Uncle George was William's godfather, and he was intensely interested in William's upbringing. It was an interest with which William would gladly have dispensed. Uncle George's annual visit was to William a purgatory only to be endured by a resolutely philosophic attitude of mind and the knowledge that sooner or later it must come to an end. Uncle George had an ideal of what a boy should be, and it was a continual grief to him that William fell so short of this ideal. But he never relinquished his efforts to make William conform to it.
His ideal was a gentle boy of exquisite courtesy and of intellectual pursuits. Such a boy he could have loved. It was hard that fate had endowed him with a godson like William. William was neither quiet nor gentle, nor courteous nor intellectual—but William was intensely human.
The length of Uncle George's visit this year was beginning to reach the limits of William's patience. He was beginning to feel that sooner or later something must happen. For five weeks now he had (reluctantly) accompanied Uncle George upon his morning walk, he had (generally unsuccessfully) tried to maintain that state of absolute quiet that Uncle George's afternoon rest required, he had in the evening listened wearily to Uncle George's stories of his youth. His usual feeling of mild contempt for Uncle George was beginning to give way to one which was much stronger.
"Now, William," said Uncle George at breakfast, "I'm afraid it's going to rain to-day, so we'll do a little work together this morning, shall we? Nothing like work, is there? Your Arithmetic's a bit shaky, isn't it? We'll rub that up. We love our work, don't we?"
William eyed him coldly.
"I don't think I'd better get muddlin' up my school work," he said. "I shouldn't like to be more on than the other boys next term. It wouldn't be fair to them."
Uncle George rubbed his hands.
"That feeling does you credit, my boy," he said, "but if we go over some of the old work, no harm can be done. History, now. There's nothing like History, is there?"
William agreed quite heartily that there wasn't.
"We'll do some History, then," said Uncle George briskly. "The lives of the great. Most inspiring. Better than those terrible things you used to waste your time on, eh?"
The "terrible things" had included a trumpet, a beloved motor hooter, and an ingenious instrument very dear to William's soul that reproduced most realistically the sound of two cats fighting. These, at Uncle George's request, had been confiscated by William's father. Uncle George had not considered them educational. They also disturbed his afternoon's rest.
Uncle George settled himself and William down for a nice quiet morning in the library. William, looking round for escape, found none. The outside world was wholly uninviting. The rain came down in torrents. Moreover, the five preceding weeks had broken William's spirits. He realised the impossibility of evading Uncle George. His own family were not sympathetic. They suffered from him considerably during the rest of the year and were not sorry to see him absorbed completely by Uncle George's conscientious zeal.
So Uncle George seated himself slowly and ponderously in an arm-chair by the fire.
"When I was a boy, William," he began, leaning back and joining the tips of his fingers together, "I loved my studies. I'm sure you love your studies, don't you? Which do you love most?"
"Me?" said William. "I like shootin' and playin' Red Injuns."
"Yes, yes," said Uncle George impatiently, "but those aren't studies, William. You must aim at being gentle."
"It's not much good bein' gentle when you're playin' Red Injuns," said William stoutly. "A gentle Red Injun wun't get much done."
"Ah, but why play Red Indians?" said Uncle George. "A nasty rough game. No, we'll talk about History. You must mould your character upon that of the great heroes, William. You must be a Clive, a Napoleon, a Wolfe."
"I've often been a wolf," said William. "That game's nearly as good as Red Injuns. An' Bears is a good game too. We might have Bears here," he went on brightening. "Jus' you an' me. Would you sooner be bear or hunter? I'd sooner be hunter," he hinted gently.
"You misunderstand," said Uncle George. "I mean Wolfe the man, Wolfe the hero."
William, who had little patience with heroes who came within the school curriculum, relapsed into gloom.
"What lessons do we learn from such names, my boy?" went on Uncle George.
William was on the floor behind Uncle George's chair endeavouring to turn a somersault in a very restricted space.
"History lessons an' dates an' things," he said shortly. "An' the things they 'spect you to remember——!" he added with disgust.
"No, no," said Uncle George, but the fire was hot and his chair was comfortable and his educational zeal was dying away, "to endure the buffets of fate with equanimity, to smile at misfortune, to endure whatever comes, and so on——"
He stopped suddenly.
William had managed the somersault, but it had somehow brought his feet into collision with Uncle George's neck. Uncle George sleepily shifted his position.
"Boisterous! Boisterous!" he murmured disapprovingly. "You should combine the gentleness of a Moore with the courage of a Wellington, William."
William now perceived that Uncle George's eyelids were drooping slowly and William's sudden statuesque calm would have surprised many of his instructors.
The silence and the warmth of the room had their effect. In less than three minutes Uncle George was dead to the world around him.
William's form relaxed, then he crept up to look closely at the face of his enemy. He decided that he disliked it intensely. Something must be done at once. He looked round the room. There were not many weapons handy. Only his mother's work-box stood on a chair by the window, and on it a pile of socks belonging to Robert, William's elder brother. Beneath either arm of his chair one of Uncle George's coat-tails protruded. William soon departed on his way rejoicing, while on to one of Uncle George's coat-tails was firmly stitched a bright blue sock and on to the other a brilliant orange one. Robert's taste in socks was decidedly loud. William felt almost happy. The rain had stopped and he spent the morning with some of his friends whom he met in the road. They went bear-hunting in the wood; and though no bears were found, still their disappointment was considerably allayed by the fact that one of them saw a mouse and another one distinctly smelt a rabbit. William returned to lunch whistling to himself and had the intense satisfaction of seeing Uncle George enter the dining-room, obviously roused from his slumbers by the luncheon bell, and obviously quite unaware of the blue and orange socks that still adorned his person.
"Curious!" he ejaculated, as Ethel, William's grown-up sister, pointed out the blue sock to him. "Most curious!"
William departed discreetly muttering something about "better tidy up a bit," which drew from his sister expressions of surprise and solicitous questions as to his state of health.
"Most curious!" again said Uncle George, who had now discovered the orange sock.
When William returned, all excitement was over and Uncle George was consuming roast beef with energy.
"Ah, William," he said, "we must complete the History lesson soon. Nothing like History. Nothing like History. Nothing like History. Teaches us to endure the buffets of fate with equanimity and to smile at misfortune. Then we must do some Geography." William groaned. "Most fascinating study. Rivers, mountains, cities, etc. Most improving. The morning should be devoted to intellectual work at your age, William, and the afternoon to the quiet pursuit of—some improving hobby. You would then find the true joy of life."
To judge from William's countenance he did not wholly agree, but he made no objection. He had learnt that objection was useless, and against Uncle George's eloquence silence was his only weapon.
After lunch Uncle George followed his usual custom and retired to rest. William went to the shed in the back garden and continued the erection of a rabbit hutch that he had begun a few days before. He hoped that if he made a hutch, Providence would supply a rabbit. He whistled blithely as he knocked nails in at random.
"William, you mustn't do that now."
He turned a stern gaze upon his mother.
"Why not?" he said.
"Uncle George is resting."
With a crushing glance at her he strolled away from the shed. Someone had left the lawn mower in the middle of the lawn. With one of his rare impulses of pure virtue he determined to be useful. Also, he rather liked mowing the grass.
"William, don't do that now," called his sister from the window. "Uncle George is resting."
He deliberately drove the mowing machine into the middle of a garden bed and left it there. He was beginning to feel desperate. Then:
"What can I do?" he said bitterly to Ethel, who was still at the window.
"You'd better find some quiet, improving hobby," she said unkindly as she went away.
It is a proof of the utterly broken state of William's spirit that he did actually begin to think of hobbies, but none of those that occurred to him interested him. Stamp-collecting, pressed flowers, crest-collecting—Ugh!
He set off down the road, his hands in his pockets and his brows drawn into a stern frown. He amused himself by imagining Uncle George in various predicaments, lost on a desert island, captured by pirates, or carried off by an eagle. Then something in the window of a house he passed caught his eye and he stopped suddenly. It was a stuffed bird under a glass case. Now that was something like a hobby, stuffing dead animals! He wouldn't mind having that for a hobby. And it was quite quiet. He could do it while Uncle George was resting. And it must be quite easy. The first thing to do of course was to find a dead animal. Any old thing would do to begin on. A dead cat or dog. He would do bigger ones like bears and lions later on. He spent nearly an hour in a fruitless search for a dead cat or dog. He searched the ditches on both sides of the road and several gardens. He began to have a distinct sense of grievance against the race of cats and dogs in general for not dying in his vicinity. At the end of the hour he found a small dead frog. It was very dry and shrivelled, but it was certainly a dead frog and would do to begin on. He took it home in his pocket. He wondered what they did first in stuffing dead animals. He'd heard something about "tannin'" them. But what was "tannin'," and how did one get it? Then he remembered suddenly having heard Ethel talk about the "tannin'" in tea. So that was all right. The first thing to do was to get some tea. He went to the drawing-room. It was empty, but upon the table near the fire was a tea-tray and two cups. Evidently his mother and sister had just had tea there. He put the frog at the bottom of a cup and carefully filled the cup with tea from the teapot. Then he left it to soak and went out into the garden.
A few minutes later William's mother entered the drawing-room.
Uncle George had finished resting and was standing by the mantel-piece with a cup in his hand.
"I see you poured out my tea for me," he said. "But rather a curious taste. Doubtless you boil the milk now. Safer, of course. Much safer. But it imparts a curious flavour."
He took another sip.
"But—I didn't pour out your tea——" began Mrs. Brown.
Here William entered. He looked quickly at the table.
"Who's meddlin' with my frog?" he said angrily. "It's my hobby, an' I'm stuffin' frogs an' someone's been an' took my frog. I left it on the table."
"On the table?" said his mother.
"Yes. In a cup of tea. Gettin' tannin.' You know. For stuffin'. I was puttin' him in tannin' first. I——"
Uncle George grew pale. In frozen silence he put a spoon into his cup and investigated the contents. In still more frozen silence Mrs. Brown and William watched. That moment held all the cumulative horror of a Greek tragedy. Then Uncle George put down his cup and went silently from the room. On his face was the expression of one who is going to look up the first train home. Fate had sent him a buffet he could not endure with equanimity, a misfortune at which he could not smile, and Fate had avenged William for much.