An officer and a gentleman
His full name was Percival William Williams, but he picked up the other name in a nursery-book, and that was the end of the christened titles. His mother’s ayah called him Willie-Baba, but as he never paid the faintest attention to anything that the ayah said, her wisdom did not help matters.
His father was the Colonel of the 195th, and as soon as Wee Willie Winkie was old enough to understand what Military Discipline meant, Colonel Williams put him under it. There was no other way of managing the child. When he was good for a week, he drew good-conduct pay; and when he was bad, he was deprived of his good-conduct stripe. Generally he was bad, for India offers many chances of going wrong to little six-year-olds.
Children resent familiarity from strangers, and Wee Willie Winkie was a very particular child. Once he accepted an acquaintance, he was graciously pleased to thaw. He accepted Brandis, a subaltern of the 195th, on sight. Brandis was having tea at the Colonel’s, and Wee Willie Winkie entered strong in the possession of a good-conduct badge won for not chasing the hens round the compound. He regarded Brandis with gravity for at least ten minutes, and then delivered himself of his opinion.
‘I like you,’ said he slowly, getting off his chair and coming over to Brandis, ‘I like you. I shall call you Coppy, because of your hair. Do you mind being called Coppy? It is because of ve hair, you know.’
Here was one of the most embarrassing of Wee Willie Winkie’s peculiarities. He would look at a stranger for some time, and then, without warning or explanation, would give him a name. And the name stuck. No regimental penalties could break Wee Willie Winkie of this habit. He lost his good-conduct badge for christening the Commissioner’s wife ‘Pobs’; but nothing that the Colonel could do made the Station forego the nickname, and Mrs. Collen remained ‘Pobs’ till the end of her stay. So Brandis was christened ‘Coppy,’ and rose, therefore, in the estimation of the regiment.
If Wee Willie Winkie took an interest in any one, the fortunate man was envied alike by the mess and the rank and file. And in their envy lay no suspicion of self-interest. ‘The Colonel’s son’ was idolised on his own merits entirely. Yet Wee Willie Winkie was not lovely. His face was permanently freckled, as his legs were permanently scratched, and in spite of his mother’s almost tearful remonstrances he had insisted upon having his long yellow locks cut short in the military fashion. ‘I want my hair like Sergeant Tummil’s,’ said Wee Willie Winkie, and, his father abetting, the sacrifice was accomplished.
Three weeks after the bestowal of his youthful affections on Lieutenant Brandis—henceforward to be called ‘Coppy’ for the sake of brevity—Wee Willie Winkie was destined to behold strange things and far beyond his comprehension.
Coppy returned his liking with interest. Coppy had let him wear for five rapturous minutes his own big sword—just as tall as Wee Willie Winkie. Coppy had promised him a terrier puppy; and Coppy had permitted him to witness the miraculous operation of shaving. Nay, more—Coppy had said that even he, Wee Willie Winkie, would rise in time to the ownership of a box of shiny knives, a silver soap-box, and a silver-handled ‘sputter-brush,’ as Wee Willie Winkie called it. Decidedly, there was no one except his father, who could give or take away good-conduct badges at pleasure, half so wise, strong, and valiant as Coppy with the Afghan and Egyptian medals on his breast. Why, then, should Coppy be guilty of the unmanly weakness of kissing—vehemently kissing—a ‘big girl,’ Miss Allardyce to wit? In the course of a morning ride Wee Willie Winkie had seen Coppy so doing, and, like the gentleman he was, had promptly wheeled round and cantered back to his groom, lest the groom should also see.
Under ordinary circumstances he would have spoken to his father, but he felt instinctively that this was a matter on which Coppy ought first to be consulted.
‘Coppy,’ shouted Wee Willie Winkie, reining up outside that subaltern’s bungalow early one morning—‘I want to see you, Coppy!’
‘Come in, young ’un,’ returned Coppy, who was at early breakfast in the midst of his dogs. ‘What mischief have you been getting into now?’
Wee Willie Winkie had done nothing notoriously bad for three days, and so stood on a pinnacle of virtue.
‘I’ve been doing nothing bad,’ said he, curling himself into a long chair with a studious affectation of the Colonel’s languor after a hot parade. He buried his freckled nose in a tea-cup and, with eyes staring roundly over the rim, asked: ‘I say, Coppy, is it pwoper to kiss big girls?’
‘By Jove! You’re beginning early. Who do you want to kiss?’
‘No one. My muvver’s always kissing me if I don’t stop her. If it isn’t pwoper, how was you kissing Major Allardyce’s big girl last morning, by ve canal?’
Coppy’s brow wrinkled. He and Miss Allardyce had with great craft managed to keep their engagement secret for a fortnight. There were urgent and imperative reasons why Major Allardyce should not know how matters stood for at least another month, and this small marplot had discovered a great deal too much.
‘I saw you,’ said Wee Willie Winkie calmly. ‘But ve sais didn’t see. I said, “Hut jao!”’
‘Oh, you had that much sense, you young Rip,’ groaned poor Coppy, half amused and half angry. ‘And how many people may you have told about it?’
‘Only me myself. You didn’t tell when I twied to wide ve buffalo ven my pony was lame; and I fought you wouldn’t like.’
‘Winkie,’ said Coppy enthusiastically, shaking the small hand, ‘you’re the best of good fellows. Look here, you can’t understand all these things. One of these days—hang it, how can I make you see it!—I’m going to marry Miss Allardyce, and then she’ll be Mrs. Coppy, as you say. If your young mind is so scandalised at the idea of kissing big girls, go and tell your father.’
‘What will happen?’ said Wee Willie Winkie, who firmly believed that his father was omnipotent.
‘I shall get into trouble,’ said Coppy, playing his trump card with an appealing look at the holder of the ace.
‘Ven I won’t,’ said Wee Willie Winkie briefly. ‘But my faver says it’s un-man-ly to be always kissing, and I didn’t fink you’d do vat, Coppy.’
‘I’m not always kissing, old chap. It’s only now and then, and when you’re bigger you’ll do it too. Your father meant it’s not good for little boys.’
‘Ah!’ said Wee Willie Winkie, now fully enlightened. ‘It’s like ve sputter-brush?’
‘Exactly,’ said Coppy gravely.
‘But I don’t fink I’ll ever want to kiss big girls, nor no one, ’cept my muvver. And I must vat, you know.’
There was a long pause, broken by Wee Willie Winkie.
‘Are you fond of vis big girl, Coppy?’
‘Awfully!’ said Coppy.
‘Fonder van you are of Bell or ve Butcha—or me?’
‘It’s in a different way,’ said Coppy. ‘You see, one of these days Miss Allardyce will belong to me, but you’ll grow up and command the Regiment and—all sorts of things. It’s quite different, you see.’
‘Very well,’ said Wee Willie Winkie, rising. ‘If you’re fond of ve big girl I won’t tell any one. I must go now.’
Coppy rose and escorted his small guest to the door, adding—‘You’re the best of little fellows, Winkie. I tell you what. In thirty days from now you can tell if you like—tell any one you like.’
Thus the secret of the Brandis-Allardyce engagement was dependent on a little child’s word. Coppy, who knew Wee Willie Winkie’s idea of truth, was at ease, for he felt that he would not break promises. Wee Willie Winkie betrayed a special and unusual interest in Miss Allardyce, and, slowly revolving round that embarrassed young lady, was used to regard her gravely with unwinking eye. He was trying to discover why Coppy should have kissed her. She was not half so nice as his own mother. On the other hand, she was Coppy’s property, and would in time belong to him. Therefore it behoved him to treat her with as much respect as Coppy’s big sword or shiny pistol.
The idea that he shared a great secret in common with Coppy kept Wee Willie Winkie unusually virtuous for three weeks. Then the Old Adam broke out, and he made what he called a ‘campfire’ at the bottom of the garden. How could he have foreseen that the flying sparks would have lighted the Colonel’s little hay-rick and consumed a week’s store for the horses? Sudden and swift was the punishment—deprivation of the good-conduct badge and, most sorrowful of all, two days’ confinement to barracks—the house and veranda—coupled with the withdrawal of the light of his father’s countenance.
He took the sentence like the man he strove to be, drew himself up with a quivering under-lip, saluted, and, once clear of the room, ran to weep bitterly in his nursery—called by him ‘my quarters.’ Coppy came in the afternoon and attempted to console the culprit.
‘I’m under awwest,’ said Wee Willie Winkie mournfully, ‘and I didn’t ought to speak to you.’
Very early the next morning he climbed on to the roof of the house—that was not forbidden—and beheld Miss Allardyce going for a ride.
‘Where are you going?’ cried Wee Willie Winkie.
‘Across the river,’ she answered, and trotted forward.
Now the cantonment in which the 195th lay was bounded on the north by a river—dry in the winter. From his earliest years, Wee Willie Winkie had been forbidden to go across the river, and had noted that even Coppy—the almost almighty Coppy—had never set foot beyond it. Wee Willie Winkie had once been read to, out of a big blue book, the history of the Princess and the Goblins—a most wonderful tale of a land where the Goblins were always warring with the children of men until they were defeated by one Curdie. Ever since that date it seemed to him that the bare black and purple hills across the river were inhabited by Goblins, and, in truth, every one had said that there lived the Bad Men. Even in his own house the lower halves of the windows were covered with green paper on account of the Bad Men who might, if allowed clear view, fire into peaceful drawing-rooms and comfortable bedrooms. Certainly, beyond the river, which was the end of all the Earth, lived the Bad Men. And here was Major Allardyce’s big girl, Coppy’s property, preparing to venture into their borders! What would Coppy say if anything happened to her? If the Goblins ran off with her as they did with Curdie’s Princess? She must at all hazards be turned back.
The house was still. Wee Willie Winkie reflected for a moment on the very terrible wrath of his father; and then—broke his arrest! It was a crime unspeakable. The low sun threw his shadow, very large and very black, on the trim garden-paths, as he went down to the stables and ordered his pony. It seemed to him in the hush of the dawn that all the big world had been bidden to stand still and look at Wee Willie Winkie guilty of mutiny. The drowsy sais gave him his mount, and, since the one great sin made all others insignificant, Wee Willie Winkie said that he was going to ride over to Coppy Sahib, and went out at a foot-pace, stepping on the soft mould of the flower-borders.
The devastating track of the pony’s feet was the last misdeed that cut him off from all sympathy of Humanity. He turned into the road, leaned forward, and rode as fast as the pony could put foot to the ground in the direction of the river.
But the liveliest of twelve-two ponies can do little against the long canter of a Waler. Miss Allardyce was far ahead, had passed through the crops, beyond the Police-posts, when all the guards were asleep, and her mount was scattering the pebbles of the river-bed as Wee Willie Winkie left the cantonment and British India behind him. Bowed forward and still flogging, Wee Willie Winkie shot into Afghan territory, and could just see Miss Allardyce, a black speck, flickering across the stony plain. The reason of her wandering was simple enough. Coppy, in a tone of too-hastily-assumed authority, had told her overnight that she must not ride out by the river. And she had gone to prove her own spirit and teach Coppy a lesson.
Almost at the foot of the inhospitable hills, Wee Willie Winkie saw the Waler blunder and come down heavily. Miss Allardyce struggled clear, but her ankle had been severely twisted, and she could not stand. Having fully shown her spirit, she wept, and was surprised by the apparition of a white, wide-eyed child in khaki, on a nearly spent pony.
‘Are you badly, badly hurted?’ shouted Wee Willie Winkie, as soon as he was within range. ‘You didn’t ought to be here,’
‘I don’t know,’ said Miss Allardyce ruefully, ignoring the reproof. ‘Good gracious, child, what are you doing here?’
‘You said you was going acwoss ve wiver,’ panted Wee Willie Winkie, throwing himself off his pony. ‘And nobody—not even Coppy—must go acwoss ve wiver, and I came after you ever so hard, but you wouldn’t stop, and now you’ve hurted yourself, and Coppy will be angwy wiv me, and—I’ve bwoken my awwest! I’ve bwoken my awwest!’
The future Colonel of the 195th sat down and sobbed. In spite of the pain in her ankle the girl was moved.
‘Have you ridden all the way from cantonments, little man? What for?’
‘You belonged to Coppy. Coppy told me so!’ wailed Wee Willie Winkie disconsolately. ‘I saw him kissing you, and he said he was fonder of you van Bell or ve Butcha or me. And so I came. You must get up and come back. You didn’t ought to be here. Vis is a bad place, and I’ve bwoken my awwest.’
‘I can’t move, Winkie,’ said Miss Allardyce, with a groan. ‘I’ve hurt my foot. What shall I do?’
She showed a readiness to weep anew, which steadied Wee Willie Winkie, who had been brought up to believe that tears were the depth of unmanliness. Still, when one is as great a sinner as Wee Willie Winkie, even a man may be permitted to break down.
‘Winkie,’ said Miss Allardyce, ‘when you’ve rested a little, ride back and tell them to send out something to carry me back in. It hurts fearfully.’
The child sat still for a little time and Miss Allardyce closed her eyes; the pain was nearly making her faint. She was roused by Wee Willie Winkie tying up the reins on his pony’s neck and setting it free with a vicious cut of his whip that made it whicker. The little animal headed towards the cantonments.
‘Oh, Winkie, what are you doing?’
‘Hush!’ said Wee Willie Winkie. ‘Vere’s a man coming—one of ve Bad Men. I must stay wiv you. My faver says a man must always look after a girl. Jack will go home, and ven vey’ll come and look for us. Vat’s why I let him go.’
Not one man but two or three had appeared from behind the rocks of the hills, and the heart of Wee Willie Winkie sank within him, for just in this manner were the Goblins wont to steal out and vex Curdie’s soul. Thus had they played in Curdie’s garden—he had seen the picture—and thus had they frightened the Princess’s nurse. He heard them talking to each other, and recognised with joy the bastard Pushto that he had picked up from one of his father’s grooms lately dismissed. People who spoke that tongue could not be the Bad Men. They were only natives after all.
They came up to the boulders on which Miss Allardyce’s horse had blundered.
Then rose from the rock Wee Willie Winkie, child of the Dominant Race, aged six and three-quarters, and said briefly and emphatically ‘Jao!’ The pony had crossed the river-bed.
The men laughed, and laughter from natives was the one thing Wee Willie Winkie could not tolerate. He asked them what they wanted and why they did not depart. Other men with most evil faces and crooked-stocked guns crept out of the shadows of the hills, till, soon, Wee Willie Winkie was face to face with an audience some twenty strong. Miss Allardyce screamed.
‘Who are you?’ said one of the men.
‘I am the Colonel Sahib’s son, and my order is that you go at once. You black men are frightening the Miss Sahib. One of you must run into cantonments and take the news that the Miss Sahib has hurt herself, and that the Colonel’s son is here with her.’
‘Put our feet into the trap?’ was the laughing reply. ‘Hear this boy’s speech!’
‘Say that I sent you—I, the Colonel’s son. They will give you money.’
‘What is the use of this talk? Take up the child and the girl, and we can at least ask for the ransom. Ours are the villages on the heights,’ said a voice in the background.
These were the Bad Men—worse than Goblins—and it needed all Wee Willie Winkie’s training to prevent him from bursting into tears. But he felt that to cry before a native, excepting only his mother’s ayah, would be an infamy greater than any mutiny. Moreover, he, as future Colonel of the 195th, had that grim regiment at his back.
‘Are you going to carry us away?’ said Wee Willie Winkie, very blanched and uncomfortable.
‘Yes, my little Sahib Bahadur,’ said the tallest of the men, ‘and eat you afterwards.’
‘That is child’s talk,’ said Wee Willie Winkie. ‘Men do not eat men.’
A yell of laughter interrupted him, but he went on firmly—‘And if you do carry us away, I tell you that all my regiment will come up in a day and kill you all without leaving one. Who will take my message to the Colonel Sahib?’
Speech in any vernacular—and Wee Willie Winkie had a colloquial acquaintance with three—was easy to the boy who could not yet manage his ‘r’s’ and ‘th’s’ aright.
Another man joined the conference, crying: ‘O foolish men! What this babe says is true. He is the heart’s heart of those white troops. For the sake of peace let them go both, for if he be taken, the regiment will break loose and gut the valley. Our villages are in the valley, and we shall not escape. That regiment are devils. They broke Khoda Yar’s breastbone with kicks when he tried to take the rifles; and if we touch this child they will fire and rape and plunder for a month, till nothing remains. Better to send a man back to take the message and get a reward. I say that this child is their God, and that they will spare none of us, nor our women, if we harm him.’
It was Din Mahommed, the dismissed groom of the Colonel, who made the diversion, and an angry and heated discussion followed. Wee Willie Winkie, standing over Miss Allardyce, waited the upshot. Surely his ‘wegiment,’ his own ‘wegiment,’ would not desert him if they knew of his extremity.
The riderless pony brought the news to the 195th, though there had been consternation in the Colonel’s household for an hour before. The little beast came in through the parade-ground in front of the main barracks, where the men were settling down to play Spoil-five till the afternoon. Devlin, the Colour-Sergeant of E Company, glanced at the empty saddle and tumbled through the barrack-rooms, kicking up each Room Corporal as he passed. ‘Up, ye beggars! There’s something happened to the Colonel’s son,’ he shouted.
‘He couldn’t fall off! S’elp me, ’e couldn’t fall off,’ blubbered a drummer-boy. ‘Go an’ hunt acrost the river. He’s over there if he’s anywhere, an’ maybe those Pathans have got ’im. For the love o’ Gawd don’t look for ’im in the nullahs! Let’s go over the river.’
‘There’s sense in Mott yet,’ said Devlin. ‘E Company, double out to the river—sharp!’
So E Company, in its shirt-sleeves mainly, doubled for the dear life, and in the rear toiled the perspiring Sergeant, adjuring it to double yet faster. The cantonment was alive with the men of the 195th hunting for Wee Willie Winkie, and the Colonel finally overtook E Company, far too exhausted to swear, struggling in the pebbles of the river-bed.
Up the hill under which Wee Willie Winkie’s Bad Men were discussing the wisdom of carrying off the child and the girl, a look-out fired two shots.
‘What have I said?’ shouted Din Mahommed. ‘There is the warning! The pulton are out already and are coming across the plain! Get away! Let us not be seen with the boy.’
The men waited for an instant, and then, as another shot was fired, withdrew into the hills, silently as they had appeared.
‘The wegiment is coming,’ said Wee Willie Winkie confidently to Miss Allardyce, ‘and it’s all wight. Don’t cwy!’
He needed the advice himself, for ten minutes later, when his father came up, he was weeping bitterly with his head in Miss Allardyce’s lap.
And the men of the 195th carried him home with shouts and rejoicings; and Coppy, who had ridden a horse into a lather, met him, and, to his intense disgust, kissed him openly in the presence of the men.
But there was balm for his dignity. His father assured him that not only would the breaking of arrest be condoned, but that the good-conduct badge would be restored as soon as his mother could sew it on his blouse-sleeve. Miss Allardyce had told the Colonel a story that made him proud of his son.
‘She belonged to you, Coppy,’ said Wee Willie Winkie, indicating Miss Allardyce with a grimy forefinger. ‘I knew she didn’t ought to go acwoss ve wiver, and I knew ve wegiment would come to me if I sent Jack home.’
‘You’re a hero, Winkie,’ said Coppy—‘a pukka hero!’
‘I don’t know what vat means,’ said Wee Willie Winkie, ‘but you mustn’t call me Winkie any no more. I’m Percival Will’am Will’ams.’
And in this manner did Wee Willie Winkie enter into his manhood.
Where the word of a King is, there is power: And who may say unto him—What doest thou?
‘Yeth! And Chimo to sleep at ve foot of ve bed, and ve pink pikky-book, and ve bwead—’cause I will be hungwy in ve night—and vat’s all, Miss Biddums. And now give me one kiss and I’ll go to sleep.—So! Kite quiet. Ow! Ve pink pikky-book has slidded under ve pillow and ve bwead is cwumbling! Miss Biddums! Miss Bid-dums! I’m so uncomfy! Come and tuck me up, Miss Biddums.’
His Majesty the King was going to bed; and poor, patient Miss Biddums, who had advertised herself humbly as a ‘young person, European, accustomed to the care of little children,’ was forced to wait upon his royal caprices. The going to bed was always a lengthy process, because His Majesty had a convenient knack of forgetting which of his many friends, from the mehter’s son to the Commissioner’s daughter, he had prayed for, and, lest the Deity should take offence, was used to toil through his little prayers, in all reverence, five times in one evening. His Majesty the King believed in the efficacy of prayer as devoutly as he believed in Chimo the patient spaniel, or Miss Biddums, who could reach him down his gun—‘with cursuffun caps—reel ones’—from the upper shelves of the big nursery cupboard.
At the door of the nursery his authority stopped. Beyond lay the empire of his father and mother—two very terrible people who had no time to waste upon His Majesty the King. His voice was lowered when he passed the frontier of his own dominions, his actions were fettered, and his soul was filled with awe because of the grim man who lived among a wilderness of pigeon-holes and the most fascinating pieces of red tape, and the wonderful woman who was always getting into or stepping out of the big carriage.
To the one belonged the mysteries of the ‘duftar-room,’ to the other the great, reflected wilderness of the ‘Memsahib’s room,’ where the shiny, scented dresses hung on pegs, miles and miles up in the air, and the just-seen plateau of the toilet-table revealed an acreage of speckly combs, broidered ‘hanafitch-bags,’ and ‘white-headed’ brushes.
There was no room for His Majesty the King either in official reserve or worldly gorgeousness. He had discovered that, ages and ages ago—before even Chimo came to the house, or Miss Biddums had ceased grizzling over a packet of greasy letters which appeared to be her chief treasure on earth. His Majesty the King, therefore, wisely confined himself to his own territories, where only Miss Biddums, and she feebly, disputed his sway.
From Miss Biddums he had picked up his simple theology and welded it to the legends of gods and devils that he had learned in the servants’ quarters.
To Miss Biddums he confided with equal trust his tattered garments and his more serious griefs. She would make everything whole. She knew exactly how the Earth had been born, and had reassured the trembling soul of His Majesty the King that terrible time in July when it rained continuously for seven days and seven nights, and—there was no Ark ready and all the ravens had flown away! She was the most powerful person with whom he was brought into contact—always excepting the two remote and silent people beyond the nursery door.
How was His Majesty the King to know that, six years ago, in the summer of his birth, Mrs. Austell, turning over her husband’s papers, had come upon the intemperate letter of a foolish woman who had been carried away by the silent man’s strength and personal beauty? How could he tell what evil the overlooked slip of notepaper had wrought in the mind of a desperately jealous wife? How could he, despite his wisdom, guess that his mother had chosen to make of it excuse for a bar and a division between herself and her husband, that strengthened and grew harder to break with each year; that she, having unearthed this skeleton in the cupboard, had trained it into a household God which should be about their path and about their bed, and poison all their ways?
These things were beyond the province of His Majesty the King. He only knew that his father was daily absorbed in some mysterious work for a thing called the Sirkar, and that his mother was the victim alternately of the Nautch and the Burrakhana. To these entertainments she was escorted by a Captain-Man for whom His Majesty the King had no regard.
‘He doesn’t laugh,’ he argued with Miss Biddums, who would fain have taught him charity. ‘He only makes faces wiv his mouf, and when he wants to o-muse me I am not o-mused.’ And His Majesty the King shook his head as one who knew the deceitfulness of this world.
Morning and evening it was his duty to salute his father and mother—the former with a grave shake of the hand, and the latter with an equally grave kiss. Once, indeed, he had put his arms round his mother’s neck, in the fashion he used towards Miss Biddums. The openwork of his sleeve-edge caught in an earring, and the last stage of His Majesty’s little overture was a suppressed scream and summary dismissal to the nursery.
‘It is w’ong,’ thought His Majesty the King, ‘to hug Memsahibs wiv fings in veir ears. I will amember.’ He never repeated the experiment.
Miss Biddums, it must be confessed, spoilt him as much as his nature admitted, in some sort of recompense for what she called ‘the hard ways of his Papa and Mamma.’ She, like her charge, knew nothing of the trouble between man and wife—the savage contempt for a woman’s stupidity on the one side, or the dull, rankling anger on the other. Miss Biddums had looked after many little children in her time, and served in many establishments. Being a discreet woman, she observed little and said less, and, when her pupils went over the sea to the Great Unknown, which she, with touching confidence in her hearers, called ‘Home,’ packed up her slender belongings and sought for employment afresh, lavishing all her love on each successive batch of ingrates. Only His Majesty the King had repaid her affection with interest; and in his uncomprehending ears she had told the tale of nearly all her hopes, her aspirations, the hopes that were dead, and the dazzling glories of her ancestral home in ‘_Cal_cutta, close to Wellington Square.’
Everything above the average was in the eyes of His Majesty the King ‘Calcutta good.’ When Miss Biddums had crossed his royal will, he reversed the epithet to vex that estimable lady, and all things evil were, until the tears of repentance swept away spite, ‘Calcutta bad.’
Now and again Miss Biddums begged for him the rare pleasure of a day in the society of the Commissioner’s child—the wilful four-year-old Patsie, who, to the intense amazement of His Majesty the King, was idolised by her parents. On thinking the question out at length, by roads unknown to those who have left childhood behind, he came to the conclusion that Patsie was petted because she wore a big blue sash and yellow hair.
This precious discovery he kept to himself. The yellow hair was absolutely beyond his power, his own tousled wig being potato-brown; but something might be done towards the blue sash. He tied a large knot in his mosquito-curtains in order to remember to consult Patsie on their next meeting. She was the only child he had ever spoken to, and almost the only one that he had ever seen. The little memory and the very large and ragged knot held good.
‘Patsie, lend me your blue wiband,’ said His Majesty the King.
‘You’ll bewy it,’ said Patsie doubtfully, mindful of certain atrocities committed on her doll.
‘No, I won’t—twoofanhonour. It’s for me to wear.’
‘Pooh!’ said Patsie. ‘Boys don’t wear sa-ashes. Zey’s only for dirls.’
‘I didn’t know.’ The face of His Majesty the King fell.
‘Who wants ribands? Are you playing horses, chickabiddies?’ said the Commissioner’s wife, stepping into the veranda.
‘Toby wanted my sash,’ explained Patsie.
‘I don’t now,’ said His Majesty the King hastily, feeling that with one of these terrible ‘grown-ups’ his poor little secret would be shamelessly wrenched from him, and perhaps—most burning desecration of all—laughed at.
‘I’ll give you a cracker-cap,’ said the Commissioner’s wife. ‘Come along with me, Toby, and we’ll choose it.’
The cracker-cap was a stiff, three-pointed vermilion-and-tinsel splendour. His Majesty the King fitted it on his royal brow. The Commissioner’s wife had a face that children instinctively trusted, and her action, as she adjusted the toppling middle spike, was tender.
‘Will it do as well?’ stammered His Majesty the King.
‘As what, little one?’
‘As ve wiban?’
‘Oh, quite. Go and look at yourself in the glass.’
The words were spoken in all sincerity, and to help forward any absurd ‘dressing-up’ amusement that the children might take into their minds. But the young savage has a keen sense of the ludicrous. His Majesty the King swung the great cheval-glass down, and saw his head crowned with the staring horror of a fool’s cap—a thing which his father would rend to pieces if it ever came into his office. He plucked it off, and burst into tears.
‘Toby,’ said the Commissioner’s wife gravely, ‘you shouldn’t give way to temper. I am very sorry to see it. It’s wrong.’
His Majesty the King sobbed inconsolably, and the heart of Patsie’s mother was touched. She drew the child on to her knee. Clearly it was not temper alone.
‘What is it, Toby? Won’t you tell me? Aren’t you well?’
The torrent of sobs and speech met, and fought for a time, with chokings and gulpings and gasps. Then, in a sudden rush, His Majesty the King was delivered of a few inarticulate sounds, followed by the words—‘Go a—way you—dirty—little debbil!’
‘Toby! What do you mean?’
‘It’s what he’d say. I know it is! He said vat when vere was only a little, little eggy mess, on my t-t-unic; and he’d say it again, and laugh, if I went in wif vat on my head.’
‘Who would say that?’
‘M-m-my Papa! And I fought if I had ve blue wiban, he’d let me play in ve waste-paper basket under ve table.’
‘What blue riband, childie?’
‘Ve same vat Patsie had—ve big blue wiban w-w-wound my t-t-tummy!’
‘What is it, Toby? There’s something on your mind. Tell me all about it, and perhaps I can help.’
‘Isn’t anyfing,’ sniffed His Majesty, mindful of his manhood, and raising his head from the motherly bosom upon which it was resting. ‘I only fought vat you—you petted Patsie ’cause she had ve blue wiban, and—and if I’d had ve blue wiban too, m-my Papa w-would pet me.’
The secret was out, and His Majesty the King sobbed bitterly in spite of the arms around him and the murmur of comfort on his heated little forehead.
Enter Patsie tumultuously, embarrassed by several lengths of the Commissioner’s pet mahseer-rod. ‘Tum along, Toby! Zere’s a chu-chu lizard in ze chick, and I’ve told Chimo to watch him till we tum. If we poke him wiz zis his tail will go wiggle-wiggle and fall off. Tum along! I can’t weach.’
‘I’m comin’,’ said His Majesty the King, climbing down from the Commissioner’s wife’s knee after a hasty kiss.
Two minutes later, the chu-chu lizard’s tail was wriggling on the matting of the veranda, and the children were gravely poking it with splinters from the chick, to urge its exhausted vitality into ‘just one wiggle more, ’cause it doesn’t hurt chu-chu.’
The Commissioner’s wife stood in the doorway and watched—‘Poor little mite! A blue sash——and my own precious Patsie! I wonder if the best of us, or we who love them best, ever understood what goes on in their topsy-turvey little heads.’
She went indoors to devise a tea for His Majesty the King.
‘Their souls aren’t in their tummies at that age in this climate,’ said the Commissioner’s wife, ‘but they are not far off. I wonder if I could make Mrs. Austell understand. Poor little fellow!’
With simple craft, the Commissioner’s wife called on Mrs. Austell and spoke long and lovingly about children; inquiring specially for His Majesty the King.
‘He’s with his governess,’ said Mrs. Austell, and the tone showed that she was not interested.
The Commissioner’s wife, unskilled in the art of war, continued her questionings. ‘I don’t know,’ said Mrs. Austell. ‘These things are left to Miss Biddums, and, of course, she does not ill-treat the child.’
The Commissioner’s wife left hastily. The last sentence jarred upon her nerves. ‘Doesn’t ill-treat the child! As if that were all! I wonder what Tom would say if I only “didn’t ill-treat” Patsie!’
Thenceforward, His Majesty the King was an honoured guest at the Commissioner’s house, and the chosen friend of Patsie, with whom he blundered into as many scrapes as the compound and the servants’ quarters afforded. Patsie’s Mamma was always ready to give counsel, help, and sympathy, and, if need were and callers few, to enter into their games with an abandon that would have shocked the sleek-haired subalterns who squirmed painfully in their chairs when they came to call on her whom they profanely nicknamed ‘Mother Bunch.’
Yet, in spite of Patsie and Patsie’s Mamma, and the love that these two lavished upon him, His Majesty the King fell grievously from grace, and committed no less a sin than that of theft—unknown, it is true, but burdensome.
There came a man to the door one day, when His Majesty was playing in the hall and the bearer had gone to dinner, with a packet for His Majesty’s Mamma. And he put it upon the hall-table, and said that there was no answer, and departed.
Presently, the pattern of the dado ceased to interest His Majesty, while the packet, a white, neatly-wrapped one of fascinating shape, interested him very much indeed. His Mamma was out, so was Miss Biddums, and there was pink string round the packet. He greatly desired pink string. It would help him in many of his little businesses—the haulage across the floor of his small cane-chair, the torturing of Chimo, who could never understand harness—and so forth. If he took the string it would be his own, and nobody would be any the wiser. He certainly could not pluck up sufficient courage to ask Mamma for it. Wherefore, mounting upon a chair, he carefully untied the string and, behold, the stiff white paper spread out in four directions, and revealed a beautiful little leather box with gold lines upon it! He tried to replace the string, but that was a failure. So he opened the box to get full satisfaction for his iniquity, and saw a most beautiful Star that shone and winked, and was altogether lovely and desirable.
‘Vat,’ said His Majesty meditatively, ‘is a ’parkle cwown, like what I will wear when I go to heaven. I will wear it on my head—Miss Biddums says so. I would like to wear it now. I would like to play wiv it. I will take it away and play wiv it, very careful, until Mamma asks for it. I fink it was bought for me to play wiv—same as my cart.’
His Majesty the King was arguing against his conscience, and he knew it, for he thought immediately after: ‘Never mind, I will keep it to play wiv until Mamma says where is it, and then I will say—“I tookt it and I am sorry.” I will not hurt it because it is a ’parkle cwown. But Miss Biddums will tell me to put it back. I will not show it to Miss Biddums.’
If Mamma had come in at that moment all would have gone well. She did not, and His Majesty the King stuffed paper, case, and jewel into the breast of his blouse and marched to the nursery.
‘When Mamma asks I will tell,’ was the salve that he laid upon his conscience. But Mamma never asked, and for three whole days His Majesty the King gloated over his treasure. It was of no earthly use to him, but it was splendid, and, for aught he knew, something dropped from the heavens themselves. Still Mamma made no inquiries, and it seemed to him, in his furtive peeps, as though the shiny stones grew dim. What was the use of a ’parkle cwown if it made a little boy feel all bad in his inside? He had the pink string as well as the other treasure, but greatly he wished that he had not gone beyond the string. It was his first experience of iniquity, and it pained him after the flush of possession and secret delight in the ‘’parkle cwown’ had died away.
Each day that he delayed rendered confession to the people beyond the nursery doors more impossible. Now and again he determined to put himself in the path of the beautifully-attired lady as she was going out, and explain that he and no one else was the possessor of a ‘’parkle cwown,’ most beautiful and quite uninquired for. But she passed hurriedly to her carriage, and the opportunity was gone before His Majesty the King could draw the deep breath which clinches noble resolve. The dread secret cut him off from Miss Biddums, Patsie, and the Commissioner’s wife, and—doubly hard fate—when he brooded over it Patsie said, and told her mother, that he was cross.
The days were very long to His Majesty the King, and the nights longer still. Miss Biddums had informed him, more than once, what was the ultimate destiny of ‘fieves,’ and when he passed the interminable mud flanks of the Central Jail, he shook in his little strapped shoes.
But release came after an afternoon spent in playing boats by the edge of the tank at the bottom of the garden. His Majesty the King went to tea, and, for the first time in his memory, the meal revolted him. His nose was very cold, and his cheeks were burning hot. There was a weight about his feet, and he pressed his head several times to make sure that it was not swelling as he sat.
‘I feel vevy funny,’ said His Majesty the King, rubbing his nose. ‘Vere’s a buzz-buzz in my head.’
He went to bed quietly. Miss Biddums was out and the bearer undressed him.
The sin of the ‘’parkle cwown’ was forgotten in the acuteness of the discomfort to which he roused after a leaden sleep of some hours. He was thirsty, and the bearer had forgotten to leave the drinking-water. ‘Miss Biddums! Miss Biddums! I’m so kirsty!’
No answer. Miss Biddums had leave to attend the wedding of a Calcutta schoolmate. His Majesty the King had forgotten that.
‘I want a dwink of water,’ he cried, but his voice was dried up in his throat. ‘I want a dwink! Vere is ve glass?’
He sat up in bed and looked round. There was a murmur of voices from the other side of the nursery door. It was better to face the terrible unknown than to choke in the dark. He slipped out of bed, but his feet were strangely wilful, and he reeled once or twice. Then he pushed the door open and staggered—a puffed and purple-faced little figure—into the brilliant light of the dining-room full of pretty ladies.
‘I’m vevy hot! I’m vevy uncomfitivle,’ moaned His Majesty the King, clinging to the portière, ‘and vere’s no water in ve glass, and I’m so kirsty. Give me a dwink of water.’
An apparition in black and white—His Majesty the King could hardly see distinctly—lifted him up to the level of the table, and felt his wrists and forehead. The water came, and he drank deeply, his teeth chattering against the edge of the tumbler. Then every one seemed to go away—every one except the huge man in black and white, who carried him back to his bed; the mother and father following. And the sin of the ‘’parkle cwown’ rushed back and took possession of the terrified soul.
‘I’m a fief!’ he gasped. ‘I want to tell Miss Biddums vat I’m a fief. Vere is Miss Biddums?’
Miss Biddums had come and was bending over him. ‘I’m a fief,’ he whispered. ‘A fief—like ve men in ve pwison. But I’ll tell now. I tookt—I tookt ve ’parkle cwown when ve man that came left it in ve hall. I bwoke ve paper and ve little bwown box, and it looked shiny, and I tookt it to play wif, and I was afwaid. It’s in ve dooly-box at ve bottom. No one never asked for it, but I was afwaid. Oh, go an’ get ve dooly-box!’
Miss Biddums obediently stooped to the lowest shelf of the almirah and unearthed the big paper box in which His Majesty the King kept his dearest possessions. Under the tin soldiers, and a layer of mud pellets for a pellet-bow, winked and blazed a diamond star, wrapped roughly in a half-sheet of notepaper whereon were a few words.
Somebody was crying at the head of the bed, and a man’s hand touched the forehead of His Majesty the King, who grasped the packet and spread it on the bed.
‘Vat is ve ’parkle cwown,’ he said, and wept bitterly; for now that he had made restitution he would fain have kept the shining splendour with him.
‘It concerns you too,’ said a voice at the head of the bed. ‘Read the note. This is not the time to keep back anything.’
The note was curt, very much to the point, and signed by a single initial. ‘If you wear this to-morrow night I shall know what to expect.’ The date was three weeks old.
A whisper followed, and the deeper voice returned: ‘And you drifted as far apart as that! I think it makes us quits now, doesn’t it? Oh, can’t we drop this folly once and for all? Is it worth it, darling?’
‘Kiss me too,’ said His Majesty the King dreamily. ‘You isn’t vevy angwy, is you?’
The fever burned itself out, and His Majesty the King slept.
When he waked, it was in a new world—peopled by his father and mother as well as Miss Biddums; and there was much love in that world and no morsel of fear, and more petting than was good for several little boys. His Majesty the King was too young to moralise on the uncertainty of things human, or he would have been impressed with the singular advantages of crime—ay, black sin. Behold, he had stolen the ‘’parkle cwown,’ and his reward was Love, and the right to play in the waste-paper basket under the table ‘for always.’
* * * * *
He trotted over to spend an afternoon with Patsie, and the Commissioner’s wife would have kissed him. ‘No, not vere,’ said His Majesty the King, with superb insolence, fencing one corner of his mouth with his hand. ‘Vat’s my Mamma’s place—vere she kisses me.’
‘Oh!’ said the Commissioner’s wife briefly. Then to herself: ‘Well, I suppose I ought to be glad for his sake. Children are selfish little grubs and—I’ve got my Patsie.’
Baa Baa, Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full.
One for the Master, one for the Dame—
None for the Little Boy that cries down the lane.
— Nursery Rhyme.
When I was in my father’s house, I was in a better place.
They were putting Punch to bed—the ayah and the hamal and Meeta, the big Surti boy, with the red and gold turban. Judy, already tucked inside her mosquito-curtains, was nearly asleep. Punch had been allowed to stay up for dinner. Many privileges had been accorded to Punch within the last ten days, and a greater kindness from the people of his world had encompassed his ways and works, which were mostly obstreperous. He sat on the edge of his bed and swung his bare legs defiantly.
‘Punch-baba going to bye-lo?’ said the ayah suggestively.
‘No,’ said Punch. ‘Punch-baba wants the story about the Ranee that was turned into a tiger. Meeta must tell it, and the hamal shall hide behind the door and make tiger-noises at the proper time,’
‘But Judy-baba will wake up,’ said the ayah.
‘Judy-baba is waked,’ piped a small voice from the mosquito-curtains. ‘There was a Ranee that lived at Delhi. Go on, Meeta,’ and she fell fast asleep again while Meeta began the story.
Never had Punch secured the telling of that tale with so little opposition. He reflected for a long time. The hamal made the tiger-noises in twenty different keys.
‘’Top!’ said Punch authoritatively. ‘Why doesn’t Papa come in and say he is going to give me put-put?’
‘Punch-baba is going away,’ said the ayah. ‘In another week there will be no Punch-baba to pull my hair any more.’ She sighed softly, for the boy of the household was very dear to her heart.
‘Up the Ghauts in a train?’ said Punch, standing on his bed. ‘All the way to Nassick where the Ranee-Tiger lives?’
‘Not to Nassick this year, little Sahib,’ said Meeta, lifting him on his shoulder. ‘Down to the sea where the cocoa-nuts are thrown, and across the sea in a big ship. Will you take Meeta with you to Belait?’
‘You shall all come,’ said Punch, from the height of Meeta’s strong arms. ‘Meeta and the ayah and the hamal and Bhini-in-the-Garden, and the salaam-Captain-Sahib-snake-man.’
There was no mockery in Meeta’s voice when he replied—‘Great is the Sahib’s favour,’ and laid the little man down in the bed, while the ayah, sitting in the moonlight at the doorway, lulled him to sleep with an interminable canticle such as they sing in the Roman Catholic Church at Parel. Punch curled himself into a ball and slept.
Next morning Judy shouted that there was a rat in the nursery, and thus he forgot to tell her the wonderful news. It did not much matter, for Judy was only three and she would not have understood. But Punch was five; and he knew that going to England would be much nicer than a trip to Nassick.
Papa and Mamma sold the brougham and the piano, and stripped the house, and curtailed the allowance of crockery for the daily meals, and took long counsel together over a bundle of letters bearing the Rocklington postmark.
‘The worst of it is that one can’t be certain of anything,’ said Papa, pulling his moustache. ‘The letters in themselves are excellent, and the terms are moderate enough.’
‘The worst of it is that the children will grow up away from me,’ thought Mamma; but she did not say it aloud.
‘We are only one case among hundreds,’ said Papa bitterly. ‘You shall go Home again in five years, dear.’
‘Punch will be ten then—and Judy eight. Oh, how long and long and long the time will be! And we have to leave them among strangers.’
‘Punch is a cheery little chap. He’s sure to make friends wherever he goes.’
‘And who could help loving my Ju?’
They were standing over the cots in the nursery late at night, and I think that Mamma was crying softly. After Papa had gone away, she knelt down by the side of Judy’s cot. The ayah saw her and put up a prayer that the memsahib might never find the love of her children taken away from her and given to a stranger.
Mamma’s own prayer was a slightly illogical one. Summarised it ran: ‘Let strangers love my children and be as good to them as I should be, but let me preserve their love and their confidence for ever and ever. Amen.’ Punch scratched himself in his sleep, and Judy moaned a little.
Next day they all went down to the sea, and there was a scene at the Apollo Bunder when Punch discovered that Meeta could not come too, and Judy learned that the ayah must be left behind. But Punch found a thousand fascinating things in the rope, block, and steam-pipe line on the big P. and O. Steamer long before Meeta and the ayah had dried their tears.
‘Come back, Punch-baba’ said the ayah.
‘Come back,’ said Meeta, ‘and be a Burra Sahib’ (a big man).
‘Yes,’ said Punch, lifted up in his father’s arms to wave good-bye. ‘Yes, I will come back, and I will be a Burra Sahib Bahadur!’ (a very big man indeed).
At the end of the first day Punch demanded to be set down in England, which he was certain must be close at hand. Next day there was a merry breeze, and Punch was very sick. ‘When I come back to Bombay,’ said Punch on his recovery, ‘I will come by the road—in a broom-gharri. This is a very naughty ship.’
The Swedish boatswain consoled him, and he modified his opinions as the voyage went on. There was so much to see and to handle and ask questions about that Punch nearly forgot the ayah and Meeta and the hamal, and with difficulty remembered a few words of the Hindustani once his second-speech.
But Judy was much worse. The day before the steamer reached Southampton, Mamma asked her if she would not like to see the ayah again. Judy’s blue eyes turned to the stretch of sea that had swallowed all her tiny past, and she said: ‘Ayah! What ayah?’
Mamma cried over her and Punch marvelled. It was then that he heard for the first time Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma. Seeing that Judy was young, ridiculously young, and that Mamma, every evening for four weeks past, had come into the cabin to sing her and Punch to sleep with a mysterious rune that he called ‘Sonny, my soul,’ Punch could not understand what Mamma meant. But he strove to do his duty; for, the moment Mamma left the cabin, he said to Judy: ‘Ju, you bemember Mamma?’
‘’Torse I do,’ said Judy.
‘Then always bemember Mamma, ’r else I won’t give you the paper ducks that the red-haired Captain Sahib cut out for me.’
So Judy promised always to ‘bemember Mamma.’
Many and many a time was Mamma’s command laid upon Punch, and Papa would say the same thing with an insistence that awed the child.
‘You must make haste and learn to write, Punch,’ said Papa, ‘and then you’ll be able to write letters to us in Bombay.’
‘I’ll come into your room,’ said Punch, and Papa choked.
Papa and Mamma were always choking in those days. If Punch took Judy to task for not ‘bemembering,’ they choked. If Punch sprawled on the sofa in the Southampton lodging-house and sketched his future in purple and gold, they choked; and so they did if Judy put up her mouth for a kiss.
Through many days all four were vagabonds on the face of the earth—Punch with no one to give orders to, Judy too young for anything, and Papa and Mamma grave, distracted, and choking.
‘Where,’ demanded Punch, wearied of a loathsome contrivance on four wheels with a mound of luggage atop—‘where is our broom-gharri? This thing talks so much that I can’t talk. Where is our own broom-gharri? When I was at Bandstand before we comed away, I asked Inverarity Sahib why he was sitting in it, and he said it was his own. And I said, “I will give it you”—I like Inverarity Sahib—and I said, “Can you put your legs through the pully-wag loops by the windows?” And Inverarity Sahib said No, and laughed, I can put my legs through the pully-wag loops. I can put my legs through these pully-wag loops. Look! Oh, Mamma’s crying again! I didn’t know I wasn’t not to do so.’
Punch drew his legs out of the loops of the four-wheeler: the door opened and he slid to the earth, in a cascade of parcels, at the door of an austere little villa whose gates bore the legend ‘Downe Lodge.’ Punch gathered himself together and eyed the house with disfavour. It stood on a sandy road, and a cold wind tickled his knickerbockered legs.
‘Let us go away,’ said Punch. ‘This is not a pretty place.’
But Mamma and Papa and Judy had left the cab, and all the luggage was being taken into the house. At the doorstep stood a woman in black, and she smiled largely, with dry chapped lips. Behind her was a man, big, bony, gray, and lame as to one leg—behind him a boy of twelve, black-haired and oily in appearance. Punch surveyed the trio, and advanced without fear, as he had been accustomed to do in Bombay when callers came and he happened to be playing in the veranda.
‘How do you do?’ said he. ‘I am Punch.’ But they were all looking at the luggage—all except the gray man, who shook hands with Punch, and said he was ‘a smart little fellow.’ There was much running about and banging of boxes, and Punch curled himself up on the sofa in the dining-room and considered things.
‘I don’t like these people,’ said Punch. ‘But never mind. We’ll go away soon. We have always went away soon from everywhere. I wish we was gone back to Bombay soon.’
The wish bore no fruit. For six days Mamma wept at intervals, and showed the woman in black all Punch’s clothes—a liberty which Punch resented. ‘But p’raps she’s a new white ayah,’ he thought. ‘I’m to call her Antirosa, but she doesn’t call me Sahib. She says just Punch,’ he confided to Judy. ‘What is Antirosa?’
Judy didn’t know. Neither she nor Punch had heard anything of an animal called an aunt. Their world had been Papa and Mamma, who knew everything, permitted everything, and loved everybody—even Punch when he used to go into the garden at Bombay and fill his nails with mould after the weekly nail-cutting, because, as he explained between two strokes of the slipper to his sorely-tried Father, his fingers ‘felt so new at the ends.’
In an undefined way Punch judged it advisable to keep both parents between himself and the woman in black and the boy in black hair. He did not approve of them. He liked the gray man, who had expressed a wish to be called ‘Uncleharri.’ They nodded at each other when they met, and the gray man showed him a little ship with rigging that took up and down.
‘She is a model of the Brisk—the little Brisk that was sore exposed that day at Navarino.’ The gray man hummed the last words and fell into a reverie. ‘I’ll tell you about Navarino, Punch, when we go for walks together; and you mustn’t touch the ship, because she’s the Brisk.’
Long before that walk, the first of many, was taken, they roused Punch and Judy in the chill dawn of a February morning to say Good-bye; and of all people in the wide earth to Papa and Mamma—both crying this time. Punch was very sleepy and Judy was cross.
‘Don’t forget us,’ pleaded Mamma. ‘Oh, my little son, don’t forget us, and see that Judy remembers too.’
‘I’ve told Judy to bemember,’ said Punch, wriggling, for his father’s beard tickled his neck, ‘I’ve told Judy—ten—forty—’leven thousand times. But Ju’s so young—quite a baby—isn’t she?’
‘Yes,’ said Papa, ‘quite a baby, and you must be good to Judy, and make haste to learn to write and—and—and——’
Punch was back in his bed again. Judy was fast asleep, and there was the rattle of a cab below. Papa and Mamma had gone away. Not to Nassick; that was across the sea. To some place much nearer, of course, and equally of course they would return. They came back after dinner-parties, and Papa had come back after he had been to a place called ‘The Snows,’ and Mamma with him, to Punch and Judy at Mrs. Inverarity’s house in Marine Lines. Assuredly they would come back again. So Punch fell asleep till the true morning, when the black-haired boy met him with the information that Papa and Mamma had gone to Bombay, and that he and Judy were to stay at Downe Lodge ‘for ever.’ Antirosa, tearfully appealed to for a contradiction, said that Harry had spoken the truth, and that it behoved Punch to fold up his clothes neatly on going to bed. Punch went out and wept bitterly with Judy, into whose fair head he had driven some ideas of the meaning of separation.
When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.
The model of the ship availed nothing, though the gray man assured Punch that he might pull the rigging up and down as much as he pleased; and Judy was promised free entry into the kitchen. They wanted Papa and Mamma gone to Bombay beyond the seas, and their grief while it lasted was without remedy.
When the tears ceased the house was very still. Antirosa had decided that it was better to let the children ‘have their cry out,’ and the boy had gone to school. Punch raised his head from the floor and sniffed mournfully. Judy was nearly asleep. Three short years had not taught her how to bear sorrow with full knowledge. There was a distant, dull boom in the air—a repeated heavy thud. Punch knew that sound in Bombay in the Monsoon. It was the sea—the sea that must be traversed before any one could get to Bombay.
‘Quick, Ju!’ he cried, ‘we’re close to the sea. I can hear it! Listen! That’s where they’ve went. P’raps we can catch them if we was in time. They didn’t mean to go without us. They’ve only forgot.’
‘Iss,’ said Judy. ‘They’ve only forgotted. Less go to the sea.’
The hall-door was open and so was the garden-gate.
‘It’s very, very big, this place,’ he said, looking cautiously down the road, ‘and we will get lost; but I will find a man and order him to take me back to my house—like I did in Bombay.’
He took Judy by the hand, and the two ran hatless in the direction of the sound of the sea. Downe Villa was almost the last of a range of newly-built houses running out, through a field of brick-mounds, to a heath where gypsies occasionally camped and where the Garrison Artillery of Rocklington practised. There were few people to be seen, and the children might have been taken for those of the soldiery who ranged far. Half an hour the wearied little legs tramped across heath, potato-patch, and sand-dune.
‘I’se so tired,’ said Judy, ‘and Mamma will be angry.’
‘Mamma’s never angry. I suppose she is waiting at the sea now while Papa gets tickets. We’ll find them and go along with them. Ju, you mustn’t sit down. Only a little more and we’ll come to the sea. Ju, if you sit down I’ll thmack you!’ said Punch.
They climbed another dune, and came upon the great gray sea at low tide. Hundreds of crabs were scuttling about the beach, but there was no trace of Papa and Mamma, not even of a ship upon the waters—nothing but sand and mud for miles and miles.
And ‘Uncleharri’ found them by chance—very muddy and very forlorn—Punch dissolved in tears, but trying to divert Judy with an ‘ickle trab,’ and Judy wailing to the pitiless horizon for ‘Mamma, Mamma!’—and again ‘Mamma!’
Ah, well-a-day, for we are souls bereaved!
Of all the creatures under Heaven’s wide scope
We are most hopeless, who had once most hope,
And most beliefless, who had most believed.
— The City of Dreadful Night.
All this time not a word about Black Sheep. He came later, and Harry the black-haired boy was mainly responsible for his coming.
Judy—who could help loving little Judy?—passed, by special permit, into the kitchen and thence straight to Aunty Rosa’s heart. Harry was Aunty Rosa’s one child, and Punch was the extra boy about the house. There was no special place for him or his little affairs, and he was forbidden to sprawl on sofas and explain his ideas about the manufacture of this world and his hopes for his future. Sprawling was lazy and wore out sofas, and little boys were not expected to talk. They were talked to, and the talking to was intended for the benefit of their morals. As the unquestioned despot of the house at Bombay, Punch could not quite understand how he came to be of no account in this his new life.
Harry might reach across the table and take what he wanted; Judy might point and get what she wanted. Punch was forbidden to do either. The gray man was his great hope and stand-by for many months after Mamma and Papa left, and he had forgotten to tell Judy to ‘bemember Mamma.’
This lapse was excusable, because in the interval he had been introduced by Aunty Rosa to two very impressive things—an abstraction called God, the intimate friend and ally of Aunty Rosa, generally believed to live behind the kitchen-range because it was hot there—and a dirty brown book filled with unintelligible dots and marks. Punch was always anxious to oblige everybody. He therefore welded the story of the Creation on to what he could recollect of his Indian fairy tales, and scandalised Aunty Rosa by repeating the result to Judy. It was a sin, a grievous sin, and Punch was talked to for a quarter of an hour. He could not understand where the iniquity came in, but was careful not to repeat the offence, because Aunty Rosa told him that God had heard every word he had said and was very angry. If this were true why didn’t God come and say so, thought Punch, and dismissed the matter from his mind. Afterwards he learned to know the Lord as the only thing in the world more awful than Aunty Rosa—as a Creature that stood in the background and counted the strokes of the cane.
But the reading was, just then, a much more serious matter than any creed. Aunty Rosa sat him upon a table and told him that A B meant ab.
‘Why?’ said Punch. ‘A is a and B is bee. Why does A B mean ab?’
‘Because I tell you it does,’ said Aunty Rosa, ‘and you’ve got to say it.’
Punch said it accordingly, and for a month, hugely against his will, stumbled through the brown book, not in the least comprehending what it meant. But Uncle Harry, who walked much and generally alone, was wont to come into the nursery and suggest to Aunty Rosa that Punch should walk with him. He seldom spoke, but he showed Punch all Rocklington, from the mudbanks and the sand of the back-bay to the great harbours where ships lay at anchor, and the dockyards where the hammers were never still, and the marine-store shops, and the shiny brass counters in the Offices where Uncle Harry went once every three months with a slip of blue paper and received sovereigns in exchange; for he held a wound-pension. Punch heard, too, from his lips the story of the battle of Navarino, where the sailors of the Fleet, for three days afterwards, were deaf as posts and could only sign to each other. ‘That was because of the noise of the guns,’ said Uncle Harry, ‘and I have got the wadding of a bullet somewhere inside me now.’
Punch regarded him with curiosity. He had not the least idea what wadding was, and his notion of a bullet was a dockyard cannon-ball bigger than his own head. How could Uncle Harry keep a cannon-ball inside him? He was ashamed to ask, for fear Uncle Harry might be angry.
Punch had never known what anger—real anger—meant until one terrible day when Harry had taken his paint-box to paint a boat with, and Punch had protested. Then Uncle Harry had appeared on the scene and, muttering something about ‘strangers’ children,’ had with a stick smitten the black-haired boy across the shoulders till he wept and yelled, and Aunty Rosa came in and abused Uncle Harry for cruelty to his own flesh and blood, and Punch shuddered to the tips of his shoes. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ he explained to the boy, but both Harry and Aunty Rosa said that it was, and that Punch had told tales, and for a week there were no more walks with Uncle Harry.
But that week brought a great joy to Punch.
He had repeated till he was thrice weary the statement that ‘the Cat lay on the Mat and the Rat came in.’
‘Now I can truly read,’ said Punch, ‘and now I will never read anything in the world.’
He put the brown book in the cupboard where his school-books lived and accidentally tumbled out a venerable volume, without covers, labelled Sharpe’s Magazine. There was the most portentous picture of a griffin on the first page, with verses below. The griffin carried off one sheep a day from a German village, till a man came with a ‘falchion’ and split the griffin open. Goodness only knew what a falchion was, but there was the Griffin, and his history was an improvement upon the eternal Cat.
‘This,’ said Punch, ‘means things, and now I will know all about everything in all the world.’ He read till the light failed, not understanding a tithe of the meaning, but tantalised by glimpses of new worlds hereafter to be revealed.
‘What is a “falchion”? What is a “e-wee lamb”? What is a “base _us_surper”? What is a “verdant me-ad”?’ he demanded with flushed cheeks, at bedtime, of the astonished Aunty Rosa.
‘Say your prayers and go to sleep,’ she replied, and that was all the help Punch then or afterwards found at her hands in the new and delightful exercise of reading.
‘Aunty Rosa only knows about God and things like that,’ argued Punch. ‘Uncle Harry will tell me.’
The next walk proved that Uncle Harry could not help either; but he allowed Punch to talk, and even sat down on a bench to hear about the Griffin. Other walks brought other stories as Punch ranged farther afield, for the house held large store of old books that no one ever opened—from Frank Fairlegh in serial numbers, and the earlier poems of Tennyson, contributed anonymously to Sharpe’s Magazine, to ‘62 Exhibition Catalogues, gay with colours and delightfully incomprehensible, and odd leaves of Gulliver’s Travels.
As soon as Punch could string a few pot-hooks together he wrote to Bombay, demanding by return of post ‘all the books in all the world.’ Papa could not comply with this modest indent, but sent Grimm’s Fairy Tales and a Hans Andersen. That was enough. If he were only left alone Punch could pass, at any hour he chose, into a land of his own, beyond reach of Aunty Rosa and her God, Harry and his teasements, and Judy’s claims to be played with.
‘Don’t disturve me, I’m reading. Go and play in the kitchen,’ grunted Punch. ‘Aunty Rosa lets you go there.’ Judy was cutting her second teeth and was fretful. She appealed to Aunty Rosa, who descended on Punch.
‘I was reading,’ he explained, ‘reading a book I want to read.’
‘You’re only doing that to show off,’ said Aunty Rosa. ‘But we’ll see. Play with Judy now, and don’t open a book for a week.’
Judy did not pass a very enjoyable playtime with Punch, who was consumed with indignation. There was a pettiness at the bottom of the prohibition which puzzled him.
‘It’s what I like to do,’ he said, ‘and she’s found out that and stopped me. Don’t cry, Ju—it wasn’t your fault—please don’t cry, or she’ll say I made you.’
Ju loyally mopped up her tears, and the two played in their nursery, a room in the basement and half underground, to which they were regularly sent after the mid-day dinner while Aunty Rosa slept. She drank wine—that is to say, something from a bottle in the cellaret—for her stomach’s sake, but if she did not fall asleep she would sometimes come into the nursery to see that the children were really playing. Now bricks, wooden hoops, ninepins, and chinaware cannot amuse for ever, especially when all Fairyland is to be won by the mere opening of a book, and, as often as not, Punch would be discovered reading to Judy or telling her interminable tales. That was an offence in the eyes of the law, and Judy would be whisked off by Aunty Rosa, while Punch was left to play alone, ‘and be sure that I hear you doing it.’
It was not a cheering employ, for he had to make a playful noise. At last, with infinite craft, he devised an arrangement whereby the table could be supported as to three legs on toy bricks, leaving the fourth clear to bring down on the floor. He could work the table with one hand and hold a book with the other. This he did till an evil day when Aunty Rosa pounced upon him unawares and told him that he was ‘acting a lie.’
‘If you’re old enough to do that,’ she said—her temper was always worst after dinner—‘you’re old enough to be beaten.’
‘But—I’m—I’m not an animal!’ said Punch aghast. He remembered Uncle Harry and the stick, and turned white. Aunty Rosa had hidden a light cane behind her, and Punch was beaten then and there over the shoulders. It was a revelation to him. The room-door was shut, and he was left to weep himself into repentance and work out his own gospel of life.
Aunty Rosa, he argued, had the power to beat him with many stripes. It was unjust and cruel, and Mamma and Papa would never have allowed it. Unless perhaps, as Aunty Rosa seemed to imply, they had sent secret orders. In which case he was abandoned indeed. It would be discreet in the future to propitiate Aunty Rosa, but, then, again, even in matters in which he was innocent, he had been accused of wishing to ‘show off.’ He had ‘shown off’ before visitors when he had attacked a strange gentleman—Harry’s uncle, not his own—with requests for information about the Griffin and the falchion, and the precise nature of the Tilbury in which Frank Fairlegh rode—all points of paramount interest which he was bursting to understand. Clearly it would not do to pretend to care for Aunty Rosa.
At this point Harry entered and stood afar off, eyeing Punch, a dishevelled heap in the corner of the room, with disgust.
‘You’re a liar—a young liar,’ said Harry, with great unction, ‘and you’re to have tea down here because you’re not fit to speak to us. And you’re not to speak to Judy again till Mother gives you leave. You’ll corrupt her. You’re only fit to associate with the servant. Mother says so.’
Having reduced Punch to a second agony of tears, Harry departed upstairs with the news that Punch was still rebellious.
Uncle Harry sat uneasily in the dining-room. ‘Damn it all, Rosa,’ said he at last, ‘can’t you leave the child alone? He’s a good enough little chap when I meet him.’
‘He puts on his best manners with you, Henry,’ said Aunty Rosa, ‘but I’m afraid, I’m very much afraid, that he is the Black Sheep of the family.’
Harry heard and stored up the name for future use. Judy cried till she was bidden to stop, her brother not being worth tears; and the evening concluded with the return of Punch to the upper regions and a private sitting at which all the blinding horrors of Hell were revealed to Punch with such store of imagery as Aunty Rosa’s narrow mind possessed.
Most grievous of all was Judy’s round-eyed reproach, and Punch went to bed in the depths of the Valley of Humiliation. He shared his room with Harry and knew the torture in store. For an hour and a half he had to answer that young gentleman’s questions as to his motives for telling a lie, and a grievous lie, the precise quantity of punishment inflicted by Aunty Rosa, and had also to profess his deep gratitude for such religious instruction as Harry thought fit to impart.
From that day began the downfall of Punch, now Black Sheep.
‘Untrustworthy in one thing, untrustworthy in all,’ said Aunty Rosa, and Harry felt that Black Sheep was delivered into his hands. He would wake him up in the night to ask him why he was such a liar.
‘I don’t know,’ Punch would reply.
‘Then don’t you think you ought to get up and pray to God for a new heart?’
‘Get out and pray, then!’ And Punch would get out of bed with raging hate in his heart against all the world, seen and unseen. He was always tumbling into trouble. Harry had a knack of cross-examining him as to his day’s doings, which seldom failed to lead him, sleepy and savage, into half-a-dozen contradictions—all duly reported to Aunty Rosa next morning.
‘But it wasn’t a lie,’ Punch would begin, charging into a laboured explanation that landed him more hopelessly in the mire. ‘I said that I didn’t say my prayers twice over in the day, and that was on Tuesday. Once I did. I know I did, but Harry said I didn’t,’ and so forth, till the tension brought tears, and he was dismissed from the table in disgrace.
‘You usen’t to be as bad as this,’ said Judy, awe-stricken at the catalogue of Black Sheep’s crimes. ‘Why are you so bad now?’
‘I don’t know,’ Black Sheep would reply. ‘I’m not, if I only wasn’t bothered upside down. I knew what I did, and I want to say so; but Harry always makes it out different somehow, and Aunty Rosa doesn’t believe a word I say. Oh, Ju! don’t you say I’m bad too.’
‘Aunty Rosa says you are,’ said Judy. ‘She told the Vicar so when he came yesterday.’
‘Why does she tell all the people outside the house about me? It isn’t fair,’ said Black Sheep. ‘When I was in Bombay, and was bad—doing bad, not made-up bad like this—Mamma told Papa, and Papa told me he knew, and that was all. Outside people didn’t know too—even Meeta didn’t know.’
‘I don’t remember,’ said Judy wistfully. ‘I was all little then. Mamma was just as fond of you as she was of me, wasn’t she?’
‘’Course she was. So was Papa. So was everybody.’
‘Aunty Rosa likes me more than she does you. She says that you are a Trial and a Black Sheep, and I’m not to speak to you more than I can help.’
‘Always? Not outside of the times when you mustn’t speak to me at all?’
Judy nodded her head mournfully. Black Sheep turned away in despair, but Judy’s arms were round his neck.
‘Never mind, Punch,’ she whispered. ‘I will speak to you just the same as ever and ever. You’re my own own brother though you are—though Aunty Rosa says you’re bad, and Harry says you are a little coward. He says that if I pulled your hair hard, you’d cry.’
‘Pull, then,’ said Punch.
Judy pulled gingerly.
‘Pull harder—as hard as you can! There! I don’t mind how much you pull it now. If you’ll speak to me same as ever I’ll let you pull it as much as you like—pull it out if you like. But I know if Harry came and stood by and made you do it I’d cry.’
So the two children sealed the compact with a kiss, and Black Sheep’s heart was cheered within him, and by extreme caution and careful avoidance of Harry he acquired virtue, and was allowed to read undisturbed for a week. Uncle Harry took him for walks, and consoled him with rough tenderness, never calling him Black Sheep. ‘It’s good for you, I suppose, Punch,’ he used to say. ‘Let us sit down. I’m getting tired.’ His steps led him now not to the beach, but to the Cemetery of Rocklington, amid the potato-fields. For hours the gray man would sit on a tombstone, while Black Sheep would read epitaphs, and then with a sigh would stump home again.
‘I shall lie there soon,’ said he to Black Sheep, one winter evening, when his face showed white as a worn silver coin under the light of the lych-gate. ‘You needn’t tell Aunty Rosa.’
A month later he turned sharp round, ere half a morning walk was completed, and stumped back to the house. ‘Put me to bed, Rosa,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve walked my last. The wadding has found me out.’
They put him to bed, and for a fortnight the shadow of his sickness lay upon the house, and Black Sheep went to and fro unobserved. Papa had sent him some new books, and he was told to keep quiet. He retired into his own world, and was perfectly happy. Even at night his felicity was unbroken. He could lie in bed and string himself tales of travel and adventure while Harry was downstairs.
‘Uncle Harry’s going to die,’ said Judy, who now lived almost entirely with Aunty Rosa.
‘I’m very sorry,’ said Black Sheep soberly. ‘He told me that a long time ago.’
Aunty Rosa heard the conversation. ‘Will nothing check your wicked tongue?’ she said angrily. There were blue circles round her eyes.
Black Sheep retreated to the nursery and read Cometh up as a Flower with deep and uncomprehending interest. He had been forbidden to open it on account of its ‘sinfulness,’ but the bonds of the Universe were crumbling, and Aunty Rosa was in great grief.
‘I’m glad,’ said Black Sheep. ‘She’s unhappy now. It wasn’t a lie, though. I knew. He told me not to tell.’
That night Black Sheep woke with a start. Harry was not in the room, and there was a sound of sobbing on the next floor. Then the voice of Uncle Harry, singing the song of the Battle of Navarino, came through the darkness:—
‘Our vanship was the Asia—
The Albion and Genoa!’
‘He’s getting well,’ thought Black Sheep, who knew the song through all its seventeen verses. But the blood froze at his little heart as he thought. The voice leapt an octave, and rang shrill as a boatswain’s pipe:—
‘And next came on the lovely Rose,
The Philomel, her fire-ship, closed,
And the little Brisk was sore exposed
That day at Navarino.’
‘That day at Navarino, Uncle Harry!’ shouted Black Sheep, half wild with excitement and fear of he knew not what.
A door opened, and Aunty Rosa screamed up the staircase: ‘Hush! For God’s sake hush, you little devil. Uncle Harry is dead!’
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
‘I wonder what will happen to me now,’ thought Black Sheep, when semi-pagan rites peculiar to the burial of the Dead in middle-class houses had been accomplished, and Aunty Rosa, awful in black crape, had returned to this life. ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything bad that she knows of. I suppose I will soon. She will be very cross after Uncle Harry’s dying, and Harry will be cross too. I’ll keep in the nursery.’
Unfortunately for Punch’s plans, it was decided that he should be sent to a day-school which Harry attended. This meant a morning walk with Harry, and perhaps an evening one; but the prospect of freedom in the interval was refreshing. ‘Harry’ll tell everything I do, but I won’t do anything,’ said Black Sheep. Fortified with this virtuous resolution, he went to school only to find that Harry’s version of his character had preceded him, and that life was a burden in consequence. He took stock of his associates. Some of them were unclean, some of them talked in dialect, many dropped their h’s, and there were two Jews and a negro, or some one quite as dark, in the assembly. ‘That’s a hubshi,’ said Black Sheep to himself. ‘Even Meeta used to laugh at a hubshi. I don’t think this is a proper place.’ He was indignant for at least an hour, till he reflected that any expostulation on his part would be by Aunty Rosa construed into ‘showing off,’ and that Harry would tell the boys.
‘How do you like school?’ said Aunty Rosa at the end of the day.
‘I think it is a very nice place,’ said Punch quietly.
‘I suppose you warned the boys of Black Sheep’s character?’ said Aunty Rosa to Harry.
‘Oh yes,’ said the censor of Black Sheep’s morals. ‘They know all about him.’
‘If I was with my father,’ said Black Sheep, stung to the quick, ‘I shouldn’t speak to those boys. He wouldn’t let me. They live in shops. I saw them go into shops—where their fathers live and sell things.’
‘You’re too good for that school, are you?’ said Aunty Rosa, with a bitter smile. ‘You ought to be grateful, Black Sheep, that those boys speak to you at all. It isn’t every school that takes little liars.’
Harry did not fail to make much capital out of Black Sheep’s ill-considered remark; with the result that several boys, including the hubshi, demonstrated to Black Sheep the eternal equality of the human race by smacking his head, and his consolation from Aunty Rosa was that it ‘served him right for being vain.’ He learned, however, to keep his opinions to himself, and by propitiating Harry in carrying books and the like to get a little peace. His existence was not too joyful. From nine till twelve he was at school, and from two to four, except on Saturdays. In the evenings he was sent down into the nursery to prepare his lessons for the next day, and every night came the dreaded cross-questionings at Harry’s hand. Of Judy he saw but little. She was deeply religious—at six years of age Religion is easy to come by—and sorely divided between her natural love for Black Sheep and her love for Aunty Rosa, who could do no wrong.
The lean woman returned that love with interest, and Judy, when she dared, took advantage of this for the remission of Black Sheep’s penalties. Failures in lessons at school were punished at home by a week without reading other than school-books, and Harry brought the news of such a failure with glee. Further, Black Sheep was then bound to repeat his lessons at bedtime to Harry, who generally succeeded in making him break down, and consoled him by gloomiest forebodings for the morrow. Harry was at once spy, practical joker, inquisitor, and Aunty Rosa’s deputy executioner. He filled his many posts to admiration. From his actions, now that Uncle Harry was dead, there was no appeal. Black Sheep had not been permitted to keep any self-respect at school: at home he was, of course, utterly discredited, and grateful for any pity that the servant girls—they changed frequently at Downe Lodge because they, too, were liars—might show. ‘You’re just fit to row in the same boat with Black Sheep,’ was a sentiment that each new Jane or Eliza might expect to hear, before a month was over, from Aunty Rosa’s lips; and Black Sheep was used to ask new girls whether they had yet been compared to him. Harry was ‘Master Harry’ in their mouths; Judy was officially ‘Miss Judy’; but Black Sheep was never anything more than Black Sheep tout court.
As time went on and the memory of Papa and Mamma became wholly overlaid by the unpleasant task of writing them letters, under Aunty Rosa’s eye, each Sunday, Black Sheep forgot what manner of life he had led in the beginning of things. Even Judy’s appeals to ‘try and remember about Bombay’ failed to quicken him.
‘I can’t remember,’ he said. ‘I know I used to give orders and Mamma kissed me.’
‘Aunty Rosa will kiss you if you are good,’ pleaded Judy.
‘Ugh! I don’t want to be kissed by Aunty Rosa. She’d say I was doing it to get something more to eat.’
The weeks lengthened into months, and the holidays came; but just before the holidays Black Sheep fell into deadly sin.
Among the many boys whom Harry had incited to ‘punch Black Sheep’s head because he daren’t hit back,’ was one more aggravating than the rest, who, in an unlucky moment, fell upon Black Sheep when Harry was not near. The blows stung, and Black Sheep struck back at random with all the power at his command. The boy dropped and whimpered. Black Sheep was astounded at his own act, but, feeling the unresisting body under him, shook it with both his hands in blind fury and then began to throttle his enemy; meaning honestly to slay him. There was a scuffle, and Black Sheep was torn off the body by Harry and some colleagues, and cuffed home tingling but exultant. Aunty Rosa was out: pending her arrival, Harry set himself to lecture Black Sheep on the sin of murder—which he described as the offence of Cain.
‘Why didn’t you fight him fair? What did you hit him when he was down for, you little cur?’
Black Sheep looked up at Harry’s throat and then at a knife on the dinner-table.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said wearily. ‘You always set him on me and told me I was a coward when I blubbed. Will you leave me alone until Aunty Rosa comes in? She’ll beat me if you tell her I ought to be beaten; so it’s all right.’
‘It’s all wrong,’ said Harry magisterially. ‘You nearly killed him, and I shouldn’t wonder if he dies.’
‘Will he die?’ said Black Sheep.
‘I daresay,’ said Harry, ‘and then you’ll be hanged, and go to Hell.’
‘All right,’ said Black Sheep, picking up the table-knife. ‘Then I’ll kill you now. You say things and do things and—and I don’t know how things happen, and you never leave me alone—and I don’t care what happens!’
He ran at the boy with the knife, and Harry fled upstairs to his room, promising Black Sheep the finest thrashing in the world when Aunty Rosa returned. Black Sheep sat at the bottom of the stairs, the table-knife in his hand, and wept for that he had not killed Harry. The servant-girl came up from the kitchen, took the knife away, and consoled him. But Black Sheep was beyond consolation. He would be badly beaten by Aunty Rosa; then there would be another beating at Harry’s hands; then Judy would not be allowed to speak to him; then the tale would be told at school, and then—
There was no one to help and no one to care, and the best way out of the business was by death. A knife would hurt, but Aunty Rosa had told him, a year ago, that if he sucked paint he would die. He went into the nursery, unearthed the now disused Noah’s Ark, and sucked the paint off as many animals as remained. It tasted abominable, but he had licked Noah’s Dove clean by the time Aunty Rosa and Judy returned. He went upstairs and greeted them with: ‘Please, Aunty Rosa, I believe I’ve nearly killed a boy at school, and I’ve tried to kill Harry, and when you’ve done all about God and Hell, will you beat me and get it over?’
The tale of the assault as told by Harry could only be explained on the ground of possession by the Devil. Wherefore Black Sheep was not only most excellently beaten, once by Aunty Rosa and once, when thoroughly cowed down, by Harry, but he was further prayed for at family prayers, together with Jane who had stolen a cold rissole from the pantry, and snuffled audibly as her sin was brought before the Throne of Grace. Black Sheep was sore and stiff but triumphant. He would die that very night and be rid of them all. No, he would ask for no forgiveness from Harry, and at bedtime would stand no questioning at Harry’s hands, even though addressed as ‘Young Cain.’
‘I’ve been beaten,’ said he, ‘and I’ve done other things. I don’t care what I do. If you speak to me to-night, Harry, I’ll get out and try to kill you. Now you can kill me if you like.’
Harry took his bed into the spare room, and Black Sheep lay down to die.
It may be that the makers of Noah’s Arks know that their animals are likely to find their way into young mouths, and paint them accordingly. Certain it is that the common, weary next morning broke through the windows and found Black Sheep quite well and a good deal ashamed of himself, but richer by the knowledge that he could, in extremity, secure himself against Harry for the future.
When he descended to breakfast on the first day of the holidays, he was greeted with the news that Harry, Aunty Rosa, and Judy were going away to Brighton, while Black Sheep was to stay in the house with the servant. His latest outbreak suited Aunty Rosa’s plans admirably. It gave her good excuse for leaving the extra boy behind. Papa in Bombay, who really seemed to know a young sinner’s wants to the hour, sent, that week, a package of new books. And with these, and the society of Jane on board-wages, Black Sheep was left alone for a month.
The books lasted for ten days. They were eaten too quickly in long gulps of twelve hours at a time. Then came days of doing absolutely nothing, of dreaming dreams and marching imaginary armies up and downstairs, of counting the number of banisters, and of measuring the length and breadth of every room in handspans—fifty down the side, thirty across, and fifty back again. Jane made many friends, and, after receiving Black Sheep’s assurance that he would not tell of her absences, went out daily for long hours. Black Sheep would follow the rays of the sinking sun from the kitchen to the dining-room and thence upward to his own bedroom until all was gray dark, and he ran down to the kitchen fire and read by its light. He was happy in that he was left alone and could read as much as he pleased. But, later, he grew afraid of the shadows of window-curtains and the flapping of doors and the creaking of shutters. He went out into the garden, and the rustling of the laurel-bushes frightened him.
He was glad when they all returned—Aunty Rosa, Harry, and Judy—full of news, and Judy laden with gifts. Who could help loving loyal little Judy? In return for all her merry babblement, Black Sheep confided to her that the distance from the hall-door to the top of the first landing was exactly one hundred and eighty-four handspans. He had found it out himself.
Then the old life recommenced; but with a difference, and a new sin. To his other iniquities Black Sheep had now added a phenomenal clumsiness—was as unfit to trust in action as he was in word. He himself could not account for spilling everything he touched, upsetting glasses as he put his hand out, and bumping his head against doors that were manifestly shut. There was a gray haze upon all his world, and it narrowed month by month, until at last it left Black Sheep almost alone with the flapping curtains that were so like ghosts, and the nameless terrors of broad daylight that were only coats on pegs after all.
Holidays came and holidays went, and Black Sheep was taken to see many people whose faces were all exactly alike; was beaten when occasion demanded, and tortured by Harry on all possible occasions; but defended by Judy through good and evil report, though she hereby drew upon herself the wrath of Aunty Rosa.
The weeks were interminable, and Papa and Mamma were clean forgotten. Harry had left school and was a clerk in a Banking-Office. Freed from his presence, Black Sheep resolved that he should no longer be deprived of his allowance of pleasure-reading. Consequently when he failed at school he reported that all was well, and conceived a large contempt for Aunty Rosa as he saw how easy it was to deceive her. ‘She says I’m a little liar when I don’t tell lies, and now I do, she doesn’t know,’ thought Black Sheep. Aunty Rosa had credited him in the past with petty cunning and stratagem that had never entered into his head. By the light of the sordid knowledge that she had revealed to him he paid her back full tale. In a household where the most innocent of his motives, his natural yearning for a little affection, had been interpreted into a desire for more bread and jam, or to ingratiate himself with strangers and so put Harry into the background, his work was easy. Aunty Rosa could penetrate certain kinds of hypocrisy, but not all. He set his child’s wits against hers and was no more beaten. It grew monthly more and more of a trouble to read the school-books, and even the pages of the open-print storybooks danced and were dim. So Black Sheep brooded in the shadows that fell about him and cut him off from the world, inventing horrible punishments for ‘dear Harry,’ or plotting another line of the tangled web of deception that he wrapped round Aunty Rosa.
Then the crash came and the cobwebs were broken. It was impossible to foresee everything. Aunty Rosa made personal inquiries as to Black Sheep’s progress and received information that startled her. Step by step, with a delight as keen as when she convicted an underfed housemaid of the theft of cold meats, she followed the trail of Black Sheep’s delinquencies. For weeks and weeks, in order to escape banishment from the bookshelves, he had made a fool of Aunty Rosa, of Harry, of God, of all the world! Horrible, most horrible, and evidence of an utterly depraved mind.
Black Sheep counted the cost. ‘It will only be one big beating and then she’ll put a card with “Liar” on my back, same as she did before. Harry will whack me and pray for me, and she will pray for me at prayers and tell me I’m a Child of the Devil and give me hymns to learn. But I’ve done all my reading and she never knew. She’ll say she knew all along. She’s an old liar too,’ said he.
For three days Black Sheep was shut in his own bedroom—to prepare his heart. ‘That means two beatings. One at school and one here. That one will hurt most.’ And it fell even as he thought. He was thrashed at school before the Jews and the hubshi for the heinous crime of carrying home false reports of progress. He was thrashed at home by Aunty Rosa on the same count, and then the placard was produced. Aunty Rosa stitched it between his shoulders and bade him go for a walk with it upon him.
‘If you make me do that,’ said Black Sheep very quietly, ‘I shall burn this house down, and perhaps I’ll kill you. I don’t know whether I can kill you—you’re so bony—but I’ll try.’
No punishment followed this blasphemy, though Black Sheep held himself ready to work his way to Aunty Rosa’s withered throat, and grip there till he was beaten off. Perhaps Aunty Rosa was afraid, for Black Sheep, having reached the Nadir of Sin, bore himself with a new recklessness.
In the midst of all the trouble there came a visitor from over the seas to Downe Lodge, who knew Papa and Mamma, and was commissioned to see Punch and Judy. Black Sheep was sent to the drawing-room and charged into a solid tea-table laden with china.
‘Gently, gently, little man,’ said the visitor, turning Black Sheep’s face to the light slowly. ‘What’s that big bird on the palings?’
‘What bird?’ asked Black Sheep.
The visitor looked deep down into Black Sheep’s eyes for half a minute, and then said suddenly: ‘Good God, the little chap’s nearly blind!’
It was a most business-like visitor. He gave orders, on his own responsibility, that Black Sheep was not to go to school or open a book until Mamma came home. ‘She’ll be here in three weeks, as you know of course,’ said he, ‘and I’m Inverarity Sahib. I ushered you into this wicked world, young man, and a nice use you seem to have made of your time. You must do nothing whatever. Can you do that?’
‘Yes,’ said Punch in a dazed way. He had known that Mamma was coming. There was a chance, then, of another beating. Thank Heaven, Papa wasn’t coming too. Aunty Rosa had said of late that he ought to be beaten by a man.
For the next three weeks Black Sheep was strictly allowed to do nothing. He spent his time in the old nursery looking at the broken toys, for all of which account must be rendered to Mamma. Aunty Rosa hit him over the hands if even a wooden boat were broken. But that sin was of small importance compared to the other revelations, so darkly hinted at by Aunty Rosa. ‘When your Mother comes, and hears what I have to tell her, she may appreciate you properly,’ she said grimly, and mounted guard over Judy lest that small maiden should attempt to comfort her brother, to the peril of her soul.
And Mamma came—in a four-wheeler—fluttered with tender excitement. Such a Mamma! She was young, frivolously young, and beautiful, with delicately-flushed cheeks, eyes that shone like stars, and a voice that needed no appeal of outstretched arms to draw little ones to her heart. Judy ran straight to her, but Black Sheep hesitated. Could this wonder be ‘showing off’? She would not put out her arms when she knew of his crimes. Meantime was it possible that by fondling she wanted to get anything out of Black Sheep? Only all his love and all his confidence; but that Black Sheep did not know. Aunty Rosa withdrew and left Mamma, kneeling between her children, half laughing, half crying, in the very hall where Punch and Judy had wept five years before.
‘Well, chicks, do you remember me?’
‘No,’ said Judy frankly, ‘but I said, “God bless Papa and Mamma” ev’vy night.’
‘A little,’ said Black Sheep. ‘Remember I wrote to you every week, anyhow. That isn’t to show off, but ’cause of what comes afterwards.’
‘What comes after? What should come after, my darling boy?’ And she drew him to her again. He came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’
‘She’s too little to hurt any one,’ thought Black Sheep, ‘and if I said I’d kill her, she’d be afraid. I wonder what Aunty Rosa will tell.’
There was a constrained late dinner, at the end of which Mamma picked up Judy and put her to bed with endearments manifold. Faithless little Judy had shown her defection from Aunty Rosa already. And that lady resented it bitterly. Black Sheep rose to leave the room.
‘Come and say good-night,’ said Aunty Rosa, offering a withered cheek.
‘Huh!’ said Black Sheep. ‘I never kiss you, and I’m not going to show off. Tell that woman what I’ve done, and see what she says.’
Black Sheep climbed into bed feeling that he had lost Heaven after a glimpse through the gates. In half an hour ‘that woman’ was bending over him. Black Sheep flung up his right arm. It wasn’t fair to come and hit him in the dark. Even Aunty Rosa never tried that. But no blow followed.
‘Are you showing off? I won’t tell you anything more than Aunty Rosa has, and she doesn’t know everything,’ said Black Sheep as clearly as he could for the arms round his neck.
‘Oh, my son—my little, little son! It was my fault—my fault, darling—and yet how could we help it? Forgive me, Punch.’ The voice died out in a broken whisper, and two hot tears fell on Black Sheep’s forehead.
‘Has she been making you cry too?’ he asked. ‘You should see Jane cry. But you’re nice, and Jane is a Born Liar—Aunty Rosa says so.’
‘Hush, Punch, hush! My boy, don’t talk like that. Try to love me a little bit—a little bit. You don’t know how I want it. Punch-baba, come back to me! I am your Mother—your own Mother—and never mind the rest. I know—yes, I know, dear. It doesn’t matter now. Punch, won’t you care for me a little?’
It is astonishing how much petting a big boy of ten can endure when he is quite sure that there is no one to laugh at him. Black Sheep had never been made much of before, and here was this beautiful woman treating him—Black Sheep, the Child of the Devil and the inheritor of undying flame—as though he were a small God.
‘I care for you a great deal, Mother dear,’ he whispered at last, ‘and I’m glad you’ve come back; but are you sure Aunty Rosa told you everything?’
‘Everything. What does it matter? But——’ the voice broke with a sob that was also laughter—‘Punch, my poor, dear, half-blind darling, don’t you think it was a little foolish of you?’
‘No. It saved a lickin’.’
Mamma shuddered and slipped away in the darkness to write a long letter to Papa. Here is an extract:—
... Judy is a dear, plump little prig who adores the woman, and wears with as much gravity as her religious opinions—only eight, Jack!—a venerable horsehair atrocity which she calls her Bustle! I have just burnt it, and the child is asleep in my bed as I write. She will come to me at once. Punch I cannot quite understand. He is well nourished, but seems to have been worried into a system of small deceptions which the woman magnifies into deadly sins. Don’t you recollect our own upbringing, dear, when the Fear of the Lord was so often the beginning of falsehood? I shall win Punch to me before long. I am taking the children away into the country to get them to know me, and, on the whole, I am content, or shall be when you come home, dear boy, and then, thank God, we shall be all under one roof again at last!
Three months later, Punch, no longer Black Sheep, has discovered that he is the veritable owner of a real, live, lovely Mamma, who is also a sister, comforter, and friend, and that he must protect her till the Father comes home. Deception does not suit the part of a protector, and, when one can do anything without question, where is the use of deception?
‘Mother would be awfully cross if you walked through that ditch,’ says Judy, continuing a conversation.
‘Mother’s never angry,’ says Punch. ‘She’d just say, “You’re a little pagal”; and that’s not nice, but I’ll show.’
Punch walks through the ditch and mires himself to the knees. ‘Mother, dear,’ he shouts, ‘I’m just as dirty as I can pos-sib-ly be!’
‘Then change your clothes as quickly as you pos-sib-ly can!’ Mother’s clear voice rings out from the house. ‘And don’t be a little pagal!’
‘There! ’Told you so,’ says Punch. ‘It’s all different now, and we are just as much Mother’s as if she had never gone.’
Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.