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THEY AND I (chapter6)

2006-09-08 21:22

    CHAPTER VI

    We had cold bacon for lunch that day. There was not much of it. took it to be the bacon we had not eaten for breakfast. But on a clean dish with parsley it looked rather neat. It did not suggest, however, a lunch for four people, two of whom had been out all the morning in the open air. There was some excuse for Dick.

    "I never heard before," said Dick, "of cold fried bacon as a hors d'oeuvre."

    "It is not a hors d'oeuvre," explained Robina. "It is all there is for lunch." She spoke in the quiet, passionless voice of one who has done with all human emotion. She added that she should not be requiring any herself, she having lunched already.

    Veronica, conveying by her tone and bearing the impression of something midway between a perfect lady and a Christian martyr, observed that she also had lunched.

    "Wish I had," growled Dick.

    I gave him a warning kick. I could see he was on the way to getting himself into trouble. As I explained to him afterwards, a woman is most dangerous when at her meekest. A man, when he feels his temper rising, takes every opportunity of letting it escape. Trouble at such times he welcomes. A broken boot-lace, or a shirt without a button, is to him then as water in the desert. An only collar-stud that will disappear as if by magic from between his thumb and finger and vanish apparently into thin air is a piece of good fortune sent on these occasions only to those whom the gods love. By the time he has waddled on his hands and knees twice round the room, broken the boot-jack raking with it underneath the wardrobe, been bumped and slapped and kicked by every piece of furniture that the room contains, and ended up by stepping on that stud and treading it flat, he has not a bitter or an angry thought left in him. All that remains of him is sweet and peaceful. He fastens his collar with a safety-pin, humming an old song the while.

    Failing the gifts of Providence, the children——if in health——can generally be depended upon to afford him an opening. Sooner or later one or another of them will do something that no child, when he was a boy, would have dared——or dreamed of daring——to even so much as think of doing. The child, conveying by expression that the world, it is glad to say, is slowly but steadily growing in sense, and pity it is that old-fashioned folks can't bustle up and keep abreast of it, points out that firstly it has not done this thing, that for various reasons——a few only of which need be dwelt upon——it is impossible it could have done this thing; that secondly it has been expressly requested to do this thing, that wishful always to give satisfaction, it has——at sacrifice of all its own ideas——gone out of its way to do this thing; that thirdly it can't help doing this thing, strive against fate as it will.

    He says he does not want to hear what the child has got to say on the subject——nor on any other subject, neither then nor at any other time. He says there's going to be a new departure in this house, and that things all round are going to be very different. He suddenly remembers every rule and regulation he has made during the past ten years for the guidance of everybody, and that everybody, himself included, has forgotten. He tries to talk about them all at once, in haste lest he should forget them again. By the time he has succeeded in getting himself, if nobody else, to understand himself, the children are swarming round his knees extracting from him promises that in his sober moments he will be sorry that he made.

    I knew a woman——a wise and good woman she was——who when she noticed that her husband's temper was causing him annoyance, took pains to help him to get rid of it. To relieve his sufferings I have known her search the house for a last month's morning paper and, ironing it smooth, lay it warm and neatly folded on his breakfast plate.

    "One thing in this world to be thankful for, at all events, and that is that we don't live in Ditchley-in-the-Marsh," he would growl ten minutes later from the other side of it.

    "Sounds a bit damp," the good woman would reply.

    "Damp!" he would grunt, "who minds a bit of damp! Good for you. Makes us Englishmen what we are. Being murdered in one's bed about once a week is what I should object to."

    "Do they do much of that sort of thing down there?" the good woman would enquire.

    "Seems to be the chief industry of the place. Do you mean to say you don't remember that old maiden lady being murdered by her own gardener and buried in the fowl-run? You women! you take no interest in public affairs."

    "I do remember something about it, now you mention it, dear," the good woman would confess. "Always seems such an innocent type of man, a gardener."

    "Seems to be a special breed of them at Ditchley-in-the-Marsh," he answers. "Here again last Monday," he continues, reading with growing interest. "Almost the same case——even to the pruning knife. Yes, hanged if he doesn't!——buries her in the fowl-run. This is most extraordinary."

    "It must be the imitative instinct asserting itself," suggests the good woman. "As you, dear, have so often pointed out, one crime makes another."

    "I have always said so," he agrees; "it has always been a theory of mine."

    He folds the paper over. "Dull dogs, these political chaps!" he says. "Here's the Duke of Devonshire, speaking last night at Hackney, begins by telling a funny story he says he has just heard about a parrot. Why, it's the same story somebody told a month ago; I remember reading it. Yes-upon my soul——word for word, I'd swear to it. Shows you the sort of men we're governed by."

    "You can't expect everyone, dear, to possess your repertoire," the good woman remarks.

    "Needn't say he's just heard it that afternoon, anyhow," responds the good man.

    He turns to another column. "What the devil! Am I going off my head?" He pounces on the eldest boy. "When was the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-race?" he fiercely demands.

    "The Oxford and Cambridge Boat-race!" repeats the astonished youth. "Why, it's over. You took us all to see it, last month. The Saturday before——"

    The conversation for the next ten minutes he conducts himself, unaided. At the end he is tired, maybe a trifle hoarse. But all his bad temper is gone. His sorrow is there was not sufficient of it. He could have done with more.

    Woman knows nothing of simple mechanics. A woman thinks you can get rid of steam by boxing it up and sitting on the safety-valve.

    "Feeling as I do this morning, that I'd like to wring everybody's neck for them," the average woman argues to herself; "my proper course——I see it clearly——is to creep about the house, asking of everyone that has the time to spare to trample on me."

    She coaxes you to tell her of her faults. When you have finished she asks for more——reminds you of one or two you had missed out. She wonders why it is that she is always wrong. There must be a reason for it; if only she could discover it. She wonders how it is that people can put up with her——thinks it so good of them.

    At last, of course, the explosion happens. The awkward thing is that neither she herself nor anyone else knows when it is coming. A husband cornered me one evening in the club. It evidently did him good to talk. He told me that, finding his wife that morning in one of her rare listening moods, he had seized the opportunity to mention one or two matters in connection with the house he would like to have altered; that was, if she had no objection. She had——quite pleasantly——reminded him the house was his, that he was master there. She added that any wish of his of course was law to her.

    He was a young and inexperienced husband; it seemed to him a hopeful opening. He spoke of quite a lot of things——things about which he felt that he was right and she was wrong. She went and fetched a quire of paper, and borrowed his pencil and wrote them down.

    Later on, going through his letters in the study, he found an unexpected cheque; and ran upstairs and asked her if she would not like to come out with him and get herself a new hat.

    "I could have understood it," he moaned, "if she had dropped on me while I was——well, I suppose, you might say lecturing her. She had listened to it like a lamb——hadn't opened her mouth except to say 'yes, dear,' or 'no, dear.' Then, when I only asked her if she'd like a new hat, she goes suddenly raving mad. I never saw a woman go so mad."

    I doubt if there be anything in nature quite as unexpected as a woman's temper, unless it be tumbling into a hole. I told all this to Dick. I have told it him before. One of these days he will know it.

    "You are right to be angry with me," Robina replied meekly; "there is no excuse for me. The whole thing is the result of my own folly."

    Her pathetic humility should have appealed to him. He can be sympathetic, when he isn't hungry. Just then he happened to be hungry.

    "I left you making a pie," he said. "It looked to me a fair-sized pie. There was a duck on the table, with a cauliflower and potatoes; Veronica was up to her elbows in peas. It made me hungry merely passing through the kitchen. I wouldn't have anything to eat in the town for fear of spoiling my appetite. Where is it all? You don't mean to say that you and Veronica have eaten the whole blessed lot!"

    There is one thing——she admits it herself——that exhausts Veronica's patience: it is unjust suspicion.

    "Do I look as if I'd eaten anything for hours and hours?" Veronica demanded. "You can feel my waistband if you don't believe me."

    "You said just now you had had your lunch," Dick argued.

    "I know I did," Veronica admitted. "One minute you are told that it is wicked to tell lies; the next——"

    "Veronica!" Robina interrupted threateningly.

    "It's easy for you," retorted Veronica. "You are not a growing child. You don't feel it."

    "The least you can do," said Robina, "is to keep silence."

    "What's the good," said Veronica——not without reason. "You'll tell them when I've gone to bed, and can't put in a word for myself. Everything is always my fault. I wish sometimes that I was dead."

    "That I were dead," I corrected her. "The verb 'to wish,' implying uncertainty, should always be followed by the conditional mood."

    "You ought," said Robina, "to be thankful to Providence that you're not dead." "People are sorry when you're dead," said Veronica.

    "I suppose there's some bread-and-cheese in the house," suggested Dick.

    "The baker, for some reason or another, has not called this morning," Robina answered sweetly. "Neither unfortunately has the grocer. Everything there is to eat in the house you see upon the table." "Accidents will happen," I said. "The philosopher——as our friend St. Leonard would tell us——only smiles."

    "I could smile," said Dick, "if it were his lunch."

    "Cultivate," I said, "a sense of humour. From a humorous point of view this lunch is rather good."

    "Did you have anything to eat at the St. Leonards'?" he asked.

    "Just a glass or so of beer and a sandwich or two," I admitted. "They brought it out to us while we were talking in the yard. To tell the truth, I was feeling rather peckish."

    Dick made no answer, but continued to chew bacon-rind. Nothing I could say seemed to cheer him. I thought I would try religion.

    "A dinner of herbs——the sentiment applies equally to lunch——and contentment therewith is better," I said, "than a stalled ox."

    "Don't talk about oxen," he interrupted fretfully. "I feel I could just eat one——a plump one."

    There is a man I know. I confess he irritates me. His argument is that you should always rise from a meal feeling hungry. As I once explained to him, you cannot rise from a meal feeling hungry without sitting down to a meal feeling hungry; which means, of course, that you are always hungry. He agreed with me. He said that was the idea-always ready.

    "Most people," he said, "rise from a meal feeling no more interest in their food. That was a mental attitude injurious to digestion. Keep it always interested; that was the proper way to treat it."

    "By 'it' you mean . . . ?" I said.

    "Of course," he answered; "I'm talking about it."

    "Now I myself;" he explained——"I rise from breakfast feeling eager for my lunch. I get up from my lunch looking forward to my dinner. I go to bed just ready for my breakfast."

    Cheerful expectancy, he said, was a wonderful aid to digestion. "I call myself;" he said, "a cheerful feeder."

    "You don't seem to me," I said, "to be anything else. You talk like a tadpole. Haven't you any other interest in life? What about home, and patriotism, and Shakespeare——all those sort of things? Why not give it a square meal, and silence it for an hour or two; leave yourself free to think of something else."

    "How can you think of anything," he argued, "when your stomach's out of order?"

    "How can you think of anything," I argued, "when it takes you all your time to keep it in order? You are not a man; you are a nurse to your own stomach." We were growing excited, both of us, forgetting our natural refinement. "You don't get even your one afternoon a week. You are healthy enough, I admit it. So are the convicts at Portland. They never suffer from indigestion. I knew a doctor once who prescribed for a patient two years' penal servitude as the only thing likely to do him permanent good. Your stomach won't let you smoke. It won't let you drink——not when you are thirsty. It allows you a glass of Apenta water at times when you don't want it, assuming there could ever be a time when you did want it. You are deprived of your natural victuals, and made to live upon prepared food, as though you were some sort of a prize chicken. You are sent to bed at eleven, and dressed in hygienic clothing that makes no pretence to fit you. Talk of being hen-pecked! Why, the mildest husband living would run away or drown himself, rather than remain tied for the rest of his existence to your stomach."

    "It is easy to sneer," he said.

    "I am not sneering," I said; "I am sympathising with you."

    He said he did not want any sympathy. He said if only I would give up over-eating and drinking myself, it would surprise me how bright and intelligent I should become.

    I thought this man might be of use to us on the present occasion. Accordingly I spoke of him and of his theory. Dick seemed impressed.

    "Nice sort of man?" he asked. "An earnest man," I replied. "He practises what he preaches, and whether because, or in spite of it, the fact remains that a chirpier soul I am sure does not exist."

    "Married?" demanded Dick.

    "A single man," I answered. "In all things an idealist. He has told me he will never marry until he can find his ideal woman."

    "What about Robina here!" suggested Dick. "Seem to have been made for one another."

    Robina smiled. It was a wan, pathetic smile.

    "Even he," thought Robina, "would want his beans cooked to time, and to feel that a reasonable supply of nuts was always in the house. We incompetent women never ought to marry."

    We had finished the bacon. Dick said he would take a stroll into the town. Robina suggested he might take Veronica with him, that perhaps a bun and a glass of milk would do the child no harm.

    Veronica for a wonder seemed to know where all her things were. Before Dick had filled his pipe she was ready dressed and waiting for him. Robina said she would give them a list of things they might bring back with them. She also asked Dick to get together a plumber, a carpenter, a bricklayer, a glazier, and a civil engineer, and to see to it that they started off at once. She thought that among them they might be able to do all that was temporarily necessary, but the great thing was that the work should be commenced without delay.

    "Why, what on earth's the matter, old girl?" asked Dick. "Have you had an accident?"

    Then it was that Robina exploded. I had been wondering when it would happen. To Dick's astonishment it happened then.

    Yes, she answered, there had been an accident. Did he suppose that seven scrimpy scraps of bacon was her notion of a lunch between four hungry persons? Did he, judging from himself, imagine that our family yielded only lunatics? Was it kind——was it courteous to his parents, to the mother he pretended to love, to the father whose grey hairs he was by his general behaviour bringing down in sorrow to the grave——to assume without further enquiry that their eldest daughter was an imbecile? (My hair, by-the-bye, is not grey. There may be a suggestion of greyness here and there, the natural result of deep thinking. To describe it in the lump as grey is to show lack of observation. And at forty-eight——or a trifle over——one is not going down into the grave, not straight down. Robina when excited uses exaggerated language. I did not, however, interrupt her; she meant well. Added to which, interrupting Robina, when——to use her own expression——she is tired of being a worm, is like trying to stop a cyclone with an umbrella.) Had his attention been less concentrated on the guzzling of cold bacon (he had only had four mouthfuls, poor fellow)-had he noticed the sweet patient child starving before his very eyes (this referred to Veronica)——his poor elder sister, worn out with work and worry, pining for nourishment herself, it might have occurred to even his intelligence that there had been an accident. The selfishness, the egotism of men it was that staggered, overwhelmed Robina, when she came to think of it.

    Robina paused. Not for want of material, I judged, so much as want of breath. Veronica performed a useful service by seizing the moment to express a hope that it was not early-closing day. Robina felt a conviction that it was: it would be just like Dick to stand there dawdling in a corner till it was too late to do anything.

    "I have been trying to get out of this corner for the last five minutes," explained Dick, with that angelic smile of his that I confess is irritating. "If you have done talking, and will give me an opening, I will go."

    Robina told him that she had done talking. She gave him her reasons for having done talking. If talking to him would be of any use she would often have felt it her duty to talk to him, not only with regard to his stupidity and selfishness and general aggravatingness, but with reference to his character as a whole. Her excuse for not talking to him was the crushing conviction of the hopelessness of ever effecting any improvement in him. Were it otherwise

    "Seriously speaking," said Dick, now escaped from his corner, "something, I take it, has gone wrong with the stove, and you want a sort of general smith."

    He opened the kitchen door and looked in. "Great Scott!" he said. "What was it——an earthquake?"

    I looked in over his shoulder.

    "But it could not have been an earthquake," I said. "We should have felt it."

    "It is not an earthquake," explained Robina. "It is your youngest daughter's notion of making herself useful."

    Robina spoke severely. I felt for the moment as if I had done it all myself. I had an uncle who used to talk like that. "Your aunt," he would say, regarding me with a reproachful eye, "your aunt can be, when she likes, the most trying woman to live with I have ever known." It would depress me for days. I would wonder whether I ought to speak to her about it, or whether I should be doing only harm.

    "But how did she do it?" I demanded. "It is impossible that a mere child——where is the child?"

    The parlour contained but Robina. I hurried to the door; Dick was already half across the field. Veronica I could not see.

    "We are making haste," Dick shouted back, "in case it is early- closing day."

    "I want Veronica!" I shouted.

    "What?" shouted Dick.

    "Veronica!" I shouted with my hands to my mouth.

    "Yes!" shouted Dick. "She's on ahead."

    It was useless screaming any more. He was now climbing the stile.

    "They always take each other's part, those two," sighed Robina.

    "Yes, and you are just as bad," I told her; "if he doesn't, you do. And then if it's you they take your part. And you take his part. And he takes both your parts. And between you all I am just getting tired of bringing any of you up." (Which is the truth.) "How did this thing happen?"

    "I had got everything finished," answered Robina. "The duck was in the oven with the pie; the peas and potatoes were boiling nicely. I was feeling hot, and I thought I could trust Veronica to watch the things for awhile. She promised not to play King Alfred."

    "What's that?" I asked.

    "You know," said Robina——"King Alfred and the cakes. I left her one afternoon last year when we were on the houseboat to watch some buns. When I came back she was sitting in front of the fire, wrapped up in the table-cloth, with Dick's banjo on her knees and a cardboard crown upon her head. The buns were all burnt to a cinder. As I told her, if I had known what she wanted to be up to I could have given her some extra bits of dough to make believe with. But oh, no! if you please, that would not have suited her at all. It was their being real buns, and my being real mad, that was the best part of the game. She is an uncanny child."

    "What was the game this time?" I asked.

    "I don't think it was intended for a game——not at first," answered Robina. "I went into the wood to pick some flowers for the table. I was on my way back, still at some distance from the house, when I heard quite a loud report. I took it for a gun, and wondered what anyone would be shooting in July. It must be rabbits, I thought. Rabbits never seem to have any time at all to themselves, poor things. And in consequence I did not hurry myself. It must have been about twenty minutes later when I came in sight of the house. Veronica was in the garden deep in confabulation with an awful- looking boy, dressed in nothing but rags. His face and hands were almost black. You never saw such an object. They both seemed very excited. Veronica came to meet me; and with a face as serious as mine is now, stood there and told me the most barefaced pack of lies you ever heard. She said that a few minutes after I had gone, robbers had come out of the wood——she talked about them as though there had been hundreds——and had with the most awful threats demanded to be admitted into the house. Why they had not lifted the latch and walked in, she did not explain. It appeared this cottage was their secret rendezvous, where all their treasure lies hidden. Veronica would not let them in, but shouted for help: and immediately this awful-looking boy, to whom she introduced me as 'Sir Robert' something or another, had appeared upon the scene; and then there had followed——well, I have not the patience to tell you the whole of the rigmarole they had concocted. The upshot of it was that the robbers, defeated in their attempt to get into the house, had fired a secret mine, which had exploded in the kitchen. If I did not believe them I could go into the kitchen and see for myself. Say what I would, that is the story they both stuck to. It was not till I had talked to Veronica for a quarter of an hour, and had told her that you would most certainly communicate with the police, and that she would have to convince a judge and jury of the truth of her story, that I got any sense at all out of her."

    "What was the sense you did get out of her?" I asked.

    "Well, I am not sure even now that it is the truth," said Robina—— "the child does not seem to possess a proper conscience. What she will grow up like, if something does not happen to change her, it is awful to think."

    "I don't want to appear a hustler," I said, "and maybe I am mistaken in the actual time, but it feels to me like hours since I asked you how the catastrophe really occurred."

    "I am telling you," explained Robina, hurt. "She was in the kitchen yesterday when I mentioned to Harry's mother, who had looked in to help me wash up, that the kitchen chimney smoked: and then she said- -"

    "Who said?" I asked.

    "Why, she did," answered Robina, "Harry's mother. She said that very often a pennyworth of gunpowder——"

    "Now at last we have begun," I said. "From this point I may be able to help you, and we will get on. At the word 'gunpowder' Veronica pricked up her ears. The thing by its very nature would appeal to Veronica's sympathies. She went to bed dreaming of gunpowder. Left in solitude before the kitchen fire, other maidens might have seen pictured in the glowing coals, princes, carriages, and balls. Veronica saw visions of gunpowder. Who knows?——perhaps even she one day will have gunpowder of her own! She looks up from her reverie: a fairy godmamma in the disguise of a small boy——it was a small boy, was it not?"

    "Rather a nice little boy, he gave me the idea of having been, originally," answered Robina; "the child, I should say, of well-to-do parents. He was dressed in a little Lord Fauntleroy suit——or rather, he had been."

    "Did Veronica know how he was——anything about him?" I asked.

    "Nothing that I could get out of her," replied Robina; "you know her way——how she chums on with anybody and everybody. As I told her, if she had been attending to her duties instead of staring out of the window, she would not have seen him. He happened to be crossing the field just at the time."

    "A boy born to ill-luck, evidently," I observed. "To Veronica of course he seemed like the answer to a prayer. A boy would surely know where gunpowder could be culled."

    "They must have got a pound of it from somewhere," said Robina, "judging from the result."

    "Any notion where they got it from?" I asked.

    "No," explained Robina. "All Veronica can say is that he told her he knew where he could get some, and was gone about ten minutes. Of course they must have stolen it——even that did not seem to trouble her."

    "It came to her as a gift from the gods, Robina," I explained. "I remember how I myself used to feel about these things, at ten. To have enquired further would have seemed to her impious. How was it they were not both killed?"

    "Providence," was Robina's suggestion: it seemed to be the only one possible. "They lifted off one of the saucepans and just dropped the thing in——fortunately wrapped up in a brown paper parcel, which gave them both time to get out of the house. At least Veronica got clear off. For a change it was not she who fell over the mat, it was the boy."

    I looked again into the kitchen; then I returned and put my hands on Robina's shoulders. "It is a most amusing incident——as it has turned out," I said.

    "It might have turned out rather seriously," thought Robina.

    "It might," I agreed: "she might be lying upstairs."

    "She is a wicked, heartless child," said Robina; "she ought to be punished."

    I lent Robina my handkerchief; she never has one of her own.

    "She is going to be punished," I said; "I will think of something."

    "And so ought I," said Robina; "it was my fault, leaving her, knowing what she's like. I might have murdered her. She doesn't care. She's stuffing herself with cakes at this very moment."

    "They will probably give her indigestion," I said. "I hope they do."

    "Why didn't you have better children?" sobbed Robina; "we are none of us any good to you."

    "You are not the children I wanted, I confess," I answered.

    "That's a nice kind thing to say!" retorted Robina indignantly. "I wanted such charming children," I explained——"my idea of charming children: the children I had imagined for myself. Even as babies you disappointed me."

    Robina looked astonished.

    "You, Robina, were the most disappointing," I complained. "Dick was a boy. One does not calculate upon boy angels; and by the time Veronica arrived I had got more used to things. But I was so excited when you came. The Little Mother and I would steal at night into the nursery. 'Isn't it wonderful,' the Little Mother would whisper, 'to think it all lies hidden there: the little tiresome child, the sweetheart they will one day take away from us, the wife, the mother?' 'I am glad it is a girl,' I would whisper; 'I shall be able to watch her grow into womanhood. Most of the girls one comes across in books strike one as not perhaps quite true to life. It will give me such an advantage having a girl of my own. I shall keep a note- book, with a lock and key, devoted to her.'"

    "Did you?" asked Robina. "I put it away," I answered; "there were but a few pages written on. It came to me quite early in your life that you were not going to be the model heroine. I was looking for the picture baby, the clean, thoughtful baby, with its magical, mystical smile. I wrote poetry about you, Robina, but you would slobber and howl. Your little nose was always having to be wiped, and somehow the poetry did not seem to fit you. You were at your best when you were asleep, but you would not even sleep when it was expected of you. I think, Robina, that the fellows who draw the pictures for the comic journals of the man in his night-shirt with the squalling baby in his arms must all be single men. The married man sees only sadness in the design. It is not the mere discomfort. If the little creature were ill or in pain we should not think of that. It is the reflection that we, who meant so well, have brought into the world just an ordinary fretful human creature with a nasty temper of its own: that is the tragedy, Robina. And then you grew into a little girl. I wanted the soulful little girl with the fathomless eyes, who would steal to me at twilight and question me concerning life's conundrums.

    "But I used to ask you questions," grumbled Robina, "and you would tell me not to be silly."

    "Don't you understand, Robina?" I answered. "I am not blaming you, I am blaming myself. We are like children who plant seeds in a garden, and then are angry with the flowers because they are not what we expected. You were a dear little girl; I see that now, looking back. But not the little girl I had in my mind. So I missed you, thinking of the little girl you were not. We do that all our lives, Robina. We are always looking for the flowers that do not grow, passing by, trampling underfoot, the blossoms round about us. It was the same with Dick. I wanted a naughty boy. Well, Dick was naughty, no one can say that he was not. But it was not my naughtiness. I was prepared for his robbing orchards. I rather hoped he would rob orchards. All the high-spirited boys in books rob orchards, and become great men. But there were not any orchards handy. We happened to be living in Chelsea at the time he ought to have been robbing orchards: that, of course, was my fault. I did not think of that. He stole a bicycle that a lady had left outside the tea-room in Battersea Park, he and another boy, the son of a common barber, who shaved people for three-halfpence. I am a Republican in theory, but it grieved me that a son of mine could be drawn to such companionship. They contrived to keep it for a week——till the police found it one night, artfully hidden behind bushes. Logically, I do not see why stealing apples should be noble and stealing bicycles should be mean, but it struck me that way at the time. It was not the particular steal I had been hoping for.

    "I wanted him wild; the hero of the book was ever in his college days a wild young man. Well, he was wild. It cost me three hundred pounds to keep that breach of promise case out of Court; I had never imagined a breach of promise case. Then he got drunk, and bonneted a bishop in mistake for a 'bull-dog.' I didn't mind the bishop. That by itself would have been wholesome fun. But to think that a son of mine should have been drunk!"

    "He has never been drunk since," pleaded Robina. "He had only three glasses of champagne and a liqueur: it was the liqueur——he was not used to it. He got into the wrong set. You cannot in college belong to the wild set without getting drunk occasionally."

    "Perhaps not," I admitted. "In the book the wild young man drinks without ever getting drunk. Maybe there is a difference between life and the book. In the book you enjoy your fun, but contrive somehow to escape the licking: in life the licking is the only thing sure. It was the wild young man of fiction I was looking for, who, a fortnight before the exam., ties a wet towel round his head, drinks strong tea, and passes easily with honours. He tried the wet towel, he tells me. It never would keep in its place. Added to which it gave him neuralgia; while the strong tea gave him indigestion. I used to picture myself the proud, indulgent father lecturing him for his wildness——turning away at some point in the middle of my tirade to hide a smile. There was never any smile to hide. I feel that he has behaved disgracefully, wasting his time and my money."

    "He is going to turn over a new leaf;" said Robina: "I am sure he will make an excellent farmer."

    "I did not want a farmer," I explained; "I wanted a Prime Minister. Children, Robina, are very disappointing. Veronica is all wrong. I like a mischievous child. I like reading stories of mischievous children: they amuse me. But not the child who puts a pound of gunpowder into a red-hot fire, and escapes with her life by a miracle."

    "And yet, I daresay," suggested Robina, "that if one put it into a book-I mean that if you put it into a book, it would read amusingly."

    "Likely enough," I agreed. "Other people's troubles can always be amusing. As it is, I shall be in a state of anxiety for the next six months, wondering, every moment that she is out of my sight, what new devilment she is up to. The Little Mother will be worried out of her life, unless we can keep it from her."

    "Children will be children," murmured Robina, meaning to be comforting.

    "That is what I am complaining of, Robina. We are always hoping that ours won't be. She is full of faults, Veronica, and they are not always nice faults. She is lazy——lazy is not the word for it."

    "She is lazy," Robina was compelled to admit. "There are other faults she might have had and welcome," I pointed out; "faults I could have taken an interest in and liked her all the better for. You children are so obstinate. You will choose your own faults. Veronica is not truthful always. I wanted a family of little George Washingtons, who could not tell a lie. Veronica can. To get herself out of trouble——and provided there is any hope of anybody believing her——she does."

    "We all of us used to when we were young," Robina maintained; "Dick used to, I used to. It is a common fault with children."

    "I know it is," I answered. "I did not want a child with common faults. I wanted something all my own. I wanted you, Robina, to be my ideal daughter. I had a girl in my mind that I am sure would have been charming. You are not a bit like her. I don't say she was perfect, she had her failings, but they were such delightful failings——much better than yours, Robina. She had a temper——a woman without a temper is insipid; but it was that kind of temper that made you love her all the more. Yours doesn't, Robina. I wish you had not been in such a hurry, and had left me to arrange your temper for you. We should all of us have preferred mine. It had all the attractions of temper without the drawbacks of the ordinary temper."

    "Couldn't use it up, I suppose, for yourself, Pa?" suggested Robina.

    "It was a lady's temper," I explained. "Besides," as I asked her, "what is wrong with the one I have?"

    "Nothing," answered Robina. Yet her tone conveyed doubt. "It seems to me sometimes that an older temper would suit you better, that was all."

    "You have hinted as much before, Robina," I remarked, "not only with reference to my temper, but with reference to things generally. One would think that you were dissatisfied with me because I am too young."

    "Not in years perhaps," replied Robina, "but——well, you know what I mean. One wants one's father to be always great and dignified."

    "We cannot change our ego," I explained to her. "Some daughters would appreciate a father youthful enough in temperament to sympathise with and to indulge them. The solemn old fogey you have in your mind would have brought you up very differently. Let me tell you that, my girl.

    You would not have liked him, if you had had him."

    "Perhaps not," Robina agreed. "You are awfully good in some ways."

    "What we have got to do in this world, Robina," I said, "is to take people as they are, and make the best of them. We cannot expect everybody to be just as we would have them, and maybe we should not like them any better if they were. Don't bother yourself about how much nicer they might be; think how nice they are."

    Robina said she would try. I have hopes of making Robina a sensible woman.

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