“They shouldered arms, and looked straight before them, and wore a splendid uniform, red and blue.”—The Brave Tin Soldier.
The battle was nearly over. Gallant tin soldiers of the line lay where they had fallen; nearly the whole of a shilling box of light cavalry had paid the penalty of rashly exposing themselves in a compact body to the enemy’s fire; while a rickety little field-gun, with bright red wheels, lay overturned on two infantry men, who, even in death, held their muskets firmly to their shoulders, like the grim old “die-hards” that they were. The brigade of guards, a dozen red-coated veterans of solid lead, who had taken up a strong position in the cover of a cardboard box, still held their ground with a desperate valour only equalled by the dogged pluck of a similar body of the enemy, who had occupied the inkstand with the evident intention of remaining there until the last cartridge had been expended.
Another volley swept the intervening stretch of tablecloth, and the deadly missiles glanced against the glass bottles and rattled among the pencils and penholders. Two men fell without a cry, and lay motionless with their heads resting on the pen-wiper.”Look here, Barbara, you’re cheating! You put in more than two peas that time, I know.”
“How d’you know I did?” she cried.
“Because I saw them hit. There were three at least, and the rule was that we weren’t to fire more than two at a time.”
“There weren’t three, then,” retorted the girl, laughing, and shaking back her tangled locks with an impatient movement of her head. “There were six! Ha! ha! I put them all in my mouth at once, and you never noticed.”
“Oh, you little cheat!” cried the boy. “I’ll lick you.”
The threat had evidently no terrors for her. She danced wildly round the table, crying, “Six! six! six!” and when at length he caught her, and held her by the waist, she turned round and rapped him smartly on the head with a tin pea-shooter.
At this stage of the proceedings a lady, who had been sitting in a low chair by the fire, looked up from her book.
“Come, come!” she said pleasantly. “I thought the day was past when generals fought single combats in front of their men. Isn’t that true, Valentine?”
The tussle ceased at once; the boy released his sister, who laughed, and shook herself like a small kitten.
“She’s been cheating!” he exclaimed.
“I fired six peas instead of two!” cried the culprit, evidently delighted with her little piece of wickedness. “And I knocked over two of his silly old soldiers.”
A girl, somewhat older than Valentine, though very like him in face, laid down her needlework, saying, with a quiet smile,—
“All’s fair in love and war, isn’t it, Barbara?”
“Yes, of course it is,” answered her sister.
“It’s not—is it, aunt?” retorted the boy.
The lady rose from her chair, and, with a merry twinkle in her eye, came over to the table.
“Well, we’ll hope not,” she said. “Why, Val, I should have thought you were too old to play with tin soldiers; you were fourteen last birthday.”
“I don’t think I shall ever be tired of playing with them—that is,” he added, “until I’m with real ones.”
“Queen Mab,” as the children sometimes called her, was below the medium height, and as she stood by her nephew’s side his head reached above the level of her shoulder. She glanced over the mimic battlefield, and then down at the bright, healthy-looking young face at her side, with its honest grey eyes and resolute little mouth and chin. The old words, “food for powder,” came into her mind, and she laid her hand lightly on his rumpled hair.
“So you still mean to be a soldier?”
“Yes, rather; and father says I may.”
Miss Fenleigh was silent for a moment. “Ah, well,” she said at length, “a happy time will come some day when there will be no more war; and I think it’s about time this one ceased, for Jane will be here in a minute to clear the table for tea.”
If Valentine or either of his sisters had been asked to describe their Aunt Mabel, they would probably have done so by saying she was the best and dearest person in the world; and accepting this assertion as correct, it would be difficult to say more. Her house also was one of the most delightful places which could well be imagined; and there, since their mother’s death, the children spent each year the greater part of their summer holidays.
It was a dear, easy-going old house, with stairs a little out of the straight, and great beams appearing in unexpected places in the bedroom ceilings. There were brass locks with funny little handles to the doors, and queer alcoves and cupboards let into the walls. There was no fusty drawing-room, with blinds always drawn down, and covers to the chairs, but two cosy parlours meant for everyday use, the larger of which was panelled with dark wood which reflected the lamp and firelight, and somehow seemed to be ready to whisper to one stories of the days when wood was used for wall-paper, and when houses were built with sliding panels in the walls and hiding-places in the chimneys. The garden exactly matched the house, and so did the flowers that grew in it—the pink daisies, “boy’s love,” sweet-williams, and hollyhocks, all of which might be picked as well as looked at. Visitors never had a chance of stealing the fruit, because they were always invited to eat it as soon as it was ripe, or even before, if they preferred.
There were a lawn, and a paddock, and a shrubbery, the last so much overgrown that it resembled a little forest, and often did duty for a miniature “merry Sherwood,” when the present of some bows and arrows caused playing at Robin Hood and his men to become a popular pastime. Lastly, there was the stable, where Jessamine, the little fat pony, and the low basket-carriage were lodged; and above was the loft, a charming place, which had been in turn a ship, a fortress, a robbers’ cave, and a desert island. Up there were loads of hay and bundles of straw, which could be built up or rolled about in; the place was always in a romantic twilight; there were old, deserted spiders’ webs hanging to the roof, looking like shops to let, which never did any business; and the ascent and descent of the perpendicular ladder from the ground floor was quite an adventure in itself. To picture a ship on which one had to go aloft to enter the cabin would seem rather a difficult task; but a child’s imagination is the richest in the world, and though Valentine and his sisters had grown rather too old for this style of amusement, every fresh visit to Brenlands was made brighter by recollections of the many happy ones which had preceded it, and of all the fun and frolic they had already enjoyed there.
But best and foremost of all the charming things which made the place so bright and attractive was Queen Mab herself. She never said that little people ought to be seen and not heard; and there never was a person so easy to tell one’s troubles to, or so hard to keep a secret from, as Aunt Mabel. No one in the world could ever have told stories as well as she did. “The Brave Tin Soldier” and “The Ugly Duckling” were the favourites, and came in time to be always associated with Brenlands. They had been told so often that the listeners always knew exactly what was coming next, and had the narrator put the number of metal brethren at two dozen instead of twenty-five, or missed out a single stage of the duckling’s wanderings, she would have been instantly tripped up by her audience. But Queen Mab was too skilful a story-teller to leave out the minutest detail in describing the perilous voyage of the paper boat, or to spare the duckling a single snub from the narrow-minded hen or the bumptious tom-cat. The “Tin Soldier” she generally gave in answer to the special request of her small nephew, but she herself seemed to prefer the other story. There, the duckling’s sorrowful wanderings finished with his turning into a swan, and Queen Mab always had a liking for happy endings.
She and the old house were exactly suited to each other, and seemed to share the same fragrant atmosphere, so that wherever her courtiers met her, and flung their arms round her neck, they were instantly reminded of sweet-brier and honeysuckle, jars of dried rose leaves, and all the other delicious scents of Brenlands. The children never noticed that there were streaks of silver in her hair, or that on her left hand she wore a mourning ring; nor did they know the reason why, on a certain day in the year, she seemed, if possible, more kind and loving than on any other, and went away somewhere early in the morning with a big bunch of flowers, and came back with the basket empty.
“Aunt,” said Barbara, “what’s an old maid?”
“Why, I’m one!” answered Queen Mab, laughing; whereupon it became every one’s ambition to live a life of single blessedness. When there was cherry-tart for dinner, an alarming number of stones were secretly swallowed, in order that the person guilty of this abominable piece of sharp practice might count out, “This year—Next year—Some time—Never!” and at old maid’s cards the object of the game was now reversed, and instead of trying to “go out,” every one strove to remain in, the fortunate being in whose hands the “old maid” remained at the finish always brandishing the hitherto detested card with a shriek of triumph.
The last trace of the mimic battle had been cleared away, and now where tin cavalry had ridden boldly to their fate, and lead guards had died but not surrendered, nothing was to be seen but peaceful plum-cake, or bread and butter cut in thin and appetizing slices.
“I’m sorry you weren’t able to make a longer stay,” said Aunt Mabel, as she poured out the tea. “But your father said he couldn’t spare you for more than a week at Easter. However, the summer will soon be here, and then you will come again for a proper visit. By-the-bye, Valentine, d’you know that your cousin Jack is coming to be a school-fellow of yours at Melchester?”
“No, aunt; is that Uncle Basil’s son?”
“Yes; I want you to make friends with him, and bring him over here on your half-term holiday. I hope he will come for a few weeks at midsummer, and then you will all be able to have a jolly time together.”
“How old is he?” asked Valentine.
“Oh, I think he is about a year older than you are—fifteen or thereabouts.”
Barbara had fished a stranger out of her cup, and was smiting the back of one plump little hand against the other, to the accompaniment of “Monday—Tuesday—Wednesday,” and so on.
“Aunt Mab,” she said suddenly, “how is it we never hear anything of Uncle Basil, or that he never comes to visit us? What’s Jack like?”
“Well, I can hardly tell you,” replied Miss Fenleigh; “I’ve only seen him once, poor boy, and that was several years ago.”
“But why don’t we ever see Uncle Basil?” persisted Barbara. “You often come and visit us, and why doesn’t he?”
“Well, I live within ten miles of your house, and Padbury is thirty or forty miles on the other side of Melchester.”
“But that isn’t very far by railway; and if he can’t come, why doesn’t he write?”
Aunt Mabel seemed perplexed what reply to make, but at this moment the boy came to her rescue.
“Don’t ask so many questions, Bar,” he said.
Miss Barbara was always ready for a tussle, with words or any other weapons. “Pooh!” she answered, “whom d’you think you’re talking to? I know what it is, you’re angry because I knocked over more of your soldiers than you did of mine!”
“Yes, you cheated.”
“Fiddles! You thought I’d only got two peas in my mouth, you old stupid, and instead of that I’d got six, six! ha! ha!” And so the discussion continued.
Helen was nearly two years older than Valentine. She was a quiet, thoughtful girl, and later in the evening, when her brother and sister had gone to bed, she remained talking with her aunt in front of the fire. While so doing, she returned to the subject of their conversation at the tea-table.
“Aunt, why is it that father and Uncle Basil never meet?”
“Well, my dear, I didn’t like to talk about it before Val and Barbara; it’s a pity they should hear the story before they are older and can understand it better; besides, I wish the boys to be good friends when they meet at school. Basil and your father had a dispute many years ago about some money matters connected with your grandfather’s will, and I am sorry to say they have never been friends since. Your uncle has always been a very unpractical man; he has wasted his life following up ideas which he thought would bring him success and riches, but which always turned out failures. He always has some fresh fad, and it always brings him fresh trouble. I don’t think he would wilfully wrong any one, but from being always in difficulties and under the weather, his temper has been soured and his judgment warped, and he cannot or will not see that your father acted in a perfectly just and honourable manner, and the consequence is, as I said before, they never made up their quarrel.”
“And Jack is going to the school at Melchester?”
“Yes; and I want Valentine to make friends with him, and for us to have him here in the summer. Poor boy, soon after your mother died, he lost his, and I am afraid his life and home surroundings have not been very happy since. Well, we must try to brighten him up a bit. I’ve no doubt we shall be able to do that when we get him here at Brenlands.”
Categories: English Literature