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Blackbird's Inspiration by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

"What be lookin' at?" inquired Mrs. Bold, emerging from her dairy, and incidentally wiping her hands on a corner of her apron. "There ye've a-been standin' in a regular stud all the time I were a-swillin' out the churn."

Farmer Bold was standing at the open stable door, his grey-bearded chin resting on his big brown hand, his eyes staring meditatively in front of him. It was a breezy, sunny autumn day, and all the world about him was astir with life; gawky yellow-legged fowls pecked and scratched round his feet with prodigious activity, calves were bleating in the adjacent pens, while the very pigs were scuttling about their styes, squealing the while as though it were supper-time. The wind whistled blithely round the corners of the goodly cornstacks to the rear of the barton, and piped shrilly through their eaves; the monthly roses, still ablow, swung hither and thither in the fresh blast, strewing the cobblestones with their delicate petals. In all the gay, busy scene only the figure of the master himself was motionless, if one might except the old black horse which he appeared to be contemplating, the angular outlines of whose bony form might be seen dimly defined in the dusk of its stable.

Towards this animal Farmer Bold now pointed, removing his hand from his chin for the purpose. "I wur a-lookin' at Blackbird," he said, "poor wold chap! He was a good beast in his day, but I d' 'low his day be fair done. Tis the last night what Blackbird 'ull spend in this 'ere stall."

"Why," cried Mrs. Bold quickly, "ye don't mean to say--"

"I mean to say," interrupted her husband, turning to her with a resolutely final air, "I mean to say as Blackbird's sold."

"Sold!" ejaculated the woman incredulously. "Who'd ever go for to buy Blackbird?--wi'out it be one o' they rag-and-bone men, or maybe for a salt cart. Well, Joe," with gathering ire, "I didn't think ye'd go for to give up the faithful wold fellow after all these years, to be knocked about and ill-used at the last."

"Nay, and ye needn't think it--ye mid know as I wouldn't do sich a thing," returned her lord with equal heat. "I've sold en"--he paused, continuing with some hesitation, as he nodded sideways over his shoulder, "I've a-sold en up yonder for the kennels."

"What! To be ate up by them there nasty hounds? Joseph!"

"Come now," cried the farmer defiantly, "ye must look at it sensible, Mary. Poor Blackbird, he be a-come to his end, same as we all must come to it soon or late. He 've a-been goin' short these two years--ye could see that for yourself--and now his poor wold back be a-givin' out, 'tis the most merciful thing to destroy en. They'll turn en out to-week in the field up along--beautiful grass they have there--and he'll enjoy hisself a bit, and won't know nothin' about it when they finish en off."

"I al'ays thought as we'd keep Blackbird so long as he did live," murmured Mrs. Bold, half convinced but still lamenting, "seein' as we did breed en and bring en up ourselves, and he did work so faithful all his life. Poor wold Jinny! He wur her last colt, and you did al'ays use to say you'd keep en for her sake. Ah, 'tis twenty year since I run out and found en aside of her in the paddock--walkin' about as clever as you please, and not above two hours old. Not a white hair on en--d'ye mind?--and such big, strong legs! I was all for a-callin' en Beauty, but you said Beauty was a filly's name. And he did use to run to paddock-gate when he wur a little un, and I wur a-goin' to feed chicken--he'd know my very foot, and he'd come prancin' to meet I, and put his little nose in the bucket. Dear, to be sure, I mind it just so well as if it wur yesterday!"

The farmer laughed and stroked his beard.

"'E-es, he was a wonderful knowin' colt," he agreed, placidly. "There's a deal o' sense in beasts if ye take notice on 'em and treat 'em friendly like. Them little lambs as we did bring up to-year was so clever as Christians, wasn't they? Ye mind the little chap we did call Cronje, how he used to run to I when he did see I a-comin' wi' the teapot? And Nipper--ye mind Nipper? He didn't come on so well as the others; he was sickly-proud, so to speak, and wouldn't suckey out o' the teapot same as the rest. But he knowed his name so well as any o' them, and 'ud screw his head round, and cock his ears just as a dog mid do, when I did call en. Pigs, even," he proceeded meditatively, "there's a deal o' sense in pigs, if ye look for it. Charl', ye mind Charl', what he had soon after we was married? That there pig knowed my v'ice so well as you do. What I did use to come into the yard and did call 'Charl',' he'd answer me back, 'Umph.' Ho! ho! I used to stand there and laugh fit to split. Ye never heard anythin' more nat'ral. 'Charl',' I'd call; 'Umph' he'd go. Ho! ho! ho!"

The woman did not laugh; she was screwing up her eyes in the endeavour to penetrate the darkness of the stable. "Poor wold Blackbird," she said, "I wish it hadn't come to this. It do seem cruel someway. There, he did never cost 'ee a penny, wi'out 'twas for shoes, and he've a-worked hard ever sin' he could pull a cart--never a bit o' vice or mischief. It do seem cruel hard as he shouldn't end his days on the place where he was bred."

"My dear woman," said her husband loftily, "what good would it do the poor beast to end his days here instead of up yonder? He's bound to end 'em anyways, and we are twenty-two shillin' the better for lettin' of en go to the kennels."

"Twenty-two shillin'?" repeated his wife.

"'E-es, not so bad, be it? The pore fellow's fair wore out, but still, d'ye see, he fetches that at the last, and 'tis better nor puttin' an end to en for nothin'. Ah, there be a deal o' money in twenty-two shillin'!"

Mrs. Bold sighed. Perhaps she knew almost better than her husband how much toil and trouble it cost to get twenty-two shillings together. Twenty pounds of butter, twenty-two dozen eggs, eighty-eight quarts of milk! What early risings, what goings to and fro, what long sittings with cramped limbs and aching back, milking cow after cow in summer heat and winter cold, how many weary hours' standing in the flagged dairy before twenty-two shillings could be scraped together! She turned away, without another word.

Later in the evening poor old Blackbird was brought out of his stall, and, after receiving the farewell caresses of master and mistress, was led away, limping, to the kennel pasture.

"Don't 'urry en," called the farmer to the lad who had charge of him. "Tis a long journey for he--two mile and more; let en take his time. He'll get there soon enough."

The next morning, just as Mrs. Bold had finished getting breakfast, her husband came to the dairy in a state of amused excitement.

"There, ye'll never think! I al'ays did say beasts was so sensible as Christians if ye took a bit of notice of 'em. I was a-goin' round stables jist now, and if I didn't find wold Blackbird in his own stall, jist same as ever. I did rub my eyes and think I must be dreamin', but there he were layin' down, quite at home. He al'ays had a trick of openin' gates, ye know, and he must jist ha' walked away i' th' night. He wur awful tired, pore beast--'twas so much as I could do to get en off again."

"Ye sent en off again!" cried Mrs. Bold indignantly. "Well, I shouldn't ha' thought ye could have found it in yer heart! The poor wold horse did come back to we, so trustin', and you to go an drive en away again to his death! Dear, men be awful hard-hearted!"

"Of all the onraisonable creeturs, you are the onraisonablest," cried the farmer, much aggrieved. "Was I to go and take the folks' money and keep the money's worth? A nice name I'd get in the country! They'd be sayin' I stole en away myself, very like. No, I did send en up so soon as I could, so as they shouldn't be s'archin' for 'en."

Mrs. Bold clapped a plate upon the table.

"Sit down," she cried imperatively. "Ye'll be ready for your own breakfast, though you wouldn't give pore Blackbird a bit."

"Who says I didn't give en a bit?" retorted Joseph. "Ye be al'ays jumpin' at notions, Mary. Blackbird had as good a feed o' carn afore he did go as ever a horse had."

"Much good it'll do en when he's a-goin' to be killed," returned his spouse inconsequently. "There, it's no use talkin'; I must make haste wi' my breakfast and get back to my work. It's well for I as I be able to work a bit yet, else I suppose ye'd be sendin' me to the knackers."

"I never heerd tell as you was a harse," shouted the farmer. The wit and force of the retort seemed to strike him even as he uttered it, for his indignant expression was almost immediately replaced by a good-humoured grin. "I had ye there, Mary," he chuckled. "'I never heerd tell as you was a harse, says I."

Next churning day Mrs. Bold rose before dawn, according to her custom, and the churning was already in progress before the first grey, uncertain light of the autumnal morning began to diffuse itself through the latticed milk-house windows. All at once, during a pause in the labour, she fancied she heard a curious, hesitating fumbling with the latch of the door.

"Hark!" she cried, "what's that?"

"Tis the wind," said one of the churners.

"Nay, look, somebody's a-tryin' to get in," returned the mistress, as the latch rose in a ghostly manner, fluttered, and fell. "Go to the door, Tom," she continued, "and see what's wanted."

"'Tis maybe a spirit," said Tom, shrinking back.

"Nonsense! What would a spirit want at the dairy door? 'Tis more like a tramp. Open it at once--You go, Jane."

"I dursen't," said Jane, beginning to whimper.

"Not one of ye has a grain o' sense!" said Mrs. Bold angrily.

She went to the door herself, just as the odd rattling began for the third time, opened it cautiously, and uttered a cry.

There stood the attenuated form of poor old Blackbird, looking huge and almost spectral in the dim light, but proclaiming its identity by a low whinny.

"Rabbit me!" exclaimed Tom, "if that there wold carcase ain't found his way here again!"

But Mrs. Bold's arms were round the creature's neck, and she was fairly hugging him.

"Well done!" she cried ecstatically, "well done! Ye did well to come to I, Blackbird. I'll stand by ye, never fear! I'll not have ye drove away again."

Blackbird stood gazing at her with his sunken eyes, his loose nether lip dropping, his poor old bent knees bowed so that they seemed scarcely able to sustain his weight; the rusty skin, which had once been of so glossy a sable, was scratched and torn in many places.

"He must have found his way out through the hedge. Well, to think of his coming here, Missis!"

"He knowed he come to the right place," said Mrs. Bold, with flashing eyes. "Turn that there new horse out o' the stall and put Blackbird back, and give en a feed o' earn, and shake down a bit o' fresh straw. 'Tis what ye couldn't put up wi', could ye, Blackbird?" she continued, addressing the horse, "to find a stranger in your place! Ye come to tell I all about it, didn't ye?"

When the farmer came down half-an-hour later, his wife emerged from the shed in the neighbourhood of the pig-styes, where she had been ministering to the wants of two motherless little pigs. One small porker, indeed, was still tucked away under her arm as she advanced to meet her husband, and she was brandishing the teapot, from which she had been feeding it, in her disengaged hand.

"Joseph," she said, planting herself opposite to him, and speaking with alarming solemnity, "we've a-been wed now farty year come Lady Day. Have I bin a good wife to 'ee, or have I not?"

"Why, in course," Joseph was beginning, when he suddenly broke off. "What's the new colt standing in the cart-shed for?"

"Never you mind the new colt--attend to I! Have I been a good wife to 'ee, or have I not?"

"In course ye have--no man need ax for a better. But why--"

"Haven't I worked early and late, and toiled and moiled, and never took a bit o' pleasure, and never axed 'ee to lay out no money for I? Bain't I a-bringin' up these 'ere pigs by hand for 'ee, Joseph Bold? And a deal of worry they be. 'Twasn't in the marriage contract, I think, as I should bottle-feed sucking-pigs--was it now, Joseph? I d' 'low parson never thought o' axin' me if I were willin' to do that, but I've a-done it for your sake."

"Well, but what be ye a-drivin' at?" interrupted the farmer, with a kind of aggrieved bellow, for his wife's sorrowfully-reproachful tone cut him to the quick. "What's it all about? What be a-complainin' of? What d'ye want, woman? What d'ye want?"

"I want a pet," returned Mrs. Bold vehemently. "Here I've been a-livin' wi' ye all these years, and ye've never let me keep so much as a canary bird. There's the Willises have gold-fish down to their place, and they be but cottagers; and Mrs. Fripp have got a parrot. A real beauty he be, what can sing songs and laugh and shout like the children, and swear--ye'd think t'was Fripp hisself, he do do it so naitral!"

Joseph Bold fairly groaned:

"Good Lard! I never did think to hear 'ee talk so voolish--a sensible body like ye did always use to seem! Dear heart alive! Gold-fish! And a poll parrot! Well, Mary, I did think as a body o' your years could content herself wi' live things as had a bit more sense in 'em nor that."

"Oh, I dare say," returned his spouse sarcastically. "Pigs and sich-like!" giving a little tap to the wriggling, squeaking creature at that moment struggling under her arm, "and chicken and ducks! Nice pets they be."

"Upon my word, a man 'ud lose patience to hear you. Pets--at your time o' life, wi' children grown up and married. Well, if ye want pets, ha'n't ye had enough of 'em. Don't ye have nigh upon a dozen lambs to bring up every spring?"

"'E-es, and where be they now, Joseph? Where be the lambs as I got up afore light in the frostis and snow to attend to? Where be they? Ye know so well as I do as butcher had 'em, every one. That's my complaint--you do never let me keep a thing as isn't for killin'. A body'd need a heart o' stone to stand it. This 'ere pig--ye know right well as he'll be bacon afore this time next year."

[Illustration: BLACKBIRD'S INSPIRATION "Here's my little pet," she cried jubilantly]

"Then, in the name of furtin have your fancy, woman! Give it a name, and I'll get it for 'ee."

"Ye give me your word, do ye, Joseph?"

"I bain't a man to break it," responded the farmer shortly.

Mrs. Bold set the little pig carefully on its feet, and sidled across the yard, eyeing her husband the while with a curious expression that was half-fearful, half-triumphant. When she reached the closed stable door she opened it, plunged into the dark recess within, and reappeared, dragging forth by a wisp of his ragged mane--poor, decrepit old Blackbird.

"Here's my little pet," she cried jubilantly, delight at her success overmastering all other feelings. "You've give me your word, Joseph, and, as ye d'say yerself, ye bain't the one to take it back. Here's the only pet I'll ever ax to keep. He'll not cost much," she added, seeing her husband's face redden and his eyes roll threateningly. "He can pick about in the summer, and a bit of hay in the winter'll be all he'll need. I'll make it up to 'ee, see if I don't; and I think you do owe I summat, anyhow, for workin' so hard as I always do."

"Oh, in course, if ye put it that way," he returned, huffily, "I haven't got a word to say. I al'ays thought 'twas a wife's dooty to help her husband, but since it seems to be a favour, I'm sure I did ought to be very grateful. Thank ye kindly, ma'am! P'r'aps ye'll be so good as to shut up that beautiful pet o' yourn now, and give me a bit o' breakfast, if it bain't troublin' ye too much."

"Oh, go on, Joseph!" exclaimed Mrs. Bold, with heightening colour, turning Blackbird about as she spoke, and propelling him before her towards the stall. "I couldn't do nothin' else nor want to keep him," she added in an aggrieved tone, "when he come to the dairy door--he come actually to the dairy door!--same as if he knowed 'twas his last chance."

The farmer did not answer, but in spite of himself a dawning expression of interest was perceptible on his face.

"'E-es, an' he must ha' broke through a hedge to get out; he be cut about terrible wi' thorns."

"They did padlock th' gate when I sent en back last time," returned Joseph gruffly, adding, in the same tone, "Ye'd better sponge they sore places a bit after breakfast, and get dust out of 'em."

Mrs. Bold installed Blackbird in his old quarters, and hastened to the house.

The meal which ensued was at first a somewhat silent one. In spite of her satisfaction at having gained her point, Mrs. Bold felt somewhat remorseful for the tactics she had employed; and her husband stolidly munched his bread and bacon with a solemn, not to say gloomy, countenance.

All at once, however, he began to roll his head from side to side, while the colour on his already rubicund face deepened so much that his wife gazed at him in alarm, dreading the ensuing outburst. But when after long repression the explosion actually took place, it proved to be one of harmless and jovial laughter.

"What is it?" inquired Mrs. Bold, laughing delightedly too, though she knew not at what.

"I've bin a-thinkin' o' summat. Dear heart alive, Mary, the queer notions as do seem to be a-comin' into our heads all this week! D'ye mind my sayin', 'I never knowed as you was a harse'? Ha! ha! Ye couldn't say much to that, could 'ee? And when I think o' you standin' in yard jist now, wavin' the teapot and tuckin' the little pig under your arm! 'Bottle-feedin' suckin'-pigs weren't in the marriage contract,' says you. Ho! ho! ho! Whatever put it i' your head to say that, I can't think."

"I didn't really mean it, my dear," said Mary penitently, though she laughed still.

"I dare say not, but I've bin a-thinkin' 'tis a pity your pet bain't a size or two smaller--he be sixteen hands if he be a inch--else maybe ye'd like to have en in here a-layin' on the hearthrug."

Then husband and wife laughed long and loud, and their little difference was forgotten as their eyes met.