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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est donc!” exclaimed Virginie, startled by Humphrey’s
jump from the window-sill to the floor.
“C’est mon père,” was all the information he vouchsafed her, as he
rushed out of the room.
“M. votre père! Attendez done que je vous arrange un peu les cheveux.”
She spoke to the winds: nothing was heard of Humphrey but sundry bumps
and jumps in the distance, which told of his rapid descent down the
The more tardy Miles was caught and brushed, in spite of his struggles,
and then he was off to join his brother.
He reached the hall door just as the carriage drove up, and the two
little figures jumped and capered about, while a tall, dark gentleman
divested himself of his mackintosh and umbrella, and then came up the
steps into the house.
He stooped down to kiss the eager faces. “Well, my little fellows, and
how are you both? No bones broken since last week? No new bruises and
They were so taken up with their father, that they did not perceive that
he was not alone, but that another gentleman had got out of the
dog-cart, till Sir Everard said–
“Now go and shake hands with that gentleman. I wonder if you know who he
Humphrey looked up into the young man’s face, and said, while his color
“I think you are my Uncle Charlie, who came to see us once a long time
ago before you went to sea, and before—-”
“Quite right,” said Sir Everard, shortly; “I did not think you would
have remembered him. I daresay, Charlie, Humphrey has not altered very
much; but this little fellow was quite a baby when you went away,” he
added, taking Miles up in his arms, and looking at his brother-in-law
“What a likeness!” exclaimed Uncle Charlie.
Sir Everard put the child down with a sigh.
“Like in more ways than one, I am afraid. Look here,” pointing to the
delicate tracery of the blue veins on the forehead, and the flush on the
Humphrey had been listening intently to this conversation, and his
father being once more occupied with kissing Miles, he advanced to his
uncle, and put his hand confidingly in his.
“You are a nice little man,” said Uncle Charlie, laying his other hand
on the curly head; “we were always good friends, Humphrey. But,” he
added, half to himself, as he turned up the bright face to his, and
gazed at it intently for a moment, “you are not a bit like your mother.”
The dressing-gong now sounded, and the little boys proceeded to their
father’s room, to help or hinder him with his toilette.
Miles devoted himself to the carpet-bag, in expectation of some tempting
paper parcel; while Humphrey’s attentions were given to first one and
then the other of the articles he was extracting from the pocket of the
coat Sir Everard had just thrown off.
A suspicious click made the baronet turn round.
“What have you got hold of, Humphrey?”
An open pocket-knife dropped from the boy’s hand he had just succeeded
in opening the two blades, and was in the act of trying the edges on his
Failing in that experiment, his restless fingers strayed to the
dressing-table, and an ominous silence ensued.
“Humphrey,” shouted his father, “put my razor down.”
In the glass he had caught sight of a well-soaped face, and spoke just
in time to stop the operation.
Punishment always follows sin, and Humphrey was dispatched to the
nursery to have his face sponged and dried.
By taking a slide down the banisters, however, he made up for lost time,
and arrived at the library-door at the same time as his father and
Uncle Charlie was standing by the window, ready dressed; and the gong
sounding at that moment, they all went in to dinner.
The two little brothers had a chair on each side of their father, and an
occasional share in his food.
Dinner proceeded in silence. Uncle Charlie was enjoying his soup, and
Sir Everard, dividing himself between his little boys and his meal.
“It’s William’s birthday to-day,” said Humphrey, breaking silence.
The unfortunate individual in white silk stockings, thus suddenly
brought into public notice, reddened to the roots of his hair; and in
his confusion nearly dropped the dish he was in the act of putting down
before his master.
“He’s twenty-two years old to-day,” continued Humphrey; “he told me so
Sir Everard tried to evince a proper amount of interest in so important
“What o’clock were you born, William?” pursued Humphrey, addressing the
shy young footman at the side-board, where he had retreated with the
dish-cover, and from whence he was making all sorts of signs to his
tormentor, in the vain hope of putting an end to the conversation.
Sir Everard hastily held out a bit of turbot on the end of his fork, and
effectually stopped the boy’s mouth for a few minutes; but no sooner had
he swallowed it, than he broke out again.
“What are you going to give William for his birthday present, father?”
he said, putting his arms on the table, and resting his chin upon them,
that he might the more conveniently look up into his father’s face, and
await his answer.
Lower and lower bent Uncle Charlie’s head over his plate, and his face
became alarmingly suffused with color.
“I know what he’d like,” finished Humphrey, “for he’s told me!”
The unhappy footman snatched up a dish-cover, and began a retreat to the
door; but the inexorable butler handed him the lobster sauce, and he was
obliged to advance with it to his master’s side.
“I said to him to-day,” proceeded Humphrey, in all the conscious glory
of being in William’s confidence, “If father were to give you a birthday
present, what would you like? You remember, don’t you, William? And then
he told me, didn’t you, William?”
The direct form of attack was more than flesh and blood could stand.
William made a rush to the door with the half-filled tray and, in spite
of furious glances from the butler, disappeared, just as Uncle Charlie
gave it up as a bad job, and burst out laughing.
“You must not talk quite so much at dinner, my boy,” said Sir Everard,
when the door was shut; “your uncle and I have not been able to say a
word. I assure you,” he added in an under tone to his brother-in-law,
“these children keep me in constant hot water; I never know what they
will say next.”
When the servants reappeared the gentlemen, to William’s relief, were
talking politics; and Humphrey was devoting his energies to digging
graves in the salt, and burying therein imaginary corpses, represented
by pills he was forming from his father’s bread.
“Will you come and help me with my dinner, next week, Charlie?” said Sir
Everard; “I am going to entertain the aborigines, and I shall want a
little assistance. It is now more than two years since I paid my
constituents any attention, and I feel the time has come.”
“What long words,” said Humphrey, _sotto voce_, as he patted down the
last salt grave, and stuck a bit of parsley, that had dropped from the
fish, on the top of the mound. “Father,” he went on, “what are
“Aborigines?” finished Uncle Charlie. “Wild men of the woods, Humphrey;
half human beings, half animals.”
“And is father going to have them to dinner?” exclaimed Humphrey, in
“Yes,” said Uncle Charlie, enjoying the joke; “it will be fine fun for
you and Miles, won’t it?”
“Oh, won’t it!” echoed Humphrey, jumping down from his chair, and
capering about. “Oh, father! will you promise, before you even ask
Virginie, that we may come down to dinner that night, and see them?”
“Well, I don’t know about dinner,” said Sir Everard; “little boys are
rather in the way on these occasions, especially those who don’t know
how to hold their tongues when they ought; but you shall both come down
in the library and see them arrive.”
At this moment Virginie’s unwelcome head appeared at the door, and her
unwelcome voice proclaimed, “M. Humphrey, M. Miles, il faut venir vous
Very unwillingly did they obey, for the conversation had reached a most
interesting point, and Humphrey had a hundred and one questions still to
put about the aborigines.
They proceeded quietly upstairs, closely followed by Virginie, who
always liked to see them well on in front of her, in case they should
take it into their heads to do anything very extraordinary on their way.
To-night, however, they were much too full of the wild men of the woods
they were to see on Friday to think of anything else, and they arrived
in the bed-room nursery, without giving any shocks to Virginie’s nervous
Indeed, the subject lasted them till they were undressed, and washed,
and tucked up in their little beds side by side.
Virginie shut the shutters, and with a sigh of relief retired to supper.
“I’m glad she’s gone,” said Humphrey, “because now we can have a good
talk about the wild men.”
“Oh, Humphie!” said little Miles beseechingly, “_please_ don’t let us
talk of them any more now it’s dark; or if you really _must_, give me
your hand to hold, for it does frighten me so.”
“Then we won’t talk about them,” said the elder boy in a soothing tone,
as he drew close to the edge of the bed, and threw his arm protectingly
round the little one. Miles nestled close up to him, and with their
cheeks one against the other, and hands tightly clasped together, they
Poor little curly heads, o’er whom no fond mother shall bend to-night,
murmuring soft words of love and blessing! Poor dimpled faces, on whom
no lingering kiss shall fall!
Outside in the meadows, the young lambs lay by the ewe’s side; up in
the trees the wee birds nestled beneath the parent wing, but no light
step, no softly rustling gown, no carefully shaded light, disturbed the
dreamless slumber of the two little brothers.