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All Alone by Amy Walton

 

Nan was the youngest but one of the little Beresfords, and she was six years old when the baby came, so she was quite a responsible person and ready to be a great help to nurse. Her round face and form assumed airs of dignity, and she strove valiantly to put away all babyish weaknesses as things of the past.

But some of them were too strong for Nan, struggle as she would, and she found to her dismay that though she was six years old, and “baby” no longer, she was still afraid of the dark.

It had always been a dreadful moment to her when, leaving the cheerful nursery, she must be tucked up in her little bed and see nurse take away the candle. She would lie and stare with her bright round eyes into the thick blackness, and feel grateful if she could fix them on any little faint thread of light coming through chink or crevice. She could not have told you what it was she feared, and perhaps this was the reason why she never spoke of it to anyone—not even to mother. Besides, in the bright morning light she forgot her fears, and being naturally a cheerful and courageous child would have been ashamed to mention them. In a large family children are not encouraged to make too much of their troubles, for there is not time to attend to them; so no one knew that merry little Nan, who was afraid of nothing by daylight or candle-light, often lay awake at night long after she should have been asleep, and felt very much afraid indeed.

And now I am going to tell you how on one occasion Nan conquered her fears all by herself, with no help from anyone on earth; and you must remember that it is a far braver thing to do what one is told in spite of being afraid, than not to be afraid at all.

At Ripley, which was the next village to that in which Mr Beresford, Nan's father, was rector, lived Squire Chorley, who had a large family of boys and girls. They were fond of getting up concerts, and theatricals, and readings for the poor people, and in all these things the Beresfords were always asked over to help. And one Christmas holidays there was to be an unusually grand entertainment given by the children, which included a display of “Mrs Jarley's Wax-works.”

Nan would listen with absorbing interest to the discussion about who should represent the different characters in wax-work, and she was allowed to be present at the rehearsals, but there was no question of such a little thing taking a part. She thought all the figures very beautiful, especially Joan of Arc, who was dressed in splendid tinsel armour and a crimson skirt, and was seated on a spotted rocking-horse. When she gracefully waved her sword Nan could hardly believe that it really was her own sister Sophy, and afterwards when she read about Joan of Arc in the history of England she always fancied her looking just like that, with long fair hair streaming down her back.

There were a great many figures, as many as the stage would hold. And, as it was the first time the wax-works had been attempted, the children were particularly anxious that it should go off well, and that the dresses should be especially brilliant. So everyone worked hard, and Nan did her utmost to help, and was as excited about it as anyone.

The evening before the performance there was to be a dress-rehearsal on the stage which the carpenter had put up in the school-room, and six excited little Beresfords were packed into the wagonette with the German governess, and driven over to Ripley. Fraulein was rather excited too, for she was to sing a song in an interval of the performance, and also to represent the Chinese giant in the wax-works.

But when they reached the village school-room they found the other members of the company in low spirits, for they had received a blow. Johnnie Chorley, who was to have been “Jack-in-the-box,” had so bad a cold that he was not to play.

“I knew how it would be,” said Agatha, the eldest girl, despondingly, “when Johnnie wouldn't change his boots yesterday. And now there will be no Jack-in-the-box; and it was one of the best.”

“Can't someone else take it?” said Tom Beresford, looking round.

“No one small enough for the tub,” was the answer; “Johnnie is such a mite, and made such good faces.”

Nan's heart beat fast. It was on her lips to say, “I am small enough,” but she did not dare. She only pushed herself a little in front, and stared up at Tom and Agatha with solemn, longing eyes.

The former, a tall boy of fifteen, who was stage-manager on these occasions, stood whistling in a perplexed manner, and his eyes fell on the compact little figure in front of him.

“Hallo!” he said suddenly, “I have it. Here's your Jack!”

He took Nan up and stood her on a form near.

“What, Nan?” said all the voices in different tones, and everyone looked at her critically.

Nan stood quite quietly, with her cheeks very red, and her eyes glistening, and her hands tucked into her little muff. She was so afraid that they would say she could not do it, and she felt so sure that she could. But it was settled that she might at least try; and, oh delightful moment! She was lifted into the barrel, which was very cold and smelt of beer, and told what was expected of her.

“You know, Nan,” said Tom, “that you are not to show the least little bit of your head until you hear Mrs Jarley winding you up, and then you must pop up suddenly, and make a nice little funny face as you have seen Johnnie do.”

Now, Nan was a most observant child, and had taken careful notes of Johnnie's performance, which she very much admired; so, although her heart beat very quickly, she bobbed up just at the right minute with such a comical expression that there was a burst of applause, and “Well done, Nan!” from the company.

Happy Nan! They put a scarlet cloak on her, very full in the neck, and a queer little tow wig with a top-knot, and painted a red patch on each cheek; and there she was, a member of the wax-works, and the happiest little soul in the county.

She was to be a wax-work! The honour was almost too much, and the only drawback was poor Johnnie's disappointment. She thought of that, driving home that evening, and was so quiet that Fraulein thought she was asleep, but she was only resolving that she would offer Johnnie her spotted guinea-pig to make up.

So the eventful evening came, and everything was wonderfully successful; Mrs Jarley's wax-works was considered the best thing that had been seen in the village for years, and everyone laughed very much. Nan did her very best to make a good Jack, and though she got very cramped in the tub, before her turn came to be exhibited, she made some most agile springs, and was heartily applauded. Then the Vicar of Ripley made a speech and thanked the performers, and all the people cheered, and then everyone, including the wax-works, sang “God save the Queen,” and the entertainment was over.

There was a great bustling and chattering afterwards in the green-room, where the actors were trying to find cloaks and shawls and hats, for they were all to go to Mr Chorley's to supper, and no one seemed able to get hold of the right things.

Fraulein was fussing about her overshoes which she had lost, and there was a general struggle and confusion. Nan stood in a corner in her quaint little dress, waiting for someone to wrap her up, and at last her sister Sophy saw her.

“Why! There you are, you quiet little Nan,” she said, “I will find your hood if I can. Here it is, and here is a shawl.” She bundled the child up warmly, and kissed her. “You were a jolly little Jack,” she went on, “and now you are to go home with cousin Annie and sleep at her house to-night. Run into the school-room and find her.”

Cousin Annie was the Vicar of Ripley's wife, and had a little girl of Nan's own age, so it was a great treat to stay with her. Nan poked her way among the people who were still standing about in the school-room chatting together before they dispersed, but she could not see anyone she knew. Then she waited a long while at the door, but there was no cousin Annie, she had evidently gone home. Nan peeped out. Down the road which led to Mr Chorley's she heard distant voices and laughter, and saw the twinkling light of lanterns, but in the opposite direction it was all quite dark and silent, and that was the way to cousin Annie's. She knew it as well as possible, and it was not very far, quite a short distance, in the daylight—you had only to go down the lane, and turn a little to the right, and go in at the white gate near the pond. A very simple matter in the daytime; but now! Nan stepped back into the room; she would go and tell them that cousin Annie had gone, and then someone would go with her. But to her dismay she found the green-room dark and silent; they had all gone out by the other door without coming through the school-room, and Nan was alone. She stood irresolute, clutching the heavy shawl which Sophy had wrapped round her, and feeling half inclined to cry. There was only one thing to do now, and that was to go down the dark lane all by herself. Nan had been brought up in habits of the most simple obedience, and it never occurred to her to question any order. “You are to go to cousin Annie's,” Sophy had said, so of course she must go.

She choked down a little sob, and pulled open the door again, and trotted out into the darkness. Her heavy shawl rather impeded her, so she could not go very fast, and the road was rough and uneven for her small feet. She looked up to see if she could find any comfortable twinkling star for a companion, but the sky was all black and overcast, and there was no moon. Then she said her evening prayer to herself, but it was very short and did not last long, and then all the hymns she knew, and then all the texts, and by that time she was nearly at the bottom of the lane, when, oh misfortune! She caught her foot in the dangling end of the big shawl and fell flat in the mud. It was very hard to keep back the tears after that; but she gathered herself up as well as she could and stumbled on, until at last she passed through the white gate, which stood open, and reached the front door of the Vicarage. But her troubles were not over yet, for she found that, even by standing on the very tips of her toes, she could reach neither bell nor knocker. She rapped as hard as she could with her soft little knuckles, but they made no more noise on the great door than a bird's beak would have done; and then she tried some little kicks, but no one came.

She felt very lonely and miserable with the black night all round her, and it seemed to make it worse to think of her brothers and sisters enjoying themselves so much at Mr Chorley's. How sorry they would be for Nan if they knew! And then she felt so sorry for herself, that she was obliged to sit down on the stone steps and cry. She was hungry, as well as frightened and cold, for she had been much too excited to eat anything at tea-time, and now it was past ten o'clock. Oh to be in her little white bed at home! She cuddled herself up as close to the door as she could, and laid her cheek against it, shrinking back from the darkness which seemed to press against her, and presently, how it came to pass she never know, her head began to nod and she went fast to sleep.

The next thing she remembered was hearing a voice say, quite close to her: “Why, it's little Nan! How did the child get here?” And then someone took her up, and carried her with strong arms into a warm room with bright lights. And then she found herself on cousin Annie's knee, and saw people standing round asking eager questions and looking very much amused. And no wonder, for Nan was a very funny-looking little bundle indeed, in spite of her woe-begone appearance; her round face was streaked with mud, and tears, and scarlet paint, and the odd little wig had fallen over one eye in a waggish manner. When the hood and shawl were taken off, a more disconsolate little Jack-in-the-box could hardly be imagined, for what with hunger, fatigue, and the comfort of feeling cousin Annie's kind arms round her, Nan's tears fell fast and she could not stop them.

They could just make out between her sobs something about “Sophy” and “sleeping,” but that was all; and at last cousin Annie said, “Never mind, darling, you shall tell me all about it by and by.” And then poor little weary Nan was carried upstairs, and washed, and put to bed, and cousin Annie brought her some supper, and sat by her until she dropped gently off to sleep.

It turned out afterwards that Fraulein in the excitement of the moment had forgotten to deliver the message about Nan, so that none expected her at the Vicarage. When she went home the next day Tom said she was quite a “little heroine.” Nan did not know what that meant, but she was sure it was something pleasant.

And the best of it all was, that after this adventure Nan never felt so frightened of the dark again. But that she kept to herself.