A FLAT IRON FOR A FARTHING
Some Passages in the Life of an only Son
Juliana Horatia Ewing
M. V. Wheelhouse
George Bell & Sons
* * * * *
TO MY DEAR FATHER,
AND TO HIS SISTER, MY DEAR AUNT MARY,
IN MEMORY OF
THEIR GOOD FRIEND AND NURSE,
OBIT 3 MARCH, 1872, AET. 83.
J. H. E.
* * * * *
An apology is a sorry Preface to any book, however insignificant, and yet I am anxious to apologise for the title of this little tale. The story grew after the title had been (hastily) given, and so many other incidents gathered round the incident of the purchase of the flat iron as to make it no longer important enough to appear upon the title page. It would, however, be dishonest to change the name of a tale which is reprinted from a Magazine; and I can only apologise for an appearance of affectation in it which was not intended.
As the Dedication may seem to suggest that the character of Mrs. Bundle is a portrait, I may be allowed to say that, except in faithfulness, and tenderness, and high principle, she bears no likeness to my father's dear old nurse.
It may interest some of my child readers to know that the steep street and the farthing wares are real remembrances out of my own childhood. Though whether in these days of "advanced prices," the flat irons, the gridirons with the three fish upon them, and all those other valuable accessories to doll's housekeeping, which I once delighted to purchase, can still be obtained for a farthing each, I have lived too long out of the world of toys to be able to tell.
J. H. E.
* * * * *
II. "THE LOOK"—RUBENS—MRS. BUNDLE AGAIN
III. THE DARK LADY—TROUBLE IMPENDING—BEAUTIFUL, GOLDEN MAMMA
IV. AUNT MARIA—THE ENEMY ROUTED—LONDON TOWN
V. MY COUSINS—MISS BLOMFIELD—THE BOY IN BLACK
VI. THE LITTLE BARONET—DOLLS—CINDER PARCELS—THE OLD GENTLEMAN NEXT DOOR—THE ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS
VII. POLLY AND I RESOLVE TO BE "VERY RELIGIOUS"—DR. PEPJOHN—THE ALMS-BOX—THE BLIND BEGGAR
VIII. VISITING THE SICK
IX. "PEACE BE TO THIS HOUSE"
X. CONVALESCENCE—MATRIMONIAL INTENTIONS—THE JOURNEY TO OAKFORD—OUR WELCOME
XI. THE TINSMITH'S—THE BEAVER BONNETS—A FLAT IRON FOR A FARTHING—I FAIL TO SECURE A SISTER—RUBENS AND THE DOLL
XII. THE LITTLE LADIES AGAIN—THE MEADS—THE DROWNED DOLL
XIII. POLLY—THE PEW AND THE PULPIT—THE FATE OF THE FLAT IRON
XIV. RUBENS AND I "DROP IN" AT THE RECTORY—GARDENS AND GARDENERS—MY FATHER COMES FOR ME
XV. NURSE BUNDLE IS MAGNANIMOUS—MR. GRAY—AN EXPLANATION WITH MY FATHER
XVI. THE REAL MR. GRAY—NURSE BUNDLE REGARDS HIM WITH DISFAVOUR
XVII. I FAIL TO TEACH LATIN TO MRS. BUNDLE—THE RECTOR TEACHES ME
XVIII. THE ASTHMATIC OLD GENTLEMAN AND HIS RIDDLES—I PLAY TRUANT AGAIN—IN THE BIG GARDEN
XIX. THE TUTOR—THE PARISH—A NEW CONTRIBUTOR TO THE ALMS-BOX
XX. THE TUTOR'S PROPOSAL—A TEACHERS' MEETING
XXI. OAKFORD ONCE MORE—THE SATIN CHAIRS—THE HOUSEKEEPER—THE LITTLE LADIES AGAIN—FAMILY MONUMENTS
XXII. NURSE BUNDLE FINDS A VOCATION—RAGGED ROBIN'S WIFE—MRS. BUNDLE'S IDEAS ON HUSBANDS AND PUBLIC-HOUSES
XXIII. I GO TO ETON—MY MASTER—I SERVE HIM WELL
XXIV. COLLECTIONS—LEO'S LETTER—NURSE BUNDLE AND SIR LIONEL
XXV. THE DEATH OF RUBENS—POLLY'S NEWS—LAST TIMES
XXVI. I HEAR FROM MR. JONATHAN ANDREWES—YORKSHIRE—ALATHEA alias BETTY—WE BURY OUR DEAD OUT OF OUR SIGHT—VOICES OF THE NORTH
XXVII. THE NEW RECTOR—AUNT MARIA TRIES TO FIND HIM A WIFE—MY FATHER HAS A SIMILAR CARE FOR ME
XXVIII. I BELIEVE MYSELF TO BE BROKEN-HEARTED—MARIA IN LOVE—I MAKE AN OFFER OF MARRIAGE, WHICH IS NEITHER ACCEPTED NOR REFUSED
XXIX. THE FUTURE LADY DAMER—POLLY HAS A SECRET—UNDER THE MULBERRY-TREE
XXX. I MEET THE HEIRESS—I FIND MYSELF MISTAKEN ON MANY POINTS—A NEW KNOT IN THE FAMILY COMPLICATIONS
XXXI. MY LADY FRANCES—THE FUTURE LADY DAMER—WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER AT LAST
XXXII. WE COME HOME—MRS. BUNDLE QUITS SERVICE
* * * * *
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
MRS. BUNDLE Frontispiece
THE LANK LAWYER WAGGED MY HAND OF A MORNING, AND SAID, "AND HOW IS MISS ELIZA'S LITTLE BEAU?"
"BLESS ME, THERE'S THAT DOG!"
"MR. BUCKLE, I BELIEVE?"
SHE ROLLED ABRUPTLY OVER ON HER SEAT AND SCRAMBLED OFF BACKWARDS
POLLY AND REGIE IN THE "PULPIT" AND THE "PEW"
"ALL TOGETHER, IF YOU PLEASE!"
IT WAS ONLY A QUIET DINNER PARTY, AND MISS CHISLETT HAD BROUGHT OUT HER NEEDLEWORK
* * * * *
A FLAT IRON FOR A FARTHING
When the children clamour for a story, my wife says to me, "Tell them how you bought a flat iron for a farthing." Which I very gladly do; for three reasons. In the first place, it is about myself, and so I take an interest in it. Secondly, it is about some one very dear to me, as will appear hereafter. Thirdly, it is the only original story in my somewhat limited collection, and I am naturally rather proud of the favour with which it is invariably received. I think it was the foolish fancy of my dear wife and children combined that this most veracious history should be committed to paper. It was either because—being so unused to authorship—I had no notion of composition, and was troubled by a tyro tendency to stray from my subject; or because the part played by the flat iron, though important, was small; or because I and my affairs were most chiefly interesting to myself as writer, and my family as readers; or from a combination of all these reasons together, that my tale outgrew its first title and we had to add a second, and call it "Some Passages in the Life of an only Son."
Yes, I was an only son. I was an only child also, speaking as the world speaks, and not as Wordsworth's "simple child" spoke. But let me rather use the "little maid's" reckoning, and say that I have, rather than that I had, a sister. "Her grave is green, it may be seen." She peeped into the world, and we called her Alice; then she went away again and took my mother with her. It was my first great, bitter grief.
I remember well the day when I was led with much mysterious solemnity to see my new sister. She was then a week old.
"You must be quiet, sir," said Mrs. Bundle, a new member of our establishment, "and not on no account make no noise to disturb your dear, pretty mamma."
Repressed by this accumulation of negatives, as well as by the size and dignity of Mrs. Bundle's outward woman, I went a-tiptoe under her large shadow to see my new acquisition.
Very young children are not always pretty, but my sister was beautiful beyond the wont of babies. It is an old simile, but she was like a beautiful painting of a cherub. Her little face wore an expression seldom seen except on a few faces of those who have but lately come into this world, or those who are about to go from it. The hair that just gilded the pink head I was allowed to kiss was one shade paler than that which made a great aureole on the pillow about the pale face of my "dear, pretty" mother.
Years afterwards—in Belgium—I bought an old mediaeval painting of a Madonna. That Madonna had a stiffness, a deadly pallor, a thinness of face incompatible with strict beauty. But on the thin lips there was a smile for which no word is lovely enough; and in the eyes was a pure and far-seeing look, hardly to be imagined except by one who painted (like Fra Angelico) upon his knees. The background (like that of many religious paintings of the date) was gilt. With such a look and such a smile my mother's face shone out of the mass of her golden hair the day she died. For this I bought the picture; for this I keep it still.
But to go back.
I liked Mrs. Bundle. I had taken to her from the evening when she arrived in a red shawl, with several bandboxes. My affection for her was established next day, when she washed my face before dinner. My own nurse was bony, her hands were all knuckles, and she washed my face as she scrubbed the nursery floor on Saturdays. Mrs. Bundle's plump palms were like pincushions, and she washed my face as if it had been a baby's.
On the evening of the day when I first saw Sister Alice, I took tea in the housekeeper's room. My nurse was out for the evening, but Mrs. Cadman from the village was of the party, and neither cakes nor conversation flagged. Mrs. Cadman had hollow eyes, and (on occasion) a hollow voice, which was very impressive. She wore curl-papers continually, which once caused me to ask my nurse if she ever took them out.
"On Sundays she do," said Nurse.
"She's very religious then, I suppose," said I; and I did really think it a great compliment that she paid to the first day of the week.
I was only just four years old at this time—an age when one is apt to ask inconvenient questions and to make strange observations—when one is struggling to understand life through the mist of novelties about one, and the additional confusion of falsehood which it is so common to speak or to insinuate without scruple to very young children.
The housekeeper and Mrs. Cadman had conversed for some time after tea without diverting my attention from the new box of bricks which Mrs. Bundle (commissioned by my father) had brought from the town for me; but when I had put all the round arches on the pairs of pillars, and had made a very successful "Tower of Babel" with cross layers of the bricks tapering towards the top, I had leisure to look round and listen.
"I never know'd one with that look as lived," Mrs. Cadman was saying, in her hollow tone. "It took notice from the first. Mark my words, ma'am, a sweeter child I never saw, but it's too good and too pretty to be long for this world."
It is difficult to say exactly how much one understands at four years old, or rather how far one quite comprehends the things one perceives in part. I understood, or felt, enough of what I heard, and of the sympathetic sighs that followed Mrs. Cadman's speech, to make me stumble over the Tower of Babel, and present myself at Mrs. Cadman's knee with the question—
"Is mamma too pretty and good for this world, Mrs. Cadman?"
I caught her elderly wink as quickly as the housekeeper, to whom it was directed. I was not completely deceived by her answer.
"Why, bless his dear heart, Master Reginald. Who did he think I was talking about, love?"
"My new baby sister," said I, without hesitation.
"No such thing, lovey," said the audacious Mrs. Cadman; "housekeeper and me was talking about Mrs. Jones's little boy."
"Where does Mrs. Jones live?" I asked.
"In London town, my dear."
I sighed. I knew nothing of London town, and could not prove that Mrs. Jones had no existence. But I felt dimly dissatisfied, in spite of a slice of sponge-cake, and being put to bed (for a treat) in papa's dressing-room. My sleep was broken by uneasy dreams, in which Mrs. Jones figured with the face of Mrs. Cadman and her hollow voice. I had a sensation that that night the house never went to rest. People came in and out with a pretentious purpose of not awaking me. My father never came to bed. I felt convinced that I heard the doctor's voice in the passage. At last, while it was yet dark, and when I seemed to have been sleeping and waking, waking and falling asleep again in my crib for weeks, my father came in with a strange look upon his face, and took me up in his arms, and wrapped a blanket round me, saying mamma wanted to kiss me, but I must be very good and make no noise. There was little fear of that! I gazed in utter silence at the sweet face that was whiter than the sheet below it, the hair that shone brighter than ever in the candlelight. Only when I kissed her, and she had laid her wan hand on my head, I whispered to my father, "Why is mamma so cold?"
With a smothered groan he carried me back to bed, and I cried myself to sleep. It was too true, then. She was too good and too pretty for this world, and before sunrise she was gone.
Before the day was ended Sister Alice left us also. She never knew a harder resting-place than our mother's arms.
"THE LOOK"—RUBENS—MRS. BUNDLE AGAIN
My widowed father and I were both terribly lonely. The depths of his loss in the lovely and lovable wife who had been his constant companion for nearly six years I could not fathom at the time. For my own part, I was quite as miserable as I have ever been since, and I doubt if I shall ever feel such overwhelming desolation again, unless the same sorrow befalls me as then befell him.
I "fretted"—as the servants expressed it—to such an extent as to affect my health; and I fancy it was because my father's attention was called to the fact that I was fast fading after the mother and sister whose death (and my own loneliness) I bewailed, that he roused himself from his own grief to comfort mine. Once more I was "dressed" after tea. Of late my bony nurse had not thought it necessary to go through this ceremony, and I had crept about in the same crape-covered frock from breakfast to bedtime.
Now I came down to dessert again, and though I think the empty place at the end of the table gave my father a fresh shock when I took my old post by him, yet I fancy the lonely evening was less lonely for my presence.
From his intense indulgence I think I dimly gathered that he thought me ill. I combined this in my mind with a speech of my nurse's that I had overheard, and which gave me the horrors at the time—"He's got the look! It's his poor ma over again!"—and I felt a sort of melancholy self-importance not uncommon with children who are out of health.
I may say here that my nurse had a quality very common amongst uneducated people. She was "sensational;" and her custom of going over all the circumstances of my mother's death and funeral (down to the price of the black paramatta of which her own dress was composed) with her friends, when she took me out walking, had not tended to make me happier or more cheerful.
That night I ate more from my father's plate than I had eaten for weeks. As I lay after dinner with my head upon his breast, he stroked my curls with a tender touch that seemed to heal my griefs, and said, almost in a tone of remorse,
"What can papa do for you, my poor dear boy?"
I looked up quickly into his face.
"What would Regie like?" he persisted.
I quite understood him now, and spoke out boldly the desires of my heart.
"Please, papa, I should like Mrs. Bundle for a nurse; and I do very much want Rubens."
"And who is Rubens?" asked my father.
"Oh, please, it's a dog," I said. "It belongs to Mr. Mackenzie at the school. And it's such a little dear, all red and white; and it licked my face when nurse and I were there yesterday, and I put my hand in its mouth, and it rolled over on its back, and it's got long ears, and it followed me all the way home, and I gave it a piece of bread, and it can sit up, and"—
"But, my little man," interrupted my father—and he had absolutely smiled at my catalogue of marvels—"if Rubens belongs to Mr. Mackenzie, and is such a wonderful fellow, I'm afraid Mr. Mackenzie won't part with him."
"He would," I said, "but—" and I paused, for I feared the barrier was insurmountable.
"But what?" said my father.
"He wants ten shillings for him, Nurse says."
"If that's all, Regie," said my father, "you and I will go and buy Rubens to-morrow morning."
Rubens was a little red and white spaniel of much beauty and sagacity. He was the prettiest, gentlest, most winning of playfellows. With him by my side, I now ran merrily about, instead of creeping moodily at the heels of nurse and her friends. Abundantly occupied in testing the tricks he knew, and teaching him new ones, I had the less leisure to listen open-mouthed to cadaverous gossip of the Cadman class. Finally, when I had bidden him good-night a hundred times, with absolutely fraternal embraces, I was soothed by the light weight of his head resting on my foot. He seemed to chase the hideous fancies which had hitherto passed from nurse's daytime conversation to trouble my night visions, as he would chase a water-fowl from a reedy marsh, and I slept—as he did—peacefully.
Nor was this all. My other wish was also to be fulfilled, but not without some vexations beforehand. It was by a certain air and tone which my nurse suddenly assumed towards me, and which it is difficult to describe by any other word than "heighty-teighty," and also by dark hints of changes which she hoped (but seemed far from believing) would be for my good, and finally, by downright lamentations and tragic inquiries as to what she had done to be parted from her boy, and "could her chickabiddy have the heart to drive away his loving and faithful nursey," that I learned that it was contemplated to supersede her by some one else, and that if she did not know that I was to blame in the matter, she at any rate believed me to have influence enough to obtain a reversal of the decree. That Mrs. Bundle was to be her successor I gathered from allusions to "your great fat bouncing women that would eat their heads off; but as to cleaning out a nursery—let them see!" But her most masterly stroke was a certain conversation with Mrs. Cadman carried on in my hearing.
"Have you ever notice, Mrs. Cadman," inquired my bony nurse of her not less bony visitor—"Have you ever notice how them stout people as looks so good-natured as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths is that wicked and cruel underneath?" And then followed a series of nurse's most ghastly anecdotes, relative to fat mothers who had ill-treated their children, fat nurses who had nearly been the death of their unfortunate charges, fat female murderers, and a fat acquaintance of her own, who was "taken" in apoplexy after a fit of rage with her husband.
"What a warning! what a moral!" said Mrs. Cadman. She meant it for a pious observation, but I felt that the warning and the moral were for me. And not even the presence of Rubens could dispel the darkness of my dreams that night.
Alternately goaded and caressed by my nurse, who now laid aside a habit she had of beating a tattoo with her knuckles on my head when I was naughty, to the intense confusion and irritation of my brain, I at last resolved to beg my father to let her remain with us. I felt that it was—as she had pointed out—intense ingratitude on my part to wish to part with her, and I said as much when I went down to dessert that evening. Morever, I now lived in vague fear of those terrible qualities which lay hidden beneath Mrs. Bundle's benevolent exterior.
"If nurse has been teasing you about the matter," said my father, with a frown, "that would decide me to get rid of her, if I had not so decided before. As to your not liking Mrs. Bundle now—My dear little son, you must learn to know your own mind. You told me you wanted Mrs. Bundle—by very good luck I have been able to get hold of her, and when she comes you must make the best of her."
She came the next day, and my bony nurse departed. She wept indignantly, I wept remorsefully, and then waited in terror for the manifestation of Mrs. Bundle's cruel propensities.
I waited in vain. The reign of Mrs. Bundle was a reign of peace and plenty, of loving-kindness and all good things. Moreover it was a reign of wholesomeness, both for body and mind. She did not give me cheese and beer from her own supper when she was in a good temper, nor pound my unfortunate head with her knuckles if I displeased her. She was strict in the maintenance of a certain old-fashioned nursery etiquette, which obliged me to put away my chair after meals, fold my clothes at bedtime, put away my toys when I had done with them, say "please," "thank you," grace before and after meals, prayers night and morning, a hymn in bed, and the Church Catechism on Sunday. She snubbed the maids who alluded in my presence to things I could not or should not understand, and she directed her own conversation to me, on matters suitable to my age, instead of talking over my childish head to her gossips. The stories of horror and crime, the fore-doomed babies, the murders, the mysterious whispered communications faded from my untroubled brain. Nurse Bundle's tales were of the young masters and misses she had known. Her worst domestic tragedy was about the boy who broke his leg over the chair he had failed to put away after breakfast. Her romances were the good old Nursery Legends of Dick Whittington, the Babes in the Wood, and so forth. My dreams became less like the columns of a provincial newspaper. I imagined myself another Marquis of Carabas, with Rubens in boots. I made a desert island in the garden, which only lacked the geography-book peculiarity of "water all round" it. I planted beans in the fond hope that they would tower to the skies and take me with them. I became—in fancy—Lord Mayor of London, and Mrs. Bundle shared my civic throne and dignities, and we gave Rubens six beefeaters and a barge to wait upon his pleasure.
Life, in short, was utterly changed for me. I grew strong, and stout, and well, and happy. And I loved Nurse Bundle.
THE DARK LADY—TROUBLE IMPENDING—BEAUTIFUL, GOLDEN MAMMA
So two years passed away. Nurse Bundle was still with me. With her I "did lessons" after a fashion. I learned to read, I had many of the Psalms and a good deal of poetry—sacred and secular—by heart. In an old-fashioned, but slow and thorough manner, I acquired the first outlines of geography, arithmetic, etc., and what Mrs. Bundle taught me I repeated to Rubens. But I don't think he ever learned the "capital towns of Europe," though we studied them together under the same oak tree.
We had a happy two years of it together under the Bundle dynasty, and then trouble came.
I was never fond of demonstrative affection from strangers. The ladies who lavish kisses and flattery upon one's youthful head after eating papa's good dinner—keeping a sharp protective eye on their own silk dresses, and perchance pricking one with a brooch or pushing a curl into one eye with a kid-gloved finger—I held in unfeigned abhorrence. But over and above my natural instinct against the unloving fondling of drawing-room visitors, I had a special and peculiar antipathy to Miss Eliza Burton.
At first, I think I rather admired her. Her rolling eyes, the black hair plastered low upon her forehead,—the colour high, but never changeable or delicate—the amplitude and rustle of her skirts, the impressiveness of her manner, her very positive matureness, were just what the crude taste of childhood is apt to be fascinated by. She was the sister of my father's man of business; and she and her brother were visiting at my home. She really looked well in the morning, "toned down" by a fresh, summer muslin, and all womanly anxiety to relieve my father of the trouble of making the tea for breakfast.
"Dear Mr. Dacre, do let me relieve you of that task," she cried, her ribbons fluttering over the sugar-basin. "I never like to see a gentleman sacrificing himself for his guests at breakfast. You have enough to do at dinner, carving large joints, and jointing those terrible birds. At breakfast a gentleman should have no trouble but the cracking of his own egg and the reading of his own newspaper. Now do let me!"
Miss Burton's long fingers were almost on the tea-caddy; but at that moment my father quietly opened it, and began to measure out the tea.
"I never trouble my lady visitors with this," he said, quietly. "I am only too well accustomed to it."
Child as I was, I felt well satisfied that my father would let no one fill my mother's place. For so it was, and all Miss Burton's efforts failed to put her, even for a moment, at the head of his table.
I do not quite know how or when it was that I began to realize that such was her effort. I remember once hearing a scrap of conversation between our most respectable and respectful butler and the housekeeper—"behind the scenes"—as the former worthy came from the breakfast-room.
"And how's the new missis this morning, Mr. Smith?" asked the housekeeper, with a bitterness not softened by the prospect of possible dethronement.
"Another try for the tea-tray, ma'am," replied Smith, "but it's no go."
"A brazen, black-haired old maid!" cried the housekeeper. "To think of her taking the place of that sweet angel, Mrs. Dacre (and she barely two years in her grave), and pretending to act a mother's part by the poor boy and all. I've no patience!"
On one excuse or another, the Burtons contrived to extend their visit; and the prospect of a marriage between my father and Miss Burton was now discussed too openly behind his back for me to fail to hear it. Then Nurse Bundle on this subject hardly exercised her usual discretion in withholding me from servants' gossip, and servants' gossip from me. Her own indignation was strongly aroused, and I had no difficulty in connecting her tearful embraces, and her allusions to my dead mother, with the misfortune we all believed to be impending.
At first I had admired Miss Burton's bouncing looks. Then my head had been turned to some extent by her flattery, and by the establishment of that most objectionable of domestic jokes, the parody of love affairs in connection with children. Miss Burton called me her little sweetheart, and sent me messages, and vowed that I was quite a little man of the world, and then was sure that I was a desperate flirt. The lank lawyer wagged my hand of a morning, and said, "And how is Miss Eliza's little beau?" And I laughed, and looked important, and talked rather louder, and escaped as often as I could from the nursery, and endeavoured to act up to the character assigned me with about as much grace as AEsop's donkey trying to dance. I must have become a perfect nuisance to any sensible person at this period, and indeed my father had an interview with Nurse Bundle on the subject.
"Master Reginald seems to me to be more troublesome than he used to be, nurse," said my father.
"Indeed you say true, sir," said Mrs. Bundle, only too glad to reply; "but it's the drawing-room and not the nursery as does it. Miss Burton is always a begging for him to be allowed to stay up at nights and to lunch in the dining-room, and to come down of a morning, and to have a half-holiday in an afternoon; and, saving your better knowledge, sir, it's a bad thing to break into the regular ways of children. It ain't for their happiness, nor for any one else's."
"You are perfectly right, perfectly right," said my father, "and it shall not occur again. Ah! my poor boy," he added in an irrepressible outburst, "you suffer for lack of a mother's care. I do what I can, but a man cannot supply a woman's place to a child."
Mrs. Bundle's feelings at this soliloquy may be imagined. "You might have knocked me down with a feather, sir," she assured the butler (unlikely as it seemed!) in describing the scene afterwards. She found strength, however, to reply to my father's remark.
"Indeed, sir, a mother's place never can be filled to a child by no one whatever. Least of all such a mother as he had in your dear lady. But he's a boy, sir, and not a girl, and in all reason a father is what he'll chiefly look to in a year or two. And for the meanwhile, sir, I ask you, could Master Reginald look better or behave better than he did afore the company come? It's only natural as smart ladies who knows nothing whatever of children, and how they should be brought up, and what's for their good, should think it a kindness to spoil them. Any one may see the lady has no notion of children, and would be the ruin of Master Reginald if she had much to do with him; but when the company's gone, sir, and he's left quiet with his papa, you'll find him as good as any young gentleman needs to be, if you'll excuse my freedom in speaking, sir."
Whatever my father thought of Mrs. Bundle's freedom of speech, he only said,
"Master Reginald will be quite under your orders for the future, Nurse," and so dismissed her.
And Mrs. Bundle having "said her say," withdrew to say it over again in confidence to the housekeeper.
As for me, if my vanity was stronger than my good taste for a while, the quickness of childish instinct soon convinced me that Miss Burton had no real affection for me. Then I was puzzled by her spasmodic attentions when my father was in the room, and her rough repulses when I "bothered" her at less appropriate moments. I got tired of her, too, of the sound of her voice, of her black hair and unchanging red cheeks. And from the day that I caught her beating Rubens for lying on the edge of her dress, I lived in terror of her. Those rolling black eyes had not a pleasant look when the lady was out of temper. And was she really to be the new mistress of the house? To take the place of my fair, gentle, beautiful mother? That wave of household gossip which for ever surges behind the master's back was always breaking over me now, in expressions of pity for the motherless child of "the dear lady dead and gone."
"I don't like black hair," I announced one day at luncheon; "I like beautiful, shining, golden hair, like poor mamma's."
"Don't talk nonsense, Reginald," said my father, angrily, and shortly afterwards I was dismissed to the nursery.
If I had only had my childish memory to trust to, I do not think that I could have kept so clear a remembrance of my mother as I had. But in my father's dressing-room there hung a water-colour sketch of his young wife, with me—her first baby—on her lap. It was a very happy portrait. The little one was nestled in her arms, and she herself was just looking up with a bright smile of happiness and pride. That look came full at the spectator, and perhaps it was because it was so very lifelike that I had (ever since I could remember) indulged a curious freak of childish sentiment by nodding to the picture and saying, "Good-morning, mamma," whenever I came into the room. Such little superstitions become part of one's life, and I freely confess that I salute that portrait still! I remember, too, that as time went on I lost sight of the fact that it was I who lay on my mother's lap, and always regarded the two as Mamma and Sister Alice—that ever-baby sister whom I had once kissed, and no more. I generally saw them at least once a day, for it was my privilege to play in my father's dressing-room during part of his toilet, and we had a stereotyped joke between us in reference to his shaving, which always ended in my receiving a piece of the creamy lather on the tip of my nose.
But it was one evening when the shadow hanging over the household was deepest upon me, that I slipped unobserved out of the drawing-room where Miss Burton was "performing" on my mother's piano, and crept slowly and sadly upstairs. I went slowly, partly out of my heavy grief, and partly because I carried Rubens in my arms. Had not the lawyer kicked him because he lay upon the pedal? I was resolved that after such an insult he should not so much as have the trouble of walking upstairs. So I carried him, and as I went I condoled with him.
"Did the nasty man kick him? My poor Ru, my darling, dear Ru! The pedal is yours, and not his, and the whole house is yours, and not his nor Miss Burton's; and oh, I wish they would go!"
As I whined, Rubens whined; as I kissed him he licked me, and the result was unfavourable to balance, and I was obliged to sit down on a step. And as I sat I wept, and as I wept that overpowering mother-need came over me, which drives even the little ragamuffin of the gutter to carry his complaints to "mother" for comfort and redress. And I took up Rubens in my arms again, sobbing, and saying, "I shall go to Mamma!" and so weeping and in the darkness we crept into the dressing-room.
I could see nothing, but I knew well where "Mamma" was, and standing under the picture, I sobbed out my incoherent complaint.
"Good-evening, Mamma! Good-evening, Sister Alice! Please, Mamma, it's me and Rubens." (Sobs on my part, and frantic attempts by Rubens to lick every inch of my face at once.) "And please, Mamma, we're very miser-r-r-r-rable. And oh! please, Mamma, don't let papa marry Miss Burton. Please, please don't, dear, beautiful, golden Mamma! And oh! how we wish you could come back! Rubens and I."
My voice died away with a wail which was dismally echoed by Rubens. Then, suddenly, in the darkness came a sob that was purely human, and I was clasped in a woman's arms, and covered with tender kisses and soothing caresses. For one wild moment, in my excitement, and the boundless faith of childhood, I thought my mother had heard me, and come back.
But it was only Nurse Bundle. She had been putting away some clothes in my father's bedroom, and had been drawn to the dressing-room by hearing my voice.
I think this scene decided her to take some active steps. I feel convinced that in some way it was through her influence that a letter of invitation was despatched the following day to Aunt Maria.
AUNT MARIA—THE ENEMY ROUTED—LONDON TOWN
Aunt Maria was my father's sister. She was married to a wealthy gentleman, and had a large family of children. It was from her that we originally got Nurse Bundle; and anecdotes of her and of my cousins, and wonderful accounts of London (where they lived), had long figured conspicuously in Mrs. Bundle's nursery chronicles.
Aunt Maria came, and Uncle Ascott came with her.
It is not altogether without a reason that I speak of them in this order. Aunt Maria was the active partner of their establishment. She was a clever, vigorous, well-educated, inartistic, kindly, managing woman. She was not exactly "meddling," but when she thought it her duty to interfere in a matter, no delicacy of scruples, and no nervousness baulked the directness of her proceedings. When she was most sweeping or uncompromising, Uncle Ascott would say, "My dear Maria!" But it was generally from a spasm of nervous cowardice, and not from any deliberate wish to interrupt Aunt Maria's course of action. He trusted her entirely.
Aunt Maria was very shrewd, and that long interview with Nurse Bundle in her own room was hardly needed to acquaint her with the condition of domestic politics in our establishment. She "took in" the Burtons with one glance. The ladies "fell out" the following evening. The Burtons left Dacrefield the next morning, and at lunch Aunt Maria "pulled them to pieces" with as little remorse as a cook would pluck a partridge. I never saw Miss Eliza Burton again.
Aunt Maria did not fondle or spoil me. She might perhaps have shown more tenderness to her brother's only and motherless child; but, after Miss Burton, hers was a fault on the right side. She had a kindly interest in me, and she showed it by asking me to pay her a visit in London.
"It will do the child good, Regie," she said to my father. "He will be with other children, and all our London sights will be new to him. I will take every care of him, and you must come up and fetch him back. It will do you good too."
"To be sure!" chimed in Uncle Ascott, patting me good-naturedly on the head; "Master Reginald will fancy himself in Fairy Land. There are the Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's Waxwork Exhibition, and the Pantomime, and no one knows what besides! We shall make him quite at home! He and Helen are just the same age, I think, and Polly's a year or so younger, eh, mamma?"
"Nineteen months," said Aunt Maria, decisively; and she turned once more to my father, upon whom she was urging certain particulars.
It was with unfeigned joy that I heard my father say,
"Well, thank you, Maria. I do think it will do him good. And I'll certainly come and look you and Robert up myself."
There was only one drawback to my pleasure, when the much anticipated time of my first visit to London came. Aunt Maria did not like dogs; Uncle Ascott too said that "they were very rural and nice for the country, but that they didn't do in a town house. Besides which, Regie," he added, "such a pretty dog as Rubens would be sure to be stolen. And you wouldn't like that."
"I will take good care of Rubens, my boy," added my father; and with this promise I was obliged to content myself.
The excitement and pleasure of the various preparations for my visit were in themselves a treat. There had been some domestic discussion as to a suitable box for my clothes, and the matter was not quickly settled. There happened to be no box of exactly the convenient size in the house, and it was proposed to pack my things with Nurse Bundle's in one of the larger cases. This was a disappointment to my dignity; and I ventured to hint that I "should like a trunk all to myself, like a grown-up gentleman," without, however, much hope that my wishes would be fulfilled. The surprise was all the pleasanter when, on the day before our departure, there arrived by the carrier's cart from our nearest town a small, daintily-finished trunk, with a lock and key to it, and my initials in brass nails upon the outside. It was a parting gift from my father.
"I like young ladies and gentlemen to have things nice about 'em," Nurse Bundle observed, as we prepared to pack my trunk. "Then they takes a pride in their things, and so it stands to reason they takes more care of 'em."
To this excellent sentiment I gave my heartiest assent, and proceeded to illustrate it by the fastidious care with which I selected and folded the clothes I wished to take. As I examined my socks for signs of wear and tear, and then folded them by the ingenious process of grasping the heels and turning them inside out, in imitation of Nurse Bundle, an idea struck me, based upon my late reading and approaching prospects of travel.
"Nurse," said I, "I think I should like to learn to darn socks, because, you know, I might want to know how, if I was cast away on a desert island."
"If ever you find yourself on a desolate island, Master Reginald," said Nurse Bundle, "just you write straight off to me, and I'll come and do them kind of things for you."
"Well," said I, "only mind you bring Rubens, if I haven't got him."
For I had dim ideas that some Robinson Crusoe adventures might befall me before I returned home from this present expedition.
My father's place was about sixty miles from London. Mr. and Mrs. Ascott had come down in their own carriage, and were to return the same way.
I was to go with them, and Nurse Bundle also. She was to sit in the rumble of the carriage behind. Every particular of each new arrangement afforded me great amusement; and I could hardly control my impatience for the eventful day to arrive.
It came at last. There was very early breakfast for us all in the dining-room. No appetite, however, had I; and very cruel I thought Aunt Maria for insisting that I should swallow a certain amount of food, as a condition of being allowed to go at all. My enforced breakfast over, I went to look for Rubens. Ever since the day when it was first settled that I should go, the dear dog had kept close, very close at my heels. That depressed and aimless wandering about which always afflicts the dogs of the household when any of the family are going away from home was strong upon him. After the new trunk came into my room, Rubens took into his head a fancy for lying upon it; and though the brass nails must have been very uncomfortable, and though my bed was always free to him, on the box he was determined to be, and on the box he lay for hours together.
It was on the box that I found him, in the portico, despite the cords which now added a fresh discomfort to his self-chosen resting-place. I called to him, but though he wagged his tail he seemed disinclined to move, and lay curled up with one eye shut and one fixed on the carriage at the door.
"He's been trying to get into the carriage, sir," said the butler.
"You want to go too, poor Ruby, don't you?" I said; and I went in search of meats to console him.
He accepted a good breakfast from my hands with gratitude, and then curled himself up with one eye watchful as before. The reason of his proceedings was finally made evident by his determined struggles to accompany us at the last; and it was not till he had been forcibly shut up in the coach-house that we were able to start. My grief at parting with him was lessened by the distraction of another question.
Of all places about our equipage, I should have preferred riding with the postilion. Short of that, I was most anxious to sit behind in the rumble with my nurse. This favour was at length conceded, and after a long farewell from my father, gilded with a sovereign in my pocket, I was, with a mountain of wraps, consigned to the care of Nurse Bundle in the back seat.
The dew was still on the ground, the birds sang their loudest, the morning air was fresh and delicious, and before we had driven five miles on our way I could have eaten three such breakfasts as the one I had rejected at six o'clock. In the first two villages through which we drove people seemed to be only just getting up and beginning the day's business. In one or two "genteel" houses the blinds were still down; in reference to which I resolved that when I grew up I would not waste the best part of the day in bed, with the sun shining, the birds singing, the flowers opening, and country people going about their business, all beyond my closed windows.
"Nurse, please, I should like always to have breakfast at six o'clock. Do you hear, Nursey?" I added, for Mrs. Bundle feigned to be absorbed in contemplating a flock of sheep which were being driven past us.
"Very well, my dear. We'll see."
That "we'll see" of Nurse Bundle's was a sort of moral soothing-syrup which she kept to allay inconvenient curiosity and over-pertinacious projects in the nursery.
I had soon reason to decide that if I had breakfast at six, luncheon would not be unacceptable at half-past ten, at about which time I lost sight of the scenery and confined my attention to a worsted workbag in which Nurse Bundle had a store of most acceptable buns. Halting shortly after this to water the horses, a glass of milk was got for me from a wayside inn, over the door of which hung a small gate, on whose bars the following legend was painted:—
"This gate hangs well And hinders none. Refresh and pay, And travel on."
"Did you put that up?" I inquired of the man who brought my milk.
"No, sir. It's been there long enough," was his reply.
"What does 'hinders none' mean?" I asked.
The man looked back, and considered the question.
"It means as it's not in the way of nothing. It don't hinder nobody," he replied at last.
"It couldn't if it wanted to," said I; "for it doesn't reach across the road. If it did, I suppose it would be a tollbar."
"He's a rum little chap, that!" said the waiter to Nurse Bundle, when he had taken back my empty glass. And he unmistakably nodded at me.
"What is a rum little chap, Nurse?" I inquired when we had fairly started once more.
"It's very low language," said Mrs. Bundle, indignantly; and this fact depressed me for several miles.
At about half-past eleven we rattled into Farnham, and stopped to lunch at "The Bush." I was delighted to get down from my perch, and to stretch my cramped legs by running about in the charming garden behind that celebrated inn. Dim bright memories are with me still of the long-windowed parlour opening into a garden verdant with grass, and stately yew hedges, and formal clipped trees; gay, too, with bright flowers, and mysterious with a walk winding under an arch of the yew hedge to the more distant bowling-green. On one side of this arch an admirably-carved stone figure in broadcoat and ruffles played perpetually upon a stone fiddle to an equally spirited shepherdess in hoop and high heels, who was for ever posed in dancing posture upon her pedestal and never danced away. As I wandered round the garden whilst luncheon was being prepared, I was greatly taken with these figures, and wondered if it might be that they were an enchanted prince and princess turned to stone by some wicked witch, envious of their happiness in the peaceful garden amid the green alleys and fragrant flowers. As I ate my luncheon I felt as if I were consuming what was their property, and pondered the supposition that some day the spell might be broken, and the stone-bound couple came down from those high pedestals, and go dancing and fiddling into the Farnham streets.
They showed no symptoms of moving whilst we remained, and, duly refreshed, we now proceeded on our way. I rejected the offer of a seat inside the carriage with scorn, and Nurse and I clambered back to our perch. No easy matter for either of us, by the way!—Nurse Bundle being so much too large, and I so much too small, to compass the feat with anything approaching to ease.
I was greatly pleased with the dreary beauties of Bagshot Heath, and Nurse Bundle (to whom the whole journey was familiar) enlivened this part of our way by such anecdotes of Dick Turpin, the celebrated highwayman, as she deemed suitable for my amusement. With what interest I gazed at the little house by the roadside where Turpin was wont to lodge, and where, arriving late one night, he demanded beef-steak for supper in terms so peremptory that, there being none in the house, the old woman who acted as his housekeeper was obliged to walk, then and there, to the nearest town to procure it! This and various other incidents of the robber's career I learned from Nurse Bundle, who told me that traditions of his exploits and character were still fresh in the neighbouring villages.
At Virginia Water we dined and changed horses. We stayed here longer than was necessary, that I might see the lake and the ship; and Uncle Ascott gave sixpence to an old man with a wooden leg who told us all about it. And still I declined an inside place, and went back with Nurse Bundle to the rumble. Early rising and the long drive began to make me sleepy. The tame beauties of the valley of the Thames drew little attention from my weary eyes; and I do not remember much about the place where we next halted, except that the tea tasted of hay, and that the bread and butter were good.
I gazed dreamily at Hounslow, despite fresh tales of Dick Turpin; and all the successive "jogs" by which Nurse called my incapable attention to the lamplighters, the shops, the bottles in the chemists' windows, and Hyde Park, failed to rouse me to any intelligent appreciation of the great city, now that I had reached it. After a long weary dream of rattle and bustle, and dim lamps, and houses stretching upwards like Jack's beanstalk through the chilly and foggy darkness, the carriage stopped with one final jolt in a quiet and partially-lighted square; and I was lifted down, and staggered into a house where the light was as abundant and overpowering as it was feeble and inefficient without, and, cramped in my limbs, and smothered with shawls, I could only beg in my utter weariness to be put to bed.
Aunt Maria was always sensible, and generally kind.
"Bring him at once to his room, Mrs. Bundle," she said, "and get his clothes off, and I will bring him some hot wine and water and a few rusks." As in a dream, I was undressed, my face and hands washed, my prayers said in a somewhat perfunctory fashion, and my evening hymn commuted in consideration of my fatigues for the beautiful verse, "I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest," etc.; and by the time that I sank luxuriously between the clean sheets, I was almost sufficiently restored to appreciate the dainty appearance of my room. Then Aunt Maria brought me the hot wine and water flavoured with sleep-giving cloves, and Nurse folded my clothes, and tucked me up, and left me, with the friendly reflection of the lamps without to keep me company.
I do not think I had really been to sleep, but I believe I was dozing, when I fancied that I heard the familiar sound of Rubens lapping water from the toilette jug in my room at home. Just conscious that I was not there, and that Rubens could not be here, the sound began to trouble me. At first I was too sleepy to care to look round. Then as I became more awake and the sound not less distinct, I felt fidgety and frightened, and at last called faintly for Nurse Bundle.
Then the sound stopped. I could hardly breathe, and had just resolved upon making a brave sally for assistance, when—plump! something alighted on my bed, and, wildly impossible as it seemed, Rubens himself waggled up to my pillow, and began licking my face as if his life depended on laying my nose and all other projecting parts of my countenance flat with my cheeks.
How he had got to London we never knew. As he made an easy escape from the coach-house at Dacrefield, it was always supposed that he simply followed the carriage, and had the wit to hide himself when we stopped on the road. He was terribly tired. He might well be thirsty!
I levied large contributions on the box of rusks which Aunt Maria had left by my bedside, for his benefit, and he supped well.
Then he curled himself up in his own proper place at my feet. He was intensely self-satisfied, and expressed his high idea of his own exploit by self-gratulatory "grumphs," as after describing many mystic circles, and scraping up the fair Marseilles quilt on some plan of his own, he brought his nose and tail together in a satisfactory position in his nest, and we passed our first night in London in dreamless and profound sleep.
MY COUSINS—MISS BLOMFIELD—THE BOY IN BLACK
My first letter to my father was the work of several days, and as my penmanship was not of a rapid order, it cost me a good deal of trouble. When it was finished it ran thus:
MY DEAR PAPA,
I hope you are quite well. i am quite well. Rubens is here and he is quite well. We dont no how he got here but i am verry glad. Ant Maria said well he cant be sent back now so he sleeps on my bed and i like London it is a kweer place the houses are very big and i like my cussens pretty well they are all gals their nozes are very big i like Polly.
Nurse is quite well so good-bye.
i am your very loving son,
Though I cannot defend the spelling of the above document, I must say that it does not leave much to be added to the portrait of my cousins. But it will be more polite to introduce them separately, as they were presented to me.
I heard them, by the bye, before I saw them. It was whilst I was dressing, the morning after my arrival, that I heard sounds in the room below, which were interpreted by Nurse as being "Miss Maria doing her music." The peculiarity of Miss Maria's music was that after a scramble over the notes, suggestive of some one running to get impetus for a jump, and when the ear waited impatiently for the consummation, Miss Maria baulked her leap, so to speak, and got no farther, and began the scramble again, and stuck once more, and so on. And as, whilst finding the running passage quite too much for one hand, she struggled on with a different phrase in the other hand at the same time, instead of practising the two hands separately, her chances of final success seemed remote indeed. Then I heard the performance in peculiar circumstances. Nurse Bundle had opened my window, and about two minutes after my cousin commenced her practice, an organ-grinder in the street below began his. The subject of poor Maria's piece knew no completion, as she stuck halfway; but the organ-grinder's melodies only stopped for a touch to the mechanism, and Black-Eyed Susan passed into the Old Hundredth, awkwardly, but with hardly a perceptible pause. The effect of the joint performance was at first ludicrous, and by degrees maddening, especially when we had come to the Old Hundredth, which was so familiar in connection with the words of the Psalm.
"Three and four and—" began poor Maria afresh, with desperate resolution; and then off she went up the key-board; "one and two and three and four and, one and two and three and four and—"
"—joy—His—courts—un—to," ground the organ in the inevitable pause. And then my cousin took courage and made another start—"Three and four and one and two and," etc.; but at the old place the nasal notes of the other instrument evoked "al—ways," from my memory; and Maria pausing in despair, the Old Hundredth finished triumphantly, "For—it—is—seemly—so—to—do."
At half-past eight Maria stopped abruptly in the middle of her run, and Nurse took me down to the school-room for breakfast.
The school-room was high and narrow, with a very old carpet, and a very old piano, some books, two globes, and a good deal of feminine rubbish in the way of old work-baskets, unfinished sewing, etc. There were two long windows, the lower halves of which were covered with paint. This mattered the less as the only view from them was of backyards, roofs, and chimneys. Living as I did, so much alone with my father, I was at first oppressed by the number of petticoats in the room—five girls of ages ranging from twelve to six, and a grown-up lady in a spare brown stuff dress and spectacles.
As we entered she came quickly forward and shook Nurse by the hand.
"How do you do, Mrs. Bundle? Very glad to see you again, Mrs. Bundle."
Nurse Bundle shook hands first, and curtsied afterwards.
"I'm very well, thank you, ma'am, and hope you're the same. Master Reginald Dacre, ma'am. This lady is Miss Blomfield, Master Reginald; and I hope you'll behave properly, and give the lady no trouble."
"I'm the governess, my dear," said Miss Blomfield, emphatically. (She always "made a point" of announcing her dependent position to strangers. "It is best to avoid any awkwardness," she was wont to say; and I saw glances and smiles exchanged on this occasion between the girls.) Miss Blomfield was very kind to me. Indeed she was kind to every one. Her other peculiarities were conscientiousness and the fidgets, and tendencies to fine crochet, calomel, and Calvinism, and an abiding quality of harassing and being harassed, which I may here say is, I am convinced, a common and most unfortunate atmosphere of much of the process of education for girls of the upper and middle classes in England.
At this moment my aunt came in.
"Good morning, Miss Blomfield."
"Good morning, Mrs. Ascott," the governess hastily interposed. "I hope you're well this morning."
"Good morning, girls. Good morning, Nurse. How do you, Regie? All right this morning? Bless me, there's that dog! What an extraordinary affair it is! Mr. Ascott says he shall send it to the 'Gentleman's Magazine.' Well, he can't be sent back now, so I suppose he'll have to stop. And you must keep him out of mischief, Regie. Remember, he's not to come into the drawing-room. Mrs. Bundle, will you see to that? Miss Blomfield, will you kindly speak to Signor Rigi when he comes to-morrow—"
"Certainly, Mrs. Ascott," interposed the governess.
"—about that piece of Maria's? She doesn't seem to get on with it a bit."
"No, Mrs. Ascott."
"And I'm sure she's been practising it for a long time."
"Yes, Mrs. Ascott."
"Mr. Ascott says it makes his hand quite unsteady when he's shaving in the morning, to hear her always break off at one place."
The lines of harass on Miss Blomfield's countenance deepened visibly, and her crochet-needle trembled in her hand, whilst a despondent stolidity settled on Maria's face.
"Certainly, Mrs. Ascott. I'm very glad you've spoken. Thank you for mentioning it, Mrs. Ascott. It has distressed me very greatly, and been a great trouble on my mind for some time. I spoke very seriously to Maria last Sabbath on the subject" (symptoms of sniffling on poor Maria's part). "I believe she wishes to do her duty, and I may say I am anxious to do mine, in my position. Of course, Mrs. Ascott, I know you've a right to expect an improvement, and I shall be most happy to rise half an hour earlier, so as to give her a longer practice than the other young ladies, and only consider it my duty as your governess, Mrs. Ascott. I've felt it a great trouble, for I cannot imagine how it is that Maria does not improve in her music as Jane does, and I give them equal attention exactly; and what makes it more singular still is that Maria is very good at her sums—I have no fault to find whatever. But I regret to say it is not the case with Jane. I told her on Wednesday that I did not wish to make any complaint; but I feel it a duty, Mrs. Ascott, to let you know that her marks for arithmetic are not what you have a right to expect."
Here Miss Blomfield paused and wiped her eyes. Not that she was weeping, but over and above her short-sightedness she was troubled with a dimness of vision, which afflicted her more at some times than others. As she was in the habit of endeavouring to counteract the evils of a too constantly laborious and sedentary life, and of an anxious and desponding temperament, by large doses of calomel, her malady increased with painfully rapid strides. On this particular morning she had been busy since five o'clock, and neither she nor the girls (who rose at six) had had anything to eat, and they were all somewhat faint for want of a breakfast which was cooling on the table. Meanwhile a "humming in the head," to which she was subject, rendered Maria mercifully indifferent to the proposal to add an extra half-hour to her distasteful labours; and Miss Blomfield corrugated her eyebrows, and was conscientiously distressed and really puzzled that Mother Nature should give different gifts to her children, when their mother and teachers according to the flesh were so particular to afford them an equality of "advantages."
"Signor Rigi told me that Maria has not got so good an ear as Jane," said Mrs. Ascott. "However, perhaps it will be well to let Maria practise half an hour, and Jane do half an hour at her arithmetic on Saturday afternoons."
"Certainly, Mrs. Ascott."
"And now," said my aunt, "I must introduce the girls to Reginald. This is Maria, your eldest cousin, and nearly double your age, for she is twelve. This is Jane, two years younger. This is Helen; she is nine, and as tall as Jane, you see. This is Harriet, eight. And this is Mary—Polly, as papa calls her—and she is nineteen months younger than you, and a terrible tomboy already; so don't make her worse. This is your cousin, girls, Reginald Dacre. You must amuse him among you, and don't tease him, for he is not used to children."
We "shook hands" all round, and I liked Polly's hand the best. It was least froggy, cold, and spiritless.
Then Mrs. Ascott departed, and Maria (overpowered by the humming) "flopped" into her chair after a fashion that would certainly have drawn a rebuke from Miss Blomfield if an access of eye-dimness had not carried her to her own seat with little more grace.
Uncle Ascott had a large nose, and my cousins were the image of him and of each other. They were plain, lady-like, rather bouncing girls, with aquiline noses, voices with a family twang that was slightly nasal, long feet terribly given to chilblains, and long fingers, with which they all by turns practised the same exercises on the old piano on successive mornings before breakfast. When we became more intimate, I used to keep watch on the clock for the benefit of the one who was practising. At half-past eight she was released, and shutting up the book with a bang would scamper off, in summer to stretch herself, and in winter to warm her hands and toes. I used to watch their fingers with childish awe, wondering how such thin pieces of flesh and bone hit such hard blows to the notes without cracking, and being also somewhat puzzled by the run of good luck which seemed to direct their weak and random-looking skips and jumps to the keys at which they were aimed. I have seen them in tears over their "music," as it was called, but they were generally persevering, and in winter (so I afterwards discovered) invariably blue.
It was not till we had finished breakfast that Miss Blomfield became fairly conscious of the presence of Rubens, and when she did so her alarm was very great.
Considering what she suffered from her own proper and peculiar worries, it seemed melancholy to have to add to her burdens the hourly expectation of an outbreak of hydrophobia.
In vain I testified to the sweetness of Rubens' temper. It is undeniable that dogs do sometimes bite when you least expect it, and that some bites end in hydrophobia; and it was long before Miss Blomfield became reconciled to this new inmate of the school-room.
The girls, on the contrary, were delighted with my dog; and it was on this ground that we became friendly. My particular affection for Polly was also probably due to the discovery that with an incomparably stolid expression of countenance she was passing highly buttered pieces of bread under the table to Rubens at breakfast.
Polly was my chief companion. The other girls were good-natured, but they were constantly occupied in the school-room, and hours that were not nominally "lesson time" were given to preparing tasks for the next day. By a great and very unusual concession, Polly's lessons were shortened that she might bear me company. For the day or two before this was decided on I had been very lonely, and Cousin Polly's holiday brought much satisfaction both to me and to her; but it filled poor Miss Blomfield's mind with disquietude, scruples, and misgivings.
In the middle of the square where my uncle and aunt lived there was a garden, with trees, and grass, and gravel-walks; and here Polly and I played at hide and seek, and ran races, and chased each other and Rubens.
The garden was free to all dwellers in the square, and several other children besides ourselves were wont to play there. One day as I was strolling about, a little boy whom I had not seen before came down the walk and crossed the grass. He seemed to be a year or two older than myself, and caught my eye immediately by his remarkable beauty, and by the depth of the mourning which he wore. His features were exquisitely cut, and, in a child, one was not disposed to complain of their effeminacy. His long fair hair was combed—in royal fashion—down his back, a style at that time most unusual; his tightly-fitting jacket and breeches were black, bordered with deep crape; not even a white collar relieved his sombre attire, from which his fair face shone out doubly fair by contrast.
"Polly! Polly!" I cried, running to find my companion and guide, "who is that beautiful boy in black?"
"That's little Sir Lionel Damer," said Polly. "Good-morning, Leo!" and she nodded as he passed.
The boy just touched his hat, bent his head with a melancholy and yet half-comical dignity, and walked on.
"Who's he in mourning for?" I asked.
"His father and mother," said Polly. "They were drowned together, and now he is Sir Lionel."
I looked after him with sudden and intense sympathy. His mother and his father too! This indeed was sorrow deeper than mine. Surely his mother, like mine, must have been fair and beautiful, so much beauty and fairness had descended to him.
"Has he any sisters, Polly?" I asked.
Polly shook her head. "I don't think he has anybody," said she.
Then he also was an only son!
THE LITTLE BARONET—DOLLS—CINDER PARCELS—THE OLD GENTLEMAN NEXT DOOR—THE ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS
The next time I saw Sir Lionel was about two days afterwards, in the afternoon, when the elder girls had gone for a drive in the carriage with Aunt Maria, and the others, with myself, were playing in the garden; Miss Blomfield being seated on a camp-stool reading a terrible article on "Rabies" in the Medical Dictionary.
Rubens and I had strolled away from the rest, and I was exercising him in some of his tricks when the little baronet passed us with his accustomed air of mingled melancholy, dignity, and self-consciousness. I was a good deal fascinated by him. Beauty has a strong attraction for children, and the depth of his weeds invested him with a melancholy interest, which has also great charms for the young. Then, to crown all, he mourned the loss of a young mother—and so did I. I involuntarily showed off Rubens as he approached, and he lingered and watched us. By a sort of impulse I took off my little hat, as I had been taught to do to strangers. He lifted his with a dismal grace and moved on.
But as he walked about I could see that he kept looking to where Rubens and I played upon the grass, and at last he came and sat down near us.
"Is that your dog?" he asked.
"Yes he's my dog," I answered.
"He seems very clever," said Sir Lionel. "Did you teach him all those tricks yourself?"
"Very nearly all," said I. "Rubens, shake hands with Sir Lionel."
"How do you know my name?" he asked.
"Polly told me," said I.
"Do you know Polly?" Sir Lionel inquired.
I stared, forgetting that of course he did not know who I was, and answered—
"She's my cousin."
"What's your name?" he asked.
I told him.
"Do you like Polly?" he continued.
"Very much," I said, warmly.
It was with a ludicrous imitation of some grown-up person's manner that he added, in perfect gravity—
"I hope you are not in love with her?"
"Oh, dear no!" I cried, hastily, for I had had enough of that joke with Miss Eliza Burton.
"Then that is all right," said the little baronet; "let us be friends." And friends we became. "Call me Leo, and I'll call you Reginald," said the little gentleman; and so it was.
I think it is not doing myself more than justice if I say that to this, my first friendship, I was faithful and devoted. Leo, for his part, was always affectionate, and he had an admiration for Rubens which went a long way with Rubens' master. But he was a little spoiled and capricious, and, like many people of rather small capacities (whether young or old), he was often unintentionally inconsiderate. In those days my affection waited willingly upon his; but I know now that in a quiet amiable way he was selfish. I was blessed myself with an easy temper, and at that time it had ample opportunities of accommodating itself to the whims of my friend Leo and my cousin Polly. Not that Polly was like Sir Lionel in any way whatever. But she was quick-tempered and resolute. She was much more clever for her age than I was for mine. She was very decided and rapid in her views and proceedings, very generous and affectionate also, and not at all selfish. But her qualities and those of Leo came to the same thing as far as I was concerned. I invariably yielded to them both.
Between themselves, I may say, they squabbled systematically, and were never either friends or enemies for two days together.
Polly and I never quarrelled. I did her behests manfully, as a general rule; and if her sway became intolerable, I complained and bewailed, on which she relented, being as easily moved to pity as to wrath.
As the weather grew more chill, we seldom went out except in the morning. In the afternoon Polly and I (sometimes accompanied by Leo) played in the nursery at the top of the house.
Now and then the other girls would come up, and "play at dolls" with Polly. On these occasions the treatment I experienced was certainly hard. They were soon absorbed in dressing and undressing, sham meals, sham lessons, and all the domestic romance of doll-life, in which, according to my poor abilities, I should have been most happy to have taken a part. But, on the unwarrantable assumption that "boys could not play at dolls," the only part assigned me in the puppet comedy was to take the dolls' dirty clothes to and from an imaginary wash in a miniature wheelbarrow. I did for some time assume the character of dolls' medical man with considerable success; but having vaccinated the kid arm of one of my patients too deeply on a certain occasion with a big pin, she suffered so severely from loss of bran that I was voted a practitioner of the old school, and dismissed. I need hardly say that this harsh decision proved the ruin of my professional prospects, and I was sent back to my wheelbarrow. It was when we were tired of our ordinary amusements, during a week of wet weather, that Polly and I devised a new piece of fun to enliven the monotony of the hours when we were shut up in that town nursery at the top of the house.
Outside the nursery-windows were iron bars—a sensible precaution of Aunt Maria against accidents to "the little ones." One day when the window was slightly open, and Polly and I were hanging on the window-ledge, in attitudes that fully justified the precautionary measure of a grating, a bit of paper which was rolled up in Polly's hand escaped from her grasp, and floated down into the street. In a moment Polly and I were standing on the window-ledge, peering down—to the best of our ability—into the square and into the area depths below. Like a snow-flake in summer, we saw our paper-twist lying on the pavement; but our delight rose to ecstasy when a portly passer-by stooped and picked up the document and carefully examined it.
Out of this incident arose a systematic amusement, which, in advance of our age, we called "the parcel post."
By shoving aside the fire-guard in the absence of our nurses, we obtained some cinders, with which we repaired to our post at the window, thus illustrating that natural proclivity of children to places of danger which is the bane of parents and guardians. Here we fastened up little fragments of cinder in pieces of writing-paper, and having secured them tidily with string, we dropped these parcels through the iron bars as into a post-office. It was a breathless moment when they fell through space like shooting stars. It was a triumph if they cleared the area. But the aim and the end of our labours was to see one of our missives attract the notice of a passer-by, then excite his curiosity, and finally—if he opened it—rouse his unspeakable disgust and disappointment.
Like other tricksters, our game lasted long because of the ever-green credulity of our "public." In the ever-fresh stream of human life which daily flowed beneath our windows, there were sure to be one or more pedestrians who, with varying expressions of conscientious responsibility, unprincipled appropriation, or mere curiosity, would open our parcels, either to ascertain what trinket should be restored to its owner, or to keep what was to be got, or to see what there was to be seen.
One day when we dropped one of our parcels at the feet of a lady who was going by, she nonplussed us very effectually by ringing the bell and handing in to the footman "something which had been accidentally dropped from one of the upper windows." Fortunately for us the parcel did not reach Aunt Maria; Polly intercepted it.
As the passers-by never wearied of our parcels, I do not know when we should have got tired of our share of the fun, but for an occurrence which brought the amusement suddenly to an end. One afternoon we had made up the neatest of little white-paper parcels, worthy of having come from a jeweller's, and I clambered on to the window-seat that I might drop it successfully (and quite clear of the area) into the street. Just as I dropped it, there passed an elderly gentleman very precisely dressed, with a gold-headed cane, and a very well-brushed hat. Pop! I let the cinder parcel fall on to his beaver, from which it rebounded to his feet. The old gentleman looked quickly up, our eyes met, and I felt convinced that he saw that I had thrown it. I called Polly, and as she reached my side the old gentleman untied and examined the parcel. When he came to the cinder, he looked up once more, and Polly jumped from the window with a prolonged "Oh!"
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Oh, dear!" cried Polly; "it's the old gentleman next door!"
For several days we lived in unenviable suspense. Every morning did we expect to be summoned from the school-room to be scolded by Aunt Maria. Every afternoon we dreaded the arrival of "the old gentleman next door" to make his formal complaint, and, whenever the front-door bell rang, Polly and I literally "shook in our shoes."
But several days passed, and we heard nothing of it. We had given up the practice in our fright, but had some thoughts of beginning again, as no harm had come to us.
One evening (by an odd coincidence, my birthday was on the morrow) as Polly and I were putting away our playthings preparatory to being dressed to go down to dessert, a large brown-paper parcel was brought into the nursery addressed jointly to me and my cousin.
"It's a birthday present for you, Regie!" Polly cried.
"But there's your name on it, Polly," said I.
"It must be a mistake," said Polly. But she looked very much pleased, nevertheless; and so, I have no doubt, did I. We cut the string, we tore off the first thick covering. The present, whatever it might be, was securely wrapped a second time in finer brown paper and carefully tied.
"It's very carefully done up," said I, cutting the second string.
"It must be something nice," said Polly, decisively; "that's why it's taken such care of."
If Polly's reasoning were just, it must have been something very nice indeed, for under the second wrapper was a third, and under the third was a fourth, and under the fourth was a fifth, and under the fifth was a sixth, and under the sixth was a seventh. We were just on the point of giving it up in despair when we came to a box. With some difficulty we got the lid open, and took out one or two folds of paper. Then there was a lot of soft shavings, such as brittle toys and gimcracks are often packed in, and among the shavings was—a small neatly-folded white-paper parcel. And inside the parcel was a cinder.
We certainly looked very foolish as we stood before our present. I do not think any of the people we had taken in had looked so thoroughly and completely so. We were both on the eve of crying, and both ended by laughing. Then Polly—in those trenchant tones which recalled Aunt Maria forcibly to one's mind—said,
"Well! we quite deserve it."
The "parcel-post" was discontinued.
We had no doubt as to who had played us this trick. It was the old gentleman next door. He was a wealthy, benevolent, and rather eccentric old bachelor. It was his custom to take an early walk for the good of his health in the garden of the square, and he sometimes took an evening stroll in the same place for pleasure. Somehow or other he had made a speaking acquaintance with Miss Blomfield, and we afterwards discovered that he had made all needful inquiries as to the names, etc., of Polly and myself from her—she, however, being quite innocent as to the drift of his questions.
I should certainly not have selected the old gentleman's hat to drop our best parcel on to, if I had known who he was. I was not likely to forget his face now.
I soon got to know all our neighbours by sight. On one side of us was the old gentleman, whose name was Bartram; on the other side lived Sir Lionel Damer. He was staying with his guardian, an old Colonel Sinclair; and when my father came up to town he and this Colonel Sinclair discovered that they were old school-fellows, which Leo and I looked upon as a good omen for our friendship.
Polly and I and Nurse Bundle became as learned in gossip as any one else who lives in a town, and is constantly looking out of the window. We knew the (bird's-eye) appearance of everybody on our side of the square, their servants, their cats and dogs, their carriages, and even their tradesmen. If one of the neighbours changed his milkman, or there came so much as a new muffin man to the square, we were all agog. One day I saw Polly upon our perch, struggling to get her face close to the glass, and much hindered by the size of her nose. I felt sure that there was something down below—at least a new butcher's boy. So I was not surprised when she called me to "come and look."
"Who is it?" said Polly.
"I don't know," said I.
And then we both stared on, as if by downright hard looking we could discover the name of the gentleman who had just come down the steps from Colonel Sinclair's house. He was a short slight man, young, and with sandy hair. Neither of us had seen him before. Having the good fortune to see him return to Colonel Sinclair's house, about two hours later, I hurried with the news to Polly; and we resolved to get to see Leo as soon as possible, and satisfy our curiosity respecting the stranger. So in the afternoon we sent a message to invite him to come and play with us in the square, but we received the answer that "Sir Lionel was engaged."
Later on he came into the square, and the stranger with him. Polly and I and Rubens were together on a seat; but when Leo saw us he gave a scanty nod and went off in the opposite direction, leaning on the arm of the stranger and apparently absorbed in talking to him. I was rather hurt by his neglect of us. But Polly said positively,
"That is Leo's way. He likes new friends. But when he treats me like that, I do not speak to him for a week afterwards."
That evening a cab carried off the stranger, and next day Leo came to us in the square, all smiles and friendliness.
"I've been so wanting to see you!" he cried, in the most devoted tones. But Polly only took up her doll, and with her impressive nose in the air, walked off to the house.
I could not quarrel with Leo myself, and we were soon as friendly as ever.
"I want to tell you some news, Regie," he said. "Colonel Sinclair has decided that I am to have a tutor."
"Are you glad?" I asked.
"Yes, very," said Sir Lionel. "You see I like him very much—I mean the tutor. He was here yesterday. You saw him with me. He is going to be a clergyman. He has been at Cambridge, and he plays the flute."
For a long time Leo enlarged to me upon the merits of his tutor that was to be; and when I went back to Polly the news I had to impart served to atone for my not having joined her in snubbing the capricious Sir Lionel. As for him, he was very restless under Polly's displeasure, and finally apologized, on which Polly gave him a sound scolding, which, to my surprise, he took in the utmost good part, and we were all once more the best possible friends.
That visit to London was an era in my life. It certainly was most enjoyable, and it did me a world of good, body and mind. When my father came up, we enjoyed it still more. He coaxed holidays for the girls even out of Aunt Maria, and took us (Leo and all) to places of amusement. With him we went to the Zoological Gardens. The monkeys attracted me indescribably, and I seriously proposed to my father to adopt one or two of them as brothers for me. I felt convinced that if they were properly dressed and taught they would be quite companionable, and I said so, to my father's great amusement, and to the scandal of Nurse Bundle, who was with us.
"I fear you would never teach them to talk, Regie," said my father; "and a friend who could neither speak to you nor understand you when you spoke to him would be a very poor companion, even if he could dance on the top of a barrel-organ and crack hard nuts."
"But, papa, babies can't talk at first," said I; "they have to be taught."
Now by good luck for my argument there stood near us a country woman with a child in her arms to whom she was holding out a biscuit, repeating as she did so, "Ta!" in that expectant tone which is supposed to encourage childish efforts to pronounce the abbreviated form of thanks.
"Now look, papa!" I cried, "that's the way I should teach a monkey. If I were to hold out a bit of cake to him, and say, 'Ta,'"—(and as I spoke I did so to a highly intelligent little gentleman who sat close to the bars of the cage with his eyes on my face, as if he were well aware that a question of deep importance to himself was being discussed)—
"He would probably snatch it out of your hand without further ceremony," said my father. And, dashing his skinny fingers through the bars, this was, I regret to say, precisely what the little gentleman did. I was quite taken aback; but as we turned round, to my infinite delight, the undutiful baby snatched the biscuit from its mother's hand after a fashion so remarkably similar that we all burst out laughing, and I shouted in triumph,
"Now, papa! children do it too."
"Well, Regie," he answered, "I think you have made out a good case. But the question which now remains is, whether Mrs. Bundle will have your young friends in the nursery."
But Mrs. Bundle's horror at my remarks was too great to admit of her even entering into the joke.
The monkeys were somewhat driven from my mind by the wit and wisdom of the elephant, and the condescension displayed by so large an animal in accepting the light refreshment of penny buns. After he had had several, Leo began to tease him, holding out a bun and snatching it away again. As he was holding it out for the fourth or fifth time, the elephant extended his trunk as usual, but instead of directing it towards the bun, he deliberately snatched the black velvet cap from Leo's head and swallowed it with a grunt of displeasure. Leo was first frightened, and then a good deal annoyed by the universal roar of laughter which his misfortune occasioned. But he was a good-tempered boy, and soon joined in the laugh himself. Then, as we could not buy him a new cap in the Gardens, he was obliged to walk about for the rest of the time bare-headed; and many were the people who turned round to look a second time after the beautiful boy with the long fair hair—a fact of which Master Lionel was not quite unconscious, I think.
My aunt kindly pressed us to remain with her over Christmas. I longed to see the pantomime, having heard much from my cousins and from Leo of its delights—and of the harlequin, columbine, and clown. But my father wanted to be at home again, and he took me and Rubens and Nurse Bundle with him at the end of November.
POLLY AND I RESOLVE TO BE "VERY RELIGIOUS"—DR. PEPJOHN—THE ALMS-BOX—THE BLIND BEGGAR
I must not forget to speak of an incident which had a considerable influence on my character at this time. The church which my uncle and his family "attended," as it was called, was one of those most dreary places of worship too common at that time, in London and elsewhere. It was ugly outside, but the outside ugliness was as nothing compared with the ugliness within. The windows were long and bluntly rounded at the top, and the sunlight was modified by scanty calico blinds, which, being yellow with age and smoke, toned the light in rather an agreeable manner. Mouldings of a pattern one sees about common fireplaces ran everywhere with praiseworthy impartiality. But the great principle of the ornamental work throughout was a principle only too prevalent at the date when this particular church was last "done up." It was imitations of things not really there, and which would have been quite out of place if they had been there. For instance, pillars and looped-up curtains painted on flat walls, with pretentious shadows, having no reference to the real direction of the light. At the east end some Hebrew letters, executed as journeymen painters usually do execute them, had a less cheerful look than the highly-coloured lion and unicorn on the gallery in front. The clerk's box, the reading-desk, and the pulpit, piled one above another, had a symmetrical effect, to which the umbrella-shaped sounding-board above gave a distant resemblance to a Chinese pagoda. The only things which gave warmth or colour to the interior as a whole were the cushions and pew curtains. There were plenty of them, and they were mostly red. These same curtains added to the sense of isolation, which was already sufficiently attained by the height of the pew walls and their doors and bolts. I think it was this—and the fact that, as the congregation took no outward part in the prayers except that of listening to them, Polly and I had nothing to do—and we could not even hear the old gentleman who usually "read prayers"—which led us into the very reprehensible habit of "playing at houses" in Uncle Ascott's gorgeously furnished pew. Not that we left our too tightly stuffed seats for one moment, but as we sat or stood, unable to see anything beyond the bombazine curtains (which, intervening between us and the distant parson, made our hearing what he said next to impossible), we amused ourselves by mentally "pretending" a good deal of domestic drama, in which the pew represented a house; and we related our respective "plays" to each other afterwards when we went home.
Wrong as it was, we did not intend to be irreverent, though I had the grace to feel slightly shocked when after a cheerfully lighted evening service, at which the claims of a missionary society had been enforced, Polly confided to me, with some triumph in her tone, "I pretended a theatre, and when the man was going round with the box upstairs, I pretended it was oranges in the gallery."
I had more than once felt uneasy at our proceedings, and I now told Polly that I thought it was not right, and that we ought to "try to attend." I rather expected her to resent my advice, but she said that she had "sometimes thought it was wrong" herself; and we resolved to behave better for the future, and indeed really did give up our unseasonable game.
Few religious experiences fill one with more shame and self-reproach than the large results from very small efforts in the right direction. Polly and I prospered in our efforts to "attend." I may say for myself that, child as I was, I began to find a satisfaction and pleasure in going to church, though the place was hideous, the ritual dreary, and the minister mumbling. When by chance there was a nice hymn, such as, "Glory to Thee," or "O GOD, our help in ages past," we were quite happy. We also tried manfully to "attend" to the sermons, which, considering the length and abstruseness of them, was, I think, creditable to us. I fear we felt it to be so, and that about this time we began to be proud of the texts we knew, and of our punctilious propriety in the family pew, and of the resolve which we had taken in accordance with my proposal to Polly—
"Let us be very religious."
One Saturday Miss Blomfield was a good deal excited about a certain clergyman who was to preach in our church next Sunday, and as the services were now a matter of interest to us, Polly and I were excited too. I had been troubled with toothache all the week, but this was now better, and I was quite able to go to church with the rest of the family.
The general drift of the sermon, even its text, have long since faded from my mind; but I do remember that it contained so highly coloured a peroration on the Day of Judgment and the terrors of Hell, that my horror and distress knew no bounds; and when the sermon was ended, and we began to sing, "From lowest depths of woe," I burst into a passion of weeping. The remarkable part of the incident was that, the rest of the party having sat with their noses in the air quite undistressed by the terrible eloquence of the preacher, Aunt Maria never for a moment guessed at the real cause of my tears. But as soon as we were all in the carriage (it was a rainy evening, and we had driven to church), she said—
"That poor child will never have a minute's peace while that tooth's in his head. Thomas! Drive to Dr. Pepjohn's."
Polly did say, "Is it very bad, Regie?" But Aunt Maria answered for me—"Can't you see it's bad, child? Leave him alone."
I was ashamed to confess the real cause of my outburst, and suffered for my disingenuousness in Dr. Pepjohn's consulting-room.
"Show Dr. Pepjohn which it is, Regie," said my aunt; and, with tears that had now become simply hysterical, I pointed to the tooth that had ached.
"Just allow me to touch it," said Dr. Pepjohn, inserting his fat finger and thumb into my mouth. "I won't hurt you, my little man," he added, with the affable mendaciousness of his craft. Fortunately for me it was rather loose, and a couple of hard wrenches from the doctor's expert fingers brought it out.
"You think me very cruel, now, don't you, my little man?" said the jocose gentleman, as we were taking leave.
"I don't think you're cruel," I answered, candidly; "but I think you tell fibs, for it did hurt."
The doctor laughed long and loudly, and said I was quite an original, which puzzled me extremely. Then he gave me sixpence, with which I was much pleased, and we parted good friends.
My father was with us on the following Sunday, and he did not go to the church Aunt Maria went to. I went to the one to which he went. This church was very well built and appropriately decorated. The music was good, the responses of the congregation hearty, and the service altogether was much better adapted to awaken and sustain the interest of a child than those I had hitherto been to in London.
"You know we couldn't play houses in the church where Papa goes," I told Polly on my return, and I was very anxious that she should go with us to the evening service. She did go, but I am bound to confess that she decided on a loyal preference for the service to which she had been accustomed, and, like sensible people, we agreed to differ in our tastes.
"There's no clerk at your church, you know," said Polly, to whom a gap in the threefold ministry of clerk, reader, and preacher, symbolized by the "three-decker" pulpit, was ill atoned for by the chanting of the choir.
In quite a different way, I was as much impressed by the sermons at the new church as I had been by that which cost me a tooth.
One sermon especially upon the duties of visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, made an impression on me that years did not efface. I made the most earnest resolutions to be active in deeds of kindness "when I was a man," and, not being troubled by considerations of political economy, I began my charitable career by dividing what pocket money I had in hand amongst the street-sweepers and mendicants nearest to our square.
I soon converted Polly to my way of thinking; and we put up a money-box in the nursery, in imitation of the alms-box in church. I am ashamed to confess that I was guilty of the meanness of changing a sixpence which I had dedicated to our "charity-box" into twelve half-pence, that I might have the satisfaction of making a dozen distinct contributions to the fund.
But, despite all its follies, vanities, and imperfections (and what human efforts for good are not stained with folly, vanity, and imperfection?), our benevolence was not without sincerity or self-denial, and brought its own invariable reward of increased willingness to do more; according to the deep wisdom of the poet—
"In doing is this knowledge won: To see what yet remains undone."
We really did forego many a toy and treat to add to our charitable store; and I began then a habit of taxing what money I possessed, by taking off a fixed proportion for "charity," which I have never discontinued, and to the advantages of which I can most heartily testify. When a self-indulgent civilization goads all classes to live beyond their incomes, and tempts them not to include the duty of almsgiving in the expenditure of those incomes, it is well to remove a due proportion of what one has beyond the reach of the ever-growing monster of extravagance; and, being decided upon in an unbiased and calm moment, it is the less likely to be too much for one's domestic claims, or too little for one's religious duty. It frees one for ever from that grudging and often comical spasm of meanness which attacks so many even wealthy people when they are asked to give, because, among all the large "expenses" to which their goods are willingly made liable, the expense of giving alms of those goods has never been fairly counted as an item not less needful, not less imperative, not less to be felt as a deduction from the remainder, not less life-long and daily, than the expenses of rent, and dress, and dinner-parties.
We had, as I say, no knowledge of political economy, and it must be confessed that the objects of our charity were on more than one occasion most unworthy.