Black, White and Grey; a Story of Three Homes, by Amy Walton.
Some young children, whose parents are working in India, are being brought up by an aunt in a small English village called Fieldside. The aunt lets them have a lot of freedom, but there are some "Rules of the House" which must be obeyed. When the cat has some lovely kittens, one black, one white, and one grey, they are not allowed to keep them, because there would then be too many cats than the Rules allowed, but they are given three weeks in which to find homes for them.
How these homes are found, and what happens then to the kittens, is the subject of this book. As always with Amy Walton's books, reading them gives you a feeling for the happy days in our English countryside, now long past, that existed at the end of the nineteenth century.
BLACK, WHITE AND GREY; A STORY OF THREE HOMES, BY AMY WALTON.
TWO GOOD HOMES.
"It's as black as ink," said Dennis, lifting one of the kittens out of its warm bed in the hay; "there's not a single white hair upon it."
"Madam's never had a quite black one before, has she?" said his sister Maisie, who knelt beside him, before the cat and her family.
It was a snug and cosy home Madam had chosen for her children, in a dark corner of the hayloft, where she had hollowed out a sort of nest in the side of a truss of hay. Here she might well have fancied herself quite secure from discovery, for it was so dim and shadowy in the loft that it needed sharp eyes to see anything but hay and straw.
She had forgotten, however, that it was one of Dennis and Maisie's favourite play-rooms when it was too wet to be out-of-doors, and it turned out that in the midst of their games to-day, they had caught sight of her white coat in her dusky retreat. Though she would rather not have been found, Madam took the discovery calmly, and made no difficulty, even when Dennis softly put in his hand and drew out the black kitten. She knew the children well, and was quite sure they would do no harm, so she lay lazily blinking her green eyes, and even purred gently with pleasure to hear her kitten admired.
It was such a very nice kitten. Not only because of its dense blackness, but its coat was as glossy and thick as that of a little mole, and its shape unusually stumpy and attractive.
"Isn't it a beauty?" said Dennis, in a delighted whisper; "we must keep it."
"We haven't looked at the others yet," said Maisie cautiously; "don't let's settle so soon."
The black kitten was accordingly given back to Madam, who at once licked it all over from top to toe, and the others brought out one by one. There was a perfectly white one, much smaller than the first, and the other was a commonplace striped grey.
"I don't care about either," said Dennis; "they're just like lots and lots of other kittens, and they grow up like lots and lots of other cats. Now the black's uncommon."
"I can't bear settling which is to be drowned," sighed Maisie. "I suppose we may really only keep one."
"You're a ninny," said Dennis shortly.
In reality he did not like to doom the kittens any better than his sister, but he would have thought it womanly to show his feelings.
"I call it unfair," continued Maisie, stroking the white and grey kittens with her little brown hand, "to drown them just because they're not pretty. It's not as if they were bad."
"But you know we mustn't keep them all," said Dennis impatiently; "so what's the good of going on like that? We must choose, and the black's the best, isn't it?"
"Well, then," said Maisie reluctantly, "I think we ought to cast lots, so as to give them each a chance."
This appealed to Dennis's sense of justice, and was besides the usual way of settling differences between his sister and himself. He pulled out three pieces of hay of different lengths, and holding them tightly shut in his hand, with the ends sticking out in an even row, said shortly, "You choose."
"Which is which?" asked Maisie, her face getting pink with excitement.
"The longest's the black, the middling's the white, and the shortest's the grey," said Dennis, with the calmness of fate.
Maisie gazed at the little yellow ends of hay sticking out between her brother's stout red fingers, almost with terror. The old cat, with one paw thrown languidly over the black kitten, watched the proceedings carelessly.
"I'll have this one!" exclaimed Maisie desperately, tugging at the middle piece.
"Hurrah!" cried Dennis, as he opened his hand, and he threw up his cap exultingly; for it was the black kitten that was to live.
"I'm just as sorry as I was before about the others," said Maisie wistfully; "but of course I do like the black one best, and Madam seems proud of it too. What shall we call it?"
"Nigger," said Dennis.
Maisie looked doubtful.
"That's not a very nice name," she said slowly. "I should like to call it Jonah, because, you see, the lot fell upon it."
"Well, but, you silly thing," replied Dennis, "that just wouldn't do, because Jonah was drowned when the lot fell upon him, and the black kitten won't be."
"He wasn't drowned," said Maisie, in a low impressive voice.
"Well, worse. I'd rather have been drowned," said Dennis shortly; "anyhow, I don't like the name of Jonah. It ought to have something to do with its colour."
"Do you think," said Maisie, looking with pity at the white and grey kittens, "that we need tell Tom to drown them quite directly. Mightn't we leave them till to-morrow, and hear what Aunt Katharine says?"
"She won't say anything different," said Dennis, with a decided shake of the head. "You know she made a rule. But we'll leave them if you like."
Before the children left the loft, half an hour later, they took a tender leave of Madam and her family, and Maisie gave an extra caress to the white and grey kittens, which she felt sure she should never see again. Nevertheless, at the bottom of her heart, there was a tiny hope that she might be able to save them, for sometimes, even when she had made a rule, Aunt Katharine was unexpectedly yielding.
Dennis and Maisie had lived with their aunt, Miss Katharine Chester, since they had been babies. They had arrived one autumn day at Fieldside, all the way from India, two little motherless, white-faced things under the care of strangers, and from that time till now, when Dennis was a square-shouldered boy of ten, and Maisie a sunburnt little girl of eight, Aunt Katharine had been everything to them. Certainly father was in India, and would come home some day, and meanwhile often sent them letters and parcels, but he was such a complete stranger, that he did not count for much in their little lives. On mail-days, when they had to write to him, it was often very hard to think of something to say, for they did not feel at all sure of his tastes, or what was likely to interest him: it was like writing to a picture or a shadow, and not a real person at all.
Now Aunt Katharine was a very real person, though she was also a very busy one, and if it was sometimes difficult to get hold of her during the day, there was always the evening. Then she was quite ready to listen to questions, to hear news, and to go thoroughly into any matters of interest or difficulty which had been saved for that time. The hour immediately after breakfast was devoted to lessons, but it was not easy to talk to Aunt Katharine then, for she had so many things on her mind. She never shortened the time, but the children knew that the moment ten o'clock struck, books must be shut, and Aunt Katharine free to begin her busy round from kitchen to dairy, from garden to poultry-yard and stables. Every part of her pleasant little kingdom was daily visited by this active lady, and it repaid her care within and without, for no one had such good butter, such abundance of fresh eggs, such a well-kept stable, such luxuriantly blooming flowers, and such fine vegetables. No one had a pleasanter house, roomy and cheerful, and not too grandly furnished for children and animals to run about in freely.
And Miss Chester's cares were not confined to her own possessions alone, for nothing that went on in the village of Fieldside, just outside her gates, was unknown to her. She was ready to settle disputes, to nurse sickness, and to relieve distress, and was never known to fail any one who applied to her for help. Into this life, already so full of varied business, Dennis and Maisie had brought added responsibilities, and Aunt Katharine had undertaken them with her usual decision and energy. As long as the children were babies, somewhat delicate and ailing, she had bestowed all her thought and care upon them, and given up many outside interests for their sake.
But now they were babies no longer, but had grown up healthy and strong, and by degrees she returned to her busy life, and left them a great deal to themselves. Her married sister, Mrs Trevor, who lived not far off at Haughton Park, considered her strangely neglectful of their education, but Miss Chester had her own ideas on that subject, and would not listen to objections. Nothing, she insisted, was so important to children of Dennis and Maisie's age as plenty of liberty and fresh air. The time would soon come when Dennis must go to school, and Maisie must have a governess; until then, the daily hour in which they learned to read and write and to do simple sums—for Aunt Katharine was not great at figures—was quite education enough.
This was decidedly the opinion of the children themselves, and perhaps they were not the worse for the free life they lived at Fieldside, happy in the companionship of all the pleasant outdoor things, and dependent on no one but themselves for amusement. But it was not all freedom. Aunt Katharine made rules, and the children knew that these must be obeyed, and were never relaxed unless for some very good reason. One of these rules applied to the number of pets, which had once threatened to become overwhelming. Cats especially began to swarm in such multitudes in the garden and house, that Aunt Katharine was obliged to take severe measures to reduce them. That done, she made a rule. Madam, the favourite old cat, was to be kept, but all her kittens, except one out of each family, must for the future be drowned. It was a dreadful blow to Maisie in particular, who, being a girl, was not obliged to smother her feelings; and now, here was another of these miserable occasions— the white and grey kittens must be sent out of the world almost as soon as they had entered it!
All the while she was having her frock changed and her hair brushed before tea, she turned the matter over in her mind. Could she possibly prevail on Aunt Katharine to spare the kittens this once. It seemed odd that Aunt Katharine, who was so kind to every one, could bear to let such poor little helpless things be killed. Maisie supposed it must be one of those many, many things she had been told she should understand when she was older. Dennis always said it did not hurt them, but though she looked up to him a good deal, she did not feel at all sure that he was right in this case. At any rate, if it did not hurt the kittens, it must be most painful for Madam to lose two of her children in such a dreadful way.
Full of those thoughts, she went down to the schoolroom, where Aunt Katharine always joined the children at tea-time. She found her already there, listening to Dennis, who was giving an excited account of the discovery of Madam in the hayloft that afternoon.
"It's such a jolly little kitten we're going to keep, you can't think, Aunt Katharine," he said; "as black as a coal all over."
"And what does Maisie think?" said Aunt Katharine, turning to the little girl, who had not joined in her brother's description. "Does she like it best too?"
Maisie's round face became very pink, and she nervously crumbled up her cake, but said nothing.
"Would you rather keep the white one or the grey one, dear?" asked her aunt kindly. "I daresay Dennis would not mind. He shall choose next time."
"We didn't choose," put in Dennis quickly; "we cast lots, so it's quite fair. It's only," he continued, lowering his voice confidentially, "that she doesn't like the others to be drowned."
"Is that it, Maisie?" asked Aunt Katharine.
Maisie nodded. She had meant to say a good deal, but now that the moment had come, her feelings were rather more than she could manage. She gazed beseechingly at Aunt Katharine, who could save the kittens by one word, and still crumbling up her cake with her little brown hands, murmured, "Just this once."
Aunt Katharine smiled.
"And how about my rule?" she said. "If you keep the kittens 'just this once,' you will want to keep the next, and the next, and we shall soon have as many cats as there were before. That would never do."
"There were fifteen," said Dennis.—"Pass the cake, please, Maisie."
Maisie gave a little gulp of disappointment. It did not seem to her that fifteen cats were at all too many for comfort and pleasure, but Aunt Katharine knew best. So she drew a small handkerchief out of her pocket, wiped the crumbs from her fingers, and struggled for composure. Both she and Dennis thought the matter quite ended, for their aunt began to talk of other things, and after tea she read to them as usual, and not another word was said about the kittens until bed-time. It was surprising, therefore, to hear her say as she shut up the book:
"Children, I have something to propose to you about the kittens. You know I can't let you keep them, because it is against my rule, which I should not have made unless it had been necessary; but, if you like to find them two good homes, I will allow you to give them away this time."
"Oh auntie!" exclaimed Maisie, clapping her hands, "how lovely!"
"How long may we have to look out?" asked Dennis.
"The kittens must be sent away from here this day three weeks," said Aunt Katharine solemnly; "and remember, children, I said 'two good homes,' so I trust you to take trouble to find them. It would be really kinder to drown them at once, than to send them where they might be starved or ill-treated."
Two good homes! It was indeed a serious responsibility, and their aunt had said the words so earnestly, that the children were both much impressed by them. Maisie in particular, in the midst of her rejoicing that the kittens were saved, felt quite sobered by the burden resting upon her.
"How ever shall we find two good homes?" she said to Dennis as they went up-stairs. But Dennis never looked at the troublesome side of life, if he could avoid it.
"It'll be jolly to keep all three of them for three weeks, won't it?" he said. "How pleased Madam would be if she knew!"
"We must get up very early to-morrow, and go and tell her," said Maisie.
"It matters most to tell Tom," said Dennis; "because if he finds them in the loft, he'll drown them straight off in a bucket."
The horror of this suggestion, and the future of the two kittens if they escaped this danger, kept Maisie awake for a long while that night.
She slept in a tiny room opening out of Aunt Katharine's, and she knew how dreadfully late it must be, when she heard her aunt moving about, and saw the light of her candle underneath the door. After that, however, she soon went to sleep, with the kittens, their homes, and Tom the stable-boy, all jumbled up together in her head.
Before the clock had finished striking six the next morning, Dennis and Maisie were in the stable-yard. Tom was there, pumping water into a pail, and Jacko the raven was there, stalking about with gravity, and uttering a deep croak now and then. Jacko was not a nice character, and more feared than liked by most people. He was a thief and a bully, and so cunning that it was impossible to be up to all his tricks. In mischief he delighted, and nothing pleased him more than to frighten and tease helpless things, yet, with all these bad qualities, he had been allowed to march about for many years, unreproved, in Aunt Katharine's stable-yard. Maisie had been very much afraid of him in the days when she wore socks, for he had a way of digging at her little bare legs with his cruel beak whenever he could get near her. She was not frightened of him now that she was older, especially when Dennis was with her, but still she did not trust him, and took care this morning not to cross his path on her way to speak to Tom.
"If Jacko knew about the kittens," remarked Dennis as they passed, "he'd go and peck out their eyes."
"Oh!" shuddered Maisie; "but," she added in a whisper, for she always fancied Jacko understood, "their eyes aren't open yet, and besides Madam would claw and scratch at him."
"He can claw and scratch too," said Dennis. "I expect he could kill Madam and her kittens easily. And then he'd bury them, just as he does his food, you know, and then."
Fortunately for Maisie, who was listening with horror to this picture of cruelty and crime, Dennis stopped at this point, for they were now close to Tom, who with his back towards them was making a dreadful noise with a creaking pump handle.
"I say, Tom," he called out. Tom slowly turned his freckled face over his shoulder, but did not leave off his work. "Madam's kittens are not to be drowned," shouted Dennis at the top of his voice.
"They're all to be saved," added Maisie in a shriller key.—"Oh Dennis, I don't believe he has taken it in. Do tell him to leave off pumping."
But just then, Tom's pails being full, he left off of his own accord, and proceeded to carry them into the stable.
"You do understand, Tom," said Maisie anxiously, for she had an idea that Tom rather liked drowning kittens. "Not to be drowned."
Tom's voice having answered indistinctly from one of the stalls, she turned to follow Dennis, who was already half-way up the steep ladder which led to the loft. After all, Madam could not be told the good news, for she had gone out for a stroll, leaving her family in a little warm furry heap in their bed.
"Just fancy how dreadful it would be for her if she came back and found only one left," said Maisie, touching the little round heads softly with her finger. "I am so glad they're not to be drowned."
"I'm tremendously glad we're going to keep the black one ourselves," said Dennis. "What do you think of the name of Smut?"
"I don't like it a bit," said Maisie.
They had got no further towards a name by breakfast time. All those which Maisie liked, Dennis thought silly, and those which Dennis proposed, Maisie thought ugly, so it promised to be a difficult matter to settle. As soon as they were seated at breakfast, however, Aunt Katharine made a suggestion which put the black kitten out of their heads for the present.
"Children," she said, "I am going to drive over to Haughton Park to lunch this morning. If you like, you may both go with me and see Philippa."
There was a moment's pause, and then Dennis asked seriously:
"Shall you go anywhere besides, Aunt Katharine, or just straight there?"
"I shall only stop at Mrs Broadbent's on my way," she replied, "to ask about so some fowls."
The children looked at each other, but made no answer.
"Well," said their aunt, smiling, "I dare say you'd like to talk it over together. I shall start at twelve o'clock, and if you decide to go, you must be ready to the minute, for I shall not wait for you. Do just as you like about it."
To go or not to go to Haughton was always a matter which required thought. There were things against it, and things for it. In Maisie's opinion, there was a great deal to be liked in the visit. There was a large, beautiful house, much larger than Fieldside, and a park with deer in it: there were all sorts of dolls and toys and pretty things which she enjoyed playing with, and—there was Philippa. Philippa was perhaps a doubtful pleasure, for if she was in a cross mood she was not agreeable, but there was always the chance that she would be pleasant, and then she and Maisie got on very well together with their dolls. Dennis was disposed to be rather scornful about going to Haughton, but in his case there was the attraction of the drive, when Aunt Katharine sometimes let him hold the reins, and there was the chance of her stopping at somewhere interesting on the way. Mrs Broadbent's would be better than nothing to-day, though it was not his favourite farmhouse.
"I don't think I want to go much," he said, as soon as he and Maisie had reached the play-room. "Aunt Trevor's sure to have a headache, and then we shall have to be as quiet as mice."
"P'raps she'll let us go out with Philippa," said Maisie.
"Not without Miss Mervyn comes too," said Dennis. "I don't care about that—it's no fun. She's always saying, 'You mustn't do this, or you mustn't do that.'"
"Well," said Maisie, "should I go with Aunt Katharine then, and you stay at home?"
But this did not suit Dennis at all. It would never do for Maisie to come back and describe all manner of enjoyments which he had not shared. It would be better to go and grumble than to be left at home alone.
"Oh, I'll go," he said, condescendingly. And so it came to pass that when the ponies, Jack and Jill, came round, the children were both waiting in the hall, fully prepared for the drive. As she drew on her driving gloves, Aunt Katharine gave a glance at them to see that they were warmly wrapped up, for it was a fresh day in early spring.
"Jump in, children, and let Mary tuck you well up; it's rather cold," she said.—"Give me the reins, Tom. All right."
Then came a dash down the short avenue, with Tom running before to open the gate, and then they were in the village street, where Jack and Jill always thought it right to plunge and shy a little. From their seat at the back Dennis and Maisie nodded at their various acquaintances as they passed, for they knew nearly every one. There was Mrs Gill at the post-office, standing at her open door; there was Mr Couples, who kept the shop; and there was Dr Price just mounting his horse, with his two terriers, Snip and Snap, eager to follow. Above this little cluster of houses stood the church and the vicarage close together, on a gently rising hill; and the rest of the village, including two or three large farms, was scattered about here and there, with wide spaces between.
"Why are you going to Mrs Broadbent's, Aunt Katharine?" asked Dennis, as they turned sharply to the right.
"Because I want to ask her to let me have a setting of Minorcas," replied his aunt, "and no one else keeps them."
"And we might ask her, you know," said Maisie, "whether she'd like one of the kittens. I should think that would be a good home, shouldn't you?"
"P'raps she doesn't like cats," said Dennis carelessly. "We've got three weeks, so it really doesn't matter much yet."
The Broadbents' square white house now came in sight. It had a trim garden, a tennis ground, and a summer-house, and was completely screened from the farm-buildings by a gloomy row of fir-trees. The children did not as a rule care to pay visits to Mrs Broadbent, for there were no animals or interesting things about; but to-day Maisie asked leave to go in, for she had the kittens on her mind, and felt she must not lose a chance.
Mrs Broadbent was a thin little widow, who wore smart caps, and had a general air of fashion about her person. She was sharp and clever, well up to the business of managing her large farm, and familiar with every detail of it. Unfortunately she considered this a thing to be ashamed of, and, much to Miss Chester's annoyance, always pretended ignorance which did not exist. What she was proud of, and thrust foremost in her conversation, were the accomplishments of two highly-educated daughters, who painted on china, and played the violin, and on this subject she received no encouragement from Aunt Katharine.
"I shouldn't have thought of disturbing you so early, Mrs Broadbent," she said briskly, when they were seated in the smart little drawing-room, "but I've come on business. I want to know if you've a setting of Minorca fowls to dispose of. I've a fancy to rear some."
Mrs Broadbent simpered a little and put her head on one side.
"I've no doubt we can oblige you, Miss Chester," she said. "I'll speak to my poultry-man about it, and let you know."
"How many Minorcas have you?" asked Miss Chester.
"Oh, I really couldn't tell you, Miss Chester," replied Mrs Broadbent with a little laugh. "I never thought of inquiring."
"Not know how many of each sort of fowls you have!" exclaimed Aunt Katharine. "Why, if I had a farm, I'd know every one of them by sight, and how many eggs they each laid. I suppose, though," she added, "you leave that to your daughters. They must be a great help to you."
Mrs Broadbent bridled:
"Emmeline and Lilian are far too much engaged," she said, "with their studies and their artistic work. Emmeline's quite devoted herself to art. I've given her a large room at the top of the house for a studio."
"Indeed," said Miss Chester coldly. "And what does she do in it?"
"Just now she's painting some lovely plaques," said Mrs Broadbent, "and Lilian's quite taken to the new poker-work."
"What is that?" asked her visitor.
"You haven't seen it, Miss Chester? Well, it is quite new, and as I was saying the other day, in these remote parts we don't see anything, do we? But Lilian's been staying in London, and she learned it there. She did that frame."
It seemed that poker-work was intended to have the effect of carving, which was produced by burning patterns on wood with a red-hot instrument.
"Well, if you ask my candid opinion," said Aunt Katharine, rising to look at the frame, "I should like it much better plain; but it's a harmless amusement, if wasting time is ever harmless.—Come Maisie, Dennis will be quite tired of waiting.—You'll let me know about the eggs, Mrs Broadbent, and their price. I shall be much obliged if you can spare me a setting."
In another moment Aunt Katharine would have swept out of the room, with her usual activity, but after waiting so long for a pause in the conversation, Maisie could not give up her purpose.
"Do you want a cat, please?" she said, standing in front of Mrs Broadbent—"that is, a nice little kitten. One of our cat Madam's."
But Mrs Broadbent was quite certain that she did not want a cat, and said so with some sharpness, for she was never pleased at Miss Chester's outspoken opinions, though she was used to them. She had too many cats about the place now. She supposed as long as there were mice there must be cats, but to her mind there was not much to choose between them.
"I don't really suppose it would have been a good home," said Maisie, when she was tucked in again beside Dennis; "Mrs Broadbent doesn't like cats, and she looked quite cross when I asked her, but I think that was because Aunt Katharine didn't like Lilian's poker-work frame."
Haughton Park, towards which Jack and Jill were now quickly making their way, was about four miles from Fieldside, and just outside the little town of Upwell. It was a large house, standing in a park of some extent, and was built in what was called the Italian style, with terraces in front of it, and stone balustrades, and urns and vases wherever they could be put. Inside, the rooms were very large and lofty, and there was a great hall with marble pillars, and a huge staircase with statues in niches all the way up. Perhaps from some association with the sound of the name, Maisie always thought it was a proud cold house, which could not stoop to notice any one who came in and out of its doors, and did not mind whether they went or stayed. Yet, from its very unlikeness to Fieldside, it had a certain fascination for her, and she could not help admiring it.
Here, in lonely grandeur, lived Aunt Katharine's widowed sister, Mrs Trevor, with her daughter Philippa, who was just ten years old. Mrs Trevor had always wondered why her brother, Captain Chester, had not sent Dennis and Maisie to Haughton to be educated with Philippa. Surely nothing could have been more suitable or better for the children!
But by some extraordinary blindness, he had passed over his elder sister and all her possessions, and chosen Katharine as their guardian until his return from India. When he did return, thought Mrs Trevor, he would see what a mistake he had made; even now, if he knew what odd ideas Katharine had, and how she allowed the children to run wild, and associate with the villagers, he would regret his choice—but it was no affair of hers. Nevertheless, it always gave her a sense of injury to see Dennis and Maisie with their Aunt Katharine. It was not that she envied her the charge of them, for she was, or fancied she was, somewhat of an invalid, and would have disliked the trouble. But she felt she had been slighted when the children were sent to Fieldside, and a slight was a thing she could not forget.
Mrs Trevor received her visitors this morning in her boudoir, and rose to greet them languidly from her low chair—a tall elegant figure, in soft clinging robes. The room was full of the heavy scent of hyacinths, and warm with the spring sunshine and a bright fire. As Aunt Katharine entered with her usual alert step, she seemed to bring a great deal of cold air and life into it from the outside world. The children followed her rather shyly.
"Here we are, you see," she said, in her loud, cheerful voice. "How are you, Helen? You look rather white."
"I am suffering from my old enemy to-day," replied Mrs Trevor, with a forced smile; "my head is very painful."
"Ah," said Aunt Katharine, pulling off her gloves briskly, "a little fresh air is the best cure for that. To be shut up in this warm room with all those flowers is enough to poison you. Wouldn't you like a window open?"
"Pray, Katharine!" exclaimed Mrs Trevor, putting up her hand with a shudder; "the very idea destroys me. It is an east wind. Warmth and rest are the only cure." She put up her double eye-glasses, and looked at Dennis and Maisie. "Did you drive over? How are the children?"
"As jolly as possible," said Aunt Katharine. She stood on the hearthrug, flapping her gloves against one hand. Maisie always thought that her aunt wore shorter skirts, rougher tweed dresses, and stouter boots when she came to Haughton, than at any other time. Also, she seemed to speak louder, and to look rosier and broader altogether. Perhaps this only seemed to be so, because Aunt Trevor's skin was so fair, and her voice so gentle, and because she wore such graceful soft gowns, and such tiny satin slippers. Maisie was very fond of Aunt Katharine, but she admired Aunt Trevor's appearance immensely, and always gazed at her as though she were a picture hanging on the wall. Dennis did not share in this. He fidgeted about in his chair, fingered the things in his pockets, hoped it would soon be time for luncheon, and wondered whether he and Maisie would be allowed to go out first.
"Ah, here is Philippa!" said Aunt Katharine.
A little girl of about Maisie's age—but so much taller and slighter that she looked a great deal older—came into the room. She had rather long features, a pointed chin, and a very pure white complexion, with hardly a tinge of colour; and, as she ran forward to kiss her little brown-faced cousins, she was a great contrast to them in every way. Her dress, which was prettily made and fanciful, and her gleaming bronze shoes added to this; for Dennis and his sister seldom wore anything but serge or holland, and their boots were of strong country make, which made their feet look rather clumsy.
"If the children must wear such thick boots, Katharine," Mrs Trevor often said, "you might at least have them made to fit. It gives them the air of little clodhoppers."
But Miss Chester went her own way, and Aunt Trevor's objections had no effect on her arrangements.
"Ask if we may go out!" said Dennis, in an urgent whisper to his cousin, who at once ran up to her mother, and repeated the request in the midst of her conversation with Aunt Katharine. Mrs Trevor cast an anxious glance out the window.
"Well, my darling, as you have a cold and the wind is in the east, I think you had better play indoors. You can take your cousins into the long gallery and have a nice game."
Philippa frowned and pushed out her lower lip:
"I want to go out," she murmured.
"But your cough, my dearest," said her mother in a pleading tone.—"What do you say, Katharine? Would it not be more prudent for her to keep indoors?"
"I think it would be best for her to do as you wish," said Aunt Katharine, with a half smile at Philippa's pouting lips.
"I must go out with Dennis and Maisie," said the little girl in a whining voice.
"Dennis and Maisie will be quite happy indoors," said Mrs Trevor entreatingly; "you can show them your new violin, you know, and play them a tune."
"I don't want to," said Philippa, with a rising sob.
Mrs Trevor looked alarmed.
"My darling, don't excite yourself," she said; "we will see—we will ask Miss Mervyn. Perhaps if you are very warmly wrapped up."
Philippa's brow cleared at once.
"Then we may go?" she said.
"Ask Miss Mervyn to come and speak to me a moment," said her mother. "Such a difficult, delicate temperament to deal with," she continued, as the door closed on her daughter. "Not like a commonplace nature," with a glance at Dennis and Maisie; "so excitable, that it makes her ill to be thwarted in any way. Indeed the doctor forbids it."
"How bad for her!" said Aunt Katharine bluntly. "Children are never happy until they learn to obey."
"That sort of system may answer with some children," said Mrs Trevor; "but my poor delicate Philippa requires infinite tact."
"What do you think, Miss Mervyn," as a thin, careworn-looking lady entered, "of Philippa going out to-day? She wants to take her cousins into the garden for a little while."
Miss Mervyn looked anxiously from mother to daughter.
"She has been coughing this morning, and the wind is cold," she began, when she was interrupted by an angry burst of tears from Philippa.
"I must go out," she cried between her sobs. "You're a cross thing to say it's cold. I will go out."
"There, there, my darling," said Mrs Trevor; "do control yourself. You shall go.—Pray, Miss Mervyn, take care that she is warmly dressed, and has goloshes and a thick veil. You will, of course, go with the children, and keep to the sheltered places, and on no account allow Philippa to run on the grass or to get overheated."
Philippa's tears and sobs ceased at once, and soon muffled up to the eyes, she was ready to go out with her cousins, followed by the patient Miss Mervyn, and Mrs Trevor was left at liberty to bestow some attention on her guest. As soon as they were out of sight of the windows, Philippa's first action was to tear off the white knitted shawl which was wrapped round her neck and mouth.
"If you don't keep that on, we must go in again," said Miss Mervyn.
"I won't wear it, and I won't go in," said Philippa. "If you tease about it, I shall scream, and then I shall be ill; and then it will be your fault."
Poor Miss Mervyn shook her head, but after a few mild persuasions gave in, and Philip had her way as usual, not only in this, but in everything that she wished to do throughout the walk. Dennis and Maisie were used to seeing this whenever they came to Haughton, but it never ceased to surprise them, because it was so very different from their unquestioning obedience to rules at Fieldside. It certainly did not seem to make Philippa happy or pleasant. Although she did what she liked, she never appeared to like what she did, and was always wanting something different, and complaining about everything.
"Let's go back now," she said at last, dragging her feet slowly through a puddle as she spoke; "my feet are wet."
"I should think they were," sighed Miss Mervyn. "Come, let us make haste home, so that you may have your boots and stockings changed."
But the perverse Philippa would not hurry. She now lingered behind the others, and even stood still now and then, causing Miss Mervyn great misery. "She will certainly take cold," she murmured. "Cannot you persuade her, my dears, to come on."
"Let's have a race, Philippa, as far as the house," called out Dennis.
Running fast had been forbidden, so it was perhaps on that account attractive to Philippa, who at once consented to the proposal, and Miss Mervyn, thinking it the less of two evils, made no objection.
"Maisie must have a start because she's the smallest," said Dennis, placing his sister a little in front; "now, one, two, three, off!"
The little flying figures sped away towards the house, and Miss Mervyn following, was pleased to see that Dennis allowed Philippa to win the race; that would perhaps make her more good-tempered.
"Ha, ha!" exclaimed Philippa, pointing a scornful finger at Maisie as she came panting up last, with her round cheeks very red. "What a slow coach! Maisie's too fat to run."
"She's younger than we are," said Dennis, who did not allow any one but himself to tease his sister.
"There's not much difference," said Philippa, as the children walked up to the house; "in three weeks it will be my birthday, and I shall be nine."
"Mine isn't for three more months," said Maisie.
"Any one would think me quite twelve years old," said Philippa, with her chin in the air, "because I'm tall and slight. Maisie has such a baby look.—I'm going to have a party on my birthday."
"Are you?" said Maisie with sudden interest.
She gave Dennis's arm a squeeze, to make him understand she had just got a good idea; but he only stared round at her, and said, "Don't pinch so," and Philippa continued:
"Yes, I shall have a party, and a birthday cake, and magnificent presents."
"Can you guess what they will be?" asked Maisie.
"Mother says she won't tell me what hers is," said Philippa; "but I shall make her."
"Oh," said Philippa carelessly, "if I want to know very much, I shall cry, and then I always get what I want."
Philippa was not in a nice mood to-day, and did not improve at luncheon, for her wants and whims seemed to engross every one's attention. If Aunt Katharine tried to turn the conversation to something more interesting, Philippa's whining voice broke in, and Mrs Trevor at once ceased to listen to anything else.
It was a relief to the whole party, when, early in the afternoon, Aunt Katharine and her charges were settled once more in the pony-cart, and on their way home to Fieldside.
"Don't you know why I poked you just after the race?" said Maisie to her brother, as they drove out of the lodge gates.
"Because Philippa said such stupid things, I suppose," said Dennis.
"It wasn't that at all," she replied earnestly; "it was because I'd just thought of a good home for one of the kittens. Wouldn't it be splendid to give it to Philippa for a birthday present? It will be just three weeks old."
"H'm," said Dennis doubtfully. He really thought it a capital idea, but he never liked to encourage Maisie too much.
She looked round at him, her brown eyes bright with excitement.
"It would be a magnificent home," she continued, "more than a good one. It would have nice things to eat, and soft things to lie on, and a collar round its neck, and all those beautiful rooms to run about in!"
"I suppose they'd be kind to it," said Dennis. "I don't think I should like to live at Haughton Park."
"Of course not, without Aunt Katharine agreed," said Maisie; "but supposing Haughton Park was hers, wouldn't you like it better than Fieldside?"
"No," said Dennis promptly; "not half so well. At Fieldside you've only to run down the avenue, and there you are in the middle of the village, and only a short way off the Manor Farm. And at Haughton you have to go through the Park, where no one lives, and through three gates, and then you're only in the Upwell road. It's much duller."
"There are the deer," said Maisie.
"But you can't talk to the deer," replied Dennis; "and though they're tame, they're rather stupid, I think."
"Well," said Maisie, "I like some things at Haughton very much, and I daresay the kitten will. A cat's quite different from a boy, isn't it?"
"Which shall we give?" asked Dennis, warming a little to the idea.
"The white, of course," said Maisie at once.
She spoke so decidedly, that Dennis felt she must have some good reason, though he could not see why the white should be preferred to the grey.
Maisie could not explain herself, however. She only repeated that of course the white kitten was the right one to go to Haughton, and though she generally yielded to Dennis, she remained firm in this, and by the time they reached home the matter was quite settled. The white kitten was thus provided with a good home; and though, on thinking it over, Maisie doubted whether Philippa would consider it a "magnificent present," she had no misgivings as to its future happiness.
OLD SALLY'S ELIZA.
The time soon came when Madam was allowed to bring her kittens into the play-room, where they lived in a basket near the French window, through which she could go in and out at her pleasure.
Dennis and Maisie were now able to make their close acquaintance, and to observe that they were not at all alike either in appearance or character. The black one continued to be the finest of the three. There could be no question that his coat was sleeker, his tail more bushy, his whole shape more substantial, and even at this early age he showed signs of a bold and daring disposition.
When his mother had disposed herself for a comfortable nap, with her eyes shut and her paws tucked in, he would suddenly dart from some ambush, his eyes gleaming with mischief and leap upon her back. Soundly cuffed for this, he would meekly retreat until Madam had dropped off again, when he would come dancing up sideways, on the tips of his toes, with his back hunched, and every hair bristling, and tweak her by the tail. After these pranks had been repeated many times, the old cat would rise and wrestle with him, rolling over and over on the ground, kicking and biting, until he was subdued for a little while. But he was never good for long, and gave her more trouble than the other two put together.
The white kitten was of a very different nature. It was decidedly prim in its ways, and very particular about its appearance, so that it learned sooner than the others to wash its face, and attend to its toilet. While the black kitten struggled violently when he was washed, and had to be held firmly down all the while, the white one seemed to enjoy licking its fur with its own rough little tongue, and to be quite vexed if it found a dirty spot on its coat. "It's a good thing it's so particular," said Maisie, "because it would look so very bad if it wasn't quite clean." It had rather a meaningless face, a long thin nose, and mincing, dainty ways of walking and taking its food. Secretly, Maisie thought it rather like Philippa, for its temper was somewhat peevish, and it often mewed in a dissatisfied manner for nothing at all; but she kept this fancy to herself, for she knew that Dennis would only call her silly if she mentioned it.
As for the grey kitten, it was the smallest and weakest of the three, the most easily imposed upon, and the most amiable. When the saucer of milk was put down, the others would thrust their heads greedily into it, and push the grey kitten aside, so that it could scarcely get any. Maisie was obliged to keep a close watch at such times, to see that it had its share, and to correct the conduct of the other two. It was the same thing in their gambols with their mother, or with a cork at the end of a string. The grey kitten seemed to be considered as a mere sport and joke for the other two, who tossed and tumbled it about as if it were nothing: even Madam did not take its part, and often boxed its ears for nothing but awkwardness.
All this, however, did not sour its temper in the least, and after the worst slight or roughest usage it was quite ready to purr and be pleased. Maisie thought this very nice of it, and she was sure it was anxious to do well, if it only knew how. It would allow her, with very few struggles, to dress it in a doll's nightgown and cap, and put it to sleep in a cradle; which neither of the others would submit to for a moment. By degrees she became very fond of it, and the more she took its part and defended it from ill-treatment, the more her affection increased. It was therefore distressing to remember, as the days went on, that though the white kitten had a home to look forward to, there was yet no such prospect for the grey one.
"It's getting dreadfully near the time," she said one morning to Dennis, who was trying to teach the black kitten to jump through his hands; "only ten days more, and we haven't got a good home for the grey kitten yet."
"It's such a common, mean thing," said Dennis, casting a scornful glance at it. "No one could want to have it."
"It's very affectionate, though," said Maisie, "and it purrs more than any of them. I believe it might grow pretty when it's older."
"Not it," said Dennis. "Why, there are lots of cats like it in the village now. Just long, lean, striped things. I don't believe you'd know it apart from them when it's grown up.—Oh, look, Maisie, look! He jumped, he really did."
Maisie looked, but the black kitten turned sulky, and refused to do anything but back away from Dennis's hands with its ears flattened.
"It's quite in a temper," she said. "Now the grey kitten always tries to do what you tell it."
"Only it's so stupid that it never knows what you want it to do," said Dennis, as he gave up his efforts and let the kitten scamper back to its mother.
"Well, at any rate," said Maisie, returning to her subject, "we've got to find it a home, and we haven't asked every one yet. Who is there left? Let me see. There's the vicarage, and Dr Price, and, oh Dennis, perhaps old Sally would like it!"
Dennis shrugged his shoulders, but he was quite ready to agree that old Sally should be asked, because he was always glad of any excuse to go near the Manor Farm, which he thought the nicest place in the village or out of it. It was not only pretty and interesting in itself with its substantial grey stone outbuildings, and pigeonry and rick-yard, but Mr and Mrs Andrew Solace lived there, and they were, the children thought, such very agreeable people. There had always been a Solace at the Manor Farm within the memory of old Sally, who was very old indeed, but they felt sure none of them could have been so pleasant as the present one. "Young Master Andrew," old Sally called him, though he was a stout, middle-aged man with grizzled hair; but she gave him this name because she had worked for his father and grandfather, and could "mind" him when he was a little boy of Dennis's age. For the same reason, she never could bring herself to think him equal to the management of such a very large farm, "'undreds of acres," as she said. It was a great undertaking for "young Master Andrew," and though every one round knew that there were few better farmers, old Sally always shook her head over it.
Manor Farm was in every respect just the opposite of the "Green Farm," where the Broadbents lived. There was nothing smart or trim or new about it, and the house and farm-buildings were comfortably mixed up together, so that the farmer seemed to live in the midst of his barns and beasts. It was a very old house, with a square flagged hall and a broad oak staircase. There were beams showing across the low ceilings, and wide window-seats, which were always full of all sorts of things flung there "to be handy." Some of the rooms were panelled, and all the furniture in them was old-fashioned and dark with age. Dogs and cats walked in and out at their pleasure, and though Mrs Solace sometimes chased them all out for a few minutes, they soon returned again through windows and doors, and made themselves quite at home. Mrs Solace was too busy to trouble herself much about them, and also too good-natured, so that the animals knew they could do pretty well as they liked.
It was this complete freedom that made the Manor Farm so delightful to Dennis and Maisie, who ran in and out very much as the cats and dogs did, and always found something to interest and amuse them. If Mrs Solace were too much occupied in dairy, laundry, or store-room to give them her attention, they had only to go into the farm-yard to be surrounded by friends and acquaintances. Some of these, it is true, disappeared from time to time, but you had hardly missed them before there was something new to take their place. The great brown cart-horses, at any rate, were always to be found after their work, and always ready to bow their huge heads and take apples or sugar gently with their soft lips. And in summer it was pleasant to be there just at milking time, and watch the cows saunter slowly home across the fields, to stand in a long patient row in the shed, to be milked.
Indeed it would be hard to say what time was not pleasant at the farm, for in such a large family of creatures there was always something happening of the very deepest interest to the children. In the spring they were quite as anxious and eager about successful broods of early ducklings, or the rearing of the turkeys as Mrs Solace was herself, and she was secure of their heartfelt sympathy when the fox made away with her poultry.
For unlike Mrs Broadbent, Mrs Solace not only knew all about such matters, but liked nothing so well as to talk of them.
"When I'm a man," Dennis would say, "I mean to be a farmer."
"So do I," Maisie would answer.
"You couldn't be," Dennis would argue. "How could you go rook-shooting? You know you scream when a gun goes off; and besides, you're afraid of the turkey-cock."
"Well, then," Maisie would conclude, deeply conscious that both these facts were true, "I'll be a farmer's wife, and rear turkeys; that's quite as hard as shooting rooks, and much usefuller."
"That it is, dearie," Mrs Solace would agree, with her comfortable laugh. "Puley pingling things they are, and want as much care as children."
But apart from the animals, there was to Dennis one corner at the Manor Farm which had special attractions, and that was where the wheelwright worked. It was a long narrow barn fitted up as a carpenter's shop, with a bench and a lathe and all manner of tools: full of shavings and sawdust, planks of wood and half-finished farm implements. Here the wheelwright stood and worked all day. He made and mended carts, wheelbarrows, ladders, hay-rakes, and all sorts of things used in the farm, and had always as much as he could do. Dennis liked nothing better than a little quiet time with Tuvvy, as he was called, and though he did not talk much, he eyed all his movements with such earnest attention that it may be supposed he learned something of carpentering.
Tuvvy's movements were nimble and neat, for he was a clever workman, and knew what he was about: now and then he would cast a swift glance round at Dennis out of his bright black eyes, but he never paused in his work to talk, and there was seldom any sound in the barn but that of the saw and hammer, or the whirring of the lathe. His skin was so very dark, and his hair so black and long, that people called him a gypsy, and Dennis knew that he was a little wild sometimes, because old Sally shook her head when she mentioned him.
That meant that Tuvvy was not always quite sober, which was a great pity, because he was so clever, that he could earn a great deal if he kept steady. In the barn, however, he was as steady and hard-working as a man could be, and what his conduct was out of it, did not at all affect Dennis's attachment and admiration. Maisie always knew, if she missed her brother during one of their visits to the farm, that she should find him in the barn staring at Tuvvy at his work; and he had done this so much, that he began to feel as though he had helped to make Mr Solace's carts and barrows.
All this made him quite ready to agree with Maisie's suggestion, for although he was not very anxious about the grey kitten's welfare, he thought there might be a chance of slipping round to see how Tuvvy was getting on.
"Where shall we go first?" said Maisie, as they started on their expedition, with Peter, the little rough dog, barking round them. "The vicarage comes first, and then Dr Price, and then old Sally."
"All right," said Dennis; "that's the best last, and the worst first."
The vicarage stood on a little hill close to the church, looking down on the village street.
"I don't much think Miss Hurst will want it," said Maisie, as they turned up the steep lane; "because, you see, she's got such a very pet cat. Else that would be a very good home."
"She might like it for a kitchen cat," said Dennis, "to catch rats and mice."
"Ye-es," said Maisie. She did not much like the idea of the grey kitten in such a position. Still, Miss Hurst was so very kind and gentle, that it was likely even the kitchen cat would be well treated in her house.
The vicarage reached, however, and the old question put, it turned out that Maisie had been right. Miss Hurst, who was a meek-faced little lady with very smooth hair and a kind smile, was afraid she could not have two cats. It might upset Mopsy. And Mopsy was such an old friend, that it would not be fair to make him unhappy for the sake of a new one. She was afraid she must say no. So the grey kitten was again refused, and when the children set out on their farther journey, Maisie was quite in low spirits. Nobody wanted the grey kitten.
"We've got two chances left," said Dennis, trying to console her. "And if I were the kitten, I'd much rather live with Dr Price than at the vicarage."
"But you're not a kitten—you're a boy," said Maisie despairingly, "and that makes a great deal of difference."
"Dr Price is splendid, I think," continued Dennis. "Just see how he can ride, and how he cures people, and how kind he is to them about their bills."
"Why do you suppose Aunt Katharine has Dr Smith over from Upwell to see us when we're ill," asked Maisie, "when Dr Price is quite close, and so clever?"
"Well," said Dennis gravely, "you mustn't say anything, but I believe—that is, I've heard one or two of them say in the village— that he sometimes—is—like Tuvvy, you know."
"Oh!" said Maisie, with her eyes very wide open.
"And that, you see," went on Dennis instructively, "is very bad for a doctor, because he may mix up the wrong things together and kill people. But for all that, they say they'd rather have him, even when he's a little 'nervous,' than any one else, because he's so clever and so kind. Why, he sat up all night with Widow Hutchins's son, who had sergestion of the lungs, and then he wouldn't take a penny because she's so poor."
"What a pity he's ever like Tuvvy," said Maisie.
"And then, you see," continued Dennis, who loved to repeat the gossip he picked up in the village, "he's so dreadfully fond of horses and hunting, that whenever there's a meet near, he can't help going, and if he goes, he has to follow, and then he can't leave off. So sometimes, when there is an accident, or anything, and he's wanted here very badly, he's quite the other side of the county!"
Maisie nodded her head gravely as she heard of those little weaknesses; and just then, reaching the foot of the hill which led down from the vicarage, they came into the village again, and there was Dr Price himself standing at his gate, facing them.
He was a broad, strongly-built man of about five-and-forty, with a clean-shaven square face, and very fair hair and eyebrows. These looked curiously light on his red-brown skin, which was of an even tint all over, as though used to encounter wind and rough weather. He was so constantly on horseback, that it seemed strange to see him standing on his own legs, and more so to see him walk, which, indeed, he did with an odd movement of the knees, as though it were some difficult exercise. He wore riding-boots and breeches, and had a short pipe in his mouth. At his heels were his two white terriers, Snip and Snap.
As Maisie's eye fell on the dogs, she stopped short, and caught hold of Dennis by the arm.
"Oh!" she exclaimed; "I forgot."
"Forgot what?" he answered, with a pull forward. "Don't be stupid. Come on."
"Why, Snip and Snap," said Maisie eagerly, still holding back. "It wouldn't be a good home. They'd chase it. Don't let's speak to Dr Price about it. It wouldn't be any use."
"We must speak to him now," said Dennis, going steadily on, and dragging Maisie with him. "Perhaps he'll know of some one, if he can't have it himself. You ask," he added hurriedly, as they came close to the doctor.
Dr Price took off his hat, and smiled down very kindly at Maisie, as she put her question. She spoke hesitatingly, for the sight of Snip and Snap had reminded her of their habits. On most days their swift white forms were to be seen scouring over the country in search of rabbits, or other small defenceless creatures. Dr Price on horseback, and his terriers on foot, were well known for many miles round Fieldside, and Maisie could not help thinking them most unsuitable companions for the grey kitten.
This seemed to strike the doctor himself.
"Well now, that's very kind of you, Miss Maisie," he said, looking thoughtfully at the bowl of his pipe; "but the fact is I'm not much of a hand at cats myself. And then—there are the dogs, you see—"
"Would they chase it?" asked Maisie, glancing at them.
"Why, they're thoroughbred, you know," said the doctor apologetically.
"What a pity!" said Maisie, who thought it must be some very bad quality.
"Well," said the doctor, with a short laugh, "I like them all the better for it myself; but I'm afraid the kitten wouldn't stand much chance, and that's a fact."
"Oh, I wouldn't let it come here for anything," said Maisie with a shiver. "Why do you keep such cruel dogs?"
"As to that, you know, Miss Maisie," said the doctor, "it isn't crueller to hunt a cat than a fox."
"But that's cruel too," said Maisie, "very cruel indeed."
Here Dennis felt it time to interfere.
"Don't be stupid, Maisie," he said; "you're only a girl. You don't understand. Of course, people must hunt."
So here was another failure, for not only was Dr Price's home out of the question, but he could not think of any one who wanted a kitten. Everybody had cats; they seemed to be all over the place. If it was a puppy now. He cast an admiring glance at Snip and Snap, who stood in sprightly attitudes, one on each side of the little rough dog Peter, their eager bodies quivering, their short tails wagging, ready for the first signs of warfare. But Peter knew better. He was old and he was wise. He did not like Snip and Snap, but he was not going to be provoked into a fight in which he was sure to be worsted. So he held himself stiffly upright, uttered a low growl of contempt, and took no further notice of them.
"And now," said Maisie, when they had said good-bye to Dr Price, and were on their way again, with Peter trotting in front, "there's really only one more chance left."
There were two ways to old Sally's cottage, and Maisie knew Dennis would be sure to choose the one which led across the rick-yard of the Manor Farm; indeed, she liked this best herself except for one reason, and that was the risk of meeting the turkey-cock. It was useless for Dennis to say, "He won't gobble if you're not frightened of him." She always was frightened, and he always did gobble, and turned purple with rage, and swelled out all his feathers, and shook a loose scarlet thing which hung down from his neck. They met him to-day, marching at the head of his ladylike wives, who followed him delicately, picking their way and lifting their feet high. Their small heads and quietly elegant toilets made them look rather like Aunt Trevor, Maisie thought.
"Now, walk slowly," said Dennis, and she did try to control her fears; but as usual, the moment the turkey-cock began to gobble, she began to run, and did not stop until she was safe on the other side of the gate. From this refuge she watched Dennis, admiring him greatly as he came slowly on, shaking his stick in the turkey-cock's face, and was quite ready to agree with him when he called her a coward.
"Only I can't help it," she added.
"But you ought to," was Dennis's reply. "It's silly, even for a girl, to be afraid of a turkey-cock."
Old Sally's thatched cottage was so near the farm-buildings that it almost looked like one of them, but a narrow lane really ran between, and it stood on its own little plot of ground. At its door there was an immense horse-chestnut, which she could "mind," she said, helping to plant when she was a girl. She had held it straight in the hole while old Mr Solace, the grandfather of this young Master Andrew, had filled in the earth. She was most sorry to think she had done it now, for this ungrateful tree so shaded her window that it made her cottage dark, and besides this, choked up her well, by dropping its great leaves into it in the autumn.
Old Sally could "mind" so many things on account of her age, that she was a most amusing and instructive person to visit. She had worked for the Solaces as child, girl, and woman, and now she was pensioned off, and allowed to live in her cottage rent-free with her one remaining unmarried daughter, Anne, of whom she always spoke as her "good child." Anne was over seventy years old, and weakly with bad health and rheumatism, so that there was nothing very youthful about her. Indeed, when they sat side by side, both in sunbonnets which they wore indoors and out, it was difficult to say which was the elder of the two old women.
Old Sally, in spite of a long life of hard work, was still straight and wiry, and her brown old face, wrinkled as a withered nut, was lively and shrewd. There was only one point in which Anne had the advantage, and that was in hearing, for her mother was very deaf, and obliged to use a trumpet. This she was always shy of producing, and to-day she allowed Anne to scream into her ear what the children said for some time; but at last, seeing a very earnest expression on Maisie's face, she took the trumpet out with a bashful smile and presented the end to her.
"Do you know any one who wants a kitten?" shouted Maisie.
Old Sally laid down the trumpet and turned to Anne, who as usual sat at her elbow in her lilac sun-bonnet and coarse apron.
"Warn't our Eliza talking of cats last time she was over?" she asked.
"Who's Eliza?" inquired Dennis.
"Why, sure you know our Eliza, Master Dennis," said old Sally. "Her as married the tinsmith, and went to live in Upwell town. Eliza's my youngest darter but two. Don't you mind her wedding?"
"Lor, mother!" said Anne, "Master Dennis and Miss Maisie warn't living at Fieldside then. It's a good twelve years ago.—Mother forgets things like that," she added aside to the children, "though she's a wonderful memory for ancient things."
"Would it be a good home, do you think?" said Maisie to Dennis in a low tone.
"Is your daughter Eliza a kind woman?" shouted Dennis down the trumpet.
Old Sally dropped her trumpet and raised both her withered hands on high.
"Kind! Master Dennis. Eliza's downright silly about dumb animals. She always was from a gal."
"We don't want her to be silly," said Dennis, "but we do want her to be kind, because we've promised Aunt Katharine to find a good home."
Both old Sally and Anne were full of assurances as to Eliza's kindness and the comforts which would surround the grey kitten in her house. Certainly it would have to catch mice, but that, they declared, was a pleasure to a cat, and could not be called hard work. So after a little consultation it was settled that the kitten should be brought to old Sally's, and that Eliza should take it back to Upwell the very next time she came over to see her mother. The grey kitten had a home at last. This arrangement made, Dennis got up briskly, with a business-like air.
"I'm going to see Tuvvy now," he said. "I'll come back for you presently, Maisie;" and he was almost out of the door before he was stopped by a call from Anne.
"You'll not find him to-day, Master Dennis," she said. "He's not at work."
"Not at work!" repeated Dennis, turning round with a downcast face. "Why isn't he at work? Is he ill?"
Old Sally had been screwing up her lips and shaking her head solemnly ever since Tuvvy's name had been mentioned. At Dennis's question her face looked full of dark meaning.
"Worse nor that," she said. "He's had a bout. He'll do it once too often, and get sacked. He can't expect Master Andrew to put up with it."
"But he couldn't ever get such a good wheelwright as Tuvvy again, could he?" said Dennis eagerly. "Tuvvy can do so many things, and he's so clever and quick."
"Oh, he's clever enough, and he's quick enough, is Tuvvy," agreed old Sally: "'tain't that; but he can't keep steady—that's where it is. He'll go on right enough for a bit, and then he'll have a reg'lar break-out. It's cruel hard on his wife and children, so it is."
"Why does he do it?" said Dennis mournfully.
Old Sally gave a sort of low chuckle.
"Lor, Master Dennis, the men are made like that. They can't help it."
Dennis usually took all old Sally said for granted, considering that her knowledge of men and things must be very great, but he hesitated a little at this sweeping remark.
"They're not all like that," he said; "there's Mr Hurst, and Mr Solace, and a whole lot more. Do you think Mr Solace will turn Tuvvy away this time?"
But as to this, neither old Sally nor Anne could give any idea at all. Mr Solace was a kind man for certain, but then again he was a just man too, and a man of his word. Anne had heard him say with her own ears that the next time Tuvvy broke out, he would get the sack. But there was no telling.
Dennis left the cottage with a weight on his mind which nothing could lift. One of his greatest pleasures would be gone if there were no Tuvvy in the barn for the future. A new wheelwright would most likely be a complete stranger, and not the same thing at all. Why would he be so silly as to break out? Could nothing be done to stop him?
Maisie, too, was rather sober and silent on the way back, for though a home for the grey kitten had now been found, she felt that she should miss it very much, and could not bear the idea of parting with it. It had such coaxing ways, and was so weak and helpless, that it seemed to need her more than the others, and to want her help and affection.
She went to pay a last visit to the kittens before she went to bed that night, and found them all curled up in a soft little heap in their basket. As usual, the grey kitten was lying underneath the others, who were sprawling over it, quite regardless of its comfort.
Maisie lifted it out, held it up to her face, and kissed it gently.
"Dear little kitty," she whispered, "you've got a home at last. You're to go and catch mice for old Sally's Eliza, and I do hope you'll be happy."
The three kittens were just a month old on the last day of March, and this was also Philippa Trevor's birthday. She would have liked her birthday to be in the summer, because an out-of-doors party was so much nicer than an indoors one, but even Philippa could not arrange everything in the world as she wished. So she was obliged to put up with a birthday which came in the spring, when there were very few leaves on the trees, and the grass was generally too wet to walk on, and the sky often cold and grey. Philippa had found that she could get most things by crying for them, but still there remained some quite beyond her reach, and unmoved by her tears, and it was just these that she most wanted and wailed for when she was in a perverse mood. These were times of discomfort throughout the house, and of great distress to her mother and Miss Mervyn, for with the best will in the world they could not make the rain stop nor the sun shine, nor time go quicker. Yet, if Philippa cried herself ill, as she often did for some such unreasonable whim, it was so very bad for her.
"We must keep the child cheerful, my dear madam," Dr Smith had said to Mrs Trevor. "The nerves are delicate. She must be amused without excitement, and never allowed to work herself into a passion, or to be violently distressed about anything. It will be well to yield to her, if possible, rather than to thwart her."
But though he said "we," the doctor went away, and it was those who lived with Philippa who had to carry out this difficult task. The last part of it was easy, only it did not seem to produce the desired result. Philippa was yielded to in everything, but instead of being cheerful and contented, she became more fretful and dissatisfied, had less self-control than ever, and flew into passions about the very smallest trifles. This was the case on the morning of her birthday, when there were two things which seriously displeased her. One was the weather, for, instead of being fine and sunshiny, it rained so hard that it seemed doubtful whether her little friends would come to the party. The other was, that the musical box which her mother had promised her, and which was to play twelve tunes, did not arrive as early as she expected.
"It's all as horrid as it can be," she said sulkily when Miss Mervyn tried to comfort her. "I don't care a bit for the other presents if the musical box doesn't come.—And it's raining harder than ever. Everything's horrid."
"It will clear up very likely by the afternoon," said Miss Mervyn.
"But if it does," whined Philippa, "and if they all come, I shan't have my musical box to show them."
"Perhaps it will come before then," said Miss Mervyn patiently, and at that minute a small covered hamper was brought into the room.
"A parcel from Fieldside for Miss Philippa," said the servant.
"Then it's not the musical box," said Philippa, who had looked up with renewed hope.
"I wonder what it can be," said Miss Mervyn. "Something alive, I think. Come, Philippa, let us open it."
She cut the cord as she spoke, and Philippa advanced languidly to the table to see what the hamper contained. When the lid was lifted, however, her expression changed to one of interest and surprise, for there, on a bed of straw, its fur beautifully clean, and a blue ribbon round its neck, lay the white kitten. It yawned as the light fell on it, and looking up at the strange faces, uttered a tiny mew.
"What is that card on its neck?" said Miss Mervyn.
"'From Maisie and Dennis, with love and good wishes,'" read Philippa, in a pleased and excited voice. For the moment the musical box had quite gone out of her head.
"I like it best of all the presents I've had yet," she said, and just then Mrs Trevor came into the room.
"Look, mother!" she exclaimed.
Seizing the kitten, she rushed forward and held it up to Mrs Trevor, whose gown was trimmed with an elegant ruffle of lace down the front; in this the kitten's sharp little claws at once entangled themselves.
"Ah, my lace!" she cried. "Take care, my love; it will scratch you.— Miss Mervyn, pray remove the creature.—Yes, very pretty, my darling. Who sent it to you?"
"Dennis and Maisie," said Philippa, squeezing the kitten under her arm. "May I have it to sleep on my bed?"
"Ah no, dear," said Mrs Trevor absently, examining her torn lace with a slight frown; "that's not the proper place for kittens. Dear me, what sharp claws the little thing has, to be sure! I must let Briggs mend this at once."
She went out of the room, leaving the question to be further argued between Miss Mervyn and Philippa.
"I'm sure Dennis and Maisie don't have kittens to sleep with them," said the former.
"Then you're just wrong," said Philippa triumphantly, "because Dennis's dog Peter always sleeps in his room, and that's just the same."
The white kitten had now struggled out of her clutches, and was wandering sadly round the room in search of its old friends and relations. It seemed likely to make one more subject for dispute at Haughton Park, where from the time Philippa got up till she went to bed, there was already no end to the wrangling. Confused by finding itself in a strange land where nothing familiar met its eye, it at last took refuge under a book-case, and when Philippa looked round, it was nowhere to be seen.
"Oh, my darling little kitten is lost!" she exclaimed.
Miss Mervyn, who did not like cats or any other animals, would not have been sorry if this had been the case, but Philippa was preparing to shed a torrent of tears, and this must be avoided at any cost.
"Hush, my dear," she said, folding her gown closely round her; "we will find it. It cannot have gone far."
Cats, in Miss Mervyn's experience, were shy treacherous things which always hid themselves, and jumped out from unexpected places. So she now proceeded cautiously round the room, peeping into dark corners and behind curtains, as if some dangerous animal were lurking there. There was no place too small or too unlikely that she did not thoroughly examine, but it was Philippa who at last caught sight of a pair of green eyes gleaming in the darkness under the book-case.
"There it is!" she cried, and casting herself flat on the floor, she stretched out her arm and dragged it out by one leg. But she did not hold it long, for the white kitten, frightened, and quite unused to such rough treatment, put out its sharp little claws to defend itself.
"Oh!" screamed Philippa at the top of her voice. She flung the kitten from her, and stretched out her arm piteously; on it there was a long scratch, just beginning to bleed a little.
"The nasty, spiteful thing!" exclaimed Miss Mervyn. "My darling Philippa! what will your mother say? Come, my love, we will bathe it, and it will soon be better, and the savage little kitten shall be sent away."
But Philippa would not have her arm bathed, and the kitten should not be sent away. She would show Dennis and Maisie what a bad scratch it was, and what a cross kitten they had sent her for a present, and meantime she would stand and sob.
"We'll ask them to take it back to Fieldside, won't we?" said Miss Mervyn soothingly; "we shall be glad to get rid of it."
The more Miss Mervyn suggested this, the more determined Philippa was to keep it. She even began to make excuses for it between her sobs. It did not mean to scratch; it was a dear little kitten. She was very fond of it. It should not be sent away. It should stay and sleep on her bed.
At last she submitted to have her arm bathed, and discovered that it was not such a very bad scratch after all, and soon the arrival of the musical box gave her something else to think of. For the time the white kitten was forgotten, and it took the opportunity of crawling behind the curtains, where it curled itself up and went to sleep.
But though the musical box had come, the rain still continued to fall, and as there was no possibility of going out, it was settled that Philippa should play with her friends in the long gallery.
The long gallery was a very delightful place to amuse one's self in on a rainy day. It was the only old part of Haughton which remained, and it was much prettier than the new. Six tall latticed windows stood in recesses all down one side, and facing them were dark old portraits of straight-nosed ladies with powdered hair, and gentlemen in wigs. These had the gallery all to themselves, for there were no furniture or ornaments in it, except some great china vases in the window-seats. At either end there was a high stone mantelpiece, carved all over in quaint patterns. The ceiling was oak, and so was the floor—this last very slippery, so that it was as good as ice to slide upon.
Dennis and Maisie were glad to hear that they were to go into the long gallery when they arrived, and they found all Philippa's visitors assembled there, with the musical box tinkling out its tunes in one of the window-seats. Miss Mervyn, who felt the long gallery very cold and draughty, was there too; she had brought in a chair from the play-room, and sat shivering by the huge fireplace, where a fire had been lighted; but the children, warmed with their games, looked merry and gay.
"Let's have a dance!" exclaimed Philippa, as the musical box began a lively waltz tune; "Dennis shall be my partner."
All the little figures in their bright dresses went whirling down the long shining floor, two and two, skirts fluttering and hair streaming out with the rapid movement. At the end of the long gallery the musical box was quite invisible, and its little thin voice could hardly be heard.
"It's like a fairy tune being played up in the air," said Maisie.
The musical box finished its waltz, and almost immediately struck up a solemn march.
"Now we're soldiers," said Dennis, "marching to the funeral of one of our comrades killed in battle. I'm captain."
All the games suggested by the musical box were successful: even Philippa was pleased and happy, and Miss Mervyn began to think that the party might pass off without any quarrels or disturbance. But, unfortunately, Philippa at last had an idea which led to the overthrow of this pleasant state of things. This idea was that they should join in with the musical box when it played the "Bluebells of Scotland," and have a concert. She herself would conduct, and play the violin. One child could sing the tune, another could whistle it, another could play it on a comb, another was provided with a small drum. Every one thought it a beautiful idea, and Philippa, very much excited, mounted on the window-seat by the musical box, violin in hand, with her band disposed round her.
But alas! Instead of the sweet sounds she hoped to hear, the most terrible discords arose at the first tinkling notes of the musical box. It was wonderful that such a small band could produce such a great noise, but perhaps this was because each child wanted to be heard above the rest. The whistling, screaming, squeaking, and banging, all in different keys and different time, quite overpowered the gentle plaintive notes of the violin and the correct melody of the musical box. Miss Mervyn at the end of the room covered her ears, and Philippa dropped her bow, and exclaimed angrily: "Stop! it's a horrid noise."
That was easily said, but no one paid any attention to it. The band went on screaming, banging, tootling, and whistling harder than ever.
"Stop, I say!" cried Philippa again, stamping her foot. "I'm the conductor. I say stop!"
But it had no result. She threw down her violin, and shook the musical box angrily, but there was no way of stopping that either: it went steadily on, regardless that she was beside herself with rage. In another moment she would have dashed it on the floor; but, fortunately, just at that instant Mrs Trevor appeared at the door. The sight of her had more effect than all Philippa's rage. The band suddenly stopped, the din ceased, peace was restored. Miss Mervyn took her hands from her ears, and advanced from the other end of the room. Philippa flew to her mother, and hid her face in her gown.
"What is it, my darling?" said Mrs Trevor, looking fondly at her daughter, and severely at Miss Mervyn. "Why have you been making this dreadful noise?"
Philippa poured forth her complaints. She had wanted to have a concert—a proper concert—and they had done it all wrong, and they wouldn't stop when she told them, and—
"Poor darling," said Mrs Trevor, stroking Philippa's hair caressingly, "she has such a sensitive ear.—It was hardly wise, I think, Miss Mervyn," turning to that lady, "to allow such a noise. Really, when I opened the door, it was quite like a number of cats quarrelling. Quite enough to give Philippa one of her bad headaches for the rest of the day."
Miss Mervyn looked as if that were likely to be her own case, but she only murmured that she had thought Philippa was enjoying herself, and that she had not liked to put a stop to the children's amusements. The band meanwhile stood disconsolate. Philippa's face had its fretful look, and everything was rather uncomfortable. Mrs Trevor glanced round in despair, and it was at this moment that Maisie gave things a welcome turn by stealing up to her cousin's side, and saying softly, "Where's the white kitten?"
The kitten had been on her mind ever since she arrived: she had not seen it, and did not even know that it had been received, for in the excitement of her party Philippa had quite forgotten to thank her cousins for their present.
"Ah!" said Mrs Trevor, in a tone of relief, "the kitten, to be sure.— Take Maisie to find the kitten, my darling, and have a quiet little game together in the schoolroom. I daresay Dennis will like to stay here, and play with the others until tea-time."
For a wonder, Philippa was quite ready to do what was proposed, and the two little girls went away together.
"Did you like it?" asked Maisie anxiously. "It's pretty, isn't it? And it keeps itself very white. It's the prettiest of all the kittens—next to ours."
"I like it very much," said Philippa graciously, "but it scratches. Miss Mervyn says it's a savage kitten."
"They all scratch, you know," said Maisie seriously, as they entered the schoolroom; "when they're quite little, they don't know better. You'll have to teach it to be good."
"How?" asked Philippa, looking round the room for the kitten, which was nowhere to be seen.
"Entirely by kindness," said Maisie, using an expression she had seen in one of her books.
"It's hidden itself again," said Philippa discontentedly; "it's always hiding itself."
This time the kitten had found a good hiding-place, and the little girls searched everywhere in vain for a long while. At last Maisie thought of lifting the silk cover on the top of Miss Mervyn's work-basket, and there, snugly coiled in the midst of wools, knitting, and fancy work, lay the white kitten fast asleep! This was not the worst, for it had evidently amused itself first by a game of play. All the skeins of wool were twisted up in a tangle, and a quantity of silk was wound tightly round its claws.
"There!" said Philippa, "that's the third wrong thing it's done to-day! It's torn mother's lace, and scratched my arm, and tangled up all Miss Mervyn's wool. Now she'll want it to go away more than ever."
Maisie looked at the white kitten with dismay. It did not seem to have made a good beginning in its new home.
"Will Miss Mervyn be very angry?" she said. "Can't we try to put the wool straight?"
"Oh, that doesn't matter," said Philippa coolly; "but it is a naughty kitten, isn't it?"
Maisie lifted the kitten carefully out of its warm bed, and gently disentangled its claws from the silk.
"Well," she said, "I don't really believe it meant to be naughty. Kittens always like to play, and then, you see, it always slept in a basket, so perhaps it thought this was its own. You must give it a ball or a cork, and then it won't want to play with the wrong things."
Philippa generally looked down upon Maisie and thought her babyish, but she had such motherly ways with the kitten, and gave advice with so much gravity, that she now listened with respect to what she said.
"Now you take it and nurse it a little," she continued, putting the kitten, still half asleep, into Philippa's arms, "and I'll try to get the wool straight. What shall you call it? We call ours 'Darkie,' because he's all black, you see. Dennis wanted to call him 'Nigger,' but I didn't like that, and Aunt Katharine says Darkie means just the same."
Philippa thought of a good many names, but was not satisfied with any of them, and still less with those suggested by Maisie.
"I know," she exclaimed at last; "I've got a beautiful name that just suits it. I shall call it 'Blanche.' That's French for white, you know," she added for Maisie's instruction. Maisie did not know, for she had not begun to learn French, but she quite agreed that Blanche was a lovely name, and seemed made for the white kitten.
After much patient effort she succeeded in untwisting Miss Mervyn's wool from most of the knots and tangles, and putting the contents of the basket into something like order.
"There!" she said; "that's as straight as I can make it."
"I don't see why you took so much trouble over it," said Philippa; "it wasn't your fault—it was the kitten's."
"Well, the kitten couldn't put it straight," replied Maisie. "It wasn't half so mischievous as Darkie at home, but I expect it feels strange here just at first. When it gets to know you, it won't be so naughty."