Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Cromptons, an electronic edition

by Mrs. Mary J. Holmes [Holmes, Mary Jane, 1825-1907]

date: 1902
source publisher: P. F. Collier & Son
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER VI
AT MRS. BIGGS'S

Notwithstanding Mrs. Biggs's prediction that she would not sleep a wink, Eloise did sleep fairly well. She was young and tired. Her ankle did not pain her much when she kept it still, and after she fell asleep she did not waken till Mrs. Biggs stood by her bed armed with hot coffee and bandages and fresh wormwood and vinegar.

"Do you feel like a daisy?" was Mrs. Biggs's cheery greeting, as she put down the coffee and bowl of vinegar in a chair and brought some water for Eloise's face and hands.

"Not much like a daisy," Eloise answered, with a smile, "but better than I expected. I am going to get up."

"Better stay where you be. I did, and had 'em wait on me," Mrs. Biggs said; but Eloise insisted, thinking she must exercise.

She soon found, however, that exercising was a difficult matter. Her ankle was badly swollen, and began to ache when she moved it, nor did Mrs. Biggs's assurance that "it would ache more until it didn't ache so bad" comfort her much. She managed, however, to get into a chair, and took the coffee, and submitted to have her ankle bathed and bandaged and her foot slipped into an old felt shoe | | 161 of Mrs. Biggs's, which was out at the toe and out at the side, but did not pinch at all.

"Your dress ain't dry. You'll catch your death of cold to have it on. You must wear one of mine," Mrs. Biggs said, producing a spotted calico wrapper, brown and white,--colors which Eloise detested.

It was much too large every way, but Mrs. Biggs lapped it in front and lapped it behind, and said the length would not matter, as Eloise could only walk with her knee in a chair and could hold up one side. Eloise knew she was a fright, but felt that she did not care, until Mrs. Biggs told her of the hat which the lady from Crompton Place had sent her, and that Sarah had said the young gentlemen would probably call.

"I've been thinking after all," she continued, "that it is better to be up. The committee man, Mr. Bills, who hired you, will call, and you can't see him and the young men here. I'm a respectable woman, and have boarded the teachers off and on for twenty years,--all, in fact, except Ruby Ann, who has a home of her own,--and I can't have my character compromised now by inviting men folks into a bedroom. You must come down to the parlor. There's a bed-lounge there which I can make up at night, and it'll save me a pile of steps coming upstairs."

"How am I to get there?" Eloise asked in dismay, and Mrs. Biggs replied, "It'll be a chore, I guess, but you can do it. I did when my ankle was bad. I took some strong coffee, same as I brought you, had my foot done up, and slid downstairs, one at a time, with my lame laig straight out. I can't say it didn't hurt, for it did, but I had to grin and bear it. Christian Science nor mind cure wasn't invented then, | | 162 or I should of used 'em, and said my ankle wasn't sprained. There's plenty of nice people believes 'em now. You can try 'em on, and we'll manage somehow."

Eloise was appalled at the thought of going downstairs to meet people, and especially the young men from Crompton, clad in that spotted brown and white gown, with nothing to relieve its ugliness, not even a collar, for the one she had worn the previous day was past being worn again until it had been laundered. She looked at her handkerchief. That, too, was impossible.

"Mrs. Biggs," she said at last, "have you a handkerchief you can loan me?"

"To be sure! To be sure! Half a dozen, if you like," Mrs. Biggs answered, hurrying from the room, and soon returning with a handkerchief large enough for a dinner napkin.

It was coarse and half-cotton, but it was clean, and Eloise tied it around her neck, greatly to Mrs. Biggs's surprise.

"Oh," she said, "you wanted it for that? Why not have a lace ruffle? I'll get one in a jiffy."

Eloise declined the ruffle. The handkerchief was bad enough, but a lace ruffle with that gown would have been worse.

"Now, I'll call Tim to go in front and keep you from falling. He is kind of awkward, but I'll go behind and stiddy you, and you grit your teeth and put on the mind cure, and down we go," Mrs. Biggs said, calling Tim, who came shambling up the stairs, and laughed aloud when he saw Eloise wrapped in his mother's gown.

"Excuse me, I couldn't help it; mother has made | | 163 you into, such a bundle," he said good-humoredly, as he saw the pained look in Eloise's face. "I'll get your trunk the next train, and you can have your own fixin's. What am I to do?"

This last was to his mother, who explained the way she had gone downstairs when she sprained her ankle twenty years ago come Christmas.

"She must sit down somehow on the top stair and slide down with one before her,--that's you,--and one behind,--that's me,--and she's to put on the mind cure. Miss Jenks says it does a sight of good."

Tim looked at his mother and then at Eloise, whose pitiful face appealed to him strongly.

"Oh, go to grass," he said, "with your mind cure! It's all rot! I'll carry her, if she will let me. I could of done it last night as well as them fine fellows."

He was a rough young boy of sixteen, with uncouth ways; but there was something in his face which drew Eloise to him, and when he said, "Shall I carry you?" she answered gladly, "Oh, yes, please. I don't think I have any mind to put on."

Lifting her very gently in his strong arms, while his mother kept saying she knew he'd let her fall, Tim carried her down and into the best room, where he set her in a rocking-chair, and brought a stool for her lame foot to rest upon, and then said he would go for her trunk, if she would give him her check. There was something magnetic about Tim, and Eloise felt it, and was sorry when he was gone. The world looked very dreary with the fog and rain outside, and the best room inside, with its stiff hair-cloth furniture, glaring paper and cheap prints on the wall--one of them of Beatrice Cenci, worse than anything she had ever seen. She was very fastidious in her | | 164 tastes, and everything rude and incongruous offended it, and she was chafing against her surroundings, when Mrs. Biggs came bustling in, very much excited, and exclaiming, "For the land's sake, they are comin'! They are right here. They hain't let much grass grow. Let me poke your hair back a little from your forehead,--so! That's right, and more becomin'."

"Who are coming?" Eloise asked.

"Why, Mr. Crompton and his friend. I don't know his name," Mrs. Biggs replied, and Eloise felt a sudden chill as she thought of the figure she must present to them.

If she could only look in the glass and adjust herself a little, or if Mrs. Biggs would throw something over the unsightly slipper and the ankle smothered in so many bandages. The mirror was out of the question. She had combed her hair with a side comb which had come safely through the storm, but she felt that it was standing on end, and that she was a very crumpled, sorry spectacle in Mrs. Biggs's spotted gown, with the handkerchief round her neck. Hastily covering her foot with a fold of the wide gown, she clasped her hands tightly together, and leaning her head against the back of her chair, drew a long breath and waited.

She heard the steps outside, and Mrs. Biggs's "Good-mornin'; glad to see you. She is expectin' you, or I am. Yes, her laig is pretty bad. Swelled as big as two laigs, just as mine was twenty years ago come Christmas, when I sprained it. Tim brought her downstairs where she can see folks. She's in the parlor. Walk in."

Eloise's cheeks were blazing, but the rest of her face was very pale, and her eyes had in them a hunted | | 165 look as the young men entered the room, preceded by Mrs. Biggs in her working apron, with her sleeves rolled up.

"Miss Smith, this is Mr. Crompton," she said, indicating Howard; "and the t'other one is--his name has slipped my mind."

"Harcourt," Jack said, feeling an intense sympathy for the helpless girl, whose feelings he guessed and whose hand he held a moment with a clasp in which she felt the pity, and had hard work to keep the tears back.

Howard also took her hand and felt sorry for her, but he did not affect her like Jack, and she did not like his eyes, which she guessed saw everything. He had a keen sense of the ridiculous, and the contrast between Eloise and the gown which he knew must belong to Mrs. Biggs struck him so forcibly that he could scarcely repress a smile, as he asked how she had passed the night. Mrs. Biggs answered for her. Indeed, she did most of the talking.

"She slep' pretty well, I guess; better'n I did when I sprained my ankle twenty years ago come Christmas. I never closed my eyes, even in a cat nap, and she did. I crep' to her door twice to see how she was gettin' on, and she was--not exactly snorin'--I don't s'pose she ever does snore,--but breathin' reg'lar like, jess like a baby, which I didn't do in a week when I sprained my ankle."

She would have added "twenty years ago come Christmas," if Jack had not forestalled her by asking Eloise if her ankle pained her much.

"Yes," she said, while Mrs. Biggs chimed in, "Can't help painin' her, swelled as 'tis,--big as two ankles; look."

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She whisked off the bottom of her dress which Eloise had put over her foot, and disclosed the shapeless bundle encased in the old felt slipper.

"Look for yourselves; see if you think it aches," she said.

This was too much for Eloise, who, regardless of pain, drew her foot up under the skirt of her dress, while her face grew scarlet. Both Howard and Jack were sorry for her, and at last got the conversation into another channel by saying they had brought her satchel and hat, which they feared were ruined, and asking if she had seen the hat Miss Amy had sent her.

"Land sakes, no! I told her about it, but I hain't had time to show it to her," Mrs. Biggs exclaimed, starting from the room, while Howard explained that his cousin had tried in vain to renovate the drenched hat, and, finding it impossible, had sent one of her own which she wished Miss Smith to accept with her compliments.

"How do you like it?" Mrs. Biggs asked, as she came in with it.

It was a fine leghorn, with a wreath of lilacs round the crown, and Eloise knew that it was far more expensive than anything she had ever worn.

"It is very pretty," she said, "and very kind in the lady to send it. Tell her I thank her. What is her name?"

Jack looked at Howard, who replied, "She has had a good many, none of which pleased my uncle, the last one least of all; so he calls her Miss Amy, and wishes others to do so."

Eloise was puzzled, but the sight of Mrs. Biggs tugging at her wet satchel to open it diverted her mind.

"Your things is sp'ilt, most likely, but you'd better | | 167 have 'em out. For the mercy's sake, look!" she said, passing the satchel to Eloise, who was beyond caring for what was spoiled and what was not. "There's somebody knockin'. It's Mr. Bills, most likely, the committee man, come to see you; I told Tim to notify him," Mrs. Biggs exclaimed, hurrying out, and saying to Howard as she passed him, "You can visit a spell before I fetch him in. She needs perkin' up, poor thing."

It proved to be a grocer's boy instead of Mr. Bills, and Mrs. Biggs came back just as Howard was presenting the slippers.

"I did not think they were just what you wanted," Howard explained, as he saw the look of surprise on Eloise's face. "Miss Amy is not always quite clear in her mind, but rather resolute when it is made up; and when we told her we had to cut off your boot, she insisted upon sending these."

At this point Mrs. Biggs appeared, throwing up both hands at what she saw, and exclaiming, "Wall, if I won't give up! Satin slips for a spraint laig. Yes, I'll give up!"

She looked at Howard, who did not reply, but turned his head to hide his laugh from Eloise, while Mrs. Biggs went on, "I don't see how she can ever get her feet into 'em. I can't mine, and I don't b'lieve she can. Better send 'em back;" and she looked at Eloise, who, if she was proud of any part of her person, was proud of her feet.

Flushing hotly she said, "They are not suitable for me, of course, but I think I could get one on my well foot."

"I know you could; try it," Jack said.

Stooping forward Eloise removed her boot, al- | | 168 though the effort brought a horrible twinge to her lame ankle and made her feel faint for a moment.

"Put it on for me, please," she said to Mrs. Biggs, who, mistaking the right-hand slipper for the left, began tugging at it.

"I told you so," she said. "Your foot is twice as big."

"Try this one," Jack suggested, "or let me;" and he fitted the slipper at once to the little foot, while Mrs. Biggs exclaimed, "Wall, I vum, it does fit to a T! If anything, it's too big."

In spite of her pain and embarrassment there was a look of exultation in Eloise's eyes, as they met those of Jack, who was nearly as pleased as herself.

"You will keep them and wear them some time," he said; and when Eloise declined, saying they would be of no use to her, Howard, who had been watching this Cinderella play with a good deal of interest, and wishing he had been the prince to fit the slipper instead of Jack, said to Eloise, "I think it better for you to keep them. Miss Amy will not like to have them returned, and if they were, she'd give them to some one else, or very likely send them to the Rummage Sale we are to have in town."

"That's so," Mrs. Biggs chimed in. "There is to be a rummage sale, and Ruby Ann has spoke for Tim's old clothes and mine, especially our shoes. Keep 'em by all means."

Eloise was beginning to feel faint again, and tired with all this talk and excitement, and painfully conscious that Howard's eyes were dancing with laughter at the sight of her feet,--one swollen to three times its natural size and pushed into Mrs. Biggs's old felt shoe, and the other in Miss Amy's white satin slipper.

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"Oh, I wish you would take it off!" she gasped, feeling unequal to leaning forward again, and closing her eyes wearily.

She meant Mrs. Biggs, but Jack forestalled that good woman, and in an instant had the slipper off and the boot on, doing both so gently that she was not hurt at all.

"Thanks!" Eloise said, drawing her well foot under the spotted calico, and wishing the young men would go.

How long they would have staid is uncertain if there had not come a second knock at the kitchen door. This time it was really Mr. Bills, and Mrs. Biggs went out to meet him, while Eloise felt every nerve quiver with dread. She must see him and tell him how impossible it would be for her to commence her duties on Monday. Perhaps he would dismiss , her altogether, and take another in her place, and then--"What shall I do?" she thought, and, scarcely knowing what she said, she cried, "Oh, I can't bear it!" while the tears rolled down her cheeks, and Howard and Jack gathered close to her,--the laugh all gone from Howard's eyes, and a great pity shining in Jack's.

"Excuse me," she continued, "I don't mean to be childish, but everything is so dreadful! I don't mind the pain so much; but to be here away from home, and to lose the school, as I may, and--and,--I want a handkerchief to wipe my face,--and this is ruined."

She said this last as she took from her satchel the handkerchief which had been so white and clean when she left home, and which now was wet and stained from a bottle of shoe blacking which had come un- | | 170 corked and saturated everything. She had borne a great deal, and, as is often the case, a small matter upset her entirely. The spoiled handkerchief was the straw too many, and her tears came faster as she held it in one hand, and with the other tried to wipe them away.

"Take mine, please; I've not used it," Jack said, offering her one of fine linen, and as daintily perfumed as a woman's.

She took it unhesitatingly. She was in a frame of mind to take anything, and smiled her thanks through her tears.

"I know I must seem very weak to you to be crying like a baby; but you don't know how I dread meeting Mr. Bills, or how much is depending upon my having this school, or what it would be to me to lose it, if he can't wait. Do you think he will?"

She looked at Jack, who knew nothing whatever of the matter, or of Mr. Bills, but who answered promptly, "Of course he will wait; he must wait. We shall see to that. Don't cry. I'm awfully sorry for you; we both are."

He was standing close to her, and involuntarily laid his hand on her hair, smoothing it a little as he would have smoothed his sister's. She seemed so young and looked so small, wrapped up in Mrs. Biggs's gown, that he thought of her for a moment as a child to be soothed and comforted. She did not repel the touch of his hand, but cried the harder and wiped her face with his handkerchief until it was wet with her tears.

"Mr. Bills wants to know if he can come in now," came as an interruption to the scene, which was getting rather affecting.

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"In just a minute," Jack said. Then to Eloise, "Brace up! We'll attend to Mr. Bills if he proves formidable."

She braced up as he bade her, and gave his handkerchief back to him.

"I shan't need it again. I am not going to be foolish any longer, and I thank you so much," she said, with a look which made Jack's pulse beat rapidly.

"We'd better go now and give Mr. Bills a chance," he said to Howard, who had been comparatively silent and let him do the talking and suggesting.

Howard could not define his feeling with regard to Eloise. Her beauty impressed him greatly, and he was very sorry for her, but he could not rid himself of the conviction which had a second time taken possession of him that in some way she was to influence his life or cross his path.

He bade her good-by, and told her to keep up good courage, and felt a little piqued that she withdrew her hand more quickly from him than she did from Jack, who left her rather reluctantly. They found Mr. Bills outside talking to Mrs. Biggs, who was volubly narrating the particulars of the accident, so far as she knew them, and referring constantly to her own sprained ankle of twenty years ago, and the impossibility of Miss Smith's being able to walk for some time.

With his usual impetuousness Jack took the initiative, and said to Mr. Bills: "Your school can certainly wait; it must wait. A week or two can make no difference. At the end of that time, if she cannot walk, she can be taken to and from the school-house every day. To lose the school will go hard with her, and she's so young."

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Jack was quite eloquent, and Mr. Bills looked at him curiously, wondering who this smart young fellow was, pleading for the new school-teacher. He knew Howard, who, after Jack was through, said he hoped Mr. Bills would wait; it would be a pity to disappoint the girl when she had come so far.

"Perhaps a week or two will make no difference," Mr. Bills said, "though the young ones are getting pretty wild, and their mothers anxious to have them out of the way, but I guess we'll manage it somehow."

He knew he should manage it when he saw Eloise. She could not tell him of the need there was of money in her grandmother's home, or the still greater need if she took the trip to California which she feared she must take. She only looked her anxiety, and Mr. Bills, whose heart Mrs. Biggs said was "big as a barn," warmed toward her, while mentally he began to doubt her ability to "fill the bill," as he put it, she looked so young and so small.

"I'll let her off easy, if I have to," he thought, and he said, "Folks'll want school to begin as advertised. You can't go, but there's Ruby Ann Patrick. She'll be glad to supply. She's kep' the school five years runnin'. She wanted it when we hired you. She's out of a job, and will be glad to take it till you can walk. I'll see her to-day. You look young to manage unruly boys, and there's a pile of 'em in Deestrick No. 5 want lickin' half the time. Ruby Ann can lick 'em. She's five feet nine. You ain't more'n five."

Eloise did not tell him how tall she was. In fact, she didn't know. She must look very diminutive in Mr. Bills's eyes, she thought, and hastened to say, "I taught boys and young men older than I am in | | 173 the normal at Mayville, and never had any trouble. I had only to speak to or look at them."

"I b'lieve you, I b'lieve you," Mr. Bills said. "I should mind you myself every time if you looked at me, but boys ain't alike. There's Tom Walker, ringleader in every kind of mischief, the wust feller you ever see. Ruby Ann had one tussle with him, and came off Number One. He'd most likely raise Cain with a schoolmarm who couldn't walk and went on crutches."

"Oh-h!" Eloise said despairingly. "I shall not have to do that!"

"Mebby not; mebby not. Sprained ankles mostly does, though. I had to when I sprained mine. I used to hobble to the well and pump cold water on it; that's tiptop for a sprain. Well, I must go now and see Ruby Ann. Good-day. Keep a stiff upper lip, and you'll pull through. Widder Biggs is a fust-rate nurse, and woman, too. Little too much tongue, mebby. Hung in the middle and plays both ways. Knows everybody's history and age from the Flood down. She'll get at yours from A to izzard. Good-day!"

He was gone, and Eloise was alone with her pain and homesickness and discouragement. Turn which way she would, there was not much brightness in her sky, except when she thought of Jack Harcourt, whose hand on her hair she could feel just as he had felt her wet hand on his neck hours after the spot was dried. It seemed perfectly natural and proper that he should care for her, just as it did that the lady at the Crompton House should send her a hat. It was lying on a chair near her with the slippers, and she took it up and examined it again very carefully, | | 174 admiring the fineness of the leghorn, the beauty of the lilac wreath, and the texture of the ribbons.

"I shall never wear it," she thought. "It is too handsome for me; but I shall always keep it, and be glad for the thoughtfulness which prompted the lady to send it."

Then she wondered if she would ever see the lady and thank her in person, or go to the Crompton House; and if her trunk would ever come from the station, so that she could divest herself of the detestable cotton gown and put on something more becoming, which would show him she was not quite so much a guy as she looked in Mrs. Biggs's wardrobe. The him was Jack, not Howard. He was not in the running. She cared as little for him as she imagined he cared for her. And here she did him injustice. She interested him greatly, though not in the way she interested Jack, whom he chaffed on their way home, telling him he ought to offer his services as nurse.

"I wonder you did not wipe her eyes as well as give her your handkerchief," he said. "I dare say you will never have it laundered, lest her tears should be washed out of it."

"Never!" Jack replied, and, taking the handkerchief from his pocket and folding it carefully, he put it back again, saying, "No, sir; I shall keep it intact. No laundryman's hands will ever touch it."

"Pretty far gone, that's a fact," Howard rejoined, and then continued: "I say, Jack, we'd better not talk of Miss Smith before the Colonel. It will only rouse him up, and make him swear at normal graduates in general, and this one in particular. You know I wrote you that he gave the lot and built the school- | | 175 house, and for years was inspector of Crompton schools,--boss and all hands,--till a new generation came up and shelved him. He fought hard, but had to give in to young blood and modern ideas. He had no voice in hiring Miss Smith,--was not consulted. His choice was a Ruby Ann Patrick, a perfect Amazon of an old maid; weighs two hundred, I believe, and rides a wheel. You ought to see her. But then she is rooted and grounded, and uncle does not think Miss Smith is, though she was pretty well grounded last night when she sat on that sand heap with her foot twisted under her, I'm not a soft head like you, to fall in love with her at first sight; but I'm awfully sorry for her, and I don't wish to hear the Colonel swear about her."

Jack had never seen Howard more in earnest, and his mental comment was, "Cares more for her than I supposed. He'll bear watching. Poor little girl! How white she was at times, and how tired her eyes looked; and bright, too, as stars. I wonder if she really ought not to have a doctor."

He put this question to Howard, who replied: "No, that Biggs woman is a full team on sprained ankles. She'll get her up without a doctor, and I don't suppose the girl has much to spend on the craft."

"Yes, but what is a little money to you or me, if she really needs a doctor?" Jack said thoughtfully, while Howard laughed and answered, "Don't be an idiot, and lose your heart to a schoolma'am because she happened to have had her arm around your neck when we carried her in that chair. I can feel it yet, and sometimes put up my hand when half awake to | | 176 see if it isn't there, but I am not going to make a fool of myself."

As they were near home Jack did not reply, but he could have told of times when half awake and wide awake he felt the arms and the hands and the hot breath of the girl clinging to him in the darkness and rain, and saw the eyes full of pain and dumb entreaty not to hurt her more than they could help, as they cut the soaked boot from the swollen foot. But he said nothing, and, when the house was reached, went at once to his own room, wondering what he could do to make her more comfortable.

Acting upon Howard's advice, Eloise was not mentioned, either at lunch or at dinner. Amy had evidently forgotten her, for she made no inquiry for her. Neither did the Colonel. She was, however, much in the minds of the young men, and each was wondering how he could best serve her. Howard thought of a sea chair, in which his uncle had crossed the ocean. He had found it covered with dust in the attic, and brought it to his room to lounge in. It would be far more comfortable for Eloise than that stiff, straight-backed, hair-cloth rocker in which she had to sit so upright. He would send it to her with Amy's compliments, if he could manage it without the knowledge of Jack, who he would rather should not know how much he was really interested in Eloise. Jack was also planning what he could do, and thought of a wheel chair, in which she could be taken to and from school. He might possibly find one in the village by the shore. He would inquire without consulting Howard, whose joking grated a little, as it presupposed the impossibility of his really caring for | | 177 one so far removed from his station in life as Eloise seemed to be.

Could she have known how much she was in the minds of the young men at Crompton Place, she would not have felt quite as forlorn and disconsolate as she did during the long hours of the day, when she sat helpless and alone, except as Mrs. Biggs tried to entertain her with a flow of talk and gossip which did not interest her. A few of the neighbors called in the evening, and it seemed to Eloise that every one had had a sprained ankle or two, of which they talked continually, dwelling mostly upon the length of time it took before they were able to walk across the floor, to say nothing of the distance from Mrs. Biggs's to the school-house. That would be impossible for two or three weeks at least, and even then Miss Smith would have to go on crutches most likely, was their comforting assurance.

"I've got some up garret that I used twenty years ago. Too long for her, but Tim can cut them off. They are just the thing. Lucky I kept them," Mrs. Biggs said, while Eloise listened with a feeling like death in her heart, and dreamed that night of hobbling to school on Mrs. Biggs's crutches, while Jack Harcourt helped and encouraged her, and Howard Crompton stood at a distance laughing at her.

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