Lessons continued in the school room every weekday morning. The afternoons were devoted to a selection of pastimes; outdoors if possible or else in Papa’s library, ‘for a change of scenery from the schoolroom’, Mr Eyre had proclaimed as he darted about the room. One rainy afternoon, Mr Eyre had attempted to teach them all knitting but, as Hodge had pointed out, the girls were actually rather better at it than he was. Mr Eyre simply didn’t have the ability to sit still for long enough. He would spring up from his seat in the middle of the row to consult a book or demonstrate something about a topic which he and the girls were discussing. Stitches would unravel from his needles and he would be forced to start again.
Next he found a book about knots in the library. After a couple of afternoons’ practice, each had mastered the intricacies of the sheep-shank, reef knot, half-hitch and more. “You never know when a skill like this might come in handy. I mean, we might have to tie up a runaway horse!” Mr Eyre had exclaimed to a sceptical Hodge when she came upon them in the garden tethering the wheel barrow to the garden bench with a length of Mr Eyre’s abandoned knitting wool.
Of course, as any kitten would, Astra loved the twine and wool that they were using, tugging and pulling at any stray piece which came her way. The little black cat was devoted to Bethany and had taken to following her wherever she went anywhere outside, and every afternoon, just before teatime the two of them would ‘take a turn about the garden’. “Very Jane Austen,” Mr Eyre had remarked.
“That cat’s done Miss Bethany the world of good,” Hodge observed, as they watched the young girl and her little cat wander around the garden one afternoon. “She doesn’t seem to be missing her Mama and Papa nearly so much.”
The following Saturday, Mr Eyre had an errand to run in the village and invited the girls to accompany him. Hodge had several things she’d like them to fetch too, so off they went with their empty baskets and a list which Bryony had made out to make sure they didn’t forget anything. Astra had accompanied them to the end of the driveway, but Bethany had spoken to her firmly and seemingly the cat had understood, remaining perched on top of one the large, square gate posts like a miniature Egyptian statue when they turned out of the drive and into the lane.
Weaverton village was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from Bluebell Wood House. The narrow lane was lined with leafy hedgerows where insects buzzed. “We collected blackberries and elderberries for jam along here last year, Mr Eyre.” Bryony pointed out a row of tall bramble bushes. “Look Bethany, there are so many again, and they’ll be ripe soon.”
“And did you eat as many as you picked?” Mr Eyre said, laughing as he rummaged about in the bushes, examining the fruit. “I know I did as a boy.”
“Do they have blackberries in London?” asked Bethany.
“Well, not in the city itself, apart from in some of the parks. But I grew up in Kent. I only went to London later on when I became a tutor.”
They walked a little further. “So tell me, ladies of the flowering vine and house of figs, what other useful plants can we find here in the hedgerows?” He rubbed his chin. “You know we really should’ve brought a flora.”
“Yes, you know, Miss Bryony, a book for identifying flowering plants. No doubt your Papa has such a volume in his collection?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure he has.”
Mr Eyre plucked a couple of likely samples from the hedge and tossed them into Bethany’s basket. He crouched before her, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Maybe you could try drawing some of them?”
Bethany nodded happily.
“And I could label them,” added Bryony.
“Splendid idea,” Mr Eyre exclaimed, rising swiftly to his feet and waving his forefinger in the air. “Using the original Latin names, of course.” He spun around and pointed down the lane. “Now let us press on into the village.”
The lane broadened out at the crossroads at the edge of the village which boasted a line of neat brick cottages arrayed around the village green. There were couple of stone water troughs for passing horses and, much to Mr Eyre’s delight, the old village stocks, which fortunately were padlocked shut, or otherwise, no doubt, he would have felt himself obliged to demonstrate.
The post office and general store was on the far side of the green. Mr Eyre lengthened his stride on seeing his objective to such an extent that the girls had difficulty keeping up with him.
A little bell sounded as Mr Eyre opened the shop door. Rosy-cheeked Mrs Gilbert was standing behind the post office counter. She greeted the two girls warmly and asked when they were next expecting a letter from their parents. “So exciting dealing with post from such a distance!” she exclaimed. Bryony answered politely and swiftly introduced Mr Eyre, who she noticed was twitching with impatience.
He rubbed his hands together. “Mrs Gilbert, delighted to make your acquaintance; tell me, have you a package for me? I am expecting one.”
“Likewise I’m sure, Mr Eyre, I’ll have a look in the back.” Mrs Gilbert bustled through into the storeroom. A few moments later she returned with a parcel almost the size of a shoe box neatly-wrapped in brown paper. She looked at it inquisitively, peering up at Mr Eyre from behind her half-moon glasses.
“May I?” Mr Eyre put his hand out.
“An intriguing parcel from my newest customer. What can it be?” she said speculatively.
“Aha, you will have to wait and see, Mrs G.” Mr Eyre replied, touching the side of his nose. He turned to the girls: “Miss Bryony, Miss Bethany, will you accompany me further?”
“Well I never did. Not a word of an answer,” said Mrs Gilbert as they left the shop.
“Onward to Mr Fenton,” announced Mr Eyre as he sallied forth. The girls exchanged glances as he strode away from Mrs Gilbert’s curious eyes.
“You have it then?” said Mr Fenton as they entered The Weaverton Dispensary.
“I do,” Mr Eyre held up the parcel. “I’ve just collected it from Mrs Gilbert. She was so desperate to know what was inside; I couldn’t resist not telling her,” he said grinning widely.
Mr Fenton chuckled. “That’s Ida Gilbert for you.”
Bryony and Bethany looked at each other. Bryony raised her eyebrows and Bethany looked as though she was about to speak when Mr Eyre placed the parcel on Mr Fenton’s counter and started to unwrap it. “So, Mr Fenton, what do you think?” Mr Eyre removed the brown paper. Inside was a box labelled ‘Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera’. With reverential care he drew out a small rectangular case with a handle on the top and a small round glass window at one end. The two men gazed at the object. Mr Eyre turned to the girls. “This is my new toy; a very special present to myself. It’s a camera.”
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” said Mr Fenton.
“Indeed. Now all I have to do is figure out how to use it.”
“What does it do?” asked Bethany, looking at the object with her head on one side.
“Why, it takes photographs, of course.” Mr Eyre picked it up and pointed it at her, squinting through the viewfinder. “Smile!”
“It’s not like the one Mr Craddock had when he did our portraits before Mama and Papa went away.”
“No, Miss, that’s the beauty of it,” said Mr Fenton leaning forward on the counter. “It’s small, easy to carry and easy to use. The exposure time is so much shorter,” he saw Bryony’s puzzled look. “It takes a photo in just a jiffy.” He turned to Mr Eyre. “You have film, of course?”
Mr Eyre took two small, bright yellow boxes with the word ‘Kodak’ written in red on the sides out of the wrapper and held them up. “Two rolls.”
“You’ll need the wherewithal to develop your pictures. I have the chemicals if you need them, although I’m sure old Craddock with help you out if you ask him.”
“I thought it might be rather fun to set up a darkroom of our own.” Mr Eyre looked at the girls, who stared back at him blankly. “Well, first things first; I’ll need to take some pictures with it.”
“I’ll be interested see how you get on.” Mr Fenton reached under the counter. “Here’s the book on photography, I promised to lend you.”
Mr Eyre bowed his thanks and gathered up his new camera, pocketing the two reels of film. “Right-ho, Mr Fenton, we still have some errands to complete. We’ll bid you good morning.”
The two girls hurried off with their baskets and Hodge’s shopping list while Mr Eyre sat on a bench at the edge of the village green and started to peruse the instructions for his new Box Brownie.
The girls darted ahead on the way back. Mr Eyre strode after them so engrossed in his camera, that they had to come back and help untangle him when he got caught up in an overhanging branch. When they arrived home Astra was waiting for them by the gate. She immediately started twining herself around Bethany’s legs to such an extent that she had to hand her basket to Mr Eyre so she could pick the kitten up and carry her.
After lunch they took a basket with the samples, the plant book and drawing materials up to the orchard. It was far too nice a day to be working inside, and Mr Eyre was keen to take some shots with his camera now he had loaded the film.
As they passed through the gate he remarked. “You know, there’s something I’m very keen to take an image of,” he paused and scanned the orchard, shading his eyes with his hand. “The other morning when I was out for a stroll I saw the most curious-looking rabbit.”
“A rabbit, Mr Eyre?” asked Bryony.
Mr Eyre nodded. “Of course I’ve seen rabbits before, but never one with green fur.”
The girls exchanged glances.
“Oh, my word, look,” Mr Eyre cried, pointing. “There he goes!”
Just then Astra shot past them through the gate, chasing at full pelt after the rabbit.
“Astra!” Bethany dropped the basket and scampered after the kitten. Bryony hurried after her.
“Wait!” Mr Eyre took out his camera and fiddled with the settings before joining in the chase.
Bethany and Bryony reached the bluebell clearing just in time to see the rabbit leap over the fallen log. Astra, meanwhile, was clinging to the uppermost branches of the tree above it, mewing piteously. The girls charged forward, Bethany calling anxiously to the kitten. It was then that she tripped and fell. Bryony, with no time to stop or change direction, landed on top of her sister. She seemed to be falling for a long time, then everything went black.
©2019 Chris Hall
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