Every one has heard of those ponies--those shaggy, chubby,innocent-looking little creatures--for which the world is indebted, wesuppose, to Shetland.
Well, once on a time, one of the most innocent-looking, chubbiest, andshaggiest of Shetland ponies--a dark brown one--stood at the door of amansion in the west-end of London.
It was attached to a wickerwork vehicle which resembled a largeclothes-basket on small wheels. We do not mean, of course, that thepony was affectionately attached to it. No; the attachment wasinvoluntary and unavoidable, by reason of a brand-new yellow leatherharness with brass buckles. It objected to the attachment, obviously,for it sidled this way, and straddled that way, and whisked its enormouslittle tail, and tossed its rotund little head, and stamped itsridiculously small feet; and champed its miniature bit, as if it hadbeen a war-horse of the largest size, fit to carry a Wallace, a Bruce,or a Richard of the Lion-heart, into the midst of raging battle.
And no wonder; for many months had not elapsed since that brown creaturehad kicked up its little heels, and twirled its tail, and shaken itsshaggy mane in all the wild exuberance of early youth and unfetteredfreedom on the heather hills of its native island.
In the four-wheeled basket sat a little girl whom it is useless todescribe as beautiful. She was far beyond that! Her delicate colour,her little straight nose, her sparkling teeth, her rosebud of a mouth,her enormous blue eyes, and floods of yellow hair--pooh! these are notworth mentioning in the same sentence with her expression. It was thatwhich carried all before it, and swept up the adoration ofman-and-woman-kind as with the besom of fascination.
She was the only child of Sir Richard Brandon. Sir Richard was a knightand a widower. He was knighted, not because of personal merit, butbecause he had been mayor of some place, sometime or other, when someone connected with royalty had something important to do with it!Little Diana was all that this knight and widower had on earth to carefor, except, of course, his horses and dogs, and guns, and club, andfood. He was very particular as to his food. Not that he was anepicure, or a gourmand, or luxurious, or a hard drinker, or anything ofthat sort--by no means. He could rough it,
so he said
, as well as anyman, and put up with whatever chanced to be going, but, when there wasno occasion for roughing it, he did like to see things well cooked andnicely served; and wine, you know, was not worth drinking--positivelynauseous--if it was not of the best.
Sir Richard was a poor man--a very poor man. He had only five thousanda year--a mere pittance; and he managed this sum in such a peculiar waythat he never had anything wherewith to help a struggling friend, or togive to the poor, or to assist the various religious and charitableinstitutions by which he was surrounded; while at certain intervals inthe year he experienced exasperating difficulty in meeting the demandsof those torments to society, the tradespeople--people who ought to beashamed of themselves for not being willing to supply the nobility andgentry with food and clothing gratuitously! Moreover, Sir Richard neverby any chance laid anything by.
Standing by the pony's head, and making tender efforts to restrain hiswaywardness, stood a boy--a street boy--a city Arab. To a Londoner anydescription of this boy would be superfluous, but it may be well tostate, for the benefit of the world at large, that the class to which hebelonged embodies within its pale the quintessence of rollickingmischief, and the sublimate of consummate insolence.
This remarkable boy was afflicted with a species of dance--not that ofSaint Vitus, but a sort of double-shuffle, with a stamp of the rightfoot at the end--in which he was prone to indulge, consciously andunconsciously, at all times, and the tendency to which he sometimesfound it difficult to resist. He was beginning to hum thesharply-defined air to which he was in the habit of performing thisdance, when little Diana said, in a silvery voice quite in keeping withher beauty--
"Let go his head, boy; I'm quite sure that he cannot bear restraint."
It may be remarked here that little Di was probably a good judge on thatpoint, being herself nearly incapable of bearing restraint.
"I'd better not, miss," replied the boy with profound respect in toneand manner, for he had yet to be paid for the job; "he seems raitherfrisky, an' might take a fancy to bolt, you know."
"Let his head go, I say!" returned Miss Diana with a flashing of theblue eyes, and a pursing of the rosebud mouth that proved her to be oneof Adam's race after all.
"Vell, now, don't you think," rejoined the boy, in an expostulatingtone, "that it would be as veil to vait for the guv'nor before givin''im 'is 'ead?"
"Do as I bid you, sir!" said Di, drawing herself up like an empress.
Still the street boy held the pony's head, and it is probable that hewould have come off the victor in this controversy, had not Diana'sdignified action given to the reins which she held a jerk. The brownpony, deeming this full permission to go on, went off with a bound thatoverturned the boy, and caused the fore-wheel to strike him on the legas it passed.
Springing up with the intention of giving chase to the runaway, thelittle fellow again fell, with a sharp cry of pain, for his leg wasbroken.
At the same moment Sir Richard Brandon issued from the door of hismansion leisurely, and with an air of calm serenity, pulling on hisgloves. It was one of the knight's maxims that, under allcircumstances, a gentleman should maintain an appearance ofimperturbable serenity. When, however, he suddenly beheld the streetboy falling, and his daughter standing up in her wickerwork chariot,holding on to the brown pony like an Amazon warrior of ancient times,his maxim somehow evaporated. His serenity vanished. So did his hat ashe bounded from beneath it, and left it far behind in his mad andhopeless career after the runaway.
A policeman, coming up just as Sir Richard disappeared, went to theassistance of the street boy.
"Not much hurt, youngster," he said kindly, as he observed that the boywas very pale, and seemed to be struggling hard to repress his feelings.
"Vell, p'raps I is an' p'raps I ain't, Bobby," replied the boy with anunsuccessful attempt at a smile, for he felt safe to chaff or insult hisfoe in the circumstances, "but vether hurt or not it vont much matter toyou, vill it?"
He fainted as he spoke, and the look of half-humorous impudence, as wellas that of pain, gave place to an expression of infantine repose.
The policeman was so struck by the unusual sight of a street boy lookinginnocent and unconscious, that he stooped and raised him quite tenderlyin his arms.
"You'd better carry him in here," said Sir Richard Brandon's butler, whohad come out. "I saw it 'appen, and suspect he must be a good dealdamaged."
Sir Richard's footman backing the invitation, the boy was carried intothe house accordingly, laid on the housemaid's bed, and attended to bythe cook, while the policeman went out to look after the runaways.
"Oh! what ever shall we do?" exclaimed the cook, as the boy showedsymptoms of returning consciousness.
"Send for the doctor," suggested the housemaid.
"No," said the butler, "send for a cab, and 'ave the boy sent home. Ifear that master will blame me for givin' way to my feelin's, and won'tthank me for bringin' 'im in here. You know he is rather averse to thelower orders. Besides, the poor boy will be better attended to at 'ome,no doubt. I dare say you'd like to go 'ome, wouldn't you?" he said,observing that the boy was looking at him with a rather curiousexpression.
"I dessay I should, if I could," he answered, with a mingled glance ofmischief and pain, "but if you'll undertake to carry me, old cock, I'llbe 'appy to go."
"I'll send you in a cab, my poor boy," returned the butler, "and git acabman as I'm acquainted with to take care of you."
"All right! go a'ead, ye cripples," returned the boy, as the cookapproached him with a cup of warm soup.
"Oh! ain't it prime!" he said, opening his eyes very wide indeed, andsmacking his lips. "I think I'll go in for a smashed pin every day o'my life for a drop o' that stuff. Surely it must be wot they drinks in'eaven! Have 'ee got much more o' the same on 'and?"
"Never mind, but you drink away while you've got the chance," repliedthe amiable cook; "there's the cab coming, so you've no time to lose."
"Vell, I _am_ sorry I ain't able to 'old more, an' my pockets wont 'oldit neither, bein' the wuss for wear. Thankee, missus."
He managed, by a strong effort, to dispose of a little more soup beforethe cab drew up.
"Where do you live?" asked the butler, as he placed the boy carefully inthe bottom of the cab with his unkempt head resting on a hassock, whichhe gave him to understand was a parting gift from the housemaid.
"Vere do I live?" he repeated. "Vy, mostly in the streets; my last 'omewas a sugar barrel, the one before was a donkey-cart, but I do sometimescondescend to wisit my parents in their mansion 'ouse in Vitechapel."
"And what is your name? Sir Richard may wish to inquire for you--perhaps."
"May he? Oh! I'm sorry I ain't got my card to leave, but you just tellhim, John--is it, or Thomas?--Ah! Thomas. I knowed it couldn't 'elp tobe one or t'other;--you just tell your master that my name is Robert,better known as Bobby, Frog. But I've lots of aliases, if that namedon't please 'im. Good-bye, Thomas. Farewell, and if for ever, then--you know the rest o' the quotation, if your eddication's not binneglected, w'ich is probable it was. Oh! by the way. This 'assik isthe gift of the 'ouse-maid? You observe the answer, cabby, in case youand I may differ about it 'ereafter."
"Yes," said the amused butler, "a gift from Jessie."
"Ah!--jus' so. An' she's tender-'earted an' on'y fifteen. Wots 'ertother name? Summers, eh? Vell, it's prettier than Vinters. Tell 'erI'll not forget 'er. Now, cabman--'ome!"
A few minutes more, and Bobby Frog was on his way to the mansion inWhitechapel, highly delighted with his recent feast, but sufferingextremely from his broken limb.
Meanwhile, the brown pony--having passed a bold costermonger, who stoodshouting defiance at it, and waving both arms till it was close on him,when he stepped quickly out of its way--eluded a dray-man, and enteredon a fine sweep of street, where there seemed to be no obstruction worthmentioning. By that time it had left the agonised father far behind.
The day was fine; the air bracing. The utmost strength of poor littleDiana, and she applied it well, made no impression whatever on thepony's tough mouth. Influences of every kind were favourable. On theillogical principle, probably, that being "in for a penny" justifiedbeing "in for a pound," the pony laid himself out for a glorious run.He warmed to his work, caused the dust to fly, and the clothes-basket toadvance with irregular bounds and swayings as he scampered along,driving many little dogs wild with delight, and two or three cats madwith fear. Gradually he drew towards the more populous streets, andhere, of course, the efforts on the part of the public to arrest himbecame more frequent, also more decided, though not more successful. Atlast an inanimate object effected what man and boy had failed toaccomplish.
In a wild effort to elude a demonstrative cabman near the corner of oneof the main thoroughfares, the brown pony brought the wheels of thevehicle into collision with a lamp-post. That lamp-post went downbefore the shock like a tall head of grain before the sickle. The frontwheels doubled up into a sudden embrace, broke loose, and went acrossthe road, one into a greengrocer's shop, the other into a chemist'swindow. Thus diversely end many careers that begin on a footing ofequality! The hind-wheels went careering along the road like a newspecies of bicycle, until brought up by a donkey-cart, while the basketchariot rolled itself violently round the lamp-post, like a shatteredremnant, as if resolved, before perishing, to strangle the author of allthe mischief. As to the pony, it stopped, and seemed surprised at firstby the unexpected finale, but the look quickly changed--or appeared tochange--to one of calm contentment as it surveyed the ruin.
But what of the fair little charioteer? Truly, in regard to her, amiracle, or something little short of one, had occurred. The doctrinethat extremes meet contains much truth in it--truth which is illustratedand exemplified more frequently, we think, than is generally supposed.A tremendous accident is often much less damaging to the person whoexperiences it than a slight one. In little Diana's case, the extremeshad met, and the result was absolute safety. She was shot out of herbasket carriage after the manner of a sky-rocket, but the impulse was soeffective that, instead of causing her to fall on her head and break herpretty little neck, it made her perform a complete somersault, andalight upon her feet. Moreover, the spot on which she alighted wasopportune, as well as admirably suited to the circumstances.
At the moment, ignorant of what was about to happen, police-constableNumber 666--we are not quite sure of what division--in all the plenitudeof power, and blue, and six-feet-two, approached the end of a streetentering at right angles to the one down which our little heroine hadflown. He was a superb specimen of humanity, this constable, with achest and shoulders like Hercules, and the figure of Apollo. He turnedthe corner just as the child had completed her somersault, and receivedher two little feet fairly in the centre of his broad breast, drivinghim flat on his back more effectively than could have been done by thebest prize-fighter in England!
Number 666 proved a most effectual buffer, for Di, after planting herblow on his chest, sat plump down on his stomach, off which she sprangin an agony of consternation, exclaiming--
"Oh! I have killed him! I've killed him!" and burst into tears.
"No, my little lady," said Number 666, as he rose with one or two coughsand replaced his helmet, "you've not quite done for me, though you'vecome nearer the mark than any _man_ has ever yet accomplished. Come,now, what can I do for you? You're not hurt, I hope?"
This sally was received with a laugh, almost amounting to a cheer, bythe half-horrified crowd which had quickly assembled to witness, as itexpected, a fatal accident.
"Hurt? oh! no, I'm not hurt," exclaimed Di, while tears still convertedher eyes into blue lakelets as she looked anxiously up in the face ofNumber 666; "but I'm quite sure you must be hurt--awfully. I'm _so_sorry! Indeed I am, for I didn't mean to knock you down."
This also was received by the crowd with a hearty laugh, while Number666 sought to comfort the child by earnestly assuring her that he wasnot hurt in the least--only a little stunned at first, but that wasquite gone.
"Wot does she mean by knockin' of 'im down?" asked a small butcher'sboy, who had come on the scene just too late, of a small baker's boy whohad, happily, been there from the beginning.
"She means wot she says," replied the small baker's boy with thedignified reticence of superior knowledge, "she knocked the constabledown."
"Wot! a leetle gurl knock a six-foot bobby down?--walk-_er_!"
"Very good; you've no call to b'lieve it unless you like," replied thebaker's boy, with a look of pity at the unbelieving butcher, "but shedid it, though--an' that's six month with 'ard labour, if it ain't fiveyear."
At this point the crowd opened up to let a maniac enter. He wasbreathless, hatless, moist, and frantic.
"My child! my darling! my dear Di!" he gasped.
"Papa!" responded Diana, with a little scream, and, leaping into hisarms, grasped him in a genuine hug.
"Oh! I say," whispered the small butcher, "it's a melly-drammy--all fornuffin!"
"My!" responded the small baker, with a solemn look, "won't the Lordleft-tenant be down on 'em for play-actin' without a licence, just!"
"Is the pony killed?" inquired Sir Richard, recovering himself.
"Not in the least, sir. 'Ere 'e is, sir; all alive an' kickin',"answered the small butcher, delighted to have the chance of makinghimself offensively useful, "but the hinsurance offices wouldn't 'avethe clo'se-baskit at no price. Shall I order up the remains of yourcarriage, sir?"
"Oh! I'm so glad he's not dead," said Diana, looking hastily up, "butthis policeman was nearly killed, and _I_ did it! He saved my life,papa."
A chorus of voices here explained to Sir Richard how Number 666 had comeup in the nick of time to receive the flying child upon his bosom.
"I am deeply grateful to you," said the knight, turning to theconstable, and extending his hand, which the latter shook modestly whiledisclaiming any merit for having merely performed his duty--he mightsay, involuntarily.
"Will you come to my house?" said Sir Richard. "Here is my card. Ishould like to see you again, and pray, see that some one looks after mypony and--"
"And the remains," suggested the small butcher, seeing that Sir Richardhesitated.
"Be so good as to call a cab," said Sir Richard in a general way to anyone who chose to obey.
"Here you are, sir!" cried a peculiarly sharp cabby, who, correctlyjudging from the state of affairs that his services would be required,had drawn near to bide his time.
Sir Richard and his little daughter got in and were driven home, leavingNumber 666 to look after the pony and the remains.
Thus curiously were introduced to each other some of the characters inour tale.