My first great adventure (after those strange migrations which some may look upon as myths) was the coming of Dobbin.
Dobbin was of wood, but apart from that disadvantage he was as gallant a steed as ever knight-errant rode. My father had fashioned him, toiling at him for many nights in his workshop after his apprentices had gone home; building him five hands high; giving him mighty limbs and a proud head and a fiery eye; a broad back and round shapely haunches. He was grey, as all famous steeds have been; and he towered grandly the evening my father set him up on a table for us to see.
‘Dobbin is his name,’ my father said solemnly, not as if he were making a suggestion, but as if he were announcing some fact as old as the Creation.
That night, my mother, who had been ill for a few days, stole down from her room to see Dobbin; and the next morning a little brother came to us mysteriously—a more momentous coming even than that of Dobbin.
And my mother was very ill, and the little brother had to be sent away to Uncle Christy’s, where he was fed on the milk of one cow. My mother nearly died; and during all that time Dobbin remained quietly stalled behind the door. Sometimes I climbed up upon him and bestrode him; but oftener I sat with my sister near the fire, and watched the fire-fairy, and studied the ways of Minnie and Gyp.
It was a long time before my mother came down to us again. When she did come, looking very pale, one of the first things she did (after pressing my sister and myself to her heart) was to go over and kiss Dobbin; and in gratitude for that gracious kiss I told her that I would consider the little brother (who returned to us the same day) entitled equally with me to bestride that noble steed, as soon as his little legs should have the necessary length and strength to grip on. For the present they were obviously too fat for any such equestrian exercise. So I alone rode Dobbin, and galloped him to many a battle. Sometimes I harnessed him to a state-coach, and he drew my sister on triumphant entries into cities; often I yoked him to a carrier’s cart, and he rattled along country roads at night; there were times when he toiled under loads of hay; I have even known him, suitably draped in black, to pace mournfully with hearse and coffin behind him to Glasnevin. But oftenest I rode him in quest of some Holy Grail, to the relief of some beleaguered Ascalon or Trebizond, or over the slaughtered hearts of some Roncesvalles or Magh Mhuirthemhne.
I have been told it is a marvellous thing that I remember so clearly the days before and after the birth of my brother; for I was only two years and five days old when he was born. It would seem marvellous to me if I did not remember that time and all its little incidents. What greater thing has ever happened to me than the coming of that good comrade? Willie and I have been true brothers—companions! As a boy he was my only playmate; as a man he has been my only intimate friend. We have done and suffered much together, and we have shared together a few deep joys.
While Willie was too small to play with, my sister and I were sufficiently loving companions. Sometimes we quarrelled. One of the chief grounds of quarrel was her frequent insisting on my putting Dobbin to what I considered base uses. She was perpetually killing people in the most terrifying and unheard of ways, and calling upon me to bury them. This meant that, instead of driving Dobbin to war, I had to yoke him to a hearse and go on a lugubrious progress to Glasnevin. I thought that she should bury her own dead.
In those days she was both bigger and of a more dominating character than I, and she generally had her way. She extracted considerable deference from me as her junior by over a year. She insisted that her wisdom and experience were riper than mine, and, by dint of hearing this again repeated, I came to believe it and to entertain for her a serious respect.
She finally lost my confidence, in the affair of the London Horse’s tail.
The London Horse was a present which my father had once brought me from London; he was much smaller than Dobbin, but was more elegant and had real hair. One day my sister instructed me in the properties of hair.
‘If hair is cut, it grows. For instance, if I were to cut the London Horse’s tail, it would infallibly grow again.’
I was dubious; she was positive. She urged me to dock the tail quite short so as to ensure a luxurious growth. I yielded so far as to reduce the flowing appendage by half its length. Not one fraction of an inch did it ever grow again!
We always tried to persuade ourselves that our toys had life. We quite realised that their life was different from our life, or from Gyp’s, or Minnie’s. But we felt that they had a kind of mystic toy life; and we thought it probable that at night, when the house was still, they disported silently on the carpet; that the dolls rode frantic races on the London Horse; that the cows (I had a fawn and a brindled cow) browsed in secret pastures under the furniture; that my white goat climbed the back of the sofa as if it were a crag.
Once I crept out of bed and downstairs, although sore afraid, to see these esoteric gambols; but all the toys were very quiet. I hoped then that I had come too soon or too late. I could not bring myself to believe that they were merely wooden, without any quickening of joy anywhere within them. But fear of the dark staircase would never allow me to steal down to see them again.
The night at that time was always terrible to me. I thought the house was peopled by strange beings, uncanny and terrifying. My mother and Auntie Margaret knew that visions of some gruesome sort (I never coherently described them) affrighted my sleep, and they used to sit by me as if I was restless.
Often and often did Auntie Margaret steal up to me when she was visiting us, and sit silently beside my bed. How good it was to hear her step! And when my mother did not come (thinking I was asleep like the others) how often have I lain tossing from one side to another, trying to call their names, yet fearing to raise my voice lest it might attract the notice of some grisly thing outside the door!
Only when my father and mother came up to bed would relief come to me. I used to pray as my mother taught me, but the prayers never drove away the spectres. Only when dawn began to come greyly through the window-blinds did they creep back to their lairs.