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Like A Bean Stalk by Amy Walton

 

It had always been an uncontested fact in the Watson family that Bridget was plain. Even when she was a round toddling thing of five years old, with bright eyes and thick brown curls, aunts and other relations had often said in her presence:

“Bridget is a dear little girl, but she will grow up plain.”

Plain! Bridget was quite used to the sound of the word, and did not mind it at all, though she was conscious that it meant something to be regretted, because people always said “but” before it. “A good child, but plain.”

“A sweet-tempered little thing, but plain.”

However, it did not interfere with any pleasure or advantage that Bridget could see. She could run faster than most of her brothers and sisters, who were not plain but pretty; she could climb a tree very well indeed, with her stout little legs, and she could say a great many verses of poetry by heart. Besides, she felt sure that Toto the black poodle, and Samson the great cat, and all the other pets, loved her as well as the rest, and perhaps even better. So she did not mind being plain at all, until she was about thirteen years old and the new governess came.

Now about this time Bridget, who had hitherto been a compact sturdy child, short for her age, began to grow in the most alarming manner; the “Bean-stalk,” her brothers called her, and one really could almost believe she had shot up in a night, the growth was so sudden. Her arms and legs seemed to be everywhere, always sprawling about in a spider-like manner in unexpected places, so that she very often either swept things off the table or tripped somebody up. Her mother looking round on the children at their dinner hour would say:

“My dear Bridget, I believe you have grown an inch since yesterday! How very short those sleeves are for you!” and then there was a general chuckle at the poor “Bean-stalk.”

Then visitors would come, and Bridget with the others would be sent for to the drawing-room; entering in gawky misery she well knew what sentence would first strike her ear, and would try furtively to shelter herself in the background. No use!

“My dear Mrs Watson,” the lady would cry, with an expression of amused pity on her face, “how your daughter Bridget has grown! Why, she is as tall as my girl of eighteen;” etcetera, etcetera.

Bridget got tired of it at last, and she very much dreaded the arrival of the new governess, because she felt sure that she should be so “bullied,” as the boys said, about her height and awkwardness. She would cheerfully have sacrificed several inches of her arms and legs to be comfortably short, but this could not be managed, so she must make the best of it.

Miss Tasker arrived. Bobbie saw her first, from an advantageous post he had taken up for the purpose amongst the boughs of a large beech-tree in front of the house.

He saw her cab drive up with boxes on the top, and Toto dancing round and round it on the tips of his toes barking loudly, which I am sorry to say was his reprehensible manner of receiving strangers. Bobbie parted the boughs a little more. It was a situation full of interest. Would she be frightened of Toto? He felt a good deal depended on this as a sign of her future behaviour.

It appeared, however, that Miss Tasker was not afraid of dogs, for a tall thin figure presently descended from the cab in the midst of Toto's wildest demonstrations. Bobbie felt an increased respect for the new governess, but meanwhile the “others” must at once be told the result of his observations, and as she entered the house he slipped down from his perch and scudded quickly away to find them.

From this time Bridget's troubles increased tenfold; Miss Tasker had severe views about deportment, and besides this her attention was specially directed by Mrs Watson to Bridget's awkwardness.

“I am particularly anxious,” she said, “about my daughter Bridget, and other lessons are really not of so much importance just now as that she should learn to hold herself properly. As it is, she is so clumsy in her movements that I almost tremble to see her enter the room.”

Poor Bridget! Her usual manner of entering a room was with her head eagerly thrust forward, and her long arms swinging; that was when she was quite comfortable and unselfconscious, but all this must be changed now, and to achieve this Miss Tasker devised an ingenious method of torture, which was practised every morning. It was this. Lessons began at ten o'clock, at which time the children were expected to assemble in the school-room, but now, instead of running in any how, they had to go through the following scene.

Miss Tasker sat at her desk ready to receive each pupil with a gracious smile and bow; then one by one they entered with a solemn bow or curtsy and said, “Good morning, Miss Tasker.”

“I call it humbug,” remarked the outspoken Bobbie, “as if we hadn't seen her once already at breakfast-time.”

How Bridget hated this ordeal!

To know that Miss Tasker was waiting there ready to fix a keen grey eye on her deficiencies, and that she would probably say when the curtsy was done:

“Once again, Bridget, and remember to round the elbows.”

How to round your elbows when they naturally stuck out like knitting-pins, Bridget could not conceive, and I am afraid that, pushed to desperation, she soon left off even trying, and so became more awkward than ever.

But the ceremony once over, and lessons begun, Miss Tasker had no cause for complaint, for Bridget was a ready and ambitious pupil. She had a good memory, and being an imaginative child, it was a special pleasure to her to learn poetry, in repeating which she would quite forget herself and her awkwardness and pour forth page after page without a single mistake.

At such times, Miss Tasker's chill remarks of “Your shoulders, Bridget”—“Don't poke, Bridget,” generally fell on unheeding ears, but there was one occasion on which Bridget did feel them to be especially trying and out of place.

She had been learning one of the “Lays of Ancient Rome,” and was now repeating it all through. In proud consciousness of not having missed one word, and in full enjoyment of the swing of the poetry, she stood with her head thrust forward and her chin in the air:

  “So he spake, and speaking sheathed
  His good sword by his side,
  And with his armour on his back
  Plunged headlong in the tide!
  No sound of—”

“My dear Bridget, draw in your chin,” said the cold voice, and poor Bridget, dropping suddenly down from the heights of heroic deeds to dreary commonplace, felt that this was hard indeed.

She had said it all without a mistake, and the only thing that seemed to matter was how her chin, or her shoulders, or her arms looked. It was unkind. It was unfair. It was too bad. She could not help being awkward, and as they worried her so about it, she should not try to be any different.

From this time forward she would be just herself—plain, awkward Bridget. So she resolved as she took the book back from Miss Tasker, and sat down sullenly in her place, and so she continued to resolve as several days went on. You know how, when one has once begun to be a little naughty, everything that happens seems to increase the feeling, and so it was with Bridget; everything Miss Tasker said, or did, or even looked after this, made her feel more and more ill-used and injured, till one unfortunate day brought matters to a climax.

If there was one day in the week that Bridget disliked more than another at this time it was Thursday, for Thursday was “dancing-day.” It would be hard to give you an idea of how much misery that meant to her, or how fervently she used to pray for something to happen to prevent her going to the class, which was held at a friend's house some miles away. A sprained ankle, or a slight earthquake, not bad enough to hurt anyone, were among her usual aspirations, but nothing of the kind ever occurred, and she was borne away with her brothers and sisters by the relentless Miss Tasker to the scene of torture; the suffering of martyrs, whom she had read about, were, in Bridget's opinion, not worthy of mention beside those to be endured at a dancing-class.

Everything seemed to go wrong on this particular day, perhaps because she did not try to make them go right, and at last, after the whole class had been practising a step together, the dancing-mistress said rather severely:

“I wish Miss Bridget Watson to do the minuet steps alone: all the others may sit down.”

With downcast eyes, and one shoulder pushed nervously up, Bridget stood alone in the middle of the room. She felt that thousands of eyes, like the little sharp pricks of so many needles, were transfixing her luckless figure, for there were a good many lady visitors present besides the children.

“Now, if you please, Miss Watson. Straighten the shoulders. Take the dress gracefully between fingers and thumb. Raise the head. One—two— three—begin!”

The music played. Bridget was intensely nervous, but through it all she felt a perverse pleasure in irritating Miss Tasker, so she performed some grotesquely uncouth steps which raised a smile on almost every face.

“Again, if you please.”

It was done again, and if possible worse than before.

“You may return to your seat.”

Which Bridget did with swift ungainly strides, feeling covered with disgrace, and as she passed, an unfortunate whisper from one of the visitors reached her ear:

“What a windmill of a child to be sure!”

She plunged into her seat, her eyes wet with tears of mortification, but no one saw them except Bobbie, who sat next her. He did not understand the full extent of her distress, but he looked up in her face and put his small hand in hers. It was a sympathetic but sticky clasp, for Bobbie always carried sweets in his pockets for solace at odd moments, yet it comforted Bridget a little, and she gave it a silent squeeze in return.

But, hurt and sore and angry as she felt, the cup was not quite full until that evening, when Mrs Watson came into the school-room while the children were having tea. After her usual little chat with them she said just before going away:

“I am sorry to hear from Miss Tasker that Bridget does not seem to think it worth while to take pains with her dancing, though she knows how anxious I am about it.”

She looked at Bridget, who blushed hotly, but made no answer; and, indeed, she could not, for she felt as though Bobbie's largest ball were sticking in her throat.

“I know,” continued her mother, “that you cannot all do the same things equally well, but you can at least try to do your best, however much you may dislike any particular lesson. I should be more pleased to know that Bridget tried to hold herself upright and took pains with her dancing, than to hear that she had said all her lessons quite perfectly, because I know one is a difficulty to her and the other none.”

Mother looked very grave, and she so seldom reproved any of the children, that they felt this to be a solemn occasion, and their little serious faces were all turned upon Bridget.

She could not bear it. As her mother left the room she started up abruptly, upsetting her cup and saucer, and, heedless of Miss Tasker's warning voice, rushed out into the garden blinded with her tears.

She must go somewhere and cry alone, and her steps turned instinctively to the well-known refuge of “the barn,” an old out-building which the children had turned into a playground of their own; it was otherwise disused, excepting that now and then some trusses of hay or straw were put there, and it was a most splendid place to keep pets in.

A numerous and motley family lived here in cages and hutches of all kinds, generally made out of old packing-cases. There was a large colony of white rats, two dormice named Paul and Silas, a jackdaw, rabbits, and a little yellow owl, not to mention the pigeons who fluttered in and out through the open door at will. They came whirling round Bridget now as she entered and settled on her shoulders and head, and pecked boldly at her shoes expecting to be fed. All the different little creatures in cages roused themselves too, and gave signs that they knew her in their various ways—by small scratching noises, by ruffling of feathers, and tiny squeaks. The jackdaw, who was free, at once came down from the rafters, and, standing before her in slim elegance, raised his blue-grey crest and said “Jark,” the only word he knew. They all gave their little welcome.

But Bridget could not take any notice of them to-day, her heart was too full, though she felt with a dim sense of comfort that these were people to whom her awkwardness made no difference. Otherwise the world was all against her—Miss Tasker, the dancing-mistress, and now, to crown all, mother! She threw herself down on some trusses of straw at the end of the barn, and the tears which had made her eyes smart so all day flowed freely. It was so unjust! That was what hurt her so. If she had been naughty she would be sorry, that would be different. But she could not feel that she was in fault at all. It was just because she was plain and awkward that they were all unkind to her, so she whispered to herself, and cried on.

The barn was very quiet, only Bridget's sobs mingled with the cooing of the pigeons and the rustling noises in the cages round. One slanting ray from the setting sun lay on the floor, but the corner where Bridget had thrown herself was in dusky shadow.

And presently a strange thing happened.

“Bridget! Bridget!” said a little husky voice.

Bridget raised herself on her elbow, and looked round astonished. She did not know the voice at all; and it sounded muffled, as though coming through a heap of feathers.

“Bridget! Bridget!” it said again.

This time it plainly came from the rafters over Bridget's head. She looked up, but there was nothing there except the little yellow owl, who was sitting in his cage, with his eyes very round and bright.

“How wise you look!” said Bridget aloud; “I wish you could help me.”

What was her astonishment when the owl at once replied, in the same stifled voice:

“What do you want?”

Bridget paused. What did she want? Then she remembered that as the owl could talk, it must certainly be a fairy, and could do anything, so she said:

“I want to be very graceful.”

The owl did not answer immediately, and Bridget kept a watchful eye on her arms and legs, almost expecting them to be changed into models of grace at once. Nothing of the sort happened, however; and the owl sat as though in deep thought. At last it said:

“I can tell you a way, but it is difficult.”

“I don't care how difficult it is,” cried Bridget, now very much excited, “if you will only tell me what it is I will do it.”

“Try,” said the owl solemnly.

“Try what?” asked Bridget anxiously.

“Try,” repeated the owl, “nothing more; try.”

Bridget's face fell; she was very much disappointed. Every one had told her that till she was sick of the word. The owl could not be a fairy after all.

“Is that all?” she said. “I always do that.”

“Always?” asked the owl.

Bridget was silent a moment as she thought of the past week.

“Why, not quite always.”

“But it must be always,” said the owl, “that's the secret of it. If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again. You've heard that?”

“Of course I have,” said Bridget sorrowfully; “I've heard it much too often.”

The owl did not answer, perhaps it was offended.

“Can it be possible,” thought Bridget, “that I really haven't tried enough?”

Just then something cold and moist was thrust into her hand, and she started up bewildered, hardly able for the moment to make out where she was. It was almost dark in the barn now, but presently she made out the form of Toto the poodle, who had come to look for his mistress, and now stood with his eager affectionate eyes fixed on her from under his frizzled black hair.

Bridget stretched out her arms to him, and leaning forward, kissed his shaven nose; she felt wonderfully better, and looked up at the owl to thank it for its advice. It sat there blinking as though it had never spoken in its life.

“But you did, you know,” she said nodding at it, and she got up and ran out of the barn with Toto springing round her.

She thought a good deal afterwards of what the owl had said, and came to the conclusion that perhaps she had been a good deal in fault. At any rate she would “try again” and see how it answered. Bridget was a resolute little character, and she took the matter in hand at once; but I can best tell you how it “answered” by describing a scene which took place a month later, on the last dancing-day before the holidays.

The lesson was over, and the mistress was taking leave of her pupils; the usual visitors sat round the room looking on.

“And now,” she said, “before we part, I must say a few special words about one of my pupils, and that is, Miss Bridget Watson, whose marked improvement during the past month I have been pleased to notice. I have always felt that she had great difficulties to contend with, for when young people are growing fast, it is not easy to manage the limbs gracefully. I have to congratulate her upon her efforts, and to hope that you will all follow her example in trying to do your best.”

There was a murmur of satisfaction, for Bridget was a general favourite among her companions and they were all pleased to hear her praised. Every one was pleased; Miss Tasker, who was fond of Bridget, beamed behind her spectacles, and carried home the good news to Mrs Watson, whose pleasure put a finishing touch to Bridget's exultation. Indeed, for some minutes she was more like a windmill than ever, through excess of joy, but it was holiday time, and even Miss Tasker said nothing.

You all know the story of the “Ugly Duckling,” and how, after all, it became a beautiful white swan. I cannot say whether, in like manner, Bridget grew up to be graceful and pretty, but one thing I am certain of, and that is, that she never regretted following the owl's advice to “try again.”