A Safety Match/Chapter 24

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"Brian Vereker Carr," inquires a voice, "what time is it?"

"Half-past four, sir," replies the same voice respectfully. "In twenty minutes"—in a more truculent tone—"you will have to go upstairs and get ready for tea. You will have to wash your hands—and your face too, I expect," adds the voice bitterly.

Thus, at the age of eight, does Master Brian Vereker Carr commune with himself—a habit acquired during an infancy spent in a large nursery where there was no one else to talk to. The necessity for this form of duologue no longer exists, for now a sister shares the nursery with him—Brian lives in dread of the day when she shall discover that her manly brother not only owned but once rejoiced in the great doll's house in the corner by the fireplace—but the habit remains. Besides, Miss Carr is only four years old, and gentlemen who have worn knickerbockers for years find it difficult to unbend towards their extreme juniors to any great extent. Hence Mr Brian still confers aloofly with himself, even in the presence of adults. There are touches of Uncle Anthony Cuthbert about Brian.

At present he is inadequately filling a large arm-chair in front of the library fire at Belton. The fire is the sole illuminant of the room. The curtains are closely drawn, for it is a cold winter evening. Brian Vereker continues his observations, now approaching an artistic climax.

"If you go upstairs promptly and obediently, like a good boy, what do you think mother will give you?" inquires voice number one.

"Chocolates!" replies number two, with an inflection of tone which implies that it will be playing the game pretty low down if mother does not.

The owner of both voices then turns an appealing pair of brown eyes upon Daphne, who is sitting on the other side of the fireplace, engaged in the task of amusing her four-year-old daughter.

"We'll see," she replies after the immemorial practice of mothers. . . . "And suddenly," she continues to the impatient auditor on her lap, "his furry skin fell away, and his great teeth disappeared, and he stood up there straight and beautiful, in shining armour. He was a fairy prince, after all! Brian, dear, tumble out of that armchair. Here is dad."

Daphne must have quick ears, for a full half-minute elapses before the door opens and a figure appears in the dim light at the end of the room. Apparently the darkness does not trouble him, for he circumnavigates a round table and a revolving bookcase without hesitation, and finally drops into the armchair recently vacated by his son.

"Brian Vereker Carr," inquires a small and respectful voice at his elbow, "do you think dad will play with you to-night?"

"I am sure he will," comes a confident reply from the same quarter, "if you give him two minutes to light his pipe in, and refrain from unseemly demon—demonstrations of affection in the mean while."

"It's a hard world for parents," grumbles Juggernaut, getting up. "Where is my tobacco-pouch?"

His hand falls upon the corner of the mantelpiece, but encounters nothing there but a framed photograph of a sun-burned young man on a polo-pony—Uncle Ally, to be precise.

"Now where on earth is that pouch? I know I left it on the left-hand end of the mantelpiece after lunch."

There is a shriek of delight at this from Brian, in which Miss Carr joins, for the great daily joke of the Carr family is now being enacted.

"Where can it be?" wails Juggernaut. "Under the hearthrug, perhaps? No, not there! In the blotting-pad? No, not there! I know! I expect it is behind the coal-box."

Surprising as it may appear, his surmise proves to be correct; and the triumphant discovery of the missing property scores a dramatic success which no repetition seems able to stale. (This is about the fiftieth night of the run of the piece.)

Presently the pipe is filled and lit, Master Carr being permitted to kindle the match and Miss Carr to blow it out, the latter feat only being accomplished by much expenditure of breath and a surreptitious puff from behind her shoulder, contributed by an agency unknown.

"Now, Brian, young fellow," announces Juggernaut, "I will play for ten minutes. Let me speak to the sister first, though."

He lifts his daughter, whom he has never seen, from her mother's knee, and exchanges a few whole-hearted confidences with her upon the subject of her recreations, conduct, dolls, health, and outlook on life in general. Then he restores her, and shouts:—

"Come on, Brian Boroo!"

There is a responsive shriek from his son, and the game begins. It is not every boy, Master Brian proudly reflects as he crawls on all fours beneath a writing-table, who can play at blind man's buff with a real blind man!

Daphne leans back in her chair and surveys her male belongings restfully. Time was when this husband of hers, at present eluding obstacles with uncanny facility and listening intently, with the youthful zest of a boy-scout, for the excited breathing of his quarry, found life a less hilarious business. There rises before her the picture of a man led from room to room, steered round corners, dressed like a child, fed like a baby—shattered, groping, gaunt, but pathetically and doggedly cheerful. Neither Daphne nor her husband ever speak of that time now. Not that she regrets it: woman-like, she sometimes feels sorry it is over and gone. She was of real use to her man in those days. Now he seems to be growing independent of her again. Then she smiles comfortably, for she knows that all fears on that score are groundless. He is hers, body and soul. And she—

A small, unclean, and insistent hand is tugging at her skirt, and Miss Carr, swaying unsteadily beneath the burden of a bulky and tattered volume, claims her attention.

"Show me pictures," she commands.

She and her tome are hoisted up, and the exposition begins.

"Where did you find this book, Beloved?" inquires Daphne. The book is an ancient copy of the Pilgrim's Progress, and we have encountered it once before in this narrative.

"Over there," replies Beloved, indicating the bottom shelf of a bookcase with a pudgy thumb—"under ze Gwaphics. What's ze name of that genelman?"

To Miss Carr distinctions of caste are as yet unknown. In her eyes every member of the opposite sex, from the alien who calls on Thursdays with a hurdy-gurdy to the knight-in-armour who keeps eternal vigil in the outer hall, is a "genelman." Even if you are emitting flames from your stomach, as in the present instance, you are not debarred from the title.

Daphne surveys the picture in a reminiscent fashion, and her thoughts go back to a distant Sunday morning at the Rectory, with her youngest brother kneeling on the floor, endeavouring to verify a pictorial reference in this very volume.

"What is he doin' to the other genelman?" continues the searcher after knowledge upon her knee, in a concerned voice.

"He is trying to hurt him, dear."

"What for?"

So the inexorable, immemorial catechism goes on, to be answered with infinite patience and surprising resource. Presently the cycle of inquiry completes itself, and the original question crops out once more.

"What did you say was ze name of that genelman?" with a puckered, frowning effort at remembrance.

"Apollyon, dear."

"Oh." Then the enquirer strikes a fresh note. "Do you know him?"

"I used to," replies Daphne. "At least," she adds, "I used to know some one who I thought was like him. But his name turned out not to be Apollyon after all."

"What was his name, then—his real name?" pursues Miss Carr.

Daphne turns to another illustration, coming much later in the book, and surveys it with shining eyes.

"His proper name, Beloved?" she asks.

"Yes. What was it?"

"Mr Greatheart," says Daphne softly.