A Happy Family by Juliana Horatia Ewing
"If solid happiness we prize, Within our breast this jewel lies.
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From our own selves our joys must flow, And peace begins at home."
The family--our family, not the Happy Family--consisted of me and my brothers and sisters. I have a father and mother, of course.
I am the eldest, as I remind my brothers; and of the more worthy gender, which my sisters sometimes forget. Though we live in the village, my father is a gentleman, as I shall be when I am grown up. I have told the village boys so more than once. One feels mean in boasting that one is better born than they are; but if I did not tell them, I am not sure that they would always know.
Our house is old, and we have a ghost--the ghost of my great-great-great-great-great-aunt.
She "crossed her father's will," nurse says, and he threatened to flog her with his dog-whip, and she ran away, and was never heard of more. He would not let the pond be dragged, but he never went near it again; and the villagers do not like to go near it now. They say you may meet her there, after sunset, flying along the path among the trees, with her hair half down, and a knot of ribbon fluttering from it, and parted lips, and terror in her eyes.
The men of our family (my father's family, my mother is Irish) have always had strong wills. I have a strong will myself.
People say I am like the picture of my great-grandfather (the great-great-great-nephew of the ghost). He must have been a wonderful old gentleman by all accounts. Sometimes nurse says to us, "Have your own way, and you'll live the longer," and it always makes me think of great-grandfather, who had so much of his own way, and lived to be nearly a hundred.
I remember my father telling us how his sisters had to visit their old granny for months at a time, and how he shut the shutters at three o'clock on summer afternoons, and made them play dummy whist by candle light.
"Didn't you and your brothers go?" asked Uncle Patrick, across the dinner-table. My father laughed.
"Not we! My mother got us there once--but never again."
"And did your sisters like it?"
"Like it? They used to cry their hearts out. I really believe it killed poor Jane. She was consumptive and chilly, but always craving for fresh air; and granny never would have open windows, for fear of draughts on his bald head; and yet the girls had no fires in their room, because young people shouldn't be pampered."
"And ye never-r offer-r-ed--neither of ye--to go in the stead of them?"
When Uncle Patrick rolls his R's in a discussion, my mother becomes nervous.
"One can't expect boys to consider things," she said. "Boys will be boys, you know."
"And what would you have 'em be?" said my father. Uncle Patrick turned to my mother.
"Too true, Geraldine. Ye don't expect it. Worse luck! I assure ye, I'd be aghast at the brutes we men can be, if I wasn't more amazed that we're as good as we are, when the best and gentlest of your sex--the moulders of our childhood, the desire of our manhood--demand so little for all that you alone can give. There were conceivable uses in women preferring the biggest brutes of barbarous times, but it's not so now; and boys will be civilised boys, and men will be civilised men, sweet sister, when you do expect it, and when your grace and favours are the rewards of nobleness, and not the easy prize of selfishness and savagery."
My father spoke fairly.
"There's some truth in what you say, Pat."
"And small grace in my saying it. Forgive me, John."
That's the way Uncle Patrick flares up and cools down, like a straw bonfire. But my father makes allowances for him; first, because he is an Irishman, and, secondly, because he's a cripple.
* * * * *
I love my mother dearly, and I can do anything I like with her. I always could. When I was a baby, I would not go to sleep unless she walked about with me, so (though walking was bad for her) I got my own way, and had it afterwards.
With one exception. She would never tell me about my godfather. I asked once, and she was so distressed that I was glad to promise never to speak of him again. But I only thought of him the more, though all I knew about him was his portrait--such a fine fellow--and that he had the same swaggering, ridiculous name as mine.
How my father allowed me to be christened Bayard I cannot imagine. But I was rather proud of it at one time--in the days when I wore long curls, and was so accustomed to hearing myself called "a perfect picture," and to having my little sayings quoted by my mother and her friends, that it made me miserable if grown-up people took the liberty of attending to anything but me. I remember wriggling myself off my mother's knee when I wanted change, and how she gave me her watch to keep me quiet, and stroked my curls, and called me her fair-haired knight, and her little Bayard; though, remembering also, how lingeringly I used just not to do her bidding, ate the sugar when she wasn't looking, tried to bawl myself into fits, kicked the nurse-girl's shins, and dared not go upstairs by myself after dark--I must confess that a young chimpanzee would have as good claims as I had to represent that model of self-conquest and true chivalry, "the Knight without fear and without reproach."
However, the vanity of it did not last long. I wonder if that grand-faced godfather of mine suffered as I suffered when he went to school and said his name was Bayard? I owe a day in harvest to the young wag who turned it into Backyard. I gave in my name as Backyard to every subsequent inquirer, and Backyard I modestly remained.
"The lady with the gay macaw."
My sisters are much like other fellows' sisters, excepting Lettice. That child is like no one but herself.
I used to tease the other girls for fun, but I teased Lettice on principle--to knock the nonsense out of her. She was only eight, and very small, but, from the top row of her tight little curls to the rosettes on her best shoes, she seemed to me a mass of affectation.
Strangers always liked Lettice. I believe she was born with a company voice in her mouth; and she would flit like a butterfly from one grown-up person to another, chit-chattering, whilst some of us stood pounding our knuckles in our pockets, and tying our legs into knots, as we wished the drawing-room carpet would open and let us through into the cellar to play at catacombs.
That was how Cocky came. Lettice's airs and graces bewitched the old lady who called in the yellow chariot, and was so like a cockatoo herself--a cockatoo in a citron velvet bonnet, with a bird of Paradise feather. When that old lady put up her eye-glass, she would have frightened a yard-dog; but Lettice stood on tip-toes and stroked the feather, saying, "What a love-e-ly bird!" And next day came Cocky--perch and all complete--for the little girl who loves birds. Lettice was proud of Cocky, but Edward really loved him, and took trouble with him.
Edward is a good boy. My mother called him after the Black Prince.
He and I disgraced ourselves in the eyes of the Cockatoo lady, and it cost the family thirty thousand pounds, which we can ill afford to lose. It was unlucky that she came to luncheon the very day that Edward and I had settled to dress up as Early Britons, in blue woad, and dine off earth-nuts in the shrubbery. As we slipped out at the side door, the yellow chariot drove up to the front. We had doormats on, as well as powder-blue, but the old lady was terribly shocked, and drove straight away, and did not return. Nurse says she is my father's godmother, and has thirty thousand pounds, which she would have bequeathed to us if we had not offended her. I take the blame entirely, because I always made the others play as I pleased.
We used to play at all kinds of things--concerts, circuses, theatricals, and sometimes conjuring. Uncle Patrick had not been to see us for a long time, when one day we heard that he was coming, and I made up my mind at once that I would have a perfectly new entertainment for him.
We like having entertainments for Uncle Patrick, because he is such a very good audience. He laughs, and cries, and claps, and thumps with his crutch, and if things go badly, he amuses the rest.
Ever since I can remember anything, I remember an old print, called "The Happy Family," over our nursery fire-place, and how I used to wonder at that immovable cat, with sparrows on her back, sitting between an owl and a magpie. And it was when I saw Edward sitting with Benjamin the cat, and two sparrows he had brought up by hand, struggling and laughing because Cocky would push itself, crest first, under his waistcoat, and come out at the top to kiss him--that an idea struck me; and I resolved to have a Happy Family for Uncle Patrick, and to act Showman myself.
Edward can do anything with beasts. He was absolutely necessary as confederate, but it was possible Lettice might want to show off with Cocky, and I did not want a girl on the stage, so I said very little to her. But I told Edward to have in the yard-dog, and practise him in being happy with the rest of the family pets. Fred, the farm-boy, promised to look out for an owl. Benjamin, the cat, could have got mice enough; but he would have eaten them before Edward had had time to teach him better, so I set a trap. I knew a village-boy with a magpie, ready tamed.
Bernard, the yard-dog, is a lumbering old fellow, with no tricks. We have tried. We took him out once, into a snow-drift, with a lantern round his neck, but he rescued nothing, and lost the lantern--and then he lost himself, for it was dark.
But he is very handsome and good, and I knew, if I put him in the middle, he would let anything sit upon him. He would not feel it, or mind if he did. He takes no notice of Cocky.
Benjamin never quarrels with Cocky, but he dare not forget that Cocky is there. And Cocky sometimes looks at Benjamin's yellow eyes as if it were thinking how very easily they would come out. But they are quite sufficiently happy together for a Happy Family.
The mice gave more trouble than all the rest, so I settled that Lettice should wind up the mechanical mouse, and run that on as the curtain rose.
"Memor esto majorum."
. . . . .All my fears are laid aside, If I but remember only Such as these have lived and died!"