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Black, White and Gray: A Story of Three Homes

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Black, White and Grey; a Story of Three Homes, by Amy Walton.

  ________________________________________________________________________Some young children, whose parents are working in India, are beingbrought up by an aunt in a small English village called Fieldside. Theaunt lets them have a lot of freedom, but there are some "Rules of theHouse" which must be obeyed. When the cat has some lovely kittens, oneblack, one white, and one grey, they are not allowed to keep them,because there would then be too many cats than the Rules allowed, butthey are given three weeks in which to find homes for them.

  How these homes are found, and what happens then to the kittens, is thesubject of this book. As always with Amy Walton's books, reading themgives you a feeling for the happy days in our English countryside, nowlong past, that existed at the end of the nineteenth century.





  "It's as black as ink," said Dennis, lifting one of the kittens out ofits warm bed in the hay; "there's not a single white hair upon it."

  "Madam's never had a _quite_ black one before, has she?" said his sisterMaisie, who knelt beside him, before the cat and her family.

  It was a snug and cosy home Madam had chosen for her children, in a darkcorner of the hayloft, where she had hollowed out a sort of nest in theside of a truss of hay. Here she might well have fancied herself quitesecure from discovery, for it was so dim and shadowy in the loft that itneeded sharp eyes to see anything but hay and straw.

  She had forgotten, however, that it was one of Dennis and Maisie'sfavourite play-rooms when it was too wet to be out-of-doors, and itturned out that in the midst of their games to-day, they had caughtsight of her white coat in her dusky retreat. Though she would rathernot have been found, Madam took the discovery calmly, and made nodifficulty, even when Dennis softly put in his hand and drew out theblack kitten. She knew the children well, and was quite sure they woulddo no harm, so she lay lazily blinking her green eyes, and even purredgently with pleasure to hear her kitten admired.

  It was such a very nice kitten. Not only because of its denseblackness, but its coat was as glossy and thick as that of a littlemole, and its shape unusually stumpy and attractive.

  "Isn't it a _beauty_?" said Dennis, in a delighted whisper; "we mustkeep it."

  "We haven't looked at the others yet," said Maisie cautiously; "don'tlet's settle so soon."

  The black kitten was accordingly given back to Madam, who at once lickedit all over from top to toe, and the others brought out one by one.There was a perfectly white one, much smaller than the first, and theother was a commonplace striped grey.

  "I don't care about either," said Dennis; "they're just like lots andlots of other kittens, and they grow up like lots and lots of othercats. Now the black's uncommon."

  "I can't bear settling which is to be drowned," sighed Maisie. "Isuppose we may really only keep one."

  "You're a ninny," said Dennis shortly.

  In reality he did not like to doom the kittens any better than hissister, but he would have thought it womanly to show his feelings.

  "I call it unfair," continued Maisie, stroking the white and greykittens with her little brown hand, "to drown them just because they'renot pretty. It's not as if they were bad."

  "But you _know_ we mustn't keep them all," said Dennis impatiently; "sowhat's the good of going on like that? We _must_ choose, and theblack's the best, isn't it?"

  "Well, then," said Maisie reluctantly, "I think we ought to cast lots,so as to give them each a chance."

  This appealed to Dennis's sense of justice, and was besides the usualway of settling differences between his sister and himself. He pulledout three pieces of hay of different lengths, and holding them tightlyshut in his hand, with the ends sticking out in an even row, saidshortly, "You choose."

  "Which is which?" asked Maisie, her face getting pink with excitement.

  "The longest's the black, the middling's the white, and the shortest'sthe grey," said Dennis, with the calmness of fate.

  Maisie gazed at the little yellow ends of hay sticking out between herbrother's stout red fingers, almost with terror. The old cat, with onepaw thrown languidly over the black kitten, watched the proceedingscarelessly.

  "I'll have this one!" exclaimed Maisie desperately, tugging at themiddle piece.

  "Hurrah!" cried Dennis, as he opened his hand, and he threw up his capexultingly; for it was the black kitten that was to live.

  "I'm just as sorry as I was before about the others," said Maisiewistfully; "but of course I _do_ like the black one best, and Madamseems proud of it too. What shall we call it?"

  "Nigger," said Dennis.

  Maisie looked doubtful.

  "That's not a very nice name," she said slowly. "I should like to callit Jonah, because, you see, the lot fell upon it."

  "Well, but, you silly thing," replied Dennis, "that just _wouldn't_ do,because Jonah _was_ drowned when the lot fell upon him, and the blackkitten won't be."

  "He wasn't _drowned_," said Maisie, in a low impressive voice.

  "Well, worse. I'd rather have been drowned," said Dennis shortly;"anyhow, I don't like the name of Jonah. It ought to have something todo with its colour."

  "Do you think," said Maisie, looking with pity at the white and greykittens, "that we need tell Tom to drown them _quite_ directly.Mightn't we leave them till to-morrow, and hear what Aunt Katharinesays?"

  "She won't say anything different," said Dennis, with a decided shake ofthe head. "You know she made a rule. But we'll leave them if youlike."

  Before the children left the loft, half an hour later, they took atender leave of Madam and her family, and Maisie gave an extra caress tothe white and grey kittens, which she felt sure she should never seeagain. Nevertheless, at the bottom of her heart, there was a tiny hopethat she might be able to save them, for sometimes, even when she hadmade a rule, Aunt Katharine was unexpectedly yielding.

  Dennis and Maisie had lived with their aunt, Miss Katharine Chester,since they had been babies. They had arrived one autumn day atFieldside, all the way from India, two little motherless, white-facedthings under the care of strangers, and from that time till now, whenDennis was a square-shouldered boy of ten, and Maisie a sunburnt littlegirl of eight, Aunt Katharine had been everything to them. Certainlyfather was in India, and would come home some day, and meanwhile oftensent them letters and parcels, but he was such a complete stranger, thathe did not count for much in their little lives. On mail-days, whenthey had to write to him, it was often very hard to think of somethingto say, for they did not feel at all sure of his tastes, or what waslikely to interest him: it was like writing to a picture or a shadow,and not a real person at all.

  Now Aunt Katharine was a very real person, though she was also a verybusy one, and if it was sometimes difficult to get hold of her duringthe day, there was always the evening. Then she was quite ready tolisten to questions, to hear news, and to go thoroughly into any mattersof interest or difficulty which had been saved for that time. The hourimmediately after breakfast was devoted to lessons, but it was not easyto talk to Aunt Katharine then, for she had so many things on her mind.She never shortened the time, but the children knew that the moment teno'clock struck, books must be shut, and Aunt Katharine free to begin herbusy round from kitchen to dairy, from garden to poultry-yard andstables. Every part of her pleasant little kingdom was daily visited bythis active lady, and it repaid h
er care within and without, for no onehad such good butter, such abundance of fresh eggs, such a well-keptstable, such luxuriantly blooming flowers, and such fine vegetables. Noone had a pleasanter house, roomy and cheerful, and not too grandlyfurnished for children and animals to run about in freely.

  And Miss Chester's cares were not confined to her own possessions alone,for nothing that went on in the village of Fieldside, just outside hergates, was unknown to her. She was ready to settle disputes, to nursesickness, and to relieve distress, and was never known to fail any onewho applied to her for help. Into this life, already so full of variedbusiness, Dennis and Maisie had brought added responsibilities, and AuntKatharine had undertaken them with her usual decision and energy. Aslong as the children were babies, somewhat delicate and ailing, she hadbestowed all her thought and care upon them, and given up many outsideinterests for their sake.

  But now they were babies no longer, but had grown up healthy and strong,and by degrees she returned to her busy life, and left them a great dealto themselves. Her married sister, Mrs Trevor, who lived not far off atHaughton Park, considered her strangely neglectful of their education,but Miss Chester had her own ideas on that subject, and would not listento objections. Nothing, she insisted, was so important to children ofDennis and Maisie's age as plenty of liberty and fresh air. The timewould soon come when Dennis must go to school, and Maisie must have agoverness; until then, the daily hour in which they learned to read andwrite and to do simple sums--for Aunt Katharine was not great atfigures--was quite education enough.

  This was decidedly the opinion of the children themselves, and perhapsthey were not the worse for the free life they lived at Fieldside, happyin the companionship of all the pleasant outdoor things, and dependenton no one but themselves for amusement. But it was not all freedom.Aunt Katharine made rules, and the children knew that these must beobeyed, and were never relaxed unless for some very good reason. One ofthese rules applied to the number of pets, which had once threatened tobecome overwhelming. Cats especially began to swarm in such multitudesin the garden and house, that Aunt Katharine was obliged to take severemeasures to reduce them. That done, she made a rule. Madam, thefavourite old cat, was to be kept, but all her kittens, except one outof each family, must for the future be drowned. It was a dreadful blowto Maisie in particular, who, being a girl, was not obliged to smotherher feelings; and now, here was another of these miserable occasions--the white and grey kittens must be sent out of the world almost as soonas they had entered it!

  All the while she was having her frock changed and her hair brushedbefore tea, she turned the matter over in her mind. Could she possiblyprevail on Aunt Katharine to spare the kittens this once. It seemed oddthat Aunt Katharine, who was so kind to every one, could bear to letsuch poor little helpless things be killed. Maisie supposed it must beone of those many, many things she had been told she should understandwhen she was older. Dennis always said it did not hurt them, but thoughshe looked up to him a good deal, she did not feel at all sure that hewas right in this case. At any rate, if it did not hurt the kittens, itmust be most painful for Madam to lose two of her children in such adreadful way.

  Full of those thoughts, she went down to the schoolroom, where AuntKatharine always joined the children at tea-time. She found her alreadythere, listening to Dennis, who was giving an excited account of thediscovery of Madam in the hayloft that afternoon.

  "It's _such_ a jolly little kitten we're going to keep, you can't think,Aunt Katharine," he said; "as black as a coal all over."

  "And what does Maisie think?" said Aunt Katharine, turning to the littlegirl, who had not joined in her brother's description. "Does she likeit best too?"

  Maisie's round face became very pink, and she nervously crumbled up hercake, but said nothing.

  "Would you rather keep the white one or the grey one, dear?" asked heraunt kindly. "I daresay Dennis would not mind. He shall choose nexttime."

  "We didn't choose," put in Dennis quickly; "we cast lots, so it's quitefair. It's only," he continued, lowering his voice confidentially,"that she doesn't like the others to be drowned."

  "Is that it, Maisie?" asked Aunt Katharine.

  Maisie nodded. She had meant to say a good deal, but now that themoment had come, her feelings were rather more than she could manage.She gazed beseechingly at Aunt Katharine, who could save the kittens byone word, and still crumbling up her cake with her little brown hands,murmured, "Just this once."

  Aunt Katharine smiled.

  "And how about my rule?" she said. "If you keep the kittens `just thisonce,' you will want to keep the next, and the next, and we shall soonhave as many cats as there were before. That would never do."

  "There were fifteen," said Dennis.--"Pass the cake, please, Maisie."

  Maisie gave a little gulp of disappointment. It did not seem to herthat fifteen cats were at all too many for comfort and pleasure, butAunt Katharine knew best. So she drew a small handkerchief out of herpocket, wiped the crumbs from her fingers, and struggled for composure.Both she and Dennis thought the matter quite ended, for their aunt beganto talk of other things, and after tea she read to them as usual, andnot another word was said about the kittens until bed-time. It wassurprising, therefore, to hear her say as she shut up the book:

  "Children, I have something to propose to you about the kittens. Youknow I can't let you keep them, because it is against my rule, which Ishould not have made unless it had been necessary; but, if you like tofind them two good homes, I will allow you to give them away this time."

  "Oh auntie!" exclaimed Maisie, clapping her hands, "how lovely!"

  "How long may we have to look out?" asked Dennis.

  "The kittens must be sent away from here this day three weeks," saidAunt Katharine solemnly; "and remember, children, I said `two _good_homes,' so I trust you to take trouble to find them. It would be reallykinder to drown them at once, than to send them where they might bestarved or ill-treated."

  Two good homes! It was indeed a serious responsibility, and their aunthad said the words so earnestly, that the children were both muchimpressed by them. Maisie in particular, in the midst of her rejoicingthat the kittens were saved, felt quite sobered by the burden restingupon her.

  "How ever shall we find two good homes?" she said to Dennis as they wentup-stairs. But Dennis never looked at the troublesome side of life, ifhe could avoid it.

  "It'll be jolly to keep all three of them for three weeks, won't it?" hesaid. "How pleased Madam would be if she knew!"

  "We must get up very early to-morrow, and go and tell her," said Maisie.

  "It matters most to tell Tom," said Dennis; "because if he finds them inthe loft, he'll drown them straight off in a bucket."

  The horror of this suggestion, and the future of the two kittens if theyescaped this danger, kept Maisie awake for a long while that night.

  She slept in a tiny room opening out of Aunt Katharine's, and she knewhow dreadfully late it must be, when she heard her aunt moving about,and saw the light of her candle underneath the door. After that,however, she soon went to sleep, with the kittens, their homes, and Tomthe stable-boy, all jumbled up together in her head.