You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 1

Darling Bud

IT took Mrs Richard Tewler, his mother, three and twenty hours to bring her only son into the world. He came shyly, not head-first but toe-first like a timid bather, and that sort of presentation always causes trouble. It is doubtful if his reluctant entry into this fierce universe would have occurred even then if it had not been for the extreme inadequacy of the knowledge of what are called preventatives that prevailed in the late Victorian period. People didn’t want children then, except by heart’s desire, but they got them nevertheless. One knew there was some sort of knowledge about it, but one couldn’t be too careful whom one asked, and your doctor also in those days couldn’t be too careful in misunderstanding your discreet hints and soundings. In those days England was far behind Polynesia in that matter. So there you were — and do what you could, you were liable to be caught.

Yet such is the heart of woman that Edward Albert Tewler had been scarcely four and twenty hours in this dangerous world before his mother loved him passionately. Neither she nor her husband had really desired him. And now he was the animating centre of their lives. Nature had played a trick upon them, caught them in a careless moment, and this miracle occurred.

If Mrs Tewler was overcome by love such as she had never known before, Mr Tewler was equally distended by pride. He was the useful repair man to Messrs Colebrook and Mahogany of North Lonsdale Street; a row of great windows they had, in those days, full of the loveliest Chinese porcelain, Danish China, Venetian glass, old Wedgwood and Spode and Chelsea, and every sort of old and modern English ware; and he came up in a green baize apron from somewhere below and considered the case carefully and gave his advice with discretion, and cemented invisibly and filled up gaps and, when necessary, riveted with the utmost skill. He was used to handling delicate, fragile things. But never in his life had he held anything so fragile and delicate as Edward Albert in the nascent stage.

And he had made this wonder.l He himself had made it. He held it in his arms, having promised on his honour not to drop it whatever he did, and he marvelled at its perfection.

It had hair, darkish hair of an extreme softness and fineness. There were no teeth, and its round mouth expressed an artless. astonishment tinged with resentment, but its nose was finished minutely, nostrils and bridge and all, and it had hands, complete hands with little nails — every finger had a miniature nail on it, a perfect finger-nail. One, two, three, four, five fingers — only so delicate! And toes also. Not one missing.

He pointed this out to his wife and she shared his pride. They doubted secretly if anyone else had ever produced so highly finished a product. If you had cared to do so, you could have told the little chap’s fortune from those hands. They were not flat and featureless as you might have expected them to be; already they had all the lines and creases known to palmistry. If no one had ever thought of “This little pig went to market”, I think Mrs Tewler would have invented something of the kind herself. She seemed unable to get over the fact that Edward Albert at the age of a week had as many fingers as his father. And later on, weeks later, when she was pretending to bite them off and gobble them up she was rewarded by Edward Albert Tewler’s first indisputable smile He gurgled and he smiled.

The pride of Richard Tewler took many forms and masks according to his immediate surroundings. The “governor” at Colebrook and Mahogany’s, Jim Whittaker — he had married Jane Mahogany — had heard of the great event.

“All’s well with the Missus, Tewler?” he asked.

“All Sir Garnet, Sir,” said Mr Richard Tewler. “They tell me he weighed nine pounds.”

“That’s a good start,” said Mr Whittaker. “He’ll fall away from that for a bit, but that won’t be anything to worry about. “the firm’s been thinking of a silver mug. If there’s no other godfathers in sight. Eh?”

“Such a nonner,” said Mr Tewler, overwhelmed. . . .

Among the warehousemen and boys downstairs he assumed an air of modest assurance. They attempted badinage.

“So you didn’t get them twins you were counting on, Mr Tooler,” said old Matteriock.

“Sample first,” said Mr Tewler.

“You took your time getting started,” said old Matterlock.

“Better than never starting at all, grandfather.”

“That’s all you know, my boy. Well, now you’ve found out how it’s done, you be careful not to overdo it. What I mean is, don’t make a ‘abit of it.”

“Somebody’s got to keep up the breed,” said Mr Tewler.

Mr Matteriock paused in his packing in order to demolish Mr Tewler by facial play. He featured an opinion of Mr Tewler’s genes, a doubt of his health and beauty, an astonishment at his presumption. . . .

The proud father was invincible. “It ain’t no good, Methuselah. You should see my kid.”

Shackle,.known as the Sniffer because of an objectionable but incurable habit, winked heavily at Matteriock, and wiped his muzzle with his sleeve. “What you ought to do, Tewler, you know, is to stick a notice of it in the Times; births, marriages, and deaths. No, no other paper, just the Times. ‘Mrs Tewler of a son, no flowers by request.’ Just that and the address. . . . Oh, I know what I’m talking about. I know a chap that did it. In the blasted old Times, and straight off from all over the country they began sending his missus samples of foods and drinks and medicine, and stuff, for the kid and for ‘er. Strengthenin’ things and so on. I do believe there was a bottle of special nourishing stout. Just think of that! Pounds worth it came to.”

For a moment Mr Tewler considered the possibility. Then he put it aside. “Mrs Whittaker might see it,” he said,

“The guv’nor might laugh it off but she wouldn’t. She’d think it a liberty. . . . ”

But as he made his way home to Camden Town that night, he found himself repeating in a sort of song, “Mrs Richard Tewler of a son. Mrs Richard Tewler of a son,” He went over the details of the conversation and decided he had had much the better of old Matterlock. And of course it was quite right that one mustn’t make a ‘abit of it.

Still, somewhen there might have to be some one to wear out Edward Albert’s clothes. Children grew so fast they didn’t half wear their clothes out. He’d heard that said. It was almost as cheap to provide for two as for one — two or at the outside three. Not more. “Mrs Richard Tewler of a son.” What would old Matterlock say to that? One in the eye for him. It made him feel quite excited and philoprogenitive, and when he got home, Mrs Tewler thought he had never been more affectionate. “Not yet for a bit, Dickybird,” she said.

She hadn’t called him Dickybird for years. . . . Later on that idea recurred to them, particularly after some transitory infection had jumped up the temperature of Master Edward Albert to 104° Fahrenheit, “To think of that little cot empty!?” said Mrs Tewler, “What it would be.”

But you cannot be too careful, and the matter had to be considered from every point of view. After all there was no hurry. No need to plunge, If not today, then next week or next month. The “governor” had been very nice about Edward Albert, but you never knew how things may be misinterpreted.

“Of course,” said Mr Richard Tewler, “it would sort of look like rushing him for another silver mug. You have to think of that.”

So in the end Edward Albert Tewler remained an only child. A little brother or sister was eliminated altogether from his world of possibility by the unexpected death of his father when he was four. Mr Richard Tewler was crossing the road from Camden Town Tube Station and had just passed behind an omnibus, when he discovered another bearing down upon him from the opposite direction and close upon him. He might have dashed across in front 01 that, but suddenly he stopped dead. It would have been wiser to recoil. You cannot be too careful, and in that instant while he stood uncertain as to the best course to pursue, the big vehicle, which was swerving to pass behind him, skidded and killed him.

Fortunately he had insured his life so fully, taking out a new policy when Edward Albert was born, that on the whole his wife and son were left rather better off than they had ever been before his loss. He had belonged to a Burial Society, and the funeral had a black magnificence of the most satisfying sort. Messrs Colebrook and Mahogany put up a special ceremonial shutter (used normally for royal funerals) at each great window, six of the warehousemen, including Matterlock and Shackle the Sniffer, were given time off to attend the funeral, and Jim Whittaker, who knew that Tewler was irreplaceable and ought to have had a rise years ago, sent as big a wreath of virginal lilies as money could buy. The salesman in the shop also sent a wreath, and Mrs Tewler’s uncle in Scotland astonished her by sending one too; a distinctly niggardly one, however, of everlasting flowers, with a curious second-hand look about it.

That intrigued her greatly. Why had he sent it? How he had come by it was beyond her imaginative range. He had acquired it some months before when he sold, up one of his weekly tenants, an undertaker’s widow. He had taken it because there was nothing else to take in its place. But he hated the sight of it once he had got it and hung it up on the living-room wall. He began to have fancies about it. He feared it might grace his own demise. The undertaker’s widow, a dark highland woman with second sight, had cursed him. Simply for taking what was due to him she had cursed him. Maybe she had cursed this wreath on to him. Once he had put it in the dustbin, but the dustman brought it back next day and wanted a whole bawbee, man, as a reward! He put it here and he put it there, he had a fit of indigestion, and its air of waiting for him increased. The death of his nephew — inlaw had come as a happy solution. He did not feel he was giving something away; he was simply releasing himself from a menace. Handing it on whence it could never come back to roost.

But it seemed to Mrs Tewler. that in his heart he must have been inspired by some glimmer of obligation towards his sole surviving next of kin. That gave her food for reverie, and later on she wrote him a long, long, grateful letter telling him of the wonderfulness of Edward Albert and of her own complete devotion to the little fellow; hard struggle though it might be for her; and so on. The old man saw no reason to waste a postage stamp on a reply.

At the funeral, which was wet and windy, Mrs Tewler wore a quite astonishing amount of crape for such a slender person. Long streamers waved about her and made sudden almost coquettish tentacular assaults upon the officiating clergy, patting their faces, even getting round their legs. Edward Albert himself wore a black Fauntleroy velvet suit with a lace collar. He had been put into knickerbockers for the first time. He had looked forward to his escape from the shame of girlish plaid frocks with unalloyed pleasure, sad though the occasion was. But the knickerbockers had been put together rather thoughtlessly, and they threatened to saw him asunder at every movement. Life suddenly became a long cold vista of bisection, so that he wept unaffectedly with disappointment and pain, to the edification of all beholders.

His mother was profoundly touched by this evidence of precocious sensibility. She had feared he might stare about and ask impossible questions, and point.

“You are all I have left,” she sobbed, constricting him and wetting him in a passionate embrace. “You are everything in the world to me. You must be my Dickybird and everything, now that He has gone.”

She was disposed at first to go on wearing her weeds indefinitely as dear Queen Victoria did, but afterwards someone suggested to her that this might cast a shadow upon Edward Albert’s budding mind. So she compromised on black and white and mauve for such short years as still remained to her.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02