The Boar Pig
“There is a back way on to the lawn,” said Mrs. Philidore Stossen to her daughter, “through a small grass paddock and then through a walled fruit garden full of gooseberry bushes. I went all over the place last year when the family were away. There is a door that opens from the fruit garden into a shrubbery, and once we emerge from there we can mingle with the guests as if we had come in by the ordinary way. It’s much safer than going in by the front entrance and running the risk of coming bang up against the hostess; that would be so awkward when she doesn’t happen to have invited us.”
“Isn’t it a lot of trouble to take for getting admittance to a garden party?”
“To a garden party, yes; to the garden party of the season, certainly not. Every one of any consequence in the county, with the exception of ourselves, has been asked to meet the Princess, and it would be far more troublesome to invent explanations as to why we weren’t there than to get in by a roundabout way. I stopped Mrs. Cuvering in the road yesterday and talked very pointedly about the Princess. If she didn’t choose to take the hint and send me an invitation it’s not my fault, is it? Here we are: we just cut across the grass and through that little gate into the garden.”
Mrs. Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance, as though hostile search-lights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved. Matilda Cuvering, with the alert eyes of thirteen years old and the added advantage of an exalted position in the branches of a medlar tree, had enjoyed a good view of the Stossen flanking movement and had foreseen exactly where it would break down in execution.
“They’ll find the door locked, and they’ll jolly well have to go back the way they came,” she remarked to herself. “Serves them right for not coming in by the proper entrance. What a pity Tarquin Superbus isn’t loose in the paddock. After all, as every one else is enjoying themselves, I don’t see why Tarquin shouldn’t have an afternoon out.”
Matilda was of an age when thought is action; she slid down from the branches of the medlar tree, and when she clambered back again Tarquin, the huge white Yorkshire boar-pig, had exchanged the narrow limits of his stye for the wider range of the grass paddock. The discomfited Stossen expedition, returning in recriminatory but otherwise orderly retreat from the unyielding obstacle of the locked door, came to a sudden halt at the gate dividing the paddock from the gooseberry garden.
“What a villainous-looking animal,” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen; “it wasn’t there when we came in.”
“It’s there now, anyhow,” said her daughter. “What on earth are we to do? I wish we had never come.”
The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.
“Shoo! Hish! Hish! Shoo!” cried the ladies in chorus.
“If they think they’re going to drive him away by reciting lists of the kings of Israel and Judah they’re laying themselves out for disappointment,” observed Matilda from her seat in the medlar tree. As she made the observation aloud Mrs. Stossen became for the first time aware of her presence. A moment or two earlier she would have been anything but pleased at the discovery that the garden was not as deserted as it looked, but now she hailed the fact of the child’s presence on the scene with absolute relief.
“Little girl, can you find some one to drive away—” she began hopefully.
“Comment? Comprends pas,” was the response.
“Oh, are you French? Êtes vous française?”
“Pas de tous. ’Suis anglaise.”
“Then why not talk English? I want to know if—”
“Permettez-moi expliquer. You see, I’m rather under a cloud,” said Matilda. “I’m staying with my aunt, and I was told I must behave particularly well to-day, as lots of people were coming for a garden party, and I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong except by accident, and then is always apologetic about it. It seems they thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle that they were keeping for the garden-party. Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle. That is why I am not allowed to go to the party, and as an additional punishment I must speak French all the afternoon. I’ve had to tell you all this in English, as there were words like ‘forcible feeding’ that I didn’t know the French for; of course I could have invented them, but if I had said nourriture obligatoire you wouldn’t have had the least idea what I was talking about. Mais maintenant, nous parlons français.”
“Oh, very well, trés bien,” said Mrs. Stossen reluctantly; in moments of flurry such French as she knew was not under very good control. “Là, à l’autre côté de la porte, est un cochon—”
“Un cochon? Ah, le petit charmant!” exclaimed Matilda with enthusiasm.
“Mais non, pas du tout petit, et pas du tout charmant; un bête féroce—”
“Une bête,” corrected Matilda; “a pig is masculine as long as you call it a pig, but if you lose your temper with it and call it a ferocious beast it becomes one of us at once. French is a dreadfully unsexing language.”
“For goodness’ sake let us talk English then,” said Mrs. Stossen. “Is there any way out of this garden except through the paddock where the pig is?”
“I always go over the wall, by way of the plum tree,” said Matilda.
“Dressed as we are we could hardly do that,” said Mrs. Stossen; it was difficult to imagine her doing it in any costume.
“Do you think you could go and get some one who would drive the pig away?” asked Miss Stossen.
“I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.”
“I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—”
“My conscience would not permit,” said Matilda with cold dignity.
“We can’t stay here till five o’clock,” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen with growing exasperation.
“Shall I recite to you to make the time pass quicker?” asked Matilda obligingly. “‘Belinda, the little Breadwinner,’ is considered my best piece, or, perhaps, it ought to be something in French. Henri Quatre’s address to his soldiers is the only thing I really know in that language.”
“If you will go and fetch some one to drive that animal away I will give you something to buy yourself a nice present,” said Mrs. Stossen.
Matilda came several inches lower down the medlar tree.
“That is the most practical suggestion you have made yet for getting out of the garden,” she remarked cheerfully; “Claude and I are collecting money for the Children’s Fresh Air Fund, and we are seeing which of us can collect the biggest sum.”
“I shall be very glad to contribute half a crown, very glad indeed,” said Mrs. Stossen, digging that coin out of the depths of a receptacle which formed a detached outwork of her toilet.
“Claude is a long way ahead of me at present,” continued Matilda, taking no notice of the suggested offering; “you see, he’s only eleven, and has golden hair, and those are enormous advantages when you’re on the collecting job. Only the other day a Russian lady gave him ten shillings. Russians understand the art of giving far better than we do. I expect Claude will net quite twenty-five shillings this afternoon; he’ll have the field to himself, and he’ll be able to do the pale, fragile, not-long-for-this-world business to perfection after his raspberry trifle experience. Yes, he’ll be quite two pounds ahead of me by now.”
With much probing and plucking and many regretful murmurs the beleaguered ladies managed to produce seven-and-sixpence between them.
“I am afraid this is all we’ve got,” said Mrs. Stossen.
Matilda showed no sign of coming down either to the earth or to their figure.
“I could not do violence to my conscience for anything less than ten shillings,” she announced stiffly.
Mother and daughter muttered certain remarks under their breath, in which the word “beast” was prominent, and probably had no reference to Tarquin.
“I find I have got another half-crown,” said Mrs. Stossen in a shaking voice; “here you are. Now please fetch some one quickly.”
Matilda slipped down from the tree, took possession of the donation, and proceeded to pick up a handful of over-ripe medlars from the grass at her feet. Then she climbed over the gate and addressed herself affectionately to the boar-pig.
“Come, Tarquin, dear old boy; you know you can’t resist medlars when they’re rotten and squashy.”
Tarquin couldn’t. By dint of throwing the fruit in front of him at judicious intervals Matilda decoyed him back to his stye, while the delivered captives hurried across the paddock.
“Well, I never! The little minx!” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen when she was safely on the high road. “The animal wasn’t savage at all, and as for the ten shillings, I don’t believe the Fresh Air Fund will see a penny of it!”
There she was unwarrantably harsh in her judgment. If you examine the books of the fund you will find the acknowledgment: “Collected by Miss Matilda Cuvering, 2s. 6d.”
The Open Window
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction, came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic; he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention—but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window; they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly-noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid an imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window; “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.