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Coningsby Dawson was an Anglo-American novelist and soldier, Canadian Field Artillery, born at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England. Slaves of Freedom in only one of his works to attain public acclaim.
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Edition 2017 by David De Angelis - all rights reserved
BOOK I—LIFE TILL TWENTY-ONE
CHAPTER I—MRS. SHEERUG’S GARDEN
CHAPTER II—THE FAERY-GODMOTHER
CHAPTER IV—THE ROUSING OF THE GIANT
CHAPTER V—THE GHOST BIRD OF ROMANCE
CHAPTER VI—A STRATEGY THAT FAILED
CHAPTER VII—“PASHUN” IN THE KITCHEN
CHAPTER VIII—THE EXPENSE OF LOVING
CHAPTER IX—THE FOG
CHAPTER X—THE WIFE OF A GENIUS
CHAPTER XI—THE LITTLE GOD LOVE
CHAPTER XIII—SHUT OUT.
CHAPTER XIV—BELIEVING HER GOOD
CHAPTER XV—THE FAERY TALE BEGINS AGAIN
CHAPTER XVI—A WONDERFUL WORLD
CHAPTER XIX—THE HIGH HORSE OF ROMANCE
CHAPTER XX—THE POND IN THE WOODLAND
CHAPTER XXII—THE FEAR OF KNOWLEDGE
CHAPTER XXIII—TEDDY AND RUDDY
CHAPTER XXIV—DUKE NINEVEH ENTERS
CHAPTER XXVI—DREAMING OF LOVE
BOOK II—THE BOOK OF REVELATION
CHAPTER I—THE ISLAND VALLEY
CHAPTER II—A SUMMER’S NIGHT
CHAPTER III—A SUMMER’S MORNING
CHAPTER VI—DESIRE’S MOTHER
CHAPTER VII—LOVING DESIRE
CHAPTER VIII—FAITH RENEWS ITSELF
CHAPTER IX—SHE ELUDES HIM
CHAPTER X—AND NOTHING ELSE SAW ALL DAY LONG
CHAPTER XI—THE KEYS TO ARCADY
CHAPTER XIV—THE TRIFLERS GROW EARNEST
CHAPTER XV—SLAVES OF FREEDOM
CHAPTER XVI—THE GHOST OF HAPPINESS
CHAPTER XVII—THE TEST
CHAPTER XVIII—THE PRINCESS WHO DID NOT KNOW HER HEART
CHAPTER XIX—AN OLD PASSION
CHAPTER XX—SHE PROPOSES
CHAPTER XXI—THE EXPERIMENTAL HONEYMOON
CHAPTER XXII—SHE RECALLS HIM
CHAPTER XXIII—HIS WAITING ENDS
The Night slips his arm about the Moon
And walks till the skies grow gray;
But my Love, when I speak of love,
Has never a word to say.
I set my dreams at her feet as lamps
For which all my hope must pay;
But my Love, when I speak of love,
Has never a word to say.
I fill her hands with a gleaming soul
For her plaything night and day;
But she, when I speak to her of love,
Has never a word to say.
I give my life, which is hers to kill
Or to keep with her alway;
And still, when I speak to her of love,
She’s never a word to say.
The Night slips his arm about the Moon
And walks till the skies grow gray;
But my Love, when I speak of love,
Has never a word to say.
Nother bucket o’ mortar, Mr. Ooze.”
The excessively thin man glanced up from the puddle of lime that he was stirring and regarded the excessively fat man with a smile of meek interrogation.
“’Nother bucket o’ mortar, Willie Ooze, and don’t you put your ’ead on one side at me like a bloomin’ cockatoo.”
Mr. William Hughes stuttered an apology. “I was thin-thinking.”
“Thin-thinking!” The fat man laughed good-naturedly. Turning his back on his helper, he gave the brick which he had just laid an extra tap to emphasize his incredulity. “’Tisn’t like you.”
The thin man’s feelings were wounded. To the little boy who looked on this was evident from the way he swallowed. His Adam’s-apple took a run up his throat and, at the last moment, thought better of it. “But I was thinking,” he persisted; “thinking that I’d learnt something from stirring up this gray muck. If ever I was to kill somebody—you, for instance, or that boy—I’d know better than to bury you in slaked lime.”
“Uml Urn!” The fat man gulped with surprise. He puckered his vast chin against his collar so that his voice came deep and strangled. “It’s scraps o’ knowledge like that as saves men from the gallers. If ’alf the murderers that is ’anged ’ad come to me first, they wouldn’t be ’anging. But—but——” He seemed at last to realize the unkind implication of Mr. Hughes’s naive confession. “But I’d make four o’ you, Willyum! You couldn’t kill me, however you tried.”
In the face of contradiction Mr. Hughes forgot his nervousness. “I could.” he pleaded earnestly. “I’ve often thought about it. I’d put off till you was stooping, and then jump. What with you being so short of breath and me being so long in the arms and legs, why——! I’ve planned it out many times, you and me being such good friends and so much alone together.”
The face of the fat man grew serious with disapproval. “You? ’ave, ’ave you! You’ve got as far as that! You’re a nice domestic pet, I must say, to keep unchained to play with the children.” He attempted to go on with his bricklaying, but the memory of Mr. Hughes’s long arms and legs so immediately behind him was disturbing. He swung round holding his trowel like a weapon. “Don’t like your way of talking; don’t like it. O’ course you’ve ‘ad your troubles; for them I make allowances. But I don’t like it, and I don’t mind telling you. Um! Um!”
The thin man was crestfallen; he had hoped to give pleasure. “But I thought you liked murders.”
“Like ’em! I enjoy them—so I do.” The fat man spoke tartly. “But when you make me the corpse of your conversations, you presoom, Mr. Ooze, and I don’t mind telling you—you really do. Let that boy be the corpse next time; leave me out of it—— ’Nother bucket o’ mortar.”
That boy, who was sole witness to this quarrel, was very small—far smaller than his age. In the big walled garden of Orchid Lodge he felt smaller than usual. Everything was strange; even the whispered sigh of dead leaves was different as they swam up and swirled in eddies. In his own garden, only six walls distant, their sigh was gentle as Dearie’s footstep—but something had happened to Dearie; Jimmie Boy had told him so that morning. “Teddy, little man, it’s happened again”—the information had left Teddy none the wiser. All he knew was that Jane had told the milkman that something was expected, and that the milkman had told the cook at Orchid Lodge. The result had been the intrusion at breakfast of the remarkable Mrs. Sheerug.
For a long while Mrs. Sheerug had been a staple topic of conversation between Dearie and Jimmie Boy. They had wondered who she was. They had made up the most preposterous tales about her and had told them to Teddy. They would watch for her to come out of her house six doors away, so that as she passed their window in Eden Row Jimmie Boy might make rapid sketches of her trotting balloon-like figure. He had used her more than once already in books which he had been commissioned to illustrate. She was the faery-godmother in his Cinderella and Other Ancient Tales: With!6 Plates in color by James Gurney. She was Mother Santa Claus in his Christmas Up to Date. They had rather wanted to get to know her, this child-man and woman who seemed no older than their little son and at times, even to their little son, not half as sensible. They had wanted to get to know her because she was always smiling, and because she was always upholstered in such hideously clashing colors, and because she was always setting out burdened on errands from which she returned empty-handed. The attraction of Mrs. Sheerug was heightened by Jane’s, the maid-of-all-work’s, discoveries: Orchid Lodge was heavily in debt to the local tradesmen and yet (it was Dearie who said “And yet.” with a sigh of envy), and yet its mistress was always smiling.
When Mrs. Sheerug had invaded Teddy’s father that morning, she had come arrayed for conquest. She had worn a green plush mantle, a blue bonnet and, waving defiance from the blue bonnet, a yellow feather.
“I’m a total stranger,” she had said. “Go on with your breakfast, Mr. Gurney, I’ve had mine. I’ll watch you. Well, I’ve heard, and so I’ve dropped in to see what I can do. You mustn’t mind me; trying to be a mother to everyone’s my foible. Now, first of all, you can’t have that boy in the house—boys are nice, but a nuisance. They’re noisy.”
“But Teddy, I mean Theo, isn’t.”
It was just like Jimmie Boy to call him Theo before a stranger and to assume the rôle of a respected parent.
Mrs. Sheerug refused to be contradicted. She was cheerful, but emphatic. “If he never made a noise before, he will now. As soon as I’ve made Theo comfortable, I’ll come back to take care of you.”
Making Theo comfortable had consisted in leading him down the old-fashioned, little-traveled street, on one side of which the river ran, guarded by iron spikes like spears set up on end, and turning him loose in the strange garden, where he had overheard a fat man accusing a thin man of murderous intentions.
Teddy looked round. The walls were too high to climb. If he shouted for help he might rouse the men’s enmity. Neither of them seemed to be annoyed with him at present, for neither of them had spoken to him. There was no alternative—he must stick it out. That’s what his father told Dearie to do when pictures weren’t selling and bills were pressing. Already he had picked up the philosophy that life outlasts every difficulty—every difficulty except death.
Mr. Hughes, having supplied the bucket of mortar, was trying to make himself useful in a new direction. The groan and coughing of a saw were heard. The fat man dropped his trowel and turned. He watched Mr. Hughes sorrowfully.
“Mr. Ooze, that’s no way to make a job o’ that” For the first time he addressed the little boy: “He’s as busy as a one-armed paper-’anger with the itch this s’morning. Bless my soul, if he isn’t sawing more ground than wood.” Then to Mr. Hughes: “’Ere, give me that. Now watch me; this is the way to do it.”
The fat man took the saw from the meek man’s unresisting hand. “You lay it so,” he said. He laid the saw almost horizontal with the plank. The thin man leant forward that he might profit by instruction, and nodded.
“And now,” said the fat man, “you get all your weight be’ind it and drive forward.”
As he drove forward the blade slipped and jabbed Mr. Hughes’s leg. Mr. Hughes sat down with a howl and drew up his trousers to inspect the damage. When the fat man had examined the scratch and pronounced it not serious, he proposed a rest and produced a pipe. “Nice smoke,” he said, “is more comforting than any woman, only I wish I’d known it before I married.” Then he became aware that he alone was smoking.
“What, lost yours, Mr. Ooze? Just what one might expect! You’re the most unlucky chap I ever met, yes, and careless. You bring your troubles on yourself, Willie Ooze. First you go and lose a wife that you never ought to ’ave ’ad, and now you lose something still more valuable.”
“Ah, yes!” The thin man ceased from searching through his pockets and heaved a sigh. “I lose everything. Suppose I’ll go on losing till the grave shuts down on this body o’ me—and then I’ll lose that. My ’air began to come out before I was twenty—tonics weren’t no good. Now I always ’ave to wear a ’at—do it even in the ’ouse, unless I’m reminded. And then, as you say, there was poor ’Enrietta. I’m always wondering whether I really lost ’er, or whether——”
“Expect she gave you the slip on purpose,” said the fat man. “Best forget it; consider ’er as so much spilt milk.”
“That’s just what I can’t do.” Mr. Hughes clasped his bony hands: “It don’t seem respectful to what’s maybe dead.”
As far as Teddy could make out from their conversation, ’Enrietta had once been Mrs. Hughes. On a trip to Southend she had insisted on taking a swing in a highflyer. To her great annoyance her husband had been too timid to accompany her, and she had had to take it by herself. The last he had seen of her was a flushed face and flapping skirt swooping in daring semi-circles between the heavens and the ground. When the swing had stopped and he pressed through the crowd to claim her, she had vanished.
Perhaps it was the blood on the thin man’s leg that prompted the fat man’s observation. “It might ’ave been that.”
The fat man drew his finger across his throat suggestively. “That.” He repeated. “It might ’ave ’appened to your ’Enrietta.”
“Often thought it myself.” Mr. Hughes spoke slowly. “But—but d’you think anybody would suspect that I——?”
“They might.” The fat man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It’s usually chaps of your build that does it; as the lofty Mr. Shakespeare puts it, ’I ’ate those lean and ’ungry men.’”
“Very true! Very true! Lefroy was lean and ’ungry. I know, ’cause I once rode with ’im in the same railway carriage.”
Teddy listened, fascinated and horror-stricken, to the fat and thin man swapping anecdotes of murders past and present. For half an hour they strove to outdo each other in ghastliness and minuteness of details.
When they had returned to their work and Mr. Hughes was at a safe distance, the fat man spoke beneath his breath to the little boy: “He’s no good at anything. I keep him with me ’cause we both makes a ’obby of ’omicide—that’s the doctor’s word for the kind o’ illness we was talking about. Also,” here his voice became as refined as Teddy’s father’s, “he amuses me with his Cockney dialect He says he’s unlucky because he was born in a hansom-cab. Whenever I speak to him I call him Ooze and drop my aitches. It’s another of my hobbies—that and keeping pigeons. Pretending to be vulgar relieves my feelings. When one’s married and as stout as I am, if one doesn’t relieve one’s feelings one bursts.”
For the same reason that one lavishes endearments on a dog of uncertain temper, Teddy thought it wise to feign an interest in the fat man’s hobbies. “It can’t be very nice for them,” he faltered.
“The persons you do it to.”
“Do it to! Do it to! You’re making me lose my temper, which is bad for me ’ealth; that’s what you’re doing. Now, then, do what? Don’t beat about. Out with it.”
For answer the little boy drew a tremulous finger across his throat in imitation of one of the fat man’s gestures.
The fat man started laughing—laughing uproariously. His body shook like a jelly and fell into dimples. He tried to speak, but couldn’t. At last he shouted: “Mr. Ooze, come ’ere. This little boy—”
Then he stopped laughing suddenly and dropped his rough way of talking. The child’s face had gone desperately white. “Poor chap! Must have frightened you! Here, steady.”
“Now you’ve done it,” said Mr. Hughes, coming up from behind. “And when your wife knows, won’t you catch it!”
There was nothing Mrs. Sheerug enjoyed better than an invalid. Illness in a stranger’s house was her opportunity; in her own house it was her glory. She loved to exaggerate the patient’s symptoms; the graver they were, the more a recovery would redound to her credit. When she had pushed her feet into old carpet-slippers, removed her bodice, put on her plum-colored dressing-gown, and fastened her scant gray hair with one pin into a tight little knob at the back of her head, she felt that she had gone through a ritual which made her superior to all doctors. She had remedies of her own invention which were calculated to grapple with any crisis of ill-health. But she did not allow her ingenuity to be fettered by past successes; each new case which fell into her hands was a heaven-sent chance for experimenting. Whatever came into her head first, went down her patient’s throat.
When she turned her house into a hospital this little gray balloon-shaped woman, with her rosy cheeks, her faded eyes and her constant touch of absurdity, managed to garb herself in a solemn awfulness. When “Mother went ’vetting,’” as Hal expressed it, even her children viewed her with, temporary respect. They weren’t quite sure that there wasn’t something in her witchcraft. So nobody complained if meals were delayed while she stood over the fire stirring, tasting, smelling and decocting. Contrary to what was usual in that unruly house, she had only to open the door of the sickroom and whisper, “Hush,” to obtain instant quiet. At such times she seemed a ridiculous angel into whose hands God had thrust the tragic scales of life and death.
If Teddy hadn’t fainted, he might have gone out of Orchid Lodge as casually as he had entered—in which case his entire career would have been different. By fainting he had put himself into the category of the weak ones of the earth, and therefore was to be reckoned among Mrs. Sheenes friends. A masterly stroke of luck! She at once decreed that he must be put to bed. His pleadings that he was quite well didn’t cause her to waver for a second. She knew boys. Boys didn’t faint when there was nothing the matter with them. What he required, in her opinion, was building up. A fire was lit in the spare-room. Hot-water bottles were placed in the bed and Teddy beside them, arrayed in a kind of christening-robe, the borrowed nightgown being much too long for him.
He hadn’t intended to be happy, but—— He raised his head stealthily from the pillow, so that his eyes and nose came just above the sheet. He had been given a hot drink with strict instructions to keep covered. No one was there; he sat up. What a secret room! Exactly the kind in which a faery-godmother might be expected to work her spells! Two steps led down into it. Across the door, to keep the draughts out, was hung a needlework tapestry, depicting Absalom’s misfortune. A young gentleman, of exceedingly Jewish countenance, was caught in a tree by his mustard colored hair; a horse, which looked strangely like a sheep, was shabbily walking away from under him. It would have served excellently as a barber’s coat-of-arms. All it lacked was a suitable legend, “The Risks of Not Getting Your Hair Cut.”
Against an easel rested an uncompleted masterpiece in the same medium. The right-hand half, which was done, revealed a negress heaving herself out of a marble slab with her arms stretched longingly towards the half which was only commenced. The subject was evidently that of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. Outlined on the canvas of the unfinished half was a shrinking youth, bearing a faint resemblance to Mr. Hughes as he would have dressed had he been born in a warmer climate.
Encircling the backs of chairs were skeins of wool of various colors; the balls, which had been wound from them, had rolled across the floor and come to rest in a tangle against the fender. In the window, lending a touch of romance, stood a gilded harp, through whose strings shone the cold pale light of the December afternoon. In the grate a scarlet fire crackled; perched upon it, like a long-necked bird, was a kettle with a prodigiously long spout. It sang cheerfully and blew out white clouds of steam which filled the room with the pungent fragrance of eucalyptus.
In days gone by, after listening to his father’s stories, he had often climbed to the top of their house that he might spy into the garden of Orchid Lodge. He had little thought in those days that he would ever be Mrs. Sheerug’s prisoner. From the street a passer-by could learn nothing. Orchid Lodge rose up flush with the pavement; the windows, which looked out on Eden Row and the river, commenced on the second story, so that the curiosity of the outside world was eternally thwarted. He had fancied himself as ringing the bell and waiting just long enough to glance in through the opening door before he took to his heels and ran.
Footsteps in the passage! Absalom swayed among the branches, making a futile effort to free himself. The door behind the tapestry was being opened. Teddy sank his head deep into the pillows, hoping that his disobedience to orders would pass unobserved.
She came down the steps on tiptoe. Her entire bearing was hushed and concerned, as though the least noise or error on her part might produce a catastrophe. She carried a brown stone coffee-pot in her hand and a glass. From the coffee-pot came a disagreeable acrid odor, similar to that of the home-made plasters which his mother applied to his face in case of toothache.
Mrs. Sheerug went over to the fireplace. Before setting the jug in the hearth to keep warm she poured out a quantity of muddy looking fluid. Suspecting that she had no intention of drinking it herself, Teddy shut his eyes and tried to breathe heavily, as though he slept. She came and stood beside him; bent over him and listened.
“Little boy, you’re awake and pretending; what’s worse, you’ve been out of bed.”
The injustice of the last accusation took him off his guard. “If you please, I haven’t. I sat up like this because I wanted to look at that.” He pointed at the Jewish gentleman taking farewell of his horse.
“At that! What made you look at that?”
“I like it.”
To his surprise she kissed him. “That’s what comes of being the son of an artist. There aren’t many people who like it; you’re very nearly the first. I’m doing all the big scenes from the Bible in woolwork; one day they’ll be as famous as the Bayeux tapestries. But what am I talking about? Of course you’re too young to have heard of them. Come, drink this up before it gets cold; it’ll make you well.”
“But I’m quite well, thank you.”
“Come now, little boys mustn’t tell stories. You know you’re not. Smell it. Isn’t it nice?”
Teddy smelt it. It certainly was not nice. He shook his head.
“Ah,” she coaxed, “but it tastes ever so much better than it smells. It’ll make you perspire.”
He did not doubt that it would make him perspire, but still he eyed it with distrust. “What’s in it?” he questioned.
“Something I made especially for you; I’ve never given it to anybody else.”
“But what’s in it?” he insisted with a touch of childish petulance at her evasion.
She patted his hand. “Butter, and brown sugar, and vinegar, and bay leaves. There! It’ll make you sweat, Teddy—make you feel ever so much better.”
“But I’m quite——”
He got no further. As he opened his mouth to assert his perfect health, the glass was pressed against his lips and tilted. He had to swallow or be deluged.
“That’s a fine little fellow.” Mrs. Sheerug was generous in her hour of conquest; she tried to give him credit for having taken it voluntarily. “You feel better already, don’t you?”
“I don’t think,” he commenced; then he capitulated, for he saw her eye working round in the direction of the jug. “I expect I shall presently.”
She tucked him up, leaving only his head, not even a bit of his neck, showing. “If you don’t perspire soon, tell me,” she said, “and I’ll give you some more.”
It was a very big bed and unusually high. At each corner was a post, supporting the canopy. From where he lay he could watch Mrs. Sheerug. Having disentangled several balls of wool and balanced on the point of her nose a pair of silver spectacles, she had seated herself before the easel and was stitching a yellow chemise on to the timid figure of Joseph. The yellow chemise ended above Joseph’s knees; Teddy wondered whether she would give him a pair of stockings.
“I’m getting wet.”
The good little hump of a woman turned. She gazed at him searchingly above her spectacles. “Really?”
“Not quite really,” he owned; “but almost really. At least my toes are.”
“That’s the hot water bottles,” she said. “If you don’t perspire soon you must have some more medicine.”
He did his best to perspire. He felt that she had left the choice between perspiring and drinking more of the brown stuff in his hands. Trying accomplished nothing, so he turned his thoughts to strategy.
“Will they really be famous?”
Again she twisted round, watching him curiously. “Why d’you ask?”
“Because——” He wondered whether he dared tell her.
Usually people laughed at him when he said it. “Because my father wants his pictures to be famous and he’s afraid they never will be. And when I’m a man, I want to be famous; and I’m sure I shall.”
In the piping eagerness of his confession he had thrown back the clothes and was sitting up in bed. She didn’t notice it What she noticed was the brave poise of the head, the spun gold crushed against the young white forehead, and the blue eyes, untired with effort, which looked out with challenge on a wonder-freighted world.
The fire crackled. The kettle hummed, “Pooh, famous! Be contented. Pooh, famous! Be content.”
At last she spoke. “It’s difficult to be famous, Teddy. So many of us have been trying—wasting our time when we might have been doing kindness. What makes a little boy like you so certain——?”
“I just know,” he interrupted doggedly.
Then she realized that he was sitting up in bed and pounced on him. Some more of the brown stuff was forced down his throat and the clothes were once more gathered tightly round his neck.
His eyes were becoming heavy. He opened them with an effort By the easel a shaded lamp had been kindled; the faery-godmother bent above her work.
It seemed the last notes of a dream. He had been awake for some minutes, but had feared to stir lest the voice should stop. Slowly he unclosed his eyes. The voice went on. He had never heard such music; it was deep and sweet and luring. It was like the golden hair of the Princess Lettice lowered from her casement to her lover. It was like the silver feet of laughter twinkling up a beanstalk ladder to the stars. It was like spread wings, swooping and drifting over a fairyland of castellated tree-tops. Now it wandered up the passage and seemed to halt behind the tapestry of Absalom. Now it grew infinitely distant until it was all but lost.
He eased himself out of bed. Save for the pool of scarlet that weltered across floor and ceiling from the hearth, the room was filled with blackness.
“Who’s there?” he whispered.
No answer. He tiptoed up the steps and out into the passage. It was long and gloomy; at the end of it a strip of light escaped from a door which had been left ajar. It was from there that the voice was calling. Steadying himself with his hand against the wall, he stole noiselessly towards it Just as he reached the strip of light the singing abruptly ended.
“No, Hal. You shouldn’t do that. You do it too often. Please not any more.”
“Just once on your lips.”
“If it’s only once. You promise?”
The door creaked. When he saw them, their bodies were still close together, but as they turned to glance across their shoulders their heads had drawn a little apart. Her hands, resting on the keyboard, were held captive by the man’s. Candles, flickering behind their heads, scorched a hole in the dusk to frame them.
The man’s face was boyish and clean-shaven, self-indulgent and almost handsome. It was a pleasant face: the corners of the mouth turned up with a hint of humor; the lips were full and kind; the eyes blue and impatient His complexion was high and his hair flaxen; his bearing sensitive and a little self-conscious. He was a man who could give himself excessively to any one he loved and who consequently would be always encountering new disappointments.
And the woman—she was like her voice: remote and passionate; haunting and unsatisfying; an instrument of romance for the awakening of idealized desires. She was fashioned no less for the attracting of love than for its repulse. Her forehead was intensely white; her brows were like the shadow of wings, hovering and poised; her eyes now vague as a sea-cloud, now flashing like sudden gleams of blue-gray sunlight Her hair was the color of ancient bronze—dark in the hollows and burnished at the edges. Her throat was her glory—full and young, throbbing like a bird’s and slender as the stalk of a flower. It was her mouth that gave the key to her character. It could be any shape that an emotion made it: petulant and unreasonable; kind and gracious and adoring. She was a darkened house when she was unresponsive; there was no stir in her—she seemed uninhabited. In the street below her windows some chance traveler of thought or affection halted; instantly all her windows blazed and the people of her soul gazed out.
The odd little figure, hesitating in the doorway, had worked this miracle. Her eyes, which had been troubled when first they rested on him, brightened. Her lips relaxed. Like a bubble rising from a still depth, laughter rippled up her throat and broke across the scarlet threshold of her mouth.
“Oh, Hal, what a darling! Where did you get him? And what a dear, funny nightgown!”
She tore her hands free from the man’s. Running to the little boy, she knelt beside him, bringing her face down to his level. As if to prevent him from escaping, she looped her arms about his neck.
“You are dear and funny,” she said. “Where d’you come from?”
Teddy was abashed. He didn’t mind being called dear, but he strongly objected to being called funny. He was terribly conscious of the pink flannel garment which clothed him. It hung like a sack from his narrow shoulders. If Mrs. Sheerug hadn’t safety-pinned a reef in at the neck, there would have been danger of its slipping off him. He couldn’t see his hands; they only reached to where his elbows ought to have been. He couldn’t see his feet; a yard of pink stuff draped them. He had had to kilt it to make his way along the passage. But the garment’s chief offense, as he regarded it, was that it was a woman’s: a rather stout middle-aged woman’s—the sort of woman who had given up trying to look pretty and probably wore a nightcap. Teddy forgot that had he not been press-ganged into sickness, the beautiful lady’s arms would not have been about him. All he remembered was that he looked a caricature at a moment when—he scarcely knew why—he wanted to appear most manly. Mrs. Sheerug was responsible and he felt hotly resentful.
“Where did you come from?”
“But isn’t it rather early to be in bed? Perhaps you’re not well.”
“I’m quite well.” He spoke stubbornly, looking aside and trying to keep the tears back. “I’m quite well; it’s she who pretends I isn’t.”
“She! Ah, I understand. Poor old boy, never mind.”
She drew him against her breast and kissed him. He thought she would release him; but still she held him. He could feel the beating of her heart and the slow movement of her breath. He didn’t want her to let him go; but why did she still hold him? Shyly he raised his eyes.
“Won’t you smile?” she said. “I’d like to see what you look like. And now tell me, what made you come here?”
“I heard you,” he whispered. “Please let me stay.”
She glanced back at the man; he sat where she had left him, by the piano, watching. She rather liked to make him jealous. Turning to the child, she lowered her voice, “You’ll catch cold if you don’t get back to bed and I’ll be blamed for it. If I come with you, will that be as good as if I let you stay?”
“Then kiss me.”
As she rose from her knees she gathered him in her arms. The man left his seat to follow. She paused in the doorway, gazing across her shoulder. “No, Hal, it’s a time when you’re not wanted.”
She laughed mischievously. “I said no. There’s some one else to-night who wants me all to himself.”
When Teddy became a man and looked back on that night there were two things that he remembered: the first was his pride and sense of triumph at hearing himself preferred to Hal; the second was that love, as an inspiring and torturing reality, entered into his experience for the first time. As she carried him into the darkness of the passage which had been full of fears without her, her act seemed symbolic. Gazing back from her arms, he saw the man—saw the perplexed humiliation of his expression, his aloneness and instinctively his tragedy, yet without pity and rather with contentment In later years all that happened to him seemed a refinement of spiritual revenge for his childish callousness. The solitary image of the man in the dim-lit room, his empty hands and following eyes took a place in the gallery of memory as a Velasquezesque masterpiece—a composition in brown and white of the St. Sebastian of a love self-pierced by the arrows of its own too great desire.
She had picked up a quilt from the bed and wrapt it round him. Having drawn a chair to the fire, she sat rocking with his head against her shoulder. Since she had left the man, she had not spoken. Once the tapestry, falling into place, rustled as though the door were being opened. She turned gladly with a welcoming smile and remained staring into the darkness long after the smile had vanished. A footstep came along the passage. Again she turned, her lips parted in readiness to bid him enter. The footstep slowed as it reached the bedroom, hesitated and passed on.
She had ceased expecting; Teddy knew that by her “Don’t care” shrug of annoyance. Though she held him closely, she seemed not to notice him. With her head bent forward and her mouth a little trembling, she watched the dancing of the flames. He stirred against her.
“Comfy?” she murmured.
She laughed softly. Her laughter had nothing to do with his answer; it was the last retort in a bitter argument which had been waging in the stillness of her mind. When she spoke it was as though she yawned, rubbing unpleasant dreams from her eyes. “Well, little fellow, what are you going to do with me?”
The implied accusation that he had carried her off thrilled him. It was the way she said it—the coaxing music of her voice: it told him that she was asking for his adoration. His arms reached up and went about her neck; his lips stole up to hers. Made shy by what he had done, he hid his face against her breast.
She rested her hand on his head, ruffling his hair and trying to persuade him to look up.
“And I don’t even know your name! What do they call you? And do you kiss all strange ladies like that?”
His throat was choking. He knew that the moment he heard his own voice his eyes would brim over. But he was getting to an end of the list of first things—getting to an age when it wasn’t manly to cry just because the soul was stirred. So he bit his lip and kept silent.
“Ah, well,” she shook her head mournfully, “I can see what would happen. If we married, you would make an obstinate husband. You don’t really love me.”
Her despair sounded real. “Oh, it’s not that. It’s not that,” he cried, dragging her face towards him with both hands.
She took his hands away and held them. “Then, what Is it?”
“You’re so beautiful. I can’t—can’t speak. I can’t tell you.”
She clasped him closer. “Oh, I’m sorry. It was only my fun. I didn’t mean to make you cry. You’re the second person I’ve hurt to-night. But you—you’re only a little boy, and such a dear little boy! We were going to be such good friends. I must be bad-hearted to hurt everybody.”
“You’re not bad-hearted.” The fierceness with which he defended her made her smile. “You’re not bad-hearted, and I do love you. And I want to marry you only—only I’m so little, and you said it only in fun.”
She mothered him till he had grown quiet Then, with her lips against his forehead, “Don’t be ashamed of crying; I like you for it. I’m so very glad we met to-night I think—almost think—you were sent. I hadn’t been kind, and I wasn’t feeling happy. But I’d like to do something good now; I think I’d like to make you smile. How ought I to set about it?”
“Sing to me. Oh, please do.”
In the firelit room she sang to him in a half-voice, her long throat stretched out and throbbing like a bird’s as she stooped above him. She sang lullabies, making him feel very helpless; and then of lords and cruel ladies and knights. Shadows, sprawling across walls and ceiling, took fantastic shapes: horsemen galloping from castles; men waving swords and grappling in fight A footstep in the passage! He felt her arms tighten. “Close your eyes,” she sang, “close your eyes.”
She held up a hand as Mrs. Sheerug entered. “Shish!”
Mrs. Sheerug came over to the fire and gazed down. He could feel that she was gazing and was afraid that she would detect that he was awake. It was a relief when he heard her whisper: “It’s too bad of you, Vashti; he’d just reached the turning-point. You’re as irresponsible as a child when your moods take you.”
A second chair was drawn up. Vashti had made no reply. Mrs. Sheerug commenced speaking again: “Hal——”
“Hal’s gone out. I suppose you’ve been——”
“Yes, quarreling. My fault, as usual.”
The older woman’s tones became earnest “My dear, you’re not good to my boy. How much longer is it going to last? You’re not—not a safe woman for a man like Hal. He needs some one more loving; you could never make him a good wife. Your profession—I wish you’d give him up.” Then, after a pause, “Won’t you?”
The little boy listened as eagerly as Hal’s mother for the reply. At last it came, “I wish I could.”
He sat up. She saw the reproach in his eyes, but she gave no sign. “Hulloa! Wakened? Time you were in bed, old fellow.”
He was conscious that she was using him as a barrier between herself and further conversation. Rising, she carried him over to the high four-poster bed. While she tucked him in, he could hear the clinking of a glass, and knew that his tribulations had recommenced. Mrs. Sheerug crossed from the fireplace: “Here’s another drink of the nice medicine.”
He buried his face in the pillow. He didn’t want to get better. He wanted to die and to make people sorry.
“Teddy,” it was her voice, “Teddy, if you take it, I’ll sing to you. Do it for my sake.”
She turned to Mrs. Sheerug. “He will if I sing to him. You accompany me. He says it’s a promise.”
She stood beside the pillow holding his hand. Over by the window the faery-godmother was taking her seat; stars peeped through the harp-strings curiously. What happened next was like arms spread under him, carrying him away and away. “Oh, rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him.” Her voice sprang up like a strong white bird; at every beat of its wings the harp-strings hummed like the weak wings of smaller birds following. “Oh, rest in the Lord”—the white bird rose higher with a braver confidence and the little birds took courage, plunging deeper into the grave and gentle stillness. “Oh, rest in the Lord”—it was like a sigh of contentment traveling back from prepared places out of sight. The room grew silent.
It was Vashti who had moved. She bent over him, “I’m going.” He stretched out his arms, but they failed to reach her. At the door Mrs. Sheerug stood and stayed her. Vashti halted, very proud and sweet. “What is it? You said I wasn’t safe. You can tell Hal he’s free—I won’t trouble him.”
Mrs. Sheerug caught her by the hands and tried to draw her to her. “I was mistaken, Vashti; you’re good. You can always make me forgive you: you could make any one love you when you’re singing.”
Vashti shook her head. “I’m not good. I’m wicked.” The older woman tried to reach up to kiss her. Again Vashti shook her head, “Not to-night.”
The medicine had been taken. By the easel a shaded lamp had been lighted—lighted for hours. It must be very late; the faery-godmother still worked, sorting her wools and pushing her needle back and forth, clothing Joseph in the presence of Potiphar’s wife. Every now and then she sighed. Sometimes she turned and listened to catch the regular breathing of the little boy whom she supposed to be sleeping. Presently she rose and undressed. The lamp went out In the darkness Teddy could hear her tossing; then she seemed to forget her troubles.
But he lay and remembered. Vashti had asked him to marry her. Perhaps she had not meant it. How long would it take to become a man? Did little boys ever marry grown ladies?
When his father entered Teddy was eating his breakfast propped up in bed, balancing a tray on his humped-up legs.
“Well, shrimp, you seem to have had a lucky tumble. Can’t say there seems to be much the matter.”
A large bite of hot buttered toast threatened to impede conversation. “It’s the brown stuff,” Teddy mumbled; “she wanted to see if it ’ud make me wet.”
“Kind of vivisection, eh? And did it?”
“All over—like in a bath playing ship-wrecked sailors.” The excavation of an egg absorbed the little boy’s attention. His father seated himself on the edge of the bed. He was a large childish man, unconsciously unconventional His brown velvet jacket smelt strongly of tobacco and varnish. It was spotted with bright colors, especially on the left sleeve between the wrist and elbow, where he had tested his paints instead of on his palette. His trousers bagged at the knees from neglect rather than from wear; their shabbiness was made up for by an extravagant waistcoat, sprigged with lilac. Double-breasted and cut low in a V shape, it exposed a soft silk shirt and a large red tie with loosely flowing ends. His head was magnificent—the head of a rebel enthusiast, too impatient to become a leader of men. It was broad in the forehead and heavy with a mane of coal-black ringlets. His mouth was handsome—a rare thing in a man. His nose was roughly molded, Cromwellian, giving to his face a look of rude strength and purpose. A tuft of hair immediately beneath his lower lip bore the same relation to his mustache that a tail bears to a kite—it lent to his expression balance. It was his eyes that astonished—they ought to have been fiercely brown to be in keeping with the rest of his gypsy appearance; instead they were a clear gray, as though with gazing into cloudy distances, as are the eyes of men who live by seafaring.
He had made repeated efforts to curb his picturesqueness; he knew that it didn’t pay in an age when the ideal for males is to be undecorative. He knew that his appearance appealed as affectation and bred distrust in the minds of the escutcheoned tradesmen who are England’s art patrons. When they came to confer a favor, they liked to find a gentlemanly shopkeeper—not a Phoenician pirate, with a voice like a gale. His untamedness impressed them as immorality. He always felt that they left him thoroughly convinced that he and Dearie were not married.
Whatever editors, art patrons and publishers might think about James Gurney, Teddy followed in his mother’s footsteps: to him James Gurney was Jimmie Boy, the biggest-hearted companion that a son ever had—a father of whom to be inordinately proud. There was no one as great as his father, no one as clever, no one as splendid to look at in the whole wide world. When he walked down the street, holding his father’s hand, he liked to fancy that people stared after him for his daring, just as they would have stared had he walked with his hand in the mane of a shaggy lion. It was wonderful to be friends with a father so fierce looking. And then his father treated him as a brother artist and borrowed notions from him—really did, without pretense; he’d seen the notions carried out in illustrations. His father had come to borrow from him now.
“Any ideas this morning, partner—any ideas that you don’t want yourself?”
Teddy hitched himself upon the pillow, trying to look as grave and important as if he wore spectacles. “Yes. A room like this, only lonely with a fire burning and an old, old woman sitting over there.” He pointed to the window and the gilded harp. “I’d let her be playing, Daddy; and a big white bird, that you can see through, must be beating its wings against the panes, trying and always trying to get out.”
“A ghost bird?” his father suggested.
“Don’t know—just a big white bird and a woman so old that she might be dead.”
“What’s the meaning of the bird, old chap? Dreams, or hopes, or memories—something like that?”
Teddy could find nothing more in the egg. “Don’t know; that’s the way I saw it” He ceased to be elderly, took off his imaginary spectacles and looked up like a dog who stands wagging his tail, waiting to be patted. “Was that an idea, Daddy?”
His father nodded.
“A good idea?”
“Quite a good idea. But, oh, while I remember it, Mr. Sheerug wanted to see you. You and he must have struck up a great friendship. The faery-godmother won’t let him—says you’re not well. He seems quite upset.”
Teddy was puzzled. “Mr. Sheerug!”
“Yes, a big fat man with whom you have a secret. He followed me up the stairs and asked me to thank you for not telling.”
“Was that Mr. Sheerug?” Teddy’s eyes became large and round. “Why, he’s the mur——I mean, the man who was in the garden.”
“That’s right He carried you in when you fainted. What made you faint, Teddy?”
The little boy looked blank. If he were to tell, he would get the fat man into trouble; an aggravated murderer, living only six doors removed, would make an awkward neighbor. There was another reason why he looked blank: were he to tell his father of Mr. Sheerug’s special hobby, he would certainly be forbidden to enter Orchid Lodge, and then—why, then he might never meet Vashti. He weighed his fear against his adoration, and decided to keep silent.
His father had fallen into a brown study. He had forgotten his inquiry as to the cause of Teddy’s fainting. “Theo.”
Something important was coming. To be called Theo was a warning.
“Theo, it hasn’t happened. When it’s so difficult to earn a living, I don’t know whether we ought to be sorry or glad.”
“What hasn’t happened?”
“There’s still only you and me and, thank God, Dearie.”
“But—” the small brain was struggling to discover a meaning—“but could there have been any one else?”
The large man took the little boy’s hand. “You don’t understand. Yes, there could have been several other people; but not now.” Rising, he walked over to the window and stood there, looking out. “Perhaps it’s just as well, with a fellow like me for your father, who spends all his time in chasing clouds and won’t—can’t get on in the world.”
Teddy couldn’t see his father’s face, but he thought he knew what was the matter. If Dearie had been there, she would have slipped her arms round the big man’s neck, calling him “Her Boy,” and would have made everything happy in a second. In her absence Teddy borrowed her comforting words—he had heard them so often. “Your work’s too good,” he said emphatically. “Every great man has been neglected.”
The phrase, uttered parrot-wise by the lips of a child, stirred the man to a grim humor. He saw himself as that white bird, battering itself into exhaustion against invisible panes that shut it out from the heavens. Every time it ceased to struggle the dream music recommenced, maddening it into aspiration; the old woman, so old that she might be dead, who fingered the strings of the harp was Fate.
He stared across the wintry gardens, blackened and impoverished by frost; each one like a man’s life—curtailed, wall-surrounded, monotonously similar, yet grandly roofed with eternity. Along the walls cats crept like lean fears; trees, stripped of leaves, wove spiders’ webs with their branches. So his work was too good and every great man had been neglected! His boy said it confidently now; as he grew older he might say it with less and less sincerity.
He laughed quietly. “So you’ve picked up my polite excuse, Ted! Yes, that’s what we all say of ourselves—we failures: ’My work’s too good.’”
“But it needn’t be an excuse, Mr. Gurney. It may be the truth. I often use the same consolation.”
Mrs. Sheerug stood, a burlesque figure of untidy optimism, smiling severely in the doorway. She was clad in her muddled plum-colored dressing-gown; her gray hair was disordered and sprayed about her neck; her tired blue eyes, peering above the silver-rimmed spectacles, took in the room with twinkling merriment. She came to the foot of the bed with the ponderous dignity of a Cochin-China hen, important with feathers.
“Yes, my dear sir,” she said, “you may not know it, but I, too, consider myself a genius. I believe all my family to be geniuses—that’s why I never interfere with the liberty of my children. Even my husband, he’s a genius in his fashion—a stifled fashion, I tell him; I let him go his own way in case it may develop. Genius must not be thwarted—so we all live our lives separately in this house and—and, as I dare say you know, run into debt. There’s a kind of righteousness about that—running into debt; the present won’t acknowledge our greatness, so we make it pay for our future. But, my dear sir, I caught you indulging in self-pity. It’s the worst of all crimes. You men are always getting sorry for yourselves. Look at me—I’ve not succeeded. I ask you, do I show it?”
“If to be always smiling—-” Mr. Gurney broke off.
“This is really a remarkable meeting, Mrs. Sheerug—three geniuses in one room! Oh, yes, if Teddy’s not told you yet, he will soon: he’s quite certain that he’s going to be a very big man. Aren’t you, Teddy?”
The little boy wriggled his toes beneath the counterpane and watched them working. “I have ideas,” he said seriously.
“What did I tell you?”
Mrs. Sheerug signified by the closing of her eyes that she considered it injudicious to discuss little boys in their presence. When she opened them again it was to discuss herself.
“As between artists, Mr. Gurney, I want your frank opinion. If you don’t like my work, say so.”
“Your work!” He looked about. “Oh, this!” His eyes fell on the unfinished woolwork picture on the easel. “It has—it has a kind of power,” he said—“the power of amateurishness and oddity. You’re familiar with the impelling crudity of Blake’s sketches? Well, it’s something like that What I mean is this: your colors are all impossible, your drawing’s all wrong and there’s no attempt at accuracy. And yet—— The result is something so different from ordinary conceptions that it’s almost impressive.”
Mrs. Sheerug, not sure whether she was being praised or blamed, shook her head with dignity. “You’re trying to let me down lightly, Mr. Gurney.”
“No, I’m not and I’ll prove it Joseph is supposed to be in the process of being tempted. Well, he isn’t tempted in your picture; he’s simply scared. I don’t know whether you intended it or whether it’s the unconscious way in which your mind works, but your prize-fighting negress, in the rôle of Mrs. Potiphar threatening a Cockney consumptive in an abbreviated nightgown, is a distinctly original interpretation of the Bible story; it achieves the success that Hogarth aimed at—the effect of the grotesque. It’s the same with your Absalom. You were so prejudiced against him that you even extended your prejudice to his horse. Every time you stuck your needle in the canvas you must have murmured, ’Serve him jolly well right. So perish all sons who fight against their fathers.’ So, instead of remembering that he was a prince of Israel, you’ve made him an old-clothes blood from Whitechapel who’s got into difficulties on a hired nag at Hampstead. I think I catch your idea: you’re a Dickens writing novels in woolwork. You’re Pickwickizing the Old Testament. In its way the idea’s immense.”
Mrs. Sheerug jerked her spectacles up the incline of her nose till they covered her eyes. “If I have to leave you now, don’t think that I’m offended.”
Mrs. Sheerug went out of the room like a cottage-loaf on legs. The door closed behind her trotting, kindly figure.
Mr. Gurney turned helplessly to Teddy. “And I meant to flatter her. In a worthless way they’re good. I was trying not to tell her the worthless part of it. Believe I’ve hurt her feelings, and after all her kindness—— I’m horribly sorry.”
“Father, when people marry, must they live together always?”
The irrelevancy of the question rather startled Mr. Gurney; Teddy’s questions had a knack of being startling. “Eh! What’s that? Live together always! Why, yes, it’s better. It’s usual.”
“But must they begin from the moment they marry?”
Mr. Gurney laughed. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t marry. It’s because they think that they’ll go on wanting to be every minute of their lives together that they do it.”
“Ah, yes.” Teddy sighed sentimentally. His sigh said plainly, “Whatever else I don’t know, I know that.” He cushioned his face against the pillow. “But what I meant,” he explained, “is supposing one hasn’t any money, and one’s father can’t give one any, and one wants to be with some one every minute, and—and very badly. Would they live together then from the beginning?”
Mr. Gurney gave up thinking about Mrs. Sheerug; Teddy’s questions grew interesting. “If any one hadn’t any money and the lady hadn’t any money, I don’t believe they’d marry. But the lady might have money.”
Teddy gave himself away completely. “But to live on her money! Oh, I don’t think I’d like that.”
His father seated himself on the bed, with one leg curled under him. “Hulloa, what’s this? Been losing your heart to Mrs. Sheerug? She’s got a husband. It won’t do, old man.”
“It isn’t Mrs. Sheerug. It’s just—just curiosity, I expect.”
No encouragement could lure him into a more explicit confession. All that day, after his father had left, he lay there with his face against the pillow, endeavoring to dis-cover a plan whereby a little boy might procure the money to marry a beautiful lady, of whom he knew comparatively nothing.
He had not seen her again. It was now four days since she had sung to him. For her sake, in the hope of her returning, he had made himself the accomplice of Mrs. Sheenes plans. By looking languid he invited the terrors of her medicines. By restraining his appetite and allowing half his meals to be carried away untasted, he gave to his supposed illness a convincing appearance of reality. Even Mrs. Sheerug, whose knowledge of boys was profound, was completely deceived by Teddy. It had never occurred to her that there was a boy in the world who could resist good food when he was hungry.
“Is your head aching? Where is it that you don’t feel better?”
“It’s just all over.”
More physic would follow. He swallowed it gladly—was willing to swallow any quantities, if it were the purchase price of at length seeing Vashti. Every day gained was a respite to his hope, during which he could listen for her coming. Perhaps her footstep in the passage would first warn him—or would it be her voice? He liked to think that any moment she might enter on tiptoe and lean across his pillow before he was aware. When in later years the deluge of love swept over him, destroying that it might recreate his world, he was astonished to find how faithfully it had been foreshadowed by this embryo passion of his childhood.
For three days Mrs. Sheerug had asked him where he ached most, and had invariably received the same answer, “It’s just all over.” Her ingenuity in prescribing had been sorely tested: she had never had such an uncomplaining victim for her remedies. However unpleasantly she experimented, she could always be sure of his murmured thanks.
Under his gentleness she began to allow her fondness to show itself. She held old-fashioned notions about children, believing that they were spoilt by too much affection. Her kind heart was continually at war with her Puritan standards of sternness; the twinkle in her eyes was always contradicting the harsh theories which her lips propounded. Sitting by her easel in the quiet room, she would carry on gossiping monologues addressed to Teddy. He gathered that in her opinion all men were born worthless; husbands were saved from the lowest depths of inferiority by the splendid women they married. All women were naturally splendid, and all bachelors so selfish as to be beneath contempt. She gave Teddy to understand that women were the only really adult people in the world; they pretended that their men were grown up as a mother plays a nursery game with children. She quoted instances to Teddy to prove her theories—indiscreet instances from her own experiences and the experiences of her friends.
“To hear me speak this way, you may wonder why I married, and why I married Alonzo of all men. Even I wondered that on the day I said yes to him, and I wondered it on the day I eloped with him, and I’ve not done wondering yet Yes, little boy, you may look at me and wonder whether I’m telling the truth, but my father was Lord Mayor of London and I could once have married anybody. I was a very pretty girl—I didn’t know how pretty then; and I had a host of suitors. I could have been a rich lady to-day with a title—but I chose Alonzo.”
“Alonzo sounds a fine name,” said Teddy. “Did he ride on a horse and carry a sword in the Lord Mayor’s Show?”
“Ride on a horse!” Mrs. Sheerug laughed gently; she was remembering. “Ride on a horse! No, he didn’t, Teddy. You see, he was called Sheerug as well as Alonzo. The Sheerug rather spoils the Alonzo, doesn’t it?”
“Sheerug sounds kind and comfy,” murmured Teddy, trying to make the best of a disappointment.
Mrs. Sheerug smiled at him gratefully. “Yes, and just a little careless. I ran away with him because he was kind and comfy, and because he needed taking care of more than any man I ever met. He’s cost me more mothering than any child I ever——”
Teddy’s hands were tangled together; his words fell over one another with excitement. “Oh, tell me about the running. Did they follow you? And was it from the Lord Mayor’s house that you ran? And did they nearly catch you?”
Glancing above her spectacles disapprovingly, Mrs. Sheerug was recalled to the tender years of her audience. As though blaming the little boy for having listened, she said severely: “A silly old woman like myself says many things that you mustn’t remember, Teddy.”
On the morning of the fourth day she arrived at a new diagnosis of his puzzling malady. He knew she had directly she entered: her gray hair was combed back from her forehead and was quite orderly; she had abandoned her plum-colored dressing-gown. She halted at the foot of the bed and surveyed him.
“You rather like me?”
“And you didn’t at first?”
He was too polite to acquiesce.
“And you don’t want to leave me?”
He looked confused. “Not unless you want—— Not until I’m well.”
A little gurgling laugh escaped her; it seemed to have been forced up under high pressure.
“You’ve been playing the old soldier, young man. Took me in completely. But I’m a woman, and I always, always find out.”
She shook her finger at him and stood staring across the high wall that was the foot of the bed. As she stared she kept on nodding, like the wife of a mandarin who had picked up the habit from her husband. Two fingers, spread apart, were pressed against the corners of her mouth to prevent it from widening to a smile.
“Humph!” she gave a jab to a hairpin which helped to fasten the knob at the back of her head. “Humph! I’ve been nicely had.” Then to Teddy: “We’ll get you well slowly. Now I’m going to fetch your clothes and you’ve got to dress.”
Clad as far as his shirt and knickerbockers, with a counterpane rolled about him, he was carried downstairs.
In the long dilapidated room that they entered the thin and the fat man were playing cards. They were too absorbed to notice that any one had entered.
“What d’you bet?” demanded the fat man.
“Ten thousand,” Mr. Hughes answered promptly.
“I’ll see you and raise you ten thousand. What’ve you got?”
Mr. Hughes threw down three aces; the fat man exposed a full house. “You’re twenty thousand down, Mr. Ooze.”
“Twenty thousand what?” asked Mrs. Sheerug contemptuously.
“Pounds,” Mr. Hughes acknowledged sheepishly. “Twenty thousand pounds, that’s wot I’ve lost—and it isn’t lunch time. ’urried into the world—that’s wot I was—that’s ’ow my bad luck started. You couldn’t h’expect nothing of a man ’oo was born in a ’ansom-cab.”
“You babies!” Mrs. Sheerug shifted her spectacles higher up her nose. “You know you never pay. It doesn’t matter whether you play for millions or farthings. Why don’t you work?”
When they had left, she made Teddy comfortable in a big armchair. Before she went about her household duties, she bent down and whispered: “No one shall ever know that you pretended. I’m—I’m even glad of it. Oh, we women, how we like to be loved by you useless men!”
In the conducting of a first love-affair one inevitably bungles. When the young gentleman in love happens to be older than the lady, his lack of finesse may be forgiven by her still greater inexperience. When the young gentleman is considerably less than half his fiancée’s years and, moreover, she is an expert in courtship by reason of many suitors, the case calls for the utmost delicacy.
Teddy was keenly sensitive to the precariousness of his situation. He was aware that, if he confessed himself, there wasn’t a living soul would take him seriously. Even Dearie and Jimmie Boy, to whom he told almost everything, would laugh at him. It made him feel very lonely; it was bard to think that you had to be laughed at just because you were young. Of course ordinary boys, who were going to be greengrocers or policemen when they grew up, didn’t fall in love; but boys who already felt the shadow of future greatness brooding over them might. In fact, such boys were just the sort of boys to pine away and die if their love went unrequited—the sort of fine-natured boys who, whether love came to them at nine or twenty, could love only once.
Here he was secretly engaged to Vashti and threatened by many unknown rivals. He didn’t know her surname and he didn’t know her address. He had to find her; when he found her he wasn’t sure what he ought to do with her. But find her he must. Four days had passed since she had accepted his hand. If he were not to lose her, he must certainly get into communication with her. How? To make the most discreet inquiries of so magic a person as Mrs. Sheerug would be to tell her everything. If she knew everything, she might not want him in her house, for she believed that he had feigned illness solely out of fondness for herself. The only other person to whom he could turn was Mr. Sheerug, with whom already he shared one guilty secret; but from this house of lightning arrivals and departures Mr. Sheerug had vanished—vanished as completely as if he had mounted on a broomstick and been whisked off into thin air. Teddy did not discover this till lunch.
Lunch was a typically Sheerugesque makeshift, consisting of boiled Spanish onions, sardines and cream-puffs. It was served in a dark room, like a Teniers’ interior, with plates lining the walls arranged on shelves. There was a door at either end, one leading into the kitchen, the other into the hall. When one of these doors banged, which it did quite frequently, a plate fell down. Perhaps it was to economize on this constant toll of breakages that Mrs. Sheerug used enamel-ware on her table. The table had a frowsy appearance, as though the person who had set the breakfast had forgotten to clear away the last night’s supper, and the person who had set the lunch had been equally careless about the breakfast. Mrs. Sheerug explained: “I always keep it set, my dear; we’re so irregular and it saves worry when our friends drop in at odd seasons.”
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Nowy sposób na e-księgarnię
Czytelnicy nie wierzą
Legimi idzie na całość
Projekt Legimi wielkim wydarzeniem
Spotify for ebooks