I WAS in the lounge when I made her acquaintance, enjoying a pipe after tea, and perhaps–I don’t know–closing my eyes now and then.
“Would you like to see my shells?” she asked suddenly.
I woke up and looked at her. She was about seven years old, pretty, dark, and very much at ease.
“I should love it,” I said.
She produced a large paper bag from somewhere, and poured the contents in front of me.
“I’ve got two hundred and fifty-eight,” she announced.
“So I see,” I said. I wasn’t going to count them.”
“I think they’re very pretty. I’ll give you one if you like. Which one will you choose?”
I sat up and examined them carefully. Seeing how short a time we had known each other, I didn’t feel that I could take one of the good ones. After a little thought I chose quite a plain one, which had belonged to a winkle some weeks ago.
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“I don’t think you choose shells at all well,” she said scornfully. “That’s one of the ugly ones.”
“It will grow on me,” I explained. “In a year or two I shall think it beautiful.”
“I’ll let you have this one too,” said she, picking out the best. “Now, shall we play at something?”
I had been playing at something all day. A little thinking in front of the fire was my present programme.
“Let’s talk instead,” I suggested. “What’s your name?”
“I knew it was Betty. You look just like Betty.”
Somehow I hadn’t expected that. After all, though, it was only fair.
“Orlando,” I said.
“What a funny name. I don’t like it.”
“You should have said so before. It’s too late now. What have you been doing all day?”
“Playing on the sands. What have you been doing?”
“I’ve been playing in the sand too. I suppose, Betty, you know nearly everybody in the hotel?”
“Oh, I play with them all sometimes.”
“Yes; then tell me, Betty, do you ever get asked what time you go to bed?”
“They ALL ask me that,” said Betty promptly.
“I think I should like to ask you too,” I said, “just to be in the movement. When is it?”
“Half-past six.” She looked at the clock. “So we’ve got half an hour. I’ll get my ball.”
Before I had time to do anything about it, the ball came bouncing in, hit me on the side of the head, and hurried off to hide itself under an old lady dozing in the corner. Betty followed more sedately.
“Where’s my ball?” she asked.
“Has it come in?” I said in surprise. “Then it must have gone out again. It noticed you weren’t here.”
“I believe you’ve got it.”
“I swear I haven’t, Betty. I think the lady in the corner knows something about it.”
Betty rushed across to her and began to crawl under her chair. I nervously rehearsed a few sentences to myself.
“It is not my child, madam. I found it here. Surely you can see that there is no likeness between us? If we keep quite still perhaps it will go away.”
“I’ve got it,” cried Betty, and the old lady woke up with a jerk.
“What are you doing, child?” she said crossly.
“Your little girl, madam,” I began–but Betty’s ball bit me on the head again before I could develop my theme.
“Your little girl, sir,” began the old lady at the same moment.
“I said it first,” I murmured. “Betty,” I went on aloud, “what is your name, my child?”
“You’ve just said it.”
“I mean,” I corrected myself quickly, “where do you live?”
I looked triumphantly at the old lady. Surely a father wouldn’t need to ask his own child where she lived? However, the old lady was asleep again. I turned to Betty.
“We shall have to play this game more quietly,” I said. “In fact, we had better make some new rules. Instead of hitting me on the head each time, you can roll the ball gently along the floor to me, and I shall roll it gently back to you. And the one who misses it first goes to bed.”
I gave her an easy one to start with, wishing to work up naturally to the denouement, and she gave me a very difficult one back, not quite understanding the object of the game.
“You’ve got to go to bed,” she cried, clapping her hands. “You’ve got–to go–to bed. You’ve got–to go–to bed. You’ve–“
“All right,” I said coldly. “Don’t make a song about it.”
It was ten minutes past six. I generally go to bed at eleven-thirty. It would be the longest night I had had for years. I sighed and prepared to go.
“You needn’t go till half-past,” said Betty kindly.
“No, no,” I said firmly. “Rules are rules.” I had just remembered that there was nothing in the rules about not getting up again.
“Then I’ll come with you and see your room.”
“No, you mustn’t do that; you’d fall out of the window. It’s a very tricky window. I’m always falling out of it myself.”
“Then let’s go on playing here, and we won’t go to bed if we miss.”
“Very well,” I agreed. Really there was nothing else for it.
Robbed of its chief interest, the game proved, after ten minutes or so, to be one of the duller ones. Whatever people say, I don’t think it compares with cricket, for instance. It is certainly not so subtle as golf.
“I like playing this game,” said Betty. “Don’t you?”
“I think I shall get to love it,” I said, looking at the clock. There were still five minutes, and I rolled down a very fast googly which beat her entirely and went straight for the door. Under the old rules she would have gone to bed at once. Alas, that–
“Look out,” I said as she went after it, “there’s somebody coming in.”
Somebody came in. She smiled ruefully at us and then took Betty’s hand.
“I’m afraid my little girl has been worrying you,” she said prettily.
“I KNEW you’d say that,” said Betty.
(BEING AN EXTRACT FROM HER DIARY–PICKED UP BEHIND THE SCENES)
TUESDAY.–Sometimes I think I am a very lucky girl having two big sisters to look after me. I expect there are lots of young girls who have nobody at all, and I think they must be so lonely. There is always plenty of fun going on in our house. Yesterday I heard Sister Fred telling Sister Bert something about her old man coming home very late one night–I didn’t quite understand who the old man was, or what it was all about, but I know Sister Bert thought it was very funny, and I seemed to hear a lot of people laughing; perhaps it was the fairies. And then whenever Sister Bert sits down she always pulls her skirt right up to her knees, so as people can see her stockings. I mean there’s always SOMETHING amusing happening.
Of course I have a good deal of work to do, and all the washing up, but my sisters are so big and strong that one can’t expect them to bother themselves with niggling little things like that. Besides, they have so many other things to do. Only this morning, when Sister Bert was just going to sit down, Sister Fred pulled away her chair, and she sat on the floor and her legs went up in the air. She said it was a “grand slam,” which some of us thought very funny. I didn’t laugh myself, because I never go out anywhere, and so I don’t understand topical remarks, but I do think it is nice to live in such an amusing house.
(LATER.)–A wonderful thing has happened! Two messengers came from the Prince an hour ago to invite us to the ball to-night! I’d never seen a messenger in my life, so I peeped out of the chimney corner at them and wondered if they would stay to tea. But instead of that my sisters put up what they call a “trapeze” (I never knew we had one before), and the messengers did some EXTRAORDINARY things on it, I thought they would kill themselves. After it was over, Sister Fred told them a lot of stories about the old man, and altogether it was quite different from what I expected. Ours IS a funny house.
As soon as the messengers had gone, my sisters began to get ready for the ball. I knew I shouldn’t be able to go, because I haven’t got a frock, and I simply COULDN’T wear anything of theirs, they are so much bigger than I am. They finished dressing DOWNSTAIRS for some reason, where anybody might have seen them–they are so funny about things like that–and we had a lot of laughter about the clothes being too tight and so on. I think anything like that is so amusing. Then they went off, and here I am all alone. It is getting dark, and so I am going to cheer myself up by singing a little.
(LATER).–I AM GOING TO THE BALL! My Fairy Godmother, whom I had often heard about, suddenly came to see us. I told her my sisters were out, and she asked where they had gone, and wouldn’t I like to go too, so of course I said I should LOVE it. So I am going, and she has got a frock for me and everything. She is very kind, but not quite so FAIRY-LIKE as I expected.
WEDNESDAY.–I have had a LOVELY time, and I think I am in love. I got to the Ball just as the juggling and the ventriloquism were over–it must be a delightful Court to live in–and there was SUCH a sensation as I appeared. The Prince singled me out at once. He has the pinkest cheeks and the reddest lips of any man I know, and his voice is soft and gentle, and oh! I love him. One wants a man to be manly and a woman to be womanly, and I don’t think I should love a man if he were at all like Sister Fred or Sister Bert. The Prince is QUITE different. We were alone most of the time, and we sang several songs together. My sisters never recognized me; it was most surprising. I heard Sister Fred telling a very fine-looking gentleman a story about a lodger (whatever that is) who had a bit of a head; it sounded very humorous. Wherever Sister Fred goes there is sure to be fun. I am indeed a lucky girl to have two such sisters and to be in love with a Prince. Sister Bert sat down on the floor twice–it was most amusing.
A terrible thing happened just as the clock struck twelve. All my clothes turned into rags, and I just RAN out of the room, I was so frightened. Then I remembered what my Fairy Godmother had said about leaving before twelve o’clock. I suppose she knew what would happen if I didn’t. I’m afraid I left a glass slipper behind–I hope she won’t mind about it.
Well, I’ve had a lovely time. Even if I never see the Prince again, I shall always have this to look back to. I don’t mind WHAT happens now.
THURSDAY.–I AM GOING TO MARRY THE PRINCE! I can’t believe it is true. Perhaps it is only a dream, and I shall wake up soon, but even if it’s a dream it’s just as good as if it were real. It was all because of the slipper I left behind. The Prince said that he would marry the person whom it fitted, because he had fallen in love with the lady who wore it at the ball (ME!), and so everybody tried it on. And they came to our house, and Sister Bert tried it on. She pulled her skirt up to her knees and made everybody laugh, but even then she couldn’t get into it. And Sister Fred made a lot of faces, but SHE couldn’t. So I said, “Let ME try,” and they all laughed, but the Prince said I should, and of course it fitted at once. Then they all recognized me, and the Prince kissed me, and a whole lot of people came into the house who had never been invited, and we had the trapeze out again, and there was juggling and ventriloquism, and we all sang songs about somebody called Flanagan (whom I don’t think I have ever met), and Sister Bert kept sitting down suddenly on the floor. (But the Prince didn’t think this was at all funny, so I expect I must have been right all the time when I have only PRETENDED to laugh. I used to think that perhaps I hadn’t a sense of humour.) And then the Prince kissed me again, and my Fairy Godmother came in and kissed us both. Of course we do owe it all to her really, and I shall tell Charming so.
I do think I am a wonderful person!
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