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Just William

CHAPTER IV
THE FALL OF THE IDOL

William was bored. He sat at his desk in the sunny schoolroom and gazed dispassionately at a row of figures on the blackboard.

“It isn’t sense,” he murmured scornfully.

Miss Drew was also bored, but, unlike William, she tried to hide the fact.

“If the interest on a hundred pounds for one year is five pounds,” she said wearily, then, “William Brown, do sit up and don’t look so stupid!”

William changed his position from that of lolling over one side of his desk to that of lolling over the other, and began to justify himself.

“Well, I can’t unnerstand any of it. It’s enough to make anyone look stupid when he can’t unnerstand any of it. I can’t think why people go on givin’ people bits of money for givin’ ’em lots of money and go on an’ on doin’ it. It dun’t seem sense. Anyone’s a mug for givin’ anyone a hundred pounds just ’cause he says he’ll go on givin’ him five pounds and go on stickin’ to his hundred pounds. How’s he to know he will? Well,” he warmed to his subject, “what’s to stop him not givin’ any five pounds once he’s got hold of the hundred pounds an’ goin’ on stickin’ to the hundred pounds——”

Miss Drew checked him by a slim, upraised hand.

“William,” she said patiently, “just listen to me. Now suppose,” her eyes roved round the room and settled on a small red-haired boy, “suppose that Eric wanted a hundred pounds for something and you lent it to him——”

“I wun’t lend Eric a hundred pounds,” he said firmly, “’cause I ha’n’t got it. I’ve only got 3�d., an’ I wun’t lend that to Eric, ’cause I’m not such a mug, ’cause I lent him my mouth-organ once an’ he bit a bit off an’——”

Miss Drew interrupted sharply. Teaching on a hot afternoon is rather trying.

“You’d better stay in after school, William, and I’ll explain.”

William scowled, emitted his monosyllable of scornful disdain “Huh!” and relapsed into gloom.

He brightened, however, on remembering a lizard he had caught on the way to school, and drew it from its hiding-place in his pocket. But the lizard had abandoned the unequal struggle for existence among the stones, top, penknife, bits of putty, and other small objects that inhabited William’s pocket. The housing problem had been too much for it.

William in disgust shrouded the remains in blotting paper, and disposed of it in his neighbour’s ink-pot. The neighbour protested and an enlivening scrimmage ensued.

Finally the lizard was dropped down the neck of an inveterate enemy of William’s in the next row, and was extracted only with the help of obliging friends. Threats of vengeance followed, couched in blood-curdling terms, and written on blotting-paper.

Meanwhile Miss Drew explained Simple Practice to a small but earnest coterie of admirers in the front row. And William, in the back row, whiled away the hours for which his father paid the education authorities a substantial sum.

But his turn was to come.

At the end of afternoon school one by one the class departed, leaving William only nonchalantly chewing an india-rubber and glaring at Miss Drew.

“Now, William.”

Miss Drew was severely patient.

William went up to the platform and stood by her desk.

“You see, if someone borrows a hundred pounds from someone else——”

She wrote down the figures on a piece of paper, bending low over her desk. The sun poured in through the window, showing the little golden curls in the nape of her neck. She lifted to William eyes that were stern and frowning, but blue as blue above flushed cheeks.

“Don’t you see, William?” she said.

There was a faint perfume about her, and William the devil-may-care pirate and robber-chief, the stern despiser of all things effeminate, felt the first dart of the malicious blind god. He blushed and simpered.

“Yes, I see all about it now,” he assured her. “You’ve explained it all plain now. I cudn’t unnerstand it before. It’s a bit soft—in’t it—anyway, to go lending hundred pounds about just ’cause someone says they’ll give you five pounds next year. Some folks is mugs. But I do unnerstand now. I cudn’t unnerstand it before.”

WILLIAM FELT THE FIRST DART OF THE LITTLE BLIND GOD. HE BLUSHED AND SIMPERED.

“You’d have found it simpler if you hadn’t played with dead lizards all the time,” she said wearily, closing her books.

William gasped.

He went home her devoted slave. Certain members of the class always deposited dainty bouquets on her desk in the morning. William was determined to outshine the rest. He went into the garden with a large basket and a pair of scissors the next morning before he set out for school.

It happened that no one was about. He went first to the hothouse. It was a riot of colour. He worked there with a thoroughness and concentration worthy of a nobler cause. He came out staggering beneath a piled-up basket of hothouse blooms. The hothouse itself was bare and desolate.

Hearing a sound in the back garden he hastily decided to delay no longer, but to set out to school at once. He set out as unostentatiously as possible.

Miss Drew, entering her class-room, was aghast to see instead of the usual small array of buttonholes on her desk, a mass of already withering hothouse flowers completely covering her desk and chair.

William was a boy who never did things by halves.

“Good Heavens!” she cried in consternation.

William blushed with pleasure.

He changed his seat to one in the front row. All that morning he sat, his eyes fixed on her earnestly, dreaming of moments in which he rescued her from robbers and pirates (here he was somewhat inconsistent with his own favourite r�le of robber-chief and pirate), and bore her fainting in his strong arms to safety. Then she clung to him in love and gratitude, and they were married at once by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

William would have no half-measures. They were to be married by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, or else the Pope. He wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t rather have the Pope. He would wear his black pirate suit with the skull and cross-bones. No, that would not do——

“What have I just been saying, William?” said Miss Drew.

William coughed and gazed at her soulfully.

“’Bout lendin’ money?” he said, hopefully.

“William!” she snapped. “This isn’t an arithmetic lesson. I’m trying to teach you about the Armada.”

“Oh, that!” said William brightly and ingratiatingly. “Oh, yes.”

“Tell me something about it.”

“I don’t know anything—not jus’ yet——”

“I’ve been telling you about it. I do wish you’d listen,” she said despairingly.

William relapsed into silence, nonplussed, but by no means cowed.

When he reached home that evening he found that the garden was the scene of excitement and hubbub. One policeman was measuring the panes of glass in the conservatory door, and another was on his knees examining the beds near. His grown-up sister, Ethel, was standing at the front door.

“Every single flower has been stolen from the conservatory some time this morning,” she said excitedly. “We’ve only just been able to get the police. William, did you see any one about when you went to school this morning?”

William pondered deeply. His most guileless and innocent expression came to his face.

“No,” he said at last. “No, Ethel, I didn’t see nobody.”

William coughed and discreetly withdrew.

That evening he settled down at the library table, spreading out his books around him, a determined frown upon his small face.

His father was sitting in an armchair by the window reading the evening paper.

“Father,” said William suddenly, “s’pose I came to you an’ said you was to give me a hundred pounds an’ I’d give you five pounds next year an’ so on, would you give it me?”

“I should not, my son,” said his father firmly.

William sighed.

“I knew there was something wrong with it,” he said.

Mr. Brown returned to the leading article, but not for long.

“Father, what was the date of the Armada?”

“Good Heavens! How should I know? I wasn’t there.”

William sighed.

“Well, I’m tryin’ to write about it and why it failed an’—why did it fail?”

Mr. Brown groaned, gathered up his paper, and retired to the dining-room.

He had almost finished the leading article when William appeared, his arms full of books, and sat down quietly at the table.

“Father, what’s the French for ‘my aunt is walking in the garden’?”

“What on earth are you doing?” said Mr. Brown irritably.

“I’m doing my home-lessons,” said William virtuously.

“I never even knew you had the things to do.”

“No,” William admitted gently, “I don’t generally take much bother over them, but I’m goin’ to now—’cause Miss Drew”—he blushed slightly and paused—“’cause Miss Drew”—he blushed more deeply and began to stammer, “’c—cause Miss Drew”—he was almost apoplectic.

Mr. Brown quietly gathered up his paper and crept out to the verandah, where his wife sat with the week’s mending.

“William’s gone raving mad in the dining-room,” he said pleasantly, as he sat down. “Takes the form of a wild thirst for knowledge, and a babbling of a Miss Drawing, or Drew, or something. He’s best left alone.”

Mrs. Brown merely smiled placidly over the mending.

Mr. Brown had finished one leading article and begun another before William appeared again. He stood in the doorway frowning and stern.

“Father, what’s the capital of Holland?”

“Good Heavens!” said his father. “Buy him an encyclopedia. Anything, anything. What does he think I am? What——”

“I’d better set apart a special room for his homework,” said Mrs. Brown soothingly, “now that he’s beginning to take such an interest.”

“A room!” echoed his father bitterly. “He wants a whole house.”

Miss Drew was surprised and touched by William’s earnestness and attention the next day. At the end of the afternoon school he kindly offered to carry her books home for her. He waved aside all protests. He marched home by her side discoursing pleasantly, his small freckled face beaming devotion.

“I like pirates, don’t you, Miss Drew? An’ robbers an’ things like that? Miss Drew, would you like to be married to a robber?”

He was trying to reconcile his old beloved dream of his future estate with the new one of becoming Miss Drew’s husband.

“No,” she said firmly.

His heart sank.

“Nor a pirate?” he said sadly.

“No.”

“They’re quite nice really—pirates,” he assured her.

“I think not.”

“Well,” he said resignedly, “we’ll jus’ have to go huntin’ wild animals and things. That’ll be all right.”

“Who?” she said, bewildered.

“Well—jus’ you wait,” he said darkly.

Then: “Would you rather be married by the Archbishop of York or the Pope?”

“The Archbishop, I think,” she said gravely.

He nodded.

“All right.”

She was distinctly amused. She was less amused the next evening. Miss Drew had a male cousin—a very nice-looking male cousin, with whom she often went for walks in the evening. This evening, by chance, they passed William’s house, and William, who was in the garden, threw aside his temporary r�le of pirate and joined them. He trotted happily on the other side of Miss Drew. He entirely monopolised the conversation. The male cousin seemed to encourage him, and this annoyed Miss Drew. He refused to depart in spite of Miss Drew’s strong hints. He had various items of interest to impart, and he imparted them with the air of one assured of an appreciative hearing. He had found a dead rat the day before and given it to his dog, but his dog didn’t like ’em dead and neither did the ole cat, so he’d buried it. Did Miss Drew like all those flowers he’d got her the other day? He was afraid that he cudn’t bring any more like that jus’ yet. Were there pirates now? Well, what would folks do to one if there was one? He din’t see why there shun’t be pirates now. He thought he’d start it, anyway. He’d like to shoot a lion. He was goin’ to one day. He’d shoot a lion an’ a tiger. He’d bring the skin home to Miss Drew, if she liked. He grew recklessly generous. He’d bring home lots of skins of all sorts of animals for Miss Drew.

“Don’t you think you ought to be going home, William?” said Miss Drew coldly.

William hastened to reassure her.

WILLIAM HAD VARIOUS ITEMS OF INTEREST TO IMPART, AND HE IMPARTED THEM WITH THE AIR OF ONE ASSURED OF AN APPRECIATIVE HEARING.

“Oh, no—not for ever so long yet,” he said.

“Isn’t it your bed-time?”

“Oh, no—not yet—not for ever so long.”

The male cousin was giving William his whole attention.

“What does Miss Drew teach you at school, William?” he said.

“Oh, jus’ ornery things. Armadas an’ things. An’ ’bout lending a hundred pounds. That’s a norful soft thing. I unnerstand it,” he added hastily, fearing further explanation, “but it’s soft. My father thinks it is, too, an’ he oughter know. He’s bin abroad lots of times. He’s bin chased by a bull, my father has——”

The shades of night were falling fast when William reached Miss Drew’s house still discoursing volubly. He was drunk with success. He interpreted his idol’s silence as the silence of rapt admiration.

He was passing through the gate with his two companions with the air of one assured of welcome, when Miss Drew shut the gate upon him firmly.

“You’d better go home now, William,” she said.

William hesitated.

“I don’t mind comin’ in a bit,” he said. “I’m not tired.”

But Miss Drew and the male cousin were already half-way up the walk.

William turned his steps homeward. He met Ethel near the gate.

“William, where have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. It’s hours past your bed-time.”

“I was goin’ a walk with Miss Drew.”

“But you should have come home at your bed-time.”

“I don’t think she wanted me to go,” he said with dignity. “I think it wun’t of bin p’lite.”

William found that a new and serious element had entered his life. It was not without its disadvantages. Many had been the little diversions by which William had been wont to while away the hours of instruction. In spite of his devotion to Miss Drew, he missed the old days of care-free exuberance, but he kept his new seat in the front row, and clung to his r�le of earnest student. He was beginning to find also, that a conscientious performance of home lessons limited his activities after school hours, but at present he hugged his chains. Miss Drew, from her seat on the platform, found William’s soulful concentrated gaze somewhat embarrassing, and his questions even more so.

As he went out of school he heard her talking to another mistress.

“I’m very fond of syringa,” she was saying. “I’d love to have some.”

William decided to bring her syringa, handfuls of syringa, armfuls of syringa.

He went straight home to the gardener.

“No, I ain’t got no syringa. Please step off my rose-bed, Mister William. No, there ain’t any syringa in this ’ere garding. I dunno for why. Please leave my ’ose pipe alone, Mister William.”

“Huh!” ejaculated William, scornfully turning away.

He went round the garden. The gardener had been quite right. There were guelder roses everywhere, but no syringa.

He climbed the fence and surveyed the next garden. There were guelder roses everywhere, but no syringa. It must have been some peculiarity in the soil.

William strolled down the road, scanning the gardens as he went. All had guelder roses. None had syringa.

Suddenly he stopped.

On a table in the window of a small house at the bottom of the road was a vase of syringa. He did not know who lived there. He entered the garden cautiously. No one was about.

He looked into the room. It was empty. The window was open at the bottom.

He scrambled in, removing several layers of white paint from the window-sill as he did so. He was determined to have that syringa. He took it dripping from the vase, and was preparing to depart, when the door opened and a fat woman appeared upon the threshold. The scream that she emitted at sight of William curdled the very blood in his veins. She dashed to the window, and William, in self-defence, dodged round the table and out of the door. The back door was open, and William blindly fled by it. The fat woman did not pursue. She was leaning out of the window, and her shrieks rent the air.

“Police! Help! Murder! Robbers!”

The quiet little street rang with the raucous sounds.

William felt cold shivers creeping up and down his spine. He was in a small back garden from which he could see no exit.

Meanwhile the shrieks were redoubled.

THE DOOR OPENED AND A FAT WOMAN APPEARED ON THE THRESHOLD.

“Help! Help! Help!

Then came sounds of the front-door opening and men’s voices.

“Hello! Who is it? What is it?”

William glared round wildly. There was a hen-house in the corner of the garden, and into this he dashed, tearing open the door and plunging through a mass of flying feathers and angry, disturbed hens.

William crouched in a corner of the dark hen-house determinedly clutching his bunch of syringa.

Distant voices were at first all he could hear. Then they came nearer, and he heard the fat lady’s voice loudly declaiming.

“He was quite a small man, but with such an evil face. I just had one glimpse of him as he dashed past me. I’m sure he’d have murdered me if I hadn’t cried for help. Oh, the coward! And a poor defenceless woman! He was standing by the silver table. I disturbed him at his work of crime. I feel so upset. I shan’t sleep for nights. I shall see his evil, murderous face. And a poor unarmed woman!”

“Can you give us no details, madam?” said a man’s voice. “Could you recognise him again?”

Anywhere!” she said firmly. “Such a criminal face. You’ve no idea how upset I am. I might have been a lifeless corpse now, if I hadn’t had the courage to cry for help.”

“We’re measuring the footprints, madam. You say he went out by the front door?”

“I’m convinced he did. I’m convinced he’s hiding in the bushes by the gate. Such a low face. My nerves are absolutely jarred.”

“We’ll search the bushes again, madam,” said the other voice wearily, “but I expect he has escaped by now.”

“The brute!” said the fat lady. “Oh, the brute! And that face. If I hadn’t had the courage to cry out——”

The voices died away and William was left alone in a corner of the hen-house.

A white hen appeared in the little doorway, squawked at him angrily, and retired, cackling indignation. Visions of life-long penal servitude or hanging passed before William’s eyes. He’d rather be executed, really. He hoped they’d execute him.

Then he heard the fat lady bidding good-bye to the policeman. Then she came to the back garden evidently with a friend, and continued to pour forth her troubles.

“And he dashed past me, dear. Quite a small man, but with such an evil face.”

A black hen appeared in the little doorway, and with an angry squawk at William, returned to the back garden.

“I think you’re splendid, dear,” said the invisible friend. “How you had the courage.”

The white hen gave a sardonic scream.

“You’d better come in and rest, darling,” said the friend.

“I’d better,” said the fat lady in a plaintive, suffering voice. “I do feel very ... shaken....”

Their voices ceased, the door was closed, and all was still.

Cautiously, very cautiously, a much-dishevelled William crept from the hen-house and round the side of the house. Here he found a locked side-gate over which he climbed, and very quietly he glided down to the front gate and to the road.

“Where’s William this evening?” said Mrs. Brown. “I do hope he won’t stay out after his bed-time.”

“Oh, I’ve just met him,” said Ethel. “He was going up to his bedroom. He was covered with hen feathers and holding a bunch of syringa.”

“Mad!” sighed his father. “Mad! mad! mad!”

The next morning William laid a bunch of syringa upon Miss Drew’s desk. He performed the offering with an air of quiet, manly pride. Miss Drew recoiled.

Not syringa, William. I simply can’t bear the smell!”

William gazed at her in silent astonishment for a few moments.

Then: “But you said ... you said ... you said you were fond of syringa an’ that you’d like to have them.”

“Did I say syringa?” said Miss Drew vaguely. “I meant guelder roses.”

William’s gaze was one of stony contempt.

He went slowly back to his old seat at the back of the room.

That evening he made a bonfire with several choice friends, and played Red Indians in the garden. There was a certain thrill in returning to the old life.

“Hello!” said his father, encountering William creeping on all fours among the bushes. “I thought you did home lessons now?”

William arose to an upright position.

“I’m not goin’ to take much bother over ’em now,” said William. “Miss Drew, she can’t talk straight. She dunno what she means.”

“That’s always the trouble with women,” agreed his father. “William says his idol has feet of clay,” he said to his wife, who had approached.

“I dunno as she’s got feet of clay,” said William, the literal. “All I say is she can’t talk straight. I took no end of trouble an’ she dunno what she means. I think her feet’s all right. She walks all right. ’Sides, when they make folks false feet, they make ’em of wood, not clay.”


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