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   Chapter 21 NAUGHTINESS, AND A SEQUEL.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 17491

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"She has behaved very naughtily," said Brother Copas.

"I don't understand it at all," sighed Brother Bonaday.

"Nor I."

"It's not like her, you see."

"It was a most extraordinary outburst.… Either the child has picked up some bad example at school, to copy it (and you will remember I always doubted that her sex gets any good of schooling)-"

"But," objected Brother Bonaday, "it was you who insisted on sending her."

"So I did-in self-defence. If we had not done our best the State would have done its worst, and put her into an institution where one underpaid female grapples with sixty children in a class, and talks all the time. Now we didn't want Corona to acquire the habit of talking all the time." Here Brother Copas dropped a widower's sigh. "In fact, it has hitherto been no small part of her charm that she seldom or never spoke out of her turn."

"It has been a comfort to have her company," put in Brother Bonaday, eager to say a good word for the culprit.

"She spoke out of her turn just now," said Brother Copas sternly. "Her behaviour to Nurse Turner was quite atrocious.… Now either she has picked this up at school, or-the thought occurs to me-she has been loafing around the laundry, gossiping with the like of Mrs. Royle and Mrs. Clerihew, and letting their evil communications corrupt her good manners. This seems to me the better guess, because the women in the laundry are always at feud with the nurses; it's endemic there: and 'a nasty two-faced spy' smacks, though faintly, of the wash-tub. In my hearing Mrs. Clerihew has accused Nurse Branscome of 'carrying tales.' 'A nasty two-faced spy'-the child was using those very words when we surprised her, and the Lord knows what worse before we happened on the scene."

"Nurse Turner would not tell, and so we have no right to speculate."

"That's true.… I'll confine myself to what we overheard. Now when a chit of a child stands up and hurls abuse of that kind at a woman well old enough to be her mother, two things have to be done. … We must get at the root of this deterioration in Corona, but first of all she must be punished. The question is, Which of us will undertake it? You have the natural right, of course-"

Brother Bonaday winced.

"No, no-" he protested.

"I should have said, the natural obligation. But you are frail just now, and I doubt if you are equal to it."

"Copas!… You're not proposing to whip her?" Brother Copas chuckled grimly. But that the child was in the next room, possibly listening, he might have laughed aloud.

"Do they whip girls?" he asked. "I used to find the whipping of boys disgusting enough.… I had an assistant master once, a treasure, who remained with me six years, and then left for no reason but that I could not continue to pay him. I liked him so much that one day, after flogging a boy in hot blood, and while (as usual) feeling sick with the revulsion of it, I then and there resolved that, however much this trade might degrade me, this Mr. Simcox should be spared the degradation whilst in my employ. I went to his class-room and asked to have a look at his punishment-book. He answered that he kept none. `But,' said I, 'when you first came to me didn't I give you a book, and expressly command you, whenever you punished a boy, to write an entry, giving the boy's name, the nature of his offence, and the number of strokes with which you punished him?' 'You did, sir,' said Simcox, 'and I have lost it.' 'Lost it!' said I. 'You but confirm me in my decision that henceforth, when any boy in this school needs caning, I will do it with my own hands.' 'Sir,' he replied, 'you have done that for these five years. Forgive me, but I was pleased to find that you never asked to see the book; for I really couldn't bring myself to flog a boy merely for the sake of writing up an entry.' In short, that man was a born schoolmaster, and almost dispensed with punishments, even the slightest."

"He ruled the boys by kindness, I suppose?"

"He wasn't quite such a fool."

"Then what was his secret?"

"Bad temper. They held him in a holy terror; and it's all the queerer because he wasn't even just."

Brother Bonaday shook his head.

"I don't understand," he said; "but if you believe so little in punishment, why are we proposing to punish Corona?"

"Obviously, my dear fellow, because we can find no better way. The child must not be suffered to grow up into a termagant-you will admit that, I hope?… Very well, then: feeble guardians that we are, we must do our best."

He knocked at the bedroom door and, after a moment, entered. Corona sat on the edge of her bed, dry-eyed, hugging Timothy to her breast.

"Corona!"

"Yes, Uncle Copas?"

"You have been extremely naughty, and probably know that you have to be punished."

"I dare say it's the best you can do," said Corona, after weighing this address or seeming to do so. The answer so exactly tallied with the words he had spoken a moment ago that Brother Copas could not help exclaiming-

"Ah! You overheard us, just now?"

"I may have my faults," said Corona coldly, candidly, "but I am not a listener."

"I-I beg your pardon," stammered Brother Copas, somewhat abashed. "But the fact remains that your behaviour to Nurse Turner has been most disrespectful, and your language altogether unbecoming. You have given your father and me a great shock: and I am sure you did not wish to do that."

"I'm miserable enough, if that's what you mean," the child confessed, still hugging her golliwog and staring with haggard eyes at the window. "But if you want me to say that I'm sorry-"

"That is just what I want you to say."

"Well, then, I can't.… Nurse Turner's a beast-a beast-a BEAST!"

Corona's face whitened, and her voice shrilled higher at each repetition.

"-She hates Branny like poison, and I hate her.… There! And now you must take and punish me as much as you please. What's it going to be?" She rocked her small body as she looked up with straight eyes, awaiting sentence.

"You are to go to bed at once, and without any supper," said Brother Copas, keeping his voice steady on the words he loathed to utter.

Again Corona seemed to weigh them.

"That seems fair enough," she decided. "Are you going to lock me in?"

"That had not occurred to me."

"You'd better," she advised. "And take the key away in your pocket. … Is that all, Uncle Copas?"

"That is all, Corona. But as for taking the key, you know that I would far sooner trust to your honour."

"You can trust to that, right enough," said she, getting off the edge of the bed. "I was thinking of daddy.… Good night, Uncle Copas!-if you don't mind, I am going to undress."

Brother Copas withdrew. He shut and locked the door firmly, and made a pretence, by rattling the key, of withdrawing it from the lock. But his nerve failed him, and he could not actually withdraw it. "Suppose the child should be taken ill in the night: or suppose that her nerve breaks down, and she cries for her father.… It might kill him if he could not open the door instantly. Or, again, supposing that she holds out until he has undressed and gone to bed? He will start up at the first sound and rush across the open quadrangle-Lord knows if he would wait to put on his dressing-gown- to get the key from me. In his state of health, and with these nights falling chilly, he would take his death."

So Brother Copas contented himself with turning the key in the wards and pointing to it.

"She is going to bed," he whispered. "Supperless, you understand. … We must show ourselves stern: it will be the better for her in the end, and some day she will thank us."

Brother Bonaday eyed the door sadly.

"To be sure, we must be stern," he echoed. As for being thanked for this severity, it crossed his mind that the thanks must come quickly, or he would probably miss them. But he muttered again, "To be sure- to be sure!" as Brother Copas tiptoed away and left him.

On his way back to his lonely rooms, Brother Copas met and exchanged "Good evenings" with Nurse Branscome.

"You are looking grave," she said.

"You might better say I am looking like a humbug and a fool. I have just been punishing that child-sending her to bed supperless. Now call me the ass that I am."

"Why, what has Corona been doing?"

"Does it matter?" he snarled, turning away. "She has been naughty; and the only way with naughty children is to be brutal."

"I expect you have made a mess of it," said Nurse Branscome.

"I am sure I have," said Brother Copas.

Corona undressed herself very deliberately; and, seating herself again on the edge of the bed, as deliberately undressed Timothy and clothed him for the night in his

pyjamas.

"I am sorry, dear, that you should suffer.… But I can't tell what isn't true, not even for your sake; and I can't take back what I said. Nurse Turner is a beast, if we starve for saying it-which," added Corona reflectively, "I don't suppose we shall. I couldn't answer back properly on Uncle Copas, because when you say a thing to grown-ups they look wise and ask you to prove it, and if you can't you look silly. But Nurse Turner is a beast.… Oh, Timmy! let's lie down and try to get to sleep. But it is miserable to have all the world against us."

She remembered that she was omitting to say her prayers, and knelt down; but after a moment or two rose again.

"It's no use, God," she said. "I'm very sorry, and I wouldn't tell it to anyone but You-and perhaps Uncle Copas, if he was different: but I can't say 'forgive us our trespasses' when I can't abide the woman."

She had already pulled down the blind. Before creeping to bed she drew the curtains to exclude the lingering daylight. As she did so, she made sure that her window was hasped wide. Her bedroom (on the ground floor) looked out upon a small cabbage-plot in which Brother Bonaday, until warned by the doctor, had employed his leisure. It was a wilderness now.

As a rule Corona slept with her lattice wide to the fullest extent: and at any time (upon an alarm of fire, for example) she could have slipped her small body out through the opening with ease. To-night she drew the frame of the window closer than usual, and pinned it on the perforated bar; so close that her small body could not squeeze through it even if she should walk in her sleep. She was a conscientious child. She only forbore to close it tight because it was wicked to go without fresh air.

She stole into bed and curled herself up comfortably. For some reason or other the touch of the cold pillow drew a tear or two. But after a very little while she slept, still hugging her doll.

There was no sound to disturb her; no sound but the soft dripping, now and again, of a cinder in the grate before which Brother Bonaday sat, with misery in his heart.

"Corona!"

The voice was low and tremulous. It followed on the sound of a loud sneeze. Either the voice or the sneeze (or both) aroused her, and she sat up in bed with a start. Like Chaucer's Canace, of sleep "She was full mesurable, as women be."

"Corona!"

"Is that you, Daddy?" she asked, jumping out of bed and tiptoeing to the door.

What the hour was she could not tell: but she knew it must be late, for a shaft of moonlight fell through a gap in the window-curtains and shone along the floor.

"Are you ill?… Shall I run and call them up at the Nunnery?"

"I was listening.… I have been listening here for some time, and I could not hear you breathing."

"Dear Daddy… is that all? Go back to your bed-it's wicked of you to be out of it, with the nights turning chilly as they are. I'll go back to mine and try to snore, if that's any comfort."

"I haven't been to bed at all. I couldn't… Corona!"

"You are not to turn the key!" she commanded in a whisper, for he was fumbling with it. "Uncle Copas pretended he was taking it away with him: or that was what I understood, and if he breaks an understanding it's his affair."

"I-I thought, dear, you might be hungry."

"Well, and suppose I am?"

Corona, now she came to think of it, was ravenous.

"I've a slice of bread here, and a cold sausage. If you'll wrap yourself up and come out, we can toast them both: the fire is still clear."

"As if I should think of it!… And it's lucky for you, Daddy, the key's on your side of the door. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, out of bed at-what is the time?"

"Past ten o'clock."

"You are not telling me a fib, I hope, about keeping up a clear fire?" said Corona sternly.

"If you like, I will open the door just a little: then you can see for yourself."

"Cer-tainly not. But if you've been looking after yourself properly, why did you sneeze just now?"

"'Sneeze'? I never sneezed."

Silence, for a moment-

"Somebody sneezed… I 'stinctly heard it," Corona insisted. "Now I come to think, it sounded-"

There was another pause while, with a question in her eye, she turned and stared at the casement. Then, as surmise grew to certainty, a little laugh bubbled within her. She stepped to the window.

"Good night, Uncle Copas!" she called out mischievously. No one answered from the moonlit cabbage-plot. In fact, Brother Copas, beating his retreat, at that moment struck his staff against a disused watering-can, and missed to hear her.

He objurgated his clumsiness and went on, picking his way more cautiously.

"The question is," he murmured, "how I'm to extort confession from Bonaday to-morrow without letting him suspect…"

While he pondered this, Brother Copas stumbled straight upon another shock. The small gate of the cabbage-plot creaked on its hinge… and behold, in the pathway ahead stood a woman! In the moonlight he recognised her.

"Nurse Branscome!"

"Brother Copas!… Why, what in the world are you doing-at this hour-and here, of all places?"

"Upon my word," retorted Copas, "I might ask you the same question. … But on second thoughts I prefer to lie boldly and confess that I have been stealing cabbages."

"Is that a cabbage you are hiding under your gown?"

"It might be, if this place hadn't been destitute of cabbages these twelve months and more.… Pardon my curiosity: but is that also a cabbage you are hiding under your cloak?"

"It might be-" But here laughter-quiet laughter-got the better of them both.

"I might have known it," said Brother Copas, recovering himself. "Her father is outside her door abjectly beseeching her to be as naughty as she pleases, if only she won't be unhappy. And she- woman-like-is using her advantage to nag him."

'But if ne'er so fast you wall her-'

"Dan?, immured, yet charged a lover for admission. Corona, imprisoned, takes it out of her father for speaking through the keyhole."

"You would not tell me what the child did, that you two have punished her."

"Would I not? Well, she was abominably rude to Nurse Turner this afternoon-went to the extent of calling her 'a nasty two-faced spy.'"

"Was that all?" asked Nurse Branscome.

"It was enough, surely?… As a matter of fact she went farther, even dragging your name into the fray. She excused herself by saying that she had a right to hate Nurse Turner because Nurse Turner hated you."

"Well, that at any rate was true enough."

"Hey?"

"I mean, it is true enough that Nurse Turner hates me, and would like to get me out of St. Hospital," said Nurse Branscome quietly.

"You never told me of this."

"Why should I have troubled to tell? I only tell it now because the child has guessed it."

Brother Copas leaned on his staff pondering a sudden suspicion.

"Look here," he said; "those anonymous letters-"

"I have not," said Nurse Branscome, "a doubt that Nurse Turner wrote them."

"You have never so much as hinted at this."

"I had no right. I have no right, even now; having no evidence. You would not show me the letter, remember."

"It was too vile."

"As if I-a nurse-cannot look at a thing because it is vile! … I supposed that you had laid the matter aside and forgotten it."

"On the contrary, I have been at some pains-hitherto idle-to discover the writer.… Does Nurse Turner, by the way, happen to start her W's with a small curly flourish?"

"That you can discover for yourself. The Nurses' Diary lies in the Nunnery, in the outer office. We both enter up our 'cases' in it, and it is open for anyone to inspect."

"I will inspect it to-morrow," promised Brother Copas. "Now-this Hospital being full of evil tongues-I cannot well ask you to eat an al fresco supper with me, though"-he twinkled-"I suspect we both carry the constituents of a frugal one under our cloaks."

They passed through an archway into the great quadrangle, and there, having wished one another good night, went their ways; she mirthfully, he mirthfully and thoughtfully too.

Next morning Brother Copas visited the outer office of the Nunnery and carefully inspected the Nurses' Diary. Since every week contains a Wednesday, there were capital W's in plenty.

He took tracings of half a dozen and, armed with these, sought Nurse Turner in her private room.

"I think," said he, holding out the anonymous letter, "you may have some light to throw on this. I have the Master's authority to bid you attend on him and explain it."

He fixed the hour-2 p.m. But shortly after mid-day Nurse Turner had taken a cab (ordered by telephone) and was on her way to the railway station with her boxes.

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