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The angel of the wild beasts.
When Clare looked up he saw nothing between him and the sky. They had dragged the caravan from above him, and he had not moved. Abdiel indeed waked at the first pull, but had lain as still as a mouse--ready to rouse his master, but not an instant before it should be necessary.
Clare saw the sky, but he saw something else over him, better than the sky--the face of Mrs. Halliwell, the mistress of the menagerie. In it, as she stood looking down on him, was compassion, mingled with self-reproach.
Clare jumped up, saying, "Good morning, ma'am!" He was yet but half awake, and staggered with sleep.
"My poor boy!" answered the woman, "I sent you to sleep on the cold earth, with a sovereign of your own in my pocket! I made sure you would come and ask me for it! You're too innocent to go about the world without a mother!"
She turned her face away.
"But, ma'am, you know I couldn't have offered it to anybody," said Clare. "It wasn't good!--Besides, before I knew that," he went on, finding she did not reply, "there was nobody but you I dared offer it to: they would have said I stole it--because I'm so shabby!" he added, looking down at his rags. "But it ain't in the clothes, ma'am--is it?"
Getting the better of her feelings for a moment, she turned her face and said,--
"It was all my fault! The sov. is a good one. It's only cracked! I ought to have known, and changed it for you. Then all would have been well!"
"I don't think it would have made any difference, ma'am. We would rather sleep on the ground than in a bed that mightn't be clean--wouldn't we, Abby?" The dog gave a short little bark, as he always did when his master addressed him by his name.--"But I'm so glad!" Clare went on. "I was sure Mr. Goodenough thought the sovereign all right when he gave it me!--Were you ever disappointed in a sovereign, ma'am?"
"I been oftener disappointed in them as owed 'em!" she answered. "But to think o' me snug in bed, an' you sleepin' out i' the dark night! I can't abide the thought on it!"
"Don't let it trouble you, ma'am; we're used to it. Ain't we, Abby?"
"Then you oughtn't to be! and, please God, you shall be no more! But come along and have your breakfast We don't start till the last."
"Please, ma'am, may Abdiel come too?"
"In course! 'Love me, love my dog!' Ain't that right?"
"Yes, ma'am; but some people like dogs worse than boys."
"A good deal depends on the dog. When folk brings up their dogs as bad as they do their childern, I want neither about me. But your dog's a well-behaved dog. Still, he must learn not to come in sight o' the animals."
"He will learn, ma'am!--Abdiel, lie down, and don't come till I call you."
At the word, the dog dropped, and lay.
The house-caravan stood a little way off, drawn aside when they began to break up. They ascended its steps behind, and entered an enchanting little room. It had muslin curtains to the windows, and a small stove in which you could see the bright red coals. On the stove stood a coffee-pot and a covered dish. How nice and warm the place felt, after the nearly shelterless night!
The breakfast-things were still on the table. Mr. Halliwell had had his breakfast, but Mrs. Halliwell would not eat until she had found the boy. She had been unhappy about him all the night. Her husband had assured her the sovereign was a good one, and the boy had told her he had no money but the sovereign! She little knew how seldom he fared better than that same night! When he got among hay or straw, that was luxury.
They sat down to breakfast, and the good woman was very soon confirmed in the notion that the boy was a gentleman.
"Call your dog now," she said, "an' let's see if he'll come!"
"May I whistle, ma'am?"
"Why not!--But will he hear you?"
"He has very sharp ears, ma'am."
Clare gave a low, peculiar whistle. In a second or two, they heard an anxious little whine at the door. Clare made haste to open it. There stood Abdiel, with the words in his eyes, as plain almost as if he spoke them--"Did you call, sir?" The woman caught him and held him to her bosom.
"You blessed little thing!" she said.
And surely if there be a blessing to be had, it is for them that obey.
Clare heard and felt the horses put-to, but the hostess of this Scythian house did not rise, and he too went on with his breakfast. When they were in motion, it was not so easy to eat nicely, but he managed very well. By the time he had done, they had left the town behind them. He wanted to help Mrs. Halliwell with the breakfast-things, but whether she feared he would break some of them, or did not think it masculine work, she would not allow him.
Nothing had been said about his going with them; she had taken that for granted. Clare began to think perhaps he ought to take his leave: there was nothing for him to do! He and Abdiel ought at least to get out and walk, instead of burdening the poor horses with their weight, when they were so well rested, and had had such a good breakfast! But when he said so to Mrs. Halliwell, she told him she must have a little talk with him first, and formally proposed that he should enter their service, and do whatever he was fit for in the menagerie.
"You're not frightened of the beasts, are you?" she said.
"Oh no, ma'am; I love them!" answered Clare. "But are you sure Mr. Halliwell thinks I could be of use?"
"Don't you think yourself you could?" asked Mrs. Halliwell.
"I know I could, ma'am; but I should not like him to take me just because he was sorry for me!"
"You innocent! People are in no such hurry to help their neighbours. My husband's as good a man as any going; but it don't mean he would take a boy because nobody else would have him. A fool of a woman might--I won't say; but not a man I ever knew. No, no! He saw the way you managed that bull!--a far more unreasonable creature than any we have to do with!"
"Ah! you don't know Nimrod, ma'am!"
"I don't, an' I don't want to!--Such wild animals ought to be put in caravans!" she added, with a laugh.
"Well, ma'am," said Clare, "if you and Mr. Halliwell are of one mind, nothing would please me so much as to serve you and the beasts. But I should like to be sure about it, for where husband and wife are not of one mind--well, it is uncomfortable!"
Thereupon he told her how he had stood with the farmer and his wife; and from that she led him on through his whole story--not unaccompanied with tears on the part of his deliverer, for she was a tender-souled as well as generous and friendly woman. In her heart she rejoiced to think that the boy's sufferings would now be at an end; and thenceforward she was, as he always called her, his third mother.
"My poor, ill-used child!" she said. "But I'll be a mother to you--if you'll have me!"
"You wouldn't mind if I thought rather often of my two other mothers, ma'am--would you?" he said.
"God forbid, boy!" she answered. "If I were your real mother, would I have my own flesh and blood ungrateful? Should I be proud of him for loving nobody but me? That's like the worst of the beasts: they love none but their little ones--and that only till they're tired of the trouble of them!"
"Thank you! Then I will be your son Clare, please, ma'am."
The next time they stopped, she made her husband come into her caravan, and then and there she would and did have everything arranged. When both her husband and the boy would have left his wages undetermined, she would not hear of it, but insisted that so much a week should be fixed at once to begin with. She had no doubt, she said, that her husband would soon be ready enough to raise his wages; but he must have his food and five shillings a week now, and Mr. Halliwell must advance money to get him decent clothes: he might keep the wages till the clothes were paid for!
Everything she wished was agreed to by her husband, and at the next town, Clare's new mother saw him dressed to her satisfaction, and to his own. She would have his holiday clothes better than his present part in life required, and she would not let his sovereign go toward paying for them: that she would keep ready in case he might want it! Her eyes followed him about with anxious pride--as if she had been his mother in fact as she was in truth.
He had at once plenty to do. The favour of his mother saved him from no kind of work, neither had he any desire it should. Every morning he took his share in cleaning out the cages, and in setting water for the beasts, and food for the birds and such other creatures as took it when they pleased. At the proper intervals he fed as many as he might of those animals that had stated times for their meals; and found the advantage of this in its facilitating his friendly approaches to them. He helped with the horses also--with whose harness and ways he was already familiar. In a very short time he was known as a friend by every civilized animal in and about the caravans.
He did all that was required of him, and more. Not everyone of course had a right to give him orders, but Clare was not particular as to who wanted him, or for what. He was far too glad to have work to look at the gift askance. He did not make trouble of what ought to be none, by saying, with the spirit of a slave, "It's not my place." He did many things which he might have disputed, for he never thought of disputing them. Thus, both for himself and for others, he saved a great deal of time, and avoided much annoyance and much quarrelling. Thus also he gained many friends.
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