Both the children clasped their hands simultaneously to their necks where the glittering order had hung and shone only a few minutes before.
Then they stared blankly at the place where it had been. Alas! the luminously lighted jewels of the order were no longer there.
"Oh, Lal," said Ridgwell, "shall we never have it again?"
"Only the memory of it," replied the Lion gently; "that never fades."
"Only the memory," echoed Ridgwell thoughtfully.
"Nobody can ever take that away from you," said the Lion.
"Did any other little boy ever have the Great Order of Imagination, Lal?"
"Yes," said the Lion, "there was one who had the highest and greatest order of all, the Pure Soul of Imagination itself." The Lion paused and seemed to be thinking.
"Where is he now?" whispered Ridgwell, for unconsciously he seemed to have lowered his voice.
The Lion lifted his great and noble head, and looked upwards towards the silver stars above them. The Lion shook his head doubtfully, and the children noticed that there was something very like a tear in his eyes.
"I don't know which particular star," said the Lion, "but somewhere there, I think; but then, you see, I'm only a Pagan."
The Lion stopped and purred; they were outside the familiar windows of their own home.
"Oh, Lal," whispered the children, "how shall we remember all we've seen to-night; how shall we be able to think about it and go through it all again, if the Order of Imagination has been taken away from us and if we are never to speak to you again, and only to see you once more? Even then you cannot tell us how we are going to see you."
The Lion smiled. "I can arrange that easily. Be of good heart, little Ridgwell and Christine. I know a writer—he comes and talks to me at night sometimes, though I never answer him—and I will suggest he writes it all down for you. I can ask him things without saying a word."
"Will you?" pleaded the children. "Oh, please ask him, Lal!"
"Yes," said the Lion, "I will; good-night."
PREPARING FOR A VISITOR
Upon the third day after bidding good-bye to their strange friend, the children felt they had every reason to be excited as to what events the day would bring forth, to say nothing of endless speculations as to the manner in which their most uncommon visitor might choose to appear to them.
Consequently after Ridgwell had opened his birthday presents the first thing in the morning, he held a sort of council of war with Christine.
"You see, Chris, fortunately the house hasn't any underneath part," explained Ridgwell, "so that we can keep watch, both of us, all on one floor so to speak. You take guard of the French windows in the drawing-room where you can see the greater part of the garden, and I will watch the windows of the dining-room, where I can see the road both ways up to the house."
"Shan't we get tired of always looking at the same spot?" objected Christine.
"I have thought of a plan for that, Chris. When either of us want a change, just shout out, 'Sister Ann, sister Ann, do you see anybody coming?'"
"I see," nodded Christine, "everybody will only think we are playing a game."
"Then," pursued Ridgwell, full of inspiration, "if Lal isn't looming in sight anywhere, the other will shout out, 'Not a sail in the offing,' then we change over rooms."
"Anyway Lal couldn't sail, could he?" queried Christine.
"You don't know how he might come," whispered Ridgwell. "He might even come in a motor car, and anyway it's only so that other people shan't understand."
"It seems to me," remarked Christine logically, "that people won't understand him anyway, and less when they see him than when they don't."
"It's an anxious time, isn't it, Chris?"
"Very," assented Christine, "and anyhow we shall have to drop Cookie a hint, because you see her window in the kitchen looks over a part of the garden that we can't see from the drawing-room."
"Of course," mused Ridgwell, "the weak spot about Cookie is that she gets shocks so quickly."
"She's sure to get one to-day," commenced Christine hopefully, "when Lal comes."
"Very well then, we'll give her a sort of hint," suggested Ridgwell.
Now Cookie, beloved of the children, to say nothing of the household generally, was a fat person, with very red cheeks, and very good-humoured rolling green eyes that somehow always looked as if they had been originally intended for gooseberries, which had boiled and bubbled during her many cooking operations and had never been permitted to simmer.
"What do you children want in the kitchen?" commenced Cookie. "Master Ridgie, you know quite well that your birthday cake ain't to be ready till tea-time."
"But, Cookie dear," commenced Ridgwell insinuatingly.
Cookie dear continued the mystic rights over which she presided as high priestess, her vermilion red hands and arms continued to splash about in a very big basin, where she contrived to throw up little waves of very white flour as if she were about to take a morning dip in it, yet hesitated before taking the plunge. These mysterious rites having been accomplished and the flour having as it were received a final blessing from Cookie's hands, Cookie commenced to beat up eggs.
"I know you've come wheedling for something," objected Cookie, "and you ain't going to 'ave it, Master Ridgie. Why, you've only just finished your breakfast."
"I don't want anything to eat," announced Ridgwell.
Cookie eyes boiled and rolled ominously, whilst a sort of faint concern appeared upon the surface of them. "If you can't eat, Master Ridgie, then you must be ill and want some medicine."
"No, no," hastily interposed Ridgwell, "I don't want any medicine, we only came in to ask you a question."
"Well, you can't ask me any of your questions now, I'm busy," asserted Cookie. "Ain't got no time."
"Oh, Cookie dear, you can listen whilst you beat up an egg," expostulated Ridgwell.
"Egg!" shouted Cookie indignantly, "three blessed eggs for your cake, and 2 1/2d. each, new laid too, and I only bought a dozen of 'em."
"Yes, yes, Cookie dear. I meant three eggs, the number doesn't matter, and it won't take a minute for us to tell you. It's just this. Suppose a great big beautiful Lion came and sat in the middle of the raspberry canes just outside your kitchen door, what would you do?"
"Is this a conundrum?" demanded Cookie. "If so, I don't know no answer to it, Master Ridgie."
"It isn't a riddle, Cookie, at all. If a Lion really came to see you, what would you do?"
"I should fetch a policeman at once," announced Cookie.
Ridgwell smiled. "A policeman wouldn't be any good, Cookie! Really, you know, he couldn't do anything."
"Then I should fetch two policemen," said Cookie, shortly and conclusively. Cookie, at this point in the argument, beat the three new-laids at such a furious rate, that the foam of them whirled round and round very much like the agitated thoughts of Cookie herself at being confronted with such an outrageous problem the first thing in the morning.
"'Owever," amended Cookie, "afore I went to fetch them policemen, I'd throw all the boiling green water over him, from the window first, and see if that wouldn't shift 'im."
Both Ridgwell and Christine laughed outright, the idea was too ridiculous. To think of their friendly and Pleasant-Faced Lal coming to make a society call and having boiling cabbage water thrown over his stately head, was altogether too much for their gravity.
"How indignant he would be," laughed Ridgwell. "Oh! Chris only think how hurt he would feel as he shook the stuff off his mane and whiskers!"
This imaginary picture, however, seemed to be too much for Christine, so she determined to speak seriously to Cookie.
"Cookie," said Christine in her most earnest manner, "a lion may arrive outside this door (pointing to the article in question in a most impressive fashion) at any moment to-day."
"Yes," added Ridgwell, "and we only want you to be prepared."
Cookie's eyes seemed to boil a little faster for a moment, appeared to swell in fact and be altogether overdone, as she fixed her orbs upon the door in question, then up went Cookie's apron over her head, and alas! down went the three new-laid at 2 1/2d. each, all spilled upon the floor, and the cup broken as well.
At this moment the children instinctively realised that discretion was sometimes the better part of valour, and made speedy preparations to vacate in favour of other quarters of the house, not, however, before they could hear Cookie moaning beneath her apron:
"Escaped I s'pose, oh! mighty 'Eavens! escaped from the Crystal Palace, or the Zoo, or a circus or somethink, oh, it ain't safe living in England! Blowed if I don't bolt the kitchen door, and nobody warned me or told me it was in the morning papers. Thank goodness I've taken in the milk, and them three eggs all spoiled. Only nine left now," moaned Cookie, "and cutlets and pancakes for lunch too."
"Come, Chris," whispered Ridgwell. "You see we can't expect much support from Cookie."
"No," agreed Christine, as they departed for the dining-room. "How about Mother? Let's hear what she says."
"Yes," assented Ridgwell. "You see Mother is very nice and kind always to anybody who calls, and perhaps if she spoke to Lal and welcomed him a bit when he comes, he might feel at home at once."
"I can't think where we are going to ask him to sit, can you, Ridgie? You see," explained Christine, "it's so inhospitable to leave him in the hall, and if he walks into the drawing-room and swishes his tail even contentedly, all the china would go over at once."
"No, Chris, Lal is much too well mannered to do anything like that, but I'm afraid the only place for him will be the hearth-rug in front of the fire. Stop a minute, Chris, I've got it. Of course, the sofa in the drawing-room. Nobody must sit on the sofa at all to-day, then it will be all ready for him when he comes, and we shall only have to tuck him in a bit at the sides if he's too big."
Matters were not much better understood in the drawing-room, for a lady visitor had just called and was waiting for Mother to come down. Mrs. Tallcat was a lady who always deemed it her duty to call once a week upon everybody, whether people wished to see her or whether they did not wish to see her.
Had a census of opinion been taken concerning Mrs. Tallcat's calls, Mrs. Tallcat would have found, much to her astonishment no doubt, that she possessed very few votes, and no votes at all from children.
"Would you very much mind if you didn't sit upon the sofa?" commenced Ridgwell gently.
Mrs. Tallcat, always inclined towards huffiness at a moment's notice, consequently selected a chair.
"Is the sofa likely to give way?" inquired Mrs. Tallcat suspiciously.
"No," explained Christine, "it is because it is so strong and firm on its legs that we have chosen it."
"I never allow my boy to play upon the sofa," sniffed Mrs. Tallcat, as if she were referring to a piano.
"It isn't to play upon," remarked Ridgwell, "but we are expecting a very, very solid visitor."
Mrs. Tallcat sniffed for the second time. "I never allow my boy to make any remarks whatever upon visitors who call," responded Mrs. Tallcat icily.
"Oh, Lal doesn't mind," said Christine cheerfully.
"Who is Lal?" inquired Mrs. Tallcat, "a gentleman friend of your father's?"
"No," said Ridgwell, "Lal is a lion, and Father doesn't know him yet."
"Tut, tut, tut," snapped Mrs. Tallcat crossly. "Directly my boy begins to talk nonsense I send him straight to bed."
"It's bad for the health to go to bed at the wrong time," suggested Ridgwell pensively.
"My boy always does as he's told," announced Mrs. Tallcat triumphantly; "if he doesn't, he is whipped."
At this point a new idea suddenly struck Ridgwell. "Chris," he whispered audibly, "we must somehow get the old cat out of the way."
Mrs. Tallcat instantly bridled, and her face became inflamed with anger. "How dare you!" commenced the indignant lady.
"I mean the other cat," explained Ridgwell, "our own cat."
The explanation, although convincing, was perhaps ambiguous. It was undoubtedly fortunate that Mother timed her appearance at this point to a nicety, and so prevented any further complications.
"Dreadful time her boy must have, don't you think, eh, Chris?" asked Ridgwell.
"Only fancy, Chris," pursued Ridgwell, "calling her little boy Tom. Tom Tallcat; why, he'll be chaffed no end at school. I do feel sorry for him; and then the way she dresses him, coloured velvet and a brigand's hat with a feather in it, just as if he was part of a circus. I'm glad Mother doesn't dress me like that. The other day I met him and he'd got a bow and arrow. She'd actually sent him into the street with a bow and arrow. I said 'Hullo, Robin Hood,' not meaning anything, and he began to cry; it was awkward, and I'm sure he feels it. Father said that the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children ought to interfere, but I think that was perhaps only one of Father's jokes."
"I think," suggested Mother, who had caught audible fragments of this conversation, "I think you children had better run away now and play."
The morning appeared to go quite quickly up to the cutlets and the pancake stage.
The late afternoon shadows threw their creeping patterns over both lawns, and still there was no sign whatever of their eccentric friend Lal.
Tea-time came and passed, and then the shadows grew deeper, first blue, then violet, then black, the trees and shrubs could scarcely be distinguished at all; and, as ill luck would have it, there was no moon.
At length the time arrived when the family not unreasonably suggested that the blinds of the house should be pulled down. Here was a dilemma. How was it possible to warn the household of the Pleasant-Faced Lion's approach if the blinds were pulled down? When Ridgwell found, in spite of much lingering, that the last crumb of cake had been consumed, to say nothing of the last currant which he had made last quite a long time, and that the third summons to go to bed must have some sort of notice taken of it, he resigned himself to the inevitable, and with a hopeless look at Christine, prepared to talk to Father.
Father was reading quite quietly, and apparently deeply engrossed in a book, and somehow that didn't help matters.
"Please, Father, would you mind very much if the hall door and the back door were both left wide open all night?"
Father considered this somewhat odd request for a space, then inquired with a stray gleam of amusement in his eyes, "Do you consider the house stuffy? Or have you suddenly adopted one of the Futurist ideas concerning Health?"
"No, it isn't that, but Chris and I expect somebody; no, I mean something, and we should be so disappointed if it, no, I mean he didn't come."
"Rather a late visitor," said Father, "and rather an inconsiderate one if this quite Eastern welcome of him includes us all catching our death of cold. No, Ridgie, I'm afraid he will have to knock."
"But, Father, I'm not sure he can knock."
"Then ring," suggested their parent, "nice new electric bell I've just had fixed up. He's only got to push the button."
"Perhaps he doesn't understand about electric bells," objected Ridgwell.
"Your friend seems a trifle old-fashioned," observed Father, good-naturedly.
"And then," said Ridgwell, "his paw is so big he might never find the bell-push."
"I see; a dog, eh?"
"No, bigger than a dog, much."
"Well, then, say a donkey."
"No, Father, bigger than a dog, and not so big as a donkey."
"I give it up," said Father, "but I promise whatever he is he shall be attended to and entertained if possible."
"I cannot think what you will say to him," debated Ridgwell anxiously.
"I will do my best, Ridgwell; but from your description I should imagine the conversation will be a little one-sided. However," remarked Father drily, "perhaps he can be persuaded to smoke, or drink."
"No, Father, he never smokes, and he only drinks water."
"Ah! very abstemious," murmured Father; "perhaps he is a vegetarian as well, sounds like it, and they are always the most difficult people to entertain."
At this moment the conversation was interrupted by a loud knocking at the front door, and immediately the new electric bell sounded throughout the house. Ridgwell and Christine nearly tumbled over one another in order to get to the hall door first.
"It's Lal after all," shouted Ridgwell.
"Sure to be," chimed in Christine.
At length in the struggle the hall door was opened, but it wasn't the form of the Pleasant-Faced Lion who greeted them, only Mr. Jollyface, a friend of Father's and a happy, jolly old bachelor, who loved both of the children.
"Anybody with you?" inquired Ridgwell anxiously, as he peered either side of Mr. Jollyface's portly form.
"No, only me," chuckled Mr. Jollyface. "Whom are you expecting? Glad to find you children up; I've got something for you in my pocket, Master Ridgie; your birthday, isn't it?"
"Yes," confessed Ridgwell, but it could be plainly seen that his former enthusiasm had died a sudden death. "But do tell me, Mr. Jollyface, did you see anything as you came along?"
"Lots of things," replied Mr. Jollyface, cheerily.
"A lion?" whispered Ridgwell mysteriously.
"No," debated Mr. Jollyface, "no, I think I may say that a lion was the only thing I didn't see."
"Oh, Mr. Jollyface, are you sure?"
"Yes," replied Mr. Jollyface gravely, "I can really be quite certain upon that point."
"If you had seen a great lion, Mr. Jollyface, what would you have done?"
"I think," debated Mr. Jollyface, as he prepared to disencumber himself of his great-coat, "I think I should have wished him good-evening and passed politely, like the—ahem—Levite, on the opposite side of the way."
"Oh, Mr. Jollyface," sighed Ridgwell, "if you only knew we have waited all day long for a lion."
"Now, that's very funny," whispered Mr. Jollyface, "for I have actually brought one for you in my pocket, I have really. Here it is," announced the imperturbable Mr. Jollyface, as he produced a parcel from his pocket and thrust it into Ridgwell's hand.
"No, no, not that sort of lion," remonstrated Ridgwell.
"Well, perhaps this one would do," suggested Mr. Jollyface. "It's the best sort of lion, you know, really, and made of the very finest chocolate, too."
Here a well-known voice was heard to remark: "If I have to speak to you children once more about going to bed there will be trouble."
"Scamper off," exclaimed the good-natured Mr. Jollyface; then he added, "you know you can eat chocolate in bed quite as well as you can anywhere else. I used to enjoy it as a boy more than I should have done upon a plate in the dining-room. Off you go; good-night, kids."
Thereupon Father claimed Mr. Jollyface, and as the children slowly mounted the stairs they could hear him saying: "So it was you the children were waiting for, and the animal friend they expected was a chocolate lion, eh?"
"Very likely," agreed Mr. Jollyface. "Ha! ha! ha! so they have been puzzling you, my old friend, eh?"
"Well, children's riddles are very difficult to guess," said Father, "and yet they are always so simple."
"Chris," observed Ridgwell dejectedly, as they reached their room and turned the handle of the door, "they none of them understand; isn't it dreadful? and they are grown up, too, and really ought to know."
"We've waited and waited, Ridgie, and there's nothing else to be done; Lal won't come now, and he's never broken his word before, has he?"
"He might come, Chris; let's roll up the blind."
"No, the garden looks the same as it always does; there isn't a thing in sight. Suppose we don't go to sleep just yet and keep awake a bit; Lal might come and throw a stone at the window."
"Let's eat the chocolate," suggested Chris, who was occasionally practical, "while we wait."
Ridgwell untied the small parcel, a wooden box, about half the size of one of Father's cigar-boxes, and appeared to be made of the same kind of brown wood.
Disclosed to view at length, the birthday present was seen to be a fairly large chocolate lion lying upon a pedestal. The entire sweet-meat model was covered in thick golden paper; this was quickly stripped off, and Ridgwell did the honours as possessor.
"I'll eat his head half, Chris, and give you the other half; I think that's a fair division."
"Right," agreed Christine; "we can't eat more than that to-night, and the pedestal part will do for the morning."
"I can't understand Lal disappointing us to-night as he has done," said Ridgwell, as he slowly munched his chocolate. "Can you, Chris?"
"No—isn't this chocolate good, Ridgie?"
"Yes, but fancy having to be contented with a chocolate lion when we know a real one! On my birthday too, and yet he promised faithfully we should see him again."
"He has forgotten us," confessed the children as they went to bed.
"Suppose he has too much to think of," said Ridgie; "he can't remember everything."
Christine never knew quite how long she had been asleep that night, before she distinctly heard muffled mutterings from her brother Ridgie's bed the other side of their little room. Surely Ridgie couldn't be saying his prayers at this time of night; then Christine was certain she heard half-smothered sobs.
"Ridgie, what's the matter; are you crying?" demanded Christine. The sobs became very audible now, and even an apparent effort to stifle them with the bed-clothes did not seem in any way to lessen them.
Christine pressed the button of the electric light, and in the sudden illumination regarded her brother across the room.
"Ridgie, why are you crying? are you in pain? have you eaten too much?"
"No," sobbed Ridgie, "no, but oh! Chrissie, I've—I've—we've eaten Lal."
Christine sat up in bed.
"Ridgie," demanded Christine, "are you dreaming?"
"No," whispered Ridgie, between his sobs; "don't you remember—
Christian child or Pagan child Which is my denomination? Have I eaten dear old Lal In my birthday celebration?
Here, overcome by recollections, Ridgwell broke down completely. "I have eaten him," moaned Ridgwell; "at least, we've eaten him, for you helped. He said we should eat him, and we've done it. That's how Lal meant to come to us; now, I remember, it was exactly like him. Just as—as he is in Trafalgar Square on his pedestal. Oh, Chris, after all the Christians have eaten a lion; he said we should; we aren't Christians any longer, we're Pagans, and—and," confessed Ridgwell with a final outburst, "I feel like a cannibal; it's beastly."
Christine had become quite pale during this recital; but she thought for awhile before replying.
"Perhaps, Ridgie, Lal meant us to eat him—I mean his likeness in chocolate—all the time, and most likely he isn't angry with us at all. He might have arranged it all as a joke."
"It isn't a joke at all," sniffed Ridgwell, "it's horrible. We have eaten one of our very best friends. Oh! if only the Order of Great Imagination hadn't been taken away from us!"
"I am not so sure, Ridgie," observed Christine, with feminine intuition, "that you have lost all your order of imagination; I think you have still a lot left, or you would never have discovered Lal's riddle."
It was Ridgwell's turn now to sit up in bed, and he asked eagerly—
"Do you really think it was only a riddle, Chris, and Lal meant only to have a joke with us?"
Christine nodded gravely.
"I feel very comforted with that," said Ridgwell, "so turn off the light, Chris, and we'll go to sleep again; but oh, won't I just tell Lal next time I pass him in Trafalgar Square!"
Some few moments afterwards in the darkness Christine answered—
"You hadn't better make any remarks to Lal in public; you know he cautioned us about attracting a crowd."
"Crowd or no crowd, I mean to tell him what I think of him," asserted Ridgwell before he turned over and went to sleep.
* * * * *
The clock in the hall was just chiming twelve, and Mr. Jollyface was taking his departure.
Father and Mother were wishing him good-night and thanking him for bringing the chocolate lion for Ridgwell.
"It is really quite remarkable how I came to buy it," agreed Mr. Jollyface; "but I was passing through Trafalgar Square when I remembered that I hadn't bought Ridgie a present, and the sight of the corner lion, as I crossed the Square, made me remember a sweetstuff model of him I had seen in a chocolate shop in the Strand, so I went and bought it. But really the most wonderful thing about it is the almost uncanny intelligence of your children. Bless my soul! they couldn't have known I had bought it; and yet, would you believe it, they actually expected a lion, and asked me if I had brought one with me."
"Yes," agreed Father, "it's very wonderful; they were trying to describe a lion before you came in. I think at times children must have second sight, and that is why I am afraid we sometimes do not understand them. Good-night, Jollyface; come and see us again soon."
WHAT THE WRITER AND THE LORD MAYOR DECLARED
THE WRITER APPEARS UPON THE SCENE
There had been a certain amount of excitement when Father and Mother had started for their holidays abroad, but nothing in any way to be compared to the excitement of the day when the Writer made his first appearance.
Ridgwell and Christine distinctly heard themselves being asked for by a visitor, one day when the sitting-room door was open, and to be inquired for personally was at least something of an event. "I want to see the children," a voice had said, and there was no mistaking the significance of the words. Without any undue delay, Ridgwell and Christine immediately presented themselves.
The stranger was led in captive, one upon either side of him, and being placed upon the sofa was regarded steadfastly for some little while. During a very thorough scrutiny the prisoner smiled affably, produced a pipe which he lighted carefully and puffed at steadily, and then inquired casually if they both thought he would do.
"You look jolly," announced Ridgwell, "only I can't make out who you are; but you know Father and Mother very well, don't you?"
"Rather," said the stranger, "great friends of mine."
"But we've never seen you, have we?" added Christine.
"No," replied the stranger, "but I thought it was quite time I made your acquaintance, so I thought I would call upon you. Sorry I haven't got a card, but you can supply something in its place which will be quite as good. Where does Father keep his books?" was the sudden and somewhat unexpected question.
"It just depends," debated Ridgwell, "what particular lot you want. Biography, Philosophy, Romance or Poetry."
"I think the Romance and Poetry department," suggested the stranger.
"This way," said Ridgwell; "I will show you."
The stranger ran his finger over the well-stocked orderly shelves, then he paused at four volumes side by side about the middle of the second shelf.
"Of course you both read?" inquired the stranger.
"Not those sort of books," explained Ridgwell. "We haven't quite got up to those sort of books yet."
"Anyway you can read the author's name upon the back of each of them."
The children nodded.
"That's me," confessed the stranger. "I have the misfortune to write books that you don't read."
"Father does," Ridgwell hastened to explain; "I've often heard him talk about you. Why, you're quite famous, aren't you?"
"I hope not," said the Writer.
"Anyway," concluded Ridgwell, "Father said you wrote jolly good stuff, only it was over the heads of the people, but Father said one of these days when you woke up, you would knock 'em, and I've heard him say that anyway it was better than some of the drivel a lot of people wrote nowadays. He hoped you'd reform, though."
The Writer laughed. "A very candid opinion, Master Ridgwell, and I really must reform and mend my ways."
"Don't you write fairy tales as well?" inquired Christine upon the way back to the dining-room.
"Sometimes," agreed the Writer.
Without more ado, Christine drew three chairs invitingly round the fire, almost by way of an invitation to recount some upon the spot.
The fire was really very cheerful in spite of the fact that it was late spring. The daffodils nodded their yellow heads quite contentedly, and filled the bowls upon mantelshelf and table with colour, and the little room with fragrance, at one and the same time. The coloured crocuses peeped in from the window boxes outside, whilst the sparrows chirped and hopped about and hoped that the Writer had something pleasant to say about them. It was all very peaceful with the sunlight stealing into the room through the lattice panes, making little patterns upon the floor, the flickering red of the fire playing at hide and seek with the diamond patterns and never quite catching each other; the yellow flowers nodding drowsily over the two childish heads that were now regarding the Writer most earnestly. The clock upon the mantelpiece chimed its mellow notes. Three o'clock it said. The afternoon had seemed almost dull up to that time, but now it all appeared to have changed in some curious way, ever since the Writer had made his appearance.
"I wonder," commenced Ridgwell, "if by any chance you could have been sent to us; you know we were faithfully promised that a Writer should come and see us and write down for us something we particularly want to remember. I wonder if you are the man," ended Ridgwell, quizzically.
"Shouldn't wonder at all," murmured the Writer; "delighted if I have had the honour to be chosen for the mission, and it really sounds to me like one of Lal's very rash promises."
"What!!!" It was a shriek from two children at once. Two pairs of arms were suddenly flung around the Writer's neck, two pairs of arms that were almost hugging him to death.
The Writer endured this onslaught throughout in the most becoming manner.
"Lal did send you then," shouted Ridgwell. "I knew it. How lovely! Fancy your knowing him! Tell us all about it."
The Writer smiled. "I have known Lal almost as many years as I can remember; he is one of my oldest and very dearest friends."
"Ridgie," said Christine solemnly, at this point, "do you remember the motto of the cracker we pulled last night? It said—
"I'll whisper on this little page A secret unto you: The greatest wonder of the age Shall suddenly come true."
But Ridgwell was beyond crackers, and beyond poetry; he felt, not unreasonably, amidst the development of this new wonder, that he was in possession of the real thing.
"I think," said the Writer, "I had better tell you all about it from the very beginning, but you know really it is quite a long story."
Ridgwell and Christine arranged themselves comfortably to listen; sometimes they looked at the fire, but more often at the face of the Writer, but they never missed one word of his story.
"I expect," commenced the Writer, "my story is going to be very different from anything you children may have imagined; in fact, my life has turned out so utterly different from anything it promised to be in the early beginning, that at times upon looking back it seems to be like some wonderful fairy tale—utterly unlike the ordinary fairy tales, however, one reads in books.
"The only two good fairies in my case were first and foremost our good old friend Lal, and, secondly, a gentleman who in the early stages of my life was always called the Miser, but who since has become one of the wealthiest, most generous and notable personages in the City of London. As a rule, whenever I think of my early childhood it is with a shudder, for I was running about the streets of London minus any shoes or stockings, with hardly any food save of the smallest and coarsest description, selling newspapers in the streets until late at night, and invariably soundly beaten if I did not take back some miserable coppers at the end of the day.
"I may say that these pence I had procured with so much toil were always expended in the public-house by both the man and his wife who were supposed at that time to provide me with the weird accommodation they were pleased to call home. My particular portion of this edifice was a dirty mat by way of a bed, which I shared with a rough-haired terrier dog called Sam. We two, Sam and I, were roofed in with many panes of broken glass in a species of outhouse which may at one time have formed a small conservatory. It must have been a hopeless failure, I am sure, as a conservatory, for I cannot imagine anything growing in it at all.
"One thing I am very certain of, I should never have grown either, but should most likely have withered and died in it had I remained, like my possible predecessors the plants, a few blackened and withered sticks of which could still be seen in some broken red flower-pots upon a shelf out of my reach. How these people came to have charge of me I shall never know, but I have sometimes believed, from odds and ends of conversation they let drop when they were quarrelling, which they were always doing, that my real father and mother had died when I was a tiny mite.
"The woman, who seemed at one time to have been better off, was left a sum of money to bring me up, as no relations appeared to claim me. At this time the woman was single, and had not met the man she afterwards married, the man who used to beat me so cruelly. Whether she spent all the money left for me, or whether they both spent it, appears to be of little consequence; anyway, once it was gone I was regarded with black looks as an encumbrance, and turned out into the streets to make some money, or do something for my board and lodging, as they expressed it. I have already told you what the lodging was like. Well, the board part of it corresponded to the rest of the picture in every way. Crusts of old dry bread, which they couldn't eat themselves, did for me and the dog, sometimes a little milk, varied by an occasional awful form of hard cake which the woman cooked, and which was impossible to eat unless first soaked in something. In the long hours of waiting between selling the newspapers I learned to spell, and then to read, very slowly at first, but still I learned. Then one of the men employed at the newspaper office I collected papers from, although I should imagine a very poor man himself, found a few pence every week to have me taught to write and spell, together with arithmetic, grammar, history and other things. This rather uncertain method of education went on for about two years. I was getting on fine, and absorbing everything I was taught with great rapidity, when my one friend, who had provided the night school education, departed to another world where I always hope he found the conditions easier than the one he had left. I might have been at my miserable home in the slums with the man and woman for years after this, only a curious form of providence was working upon my behalf.
"It had been a bad night for selling papers, I had a few coppers only, and my heart sank down when I approached the hovel where we all lived. The man and woman were quarrelling violently. As I slunk in white of face and with a terrible quaking feeling inside me, I saw at once the man was worse than he had ever been, and as I entered the door of the squalid room he struck the woman an awful blow, then he saw me. He grabbed me, and I think might have killed me that night, but I wrenched myself away after he had given me the first blows; he pursued me, catching at my coat, which at the best of times was only rags; he tore part of the coat away, which was left in his hand, and I ran for dear life. The man was mad and didn't know what he was doing, maybe, but the only thing he could lay his hands upon was a broken brandy bottle; he hurled this at my head. It struck me as I reached the street and cut the back of my head open. Although I was hurt I staggered on. I was dizzy and sick and the blood was dripping all over my shirt, but though I swayed about I never stopped, I would go anywhere away from the horror of that place. I never meant to go back there again.
"The next thing I remember was some sort of Square, which I had never seen until then, for I had never gone so far West in London before. There was nobody about, and I sank down beside a sort of stone thing and held my head, which hurt me horribly, and began to cry, I think.
"I was only about ten or eleven years old at that time, if as much, for no record of my age had ever been kept. Whether it was the pain, or simply fright because the few clothes I had were covered in blood from the wound in my head where the bottle had cut me, I don't know, but there is no doubt that I lost consciousness, probably for some considerable time. When I came to myself and woke up, it must have been very late at night. It was a fairly cold night, but the moon was shining, and the Square where I was sitting all looked like polished silver, and the clock of a big church at the side of the Square boomed out one.
"I looked about me, and raised myself up painfully upon one elbow and tried to think.
"Here I was outside everything—no shelter, no home, alone in London with a vengeance. True the other place had been a hateful home, yet at the very worst it had been a shelter, and, moreover, the rough-haired dog Sam and I had somehow squeezed together to keep ourselves warm, and Sam was the only thing that was in any way fond of me, and Sam was really good company.
"As the thought of him came across my mind, and how I had lost him for good now, I think I was about to start crying again, when a rather gruff but quite kindly voice just over my head called out—
"'Now then, stop that.'
"Of course I was only a very common Cockney little street boy at that time, and I couldn't either speak the Queen's English properly or spell it correctly, so when the voice said 'Stop that,' I said 'Wot?' 'Going to cry,' said the voice."
Here Ridgwell was so overcome with excitement by reason of a strange coincidence that he interrupted. "Why, that is exactly what Lal first said to me, and I can guess what the next thing was that he said to you—wasn't it 'Here, jump up'?"
The Writer smiled. "Yes," he said, "it is really very wonderful how history repeats itself. That is exactly what he said, but what I said is perhaps even more singular.
"I raised myself slowly and looked up gradually, for my head still ached and throbbed horribly, and when I saw it was a big bronze lion that was speaking to me and looking quite pleasant, all I said was—
"'Lor lummy, if it ain't a bloomin' lion a-talking to me. 'Alf a jiffey, cocky,' I said, 'an' I'll 'ave a climb up atween them paws of yours.'
"'You mustn't call me cocky,' remarked the Lion, reprovingly, when I had once landed up safe and sound; 'you must call me Lal.'
"'Right oh!' ses I. 'Can I sleep 'ere safe without a bloomin' copper a-coming and diggin' of me art 'alf-way through my nap?'
"'Yes, of course,' said Lal. 'Sleep here comfortably, and cover yourself over with the policemen's capes. You'll find three of them beside you. Hitherto they have always annoyed me by placing them there, but upon this occasion I am really grateful to them, as they will be useful for you to keep yourself warm with.'
"'I fits in 'ere fine,' ses I, 'and so 'elp me I think ye're a stunner. But I never knowed as lions talked afore.'
"'My good little boy, there are many things that you do not know,' answered the Lion, 'one of them being that you do not know how to speak English correctly. I am afraid you are quite ignorant.'
"''Ere, 'old on, Mister,' ses I, 'I've been to school, yer know.'
"'The wrong schools, I fear,' replied the Lion; 'and would you oblige me by not calling me Mister; in future always call me Lal.'
"'Do them other three lions talk, Lal?' I asked.
"'No, I am the only one that talks.'
"'Then I should say as 'ow you're the best of the 'ole bunch,' I remarked.
"Lal sighed deeply. 'How dreadfully wrong,' he said; 'imagine a bunch of lions! No, you certainly cannot speak at all correctly, so I think perhaps you had better go to sleep instead.'
"Well, before I went to sleep I remembered at the night school I had gone to they always said people ought to say their prayers, so I thought to myself for a minute, and I'm afraid this is something in the nature of what I said—
"'Please send me as soon as you 'ave it, a goodish-sized lump o' bread and drippin', or a big baked 'tater, cos' I am as empty as ever I can 'ang together. I don't want nothink tasty, but jist somethink fillin'. I'm very grateful for lions wot talk and 'elps yer like a pal; and please don't let no blighted coppers a see me, and lock me up. Don't forget the drippin'—any sort, beef, mutton, or pork. Amen.'
"'Humph!' remarked the Lion, when I concluded, 'that is a most singular petition; to whom is it addressed?'
"'Up there, Lal,' I answered, looking into the sky; 'they say you gits everythink from there.'
"'Dear me,' replied the Lion, 'really most singular. I notice you did not describe the manner in which you expected these provisions to arrive.'
"'I'll get 'em, Lal; if not ter-night, ter-morrer.'
"The Lion looked down at me quite kindly I thought. 'What is your name?' he asked.
"'Ain't got no name that I knows of 'cept Skylark.'
"The Lion purred softly. 'You will have a name some day,' he said, 'and a great name, too. Why are you called Skylark now?'
"''Cos I sings and whistles, t'other blokes in the streets calls me that.'
"I was just starting to show him how I could whistle, and had done a bit, when we heard pitter-patter, pitter-patter, and the sound of flying padded feet over the stone Square.
"The Lion sniffed. 'It's a dog. What is he doing here to-night? I suppose he is lost.'
"I looked out between his paws, and I gave a shout of delight; I was answered by loud yelps of gladness.
"'It's Sam,' I shouted. 'Oh, Sam, 'ole cockie, 'ere I is; jump up wiv me and Lal.'
"'Is he all right?' asked Lal.
"'Yus,' I yelled, 'a friend, a fust-class friend. 'Ere, Sam, I'll 'elp yer up by yer paws,' and he scrambled up and licked my face. Then he looks at the Lion.
"'He'll do,' said Lal. 'Tell him not to attract attention by barking or making any more of that noise. You must both go to sleep; and I must say that you are a remarkably strange pair. However, here you are, and here you must stay.'
"When I woke up in the morning it was just beginning to be daylight. I spoke to Lal, but he wouldn't answer, he was cold and still, and didn't look as if he had ever spoken or moved in his life, and never would again. I folded the policemen's aprons up tight and thin like truncheons in case they missed them, clambered down, followed by Sam, and had a wash in one of the basins of the fountains, and got fairly clean and respectable, except my coat, all torn in half, which I couldn't help, and then I set out to see what I could find. It was Sam who nosed out something like a breakfast.
"Two stale buns in a bag. I should think some child had thrown them away—penny buns they were. I never tasted anything better, and Sam had some of them, and he thought they were all right.
"I made twopence that day, carrying a bag. The man who gave me the job gave me the unnecessary caution at the same time, not to run away with it, just as if such a thing was likely. Why, I could hardly lift it, and I couldn't have run two steps with it.
"He was an inquisitive man too, wanted to know if I had stolen the dog. I said no, I didn't steal. 'Well,' he asked, 'if you don't steal, how do you get a living?' I said, 'I'm getting it now.' He said it must be a hard job. I replied, 'Golly, you're right, governor, this 'ere bag is that 'eavy it drags me vitals out; wot's it got inside of it—bricks?' Then he drove me off and said I was a cheeky little devil, but he gave me twopence. Sam and I went to an eating-house and got two big lumps of pudding on the strength of it, and that fed us bang up for that day.
"I waited around at night with Sam, and directly I saw the Square was deserted, I hopped up into my old place and Sam after me.
"'Hullo!' said Lal, 'you two have turned up again, have you?'
"'Yuss,' I replied; 'it's the only 'ome we've got, yer know, Lal.'
"'I must see what I can do for you,' mused the Lion. 'There is a man I know who could give you work and help you at once, only his heart is very hard at the present time; unfortunately success hasn't softened him—he is a miser.'
"'Ain't a miser a bloke 'oo grabs all wot 'ee gits?' I suggested; 'if so 'ee wouldn't do nothink 'ansome for Sam and me; the only copper as we would git art of 'im would be the ones 'eed call up ter give us in charge. A miser don't seem no good to us, as they wants change out o' nothing.'
"'My dear little boy,' said Lal, 'your language may be pithy, but it is so incorrect; your metaphors, moreover, are so mixed. I think,' said the Lion, 'it is high time I took the Miser in hand; he is capable of better things, and if success cannot give him the milk of human kindness, I must try what sterner measures can effect. Get down now,' continued the Lion, 'and both of you slip round the other side of the pedestal and hide yourselves. I expect the Miser to pass this way shortly, and you are not to interrupt on any account, or come back until he has gone away, you understand.'
"'Yuss, Lal, anyfink to oblige. Come on, Sam, and may 'is 'eart soften,' I said.
"Well, about a quarter of an hour afterwards, sure enough, a tall, thin, elderly gentleman, with grey hair, in a top hat and frock coat, came along, and he paused when he got to Lal, and looking round first to see that he was not observed, he stopped beside Lal, and greeted him with, 'Well, my old friend, and how are you this evening? do you feel inclined to converse with me, or will you remain immovable, silent and cold as you sometimes choose to be? Indeed I hope you feel disposed to talk kindly to me, for I am far from happy, in fact it never entered into my calculations that a highly successful man could ever be quite so miserable.' After saying so much as this the elderly gentleman paused, and observing that Lal had not taken any notice of his remarks whatever, added in a lower tone, as if speaking to himself, 'Ah, not communicable to-night, only bronze and stone, eh?'
"Then the Lion spoke. 'I am not the only thing of bronze and stone. Have you ever thought how the definition might perhaps apply to yourself, for instance, Alderman Simon Gold?'
"The tall thin gentleman appeared to be slightly taken aback by the Lion's words.
"'You have a front of bronze,' continued the Lion, 'and as hard; you have a heart of stone and as useless.'
"'It seems to me, my old friend,' replied the tall thin gentleman, 'that you have some grievance against me by the hard words you are giving me. I came to you for comfort, but you don't seem to have anything of the sort to bestow. However, I suppose all of us have our ill humours.'
"'True,' assented the Lion, 'save that some of us never change that ill humour, but continue with it all through life. You yourself are one of those people.'
"'Humph! I certainly have displeased you,' vouchsafed the tall thin gentleman; 'how I really cannot imagine.'
"'I will tell you,' replied the Lion. 'Listen, therefore, carefully. Let us go back to the very beginning of our acquaintance. I am correct in stating that you were a homeless, ragged little urchin prowling the streets of London.' The tall thin man nodded. 'I gave you the only shelter you knew; others have used it since, all of them models of gratitude compared with yourself. My friendship did not stop there. You wanted work, a home, a name and riches. Who directed you to the City? who told you how to start, and where you would find all those things so long as you worked hard and were honest?'
"'I did all those things,' interrupted the tall thin man; 'I did work hard, I got a home, name, riches, and I have been honest.'
"'Until to-day,' purred the Lion, 'until to-day, Alderman Gold.'
"'To-day,' echoed the Alderman, but he started slightly.
"'Those shares you bought in the City to-day, a very great number, do you call that transaction honest?'
"The Alderman's eyes sought the ground.
"'Three people will be ruined in that transaction if you keep to it.'
"'Think of the money.'
"'Think of your name.'
"'I must have money.'
"The Lion laughed. 'You have heaps more than you require. Can you name one good thing you have done with your money or your influence since I plainly pointed the way out to you how to acquire them?'
"There was no answer.
"'Will you still decide to acquire those shares dishonestly?'
"'Anybody in the City or on 'Change would do the same thing, it is done every day.'
"'Because burglaries may be committed every night, is it any reason why you should commit one?'
"'The world is the world,' replied the Alderman. 'I have to live in it, and I have to fight it with its own weapons.'
"'You have no wife.'
"'No single soul your wealth can do any good for.'
"'I need it all for myself.'
"'You are hoarding money fast.'
"'I shall need it all when I can no longer work; the value of money decreases day by day. What is a fortune now will only be a pittance a very few years hence.'
"'All for yourself?'
"'Nothing will change you?'
"'Why should it? I have only myself to consider, and I mean to make more and more, and more, and never stop; there shall be no limit to what I shall acquire, it is the only thing I care about now in life.'
"'In addition,' said the Lion, 'you are cutting down every little comfort and every luxury you might enjoy because you are becoming frightened at every small expense.'
"'Yes, growing expenses are the worries of my life.'
"'In fact, you are becoming daily, slowly and surely, a miser.'
"'It's not a nice word.'
"'It is the truth. Your clerks are the most ill-paid of any in the City of London. Only last week you cut down your office boy's tiny salary from ten shillings a week to seven shillings, although you know he has to pay two shillings a week for fares to and from your office.'
"'How can I help his living out of town?'
"'You know he has to live with his mother and brothers and sisters, five of them in addition to himself. He only takes home five shillings every week, but he gives it all up; he is happier than you are.'
"'Any way, I know how to arrange my own business,' snapped the Alderman. 'I have prospered so far, and I intend to go on and prosper; I am not going to change a single thing in my life or my methods of business. I have prospered up to now, I shall prosper even more.'
"'And hoard more?' inquired Lal gently.
"'Yes, you call it hoarding. I call it amassing, and I shall strain every nerve to amass more and more; it is too late in my life to alter now.'
"'We shall see,' said the Lion. 'I was going to ask you to do something for me, something for some one who is as penniless as you were once yourself; but if I did ask you a favour now I should only waste time.'
"'I have no time for charity,' said the Alderman. 'I heartily begrudge the subscriptions we have to give from time to time in the City, yet one is compelled to assist some of those for the sake of business; but as for any outside charity, pooh! it's all rot, it's been proved long ago they are all frauds. I shall always decline absolutely to give anything or do anything for any outside charity. Life is too short.'
"'We shall see,' said the Lion. 'Good-night.'
"When Lal's friend from the City had departed, I came out from the corner where I had been waiting, and Sam and I clambered up into our old place out of sight. At that time I considered the City Alderman a very horrid mean old man, and remembering Lal's words that he was a miser, I made a mental resolution that although this was the first specimen of the kind I had ever encountered, I never wished to meet another of the same sort.
"'Well?' inquired Lal, as I lay and looked up into his face before settling down for the night. 'What do you think of him?'
"''Ard-hearted, ain't 'e?' I replied.
"'Humph! yes, at present,' mused Lal.
"'Wot will yer give 'im ter take for it?' I asked.
"Lal smiled. 'Oh, a little prescription of my own.'
"'That bloke wot's just gone won't do nothink fer me. Can't yer suggest somethink else, Lal, somebody as I could go to as would give me some work?'
"'If you have patience,' answered Lal, 'and look around and get a few odd jobs, and a little grub for yourself and Sam every day for a little while, like the small London sparrow that you are—I beg your pardon, I should have said Skylark—I shall be able very shortly to bring our friend to a better frame of mind; at the present moment his sense of proportion is all wrong.'
"'Wot's sense of proportion, Lal?' I inquired.
"'If,' replied Lal, 'you persisted in thinking that you were as big as I am, for instance, your sense of proportion would be bad; if I imagined that I was as great as St. Martin's Church yonder, my sense of proportion would be worse.'
"'Lor' lummy, don't I jist wish I was as big as you.'
"'Why?' asked Lal.
"''Cos I'd 'ave a bit more weight to do fings wiv. There ain't no doubt that strength tells in the end.'
"Lal only chuckled at what I said, and I again went sound to sleep, as upon former occasions, in my strange roosting-place.
"The Alderman was in the habit of crossing Trafalgar Square every evening upon his way home, although I had never observed him until the night Lal had pointed him out to me; consequently, a few evenings afterwards, I first noticed how strangely he was beginning to walk. I can only describe it as a sort of zigzag from side to side, and occasionally a sort of stumble, as if he was not quite certain where he was going.
"Now I had often noticed the man who used to beat me, and from whom I had run away, walk something like that, and yet I knew at once it was not owing to the same reason, and I was rather puzzled to account for it, as the Alderman had never walked like that before, and had always been so upright and brisk.
"As the different evenings went on he grew worse and worse, until one night I found him slowly groping his way across the Square, with his hands stretched out in front of him, as if he was frightened of running into something at every step: that was the first evening I led him across the Square and over the road the other side; he seemed to dislike the idea of the steps, and always avoided them, I noticed.
"I did this for several evenings, and he never gave me anything, but as he was an old friend of Lal's I did it more for Lal's sake than for the Miser's, as I now called him; yet he seldom even thanked me for assisting him, although it was only too evident that he ought not to be walking by himself. A few days went by with nothing in particular to remember about them, until the evening arrived that was to be the turning-point in two people's lives, but at the time I knew nothing of this, for my small mind was overwhelmed with the first great childish grief of my life. I hadn't earned even one copper that day, and Sam and I had not had a crumb to eat. I think we must have both looked very thin and white. I know that Sam's bones could be seen plainer than ever through his dear, shaggy old brown coat; but Sam never complained, he stuck to me closer than ever; nobody ever had a better friend than he was.
"As ill luck would have it, Sam and I were crossing the wide street where the traffic is always heaviest, before turning in at our old quarters for the night. One of the many omnibuses passed, and somebody either dropped or threw a small bag of biscuits over the side of it; some rolled in the road, but a lot were left in the bag.
"Sam, who was the finest dog for spotting grub I have ever known, went for it like lightning; he had got it in his mouth, and was scurrying back to me in triumph with his old ears back, full of the importance of his find, when a two-horsed mail van struck him down in the road and went over him. I went in between all the maze of wheels and got him out; he was whimpering like a hurt child. I didn't wait for anything, I carried him along towards the old place by Lal; but he only gave me a lick, and died in my arms before I got there.
"I couldn't climb up to Lal with Sam in my arms, and I wouldn't leave him, so I don't know how long it was I crouched down in the shadow and cried over Sam—bitter tears I wept, I know. I was alone and utterly wretched, and Sam wouldn't ever speak to me again, would never do any more of his tricks. When I noticed that even in his death he hadn't released the bag of biscuits from his mouth, my tears flowed anew, and I couldn't somehow have touched one of them if I had been twice as hungry as I was. My grief at the death of Sam was so great that I didn't seem to want to tell Lal about it, so I lay huddled up by the corner of the pedestal where the shadow is darkest for what must have been some considerable time. Then I heard feet groping about and the voice of Alderman Gold talking.
"For a long time I didn't care to listen to what he was talking to Lal about. I heard the man say mockingly, 'Well, I suppose I'm beaten, and you have been right all the time, my old wise Lion. What cannot be endured, however, can sometimes be cured, so here's your health.'
"I heard a low angry growl from Lal, unlike any sound I had ever heard him make before, then Lal raised his paw and knocked something out of the Alderman's hand that fell with a tinkling sound of broken glass.
"I came slowly out of my corner to see what it was all about, and in time to hear Lal say, 'You fool, oh! you fool, when will your eyes ever be opened?'
"'I was going to close them for ever. What's the good of having them open when I cannot see?'
"The Miser seemed to be angry as well as Lal, for his voice was trembling with passion. 'Why,' continued the Miser, 'should I remain blind to please you, in order that all your prophecies may come true? Why destroy the stuff I had bought just when I had need of it?'
"The Lion regarded the Miser steadily with those fine great eyes of his, somehow he seemed to look the Miser right through; then the Lion sniffed thrice, very contemptuously.
"'Do you know why you are blind?' he asked the Miser.
"'No,' answered the man, 'to be going blind is terrible enough without asking the reason of it; what matter what this or that theory may be, when the thing is there to speak for itself? I know I cannot see, and that being the case my life is finished.'
"'Or perhaps beginning,' ventured the Lion contemplatively. 'You cannot see, Alderman Gold, because your eyes are filled with the colour of the thing you have made your God all through your life; it is the gold dust that has blinded you. The dazzling golden hoard you desired through life, watched, kept, gloated over. This love that tinged all your life and thoughts and feelings has poisoned you, has permeated with its fatal colour everything so that you cannot any longer see the beauty of the blue sky, the ripple of the moving waters, the tender bloom of blossoming flowers and trees. Remove the terrible gold-dust from your eyes that you have worshipped and you will see again, perhaps better than you have ever really seen before.'
"'Cease! cease!' broke in the Miser; 'you are only mocking my misery now, and even if what you say is true, it is too late now to help me.'
"'Not too late,' returned the Lion, more gently, I thought, than he had spoken hitherto; 'just in time, I think, just in time.' Then he called me. 'Skylark,' said the Lion, 'come here.'
"I came out from my hiding-place, still hugging the body of poor Sam close to me. The Miser peered at me curiously, though he couldn't see me very well, or what I was holding, judging from the expression of his face.
"'I suppose,' said the Miser, 'this is the ragged little wretch who is always hanging about here.'
"'He is very ragged now,' said the Lion patiently, 'but he will be very great one day.'
"The Miser laughed his harsh, unpleasant laugh, and peered down to see what I was carrying so carefully, then he put out his hand and touched Sam's coat.
"I pushed his hand away with my own dirty and grubby paw, but in a very determined way.
"'Don't yer touch 'im,' I cried.
"'It's a dog,' said the Miser, 'and it's dead; a dead dog isn't of much use to any one,' and he laughed again. I felt when he laughed that my blood was boiling.
"'Look 'ere, if 'ee's dead, 'ee's gone straight to 'Eaven, which is 'is proper place, an' where 'e'll 'ave fields an' the country and rabbits to chase, an' all them fings wot 'e ought ter 'ave 'ad in his life 'ere, an' 'e'll a wait fer me there sure as 'e always waited fer me 'ere, an' don't you say nothink agin Sam, 'cos in 'is life 'e was a damned sight better than wot you are, so there.'
"By this time my outraged feelings had so overcome me that I was shouting at the Miser, who stood stock still saying nothing, for the suddenness, to say nothing of the impudence, of my attack seemed to have rendered him speechless.
"'Steady, Skylark, steady,' said the Lion; 'try and behave a little more respectfully, and cease to use that distressing street language;' then Lal added by way of an afterthought, 'Come, climb up here, I want to talk to you.'
"I laid Sam down for the first time and complied with his request.
"'Now,' said Lal, 'what shall I do with Alderman Simon Gold?'
"''Im?' I asked, pointing to the Miser.
"'Well, can't yer jist blow that there gold dust out of 'is eyes wot seems to be a-choking of 'em as you sed 'e 'ad? You can do most fings, Lal; 'ave a go, and see if 'e don't get better.'
"The Lion smiled his very wisest smile, then he asked me, 'Little Skylark, what have you got round your neck?'
"'Only rags, Lal, but I can't 'elp them, you knows that.'
"'Look again, little Skylark.'
"'Lor lummy,' I said, 'wot is it?' for I was startled by the unexpectedness of the thing I saw. Something seemed hanging round my neck that glowed and glistened and sparkled like ever so many jewels. The sort of gems that had made me wink my eyes whenever I had seen them in the shop-windows.
"'Lal, wot is it? 'ow did it get there?'
"'It is the Order of Imagination,' said Lal solemnly, 'and oh! little Skylark, there are only a few, such a few in the world who have ever worn it, even for a few minutes. You will think of this some day, you will remember my words always. Take it off your neck, Skylark, and put it over the neck of Alderman Simon Gold for an instant, for he is only just worthy to wear it. Look, there are two tears in his eyes, tears of pity, the first he has ever shed in his life, and tears of pity, little Skylark, are the keys that open the Golden Gates of Heaven.'
"I did as Lal bid me, and I shall never forget. Simon Gold's face became radiant.
"'I can see,' he gasped, 'can see! Oh, Lal, what a brute I have been! What have I been thinking about? Why am I so different? Why do I feel that I want to give something to all the world? Why, Lal, I want to give, I insist upon giving. Lal, why am I a different man, with different feelings, with a heart?'
"Once again Lal smiled that wise smile of his.
"'The Order of Imagination does many things,' said Lal. 'If you want to give, why not give with all your heart now and as long as you live? Everybody, however, has to make a start. Well, start by giving the Skylark a home, a good education, help him towards being the great man that I say he will one day become. You will have found a faithful, loving, lifelong friend, something as faithful and devoted as the friend whose life he himself mourns to-night.'
"'Poor old dog,' said Alderman Gold, 'I can't help him now, I wish I could, but I'll help the other, by Jove, I will; of course I'll see he has a good home, I'll see he's educated.'
"'I think he will repay you for all the money you will spend upon his education,' said the Lion, significantly.
"'And I mean to spend money,' said the Alderman. 'I've been a beastly miser, that's what I've been, but I shall never have that taunt flung at me again.'
"'Good,' nodded the Lion. 'Help him bury his pet in the big garden of your London house, and bury at the same time all the past you want to forget.'
"'I will,' said the Alderman. 'Here, come along and get fed. Here, what's your name?'
"'Skylark,' prompted the Lion.
"'Skylark? A very good name,' said the Alderman; 'it suggests Spring, and—and——'
"'Going steadily upward,' prompted the Lion.
"'By Jove, Lal, you're wonderful,' exclaimed the Alderman. 'How can I thank you for giving me my sight again, for making a different man of me? and, good gracious, now I come to think of it clearly and reasonably, every single thing you have told me has always been true.'
"'If you believe that,' said the Lion, 'listen attentively to the last thing I tell you, even more upon account of it being the last time I shall actually speak to either of you.'
"'Say on, Lal, we cannot do without your help; I know I can't, and I thought I could do most things.'
"'You may consider it most inconsequent of me to mention such a childishly fabled person to you as Dick Whittington, and yet strangely enough that hero of a nursery legend will have a great deal in common with both of you in your future lives.'
"'Shall I be Lord Mayor of London three times?' laughed the Alderman, who had appeared suddenly to have discovered how to laugh, and it sounded strange to hear him.
"'I won't say three times,' said the Lion, 'but you will be one of the greatest Lord Mayors of London in about fourteen years from now; you will be knighted, and you will become one of the most beloved and benevolent men in the whole City of London.'
"'That sounds fine,' said the Alderman; 'how about Master Skylark?'
"'Too early to prophesy,' said the Lion, 'with certainty, but I may say this; I think when he has also found another Dick Whittington, and one ever so different from yourself, he will become great almost by accident, but he has to find this Dick Whittington first. He will never part with Dick Whittington when he has found him, but as a result of sitting in front of him day by day in great perplexity, he will suddenly do the first thing that will make his name. You will only resemble Dick Whittington in your career, the Skylark will find Dick Whittington.'
"'By Jove,' said the Alderman, 'that is a pretty difficult riddle, Lal, and as I shall never solve it we can only wait and see.'
"The Lion smiled.
"'I believe you thoroughly love a riddle, Lal, you old Sphinx. Well, anything else? Tell me, how much more of the future do you see?'
"'Oh, a lot of things,' answered Lal, 'a very great many of them you would not understand now, even if I explained them to you, which I shall not think of doing. For instance, I see a very happy, cheerful and prosperous elderly gentleman—ahem!—whose acquaintance you will one day make, and whose amiable personality you in common with others will thoroughly appreciate. I see a future charming Lady Mayoress whose—ahem!—friendship you will be most glad of. I see two old friends falling out about a certain matter of business in all likelihood, and the younger of the two will be absolutely in the right. I see an estrangement that doesn't last more than a few years, then a joyful reconciliation, perhaps all the more joyful on account of the former separation. Then,' said the Lion, 'I see something—ahem!—a series of most painful incidents, most unbecoming to myself as well as yourself.'
"'Good gracious,' said the Alderman, 'I wonder whatever that can be?'
"'Like most other things about which there is a great fuss and commotion, it will rise from a simple cause. There will be a great meeting held in a public building, and the result of that meeting will be in your favour.'
"'In my favour,' echoed the astonished Alderman.
"'Distinctly in your favour, and it will make the whole of England laugh.'
"'At me?' inquired the Alderman, with an apprehensive note in his voice of quite pardonable nervousness.
"'No,' said the Lion, 'the laugh will be rather upon your side, I think.'
"'Indeed,' said the Alderman; 'well, that sounds a bit better.'
"'Moreover,' continued the Lion, 'for my own part I regret to say I shall be taken in a triumphant procession through the streets of London, guarded upon all sides by the police, and the whole proceedings throughout will be sufficiently ridiculous to cause me the acutest discomfort, all of which will be most undeserved and brought upon me by the extravagant adulation of my would-be admirers. However, I shall have to comfort myself in that time to come by considering that I am not the only victim who has been sacrificed from the same cause.'
"'Apart from the deep mystery attached to your strange prophecies,' observed the Alderman, 'which I do not pretend at present to understand, but which nevertheless I know will all come true, I am truly concerned about one thing. Are you really serious, Lal, in your intention of never speaking to me again? I feel the loss will be irreparable, for you have always been my wisest councillor from my boyhood upwards, and I only wish I had profited by your wisdom before and listened more attentively to your counsels in the past, whatever alterations I make in my life for the future.'
"'I shall never actually speak with either of you again,' replied Lal, 'but you will be able to live all your youthful days over again in him;' here Lal pointed to me. 'You can help him to avoid all the mistakes you have made yourself; yet do not misunderstand me, I shall give both of you a sign, and an unmistakable sign, to show how pleased I am if you fulfil all the expectations I shall have cherished about you.'
"'What sort of sign?' asked the Alderman.
"'I shall not tell you now, and you will both have to do an awful lot before I show you the sign that I am satisfied with you eventually.'
"Now let me see,' mused the Alderman, 'isn't there any little thing we could do for you to show that we hadn't forgotten you?'
"'You know what I expect of you,' retorted the Lion, 'keep your promises.'
"'Apart from that,' suggested the Alderman, 'some sort of memento, some sort of recognition.'
"'Oh, no,' hastily interposed Lal, 'no recognition, please, it is the one thing I dread most in the world owing to the curious position I occupy in public life. However, in the years to come, if you can reasonably and truthfully look back upon all you have accomplished with a certain amount of justifiable pride and satisfaction, you can come here quietly one night and place a big wreath of water-lilies; lay them as an offering between my paws; on no account hang them round my neck like the other terrible people do upon Trafalgar Day, it only makes me look ridiculous.'
"'Why water-lilies?' asked the Alderman.
"'My favourite flower,' sighed the Lion, 'and, moreover, the one I never see. You see, the fountains splash about so incessantly that there is no peaceful place where they can grow, and you wouldn't believe,' added the Lion earnestly, 'how I sometimes long for those irritating fountains to stop, and for beautiful water-lilies to grow there instead.'
"'It shall all be done as you say, and I will ponder over every single thing you have mentioned,' promised the Alderman.
"'Good-bye till then,' said the Lion in his most sepulchral voice, and then the Lion smiled at me and said, 'Good-bye, little Skylark.'
"For my own part I had stood by quite silent without saying a word, but I somehow realized that if I wasn't going to see and speak to my old friend Lal any more, there were several things I wanted to say, and a good many more things I wanted to ask.
"'Ere, 'old on 'arf a mo', cocky,' I shouted.
"'Oh, don't call me cocky,' entreated Lal, 'and what do you mean by that expression "hold on"? Is not my whole life a perpetual exhibition of "holding on"?'
"'You've been a first-class, tip-top pal to me, Lal, an' I wants ter know first where that there ring wot shined like blazes, and wot 'ung round my neck and then round 'is, 'as a-gone to? Ain't I to 'ave it no more?'
"'You will have the memory of it,' replied Lal; 'you have possessed it once, and I think you will have quite enough imagination left all through your life without it; in fact, in the future, at times you will have rather too much imagination for the comfort of your other fellow-creatures.'
"''Ave I got to go with 'im?' I asked; ''ave I got to say good-bye to you?'
"'Certainly,' replied Lal in his most stately way; 'you are going to have a very happy life; you are a fairly respectable kid now, but you will become more and more respectable until one will hardly recognise you at all. You are going to have a ready-made Father and Mother which I have provided you with.'
"'Ain't 'eard nothink about no Muvver yet,' I said; 'where's the Muvver come in?'
"'Ah! you wait and see,' whispered the Lion mysteriously.
"'Are you a-kiddin' me, Lal? if so, chuck it!'
"'Oh! dreadful, dreadful expressions!' lamented Lal. 'Undoubtedly the next time I see you I believe your grammar will have improved, and your vocabulary have become more select. I hope so!'
"It was at this point that something about Lal's eyes and attitude gave me the idea he was going to shut up for good, so to speak, and my feelings so overcame me, that without thinking I flung my arms round Lal's neck, that is to say, as far as they would go, and hugged him.
"Lal opened his eyes again, and somehow I am sure that he was grinning, such a pleasant-looking, happy grin, but he spoke in his severest manner to me—
"You must really restrain these exhibitions of feeling in public; if a policeman chanced to observe you I think there would be the greatest difficulty in offering any adequate explanation.
"'No, Lal,' I answered; 'all I ses to the coppers when they ses anyfink to me is "Rats"—always "Rats," and when I ses "Rats" they can fink what they jolly well likes.'
"Lal sighed, and said, 'How like Dick Whittington!' and those were the very last words I ever heard him speak, although I little dreamed how I was to meet him again."
* * * * *
At this juncture Cookie appeared carrying a most wonderful silvern tea-tray, whereon a bright gilded urn sizzled happily, and a most inviting-looking pyramid of toasted muffins nestled in apparently friendly rivalry with the choicest cakes of Cookie's own baking; even a heaped-up crystal dish of whole strawberry jam could not conceal its blushes as the firelight played upon it.
"Fairy tales," said Cookie, "I know; I've listened to them many a time myself."
"No, Cookie, you are wrong," ventured Ridgwell in tones of rebuke; "it is not a fairy tale, every word of it is true."
"That's what Cinderella always declared, Master Ridgwell," was Cookie's imperturbable reply, as she prepared to depart.
The Writer chuckled quietly.
"Of course it is true, isn't it?" asked Ridgwell and Christine in unison.
"Of course," said the Writer, "every word of it, and anyway if it isn't it ought to be, like all romances."
"But you haven't finished," objected Ridgwell, whilst he munched a muffin, and Christine poured out the tea.
"No," agreed the Writer, "I haven't finished yet, but I warned you that it would be a very long story, didn't I?"
"Oh, but we are so anxious to know what happened to the Skylark and the Miser, I mean the Alderman, for of course he wasn't a miser any more, was he?"
"Well, you see," explained the Writer, as he took his tea contentedly, which he really felt he stood in need of, apart from any consideration of deserving it, "nobody is able to read a long book all at once, and I propose to tell both of you the remainder of this extraordinary story in a few days' time."
"Anyway, that's ripping," vouchsafed Ridgwell.
"I think myself," added the Writer mysteriously, "that the great events Lal spoke of so long ago are about to happen."
"Do tell us when?" implored Ridgwell.
"I fancy very soon now; of course, you children don't read the papers, do you?"
Ridgwell and Christine shook their heads.
"Well, in to-day's paper there was one paragraph that threw out a very decided hint that the present Lord Mayor of London was going to be knighted by the King, not only on account of his public worth, but because the wonderful Home for London Children he has built is almost completed."
"Of course, the new Lord Mayor is Alderman Gold?" inquired Christine.
"He was Alderman Gold," said the Writer, "but I think myself before many days have passed it will be Sir Simon and Lady Gold."
"Who is Lady Gold? You never told us a word about Lady Gold," objected Ridgwell.
"Ah," said the Writer, "that will all come in the second part of my story. Any way, no name was ever more appropriate than hers. She is absolutely gold all through, head and heart and everything. Lady Gold is, I consider, an absolutely suitable name for her, although two people I know always call her Mum; and, do you know, I think she will prefer that title, even when she gets the other."
"Who are the two people who call her Mum?"
"That's telling in advance," observed the Writer, as he helped himself to a fourth muffin; "and of course to tell in advance always spoils a story. But I intend that both of you children shall hear and see the story to an end. In three days' time from now I am coming to fetch you both, and you will be able to see the Lord Mayor drive past in state, for I am giving a tea to celebrate that great occasion and also another great occasion at one and the same time. I will finish the story then, and you will both meet the Lord Mayor of London."
"Will he have his robes on?" inquired Christine expectantly.
"I don't know that he will wear them, but perhaps I could induce him to bring them with him to show us."
"That's fine," said Ridgwell. "Will you really come to fetch us?"
"Yes, in three days' time."
"Where do you live?" asked Ridgwell, unexpectedly.
The Writer pretended to be most mysterious all at once.
"Where do you suppose I live?" he asked Ridgwell; "I do not think you will ever guess."
"Whitechapel?" hazarded Ridgwell.
The Writer pretended to look almost hurt.
"Peckham?" suggested Christine.
"Very bad guesses," laughed the Writer. "You are both wrong. I have a set of chambers facing Trafalgar Square, where every morning of my life I can look out of the front windows and see my dear old friend Lal."
Both the children gave a shout at this astounding piece of information.
"And we shall see the Lord Mayor go past in state from the windows?"
"Yes," said the Writer; "but if what I believe is coming to pass, provided that the right time has come, and I think myself it has, we shall all see the sign that Lal promised us he would give, so long ago."
"The sign," echoed Ridgwell breathlessly; "I say, that's something like!"
"We shall see what we shall see, and as that is Chapter One of my story I am going to take my departure."
After the Writer had left, Ridgwell turned to Christine.
"It's the jolliest afternoon we've had since Father and Mother left, isn't it, Chris?"
Christine nodded; she was considering many things.
TWO DICK WHITTINGTONS
The streets of London were alive with an unwonted gaiety, and crowds of people waited patiently, and with an air of expectancy, to see the Lord Mayor of London pass in state on his way from the Mansion House to the Home for Children which he had built—about to be opened that day by his Majesty the King.
Ridgwell and Christine sat in the broad, chintz-covered window-seat of the Writer's chambers overlooking Trafalgar Square, and viewed the great crowds of people beneath them with astonishment and interest.
"When the Lord Mayor passes my window," said the Writer, "he has promised to look out as far as his dignity will permit and nod to me. That he also intends to nod to our old friend Lal is a foregone conclusion, for without that recognition upon his part I am sure the day's ceremony would be incomplete."
"Will it be like a circus?" inquired Ridgwell.
"Yes, rather like a circus," admitted the Writer. "That is to say, a very great deal of gilt and highly coloured horses, soldiers, and inevitably one brass band playing, probably more than one."
"We can see Lal perfectly from here," said Christine.
"What is that large wreath for, placed between Lal's paws?" asked Ridgwell.
"That," declared the Writer, "was placed there early this morning by the Lord Mayor himself. He ordered it from Covent Garden, and he had great difficulty in procuring it even there. The wreath is entirely composed of water-lilies, Lal's favourite flower, and is put there in honour of the occasion. Of course this is undoubtedly one of the great days in the Lord Mayor's life, and he looks upon it as one of the crowning features in his whole career."
A sudden increased agitation among the crowd, a rumble as of cheering in the distance, and the first sound of trumpets and drums announced that the procession was drawing near.
The first sign of the vanguard were some mounted policemen who rode ahead to clear the way. There appeared to be little need for this precaution, as the crowds were standing in most orderly rows along the pavements.
"I'm sure Lal doesn't like those policemen," said Ridgwell decisively.
"No," agreed the Writer, "he sees such a lot of them where he is and, of course, he detests crowds of any sort, they jostle and bump his pedestal so much that it makes him feel uncomfortable. Here come the mounted soldiers; they look very smart, don't they? And here is the band, blowing their trumpets for all they are worth; some of them almost look as if they would burst with the effort."
"Is that first carriage the Lord Mayor's?" inquired Christine.
"No, the first carriages are all the other Aldermen."
"Six carriages full," said Christine. "And look at those men in red and gold standing up behind the last coaches."
"Yes," said Ridgwell, "strap-hangers. I wonder how they keep their balance and keep all that powder on their heads."
"I fancy," said the Writer, "they have to practise it; and as for the powder, I expect it is a secret preparation known only to themselves."
A burst of renewed cheering greeted the appearance of six cream horses, richly caparisoned with red and gold trappings, urged on by outriders.
"Here is the Lord Mayor," exclaimed the Writer excitedly, as he produced a large red silk handkerchief and waved it wildly out of the window.
There could be no doubt whatever that a fat old gentleman with red cheeks and a white moustache, whose portly form was covered with a scarlet and fur gown, around which hung a lot of glittering golden chains, and who had one side of the state coach all to himself, saw the Writer's greeting and returned it. The children saw him look up at the window and deliberately bow, then he turned his head in the direction of Lal, the Pleasant-Faced Lion, and bowed and smiled.
"Quite gorgeous," observed Ridgwell when the procession had passed, "but I always thought from what you told us that Alderman Gold was tall and thin."
"Ah," said the Writer, "that was at the beginning of the story, and he was a Miser then, and most misers are thin; but as he grew more and more cheerful, more and more happy, he grew a bit fatter and a bit fatter still, and then he got colour in his cheeks, until he became the jolly, agreeable, fat, old, good-natured gentleman you have seen just now in the distance. However, you will be able to see him at closer quarters and make his jolly acquaintance for yourselves presently, for he will call here and see me after all the ceremony is over."
"Will he be in time for tea?" inquired Christine.
"No, much too late for tea, Christine, but there will be a welcome for him, which I know he is looking forward to, and something I think he will like better than the big City banquet he has presided at, and it will be waiting for him here—a good cigar and a drink," and the Writer indicated a very handsome piece of old oak furniture at the end of the long room, which contained mysterious little cupboards which opened in odd angles and unexpected curves.
"I do hope he will turn up in his robes," ventured Ridgwell. "I rather want to see what they are like."
"We must wait and see about that, and as it must be some considerable time before tea, and a longer time still before His Worshipful the Mayor can possibly be here, I propose to finish the rest of the story I told you, right up to the present time. Of course, Lal may give the sign he promised to-night, or he may not; if he does you will both be here to see it."
Thereupon Ridgwell and Christine curled themselves up upon the broad window seat, and prepared to listen.
The Writer closed the window, and they all noticed that the crowds beneath were rapidly dispersing; occasionally some one would stop for a second and look at the big wreath of water-lilies between the Lion's paws, but the majority of people passing appeared not to have noticed it at all.
"Where did I get to in the story?" asked the Writer.
"Lal had said his last word to you," volunteered Ridgwell; "and what I particularly want to know is this: how did that second mysterious promise about Dick Whittington come true eventually, and did you ever meet Dick Whittington as Lal declared that you would, and did he really bring you fame and fortune when you met him?"
The Writer smiled. "Yes, indeed I met him, but not in any way or fashion that I should ever have expected. Of course both of you children know Lal well enough by this time to realise that he loves a little joke of his own at our expense, and many of his mysterious promises, although they come true in a way, turn out to be utterly and completely different from what he would seem to suggest to us by his words; in fact, Lal is like a great happy conjuror or wizard who dearly loves to mystify us with a trick. I am convinced he enjoys our amazement at any of his pet tricks, as much as he enjoys the laugh he has at our expense."
"That's right," said Ridgwell; "he tricked Chris and me finely once. I haven't forgiven him so very long for it, and it made me feel very uncomfortable for a good while."
"Everybody forgives Lal in the end," laughed the Writer; "one simply cannot help oneself, but really his pranks are too absurd, and yet when I found out how I had been tricked, I couldn't be cross with him, for I actually loved his funny old ways more than before, if such a thing were possible. To continue my story where I left off, Alderman Gold seemed in some miraculous way to have had much more than his sight restored to him that night. The first thing he did was to lift the body of poor Sam very gently, and as we left the Square he called a cab, and whilst we drove to his big mansion in Lancaster Gate, he asked me to tell him everything I could remember about my short life up to that time. Of course, I did so in my own peculiar fashion; the verbiage of the street and the gutter must have been freely sprinkled about during that narrative. Sometimes he looked thoughtful, and at other times he lay back in the cab and laughed out loud. When we arrived at his big house, which seemed to me at that time to be a mighty great mansion, he first made his way into a very big garden at the back where there were a lot of trees, and opening a gardening shed, he got a spade and dug a grave for Sam deep down under the trees, and it is there with his name, which was afterwards carved on a piece of wood, until this day.
"Whilst my childish tears were still flowing as the result of this sad ceremony, a lady came down the garden path in the moonlight, and as she joined us I noticed that although she appeared a little startled, she had a most beautiful face.
"'I didn't know it was you, sir, I couldn't think who could be digging in the garden at this time of night, and I grew frightened.'
"'Mrs. Durham,' said the Alderman earnestly, 'I was digging a grave for the dead pet of this small piece of humanity here, who will henceforth be one of your special charges.'
"Mrs. Durham glanced at the Alderman rather in amazement, I thought, as if he had suddenly taken leave of his senses, but she looked at me as she has ever done in a most kindly way.
"'Skylark,' said the Alderman, 'this is Mrs. Durham, my housekeeper.' Perhaps the Alderman had seen the expression upon Mrs. Durham's face, and had interpreted it correctly, for he added, 'Mrs. Durham, I am somewhat ashamed to say that in the grave of a faithful and most devoted creature I have here buried metaphorically, for good and all, as many of the reprehensible habits of my old life as I can cast at once, therefore, if I seem to you to be very different in the future, you may know there is a good reason for my being so. Could you conveniently take this infant and get him something substantial to eat and drink, and see he is put to bed?'
"Mrs. Durham said, 'Very well, sir,' and taking my hand led me into the house; but she still looked amazed, as if she had seen a ghost, I thought.
"A good many other people, I fancy, must have looked amazed the next day, when in the Alderman's big City offices all the clerks found that their salaries were to be raised. I rather imagine the office boy was the most astonished of all, for upon discovering that his master had raised his weekly remuneration to a pound a week, he was heard to exclaim, 'Well, that knocks all, that is if the Governor hasn't got softening of the brain!'
"The Alderman didn't stop there by a long way, for I know that all the servants in his house commenced to have a different time of it, and his thoughtfulness, as far as I was concerned, was more than wonderful.
"I remember a few days after my arrival he called a council of war with Mrs. Durham, at which I was present, and I may say in passing, that Mrs. Durham and I were by this time fast friends.
"'There is one thing that must be done at once, Mrs. Durham,' I remember him saying during that important interview; 'the youngster must go at once to school. Now the difficulty is this: I don't want him to start at a disadvantage from the very beginning, and speaking as he does now, no ordinary school would take him.'
"'I'm afraid not, sir,' debated Mrs. Durham.
"'Very well, then,' said the Alderman, 'at present there is only one thing to do; we must have somebody here to teach him English, anyway to speak properly and to write and spell before he goes to a school. It must be done, but I think myself it is going to take time,' concluded the Alderman. Then he put on his hat and started for the City.
"I am not going to dwell upon this youthful period of my life, for everybody's school-days very much resemble every other person's, but I do know that the Alderman's belief that my education would take time proved to be only too true. I shall never forget how long and painfully I worked and toiled to speak my verbs in their proper tenses, to stop dropping my aitches, how I longed to drop the Cockney slang, how my life became possessed with a sort of terror that I should come out with some expression that would cause concern to either my benefactor or to Mrs. Durham.
"Well, I strove, and at last I succeeded so well that I was sent to a fine school where I received a first-class education, and the only effect of the great struggles I went through at this time was a sort of nervousness which I shall have all through my life, and which results, no doubt, from intense anxiety all those years not to make mistakes.
"And so I skip along until one night after the school had broken up at the end of a winter term. I remember it all so well. I had taken the best prizes in the fifth form, I was barely fifteen, and I rushed home, tore into the library, and emptied all those beautifully bound books into my benefactor's lap. He had been smoking his cigar, and was dozing in front of the fire.
"'What do you think of that, Dad?' I yelled. I always called him Dad as a sort of distinction, for although he wasn't my father really, he had been a ripping father to me.
"'Bless my heart, my boy,' he said, 'have you taken all these prizes? Why, I'm proud of you.'
"'And I proud of you,' I said; then I laughed at him. 'You've tried to keep a secret from me, Dad,' I cried, 'and you haven't succeeded a bit. Where's Mum?'
"'Now how on earth did you know that, miles away at school, too?' laughed the Alderman.
"'Read it in the papers days ago. Where is she, Dad? I want to give her a good hug.'
"'I'm here, dear boy,' said a voice just over my shoulder, a voice I knew so well, that had helped me more in my childish hours than I could ever count, a voice that was perhaps the one that had taught me to speak correctly in those trying early days. She wasn't Mrs. Durham any longer, she was Mrs. Gold, but she hadn't altered one bit, and she was Mum then, as she has always been since.
"It wouldn't be honest to skip the next part of the story, and yet I always want to omit this part somehow, because it is entirely composed of events brought about by my own selfishness, obstinacy and pig-headedness, although as a young man I never realised the great grief and the real trouble I was causing to people who had always loved me and done everything for me.
"It started after the time I had left the University of Oxford. I had just commenced to feel my wings, so to speak. Everything there had helped to increase and nourish my love of literature, the set I mixed with had placed me on a sort of pedestal which I in no way deserved, everybody seemed to expect a lot from me, every one seemed to believe I would do great and wonderful things, and what was more disastrous still, I believed I should do wonderful things myself. Imbued with these beliefs, I went home after my last year at Oxford, determined to be a great writer, mark you, not an ordinary writer, since I was positively assured of the fact that I had only to make an appearance in print to be instantly proclaimed one of the immortals. Whilst I was in this ridiculous frame of mind, Dad unfolded to me the cherished scheme of his life. It was that I should go into his office and learn the business, and one day become the head of the firm.