Illustrated by Thomas Henry
London George Newnes, Limited Southampton St., Strand, W.C.
First Edition December 1922 Second Impression January 1923 Third Impression February 1923 Fourth Impression July 1923 Fifth Impression September 1923 Sixth Impression December 1923 Seventh Impression February 1924 Eighth Impression July 1924 Ninth Impression November 1924 Made and Printed in Great Britain by Wyman & Son, Ltd., London, Fakenham and Reading.
I. A Busy Day 11
II. Rice-Mould 31
III. William's Burglar 49
IV. The Knight at Arms 67
V. William's Hobby 78
VI. The Rivals 89
VII. The Ghost 110
VIII. The May King 125
IX. The Revenge 144
X. The Helper 157
XI. William and the Smuggler 174
XII. The Reform of William 197
XIII. William and the Ancient Souls 213
XIV. William's Christmas Eve 228
A BUSY DAY
William awoke and rubbed his eyes. It was Christmas Day—the day to which he had looked forward with mingled feelings for twelve months. It was a jolly day, of course—presents and turkey and crackers and staying up late. On the other hand, there were generally too many relations about, too much was often expected of one, the curious taste displayed by people who gave one presents often marred one's pleasure.
He looked round his bedroom expectantly. On the wall, just opposite his bed, was a large illuminated card hanging by a string from a nail—"A Busy Day is a Happy Day." That had not been there the day before. Brightly-coloured roses and forget-me-nots and honeysuckle twined round all the words. William hastily thought over the three aunts staying in the house, and put it down to Aunt Lucy. He looked at it with a doubtful frown. He distrusted the sentiment.
A copy of "Portraits of our Kings and Queens" he put aside as beneath contempt. "Things a Boy Can Do" was more promising. Much more promising. After inspecting a penknife, a pocket-compass, and a pencil-box (which shared the fate of "Portraits of our Kings and Queens"), William returned to "Things a Boy Can Do." As he turned the pages, his face lit up.
He leapt lightly out of bed and dressed. Then he began to arrange his own gifts to his family. For his father he had bought a bottle of highly-coloured sweets, for his elder brother Robert (aged nineteen) he had expended a vast sum of money on a copy of "The Pirates of the Bloody Hand." These gifts had cost him much thought. The knowledge that his father never touched sweets, and that Robert professed scorn of pirate stories, had led him to hope that the recipients of his gifts would make no objection to the unobtrusive theft of them by their recent donor in the course of the next few days. For his grown-up sister Ethel he had bought a box of coloured chalks. That also might come in useful later. Funds now had been running low, but for his mother he had bought a small cream-jug which, after fierce bargaining, the man had let him have at half-price because it was cracked.
Singing "Christians Awake!" at the top of his lusty young voice, he went along the landing, putting his gifts outside the doors of his family, and pausing to yell "Happy Christmas" as he did so. From within he was greeted in each case by muffled groans.
He went downstairs into the hall, still singing. It was earlier than he thought—just five o'clock. The maids were not down yet. He switched on lights recklessly, and discovered that he was not the only person in the hall. His four-year-old cousin Jimmy was sitting on the bottom step in an attitude of despondency, holding an empty tin.
Jimmy's mother had influenza at home, and Jimmy and his small sister Barbara were in the happy position of spending Christmas with relations, but immune from parental or maternal interference.
"They've gotten out," said Jimmy, sadly. "I got 'em for presents yesterday, an' they've gotten out. I've been feeling for 'em in the dark, but I can't find 'em."
"What?" said William.
"Snails. Great big suge ones wiv great big suge shells. I put 'em in a tin for presents an' they've gotten out an' I've gotten no presents for nobody."
He relapsed into despondency.
William surveyed the hall.
"They've got out right enough!" he said, sternly. "They've got out right enough. Jus' look at our hall! Jus' look at our clothes! They've got out right enough."
Innumerable slimy iridescent trails shone over hats, and coats, and umbrellas, and wall-paper.
"Huh!" grunted William, who was apt to overwork his phrases. "They've got out right enough."
He looked at the tracks again and brightened. Jimmy was frankly delighted.
"Oo! Look!" he cried, "Oo funny!"
William's thoughts flew back to his bedroom wall—"A Busy Day is a Happy Day."
"Let's clean it up!" he said. "Let's have it all nice an' clean for when they come down. We'll be busy. You tell me if you feel happy when we've done. It might be true wot it says, but I don't like the flowers messin' all over it."
Investigation in the kitchen provided them with a large pail of water and a scrubbing-brush each.
For a long time they worked in silence. They used plenty of water. When they had finished the trails were all gone. Each soaked garment on the hat-stand was sending a steady drip on to the already flooded floor. The wall-paper was sodden. With a feeling of blankness they realised that there was nothing else to clean.
It was Jimmy who conceived the exquisite idea of dipping his brush in the bucket and sprinkling William with water. A scrubbing-brush is in many ways almost as good as a hose. Each had a pail of ammunition. Each had a good-sized brush. During the next few minutes they experienced purest joy. Then William heard threatening movements above, and decided hastily that the battle must cease.
"Backstairs," he said shortly. "Come on."
Marking their track by a running stream of water, they crept up the backstairs.
But two small boys soaked to the skin could not disclaim all knowledge of a flooded hall.
William was calm and collected when confronted with a distracted mother.
"We was tryin' to clean up," he said. "We found all snail marks an' we was tryin' to clean up. We was tryin' to help. You said so last night, you know, when you was talkin' to me. You said to help. Well, I thought it was helpin' to try an' clean up. You can't clean up with water an' not get wet—not if you do it prop'ly. You said to try an' make Christmas Day happy for other folks and then I'd be happy. Well, I don't know as I'm very happy," he said, bitterly, "but I've been workin' hard enough since early this mornin'. I've been workin'," he went on pathetically. His eye wandered to the notice on his wall. "I've been busy all right, but it doesn't make me happy—not jus' now," he added, with memories of the rapture of the fight. That certainly must be repeated some time. Buckets of water and scrubbing-brushes. He wondered he'd never thought of that before.
William's mother looked down at his dripping form.
"Did you get all that water with just cleaning up the snail marks?" she said.
William coughed and cleared his throat. "Well," he said, deprecatingly, "most of it. I think I got most of it."
"If it wasn't Christmas Day ..." she went on darkly.
William's spirits rose. There was certainly something to be said for Christmas Day.
It was decided to hide the traces of the crime as far as possible from William's father. It was felt—and not without reason—that William's father's feelings of respect for the sanctity of Christmas Day might be overcome by his feelings of paternal ire.
Half-an-hour later William, dried, dressed, brushed, and chastened, descended the stairs as the gong sounded in a hall which was bare of hats and coats, and whose floor shone with cleanliness.
"And jus' to think," said William, despondently, "that it's only jus' got to brekfust time."
William's father was at the bottom of the stairs. William's father frankly disliked Christmas Day.
"Good-morning, William," he said, "and a happy Christmas, and I hope it's not too much to ask of you that on this relation-infested day one's feelings may be harrowed by you as little as possible. And why the deu—dickens they think it necessary to wash the hall floor before breakfast, Heaven only knows!"
William coughed, a cough meant to be a polite mixture of greeting and deference. William's face was a study in holy innocence. His father glanced at him suspiciously. There were certain expressions of William's that he distrusted.
William entered the dining-room morosely. Jimmy's sister Barbara—a small bundle of curls and white frills—was already beginning her porridge.
"Goo' mornin'," she said, politely, "did you hear me cleanin' my teef?"
He crushed her with a glance.
He sat eating in silence till everyone had come down, and Aunts Jane, Evangeline, and Lucy were consuming porridge with that mixture of festivity and solemnity that they felt the occasion demanded.
Then Jimmy entered, radiant, with a tin in his hand.
"Got presents," he said, proudly. "Got presents, lots of presents."
He deposited on Barbara's plate a worm which Barbara promptly threw at his face. Jimmy looked at her reproachfully and proceeded to Aunt Evangeline. Aunt Evangeline's gift was a centipede—a live centipede that ran gaily off the tablecloth on to Aunt Evangeline's lap before anyone could stop it. With a yell that sent William's father to the library with his hands to his ears, Aunt Evangeline leapt to her chair and stood with her skirts held to her knees.
"Help! Help!" she cried. "The horrible boy! Catch it! Kill it!"
Jimmy gazed at her in amazement, and Barbara looked with interest at Aunt Evangeline's long expanse of shin.
"My legs isn't like your legs," she said pleasantly and conversationally. "My legs is knees."
It was some time before order was restored, the centipede killed, and Jimmy's remaining gifts thrown out of the window. William looked across the table at Jimmy with respect in his eye. Jimmy, in spite of his youth, was an acquaintance worth cultivating. Jimmy was eating porridge unconcernedly.
Aunt Evangeline had rushed from the room when the slaughter of the centipede had left the coast clear, and refused to return. She carried on a conversation from the top of the stairs.
"When that horrible child has gone, I'll come. He may have insects concealed on his person. And someone's been dropping water all over these stairs. They're damp!"
"Dear, dear!" murmured Aunt Jane, sadly.
Jimmy looked up from his porridge.
"How was I to know she didn't like insecks?" he said, aggrievedly. "I like 'em."
William's mother's despair was only tempered by the fact that this time William was not the culprit. To William also it was a novel sensation. He realised the advantages of a fellow criminal.
After breakfast peace reigned. William's father went out for a walk with Robert. The aunts sat round the drawing-room fire talking and doing crochet-work. In this consists the whole art and duty of aunthood. All aunts do crochet-work.
They had made careful inquiries about the time of the service.
"You needn't worry," had said William's mother. "It's at 10.30, and if you go to get ready when the clock in the library strikes ten it will give you heaps of time."
Peace ... calm ... quiet. Mrs. Brown and Ethel in the kitchen supervising the arrangements for the day. The aunts in the drawing-room discussing over their crochet-work the terrible way in which their sisters had brought up their children. That, also, is a necessary part of aunthood.
Time slipped by happily and peacefully. Then William's mother came into the drawing-room.
"I thought you were going to church," she said.
"We are. The clock hasn't struck."
"But—it's eleven o'clock!"
There was a gasp of dismay.
"The clock never struck!"
Indignantly they set off to the library. Peace and quiet reigned also in the library. On the floor sat William and Jimmy gazing with frowns of concentration at an open page of "Things a Boy Can Do." Around them lay most indecently exposed the internal arrangements of the library clock.
"William! You wicked boy!"
William raised a frowning face.
"It's not put together right," he said, "it's not been put together right all this time. We're makin' it right now. It must have wanted mendin' for ever so long. I dunno how it's been goin' at all. It's lucky we found it out. It's put together wrong. I guess it's made wrong. It's goin' to be a lot of trouble to us to put it right, an' we can't do much when you're all standin' in the light. We're very busy—workin' at tryin' to mend this ole clock for you all."
"Clever," said Jimmy, admiringly. "Mendin' the clock. Clever!"
"William!" groaned his mother, "you've ruined the clock. What will your father say?"
"Well, the cog-wheels was wrong," said William doggedly. "See? An' this ratchet-wheel isn't on the pawl prop'ly—not like what this book says it ought to be. Seems we've got to take it all to pieces to get it right. Seems to me the person wot made this clock didn't know much about clock-making. Seems to me——"
"Be quiet, William!"
"We was be quietin' 'fore you came in," said Jimmy, severely. "You 'sturbed us."
"Leave it just as it is, William," said his mother.
"You don't unnerstand," said William with the excitement of the fanatic. "The cog-wheel an' the ratchet ought to be put on the arbor different. See, this is the cog-wheel. Well, it oughtn't to be like wot it was. It was put on all wrong. Well, we was mendin' it. An' we was doin' it for you," he ended, bitterly, "jus' to help an'—to—to make other folks happy. It makes folks happy havin' clocks goin' right, anyone would think. But if you want your clocks put together wrong, I don't care."
He picked up his book and walked proudly from the room followed by the admiring Jimmy.
"William," said Aunt Lucy patiently, as he passed, "I don't want to say anything unkind, and I hope you won't remember all your life that you have completely spoilt this Christmas Day for me."
"Oh, dear!" murmured Aunt Jane, sadly.
William, with a look before which she should have sunk into the earth, answered shortly that he didn't think he would.
During the midday dinner the grown-ups, as is the foolish fashion of grown-ups, wasted much valuable time in the discussion of such futilities as the weather and the political state of the nation. Aunt Lucy was still suffering and aggrieved.
"I can go this evening, of course," she said, "but it's not quite the same. The morning service is different. Yes, please, dear—and stuffing. Yes, I'll have a little more turkey, too. And, of course, the vicar may not preach to-night. That makes such a difference. The gravy on the potatoes, please. It's almost the first Christmas I've not been in the morning. It seems quite to have spoilt the day for me."
She bent on William a glance of gentle reproach. William was quite capable of meeting adequately that or any other glance, but at present he was too busy for minor hostilities. He was extremely busy. He was doing his utmost to do full justice to a meal that only happens once a year.
"William," said Barbara pleasantly, "I can dweam. Can you?"
He made no answer.
"Answer your cousin, William," said his mother.
He swallowed, then spoke plaintively, "You always say not to talk with my mouth full," he said.
"You could speak when you've finished the mouthful."
"No. 'Cause I want to fill it again then," said William, firmly.
"Dear, dear!" murmured Aunt Jane.
This was Aunt Jane's usual contribution to any conversation.
He looked coldly at the three pairs of horrified aunts' eyes around him, then placidly continued his meal.
Mrs. Brown hastily changed the subject of conversation. The art of combining the duties of mother and hostess is sometimes a difficult one.
Christmas afternoon is a time of rest. The three aunts withdrew from public life. Aunt Lucy found a book of sermons in the library and retired to her bedroom with it.
"It's the next best thing, I think," she said with a sad glance at William.
William was beginning definitely to dislike Aunt Lucy.
"Please'm," said the cook an hour later, "the mincing machine's disappeared."
"Disappeared?" said William's mother, raising her hand to her head.
"Clean gone'm. 'Ow'm I to get the supper'm? You said as 'ow I could get it done this afternoon so as to go to church this evening. I can't do nuffink with the mincing machine gone."
"I'll come and look."
They searched every corner of the kitchen, then William's mother had an idea. William's mother had not been William's mother for eleven years without learning many things. She went wearily up to William's bedroom.
William was sitting on the floor. Open beside him was "Things a Boy Can Do." Around him lay various parts of the mincing machine. His face was set and strained in mental and physical effort. He looked up as she entered.
"It's a funny kind of mincing machine," he said, crushingly. "It's not got enough parts. It's made wrong——"
"Do you know," she said, slowly, "that we've all been looking for that mincin' machine for the last half-hour?"
"No," he said without much interest, "I di'n't. I'd have told you I was mendin' it if you'd told me you was lookin' for it. It's wrong," he went on aggrievedly. "I can't make anything with it. Look! It says in my book 'How to make a model railway signal with parts of a mincing machine.' Listen! It says, 'Borrow a mincing machine from your mother——"
"Did you borrow it?" said Mrs. Brown.
"Yes. Well, I've got it, haven't I? I went all the way down to the kitchen for it."
"Who lent it to you?"
"No one lent it me. I borrowed it. I thought you'd like to see a model railway signal. I thought you'd be interested. Anyone would think anyone would be interested in seein' a railway signal made out of a mincin' machine."
His tone implied that the dullness of people in general was simply beyond him. "An' you haven't got a right sort of mincin' machine. It's wrong. Its parts are the wrong shape. I've been hammerin' them, tryin' to make them right, but they're made wrong."
Mrs. Brown was past expostulating. "Take them all down to the kitchen to cook," she said. "She's waiting for them."
On the stairs William met Aunt Lucy carrying her volume of sermons.
"It's not quite the same as the spoken word, William, dear," she said. "It hasn't the force. The written word doesn't reach the heart as the spoken word does, but I don't want you to worry about it."
William walked on as if he had not heard her.
It was Aunt Jane who insisted on the little entertainment after tea.
"I love to hear the dear children recite," she said. "I'm sure they all have some little recitation they can say."
Barbara arose with shy delight to say her piece.
"Lickle bwown seed, lickle bwown bwother, And what, pway, are you goin' to be? I'll be a poppy as white as my mother, Oh, DO be a poppy like me! What, you'll be a sunflower? Oh, how I shall miss you When you are golden and high! But I'll send all the bees up to tiss you. Lickle bwown bwother, good-bye!"
She sat down blushing, amid rapturous applause.
Next Jimmy was dragged from his corner. He stood up as one prepared for the worst, shut his eyes, and—
"Licklaxokindness lickledeedsolove— make—thisearfanedenliketheeav'nabovethasalliknow."
he gasped all in one breath, and sat down panting.
This was greeted with slightly milder applause.
"I don't know any," he said.
"Oh, you do," said his mother. "Say the one you learnt at school last term. Stand up, dear, and speak clearly."
Slowly William rose to his feet.
"It was the schooner Hesperus that sailed the wintry sea,"
Here he stopped, coughed, cleared his throat, and began again.
"It was the schooner Hesperus that sailed the wintry sea."
"Oh, get on!" muttered his brother, irritably.
"I can't get on if you keep talkin' to me," said William, sternly. "How can I get on if you keep takin' all the time up sayin' get on? I can't get on if you're talkin', can I?"
"It was the Hesper Schoonerus that sailed the wintry sea an' I'm not goin' on if Ethel's goin' to keep gigglin'. It's not a funny piece, an' if she's goin' on gigglin' like that I'm not sayin' any more of it."
"Ethel, dear!" murmured Mrs. Brown, reproachfully. Ethel turned her chair completely round and left her back only exposed to William's view. He glared at it suspiciously.
"Now, William dear," continued his mother, "begin again and no one shall interrupt you."
William again went through the preliminaries of coughing and clearing his throat.
"It was the schooner Hesperus that sailed the wintry seas."
He stopped again, and slowly and carefully straightened his collar and smoothed back the lock of hair which was dangling over his brow.
"The skipper had brought——" prompted Aunt Jane, kindly.
William turned on her.
"I was goin' to say that if you'd left me alone," he said. "I was jus' thinkin'. I've got to think sometimes. I can't say off a great long pome like that without stoppin' to think sometimes, can I? I'll—I'll do a conjuring trick for you instead," he burst out, desperately. "I've learnt one from my book. I'll go an' get it ready."
He went out of the room. Mr. Brown took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow.
"May I ask," he said patiently, "how long this exhibition is to be allowed to continue?"
Here William returned, his pockets bulging. He held a large handkerchief in his hand.
"This is a handkerchief," he announced. "If anyone'd like to feel it to see if it's a real one, they can. Now I want a shilling," he looked round expectantly, but no one moved, "or a penny would do," he said, with a slightly disgusted air. Robert threw one across the room. "Well, I put the penny into the handkerchief. You can see me do it, can't you? If anyone wants to come an' feel the penny is in the handkerchief, they can. Well," he turned his back on them and took something out of his pocket. After a few contortions he turned round again, holding the handkerchief tightly. "Now, you look close,"—he went over to them—"an' you'll see the shil—I mean, penny," he looked scornfully at Robert, "has changed to an egg. It's a real egg. If anyone thinks it isn't a real egg——"
But it was a real egg. It confirmed his statement by giving a resounding crack and sending a shining stream partly on to the carpet and partly on to Aunt Evangeline's black silk knee. A storm of reproaches burst out.
"First that horrible insect," almost wept Aunt Evangeline, "and then this messy stuff all over me. It's a good thing I don't live here. One day a year is enough.... My nerves!..."
"Dear, dear!" said Aunt Jane.
"Fancy taking a new-laid egg for that," said Ethel severely.
William was pale and indignant.
"Well, I did jus' what the book said to do. Look at it. It says: 'Take an egg. Conceal it in the pocket.' Well, I took an egg an' I concealed it in the pocket. Seems to me," he said bitterly, "seems to me this book isn't 'Things a Boy Can Do.' It's 'Things a Boy Can't Do.'"
Mr. Brown rose slowly from his chair.
"You're just about right there, my son. Thank you," he said with elaborate politeness, as he took the book from William's reluctant hands and went over with it to a small cupboard in the wall. In this cupboard reposed an airgun, a bugle, a catapult, and a mouth-organ. As he unlocked it to put the book inside, the fleeting glimpse of his confiscated treasures added to the bitterness of William's soul.
"On Christmas Day, too!"
While he was still afire with silent indignation Aunt Lucy returned from church.
"The vicar didn't preach," she said. "They say that this morning's sermon was beautiful. As I say, I don't want William to reproach himself, but I feel that he has deprived me of a very great treat."
"Nice Willum!" murmured Jimmy sleepily from his corner.
As William undressed that night his gaze fell upon the flower-bedecked motto: "A Busy Day is a Happy Day."
"It's a story," he said, indignantly. "It's jus' a wicked ole story."
"Rice-mould," said the little girl next door bitterly. "Rice-mould! Rice-mould! every single day. I hate it, don't you?"
She turned gloomy blue eyes upon William, who was perched perilously on the ivy-covered wall. William considered thoughtfully.
"Dunno," he said. "I just eat it; I never thought about it."
"It's hateful, just hateful. Ugh! I've had it at dinner and I'll have it at supper—bet you anything. I say, you are going to have a party to-night, aren't you?"
William nodded carelessly.
"Are you going to be there?"
"Me!" ejaculated William in a tone of amused surprise. "I should think so! You don't think they could have it without me, do you? Huh! Not much!"
She gazed at him enviously.
"You are lucky! I expect you'll have a lovely supper—not rice mould," bitterly.
"Rather!" said William with an air of superiority.
"What are you going to have to eat at your party?"
"Oh—everything," said William vaguely.
"Heaps of it—buckets of it."
The little girl next door clasped her hands.
"Oh, just think of it! Your eating cream blanc-mange and me eating—rice-mould!" (It is impossible to convey in print the intense scorn and hatred which the little girl next door could compress into the two syllables.)
Here an idea struck William.
"What time do you have supper?"
"Well, now," magnanimously, "if you'll be in your summer-house at half-past, I'll bring you some cream blanc-mange. Truly I will!"
The little girl's face beamed with pleasure.
"Will you? Will you really? You won't forget?"
"Not me! I'll be there. I'll slip away from our show on the quiet with it."
"Oh, how lovely! I'll be thinking of it every minute. Don't forget. Good-bye!"
She blew him a kiss and flitted daintily into the house.
William blushed furiously at the blown kiss and descended from his precarious perch.
He went to the library where his grown-up sister Ethel and his elder brother Robert were standing on ladders at opposite ends of the room, engaged in hanging up festoons of ivy and holly across the wall. There was to be dancing in the library after supper. William's mother watched them from a safe position on the floor.
"Look here, mother," began William. "Am I or am I not coming to the party to-night?"
William's mother sighed.
"For goodness' sake, William, don't open that discussion again. For the tenth time to-day, you are not!"
"But why not?" he persisted. "I only want to know why not. That's all I want to know. It looks a bit funny, doesn't it, to give a party and leave out your only son, at least,"—with a glance at Robert, and a slight concession to accuracy—"to leave out one of your only two sons? It looks a bit queer, surely. That's all I'm thinking of—how it will look."
"A bit higher your end," said Ethel.
"Yes, that's better," said William's mother.
"It's a young folks' party," went on William, warming to his subject. "I heard you tell Aunt Jane it was a young folks' party. Well, I'm young, aren't I? I'm eleven. Do you want me any younger? You aren't ashamed of folks seeing me, are you! I'm not deformed or anything."
"That's right! Put the nail in there, Ethel."
"Just a bit higher. That's right!"
"P'raps you're afraid of what I'll eat," went on William bitterly. "Well, everyone eats, don't they? They've got to—to live. And you've got things for us—them—to eat to-night. You don't grudge me just a bit of supper, do you? You'd think it was less trouble for me to have my bit of supper with you all, than in a separate room. That's all I'm thinking of—the trouble——"
William's sister turned round on her ladder and faced the room.
"Can't anyone," she said desperately, "stop that child talking?"
William's brother began to descend his ladder. "I think I can," he said grimly.
But William had thrown dignity to the winds, and fled.
He went down the hall to the kitchen, where cook hastily interposed herself between him and the table that was laden with cakes and jellies and other delicacies.
"Now, Master William," she said sharply, "you clear out of here!"
"I don't want any of your things, cook," said William, magnificently but untruthfully. "I only came to see how you were getting on. That's all I came for."
"We're getting on very well indeed, thank you, Master William," she said with sarcastic politeness, "but nothing for you till to-morrow, when we can see how much they've left."
She returned to her task of cutting sandwiches. William, from a respectful distance, surveyed the table with its enticing burden.
"Huh!" he ejaculated bitterly, "think of them sitting and stuffing, and stuffing, and stuffing away at our food all night! I don't suppose they'll leave much—not if I know the set that lives round here!"
"Don't judge them all by yourself, Master William," said cook unkindly, keeping a watchful eye upon him. "Here, Emma, put that rice-mould away in the pantry. It's for to-morrow's lunch."
Rice-mould! That reminded him.
"Cook," he said ingratiatingly, "are you going to make cream blanc-mange?"
"I am not, Master William," she said firmly.
"Well," he said, with a short laugh, "it'll be a queer party without cream blanc-mange! I've never heard of a party without cream blanc-mange! They'll think it's a bit funny. No one ever gives a party round here without cream blanc-mange!"
"Don't they indeed, Master William," said cook, with ironic interest.
"No. You'll be making one, p'raps, later on—just a little one, won't you?"
"And why should I?"
"Well, I'd like to think they had a cream blanc-mange. I think they'd enjoy it. That's all I'm thinking of."
"Oh, is it? Well, it's your ma that tells me what to make and pays me for it, not you."
This was a novel idea to William.
He thought deeply.
"Look here!" he said at last, "if I gave you,"—he paused for effect, then brought out the startling offer—"sixpence, would you make a cream blanc-mange?"
"I'd want to see your sixpence first," said cook, with a wink at Emma.
William retired upstairs to his bedroom and counted out his money—twopence was all he possessed. He had expended the enormous sum of a shilling the day before on a grass snake. It had died in the night. He must get a cream blanc-mange somehow. His reputation for omnipotence in the eyes of the little girl next door—a reputation very dear to him—depended on it. And if cook would do it for sixpence, he must find sixpence. By fair means or foul it must be done. He'd tried fair means, and there only remained foul. He went softly downstairs to the dining-room, where, upon the mantel-piece, reposed the missionary-box. He'd tell someone next day, or put it back, or something. Anyway, people did worse things than that in the pictures. With a knife from the table he extracted the contents—three-halfpence! He glared at it balefully.
"Three-halfpence!" he said aloud in righteous indignation. "This supposed to be a Christian house, and three-halfpence is all they can give to the poor heathen. They can spend pounds and pounds on,"—he glanced round the room and saw a pyramid of pears on the sideboard—"tons of pears an'—an' green stuff to put on the walls, and they give three-halfpence to the poor heathen! Huh!"
He opened the door and heard his sister's voice from the library. "He's probably in mischief somewhere. He'll be a perfect nuisance all the evening. Mother, couldn't you make him go to bed an hour earlier?"
William had no doubt as to the subject of the conversation. Make him go to bed early! He'd like to see them! He'd just like to see them! And he'd show them, anyway. Yes, he would show them. Exactly what he would show them and how he would show them, he was not as yet very clear. He looked round the room again. There were no eatables in it so far except the piled-up plate of huge pears on the sideboard.
He looked at it longingly. They'd probably counted them and knew just how many there ought to be. Mean sort of thing they would do. And they'd be in counting them every other minute just to see if he'd taken one. Well, he was going to score off somebody, somehow. Make him go to bed early indeed! He stood with knit brows, deep in thought, then his face cleared and he smiled. He'd got it! For the next five minutes he munched the delicious pears, but, at the end, the piled-up pyramid was apparently exactly as he found it, not a pear gone, only—on the inner side of each pear, the side that didn't show, was a huge semicircular bite. William wiped his mouth with his coat sleeve. They were jolly good pears. And a blissful vision came to him of the faces of the guests as they took the pears, of the faces of his father and mother and Robert and Ethel. Oh, crumbs! He chuckled to himself as he went down to the kitchen again.
"I say, cook, could you make a small one—quite a small one—for threepence-halfpenny?"
"I was only pulling your leg, Master William. I've got one made and locked up in the larder."
"That's all right," said William. "I—wanted them to have a cream blanc-mange, that's all."
"Oh, they'll have it all right; they won't leave much for you. I only made one!"
"Did you say locked in the larder?" said William carelessly. "It must be a bother for you to lock the larder door each time you go in?"
"Oh, no trouble, Master William, thank you," said cook sarcastically; "there's more than the cream blanc-mange there; there's pasties and cakes and other things. I'm thinking of the last party your ma gave!"
William had the grace to blush. On that occasion William and a friend had spent the hour before supper in the larder, and supper had to be postponed while fresh provisions were beaten up from any and every quarter. William had passed a troubled night and spent the next day in bed.
"Oh, then! That was a long time ago. I was only a kid then."
"Umph!" grunted cook. Then, relenting, "Well, if there's any cream blanc-mange left I'll bring it up to you in bed. Now that's a promise. Here, Emma, put these sandwiches in the larder. Here's the key! Now mind you lock it after you!"
"Cook! Just come here for a minute."
It was the voice of William's mother from the library. William's heart rose. With cook away from the scene of action great things might happen. Emma took the dish of sandwiches, unlocked the pantry door, and entered. There was a crash of crockery from the back kitchen. Emma fled out, leaving the door unlocked. After she had picked up several broken plates, which had unaccountably slipped from the shelves, she returned and locked the pantry door.
William, in the darkness within, heaved a sigh of relief. He was in, anyway; how he was going to get out he wasn't quite sure. He stood for a few minutes in rapt admiration of his own cleverness. He'd scored off cook! Crumbs! He'd scored off cook! So far, at any rate. The first thing to do was to find the cream blanc-mange. He found it at last and sat down with it on the bread-pan to consider his next step.
Suddenly he became aware of two green eyes staring at him in the darkness. The cat was in too! Crumbs! The cat was in too! The cat, recognising its inveterate enemy, set up a vindictive wail. William grew cold with fright. The rotten old cat was going to give the show away!
"Here, Pussy! Good ole Pussy!" he whispered hoarsely. "Nice ole Pussy! Good ole Pussy!"
The cat gazed at him in surprise. This form of address from William was unusual.
"Good ole Pussy!" went on William feverishly. "Shut up, then. Here's some nice blanc-mange. Just have a bit. Go on, have a bit and shut up."
He put the dish down on the larder floor before the cat, and the cat, after a few preliminary licks, decided that it was good. William sat watching for a bit. Then he came to the conclusion that it was no use wasting time, and began to sample the plates around him. He ate a whole jelly, and then took four sandwiches off each plate, and four cakes and pasties off each plate. He had learnt wisdom since the last party. Meanwhile, the cat licked away at the cream blanc-mange with every evidence of satisfaction. It even began to purr, and as its satisfaction increased so did the purr. It possessed a peculiar penetrating purr.
"Cook!" called out Emma from the kitchen.
Cook came out of the library where she was assisting with the festoon hanging. "What's the matter?"
"There's a funny buzzing noise in the larder."
"Well, go in and see what it is. It's probably a wasp, that's all."
Emma approached with the key, and William, clasping the blanc-mange to his bosom, withdrew behind the door, slipping off his shoes in readiness for action.
"Poor Puss!" said Emma, opening the door and meeting the cat's green, unabashed gaze. "Did it get shut up in the nasty dark larder, then? Who did it, then?"
She was bending down with her back to William, stroking the cat in the doorway. William seized his chance. He dashed past her and up the stairs in stockinged feet like a flash of lightning. But Emma, leaning over the cat, had espied a dark flying figure out of the corner of her eye. She set up a scream. Out of the library came William's mother, William's sister, William's brother, and cook.
"A burglar in the larder!" gasped Emma. "I seed 'im, I did! Out of the corner of my eye, like, and when I looked up 'e wasn't there no more. Flittin' up the 'all like a shadder, 'e was. Oh, lor! It's fairly turned me inside! Oh, lor!"
"What rubbish!" said William's mother. "Emma, you must control yourself!"
"I went into the larder myself 'm," said cook indignantly, "just before I came in to 'elp with the greenery ornaments, and it was hempty as—hair. It's all that silly Emma! Always 'avin' the jumps, she is——"
"Where's William?" said William's mother with sudden suspicion. "William!"
William came out of his bedroom and looked over the balusters.
"Yes, mother," he said, with that wondering innocence of voice and look which he had brought to a fine art, and which proved one of his greatest assets in times of stress and strain.
"What are you doing?"
"Jus' readin' quietly in my room, mother."
"Oh, for heaven's sake don't disturb him, then," said William's sister.
"It's those silly books you read, Emma. You're always imagining things. If you'd read the ones I recommend, instead of the foolish ones you will get hold of——"
William's mother was safely mounted on one of her favourite hobby-horses. William withdrew to his room and carefully concealed the cream blanc-mange beneath his bed. He then waited till he heard the guests arrive and exchange greetings in the hall. William, listening with his door open, carefully committed to memory the voice and manner of his sister's greeting to her friends. That would come in useful later on, probably. No weapon of offence against the world in general and his own family in particular, was to be despised. He held a rehearsal in his room when the guests were all safely assembled in the drawing-room.
"Oh, how are you, Mrs. Green?" he said in a high falsetto, meant to represent the feminine voice. "And how's the darling baby? Such a duck! I'm dying to see him again! Oh, Delia, darling! There you are! So glad you could come! What a perfect darling of a dress, my dear. I know whose heart you'll break in that! Oh, Mr. Thompson!"—here William languished, bridled and ogled in a fashion seen nowhere on earth except in his imitations of his sister when engaged in conversation with one of the male sex. If reproduced at the right moment, it was guaranteed to drive her to frenzy, "I'm so glad to see you. Yes, of course I really am! I wouldn't say it if I wasn't!"
The drawing-room door opened and a chatter of conversation and a rustling of dresses arose from the hall. Oh, crumbs! They were going in to supper. Yes, the dining-room door closed; the coast was clear. William took out the rather battered-looking delicacy from under the bed and considered it thoughtfully. The dish was big and awkwardly shaped. He must find something that would go under his coat better than that. He couldn't march through the hall and out of the front door, bearing a cream blanc-mange, naked and unashamed. And the back door through the kitchen was impossible. With infinite care but little success as far as the shape of the blanc-mange was concerned, he removed it from its dish on to his soap-dish. He forgot, in the excitement of the moment, to remove the soap, but, after all, it was only a small piece. The soap-dish was decidedly too small for it, but, clasped to William's bosom inside his coat, it could be partly supported by his arm outside. He descended the stairs cautiously. He tip-toed lightly past the dining-room door (which was slightly ajar), from which came the shrill, noisy, meaningless, conversation of the grown-ups. He was just about to open the front door when there came the sound of a key turning in the lock.
William's heart sank. He had forgotten the fact that his father generally returned from his office about this time.
William's father came into the hall and glanced at his youngest offspring suspiciously.
"Hello!" he said, "where are you going?"
William cleared his throat nervously.
"Me?" he questioned lightly. "Oh, I was jus'—jus' goin' a little walk up the road before I went to bed. That's all I was goin' to do, father."
Flop! A large segment of the cream blanc-mange had disintegrated itself from the fast-melting mass, and, evading William's encircling arm, had fallen on to the floor at his feet. With praiseworthy presence of mind William promptly stepped on to it and covered it with his feet. William's father turned round quickly from the stand where he was replacing his walking stick.
"What was that?"
William looked round the hall absently. "What, father?"
William's father now fastened his eyes upon William's person.
"What have you got under your coat?"
"Where?" said William with apparent surprise.
Then, looking down at the damp excrescence of his coat, as if he noticed it for the first time, "Oh, that!" with a mirthless smile. "Do you mean that? Oh, that's jus'—jus' somethin' I'm takin' out with me, that's all."
Again William's father grunted.
"Well," he said, "if you're going for this walk up the road why on earth don't you go, instead of standing as if you'd lost the use of your feet?"
William's father was hanging up his overcoat with his back to William, and the front door was open. William wanted no second bidding. He darted out of the door and down the drive, but he was just in time to hear the thud of a falling body, and to hear a muttered curse as the Head of the House entered the dining-room feet first on a long slide of some white, glutinous substance.
"Oh, crumbs!" gasped William as he ran.
The little girl next door was sitting in the summer-house, armed with a spoon, when William arrived. His precious burden had now saturated his shirt and was striking cold and damp on his chest. He drew it from his coat and displayed it proudly. It had certainly lost its pristine, white, rounded appearance. The marks of the cat's licks were very evident; grime from William's coat adhered to its surface; it wobbled limply over the soap dish, but the little girl's eyes sparkled as she saw it.
"Oh, William, I never thought you really would! Oh, you are wonderful! And I had it!"
"Rice-mould for supper, but I didn't mind, because I thought—I hoped, you'd come with it. Oh, William, you are a nice boy!"
William glowed with pride.
"William!" bellowed an irate voice from William's front door.
William knew that voice. It was the voice of the male parent who has stood all he's jolly well going to stand from that kid, and is out for vengeance. They'd got to the pears! Oh, crumbs! They'd got to the pears! And even the thought of Nemesis to come could not dull for William the bliss of that vision.
"Oh, William," said the little girl next door sadly, "they're calling you. Will you have to go?"
"Not me," said William earnestly. "I'm not going—not till they fetch me. Here! you begin. I don't want any. I've had lots of things. You eat it all."
Her face radiant with anticipation, the little girl took up her spoon.
William leant back in a superior, benevolent manner and watched the smile freeze upon her face and her look of ecstasy change to one of fury. With a horrible suspicion at his heart he seized the spoon she had dropped and took a mouthful himself.
He had brought the rice-mould by mistake!
When William first saw him he was leaning against the wall of the White Lion, gazing at the passers-by with a moody smile upon his villainous-looking countenance.
It was evident to any careful observer that he had not confined his attentions to the exterior of the White Lion.
William, at whose heels trotted his beloved mongrel (rightly named Jumble), was passing him with a casual glance, when something attracted his attention. He stopped and looked back, then, turning round, stood in front of the tall, untidy figure, gazing up at him with frank and unabashed curiosity.
"Who cut 'em off?" he said at last in an awed whisper.
The figure raised his hands and stroked the long hair down the side of his face.
"Now yer arskin'," he said with a grin.
"Well, who did?" persisted William.
"That 'ud be tellin'," answered his new friend, moving unsteadily from one foot to the other. "See?"
"You got 'em cut off in the war," said William firmly.
"I didn't. I bin in the wor orl right. Stroike me pink, I bin in the wor and that's the truth. But I didn't get 'em cut orf in the wor. Well, I'll stop kiddin' yer. I'll tell yer strite. I never 'ad none. Nar!"
William stood on tiptoe to peer under the untidy hair at the small apertures that in his strange new friend took the place of ears. Admiration shone in William's eyes.
"Was you born without 'em?" he said enviously.
His friend nodded.
"Nar don't yer go torkin' about it," he went on modestly, though seeming to bask in the sun of William's evident awe and respect. "I don't want all folks knowin' 'bout it. See? It kinder marks a man, this 'ere sort of thing. See? Makes 'im too easy to track, loike. That's why I grow me hair long. See? 'Ere, 'ave a drink?"
He put his head inside the window of the White Lion and roared out "Bottle o' lemonide fer the young gent."
William followed him to a small table in the little sunny porch, and his heart swelled with pride as he sat and quaffed his beverage with a manly air. His friend, who said his name was Mr. Blank, showed a most flattering interest in him. He elicited from him the whereabouts of his house and the number of his family, a description of the door and window fastenings, of the dining-room silver and his mother's jewellery.
William, his eyes fixed with a fascinated stare upon Mr. Blank's ears, gave the required information readily, glad to be able in any way to interest this intriguing and mysterious being.
"Tell me about the war," said William at last.
"It were orl right while it larsted," said Mr. Blank with a sigh. "It were orl right, but I s'pose, like mos' things in this 'ere world, it couldn't larst fer ever. See?"
William set down the empty glass of lemonade and leant across the table, almost dizzy with the romance of the moment. Had Douglas, had Henry, had Ginger, had any of those boys who sat next him at school and joined in the feeble relaxations provided by the authorities out of school, ever done this—ever sat at a real table outside a real public-house drinking lemonade and talking to a man with no ears who'd fought in the war and who looked as if he might have done anything?
Jumble, meanwhile, sat and snapped at flies, frankly bored.
"Did you"—said William in a sibilant whisper—"did you ever kill anyone?"
Mr. Blank laughed a laugh that made William's blood curdle.
"Me kill anyone? Me kill anyone? 'Ondreds!"
William breathed a sigh of satisfaction. Here was romance and adventure incarnate.
"What do you do now the war's over?"
Mr. Blank closed one eye.
"That 'ud be tellin', wudn't it?"
"I'll keep it awfully secret," pleaded William. "I'll never tell anyone."
Mr. Blank shook his head.
"What yer want ter know fer, anyway?" he said.
William answered eagerly, his eyes alight.
"'Cause I'd like to do jus' the same when I grow up."
Mr. Blank flung back his head and emitted guffaw after guffaw of unaffected mirth.
"Oh 'ell," he said, wiping his eyes. "Oh, stroike me pink! That's good, that is. You wait, young gent, you wait till you've growed up and see what yer pa says to it. Oh 'ell!"
He rose and pulled his cap down over his eyes.
"Well, I'll say good day to yer, young gent."
William looked at him wistfully.
"I'd like to see you again, Mr. Blank, I would, honest. Will you be here this afternoon?"
"Wot d'yer want to see me agine fer?" said Mr. Blank suspiciously.
"I like you," said William fervently. "I like the way you talk, and I like the things you say, and I want to know about what you do!"
Mr. Blank was obviously flattered.
"I may be round 'ere agine this arter, though I mike no promise. See? I've gotter be careful, I 'ave. I've gotter be careful 'oo sees me an' 'oo 'ears me, and where I go. That's the worst of 'aving no ears. See?"
William did not see, but he was thrilled to the soul by the mystery.
"An' you don't tell no one you seen me nor nothing abart me," went on Mr. Blank.
Pulling his cap still farther over his head, Mr. Blank set off unsteadily down the road, leaving William to pay for his lemonade with his last penny.
He walked home, his heart set firmly on a lawless career of crime. Opposition he expected from his father and mother and Robert and Ethel, but his determination was fixed. He wondered if it would be very painful to have his ears cut off.
He entered the dining-room with an air of intense mystery, pulling his cap over his eyes, and looking round in a threatening manner.
"William, what do you mean by coming into the house in your cap? Take it off at once."
William sighed. He wondered if Mr. Blank had a mother.
When he returned he sat down and began quietly to remodel his life. He would not be an explorer, after all, nor an engine-driver nor chimney-sweep. He would be a man of mystery, a murderer, fighter, forger. He fingered his ears tentatively. They seemed fixed on jolly fast. He glanced with utter contempt at his father who had just come in. His father's life of blameless respectability seemed to him at that minute utterly despicable.
"The Wilkinsons over at Todfoot have had their house broken into now," Mrs. Brown was saying. "All her jewellery gone. They think it's a gang. It's just the villages round here. There seems to be one every day!"
William expressed his surprise.
"Oh, 'ell!" he ejaculated, with a slightly self-conscious air.
Mr. Brown turned round and looked at his son.
"May I ask," he said politely, "where you picked up that expression?"
"I got it off one of my fren's," said William with quiet pride.
"Then I'd take it as a personal favour," went on Mr. Brown, "if you'd kindly refrain from airing your friends' vocabularies in this house."
"He means you're never to say it again, William," translated Mrs. Brown sternly. "Never."
"All right," said William. "I won't. See? I da—jolly well won't. Strike me pink. See?"
He departed with an air of scowling mystery and dignity combined, leaving his parents speechless with amazement.
That afternoon he returned to the White Lion. Mr. Blank was standing unobtrusively in the shadow of the wall.
"'Ello, young gent," he greeted William, "nice dorg you've got."
William looked proudly down at Jumble.
"You won't find," he said proudly and with some truth, "you won't find another dog like this—not for miles!"
"Will 'e be much good as a watch dog, now?" asked Mr. Blank carelessly.
"Good?" said William, almost indignant at the question. "There isn't any sort of dog he isn't good at!"
"Umph," said Mr. Blank, looking at him thoughtfully.
"Tell me about things you've done," said William earnestly.
"Yus, I will, too," said Mr. Blank. "But jus' you tell me first 'oo lives at all these 'ere nice 'ouses an' all about 'em. See?"
William readily complied, and the strange couple gradually wended their way along the road towards William's house. William stopped at the gate and considered deeply. He was torn between instincts of hospitality and a dim suspicion that his family would not afford to Mr. Blank that courtesy which is a guest's due. He looked at Mr. Blank's old green-black cap, long, untidy hair, dirty, lined, sly old face, muddy clothes and gaping boots, and decided quite finally that his mother would not allow him in her drawing-room.
"Will you," he said tentatively, "will you come roun' an' see our back garden? If we go behind these ole bushes and keep close along the wall, no one'll see us."
To William's relief Mr. Blank did not seem to resent the suggestion of secrecy. They crept along the wall in silence except for Jumble, who loudly worried Mr. Blank's trailing boot-strings as he walked. They reached a part of the back garden that was not visible from the house and sat down together under a shady tree.
"P'raps," began Mr. Blank politely, "you could bring a bit o' tea out to me on the quiet like."
"I'll ask mother——" began William.
"Oh, no," said Mr. Blank modestly. "I don't want ter give no one no trouble. Just a slice o' bread, if you can find it, without troublin' no one. See?"
William had a brilliant idea.
"Let's go 'cross to that window an' get in," he said eagerly. "That's the lib'ry and no one uses it 'cept father, and he's not in till later."
Mr. Blank insisted on tying Jumble up, then he swung himself dexterously through the window. William gave a gasp of admiration.
"You did that fine," he said.
Again Mr. Blank closed one eye.
"Not the first time I've got in at a winder, young gent, nor the larst, I bet. Not by a long way. See?"
William followed more slowly. His eye gleamed with pride. This hero of romance and adventure was now his guest, under his roof.
"Make yourself quite at home, Mr. Blank," he said with an air of intense politeness.
Mr. Blank did. He emptied Mr. Brown's cigar-box into his pocket. He drank three glasses of Mr. Brown's whiskey and soda. While William's back was turned he filled his pockets with the silver ornaments from the mantel-piece. He began to inspect the drawers in Mr. Brown's desk. Then:
"William! Come to tea!"
"You stay here," whispered William. "I'll bring you some."
But luck was against him. It was a visitors' tea in the drawing-room, and Mrs. de Vere Carter, a neighbour, there, in all her glory. She rose from her seat with an ecstatic murmur.
"Willie! Dear child! Sweet little soul!"
With one arm she crushed the infuriated William against her belt, with the other she caressed his hair. Then William in moody silence sat down in a corner and began to eat bread and butter. Every time he prepared to slip a piece into his pocket, he found his mother's or Mrs. de Vere Carter's eye fixed upon him and hastily began to eat it himself. He sat, miserable and hot, seeing only the heroic figure starving in the next room, and planned a raid on the larder as soon as he could reasonably depart. Every now and then he scowled across at Mrs. de Vere Carter and made a movement with his hands as though pulling a cap over his eyes. He invested even his eating with an air of dark mystery.
Then Robert, his elder brother, came in, followed by a thin, pale man with eye-glasses and long hair.
"This is Mr. Lewes, mother," said Robert with an air of pride and triumph. "He's editor of Fiddle Strings."
There was an immediate stir and sensation. Robert had often talked of his famous friend. In fact Robert's family was weary of the sound of his name, but this was the first time Robert had induced him to leave the haunts of his genius to visit the Brown household.
Mr. Lewes bowed with a set, stern, self-conscious expression, as though to convey to all that his celebrity was more of a weight than a pleasure to him. Mrs. de Vere Carter bridled and fluttered, for Fiddle Strings had a society column and a page of scrappy "News of the Town," and Mrs. de Vere Carter's greatest ambition was to see her name in print.
Mr. Lewes sat back in his chair, took his tea-cup as though it were a fresh addition to his responsibilities, and began to talk. He talked apparently without even breathing. He began on the weather, drifted on to art and music, and was just beginning a monologue on The Novel, when William rose and crept from the room like a guilty spirit. He found Mr. Blank under the library table, having heard a noise in the kitchen and fearing a visitor. A cigar and a silver snuffer had fallen from his pocket to the floor. He hastily replaced them. William went up and took another look at the wonderful ears and heaved a sigh of relief. While parted from his strange friend he had had a horrible suspicion that the whole thing was a dream.
"I'll go to the larder and get you sumthin'," he said. "You jus' stay here."
"I think, young gent," said Mr. Blank, "I think I'll just go an' look round upstairs on the quiet like, an' you needn't mention it to no one. See?"
Again he performed the fascinating wink.
They crept on tiptoe into the hall, but—the drawing-room door was ajar.
William's heart stood still. He could hear his mother coming across the room, then—she stood in the doorway. Her face filled with horror as her eye fell upon Mr. Blank.
"William!" she said.
William's feelings were beyond description. Desperately he sought for an explanation for his friend's presence. With what pride and sang-froid had Robert announced his uninvited guest! William determined to try it, at any rate. He advanced boldly into the drawing-room.
"This is Mr. Blank, mother," he announced jauntily. "He hasn't got no ears."
Mr. Blank stood in the background, awaiting developments. Flight was now impossible.
The announcement fell flat. There was nothing but horror upon the five silent faces that confronted William. He made a last desperate effort.
"He's bin in the war," he pleaded. "He's—killed folks."
Then the unexpected happened.
Mrs. de Vere Carter rose with a smile of welcome. In her mind's eye she saw the touching story already in print—the tattered hero—the gracious lady—the age of Democracy. The stage was laid and that dark, pale young man had only to watch and listen.
"Ah, one of our dear heroes! My poor, brave man! A cup of tea, my dear," turning to William's thunderstruck mother. "And he may sit down, may he not?" She kept her face well turned towards the sardonic-looking Mr. Lewes. He must not miss a word or gesture. "How proud we are to do anything for our dear heroes! Wounded, perhaps? Ah, poor man!" She floated across to him with a cup of tea and plied him with bread and butter and cake. William sat down meekly on a chair, looking rather pale. Mr. Blank, whose philosophy was to take the goods the gods gave and not look to the future, began to make a hearty meal. "Are you looking for work, my poor man?" asked Mrs. de Vere Carter, leaning forward in her chair.
Her poor man replied with simple, manly directness that he "was dam'd if he was. See?" Mr. Lewes began to discuss The Drama with Robert. Mrs. de Vere Carter raised her voice.
"How you must have suffered! Yes, there is suffering ingrained in your face. A piece of shrapnel? Ten inches square? Right in at one hip and out at the other? Oh, my poor man! How I feel for you. How all class distinctions vanish at such a time. How——"
She stopped while Mr. Blank drank his tea. In fact, all conversation ceased while Mr. Blank drank his tea, just as conversation on a station ceases while a train passes through.
Mrs. Brown looked helplessly around her. When Mr. Blank had eaten a plate of sandwiches, a plate of bread and butter, and half a cake, he rose slowly, keeping one hand over the pocket in which reposed the silver ornaments.
"Well 'm," he said, touching his cap. "Thank you kindly. I've 'ad a fine tea. I 'ave. A dam' fine tea. An' I'll not forget yer kindness to a pore ole soldier." Here he winked brazenly at William. "An' good day ter you orl."
Mrs. de Vere Carter floated out to the front door with him, and William followed as in a dream.
Mrs. Brown found her voice.
"We'd better have the chair disinfected," she murmured to Ethel.
Then Mrs. de Vere Carter returned smiling to herself and eyeing the young editor surmisingly.
"I witnessed a pretty scene the other day in a suburban drawing-room...." It might begin like that.
William followed the amazing figure round the house again to the library window. Here it turned to him with a friendly grin.
"I'm just goin' to 'ave that look round upstairs now. See?" he said. "An' once more, yer don't need ter say nothin' to no one. See?"
With the familiar, beloved gesture he drew his old cap down over his eyes, and was gone.
William wandered upstairs a few minutes later to find his visitor standing at the landing window, his pockets bulging.
"I'm goin' to try this 'ere window, young gent," he said in a quick, business-like voice. "I see yer pa coming in at the front gate. Give me a shove. Quick, nar."
Mr. Brown entered the drawing-room.
"Mulroyd's had his house burgled now," he said. "Every bit of his wife's jewellery gone. They've got some clues, though. It's a gang all right, and one of them is a chap without ears. Grows his hair long to hide it. But it's a clue. The police are hunting for him."
He looked in amazement at the horror-stricken faces before him. Mrs. Brown sat down weakly.
"Ethel, my smelling salts! They're on the mantel-piece."
Robert grew pale.
"Good Lord—my silver cricket cup," he gasped, racing upstairs.
The landing window had been too small, and Mr. Blank too big, though William did his best.
There came to the astounded listeners the sound of a fierce scuffle, then Robert descended, his hair rumpled and his tie awry, holding William by the arm. William looked pale and apprehensive. "He was there," panted Robert, "just getting out of the window. He chucked the things out of his pockets and got away. I couldn't stop him. And—and William was there——"
William's face assumed the expression of one who is prepared for the worst.
"The plucky little chap! Struggling with him! Trying to pull him back from the window! All by himself!"
"I wasn't," cried William excitedly. "I was helping him. He's my friend. I——"
But they heard not a word. They crowded round him, praised him, shook hands with him, asked if he was hurt. Mrs. de Vere Carter kept up one perpetual scream of delight and congratulation.
"The dear boy! The little pet! How brave! What courage! What an example to us all! And the horrid, wretched man! Posing as a hero. Wangling himself into the sweet child's confidence. Are you hurt, my precious? Did the nasty man hurt you? You darling boy!"
When the babel had somewhat subsided, Mr. Brown came forward and laid a hand on William's shoulder.
"I'm very pleased with you, my boy," he said. "You can buy anything you like to-morrow up to five shillings."
William's bewildered countenance cleared.
"Thank you, father," he said meekly.
THE KNIGHT AT ARMS
"A knight," said Miss Drew, who was struggling to inspire her class with enthusiasm for Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," "a knight was a person who spent his time going round succouring the oppressed."
"Suckin' wot?" said William, bewildered.
"Succour means to help. He spent his time helping anyone who was in trouble."
"How much did he get for it?" asked William.
"Nothing, of course," said Miss Drew, appalled by the base commercialism of the twentieth century. "He helped the poor because he loved them, William. He had a lot of adventures and fighting and he helped beautiful, persecuted damsels."
William's respect for the knight rose.
"Of course," said Miss Drew hastily, "they needn't necessarily be beautiful, but, in most of the stories we have, they were beautiful."
Followed some stories of fighting and adventure and the rescuing of beautiful damsels. The idea of the thing began to take hold of William's imagination.
"I say," he said to his chum Ginger after school, "that knight thing sounds all right. Suckin'—I mean helpin' people an' fightin' an' all that. I wun't mind doin' it an' you could be my squire."
"Yes," said Ginger slowly, "I'd thought of doin' it, but I'd thought of you bein' the squire."
"Well," said William after a pause, "let's be squires in turn. You first," he added hastily.
"Wot'll you give me if I'm first?" said Ginger, displaying again the base commercialism of his age.
"I'll give you first drink out of a bottle of ginger-ale wot I'm goin' to get with my next money. It'll be three weeks off 'cause they're takin' the next two weeks to pay for an ole window wot my ball slipped into by mistake."
He spoke with the bitterness that always characterised his statements of the injustice of the grown-up world.
"All right," said Ginger.
"I won't forget about the drink of ginger-ale."
"No, you won't," said Ginger simply. "I'll remind you all right. Well, let's set off."
"'Course," said William, "it would be nicer with armour an' horses an' trumpets, but I 'spect folks ud think anyone a bit soft wot went about in the streets in armour now, 'cause these times is different. She said so. Anyway she said we could still be knights an' help people, di'n't she? Anyway, I'll get my bugle. That'll be something."
William's bugle had just returned to public life after one of its periodic terms of retirement into his father's keeping.
William took his bugle proudly in one hand and his pistol (the glorious result of a dip in the bran tub at a school party) in the other, and, sternly denying themselves the pleasures of afternoon school, off the two set upon the road of romance and adventure.
"I'll carry the bugle," said Ginger, "'cause I'm squire."
William was loth to give up his treasure.
"Well, I'll carry it now," he said, "but when I begin' fightin' folks, I'll give it you to hold."
They walked along for about a mile without meeting anyone. William began to be aware of a sinking feeling in the region of his waist.
"I wonder wot they eat," he said at last. "I'm gettin' so's I wouldn't mind sumthin' to eat."
"We di'n't ought to have set off before dinner," said the squire with after-the-event wisdom. "We ought to have waited till after dinner."
"You ought to have brought sumthin'," said William severely. "You're the squire. You're not much of a squire not to have brought sumthin' for me to eat."
"An' me," put in Ginger. "If I'd brought any I'd have brought it for me more'n for you."
William fingered his minute pistol.
"If we meet any wild animals ..." he said darkly.
A cow gazed at them mournfully over a hedge.
"You might go an' milk that," suggested William. "Milk 'ud be better'n nothing."
"You go 'an milk it."
"No, I'm not squire. I bet squires did the milkin'. Knights wu'n't of done the milkin'."
"I'll remember," said Ginger bitterly, "when you're squire, all the things wot you said a squire ought to do when I was squire."
They entered the field and gazed at the cow from a respectful distance. She turned her eyes upon them sadly.
"Go on!" said the knight to his reluctant squire.
"I'm not good at cows," objected that gentleman.
"Well, I will, then!" said William with reckless bravado, and advanced boldly upon the animal. The animal very slightly lowered its horns (perhaps in sign of greeting) and emitted a sonorous mo-o-o-o-o. Like lightning the gallant pair made for the road.
"Anyway," said William gloomily, "we'd got nothin' to put it in, so we'd only of got tossed for nothin', p'raps, if we'd gone on."
They walked on down the road till they came to a pair of iron gates and a drive that led up to a big house. William's spirits rose. His hunger was forgotten.
"Come on!" he said. "We might find someone to rescue here. It looks like a place where there might be someone to rescue."
There was no one in the garden to question the right of entry of two small boys armed with a bugle and a toy pistol. Unchallenged they went up to the house. While the knight was wondering whether to blow his bugle at the front door or by the open window, they caught sight suddenly of a vision inside the window. It was a girl as fair and slim and beautiful as any wandering knight could desire. And she was speaking fast and passionately.
William, ready for all contingencies, marshalled his forces.
"Follow me!" he whispered and crept on all fours nearer the window. They could see a man now, an elderly man with white hair and a white beard.
"And how long will you keep me in this vile prison?" she was saying in a voice that trembled with anger, "base wretch that you are!"
"Crumbs!" ejaculated William.
"Ha! Ha!" sneered the man. "I have you in my power. I will keep you here a prisoner till you sign the paper which will make me master of all your wealth, and beware, girl, if you do not sign, you may answer for it with your life!"
"Golly!" murmured William.
Then he crawled away into the bushes, followed by his attendant squire.
"Well," said William, his face purple with excitement, "we've found someone to rescue all right. He's a base wretch, wot she said, all right."
"Will you kill him?" said the awed squire.
"How big was he? Could you see?" said William the discreet.
"He was ever so big. Great big face he had, too, with a beard."
"Then I won't try killin' him—not straight off. I'll think of some plan—somethin' cunnin'."
He sat with his chin on his hands, gazing into space, till they were surprised by the opening of the front door and the appearance of a tall, thick-set, elderly man. William quivered with excitement. The man went along a path through the bushes. William and Ginger followed on all fours with elaborate caution. At every almost inaudible sound from Ginger, William turned his red, frowning face on to him with a resounding "Sh!" The path ended at a small shed with a locked door. The man opened the door—the key stood in the lock—and entered.
Promptly William, with a snarl expressive of cunning and triumph, hurled himself at the door and turned the key in the lock.
"Here!" came an angry shout from inside. "Who's that? What the devil——"
"You low ole caitiff!" said William through the keyhole.
"Who the deuce——?" exploded the voice.
"You base wretch, like wot she said you was," bawled William, his mouth still applied closely to the keyhole.
"Let me out at once, or I'll—"
"You mean ole oppressor!"
"Who the deuce are you? What's this tomfool trick? Let me out! Do you hear?"
A resounding kick shook the door.
"I've gotter pistol," said William sternly. "I'll shoot you dead if you kick the door down, you mangy ole beast!"
The sound of kicking ceased and a scrambling and scraping, accompanied by oaths, proceeded from the interior.
"I'll stay on guard," said William with the tense expression of the soldier at his post, "an' you go an' set her free. Go an' blow the bugle at the front door, then they'll know something's happened," he added simply.
* * * * *
Miss Priscilla Greene was pouring out tea in the drawing-room. Two young men and a maiden were the recipients of her hospitality.
"Dad will be here in a minute," she said. "He's just gone to the dark-room to see to some photos he'd left in toning or fixing, or something. We'll get on with the rehearsal as soon as he comes. We'd just rehearsed the scene he and I have together, so we're ready for the ones where we all come in."
"How did it go off?"
"Oh, quite well. We knew our parts, anyway."
"I think the village will enjoy it."
"Anyway, it's never very critical, is it? And it loves a melodrama."
"Yes. I wonder if father knows you're here. He said he'd come straight back. Perhaps I'd better go and find him."
"Oh, let me go, Miss Greene," said one of the youths ardently.
"Well, I don't know whether you'd find the place. It's a shed in the garden that he uses. We use half as a dark-room and half as a coal-cellar."
He stopped. A nightmare sound, as discordant as it was ear-splitting, filled the room. Miss Greene sank back into her chair, suddenly white. One of the young men let a cup of tea fall neatly from his fingers on to the floor and there crash into fragments. The young lady visitor emitted a scream that would have done credit to a factory siren. Then at the open French window appeared a small boy holding a bugle, purple-faced with the effort of his performance.
One of the young men was the first to recover speech. He stepped away from the broken crockery on the floor as if to disclaim all responsibility for it and said sternly:
"Did you make that horrible noise?"
Miss Greene began to laugh hysterically.
"Do have some tea now you've come," she said to Ginger.
Ginger remembered the pangs of hunger, of which excitement had momentarily rendered him oblivious, and, deciding that there was no time like the present, took a cake from the stand and began to consume it in silence.
"You'd better be careful," said the young lady to her hostess; "he might have escaped from the asylum. He looks mad. He had a very mad look, I thought, when he was standing at the window."
"He's evidently hungry, anyway. I can't think why father doesn't come."
Here Ginger, fortified by a walnut bun, remembered his mission.
"It's all right now," he said. "You can go home. He's shut up. Me an' William shut him up."
"You see!" said the young lady with a meaning glance around. "I said he was from the asylum. He looked mad. We'd better humour him and ring up the asylum. Have another cake, darling boy," she said in a tone of honeyed sweetness.
Nothing loth, Ginger selected an ornate pyramid of icing.
At this point there came a bellowing and crashing and tramping outside and Miss Priscilla's father, roaring fury and threats of vengeance, hurled himself into the room. Miss Priscilla's father had made his escape by a small window at the other end of the shed. To do this he had had to climb over the coals in the dark. His face and hands and clothes and once-white beard were covered with coal. His eyes gleamed whitely.
"An abominable attack ... utterly unprovoked ... dastardly ruffians!"
Here he stopped to splutter because his mouth was full of coal dust. While he was spluttering, William, who had just discovered that his bird had flown, appeared at the window.
"He's got out," he said reproachfully. "Look at him. He's got out. An' all our trouble for nothing. Why di'n't someone stop him gettin' out?"
* * * * *
William and Ginger sat on the railing that separated their houses.
"It's not really much fun bein' a knight," said William slowly.
"No," agreed Ginger. "You never know when folks is oppressed. An' anyway, wot's one afternoon away from school to make such a fuss about?"
"Seems to me from wot father said," went on William gloomily, "you'll have to wait a jolly long time for that drink of ginger-ale."
An expression of dejection came over Ginger's face.
"An' you wasn't even ever squire," he said. Then he brightened.
"They were jolly good cakes, wasn't they?" he said.
William's lips curved into a smile of blissful reminiscence.
"Jolly good!" he agreed.
Uncle George was William's godfather, and he was intensely interested in William's upbringing. It was an interest with which William would gladly have dispensed. Uncle George's annual visit was to William a purgatory only to be endured by a resolutely philosophic attitude of mind and the knowledge that sooner or later it must come to an end. Uncle George had an ideal of what a boy should be, and it was a continual grief to him that William fell so short of this ideal. But he never relinquished his efforts to make William conform to it.
His ideal was a gentle boy of exquisite courtesy and of intellectual pursuits. Such a boy he could have loved. It was hard that fate had endowed him with a godson like William. William was neither quiet nor gentle, nor courteous nor intellectual—but William was intensely human.
The length of Uncle George's visit this year was beginning to reach the limits of William's patience. He was beginning to feel that sooner or later something must happen. For five weeks now he had (reluctantly) accompanied Uncle George upon his morning walk, he had (generally unsuccessfully) tried to maintain that state of absolute quiet that Uncle George's afternoon rest required, he had in the evening listened wearily to Uncle George's stories of his youth. His usual feeling of mild contempt for Uncle George was beginning to give way to one which was much stronger.
"Now, William," said Uncle George at breakfast, "I'm afraid it's going to rain to-day, so we'll do a little work together this morning, shall we? Nothing like work, is there? Your Arithmetic's a bit shaky, isn't it? We'll rub that up. We love our work, don't we?"
William eyed him coldly.
"I don't think I'd better get muddlin' up my school work," he said. "I shouldn't like to be more on than the other boys next term. It wouldn't be fair to them."
Uncle George rubbed his hands.
"That feeling does you credit, my boy," he said, "but if we go over some of the old work, no harm can be done. History, now. There's nothing like History, is there?"
William agreed quite heartily that there wasn't.
"We'll do some History, then," said Uncle George briskly. "The lives of the great. Most inspiring. Better than those terrible things you used to waste your time on, eh?"
The "terrible things" had included a trumpet, a beloved motor hooter, and an ingenious instrument very dear to William's soul that reproduced most realistically the sound of two cats fighting. These, at Uncle George's request, had been confiscated by William's father. Uncle George had not considered them educational. They also disturbed his afternoon's rest.
Uncle George settled himself and William down for a nice quiet morning in the library. William, looking round for escape, found none. The outside world was wholly uninviting. The rain came down in torrents. Moreover, the five preceding weeks had broken William's spirits. He realised the impossibility of evading Uncle George. His own family were not sympathetic. They suffered from him considerably during the rest of the year and were not sorry to see him absorbed completely by Uncle George's conscientious zeal.
So Uncle George seated himself slowly and ponderously in an arm-chair by the fire.
"When I was a boy, William," he began, leaning back and joining the tips of his fingers together, "I loved my studies. I'm sure you love your studies, don't you? Which do you love most?"
"Me?" said William. "I like shootin' and playin' Red Injuns."
"Yes, yes," said Uncle George impatiently, "but those aren't studies, William. You must aim at being gentle."
"It's not much good bein' gentle when you're playin' Red Injuns," said William stoutly. "A gentle Red Injun wun't get much done."
"Ah, but why play Red Indians?" said Uncle George. "A nasty rough game. No, we'll talk about History. You must mould your character upon that of the great heroes, William. You must be a Clive, a Napoleon, a Wolfe."
"I've often been a wolf," said William. "That game's nearly as good as Red Injuns. An' Bears is a good game too. We might have Bears here," he went on brightening. "Jus' you an' me. Would you sooner be bear or hunter? I'd sooner be hunter," he hinted gently.
"You misunderstand," said Uncle George. "I mean Wolfe the man, Wolfe the hero."
William, who had little patience with heroes who came within the school curriculum, relapsed into gloom.
"What lessons do we learn from such names, my boy?" went on Uncle George.
William was on the floor behind Uncle George's chair endeavouring to turn a somersault in a very restricted space.
"History lessons an' dates an' things," he said shortly. "An' the things they 'spect you to remember——!" he added with disgust.
"No, no," said Uncle George, but the fire was hot and his chair was comfortable and his educational zeal was dying away, "to endure the buffets of fate with equanimity, to smile at misfortune, to endure whatever comes, and so on——"
He stopped suddenly.
William had managed the somersault, but it had somehow brought his feet into collision with Uncle George's neck. Uncle George sleepily shifted his position.
"Boisterous! Boisterous!" he murmured disapprovingly. "You should combine the gentleness of a Moore with the courage of a Wellington, William."
William now perceived that Uncle George's eyelids were drooping slowly and William's sudden statuesque calm would have surprised many of his instructors.
The silence and the warmth of the room had their effect. In less than three minutes Uncle George was dead to the world around him.
William's form relaxed, then he crept up to look closely at the face of his enemy. He decided that he disliked it intensely. Something must be done at once. He looked round the room. There were not many weapons handy. Only his mother's work-box stood on a chair by the window, and on it a pile of socks belonging to Robert, William's elder brother. Beneath either arm of his chair one of Uncle George's coat-tails protruded. William soon departed on his way rejoicing, while on to one of Uncle George's coat-tails was firmly stitched a bright blue sock and on to the other a brilliant orange one. Robert's taste in socks was decidedly loud. William felt almost happy. The rain had stopped and he spent the morning with some of his friends whom he met in the road. They went bear-hunting in the wood; and though no bears were found, still their disappointment was considerably allayed by the fact that one of them saw a mouse and another one distinctly smelt a rabbit. William returned to lunch whistling to himself and had the intense satisfaction of seeing Uncle George enter the dining-room, obviously roused from his slumbers by the luncheon bell, and obviously quite unaware of the blue and orange socks that still adorned his person.
"Curious!" he ejaculated, as Ethel, William's grown-up sister, pointed out the blue sock to him. "Most curious!"
William departed discreetly muttering something about "better tidy up a bit," which drew from his sister expressions of surprise and solicitous questions as to his state of health.
"Most curious!" again said Uncle George, who had now discovered the orange sock.
When William returned, all excitement was over and Uncle George was consuming roast beef with energy.
"Ah, William," he said, "we must complete the History lesson soon. Nothing like History. Nothing like History. Nothing like History. Teaches us to endure the buffets of fate with equanimity and to smile at misfortune. Then we must do some Geography." William groaned. "Most fascinating study. Rivers, mountains, cities, etc. Most improving. The morning should be devoted to intellectual work at your age, William, and the afternoon to the quiet pursuit of—some improving hobby. You would then find the true joy of life."
To judge from William's countenance he did not wholly agree, but he made no objection. He had learnt that objection was useless, and against Uncle George's eloquence silence was his only weapon.
After lunch Uncle George followed his usual custom and retired to rest. William went to the shed in the back garden and continued the erection of a rabbit hutch that he had begun a few days before. He hoped that if he made a hutch, Providence would supply a rabbit. He whistled blithely as he knocked nails in at random.
"William, you mustn't do that now."
He turned a stern gaze upon his mother.
"Why not?" he said.
"Uncle George is resting."
With a crushing glance at her he strolled away from the shed. Someone had left the lawn mower in the middle of the lawn. With one of his rare impulses of pure virtue he determined to be useful. Also, he rather liked mowing the grass.
"William, don't do that now," called his sister from the window. "Uncle George is resting."
He deliberately drove the mowing machine into the middle of a garden bed and left it there. He was beginning to feel desperate. Then:
"What can I do?" he said bitterly to Ethel, who was still at the window.
"You'd better find some quiet, improving hobby," she said unkindly as she went away.
It is a proof of the utterly broken state of William's spirit that he did actually begin to think of hobbies, but none of those that occurred to him interested him. Stamp-collecting, pressed flowers, crest-collecting—Ugh!
He set off down the road, his hands in his pockets and his brows drawn into a stern frown. He amused himself by imagining Uncle George in various predicaments, lost on a desert island, captured by pirates, or carried off by an eagle. Then something in the window of a house he passed caught his eye and he stopped suddenly. It was a stuffed bird under a glass case. Now that was something like a hobby, stuffing dead animals! He wouldn't mind having that for a hobby. And it was quite quiet. He could do it while Uncle George was resting. And it must be quite easy. The first thing to do of course was to find a dead animal. Any old thing would do to begin on. A dead cat or dog. He would do bigger ones like bears and lions later on. He spent nearly an hour in a fruitless search for a dead cat or dog. He searched the ditches on both sides of the road and several gardens. He began to have a distinct sense of grievance against the race of cats and dogs in general for not dying in his vicinity. At the end of the hour he found a small dead frog. It was very dry and shrivelled, but it was certainly a dead frog and would do to begin on. He took it home in his pocket. He wondered what they did first in stuffing dead animals. He'd heard something about "tannin'" them. But what was "tannin'," and how did one get it? Then he remembered suddenly having heard Ethel talk about the "tannin'" in tea. So that was all right. The first thing to do was to get some tea. He went to the drawing-room. It was empty, but upon the table near the fire was a tea-tray and two cups. Evidently his mother and sister had just had tea there. He put the frog at the bottom of a cup and carefully filled the cup with tea from the teapot. Then he left it to soak and went out into the garden.
A few minutes later William's mother entered the drawing-room.
Uncle George had finished resting and was standing by the mantel-piece with a cup in his hand.
"I see you poured out my tea for me," he said. "But rather a curious taste. Doubtless you boil the milk now. Safer, of course. Much safer. But it imparts a curious flavour."
He took another sip.
"But—I didn't pour out your tea——" began Mrs. Brown.
Here William entered. He looked quickly at the table.
"Who's meddlin' with my frog?" he said angrily. "It's my hobby, an' I'm stuffin' frogs an' someone's been an' took my frog. I left it on the table."
"On the table?" said his mother.
"Yes. In a cup of tea. Gettin' tannin.' You know. For stuffin'. I was puttin' him in tannin' first. I——"
Uncle George grew pale. In frozen silence he put a spoon into his cup and investigated the contents. In still more frozen silence Mrs. Brown and William watched. That moment held all the cumulative horror of a Greek tragedy. Then Uncle George put down his cup and went silently from the room. On his face was the expression of one who is going to look up the first train home. Fate had sent him a buffet he could not endure with equanimity, a misfortune at which he could not smile, and Fate had avenged William for much.
William was aware of a vague feeling of apprehension when he heard that Joan Clive, the little girl who lived next door, was having a strange cousin to stay for three weeks. All his life, William had accepted Joan's adoration and homage with condescending indifference, but he did not like to imagine a possible rival.
"What's he coming for?" he demanded with an ungracious scowl, perched uncomfortably and dangerously on the high wall that separated the two gardens and glaring down at Joan. "What's he comin' for, any way?"
"'Cause mother's invited him," explained Joan simply, with a shake of her golden curls. "He's called Cuthbert. She says he's a sweet little boy."
"Sweet!" echoed William in a tone of exaggerated horror. "Ugh!"
"Well," said Joan, with the smallest note of indignation in her voice, "you needn't play with him if you don't like."
"Me? Play? With him?" scowled William as if he could not believe his ears. "I'm not likely to go playin' with a kid like wot he'll be!"
Joan raised aggrieved blue eyes.
"You're a horrid boy sometimes, William!" she said. "Any way, I shall have him to play with soon."
It was the first time he had received anything but admiration from her.
He scowled speechlessly.
Cuthbert arrived the next morning.
William was restless and ill-at-ease, and several times climbed the ladder for a glimpse of the guest, but all he could see was the garden inhabited only by a cat and a gardener. He amused himself by throwing stones at the cat till he hit the gardener by mistake and then fled precipitately before a storm of abuse. William and the gardener were enemies of very long standing. After dinner he went out again into the garden and stood gazing through a chink in the wall.
Cuthbert was in the garden.
Though as old and as tall as William, he was dressed in an embroidered tunic, very short knickers, and white socks. Over his blue eyes his curls were brushed up into a golden halo.
He was a picturesque child.
"What shall we do?" Joan was saying. "Would you like to play hide and seek?"
"No; leth not play at rough gameth," said Cuthbert.
With a wild spasm of joy William realised that his enemy lisped. It is always well to have a handle against one's enemies.
"What shall we do, then?" said Joan, somewhat wearily.
"Leth thit down an' I'll tell you fairy thorieth," said Cuthbert.
A loud snort from inside the wall just by his ear startled him, and he clutched Joan's arm.
"What'th that?" he said.
There were sounds of clambering feet on the other side of the wall, then William's grimy countenance appeared.
"Hello, Joan!" he said, ignoring the stranger.
Joan's eyes brightened.
"Come and play with us, William," she begged.
"We don't want dirty little boyth," murmured Cuthbert fastidiously. William could not, with justice, have objected to the epithet. He had spent the last half-hour climbing on to the rafters of the disused coach-house, and dust and cobwebs adorned his face and hair.
"He's always like that," explained Joan, carelessly.
By this time William had thought of a suitable rejoinder.
"All right," he jeered, "don't look at me then. Go on tellin' fairy thorieth."
Cuthbert flushed angrily.
"You're a nathty rude little boy," he said. "I'll tell my mother."
Thus war was declared.
He came to tea the next day. Not all William's pleading could persuade his mother to cancel the invitation.
"Well," said William darkly, "wait till you've seen him, that's all. Wait till you've heard him speakin'. He can't talk even. He can't play. He tells fairy stories. He don't like dirt. He's got long hair an' a funny long coat. He's awful, I tell you. I don't want to have him to tea. I don't want to be washed an' all just because he's comin' to tea."
But as usual William's eloquence availed nothing.
Several people came to tea that afternoon, and there was a sudden silence when Mrs. Clive, Joan, and Cuthbert entered. Cuthbert was in a white silk tunic embroidered with blue, he wore white shoes and white silk socks. His golden curls shone. He looked angelic.
"Oh, the darling!"
"Isn't he adorable?"
"What a picture!"
"Come here, sweetheart."
Cuthbert was quite used to this sort of thing.
They were more delighted than ever with him when they discovered his lisp.
His manners were perfect. He raised his face, with a charming smile, to be kissed, then sat down on the sofa between Joan and Mrs. Clive, swinging long bare legs.
William, sitting, an unwilling victim, on a small chair in a corner of the room, brushed and washed till he shone again, was conscious of a feeling of fury quite apart from the usual sense of outrage that he always felt upon such an occasion. It was bad enough to be washed till the soap went into his eyes and down his ears despite all his protests. It was bad enough to have had his hair brushed till his head smarted. It was bad enough to be hustled out of his comfortable jersey into his Eton suit which he loathed. But to see Joan, his Joan, sitting next the strange, dressed-up, lisping boy, smiling and talking to him, that was almost more than he could bear with calmness. Previously, as has been said, he had received Joan's adoration with coldness, but previously there had been no rival.