THE home in which Edward Albert’s mind expanded for the nine crucial years that followed his father’s death was a furnished first floor. He had the little back room. There was fortunately no bathroom, so up to the day of her death he performed his week-end top to toe modestly in a sitz bath into which a large can of hot water had been poured, in his mother’s room, under her watchful eye. The front room was the living-room and sitting-room, and it had a balcony from which the little fellow could watch the proceedings of his wilder fellow-creatures at large in the street below. He went for walks with his mother to and fro from school and on small commissions. He skirted dogs widely and never answered if anyone accosted him. And one day when a small low-class boy punched him heavily in the back he went his way as though nothing had happened. But afterwards he meditated horrible reprisals! If ever he met that kid again!. . . .
This peaceful and secluded home had been furnished in order to be let. Mrs Tewler had never possessed any things of her own, though she and her husband had often discussed setting up a place of their own on the hire purchase system, but as we have seen they were people of slow decisions. No human eye had ever seen the fundamental upholstery of the various chairs and sofa except by peeping. They were enveloped in covers changed semi-annually from a faded chintz to a weary cretonne. Folding-doors separated the apartment from the principal bedroom. There was a sideboard and a bookcase and various pictures, a fine steel engraving of a stag at bay, a view of Jerusalem, a picture of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort with a slaughtered deer, gillies, etc., balancing the stag, and a large and sensational rendering of the Writing on the Wall. A round table, an overmantel and a large coal scuttle, refilled at sixpence a time, completed the apartment.
Mrs Tewler had added many souvenirs, knicknacks, photographs framed and unframed, and objects of art and fancy to all this, making it very personal and homelike. She had thought of having in a piano on the hire purchase system, but, as she could not play it, she had decided this might be regarded as ostentation.
There was indeed no music whatever in Master Edward Albert’s early life, except the harmonium and sustained hymn singing of the chapel and a passing barrel organ. The gramophone, the pianola, the radio, had still to break the grave serenity of British home life, silent still except for an occasional cough or sniff, the rustle of a turning page, the crepitation of the fire or a peculiar snoring of the gas jets, whose light was supplemented by a shaded paraffin lamp of noble proportions set upon a woollen mat in the midst of the central table. It had a glass receiver and when one touched it one acquired a faint but persistent odour of paraffin. On Sundays when one changed into clean linen came a whiff of lavender. The roast chestnut men, the baked potato men and suchlike “cries of London” stood out brightly against this olfactory background.
On the mantel was a card which Mrs Tewler had discovered in a shop together with others proclaiming “Furnished Apartments” and “Teas.” It bore two words which were destined many years later to become a national slogan;
“Safety First.” By what gleam of foresight this card had been inspired, or what particular danger it advertised in mitigation of damages, I cannot imagine. But there it was, and it found a prompt response in the mind of Mrs Richard Tewler.
By the standards of our present violent times, this atmosphere might have been considered under-stimulating. In Edward Albert’s own little room however there was a more definite appeal to his religious susceptibilities. There was a coloured picture of his Redeemer surrounded by a great number of children, with the inscription, “Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” For some reason Edward Albert could not identify himself with any of these roseate innocents. Severally and collectively he hated them. The other religious subjects that adorned his apartment neither offended nor appealed to him. He just avoided looking at them. But one or two of the illuminated texts bothered him. “Thou God seest me,” in particular. He did not like that. He liked it less and less as he grew to boy’s estate.
It wasn’t fair, he felt. Was there nothing He couldn’t see? Could He see through bedclothes for example? And whatever you chanced to be doing? There was something indelicate about this relentless stare.
It was Edward Albert’s first encounter with Doubt. Never once did the faintest gleam of affection for the divinity, Father, Son or Holy Ghost, enter into his soul. He believed that this Watcher and Punisher brooded insanely over his world and that he had sent his Only Son just to put his helpless creatures still more in the wrong. That was what Edward Albert felt and believed. I make no comment; I am merely recording facts. Since God was Almighty and Relentless, you had to propitiate Him — safety first — and not think a thought of protest even in the darkness of your black little heart. No putting out your tongue at Him, No! (And a recording angel writing it all down! ) Edward Albert doubted but he never denied. Like most other Believers he managed to mitigate. He had an inspiration. “He can see you,” he argued. “But they can’t be looking at everybody and writing down about everybody all the time.”
That wasn’t an idea to tell other people. It was an idea to keep very much to oneself. If you talked about it too much you might suddenly attract His attention. Our young man put up that idea like a modest private parasol between himself and the Sun of Righteousness. And insensibly the skies clouded over so that presently he did not seem to need his parasol any more. God ceased to be a consuming fire.
We are not arguing here. I am simply recording indisputable facts: I am telling the story of one little boy, who grew up to be a hero as you shall hear, and I cannot help it if his story becomes for a moment the story of countless millions of other little souls. This is how Christians temper their faith and how they are able to behave as they do behave in spite of its stupendous imperatives.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02