The Toys of Peace and Other Papers/Morlvera
The Olympic Toy Emporium occupied a conspicuous frontage in an important West End street. It was happily named Toy Emporium, because one would never have dreamed of according it the familiar and yet pulse-quickening name of toyshop. There was an air of cold splendour and elaborate failure about the wares that were set out in its ample windows; they were the sort of toys that a tired shop-assistant displays and explains at Christmas time to exclamatory parents and bored, silent children. The animal toys looked more like natural history models than the comfortable, sympathetic companions that one would wish, at a certain age, to take to bed with one, and to smuggle into the bath-room. The mechanical toys incessantly did things that no one could want a toy to do more than a half a dozen times in its lifetime; it was a merciful reflection that in any right-minded nursery the lifetime would certainly be short.
Prominent among the elegantly-dressed dolls that filled an entire section of the window frontage was a large hobble-skirted lady in a confection of peach-coloured velvet, elaborately set off with leopard skin accessories, if one may use such a conveniently comprehensive word in describing an intricate feminine toilette. She lacked nothing that is to be found in a carefully detailed fashion-plate—in fact, she might be said to have something more than the average fashion-plate female possesses; in place of a vacant, expressionless stare she had character in her face. It must be admitted that it was bad character, cold, hostile, inquisitorial, with a sinister lowering of one eyebrow and a merciless hardness about the corners of the mouth. One might have imagined histories about her by the hour, histories in which unworthy ambition, the desire for money, and an entire absence of all decent feeling would play a conspicuous part.
As a matter of fact, she was not without her judges and biographers, even in this shop-window stage of her career. Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, had halted on the way from their obscure back street to the minnow-stocked water of St. James’s Park, and were critically examining the hobble-skirted doll, and dissecting her character in no very tolerant spirit. There is probably a latent enmity between the necessarily under-clad and the unnecessarily overdressed, but a little kindness and good fellowship on the part of the latter will often change the sentiment to admiring devotion; if the lady in peach-coloured velvet and leopard skin had worn a pleasant expression in addition to her other elaborate furnishings, Emmeline at least might have respected and even loved her. As it was, she gave her a horrible reputation, based chiefly on a secondhand knowledge of gilded depravity derived from the conversation of those who were skilled in the art of novelette reading; Bert filled in a few damaging details from his own limited imagination.
“She’s a bad lot, that one is,” declared Emmeline, after a long unfriendly stare; “’er ’usbind ’ates ’er.”
“’E knocks ’er abart,” said Bert, with enthusiasm.
“No, ’e don’t, cos ’e’s dead; she poisoned ’im slow and gradual, so that nobody didn’t know. Now she wants to marry a lord, with ’eaps and ’eaps of money. ’E’s got a wife already, but she’s going to poison ’er, too.”
“She’s a bad lot,” said Bert with growing hostility.
“’Er mother ’ates her, and she’s afraid of ’er, too, cos she’s got a serkestic tongue; always talking serkesms, she is. She’s greedy, too; if there’s fish going, she eats ’er own share and ’er little girl’s as well, though the little girl is dellikit.”
“She ’ad a little boy once,” said Bert, “but she pushed ’im into the water when nobody wasn’t looking.”
“No she didn’t,” said Emmeline, “she sent ’im away to be kep’ by poor people, so ’er ’usbind wouldn’t know where ’e was. They ill-treat ’im somethink cruel.”
“Wot’s ’er nime?” asked Bert, thinking that it was time that so interesting a personality should be labelled.
“’Er nime?” said Emmeline, thinking hard, “’er nime’s Morlvera.” It was as near as she could get to the name of an adventuress who figured prominently in a cinema drama. There was silence for a moment while the possibilities of the name were turned over in the children’s minds.
“Those clothes she’s got on ain’t paid for, and never won’t be,” said Emmeline; “she thinks she’ll get the rich lord to pay for ’em, but ’e won’t. ’E’s given ’er jools, ’underds of pounds’ worth.”
“’E won’t pay for the clothes,” said Bert, with conviction. Evidently there was some limit to the weak good nature of wealthy lords.
At that moment a motor carriage with liveried servants drew up at the emporium entrance; a large lady, with a penetrating and rather hurried manner of talking, stepped out, followed slowly and sulkily by a small boy, who had a very black scowl on his face and a very white sailor suit over the rest of him. The lady was continuing an argument which had probably commenced in Portman Square.
“Now, Victor, you are to come in and buy a nice doll for your cousin Bertha. She gave you a beautiful box of soldiers on your birthday, and you must give her a present on hers.”
“Bertha is a fat little fool,” said Victor, in a voice that was as loud as his mother’s and had more assurance in it.
“Victor, you are not to say such things. Bertha is not a fool, and she is not in the least fat. You are to come in and choose a doll for her.”
The couple passed into the shop, out of view and hearing of the two back-street children.
“My, he is in a wicked temper,” exclaimed Emmeline, but both she and Bert were inclined to side with him against the absent Bertha, who was doubtless as fat and foolish as he had described her to be.
“I want to see some dolls,” said the mother of Victor to the nearest assistant; “it’s for a little girl of eleven.”
“A fat little girl of eleven,” added Victor by way of supplementary information.
“Victor, if you say such rude things about your cousin, you shall go to bed the moment we get home, without having any tea.”
“This is one of the newest things we have in dolls,” said the assistant, removing a hobble-skirted figure in peach-coloured velvet from the window; “leopard skin toque and stole, the latest fashion. You won’t get anything newer than that anywhere. It’s an exclusive design.”
“Look!” whispered Emmeline outside; “they’ve bin and took Morlvera.”
There was a mingling of excitement and a certain sense of bereavement in her mind; she would have liked to gaze at that embodiment of overdressed depravity for just a little longer.
“I ’spect she’s going away in a kerridge to marry the rich lord,” hazarded Bert.
“She’s up to no good,” said Emmeline vaguely.
Inside the shop the purchase of the doll had been decided on.
“It’s a beautiful doll, and Bertha will be delighted with it,” asserted the mother of Victor loudly.
“Oh, very well,” said Victor sulkily; “you needn’t have it stuck into a box and wait an hour while it’s being done up into a parcel. I’ll take it as it is, and we can go round to Manchester Square and give it to Bertha, and get the thing done with. That will save me the trouble of writing: ‘For dear Bertha, with Victor’s love,’ on a bit of paper.”
“Very well,” said his mother, “we can go to Manchester Square on our way home. You must wish her many happy returns of to-morrow, and give her the doll.”
“I won’t let the little beast kiss me,” stipulated Victor.
His mother said nothing; Victor had not been half as troublesome as she had anticipated. When he chose he could really be dreadfully naughty.
Emmeline and Bert were just moving away from the window when Morlvera made her exit from the shop, very carefully in Victor’s arms. A look of sinister triumph seemed to glow in her hard, inquisitorial face. As for Victor, a certain scornful serenity had replaced the earlier scowls; he had evidently accepted defeat with a contemptuous good grace.
The tall lady gave a direction to the footman and settled herself in the carriage. The little figure in the white sailor suit clambered in beside her, still carefully holding the elegantly garbed doll.
The car had to be backed a few yards in the process of turning. Very stealthily, very gently, very mercilessly Victor sent Morlvera flying over his shoulder, so that she fell into the road just behind the retrogressing wheel. With a soft, pleasant-sounding scrunch the car went over the prostrate form, then it moved forward again with another scrunch. The carriage moved off and left Bert and Emmeline gazing in scared delight at a sorry mess of petrol-smeared velvet, sawdust, and leopard skin, which was all that remained of the hateful Morlvera. They gave a shrill cheer, and then raced away shuddering from the scene of so much rapidly enacted tragedy.
Later that afternoon, when they were engaged in the pursuit of minnows by the waterside in St. James’s Park, Emmeline said in a solemn undertone to Bert—
“I’ve bin finking. Do you know oo ’e was? ’E was ’er little boy wot she’d sent away to live wiv poor folks. ’E come back and done that.”