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British author Arnold Bennett was well acquainted with the ups and downs of literary acclaim. In the witty romp A Great Man, he brings his personal experiences to bear in telling the tale of Henry Knight, a shy, eccentric author who begins to make a name for himself on the literary scene and has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality.
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A Great Man
On an evening in 1866 (exactly eight hundred years after the Battle of Hastings) Mr. Henry Knight, a draper's manager, aged forty, dark, clean-shaven, short, but not stout, sat in his sitting-room on the second-floor over the shop which he managed in Oxford Street, London. He was proud of that sitting-room, which represented the achievement of an ideal, and he had a right to be proud of it. The rich green wall-paper covered with peonies in full bloom (poisoning by arsenical wall-paper had not yet been invented, or Mr. Knight's peonies would certainly have had to flourish over a different hue) matched the magenta table-cloth of the table at which Mr. Knight was writing, and the magenta table-cloth matched the yellow roses which grew to more than exhibition size on the Axminster carpet; and the fine elaborate effect thus produced was in no way impaired, but rather enhanced and invigorated, by the mahogany bookcase full of imperishable printed matter, the horsehair sofa netted in a system of antimacassars, the waxen flowers in their glassy domes on the marble mantelpiece, the Canterbury with its spiral columns, the rosewood harmonium, and the posse of chintz-protected chairs. Mr. Knight, who was a sincere and upright man, saw beauty in this apartment. It uplifted his soul, like soft music in the gloaming, or a woman's face.
Mr. Knight was writing in a large book. He paused in the act of composition, and, putting the pen between his teeth, glanced through the pages of the volume. They were filled with the drafts of letters which he had addressed during the previous seven years to the editors of various newspapers, including the Times, and several other organs great then but now extinct. In a space underneath each letter had been neatly gummed the printed copy, but here and there a letter lacked this certificate of success, for Mr. Knight did not always contrive to reach his public. The letters were signed with pseudonyms, such as A British Citizen, Fiat Justitia, Audi Alteram Partem, Indignant, Disgusted, One Who Knows, One Who Would Like to Know, Ratepayer, Taxpayer, Puzzled, and Pro Bono Publico--especially Pro Bono Publico. Two letters, to a trade periodical, were signed A Draper's Manager of Ten Years' Standing, and one, to the Clerkenwell News, bore his own real name.
The letter upon which he was now engaged was numbered seventy-five in the series, and made its appeal to the editor of the Standard. Having found inspiration, Mr. Knight proceeded, in a hand distinguished by many fine flourishes:
' ... It is true that last year we only paid off some four millions, but the year before we paid, I am thankful to say, more than nine millions. Why, then, this outcry against the allocation of somewhat less than nine millions out of our vast national revenue towards the further extinction of the National Debt? It is not the duty of the State, as well as of the individual, to pay its debts? In order to support the argument with which I began this communication, perhaps you will permit me, sir, to briefly outline the history of the National Debt, our national shame. In 1688 the National Debt was little more than six hundred thousand pounds....'
After briefly outlining the history of the National Debt, Mr. Knight began a new paragraph thus:
'In the immortal words of Shakspere, wh----'
But at this point he was interrupted. A young and pleasant woman in a white apron pushed open the door.
'Henry,' she called from the doorway.
'You'd better go now.'
'Very well, Annie; I'll go instantly.'
He dropped the pen, reduced the gas to a speck of blue, and in half a minute was hurrying along Oxford Street. The hour was ten o'clock, and the month was July; the evening favoured romance. He turned into Bury Street, and knocked like fate at a front-door with a brass tablet on it, No. 8 of the street.
'No, sir. He isn't in at the moment, sir,' said the maid who answered Mr. Knight's imperious summons.
'Not in!' exclaimed Mr. Knight.
'No, sir. He was called away half an hour ago or hardly, and may be out till very late.'
'Called away!' exclaimed Mr. Knight. He was astounded, shocked, pained. 'But I warned him three months ago!'
'Did you, sir? Is it anything very urgent, sir?'
'It's----' Mr. Knight hesitated, blushing. The girl looked so young and innocent.
'Because if it is, master left word that anyone was to go to Dr. Christopher's, 22, Argyll Street.'
'You will be sure to tell your master that I came,' said Mr. Knight frigidly, departing.
At 22, Argyll Street he was informed that Dr. Christopher had likewise been called away, and had left a recommendation that urgent cases, if any, should apply to Dr. Quain Short, 15, Bury Street. His anger was naturally increased by the absence of this second doctor, but it was far more increased by the fact that Dr. Quain Short happened to live in Bury Street. At that moment the enigma of the universe was wrapped up for him in the question, Why should he have been compelled to walk all the way from Bury Street to Argyll Street merely in order to walk all the way back again? And he became a trinity consisting of Disgusted, Indignant, and One Who Would Like to Know, the middle term predominating. When he discovered that No. 15, Bury Street, was exactly opposite No. 8, Bury Street, his feelings were such as break bell-wires.
'Dr. Quain Short is at the Alhambra Theatre this evening with the family,' a middle-aged and formidable housekeeper announced in reply to Mr. Knight's query. 'In case of urgency he is to be fetched. His box is No. 3.'
'The Alhambra Theatre! Where is that?' gasped Mr. Knight.
It should be explained that he held the stage in abhorrence, and, further, that the Alhambra had then only been opened for a very brief period.
'Two out, and the third at the theatre!' Mr. Knight mused grimly, hastening through Seven Dials. 'At the theatre, of all places!'
A letter to the Times about the medical profession was just shaping itself in his mind as he arrived at the Alhambra and saw that a piece entitled King Carrot filled the bill.
'King Karrot!' he muttered scornfully, emphasizing the dangerously explosive consonants in a manner which expressed with complete adequacy, not only his indignation against the entire medical profession, but his utter and profound contempt for the fatuities of the modern stage.
The politeness of the officials and the prompt appearance of Dr. Quain Short did something to mollify the draper's manager of ten years' standing, though he was not pleased when the doctor insisted on going first to his surgery for certain requisites. It was half-past eleven when he returned home; Dr. Quain Short was supposed to be hard behind.
'How long you've been!' said a voice on the second flight of stairs, 'It's all over. A boy. And dear Susan is doing splendidly. Mrs. Puddiphatt says she never saw such a----'
From the attic floor came the sound of a child crying shrilly and lustily:
'Aunt Annie! Aunt Annie! Aunt Annie!'
'Run up and quieten him!' Mr. Knight commanded. 'It's like him to begin making a noise just now. I'll take a look at Susan--and my firstborn.'
In the attic a child of seven years was sitting up in a cot placed by the side of his dear Aunt Annie's bed. He had an extremely intelligent, inquisitorial, and agnostical face, and a fair, curled head of hair, which he scratched with one hand as Aunt Annie entered the room and held the candle on high in order to survey him.
'Well?' inquired Aunt Annie firmly.
'Well?' said Tom Knight, determined not to commit himself, and waiting wanly for a chance, like a duellist.
'What's all this noise for? I told you I specially wanted you to go to sleep at once to-night.'
'Yes,' said Tom, staring at the counterpane and picking imaginary bits off it. 'And you might have known I shouldn't go to sleep after that!'
'And here it's nearly midnight!' Aunt Annie proceeded. 'What do you want?'
'You--you've left the comb in my hair,' said Tom. He nearly cried.
Every night Aunt Annie curled Tom's hair.
'Is it such a tiny boy that it couldn't take it out itself?' Aunt Annie said kindly, going to the cot and extracting the comb. 'Now try to sleep.' She kissed him.
'And I've heard burglars,' Tom continued, without moving.
'Oh no, you've not,' Aunt Annie pronounced sharply. 'You can't hear burglars every night, you know.'
'I heard running about, and doors shutting and things.'
'That was Uncle Henry and me. Will you promise to be a good boy if I tell you a secret?'
'I shan't promise,' Tom replied. 'But if it's a good secret I'll try--hard.'
'Well, you've got a cousin, a little boy, ever so little! There! What do you think of that?'
'I knew someone had got into the house!' was Tom's dispassionate remark. 'What's his name?'
'He hasn't any name yet, but he will have soon.'
'Did he come up the stairs?' Tom asked.
Aunt Annie laughed. 'No,' she said.
'Then, he must have come through the window or down the chimney; and he wouldn't come down the chimney 'cause of the soot. So he came through the window. Whose little boy is he? Yours?'
'No. Aunt Susan's.'
'I suppose she knows he's come?'
'Oh yes. She knows. And she's very glad. Now go to sleep. And I'll tell Aunt Susan you'll be a good boy.'
'You'd better not,' Tom warned her. 'I don't feel sure. And I say, auntie, will there come any more little boys to-night?'
'I don't think so, dear.' Aunt Annie smiled. She was half way through the door, and spoke into the passage.
'But are you sure?' Tom persisted.
'Yes, I'm sure. Go to sleep.'
'Doesn't Aunt Susan want another one?'
'No, she doesn't. Go to sleep, I say.'
''Cause, when I came, another little boy came just afterwards, and he died, that little boy did. And mamma, too. Father told me.'
'Yes, yes,' said Aunt Annie, closing the door. 'Bee-by.'
'I didn't promise,' Tom murmured to his conscience. 'But it's a good secret,' he added brazenly. He climbed over the edge of the cot, and let himself down gently till his feet touched the floor. He found his clothes, which Aunt Annie invariably placed on a chair in a certain changeless order, and he put some of them on, somehow. Then he softly opened the door and crept down the stairs to the second-floor. He was an adventurous and incalculable child, and he desired to see the baby.
Persons who called on Mr. Henry Knight in his private capacity rang at the side-door to the right of the shop, and were instructed by the shop-caretaker to mount two flights of stairs, having mounted which they would perceive in front of them a door, where they were to ring again. This door was usually closed, but to-night Tom found it ajar. He peeped out and downwards, and thought of the vast showroom below and the wonderful regions of the street. Then he drew in his head, and concealed himself behind the plush portière. From his hiding-place he could watch the door of Uncle Henry's and Aunt Susan's bedroom, and he could also, whenever he felt inclined, glance down the stairway.
He waited, with the patience and the fatalism of infancy, for something to happen.
After an interval of time not mathematically to be computed, Tom heard a step on the stairs, and looked forth. A tall gentleman wearing a high hat and carrying a black bag was ascending. In a flash Tom recollected a talk with his dead father, in which that glorious and gay parent had explained to him that he, Tom, had been brought to his mother's room by the doctor in a black bag.
Tom pulled open the door at the head of the stairs, went outside, and drew the door to behind him.
'Are you the doctor?' he demanded, staring intently at the bag to see whether anything wriggled within.
'Yes, my man,' said the doctor. It was Quain Short, wrenched from the Alhambra.
'Well, they don't want another one. They've got one,' Tom asserted, still observing the bag.
'Yes. Aunt Annie said particularly that they didn't want another one.'
'Who is it that has come? Do you know his name? Christopher--is that it?'
'I don't know his name. But he's come, and he's in the bedroom now, with Aunt Susan.'
'How annoying!' said Dr. Quain Short under his breath, and he went.
Tom re-entered, and took up his old position behind the portière.
Presently he heard another step on the stair, and issued out again to reconnoitre. And, lo! another tall gentleman wearing another high hat and carrying another black bag was ascending.
'This makes three,' Tom said.
'What's that, my little man?' asked the gentleman, smiling. It was Dr. Christopher.
'This makes three. And they only want one. The first one came ever such a long time ago. And I can tell you Aunt Susan was very glad when he did come.'
'Dear, dear!' exclaimed Dr. Christopher. 'Then I'm too late, my little man. I was afraid I might be. Everything all right, eh?'
Tom nodded, and Dr. Christopher departed.
And then, after a further pause, up came another tall gentleman, high hat, and black bag.
'This is four,' said Tom.
'What's that, Tommy?' asked Mr. Henry Knight's regular physician and surgeon. 'What are you doing there?'
'One came hours since,' Tom said. 'And they don't want any more.' Then he gazed at the bag, which was larger and glossier than its predecessors. 'Have you brought a very nice one?' he inquired. 'They don't really want another, but perhaps if it's very----'
It was this momentary uncertainty on Tom's part that possibly saved my hero's life. For the parents were quite inexperienced, and Mrs. Puddiphatt was an accoucheuse of the sixties, and the newborn child was near to dying in the bedroom without anybody being aware of the fact.
'A very nice what?' the doctor questioned gruffly.
'Baby. In that bag,' Tom stammered.
'Out of the way, my bold buccaneer,' said the doctor, striding across the mat into the corridor.
At two o'clock the next morning, Tom being asleep, and all going well with wife and child, Mr. Henry Knight returned at length to his sitting-room, and resumed the composition of the letter to the editor of the Standard. The work existed as an artistic whole in his head, and he could not persuade himself to seek rest until he had got it down in black-and-white; for, though he wrote letters instead of sonnets, he was nevertheless a sort of a poet by temperament. You behold him calm now, master once more of his emotions, and not that agitated, pompous, and slightly ridiculous person who lately stamped over Oxford Street and stormed the Alhambra Theatre. And in order to help the excellent father of my hero back into your esteem, let me point out that the imminence and the actuality of fatherhood constitute a somewhat disturbing experience, which does not occur to a man every day.
Mr. Knight dipped pen in ink, and continued:
' ... who I hold to be not only the greatest poet, but also the greatest moral teacher that England has ever produced,
'"To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."
'In conclusion, sir, I ask, without fear of contradiction, are we or are we not, in this matter of the National Debt, to be true to our national selves? 'Yours obediently, 'A CONSCIENTIOUS TAXPAYER.'
The signature troubled him. His pen hovered threateningly over it, and finally he struck it out and wrote instead: 'Paterfamilias.' He felt that this pseudonym was perhaps a little inapposite, but some impulse stronger than himself forced him to employ it.
'But haven't I told you that I was just writing the very name when Annie came in to warn me?'
Mr. Knight addressed the question, kindly and mildly, yet with a hint of annoyance, to his young wife, who was nursing their son with all the experience of three months' practice. It was Sunday morning, and they had finished breakfast in the sitting-room. Within an hour or two the heir was to be taken to the Great Queen Street Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the solemn rite of baptism.
'Yes, lovey,' said Mrs. Knight. 'You've told me, time and again. But, oh Henry! Your name's just Henry Knight, and I want his to be just Henry Knight, too! I want him to be called after you.'
And the mother, buxom, simple, and adoring, glanced appealingly with bright eyes at the man who for her epitomized the majesty and perfections of his sex.
'He will be Henry Knight,' the father persisted, rather coldly.
But Mrs. Knight shook her head.
Then Aunt Annie came into the room, pushing Tom before her. Tom was magnificently uncomfortable in his best clothes.
'What's the matter, Sue?' Aunt Annie demanded, as soon as she had noticed her sister's face.
And in a moment, in the fraction of a second, and solely by reason of Aunt Annie's question, the situation became serious. It jumped up, as domestic situations sometimes do, suddenly to the temperature at which thunderstorms are probable. It grew close, heavy, and perilous.
Mrs. Knight shook her head again. 'Nothing,' she managed to reply.
'Susan wants----' Mr. Knight began suavely to explain.
'He keeps on saying he would like him to be called----' Mrs. Knight burst out.
'No I don't--no I don't!' Mr. Knight interrupted. 'Not if you don't wish it!'
A silence followed. Mr. Knight drummed lightly and nervously on the table-cloth. Mrs. Knight sniffed, threw back her head so that the tears should not fall out of her eyes, and gently patted the baby's back with her right hand. Aunt Annie hesitated whether to speak or not to speak.
Tom remarked in a loud voice:
'If I were you, I should call him Tom, like me. Then, as soon as he can talk, I could say, "How do, Cousin Tom?" and he could say back, "How do, Cousin Tom?"'
'But we should always be getting mixed up between you, you silly boy!' said Aunt Annie, smiling, and trying to be bright and sunny.
'No, you wouldn't,' Tom replied. 'Because I should be Big Tom, and of course he'd only be Little Tom. And I don't think I'm a silly boy, either.'
'Will you be silent, sir!' Mr. Knight ordered in a voice of wrath. And, by way of indicating that the cord of tension had at last snapped, he boxed Tom's left ear, which happened to be the nearest.
Mrs. Knight lost control of her tears, and they escaped. She offered the baby to Aunt Annie.
'Take him. He's asleep. Put him in the cradle,' she sobbed.
'Yes, dear,' said Aunt Annie intimately, in a tone to show how well she knew that poor women must always cling together in seasons of stress and times of oppression.
Mrs. Knight hurried out of the room. Mr. Knight cherished an injury. He felt aggrieved because Susan could not see that, though six months ago she had been entitled to her whims and fancies, she was so no longer. He felt, in fact, that Susan was taking an unfair advantage of him. The logic of the thing was spread out plainly and irrefutably in his mind. And then, quite swiftly, the logic of the thing vanished, and Mr. Knight rose and hastened after his wife.
'You deserved it, you know,' said Aunt Annie to Tom.
'Did I?' The child seemed to speculate.
They both stared at the baby, who lay peacefully in his cradle, for several minutes.
'Annie, come here a moment.' Mr. Knight was calling from another room.
'Yes, Henry. Now, Tom, don't touch the cradle. And if baby begins to cry, run and tell me.'
And Aunt Annie went. She neglected to close the door behind her; Tom closed it, noiselessly.
Never before had he been left alone with the baby. He examined with minute care such parts of the living organism as were visible, and then, after courageously fighting temptation, and suffering defeat, he touched the baby's broad, flat nose. He scarcely touched it, yet the baby stirred and mewed faintly. Tom began to rock the cradle, at first gently, then with nervous violence. The faint mew became a regular and sustained cry.
He glanced at the door, and decided that he would make a further effort to lull the ridiculous agitation of this strange and mysterious being. Bending down, he seized the baby in both hands, and tried to nurse it as his two aunts nursed it. The infant's weight was considerable; it exceeded Tom's estimate, with the result that, in the desperate process of extracting the baby from the cradle, the cradle had been overset, and now lay on its beam-ends.
'Hsh--hsh!' Tom entreated, shooing and balancing as best he could.
Then, without warning, Tom's spirit leapt into anger.
'Will you be silent, sir!' he demanded fiercely from the baby, imitating Uncle Henry's tone. 'Will you be silent, sir!' He shook the infant, who was astounded into a momentary silence.
The next thing was the sound of footsteps approaching rapidly along the passage. Tom had no leisure to right the cradle; he merely dropped the baby on the floor by the side of it, and sprang to the window.
'You naughty, naughty boy!' Aunt Annie shrieked. 'You've taken baby out of his cradle! Oh, my pet! my poor darling! my mumsy! Did they, then?'
'I didn't! I didn't!' Tom asserted passionately. 'I've never stirred from here all the time you were out. It fell out itself!'
'Oh!' screamed Aunt Annie. 'There's a black place on his poor little forehead!'
In an instant the baby's parents were to the rescue, and Tom was declaring his innocence to the united family.
'It fell out itself!' he repeated; and soon he began to think of interesting details. 'I saw it. It put its hand on the edge of the cradle and pulled up, and then it leaned to one side, and then the cradle toppled over.'
Of course the preposterous lie was credited by nobody.
'There's one thing!' said Mrs. Knight, weeping for the second time that morning. 'I won't have him christened with a black forehead, that I won't!'
At this point, Aunt Annie, who had scurried to the kitchen for some butter, flew back and anointed the bruise.
'It fell out itself!' Tom said again.
'Whatever would the minister think?' Mrs. Knight wondered.
'It fell out itself!' said Tom.
Mr. Knight whipped Tom, and his Aunt Annie put him to bed for the rest of the day. In the settled opinion of Mrs. Knight, Tom was punished for attempting to murder her baby. But Mr. Knight insisted that the punishment was for lying. As for the baptism, it had necessarily to be postponed for four weeks, since the ceremony was performed at the Great Queen Street Chapel only on the first Sunday in the month.
'I never touched it!' Tom asseverated solemnly the next day. 'It fell out itself!'
And he clung to the statement, day after day, with such obstinacy that at length the three adults, despite the protests of reason, began to think that conceivably, just conceivably, the impossible was possible--in regard to one particular baby. Mrs. Knight had often commented on the perfectly marvellous muscular power of her baby's hand when it clutched hers, and signs were not wanting to convince the parents and the aunt that the infant was no ordinary infant, but indeed extraordinary and wonderful to the last degree.
On the fourth day, when Tom had asserted for about the hundredth time, 'It fell out itself,' his Aunt Susan kissed him and gave him a sweetmeat. Tom threw it away, but in the end, after much coaxing, he consented to enjoy it. Aunt Susan detected the finger of Providence in recent events, and one night she whispered to her husband: 'Lovey, I want you to call him what you said.'
And so it occurred, at the christening, that when the minister leaned over the Communion-rail to take the wonder-child from its mother's arms, its father whispered into the minister's ear a double name.
'Henry Shakspere----' began the minister with lifted hand.
And the baby smiled confidently upwards.
'Quick! He's coming!'
It was Aunt Annie who uttered the dramatic whisper, and as she did so she popped a penknife on to an empty plate in front of an empty chair at the breakfast-table. Mr. Knight placed a silver watch and also, separately, a silver chain by the side of the weapon; and, lastly, Mrs. Knight had the happy inspiration of covering these articles with the empty slop-basin.
The plotters sat back in their chairs and tried to keep their guilty eyes off the overturned basin. 'Two slices, Annie?' said Mr. Knight in a loud tone, elaborately casual. 'Yes, please,' said Aunt Annie. Mrs. Knight began to pour out coffee. They all three looked at each other, joyous, naughty, strategic; and the thing of which they were least conscious, in that moment of expectancy, was precisely the thing that the lustrous trifles hidden beneath the basin were meant to signalize: namely, the passage of years and the approach of age. Mr. Knight's hair was grey; Mrs. Knight, once a slim bride of twenty-seven, was now a stout matron of thirty-nine, with a tendency to pant after the most modest feats of stair-climbing; and Aunt Annie, only the other day a pretty girl with a head full of what is wrongly called nonsense, was a spinster--a spinster. Fortunately, they were blind to these obvious facts. Even Mr. Knight, accustomed as he was to survey fundamental truths with the detachment of a philosopher, would have been shocked to learn that his hair was grey. Before the glass, of a morning, he sometimes remarked, in the tone of a man whose passion for candour permits him to conceal nothing: 'It's getting grey.'
Then young Henry burst into the room.
It was exactly twelve years since he had been born, a tiny, shapeless, senseless, helpless, toothless, speechless, useless, feeble, deaf, myopic creature; and now he was a school-boy, strong, healthy, big, and clever, who could define a dodecahedron and rattle off the rivers of Europe like a house on fire. The change amounted to a miracle, and it was esteemed as such by those who had spent twelve years chiefly in watching it. One evening, in the very earliest stages, while his mother was nursing him, his father had come into the darkened chamber, and, after bending over the infant, had struck a match to ignite a cigar; and the eyes of the infant had blinked in the sudden light. 'See how he takes notice! the mother had cried in ecstatic wonderment. And from that moment she, and the other two, had never ceased to marvel, and to fear. It seemed impossible that this extraordinary fragment of humanity, which at first could not be safely ignored for a single instant night or day, should survive the multitudinous perils that surrounded it. But it did survive, and it became an intelligence. At eighteen months the intelligence could walk, sit up, and say 'Mum.' These performances were astounding. And the fact that fifty thousand other babies of eighteen months in London were similarly walking, sitting up, and saying 'Mum,' did not render these performances any the less astounding. And when, half a year later, the child could point to a letter and identify it plainly and unmistakably--'O'--the parents' cup was full. The mother admitted frankly that she had not expected this final proof of understanding. Aunt Annie and father pretended not to be surprised, but it was a pretence merely. Why, it seemed scarcely a month since the miraculous child had not even sense enough to take milk out of a spoon! And here he was identifying 'O' every time he tried, with the absolute assurance of a philologist! True, he had once or twice shrieked 'O' while putting a finger on 'Q,' but that was the fault of the printers, who had printed the tail too small.
After that the miracles had followed one another so rapidly, each more amazing than the last, that the watchers had unaffectedly abandoned themselves to an attitude of permanent delighted astonishment. They lived in a world of magic. And their entire existence was based on the tacit assumption--tacit because the truth of it was so manifest--that their boy was the most prodigious boy that ever was. He went into knickerbockers. He learnt hymns. He went to school--and came back alive at the end of the first day and said he had enjoyed it! Certainly, other boys went to school. Yes, but there was something special, something indefinable, something incredible, about Henry's going to school that separated his case from all the other cases, and made it precious in its wonder. And he began to study arithmetic, geometry, geography, history, chemistry, drawing, Latin, French, mensuration, composition, physics, Scripture, and fencing. His singular brain could grapple simultaneously with these multifarious subjects. And all the time he was growing, growing, growing. More than anything else it was his growth that stupefied and confounded and enchanted his mother. His limbs were enormous to her, and the breadth of his shoulders and the altitude of his head. It puzzled her to imagine where the flesh came from. Already he was as tail as she, and up to Aunt Annie's lips, and up to his father's shoulder. She simply adored his colossal bigness. But somehow the fact that a giant was attending the Bloomsbury Middle School never leaked out.
'What's this?' Henry demanded, mystified, as he sat down to breakfast. There was a silence.
'What's what?' said his father gruffly. 'Get your breakfast.'
'Oh my!' Henry had lifted the basin.
'Had you forgotten it was your birthday?' Mrs. Knight asked, beaming.
'Well, I'm blest!' He had in truth forgotten that it was his birthday.
'You've been so wrapped up in this Speech Day business, haven't you?' said Aunt Annie, as if wishful to excuse him to himself for the extraordinary lapse.
They all luxuriated in his surprise, his exclamations, his blushes of delight, as he fingered the presents. For several days, as Henry had made no reference to his approaching anniversary, they had guessed that he had overlooked it in the exciting preparations for Speech Day, and they had been anticipating this moment with the dreadful joy of conspirators. And now they were content. No hitch, no anticlimax had occurred.
'I know,' said Henry. 'The watch is from father, and you've given me the chain, mother, and the knife is from Aunt Annie. Is there a thing in it for pulling stones out of horses' hoofs, auntie?' (Happily, there was.)
'You must make a good breakfast, dear; you've got a big day before you,' enjoined his mother, when he had thanked them politely, and assumed the watch and chain, and opened all the blades and other pleasant devices of the penknife.
'Yes, mother,' he answered obediently.
He always obeyed injunctions to eat well. But it would be unfair to Henry not to add that he was really a most obedient boy--in short, a good boy, a nice boy. The strangest thing of all in Henry's case was that, despite their united and unceasing efforts, his three relatives had quite failed to spoil him. He was too self-possessed for his years, too prone to add the fanciful charm of his ideas to no matter what conversation might be proceeding in his presence; but spoiled he was not.
The Speech Day which had just dawned marked a memorable point in his career. According to his mother's private notion, it would be a demonstration, and a triumphant demonstration, that, though the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding small. For until that term, of which the Speech Day was the glittering conclusion, the surpassing merits and talents of her son had escaped recognition at the Bloomsbury Middle School. He had never reached the top of a form; he had never received a prize; he had never earned pedagogic praise more generous than 'Conduct fair--progress fair.' But now, out of the whole school, he had won the prize for Good Conduct. And, as if this was not sufficiently dazzling, he had also taken to himself, for an essay on 'Streets,' the prize for English Composition. And, thirdly, he had been chosen to recite a Shaksperean piece at the ceremony of prize-giving. It was the success in Composition which tickled his father's pride, for was not this a proof of heredity? Aunt Annie flattered herself on the Good Conduct prize. Mrs. Knight exulted in everything, but principally in the prospective sight of her son at large on the platform delivering Shakspere to a hushed, attentive audience of other boys' parents. It was to be the apotheosis of Henry, was that night!
'Will you hear me, father?' Henry requested meekly, when he had finished the first preparations for his big day, and looked at the time, and cut a piece of skin from the palm of his hand, to the horror of his mother and aunt. 'Will you hear me, father?'
(No! I assure you he was not a detestable little prig. He had been brought up like that.)
And Mr. Knight took Staunton's Shakspere from the bookcase and opened it at Othello, Act I., scene iii., and Henry arose and began to explain to the signiors of Venice in what manner Desdemona had fallen in love with him and he with Desdemona; how he told Desdemona that even from his boyish days he had experienced moving accidents by flood and field, and had been sold into slavery, and all about the cannibals and the--but he came to utter grief at the word Anthropophagi.'
'An-thro-poph-a-gi,' said his father.
'It's a very difficult word, I'm sure,' said his mother.
Difficult or not, Henry mastered it, and went on to the distressful strokes his youth had suffered, and then to Desdemona's coy hint:
'Upon this hint I spoke--spake, I mean; She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have used. Here comes the lady; let her witness it.'
'Have a bit of toast, my pet,' Mrs. Knight suggested.
The door opened at the same moment.
'Enter Desdemona,' said a voice. 'Now do go light on the buttered toast, Othello. You know you'll be ill.'
It was Cousin Tom. He was always very late for breakfast.
And Tom was always being inconvenient, always producing intellectual discomfort. On this occasion there can be no doubt that if Tom had not come in just then Henry would have accepted and eaten the buttered toast, and would have enjoyed it; and his father, mother, and aunt would have enjoyed the spectacle of his bliss; and all four of them would have successfully pretended to their gullible consciences that an indiscretion had not been committed. Here it must be said that the Achilles' heel of Henry Shakspere Knight lay in his stomach. Despite his rosy cheeks and pervading robustness, despite the fact that his infancy had been almost immune from the common ailments--even measles--he certainly suffered from a form of chronic dyspepsia. Authorities differed upon the cause of the ailment. Some, such as Tom, diagnosed the case in a single word. Mr. Knight, less abrupt, ascribed the evil to Mrs. Knight's natural but too solicitous endeavours towards keeping up the strength of her crescent son. Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie regarded it as a misfortune simply, inexplicable, unjust, and cruel. But even Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie had perceived that there was at least an apparent connection between hot buttered toast and the recurrence of the malady. Hence, though the two women would not admit that this connection was more than a series of unfortunate coincidences, Henry had been advised to deprive himself of hot buttered toast. And here came Tom, with his characteristic inconvenience, to catch them in the very midst of their folly, and to make even Mr. Knight, that mask of stern rectitude, a guilty accessory before the fact.
'It's only this once!' Mrs. Knight protested.
'You're quite right,'said Tom. 'It's only this once.'
Henry took the piece of toast, and then, summoning for one supreme effort all the spiritual courage which he had doubtless inherited from a long line of Puritan ancestors, he nobly relinquished it.
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