“She’s—she’s a real Botticelli,” said the young man dreamily, as he watched the figure of William’s sister, Ethel, disappearing into the distance.
William glared at him.
“Bottled cherry yourself!” he said indignantly. “She can’t help having red hair, can she? No more’n you can help havin’—havin’——” his eye wandered speculatively over the young man in search of physical defects—“having big ears,” he ended.
The young man did not resent the insult. He did not even hear it. His eyes were still fixed upon the slim figure in the distance.
“‘Eyes of blue and hair red-gold,’” he said softly. “Red-gold. I had to put that because it’s got both colours in it. Red-gold, ‘Eyes of blue and hair red-gold.’ What rhymes with gold?”
“Cold,” suggested William brightly. “That’s jolly good, too, ’cause she has gotter cold. She was sneezing all last night.”
“No. It should be something about her heart being cold.
“That’s jolly good!” said William with admiration. “It’s just like what you read in real books—poetry books!”
The young man—James French by name—had met Ethel at an evening party and had succumbed to her charm. Lacking courage to pursue the acquaintance, he had cultivated the friendship of her small brother, under a quite erroneous impression that this would win him her good graces.
“What would you like most in the world?” he said suddenly, leaning forward from his seat on the top of the gate. “Suppose someone let you choose.”
“White rats,” said William without a moment’s hesitation.
The young man was plunged in deep thought.
“I’m thinking a way,” he said at last. “I’ve nearly got it. Just walk home with me, will you? I’ll give you something when we get there,” he bribed with pathetic pleading, noting William’s reluctant face. “I want to tell you my idea.”
They walked down the lane together. The young man talked volubly and earnestly. William’s mouth opened wide with amazement and disapproving horror. The words “white rats” were repeated frequently. Finally William nodded his head, as though acquiescing.
“I s’pose you’re balmy on her,” he said resignedly at the end, “like what folks are in books. I want ’em with long tails, mind.”
William was not unacquainted with the tender passion. He had been to the pictures. He had read books. He had seen his elder brother Robert pass several times through every stage of the consuming fever. He had himself decided in moments of deep emotion to marry the little girl next door as soon as he should reach manhood’s estate. He was willing to further his new friend’s suit by every legitimate means, but he was rather aghast at the means suggested. Still—white rats were white rats.
The next morning William assumed his expression of shining virtue—the expression he reserved for special occasions.
“You goin’ shoppin’ this mornin’?” he inquired politely of Ethel.
“You know I am,” said Ethel shortly.
“Shall I come with you to carry parcels an’ things?” said William unctuously.
Ethel looked at him with sudden suspicion.
“What do you want?” she said. “I’m not going to buy you anything.”
William looked pained.
“I don’t want anything,” he said. “I jus’ want to help you, that’s all. I jus’ want to carry your parcels for you. I—I jus’ don’t want you to get tired, that’s all.”
“All right.” Ethel was still suspicious. “You can come and you can carry parcels, but you won’t get a penny out of me.”
They walked down together to the shops, and William meekly allowed himself to be laden with many parcels. Ethel’s grim suspicion passed into bewilderment as he passed toyshop after toyshop without a glance. In imagination he was already teaching complicated tricks to a pair of white rats.
“It’s—it’s awfully decent of you, William,” said Ethel, at last, almost persuaded that she had misjudged William for the greater part of his life. “Do you feel all right? I mean, you don’t feel ill or anything, do you?”
“No,” he said absently, then corrected himself hastily. “At least, not jus’ now. I feel all right jus’ now. I feel as if I might not feel all right soon, but I don’t know.”
Ethel looked anxious.
“Let’s get home quickly. What have you been eating?”
“Nothing,” said William indignantly. “It’s not that sort of not well. It’s quite diff’rent.”
“What sort is it?”
“It’s nuffin’—not jus’ now. I’m all right jus’ now.”
They walked in silence till they had left the road behind and had turned off to the long country road that led to William’s house. Then, slowly and deliberately, still clasping his burden of parcels, William sat down on the ground.
“I can’t walk any more, Ethel,” he said, turning his healthy countenance up to her. “I’m took ill sudden.”
She looked down at him impatiently.
“Don’t be absurd, William,” she said. “Get up.”
“I’m not absurd,” he said firmly. “I’m took ill.”
“Where do you feel ill?”
“All over,” he said guardedly.
“Does your ankle hurt?”
“Yes—an’ my knees an’ all up me. I jus’ can’t walk. I’m took too ill to walk.”
She looked round anxiously.
“Oh, what are we going to do? It’s a quarter of a mile home!”
At that moment there appeared the figure of a tall young man. He drew nearer and raised his hat.
“Anything wrong, Miss Brown?” he said, blushing deeply.
“Just look at William!” said Ethel, pointing dramatically at the small figure seated comfortably in the dust of the road. “He says he can’t walk, and goodness knows what we’re going to do.”
The young man bent over William, but avoided meeting his eyes.
“You feeling ill, my little man?” he said cheerfully.
“Huh!” snorted William. “That’s a nice thing for you to ask when you know you told me——”
The young man coughed long and loud.
“All right,” he said hastily. “Well, let’s see what we can do. Could you get on my back, and then I can carry you home? Give me your parcels. That’s right. No, Miss Brown. I insist on carrying the parcels. I couldn’t dream of allowing you—well, if you’re sure you’d rather. Leave me the big ones, anyway. Now, William, are we ready?”
William clung on behind, nothing loth, and they set off rather slowly down the road. Ethel was overcome with gratitude.
“It is kind of you, Mr. French. I don’t know what we should have done without you. I do hope he’s not fearfully heavy, and I do hope he’s not beginning anything infectious. Do let me take the other parcels. Won’t you, really? Mother will be grateful to you. It’s such a strange thing, isn’t it? I’ve never heard of such a thing before. I’ve always thought William was so strong. I hope it’s not consumption or anything like that. How does consumption begin?”
Mr. French had had no conception of the average weight of a sturdy small boy of eleven. He stumbled along unsteadily.
“Oh, no,” he panted. “Don’t mention it—don’t mention it. It’s a pleasure—really it is. No, indeed you mustn’t take the parcels. You have quite enough already. Quite enough. No, he isn’t a bit heavy. Not a bit. I’m so glad I happened to come by at a moment that I could do you a service. So glad!” He paused to mop his brow. He was breathing very heavily. There was a violent and quite unreasonable hatred of William at his heart.
“Don’t you think you could walk now—just a bit, William?” he said, with a touch of exasperation in his panting voice. “I’ll help you walk.”
“All right,” William acceded readily. “I don’t mind. I’ll lean on you hard, shall I?”
“Do you feel well enough?” said Ethel anxiously.
“Oh, yes. I can walk now, if he wants—I mean if he doesn’t mind me holding on to his arm. I feel as if I was goin’ to be quite all right soon. I’m nearly all right now.”
The three of them walked slowly up the drive to the Brown’s house, William leaning heavily on the young man’s arm. Mrs. Brown saw them from the window and ran to the door.
“Oh, dear!” she said. “You’ve run over him on your motor-cycle. I knew you’d run over somebody soon. I said when I saw you passing on it yesterday——”
Ethel interrupted indignantly.
“Why, Mother, Mr. French has been so kind. I can’t think what I’d have done without him. William was taken ill and couldn’t walk, and Mr. French has carried him all the way from the other end of the road, on his back.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry! How very kind of you, Mr. French. Do come in and stay to lunch. William, go upstairs to bed at once and I’ll ring up Dr. Ware.”
“No,” said William firmly. “Don’t bother poor Dr. Ware. I’m all right now. Honest I am. He’d be mad to come and find me all right.”
“Of course you must see a doctor.”
“No, I mustn’t. You don’t understand. It wasn’t that kind of not wellness. A doctor couldn’t of done me no good. I jus’—jus’ came over queer,” he ended, remembering a phrase he had heard used recently by the charwoman.
“What do you think, Mr. French?” said Mrs. Brown anxiously.
Both Mrs. Brown and Ethel turned to him as to an oracle. He looked from one to the other and a deep flush of guilt overspread his countenance.
“Oh—er—well,” he said nervously. “He looks all right, doesn’t he? I—er—wouldn’t bother. Just—er—don’t worry him with questions. Just—let him go about as usual. I—er—think it’s best to—let him forget it,” he ended weakly.
“Of course he’s growing very fast.”
“Yes. I expect it was just a sort of growing weakness,” said Mr. French brightly.
“But Mr. French was splendid!” said Ethel enthusiastically, “simply splendid. William, I don’t think you realise how kind it was of Mr. French. I think you ought to thank him.”
William fixed his benefactor with a cold eye.
“Thank you very much indeed for carrying me,” he said. Then, as his mother turned to Ethel with a remark about the lunch, he added. “Two, remember, and, with long tails!”
Mr. French stayed for lunch and spent the afternoon golfing with Ethel up at the links. William was wrapt up in rugs and laid upon the library sofa after lunch and left to sleep off his mysterious complaint in quietness with the blinds down.
Mrs. Brown, entering on tiptoe to see how her son was faring, found him gone.
“Oh, he’s gone,” she said anxiously to her husband. “I left him so comfortable on the sofa, and told him to try to sleep. Sleep is so important when you’re ill. And now he’s gone—he’ll probably stay away till bedtime!”
“All right,” said her husband sardonically. “Be thankful for small mercies.”
Ethel and her esquire returned to tea, and, yielding to the entreaties of the family, who looked upon him as William’s saviour, he stayed to dinner. He spent the evening playing inadequate accompaniments to Ethel’s songs and ejaculating at intervals rapturous expressions of delight. It was evident that Ethel was flattered by his obvious admiration. He stayed till nearly eleven, and then, almost drunk with happiness, he took his leave while the family again thanked him profusely.
As he walked down the drive with a smile on his lips and his mind flitting among the blissful memories of the evening, an upper window was opened cautiously and a small head peeped out. Through the still air the words shot out——
“Two, mind, an’ with long tails.”
“Where did you get it from?” demanded Mr. Brown fiercely.
William pocketed his straying pet.
“A friend gave it me.”
“Mr. French. The man what carried me when I was took ill sudden. He gave me it. I di’n’t know it was goin’ to go into your slipper. I wun’t of let it if I’d known. An’ I di’n’t know it was goin’ to bite your toe. It di’n’t mean to bite your toe. I ’spect it thought it was me givin’ it sumthin’ to eat. I expect——”
“Be quiet! What on earth did Mr. French give you the confounded thing for?”
“I dunno. I s’pect he jus’ wanted to.”
“He seems to have taken quite a fancy to William,” said Mrs. Brown.
Ethel blushed faintly.
“He seems to have taken a spite against me,” said Mr. Brown bitterly. “How many of the wretched pests have you got?”
“They’re rats,” corrected William, “White ’uns. I’ve only got two.”
“Good Heavens! He’s got two. Where’s the other?”
“In the shed.”
“Well, keep it there, do you hear? And this savage brute as well. Good Lord! My toe’s nearly eaten off. They ought to wear muzzles; they’ve got rabies. Where’s Jumble? He in the shed, too?” hopefully.
“No. He dun’t like ’em. But I’m tryin’ to teach him to like ’em. I let ’em loose and let him look at ’em with me holdin’ on to him.”
“Yes, go on doing that,” said Mr. Brown encouragingly. “Accidents sometimes happen.”
That night William obeyed the letter of the law by keeping the rats in a box on his bedroom window-sill.
The household was roused in the early hours of the morning by piercing screams from Ethel’s room. The more adventurous of the pair—named Rufus—had escaped from the box and descended to Ethel’s room by way of the creeper. Ethel awoke suddenly to find it seated on her pillow softly pawing her hair. The household, in their various sleeping attire, flocked to her room at the screams. Ethel was hysterical. They fed her on hot tea and biscuits to steady her nerves. “It was horrible!” she said. “It was pulling at my hair. It just sat there with its pink nose and long tail. It was perfectly horrible!”
“Where is the wretched animal?” said Mr. Brown looking round with murder in his eyes.
“I’ve got it, Father,” piped up William’s small voice at the back of the crowd. “Ethel di’n’t understand. It was playin’ with her. It di’n’t mean to frighten her. It——”
“I told you not to keep them in the house.”
Mr. Brown in large pyjamas looked fiercely down at William in small pyjamas with the cause of all the tumult clasped lovingly to his breast. Ethel, in bed, continued to gasp weakly in the intervals of drinking tea.
“They weren’t in the house,” said William firmly. “They were outside the window. Right outside the window. Right on the sill. You can’t call outside the window in the house, can you? I put it outside the house. I can’t help it comin’ inside the house when I’m asleep, can I?”
Mr. Brown eyed his son solemnly.
“The next time I catch either of those animals inside this house, William,” he said slowly, “I’ll wring its neck.”
When Mr. French called the next afternoon, he felt that his popularity had declined.
“I can’t think why you gave William such dreadful things,” Ethel said weakly, lying on the sofa. “I feel quite upset. I’ve got such a headache and my nerves are a wreck absolutely.”
Mr. French worked hard that afternoon and evening to regain his lost ground. He sat by the sofa and talked in low tones. He read aloud to her. He was sympathetic, penitent, humble and devoted. In spite of all his efforts, however, he felt that his old prestige was gone. He was no longer the Man Who Carried William Home. He was the Man Who Gave William the Rat. He felt that, in the eyes of the Brown household, he was solely responsible for Ethel’s collapse. There was reproach even in the eyes of the housemaid who showed him out. In the drive he met William. William was holding a grimy, blood-stained handkerchief round his finger. There was reproach in William’s eyes also. “It’s bit me,” he said indignantly. “One of those rats what you gave me’s bit me.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” said Mr. French penitently. Then, with sudden spirit, “Well, you asked for rats, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said William. “But not savage ones. I never asked for savage ones, did I? I di’n’t ask for rats what would scare Ethel and bite me, did I? I was jus’ teaching it to dance on its hind legs an’ holding up its front ones for it an’ it went an’ bit me.”
Mr. French looked at him apprehensively.
“You—you’d better not—er—tell your mother or sister about your finger. I—I wouldn’t like your sister to be upset any more.”
“Don’t you want me to let ’em know?”
“Well, what’ll you give me not to?” said William brazenly.
Mr. French plunged his hand into his pocket.
“I’ll give you half-a-crown,” he said.
William pocketed the coin.
“All right!” he said. “If I wash the blood off an’ get my hands dirty nobody’ll notice.”
Things went well for several days after that. Mr. French arrived the next morning laden with flowers and grapes. The household unbent towards him. Ethel arranged a day’s golfing with him. William spent a blissful day with his half-crown. There was a fair in full swing on the fair ground, and thither William and Jumble wended their way. William had eleven consecutive rides on the merry-go-round. He had made up his mind to have twelve, but, much to his regret, had to relinquish the twelfth owing to certain unpleasant physical sensations. With a lordly air, he entered seven tents in succession and sat gazing in a silent intensity of rapture at the Strong Man, the Fat Woman, the Indiarubber Jointed Boy, the Siamese Twins, the Human Eel, the Man-headed Elephant and the Talking Monkey. In each tent he stayed, silent and enraptured, till ejected by the showman to make room for others who were anxious to feast their eyes upon the marvels. Having now completely recovered from the sensations caused by the merry-go-round, he purchased a large bag of pop-corn and stood leaning against a tent-pole till he had consumed it. Then he purchased two sticks of nougat and with it drank two bottles of ginger-beer. The remaining 4d. was spent upon a large packet of a red sticky mixture called Canadian Delight.
Dusk was falling by this time and slowly, very slowly, William returned home. He firmly refused all food at supper. Mrs. Brown grew anxious.
“William, you don’t look a bit well,” she said. “You don’t feel like you did the other day, do you?”
William met Mr. French’s eye across the table and Mr. French blushed.
“No, not a bit like that,” said William.
When pressed, he admitted having gone to the fair.
“Someone gave me half-a-crown,” he excused himself plaintively. “I jus’ had to go somewhere.”
“It’s perfectly absurd of people,” said Mrs. Brown indignantly, “to give large sums of money to a boy of William’s age. It always ends this way. People ought to know better.”
As they passed out from the supper-table, William whispered hoarsely to Mr. French:
“It was the half-crown what you give me.”
“Don’t tell them,” whispered Mr. French desperately.
“What’ll you give me not to?”
Furtively Mr. French pressed a two-shilling piece into his hand.
Glorious vistas opened before William’s eyes He decided finally that Mr. French must join the family. Life then would be an endless succession of half-crowns and two-shilling pieces.
The next day was Sunday, and William went to the shed directly after breakfast to continue the teaching of Rufus, the dancing rat. Rufus was to be taught to dance, the other, now christened Cromwell, was to be taught to be friends with Jumble. So far this training had only reached the point of Cromwell’s sitting motionless in the cage, while in front of it William violently restrained the enraged Jumble from murder. Still, William thought, if they looked at each other long enough, friendship would grow. So they looked at each other each day till William’s arm ached. As yet friendship had not grown.
“William! It’s time for church.”
William groaned. That was the worst of Sundays. He was sure that with another half-hour’s practice Rufus would dance and Cromwell would be friends with Jumble. He was a boy not to be daunted by circumstance. He put Rufus in his pocket and put the cage containing Cromwell on the top of a pile of boxes, leaving Jumble to continue the gaze of friendship from the floor.
He walked to church quietly and demurely behind his family, one hand clutching his prayer-book, the other in his pocket clasping Rufus. He hoped to be able to continue the training during the Litany. He was not disappointed. Ethel was on one side of him, and there was no one on the other. He knelt down devoutly, one hand shading his face, the other firmly holding Rufus’s front paws as he walked it round and round on the floor. He grew more and more interested in its progress.
“Tell William to kneel up and not to fidget,” Mrs. Brown passed down via Ethel.
William gave her a virulent glance as he received the message and, turning his back on her, continued the dancing lesson.
The Litany passed more quickly than he ever remembered its doing before. He replaced the rat in his pocket as they rose for the hymn. It was during the hymn that the catastrophe occurred.
The Browns occupied the front seat of the church. While the second verse was being sung, the congregation was electrified by the sight of a small, long-tailed white creature appearing suddenly upon Mr. Brown’s shoulder. Ethel’s scream almost drowned the organ. Mr. Brown put up his hand and the intruder jumped upon his head and stood there for a second, digging his claws into his victim’s scalp. Mr. Brown turned upon his son a purple face that promised future vengeance. The choir turned fascinated eyes upon it, and the hymn died away. William’s face was a mask of horror. Rufus next appeared running along the rim of the pulpit. There was a sudden unceremonial exit of most of the female portion of the congregation. The clergyman grew pale as Rufus approached and slid up his reading-desk. A choir-boy quickly grabbed it, and retired into the vestry and thence home before his right to its possession could be questioned. William found his voice.
“He’s took it,” he said in a sibilant whisper. “It’s mine! He took it!”
“Sh!” said Ethel.
“It’s mine,” persisted William. “It’s what Mr. French give me for being took ill that day, you know.”
“What?” said Ethel, leaning towards him.
The hymn was in full swing again now.
“He gave it me for being took ill so’s he could come and carry me home ’cause he was gone on you an’ it’s mine an’ that boy’s took it an’ it was jus’ gettin’ to dance an’——”
“Sh!” hissed Mr. Brown violently.
“I shall never look anyone in the face again,” lamented Mrs. Brown on the way home. “I think everyone was in church! And the way Ethel screamed! It was awful! I shall dream of it for nights. William, I don’t know how you could!”
“Well, it’s mine,” said William. “That boy’d no business to take it. It was gettin’ to know me. I di’n’t mean it to get loose, an’ get on Father’s head an’ scare folks. I di’n’t mean it to. I meant it to be quiet and stay in my pocket. It’s mine, anyway, an’ that boy took it.”
“It’s not yours any more, my son,” said Mr. Brown firmly.
Ethel walked along with lips tight shut.
In the distance, walking towards them, was a tall, jaunty figure. It was Mr. French, who, ignorant of what had happened, was coming gaily on to meet them returning from church. He was smiling as he came, secure in his reception, composing airy compliments in his mind. As Ethel came on he raised his hat with a flourish and beamed at her effusively. Ethel walked past him, without a glance and with head high, leaving him, aghast and despairing, staring after her down the road. He never saw Mr. and Mrs. Brown. William realised the situation. The future half-crowns and two-shilling pieces seemed to vanish away. He protested vehemently.
“Ethel, don’t get mad at Mr. French. He di’n’t mean anything! He only wanted to do sumthin’ for you ’cause he was mad on you.”
“It’s horrible!” said Ethel. “First you bringing that dreadful animal to church, and then I find that he’s deceived me and you helped him. I hope Father takes the other one away.”
“He won’t,” said William. “He never said anything about that. The other’s learnin’ to be friends with Jumble in the shed. I say, Ethel, don’t be mad at Mr. French. He——”
“Oh, don’t talk about him,” said Ethel angrily.
William, who was something of a philosopher, accepted failure, and the loss of any riches a future allied with Mr. French might have brought him.
“All right!” he said. “Well, I’ve got the other one left, anyway.”
They entered the drive and began to walk up to the front-door. From the bushes came a scampering and breaking of twigs as Jumble dashed out to greet his master. His demeanour held more than ordinary pleasure: it expressed pride and triumph. At his master’s feet he laid his proud offering—the mangled remains of Cromwell.
“Oh, William!” said Ethel, “I’m so sorry.”
William assumed an expression of proud, restrained sorrow.
“All right!” he said generously. “It’s not your fault really. An’ it’s not Jumble’s fault. P’r’aps he thought it was what I was tryin’ to teach him to do. It’s jus’ no one’s fault. We’ll have to bury it.” His spirits rose. “I’ll do the reel buryin’ service out of the Prayer Book.”
He stood still gazing down at what was left of Jumble’s friend. Jumble stood by it, proud and pleased, looking up with his head on one side and his tail wagging. Sadly William reviewed the downfall of his hopes. Gone was Mr. French and all he stood for. Gone was Rufus. Gone was Cromwell. He put his hand into his pocket and it came in contact with the two-shilling piece.
“Well,” he said slowly and philosophically, “I’ve got that left anyway.”