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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Little Mother To The Others - Chapter 9. The Punishment Chamber
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A Little Mother To The Others - Chapter 9. The Punishment Chamber Post by :gademir Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :1028

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A Little Mother To The Others - Chapter 9. The Punishment Chamber

CHAPTER IX. THE PUNISHMENT CHAMBER

The next morning matters began by being a little better, and might have gone on being so but for Diana. The four little Delaneys had slept well, and were refreshed; and as the sun was shining brightly, and there was a pleasant breeze blowing, Mrs. Dolman decided that all the nine children might have a holiday in order to get acquainted with one another. It did not seem so very dreadful to Iris and Apollo to have cousins to walk about with and talk to. Philip and Conrad, too, were fairly kind to little Orion; they took him round to see their gardens and their several pets. Life was certainly prim at the Rectory compared to what it had been at the Manor; but children will be children all the world over, and when there is a bright sun in the heavens, and flowers grow at their feet, and a gentle breeze is blowing, it is almost impossible to be all sulks and tears and misery. Even Diana was interested in what was going on. She had never been away from home before, and she found it pleasant to watch the Dolman children. As she expressed it, in her sturdy fashion, she did not think much of any of them, but still it amused her to hear them speak, and to take Ann's hand and allow her to lead her round the garden.

Ann was extremely kind to her, but she only received a very qualified measure of approval from the saucy little miss. Lucy and Mary she could not bear, but as Ann showed her all her treasures, and as Ann happened also to be very fond of animals, Diana began to chatter, and presently became almost confidential. Suddenly, however, in the midst of quite a merry game of play, the little girl was heard to utter a shout.

"Where is my darlin's that I brought from home?" she cried; "my three spiders and my four beetles? I have not given none of 'em their bwekfus. I must wun and fetch 'em. Iris promised to see to 'em last night, so I know they isn't deaded; but I must go this very instant minute to feed 'em, 'cos, of course, they wants their bwekfus, poor dears. If you like I'll show 'em to you, Ann; you can see 'em while they is eating."

"Please, Diana, don't go!" called out Ann; but Diana did not hear her. Putting wings to her sturdy little feet, she sped across the lawn, ran helter-skelter into the house, and up to the room where she had slept.

The room was empty, the windows were wide open, the little bed was neatly made; there was not a sign of the precious box to be discovered anywhere.

"Where is that howid old nurse?" called Diana aloud. "She must know where my pets is. Oh, they must be desp'te hungry, poor darlin's. I say, nurse, where is 'oo? Nurse, come 'long, you howid old thing!"

Simpson, who happened to be in the day-nursery not far away, heard Diana's imperious little cry. The under-nurse was also standing in the room.

"Mrs. Simpson," she said, "I hear one of the strange little ladies calling out for you."

"Well, and so do I hear her," answered Mrs. Simpson, with a toss of her head; "but she must learn to speak respectful before I take any notice. I fully expect it's that pert little Miss Diana. They say she is called after one of the heathen gods; no wonder she is so fiery and--"

But at that moment the fierce little face, the jet-black head and sparkling eyes were seen peeping round the nursery door.

"There you is, old Simpson; that's wight," said Diana, dancing up to her. "Now, p'ease, tell me where you put my box."

"What box, miss? I'll thank you, Miss Diana, not to call me old Simpson. My name is Mrs. Simpson."

"I only call you what you is," said Diana. "You is old, your hair is gway; you is awfu' old, I 'spect. Now, where is my box? Where did you put it, old--I mean, Mrs. Simpson?"

"What box, miss?" said Simpson, beginning to temporize, for she really was afraid of the burst of wrath which Diana might give way to when she learned the truth.

"You _is a stupid," said Diana. "It's the box what holds my pwecious beetles and spiders. I want to feed 'em. I'm just going to catch flies for my spiders. I know how to catch 'em quite well; and my dear little bettles, too, must be fed on bits of sugar. Where did you put the box? The woom I s'ept in is kite tidy. Where is the box? Speak, can't you?"

"Well, then, Miss Diana, I must just tell you the simple truth. We can't have no messing with horrid vermin in this house. I would not stay here for an hour if I thought those odious beetles and spiders were anywhere about."

"Well, then, you can go," said Diana; "nobody wants you to stay; you is of no cons'kence. I want my darlin' pets, my little home things that comed from the lovely garden; my spiders and my dear beetles. Where did you put 'em?"

"The fact is, Miss Diana, you want a right good talking to," said Simpson. "Well, then, this is the truth. I have put 'em away."

"Away! Where?"

"They are gone, miss; you'll never find 'em again."

"Gone!" cried Diana, her face turning pale. "Gone! Did Iris let you take 'em away?"

"Your sister knew nothing about it, miss. I took the box last night and threw it into the dust-hole. I hope the vermin inside are dead by now--horrid, odious, disgusting things!"

"Vermin!" cried Diana. Her great eyes leaped, a ray of pure fire seemed to dart from them. She looked for a moment as if she meant to strike Simpson, but then, thinking better of it, she turned and rushed like a little fury from the room. Downstairs, with her heart choking, her breath coming fast, her whole little body palpitating with the most frantic passion, she ran.

The first person she happened to meet was her uncle, Mr. Dolman. He was coming sleepily in from the garden, for the day was getting intensely hot. He meant to go to his study to begin to write his sermon for next Sunday. He did not feel at all inclined to write his sermon, but as it had to be got through somehow, he thought he would devote an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half, to its composition this morning. When he saw Diana, however, rushing madly through the hall, with her eyes shining, her face white, and her whole little body quivering with excitement, he could not help exclaiming under his breath at her remarkable beauty.

"What a handsome little spitfire!" he said aloud.

"Spitfire, indeed!" said Diana; "it's you all who is spitfires; it's not me. I want to say something to you, big man."

"Very well, small girl," answered Mr. Dolman. "I am willing to listen to you. What is the matter?"

This was really much more diverting than sitting down to his sermon.

"I want you to have that howid old woman upstairs put in pwison. I want you to get the perlice, and have her hands tied, and have her took away to pwison. She has done a murder--she has killed my--" But here little Diana's voice suddenly failed; high as her spirit was, it could not carry her any further. A sense of absolute loneliness came over her, and her passion ended in a burst of frantic weeping.

And now all might have been well, for Mr. Dolman was a kind-hearted man, and the little child, in her black dress, would have appealed to him, and he would have taken her in his arms and comforted her after a fashion, and matters might never have been so sore and hard again for little Diana, if at that moment Mrs. Dolman had not appeared. She was walking hastily across the hall with her district-visiting hat on. Mrs. Dolman's district-visiting hat was made in the shape of a very large mushroom. It was simply adorned with a band of brown ribbon, and was not either a becoming or fashionable headgear.

Diana, who had a strong sense of the ludicrous, stopped her tears where her aunt appeared.

"What a poky old thing you is!" she said.

These words enraged Mrs. Dolman.

"William," she remarked, "what are you doing with that child? Why, you have taken her in your arms; put her down this minute. Diana, you are a very naughty little girl."

"So is you a very naughty old woman," retorted Diana. "I's not going away from this nice old man. I don't like you. I'm going to stay with you, old man, so don't put me down out of your arms. You will send for the perlice, won't you, and you'll have that howid puson upstairs put in pwison. Go 'way, aunt. I never did like you, and I never will, and you is awfu' poky in that bonnet. But I'll go with you, old man." Here she flung her fat arms round her uncle's neck and gave him a hug.

"You are not pwetty like faver," she said, "you are kite an ugly old man, but all the same I like you;" and she kissed him, a slobbering, wet kiss on his cheek.

"Jane," said Mr. Dolman, "this poor little girl is in great trouble. I cannot in the least make out why, but perhaps you had better let her come with me into the library for a few minutes."

"I'll allow nothing of the kind," answered Mrs. Dolman. "Diana Delaney is an extremely naughty little child, and I am quite determined that her spirit shall be broken. It was all very well for you to go on with your tantrums at the Manor, miss, but now you are under my control, and you shall do exactly what I wish. Come, Diana, none of this. What, you'll kick me, will you? Then I shall have you whipped."

"What's whipped?" questioned Diana.

Mrs. Dolman stooped down and lifted her into her arms. She was a stout and largely-made child, and the little woman found her somewhat difficult to carry. She would not let her down, however, but conducted her across the cool hall and into a room at the further end of the passage. This room was nearly empty, matting covered the floor and a round table stood in the center, while two or three high-backed chairs, with hard seats, were placed at intervals round the walls. It was a decidedly dreary room, and rendered all the more so because the morning sun was pouring in through the dusty panes.

This room was well known to all the little Dolmans, for it was called the punishment chamber. In this room they had all of them shed bitter tears in their time, and some of the spirit which had been given to them at their birth was subdued and broken here, and here they learned to fear mamma, although not to respect her. They were all accustomed to this chamber, but little Diana Delaney had never in the whole course of her spirited six years heard of anything in the least resembling this odious and ugly apartment.

"Here you stay until you beg my pardon," said Mrs. Dolman, "and if I hear you daring to call me names again, or your uncle names, or doing anything but just behaving like a proper little Christian child, I shall have you whipped. I believe in not sparing the rod, and so the child is not spoiled. What, you'll defy me, miss!"

"I hate you," screamed Diana, "and I want you to go to pwison too, as well as that awfu' old Simpson upstairs. She has gone and murdered all my animals--she said they was vermin. Oh, I hate you, aunt!"

"Hate me or not, you'll stay where you are until dinner-time," said Mrs. Dolman, and she left the room, locking the door after her.

Diana flew to it and kicked it furiously, but although she kicked and screamed and shouted herself hoarse, no one heard her, and no one came to the rescue. At last, worn out with her frantic grief, she threw herself down in the middle of the floor and, babylike, forgot her sorrows in profound slumber.

The rest of the children were having a fairly happy morning, and Iris, who was trying to make the best of things, did not miss her little sister until the preparation gong for dinner sounded. The moment its sonorous notes were heard pealing over the Rectory garden, little Ann got up soberly, and Lucy and Mary also rose to their feet.

"That is the first gong, Iris," said Ann; "we must go in to clean our hands and have our hair brushed. Mamma would be very angry if we were not all in the dining room when the second gong sounds. There is only five minutes between the two gongs, so we had better go and get ready at once."

Iris was quite ready to accompany her cousins into the house. Now, for the first time, however, she missed Diana.

"Where is Di?" she said. "Apollo, have you seen her?"

Apollo was coming up the lawn; Iris ran down to meet him.

"Oh, there's Orion with Philip and Conrad," said Iris, "but where can Di be? I thought she was with you, Apollo."

"I have not seen her for the greater part of the morning," replied Apollo. "Have you, Orion?"

"Not I," answered Orion, giving himself a little shake. "I say, Phil," he continued, "is it true that you can take me fishing with you this afternoon?"

"Yes; but pray don't talk so loud. I'll take you, if you won't split about it."

"What's 'split'?" questioned Orion.

"Hush, you little beggar!" Philip drew Orion to one side and began to whisper in his ear. Orion's face got very red.

"Oh!" he said. "Well, I won't tell. What are you talking about, Iris?"

"I want to find Diana," said Iris.

"I have not seen her," said Orion. "I wish you would not bother me, Iris. I am talking to Philip. Phil and I has got some secrets. Very well, Phil; we'll walk on in front, if you like."

"Yes, come along," said Philip; "you can come too, Conrad. Now, Orion, if you are not going to be a silly goose and a tell-tale, I'll--" Here he dropped his voice to a whisper, and Orion bent an attentive ear.

Iris, in some bewilderment, turned to her girl cousins.

"I must find Diana," she said.

"She may be in the house," said Ann. "Perhaps she has gone to the nurseries--perhaps she is with Simpson."

The whole party entered the house, which was very cool and pleasant in contrast to the hot outside world. They met Mr. Dolman striding across the hall.

"You had better be quick, children," he called out. "Mamma won't be pleased unless you are all waiting and ready to sit down to table when the second gong sounds."

"Oh, please, Uncle William!" said Iris, "do you happen to know where Diana is?"

"Little Diana with the spirited black eyes?" questioned Mr. Dolman.

"Yes; do you know anything about her?"

He pushed his spectacles halfway up on his broad, bald forehead.

"I am afraid little Diana has been very naughty," he said; "but, pray don't say that I mentioned it. You had better question your aunt, my dear. No, there is no use asking me. I vow, once for all, that I am not going to interfere with you children--particularly with you little Delaneys. I only know that Diana has been naughty. Ask your aunt--ask your aunt, my dear."

"Iris, do pray come upstairs," called out Mary; "we'll get into the most dreadful scrape if we are late. Mamma is so terribly particular."

"Oh, there is Aunt Jane!" said Iris, with a sigh of relief. "Aunt Jane, please," she continued, running up to her aunt as she spoke, "I can't find Diana anywhere. Do you happen to know where she is?"

"I am afraid you won't find Diana, Iris," answered Mrs. Dolman, "for the simple reason that she has been a very impertinent, naughty little girl, and I have been obliged to lock her up."

"You were obliged to lock her up?" said Iris, her face turning pale. She gave Mrs. Dolman a look which reminded that lady of her brother. Now, the little Delaneys' father could give very piercing glances out of his dark eyes when he chose, and Mrs. Dolman had been known, in her early days, to quail before them. For the same inexplicable reason she quailed now before the look in Iris' brown eyes. "Please take me at once to my sister," said the little girl, with dignity.

Mrs. Dolman hesitated for a moment.

"Very well, Iris, on this occasion I will take you," she said. "But please first understand that you four children have got to bend your wills to mine; and when you are naughty,--although I don't expect you will ever be naughty, Iris,--I trust you, at least, will be an example to the others,--but when any of you are naughty you will be most certainly punished. I have brought you here with the intention of disciplining you and making you good children."

"Then," said Iris, very slowly, "do you really think, Aunt Jane, that when mother was alive we were bad children?"

"I have nothing to say on that point," answered Mrs. Dolman. She led Iris across the cool hall, and, taking a key out of her pocket, opened the door of the punishment chamber. She threw it wide open, and there, in the center of the matting, lay Diana, curled up like a little dog, very sound asleep.

"Much she cares," said Mrs. Dolman.

"Oh, Aunt Jane!" said Iris, tears springing to her eyes, "how could you be cruel to her, and she is not long without mother, you know--how could you be cruel to her, Aunt Jane?"

"You are not to dare to speak to me in that tone, Iris," said Aunt Jane.

But at that moment the noise, or perhaps it was the draught of fresh air, caused Diana to stir in her sleep. She raised her head and looked around her. The first person her eyes met was Iris.

"So you has come at last," she said. "I don't think much of you for a mother. You made a lot of pwomises, and that's all you care. Has that ugly old woman been sent to pwison? There's my darlin' pets gone and got deaded, and she deaded 'em. Has she been put in pwison for murder? Oh, there you is, too, old Aunt Jane! Well, I is not going to obey you, so there! Now you know the twuf. I is Diana, the gweat Diana. I isn't going to obey nobody!"

"Iris," said Mrs. Dolman, "will you speak to this extremely naughty little girl? If she will not repent and beg my pardon she shall have no dinner. I will send her in some bread and water; and here she shall stay until her naughty little spirit is broken."

Mrs. Dolman left the room as she spoke, and Iris found herself alone with her sister.

"You isn't much of a mother," repeated Diana. She went over to the window, and stood with her back to Iris. Her little bosom was heaving up and down; she felt very forlorn, but still she hugged her misery to her as a cloak.

Iris gazed at her in perplexity.

"Di," she said, "I never saw you like this before. What are you turning away from me for? Come to me, Di; do come to me."

Diana's little breast heaved more than ever, tears came into her eyes, but she blinked them furiously away.

"You can come to me, if you want; I shan't come to you. You isn't much of a mother," she repeated.

"But I did not know you were in trouble, darling. Do, do come to your own Iris. Do tell me what is the matter."

"Oh, Iris!" sobbed Diana.

The first kind note utterly melted her little heart; she rushed to her sister, flung herself upon her, and sobbed as if she would never stop crying.

"We can't stay in this howid place, Iris," she said; "all my darlin's has gone and got deaded. That howid old woman upstairs said they was wermin. She has killed 'em all. I can't stay here; I won't stay here. Take me back to the beautiful garden. Do, Iris; do. I'se just so mis'ble."

Iris sat down on one of the hard-backed chairs.

"Look here, Di," she said, "I have no time now to talk things over with you. Of course, everything is altered, and our lives are completely changed. When mother was dying, when I last saw her, she told me that I must expect this. She said she knew that, when she went away to the angels, we four children would have to go out into the world and fight our battles. She said that everybody in the world has got a battle to fight, and even little children have to fight theirs. She said, too, that if we were brave and the kind of children she wants us to be, we would follow the names she gave us and conquer our enemies. Now, Di, you are called after Diana, the great Diana, who was supposed to be a sort of goddess. Do you think she would have given in? Don't you think she would have been brave?"

"Yes, course," said the little nineteenth-century Diana. "She would have shotted people down dead with her bow and arrows--I know kite well she was a bwave sort of a lady. All wight, Iris, I'll copy her if you wishes."

"Indeed I do wish, darling. I think it would be splendid of you."

"She was a very bwave lady," repeated Diana. "She had her bow and her arrows; she was a gweat huntwess, and she shotted people. I don't mind copying her one little bit."

Diana dried away her tears and looked fixedly at her sister.

"Then you really mean to be good and brave, Di?"

"Certain sure, Iris."

"And you won't call Aunt Jane any more names?"

"I won't call her names--names don't si'nify, names don't kill people."

"And you'll go and beg her pardon now?"

"What's that?"

"You'll say you are sorry that you called her names."

"Would she let me out of this woom, then? and could I do just what I liked my own self?"

"I expect so; I expect she is really sorry that she had to be hard on you to-day; but you see she has got a different way of bringing up children from our own mother."

"Please, Iris, we won't talk much of our own mother--it makes me lumpy in the trof," said Diana, with a little gulp. "I'll beg her pardon, if it pleases her. I don't care--what's words? I'll go at once, and, Iris, mind me that I'm like Diana. She was a bwave lady and she shotted lots of people."

"Well, then, come along, Di; you'll be allowed to come to dinner if you beg Aunt Jane's pardon."

Di gave her hand to Iris, who took her upstairs. Here Iris washed her little sister's face and hands and brushed out her thick black hair, and kissed her on her rosebud lips, and then said:

"There is nothing I would not do, Di, to be a real little mother to you."

"All wight," answered Diana; "you just mind me now and then that I is called after the bwave lady what lived long, long ago. Is that the second gong? I'se desp'ate hungy. Let's wun downstairs, p'ease, Iris."

Diana entered the dining room with her face all aglow with smiles, the rich color back again in her cheeks, and her black eyes dancing. Even Mr. Dolman gave a gasp of relief when he saw her.

Even Mrs. Dolman felt a slight degree of satisfaction. She did not intend to be hard on the children--in her heart of hearts she was quite resolved to make them not only good, but also happy.

"Well, my dear little girl," she said, drawing Diana to her side, "and so you are sorry for what you said?"

"Awfu' sossy," answered Diana, in a cheerful voice.

"Then you beg my pardon, and you won't be naughty again?"

"I begs yous pardon, Aunt Jane," said Diana. She looked very attentively up and down her relation's figure as she spoke.

"Poor Aunt Jane, she's awfu' stout," murmured Diana, under her breath. "I must get a good sharp arrow--oh, yes! words is nothing."

Mrs. Dolman drew out a chair near herself.

"You shall sit near me, Diana, and I will help you to your dinner," she said. "I hope in future you will really try to be a very good little girl."

Diana made no reply to this, but when her aunt piled her plate with nourishing and wholesome food, she began to eat with appetite. Towards the end of the meal she bent over towards Mrs. Dolman, and said in a confiding voice:

"Has you got woods wound here?"

"Yes, my dear; there are some nice woods about a mile away."

"I'd like to go there this afternoon, please, Aunt Jane. I has 'portant business to do in those woods." Diana looked round the table very solemnly as she said these last words. Philip could not help laughing.

"Hush, Philip! I won't have Diana laughed at," said Mrs. Dolman, who for some reason was now inclined to be specially kind to the little girl. "If you would really like to spend the afternoon in the woods, Diana, I see nothing against it," she remarked. "You are all having a holiday, and as to-morrow lessons will of course be resumed, I do not see why your wish should not be gratified. Miss Ramsay, you will of course accompany the children, and, Lucy, my dear, you can have the pony chaise, if you promise to be very careful. You can take turns to sit in it, children. And what do you say to asking cook to put up a few bottles of milk and some cake and bread and butter--then you need not return home to tea?"

"That would be delightful, mamma," said Lucy, in her prim voice.

"Thank you, mamma," said Mary.

"French, my dears; French!" said Miss Ramsay.

"As it is a holiday, Miss Ramsay, the children are allowed to tender their thanks to me in the English tongue," said Mrs. Dolman.

Miss Ramsay bowed and slightly colored.

"Is you going with us?" asked Diana, fixing her dark eyes full upon the governess' face.

"Yes, Diana; your aunt wishes it."

"We don't want no g'own-ups."

"Hush, Diana! you must not begin to be rude again," said Mrs. Dolman. "Miss Ramsay certainly goes with you, please understand."

"I underland--thank you, Aunt Jane," said Diana.

She looked solemnly down at her empty plate. Her whole little mind was full of her namesake--the great Diana of long ago. She wondered if in the deep shade of the woods she might find a bow strong enough to injure her enemies.

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