My Niece Kitty by George A. Birmingham
I consider it fortunate that Kitty is my niece. She might have been my daughter and then I should have had a great deal of responsibility and lived a troublous life. On the other hand if Kitty had not been related to me in some way I should have missed a pleasant intimacy. I should probably very seldom see her if she were the daughter of a casual acquaintance, and when I did see her she would be shy, perhaps, or pert. I should almost certainly be awkward. I am, I regret to say, fifty years of age. Kitty is just sixteen. Some kind of relationship is necessary if there is to be real friendship between an elderly man and a young girl Uncles, if they did not exist in nature, would have to be invented for the sake of people like Kitty and myself.
I see Kitty twice a year regularly. She and her mother come to town at Christmas time for shopping. They stay at my house. In summer I spend my three weeks holiday with my sister who lives all the year round in a seaside place which most people regard as a summer resort. She does this on account of the delicate health of her husband, who suffers from an obscure nervous disease. If I were Kitty's father I should probably have a nervous disorder, too.
In December I am master of the situation. I treat Kitty exactly as an uncle ought to treat a niece. I take her to theatres and picture houses. I feed her at irregular hours on sweet, unwholesome food. I buy her presents and allow her to choose them. Kitty, as my guest, behaves as well as any niece could. She is respectful, obedient, and always delighted with the entertainments I provide for her. In summer--Kitty being then the hostess and I the guest--things are different. She considers it her duty to amuse me. Her respect for me vanishes. I am the one who is obedient; but I am not always delighted at the entertainments she provides. She means well, but she is liable to forget that a stiff-limbed bachelor of fifty prefers quiet to strenuous sports.
One morning during the second week of my last holiday Kitty came down late for breakfast. She is often late for breakfast and she never apologises. I daresay she is right. Most of us are late for breakfast, when we are late, because we are lazy and stay too long in bed. It is impossible to think of Kitty being lazy. She always gets up early and is only late for breakfast because she has had time to find some enthralling occupation before breakfast is ready. Breakfast and the rest of the party ought to apologise to her for not being ready sooner. It is really we who keep her waiting. She was dressed that morning in a blue cotton frock, at least two inches longer than the frocks she used to wear last year. If her face had not been as freckled as a turkey's egg and the skin had not been peeling off her nose with sunburn she would have looked very pretty. Next year, I suppose, her frocks will be down to her ankles and she will be taking care of her complexion. Then, no doubt, she will look very pretty. But she will not look any more demure than she did that morning.
"It is always right," she said, "to do good when we can, and to show kindness to those whose lot in life is less happy than our own."
When Kitty looks particularly demure and utters sentiments of that kind, as if she were translating one of Dr. Watts' hymns into prose, I know that there is trouble coming. I did not have to wait long to find out what was in store.
"Claire Lane's aunt," she said, "does a great deal of work for the children of the very poor. That is a noble thing to do."
It is. I have heard of Miss Lane's work. Indeed I give a subscription every year towards carrying it on.
"Claire," Kitty went on, "is my greatest friend at school, and she sometimes helps her aunt. Claire is rather noble too, though not so noble as Miss Lane."
"I am glad to hear," I said, "that you have such a nice girl for a friend. I suppose it was from her you learnt that it was right to show kindness to those whose lot is less happy than our own."
Kitty referred to a letter which she had brought with her into the room, and then said:
"To-day Claire and her aunt are bringing fifty children down here to spend the day playing on the beach and paddling in the sea. That will cost a lot and I expect you to subscribe, Uncle John."
I at once handed Kitty all the money I had in my pocket. She took it without a word of thanks. It was quite a respectable sum, perhaps deserving a little gratitude, but I did not grudge it. I felt I was getting off cheap if I only had to give money. My sister, Kitty's mother, understood the situation better.
"I suppose I must send down bread and jam," she said. "Did you say fifty children, Batty?"
"Fifty or sixty," said Kitty.
"Three pots of jam and ten loaves ought to be enough," said my sister.
"And cake," said Kitty. "They must have cake. Uncle John," she turned to me, "would you rather cut up bread and jam or walk over to the village and bring back twenty-five pounds of cake?"
I was not going to get off so easily as I hoped. The day was hot, far too hot for walking, and the village is two miles off; but I made my choice without hesitation. I greatly prefer heat to stickiness and I know no stickier job than making bread and jam sandwiches.
"If you start at once," said Kitty, "you'll be back in time to help me with the bread and jam."
I regret to say I was back in time to spread the jam out of the last pot.
Miss Lane's party arrived by train at 12 o'clock. By that time I had discovered that I had not bought freedom with my subscription, nor earned the title of noble by walking to the village. I was expected to spend the rest of the day helping to amuse Miss Lane's picnic party. Kitty and I met them when they arrived.
Miss Lane, the aunt, is a very plump lady with nice white hair. Her face, when she got out of the train, was glistening with perspiration. Claire, the niece, is a pretty little girl. She wore a pink frock, but it was no pinker than her face. Her efforts to show kindness to the children in the train had been too much for her. She was tired, bewildered, and helpless. There were fifty-six children, all girls, and they ranged in ages from about 18 years down to toddling infants. Miss Lane, the aunt, asked me to count them for her. I suppose she wanted to make sure that she had not lost any on the way down and that she would have as many to take home as she had when she started. Left to my own resources I could not possibly have counted fifty delirious children, not one of whom stood still for a single instant. Kitty came to my rescue. She coursed up and down among the children, shouting, pushing, occasionally slapping in a friendly way, and, at last, corralled the whole party in a corner between two sheds. I have seen a well-trained sheep dog perform a similar feat in much the same way. I counted the flock, with some difficulty even then, and noted the number carefully in my pocket book. Then there was a wild rush for the beach. Miss Lane headed it at first, carrying one of the smallest children in her arms and dragging another by the hand. She was soon overtaken and passed by Kitty and six lean, long-legged girls, who charged whooping, straight for the sea. Claire and I followed slowly at the tail of the procession. I was sorry for her because one of her shoes was beginning to hurt her. She confided this to me and later on in the day I could see that the pain was acute. We reached the beach in time to see Kitty dragging off her shoes and stockings. Eight or ten of the girls had walked straight into the sea and were splashing about up to their knees in water. Kitty went after them and dragged them back. She said that if they wanted to bathe they ought to take their clothes off. Kitty is a good swimmer, and I think she wanted those children to bathe so as to have a chance of saving their lives when they began to drown. Fortunately, Miss Lane discovered what was going on and put a stop to the bathing. She was breathless but firm. I do not know whether she shrank from drowning the children or held conventional ideas about the necessity of bathing dresses for girls. Whatever her reasons were she absolutely forbade bathing. The day was extraordinarily hot and our work was most strenuous. We paddled, and I had to wade in several times, far above the part of my legs to which it was possible to roll up my trousers. We built elaborate sand castles, and enormous mounds, which Kitty called redoubts. I was made to plan a series of trenches similar to those used by the armies in France, and we had a most exciting battle, during which Kitty compelled me to become a casualty so that six girls might have the pleasure of dragging me back to a place of safety. We very nearly had a real casualty afterwards when the roof of a dug-out fell in and buried two infants. Kitty and I rescued them, digging frenziedly with our hands. Miss Lane scooped the sand out of their mouths afterwards with her forefinger, and dried their eyes when they had recovered sufficiently to cry. We fed the whole party on buns and lemonade and became sticky from head to foot. We ran races and had tugs-of-war with a rope made of stockings tied together. It was not a good rope because it always broke at the most exciting moments, but that only added to our pleasure; for both teams fell flat on their backs when the rope gave way, and Miss Lane looked particularly funny rolling on the sand.
At six o'clock the gardener and the cook, sent by Kitty's mother, came down from the house carrying a large can of milk and a clothes basket full of bread and jam and cake. We were all glad to see them. Even the most active children were becoming exhausted and were willing to sit down and be fed. I was very nearly done up. Poor Claire was seated on a stone, nursing her blistered foot. Only Miss Lane and Kitty had any energy left, and Miss Lane was in an appalling state of heat. Kitty remained cool, owing perhaps to the fact that she was soaked through from the waist down, having carried twenty or thirty dripping infants out of the sea in the course of the day.
My sister's gardener, who carried the milk, is a venerable man with a long white beard. He is greatly stooped from constant digging and he suffers from rheumatism in his knees. It was his appearance, no doubt, which suggested to Kitty the absolutely fiendish idea of an obstacle race for veterans. The veterans, of course, were Miss Lane, the gardener, the cook, who was a very fat woman, and myself. Miss Lane agreed to the proposal at once with apparent pleasure, and the whole fifty-six children shouted with joy. The gardener, who has known Kitty since she was born, recognised the uselessness of protest and took his place beside Miss Lane. The cook said she never ran races and could not jump. Anyone who had looked at her would have known she was speaking the truth. But Kitty would take no refusal. She took that cook by the arm and dragged her to the starting line.
The course, which was arranged by Kitty, was a stiff one. It took us all over the redoubts, castles, and trenches we had built during the day and across a tract of particularly soft sand, difficult to walk over and most exhausting to anyone who tried to run. It finished up with what Kitty called a water jump, though no one could possibly have jumped it. It was a wide shallow pool, formed in the sand by the flowing tide and the only way of getting past it was to wade through.
I felt fairly confident I should win that race. The gardener is ten years older than I am and very stiff in the joints. The cook plainly did not mean to try. Miss Lane is far past the age at which women cease to be active, and was badly handicapped by having to run in a long skirt. I started at top speed and cleared the first redoubt without difficulty, well ahead of anyone else. I kept my lead while I floundered through three trenches, and increased it among the castles which lay beyond. When I reached the soft sand I ventured to look back. I was gratified to see that the cook had given up. The gardener was in difficulties at the second trench, and Miss Lane had fallen. When I saw her she was sprawling over a sand castle, surrounded by cheering children. It did not seem likely that she would have strength enough to get up again or breath to run any more if she did get on her feet. I felt that I was justified in walking quietly over the soft sand. Beyond it lay a tract of smooth, hard sand, near the sea, and then the water jump. My supporters, a number of children who had easily kept pace with me and were encouraging me with shouts, seemed disappointed when I dropped to a walk. To please them I broke into a gentle trot when I reached the hard sand. I still felt perfectly sure that the race was mine.
I was startled out of my confidence by the sound of terrific yells, just as I stepped cautiously into the water jump. I looked round and saw Miss Lane. Her hair was flying behind her in a wild tangle. Her petticoats were gathered well above her knees. She was crossing the hard sand at a tremendous pace. I saw that my only chance was to collect my remaining energies for a spurt. Before I had made the attempt Miss Lane was past me. She jumped a clear eight feet into the shallow water in which I stood and came down with a splash which nearly blinded me with spray. I rubbed the salt water out of my eyes and started forward. It was too late. Miss Lane was ten or twelve yards ahead of me. She was splashing through the water quicker than I should have believed possible. She stumbled, and once I thought she was down, but she did not actually fall until she flung herself, breathless, at Kitty's feet, at the winning post.
The children shrieked with joy, and Kitty said she was very glad I had been beaten.
I did not understand at the time why she was glad, but I found out afterwards. I was stiff and tired that evening but rather proud of myself. I had done something to be proud of. I had spent a whole day in showing kindness--I suppose it really was kindness--to those whose lot on other days is worse than my own; and that, as Kitty says, is a noble thing to do. I was not, however, left in peace to enjoy my pleasant mood of self-congratulation. I had just lit my cigar and settled comfortably in the verandah when Kitty came to me.
"I suppose you know," she said, "that there was a prize for that veterans' race this afternoon."
"No," I said, "I didn't know, but I'm glad to hear it. I hope Miss Lane will enjoy the prize. She certainly deserves it."
"The prize," said Kitty, "is----"
To my surprise she mentioned a sum of money, quite a large sum.
"--To be paid," said Kitty, "by the losers, and to go to the funds of Miss Lane's Society for giving pleasure to poor children. The gardener and cook can't pay, of course, being poor themselves. So you'll have to pay it all."
"I haven't the money in my pocket," I said. "Will it do if I send it to-morrow?"
Kitty graciously agreed to wait till the next day. I hardly expected that she would.
"By the way, Kitty," I said, "if I'd won, and I very nearly did, would Miss Lane have paid me?"
"Of course not. Why should she? You haven't got a society for showing kindness to the poor. There'd be no sense in giving you money."
The gardener to whom I was talking next morning, gave it to me as his opinion that "Miss Kitty is a wonderful young lady," I agreed with him and am glad that she is my niece, not my daughter.