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   Chapter 2 TOM

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8445

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In the attic a child of seven years was sitting up in a cot placed by the side of his dear Aunt Annie's bed. He had an extremely intelligent, inquisitorial, and agnostical face, and a fair, curled head of hair, which he scratched with one hand as Aunt Annie entered the room and held the candle on high in order to survey him.

'Well?' inquired Aunt Annie firmly.

'Well?' said Tom Knight, determined not to commit himself, and waiting wanly for a chance, like a duellist.

'What's all this noise for? I told you I specially wanted you to go to sleep at once to-night.'

'Yes,' said Tom, staring at the counterpane and picking imaginary bits off it. 'And you might have known I shouldn't go to sleep after that!'

'And here it's nearly midnight!' Aunt Annie proceeded. 'What do you want?'

'You-you've left the comb in my hair,' said Tom. He nearly cried.

Every night Aunt Annie curled Tom's hair.

'Is it such a tiny boy that it couldn't take it out itself?' Aunt Annie said kindly, going to the cot and extracting the comb. 'Now try to sleep.' She kissed him.

'And I've heard burglars,' Tom continued, without moving.

'Oh no, you've not,' Aunt Annie pronounced sharply. 'You can't hear burglars every night, you know.'

'I heard running about, and doors shutting and things.'

'That was Uncle Henry and me. Will you promise to be a good boy if I tell you a secret?'

'I shan't promise,' Tom replied. 'But if it's a good secret I'll try-hard.'

'Well, you've got a cousin, a little boy, ever so little! There! What do you think of that?'

'I knew someone had got into the house!' was Tom's dispassionate remark. 'What's his name?'

'He hasn't any name yet, but he will have soon.'

'Did he come up the stairs?' Tom asked.

Aunt Annie laughed. 'No,' she said.

'Then, he must have come through the window or down the chimney; and he wouldn't come down the chimney 'cause of the soot. So he came through the window. Whose little boy is he? Yours?'

'No. Aunt Susan's.'

'I suppose she knows he's come?'

'Oh yes. She knows. And she's very glad. Now go to sleep. And I'll tell Aunt Susan you'll be a good boy.'

'You'd better not,' Tom warned her. 'I don't feel sure. And I say, auntie, will there come any more little boys to-night?'

'I don't think so, dear.' Aunt Annie smiled. She was half way through the door, and spoke into the passage.

'But are you sure?' Tom persisted.

'Yes, I'm sure. Go to sleep.'

'Doesn't Aunt Susan want another one?'

'No, she doesn't. Go to sleep, I say.'

''Cause, when I came, another little boy came just afterwards, and he died, that little boy did. And mamma, too. Father told me.'

'Yes, yes,' said Aunt Annie, closing the door. 'Bee-by.'

'I didn't promise,' Tom murmured to his conscience. 'But it's a good secret,' he added brazenly. He climbed over the edge of the cot, and let himself down gently till his feet touched the floor. He found his clothes, which Aunt Annie invariably placed on a chair in a certain changeless order, and he put some of them on, somehow. Then he softly opened the door and crept down the stairs to the second-floor. He was an adventurous and incalculable child, and he desired to see the baby.

Persons who called on Mr. Henry Knight in his private capacity rang at the side-door to the right of the shop, and were instructed by the shop-caretaker to mount two flights of stairs, having mounted which they would perceive in front of them a door, where they were to ring again. This door was usually closed, but to-night Tom found it ajar. He peeped out and downwards, and thought of the vast showroom below and the wonderful regions of the street. Then he drew in his head, and concealed himself behind the plush portière. From his hiding-place he could watch the door of Uncle Henry's and Aunt Susan's bedroom, and he could also, whenever he felt inclined, glance down the stairway.

He waited, with the patience and the fatalism of infancy, for something to happen.

After an interval of time not mathematically to be computed, Tom heard a step on the stairs, and looked forth. A tall gentleman wearing a high hat and carrying a black bag was ascending. In a flash Tom recollec

ted a talk with his dead father, in which that glorious and gay parent had explained to him that he, Tom, had been brought to his mother's room by the doctor in a black bag.

Tom pulled open the door at the head of the stairs, went outside, and drew the door to behind him.

'Are you the doctor?' he demanded, staring intently at the bag to see whether anything wriggled within.

'Yes, my man,' said the doctor. It was Quain Short, wrenched from the Alhambra.

'Well, they don't want another one. They've got one,' Tom asserted, still observing the bag.

'You're sure?'

'Yes. Aunt Annie said particularly that they didn't want another one.'

'Who is it that has come? Do you know his name? Christopher-is that it?'

'I don't know his name. But he's come, and he's in the bedroom now, with Aunt Susan.'

'How annoying!' said Dr. Quain Short under his breath, and he went.

Tom re-entered, and took up his old position behind the portière.

Presently he heard another step on the stair, and issued out again to reconnoitre. And, lo! another tall gentleman wearing another high hat and carrying another black bag was ascending.

'This makes three,' Tom said.

'What's that, my little man?' asked the gentleman, smiling. It was Dr. Christopher.

'This makes three. And they only want one. The first one came ever such a long time ago. And I can tell you Aunt Susan was very glad when he did come.'

'Dear, dear!' exclaimed Dr. Christopher. 'Then I'm too late, my little man. I was afraid I might be. Everything all right, eh?'

Tom nodded, and Dr. Christopher departed.

And then, after a further pause, up came another tall gentleman, high hat, and black bag.

'This is four,' said Tom.

'What's that, Tommy?' asked Mr. Henry Knight's regular physician and surgeon. 'What are you doing there?'

'One came hours since,' Tom said. 'And they don't want any more.' Then he gazed at the bag, which was larger and glossier than its predecessors. 'Have you brought a very nice one?' he inquired. 'They don't really want another, but perhaps if it's very--'

It was this momentary uncertainty on Tom's part that possibly saved my hero's life. For the parents were quite inexperienced, and Mrs. Puddiphatt was an accoucheuse of the sixties, and the newborn child was near to dying in the bedroom without anybody being aware of the fact.

'A very nice what?' the doctor questioned gruffly.

'Baby. In that bag,' Tom stammered.

'Out of the way, my bold buccaneer,' said the doctor, striding across the mat into the corridor.

At two o'clock the next morning, Tom being asleep, and all going well with wife and child, Mr. Henry Knight returned at length to his sitting-room, and resumed the composition of the letter to the editor of the Standard. The work existed as an artistic whole in his head, and he could not persuade himself to seek rest until he had got it down in black-and-white; for, though he wrote letters instead of sonnets, he was nevertheless a sort of a poet by temperament. You behold him calm now, master once more of his emotions, and not that agitated, pompous, and slightly ridiculous person who lately stamped over Oxford Street and stormed the Alhambra Theatre. And in order to help the excellent father of my hero back into your esteem, let me point out that the imminence and the actuality of fatherhood constitute a somewhat disturbing experience, which does not occur to a man every day.

Mr. Knight dipped pen in ink, and continued:

' ... who I hold to be not only the greatest poet, but also the greatest moral teacher that England has ever produced,

'"To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man."

'In conclusion, sir, I ask, without fear of contradiction, are we or are we not, in this matter of the National Debt, to be true to our national selves?

'Yours obediently,

'A Conscientious Taxpayer.'

The signature troubled him. His pen hovered threateningly over it, and finally he struck it out and wrote instead: 'Paterfamilias.' He felt that this pseudonym was perhaps a little inapposite, but some impulse stronger than himself forced him to employ it.

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