BROTHERS OF PITY AND OTHER TALES OF BEASTS AND MEN
JULIANA HORATIA EWING
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Northumberland Avenue, W.C. Brighton: 129, North Street. New York: E. & J.B. Young & Co. [Published under the direction of the General Literature Committee.]
TO MY DEAR SISTER
HORATIA KATHARINE FRANCES GATTY.
PREFACE TO FIRST EDITION.
These tales have appeared, during some years past, in Aunt Judy's Magazine for Young People.
"Father Hedgehog and his Neighbours," and "Toots and Boots," were both suggested by Fedor Flinzer's clever pictures; but "Toots" was also "a real person." In his latter days he was an honorary member of the Royal Engineers' Mess at Aldershot, and, on occasion, dined at table.
"The Hens of Hencastle" is not mine. It is a free translation from the German of Victor Bluethgen, by Major Yeatman-Biggs, R.A., to whom I am indebted for permission to include it in my volume, as a necessary prelude to "Flaps." The story took my fancy greatly, but the ending seemed to me imperfect and unsatisfactory, especially in reference to so charming a character as the old watch dog, and I wrote "Flaps" as a sequel.
The frontispiece was designed specially for this volume, by Mr. Charles Whymper, and the Fratello della Misericordia (from a photograph kindly sent me by a friend) is by the same artist.
PREFACE TO NEW EDITION.
The foregoing Preface was written by Mrs. Ewing for the first edition of Brothers of Pity, and Other Tales. The book contains five stories, illustrated by the pictures of which my sister speaks; and it is still sold by the S.P.C.K. "Toots and Boots" was so minutely adapted to Flinzer's pictures, that the tale suffers in being parted from them. Still, it is to be hoped that readers of the un-illustrated version will not have as much difficulty as Toots in solving the mystery of the Mouse's escape! I have added four more tales of "Beasts and Men" to the present edition, as they have not been included in any previous collections of my sister's stories. "A Week Spent in a Glass Pond" appeared first in Aunt Judy's Magazine, October 1876, and was afterwards published separately with coloured illustrations. The habits of the water beasts are described with the strictest fidelity to nature, even the delicate differences in character between the Great and the Big Black water beetles are most accurately drawn.
"Among the Merrows" has not been republished since it came out in Aunt Judy's Magazine, November 1872. At that time the Crystal Palace Aquarium was a novelty, and the Zoological Station at Naples not fully formed—but, though the paper is behind the times in statistics, it is worth retaining for other reasons.
"Tiny's Tricks and Toby's Tricks" as a specimen of versification might perhaps have been included in the volume of Verses for Children, but it seemed best to keep it with the "Owl Hoots," as these papers were the last that Mrs. Ewing wrote. The first appeared in The Child's Pictorial Magazine a few days before her death, and the "Hoots" soon afterwards. The illustrations to both were drawn by Mr. Gordon Browne at my sister's special request, and they are now reproduced with gratitude for his labour of love.
HORATIA K. F. EDEN.
BROTHERS OF PITY
FATHER HEDGEHOG AND HIS NEIGHBOURS
TOOTS AND BOOTS
THE HENS OF HENCASTLE
A WEEK SPENT IN A GLASS POND
AMONG THE MERROWS
TINY'S TRICKS AND TOBY'S TRICKS
THE OWL IN THE IVY BUSH
BROTHERS OF PITY.
"Who dug his grave?"
* * * * *
"Who made his shroud?" "I," said the Beetle, "With my thread and needle, I made his shroud."—Death of Cock Robin.
It must be much easier to play at things when there are more of you than when there is only one.
There is only one of me, and Nurse does not care about playing at things. Sometimes I try to persuade her; but if she is in a good temper she says she has got a bone in her leg, and if she isn't she says that when little boys can't amuse themselves it's a sure and certain sign they've got "the worrits," and the sooner they are put to bed with a Gregory's powder "the better for themselves and every one else."
Godfather Gilpin can play delightfully when he has time, and he believes in fancy things, only he is so very busy with his books. But even when he is reading he will let you put him in the game. He doesn't mind pretending to be a fancy person if he hasn't to do anything, and if I do speak to him he always remembers who he is. That is why I like playing in his study better than in the nursery. And Nurse always says "He's safe enough, with the old gentleman," so I'm allowed to go there as much as I like.
Godfather Gilpin lets me play with the books, because I always take care of them. Besides, there is nothing else to play with, except the window-curtains, for the chairs are always full. So I sit on the floor, and sometimes I build with the books (particularly Stonehenge), and sometimes I make people of them, and call them by the names on their backs, and the ones in other languages we call foreigners, and Godfather Gilpin tells me what countries they belong to. And sometimes I lie on my face and read (for I could read when I was four years old), and Godfather Gilpin tells me the hard words. The only rule he makes is, that I must get all the books out of one shelf, so that they are easily put away again. I may have any shelf I like, but I must not mix the shelves up.
I always took care of the books, and never had any accident with any of them till the day I dropped Jeremy Taylor's Sermons. It made me very miserable, because I knew that Godfather Gilpin could never trust me so much again.
However, if it had not happened, I should not have known anything about the Brothers of Pity; so, perhaps (as Mrs. James, Godfather Gilpin's house-keeper, says), "All's for the best," and "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good."
It happened on a Sunday, I remember, and it was the day after the day on which I had had the shelf in which all the books were alike. They were all foreigners—Italians—and all their names were Goldoni, and there were forty-seven of them, and they were all in white and gold. I could not read any of them, but there were lots of pictures, only I did not know what the stories were about. So next day, when Godfather Gilpin gave me leave to play a Sunday game with the books, I thought I would have English ones, and big ones, for a change, for the Goldonis were rather small.
We played at church, and I was the parson, and Godfather Gilpin was the old gentleman who sits in the big pew with the knocker, and goes to sleep (because he wanted to go to sleep), and the books were the congregation. They were all big, but some of them were fat, and some of them were thin, like real people—not like the Goldonis, which were all alike.
I was arranging them in their places and looking at their names, when I saw that one of them was called Taylor's Sermons, and I thought I would keep that one out and preach a real sermon out of it when I had read prayers. Of course I had to do the responses as well as "Dearly beloved brethren" and those things, and I had to sing the hymns too, for the books could not do anything, and Godfather Gilpin was asleep.
When I had finished the service I stood behind a chair that was full of newspapers, for a pulpit, and I lifted up Taylor's Sermons, and rested it against the chair, and began to look to see what I would preach. It was an old book, bound in brown leather, and ornamented with gold, with a picture of a man in a black gown and a round black cap and a white collar in the beginning; and there was a list of all the sermons with their names and the texts. I read it through, to see which sounded the most interesting, and I didn't care much for any of them. However, the last but one was called "A Funeral Sermon, preached at the Obsequies of the Right Honourable the Countess of Carbery;" and I wondered what obsequies were, and who the Countess of Carbery was, and I thought I would preach that sermon and try to find out.
There was a very long text, and it was not a very easy one. It was: "For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again: neither doth GOD respect any person: yet doth He devise means that His banished be not expelled from Him."
The sermon wasn't any easier than the text, and half the s's were like f's which made it rather hard to preach, and there was Latin mixed up with it, which I had to skip. I had preached two pages when I got into the middle of a long sentence, of which part was this: "Every trifling accident discomposes us; and as the face of waters wafting in a storm so wrinkles itself, that it makes upon its forehead furrows deep and hollow like a grave: so do our great and little cares and trifles first make the wrinkles of old age, and then they dig a grave for us."
I knew the meaning of the words "wrinkles," and "old age." Godfather Gilpin's forehead had unusually deep furrows, and, almost against my will, I turned so quickly to look if his wrinkles were at all like the graves in the churchyard, that Taylor's Sermons, in its heavy binding, slipped from the pulpit and fell to the ground.
And Godfather Gilpin woke up, and (quite forgetting that he was really the old gentleman in the pew with the knocker) said, "Dear me, dear me! is that Jeremy Taylor that you are knocking about like a football? My dear child, I can't lend you my books to play with if you drop them on to the floor."
I took it up in my arms and carried it sorrowfully to Godfather Gilpin. He was very kind, and said it was not hurt, and I might go on playing with the others; but I could see him stroking its brown leather and gold back, as if it had been bruised and wanted comforting, and I was far too sorry about it to go on preaching, even if I had had anything to preach.
I picked up the smallest book I could see in the congregation, and sat down and pretended to read. There were pictures in it, but I turned over a great many, one after the other, before I could see any of them, my eyes were so full of tears of mortification and regret. The first picture I saw when my tears had dried up enough to let me see was a very curious one indeed. It was a picture of two men carrying what looked like another man covered with a blue quilt, on a sort of bier. But the funny part about it was the dress of the men. They were wrapped up in black cloaks, and had masks over their faces, and underneath the picture was written, "Fratelli della Misericordia"—"Brothers of Pity."
I do not know whether the accident to Jeremy Taylor had made Godfather Gilpin too anxious about his books to sleep, but I found that he was keeping awake, and after a bit he said to me, "What are you staring so hard and so quietly at, little Mouse?"
I looked at the back of the book, and it was called Religious Orders; so I said, "It's called Religious Orders, but the picture I'm looking at has got two men dressed in black, with their faces covered all but their eyes, and they are carrying another man with something blue over him."
"Fratelli della Misericordia," said Godfather Gilpin.
"Who are they, and what are they doing?" I asked. "And why are their faces covered?"
"They belong to a body of men," was Godfather Gilpin's reply, "who bind themselves to be ready in their turn to do certain offices of mercy, pity, and compassion to the sick, the dying, and the dead. The brotherhood is six hundred years old, and still exists. The men who belong to it receive no pay, and they equally reject the reward of public praise, for they work with covered faces, and are not known even to each other. Rich men and poor men, noble men and working men, men of letters and the ignorant, all belong to it, and each takes his turn when it comes round to nurse the sick, carry the dying to hospital, and bury the dead.'
"Is that a dead man under the blue coverlet?" I asked with awe.
"I suppose so," said Godfather Gilpin.
"But why don't his friends go to the funeral?" I inquired.
"He has no friends to follow him," said my godfather. "That is why he is being buried by the Brothers of Pity."
Long after Godfather Gilpin had told me all that he could tell me of the Fratelli della Misericordia—long after I had put the congregation (including the Religious Orders and Taylor's Sermons) back into the shelf to which they belonged—the masked faces and solemn garb of the men in the picture haunted me.
I have changed my mind a great many times, since I can remember, about what I will be when I am grown up. Sometimes I have thought I should like to be an officer and die in battle; sometimes I settled to be a clergyman and preach splendid sermons to enormous congregations; once I quite decided to be a head fireman and wear a brass helmet, and be whirled down lighted streets at night, every one making way for me, on errands of life and death.
But the history of the Brothers of Pity put me out of conceit with all other heroes. It seemed better than anything I had ever thought of—to do good works unseen of men, without hope of reward, and to those who could make no return. For it rang in my ears that Godfather Gilpin had said, "He has no friends—that is why he is being buried by the Brothers of Pity."
I quite understood what I thought they must feel, because I had once buried a cat who had no friends. It was a poor half-starved old thing, for the people it belonged to had left it, and I used to see it slinking up to the back door and looking at Tabby, who was very fat and sleek, and at the scraps on the unwashed dishes after dinner. Mrs. Jones kicked it out every time, and what happened to it before I found it lying draggled and dead at the bottom of the Ha-ha, with the top of a kettle still fastened to its scraggy tail, I never knew, and it cost me bitter tears to guess. It cost me some hard work, too, to dig the grave, for my spade was so very small.
I don't think Mrs. Jones would have cared to be a Brother of Pity, for she was very angry with me for burying that cat, because it was such a wretched one, and so thin and dirty, and looked so ugly and smelt so nasty. But that was just why I wanted to give it a good funeral, and why I picked my crimson lily and put it in the grave, because it seemed so sad the poor thing should be like that when it might have been clean and fluffy, and fat and comfortable, like Tabby, if it had had a home and people to look after it.
It was remembering about the cat that made me think that there were no Brothers of Pity (not even in Tuscany, for I asked Godfather Gilpin) to bury beasts and birds and fishes when they have no friends to go to their funerals. And that was how it was that I settled to be a Brother of Pity without waiting till I grew up and could carry men.
I had a shilling of my own, and with sixpence of it I bought a yard and a half of black calico at the post-office shop, and Mrs. Jones made me a cloak out of it; and with the other sixpence I bought a mask—for they sell toys there too. It was not a right sort of mask, but I could not make Mrs. Jones understand about a hood with two eye-holes in it, and I did not like to show her the picture, for if she had seen that I wanted to play at burying people, perhaps she would not have made me the cloak. She made it very well, and it came down to my ankles, and I could hide my spade under it. The worst of the mask was that it was a funny one, with a big nose; but it hid my face all the same, and when you get inside a mask you can feel quite grave whatever it's painted like.
I had never had so happy a summer before as the one when I was a Brother of Pity. I heard Nurse saying to Mrs. Jones that "there was no telling what would keep children out of mischief," for that I "never seemed to be tired of that old black rag and that ridiculous face."
But it was not the dressing-up that pleased me day after day, it was the chance of finding dead bodies with no friends to bury them. Going out is quite a new thing when you have something to look for; and Godfather Gilpin says he felt just the same in the days when he used to collect insects.
I found a good many corpses of one sort and another: birds and mice and frogs and beetles, and sometimes bigger bodies—such as kittens and dogs. The stand of my old wooden horse made a capital thing to drag them on, for all the wheels were there, and I had a piece of blue cotton-velvet to put on the top, but the day I found a dead mole I did not cover him. I put him outside, and he looked like black velvet lying on blue velvet. It seemed quite a pity to put him into the dirty ground, with such a lovely coat.
One day I was coming back from burying a mouse, and I saw a "flying watchman" beetle lying quite stiff and dead, as I thought, with his legs stretched out, and no friends; so I put him on the bier at once, and put the blue velvet over him, and drew him to the place where the mouse's grave was. When I took the pall off and felt him, and turned him over and over, he was still quite rigid, so I felt sure he was dead, and began to dig his grave; but when I had finished and went back to the bier, the flying watchman was just creeping over the wheel. He had only pretended to be dead, and had given me all that trouble for nothing.
When first I became a Brother of Pity, I thought I would have a graveyard to bury all the creatures in, but afterwards I changed my mind and settled to bury them all near wherever I found them. But I got some bits of white wood, and fastened them across each other with bits of wire, and so marked every grave.
At last there were lots of them dotted about the fields and woods I knew. I remembered to whom most of them belonged, and even if I had forgotten, it made a very good game, to pretend to be a stranger in the neighbourhood, and then pretend to be somebody else, talking to myself, and saying, "Wherever you see those little graves some poor creature has been buried by the Brothers of Pity."
I did not like to read the burial service, for fear it should not be quite right (especially for frogs; there were so many of them in summer, and they were so horrid-looking, I used to bury several together, and pretend it was the time of the plague); but I did not like not having any service at all. So when I put on my cloak and mask, and took my spade and the bier, I said, "Brothers, let us prepare to perform this work of mercy," which is the first thing the real Fratelli della Misericordia say when they are going out. And when I buried the body I said, "Go in peace," which is the last thing that they say. Godfather Gilpin told me, and I learnt it by heart.
I enjoyed it very much. There were graves of beasts and birds who had died without friends in the hedges and the soft parts of the fields in almost all our walks. I never showed them to Nurse, but I often wondered that she did not notice them. I always touched my hat when I passed them, and sometimes it was very difficult to do so without her seeing me, but it made me quite uncomfortable if I passed a grave without. When I could not find any bodies I amused myself with making wreaths to hang over particularly nice poor beasts, such as a bullfinch or a kitten.
I had been a Brother of Pity for several months, when a very curious thing happened.
One summer evening I went by myself after tea into a steep little field at the back of our house, with an old stone-quarry at the top, on the ledges of which, where the earth had settled, I used to play at making gardens. And there, lying on a bit of very stony ground, half on the stones and half on the grass, was a dead robin-redbreast. I love robins very much, and it was not because I wanted one to die, but because I thought that if one did die, I should so like to bury him, that I had wished to find a dead robin ever since I became a Brother of Pity. It was rather late, but it wanted nearly an hour to my usual bedtime, so I thought I would go home at once for my dress and spade and bier, and for some roses. For I had resolved to bury this (my first robin-redbreast) in a grave lined with rose-leaves, and to give him a wreath of forget-me-nots.
Just as I was going I heard a loud buzz above my head, and something hit me in the face. It was a beetle, whirring about in the air, and as I turned to leave poor Robin the beetle sat down on him, on the middle of his red breast, and by still hearing the buzzing, I found that another beetle was whirling and whirring just above my head in the air. I like beetles (especially the flying watchmen), and these ones were black too; so I said, for fun, "You've got on your black things, and if you'll take care of the body till I get my spade you shall be Brothers of Pity."
I ran home, and I need not have gone indoors at all, for I keep my cloak and my spade and the bier in the summer-house, but the bits of wood were in the nursery cupboard, so, after I had got some good roses, and was quite ready, I ran up-stairs, and there, to my great vexation, Nurse met me, and said I was to go to bed.
I thought it was very hard, because it had been a very hot day, and I had had to go a walk in the heat of the sun along the old coaching-road with Nurse, and it seemed so provoking, now it was cool and the moon was rising, that I should have to go to bed, especially as Nurse was sending me there earlier than usual because she wanted to go out herself, and I knew it.
I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn't. Every time I opened my eyes the moonlight was more and more like daylight through the white blind. At last I almost thought I must have really been to sleep without knowing it, and that it must be morning. So I got out of bed, and went to the window and peeped; but it was still moonlight—only moonlight as bright as day—and I saw Nurse and two of the maids just going through the upper gate into the park.
In one moment I made up my mind. Nurse had only put me to bed to get me out of the way. I did not mean to trouble her, but I was determined not to lose the chance of being Brother of Pity to a robin-redbreast.
I dressed myself as well as I could, got out unobserved, and made my way to the summer-house. Things look a little paler by moonlight, otherwise I could see quite well. I put on my cloak, took my spade and the handle of the bier in my right hand, and holding the mask over my face with my left, I made my way to the quarry field.
It was a lovely night, and as I strolled along I thought with myself that the ground where Robin lay was too stony for my spade, and that I must move him a little lower, where some soft earth bordered one side of the quarry.
I was as certain as I had ever been of anything that I did not think about this till then, but when I got to the quarry the body was gone from the place where I had found it; and when I looked lower, on the bit of soft earth there lay Robin, just in the place where I was settling in my mind that I would bury him.
I could not believe my eyes through the holes in my mask, so I pulled it off, but there was no doubt about the fact. There he lay; and round him, when I looked closer, I saw a ridge like a rampart of earth, which framed him neatly and evenly, as if he were already halfway into his grave.
The moonlight was as clear as day, there was no mistake as to what I saw, and whilst I was looking the body of the bird began to sink by little jerks, as if some one were pulling it from below. When first it moved I thought that poor Robin could not be dead after all, and that he was coming to life again like the flying watchman, but I soon saw that he was not, and that some one was pulling him down into a grave.
When I felt quite sure of this, when I had rubbed my eyes to clear them, and pulled up the lashes to see if I was awake, I was so horribly frightened that, with my mask in one hand and the spade and the handle of my bier in the other, I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me, leaving the roses and the cross and the blue-velvet pall behind me in the quarry.
Nurse was still out; and I crept back to bed without detection, where I dreamed disturbedly of invisible gravediggers all through the night.
I did not feel quite so much afraid by daylight, but I was not a bit less puzzled as to how Cock Robin had been moved from the stony place to the soft earth, and who dug his grave. I could not ask Nurse about it, for I should have had to tell her I had been out, and I could not have trusted Mrs. Jones either; but Godfather Gilpin never tells tales of me, and he knows everything, so I went to him.
The more I thought of it the more I saw that the only way was to tell him everything; for if you only tell parts of things you sometimes find yourself telling lies before you know where you are. So I put on my cloak and my mask, and took the shovel and bier into the study, and sat down on the little foot-stool I always wait on when Godfather Gilpin is in the middle of reading, and keeps his head down to show that he does not want to be disturbed.
When he shut up his book and looked at me he burst out laughing. I meant to have asked him why, but I was so busy afterwards I forgot. I suppose it was the nose, for it had got rather broken when I fell down as I was burying the old drake that Neptune killed.
But he was very kind to me, and I told him all about my being a Brother of Pity, and how I had wanted to bury a robin, and how I had found one, and how he had frightened me by burying himself.
"Some other Brother of Pity must have found him," said my godfather, still laughing. "And he must have got Jack the Giant-killer's cloak of darkness for his dress, so that you did not see him."
"There was nobody there," I earnestly answered, shaking my mask as I thought of the still, lonely moonlight. "Nothing but two beetles, and I said if they would take care of him they might be Brothers of Pity."
"They took you at your word, mio fratello. Take off your mask, which a little distracts me, and I will tell you who buried Cock Robin."
I knew when Godfather Gilpin was really telling me things—without thinking of something else, I mean,—and I listened with all my ears.
"The beetles whom you very properly admitted into your brotherhood," said my godfather, "were burying beetles, or sexton beetles,[A] as they are sometimes called. They bury animals of all sizes in a surprisingly short space of time. If two of them cannot conduct the funeral, they summon others. They carry the bodies, if necessary, to suitable ground. With their flat heads (for the sexton beetle does not carry a shovel as you do) they dig trench below trench all round the body they are committing to the earth, after which they creep under it and pull it down, and then shovel away once more, and so on till it is deep enough in, and then they push the earth over it and tread it and pat it neatly down."
"Then was it the beetles who were burying the robin-redbreast?" I gasped.
"I suspect so," said Godfather Gilpin. "But we will go and see."
He actually knocked a book down in his hurry to get his hat, and when I helped him to pick it up, and said, "Why, godfather, you're as bad as I was about Taylor's Sermons," he said, "I am an old fool, my dear. I used to be very fond of insects before I settled down to the work I'm at now, and it quite excites me to go out into the fields again."
I never had a nicer walk, for he showed me lots of things I had never noticed, before we got to the quarry field; and then I took him straight to the place where the bit of soft earth was, and there was nothing to be seen, and the earth was quite smooth and tidy. But when he poked with his stick the ground was very soft, and after he had poked a little we saw some nut-brown feathers, and we knew it was Robin's grave.
And I said, "Don't poke any more, please. I wanted to bury him with rose-leaves, but the beetles were dressed in black, and I gave them leave, and I think I'll put a cross over him, because I don't think it's untrue to show that he was buried by the Brothers of Pity."
Godfather Gilpin quite agreed with me, and we made a nice mound (for I had brought my spade), and put the best kind of cross, and afterwards I made a wreath of forget-me-nots to hang on it.
He was the only robin-redbreast I have found since I became a Brother of Pity, and that was how it was that it was not I who buried him after all.
Many of the walks that Nurse likes to take I do not care about, but one place she likes to go to, especially on Sunday, I like too, and that is the churchyard.
I was always fond of it. It is so very nice to read the tombstones, and fancy what the people were like, particularly the ones who lived long ago, in 1600 and something, with beautifully-shaped sixes and capital letters on their graves. For they must have dressed quite differently from us, and perhaps they knew Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell.
Diggory the gravedigger never talks much, but I like to watch him. I think he is rather deaf, for when I asked him if he thought, if he went on long enough, he could dig himself through to the other side of the world, he only said "Hey?" and chucked up a great shovelful of earth. But perhaps it was because he was so deep down that he could not hear.
Now, when he is quite out of sight, and chucks the earth up like that, it makes me think of the sexton beetles; for Godfather Gilpin says they drive their flat heads straight down, and then lift them with a sharp jerk, and throw the earth up so.
I said to Diggory one day, "Don't you wish your head was flat, instead of being as it is, so that you could shovel with it instead of having to have a spade?"
He wasn't so deep down that time, and he heard me, and put his head up out of the grave and rested on his spade. But he only scratched his head and stared, and said, "You be an uncommon queer young gentleman, to be sure," and then went on digging again. And I was afraid he was angry, so I daren't ask him any more.
I daren't of course ask him if he is a Brother of Pity, but I think he deserves to be, for workhouse burials at any rate; for if you have only the Porter and Silly Billy at your funeral, I don't think you can call that having friends.
I have taken the beetles for my brothers, of course. Godfather Gilpin says I should find far more bodies than I do if they were not burying all along. I often wish I could understand them when they hum, and that they knew me.
I wonder if either they or Diggory know that they belong to the order of Fratelli della Misericordia, and that I belong to it too?
But of course it would not be right to ask them, even if either of them would answer me, for if we were "known, even to each other," we should not really and truly be Brothers of Pity.
NOTE—Burying beetles are to the full as skilful as they are described in this tale. With a due respect for the graces of art, I have not embodied the fact that they feed on the carcases which they bury. The last thing that the burying beetle does, after tidying the grave, is to make a small hole and go down himself, having previously buried his partner with their prey. Here the eggs are laid, and the larvae hatched and fed.
[Footnote A: Necrophorus humator, &c.]
FATHER HEDGEHOG AND HIS NEIGHBOURS.
* * * * *
The care of a large family is no light matter, as everybody knows. And that year I had an unusually large family. No less than seven young urchins for Mrs. Hedgehog and myself to take care of and start in life; and there was not a prickly parent on this side of the brook, or within three fields beyond, who had more than four.
My father's brother had six one year, I know. It was the summer that I myself was born. I can remember hearing my father and mother talk about it before I could see. As these six cousins were discussed in a tone of interest and respect which seemed to bear somewhat disparagingly on me and my brother and sisters (there were only four of us), I was rather glad to learn that they also had been born blind. My father used to go and see them, and report their progress to my mother on his return.
"They can see to-day."
"They have curled themselves up. Every one of them. Six beautiful little balls; as round as crab-apples and as safe as burrs!"
I tried to curl myself up, but I could only get my coat a little way over my nose. I cried with vexation. But one should not lose heart too easily. With patience and perseverance most things can be brought about, and I could soon both see and curl myself into a ball. It was about this time that my father hurried home one day, tossing the leaves at least three inches over his head as he bustled along.
"What in the hedge do you think has happened to the six?" said he.
"Oh, don't tell me!" cried my mother; "I am so nervous." (Which she was, and rather foolish as well, which used to irritate my father, who was hasty tempered, as I am myself.)
"They've been taken by gipsies and flitted," said he.
"What do you mean by flitted?" inquired my mother.
"A string is tied round a hind-leg of each, and they are tethered in the grass behind the tent, just as the donkey is tethered. So they will remain till they grow fat, and then they will be cooked."
"Will the donkey be cooked when he is fat?" asked my mother.
"I smell valerian," said my father; on which she put out her nose, and he ran at it with his prickles. He always did this when he was annoyed with any member of his family; and though we knew what was coming, we are all so fond of valerian, we could never resist the temptation to sniff, just on the chance of there being some about.
I had long wanted to see my cousins, and I now begged my father to let me go with him the next time he went to visit them. But he was rather cross that morning, and he ran at me with his back up.
"So you want to gad about and be kidnapped and flitted too, do you? Just let me—"
But when I saw him coming, I rolled myself up as tight as a wood-louse, and as my ears were inside I really did not hear what else he said. But I was not a whit the less resolved to see my cousins.
One day my father bustled home.
"Upon my whine," said he, "they live on the fat of the land. Scraps of all kinds, apples, and a dish of bread and milk under their very noses. I sat inside a gorse bush on the bank, and watched them till my mouth watered."
The next day he reported—
"They've cooked one—in clay. There are only five now."
And the next day—
"They've cooked another. Now there are only four."
"There won't be a cousin left if I wait much longer," thought I.
On the morrow there were only three.
My mother began to cry. "My poor dear nephews and nieces!" said she (though she had never seen them). "What a world this is!"
"We must take it as we eat eggs," said my father, with that air of wisdom which naturally belongs to the sayings of the head of the family, "the shell with the yolk. And they have certainly had excellent victuals."
Next morning he went off as usual, and I crept stealthily after him. With his spines laid flat to his sides, and his legs well under him, he ran at a good round pace, and as he did not look back I followed him with impunity. By and by he climbed a bank and then crept into a furze bush, whose prickles were no match for his own. I dared not go right into the bush for fear he should see me, but I settled myself as well as I could under shelter of a furze branch, and looked down on to the other side of the bank, where my father's nose was also directed. And there I saw my three cousins, tethered as he had said, and apparently very busy over-eating themselves on food which they had not had the trouble of procuring.
If I had heard less about the cooking, I might have envied them; as it was, that somewhat voracious appetite characteristic of my family disturbed my judgment sufficiently to make me almost long to be flitted myself. I fancy it must have been when I pushed out my nose and sniffed involuntarily towards the victuals, that the gipsy man heard me.
He had been lying on the grass, looking much lazier than my cousins—which is saying a good deal—and only turning his swarthy face when the gipsy girl, as she moved about and tended the fire, got out of the sight of his eyes. Then he moved so that he could see her again; not, as it seemed, to see what she was doing or to help her to do it, but as leaves move with the wind, or as we unpacked our noses against our wills when my father said he smelt valerian.
She was very beautiful. Her skin was like a trout pool—clear and yet brown. I never saw any eyes like her eyes, though our neighbour's—the Water Rat—at times recalls them. Her hair was the colour of ripe blackberries in a hot hedge—very ripe ones, with the bloom on. She moved like a snake. I have seen my father chase a snake more than once, and I have seen a good many men and women in my time. Some of them walk like my father, they bustle along and kick up the leaves as he does; and some of them move quickly and yet softly, as snakes go. The gipsy girl moved so, and wherever she went the gipsy man's eyes went after her.
Suddenly he turned them on me. For an instant I was paralyzed and stood still. I could hear my father bustling down the bank; in a few minutes he would be at home, where my brother and sisters were safe and sound, whilst I was alone and about to reap the reward of my disobedience, in the fate of which he had warned me—to be taken by gipsies and flitted.
Nothing, my dear children—my seven dear children—is more fatal in an emergency than indecision. I was half disposed to hurry after my father, and half resolved to curl myself into a ball. I had one foot out and half my back rounded, when the gipsy man pinned me to the ground with a stick, and the gipsy girl strode up. I could not writhe myself away from the stick, but I gazed beseechingly at the gipsy girl and squealed for my life.
"Let the poor little brute go, Basil," she said, laughing. "We've three flitted still."
"Let it go?" cried the young man scornfully, and with another poke, which I thought had crushed me to bits, though I was still able to cry aloud.
The gipsy girl turned her back and went away with one movement and without speaking.
"Sybil!" cried the man; but she did not look round.
"Sybil, I say!"
She was breaking sticks for the fire slowly across her knee, but she made no answer. He took his stick out of my back, and went after her.
"I've let it go," he said, throwing himself down again, "and a good dinner has gone with it. But you can do what you like with me—and small thanks I get for it."
"I can do anything with you but keep you out of mischief," she answered, fixing her eyes steadily on him. He sat up and began to throw stones, aiming them at my three cousins.
"Take me for good and all, instead of tormenting me, and you will," he said.
"Will you give up Jemmy and his gang?" she asked; but as he hesitated for an instant, she tossed the curls back from her face and moved away, saying, "Not you; for all your talk! And yet for your sake, I would give up—"
He bounded to his feet, but she had put the bonfire between them, and before he could get round it, she was on the other side of a tilted cart, where another woman, in a crimson cloak, sat doing something to a dirty pack of cards.
I did not like to see the gipsy man on his feet again, and having somewhat recovered breath, I scrambled down the bank and got home as quickly as the stiffness and soreness of my skin would allow.
I never saw my cousins again, and it was long before I saw any more gipsies; for that day's adventure gave me a shock to which my children owe the exceeding care and prudence that I display in the choice of our summer homes and winter retreats, and in repressing every tendency to a wandering disposition among the members of my family.
That summer—I mean the summer when I had seven—we had the most charming home imaginable. It was in a wood, and on that side of the wood which is farthest from houses and highroads. Here it was bounded by a brook, and beyond this lay a fine pasture field.
There are fields and fields. I never wish to know a better field than this one. I seldom go out much till the evening, but if business should take one along the hedge in the heat of the sun, there are as juicy and refreshing crabs to be picked up under a tree about half-way down the south side, as the thirstiest creature could desire.
And when the glare and drought of midday have given place to the mild twilight of evening, and the grass is refreshingly damped with dew, and scents are strong, and the earth yields kindly to the nose, what beetles and lob-worms reward one's routing!
I am convinced that the fattest and stupidest slugs that live, live near the brook. I never knew one who found out I was eating him, till he was half-way down my throat. And just opposite to the place where I furnished your dear mother's nest, is a small plantation of burdocks, on the underside of which stick the best flavoured snails I am acquainted with, in such inexhaustible quantities, that a hedgehog might have fourteen children in a season, and not fear their coming short of provisions.
And in the early summer, in the long grass on the edge of the wood—but no! I will not speak of it.
My dear children, my seven dear children, may you never know what it is to taste a pheasant's egg—to taste several pheasant's eggs, and to eat them, shells and all.
There are certain pleasures of which a parent may himself have partaken, but which, if he cannot reconcile them with his ideas of safety and propriety, he will do well not to allow his children even to hear of. I do not say that I wish I had never tasted a pheasant's egg myself, but, when I think of traps baited with valerian, of my great-uncle's great-coat nailed to the keeper's door, of the keeper's heavy-heeled boots, and of the impropriety of poaching, I feel, as a father, that it is desirable that you should never know that there are such things as eggs, and then you will be quite happy without them.
But it was not the abundant and varied supply of food which had determined my choice of our home: it was not even because no woodland bower could be more beautiful,—because the coppice foliage was fresh and tender overhead, and the old leaves soft and elastic to the prickles below,—because the young oaks sheltered us behind, and we had a charming outlook over the brook in front, between a gnarled alder and a young sycamore, whose embracing branches were the lintel of our doorway.
No. I chose this particular spot in this particular wood, because I had reason to believe it to be a somewhat neglected bit of what men call "property,"—because the bramble bushes were unbroken, the fallen leaves untrodden, the hyacinths and ragged-robins ungathered by human feet and hands,—because the old fern-fronds faded below the fresh green plumes,—because the violets ripened seed,—because the trees were unmarked by woodmen and overpopulated with birds, and the water-rat sat up in the sun with crossed paws and without a thought of danger,—because, in short, no birds'-nesting, fern-digging, flower-picking, leaf-mould-wanting, vermin-hunting creatures ever came hither to replenish their ferneries, gardens, cages, markets, and museums.
My feelings can therefore be imagined when I was roused from an afternoon nap one warm summer's day by the voices of men and women. Several possibilities came into my mind, and I imparted them to my wife.
"They may be keepers."
"They may be poachers."
"They may be boys birds'-nesting."
"They may be street-sellers of ferns, moss, and so forth."
"They may be collectors of specimens."
"They may be pic-nic-ers—people who bring salt twisted up in a bit of paper with them, and leave it behind when they go away. Don't let the children touch it!"
"They may be—and this is the worst that could happen—men collecting frogs, toads, newts, snails, and hedgehogs for the London markets. We must keep very quiet. They will go away at sunset."
I was quite wrong, and when I heard the slow wheels of a cart I knew it. They were none of these things, and they did not go away. They were travelling tinkers, and they settled down and made themselves at home within fifty yards of mine.
My nerves have never been strong since that day under the furze bush. My first impulse was to roll myself up so tightly that I got the cramp, whilst every spine on my back stood stiff with fright. But after a time I recovered myself, and took counsel with Mrs. Hedgehog.
"Two things," said she, "are most important. We must keep the children from gadding, and we must make them hold their tongues."
"They never can be so foolish as to wish to quit your side, my dear, in the circumstances," said I. But I was mistaken.
I know nothing more annoying to a father who has learned the danger of indiscreet curiosity in his youth, than to find his sons apparently quite uninfluenced by his valuable experience.
"What are tinkers like?" was the first thing said by each one of the seven on the subject.
"They are a set of people," I replied, in a voice as sour as a green crab, "who if they hear us talking, or catch us walking abroad, will kill your mother and me, and temper up two bits of clay and roll us up in them. Then they will put us into a fire to bake, and when the clay turns red they will take us out. The clay will fall off and our coats with it. What remains they will eat—as we eat snails. You seven will be flitted. That is, you will be pegged to the ground till you grow big." (I thought it well not to mention the bread and milk.) "Then they will kill and bake and eat you in the same fashion."
I think this frightened the children; but they would talk about the tinkers, though they dared not go near them.
"The best thing you can do," said Mrs. Hedgehog, "is to tell them a story to keep them quiet. You can modulate your own voice, and stop if you hear the tinkers."
Hereupon I told them a story (a very old one) of the hedgehog who ran a race with a hare, on opposite sides of a hedge, for the wager of a louis d'or and a bottle of brandy. It was a great favourite with them.
"The moral of the tale, my dear children," I was wont to say, "is, that our respected ancestor's head saved his heels, which is never the case with giddy-pated creatures like the hare."
"Perhaps it was a very young hare," said Mrs. Hedgehog, who is amiable, and does not like to blame any one if it can be avoided.
"I don't think it can have been a very young hare," said I, "or the hedgehog would have eaten him instead of outwitting him. As it was, he placed himself and Mrs. Hedgehog at opposite ends of the course. The hare started on one side of the hedge and the hedgehog on the other. Away went the hare like the wind, but Mr. Hedgehog took three steps and went back to his place. When the hare reached his end of the hedge, Mrs. Hedgehog, from the other side, called out, 'I'm here already.' Her voice and her coat were very like her husband's, and the hare was not observant enough to remark a slight difference of size and colour. The moral of which is, my dear children, that one must use his eyes as well as his legs in this world. The hare tried several runs, but there was always a hedgehog at the goal when he got there. So he gave in at last, and our ancestors walked comfortably home, taking the louis d'or and the bottle of brandy with them."
"What is a louis d'or?" cried three of my children; and "What is brandy?" asked the other four.
"I smell valerian," said I; on which they poked out their seven noses, and I ran at them with my spines, for a father who is not an Encyclopaedia on all fours must adopt some method of checking the inquisitiveness of the young.
When grown-up people desire information or take an interest in their neighbours, this, of course, is another matter. Mrs. Hedgehog and I had never seen tinkers, and we resolved to take an early opportunity some evening of sending the seven urchins down to the burdock plantations to pick snails, whilst we paid a cautious visit to the tinker camp.
But mothers are sad fidgets, and anxious as Mrs. Hedgehog was to gratify her curiosity, she kept putting off our expedition till the children's spines should be harder; so I made one or two careful ones by myself, and told her all the news on my return.
"The animal Man," so I have heard my uncle, who was a learned hedgehog, say,—"the animal man is a diurnal animal; he comes out and feeds in the daytime." But a second cousin, who had travelled as far as Covent Garden, and who lived for many years in a London kitchen, told me that he thought my uncle was wrong, and that man comes out and feeds at night. He said he knew of at least one house in which the crickets and black-beetles never got a quiet kitchen to themselves till it was nearly morning.
But I think my uncle was right about men in the country. I am sure the tinker and his family slept at night. He and his wife were out a great deal during the day. They went away from the wood and left the children with an old woman, who was the tinker's mother. At one time they were away for several days, and about my usual time for going out the children were asleep, and the old woman used to sit over the camp fire with her head on her hands.
"The language of men, my dear," I observed to Mrs. Hedgehog, "is quite different to ours, even in general tone; but I assure you that when I first heard the tinker's mother, I could have wagered a louis d'or and a bottle of brandy that I heard hedgehogs whining to each other. In fact, I was about to remonstrate with them for their imprudence, when I found out that it was the old woman who was moaning and muttering to herself."
"What is the matter with her?" asked Mrs. Hedgehog.
"I was curious to know myself," said I, "and from what I have overheard, I think I can inform you. She is the tinker's mother, and judging from what he said the other night, was not by any means indulgent to him when he was a child. She is harsh enough to his young brats now; but it appears that she was devoted to an older son, one of the children of his first wife; and that it is for the loss of this grandchild that she vexes herself."
"Is he dead?"
"No, my dear, but—"
"Has he been flitted?"
"Something of the kind, I fear. He has been taken to prison."
"Dear, dear!" said Mrs. Hedgehog; "what a trial to a mother's feelings! Will they bake him?"
"I think not," said I. "I fancy that he is tethered up as a punishment for taking what did not belong to him; and the grandmother's grievance seems to be that she believes he was unjustly convicted. She thinks the real robber was a gipsy. Just as if I were taken, and my skin nailed to the keeper's door for pheasant's eggs which I had never had the pleasure of eating."
Mrs. Hedgehog was now dying of curiosity. She said she thought the children's spines were strong enough for anything that was likely to happen to them; and so the next fresh damp evening we sent the seven urchins down to the burdocks to pick snails, and crept cautiously towards the tinker's encampment to see what we could see. And there, by the smouldering embers of a bonfire, sat the old woman moaning, as I had described her, with her elbows on her knees, rocking and nursing her head, from which her long hair was looped and fell, like grey rags, about her withered fingers.
"I don't like her looks," snorted Mrs. Hedgehog. "And how disgustingly they have trampled the grass."
"It is quite true," said I; "it will not recover itself this summer. I wish they had left us our wood to ourselves."
At this moment Mrs. Hedgehog laid her five toes on mine, to attract my attention, and whispered—"Is it a gipsy?" and lifting my nose in the direction of the rustling brushwood, I saw Sybil. There was no mistaking her, though her cheeks looked hollower and her eyes larger than when I saw her last.
"Good-evening, mother," she said.
The old woman raised her gaunt face with a start, and cried fiercely, "Begone with you! Begone!" and then bent it again upon her hands, muttering, "There are plenty of hedges and ditches too good for your lot, without their coming to worrit us in our wood."
The gipsy girl knelt quietly by the fire, and stirred up the embers.
"What is the matter, mother?" she said. "We've only just come, and when I heard that Tinker George and his mother were in the wood, I started to find you. 'You makes too free with the tinkers,' says my brother's wife. 'I goes to see my mother,' says I, 'who nursed me through a sickness, my real mother being dead, and my own people wanting to bury me through my not being able to speak or move, and their wanting to get to the Bartelmy Fair.' I never forget, mother; have you forgotten me, that you drives me away for bidding you good-day?"
"Good days are over for me," moaned the old woman. "Begone, I say! Don't let me see or hear any that belongs to Black Basil, or it may be the worse for them."
("The tinker-mother whines very nastily," said Mrs. Hedgehog. "If I were the young woman, I should bite her."
"Hush!" I answered, "she is speaking.")
"Basil is in prison," said the gipsy girl hoarsely.
The old woman's eyes shone in their sockets, as she looked up at Sybil for a minute, as if to read the gipsy's sentence on her face; and then she chuckled,
"So they've taken the Terror of the Roads?"
Sybil's eyes had not moved from the fire, before which she was now standing with clasped hands.
"The Terror of the Roads?" she said. "Yes, they call him that,—but I could turn him round my finger, mother." Her voice had dropped, and she smoothed one of her black curls absently round her finger as she spoke.
"You couldn't keep him out of prison," taunted the old woman.
"I couldn't keep him out of mischief," said the girl, sadly; and then, with a sudden flash of anger, she clasped her hands above her head and cried, "A black curse on Jemmy and his gang!"
"A black curse on them as lets the innocent go to prison in their stead. They comes there themselves in the end, and long may it hold them!" was the reply.
Sybil moved swiftly to the old woman's side.
"I heard you was in trouble, mother, about Christian; but you don't think—"
"Think!" screamed the old woman, shaking her fists, whilst the girl interrupted her—
"Hush, mother, hush! tell me now, tell me all, but not so loud," and kneeling with her back to us, she said something more in a low voice, to which the old woman replied in a whine so much moderated, that though Mrs. Hedgehog and I strained our ears, and crept as near the group as we dared, we could not catch a word.
Only, after a while Sybil rose up and walked back slowly to the fire, twisting the long lock of her hair as before, and saying—"I turns him round my finger, mother, as far as that goes—"
"So you thinks," said the old crone. "But he never will—even if you would, Sybil Stanley! Oh Christian, my child, my child!"
The gipsy girl stood still, like a young poplar-tree in the dead calm before thunder; and there fell a silence, in which I dared not have moved myself, or allowed Mrs. Hedgehog to move, three steps through the softest grass, for fear of being heard.
Then Sybil said abruptly, "I've never rightly heard about Christian, mother. What was it made you think so much more of him than you thinks about the others?"
"My son's first wife died after Christian was born," said the old woman. "I've a sharp tongue, as you know, Sybil Stanley, and I'm doubtful if she was too happy while she lived; but when she was gone I knew she'd been a good 'un, and I've always spoken of her accordingly.
"You're too young to remember that year; it was a year of slack trade and hard times all over. Farmer-folk grudged you fourpence to mend the kettle, and as to broken victuals, there wasn't as much went in at the front door to feed the family, as the servants would have thrown out at the back door another year to feed the pigs.
"When one gets old, my daughter, and sits over the fire at night and thinks, instead of tramping all day and sleeping heavy after it, as one does when one is young—things comes back; things comes back, I say, as they says ghosts does.
"And when we camps near trees with long branches, like them over there, that waves in the wind and confuses your eyes among the smoke, I sometimes think I sees her face, as it was before she died, with a pinched look across the nose. That is Christian's mother, my son's first wife; and it comes back to me that I believes she starved herself to let him have more; for he's a man with a surly temper, like my own, is my son George. He grumbled worse than the children when he was hungry, and because she was so slow in getting strong enough to stand on her legs and carry the basket. You see he didn't hold his tongue when things were bad to bear, as she could. Men doesn't, my daughter."
"I know, I know," said the girl.
"I thinks I was jealous of her," muttered the old woman; "it comes back to me that I begrudged her making so much of my son, but I knows now that she was a good 'un, and I speaks of her accordingly. She fretted herself about getting strong enough to carry the child to be christened, while we had the convenience of a parson near at hand, and I wasn't going to oblige her; but the day after she died, the child was ailing, and thinking it might require the benefit of a burial-service as well as herself, I wrapped it up, and made myself decent, and took my way to the village. I was half-way up the street, when I met a young gentlewoman in a grey dress coming out of a cottage.
"'Good-day, my pretty lady,' says I. 'Could you show an old woman the residence of the clergyman that would do the poor tinkers the kindness of christening a sick child whose mother lies dead in a tilted cart at the meeting of the four roads?'
"'I'm the clergyman's wife,' says she, with the colour in her face, 'and I'm sure my husband will christen the poor baby. Do let me see it.'
"'It's only a tinker's child,' says I, 'a poor brown-faced morsel for a pretty lady's blue eyes to rest upon, that's accustomed to the delicate sight of her own golden-haired children; long may they live, and many may you and the gentle clergyman have of them!'
"'I have no children,' says she, shortly, with the colour in her face breaking up into red and white patches over her cheeks. 'Let me carry the baby for you,' says she, a taking it from me. 'You must be tired.'
"All the way she kept looking at it, and saying how pretty it was, and what beautiful long eyelashes it had, which went against me at the time, my daughter, for I knowed it was like its mother.
"The clergyman was a pleasing young gentleman of a genteel appearance, with a great deal to say for himself in the way of religion, as was right, it being his business. 'Name this child,' says he, and she gives a start that nobody sees but myself. So, thinking that the child being likely to die, there was no loss in obliging the gentlefolk, says I, looking down into the book as if I could read, 'Any name the lady thinks suitable for the poor tinker's child;' and says she, the colour coming up into her face, 'Call him Christian, for he shall be one.' So he was named Christian, a name to give no manner of displeasure to myself or to my family; it having been that of my husband's father, who was unfortunate in a matter of horse-stealing, and died across the water."
"What did she want with naming the baby, mother?" asked Sybil.
"I comes to that, my daughter, I comes to that, though it's hard to speak of. I hate myself worse than I hates the police when I thinks of it. But ten pounds—pieces of gold, my daughter, when half-pence were hard to come by—and small expectation that he would outlive his mother by many days—and a feeling against him then, for her sake, though I thinks differently now—"
"You sold him to the clergy-folks?" said Sybil.
"Ten pieces of gold! You never felt the pains of starvation, my daughter—nor perhaps those of jealousy, which are worse. The young clergywoman had no children, on which score she fretted herself; and must have fretted hard, before she begged the poor tinker's child out of the woods."
"What did Tinker George say?" asked the girl.
"He used a good deal of bad language, and said I might as easily have got twenty pounds as ten, if I had not been as big a fool as the child's mother herself. Men are strange creatures, my daughter."
"So you left Christian with them?"
"I did, my daughter. I left him in the arms of the young clergywoman with the politest of words on both sides, and a good deal of religious conversation from the parson, which I does not doubt was well meant, if it was somewhat tedious."
"And then we moved to Banbury, where my son took his second wife, having made her acquaintance in an alehouse; and then, my daughter, I begins to know that Christian's mother had been a good 'un."
"George isn't as happy with this one, then?"
"Men are curious creatures, my daughter, as you will discover for your own part without any instructions from me. He treats her far better than the other, because she treats him so much worse. But between them they soon put me a-one-side, and when I sat long evenings alone, sometimes in a wood, as it might be this, where the branches waves and makes a confusion of the shadows—and sometimes on the edge of a Hampshire heath where we camps a good deal, and the light is as slow in dying out of the bottom of the sky as he and she are in coming home, and the bits of water looks as if people had drownded themselves in them—when I sat alone, I say, minding the fire and the children—I wondered if Christian had lived, till I was all but mad with wondering and coming no nearer to knowing.
"'His mother was a good daughter to you,' I thinks; 'and if you hadn't sold him—sold your own flesh and blood—for ten golden sovereigns to the clergywoman, he might have been a good son to your old age.'
"At last I could bear idleness and the lone company of my own thoughts no longer, my daughter, and I sets off to travel on my own account, taking money at back-doors, and living on broken meats I begged into the bargain, and working at nights instead of thinking. I knows a few arts, my daughter, of one sort and another, and I puts away most of what I takes, and changes it when the copper comes to silver, and the silver comes to gold."
"I wonder you never went to see if he was alive," said Sybil.
"I did, my daughter. I went several times under various disguisements, which are no difficulty to those who know how to adopt them, and with servant's jewellery and children's toys, I had sight of him more than once, and each time made me wilder to get him back."
"And you never tried?"
"The money was not ready. One must act honourably, my daughter. I couldn't pick up my own grandson as if he'd been a stray hen, or a few clothes off the line. It took me five years to save those ten pounds. Five long miserable years."
"Miserable!" cried the gipsy girl, flinging her hair back from her eyes. "Miserable! Happy, you mean; too happy! It is when one can do nothing—"
She stopped, as if talking choked her, and the old woman, who seemed to pay little attention to any one but herself, went on,
"It was when it was all but saved, and I hangs about that country, making up my plans, that he comes to me himself, as I sits on the outskirts of a wood beyond the village, in no manner of disguisement, but just as I sits here."
"He came to you?" said Sybil.
"He comes to me, my daughter; dressed like any young nobleman of eight years old, but bareheaded and barefooted, having his cap in one hand, and his boots and stockings in the other.
"'Good-morning, old gipsy woman,' says he. 'I heard there was an old gipsy woman in the wood; so I came to see. Nurse said if I went about in the fields, by myself, the gipsies would steal me; but I told her I didn't care if they did, because it must be so nice to live in a wood, and sleep out of doors all night. When I grow up, I mean to be a wild man on a desert island, and dress in goats' skins. I sha'n't wear hats—I hate them; and I don't like shoes and stockings either. When I can get away from Nurse, I always take them off. I like to feel what I'm walking on, and in the wood I like to scuffle with my toes in the dead leaves. There's a quarry at the top of this wood, and I should so have liked to have thrown my shoes and stockings and my cap into it; but it vexes mother when I destroy my clothes, so I didn't, and I am carrying them.'
"Those were the very words he said, my daughter. He had a swiftness of tongue, for which I am myself famous, especially in fortune-telling; but he used the language of gentility, and a shortness of speech which you will observe among those who are accustomed to order what they want instead of asking for it. I had hard work to summon voice to reply to him, my daughter, and I cannot tell you, nor would you understand it if I could find the words, what were my feelings to hear him speak with that confidence of the young clergywoman as his mother.
"'A green welcome to the woods and the fields, my noble little gentleman,' says I. 'Be pleased to honour the poor tinker-woman by accepting the refreshment of a seat and a cup of tea.'
"'I mayn't eat or drink anything when I am visiting the poor people,' says he, 'Mother doesn't allow me. But thank you all the same, and please don't give me your stool, for I'd much rather sit on the grass; and, if you please, I should like you to tell me all about living in woods, and making fires, and hanging kettles on sticks, and going about the country and sleeping out of doors.'"
"Did you tell him the truth, or make up a tale for him?" asked Sybil.
"Partly one and partly the other, my daughter. But when persons sets their minds on anything, they sees the truth in a manner according to their own thoughts, which is of itself as good as a made-up tale.
"He asks numberless questions, to which I makes suitable replies. Them that lives out of doors—can they get up as early as they likes, without being called? he asks.
"Does gipsies go to bed in their clothes?
"Does they sometimes forget their prayers, with not regularly dressing and undressing?
"Did I ever sleep on heather?
"Does we ever travel by moonlight?
"Do I see the sun rise every morning?
"Did I ever meet a highwayman?
"Does I believe in ghosts?
"Can I really tell fortunes?
"I takes his shapely little hand—as brown as your own, my daughter, for his mother, like myself, was a pure Roman, and looked down upon by her people in consequence for marrying my son, who is of mixed blood (my husband being in family, as in every other respect, undeserving of the slightest mention).
"'Let me tell you your fortune, my noble little gentleman,' I says. 'The lines of life are crossed early with those of travelling. Far will you wander, and many things will you see. Stone houses and houses of brick will not detain you. In the big house with the blue roof and the green carpet were you born, and in the big house with the blue roof and the green carpet will you die. The big house is delicately perfumed, my noble little gentleman, especially in the month of May; at which time there is also an abundance of music, and the singers sits overhead. Give the old gipsy woman a sight of your comely feet, my little gentleman, by the soles of which it is not difficult to see that you were born to wander.'
"With this and similar jaw I entertained him, my daughter, and his eyes looks up at me out of his face till I feels as if the dead had come back; but he had a way with him besides which frightened me, for I knew that it came from living with gentlefolk.
"'Are you mighty learned, my dear?' says I. 'Are you well instructed in books and schooling?'
"'I can say the English History in verse,' he says, 'and I do compound addition; and I know my Catechism, and lots of hymns. Would you like to hear me?'
"'If you please, my little gentleman,' I says.
"'What shall I say?' he asks. 'I know all the English History, only I am not always quite sure how the kings come; but if you know the kings and can just give me the name, I know the verses quite well. And I know the Catechism perfectly, but perhaps you don't know the questions without the book. The hymns of course you don't want a book for, and I know them best of all.'
"'I am not learned, myself,' says I, 'and I only know of two kings—the king of England—who, for that matter, is a queen, and a very good woman, they say, if one could come at her—and the king of the gipsies, who is as big a blackguard as you could desire to know, and by no means entitled to call himself king, though he gets a lot of money by it, which he spends in the public-house. As regards the other thing, my dear, I certainly does not know the questions without the book, nor, indeed, should I know them with the book, which is neither here nor there; so if the hymns require no learning on my part, I gives the preference to them.'
"'I like them best, myself,' he says; and he puts his hat and his shoes and stockings on the ground, and stands up and folds his hands behind his back, and repeats a large number of religious verses, with the same readiness with which the young clergyman speaks out of a book.
"It partly went against me, my daughter, for I am not religious myself, and he was always too fond of holy words, which I thinks brings ill-luck. But his voice was as sweet as a thrush that sits singing in a thorn-bush, and between that and a something in the verses which had a tendency to make you feel uncomfortable, I feels more disturbed than I cares to show. But oh, my daughter, how I loves him!
"'The blessing of an old gipsy woman on your young head,' I says. 'Fair be the skies under which you wanders, and shady the spots in which you rests!
"'May the water be clear and the wood dry where you camps!
"'May every road you treads have turf by the wayside, and the patteran[B] of a friend on the left.'
"'What is the patteran?' he asks.
"'It is a secret,' I says, looking somewhat sternly at him. 'The roads keeps it, and the hedges keeps it—'
"'I can keep it,' he says boldly. 'Pinch my finger, and try me!'
"As he speaks he holds out his little finger, and I pinches it, my daughter, till the colour dies out of his lips, though he keeps them set, for I delights to see the nobleness and the endurance of him. So I explains the patteran to him, and shows him ours with two bits of hawthorn laid crosswise, for I does not regard him as a stranger, and I sees that he can keep his lips shut when it is required.
"He was practising the patteran at my feet, when I hears the cry of 'Christian!' and I cannot explain to you the chill that came over my heart at the sound.
"Trouble and age and the lone company of your own thoughts, my daughter, has a tendency to confuse you; and I am not by any means rightly certain at times about things I sees and hears. I sees Christian's mother when I knows she can't be there, and though I believes now that only one person was calling the child, yet, with the echo that comes from the quarry, and with worse than twenty echoes in my own mind, it seems to me that the wood is full of voices calling him.
"In my foolishness, my daughter, I sits like a stone, and he springs to his feet, and snatches up his things, and says, 'Good-bye, old gipsy woman, and thank you very much. I should like to stay with you,' he says, 'but Nurse is calling me, and Mother does get so frightened if I am long away and she doesn't know where. But I shall come back.'
"I never quite knows, my daughter, whether it was the echo that repeated his words, or whether it was my own voice I hears, as I stretches my old arms after him, crying, 'Come back!'
"But he runs off shouting, 'Coming, coming!'
"And the wood deafens me, it is so full of voices.
"Christian! Christian!—Coming! Coming!
"And I thinks I has some kind of a fit, my daughter, for when I wakes, the wood is as still as death, and he is gone, as dreams goes."
"I really feel for the tinker-mother," whispered Mrs. Hedgehog.
"I feel for her myself," was my reply. "The cares of a family are heavy enough when they only last for the season, and one sleeps them off in a winter's nap. When—as in the case of men—they last for a lifetime, and you never get more than one night's rest at a time, they must be almost unendurable. As to prolonging one's anxieties from one's own families to the families of each of one's children—no parent in his senses—"
"What is the gipsy girl saying now?" asked Mrs. Hedgehog, who had been paying more attention to the women than to my observations—an annoyance to which, as head of the family, I have been subjected oftener than is becoming.
Sybil had been kneeling at the old woman's feet, soothing her and chafing her hands. At last she said,
"But you did get him, Mother. How was it?"
"Not for five more years, my daughter. And never in all that time could I get a sight of his face. The very first house I calls at next morning, I sees a chalk mark on the gate-post, placed there by some travelling tinker or pedler or what not, by which I knows that the neighbourhood is being made too hot for tramps and vagrants, as they call us. And go back in what disguisement I might, there was no selling a bootlace, nor begging a crust of bread there—there, where he lived.
"I makes up the ten pounds, and ties it in a bag; but I gets worse and worse in health and spirits and in confusion of mind, my daughter; and when I comes accidentally across my son in a Bedfordshire lane, and his wife is drinking, and he is in much bewilderment with the children, I takes up again with them, and I was with them when Christian comes to me the second time."
"He came back to you?"
"Learning and the confinement of stone walls, my daughter, than which no two things could be more contrary to the nature of those who dwells in the woods and lanes. I will not deny that the clergyman—and especially the young clergywoman—had been very good to him; but for which he would probably have run away long before. But what is bred in the bone comes out in the flesh. He does pretty well with the learning, and he bears with the confinement of school, though it is worse than that of the clergy-house. But when a rumour has crept out that he is not the son of the clergyman nor of the clergywoman, and he is taunted with being a gipsy and a vagrant, he lays his bare hands on those nearest to him, my daughter, and comes away on his bare feet."
"How did he find you, Mother?"
"He has no fixed intentions beyond running away, my daughter; but as he is sitting in a hedge to bandage one of his feet with his handkerchief, he sees our patteran, and he goes on, keeping it by the left, and sees it again, and so follows it, and comes home."
"You mean that he came to you?"
"I do, my dear. For home is not a house that never moves from one place, built of stone or brick, and with a front door for the genteel and a back door for the common people. If it was so, prisons would be homes. But home, my daughter, is where persons is whom you belongs to, and it may be under a hedge to-day and in a fair to-morrow."
"Mother," said Sybil, "what did you do about the ten pounds?"
"I will tell you, my daughter. I was obliged to wait longer than was agreeable to me before proceeding to that neighbourhood, for the police was searching everywhere, and it would be wearisome to relate to you with what difficulty Christian was concealed. My plans had been long made, as you know.
"Clergyfolk, my daughter, with a tediousness of jaw which makes them as oppressive to listen long to as houses is to rest long in, has their good points like other persons; they shows kindness to those who are in trouble, and they spends their money very freely on the poor. This is well known, even by those who has no liking for parsons, and I have more than once observed that persons who goes straight to the public-house when they has money in their pockets, goes straight to the parson when their pockets is empty.
"It is also well known, my daughter, that when the clergyman collects money after speaking in his church, he doesn't take it for his own use, as is the custom with other people, such as Punch and Judy men, or singers, or fortune tellers; at the same time he is as pleased with a good collection as if it were for his own use; and if some rich person contributes a sovereign for the sick and poor, it is to him as it would be to you, my daughter, if your hand was crossed with gold by some noble gentleman who had been crossed in love.
"I explain this, my dear, that you may understand how it was that I had planned to pay back the clergy people's ten pounds in church, which would be as good as paying it into their hands, with the advantage of secrecy for myself. On the Saturday I drives into the little market in a donkey-cart with greens, and on Sunday morning I goes to church in a very respectable disguisement, and the sexton puts me in a pew with some women of infirm mind in workhouse dresses, for which, my daughter, I had much to do to restrain myself from knocking him down. But I does; and I behaves myself through the service with the utmost care, following the movements of the genteeler portion of the company, those in the pew with me having no manners at all; one of them standing most of the time and giggling over the pew-back, and another sitting in the corner and weeping into her lap.
"But with the exception of getting up and sitting down, and holding a book open as near to the middle as I could guess, I pays little attention, my daughter, for all my thoughts is taken up with waiting for the collection to begin, and with trying to keep my eyes from the clergywoman's face, which I can see quite clearly, though she is at some distance from me."
"Did she look very wild, Mother, as if she felt beside herself?"
"She looked very bad, my daughter, and grey, which was not with age. I tells you that I tried not to look at her; and by and by the collection begins.
"It seems hours to me, my daughter, whilst the money is chinking and the clergyman is speaking, and the ten pieces of gold is getting so hot in my hands, I fancies they burns me, and still not one of the collecting-men comes near our pew.
"At last, one by one, they begins to go past me and go up to the clergyman who is waiting for them at the upper end, and then I perceives that they regards us as too poor to pay our way like the rest, and that the plates will never be put into our pew at all. So when the last but one is going past me, I puts out my hand to beckon him, and the woman that is standing by me bursts out laughing, and the other cries worse than ever, and the collecting-man says, 'Hush! hush!' and goes past and takes the plate with him.
"'A black curse on your insolence!' says I; and then I grips the laughing woman by the arm and whispers, 'If you make that noise again, I'll break your head,' and she sits down and begins to cry like the other.
"There is one more collecting-man, who comes last, and he is the Duke, who lives at the big house.
"The nobility and gentry, my daughter, when they are the real thing, has, like the real Romans, a quickness to catch your meaning, and a politeness of manner which you doesn't meet with among such people as the keeper of a small shop or the master of a workhouse. The Duke was a very old man, with bent shoulders and the slow step of age, and I thinks he did not see or hear very quickly; and when I beckons to him he goes past. But when he is some way past he looks back. And when he sees my hand out, he turns and comes slowly down again, and hands me the plate with as much politeness as if I had been in his own pew, and he says in a low voice, 'I beg your pardon.'
"But when I sees him stumbling back, and knows that in his politeness he will bring me the plate, there comes a fear on me, my daughter, that he may see the ten pieces of gold and think I has stolen them. And then I knows not what I shall do, for the nobility and gentry, though quick and polite in a matter of obliging the poor, such as this one,—when they sits as poknees[C] to administer justice, loses both their good sense and their good manners as completely as any of the police.
"But it comes to me also that being such a real one—such an out-and-outer—his politeness may be so great that he may look another way, rather than peep and pry to see what the poor workhouse-company woman puts into the plate. And I am right, my daughter, for he looks away, and I lays the ten golden sovereigns in the plate, and he gives a little smile and a little bow, and goes slowly and stumblingly to the upper end, where the clergyman is still speaking verses.
"And then, my daughter, my hands, which made the gold sovereigns so hot, turns very hot, and I gets up and goes out of the church with as much respectfulness and quiet as I am able.
"And I tries not to look at her face as I turns to shut the door, but I was unable to keep myself from doing so, and as it looked then I can see it now, my dear, and I know I shall remember it till I die. I thinks somehow that she was praying, though it was not a praying part of the service, and when I looks to the upper end I sees that the eyes of the young clergyman her husband is fixed on her, as mine is.
"And of all the words which he preached that day and the verses he spoke with so much readiness, I could not repeat one to you, my daughter, to save my life, except the words he was saying just then, and they remains in my ears as her face remains before my eyes,—
"'GOD is not unrighteous, that He will forget your work, and labour which proceedeth of love.'"
"We are all creatures of habit." So my learned uncle, Draen y Coed, who was a Welsh hedgehog, used to say. "Which was why an ancestor of my own, who acted as turnspit in the kitchen of a farmhouse in Yorkshire, quite abandoned the family custom of walking out in the cool of the evening, and declared that he couldn't take two steps in comfort except in a circle, and in front of a kitchen-fire at roasting heat."
Uncle Draen y Coed was right, and I must add that I doubt if, in all his experience, or among the strange traditions of his most eccentric ancestors, he could find an instance of change of habits so unexpected, so complete, I may say so headlong, as when very quiet people, with an almost surly attachment to home, break the bounds of the domestic circle, and take to gadding, gossiping, and excitement.
Perhaps it is because they find that their fellow-creatures are nicer than they have been wont to allow them to be, and that other people's affairs are quite as interesting as their own.
Perhaps—but what is the good of trying to explain infatuations?
Why do we all love valerian? I can only record that, having set up every prickle on our backs against intruders into our wood, we now dreaded nothing more than that our neighbours should forsake us, and wished for nothing better than for fresh arrivals.
In old days, when my excellent partner and I used to take our evening stroll up the field, we were wont to regard it quite as a grievance if a cousin, who lived at the far end of the hedge, came out and caught us and detained us for a gossip. But now I could hardly settle to my midday nap for thinking of the tinker-mother; and as to Mrs. Hedgehog, she almost annoyed me by her anxiety to see Christian. However, curiosity is the foible of her sex, and I accompanied her daily to the encampment without a murmur.
The seven urchins we sent down to the burdocks to pick snails.
It was not many days after that on which we heard the old tinker-mother relate Christian's history, that we were stopped on our way to the corner where we usually concealed ourselves, by hearing strange voices from the winding pathway above us.
"It's a young man," said I.
"It's Christian!" cried Mrs. Hedgehog.
"I feel sure that it is not," said I; "but if you will keep quiet, I will creep a little forward and see."
I am always in the right, as I make a point of reminding Mrs. Hedgehog whenever we dispute; and I was right on this occasion.
The lad who spoke was a young gentleman of about seventeen, and no more like a gipsy than I am. His fair hair was closely cropped, his eyes were quick and bright, his manner was alert and almost anxious, and though he was very slight as well as very young, he carried himself with dignity and some little importance. A lady, much older than himself, was with him, whom he was helping down the path.
"Take care, Gertrude, take care. There is no hurry, and I believe there's no one in the wood but ourselves."
"The people at the inn told us that there were gipsies in the neighbourhood," said the lady; "and oh, Ted! this is exactly the wood I dreamt of, except the purple and white—"
"Gertrude! What on earth are you after?"
"The flowers, Ted, the flowers in my dream! There they are, a perfect carpet of them. White—oh, how lovely!—and there, on the other side, are the purple ones. What are they, dear? I know you are a good botanist. He always raved about your collection."
"Nonsense, I'm not a botanist. Several other fellows went in for it when the prize was offered, and all that my collection was good for was his doing. I never did see any one arrange flowers as he did, I must say. Every specimen was pressed so as somehow to keep its own way of growing. And when I did them, a columbine looked as stiff as a dog-daisy. I never could keep any character in them. Watson—the fellow who drew so well—made vignettes on the blank pages to lots of the specimens—'Likely Habitats' we called them. He used to sit with his paint-box in my window, and Christian used to sit outside the window, on the edge, dangling his legs, and describing scenes out of his head for Watson to draw. Watson used to say, 'I wish I could paint with my brush as that fellow paints with his tongue'—and when the vignettes were admired, I've heard him say, in his dry way, 'I copied them from Christian's paintings;' and the fellows used to stare, for you know he couldn't draw a line. And when—But I say, Gertrude, for Heaven's sake, don't devour everything I say with those great pitiful eyes of yours. I am a regular brute to talk about him."
"No, Ted, no. It makes me so happy to hear you, and to know that you know how good he really was, and how much he must have been aggravated before—"
"For goodness' sake, don't cry. Christian was a very good fellow, a capital fellow. I never thought I could have got on so well with any one who was—I mean who wasn't—well, of course I mean who was really a gipsy. I don't blame him a bit for resenting being bullied about his parents. I only blame myself for not looking better after him. But you know that well enough—you know it's because I never can forgive myself for having managed so badly when you put him in my care, that I am backing you through this mad expedition, though I don't approve of it one bit, and though I know John will blame me awfully."
("It's the clergywoman," whispered Mrs. Hedgehog excitedly, "and I must and will see her."
When it comes to this with Mrs. Hedgehog's sex, there is nothing for it but to let the dear creatures have their own way, and take the consequences. She pushed her nose straight through the lower branches of an arbutus in which we were concealed, and I myself managed to get a nearer sight of our new neighbours.
As we crept forward, the clergywoman got up from where she was kneeling amongst the flowers, and laid her hand on the young gentleman's arm. I noticed it because I had never seen such a white hand before; Sybil's paws were nearly as dark as my own.)
"John will blame no one if we find Christian," she said. "You are very, very good, Cousin Ted, to come with me and help me when you do not believe in my dream. But you must say it is odd about the flowers. And you haven't told me yet what they are."
"It is the bulbous-rooted fumitory," said the young man, pulling a piece at random in the reckless way in which men do disfigure forest flower-beds. "It isn't strictly indigenous, but it is naturalized in many places, and you must have seen it before, though you fancy you haven't."
"I have seen it once before," she said earnestly—"all in delicate glaucous-green masses, studded with purple and white, like these; but it was in my dream. I never saw it otherwise, though I know you don't believe me."
"Dear Gertrude, I'll believe anything you like to tell me, if you'll come home. I'm sure I have done very wrong. You know I'm always hard up, but I declare I'd give a hundred pounds if you'd come home with me at once. I don't believe there's a gipsy within—"
"Good-day, my pretty young gentleman. Let the poor gipsy girl tell you your fortune."
He turned round and saw Sybil standing at his elbow, her eyes flashing and her white teeth gleaming in a broad smile. He stood speechless in sudden surprise; but the clergywoman, who was not surprised, came forward with her white hands stretched so expressively towards Sybil's brown ones, that the gipsy girl all but took them in her own.