5. Mr Alphabet
"Now we're all ready to set off to Messrs. Reading and Writing," cried Dick, as the four children stood together on the slope of the hill; "I vote we have a race--one, two, three, off and away!" and dashing forward like a young stag, he rushed down the hill, distancing even Matty, and with the force of his own rapid descent cleared brook Bother at a bound.
Nelly could not help clapping her hands.
"I should have thought," observed fat Lubin, who had kept at her side, "that you, of all people in the world, would have hated this silly racing, and disliked to see any one go at so desperate a pace."
"Why should I dislike it?" asked the lame child; "I would go at a great pace too, if I only were able."
"But when you are lame, does it not vex you to be so distanced by others?"
Nelly hesitated a little before she replied, "Sometimes, I own, it does vex me a little; but then I am comforted when I think that as long as I do my best I should be only glad that others can do better." Lubin and Nelly came up with their brother and sister at the cottage of Mrs. Sewing; for Dick, who was in a merry mood, had stopped there to help the old dame to transplant a fine slip of Fancy-work, and Matty was standing laughing beside him.
"See how well he does it!" she cried.
"I wonder that he is not ashamed to use his fingers like a girl!" exclaimed Lubin, who was himself remarkably clumsy.
Mrs. Sewing turned round with a smile and a courtesy.
"Better the fingers thus employing
Than in fighting, fidgeting, or destroying,"
Dick looked up and laughed. "I'll soon prove to you, my lad," he cried, "that hands that can ground a pretty slip of German work, are ready and fit for something harder," and he squared up towards Lubin with clenched fists, and such a merry look of defiance, that his brother was more than convinced by the sight, and trotted off along the lane of Trouble, at a much brisker pace than usual.
"We'll go after the plump one," cried Dick, "or he'll arrive at Mr. Reading's before us."
Along the lane they all went. The weather had been dry of late, and the road was not so muddy as usual. Indeed the walk was so agreeable that Dick remarked that "trouble is a pleasure." It was not long before the four young householders found themselves at the door of Messrs. Reading and Writing.
Their shop was a very large and handsome one; indeed a finer and better was not to be seen in the whole town of Education, on the outskirts of which it stood. It was separated into two divisions, over the first and principal of which Mr. Reading himself presided. A great variety of papers for walls were displayed in the large glass windows, and when the children peeped in they saw a vast number more in the shop.
"Well, here's a fine choice!" exclaimed Matty, in pleased surprise; "I think that one might spend half one's life in the shop of Mr. Reading, and always find out something pretty and new."
"But where is Mr. Reading himself?" cried Lubin; "and how are we to get through this iron grating which shuts us out from the shop?"
His last question was answered by the funniest little dwarf that ever was seen, who popped out from behind the counter, and with a large iron key in his hand came toddling up to the grating. He was just twenty-six inches high, and had a head almost as big as the rest of his body.
"I say, little chap, will you let us in?" said Dick, rapping on the iron bars.
"I'm not accustomed to be spoken to after that fashion," cried the dwarf angrily; "my name is not 'little chap,' but 'Mr. Alphabet,' though some dare to call me A B C. I ought to be treated with respect, for I am several thousand years old."
"You've been wondrously slow then in your growth," laughed Lubin; "I think I could jump over your head."
"It's easier said than done," grumbled Alphabet, casting up a glance of scorn at the boy, whose fat figure was not formed for jumping; "and I should advise you to have a care how you provoke me by any boasting or insolent language. I am both strong and bold, and I come of an ancient race. My father was an Egyptian, or a Phoenician, or--"
"Never mind your father just now, my good fellow," cried Dick; "just turn your key in the lock, and let us into the shop of Mr. Reading."
"You don't suppose that I'm going to let you pass without paying toll," growled Alphabet; "I always expect a fee of some of the money of Time."
"Let us in," cried Lubin, kicking the grating.
"You may kick till you're tired," said the gruffy little dwarf; "no one gets to Mr. Reading without paying toll to Mr. Alphabet, his highly respectable porter."
"Let's give him his fee and be done with it," cried Matty, hastily pulling out her purse.
Seeing that there was no use in refusing, as Alphabet had the key of the gate, each of the children now produced some money, Dick giving less than the others. Alphabet took the bright hours with a merry grin, as he swung back the iron grating; but when Lubin was about to pass in, the dwarf planted himself in the way.
"You said that you could jump over my head; just try."
"I don't just think that I could," said Lubin, who was daunted by the manner of the dwarf.
"Now, for your stupid boast," growled Alphabet, "I will not allow you to pass till you've paid twice as much as the others have done;" and as he spoke he half closed the grating in Lubin's face.
"You can't keep me out now you've unlocked it," cried Lubin (who was, however, still on the outside, having been as usual behind-hand), and he tried to push the gate open.
"Push away," said the dwarf with a grin.
But poor Lubin soon found to his cost that Alphabet was strong as well as little, and quite able to hold his own against any amount of pushing.
"Won't you help me?" cried Lubin to Dick; the fat boy was getting quite red with his efforts.
"Oh, nonsense; fair play is a jewel!" exclaimed Dick; "you must fight it out for yourself. If you can't master little A B C, a precious poor creature you must be."
"Pay double toll, or I'll never let you in!" shouted the passionate dwarf.
There was no help for it; poor Lubin was obliged to pull out his money; and Alphabet, with a grin of triumph, at last allowed him to enter.
"Is Mr. Reading at home?" asked Dick.
"He is just within," said the dwarf; "if you'll look over the papers for a minute, I'll go and tell him that you are waiting."