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So, with arms twined in arms, the tear-drops still wet upon my lashes, and the tear-stains fresh upon my cheeks, I sank into a heavy, troubled slumber.
Two months passed, and my violent grief had long since changed into complete satisfaction with my altered circumstances. Of course, at times, I felt low-spirited, and yearned, with a bitter yearning, for the old days of home life, now so irretrievably departed; but in the main, my life was as happy as the days were long. For there must be ups and downs in our existence, and the level sward, or the run down hill, comes all the more gratefully after a stiff piece of weary plodding up the steep hill side.
"I say, Bernie," said Harry Morland to me one night, "did you ever see a pantomime ?"
He and I were alone. Every one else was out in the garden for the half-hour before tea-time. The evening was so enticingly fine, and the garden walks so cool and pleasant, after the fiery heat of a September day, that even the teachers had all strolled out to enjoy the scent of the flowers, and the balmy softness of the air.
Having been unwell, I was forced to stop indoors; so Harry had volunteered to keep me company.
The fine, large hall made a splendid play place, and, with the inner porch doors closed, was as cosy as any room need be. Sitting down on a low seat in the window, Harry explained to me, in his peculiar, juvenile manner, the meaning of his question, for I had confessed to a complete ignorance of the subject.
"You see, Father always takes Phil and Emmy, every Christmas, and he promised to let me go too, as soon as I turned seven. Well, last winter I begged hard to be taken, because my birthday was in March, and then I should have had to wait three-quarters of a year, don't you see?
"Oh my! it was jolly fun! And then, in the middle, all
attitude, and looking at Harry with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, as he suddenly became aware of my presence, "who-"
Here he stopped abruptly, and stooping down hastily, caught poor bunny up by her long lop ears, and began to caress her affectionately. He was a gentle, shy boy, who was easily put out of countenance by the presence of a stranger, even though he were of such modest pretensions as myself.
"This is the new boy-Bernard Ayres," explained Harry, evidently considering the duty of introduction his by acquired right.
"We are going to show him the white mice and guineapigs and things," added Johnnie Harris, anxious to share in doing the honours of the place to the new boy.
So the cage was brought out, and placed upon a convenient bench.
Just at first, never having seen any previously, I was horrified at the way in which the two boys handled their pets.
However, that feeling soon wore off, and I begged to be allowed to hold one of them in my hand. But the mouse was restless, and slipped out of my hand, in spite of the desperate squeezing by which I tried to detain it in my grasp. The next moment I felt it crawling up my sleeve, and, with a terrified cry, wildly attempted to shake it off my arm.
Fortunately Mat Davis saw the danger, and ran to the rescue, laughing kindly at my unnecessary fears, whilst he gently removed the cause of them back into its cage again.
It was wonderful to see how tame and docile the mice were. They allowed their young masters to put them through every kind of exercise, without either attempting to escape, or expressing any objection to the performance, by the use of their sharp little claws or teeth.
They ran up and down a sloping board, passing and repass
ing on the proper sides; they wore small impromptu horsecollars, made from laurel-leaves; they squeezed through tiny circles formed by the boys' fingers; they even drew little cardboard waggons, loaded with pieces of bunny's turnips, chopped into the shape of potatoes, and covered with carrot-tops, representing cabbages, in imitation of a market-gardener's cart. These were sent from one to another to be unloaded, or reladen with a fresh stock of commodities, again and again, until at length the toy-horses began to show signs of fatigue. The programme was evidently more monotonous to them than to their owners, and, once or twice, the more rebellious did their best to escape into the laurels by the aid of a neighbouring bough.
By-and-by they were permitted, after a short run on the ground, to return to their comfortable dwellings. Then, having been supplied with a nut apiece for dessert, and their cotton-wool beds having been carefully shaken, they were left to enjoy their well-earned repose in undisturbed peace.
The next place we visited was the pigeon-house; but as this was fixed high up against the house, we had to content ourselves with merely watching, without handling. Some young birds were just being fed-" squeakers,” Harry said they were called. Most curious it was to see the father take his young ones' bills in his, and force the soft food from his breast down their hungry throats. For until the mother, flying up, drew off the attention of one of them, both the young pair, in their anxiety to be fed, had forced their rosy bills into his, and then such a struggle ensued, that amongst the excitement of the fluttering, and pumping, and wing-flapping, we expected every moment to see one or other of the three fall over.
Our attention was drawn off by an exclamation from Johnnie Harris. Looking up, we noticed, away in the distance, a little flock of pigeons, wheeling swiftly round and round, but flying in our direction.
"It's the tumblers coming home; just you watch them, young 'un!" said Mat, putting his arm round my neck, and pointing upwards to the birds. Ever since he had taken the mouse off my arm, we had been gradually warming into a state of firm friendship.
It was curious to notice what a fashion the boys had, from Willie Knowles, the eldest, downwards, of calling each other "youngster," or 'young 'un;" even Mat Davis and Harry Morland, neither of whom were much older than I, very frequently used one or other of those expressions to me, with a lofty air of patronage.
Sure enough, as we stood watching the pigeons, two of the birds suddenly dropped, in a series of somersets, to a distance of many feet in a straight line. Then off they flew again, as though nothing had happened, to repeat the same performance as the fancy took them.
"Don't they turn head over heels splendidly? I wish I were a pigeon; it must be such jolly fun!" remarked Harry, his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown so far back that his Scotch cap fell off, and lay at his heels.
"Sam-("That's the Scamp, you know," interrupted Harry, addressing me.)-"Sam says that they get suddenly giddy, and can't help tumbling; but I don't believe that, for they always look as though they enjoyed themselves tremendously, and keep on as though they thought it the best lark out,” said Mat, pensively.
"The best 'pigeon' you mean,-not 'lark,'" cried Harry, laughing so heartily at his own very poor witticism, that we all joined in from sympathy.
Just then a bell rang out a loud peal.
"Oh my! it's dinner-time.
Come along, kids!" exclaimed
So the bright blue sky, the fleecy clouds, and the black specks floating about in it must be exchanged for the blue
papered walls, white tablecloth, and savoury odours of the dining-room.
There was the sound of a sudden rush, now, along the path towards the house.
Above it rose a shrill whistle, and clearing the ranks on either side, scuffling his feet, and working his arms like the connecting-rods of an engine, ran a boy, whose fat face and hatless head were crowned by a tangled mass of carroty hair.
He passed us, uttering a succession of puffing, blowing noises, and with a speed which took him out of sight almost directly.
"Sh-sh-sh-sh! Whistle-whistle!" came back to us across the air.
"There goes the Scamp; isn't he a rum 'un?" said Harry. "He's pretending to be an express train, don't you see?” Miss Royce met us at the hall-door.
"Well, Harry," said she, "what have you been doing with your new friend? Have you been very kind to him, and
shown him all that there is to be seen ? "
"Oh, yes, Miss Royce, the rabbits, and the white mice, and the pigeons, and everything."
"That's right. And did you have a nice swing?" she inquired, taking my hand.
"Yes, thank you," I replied. Then, in a very subdued voice, I added, “Please may I go to Susan now?"
I was naturally a very shy child, and now that there was nothing interesting to divert my attention from my own sorrows, a feeling of great loneliness came over me.
"Oh, you must have your hands washed, and your hair brushed, ready for dinner," answered Miss Royce, turning the subject. "Are not you dreadfully hungry after so long a journey? Come with me, and we'll soon have those dirty little puds as clean as ever again. What have you been doing to get them in such a mess, eh?"