He was a very old rocking-horse indeed. His first master, sunny-headed little Robbie, had grown into a man with a beard, and had given his old playmate to his sister's children.
These children had in their turn grown into great schoolboys, so the old horse, like the other toys, was left forsaken in the big nursery at the top of the house. Broken-down furniture and old magazines had found their way there, together with travelling-trunks and portmanteaux. Spiders had spun their webs over the windows, and dust lay thick on everything.
When little Basil found his way into the old nursery it seemed to him like an enchanted palace. The spiders and dust only made him think that somewhere he would find the "sleeping beauty." The litter of toys and paper and boxes suggested hidden treasure. Once in this room of delightful possibilities, he did not care how long his mother and aunt continued their wearisome talks downstairs of what they called "old times." He stretched himself on a faded couch while he considered where to begin his operations, and stared at the deeply-cut initials on the mantelshelf, and regretted that the chimney-piece in the nursery at home, being stone, did not lend itself to similar delights. With a sigh he rolled over, and the rocking-horse met his gaze. He looked at it so long that his eyes blinked. Older people would have said that just then the old horse creaked—as old things have a way of doing. But children understand these things better than old folks who have grown dull. Basil knew quite well that the old horse had sighed, and he asked him what was the matter.
"I was only wishing some one would smarten me up a bit," said the horse. "My left eye is in that box with the tin soldiers. My tail is tied to a stick in that cupboard where the tools are—a bit of glue would stick both in. And one stirrup is nailed to the table-drawer for a handle. It could be got off, and tied to my saddle-strap with a bit of string. My mane is gone for ever. Johnny put it on a mask for whiskers one Guy Fawkes' day, and Herbert threw it in the bonfire. I don't suppose any of the nails can be got out that Tom knocked into my sides; they are in too tight. Nor can the buttons and marbles be got out of my inside that Johnny put in through the hole in my neck. But I might be smartened up a little!"
"Oh, if that is all you want I dare say I can help you," said Basil, jumping up and running to the cupboard. "Here's your tail, anyway! and here's a bottle of liquid glue too. Now I'll look for your eye."
"You know," went on the old horse, "I heard the mother saying the other day that she would send me back to my old home if I were not so shabby."
Basil, who had found the missing eye, was now fixing it in its place with plenty of glue, which ran down and dropped off the horse's nose. Basil was sure he saw a tear drop from the other eye.
"Does it hurt?" he asked sympathetically.
"Oh, I don't mind that," said the horse. "It is like old times to be hurt by a little boy; besides, one must always suffer if one would look fine."
"Yes; nurse says something like that when I cry while she combs my hair," said Basil.
"Robbie didn't cry to have his hair combed," said the horse shortly. "He didn't even cry when the soap was in his eyes. By now he has grown into a brave man! When he fell off me and made his leg bleed he said it was nothing, and just got on me again. But he did cry when he parted from me."
"Well, he was a coward once, anyway."
"No, he wasn't," snorted the horse. "It isn't cowardly to cry because you are leaving some one you love."
"All the same, don't toss your head like that, or your eye will drop out again," cried Basil warningly. "But you may go on telling me about Robbie."
"I was his dearest friend," went on the horse. "He told me all about his troubles, and showed me all his new things; and he used to learn his lessons sitting on my back. When he had a piece of cake he used to push a bit in through the hole in my neck, and rock me to make it drop into my stomach."
"Oh! then the hole has been there a long time."
"Yes; Robbie made it to feed me through; those other boys only put buttons and marbles in, and old nails. Robbie always gave me a bit of cake with the biggest plum in it. When he was ill he asked for me, and the mother had me put by the bedside, and I watched him night and day. His little hand grew so thin and pale, and he used to slip it out from under the quilt to stroke me."
"There! your tail's in now," cried Basil. "So now I will see if I can get the stirrup off the drawer; then I'll sponge you a bit."
"If you could only make me look nice they would send me back for Robbie's boy, and I should see Robbie again before I die. You are a kind little boy, and Robbie will love you."
"Tell me some more. You look ever so much better already," said Basil, tugging away at the stirrup. "And I dare say when you get back to Robbie he will have you painted up, and then you will feel just like you used to feel."
"Yes," said the old horse; "he will have me done up like new, and he will tell his little boy to love me for his sake, and all my happy days will begin again. Often at night I have listened to the wind roaring in the chimney and have shivered with cold, and have thought how Robbie would have put a rug over me if he were here."
Just then the gong sounded for luncheon. "I must go now," said Basil, "but I will come up again and finish you."
"Auntie," Basil began, when he was seated at the table, "I have been mending up the old rocking-horse; won't you send it to Uncle Robbie's boy?"
Basil was too wise to repeat all the old horse had told him, for he knew that grown-up people never understand that toys talk to the children.
"Yes, I think I will," auntie replied.
The gas was lit in the entrance-hall of a big house in a country town. A little white-frocked child raced to the door to meet a tall, handsome man who had just entered.
"Papa! papa! the old wocking-horse is tum—it was youse when you was ickle boy; tum and see it."
The father perched his little son on his shoulder and mounted the stairs to the nursery, where the firelight danced on the walls.
The old rocking-horse was waiting, almost faint with joy; he was soon to see his beloved master, to feel his caress.
The father placed his son on the floor, and advanced to his old playmate.
"What an old scarecrow!" he exclaimed, laughing. "Whatever could your aunt have been thinking of to send it! We will despatch it to be chopped up for firewood, and buy you a new one."
So the old horse was carried off to the back yard.
But nobody knew that his heart was broken!