This text taken from Project Gutenberg edition of
A New Red Riding-hood.
‘Well, he ought to learn not to be so silly. I won’t amuse the little ones again, nurse, if you want me to spoil them!’ said Sibyl, with dignity.
‘I do think you might make the story end nicely, any way,’ grumbled nurse, hushing Baby, who was crying lustily.
‘I can’t make it end well, nurse. It would not be true to say she was saved, because she wasn’t—she was eaten!’
This was Sibyl’s parting shot as she ran out of the nursery.
‘Never you mind what she says, my lambie; there are no wolves here at all, and Red Riding-hood was not killed. There, stop crying, my beauty, and you shall come and help me sort the linen in the next room. No, not you, Miss Jean; one is enough to worrit; you just stay here till tea-time, like a good girl.’
So nurse went away with Baby, leaving little seven-year-old Jean alone in the great nursery.
The gas was not yet lit, and the familiar room looked strange and mysterious in the dim, uncertain light of the fire. The corners were shrouded in gloom, and the dancing flames threw huge, flickering shadows upon the walls.
Jean drew her stool nearer the fire and shivered, but not with cold. She was a very nervous child, with a horror of the dark. She could not explain, even to herself, exactly what it was she feared; it was a kind of nameless something, but the form it sometimes took was ‘wolves.’ She knew there were no wolves in this country, she knew there was nothing to hurt her—yet she was afraid. The child was often laughed at, and was much ashamed of her fears, and no one knew what she suffered at times.
Oh, the fright that story of Red Riding-hood gave her! In vain she tried to think of something else; it came back again and again, and she shivered with sympathetic terror as she pictured to herself Red Riding-hood’s walk through the wood, and the horror she must have felt when her grandmother turned out to be a wolf! Half of her knew that it was only a fairy tale, and all nonsense, but the other half argued that Sibyl said it was true, and Sibyl always spoke the truth. Nurse said it was not true, but then she only said that to soothe Baby.
So poor little Jean sat quaking with fear, starting at every sound, fancying that she saw things move, and feeling that she must look behind her, and yet dared not.
But at last tea was brought in; nurse and Baby returned, the gas was lit, and Jean forgot her fears, for a time, in bread and jam.
The next day was Christmas Eve, and there was a great deal of fun going on at the Vicarage. The Merivals were a large family, and every one had secrets from every one else, and wonderful plans for the morrow. Mr. Merival always gave a packet of tea and sugar to some of the old women in the village on Christmas Eve, and all of these had been to the Vicarage that morning to fetch it, except one. She was a poor old body, who lived about a mile away, at the end of a wood, and was often too ill with rheumatism to venture out of doors.
‘Sibyl,’ said Mr. Merival, meeting her in the hall as he went to put on his greatcoat,—’Sibyl, I want you to take Grannie Dawson her tea this afternoon. Take it before dark.’
‘All right, father; I’ll do it when’—and Sibyl’s voice was lost in the distance as she bounded out of doors.
‘Little giddy-pate!’ ejaculated her father; then, turning to Jean, he said,—
‘See that some one takes that tea to poor old Grannie, little one. I would not have her feel neglected for anything.’
So saying, he departed, leaving the little girl in the hall.
Jean waited long and patiently, but no one came. Every one was either busy or not to be found. Mother and the elder girls were decorating the church, the maids were busy, and Sibyl and the three boys were off on some important business of their own.
As time went on, Jean became more and more convinced that, as usual, thoughtless Sibyl had forgotten everything but what she was doing at that moment. It was past three, it would soon be dark, and Grannie Dawson’s tea—what was to be done? Father would be vexed with Sibyl if she forgot to take it, and no one would like merry Sibyl to be in disgrace on Christmas Eve. Could she go herself? Oh no; father never meant her to go. Besides, it was getting dark, and the way was through a wood. Wolves! Horrible thought! And yet poor old Grannie Dawson was so ill, so lonely.
Little Jean sat some time longer struggling with herself. Then she started up, slipped on her little warm red cloak, and, taking the basket with the tea and sugar, walked resolutely out of the house, down the garden, and along the road.
The weather was cold—not real nice Christmas cold, but damp and raw, and the roads were wet and sloppy with half-melted snow.
Jean’s heart beat fast, and she drew her cloak tightly round her as she neared the wood. The sky was overcast, and the wind blew in fitful gusts in her face, and sobbed and sighed in the pine trees on either side. It really was very dark in the wood. The waving branches made the shadows move in a weird manner, and there was no saying what evil beast might not lurk behind those misty bushes, ready to pounce out on the unwary passer-by.
The child thought many times of turning back, but then she remembered the poor old woman, and pressed on. Her teeth chattered, and she grasped her basket convulsively, glancing on either side with wide-open, terrified eyes. Oh, why had she come? Surely that was a wolf’s howl—and behind her, so that she could not turn back!
Very quietly she crept along till she came in sight of the little thatched cottage where Grannie lived. Then she gathered herself together, ready to set off running.
But what was that noise?—it was not fancy. That huge form bounding towards her—a wolf!
With a wild scream of terror, little Jean fled towards the cottage, the wolf after her. Nearer and nearer it came, but fear lent wings to the child’s feet, and she just reached the door in time to burst in and slam it in the wolf’s face. Then she threw herself on the floor and burst into a fit of frightened crying.
‘Oh, the wolf! the wolf!’ she sobbed, as old Grannie tried to soothe her. ‘Listen, it is at the door.’
And sure enough the old woman heard it whining and scratching outside, and then came the sound of a man’s voice.
Leaving Jean in the next room, Grannie Dawson opened the door, and in walked—Farmer Martin and his big collie! So big and shaggy was that collie-dog, and yet so very quiet and gentle, that no child, even timid little Jean, could be afraid of him. The Merivals knew him well, and used often to pet and tease him when they went to the farm to see Mrs. Martin, and the farmer had now called at Grannie Dawson’s cottage to ask whose child it was who seemed so afraid of his dog.
So the wolf was only dear old Cheviot, who had recognised Jean, and wanted to be patted. Oh, how relieved she was, and how much ashamed of herself!
When Jean had recovered herself a little, kind Farmer Martin carried her home in his arms, Cheviot trotting on before, wagging his tail and looking over his shoulder at her, as if to apologise for frightening her so.
It was quite dark when they reached the Vicarage, and some of the family had come home, and were wondering where Jean could be. The farmer told her story, and, to her surprise, she was petted and made much of by all.
But she had had a serious fright; her nerves were shaken, and she was not at all well for some days. The Merival children began to see that what they had laughed at as ‘Jean’s nonsense’ was very real to her. They left off teasing and laughing at her, and encouraged her instead, for each of them wondered, in their heart of hearts, if they themselves could have shown such true courage as little Jean showed when she did what she was so much afraid of because she thought it right.
Jean was always nervous, but she left off being afraid of ‘wolves,’ for each time she heard her new pet name of Red Riding-hood she remembered what that terrible wolf had turned out to be.