Nat the Naturalist; or, A Boy's Adventures in the Eastern Seas by George Manville Fenn.
Nat's mother and father have died, and he is being brought up by an aunt and uncle, the latter being his mother's brother. His aunt does not care at all for boys, and in particular makes sniping remarks at Nat the whole time. But Nat's uncle is very fond of him, and they are great friends.
But enter the aunt's brother, a famous naturalist, back from some trip in South America. Nat, who has already shown great interest in collecting specimens from nature, is enthralled, helps him to stuff and catalogue his specimens, and eventually persuades him to take him (Nat) with him on his next trip.
This requires a little training in shooting and sailing. Then they are off, on a P&O liner sailing from Marseilles. On arriving in the Java Seas they disembark, purchase a little boat, and set off. Very soon they are joined by an enthusiastic native, and the trio spend some years collecting numerous splendid specimens, of birds, beetles, and anything else they can.
An unfriendly tribe of natives steal their boat, but does not find their hut and specimens. They set-to to build a boat of some sort, to get themselves away from such an unfriendly place. At the same time their native assistant disappears, presumably murdered by the unfriendly locals. What happens next I will not spoil the story by telling.
You'll enjoy it.
NAT THE NATURALIST; OR, A BOY'S ADVENTURES IN THE EASTERN SEAS, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
WHY I WENT TO MY UNCLE'S.
"I don't know what to do with him. I never saw such a boy—a miserable little coward, always in mischief and doing things he ought not to do, and running about the place with his whims and fads. I wish you'd send him right away, I do."
My aunt went out of the room, and I can't say she banged the door, but she shut it very hard, leaving me and my uncle face to face staring one at the other.
My uncle did not speak for some minutes, but sat poking at his hair with the waxy end of his pipe, for he was a man who smoked a great deal after dinner; the mornings he spent in his garden, being out there as early as five o'clock in the summer and paying very little attention to the rain.
He was a very amiable, mild-tempered man, who had never had any children, in fact he did not marry till quite late in life; when I remember my poor father saying that it was my aunt married my uncle, for uncle would never have had the courage to ask her.
I say "my poor father", for a couple of years after that marriage, the news came home that he had been lost at sea with the whole of the crew of the great vessel of which he was the surgeon.
I remember it all so well; the terrible blank and trouble that seemed to have come upon our house, with my mother's illness that followed, and that dreadful day when Uncle Joseph came down-stairs to me in the dining-room, and seating himself by the fire filled and lit his pipe, took two or three puffs, and then threw the pipe under the grate, let his head go down upon his hands, and cried like a child.
A minute or two later, when I went up to him in great trouble and laid my hand upon his shoulder, saying, "Don't cry, uncle; she'll be better soon," he caught me in his arms and held me to his breast.
"Nat, my boy," he said, "I've promised her that I'll be like a father to you now, and I will."
I knew only too soon why he said those words, for a week later I was an orphan boy indeed; and I was at Uncle Joseph's house, feeling very miserable and unhappy in spite of his kind ways and the pains he took to make me comfortable.
I was not so wretched when I was alone with uncle in the garden, where he would talk to me about his peas and potatoes and the fruit-trees, show me how to find the snails and slugs, and encourage me to shoot at the thieving birds with a crossbow and arrow; but I was miserable indeed when I went in, for my aunt was a very sharp, acid sort of woman, who seemed to have but one idea, and that was to keep the house so terribly tidy that it was always uncomfortable to the people who were in it.
It used to be, "Nat, have you wiped your shoes?"
"Let me look, sir. Ah! I thought so. Not half wiped. Go and take them off directly, and put on your slippers. You're as bad as your uncle, sir."
I used to think I should like to be as good.
"I declare," said my aunt, "I haven't a bit of peace of my life with the dirt and dust. The water-cart never comes round here as it does in the other roads, and the house gets filthy. Moil and toil, moil and toil, from morning to night, and no thanks whatever."
When my aunt talked like this she used to screw up her face and seem as if she were going to cry, and she spoke in a whining, unpleasant tone of voice; but I never remember seeing her cry, and I used to wonder why she would trouble herself about dusting with a cloth and feather brush from morning to night, when there were three servants to do all the work.
I have heard the cook tell Jane the housemaid that Mrs Pilgarlic was never satisfied; but it was some time before I knew whom she meant; and to this day I don't know why she gave my aunt such a name.
Whenever aunt used to be more than usually fretful, as time went on my uncle would get up softly, give me a peculiar look, and go out into the garden, where, if I could, I followed, and we used to talk, and weed, and train the flowers; but very often my aunt would pounce upon me and order me to sit still and keep out of mischief if I could.
I was very glad when my uncle decided to send me to school, and I used to go to one in our neighbourhood, so that I was a good deal away from home, as uncle said I was to call his house now; and school and the garden were the places where I was happiest in those days.
"Yes, my boy," said my uncle, "I should like you to call this home, for though your aunt pretends she doesn't like it, she does, you know, Nat; and you mustn't mind her being a bit cross, Nat. It isn't temper, you know, it's weakness. It's her digestion's bad, and she's a sufferer, that's what she is. She's wonderfully fond of you, Nat."
I remember thinking that she did not show it.
"And you must try and get on, Nat, and get lots of learning," he would often say when we were out in the garden. "You won't be poor when you grow up, for your poor mother has left you a nice bit of money, but you might lose that, Nat, my boy; nobody could steal your knowledge, and— ah, you rascal, got you, have I?"
This last was to a great snail which he raked out from among some tender plants that had been half eaten away.
"Yes, Nat, get all the knowledge you can and work hard at your books."
But somehow I didn't get on well with the other boys, for I cared so little for their rough games. I was strong enough of my age, but I preferred getting out on to Clapham Common on half-holidays, to look for lizards in the furze, or to catch the bright-coloured sticklebacks in the ponds, or else to lie down on the bank under one of the trees, and watch the efts coming up to the top to make a little bubble and then go down again, waving their bodies of purple and orange and the gay crests that they sometimes had all along their backs in the spring.
When I used to lie there thinking, I did not seem to be on Clapham Common, but far away on the banks of some huge lake in a foreign land with the efts and lizards, crocodiles; and the big worms that I sometimes found away from their holes in wet weather became serpents in a moist jungle.
Of course I got all these ideas from books, and great trouble I found myself in one day for playing at tiger-hunting in the garden at home with Buzzy, my aunt's great tabby tom-cat; and for pretending that Nap was a lion in the African desert. But I'll tell you that in a chapter to itself, for these matters had a good deal to do with the alteration in my mode of life.
FIRST THOUGHTS OF HUNTING.
As I told you, my uncle had no children, and the great house at Streatham was always very quiet. In fact one of my aunt's strict injunctions was that she should not be disturbed by any noise of mine. But aunt had her pets—Buzzy, and Nap.
Buzzy was the largest striped tom-cat, I think, that I ever saw, and very much to my aunt's annoyance he became very fond of me, so much so that if he saw me going out in the garden he would leap off my aunt's lap, where she was very fond of nursing him, stroking his back, beginning with his head and ending by drawing his tail right through her hand; all of which Buzzy did not like, but he would lie there and swear, trying every now and then to get free, but only to be held down and softly whipped into submission.
Buzzy decidedly objected to being nursed, and as soon as he could get free he would rush after me down the garden, where he would go bounding along, arching his back, and setting up the fur upon his tail. Every now and then he would hide in some clump, and from thence charge out at me, and if I ran after him, away he would rush up a tree trunk, and then crouch on a branch with glowing eyes, tearing the while with his claws at the bark as if in a tremendous state of excitement, ready to bound down again, and race about till he was tired, after which I had only to stoop down and say, "Come on," when he would leap on to my back and perch himself upon my shoulder, purring softly as I carried him round the grounds.
I used to have some good fun, too, with Nap, when my aunt was out; but she was so jealous of her favourite's liking for me that at last I never used to have a game with Nap when she was at home.
Buzzy could come out and play quietly, but Nap always got to be so excited, lolling out his tongue and yelping and barking with delight as he tore round after me, pretending to bite and worry me, and rolling over and over, and tumbling head over heels as he capered and bounded about.
I think Nap was the ugliest dog I ever saw, for he was one of those dirty white French poodles, and my aunt used to have him clipped, to look like a lion, as she said, and have him washed with hot soap and water every week.
Nothing pleased Nap better than to go out in the garden with me, but I got into sad trouble about it more than once.
"Look at him, Joseph," my aunt would say, "it's just as if it was done on purpose to annoy me. Beautifully washed as he was yesterday, and now look at him with his curly mane all over earth, and with bits of straw and dead leaves sticking in it. If you don't send that boy away to a boarding-school I won't stay in the house."
Then my uncle would look troubled, and take me into his own room, where he kept his books and garden seeds.
"You mustn't do it, Nat, my boy, indeed you mustn't. You see how it annoys your aunt."
"I didn't think I was doing any harm, uncle," I protested. "Nap jumped out of the window, and leaped up at me as if he wanted a game, and I only raced round the garden with him."
"You didn't rub the earth and dead leaves in his coat then, Nat?" said my uncle.
"Oh no!" I said; "he throws himself on his side and pushes himself along, rubs his head on the ground, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. I think it's because he has got f—"
"Shush! Hush! my dear boy," cried my uncle, clapping his hand over my lips. "If your aunt for a moment thought that there were any insects in that dog, she would be ill."
"But I'm sure that there are some in his coat, uncle," I said, "for if you watch him when he's lying on the hearth-rug to-night, every now and then he jumps up and snaps at them, and bites the place."
"Shush! yes, my boy," he whispered; "but don't talk about it. Your aunt is so particular. It's a secret between us."
I couldn't help smiling at him, and after a moment or two he smiled at me, and then patted me on the shoulder.
"Don't do anything to annoy your aunt, my boy," he said; "I wouldn't play with Nap if I were you."
"I'll try not to, uncle," I said; "but he will come and coax me to play with him sometimes."
"H'm! yes," said my uncle thoughtfully, "and it does do him good, poor dog. He eats too much, and gets too fat for want of exercise. Suppose you only play with him when your aunt goes out for a walk."
"Very well, uncle," I said, and then he shook hands with me, and gave me half a crown.
I couldn't help it, I was obliged to spend that half-crown in something I had been wanting for weeks. It was a large crossbow that hung up in the toy-shop window in Streatham, and that bow had attracted my attention every time I went out.
To some boys a crossbow would be only a crossbow, but to me it meant travels in imagination all over the world. I saw myself shooting apples off boys' heads, transfixing eagles in their flight, slaying wild beasts, and bringing home endless trophies of the chase, so at the first opportunity I was off to the shop, and with my face glowing with excitement and delight I bought and took home the crossbow.
"Hallo, Nat!" said Uncle Joseph. "Why, what's that—a crossbow?"
"Yes, uncle; isn't it a beauty?" I cried excitedly.
"Well, yes, my boy," he said; "but, but—how about your aunt? Suppose you were to break a window with that, eh? What should we do?"
"But I won't shoot in that direction, uncle," I promised.
"Or shoot out Jane's or Cook's eye? It would be very dreadful, my boy."
"Oh, yes, uncle," I cried; "but I will be so careful, and perhaps I may shoot some of the birds that steal the cherries."
"Ah! yes, my boy, so you might," he said rubbing his hands softly. "My best bigarreaus. Those birds are a terrible nuisance, Nat, that they are. You'll be careful, though?"
"Yes, I'll be careful, uncle," I said; and he went away nodding and smiling, while I went off to Clapham Common to try the bow and the short thick arrows supplied therewith.
It was glorious. At every twang away flew the arrow or the piece of tobacco-pipe I used instead; and at last, after losing one shaft in the short turf, I found myself beside the big pond over on the far side, one that had the reputation of being full of great carp and eels.
My idea here was to shoot the fish, but as there were none visible to shoot I had to be content with trying to hit the gliding spiders on the surface with pieces of tobacco-pipe as long as they lasted, for I dared not waste another arrow, and then with my mind full of adventures in foreign countries I walked home.
The next afternoon my aunt went out, and I took the bow down the garden, leaving my uncle enjoying his pipe. I had been very busy all that morning, it being holiday time, in making some fresh arrows for a purpose I had in view, and, so as to be humane, I had made the heads by cutting off the tops of some old kid gloves, ramming their finger-ends full of cotton-wool, and then tying them to the thin deal arrows, so that each bolt had a head like a little soft leather ball.
"Those can't hurt him," I said to myself; and taking a dozen of these bolts in my belt I went down the garden, with Buzzy at my heels, for a good tiger-hunt.
For the next half-hour Streatham was nowhere, and that old-fashioned garden with its fruit-trees had become changed into a wild jungle, through which a gigantic tiger kept charging, whose doom I had fixed. Shot after shot I had at the monster—once after it had bounded into the fork of a tree, another time as it was stealing through the waving reeds, represented by the asparagus bed. Later on, after much creeping and stalking, with the tiger stalking me as well as springing out at me again and again, but never getting quite home, I had a shot as it was lurking beside the great lake, represented by our tank. Here its striped sides were plainly visible, and, going down on hands and knees, I crept along between two rows of terrible thorny trees that bore sweet juicy berries in the season, but which were of the wildest nature now, till I could get a good aim at the monster's shoulder, and see its soft lithe tail twining and writhing like a snake.
I crept on, full of excitement, for a leafy plant that I refused to own as a cabbage no longer intercepted my view. Then lying flat upon my chest I fitted an arrow to my bow, and was cautiously taking aim, telling myself that if I missed I should be seized by the monster, when some slight sound I made caused it to spring up, presenting its striped flank for a target as it gazed here and there.
Play as it was, it was all intensely real to me; and in those moments I was as full of excitement as if I had been in some distant land and in peril of my life.
Then, after long and careful aim, twang went the bow, and to my intense delight the soft-headed arrow struck the monster full in the flank, making it bound up a couple of feet and then pounce upon the bolt, and canter off at full speed towards a dense thicket of scarlet-runners.
"Victory, victory!" I cried excitedly; "wounded, wounded!" and I set off in chase, but approaching cautiously and preparing my bow again, for I had read that the tiger was most dangerous when in the throes of death.
I forget what I called the scarlet-runner thicket, but by some eastern name, and drawing nearer I found an opportunity for another shot, which missed.
Away bounded Buzzy, evidently enjoying the fun, and I after him, to find him at bay beneath a currant bush.
I was a dozen yards away in the central path, and, of course, in full view of the upper windows of the house; but if I had noted that fact then, I was so far gone in the romance of the situation that I daresay I should have called the house the rajah's palace. As it was I had forgotten its very existence in the excitement of the chase.
"This time, monster, thou shalt die," I cried, as I once more fired, making Buzzy leap into the path, and then out of sight amongst the cabbages.
"Hurray! hurray!" I shouted, waving my crossbow above my head, "the monster is slain! the monster is slain!"
There was a piercing shriek behind me, and I turned, bow in hand, to find myself face to face with my aunt.
HOW I HUNTED THE LION IN NO-MAN'S-LAND AND WHAT FOLLOWED.
My aunt's cry brought out Uncle Joseph in a terrible state of excitement, and it was not until after a long chase and Buzzy was caught that she could be made to believe that he had not received a mortal wound. And a tremendous chase it was, for the more Uncle Joseph and I tried to circumvent that cat, the more he threw himself into the fun of the hunt and dodged us, running up trees like a squirrel, leaping down with his tail swollen to four times its usual size, and going over the beds in graceful bounds, till Uncle Joseph sat down to pant and wipe his face while I continued the chase; but all in vain. Sometimes I nearly caught the cat, but he would be off again just as I made a spring to seize him, while all Aunt Sophia's tender appeals to "poor Buzzy then," "my poor pet then," fell upon ears that refused to hear her.
"Oh how stupid I am!" I said to myself. "Oh, Buzzy, this is too bad to give me such a chase. Come here, sir, directly;" and I stooped down.
It had the required result, for Buzzy leaped down off the wall up which he had scrambled, jumped on to my back, settled himself comfortably with his fore-paws on my shoulder, and began to purr with satisfaction.
"I am glad, my boy," said Uncle Joseph, "so glad you have caught him; but have you hurt him much?"
"He isn't hurt at all, uncle," I said. "It was all in play."
"But your aunt is in agony, my boy. Here, let me take the cat to her."
He stretched out his hands to take the cat from my shoulder, but Buzzy's eyes dilated and he began to swear, making my uncle start back, for he dreaded a scratch from anything but a rose thorn, and those he did not mind.
"Would you mind taking him to your aunt, Natty, my boy?" he said.
"No, uncle, if you'll please come too," I said. "Don't let aunt scold me, uncle; I'm very sorry, and it was only play."
"I'll come with you, Nat," he said, shaking his head; "but I ought not to have let you have that bow, and I'm afraid she will want it burnt."
"Will she be very cross?" I said.
"I'm afraid so, my boy." And she really was.
"Oh you wicked, wicked boy," she cried as I came up; "what were you doing?"
"Only playing at tiger-hunting, aunt," I said.
"With my poor darling Buzzy! Come to its own mistress then, Buzzy," she cried pityingly. "Did the wicked, cruel boy—oh dear!"
Wur-r-ur! spit, spit!
That was Buzzy's reply to his mistress's attempt to take him from my shoulder, and he made an attempt to scratch.
"And he used to be as gentle as a lamb," cried my aunt. "You wicked, wicked boy, you must have hurt my darling terribly to make him so angry with his mistress whom he loves."
I protested that I had not, but it was of no use, and I was in great disgrace for some days; but Aunt Sophia forgot to confiscate my crossbow.
The scolding I received ought to have had more effect upon me, but it did not; for it was only a week afterwards that I was again in disgrace, and for the same fault, only with this difference, that in my fancy the garden had become a South African desert, and Nap was the lion I was engaged in hunting.
I did him no harm, I am sure, but a great deal of good, with the exercise; and the way in which he entered into the sport delighted me. He charged me and dashed after me when I fled; when I hid behind trees to shoot at him he seized the arrows, if they hit him, and worried them fiercely; while whenever they missed him, in place of dashing at me he would run after the arrows and bring them in his mouth to where he thought I was hiding.
I don't think Nap had any more sense than dogs have in general, but he would often escape from my aunt when I came home from school, and run before me to the big cupboard where I kept my treasures, raise himself upon his hind-legs, and tear at the door till I opened it and took out the crossbow, when he would frisk round and round in the highest state of delight, running out into the garden, dashing back, running out again, and entering into the spirit of the game with as much pleasure as I did.
But the fun to be got out of a crossbow gets wearisome after a time, especially when you find that in spite of a great deal of practice it is very hard to hit anything that is at all small.
The time glided on, and I was very happy still with my uncle; but somehow Aunt Sophia seemed to take quite a dislike to me; and no matter how I tried to do what was right, and to follow out my uncle's wishes, I was always in trouble about something or another.
One summer Uncle Joseph bought me a book on butterflies, with coloured plates, which so interested me that I began collecting the very next day, and captured a large cabbage butterfly.
No great rarity this, but it was a beginning; and after pinning it out as well as I could I began to think of a cabinet, collecting-boxes, a net, and a packet of entomological pins.
I only had to tell Uncle Joseph my wants and he was eager to help me.
"Collecting-boxes, Nat?" he said, rubbing his hands softly; "why, I used to use pill-boxes when I was a boy: there are lots up-stairs."
He hunted me out over a dozen that afternoon, and supplied me with an old drawer and a piece of camphor, entering into the matter with as much zest as I did myself. Then he obtained an old green gauze veil from my aunt, and set to work with me in the tool-house to make a net, after the completion of which necessity he proposed that we should go the very next afternoon as far as Clapham Common to capture insects.
He did not go with me, for my aunt wanted him to hold skeins of wool for her to wind, but he made up to me for the disappointment that evening by sitting by me while I pinned out my few but far from rare captures, taking great pleasure in holding the pins for me, and praising what he called my cleverness in cutting out pieces of card.
I did not know anything till it came quite as a surprise, and it was smuggled into the house so that my aunt did not know, Jane, according to uncle's orders, carrying it up to my bedroom.
It was a large butterfly-case, made to open out in two halves like a backgammon board; and in this, as soon as they were dry, I used to pin my specimens, examining them with delight, and never seeming to weary of noting the various markings, finding out their names, and numbering them, and keeping their proper titles in a book I had for the purpose.
I did not confine myself to butterflies, but caught moths and beetles, with dragon-flies from the edges of the ponds on Clapham Common, longing to go farther afield, but not often obtaining a chance. Then, as I began to find specimens scarce, I set to collecting other things that seemed interesting, and at last, during a visit paid by my aunt to some friends, Uncle Joseph took me to the British Museum to see the butterflies there, so, he said, that I might pick up a few hints for managing my own collection.
That visit turned me into an enthusiast, for before we returned I had been for hours feasting my eyes upon the stuffed birds and noting the wondrous colours on their scale-like feathers.
I could think of scarcely anything else, talk of nothing else afterwards for days; and nothing would do but I must begin to collect birds and prepare and stuff them for myself.
"You wouldn't mind, would you, uncle?" I said.
"Mind? No, my boy," he said, rubbing his hands softly; "I should like it; but do you think you could stuff a bird?"
"Not at first," I said thoughtfully; "but I should try."
"To be sure, Nat," he cried smiling; "nothing like trying, my boy; but how would you begin?"
This set me thinking.
"I don't know, uncle," I said at last, "but it looks very easy."
"Ha! ha! ha! Nat; so do lots of things," he cried, laughing; "but sometimes they turn out very hard."
"I know," I said suddenly.
"I know," I said, "I could find out how to do it."
"Have some lessons, eh?" he said.
"How would you manage it then, Nat?"
"Buy a stuffed bird, uncle, and pull it to pieces, and see how it is done."
"To be sure, Nat," he cried; "to be sure, my boy. That's the way; but stop a moment; how would you put it together again?"
"Oh! I think I could, uncle," I said; "I'm nearly sure I could. How could I get one to try with?"
"Why, we might buy one somewhere," he said thoughtfully; "for I don't think they'd lend us one at the British Museum; but I tell you what, Nat," he cried: "I've got it."
"Have you, uncle?"
"To be sure, my boy. There's your aunt's old parrot that died and was stuffed. Don't you know?"
I shook my head.
"It was put somewhere up-stairs in the lumber-room, and your aunt has forgotten all about it. You might try with that."
"And I'd stuff it again when I had found out all about it, uncle," I said.
"To be sure, my boy," said uncle, thoughtfully; "I wonder whether your aunt would want Buzzy and Nap stuffed if they were to die?"
"She'd be sure to; aunt is so fond of them," I said. "Why, uncle, I might be able to do it myself."
"Think so?" he said thoughtfully. "Why, it would make her pleased, my boy."
But neither Buzzy nor Nap showed the slightest intention of dying so as to be stuffed, and I had to learn the art before I could attempt anything of the kind.
THE REMAINS OF POOR POLLY.
The very first opportunity, my uncle took me up with him to the lumber-room, an attic of which my aunt kept the key; and here, after quite a hunt amongst old portmanteaux, broken chairs, dusty tables, bird-cages, wrecked kennels, cornice-poles, black-looking pictures, and dozens of other odds and ends, we came in a dark corner upon the remains of one of my aunt's earliest pets. It was the stuffed figure of a grey parrot that had once stood beneath a glass shade, but the shade was broken, and poor Polly, who looked as if she had been moulting ever since she had been fixed upon her present perch, had her head partly torn from her shoulders.
"Here she is," said my uncle. "Poor old Polly! What a bird she was to screech! She never liked me, Nat, but used to call me wretch, as plain as you could say it yourself. It was very wicked of me, I dare say, Nat, but I was so glad when she died, and your aunt was so sorry that she cried off and on for a week."
"But she never was a pretty bird, uncle," I said, holding the stuffed creature to the light.
"No, my boy, never, and she used to pull off her feathers when she was in a passion, and call people wretch. She bit your aunt's nose once. But do you think it will do?"
"Oh yes, uncle," I said; "but may I pull it to pieces?"
"Well, yes, my boy, I think so," he said dreamily. "You couldn't spoil it, could you?"
"Why, it is spoiled already, Uncle Joe," I said.
"Yes, my boy, so it is; quite spoiled. I think I'll risk it, Nat."
"But if aunt would be very cross, uncle, hadn't I better leave it?" I said.
"If you didn't take it, Nat, she would never see it again, and it would lie here and moulder away. I think you had better take it, my boy."
I was so eager to begin that I hesitated no more, but took the bird out into the tool-house, where I could make what aunt called "a mess" without being scolded, and uncle put on his smoking-cap, lit his pipe, and brought a high stool to sit upon and watch me make my first attempt at mastering a mystery.
The first thing was to take Polly off her perch, which was a piece of twig covered with moss, that had once been glued on, but now came away in my hands, and I found that the bird had been kept upright by means of wires that ran down her legs and were wound about the twig.
Uncle smoked away as solemnly as could be, while I went on, and he seemed to be admiring my earnestness.
"There's wire up the legs, uncle," I cried, as I felt about the bird.
"Oh! is there?" he said, condescendingly.
"Yes, uncle, and two more pieces in the wings."
"You don't say so, Nat!"
"Yes, uncle, and another bit runs right through the body from the head to the tail; and—yes—no—yes—no—ah, I've found out how it is that the tail is spread."
"Have you, Nat?" he cried, letting his pipe out, he was so full of interest.
"Yes, uncle; there's a thin wire threaded through all the tail feathers, just as if they were beads."
"Why, what a boy you are!" he cried, wonderingly.
"Oh, it's easy enough to find that out, uncle," I said, colouring. "Now let's see what's inside."
"Think there's anything inside, Natty, my boy?"
"Oh yes, uncle," I said; "it's full of something. Why, it's tow."
"Toe, my boy!" he said seriously, "parrot's toe?"
"T-o-w. Tow, uncle, what they use to clean the lamps. I can stuff a bird, uncle, I know."
"Think you can, Natty?"
"Yes, to be sure," I said confidently. "Why, look here, it's easy to make a ball of tow the same shape as an egg for the body, and then to push wires through the body, and wings, and legs; no, stop a moment, they seem to be fastened in. Yes, so they are, but I know I can do it."
Uncle Joe held his pipe in his mouth with his teeth and rubbed his hands with satisfaction, for he was as pleased with my imagined success as I was, and as he looked on I pulled out the stuffing from the skin, placing the wings here, the legs there, and the tail before me, while the head with its white-irised glass eye was stuck upon a nail in the wall just over the bench.
"I feel as sure as can be, uncle, that I could stuff one."
"Ha! ha! ha!" he laughed. "Wretch! wretch! wretch! That's what Polly would say if she could speak. See how you've pulled her to pieces."
I looked up as he spoke, and there was the head with its queer glass eyes seeming to stare hard at me, and at the mess of skin and feathers on the bench.
"Well, I have pulled her to pieces, haven't I, uncle?" I said.
"That you have, my boy," he said, chuckling, as if he thought it very good fun.
"But I have learned how to stuff a bird, uncle," I said triumphantly.
"And are you going to stuff Polly again?" he asked, gazing at the ragged feathers and skin.
I looked at him quite guiltily.
"I—I don't think I could put this one together again, uncle," I said. "You see it was so ragged and torn before I touched it, and the feathers are coming out all over the place. But I could do a fresh one. You see there's nothing here but the skin. All the feathers are falling away."
"Yes," said my uncle, "and I know—"
"Know what, uncle?"
"Why, they do the skin over with some stuff to preserve it, and you'll have to get it at the chemist's."
"And I don't know, Natty," he said, "but I think you might try and put poor old Polly together again, for I don't feel quite comfortable about her; you have made her in such a dreadful mess."
"Yes, I have, indeed, uncle," I said dolefully, for the eagerness was beginning to evaporate.
"And your aunt was very fond of her, my boy, and she wouldn't like it if she knew."
"But I'm afraid I couldn't put her together again now, uncle;" and then I began to tremble, and my uncle leaped off his stool, and broke his pipe: for there was my aunt's well-known step on the gravel, and directly after we heard her cry:
"Joseph! Nathaniel! What are you both doing?" And I knew that I should have to confess.
HOW MY UNCLE AND I PUT HUMPTY DUMPTY TOGETHER AGAIN.
My uncle stood by me very bravely when Aunt Sophia entered the tool-house with an exclamation of surprise. For a few minutes she could not understand what we had been about.
"Feathers—a bird—a parrot!" she exclaimed at last. "Why, it is like poor Polly."
I looked very guiltily at my uncle and was about to speak, but he made me a signal to be silent.
"Yes, my dear," he faltered, "it—it was poor Polly. We—we found her in the lumber-room—all in ruins, my dear, and we—we have been examining her."
"I don't believe it," said my aunt sharply. "That mischievous boy has been at his tricks again."
"I assure you, my dear," cried my uncle, "I had to do with it as well. I helped him. Nat wants to understand bird-stuffing, and we have been to the museum and then we came home."
"Well, of course you did," said my aunt tartly; "do you suppose I thought you stopped to live in the museum?"
"No, my dear, of course not," said my uncle, laughing feebly. "We are studying the art of taxidermy, my dear, Nat and I."
He added this quite importantly, putting his eyeglasses on and nodding to me for my approval and support.
"Bless the man! Taxi what?" cried my aunt, who seemed to be fascinated by Polly's eyes; and she began to softly scratch the feathers on the back of the head.
"Taxi-dermy," said my uncle, "and—and, my dear, I wouldn't scratch Polly's head if I were you; the skins are preserved with poison."
"Bless my heart!" exclaimed my aunt, snatching back her hand; and then holding out a finger to me: "Wipe that, Nat."
I took out my handkerchief, dipped a corner in the watering-pot, and carefully wiped the finger clear of anything that might be sticking to it, though, as my own hands were so lately in contact with Polly's skin, I don't believe that I did much good; but it satisfied my aunt, who turned once more to Uncle Joe.
"Now then, Joseph; what did you say?"
"Taxi-dermy, my dear," he said again importantly; "the art of preserving and mounting the skins of dead animals."
"And a nice mess you'll both make, I dare say," cried my aunt.
"But not indoors, my dear. We shall be very careful. You see Polly had been a good deal knocked about. Your large black box had fallen right upon her, and her head was off, my dear. The glass shade was in shivers."
"Poor Polly, yes," said my aunt, "I had her put there because of the moths in her feathers. Well, mind this, I shall expect Natty to repair her very nicely; and you must buy a new glass shade, Joseph. Ah, my precious!"
This was to Nap, who, in reply to her tender speech, made three or four bounds to get to me, but aunt caught him by the ear and held him with the skin of his face pulled sidewise, so that he seemed to be winking at me as he lolled out his thin red tongue, and uttered a low whine.
"But mind this, I will not have any mess made indoors."
As she spoke my aunt stooped down and took Nap in her arms, soiling her handsome silk dress a good deal with the dog's dirty feet. Then she walked away saying endearing things to Nap, who only whined and struggled to get away in the most ungrateful fashion; while my uncle took off his glasses, drew a long breath, and said as he wiped his face with his red silk handkerchief:
"I was afraid she was going to be very cross, my boy. She's such a good woman, your dear aunt, my boy, and I'm very proud of her; but she does upset me so when she is cross."
"I was all of a fidge, uncle," I said laughing.
"So was I, Nat, so was I. But don't laugh, my boy. It is too serious a thing for smiles. It always puts me in such a dreadful perspiration, Nat, for I don't like to be angry too. Never be angry with a woman when you grow up, Nat, my boy; women, you see, belong to the weaker sex."
"Yes, uncle," I said wonderingly; and then he began to beam and smile again, and rubbed his hands together softly as he looked at our work.
"But you will have to put Polly together again, Nat," he said at last.
"Put her together again, uncle!" I said in dismay. "Why, it's like Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall—all the king's horses and all the king's men—"
"Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again," said my uncle quite seriously. "But we must put Polly together again, Natty. There's your aunt, you know."
"Yes, uncle, there's Aunt Sophia," I said ruefully; "but the feathers are all out of the skin, and the skin's all in pieces. I'm afraid she will never look decent, try how I may."
My uncle rubbed his head softly.
"It does look as if it would be a terrible job, Nat," he said; "but it must be done, and I'm afraid if you made her look as well as she did when we found her, your aunt wouldn't be satisfied."
"I'm sure I couldn't make her look as well as she did then, uncle," I replied despairingly; "but I'll try."
"Yes, do, my boy. That's right, try. And look here, Nat—I'll help you."
I was very glad to hear Uncle Joseph say that, though I did not think he would be able to help me much; and so as to lose no time we began at once to think the matter out, and uncle said yes to all I proposed to do, which was his idea of helping me; for he said I drove in the nails and he clinched them.
After a bit of thinking I came to the conclusion that I have since learned was the very best one I could have arrived at, that the proper thing to do was to fix on Polly's wire legs as neatly made a body as I could, and then to stick the feathers all over it in their proper places. But then what was the body to be made of? Clay or putty could be easily moulded into shape, but they would be too heavy. Papier-mache would have been the thing, but I did not know how to make it, so at last I decided to cut out a body from a piece of wood.
"The very thing, Nat," said my uncle. "Stop a minute, my boy, till I've lit my pipe, and then we'll begin."
I waited till my uncle said he was ready, and then we did begin, that is to say, he went on smoking while I sawed off a piece of wood that I thought would do.
I need not tell you all about that task; how laboriously I carved away day after day at that piece of wood with my pocket-knife, breaking one in the work; how I mounted the piece of wood at last on wires, and then proceeded, by the help of a little glue-pot that my uncle bought on purpose, to stick Polly's feathers on again. By the way, I think I fastened on her wings with tin tacks. It was a very, very long job; but at every stage my uncle sat and expressed his approval, and every spare hour was spent in the tool-house, where I patiently worked away.
I grew very tired of my task, but felt that I must finish it, and I have often thought since what a splendid lesson it proved.
And so I worked on and on, sticking little patches of skin here, feathers there, and I am afraid making such blunders as would have driven a naturalist frantic, for I am sure that patches of feathers that belonged to the breast were stuck on the back, and smooth back feathers ornamented Polly's breast. The head was tolerably complete, so that was allowed to hang on the nail in the wall, where it seemed to watch the process of putting together again; but the tail was terrible, and often made me feel ready to give up in despair.
But here my uncle really did help me, for when ever he saw me out of heart and tired he used to say:
"Suppose we give up now for a bit, Nat, and have a run."
Then when the time came for another try at Polly we used to laugh and say that we would have another turn at Humpty Dumpty.
At last—and I don't know how long it took—the time had come when Polly's head was to cease from staring down in a ghastly one-eyed way at her body, and it was to come down and crown the edifice.
I remember it so well. It was a bright, sunny half-holiday, when I was longing to be off fishing, but with Humpty Dumpty incomplete there was no fishing for me, especially as Aunt Sophia had been asking how soon her pet was to be finished.
"Come along, Nat," said Uncle Joseph, "and we'll soon finish it."
I smiled rather sadly, for I did not feel at all sanguine. I made the glue-pot hot, however, and set to work, rearranging a patch or two of feathers that looked very bad, and then I stared at uncle and he gazed at me.
I believe we both had some kind of an idea that the sort of feather tippet that hung from Polly's head would act as a cloak to hide all the imperfections that were so plain. Certainly some such hopeful idea was in my brain, though I did not feel sanguine.
"Now then, my boy, now then," cried my uncle, as at last I took Polly's head from the nail, and he rubbed his hands with excitement. "We shall do it at last."
I fancy I can smell the hot steaming glue now as I went about that day's work, for I kept on stirring it up and thinking how much I ought to put in the bird's neck and upon its skull to keep from soiling and making sticky all its feathers. It took some consideration, and all the while dear Uncle Joe watched me as attentively as if I were going to perform some wonderful operation. He even held his breath as I began to glue the head, and uttered a low sigh of relief as I replaced the brush in the pot.
Then as carefully as I could I fixed the head in its place, securing it the more tightly by driving a long thin stocking-needle right through the skull into the wood.
And there it was, the result of a month's spare time and labour, and I drew back to contemplate this effort of genius.
I can laugh now as I picture the whole scene. The rough bench on which stood the bird, the wall on which hung the garden tools, Uncle Joe with his pipe in one hand, his other resting upon his knee as he sat upon an upturned tub gazing straight at me, and I seem to see my own boyish self gazing at my task till I utterly broke down with the misery and vexation of my spirit, laying my head upon my arms and crying like a girl.
For a few minutes Uncle Joe was so taken aback that he sat there breathing hard and staring at me.
"Why, Nat—Nat, my boy," he said at last, as he got down off the tub and stood there patting my shoulders. "What is the matter, my boy; are you poorly?"
"No—no—no," I sobbed. "It's horrid, horrid, horrid!"
"What's horrid, Natty?" he said.
"That dreadful bird. Oh, uncle," I cried passionately, "I knew I couldn't do it when I began."
"The bird? What! Humpty Dumpty? What! Polly? Why, my boy, she's splendid, and your aunt will be so—"
"She's not," I cried, flashing into passion. "She isn't like a bird at all. I know how soft and rounded and smooth birds are; and did you ever see such a horrid thing as that? It's a beast, uncle! It's a regular guy! It's a—oh, oh!"
In my rage of disappointment at the miserable result of so much hard work I tore the lump of feathered wood from the bench, dashed it upon the ground, and stamped upon it. Then my passion seemed to flash away as quickly as it had come, and I stood staring at Uncle Joe and Uncle Joe stared at me.
A PIECE OF DECEIT THAT WAS NOT CARRIED OUT.
For a few minutes neither of us spoke. Uncle Joe seemed to be astounded and completely taken off his balance. He put on his glasses and took them off over and over again. He laid down his pipe and rubbed his hands first and then his face with his crimson silk handkerchief, ending by taking off his glasses and rolling them in the handkerchief, flipping them afterwards under the bench all amongst the broken flower-pots. And all the time I felt a prey to the bitterest remorse, and as if I had done something so wicked that I could never be forgiven again.
"Oh, uncle! dear Uncle Joe," I cried passionately. "I am so—so sorry."
"Sorry, Nat!" he said, taking my outstretched hands, and then drawing me to his breast, holding me there and patting my back with both his hands. "Sorry, Nat! yes, that's what I felt, my boy. It was such a pity, you know."
"Oh, no, Uncle Joe," I cried, looking down at my work. "It was horrible, and I've been more ashamed of it every day."
"Have you, Nat, my boy?" he said. "Oh, yes, uncle, but I kept on hoping that—that somehow—somehow it would come better."
"That's what I've been hoping, my boy," he said, "for you did try very hard."
"Yes, uncle, I tried very, very hard, but it never did come better."
"No, my boy, you are quite right; it never did come any better, but I hoped it would when you put on its head."
"So did I, uncle, but it only seemed to make it look more ridiculous, and it wasn't a bit like a bird."
"No, my boy, it wasn't a bit like a bird," he said weakly.
"Then why did you say it was capital, uncle?" I cried sharply.
"Well, my boy, because—because I—that is—I wanted to encourage you, and," he cried more confidently, "it was capital for you."
"Oh, Uncle Joe, it was disgraceful, and I don't know what aunt would have said."
"I don't know what she will say now," said my uncle ruefully, as he gazed down at Humpty Dumpty's wreck, where it lay crushed into the dust. "I'm afraid she'll be very cross. You see I half told her that it would be done to-day, and I'm afraid—"
"Oh, uncle, why did you tell her that?" I said reproachfully.
"Well, my boy, you see she had been remonstrating a little about our being out here so much, and I'm afraid I have been preparing her for a surprise."
"And now she'll be more cross than ever, uncle," I said, picking up the bird.
"Yes, my boy, now she'll be more cross than ever. It's a very bad job, Nat, and I don't like to see you show such a temper as that."
"I'm very sorry, Uncle Joe," I said humbly. "I didn't mean to fly out like that. It's just like Jem Boxhead at our school."
"Does he fly out into tempers like that, Nat?"
"Yes, uncle, often."
"It's a very bad job, my boy, and I never saw anything of the kind before in you. It isn't a disease, temper isn't, or I should think you had caught it. You couldn't catch a bad temper, you know, my boy. But don't you think, Natty, we might still manage to put Humpty Dumpty together again?"
"No, uncle," I said, "it's impossible;" and I know now that it was an impossibility from the first, for my hours of experience have taught me that I had engaged upon a hopeless task.
He took out his crimson handkerchief, and reseating himself upon the tub began wiping his face and hands once more.
"You've made me very hot, Natty," he said. "What is to be done?"
"I don't know, uncle," I said dolefully. "But are you very cross with me?"
"Cross, my boy? No. I was only thinking how much you are like my poor sister, your dear mother, who would go into a temper like that sometimes when we were boy and girl."
"Please, uncle," I said, laying my hand upon his arm, "I'll try very hard not to go into a temper again like that."
"Yes, yes, do, my boy," he said, taking my hand in his and speaking very affectionately. "Don't give way to temper, my boy, it's a bad habit. But I'm not sorry, Nat, I'm not a bit sorry, my dear boy, to see that you've got some spirit in you like your poor mother. She was so different to me, Nat. I never had a bit of spirit, and people have always done as they pleased with me."
I could not help thinking about my aunt just then, but I said nothing, and it was Uncle Joe who began again about the parrot.
"So you think we could not put Humpty Dumpty together again, Nat?"
"No, uncle," I said despairingly, "I'm sure we could not. It's all so much lost time."
"There's plenty more time to use, Nat, for some things," he said dreamily, "but not for doing our work, and—and, my boy, after your aunt has let us be out here so much, I'm afraid that I dare not tell her of our failure."
"Then what's to be done, uncle?" I said.
"I'm afraid, my boy, we must be very wicked and deceitful."
"Yes, my boy, or your aunt will never forgive us."
"Why, what do you mean, uncle?" I said.
"I've been thinking, my boy, that I might go out somewhere and buy a grey parrot—one already stuffed. I dare not face her without."
I felt puzzled, and with a strong belief upon me that we were going to do a very foolish thing.
"Wouldn't it be better to go and tell Aunt Sophia frankly that we have had an accident, and spoiled the parrot, uncle?"
"Yes, my boy, much better," he said, "very much better; but—but I dare not do it, Nat, I dare not do it."
I felt as if I should like to say, "I'll do it, uncle," but I, too, shrank from the task, and we were saved from the underhanded proceeding by the appearance of my aunt at the tool-house door.
My unfortunate attempt at restuffing poor Polly made me less a favourite than ever with Aunt Sophia, who never let a day pass without making some unpleasant allusion to my condition there. My uncle assured me that I was in no wise dependent upon them, for my mother's money gave ample interest for my education and board, but Aunt Sophia always seemed to ignore that fact, so that but for Uncle Joe's kindness I should have been miserable indeed.
The time slipped away, and I had grown to be a tall strong boy of fifteen; and in spite of my aunt's constant fault-finding I received sufficient encouragement from Uncle Joe to go on with my natural history pursuits, collecting butterflies and beetles, birds' eggs in the spring, and stuffing as many birds as I could obtain.
Some of these latter were very roughly done, but I had so natural a love for the various objects of nature, that I find the birds I did in those days, rough as they were, had a very lifelike appearance. I had only to ask my uncle for money to buy books or specimens and it was forthcoming, and so I went on arranging and rearranging, making a neatly written catalogue of my little museum in the tool-house, and always helped by Uncle Joe's encouragement.
I suppose I was a strange boy, seeking the companionship of my school-fellows but very little, after my aunt had refused to let any of them visit me, or to let me go to their homes. I was driven thus, as it were, upon my own resources, and somehow I did not find mine to be an unhappy life; in fact so pleasant did it seem that when the time came for me to give it up I was very sorry to leave it, and felt ready to settle down to aunt's constant fault-finding for the sake of dear tender-hearted old Uncle Joe, who was broken completely in spirit at my having to go.
"But it's right, Nat, my boy, quite right," he said, "and you would only be spoiled if you stayed on here. It is time now that you began to think of growing to be a man, and I hope and pray that you'll grow into one of whom I can be proud."
THE RETURN OF THE WANDERER.
One day when I came home from school I was surprised to find a tall dark gentleman in the drawing-room with my uncle and aunt. He was so dark that he looked to me at first to be a foreigner, and his dark keen eyes and long black beard all grizzled with white hairs made him so very different to Uncle Joseph that I could not help comparing one with the other.
"This is Master Nathaniel, I suppose," said the stranger in a quick sharp way, just as if he was accustomed to order people about.
"Yes, that's Joseph's nephew," said my aunt tartly, "and a nice boy he is."
"You mean a nasty one," I said to myself, as I coloured up, "but you needn't have told a stranger."
"Yes," said Uncle Joseph, "he is a very nice boy, Richard, and I'm very proud of him."
My aunt gave a very loud sniff.
"Suppose we shake hands then, Nathaniel," said the stranger, whom I immediately guessed to be my Aunt Sophia's brother Richard, who was a learned man and a doctor, I had heard.
He seemed to order me to shake hands with him, and I went up and held out mine, gazing full in his dark eyes, and wondering how much he knew.
"Well done, youngster," he said, giving my hand a squeeze that hurt me ever so, but I would not flinch. "I like to see a boy able to look one full in the face."
"Oh! he has impudence enough for anything," said my aunt.
"Oh! has he?" said our visitor smiling. "Well, I would rather see a boy impudent than a milksop."
"Nat was never impudent to me," said my uncle, speaking up for me in a way that made my aunt stare.
"I see—I see," said our visitor. "You never were fond of boys, Sophy."
"No, indeed," said my aunt.
"Cats and dogs were always more in your way," said our visitor. "Get out!"
This was to Nap, who had been smelling about him for some time, and he gave him so rough a kick that the dog yelped out, and in a moment the temper that I had promised my uncle to keep under flashed forth again, as I caught at Nap to protect him, and flushing scarlet—
"Don't kick our dog," I said sharply.
I've often thought since that my aunt ought to have been pleased with me for taking the part of my old friend and her favourite, but she turned upon me quickly.
"Leave the room, sir, directly. How dare you!" she cried. "To dare to speak to a visitor like that!" and I had to go out in disgrace, but as I closed the door I saw our visitor laughing and showing his white teeth.
"I shall hate him," I said to myself, as I put my hands in my pockets and began to wander up and down the garden; but I had hardly gone to and fro half a dozen times before I heard voices, and I was about to creep round by the side path and get indoors out of the way when Mr Richard Burnett caught sight of me, and shouted to me to come.
I went up looking hurt and ill-used as he was coming down the path with Uncle Joe; but he clapped me on the shoulder, swung me round, and keeping his arm half round my neck, walked me up and down with them, and I listened as he kept on telling Uncle Joseph about where he had been.
"Five years in South America, wandering about away from civilisation, is a long time, Joe; but I shall soon be off again."
I pricked up my ears.
"Back to South America, Dick?"
"No, my dear boy, I shall go in another direction this time."
"Where shall you go this time, sir?" I said eagerly.
"Eh? where shall I go, squire?" he said sharply. "Right away to Borneo and New Guinea, wherever I am likely to collect specimens and find new varieties."
"Do you collect, sir?" I said excitedly.
"To be sure I do, my boy. Do you?" he added with a smile.
"Yes, sir, all I can."
"Oh yes! he has quite a wonderful collection down in the tool-house, Richard. Come and see."
Our visitor smiled in such a contemptuous way that I coloured up again, and felt as if I should have liked to cry, "You sha'n't see them to make fun of my work." But by that time we were at the tool-house door, and just inside was my cabinet full of drawers that uncle had let the carpenter make for me, and my cases and boxes, and the birds I had stuffed. In fact by that time, after a couple of years collecting, the tools had been ousted to hang in another shed, and the tool-house was pretty well taken up with my lumber.
"Why, hallo!" cried our visitor; "who stuffed those birds?"
I answered modestly enough that it was I.
"And what's in these drawers, eh?" he said, pulling them out sharply one after the other, and then opening my cases.
"Nat's collections," said my uncle very proudly. "Here's his catalogue."
"Neatly written out—numbered—Latin names," he said, half to himself. "Why, hallo, young fellow, I don't wonder that your Aunt Sophia says you are a bad character."
"But he isn't, Dick," said Uncle Joe warmly; "he's a very good lad, and Sophy don't mean what she says."
"She used to tell me I should come to no good in the old days when I began to make a mess at home, Joe," he said merrily. "Why, Nat, my boy, you and I must be good friends. You would like to come and see my collection, eh?"
"Will you—will you show it to me, sir?" I said, catching him in my excitement by the sleeve.
"Well, I don't know," he said drily; "you looked daggers at me because I kicked your aunt's pet."
"I couldn't help it, sir," I said; "Nap has always been such good friends with me that I didn't like to see him hurt."
"Then I beg Nap's pardon," he said smiling. "I thought he was only a useless pet; but if he can be a good friend to you he is a better dog than I thought for."
"He'd be a splendid dog to hunt with, sir, if he had a chance."
"Would he? Well, I'm glad of it, and you shall come and see my collection, and help me catalogue and arrange them if you like. Here, hi! stop a minute: where are you going?"
"Only to fetch my cap, sir," I said excitedly, for the idea of seeing the collections of a man who had been five years in South America seemed to set me on fire.
"Plenty of time yet, my boy," he said, showing white teeth in a pleasant smile; "they are in the docks at Southampton, on board ship. Wait a bit, and you shall see all."
I FIND MYSELF A BROTHER NATURALIST.
I stood looking very hard at our visitor, Doctor Burnett, and thought how very different he was to Aunt Sophia. Only a little while before, I had felt as if I must hate him for behaving so badly to Nap, and for talking to me in such a cold, contemptuous way. It had seemed as if he would join with Aunt Sophia in making me uncomfortable, and I thought it would have been so much pleasanter if he had stayed away.
But now, as I stood watching him, he was becoming quite a hero in my eyes, for not only had he been abroad seeing the wonders of the world, but he had suddenly shown a liking for me, and his whole manner was changed.
When he had spoken to me in the house it had been in a pooh-poohing sort of fashion, as if I were a stupid troublesome boy, very much in the way, and as if he wondered at his sister and brother-in-law's keeping me upon the premises; but now the change was wonderful. The cold distant manner had gone, and he began to talk to me as if he had known me all my life.
"Shall we go round the garden again, Dick?" said my uncle, after standing there nodding and smiling at me, evidently feeling very proud that his brother-in-law should take so much notice of the collection.
"No," said our visitor sharply. "There, get your pipe, Joe, and you can sit down and look on while I go over Nat's collection. We naturalists always compare notes—eh, Nat?"
I turned scarlet with excitement and pleasure, while Uncle Joseph rubbed his hands, beaming with satisfaction, and proceeded to take down his long clay pipe from where it hung upon two nails in the wall, and his little tobacco jar from a niche below the rafters.
"That's what I often do here, Dick," he said; "I sit and smoke and give advice—when it is asked, and Nat goes on with his stuffing and preserving."
"Then now, you may sit down and give advice—when it is asked," said our visitor smiling, "while Nat and I compare notes. Who taught you how to stuff birds, Nat?"
"I—I taught myself, sir," I replied.
"Taught yourself?" he said, pinching one of my birds—a starling that I had bought for a penny of a man with a gun.
"Yes, sir; I pulled Polly to pieces."
"You did what?" he cried, bursting into a roar of laughter. "Why, who was Polly—one of the maids?"
"Oh no, sir! Aunt Sophy's stuffed parrot."
"Well, really, Nat," he said, laughing most heartily, "you're the strangest boy I ever met."
"Am I, sir?" I said, feeling a little chilled again, for he seemed to be laughing unpleasantly at me.
"That you are, Nat; but I like strange boys. So you pulled Polly to pieces, eh? And found out where the naturalists put the wires, eh?"
"And how do you preserve the skins?"
"With arsenical soap, sir."
"That's right; so do I."
"But it's very dangerous stuff, sir," I said eagerly.
"Not if it is properly used, my boy," he said, taking up bird after bird and examining it carefully. "A fire is a very dangerous thing if you thrust your hand into it, and Uncle Joe's razors are dangerous things if they are not properly used. You see I don't trouble them much," he added smiling.
"No, indeed, sir," I said, as I glanced at his long beard.
"I don't have hot water for shaving brought to me, Nat, when I'm at sea, my boy, or out in the jungle. It's rough work there."
"But it must be very nice, sir," I said eagerly.
"Very, my boy, when you lie down to sleep beneath a tree, so hungry that you could eat your boots, and not knowing whether the enemy that attacks you before morning will be a wild beast, a poisonous serpent, or a deadly fever."
"But it must be very exciting, sir," I cried.
"Very, my boy," he said drily. "Yes: that bird's rough, but I like the shape. There's nature in it—at least as much as you can get by imitation. Look, Joe, there's a soft roundness about that bird. It looks alive. Some of our best bird-stuffers have no more notion of what a bird is like in real life than a baby. What made you put that tomtit in that position, Nat?" he said, turning sharply to me.
"That?—that's how they hang by the legs when they are picking the buds, sir," I said nervously, for I was quite startled by his quick, sudden way.
"To be sure it is, Nat, my boy. That's quite right. Always take nature as your model, and imitate her as closely as you can. Some of the stuffed birds at the British Museum used to drive me into a rage. Glad to see you have the true ring in you, my boy."
I hardly knew what he meant by the "true ring", but it was evidently meant kindly, and I felt hotter than ever; but my spirits rose as I saw how pleased Uncle Joe was.
"You can stuff birds, then, sir?" I said, after a pause, during which our visitor made himself very busy examining everything I had.
"Well, yes, Nat, after a fashion. I'm not clever at it, for I never practise mounting. I can make skins."
"Make skins, sir?"
"Yes, my boy. Don't you see that when I am in some wild place shooting and collecting, every scrap of luggage becomes a burden."
"Yes, sir; of course," I said, nodding my head sagely, "especially if the roads are not good."
"Roads, my boy," he said laughing; "the rivers and streams are the only roads in such places as I travel through. Then, of course, I can't use wires and tow to distend my birds, so we make what we call skins. That is to say, after preparing the skin, all that is done is to tie the long bones together, and fill the bird out with some kind of wild cotton, press the head back on the body by means of a tiny paper cone or sugar-paper, put a band round the wings, and dry the skin in the sun."
"Yes, I know, sir," I cried eagerly; "and you pin the paper round the bird with a tiny bamboo skewer, and put another piece of bamboo through from head to tail."
"Why, how do you know?" he said wonderingly.
"Oh! Nat knows a deal," said Uncle Joe, chuckling. "We're not such stupid people as you think, Dick, even if we do stay at home."
"I've got a skin or two, sir," I said, "and they were made like that."
As I spoke I took the two skins out of an old cigar-box.
"Oh! I see," he said, as he took them very gently and smoothed their feathers with the greatest care. "Where did you get these, Nat?"
"I bought them with my pocket-money in Oxford Street, sir," I said, as Uncle Joe, who had not before seen them, leaned forward.
"And do you know what they are, my boy?" said our visitor.
"No, sir; I have no books with pictures of them in, and the man who sold them to me did not know. Can you tell me, sir?"
"Yes, Nat, I think so," he said quietly. "This pretty dark bird with the black and white and crimson plumage is the rain-bird—the blue-billed gaper; and this softly-feathered fellow with the bristles at the side of his bill is a trogon."
"A trogon, sir?"
"Yes, Nat, a trogon; and these little bamboo skewers tell me directly that the birds came from somewhere in the East."
I looked at him wonderingly.
"Yes, Nat," he continued, "from the East, where the bamboo is used for endless purposes. It is hard, and will bear a sharp point, and is so abundant that the people seem to have no end to the use they make of it."
"And have you seen birds like these alive, sir?"
"No, Nat, but I hope to do so before long. That blue-billed gaper probably came from Malacca, and the trogon too. See how beautifully its wings are pencilled, and how the bright cinnamon of its back feathers contrasts with the bright crimson of its breast. We have plenty of trogons out in the West; some of them most gorgeous fellows, with tails a yard long, and of the most resplendent golden metallic green."
"And humming-birds, sir?"
"Thousands, my boy; all darting through the air like living gems. The specimens brought home are very beautiful, but they are as nothing compared to those fairy-like little creatures, full of life and action, with the sun flashing from their plumage."
"And are there humming-birds, sir, in the East?" I cried, feeling my mouth grow dry with excitement and interest.
"No, my boy; but there is a tribe of tiny birds there that we know as sun-birds, almost as beautiful in their plumage, and of very similar habit. I hope to make a long study of their ways, and to get a good collection. I know nothing, however, more attractive to a man who loves nature than to lie down beneath some great plant of convolvulus, or any trumpet-shaped blossom, and watch the humming-birds flashing to and fro in the sunlight. Their scale-like feathers on throat and head reflect the sun rays like so many gems, and their colours are the most gorgeous that it is possible to conceive. But there, I tire you. Why, Joe, your pipe's out!"
"Please go on, sir," I said in a hoarse whisper, for, as he spoke, I felt myself far away in some wondrous foreign land, lying beneath the trumpet-flowered tree or plant, gazing at the brilliant little creatures he described.
"Do you like to hear of such things, then?" he said smiling.
"Oh! so much, sir!" I cried; and he went on.
"I believe some of them capture insects at certain times, but as a rule these lovely little birds live upon the honey they suck from the nectaries of these trumpet-shaped blossoms; and their bills are long and thin so that they can reach right to the end. Some of these little creatures make quite a humming noise with their wings, and after darting here and there like a large fly they will seem to stop midway in the air, apparently motionless, but with their wings all the while beating so fast that they are almost invisible. Sometimes one will stop like this just in front of some beautiful flower, and you may see it hang suspended in the air, while it thrusts in its long bill and drinks the sweet honey that forms its food."
"And can you shoot such little things, sir?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, my boy; it is easy enough to shoot them," he replied. "The difficulty is to bring them down without hurting their plumage, which is extremely delicate. The Indians shoot them with a blow-pipe and pellets and get very good specimens; but then one is not always with the Indians; and in those hot climates a bird must be skinned directly, so I generally trust to myself and get my own specimens."
"With a blow-pipe, sir?"
"No, Nat; I have tried, but I never got to be very clever with it. One wants to begin young to manage a blow-pipe well. I always shot my humming-birds with a gun."
"And shot, sir?"
"Not always, Nat. I have brought them down with the disturbance of the air or the wad of the gun. At other times I have used sand, or in places where I had no sand I have used water."
"Water!" I exclaimed.
"Yes, and very good it is for the purpose, Nat. A little poured into the barrel of the gun after the powder is made safe with a couple of wads, is driven out in a fine cutting spray, which has secured me many a lovely specimen with its plumage unhurt."
"But don't it seem rather cruel to shoot such lovely creatures, Dick?" said Uncle Joe in an apologetic tone.
"Well, yes, it has struck me in that light before now," said our visitor; "but as I am working entirely with scientific views, and for the spread of the knowledge of the beautiful occupants of this world, I do not see the harm. Besides, I never wantonly destroy life. And then, look here, my clear Joe, if you come to think out these things you will find that almost invariably the bird or animal you kill has passed its life in killing other things upon which it lives."
"Ye-es," said Uncle Joe, "I suppose it has."
"You wouldn't like to shoot a blackbird, perhaps?"
"Well, I don't know," said Uncle Joe. "They are the wickedest thieves that ever entered a garden; aren't they, Nat?"
"Yes, uncle, they are a nuisance," I said.
"Well, suppose you killed a blackbird, Joe," continued our visitor; "he has spent half his time in killing slugs and snails, and lugging poor unfortunate worms out of their holes; and it seems to me that the slug or the worm is just as likely to enjoy its life as the greedy blackbird, whom people protect because he has an orange bill and sings sweetly in the spring."
"Ye-es," said my uncle, looking all the while as if he were terribly puzzled, while I sat drinking in every word our visitor said, feeling that I had never before heard any one talk like that.
"For my part," continued our visitor, "I never destroy life wantonly; and as for you, young man, you may take this for a piece of good advice—never kill for the sake of killing. Let it be a work of necessity—for food, for a specimen, for your own protection, but never for sport. I don't like the word, Nat; there is too much cruelty in what is called sport."
"But wouldn't you kill lions and tigers, sir?" I said.
"Most decidedly, my boy. That is the struggle for life. I'd sooner kill a thousand tigers, Nat, than one should kill me," he said laughing; "and for my part—"
"Joseph, I'm ashamed of you. Nathaniel, this is your doing, you naughty boy," cried my aunt, appearing at the door. "It is really disgraceful, Joseph, that you will come here to sit and smoke; and as for you, Nathaniel, what do you mean, sir, by dragging your un—, I mean a visitor, down into this nasty, untidy place, and pestering him with your rubbish?"
"Oh, it was not Nathaniel's doing, Sophy," said our visitor smiling, as he rose and drew aunt's arm through his, "but mine; I've been making the boy show me his treasures. There, come along and you and I will have a good long chat now. Nat, my boy, I sha'n't forget what we said."
UNCLE DICK'S BOXES.
"I'm afraid we've made your aunt very cross, Nat, my boy," said Uncle Joe, rubbing his hands softly, and looking perplexed and troubled. "Do you think, Nat, that I have been leading you wrong?"
"I hope not, uncle," I said, "and I don't think so, for it has been very nice out here in the toolshed, and we have enjoyed ourselves so."
"Yes, my boy, we have, very much, indeed, but I'm afraid your aunt never forgave us for not putting Humpty Dumpty together again."
"But, uncle," I said, "isn't it unreasonable of Aunt Sophia to expect us to do what all the king's horses and all the king's men could not do?"
He looked at me for a few minutes without speaking, and then he began to smile very slightly, then a little more and a little more, till, instead of looking dreadfully serious, his face was as happy as it could be. Then he began to laugh very heartily, and I laughed too, till the tears were in our eyes.
"Of—of course it was, Nat," he cried, chuckling and coughing together. "We couldn't do what all the king's horses and all the king's men didn't manage, Nat, and—yes, my dear, we're coming."
Uncle Joe jumped up and went out of the tool-house, for my aunt's voice could be heard telling us to come in.
"Hush!" he whispered, with a finger on his lips. "Make haste in, Nat, and run up to your room and wash your hands."
I followed him in, and somehow, whenever Doctor Burnett was in the room, my aunt did not seem so cross, especially as her brother took a good deal of notice of me, and kept on asking me questions.
I soon found, to my great delight, that he was going to stay with us till he started for Singapore, a place whose name somehow set me thinking about Chinese people and Indian rajahs, but that was all; the rest was to me one great mystery, and I used to lie in bed of a night and wonder what sort of a place it could be.
Every day our visitor grew less cool and distant in his ways, and at last my aunt said pettishly:
"Well, really, Richard, it is too bad; this is the third morning this week you have kept that boy away from school by saying you wanted him. How do you expect his education to get on?"
"Get on?" said Doctor Burnett; "why, my dear sister, he is learning the whole time he is with me; I'll be bound to say that he has picked up more geography since he has been with me than he has all the time he has been to school."
"I don't know so much about that," said my aunt snappishly.
"Then I do," he said. "Let the boy alone, he is learning a great deal; and I shall want him more this next week."
"You'd better take him away from school altogether," said my aunt angrily.
"Well, yes," said the doctor quietly; "as it is so near his holidays, he may as well stop away the rest of this half."
"Richard!" cried my aunt as I sat there pinching my legs to keep from looking pleased.
"He will have to work hard at helping me with my collections, which are on the way here, I find, from a letter received this morning. There will be a great deal of copying and labelling, and that will improve his writing, though he does write a fair round hand."
"But it will be neglecting his other studies," cried my aunt.
"But then he will be picking up a good deal of Latin, for I shall explain to him the meaning of the words as he writes them, and, besides, telling him as much as I know of natural history and my travels."
"And what is to become of the boy then?" cried my aunt. "I will not have him turn idler, Richard."
"Well, if you think I have turned idler, Sophy," he said laughing, and showing his white teeth, "all I can say is, that idling over natural history and travelling is very hard work."
"But the boy must not run wild as—"
"I did? There, say it out, Sophy," said her brother. "I don't mind, my dear; some people look upon everything they do not understand as idling."
"I think I understand what is good for that boy," said my aunt shortly.
"Of course you do," said the doctor, "and you think it will do him good to help me a bit, Sophy. Come along, Nat, my boy, we are to have the back-room for the chests, so we must make ready, for they will be here to-morrow."
"Oh, Doctor Burnett," I cried as soon as we were alone.
"Suppose you call me Uncle Richard for the future, my boy," he said. "By and by, when we get to know each other better, it will be Uncle Dick. Why not at once, eh?"
"I—I shouldn't like to call you that, sir," I said.
"I—I hardly know, sir, only that you seem so clever and to know so much."
"Then it shall be Uncle Dick at once," he said, laughing merrily; "for every day that you are with me, Nat, you will be finding out more and more that I am not so clever as you think."
So from that day it was always Uncle Dick, and as soon as the great chests arrived we set to work.
I shall never forget those great rough boxes made of foreign wood, nor the intense interest with which I watched them as they were carried in upon the backs of the stout railway vanmen and set carefully in the large back-room.
There were twenty of them altogether, and some were piled upon the others as if they were building stones, till at last the men's book had been signed, the money paid for carriage, and Uncle Joe, Uncle Dick, and I sat there alone staring at the chests and wondering at their appearance.
For they were battered, and bruised, and chipped away in splinters, so that they looked very old indeed, though, as my uncle told me, there was not one there more than five years old, though they might have been fifty.
Every one had painted upon it in large white letters:
"Dr Burnett, FZS, London," and I wondered what FZS might mean. Then I noticed that the chests were all numbered, and I was longing intensely for them to be opened, when Uncle Dick, as I suppose I must call him now, made me start by crying out:
I jumped up and ran to Uncle Joe's tool-box for the big screw-driver, and was back with it in a very short time, Uncle Dick laughing heartily as he saw my excitement.
"Thank you, Nat, that will do," he said. "It will be nice and handy for me to-morrow morning."
"Ha—ha—ha!" he laughed directly after, as he saw my blank disappointed face. "Did you think I was going to open the cases to-day, Nat?"
"I did hope so, sir," I said stoutly.
"Then I will," he cried, "for your being so frank. Now then, which shall it be?"
"I should begin with number one, sir," I said.
"And so we will, Nat. Nothing like order. Look here, my boy. Here is my book for cataloguing."
He showed me a large blank book ruled with lines, and on turning it over I found headings here and there under which the different specimens were to be placed.
But I could not look much at the book while "our great traveller", as Uncle Joe used to call him to me, was busy at work with the screw-driver, taking out the great screws, one after another, and laying them in a box.
"Now, Nat," he said, "suppose after going through all my trouble I find that half my specimens are destroyed, what shall I do?"
"I don't know, uncle," I said. "I know what I should do."
"What, my boy?"
"Go and try and find some more."
"A good plan," he said laughing; "and when it means journeying ten or twelve thousand miles, my boy, to seek for more, it becomes a serious task."
All this while he was working away at the screws, till they were half out and loose enough for me to go on turning them with my fingers, and this, after the first two or three, I did till we came to the last, when my uncle stopped and pretended that it was in so tight that it would not turn.
"Let me try, uncle," I cried.
"You? Nonsense! boy. There, I think we shall have to give up for to-day."
He burst out laughing the next moment at my doleful face, gave the screw a few rapid twists; and in a few more moments it was out, and he took hold of the lid.
"Ready?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, quite ready," said Uncle Joe, who was nearly as much excited as I was myself; and then the lid was lifted and we eagerly looked inside.
There was not much to see, only what looked like another lid, held in its place by a few stout nails. These were soon drawn out though, the second lid lifted, and still there was nothing to see but cotton-wool, which, however, sent out a curious spicy smell, hot and peppery, and mixed with camphor.
Then the treat began, for Uncle Dick removed a few layers of cotton-wool, and there were the birds lying closely packed, and so beautiful in plumage that we—that is, Uncle Joe and I—uttered a cry of delight.
I had never before seen anything so beautiful, I thought, as the gorgeous colours of the birds before me, or they seemed to be so fresh and bright and different to anything I had seen in the museum, Uncle Dick having taken care, as I afterwards found, to reject any but the most perfect skins; and these were before me ready to be taken out and laid carefully upon some boards he had prepared for the purpose, and as I helped him I kept on asking questions till some people would have been answered out. Uncle Dick, however, encouraged me to go on questioning him, and I quickly picked up the names of a good many of the birds.
Now it would be a magnificent macaw all blue and scarlet. Then a long-tailed paroquet of the most delicate green, and directly after quite a trayful of the most lovely little birds I had ever seen. They were about the size of chaffinches for the most part; but while some were of the richest crimson, others were blue and green and violet, and a dozen other shades of colour mixed up in the loveliest way.
"Now what are those, Nat?" said my uncle.
"I don't know, sir," I very naturally said.
"What would they be if they were in England and only plain-coloured?"
"Why, I should have said by their beaks, uncle, that they were finches, and lived on seed."
"Finches they are, Nat, and you are quite right to judge them by their beaks."
"But I didn't know that there were finches abroad, Uncle Dick," I said.
"Then you know now, my boy, and by degrees you will learn that there are finches all over the world, and sparrows, and thrushes, and cuckoos, and larks, and hawks, crows, and all the other birds that you find in England."
"Why, I thought they were all different, uncle," I said.
"So most people think," he said, as he went on unpacking the birds; "the difference is that while our British finches are sober coloured, those of hot countries are brilliant in plumage. So are the crow family and the thrushes, as you will see, while some of the sparrows and tits are perfect dandies."
"Why, I thought foreign birds were all parrots and humming-birds, and things like that."
"Well, we have those birds different abroad, Nat," he replied, "and as I tell you the principal difference is in the gorgeous plumes."
"But such birds as birds of paradise, uncle?" I said.
"Well, what should you suppose a bird of paradise to be?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Well, should you think it were a finch, Nat?"
"No, uncle," I said at once.
"Well, it isn't a pheasant, is it?"
I stood with a tanager in one hand, a lovely manakin in the other, thinking.
"They couldn't be crows," I said, "because—"
"I don't know, uncle."
"No, of course you do not, my boy, for crows they really are."
"What! birds of paradise with their lovely buff plumes, uncle?"
"Yes, birds of paradise with their lovely buff and amber plumes, my boy; they are of the crow family, just as our jays, magpies, and starlings are. You would be surprised, my boy, when you came to study and investigate these matters, how few comparatively are the families and classes to which birds belong, and how so many of the most gorgeous little fellows are only showily-dressed specimens of the familiar flutterers you have at home. Look at that one there, just on the top."
"What! that lovely orange and black bird, uncle?" I said, picking up the one he pointed at, and smoothing its rich plumage.
"Yes, Nat," he said; "what is it?"
Uncle Joe took his pipe from his lips, and looked at it very solemnly.
"'Tisn't a parrot," he said, "because it has not got a hooky beak."
"No, it isn't a parrot, uncle," I exclaimed; "its beak is more like a starling's."
"If it were a starling, what family would it belong to?"
I stopped to think, and then recollected what he had said a short time before.
"A crow, uncle."
"Quite right, my boy; but that bird is not one of the crows. Try again."
"I'm afraid to try, uncle," I said.
"Why, my boy?"
"Because I shall make some silly mistake."
"Then make a mistake, Nat, and we will try to correct it. We learn from our blunders."
"It looks to me something of the same shape as a thrush or blackbird, sir," I said.
"And that's what it is, my boy. That bird is an oriole—the orange oriole; and there is another, the yellow oriole. Both thrushes, Nat, and out in the East there are plenty more of most beautiful colours, especially the ground-thrushes. But there is someone come to call us to feed, I suppose. We must go now."
"Oh!" I exclaimed, "what a pity! we seem to have just begun."
All the same we had been at work for a very long time, so hands were washed, and we all went in to dinner.
ALL AMONGST THE BIRD SKINS.
My aunt waylaid me with a very unpleasant task directly after dinner, but Uncle Dick saw my disappointment, and said that he must have me, so I escaped, and, to my great delight, we went at once to his room to go on unpacking the birds, my excitement and wonder increasing every minute. I was rather disappointed with some of the skins, for they were as plain and ordinary looking as sparrows or larks; but Uncle Dick seemed to set great store by them, and said that some of the plainest were most valuable for their rarity.
Uncle Joe sat and looked on, saying very little, while Uncle Dick and I did the unpacking and arranging, laying the beautiful skins out in rows upon the boards and shelves.
"They wanted unpacking," said Uncle Dick, "for some of them are quite soft and damp with exposure to the sea air. Well, Nat, what is it?"
"I was hoping to find some birds of paradise, uncle," I replied.
"Then your hopes will be disappointed, my boy, for the simple reason that my travels have been in Florida, Mexico, Central America, Peru, and Brazil, with a short stay of a few months in the West Indies."
"And are there no birds of paradise there, uncle?"
"No, my boy, nor yet within thousands of miles. Birds of paradise, as they are called, are found in the isles of the eastern seas, the Aru Isles and New Guinea."
"Oh! how I should like to go!" I cried.
"You?" he said laughing. "What for, Nat?"
"To shoot and collect, sir," I cried; "it must be grand."
"And dangerous, and wearisome," he said smiling. "You would soon want to come back to Uncle Joe."
"I shouldn't like to leave Uncle Joe," I said thoughtfully; "but I should like to go all the same. I'd take Uncle Joe with me," I said suddenly. "He'd help me ever so."
Uncle Dick laughed, and we went on with our task, which never seemed to weary me, so delighted was I with the beauty of the birds. As one box was emptied another was begun, and by the time I had finished the second I thought we had exhausted all the beauty of the collection, and said so, but my uncle laughed.
"Why, we have not begun the chatterers yet, Nat," he said. "Let me see—yes," he continued, "they should be in that box upon which your uncle's sitting."
Uncle Joe solemnly moved to another case and his late seat was opened, the layers of cotton-wool, in this case a little stained with sea-water, removed, and fresh beauties met my gaze.
"There, Nat," said Uncle Dick; "those are the fruits of a long stay in Central America and the hotter parts of Peru. What do you think of that bird?"
I uttered an exclamation of delight as I drew forth and laid gently in my hand a short stumpy bird that must in life have been about as big as a very thick-set pigeon. But this bird was almost entirely of a rich orange colour, saving its short wings and tail, which were of a cinnamon-brown, and almost hidden by a fringe of curly, crisp orange plumes, while the bird's beak was covered by the radiating crest, something like a frill, that arched over the little creature's head.