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   Chapter 2 LE PREMIER PAS

A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 17394

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Having disposed of the Reverend Aubrey Buck's correspondence,-it was not so bulky as on previous occasions, for evidently the paragraph in the "Searchlight" had dealt its originator a mortal blow,-uncle and nephew sat down to an excellent luncheon, cooked and served by James Nimmo. No woman ever crossed the threshold of the house in Hampstead.

James Nimmo had originally been a ship's steward, and his conversion to misogynistic principles had been effected comparatively late in life. Always a man of thrifty disposition, he had shirked the responsibility and expense of matrimony until he had attained the ripe age of forty. Then he fell a sudden and abject captive to the charms of a damsel of Carnoustie, half his age. The match was struck, but it was stipulated by the girl's parents that the wedding should not take place until after James Nimmo's next voyage.

Before sailing, the prospective bridegroom handed over to his beloved the greater part of his savings, to be expended in the purchase and outfitting of a suitable establishment,-to wit, a bijou villa in Broughty Ferry,-in order that the honeymoon might commence without unavoidable delay upon his return.

Eight weeks later James Nimmo sailed into the Tay, to find his turtle-dove flown. Alarmed possibly by the unrest produced in the real property market by recent legislation, the lady had forborne to purchase the bijou villa. Having no house, to spend money upon furniture was obviously a work of supererogation. Lastly, inspired possibly by a yearning for a wider field in which to exercise her undoubted talents, the affianced of James Nimmo had decided to emigrate to Canada. This decision she promptly put into execution, departing without due ostentation in the steerage of an Allan liner, and taking with her her parents, James Nimmo's savings, and a young carpenter of steady habits and good wage-earning capacity whom she had married three days previously.

Six months later James Nimmo made the acquaintance of Uncle Joseph on board a P. & O. liner, homeward bound from Bombay. James was deck-steward on that voyage, and Uncle Joseph's attention was first attracted to him by the extreme coldness, not to say hauteur, with which he attended to the wants of seasick lady passengers. James Nimmo on his part noted with grim approval the whole-hearted fashion in which Uncle Joseph, who was a presentable bachelor of thirty-six in those days, boycotted the long row of chairs in the lee of the deckhouses, and confined himself to the smoking-room or the windward side of the ship.

One hot night in the Red Sea a chance remark of Uncle Joseph's unlocked the heart and loosed the tongue of James Nimmo, and before dawn the whole of the tale of the fickle beauty of Carnoustie had been told, for the first and last time, to mortal man.

At Tilbury James Nimmo resigned his post and abandoned the service of the sea, in order to follow Uncle Joseph. Since that day they had never been parted. All this had happened more than ten years ago.

Philip had been added to the household at Hampstead a few days after Uncle Joseph had landed at Tilbury,-in fact, it was on Philip's account that Uncle Joseph had come home,-and from that moment he had lived and breathed in a society exclusively masculine. He still retained recollections of the period when petticoats ruled him, but they were very faint, for his nursery days had ended abruptly at the tender age of four.

Sometimes, though, he had visions. He saw dimly a stout, autocratic, but on the whole good-tempered being whom he called Nanny. He saw more dimly a big silent man, who occasionally took him on his knee and fed him furtively with the tops of eggs, and made laborious conversation. And most dimly of all he saw a lady, very dainty and sweet-smelling, who always appeared to be talking. When she talked to a group of other ladies and gentlemen, she seemed to smile and sparkle like some pretty jewel. But when she was alone with the big silent man she neither smiled nor sparkled, and her voice sounded shrill and hard. Philip had a vague recollection that on these occasions the room always seemed to grow darker.

The pretty lady took little notice of Philip, but Philip took sufficient notice of her to be able to realize, one day, that she was gone. Nothing else about the house seemed changed except that. Philip still played in the nursery, and went out walking with his Nanny: he even received the tops of eggs from the big silent man, who seemed to grow more silent and less big as the days went by. But the pretty lady never came back. Once Philip ventured to enquire of the Man what had become of her, but the question was not answered, and the Man seemed to grow even smaller than before; so Philip, fearing lest he should fade away altogether, refrained from further investigations.

Not long after this Philip was taken to see the Man in bed, and he noted with concern that the Man had shrunk away almost to nothing. Philip was lifted up, and the Man kissed him, which he had never done before, and said something which Philip did not understand, but which made Nanny cry. Philip cried, too, when he was taken back to the nursery, and Nanny endeavoured to comfort him by giving him an egg with his tea. But Philip would only eat the top. The Man would have been pleased if he had known this, and perhaps he did; for during the hour of Philip's tea-time he passed on to a place where people know everything, and-which is far better-the reason of everything.

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After that came a period when the windows were darkened and people came and went in great numbers throughout the house. Philip had a new black velvet suit, and rather enjoyed the stir and bustle. But when this émeute was over the days grew very dull, for Nanny and Philip and one or two maids seemed to have the house to themselves. Everybody appeared to be waiting for something. Even the glories of the black velvet suit began to pall, and Philip was genuinely relieved when one day a carriage drove up to the door and a gentleman stepped out and rang the bell with an authoritative peal. Most gratifying of all, the gentleman was shown straight up to the nursery, where he shook hands with Philip and directed him to address him as Uncle Joseph. The gentleman strongly resembled the Man, except that his back was stiffer, and he held his head more proudly, and spoke in a staccato and commanding voice.

It was Philip's last day in the nursery, for Uncle Joseph took him away that very afternoon. Non sine pulvere, however. For a most unexpected and memorable conflict arose between Uncle Joseph and Nanny. Philip, who sat on the window-seat an interested witness, never forgot that spectacle. He had seen Nanny cross and he had seen Nanny cry; but he had never before seen Nanny cross and crying at the same time. Her voice rose higher and higher, and then broke. Philip heard her say "That lamb!" several times, and Uncle Joseph replied, in a very steady resolute voice: "Never again! Never again to one of your sex!"

After that events moved rapidly, and Philip remembered little more except a hurricane of tearful farewells from Nanny and the maids, and a long journey in the carriage to the house in Hampstead. Here he was introduced to James Nimmo, who provided him with an excellent tea, and then washed him (with surprising skill) and put him to bed. After a few days Philip, with the happy adaptability of extreme youth, grew so accustomed to his new surroundings that it would have embarrassed him extremely to have had his face washed by a lady.

Now, after ten years, the visions of his nursery days came but rarely. The pretty lady he had almost forgotten. Once a whiff of scent, emanating from an houri who passed him in the Finchley Road, brought her memory back to him, but only for a moment. Poor, cross, faithful Nanny was a mere shadow. The Man dwelt most strongly in his recollection, but he was becoming inextricably merged with Uncle Joseph.

James Nimmo and Uncle Joseph divided Philip's upbringing between them. Uncle Joseph taught him to read and write, while James Nimmo instructed him in the arts of cookery and needlework. By the time he was ten Philip could make an omelette, repair a rent in his own garments, or "sort"-to use James Nimmo's expression-a faulty electric bell.

Uncle Joseph broke to him the news that the world was round, and initiated him into the mysteries of latitude and longitude and the geography of continents and oceans. James Nimmo's discourses had a more human and personal touch. He spoke of far-reaching steamer-tracks as if they had been London thoroughfares, alluding to mighty line

rs with no more emphasis than if they had been so many motor omnibuses-as, indeed, they are. He criticised New York, Colombo, or Melbourne in no mere scientific spirit, but from the point of view of a thrifty Scot ashore for a few hours' pleasure.

Neither was Philip's literary education neglected. Uncle Joseph cultivated his intellect, while James Nimmo enriched his vocabulary. From Uncle Joseph he learned to enjoy the masterpieces of his native tongue, and to express himself in direct and cogent English; but it was from James Nimmo that he picked up such colloquial patois as "ashet" and "gigot" and "besom." He also referred at times to "the morn's morn," and was accustomed to enquire of his uncle, "Are you not for another cup of tea?" or, "Will I open the window?"

It was to James Nimmo, too, that Philip owed his first introduction to poetry. James was in the habit of referring constantly to a friend of his, apparently deceased, whose full name Philip never rightly ascertained, but whose invariable appellation was "Rabbie." "Rabbie," it appeared, was the only real poet who had ever existed. His soul was the soul of Scotland. Rabbie had never penned a line which did not get home to his countrymen: conversely, no Scot could ever be overtaken by a great thought, or conceive a moving sentiment, without finding that thought or sentiment already expressed, in perfection, in some work of Rabbie's.

James Nimmo could quote whole stanzas of him, and kept a store of apposite tags and passages from his works upon the tip of his tongue. He was addicted to the recital of lengthy selections from an intensely respectable poem entitled, "The Cotter's Saturday Night"; and would throw off shorter masterpieces-"The Twa Dogs," "Scots Wha Hae," and "Auld Lang Syne"-in their entirety. Most of these performances Philip secretly considered rather dull, but he made an exception in favour of a curious little poem about a mouse, which James Nimmo used to recite with great tenderness and a certain pathetic effect. Our affections must have an outlet somewhere. Old maids cherish pug-dogs: perhaps it was the same instinct which softened the sere and yellow heart of James Nimmo towards the "wee sleekit, cowerin', timorous beastie," whose schemes had gone agley too, and whose efforts to found a home for itself had met with no better success than his own.

The fact that Rabbie was subject to human weaknesses of any description, or had ever experienced any other passions than those arising from patriotic fervour or political animus, was concealed from Philip for many a year. Once only did James Nimmo lift a corner of the curtain.

"He went tae his grave at seven-and-thirty," he mentioned one day.

"Why?" enquired the ingenuous Philip.

"Because they had drained the life oot o' him," replied James Nimmo, his face hardening. "I mind a vairse he yince wrote. It micht ha' been his ain epitaph:-

"As father Adam firrst was fooled-

A case that's still too common-

Here lies a man that wumman ruled,

The deevil ruled the wumman!"

-A summary of the life and character of Scotland's national bard which his most ardent admirer will admit errs a little on the side of leniency towards Rabbie and ingratitude towards a sex which, all things considered, had no special cause to bless him.

After luncheon Uncle Joseph disposed himself to slumber for half an hour, while Philip, who in common with his kind always felt particularly energetic when distended with food, practised high-jumping in the garden.

At two the pair went out for a walk. If it happened to be a Thursday-as it was to-day-they repaired to a large bank in Finchley Road, where the notes and gold which had come out of the morning's envelopes were handed over to a polite cashier. Uncle Joseph was a well-known figure here. When he strode in on Thursday afternoons the cashier always sent a hurried message to the manager; and that financial Janus would emerge smiling from his temple behind the glass screens and come round to the front of the counter and shake hands with Uncle Joseph and engage him in agreeable conversation, while Philip watched the cashier licking his thumb and counting bank-notes with incredible rapidity. After entering the numbers of the notes in a big book the cashier would seize the bag containing the gold and silver-quite a number of Uncle Joseph's subscribers used to send actual coin in registered envelopes: they were of the type which does not understand postal orders and mistrusts cheques-and pour it in a jingling cascade upon the counter. Then, having counted it by playing lightning arpeggios upon it with his fingers, he would sweep it up in a brass coal-shovel and fling it contemptuously into a drawer already half-full, hopelessly mixing it with other people's money from the start. To Philip, like most of us, banking was a mystery.

The manager and Uncle Joseph then shook hands, and the proceedings terminated with a vote of want of confidence in the weather. After that Uncle Joseph and Philip walked to Swiss Cottage Station, where Uncle Joseph departed alone by the Underground-to another bank, in the Edgeware Road this time. Here he deposited a bundle of cheques and crossed postal orders. The majority of these were drawn to the order of the Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Kind Young Hearts, though a fair proportion bore the names of Master T. Smith and the Reverend Aubrey Buck.

Out of consideration for the manager of the bank at Hampstead, who, had he been asked to place sums of money intended for such a diversity of people to the credit of a single individual, would undoubtedly have become greatly confused,-and deeply interested,-Uncle Joseph kept a separate account at the Edgeware Road Bank for all contributions to his benefactions which did not arrive in the form of notes or cash. These he invariably endorsed, "Everard James, Secretary." The same name was inscribed upon his pass-book. It was understood in the Edgeware Road Bank that Mr. James was general director of a large philanthropic institution, and the fact that he paid in so many cheques endorsed by other people was doubtless due to the circumstance that these were minor officials of the same organization-as, indeed, they were.

Philip usually devoted his solitary walk home from Swiss Cottage Station to a minute inspection of the shop-windows in Finchley Road. On this particular Thursday afternoon, though, he began to run. The soundness of his physical condition may be gauged from the fact that he ran up Netherhall Gardens, a declivity much in favour with prospective purchasers of motor-cars, out on trial trips, and in corresponding unfavour with would-be vendors of the same-to say nothing of the inhabitants of the Gardens.

He ran on past the newly built Tube Station, up Frognal, and presently reached the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. It was half-past three, and the red wintry sun was sinking low.

Suddenly he paused, and then stopped dead. He was conscious, deep down within him, of a recurrence of the sensation which had stirred him on the previous Sunday, as he walked over this part of the Heath with Uncle Joseph. On that occasion he had noticed a little girl sitting on a gate. She had smiled at Philip as he passed-a wide and friendly smile. Philip had not returned it, for Uncle Joseph had noted the smile and improved the occasion at once.

"You see, Philip?" he said. "The hunting instinct already! That child has never seen you before; she will never see you again; she would not care if you went to perdition to-morrow, though she would feel intensely gratified if she could be certain that you had gone there on her account. She is nothing to you, or you to her. But you are a man and she is a woman. So she smiles at you. It is the first and most primitive of the arts of attraction. There is nothing behind the smile-nothing but an undeveloped predatory instinct. And that is what Man has to struggle against all the days of his life, to the detriment of his own and the world's progress."

Long before Uncle Joseph had concluded these timely observations the little girl was out of sight. "Predatory" was a new word to Philip. He made a mental note of it, and resolved to question Uncle Joseph as to its meaning on a more suitable occasion. Meanwhile he felt that he had had an escape-an escape and a warning.

Still-here he was, four days later, back on the same dangerous spot. And there, sitting on the same gate, with the setting sun glinting on her long, honey-coloured pigtail, sat the little girl.

"Hallo, boy!" she said, and smiled again.

Philip gave her a severe look.

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