A Suburban Terrace
A SUBURBAN TERRACE.
THERE were six houses in the terrace, the Smiths' was the bottom one. Names higher up were nobler—Beeton Percival, Norman, Morrison, Westgarth. Mrs. Percival was a clergyman's widow; some uncle of the Beetons' had once been mayor of a municipality. The Westgarths, Normans and Morrisons all had their "at home" days, and called on each other and friends in the neighbouring streets with the greatest solemnity and regularity.
Naturally, none of them could know the Smiths. Mr. Smith canvassed for an insurance company. Retired from the Government service, in which he had been for twenty years, there was nothing else left for him to do.
He was always shabby, even when he had a new suit; for then his linen would be ragged, his hat aged, his tie washed colourless, his boots patched. Whenever his hat was new and his linen passable, his suit looked falling apart. The Terrace said it was surprised at Mrs. Smith. That was because her mouth still smiled happily, though there were eight dreadful children.
No one but Mrs. Percival had called on her. That lady, remembering her husband and his preaching of the Great Tolerance, had once picked a way among the babies, and little boys, and tin-tied kittens, and broken toys, and dogs in the front garden strip, across the unwashed verandah to the front door. She had hammered with her parasol handle, the bell being broken and the knocker wrenched off, and Mrs. Smith had answered it in person, there being no maid to the establishment.
The front room that the rest of the Terrace used as a drawing-room was here a bedroom—three little unmade beds and a chaos of clothes and boots betrayed the fact through the cheerfully open door.
The caller was led into a blank, bare dining-room, with an ink-splashed, hole-burnt cloth on its big table, and about six crazy chairs scattered about.
Mrs. Smith's manners were easy; she did not attempt to apologise for the untidiness, nor for her own attire, which, from her poor burst shoes to her frayed, spotless collar, was barely respectable.
"I am very glad to see you," she said. "Can you find a chair? It is a difficult thing to do in this house since Tommy and Jim started aquariums." She removed a basin that held a crippled lizard as she spoke. "Won't you take your bonnet off?"
As Mrs. Percival said afterwards to the Terrace, that speech alone stamped her. To be asked to remove one's bonnet at an afternoon call!
"She can't know anything about calling," she said, relating afterwards. "I suppose she sat and wondered what I came for."
And so the mother of eight had wondered exceedingly, for such things in truth were entirely beyond her ken. But her manner was warm and free from self-consciousness. Her conversation touched point after point that the clergyman's widow thought surprising, considering the circumstances. Not once did she refer of her own accord to her offspring or household cares.
Mrs. Percival tried to force her to the subjects; she considered it an affectation for such a person to ignore them.
"I often sympathise with you," she said, her long, wonderful nose bobbing down to meet her chin in its own strange way. "Eight children, and s—" (she had almost said "such dreadful ones") "s—so high-spirited!"
"Oh," said Mrs. Smith, her tone serious, though a wicked dimple dented her smooth chin, "when once you've started whipping, it's as easy to do eight as three; and then, even if one or two are guiltless of offence that time, one can always console oneself by knowing they deserved it for something else."
Mrs. Percival gasped. "Can you," she said, "do you—is it possible you believe in bodily chastisement, Mrs. er—Smith?" The pause was intended to show surprise that they were benighted enough to have no hyphen.
Mrs. er—Smith invited her to leave her chair and come to the window a moment. "Do you imagine it is possible," she said, with a laugh as merry as a girl's, "to have a yardful of children like that and never use a slipper or a strap?"
Then her merriment died suddenly, and the dimple fled from her chin; real concern sprang into her eyes, and she tried her best to get her visitor from the window. The three little girls were finishing their game outside; the eldest one, with marvellous quickness and ingenuity, had donned a thick shawl weeds-wise over a rusty black skirt of her mother's. She had tied on the card-board nose that they kept for playing Punch, and it was vigorously reddened at the tip—poor Mrs. Percival suffered from nothing worse than acute indigestion. Just as the ladies reached the window the small caricaturist advanced mincingly across the yard, wobbling her nose actively, holding her dress very high, and picking her way with exaggerated daintiness among the tins and mud-heaps and happily grubbing babies.
The visit was not prolonged. Mrs. Smith would have found an excuse to pull down the blind, but that, alas! there was none to pull; and her visitor missed no point, though she feigned to have seen nothing.
It was not to be expected, naturally, that any others of the Terrace dwellers would run the risk of a backyard caricature. That was the first and last personal communication with her neighbours that Mrs. Smith was afforded for many a mouth.
Shortly after this the little Percivals were forbidden to speak to the little Smiths—not that there had hitherto been any great degree of intimacy; but before the restriction they had quarrelled amicably together across the backyard fence, and occasionally run races on cold mornings round the green paddock that stretched opposite.
The Normans had never been permitted to hold communication with the small, shabby ones at the bottom house. Their mother had once heard Jimmie say, "Come in out of the wet!" with sarcastic intimation, and Tommie retort, "What yer givin' us?"
So when the Percivals were bidden pass in silence, as did the Normans, the two little Beetons were told to do the same, for their parents considered the clergyman's widow an authority on the guidance of youth. That made three families "not speaking." Then Lennie Smith, ten years of age and red-hot socialist, fought Frank Morrison, aged thirteen, and well blackened his innocent eyes, for no better reason than that the latter was returning from his dancing class and wearing tan kid gloves stitched at the back with black.
Frank was bidden keep away in the future from the little "ruffians."
The Westgarths were only babies—tiny, stolid mites of three and four, who walked solemnly up and down the green every morning for an hour on either side of their nurse. They screamed at the very sight of a Smith. And this was because Annis, the small caricaturist, had discovered that she had the power of frightening the poor little things into fits by contorting her face at them and rolling her eyes. She used to hide within her gate every morning as they went past for their walk. Then, when the small ones looked back, as they invariably did, with the fascinated fright of childhood, she would make her face a thing to terrorise. The other two little Smith girls and the youngest boy did exactly the same thing whenever they met the trio. Had they not to avenge the fact that Mrs. Westgarth always referred to their mother as "that person Mrs. Smith?" And as no one could move in that neighbourhood without meeting one of the family, the stolid children's lives were a burden to them.
But what could the Westgarths do? It would have seemed absurd for the head of the family to have solemnly proceeded to the dwelling of the Smiths and entered a formal protest against his children being "made faces at" by the Smith children. They could only bid the nurse watch her opportunity to take her charges for an airing only when the green seemed free from the enemy.
"But," said the little Percivals, and the Morrisons, and Normans, and Beetons, unto their parents, after a time of monotonous play, "how can we help playing with them sometimes? If we play staghorn they join us, and Lennie Smith makes the splendidest stag of all! Besides, they know all the games, and we can't remember without them. Can't we play with them as long as we shut our eyes when we go to school?"
But the parents were obdurate, and forbade any intercourse. "When the Smiths are on the green," they said, "you are to go for walks or play inside."
The Smiths were swift to discover the interdict. How they revelled in it! How they chuckled to their wicked little selves! What a beautiful revenge they prepared!
They never left the green a moment! Time was when the short, fresh hour before breakfast had seen the patch of sweet country grass that straggled pleasantly in this suburban place alive with the whole Terrace's young folks. Now all the little Smiths were there by seven o'clock sharp—even the seven-months baby in its pink nightgown and a big shawl, and the toddling two-year-old, her eyes not washed from sleep. They played wild Indians, circuses, French and English, fox and goose, "I-hacky"—or whatsoe'er that famous game is rightly called—prisoners' base. Oh, the wild exciting shrieks, the ringing laughs, the intoxicating racket! The children of good upbringing almost broke their hearts with envy. One or two bowled tame hoops up and down the footpath, one or two skipped sadly with their expensive skipping-ropes; for the most part they stood in the middle of the road and watched with their childish hearts in their eyes the mad fun and revelry of their old, brilliant playfellows.
Before school it was just the same. The Smiths seemed to take no time at all for breakfast; they rushed out again after a moment or two's disappearance, a slice of bread and dripping in their hands, and took possession of the green again. At lunch time they played cricket on it. After school they scurried back and ran up their invisible flags once more.
"How fond you all seem of the green just now!" said Mrs. Smith. "You have quite deserted the backyard and the garden."
"We like the green better, mother dear," Jimmie had replied gently, and the innocent lady had not dreamed of the import of his eye-twinkle.
Perturbation reigned in the other five houses of the Terrace; one or two of the families, as well as the Westgarths, began to talk seriously of removing, for their children were absolutely miserable. The little girls moped in the house near the windows, or carried their dolls in a melancholy fashion up and down the pavement, and looked out of their eye-corners all the time at the green. The little boys quarrelled with each other, grew sulky, ill-tempered, and stayed in the house so much the mothers began to develop nerve complaints.
At last one or two of them actually mutinied.
Frank Morrison passed the green once when a most exciting game of staghorn was in progress. The running line in one of its sweeps came quite close to him, and Lennie was at the end. "Catch on!" he said, holding out his hand as they swerved past. His tone was hearty, and Frank caught on, forgot parents, promises, everything, in the wild joy of that mad chase after Annis of the long thin legs. He stayed with them all the afternoon, for his mother was out calling, stayed and played prisoners' base, and French and English, and staghorn once again. Such a joyous welcome they all gave him, his heart was filled with eager loving-kindness to these shabby old playmates of his.
Then there came creeping like a snail unwillingly from school—and all because of the interdict—Eddie Beeton.
When he saw Frank among the defenders of a base his eyes flew open; fascination at the sight drew him off the road, farther, farther along the green, till he was actually skirting the territory of the game.
"Frank!" he called after a time in a loud whisper, as if the rough children added deafness to their other failings, and only his friend had ears to hear. "Frank, will you be let play?"
Frank did not seem in the least ashamed at being caught; indeed, he looked proud of himself for being among the players in that splendid game, especially as away on the pavement stood Lina Percival and Gladys Norman watching enviously, and closer, Eddie.
Annis darted out from the line, on a prisoner intent, Frank from his side to prevent it. But she did not rush this time to where her youngest sister stood holding out an eager hand to be released. She doubled skilfully just as his hand went to grasp her, then shot like an arrow in the direction of Eddie.
Who could have withstood it? Surely not a small, game-loving laddie of nine! His hand dropped his school-bag and rushed into hers; together they flew back to the base, and he was one of them once more.
When the game changed to "Ticky, ticky, touch wood," Lina and Gladys edged near. "Bad boys!" they said. "We'll tell of you—we'll go and tell your mothers!"
Annis swooped down on them. "Hit!" she cried, touching Lina's sleeve. Lina's cross little face relaxed, an irrepressible little dimple of joy peeped out at her mouth corner. She turned to Gladys to ask in a whisper, "Would it be very wicked to play for just three minutes?" And Gladys was fleeing as fast as her little legs would carry her to a bush near, to touch wood. What was to be done? Everyone was waiting and dodging tantalisingly near, inviting her to catch them. She opened her lips to say she could not play, then caught sight of the third little Smith girl, whom she remembered she always had been able to catch. She dropped her doll untenderly upon the nearest bush and skimmed over the ground, joy in her heart.
A terrible tale it was for four fathers to hear! Gladys was in bed, though daylight peeped mockingly in through the window, and the sound of the Smiths' laughter floated in from the green. Lina was sewing the hem of a sheet and making it damp with her tears. Frank's dinner consisted of dry bread and water, eaten at the same table whereon roast fowl was served. Eddie was trying to get pins out of the cracks in a small space of floor. It was the only solace and occupation he could find, for there was an ignominious rope tied round his waist and fastened firmly to the door handle.
The fathers tried to look at their rueful offspring gloomily, angrily, when the terrible charges of "playing with the little Smiths" were mentioned. And they said, "Quite right," when they heard how the mothers had already punished them. But one of them smiled as they went from the room of punishment, and one of them sighed, and one of them hummed, and one of them made a quotation under his breath.
"What?" said the wife of the last one, rather sharply.
"I merely said, 'Strange all this difference should be 'twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee,’" he returned deprecatingly.
Shortly after this the five ladies of the Terrace determined to join together and give their children a delightful picnic somewhere, since they missed so much fun by the green being barred to them. They counted up the small ones available—Westgarths, Percivals, Normans, Morrisons, Beetons—fifteen in all; they told them that they might invite five more to bring the number up to twenty, one child to each family, and they must settle it amongst themselves who it was to be.
The children reviewed all their little friends far and near; sisters quarrelled with brothers because a boy was suggested, brothers with sisters because the latter wanted a girl. The votes of the little Westgarths were bought up with sticks of barley-sugar. At last one of the mothers settled it. Everyone was to write a name privately on a slip of paper and hand it to her; and the five most asked for were to come.
It was Mrs. Percival's "at home" day, and all the Terrace—excepting that person Mrs. Smith—was present when Lina came into the drawing-room with all the little screwed-up papers in her pencil-box.
Mr. Morrison opened the votes—being the only gentleman present, he said it was his due. And with an unmoved face and perfectly clear voice he read the results. These were the names, written in the various round, unsteady hands: Lennie Smith, Annis Smith, the third little girl Smith, Len Smith, one of the Smiths, Jimmie Smith, Tommie Smith, Leonard Smith, Nan Smith, Jim Smith, Thomaa Smith, James Smith, Nancy Smith, Jumbo Smith, Tom Smith.
The select picnic consisted of fifteen only, and no strangers.
Soon after that, wonderful things began to happen. A sneak thief got into the Morrisons bedroom window one morning about eight o'clock. Nobody knew about it. Mr. Morrison read his paper in just as calm and unhurried a fashion as he did when there was nobody quietly pocketing his valued gold watch. Mrs. Morrison rebuked Frank and Harry at length as usual for the way they sat and the noise they made when drinking. And all the time her gold brooches and her pearl and sapphire rings and her favourite ruby bracelet were being transferred from her jewel drawers into a rough coat pocket. More than half an hour passed before the discovery was made and a hue and cry raised. Mr. Morrison swore, Mrs. Morrison wept—neither things did an atom of good.
Then there came to the door two policemen and Lennie Smith, with a colour in his face. The policemen produced rings, watch, everything that was missing, and asked if they recognised them? Mrs. Morrison gasped; she had thought ill enough of the Smiths in all truth, but this was beyond everything. The boy looked ashamed, embarrassed; twice he did his best to dodge under the policeman's arm and get away, and twice Mr. Morrison caught him and brought him back. The policeman patted the lad, and remarked admiringly that "there were no flies on him!" Then they informed the Morrisons that Lennie, coming in from the green, had observed a man climbing out of one of their side windows. He raised no alarm, but simply strolled after the fellow when he took a course up the street. Nearly a mile he followed him until a policeman hove in sight. "See that cove in front?" he said to the man of buttons. "You can collar him as soon as you like. He's been stealing from a house I know."
The policeman had the thief in ten seconds; he got help and marched him to the lock-up, then went back with the lad to restore the stolen property.
Mr. Morrison shook hands with Lennie warmly, heartily; he offered him a couple of sovereigns, and even Mrs. Morrison did not think it was too much. But the shabby lad held up his head and went redder than ever, "No, thank you," he said, and stalked away.
Naturally, after this, Frank was allowed to play on the green, and, since they might do nothing else, Lennie was asked to tea on frequent occasions, and treated to more cake and good things than he had ever had in his life. In the end even Mrs. Morrison said he was not "half so bad," and used to frequently find herself laughing at his jokes and queer tricks.
Jimmie heaped the next coals of fire. And on the Percivals' head this time. One of the widow's little girls set fire to her clothes, and was rather badly burnt; a doctor was sorely needed, and there was none nearer than two miles, for the local one was ill. Being the middle of the day, the Terrace held only women folk and children—not a runner anywhere. Then twelve-year-old Jimmie Smith, kept at home to mind the baby, found a thing to do.
There was a Chinaman's horse and vegetable cart in the back lane; he took the animal swiftly out of the shafts and rode away on him, leaving the women to appease the disconsolate John. He was back with a doctor in half an hour.
Mrs. Percival wiped the backyard scene completely out of her memory, and called on Mrs. Smith again regularly for twenty minutes once a month; she allowed her little girls to play on the green two afternoons a week, and spent her spare time in crocheting hoods and pretty jackets for the Smith baby. And whenever she met Jimmie—and could manage it—she kissed him.
Then Tommie fought a street boy who was fighting and badly worsting Eddie Beeton. So he was allowed to play.
And when Lina and May Norman had mumps and were confined to the front room for a fortnight, the third little girl Smith and Jimmie and Tommie used to play circus so kindly just under the window that the heart of Mrs. Norman was softened to them for ever after.
But the Westgarths could not forgive the faces made at their babies, and they zealously guarded the little mites from any contaminating touch from the sixth house. The nurse still crossed the road as soon as she reached the Percivals', although Annis had wearied of the monotony of her game and given it up, and Mrs. Westgarth still spoke of "that person Mrs. Smith, and shuddered. So it happened when the Morrisons and Beetons gave picnics, and the Normans and Percivals birthday parties, the Westgarths were forced to keep their children at home, as they knew three or four at least of the little Smiths would be sure to be asked. Before long Mrs. Westgarth found herself standing quite alone, as much isolated at the extreme top of the Terrace as Mrs. Smith erstwhile had been at the extreme bottom. The Smiths were the fashion of the moment; and because she refused to go with the tide, she was naturally left stranded. Mrs. Westgarth, through stress of the domestic unhappiness involved, was forced to remove to a neighbourhood where Smiths were unknown.
Then the Terrace, conquered from top to bottom by the kindness of the ubiquitous little Smiths, lived in perfect calm and happiness for fully a month. At all events, so I am credibly informed.