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These Little Ones. Nesbit, E. (Edith), 1858–1924.
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page: 164
page: [165]

IX

THE LITTLE CHAP

page: 167

THE LITTLE CHAP

THE man was tired. He was tired, he told himself, of the whole damned show. For long enough, and too long now, the wings of life had dragged, broken, shedding gleaming feathers along the dusty high-road where, for others, flowers grew. For others the road led to the City of Dreams; to his feet, leaden as in nightmares one's feet are, the road was only the dust wherein he strove to advance to something, he knew not what, and, striving, failed always.

He was not ill—the body did its work well enough. He never knew fatigue. Only despair he knew. She twisted her claws in among the roots of his heart, and pulled and pulled till he longed for the roots of life to sunder suddenly, and the whole sorry business be done with.

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His rooms were haunted, not by strange ghosts with frank grievances of their own—he could have welcomed them—but by his own dead hopes and dreams. Life was a chain of cruel jests, and the merriest of them was the knowledge that once he too had been merry. The books that lined his walls looked sombre and forbidding to eyes that no longer loved them. In the gardens of Gray's Inn the rooks cawed to branches now wholly bare. For it was winter, and if there had ever been summer the man had forgotten it. The dark—painted doors, two of them, shut from him the dark staircase. In his low—ceiled rooms twilight hung veils like cobwebs. And it seemed to him that in all the world there was nothing that made the world worth while. If he had had friends, he had tired out their friendship. If he had had a love, her love had wearied of his ingratitudes and exactions. If, with the waning of the winter daylight, his life-lamp should also go out, none would be the loser, he least of all. Only his laundress page: 169 coming at her own time and season would be a little surprised, a little shocked perhaps even, to find It where she thought to find Him. But she would console herself with an orgy of sudden easy pilfering before she went away to tell the men in blue that another man had grown tired of the game and gone out.

Yet “It looks a pleasant world enough,” the man said—the fire glowed deeply; a flicker of flame now and again lit up the glasses of his pictures and mirrored itself in the polish of his old mahogany, struck a warm note from the folds of his curtains and the backs of his books—“a pleasant world—and I hate it.”

He had no need to work for money, and he had no heart to work for love. So he sat in the warm dusk and hated everything.

And the dusk deepened to a darkness that was like black velvet in the shadows of the room, and like grey velvet shot with gold in the oblong of the tall windows, because they looked out over the Inn Gardens, and were filled with the sky that is over London.

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When it was quite dark he sat for a very long time very quiet in his chair, and remembered the colour of the fields that he had played in when he was a child, and the colour of the sky that had been over him, and the colour of the sun that he had seen rise over the orchard slopes at home, and how then he had not thought that life would be like this.

The fire fell together with a crash, and he stretched his arms and sighed, and got up out of his chair. And it was then that he heard the child crying. It was crying softly, with subdued snufflings and gurglings, and the sound came from beyond his door. On the oak stairs he found the child sitting, its head in the pitiable cap—a man's cap with a peak—leaned against the carved banisters. Its hands, black and red, were screwed up against its eyes. Its clothes were horrible. One garment was outlined with mangy fur, wet and slimy.

“Hullo, I say!” said the man. “Don't cry. What's the matter?”

“'M lost,” said the child.

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“But how did you get in here?”

“It's rainin' outside,” said the child; sniffed, rubbed its fists once more in its eyes, and stopped crying.

“You got a fire,” it said, turning bright eyes to the open door.

“Where's your mother?” he asked.

“She's lost me,” said the child. “She said to stay there, and she'd come back. And she ain't come back.”

“Stay where?” he asked.

“There,” said the child. “I say, you do burn lots of coals.”

He could not resist the second appeal.

“Come in,” he said, and the child scrambled to its feet—little feet, in unspeakable boots.

“I like you,” it said. “You talk like my daddy used to.”

The child squatted on the hearth-rug, and with perfect self-possession took off the dreadful cap and laid it on the fender to dry.

“It's me best,” it explained.

The man and the child looked at each other. In the child's eyes a merry confidence page: 172 dawned slowly, like sunshine, and two smiles met.

“Do you ever,” the man asked doubtfully, “have a bath?”

“Saturdays,” the child answered promptly.

“Could you—if I turned on the water for you—could you give yourself a bath?”

“Course I could,” it said, “if you was to soap me back.”

He turned on the water for it, and he did soap its back.

He liked the child from the moment he saw its smile, but he did not love it until he had held its body in his arms.

He has never been able to remember whether it had dark hair or light hair; he does not know the colour of its eyes, but he knows that the eyes were bright and gay, that the wet hair curled in little rings as it dried by the fire, and that the little body, thin and fine as an ivory carving, was yet straight and beautiful. The jacket of his pyjamas made, with the sleeves rolled up, a garment warm and adequate.

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He brought the child out of the bathroom, and set it on the Persian rug, where it crouched with the grace and self-possession of a cat that had always lived there.

“Comfy now?” he said, and remembered how they had asked him that, after the bath, when he was little, in the wooden house among the cherry orchards.

“Fine,” said the child. “This coat's soft as soft. I wish mother was here. She'd wash out me clothes. I suppose you couldn't...”

The man actually hesitated a moment before saying, “No; I don't think I could.”

“Well, never mind,” it said cheerily.

“I'll buy some new clothes,” he said.

“I say!”

Pause.

Then: “I ain't 'ad me tea,” the child told the fire.

After that came cake and milk and bread and marmalade, crumbs on the Persian rug, and sticky fingers on the bright brass fenderrail.

“Mother was buying things for Christmas,” page: 174 said the child. “Nice things to eat, and candles too.”

“I suppose,” he said idly, “you don't know what Christmas means?”

“Oh, don't I!” said the child. “Shall I tell you my piece about it, what my daddy taught me?”

The child instantly and surprisingly scrambled on to the man's knees, folded its hands like the little images of the praying Samuel, and said in a pretty hushed voice, and an accent that was not its own:

  • “Upon the Christmas morn
  • The King of Heaven was born:
  • He came on earth to be
  • A little child like me.
  • The King of Heaven lay
  • Upon a bed of hay.
  • The wise men came to see
  • A little child like me.
  • Jesus, give peace and joy
  • To me, your little boy;
  • And let me learn to be
  • A little child like Thee!”

“Thank you, dear,” said the man; and added lamely, “very nice indeed.”

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“My daddy made it up his own self, purpose for me,” said the child, and threw his arms round the man's neck. “D'you know my daddy?” it asked. “He's been gone away a long time now.”

The man would not look at the little corner of the blotted scroll of life that seemed to uncurl at the words. He would not question, would not speculate. Through and through him, back and forth like water lapping from rock to rock in a narrow channel, ran the warm wave of longing, of desire.

“If he were only mine! If the little chap were my own!”

And the thin arms hung round his neck like a necklace of price.

When the necklace loosened at the touch of sleep the man gathered the child in his arms very closely, and sat quiet, a long time, looking into the fire. And at last he laid the child in his own bed, and went out, to buy things for it.

He bought clothes and toys and pleasant sweet foods, and his fancy busied itself with page: 176 a life that should be quite different from any that he had known or dreamed of. For hours had gone by now since he had found the child in the cold shadows of the staircase, and the hope he had not dared to look at had grown to a strong certainty that bade him look in its face, unafraid, with glad eyes.

The mother had meant to lose the child. She would not come back. Certainly she would not come back. The child was his own. And what would he not make of his own—what not do for it, be to it?

They had closed the gates of the Inn before he went out, and they opened to him as he returned. He looked up at the tall house where the child was. It looked, somehow, not the sort of house to which such a Christmas gift would come. His arms were full of lumpy parcels, and the stairs seemed longer than usual, but here, at last, was the black door with his name whitely painted on it. He had to set down all the parcels on the stairs while he found his key.

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He threw all the parcels on the sofa and turned up a light. The fire had burned clear again. What a pleasant room it was for a child to wake up in! He would set out the food and the toys and the clothes, and then bring the child in and hold it in his arms till it woke to all the little intimate joys and surprises he had prepared for it. Moving very softly, so that the wakening should not come too soon, he unpacked toys and sweets and warm, pretty garments, and laid out everything on table and chairs. Then he turned up all the electric lights, and laid a match-flame to all the candles that never were lighted. The old furniture gave back the light as a mirror gives it. The things he had bought to please the child made spots of crude, incongruous colour on the background of the dark room, set in the low key of a life from which youth had long gone away.

The room being thus transfigured to the lit shrine of youth and love and the heart of page: 178 the child, he went to bring back in his arms the child itself.

And the child was not there. His bed lay smooth and neat: on its pillow, neatly folded, the garment that he had seen the child wear as, after the bath, it sat before his fire. The child was gone, its clothes were gone; there were no crumbs, he noticed now, on the Persian hearthrug. All was as though no child had ever been at all in those dark rooms.

Then the heart of the man was wild with anger and fierce resentment, as is the heart of a man robbed of his most precious treasure.

He searched wildly, displacing the ordered furniture, disarranging the folds of curtains and hangings, and, this being fruitlessly done, went out to search the stairs in their dark corners, and, later, the quiet quadrangles of the Inn.

But he did not find the child.

Then, the sense of loss deepening and intensifying within him, he found himself at page: 179 the police-station, asking somewhat wildly for a child that was lost—a little child; no, he did not know its name, nor the colour of its eyes and hair; he had found it, and meant to keep it for his own, and now it was gone. He did not know its name, but it had bright eyes and curly hair and a very merry smile. It had worn an old cloth cap and a rag of a coat with mangy fur.

The policemen looked at him and at each other, and smiled furtively.

“Yes, sir. Certainly, sir,” one answered, to whom a silvery voice had spoken. “We'll keep a look-out, and let you know if we come across the little chap.”

And when the man was gone back to that room where the toys and sweets and clothes had emptied themselves of meaning and value, the men in blue smiled more broadly still.

“We're so likely to come across the little chap, ain't we?” one said to the other, “seeing there's thousands and thousands of little chaps exactly like him? Bright page: 180 eyes, and curly hair, and a merry smile, and dressed in rags, and no father! Well, well!”

Perhaps it is because there are so many thousands that the man has never found the little chap again.

But he has found some of the others: and he knows more about buying clothes and sweets than he did on that first night. Only no other child could ever be the same as that one. No other child comes to such a desert—with such a rose. And sometimes he wonders whether, after all... But he will never know. Or perhaps some day it may be that he will know. He thinks of that. Very often he thinks of it.

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