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   Chapter 4 HEREDITY

A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 18501

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I

On Tuesday morning Uncle Joseph went away to the City as usual, and Philip was left to his own devices. Monday had been a heavy day, for all the new appeals had been copied out and sent off. All, that is, except three. Master T. Smith's elaborately ill-spelt epistles required time for their composition, and each, of course, had to be copied out by hand, for it was not to be supposed that the Smiths possessed a typewriter. So when after breakfast Uncle Joseph discovered on the bureau three stamped and addressed envelopes still awaiting enclosures, he directed Philip to indite three further copies of Master T. Smith's celebrated appeal for a little sister, and post them with the others.

When Uncle Joseph had gone, Philip set about his task, but with no great zest. As a rule he took a professional pride in his duties, and moreover extracted a certain relish from his uncle's literary audacities. The reader will possibly have noted that at this period of his career Philip's sense of humour was much more highly developed than his sense of right and wrong. But during the past few days something very big had been stirring within him. Some people would have called it the voice of conscience-that bugbear of our otherwise happy childhood. Others would have said with more truth that it was Heredity struggling with Environment. As a matter of fact it was the instinct of Chivalry, which, despite the frantic assurances of a certain section of our sisters that they stand in no need of it, still lingers shyly in the hearts of men-a survival from the days when a woman admitted frankly that her weakness was her strength, and it was a knight's glory and privilege to devote such strength as he possessed to the protection of that weakness.

Philip no longer found himself in sympathy with Uncle Joseph's enterprises. It was not the enterprises themselves to which he objected, for he realized that no one was a penny the worse for them, while many were considerably the better. But all the newly awakened heart of this small knight of ours rebelled against the idea of imposing upon a woman. Philip felt that Uncle Joseph must be wrong about women. They could not be what he thought them-at least, not all of them. And even if Uncle Joseph were right in his opinion, Philip felt positive of one thing, and that was that no woman, however undeserving, should ever be hardly treated or made to suffer for her own shortcomings. And to this view he held tenaciously for the whole of his life.

At the present moment it caused him acute unhappiness to be compelled to sit down and pen sloppy effusions to little girls with whom he was not acquainted, asking them to be so good as to consent to become his sisters, or as an alternative send a postal order by return. But he was loyal to the hand that fed him and to the man who had been his father and his mother for the greater part of his little life. He wrote on, steadily and conscientiously, until the three letters were copied out and ready for the post.

But it is impossible to do two things at once. You cannot, for instance, write begging letters and think of blue cotton frocks simultaneously. In copying out the last letter, Philip, owing to the fact that his wits were wandering on Hampstead Heath instead of directing his pen, was guilty of a clerical error.

The residence of Master Thomas Smith, it may be remembered, was situated at 172 Laburnum Road, Balham, though overzealous philanthropists, bent upon a personal investigation into the sad circumstances of the Smith family, might have experienced some difficulty in piercing its disguise as a small tobacconist's shop. Now Philip, instead of writing out this address at the head of the sheet of dingy Silurian notepaper upon which T. Smith was accustomed to conduct his correspondence, absent-mindedly wrote "Holly Lodge, Hampstead, N.W."-a lapsus calami which was destined to alter the whole course of his life, together with that of Uncle Joseph, besides bringing about the dissolution of an admirably conducted little business in the begging-letter line.

After this he folded the letter and fastened it up in the last envelope (which, by the way, was addressed to

The Little Girl

Who lives with

Lady Broadhurst

Plumbley Royal

Hants),

-and sat down to luncheon. It was a cold and clammy meal, for it was washing-day, and the only hot thing in the house was James Nimmo, who, in the depths below, entangled in a maze of moist and clinging draperies, was groping blasphemously in the copper for the bluebag. Washing-day was James Nimmo's day of humiliation. Uncle Joseph had offered more than once to have the work sent out to a laundry, but James Nimmo persisted in doing it himself, though the lamentable behaviour of the maids next door, what time he hung the crumpled result of his labours out upon the drying-green, galled him to the roots of his being.

After luncheon Philip, calling downstairs through a cloud of steam that he was going out to the post, took up the letters and his cap and ran out of the house, down the short gravel-sweep, and up the road.

Twenty minutes later he might have been observed diligently scouring Hampstead Heath in search of a blue cotton frock and a cérise leather belt.

II

"Hallo, Phil!" remarked Miss Falconer, hastily crumpling up her handkerchief into a moist ball and stuffing it into her pocket. Her back had been turned, and she had not noticed his approach.

Philip climbed up on the gate beside her.

"Tell me what you have been doing since I saw you last," commanded Peggy briskly.

"I have been helping Uncle Joseph," said Philip, rather reluctantly. He was not anxious to be drawn into details upon this topic.

"Uncle Joseph?" The little girl nodded her head with an air of great wisdom. "I have been talking to Mother about him."

"What did you tell her?"

"I told her what you told me, about his not liking women; and I asked her why she thought it was."

"What did she say?" enquired Philip, much interested. Of late he had been giving this point a good deal of consideration himself.

"She said," replied Peggy, evidently quoting verbatim and with great care, "that there was probably only one woman in the world who could give an answer to that question-and she never would!"

"What does that mean?" enquired the obtuse Philip.

"It means," explained Peggy, adopting the superior attitude inevitable in the female, however youthful, who sets out to unfold the mysteries of the heart to a member of the unintelligent sex, "that Uncle Joseph was once fond of a lady, and she threw him over."

"But I don't think that can be true," said Philip deferentially. "Uncle Joseph isn't fond of any ladies at all. You have only to hear him talk about them to know that. He thinks they are an incu-incu-something. Anyhow, it means a heavy burden. They are Parry-sites, too. He says the only way to do one's work in life is to keep away from women. How could he be fond of one?"

"I expect he didn't always think all those things about them," replied Peggy shrewdly. "Men change with disappointment," she added, with an air of profound wisdom.

"How do you know that?" enquired Philip respectfully. Such matters were too high for him.

"I have often heard Mother say so," explained Peggy, "after Father has been in one of his tempers."

Philip pondered. Here was a fresh puzzle.

"How can your father have been disappointed?" he asked. "He is married."

"It wasn't about being married that he was disappointed," said Peggy. "You can be disappointed about other things, you know," she explained indulgently.

"Oh," said Philip.

"Yes. Haven't you ever been disappointed yourself? Wanting to go to a party, and not being allowed to at the last minute, and all that?"

"Oh, yes," agreed Philip. "Not parties, but other things. But I didn't know grown-up people could be disappointed about anything. I thought they could do anything they liked."

Hitherto Philip, simple soul, had regarded disappointment and hope deferred as part of the necessary hardships of youth, bound to melt away in due course, in company with toothache, measles, tears, treats, early bedtimes, and compulsory education, beneath the splendid summer sun of incipient manhood. Most of us cherish the same illusion; and the day upon which we first realise that quarrels and reconciliations, wild romps and reactionary dumps, big generous impulses and little acts of petty selfishness, secret ambitions and passionate longings, are not mere characteristics of childhood, to be abandoned at some still distant milestone, but will go on with us right through life, is the day upon which we become grown up.

To some of us that day comes early, and whenever it comes it throws us out of our stride-sometimes quite seriously. But in time, if we are of the right metal, we accept the facts of the situation, shake ourselves together, and hobble on cheerfully enough. In time this cheerfulness is increased by the acquisition of two priceless pieces of knowledge; one, that things are just as difficult for our neighbour as ourself; the other, that by far the greatest troubles in life are those which never arrive, but expect to

be met halfway.

It is the people who grow up early who do most good in the world, for they find their feet soonest. To others the day comes late,-usually in company with some great grief or loss,-and these are most to be pitied, for we all know that the older we get the harder it becomes to adapt ourselves to new conditions. Many a woman, for instance, passes from twenty years of happy childhood straight into twenty years of happy womanhood and motherhood without speculating very deeply as to whether she is happy or not. Then, perhaps, the Reaper comes, and takes her husband, or a child, and she realises that she is grown up. Her life will be a hard fight now. But, aided by the sweetness and strength of Memory, accumulated throughout the sunny years that lie behind, she too will win through.

There are others, again, to whom the day of growing-up never comes at all. They are the feeble folk, perpetually asking Why, and never finding out. Still, they always have to-morrow to look forward to, in which they are more fortunate than some.

Meanwhile Miss Marguerite Falconer was explaining to the untutored Philip that it is possible for grown-up people to suffer disappointment in two departments of life,-the only two, she might have added, that really matter at all,-Love and Work.

"How was your father disappointed, exactly?" asked Philip.

"He painted a big picture," said Peggy. "He was at it for years and years, though he was doing a lot of other ones at the same time. He called the other ones 'wolf-scarers,' because he said there was a wolf outside on the Heath that wanted to get in and eat us, and these pictures would frighten any wolf away. I used to be afraid of meeting the wolf on the Heath myself-"

"You were quite small, then, of course," put in Philip quickly.

Miss Falconer nodded, in acknowledgment of his tact, and continued:-

"-but Nurse and Mother said there wasn't any wolf really. It was a joke of Father's. He often makes jokes I don't understand. He is a funny man. And he didn't use the pictures to frighten the wolves with really: he sold them. But he never sold the big picture. He went on working at it and working at it for years and years. He began before I was born, and he only finished it a few years ago, so that just shows you how long he was. Whenever he had sold a wolf-scarer he used to get back to the big picture."

"What sort of picture was it?" enquired Philip, deeply interested.

"It was a very big picture," replied Peggy.

"How big?"

Peggy considered.

"Bigger than this gate we are sitting on," she said at last. "It was called 'The Many-Headed.' Father sometimes called it 'Deemouse,' too,-or something like that."

"What was it like?"

Peggy's eyes grew quite round with impressiveness.

"It was the strangest thing," she said. "It was a great enormous giant, with heads, and heads, and heads! You never saw such a lot of heads."

"I expect that was why it was called 'The Many-Headed,'" observed Philip sapiently. "What sort of heads were they?"

"They were most of them very ugly," continued Peggy. "They were twisting about everywhere, and each one had its mouth wide open, shouting. Dad kept on putting new ones in. There always seemed to be room for one more. Like sticking roses in a bowl, you know, only these heads weren't like roses. After a Bank Holiday he nearly always had two or three fresh ones."

"Why?"

"He used to go out then on the Heath-to study the Canal, he said, and get fresh sketches."

Philip, who was inclined to be a little superior on the subject of London geography, announced firmly that there was no canal on Hampstead Heath.

"Only in Regent's Park," he said. "Besides, why should he sketch a canal?"

It was Peggy's turn to be superior.

"Canal," she explained, "is a French word, and means people-people with concertinas and bananas, who sing and wear each other's hats, and leave paper about. Dad would sketch them when they weren't looking, and then put them into the picture. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the giant had great huge hands, and he was clutching everything he could lay his hands on-castles, and mountains, and live people. He had a real king, with a crown on, between his finger and thumb."

"What about the disappointment?" asked Philip.

"The disappointment? Oh, yes; I forgot. Well, at last the picture was finished and sent away-in a lovely frame. But it came back. One afternoon I went into the studio, and there was Father. He was sitting very quiet and still on a little stool in front of the picture. He never moved, or looked round, or said 'Go away!' when I came in. I was so surprised. For a long time he had been having a lot of bad tempers, so when I saw him sitting so still and quiet I was quite frightened.

"I went and stood beside him, and looked at the picture, too. Then he saw me, and said: 'It has come back, you see, Peggy!' He said it two or three times, I think. 'There are eight years of a man's life in that picture-eight years of a man's body and blood and bones! And it has been sent back-sent back, by a parcel of promoted housepainters who daren't let such a piece of work hang on their walls because they know it would kill every filthy daub of their own within reach!'

"Then he asked me what we should do with it. I said-of course I was quite small then-that I thought if he took it and showed it to the wolf it would frighten him away altogether. That made him laugh. He laughed in a funny way, too, and went on so long that I thought he would never leave off. At last he stopped, and made a queer noise in his throat, and said: 'No, we won't do that. I will show you a more excellent way.' He said that two or three times over, like he did before. Then he got up, and went and pulled a big sword and dagger out of a rack of armour and stuff in the corner, and said: 'Now for some real fun, Peggy!' and we cut up the picture into little bits. Father slashed and slashed at it with the sword, and I poked holes in it with the dagger."

"What fun!" said Philip, the chord of destruction thrilling within him.

"Yes, wasn't it? I remember I cut the king with the crown on right out of the picture, with the giant's finger and thumb still round him. I kept it for a long time, but I lost it at last. When we had slashed the picture all to bits, Dad tore it out of its frame and rolled it up into a bundle and threw it into a corner. Then he went out for a long walk, without his hat. When Mother came home she cried. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. I didn't know till then that grown-up people did. I cried, too. I was little then."

"Has your father painted any more pictures?" asked Philip, diverting the conversation.

"No-never. He only paints wolf-scarers now. I tell him what to paint."

Philip's eyebrows rose, despite themselves.

"Yes, I do!" maintained Miss Falconer stoutly. "The other day he said to me: 'Here, Peggy, you understand the taste of the Hoypolloy'-that's another French word for people-'so give me an idea for a pot-boiler.' (He calls wolf-scarers 'pot-boilers' sometimes: I don't know why.) And I said: 'Well, I think it would be nice to have a picture of a little girl in a lovely frock with a new doll, showing it round the doll's house and introducing it to all the other dolls.' He laughed, and said: 'That's capital. I bet a sovereign they put that one on the line.' When I asked what line, he said, 'the clothes line.' He is a funny man," concluded Peggy once more.

They sat on for some time, discussing adult peculiarities. Finally Philip announced that he must go, for Uncle Joseph would return at four o'clock and expect him to tea. As they parted, Philip enquired awkwardly:-

"I say, Pegs,-will you tell me? I couldn't help wondering about something just now."

"What was it?" enquired Peggy graciously.

Philip asked his question too bluntly.

Miss Peggy's small frame stiffened indignantly.

"I wasn't ever doing any such thing," she announced in outraged tones.

Philip, whose knowledge of the sex was improving, had the sense to withdraw the imputation and apologise at once. Then he waited.

"Perhaps I was, just a little bit," admitted Peggy presently.

"What was the matter?" asked Philip gently.

"It was Father. He boxed my ears after lunch, for making a noise. I was only singing, but he is in one of his bad tempers just now. He will be all right in a day or two."

Philip, much to his surprise, found himself trembling with indignation.

"Does he do it often?" he asked between his clenched teeth.

"No, not often. Besides, he can't help it. Men are just like children, Mother says. You have to make allowances for them. I always try to remember that. The daily work of half the women in the world is to make allowances for some man or other, Mother says. Good-night, Phil!"

"Good-night, Pegs!"

The little girl ran off through the gathering gloom, turning to wave her hand before she disappeared.

Philip walked slowly home, pondering in his heart yet another (and quite unsuspected) aspect of the relations between men and women.

There were two sides to every question, it appeared.

His education was proceeding apace.

* * *

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