Charlotte M. Yonge. That Stick

This eBook was prepared by Les Bowler.





[Picture: She was a little brown mouse of a woman, with soft dark eyes,

smooth hair, and a clear olive complexion]





'Oh, there's that stick. What can he want?' sighed one of a pair of dignified elderly ladies, in black silk, to the other, as in a quiet country-town street they saw themselves about to be accosted by a man of about forty, with the air of a managing clerk, who came up breathlessly, with a flush on his usually pale cheeks.

'Miss Lang; I beg pardon! May I be allowed a few words with Miss Marshall? I know it is unusual, but I have something unusual to tell her.'

'Nothing distressing, I hope, Mr. Morton,' said one of the ladies, startled.

'Oh no, quite the reverse,' he said, with a nervous laugh; 'in fact, I have unexpectedly come into a property!'

'Indeed!' with great astonishment, 'I congratulate you,' as the colour mounted in his face, pleasant, honest, but with the subdued expression left by long years of patience in a subordinate position.

'May I ask-' began the other sister.

'I hardly understand it yet,' was the answer; 'but I must go to town by the 5.10 train, and I should like her to hear it from myself.'

'Oh, certainly; it does you honour, Mr. Morton.'

They were entering the sweep of one of those large substantial houses on the outskirts of country towns that have a tendency to become boarding-schools, and such had that of the Misses Lang been long before the days of the High School.

'Fortunately it is recreation-time,' said Miss Lang, as she conducted Mr. Morton to the drawing-room, hung round with coloured drawings, in good taste, if stiff, and chiefly devoted to interviews with parents.

'Poor little Miss Marshall!' murmured one sister, when they had shut him in.

'What a loss she will be!'

'She deserves any good fortune.'

'She does. Is it not twenty years?'

'Twenty-two next August, sister.'

Yes, it was twenty-two years since Mary Marshall had been passed from the Clergy Orphan Asylum to be English governess at Miss Lang's excellent school at Hurminster. In that town resided, with her two sons, Mrs. Morton, the widow of a horse-dealing farmer in the late Mr. Marshall's parish. On discovering the identity of the English governess with the little girl who had admired the foals, lambs, and chickens in past times, Mrs. Morton gave invitations to tea. She was ladylike, the sons unexceptionable, and no objection could reasonably be made by the Misses Lang, though the acquaintance was regretted by them.

Mr. Morton, the father, had died in debt and distress, and the eldest son had been thankful for a clerkship in the office of Mr. Burford, a solicitor in considerable practice, and man of business to several of the county magnates. Frank Morton was not remarkable for talent or enterprise, but he was plodding and trustworthy, methodical and accurate, and he had continued in the same position, except that time had made him senior instead of junior clerk. Partly from natural disposition, partly from weight of responsibility, he had always been a grave, steady youth, one of those whom their contemporaries rank as sticks and muffs, because not exalted by youthful spirits or love of daring. His mother and brother had always been his primary thought; and his recreations were of the sober-sided sort-the chess club, the institute, the choral society. He was a useful, though not a distinguished, member of the choir of St. Basil's Church, and a punctual and diligent Sunday-school teacher of the least interesting boys. To most of the world of Hurminster he was almost invisible, to the rest utterly insignificant. Even his mother was far less occupied with him than with his brother Charles, who was much handsomer, more amusing and spirited, as well as far less contented or easy to be reckoned upon. But there was one person to whom he was everything, namely, little brown-eyed, soft-voiced Mary Marshall.

She felt herself the happiest of creatures when, after two years of occasional evening teas and walks to Evensong at St. Basil's, it was settled that she should become his wife as soon as his salary should be increased, and Charlie be in condition to assist in supporting his mother. Ever since, Mary had rested on that hope, and the privileges it gave. She had loyally informed the Misses Lang, who were scarcely propitious, but could not interfere, as long as their pupils (or they believed so) surmised nothing. So the Sunday evening intercourse became more frequent, and in the holidays, when the homeless governess had always remained to superintend cleaning and repairs, there were many pleasant hours spent with kind old Mrs. Morton, who, if she had ever wished that Frank had waited longer and chosen some one with means, never betrayed it to the girl whom she soon loved as a daughter.

Two years had at first been thought of as the period of patience. Charles had a situation as clerk in a shipping office at Westhaven, a small seaport about twenty miles off, and his mother was designing to go to keep house for him, when he announced that his banns had been asked with the daughter of the captain and part-owner of a small trading vessel of the port.

The Hurminster couple must defer their plans till further promotion; and so far from helping his mother, Charles ere long was applying to her, when in need, for family expenses.

Then came a terrible catastrophe. Charlie had been ill, and in his convalescence was taken on a voyage by his father-in-law. There was a collision in the Channel, and the Emma Jane and all on board were lost. The insurance did not cover the pecuniary loss; debts came to light, and nothing was left for the widow and her three children except a seaside lodging-house in which her father had invested his savings.

The children's education and great part of their maintenance must fall on their uncle; and again his marriage must wait till this burthen was lessened. Old Mrs. Morton died; and meetings thus became more difficult and infrequent. Frank had hoped to retain the little house where he had lived so long; but his sister-in-law's demands were heavy, and he found himself obliged to sell his superfluous furniture, and commit himself to the rough attendance of the housekeeper at the office, where two rooms were granted to him.

Thus had year after year gone by, unmarked except by the growth of the young people at Westhaven and the demand of their mother on the savings that were to have been a nest-egg, while gray threads began to appear in Mary's hair, and Frank's lighter locks to leave his temples bare.

So things stood when, on this strange afternoon, Miss Marshall was summoned mysteriously from watching the due performance of an imposition, and was told, outside the door, that Mr. Morton wanted to speak to her.

It was startling news, for though the Misses Lang were kindly women, and had never thrown obstacles in the way of her engagement, they had merely permitted it, and almost ignored it, except when old Mrs. Morton was dying, and they had freely facilitated her attendance. 'Surely something as dreadful as the running down of the Emma Jane must have happened!' thought Mary as she sped to the drawing-room. She was a little brown mouse of a woman, with soft dark eyes, smooth hair, and a clear olive complexion, on which thirty-eight years of life and eighteen of waiting had not left much outward trace; for the mistresses were good women, who had never oppressed their underling, and though she had not met with much outward sympathy or companionship, the one well of hope and joy might at times suffer drought, but had never run dry, any more than

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