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Just William

CHAPTER IX
WILLIAM AND WHITE SATIN

“I’d simply love to have a page,” murmured Miss Grant wistfully. “A wedding seems so—second-rate without a page.”

Mrs. Brown, her aunt and hostess, looked across the tea-table at her younger son, who was devouring iced cake with that disregard for consequences which is the mark of youth.

“There’s William,” she said doubtfully. Then, “You’ve had quite enough cake, William.”

Miss Grant studied William’s countenance, which at that moment expressed intense virtue persecuted beyond all bearing.

Enough!” he repeated. “I’ve had hardly any yet. I was only jus’ beginning to have some when you looked at me. It’s a plain cake. It won’t do me any harm. I wu’nt eat it if it’d do me any harm. Sugar’s good for you. Animals eat it to keep healthy. Horses eat it an’ it don’t do ’em any harm, an’ poll parrots an’ things eat it an’ it don’t do ’em any——”

“Oh, don’t argue, William,” said his mother wearily.

William’s gift of eloquence was known and feared in his family circle.

Then Miss Grant brought out the result of her study of his countenance.

“He’s got such a—modern face!” she said. “There’s something essentially medi�val and romantic about the idea of a page.”

Mrs. Brown (from whose house the wedding was to take place) looked worried.

“There’s nothing medi�val or romantic about William,” she said.

“Well,”—Miss Grant’s intellectual face lit up—“what about his cousin Dorita. They’re about the same age, aren’t they? Both eleven. Well, the two of them in white satin with bunches of holly. Don’t you think? Would you mind having her to stay for the ceremony?” (Miss Grant always referred to her wedding as “the ceremony.”) “If you don’t have his hair cut for a bit, he mightn’t look so bad?”

William had retired to the garden with his three bosom friends—Ginger, Henry, and Douglas—where he was playing his latest game of mountaineering. A plank had been placed against the garden wall, and up this scrambled the three, roped together and wearing feathers in their caps. William was wearing an old golf cap of his mother’s, and mentally pictured himself as an impressive and heroic figure. Before they reached the top they invariably lost their foothold, rolled down the plank and fell in a confused and bruised heap at the bottom. The bruises in no way detracted from the charm of the game. To William the fascination of any game consisted mainly in the danger to life and limb involved. The game had been suggested by an old alpenstock which had been thoughtlessly presented to William by a friend of Mr. Brown’s. The paint of the staircase and upstairs corridor had been completely ruined before the family knew of the gift, and the alpenstock had been confiscated for a week, then restored on the condition that it was not to be brought into the house. The result was the game of mountaineering up the plank. They carried the alpenstock in turns, but William had two turns running to mark the fact that he was its proud possessor.

Mrs. Brown approached William on the subject of his prospective r�le of page with a certain apprehension. The normal attitude of William’s family towards William was one of apprehension.

“Would you like to go to Cousin Sybil’s wedding?” she said.

“No, I wu’nt,” said William without hesitation.

“Wouldn’t you like to go dressed up?” she said.

“Red Injun?” said William with a gleam of hope.

“Er—no, not exactly.”

“Pirate?”

“Not quite.”

“I’d go as a Red Injun, or I’d go as a Pirate,” he said firmly, “but I wu’nt go as anything else.”

“A page,” said Miss Grant’s clear, melodious voice, “is a medi�val and romantic idea, William. There’s the glamour of chivalry about it that should appeal strongly to a boy of your age.”

William turned his inscrutable countenance upon her and gave her a cold glare.

They discussed his costume in private.

“WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO TO COUSIN SYBIL’S WEDDING?” SHE ASKED. “NO, I WU’NT,” SAID WILLIAM WITHOUT HESITATION.

“I’ve got a pair of lovely white silk stockings,” said his mother. “They’d do for tights, and Ethel has got a satin petticoat that’s just beginning to go in one place. I should think we could make some sort of costume from that, don’t you? We’ll buy some more white satin and get some patterns.”

“No, I won’t wear Ethel’s ole clothes,” said William smouldering. “You all jus’ want to make me look ridiclus. You don’t care how ridiclus I look. I shall be ridiclus all the rest of my life goin’ about in Ethel’s ole clothes. I jus’ won’t do it. I jus’ won’t go to any ole weddin’. No, I don’t want to see Cousin Sybil married, an’ I jus’ won’t be made look ridiclus in Ethel’s ole clothes.”

They reasoned and coaxed and threatened, but in vain. Finally William yielded to parental authority and went about his world with an air of a martyr doomed to the stake. Even the game of mountaineering had lost its charm and the alpenstock lay neglected against the garden wall. The attitude of his select circle of friends was not encouraging.

“Yah! Page! Who’s goin’ to be a page? Oh, crumbs. A page all dressed up in white. Dear little Willie. Won’t he look swe-e-e-et?”

Life became very full. It was passed chiefly in the avenging of insults. William cherished a secret hope that the result of this would be to leave him disfigured for life and so unable to attend the wedding. However, except for a large lump on his forehead, he was none the worse. He eyed the lump thoughtfully in his looking-glass and decided that with a little encouragement it might render his public appearance in an affair of romance an impossibility. But the pain which resulted from one heroic effort at banging it against the wall caused him to abandon the plan.

Dorita arrived the next week, and with her her small brother, Michael, aged three. Dorita was slim and graceful, with a pale little oval face and dark curling hair.

Miss Grant received her on the doorstep.

“Well, my little maid of honour?” she said in her flute-like tones. “Welcome! We’re going to be such friends—you and me and William—the bride” (she blushed and bridled becomingly) “and her little page and her little maid of honour. William’s a boy, and he’s just a leetle bit thoughtless and doesn’t realise the romance of it all. I’m sure you will. I see it in your dear little face. We’ll have some lovely talks together.” Her eyes fell upon Michael and narrowed suddenly. “He’d look sweet, too, in white satin, wouldn’t he?” turning to Mrs. Brown. “He could walk between them.... We could buy some more white satin....”

When they had gone the maid of honour turned dark, long-lashed, demure eyes upon William.

“Soft mug, that,” she said in clear refined tones, nodding in the direction of the door through which the tall figure of Miss Grant had just disappeared.

William was vaguely cheered by her attitude.

“Are you keen on this piffling wedding affair?” she went on carelessly, “’cause I jolly well tell you I’m not.”

William felt that he had found a kindred spirit. He unbent so far as to take her to the stable and show her a field-mouse he had caught and was keeping in a cardboard box.

“I’m teachin’ it to dance,” he confided, “an’ it oughter fetch a jolly lot of money when it can dance proper. Dancin’ mice do, you know. They show ’em on the stage, and people on the stage get pounds an’ pounds every night, so I bet mice do, too—at least the folks the mice belong to what dance on the stage. I’m teachin’ it to dance by holdin’ a biscuit over its head and movin’ it about. It bit me twice yesterday.” He proudly displayed his mutilated finger. “I only caught it yesterday. It oughter learn all right to-day,” he added hopefully.

Her intense disappointment, when the only trace of the field-mouse that could be found was the cardboard box with a hole gnawed at one corner, drew William’s heart to her still more.

He avoided Henry, Douglas and Ginger. Henry, Douglas and Ginger had sworn to be at the church door to watch William descend from the carriage in the glory of his white satin apparel, and William felt that friendship could not stand the strain.

He sat with Dorita on the cold and perilous perch of the garden wall and discussed Cousin Sybil and the wedding. Dorita’s language delighted and fascinated William.

“She’s a soppy old luny,” she would remark sweetly, shaking her dark curls. “The soppiest old luny you’d see in any old place on this old earth, you betcher life! She’s made of sop. I wouldn’t be found dead in a ditch with her—wouldn’t touch her with the butt-end of a bargepole. She’s an assified cow, she is. Humph!”

“SHE’S A SOPPY OLD LUNY!” DORITA REMARKED SWEETLY.

“Those children are a leetle disappointing as regards character—to a child lover like myself,” confided Miss Grant to her intellectual fianc�. “I’ve tried to sound their depths, but there are no depths to sound. There is none of the mystery, the glamour, the ‘clouds of glory’ about them. They are so—so material.”

The day of the ordeal drew nearer and nearer, and William’s spirits sank lower and lower. His life seemed to stretch before him—youth, manhood, and old age—dreary and desolate, filled only with humiliation and shame. His prestige and reputation would be blasted for ever. He would no longer be William—the Red Indian, the pirate, the daredevil. He would simply be the Boy Who Went to a Wedding Dressed in White Satin. Evidently there would be a surging crowd of small boys at the church door. Every boy for miles round who knew William even by sight had volunteered the information that he would be there. William was to ride with Dorita and Michael in the bride’s carriage. In imagination he already descended from the carriage and heard the chorus of jeers. His cheeks grew hot at the thought. His life for years afterwards would consist solely in the avenging of insults. He followed the figure of the blushing bride-to-be with a baleful glare. In his worst moments he contemplated murder. The violence of his outburst when his mother mildly suggested a wedding present to the bride from her page and maid of honour horrified her.

“I’m bein’ made look ridiclus all the rest of my life,” he ended. “I’m not givin’ her no present. I know what I’d like to give her,” he added darkly.

“Yes, and I do, too.”

Mrs. Brown forebore to question further.

The day of the wedding dawned coldly bright and sunny. William’s expressions of agony and complaints of various startling symptoms of serious illnesses were ignored by his experienced family circle.

Michael was dressed first of the three in his minute white satin suit and sent down into the morning-room to play quietly. Then an unwilling William was captured from the darkest recess of the stable and dragged pale and protesting to the slaughter.

“Yes, an’ I’ll die pretty soon, prob’ly,” he said pathetically, “and then p’r’aps you’ll be a bit sorry, an’ I shan’t care.”

In Michael there survived two of the instincts of primitive man, the instinct of foraging for food and that of concealing it from his enemies when found. Earlier in the day he had paid a visit to the kitchen and found it empty. Upon the table lay a pound of butter and a large bag of oranges. These he had promptly confiscated and, with a fear of interruption born of experience, he had retired with them under the table in the morning-room. Before he could begin his feast he had been called upstairs to be dressed for the ceremony. On his return (immaculate in white satin) he found to his joy that his treasure trove had not been discovered. He began on the butter first. What he could not eat he smeared over his face and curly hair. Then he felt a sudden compunction and tried to remove all traces of the crime by rubbing his face and hair violently with a woolly mat. Then he sat down on the Chesterfield and began the oranges. They were very yellow and juicy and rather overripe. He crammed them into his mouth with both little fat hands at once. He was well aware, even at his tender years, that life’s sweetest joys come soonest to an end. Orange juice mingled with wool fluff and butter on his small round face. It trickled down his cheeks and fell on to his white lace collar. His mouth and the region round it were completely yellow. He had emptied the oranges out of the bag all around him on the seat. He was sitting in a pool of juice. His suit was covered with it, mingled with pips and skin, and still he ate on.

His first interruption was William and Dorita, who came slowly downstairs holding hands in silent sympathy, two gleaming figures in white satin. They walked to the end of the room. They also had been sent to the morning-room with orders to “play quietly” until summoned.

Play?” William had echoed coldly. “I don’t feel much like playing.”

They stared at Michael, openmouthed and speechless. Lumps of butter and bits of wool stuck in his curls and adhered to the upper portion of his face. They had been washed away from the lower portion of it by orange juice. His suit was almost covered with it. Behind he was saturated with it.

Crumbs!” said William at last.

You’ll catch it,” remarked his sister.

Michael retreated hastily from the scene of his misdeeds.

“Mickyth good now,” he lisped deprecatingly.

They looked at the seat he had left—a pool of crushed orange fragments and juice. Then they looked at each other.

He’ll not be able to go,” said Dorita slowly.

Again they looked at the empty orange-covered Chesterfield and again they looked at each other.

“Heth kite good now,” said Michael hopefully.

Then the maid of honour, aware that cold deliberation often kills the most glorious impulses, seized William’s hand.

“Sit down. Quick!” she whispered sharply.

Without a word they sat down. They sat till they felt the cold moisture penetrate to their skins. Then William heaved a deep sigh.

We can’t go now,” he said.

Through the open door they saw a little group coming—Miss Grant in shining white, followed by William’s mother, arrayed in her brightest and best, and William’s father, whose expression revealed a certain weariness mingled with a relief that the whole thing would soon be over.

“Here’s the old sardine all togged up,” whispered Dorita.

“William! Dorita! Michael!” they called.

Slowly William, Dorita and Michael obeyed the summons.

When Miss Grant’s eyes fell upon the strange object that was Michael, she gave a loud scream.

Michael! Oh, the dreadful child!”

She clasped the centre of the door and looked as though about to swoon.

Michael began to sob.

Poor Micky,” he said through his tears. “He feelth tho thick.”

They removed him hastily.

“Never mind, dear,” said Mrs. Brown soothingly, “the other two look sweet.”

But Mr. Brown had wandered further into the room and thus obtained a sudden and startling view of the page and maid of honour from behind.

“What? Where?” he began explosively.

William and Dorita turned to him instinctively, thus providing Mrs. Brown and the bride with the spectacle that had so disturbed him.

The bride gave a second scream—shriller and wilder than the first.

“Oh, what have they done? Oh, the wretched children! And just when I wanted to feel calm. Just when all depends on my feeling calm. Just when——”

“We was walkin’ round the room an’ we sat down on the Chesterfield and there was this stuff on it an’ it came on our clothes,” explained William stonily and monotonously and all in one breath.

Why did you sit down,” said his mother.

“We was walkin’ round an’ we jus’ felt tired and we sat down on the Chesterfield and there was this stuff on it an’ it came on——”

“Oh, stop! Didn’t you see it there?”

William considered.

“Well, we was jus’ walking round the room,” he said, “an’ we jus’ felt tired and we sat——”

Stop saying that.”

“Couldn’t we make cloaks?” wailed the bride, “to hang down and cover them all up behind. It wouldn’t take long——”

Mr. Brown took out his watch.

“THERE WAS THIS STUFF ON THE CHESTERFIELD, AND IT CAME ON OUR CLOTHES,” WILLIAM EXPLAINED STONILY ALL IN ONE BREATH.

“The carriage has been waiting a quarter of an hour already,” he said firmly. “We’ve no time to spare. Come along, my dear. We’ll continue the investigation after the service. You can’t go, of course, you must stay at home now,” he ended, turning a stern eye upon William. There was an unconscious note of envy in his voice.

“And I did so want to have a page,” said Miss Grant plaintively as she turned away.

Joy and hope returned to William with a bound. As the sound of wheels was heard down the drive he turned head over heels several times on the lawn, then caught sight of his long-neglected alpenstock leaning against a wall.

“Come on,” he shouted joyfully. “I’ll teach you a game I made up. It’s mountaineerin’.”

She watched him place a plank against the wall and begin his perilous ascent.

“You’re a mug,” she said in her clear, sweet voice. “I know a mountaineering game worth ten of that old thing.”

And it says much for the character and moral force of the maid-of-honour that William meekly put himself in the position of pupil.

It must be explained at this point that the domestics of the Brown household were busy arranging refreshments in a marquee in the garden. The front hall was quite empty.

In about a quarter of an hour the game of mountaineering was in full swing. On the lowest steps of the staircase reposed the mattress from William’s father’s and mother’s bed, above it the mattress from Miss Grant’s bed, above that the mattress from William’s bed, and on the top, the mattress from Dorita’s bed. In all the bedrooms the bedclothes lay in disarray on the floor. A few nails driven through the ends of the mattresses into the stairs secured the stability of the “mountain.” Still wearing their robes of ceremony, they scrambled up in stockinged feet, every now and then losing foothold and rolling down to the pile of pillows and bolsters (taken indiscriminately from all the beds) which was arranged at the foot of the staircase. Their mirth was riotous and uproarious. They used the alpenstock in turns. It was a great help. They could get a firm hold on the mattresses with the point of the alpenstock. William stood at the top of the mountain, hot and panting, his alpenstock in his hand, and paused for breath. He was well aware that retribution was not far off—was in the neighbouring church, to be quite exact, and would return in a carriage within the next few minutes. He was aware that an explanation of the yellow stain was yet to be demanded. He was aware that this was not a use to which the family mattresses could legitimately be put. But he cared for none of these things. In his mind’s eye he only saw a crowd of small boys assembled outside a church door with eager eyes fixed on a carriage from which descended—Miss Grant, Mrs. Brown, and Mr. Brown. His life stretched before him bright and rose-coloured. A smile of triumph curved his lips.

“Yah! Who waited at a church for someone what never came? Yah!”

“I hope you didn’t get a bad cold waitin’ for me on Wednesday at the church door.”

“Some folks is easy had. I bet you all believed I was coming on Wednesday.”

THEY USED THE ALPENSTOCK IN TURNS—IT WAS A GREAT HELP.

Such sentences floated idly through his mind.

“I say, my turn for that stick with the spike.”

William handed it to her in silence.

“I say,” she repeated, “what do you think of this marriage business?”

“Dunno,” said William laconically.

“If I’d got to marry,” went on the maid of honour, “I’d as soon marry you as anyone.”

“I wu’nt mind,” said the page gallantly. “But,” he added hastily, “in ornery clothes.”

“Oh, yes,” she lost her foothold and rolled down to the pile of pillows. From them came her voice muffled, but clear as ever. “You betcher life. In ornery clothes.”


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