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A Peep Behind the Scenes By Mrs. O. F. Walton Characters: 12905

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The next morning, as soon as it was light, the horses were put in again, and the theatre party proceeded on their way. Rosalie's mother seemed much better; the country air and country quiet had, for a time, restored to her much of her former strength. She was able, with Rosalie's help, to dress herself and to sit on one of the boxes beside her bed, resting her head against the pillows, and gazing out at the green fields and clear blue sky. The sweet fresh breezes came in at the open door, and fanned her careworn face and the face of the child who sat beside her.

'Rosalie,' said her mother suddenly, 'would you like to hear about the time when your mother was a little girl?'

'Yes, mammie dear,' said Rosalie, nestling up to her side; 'I know nothing at all about it.'

'No, Rosalie,' said her mother; 'it's the beginning of a very sad story, and I did not like my little girl to know about it; but I sometimes think I sha'n't be long with you, and I had rather tell it to you myself than have any one else tell it. And you're getting a great girl now, Rosalie; you will be able to understand many things you could not have understood before. And there have been things the last few days which have brought it all back to me, and made me think of it by day and dream of it by night.'

'Please tell me, mammie dear,' said Rosalie, as her mother stopped speaking.

'Would you like to hear it now?' said the poor woman, with a sigh, as if she hardly liked to begin.

'Please, mammie dear,' said Rosalie.

'Then draw closer to me, child, for I don't want Toby to hear; and, mind, you must never speak of what I'm going to tell you before your father-never; promise me, Rosalie,' she said earnestly.

'No, never, mammie dear,' said little Rosalie.

Then there was silence for a minute or two afterwards-no sound to be heard but the cracking of Toby's whip and the rumbling of the waggons behind.

'Aren't you going to begin, mammie?' said Rosalie at length.

'I almost wish I hadn't promised to tell you, child,' said her mother hurriedly; 'it cuts me up so to think of it; but never mind, you ought to know, and you will know some day, so I had better tell you myself. Rosalie, your mother was born a lady.

'Yes,' said the poor woman, as the child did not speak;

'I was never born to this life of misery, I brought myself to it. I chose it,' she said bitterly; 'and I'm only getting the harvest of what I sowed myself.'

When she had said this, she turned deadly pale, and shivered from head to foot. Rosalie crept still closer to her, and put her little warm hand in her mother's cold one. Then the poor woman by a strong effort controlled herself, and she went on.

'So now, darling, I'll tell you all about it, just as if I was talking about some one else; I'll forget it is myself, or I shall never be able to tell it. I'll try and fancy I'm on the stage, and talking about the sorrows and troubles of some one I never knew, and never cared for, and of whom I shall never think again when my part is over.

'I was born in a country village, hundreds of miles from here, in the south of England. My father was the squire of the place. We lived in a large mansion, which was built half way up the side of a wooded hill, and an avenue of beautiful old trees led up to the house. There was a large conservatory at one side of it, filled with the rarest flowers, and in a shady corner of the grounds my mother had a kind of grotto, filled with lovely ferns, through which a clear stream of water was ever flowing. This fernery was my mother's great delight, and here she spent much of her time. She was a very worldly woman; she took very little notice of her children; and when she was not in the garden, she was generally lying on the sofa in the drawing-room, reading novels, which she procured from a London library.

'My father was a very different man; he was fond of quiet, and fond of his children; but he was obliged to be often from home, so that we did not see as much of him as we should otherwise have done.

'I had one brother and one sister. My brother was much older than we were; there had been several children between us, who had died in their infancy, so that he was in the sixth form of a large public school whilst we were children in the nursery.

'My sister Lucy was a year younger than I was. She was such a pretty child, and had a very sweet disposition. When we were children we got on very well together, and shared every pleasure and every grief. My father bought us a little white pony, and on this we used to ride in turns about the park when we were quite small children, our old nurse following, to see that no harm came to us.

'She was a very good old woman; she taught us to say our prayers night and morning, and on Sundays she used to sit with us under a tree in the park, and show us Scripture pictures, and tell us stories out of the Bible. There was one picture of a shepherd very like that, Rosalie; it came back to my mind the other day, when that old man gave it to you, only in mine the shepherd was just drawing the lamb out of a deep miry pit, into which it had fallen, and the text underneath it was this: "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost." We used to learn these texts, and repeat them to our nurse when we looked at the pictures; and then, if we had said them correctly, she used to let us carry our tea into the park and eat it under the tree. And after tea we used to sing one of our little hymns and say our prayers, and then she took us in and put us to bed. I have often thought of those quiet, happy Sundays when I have been listening to the noise and racket of the fair.

'I thought a great deal at the time about what our nurse told us. I remember one Sunday she had been reading to us about the Judgment Day, and how God would read out of a book all the wrong things we had done. And that same afternoon there was a great thunderstorm; the lightning flashed in at the window, and the thunder rolled overhead. It made me think of what nurse had said, and of the Judgment Day. And then I knelt down, and prayed that God would take care of me, and not let the lightning kill me. I crept behind the sofa in the large drawing-room, and trembled lest the books should be opened, and all my sins read out; and I asked God to keep them shut a little longer.

'And I remember another day, when I had told a lie, but would n

ot own that I had done so. Nurse would not let me sleep with Lucy, but moved my little bed into her room, that I might lie still and think about my sin. It was a strange room, and I could not sleep for some time, but I lay awake with my eyes closed. When I opened them I saw one bright star shining in at the closed window. It seemed to me like the eye of God watching me; I could not get the thought out of my mind. I shut my eyes tightly, that I might not see it; but I could not help opening them to see if it was still there. And when nurse came up to bed, she found me weeping. I have often seen that star since, Rosalie, looking in at the window of the caravan; and it always reminds me of that night, and makes me think of that Eye.

'I had a very strong will, Rosalie, and even as a child I hated to be controlled. If I set my heart upon anything, I wanted to have it at once, and if I was opposed, I was very angry. I loved my dear old nurse; but when we were about eight years old, she had to leave us to live with her mother, and then I was completely unmanageable. My mother engaged a governess for us, who was to teach us in a morning and take us out in the afternoon. She was an indolent person, and she took very little trouble with us, and my mother did not exert herself sufficiently to look after us, or to see what we were doing. Thus we learnt very little, and got into idle and careless habits. Our governess used to sit down in the park with a book, and we were allowed to follow our own devices, and amuse ourselves as we pleased.

'When my brother Gerald came home, it was always a great cause of excitement to us. We used to meet him at the station, and drive him home in triumph. Then we always had holidays, and Miss Manders went away, and Gerald used to amuse us with stories of his school friends, as we walked with him through the park. He was a very fine-looking lad, and my mother was very proud of him. She thought much more of him than of us, because he was a boy, and was to be the heir to the property. She liked to drive out with her handsome son, who was admired by every one who saw him, and sometimes we were allowed to go with them. We were generally left outside in the carriage, whilst mamma and Gerald called at the large houses of the neighbourhood; and we used to jump out, as soon as they had disappeared inside the house, and explore the different gardens, and plan how we would lay out our grounds when we had houses of our own. But what's that, Rosalie?-did the waggons stop?'

Rosalie ran to the door and looked out.

'Yes, mammie,' she said; 'my father's coming.'

'Then mind, not a word,' said her mother, in a hoarse whisper.

'Well,' said Augustus, entering the caravan in a theatrical manner, 'I thought I might as well enjoy the felicity of the amiable society of my lady and her daughter!'

This was said with a profound bow towards his wife and Rosalie.

'Glad to see you so much better, madam,' he continued. 'Rather singular, isn't it, that your health and spirits have revived immediately we have left the inspired scene of public action, or-to speak in plain terms-when there's no work to do!'

'I think it's the fresh air, Augustus, that has done me good; there was such a close, stifling smell from the fair, I felt worse directly we got there.'

'It's to be hoped,' he said, with a disagreeable smile on his face, 'that this resuscitation of the vital powers may be continued until we arrive at Lesborough', but the probability is that the moment we arrive on the scene of action, you will be seized with that most unpleasant of all maladies, distaste to your work, and will be compelled once more to resume that most interesting and pathetic occupation of playing the invalid!'

'Oh, Augustus, don't speak to me like that!' said the poor wife.

Augustus made no answer, but, taking a piece of paper from his pocket, twisted it up, and, putting it into the fire, lighted a long pipe and began to smoke. The fumes of the tobacco brought on his poor wife's cough, but he took very little notice of her, except to ask her occasionally, between the whiffs of his pipe, how long that melodious sound was to last. Then his eyes fell upon Rosalie's picture, which was pinned to the side of the caravan.

'Where did you get that from?' he inquired, turning to his wife.

'It's mine, father,' said little Rosalie; 'an old gentleman in the fair gave it to me. Isn't it pretty?'

It will do for a child,' he said scornfully. 'Toby, what are you after?

You're creeping along; we shall never get there at this pace.'

'The horse is tired, master,' said Toby; 'he's had a long stretch these two days.'

'Beat him, then,' said the cruel man; 'flog him well. Do you think I can afford to waste time upon the road? The wild beasts are a mile ahead, at the very least, and the marionettes will be there by this time. We shall just arrive when all the people have spent their money, and are tired out.'

Now there was one subject of standing dispute between Toby and his master. Toby was a kind-hearted lad, and hated to see the horses over-worked, ill-fed, and badly used. He was always remonstrating with his master about it, and thereby bringing down upon himself his master's wrath and abuse. Augustus cared nothing for the comfort or welfare of those under him. To get as much work as possible out of them, and to make as much gain by them as he could, was all he thought of. They might be tired, or hungry, or overburdened; what did it matter to him, so long as the end for which he kept them was fulfilled? The same spirit which led him to treat his company and his wife with severity and indifference, led him to ill-treat his horses.

Toby resolutely refused to beat the poor tired horse, which was already straining itself to its utmost, the additional weight of Augustus having been very trying to it the last few miles.

When Augustus saw that Toby did not mean to obey him, he sprang to the door of the caravan in a towering passion, seized the whip from Toby's hand, and then beat the poor horse unmercifully, causing it to start from side to side, till nearly everything in the caravan was thrown to the ground, and Rosalie and her mother trembled with suppressed indignation and horror.

Then, with one last tremendous blow, aimed at Toby's head, Augustus threw down the whip, and returned to his pipe.

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