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THE EXCURSION (NOT WORDSWORTH's).
In spite of my lowered voice, the Scamp's quick ear must have caught each word, for, with an excited jump upon his seat, and a quick, eager glance along the faces turned expectantly towards our end of the table, he burst out, regardless of all customary restraint, "Hurrah! hurrah! We are going The Excursion to-morrow, boys!"
At this unexpected piece of intelligence, there was a halfstifled roar of delighted surprise all round the room, and then, as though suddenly seized with an impression that the usual bounds of propriety had been unduly exceeded, all eyes turned instantaneously upon Mrs. Royce, with a view of ascertaining, if possible, what effect such unwonted behaviour had produced upon her seldom ruffled temper.
Her face, however, was discreetly hidden behind her handkerchief, but the expression in her eyes, as she looked from Mrs. Hughes to her daughter, and back again to the Scamp, told us plainly enough that we might safely indulge in a moderate burst of exultation, without fear of being checked.
Indeed, the extraordinary contortions of the Scamp in his praiseworthy attempt to subdue the expression of his feelings, until he might give unrestrained vent to them, were quite ludicrous enough to send others besides Harry and little Mary Hughes into almost uncontrollable fits of sympathetic laughter.
The next morning all was excitement, until the brake and four horses drove up, which, fortunately for every one's peace of mind, occurred almost as soon as we had dismissed a hasty, early breakfast.
We amused ourselves, during the interval before we were allowed to mount, by watching the various hampers and parcels as they were carried out one after the other, and stowed away on the box, and under the seats, most of them being greeted with pleasantly jocular remarks as to their size and probable
Then, when the signal was given, in we all scrambled, helterskelter, amongst a whirl of confused cries from one to another of " Come and sit here!" "You can't stay there, that's my seat," or "Go and squat over there, can't you?" and so on.
At length we were really off, and fairly on our way. Through the quiet village, almost deserted at this time of the morning, except within the doors of the great cloth-mills abounding everywhere, and out again into the deep country lanes beyond.
No need to amuse us in any way, during this first stage of our journey. Each field and cottage, every wood and overhanging tree, all the birds and the animals, the flowers, the country folk wending their way to the town, all and every one had their own special charm to our delighted sight just then, and even the sun came in for a large share of popular attention, all the more, probably, for the dreaded clouds which seemed to be gathering up, and threatening to dim his bright glory for awhile. Then what fun it was to lean far over the side of the brake, and watch the hot horses drinking, when we pulled up, half way to our destination, before the doors of an old-fashioned, ivy-covered inn, where both the quadrupeds and their driver could have an opportunity of slaking their thirst.
How impatient the horses were to drink, and how envious they seemed of each other!
For the hostler only brought one bucket for all four, and they were piteous eyes of entreaty that the "leader" turned
upon him, as he took the cooling draught first of all to the "wheelers."
And when at length it came to the front, it was too tantalizing to hear the plash of the water, and see it dripping from his companion's lips: so, with a resistless impulse, he suddenly thrust his nose into the coveted bucket, and tried to oust the other out. But the hostler, disapproving of such greedy conduct, punished him by giving the old grey a longer draught, whilst the repulsed bay stood looking on, with wide open nostrils, the drops he had managed to reach just moistening his eager mouth, and making him long for a closer acquaintance with the heaven-sent liquid.
Then our coachman made his appearance once more, and though he did not appear to have stinted himself with respect to drink, he would not hear of the horses being allowed to satisfy their thirst. Mounting the box, he took the reins from Willie Knowles, and pulling up the reluctant leader's head from the depths of the bucket, cracked his whip, and started us once more upon the road. It was a very beautiful place that we had come to. A great hill stretching gently away, until a point was reached at which it seemed to have abruptly paused -as though to survey the surpassing loveliness of the plain below-and so had never remembered to move on again.
The view from this side, whence it descended so steeply to the valley beneath, was certainly magnificent.
A mighty plain lay mapped out before us, its hedge-rows and its wooded knolls, its clustering hamlets and tapering spires, its farm-houses and country seats, the pleasant lanes winding up hill and down dale, all lying peacefully at our feet, in a grand confusion of light and shadow under the shifting clouds.
Away towards the centre of the landscape rolled the mighty Severn, looking like a great shining serpent, coiling its silver sides in and out amongst the dark woods and verdant pastures, and glistening with dazzling brilliance wherever the sunshine caught it in its winding course.
Shutting off the horizon right in front of us were the Welsh mountains, the haze arising from their smoking furnaces dimly perceptible, even at this great distance.
And then the eye, instinctively following the line of the mighty hills, caught sight, on the extreme right, of the high range of the Malvern hills, lying out there like some purple bank of clearly-defined, beautifully-formed clouds, tinged here and there with the bright light of the morning sun. Back once more, right in the opposite direction, one sees the Severn, widening until it attains the dimensions and title of the Channel, where the horizon is bounded by one vast expanse of gleaming water, stretching so far away that one cannot readily distinguish the spot at which the clouds appear to dip into it, before setting off on their journey to the sun.
We sat there on the summit for a long time, gazing at the vale spread out before our eyes; even the restless Scamp being contented, for once, to sit perfectly quiet and almost speechless : until Anne, coming up amongst us unobserved, broke the spell by the welcome news that dinner was quite ready. At this piece of intelligence, a regular stampede took place towards the tree under which that feast was spread, which had, alas! such far stronger attractions for only too many of us than those less material ones which Nature had so bountifully provided.
It was no slight consolation to us short-legged urchins to reflect, as we ran, that those who headed the rush were forced to wait until Mrs. Royce's arrival, before they could commence operations so that they had gained no additional advantage by their superior fleetness-unless it were, indeed, the very doubtful one of choice of seats; and these, being merely the cushions from the brake, spread upon the ground, were superior or inferior only according to their position in relation to certain especially tempting dishes, which adorned the snowy whiteness of the table-cloth at sundry particular spots.
What fun it was, dining in the open air! and what gaping holes we soon made in the plentiful supply of meat pies, hams,
cold joints, and plum puddings! to say nothing of the hardboiled eggs, which looked so shiny and smooth when stripped of their shells, and which we could roll about on the cloth with no fear of any mess if they should haplessly break, and, on this one day, without any chance of our amusement being cut short by a stern request to remember our manners.
Boys, too, have far less aversion to an occasional insect on their plate, or in their glass, than a more elderly person might have; consequently, in our estimation, no drawback to the perfect enjoyment of the meal was experienced by any one of our number.
Some of the boys, who had brought their butterfly nets, set off after dinner to try their luck amongst the bushes and the grassy hollows scattered about on the brow of the hill.
They did not prove very successful in their pursuit, however, for the season was getting rather far advanced; so Harry and I soon left them, and went to join those who were playing cricket.
They were not playing "sides," so we were at once permitted to take our places as fielders, and to come in to the wickets as soon as our turn came round,-which, to our delight, happened very shortly.
"You see," said Bob North, winking to Smedley, who was wicket-keeper just then, "they'll be useful as fielders, and won't be able to stop in any time, scarcely,-either of 'em."
"Oh, come!" cried Willie Knowles, "as umpire I object to that kind of bowling for a youngster like this."
"All right!" replied Smedley, who was bowling to me round-arm, just as he had done to my predecessor. Then he added, good-naturedly, "I'll give him some underhand, then; look out for the 'twist,' young 'un."
Up came the ball, not in the least straight for my wickets, apparently, and at a pace that was quite reassuring, after the alarming velocity of that first one which we honoured by describing as "swift." So I swiped boldly out, missed the ball, to my surprise, and very nearly lost my balance as well. Then