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   Chapter 6 A VISIT TO THE SKINNERS.

Little Miss Joy By Emma Marshall Characters: 10722

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Mr. Skinner was very like his mother. No one could mistake that they bore this relationship.

Some old age is lovely-radiant with the chastened light of eventide. Mrs. Skinner's was certainly unlovely. Tall and spare, with sharp pinched features, and thin pitiless lips, from which very few kindly words had ever fallen, and where a smile was almost unknown-she was an almost friendless woman. She who had never rendered a neighbour a kindly service neither expected nor received any from others. She had the reputation of being a cross-grained old woman, who had driven her only daughter away by her unkindness, and had spent what love she had upon her two sons, who suited her in many ways far better than her daughter. The youngest of these-Bertha's father-had married a woman much older than himself, and Bertha was his orphan child, her mother having died at her birth. She had been taken to live with her grandmother, at the dying wish of her father: what maternal affection she possessed responded to this last request of her youngest son, and Bertha had known no other home.

It was a home, as far as the shelter of a roof and food and clothing went; and the education of Miss Bayliff's school, given somewhat grudgingly, was to be granted till Bertha was fifteen.

"Then she must work for her living," Mrs. Skinner had said; "and," she added, "few people would have done what I have done."

"A great deal too much!" Joe would say when his mother indulged in this self-congratulation-"a great deal too much; and I, for one, don't approve of this girl being nursed in idleness; it was the ruin of Maggie."

Mrs. Skinner winced a little at the name; for Maggie had disappeared, and no trace could be found of her.

She had been, so those who remembered her said, of a very different type to her family, as if she had dropped down from the clouds into it.

That was long ago now, but the people who could look back some years in the neighbourhood where Mrs. Skinner lived could remember this bright, gay girl disappearing, and the mother's reply to any inquiry-

"I know nothing about her, nor do I wish to know. She has been and made her bed, and she must lie on it."

Report said that Maggie had married against her mother's wish, and that she had literally turned her out of her house. This was about all that was ever heard, and nothing was really known. Any attempt to question Mrs. Skinner was met by a sharp rebuff, and very few people, even the boldest, dare approach her even with an attempt to find out what she chose to keep secret.

Mrs. Skinner and her son Joe lived in a detached red brick house, built long before villas with bay windows and gabled roofs, and little dormer windows in them, were thought of. It was a straight little house, with a window on each side of the door, and three above it, a lean-to at the back, and a square of garden in front. The path to the door was of pebbles, and they always made a disagreeable crunching sound as the feet of any comers to the house walked over them. That was not often; and the little iron gate grated on its hinges, it was so seldom opened, as Mr. Boyd pushed it back to admit the two girls.

"No, no," Uncle Bobo had said, in answer to Joy's entreaty. "I'll just walk across to that bench and wait for you, my Joy. I don't fancy the old lady, and she doesn't fancy me. So ta-ta!"

Mr. Boyd toddled across the bit of sandy road to a bank mound of sand, covered with long pointed grass, which hid the view of the sea from the lower window of Mrs. Skinner's house, and sitting down on a wooden seat, resigned himself to patient waiting.

Bertha crept slowly up to the door, and seemed half afraid to make her coming known.

She turned the bright brass handle of the door, but it was locked.

"We must go in by the back door; p'raps grandmother won't mind."

"Are you afraid to go in, Bet?"

"Well, grandmother is very particular; she isn't like Mr. Boyd."

"Do you mean," said Joy, "that you would rather I didn't come in? Oh, then I will run back to Uncle Bobo! Good-bye, Bertha."

"No, no, I didn't mean that," said Bertha, much distressed. "I-I--"

As she was hesitating the door was opened, and Mrs. Skinner's tall figure filled the narrow entrance. She stood without saying a word for a moment, and then, in a harsh, discordant voice, she asked-"Who is that?"

"If you please, ma'am, I am Joy. I go to school with Bertha, and she has been home to tea with me and Uncle Bobo, and I have brought her back."

"She does not want bringing," was the sharp reply; "she can bring herself, I suppose. Go round to the back door, will you?"

"I think I had better not," Joy said with emphasis, "because you do not wish me to come into your house."

Mrs. Skinner had been standing motionless at the door while Joy was speaking, and there was a strange expression on her sharp thin features.

"Where do you say you live, child?"

"I live with Uncle Bobo, in the row, opposite Miss Pinckney and Mrs. Harrison. Miss Pinckney keeps the milliner's shop, where the widows' caps hang up."

"I know," was the reply; "I never bought any article there, and I never mean to. Well, you may run round with Bertha for a few minutes."

"Thank you," Joy said. "I hope you'll let Bet come to tea again; and if you'd like to come too, I am sure Uncle Bobo wou

ldn't mind."

"I don't spend my time gadding about taking tea with folks. I leave that to drones, who've got nothing better to do. Did you say, child, you lived with Boyd, at the instrument shop?"

"Yes, ma'am; he's my uncle."

Mrs. Skinner turned away, and then the door was shut with a sharp bang, and the two girls were left outside.

"I don't think I'll come in, Bet," little Miss Joy said; "for your grandmother does not like me-she looks so cross."

"She always looks like that," Bertha said; and then she added, "Every one but you is cross to me; you are always kind. Oh, I do love you!"

Then Bet's cheeks, after making this declaration, were suffused with blushes, which made her poor sallow face a dark purplish-red.

"Do come in a moment-do," she said.

The two girls went in at the back door, and along a narrow stone passage.

The door on the right was open, and Bet said, in a low whisper-

"There's Uncle Joe's room. There's where he sits at night, and I hear people coming in, 'cause my window is one in the lean-to."

Uncle Joe's proceedings had not much interest for Joy, and she just looked round the room standing on the threshold, and said-

"What a big table for such a wee little room, covered with green cloth, and what funny little boxes! They are like the big hour-glass in Uncle Bobo's glass case. It's not a pretty room at all," she said decidedly. "Come away, Bet."

Bertha then led the way up a very narrow flight of steps, which were scarcely to be called a staircase. They creaked under her feet, and even Joy's light tread made them squeak and shake.

"Here's where I sleep;" and Joy found herself in a little room with a sloping roof and a beam. The room was in fact only a loft for storage, but it was thought good enough for Bertha.

"I wanted to show you this," Bertha said; "it's the only keepsake I've got. It was once my poor Aunt Maggie's, and she gave it to me. I can just remember her kissing me one night, and saying, 'God bless you-you poor orphan.' I must have been a little thing, perhaps four years old, for it's such a long time ago, and I am nearly fifteen."

Bertha had dived into the depths of a trunk covered with spotted lilac paper, and which contained most of her worldly goods.

From the very bottom she pulled out a square leather frame, and as she rubbed the glass, which was thick with dust, with her sleeve, she said-

"Isn't she pretty?"

It was an old faded photograph of what must have been a pretty girl, in a white dress with a band of ribbon, which a photographic artist had painted blue, and had touched the eyes with the same colour.

"I think she is beautiful," Bertha said. "I never saw any one so pretty till I saw you, and I think you are like poor Aunt Maggie."

Joy looked doubtfully at the portrait, and said-

"Yes, it's very nice. She looks so good and so sweet, as if she could never have been cross or naughty."

"That's just what I think," Bertha said; "and she is like you, for you are good, and I am sure you are never cross."

"Oh!" little Miss Joy said, "that's a mistake. I am naughty when I hate Miss Pinckney, and when I am impudent to Susan. She says I am impudent, and Miss Pinckney has called me a 'saucy little baggage' very often. That's why I don't go into Miss Pinckney's shop to see dear Goody Patience and Jack.

"Ah!" Joy added with a sigh, "there is no Jack to see now; he is gone, and I do miss him so. He used to be so good to me;" and her eyes grew dim, and the corners of her rosy lips turned down ominously. "But I must go to Uncle Bobo now; he must be tired of waiting, and he'll get fidgety."

"Very well," Bet said; "I don't want you to get a scolding."

"A scolding!" Joy said, recovering herself from the momentary depression which the thought of Jack's loss had caused. "Uncle Bobo never scolded me in his life."

Then Joy stepped cautiously down the narrow stairs, and turning said-

"Good-bye, Bet; good-bye."

"Good-bye," poor Bet said, as, standing at the back-door, she watched her friend skipping off across the road to the seat where Uncle Bobo sat, with his round back-very round-and his short legs tucked up, one wide-toed boot upon the other, to give support.

"I wish she'd kissed me," poor Bet thought, as she saw Joy throw her arms round the old man's neck, and kiss all that was visible of his rosy cheek beneath his large wide-awake. "I'd like her to kiss me like that;" and poor Bet followed the two figures with lingering, longing eyes till they were out of sight.

Other eyes were following them also. Mrs. Skinner was standing by the window of her parlour, peering over the short white muslin blind at Uncle Bobo and Joy. What was she thinking about? For her thin lips were parted as if she were speaking to some one, and her long fingers worked convulsively with the strings of her black alpaca apron.

Presently the door opened softly, and Bet came creeping in. She never knew what reception she might get, and she had the miserable cowed manner of a beaten dog.

"Grandmother!"

Mrs. Skinner started, and said sharply-

"Well, what do you want?"

"Isn't she pretty? Isn't she a darling?"

"Stuff and nonsense! I don't care about beauty; it's only skin deep; and I dare say she's a pert little hussy. Don't go and bring her here again, I don't want her."

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