In which l’enfant terrible of St. Augustines matches wits with a foeman worthy of his guile
H. DE VERE STACPOOLE
Illustrated by EILEEN WEDD
HE WAS a most difficult child, likely to come to a bad end, one might fancy. No, not hanging—he was far too clever to put his head in a noose, but as a commercial magnate or something of that sort.
At Mrs. Kettle’s preparatory school down the village —what they used to call in old times a dame school— he lent money at interest, advanced money on flocks and herds of white mice, called it in on short notice, and so brought blubbering ruin to several small farmers; he foreclosed a mortgage on a stamp album owned by William Summers, and when Mrs. Summers called on Mrs. Turpin, (his name was James Turpin,) with her tale of woe she was too late, for the album had been sold and the profits spent on liquorice balls and fireworks. There is nothing more irrecoverable than money spent on these things when the balls are eaten and the fireworks fired—and James knew it.
Then there was the business of the Trust Fund for the buying of a testimonial to Mrs. Kettle on her sixtieth birthday, and the hint of jobbery between James and Nash, the village fancy-shop proprietor, a depressedlooking man who wore mittens. But nothing could be proved, and the imitation crocodile skin blotter, price 6/9, the only witness, being afflicted with dumbness as well as spots, could not rebut the charge that James and Nash had split one and ninepence between them because of the spots. Anyhow, Mrs.
Kettle was half blind and tenpence halfpenny is tenpence halfpenny, and no one could prove anything if anything had occurred, and they’d have whispered just the same if anything had not occurred, and we will leave it at that.
XyTRS. TURPIN was a -‘-VA widow, and James was an only child. She had come to Marley shortly after the war and Skinner, the house agent, seeing he had only a widow and what you might call half an orphan to deal with, dealt with them.
It was a post-war villa with red diamond-shaped tiles on the roof, half an acre of garden where you could grow anything, and a white gate
inscribed “St. Augustines,” close to church and postoffice, only four miles from the railway station, and within easy reach (six miles) of the town of Shotley.
You can imagine how a situation like this would appeal to the post-war servant girl with her love of seclusion and a quiet life!
Against these attractions, however, one had to reckon on the fact that there was neither company’s water, nor company’s gas, nor company’s electricity. One had to depend on lamps, but both electricity and gas were coming, and it was the easiest matter in the world to pump the water up from the well to fill the big tank that lived under the roof. The pump—which has a place in this story—was outside, close to the kitchen door and under James’ bedroom window. It did not look like a pump, just a handle about a foot and a half long that you worked up and down with scarcely any effort. Skinner showed how. A child could do it, at least so he said.
Mrs. Turpin bought St. Augustines, and next day the “To Be Sold or Let” board vanished from the front rails and was replaced by one reading “Sold by A. J. Skinner, House Agent, Auctioneer and Valuer.” A placard that by rights ought to have been on the back of Mrs. Turpin. She never discovered that fact. She was too busy, as a rule, filling and trimming lamps, cooking, doing housework and avoiding opening the front door when the vicar’s or doctor’s wife called.
Skinner had said that she would have no difficulty in getting servants, and that was true up to a certain point; the difficulty was in keeping them. They weren’t stayers; the list of them was like a race card, and against each of them might have been written the words, “also ran”; yet the going was good in nearly every case. Anyway, she was at least left with a few cups unsmashed.
The only things in the way of service that really stuck to St. Augustines were Kimmins, the village odd job man, who came to pump the water and do the garden,
and Mrs. Slate a lady getting on in years who came from the village in domestic crises to lend a hand and condole.
It was a curious fact in the life of this lady that service nearly always meant for her condolence, but not vice versa, and that the sight of her entering any house was almost a sure sign that in that house there was a death or difficult birth in progress, a funeral in preparation or the brokers in. She had a fascination for James. Like most children, even most nice children, the horrible attracted him. The water-butt where six dead cats were found drowned, the village slaughter-house into which you could peep through a hole in the door, Mrs. Slate, Rose the village drunkard, when in bloom—these things and people fascinated him, without, however, exciting cupidity or the desire to make profit out of them.
It was enough to listen to Mrs. Slate’s stories of death and disaster or simply to absorb her atmosphere. But it was different with the girls who came and went.
James in his quiet way made a lot out of the girls.
HE MADE sixpence out of Mary Louisa Hitchen, whom he met one day, silk stockings and all, making her way to the station in company with a strange man who was trundling her box on a barrow. James had seen her that morning a grub in the scullery, and here she was a butterfly on the road, taking flight.
“Here’s sixpence for you, James, and don’t you say you saw me,” said Mary Louisa Hitchen.
He took the sixpence, and promptly went home and told of the flight—a double stroke, for he had the pleasure of hearing his mother and Mrs. Slate before they closed the sitting room door on their discussion of the situation.
“I only went out for an hour,” Mrs. Turpin was saying. “She was quite happy and content; never said a word—and now she’s gone, for no reason—and how did she get her box out?”
Then Mrs. Slate: “There ain’t no men, that’s what’s wrong with her. What she wants is a Cavaliery barracks, sojers—or policemen, that’s all they want—Did I tell you about that girl of . .
The door shut and though James put his ear to it, nothing came through but lowered tones that spoke of awful revelations.
What girls could want with policemen, of all things, was a mystery to James, but he was quite prepared to supply them at a price if he could have obtained them. In fact, he did partly help to supply a chauffeur for Miss Hitchen’s successor, Miss Purkis, by taking messages between the lover and guarding the villa when his mother was away and Miss Purkis wished to be away too.
Miss Purkis brought him in nearly seven shillings all told before she vanished like a blown-out flame, leaving not even a lipstick behind her.
Yes, he made profit out of the causes of his mother’s tribulations, but please don’t think he was all black; what was trouble to her was fun to him, boy that he was, and anyhow the causes would have been there whether or no—and he had his own troubles.
The sisters Bagshott—Mary and Louise—who succeeded Miss Purkis, pudding-faced girls whom you never would have thought capable of deceit, trickery, theft, falsehood and black ingratitude, not only refused to yield profit but very nearly blackmailed him into being a silent witness in an affair concerning six silver spoons and Lewis, the rag-and-bone man.
He rose to the occasion; he was at last able to supply girls with a policeman and he did so promptly, reckoning rightly that in the uproar over the spoons the broken scullery window for which they held him rightly accountable would be considered of little account, thus proving himself possessed of a sense of proportion which Nature had denied to the Bagshott sisters.
TT WAS in the month of June, shortly after the
Bagshott affair, and whilst James was away on a visit to his two maiden aunts in Bedfordshire, that Mrs. Turpin, nearly driven out of her wits with servants, fell to the lure of Mr. Kelly.
The vicar’s wife had said to her: “Why don’t you try and get an old navy man; my cousin has one and he’s a treasure; he’s not only a houseman but he looks after the garden and does odd jobs. He can do anything— they all can—put an advertisement in the Portsmouth Evening News and see. Of course you’ll want a girl as well and you can have Louisa Martley, she won’t leave home to go to service, but she would come to you, and the man could sleep at the Martleys.”
Mrs. Turpin acted on this advice and the result was Mr. Kelly, who was sixty years old, with a small pension and excellent discharge papers and recommendations. He had been in an admiral’s service for years, and then in the service of an admiral’s widow. He was Irish, with still a trace of the brogue, brown, grizzled, hearty-looking and with an anchor tattooed on his wrist. He was indeed a treasure.
His presence was sunlight and sea breezes. In an instant, so to say, he got to know the whole village, and though he went to the village inn at night for a glass of beer, he never exceeded. At St. Augustines things began to go smoothly and things were done, the garden, which Kimmins had shamefully neglected, began to look like a garden and brasses were cleaned without admonition—but not by Kelly.
The fact that Kelly was not a worker but an employer, would have been quite plain to all concerned had they not been under the sort of hypnotism which a greater imposes on a lesser mind. We call it the personal touch. The fact that this employer never paid his employees was also lost to them.
Digging is horrible work, take it how you will, but James Hamble, the village half-idiot boy, did not find it so when digging the garden at St. Augustines under the hypnotic suggestion that he would find gold there; little children came as a treat into the same garden to see Mr. Kelly doing the weeding, and took it as a greater treat when he let them help to weed; they wanted no better payment than his praise, nay, even his presence as he stood pipe in mouth gently criticising or mildly directing.
Mrs. Turpin was pleased with Mr. Kelly’s work in the garden, but the housework pleased her even better.
She could not but perceive that Louisa Jane Martley required neither whip nor spur now, was always busy black-leading grates, polishing brasses, dusting, doing, in fact, all the things that servant girls, and even housemen, as a rule prefer to leave undone, whilst in the kitchen where the lady had often to do her own cooking up to this, Mr. Kelly ruled supreme. He was in fact a good cook, so good a cook that he never put his hand to such business as peeling potatoes and chopping spinach, putting pots on the fire and so forth, which is properly the work of a kitchen maid.
Mrs. Turpin did not know this. She came to understand in some subtle way that her presence was not required in the kitchen, and though Louisa Jane was
thinner and had that strained look which you see in the eye of a horse at the end of a race, she never imagined that the girl had too much to do; hadn’t she Mr. Kelly to help her?
Besides, she was happy—thus proving the truth of the old adage that happiness lies in work.
Mr. Kelly, who liked to see people happy was the last to dispute this adage, and so things went till the time came for the ancient mariner to measure his wits against James.
THE news of the new servant came to James one morning as he sat at breakfast with his aunts in Bedfordshire.
“James, just think,” said Aunt Martha, putting down a letter she and Aunt Mary had been reading: “Your mother has got an old sailor for servant, a Mr. Kelly who has been in the Royal Navy—and she says he’s splendid.”
An old sailor! The news that his mother had got a steam engine or an airplane would scarcely have interested the boy more.
James was great on the sea, though he had never seen it. One of his few decent ambitions was to be shipwrecked. An old sailor—a servant, to make boats for him, to be exploited like a schooner, to make him the envy of all the other village boys!
“Oh, has she?” said James; then with a gulp, “What day am I going home?”
“Thursday,” said Aunt Mary. “Do you want to go—aren’t you happy here?”
“Yes,” said James, making the one answer cover the two questions.
An old sailor!
The vision was not dimmed by an overhead discussion between the aunts.
It was Aunt Mary who was doing most of the talking:
“Yes, it’s all very well saying he is splendid; well, I hope he is, but she might at least have consulted us first. She was always a fool about servants. How does she know he won’t be teaching the boy bad language and smoking? How does she know? And they all drink. They drink rum. Well, she has only herself to thank for whatever happens.”
“Well, let’s hope for the best,” said the other aunt, and entered into a mild defense of the defenders of our country by sea which did not interest James.
On Thursday when he arrived home, driving up to St. Augustines in the station bus, he saw no sign of change except in the tidiness of the garden. It was
—By J. O. Ironside, Hamilton.
almost as though he had expected to see masts and spars adorning the roof.
The actual meeting between him and Mr. Kelly, which took place half an hour later in the garden, was astonishing in its simplicity, and from the fact that Kelly not only recognized James at once as the boy of the house, but also treated him like an old acquaintance and equal, an attitude which James first half resented, then tried to imitate. As a matter of fact they were taking subconscious stock one of the other, like the two exploiters they were; but nothing developed in these opening moves, and it was not till the next day that issue was joined.
TT WAS three o’clock in the afternoon and James coming into the garden found the old sailor at work pumping water.
Louisa Martley was away for the day on a visit to her grandmother at Shotley, so there was nobody to pump the water but Mr. Kelly.
James drew up to the mariner, a question burning in his mind that couldn’t endure unasked any longer.
“I say,” said James, after a word on the weather, “have you ever been shipwrecked?”
The other stopped pumping and wiped his brow. “Shipwrecked! faith, I have—times and again.” “Tell’s about it,” said James, half bashfully.
Mr. Kelly felt in his pocket for his pipe. “I can’t be talkin’ and pumpin’ both,” said he. “Here, take hold of the handle and keep joggling it whiles I light my pipe; I’ve got to fill that tank with water for the missis.” He took his seat on an up-ended crate near by. “I’ve got to fill that tank with wather for the missis—go on pumpin’—What was you sayin’? Shipwrecked—of course I was, first year I put to say. Now where’s me bit of wire gone? What wire? Why, the wire I keep to clean the stim of me pipe—I must have left it in the tool-shed—keep on pumpin’ till I get it.” He was nearly five minutes away round the corner at the tool-shed, but within earshot, for if James relaxed for a moment and the clanking sound of the pump ceased, his voice would come adjuring his deputy “not to let the wather fall in the tank.”
“Faith, and it’s a fine strong boy you are,” said Mr. Kelly as he took his seat again on the up-ended crate. “When I was your age I wasn’t half as fine a chap as you, it was the service put the bones into me, and what are you going to be when you grows up?”
James didn’t exactly know. Beyond secret and vaguely tentative leanings toward engine driving, detective work, deep-sea diving for pearls and so on, he had no fixed ambition at present. However, Mr. Kelly did not press him, passing on to make enquiries as to the aunts James had been visiting in Bedfordshire and other family matters, which took up twenty minutes in the telling and talking, but which had nothing to do with shipwrecks.
“Another stroke or two will finish it,” said he. “Keep on pumpin’. I hear the pipes gugglin’—there. I told you—”
The overflow pipe was spouting, and James knocked off and wiped his brow.
Mr. Kelly rose.
“Aren’t you going to tell me about that shipwreck?” asked James.
“Shipwreck!” said the other, in a light and airy manner, and with the half suggestion of a grin, “Oh, ay—well, I’ll be tellin’ you about it some other time, for I have to go and do me garden now.”
James turned away.
He had been done. Rarely in his life had he been so completely done. Rage filled his heart. He turned.
“I don’t believe you ever were shipwrecked,” said he.
“Don’t you now?” asked the other, tapping the dottle from his pipe.
“I don’t,” said James. “You never were shipwrecked.”
“Arrah! go and wash your face,” said Mr. Kelly, turning off to do his garden.
The cold and blatant cynicism of the thing might have chilled James, but for the warmth of the thought that suddenly struck him.
It is this quick response to the thrust of an antagonist that shews the genius in a business man, and that will surely land James top-dog in some big deal yet.
He went into the house.
His mother was still out. He went up to the bathroom and turned on the taps. He turned on the tap of the basin in his mother’s bedroom. When all the water was gone from the tank, he put the taps right, and turning on the wireless in the sitting room sat down to listen to the children’s hour—and criticise it. He got a lot of fun out of the children’s hour as a rule.
“Kelly,” came Mrs. Turpin’s voice that evening, “there’s not a drop of water in the house.”
“Not a drop of wather in the house?” came the voice of the other. “Faith, and I was sure the tank was full.”
James, listening in his bedroom, noticed that Mr. Kelly asseverated nothing, denied nothing.
Then came the sound of the pump.
The boy opened his bedroom window and looked down; he coughed, and Mr Kelly, pausing for a second in his labors, looked up.
“Don’t mind me,” said James, “keep on pumpin’.”