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A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8247

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

'But haven't I told you that I was just writing the very name when Annie came in to warn me?'

Mr. Knight addressed the question, kindly and mildly, yet with a hint of annoyance, to his young wife, who was nursing their son with all the experience of three months' practice. It was Sunday morning, and they had finished breakfast in the sitting-room. Within an hour or two the heir was to be taken to the Great Queen Street Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the solemn rite of baptism.

'Yes, lovey,' said Mrs. Knight. 'You've told me, time and again. But, oh Henry! Your name's just Henry Knight, and I want his to be just Henry Knight, too! I want him to be called after you.'

And the mother, buxom, simple, and adoring, glanced appealingly with bright eyes at the man who for her epitomized the majesty and perfections of his sex.

'He will be Henry Knight,' the father persisted, rather coldly.

But Mrs. Knight shook her head.

Then Aunt Annie came into the room, pushing Tom before her. Tom was magnificently uncomfortable in his best clothes.

'What's the matter, Sue?' Aunt Annie demanded, as soon as she had noticed her sister's face.

And in a moment, in the fraction of a second, and solely by reason of Aunt Annie's question, the situation became serious. It jumped up, as domestic situations sometimes do, suddenly to the temperature at which thunderstorms are probable. It grew close, heavy, and perilous.

Mrs. Knight shook her head again. 'Nothing,' she managed to reply.

'Susan wants--' Mr. Knight began suavely to explain.

'He keeps on saying he would like him to be called--' Mrs. Knight burst out.

'No I don't-no I don't!' Mr. Knight interrupted. 'Not if you don't wish it!'

A silence followed. Mr. Knight drummed lightly and nervously on the table-cloth. Mrs. Knight sniffed, threw back her head so that the tears should not fall out of her eyes, and gently patted the baby's back with her right hand. Aunt Annie hesitated whether to speak or not to speak.

Tom remarked in a loud voice:

'If I were you, I should call him Tom, like me. Then, as soon as he can talk, I could say, "How do, Cousin Tom?" and he could say back, "How do, Cousin Tom?"'

'But we should always be getting mixed up between you, you silly boy!' said Aunt Annie, smiling, and trying to be bright and sunny.

'No, you wouldn't,' Tom replied. 'Because I should be Big Tom, and of course he'd only be Little Tom. And I don't think I'm a silly boy, either.'

'Will you be silent, sir!' Mr. Knight ordered in a voice of wrath. And, by way of indicating that the cord of tension had at last snapped, he boxed Tom's left ear, which happened to be the nearest.

Mrs. Knight lost control of her tears, and they escaped. She offered the baby to Aunt Annie.

'Take him. He's asleep. Put him in the cradle,' she sobbed.

'Yes, dear,' said Aunt Annie intimately, in a tone to show how well she knew that poor women must always cling together in seasons of stress and times of oppression.

Mrs. Knight hurried out of the room. Mr. Knight cherished an injury. He felt aggrieved because Susan could not see that, though six months ago she had been entitled to her whims and fancies, she was so no longer. He felt, in fact, that Susan was taking an unfair advantage of him. The logic of the thing was spread out plainly and irrefutably in his mind. And then, quite swiftly, the logic of the thing vanished, and Mr. Knight rose and hastened after his wife.

'You deserved it, you know,' said Aunt Annie to Tom.

'Did I?' The child seemed to speculate.

They both stared at the baby, who lay peacefully in his cradle, for several minutes.

'Annie, come here a moment.' Mr. Knight was calling from another room.

'Yes, Henry. Now, Tom, don't touch the cradle. And if baby begins to cry, run and tell me.'

'Yes, auntie.'

And Aunt Annie went. She neglected to close the door behind her; Tom closed it, noiselessly.

Never before had he been left alone with the baby. He examined with minute care such parts of the living organism as were visible, and then, after courageously fighting tem

ptation, and suffering defeat, he touched the baby's broad, flat nose. He scarcely touched it, yet the baby stirred and mewed faintly. Tom began to rock the cradle, at first gently, then with nervous violence. The faint mew became a regular and sustained cry.

He glanced at the door, and decided that he would make a further effort to lull the ridiculous agitation of this strange and mysterious being. Bending down, he seized the baby in both hands, and tried to nurse it as his two aunts nursed it. The infant's weight was considerable; it exceeded Tom's estimate, with the result that, in the desperate process of extracting the baby from the cradle, the cradle had been overset, and now lay on its beam-ends.

'Hsh-hsh!' Tom entreated, shooing and balancing as best he could.

Then, without warning, Tom's spirit leapt into anger.

'Will you be silent, sir!' he demanded fiercely from the baby, imitating Uncle Henry's tone. 'Will you be silent, sir!' He shook the infant, who was astounded into a momentary silence.

The next thing was the sound of footsteps approaching rapidly along the passage. Tom had no leisure to right the cradle; he merely dropped the baby on the floor by the side of it, and sprang to the window.

'You naughty, naughty boy!' Aunt Annie shrieked. 'You've taken baby out of his cradle! Oh, my pet! my poor darling! my mumsy! Did they, then?'

'I didn't! I didn't!' Tom asserted passionately. 'I've never stirred from here all the time you were out. It fell out itself!'

'Oh!' screamed Aunt Annie. 'There's a black place on his poor little forehead!'

In an instant the baby's parents were to the rescue, and Tom was declaring his innocence to the united family.

'It fell out itself!' he repeated; and soon he began to think of interesting details. 'I saw it. It put its hand on the edge of the cradle and pulled up, and then it leaned to one side, and then the cradle toppled over.'

Of course the preposterous lie was credited by nobody.

'There's one thing!' said Mrs. Knight, weeping for the second time that morning. 'I won't have him christened with a black forehead, that I won't!'

At this point, Aunt Annie, who had scurried to the kitchen for some butter, flew back and anointed the bruise.

'It fell out itself!' Tom said again.

'Whatever would the minister think?' Mrs. Knight wondered.

'It fell out itself!' said Tom.

Mr. Knight whipped Tom, and his Aunt Annie put him to bed for the rest of the day. In the settled opinion of Mrs. Knight, Tom was punished for attempting to murder her baby. But Mr. Knight insisted that the punishment was for lying. As for the baptism, it had necessarily to be postponed for four weeks, since the ceremony was performed at the Great Queen Street Chapel only on the first Sunday in the month.

'I never touched it!' Tom asseverated solemnly the next day. 'It fell out itself!'

And he clung to the statement, day after day, with such obstinacy that at length the three adults, despite the protests of reason, began to think that conceivably, just conceivably, the impossible was possible-in regard to one particular baby. Mrs. Knight had often commented on the perfectly marvellous muscular power of her baby's hand when it clutched hers, and signs were not wanting to convince the parents and the aunt that the infant was no ordinary infant, but indeed extraordinary and wonderful to the last degree.

On the fourth day, when Tom had asserted for about the hundredth time, 'It fell out itself,' his Aunt Susan kissed him and gave him a sweetmeat. Tom threw it away, but in the end, after much coaxing, he consented to enjoy it. Aunt Susan detected the finger of Providence in recent events, and one night she whispered to her husband: 'Lovey, I want you to call him what you said.'

And so it occurred, at the christening, that when the minister leaned over the Communion-rail to take the wonder-child from its mother's arms, its father whispered into the minister's ear a double name.

'Henry Shakspere--' began the minister with lifted hand.

And the baby smiled confidently upwards.

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