Sheep Among Wolves Publishing

Chapter 5 – Miss Mary Macintosh

Monday December 28, 1812

For the relief of my young readers I must inform them that the morning of Monday, the 28th of December, saw Henry and Helen sound asleep in their Uncle Thomas’s house, still enemies in a strange land as it were, but at least with some immediate protection from the scouting bands which they had discovered.

Back at home at Chiveley, Monday morning dawned bright and clear, though still without a trace of the long-wished-for snow, as the dawning of a new reign in the Macintosh house.  For Sunday cannot be counted as a fair experiment of Mary’s powers, considering that the doctor’s presence and the effect of previous training had rendered that day relatively safe.

Monday, however, was the beginning of Mary’s command.  She had great confidence in her own ability—a quality which, while it is not perhaps an actual essential in leadership, goes a great way towards inspiring confidence in other people towards that leader.

Ah, Mary, as you go so calmly and rationally into this new charge, is there not even less excuse for you than for impetuous Helen to forget to entreat the blessing of He who alone can make it to prosper?

Breakfast was at precisely the right time under Mary’s management.  She had kept everyone out of the kitchen, with the exception of Grace who was allowed to fetch and carry, and thus took upon herself all that depended upon time and regularity.  She made sure that Grace had the table set and ready long in advance, and herself rang the bell so close upon the tale of the clock that the last strokes of the one were lost in the first of the other.

George came in, good-naturedly declaring he must have overslept if it was eleven o’clock already!  But then adding, in a more serious tone, that he wished she had been a little later, for with all Henry’s chores to do he was not ready so early as usual.

Mary said she was very sorry, and she meant it too, for she was a well-meaning, kind-hearted girl in the main, but her sorry savoured a little too much of “unfortunate” and rather too little of “let me try and fix it.”

The company assembled at the table.  The blessing was asked, and Mary began to ladle out the porridge.  Percy reached for the salt, which he couldn’t possibly want yet, not having any food before him.  Mary raised an eyebrow in his direction.  Percy declared he only wanted it to show Philip what a fulcrum was.  Mary observed, in a repressing tone, that a salt cellar isn’t a fulcrum.  Percy balanced a spoon upon it, and showed that  on the contrary it was.

“Percy, it is not good manners to play with your utensils,” said Mary.  “Please put the salt back.”

Percy frowned and began to do it, but somehow Philip, who was seated to Percy’s right, reached for the bread at that moment and upset the salt all over the table. Mary did not say “I told you so,” but she did scold Philip for reaching instead of asking for the bread.  Grace began sweeping up the salt.  Percy and Philip both looked out of humor, but no more was said, and silence reigned for some time.  George, tiring of the boredom of shoveling porridge into his mouth between gulps of milk, and having somewhat satisfied his hunger, took to drawing caricatures in the salt lying nearest him.  Gradually these drawings arrested the attention of the general population, who one by one left off eating their breakfasts and became absorbed in the sketches.  These were not in and of themselves anything particularly objectionable, consisting of a sequence of figures from the “Illustrated British History”, with all of the most prominent characteristics exaggerated to ludicrous proportions.

However, as everyone knows, drawing pictures in spilled salt is such an extreme resort of bad manners that it is not even mentioned in the formidable list of “don’ts” in the etiquette book.  Perhaps George therefore argued from silence, and felt what was not forbidden could not be objectionable.  More likely the rules of etiquette did not even occur to him.  They did, however, occur to Mary.  She raised her eyebrows sternly several times, (Mary had very expressive eyebrows, when one took the time to observe them), and gave sundry frowns and coughs which failed to arrest the attention of the young artist.  At last she felt called upon to remark, in a dignified tone that:

“Really, George, I had supposed you had better taste.”

Now, there are few things so unpleasant as to be reproached upon taste for bad manners.  So George thought, but Mary could be a very formidable person, and so after a little grumbling he gave in, and went back to consuming his meal.  This, however, he did with so much more speed than delicacy that he called upon himself another reproof for gobbling, which did not materially mend the situation.

Thus the meal went on, and ended in due time, and Mary stated her intentions of having everyone to help with the dishes.  Now this was probably not the safest request to make, following as it did upon the scene of Saturday morning.  But Mary thought Helen’s indulgence to blame for the children’s ill manners, and certainly Aunt Alice would have interfered to prevent the salt-sketching incident.  Ah, Mary!  Would she have done it in quite the peremptory manner you did?

So when the order came for “all hands on deck” as the saying is, George cried out that he had not finished Henry’s chores, and raced off out of the house to do them.  Percy, remarking that he was very sorry but Papa had asked him to look out some books for him before he came home, repaired to the study, (and, be the fact known, firmly bolted and barricaded the door once he got there).  And Philip, seeing the general direction of events, made off for the front door after his brother, calling back that he was “only going to help poor George”.  He was, however, the only one who did not get away. Mary swooped down upon him out of thin air, as it seemed to him, and bore him off to the kitchen where the defection of his two companions only left more dishes for the poor little fellow to wipe.  George and Percy might have pitied him had they known, but unfortunately they did not.

 

Today was Monday.  It was, therefore, wash day, and as it was a clear, sunny, dry day, Mary resolved to make the best of the opportunity to hang things out in the crisp cold yard to dry, after she washed them in the kitchen.  Grace was a good, sturdy little helper, always willing and ready, and never complaining.  Indeed, an obedient subordinate had nothing to complain of from Mary, for she was extremely just, and if anything did more than her share of the work.  Then too, Mary regarded Grace more as her equal than she did the boys, and consequently was not so domineering in her directions.  Only once in the course of the morning did they come into collision, and that was when Mary would not give Philip a piece of bread and jam, declaring it would ruin his dinner, and that he had already had more sweets than were good for him in the last few days. Sweet, compassionate Grace could not bear this, and remonstrated with her sister, but it was of no use, and she was too much used to giving in to press the point.

So the morning in the kitchen passed off well.  Dinner went off not exactly perfectly, but still without any major eruptions.  Then Mary and Grace (without the help of the public) did up the dishes.

“Now I will go out and see if any of the sheets are dry,” said Mary, setting off into the yard.  But at the door she paused with a gasp.  For there, all across the lawn hung the clothes line, about four feet from the ground, with every single item on it trailing on the earth, and three or four of the best sheets actually dangling in a mud puddle!

Now before we relate Mary’s reaction to this catastrophe, we must explain how it came about.  Just before dinner, George and Percy and Philip had been playing down at the end of the property.  They were building a sort of ship out of a number of old crates they had found in the barn.

“Now we need a mast,” said George.

“Get your walking stick,” suggested Percy, who was busy rigging a tiller out of a pine bough he had found on the ground.

“No good.  I broke it trying to get my schoolbooks out of the parlor through the window when Aunt Alice had the carpets up, remember?”

“Get mine then,” said Percy, still intent on his work.

“That’s no good either, for if anyone goes in the house Mary will put them to work!” (In justice to Mary it must be said that this comment was not exactly true, although she might have given them that impression by her words about the dishes.)

“Get the clothes-line post then,” said Percy, not recalling that it was the laundry day.  “Just tie the line onto the high branch of that little tree near the house, and it’ll be all right.  You know Aunt Alice did it herself sometimes.” (Which was quite true, although never with anything on the line.)

Now Philip, as is sometimes the case with younger siblings, was given the duty of retrieving the desired article, and off he went.  When he got there he saw the laundry on the line, but having been told that Aunt Alice did it he did not think his sister would mind, and consequently untied the string from the post.  Of course he could not reach the high branch, but he fastened it to a lower one, and then set to work wrestling with the post.  In  summertime it really had been gotten out upon occasion with the aid of a shovel and a determined will, but in winter it was positively impossible.  Discovering this, Phil looked around and saw a fairly good piece of wood waiting to be chopped for the woodpile.  He pounced upon this, carried it off, and the boys had a very good game of sailors until dinnertime.  But in consequence of having rather dirty hands and faces, they had come in the back door to wash them before the meal, and thus had not seen what had happened on the front lawn.

We will give our readers the explanation of what did happen, although the only being who saw it was a little black puppy. The puppy was only half trained, and sat watching the operations until he was able to seize a napkin and run off with it.  He carried it back to his home in the barn and shredded it into little bits, which were not discovered until it was too late to punish him for it.  The rest of the laundry did not meet with a much better fate, for this is what happened to it:

When Philip could not reach the top branch of the little tree, he tied the rope onto a stout branch slightly lower down by the aid of an overturned bucket.  This branch would have been a good, safe place to tie it but for the fact that it sloped downwards, not upwards, and got steadily narrower as it went.  Philip had tied his knots hard, and for a little while the rope stayed.  The heavy weight of clothing, however, put a constant strain upon it, and the rope gradually slipped lower and lower until it caught on a little cross-branch, leaving the scene as it was when Mary came to the door and surveyed it with a grim face.

Seeing the clothes post there exactly where it should be, and not a trace of a reason for removing the line from it, Mary naturally supposed that the alteration had been made for the sole purpose of mischief, and responded accordingly.  She did not lose her temper—she was too sensible for that—but she marched directly out to where the lads had returned to their ship, and gave them a grave, severe lecture.  Blaming them a great deal more for all she was perfectly self-possessed, she refused in a calm, dignified way to listen to excuses, and at last inflicted the sentence that they must come and make amends so far as was in their power, and  stay indoors for the rest of the afternoon “so that she could see that they stayed out of mischief.”

Now, quite naturally they felt themselves falsely-accused and not permitted a hearing, and so failed to see the smaller fault of carelessness which really had been committed.  George did consider flight, but reflected that he would either have  to run away forever or eventually face the authorities, and therefore thought it best to do so at once.  Consequently, after making several violent attempts to be understood which were intercepted by Mary’s sternness, the threesome submitted. They went reluctantly back up to the house, gathered up the portion of the laundry which Mary deemed in need of re-washing, and were duly escorted into the building.

Now before my readers commence an attack against the author for permitting such doings to be recorded, it must be observed that she in no way condones the actions of the current Miss Macintosh any more than she did those of the last.  It was very severe and probably most unnecessary, (and as shall be shown decidedly counter-productive), to imprison the delinquents for the rest of the afternoon, particularly without hearing their case.  I don’t for a moment attempt to defend it.  But in justice to Mary, lest she become the villain of the story unnecessarily, we must recall a few circumstances which provide some excuse.  In the first place, that she was at this time very inexperienced in the running of a household, and in the second, that she and Helen had been engaged in the support of counter-theories over how children ought to be managed for a great time past.  Having seen that Helen’s system produced disorder and indulgence, she embraced a reaction which was far harsher than was at all needful.  Then too, our young ladies had yet to learn that there is a difference between the role of a mother or aunt and the role of a sister, even if she be temporarily in authority.

Thus Mary really believed she did it for their own good when marched the boys into the house, took charge of the laundry, and returned to the kitchen.  (She did not think it wise to insist upon their help in the re-washing process.)

The boys were at first excessively cross.  They felt themselves grossly ill-used, and gave vent to a torrent of complaints which might have made an interesting study of the effects of false-accusation upon the youthful mind.  But after all youthful minds are not very well calculated for prolonged gloom.  They are apt to find it rather dull.  After about ten minutes, Philip could not help remarking, “It isn’t much fun to be sulky, is it?”

This produced a laugh, although the elder lads looked a little ashamed of themselves.

“We may as well forgive her and find something else to do,” said George, with a private reflection that if Christian’s foes were meant to be allegorical, he had certainly not been fighting them very well in the last few minutes.

“I have been inventing a new game,” announced Percy after due deliberation.  “I had intended to show it to you this evening, but we may as well start it now.  It is an illustration of the principle of the solar system—”

“Oh, no, Percy!” cried Philip in dismay.  “It will be worse than a grammar lesson!”

“My dear Phil,” said Percy somewhat loftily but not unkindly.  “I was about to say that it is what Henry calls ‘singularly adapted to the infant mind.’”

“Infant?” said Philip, still suspiciously.

“Oh, never mind who it is for!” George broke in.  “Show us what it is, Percy, and then we’ll decide.”

Thus a few minutes found the trio fully absorbed in a marvelous conglomeration of balls, yarn and spherical objects.  And even Philip was satisfied when he found that it was not a demonstration but a “real game”, in which the main idea seemed to be to hit the “sun” or central target.

Now Mary had by this time finished the laundry.  She therefore came out of the kitchen and commenced scrubbing the stairs, being of that orderly nature which loves nothing so well as to make everything sparklingly clean.  It certainly was rather trying to the nerves to have the boys’ balls continually missing the target and rolling down the staircase, but she really had a good deal of patience.  She felt besides a little compunction over her sternness about the laundry, so she said nothing, only handing the balls back up as they came down with a patient sigh.

At last however, a calamity happened.  Philip had by now discovered that he had about as much chance of hitting his mark with his little baseball sized missile as a musket did a deer at eight or nine hundred yards.  So he went off to his bedroom and returned with a much larger ball, which he rolled firmly down the hall.  It crashed straight into first the target, then the wall, and then went flying off down the stairs taking out both  soapy and clean water buckets in its path.

“OH!” cried Phil, making a wild dash to retrieve his error, and skidding on the slippery steps.  He came  down full upon the muddiest patch of his jacket, which Mary had forgotten to make him remove, and slid down the full flight of stairs, bringing both himself and his sister to the bottom in a very damp heap.  Neither Philip nor Mary felt at all better for George’s laughter and Percy’s vain attempt to rub off some of the mud, which only succeeded in smearing it around.

“Boys,” said Mary very sternly, after she had assured herself that neither she nor Philip was hurt.  “Boys, you had better go upstairs and stay there.  And I think you had better stop playing in the hall as well, if you cannot keep your belongings in their rightful place.”

There was a blank, cross look between the three boys, and Philip, with a wild scramble got somehow up the slippery steps.  Then all three vanished into their bedroom without one word, but all of them very upset.  It was not fair, they maintained, to punish them for an accident.  If Mary didn’t like them in the hall, why didn’t she say something before?  And as to the falling all the way down, would that have happened if she had not been scrubbing at such an unwonted hour, and on the wrong day of the week too?  And then to banish them to their rooms for who knew how long—probably until Papa came and heard of it, and who was to say whether he would be home before bedtime.

Now Mary had not actually intended for her words to be taken as a punishment.  It had been a request that they would keep out of the way, but it had not occurred to her as a command.  Therefore, unhappily, she did not think to inform the boys when the stairs were clean and dry, and they might for all she cared have come back down again.  Not reckoning upon its being taken as a matter of obedience, it did not occur to her that they would not examine the state of affairs as soon as they wished to come down.  And so, by a mere misunderstanding, the boys remained prisoners in the upper storey.

George and Philip, however, were not lads who could long remain ill-tempered.  From grumbling they came to teasing, and then to looking over the matter in a ludicrous light, and finally to speculating whether Philip were one of the “belongings” which could not be kept in its rightful place.  This gave them all a hearty laugh, and then they looked around for the wherewithal to amuse themselves.  And oh, horror of horrors, their eyes lighted upon the bedroom window!

 

Sometime later, just as it was falling dark, Miss Macintosh stepped outdoors, handing a list to her sister Grace as she did so.  She remarked that it had all the details for supper upon it, and received in return a commission to give Grandmamma all Grace’s love, &c.  She was, in fact, waiting for the doctor to pick her up and take her to her grandmother’s house, for the doctor thought that a fresh face might brighten and brace his mother for the shock he still thought inevitable.

“I’ll be home before bedtime, I am sure, Grace,” she was saying.  “But if I am not, do not sit up for me.  And mind the boys are in bed on time—”

Here her words were interrupted by a burst of laughter from above, which caused Mary to jerk her head up.  And what should she behold in the dusky light, but three small figures perched upon the very roof!

How they ever got there was a wonder.  But the early settlers were used to running risks which seem terrible to us today.  By the side of Henry and Helen’s mission on the far side of the Niagara, climbing the roof had not looked like a very difficult undertaking to the boys.  There was a certain small window in the attic out of which they had hung a rope to assist their scramble, and although Philip’s short legs had been rather a difficulty, he had at last been hauled up beside his brothers.

Mary stood for two moments open-mouthed, staring upwards to the immense amusement of the lofty spectators.  Then she turned to Grace, still in speechless astonishment.  It was one thing for the boys to be naughty.  She was quite prepared to find them in the most unexpected predicaments at the most unprecedented hours.  But climbing to the top of the roof was going a great deal too far.  It was not the mischief but the danger that Mary objected to now.  At last she found her voice, and managed to control it to a calm, firm note.

“Boys,” was all she said, but it was with ominous composure.  “Please come down-stairs to the parlor at once.

And considering the momentary safety of their impregnable position, it really did great credit to the training of a previous Miss Macintosh that they obeyed.

What might have happened to them once down, if the doctor had not driven in at that moment, I do not know, but as it was by now quite cold and the horses could not be kept waiting, Mary had only time to say:

“Give them some supper and put them to bed, Grace.  If I am not home before then, I will see about it in the morning.”

And so Grace went good-naturedly inside, taking comfort in its having been “put them” not “send them” to bed, and thus concluding that they were not to be hurried off at once as a punishment but only obliged to retire at the usual hour.  Grace was a quiet, thoughtful young lady, not given to voicing a voluntary opinion, but in her own way she had come to the conclusion of late that severity was having no better effects than indulgence had.  So she made supper as pleasant as possible,  and afterwards played a sort of four-person game on the chess board, which was one of their pet amusements.  And it must be confessed that though she shook her head gravely over the beginning of the story of their ascent, she was in time carried along with it.  While not quite able to condone it, she actually laughed at George’s comical history of how he and Percy had scrambled up first, and then pulled  Philip up by main force.  And she had almost expressed a wish that she might go up herself, “only she did not think Mary would like it.” After which all three boys entertained hopes that when Henry and Helen returned, Aunt Rose would prove to have a predilection for the healthiness of climbing and support a repetition of the excursion.

Wishful hope!  I do not suppose very many ladies are quite equal to that!

And when the boys were safely in their beds that night, and Grace had time to think over the adventure without George’s ludicrous comments and Percy’s scientific explanations, she began to recollect how easy it would have been for one of them to slip off that high perch.

“And poor Papa!” she said, almost aloud.  “How sad I should have been if he had anything more to worry him just now!  Yes, it was very funny to hear the boys tell about it, but I think Aunt Alice would not have liked it.  She always said that we must remember the line between amusement and danger, or we were not fit to be trusted by ourselves.  How very thankful I am that God kept them safe!  It is strange, but I do believe I feel less afraid when I think of that.  It seems to make me remember,

“I will both lay me down in peace,

and quiet sleep will take;

Because thou only me to dwell

in safety, Lord, dost make.”

Psalm 4:8, taken from “The Psalms of David in Metre”

(Scottish Psalter, 1650)

And so we must leave our young friends tonight to sleep and dreams, and hopes that Miss Mary will not be very contrary in the morning.

Click here to read Chapter Six

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.