A Safety Match/Chapter 1

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"Nicky, please, have you got Mr Pots the Painter?"

"No, Stiffy, but I'll trouble you for Mrs Bones the Butcher's Wife. Thank you. And Daph, have you got Master Bones the Butcher's Son? Thank you. Family! One to me!"

And Nicky, triumphantly plucking from her hand four pink-backed cards, slaps them down upon the table face upwards. They are apparently family portraits. The first—that of Bones père—depicts a smug gentleman, with appropriate mutton-chop whiskers, mutilating a fearsome joint upon a block; the second, Mrs Bones, an ample matron in apple-green, proffering to an unseen customer a haunch of what looks like anæmic cab-horse; the third, Miss Bones, engaged in extracting nourishment from a colossal bone shaped like a dumb-bell; the fourth, Master Bones (bearing a strong family likeness to his papa), creeping unwillingly upon an errand, clad in canary trousers and a blue jacket, with a sirloin of beef nestling against his right ear.

It was Saturday night at the Rectory, and the Vereker family—"those absurdly handsome Rectory children," as old Lady Curlew, of Hainings, invariably called them—sat round the dining-room table playing Happy Families. The rules which govern this absorbing pastime are simple. The families are indeed happy. They contain no widows and no orphans, and each pair of parents possesses one son and one daughter—perhaps the perfect number, for the sides of the house are equally balanced both for purposes of companionship and in the event of sex-warfare. As for procedure, cards are dealt round, and each player endeavours, by requests based upon observation and deduction, to reunite within his own hand the members of an entire family,—an enterprise which, while it fosters in those who undertake it a reverence for the unities of home life, offers a more material and immediate reward in the shape of one point for each family collected. We will look over the shoulders of the players as they sit, and a brief consideration of each hand and of the tactics of its owner will possibly give us the key to the respective dispositions of the Vereker family, as well as a useful lesson in the art of acquiring that priceless possession, "A Happy Family."

Before starting on our tour of the table we may note that one member of the company is otherwise engaged. This is Master Anthony Cuthbert Vereker, aged ten years—usually known as Tony. He is the youngest member of the family, and is one of those fortunate people who are never bored, and who rarely require either company or assistance in their amusements. He lives in a world of his own, peopled by folk of his own creation; and with the help of this unseen host, which he can multiply to an indefinite extent and transform into anything he pleases, he organises and carries out schemes of recreation beside which all the Happy Families in the world become humdrum and suburban in tone. He has just taken his seat upon a chair opposite to another chair, across the arms of which he has laid the lid of his big box of bricks, and is feeling in his pocket for an imaginary key, for he is about to give an organ recital in the Albert Hall (which he has never seen) in a style modelled upon that of the village organist, whom he studies through a chink in a curtain every Sunday.

Presently the lid is turned back, and the keyboard—a three-manual affair, ingeniously composed of tiers of wooden bricks—is exposed to view. The organist arranges unseen music and pulls out invisible stops. Then, having risen to set up on the mantelpiece hard by a square of cardboard bearing the figure [1], he resumes his seat, and embarks upon a rendering of Handel's Largo in G, which its composer, to be just, would have experienced no difficulty in recognising, though he might have expressed some surprise that so large an instrument as the Albert Hall organ should produce so small a volume of sound. But then Handel never played his own Largo in a room full of elder brothers and sisters, immersed in the acquisition of Happy Families and impatient of distracting noises.

The Largo completed, its executant rises to his feet and bows again and again in the direction of the sideboard; and then (the applause apparently having subsided) solemnly turns round the cardboard square on the mantelpiece so as to display the figure [2], and sets to work upon The Lost Chord.

Meanwhile the Happy Families are being rapidly united. The houses of Pots the Painter, Bun the Baker, and Dose the Doctor lie neatly piled at Nicky's right hand; and that Machiavellian damosel is now engaged in a businesslike quest for the only outstanding member of the family of Grits the Grocer.

Nicky—or Veronica Elizabeth Vereker—was in many respects the most remarkable of the Rectory children. She was thirteen years old, was the only dark-haired member of the family, and (as she was fond of explaining) was possessed of a devil. This remarkable attribute was sometimes adduced as a distinction and sometimes as an excuse,the former when impressionable and nervous children came to tea, the latter when all other palliatives of crime had failed. Certainly she could lay claim to the brooding spirit, the entire absence of fear, the unlimited low cunning, and the love of sin for its own sake which go to make the master-criminal. At present she was enjoying herself in characteristic fashion. Her brother Stephen—known as "Stiffy"—Nicky's senior by one year, a transparently honest but somewhat limited youth, had for the greater part of the game been applying a slow-moving intellect to the acquisition of one complete Family. Higher he did not look. Nicky's habit was to allow Stiffy, with infinite labour, to collect the majority of the members of a Family in which she herself was interested, and then, at the eleventh hour, to swoop down and strip her unconscious collaborator of his hardly earned collection.

Stiffy, sighing patiently, had just surrendered Mr, Mrs, and Miss Block (Hairdressers and Dealers in Toilet Requisites) to the depredatory hands of Nicky, and was debating in his mind whether he should endeavour when his next chance came to complete the genealogical tree of Mr Soot the Sweep or corner the clan of Bung the Brewer. Possessing two Bungs to one Soot, he decided on the latter alternative.

Presently he was asked by his elder sister, Cilly (Monica Cecilia), for a card which he did not possess, and this gave him the desired opening.

"I say, Nicky," he began deferentially, "have you got Master Bung?"

Nicky surveyed her hand for a moment, and then raised a pair of liquid-blue eyes and smiled seraphically.

"No, Stiffy, dear," she replied; "but I'll have Mr Bung and Mrs Bung."

Stiffy, resigned as ever, handed over the cards. Suddenly Sebastian Aloysius Vereker, the eldest son of the family (usually addressed as "Ally"), put down his cards and remarked, slowly and without heat:—

"Cheating again! My word, Nicky, you are the absolute edge!"

"Who is cheating?" inquired Veronica in a shocked voice.

"You. Either you must have Master Bung, or else you are asking for Stiffy's cards without having any Bungs at all; because I've got Miss myself."

He laid the corybantic young lady in question upon the table to substantiate his statement.

Nicky remained entirely unruffled.

"Oh—Bung!" she exclaimed. "Sorry! I thought you said 'Bun,' Stiffy. You should spit out your G's a bit more, my lad. Bung-gah—like that! I really must speak to dad about your articulation."

In polite card-playing circles a lady's word is usually accepted as sufficient; but the ordinary courtesies of everyday life do not prevail in a family of six.

"Rot!" said Ally.

"Cheat!" said Cilly.

"Never mind!" said loyal and peaceable Stiffy. "I don't care, really. Let's go on."

"It's not fair," cried Cilly. "Poor Stiffy hasn't got a single Family yet. Give it to him, Nicky, you little beast! Daph, make her!"

Daphne was the eldest of the flock, and for want of a mother dispensed justice and equity to the rest of the family from the heights of nineteen. For the moment she was assisting the organist, who had inadvertently capsized a portion of his keyboard. Now she returned to the table.

"What is it, rabble?" she inquired maternally.

A full-throated chorus informed her, and the arbitress detached the threads of the dispute with effortless dexterity.

"You said you thought he was asking for Miss Bun and not Bung?" she remarked to the accused.

"Yes—that was all," began Nicky. "You see," she continued pathetically, "they're all so beastly unjust to me, and—"

Daphne picked up her small sister's pile of completed Families and turned them over.

"You couldn't have thought Stiffy wanted Buns," she said in measured tones, "because they're all here. You collected them yourself. You've cheated again. Upstairs, and no jam till Wednesday!"

It is a tribute to Miss Vereker's disciplinary methods that the turbulent Nicky rose at once to her feet and, with a half-tearful, half-defiant reference to her Satanic inhabitant, left the room and departed upstairs, there to meditate on a Bun-strewn past and a jamless future.

Daphne Vereker was perhaps the most beautiful of an extraordinarily attractive family. Her full name was Daphne Margaret. Her parents, whether from inherent piety or on the lucus a non lucendo principle, had endowed their offspring with the names of early saints and martyrs. The pagan derivative Daphne was an exception. It had been the name of Brian Vereker's young bride, and had been bestowed, uncanonically linked with that of a saint of blameless antecedents, upon the first baby which had arrived at the Rectory. Mrs Vereker had died eleven years later, two hours after the birth of that fertile genius Anthony Cuthbert, and Brian Vereker, left to wrestle with the upbringing of six children on an insufficient stipend in a remote country parish, had come to lean more and more, in the instinctive but exacting fashion of lonely man, upon the slim shoulders of his eldest daughter.

There are certain attributes of woman before which the male sex, whose sole knowledge of the ways of life is derived from that stern instructor Experience, can only stand and gape in reverent awe. When her mother died Daphne Vereker was a tow-headed, long-legged, irresponsible marauder of eleven. In six months she looked like a rather prim little nursery-governess: in two years she could have taken the chair at a Mother's meeting. Circumstance is a great forcing-house, especially where women are concerned. Her dreamy, unpractical, affectionate father, oblivious of the expectant presence in the offing of numerous female relatives-in-law, had remarked in sober earnest to his little daughter, walking erect by his side in her short black frock on the way home from the funeral:—"You and I will have to bring up the children between us now, Daphne;" and the child, with an odd thrill of pride at being thus promoted to woman's highest office at the age of eleven, had responded with the utmost gravity:—

"You had better stick to the parish, dad, and I'll manage the kids."

And she had done it. As she presides at the table this Saturday evening, with her round chin resting on her hands, surveying the picturesque crew of ragamuffins before her, we cannot but congratulate her on the success of her methods, whatever those may be. On her right lolls the apple of her eye, the eldest son, Ally. He is a handsome boy, with a ready smile and a rather weak mouth. He is being educated—God knows by what anxious economies in other directions—at a great public school. When he leaves, which will be shortly, the money will go to educate Stiffy, who is rising fourteen.

Next to Ally sprawls Cilly, an amorphous schoolgirl with long rippling hair and great grey eyes that are alternately full of shy inquiry and hoydenish exuberance. Then comes the chair recently vacated by the Madonna-like Nicky; then the ruddy countenance and cheerful presence of the sunny-tempered Stiffy, completing the circle. In the corner Master Anthony Cuthbert, cherubic and rapturous, is engaged, with every finger and toe in action, upon the final frenzy of the Hallelujah Chorus. The number [6] stands upon the mantelpiece, for the recital is drawing to a close.

To describe Daphne herself is not easy. One fact is obvious, and that is that she possesses an instinct for dress not as yet acquired by any of her brothers and sisters. Her hair is of a peculiarly radiant gold, reflecting high lights at every turn of her head. Her eyes are brown, of the hue of a Highland burn on a sunny afternoon, and her eyebrows are very level and serene. Her colouring is perfect, and when she smiles we understand why it is that her unregenerate brothers and sisters occasionally address her as "Odol." When her face is in repose—which, to be frank, is not often—there is a pathetic droop at the corners of her mouth, which is perhaps accounted for by the cares of premature responsibility. She is dressed in brown velvet, with a lace collar—evening dress does not prevail in a household which affects high tea, but Daphne always puts on her Sunday frock on Saturday evenings—and, having discovered that certain colours suit her better than others, she has threaded a pale blue ribbon through her hair.

Altogether she is a rather astonishing young person to find sitting contentedly resting her elbows upon a dingy tablecloth in an untidy dining-room which smells of American leather and fried eggs. It is as if one had discovered the Venus de Milo presiding at a Dorcas Society or Helen of Troy serving crumpets in an A.B.C. shop.

The Hallelujah Chorus has just stopped dead at that paralysing hiatus of two bars which immediately precedes the final crash, when the door opens and the Reverend Brian Vereker appears. A glance at his clear-cut aristocratic features goes a long way towards deciding the question of the origin of the good looks of "those Rectory children."

He is a tall man—six feet two,—and although he is barely fifty his hair is specklessly white. He looks more like a great prelate or statesman than a country parson. Perhaps he might have been one or the other, had he been born the eldest son of the eldest son of a peer, instead of the youngest son of the youngest. And again, perhaps not. The lines of his face indicate brain rather than character, and after all it is character that brings us out top in this world. There are furrows about his forehead that tell of much study; but about the corners of his mouth, where promptitude and decision usually set their seal, there is nothing—nothing but a smile of rare sweetness. His gentle blue eyes have the dreamy gaze that marks the saints and poets of this world: the steely glitter of the man of action is lacking. Altogether you would say that Brian Vereker would make a noble figurehead to any high enterprise; but you would add that if that enterprise was to succeed, the figurehead would require a good deal of imported driving-power behind it. And you would be right.

The Rector paused in the doorway and surveyed the lamp-lit room.

"Hath spo-o-oken it!" vociferated the Albert Hall organ with an air of triumphant finality. Brian Vereker turned to his youngest son with the ready sympathy of one child for another child's games.

"That's right, Tony! That's the stuff! Good old George Frederick! He knew the meaning of the word music—eh?"

"Yes—George Fwederick!" echoed the organist. "And Arthur Seymour, daddy! You've just missed The Lost Chord."

"Ah," said the Rector in a tone of genuine regret, "that's a pity. But we had the Seventy-Eighth Psalm to-night, and I'm later than usual."

"Quadruple chant?" inquired Tony professionally.

"Rather! But is your recital quite over, boyo?"

"Yes—bedtime!" replied the organist, with a reproachful glance in the direction of his eldest sister.

"Run along, dear!" was all the comfort he received from that inflexible despot.

"All right! I must lock up, though."

Master Tony removed the last number from the mantelpiece, disintegrated his keyboard and packed it up with the other bricks, and drawing aside the window-curtain remarked solemnly into the dark recess behind it:—

"That will be all to-night, organ-blower. You can go home now."

To which a husky and ventriloquial voice replied:—

"Thank you kindly, Mr Handel, sir. Good-night."

"Now," concluded Mr Handel, turning to his elders with the air of a martyr addressing a group of arena lions, "I'm ready!"

"Take him up, Cilly dear," said Daphne. "I must look after dad's supper."

"Come on, Tony," said Cilly, uncoiling her long legs from under her and rising from the hearthrug.

"Righto!" said Tony. "You be a cart-horse and I'll be a broken-down motor."

Monica Cecilia Vereker meekly complied, and departed upstairs, towing the inanimate mechanism of the inventive Anthony behind her bump by bump, utilising her sash, which she had removed for the purpose, as a tow-rope.

"Ally and Stiffy," commanded Daphne, turning to the two remaining members of the family, "you'd better go and pump the cistern full. Saturday night, you know, and the kids' baths have just been filled; so look sharp before the boiler bursts."

Stiffy, obliging as ever, rose at once; Ally, cumbered by that majesty which doth hedge a sixth-form boy and a member of the school Fifteen (especially when ordered about by a female), was more deliberate in his acquiescence. However, presently both the boys were gone, and five minutes later Daphne, with the assistance of the one little maid whom the establishment supported, had laid the Rector's supper. She installed her father in his seat on one side of the table, and took her own on the other, assisting the progress of the meal from time to time, but for the most part sitting with her chin resting upon her two fists, and contemplating the tired man before her with serious brown eyes. Twice she had to leave her seat, once to remove the butter from the vicinity of her parent's elbow, and once to frustrate an attempt on the part of that excellent but absent-minded man to sprinkle sugar over a lettuce.

"Well, my daughter," remarked the Rector presently, "what of the weekly report?"

Saturday night at the Rectory was reserved for a sort of domestic budget.

"Here are the books," said Daphne. "They're much as usual, except that I had to pay two bob on Wednesday for a bottle of embrocation for Ally. He is in training for the mile in the sports at the beginning of next term, and it does his muscles so much good."

"When I won the mile at Fenner's, Daphne," began the Reverend Brian, with a sudden glow of reminiscence in his dreamy eyes, "I did it without embrocation, or any other new-fashioned—"

"Yes, dear, but they have to run so much faster now than they did," explained Daphne soothingly. "Then, about the kitchen chimney—"

"But I only took four minutes, twenty-eight—"

"Yes, old man, and I'm proud of you!" said Daphne swiftly.—"Well, the sweep is coming in on Wednesday, when you'll be away at Wilford, so that's all right." She was anxious to get away from the question of the embrocation. It had been a rank extravagance, and she knew it; but Ally was ever her weak spot. "Then, I've got three-and-nine in hand out of current expenses just now, and if I take two half-crowns out of the emergency bag and we go without a second joint this week, I can get Nicky a new pair of boots, if you don't mind. (Don't cut the cheese with a spoon, dear; take this knife.) Of course, we ought not to have to go to the Emergency Bag for boots at all. It's rather upsetting. To-day I find that a perfectly ducky pair of Sunday shoes, which I outgrew just before I stopped growing, and was keeping specially for that child, are too small for her by yards. (I had tried them on Cilly a year ago, but she simply couldn't get her toe in.) And now they'll be wasted, because there are no more of us girls. My feet are most exasperating."

"Your mother had tiny feet," said the Rector, half to himself.

He pushed away his plate, and gazed absently before him into that land where his son Tony still spent so much of his time, and whither Tony's young and pretty mother had been borne away ten years before. Daphne permitted him a reverie of five minutes, while she puckered her brow over the account-books. Then she rose and took down a pipe from a rack on the mantelpiece. This she filled from a cracked jar thirty years old, adorned with the coat-of-arms of one of the three royal colleges of Cambridge, and laid it by her father's left hand.

"Then there's another thing," she continued, lighting a spill at the fire. "Isn't it time to enter Stiffy for school? Mr Allnutt asked us to say definitely by April whether he was coming to fill Ally's place after summer or not, otherwise he would be obliged to give the vacancy to some one else. It's the end of March now."

The Rector lit his pipe—his one luxury—in a meditative fashion, and then leaned back to contemplate his daughter, with her glinting hair and troubled little frown.

"Mr Allnutt? To be sure! Of course! A ripe scholar, Daphne, and a long-standing personal friend of my own. He took the Porson and Craven in successive years. His Iambics——"

All this was highly irrelevant, and exceedingly characteristic. Daphne waited patiently through a résumé of Mr Allnutt's achievements as a scholar and a divine, and continued:—

"Will you enter Stiffy at once, then? It would be a pity not to get him into Ally's old house."

Brian Vereker, suddenly recalled to business, laid down his pipe and sighed.

"Boys are terribly expensive things, little daughter," he said. "And we are so very very poor. I wonder if they are worth it."

"Of course they are, the dears!" said Daphne, up in arms at once.

"Of course, of course," agreed the Rector apologetically. "You are right, child; you are always right. It is ungrateful and un-Christian of me to give expression to such thoughts when God has granted me three good sons. Still, I admit it was a disappointment to me when Ally failed to gain a scholarship at Cambridge. He may have been right in his assertion that there were an exceptionally strong set of candidates up on that occasion, but it was unfortunate that he should have overslept himself on the morning of the Greek Prose Paper, even though, as he pointed out, Greek Prose is his weak subject. What a pity! Strange lodgings, probably! Still, his disappointment must be far greater than ours, so it would be ungenerous to dwell further on the matter. But I fail to see at present how he can be started in life now. If only one had a little money to spare! I have never felt the need of such a thing before."

"Yes, we could do with a touch of it," assented Miss Vereker elegantly. She began to tick off the family requirements on her fingers. "There's Ally to be started in life; and Cilly ought to be sent somewhere and finished—she's tragically gawky, and she'd be perfectly lovely if she was given half a chance; and Stiffy has to be sent to school; and the two kiddies are growing up, and this house is simply tumbling down for want of repairs; and it's really time you had a curate for long-distance visiting—"

"Never!" said Brian Vereker firmly.

"All right. Never, if you like, but he'll have to come some day," said Daphne serenely. (The question of the curate cropped up almost as regularly as that of the second joint on Wednesdays.) "And all we've got to run the whole show on," she concluded, with a pathetic little frown which many a man would gladly have given his whole estate to smooth away, "is—two pounds seventeen and ninepence in the Emergency Bag! It's a bit thick, isn't it?"

Brian Vereker surveyed his daughter's troubled countenance with characteristic placidity. Simple faith—some called it unpractical optimism—was the main article of his creed.

"The Lord will provide, my daughter," he said.

At this moment the door opened with a flourish, and, the crimson and enraged countenance of Master Anthony Cuthbert Vereker having been thrust into the room, its owner inquired, in a voice rendered husky by indignation, how any one could be expected to impersonate a dreadnought going into action in the bath, when the said bath was encumbered with the flotsam and jetsam of a previous occupant. In other words, was he to be bathed in the same water as Nicky?

It was an old grievance, arising from the insufficient nature of the Rectory water-supply (which had to be pumped up by hand from the garden) and the smallness of the kitchen boiler; and Daphne had perforce to go upstairs to adjust it. Consequently the sitting of the Committee of Ways and Means, with all its immediate necessities and problems for the future, was incontinently suspended.