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THEY AND I (chapter1)

2006-09-08 21:21

    CHAPTER I

    "It is not a large house," I said. "We don't want a large house. Two spare bedrooms, and the little three-cornered place you see marked there on the plan, next to the bathroom, and which will just do for a bachelor, will be all we shall require——at all events, for the present. Later on, if I ever get rich, we can throw out a wing. The kitchen I shall have to break to your mother gently. Whatever the original architect could have been thinking of——"

    "Never mind the kitchen," said Dick: "what about the billiard-room?"

    The way children nowadays will interrupt a parent is nothing short of a national disgrace. I also wish Dick would not sit on the table, swinging his legs. It is not respectful. "Why, when I was a boy," as I said to him, "I should as soon have thought of sitting on a table, interrupting my father-"

    "What's this thing in the middle of the hall, that looks like a grating?" demanded Robina.

    "She means the stairs," explained Dick.

    "Then why don't they look like stairs?" commented Robina.

    "They do," replied Dick, "to people with sense."

    "They don't," persisted Robina, "they look like a grating." Robina, with the plan spread out across her knee, was sitting balanced on the arm of an easy-chair. Really, I hardly see the use of buying chairs for these people. Nobody seems to know what they are for——except it be one or another of the dogs. Perches are all they want.

    "If we threw the drawing-room into the hall and could do away with the stairs," thought Robina, "we should be able to give a dance now and then."

    "Perhaps," I suggested, "you would like to clear out the house altogether, leaving nothing but the four bare walls. That would give us still more room, that would. For just living in, we could fix up a shed in the garden; or——" "I'm talking seriously," said Robina: "what's the good of a drawing-room? One only wants it to show the sort of people into that one wishes hadn't come. They'd sit about, looking miserable, just as well anywhere else. If we could only get rid of the stairs——"

    "Oh, of course! we could get rid of the stairs," I agreed. "It would be a bit awkward at first, when we wanted to go to bed. But I daresay we should get used to it. We could have a ladder and climb up to our rooms through the windows. Or we might adopt the Norwegian method and have the stairs outside."

    "I wish you would be sensible," said Robin.

    "I am trying to be," I explained; "and I am also trying to put a little sense into you. At present you are crazy about dancing. If you had your way, you would turn the house into a dancing-saloon with primitive sleeping-accommodation attached. It will last six months, your dancing craze. Then you will want the house transformed into a swimming-bath, or a skating-rink, or cleared out for hockey. My idea may be conventional. I don't expect you to sympathise with it. My notion is just an ordinary Christian house, not a gymnasium. There are going to be bedrooms in this house, and there's going to be a staircase leading to them. It may strike you as sordid, but there is also going to be a kitchen: though why when building the house they should have put the kitchen

    "Don't forget the billiard-room," said Dick.

    "If you thought more of your future career and less about billiards," Robin pointed out to him, "perhaps you'd get through your Little-go in the course of the next few years. If Pa only had sense——I mean if he wasn't so absurdly indulgent wherever you are concerned, he would not have a billiard-table in the house."

    "You talk like that," retorted Dick, "merely because you can't play."

    "I can beat you, anyhow," retorted Robin.

    "Once," admitted Dick——"once in six weeks."

    "Twice," corrected Robin.

    "You don't play," Dick explained to her; "you just whack round and trust to Providence."

    "I don't whack round," said Robin; "I always aim at something. When you try and it doesn't come off, you say it's 'hard luck;' and when I try and it does come off, you say it's fluking. So like a man."

    "You both of you," I said, "attach too much importance to the score. When you try for a cannon off the white and hit it on the wrong side and send it into a pocket, and your own ball travels on and makes a losing hazard off the red, instead of being vexed with yourselves——"

    "If you get a really good table, governor," said Dick, "I'll teach you billiards."

    I do believe Dick really thinks he can play. It is the same with golf. Beginners are invariably lucky. "I think I shall like it," they tell you; "I seem to have the game in me, if you understand."

    'There is a friend of mine, an old sea-captain. He is the sort of man that when the three balls are lying in a straight line, tucked up under the cushion, looks pleased; because then he knows he can make a cannon and leave the red just where he wants it. An Irish youngster named Malooney, a college chum of Dick's, was staying with us; and the afternoon being wet, the Captain said he would explain it to Malooney, how a young man might practise billiards without any danger of cutting the cloth. He taught him how to hold the cue, and he told him how to make a bridge. Malooney was grateful, and worked for about an hour. He did not show much promise. He is a powerfully built young man, and he didn't seem able to get it into his head that he wasn't playing cricket. Whenever he hit a little low the result was generally lost ball. To save time——and damage to furniture——Dick and I fielded for him. Dick stood at long-stop, and I was short slip. It was dangerous work, however, and when Dick had caught him out twice running, we agreed that we had won, and took him in to tea. In the evening——none of the rest of us being keen to try our luck a second time——the Captain said, that just for the joke of the thing he would give Malooney eighty-five and play him a hundred up. To confess the truth, I find no particular fun myself in playing billiards with the Captain. The game consists, as far as I am concerned, in walking round the table, throwing him back the balls, and saying "Good!" By the time my turn comes I don't seem to care what happens: everything seems against me. He is a kind old gentleman and he means well, but the tone in which he says "Hard lines!" whenever I miss an easy stroke irritates me. I feel I'd like to throw the balls at his head and fling the table out of window. suppose it is that I am in a fretful state of mind, but the mere way in which he chalks his cue aggravates me. He carries his own chalk in his waistcoat pocket——as if our chalk wasn't good enough for him—— and when he has finished chalking, he smooths the tip round with his finger and thumb and taps the cue against the table. "Oh! go on with the game," I want to say to him; "don't be so full of tricks."

    The Captain led off with a miss in baulk. Malooney gripped his cue, drew in a deep breath, and let fly. The result was ten: a cannon and all three balls in the same pocket. As a matter of fact he made the cannon twice; but the second time, as we explained to him, of course did not count.

    "Good beginning!" said the Captain.

    Malooney seemed pleased with himself, and took off his coat.

    Malooney's ball missed the red on its first journey up the table by about a foot, but found it later on and sent it into a pocket.

    "Ninety-nine plays nothing," said Dick, who was marking. "Better make it a hundred and fifty, hadn't we, Captain?"

    "Well, I'd like to get in a shot," said the Captain, "before the game is over. Perhaps we had better make it a hundred and fifty, if Mr. Malooney has no objection."

    "Whatever you think right, sir," said Rory Malooney.

    Malooney finished his break for twenty-two, leaving himself hanging over the middle pocket and the red tucked up in baulk.

    "Nothing plays a hundred and eight," said Dick.

    "When I want the score," said the Captain, "I'll ask for it."

    "Beg pardon, sir," said Dick.

    "I hate a noisy game," said the Captain.

    The Captain, making up his mind without much waste of time, sent his ball under the cushion, six inches outside baulk.

    "What will I do here?" asked Malooney.

    "I don't know what you will do," said the Captain; "I'm waiting to see."

    Owing to the position of the ball, Malooney was unable to employ his whole strength. All he did that turn was to pocket the Captain's ball and leave himself under the bottom cushion, four inches from the red. The Captain said a nautical word, and gave another miss. Malooney squared up to the balls for the third time. They flew before him, panic-stricken. They banged against one another, came back and hit one another again for no reason whatever. The red, in particular, Malooney had succeeded apparently in frightening out of its wits. It is a stupid ball, generally speaking, our red——its one idea to get under a cushion and watch the game. With Malooney it soon found it was safe nowhere on the table. Its only hope was pockets. I may have been mistaken, my eye may have been deceived by the rapidity of the play, but it seemed to me that the red never waited to be hit. When it saw Malooney's ball coming for it at the rate of forty miles an hour, it just made for the nearest pocket. It rushed round the table looking for pockets. If in its excitement, it passed an empty pocket, it turned back and crawled in. There were times when in its terror it jumped the table and took shelter under the sofa or behind the sideboard. One began to feel sorry for the red.

    The Captain had scored a legitimate thirty-eight, and Malooney had given him twenty-four, when it really seemed as if the Captain's chance had come. I could have scored myself as the balls were then.

    "Sixty-two plays one hundred and twenty-eight. Now then, Captain, game in your hands," said Dick.

    We gathered round. The children left their play. It was a pretty picture: the bright young faces, eager with expectation, the old worn veteran squinting down his cue, as if afraid that watching Malooney's play might have given it the squirms.

    "Now follow this," I whispered to Malooney. "Don't notice merely what he does, but try and understand why he does it. Any fool——after a little practice, that is——can hit a ball. But why do you hit it? What happens after you've hit it? What——"

    "Hush," said Dick.

    The Captain drew his cue back and gently pushed it forward.

    "Pretty stroke," I whispered to Malooney; "now, that's the sort——"

    I offer, by way of explanation, that the Captain by this time was probably too full of bottled-up language to be master of his nerves. The ball travelled slowly past the red. Dick said afterwards that you couldn't have put so much as a sheet of paper between them. It comforts a man, sometimes, when you tell him this; and at other times it only makes him madder. It travelled on and passed the white——you could have put quite a lot of paper between it and the white——and dropped with a contented thud into the top left-hand pocket.

    "Why does he do that?" Malooney whispered. Malooney has a singularly hearty whisper.

    Dick and I got the women and children out of the room as quickly as we could, but of course Veronica managed to tumble over something on the way——Veronica would find something to tumble over in the desert of Sahara; and a few days later I overheard expressions, scorching their way through the nursery door, that made my hair rise up. I entered, and found Veronica standing on the table. Jumbo was sitting upon the music-stool. The poor dog himself was looking scared, though he must have heard a bit of language in his time, one way and another.

    "Veronica," I said, "are you not ashamed of yourself? You wicked child, how dare you——"

    "It's all right," said Veronica. "I don't really mean any harm. He's a sailor, and I have to talk to him like that, else he don't know he's being talked to."

    I pay hard-working, conscientious ladies to teach this child things right and proper for her to know. They tell her clever things that Julius Caesar said; observations made by Marcus Aurelius that, pondered over, might help her to become a beautiful character. She complains that it produces a strange buzzy feeling in her head; and her mother argues that perhaps her brain is of the creative order, not intended to remember much——thinks that perhaps she is going to be something. A good round-dozen oaths the Captain must have let fly before Dick and I succeeded in rolling her out of the room. She had only heard them once, yet, so far as I could judge, she had got them letter perfect.

    The Captain, now no longer under the necessity of employing all his energies to suppress his natural instincts, gradually recovered form, and eventually the game stood at one hundred and forty-nine all, Malooney to play. The Captain had left the balls in a position that would have disheartened any other opponent than Malooney. To any other opponent than Malooney the Captain would have offered irritating sympathy. "Afraid the balls are not rolling well for you to-night," the Captain would have said; or, "Sorry, sir, I don't seem to have left you very much." Tonight the Captain wasn't feeling playful.

    "Well, if he scores off that!" said Dick.

    "Short of locking up the balls and turning out the lights, I don't myself see how one is going to stop him," sighed the Captain.

    The Captain's ball was in hand. Malooney went for the red and hit-perhaps it would be more correct to say, frightened——it into a pocket. Malooney's ball, with the table to itself, then gave a solo performance, and ended up by breaking a window. It was what the lawyers call a nice point. What was the effect upon the score?

    Malooney argued that, seeing he had pocketed the red before his own ball left the table, his three should be counted first, and that therefore he had won. Dick maintained that a ball that had ended up in a flower-bed couldn't be deemed to have scored anything. The Captain declined to assist. He said that, although he had been playing billiards for upwards of forty years, the incident was new to him. My own feeling was that of thankfulness that we had got through the game without anybody being really injured. We agreed that the person to decide the point would be the editor of The Field.

    It remains still undecided. The Captain came into my study the next morning. He said: "If you haven't written that letter to The Field, don't mention my name. They know me on The Field. I would rather it did not get about that I have been playing with a man who cannot keep his ball within the four walls of a billiard-room."

    "Well," I answered, "I know most of the fellows on The Field myself. They don't often get hold of anything novel in the way of a story. When they do, they are apt to harp upon it. My idea was to keep my own name out of it altogether."

    "It is not a point likely to crop up often," said the Captain. "I'd let it rest if I were you."

    I should like to have had it settled. In the end, I wrote the editor a careful letter, in a disguised hand, giving a false name and address. But if any answer ever appeared I must have missed it.

    Myself I have a sort of consciousness that somewhere inside me there is quite a good player, if only I could persuade him to come out. He is shy, that is all. He does not seem able to play when people are looking on. The shots he misses when people are looking on would give you a wrong idea of him. When nobody is about, a prettier game you do not often see. If some folks who fancy themselves could see me when there is nobody about, it might take the conceit out of them. Only once I played up to what I feel is my real form, and then it led to argument. I was staying at an hotel in Switzerland, and the second evening a pleasant-spoken young fellow, who said he had read all my books——later, he appeared surprised on learning I had written more than two——asked me if I would care to play a hundred up. We played even, and I paid for the table. The next evening he said he thought it would make a better game if he gave me forty and I broke. It was a fairly close finish, and afterwards he suggested that I should put down my name for the handicap they were arranging.

    "I am afraid," I answered, "that I hardly play well enough. Just a quiet game with you is one thing; but in a handicap with a crowd looking on——"

    "I should not let that trouble you," he said; "there are some here who play worse than you——just one or two. It passes the evening."

    It was merely a friendly affair. I paid my twenty marks, and was given plus a hundred. I drew for my first game a chatty type of man, who started minus twenty. We neither of us did much for the first five minutes, and then I made a break of forty-four.

    There was not a fluke in it from beginning to end. I was never more astonished in my life. It seemed to me it was the cue was doing it.

    Minus Twenty was even more astonished. I heard him as I passed:

    "Who handicapped this man?" he asked.

    "I did," said the pleasant-spoken youngster. "Oh," said Minus Twenty——"friend of yours, I presume?"

    There are evenings that seem to belong to you. We finished that two hundred and fifty under the three-quarters of an hour. I explained to Minus Twenty——he was plus sixty-three at the end——that my play that night had been exceptional. He said that he had heard of cases similar. I left him talking volubly to the committee. He was not a nice man at all.

    After that I did not care to win; and that of course was fatal. The less I tried, the more impossible it seemed for me to do wrong. I was left in at the last with a man from another hotel. But for that I am convinced I should have carried off the handicap. Our hotel didn't, anyhow, want the other hotel to win. So they gathered round me, and offered me sound advice, and begged me to be careful; with the natural result that I went back to my usual form quite suddenly.

    Never before or since have I played as I played that week. But it showed me what I could do. I shall get a new table, with proper pockets this time. There is something wrong about our pockets. The balls go into them and then come out again. You would think they had seen something there to frighten them. They come out trembling and hold on to the cushion.

    I shall also get a new red ball. I fancy it must be a very old ball, our red. It seems to me to be always tired.

    "The billiard-room," I said to Dick, "I see my way to easily enough. Adding another ten feet to what is now the dairy will give us twenty- eight by twenty. I am hopeful that will be sufficient even for your friend Malooney. The drawing-room is too small to be of any use. I may decide——as Robina has suggested——to 'throw it into the hall.' But the stairs will remain. For dancing, private theatricals——things to keep you children out of mischief——I have an idea I will explain to you later on. The kitchen——"

    "Can I have a room to myself?" asked Veronica.

    Veronica was sitting on the floor, staring into the fire, her chin supported by her hand. Veronica, in those rare moments when she is resting from her troubles, wears a holy, far-away expression apt to mislead the stranger. Governesses, new to her, have their doubts whether on these occasions they are justified in dragging her back to discuss mere dates and tables. Poets who are friends of mine, coming unexpectedly upon Veronica standing by the window, gazing upward at the evening star, have thought it was a vision, until they got closer and found that she was sucking peppermints.

    "I should so like to have a room all to myself," added Veronica.

    "It would be a room!" commented Robin.

    "It wouldn't have your hairpins sticking up all over the bed, anyhow," murmured Veronica dreamily.

    "I like that!" said Robin; "why——"

    "You're harder than I am," said Veronica.

    "I should wish you to have a room, Veronica," I said. "My fear is that in place of one untidy bedroom in the house——a room that makes me shudder every time I see it through the open door; and the door, in spite of all I can say, generally is wide open——"

    "I'm not untidy," said Robin, "not really. I know where everything is in the dark——if people would only leave them alone."

    "You are. You're about the most untidy girl I know," said Dick.

    "I'm not," said Robin; "you don't see other girls' rooms. Look at yours at Cambridge. Malooney told us you'd had a fire, and we all believed him at first."

    "When a man's working——" said Dick.

    "He must have an orderly place to work in," suggested Robin.

    Dick sighed. "It's never any good talking to you," said Dick. "You don't even see your own faults."

    "I can," said Robin; "I see them more than anyone. All I claim is justice."

    "Show me, Veronica," I said, "that you are worthy to possess a room. At present you appear to regard the whole house as your room. I find your gaiters on the croquet lawn. A portion of your costume——an article that anyone possessed of the true feelings of a lady would desire to keep hidden from the world——is discovered waving from the staircase window."

    "I put it out to be mended," explained Veronica.

    "You opened the door and flung it out. I told you of it at the time," said Robin. "You do the same with your boots."

    "You are too high-spirited for your size," explained Dick to her. "Try to be less dashing."

    "I could also wish, Veronica," I continued, "that you shed your back comb less easily, or at least that you knew when you had shed it. As for your gloves——well, hunting your gloves has come to be our leading winter sport."

    "People look in such funny places for them," said Veronica.

    "Granted. But be just, Veronica," I pleaded. "Admit that it is in funny places we occasionally find them. When looking for your things one learns, Veronica, never to despair. So long as there remains a corner unexplored inside or outside the house, within the half-mile radius, hope need not be abandoned."

    Veronica was still gazing dreamily into the fire.

    "I suppose," said Veronica, "it's reditty."

    "It's what?" I said.

    "She means heredity," suggested Dick——"cheeky young beggar! wonder you let her talk to you the way she does."

    "Besides," added Robin, "as I am always explaining to you, Pa is a literary man. With him it is part of his temperament."

    "It's hard on us children," said Veronica.

    We were all agreed——with the exception of Veronica——that it was time Veronica went to bed. As chairman I took it upon myself to closure the debate.

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