Chapter VII. Mable's Natives.
Is there who scorns the little things?
As wisely might he scorn to eat
The food which yearly autumn brings
In little grains of wheat.--LUCY FLETCHER.
THE Millars had a picnic. Aline's and Mabel's birthdays, with five years between, came on two consecutive days in early August, and it was always the custom of the family to have some treat on one of them, especially as the time came in the holidays.
The favorite plan was to take their dinner, and spend the afternoon at the ruin where Edward Bryant and the other lads had last year had the adventure with the keeper and the jackdaws. Leave for picnics there could be obtained by asking permission of the steward, and this was duly done.
It was a very joyous party that set out, the lesser ones packed into a donkey cart and two pony traps, which also carried the provisions, and [78/79] the elder ones walking, except the drivers, namely, Edward, and John Millar. The young ones thought it all the more fun that no one of the party was more than seventeen; but Mrs. Millar was hardly so well satisfied, to judge by the cautions she gave Johnnie and Frances, and her disappointment at finding that Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow, who had talked of being of the party, were both prevented, and only sent Lucy, George, and Jim.
Talking, calling, shouting, laughter, playing tricks abounded, hot as the walk was; but everybody got in safely to the ruin. There was not very much of it--there were the remains of a moat with a pond at one end, and the stump of a tower and an ivy-clad wall. The learned had something to say about the history and the civil wars; but there was notaody;rho oared for that. All that signified was to rest in the shade, unpack the eatables--and especially the provisions and the gooseberries--and spread the tablecloth. The boys had laughed at the notion, but Lucy and Frances were determined to do the thing genteelly, and to have plates and knives and forks, though the brothers declared that fingers [79/80] were made before forks, and that pie tasted much better from them alone!
Forks or fingers, the meal was much enjoyed, and was as merry as anything that could be imagined, with screams of laughter over jokes too silly to be written down, frights over imagined snakes, and more real frights when the wasps found out the good things. If the elders had been there, perhaps the noise would not have been quite so loud, and some of the tricks might not have been played; but there was no great harm in them, and Edward Bryant, all care and trouble thrown aside, was the loudest of the loud, almost the roughest of the rough, though perhaps he could not be so absolutely rude as Jack Bowser.
Mary Black, who was a demure girl, by way of being lady-like did not care for it, and, after a cold frog from the moat had been dropped into her lap, while impish laughter broke out above her head, she rose up and strolled away in a dignified manner; but, before long, a wild scream startled them all, a real shriek of fright, not like the affected screams of laughter.
Up they all jumped, and hurrying along met [80/81] her, flying and breathless: "There's there's a dreadful black man," was all they could make out, and she pointed behind her, and flew into Lucy Sparrow's arms, panting. The girls huddled together, the boys went on, some thinking it was a trick, or some folly on her part; but they really saw something very dark, in white garments, slowly, as if just awake, rising up from under a big beech tree, where they had left some of their baskets in preparation for their tea.
"Rollo, you nigger fellow, what are you doing there--bagging our cake?" shouted Jack Bowser.
There was some answer, as of one bewildered, and unintelligible, with a hand raised to the turbaned head.
The lads, Edward Bryant and all, were in high and thoughtless spirits, and when Bowser shouted "Nigger! nigger! stealing cake, scaring our young ladies," all joined in the cry, half for the fun of it; whereupon the stranger made more gestures of remonstrances and entreaty and turned to flee. There was a redoubling of the shouting--"Thief! thief! Nigger! nigger!" One picked up a stone, and was about to launch [81/82] it. Suddenly, little Mabel, in her white frock, her hat off, her hair flying, started out to the front of them, "You sha'n't! you sha'n't; bad boys! I tell you, he's one of the dear heathen natives--I won't have him hurt."
"Little puss, get away, you'll be hurt," called Edward, trying to snatch her back; for the Sparrows and Bowser were beginning a rush that might have run over her. But she started away and shook her frock at him, "No, no; stop them--dear heathen."
Edward caught her up in his arms, though she kicked violently; but "the poor native" was out of sight, and the keeper, in his formidable presence, was advancing on them, with "How now, boys! what's all this? you to be pelting my lady's Indian page! Be off with you, at once, I say."
John Millar and Lucy Sparrow came forward with: "We didn't know. He frightened Miss Black. "And as the keeper muttered "More fool she," Lucy added: "They--we--thought it was a tramp come to steal our tea."
"You did, did you? Well, you'd better be off with you before my lady hears of it. She doesn't half like letting all the idle lot into her [82/83] park, and if she heard you'd been at Joe, or whatever she calls him, no one would never be let in no more; so you had best pack up your things and be off."
"Must we go?" asked Frances. "It was all Miss Black's fright that set on the boys. Our father is Doctor Millar at Langbridge. We--my little sister there--did all she could to stop them."
"No objection to you, miss," said the keeper (whose wife had been attended by Dr. Millar); "but that there big lad, ay, and the rest of the chaps, they had best be off. They've been after no good here before."
"Oh, but please," entreated Frances, and one or two more of the girls, "let them stay for tea. We can't well go without them to drive us. And I am sure they will behave well."
"Well--if you makes yourself responsible, and I keeps an eye upon them," consented the keeper, "you may drink your tea if you likes, miss, and I'll explain to my lady."
On the whole, perhaps, Jack and George would have preferred being turned out, and taking their revenge in "larks," to drinking tea so [83/84] early, with Frances Millar responsible for their behavior and the keeper hovering so near that they could not even have the diversion of keeping the young ladies on tenter-hooks as to what they might be going to do. Mabel wanted to give him a piece of cake, and Aline hoped to make it acceptable by saying it was for his little girl. She ventured, moreover, to ask if the man was really a negro.
"Certainly not--if only Africans were negroes proper. My lord had been a Governor in India, and there had been a great famine, and many children left orphans. My lady had taken one of them to bring up, and liked to keep him in his Eastern dress, all white, with a red and gold sash. Oh, yes; he could speak English as well as any of them, if they would have listened; and he came to church every Sunday."
"Then he is not a heathen?"
"Heathen? No indeed! My lady had him baptized, you may be sure, and he goes to church with the servants regular, every Sunday; yes, and minds his book there better than any of you lads, I'll bet."
"Well, I thought he did not look like a real [84/85] blackamoor nigger," said Jim Sparrow, for even in the glimpse that had been afforded of the youth, he was seen to be of a much slenderer form, with a browner skin, and none of the well-known negro features.
"Niggers are all the same," growled Jack Bowser.
"And here's this little Mab awfully sold that she hadn't got a real live heathen to preach to," said her brother John.
"Now, Johnnie," remonstrated Aline, "don't." But John did not heed, and went on: "Just as she does to her dolls in the garden."
"Here, put her up on this heap of stones for a pulpit, and let us hear what she was going to say to him," said Jack Bowser. "Speak up, little one. Begin, 'Dear native! Am I not a man and a brother?"'
Mabel hid her face in Aline's lap, and cried. John and Jack came to lift her out by force, but she kicked; and Frances, with the other girls, declared that she should not be teased. There were loud voices and scuffling, and the keeper came down on them, declaring that he would have none of this, and they must all go off [85/86] directly--he should have thought they would have known better than to act in that sort of way; and he would not listen while Frances and Lucy tried to explain that it was all that horrid boy, Jack Bowser; but quelled all dispute by pointing up to a path where some of the gardening-men were seen going home from work, so that it was plain he would have support in expelling this riotous set.
So, a good deal crestfallen, and some of them sulky, the young people were obliged to collect and pack up their properties, the keeper insisting that not a scrap of paper nor a gooseberry skin should be left to make the place untidy, and off he sent them all.
Edward Bryant had become rather ashamed of himself for having been carried along by the rude boyishness of the others, and he would not allow the brave little Mabel to be further tormented, as he could see some of them intended, so he invited her to share his old ramshackle cart with Aline. It was not at all popular, for it bore traces of farm work, and the poor old pony was both slow and sullen, and not to be trusted not to back into a ditch; while the Millars' horse was only [86/87] to be dealt with by John, and not absolutely safe even with him.
Mabel was very happy, sitting upon a basket and chattering away, not about the heathen, but on all sorts of childish fancies, not wanting much answer, till, finally, just before they reached the village of Langbridge, he was roused by her exclaiming: "But you do mean to be a missionary, don't you?"
"Oh, my dear, I have much more to think about than that!"