Needlework by Amy Walton
One of the greatest trials of Penelope's life when she was ten years
old was music, and the other, needlework; she could not see any
possible use in learning either of them, and none of the arguments put
forward by nurse, governess, or mother, made the least impression on
her mind. It was especially hard, she thought, that she had to go on
with music, because Ralph, her younger brother, had been allowed to
leave off. Won't you have pity on me, and let me leave off too? she
asked her mother one day imploringly. But mother, though she was
touched by the pleading face, and though Penelope's music lessons were
household afflictions, thought it better to be firm.
You see, darling, she said, that now you have got on so much
further than Ralph it would be a pity to leave off. You have broken the
back of it.
Ah, no, sighed poor Penelope, it's broken the back of me.
And then the needlework! Could there be a duller, more
unsatisfactory occupation? Particularly if your stitches would
always look crooked and straggling, and when the thimble hurt your
finger, and the needle got sticky, and the thread broke when you least
expected it. It was quite as bad as music in its way. Penelope would
sigh wearily over her task, and envy the people in the Waverley novels,
who, she felt sure, never sewed seams or had music lessons.
For the Waverley novels were Penelope's favourite books, and she
asked nothing better than to curl herself up in some corner with one of
the volumes, and to be left alone.
Then, once plunged into the adventures of Ivanhoe, or Quentin
Durward, or the hero of The Talisman, her troubles vanished.
She followed her hero in all his varying fortunes, and was present
at his side in battle; she saw him struggling against many foes,
fighting for the poor and weak, meeting treachery with truth, and
falsehood with faithfulness; she heard the clash of his armour, and
watched his good sword flash in the air at the tournament; she trembled
for him when he was sore wounded, and rejoiced with him when, after
many a hard-won fray, he was rewarded by the hand of his lady love.
Those were days indeed! There was something quite remarkably flat and
stupid in sitting down to hem a pocket-handkerchief when you had just
come from the tourney at Ashby de la Zouche, or in playing exercises
and scales while you were still wondering whether King Louis the
Eleventh would hang the astrologer or not.
Penelope loved all her books. She had a shelf of her own in the
play-room quite full of them, but the joy and pride of her heart were
the Waverley novels, which her father had given her on her last
It was a great temptation to her to spend all her pocket-money in
buying new books, but she knew this would have been selfish, so she had
made the following arrangement. She kept two boxes, one of which she
called her charity-box, and into this was put the half of any money
she had given to her; this her mother helped her to spend in assisting
any poor people who specially needed it. The money in the other box was
saved up until there was enough to buy a new book, but this did not
occur very often. Penelope liked it all the better when it did, for,
though she could read some stories over and over again with pleasure,
they did not all bear constant study equally well, in some cases, she
told her mother, it was like trying to dry your face on a wet towel.
One morning Penelope, or Penny, as she was generally called, was
sitting in the nursery window-seat with a piece of sewing in her hands,
it seemed more tiresome even than usual, for there was no one in the
room but nurse, and she appeared too busy for any conversation. Penny
had tried several subjects, but had received such short absent answers
that she did not feel encouraged to proceed, so there was nothing to
beguile the time, and she frowned a good deal and sighed heavily at
intervals. At last she looked up in despair.
What can you be doing, nurse? she said, and why are you
looking at all those old things of mine and Nancy's?
Nurse did not answer. She held out a little shrunken flannel dress
at arm's-length between herself and the light and scanned it
critically, then she put it on one side with some other clothes and
took up another garment to examine with equal care. Penny repeated her
question, and this time nurse heard it.
I'm just looking out some old clothes for poor Mrs Dicks, she
Do you mean our Mrs Dicks? asked Penny. What does she want
Well, Miss Penny, said nurse, proceeding to look through a pile of
little stockings, when a poor woman's lost her husband, and is left
with six children to bring up on nothing, she's glad of something to
clothe them with.
Penny felt interested. Our Mrs Dicks had been her mother's maid,
and after she married the children had often been to visit her, and
considered her a great friend. Sometimes they went to tea with her, and
once she had given Nancy, Penny's second sister, a lovely fluffy
Penny was fond of Mrs Dicks, and it seemed dreadful to think that
she must now bring up six children on nothing. She felt, however, that
she must inquire into the thing a little more.
Why must she bring up her six children on nothing? she asked,
letting her work fall into her lap.
Because, said nurse shortly, she hasn't got any money or anyone
to work for her. But if I were you, Miss Penny, I'd get on with my
needlework, and not waste time asking so many questions.
Well, said Penny, making fruitless attempts to thread her needle,
I suppose mother will help her to get some money. I shall ask her to
let me give her some out of the charity-boxonly I'm afraid there
isn't much in it now.
If you really wanted to help her, said nurse, who saw an excellent
opportunity for making a useful suggestion, you might make some things
for her baby; she hasn't much time for sewing, poor soul.
Oh, I couldn't possibly do that, said Penny decidedly, because,
you know, I hate needlework so. I couldn't do any extra, it would take
all my time.
Nurse rolled up a tight bundle of clothes and left the room without
answering, and Penny, with her frowning little face bent over her work,
went on thinking about Mrs Dicks and her six children. She wondered
whether they had enough to eat now; if they were to be brought up on
nothing, they probably had not, she thought, and she felt anxious to
finish her task that she might run and ask mother about it, and how she
could best help with the money out of the charity-box. So she cobbled
over the last stitches rather hastily, and put the work away; but she
found after all that her mother was too busy to attend to her just
then. The next step, therefore, was to ascertain the state of the
charity-box, and she took it down from the mantel-piece in the
play-room and gave it a little shake. It made quite a rich sound; but
Penny knew by experience what a noise coppers can make, so she was not
very hopeful as she unscrewed the top and looked in. And matters were
even worse than she feared, for all the box contained was this: two
pennies, one halfpenny, and one stupid little farthing. Penny felt
quite angry with the farthing, for it was bright and new, and looked at
the first glance almost like gold.
If you were a fairy farthing, she said, you'd get yourself
changed into gold on purpose to help Mrs Dicks; but it's no use waiting
That afternoon Penny was to go out with her mother, instead of
walking with the other school-room children and the governess. It was a
great honour and delight, and she had saved up so many questions to ask
about various subjects that she had scarcely time to tell her about Mrs
Dicks and the state of the charity-box.
They had just begun to talk about it, when Mrs Hawthorne stopped at
a house near their own home.
Oh, mother! cried Penny in some dismay, are we going to see Mrs
Yes, answered her mother, she has promised to show me her
embroideries, and I think you will like to see them too.
Penny did not feel at all sure about that, she was rather afraid of
Mrs Hathaway, who was a severe old lady, noted for her exquisite
needlework; however, it was a treat to go anywhere with mother, even to
see Mrs Hathaway.
The embroideries were, indeed, very beautiful, and exhibited with a
good deal of pride, while Penny sat in modest silence listening to the
conversation. She privately regarded Mrs Hathaway's handiwork with a
shudder, and thought to herself, How very little time she must have
Scarcely any notice had been taken of her yet; but presently, when
everything had been shown and admired, Mrs Hathaway turned her keen
black eyes upon her, and said:
And this little lady, now, is she fond of her needle?
A sympathetic glance passed between Mrs Hawthorne and Penny, but she
knew she must answer for herself, and she murmured shyly though
No! Indeed, said Mrs Hathaway, and why not?
She was a very upright old lady, and when she said this she sat more
upright than ever, and fixed her eyes on Penny's face.
Penny felt very uncomfortable under this gaze, and wriggled
nervously, but she could find nothing better to say than:
Because I hate it so.
I am afraid, put in Mrs Hawthorne, that Penny doesn't quite
understand the importance of being able to sew neatly; just now she
thinks of nothing but her books, but she will grow wiser in time, and
become a clever needlewoman, I hope.
Mrs Hathaway had not taken her eyes off Penny with a strong
expression of disapproval; she evidently thought her a very ill
brought-up little girl indeed. Now she turned to Mrs Hawthorne and
I question whether all this reading and study is an advantage to
the young folks of the present day. I do not observe that they are more
attractive in manner than in the time I remember, when a young lady was
thought sufficiently instructed if she could sew her seam and read her
She turned to Penny again and continued: Now, the other day I heard
of a society which I think you would do well to join. It is a working
society, and the members, who are some of them as young as you are,
pledge themselves to work for half an hour every day. At the end of the
year their work is sent to the infant Africans, and thus they benefit
both themselves and others. Would you like to join it?
Oh, no, thank you, said Penny in a hasty but heartfelt
Because I never could fulfil that promise. I shouldn't like to
belong to that society at all. I don't know the Africans, and if I
work, I'd rather work for Mrs Dicks. Penny spoke so quickly that she
was quite out of breath.
And who, my dear child, said Mrs Hathaway, surprised at Penny's
vehemence, is Mrs Dicks?
She spoke quite kindly, and her face looked softer, so Penny was
emboldened to tell her about the whole affair, and how Mrs Dicks was a
very nice woman, and had six children to bring up on nothing.
I wanted to help her out of the charity-box, concluded Penny, but
there's scarcely anything in it.
Mrs Hathaway looked really interested, and Penny began to think her
rather a nice old lady after all. After she and her mother left the
house she walked along for some time in deep thought.
What are you considering, Penny? asked Mrs Hawthorne at last.
I think, said Penny very deliberately, that as there's so little
in the charity-box I should like to work for Mrs Dicks' children.
Mrs Hawthorne knew what an effort this resolve had cost her little
Well, dear Penny, she answered, if you do that I think you will
be giving her a more valuable gift than the charity-box full of money.
Why? said Penny.
Because you will give her what costs you most. It is quite easy to
put your hand in your box and take out some money; but now, besides the
things you make for her, you will have to give her your patience and
your perseverance, and also part of the time you generally spend on
your beloved books.
So I shall! sighed Penny.
But she kept her resolve and did work for Mrs Dicks. Very unpleasant
she found it at first, particularly when there was some interesting new
story waiting to be read.
Gradually, however, there came a time when it did not seem quite so
disagreeable and difficult, and she even began to feel a little pride
in a neat row of stitches.
The day on which she finished a set of tiny shirts for the baby
Dicks was one of triumph to herself, and of congratulation from the
whole household; Mrs Dicks herself was almost speechless with
admiration at Miss Penny's needlework; indeed the finest embroideries,
produced by the most skilful hand, could not have been more praised and
Penny, said Mrs Hawthorne, have you looked in the charity-box
Why, no, mother, answered she, because I know there's only
twopence three farthings in it.
Go and look, said her mother.
And what do you think Penny found? The bright farthing was gone, and
in its place there was a shining little half-sovereign. How did it come
That I will leave you to guess.