1. The Dame's Departure
A merry life had Dame Desley and her four children led in their rural home. The sound of their cheerful voices, the patter of their little feet, the laugh, the shout, and the song, had been heard from morning till night. I will not stop to tell of all the daisy-chains and cowslip-balls made by the children under the big elm-tree that grew on their mother's lawn; or how they gathered ripe blackberries in autumn; or in the glowing days of summer played about the hay-cocks, and buried one another in the hay. Their lives were thoughtless and gay, like those of the sparrows in the garden, or the merry little squirrels in the wood.
But a time came at last when these careless days must end. Dame Desley had to take a long journey--she would be absent for many a month--and on the evening before her departure she called her four children around her.
"My dear children," she said, "I must leave you; I must give you up for a while to the care of another. But I have chosen a guardian for you who is worthy of all your respect. Mr. Learning is coming to see you to-morrow, just an hour before I start; and I hope that he will find you all good and obedient children during my absence. Whatever he may bid you do, do for the love of me, and when you attend to Mr. Learning, think that you are pleasing your mother."
When the four children were alone together, just before going to rest, they began eagerly to talk over what Dame Desley had told them.
"I wonder whether I shall like this Mr. Learning," said Dick, a merry, intelligent boy, with bright eyes that were always twinkling with fun. None of his age could excel him in racing or running; he could climb a tree like a squirrel, and clear a haycock with a bound. He loved the free careless life which he had led in his mother's home, but still he wished for one more full of adventure and excitement.
"I'm quite sure that I shall not like Mr. Learning," cried Matty; "for I have seen him two or three times, and I did not fancy his looks at all. He is as solemn and as grave as an owl; he wears spectacles, and has a very long nose, and his back is as stiff as a poker." Matty was a pretty little girl, with blue eyes, and golden curls hanging down her neck, but she had a conceited air, which spoiled her looks to my mind.
"I wish that we could stay where we are, and go on as we always have done, without being plagued by Mr. Learning at all," cried Lubin, with a weary yawn. Such a fat little fellow as he was, just the shape of a roly-poly pudding, with cheeks as red as the apples that grew on the trees in the orchard.
"But mother spoke kindly of him," said Nelly, a pale lame child who sat in the corner of the room, stringing buttercups and daisies; "if she likes him, should not we try to like him, and not set our hearts against what mother thinks for our good."
"Perhaps Mr. Learning's company may be pleasant for a change!" cried Dick. "I hear that he gives lots of presents to his friends, and makes them both rich and great. It would be a stupid thing, after all, to spend all one's life in gathering wild-flowers, or kicking up one's heels in the hay. I mean to be famous one day, and they say there's no way of being so without the help of old Learning. There's Mr. Sharp that lives at the hall; his beautiful house and grounds, his carriages, horses and dogs, all came from Mr. Learning. I've heard of people who, when they were boys, were so poor that they hardly had bread to eat, whom Mr. Learning took under his care, and now they've lots of good things of every sort and kind. Sometimes they're asked to dine with the Lord Mayor of London, where they feast upon turtle and champagne--"
Fat little Lubin opened wide both his eyes and mouth on hearing of this.
"And sometimes," continued Dick, "they are actually invited to court, being high in the favour of the Queen."
"I should like to go to court," said Matty, "and wear fine feathers and lace. But I wonder if Mr. Learning will think of doing such grand things for us."
"We will see!" cried the merry Dick; "I'm resolved to get on in the world!" and he turned head over heels at once, as a beginning to his onward progress.
"My children, it is time to go to rest," said the voice of Dame Desley at the door. "Remember to be up in good time in the morning, for my worthy friend Mr. Learning is to breakfast with me to-morrow."
Off went the children to bed. Dick lay awake for some time, thinking over what was before him, and when his merry eyes closed at last in sleep, the subject haunted him still. He dreamed that he was climbing up a little hillock, made of nothing but books of all the colours of the rainbow--purple, and orange, and blue--and each book that he looked at had his name as its author in big gilt letters on the back. On the top of the hillock stood Mr. Learning, holding a finely-bound volume in one hand, while he held out the other to Dick to help him on in his climbing. Very proud and very joyful was the little boy in his dream as he clambered higher and higher, and thought what a famous figure he was going to make in the world! But what was his delight when Mr. Learning placed the well-bound book in his hand, and on opening it he found that all its leaves were made of five-pound notes!
"Why, I shall be as rich as Croesus, and as famous as all the seven wise men of Greece put together!" cried Dick, cutting a caper at the top of his hillock in such a transport of joy, that he knocked over the whole pile of books, just as if it had been a house made of cards, and came down flat on his face with such a bang, that it startled him out of his dream.