[Frontispiece: NOBBLES WAS TIGHTLY GRASPED IN HIS HAND.]
'Me and Nobbles'
AMY LE FEUVRE
Author of 'Probable Sons,' 'Teddy's Button,' 'Jill's Red Bag,' 'Odd,' 'His Little Daughter,' etc.
THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY
4 Beuverie Street and 65 St. Paul's Churchyard, E.C. 4.
I.—'MASTER MORTIMER' II.—'HE MAY COME TO-MORROW!' III.—THE BEAUTIFUL PICTURE IV.—HIS NEW FRIEND V.—NOBBLES' MISFORTUNE VI.—HIS FATHER VII.—HIS NEW HOME VIII.—A LETTER FROM ABROAD IX.—'SHE HAS LEFT US!' X.—'WE'RE GOING TO FIND A GOVERNESS! XI.—BOBBY'S VISITOR XII.—'A DELIGHTFUL TIME XIII.—THE WEDDING XIV.—'NEARLY DROWNED' XV.—THE OLD HOUSE AGAIN
'ME AND NOBBLES.'
[To be skipped by children if they like.]
It was a very silent old house.
Outside, the front windows stared gravely down upon the tidy drive with its rhododendron shrubberies, the well-kept lawn with the triangular beds, and the belt of gloomy fir trees edging the high brick wall that ran along the public road. The windows were always draped and curtained, and opened one foot at the top with monotonous regularity. No one was ever seen leaning out of them, or even pushing back the curtains to widen their view. There was a broad flight of steps, and a ponderous door which, when opened, disclosed a long hall, at the end of which was a gaily flowered conservatory. Instinct made people tread gently upon the thick Turkey rugs that were laid upon the polished floor; there was a stillness in the house that seemed to chill one. If you peeped into the big dining-room, the portraits upon the wall eyed you with disapproval; the table, which was always laid with snowy-white cloth and shining silver, seemed severely austere and formal; the high back chairs and the massive sideboards bade you respect their age.
The drawing-room was quite as awe-inspiring, for the blinds were nearly always down, and it had a musty unused scent telling you that its grandeur was not for daily use. The library was gloomier still. Its windows were of stained glass; books of the dingiest hue surrounded you; they lined the walls; and the furniture and carpet matched them in tone. Ghostly busts on pedestals, scientific machines, and a huge geographical and astronomical globe added to its gloom. The sun had a way of only hastily shining in when he could not help himself, and he left it till the last moment just before he went to bed. He was not fond of that room, and there was no one in the house that was.
Then there was the morning room, and this was where old Mrs. Egerton spent most of her day. She was a tall severe old lady with no sense of humour and a very strong will. She spent an hour after breakfast with her cook, for housekeeping was her hobby; then she sat at her table writing letters and doing her accounts till luncheon, after which she always went for a drive. In the evening after dinner she read the paper or some solid book, knitted, and retired early to bed. Her daughter, Miss Anna Egerton, was very like her, only she was seldom seen indoors. She was full of good works, and was never idle, for she had more business than she could possibly get through, and her days were so crowded that meals seemed quite an effort. The man of the house, Mrs. Egerton's son, was also always out, and when at home spent his leisure moments in his smoking-room. London claimed most of his time, for he was in a government office, and went to and fro by train, thinking nothing of the hours spent twice a day in a railway carriage.
'A very dull house indeed,' a lady visitor thought at the end of her first day there; and yet, in spite of its quietness, there were just a few indications of another element that puzzled her.
Once she heard a patter of childish feet along the corridor past her door, but that was very early in the morning before she was properly awake, so she thought she must be dreaming. Then, in a secluded path in the shrubberies, she came across a child's glove and a toy watering-can, and as she was going downstairs to dinner, and was passing a broad staircase window, she noticed upon its broad ledge a little bunch of daisies. She looked at them and took them up in her hand. She fancied, as she noted the droop of their stalks, that she could see the impress still upon them of a hot, childish grasp, and as she mused, she distinctly heard a childish chuckle of laughter not far away.
'Is your house haunted?' she asked Miss Egerton at dinner.
'Indeed it is not. Why do you ask?'
'There is no child in the house is there?'
'Yes,' replied Miss Egerton, 'there is Vera's child.'
The visitor could not suppress her astonishment, and Mrs. Egerton, noting it, said with extra severity: 'I like children to be kept in their proper place. He has a good nurse, who looks after him entirely. And I am thankful to say that the nurseries are at the top of the house, so we are not being continually reminded of his presence.'
'He must be a very quiet child.'
There was no response. When Miss Egerton was alone with her friend she gave her a little more information.
'When Vera went abroad with her husband her child was only a few months old, and very delicate, so she was advised to leave him behind. She sent him here at once, without first asking mother's permission to do so, and mother did not like it. We do not care for children; but he is no trouble. Mother visits the nurseries every morning and sees to his comfort and health. When poor Vera died she determined to keep him for good and all. His father never writes to us, or shows the slightest interest in his child. We don't know in which quarter of the globe he is. Of course a child in a house is rather a nuisance, but in another year or two mother means to send him to a boarding-school.
'A child in the house.'
The words rang through the visitor's heart and brain. She began to listen for the faint tokens of the little one's presence. She meditated a raid upon the nursery, and a sally forth from it with the child into the old garden below, where she and he would enjoy laughter and play together. But a telegram called her suddenly away, and the quiet of the house and garden remained undisturbed.
The footsteps still pattered at intervals; the hushed little voice and gurgles of innocent laughter still echoed from distant corners. For the child in the house was not a ghost, and his life is the one of which I am about to tell you.
He was known by the name of 'the Child' by his relations, but his nurse called him Master Bobby. He would say if he were asked himself:
'My name is Robert Stuart Allonby.' And he would raise a pair of wonderful brown eyes as he spoke, in anxious doubt as to whether his name would be liked.
Bobby showed a good deal of anxiety about different things. His favourite sentence was always, 'I wonder, Nurse ——' and very often, noting the impatient frown on his nurse's face, he would stop there, and turn away to his favourite corner in the window-seat, which he shared with 'Nobbles,' the comfort of his life.
Bobby was a very small boy, but a big thinker, and he would have liked to be a big talker, but grown-up people were not interested in what he had to say. So he talked in a rapid undertone to 'Nobbles,' who always understood, and who smiled perpetually into the earnest little face of his master. 'Nobbles' had been given to him a very long time ago by a sailor-brother of Nurse's, who came to tea at certain periods, and who related the most wonderful stories of foreign parts. Jane, the housemaid, always took tea in the nursery upon these occasions, and she and Bobby listened with awed admiration to the handsome traveller. 'Nobbles' was only a walking-stick, with a wonderful little ivory head. It was the head of a goblin, Nurse declared, but Bobby loved it. Nobbles had very round eyes and a smiling mouth, two very big ears, and a little red cap on his head. Bobby took him to bed with him every night; he went out walks with him; he always had him with him in his window corner; and it was Nobbles who was treated to all the delicious secrets and plans which only a very lonely little boy could have concocted.
Bobby's nursery was at the top of the house; he reached it by the back stairs, and had to open a wooden gate at the top of them before he could get to it. There were two rooms, one leading out of the other, and both looked out at the back of the house. Bobby spent hours by the window, and he knew every inch of the landscape outside.
First there was a paved yard with a high wall on one side, with a green door in it, through which you passed into a walled kitchen garden. This door was kept locked in fruit time; the gardener, old Tom, kept one key, and Bobby's grandmother the other.
Old Tom was generally working in the kitchen garden, and Bobby watched him from his window with keen interested eyes. Beyond this garden was an orchard which ran down to the high-road. Bobby could not see this road from his window, for a tall row of elms hid it from his view. In the summer, when the windows were open, he could hear the hoot of the motors as they tore along it. But he could see for miles beyond this road. There was a stretch of green fields, two farms, and a range of distant hills, behind which the sun always set. And when he got tired of looking at all this, there was the sky; and the sky to him was a never-ending joy. The clouds chasing each other across its infinite blue, presented the most entrancing pictures to him. Monsters pursuing their prey, ogres changing their shape as they flew, castles dissolving into ocean waves, mermaids, angels, hunters, wolves, chariots and horses. These, and hosts besides, all passed before him.
When it was dark in winter-time he would clamber down from his window-seat and content himself with his toys. The nursery was very plainly furnished. It had a square table in the middle of the room; there was one cupboard for Bobby's toys, another for the nursery crockery; a wooden rocking-chair, a low oak bench, and two rush chairs. The floor was covered with red cocoanut matting. The fire was guarded by a high wire screen, and above the mantelpiece hung a coloured illustration of the battle of Waterloo. Bobby knew every man and horse in it by name. He had his own stories for every one of them, and was found more than once dissolved in tears after looking at it.
'That captain under his horse is so dreadfully hurt, his bones is broken, and he was going home to his little boy!' he would say pitifully, when Nurse would enquire the cause of his grief.
Nurse was a tall thin woman with a severe voice and a soft heart. But though she adored her little charge she never let him know it, and the only time she kissed him was when she tucked him up in his small bed at night. Bobby was quite aware that the grown-up people in the house did not care for him. This did not trouble him; he took it for granted that all grown-up people were the same. With one exception, however. In the depths of his heart he felt that his unknown father loved him. One night after saying his prayers, and repeating the Lord's Prayer sentence by sentence after his nurse, he said:
'Who's "Our Father?" Is it mine own, who's far away?'
'Dear, no!' said the nurse, in a shocked tone. ''Tis God Almighty, up in heaven.'
'Then I shan't call him "Father," 'cause He isn't.'
'For shame, you wicked boy! God is everybody's Father, He loves you, and gives you everything you want.'
'Does fathers always do that?'
'Of course they do. Fathers always love their children, and work for them, and care for them. And the great God is called Father because He loves you.'
Bobby thought over this. And he hugged the thought to his heart that he had two fathers, both far away, but both loving him. He knew that God was the nearest to him; he was told that He watched over him night and day, and could always hear him when he spoke to Him. But his heart went out to his earthly father in an unknown country. And he used to be constantly picturing his return.
On the whole, though he had very big thoughts, and fits of dreaming, Bobby was a happy, merry little soul. Sometimes he strayed along the big passage and peeped through the green baize door which led down the front stairs. He had a way of asking Jane what 'the House' was doing, 'the House' being his grandmother, and uncle and aunt, and their visitors. Occasionally he would make breathless little excursions of his own into the rooms which seemed so strange and wonderful to him. This was generally in the very early morning, or in the afternoon, when everyone was out of doors. Nurse would soon pursue him and bring him back to his proper sphere; but he would have a delightful time whilst the chase lasted, and the very difficulties that beset his investigations made them the more exciting.
One bright spring afternoon he was turned into the kitchen garden to play. Nurse had placed him under the charge of old Tom, for she was busy with her machine, making some holland overalls for him, and she was glad to have the nursery to herself. Bobby was in the seventh heaven of delight. There was nothing he enjoyed so much as a talk with Tom.
'And what's the first thing nice to eat that's coming out of the ground?' he asked, his hands in his pockets and his legs well astride, as he watched Tom sowing some seed in long drills across the square of freshly dug ground.
Tom looked at him with a twinkle in his eye.
'Spring cabbages,' he said.
'But I mean fruit, not nasty vegtubbers! I sawed you taste a big white ball, and then you frew it over the wall.'
''Twas a turnip, likely.'
'Let me taste a turnip.'
But Tom shook his head.
'Shall have your nurse at me a-sayin' I'm a-upsettin' your little inside. Do you know who's a-comin' to-day?'
'No. Do tell me. Someone to the house?'
'It be Master Mortimer, the eldest son, who have been in furrin parts so long, him what hangs up in the hall along with the master. You've never seed him. He went off straight from school to India. He were a favourit' of mine were Master Mortimer.'
'And he's coming to-day? Oh, I do hope I shall see him.'
Bobby capered at the thought.
''Tis any time to-day may bring him. His ship comed in yester morn.'
'I wonder if he's seen my father anywheres.'
'Ah! Best ask of him. Master Mortimer be a merry young gen'leman, sure enough. But I reckon that time have sobered him!'
'Grown-up peoples aren't merry,' said the small boy, ''cept Sam Conway, when he's drunk!'
Sam Conway was the cobbler, who was the village drunkard. Tom shook his head reproachfully at the thought of him.
'And that there old soaker did marry my aunt's darter!' He continued a grumbling discourse upon the evils of drink as he turned to his sowing, and Bobby danced away down to the bottom of the garden, where he opened the door into the orchard and found his way to his favourite corner. This was an old apple-tree which grew close to the high wall that separated the orchard from the public road. It was an easy tree to climb, and from a comfortable perch upon the topmost bough he could look out along the high-road. It was a broad, white, dusty road; on market-days he was never absent from this seat; he loved watching the farmers' carts, and the carriers, and the droves of sheep and cattle that passed along to the town. There were other days when he watched there, days when only motors whizzed by, or a few carriages and an occasional cart rumbled along. But he never tired of his post, and his face was always full of patient expectancy. He got up in the tree now, and 'Nobbles' was tightly grasped in his hand.
'It may be "Nobbles" that they'll come together. It's a ship he'll come in same as Master Mortimer, and the ship comed in yesterday—Tom said so.'
His brown eyes scanned the horizon anxiously, and the hope that had never died yet in his childish heart leaped up anew. Nobbles was stuck into a crevice in the wall, and his smiling, ugly little head stared out in the same direction as his master's.
'It may be a station fly, and it may be our carriage, and it may be a motor,' pursued Bobby dreamily, 'but he's bound to come, I'm certain sure!'
He was called into his dinner before a single carriage or cart had passed him. But his little face was radiantly bright as he sat opposite his nurse and ate his hot mutton and rice pudding at the nursery table.
'I 'specs the House is very busy to-day,' he remarked with a knowing little nod of his head. 'Which is Master Mortimer's room, Nurse?'
'Master Mortimer, indeed! Who's been talking to you of him I'd like to know! You must be a good boy and stay quiet in the nursery. I've never seen your grandmother so upset. She's proper excited, and won't go out for her drive this afternoon, and I'm helping Jane get out all the old bits of furniture that used to belong in his room before ever he went abroad. 'Twas his only sending a telegram yesterday so sudden like, and no letter nor nothing to prepare us, that has taken us so aback. He's to have his old room, the one at end of the passage. It's going to rain, so you'd best stay in the nursery this afternoon, and I shall be busy.'
Bobby promised to be good, but with the sounds of such an unusual bustle in the house what small boy could resist peeping through the green baize door occasionally to see what was going on? And at last, thinking the coast quite clear, he made one of his rapid rushes along the corridor and into the room that was being prepared for the guest. Here he gazed round him with innocent admiration. The room was barely furnished, but a fox's brush and some sporting-prints round the walls, one of which depicted a cock fight, interested him greatly. He was standing on tiptoe at the dressing-table opening some little china pots, when approaching footsteps made him start. Then, as the door handle turned, he scrambled under the bed and lay still, hardly daring to breathe. It was his grandmother with Jane. She was speaking in rather an agitated voice.
'He slept in this room many years ago, Jane, and I wish things to be as he left them. Yes, even this cricket bat that I have just found in the attic. He used to have it in the corner by the fireplace, and I wish you to place it there now.'
She came up to the bed, smoothed the pillow with her hand, looked at the pictures on the walls, sighed, then went away, and Jane followed her. Bobby crept out of his hiding-place feeling very guilty. Then he eyed the cricket bat, lifted it, but found it very heavy.
'He won't be able to play with it if he hasn't a ball!' he said to himself. 'Perhaps he'll come and ask me for mine!'
Very reluctantly he left the room and returned to the nursery, quite unconscious that he had left behind him on the floor a tell-tale reminder of his presence there.
Ail that day Bobby watched and waited for the expected arrival. He was bitterly disappointed that bedtime came before there were any signs of his uncle. Early the next morning he woke, wondering whether he had come, and when Nurse told him that it was past ten o'clock before he arrived, he eagerly enquired:
'And did he come quite by himself?'
'Of course, he did. I haven't seen him yet, but Jane says he's wonderful good looking.'
When Bobby was dressed and Nurse had gone downstairs to fetch something from the servants' hall, he ran to the green baize door and crept along the passage to his uncle's bedroom. He listened outside, hoping he might hear a strange voice or cough, but there was silence. Then he peered down into a shining pair of boots which had evidently just been cleaned and placed outside the door upon the mat.
He wondered how long it would take for his foot to grow big enough to fill such a big boot. With a little chuckle of delight he slipped his tiny feet into them and managed to walk one step forward without making much noise. Finally, with another little snigger of laughter, he thrust his chubby hand into the pocket of his overall and produced two bright coloured marbles. He dropped one into each boot, murmuring as he did so:
'For Master Mortimer, with mine own dear love.'
And then, rather aghast at his audacity, he fled along the passage to his own territory, laughing softly as he went. After his nursery breakfast he was turned into the kitchen garden again. He was never supposed to play anywhere else, but he had a way of making little excursions into the shrubberies. There were a good many hiding-places in the old gardens. He considered it quite fairplay to haunt the shady paths and even to make daring rushes out upon the lawn when no grown-up was there. 'Children must keep out of sight,' had been dinned into his ears by his careful nurse, and as long as he did that, he considered that he played the game. He had no great desire to talk to any grown-up person; he knew that he was voted a nuisance, and was quite content to watch them from afar. But this unknown traveller interested him greatly. He stole now into one of the shrubbery paths, and then suddenly, coming towards him, he saw a tall dark man with bronzed skin, a heavy moustache, and merry blue eyes. This much Bobby noted from the depths of a laurel bush in which he had taken refuge. He thought himself well hidden, and certainly his uncle was unaware of his close presence. Suddenly, as he was passing him, close enough to touch had he so wished, an impulse seized Bobby to speak.
Mr. Mortimer Egerton, sauntering lazily along in the morning sunshine and smoking his beloved pipe, was startled when he heard a lisping whisper:
'Where's mine father? Did you see him?'
It brought him to a standstill; there was a rustle in the bushes. He probed them with his stick, but could see nothing. Then he gave chase, and soon caught sight of a vanishing blue linen smock.
'I spy!' he shouted, and renewed his chase with vigour. But Bobby was an experienced hider. He was small, and the bushes were thick and high. Keeping well under cover, he reached the kitchen garden, and heard his baffled uncle take a wrong turn into the rose walk that stretched across the front lawn. Breathless and excited, the child reached Tom.
'He's run after me. He was the hunter and I was a tiger in the jungle! I seed him when he couldn't see me, and I likes him!'
'Which of course you is bound to do,' was Tom's ready response. 'Master Mortimer allays twisted most folk round his little finger.'
'I'll make him hunt me again,' said Bobby, a flush on his cheek and fire in his eye. 'He couldn't catch me, Tom. I won't be catched by him.'
'Master Mortimer allays used to do what he'd a mind to,' said old Tom again.
Bobby looked at him thoughtfully. He was beginning to be afraid of this uncle.
'HE MAY COME TO-MORROW!'
That very same day in the afternoon Bobby was up in his apple-tree, when, to his consternation, he saw his uncle saunter into the orchard, shake hands with Tom, who was cutting the grass there, and begin an animated conversation with him. Bobby curled himself up well out of sight, and presumed upon his position, for when Mr. Mortimer came down to his corner and stopped for a moment under the tree, the little scamp again said, in as gruff a voice as he could assume:
'Have you seen mine father?'
In one second Mr. Mortimer's great long arm had shot up through the branches, and seized hold of one of Bobby's fat legs.
'Now, my little man, we'll meet each other face to face!'
Terror succeeded Bobby's audacity. He found himself on the ground, but, alas! in his rough descent Nobbles had been dashed from his grasp over the wall upon the high-road, and his anxiety over his darling's fate overcame his terror.
'Oh, save him! Oh, save mine Nobbles! Oh, he'll be hurt, he'll be run away with! Oh, please get Nobbles, and I'll never run away from you nevermore!'
Tears were crowding into his eyes as he spoke.
'Who's Nobbles?' asked the bewildered uncle.
'He's always lived with me for years—everlasting years!' repeated the troubled child. 'I couldn't live without him! Why, a big dog may eat him up, or a motor run over him! Oh, save him quick!'
It was Tom who understood and dashed through the gate at the far end of the orchard. In five minutes Nobbles was given into his hand, and a seraphic smile lit up his face as he hugged his treasure. His uncle did not smile. He sat down on one of the lowest limbs of the apple-tree and lit up his pipe.
'Is Nobbles fond of going off upon expeditions on his own account?' he asked gravely.
'Well, I hope he doesn't,' rejoined Bobby mysteriously. 'But I have my suspecs of him, acause I always make him sleep with his head on my pillow close to me, and two mornings I've found him on the floor, and once under the bed.'
'Ah,' said his uncle, shaking his head at Nobbles, 'I would quite believe it of him. You'll promise not to give him too hard a thrashing if I tell you where he was last night. He came into my room and had a fight with my old cricket bat. He got the worst of it, and went back to your nursery to get some help. He brought along a ninepin, and they fought two against one; the poor ninepin was nearly done for, and he rolled away under the bed and fainted. Then Nobbles slunk off and left him in the lurch. And this morning the young villain thinks he will play me a trick, so he put two marbles in my boots. He must have done that in the early hours before you were awake!'
Bobby's face was a study. Delight, horror, and confusion was depicted on it. He looked at Nobbles thoughtfully, then he announced:
'I didn't reely fight the cricket bat, I only felt him!'
'But I am talking of Nobbles.'
'He is wicked sometimes,' said Bobby, eyeing him wistfully, 'but I didded it all mine self to you.'
Then his uncle gave a hearty laugh.
'You and I are going to chum up,' he said, lifting him on the bough by his side. 'Now tell me more. I want to know you and Nobbles.'
Bobby's tongue was unloosed. For the first time in his short life he had found a grown-up person who did not consider him a nuisance. He poured out a strange medley into his astonished and amused uncle's ears. Imagination was much mixed up with fact, but the one theme that was the centre of the child's life was his absent father.
'I know he will come for me one day and take me away with himself! I finks every night when I'm in bed about it. He'll knock at my door sudden, and I'll say, "Come in." And then I'll see him!'
He gave a little wriggle of ecstasy as he spoke.
'He'll take me straight away. P'raps a cab will be at the door, or a motor, and we'll go off to the countries over the sea. Me and Nobbles lie very quiet and listen for the knock when we're in bed. I finks I hears it often, but it's been a mistake.'
'But I think I should be frightened to go off with a strange man in the middle of the night,' said his uncle, making a grimace. 'I would rather have him arrive in the middle of the day.'
'Well, sometimes I'd like him to. Just let me climb a little bit higher. Would I knock you down if I took hold of your solder very gently to help me? I want to show you the straight long road he'll come along. There!'
He had swung himself upon the bough above, his uncle having been equal to bear his weight.
And now, with eager face, he pointed out the white dusty high-road that went like a streak of light between rows of flat green meadows, and disappeared at the top of a hill on the horizon.
'He'll come!' he whispered into his uncle's ear; 'and I shall say good-bye to the House and go. I'm only waiting. He'll come along that road. I come here to expec' him every day.'
Not a vestige of doubt in the eager happy voice. His uncle looked at him in wonder.
'How do you know he hasn't forgotten you? You have never got a letter from him, have you? And he mightn't want to be bothered with a small boy.'
But no shadow came across Bobby's earnest, trustful eyes.
'He's my father. He likes me acause I belongs to him. He's the person that likes me in the earth, and God is the other Person. He's up in heaven, but I belongs to Him too. And God likes me very much!'
There was supreme self-satisfaction in his tone.
His uncle smiled.
'Your theology doesn't sound right to me. I was always told that it was only very good boys that were liked by God.'
'Yes, that's what Nurse says; but God says diff'unt to Nobbles and me. He talks to me sometimes when I'm in bed. He says He'll always like me for ever and ever, amen!'
There was no irreverence in his tone—only triumphant assurance; and his uncle was silenced.
'And so I'm just expecking,' went on the small boy; 'and he may come to-morrow while you're here.'
'That would be first-rate. Now, where shall I find you when I want a game of hide and seek? Where's your nursery?'
Bobby pointed to the window, which was plainly in sight from the orchard.
'But how do I get to it?'
'Through the green door.'
'Of course I do. Now I come to think of it, that is our old nursery. We were shut away from the rest of the house by the baize door. Here's your nurse looking for you. Good-bye for the present. I'm going out with your grandmother.'
He left Bobby looking after him with wistful eyes.
'He's just my sort,' he announced to his nurse in his old-fashioned way. 'Me and Nobbles and him will like each other very much.'
'Who are you talking about?' asked Nurse. And Bobby answered, 'Master Mortimer.'
It was two or three days before he saw his uncle again, for he went up to London on business. Then he entranced the child by taking him down to the river to fish. That was a red-letter day to Bobby; his tongue never stopped until he was told he would frighten the fish away, and then he sat on a fence and gazed at his uncle with adoring eyes. As he trotted home very tired, but very happy, insisting upon carrying two good-sized trout, he said, 'I shall do this every day with father, and we'll cook our brekfus ourselves.'
'May he never disappoint you!'
Mr. Mortimer murmured the words, and happily Bobby did not hear them. That evening he and Nobbles were too excited to sleep. In rehearsing his day to himself, Bobby began to think of many such blissful times in the future; he pictured them to Nobbles, his father being the centre-piece. And then he stopped talking and began to listen for the knock that was to come. There was great silence in the nursery. Nurse had gone downstairs to her supper, leaving the night-light as usual upon the washing-stand in the corner of the room. Suddenly Bobby sprang up, his cheeks flushed a deep crimson, his little heart galloping wildly, There was no possible mistake this time. A sharp rat-tat on his door.
How often he had rehearsed his answer to the knock! Why was it that his voice was so husky? Why were his knees trembling so? He was out of his bed now, standing in the middle of the room, a pathetic little figure with his pink bare feet and tumbled curls, and Nobbles clasped in his arms.
The door opened. Bobby drew a long, shivering sigh. A huge, black-bearded man in a striped blanket came in. He carried a gun, and an axe was fastened to his belt. He was very tall, and his voice was very gruff.
'Are you Robert Stuart Allonby? I have come to take him away.'
In an instant, with outstretched arms, Bobby sprang forward, 'Father! I'm ready!'
That was all he said; but as the big man lifted him up Bobby buried his face in the bushy black beard and clasped him round his neck, and a quiver ran through his little body as he whispered in a fervour of joy, 'I'll come with you. Why have you been so long? Oh, father, darling, take me quick, and never let me come back to this old house again.'
'Are you ready to camp out amongst fierce Indians in the wild woods?'
'I'll love to.'
'Where the wolves prowl round at night?'
'I'll be with you.'
'You'll have to ride a wild pony; you will be out in the rain and cold. You'll have to cut down trees and earn your bread. Sometimes you'll be hungry and cold and tired; there'll be no one to look after you. You'll have to rough it. So you want to come? Now? Right away?'
'Right away!' repeated Bobby, squeezing tighter round the stranger's neck. 'I'll be with you, father. You'll never leave me again!'
There was such infinite trust and tenderness in the child's voice that the big man wavered, put Bobby down on the floor, tore off his beard and blanket, and revealed himself as Master Mortimer. 'Upon my word you're a plucky little 'un!'
Bobby stared up at him with horror-struck eyes. For the space of a moment his uncle felt thoroughly ashamed of himself, much as if he were meeting the gaze of a faithful dog he was ill-treating, for the look on the child's face was a broken-hearted one. He stood there with a quivering lip in perfect silence; then turned, crept into his bed again, and lay down with his face to the wall.
Nobbles was left upon the floor.
His uncle took a quick step up to the bed.
'Sorry, old fellow; it was a piece of fun. I didn't think you would take it so hard. Did you really think it was your father? I hoped I might put you off him.'
Bobby did not raise his head; he was terribly ashamed of tears, but his little chest was heaving with the bitterness of his disappointment, and he had stuffed a corner of his pillow into his mouth to stifle his sobs.
His self-restraint made his uncle feel more uncomfortable. He sat down by his bed and lifted him out bodily upon his knees, and he tried to soothe him as a woman might.
'I declare, if you were a little older you and I would go off on a tour round the world and search for this runaway father of yours.'
This idea was a risky one to propose, but he felt desperate at the sight of the child's grief.
Bobby raised his eyes for the first time. The tears did not hide the dawn of hope springing up in them.
'I'm old enough,' he said, choking down a sob; 'please take me.'
'It wouldn't do, and we might miss him; he might arrive after you had gone.'
'Me and Nobbles could go and look for him our own selves,' Bobby said very thoughtfully. 'We would just ask and ask till they told us where he was.'
His uncle began to feel uneasy. 'No, that's quite the wrong way about. He must come to you, not you go to him.'
'But,' said Bobby pitifully, 'he never comes, and I'm tireder and tireder of waiting.'
'You go to sleep, and perhaps you'll dream where your father is. Dreams are rummy things, and Nobbles is wanting his sleep, I know.'
Bobby was deposited in bed with his beloved stick, and his eyelids began to droop at once. In a minute or two, worn out with his excitement and consequent depression, he was fast asleep.
His uncle picked up his masquerading attire and left the room muttering, 'I never will play the fool again; it doesn't pay.'
A day or two after this his Uncle Mortimer departed. Bobby was very unhappy at losing him, for uncle and nephew were close friends, and not a day passed without their spending some of it together. The uncle promised to look for Bobby's father and send him to him as quickly as possible, and the child's hopes rose high, and he firmly believed that his father's return home would be hastened.
Upon the morning that his uncle left, Bobby's grandmother called him to her when she came into the nursery for her usual visit.
'I want to speak to you,' she said, putting on her gold spectacles and sitting down in Nurse's easy chair.
Bobby stood before her, his hands clasped behind his back.
'Are you not happy with us?' was the question put to him next, a little sharply.
'Who has been talking to you about your father?'
Bobby was silent.
'Answer me, child.'
'I dunno—Master Mortimer.'
'Do you mean your Uncle Mortimer? He has only just come here. You have some absurd fancy in your head about your father fetching you away from us.'
'It is quite ridiculous. Your father would not think of doing such a thing. You have been given over to me entirely, and he doesn't trouble about you in the least. I expect he forgets that he has a son. Do you understand me?'
'I am only telling you this for your good. The sooner you stop thinking about such a foolish thing the better.'
'You ought to be a very happy grateful little boy. You have a kind nurse and a comfortable home, and everything to satisfy you. Soon you will be going to school, and I hope you will try to grow up a credit to us.'
'Can't you say anything but "yes"?'
Mrs. Egerton's tone was a little impatient.
'I don't know nothing but "yes" to speak,' faltered Bobby, hanging his head.
'You seem to have talked fast enough to your uncle.'
Mrs. Egerton regarded him closely for a minute. Bobby began to feel more and more uncomfortable. Then his grandmother got up with a little sigh.
'You are not a bit like your mother; you are an Allonby all over. Now don't let me hear any more of this nonsense! Your home is with me; we never talk to you about your father, because we do not even know if he is alive. He has never written or taken the slightest interest in you after your poor mother sent you to us.'
She got up and rustled out of the room. Bobby looked after her perplexedly.
Why didn't his grandmother want him to have a father, he wondered? And what else could he say but 'yes' to her? If he had said 'no,' she would have been angry. Grown-up people were very difficult to understand. He turned to Nobbles to console him. He always smiled at him, and loved him.
THE BEAUTIFUL PICTURE.
And so the house slipped back again to its gravity and silence, and the child played about in the shrubberies and sat in the apple-tree gazing wistfully up the dusty high-road. And deep down in his heart the hope still lingered that his father would appear one day. Spring turned into summer, and Bobby spent most of his days out of doors. One afternoon his nurse took him to a farm. She was great friends with the farmer's wife, and Bobby loved a visit there, for he was allowed to wander about round the farm and watch the farm hands in their various occupations. This afternoon he crossed a field to see a young colt. He was laughing heartily as he watched its frisky antics, when from the lane that was on one side of the field, a big black retriever appeared, barking furiously.
Bobby was not accustomed to dogs. 'The House' kept none, and with his heart in his mouth he turned and fled. The retriever pursued him, evidently showing by his gambols that he wanted to play. Somehow or other Nobbles slipped from his grasp as he ran, and in an instant the dog had seized hold of him and, bounding over the hedge, carried him away in his mouth.
This awful tragedy brought Bobby to his senses. He was panic-stricken no more, but scrambled as fast as he could into the lane. He was the pursuer now; the big black dog was trotting slowly up the road, and he trotted as hard as he could go after him.
It was of no use to call after the robber. Once Bobby did so, but the dog only turned his head to look at him, and then began to trot faster than ever. Bobby's short legs did not make rapid progress. Soon he began to feel dreadfully tired. Up the lane, out on the highroad, up another side road, and finally through some big iron gates towards an old red-brick house that stood in the midst of bright flowerbeds and green lawns. The big dog led his pursuer deliberately on, and Bobby, heated and footsore, had no thought but to follow.
There was a lady sitting at tea under some shady trees upon the lawn. The retriever made his way straight to her, and dropped the stick at her feet. Bobby came shyly forward, and the lady looked at him in surprise. She was dressed in deep mourning, and had a very sad face, and, though she looked young, her hair was as white as snow.
'Who are you, little boy; and what do you want?'
'I'm Bobby, and that dog took away Nobbles. I've runned after him 'bout twenty miles!'
He picked up his beloved stick, kissed the ugly little smiling face, then produced a very small handkerchief from his pocket and began wiping Nobbles all over very carefully.
The lady looked at him with a puzzled smile.
'You look hot and tired,' she said; 'sit down, and I will give you some strawberries and cream.'
Bobby's eyes brightened. He sat down on the grass and looked up at the lady.
'Is that dog yours?' he asked.
'Yes; his name is Lucky. That's a funny name, isn't it? It was very naughty of him to run away with your stick. I must punish him by not giving him any cake.'
She shook her head at Lucky, who was sitting up on his haunches with his tongue hanging out, watching his mistress with beseeching brown eyes.
Bobby looked at him severely.
'He is a robber! Poor Nobbles must have thought he was being taken off by a lion. I expec' he was dre'ffully frightened. You see, Nobbles isn't just a stick at all.'
'What is he? I see he has a wonderful head!'
'Yes; he's Nobbles.' He paused, then added impressively: 'He's my 'ticylar friend; we always live together. He understands all I say, but he can't speak.'
The lady smiled upon him very pleasantly, then she handed him a delicious plate of strawberries, and Bobby set to work at once. He thought he had never tasted anything so nice, and in the middle of it he looked up a little anxiously.
'Poor Nobbles can't eat at all. It's such a pity. He doesn't grumble, but when I have anyfing very nice he looks in his eyes as if he could cry; only he doesn't, for he never leaves off smiling.'
'He's a splendid little friend to have,' the lady said cheerfully. 'I wonder where you live?'
'In the House, with nurse and grandmother.' He heaved a sigh. 'We shall have to go back soon.'
'I suppose you know the way; but you're a very little boy to be out alone.'
'I had to run after Lucky; Nurse was at Mrs. Tikes'.'
'Tikes' Farm? That is some way from here.'
'Is it twenty miles?'
'No, but it is nearly two. I expect your nurse will wonder where you are.'
'I expec' she will; but I likes being here. Are you a proper grown-up person?'
'How do you mean?'
Bobby frowned; he couldn't always put his thoughts into words.
'You talk so nice to me; I can't talk to grown-up people, acept Master Mortimer. At least I can say "Yes" and "No" to them. That's what children should talk, grandmother says.'
'I'm so glad you think I talk nice to you. I can't talk to grown-up people either. I live alone here—so alone now—so alone!'
She sighed, and fell into such deep thought that Bobby wondered if she would ever speak to him again. At last he ventured:
'I've got a father coming for me one day.'
'Have you really? Tell me about him.'
So Bobby told her of his never-fading hope, and she listened and smiled, and then ordered her pony-trap round, and tucking Bobby in beside her, drove him along the road by which he had come. They very soon met Nurse toiling along, with a heated, anxious face, and Bobby began to feel rather ashamed of himself. But the lady seemed to put matters straight at once with her soft voice and pleasant smile. And then she stooped and kissed the small boy by her side.
'I should like you to come and see me very often,' she said. 'I used to know your grandmother long ago, before I went out to India. Do you think,' she added, turning to Nurse, 'that he would be allowed to come to me?'
'I'm sure,' said Nurse, hesitating, 'that if you were to invite him——'
'Then I invite you, Bobby, at once to come to tea with me the day after to-morrow. I will write a note to your grandmother.'
Bobby's eyes shone with delight
'Me and Nobbles never go to tea with anybody,' he said. 'Do you think grandmother will say "yes"?'
'I hope she will.'
She nodded at him brightly, then drove off; and Nurse looked after her with a curious interest upon her face.
'That's the rich young widow, Lady Isobel, I've heard talk about. She shuts herself up, and won't go out nowheres.'
'Oh, no!' corrected Bobby. 'She wasn't shut up; I sawed her in the garden.'
'She's had a deal of trouble,' Nurse went on, more to herself than to Bobby. 'Her husband and only child and favrit sister were all drowned sudden in a boat out in them foreign rivers, and she come home, and found her old father dyin'; and she haven't got a relation left, and it have turned her head, and no wonder!'
'When peoples die,' said Bobby thoughtfully, 'they go away and never come back; don't they, Nurse? Jane says they're put under ground in the churchyard, but you told me the angels take them up to God.'
'Don't bother your little head about such things,' said Nurse hastily. 'And don't you be a naughty boy and run away from me again. I feel as if I shall never get cool. I'm regular done up, and 'twas only a chance I took the right road; but one of the farm hands saw you runnin' along.'
The next day was Sunday. Bobby never went to church in the morning, but very often his nurse took him in the afternoon. And Sunday morning was his opportunity to slip through the green baize door and wander over the house, for his grandmother and uncle and aunt always went to church, and the house was empty. Nurse did not mind his doing it, as long as he did not get into mischief. This morning he wandered into the dining-room; the family portraits on the walls always attracted him. Jenkins, the butler, was arranging the table for lunch, and eyed him morosely as he appeared.
'Now then, this ain't your nursery, you know,' was his greeting.
Bobby was so accustomed to this speech that he paid no attention to it. He sauntered round the room with Nobbles in his hand, and his eyes were riveted on the stern and gloomy faces looking out of their frames.
'Mr. Jenkins,' he said very politely, 'will your picture be put up there when you're dead?'
'Law, no!' said Jenkins testily. 'What a silly child you be! Tis only grandees can have their picters taken.'
'Has my father had his picture taken?'
'More'n I can say. He don't belong to this house. Your mother's picter were taken, and the mistress keeps it locked up. She were wonderful fond of Miss Vera.'
Bobby was not half so interested in his dead mother as in his living father.
'I don't belong to the House,' he murmured to himself. 'Father has got a big house somewheres where he'll take me when he comes home, and everything in that house will belong to me and father—all mine own!'
He reflected for a minute with shining complacency upon this idea. Then he looked up at the pictures again.
'I'm so glad they're all dead. I shouldn't like to see them going up and down stairs. I'm sure they'd scold me!'
'Don't you be abusin' your elders, Master Bobby; and liking them dead be not a right state o' mind at all.'
'But dead people are very happy in heaven. Nurse says so. Wouldn't you like to be dead, Mr. Jenkins?'
Jenkins put down the glass he was polishing, and pointed sternly to the door.
'Now you go off, Master Bobby, and don't you be asking imperent questions.'
Bobby trotted off. There was no love lost between him and Jenkins. He peeped into the drawing-room, then found his way to the library, and here he wandered about for some considerable time. The plaster busts were always a puzzle to him. Why had they no eyes? Were they born blind? Why had they no bodies? Had their heads been cut off? These and many other questions he would ask Nobbles, who could only grin at him by way of reply.
Then he began to pull out some books in the bookcase. He could not read very well himself, though he spent half an hour with Nurse every morning over a reading-book. But he loved pictures, and he knew there were books with pictures in them. Once he had found a wonderful book here. It was bound in brown leather, and had filigree brass corners and clasps studded with blue turquoises. He had opened it and found pictures on every page, and the front page was illuminated in the most brilliant colours. His Aunt Anna had come into the room and taken it from him.
'That is a most valuable old Italian Bible,' she said. 'You are too little to be trusted with it. You must wait till you grow bigger.'
Now as he caught sight of it he said to Nobbles very gravely:
'I'm grown bigger now, Nobbles. We'll look at it. That was years ago when Aunt Anna said that.'
It was a heavy book to lift. He dragged a footstool close to the bookcase, then placed the Bible very carefully upon it, and sat down on the carpet in front of it prepared to enjoy himself. First he fingered the little blue stones in true childish fashion, then he laid his cheek on the soft leather binding, and told Nobbles it smelt just sweet. And then with the greatest reverence he opened the clasps and began to look at the pictures. They were wonderful! But some of them rather frightened him. The angels with their big wings he loved, but there was an awful picture of the ark floating over stormy waves through torrents of rain, and drowning people holding up their arms to be taken in; and there was one of a boy being tied to a heap of stones and his old father, with knife uplifted, just going to kill him.
Bobby did not like the look of that at all; and then noticing that, scattered through the book, were a few very beautifully painted pictures, he turned over the pages to find them first. At last he came to one at the very end of the volume that arrested his attention and held him spellbound.
It was shining with gold and glory, and was the picture of two golden gates guarded by white angels with glittering golden wings. Inside the gates was a broad golden road lined with avenues of fruit-laden trees, and crowds of white-robed people and children were walking along it, some dancing and singing, some playing harps and blowing trumpets, some resting under the trees, but nearly all making their way to a big tree laden with golden fruit that stood on the edge of a flowing river. In the distance was a beautiful golden city, which seemed to be sending its rays of light right up to this tree and surrounding it. Every face was smiling, every person seemed entrancingly happy, and all of them were dressed in white, and nearly all wore golden crowns on their heads.
Bobby drew a long breath.
'It's Fairyland!' he whispered to Nobbles. 'Oh, I wish me and you could walk straight in and be there! I would love to pick those golden apples, and to blow those trumpets, and to play about with the children by the water.'
He gazed with wistful longing in his eyes; then from the inside of the gates his glance tell upon a dark corner outside in the picture. And this was the angel shutting out a little group of people who were begging to be let in. They were dressed in filthy rags, their faces were wretched, and several were weeping bitterly. No light from the golden city seemed to fall upon them, and Bobby noticed, through the darkness that seemed all round them, that their feet were close to the edge of a precipice.
As he looked at them the tears came into his eyes; and when he heard Nurse's voice call to him he started violently. He could hardly believe he was in the library, and was going up to his sunny nursery. He had been in the picture for such a long time, and so very far away.
Very carefully he put the Bible back in its place and ran out of the room.
'Nurse,' he said a little later, as he was eating his dinner in the nursery, 'do you know a story in the Bible about some big lovely gates, and angels, and a street all gold, and trees with gold apples, and lovely flowers, and everybody smiling, and then, outside the gates, some poor, unhappy crying people being shut out in the dark and rain? It's rather near the end of the book.'
'Oh, I expect it's a picture of heaven,' said Nurse, 'and the wicked people being shut out.'
'But,' said Bobby, with anxious eyes, 'are many bodies shut outside of heaven? Can't they never get in?'
'Now, eat your dinner and don't talk so much! There are no wicked people in heaven. It is only good little boys who go there.'
An awful fear clutched at Bobby's heart, but he could not put it into words. He had taken it for granted that everybody who died went straight to heaven. The picture of those weeping men and women outside the gates, and the sad stern face of the angel who was shutting them out, haunted him. He was very quiet indeed; and when Nurse took him off to church a little later, he never spoke a word. They walked along the high-road for a short distance, then turned up a lane with high banks and hedges, and at last came to the little country church, with some shady elms and beeches casting cool shadows across the sunny churchyard. It was a children's service, and the Sunday-school children were filing in before them. Bobby followed his nurse up to his grandmother's pew. It was very near the pulpit, and when sitting down Bobby could not see over the top of it. He was not very fond of church. It was a long time to sit still, and Nurse would not let him talk to Nobbles. In fact she had threatened more than once to leave Nobbles behind when they went to church if he persisted in playing with him.
To-day Bobby was pleased by hearing one of his hymns sung that he knew by heart, and when the clergyman began to talk in the pulpit of this very hymn he could not help listening.
There's a Friend for little children Above the bright blue sky,'
said the clergyman. 'Now I am going to talk to you about seven things you have above the sky. Will you say them after me? A Friend, a rest, a home, a crown, a song, a robe, and a harp with palms of victory.' Bobby's attention was fixed for a time as the clergyman spoke of these one by one. He described heaven with all its glories, and Bobby nodded his head as he listened.
'Me and you have seen it, Nobbles,' he whispered. 'We sawed it in the picsher.'
When the robe and harp were described Bobby drew a long breath of delight. It seemed all so certain that he was going to be inside the gates one day. He went into dreams after that, and then started in his seat as he heard the very solemn closing words of the sermon: 'So remember, dear children, you must have your white robe on before you enter those golden gates, or they will close upon you, and you will be left outside.'
Poor Bobby thought and thought of these words as he trotted home with Nurse; but he felt that if he asked for them to be explained Nurse would only tell him to be quiet.
When he was in bed that night he confided his fears to Nobbles.
'Me and you may be shut outside, like those peoples, if we don't have those white gowns. How can I get one, Nobbles, dear? I wonder if my father would give me one! And I wonder if you can buy them, and wheres they comes from!'
Tired out with such conjectures, he fell asleep.
HIS NEW FRIEND.
It was four o'clock, and Bobby was sitting out upon the lawn with his new friend, Lady Isobel. His grandmother at first told Nurse that she considered him too small to accept such an invitation; but Nurse for once spoke up for him, and said she thought it would do him no harm. It appeared she knew Lady Isobel's housekeeper, and was not sorry to have an excuse for taking tea with her. So Bobby and Nobbles, with smiling faces, presented themselves at the appointed time, and Lady Isobel greeted the small boy most affectionately, Nurse went off to the house, and then he lost all shyness, and was soon the greatest friends with the sad-faced woman. It was not very long before he told her of the beautiful picture he had seen.
'I wish I could read about it,' he lamented, 'but it's in a far away lang'age, Nurse says.'
'But if it is the Bible your nurse could read it to you.'
'No, it's a diffent Bible.'
He described the cover to her and the pictures. Lady Isobel seemed quite interested.
'I should like to see it,' she said. 'It must be a very valuable one, Bobby. I expect some old monks must have painted the pictures in it. I had a prayer-book once illuminated by them. They had plenty of time in those days to give to painting, and they did it beautifully.'
'What's a monk?' asked Bobby.
'A man with a bald head in a gown, who lives in a house away from the world, and makes it his business to be good.'
'In a gown?' repeated Bobby. 'A white one? Me and Nobbles want to know about white gowns, acause you can't get inside the gates if you haven't got one on, and'—his lips quivered—'I don't want to be shut out, I reely don't!'
'I'm sure you needn't be afraid of that,' said Lady Isobel, smiling, though she sighed at the same time. 'I have always been told that it is people's own fault if they are left outside.'
'I want to be certain sure I'll get inside the gates,' repeated Bobby, distress in his brown eyes. 'Me and Nobbles means to be there. I finks my father will help me get in.'
'I'm sure he will,' said Lady Isobel, cheerfully. 'Now would you like to come round my garden with me? Shall we pick some flowers for your nursery? Do you like flowers?'
Bobby assented eagerly.
'The House has a good many,' he said, 'but me and Nobbles never has none 'cept the daisies, and Tom always cuts them off d'reckly they comes up.'
He trotted after her along a gravel path that was edged by thick borders of flowers; roses climbed over arches across their heads. A smile came over his face as he gazed at the flowers to the right and left of him.
'Nobbles is rather naughty, sometimes,' he said, looking up into Lady Isobel's face with twinkling eyes. 'He does love to cut off flowers' heads, and I can't stop him. He cutted off 'bout a hundred dandelions one day in the orchard, he would do it, and when I looked at them their necks were bleeding white milk, and I picked up all the heads, and I made Nobbles dig and dig their graves, and we buried them all.'
Lady Isobel tried to look shocked.
Bobby had a bewitching smile, and twinkles of humour all over his face when he was giving free play to his imagination. He continued with a slow shake of his head as he looked down upon Nobbles meditatively.
'I tells him he mustn't be so fond of cutting off people's heads. You see he loves fighting. He's been a soger over the sea. He went into battle and cut off twenty fousand en'mies one day!'
Bobby stole a look up through his long lashes at Lady Isobel to see how she took this. Then he gained courage, and proceeded:
'Nobbles tells me I needn't never be 'fraid of lions or tigers or village boys, for he'd whack them all round, and the cocks and hens all rush away when they see me and Nobbles coming! Once in the land where the Indians are, Nobbles walked out in the night by hisself—he always walks when nobody sees him you know—and he met an army coming frough the jungle. They was all black men, and they were coming to kill all the white people and burn their houses; he just told them to get in one 'normous line, and he swished, and swished, and cut off their heads just like the dandelions, and then he walked back to bed and next morning, when everybodies knew what he'd done, they all called out hurrah, and gave him a gold crown. Nobbles said it hurt him, so he left it in a tree, and he likes his red cap best!'
'He looks very brave,' said Lady Isobel. 'May I hold him in my hand?'
'Just for one minute you may; but Nobbles doesn't like no one but me—no one 'cept father. Nobbles reely loves him!'
It was the same with all Bobby's stories; they invariably turned upon his absent father. Lady Isobel walked by his side and wondered much if the absent father knew what a wealth of love and devotion was awaiting him in his little son's heart and hopes.
Bobby enjoyed every minute of that visit of his. He talked without stopping; and Lady Isobel's grave sadness began to melt away. When Nurse at length came respectfully out of the house to take him home, she found the young widow and the child engaged in a merry game of 'touch-wood.'
'Oh, Nurse!' cried Bobby reproachfully, 'we're having such fun. I never has anyone to play with me like this?'
'You shall come another day,' said Lady Isobel stooping to kiss the eager radiant face. 'I don't know who has enjoyed the time most, you or I!'
The anticipation of another such treat sent Bobby home in smiling content, but it was some time before he saw Lady Isobel again, for a few days afterwards he was laid up with a mild attack of measles.
His grandmother and nurse were at first much concerned about him, then when the little invalid began to recover they regained their usual stolid composure. It was a very new experience to Bobby; at first he could not understand it, and thought he was going to die; then he declared that Nobbles felt much worse than he did, and the doctor must see him. The doctor, a grey-haired old man, humoured him, assured him that Nobbles must certainly lie in bed with him and be dosed, whereupon Bobby's smile shone out and he murmured:
'Nobbles and me is both very ill indeed.'
'Nurse,' he said, 'if I die, shall I go to heaven? I can't if I haven't a white robe. Do tell me how I can get it.'
'You're not going to die, Master Bobby; you're getting well fast.'
'I'm mis'rable and very ill,' said Bobby in an injured tone. 'Nobbles and me both is, and I want to see my lady!'
This cry was continually upon his lips, and at last one afternoon nurse opened the door and ushered in Lady Isobel.
'I am sure it is very good of you, my lady, to come to him; he is getting a bit fretful now that he's better.'
Bobby held out his arms with an eager cry to the first grown-up person who had shown a liking for him. Certainly his Uncle Mortimer had been interested in him, but he had never kissed him or petted him.
'You aren't afraid you'll catch the measles?' he asked as Lady Isobel kissed his little up-turned face.
'Not a bit afraid,' she said cheerily; 'and I think the doctor would say you were past the infectious stage now. Has the time seemed dull and long?'
'N-o-o,' replied Bobby slowly. 'I like my beef-tea and jelly, and so does Nobbles; but I'm tired of looking at my picsher-books, and I want to see those lovely picshers in the beautiful Bible downstairs. Could you fetch it for me to look at?'
Lady Isobel hesitated, and turned to Nurse.
'He's been on so for those pictures,' she said, 'that I think I'll venture to go and ask the mistress now.'
Nurse left the room and soon returned with the treasured book.
'His grandmother says he can look at it with you, and then I must put it back again, as it's a valuable book.'
Nurse deposited the Bible upon Bobby's bed, and left the room.
Lady Isobel took it carefully up and looked at the title-page.
'It is a treasure, Bobby. It is an old Italian Bible—Martini's translation, of course. I know Italian, and used to spend a good deal of my time in Italy when I was a girl. Now show me your wonderful picture.'
Bobby took hold of the Bible with flushed eager face, and turned to almost the last page of it. Then he drew a long sigh of admiration as he held it up to her.
'Isn't it beautiful?'
'Beautiful indeed,' said Lady Isobel, gazing upon the richly illuminated page with enjoyment. I don't wonder you like it, Bobby; it is a dream of glory.'
'It isn't a dream, it's a true picsher,' corrected Bobby. 'Nurse says everyfing's true in the Bible. Please read me what it says underneath.'
'I will translate it for you; you would not understand the foreign words:
'"Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb, that they may have right to the tree of life, and enter in through the gates into the City."'
Bobby listened as if his life depended on the words.
'Tell me what it means. Does it tell me how to get a lovely white dress, like the people going up that beautiful road? What Lamb does it mean?' His little finger was pointing to the white-robed group in the picture.
For a moment Lady Isobel paused. She read the verse again slowly.
'I think it means this, Bobby, that no one has a right inside those gates except those who have had their sins washed away by the Lamb of God.'
'Who's the Lamb of God?' asked Bobby in a hushed voice. 'Does God keep sheep and lambs in heaven?'
'It is one of the names of our Lord Jesus Christ, Bobby, dear. I don't know how to explain it to you; but long ago people used to offer up innocent little lambs to God as a sacrifice for sins.'
'What's a sacrifice?'
Lady Isobel was not accustomed to a child's questions. She hesitated.
'It is an innocent thing suffering for a guilty, at least the Bible sacrifices were. I suppose they were just to picture the great sacrifice on Calvary. How can I put it simply? Sin made everyone black and wicked, Bobby, and God had to shut up heaven's gates and keep it outside. Nothing with sin upon it can be in heaven. These people in the picture who are being turned away are looking black and dirty and miserable, because their hearts are full of sin.'
'They want white dresses,' said Bobby, 'then they could go in like the others. The clergyman said in church—I 'members it quite well—that we must have white dresses on first afore the angel would let us frough the gates. And me and Nobbles wants to get frough!'
'Yes,' said Lady Isobel softly, 'you are quite right, Bobby, that's what the text says, we must be washed white first before we have a right to go in.'
'I am trying to tell you. God wanted us to come into heaven, so Jesus said He would come down upon earth and be punished instead of us. You will understand when you grow older what a big thing it was for Him to do. But He died for us, Bobby; He gave His life-blood for us; and it is by His death our sins can be washed away and our hearts made clean. That is what it means by washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus was the Lamb, and our hearts must be washed white in His precious blood.'
'But it says robes,' said Bobby, with a puzzled frown. 'Does hearts mean robes?'
'I think it is like this, darling. Our hearts are black and soiled with sin. When they are washed clean it is just like a white covering over them, a white dress; and God looks down upon them, and says "that person can come inside the gates, because I see a clean white robe over him."'
'I see!' said Bobby, with quick comprehension. 'My heart has to have a white robe inside me, not outside; and the angel at the gate looks right frough me and sees it.'
'That is it, Bobby.'
'And how can I get it white?'
'You must just ask Jesus Christ to wash it in his blood.'
'Will He do it to-day? I would like it done now.'
He eyed the picture thoughtfully, then a pleased smile crept over his face.
'And then I shan't never, never be turned away. The angel will say, "Come in Bobby; I'm very glad to see you." And I'll walk up the road and be so happy!'
Lady Isobel did not speak for a moment. In explaining the old Truths to Bobby they seemed fresh to her own soul.
Bobby had no difficulty in laying hold of them.
Even now he was clasping his hands devoutly, shutting his eyes and bowing his head. He looked up for one moment.
'Nurse says I must say my prayers in bed. I've always said them to God afore. I think I'll say this one to Jesus.'
'Do, dear. It will be just the same.'
So Bobby spoke aloud. He had not yet got to the stage of praying in silence.
'Please, Jesus, I want my heart washed white, quite white, please, so that I shan't be outside the gate. And please will you do it now, for I don't like waiting, and tell me when you've done it, so that I can say thank you.'
There was great silence in that room. The earnestness of the child made the grown-up person very grave.
She had never yet in her life come to this crisis. And then in a very few minutes came an emphatic 'Thank you very much,' from Bobby's lips as he wriggled down amongst his pillows with a sigh of satisfaction.
'I feel Jesus has done it,' he said, with a nod of his curly head. 'He just put His hand on my heart, and it all turned white.'
'I'm so glad, darling.'
Lady Isobel stooped to kiss him with tears in her eyes.
'And now, Bobby, you must always try to be a good boy, and love Jesus Christ, and do what He tells you to. Isn't there a little hymn:
Oh, dearly, dearly has He loved, And we must love Him too, And trust in His redeeming blood, And try His works to do.'
Bobby nodded again.
'I says that to Nurse sometimes, but I never does understand it. And now let's look at the other picshers; but first, please, say the text to me again.'
Lady Isobel repeated it, and Bobby repeated it after her with quiet satisfaction:
'"Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb, that they may have right to the tree of life, and enter in through the gates into the City."'
Then he wanted to know about the tree of life; and when at length Lady Isobel left him she said to Nurse:
'He is an extraordinary child, Nurse. I feel as if I had been teaching in Sunday-school. I have never done such a thing before in my life!'
Bobby was soon up and about again, but he had a great disappointment when one day his friend, Lady Isobel, came to him to wish him good-bye.
'I am going back to India,' she told him; and though her face was grave her eyes were glad.
'Oh!' cried Bobby, clasping her round the neck. 'Take me with you, and then I'll look for my father. Don't go away and leave me, you understand so!'
'If I had not met you I don't believe I should be going,' said Lady Isobel with a smile and a sigh. 'We have helped each other, Bobby. I have discovered that I was fast getting a very selfish woman, and so I'm going to join an old friend of mine in India who has a school for little black children and women, and I'm going to try to make them happy by telling them about your picture of the beautiful golden gates. Do you think I will be able to explain it properly?'
'Yes,' said Bobby, interested at once; 'same as you did to Nobbles and me. They've got black bodies as well as black hearts, haven't they? Nurse's brother tells me about black peoples. But, oh! I don't want you to go. Everybodies I like goes away; and my father is such a 'normous time coming!'
'Poor little Bobby!'
She caressed his curly head with her hand, and added:
'I will keep a sharp look-out for this father of yours, and send him home to you when I find him.'
'That's what Master Mortimer said; but he's never sent him.'
'Never mind! He'll come back one day,' and with that rather doubtful consolation Lady Isobel kissed him and said good-bye.
Bobby felt very unhappy for a few days after she left, then began to make the best of it, and turned more than ever to his beloved companion, Nobbles. One afternoon he sat up in his favourite apple-tree watching the white high-road. Presently two boys came along chasing a poor miserable-looking little dog whose tail was tied to an old saucepan. The boys were pelting the saucepan with stones, and more often than not the stones hit the dog, and a yelp of pain was the result.
Bobby's eyes blazed. He forgot his smallness; he only thought of the tortured dog.
Shaking Nobbles furiously at them, he leant over the wall and shouted:
'Stop it, you cowards! I tells you to stop! If you don't, I'll come and make you!'
The boys looked up and laughed at the irate little figure.
'Come on!' they cried. 'We're ready for you, little 'un!'
The dog had fled into a ditch now, and cowered beneath some bramble bushes. The boys began to pelt him with stones to make him come out, and Bobby scrambled down from his tree.
'Come on, Nobbles,' he said; 'we'll drive them off, me and you together!'
He ran to the orchard gate, clambered over it (for it was locked), and was soon standing over the dog protectingly.
'You shan't touch him. I'll hit you if you do!'
The biggest of the boys laughed at him, and advanced to seize the crouching dog.
Bobby was so angry that he sprang forward and hit him sharply on the shoulder. In an instant the boy, who was a bully by nature, had wrenched his precious stick away from him, and began to belabour him so unmercifully with it that in a moment poor Nobbles was snapped in two.
And at this juncture Bobby's aunt came upon the scene. She was returning from the village, and hastened to stop what she believed was a village fight. Her astonishment was great when she saw her small nephew. The village lads at once took to their heels. Bobby, in an agony of fright and woe, stooped to pick up the two pieces of his stick which had been flung upon the ground, and the wretched little dog crept out of his hiding-place.
'Bobby, what is the meaning of this? You fighting with boys on the high-road! Where is your nurse?'
Bobby was beside himself with passion and grief. He held out his broken stick.
They've killed mine Nobbles! I hate them! I wish I could kill them dead! They was teasing the poor little dog, and me and Nobbles ran out to make them stop, and he took Nobbles away, and he beat me with Nobbles, and broked him dead! And I hate him!'
Bobby literally was beside himself with grief. He flung himself down on the grass by the roadside, clasping the remains of Nobbles in his arms, and sobbed in the most bitter and heart-broken fashion.
Miss Egerton occupied herself with releasing the dog from the saucepan. It seemed to know who had befriended it, for it crept up to Bobby and began to lick his curly head with a little whine of sympathy. Then Miss Egerton spoke very sharply:
'Get up at once, Bobby, and don't be such a baby! Come indoors with me to Nurse. No, little dog, you are not to follow us; go home, and keep out of the way of boys in future.'
Bobby was too overwhelmed with the fate of Nobbles to think of the dog he had rescued, so he followed his aunt through the orchard and garden, and flung himself into the arms of his nurse, who, hearing his sobs, came to meet him.
'He's dead! He's broken in two! Oh, mine Nobbles! mine Nobbles!'
'Here, Nurse, take him up to the nursery. He has been trying to act as champion to an ill-used dog, and come off rather the worse in the encounter. You must not let him stray into the road by himself. I don't know what his grandmother would say if she had seen him just now.'
Nurse picked up Bobby as if he were a baby and carried him upstairs.
'Hush! now, Master Bobby. Tell me what you've been doing. Let me see Nobbles; I expect he can be mended.'
Hope leaped into Bobby's heart; he put the two pieces of stick upon the table. Nurse, seeing his grief, pointed triumphantly to Nobble's little smiling face, which was quite uninjured.
'Nobbles is all right,' she said. 'We can have a new stick put into him, and he will be better than ever. Look! he's smiling at you to tell you not to cry. Boys of your age ought never to cry; you don't want to be a baby.'
Nurse got her work-basket out, and very cleverly tied Nobbles together with a bit of tape.
'There!' she said, laying him in Bobby's arms. 'Be gentle with him, and he'll last like that till we get him mended; and now tell me all about it.'
The story was told; and Nurse was proud of her charge's pluck. When she undressed him that evening and found marks across his back and legs, which told of the beating he received, she declared she would find out the names of the cowardly bullies who had done it, and get them richly punished. But Bobby made light of his own hurt; he got into bed and clasped Nobbles to him, and after a long whispered conversation he suddenly called for Nurse.
'How does a heart get broken, Nurse? Jane said her mother died of a broken heart.'
''Tis sorrow that does it generally,' replied Nurse. 'Now you go to sleep, like a good boy.'
But Bobby's brown eyes were very wide awake, and shining with a great light behind them.
'Nobbles isn't dead, Nurse; he's very, very hurt; but he's told me just how it was. That wicked boy took hold of him and made him hit me, and that just broked his heart in two. He couldn't bear to hurt me, so he broke his heart and snapped in two, because he wanted to stop it. It was sorrow that did it!'
'Oh! I see,' said Nurse, smiling. 'Now don't talk any more, like a good boy.'
Bobby drew Nobbles' ugly smiling little head close to his. 'I loves you, Nobbles, darling, I loves you; and we'll make you quite better soon; it is only your body, you see. Oh, I loves you for breaking yourself in two, so that you couldn't hurt me!' And then, tired and exhausted by his emotions, Bobby fell asleep, and Nobbles lay and smiled by his side.
The next morning Nurse informed him that she was going to drive into the neighbouring town to do some shopping for his grandmother, and he was to go with her.
This was a great treat to the small boy, and it only happened on very rare occasions.
'And if you bring your stick with you we'll see if we can get it mended.'
So Bobby climbed into the dogcart with his nurse in the greatest delight, and John, the groom, drove them the five miles to the town.
When they arrived there, Nurse good-naturedly took him first to a little old man who mended umbrellas, and Nobbles was produced for his inspection. Bobby stood by trembling for his verdict, and Nurse said to the man, Jim Black by name, 'He's so terrible set upon his stick that we thought perhaps you might mend it. 'Tis the head he values; it's his favourite toy.'
Jim Black turned Nobbles' little head round in his hand with a smile upon his lips.
'Be this here a Chinyman?' he asked Bobby.
'Oh no,' said Bobby gravely, shaking his head. 'He came from over the sea; but he understands my English. He's dreadfully hurt; and he doesn't want to have a new body, it will feel so strange to him.'
The old man winked at Nurse. 'Ah, well, we'll see whether we can mend his old body first.'
He was untying Nobbles' bandages, and when he came in two, he inspected both pieces with great solemnity.
'What be you going to do with him? Keep him in a glass case?'
'Oh no; he always lives with me, and comes with me everywheres.'
Bobby looked up at the umbrella-mender with serious alarm in his eyes.
'Then this here broken body be of no manner of use. You leave him with me and I'll give him a good stout stick, and he'll be better'n new.'
'You won't hurt him doing it?'
'Bless your heart, he be proper enjoyin' the thought of it. Look at his smile! Ah, well! If so be that we could get new bodies so easy when ours be smashed up it would be a foine thing—eh, Nurse?'
Nurse assented with a smile; then telling the old man they would call again, she took Bobby out into the street and began her shopping. And the shops and the people were so full of interest to Bobby that after a short time he dismissed Nobbles from his mind and began to enjoy himself. His crowning treat was lunch at a confectioner's, and then soon afterwards the groom appeared with the cart, and they called for Nobbles on their way home. Bobby's hand shook with excitement as he held it out for his treasure. And certainly Jim Black had been very successful over his task. Nobbles' head was firmly fixed upon a very stout brown cane, and he looked very pleased with himself. But it was some time before Bobby could get accustomed to the change in him, and more than once he asked his nurse doubtfully if she thought he was just the same Nobbles as he used to be.
'I does hope Nobbles isn't very uncomf'able. I was telling him last night he must be very kind to his poor new body, for it must be a little shy of him at first. And he said' (here the twinkle came into Bobby's eyes as they stole a look at Nurse's impassive face), 'Nobbles telled me he'd soon make him mind him; and the first thing he wants him to do is to lick that big boy who hit me.'
'Oh, you mustn't talk of fighting; it's only wicked boys who do that. The Bible says, "Forgive your enemies."'
Bobby looked thoughtful.
'Shall I get my white robe dirty if I fight? My friend who read the tex' to me said wicked things made white dresses dirty.'
'Of course they do. Good boys never fight.'
'I don't think I'm a good boy,' said Bobby, shaking his head. 'Me and Nobbles would love to knock that boy down; but I don't want to dirty my dress—I reely don't.'
The very next day after this conversation, whilst he was sitting in his apple-tree, Bobby saw the big bully coming down the road. He hastily had a whispered consultation with Nobbles, and then, leaning over the wall, shouted to him to stop. Feeling secure in his position, he shook Nobbles threateningly at him.
'Do you see my stick? We wants 'normously to come down and lick you, but we aren't going to; but if you dare to touch me ever again I'll tell my father when he comes home, and he'll punish you well.'
'Yah, baby!' yelled the bully, taking up a stone to fling at him.
Bobby hastily scrambled down from his perch and ran indoors.
Somehow or other the mention of his father brought a forlorn longing to his small heart He saw his grandmother go off for her daily drive, and crept silently into the big hall. Sitting down at the foot of the stairs he heaved a big sigh.
'Oh, I wish he'd come! I can't do without him no longer! I'm sure, certain sure, I could find him if I went to look for him.'
For a long time this idea had been simmering in his head. This afternoon it took shape and form.
''Sposing, Nobbles, my father has forgotten the house? Why, one day he may drive right past it; and if I was out there to stop him, how lovely it would be!'
Bobby leapt to his feet. The front door was open; down the drive he sped to the big iron gate which led out to the high-road. And then the impulse seized him to go up the road himself and ask anyone coming along if they had seen his father drive by.
'Just fink, Nobbles, we shall see him coming along in a grand carriage with lots of horses; and he'll stop, and the horses will stop, and the coachmens; and he'll open his arms, and me and you will run straight into them; and we'll go right away, galloping on the road to a beautiful big house, and every room—every one, Nobbles—me and you will have for our own, and we'll never, never go back to the House again, never till I'm a very old man with a white beard, and have to lean very heavy on you, dear Nobbles; and then we'll come to make a visit, and we'll come in the big front door, and sleep in the best spare room, and I'll say, "This is where me and Nobbles lived when we was waiting for father."'
Talking rather breathlessly in this fashion, Bobby trotted along the road, perfectly oblivious of the fact that he was not allowed to wander out on the high-road alone. His little heart was bent upon bringing his long waiting to an end. There was no reason to his childish mind why his father should not appear any day. Every day he expected him, and it seemed a delightful and natural thing for him to be running along to meet him. From a trot he soon subsided into a walk. It was a hot day, the road was dusty, and few vehicles passed him. At length he paused to rest, and it was at this juncture that some drovers, taking some refractory cattle to market, came along behind him.
Bobby was in the act of picking a bracken fern from the hedge with which to fan his face when he heard an alarmed shout. Turning his head he saw that a young bull had broken loose from his captors and was making a dash along the road towards him.
For an instant he did not realise his danger, then another shout from the men, 'Get out of his way!' made him step aside. The bull had caught sight of him and lowered his head with an angry bellow.
And then, to the horror and amazement of the drovers, they saw the small child turn and walk into the middle of the road, where he stood confronting the animal with upraised stick.
At this identical moment the hoot of a horn and whiz of a motor was heard coming down the road. It slackened speed behind Bobby; then the little fellow never quite knew what happened, but it swerved past him and literally charged into the enraged bull, driving him into the hedge. For an instant the car seemed as if it was going to overturn, then it righted itself, and came to a standstill. Bobby was soon surrounded by a good many people, and for a moment he was a little dazed.
A gentleman was stooping over him, a tall man with very bright eyes, a bronzed skin and short curly golden hair. He was the owner of the motor; and the three cattle-drovers were all eagerly talking and explaining.
'Why didn't you run away, little chap?' the gentleman said; 'don't you know that you were just on the point of being tossed by the horns of that bull?'
'Oh no,' Bobby said in a confident tone, recovering himself; 'I was going to whack him 'cross the nose—least Nobbles was. Nobbles can kill bulls if he likes!'
He held out his stick with pride, then looked pityingly at the fallen bull, whose master was surveying it with some dismay.
'Is the poor cow quite dead? I was awful 'fraid when I saw you knock him over.'
The gentleman looked at Bobby very strangely, then turned back to his car.
'True!' he called, 'come and speak to this little boy. I've never seen such pluck before. Tell him he needn't waste his pity on the bull, which would have killed him had we not prevented it!'
A little girl, with a mop of unruly brown hair escaping from a quaint sun-bonnet, was still sitting in the car and regarding the scene with big awestruck eyes. In a moment she jumped out and approached Bobby. She was only half a head taller than he was, and now gazed at him with soft, sweet grey eyes.
'Poor little boy!' she said. 'What's your name?'
'I'm not a poor boy,' said Bobby with head erect; 'me and Nobbles will be walking on, for we're in a partic'lar hurry.'
A sudden panic had seized him that this gentleman might take him home again; he had a great dislike to be the centre of a crowd, and the cattle-drovers were all surrounding him now, gesticulating and talking loudly. And Bobby was rather shy of other children; he generally felt strangely antagonistic towards them. This little girl's gentle pity, and her desire to know his name, frightened and annoyed him.
He turned his back upon her and hurried off, with very little idea of the danger from which he had been saved. But he had not gone a hundred yards before, to his consternation, he met John, the groom, driving back from the town in the dogcart. He pulled up instantly.
'Why, Master Bobby, you ain't by yourself all this way from home?'
'Me and Nobbles are here,' said the small boy with dignity.
It did not take John long to get out and lift the little runaway up to the seat beside him, and Bobby was soon being driven home with a crestfallen unhappy face.
'Everybodies always stops me when I want to do fings!' he complained to Nurse when she took him to task for being so naughty.
And Nurse was so angry with him that she made him stand in the corner till teatime.
'For you're not a bit sorry, and will be sure to run away again directly you get a chance,' she said.
Bobby turned his face to the wall with heaving chest.
'I wants to find my father,' he said.
He little knew how very close he had been to the end of that search.
'Master Bobby is wanted in the drawing-room.'
Jane brought this message up just as the nursery tea was being cleared away.
'Are there visitors?' enquired Nurse.
'Yes; a gentleman.'
It was only on rare occasions that the child was sent for. Nurse was in a flutter at once, putting on his best brown velvet suit, with his little cream-silk shirt, and brushing out his curls with great skill and care.
Bobby did not like the summons at all. He remembered the last time he had been in the drawing-room. It was to see an old clergyman who had patted him on the head and asked him if he knew his Catechism. He had wriggled away from him, and upset a vase of flowers upon a table near, and had been sent upstairs in disgrace, his grandmother declaring that 'children were always out of place in a drawing-room.'
'It's another old gempleum, Nurse. I don't like them at all.'
But when he opened the drawing-room door he saw his grandmother sitting in her stiffest sternest attitude, and, seated opposite to her, the tall man with the bright eyes and the curly hair who had rescued him that afternoon from the bull.
Bobby's heart sank into his boots at once. So he had come to tell tales of him to his grandmother. He had had one scolding and a punishment from Nurse, now he would get another!
'Come here, Bobby,' said his grandmother coldly. 'Your father has come to see you.'
He could not believe his ears. For an instant he gazed wildly and uncomprehendingly at the stranger, who turned and held out his hand.
'Why, upon my word! You're the little chap who withstood the furious bull! Come along. No wonder I felt as I did when I saw you!'
How often had Bobby rehearsed this scene to himself! He had pictured himself flinging himself with a glad cry into the arms of his father, and that father gathering him to his breast and smothering him with kisses. How different was reality to fancy! He was too dazed by the suddenness of the discovery to do more than stare stupidly up at his father, who drew him gently to him and kissed him on the forehead.
Then he heard his father tell his grandmother about the bull, and Mrs. Egerton said:
'What possessed you to do such a naughty thing as to go out on the high-road alone, Bobby? You might have been killed, and we should not have known where you were. What made you do it?'
Bobby looked up at his grandmother with big frightened eyes.
'I went to meet my father,' he faltered.
Mr. Allonby gave a short laugh; his grandmother looked quite horrified.
'You know that is an untruth,' she said. 'Your father must be quite shocked to hear you.'
Bobby did not attempt to defend himself. His under lip quivered, and in his small heart was a passionate desire to prove himself innocent of a lie.
His eyes turned to his father, who was looking down upon him with a strange gravity, but though he wanted to speak he could not.
'Never mind,' his father said cheerfully, 'he did meet me, and I cannot yet take in the strange coincidence of it. If I hadn't come by when I did—— Well, it does not bear thinking about. Did you know you had a father living, Bobby? For your grandmother seems to have thought I was dead. I suppose my long silence has seemed inexcusable, but I am positive that I wrote twice after your daughter's death, Mrs. Egerton, and to neither letter received any reply. Then I went off with an exploring party through South America, and have been out of touch with civilisation for the past five years. Last summer I took up life again in Canada, and only came home three months ago. I have been ill two months of that time.'
There was silence. Bobby felt uncomfortable; why, he did not know. His father looked at him again and sighed.
'Well, I see he is cared for, Mrs. Egerton, and had better fall in with your wishes. My wife——'
'Your present wife need not be brought into our discussion.'
Mr. Allonby rose to his feet, for Mrs. Egerton's words were bitter and proud.
'I'll see the boy once again before I leave this part, and now I'll wish you good afternoon.'
'I'm coming with you, Father.'
Bobby's voice rang out eagerly, expectantly. He had not a doubt but that he would be taken away at once.
His father looked at him astonished, then smiled and shook his head.
'Oh no, my boy; you belong to your grandmother, not to me. I hear you are going to school soon. I dare say you will find some boys there who will be as hard to tackle as a run-away bull.'
At this juncture Bobby's aunt entered the room, and the little boy slipped away unnoticed to the hall. His small soul was full of agonised dismay and bewilderment. Was this to be the end of all his hopes and expectations? His father did not want him; he said he did not belong to him. This last assertion was like a stab. Bobby stood looking out of the front door, which was open, into the sunny garden beyond, and there the sight of his father's small motor standing puffing away upon the drive filled him suddenly with a desperate resolve.
'I won't be left behind. I will go with father. I don't belong to this old House. I don't belong to grandmother. I belongs to him for ever and ever. Amen!'
He darted down the steps towards the motor. Then a fear smote him. The little girl. Who was she? Where was she? But the motor was empty, there was no sign of her. He climbed into the car, and in another moment was safely tucked out of sight under the seat. He had been accustomed to hide in out of the way corners in his grandmother's part of the house. He had often, when making secret excursions on his own account, been nearly surprised by the 'grown-ups.' Sometimes he had lain almost breathless under a chintz-covered couch, or crouched behind a curtain till the moment of danger was past. His whole soul was in revolt against his father's decision. He pitifully thought that if only he explained things to his father, if only he was granted a fair hearing, without feeling the cold disapproving gaze of his grandmother upon him, he might win his case.
So he lay, grasping Nobbles tightly in agony lest he should be discovered and dragged out of his hiding-place. It seemed hours to him before he heard his father's voice and step, and his parting words to his aunt, who had accompanied him to the hall door, were not reassuring.
'I must see him once again before leaving this part; but I'm quite satisfied that you can do better for him than I can.'
Then he jumped into his car, and in a moment they were gliding down the drive and out upon the high-road. A little exultant feeling came to Bobby when they were once away and going at full speed. His heart thumped loudly; he was extremely uncomfortable and dared not change his position, but he could not help whispering to Nobbles in triumph:
'We're on, Nobbles, and we never will go back to the House again.'
It did not seem very long before the car stopped. Bobby heard men's voices talking, but he did not move until his father had left the car. Then he peeped out and saw him going into the principal hotel of the market town. When he had disappeared through the door Bobby crept from his hiding-place, and, strangely enough, though there were two or three ostlers standing by, he escaped observation. He was very disappointed to find they were no farther away, for he dreaded being taken back to his grandmother again. Then his natural hopefulness came to his aid.
'Father will keep me when I tells him how I want him; and if he tells me to go home I'll come out and hide under the seat. Me and Nobbles don't mean to leave him now we've found him.'
He pushed the hotel door open, but there was no sign of his father. Nothing disconcerted, Bobby opened every door he saw and peeped inside the rooms, and when he did not find him downstairs, he climbed upstairs.