It was raining. It had been raining all morning. William was intensely bored with his family.
“What can I do?” he demanded of his father for the tenth time.
“Nothing!” said his father fiercely from behind his newspaper.
William followed his mother into the kitchen.
“What can I do?” he said plaintively.
“Couldn’t you just sit quietly?” suggested his mother.
“That’s not doin’ anything,” William said. “I could sit quietly all day,” he went on aggressively, “if I wanted.”
“But you never do.”
“No, ’cause there wouldn’t be any sense in it, would there?”
“Couldn’t you read or draw or something?”
“No, that’s lessons. That’s not doin’ anything!”
“I could teach you to knit if you like.”
With one crushing glance William left her.
He went to the drawing-room, where his sister Ethel was knitting a jumper and talking to a friend.
“And I heard her say to him——” she was saying. She broke off with the sigh of a patient martyr as William came in. He sat down and glared at her. She exchanged a glance of resigned exasperation with her friend.
“What are you doing, William?” said the friend sweetly.
“Nothin’,” said William with a scowl.
“Shut the door after you when you go out, won’t you, William?” said Ethel equally sweetly.
William at that insult rose with dignity and went to the door. At the door he turned.
“I wun’t stay here now,” he said with slow contempt, “not even if—even if—even if,” he paused to consider the most remote contingency, “not even if you wanted me,” he said at last emphatically.
He shut the door behind him and his expression relaxed into a sardonic smile.
“I bet they feel small!” he said to the umbrella-stand.
He went to the library, where his seventeen-year-old brother Robert was showing off his new rifle to a friend.
“You see——” he was saying, then, catching sight of William’s face round the door, “Oh, get out!”
William got out.
He returned to his mother in the kitchen with a still more jaundiced view of life. It was still raining. His mother was looking at the tradesmen’s books.
“Can I go out?” he said gloomily.
“No, of course not. It’s pouring.”
“I don’t mind rain.”
“Don’t be silly.”
William considered that few boys in the whole world were handicapped by more unsympathetic parents than he.
“Why,” he said pathetically, “have they got friends in an’ me not?”
“I suppose you didn’t think of asking anyone,” she said calmly.
“Well, can I have someone now?”
“No, it’s too late,” said Mrs. Brown, raising her head from the butcher’s book and murmuring “ten and elevenpence” to herself.
“Well, when can I?”
She raised a harassed face.
“William, do be quiet! Any time, if you ask. Eighteen and twopence.”
“Can I have lots?”
“Oh, go and ask your father.”
William went out.
He returned to the dining-room, where his father was still reading a paper. The sigh with which his father greeted his entrance was not one of relief.
“If you’ve come to ask questions——” he began threateningly.
“I haven’t,” said William quickly. “Father, when you’re all away on Saturday, can I have a party?”
“No, of course not,” said his father irritably. “Can’t you do something?”
William, goaded to desperation, burst into a flood of eloquence.
“The sort of things I want to do they don’t want me to do an’ the sort of things I don’t want to do they want me to do. Mother said to knit. Knit!”
His scorn and fury were indescribable. His father looked out of the window.
“Thank Heaven, it’s stopped raining! Go out!”
William went out.
There were some quite interesting things to do outside. In the road there were puddles, and the sensation of walking through a puddle, as every boy knows, is a very pleasant one. The hedges, when shaken, sent quite a shower bath upon the shaker, which also is a pleasant sensation. The ditch was full and there was the thrill of seeing how often one could jump across it without going in. One went in more often than not. It is also fascinating to walk in mud, scraping it along with one’s boots. William’s spirits rose, but he could not shake off the idea of the party. Quite suddenly he wanted to have a party and he wanted to have it on Saturday. His family would be away on Saturday. They were going to spend the day with an aunt. Aunts rarely included William in their invitation.
He came home wet and dirty and cheerful. He approached his father warily.
“Did you say I could have a party, father?” he said casually.
“No, I did not,” said Mr. Brown firmly.
William let the matter rest for the present.
He spent most of the English Grammar class in school next morning considering it. There was a great deal to be said for a party in the absence of one’s parents and grown-up brother and sister. He’d like to ask George and Ginger and Henry and Douglas and—and—and—heaps of them. He’d like to ask them all. “They” were the whole class—thirty in number.
“What have I just been saying, William?”
William sighed. That was the foolish sort of question that schoolmistresses were always asking. They ought to know themselves what they’d just been saying better than anyone. He never knew. Why were they always asking him? He looked blank. Then:
“Was it anythin’ about participles?” He remembered something vaguely about participles, but it mightn’t have been to-day.
Miss Jones groaned.
“That was ever so long ago, William,” she said. “You’ve not been attending.”
William cleared his throat with a certain dignity and made no answer.
“Tell him, Henry.”
Henry ceased his enthralling occupation of trying to push a fly into his ink-well with his nib and answered mechanically:
“Two negatives make an affirmative.”
“Yes. Say that, William.”
William repeated it without betraying any great interest in the fact.
“Yes. What’s a negative, William?”
“Somethin’ about photographs?” he said obligingly.
“No,” snapped Miss Jones. She found William and the heat (William particularly) rather trying.
“It’s ‘no’ and ‘not.’ And an affirmative is ‘yes.’”
“Oh,” said William politely.
“So two ‘nos’ and ‘nots’ mean ‘yes,’ if they’re in the same sentence. If you said ‘There’s not no money in the box’ you mean there is.”
He said “Oh” again.
Then he seemed suddenly to become intelligent.
“Then,” he said, “if you say ‘no’ and ‘not’ in the same sentence does it mean ‘yes’?”
William’s smile was a rare thing.
“Thank you,” he said.
Miss Jones was quite touched. “It’s all right, William,” she said, “I’m glad you’re beginning to take an interest in your work.”
William was murmuring to himself.
“‘No, of course not’ and ‘No, I did not’ and a ‘no’ an’ a ‘not’ mean a ‘yes,’ so he meant ‘yes, of course’ and ‘yes, I did.’”
He waited till the Friday before he gave his invitations with a casual air.
“My folks is goin’ away to-morrow an’ they said I could have a few fren’s in to tea. Can you come? Tell your mother they said jus’ to come an’ not bother to write.”
He was a born strategist. Not one of his friends’ parents guessed the true state of affairs. When William’s conscience (that curious organ) rose to reproach him, he said to it firmly:
“He said I could. He said ‘Yes, of course.’ He said ‘Yes, I did.’”
He asked them all. He thought that while you are having a party you might as well have a big one. He hinted darkly at unrestrained joy and mirth. They all accepted the invitation.
William’s mother took an anxious farewell of him on Saturday morning.
“You don’t mind being left, darling, do you?”
“No, mother,” said William with perfect truth.
“You won’t do anything we’ve told you not to, will you?”
“No, mother. Only things you’ve said ‘yes’ to.”
Cook and Jane had long looked forward to this day. There would be very little to do in the house and as far as William was concerned they hoped for the best.
William was out all the morning. At lunch he was ominously quiet and polite. Jane decided to go with her young man to the pictures.
Cook said she didn’t mind being left, as “that Master William” had gone out and there seemed to be no prospect of his return before tea-time.
So Jane went to the pictures.
About three o’clock the postman came and cook went to the door for the letters. Then she stood gazing down the road as though transfixed.
William had collected his guests en route. He was bringing them joyfully home with him. Clean and starched and prim had they issued from their homes, but they had grown hilarious under William’s benign influence. They had acquired sticks and stones and old tins from the ditches as they came along. They perceived from William’s general attitude towards it that it was no ordinary party. They were a happy crowd. William headed them with a trumpet.
They trooped in at the garden gate. Cook, pale and speechless, watched them. Then her speechlessness departed.
“You’re not coming in here!” she said fiercely. “What’ve you brought all those boys cluttering up the garden?”
“They’ve come to tea,” said William calmly.
She grew paler still.
“That they’ve not!” she said fiercely. “What your father’d say——”
“He said they could come,” said William. “I asked him an’ he said ‘Yes, of course,’ an’ I asked if he’d said so an’ he said ‘Yes, I did.’ That’s what he said ’cause of English Grammar an’ wot Miss Jones said.”
Cook’s answer was to slam the door in his face and lock it. The thirty guests were slightly disconcerted, but not for long.
“Come on!” shouted William excitedly. “She’s the enemy. Let’s storm her ole castle.”
The guests’ spirits rose. This promised to be infinitely superior to the usual party.
They swarmed round to the back of the house. The enemy had bolted the back door and was fastening all the windows. Purple with fury she shook her fist at William through the drawing-room window. William brandished his piece of stick and blew his trumpet in defiant reply. The army had armed itself with every kind of weapon, including the raspberry-canes whose careful placing was the result of a whole day’s work of William’s father. William decided to climb up to the balcony outside Ethel’s open bedroom window with the help of his noble band. The air was full of their defiant war-whoops. They filled the front garden, trampling on all the rose beds, cheering William as he swarmed up to the balcony, his trumpet between his lips. The enemy appeared at the window and shut it with a bang, and William, startled, dropped down among his followers. They raised a hoarse roar of anger.
“Mean ole cat!” shouted the enraged general.
The blood of the army was up. No army of thirty strong worthy of its name could ever consent to be worsted by an enemy of one. All the doors and windows were bolted. There was only one thing to be done. And this the general did, encouraged by loyal cheers from his army. “Go it, ole William! Yah! He—oo—o!”
The stone with which William broke the drawing-room window fell upon a small occasional table, scattering Mrs. Brown’s cherished silver far and wide.
William, with the born general’s contempt for the minor devastations of war, enlarged the hole and helped his gallant band through with only a limited number of cuts and scratches. They were drunk with the thrill of battle. They left the garden with its wreck of rose trees and its trampled lawn and crowded through the broken window with imminent danger to life and limb. The enemy was shutting the small window of the coal-cellar, and there William imprisoned her, turning the key with a loud yell of triumph.
The party then proceeded.
It fulfilled the expectations of the guests that it was to be a party unlike any other party. At other parties they played “Hide and Seek”—with smiling but firm mothers and aunts and sisters stationed at intervals with damping effects upon one’s spirits, with “not in the bedrooms, dear,” and “mind the umbrella stand,” and “certainly not in the drawing-room,” and “don’t shout so loud, darling.” But this was Hide and Seek from the realms of perfection. Up the stairs and down the stairs, in all the bedrooms, sliding down the balusters, in and out of the drawing-room, leaving trails of muddy boots and shattered ornaments as they went!
Ginger found a splendid hiding-place in Robert’s bed, where his boots left a perfect impression of their muddy soles in several places. Henry found another in Ethel’s wardrobe, crouching upon her satin evening shoes among her evening dresses. George banged the drawing-room door with such violence that the handle came off in his hand. Douglas became entangled in the dining-room curtain, which yielded to his struggles and descended upon him and an old china bowl upon the sideboard. It was such a party as none of them had dreamed of; it was bliss undiluted. The house was full of shouting and yelling, of running to and fro of small boys mingled with subterranean murmurs of cook’s rage. Cook was uttering horrible imprecations and hurling lumps of coal at the door. She was Irish and longed to return to the fray.
It was William who discovered first that it was tea-time and there was no tea. At first he felt slightly aggrieved. Then he thought of the larder and his spirits rose.
“Come on!” he called. “All jus’ get what you can.”
They trooped in, panting, shouting, laughing, and all just got what they could.
Ginger seized the remnants of a cold ham and picked the bone, George with great gusto drank a whole jar of cream, William and Douglas between them ate a gooseberry pie, Henry ate a whole currant cake. Each foraged for himself. They ate two bowls of cold vegetables, a joint of cold beef, two pots of honey, three dozen oranges, three loaves and two pots of dripping. They experimented upon lard, onions, and raw sausages. They left the larder a place of gaping emptiness. Meanwhile cook’s voice, growing hoarser and hoarser as the result of the inhalation of coal dust and exhalation of imprecations, still arose from the depths and still the door of the coal-cellar shook and rattled.
Then one of the guests who had been in the drawing-room window came back.
“She’s coming home!” he shouted excitedly.
They flocked to the window.
Jane was bidding a fond farewell to her young man at the side gate.
“Don’t let her come in!” yelled William. “Come on!”
With a smile of blissful reminiscence upon her face, Jane turned in at the gate. She was totally unprepared for being met by a shower of missiles from upper windows.
A lump of lard hit her on the ear and knocked her hat on to one side. She retreated hastily to the side gate.
“Go on! Send her into the road.”
A shower of onions, the ham bone, and a few potatoes pursued her into the road. Shouts of triumph rent the air. Then the shouts of triumph died away abruptly. William’s smile also faded away, and his hand, in the act of flinging an onion, dropped. A cab was turning in at the front gate. In the sudden silence that fell upon the party, cook’s hoarse cries for vengeance rose with redoubled force from the coal cellar. William grew pale.
The cab contained his family.
Two hours later a small feminine friend of William’s who had called with a note for his mother, looked up to William’s window and caught sight of William’s untidy head.
“Come and play with me, William,” she called eagerly.
“I can’t. I’m goin’ to bed,” said William sternly.
“Why? Are you ill, William?”
“Well, why are you going to bed, William?”
William leant out of the window.
“I’m goin’ to bed,” he said, “’cause my father don’t understand ’bout English Grammar, that’s why!”