WE AND THE WORLD:
A BOOK FOR BOYS.
BY JULIANA HORATIA EWING.
SOCIETY FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE, LONDON: NORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE, W.C. BRIGHTON: 129, NORTH STREET. NEW YORK: E. & J.B. YOUNG & CO.
[Published under the direction of the General Literature Committee.]
DEDICATED TO MY TWELVE NEPHEWS, WILLIAM, FRANCIS, STEPHEN, PHILIP, LEONARD, GODFREY, AND DAVID SMITH; REGINALD, NICHOLAS, AND IVOR GATTY; ALEXANDER, AND CHARLES SCOTT GATTY.
WE AND THE WORLD.
"All these common features of English landscape evince a calm and settled security, and hereditary transmission of home-bred virtues and local attachments, that speak deeply and touchingly for the moral character of the nation."—WASHINGTON IRVING'S Sketch Book.
It was a great saying of my poor mother's, especially if my father had been out of spirits about the crops, or the rise in wages, or our prospects, and had thought better of it again, and showed her the bright side of things, "Well, my dear, I'm sure we've much to be thankful for."
Which they had, and especially, I often think, for the fact that I was not the eldest son. I gave them more trouble than I can think of with a comfortable conscience as it was; but they had Jem to tread in my father's shoes, and he was a good son to them—GOD bless him for it!
I can remember hearing my father say—"It's bad enough to have Jack with his nose in a book, and his head in the clouds, on a fine June day, with the hay all out, and the glass falling: but if Jem had been a lad of whims and fancies, I think it would have broken my poor old heart."
I often wonder what made me bother my head with books, and where the perverse spirit came from that possessed me, and tore me, and drove me forth into the world. It did not come from my parents. My mother's family were far from being literary or even enterprising, and my father's people were a race of small yeomen squires, whose talk was of dogs and horses and cattle, and the price of hay. We were north-of-England people, but not of a commercial or adventurous class, though we were within easy reach of some of the great manufacturing centres. Quiet country folk we were; old-fashioned, and boastful of our old-fashionedness, albeit it meant little more than that our manners and customs were a generation behindhand of the more cultivated folk, who live nearer to London. We were proud of our name too, which is written in the earliest registers and records of the parish, honourably connected with the land we lived on; but which may be searched for in vain in the lists of great or even learned Englishmen.
It never troubled dear old Jem that there had not been a man of mark among all the men who had handed on our name from generation to generation. He had no feverish ambitions, and as to books, I doubt if he ever opened a volume, if he could avoid it, after he wore out three horn-books and our mother's patience in learning his letters—not even the mottle-backed prayer-books which were handed round for family prayers, and out of which we said the psalms for the day, verse about with my father. I generally found the place, and Jem put his arm over my shoulder and read with me.
He was a yeoman born. I can just remember—when I was not three years old and he was barely four—the fright our mother got from his fearless familiarity with the beasts about the homestead. He and I were playing on the grass-plat before the house when Dolly, an ill-tempered dun cow we knew well by sight and name, got into the garden and drew near us. As I sat on the grass—my head at no higher level than the buttercups in the field beyond—Dolly loomed so large above me that I felt frightened and began to cry. But Jem, only conscious that she had no business there, picked up a stick nearly as big as himself, and trotted indignantly to drive her out. Our mother caught sight of him from an upper window, and knowing that the temper of the cow was not to be trusted, she called wildly to Jem, "Come in, dear, quick! Come in! Dolly's loose!"
"I drive her out!" was Master Jem's reply; and with his little straw hat well on the back of his head, he waddled bravely up to the cow, flourishing his stick. The process interested me, and I dried my tears and encouraged my brother; but Dolly looked sourly at him, and began to lower her horns.
"Shoo! shoo!" shouted Jem, waving his arms in farming-man fashion, and belabouring Dolly's neck with the stick. "Shoo! shoo!"
Dolly planted her forefeet, and dipped her head for a push, but catching another small whack on her face, and more authoritative "Shoos!" she changed her mind, and swinging heavily round, trotted off towards the field, followed by Jem, waving, shouting, and victorious. My mother got out in time to help him to fasten the gate, which he was much too small to do by himself, though, with true squirely instincts, he was trying to secure it.
But from our earliest days we both lived on intimate terms with all the live stock. "Laddie," an old black cart-horse, was one of our chief friends. Jem and I used to sit, one behind the other, on his broad back, when our little legs could barely straddle across, and to "grip" with our knees in orthodox fashion was a matter of principle, but impossible in practice. Laddie's pace was always discreet, however, and I do not think we should have found a saddle any improvement, even as to safety, upon his warm, satin-smooth back. We steered him more by shouts and smacks than by the one short end of a dirty rope which was our apology for reins; that is, if we had any hand in guiding his course. I am now disposed to think that Laddie guided himself.
But our beast friends were many. The yellow yard-dog always slobbered joyfully at our approach; partly moved, I fancy, by love for us, and partly by the exciting hope of being let off his chain. When we went into the farmyard the fowls came running to our feet for corn, the pigeons fluttered down over our heads for peas, and the pigs humped themselves against the wall of the sty as tightly as they could lean, in hopes of having their backs scratched. The long sweet faces of the plough horses, as they turned in the furrows, were as familiar to us as the faces of any other labourers in our father's fields, and we got fond of the lambs and ducks and chickens, and got used to their being killed and eaten when our acquaintance reached a certain date, like other farm-bred folk, which is one amongst the many proofs of the adaptability of human nature.
So far so good, on my part as well as Jem's. That I should like the animals "on the place"—the domesticated animals, the workable animals, the eatable animals—this was right and natural, and befitting my father's son. But my far greater fancy for wild, queer, useless, mischievous, and even disgusting creatures often got me into trouble. Want of sympathy became absolute annoyance as I grew older, and wandered farther, and adopted a perfect menagerie of odd beasts in whom my friends could see no good qualities: such as the snake I kept warm in my trousers-pocket; the stickleback that I am convinced I tamed in its own waters; the toad for whom I built a red house of broken drainpipes at the back of the strawberry bed, where I used to go and tickle his head on the sly; and the long-whiskered rat in the barn, who knew me well, and whose death nearly broke my heart, though I had seen generations of unoffending ducklings pass to the kitchen without a tear.
I think it must have been the beasts that made me take to reading: I was so fond of Buffon's Natural History, of which there was an English abridgment on the dining-room bookshelves.
But my happiest reading days began after the bookseller's agent came round, and teased my father into taking in the Penny Cyclopaedia; and those numbers in which there was a beast, bird, fish, or reptile were the numbers for me!
I must, however, confess that if a love for reading had been the only way in which I had gone astray from the family habits and traditions, I don't think I should have had much to complain of in the way of blame.
My father "pish"ed and "pshaw"ed when he caught me "poking over" books, but my dear mother was inclined to regard me as a genius, whose learning might bring renown of a new kind into the family. In a quiet way of her own, as she went gently about household matters, or knitted my father's stockings, she was a great day-dreamer—one of the most unselfish kind, however; a builder of air-castles, for those she loved to dwell in; planned, fitted, and furnished according to the measure of her affections.
It was perhaps because my father always began by disparaging her suggestions that (by the balancing action of some instinctive sense of justice) he almost always ended by adopting them, whether they were wise or foolish. He came at last to listen very tolerantly when she dilated on my future greatness.
"And if he isn't quite so good a farmer as Jem, it's not as if he were the eldest, you know, my dear. I'm sure we've much to be thankful for that dear Jem takes after you as he does. But if Jack turns out a genius, which please God we may live to see and be proud of, he'll make plenty of money, and he must live with Jem when we're gone, and let Jem manage it for him, for clever people are never any good at taking care of what they get. And when their families get too big for the old house, love, Jack must build, as he'll be well able to afford to do, and Jem must let him have the land. The Ladycroft would be as good as anywhere, and a pretty name for the house. It would be a good thing to have some one at that end of the property too, and then the boys would always be together."
Poor dear mother! The kernel of her speech lay in the end of it—"The boys would always be together." I am sure in her tender heart she blessed my bookish genius, which was to make wealth as well as fame, and so keep me "about the place," and the home birds for ever in the nest.
I knew nothing of it then, of course; but at this time she used to turn my father's footsteps towards the Ladycroft every Sunday, between the services, and never wearied of planning my house.
She was standing one day, her smooth brow knitted in perplexity, before the big pink thorn, and had stood so long absorbed in this brown study, that my father said, with a sly smile,
"Well, love, and where are you now?"
"In the dairy, my dear," she answered quite gravely. "The window is to the north of course, and I'm afraid the thorn must come down."
My father laughed heartily. He had some sense of humour, but my mother had none. She was one of the sweetest-tempered women that ever lived, and never dreamed that any one was laughing at her. I have heard my father say she lay awake that night, and when he asked her why she could not sleep he found she was fretting about the pink thorn.
"It looked so pretty to-day, my dear; and thorns are so bad to move!"
My father knew her too well to hope to console her by joking about it. He said gravely: "There's plenty of time yet, love. The boys are only just in trousers; and we may think of some way to spare it before we come to bricks and mortar."
"I've thought of it every way, my dear, I'm afraid," said my mother with a sigh. But she had full confidence in my father—a trouble shared with him was half cured, and she soon fell asleep.
She certainly had a vivid imagination, though it never was cultivated to literary ends. Perhaps, after all, I inherited that idle fancy, those unsatisfied yearnings of my restless heart, from her! Mental peculiarities are said to come from one's mother.
It was Jem who inherited her sweet temper.
Dear old Jem! He and I were the best of good friends always, and that sweet temper of his had no doubt much to do with it. He was very much led by me, though I was the younger, and whatever mischief we got into it was always my fault.
It was I who persuaded him to run away from school, under the, as it proved, insufficient disguise of walnut-juice on our faces and hands. It was I who began to dig the hole which was to take us through from the kitchen-garden to the other side of the world. (Jem helped me to fill it up again, when the gardener made a fuss about our having chosen the asparagus-bed as the point of departure, which we did because the earth was soft there.) In desert islands or castles, balloons or boats, my hand was first and foremost, and mischief or amusement of every kind, by earth, air, or water, was planned for us by me.
Now and then, however, Jem could crow over me. How he did deride me when I asked our mother the foolish question—"Have bees whiskers?"
The bee who betrayed me into this folly was a bumble of the utmost beauty. The bars of his coat "burned" as "brightly" as those of the tiger in Wombwell's menagerie, and his fur was softer than my mother's black velvet mantle. I knew, for I had kissed him lightly as he sat on the window-frame. I had seen him brushing first one side and then the other side of his head, with an action so exactly that of my father brushing his whiskers on Sunday morning, that I thought the bee might be trimming his; not knowing that he was sweeping the flower-dust off his antennae with his legs, and putting it into his waistcoat pocket to make bee bread of.
It was the liberty I took in kissing him that made him not sit still any more, and hindered me from examining his cheeks for myself. He began to dance all over the window, humming his own tune, and before he got tired of dancing he found a chink open at the top sash, and sailed away like a spot of plush upon the air.
I had thus no opportunity of becoming intimate with him, but he was the cause of a more lasting friendship—my friendship with Isaac Irvine, the bee-keeper. For when I asked that silly question, my mother said, "Not that I ever saw, love;" and my father said, "If he wants to know about bees, he should go to old Isaac. He'll tell him plenty of queer stories about them."
The first time I saw the bee-keeper was in church, on Catechism Sunday, in circumstances which led to my disgracing myself in a manner that must have been very annoying to my mother, who had taken infinite pains in teaching us.
The provoking part of it was that I had not had a fear of breaking down. With poor Jem it was very different. He took twice as much pains as I did, but he could not get things into his head, and even if they did stick there he found it almost harder to say them properly. We began to learn the Catechism when we were three years old, and we went on till long after we were in trousers; and I am sure Jem never got the three words "and an inheritor" tidily off the tip of his tongue within my remembrance. And I have seen both him and my mother crying over them on a hot Sunday afternoon. He was always in a fright when we had to say the Catechism in church, and that day, I remember, he shook so that I could hardly stand straight myself, and Bob Furniss, the blacksmith's son, who stood on the other side of him, whispered quite loud, "Eh! see thee, how Master Jem dodders!" for which Jem gave him an eye as black as his father's shop afterwards, for Jem could use his fists if he could not learn by heart.
But at the time he could not even compose himself enough to count down the line of boys and calculate what question would come to him. I did, and when he found he had only got the First Commandment, he was more at ease, and though the second, which fell to me, is much longer, I was not in the least afraid of forgetting it, for I could have done the whole of my duty to my neighbour if it had been necessary.
Jem got through very well, and I could hear my mother blessing him over the top of the pew behind our backs; but just as he finished, no less than three bees, who had been hovering over the heads of the workhouse boys opposite, all settled down together on Isaac Irvine's bare hand.
At the public catechising, which came once a year, and after the second lesson at evening prayer, the grown-up members of the congregation used to draw near to the end of their pews to see and hear how we acquitted ourselves, and, as it happened on this particular occasion, Master Isaac was standing exactly opposite to me. As he leaned forward, his hands crossed on the pew-top before him, I had been a good deal fascinated by his face, which was a very noble one in its rugged way, with snow-white hair and intense, keenly observing eyes, and when I saw the three bees settle on him without his seeming to notice it, I cried, "They'll sting you!" before I thought of what I was doing; for I had been severely stung that week myself, and knew what it felt like, and how little good powder-blue does.
With attending to the bees I had not heard the parson say, "Second Commandment?" and as he was rather deaf he did not hear what I said. But of course he knew it was not long enough for the right answer, and he said, "Speak up, my boy," and Jem tried to start me by whispering, "Thou shalt not make to thyself"—but the three bees went on sitting on Master Isaac's hand, and though I began the Second Commandment, I could not take my eyes off them, and when Master Isaac saw this he smiled and nodded his white head, and said, "Never you mind me, sir. They won't sting the old bee-keeper." This assertion so completely turned my head that every other idea went out of it, and after saying "or in the earth beneath" three times, and getting no further, the parson called out, "Third Commandment?" and I was passed over—"out of respect to the family," as I was reminded for a twelvemonth afterwards—and Jem pinched my leg to comfort me, and my mother sank down on the seat, and did not take her face out of her pocket-handkerchief till the workhouse boys were saying "the sacraments."
My mother was our only teacher till Jem was nine and I was eight years old. We had a thin, soft-backed reading book, bound in black cloth, on the cover of which in gold letters was its name, Chick-seed without Chick-weed; and in this book she wrote our names, and the date at the end of each lesson we conned fairly through. I had got into Part II., which was "in words of four letters," and had the chapter about the Ship in it, before Jem's name figured at the end of the chapter about the Dog in Part I.
My mother was very glad that this chapter seemed to please Jem, and that he learned to read it quickly, for, good-natured as he was, Jem was too fond of fighting and laying about him: and though it was only "in words of three letters," this brief chapter contained a terrible story, and an excellent moral, which I remember well even now.
It was called "The Dog."
"Why do you cry? The Dog has bit my leg. Why did he do so? I had my bat and I hit him as he lay on the mat, so he ran at me and bit my leg. Ah, you may not use the bat if you hit the Dog. It is a hot day, and the Dog may go mad. One day a Dog bit a boy in the arm, and the boy had his arm cut off, for the Dog was mad. And did the boy die? Yes, he did die in a day or two. It is not fit to hit a Dog if he lie on the mat and is not a bad Dog. Do not hit a Dog, or a cat, or a boy."
Jem not only got through this lesson much better than usual, but he lingered at my mother's knees, to point with his own little stumpy forefinger to each recurrence of the words "hit a Dog," and read them all by himself.
"Very good boy," said Mother, who was much pleased. "And now read this last sentence once more, and very nicely."
"Do—not—hit—a—dog—or—a—cat—or—a—boy," read Jem in a high sing-song, and with a face of blank indifference, and then with a hasty dog's-ear he turned back to the previous page, and spelled out, "I had my bat and I hit him as he lay on the mat" so well, that my mother caught him to her bosom and covered him with kisses.
"He'll be as good a scholar as Jack yet!" she exclaimed. "But don't forget, my darling, that my Jem must never 'hit a dog, or a cat, or a boy.' Now, love, you may put the book away."
Jem stuck out his lips and looked down, and hesitated. He seemed almost disposed to go on with his lessons. But he changed his mind, and shutting the book with a bang, he scampered off. As he passed the ottoman near the door, he saw Kitty, our old tortoise-shell puss, lying on it, and (moved perhaps by the occurrence of the word cat in the last sentence of the lesson) he gave her such a whack with the flat side of Chick-seed that she bounced up into the air like a sky-rocket, Jem crying out as he did so, "I had my bat, and I hit him as he lay on the mat."
It was seldom enough that Jem got anything by heart, but he had certainly learned this; for when an hour later I went to look for him in the garden, I found him panting with the exertion of having laid my nice, thick, fresh green crop of mustard and cress flat with the back of the coal-shovel, which he could barely lift, but with which he was still battering my salad-bed, chanting triumphantly at every stroke, "I had my bat, and I hit him as he lay on the mat." He was quite out of breath, and I had not much difficulty in pummelling him as he deserved.
Which shows how true it is, as my dear mother said, that "you never know what to do for the best in bringing up boys."
Just about the time that we outgrew Chick-seed, and that it was allowed on all hands that even for quiet country-folk with no learned notions it was high time we were sent to school, our parents were spared the trouble of looking out for a school for us by the fact that a school came to us instead, and nothing less than an "Academy" was opened within three-quarters of a mile of my father's gate.
Walnut-tree Farm was an old house that stood some little way from the road in our favourite lane—a lane full of wild roses and speedwell, with a tiny footpath of disjointed flags like an old pack-horse track. Grass and milfoil grew thickly between the stones, and the turf stretched half-way over the road from each side, for there was little traffic in the lane, beyond the yearly rumble of the harvesting waggons; and few foot-passengers, except a labourer now and then, a pair or two of rustic lovers at sundown, a few knots of children in the blackberry season, and the cows coming home to milking.
Jem and I played there a good deal, but then we lived close by.
We were very fond of the old place and there were two good reasons for the charm it had in our eyes. In the first place, the old man who lived alone in it (for it had ceased to be the dwelling-house of a real farm) was an eccentric old miser, the chief object of whose existence seemed to be to thwart any attempt to pry into the daily details of it. What manner of stimulus this was to boyish curiosity needs no explanation, much as it needs excuse.
In the second place, Walnut-tree Farm was so utterly different from the house which was our home, that everything about it was attractive from mere unaccustomedness.
Our house had been rebuilt from the foundations by my father. It was square-built and very ugly, but it was in such excellent repair that one could never indulge a more lawless fancy towards any chink or cranny about it than a desire to "point" the same with a bit of mortar.
Why it was that my ancestor, who built the old house, and who was not a bit better educated or farther-travelled than my father, had built a pretty one, whilst my father built an ugly one, is one of the many things I do not know, and wish I did.
From the old sketches of it which my grandfather painted on the parlour handscreens, I think it must have been like a larger edition of the farm; that is, with long mullioned windows, a broad and gracefully proportioned doorway with several shallow steps and quaintly-ornamented lintel; bits of fine work and ornamentation about the woodwork here and there, put in as if they had been done, not for the look of the thing, but for the love of it, and whitewash over the house-front, and over the apple-trees in the orchard.
That was what our ancestor's home was like; and it was the sort of house that became Walnut-tree Academy, where Jem and I went to school.
Sable:—"Ha, you! A little more upon the dismal (forming their countenances); this fellow has a good mortal look, place him near the corpse; that wainscoat face must be o' top of the stairs; that fellow's almost in a fright (that looks as if he were full of some strange misery) at the end of the hall. So—but I'll fix you all myself. Let's have no laughing now on any provocation."—The Funeral, STEELE.
At one time I really hoped to make the acquaintance of the old miser of Walnut-tree Farm. It was when we saved the life of his cat.
He was very fond of that cat, I think, and it was, to say the least of it, as eccentric-looking as its master. One eye was yellow and the other was blue, which gave it a strange, uncanny expression, and its rust-coloured fur was not common either as to tint or markings.
How dear old Jem did belabour the boy we found torturing it! He was much older and bigger than we were, but we were two to one, which we reckoned fair enough, considering his size, and that the cat had to be saved somehow. The poor thing's forepaws were so much hurt that it could not walk, so we carried it to the farm, and I stood on the shallow doorsteps, and under the dial, on which was written—
and the old miser came out, and we told him about the cat, and he took it and said we were good boys, and I hoped he would have asked us to go in, but he did not, though we lingered a little; he only put his hand into his pocket, and very slowly brought out sixpence.
"No, thank you," said I, rather indignantly. "We don't want anything for saving the poor cat."
"I am very fond of it," he said apologetically, and putting the sixpence carefully back; but I believe he alluded to the cat.
I felt more and more strongly that he ought to invite us into the parlour—if there was a parlour—and I took advantage of a backward movement on his part to move one shallow step nearer, and said, in an easy conversational tone, "Your cat has very curious eyes."
He came out again, and his own eyes glared in the evening light as he touched me with one of his fingers in a way that made me shiver, and said, "If I had been an old woman, and that cat had lived with me in the days when this house was built, I should have been hanged, or burned as a witch. Twelve men would have done it—twelve reasonable and respectable men!" He paused, looking over my head at the sky, and then added, "But in all good conscience—mind, in all good conscience!"
And after another pause he touched me again (this time my teeth chattered), and whispered loudly in my ear, "Never serve on a jury." After which he banged the door in our faces, and Jem caught hold of my jacket and cried, "Oh! he's quite mad, he'll murder us!" and we took each other by the hand and ran home as fast as our feet would carry us.
We never saw the old miser again, for he died some months afterwards, and, strange to relate, Jem and I were invited to the funeral.
It was a funeral not to be forgotten. The old man had left the money for it, and a memorandum, with the minutest directions, in the hands of his lawyer. If he had wished to be more popular after his death than he had been in his lifetime, he could not have hit upon any better plan to conciliate in a lump the approbation of his neighbours than that of providing for what undertakers call "a first-class funeral." The good custom of honouring the departed, and committing their bodies to the earth with care and respect, was carried, in our old-fashioned neighbourhood, to a point at which what began in reverence ended in what was barely decent, and what was meant to be most melancholy became absolutely comical. But a sense of the congruous and the incongruous was not cultivated amongst us, whereas solid value (in size, quantity and expense) was perhaps over-estimated. So our furniture, our festivities, and our funerals bore witness.
No one had ever seen the old miser's furniture, and he gave no festivities; but he made up for it in his funeral.
Children, like other uneducated classes, enjoy domestic details, and going over the ins and outs of other people's affairs behind their backs; especially when the interest is heightened by a touch of gloom, or perfected by the addition of some personal importance in the matter. Jem and I were always fond of funerals, but this funeral, and the fuss that it made in the parish, we were never likely to forget.
Even our own household was so demoralized by the grim gossip of the occasion that Jem and I were accused of being unable to amuse ourselves, and of listening to our elders. It was perhaps fortunate for us that a favourite puppy died the day before the funeral, and gave us the opportunity of burying him.
"As if our whole vocation Were endless imitation——"
Jem and I had already laid our gardens waste, and built a rude wall of broken bricks round them to make a churchyard; and I can clearly remember that we had so far profited by what we had overheard among our elders, that I had caught up some phrases which I was rather proud of displaying, and that I quite overawed Jem by the air with which I spoke of "the melancholy occasion"—the "wishes of deceased"—and the "feelings of survivors" when we buried the puppy.
It was understood that I could not attend the puppy's funeral in my proper person, because I wished to be the undertaker; but the happy thought struck me of putting my wheelbarrow alongside of the brick wall with a note inside it to the effect that I had "sent my carriage as a mark of respect."
In one point we could not emulate the real funeral: that was carried out "regardless of expense." The old miser had left a long list of the names of the people who were to be invited to it and to its attendant feast, in which was not only my father's name, but Jem's and mine. Three yards was the correct length of the black silk scarves which it was the custom in the neighbourhood to send to dead people's friends; but the old miser's funeral-scarves were a whole yard longer, and of such stiffly ribbed silk that Mr. Soot, the mourning draper, assured my mother that "it would stand of itself." The black gloves cost six shillings a pair, and the sponge-cakes, which used to be sent with the gloves and scarves, were on this occasion ornamented with weeping willows in white sugar.
Jem and I enjoyed the cake, but the pride we felt in our scarves and gloves was simply boundless. What pleased us particularly was that our funeral finery was not enclosed with my father's. Mr. Soot's man delivered three separate envelopes at the door, and they looked like letters from some bereaved giant. The envelopes were twenty inches by fourteen, and made of cartridge-paper; the black border was two inches deep, and the black seals must have consumed a stick of sealing-wax among them. They contained the gloves and the scarves, which were lightly gathered together in the middle with knots of black gauze ribbon.
How exquisitely absurd Jem and I must have looked with four yards of stiff black silk attached to our little hats I can imagine, if I cannot clearly remember. My dear mother dressed us and saw us off (for, with some curious relic of pre-civilized notions, women were not allowed to appear at funerals), and I do not think she perceived anything odd in our appearance. She was very gentle, and approved of everything that was considered right by the people she was used to, and she had only two anxieties about our scarves: first, that they should show the full four yards of respect to the memory of the deceased; and secondly, that we should keep them out of the dust, so that they might "come in useful afterwards."
She fretted a little because she had not thought of changing our gloves for smaller sizes (they were eight and a quarter); but my father "pish"ed and "pshaw"ed, and said it was better than if they had been too small, and that we should be sure to be late if my mother went on fidgeting. So we pulled them on—with ease—and picked up the tails of our hatbands—with difficulty—and followed my father, our hearts beating with pride, and my mother and the maids watching us from the door. We arrived quite half-an-hour earlier than we need have done, but the lane was already crowded with complimentary carriages, and curious bystanders, before whom we held our heads and hatbands up; and the scent of the wild roses was lost for that day in an all-pervading atmosphere of black dye. We were very tired, I remember, by the time that our turn came to be put into a carriage by Mr. Soot, who murmured—"Pocket-handkerchiefs, gentlemen"—and, following the example of a very pale-faced stranger who was with us, we drew out the clean handkerchiefs with which our mother had supplied us, and covered our faces with them.
At least Jem says he shut his eyes tight, and kept his face covered the whole way, but he always was so conscientious! I held my handkerchief as well as I could with my gloves; but I contrived to peep from behind it, and to see the crowd that lined the road to watch us as we wound slowly on.
If these outsiders, who only saw the procession and the funeral, were moved almost to enthusiasm by the miser's post-mortem liberality, it may be believed that the guests who were bidden to the feast did not fail to obey the ancient precept, and speak well of the dead. The tables (they were rickety) literally groaned under the weight of eatables and drinkables, and the dinner was so prolonged that Jem and I got terribly tired, in spite of the fun of watching the faces of the men we did not know, to see which got the reddest.
My father wanted us to go home before the reading of the will, which took place in the front parlour; but the lawyer said, "I think the young gentlemen should remain," for which we were very much obliged to him; though the pale-faced man said quite crossly—"Is there any special reason for crowding the room with children, who are not even relatives of the deceased?" which made us feel so much ashamed that I think we should have slipped out by ourselves; but the lawyer, who made no answer, pushed us gently before him to the top of the room, which was soon far too full to get out of by the door.
It was very damp and musty. In several places the paper hung in great strips from the walls, and the oddest part of all was that every article of furniture in the room, and even the hearthrug, was covered with sheets of newspaper pinned over to preserve it. I sat in the corner of a sofa, where I could read the trial of a man who murdered somebody twenty-five years before, but I never got to the end of it, for it went on behind a very fat man who sat next to me, and he leaned back all the time and hid it. Jem sat on a little footstool, and fell asleep with his head on my knee, and did not wake till I nudged him, when our names were read out in the will. Even then he only half awoke, and the fat man drove his elbow into me and hurt me dreadfully for whispering in Jem's ear that the old miser had left us ten pounds apiece, for having saved the life of his cat.
I do not think any of the strangers (they were distant connections of the old man; he had no near relations) had liked our being there; and the lawyer, who was very kind, had had to tell them several times over that we really had been invited to the funeral. After our legacies were known about they were so cross that we managed to scramble through the window, and wandered round the garden. As we sat under the trees we could hear high words within, and by and by all the men came out and talked in angry groups about the will. For when all was said and done, it appeared that the old miser had not left a penny to any one of the funeral party but Jem and me, and that he had left Walnut-tree Farm to a certain Mrs. Wood, of whom nobody knew anything.
"The wording is so peculiar," the fat man said to the pale-faced man and a third who had come out with them; "'left to her as a sign of sympathy, if not an act of reparation.' He must have known whether he owed her any reparation or not, if he were in his senses."
"Exactly. If he were in his senses," said the third man.
"Where's the money?—that's what I say," said the pale-faced man.
"Exactly, sir. That's what I say, too," said the fat man.
"There are only two fields, besides the house," said the third. "He must have had money, and the lawyer knows of no investments of any kind, he says."
"Perhaps he has left it to his cat," he added, looking very nastily at Jem and me.
"It's oddly put, too," murmured the pale-faced relation. "The two fields, the house and furniture, and everything of every sort therein contained." And the lawyer coming up at that moment, he went slowly back into the house, looking about him as he went, as if he had lost something.
As the lawyer approached, the fat man got very red in the face.
"He was as mad as a hatter, sir," he said, "and we shall dispute the will."
"I think you will be wrong," said the lawyer, blandly. "He was eccentric, my dear sir, very eccentric; but eccentricity is not insanity, and you will find that the will will stand."
Jem and I were sitting on an old garden-seat, but the men had talked without paying any attention to us. At this moment Jem, who had left me a minute or two before, came running back and said: "Jack! Do come and look in at the parlour window. That man with the white face is peeping everywhere, and under all the newspapers, and he's made himself so dusty! It's such fun!"
Too happy at the prospect of anything in the shape of fun, I followed Jem on tiptoe, and when we stood by the open window with our hands over our mouths to keep us from laughing, the pale-faced man was just struggling with the inside lids of an old japanned tea-caddy.
He did not see us, he was too busy, and he did not hear us, for he was talking to himself, and we heard him say, "Everything of every sort therein contained."
I suppose the lawyer was right, and that the fat man was convinced of it, for neither he nor any one else disputed the old miser's will. Jem and I each opened an account in the Savings Bank, and Mrs. Wood came into possession of the place.
Public opinion went up and down a good deal about the old miser still. When it leaked out that he had worded the invitation to his funeral to the effect that, being quite unable to tolerate the follies of his fellow-creatures, and the antics and absurdities which were necessary to entertain them, he had much pleasure in welcoming his neighbours to a feast, at which he could not reasonably be expected to preside—everybody who heard it agreed that he must have been mad.
But it was a long sentence to remember, and not a very easy one to understand, and those who saw the plumes and the procession, and those who had a talk with the undertaker, and those who got a yard more than usual of such very good black silk, and those who were able to remember what they had had for dinner, were all charitably inclined to believe that the old man's heart had not been far from being in the right place, at whatever angle his head had been set on.
And then by degrees curiosity moved to Mrs. Wood. Who was she? What was she like? What was she to the miser? Would she live at the farm?
To some of these questions the carrier, who was the first to see her, replied. She was "a quiet, genteel-looking sort of a grey-haired widow lady, who looked as if she'd seen a deal of trouble, and was badly off."
The neighbourhood was not unkindly, and many folk were ready to be civil to the widow if she came to live there.
"But she never will," everybody said. "She must let it. Perhaps the new doctor might think of it at a low rent, he'd be glad of the field for his horse. What could she do with an old place like that, and not a penny to keep it up with?"
What she did do was to have a school there, and that was how Walnut-tree Farm became Walnut-tree Academy.
"What are little boys made of, made of? What are little boys made of?" Nursery Rhyme.
When the school was opened, Jem and I were sent there at once. Everybody said it was "time we were sent somewhere," and that "we were getting too wild for home."
I got so tired of hearing this at last, that one day I was goaded to reply that "home was getting too tame for me." And Jem, who always backed me up, said, "And me too." For which piece of swagger we forfeited our suppers; but when we went to bed we found pieces of cake under our pillows, for my mother could not bear us to be short of food, however badly we behaved.
I do not know whether the trousers had anything to do with it, but about the time that Jem and I were put into trousers we lived in a chronic state of behaving badly. What makes me feel particularly ashamed in thinking of it is, that I know it was not that we came under the pressure of any overwhelming temptations to misbehave and yielded through weakness, but that, according to an expressive nursery formula, we were "seeing how naughty we could be." I think we were genuinely anxious to see this undesirable climax; in some measure as a matter of experiment, to which all boys are prone, and in which dangerous experiments, and experiments likely to be followed by explosion, are naturally preferred. Partly, too, from an irresistible impulse to "raise a row," and take one's luck of the results. This craving to disturb the calm current of events, and the good conduct and composure of one's neighbours as a matter of diversion, must be incomprehensible by phlegmatic people, who never feel it, whilst some Irishmen, I fancy, never quite conquer it, perhaps because they never quite cease to be boys. In any degree I do not for an instant excuse it, and in excess it must be simply intolerable by better-regulated minds.
But really, boys who are pickles should be put into jars with sound stoppers, like other pickles, and I wonder that mothers and cooks do not get pots like those that held the forty thieves, and do it.
I fancy it was because we happened to be in this rough, defiant, mischievous mood, just about the time that Mrs. Wood opened her school, that we did not particularly like our school-mistress. If I had been fifteen years older, I should soon have got beyond the first impression created by her severe dress, close widow's cap and straight grey hair, and have discovered that the outline of her face was absolutely beautiful, and I might possibly have detected, what most people failed to detect, that an odd unpleasing effect, caused by the contrast between her general style, and an occasional lightness and rapidity and grace of movement in her slender figure, came from the fact that she was much younger than she looked and affected to be. The impression I did receive of her appearance I communicated to my mother in far from respectful pantomime.
"Well, love, and what do you think of Mrs. Wood?" said she.
"I think," chanted I, in that high brassy pitch of voice which Jem and I had adopted for this bravado period of our existence—"I think she's like our old white hen that turned up its eyes and died of the pip. Lack-a-daisy-dee! Lack-a-daisy-dee!"
And I twisted my body about, and strolled up and down the room with a supposed travesty of Mrs. Wood's movements.
"So she is," said faithful Jem. "Lack-a-daisy-dee! Lack-a-daisy-dee!" and he wriggled about after me, and knocked over the Berlin wool-basket.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" said our poor mother.
Jem righted the basket, and I took a run and a flying leap over it, and having cleared it successfully, took another, and yet another, each one soothing my feelings to the extent by which it shocked my mother's. At the third bound, Jem, not to be behindhand, uttered a piercing yell from behind the sofa.
"Good gracious, what's the matter?" cried my mother.
"It's the war-whoop of the Objibeway Indians," I promptly explained, and having emitted another, to which I flattered myself Jem's had been as nothing for hideousness, we departed in file to raise a row in the kitchen.
Summer passed into autumn. Jem and I really liked going to school, but it was against our principles at that time to allow that we liked anything that we ought to like.
Some sincere but mistaken efforts to improve our principles were made, I remember, by a middle-aged single lady, who had known my mother in her girlhood, and who was visiting her at this unlucky stage of our career. Having failed to cope with us directly, she adopted the plan of talking improvingly to our mother and at us, and very severe some of her remarks were, and I don't believe that Mother liked them any better than we did.
The severest she ever made were I think heightened in their severity by the idea that we were paying unusual attention, as we sat on the floor a little behind her one day. We were paying a great deal of attention, but it was not so much to Miss Martin as to a stock of wood-lice which I had collected, and which I was arranging on the carpet that Jem might see how they roll themselves into smooth tight balls when you tease them. But at last she talked so that we could not help attending. I dared not say anything to her, but her own tactics were available. I put the wood-lice back in my pocket, and stretching my arms yawningly above my head, I said to Jem, "How dull it is! I wish I were a bandit."
Jem generally outdid me if possible, from sheer willingness and loyalty of spirit.
"I should like to be a burglar," said he.
And then we both left the room very quietly and politely. But when we got outside I said, "I hate that woman."
"So do I," said Jem; "she regularly hectors over mother—I hate her worst for that."
"So do I. Jem, doesn't she take pills?"
"I don't know—why?"
"I believe she does; I'm certain I saw a box on her dressing-table. Jem, run like a good chap and see, and if there is one, empty out the pills and bring me the pill-box."
Jem obeyed, and I sat down on the stairs and began to get the wood-lice out again. There were twelve nice little black balls in my hand when Jem came back with the pill-box.
"Hooray!" I cried; "but knock out all the powder, it might smother them. Now, give it to me."
Jem danced with delight when I put the wood-lice in and put on the lid.
"I hope she'll shake the box before she opens it," I said, as we replaced it on the dressing-table.
"I hope she will, or they won't be tight. Oh, Jack! Jack! How many do you suppose she takes at a time?"
We never knew, and what is more, we never knew what became of the wood-lice, for, for some reason, she kept our counsel as well as her own about the pill-box.
One thing that helped to reconcile us to spending a good share of our summer days in Walnut-tree Academy was that the school-mistress made us very comfortable. Boys at our age are not very sensitive about matters of taste and colour and so forth, but even we discovered that Mrs. Wood had that knack of adapting rooms to their inhabitants, and making them pleasant to the eye, which seems to be a trick at the end of some people's fingers, and quite unlearnable by others. When she had made the old miser's rooms to her mind, we might have understood, if we had speculated about it, how it was that she had not profited by my mother's sound advice to send all his "rubbishy odds and ends" (the irregularity and ricketiness and dustiness of which made my mother shudder) to be "sold at the nearest auction-rooms, and buy some good solid furniture of the cabinet-maker who furnished for everybody in the neighbourhood, which would be the cheapest in the long-run, besides making the rooms look like other people's at last." That she evaded similar recommendations of paperhangers and upholsterers, and of wall-papers and carpets, and curtains with patterns that would "stand," and wear best, and show dirt least, was a trifle in the eyes of all good housekeepers, when our farming-man's daughter brought the amazing news with her to Sunday tea, that "the missus" had had in old Sally, and had torn the paper off the parlour, and had made Sally "lime-wash the walls, for all the world as if it was a cellar." Moreover, she had "gone over" the lower part herself, and was now painting on the top of that. There was nothing for it, after this news, but to sigh and conclude that there was something about the old place which made everybody a little queer who came to live in it.
But when Jem and I saw the parlour (which was now the school-room), we decided that it "looked very nice," and was "uncommonly comfortable." The change was certainly amazing, and made the funeral day seem longer ago than it really was. The walls were not literally lime-washed; but (which is the same thing, except for a little glue!) they were distempered, a soft pale pea-green. About a yard deep above the wainscot this was covered with a dark sombre green tint, and along the upper edge of this, as a border all round the room, the school-mistress had painted a trailing wreath of white periwinkle. The border was painted with the same materials as the walls, and with very rapid touches. The white flowers were skilfully relieved by the dark ground, and the varied tints of the leaves, from the deep evergreen of the old ones to the pale yellow of the young shoots, had demanded no new colours, and were wonderfully life-like and pretty. There was another border, right round the top of the room; but that was painted on paper and fastened on. It was a Bible text—"Keep Innocency, and take heed to the thing that is right, for that shall bring a man Peace at the last." And Mrs. Wood had done the text also.
There were no curtains to the broad, mullioned window, which was kept wide open at every lattice; and one long shoot of ivy that had pushed in farther than the rest had been seized, and pinned to the wall inside, where its growth was a subject of study and calculation, during the many moments when we were "trying to see" how little we could learn of our lessons. The black-board stood on a polished easel; but the low seats and desks were of plain pine like the floor, and they were scrupulously scrubbed. The cool tint of the walls was somewhat cheered by coloured maps and prints, and the school-mistress's chair (an old carved oak one that had been much revived by bees-wax and turpentine since the miser's days) stood on the left-hand side of the window—under "Keep Innocency," and looking towards "Peace at the last." I know, for when we were all writing or something of that sort, so that she could sit still, she used to sit with her hands folded and look up at it, which was what made Jem and me think of the old white hen that turned up its eyes; and made Horace Simpson say that he believed she had done one of the letters wrong, and could not help looking at it to see if it showed. And by the school-mistress's chair was the lame boy's sofa. It was the very old sofa covered with newspapers on which I had read about the murder, when the lawyer was reading the will. But she had taken off the paper, and covered it with turkey red, and red cushions, and a quilt of brown holland and red bordering, to hide his crumpled legs, so that he looked quite comfortable.
I remember so well the first day that he came. His father was a parson on the moors, and this boy had always wanted to go to school in spite of his infirmity, and at last his father brought him in a light cart down from the moors, to look at it; and when he got him out of the cart, he carried him in. He was a big man, I remember, with grey hair and bent shoulders, and a very old coat, for it split a little at one of the seams as he was carrying him in, and we laughed.
When they got into the room, he put the boy down, keeping his arm round him, and wiped his face and said—"How deliciously cool!"—and the boy stared all round with his great eyes, and then he lifted them to his father's face and said—"I'll come here. I do like it. But not to-day, my back is so bad."
And what makes me know that Horace was wrong, and that Mrs. Wood had made no mistake about the letters of the text, is that "Cripple Charlie"—as we called him—could see it so well with lying down. And he told me one day that when his back was very bad, and he got the fidgets and could not keep still, he used to fix his eyes on "Peace," which had gold round the letters, and shone, and that if he could keep steadily to it, for a good bit, he always fell asleep at the last. But he was very fanciful, poor chap!
I do not think it was because Jem and I had any real wish to become burglars that we made a raid on the walnuts that autumn. I do not even think that we cared very much about the walnuts themselves.
But when it is understood that the raid was to be a raid by night, or rather in those very early hours of the morning which real burglars are said almost to prefer; that it was necessary to provide ourselves with thick sticks; that we should have to force the hedge and climb the trees; that the said trees grew directly under the owner's bedroom window, which made the chances of detection hazardously great; and that walnut juice (as I have mentioned before) is of a peculiarly unaccommodating nature, since it will neither disguise you at the time nor wash off afterwards—it will be obvious that the dangers and delights of the adventure were sufficient to blunt, for the moment, our sense of the fact that we were deliberately going a-thieving.
"Shall we wear black masks?" said Jem.
On the whole I said "No," for I did not know where we should get them, nor, if we did, how we should keep them on.
"If she has a blunderbuss, and fires," said I, "you must duck your head, remember; but if she springs the rattle we must cut and run."
"Will her blunderbuss be loaded, do you think?" asked Jem. "Mother says the one in their room isn't; she told me so on Saturday. But she says we're never to touch it, all the same, for you never can be sure about things of that sort going off. Do you think Mrs. Wood's will be loaded?"
"It may be," said I, "and of course she might load it if she thought she heard robbers."
"I heard father say that if you shoot a burglar outside it's murder," said Jem, who seemed rather troubled by the thought of the blunderbuss; "but if you shoot him inside it's self-defence."
"Well, you may spring a rattle outside, anyway," said I; "and if hers makes as much noise as ours, it'll be heard all the way here. So mind, if she begins, you must jump down and cut home like mad."
Armed with these instructions and our thick sticks, Jem and I crept out of the house before the sun was up or a bird awake. The air seemed cold after our warm beds, and the dew was so drenching in the hedge bottoms, and on the wayside weeds of our favourite lane, that we were soaked to the knees before we began to force the hedge. I did not think that grass and wild-flowers could have held so much wet. By the time that we had crossed the orchard, and I was preparing to grip the grandly scored trunk of the nearest walnut-tree with my chilly legs, the heavy peeling, the hard cracking, and the tedious picking of a green walnut was as little pleasurable a notion as I had in my brain.
All the same, I said (as firmly as my chattering teeth would allow) that I was very glad we had come when we did, for that there certainly were fewer walnuts on the tree than there had been the day before.
"She's been at them," said I, almost indignantly.
"Pickling," responded Jem with gloomy conciseness; and spurred by this discovery to fresh enthusiasm for our exploit, we promptly planned operations.
"I'll go up the tree," said I, "and beat, and you can pick them as they fall."
Jem was, I fear, only too well accustomed to my arrogating the first place in our joint undertakings, and after giving me "a leg up" to an available bit of foothold, and handing up my stick, he waited patiently below to gather what I beat down.
The walnuts were few and far between, to say nothing of leaves between, which in walnut-trees are large. The morning twilight was dim, my hands were cold and feebler than my resolution. I had battered down a lot of leaves and twigs, and two or three walnuts; the sun had got up at last, but rather slowly, as if he found the morning chillier than he expected, and a few rays were darting here and there across the lane, when Jem gave a warning "Hush!" and I left off rustling in time to hear Mrs. Wood's bedroom lattice opened, and to catch sight of something pushed out into the morning mists.
"Who's there?" said the school-mistress.
Neither Jem nor I took upon us to inform her, and we were both seized with anxiety to know what was at the window. He was too low down and I too much buried in foliage to see clearly. Was it the rattle? I took a hasty step downwards at the thought. Or was it the blunderbuss? In my sudden move I slipped on the dew-damped branch, and cracked a rotten one with my elbow, which made an appalling crash in the early stillness, and sent a walnut—pop! on to Jem's hat, who had already ducked to avoid the fire of the blunderbuss, and now fell on his face under the fullest conviction that he had been shot.
"Who's there?" said the school-mistress, and (my tumble having brought me into a more exposed position) she added, "Is that you, Jack and Jem?"
"It's me," said I, ungrammatically but stoutly, hoping that Jem at any rate would slip off.
But he had recovered himself and his loyalty, and unhesitatingly announced, "No, it's me," and was picking the bits of grass off his cheeks and knees when I got down beside him.
"I'm sorry you came to take my walnuts like this," said the voice from above. She had a particularly clear one, and we could hear it quite well. "I got a basketful on purpose for you yesterday afternoon. If I let it down by a string, do you think you can take it?"
Happily she did not wait for a reply, as we could not have got a word out between us; but by and by the basketful of walnuts was pushed through the lattice and began to descend. It came slowly and unsteadily, and we had abundant leisure to watch it, and also, as we looked up, to discover what it was that had so puzzled me in Mrs. Wood's appearance—that when I first discovered that it was a head and not a blunderbuss at the window I had not recognized it for hers.
She was without her widow's cap, which revealed the fact that her hair, though the two narrow, smooth bands of it which appeared every day beyond her cap were unmistakably grey, was different in some essential respects from (say) Mrs. Jones's, our grey-haired washer-woman. The more you saw of Mrs. Jones's head, the less hair you perceived her to have, and the whiter that little appeared. Indeed, the knob into which it was twisted at the back was much of the colour as well as of the size of a tangled reel of dirty white cotton. But Mrs. Wood's hair was far more abundant than our mother's, and it was darker underneath than on the top—a fact which was more obvious when the knot into which it was gathered in her neck was no longer hidden. Deep brown streaks were mingled with the grey in the twists of this, and I could see them quite well, for the outline of her head was dark against the white-washed mullion of the window, and framed by ivy-leaves. As she leaned out to lower the basket we could see her better and better, and, as it touched the ground, the jerk pulled her forward, and the knot of her hair uncoiled and rolled heavily over the window-sill.
By this time the rays of the sun were level with the windows, and shone full upon Mrs. Wood's face. I was very much absorbed in looking at her, but I could not forget our peculiar position, and I had an important question to put, which I did without more ado.
"Please, madam, shall you tell Father?"
"We only want to know," added Jem.
She hesitated a minute, and then smiled. "No; I don't think you'll do it again;" after which she disappeared.
"She's certainly no sneak," said I, with an effort to be magnanimous, for I would much rather she had sprung the rattle or fired the blunderbuss.
"And I say," said Jem, "isn't she pretty without her cap?"
We looked ruefully at the walnuts. We had lost all appetite for them, and they seemed disgustingly damp, with their green coats reeking with black bruises. But we could not have left the basket behind, so we put our sticks through the handles, and carried it like the Sunday picture of the spies carrying the grapes of Eshcol.
And Jem and I have often since agreed that we never in all our lives felt so mean as on that occasion, and we sincerely hope that we never may.
Indeed, it is only in some books and some sermons that people are divided into "the wicked" and "the good," and that "the wicked" have no consciences at all. Jem and I had wilfully gone thieving, but we were far from being utterly hardened, and the school-mistress's generosity weighed heavily upon ours. Repentance and the desire to make atonement seem to go pretty naturally together, and in my case they led to the following dialogue with Jem, on the subject of two exquisite little bantam hens and a cock, which were our joint property, and which were known in the farmyard as "the Major and his wives."
These titles (which vexed my dear mother from the first) had suggested themselves to us on this wise. There was a certain little gentleman who came to our church, a brewer by profession, and a major in the militia by choice, who was so small and strutted so much that to the insolent observation of boyhood he was "exactly like" our new bantam cock. Young people are very apt to overhear what is not intended for their knowledge, and somehow or other we learned that he was "courting" (as his third wife) a lady of our parish. His former wives are buried in our churchyard. Over the first he had raised an obelisk of marble, so costly and affectionate that it had won the hearts of his neighbours in general, and of his second wife in particular. When she died the gossips wondered whether the Major would add her name to that of her predecessor, or "go to the expense" of a new monument. He erected a second obelisk, and it was taller than the first (height had a curious fascination for him), and the inscription was more touching than the other. This time the material was Aberdeen granite, and as that is most difficult to cut, hard to polish, and heavy to transport, the expense was enormous. These two monstrosities of mortuary pomp were the pride of the parish, and they were familiarly known to us children (and to many other people) as "the Major's wives."
When we called the cock "the Major," we naturally called the hens "the Major's wives."
"My dears, I don't like that name at all," said my mother. "I never like jokes about people who are dead. And for that matter, it really sounds as if they were both alive, which is worse."
It was during our naughty period, and I strutted on my heels till I must have looked very like the little brewer himself, and said, "And why shouldn't they both be alive? Fancy the Major with two wives, one on each arm, and both as tall as the monuments! What fun!"
As I said the words "one on each arm," I put up first one and then the other of my own, and having got a satisfactory impetus during the rest of my sentence, I crossed the parlour as a catherine-wheel under my mother's nose. It was a new accomplishment, of which I was very proud, and poor Jem somewhat envious. He was clumsy and could not manage it.
"Oh!" ejaculated my mother, "Jack, I must speak to your father about those dangerous tricks of yours. And it quite shocks me to hear you talk in that light way about wicked things."
Jem was to my rescue in a moment, driving his hands into the pockets of his blouse, and turning them up to see how soon he might hope that his fingers would burst through the lining.
"Jacob had two wives," he said; and he chanted on, quoting imperfectly from Dr. Watts's Scripture Catechism, "And Jacob was a good man, therefore his brother hated him."
"No, no, Jem," said I, "that was Abel. Jacob was Isaac's younger son, and——"
"Hush! Hush! Hush!" said my mother. "You're not to do Sunday lessons on week-days. What terrible boys you are!" And, avoiding to fight about Jacob's wives with Jem, who was pertinacious and said very odd things, my mother did what women often do and are often wise in doing—she laid down her weapons and began to beseech.
"My darlings, call your nice little hens some other names. Poor old mother doesn't like those."
I was melted in an instant, and began to cast about in my head for new titles. But Jem was softly obstinate, and he had inherited some of my mother's wheedling ways. He took his hands from his pockets, flung his arms recklessly round her clean collar, and began stroking (or pooring, as we called it) her head with his grubby paws. And as he poored he coaxed—"Dear nice old mammy! It's only us. What can it matter? Do let us call our bantams what we like."
And my mother gave in before I had time to.
The dialogue I held with Jem about the bantams after the walnut raid was as follows:
"Jem, you're awfully fond of the 'Major and his wives,' I suppose?"
"Ye-es," said Jem, "I am. But I don't mind, Jack, if you want them for your very own. I'll give up my share,"—and he sighed.
"I never saw such a good chap as you are, Jem. But it's not that. I thought we might give them to Mrs. Wood. It was so beastly about those disgusting walnuts."
"I can't touch walnut pickle now," said Jem, feelingly.
"It'd be a very handsome present," said I.
"They took a prize at the Agricultural," said Jem.
"I know she likes eggs. She beats 'em into a froth and feeds Charlie with 'em," said I.
"I think I could eat walnut pickle again if I knew she had the bantams," sighed Jem, who was really devoted to the little cock-major and the auburn-feathered hens.
"We'll take 'em this afternoon," I said.
We did so—in a basket, Eshcol-grape wise, like the walnuts. When we told Mother, she made no objection. She would have given her own head off her shoulders if, by ill-luck, any passer-by had thought of asking for it. Besides, it solved the difficulty of the objectionable names.
Mrs. Wood was very loth to take our bantams, but of course Jem and I were not going to recall a gift, so she took them at last, and I think she was very much pleased with them.
She had got her cap on again, tied under her chin, and nothing to be seen of her hair but the very grey piece in front. It made her look so different that I could not keep my eyes off her whilst she was talking, though I knew quite well how rude it is to stare. And my head got so full of it that I said at last, in spite of myself, "Please, madam, why is it that part of your hair is grey and part of it dark?"
Her face got rather red, she did not answer for a minute; and Jem, to my great relief, changed the subject, by saying, "We were very much obliged to you for not telling Father about the walnuts."
Mrs. Wood leaned back against the high carving of her old chair and smiled, and said very slowly, "Would he have been very angry?"
"He'd have flogged us, I expect," said I.
"And I expect," continued Jem, "that he'd have said to us what he said to Bob Furniss when he took the filberts: 'If you begin by stealing nuts, you'll end by being transported.' Do you think Jack and I shall end by being transported?" added Jem, who had a merciless talent for applying general principles to individual cases.
Mrs. Wood made no reply, neither did she move, but her eyelids fell, and then her eyes looked far worse than if they had been shut, for there was a little bit open, with nothing but white to be seen. She was still rather red, and she did not visibly breathe. I have no idea for how many seconds I had gazed stupidly at her, when Jem gasped, "Is she dead?"
Then I became terror-struck, and crying, "Let's find Mary Anne!" fled into the kitchen, closely followed by Jem.
"She's took with them fits occasional," said Mary Anne, and depositing a dripping tin she ran to the parlour. We followed in time to see her stooping over the chair and speaking very loudly in the school-mistress's ear,
"I'll lay ye down, ma'am, shall I?"
But still the widow was silent, on which Mary Anne took her up in her brawny arms, and laid her on "Cripple Charlie's" sofa, and covered her with the quilt.
We settled the Major and his wives into their new abode, and then hurried home to my mother, who put on her bonnet, and took a bottle of something, and went off to the farm.
She did not come back till tea-time, and then she was full of poor Mrs. Wood. "Most curious attacks," she explained to my father; "she can neither move nor speak, and yet she hears everything, though she doesn't always remember afterwards. She said she thought it was 'trouble,' poor soul!"
"What brought this one on?" said my father.
"I can't make out," said my mother. "I hope you boys did nothing to frighten her, eh? Are you sure you didn't do one of those dreadful wheels, Jack?"
This I indignantly denied, and Jem supported me.
My mother's sympathy had been so deeply enlisted, and her report was so detailed, that Jem and I became bored at last, besides resenting the notion that we had been to blame. I gave one look into the strawberry jam pot, and finding it empty, said my grace and added, "Women are a poor lot, always turning up their eyes and having fits about nothing. I know one thing, nobody 'll ever catch me being bothered with a wife."
"Nor me neither," said Jem.
"The bee, a more adventurous colonist than man." W.C. BRYANT.
"Some silent laws our hearts will make, Which they shall long obey; We for the year to come may take Our temper from to-day."—WORDSWORTH.
"You know what an Apiary is, Isaac, of course?"
I was sitting in the bee-master's cottage, opposite to him, in an arm-chair, which was the counterpart of his own, both of them having circular backs, diamond-shaped seats, and chintz cushions with frills. It was the summer following that in which Jem and I had tried to see how badly we could behave; this uncivilized phase had abated: Jem used to ride about a great deal with my father, and I had become intimate with Isaac Irvine.
"You know what an Apiary is, Isaac?" said I.
"A what, sir?"
"To be sure, sir, to be sure," said Isaac. "An appyary" (so he was pleased to pronounce it), "I should be familiar with the name, sir, from my bee-book, but I never calls my own stock anything but the beehives. Beehives is a good, straightforward sort of a name, sir, and it serves my turn."
"Ah, but you see we haven't come to the B's yet," said I, alluding to what I was thinking of.
"Does your father think of keeping 'em, sir?" said Isaac, alluding to what he was thinking of.
"Oh, he means to have them bound, I believe," was my reply.
The bee-master now betrayed his bewilderment, and we had a hearty laugh when we discovered that he had been talking about bees whilst I had been talking about the weekly numbers of the Penny Cyclopaedia, which had not as yet reached the letter B, but in which I had found an article on Master Isaac's craft, under the word Apiary, which had greatly interested me, and ought, I thought, to be interesting to the bee-keeper. Still thinking of this I said,
"Do you ever take your bees away from home, Isaac?"
"They're on the moors now, sir," said Isaac.
"Are they?" I exclaimed. "Then you're like the Egyptians, and like the French, and the Piedmontese; only you didn't take them in a barge."
"Why, no, sir. The canal don't go nigh-hand of the moors at all."
"The Egyptians," said I, leaning back into the capacious arms of my chair, and epitomizing what I had read, "who live in Lower Egypt put all their beehives into boats and take them on the river to Upper Egypt. Right up at that end of the Nile the flowers come out earliest, and the bees get all the good out of them there, and then the boats are moved lower down to where the same kind of flowers are only just beginning to blossom, and the bees get all the good out of them there, and so on, and on, and on, till they've travelled right through Egypt, with all the hives piled up, and come back in the boats to where they started from."
"And every hive a mighty different weight to what it was when they did start, I'll warrant," said Master Isaac enthusiastically. "Did you find all that in those penny numbers, Master Jack?"
"Yes, and oh, lots more, Isaac! About lots of things and lots of countries."
"Scholarship's a fine thing," said the bee-master, "and seeing foreign parts is a fine thing, and many's the time I've wished for both. I suppose that's the same Egypt that's in the Bible, sir?"
"Yes," said I, "and the same river Nile that Moses was put on in the ark of bulrushes."
"There's no countries I'd like to see better than them Bible countries," said Master Isaac, "and I've wished it more ever since that gentleman was here that gave that lecture in the school, with the Holy Land magic-lantern. He'd been there himself, and he explained all the slides. They were grand, some of 'em, when you got 'em straight and steady for a bit. They're an awkward thing to manage, is slides, sir, and the school-master he wasn't much good at 'em, he said, and that young scoundrel Bob Furniss and another lad got in a hole below the platform and pulled the sheet. But when you did get 'em, right side up, and the light as it should be, they were grand! There was one they called the Wailing Place of the Jews, with every stone standing out as fair as the flags on this floor. John Binder, the mason, was at my elbow when that came on, and he clapped his hands, and says he, 'Well, yon beats all!' But the one for my choice, sir, was the Garden of Gethsemane by moonlight. I'd only gone to the penny places, for I'm a good size and can look over most folks' heads, but I thought I must see that a bit nearer, cost what it might. So I found a shilling, and I says to the young fellow at the door (it was the pupil-teacher), 'I must go a bit nearer to yon.' And he says, 'You're not going into the reserved seats, Isaac?' So I says, 'Don't put yourself about, my lad, I shan't interfere with the quality; but if half a day's wage 'll bring me nearer to the Garden of Gethsemane, I'm bound to go.' And I went. I didn't intrude myself on nobody, though one gentleman was for making room for me at once, and twice over he offered me a seat beside him. But I knew my manners, and I said, 'Thank you, sir, I can see as I stand.' And I did see right well, and kicked Bob Furniss too, which was good for all parties. But I'd like to see the very places themselves, Master Jack."
"So should I," said I; "but I should like to go farther, all round the world, I think. Do you know, Isaac, you wouldn't believe what curious beasts there are in other countries, and what wonderful people and places! Why, we've only got to ATH—No. 135—now; it leaves off at Athanagilde, a captain of the Spanish Goths—he's nobody, but there are such apes in that number! The Mono—there's a picture of him, just like a man with a tail and horrid feet, who used to sit with the negro women when they were at work, and play with bits of paper; and a Quata, who used to be sent to the tavern for wine, and when the children pelted him he put down the wine and threw stones at them. And there are pictures in all the numbers, of birds and ant-eaters and antelopes, and I don't know what. The Mono and the Quata live in the West Indies, I think. You see, I think the A's are rather good numbers; very likely, for there's America, and Asia, and Africa, and Arabia, and Abyssinia, and there'll be Australia before we come to the B's. Oh, Isaac! I do wish I could go round the world!"
I sighed, and the bee-master sighed also, with a profundity that made his chair creak, well-seasoned as it was. Then he said, "But I'll say this, Master Jack, next to going to such places the reading about 'em must come. A penny a week's a penny a week to a poor man, but I reckon I shall have to make shift to take in those numbers myself."
Isaac did not take them in, however, for I used to take ours down to his cottage, and read them aloud to him instead. He liked this much better than if he had had to read to himself—he said he could understand reading better when he heard it than when he saw it. For my own part I enjoyed it very much, and I fancy I read rather well, it being a point on which Mrs. Wood expended much trouble with us.
"Listen, Isaac," said I on my next visit; "this is what I meant about the barge"—and resting the Penny Number on the arm of my chair, I read aloud to the attentive bee-master—"'Goldsmith describes from his own observation a kind of floating apiary in some parts of France and Piedmont. They have on board of one barge, he says, threescore or a hundred beehives——'"
"That's an appy-ary if ye like, sir!" ejaculated Master Isaac, interrupting his pipe and me to make way for the observation.
"Somebody saw 'a convoy of four thousand hives——' on the Nile," said I.
The bee-master gave a resigned sigh. "Go on, Master Jack," said he.
"'—well defended from the inclemency of an accidental storm,'" I proceeded; "'and with these the owners float quietly down the stream; one beehive yields the proprietor a considerable income. Why, he adds, a method similar to this has never been adopted in England, where we have more gentle rivers and more flowery banks than in any other part of the world, I know not; certainly it might be turned to advantage, and yield the possessor a secure, though perhaps a moderate, income.'"
I was very fond of the canal which ran near us (and was, for that matter, a parish boundary): and the barges, with their cargoes, were always interesting to me; but a bargeful of bees seemed something quite out of the common. I thought I should rather like to float down a gentle river between flowery banks, surrounded by beehives on which I could rely to furnish me with a secure though moderate income; and I said so.
"So should I, sir," said the bee-master. "And I should uncommon like to ha' seen the one beehive that brought in a considerable income. Honey must have been very dear in those parts, Master Jack. However, it's in the book, so I suppose it's right enough."
I made no defence of the veracity of the Cyclopaedia, for I was thinking of something else, of which, after a few moments, I spoke.
"Isaac, you don't stay with your bees on the moors. Do you ever go to see them?"
"To be sure I do, Master Jack, nigh every Sunday through the season. I start after I get back from morning church, and I come home in the dark, or by moonlight. My missus goes to church in the afternoons, and for that bit she locks up the house."
"Oh, I wish you'd take me the next time!" said I.
"To be sure I will, and too glad sir, if you're allowed to go."
That was the difficulty, and I knew it. No one who has not lived in a household of old-fashioned middle-class country folk of our type has any notion how difficult it is for anybody to do anything unusual therein. In such a well-fitted but unelastic establishment the dinner-hour, the carriage horses, hot water, bedtime, candles, the post, the wash-day, and an extra blanket, from being the ministers of one's comfort, become the stern arbiters of one's fate. Spring cleaning—which is something like what it would be to build, paint, and furnish a house, and to "do it at home"—takes place as naturally as the season it celebrates; but if you want the front door kept open after the usual hour for drawing the bolts and hanging the robbers' bell, it's odds if the master of the house has not an apoplectic fit, and if servants of twelve and fourteen years' standing do not give warning.
And what is difficult on week-days is on Sundays next door to impossible, for obvious reasons.
But one's parents, though they have their little ways like other people, are, as a rule—oh, my heart! made sadder and wiser by the world's rough experiences, bear witness!—very indulgent; and after a good many ups and downs, and some compromising and coaxing, I got my way.
On one point my mother was firm, and I feared this would be an insuperable difficulty. I must go twice to church, as our Sunday custom was—a custom which she saw no good reason for me to break. It is easy to smile at her punctiliousness on this score; but after all these years, and on the whole, I think she was right. An unexpected compromise came to my rescue, however: Isaac Irvine's bees were in the parish of Cripple Charlie's father, within a stone's throw (by the bee-master's strong arm) of the church itself, which was a small minster among the moors. Here I promised faithfully to attend Evening Prayer, for which we should be in time; and I started, by Isaac Irvine's side, on my first real "expedition" on the first Sunday in August, with my mother's blessing and a threepenny-bit with a hole in it, "in case of a collection."
We dined before we started, I with the rest, and Isaac in our kitchen; but I had no great appetite—I was too much excited—and I willingly accepted some large sandwiches made with thick slices of home-made bread and liberal layers of home-made potted meat, "in case I should feel hungry" before I got there.
It pains me to think how distressed my mother was because I insisted on carrying the sandwiches in a red and orange spotted handkerchief, which I had purchased with my own pocket-money, and to which I was deeply attached, partly from the bombastic nature of the pattern, and partly because it was big enough for any grown-up man. "It made me look like a tramping sailor," she said. I did not tell her that this was precisely the effect at which I aimed, though it was the case; but I coaxed her into permitting it, and I abstained from passing a certain knowing little ash stick through the knot, and hoisting the bundle over my left shoulder, till I was well out of the grounds.
My efforts to spare her feelings on this point, however, proved vain. She ran to the landing-window to watch me out of sight, and had a full view of my figure as I swaggered with a business-like gait by Isaac's side up the first long hill, having set my hat on the back of my head with an affectation of profuse heat, my right hand in the bee-master's coat-pocket for support, and my left holding the stick and bundle at an angle as showy and sailor-like as I could assume.
"And they'll just meet the Ebenezer folk coming out of chapel, ma'am!" said our housemaid over my mother's shoulder, by way of consolation.
Our journey was up-hill, for which I was quite prepared. The blue and purple outline of the moors formed the horizon line visible from our gardens, whose mistiness or clearness was prophetic of the coming weather, and over which the wind was supposed to blow with uncommon "healthfulness." I had been there once to blow away the whooping-cough, and I could remember that the sandy road wound up and up, but I did not appreciate till that Sunday how tiring a steady ascent of nearly five miles may be.
We were within sight of the church and within hearing of the bells, when we reached a wayside trough, whose brimming measure was for ever overflowed by as bright a rill as ever trickled down a hill-side.
"It's only the first peal," said Master Isaac, seating himself on the sandy bank, and wiping his brows.
My well-accustomed ears confirmed his statement. The bells moved too slowly for either the second or the third peal, and we had twenty minutes at our disposal.
It was then that I knew (for the first but not the last time) what refreshment for the weary a spotted handkerchief may hold. The bee-master and I divided the sandwiches, and washed them down with handfuls of the running rill, so fresh, so cold, so limpid, that (like the saints and martyrs of a faith) it would convert any one to water-drinking who did not reflect on the commoner and less shining streams which come to us through lead pipes and in evil communication with sewers.
We were cool and tidy by the time that the little "Tom Tinkler" bell began to "hurry up."
"You're coming, aren't you?" said I, checked at the churchyard gate by an instinct of some hesitation on Isaac's part.
"Well, I suppose I am, sir," said the bee-master, and in he came.
The thick walls, the stained windows, and the stone floor, which was below the level of the churchyard, made the church very cool. Master Isaac and I seated ourselves so that we had a good view within, and could also catch a peep through the open porch of the sunlit country outside. Charlie's father was in his place when we got in; his threadbare coat was covered by the white linen of his office, and I do not think it would have been possible even to my levity to have felt anything but a respectful awe of him in church.
The cares of this life are not as a rule improving to the countenance. No one who watches faces can have failed to observe that more beauty is marred and youth curtailed by vulgar worry than by almost any other disfigurement. In the less educated classes, where self-control is not very habitual, and where interests beyond petty and personal ones are rare, the soft brows and tender lips of girlhood are too often puckered and hardened by mean anxieties, even where these do not affect the girls personally, but only imitatively, and as the daily interests of their station in life. In such cases the discontented, careworn look is by no means a certain indication of corresponding suffering, but there are too many others in which tempers that should have been generous, and faces that should have been noble, and aims that should have been high, are blurred and blunted by the real weight of real everyday care.
There are yet others; in which the spirit is too strong for mortal accidents to pull it down—minds that the narrowest career cannot vulgarize—faces to which care but adds a look of pathos—souls which keep their aims and faiths apart from the fluctuations of "the things that are seen." The personal influence of natures of this type is generally very large, and it was very large in the case of Cripple Charlie's father, and made him a sort of Prophet, Priest, and King over a rough and scattered population, with whom the shy, scholarly poor gentleman had not otherwise much in common.
It was his personal influence, I am sure, which made the congregation so devout! There is one rule which, I believe, applies to all congregations, of every denomination, and any kind of ritual, and that is, that the enthusiasm of the congregation is in direct proportion to the enthusiasm of the minister; not merely to his personal worth, nor even to his popularity, for people who rather dislike a clergyman, and disapprove of his service, will say a louder Amen at his giving of thanks if his own feelings have a touch of fire, than they would to that of a more perfunctory parson whom they liked better. As is the heartiness of the priest, so is the heartiness of the people—with such strictness that one is disposed almost to credit some of it to actual magnetism. Response is no empty word in public worship.
It was no empty word on this occasion. From the ancient clerk (who kept a life-interest in what were now the duties of a choir) to some gaping farm-lads at my back, everybody said and sang to the utmost of his ability. I may add that Isaac and I involuntarily displayed a zeal which was in excess of our Sunday customs; and if my tongue moved glibly enough with the choir, the bee-master found many an elderly parishioner besides himself and the clerk who "took" both prayer and praise at such independent paces as suited their individual scholarship, spectacles, and notions of reverence.
It crowned my satisfaction when I found that there was to be a collection. The hymn to which the churchwardens moved about, gathering the pence, whose numbers and noisiness seemed in keeping with the rest of the service, was a well-known one to us all. It was the favourite evening hymn of the district. I knew every syllable of it, for Jem and I always sang hymns (and invariably this one) with my dear mother, on Sunday evening after supper. When we were good, we liked it, and, picking one favourite after another, we often sang nearly through the hymn-book. When we were naughty, we displayed a good deal of skill in making derisive faces behind my mother's back, as she sat at the piano, without betraying ourselves, and in getting our tongues out and in again during the natural pauses and convolutions of the tune. But these occasional fits of boyish profanity did not hinder me from having an equally boyish fund of reverence and enthusiasm at the bottom of my heart, and it was with proud and pleasurable emotions that I heard the old clerk give forth the familiar first lines,
"Soon shall the evening star with silver ray Shed its mild lustre o'er this sacred day,"
and got my threepenny-bit ready between my finger and thumb.
Away went the organ, which was played by the vicar's eldest daughter—away went the vicar's second daughter, who "led the singing" from the vicarage pew with a voice like a bird—away went the choir, which, in spite of surplices, could not be cured of waiting half a beat for her—and away went the congregation—young men and maidens, old men and children—in one broad tide of somewhat irregular harmony. Isaac did not know the words as well as I did, so I lent him my hymn-book; one result of which was, that the print being small, and the sense of a hymn being in his view a far more important matter than the sound of it, he preached rather than sang—in an unequal cadence which was perturbing to my more musical ear—the familiar lines,
"Still let each awful truth our thoughts engage, That shines revealed on inspiration's page; Nor those blest hours in vain amusement waste Which all who lavish shall lament at last."
During the next verse my devotions were a little distracted by the gradual approach of a churchwarden for my threepenny-bit, which was hot with three verses of expectant fingering. Then, to my relief, he took it, and the bee-master's contribution, and I felt calmer, and listened to the little prelude which it was always the custom for the organist to play before the final verse of a hymn. It was also the custom to sing the last verse as loudly as possible, though this is by no means invariably appropriate. It fitted the present occasion fairly enough. From where I stood I could see the bellows-blower (the magnetic current of enthusiasm flowed even to the back of the organ) nerve himself to prodigious pumping—Charlie's sister drew out all the stops—the vicar passed from the prayer-desk to the pulpit with the rapt look of a man who walks in a prophetic dream—we pulled ourselves together, Master Isaac brought the hymn book close to his glasses, and when the tantalizing prelude was past we burst forth with a volume which merged all discrepancies. As far as I am able to judge of my own performance, I fear I bawled (I'm sure the boy behind me did),