does sound rather cold. And in some ways it was cold, at least it was windy, and quite suited its name, though at some seasons of the year it was very calm and sheltered. Sheltered on two sides it always was, for it stood in a sort of nest a little way up the Middlemoor Hills, with high ground on the north and on the east, so that the only winds really to be feared could never do us much harm. It was more a nest than a 'gap,' for inside, it was so cosy, so very cosy, even in winter. The walls were nice and thick, built of rather gloomy-looking, rough gray stone, and the windows were deep – deep enough to have window-seats in them, where granny and I used often to sit with our books or work, as the inner part of the rooms, owing to the shape of the windows, was rather dark, and the rooms of course were small.
We had a little drawing-room, which we always sat in, and a still smaller dining-room, which was very nice, though in reality it was more a kitchen than a dining-room. It had a neat kitchen range and an oven, and some things had to be cooked there, though there was another little kitchen across the passage where our servant Kezia did all the messy work – peeling potatoes, and washing up, and all those sorts of things, you know. The dining-room-kitchen was used as little as possible for cooking, and grandmamma was so very, very neat and particular that it was almost as pretty and cosy as the drawing-room.
Upstairs there were three bedrooms – a good-sized one for grandmamma, a smaller one beside it for me, and a still smaller one with a rather sloping roof for Kezia. The house is very easy to understand, you see, for it was just three and three, three upstairs rooms over three downstairs ones. But there was rather a nice little entrance hall, or closed-in porch, and the passages were pretty wide. So it did not seem at all a poky or stuffy house though it was so small. Indeed, one could scarcely fancy a 'Windy Gap Cottage' anything but fresh and airy, could one?
I was never tired of hearing the story of the day that grandmamma first came to Middlemead to look for a house. She told it me so often that I seem to know all about it just as if I had been with her, instead of being a stupid, helpless little baby left behind with my nurse – Kezia was my nurse then – while poor granny had to go travelling all about, house-hunting by herself!
What made her first think of Middlemead she has never been able to remember. She did not know any one there, and she had never been there in her life. She fancies it was that she had read in some book or advertisement perhaps, that it was so very healthy, and dear grandmamma's one idea was to make me as strong as she could; for I was rather a delicate child. But for me, indeed, I don't think she would have cared where she lived, or to live at all, except that she was so very good.
'As long as any one is left alive,' she has often said to me, 'it shows that there is something for them to be or to do in the world, and they must try to find out what it is.'
But there was not much difficulty for grandmamma to find out what her principal use in the world was to be! It was all ready indeed – it was poor, little, puny, delicate, helpless me!
So very likely it was as she thought – just the hearing how splendidly healthy the place was – that made her travel down to Middlemead in those early spring days, that first sad year after mamma's death, to look for a nest for her little fledgling. She arrived there in pretty good spirits; she had written to a house-agent and had got the names of two or three 'to let' houses, which she at once tramped off from the station to look at, for she was very anxious not to spend a penny more than she could help. But, oh dear, how her spirits went down! The houses were dreadful; one was a miserable sort of genteel cottage in a row of others all exactly the same, with lots of messy-looking children playing about in the untidy strips of garden in front. That would certainly not do, for even if the house itself had been the least nice, grandmamma felt sure I would catch measles and scarlet-fever and hooping-cough every two or three days! The next one was a still more genteel 'semi-detached' villa, but it was very badly built, the walls were like paper, and it faced north and east, and had been standing empty, no doubt, for these reasons, for years. It would not do. Then poor granny plodded back to the house agent's again. He isn't only a house agent, he has a stationer's and bookseller's shop, and his name is Timbs. I know him quite well. He is rather a nice man, and though she was a stranger of course, he seemed sorry for grandmamma's disappointment.
'There are several very good little houses that I am sure you would like,' he said to her, 'and one or two of them are very small – but it is the rent. For though Middlemead is scarcely more than a village it is much in repute for its healthiness, and the rents are rising.'
'What are the rents of the smallest of the houses you speak of?' grandmamma asked.
'Forty pounds is the cheapest,'.Mr. Timbs answered, 'and the situation of that is not so good. Rather low and chilly in winter, and somewhat lonely.'
'I don't mind about the loneliness,' said grandmamma, 'but a low or damp situation would never do.'
Mr. Timbs was looking over his lists as she spoke. Her words seemed to strike him, and he suddenly peered up through his spectacles.
'You don't mind about loneliness,' he repeated. 'Then I wonder – ' and he turned over the leaves of his book quickly. 'There is another house to let,' he said; 'to tell the truth I had forgotten about it, for it has never been to let unfurnished before; and it would be considered too lonely for all the year round by most people.'
'Are there no houses near?' asked grandmamma. 'I don't fancy Middlemead is the sort of place where one need fear burglars, and besides,' she went on with a little smile, 'we should not have much of value to steal. The silver plate that I have I shall leave for the most part in London. But in case of sudden illness or any alarm of that kind, I should not like to be out of reach of everybody.'
'There are two or three small cottages close to the little house I am thinking of,' said Mr. Timbs, 'and the people in them are very respectable. I leave the key with one of them.'
Then he went on to tell grandmamma exactly where it was, how to get there, and all about it, and with every word, dear granny said her heart grew lighter and lighter. She really began to hope she had found a nest for her poor little homeless bird – that was me, you understand – especially when Mr. Timbs finished up by saying that the rent was only twelve pounds a year, one pound a month. And she had made up her mind to give as much as twenty pounds if she could find nothing nice and healthy for less.
She looked at her watch; yes, there was still time to go to see Windy Gap Cottage and yet get back to the station in time for the train she had fixed to go back by – that is to say, if she took a fly. She has often told me how she stood and considered about that fly. Was it worth while to go to the expense? Yes, she decided it was, for after all if she found nothing to suit us at Middlemead she would have to set off on her travels again to house-hunt somewhere else. It would be penny wise and pound foolish to save that fly.
Mr. Timbs seemed pleased when she said she would go at once – I suppose so many people go to house agents asking about houses which they never take, that when anybody comes who is quite in earnest they feel like a fisherman when he has really hooked a fish. He grew quite eager and excited and said he would go with the lady himself, if she would allow him to take a seat beside the driver to save time. And of course granny was very glad for him to come.
It was getting towards evening when she saw Windy Gap for the first time, and it happened to be a very still evening – the name hardly seemed suitable, and she said so to Mr. Timbs. He smiled and shook his head and answered that he only hoped if she did come there to live that she would not find the name too suitable. Still, though there was a good deal of wind to be heard, he went on to explain that the cottage was, as I have already said, well sheltered on the cold sides, and also well and strongly built.
'None of your "paper-mashy," one brick thick, run-up-to-tumble-down houses,' said Mr. Timbs with satisfaction, which was certainly quite true.
The end of it was, as of course you know already, that grandmamma fixed to take it. She talked it all over with Mr. Timbs, who 'made notes,' and promised to write to her about one or two things that could not be settled at once, and then 'with a very thankful heart,' as she always says when she talks of that day, she drove away again off to the station.
The sun was just beginning to think about setting when she walked down the little steep garden path and a short way over the rough, hill cart-track – for nothing on wheels can come quite close up to the gate of Windy Gap – and already she could see what a beautiful show there was going to be over there in the west. She stood still for a minute to look at it.
'Yes, madam,' said old Timbs, though she had not spoken, 'yes, that is a sight worth adding a five pound note on to the rent of the cottage for, in my opinion. The sunsets here are something wonderful, and there's no house better placed for seeing them than Windy Gap. "Sunset View" it might have been called, I have often thought.'
'I can quite believe what you say,' grandmamma replied, 'and I am very glad to have had a glimpse of it on this first visit.'
Many and many a time since then have we sat or stood together there, granny and I, watching the sun's good-night. I think she must have begun to teach me to look at it while I was still almost a baby. For these wonderful sunsets seem mixed up in my mind with the very first things I can remember. And still more with the most solemn and beautiful thoughts I have ever had. I always fancied when I was very tiny that if only we could have pushed away the long low stretch of hills which prevented our seeing the very last of the dear sun, we should have had an actual peep into heaven, or at least that we should have seen the golden gates leading there. And I never watched the sun set without sending a message by him to papa and mamma. Only in my own mind, of course. I never told grandmamma about it for years and years. But I did feel sure he went there every night and that the beautiful colours had to do with that somehow.
Grandmamma felt as if the lovely glow in the sky was a sort of good omen for our life at Windy Gap, and she felt happier on her journey back in the railway that evening than she had done since papa and mamma died.
She told Kezia and me all about it – you will be amused at my saying she told me, for of course I was only a baby and couldn't understand. But she used to fancy I did understand a little, and she got into the way of talking to me when we were alone together especially, almost as if she was thinking aloud. I cannot remember the time when she didn't talk to me 'sensibly,' and perhaps that made me a little old for my age. Granny says I used to grow quite grave when she talked seriously, and that I would laugh and crow with pleasure when she seemed bright and happy. And this made her try more than anything else to be bright and happy.
Dear, dear grandmamma – how very, exceedingly unselfish she was! For I now see what a really sad life most people would have thought hers. All her dearest ones gone; her husband, her son and her son's wife – mamma, I mean – whom she had loved nearly, if not quite as much, as if she had been her own daughter; and she left behind when she was getting old, to take care of one tiny little baby girl – and to be so poor, too. I don't think even now I quite understand her goodness, but every day I am getting to see it more and more, even though at one time I was both ungrateful and very silly, as you will hear before you come to the end of this little history.
And now that I have explained as well as I can about grandmamma and myself, and how and why we came to live in the funny little gray stone cottage perched up among the Middlemoor Hills, I will go on with what I can remember myself; for up till now, you see, all I have written has been what was told to me by other people, especially of course by granny.
No, perhaps I was rather hasty in saying I could now go straight on about what I remember myself. There are still a few things belonging to the time before I can remember, which I had better explain now, to keep it all in order.
I have spoken of grandmamma as being alone in the world, and so she was – as far as having no one very near her – no other children, and not any brothers or sisters of her own. And on my mother's side I had no relations worth counting. Mamma was an only child, and her father had married again after her mother died, and then, some years after, he died himself, and mamma's half-brothers and sisters had never even seen her, as they were out in India. So none of her relations have anything to do with my story or with me.
But grandmamma had one nephew whom she had been very fond of when he was a boy, and whom she had seen a good deal of, as he and papa were at school together. His name was not the same as ours, for he was the son of a sister of grandpapa's, not of a brother. It was Vandeleur, Mr. Cosmo Vandeleur.
He was abroad when our great troubles came – I forget where, for though he was not a soldier, he moved about the world a good deal to all sorts of out-of-the-way places, and very often for months and months together, grandmamma never heard anything about him. And one of the things that made her still lonelier and sadder when we first came to Windy Gap was that he had never answered her letters, or written to her for a very long time.
She thought it was impossible that he had not got her letters, and almost more impossible that he had not seen poor papa's death in some of the newspapers.
And as it happened he had seen it and he had written to her once, anyway, though she never got the letter. He had troubles of his own that he did not say very much about, for he had married a good while ago, and though his wife was very nice, she was very, very delicate.
Still, his name was familiar to me. I can always remember hearing grandmamma talk of 'Cosmo,' and when she told me little anecdotes of papa as a boy, his cousin was pretty sure to come into the story.
And Kezia used to speak of him too – 'Master Cosmo,' she always called him. For she had been a young under-servant of grandmamma's long ago, when grandpapa was alive and before the money was lost.
That is one thing I want to say – that though Kezia was our only servant, she was not at all common or rough. She turned herself into what is called 'a maid-of-all-work,' from being my nurse, just out of love for granny and me. And she was very good and very kind. Since I have grown older and have seen more of other children and how they live, I often think how much better off I was than most, even though my home was only a cottage and we lived so simply, and even poorly, in some ways. Everything was so open and happy about my life. I was not afraid of anybody or anything. And I have known children who, though their parents were very rich and they lived very grandly, had really a great deal to bear from cross or unkind nurses or maids, whom they were frightened to complain of. For children, unless they are very spoilt, are not so ready to complain as big people think. I had nothing to complain of, but if I had had anything, it would have been easy to tell grandmamma all about it at once; it would never have entered my head not to tell her. She knew everything about me, and I knew everything about her that it was good for me to know while I was still so young – more, perhaps, than some people would think a child should know – about our not having much money and needing to be careful, and things like that. But it did not do me any harm. Children don't take that kind of trouble to heart. I was proud of being treated sensibly, and of feeling that in many little ways I could help her as I could not have done if she had not explained.
And if ever there was anything she did not tell me about, even the keeping it back was done in an open sort of way. Granny made no mysteries. She would just say simply —
'I cannot tell you, my dear,' or 'You could not understand about it at present.'
So that I trusted her – 'always,' I was going to say, but, alas, there came a time when I did not trust her enough, and from that great fault of mine came all the troubles I ever had.
Now I will go straight on.
Have you ever looked back and tried to find out what is really the very first thing you can remember? It is rather interesting – now and then the b – no, I don't mean to speak of them till they come properly into my story – now and then I try to look back like that, and I get a strange feeling that it is all there, if only I could keep hold of the thread, as it were. But I cannot; it melts into a mist, and the very first thing I can clearly remember stands out the same again.
This is it.
I see myself – those looking backs always are like pictures; you seem to be watching yourself, even while you feel it is yourself – I see myself, a little trot of a girl, in a pale gray merino frock, with a muslin pinafore covering me nearly all over, and a broad sash of Roman colours, with a good deal of pale blue in it (I have the sash still, so it isn't much praise to my memory to know all about it), tied round my waist, running fast down the short steep garden path to where granny is standing at the gate. I go faster and faster, beginning to get a little frightened as I feel I can't stop myself. Then granny calls out —
'Take care, take care, my darling,' and all in a minute I feel safe – caught in her arms, and held close. It is a lovely feeling. And then I hear her say —
'My little girlie must not try to run so fast alone. She might have fallen and hurt herself badly if granny had not been there.'
There is to me a sort of parable, or allegory, in that first thing I can remember, and I think it will seem to go on and fit into all my life, even if I live to be as old as grandmamma is now. It is like feeling that there are always arms ready to keep us safe, through all the foolish and even wrong things we do – if only we will trust them and run into them. I hope the children who may some day read this won't say I am preaching, or make fun of it. I must tell what I really have felt and thought, or else it would be a pretence of a story altogether. And this first remembrance has always stayed with me.
Then come the sunsets. I have told you a little about them, already. I must often have looked at them before I can remember, but one specially beautiful has kept in my mind because it was on one of my birthdays.
I think it must have been my third birthday, though granny is half inclined to think it was my fourth. I don't, because if it had been my fourth I should remember some things between it and my third birthday, and I don't – nothing at all, between the running into granny's arms, which she too remembers, and which was before I was three, there is nothing I can get hold of, till that lovely sunset.
I was sitting at the window when it began. I was rather tired – I suppose I had been excited by its being my birthday, for dear granny always contrived to give me some extra pleasures on that day – and I remember I had a new doll in my lap, whom I had been undressing to be ready to be put to bed with me. I almost think I had fallen asleep for a minute or two, for it seems as if all of a sudden I had caught sight of the sky. It must have been particularly beautiful, for I called out —
'Oh, look, look, they're lighting all the beauty candles in heaven. Look, Dollysweet, it's for my birfday.'
Grandmamma was in the room and she heard me. But for a minute or two she did not say anything, and I went on talking to Dolly and pretending or fancying that Dolly talked back to me.
Then granny came softly behind me and stood looking out too. I did not know she was there till I heard her saying some words to herself. Of course I did not understand them, yet the sound of them must have stayed in my ears. Since then I have learnt the verses for myself, and they always come back to me when I see anything very beautiful – like the trees and the flowers in summer, or the stars at night, and above all, lovely sunsets.
But all I heard then was just —
'Good beyond compare,
If thus Thy meaner works are fair' —
and all I remembered was —
'… beyond compare,
… are fair.'
I said them over and over to myself, and a funny fancy grew out of them, when I got to understand what 'beyond' meant. I took it into my head that 'compare' was the name of the hills, which, as I have said, came between us and the horizon on the west, and prevented our seeing the last of the sunset.
And I used to make wonderful fairy stories to myself about the country beyond or behind those hills – the country I called 'Compare,' where something, or everything – for I had lost the words just before, was 'fair' in some marvellous way I could not even picture to myself. For I soon learnt to know that 'fair' meant beautiful – I think I learnt it first from some of the old fairy stories grandmamma used to tell me when we sat at work.
That evening she took me up in her arms and kissed me.
'The sun is going to bed,' she said to me, 'and so must my little Helena, even though it is her birthday.'
'And so must Dollysweet,' I said. I always called that doll 'Dollysweet,' and I ran the words together as if it was one name.
'Yes, certainly,' said granny.
Then she took my hand and I trotted upstairs beside her, carrying Dollysweet, of course. And there, up in my little room – I had already begun to sleep alone in my little room, though the door was always left open between it and grandmamma's – there, at the ending of my birthday was another lovely surprise. For, standing in a chair beside my cot was a bed for my doll —so pretty and cosy-looking.
Wasn't it nice of granny? I never knew any one like her for having new sort of ideas. It made me go to bed so very, very happily, and that is not always the case the night of a birthday. I have known children who, even when they are pretty big, cry themselves to sleep because the long-looked-for day is over.
It did not matter to me that my dolly's bed had cost nothing – except, indeed, what was far more really precious than money – granny's loving thought and work. It was made out of a strong cardboard box – the lid fastened to the box, standing up at one end like the head part of a French bed. And it was all beautifully covered with pink calico, which grandmamma had had 'by her.' Granny was rather old-fashioned in some ways, and fond of keeping a few odds and ends 'by her.' And over that again, white muslin, all fruzzled on, that had once been pinafores of mine, but had got too worn to use any more in that way.
There were little blankets, too, worked round with pink wool, and little sheets, and everything – all made out of nothing but love and contrivance!
It was so delightful to wake the next morning and see Dollysweet in her nest beside me. She slept there every night for several years, and I am afraid after some time she slept there a good deal in the day also. For I gave up playing with dolls rather young – playing with a doll, I should say. I found it more interesting to have lots of little ones, or of things that did instead of dolls – dressed-up chessmen did very well at one time – that I could make move about and act and be anything I wanted them to be, more easily than one or two big dolls.
Still I always took care of Dollysweet. I never neglected her or let her get dirty and untidy, though in time, of course, her pink-and-white complexion faded into pallid yellow, and her bright hair grew dull, and, worst of all – after that I never could bear to look at her – one of her sky-blue eyes dropped, not out, but into her hollow head.
Poor old Dollysweet!
The day after my third birthday grandmamma began to teach me to read. I couldn't have remembered that it was that very day, but she has told me so. I had very short lesshons, only a quarter of an hour, I think, but though she was very kind, she was very strict about my giving my attention while I was at them. She says that is the part that really matters with a very little child – the learning to give attention. Not that it would signify if the actual things learnt up to six or seven came to be forgotten – so long as a child knows how to learn.
At first I liked my lessons very much, though I must have been a rather tiresome child to teach. For I would keep finding out likenesses in the letters, which I called 'little black things,' and I wouldn't try to learn their names. Grandmamma let me do this for a few days, as she thought it would help me to distinguish them, but when she found that every day I invented a new set of likenesses, she told me that wouldn't do.
'You may have one likeness for each,' she said, 'but only if you really try to remember its name too.'
And I knew, by the sound of her voice, that she meant what she said.
So I set to work to fix which of the 'likes,' as I called them, I would keep.
'A' had been already a house with a pointed roof, and a book standing open on its two sides, and a window with curtains drawn at the top, and the wood of the sash running across half-way, and a good many other things which you couldn't see any likeness to it in, I am sure. But just as I was staring at it again, I saw old Tanner, who lived in one of the cottages below our house, settling his double ladder against a wall.
I screamed out with pleasure —
'I'll have Tan's ladder,' I said, and so I did. 'A' was always Tan's ladder after that. And a year or two later, when I heard some one speak of the 'ladder of learning,' I felt quite sure it had something to do with the opened-out ladder with the bar across the middle.
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