The following is not a child's story. It is intended for those who are interested in children; for those who are willing to stoop to view life as it appears to a child, and to enter for half-an-hour into the manifold small interests, hopes, joys, and trials which make up its sum.
It has been thought that the lives of children, as known by themselves, from their own little point of view, are not always sufficiently realized; that they are sometimes overlooked or misunderstood; and to throw some light, however faint, upon the subject, is one of the objects of this little story.
So much of it has been gathered from observation and recollection, that the author cannot help hoping it may not entirely fail of its aim.
Ever since the nursery dinner has the rain come pouring down all over the fields and meadows, the lawns and gardens, the roofs and gables of old Wareham Abbey, in the county of Sussex.
Ever since the cloth was cleared away have two little curly heads been pressed close together at the nursery window, and two pair of eager eyes been watching the clouds and sky.
What a dreadful wet afternoon! It is so particularly tiresome, as their father is expected home to-day, and had promised the two little brothers that they should come and meet him at the station.
There would be no room for Virginie in the dog-cart, and so, if they promised to sit very still, and not stand on the wheel to get in, or jump out before the carriage had stopped, or do anything else equally extraordinary, they were to have been trusted to old Peter, the coachman, and what fun that would have been!
To get away from Virginie for so long was the height of human enjoyment. She seemed to them a being created on purpose to interfere with every plan of enjoyment, to foresee danger where they only saw fun, and so bring the shadow of her everlasting "Ne faites pas ceci, ne faites pas cela," across the sunny path of their boyish schemes and pastimes.
Poor Virginie! if she had been brought to the bar of their young judgments, she would have been at once condemned without any reference to extenuating circumstances. And yet she was, in the main a good, well-meaning woman, but unfortunately gifted with "nerves;" and the responsibility of the entire charge of the children of a widower, who was a great deal away from home, made her life an anxious one, more especially as they were a pair of the most reckless creatures that ever were born—fearless of danger, heedless of consequences, and deaf to entreaty or remonstrance.
Little Miles, the youngest, as she often told their father, was well enough alone; she could manage him perfectly, for, being only four years old, he was amenable to authority; but "Monsieur Humphrey!"
Words always failed Virginie at this juncture. She could only throw up her hands, and raise her eyes to the ceiling, with a suppressed exclamation.
Sir Everard Duncombe was a member of Parliament, and during the session was almost entirely in London, so that beyond his Saturday to Monday at the Abbey, his children saw but little of him at this time of the year.
During these flying visits he was overwhelmed with complaints of all M. Humphrey had done during the past week: how he would climb impossible trees and jump from impossible heights; how he had gone into the stables right under the horses' heels, or taken a seat in the kennel, with the blood-hound; how narrowly he had escaped tumbling over the ha-ha one day, and slipping into the pond the next; in fact there was no end to his misdemeanors.
But the point on which Virginie harped was, that he led his little brother into all sorts of mischief; for what Humphrey did, Miles would do too, and where Humphrey went, Miles was ready to follow.
It was quite another thing, as Virginie urged, for Miles. Humphrey was proof against colds, coughs, and accidents of all kinds; but little Miles was physically weaker, and had moreover a tendency to a delicate chest and to croup; so that cold winds, and wet feet, and over-exertion, could not be too carefully avoided.
Timid and gentle by nature, clinging and affectionate by disposition, he was just the child a father delights in, and to him Sir Everard's affections were almost wholly given.
Lady Duncombe had observed her husband's partiality for his younger boy for some time before her death, and had more than once taxed him with it.
"Miles is such a little coaxing thing," he answered, taking the child up in his arms, and stroking the little curly head which nestled at once so contentedly down on his shoulder. "If I took Humphrey up, he would struggle to get down, and be climbing over the tables and chairs."
"Humphrey is three years older," argued Lady Duncombe; "you could not expect him to sit so still as a baby not yet two: but he is quite as affectionate as Miles, in a different way."
"It may be so," Sir Everard returned "but it is very engaging when a little creature clings to one in this way, and sits for hours in one's lap."
Lady Duncombe did not answer, but her eye wandered from the fair-haired baby and rested on her eldest boy, who for three years had been her only child. To her, at least, he was an object of pride and pleasure. She gloried in his manly ways, his untiring spirits and activity; and loved his rough caresses quite as well as the more coaxing ways of his baby brother.
How she delighted to see him come rushing headlong into the room, and make one bound into her lap, even if he did knock down a chair or so on his way, upset her work-box and its contents, and dirty the sofa with his muddy boots. What then! Did not his eager kisses rain upon her cheek? Were not his dear rough arms round her neck? Did she not know what a loving heart beat under his apparent heedlessness and forgetfulness? What if he forgot every injunction and every promise, if he did not forget her! What if he took heed of no one and nothing, if her look and her kiss were always sought and cared for!
Oh! it was a sad day for little Humphrey Duncombe when that mother was taken away from him: when the long, wasting illness ended in death: when the hollow eye, which to the last had rested on him, closed for ever on this world; and the thin, transparent hands were folded for the last time on the breast where he should never again hide his curly head, and sob out his confessions and repentance.
Sir Everard, overwhelmed by the blow which had fallen on him, hardly saw his children during the early days of his bereavement.
When he did, he was surprised to find Humphrey much the same as ever; still noisy and heedless, still full of mischief, and apparently forgetful of what had happened.
"He has not much heart," was his inward comment, as he watched the little figure, in its deep mourning, chasing the young lambs in the meadow.
Sir Everard saw the boy to all appearance the same, because he saw him in his moments of forgetfulness, when nature and childhood had asserted their rights, and the buoyancy of the boy's disposition had enabled him to throw off the memory of his sorrow: but he did not see him when the sense of his loss was upon him; did not see the face change, when the recollection came over him; did not hear the familiar name half uttered, and then choked by a sob. He did not see the rush to the drawing-room, with some new treasure, some new plan to be unfolded—and the sudden stop at the door, as the thought swept over him that on the well-known sofa there is now no mother's smile awaiting him, no ever-ready ear to listen and sympathize, no loving kiss, no responsive voice: and the low sob of pain, the listless drop of the arms to the side, and the rush away into the open air, away and away, anywhere, to escape from the grief and the longing, and the blank sense of desolation.
Only He, who dwelling in the highest heaven, yet vouchsafes to behold the lowest creature here upon earth, knew what was in the heart of the boy; as no one but He saw the pillow wet with tears, and heard the cry breaking forth in the dead of the night from the inmost recesses of the poor little orphaned heart. "Oh, mother! mother! what shall I do without you!"
All this had happened nearly two years before the day of which I am speaking, when the rain was acting its time-hackneyed part before the two little spectators at the window.
It had faded out of little Miles' mind as if it had never been; he could not even remember his mother; but in the mind of the elder boy her memory was still, at times, fresh and green.
Weeks and months might pass without his thoughts dwelling on her, but all of a sudden, a flower, a book, or some little thing that had belonged to her, would bring it all back, and then the little chest would heave, the curly head would droop, and the merry brown eyes be dimmed by a rush of tears.
There was a full-length picture in the now unused drawing-room of Lady Duncombe, with Humphrey in her arms; and at these times, or when he was in some trouble with Virginie, the boy would steal in there, and lie curled up on the floor in the darkened room; putting himself in the same attitude that he was in in the picture, and then try to fancy he felt her arms round him, and her shoulder against his head.
There were certain days when the room was scrubbed and dusted; when the heavy shutters were opened, and the daylight streamed upon the picture. Then the two little brothers might be seen standing before it, while the elder detailed to the younger all he could remember about her.
Miles had the greatest respect and admiration for Humphrey. A boy of seven, who wears knickerbockers, is always an object of veneration to one of four, who is as yet limited to blouses: but Miles' imagination could not soar beyond the library and dining-room; and he could not remember the drawing-room otherwise than a closed room; so his respect grew and intensified as he listened to Humphrey's glowing description of the past glories of the house, when the drawing-room was one blaze of light, when there were muslin curtains in the windows, and chintz on all the chairs; and mother lay on the sofa, with her work-table by her side.
Dim and shadowy was the little fellow's idea of the "mother" of whom his brother always spoke in softened tones and with glistening eyes; but that she was something very fair and holy he was quite sure.
Deep was his sense of his inferiority to Humphrey in this respect; and a feeling akin to shame would steal over him when one of their long conversations would be abruptly put an end to by Humphrey's quick, contemptuous "It's no use trying to make you understand, because you don't remember her."
A very wistful look would come over the pretty little face on these occasions, and he would humbly admit his great degradation.
It was Miles' admiration for his brother that was the bane of Virginie's life. Timid by nature, Miles became bold when Humphrey led the way; obedient and submissive by himself, at Humphrey's bidding he would set Virginie at defiance, and for the time be as mischievous as he.
That "l'union fait la force," Virginie had long since discovered, to the ruin of her nerves and temper.
And now Virginie has several times suggested that if Humphrey will submit to a water-proof coat, and goloshes, he may go and meet his father at the station; and Humphrey has consented to come to terms if Miles may go too.
But here Virginie is firm. No amount of wrapping up would prevent Miles catching cold on so damp and rainy a day, as she knows well, by fatal experience; so the fiat has gone forth, either Humphrey will go alone, or both will stay at home.
"Don't go," pleaded little Miles, as they pressed their faces against the window; "it will be so dull all alone with Virginie."
"She's a cross old thing," muttered Humphrey; "but never mind, Miles, I won't go without you, and we'll count the raindrops on the window to make the time pass quick."
This interesting employment had the desired effect, and the next half-hour soon slipped by. Indeed, it was so engrossing, that the dog-cart came up the avenue, and was nearly at the hall door, before the little boys perceived it.