A package weighing about a ton hit me on the head and burst like a bomb.
“Did you catch it?” said the face, reappearing. “Dear me, you missed it! Never mind. You can get it at the grocer’s. Ask for Bailey’s Granulated Breakfast Chips. Tootles takes them for breakfast with a little milk. Be certain to get Bailey’s.”
My spirit was broken, if you know what I mean. I accepted the situation. Taking Tootles by the hand, I walked slowly away. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow was a picnic by the side of it.
As we turned up the road we met Freddie’s Angela.
The sight of her had a marked effect on the kid Tootles. He pointed at her and said, “Wah!”
The girl stopped and smiled. I loosed the kid, and he ran to her.
“Well, baby?” she said, bending down to him. “So father found you again, did he? Your little son and I made friends on the beach this morning,” she said to me.
This was the limit. Coming on top of that interview with the whiskered lunatic it so utterly unnerved me, don’t you know, that she had nodded good-bye and was half-way down the road before I caught up with my breath enough to deny the charge of being the infant’s father.
I hadn’t expected dear old Freddie to sing with joy when he found out what had happened, but I did think he might have shown a little more manly fortitude. He leaped up, glared at the kid, and clutched his head. He didn’t speak for a long time, but, on the other hand, when he began he did not leave off for a long time. He was quite emotional, dear old boy. It beat me where he could have picked up such expressions.
“Well,” he said, when he had finished, “say something! Heavens! man, why don’t you say something?”
“You don’t give me a chance, old top,” I said soothingly.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What can we do about it?”
“We can’t spend our time acting as nurses to this—this exhibit.”
He got up.
“I’m going back to London,” he said.
“Freddie!” I cried. “Freddie, old man!” My voice shook. “Would you desert a pal at a time like this?”
“I would. This is your business, and you’ve got to manage it.”
“Freddie,” I said, “you’ve got to stand by me. You must. Do you realize that this child has to be undressed, and bathed, and dressed again? You wouldn’t leave me to do all that single-handed? Freddie, old scout, we were at school together. Your mother likes me. You owe me a tenner.”
He sat down again.
“Oh, well,” he said resignedly.
“Besides, old top,” I said, “I did it all for your sake, don’t you know?”
He looked at me in a curious way.
“Reggie,” he said, in a strained voice, “one moment. I’ll stand a good deal, but I won’t stand for being expected to be grateful.”
Looking back at it, I see that what saved me from Colney Hatch in that crisis was my bright idea of buying up most of the contents of the local sweet-shop. By serving out sweets to the kid practically incessantly we managed to get through the rest of that day pretty satisfactorily. At eight o’clock he fell asleep in a chair, and, having undressed him by unbuttoning every button in sight and, where there were no buttons, pulling till something gave, we carried him up to bed.
Freddie stood looking at the pile of clothes on the floor and I knew what he was thinking. To get the kid undressed had been simple—a mere matter of muscle. But how were we to get him into his clothes again? I stirred the pile with my foot. There was a long linen arrangement which might have been anything. Also a strip of pink flannel which was like nothing on earth. We looked at each other and smiled wanly.
But in the morning I remembered that there were children at the next bungalow but one. We went there before breakfast and borrowed their nurse. Women are wonderful, by George they are! She had that kid dressed and looking fit for anything in about eight minutes. I showered wealth on her, and she promised to come in morning and evening. I sat down to breakfast almost cheerful again. It was the first bit of silver lining there had been to the cloud up to date.
“And after all,” I said, “there’s lots to be said for having a child about the house, if you know what I mean. Kind of cosy and domestic—what!”
Just then the kid upset the milk over Freddie’s trousers, and when he had come back after changing his clothes he began to talk about what a much-maligned man King Herod was. The more he saw of Tootles, he said, the less he wondered at those impulsive views of his on infanticide.
Two days later Jimmy Pinkerton came down. Jimmy took one look at the kid, who happened to be howling at the moment, and picked up his portmanteau.
“For me,” he said, “the hotel. I can’t write dialogue with that sort of thing going on. Whose work is this? Which of you adopted this little treasure?”
I told him about Mr. Medwin and the mumps. Jimmy seemed interested.
“I might work this up for the stage,” he said. “It wouldn’t make a bad situation for act two of a farce.”
“Farce!” snarled poor old Freddie.
“Rather. Curtain of act one on hero, a well-meaning, half-baked sort of idiot just like—that is to say, a well-meaning, half-baked sort of idiot, kidnapping the child. Second act, his adventures with it. I’ll rough it out to-night. Come along and show me the hotel, Reggie.”
As we went I told him the rest of the story—the Angela part. He laid down his portmanteau and looked at me like an owl through his glasses.
“What!” he said. “Why, hang it, this is a play, ready-made. It’s the old ‘Tiny Hand’ business. Always safe stuff. Parted lovers. Lisping child. Reconciliation over the little cradle. It’s big. Child, centre. Girl L.C.; Freddie, up stage, by the piano. Can Freddie play the piano?”
“He can play a little of ‘The Rosary’ with one finger.”
Jimmy shook his head.
“No; we shall have to cut out the soft music. But the rest’s all right. Look here.” He squatted in the sand. “This stone is the girl. This bit of seaweed’s the child. This nutshell is Freddie. Dialogue leading up to child’s line. Child speaks like, ‘Boofer lady, does ‘oo love dadda?’ Business of outstretched hands. Hold picture for a moment. Freddie crosses L., takes girl’s hand. Business of swallowing lump in throat. Then big speech. ‘Ah, Marie,’ or whatever her name is—Jane—Agnes—Angela? Very well. ‘Ah, Angela, has not this gone on too long? A little child rebukes us! Angela!’ And so on. Freddie must work up his own part. I’m just giving you the general outline. And we must get a good line for the child. ‘Boofer lady, does ‘oo love dadda?’ isn’t definite enough. We want something more—ah! ‘Kiss Freddie,’ that’s it. Short, crisp, and has the punch.”
“But, Jimmy, old top,” I said, “the only objection is, don’t you know, that there’s no way of getting the girl to the cottage. She cuts Freddie. She wouldn’t come within a mile of him.”
“That’s awkward,” he said. “Well, we shall have to make it an exterior set instead of an interior. We can easily corner her on the beach somewhere, when we’re ready. Meanwhile, we must get the kid letter-perfect. First rehearsal for lines and business eleven sharp to-morrow.”
Poor old Freddie was in such a gloomy state of mind that we decided not to tell him the idea till we had finished coaching the kid. He wasn’t in the mood to have a thing like that hanging over him. So we concentrated on Tootles. And pretty early in the proceedings we saw that the only way to get Tootles worked up to the spirit of the thing was to introduce sweets of some sort as a sub-motive, so to speak.
“The chief difficulty,” said Jimmy Pinkerton at the end of the first rehearsal, “is to establish a connection in the kid’s mind between his line and the sweets. Once he has grasped the basic fact that those two words, clearly spoken, result automatically in acid-drops, we have got a success.”
I’ve often thought, don’t you know, how interesting it must be to be one of those animal-trainer Johnnies: to stimulate the dawning intelligence, and that sort of thing. Well, this was every bit as exciting. Some days success seemed to be staring us in the eye, and the kid got the line out as if he’d been an old professional. And then he’d go all to pieces again. And time was flying.
“We must hurry up, Jimmy,” I said. “The kid’s uncle may arrive any day now and take him away.”
“And we haven’t an understudy,” said Jimmy. “There’s something in that. We must work! My goodness, that kid’s a bad study. I’ve known deaf-mutes who would have learned the part quicker.”
I will say this for the kid, though: he was a trier. Failure didn’t discourage him. Whenever there was any kind of sweet near he had a dash at his line, and kept on saying something till he got what he was after. His only fault was his uncertainty. Personally, I would have been prepared to risk it, and start the performance at the first opportunity, but Jimmy said no.
“We’re not nearly ready,” said Jimmy. “To-day, for instance, he said ‘Kick Freddie.’ That’s not going to win any girl’s heart. And she might do it, too. No; we must postpone production awhile yet.”
But, by George, we didn’t. The curtain went up the very next afternoon.
It was nobody’s fault—certainly not mine. It was just Fate. Freddie had settled down at the piano, and I was leading the kid out of the house to exercise it, when, just as we’d got out to the veranda, along came the girl Angela on her way to the beach. The kid set up his usual yell at the sight of her, and she stopped at the foot of the steps.
“Hello, baby!” she said. “Good morning,” she said to me. “May I come up?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. She just came. She seemed to be that sort of girl. She came up on the veranda and started fussing over the kid. And six feet away, mind you, Freddie smiting the piano in the sitting-room. It was a dash disturbing situation, don’t you know. At any minute Freddie might take it into his head to come out on to the veranda, and we hadn’t even begun to rehearse him in his part.
I tried to break up the scene.
“We were just going down to the beach,” I said.
“Yes?” said the girl. She listened for a moment. “So you’re having your piano tuned?” she said. “My aunt has been trying to find a tuner for ours. Do you mind if I go in and tell this man to come on to us when he’s finished here?”
“Er—not yet!” I said. “Not yet, if you don’t mind. He can’t bear to be disturbed when he’s working. It’s the artistic temperament. I’ll tell him later.”
“Very well,” she said, getting up to go. “Ask him to call at Pine Bungalow. West is the name. Oh, he seems to have stopped. I suppose he will be out in a minute now. I’ll wait.”
“Don’t you think—shouldn’t we be going on to the beach?” I said.
She had started talking to the kid and didn’t hear. She was feeling in her pocket for something.
“The beach,” I babbled.
“See what I’ve brought for you, baby,” she said. And, by George, don’t you know, she held up in front of the kid’s bulging eyes a chunk of toffee about the size of the Automobile Club.
That finished it. We had just been having a long rehearsal, and the kid was all worked up in his part. He got it right first time.
“Kiss Fweddie!” he shouted.
And the front door opened, and Freddie came out on to the veranda, for all the world as if he had been taking a cue.
He looked at the girl, and the girl looked at him. I looked at the ground, and the kid looked at the toffee.
“Kiss Fweddie!” he yelled. “Kiss Fweddie!”
The girl was still holding up the toffee, and the kid did what Jimmy Pinkerton would have called “business of outstretched hands” towards it.
“Kiss Fweddie!” he shrieked.
“What does this mean?” said the girl, turning to me.
“You’d better give it to him, don’t you know,” I said. “He’ll go on till you do.”
She gave the kid his toffee, and he subsided. Poor old Freddie still stood there gaping, without a word.
“What does it mean?” said the girl again. Her face was pink, and her eyes were sparkling in the sort of way, don’t you know, that makes a fellow feel as if he hadn’t any bones in him, if you know what I mean. Did you ever tread on your partner’s dress at a dance and tear it, and see her smile at you like an angel and say: “Please don’t apologize. It’s nothing,” and then suddenly meet her clear blue eyes and feel as if you had stepped on the teeth of a rake and had the handle jump up and hit you in the face? Well, that’s how Freddie’s Angela looked.
“Well?” she said, and her teeth gave a little click.
I gulped. Then I said it was nothing. Then I said it was nothing much. Then I said, “Oh, well, it was this way.” And, after a few brief remarks about Jimmy Pinkerton, I told her all about it. And all the while Idiot Freddie stood there gaping, without a word.
And the girl didn’t speak, either. She just stood listening.
And then she began to laugh. I never heard a girl laugh so much. She leaned against the side of the veranda and shrieked. And all the while Freddie, the World’s Champion Chump, stood there, saying nothing.
Well I sidled towards the steps. I had said all I had to say, and it seemed to me that about here the stage-direction “exit” was written in my part. I gave poor old Freddie up in despair. If only he had said a word, it might have been all right. But there he stood, speechless. What can a fellow do with a fellow like that?
Just out of sight of the house I met Jimmy Pinkerton.
“Hello, Reggie!” he said. “I was just coming to you. Where’s the kid? We must have a big rehearsal to-day.”
“No good,” I said sadly. “It’s all over. The thing’s finished. Poor dear old Freddie has made an ass of himself and killed the whole show.”
“Tell me,” said Jimmy.
I told him.
“Fluffed in his lines, did he?” said Jimmy, nodding thoughtfully. “It’s always the way with these amateurs. We must go back at once. Things look bad, but it may not be too late,” he said as we started. “Even now a few well-chosen words from a man of the world, and——”
“Great Scot!” I cried. “Look!”
In front of the cottage stood six children, a nurse, and the fellow from the grocer’s staring. From the windows of the houses opposite projected about four hundred heads of both sexes, staring. Down the road came galloping five more children, a dog, three men, and a boy, about to stare. And on our porch, as unconscious of the spectators as if they had been alone in the Sahara, stood Freddie and Angela, clasped in each other’s arms.
Dear old Freddie may have been fluffy in his lines, but, by George, his business had certainly gone with a bang!