The Basket Woman
At the foot of a steep, slippery, white hill near Dunstable in Bedfordshire, there is a hut that looks so miserable that the traveler is surprised to see smoke coming out of the chimney, and to find that human beings live there.
But it is the home of an old woman and with her live a little boy and girl, the children of a beggar, who died and left them homeless and friendless, so that they were very grateful when the old woman took pity upon them, and brought them into her hut.
She, had not much to give, but what she had she gave willingly; and she worked very hard at her knitting and her spinning wheel to support the poor children and herself.
Another way that she had of earning money was to follow carriages as they went up the steep hill, and when the horses stopped to rest, she would come up and put stones under the hind wheels, so that the carriage would not roll back.
The little boy and girl, whose names were Paul and Anne, liked very much to stand beside the kind old woman's spinning wheel, and talk to her. In this way they learned some good lessons, which she hoped they would never forget. She taught them to hate idleness and to wish to be useful, to tell the truth, and to be honest in the very smallest things.
One evening Paul said to her, "Grandmother,"—for they so called her,—"how often you have to get up from your wheel, and follow the carriages up that steep hill, to put stones under the wheels! The people in the carriages give you a penny or a half-penny then, don't they?"
"Yes, child," said the old woman.
"But it is very hard work for you, and it hinders your spinning. Now if we could only do it for you, we could bring you home all the pence we got. Do try us, grandmother; try us to-morrow."
"Well, I will try you," said the old woman; "but first of all I must go with you for a few times, for fear you should be hurt by the wheels." So the next day the little boy and girl went with the old woman, and she showed the boy how to place the stones.
"This is called scotching the wheels," she said; and she gave Paul's hat to Anne to hold up to the ladies. After a time she went indoors to her spinning, and the children stayed on the hill. A great many carriages passed, and Paul's hat was quite heavy with pence and halfpence.
The old woman was pleased when they came in, and said her spinning had got on nicely. "But, Paul, what has happened to your hand?"
"I got a little pinch," said Paul, "but it does not hurt much. And, grandmother, if you will give me the handle of your broken crutch, and that block of wood in the corner, which is of no use, I shall never be hurt again."
"Take them, dear," said the old woman.
Paul went to work, and fastened one end of the pole into the block of wood, so that he made a thing shaped like a broom.
"Look, grandmother," he said, "I shall call this thing my scotcher. I shall always scotch the wheels with it, and then my hands will be safe a the end of this long handle. And Anne need never have the trouble of carrying up stones for me. I wish it was morning, and that a carriage would come for me to try my scotcher upon."
"And I hope," said little Anne, "that as many will comme to-morrow, and that we shall get plenty of halfpence for you, grandmother."
"I hope you will," said the old woman; "I mean for you to have all the pence that you get to-morrow for yourselves, so that you can buy gingerbread or ripe plums, and have a treat for once."
"We'll bring her some gingerbread, won't we brother?" whispered Anne.
Paul and Anne got up at five the next morning to be ready for carriages, but they had to wait some time.
At last one came, and when it was half-way up the hill, the driver called to Paul to scotch the wheels. He put his scotcher behind them, and found it succeeded perfectly. Many carriages went by, and Paul and Anne got many halfpence. When it grew dusk, Anne said, "Come home now, Paul; I don't think any more carriages will come to-night."
"Not yet," said Paul; "but you shall watch for carriages for a few minutes, and I will go and get you some blackberries in this field. Call me quickly if a carriage comes."
Anne waited a long time, as she thought, but no carriage came; at last she went to her brother, "Oh, Paul, I am sadly tired; do come."
"Oh, no!" said Paul, "here are some blackberries for you; wait a little longer."
Anne was very obliging, and she ran back to the hill. All at once she heard the sound of a carriage.
"Paul! Paul!" she cried, and they saw four carriages coming by, one after the other.
Annie was so amused watching the scotcher at work, that she forgot all about the halfpence, until a little girl called out to her from the widow of one of the carriages.
"Here are some halfpence for you," said the little girl, and the money was thrown to her from each carriage in turn. Then they drove away.
As soon as the carriages were safely at the top of the hill, Paul and Anne sat down by the roadside to count their treasure. The money that they had already taken was hidden in a safe hole by the roadside, but they began by counting what was in the hat.
"One, two, three, four halfpence!" said Paul.
156 "But, oh, brother, look at this!" said Anne; "this is not the same as the other halfpence."
"No, indeed it is not," said Paul; "it is no halfpence; it is a guinea, a bright golden guinea!"
"Is it?" said Anne, who had never seen a guinea in her life before, and did not know its value. "Will it do as well as a halfpenny to buy gingerbread? I'll run and ask the woman at the fruit stall. Shall I?"
"No, no," said Paul, "you need not ask any woman, or anybody but me. I call tell you all about it quite as well as anybody in the whole world."
"The whole world! Oil, halil, you forget! not as well as grandinother!"
"Why, not as well as grandmother, perhaps; but, Anne, I tell you that you must not talk yourself, but listen to me quietly, or else you will not understand what I am going to tell you; for I can tell you that I don't think I quite understood it myself, Anne, the first time grandmother told it to me, though I stood stock-still and listened with all my might."
After this speech, Anne looked very grave, and expected to hear something very difficult to understand.
Nowadays we never see a guinea, but at the time of this story guineas were used instead of sovereigns. They were worth twenty-one shillings. Paul told Anne that with a guinea she could buy two hundred and fifty-two times as many plums as she could get for a penny.
"Why, Paul," said Anne, "you know the fruit woman said she would give us a dozen plums for a penny. Now, for this little guinea would she give us two hundred and fifty-two dozen?"
"She will, if she has so many, and we want to buy so many," said Paul; "but I think we should not like to have two hundred and fifty-two dozen plums; we could not eat so many."
"We could give some of them to grandmother," said Anne.
"But still there would be too many for her and for us," said Paul, "and when we had eaten the plums, there would be an end to the pleasure. But now I will tell you what I am thinking of, Anne. With this guinea we might buy something for grandmother that would be very useful to her;. something that would last a great while."
"What sort of thing?" asked little Anne.
"Something that she said she wanted very much last winter when she was so ill with rheumatism; something that she said yesterday, when you were making her bed, she hoped she might be able to buy before next winter."
"I know—I know what you mean," cried Anne,"—a blanket. Oh, yes, Paul, that will be much better than plums; do let its buy a blanket for her; how glad she will be to see it! I will make her bed with the new blanket, and then bring her to look at it. But, Paul, how shall we buy a blanket? Where are blankets to be got?"
"Leave that to me; I'll manage that; I know where blankets may be got. I saw one hanging out of a shop the last time I went to Dunstable."
"You have seen a great many things at Dunstable."
"Yes, a great many; but I never saw anything there or anywhere else that I wished for half as much as I did for the blanket for grandmother. Do you remember how she used to shiver with the cold last winter? I will buy the blanket to-morrow; I am going to Dunstable with her spinning."
"And you will bring the blanket to me, and I will make the bed very neatly; that will be all right, all happy," said Anne, clapping her hands.
"But stay, hush; don't clap your hands so, Anne. It will not be all happy, I am afraid," said Paul, and he began to look very grave; "it will not be all right, I am afraid. There is one thing that we have neither of us thought of, but that we ought to think of. We cannot buy, the blanket, I fear."
"Why, Paul, why?"
"Because I do not think this guinea is honestly ours," answered Paul.
"Why is not the guinea honestly ours?" asked Anne. "I am sure it is, for it was given to us, and grandmother said we were to have all that was given us to-day for our own."
"But who gave it to you, Anne?,"
"Some of the people in the carriages, Paul. Perhaps it was the little rosy girl."
"No," said Paul; "for when she called you to the carriage she said, 'Here are some halfpence for you.' If she gave you the guinea, it must have been a mistake."
"But perhaps some of the other people gave it me. There was a gentleman reading in one carriage, and a lady, who looked kindly at me; then the gentleman put down his book and glanced out of the window. He looked at your scotcher, and asked if it was of your own making, and when I said yes, and told him I was your sister, he smiled and put his hand in his pocket, and threw a handful of halfpence into the hat. I daresay he gave us the guinea, because he liked your scotcher so much."
"Why," said Paul, "that might be, but I wish I could be sure of it."
"Then, as we are not sure, had we not better go and ask grandmother what she thinks about it?" said Anne.
Paul thought this very good advice; he went with his sister directly to the grandmother, showed her the guinea, and told her about it.
"My dear, honest children," she said, "I am very glad you did not buy either the blanket or the plums; I am sure it was given by mistake, and I should like you to go to Dunstable and find out the person who gave it you. It is now so late in the evening that most likely the travelers are sleeping there. You must go and try to find the gentleman who was reading."
"Oh, I know a good way to find him!" cried Paul. "I am so glad you taught me to read, grandmother, for I read 'John Nelson' on the carriage. That is the inn-keeper's name, I know; and it was a dark green carriage with red wheels. Come, Anne, let us be off and find it before it gets quite dark."
The children set off, and walked bravely past the tempting stall, rich in gingerbread and ripe plums, but at the blanket shop Paul could not help saying:—
"It is a great pity the guinea is not ours, but we are doing what is honest, and that is a comfort. Here we are at the Dun Cow."
"I see no cow," said Anne.
Look at the picture over your head. But we must not stop now; I want to find that carriage."
There was a great noise and bustle in the inn yard; horses were being rubbed down, carriages were rolled into coach houses, luggage was carried about.
"What now, what business have you here?" said a waiter, who almost ran over Paul. "Walk off at once."
"Please let me stay a few moments and look for a green carriage with red wheels, and Mr. John Nelson's name on it," begged Paul.
"What should you know about green carriages?" said the waiter, and he was just going to turn Paul out of the yard when a hostler caught his arm.
"Maybe the child has some business here," he said.
The waiter went away to answer a bell, and Paul told his story to the hostler, who helped him to find the chaise, and the man who had driven it. This man said that he was just going to the gentleman to be paid, and would take the guinea with him.
"No," said Paul, "we should like to give it back ourselves."
"They have a right to do that," said the hostler, and the driver went away, telling the children to wait in the passage. A tidy woman was standing there too, with two huge straw baskets beside her.
A man who was pushing his way in, carrying a string of dead larks on a pole, kicked down one of the baskets, which was a little in the way, and all the things that were in it—bright straw hats, bones, and slippers—were thrown upon the dirty ground.
"Oh, they will all be spoiled!" cried the woman. But Paul and Anne ran to help her.
"Do let us pick them up for you," they said. When the things were all in the basket again, they asked her how such pretty things could be made of straw. But before the woman could answer, a gentleman's servant came out. Clapping Paul on the back, he said, "Well, my little chap, I hear I gave you a guinea for a halfpenny."
"No, Paul," said Anne, "that is not the gentleman."
"Pooh, child, it is all the same," said the man. "I came in that carriage with my master, who was reading. But he is tired and wants to go to bed; so you are to give me the guinea."
Paul was too honest to expect a lie; so he gave up the bright guinea at once. "Here is a sixpence apiece for you, and good night," said the man, and pushed the children out; but the basket woman whispered, "Wait for me in the street."
"Mrs. Landlady," said the servant, "let me have toasted larks for my supper, please, and a bottle of claret. Do you hear, waiter?"
"Larks and claret," said the basket woman to herself, as she saw the driver and the servant whisper to each other. She waited quietly in the passage.
"Waiter! Joe! Joe!" called the landlady, "carry in those tarts at once to the company in the best room."
"Coming, ma'am," answered the waiter, and as the door was opened, the basket woman could see a great many ladies and gentlemen, and some children, sitting at supper.
"Yes," whispered the landlady, "there are plenty of people there who could afford to buy your goods, if you could only be called in. Pray, now, what would you charge me for these little straw mats to put under my dishes?"
The woman let her have the mats cheap, and after the gay party had finished supper, the landlady went in and asked whether they would like to see any of the curious Dunstable straw work.
So the basket woman was called in. "Oh, Father," cried a little girl, "here are some straw shoes that would just fit you. What are they for? I should not think straw shoes would be of much use."
"They are to wear when people are powdering their hair, dear; but I am afraid I must not spend much money to-night, for I carelessly threw away a guinea to-day," said her father.
"Oh! the guinea that you threw to the little girl on Chalk Hill. She was not a very honest little girl, was she, Father, or she would have run after the carriage with it?"
"Oh, miss—ma'am—sir! may I speak a word?" cried the basket woman. "A little boy and girl have just been asking for a gentleman who gave them a guinea by mistake, and, not five minutes ago, I saw the little boy give it to a gentleman's servant, who said his master desired him to take it."
"This is some mistake or some trick," said the gentleman. Where are the children? I must see them. Send after them."
"I will go for them myself," said the basket woman; "I told them to wait in the street."
Paul and Anne were soon brought in, and Anne knew at once that the gentleman was the same who had put down his book and admired the scotcher. It happened that the guinea was a light one, and the gentleman had marked it. He soon found the dishonest servant at his supper of larks and claret, and made him pull out all the money he had about him.
There was the marked coin, and the servant was at once dismissed. "Now, little honest girl," said the gentleman to Anne, "tell me who you are, and what you wish for most in the world."
With one voice the two children cried, "We want a blanket for grandmother most!"
"She is not really our grandmother, sir, but she is just as good to us," said Paul. "She taught me to read and Anne to knit, and she has the rheuunatism very badly in the winter, and we did wish her to have a new blanket, sir!"
"She shall have it," said the gentleman, "and I will do something more for you. Do you like best to be employed or to be idle?"
"We always like to have something to do, sir," said Paul, "but sometimes we are forced to be idle, for grandmother has not always work for us that we can do well."
"Would you like to learn how to make such baskets as these?" said the gentleman, pointing to one of the Dunstable straw baskets.
"Oh, very much," said Paul.
"Very much," said Anne.
"Then I should like to teach you," said the basket woman; "for I am quite sure that you would behave honestly to me."
The gentleman put a guinea into the kind woman's hand, and told her he knew she could not afford to teach her trade for nothing.
"I shall come through Dtunstable again in a few months, and I hope to see that you and your scholars are getting on well. If I find that you are, I will do something more for you," he said.
"But," said Anne, "we must go and tell grandmother about all this."
"It is a fine moonlight night," said the basket woman, "and I will walk with you myself and see you safe home."
The gentleman kept them for a few minutes longer, as he had sent to buy the blanket. "Your grandmother will sleep well under this good blanket, I hope," he said, as he put it into Paul's arms. "It has been earned for her by the honesty of her adopted children."