“Is that you, uncle?” said a voice from the nursery, as I hung my coat up in the hall. “I’ve only got my skin on, but you can come up.”
However, she was sitting up in bed with her nightgown on when I found her.
“I was having my bath when you came,” she explained. “Have you come all the way from London?”
“All the way.”
“Then will you tell me a story?”
“I can’t; I’m going to have my dinner. I only came up to say good night.”
Margery leant forward and whispered coaxingly, “Will you just tell me about Beauty and ‘e Beast?”
“But I’ve told you that such heaps of times. And it’s much too long for to-night.”
“Tell me half of it. As much as that.” She held her hands about nine inches apart.
“That’s too much.”
“As much as that.” The hands came a little nearer together.
“Oh! Well, I’ll tell you up to where the Beast died.”
“Fought he died,” she corrected eagerly.
“How much will that be? As much as I said?”
I nodded. The preliminary business settled, she gave a little sigh of happiness, put her arms round her knees, and waited breathlessly for the story she had heard twenty times before.
“Once upon a time there was a man who had three daughters. And one day—-“
“What was the man’s name?”
“Margery,” I said reproachfully, annoyed at the interruption, “you know I never tell you the man’s name.”
“Tell me now.”
“Oswald,” I said after a moment’s thought.
“I told Daddy it was Thomas,” said Margery casually.
“Well, as a matter of fact he had two names, Oswald and Thomas.”
“Why did he have two names?”
“In case he lost one. Well, one day this man, who was very poor, heard that a lot of money was waiting for him in a ship which had come over the sea to a town some miles off. So he—-“
“Was it waiting at Weymouf?”
“Somewhere like that.”
“I spex it must have been Weymouf, because there’s lots of sea there.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was. Well, he thought he’d go to Weymouth and get the money.”
“How much monies was it?”
“Oh, lots and lots.”
“As much as five pennies?”
“Yes, about that. Well, he said good-bye to his daughters and asked them what they’d like him to bring back for a present. And the first asked for some lovely jewels and diamonds and—-“
“Like Mummy’s locket–is that jewels?”
“That sort of idea. Well, she wanted a lot of things like that. And the second wanted some beautiful clothes.”
“What sort of clothes?”
“Oh, frocks and–well, frocks and all sorts of–er frocks.”
“Did she want any lovely new stockings?”
“Yes, she wanted three pairs of those.”
“And did she want any lovely—-“
“Yes,” I said hastily, “she wanted lots of those, too. Lots of everything.”
Margery gave a little sob of happiness. “Go on telling me,” she said under her breath.
“Well, the third daughter was called Beauty. And she thought to herself, ‘Poor Father won’t have any money left at all, if we all go on like this!’ So she didn’t ask for anything very expensive, like her selfish sisters, she only asked for a rose. A simple red rose.”
Margery moved uneasily.
“I hope,” she said wistfully, “this bit isn’t going to be about–you know. It never did before.”
“Good little girls and bad little girls, and fings like that.”
“My darling, no, of course not. I told it wrong. Beauty asked for a rose because she loved roses so. And it was a very particular kind of red rose that she wanted–a sort that they simply couldn’t get to grow in their own garden because of the soil.”
“Go on telling me,” said Margery, with a deep sigh of content.
“Well, he started off to Weymouth.”
“What day did he start?”
“It was Monday. And when—-“
“Oh, well, anyhow, I told Daddy it was Tuesday.”
“Tuesday–now let me think. Yes, I believe you’re right. Because on Monday he went to a meeting of the Vegetable Gardeners, and proposed the health of the Chairman. Yes, well he started off on Tuesday, and when he got there he found that there was no money for him at all!”
“I spex somebody had taken it,” said Margery breathlessly.
“Well, it had all gone somehow.”
“Prehaps somebody had swallowed it,” said Margery, a little carried away by the subject, “by mistake.”
“Anyhow, it was gone. And he had to come home again without any money. He hadn’t gone far—-“
“How far?” asked Margery. “As far as that?” and she measured nine inches in the air.
“About forty-four miles–when he came to a beautiful garden.”
“Was it a really lovely big garden? Bigger than ours?”
“Oh, much bigger.”
“Bigger than yours?”
“I haven’t got a garden.”
Margery looked at me wonderingly. She opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped and rested her head upon her hands and thought out this new situation. At last, her face flushed with happiness, she announced her decision.
“Go on telling me about Beauty and the Beast now,” she said breathlessly, “and then tell me why you haven’t got a garden.”
My average time for Beauty and the Beast is ten minutes, and, if we stop at the place where the Beast thought he was dead, six minutes twenty-five seconds. But, with the aid of seemingly innocent questions, a determined character can make even the craftiest uncle spin the story out to half-an-hour.
“Next time,” said Margery, when we had reached the appointed place and she was being tucked up in bed, “will you tell me all the story?”
Was there the shadow of a smile in her eyes? I don’t know. But I’m sure it will be wisest next time to promise her the whole thing. We must make that point clear at the very start, and then we shall get along.
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