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A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 19831

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The little girl continued to sit upon the top rail of the gate, with her heels on the second and her long black legs tucked up beneath her. She had taken off her jacket, and was using it as a cushion to mitigate the hardness of her perch. She was dressed in a blue cotton frock, which was gathered in round her waist with a shiny red leather belt. At least Philip considered it red: the little girl would have explained that it was cérise.

She also continued to smile. Her teeth were very small and regular, her eyes were soft and brown, and some of her hair had blown up across the front of her tam-o-shanter, which matched the colour of her belt.

Philip stood stock still, and surveyed her a little less severely.

"Hallo, boy!" said the little girl again.

"Hallo!" said Philip, in guarded tones.

"I saw you on Sunday," the little girl informed him.

"Yes, I know," said Philip coldly, and prepared to pass on. Uncle Joseph's warning had recurred to him with the mention of Sunday.

"Don't go," said the small siren on the gate.

"I think I will," said Philip.


Philip hesitated. Uncle Joseph had trained him always to say exactly what he thought, and never to make excuses. But he experienced a curious difficulty in informing this little creature that he was leaving her because she belonged to a dangerous and unscrupulous class of the community. It was the first stirring of chivalry within him. So he did not reply, but began to move away, rather sheepishly.

The little girl promptly unlimbered her stern-chasers, and the scornful accusation rang out:-

"You're shy!"

Into an ordinary boy such an insult would have burned like acid. But Philip merely said to himself thoughtfully, as he walked away:-

"I wonder if I am shy?"

Then presently he decided:-

"No, I'm not: I can't be, because I wanted to stay and talk to her!"

He walked on a few yards, and then paused again. Boy nature, long dormant, was struggling vigorously to the surface.

"I won't be called shy!" he said to himself hotly.

He turned and walked quickly back.

The little girl was still sitting on the gate, studiously admiring the sunset. Once more Philip stood before her.

"I say," he said nervously, "I'm not shy."

The little girl looked down languidly.

"Have you come back again?" she enquired.

"Yes," said Philip, scarlet.


"I wanted to tell you," pursued Philip doggedly, "that I wasn't shy just now."

The little girl nodded her head.

"I see," she said coldly. "You were not shy-only rude. Is that it?"

The greater part of Philip's short life had been spent, as the reader knows, in imbibing the principle that a man not only may, but, if he values his soul, must, be rude to women upon all occasions. It is therefore regrettable to have to record that at this point-at the very first encounter with the enemy-Philip threw his principles overboard.

"Oh, no," he said in genuine distress. "I didn't mean to be rude to you. It-it was a different reason."

The little girl made no reply for a moment, but stood up on her heels and unrolled her cushion to double its former width.

"Come up here and tell me about it," she said maternally, patting the seat she had prepared.

Philip began to climb the gate. Then he deliberately stepped down again.

"Aren't you coming?" asked the little girl, with the least shade of anxiety in her voice.

"Yes," said Philip. "But I'll come up on the other side of you. Then I shall be able to keep the wind off you a bit. It's rather cold."

And he did so. Poor Uncle Joseph!

Now they were on the gate together, side by side, actually touching. Philip, feeling slightly dazed, chiefly noted the little girl's hands, which were clasped round her knees. His own hands were broad, and inclined to be horny; hers were slim, with long fingers.

The little girl turned to him with a quick, confiding smile.

"Now tell me why," she commanded.

"Why what?" asked Philip reluctantly.

"Why you went away just now."

Philip took a deep breath, and embarked upon the task of relegating this small but dangerous animal to her proper place in the Universe.

"It was-it was what Uncle Joseph said," he explained lamely.

"Who is Uncle Joseph?"

"He-I live with him."

"Haven't you got a father or a mother?" A pair of very kind eyes were turned full upon him.


"Poor boy!"

To Philip's acute distress a small arm was slipped within his own.

"I have a father and a mother," said the little girl. "You may come and see them if you like."

Philip, who intended to cut the whole connection as soon as he could decently escape from the gate, thanked her politely.

"Only don't come without telling me," continued his admonitress, "because Father isn't always in a good temper."

Philip thought he might safely promise this.

"Now tell me what Uncle Joseph said," resumed the little girl. "What is your name?" she added, before the narrative could proceed.


"Philip what?"

"Philip Meldrum."

"Shall I call you Phil?" enquired the lady, with a friendly smile.

"Yes, please," replied Philip, feeling greatly surprised at himself.

There was a pause. Philip became dimly conscious that something was expected of him-something that had nothing to do with Uncle Joseph. He turned to his companion for enlightenment. Her face was slightly flushed, and her eyes met his shyly.

"What is your name?" he enquired cautiously.

"Marguerite Evelyn Leslie Falconer," replied the little girl, in tones of intense relief.

"Oh," said Philip. "Do they call you all that?"

"No. I am usually called Peggy. Sometimes Pegs."


Miss Falconer sighed indulgently.

"Peggy is the short for Marguerite," she explained. "Didn't you know?"

"No," said Philip.

He was about to proceed to a further confession, when the little girl said graciously:-

"You may call me Peggy if you like."

Here Philip, whose moral stamina seemed to be crumbling altogether, took his second downward step.

"I shall call you Pegs," he said boldly.

"All right," replied the lady so designated. "Now tell me what Uncle Joseph said."

"Uncle Joseph," began Philip once more, "was with me on Sunday, when you were sitting here."

"Was I?" enquired Peggy with a touch of hauteur. Then she continued inconsequently: "I remember him quite well. Go on."

"He saw you," continued the hapless Philip, "when you smiled at me."

Miss Falconer's slim body stiffened.

"O-o-o-oh!" she gasped. "How can you say such a thing? I never did!"

Poor Philip-who had yet to learn the lesson that feminine indiscretions must always be accepted without comment and never again referred to without direct invitation-merely reiterated his tactless statement.

"But you did," he said. "Or perhaps," he added desperately, for Peggy's eyes were almost tearful, "you were only smiling to yourself about something."

To his profound astonishment this lame suggestion was accepted. Miss Falconer nodded. Her self-respect was saved.

"Yes," she said; "that was it. Go on."

"-And when Uncle Joseph saw you smiling-to yourself-he said that women always did that. He said they couldn't help it. It was a-a prebby-a prebby-something instinct. I can't remember the word."

"Presbyterian?" suggested Miss Falconer helpfully. "Our cook is one."

"Something like that. Yes, I believe it was that," said Philip. He was quite sure it was not, but he was anxious not to offend again. "He said it was due to a-a Presbyterian instinct. He thinks women ought to be avoided."

"Why?" asked Peggy, deeply intrigued.

"He doesn't like them," explained Philip. He spoke quite apologetically. Half an hour ago he could have set forth the doctrines of Uncle Joseph as matters of fact, not of opinion.

But Miss Falconer did not appear to be offended. She seemed rather pleased with Uncle Joseph.

"I don't like them much myself," she announced. "Except Mother, of course. I like little girls best-and then little boys." She squeezed Philip's arm in an ingratiating manner. "But why doesn't Uncle Joseph like women? They can't do anything to him! They can't stop him doing nice things! They can't send him to bed!" concluded Miss Falconer bitterly. Evidently the memory of some despotic nurse was rankling. "Did he ever tell you why?"

"Oh, yes-often."

"What does he say?"

"He says," replied Philip, getting rapidly into his stride over long-familiar ground, "that women are the disturbing and distracting force in Nature. They stray deliberately out of their own appointed sphere in order to interfere with and weaken the driving-force of the world-Man. They are a parry-parry-parry-sitic growth, sapping the life out of the strongest tree. They are subject to no standard laws, and therefore upset the natural balance of Creation. They act from reason and not instinct-no, I think it is the other way round-they act from instinct and not from reason. They have no breadth of view or sense of proportion. They argue from the particular to the general; and in all argument they habitually beg the question and shift their ground if worsted. They cannot organise or direct; they only scheme and plot. Their own overpowering instinct is the Prebby-Presbyterian instinct-the instinct of plunder-to obtain from Man the wherewithal to deck their own persons with extravagant and insanitary finery. This they do, not to gratify man, but to mortify one another. A man who would perform his life's work untravelled-no, untrammelled-must avoid women at all costs. At least," concluded Philip traitorously, "that is what Uncle Joseph says."

Miss Falconer puckered her small brow. Evidently she declined to go all the way with Uncle Joseph in his views.

"I don't understand it all," she said frankly, "but some of it sounds pretty silly. Is your Uncle Joseph a nice man? D

o you like him?"

"Yes," said Philip stoutly. "He is very kind to me."

"He sounds a funny man," mused Peggy. "I shall talk to Mother about him. I must go now. It is getting dark."

She slipped off the gate, and Philip perceived, for the first time, that for all her youthfulness she was half a head taller than himself.

"Where do you live?" enquired Philip, forgetting his previous intentions.

"Over there, where the lamp-posts are. Goodnight, Phil!"

"Good night, Pegs!"

The children shook hands gravely. Both desired most ardently to ask the same question; but Philip was restrained by his principles (now returning hurriedly to duty), and Miss Peggy by maidenly reserve. But each secretly made the same resolution at the same moment.


Philip found his uncle smoking a pipe in a big armchair before the study fire. He was jotting down calculations on a blotting-pad.

"The opposite sex has its uses, Philip," he said. "To-day, thanks to the sentimental credulity of a number of estimable but credulous females, we have raked in forty-seven pounds ten. With that sum we shall be able to do some real good."

"How are you going to spend it this week, Uncle Joseph?" asked Philip.

"Considering the season of the year, I think the best thing I can do is to devote practically all of it to Christmas benevolences-chiefly of the coal-and-blanket order. I have no quarrel with the very young, and I don't like to think of any child, male or female, going hungry or cold on Christmas Day. You can do a lot with forty-seven pounds ten, Philip. For about fourpence you can distend a small stomach to its utmost capacity, and you can wrap it up and keep it warm for very little more. What a blessed thing it is that these misguided females have some one to divert their foolish offerings into wise channels. This very week, but for us, forty-seven pounds ten would have dropped into the banking-account of some professional beggar, or gone to bolster up some perfectly impossible enterprise, such as the overthrow of the Church of Rome or the conversion of the Jews."

Uncle Joseph laughed whimsically.

"There is a touch of humour about it all," he said. "It would appeal to the editor of the 'Searchlight.' I must tell him all about it some day-when I go out of business! Yes, we'll stick to coal-and-blanket charities at present, Philip. After Christmas I want to tackle the question of emigration again. Now get your writing-pad. I want to dictate rough copies of the letters for next Monday."

Uncle Joseph filled a fresh pipe, and began to stimulate his epistolary faculties by walking about the room. Philip silently took his seat at the table.

"Aubrey Buck must go," was Uncle Joseph's first announcement. "Let us make a start upon his successor. His name shall be Arthur Brown, M.A., late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Trinity is so big that it is very hard to trace all its late Fellows, especially if their name is Brown. John's is good, too, but we did very well with a Johnian missionary to Central Patagonia a couple of years ago, and we must divide our favours impartially. Now, take this down:-

"Dear Madam,-Not long ago I was like yourself-a personality in the world of letters. Not of letters such as this, which (between you and I) it is with the utmost repugnance that I have brought myself to sit down and address to a fellow-scribe-

"That's a purposely turgid and ungrammatical sentence, but she won't know. It does me good to dictate it-

"-but of the great world of Literature, where the rarest spirits assemble and meet together-

"That's out of the Prayer Book, and fits in rather well there-

"-spirits that live as gods, and take sweet counsel together.

"That last bit is King David, but she will probably think it is Ella Wheeler Wilcox-

"The busy life that you lead, as one of the protagonists of modern thought-

"She won't know what a protagonist is, but it will please her to be called one-

"-deprives me of the hope that you can possibly have found time to glance through my poor works. Yet, believe me, even I have had my little circle. I, too, have walked in the groves of the Academy with my cluster of disciples, striving to contribute my mite to the sum-total of our knowledge.

"Now we might come to the point, I think-

"But my course is run; my torch extinguished. Two years ago I was attacked by paralysis of the lower limbs-

"Always say 'lower limbs' when talking to a lady, Philip-

"-lower limbs, followed by general prostration of the entire system. I am now sufficiently recovered to don my armour once more; but alas! my occupation is gone. My Fellowship expired six months ago, and has not been renewed. My pupils are dispersed to the corners of the earth. Entirely without private means, I have migrated to London, where I am endeavouring to eke out an existence in a populous but inexpensive quarter of the town-the existence of a retired scholar and gentleman, save the mark!-

"That's a good touch, Philip!

"-by clerical work.

"No, don't put that. She will think clerical means something to do with the Church. Say 'secretarial' instead-

"Have you any typing you could give me to do? I hate asking, and I know that you know I hate asking; but there is a subconscious, subliminal bond, subjective and objective,-

"I don't know what that means, but it sounds splendid-

"-that links together all brothers of the pen; and I venture to hope that in appealing to you, of all our great brotherhood, I shall not appeal in vain.

"We had better wind up with a classical quotation of some kind," concluded Uncle Joseph. "She will expect it from a Don with paralytic legs, I fancy. Reach me down that Juvenal, Philip. I have a notion. Yes, here we are:-

"Possibly you may ask, and ask with justice, why the University has done nothing for me. I did make an appeal to the authorities; but-well, a man hates to have to appeal twice for a thing that should by rights be granted without appeal at all; and I desisted. The University is rich and respectable; I am worn-out and shabby. What could I do?

Plurima sunt qu?

Non homines audent pertusa dicere l?na.

"Get that down right, Philip. She may take it to some educated person to get it translated."

"What does it mean, Uncle Joseph?" asked Philip, carefully copying out the tag.

"It means, roughly, that a man with patches on his trousers cannot afford to ask for much. Now to wind up:-

"So I pray you-not of your charity, but of your good-comradeship-to send me a little work to do. The remuneration I leave to you. I am too destitute-and perhaps too proud-to drive a bargain.

Yours fraternally,

Arthur Brown.

"Put 'Late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.' You can add the Islington address when James Nimmo has fixed it up. Then type it out. Do about seventy copies. I have been going through the lady members of the Authors' Society, and have picked out most of its female geniuses. Now for next week's list for the Kind Young Hearts! Three or four of the old items can stand-particularly Papodoodlekos: he is a very lucrative old gentleman-but the others must come out. I shall not send the revised list, though, to your friend-what was that humourist's name?"

"Mr. Julius Mablethorpe," said Philip.

"That's the man. Now I think of it, I have read some novels by him. I shall not send him the revised list, but I am grateful to him, all the same, for one or two useful hints. That scheme for sending children to the seaside ought not to have gone in at this time of year. The foolishness of the average female philanthropist is so stupendous that one grows careless. Instead, we will substitute a League of Playground Helpers-a band of interfering young women whose primary act of officiousness shall be to invade the East End and instruct slum-children in the art of playing games scientifically and educatively. There's a great rage for that sort of thing just now, though how one can make a mud-pie, or play hop-scotch, or throw kittens into a canal scientifically and educatively beats me. Still, the idea is good for a few postal orders."

The list was completed, to a running accompaniment of this sort, and Philip began to put away his writing materials.

Uncle Joseph glanced at the clock.

"There is just time for one more letter before dinner," he said. "I am going to ring the changes on Tommy Smith a trifle. Next week, I think, instead of writing to grown-ups, he must send an ill-spelt but touching appeal to some little girls. About a dozen will do-the children of wealthy or titled widows. The difficulty will be to get hold of the brats' Christian names. However, we will work it somehow. We might say 'Little Miss So-and-So,' or, 'The Little Girl who lives with Mrs. So-and-So.' Either will look childish and pretty. Just take this down, and we'll see how it sounds:-

"Dear Little Girl,-I am only a little boy about your age, and my Daddy does not know I am writing to you.

"Put in spelling mistakes as usual."

"My Daddy is a curate. We are very poor, and he has been ill for months. I often hear my mother crying in the night, when she thinks we are all in bed asleep. I have no sister of my own-only a little baby brother. How I wish you were my sister. Then you might help me to earn some money for my father. Shall we pretend to be brother and sister, and then-

"Hallo, Philip, old man. Getting tired?"

Philip had stopped writing. He was gazing dully, fixedly, and rebelliously at the paper before him. His pencil dropped from his fingers.

For nearly three years he had been a faithful secretary and a willing amanuensis. He had performed his duties mechanically, without even considering the morality of his conduct or the feelings of his correspondents. Now, suddenly, he hated Uncle Joseph and all his works.

"Why?" he wondered.

* * *

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