Story type: Literature
I–A CHAT ABOUT CHILDREN, SNAKES, AND ZEBUS
These little sketches are called “Three of Them,” but there are really five, on and off the stage. There is Daddy, a lumpish person with some gift for playing Indian games when he is in the mood. He is then known as “The Great Chief of the Leatherskin Tribe.” Then there is my Lady Sunshine. These are the grown-ups, and don’t really count. There remain the three, who need some differentiating upon paper, though their little spirits are as different in reality as spirits could be–all beautiful and all quite different. The eldest is a boy of eight whom we shall call “Laddie.” If ever there was a little cavalier sent down ready-made it is he. His soul is the most gallant, unselfish, innocent thing that ever God sent out to get an extra polish upon earth. It dwells in a tall, slight, well-formed body, graceful and agile, with a head and face as clean-cut as if an old Greek cameo had come to life, and a pair of innocent and yet wise grey eyes that read and win the heart. He is shy and does not shine before strangers. I have said that he is unselfish and brave. When there is the usual wrangle about going to bed, up he gets in his sedate way. “I will go first,” says he, and off he goes, the eldest, that the others may have the few extra minutes while he is in his bath. As to his courage, he is absolutely lion-hearted where he can help or defend any one else. On one occasion Daddy lost his temper with Dimples (Boy Number 2), and, not without very good provocation, gave him a tap on the side of the head. Next instant he felt a butt down somewhere in the region of his waist-belt, and there was an angry little red face looking up at him, which turned suddenly to a brown mop of hair as the butt was repeated. No one, not even Daddy, should hit his little brother. Such was Laddie, the gentle and the fearless.
Then there is Dimples. Dimples is nearly seven, and you never saw a rounder, softer, dimplier face, with two great roguish, mischievous eyes of wood-pigeon grey, which are sparkling with fun for the most part, though they can look sad and solemn enough at times. Dimples has the making of a big man in him. He has depth and reserves in his tiny soul. But on the surface he is a boy of boys, always in innocent mischief. “I will now do mischuff,” he occasionally announces, and is usually as good as his word. He has a love and understanding of all living creatures, the uglier and more slimy the better, treating them all in a tender, fairylike fashion which seems to come from some inner knowledge. He has been found holding a buttercup under the mouth of a slug “to see if he likes butter.” He finds creatures in an astonishing way. Put him in the fairest garden, and presently he will approach you with a newt, a toad, or a huge snail in his custody. Nothing would ever induce him to hurt them, but he gives them what he imagines to be a little treat and then restores them to their homes. He has been known to speak bitterly to the Lady when she has given orders that caterpillars be killed if found upon the cabbages, and even the explanation that the caterpillars were doing the work of what he calls “the Jarmans” did not reconcile him to their fate.
He has an advantage over Laddie, in that he suffers from no trace of shyness and is perfectly friendly in an instant with any one of every class of life, plunging straight into conversation with some such remark as “Can your Daddy give a war-whoop?” or “Were you ever chased by a bear?” He is a sunny creature but combative sometimes, when he draws down his brows, sets his eyes, his chubby cheeks flush, and his lips go back from his almond-white teeth. “I am Swankie the Berserker,” says he, quoting out of his favourite “Erling the Bold,” which Daddy reads aloud at bed-time. When he is in this fighting mood he can even drive back Laddie, chiefly because the elder is far too chivalrous to hurt him. If you want to see what Laddie can really do, put the small gloves on him and let him go for Daddy. Some of those hurricane rallies of his would stop Daddy grinning if they could get home, and he has to fall back off his stool in order to get away from them.
If that latent power of Dimples should ever come out, how will it be manifest? Surely in his imagination. Tell him a story and the boy is lost. He sits with his little round, rosy face immovable and fixed, while his eyes never budge from those of the speaker. He sucks in everything that is weird or adventurous or wild. Laddie is a rather restless soul, eager to be up and doing; but Dimples is absorbed in the present if there be something worth hearing to be heard. In height he is half a head shorter than his brother, but rather more sturdy in build. The power of his voice is one of his noticeable characteristics. If Dimples is coming you know it well in advance. With that physical gift upon the top of his audacity, and his loquacity, he fairly takes command of any place in which he may find himself, while Laddie, his soul too noble for jealousy, becomes one of the laughing and admiring audience.
Then there is Baby, a dainty elfin Dresden-china little creature of five, as fair as an angel and as deep as a well. The boys are but shallow, sparkling pools compared with this little girl with her self-repression and dainty aloofness. You know the boys, you never feel that you quite know the girl. Something very strong and forceful seems to be at the back of that wee body. Her will is tremendous. Nothing can break or even bend it. Only kind guidance and friendly reasoning can mould it. The boys are helpless if she has really made up her mind. But this is only when she asserts herself, and those are rare occasions. As a rule she sits quiet, aloof, affable, keenly alive to all that passes and yet taking no part in it save for some subtle smile or glance. And then suddenly the wonderful grey-blue eyes under the long black lashes will gleam like coy diamonds, and such a hearty little chuckle will come from her that every one else is bound to laugh out of sympathy. She and Dimples are great allies and yet have continual lovers’ quarrels. One night she would not even include his name in her prayers. “God bless–” every one else, but not a word of Dimples. “Come, come, darling!” urged the Lady. “Well, then, God bless horrid Dimples!” said she at last, after she had named the cat, the goat, her dolls, and her Wriggly.
That is a strange trait, the love for the Wriggly. It would repay thought from some scientific brain. It is an old, faded, disused downy from her cot. Yet go where she will, she must take Wriggly with her. All her toys put together would not console her for the absence of Wriggly. If the family go to the seaside, Wriggly must come too. She will not sleep without the absurd bundle in her arms. If she goes to a party she insists upon dragging its disreputable folds along with her, one end always projecting “to give it fresh air.” Every phase of childhood represents to the philosopher something in the history of the race. From the new-born baby which can hang easily by one hand from a broomstick with its legs drawn up under it, the whole evolution of mankind is re- enacted. You can trace clearly the cave-dweller, the hunter, the scout. What, then, does Wriggly represent? Fetish worship–nothing else. The savage chooses some most unlikely thing and adores it. This dear little savage adores her Wriggly.
So now we have our three little figures drawn as clearly as a clumsy pen can follow such subtle elusive creatures of mood and fancy. We will suppose now that it is a summer evening, that Daddy is seated smoking in his chair, that the Lady is listening somewhere near, and that the three are in a tumbled heap upon the bear-skin before the empty fireplace trying to puzzle out the little problems of their tiny lives. When three children play with a new thought it is like three kittens with a ball, one giving it a pat and another a pat, as they chase it from point to point. Daddy would interfere as little as possible, save when he was called upon to explain or to deny. It was usually wiser for him to pretend to be doing something else. Then their talk was the more natural. On this occasion, however, he was directly appealed to.
“Daddy!” asked Dimples.
“Do you fink that the roses know us?”
Dimples, in spite of his impish naughtiness, had a way of looking such a perfectly innocent and delightfully kissable little person that one felt he really might be a good deal nearer to the sweet secrets of Nature than his elders. However, Daddy was in a material mood.
“No, boy; how could the roses know us?”
“The big yellow rose at the corner of the gate knows me.”
“How do you know that?”
“‘Cause it nodded to me yesterday.”
Laddie roared with laughter.
“That was just the wind, Dimples.”
“No, it was not,” said Dimples, with conviction. “There was none wind. Baby was there. Weren’t you, Baby?”
“The wose knew us,” said Baby, gravely.
“Beasts know us,” said Laddie. “But them beasts run round and make noises. Roses don’t make noises.”
“Yes, they do. They rustle.”
“Woses wustle,” said Baby.
“That’s not a living noise. That’s an all-the-same noise. Different to Roy, who barks and makes different noises all the time. Fancy the roses all barkin’ at you. Daddy, will you tell us about animals?”
That is one of the child stages which takes us back to the old tribe life–their inexhaustible interest in animals, some distant echo of those long nights when wild men sat round the fires and peered out into the darkness, and whispered about all the strange and deadly creatures who fought with them for the lordship of the earth. Children love caves, and they love fires and meals out of doors, and they love animal talk–all relics of the far distant past.
“What is the biggest animal in South America, Daddy?”
Daddy, wearily: “Oh, I don’t know.”
“I s’pose an elephant would be the biggest?”
“No, boy; there are none in South America.”
“Well, then, a rhinoceros?”
“No, there are none.”
“Well, what is there, Daddy?”
“Well, dear, there are jaguars. I suppose a jaguar is the biggest.”
“Then it must be thirty-six feet long.”
“Oh, no, boy; about eight or nine feet with his tail.”
“But there are boa-constrictors in South America thirty-six feet long.”
“Do you fink,” asked Dimples, with his big, solemn, grey eyes wide open, “there was ever a boa-‘strictor forty-five feet long?”
“No, dear; I never heard of one.”
“Perhaps there was one, but you never heard of it. Do you fink you would have heard of a boa-‘strictor forty-five feet long if there was one in South America?”
“Well, there may have been one.”
“Daddy,” said Laddie, carrying on the cross-examination with the intense earnestness of a child, “could a boa-constrictor swallow any small animal?”
“Yes, of course he could.”
“Could he swallow a jaguar?”
“Well, I don’t know about that. A jaguar is a very large animal.”
“Well, then,” asked Dimples, “could a jaguar swallow a boa-‘strictor?”
“Silly ass,” said Laddie. “If a jaguar was only nine feet long and the boa-constrictor was thirty-five feet long, then there would be a lot sticking out of the jaguar’s mouth. How could he swallow that?”
“He’d bite it off,” said Dimples. “And then another slice for supper and another for breakfast–but, I say, Daddy, a ‘stricter couldn’t swallow a porkpine, could he? He would have a sore throat all the way down.”
Shrieks of laughter and a welcome rest for Daddy, who turned to his paper.
He put down his paper with an air of conscious virtue and lit his pipe.
“What’s the biggest snake you ever saw?”
“Oh, bother the snakes! I am tired of them.”
But the children were never tired of them. Heredity again, for the snake was the worst enemy of arboreal man.
“Daddy made soup out of a snake,” said Laddie. “Tell us about that snake, Daddy.”
Children like a story best the fourth or fifth time, so it is never any use to tell them that they know all about it. The story which they can check and correct is their favourite.
“Well, dear, we got a viper and we killed it. Then we wanted the skeleton to keep and we didn’t know how to get it. At first we thought we would bury it, but that seemed too slow. Then I had the idea to boil all the viper’s flesh off its bones, and I got an old meat-tin and we put the viper and some water into it and put it above the fire.”
“You hung it on a hook, Daddy.”
“Yes, we hung it on the hook that they put the porridge pot on in Scotland. Then just as it was turning brown in came the farmer’s wife, and ran up to see what we were cooking. When she saw the viper she thought we were going to eat it. ‘Oh, you dirty divils!’ she cried, and caught up the tin in her apron and threw it out of the window.”
Fresh shrieks of laughter from the children, and Dimples repeated “You dirty divil!” until Daddy had to clump him playfully on the head.
“Tell us some more about snakes,” cried Laddie. “Did you ever see a really dreadful snake?”
“One that would turn you black and dead you in five minutes?” said Dimples. It was always the most awful thing that appealed to Dimples.
“Yes, I have seen some beastly creatures. Once in the Sudan I was dozing on the sand when I opened my eyes and there was a horrid creature like a big slug with horns, short and thick, about a foot long, moving away in front of me.”
“What was it, Daddy?” Six eager eyes were turned up to him.
“It was a death-adder. I expect that would dead you in five minutes, Dimples, if it got a bite at you.”
“Did you kill it?”
“No; it was gone before I could get to it.”
“Which is the horridest, Daddy–a snake or a shark?”
“I’m not very fond of either!”
“Did you ever see a man eaten by sharks?”
“No, dear, but I was not so far off being eaten myself.”
“Oo!” from all three of them.
“I did a silly thing, for I swam round the ship in water where there are many sharks. As I was drying myself on the deck I saw the high fin of a shark above the water a little way off. It had heard the splashing and come up to look for me.”
“Weren’t you frightened, Daddy?”
“Yes. It made me feel rather cold.” There was silence while Daddy saw once more the golden sand of the African beach and the snow-white roaring surf, with the long, smooth swell of the bar.
Children don’t like silences.
“Daddy,” said Laddie. “Do zebus bite?”
“Zebus! Why, they are cows. No, of course not.”
“But a zebu could butt with its horns.”
“Oh, yes, it could butt.”
“Do you think a zebu could fight a crocodile?”
“Well, I should back the crocodile.”
“Well, dear, the crocodile has great teeth and would eat the zebu.”
“But suppose the zebu came up when the crocodile was not looking and butted it.”
“Well, that would be one up for the zebu. But one butt wouldn’t hurt a crocodile.”
“No, one wouldn’t, would it? But the zebu would keep on. Crocodiles live on sand-banks, don’t they? Well, then, the zebu would come and live near the sandbank too–just so far as the crocodile would never see him. Then every time the crocodile wasn’t looking the zebu would butt him. Don’t you think he would beat the crocodile?”
“Well, perhaps he would.”
“How long do you think it would take the zebu to beat the crocodile?”
“Well, it would depend upon how often he got in his butt.”
“Well, suppose he butted him once every three hours, don’t you think–?”
“Oh, bother the zebu!”
“That’s what the crocodile would say,” cried Laddie, clapping his hands.
“Well, I agree with the crocodile,” said Daddy.
“And it’s time all good children were in bed,” said the Lady as the glimmer of the nurse’s apron was seen in the gloom.
Supper was going on down below and all good children should have been long ago in the land of dreams. Yet a curious noise came from above.
“What on earth–?” asked Daddy.
“Laddie practising cricket,” said the Lady, with the curious clairvoyance of motherhood. “He gets out of bed to bowl. I do wish you would go up and speak seriously to him about it, for it takes quite an hour off his rest.”
Daddy departed upon his mission intending to be gruff, and my word, he can be quite gruff when he likes! When he reached the top of the stairs, however, and heard the noise still continue, he walked softly down the landing and peeped in through the half-opened door.
The room was dark save for a night-light. In the dim glimmer he saw a little white-clad figure, slight and supple, taking short steps and swinging its arm in the middle of the room.
“Halloa!” said Daddy.
The white-clad figure turned and ran forward to him.
“Oh, Daddy, how jolly of you to come up!”
Daddy felt that gruffness was not quite so easy as it had seemed.
“Look here! You get into bed!” he said, with the best imitation he could manage.
“Yes, Daddy. But before I go, how is this?” He sprang forward and the arm swung round again in a swift and graceful gesture.
Daddy was a moth-eaten cricketer of sorts, and he took it in with a critical eye.
“Good, Laddie. I like a high action. That’s the real Spofforth swing.”
“Oh, Daddy, come and talk about cricket!” He was pulled on the side of the bed, and the white figure dived between the sheets.
“Yes; tell us about cwicket!” came a cooing voice from the corner. Dimples was sitting up in his cot.
“You naughty boy! I thought one of you was asleep, anyhow. I mustn’t stay. I keep you awake.”
“Who was Popoff?” cried Laddie, clutching at his father’s sleeve. “Was he a very good bowler?”
“Spofforth was the best bowler that ever walked on to a cricket-field. He was the great Australian Bowler and he taught us a great deal.”
“Did he ever kill a dog?” from Dimples.
“No, boy. Why?”
“Because Laddie said there was a bowler so fast that his ball went frue a coat and killed a dog.”
“Oh, that’s an old yarn. I heard that when I was a little boy about some bowler whose name, I think, was Jackson.”
“Was it a big dog?”
“No, no, son; it wasn’t a dog at all.”
“It was a cat,” said Dimples.
“No; I tell you it never happened.”
“But tell us about Spofforth,” cried Laddie. Dimples, with his imaginative mind, usually wandered, while the elder came eagerly back to the point. “Was he very fast?”
“He could be very fast. I have heard cricketers who had played against him say that his yorker–that is a ball which is just short of a full pitch–was the fastest ball in England. I have myself seen his long arm swing round and the wicket go down before ever the batsman had time to ground his bat.”
“Oo!” from both beds.
“He was a tall, thin man, and they called him the Fiend. That means the Devil, you know.”
“And was he the Devil?”
“No, Dimples, no. They called him that because he did such wonderful things with the ball.”
“Can the Devil do wonderful things with a ball?”
Daddy felt that he was propagating devil-worship and hastened to get to safer ground.
“Spofforth taught us how to bowl and Blackham taught us how to keep wicket. When I was young we always had another fielder, called the long- stop, who stood behind the wicket-keeper. I used to be a thick, solid boy, so they put me as long-stop, and the balls used to bounce off me, I remember, as if I had been a mattress.”
“But after Blackham came wicket-keepers had to learn that they were there to stop the ball. Even in good second-class cricket there were no more long-stops. We soon found plenty of good wicket-keeps–like Alfred Lyttelton and MacGregor–but it was Blackham who showed us how. To see Spofforth, all india-rubber and ginger, at one end bowling, and Blackham, with his black beard over the bails waiting for the ball at the other end, was worth living for, I can tell you.”
Silence while the boys pondered over this. But Laddie feared Daddy would go, so he quickly got in a question. If Daddy’s memory could only be kept going there was no saying how long they might keep him.
“Was there no good bowler until Spofforth came?”
“Oh, plenty, my boy. But he brought something new with him. Especially change of pace–you could never tell by his action up to the last moment whether you were going to get a ball like a flash of lightning, or one that came slow but full of devil and spin. But for mere command of the pitch of a ball I should think Alfred Shaw, of Nottingham, was the greatest bowler I can remember. It was said that he could pitch a ball twice in three times upon a half-crown!”
“Oo!” And then from Dimples:–
“Well, anybody’s half-crown.”
“Did he get the half-crown?”
“No, no; why should he?”
“Because he put the ball on it.”
“The half-crown was kept there always for people to aim at,” explained Laddie.
“No, no, there never was a half-crown.”
Murmurs of remonstrance from both boys.
“I only meant that he could pitch the ball on anything–a half-crown or anything else.”
“Daddy,” with the energy of one who has a happy idea, “could he have pitched it on the batsman’s toe?”
“Yes, boy, I think so.”
“Well, then, suppose he always pitched it on the batsman’s toe!”
“Perhaps that is why dear old W. G. always stood with his left toe cocked up in the air.”
“On one leg?”
“No, no, Dimples. With his heel down and his toe up.”
“Did you know W. G., Daddy?”
“Oh, yes, I knew him quite well.”
“Was he nice?”
“Yes, he was splendid. He was always like a great jolly schoolboy who was hiding behind a huge black beard.”
“I meant that he had a great bushy beard. He looked like the pirate chief in your picture-books, but he had as kind a heart as a child. I have been told that it was the terrible things in this war that really killed him. Grand old W. G.!”
“Was he the best bat in the world, Daddy?”
“Of course he was,” said Daddy, beginning to enthuse to the delight of the clever little plotter in the bed. “There never was such a bat–never in the world–and I don’t believe there ever could be again. He didn’t play on smooth wickets, as they do now. He played where the wickets were all patchy, and you had to watch the ball right on to the bat. You couldn’t look at it before it hit the ground and think, ‘That’s all right. I know where that one will be!’ My word, that was cricket. What you got you earned.”
“Did you ever see W. G. make a hundred, Daddy?”
“See him! I’ve fielded out for him and melted on a hot August day while he made a hundred and fifty. There’s a pound or two of your Daddy somewhere on that field yet. But I loved to see it, and I was always sorry when he got out for nothing, even if I were playing against him.”
“Did he ever get out for nothing?”
“Yes, dear; the first time I ever played in his company he was given out leg-before-wicket before he made a run. And all the way to the pavilion–that’s where people go when they are out–he was walking forward, but his big black beard was backward over his shoulder as he told the umpire what he thought.”
“And what did he think?”
“More than I can tell you, Dimples. But I dare say he was right to be annoyed, for it was a left-handed bowler, bowling round the wicket, and it is very hard to get leg-before to that. However, that’s all Greek to you.”
“Well, I mean you can’t understand that. Now I am going.”
“No, no, Daddy; wait a moment! Tell us about Bonner and the big catch.”
“Oh, you know about that!”
Two little coaxing voices came out of the darkness.
“Oh, please! Please!”
“I don’t know what your mother will say! What was it you asked?”
“Ah, Bonner!” Daddy looked out in the gloom and saw green fields and golden sunlight, and great sportsmen long gone to their rest. “Bonner was a wonderful man. He was a giant in size.”
“As big as you, Daddy?”
Daddy seized his elder boy and shook him playfully. “I heard what you said to Miss Cregan the other day. When she asked you what an acre was you said ‘About the size of Daddy.’”
Both boys gurgled.
“But Bonner was five inches taller than I. He was a giant, I tell you.”
“Did nobody kill him?”
“No, no, Dimples. Not a story-book giant. But a great, strong man. He had a splendid figure and blue eyes and a golden beard, and altogether he was the finest man I have ever seen–except perhaps one.”
“Who was the one, Daddy?”
“Well, it was the Emperor Frederick of Germany.”
“A Jarman!” cried Dimples, in horror.
“Yes, a German. Mind you, boys, a man may be a very noble man and be a German–though what has become of the noble ones these last three years is more than I can guess. But Frederick was noble and good, as you could see on his face. How he ever came to be the father of such a blasphemous braggart”–Daddy sank into reverie.
“Bonner, Daddy!” said Laddie, and Daddy came back from politics with a start.
“Oh, yes, Bonner. Bonner in white flannels on the green sward with an English June sun upon him. That was a picture of a man! But you asked me about the catch. It was in a test match at the Oval–England against Australia. Bonner said before he went in that he would hit Alfred Shaw into the next county, and he set out to do it. Shaw, as I have told you, could keep a very good length, so for some time Bonner could not get the ball he wanted, but at last he saw his chance, and he jumped out and hit that ball the most awful ker-wallop that ever was seen in a cricket-field.”
“Oo!” from both boys: and then, “Did it go into the next county, Daddy?” from Dimples.
“Well, I’m telling you!” said Daddy, who was always testy when one of his stories was interrupted. “Bonner thought he had made the ball a half- volley–that is the best ball to hit–but Shaw had deceived him and the ball was really on the short side. So when Bonner hit it, up and up it went, until it looked as if it were going out of sight into the sky.”
“At first everybody thought it was going far outside the ground. But soon they saw that all the giant’s strength had been wasted in hitting the ball so high, and that there was a chance that it would fall within the ropes. The batsmen had run three runs and it was still in the air. Then it was seen that an English fielder was standing on the very edge of the field with his back on the ropes, a white figure against the black line of the people. He stood watching the mighty curve of the ball, and twice he raised his hands together above his head as he did so. Then a third time he raised his hands above his head, and the ball was in them and Bonner was out.”
“Why did he raise his hands twice?”
“I don’t know. He did so.”
“And who was the fielder, Daddy?”
“The fielder was G. F. Grace, the younger brother of W. G. Only a few months afterwards he was a dead man. But he had one grand moment in his life, with twenty thousand people all just mad with excitement. Poor G. F.! He died too soon.”
“Did you ever catch a catch like that, Daddy?”
“No, boy. I was never a particularly good fielder.”
“Did you never catch a good catch?”
“Well, I won’t say that. You see, the best catches are very often flukes, and I remember one awful fluke of that sort.”
“Do tell us, Daddy?”
“Well, dear, I was fielding at slip. That is very near the wicket, you know. Woodcock was bowling, and he had the name of being the fastest bowler of England at that time. It was just the beginning of the match and the ball was quite red. Suddenly I saw something like a red flash and there was the ball stuck in my left hand. I had not time to move it. It simply came and stuck.”
“I saw another catch like that. It was done by Ulyett, a fine Yorkshire player–such a big, upstanding fellow. He was bowling, and the batsman–it was an Australian in a test match–hit as hard as ever he could. Ulyett could not have seen it, but he just stuck out his hand and there was the ball.”
“Suppose it had hit his body?”
“Well, it would have hurt him.”
“Would he have cried?” from Dimples.
“No, boy. That is what games are for, to teach you to take a knock and never show it. Supposing that–“
A step was heard coming along the passage.
“Good gracious, boys, here’s Mumty. Shut your eyes this moment. It’s all right, dear. I spoke to them very severely and I think they are nearly asleep.”
“What have you been talking about?” asked the Lady.
“Cwicket!” cried Dimples.
“It’s natural enough,” said Daddy; “of course when two boys–“
“Three,” said the Lady, as she tucked up the little beds.
The three children were sitting together in a bunch upon the rug in the gloaming. Baby was talking so Daddy behind his newspaper pricked up his ears, for the young lady was silent as a rule, and every glimpse of her little mind was of interest. She was nursing the disreputable little downy quilt which she called Wriggly and much preferred to any of her dolls.
“I wonder if they will let Wriggly into heaven,” she said.
The boys laughed. They generally laughed at what Baby said.
“If they won’t I won’t go in, either,” she added.
“Nor me, neither, if they don’t let in my Teddy-bear,” said Dimples.
“I’ll tell them it is a nice, clean, blue Wriggly,” said Baby. “I love my Wriggly.” She cooed over it and hugged it.
“What about that, Daddy?” asked Laddie, in his earnest fashion. “Are there toys in heaven, do you think?”
“Of course there are. Everything that can make children happy.”
“As many toys as in Hamley’s shop?” asked Dimples.
“More,” said Daddy, stoutly.
“Oo!” from all three.
“Daddy, dear,” said Laddie. “I’ve been wondering about the deluge.”
“Yes, dear. What was it?”
“Well, the story about the Ark. All those animals were in the Ark, just two of each, for forty days. Wasn’t that so?”
“That is the story.”
“Well, then, what did the carnivorous animals eat?”
One should be honest with children and not put them off with ridiculous explanations. Their questions about such matters are generally much more sensible than their parents’ replies.
“Well, dear,” said Daddy, weighing his words, “these stories are very, very old. The Jews put them in the Bible, but they got them from the people in Babylon, and the people in Babylon probably got them from some one else away back in the beginning of things. If a story gets passed down like that, one person adds a little and another adds a little, and so you never get things quite as they happened. The Jews put it in the Bible exactly as they heard it, but it had been going about for thousands of years before then.”
“So it was not true?”
“Yes, I think it was true. I think there was a great flood, and I think that some people did escape, and that they saved their beasts, just as we should try to save Nigger and the Monkstown cocks and hens if we were flooded out. Then they were able to start again when the waters went down, and they were naturally very grateful to God for their escape.”
“What did the people who didn’t escape think about it?”
“Well, we can’t tell that.”
“They wouldn’t be very grateful, would they?”
“Their time was come,” said Daddy, who was a bit of a Fatalist. “I expect it was the best thing.”
“It was jolly hard luck on Noah being swallowed by a fish after all his trouble,” said Dimples.
“Silly ass! It was Jonah that was swallowed. Was it a whale, Daddy?”
“A whale! Why, a whale couldn’t swallow a herring!”
“A shark, then?”
“Well, there again you have an old story which has got twisted and turned a good deal. No doubt he was a holy man who had some great escape at sea, and then the sailors and others who admired him invented this wonder.”
“Daddy,” said Dimples, suddenly, “should we do just the same as Jesus did?”
“Yes, dear; He was the noblest Person that ever lived.”
“Well, did Jesus lie down every day from twelve to one?”
“I don’t know that He did.”
“Well, then, I won’t lie down from twelve to one.”
“If Jesus had been a growing boy and had been ordered to lie down by His Mumty and the doctor, I am sure He would have done so.”
“Did He take malt extract?”
“He did what He was told, my son–I am sure of that. He was a good man, so He must have been a good boy–perfect in all He did.”
“Baby saw God yesterday,” remarked Laddie, casually.
Daddy dropped his paper.
“Yes, we made up our minds we would all lie on our backs and stare at the sky until we saw God. So we put the big rug on the lawn and then we all lay down side by side, and stared and stared. I saw nothing, and Dimples saw nothing, but Baby says she saw God.”
Baby nodded in her wise way.
“I saw Him,” she said.
“What was He like, then?”
“Oh, just God.”
She would say no more, but hugged her Wriggly.
The Lady had entered and listened with some trepidation to the frank audacity of the children’s views. Yet the very essence of faith was in that audacity. It was all so unquestionably real.
“Which is strongest, Daddy, God or the Devil?” It was Laddie who was speculating now.
“Why, God rules everything, of course.”
“Then why doesn’t He kill the Devil?”
“And scalp him?” added Dimples.
“That would stop all trouble, wouldn’t it, Daddy?”
Poor Daddy was rather floored. The Lady came to his help.
“If everything was good and easy in this world, then there would be nothing to fight against, and so, Laddie, our characters would never improve.”
“It would be like a football match with all the players on one side,” said Daddy.
“If there was nothing bad, then, nothing would be good, for you would have nothing to compare by,” added the Lady.
“Well, then,” said Laddie, with the remorseless logic of childhood, “if that is so, then the Devil is very useful; so he can’t be so very bad, after all.”
“Well, I don’t see that,” Daddy answered. “Our Army can only show how brave it is by fighting the German Emperor, but that does not prove that the German Emperor is a very nice person, does it now?
“Besides,” Daddy continued, improving the occasion, “you must not think of the Devil as a person. You must think of all the mean things one could do, and all the dirty things, and all the cruel things, and that is really the Devil you are fighting against. You couldn’t call them useful, could you?”
The children thought over this for a little.
“Daddy,” said Laddie, “have you ever seen God?”
“No, my boy. But I see His works. I expect that is as near as we can get in this world. Look at all the stars at night, and think of the Power that made them and keeps each in its proper place.”
“He couldn’t keep the shooting stars in their proper place,” said Dimples.
“I expect He meant them to shoot,” said Laddie.
“Suppose they all shot, what jolly nights we should have!” cried Dimples.
“Yes,” said Laddie; “but after one night they would all have gone, and a nice thing then!”
“Well, there’s always the moon,” remarked Dimples. “But, Daddy, is it true that God listens to all we say?”
“I don’t know about that,” Daddy answered, cautiously. You never know into what trap those quick little wits may lead you. The Lady was more rash, or more orthodox.
“Yes, dear, He does hear all you say.”
“Is He listenin’ now?”
“Well, I call it vewy rude of Him!”
Daddy smiled, and the Lady gasped.
“It isn’t rude,” said Laddie. “It is His duty, and He has to notice what you are doing and saying. Daddy, did you ever see a fairy?”
“I saw one once.”
Laddie is the very soul of truth, quite painfully truthful in details, so that his quiet remark caused attention.
“Tell us about it, dear.”
He described it with as little emotion as if it were a Persian cat. Perhaps his perfect faith had indeed opened something to his vision.
“It was in the day nursery. There was a stool by the window. The fairy jumped on the stool and then down, and went across the room.”
“What was it dressed like?”
“All in grey, with a long cloak. It was about as big as Baby’s doll. I could not see its arms, for they were under the cloak.”
“Did he look at you?”
“No, he was sideways, and I never really saw his face. He had a little cap. That’s the only fairy I ever saw. Of course, there was Father Christmas, if you call him a fairy.”
“Daddy, was Father Christmas killed in the war?”
“Because he has never come since the war began. I expect he is fightin’ the Jarmans.” It was Dimples who was talking.
“Last time he came,” said Laddie, “Daddy said one of his reindeers had hurt its leg in the ruts of the Monkstown Lane. Perhaps that’s why he never comes.”
“He’ll come all right after the war,” said Daddy, “and he’ll be redder and whiter and jollier than ever.” Then Daddy clouded suddenly, for he thought of all those who would be missing when Father Christmas came again. Ten loved ones were dead from that one household. The Lady put out her hand, for she always knew what Daddy was thinking.
“They will be there in spirit, dear.”
“Yes, and the jolliest of the lot,” said Daddy, stoutly. “We’ll have our Father Christmas back and all will be well in England.”
“But what do they do in India?” asked Laddie.
“Why, what’s wrong with them?”
“How do the sledge and the reindeer get across the sea? All the parcels must get wet.”
“Yes, dear, there have been several complaints,” said Daddy, gravely. “Halloa, here’s nurse! Time’s up! Off to bed!”
They got up resignedly, for they were really very good children. “Say your prayers here before you go,” said the Lady. The three little figures all knelt on the rug, Baby still cuddling her Wriggly.
“You pray, Laddie, and the rest can join in.”
“God bless every one I love,” said the high, clear child-voice. “And make me a good boy, and thank You so much for all the blessings of to- day. And please take care of Alleyne, who is fighting the Germans, and Uncle Cosmo, who is fighting the Germans, and Uncle Woodie, who is fighting the Germans, and all the others who are fighting the Germans, and the men on the ships on the sea, and Grandma and Grandpa, and Uncle Pat, and don’t ever let Daddy and Mumty die. That’s all.”
“And please send plenty sugar for the poor people,” said Baby, in her unexpected way.
“And a little petrol for Daddy,” said Dimples.
“Amen!” said Daddy. And the little figures rose for the good-night kiss.
IV–THE LEATHERSKIN TRIBE
“Daddy!” said the elder boy. “Have you seen wild Indians?”
“Have you ever scalped one?”
“Good gracious, no.”
“Has one ever scalped you?” asked Dimples.
“Silly!” said Laddie. “If Daddy had been scalped he wouldn’t have all that hair on his head–unless perhaps it grew again!”
“He has none hair on the very top,” said Dimples, hovering over the low chair in which Daddy was sitting.
“They didn’t scalp you, did they, Daddy?” asked Laddie, with some anxiety.
“I expect Nature will scalp me some of these days.”
Both boys were keenly interested. Nature presented itself as some rival chief.
“When?” asked Dimples, eagerly, with the evident intention of being present.
Daddy passed his fingers ruefully through his thinning locks. “Pretty soon, I expect,” said he.
“Oo!” said the three children. Laddie was resentful and defiant, but the two younger ones were obviously delighted.
“But I say, Daddy, you said we should have an Indian game after tea. You said it when you wanted us to be so quiet after breakfast. You promised, you know.”
It doesn’t do to break a promise to children. Daddy rose somewhat wearily from his comfortable chair and put his pipe on the mantelpiece. First he held a conference in secret with Uncle Pat, the most ingenious of playmates. Then he returned to the children. “Collect the tribe,” said he. “There is a Council in a quarter of an hour in the big room. Put on your Indian dresses and arm yourselves. The great Chief will be there!”
Sure enough when he entered the big room a quarter of an hour later the tribe of the Leatherskins had assembled. There were four of them, for little rosy Cousin John from next door always came in for an Indian game. They had all Indian dresses with high feathers and wooden clubs or tomahawks. Daddy was in his usual untidy tweeds, but carried a rifle. He was very serious when he entered the room, for one should be very serious in a real good Indian game. Then he raised his rifle slowly over his head in greeting and the four childish voices rang out in the war-cry. It was a prolonged wolfish howl which Dimples had been known to offer to teach elderly ladies in hotel corridors. “You can’t be in our tribe without it, you know. There is none body about. Now just try once if you can do it.” At this moment there are half-a-dozen elderly people wandering about England who have been made children once more by Laddie and Dimples.
“Hail to the tribe!” cried Daddy.
“Hail, Chief!” answered the voices.
“Here!” cried Laddie.
“Here!” cried Dimples.
“Go on, you silly squaw!” growled Dimples.
“Here,” said Baby.
“Here,” said little four-year-old John.
“The muster is complete. Make a circle round the camp-fire and we shall drink the firewater of the Palefaces and smoke the pipe of peace.”
That was a fearsome joy. The fire-water was ginger-ale drunk out of the bottle, which was gravely passed from hand to hand. At no other time had they ever drunk like that, and it made an occasion of it which was increased by the owlish gravity of Daddy. Then he lit his pipe and it was passed also from one tiny hand to another, Laddie taking a hearty suck at it, which set him coughing, while Baby only touched the end of the amber with her little pink lips. There was dead silence until it had gone round and returned to its owner.
“Warriors of the Leatherskins, why have we come here?” asked Daddy, fingering his rifle.
“Humpty Dumpty,” said little John, and the children all began to laugh, but the portentous gravity of Daddy brought them back to the warrior mood.
“The Prairie Wolf has spoken truly,” said Daddy. “A wicked Paleface called Humpty Dumpty has taken the prairies which once belonged to the Leatherskins and is now camped upon them and hunting our buffaloes. What shall be his fate? Let each warrior speak in turn.”
“Tell him he has jolly well got to clear out,” said Laddie.
“That’s not Indian talk,” cried Dimples, with all his soul in the game. “Kill him, great Chief–him and his squaw, too.” The two younger warriors merely laughed and little John repeated “Humpty Dumpty!”
“Quite right! Remember the villain’s name!” said Daddy. “Now, then, the whole tribe follows me on the war-trail and we shall teach this Paleface to shoot our buffaloes.”
“Look here, we don’t want squaws,” cried Dimples, as Baby toddled at the rear of the procession. “You stay in the wigwam and cook.”
A piteous cry greeted the suggestion.
“The White Butterfly will come with us and bind up the wounds,” said Daddy.
“The squaws are jolly good as torturers,” remarked Laddie.
“Really, Daddy, this strikes me as a most immoral game,” said the Lady, who had been a sympathetic spectator from a corner, doubtful of the ginger-ale, horrified at the pipe, and delighted at the complete absorption of the children.
“Rather!” said the great Chief, with a sad relapse into the normal. “I suppose that is why they love it so. Now, then, warriors, we go forth on the war-trail. One whoop all together before we start. Capital! Follow me, now, one behind the other. Not a sound! If one gets separated from the others let him give the cry of a night owl and the others will answer with the squeak of the prairie lizard.”
“What sort of a squeak, please?”
“Oh, any old squeak will do. You don’t walk. Indians trot on the war- path. If you see any man hiding in a bush kill him at once, but don’t stop to scalp him–“
“Really, dear!” from the corner.
“The great Queen would rather that you scalp him. Now, then! All ready! Start!”
Away went the line of figures, Daddy stooping with his rifle at the trail, Laddie and Dimples armed with axes and toy pistols, as tense and serious as any Redskins could be. The other two rather more irresponsible but very much absorbed all the same. The little line of absurd figures wound in and out of the furniture, and out on to the lawn, and round the laurel bushes, and into the yard, and back to the clump of trees. There Daddy stopped and held up his hand with a face that froze the children.
“Are all here?” he asked.
“Hush, warriors! No sound. There is an enemy scout in the bushes ahead. Stay with me, you two. You, Red Buffalo, and you, Black Bear, crawl forward and settle him. See that he makes no sound. What you do must be quick and sudden. When all is clear give the cry of the wood-pigeon, and we will join you.”
The two warriors crawled off in most desperate earnest. Daddy leaned on his gun and winked at the Lady, who still hovered fearfully in the background like a dear hen whose chickens were doing wonderful and unaccountable things. The two younger Indians slapped each other and giggled. Presently there came the “coo” of a wood-pigeon from in front. Daddy and the tribe moved forward to where the advance guard were waiting in the bushes.
“Great Chief, we could find no scout,” said Laddie.
“There was none person to kill,” added Dimples.
The Chief was not surprised, since the scout had been entirely of his own invention. It would not do to admit it, however.
“Have you found his trail?” he asked.
“Let me look.” Daddy hunted about with a look of preternatural sagacity about him. “Before the snows fell a man passed here with a red head, grey clothes, and a squint in his left eye. His trail shows that his brother has a grocer’s shop and his wife smokes cigarettes on the sly.”
“Oh, Daddy, how could you read all that?”
“It’s easy enough, my son, when you get the knack of it. But look here, we are Indians on the war-trail, and don’t you forget it if you value your scalp! Aha, here is Humpty Dumpty’s trail!”
Uncle Pat had laid down a paper trail from this point, as Daddy well knew; so now the children were off like a little pack of eager harriers, following in and out among the bushes. Presently they had a rest.
“Great Chief, why does a wicked Paleface leave paper wherever he goes?”
Daddy made a great effort.
“He tears up the wicked letters he has written. Then he writes others even wickeder and tears them up in turn. You can see for yourself that he leaves them wherever he goes. Now, warriors, come along!”
Uncle Pat had dodged all over the limited garden, and the tribe followed his trail. Finally they stopped at a gap in the hedge which leads into the field. There was a little wooden hut in the field, where Daddy used to go and put up a printed cardboard: “WORKING.” He found it a very good dodge when he wanted a quiet smoke and a nap. Usually there was nothing else in the field, but this time the Chief pushed the whole tribe hurriedly behind the hedge, and whispered to them to look carefully out between the branches.
In the middle of the field a tripod of sticks supported a kettle. At each side of it was a hunched-up figure in a coloured blanket. Uncle Pat had done his work skilfully and well.
“You must get them before they can reach their rifles,” said the Chief. “What about their horses? Black Bear, move down the hedge and bring back word about their horses. If you see none give three whistles.”
The whistles were soon heard, and the warrior returned.
“If the horses had been there, what would you have done?”
“Scalped them!” said Dimples.
“Silly ass!” said Laddie. “Who ever heard of a horse’s scalp? You would stampede them.”
“Of course,” said the Chief. “If ever you see a horse grazing, you crawl up to it, spring on its back and then gallop away with your head looking under its neck and only your foot to be seen. Don’t you forget it. But we must scupper these rascals on our hunting-grounds.”
“Shall we crawl up to them?”
“Yes, crawl up. Then when I give a whoop rush them. Take them alive. I wish to have a word with them first. Carry them into the hut. Go!”
Away went the eager little figures, the chubby babes and the two lithe, active boys. Daddy stood behind the bush watching them. They kept a line and tip-toed along to the camp of the strangers. Then on the Chief’s signal they burst into a cry and rushed wildly with waving weapons into the camp of the Palefaces. A moment later the two pillow- made trappers were being dragged off into the hut by the whooping warriors. They were up-ended in one corner when the Chief entered, and the victorious Indians were dancing about in front of them.
“Anybody wounded?” asked the Chief.
“Have you tied their hands?”
With perfect gravity Red Buffalo made movements behind each of the pillows.
“They are tied, great Chief.”
“What shall we do with them?”
“Cut off their heads!” shrieked Dimples, who was always the most bloodthirsty of the tribe, though in private life he had been known to weep bitterly over a squashed caterpillar.
“The proper thing is to tie them to a stake,” said Laddie.
“What do you mean by killing our buffaloes?” asked Daddy, severely.
The prisoners preserved a sulky silence.
“Shall I shoot the green one?” asked Dimples, presenting his wooden pistol.
“Wait a bit!” said the Chief. “We had best keep one as a hostage and send the other back to say that unless the Chief of the Palefaces pays a ransom within three days–“
But at that moment, as a great romancer used to say, a strange thing happened. There was the sound of a turning key and the whole tribe of the Leatherskins was locked into the hut. A moment later a dreadful face appeared at the window, a face daubed with mud and overhung with grass, which drooped down from under a soft cap. The weird creature danced in triumph, and then stooped to set a light to some paper and shavings near the window.
“Heavens!” cried the Chief. “It is Yellow Snake, the ferocious Chief of the Bottlenoses!”
Flame and smoke were rising outside. It was excellently done and perfectly safe, but too much for the younger warriors. The key turned, the door opened, and two tearful babes were in the arms of the kneeling Lady. Red Buffalo and Black Bear were of sterner stuff.
“I’m not frightened, Daddy,” said Laddie, though he looked a little pale.
“Nor me,” cried Dimples, hurrying to get out of the hut.
“We’ll lock the prisoners up with no food and have a council of war upon them in the morning,” said the Chief. “Perhaps we’ve done enough to-day.”
“I rather think you have,” said the Lady, as she soothed the poor little sobbing figures.
“That’s the worst of having kids to play,” said Dimples. “Fancy having a squaw in a war-party!”
“Never mind, we’ve had a jolly good Indian game,” said Laddie, as the sound of a distant bell called them all to the nursery tea.