“William! you’ve been playing that dreadful game again!” said Mrs. Brown despairingly.
William, his suit covered with dust, his tie under one ear, his face begrimed and his knees cut, looked at her in righteous indignation.
“I haven’t. I haven’t done anything what you said I’d not to. It was ‘Lions an’ Tamers’ what you said I’d not to play. Well, I’ve not played ‘Lions an’ Tamers,’ not since you said I’d not to. I wouldn’t do it—not if thousands of people asked me to, not when you said I’d not to. I——”
Mrs. Brown interrupted him.
“Well, what have you been playing at?” she said wearily.
“It was ‘Tigers an’ Tamers.’” said William. “It’s a different game altogether. In ‘Lions an’ Tamers’ half of you is lions an’ the other half tamers, an’ the tamers try to tame the lions an’ the lions try not to be tamed. That’s ‘Lions an’ Tamers’. It’s all there is to it. It’s quite a little game.”
“What do you do in ‘Tigers and Tamers’?” said Mrs. Brown suspiciously.
William considered deeply.
“Well,” he repeated lamely, “in ‘Tigers an’ Tamers’ half of you is tigers—you see—and the other half——”
“It’s exactly the same thing, William,” said Mrs. Brown with sudden spirit.
“I don’t see how you can call it the same thing,” said William doggedly. “You can’t call a lion a tiger, can you? It jus’ isn’t one. They’re in quite different cages in the Zoo. ‘Tigers an’ Tamers’ can’t be ’zactly the same as ‘Lions an’ Tamers.’”
“Well, then,” said Mrs. Brown firmly, “you’re never to play ‘Tigers and Tamers’ either. And now go and wash your face.”
William’s righteous indignation increased.
“My face?” he repeated as if he could hardly believe his ears. “My face? I’ve washed it twice to-day. I washed it when I got up an’ I washed it for dinner. You told me to.”
“Well, just go and look at it.”
William walked over to the looking-glass and surveyed his reflection with interest. Then he passed his hands lightly over the discoloured surface of his face, stroked his hair back and straightened his tie. This done, he turned hopefully to his mother.
“It’s no good,” she said. “You must wash your face and brush your hair and you’d better change your suit—and stockings. They’re simply covered with dust!”
William turned slowly to go from the room.
“I shouldn’t think,” he said bitterly, as he went, “I shouldn’t think there’s many houses where so much washin’ and brushin’ goes on as in this, an’ I’m glad for their sakes.”
She heard him coming downstairs ten minutes later.
“William!” she called.
He entered. He was transformed. His face and hair shone, he had changed his suit. His air of righteous indignation had not diminished.
“That’s better,” said his mother approvingly. “Now, William, do just sit down here till tea-time. There’s only about ten minutes, and it’s no good your going out. You’ll only get yourself into a mess again if you don’t sit still.”
William glanced round the drawing-room with the air of one goaded beyond bearing.
“Well, dear—just till tea-time.”
“What can I do in here? There’s nothing to do, is there? I can’t sit still and not do anything, can I?”
“Oh, read a book. There are ever so many books over there you haven’t read, and I’m sure you’d like some of them. Try one of Scott’s,” she ended rather doubtfully.
William walked across the room with an expression of intense suffering, took out a book at random, and sat down in an attitude of aloof dignity, holding the book upside down.
It was thus that Mrs. de Vere Carter found him when she was announced a moment later.
Mrs. de Vere Carter was a recent addition to the neighbourhood. Before her marriage she had been one of the Randalls of Hertfordshire. Everyone on whom Mrs. de Vere Carter smiled felt intensely flattered. She was tall, and handsome, and gushing, and exquisitely dressed. Her arrival had caused quite a sensation. Everyone agreed that she was “charming.”
On entering Mrs. Brown’s drawing-room, she saw a little boy, dressed very neatly, with a clean face and well-brushed hair, sitting quietly on a low chair in a corner reading a book.
“The little dear!” she murmured as she shook hands with Mrs. Brown.
William’s face darkened.
Mrs. de Vere Carter floated over to him.
“Well, my little man, and how are you?”
Her little man did not answer, partly because Mrs. de Vere Carter had put a hand on his head and pressed his face against her perfumed, befrilled bosom. His nose narrowly escaped being impaled on the thorn of a large rose that nestled there.
“I adore children,” she cooed to his mother over his head.
William freed his head with a somewhat brusque movement and she took up his book.
“Scott!” she murmured. “Dear little laddie!”
Seeing the expression on William’s face his mother hastily drew her guest aside.
“Do come and sit over here,” she said nervously. “What perfect weather we’re having.”
William walked out of the room.
“You know, I’m frightfully interested in social work,” went on her charming guest, “especially among children. I adore children! Sweet little dear of yours! And I always get on with them. Of course, I get on with most people. My personality, you know! You’ve heard perhaps that I’ve taken over the Band of Hope here, and I’m turning it into such a success. The pets! Yes, three lumps, please. Well, now, it’s here I want you to help me. You will, dear, won’t you? You and your little mannikin. I want to get a different class of children to join the Band of Hope. Such a sweet name, isn’t it? It would do the village children such a lot of good to meet with children of our class.”
Mrs. Brown was flattered. After all, Mrs. de Vere Carter was one of the Randalls.
“For instance,” went on the flute-like tones, “when I came in and saw your little treasure sitting there so sweetly,” she pointed dramatically to the chair that had lately been graced by William’s presence, “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I must get him to come.’ It’s the refining influence of children in our class that the village children need. What delicious cakes. You will lend him to me, won’t you? We meet once a week, on Wednesday afternoons. May he come? I’ll take great care of him.”
Mrs. Brown hesitated.
“Er—yes,” she said doubtfully. “But I don’t know that William is really suited to that sort of thing. However——”
“Oh, you can’t put me off!” said Mrs. de Vere Carter shaking a playful bejewelled finger. “Don’t I know him already? I count him one of my dearest little friends. It never takes me long to know children. I’m a born child-lover.”
William happened to be passing through the hall as Mrs. de Vere Carter came out of the drawing-room followed by Mrs. Brown.
“There you are!” she said. “I thought you’d be waiting to say good-bye to me.”
She stretched out her arm with an encircling movement, but William stepped back and stood looking at her with a sinister frown.
“I have so enjoyed seeing you. I hope you’ll come again,” untruthfully stammered Mrs. Brown, moving so as to block out the sight of William’s face, but Mrs de Vere Carter was not to be checked. There are people to whom the expression on a child’s face conveys absolutely nothing. Once more she floated towards William.
“Good-bye, Willy, dear. You’re not too old to kiss me, are you?”
Mrs. Brown gasped.
At the look of concentrated fury on William’s face, older and stronger people than Mrs. de Vere Carter would have quailed, but she only smiled as, with another virulent glare at her, he turned on his heel and walked away.
“The sweet, shy thing!” she cooed. “I love them shy.”
Mr. Brown was told of the proposal.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I can’t quite visualise William at a Band of Hope meeting; but of course, if you want him to, he must go.”
“You see,” said Mrs. Brown with a worried frown, “she made such a point of it, and she really is very charming, and after all she’s rather influential. She was one of the Randalls, you know. It seems silly to offend her.”
“Did William like her?”
“She was sweet with him. At least—she meant to be sweet,” she corrected herself hastily, “but you know how touchy William is, and you know the name he always hates so. I can never understand why. After all, lots of people are called Willy.”
The morning of the day of the Band of Hope meeting arrived. William came down to breakfast with an agonised expression on his healthy countenance. He sat down on his seat and raised his hand to his brow with a hollow groan.
Mrs. Brown started up in dismay.
“Oh, William! What’s the matter?”
“Gotter sick headache,” said William in a faint voice.
“Oh, dear! I am sorry. You’d better go and lie down. I’m so sorry, dear.”
“I think I will go an’ lie down,” said William’s plaintive, suffering voice. “I’ll jus’ have breakfast first.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t. Not with a sick headache.”
William gazed hungrily at the eggs and bacon.
“I think I could eat some, mother. Jus’ a bit.”
“No, I wouldn’t, dear. It will only make it worse.”
Very reluctantly William returned to his room.
Mrs. Brown visited him after breakfast.
No, he was no better, but he thought he’d go for a little walk. Yes, he still felt very sick. She suggested a strong dose of salt and water. He might feel better if he’d been actually sick. No, he’d hate to give her the trouble. Besides, it wasn’t that kind of sickness. He was most emphatic on that point. It wasn’t that kind of sickness. He thought a walk would do him good. He felt he’d like a walk.
Well wrapped up and walking with little, unsteady steps, he set off down the drive, followed by his mother’s anxious eyes.
Then he crept back behind the rhododendron bushes next to the wall and climbed in at the larder window.
The cook came agitatedly to Mrs. Brown half an hour later, followed by William, pale and outraged.
“’E’s eat nearly everything, ’m. You never saw such a thing. ’E’s eat the cold ’am and the kidney pie, and ’e’s eat them three cold sausages an’ ’e’s eat all that new jar of lemon cheese.”
“William!” gasped Mrs. Brown, “you can’t have a sick headache, if you’ve eaten all that.”
That was the end of the sick headache.
He spent the rest of the morning with Henry and Douglas and Ginger. William and Henry and Douglas and Ginger constituted a secret society called the Outlaws. It had few aims beyond that of secrecy. William was its acknowledged leader, and he was proud of the honour. If they knew—if they guessed. He grew hot and cold at the thought. Suppose they saw him going—or someone told them—he would never hold up his head again. He made tentative efforts to find out their plans for the afternoon. If only he knew where they’d be—he might avoid them somehow. But he got no satisfaction.
They spent the morning “rabbiting” in a wood with Henry’s fox terrier, Chips, and William’s mongrel, Jumble. None of them saw or heard a rabbit, but Jumble chased a butterfly and a bee, and scratched up a molehill, and was stung by a wasp, and Chips caught a field-mouse, so the time was not wasted.
William’s interest, however, was half-hearted. He was turning over plan after plan in his mind, all of which he finally rejected as impracticable.
He entered the dining-room for lunch rather earlier than usual. Only Robert and Ethel, his elder brother and sister, were there. He came in limping, his mouth set into a straight line of agony, his brows frowning.
“Hello! What’s up?” said Robert, who had not been in at breakfast and had forgotten about the Band of Hope.
“I’ve sprained my ankle,” said William weakly.
“Here, sit down, old chap, and let me feel it,” said Robert sympathetically.
William sat down meekly upon a chair.
“Which is it?”
“It’s a pity you limped with the other,” said Ethel drily.
That was the end of the sprained ankle.
The Band of Hope meeting was to begin at three. His family received with complete indifference his complaint of sudden agonising toothache at half-past two, of acute rheumatism at twenty-five to three, and of a touch of liver (William considered this a heaven-set inspiration. It was responsible for many of his father’s absences from work) at twenty to three. At a quarter to three he was ready in the hall.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, William,” said Mrs. Brown soothingly. “I expect you’ll all play games and have quite a good time.”
William treated her with silent contempt.
“Hey, Jumble!” he called.
After all, life could never be absolutely black, as long as it held Jumble.
Jumble darted ecstatically from the kitchen regions, his mouth covered with gravy, dropping a half-picked bone on the hall carpet as he came.
“William, you can’t take a dog to a Band of Hope meeting.”
“Why not?” said William, indignantly. “I don’t see why not. Dogs don’t drink beer, do they? They’ve as much right at a Band of Hope meeting as I have, haven’t they? There seems jus’ nothin’ anyone can do.”
“Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed. No one takes dogs to meetings.”
She held Jumble firmly by the collar, and William set off reluctantly down the drive.
“I hope you’ll enjoy it,” she called cheerfully.
He turned back and looked at her.
“It’s a wonder I’m not dead,” he said bitterly, “the things I have to do!”
He walked slowly—a dejected, dismal figure. At the gate he stopped and glanced cautiously up and down the road. There were three more figures coming down the road, with short intervals between them. They were Henry, Douglas and Ginger.
William’s first instinct was to dart back and wait till they had passed. Then something about their figures struck him. They also had a dejected, dismal, hang-dog look. He waited for the first one, Henry. Henry gave him a shamefaced glance and was going to pass him by.
“You goin’ too?” said William.
Henry gasped in surprise.
“Did she come to your mother?” was his reply.
He was surprised to see Ginger and Douglas behind him and Ginger was surprised to see Douglas behind him. They walked together sheepishly in a depressed silence to the Village Hall. Once Ginger raised a hand to his throat.
“Gotter beas’ly throat,” he complained, “I didn’t ought to be out.”
“I’m ill, too,” said Henry; “I told ’em so.”
“An’ me,” said Douglas.
“An’ me,” said William with a hoarse, mirthless laugh. “Cruel sorter thing, sendin’ us all out ill like this.”
At the door of the Village Hall they halted, and William looked longingly towards the field.
“It’s no good,” said Ginger sadly, “they’d find out.”
Bitter and despondent, they entered.
Within sat a handful of gloomy children who, inspired solely by hopes of the annual treat, were regular attendants at the meeting.
Mrs. de Vere Carter came sailing down to them, her frills and scarfs floating around her, bringing with her a strong smell of perfume.
“Dear children,” she said, “welcome to our little gathering. These,” she addressed the regular members, who turned gloomy eyes upon the Outlaws, “these are our dear new friends. We must make them so happy. Dear children!”
She led them to seats in the front row, and taking her stand in front of them, addressed the meeting.
“Now, girlies dear and laddies dear, what do I expect you to be at these meetings?”
And in answer came a bored monotonous chant:
“Respectful and reposeful.”
“I have a name, children dear.”
“Respectful and reposeful, Mrs. de Vere Carter.”
“That’s it, children dear. Respectful and reposeful. Now, our little new friends, what do I expect you to be?”
The Outlaws sat horrified, outraged, shamed.
“You’re such shy darlings, aren’t you?” she said, stretching out an arm.
William retreated hastily, and Ginger’s face was pressed hard against a diamond brooch.
“You won’t be shy with us long, I’m sure. We’re so happy here. Happy and good. Now, children dear, what is it we must be?”
Again the bored monotonous chant:
“Happy and good, Mrs. de Vere Carter.”
“That’s it. Now, darlings, in the front row, you tell me. Willy, pet, you begin. What is it we must be?”
At that moment William was nearer committing murder than at any other time in his life. He caught a gleam in Henry’s eye. Henry would remember. William choked but made no answer.
“You tell me then, Harry boy.”
Henry went purple and William’s spirits rose.
“Ah, you won’t be so shy next week, will they, children dear?”
“No, Mrs. de Vere Carter,” came the prompt, listless response.
“Now, we’ll begin with one of our dear little songs. Give out the books.” She seated herself at the piano. “Number five, ‘Sparkling Water.’ Collect your thoughts, children dear. Are you ready?”
She struck the opening chords.
The Outlaws, though provided with books, did not join in. They had no objection to water as a beverage. They merely objected to singing about it.
Mrs. de Vere Carter rose from the piano.
“Now, we’ll play one of our games, children dear. You can begin by yourselves, can’t you, darlings? I’ll just go across the field and see why little Teddy Wheeler hasn’t come. He must be regular, mustn’t he, laddies dear? Now, what game shall we play. We had ‘Puss in the Corner’ last week, hadn’t we? We’ll have ‘Here we go round the mulberry-bush’ this week, shall we? No, not ‘Blind Man’s Buff,’ darling. It’s a horrid, rough game. Now, while I’m gone, see if you can make these four shy darlings more at home, will you? And play quietly. Now before I go tell me four things that you must be?”
“Respectful and reposeful and happy and good, Mrs. de Vere Carter,” came the chant.
She was away about a quarter of an hour. When she returned the game was in full swing, but it was not “Here we go round the mulberry-bush.” There was a screaming, struggling crowd of children in the Village Hall. Benches were overturned and several chairs broken. With yells and whoops, and blows and struggles, the Tamers tried to tame; with growls and snarls and bites and struggles the animals tried not to be tamed. Gone was all listlessness and all boredom. And William, his tie hanging in shreds, his coat torn, his head cut, and his voice hoarse, led the fray as a Tamer.
“Come on, you!”
“I’ll get you!”
“Go it, men! Catch ’em, beat ’em, knife ’em, kill ’em.”
The spirited roarings and bellowing of the animals was almost blood-curdling.
Above it all Mrs. de Vere Carter coaxed and expostulated and wrung her hands.
“Respectful and reposeful,” “happy and good,” “laddies dear,” and “Willy” floated unheeded over the tide of battle.
Then somebody (reports afterwards differed as to who it was) rushed out of the door into the field and there the battle was fought to a finish. From there the Band of Hope (undismissed) reluctantly separated to its various homes, battered and bruised, but blissfully happy.
Mrs. Brown was anxiously awaiting William’s return.
When she saw him she gasped and sat down weakly on a hall chair.
“I’ve not,” said William quickly, looking at her out of a fast-closing eye, “I’ve not been playing at either of them—not those what you said I’d not to.”
“It was—it was—‘Tamers an’ Crocerdiles,’ an’ we played it at the Band of Hope!”