She does so despise us for greediness, or grudging, or snatching, or not sharing what we have got, or taking the best and leaving the rest, or helping ourselves first, or pushing forward, or praising Number One, or being Dogs in the Manger, or anything selfish. And we cannot bear her to despise us!
We despise being selfish, too; but very often we forget. Besides, it is sometimes rather difficult to love your neighbour as yourself when you want a thing very much; and Arthur says he believes it is particularly difficult if it is your next-door-neighbour, and that is why Father and the Old Squire quarrelled about the footpath through Mary’s Meadow.
The Old Squire is not really his name, but that is what people call him. He is very rich. His place comes next to ours, and it is much bigger, and he has quantities of fields, and Father has only got a few; but there are two fields beyond Mary’s Meadow which belong to Father, though the Old Squire wanted to buy them. Father would not sell them, and he says he has a right of way through Mary’s Meadow to go to his fields, but the Old Squire says he has nothing of the kind, and that is what they quarrelled about.
Arthur says if you quarrel, and are too grown-up to punch each other’s heads, you go to law; and if going to law doesn’t make it up, you appeal. They went to law, I know, for Mother cried about it; and I suppose it did not make it up, for the Old Squire appealed.
After that he used to ride about all day on his grey horse, with Saxon, his yellow bull-dog, following him, to see that we did not trespass on Mary’s Meadow. I think he thought that if we children were there, Saxon would frighten us, for I do not suppose he knew that we knew him. But Saxon used often to come with the Old Squire’s Scotch Gardener to see our gardener, and when they were looking at the wall-fruit, Saxon used to come snuffing after us.
He is the nicest dog I know. He looks very savage, but he is only very funny. His lower jaw sticks out, which makes him grin, and some people think he is gnashing his teeth with rage. We think it looks as if he were laughing—like Mother Hubbard’s dog, when she brought home his coffin, and he wasn’t dead—but it really is only the shape of his jaw. I loved Saxon the first day I saw him, and he likes me, and licks my face. But what he likes best of all are Bath Oliver Biscuits.
One day the Scotch Gardener saw me feeding him, and he pulled his red beard, and said, “Ye do weel to mak’ hay while the sun shines, Saxon, my man. There’s sma’ sight o’ young leddies and sweet cakes at hame for ye!” And Saxon grinned, and wagged his tail, and the Scotch Gardener touched his hat to me, and took him away.
The Old Squire’s Weeding Woman is our nursery-maid’s aunt. She is not very old, but she looks so, because she has lost her teeth, and is bent nearly double. She wears a large hood, and carries a big basket, which she puts down outside the nursery door when she comes to tea with Bessy. If it is a fine afternoon, and we are gardening, she lets us borrow the basket, and then we play at being weeding women in each other’s gardens.
She tells Bessy about the Old Squire. She says—“He do be a real old skinflint, the Old Zquire a be!” But she thinks it “zim as if ’twas having ne’er a wife nor child for to keep the natur’ in ’un, so his heart do zim to shrivel, like they walnuts Butler tells us of as a zets down for desart. The Old Zquire he mostly eats ne’er a one now’s teeth be so bad. But a counts them every night when’s desart’s done. And a keep’s ’em till the karnels be mowldy, and a keeps ’em till they be dry, and a keeps ’em till they be dust; and when the karnels is dust, a cracks aal the lot of ’em when desart’s done, zo’s no one mayn’t have no good of they walnuts, since they be no good to he.”
Arthur can imitate the Weeding Woman exactly, and he can imitate the Scotch Gardener too. Chris (that is Christopher, our youngest brother) is very fond of “The Zquire and the Walnuts.” He gets nuts, or anything, like shells or bits of flower-pots, that will break, and something to hit with, and when Arthur comes to “The karnels is dust,” Chris smashes everything before him, shouting “A cracks aal the lot of ’em,” and then he throws the bits all over the place, with “They be no good to he.”
Father laughed very much when he heard Arthur do the Weeding Woman, and Mother could not help laughing too; but she did not like it, because she does not like us to repeat servants’ gossip.
The Weeding Woman is a great gossip. She gossips all the time she is having her tea, and it is generally about the Old Squire. She used to tell Bessy that his flowers bloomed themselves to death, and the fruit rotted on the walls, because he would let nothing be picked, and gave nothing away, except now and then a grand present of fruit to Lady Catherine, for which the old lady returned no thanks, but only a rude message to say that his peaches were over-ripe, and he had better have sent the grapes to the Infirmary. Adela asked—“Why is the Old Squire so kind to Lady Catherine?” and Father said—“Because we are so fond of Lords and Ladies in this part of the country.” I thought he meant the lords and ladies in the hedges, for we are very fond of them. But he didn’t. He meant real lords and ladies.
There are splendid lords and ladies in the hedges of Mary’s Meadow. I never can make up my mind when I like them best. In April and May, when they have smooth plum-coloured coats and pale green cowls, and push up out of last year’s dry leaves, or in August and September, when their hoods have fallen away, and their red berries shine through the dusty grass and nettles that have been growing up round them all the summer out of the ditch.
Flowers were one reason for our wanting to go to Mary’s Meadow. Another reason was the nightingale. There was one that used always to sing there, and Mother had made us a story about it.
We are very fond of fairy books, and one of our greatest favourites is Bechstein’s As Pretty as Seven. It has very nice pictures, and we particularly like “The Man in the Moon, and How He Came There;” but the story doesn’t end well, for he came there by gathering sticks on Sunday, and then scoffing about it, and he has been there ever since. But Mother made us a new fairy tale about the nightingale in Mary’s Meadow being the naughty woodcutter’s only child, who was turned into a little brown bird that lives in the woods, and sits on a tree on summer nights, and sings to its father up in the moon.
But after our Father and the Old Squire went to law, Mother told us we must be content with hearing the nightingale from a distance. We did not really know about the lawsuit then, we only understood that the Old Squire was rather crosser than usual; and we rather resented being warned not to go into Mary’s Meadow, especially as Father kept saying we had a perfect right so to do. I thought that Mother was probably afraid of Saxon being set at us, and, of course, I had no fears about him. Indeed, I used to wish that it could happen that the Old Squire, riding after me as full of fury as King Padella in the Rose and the Ring, might set Saxon on me, as the lions were let loose to eat the Princess Rosalba. “Instead of devouring her with their great teeth, it was with kisses they gobbled her up. They licked her pretty feet, they nuzzled their noses in her lap,” and she put her arms “round their tawny necks and kissed them.” Saxon gobbles us with kisses, and nuzzles his nose, and we put our arms round his tawny neck. What a surprise it would be to the Old Squire to see him! And then I wondered if my feet were as pretty as Rosalba’s, and I thought they were, and I wondered if Saxon would lick them, Supposing that by any possibility it could ever happen that I should be barefoot in Mary’s Meadow at the mercy of the Old Squire and his bull-dog.
One does not, as a rule, begin to go to bed by letting down one’s hair, and taking off one’s shoes and stockings. But one night I was silly enough to do this, just to see if I looked (in the mirror) at all like the picture of Rosalba in the Rose and the Ring. I was trying to see my feet as well as my hair, when I heard Arthur jumping the three steps in the middle of the passage between his room and mine. I had only just time to spring into the window-seat, and tuck my feet under me, when he gave a hasty knock, and bounced in with his telescope in his hand.
“Oh, Mary,” he cried, “I want you to see the Old Squire, with a great-coat over his evening clothes, and a squash hat, marching up and down Mary’s Meadow.”
And he pulled up my blind, and threw open the window, and arranged the telescope for me.
It was a glorious night. The moon was rising round and large out of the mist, and dark against its brightness I could see the figure of the Old Squire pacing the pathway over Mary’s Meadow.
Saxon was not there; but on a slender branch of a tree in the hedgerow sat the nightingale, singing to comfort the poor, lonely old Man in the Moon.