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- The Children's Book of Christmas Stories - 6/46 -
again, a thing she had never been known to do before, for she was not fond of young people in general.
"But, then, Hetty's different," she said to herself, when wondering at her own interest.
"Did you thank kind Miss Bennett?" was her mother's question as Hetty opened the door.
Hetty stopped as if struck, "Why, no! I don't think I did."
"And stayed so long, too? Whatever did you do? I've heard she isn't fond of people generally."
"We talked; and--I think she's ever so nice. She asked me to come again; may I?"
"Of course you may, if she cares to have you. I should be glad to do something to please her."
That visit of Hetty's was the first of a long series. Almost every day she found her way to the lonely cottage, where a visitor rarely came, and a strange intimacy grew up between the old and the young. Hetty learned of her friend to knit, and many an hour they spent knitting while Miss Bennett ransacked her memory for stories to tell. And then, one day, she brought down from a big chest in the garret two of the books she used to have when she was young, and let Hetty look at them.
One was "Thaddeus of Warsaw," and the other "Scottish Chiefs." Poor Hetty had not the dozens of books you have, and these were treasures indeed. She read them to herself, and she read them aloud to Miss Bennett, who, much to her own surprise, found her interest almost as eager as Hetty's.
All this time Christmas was drawing near, and strange, unusual feelings began to stir in Miss Bennett's heart, though generally she did not think much about that happy time. She wanted to make Hetty a happy day. Money she had none, so she went into the garret, where her youthful treasures had long been hidden. From the chest from which she had taken the books she now took a small box of light-coloured wood, with a transferred engraving on the cover. With a sigh--for the sight of it brought up old memories--Miss Bennett lifted the cover by its loop of ribbon, took out a package of old letters, and went downstairs with the box, taking also a few bits of bright silk from a bundle in the chest.
"I can fit it up for a workbox," she said, "and I'm sure Hetty will like it."
For many days after this Miss Bennett had her secret work, which she carefully hid when she saw Hetty coming. Slowly, in this way, she made a pretty needle-book, a tiny pincushion, and an emery bag like a big strawberry. Then from her own scanty stock she added needles, pins, thread, and her only pair of small scissors, scoured to the last extreme of brightness.
One thing only she had to buy--a thimble, and that she bought for a penny, of brass so bright it was quite as handsome as gold.
Very pretty the little box looked when full; in the bottom lay a quilted lining, which had always been there, and upon this the fittings she had made. Besides this, Miss Bennett knit a pair of mittens for each of Hetty's brothers and sisters.
The happiest girl in town on Christmas morning was Hetty Stanley. To begin with, she had the delight of giving the mittens to the children, and when she ran over to tell Miss Bennett how pleased they were, she was surprised by the present of the odd little workbox and its pretty contents.
Christmas was over all too soon, and New Year's, and it was about the middle of January that the time came which, all her life, Miss Bennett had dreaded--the time when she should be helpless. She had not money enough to hire a girl, and so the only thing she could imagine when that day should come was her special horror--the poorhouse.
But that good deed of hers had already borne fruit, and was still bearing. When Hetty came over one day, and found her dear friend lying on the floor as if dead, she was dreadfully frightened, of course, but she ran after the neighbours and the doctor, and bustled about the house as if she belonged to it.
Miss Bennett was not dead--she had a slight stroke of paralysis; and though she was soon better, and would be able to talk, and probably to knit, and possibly to get about the house, she would never be able to live alone and do everything for herself, as she had done.
So the doctor told the neighbours who came in to help, and so Hetty heard, as she listened eagerly for news.
"Of course she can't live here any longer; she'll have to go to a hospital," said one woman.
"Or to the poorhouse, more likely," said another.
"She'll hate that," said the first speaker. "I've heard her shudder over the poorhouse."
"She shall never go there!" declared Hetty, with blazing eyes.
"Hoity-toity! who's to prevent?" asked the second speaker, turning a look of disdain on Hetty.
"I am," was the fearless answer. "I know all Miss Bennett's ways, and I can take care of her, and I will," went on Hetty indignantly; and turning suddenly, she was surprised to find Miss Bennett's eyes fixed on her with an eager, questioning look.
"There! she understands! she's better!" cried Hetty. "Mayn't I stay and take care of you, dear Miss Bennett?" she asked, running up to the bed.
"Yes, you may," interrupted the doctor, seeing the look in his patient's face; "but you mustn't agitate her now. And now, my good women"--turning to the others--"I think she can get along with her young friend here, whom I happen to know is a womanly young girl, and will be attentive and careful."
They took the hint and went away, and the doctor gave directions to Hetty what to do, telling her she must not leave Miss Bennett. So she was now regularly installed as nurse and housekeeper.
Days and weeks rolled by. Miss Bennett was able to be up in her chair, to talk and knit, and to walk about the house, but was not able to be left alone. Indeed, she had a horror of being left alone; she could not bear Hetty out of her sight, and Hetty's mother was very willing to spare her, for she had many mouths to fill.
To provide food for two out of what had been scrimping for one was a problem; but Miss Bennett ate very little, and she did not resume her tea so they managed to get along and not really suffer.
One day Hetty sat by the fire with her precious box on her knee, which she was putting to rights for the twentieth time. The box was empty, and her sharp young eyes noticed a little dust on the silk lining.
"I think I'll take this out and dust it," she said to Miss Bennett, "if you don't mind."
"Do as you like with it," answered Miss Bennett; "it is yours."
So she carefully lifted the silk, which stuck a little.
"Why, here's something under it," she said--"an old paper, and it has writing on."
"Bring it to me," said Miss Bennett; "perhaps it's a letter I have forgotten."
Hetty brought it.
"Why, it's father's writing!" said Miss Bennett, looking closely at the faded paper; "and what can it mean? I never saw it before. It says, 'Look, and ye shall find'--that's a Bible text. And what is this under it? 'A word to the wise is sufficient.' I don't understand--he must have put it there himself, for I never took that lining out--I thought it was fastened. What can it mean?" and she pondered over it long, and all day seemed absent-minded.
After tea, when they sat before the kitchen fire, as they always did, with only the firelight flickering and dancing on the walls while they knitted, or told stories, or talked, she told Hetty about her father: that they had lived comfortably in this house, which he built, and that everybody supposed that he had plenty of money, and would leave enough to take care of his only child, but that when he died suddenly nothing had been found, and nothing ever had been, from that day to this.
"Part of the place I let to John Thompson, Hetty, and that rent is all I have to live on. I don't know what makes me think of old times so to-night."
"I know," said Hetty; "it's that paper, and I know what it reminds me of," she suddenly shouted, in a way very unusual with her. "It's that tile over there," and she jumped up and ran to the side of the fireplace, and put her hand on the tile she meant.
On each side of the fireplace was a row of tiles. They were Bible subjects, and Miss Bennett had often told Hetty the story of each one, and also the stories she used to make up about them when she was young. The one Hetty had her hand on now bore the picture of a woman standing before a closed door, and below her the words of the yellow bit of paper: "Look, and ye shall find."
"I always felt there was something different about that," said Hetty eagerly, "and you know you told me your father talked to you about it--about what to seek in the world when he was gone away, and other things."
"Yes, so he did," said Miss Bennett thoughtfully; "come to think of it, he said a great deal about it, and in a meaning way. I don't understand it," she said slowly, turning it over in her mind.
"I do!" cried Hetty, enthusiastically. "I believe you are to seek here! I believe it's loose!" and she tried to shake it. "It IS loose!" she cried excitedly. "Oh, Miss Bennett, may I take it out?"
Miss Bennett had turned deadly pale. "Yes," she gasped, hardly knowing what she expected, or dared to hope.
A sudden push from Hetty's strong fingers, and the tile slipped out at one side and fell to the floor. Behind it was an opening into the brickwork. Hetty thrust in her hand.
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