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The Black Pigs, A True Story by Amy Walton

 

“I know what we must do—we must sell them at the market!”

“Where?”

“At Donnington.”

“We shall want the cart and horse.”

“Ask father.”

“No. You ask him—you know I always stammer so when I ask.”

The speakers were two dark, straight-featured little boys of ten and twelve, and the above conversation was carried on in eager whispers, for they were not alone in the room.

It was rather dark, for the lamp had not been lighted yet, but they could see the back of the vicar's head as he sat in his arm-chair by the fire, and they knew from the look of it that he was absorbed in thought; he had been reading earnestly as long as it was light enough, and scarcely knew that the boys were in the room.

You ask,” repeated Roger, the elder boy, “I always stammer so.”

Little Gabriel clasped his hands nervously, and his deep-set eyes gazed apprehensively at the back of his father's head.

“I don't like to,” he murmured.

“But you must,” urged Roger eagerly; “think of the pigs.”

Thus encouraged, Gabriel got up and walked across the room. He thought he could ask better if he did not face his father, so he stopped just at the back of the chair and said timidly:

“Father.”

The vicar looked round in a sort of dream and saw the little knickerbockered figure standing there, with a wide-mouthed, nervous smile on its face.

“Well,” he said in an absent way.

“O please, father,” said Gabriel, “may Roger and I have the cart and horse to-morrow?”

“Eh, my boy? Cart and horse—what for?”

“Why,” continued Gabriel hurriedly, “to-morrow's Donnington market, and we can't sell our pigs here, and he thought—I thought—we thought, that we might sell them there.”

He gazed breathless at his father's face, and knew by its abstracted expression that the vicar's thoughts were very far away from any question of pigs—as indeed they were, for they were busy with the subject of the pamphlet he had been reading.

“Foolish boys, foolish boys,” he said, “do as you like.”

“Then we may have it, father?”

“Do as you like, do as you like. Don't trouble, there's a good boy;” and he turned round to the fire again without having half realised the situation.

But Roger and Gabriel realised it fully, and the next morning between five and six o'clock, while it was still all grey, and cold, and misty, they set forth triumphantly on their way to market with the pigs carefully netted over in the cart. Through the lanes, strewn thickly with the brown and yellow leaves of late autumn, up the steep chalk hill and over the bare bleak downs, the old horse pounded steadily along with the two grave little boys and their squeaking black companions.

There was not much conversation on the road, for, although Gabriel was an excitable and talkative boy, he was now so fully impressed by the importance of the undertaking that he was unusually silent, and Roger was naturally rather quiet and deliberate.

They had to drive between five and six miles to Donnington, and at last, as they wound slowly down a long hill, they saw the town and the cathedral towers lying at their feet.

They were a good deal too early, for in their excitement they had started much too soon.

“But that is all the better,” said Roger, “because we shall get a good place.”

Presently the pen, made of four hurdles, was ready, the pigs safely in it, and the boys took their station in front of it and waited events.

Donnington market was a large one, well attended by all the fanners for miles round; gradually they came rattling up in their carts and gigs, or jogging along on horseback, casting shrewd glances at the various beasts which had already been driven in. Some of the men knew the boys quite well, and greeted them with, “Fine day, sir,” and a broad stare of surprise.

By the time the cathedral clock had sounded nine the market was in full swing.

A medley of noises. The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the squeak of some outraged pig, mixed with the shouts of the drovers and the loud excited voices of buyers and sellers. In the midst of all this turmoil the little boys stood steadily at their post, looking up anxiously as some possible buyer elbowed his way past and stopped a minute to notice the black pigs; but none got further than “Good-day, sir,” and a grin of amusement.

So the day wore on. They had brought their dinner tied up in Roger's handkerchief, and some acorns for the pigs, so at one o'clock they all had a little meal together. There was a lull just then, for most of the farmers had poured into the “Blue Boar” to dinner, and the people who were left were engaged in steadily munching the contents of the baskets they had brought with them.

Roger and Gabriel had not lost heart yet, and still hoped to sell the pigs, but they certainly began to feel very tired, especially Gabriel, who, having remained manfully upright all the morning, now felt such an aching in the legs that he was obliged to take a seat on a basket turned upside down.

The afternoon waned, it grew a little dusk, still no buyer. Soon the boys knew that they must begin their long drive home. But, to take the pigs back again; it was too heartrending to think of.

Then there was suddenly a little bustle in the market, and people moved aside to let a new-comer pass down the narrow space between the pens opposite to where the boys had placed themselves. It was a broad comely gentleman of middle age, dressed in riding-boots, and cords, and a faded green coat. He had a riding-whip in his hand, with which he touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment of the greetings round him; his dog followed close on his heels. There was a pleased recognition on all the faces, for everyone liked Squire Dale; he was a bold rider, and a good shot, and a kind landlord.

“Hullo, boys,” he said cheerily, for he knew Roger and Gabriel well, “what are you doing here? Is your father in the town?”

“N-n-no,” replied Roger, stammering very much; “we c-came to sell our p-p-p-pigs.”

“And we can't,” put in Gabriel rather mournfully from his basket.

The squire's eyes twinkled, though his face was perfectly grave.

“Pigs, eh?” he said. “Whose pigs are they?”

“Our pigs,” said Gabriel; “and if we sell them, we've got a plan.”

The squire stood planted squarely in front of them with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the serious little figures without speaking.

“Tiring work marketing, eh?” he said at last.

“G-Gabriel is a little tired,” replied Roger glancing at his younger brother, whose face was white with fatigue.

“Well, now,” continued Squire Dale, “it's an odd thing, but I just happened to be walking through the market to see if I could find some likely pigs for myself. But,” with a glance at the dusky occupants of the pen, “they must be black.”

Gabriel forgot that he was tired.

“They're beautiful black pigs,” he cried, jumping up eagerly, “as black as they can be. Berkshire pigs. Look at them.”

So the squire looked at them; and not only looked at them, but asked the price and bought them, putting the money into a very large weather-beaten purse of Roger's; and presently the two happy boys were seated opposite to him in the parlour of the “Blue Boar” enjoying a substantial tea.

With renewed spirits they chatted away to their kind host, whose jolly brown face beamed with interest and good-humour as he listened. At last Gabriel put down his tea-cup with a deep-drawn sigh of contentment, and said to his brother mysteriously:

“Shall we tell about the plan?”

Roger nodded. He could not speak just then, for he was in the act of taking a large mouthful of bread and jam.

“Shall I tell it,” said Gabriel, “or you?”

“You,” said Roger huskily.

“You see,” began Gabriel, turning to the squire confidentially, “it is a coperative plan.”

“A what?” interrupted the squire.

“That's not the right word,” said Roger; “he means co-co-co—”

“Oh yes, I know, co-operative. Isn't that it?”

“Yes, that's it, of course,” continued Gabriel, speaking very quickly for fear that Roger should take the matter out of his hands. “We're going to put our money together, and Ben is going to put some money in too, and then we shall buy a pig; and when it has a litter we shall sell them, and perhaps buy a calf, and so we shall get some live stock, and have a farm, and share the profits.”

Gabriel sat very upright while he spoke, with a deepening flush on his cheeks. The squire leaned forward with a hand on each knee, and listened attentively.

“Well,” he said, “that seems a good plan. Where's the farm to be? In the vicarage garden?”

“Father wouldn't like that,” said Roger.

“Why, possibly not,” said the squire; “you see it's not always nice to have cattle and pigs too close to a house. But I tell you what; you know that little field of mine near the church, I'm wanting to let that off, how would that do?”

“It would be just the very thing,” said Roger, “but,” he added reflectively, “we couldn't afford to give you much for it.”

“You must talk it over with Ben,” said the squire rising, “it's not an expensive little bit of land, and I should say about ten shillings a year would be about the right price. And now, boys, you must start for home—as it is you won't be there much before dark.”


-

The co-operative plan began very well indeed. Roger and Gabriel, with a little assistance and advice from their eldest brother Ben, built a capital sty on Squire Dale's little bit of land, which was conveniently near the vicarage, and soon, behold them the proud possessors of a sow and nine black pigs! The boys' pride and pleasure were immense, and nothing could exceed their care and attention to the mother and her children; perhaps these were overdone, which may account for the tragic event which shortly took place.

The little pigs were about two weeks old, very “peart” and lively, and everything was proceeding in a satisfactory manner, when one morning Gabriel went to visit them as usual with a pail of food. As he neared the sty, he heard, instead of the low “choug, choug, choug,” to which he was accustomed, nothing but a chorus of distressed little squeaks. He quickened his steps; his heart beat very fast; he looked over the edge of the sty, and, oh horror! The sow was stretched flat on her side quite dead, while her black family squeaked and struggled and poked at each other with their little pointed snouts.

Quick as lightning he grasped the situation, and throwing down the pail which he held rushed back to the house, almost stunning Roger, whom he met on the way, with the dreadful news. There was no time to be lost— if the pigs were to be saved they must be fed at once. In hot haste the boys returned with a wheel-barrow, put the seven little creatures into it, for two out of the nine were dead, and took them into the vicarage kitchen. Then each boy, with a pig held tenderly in his arms like a baby, crouched in front of the broad hearth and tried to induce them to swallow some warm milk.

“Choug, choug, choug,” grunted Gabriel in fond imitation of the mother pig.

“Ch-ch-choug,” repeated Roger, dandling his his charge on the other side.

Presently all the seven pigs were warmed and fed, and put into a large rabbit-hutch just outside the kitchen door; they were quiet now, and lay in a black contented heap, with their little eyes blinking lazily. The boys stood and looked at them gravely.

“We shall have to feed them every hour,” said Roger, “Zillah says so.”

“Oh! Roger,” cried Gabriel doubtfully, “do you think we shall ever bring them up?”

“We will bring them up,” replied Roger, clenching his fist with quiet determination.

But it really was not such an easy matter as some people might suppose, and especially was it difficult to manage at night. The boys divided the work in a business-like manner, and took turns to go down every alternate hour to feed their troublesome foster-children. Zillah, the cook, allowed the hutch to be brought into the kitchen at night, and undertook to feed the pigs at six o'clock in the morning, but until then the boys were responsible and never once flinched from what they had undertaken. It was getting cold weather now, and bed was delightfully cosy and warm, but nevertheless little Gabriel would tumble out with his eyes half shut, at Roger's first whisper of “Your turn now,” and creep through the lonely house and down the kitchen stairs. They had arranged an ingenious feeding apparatus with a quill inserted through the cork of a medicine bottle, and the pigs took to it quite kindly, sucked away vigorously, and throve apace.

But it was hard work, when the first excitement of it was over, and Gabriel felt it particularly; he was a delicate boy, and after one or two of these night excursions he would lie shivering in his little bed, and find it impossible to go to sleep again, while Roger snored peacefully at his side.

It need hardly be said that the vicar knew nothing of these proceedings, and Ben was at college, so matters were allowed to go on in this way for nearly a month, by which time Gabriel had managed to get a very bad cold on his chest, and a cough. As the pigs got fatter, and rounder, and more lively, he became thinner, and whiter, and weaker—a perfect shadow of a little boy; but still he would not give up his share of the work, until one day he woke up from what seemed to him to have been a long sleep, and found that he was lying in bed, in a room which was still called the “nursery,” and that he felt very tired and weak. He pulled aside the curtain with a feeble little hand, and saw Roger sitting there quite quietly, with his head bent over a book. How strange everything was! What did it all mean? Then Roger raised his head.

“Oh, you're awake!” he said looking very pleased, “I will go and call nurse.”

He was going away on tip-toe, but Gabriel beckoned to him and he came near.

“Roger,” he said in a small whispering voice, “why am I in this room?”

“You're not to talk,” said Roger. “You've been ill for a long time—a fever—and oh,” clasping his hands, “how you have been going on about the pigs! You tried to get out of bed no end of times to go and feed them; and I heard the doctor say to father, `We must manage to subdue this restlessness—he must have some quiet sleep.' And oh, we were all so glad when you went to sleep, and now you will get quite well soon.”

Gabriel tried to say, “How are the pigs?” but he was really too weak, so he only smiled, and Roger hurried out of the room to call the nurse.

Later on, when he was getting quite strong again, he heard all about it, and how, by his father's advice, the pigs had been sold to a neighbouring farmer.

“And they are such jolly pigs,” said Roger; “he says he never saw such likely ones. And they knew me when I went to see them, and rubbed against my legs. You see,” he added, “it was really best to sell them, because father says we are to go to school at Brighton soon, and then we couldn't see after the farm.”

So this was the end of the co-operative plan. Not carried out after all, in spite of the patience and care bestowed upon it; but I feel sure that in after years Roger and Gabriel were not unsuccessful men, if they learnt their lessons at school and in life with half the determination they used in rearing the black pigs.