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THEY AND I (chapter7)

2006-09-08 21:22


    Dick and Veronica returned laden with parcels. They explained that "Daddy Slee," as it appeared he was generally called, a local builder of renown, was following in his pony-cart, and was kindly bringing the bulkier things with him.

    "I tried to hustle him," said Dick, "but coming up after he had washed himself and had his tea seemed to be his idea of hustling. He has got the reputation of being an honest old Johnny, slow but sure; the others, they tell me, are slower. I thought you might care, later on, to talk to him about the house."

    Veronica took off her things and put them away, each one in its proper place. She said, if no one wanted her, she would read a chapter of "The Vicar of Wakefield," and retired upstairs. Robina and I had an egg with our tea; Mr. Slee arrived as we had finished, and I took him straight into the kitchen. He was a large man, with a dreamy expression and a habit of sighing. He sighed when he saw our kitchen.

    "There's four days' work for three men here," he said, "and you'll want

    a new stove. Lord! what trouble children can be!"

    Robina agreed with him.

    "Meanwhile," she demanded, "how am I to cook?"

    "Myself, missie," sighed Mr. Slee, "I don't see how you are going to


    "We'll all have to tramp home again," thought Dick.

    "And tell Little Mother the reason, and frighten her out of her life!"

    retorted Robina indignantly.

    Robina had other ideas. Mr. Slee departed, promising that work should be commenced at seven o'clock on Monday morning. Robina, the door closed, began to talk.

    "Let Pa have a sandwich," said Robina, "and catch the six-fifteen."

    "We might all have a sandwich," suggested Dick; "I could do with one myself."

    "Pa can explain," said Robina, "that he has been called back to town on business. That will account for everything, and Little Mother will not be alarmed."

    "She won't believe that business has brought him back at nine o'clock on a Saturday night," argued Dick; "you think that Little Mother hasn't any sense. She'll see there's something up, and ask a hundred questions. You know what she is."

    "Pa," said Robina, "will have time while in the train to think out something plausible; that's where Pa is clever. With Pa off my hands I sha'n't mind. We three can live on cold ham and things like that. By Thursday we will be all right, and then he can come down again."

    I pointed out to Robina, kindly but firmly, the utter absurdity of her idea. How could I leave them, three helpless children, with no one to look after them? What would the Little Mother say? What might not Veronica be up to in my absence? There were other things to be considered. The donkey might arrive at any moment——no responsible person there to receive him——to see to it that his simple wants would be provided for. I should have to interview Mr. St. Leonard again to fix up final details as regarded Dick. Who was going to look after the cow, about to be separated from us? Young Bute would be down again with plans. Who was going to take him over the house, explain things to him intelligibly? The new boy might turn up——this simple son of the soil Miss Janie had promised to dig out and send along. He would talk Berkshire. Who would there be to understand him——to reply to him in dialect? What was the use of her being impetuous and talking nonsense?

    She went on cutting sandwiches. She said they were not helpless children. She said if she and Dick at forty-two hadn't grit enough to run a six-roomed cottage it was time they learned.

    "Who's forty-two?" I demanded.

    "We are," explained Robina, "Dick and I——between us. We shall be forty-two next birthday. Nearly your own age."

    "Veronica," she continued, "for the next few days won't be a child at all. She knows nothing of the happy medium. She is either herself or she goes to the opposite extreme, and tries to be an angel. Till about the end of the week it will be like living with a vision. As for the donkey, we'll try and make him feel as much at home as if you were here."

    "I don't mean to be rude, Pa," Robina explained, "but from the way you put it you evidently regard yourself as the only one among us capable of interesting him. I take it he won't mind for a night or two sharing the shed with the cow. If he looks shocked at the suggestion, Dick can knock up a partition. I'd rather for the present, till you come down again, the cow stopped where she was. She helps to wake me in the morning. You may reckon you have settled everything as far as Dick is concerned. If you talk to St. Leonard again for an hour it will be about the future of the Yellow Races or the possibility of life in Jupiter. If you mention terms he will be insulted, and if he won't let you then you will be insulted, and the whole thing will be off. Let me talk to Janie. We've both of us got sense. As for Mr. Bute, I know all your ideas about the house, and I sha'n't listen to any of his silly arguments. What that young man wants is someone to tell him what he's got to do, and then let there be an end of it. And the sooner that handy boy turns up the better. I don't mind what he talks. All I want him to do is to clean knives and fetch water and chop wood. At the worst I'll get that home to him by pantomime. For conversation he can wait till you come down."

    That is the gist of what she said. It didn't run exactly as I have put it down. There were points at which I interrupted, but Robina never listens; she just talks on, and at the end she assumes that, as a matter of course, you have come round to her point of view, and persuading her that you haven't means beginning the whole thing over again.

    She said I hadn't time to talk, and that she would write and tell me everything. Dick also said he would write and tell me everything; and that if I felt moved to send them down a hamper——the sort of thing that, left to themselves, Fortnum & Mason would put together for a good-class picnic, say, for six persons——I might rely upon it that nothing would be wasted.

    Veronica, by my desire, walked with me to the end of the lane. talked to her very seriously. Her difficulty was that she had not been blown up. Had she been blown up, then she would have known herself she had done wrong. In the book it is the disobedient child that is tossed by the bull. The child that has been sent with the little basket to visit the sick aunt may be right in the bull's way. That is a bit of bad luck for the bull. The poor bull is compelled to waste valuable time working round carefully, so as not to upset the basket. If the wicked child had sense (which in the book does not happen), it would, while the bull was dodging to get past the good child, seize the opportunity to move itself quickly. The wicked child never looks round, but pegs along steadily; and when the bull arrives it is sure to be in the most convenient position for receiving moral lessons. The good child, whatever its weight, crosses the ice in safety. The bad child may turn the scale at two stone lighter; the ice will have none of him. "Don't you talk to me about relative pressure to the square inch," says the indignant ice. "You were unkind to your little baby brother the week before last: in you go." Veronica's argument, temperately and courteously expressed, I admit, came practically to this:

    "I may have acted without sufficient knowledge to guide me. My education has not, perhaps, on the whole, been ordered wisely. Subjects that I feel will never be of the slightest interest or consequence to me have been insisted upon with almost tiresome reiteration. Matters that should be useful and helpful to me—— gunpowder, to take but one example——I have been left in ignorance concerning. About all that I say nothing; people have done their best according to their lights, no doubt. When, however, we come to purity of motives, singleness of intention, then, I maintain, I am above reproach. The proof of this is that Providence has bestowed upon me the seal of its approval: I was not blown up. Had my conduct been open to censure——as in certain quarters has been suggested——should I be walking besides you now, undamaged——not a hair turned, as the saying is? No. Discriminating Fate——that is, if any reliance at all is to be placed on literature for the young——would have made it her business that at least I was included in the debris. Instead, what do we notice!——a shattered chimney, a ruined stove, broken windows, a wreckage of household utensils; I, alone of all things, miraculously preserved. I do not wish to press the point offensively, but really it would almost seem that it must be you three——you, my dear parent, upon whom will fall the bill for repairs; Dick, apt to attach too much importance, maybe, to his victuals, and who for the next few days will be compelled to exist chiefly upon tinned goods; Robina, by nature of a worrying disposition, certain till things get straight again to be next door to off her head——who must, by reason of conduct into which I do not enquire, have merited chastisement at the hands of Providence. The moral lesson would certainly appear to be between you three. I——it grows clear to me—— have been throughout but the innocent instrument."

    Admit the premise that to be virtuous is to escape whipping, the argument is logical. I felt that left uncombated it might lead us into yet further trouble.

    "Veronica," I said, "the time has come to reveal to you a secret: literature is not always a safe guide to life."

    "You mean——" said Veronica.

    "I mean," I said, "that the writer of books is, generally speaking, an exceptionally moral man. That is what leads him astray: he is too good. This world does not come up to his ideas. It is not the world as he would have made it himself. To satisfy his craving for morality he sets to work to make a world of his own. It is not this world. It is not a bit like this world. In a world as it should be, Veronica, you would undoubtedly have been blown up——if not altogether, at all events partially. What you have to do, Veronica, is, with a full heart, to praise Heaven that this is not a perfect world. If it were I doubt very much, Veronica, your being here. That you are here happy and thriving proves that all is not as it should be. The bull of this world, feeling he wants to toss somebody, does not sit upon himself, so to speak, till the wicked child comes by. He takes the first child that turns up, and thanks God for it. A hundred to one it is the best child for miles around. The bull does not care. He spoils that pattern child. He'd spoil a bishop, feeling as he does that morning. Your little friend in the velvet suit who did get himself blown up, at all events as regards the suit—— Which of you was it that thought of that gunpowder, you or he?"

    Veronica claimed that the inspiration had been hers.

    "I can easily believe it. And was he anxious to steal the gunpowder and put it on the fire, or did he have to be persuaded?" Veronica admitted that in the qualities of a first-class hero he was wanting. Not till it had been suggested to him that he must at heart be a cowardy cowardy custard had he been moved to take a hand in the enterprise.

    "A lad, clearly," I continued, "that left to himself would be a comfort to his friends. And the story of the robbers——your invention or his?"

    Veronica was generously of opinion that he might have thought of it had he not been chiefly concerned at the moment with the idea of getting home to his mother. As it was, the clothing with romance of incidents otherwise bald and uninteresting had fallen upon her.

    "The good child of the story. The fact stands out at every point. His one failing an amiable weakness. Do you not see it for yourself; Veronica? In the book, you, not he, would have tumbled over the mat. In this wicked world it is the wicked who prosper. He, the innocent, the virtuous, is torn into rags. You, the villain of the story, escape."

    "I see," said Veronica; "then whenever nothing happens to you that means that you're a wrong 'un."

    "I don't go so far as to say that, Veronica. And I wish you wouldn't use slang. Dick is a man, and a man——well, never mind about a man. You, Veronica, must never forget that you're a lady. Justice must not be looked for in this world. Sometimes the wicked get what they deserve. More often they don't. There seems to be no rule. Follow the dictates of your conscience, Veronica, and blow——I mean be indifferent to the consequences. Sometimes you'll come out all right, and sometimes you won't. But the beautiful sensation will always be with you: I did right. Things have turned out unfortunately: but that's not my fault. Nobody can blame me."

    "But they do," said Veronica, "they blame you just as if you'd meant to go and do it."

    "It does not matter, Veronica," I pointed out, "the opinion of the world. The good man disregards it."

    "But they send you to bed," persisted Veronica.

    "Let them," I said. "What is bed so long as the voice of the inward Monitor consoles us with the reflection——" "But it don't," interrupted Veronica; "it makes you feel all the madder. It does really."

    "It oughtn't to," I told her.

    "Then why does it?" argued Veronica. "Why don't it do what it ought to?"

    The trouble about arguing with children is that they will argue too.

    "Life's a difficult problem, Veronica," I allowed. "Things are not as they ought to be, I admit it. But one must not despair. Something's got to be done."

    "It's jolly hard on some of us," said Veronica. "Strive as you may, you can't please everyone. And if you just as much as stand up for yourself, oh, crikey!"

    "The duty of the grown-up person, Veronica," I said, "is to bring up the child in the way that it should go. It isn't easy work, and occasionally irritability may creep in."

    "There's such a lot of 'em at it," grumbled Veronica. "There are times, between 'em all, when you don't know whether you're standing on your head or your heels."

    "They mean well, Veronica," I said. "When I was a little boy I used to think just as you do. But now——"

    "Did you ever get into rows?" interrupted Veronica.

    "Did I ever?——was never out of them, so far as I can recollect. If it wasn't one thing, then it was another."

    "And didn't it make you wild?" enquired Veronica, "when first of all they'd ask what you'd got to say and why you'd done it, and then, when you tried to explain things to them, wouldn't listen to you?"

    "What used to irritate me most, Veronica," I replied——"I can remember it so well——was when they talked steadily for half an hour themselves, and then, when I would attempt with one sentence to put them right about the thing, turn round and bully-rag me for being argumentative."

    "If they would only listen," agreed Veronica, "you might get them to grasp things. But no, they talk and talk, till at the end they don't know what they are talking about themselves, and then they pretend it's your fault for having made them tired." "I know," I said, "they always end up like that. 'I am tired of talking to you,' they say——as if we were not tired of listening to them!"

    "And then when you think," said Veronica, "they say you oughtn't to think. And if you don't think, and let it out by accident, then they say 'why don't you think?' It don't seem as though we could do right. It makes one almost despair."

    "And it isn't even as if they were always right themselves," I pointed out to her. "When they knock over a glass it is, 'Who put that glass there?' You'd think that somebody had put it there on purpose and made it invisible. They are not expected to see a glass six inches in front of their nose, in the place where the glass ought to be. The way they talk you'd suppose that a glass had no business on a table. If I broke it, then it was always, 'Clumsy little devil! ought to have his dinner in the nursery.' If they mislay their things and can't find them, it's, 'Who's been interfering with my things? Who's been in here rummaging about?' Then when they find it they want to know indignantly who put it there. If I could not find a thing, for the simple reason that somebody had taken it away and put it somewhere else, then wherever they had put it was the right place for it, and I was a little idiot for not knowing it."

    "And of course you mustn't say anything," commented Veronica. "Oh, no! If they do something silly and you just point it out to them, then there is always a reason for it that you wouldn't understand. Oh, yes! And if you make just the slightest mistake, like what is natural to all of us, that is because you are wicked and unfeeling and don't want to be anything else."

    "I will tell you what we will do, Veronica," I said; "we will write a book. You shall help me. And in it the children shall be the wise and good people who never make mistakes, and they shall boss the show——you know what I mean——look after the grown-up people and bring them up properly. And everything the grown-up people do, or don't do, will be wrong."

    Veronica clapped her hands. "No, will you really?" she said. "Oh, do."

    "I will really," I answered. "We will call it a moral tale for parents;and all the children will buy it and give it to their fathers and mothers and such-like folk for their birthdays, with writing on the title-page, 'From Johnny, or Jenny, to dear Papa, or to dear Aunty, with every good wish for his or her improvement!'"

    "Do you think they will read it?" doubted Veronica.

    "We will put in it something shocking," I suggested, "and get some paper to denounce it as a disgrace to English literature. And if that won't do it we will say it is a translation from the Russian. The children shall stop at home and arrange what to have for dinner, and the grown-up people shall be sent to school. We will start them off each morning with a little satchel. They shall be made to read 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' in the original German, with notes; and learn 'Old Mother Hubbard' by heart and explain the grammar."

    "And go to bed early," suggested Veronica.

    "We will have them all in bed by eight o'clock, Veronica, and they will go cheerfully, as if they liked it, or we will know the reason why. We will make them say their prayers. Between ourselves, Veronica, I don't believe they always do. And no reading in bed, and no final glass of whisky toddy, or any nonsense of that sort. An Abernethy biscuit and perhaps if they are good a jujube, and then 'Good night,' and down with their head on the pillow. And no calling out, and no pretending they have got a pain in their tummy and creeping downstairs in their night-shirts and clamouring for brandy. We will be up to all their tricks."

    "And they'll have to take their medicine," Veronica remembered.

    "The slightest suggestion of sulkiness, the first intimation that they are not enjoying themselves, will mean cod liver oil in a tablespoon, Veronica."

    "And we will ask them why they never use their commonsense," chirped Veronica.

    "That will be our trouble, Veronica; that they won't have any sense of any sort——not what we shall deem sense. But, nevertheless, we will be just. We will always give them a reason why they have got to do everything they don't want to do, and nothing that they want to do. They won't understand it and they won't agree that it is a reason; but they will keep that to themselves, if they are wise."

    "And of course they must not argue," Veronica insisted.

    "If they answer back, Veronica, that will show they are cursed with an argumentative temperament which must be rooted out at any cost," I agreed; "and if they don't say anything, that will prove them possessed of a surly disposition which must be checked at once, before it develops into a vice."

    "And whatever we do to them we will tell them it's for their own good," Veronica chortled.

    "Of course it will be for their own good," I answered. "That will be our chief pleasure——making them good and happy. It won't be their pleasure, but that will be owing to their ignorance."

    "They will be grateful to us later on," gurgled Veronica.

    "With that assurance we will comfort them from time to time," I answered. "We will be good to them in all ways. We will let them play games——not stupid games, golf and croquet, that do you no good and lead only to language and dispute——but bears and wolves and whales; educational sort of games that will aid them in acquiring knowledge of natural history. We will show them how to play Pirates and Red Indians and Ogres——sensible play that will help them to develop their imaginative faculties. That is why grown-up people are so dull; they are never made to think. But now and then," I continued, "we will let them play their own games, say on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. We will invite other grown-ups to come to tea with them, and let them flirt in the garden, or if wet make love in the dining-room, till nurse comes for them. But we, of course, must choose their friends for them——nice, well-behaved ladies and gentlemen, the parents of respectable children; because left to themselves——well, you know what they are! They would just as likely fall in love with quite undesirable people——men and women we could not think of having about the house. We will select for them companions we feel sure will be the most suitable for them; and if they don't like them——if Uncle William says he can't bear the girl we have invited up to love him-that he positively hates her, we till tell him that it is only his wilful temper, and that he's got to like her because she's good for him; and don't let us have any of his fretfulness. And if Grandmamma pouts and says she won't love old man Jones merely because he's got a red nose, or a glass eye, or some silly reason of that sort, we will say to her: 'All right, my lady, you will play with Mr. Jones and be nice to him, or you will spend the afternoon putting your room tidy; make up your mind.' We will let them marry (on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons), and play at keeping house. And if they quarrel we will shake them and take the babies away from them, and lock them up in drawers, and tell them they sha'n't have them again till they are good."

    "And the more they try to be good, the more it will turn out that they ain't been good," Veronica reflected.

    "Their goodness and their badness will depend upon us in more senses than one, Veronica," I explained. "When Consols are down, when the east wind has touched up our liver, they will be surprised how bad they are."

    "And they mustn't ever forget what they've ever been once told," crowed Veronica. "We mustn't have to tell 'em the same thing over and over again, like we was talking to brick walls."

    "And if we meant to tell them and forgot to tell them," I added, "we will tell them that they ought not to want us to tell them a simple thing like that, as if they were mere babies. We must remember all these points."

    "And if they grumble we'll tell them that's 'cos they don't know how happy they are. And we'll tell them how good we used to be when——I say, don't you miss your train, or I shall get into a row."

    "Great Scott! I'd forgotten all about that train, Veronica," I admitted.

    "Better run," suggested Veronica.

    It sounded good advice.

    "Keep on thinking about that book," shouted Veronica.

    "Make a note of things as they occur to you," I shouted back.

    "What shall we call it?" Veronica screamed.

    "'Why the Man in the Moon looks sat upon,'" I shrieked.

    When I turned again she was sitting on the top rail of the stile conducting an imaginary orchestra with one of her own shoes. The six-fifteen was fortunately twenty minutes late. I thought it best to tell Ethelbertha the truth; that things had gone wrong with the kitchen stove.

    "Let me know the worst," she said. "Is Veronica hurt?"

    "The worst," I said, "is that I shall have to pay for a new range. Why, when anything goes amiss, poor Veronica should be assumed as a matter of course to be in it, appears to me unjust."

    "You are sure she's all right?" persisted Ethelbertha.

    "Honest Injun——confound those children and their slang——I mean positively," I answered. The Little Mother looked relieved.

    I told her all the trouble we had had in connection with the cow. Her sympathies were chiefly with the cow. I told her I had hopes of Robina's developing into a sensible woman. We talked quite a deal about Robina. We agreed that between us we had accomplished something rather clever.

    "I must get back as soon as I can," I said. "I don't want young Bute getting wrong ideas into his head."

    "Who is young Bute?" she asked.

    "The architect," I explained.

    "I thought he was an old man," said Ethelbertha.

    "Old Spreight is old enough," I said. "Young Bute is one of his young men; but he understands his work, and seems intelligent."

    "What's he like?" she asked.

    "Personally, an exceedingly nice young fellow. There's a good deal of sense in him. I like a boy who listens."

    "Good-looking?" she asked.

    "Not objectionably so," I replied. "A pleasant face——particularly when he smiles."

    "Is he married?" she asked.

    "Really, it did not occur to me to ask him," I admitted. "How curious you women are! No, I don't think so. I should say not."

    "Why don't you think so?" she demanded.

    "Oh, I don't know. He doesn't give you the idea of a married man. You'll like him. Seems so fond of his sister."

    "Shall we be seeing much of him?" she asked.

    "A goodish deal," I answered. "I expect he will be going down on Monday. Very annoying, this stove business."

    "What is the use of his being there without you?" Ethelbertha wanted to know.

    "Oh, he'll potter round," I suggested, "and take measurements. Dick will be about to explain things to him. Or, if he isn't, there's Robina-awkward thing is, Robina seems to have taken a dislike to him."

    "Why has she taken a dislike to him?" asked Ethelbertha.

    "Oh, because he mistook the back of the house for the front, or the front of the house for the back," I explained; "I forget which now. Says it's his smile that irritates her. She owns herself there's no real reason."

    "When will you be going down again?" Ethelbertha asked.

    "On Thursday next," I told her; "stove or no stove."

    She said she would come with me. She felt the change would do her good, and promised not to do anything when she got there. And then I told her all that I had done for Dick.

    "The ordinary farmer," I pointed out to her, "is so often a haphazard type of man with no ideas. If successful, it is by reason of a natural instinct which cannot be taught. St. Leonard has studied the theory of the thing. From him Dick will learn all that can be learnt about farming. The selection, I felt, demanded careful judgment."

    "But will Dick stick to it?" Ethelbertha wondered.

    "There, again," I pointed out to her, "the choice was one calling for exceptional foresight. The old man——as a matter of fact, he isn't old at all; can't be very much older than myself; I don't know why they all call him the old man——has formed a high opinion of Dick. His daughter told me so, and I have taken care to let Dick know it. The boy will not care to disappoint him. Her mother——"

    "Whose mother?" interrupted Ethelbertha.

    "Janie's mother, Mrs. St. Leonard," I explained. "She also has formed a good opinion of him. The children like him. Janie told me so."

    "She seems to do a goodish deal of talking, this Miss Janie," remarked Ethelbertha.

    "You will like her," I said. "She is a charming girl——so sensible, and good, and unselfish, and——" "Who told you all this about her?" interrupted Ethelbertha.

    "You can see it for yourself," I answered. "The mother appears to be a nonentity, and St. Leonard himself——well, he is not a business man. It is Janie who manages everything——keeps everything going."

    "What is she like?" asked Ethelbertha.

    "I am telling you," I said. "She is so practical, and yet at the same time——"

    "In appearance, I mean," explained Ethelbertha.

    "How you women," I said, "do worry about mere looks! What does it matter? If you want to know, it is that sort of face that grows upon you. At first you do not notice how beautiful it is, but when you come to look into it——"

    "And has she also formed a high opinion of Dick?" interrupted Ethelbertha.

    "She will be disappointed in him," I said, "if he does not work hard and stick to it. They will all be disappointed in him."

    "What's it got to do with them?" demanded Ethelbertha.

    "I'm not thinking about them," I said. "What I look at is——"

    "I don't like her," said Ethelbertha. "I don't like any of them."

    "But——" She didn't seem to be listening.

    "I know that class of man," she said; "and the wife appears, if anything, to be worse. As for the girl——"

    "When you come to know them——" I said.

    She said she didn't want to know them. She wanted to go down on Monday, early.

    I got her to see——it took some little time——the disadvantages of this. We should only be adding to Robina's troubles; and change of plan now would unsettle Dick's mind.

    "He has promised to write me," I said, "and tell me the result of his first day's experience. Let us wait and hear what he says."

    She said that whatever could have possessed her to let me take those poor unfortunate children away from her, and muddle up everything without her, was a mystery to herself. She hoped that, at least, I had done nothing irrevocable in the case of Veronica. "Veronica," I said, "is really wishful, I think, to improve. I have bought her a donkey."

    "A what?" exclaimed Ethelbertha.

    "A donkey," I repeated. "The child took a fancy to it, and we all agreed it might help to steady her——give her a sense of responsibility."

    "I somehow felt you hadn't overlooked Veronica," said Ethelbertha.

    I thought it best to change the conversation. She seemed in a fretful mood.

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