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More William

II

Rice-Mould

"Rice-mould," said the little girl next door bitterly. "Rice-mould! Rice-mould! every single day. I hate it, don't you?"

She turned gloomy blue eyes upon William, who was perched perilously on the ivy-covered wall. William considered thoughtfully.

"Dunno," he said. "I just eat it; I never thought about it."

"It's hateful, just hateful. Ugh! I've had it at dinner and I'll have it at supper—bet you anything. I say, you are going to have a party to-night, aren't you?"

William nodded carelessly.

"Are you going to be there?"

"Me!" ejaculated William in a tone of amused surprise. "I should think so! You don't think they could have it without me, do you? Huh! Not much!"

She gazed at him enviously.

"You are lucky! I expect you'll have a lovely supper—not rice mould," bitterly.

"Rather!" said William with an air of superiority.

"What are you going to have to eat at your party?"

"Oh—everything," said William vaguely.

"Cream blanc-mange?"

"Heaps of it—buckets of it."

The little girl next door clasped her hands.

"Oh, just think of it! Your eating cream blanc-mange and me eating—rice-mould!" (It is impossible to convey in print the intense scorn and hatred which the little girl next door could compress into the two syllables.)

Here an idea struck William.

"What time do you have supper?"

"Seven."

"Well, now," magnanimously, "if you'll be in your summer-house at half-past, I'll bring you some cream blanc-mange. Truly I will!"

The little girl's face beamed with pleasure.

"Will you? Will you really? You won't forget?"

"Not me! I'll be there. I'll slip away from our show on the quiet with it."

"Oh, how lovely! I'll be thinking of it every minute. Don't forget. Good-bye!"

She blew him a kiss and flitted daintily into the house.

William blushed furiously at the blown kiss and descended from his precarious perch.

He went to the library where his grown-up sister Ethel and his elder brother Robert were standing on ladders at opposite ends of the room, engaged in hanging up festoons of ivy and holly across the wall. There was to be dancing in the library after supper. William's mother watched them from a safe position on the floor.

"If you'll be in your summer-house at half-past, i'll bring you some cream blanc-mange. truly i will!" said William.

"Look here, mother," began William. "Am I or am I not coming to the party to-night?"

William's mother sighed.

"For goodness' sake, William, don't open that discussion again. For the tenth time to-day, you are not!"

"But why not?" he persisted. "I only want to know why not. That's all I want to know. It looks a bit funny, doesn't it, to give a party and leave out your only son, at least,"—with a glance at Robert, and a slight concession to accuracy—"to leave out one of your only two sons? It looks a bit queer, surely. That's all I'm thinking of—how it will look."

"A bit higher your end," said Ethel.

"Yes, that's better," said William's mother.

"It's a young folks' party," went on William, warming to his subject. "I heard you tell Aunt Jane it was a young folks' party. Well, I'm young, aren't I? I'm eleven. Do you want me any younger? You aren't ashamed of folks seeing me, are you! I'm not deformed or anything."

"That's right! Put the nail in there, Ethel."

"Just a bit higher. That's right!"

"P'raps you're afraid of what I'll eat," went on William bitterly. "Well, everyone eats, don't they? They've got to—to live. And you've got things for us—them—to eat to-night. You don't grudge me just a bit of supper, do you? You'd think it was less trouble for me to have my bit of supper with you all, than in a separate room. That's all I'm thinking of—the trouble——"

William's sister turned round on her ladder and faced the room.

"Can't anyone," she said desperately, "stop that child talking?"

William's brother began to descend his ladder. "I think I can," he said grimly.

But William had thrown dignity to the winds, and fled.

He went down the hall to the kitchen, where cook hastily interposed herself between him and the table that was laden with cakes and jellies and other delicacies.

"Now, Master William," she said sharply, "you clear out of here!"

"I don't want any of your things, cook," said William, magnificently but untruthfully. "I only came to see how you were getting on. That's all I came for."

"We're getting on very well indeed, thank you, Master William," she said with sarcastic politeness, "but nothing for you till to-morrow, when we can see how much they've left."

She returned to her task of cutting sandwiches. William, from a respectful distance, surveyed the table with its enticing burden.

"Huh!" he ejaculated bitterly, "think of them sitting and stuffing, and stuffing, and stuffing away at our food all night! I don't suppose they'll leave much—not if I know the set that lives round here!"

"Don't judge them all by yourself, Master William," said cook unkindly, keeping a watchful eye upon him. "Here, Emma, put that rice-mould away in the pantry. It's for to-morrow's lunch."

Rice-mould! That reminded him.

"Cook," he said ingratiatingly, "are you going to make cream blanc-mange?"

"I am not, Master William," she said firmly.

"Well," he said, with a short laugh, "it'll be a queer party without cream blanc-mange! I've never heard of a party without cream blanc-mange! They'll think it's a bit funny. No one ever gives a party round here without cream blanc-mange!"

"Don't they indeed, Master William," said cook, with ironic interest.

"No. You'll be making one, p'raps, later on—just a little one, won't you?"

"And why should I?"

"Well, I'd like to think they had a cream blanc-mange. I think they'd enjoy it. That's all I'm thinking of."

"Oh, is it? Well, it's your ma that tells me what to make and pays me for it, not you."

This was a novel idea to William.

He thought deeply.

"Look here!" he said at last, "if I gave you,"—he paused for effect, then brought out the startling offer—"sixpence, would you make a cream blanc-mange?"

"I'd want to see your sixpence first," said cook, with a wink at Emma.

William retired upstairs to his bedroom and counted out his money—twopence was all he possessed. He had expended the enormous sum of a shilling the day before on a grass snake. It had died in the night. He must get a cream blanc-mange somehow. His reputation for omnipotence in the eyes of the little girl next door—a reputation very dear to him—depended on it. And if cook would do it for sixpence, he must find sixpence. By fair means or foul it must be done. He'd tried fair means, and there only remained foul. He went softly downstairs to the dining-room, where, upon the mantel-piece, reposed the missionary-box. He'd tell someone next day, or put it back, or something. Anyway, people did worse things than that in the pictures. With a knife from the table he extracted the contents—three-halfpence! He glared at it balefully.

"Three-halfpence!" he said aloud in righteous indignation. "This supposed to be a Christian house, and three-halfpence is all they can give to the poor heathen. They can spend pounds and pounds on"—he glanced round the room and saw a pyramid of pears on the sideboard—"tons of pears an'—an' green stuff to put on the walls, and they give three-halfpence to the poor heathen! Huh!"

He opened the door and heard his sister's voice from the library. "He's probably in mischief somewhere. He'll be a perfect nuisance all the evening. Mother, couldn't you make him go to bed an hour earlier?"

William had no doubt as to the subject of the conversation. Make him go to bed early! He'd like to see them! He'd just like to see them! And he'd show them, anyway. Yes, he would show them. Exactly what he would show them and how he would show them, he was not as yet very clear. He looked round the room again. There were no eatables in it so far except the piled-up plate of huge pears on the sideboard.

He looked at it longingly. They'd probably counted them and knew just how many there ought to be. Mean sort of thing they would do. And they'd be in counting them every other minute just to see if he'd taken one. Well, he was going to score off somebody, somehow. Make him go to bed early indeed! He stood with knit brows, deep in thought, then his face cleared and he smiled. He'd got it! For the next five minutes he munched the delicious pears, but, at the end, the piled-up pyramid was apparently exactly as he found it, not a pear gone, only—on the inner side of each pear, the side that didn't show, was a huge semicircular bite. William wiped his mouth with his coat sleeve. They were jolly good pears. And a blissful vision came to him of the faces of the guests as they took the pears, of the faces of his father and mother and Robert and Ethel. Oh, crumbs! He chuckled to himself as he went down to the kitchen again.

"I say, cook, could you make a small one—quite a small one—for threepence-halfpenny?"

Cook laughed.

"I was only pulling your leg, Master William. I've got one made and locked up in the larder."

"That's all right," said William. "I—wanted them to have a cream blanc-mange, that's all."

"Oh, they'll have it all right; they won't leave much for you. I only made one!"

"Did you say locked in the larder?" said William carelessly. "It must be a bother for you to lock the larder door each time you go in?"

"Oh, no trouble, Master William, thank you," said cook sarcastically; "there's more than the cream blanc-mange there; there's pasties and cakes and other things. I'm thinking of the last party your ma gave!"

William had the grace to blush. On that occasion William and a friend had spent the hour before supper in the larder, and supper had to be postponed while fresh provisions were beaten up from any and every quarter. William had passed a troubled night and spent the next day in bed.

"Oh, then! That was a long time ago. I was only a kid then."

"Umph!" grunted cook. Then, relenting, "Well, if there's any cream blanc-mange left I'll bring it up to you in bed. Now that's a promise. Here, Emma, put these sandwiches in the larder. Here's the key! Now mind you lock it after you!"

"Cook! Just come here for a minute."

It was the voice of William's mother from the library. William's heart rose. With cook away from the scene of action great things might happen. Emma took the dish of sandwiches, unlocked the pantry door, and entered. There was a crash of crockery from the back kitchen. Emma fled out, leaving the door unlocked. After she had picked up several broken plates, which had unaccountably slipped from the shelves, she returned and locked the pantry door.

William, in the darkness within, heaved a sigh of relief. He was in, anyway; how he was going to get out he wasn't quite sure. He stood for a few minutes in rapt admiration of his own cleverness. He'd scored off cook! Crumbs! He'd scored off cook! So far, at any rate. The first thing to do was to find the cream blanc-mange. He found it at last and sat down with it on the bread-pan to consider his next step.

Suddenly he became aware of two green eyes staring at him in the darkness. The cat was in too! Crumbs! The cat was in too! The cat, recognising its inveterate enemy, set up a vindictive wail. William grew cold with fright. The rotten old cat was going to give the show away!

"Here, Pussy! Good ole Pussy!" he whispered hoarsely. "Nice ole Pussy! Good ole Pussy!"

The cat gazed at him in surprise. This form of address from William was unusual.

"Good ole Pussy!" went on William feverishly. "Shut up, then. Here's some nice blanc-mange. Just have a bit. Go on, have a bit and shut up."

He put the dish down on the larder floor before the cat, and the cat, after a few preliminary licks, decided that it was good. William sat watching for a bit. Then he came to the conclusion that it was no use wasting time, and began to sample the plates around him. He ate a whole jelly, and then took four sandwiches off each plate, and four cakes and pasties off each plate. He had learnt wisdom since the last party. Meanwhile, the cat licked away at the cream blanc-mange with every evidence of satisfaction. It even began to purr, and as its satisfaction increased so did the purr. It possessed a peculiar penetrating purr.

"Cook!" called out Emma from the kitchen.

Cook came out of the library where she was assisting with the festoon hanging. "What's the matter?"

"There's a funny buzzing noise in the larder."

"Well, go in and see what it is. It's probably a wasp, that's all."

Emma approached with the key, and William, clasping the blanc-mange to his bosom, withdrew behind the door, slipping off his shoes in readiness for action.

"Poor Puss!" said Emma, opening the door and meeting the cat's green, unabashed gaze. "Did it get shut up in the nasty dark larder, then? Who did it, then?"

She was bending down with her back to William, stroking the cat in the doorway. William seized his chance. He dashed past her and up the stairs in stockinged feet like a flash of lightning. But Emma, leaning over the cat, had espied a dark flying figure out of the corner of her eye. She set up a scream. Out of the library came William's mother, William's sister, William's brother, and cook.

"A burglar in the larder!" gasped Emma. "I seed 'im, I did! Out of the corner of my eye, like, and when I looked up 'e wasn't there no more. Flittin' up the 'all like a shadder, 'e was. Oh, lor! It's fairly turned me inside! Oh, lor!"

"What rubbish!" said William's mother. "Emma, you must control yourself!"

"I went into the larder myself 'm," said cook indignantly, "just before I came in to 'elp with the greenery ornaments, and it was hempty as—hair. It's all that silly Emma! Always 'avin' the jumps, she is——"

"Where's William?" said William's mother with sudden suspicion. "William!"

William came out of his bedroom and looked over the balusters.

"Yes, mother," he said, with that wondering innocence of voice and look which he had brought to a fine art, and which proved one of his greatest assets in times of stress and strain.

"What are you doing?"

"Jus' readin' quietly in my room, mother."

"Oh, for heaven's sake don't disturb him, then," said William's sister.

"It's those silly books you read, Emma. You're always imagining things. If you'd read the ones I recommend, instead of the foolish ones you will get hold of——"

William's mother was safely mounted on one of her favourite hobby-horses. William withdrew to his room and carefully concealed the cream blanc-mange beneath his bed. He then waited till he heard the guests arrive and exchange greetings in the hall. William, listening with his door open, carefully committed to memory the voice and manner of his sister's greeting to her friends. That would come in useful later on, probably. No weapon of offence against the world in general and his own family in particular, was to be despised. He held a rehearsal in his room when the guests were all safely assembled in the drawing-room.

"Oh, how are you, Mrs. Green?" he said in a high falsetto, meant to represent the feminine voice. "And how's the darling baby? Such a duck! I'm dying to see him again! Oh, Delia, darling! There you are! So glad you could come! What a perfect darling of a dress, my dear. I know whose heart you'll break in that! Oh, Mr. Thompson!"—here William languished, bridled and ogled in a fashion seen nowhere on earth except in his imitations of his sister when engaged in conversation with one of the male sex. If reproduced at the right moment, it was guaranteed to drive her to frenzy, "I'm so glad to see you. Yes, of course I really am! I wouldn't say it if I wasn't!"

The drawing-room door opened and a chatter of conversation and a rustling of dresses arose from the hall. Oh, crumbs! They were going in to supper. Yes, the dining-room door closed; the coast was clear. William took out the rather battered-looking delicacy from under the bed and considered it thoughtfully. The dish was big and awkwardly shaped. He must find something that would go under his coat better than that. He couldn't march through the hall and out of the front door, bearing a cream blanc-mange, naked and unashamed. And the back door through the kitchen was impossible. With infinite care but little success as far as the shape of the blanc-mange was concerned, he removed it from its dish on to his soap-dish. He forgot, in the excitement of the moment, to remove the soap, but, after all, it was only a small piece. The soap-dish was decidedly too small for it, but, clasped to William's bosom inside his coat, it could be partly supported by his arm outside. He descended the stairs cautiously. He tip-toed lightly past the dining-room door (which was slightly ajar), from which came the shrill, noisy, meaningless, conversation of the grown-ups. He was just about to open the front door when there came the sound of a key turning in the lock.

William's heart sank. He had forgotten the fact that his father generally returned from his office about this time.

William's father came into the hall and glanced at his youngest offspring suspiciously.

"Hello!" he said, "where are you going?"

William cleared his throat nervously.

"Me?" he questioned lightly. "Oh, I was jus'—jus' goin' a little walk up the road before I went to bed. That's all I was goin' to do, father."

Flop! A large segment of the cream blanc-mange had disintegrated itself from the fast-melting mass, and, evading William's encircling arm, had fallen on to the floor at his feet. With praiseworthy presence of mind William promptly stepped on to it and covered it with his feet. William's father turned round quickly from the stand where he was replacing his walking stick.

"What was that?"

William looked round the hall absently. "What, father?"

William's father now fastened his eyes upon William's person.

"What have you got under your coat?"

"Where?" said William with apparent surprise.

Then, looking down at the damp excrescence of his coat, as if he noticed it for the first time, "Oh, that!" with a mirthless smile. "Do you mean that? Oh, that's jus'—jus' somethin' I'm takin' out with me, that's all."

Again William's father grunted.

"Well," he said, "if you're going for this walk up the road why on earth don't you go, instead of standing as if you'd lost the use of your feet?"

William's father was hanging up his overcoat with his back to William, and the front door was open. William wanted no second bidding. He darted out of the door and down the drive, but he was just in time to hear the thud of a falling body, and to hear a muttered curse as the Head of the House entered the dining-room feet first on a long slide of some white, glutinous substance.

"Oh, crumbs!" gasped William as he ran.

The little girl next door was sitting in the summer-house, armed with a spoon, when William arrived. His precious burden had now saturated his shirt and was striking cold and damp on his chest. He drew it from his coat and displayed it proudly. It had certainly lost its pristine, white, rounded appearance. The marks of the cat's licks were very evident; grime from William's coat adhered to its surface; it wobbled limply over the soap dish, but the little girl's eyes sparkled as she saw it.

"Oh, William, I never thought you really would! Oh, you are wonderful! And I had it!"

"What?"

"Rice-mould for supper, but I didn't mind, because I thought—I hoped, you'd come with it. Oh, William, you are a nice boy!"

William glowed with pride.

"William!" bellowed an irate voice from William's front door.

William knew that voice. It was the voice of the male parent who has stood all he's jolly well going to stand from that kid, and is out for vengeance. They'd got to the pears! Oh, crumbs! They'd got to the pears! And even the thought of Nemesis to come could not dull for William the bliss of that vision.

William leant back in a superior, benevolent manner and watched the smile freeze upon her face and her look of ecstasy change to one of fury.

"Oh, William," said the little girl next door sadly, "they're calling you. Will you have to go?"

"Not me," said William earnestly. "I'm not going—not till they fetch me. Here! you begin. I don't want any. I've had lots of things. You eat it all."

Her face radiant with anticipation, the little girl took up her spoon.

William leant back in a superior, benevolent manner and watched the smile freeze upon her face and her look of ecstasy change to one of fury. With a horrible suspicion at his heart he seized the spoon she had dropped and took a mouthful himself.

He had brought the rice-mould by mistake!



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