The Family on Wheels - J. MacDonald Oxley - ebook

The Family on Wheels written by Canadian lawyer and writer J. MacDonald Oxley. This book is one of many works by him. It has already Published in 1905. Now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as blurred or missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.

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The Family on Wheels


J. MacDonald Oxley

Table of Contents























"You needn't be Afraid," called out the Boy.


"One! two! right! left! one! two! Number Three, you are not in line. Forward a little! That's it. Now then—one! two! right! left!"

It was early morning of a midsummer day, and a dozen or more boys, between the ages of ten and fifteen, marched out of the market town of Morainville, some armed with wooden swords, and others with broom-handles which did service as rifles, while the most of them were eating big slices of bread with keen relish.

"One! two! right! left!"

The time of the annual fête, when the soldiers would come, was drawing near, and for several days the youngsters of the place had been preparing to receive them in fitting manner.

All their usual forms of play had for the nonce been abandoned in favor of drilling, and grave councils of war, and much attention was given to the making of wooden swords and guns wherewith to more closely imitate the soldiers.

Then came the important matter of choosing the officers, which, however, were always the same, because the smaller boys never failed to vote for the bigger ones, knowing well that if they didn't they would assuredly get a licking.

A couple of boys in the party had a special talent for imitating the trumpet by placing their shut hand over their closed lips, and these led the little troop.

By eight o'clock the children had marched over a mile, and reached the top of a hill planted with spruce trees on both sides of the road which slanted sharply in front and rear of their route.

The captain of the company ordered a halt, and as their young legs were pretty tired, it was decided that they should there await the arrival of the soldiers.

A sentinel was placed on the road to report the appearance of the regiment in good time to allow the boys to get ready for its reception.

Half-an-hour later, as the little soldiers of the wooden swords waited beneath the spruce trees, the sentinel from his post of observation gave the signal.

"Hurrah! There they are!" cried the boys delightedly, and they made haste to draw up in line along the road.

But it was not the regiment that came in view. No red trousers showed upon the horizon. Nothing save a big lumbering wagon, a mountebank's van drawn by a single horse, made its appearance, moving in the direction of the town.

Yet the sight of this solitary van would not of itself have sufficed to attract the curiosity of the children. Strolling performers! Why, they were nothing uncommon. They visited the town often in the course of the year, and one poor shabby van could never have constituted a counter-attraction to the most insignificant soldier in his red trousers.

Nevertheless the youngsters stood there upon the road like statues, and, after their first exclamation of surprise, they were silent also, while their eyes fairly bulged from their sockets as they gazed open-mouthed upon that which was coming towards them.

Beside the van moved the huge bulk of something unknown that stalked solemnly along, looking neither to right nor left.

What could it be? So tremendous a creature had never crossed their vision before.

"Can it be a beast?" whispered one of the boys with trembling lips.

"Why—yes—" responded the captain, making a gallant effort to appear unconcerned, although he was greatly excited, "a beast that can walk."

It was, indeed, bewildering. A monster beside which the horse that drew the van seemed no bigger than a dog—a monster whose height exceeded that of the mountebank's house on wheels.

Then to one of the boys came an inspiration, and he cried proudly:

"I know what it is. I saw the picture of one in a book my father was showing me. It's an elephant!"

"What a whopper! An elephant's not a great brute like that. You don't know what you're talking about," snapped the captain, ill-pleased at a private having ventured an explanation of the wonder.

This silenced the youngster, and as none of the others could offer any better suggestion the little company, feeling decidedly nervous, made haste to climb the trees that lined the road just as the mountebanks and their elephant reached the top of the hill. Like a band of frightened monkeys they got among the branches uttering cries of fear, and then, with the effrontery of monkeys, took their positions as close as possible to the road so that they might obtain a full view of the strolling performers, and of the wonderful animal that sauntered so peacefully along beside their conveyance.

"You needn't be afraid," called out one of the mountebanks reassuringly. He was only a boy himself, and his keen eyes had taken in the situation at a glance. "There's no harm in Nalla. He wouldn't hurt anybody unless they hurt him first."

And as he spoke the lad stroked lovingly the trunk of the great creature that responded to the caress with little grunts of satisfaction.

At this assurance all the boys descended from their refuge in the trees, and in a gingerly hesitating fashion, for they were still a little nervous, drew near the boy who was so manifestly in the good graces of the monster.

What puzzled the boys was that they saw no sign of either the father or mother of the little players, of whom there were four, two boys and two girls.

On the front platform of the van sat a girl of not more than sixteen, holding in her lap another of about five years of age.

"Come now—Steady—hurry up!" cried the latter to the horse.

"Oh! Let him alone! He's going as fast as he can, Lydia," said the elder one. "It's no use shouting at him."

But Steady did not mend his pace. He well deserved his name, for indeed a slower animal never wore harness.

Behind the van came another youngster, not more than ten years old, followed by a black dog clipped so as to faintly resemble a lion. The boy and dog were evidently on the best of terms, and the one no less full of life than the other.

It goes without saying that the whole party of boys, who had come out to receive the soldiers, completely forgot them in the novelty of this strange party, and constituted themselves a guard of honor for Nalla and his friends without giving another thought to the red trousers which had been the original cause of their early morning march-out.

At the entrance of the town was a sort of open square formed by the joining of two roads, and it was there that the owners of the van, the Tamby family, had taken their stand when the expected soldiers, with fife and drums leading, at last marched into Morainville.

As they watched them pass, looking very imposing indeed in all their martial splendor, little Cæsar Tamby said to Nadine his sister:

"The soldiers! We have got here in the nick of time. We ought to take in a lot of money to-night."

But Nadine, whose pretty features wore a sad expression, shook her head doubtfully:

"Who can tell?" she murmured. "Perhaps the Mayor won't allow us to give a performance."

She was going to find out, and she took with her the necessary papers to make a formal request for the authorization.

Nadine, the eldest of the Tamby family, who undertook the always tiresome, and often troublesome task of securing the necessary permission for the little troupe to make a stay within the bounds of a commune, and give public performances, set off with no loss of time.

She quickly made her way to the center of the town where the Mayor's office was situated, but there encountered a lot of soldiers receiving directions from their officers in regard to their stay at Morainville. It was accordingly with some difficulty that she was able to reach the office of the Mayor, which was crowded with officers who were engaging his attention.

His worship was informed that a mountebank wished to see him about obtaining permission to make a stay in the town.

"I've no time to waste upon such folk, and, moreover, I won't give the permission because the soldiers are here," was his ungracious reply as conveyed to the anxious Nadine by the constable, who, noting her disappointment, added in a kinder tone on his own account:

"My young girl, the Mayor won't see you, and as he has given his answer to your request you may take my word for it that it's useless for you to wait about here. You'd better push on to some other town where you'll have a chance to give a performance."

"But, sir," pleaded Nadine, her lip trembling, and her fine eyes filling with tears, "if we don't perform this evening we shall have nothing to eat to-morrow. We might get along somehow ourselves, but our animals, they must be fed."

The constable was touched by her plea, and the charm of her simple manner.

"Very well, then," he responded, laying his big hand upon her shoulder in a fatherly way. "You'll have to try and see the Mayor at his own house," and the kind-hearted fellow gave Nadine directions how to find it, and what to do when she got there.

The Mayor's residence was quite a castle, and Nadine felt very timid about venturing to enter it, but she found the great portal open, and glided through without being observed by any one in the establishment, the fact of the matter being that on this day everybody had their hands too full to concern themselves about who might be going or coming.

The staff of domestics seemed to be exceedingly busy. Several women in snow-white dresses were hard at work before the cooking range, one of them giving orders in a sharp voice, and the others replying promptly:

"Yes, Madame Françoise," and carrying out her instructions.

A moment later Madame Françoise caught sight of Nadine who stood shyly in the doorway, not daring to enter a place where everybody was so engrossed with their work.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" she demanded in a tone of irritation as she fixed her eyes on the young girl, and examined her from her head to her feet. "Where did you come from?" she snapped.

"Madame," replied Nadine in a low-toned voice, letting her head drop upon her breast. "I came to see the Mayor, and to beg——"

"No—no—we've no time for beggars to-day," cried Madame impatiently, "and the Mayor won't be able to see you. Be off with you as quick as you can!"

Nadine turned to leave with heavy heart when a door on the other side of the kitchen opened suddenly, and a lady of middle age, in a rich silk gown, entered the room. She was tall and handsome, and her expression was so sweet and pleasant that somehow Nadine's hopes began to revive.

"Was it you, Françoise, who spoke so sharply to the child?" she asked in a tone that expressed both surprise and reproof.

"Well, Madame," replied the servant, "you see this is one of those little beggars, a mountebank's daughter, who pay a visit to the town just for what they can steal. She came here begging and I told her that you had no time to attend to her."

The color flew to Nadine's face, and her eyes flashed with indignation at these words which were no less unjust than they were cruel.

She lifted her pretty head with a touch of pride, and her voice rang out clearly as she hastened to say:

"But I didn't come here begging, Madame. I've never had to do anything of the kind yet, thank God. I simply came to ask permission of the Mayor to make my living in an honest way. That's what I'm here for, I assure you," and she made a respectful courtesy to the lady.

"But why didn't your father come instead, my child?" asked the lady, regarding her with a look of kindly interest. "You are very young to be attending to such matters."

"Alas, I have no longer a father," responded Nadine, her head drooping again, and the big tears welling up in her blue eyes.

"Well, then, your mother—Why does not she come?" was the next question.

Poor Nadine's voice almost failed her, and her answer was scarcely audible:

"I have no mother either."

"What! Neither mother nor father!" exclaimed the lady, throwing up her white hands with a gesture of astonishment and pity. "Do you mean to say that you are all alone at your age?"

Nadine lifted her head again, and a new light came into her fine eyes. They glowed with both love and pride as she said:

"No, Madame, I'm not alone. I have two brothers, and a little sister, but they are all much younger than I, so I have to look after the business."


Madame Pradère, the Mayor's wife, regarded Nadine with deep interest. Although she had much to occupy her time and thoughts that morning, the situation the young girl had so simply disclosed was so unusual as to command her attention to the exclusion of other concerns.

Nadine seemed no less modest and refined than she was pretty, and her big blue eyes, which contrasted strangely with her black and curly hair, bore so sweet an expression that she must manifestly be something altogether different from the strolling players with their bold hard looks, rough voices, and shabby finery, which were wont to come to the village. Dressed plainly in a black calico gown, and having a thin black shawl over her head, she certainly had every appearance of simplicity and honesty. She was undoubtedly poor, but her poverty was of that proud kind which does not seek to inspire pity, but bravely fends for itself, asking alms of nobody.

"My child," said Madame Pradère, in a tone so full of kindness that Nadine's heart grew warm, and she felt that the way out of her difficulties was beginning to open, "the Mayor has not returned, and may not be back for a while yet; but however busy he may be he shall spare you a minute, and if he thinks it all right he'll grant you the permission you seek. Come with me," she added signing to Nadine to follow her. "You can wait for him in another room, for the kitchen is in confusion, and you may be in the way of the servants, who have a great deal to do."

Nadine followed Madame Pradère into a little parlor tastefully furnished, where there were ever so many pretty things that called forth her admiration.

But she had too much sense to betray any indiscreet curiosity. Seating herself upon the chair the mistress of the house indicated, she made haste to express her gratitude.

"You are very kind, Madame, very kind indeed," she murmured.

"Not at all, my child, not at all," was the response. "But now tell me, you seek permission from the Mayor to stay here a while in order to sell some little articles I presume?"

"No, Madame. We have nothing to sell," replied Nadine, gaining courage from the good lady's gentle manner. "We are only strolling performers who give public representations with our animals."

"Oh! ho! You have animals! Trained dogs, I suppose, and that sort of thing," and Madame's comely countenance expressed an amused interest.

"We have only one dog, Vigilant, who is very comical. He knows how to make the most morose people laugh when he plays his part with Nalla." Nadine's eyes brightened at the thought of her dog.

"Nalla! And pray who is Nalla?"

"Madame," answered Nadine, her face growing serious again, "Nalla is our breadwinner. He is the chief attraction of our troupe, for you can easily understand that such mere children as we are daren't pretend to be of much account as performers. In us by ourselves the public would take very little interest, and we couldn't get along at all. But when we exhibit Nalla in all the streets, and make our announcements from his back, curiosity is aroused, and the people come in the evening to see our big creature's performance."

"What do you mean?" exclaimed Madame Pradère, looking puzzled. "Your big creature! Is not Nalla, then, a dog like Vigilant?"

"Oh, no," cried Nadine, smiling, and fully appreciating the interest she was creating. "Nalla isn't a dog. Nalla couldn't get into this big house, Nalla"—and she paused a moment so as to emphasize the announcement, "Nalla is an elephant!"

"An elephant, do you say? Is it possible? How do you happen to own so costly an animal? Why, it must be worth a small fortune!" And as she poured out these questions Madame Pradère scrutinized the girl with a certain air of perplexity, for to her the idea of possessing an elephant seemed hardly consistent with actual poverty.

Nadine understood the look, and her pale cheek flushed slightly.

"I told you, Madame, Nalla is our breadwinner," she said with a touch of apology in her tone. "But he is also more than that. He is our protector since our father died."

Madame Pradère's expression at once changed to one of sympathy.

"Is it long since you lost your parents?" she asked, adding with a kindly smile: "I may seem to be very inquisitive, but the fact is you interest me deeply, and I would like you to tell me your history. In the first place, what is your name?"

"Here are my papers, Madame," responded Nadine, holding out an old portfolio carefully wrapped up in a bit of silk. "They will tell you all about me."

"Oh no," said the Mayoress, gently pushing back the portfolio. "You can show that presently to my husband, but for myself I prefer to hear your story from your own lips."

Thus encouraged Nadine proceeded in her own clear simple way.

"My name is Nadine Tamby. My elder brother bears the same name as was my father's, Cæsar. The second boy is named Abel, and my little sister, who is now just six years old, has our mother's name, Lydia."

At the mention of the name of Lydia Madame Pradère's countenance suddenly grew sad, and she gave a sigh that indicated sorrowful memories. In truth it had been the name of a little daughter that once brought joy into her life for a while, and then was taken from her, leaving a void that could never be filled.

Nadine meanwhile continued her narration.

"Our mother died four years ago when we were in the Tyrol, but it is only six months since we lost our father. He died of consumption after being sick for a long time."

Nadine's voice sank so low as to be scarcely audible, and the big tears moistened her cheeks so that she was fain to wipe them away with her handkerchief. Her parents had always been good and kind, and the pain of their loss was still acute.

"You poor little woman!" murmured Madame Pradère, in whose own eyes the tears were glistening, "and you are the little mother to the others now."

She was more deeply moved by what she had heard than she cared to show, and in order to conceal her emotion she continued to ply Nadine with questions which the latter answered so clearly and correctly that the Mayoress could not understand a young strolling player being so well educated.

Had she only known the girl's parents she would not have been so puzzled. Cæsar Tamby and his wife were of respectable descent, and had always been true to their parentage in spite of the many temptations to which their mode of life exposed them. They had brought their children up with the utmost care possible in view of their roving life, and during the winter season, when it was not possible to give their performances, they had taken pains to teach them quite as much as they would have learned by attending the country school, for they were both well educated themselves.

Thus the Tamby children, although their business was appearing in public and giving performances to crowds that too often were by no means considerate of their feelings, nevertheless remained honest, simple, and refined in a remarkable degree.

"And your father," continued Madame Pradère, "was he always—" here she hesitated a moment, and then finished the sentence with the polite word—"an artist?"

"Yes, Madame," replied Nadine. "His father was the manager of a circus in which he employed his five sons, of whom my father was the youngest. But on the death of my grandfather, and a series of misfortunes which followed it, the circus was broken up and everything sold with the exception of Nalla, and Steady, which fell to my father."

"Steady!" exclaimed Madame Pradère. "Who is that? I know Nalla and Vigilant, but you haven't mentioned Steady before. Is he a clever animal like Nalla, or a comic one like Vigilant?"

"He is an animal that is as gentle as a sheep, and as good as can be," smiled Nadine. "Steady is an old horse, who was once upon a time quite a celebrity, but who having become very old, a little deaf, and somewhat blind, is now fit only to drag the van, which is our home on wheels. All the same he is a very true friend, and we love him dearly for he does us good service. Steady was given his name by my mother who was an equestrienne, and who always mounted him with confidence because his regular movements made her performance so easy. And now, Madame," Nadine concluded with a naïve smile of apology for having talked so much, "I've told you about our whole family."

Just then Madame Pradère heard the sound of a carriage rolling into the courtyard. She sprang up briskly and looked out of the window.

"That's the Mayor returning!" she said. "Wait here a few minutes while I speak to him about you," and giving the girl an encouraging smile, she left the room.

It was, indeed, the Mayor, accompanied by several officers who had been invited to lunch with him. These were former companions of M. Pradère, who had once been a lieutenant in the army, and had retired upon making a brilliant marriage, which rendered him independent. So there were great doings in the chateau.

Nadine with much concern heard the clinking of the swords, and the most appetizing smell of the extra cooking reminded her that the Tamby children had not yet had any breakfast that day, while the permission to perform that she had come to obtain was still in doubt. If it were not granted there was a poor prospect of food for either the family or their animals. Oppressed by these disturbing thoughts she sat there in an attitude of deep dejection.

She was a young thing to be charged with such heavy responsibilities, and not a day passed that she did not keenly feel her youth and weakness. Yet before the other children her brave spirit never seemed to flag, or her resolution to falter. As she had to be both mother and father to them, she strove gallantly to fill her difficult part to the very best of her powers, and in truth it was nothing short of wonderful how well she succeeded. Still there were times when it seemed as if her burdens were becoming too heavy to be longer borne by her.

Meanwhile Madame Pradère had conducted her guests into the big dining-room which opened upon a spacious veranda whence there spread a broad green lawn reaching to the river's edge.

When all were seated at the table she turned to her husband with a bewitching smile, and said:

"Your worship, I have a great favor to ask of you."

"Madame, that favor is granted in advance of its being asked," replied her husband with a gallant bow, and a look of unmistakable pride and affection, for his wife was a beautiful woman, and greatly admired by all who knew her.

"And my request applies to Colonel Laurier as well as to you," continued Madame, fixing her fine eyes upon the officer, who at once bowed in his turn, and hastened to say:

"I assure you, Madame, it will give me great pleasure to do anything you wish."

"I understand, Colonel," Madame went on after acknowledging his prompt assurance with a gracious smile, "that your soldiers have taken complete possession of the market-place."

"They have, Madame," responded the Colonel, considerably puzzled to guess what she was driving at. "There are so many of them, you know, that they require a lot of room."