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Penelope's 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 birthday.

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 said.

“Do you mean our Mrs Dicks?” asked Penny. “What does she want clothes for?”

“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 kitten.

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-box—only 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 for that.”

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 Hathaway?”

“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 for reading!”

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 emphatically:

“Oh, no.”

“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 said:

“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 Bible.”

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 manner.

“Why not?”

“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 daughter.

“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 appreciated.

“Penny,” said Mrs Hawthorne, “have you looked in the charity-box lately?”

“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 there?

That I will leave you to guess.