At the Back of the North Wind
Diamond and his mother sat down upon the edge of the rough grass that bordered the sand. The sun was just far enough past its highest not to shine in their eyes when they looked eastward. A sweet little wind blew on their left side, and comforted the mother without letting her know what it was that comforted her. Away before them stretched the sparkling waters of the ocean, every wave of which flashed out its own delight back in the face of the great sun, which looked down from the stillness of its blue house with glorious silent face upon its flashing children. On each hand the shore rounded outwards, forming a little bay. There were no white cliffs here, as further north and south, and the place was rather dreary, but the sky got at them so much the better. Not a house, not a creature was within sight. Dry sand was about their feet, and under them thin wiry grass, that just managed to grow out of the poverty-stricken shore.
"Oh dear!" said Diamond's mother, with a deep sigh, "it's a sad world!"
"Is it?" said Diamond. "I didn't know."
"How should you know, child? You've been too well taken care of, I trust."
"Oh yes, I have," returned Diamond. "I'm sorry! I thought you were taken care of too. I thought my father took care of you. I will ask him about it. I think he must have forgotten."
"Dear boy!" said his mother. "your father's the best man in the world."
"So I thought!" returned Diamond with triumph. "I was sure of it!---Well, doesn't he take very good care of you?"
"Yes, yes, he does," answered his mother, bursting into tears. "But who's to take care of him? And how is he to take care of us if he's got nothing to eat himself?"
"Oh dear!" said Diamond with a gasp; "hasn't he got anything to eat? Oh! I must go home to him."
"No, no, child. He's not come to that yet. But what's to become of us, I don't know."
"Are you very hungry, mother? There's the basket. I thought you put something to eat in it."
"O you darling stupid! I didn't say I was hungry," returned his mother, smiling through her tears.
"Then I don't understand you at all," said Diamond. "Do tell me what's the matter."
"There are people in the world who have nothing to eat, Diamond."
"Then I suppose they don't stop in it any longer. They---they---what you call---die---don't they?"
"Yes, they do. How would you like that?"
"I don't know. I never tried. But I suppose they go where they get something to eat."
"Like enough they don't want it," said his mother, petulantly.
"That's all right then," said Diamond, thinking I daresay more than he chose to put in words.
"Is it though? Poor boy! how little you know about things! Mr. Coleman's lost all his money, and your father has nothing to do, and we shall have nothing to eat by and by."
"Are you sure, mother?"
"Sure of what?"
"Sure that we shall have nothing to eat."
"No, thank Heaven! I'm not sure of it. I hope not."
"Then I can't understand it, mother. There's a piece of gingerbread in the basket, I know."
"O you little bird! You have no more sense than a sparrow that picks what it wants, and never thinks of the winter and the frost and, the snow."
"Ah---yes---I see. But the birds get through the winter, don't they?"
"Some of them fall dead on the ground."
"They must die some time. They wouldn't like to be birds always. Would you, mother?"
"What a child it is!" thought his mother, but she said nothing.
"Oh! now I remember," Diamond went on. "Father told me that day I went to Epping Forest with him, that the rose-bushes, and the may-bushes, and the holly-bushes were the bird's barns, for there were the hips, and the haws, and the holly-berries, all ready for the winter."
"Yes; that's all very true. So you see the birds are provided for. But there are no such barns for you and me, Diamond."
"No. We've got to work for our bread."
"Then let's go and work," said Diamond, getting up.
"It's no use. We've not got anything to do."
"Then let's wait."
"Then we shall starve."
"No. There's the basket. Do you know, mother, I think I shall call that basket the barn."
"It's not a very big one. And when it's empty---where are we then?"
"At auntie's cupboard," returned Diamond promptly.
"But we can't eat auntie's things all up and leave her to starve."
"No, no. We'll go back to father before that. He'll have found a cupboard somewhere by that time."
"How do you know that?"
"I don't know it. But I haven't got even a cupboard, and I've always had plenty to eat. I've heard you say I had too much, sometimes."
"But I tell you that's because I've had a cupboard for you, child."
"And when yours was empty, auntie opened hers."
"But that can't go on."
"How do you know? I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, mother."
"Well, I wish I could find the door of that cupboard," said his mother. But the same moment she stopped, and was silent for a good while. I cannot tell whether Diamond knew what she was thinking, but I think I know. She had heard something at church the day before, which came back upon her---something like this, that she hadn't to eat for tomorrow as well as for to-day; and that what was not wanted couldn't be missed. So, instead of saying anything more, she stretched out her hand for the basket, and she and Diamond had their dinner.
And Diamond did enjoy it. For the drive and the fresh air had made him quite hungry; and he did not, like his mother, trouble himself about what they should dine off that day week. The fact was he had lived so long without any food at all at the back of the north wind, that he knew quite well that food was not essential to existence; that in fact, under certain circumstances, people could live without it well enough.
His mother did not speak much during their dinner. After it was over she helped him to walk about a little, but he was not able for much and soon got tired. He did not get fretful, though. He was too glad of having the sun and the wind again, to fret because he could not run about. He lay down on the dry sand, and his mother covered him with a shawl. She then sat by his side, and took a bit of work from her pocket. But Diamond felt rather sleepy, and turned on his side and gazed sleepily over the sand. A few yards off he saw something fluttering.
"What is that, mother?" he said.
"Only a bit of paper," she answered.
"It flutters more than a bit of paper would, I think," said Diamond.
"I'll go and see if you like," said his mother. "My eyes are none of the best."
So she rose and went and found that they were both right, for it was a little book, partly buried in the sand. But several of its leaves were clear of the sand, and these the wind kept blowing about in a very flutterful manner. She took it up and brought it to Diamond.
"What is it, mother?" he asked.
"Some nursery rhymes, I think," she answered.
"I'm too sleepy," said Diamond. "Do read some of them to me."
"Yes, I will," she said, and began one.---"But this is such nonsense!" she said again. "I will try to find a better one."
She turned the leaves searching, but three times, with sudden puffs, the wind blew the leaves rustling back to the same verses.
"Do read that one," said Diamond, who seemed to be of the same mind as the wind. "It sounded very nice. I am sure it is a good one."
So his mother thought it might amuse him, though she couldn't find any sense in it. She never thought he might understand it, although she could not.
Now I do not exactly know what the mother read, but this is what Diamond heard, or thought afterwards that he had heard. He was, however, as I have said, very sleepy. and when he thought he understood the verses he may have been only dreaming better ones. This is how they went---
Here Diamond became aware that his mother had stopped reading.
"Why don't you go on, mother dear?" he asked.
"It's such nonsense!" said his mother. "I believe it would go on for ever."
"That's just what it did," said Diamond.
"What did?" she asked.
"Why, the river. That's almost the very tune it used to sing."
His mother was frightened, for she thought the fever was coming on again. So she did not contradict him.
"Who made that poem?" asked Diamond.
"I don't know," she answered. "Some silly woman for her children, I suppose---and then thought it good enough to print."
"She must have been at the back of the north wind some time
or other, anyhow," said Diamond. "She couldn't have got a hold
of it anywhere else. That's just how it went." And he began to
chant bits of it here and there; but his mother said nothing
for fear of making him, worse; and she was very glad indeed
when she saw her brother-in-law jogging along in his little
cart. They lifted Diamond in, and got up themselves, and away
they went, "home again, home again, home again," as Diamond
sang. But he soon grew quiet, and before they reached Sandwich
he was fast asleep and dreaming of the country at the back of
the north wind.