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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Through the massive skylight illuminating the hall at Robin Hill, the July sunlight at five o’clock fell just where the broad stairway turned; and in that radiant streak little Jon Forsyte stood, blue-linen-suited. His hair was shining, and his eyes, from beneath a frown, for he was considering how to go downstairs, this last of innumerable times, before the car brought his father and mother home. Four at a time, and five at the bottom? Stale! Down the banisters? But in which fashion? On his face, feet foremost? Very stale. On his stomach, sideways? Paltry! On his back, with his arms stretched down on both sides? Forbidden! Or on his face, head foremost, in a manner unknown as yet to any but himself? Such was the cause of the frown on the illuminated face of little Jon. . . .
In that Summer of 1909 the simple souls who even then desired to simplify the English tongue, had, of course, no cognizance of little Jon, or they would have claimed him for a disciple. But one can be too simple in this life, for his real name was Jolyon, and his living father and dead half-brother had usurped of old the other shortenings, Jo and Jolly. As a fact little Jon had done his best to conform to convention and spell himself first Jhon, then John; not till his father had explained the sheer necessity, had he spelled his name Jon.
Up till now that father had possessed what was left of his heart by the groom, Bob, who played the concertina, and his nurse “Da,” who wore the violet dress on Sundays, and enjoyed the name of Spraggins in that private life lived at odd moments even by domestic servants. His mother had only appeared to him, as it were in dreams, smelling delicious, smoothing his forehead just before he fell asleep, and sometimes docking his hair, of a golden brown colour. When he cut his head open against the nursery fender she was there to be bled over; and when he had nightmare she would sit on his bed and cuddle his head against her neck. She was precious but remote, because “Da” was so near, and there is hardly room for more than one woman at a time in a man’s heart. With his father, too, of course, he had special bonds of union; for little Jon also meant to be a painter when he grew up — with the one small difference, that his father painted pictures, and little Jon intended to paint ceilings and walls, standing on a board between two step-ladders, in a dirty-white apron, and a lovely smell of whitewash. His father also took him riding in Richmond Park, on his pony, Mouse, so-called because it was so-coloured.
Little Jon had been born with a silver spoon in a mouth which was rather curly and large. He had never heard his father or his mother speak in an angry voice, either to each other, himself, or anybody else; the groom, Bob, Cook, Jane, Bella and the other servants, even “Da,” who alone restrained him in his courses, had special voices when they talked to him. He was therefore of opinion that the world was a place of perfect and perpetual gentility and freedom.
A child of 1901, he had come to consciousness when his country, just over that bad attack of scarlet fever, the Boer War, was preparing for the Liberal revival of 1906. Coercion was unpopular, parents had exalted notions of giving their offspring a good time. They spoiled their rods, spared their children, and anticipated the results with enthusiasm. In choosing, moreover, for his father an amiable man of fifty-two, who had already lost an only son, and for his mother a woman of thirty-eight, whose first and only child he was, little Jon had done well and wisely. What had saved him from becoming a cross between a lap dog and a little prig, had been his father’s adoration of his mother, for even little Jon could see that she was not merely just his mother, and that he played second fiddle to her in his father’s heart: What he played in his mother’s heart he knew not yet. As for “Auntie” June, his half-sister (but so old that she had grown out of the relationship) she loved him, of course, but was too sudden. His devoted “Da,” too, had a Spartan touch. His bath was cold and his knees were bare; he was not encouraged to be sorry for himself. As to the vexed question of his education, little Jon shared the theory of those who considered that children should not be forced. He rather liked the Mademoiselle who came for two hours every morning to teach him her language, together with history, geography and sums; nor were the piano lessons which his mother gave him disagreeable, for she had a way of luring him from tune to tune, never making him practise one which did not give him pleasure, so that he remained eager to convert ten thumbs into eight fingers. Under his father he learned to draw pleasure-pigs and other animals. He was not a highly educated little boy. Yet, on the whole, the silver spoon stayed in his mouth without spoiling it, though “Da” sometimes said that other children would do him a “world of good.”
It was a disillusionment, then, when at the age of nearly seven she held him down on his back, because he wanted to do something of which she did not approve. This first interference with the free individualism of a Forsyte drove him almost frantic. There was something appalling in the utter helplessness of that position, and the uncertainty as to whether it would ever come to an end. Suppose she never let him get up any more! He suffered torture at the top of his voice for fifty seconds. Worse than anything was his perception that “Da” had taken all that time to realise the agony of fear he was enduring. Thus, dreadfully, was revealed to him the lack of imagination in the human being.
When he was let up he remained convinced that “Da” had done a dreadful thing. Though he did not wish to bear witness against her, he had been compelled, by fear of repetition, to seek his mother and say: “Mum, don’t let ‘Da’ hold me down on my back again.”
His mother, her hands held up over her head, and in them two plaits of hair —“couleur de feuille morte,” as little Jon had not yet learned to call it — had looked at him with eyes like little bits of his brown velvet tunic, and answered:
“No, darling, I won’t.”
She, being in the nature of a goddess, little Jon was satisfied; especially when, from under the dining-table at breakfast, where he happened to be waiting for a mushroom, he had overheard her say to his father:
“Then, will you tell ‘Da,’ dear, or shall I? She’s so devoted to him”; and his father’s answer:
“Well, she mustn’t show it that way. I know exactly what it feels like to be held down on one’s back. No Forsyte can stand it for a minute.”
Conscious that they did not know him to be under the table, little Jon was visited by the quite new feeling of embarrassment, and stayed where he was, ravaged by desire for the mushroom.
Such had been his first dip into the dark abysses of existence. Nothing much had been revealed to him after that, till one day, having gone down to the cow-house for his drink of milk fresh from the cow, after Garratt had finished milking, he had seen Clover’s calf, dead. Inconsolable, and followed by an upset Garratt, he had sought “Da”; but suddenly aware that she was not the person he wanted, had rushed away to find his father, and had run into the arms of his mother.
“Clover’s calf’s dead! Oh! Oh! It looked so soft!”
His mother’s clasp, and her:
“Yes, darling, there, there!” had stayed his sobbing. But if Clover’s calf could die, anything could — not only bees, flies, beetles and chickens — and look soft like that! This was appalling — and soon forgotten!
The next thing had been to sit on a bumble bee, a poignant experience, which his mother had understood much better than “Da”; and nothing of vital importance had happened after that till the year turned; when, following a day of utter wretchedness, he had enjoyed a disease composed of little spots, bed, honey in a spoon, and many Tangerine oranges. It was then that the world had flowered. To “Auntie” June he owed that flowering, for no sooner was he a little lame duck than she came rushing down from London, bringing with her the books which had nurtured her own Berserker spirit, born in the noted year of 1869. Aged, and of many colours, they were stored with the most formidable happenings. Of these she read to little Jon, till he was allowed to read to himself; whereupon she whisked back to London and left them with him in a heap. Those books cooked his fancy, till he thought and dreamed of nothing but midshipmen and dhows, pirates, rafts, sandal-wood traders, iron horses, sharks, battles, Tartars, Red Indians, balloons, North Poles and other extravagant delights. The moment he was suffered to get up, he rigged his bed fore and aft, and set out from it in a narrow bath across green seas of carpet, to a rock, which he climbed by means of its mahogany drawer knobs, to sweep the horizon with his drinking tumbler screwed to his eye, in search of rescuing sails. He made a daily raft out of the towel stand, the tea tray, and his pillows. He saved the juice from his French plums, bottled it in an empty medicine bottle, and provisioned the raft with the rum that it became; also with pemmican made out of little saved-up bits of chicken sat on and dried at the fire; and with lime juice against scurvy, extracted from the peel of his oranges and a little economised juice. He made a North Pole one morning from the whole of his bedclothes except the bolster, and reached it in a birch-bark canoe (in private life the fender), after a terrible encounter with a polar bear fashioned from the bolster and four skittles dressed up in “Da’s” nightgown. After that, his father, seeking to steady his imagination, brought him Ivanboe, Bevis, a book about King Arthur, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He read the first, and for three days built, defended and stormed Front de Boeuf’s castle, taking every part in the piece except those of Rebecca and Rowena; with piercing cries of: “En avant, de Bracy!” and similar utterances. After reading the book about King Arthur he became almost exclusively Sir Lamorac de Galis, because, though there was very little about him, he preferred his name to that of any other knight; and he rode his old rocking-horse to death, armed with a long bamboo. Bevis he found tame; besides, it required woods and animals, of which he had none in his nursery, except his two cats, Fitz and Puck Forsyte, who permitted no liberties. For Tom Brown he was as yet too young. There was relief in the house when, after the fourth week, he was permitted to go down and out.
The month being March the trees were exceptionally like the masts of ships, and for little Jon that was a wonderful Spring, extremely hard on his knees, suits, and the patience of “Da,” who had the washing and reparation of his clothes. Every morning the moment his breakfast was over, he could be viewed by his mother and father, whose windows looked out that way, coming from the study, crossing the terrace, climbing the old oak tree, his face resolute and his hair bright. He began the day thus because there was not time to go far afield before his lessons. The old tree’s variety never staled; it had mainmast, foremast, top-gallant mast, and he could always come down by the halyards — or ropes of the swing. After his lessons, completed by eleven, he would go to the kitchen for a thin piece of cheese, a biscuit and two French plums — provision enough for a jolly-boat at least — and eat it in some imaginative way; then, armed to the teeth with gun, pistols, and sword, he would begin the serious climbing of the morning, encountering by the way innumerable slavers, Indians, pirates, leopards, and bears. He was seldom seen at that hour of the day without a cutlass in his teeth (like Dick Needham) amid the rapid explosion of copper caps. And many were the gardeners he brought down with yellow peas shot out of his little gun. He lived a life of the most violent action.
“Jon,” said his father to his mother, under the oak tree, “is terrible. I’m afraid he’s going to turn out a sailor, or something hopeless. Do you see any sign of his appreciating beauty?”
“Not the faintest.”
“Well, thank heaven he’s no turn for wheels or engines! I can bear anything but that. But I wish he’d take more interest in Nature.”
“He’s imaginative, Jolyon.”
“Yes, in a sanguinary way. Does he love anyone just now?”
“No; only everyone. There never was anyone born more loving or more lovable than Jon.”
“Being your boy, Irene.”
At this moment little Jon, lying along a branch high above them, brought them down with two peas; but that fragment of talk lodged, thick, in his small gizzard. Loving, lovable, imaginative, sanguinary!
The leaves also were thick by now, and it was time for his birthday, which, occurring every year on the twelfth of May, was always memorable for his chosen dinner of sweetbread, mushrooms, macaroons, and ginger beer.
Between that eighth birthday, however, and the afternoon when he stood in the July radiance at the turning of the stairway, several important things had happened.
“Da,” worn out by washing his knees, or moved by that mysterious instinct which forces even nurses to desert their nurslings, left the very day after his birthday in floods of tears “to be married”— of all things —“to a man.” Little Jon, from whom it had been kept, was inconsolable for an afternoon. It ought not to have been kept from him! Two large boxes of soldiers and some artillery, together with The Young Buglers, which had been among his birthday presents, cooperated with his grief in a sort of conversion, and instead of seeking adventures in person and risking his own life, he began to play imaginative games, in which he risked the lives of countless tin soldiers, marbles, stones and beans. Of these forms of “chair a canon” he made collections, and, using them alternately, fought the Peninsular, the Seven Years, the Thirty Years, and other wars, about which he had been reading of late in a big History of Europe which had been his grandfather’s. He altered them to suit his genius, and fought them all over the floor in his day nursery, so that nobody could come in, for fearing of disturbing Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, or treading on an army of Austrians. Because of the sound of the word he was passionately addicted to the Austrians, and finding there were so few battles in which they were successful he had to invent them in his games. His favourite generals were Prince Eugene, the Archduke Charles and Wallenstein. Tilly and Mack (“music-hall turns” he heard his father call them one day, whatever that might mean) one really could not love very much, Austrian though they were. For euphonic reasons, too, he doted on Turenne.
This phase, which caused his parents anxiety, because it kept him indoors when he ought to have been out, lasted through May and half of June, till his father killed it by bringing home to him Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When he read those books something happened in him, and he went out of doors again in passionate quest of a river. There being none on the premises at Robin Hill, he had to make one out of the pond, which fortunately had water lilies, dragonflies, gnats, bullrushes, and three small willow trees. On this pond, after his father and Garratt had ascertained by sounding that it had a reliable bottom and was nowhere more than two feet deep, he was allowed a little collapsible canoe, in which he spent hours and hours paddling, and lying down out of sight of Indian Joe and other enemies. On the shore of the pond, too, he built himself a wigwam about four feet square, of old biscuit tins, roofed in by boughs. In this he would make little fires, and cook the birds he had not shot with his gun, hunting in the coppice and fields, or the fish he did not catch in the pond because there were none. This occupied the rest of June and that July, when his father and mother were away in Ireland. He led a lonely life of “make believe” during those five weeks of summer weather, with gun, wigwam, water and canoe; and, however hard his active little brain tried to keep the sense of beauty away, she did creep in on him for a second now and then, perching on the wing of a dragon-fly, glistening on the water lilies, or brushing his eyes with her blue as he Jay on his back in ambush.
“Auntie” June, who had been left in charge, had a “grown-up” in the house, with a cough and a large piece of putty which he was making into a face; so she hardly ever came down to see him in the pond. Once, however, she brought with her two other “grown-ups.” Little Jon, who happened to have painted his naked self bright blue and yellow in stripes out of his father’s water-colour box, and put some duck’s feathers in his hair, saw them coming, and — ambushed himself among the willows. As he had foreseen, they came at once to his wigwam and knelt down to look inside, so that with a blood-curdling yell he was able to take the scalps of “Auntie” June and the woman “grown-up” in an almost complete manner before they kissed him. The names of the two grown-ups were “Auntie” Holly and “Uncle” Val, who had a brown face and a little limp, and laughed at him terribly. He took a fancy to “Auntie” Holly, who seemed to be a sister too; but they both went away the same afternoon and he did not see them again. Three days before his father and mother were to come home “Auntie” June also went off in a great hurry, taking the “grown-up” who coughed and his piece of putty; and Mademoiselle said: “Poor man, he was veree ill. I forbid you to go into his room, Jon.” Little Jon, who rarely did things merely because he was told not to, refrained from going, though he was bored and lonely. In truth the day of the pond was past, and he was filled to the brim of his soul with restlessness and the want of something — not a tree, not a gun — something soft. Those last two days had seemed months in spite of Cast Up by the Sea, wherein he was reading about Mother Lee and her terrible wrecking bonfire. He had gone up and down the stairs perhaps a hundred times in those two days, and often from the day nursery, where he slept now, had stolen into his mother’s room, looked at everything, without touching, and on into the dressing-room; and standing on one leg beside the bath, like Slingsby, had whispered:
“Ho, ho, ho! Dog my cats!” mysteriously, to bring luck. Then, stealing back, he had opened his mother’s wardrobe, and taken a long sniff which seemed to bring him nearer to — he didn’t know what.
He had done this just before he stood in the streak of sunlight, debating in which of the several ways he should slide down the banisters. They all seemed silly, and in a sudden languor he began descending the steps one by one. During that descent he could remember his father quite distinctly — the short grey beard, the deep eyes twinkling, the furrow between them, the funny smile, the thin figure which always seemed so tall to little Jon; but his mother he couldn’t see. All that represented her was something swaying with two dark eyes looking back at him; and the scent of her wardrobe.
Bella was in the hall, drawing aside the big curtains, and opening the front door. Little Jon said, wheedling,
“Yes, Master Jon.”
“Do let’s have tea under the oak tree when they come; I know they’d like it best.”
“You mean you’d like it best.”
Little Jon considered.
“No, they would, to please me.”
Bella smiled. “Very well, I’ll take it out if you’ll stay quiet here and not get into mischief before they come.”
Little Jon sat down on the bottom step, and nodded. Bella came close, and looked him over.
“Get up!” she said.
Little Jon got up. She scrutinized him behind; he was not green, and his knees seemed clean.
“All right!” she said. “My! Aren’t you brown? Give me a kiss!”
And little Jon received a peck on his hair.
“What jam?” he asked. “I’m so tired of waiting.”
“Gooseberry and strawberry.”
Num! They were his favourites!
When she was gone he sat still for quite a minute. It was quiet in the big hall open to its East end so that he could see one of his trees, a brig sailing very slowly across the upper lawn. In the outer hall shadows were slanting from the pillars. Little Jon got up, jumped one of them, and walked round the clump of iris plants which filled the pool of grey-white marble in the centre. The flowers were pretty, but only smelled a very little. He stood in the open doorway and looked out. Suppose! — suppose they didn’t come! He had waited so long that he felt he could not bear that, and his attention slid at once from such finality to the dust motes in the bluish sunlight coming in: Thrusting his hand up, he tried to catch some. Bella ought to have dusted that piece of air! But perhaps they weren’t dust — only what sunlight was made of, and he looked to see whether the sunlight out of doors was the same. It was not. He had said he would stay quiet in the hall, but he simply couldn’t any more; and crossing the gravel of the drive he lay down on the grass beyond. Pulling six daisies he named them carefully, Sir Lamorac, Sir Tristram, Sir Lancelot, Sir Palimedes, Sir Bors, Sir Gawain, and fought them in couples till only Sir Lamorac, whom he had selected for a specially stout stalk, had his head on, and even he, after three encounters, looked worn and waggly. A beetle was moving slowly in the grass, which almost wanted cutting. Every blade was a small tree, round whose trunk the beetle had to glide. Little Jon stretched out Sir Lamorac, feet foremost, and stirred the creature up. It scuttled painfully. Little Jon laughed, lost interest, and sighed. His heart felt empty. He turned over and lay on his back. There was a scent of honey from the lime trees in flower, and in the sky the blue was beautiful, with a few white clouds which looked and perhaps tasted like lemon ice. He could hear Bob playing: “Way down upon de Suwannee ribber” on his concertina, and it made him nice and sad. He turned over again and put his ear to the ground — Indians could hear things coming ever so far — but he could hear nothing — only the concertina! And almost instantly he did hear a grinding sound, a faint toot. Yes! it was a car — coming — coming! Up he jumped. Should he wait in the porch, or rush upstairs, and as they came in, shout: “Look!” and slide slowly down the banisters, head foremost? Should he? The car turned in at the drive. It was too late! And he only waited, jumping up and down in his excitement. The car came quickly, whirred, and stopped. His father got out, exactly like life. He bent down and little Jon bobbed up — they bumped. His father said,
“Bless us! Well, old man, you are brown!” Just as he would; and the sense of expectation — of something wanted — bubbled unextinguished in little Jon. Then, with a long, shy look he saw his mother, in a blue dress, with a blue motor scarf over her cap and hair, smiling. He jumped as high as ever he could, twined his legs behind her back, and hugged. He heard her gasp, and felt her hugging back. His eyes, very dark blue just then, looked into hers, very dark brown, till her lips closed on his eyebrow, and, squeezing with all his might, he heard her creak and laugh, and say:
“You are strong, Jon!”
He slid down at that, and rushed into the hall, dragging her by the hand.
While he was eating his jam beneath the oak tree, he noticed things about his mother that he had never seemed to see before, her cheeks for instance were creamy, there were silver threads in her dark goldy hair, her throat had no knob in it like Bella’s, and she went in and out softly. He noticed, too, some little lines running away from the corners of her eyes, and a nice darkness under them. She was ever so beautiful, more beautiful than “Da” or Mademoiselle, or “Auntie” June or even “Auntie” Holly, to whom he had taken a fancy; even more beautiful than Bella, who had pink cheeks and came out too suddenly in places. This new beautifulness of his mother had a kind of particular importance, and he ate less than he had expected to.
When tea was over his father wanted him to walk round the gardens. He had a long conversation with his father about things in general, avoiding his private life — Sir Lamorac, the Austrians, and the emptiness he had felt these last three days, now so suddenly filled up. His father told him of a place called Glensofantrim, where he and his mother had been; and of the little people who came out of the ground there when it was very quiet. Little Jon came to a halt, with his heels apart.
“Do you really believe they do, Daddy?” “No, Jon, but I thought you might.”
“You’re younger than I; and they’re fairies.” Little Jon squared the dimple in his chin.
“I don’t believe in fairies. I never see any.” “Ha!” said his father.
His father smiled his funny smile.
“No; she only sees Pan.”
“The Goaty God who skips about in wild and beautiful places.”
“Was he in Glensofantrim?”
“Mum said so.”
Little Jon took his heels up, and led on.
“Did you see him?”
“No; I only saw Venus Anadyomene.”
Little Jon reflected; Venus was in his book about the Greeks and Trojans. Then Anna was her Christian and Dyomene her surname?
But it appeared, on inquiry, that it was one word, which meant rising from the foam.
“Did she rise from the foam in Glensofantrim?”
“Yes; every day.”
“What is she like, Daddy?”
“Oh! Then she must be . . . ” but he stopped at that, rushed at a wall, scrambled up, and promptly scrambled down again. The discovery that his mother was beautiful was one which he felt must absolutely be kept to himself. His father’s cigar, however, took so long to smoke, that at last he was compelled to say:
“I want to see what Mum’s brought home. Do you mind, Daddy?”
He pitched the motive low, to absolve him from unmanliness, and was a little disconcerted when his father looked at him right through, heaved an important sigh, and answered:
“All right, old man, you go and love her.”
He went, with a pretence of slowness, and then rushed, to make up. He entered her bedroom from his own, the door being open. She was still kneeling before a trunk, and he stood close to her, quite still.
She knelt up straight, and said:
“I thought I’d just come and see.”
Having given and received another hug, he mounted the window-seat, and tucking his legs up under him watched her unpack. He derived a pleasure from the operation such as he had not yet known, partly because she was taking out things which looked suspicious, and partly because he liked to look at her. She moved differently from anybody else, especially from Bella; she was certainly the refinedest-looking person he had ever seen. She finished the trunk at last, and knelt down in front of him.
“Have you missed us, Jon?”
Little Jon nodded, and having thus admitted his feelings, continued to nod.
“But you had ‘Auntie’ June?”
“Oh! she had a man with a cough.”
His mother’s face changed, and looked almost angry. He added hastily:
“He was a poor man, Mum; he coughed awfully; I— I liked him.”
His mother put her hands behind his waist.
“You like everybody, Jon?”
Little Jon considered.
“Up to a point,” he said: “Auntie June took me to church one Sunday.”
“To church? Oh!”
“She wanted to see how it would affect me.” “And did it?”
“Yes. I came over all funny, so she took me home again very quick. I wasn’t sick after all. I went to bed and had hot brandy and water, and read The Boys of Beechwood. It was scrumptious.”
His mother bit her lip.
“When was that?”
“Oh! about — a long time ago — I wanted her to take me again, but she wouldn’t. You and Daddy never go to church, do you?”
“No, we don’t.”
“Why don’t you?”
His mother smiled.
“Well, dear, we both of us went when we were little. Perhaps we went when we were too little.”
“I see,” said little Jon, “it’s dangerous.”
“You shall judge for yourself about all those things as you grow up.”
Little Jon replied in a calculating manner:
“I don’t want to grow up, much. I don’t want to go to school.” A sudden overwhelming desire to say something more, to say what he really felt, turned him red. “I— I want to stay with you, and be your lover, Mum.”
Then with an instinct to improve the situation, he added quickly “I don’t want to go to bed to-night, either. I’m simply tired of going to bed, every night.”
“Have you had any more nightmares?”
“Only about one. May I leave the door open into your room to-night, Mum?”
“Yes, just a little.” Little Jon heaved a sigh of satisfaction.
“What did you see in Glensofantrim?”
“Nothing but beauty, darling.”
“What exactly is beauty?”
“What exactly is — Oh! Jon, that’s a poser.”
“Can I see it, for instance?” His mother got up, and sat beside him. “You do, every day. The sky is beautiful, the stars, and moonlit nights, and then the birds, the flowers, the trees — they’re all beautiful. Look out of the window — there’s beauty for you, Jon.”
“Oh! yes, that’s the view. Is that all?”
“All? no. The sea is wonderfully beautiful, and the waves, with their foam flying back.”
“Did you rise from it every day, Mum?”
His mother smiled. “Well, we bathed.”
Little Jon suddenly reached out and caught her neck in his hands.
“I know,” he said mysteriously, “you’re it, really, and all the rest is make-believe.”
She sighed, laughed, said: “Oh! Jon!”
Little Jon said critically:
“Do you think Bella beautiful, for instance? I hardly do.”
“Bella is young; that’s something.”
“But you look younger, Mum. If you bump against Bella she hurts.”
“I don’t believe ‘Da’ was beautiful, when I come to think of it; and Mademoiselle’s almost ugly.”
“Mademoiselle has a very nice face.” “Oh! yes; nice. I love your little rays, Mum.”
Little Jon put his finger to the outer corner of her eye.
“Oh! Those? But they’re a sign of age.”
“They come when you smile.”
“But they usen’t to.”
“Oh! well, I like them. Do you love me, Mum?”
“I do — I do love you, darling.”
“More than I thought you did?”
“Much — much more.”
“Well, so do I; so that makes it even.”
Conscious that he had never in his life so given himself away, he felt a sudden reaction to the manliness of Sir Lamorac, Dick Needham, Huck Finn, and other heroes.
“Shall I show you a thing or two?” he said; and slipping out of her arms, he stood on his head. Then, fired by her obvious admiration, he mounted the bed, and threw himself head foremost from his feet on to his back, without touching anything with his hands. He did this several times.
That evening, having inspected what they had brought, he stayed up to dinner, sitting between them at the little round table they used when they were alone. He was extremely excited. His mother wore a French-grey dress, with creamy lace made out of little scriggly roses, round her neck, which was browner than the lace. He kept looking at her, till at last his father’s funny smile made him suddenly attentive to his slice of pineapple. It was later than he had ever stayed up, when he went to bed. His mother went up with him, and he undressed very slowly so as to keep her there. When at last he had nothing on but his pyjamas, he said:
“Promise you won’t go while I say my prayers!”
Kneeling down and plunging his face into the bed, little Jon hurried up, under his breath, opening one eye now and then, to see her standing perfectly still with a smile on her face. “Our Father”— so went his last prayer, “which art in heaven, hallowed be thy Mum, thy Kingdom Mum — on Earth as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily Mum and forgive us our trespasses on earth as it is in heaven and trespass against us, for thine is the evil the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amum! Look out!” He sprang, and for a long minute remained in her arms. Once in bed, he continued to hold her hand.
“You won’t shut the door any more than that, will you? Are you going to be long, Mum?”
“I must go down and play to Daddy.”
“Oh! well, I shall hear you.”
“I hope not; you must go to sleep.”
“I can sleep any night.”
“Well, this is just a night like any other.”
“Oh! no — it’s extra special.”
“On extra special nights one always sleeps soundest.”
“But if I go to sleep, Mum, I shan’t hear you come up.”
“Well, when I do, I’ll come in and give you a kiss, then if you’re awake you’ll know, and if you’re not you’ll still know you’ve had one.”
Little Jon sighed, “All right!” he said: “I suppose I must put up with that. Mum?”
“What was her name that Daddy believes in? Venus Anna Diomedes?”
“Oh! my angel! Anadyomene.”
“Yes! but I like my name for you much better.”
“What is yours, Jon?”
Little Jon answered shyly:
“Guinevere! it’s out of the Round Table — I’ve only just thought of it, only of course her hair was down.”
His mother’s eyes, looking past him, seemed to float.
“You won’t forget to come, Mum?”
“Not if you’ll go to sleep.”
“That’s a bargain, then.” And little Jon screwed up his eyes.
He felt her lips on his forehead, heard her footsteps; opened his eyes to see her gliding through the doorway, and, sighing, screwed them up again.
Then Time began.
For some ten minutes of it he tried loyally to sleep, counting a great number of thistles in a row, “Da’s” old recipe for bringing slumber. He seemed to have been hours counting. It must, he thought, be nearly time for her to come up now. He threw the bedclothes back. “I’m hot!” he said, and his voice sounded funny in the darkness, like someone else’s. Why didn’t she come? He sat up. He must look! He got out of bed, went to the window and pulled the curtain a slice aside. It wasn’t dark, but he couldn’t tell whether because of daylight or the moon, which was very big. It had a funny, wicked face, as if laughing at him, and he did not want to look at it. Then, remembering that his mother had said moonlit nights were beautiful, he continued to stare out in a general way. The trees threw thick shadows, the lawn looked like spilt milk, and a long, long way he could see; oh! very far; right over the world, and it all looked different and swimmy. There was a lovely smell, too, in his open window.
‘I wish I had a dove like Noah!’ he thought.
“The moony moon was round and bright, It shone and shone and made it light.”
After that rhyme, which came into his head all at once, he became conscious of music, very soft-lovely! Mum playing! He bethought himself of a macaroon he had, laid up in his chest of drawers, and, getting it, came back to the window. He leaned out, now munching, now holding his jaws to hear the music better. “Da” used to say that angels played on harps in heaven; but it wasn’t half so lovely as Mum playing in the moony night, with him eating a macaroon. A cockchafer buzzed by, a moth flew in his face, the music stopped, and little Jon drew his head in. She must be coming! He didn’t want to be found awake. He got back into bed and pulled the clothes nearly over his head; but he had left a streak of moonlight coming in. It fell across the floor, near the foot of the bed, and he watched it moving ever so slowly towards him, as if it were alive. The music began again, but he could only just hear it now; sleepy music, pretty — sleepy — music — sleepy — slee. . . . .
And time slipped by, the music rose, fell, ceased; the moonbeam crept towards his face. Little Jon turned in his sleep till he lay on his back, with one brown fist still grasping the bedclothes. The corners of his eyes twitched — he had begun to dream. He dreamed he was drinking milk out of a pan that was the moon, opposite a great black cat which watched him with a funny smile like his father’s. He heard it whisper: “Don’t drink too much!” It was the cat’s milk, of course, and he put out his hand amicably to stroke the creature; but it was no longer there; the pan had become a bed, in which he was lying, and when he tried to get out he couldn’t find the edge; he couldn’t find it — he — he — couldn’t get out! It was dreadful!
He whimpered in his sleep. The bed had begun to go round too; it was outside him and inside him; going round and round, and getting fiery, and Mother Lee out of Cast up by the Sea was stirring it! Oh! so horrible she looked! Faster and faster! — till he and the bed and Mother Lee and the moon and the cat were all one wheel going round and round and up and up — awful — awful — awful!
A voice saying: “Darling, darling!” got through the wheel, and he awoke, standing on his bed, with his eyes wide open.
There was his mother, with her hair like Guinevere’s, and, clutching her, he buried his face in it.
“It’s all right, treasure. You’re awake now. There! There! It’s nothing!”
But little Jon continued to say: “Oh! oh!”
Her voice went on, velvety in his ear:
“It was the moonlight, sweetheart, coming on your face.”
Little Jon burbled into her nightgown
“You said it was beautiful. Oh!”
“Not to sleep in, Jon. Who let it in? Did you draw the curtains?”
“I wanted to see the time; I— I looked out, I— I heard you playing, Mum; I— I ate my macaroon.” But he was growing slowly comforted; and the instinct to excuse his fear revived within him.
“Mother Lee went round in me and got all fiery,” he mumbled.
“Well, Jon, what can you expect if you eat macaroons after you’ve gone to bed?”
“Only one, Mum; it made the music ever so more beautiful. I was waiting for you — I nearly thought it was to-morrow.”
“My ducky, it’s only just eleven now.”
Little Jon was silent, rubbing his nose on her neck.
“Mum, is Daddy in your room?”
“Can I come?”
“If you wish, my precious.”
Half himself again, little Jon drew back.
“You look different, Mum; ever so younger.”
“It’s my hair, darling.”
Little Jon laid hold of it, thick, dark gold, with a few silver threads.
“I like it,” he said: “I like you best of all like this.”
Taking her hand, he had begun dragging her towards the door. He shut it as they passed, with a sigh of relief.
“Which side of the bed do you like, Mum?”
“The left side.”
Wasting no time, giving her no chance to change her mind, little Jon got into the bed, which seemed much softer than his own. He heaved another sigh, screwed his head into the pillow and lay examining the battle of chariots and swords and spears which always went on outside blankets, where the little hairs stood up against the light.
“It wasn’t anything, really, was it?” he said.
From before her glass his mother answered:
“Nothing but the moon and your imagination heated up. You mustn’t get so excited, Jon.”
But, still not quite in possession of his nerves, little Jon answered boastfully:
“I wasn’t afraid, really, of course!” And again he lay watching the spears and chariots. It all seemed very long.
“Oh! Mum, do hurry up!”
“Darling, I have to plait my hair.”
“Oh! not to-night. You’ll only have to unplait it again to-morrow. I’m sleepy now; if you don’t come, I shan’t be sleepy soon.”
His mother stood up white and flowey before the winged mirror: he could see three of her, with her neck turned and her hair bright under the light, and her dark eyes smiling. It was unnecessary, and he said:
“Do come, Mum; I’m waiting.”
“Very well, my love, I’ll come.”
Little Jon closed his eyes. Everything was turning out most satisfactory, only she must hurry up! He felt the bed shake, she was getting in. And, still with his eyes closed, he said sleepily: “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
He heard her voice say something, felt her lips touching his nose, and, snuggling up beside her who lay awake and loved him with her thoughts, he fell into the dreamless sleep, which rounded off his past.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005