AND OTHER TALES,
JULIANA HORATIA EWING.
LONDON: SOCIETY FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE, NORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE, W.C. NEW YORK: E. & J.B. YOUNG & CO.
[Published under the direction of the General Literature Committee.]
FOUR BROTHERS AND FOUR SISTERS.
THE BLACKBIRD'S NEST
A BIT OF GREEN
MONSIEUR THE VISCOUNT'S FRIEND
THE YEW-LANE GHOSTS
A BAD HABIT
A HAPPY FAMILY
It is always a memorable era in a mother's life when she first introduces a daughter into society. Many things contribute to make it so; among which is the fact of the personal blessing to herself, in having been permitted to see the day—to have been spared, that is, to watch over her child in infancy, and now to see her entering life upon her own account.
But a more uncommon privilege is the one granted to me on the present occasion, of introducing a daughter into the literary world; and the feelings of pride and pleasure it calls forth, are certainly not less powerful than those created by the commoner occurrence. It is my comfort also to add that these are not overclouded by any painful anxiety or misgiving. There may be differences of opinion as to the precise amount of literary merit in these tales; but viewed as the first productions of a young author, they are surely full of promise; while their whole tone and aim is so unmistakably high, that even those who criticize the style will be apt to respect the writer.
I ought here to express a hope that it will not be thought presumptuous on my part, to undertake the office of introduction. I beg it to be understood that I address myself especially to those readers who have (I speak it with deep gratitude and pleasure) listened kindly and favourably to me for several years past, and who will, I trust, be no less well disposed towards my daughter's writings.
To them also it may be interesting to know, that in the "J.H.G." of "Melchior's Dream," etc., they will find the original of my own portrait of "Aunt Judy."
But I have still something more to say: another little bit of gratification to express. What one sister has written, another has illustrated by her pencil; a cause of double thankfulness in my heart to Him from whom all good gifts come.
NOTE.—The foregoing Preface was written for the first edition of "Melchior's Dream, and other Tales." This was published in 1862 under Mrs. Ewing's maiden initials, "J.H.G." It contained the first five stories in the present volume, and these were illustrated by the writer's eldest sister, "M.S.G."
"Thou that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more—a grateful heart."
"Well, father, I don't believe the Browns are a bit better off than we are; and yet when I spent the day with young Brown, we cooked all sorts of messes in the afternoon; and he wasted twice as much rum and brandy and lemons in his trash, as I should want to make good punch of. He was quite surprised, too, when I told him that our mince-pies were kept shut up in the larder, and only brought out at meal-times, and then just one apiece; he said they had mince-pies always going, and he got one whenever he liked. Old Brown never blows up about that sort of thing; he likes Adolphus to enjoy himself in the holidays, particularly at Christmas."
The speaker was a boy—if I may be allowed to use the word in speaking of an individual whose jackets had for some time past been resigned to a younger member of his family, and who daily, in the privacy of his own apartment, examined his soft cheeks by the aid of his sisters' "back-hair glass." He was a handsome boy too; tall, and like David—"ruddy, and of a fair countenance;" and his face, though clouded then, bore the expression of general amiability. He was the eldest son in a large young family, and was being educated at one of the best public schools. He did not, it must be confessed, think either small beer or small beans of himself; and as to the beer and beans that his family thought of him, I think it was pale ale and kidney-beans at least.
Young Hopeful had, however, his weak points like the rest of us; and perhaps one of the weakest was the difficulty he found in amusing himself without bothering other people. He had quite a monomania for proposing the most troublesome "larks" at the most inconvenient moments; and if his plans were thwarted, an AEolian harp is cheerful compared to the tone in which, arguing and lamenting, he
"Fought his battles o'er again,"
to the distraction of every occupied member of the household.
When the lords of the creation of all ages can find nothing else to do, they generally take to eating and drinking; and so it came to pass that our hero had set his mind upon brewing a jorum of punch, and sipping it with an accompaniment of mince-pies; and Paterfamilias had not been quietly settled to his writing for half-an-hour, when he was disturbed by an application for the necessary ingredients. These he had refused, quietly explaining that he could not afford to waste his French brandy, etc., in school-boy cookery, and ending with, "You see the reason, my dear boy?"
To which the dear boy replied as above, and concluded with the disrespectful (not to say ungrateful) hint, "Old Brown never blows up about that sort of thing; he likes Adolphus to enjoy himself in the holidays."
Whereupon Paterfamilias made answer, in the mildly deprecating tone in which the elder sometimes do answer the younger in these topsy-turvy days:—
"That's quite a different case. Don't you see, my boy, that Adolphus Brown is an only son, and you have nine brothers and sisters? If you have punch and mince-meat to play with, there is no reason why Tom should not have it, and James, and Edward, and William, and Benjamin, and Jack. And then there are your sisters. Twice the amount of the Browns' mince-meat would not serve you. I like you to enjoy yourself in the holidays as much as young Brown or anybody; but you must remember that I send you boys to good schools, and give you all the substantial comforts and advantages in my power; and the Christmas bills are very heavy, and I have a great many calls on my purse; and you must be reasonable. Don't you see?"
"Well, father—" began the boy; but his father interrupted him. He knew the unvarying beginning of a long grumble, and dreading the argument, cut it short.
"I have decided. You must amuse yourself some other way. And just remember that young Brown's is quite another case. He is an only son."
Whereupon Paterfamilias went off to his study and his sermon; and his son, like the Princess in Andersen's story of the Swineherd, was left outside to sing,
"O dearest Augustine, All's clean gone away!"
Not that he did say that—that was the princess' song—what he said was,
"I wish I were an only son!"
This was rather a vain wish, for round the dining-room fire (where he soon joined them) were gathered his nine brothers and sisters, who, to say the truth, were not looking much more lively and cheerful than he. And yet (of all days in the year on which to be doleful and dissatisfied!) this was Christmas Eve.
Now I know that the idea of dulness or discomfort at Christmas is a very improper one, particularly in a story. We all know how every little boy in a story-book spends the Christmas holidays.
First, there is the large hamper of good things sent by grandpapa, which is as inexhaustible as Fortunatus's purse, and contains everything, from a Norfolk turkey to grapes from the grandpaternal vinery.
There is the friend who gives a guinea to each member of the family, and sees who will spend it best.
There are the godpapas and godmammas, who might almost be fairy sponsors from the number of expensive gifts that they bring upon the scene. The uncles and aunts are also liberal.
One night is devoted to a magic-lantern (which has a perfect focus), another to the pantomime, a third to a celebrated conjuror, a fourth to a Christmas tree and juvenile ball.
The happy youth makes himself sufficiently ill with plum-pudding, to testify to the reader how good it was, and how much there was of it; but recovers in time to fall a victim to the negus and trifle at supper for the same reason. He is neither fatigued with late hours nor surfeited with sweets; or if he is, we do not hear of it.
But as this is a strictly candid history, I will at once confess the truth, on behalf of my hero and his brothers and sisters. They had spent the morning in decorating the old church, in pricking holly about the house, and in making a mistletoe bush. Then in the afternoon they had tasted the Christmas soup and seen it given out; they had put a finishing touch to the snow man by crowning him with holly, and had dragged the yule-logs home from the carpenter's. And now, the early tea being over, Paterfamilias had gone to finish his sermon for to-morrow; his friend was shut up in his room; and Materfamilias was in hers, with one of those painful headaches which even Christmas will not always keep away. So the ten children were left to amuse themselves, and they found it rather a difficult matter.
"Here's a nice Christmas!" said our hero. He had turned his youngest brother out of the arm-chair, and was now lying in it with his legs over the side. "Here's a nice Christmas! A fellow might just as well be at school. I wonder what Adolphus Brown would think of being cooped up with a lot of children like this! It's his party to-night, and he's to have champagne and ices. I wish I were an only son."
"Thank you," said a chorus of voices from the floor. They were all sprawling about on the hearth-rug, pushing and struggling like so many kittens in a sack, and every now and then with a grumbled remonstrance:—
"Don't, Jack! you're treading on me."
"You needn't take all the fire, Tom."
"Keep your legs to yourself, Benjamin."
"It wasn't I," etc., with occasionally the feebler cry of a small sister—
"Oh! you boys are so rough."
"And what are you girls, I wonder?" inquired the proprietor of the arm-chair with cutting irony. "Whiney piney, whiney piney. I wish there were no such things as brothers and sisters!"
"You wish WHAT?" said a voice from the shadow by the door, as deep and impressive as that of the ghost in Hamlet.
The ten sprang up; but when the figure came into the fire-light, they saw that it was no ghost, but Paterfamilias's old college friend, who spent most of his time abroad, and who, having no home or relatives of his own, had come to spend Christmas at his friend's vicarage. "You wish what?" he repeated.
"Well, brothers and sisters are a bore," was the reply. "One or two would be all very well; but just look, here are ten of us; and it just spoils everything. If a fellow wants to go anywhere, it's somebody else's turn. If old Brown sends a basket of grapes, it's share and share alike; all the ten must taste, and then there's about a grape and a half for each. If anybody calls or comes to luncheon, there are a whole lot of brats swarming about, looking as if we kept a school. Whatever one does, the rest must do; whatever there is, the rest must share; whereas, if a fellow was an only son, he would have the whole—and by all the rules of arithmetic, one is better than a tenth."
"And by the same rules ten is better than one," said the friend.
"Sold again," sang out Master Jack from the floor, and went head over heels against the fender.
His brother boxed his ears with great promptitude, and went on, "Well, I don't care; confess, sir, isn't it rather a nuisance?"
Paterfamilias's friend looked very grave, and said, quietly, "I don't think I am able to judge. I never had brother or sister but one, and he was drowned at sea. Whatever I have had, I have had the whole of, and would have given it away willingly for some one to give it to. If any one sent me grapes, I ate them alone. If I made anything, there was no one to show it to. If I wanted to act, I must act all the characters, and be my own audience. I remember that I got a lot of sticks at last, and cut heads and faces to all of them, and carved names on their sides, and called them my brothers and sisters. If you want to know what I thought a nice number for a fellow to have, I can only say that I remember carving twenty-five. I used to stick them in the ground and talk to them. I have been only, and lonely, and alone, all my life, and have never felt the nuisance you speak of."
This was a funny account; but the speaker looked so far from funny that one of the sisters, who was very tender-hearted, crept up to him, and said, gently—
"Richard is only joking; he doesn't really want to get rid of us. The other day the curate said he wished he had a sister, and Richard offered to sell us all for ninepence; but he is only in fun. Only it is rather slow just now, and the boys get rather cross; at least, we all of us do."
"It's a dreadful state of things," said the friend, smiling through his black beard and moustachios. "What is to be done?"
"I know what would be very nice," insinuated the young lady.
"If you wouldn't mind telling us a very short story till supper-time. The boys like stories."
"That's a good idea," said Benjamin. "As if the girls didn't!"
But the friend proclaimed order, and seated himself with the girl in question on his knee. "Well, what sort of a story is it to be?"
"Any sort," said Richard; "only not too true, if you please. I don't like stories like tracts. There was an usher at a school I was at, and he used to read tracts about good boys and bad boys to the fellows on Sunday afternoon. He always took out the real names, and put in the names of the fellows instead. Those who had done well in the week he put in as good ones, and those who hadn't as the bad. He didn't like me, and I was always put in as a bad boy, and I came to so many untimely ends I got sick of it. I was hanged twice, and transported once for sheep-stealing; I committed suicide one week, and broke into the bank the next; I ruined three families, became a hopeless drunkard, and broke the hearts of my twelve distinct parents. I used to beg him to let me be reformed next week; but he said he never would till I did my Caesar better. So, if you please, we'll have a story that can't be true."
"Very well," said the friend, laughing; "but if it isn't true, may I put you in? All the best writers, you know, draw their characters from their friends now-a-days. May I put you in?"
"Oh, certainly!" said Richard, placing himself in front of the fire, putting his feet on the hob, and stroking his curls with an air which seemed to imply that whatever he was put into would be highly favoured.
The rest struggled, and pushed, and squeezed themselves into more modest but equally comfortable quarters; and after a few moments of thought, Paterfamilias's friend commenced the story of
"Melchior is my hero. He was—well, he considered himself a young man, so we will consider him so too. He was not perfect; but in these days the taste in heroes is for a good deal of imperfection, not to say wickedness. He was not an only son. On the contrary, he had a great many brothers and sisters, and found them quite as objectionable as my friend Richard does."
"I smell a moral," murmured the said Richard.
"Your scent must be keen," said the story-teller, "for it is a long way off. Well, he had never felt them so objectionable as on one particular night, when, the house being full of company, it was decided that the boys should sleep in 'barracks,' as they called it; that is, all in one large room."
"Thank goodness, we have not come to that!" said the incorrigible Richard; but he was reduced to order by threats of being turned out, and contented himself with burning the soles of his boots against the bars of the grate in silence: and the friend continued:—
"But this was not the worst. Not only was he, Melchior, to sleep in the same room with his brothers, but his bed being the longest and largest, his youngest brother was to sleep at the other end of it—foot to foot. True, by this means he got another pillow, for, of course, that little Hop-o'-my-Thumb could do without one, and so he took his; but, in spite of this, he determined that, sooner than submit to such an indignity, he would sit up all night. Accordingly, when all the rest were fast asleep, Melchior, with his boots off and his waistcoat easily unbuttoned, sat over the fire in the long lumber-room which served that night as 'barracks'. He had refused to eat any supper downstairs to mark his displeasure, and now repaid himself by a stolen meal according to his own taste. He had got a pork-pie, a little bread and cheese, some large onions to roast, a couple of raw apples, an orange, and papers of soda and tartaric acid to compound effervescing draughts. When these dainties were finished, he proceeded to warm some beer in a pan, with ginger, spice, and sugar, and then lay back in his chair and sipped it slowly, gazing before him, and thinking over his misfortunes.
"The night wore on, the fire got lower and lower, and still Melchior sat, with his eyes fixed on a dirty old print that had hung above the mantelpiece for years, sipping his 'brew', which was fast getting cold. The print represented an old man in a light costume, with a scythe in one hand and an hour-glass in the other; and underneath the picture in flourishing capitals was the word TIME.
"'You're a nice old beggar,' said Melchior, dreamily. 'You look like an old hay-maker who has come to work in his shirt-sleeves, and forgotten the rest of his clothes. Time! time you went to the tailor's, I think.'
"This was very irreverent; but Melchior was not in a respectful mood; and as for the old man, he was as calm as any philosopher.
"The night wore on, and the fire got lower and lower, and at last went out altogether.
"'How stupid of me not to have mended it!' said Melchior; but he had not mended it, and so there was nothing for it but to go to bed; and to bed he went accordingly.
"'But I won't go to sleep,' he said; 'no, no; I shall keep awake, and to-morrow they shall know that I have had a bad night.'
"So he lay in bed with his eyes wide open, and staring still at the old print, which he could see from his bed by the light of the candle, which he had left alight on the mantelpiece to keep him awake. The flame waved up and down, for the room was draughty; and as the lights and shadows passed over the old man's face, Melchior almost fancied that it nodded to him, so he nodded back again; and as that tired him he shut his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them again, there was no longer any doubt—the old man's head was moving; and not only his head, but his legs, and his whole body. Finally, he put his feet out of the frame, and prepared to step right over the mantelpiece, candle, and all.
"'Take care,' Melchior tried to say, 'you'll set fire to your shirt.' But he could not utter a sound; and the old man arrived safely on the floor, where he seemed to grow larger and larger, till he was fully the size of a man, but still with the same scythe and hour-glass, and the same airy costume. Then he came across the room, and sat down by Melchior's bedside.
"'Who are you?' said Melchior, feeling rather creepy.
"'TIME,' said his visitor in a deep voice, which sounded as if it came from a distance.
"'Oh, to be sure, yes! In copper-plate capitals.'
"'What's in copper-plate capitals?' inquired Time.
"'Your name, under the print.'
"'Very likely,' said Time.
"Melchior felt more and more uneasy. 'You must be very cold,' he said. 'Perhaps you would feel warmer if you went back into the picture.'
"'Not at all,' said Time; 'I have come on purpose to see you.'
"'I have not the pleasure of knowing you,' said Melchior, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.
"'There are not many people who have a personal acquaintance with me,' said his visitor. 'You have an advantage—I am your godfather.'
"'Indeed,' said Melchior; 'I never heard of it.'
"'Yes,' said his visitor; 'and you will find it a great advantage.'
"'Would you like to put on my coat?' said Melchior, trying to be civil.
"'No, thank you,' was the answer. 'You will want it yourself. We must be driving soon.'
"'Driving!' said Melchior.
"'Yes,' was the answer; 'all the world is driving; and you must drive; and here come your brothers and sisters.'
"Melchior sat up; and there they were, sure enough, all dressed, and climbing one after the other on to the bed—his bed!
"There was that little minx of a sister with her curls (he always called them carrot shavings), who was so conceited (girls always are!) and always trying to attract notice, in spite of Melchior's incessant snubbings. There was that clever brother, with his untidy hair and bent shoulders, who was just as bad the other way; who always ran out of the back door when visitors called, and was for ever moping and reading: and this, in spite of Melchior's hiding his books, and continually telling him that he was a disgrace to the family, a perfect bear, not fit to be seen, etc.—all with the laudable desire of his improvement. There was that little Hop-o'-my-Thumb, as lively as any of them, a young monkey, the worst of all; who was always in mischief, and consorting with the low boys in the village; though Melchior did not fail to tell him that he was not fit company for gentlemen's sons, that he was certain to be cut when he went to school, and that he would probably end his days by being transported, if not hanged. There was the second brother, who was Melchior's chief companion, and against whom he had no particular quarrel. And there was the little pale lame sister, whom he dearly loved; but whom, odd to say, he never tried to improve at all; his remedy for her failings was generally, 'Let her do as she likes, will you?' There were others who were all tiresome in their respective ways; and one after the other they climbed up.
"'What are you doing, getting on to my bed!' inquired the indignant brother, as soon as he could speak.
"'Don't you know the difference between a bed and a coach, godson?' said Time, sharply.
"Melchior was about to retort, but on looking round, he saw that they were really in a large sort of coach with very wide windows. 'I thought I was in bed,' he muttered. 'What can I have been dreaming of?'
"'What, indeed!' said the godfather. 'But, be quick, and sit close, for you have all to get in; you are all brothers and sisters.'
"'Must families be together?' inquired Melchior, dolefully.
"'Yes, at first,' was the answer; 'they get separated in time. In fact, everyone has to cease driving sooner or later. I drop them on the road at different stages, according to my orders,' and he showed a bundle of papers in his hands; 'but, as I favour you, I will tell you in confidence that I have to drop all your brothers and sisters before you. There, you four oldest sit on this side, you five others there, and the little one must stand or be nursed.'
"'Ugh!' said Melchior, 'the coach would be well enough if one was alone; but what a squeeze with all these brats! I say, go pretty quick, will you?'
"'I will,' said Time, 'if you wish it. But, beware that you cannot change your mind. If I go quicker for your sake, I shall never go slow again; if slower, I shall not again go quick; and I only favour you so far, because you are my godson. Here, take the check-string; when you want me, pull it, and speak through the tube. Now we're off.'
"Whereupon the old man mounted the box, and took the reins. He had no whip; but when he wanted to start, he shook the hour-glass, and off they went. Then Melchior saw that the road where they were driving was very broad, and so filled with vehicles of all kinds that he could not see the hedges. The noise and crowd and dust were very great; and to Melchior all seemed delightfully exciting. There was every sort of conveyance, from the grandest coach to the humblest donkey-cart; and they seemed to have enough to do to escape being run over. Among all the gay people there were many whom he knew; and a very nice thing it seemed to be to drive among all the grandees, and to show his handsome face at the window, and bow and smile to his acquaintance. Then it appeared to be the fashion to wrap oneself in a tiger-skin rug, and to look at life through an opera-glass, and old Time had kindly put one of each into the coach.
"But here again Melchior was much troubled by his brothers and sisters. Just at the moment when he was wishing to look most fashionable and elegant, one or other of them would pull away the rug, or drop the glass, or quarrel, or romp, or do something that spoilt the effect. In fact, one and all, they 'just spoilt everything;' and the more he scolded, the worse they became. The 'minx' shook her curls, and flirted through the window with a handsome but ill-tempered looking man on a fine horse, who praised her 'golden locks,' as he called them; and, oddly enough, when Melchior said the man was a lout, and that the locks in question were corkscrewy carrot shavings, she only seemed to like the man and his compliments the more. Meanwhile, the untidy brother pored over his book, or if he came to the window, it was only to ridicule the fine ladies and gentlemen, so Melchior sent him to Coventry. Then Hop-o'-my-Thumb had taken to make signs and exchange jokes with some disreputable-looking youths in a dog-cart; and when his brother would have put him to 'sit still like a gentleman' at the bottom of the coach, he seemed positively to prefer his low companions; and the rest were little better.
"Poor Melchior! Surely there never was a clearer case of a young gentleman's comfort destroyed, solely by other people's perverse determination to be happy in their own way instead of in his. Surely, no young gentleman ever knew better that if his brothers and sisters would yield to his wishes, they would not quarrel; or ever more completely overlooked the fact, that if he had yielded more to theirs the same happy result might have been attained. At last he lost patience, and pulling the check-string, bade Godfather Time drive as fast as he could.
"'For,' said he, 'there will never be any peace while there are so many of us in the coach; if a fellow had the rug and glass, and, indeed, the coach to himself, he might drive and bow and talk with the best of them; but as it is, one might as well go about in a wild-beast caravan.'
"Godfather Time frowned, but shook his glass all the same, and away they went at a famous pace. All at once they came to a stop.
"'Now for it,' says Melchior; 'here goes one at any rate.'
"Time called out the name of the second brother over his shoulder; and the boy stood up, and bade his brothers and sisters good-bye.
"'It is time that I began to push my way in the world,' said he, and passed out of the coach, and in among the crowd.
"'You have taken the only quiet boy,' said Melchior to the godfather angrily. 'Drive fast now, for pity's sake; and let us get rid of the tiresome ones.'
"And fast enough they drove, and dropped first one and then the other; but the sisters, and the reading boy, and the youngest still remained.
"'What are you looking at?' said Melchior to the lame sister.
"'At a strange figure in the crowd,' she answered.
"'I see nothing,' said Melchior. But on looking again after a while, he did see a figure wrapped in a cloak, gliding in and out among the people, unnoticed, if not unseen.
"'Who is it?' Melchior asked of the godfather.
"'A friend of mine,' Time answered. 'His name is Death.'
"Melchior shuddered, more especially as the figure had now come up to the coach, and put its hand in through the window, on which, to his horror, the lame sister laid hers and smiled. At this moment the coach stopped.
"'What are you doing?' shrieked Melchior, 'Drive on! drive on!'
"But even while he sprang up to seize the check-string the door had opened, the pale sister's face (a little paler now) had dropped upon the shoulder of the figure in the cloak, and he had carried her away; and Melchior stormed and raved in vain.
"'To take her, and to leave the rest! Cruel! cruel!'
"In his rage and grief, he hardly knew it when the untidy brother was called, and putting his book under his arm, slipped out of the coach without looking to the right or left. Presently the coach stopped again; and when Melchior looked up the door was open, and at it was the fine man on the fine horse, who was lifting the sister on to the saddle before him. 'What fool's game are you playing?' said Melchior, angrily. 'I know that man. He is both ill-tempered and a bad character.'
"'You never told her so before,' muttered young Hop-o'-my-Thumb.
"'Hold your tongue,' said Melchior. 'I forbade her to talk to him, which was enough.'
"'I don't want to leave you; but he cares for me, and you don't,' sobbed the sister; and she was carried away.
"When she had gone, the youngest brother slid down from his corner and came up to Melchior.
"'We are alone now, Brother,' he said; 'let us be good friends. May I sit on the front seat with you, and have half the rug? I will be very good and polite, and will have nothing more to do with those fellows, if you will talk to me.'
"Now Melchior really rather liked the idea, but as his brother seemed to be in a submissive mood, he thought he would take the opportunity of giving him a good lecture, and would then graciously relent and forgive. So he began by asking him if he thought that he was fit company for him (Melchior), what he thought that gentlefolks would say to a boy who had been playing with such youths as young Hop-o'-my-Thumb had, and whether the said youths were not scoundrels? And when the boy refused to say that they were (for they had been kind to him), Melchior said that his tastes were evidently as bad as ever, and even hinted at the old transportation threat. This was too much; the boy went angrily back to his window corner, and Melchior—like too many of us!—lost the opportunity of making peace for the sake of wagging his own tongue.
"'But he will come round in a few minutes,' he thought A few minutes passed, however, and there was no sign. A few minutes more, and there was a noise, a shout; Melchior looked up, and saw that the boy had jumped through the open window into the road, and had been picked up by the men in the dog-cart, and was gone.
"And so at last my hero was alone. At first he enjoyed it very much. He shook out his hair, wrapped himself in the rug, stared through the opera-glass, and did the fine gentleman very well indeed. But though everyone allowed him to be the finest young fellow on the road, yet nobody seemed to care for the fact as much as he did; they talked, and complimented, and stared at him, but he got tired of it. For he could not arrange his hair any better; he could not dispose the rug more gracefully, or stare more perseveringly through the glass; and if he could, his friends could do nothing more than they had done. In fact, he got tired of the crowd, and found himself gazing through the window, not to see his fine friends, but to try and catch sight of his brothers and sisters. Sometimes he saw the youngest brother, looking each time more wild and reckless; and sometimes the sister, looking more and more miserable; but he saw no one else.
"At last there was a stir among the people, and all heads were turned towards the distance, as if looking for something. Melchior asked what it was, and was told that the people were looking for a man, the hero of many battles, who had won honour for himself and for his country in foreign lands, and who was coming home. Everybody stood up and gazed, Melchior with them. Then the crowd parted, and the hero came on. No one asked whether he were handsome or genteel, whether he kept good company, or wore a tiger-skin rug, or looked through an opera-glass? They knew what he had done, and it was enough.
"He was a bronzed hairy man, with one sleeve empty, and a breast covered with stars; but in his face, brown with sun and wind, overgrown with hair and scarred with wounds, Melchior saw his second brother! There was no doubt of it. And the brother himself, though he bowed kindly in answer to the greetings showered on him, was gazing anxiously for the old coach, where he used to ride and be so uncomfortable, in that time to which he now looked back as the happiest of his life.
"'I thank you, gentlemen. I am indebted to you, gentlemen. I have been away long. I am going home.'
"'Of course he is!' shouted Melchior, waving his arms widely with pride and joy. 'He is coming home; to this coach, where he was—oh, it seems but an hour ago! Time goes so fast. We were great friends when we were young together. My brother and I, ladies and gentlemen, the hero and I—my brother—the hero with the stars upon his breast—he is coming home!'
"Alas! what avail stars and ribbons on a breast where the life-blood is trickling slowly from a little wound? The crowd looked anxious; the hero came on, but more slowly, with his dim eyes straining for the old coach; and Melchior stood with his arms held out in silent agony. But just when he was beginning to hope, and the brothers seemed about to meet, a figure passed between—a figure in a cloak.
"'I have seen you many times, Friend, face to face,' said the hero; 'but now I would fain have waited for a little while.'
"'To enjoy his well-earned honours,' murmured the crowd.
"'Nay,' he said, 'not that; but to see my home, and my brothers and sisters. But if it may not be, friend Death, I am ready, and tired too.' With that he held out his hand, and Death lifted up the hero of many battles like a child, and carried him away, stars and ribbons and all.
"'Cruel Death!' cried Melchior; 'was there no one else in all this crowd, that you must take him?'
"His friends condoled with him; but they soon went on their own ways; and the hero seemed to be forgotten; and Melchior, who had lost all pleasure in the old bowings and chattings, sat sadly gazing out of the window, to see if he could see any one for whom he cared. At last, in a grave dark man, who was sitting on a horse, and making a speech to the crowd, he recognized his clever untidy brother.
"'What is that man talking about?' he asked of some one near him.
"'That man!' was the answer. 'Don't you know? He is the man of the time. He is a philosopher. Everybody goes to hear him. He has found out that—well—that everything is a mistake.'
"'Has he corrected it?' said Melchior.
"'You had better hear for yourself,' said the man. 'Listen.'
"Melchior listened, and a cold clear voice rang upon his ear, saying:—
"'The world of fools will go on as they have ever done; but to the wise few, to whom I address myself, I would say—Shake off at once and for ever the fancies and feelings, the creeds and customs that shackle you, and be true. We have come to a time when wise men will not be led blindfold in the footsteps of their predecessors, but will tear away the bandage and see for themselves. I have torn away mine, and looked. There is no Faith—it is shaken to its rotten foundation; there is no Hope—it is disappointed every day; there is no Love at all. There is nothing for any man or for each, but his fate; and he is happiest and wisest who can meet it most unmoved.'
"'It is a lie!' shouted Melchior. 'I feel it to be so in my heart. A wicked foolish lie! Oh! was it to teach such evil folly as this that you left home and us, my brother? Oh, come back! come back!'
"The philosopher turned his head coldly, and smiled. 'I thank the gentleman who spoke,' he said, still in the same cold voice, 'for his bad opinion, and for his good wishes. I think the gentleman spoke of home and kindred. My experience of life has led me to find that home is most valued when it is left, and kindred most dear when they are parted. I have happily freed myself from such inconsistencies. I am glad to know that fate can tear me from no place that I care for more than the next where it shall deposit me, nor take away any friends that I value more than those it leaves. I recommend a similar self-emancipation to the gentleman who did me the honour of speaking.'
"With this the philosopher went his way, and the crowd followed him.
"'There is a separation more bitter than death,' said Melchior.
"At last he pulled the check-string, and called to Godfather Time in an humble entreating voice.
"'It is not your fault,' he began; 'it is not your fault, Godfather; but this drive has been altogether wrong. Let us turn back and begin again. Let us all get in afresh and begin again.'
"'But what a squeeze with all the brats!' said Godfather Time, ironically.
"'We should be so happy,' murmured Melchior, humbly; 'and it is very cold and chilly; we should keep each other warm.'
"'You have the tiger-skin rug and the opera-glass, you know,' said Time.
"'Ah, do not speak of me!' cried Melchior, earnestly. 'I am thinking of them. There is plenty of room; the little one can sit on my knee; and we shall be so happy. The truth is, Godfather, that I have been wrong. I have gone the wrong way to work. A little more love, and kindness, and forbearance, might have kept my sisters with us, might have led the little one to better tastes and pleasures, and have taught the other by experience the truth of the faith and hope and love which he now reviles. Oh, I have sinned! I have sinned! Let us turn back, Godfather Time, and begin again. And oh! drive very slowly, for partings come only too soon.'
"'I am sorry,' said the old man in the same bitter tone as before, 'to disappoint your rather unreasonable wishes. What you say is admirably true, with this misfortune, that your good intentions are too late. Like the rest of the world you are ready to seize the opportunity when it is past. You should have been kind then. You should have advised then. You should have yielded then. You should have loved your brothers and sisters while you had them. It is too late now.'
"With this he drove on, and spoke no more, and poor Melchior stared sadly out of the window. As he was gazing at the crowd, he suddenly saw the dog-cart, in which were his brother and his wretched companions. Oh, how old and worn he looked! and how ragged his clothes were! The men seemed to be trying to persuade him to do something that he did not like, and they began to quarrel; but in the midst of the dispute he turned his head and caught sight of the old coach; and Melchior seeing this, waved his hands, and beckoned with all his might. The brother seemed doubtful; but Melchior waved harder, and (was it fancy?) Time seemed to go slower. The brother made up his mind; he turned and jumped from the dog-cart as he had jumped from the old coach long ago, and ducking in and out among the horses and carriages, ran for his life. The men came after him; but he ran like the wind—pant, pant, nearer, nearer; at last the coach was reached, and Melchior seized the prodigal by his rags and dragged him in.
"'Oh, thank GOD, I have got you safe, my brother!'
"But what a brother! with wasted body and sunken eyes; with the old curly hair turned to matted locks, that clung faster to his face than the rags did to his trembling limbs; what a sight for the opera-glasses of the crowd! What a subject for the tongues that were ever wagging, and complimenting, and backbiting, and lying, all in a breath, and without sense or scruple! What a sight and a subject for the fine friends, for whose good opinion Melchior had been so anxious? Do you think he was as anxious now? Do you think he was troubled by what they either saw or said; or was ashamed of the wretched prodigal lying among the cushions? I think not. I think that for the most foolish of us there are moments in life (of real joy or real sorrow) when we judge things by a higher standard, and care vastly little for what 'people say'. The only shame that Melchior felt was that his brother should have fared so hardly in the trials and temptations of the world outside, while he had sat at ease among the cushions of the old coach, that had been the home of both alike. Thank GOD, it was the home of both now! And poor Hop-o'-my-Thumb was on the front seat at last, with Melchior kneeling at his feet, and fondly stroking the head that rested against him.
"'Has powder come into fashion, brother?' he said. 'Your hair is streaked with white.'
"'If it has,' said the other, laughing, 'your barber is better than mine, Melchior, for your head is as white as snow.'
"'Is it possible? are we so old? has Time gone so very fast? But what are you staring at through the window? I shall be jealous of that crowd, brother.'
"'I am not looking at the crowd,' said the prodigal in a low voice; 'but I see—'
"'You see what?' said Melchior.
"'A figure in a cloak, gliding in and out—'
"Melchior sprang up in horror. 'No! no!' he cried, hoarsely. 'No! surely no!'
"Surely yes! Too surely the well-known figure came on; and the prodigal's sunken eyes looked more sunken still as he gazed. As for Melchior, he neither spoke nor moved, but stood in a silent agony, terrible to see. All at once a thought seemed to strike him; he seized his brother, and pushed him to the furthest corner of the seat, and then planted himself firmly at the door just as Death came up and put his hand into the coach. Then he spoke in a low steady voice, more piteous than cries or tears.
"'I humbly beseech you, good Death, if you must take one of us, to take me. I have had a long drive, and many comforts and blessings, and am willing if unworthy to go. He has suffered much, and had no pleasure; leave him for a little to enjoy the drive in peace, just for a very little; he has suffered so much, and I have been so much to blame; let me go instead of him.'
"Alas for Melchior! It is decreed in the Providence of GOD, that, although the opportunities for doing good, which are in the power of every man, are beyond count or knowledge, yet, the opportunity once neglected, no man by any self-sacrifice can atone for those who have fallen or suffered by his negligence. Poor Melchior! An unalterable law made him the powerless spectator of the consequences of his neglected opportunities. 'No man may deliver his brother, or make agreement unto GOD for him, for it cost more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever.' And is it ever so bitter to 'let alone,' as in a case where we might have acted and did not?
"Poor Melchior! In vain he laid both his hands in Death's outstretched palm; they fell to him again as if they had passed through air; he was pushed aside—Death passed into the coach—'one was taken and the other left.'
"As the cloaked figure glided in and out among the crowd, many turned to look at his sad burden, though few heeded him. Much was said; but the general voice of the crowd was this: 'Ah! he is gone, is he? Well! a born rascal! It must be a great relief to his brother!' A conclusion which was about as wise, and about as near the truth, as the world's conclusions generally are. As for Melchior, he neither saw the figure nor heard the crowd, for he had fallen senseless among the cushions.
"When he came to his senses, he found himself lying still upon his face; and so bitter was his loneliness and grief, that he lay still and did not move. He was astonished, however, by the (as it seemed to him) unusual silence. The noise of the carriages had been deafening, and now there was not a sound. Was he deaf? or had the crowd gone? He opened his eyes. Was he blind? or had the night come? He sat right up, and shook himself, and looked again. The crowd was gone; so, for matter of that, was the coach; and so was Godfather Time. He had not been lying among cushions, but among pillows; he was not in any vehicle of any kind, but in bed. The room was dark, and very still; but through the 'barracks' window, which had no blind, he saw the winter sun pushing through the mist, like a red hot cannon-ball hanging in the frosty trees; and in the yard outside, the cocks were crowing.
"There was no longer any doubt that he was safe in his old home; but where were his brothers and sisters? With a beating heart he crept to the other end of the bed; and there lay the prodigal, but with no haggard cheeks or sunken eyes, no grey locks or miserable rags, but a rosy yellow-haired urchin fast asleep, with his head upon his arm. 'I took his pillow,' muttered Melchior, self-reproachfully.
"A few minutes later, young Hop-o'-my-Thumb (whom Melchior dared not lose sight of for fear he should melt away) seated comfortably on his brother's back, and wrapped up in a blanket, was making a tour of the 'barracks.'
"'It's an awful lark,' said he, shivering with a mixture of cold and delight.
"If not exactly a lark, it was a very happy tour to Melchior, as, hope gradually changing into certainty, he recognized his brothers in one shapeless lump after the other in the little beds. There they all were, sleeping peacefully in a happy home, from the embryo hero to the embryo philosopher, who lay with the invariable book upon his pillow, and his hair looking (as it always did) as if he lived in a high wind.
"'I say,' whispered Melchior, pointing to him, 'what did he say the other day about being a parson?'
"'He said he should like to be one,' returned Hop-o'-my-Thumb; 'but you said he would frighten away the congregation with his looks. And then, you know, he got very angry, and said he didn't know priests need be dandies, and that everybody was humbuggy alike, and thought of nothing but looks; but that he would be a philosopher like Diogenes, who cared for nobody, and was as ugly as an ape, and lived in a tub.'
"'He will make a capital parson,' said Melchior, hastily, 'and I shall tell him so to-morrow. And when I'm squire here, he shall be vicar, and I'll subscribe to all his dodges without a grumble. I'm the eldest son. And, I say, don't you think we could brush his hair for him in a morning, till he learns to do it himself?'
"'Oh, I will!' was the lively answer; 'I'm an awful dab at brushing. Look how I brush your best hat!'
"'True,' said Melchior. 'Where are the girls to-night?'
"'In the little room at the end of the long passage,' said Hop-o'-my-Thumb, trembling with increased chilliness and enjoyment. 'But you're never going there! we shall wake the company, and they will all come out to see what's the matter.'
"'I shouldn't care if they did,' said Melchior, 'it would make it feel more real.'
"As he did not understand this sentiment, Hop-o'-my-Thumb said nothing, but held on very tightly; and they crept softly down the cold grey passage in the dawn. The girls' door was open; for the girls were afraid of robbers, and left their bed-room door wide open at night, as a natural and obvious means of self-defence. The girls slept together; and the frill of the pale sister's prim little night-cap was buried in the other one's uncovered curls.
"'How you do tremble!' whispered Hop-o'-my-Thumb; 'are you cold?' This inquiry received no answer; and after some minutes he spoke again. 'I say, how very pretty they look! don't they?'
"But for some reason or other, Melchior seemed to have lost his voice; but he stooped down and kissed both the girls very gently, and then the two brothers crept back along the passage to the 'barracks.'
"'One thing more,' said Melchior; and they went up to the mantelpiece. 'I will lend you my bow and arrows to-morrow, on one condition—'
"'Anything!' was the reply, in an enthusiastic whisper.
"'That you take that old picture for a target, and never let me see it again.'
"It was very ungrateful! but perfection is not in man; and there was something in Melchior's muttered excuse—
"'I couldn't stand another night of it.'
"Hop-o'-my-Thumb was speedily put to bed again, to get warm, this time with both the pillows; but Melchior was too restless to sleep, so he resolved to have a shower-bath, and to dress. After which, he knelt down by the window, and covered his face with his hands.
"'He's saying very long prayers,' thought Hop-o'-my-Thumb, glancing at him from his warm nest; 'and what a jolly humour he is in this morning!'
"Still the young head was bent, and the handsome face hidden; and Melchior was finding his life every moment more real and more happy. For there was hardly a thing, from the well-filled 'barracks' to the brother bedfellow, that had been a hardship last night, which this morning did not seem a blessing. He rose at last, and stood in the sunshine, which was now pouring in; a smile was on his lips, and on his face were two drops, which, if they were water, had not come from the shower-bath, or from any bath at all."
* * * * *
"Is that the end?" inquired the young lady on his knee, as the story teller paused here.
"Yes, that is the end."
"It's a beautiful story," she murmured, thoughtfully; "but what an extraordinary one! I don't think I could have dreamt such a wonderful dream."
"Do you think you could have eaten such a wonderful supper?" said the friend, twisting his moustachios.
After this point, the evening's amusements were thoroughly successful. Richard took his smoking boots from the fire-place, and was called upon for various entertainments for which he was famous: such as the accurate imitation of a train just starting, in which two pieces of bone were used with considerable effect; as also of a bumble-bee, who (very much out of season) went buzzing about, and was always being caught with a heavy bang on the heads and shoulders of those who least expected it; all which specimens of his talents were received with due applause by his admiring brothers and sisters.
The bumble-bee had just been caught (for the twenty-first time) with a loud smack on brother Benjamin's ear, when the door opened, and Paterfamilias entered with Materfamilias (whose headache was better), and followed by the candles. A fresh log was then thrown upon the fire, the yule cakes and furmety were put upon the table, and everybody drew round to supper; and Paterfamilias announced that although he could not give the materials to play with, he had no objection now to a bowl of moderate punch for all, and that Richard might compound it. This was delightful; and as he sat by his father, ladling away to the rest, Adolphus Brown could hardly have felt more jovial, even with the champagne and ices.
The rest sat with radiant faces and shining heads in goodly order; and at the bottom of the table, by Materfamilias, was the friend, as happy in his unselfish sympathy as if his twenty-five sticks had come to life, and were supping with him. As happy—nearly—as if a certain woman's grave had never been dug under the southern sun that could not save her, and as if the children gathered round him were those of whose faces he had often dreamt, but might never see.
His health had been drunk, and everybody else's too, when, just as supper was coming to a close, Richard (who had been sitting in thoughtful silence for some minutes) got up with sudden resolution, and said,
"I want to propose Mr. What's-his-name's health on my own account. I want to thank him for his story, which had only one mistake in it. Melchior should have kept the effervescing papers to put into the beer; it's a splendid drink! Otherwise it was first-rate; though it hit me rather hard. I want to say that though I didn't mean all I said about being an only son (when a fellow gets put out he doesn't know what he means), yet I know I was quite wrong, and the story is quite right. I want particularly to say that I'm very glad there are so many of us, for the more, you know, the merrier. I wouldn't change father or mother, brothers or sisters, with any one in the world. It couldn't be better, we couldn't be happier. We are all together, and to-morrow is Christmas Day. Thank GOD."
It was very well said. It was a very good speech. It was very well and very good that while the blessings were with him, he could feel it to be so, and be grateful.
It was very well, and good also, that the friend, who had neither home nor kindred to be grateful for, had something else for which he could thank GOD as heartily. The thought of that something came to him then as he sat at his friend's table, filling his eyes with tears. It came to him next day as he knelt before GOD's altar, remembering in blessed fellowship that deed of love which is the foundation of all our hope and joy. It came to him when he went back to his lonely wandering life, and thought with tender interest of that boyish speech. It came—a whisper of consolation to silence envy and regret for ever.
"There is something far better. There is something far happier. There is a better Home than any earthly one, and a Family that shall never be divided."
THE BLACKBIRD'S NEST.
"Let me not think an action mine own way, But as Thy love shall sway, Resigning up the rudder to Thy skill."
One day, when I was a very little girl (which is a long time ago), I made a discovery. The place where I made it was not very remote, being a holly-bush at the bottom of our garden; and the discovery was not a great one in itself, though I thought it very grand. I had found a blackbird's nest, with three young ones in it.
The discovery was made on this wise. I was sitting one morning on a log of wood opposite this holly-bush, reading the story of Goody Twoshoes, and thinking to myself how much I should like to be like her, and to go about in the village with a raven, a pigeon, and a lark on my shoulders, admired and talked about by everybody. All sorts of nonsense passed through my head as I sat, with the book on my lap, staring straight before me; and I was just fancying the kind condescension with which I would behave to everybody when I became a Goody Twoshoes, when I saw a bird come out of the holly-bush and fly away. It was a blackbird: there was no doubt of it; and it must have a nest in the tree, or why had it been there so long? Down went my book, and I flew to make my discovery. A blackbird's nest, with three young ones! I stood still at first in pure pleasure at the sight; and then, little by little, grand ideas came into my head.
I would be very kind to these little blackbirds, I thought; I would take them home out of this cold tree, and make a large nest of cotton wool (which would be much softer and better for them than to be where they were), and feed them, and keep them; and then, when they were full-grown, they would, of course, love me better than any one, and be very tame and grateful; and I should walk about with them on my shoulders, like Goody Twoshoes, and be admired by everybody; for, I am ashamed to say, most of my day dreams ended with this, to be admired by everybody. I was so wrapped up in these thoughts that I did not know, till his hands were laid upon my shoulders, that my friend, the curate of the village, had come up behind me. He lived next door to us, and often climbed over the wall that divided our garden to bring me flowers for my little bed. He was a tall, dark, not very young man; and the best hand at making fire-balloons, mending toys, and making a broken wax doll as good as new with a hot knitting needle, that you can imagine. I had heard grown-up people call him grave and silent, but he always laughed and talked to me.
"What are you doing, little woman?" he said.
"I have got a nest of poor little birds," I answered; "I am so sorry for them here in the cold; but they will be all right when I have got them indoors. I shall make them a beautiful nest of cotton wool, and feed them. Won't it be nice?"
I spoke confidently; for I had really so worked up my fancy that I felt quite a contemptuous pity for all the wretched little birds who were hatched every year without me to rear them. At the same time, I had a general idea that grown-up people always did throw cold water on splendid plans like mine; so I was more indignant than surprised when my friend the curate tried to show me that it was quite impossible to do as I wished. The end of all his arguments was that I must leave the nest in its place. But I had a great turn for disputing, and was not at all inclined to give up my point. "You told me on Sunday," I said, pertly, "that we were never too little to do kind things; let me do this."
"If I could be sure," he said, looking at me, "that you only wish to do a kind thing."
I got more angry and rude.
"Perhaps you think I want to kill them," I said.
He did not answer, but taking both my hands in his, said, gravely, "Tell me, my child, which do you wish most—to be kind to these poor little birds? or to have the honour and glory of having them, and bringing them up?"
"To be kind to them," said I, getting very red. "I don't want any honour and glory," and I felt ready to cry.
"Well, well," he said, smiling; "then I know you will believe me when I tell you that the kindest thing you can do for these little birds is to leave them where they are. And if you like, you can come and sit here every day till they are able to fly, and keep watch over the nest, that no naughty boy may come near it—the curate, for instance!" and he pulled a funny face. "That will be very kind."
"But they will never know, and I want them to like me," said I.
"I thought you only wanted to be kind," he answered. And then he began to talk very gently about different sorts of kindness, and that if I wished to be kind like a Christian, I must be kind without hoping for any reward, whether gratitude or anything else. He told me that the best followers of Jesus in all times had tried hard to do everything, however small, simply for GOD's sake, and to put themselves away. That they often began even their letters, etc., with such words, as, "Glory to GOD," to remind themselves that everything they did, to be perfect, must be done to GOD, and GOD alone. And that in doing good kind things even, they were afraid lest, though the thing was right, the wish to do it might have come from conceit or presumption.
"This self-devotion," he added, "is the very highest Christian life, and seems, I dare say, very hard for you even to understand, and much more so to put in practice. But we must all try for it in the best way we can, little woman; and for those who by GOD's grace really practised it, it was almost as impossible to be downcast or disappointed as if they were already in Heaven. They wished for nothing to happen to themselves but GOD's will; they did nothing but for GOD's glory. And so a very good bishop says, 'I have my end, whether I succeed or am disappointed.' So you will have your end, my child, in being kind to these little birds in the right way, and denying yourself, whether they know you or not."
I could not have understood all he said; but I am afraid I did not try to understand what I might have done; however, I said no more, and stood silent, while he comforted me with the promise of a new flower for my garden, called "hen and chickens," which he said I was to take care of instead of the little blackbirds.
When he was gone I went back to the holly-bush, and stood gazing at the nest, and nursing angry thoughts in my heart. "What a preach," I thought, "about nothing! as if there could be any conceit and presumption in taking care of three poor little birds! The curate must forget that I was growing into a big girl; and as to not knowing how to feed them, I knew as well as he did that birds lived upon worms, and liked bread-crumbs." And so thinking wrong ended (as it almost always does) in doing wrong: and I took the three little blackbirds out of the nest, popped them into my pocket-handkerchief, and ran home. And I took some trouble to keep them out of everyone's sight—even out of my mother's; for I did not want to hear any more "grown-up" opinions on the matter.
I filled a basket with cotton wool, and put the birds inside, and took them into a little room downstairs, where they would be warm. Before I went to bed I put two or three worms, and a large supply of soaked bread-crumbs, in the nest, close to their little beaks. "What can they want more?" thought I in my folly; but conscience is apt to be restless when one is young, and I could not feel quite comfortable in bed, though I got to sleep at last, trying to fancy myself Goody Twoshoes, with three sleek full-fledged blackbirds on my shoulders.
In the morning, as soon as I could slip away, I went to my pets. Any one may guess what I found; but I believe no one can understand the shock of agony and remorse that I felt. There lay the worms that I had dug up with reckless cruelty; there was the wasted bread; and there, above all, lay the three little blackbirds, cold and dead!
I do not know how long I stood looking at the victims of my presumptuous wilfulness; but at last I heard a footstep in the passage, and fearing to be caught, I tore out of the house, and down to my old seat near the holly-bush, where I flung myself on the ground, and "wept bitterly." At last I heard the well-known sound of some one climbing over the wall; and then the curate stood before me, with the plant of "hen and chickens" in his hands. I jumped up, and shrank away from him.
"Don't come near me," I cried; "the blackbirds are dead;" and I threw myself down again.
I knew from experience that few things roused the anger of my friend so strongly as to see or hear of animals being ill-treated. I had never forgotten, one day when I was out with him, his wrath over a boy who was cruelly beating a donkey; and now I felt, though I could not see, the expression of his face, as he looked at the holly-bush and at me, and exclaimed, "You took them!" And then added, in the low tone in which he always spoke when angry, "And the mother-bird has been wandering all night round this tree, seeking her little ones in vain, not to be comforted, because they are not! Child, child! has GOD the Father given life to His creatures for you to destroy it in this reckless manner?"
His words cut my heart like a knife; but I was too utterly wretched already to be much more miserable; I only lay still and moaned. At last he took pity, and lifting me up on to his knee, endeavoured to comfort me.
This was not, however, an easy matter. I knew much better than he did how very naughty I had been; and I felt that I had murdered the poor tender little birds.
"I can never, never, forgive myself!" I sobbed.
"But you must be reasonable," he said. "You gave way to your vanity and wilfulness, and persuaded yourself that you only wished to be kind to the blackbirds; and you have been punished. Is it not so?"
"O yes!" I cried; "I am so wicked! I wish I were as good as you are!"
"As I am!"—he began.
I was too young then to understand the sharp tone of self-reproach in which he spoke. In my eyes he was perfection; only perhaps a little too good. But he went on:—
"Do you know, this fault of yours reminds me of a time when I was just as wilful and conceited, just as much bent upon doing the great duty of helping others in my own grand fashion, rather than in the humble way which GOD's Providence pointed out, only it was in a much more serious matter; I was older, too, and so had less excuse. I am almost tempted to tell you about it; not that our cases are really quite alike, but that the punishment which met my sin was so unspeakably bitter in comparison with yours, that you may be thankful to have learnt a lesson of humility at smaller cost."
I did not understand him—in fact, I did not understand many things that he said, for he had a habit of talking to me as if he were speaking to himself; but I had a general idea of his meaning, and said (very truly), "I cannot fancy you doing wrong."
I was puzzled again by the curious expression of his face; but he only said, "Shall I tell you a story?"
I knew his stories of old, and gave an eager "Yes."
"It is a sad one," he said.
"I do not think I should like a very funny one just now," I replied. "Is it true?"
"Quite," he answered. "It is about myself." He was silent for a few moments, as if making up his mind to speak; and then, laying his head, as he sometimes did, on my shoulder, so that I could not see his face, he began.
"When I was a boy (older than you, so I ought to have been better), I might have been described in the words of Scripture—I was 'the only son of my mother, and she was a widow.' We were badly off, and she was very delicate, nay, ill—more ill, GOD knows, than I had any idea of. I had long been used to the sight of the doctor once or twice a week, and to her being sometimes better and sometimes worse; and when our old servant lectured me for making a noise, or the doctor begged that she might not be excited or worried, I fancied that doctors and nurses always did say things of that sort, and that there was no particular need to attend to them.
"Not that I was unfeeling to my dear mother, for I loved her devotedly in my wilful worldly way. It was for her sake that I had been so vexed by the poverty into which my father's death had plunged us. For her sake I worried her, by grumbling before her at our narrow lodgings and lost comforts. For her sake, child, in my madness, I wasted the hours in which I might have soothed, and comforted, and waited on her, in dreaming of wild schemes for making myself famous and rich, and giving her back all and more than she had lost. For her sake I fancied myself pouring money at her feet, and loading her with luxuries, while she was praying for me to our common Father, and laying up treasure for herself in Heaven.
"One day I remember, when she was remonstrating with me over a bad report which the schoolmaster had given of me (he said I could work, but wouldn't), my vanity overcame my prudence, and I told her that I thought some fellows were made to 'fag,' and some not; that I had been writing a poem in my dictionary the day that I had done so badly, and that I hoped to be a poet long before my master had composed a grammar. I can see now her sorrowful face as, with tears in her eyes, she told me that all 'fellows' alike were made to do their duty 'before GOD, and Angels, and Men.' That it was by improving the little events and opportunities of every day that men became great, and not by neglecting them for their own presumptuous fancies. And she entreated me to strive to do my duty, and to leave the rest with GOD. I listened, however, impatiently to what I called a 'jaw' or a 'scold,' and then (knowing the tender interest she took in all I did) I tried to coax her by offering to read my poem. But she answered with just severity, that what she wished was to see me a good man, not a great one; and that she would rather see my exercises duly written than fifty poems composed at the expense of my neglected duty. Then she warned me tenderly of the misery which my conceit would bring upon me, and bade me, when I said my evening prayers, to add that prayer of King David, 'Keep Thy servant from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me.'
"Alas! they had got the dominion over me already, too strongly for her words to take any hold. 'She won't even look at my poem,' I thought, and hurried proudly from the room, banging one door and leaving another open. And I silenced my uneasy conscience by fresh dreams of making my fortune and hers. But the punishment came at last. One day the doctor took me into a room alone, and told me as gently as he could what everyone but myself knew already—my mother was dying. I cannot tell you, child, how the blow fell upon me—how, at first, I utterly disbelieved its truth! It seemed impossible that the only hope of my life, the object of all my schemes and fancies, was to be taken away. But I was awakened at last, and resolved that, GOD helping me, while she did live, I would be a better son. I can now look back with thankfulness on the few days we were together. I never left her. She took her food and medicine from my hand; and I received my First Communion with her on the day she died. The day before, kneeling by her bed, I had confessed all the sin and vanity of my heart and those miserable dreams; had destroyed with my own hand all my papers, and had resolved that I would apply to my studies, and endeavour to obtain a scholarship and the necessary preparation for Holy Orders. It was a just ambition, little woman, undertaken humbly, in the fear of GOD, and in the path of duty; and I accomplished it years after, when I had nothing left of my mother but her memory."
The curate was silent, and I felt, rather than saw, that the tears which were wetting my frock had not come from my own eyes, though I was crying bitterly. I flung my arms round his neck, and hugged him tight.
"Oh, I am so sorry!" I sobbed; "so very, very sorry!"
We became quieter after a bit; and he lifted up his head and smiled, and called himself a fool for making me sad, and told me not to tell any one what he had told me, and what babies we had been, except my mother.
"Tell her everything always," he said.
I soon cheered up, particularly as he took me over the wall, and into his workshop, and made a coffin for the poor little blackbirds, which we lined with cotton-wool and scented with musk, as a mark of respect. Then he dug a deep hole in the garden and we buried them, and made a fine high mound of earth, and put the "hen and chicken" plants all round. And that night, sitting on my mother's knee, I told her "everything," and shed a few more tears of sorrow and repentance in her arms.
* * * * *
Many years have passed since then, and many showers of rain have helped to lay the mound flat with the earth, so that the "hen and chickens" have run all over it, and made a fine plot. The curate and his mother have met at last; and I have transplanted many flowers that he gave me to his grave. I sometimes wonder if, in his perfect happiness, he knows, or cares to know, how often the remembrance of his story has stopped the current of conceited day-dreams, and brought me back to practical duty with the humble prayer, "Keep Thy servant also from presumptuous sins."
A TALE OF THE FEAST OF ST. NICHOLAS.
"Ne pinger ne scolpir fia piu che queti, L'anima volta a quell' Amor divino Ch'asserse a prender noi in Croce le braccia."
"Painting and Sculpture's aid in vain I crave, My one sole refuge is that Love divine Which from the Cross stretched forth its arms to save."
Written by MICHAEL ANGELO at the age of 83.
"So be it," said one of the council, as he rose and addressed the others. "It is now finally decided. The Story Woman is to be walled up."
The council was not an ecclesiastical one, and the woman condemned to the barbarous and bygone punishment of being "walled up" was not an offending nun. In fact the Story Woman (or Maerchen-Frau as she is called in Germany) may be taken to represent the imaginary personage who is known in England by the name of Mother Bunch, or Mother Goose; and it was in this instance the name given by a certain family of children to an old book of ballads and poems, which they were accustomed to read in turn with special solemnities, on one particular night in the year; the reader for the time being having a peculiar costume, and the title of "Maerchen-Frau," or Mother Bunch, a name which had in time been familiarly adopted for the ballad-book itself.
This book was not bound in a fashionable colour, nor illustrated by a fashionable artist; the Chiswick Press had not set up a type for it, and Hayday's morocco was a thing unknown. It had not, in short, one of those attractions with which in these days books are surrounded, whose insides do not always fulfil the promise of the binding. If, however, it was on these points inferior to modern volumes, it had on others the advantage. It did not share a precarious favour with a dozen rivals in mauve, to be supplanted ere the year was out by twelve new ones in magenta. It was never thrown aside with the contemptuous remark,—"I've read that!" On the contrary, it always had been to its possessors, what (from the best Book downwards) a good book always should be, a friend, and not an acquaintance—not to be too readily criticized, but to be loved and trusted. The pages were yellow and worn, not with profane ill-usage, but with honourable wear and tear; and the mottled binding presented much such an appearance as might be expected from a book that had been pressed under the pillow of one reader, and in the pocket of another; that had been wept over and laughed over, and warmed by winter fires, and damped in the summer grass, and had in general seen as much of life as the venerable book in question. It was not the property of one member of the family, but the joint possession of all. It was not mine, but ours, as the inscription, "For the Children," written on the blank leaf testified; which inscription was hereafter to be a pathetic memorial to aged eyes of days when "the children" were not yet separated, and took their pleasures, like their meals, together.
And after all this, with the full consent of a council of the owners, the Maerchen-Frau was to be "walled up."
But before I attempt to explain, or in any way excuse this seemingly ungracious act, it may be well to give some account of the doers thereof. Well, then:—
Providence had blessed a certain respectable tradesman, in a certain town in Germany, with a large and promising family of children. He had married very early the beloved of his boyhood, and had been left a widower with one motherless baby almost before he was a man. A neighbour, with womanly compassion, took pity upon this desolate father, and more desolate child; and it was not until she had nursed the babe in her own house through a dangerous sickness, and had for long been chief adviser to the parent, that he awoke to the fact that she had become necessary to him, and they were married.
Of this union came a family of eight, the two eldest of whom were laid in turn in the quiet grave. The others survived, and, with the first wife's daughter, made a goodly family party, which sometimes sorely taxed the resources of the tradesman to provide for, though his business was good and his wife careful. They scrambled up, however, as children are wont to do in such circumstances; and at the time our story opens the youngest had turned his back upon babyhood, and Marie, the eldest, had reached that pinnacle of childish ambition—she was "grown up."
A very good Marie she was, and always had been; from the days when she ran to school with a little knapsack on her back, and her fair hair hanging down in two long plaits, to the present time, when she tenderly fastened that same knapsack on to the shoulders of a younger sister; and when the plaits had for long been reclaimed from their vagrant freedom, and coiled close to her head.
"Our Marie is not clever," said one of the children, who flattered himself that he was a bit of a genius; "our Marie is not clever, but also she is never wrong."
It is with this same genius that our story has chiefly to do.
Friedrich was a child of unusual talent; a fact which, happily for himself, was not discovered till he was more than twelve years old. He learnt to read very quickly; and when he was once able, read every book on which he could lay his hands, and in his father's house the number was not great. When Marie was a child, the school was kept by a certain old man, very gentle and learned in his quiet way. He had been fond of his fair-haired pupil, and when she was no longer a scholar, had passed many an odd hour in imparting to her a slight knowledge of Latin, and of the great Linnaeus' system of botany. He was now dead, and his place filled by a less sympathizing pedagogue; and Friedrich listened with envious ears to his more fortunate sister's stories of her friend and master.
"So he taught you Latin—that great language! And botany—which is a science!" the child would exclaim with envious admiration, when he had heard for the thousandth time every particular of the old schoolmaster's kindness.
And Marie would answer calmly, as she "refooted" one of the father's stockings, "We did a good deal of the grammar, which I fear I have forgotten, and I learnt by heart a few of the Psalms in Latin, which I remember well. Also we commenced the system of Mr. Linnaeus, but I was very stupid, and ever preferred those plates which pictured the flower itself to those which gave the torn pieces, and which he thought most valuable. But, above all, he taught me to be good; and though I have forgotten many of his lessons, there are words and advice of his which I heeded little then, but which come back and teach me now. Father once heard the Burgomaster say he was a genius, but I know that he was good, and that is best of all;" with which, having turned the heel of her stocking, Marie would put it out of reach of the kitten, and lay the table for dinner.
And Friedrich—poor Friedrich!—groaning inwardly at his sister's indifference to her great opportunities for learning, would speculate to himself on the probable fate of each volume in the old schoolmaster's library, which had been sold when he, Friedrich, was but three years old. Thus, in these circumstances, the boy expressed his feelings with moderation when he said, "Our Marie is not clever, but also she is never wrong."
If the schoolmaster was dead, however, Friedrich was not, nevertheless, friendless. There was a certain bookseller in his native town, for whom in his spare time he ran messages, and who in return was glad to let him spend his playhours and half-holidays among the books in his shop. There, perched at the top of the shelves on a ladder, or crouched upon his toes at the bottom, he devoured some volumes and dipped into others; but what he liked best was poetry, and this not uncommon taste with many young readers was with this one a mania. Wherever the sight of verses met his eye, there he fastened and read greedily.
One day, a short time before my story opens, he found, in his wanderings from shelf to shelf, some nicely-bound volumes, one of which he opened, and straightway verses of the most attractive-looking metre met his eye, not, however, in German, but in a fair round Roman text, and, alas! in a language which he did not understand. There were customers in the shop, so he stood still in the corner with his nose almost resting on the bookshelf, staring fiercely at the page, as if he would force the meaning out of those fair clear-looking verses. When the last beard had vanished through the doorway, Friedrich came up to the counter, book in hand.
"Well, now?" said the comfortable bookseller, with a round German smile.
"This book," said the boy; "in what language is it?"
The man stuck his spectacles on his nose, and smiled again.
"It is Italian, and these are the sonnets of Petrarch, my child. The edition is a fine one, so be careful." Friedrich went back to his place, sighing heavily. After a while he came out again.
"Well now, what is it?" said the bookseller, cheerfully.
"Have you an Italian grammar?"
"Only this," said the other, as he picked a book from the shelf and laid it on the counter with a twinkle in his eye. The boy opened it and looked up disappointed.
"It is all Italian," said he.
"No, no," was the answer; "it is in French and Italian, and was printed at Paris. But what wouldst thou with a grammar, my child?"
The boy blushed as if he had been caught stealing, and said hastily—
"I must read those poems, and I cannot if I do not learn the language."
"And thou wouldst read Petrarch with a grammar," shouted the bookseller; "ho! ho! ho!"
"And a dictionary," said Friedrich; "why not?"
"Why not?" repeated the other, with renewed laughter. "Why not? Because to learn a language, my Friedrich, one must have a master, and exercises, and a phrase-book, and progressive reading-lessons with vocabulary; and, in short, one must learn a language in the way everybody else learns it; that is why not, my Friedrich."
"Everybody is nobody," said Friedrich, hotly; "at least nobody worth caring for. If I had a grammar and a dictionary, I would read those beautiful poems."
"Hear him!" said the cheerful little bookseller. "He will read Petrarch. He! If my volumes stop in the shelves till thou canst read them, my child—ho! ho! ho!" and he rubbed his brushy little beard with glee.
Friedrich's temper was not by nature of the calmest, and this conversation rubbed its tenderest points. He answered almost fiercely—
"Take care of your volumes. If I live, and they do stop in the shelves, I will buy them of you some day. Remember!" and he turned sharply round to hide the tears which had begun to fall.
For a moment the good shopkeeper's little mouth became as round as his round little eyes and his round little face; then he laid his hands on the counter, and jumping neatly over flung his dead weight on to Friedrich, and embraced him heartily.
"My poor child! (a kiss)—would that it had pleased Heaven to make thee the son of a nobleman—(another kiss). But hear me. A man in Berlin is now compiling an Italian grammar. It is to be out in a month or two. I shall have a copy, and thou shalt see it; and if ever thou canst read Petrarch I will give thee my volumes—(a volley of kisses). And now, as thou hast stayed so long, come into the little room and dine with me." With which invitation the kind-hearted German released his young friend and led him into the back room, where they buried the memory of Petrarch in a mess of vegetables and melted butter.
It may be added here, that the Petrarchs remained on the shelf, and that years afterwards the round-faced little bookseller redeemed his promise with pride.
Of these visits the father was to all intents and purposes ignorant. He knew that Friedrich went to see the bookseller, and that the bookseller was good-natured to him; but he never dreamt that his son read the books with which his neighbour's shop was lined, and he knew nothing of the wild visions which that same shop bred and nourished in the mind of his boy, and which made the life outside its doorstep seem a dream. The father and son saw that life from different points of view. The boy felt that he was more talented than other boys, and designed himself for a poet; the tradesman saw that the boy was more talented than other boys, and designed him for the business; and the opposite nature of these determinations was the one great misery of Friedrich's life.
If, however, this source of the child's sorrows was a secret one, and not spoken of to his brothers and sisters, or even to his friend the bookseller, equally secret also were the sources of his happiness. No eye but his own ever beheld those scraps of paper which he begged from the bookseller, and covered with childish efforts at verse-making. No one shared the happiness of those hours, of which perhaps a quarter was spent in working at the poem, and three-fourths were given to the day-dreams of the poet; or knew that the wild fancies of his brain made Friedrich's nights more happy than his days. By day he was a child (his family, with some reason, said a tiresome one), by night he was a man, and a great man. He visited the courts of Europe, and received compliments from Royalty; his plays were acted in the theatres; his poems stood on the shelves of the booksellers; he made his family rich (the boy was too young to wish for money for himself); he made everybody happy, and himself famous.
Fame! that was the word that rang in his ears and danced before his eyes as the hours of the night wore on, and he lived through a glorious lifetime. And so, when the mother, candle in hand, came round like a guardian angel among the sleeping children, to see that "all was right," he—poor child!—must feign to be sleeping on his face, to hide the traces of the tears which he had wept as he composed the epitaph which was to grace the monument of the famous Friedrich ——, poet, philosopher, etc. Whoever doubts the possibility of such exaggerated folly, has never known an imaginative childhood, or wept over those unreal griefs, which are not the less bitter at the time from being remembered afterwards with a mixture of shame and amusement. Happy or unhappy, however, in his dreams the boy was great, and this was enough; for Friedrich was vain, as everyone is tempted to be who feels himself in any way singular and unlike those about him. He revelled in the honours which he showered upon himself, and so—the night was happy; and so—the day was unwelcome when he was smartly bid to get up and put on his stockings, and found Fame gone and himself a child again, without honour, in his own country, and in his father's house.
These sad dreams (sad in their uselessness) were destined, however, to do him some good at last; and, oddly enough, the childish council that condemned the ballad-book decided his fate also. This was how it happened.
The children were accustomed, as we have said, to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas by readings from their beloved book. St. Nicholas's Day (the 6th of December) has for years been a favourite festival with the children in many parts of the Continent. In France, the children are diligently taught that St. Nicholas comes in the night down the chimney, and fills the little shoes (which are ranged there for the purpose) with sweetmeats or rods, according to his opinion of their owner's conduct during the past year. The Saint is supposed to travel through the air, and to be followed by an ass laden with two panniers, one of which contains the good things, and the other the birch, and he leaves his ass at the top of the chimney and comes down alone. The same belief is entertained in Holland; and in some parts of Germany he is even believed to carry off bad boys and girls in his sack, answering in this respect to our English Bogy.