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  • 1909
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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. I 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.

CHAPTER VIII

Robina’s letter was dated Monday evening, and reached us Tuesday morning.

“I hope you caught your train,” she wrote. “Veronica did not get back till half-past six. She informed me that you and she had found a good deal to talk about, and that ‘one thing had led to another.’ She is a quaint young imp, but I think your lecture must have done her good. Her present attitude is that of gentle forbearance to all around her–not without its dignity. She has not snorted once, and at times is really helpful. I have given her an empty scribbling diary we found in your desk, and most of her spare time she remains shut up with it in the bedroom. She tells me you and she are writing a book together. I asked her what about. She waved me aside with the assurance that I would know ‘all in good time,’ and that it was going to do good. I caught sight of just the title-page last night. It was lying open on the dressing-table: ‘Why the Man in the Moon looks sat upon.’ It sounds like a title of yours. But I would not look further, though tempted. She has drawn a picture underneath. It is really not bad. The old gentleman really does look sat upon, and intensely disgusted.

“‘Sir Robert’–his name being Theodore, which doesn’t seem to suit him–turns out to be the only son of a widow, a Mrs. Foy, our next- door neighbour to the south. We met her coming out of church on Sunday morning. She was still crying. Dick took Veronica on ahead, and I walked part of the way home with them. Her grandfather, it appears, was killed many years ago by the bursting of a boiler; and she is haunted, poor lady, by the conviction that Theodore is the inheritor of an hereditary tendency to getting himself blown up. She attaches no blame to us, seeing in Saturday’s catastrophe only the hand of the Family Curse. I tried to comfort her with the idea that the Curse having spent itself upon a futile effort, nothing further need now be feared from it; but she persists in taking the gloomier view that in wrecking our kitchen, Theodore’s ‘Doom,’ as she calls it, was merely indulging in a sort of dress rehearsal; the finishing performance may be relied upon to follow. It sounds ridiculous, but the poor woman was so desperately in earnest that when an unlucky urchin, coming out of a cottage we were passing, tripped on the doorstep and let fall a jug, we both screamed at the same time, and were equally surprised to find ‘Sir Robert’ still between us and all in one piece. I thought it foolish to discuss all this before the child himself; but did not like to stop her. As a result, he regards himself evidently as the chosen foe of Heaven, and is not, unnaturally, proud of himself. She called here this (Monday) afternoon to leave cards; and, at her request, I showed her the kitchen and the mat over which he had stumbled. She seemed surprised that the ‘Doom’ had let slip so favourable a chance of accomplishing its business, and gathered from the fact added cause for anxiety. Evidently something much more thorough is in store for Master Theodore. It was only half a pound of gunpowder, she told me. Doctor Smallboy’s gardener had bought it for the purpose of raising the stump of an old elm-tree, and had left it for a moment on the grass while he had returned to the house for more brown paper. She seemed pleased with the gardener, who, as she said, might, if dishonestly inclined, have charged her for a pound. I wanted to pay for–at all events–our share, but she would not take a penny. Her late lamented grandfather she regards as the person responsible for the entire incident, and perhaps it may be as well not to disturb her view. Had I suggested it, I feel sure she would have seen the justice of her providing us with a new kitchen range.

“Wildly exaggerated accounts of the affair are flying round the neighbourhood; and my chief fear is that Veronica may discover she is a local celebrity. Your sudden disappearance is supposed to have been heavenward. An old farm labourer who saw you pass on your way to the station speaks of you as ‘the ghost of the poor gentleman himself;’ and fragments of clothing found anywhere within a radius of two miles are being preserved, I am told, as specimens of your remains. Boots would appear to have been your chief apparel. Seven pairs have already been collected from the surrounding ditches. Among the more public-spirited there is talk of using you to start a local museum.”

These first three paragraphs I did not read to Ethelbertha. Fortunately they just filled the first sheet, which I took an opportunity of slipping into my pocket unobserved.

“The new boy arrived on Sunday morning,” she continued. “His name– if I have got it right–is William. Anyhow, that is the nearest I can get to it. His other name, if any, I must leave you to extract from him yourself. It may be Berkshire that he talks, but it sounds more like barking. Please excuse the pun; but I have just been talking to him for half an hour, trying to make him understand that I want him to go home, and maybe, as a result, I am feeling a little hysterical. Anything more rural I cannot imagine. But he is anxious to learn, and a fairly wide field is in front of him. I caught him after our breakfast on Sunday calmly throwing everything left over onto the dust-heap. I pointed out to him the wickedness of wasting nourishing food, and impressed upon him that the proper place for victuals was inside us. He never answers. He stands stock still, with his mouth as wide open as it will go–which is saying a good deal–and one trusts that one’s words are entering into him. All Sunday afternoon he was struggling valiantly against an almost supernatural sleepiness. After tea he got worse, and I began to think he would be no use to me. We none of us ate much supper; and Dick, who appears able to understand him, helped him to carry the things out. I heard them talking, and then Dick came back and closed the door behind him. ‘He wants to know,’ said Dick, ‘if he can leave the corned beef over till tomorrow. Because, if he eats it all to- night, he doesn’t think he will be able to walk home.’

“Veronica takes great interest in him. She has evidently a motherly side to her character, for which we none of us have given her credit. She says she is sure there is good in him. She sits beside him while he chops wood, and tells him carefully selected stories, calculated, she argues, to develop his intelligence. She is careful, moreover, not to hurt his feelings by any display of superiority. ‘Of course, anyone leading a useful life, such as yours,’ I overheard her saying to him this morning, ‘don’t naturally get much time for reading. I’ve nothing else to do, you see, ‘cept to improve myself.’

“The donkey arrived this afternoon while I was out–galloping, I am given to understand, with ‘Opkins on his back. There seems to be some secret between those two. We have tried him with hay, and we have tried him with thistles; but he seems to prefer bread-and- butter. I have not been able as yet to find out whether he takes tea or coffee in the morning. But he is an animal that evidently knows his own mind, and fortunately both are in the house. We are putting him up for to-night with the cow, who greeted him at first with enthusiasm and wanted to adopt him, but has grown cold to him since on discovering that he is not a calf. I have been trying to make friends with her, but she is so very unresponsive. She doesn’t seem to want anything but grass, and prefers to get that for herself. She doesn’t seem to want to be happy ever again.

“A funny thing happened in church. I was forgetting to tell you. The St. Leonards occupy two pews at the opposite end from the door. They were all there when we arrived, with the exception of the old gentleman himself. He came in just before the ‘Dearly Beloved,’ when everybody was standing up. A running fire of suppressed titters followed him up the aisle, and some of the people laughed outright. I could see no reason why. He looked a dignified old gentleman in his grey hair and tightly buttoned frock coat, which gives him a somewhat military appearance. But when he came level with our pew I understood. Hurrying back from his morning round, and with no one there to superintend him, the dear old absent-minded thing had forgotten to change his breeches. From a little above the knee upward he was a perfect Christian; but his legs were just those of a disreputable sinner.

“‘What’s the joke?’ he whispered to me as he passed–I was in the corner seat. ‘Have I missed it?’

“We called round on them after lunch, and at once I was appealed to for my decision.

“‘Now, here’s a plain sensible girl,’ exclaimed the old gentleman the moment I entered the room.’ (You will notice I put no comma after ‘plain.’ I am taking it he did not intend one. You can employ one adjective to qualify another, can’t you?) ‘And I will put it to her, What difference can it make to the Almighty whether I go to church in trousers or in breeches?’

“‘I do not see,’ retorted Mrs. St. Leonard somewhat coldly, ‘that Miss Robina is in any better position than myself to speak with authority on the views of the Almighty’–which I felt was true. ‘If it makes no difference to the Almighty, then why not, for my sake, trousers?’

“‘The essential thing,’ he persisted, ‘is a contrite heart.’ He was getting very cross.

“‘It may just as well be dressed respectably,’ was his wife’s opinion. He left the room, slamming the door.

“I do like Janie the more and more I see of her. I do hope she will let me get real chums with her. She does me so much good. (I read that bit twice over to Ethelbertha, pretending I had lost the place.) I suppose it is having rather a silly mother and an unpractical father that has made her so capable. If you and Little Mother had been proper sort of parents I might have been quite a decent sort of girl. But it’s too late finding fault with you now. I suppose I must put up with you. She works so hard, and is so unselfish. But she is not like some good people, who make you feel it is hopeless your trying to be good. She gets cross and impatient; and then she laughs at herself, and gets right again that way. Poor Mrs. St. Leonard! I cannot help feeling sorry for her. She would have been so happy as the wife of a really respectable City man, who would have gone off every morning with a flower in his buttonhole and have worn a white waistcoat on Sundays. I don’t believe what they say: that husbands and wives should be the opposite of one another. Mr. St. Leonard ought to have married a brainy woman, who would have discussed philosophy with him, and have been just as happy drinking beer out of a tea-cup: you know the sort I mean. If ever I marry it will be a short-tempered man who loves music and is a good dancer; and if I find out too late that he’s clever I’ll run away from him.

“Dick has not yet come home–nearly eight o’clock. Veronica is supposed to be in bed, but I can hear things falling. Poor boy! I expect he’ll be tired; but today is an exception. Three hundred sheep have had to be brought all the way from Ilsley, and must be ‘herded’–I fancy it is called–before anybody can think of supper. I saw to it that he had a good dinner.

“And now to come to business. Young Bute has been here all day, and has only just left. He is coming down again on Friday–which, by the way, don’t forget is Mrs. St. Leonard’s ‘At Home’ day. She hopes she may then have the pleasure of making your acquaintance, and thinks that possibly there may be present one or two people we may like to know. From which I gather that half the neighbourhood has been specially invited to meet you. So mind you bring a frock-coat; and if Little Mother can put her hand easily on my pink muslin with the spots–it is either in my wardrobe or else in the bottom drawer in Veronica’s room, if it isn’t in the cardboard box underneath mother’s bed–you might slip it into your bag. But whatever you do don’t crush it. The sash I feel sure mother put away somewhere herself. He sees no reason–I’m talking now about young Bute,–if you approve his plans, why work should not be commenced immediately. Shall I write old Slee to meet you at the house on Friday? From all accounts I don’t think you’ll do better. He is on the spot, and they say he is most reasonable. But you have to get estimates, don’t you? He suggests–Mr. Bute, I mean–throwing what used to be the dairy into the passage, which will make a hall big enough for anything. We might even give a dance in it, he thinks. But all this you will be able to discuss with him on Friday. He has evidently taken a great deal of pains, and some of his suggestions sound sensible. But of course he must fully understand that it is what we want, not what he thinks, that is important. I told him you said I could have my room exactly as I liked it myself; and I have explained to him my ideas. He seemed at first to be under the impression that I didn’t know what I was talking about, so I made it quite clear to him that I did, with the result that he has consented to carry out my instructions, on condition that I put them down in black and white–which I think just as well, as then there can be no excuse afterwards for argument. I like him better than I did the first time. About everything else he can be fairly amiable. It is when he talks about ‘frontal elevations’ and ‘ground plans’ that he irritates me. Tell Little Mother that I’ll write her to-morrow. Couldn’t she come down with you on Friday? Everything will be ship-shape by then; and–“

The remainder was of a nature more private. She concluded with a postscript, which also I did not read to Ethelbertha.

“Thought I had finished telling you everything, when quite a stylish rat-tat sounded on the door. I placed an old straw hat of Dick’s in a prominent position, called loudly to an imaginary ‘John’ not to go without the letters, and then opened it. He turned out to be the local reporter. I need not have been alarmed. He was much the more nervous of the two, and was so full of excuses that had I not come to his rescue I believe he would have gone away forgetting what he’d come for. Nothing save an overwhelming sense of duty to the Public (with a capital P) could have induced him to inflict himself upon me. Could I give him a few details which would enable him to set rumour right? I immediately saw visions of headlines: ‘Domestic Tragedy!’ ‘Eminent Author blown up by his own Daughter!’ ‘Once Happy Home now a Mere Wreck!’ It seemed to me our only plan was to enlist this amiable young man upon our side; I hope I did not overdo it. My idea was to convey the impression that one glance at him had convinced me he was the best and noblest of mankind; that I felt I could rely upon his wit and courage to save us from a notoriety that, so far as I was concerned, would sadden my whole life; and that if he did so eternal gratitude and admiration would be the least I could lay at his feet. I can be nice when I try. People have said so. We parted with only a pressure of the hand, and I hope he won’t get into trouble, but I see The Berkshire Courier is going to be deprived of its prey. Dick has just come in. He promises to talk when he has finished eating.”

Dick’s letter, for which Ethelbertha seemed to be strangely impatient, reached us on Wednesday morning.

“If ever you want to find out, Dad, what hard work really means, you try farming,” wrote Dick; “and yet I believe you would like it. Hasn’t some old Johnny somewhere described it as the poetry of the ploughshare? Why did we ever take to bothering about anything else– shutting ourselves up in stuffy offices, worrying ourselves to death about a lot of rubbish that isn’t any good to anybody? I wish I could put it properly, Dad; you would see just what I mean. Why don’t we live in simply-built houses and get most everything we want out of the land: which we easily could? You take a dozen poor devils away from walking behind the plough and put them down into coal-mines, and set them running about half-naked among a lot of roaring furnaces, and between them they turn out a machine that does the ploughing for them. What is the sense of it? Of course some things are useful. I would like a motor-car, and railways and steamboats are all right; but it seems to me that half the fiddle- faddles we fancy we want we’d be just as well, if not better, without, and there would be all that time and energy to spare for the sort of things that everybody ought to have. It’s everywhere just like it was at school. They kept us so hard at it, studying Greek roots, we hadn’t time to learn English grammar. Look at young Dennis Yewbury. He’s got two thousand acres up in Scotland. He could lead a jolly life turning the place into some real use. Instead of which he lets it all run to waste for nothing but to breed a few hundred birds that wouldn’t keep a single family alive; while he works from morning till night at humbugging people in a beastly hole in the City, just to fill his house with a host of silly gim-cracks and dress up himself and his women-folk like peacocks. Of course we would always want clever chaps like you to tell us stories; and doctors we couldn’t do without, though I guess if we were leading sensible lives we’d be able to get along with about half of them. It seems to me that what we want is a comfortable home, enough to eat and drink, and a few fal-lal sort of things to make the girls look pretty; and that all the rest is rot. We would all of us have time then to think and play a bit, and if we were all working fairly at something really useful and were contented with our own share, there’d be enough for everybody.

“I suppose this is all nonsense, but I wish it wasn’t. Anyway, it’s what I mean to do myself; and I’m awfully much obliged to you, Dad, for giving me this chance. You’ve hit the right nail on the head this time. Farming was what I was meant for; I feel it. I would have hated being a barrister, setting people by the ears and making my living out of other people’s troubles. Being a farmer you feel that in doing good to yourself you are doing good all round. Miss Janie agrees with all I say. I think she is one of the most sensible girls I have ever come across, and Robin likes her awfully. So is the old man: he’s a brick. I think he has taken a liking to me, and I know I have to him. He’s the dearest old fellow imaginable. The very turnips he seems to think of as though they were so many rows of little children. And he makes you see the inside of things. Take fields now, for instance. I used to think a field was just a field. You scraped it about and planted it with seeds, and everything else depended on the weather. Why, Dad, it’s alive! There are good fields that want to get on–that are grateful for everything you do for them, and take a pride in themselves. And there are brutes of fields that you feel you want to kick. You can waste a hundred pounds’ worth of manure on them, and it only makes them more stupid than they were before. One of our fields–a wizened-looking eleven- acre strip bordering the Fyfield road–he has christened Mrs. Gummidge: it seems to feel everything more than any other field. From whatever point of the compass the wind blows that field gets the most harm from it. You would think to look at it after a storm that there hadn’t been any rain in any other field–that that ‘particular field must have got it all; while two days’ sunshine has the effect upon it that a six weeks’ drought would on any other field. His theory (he must have a theory to account for everything; it comforts him. He has just hit upon a theory that explains why twins are born with twice as much original sin as other children, and doesn’t seem to mind now what they do) is that each odd corner of the earth has gained a character of its own from the spirits of the countless dead men buried in its bosom. ‘Robbers and thieves,’ he will say, kicking the sod of some field all stones and thistles; ‘silly fighting men who thought God built the world merely to give them the fun of knocking it about. Look at them, the fools! stones and thistles– thistles and stones: that is their notion of a field.’ Or, leaning over the gate of some field of rich-smelling soil, he will stretch out his arms as though to caress it: ‘Brave lads!’ he will say; ‘kindly honest fellows who loved the poor peasant folk.’ I fancy he has not got much sense of humour; or if he has, it is a humour he leaves you to find out for yourself. One does not feel one wants to laugh, listening even to his most whimsical ideas; and anyhow it is a fact that of two fields quite close to one another, one will be worth ten pounds an acre and the other dear at half a crown, and there seems to be nothing to explain it. We have a seven-acre patch just halfway up the hill. He says he never passes it without taking off his hat to it. Whatever you put in it does well; while other fields, try them with what you will, it is always the very thing they did not want. You might fancy them fractious children, always crying for the other child’s bun. There is really no reason for its being such a good field, except its own pluck. It faces the east, and the wood for half the day hides it from the sun; but it makes the best of everything, and even on the greyest day it seems to be smiling at you. ‘Some happy-hearted Mother Thing–a singer of love songs the while she toiled,’ he will have it, must lie sleeping there. By-the- bye, what a jolly field Janie would make! Don’t you think so, Dad?

“What the dickens, Dad, have you done to Veronica? She wanders about everywhere with an exercise book in her hand, and when you say anything to her, instead of answering you back, she sits plump down wherever she is and writes for all she’s worth. She won’t say what she’s up to. She says it’s a private matter between you and her, and that later on things are going to be seen in their true light. I told her this morning what I thought of her for forgetting to feed the donkey. I was prepared, of course, for a hundred explanations: First, that she had meant to feed the donkey; secondly, that it wasn’t her place to feed the donkey; thirdly, that the donkey would have been fed if circumstances over which she had no control had not arisen rendering it impossible for her to feed the donkey; fourthly, that the morning wasn’t the proper time to feed the donkey, and so on. Instead of which, out she whips this ridiculous book and asks me if I would mind saying it over again.

“I keep forgetting to ask Janie what it is he has been accustomed to. We have tried him with thistles, and we’ve tried him with hay. The thistles he scratches himself against; but for the hay he appears to have no use whatever. Robin thinks his idea is to save us trouble. We are not to get in anything especially for him–whatever we may happen to be having ourselves he will put up with. Bread-and-butter cut thick, or a slice of cake with an apple seems to be his notion of a light lunch; and for drink he fancies tea out of a slop-basin, with two knobs of sugar and plenty of milk. Robin says it’s waste of time taking his meals out to him. She says she is going to train him to come in when he hears the gong. We use the alarm clock at present for a gong. I don’t know what I shall do when the cow goes away. She wakes me every morning punctually at half-past four, but I’m in a blue funk that one of these days she will oversleep herself. It is one of those clocks you read about. You wrote something rather funny about one once yourself, but I always thought you had invented it. I bought it because they said it was an extra loud one, and so it is. The thing that’s wrong about it is that, do what you will, you can’t get it to go off before six o’clock in the morning. I set it on Sunday evening for half-past four–we farmers do have to work, I can tell you. But it’s worth it. I had no idea that the world was so beautiful. There is a light you never see at any other time, and the whole air seems to be full of fluttering song. You feel–but you must get up and come out with me, Dad. I can’t describe it. If it hadn’t been for the good old cow, Lord knows what time I’d have been up. The clock went off at half-past four in the afternoon, just as they were sitting down to tea, and frightened them all out of their skins. We have fiddled about with it all we know, but there’s no getting it to do anything between six p.m. and six am. Anything you want of it in the daytime it is quite agreeable to. But it seems to have fixed its own working hours, and isn’t going to be bustled out of its proper rest. I got so mad with it myself I wanted to pitch it out of the window, but Robin thought we ought to keep it till you came, that perhaps you might be able to do something with it–writing something about it, she means. I said I thought alarm clocks were pretty well played out by this time; but, as she says, there is always a new generation coming along to whom almost everything must be fresh. Anyhow, the confounded thing cost seven and six, and seems to be no good for anything else.

“Whatever was it that you really did say to Robin about her room? Young Bute came round to me on Monday quite upset about it. He says it is going to be all windows, and will look, when finished, like an incorrect copy of the Eddystone lighthouse. He says there will be no place for the bed, and if there is to be a fireplace at all it will have to be in the cupboard, and that the only way, so far as he can see, of her getting in and out of it will be by a door through the bathroom. She said that you said she could have it entirely to her own idea, and that he was just to carry out her instructions; but, as he points out, you can’t have a room in a house as if the rest of the house wasn’t there, even if it is your own room. Nobody, it seems, will be able to have a bath without first talking it over with her, and arranging a time mutually convenient. I told him I was sure you never meant him to do anything absurd; and that his best plan would be to go straight back to her, explain to her that she’d been talking like a silly goat–he could have put it politely, of course–and that he wasn’t going to pay any attention to her. You might have thought I had suggested his walking into a den of lions and pulling all their tails. I don’t know what Robin has done to him, but he seems quite frightened of her. I had to promise that I would talk to her. He’d better have done it himself. I only told her just what he said, and off she went in one of her tantrums. You know her style: If she liked to live in a room where she could see to do her hair that was no business of his, and if he couldn’t design a plain, simple bedroom that wasn’t going to look ridiculous and make her the laughing-stock of all the neighbourhood, then the Royal Institute of British Architects must have strange notions of the sort of person entitled to go about the country building houses; that if he thought the proper place for a fire was in a cupboard, she didn’t; that his duty was to carry out the instructions of his employers, and if he imagined for a moment she was going to consent to remain shut up in her room till everybody in the house had finished bathing it would be better for us to secure the services of somebody possessed of a little commonsense; that next time she met him she would certainly tell him what she thought of him, also that she should certainly decline to hold any further communication with him again; that she doesn’t want a bedroom now of any sort–perhaps she may be permitted a shakedown in the pantry, or perhaps Veronica will allow her an occasional night’s rest with her, and if not it doesn’t matter. You’ll have to talk to her yourself. I’m not going to say any more.

“Don’t forget that Friday is the St. Leonards’ ‘At Home’ day. I’ve promised Janie that you shall be there in all your best clothes. (Don’t tell her I’m calling her Janie. It might offend her. But nobody calls her Miss St. Leonard.) Everybody is coming, and all the children are having their hair washed. You will have it all your own way down here. There’s no other celebrity till you get to Boss Croker, the Tammany man, the other side of Ilsley Downs. Artists they don’t count. The rumour was all round the place last week that you were here incognito in the person of a dismal-looking Johnny, staying at the ‘Fisherman’s Retreat,’ who used to sit all day in a punt up the backwater drinking whisky. It made me rather mad when I saw him. I suppose it was the whisky that suggested the idea to them. They have got the notion in these parts that a literary man is a sort of inspired tramp. A Mrs. Jaggerswade–or some such name– whom I met here on Sunday and who is coming on Friday, took me aside and asked me ‘what sort of things’ you said when you talked? She said she felt sure it would be so clever, and, herself, she was looking forward to it; but would I–‘quite between ourselves’–advise her to bring the children.

“I say, you will have to talk seriously to Veronica. Country life seems to agree with her. She’s taken to poaching already–she and the twins. It was the one sin that hitherto they had never committed, and I fancy the old man was feeling proud of this. Luckily I caught them coming home–with ten dead rabbits strung on a pole, the twins carrying it between them on their shoulders, suggesting the picture of the spies returning from the promised land with that bunch of grapes–Veronica scouting on ahead with, every ten yards, her ear to the ground, listening for hostile footsteps. The thing that troubled her most was that she hadn’t heard me coming; she seemed to fear that something had gone wrong with the laws of Nature. They had found the whole collection hanging from a tree, and had persuaded themselves that Providence must have been expecting them. I insisted on their going back with me and showing me the tree, much to their disgust. And fortunately the keeper wasn’t about–they are men that love making a row. I talked some fine moral sentiment to her. But she says you have told her that it doesn’t matter whether you are good or bad, things happen to you just the same; and this being so she feels she may as well enjoy herself. I asked her why she never seemed able to enjoy herself being good–I believe if I’d always had a kid to bring up I’d have been a model chap myself by this time. Her answer was that she supposed she was born bad. I pointed out to her that was a reflection on you and Little Mother; and she answered she guessed she must be a ‘throw-back.’ Old Slee’s got a dog that ought to have been a fox-terrier, but isn’t, and he seems to have been explaining things to her.

“A thing that will trouble you down here, Dad, is the cruelty of the country. They catch these poor little wretches in traps, leaving them sometimes for days suffering what must be to them nothing short of agony–to say nothing of the terror and the hunger. I tried putting my finger in one of the beastly things and keeping it there for just two minutes by my watch. It seemed like twenty. The pain grows more intense with every second, and I’m not a soft, as you know. I’ve lain half an hour with a broken leg, and that wasn’t as bad. One hears the little creatures screaming, but cannot find them. Of course when one draws near they keep silent. It makes one quite dislike country people. They are so callous. When you speak to them about it they only grin. Janie goes nearly mad about it. Mr. St. Leonard tried to get the clergyman to say something on the subject, but he answered that he thought it better ‘for the Church to confine herself to the accomplishment of her own great mission.’ Ass!

“Bring Little Mother down; we want to show her off on Friday. And make her put on something pretty. Ask her if she’s got that lilac thing with lace she wore at Cambridge for the May Week the year before last. Tell her not to be silly; it wasn’t a bit too young. Nash said she looked like something out of an old picture, and he’s going to be an artist. Don’t let her dress herself. She doesn’t understand it. And will you get me a gun–“

The remainder of the letter was taken up with instructions concerning the gun. It seemed a complicated sort of gun. I wished I hadn’t read about the gun to Ethelbertha. It made her nervous for the rest of the day.

Veronica’s letter followed on Thursday morning. I read it going down in the train. In transcribing I have thought it better, as regards the spelling, to adopt the more conventional forms.

“You will be pleased to hear,” Veronica wrote, “that we are all quite well. Robin works very hard. But I think it does her good. And of course I help her. All I can. I am glad she has got a boy. To do the washing-up. I think that was too much for her. It used to make her cross. One cannot blame her. It is trying work. And it makes you mucky. He is a good boy. But has been neglected. So doesn’t know much. I am teaching him grammar. He says ‘you was’ and ‘her be.’ But is getting better. He says he went to school. But they couldn’t have taken any trouble with him. Could they? The system, I suppose, was rotten. Robina says I mustn’t overdo it. Because you want him to talk Berkshire. So I propose confining our attention to the elementary rules. He had never heard of Robinson Crusoe. What a life! We went to church on Sunday. I could not find my gloves. And Robina was waxy. But Mr. St. Leonard came without his trousers. Which was worse. We found them in the evening. The little boy that blew up our stove was there with his mother. But I didn’t speak to her. He’s got a doom. That’s what made him blow it up. He couldn’t help it. So you see it wasn’t my fault. After all. His grandfather was blown up. And he’s going to be blown up again. Later on. But he is very brave. And is going to make a will. I like all the St. Leonards very much. We went there to tea on Sunday. And Mr. St. Leonard said I was bright. I think Miss Janie very beautiful. And so does Dick. She makes me think of angels. So she does Dick. And he says she is so kind to her little brothers and sisters. It is a good sign. I think she ought to marry Dick. It would steady him. He works very hard. But I think it does him good. We have breakfast at seven. And I lay the table. It is very beautiful in the morning. When you are once up. Mrs. St. Leonard has twins. They are a great anxiety to her. But she would not part from them. She has had much trouble. And is sometimes very sad. I like the girl best. Her name is Winnie. She is more like a boy. His name is Wilfrid. But sometimes they change clothes. Then you’re done. They are only nearly seven. But they know a lot. They are going to teach me swimming. Is it not kind of them? The two older boys are at home for their holidays. But they give themselves a lot of airs. And they called me a flapper. I told him he’d be sorry. When he was a man. Because perhaps I’d grow up beautiful. And then he’d fall in love with me. But he said he wouldn’t. So I let him see what I thought of him. The little girl is very nice. She is about my own age. Her name is Sally. We are going to write a play. But we sha’n’t let Bertie act in it. Unless he turns over a new leaf. I’m going to be a princess that doesn’t know it. But only feels it. And she’s going to be a wicked witch. What wants me to marry her son. What’s a sight. But I won’t, because I’d rather die first. And am in love with a swineherd. That is a genius. Only nobody suspects it. I wear a crown in the last act. And everybody rejoices. Except her. I think it will be good. We have nearly finished the first act. She writes very well. And has a sense of atmosphere. And I tell her what to say. Miss Janie is going to make me a dress with a train. And gold spangles. And Robina is going to lend me her blue necklace. Anything will do of course for the old witch. So it won’t be much trouble to anyone. Mr. Bute is going to paint us some scenery. And we are going to invite everybody. He is very nice. Robina says he thinks too much of himself. By a long chalk. But she is very critical where men are concerned. She admits it. She says she can’t help it. I find him very affable. And so does Dick. We think Robina will get over it. And he has promised not to be angry with her. Because I have told him that she does not mean it. It is only her way. She says she feels it is unjust of her. Because really he is rather charming. I told him that. And he said I was a dear little girl. He is going to get me a real crown. Robina says he has nice eyes. I told him that. And he laughed. There is a gentleman comes here that I think is in love with Robina. But I shouldn’t say anything to her about it. If I was you. She is very snappy about it. He is not handsome. But he looks good. He writes for the papers. But I don’t think he is rich. And Robina is very nice to him. Until he’s gone. Then she gets mad. It all began with the explosion. So perhaps it was fate. He is going to keep it out of the papers. As much as he can. But of course he owes a duty to the public. I am going to decline to see him. I think it better. Mr. Slee says everything will be in apple-pie order to-morrow. So you can come down. And we are going to have Irish stew. And roly- poly pudding. It will be a change. He is very nice. And says he was always in trouble himself when he was a little boy. It’s all experience. We are all going on Friday to a party at Mr. St. Leonard’s. And you have got to come too. Robina says I can wear my new frock. But we can’t find the sash. It is very strange. Because I remember having seen it. You didn’t take it for anything, did you? We shall have to get a new one, I suppose. It is very annoying. My new shoes have also not worn well. And they ought to have. Because Robina says they were expensive. The donkey has come. And he is sweet. He eats out of my hand. And lets me kiss him. But he won’t go. He goes a little when you shout at him. Very loud. Me and Robina went for a drive yesterday after tea. And Dick ran beside. And shouted. But he got hoarse. And then he wouldn’t go no more. And Robina did not like it. Because Dick shouted swear words. He says they come naturally to you when you shout. And Robina said it was horrible. And that people would hear him. So we got out. And pushed him home. But he is very strong. And we were all very tired. And Robina says she hates him. Dick is going to give Mr. ‘Opkins half a crown. To tell him how he makes him go. Because Mr. ‘Opkins makes him gallop. Robina says it must be hypnotism. But Dick thinks it might be something simpler. I think Mr. ‘Opkins very nice. He says you promised to lend him a book. What would help him to talk like a real country boy. So I have lent him a book about a window. By Mr. Bane. What came to see us last year. It has a lot of funny words in it. And he is going to learn them up. But he don’t know what they mean. No more do I. I have written a lot of the book. It promises to be very interesting. It is all a dream. He is just the ordinary grown-up father. Neither better nor worse. And he goes up and up. It is a pleasant sensation. Till he reaches the moon. And there everything is different. It is the children that know everything. And are always right. And the grown-ups have to do all what they tell them. They are kind but firm. It is very good for him. And when he wakes up he is a better man. I put down everything that occurs to me. Like you suggested. There is quite a lot of it. And it makes you see how unjustly children are treated. They said I was to feed the donkey. Because it was my donkey. And I fed him. And there wasn’t enough supper for Dick. And Dick said I was an idiot. And Robina said I wasn’t to feed him. And in the morning there wasn’t anything to feed him on. Because he won’t eat anything but bread-and-butter. And the baker hadn’t come. And he wasn’t there. Because the man that comes to milk the cow had left the door open. And I was distracted. And Dick asked had I fed him. And of course I hadn’t fed him. And lord how Dick talked. Never waited to hear anything, mind you. I let him talk. But it just shows you. We are all very happy. But shall be pleased to see you. Once again. The peppermint creams down here are not good. And are very dear. Compared with London prices. Isn’t this a good letter? You said I was to always write just as I thought. So I’m doing it. I think that’s all.”

I read selections from this letter aloud to Ethelbertha. She said she was glad she had decided to come down with me.

CHAPTER IX

Had all things gone as ordered, our arrival at the St. Leonards’ on Friday afternoon would have been imposing. It was our entrance, so to speak, upon the local stage; and Robina had decided it was a case where small economies ought not to be considered. The livery stable proprietor had suggested a brougham, but that would have necessitated one of us riding outside. I explained to Robina that, in the country, this was usual; and Robina had replied that much depended upon first impressions. Dick would, in all probability, claim the place for himself; and, the moment we were started, stick a pipe in his mouth. She selected an open landau of quite an extraordinary size, painted yellow. It looked to me an object more appropriate to a Lord Mayor’s show than to the requirements of a Christian family; but Robina seemed touchy on the subject, and I said no more. It certainly was roomy. Old Glossop had turned it out well, with a pair of greys–seventeen hands, I judged them. The only thing that seemed wrong was the coachman. I can’t explain why, but he struck me as the class of youth one associates with a milk-cart.

We set out at a gentle trot. Veronica, who had been in trouble most of the morning, sat stiffly on the extreme edge of her seat, clothed in the attitude of one dead to the world; Dick, in lavender gloves that Robina had thoughtfully bought for him, next to her. Ethelbertha, Robina, and myself sat perched on the back seat; to have leaned back would have been to lie down. Ethelbertha, having made up her mind she was going to dislike the whole family of the St. Leonards, seemed disinclined for conversation. Myself I had forgotten my cigar-case. I have tried the St. Leonard cigar. He does not smoke himself; but keeps a box for his friends. He tells me he fancies men are smoking cigars less than formerly. I did not see how I was going to get a smoke for the next three hours. Nothing annoys me more than being bustled and made to forget things. Robina, who has recently changed her views on the subject of freckles, shared a parasol with her mother. They had to hold it almost horizontally in front of them, and this obscured their view. I could not myself understand why people smiled as we went by. Apart from the carriage, which they must have seen before, we were not, I should have said, an exhilarating spectacle. A party of cyclists laughed outright. Robina said there was one thing we should have to be careful about, living in the country, and that was that the strong air and the loneliness combined didn’t sap our intellect. She said she had noticed it–the tendency of country people to become prematurely silly. I did not share her fears, as I had by this time divined what it was that was amusing folks. Dick had discovered behind the cushions–remnant of some recent wedding, one supposes–a large and tastefully bound Book of Common Prayer. He and Veronica sat holding it between them. Looking at their faces one could almost hear the organ pealing.

Dick kept one eye on the parasol; and when, on passing into shade, it was lowered, he and Veronica were watching with rapt ecstasy the flight of swallows. Robina said she should tell Mr. Glossop of the insults to which respectable people were subject when riding in his carriage. She thought he ought to take steps to prevent it. She likewise suggested that the four of us, leaving the Little Mother in the carriage, should walk up the hill. Ethelbertha said that she herself would like a walk. She had been balancing herself on the edge of a cushion with her feet dangling for two miles, and was tired. She herself would have preferred a carriage made for ordinary-sized people. Our coachman called attention to the heat of the afternoon and the length of the hill, and recommended our remaining where we were; but his advice was dismissed as exhibiting want of feeling. Robina is, perhaps, a trifle over-sympathetic where animals are concerned. I remember, when they were children, her banging Dick over the head with the nursery bellows because he would not agree to talk in a whisper for fear of waking the cat. You can, of course, overdo kindness to animals, but it is a fault on the right side; and, as a rule, I do not discourage her. Veronica was allowed to remain, owing to her bad knee. It is a most unfortunate affliction. It comes on quite suddenly. There is nothing to be seen; but the child’s face while she is suffering from it would move a heart of stone. It had been troubling her, so it appeared, all the morning; but she had said nothing, not wishing to alarm her mother. Ethelbertha, who thinks it may be hereditary–she herself having had an aunt who had suffered from contracted ligament–fixed her up as comfortably as the pain would permit with cushions in the centre of the back seat; and the rest of us toiled after the carriage.

I should not like to say for certain that horses have a sense of humour, but I sometimes think they must. I had a horse years ago who used to take delight in teasing girls. I can describe it no other way. He would pick out a girl a quarter of a mile off; always some haughty, well-dressed girl who was feeling pleased with herself. As we approached he would eye her with horror and astonishment. It was too marked to escape notice. A hundred yards off he would be walking sideways, backing away from her; I would see the poor lady growing scarlet with the insult and annoyance of it. Opposite to her, he would shy the entire width of the road, and make pretence to bolt. Looking back I would see her vainly appealing to surrounding nature for a looking-glass to see what it was that had gone wrong with her.

“What is the matter with me,” she would be crying to herself; “that the very beasts of the field should shun me? Do they take me for a gollywog?”

Halfway up the hill, the off-side grey turned his head and looked at us. We were about a couple of hundred yards behind; it was a hot and dusty day. He whispered to the near-side grey, and the near-side grey turned and looked at us also. I knew what was coming. I’ve been played the same trick before. I shouted to the boy, but it was too late. They took the rest of the hill at a gallop and disappeared over the brow. Had there been an experienced coachman behind them, I should not have worried. Dick told his mother not to be alarmed, and started off at fifteen miles an hour. I calculated I was doing about ten, which for a gentleman past his first youth, in a frock suit designed to disguise rather than give play to the figure, I consider creditable. Robina, undecided whether to go on ahead with Dick or remain to assist her mother, wasted vigour by running from one to the other. Ethelbertha’s one hope was that she might reach the wreckage in time to receive Veronica’s last wishes.

It was in this order that we arrived at the St. Leonards’. Veronica, under an awning, sipping iced sherbet, appeared to be the centre of the party. She was recounting her experiences with a modesty that had already won all hearts. The rest of us, she had explained, had preferred walking, and would arrive later. She was evidently pleased to see me, and volunteered the information that the greys, to all seeming, had enjoyed their gallop.

I sent Dick back to break the good news to his mother. Young Bute said he would go too. He said he was fresher than Dick, and would get there first. As a matter of history he did, and was immediately sorry that he had.

This is not a well-ordered world, or it would not be our good deeds that would so often get us into trouble. Robina’s insistence on our walking up the hill had been prompted by tender feeling for dumb animals: a virtuous emotion that surely the angels should have blessed. The result had been to bring down upon her suffering and reproach. It is not often that Ethelbertha loses her temper. When she does she makes use of the occasion to perform what one might describe as a mental spring-cleaning. All loose odds and ends of temper that may be lying about in her mind–any scrap of indignation that has been reposing peacefully, half forgotten, in a corner of her brain, she ferrets out and brushes into the general heap. Small annoyances of the year before last–little things she hadn’t noticed at the time–incidents in your past life that, so far as you are concerned, present themselves as dim visions connected maybe with some previous existence, she whisks triumphantly into her pan. The method has its advantages. It leaves her, swept and garnished, without a scrap of ill-feeling towards any living soul. For quite a long period after one of these explosions it is impossible to get a cross word out of her. One has to wait sometimes for months. But while the clearing up is in progress the atmosphere round about is disturbing. The element of the whole thing is its comprehensive swiftness. Before they had reached the summit of the hill, Robina had acquired a tolerably complete idea of all she had done wrong since Christmas twelvemonth: the present afternoon’s proceedings– including as they did the almost certain sacrificing of a sister to a violent death, together with the probable destruction of a father, no longer of an age to trifle with apoplexy–being but a fit and proper complement to what had gone before. It would be long, as Robina herself that evening bitterly declared, before she would again give ear to the promptings of her better nature.

To take next the sad case of Archibald Bute: his sole desire had been to relieve, at the earliest moment possible, the anxieties of a sister and a mother. Robina’s new hat, not intended for sport, had broken away from its fastenings. With it, it had brought down her hair. There is a harmless contrivance for building up the female hair called, I am told, a pad. It can be made of combings, and then, of course, is literally the girl’s own hair. He came upon Robina at the moment when, retracing her steps and with her back towards him, she was looking for it. With his usual luck, he was the first to find it. Ethelbertha thanked him for his information concerning Veronica, but seemed chiefly anxious to push on and convince herself that it was true. She took Dick’s arm, and left Robina to follow on with Bute.

As I explained to him afterwards, had he stopped to ask my advice I should have counselled his leaving the job to Dick, who, after all, was only thirty seconds behind him. As regarded himself, I should have suggested his taking a walk in the opposite direction, returning, say, in half an hour, and pretending to have just arrived. By that time Robina, with the assistance of Janie’s brush and comb, and possibly her powder-puff, would have been feeling herself again. He could have listened sympathetically to an account of the affair from Robina herself–her version, in which she would have appeared to advantage. Give her time, and she has a sense of humour. She would have made it bright and whimsical. Without asserting it in so many words, she would have conveyed the impression–I know her way–that she alone, throughout the whole commotion, had remained calm and helpful. “Dear old Dick” and “Poor dear papa”–I can hear her saying it–would have supplied the low comedy, and Veronica, alluded to with affection free from sentimentality, would have furnished the dramatic interest. It is not that Robina intends to mislead, but she has the artistic instinct. It would have made quite a charming story; Robina always the central figure. She would have enjoyed telling it, and would have been pleased with the person listening. All this–which would have been the reward of subterfuge–he had missed. Virtuous intention had gained for him nothing but a few scattered observations from Robina concerning himself; the probable object of his Creator in fashioning him–his relation to the scheme of things in general: observations all of which he had felt to be unjust.

We compared experiences over a pipe that same evening; and he told me of a friend of his, a law student, who had shared diggings with him in Edinburgh. A kinder-hearted young man, Bute felt sure, could never have breathed; nor one with a tenderer, more chivalrous regard for women; and the misery this brought him, to say nothing of the irritation caused to quite a number of respectable people, could hardly be imagined, so young Bute assured me, by anyone not personally acquainted with the parties. It was the plain and snappy girl, and the less attractive type of old maid, for whom he felt the most sorrow. He could not help thinking of all they had missed, and were likely to go on missing; the rapture–surely the woman’s birthright–of feeling herself adored, anyhow, once in her life; the delight of seeing the lover’s eye light up at her coming. Had he been a Mormon he would have married them all. They too–the neglected that none had invited to the feast of love–they also should know the joys of home, feel the sweet comfort of a husband’s arm. Being a Christian, his power for good was limited. But at least he could lift from them the despairing conviction that they were outside the pale of masculine affection. Not one of them, so far as he could help it, but should be able to say:

“I–even I had a lover once. No, dear, we never married. It was one of those spiritual loves; a formal engagement with a ring would have spoiled it–coarsened it. No; it was just a beautiful thing that came into my life and passed away again, leaving behind it a fragrance that has sweetened all my days.”

That is how he imagined they would talk about it, years afterwards, to the little niece or nephew, asking artless questions–how they would feel about it themselves. Whether law circles are peculiarly rich in unattractive spinsters, or whether it merely happened to be an exceptional season for them, Bute could not say; but certain it was that the number of sour-faced girls and fretful old maids in excess of the demand seemed to be greater than usual that winter in Edinburgh, with the result that young Hapgood had a busy time of it. He made love to them, not obtrusively, which might have laid them open to ridicule–many of them were old enough to have been his mother–but more by insinuation, by subtle suggestion. His feelings, so they gathered, were too deep for words; but the adoring eyes with which he would follow their every movement, the rapt ecstasy with which he would drink in their lightest remark about the weather, the tone of almost reverential awe with which he would enquire of them concerning their lesser ailments–all conveyed to their sympathetic observation the message that he dared not tell. He had no favourites. Sufficient it was that a woman should be unpleasant, for him to pour out at her feet the simulated passion of a lifetime. He sent them presents–nothing expensive–wrapped in pleasing pretence of anonymity; valentines carefully selected for their compromising character. One carroty-headed old maid with warts he had kissed upon the brow.

All this he did out of his great pity for them. It was a beautiful idea, but it worked badly. They did not understand–never got the hang of the thing: not one of them. They thought he was really gone on them. For a time his elusiveness, his backwardness in coming to the point, they attributed to a fit and proper fear of his fate; but as the months went by the feeling of each one was that he was carrying the apprehension of his own unworthiness too far. They gave him encouragement, provided for him “openings,” till the wonder grew upon them how any woman ever did get married. At the end of their resources, they consulted bosom friends. In several instances the bosom friend turned out to be the bosom friend of more than one of them. The bosom friends began to take a hand in it. Some of them came to him with quite a little list, insisting–playfully at first– on his making up his mind what he was going to take and what he was going to leave; offering, as reward for prompt decision, to make things as easy for him as possible with the remainder of the column.

It was then he saw that his good intentions were likely to end in catastrophe. He would not tell the truth: that the whole scheme had been conceived out of charity towards all ill-constructed or dilapidated ladies; that personally he didn’t care a hang for any of them; had only taken them on, vulgarly speaking, to give them a treat, and because nobody else would. That wasn’t going to be a golden memory, colouring their otherwise drab existence. He explained that it was not love–not the love that alone would justify a man’s asking of a woman that she should give herself to him for life–that he felt and always should feel for them, but merely admiration and deep esteem; and seventeen of them thought that would be sufficient to start with, and offered to chance the rest.

The truth had to come out. Friends who knew his noble nature could not sit by and hear him denounced as a heartless and eccentric profligate. Ladies whose beauty and popularity were beyond dispute thought it a touching and tender thing for him to have done; but every woman to whom he had ever addressed a kind word wanted to wring his neck.

He did the most sensible thing he could, under all the circumstances; changed his address to Aberdeen, where he had an aunt living. But the story followed him. No woman would be seen speaking to him. One admiring glance from Hapgood would send the prettiest girls home weeping to their mothers. Later on he fell in love–hopelessly, madly in love. But he dared not tell her–dared not let a living soul guess it. That was the only way he could show it. It is not sufficient, in this world, to want to do good; there’s got to be a knack about it.

There was a man I met in Colorado, one Christmas-time. I was on a lecturing tour. His idea was to send a loving greeting to his wife in New York. He had been married nineteen years, and this was the first time he had been separated from his family on Christmas Day. He pictured them round the table in the little far-away New England parlour; his wife, his sister-in-law, Uncle Silas, Cousin Jane, Jack and Willy, and golden-haired Lena. They would be just sitting down to dinner, talking about him, most likely; wishing he were among them. They were a nice family and all fond of him. What joy it would give them to know that he was safe and sound; to hear the very tones of his loved voice speaking to them! Modern science has made possible these miracles. True, the long-distance telephone would cost him five dollars; but what is five dollars weighed against the privilege of wafting happiness to an entire family on Christmas Day! We had just come back from a walk. He slammed the money down, and laughed aloud at the thought of the surprise he was about to give them all.

The telephone bell rang out clear and distinct at the precise moment when his wife, with knife and fork in hand, was preparing to carve the turkey. She was a nervous lady, and twice that week had dreamed that she had seen her husband without being able to get to him. On the first occasion she had seen him enter a dry-goods store in Broadway, and hastening across the road had followed him in. He was hardly a dozen yards in front of her, but before she could overtake him all the young lady assistants had rushed from behind their counters and, forming a circle round her, had refused to let her pass, which in her dream had irritated her considerably. On the next occasion he had boarded a Brooklyn car in which she was returning home. She had tried to attract his attention with her umbrella, but he did not seem to see her; and every time she rose to go across to him the car gave a jerk and bumped her back into her seat. When she did get over to him it was not her husband at all, but the gentleman out of the Quaker Oats advertisement. She went to the telephone, feeling–as she said herself afterwards–all of a tremble.

That you could speak from Colorado to New York she would not then have believed had you told her. The thing was in its early stages, which may also have accounted for the voice reaching her strange and broken. I was standing beside him while he spoke. We were in the vestibule of the Savoy Hotel at Colorado Springs. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, which would be about seven in New York. He told her he was safe and well, and that she was not to fret about him. He told her he had been that morning for a walk in the Garden of the Gods, which is the name given to the local park; they do that sort of thing in Colorado. Also that he had drunk from the silicial springs abounding in that favoured land. I am not sure that “silicial” was the correct word. He was not sure himself: added to which he pronounced it badly. Whatever they were, he assured her they had done him good. He sent a special message to his Cousin Jane–a maiden lady of means–to the effect that she could rely upon seeing him soon. She was a touchy old lady, and liked to be singled out for special attention. He made the usual kind enquiries about everybody, sent them all his blessing, and only wished they could be with him in this delectable land where it seemed to be always sunshine and balmy breezes. He could have said more, but his time being up the telephone people switched him off; and feeling he had done a good and thoughtful deed, he suggested a game of billiards.

Could he have been a witness of events at the other end of the wire, his condition would have been one of less self-complacence. Long before the end of the first sentence his wife had come to the conclusion that this was a message from the dead. Why through a telephone did not greatly worry her. It seemed as reasonable a medium as any other she had ever heard of–indeed a trifle more so. Later, when she was able to review the matter calmly, it afforded her some consolation to reflect that things might have been worse. That “garden,” together with the “silicial springs”–which she took to be “celestial,” there was not much difference the way he pronounced it– was distinctly reassuring. The “eternal sunshine” and the “balmy breezes” likewise agreed with her knowledge of heavenly topography as derived from the Congregational Hymn-Book. That he should have needed to enquire concerning the health of herself and the children had puzzled her. The only explanation was that they didn’t know everything, not even up. There–may be, not the new-comers. She had answered as coherently as her state of distraction would permit, and had then dropped limply to the floor. It was the sound of her falling against the umbrella-stand and upsetting it that brought them all trooping out from the dining-room.

It took her some time to get the thing home to them; and when she had finished, her brother Silas, acting on the impulse of the moment, rang up the Exchange, with some vague idea of getting into communication with St. Peter and obtaining further particulars, but recollected himself in time to explain to the “hulloa girl” that he had made a mistake.

The eldest boy, a practical youth, pointed out, very sensibly, that nothing could be gained by their not going on with their dinner, but was bitterly reproached for being able to think of any form of enjoyment at a moment when his poor dear father was in heaven. It reminded his mother of the special message to Cousin Jane, who up to that moment had been playing the part of comforter. With the collapse of Cousin Jane, dramatic in its suddenness, conversation disappeared. At nine o’clock the entire family went dinnerless to bed.

The eldest boy–as I have said, a practical youth–had the sense to get up early the next morning and send a wire, which brought the glad news back to them that their beloved one was not in heaven, but was still in Colorado. But the only reward my friend got for all his tender thoughtfulness was the vehement injunction never for the remainder of his life to play such a fool’s trick again.

There were other cases I could have recited showing the ill recompense that so often overtakes the virtuous action; but, as I explained to Bute, it would have saddened me to dwell upon the theme.

It was quite a large party assembled at the St. Leonards’, including one or two county people, and I should have liked, myself, to have made a better entrance. A large lady with a very small voice seemed to be under the impression that I had arranged the whole business on purpose. She said it was “so dramatic.” One good thing came out of it: Janie, in her quiet, quick way, saw to it that Ethelbertha and Robina slipped into the house unnoticed by way of the dairy. When they joined the other guests, half an hour later, they had had a cup of tea and a rest, and were feeling calm and cool, with their hair nicely done; and Ethelbertha remarked to Robina on the way home what a comfort it must be to Mrs. St. Leonard to have a daughter so capable, one who knew just the right thing to do, and did it without making a fuss and a disturbance.

Everyone was very nice. Of course we made the usual mistake: they talked to me about books and plays, and I gave them my views on agriculture and cub-hunting. I’m not quite sure what fool it was who described a bore as a man who talked about himself. As a matter of fact it is the only subject the average man knows sufficiently well to make interesting. There’s a man I know; he makes a fortune out of a patent food for infants. He began life as a dairy farmer, and hit upon it quite by accident. When he talks about the humours of company promoting and the tricks of the advertising agent he is amusing. I have sat at his table, when he was a bachelor, and listened to him by the hour with enjoyment. The mistake he made was marrying a broad-minded, cultured woman, who ruined him– conversationally, I mean. He is now well-informed and tiresome on most topics. That is why actors and actresses are always such delightful company: they are not ashamed to talk about themselves. I remember a dinner-party once: our host was one of the best-known barristers in London. A famous lady novelist sat on his right, and a scientist of world-wide reputation had the place of honour next our hostess, who herself had written a history of the struggle for nationality in South America that serves as an authority to all the Foreign Offices in Europe. Among the remaining guests were a bishop, the editor-in-chief of a London daily newspaper, a man who knew the interior of China as well as most men know their own club, a Russian revolutionist just escaped from Siberia, a leading dramatist, a Cabinet Minister, and a poet whose name is a household word wherever the English tongue is spoken. And for two hours we sat and listened to a wicked-looking little woman who from the boards of a Bowery music-hall had worked her way up to the position of a star in musical comedy. Education, as she observed herself without regret, had not been compulsory throughout the waterside district of Chicago in her young days; and, compelled to earn her own living from the age of thirteen, opportunity for supplying the original deficiency had been wanting. But she knew her subject, which was Herself–her experiences, her reminiscences: and bad sense enough to stick to it. Until the moment when she took “the liberty of chipping in,” to use her own expression, the amount of twaddle talked had been appalling. The bishop had told us all he had learnt about China during a visit to San Francisco, while the man who had spent the last twenty years of his life in the country was busy explaining his views on the subject of the English drama. Our hostess had been endeavouring to make the scientist feel at home by talking to him about radium. The dramatist had explained at some length his views of the crisis in Russia. The poet had quite spoilt his dinner trying to suggest to the Cabinet Minister new sources of taxation. The Russian revolutionist had told us what ought to have been a funny story about a duck; and the lady novelist and the Cabinet Minister had discussed Christian Science for a quarter of an hour, each under the mistaken impression that the other one was a believer in it. The editor had been explaining the attitude of the Church towards the New Theology; and our host, one of the wittiest men at the Bar, had been talking chiefly to the butler. The relief of listening to anybody talking about something they knew was like finding a match-box to a man who has been barking his shins in the dark. For the rest of the dinner we clung to her.

I could have made myself quite interesting to these good squires and farmers talking to them about theatres and the literary celebrities I have met; and they could have told me dog stories and given me useful information as to the working of the Small Holdings Act. They said some very charming things about my books–mostly to the effect that they read and enjoyed them when feeling ill or suffering from mental collapse. I gathered that had they always continued in a healthy state of mind and body it would not have occurred to them to read me. One man assured me I had saved his life. It was his brain, he told me. He had been so upset by something that had happened to him that he had almost lost his reason. There were times when he could not even remember his own name; his mind seemed an absolute blank. And then one day by chance–or Providence, or whatever you choose to call it–he had taken up a book of mine. It was the only thing he had been able to read for months and months! And now, whenever he felt himself run down–his brain like a squeezed orange (that was his simile)–he would put everything else aside and read a book of mine– any one: it didn’t matter which. I suppose one ought to be glad that one has saved somebody’s life; but I should like to have the choosing of them myself.

I am not sure that Ethelbertha is going to like Mrs. St. Leonard; and I don’t think Mrs. St. Leonard will much like Ethelbertha. I have gathered that Mrs. St. Leonard doesn’t like anybody much–except, of course, when it is her duty. She does not seem to have the time. Man is born to trouble, and it is not bad philosophy to get oneself accustomed to the feeling. But Mrs. St. Leonard has given herself up to the pursuit of trouble to the exclusion of all other interests in life. She appears to regard it as the only calling worthy a Christian woman. I found her alone one afternoon. Her manner was preoccupied; I asked if I could be of any assistance.

“No,” she answered, “I am merely trying to think what it can be that has been worrying me all the morning. It has clean gone out of my head.”

She remembered it a little later with a glad sigh.

St. Leonard himself, Ethelbertha thinks charming. We are to go again on Sunday for her to see the children. Three or four people we met I fancy we shall be able to fit in with. We left at half-past six, and took Bute back with us to supper.

CHAPTER X

“She’s a good woman,” said Robina.

“Who’s a good woman?” I asked.

“He’s trying, I expect; although he is an old dear: to live with, I mean,” continued Robina, addressing apparently the rising moon. “And then there are all those children.”

“You are thinking of Mrs. St. Leonard,” I suggested.

“There seems no way of making her happy,” explained Robina. “On Thursday I went round early in the morning to help Janie pack the baskets for the picnic. It was her own idea, the picnic.”

“Speaking of picnics,” I said.

“You might have thought,” went on Robina, “that she was dressing for her own funeral. She said she knew she was going to catch her death of cold, sitting on the wet grass. Something told her. I reminded her it hadn’t rained for three weeks, and that everything was as dry as a bone, but she said that made no difference to grass. There is always a moisture in grass, and that cushions and all that only helped to draw it out. Not that it mattered. The end had to come, and so long as the others were happy–you know her style. Nobody ever thought of her. She was to be dragged here, dragged there. She talked about herself as if she were some sacred image. It got upon my nerves at last, so that I persuaded Janie to let me offer to stop at home with her. I wasn’t too keen about going myself; not by that time.”

“When our desires leave us, says Rochefoucauld,” I remarked, “we pride ourselves upon our virtue in having overcome them.”

“Well, it was her fault, anyhow,” retorted Robina; “and I didn’t make a virtue of it. I told her I’d just as soon not go, and that I felt sure the others would be all right without her, so that there was no need for her to be dragged anywhere. And then she burst into tears.”

“She said,” I suggested, “that it was hard on her to have children who could wish to go to a picnic and leave their mother at home; that it was little enough enjoyment she had in her life, heaven knows; that if there was one thing she had been looking forward to it was this day’s outing; but still, of course, if everybody would be happier without her–“

“Something of the sort,” admitted Robina; “only there was a lot of it. We had to all fuss round her, and swear that without her it wouldn’t be worth calling a picnic. She brightened up on the way home.”

The screech-owl in the yew-tree emitted a blood-curdling scream. He perches there each evening on the extreme end of the longest bough. Dimly outlined against the night, he has the appearance of a friendly hobgoblin. But I wish he didn’t fancy himself as a vocalist. It is against his own interests, I am sure, if he only knew it. That American college yell of his must have the effect of sending every living thing within half a mile back into its hole. Maybe it is a provision of nature for clearing off the very old mice who have become stone deaf and would otherwise be a burden on their relatives. The others, unless out for suicide, must, one thinks, be tolerably safe. Ethelbertha is persuaded he is a sign of death; but seeing there isn’t a square quarter of a mile in this county without its screech-owl, there can hardly by this time be a resident that an Assurance Society would look at. Veronica likes him. She even likes his screech. I found her under the tree the other night, wrapped up in a shawl, trying to learn it. As if one of them were not enough! It made me quite cross with her. Besides, it wasn’t a bit like it, as I told her. She said it was better than I could do, anyhow; and I was idiot enough to take up the challenge. It makes me angry now, when I think of it: a respectable, middle-aged literary man, standing under a yew-tree trying to screech like an owl. And the bird was silly enough to encourage us.

“She was a charming girl,” I said, “seven-and-twenty years ago, when St. Leonard fell in love with her. She had those dark, dreamy eyes so suggestive of veiled mysteries; and her lips must have looked bewitching when they pouted. I expect they often did. They do so still; but the pout of a woman of forty-six no longer fascinates. To a pretty girl of nineteen a spice of temper, an illogical unreasonableness, are added attractions: the scratch of a blue-eyed kitten only tempts us to tease her the more. Young Hubert St. Leonard–he had curly brown hair, with a pretty trick of blushing, and was going to conquer the world–found her fretfulness, her very selfishness adorable: and told her so, kneeling before her, gazing into her bewildering eyes–only he called it her waywardness, her imperiousness; begged her for his sake to be more capricious. Told her how beautiful she looked when displeased. So, no doubt, she did- -at nineteen.”

“He didn’t tell you all that, did he?” demanded Robina.

“Not a word,” I reassured her, “except that she was acknowledged by all authorities to have been the most beautiful girl in Tunbridge Wells, and that her father had been ruined by a rascally solicitor. No, I was merely, to use the phrase of the French police courts, ‘reconstructing the crime.'”

“It may be all wrong,” grumbled Robina.

“It may be,” I agreed. “But why? Does it strike you as improbable?”

We were sitting in the porch, waiting for Dick to come by the white path across the field.

“No,” answered Robina. “It all sounds very probable. I wish it didn’t.”

“You must remember,” I continued, “that I am an old playgoer. I have sat out so many of this world’s dramas. It is as easy to reconstruct them backwards as forwards. We are witnessing the last act of the St. Leonard drama: that unsatisfactory last act that merely fills out time after the play is ended! The intermediate acts were probably more exciting, containing ‘passionate scenes’ played with much earnestness; chiefly for the amusement of the servants. But the first act, with the Kentish lanes and woods for a back-cloth, must have been charming. Here was the devout lover she had heard of, dreamed of. It is delightful to be regarded as perfection–not absolute perfection, for that might put a strain upon us to live up to, but as so near perfection that to be more perfect would just spoil it. The spots upon us, that unappreciative friends and relations would magnify into blemishes, seen in their true light: artistic shading relieving a faultlessness that might otherwise prove too glaring. Dear Hubert found her excellent just as she was in every detail. It would have been a crime against Love for her to seek to change herself.”

“Well, then, it was his fault,” argued Robina. “If he was silly enough to like her faults, and encourage her in them–“

“What could he have done,” I asked, “even if he had seen them? A lover does not point out his mistress’s shortcomings to her.”

“Much the more sensible plan if he did,” insisted Robina. “Then if she cared for him she could set to work to cure herself.”

“You would like it?” I said; “you would appreciate it in your own case? Can you imagine young Bute–?”

“Why young Bute?” demanded Robina; “what’s he got to do with it?”

“Nothing,” I answered; “except that he happens to be the first male creature you have ever come across since you were six that you haven’t flirted with.”

“I don’t flirt with them,” said Robina; “I merely try to be nice to them.”

“With the exception of young Bute,” I persisted.

“He irritates me,” Robina explained.

“I was reading,” I said, “the other day, an account of the marriage customs prevailing among the Lower Caucasians. The lover takes his stand beneath his lady’s window, and, having attracted her attention, proceeds to sing. And if she seems to like it–if she listens to it without getting mad, that means she doesn’t want him. But if she gets upset about it–slams down the window and walks away, then it’s all right. I think it’s the Lower Caucasians.”

“Must be a very silly people,” said Robina; “I suppose a pail of water would be the highest proof of her affection he could hope for.”

“A complex being, man,” I agreed. “We will call him X. Can you imagine young X coming to you and saying: ‘My dear Robina, you have many excellent qualities. You can be amiable–so long as you are having your own way in everything; but thwarted you can be just horrid. You are very kind–to those who are willing for you to be kind to them in your own way, which is not always their way. You can be quite unselfish–when you happen to be in an unselfish mood, which is far from frequent. You are capable and clever, but, like most capable and clever people, impatient and domineering; highly energetic when not feeling lazy; ready to forgive the moment your temper is exhausted. You are generous and frank, but if your object could only be gained through meanness or deceit you would not hesitate a moment longer than was necessary to convince yourself that the circumstances justified the means. You are sympathetic, tender- hearted, and have a fine sense of justice; but I can see that tongue of yours, if not carefully watched, wearing decidedly shrewish. You have any amount of grit. A man might go tiger-hunting with you–with no one better; but you are obstinate, conceited, and exacting. In short, to sum you up, you have all the makings in you of an ideal wife combined with faults sufficient to make a Socrates regret he’d ever married you.'”

“Yes, I would!” said Robina, springing to her feet. I could not see her face, but I knew there was the look upon it that made Primgate want to paint her as Joan of Arc; only it would never stop long enough. “I’d love him for talking like that. And I’d respect him. If he was that sort of man I’d pray God to help me to be the sort of woman he wanted me to be. I’d try. I’d try all day long. I would!”

“I wonder,” I said. Robina had surprised me. I admit it. I thought I knew the sex better.

“Any girl would,” said Robina. “He’d be worth it.”

“It would be a new idea,” I mused. “Gott im Himmel! what a new world might it not create!” The fancy began to take hold of me. “Love no longer blind. Love refusing any more to be the poor blind fool– sport of gods and men. Love no longer passion’s slave. His bonds broken, the senseless bandage flung aside. Love helping life instead of muddling it. Marriage, the foundation of civilisation, no longer reared upon the sands of lies and illusions, but grappled to the rock of truth–reality. Have you ever read ‘Tom Jones?'” I said.

“No,” answered Robina; “I’ve always heard it wasn’t a nice book.”

“It isn’t,” I said. “Man isn’t a nice animal, not all of him. Nor woman either. There’s a deal of the beast in man. What can you expect? Till a few paltry thousands of years ago he WAS a beast, fighting with other beasts, his fellow denizens of the woods and caves; watching for his prey, crouched in the long grass of the river’s bank, tearing it with claws and teeth, growling as he ate. So he lived and died through the dim unnamed ages, transmitting his beast’s blood, his bestial instincts, to his offspring, growing ever stronger, fiercer, from generation to generation, while the rocks piled up their strata and the oceans shaped their beds. Moses! Why, Lord Rothschild’s great-grandfather, a few score times removed, must have known Moses, talked with him. Babylon! It is a modern city, fallen into disuse for the moment, owing to alteration of traffic routes. History! it is a tale of to-day. Man was crawling about the world on all fours, learning to be an animal for millions of years before the secret of his birth was whispered to him. It is only during the last few centuries that he has been trying to be a man. Our modern morality! Why, compared with the teachings of nature, it is but a few days old. What do you expect? That he shall forget the lessons of the aeons at the bidding of the hours?”

“Then you advise me to read ‘Tom Jones’?” said Robina.

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I should not if I thought you were still a child, knowing only blind trust, or blind terror. The sun is not extinguished because occasionally obscured by mist; the scent of the rose is not dead because of the worm in the leaf. A healthy rose can afford a few worms–has got to, anyhow. All men are not Tom Joneses. The standard of masculine behaviour continues to go up: many of us make fine efforts to conform to it, and some of us succeed. But the Tom Jones is there in all of us who are not anaemic or consumptive.