Location:   http://jmbarrie.co.uk/view/3316/



«« Click here to go back to your search.





XII

The Pleasantest Club in London



All perambulators lead to the Kensington Gardens.

Not, however, that you will see David in his perambulator much
longer, for soon after I first shook his faith in his mother, it
came to him to be up and doing, and he up and did in the Broad
Walk itself, where he would stand alone most elaborately poised,
signing imperiously to the British public to time him, and
looking his most heavenly just before he fell. He fell with a
dump, and as they always laughed then, he pretended that this was
his funny way of finishing.

That was on a Monday. On Tuesday he climbed the stone stair of
the Gold King, looking over his shoulder gloriously at each step,
and on Wednesday he struck three and went into knickerbockers.
For the Kensington Gardens, you must know, are full of short
cuts, familiar to all who play there; and the shortest leads from
the baby in long clothes to the little boy of three riding on the
fence. It is called the Mother's Tragedy.

If you are a burgess of the gardens (which have a vocabulary of
their own), the faces of these quaint mothers are a clock to you,
in which you may read the ages of their young. When he is three
they are said to wear the knickerbocker face, and you may take it
from me that Mary assumed that face with a sigh; fain would she
have kept her boy a baby longer, but he insisted on his rights,
and I encouraged him that I might notch another point against
her. I was now seeing David once at least every week, his mother,
who remained culpably obtuse to my sinister design, having
instructed Irene that I was to be allowed to share him with her,
and we had become close friends, though the little nurse was ever
a threatening shadow in the background. Irene, in short, did not
improve with acquaintance. I found her to be high and mighty,
chiefly, I think, because she now wore a nurse's cap with
streamers, of which the little creature was ludicrously proud.
She assumed the airs of an official person, and always talked as
if generations of babies had passed through her hands. She was
also extremely jealous, and had a way of signifying disapproval
of my methods that led to many coldnesses and even bickerings
between us, which I now see to have been undignified. I brought
the following accusations against her:

That she prated too much about right and wrong.

That she was a martinet.

That she pretended it was a real cap, with real streamers, when
she knew Mary had made the whole thing out of a muslin blind. I
regret having used this argument, but it was the only one that
really damped her.

On the other hand, she accused me of spoiling him.

Of not thinking of his future.

Of never asking him where he expected to go to if he did such
things.

Of telling him tales that had no moral application.

Of saying that the handkerchief disappeared into nothingness,
when it really disappeared into a small tin cup, attached to my
person by a piece of elastic.

To this last charge I plead guilty, for in those days I had a
pathetic faith in legerdemain, and the eyebrow feat (which,
however, is entirely an affair of skill) having yielded such good
results, I naturally cast about for similar diversions when it
ceased to attract. It lost its hold on David suddenly, as I was
to discover was the fate of all of them; twenty times would he
call for my latest, and exult in it, and the twenty-first time
(and ever afterward) he would stare blankly, as if wondering what
the man meant. He was like the child queen who, when the great
joke was explained to her, said coldly, "We are not amused," and,
I assure you, it is a humiliating thing to perform before an
infant who intimates, after giving you ample time to make your
points, that he is not amused. I hoped that when David was able
to talk--and not merely to stare at me for five minutes and then
say "hat"--his spoken verdict, however damning, would be less
expressive than his verdict without words, but I was
disillusioned. I remember once in those later years, when he
could keep up such spirited conversations with himself that he
had little need for any of us, promising him to do something
exceedingly funny with a box and two marbles, and after he had
watched for a long time he said gravely, "Tell me when it begins
to be funny."

I confess to having received a few simple lessons in conjuring,
in a dimly lighted chamber beneath a shop, from a gifted young
man with a long neck and a pimply face, who as I entered took a
barber's pole from my pocket, saying at the same time, "Come,
come, sir, this will never do." Whether because he knew too
much, or because he wore a trick shirt, he was the most
depressing person I ever encountered; he felt none of the
artist's joy, and it was sad to see one so well calculated to
give pleasure to thousands not caring a dump about it.

The barber's pole I successfully extracted from David's mouth,
but the difficulty (not foreseen) of knowing how to dispose of a
barber's pole in the Kensington Gardens is considerable, there
always being polite children hovering near who run after you and
restore it to you. The young man, again, had said that anyone
would lend me a bottle or a lemon, but though these were articles
on which he seemed ever able to lay his hand, I found (what I had
never noticed before) that there is a curious dearth of them in
the Gardens. The magic egg-cup I usually carried about with me,
and with its connivance I did some astonishing things with
pennies, but even the penny that costs sixpence is uncertain, and
just when you are saying triumphantly that it will be found in
the egg-cup, it may clatter to the ground, whereon some
ungenerous spectator, such as Irene, accuses you of fibbing and
corrupting youthful minds. It was useless to tell her, through
clenched teeth, that the whole thing was a joke, for she
understood no jokes except her own, of which she had the most
immoderately high opinion, and that would have mattered little to
me had not David liked them also. There were times when I could
not but think less of the boy, seeing him rock convulsed over
antics of Irene that have been known to every nursemaid since the
year One. While I stood by, sneering, he would give me the
ecstatic look that meant, "Irene is really very entertaining,
isn't she?"

We were rivals, but I desire to treat her with scrupulous
fairness, and I admit that she had one good thing, to wit, her
gutta-percha tooth. In earlier days one of her front teeth, as
she told me, had fallen out, but instead of then parting with it,
the resourceful child had hammered it in again with a hair-brush,
which she offered to show me, with the dents on it. This tooth,
having in time passed away, its place was supplied by one of
gutta-percha, made by herself, which seldom came out except when
she sneezed, and if it merely fell at her feet this was a sign
that the cold was to be a slight one, but if it shot across the
room she knew she was in for something notable. Irene's tooth
was very favourably known in the Gardens, where the perambulators
used to gather round her to hear whether it had been doing
anything to-day, and I would not have grudged David his
proprietary pride in it, had he seemed to understand that Irene's
one poor little accomplishment, though undeniably showy, was
without intellectual merit. I have sometimes stalked away from
him, intimating that if his regard was to be got so cheaply I
begged to retire from the competition, but the Gardens are the
pleasantest club in London, and I soon returned. How I scoured
the Gardens looking for him, and how skilful I became at picking
him out far away among the trees, though other mothers imitated
the picturesque attire of him, to Mary's indignation. I also cut
Irene's wings (so to speak) by taking her to a dentist.

And David did some adorable things. For instance, he used my
pockets as receptacles into which he put any article he might not
happen to want at the moment. He shoved it in, quite as if they
were his own pockets, without saying, By your leave, and perhaps
I discovered it on reaching home--a tin-soldier, or a pistol--when
I put it on my mantleshelf and sighed. And here is another
pleasant memory. One day I had been over-friendly to another
boy, and, after enduring it for some time David up and struck
him. It was exactly as Porthos does, when I favour other dogs
(he knocks them down with his foot and stands over them, looking
very noble and stern), so I knew its meaning at once; it was
David's first public intimation that he knew I belonged to him.

Irene scolded him for striking that boy, and made him stand in
disgrace at the corner of a seat in the Broad Walk. The seat at
the corner of which David stood suffering for love of me, is the
one nearest to the Round Pond to persons coming from the north.

You may be sure that she and I had words over this fiendish
cruelty. When next we met I treated her as one who no longer
existed, and at first she bridled and then was depressed, and as
I was going away she burst into tears. She cried because neither
at meeting nor parting had I lifted my hat to her, a foolish
custom of mine, of which, as I now learned to my surprise, she
was very proud. She and I still have our tiffs, but I have never
since then forgotten to lift my hat to Irene. I also made her
promise to bow to me, at which she affected to scoff, saying I
was taking my fun of her, but she was really pleased, and I tell
you, Irene has one of the prettiest and most touching little bows
imaginable; it is half to the side (if I may so express myself),
which has always been my favourite bow, and, I doubt not, she
acquired it by watching Mary.

I should be sorry to have it thought, as you may now be thinking,
that I look on children as on puppy-dogs, who care only for play.
Perhaps that was my idea when first I tried to lure David to my
unaccustomed arms, and even for some time after, for if I am to
be candid, I must own that until he was three years old I sought
merely to amuse him. God forgive me, but I had only one day a
week in which to capture him, and I was very raw at the business.

I was about to say that David opened my eyes to the folly of it,
but really I think this was Irene's doing. Watching her with
children I learned that partial as they are to fun they are moved
almost more profoundly by moral excellence. So fond of babes was
this little mother that she had always room near her for one
more, and often have I seen her in the Gardens, the centre of a
dozen mites who gazed awestruck at her while she told them
severely how little ladies and gentlemen behave. They were
children of the well-to-pass, and she was from Drury Lane, but
they believed in her as the greatest of all authorities on little
ladies and gentlemen, and the more they heard of how these
romantic creatures keep themselves tidy and avoid pools and wait
till they come to a gate, the more they admired them, though
their faces showed how profoundly they felt that to be little
ladies and gentlemen was not for them. You can't think what
hopeless little faces they were.

Children are not at all like puppies, I have said. But do
puppies care only for play? That wistful look, which the
merriest of them sometimes wear, I wonder whether it means that
they would like to hear about the good puppies?

As you shall see, I invented many stories for David, practising
the telling of them by my fireside as if they were conjuring
feats, while Irene knew only one, but she told it as never has
any other fairy-tale been told in my hearing. It was the
prettiest of them all, and was recited by the heroine.

"Why were the king and queen not at home?" David would ask her
breathlessly.

"I suppose," said Irene, thinking it out, "they was away buying
the victuals."

She always told the story gazing into vacancy, so that David
thought it was really happening somewhere up the Broad Walk, and
when she came to its great moments her little bosom heaved.
Never shall I forget the concentrated scorn with which the prince
said to the sisters, "Neither of you ain't the one what wore the
glass slipper."

"And then--and then--and then--," said Irene, not artistically to
increase the suspense, but because it was all so glorious to her.

"Tell me--tell me quick," cried David, though he knew the tale by
heart.

"She sits down like," said Irene, trembling in second-sight, "and
she tries on the glass slipper, and it fits her to a T, and then
the prince, he cries in a ringing voice, 'This here is my true
love, Cinderella, what now I makes my lawful wedded wife.'"

Then she would come out of her dream, and look round at the
grandees of the Gardens with an extraordinary elation. "Her, as
was only a kitchen drudge," she would say in a strange soft voice
and with shining eyes, "but was true and faithful in word and
deed, such was her reward."

I am sure that had the fairy godmother appeared just then and
touched Irene with her wand, David would have been interested
rather than astonished. As for myself, I believe I have
surprised this little girl's secret. She knows there are no
fairy godmothers nowadays, but she hopes that if she is always
true and faithful she may some day turn into a lady in word and
deed, like the mistress whom she adores.

It is a dead secret, a Drury Lane child's romance; but what an
amount of heavy artillery will be brought to bear against it in
this sad London of ours. Not much chance for her, I suppose.

Good luck to you, Irene.