Book Two
Chapter V. The Real Thing
 

Kirk sat in the nursery with his chin on his hands, staring gloomily at William Bannister. On the floor William Bannister played some game of his own invention with his box of bricks.

They were alone. It was the first time they had been alone together for two weeks. As a rule, when Kirk paid his daily visit, Lora Delane Porter was there, watchful and forbidding, prepared, on the slightest excuse, to fall upon him with rules and prohibitions. To-day she was out, and Kirk had the field to himself, for Mamie, whose duty it was to mount guard, and who had been threatened with many terrible things by Mrs. Porter if she did not stay on guard, had once more allowed her too sympathetic nature to get the better of her and had vanished.

Kirk was too dispirited to take advantage of his good fortune. He had a sense of being there on parole, of being on his honour not to touch. So he sat in his chair, and looked at Bill; while Bill, crooning to himself, played decorously with bricks.

The truth had been a long time in coming home to Kirk, but it had reached him at last. Ever since his return he had clung to the belief that it was a genuine conviction of its merits that had led Ruth to support her aunt's scheme for Bill's welfare. He himself had always looked on the exaggerated precautions for the maintenance of the latter's health as ridiculous and unnecessary; but he had acquiesced in them because he thought that Ruth sincerely believed them indispensable.

After all, he had not been there when Bill so nearly died, and he could understand that the shock of that episode might have distorted the judgment even of a woman so well balanced as Ruth. He was quite ready to be loyal to her in the matter, however distasteful it might be to him.

But now he saw the truth. A succession of tiny incidents had brought light to him. Ruth might or might not be to some extent genuine in her belief in the new system, but her chief motive for giving it her support was something quite different. He had tried not to admit to himself, but he could do so no longer. Ruth allowed Mrs. Porter to have her way because it suited her to do so; because, with Mrs. Porter on the premises, she had more leisure in which to amuse herself; because, to put it in a word, the child had begun to bore her.

Everything pointed to that. In the old days it had been her chief pleasure to be with the boy. Their walks in the park had been a daily ceremony with which nothing had been allowed to interfere. But now she always had some excuse for keeping away from him.

Her visits to the nursery, when she did go there, were brief and perfunctory. And the mischief of it was that she always presented such admirable reasons for abstaining from Bill's society, when it was suggested to her that she should go to him, that it was impossible to bring her out into the open and settle the matter once and for all.

Patience was one of the virtues which set off the defects in Kirk's character; but he did not feel very patient now as he sat and watched Bill playing on the floor.

"Well, Bill, old man, what do you make of it all?" he said at last.

The child looked up and fixed him with unwinking eyes. Kirk winced. They were so exactly Ruth's eyes. That wide-open expression when somebody, speaking suddenly to her, interrupted a train of thought, was one of her hundred minor charms.

Bill had reproduced it to the life. He stared for a moment; then, as if there had been some telepathy between them, said: "I want mummy."

Kirk laughed bitterly.

"You aren't the only one. I want mummy, too."

"Where is mummy?"

"I couldn't tell you exactly. At a luncheon-party somewhere."

"What's luncheon-party?"

"A sort of entertainment where everybody eats too much and talks all the time without ever saying a thing that's worth hearing."

Bill considered this gravely.

"Why?"

"Because they like it, I suppose."

"Why do they like it?"

"Goodness knows."

"Does mummy like it?"

"I suppose so."

"Does mummy eat too much?"

"She doesn't. The others do."

"Why?"

William Bannister's thirst for knowledge was at this time perhaps his most marked characteristic. No encyclopaedia could have coped with it. Kirk was accustomed to do his best, cheerfully yielding up what little information on general subjects he happened to possess, but he was like Mrs. Partington sweeping back the Atlantic Ocean with her broom.

"Because they've been raised that way," he replied to the last question. "Bill, old man, when you grow up, don't you ever become one of these fellows who can't walk two blocks without stopping three times to catch up with their breath. If you get like that mutt Dana Ferris you'll break my heart. And you're heading that way, poor kid."

"What's Ferris?"

"He's a man I met at dinner the other night. When he was your age he was the richest child in America, and everybody fussed over him till he grew up into a wretched little creature with a black moustache and two chins. You ought to see him. He would make you laugh; and you don't get much to laugh at nowadays. I guess it isn't hygienic for a kid to laugh. Bill, honestly--what do you think of things? Don't you ever want to hurl one of those sterilized bricks of yours at a certain lady? Or has she taken all the heart out of you by this time?"

This was beyond Bill, as Kirk's monologues frequently were. He changed the subject.

"I wish I had a cat," he said, by way of starting a new topic.

"Well, why haven't you a cat? Why haven't you a dozen cats if you want them?"

"I asked Aunty Lora could I have a cat, and she said: 'Certainly not, cats are--cats are----"

"Unhygienic?"

"What's that?"

"It's what your Aunt Lora might think a cat was. Or did she say pestilential?"

"I don't amember."

"But she wouldn't let you have one?"

"Mamie said a cat might scratch me."

"Well, you wouldn't mind that?" said Kirk anxiously.

He had come to be almost morbidly on the look-out for evidence which might go to prove that this cotton-wool existence was stealing from the child the birthright of courage which was his from both his parents. Much often depends on little things, and, if Bill had replied in the affirmative to the question, it would probably have had the result of sending Kirk there and then raging through the house conducting a sort of War of Independence.

The only thing that had kept him from doing so before was the reflection that Mrs. Porter's system could not be definitely taxed with any harmful results. But his mind was never easy. Every day found him still nervously on the alert for symptoms.

Bill soothed him now by answering "No" in a very decided voice. All well so far, but it had been an anxious moment.

It seemed incredible to Kirk that the life he was leading should not in time turn the child into a whimpering bundle of nerves. His conversations with Bill were, as a result, a sort of spiritual parallel to the daily taking of his temperature with the thermometer. Sooner or later he always led the talk round to some point where Bill must make a definite pronouncement which would show whether or not the insidious decay had begun to set in.

So far all appeared to be well. In earlier conversations Bill, subtly questioned, had stoutly maintained that he was not afraid of Indians, dogs, pirates, mice, cows, June-bugs, or noises in the dark. He had even gone so far as to state that if an Indian chief found his way into the nursery he, Bill, would chop his head off. The most exacting father could not have asked more. And yet Kirk was not satisfied: he remained uneasy.

It so happened that this afternoon Bill, who had had hitherto to maintain his reputation for intrepidity entirely by verbal statements, was afforded an opportunity of providing a practical demonstration that his heart was in the right place. The game he was playing with the bricks was one that involved a certain amount of running about with a puffing accompaniment of a vaguely equine nature. And while performing this part of the programme he chanced to trip. He hesitated for a moment, as if uncertain whether to fall or remain standing; then did the former with a most emphatic bump.

He scrambled up, stood looking at Kirk with a twitching lip, then gave a great gulp, and resumed his trotting. The whole exhibition of indomitable heroism was over in half a minute, and he did not even bother to wait for applause.

The effect of the incident on Kirk was magical. He was in the position of an earnest worshipper who, tortured with doubts, has prayed for a sign. This was a revelation. A million anti-Indian statements, however resolute, were nothing to this.

This was the real thing. Before his eyes this super-child of his had fallen in a manner which might quite reasonably have led to tears; which would, Kirk felt sure, have produced bellows of anguish from every other child in America. And what had happened? Not a moan. No, sir, not one solitary cry. Just a gulp which you had to strain your ears to hear, and which, at that, might have been a mere taking-in of breath such as every athlete must do, and all was over.

This child of his was the real thing. It had been proved beyond possibility of criticism.

There are moments when a man on parole forgets his promise. All thought of rules and prohibitions went from Kirk. He rose from his seat, grabbed his son with both hands, and hugged him. We cannot even begin to estimate the number of bacilli which must have rushed, whooping with joy, on to the unfortunate child. Under a microscope it would probably have looked like an Old Home Week. And Kirk did not care. He simply kept on hugging. That was the sort of man he was--thoroughly heartless.

"Bill, you're great!" he cried.

Bill had been an amazed party to the incident. Nothing of this kind had happened to him for so long that he had forgotten there were children to whom this sort of thing did happen. Then he recollected a similar encounter with a bearded man down in the hall when he came in one morning from his ride in the automobile. A moment later he had connected his facts.

This man who had no beard was the same man as the man who had a beard, and this behaviour was a personal eccentricity of his. The thought crossed his mind that Aunty Lora would not approve of this.

And then, surprisingly, there came the thought that he did not care whether Aunty Lora approved or not. He liked it, and that was enough for him.

The seeds of revolt had been sown in the bosom of William Bannister.

It happened that Ruth, returning from her luncheon-party, looked in at the nursery on her way upstairs. She was confronted with the spectacle of Bill seated on Kirk's lap, his face against Kirk's shoulder. Kirk, though he had stopped speaking as the door opened, appeared to be in the middle of a story, for Bill, after a brief glance at the newcomer, asked: "What happened then?"

"Kirk, really!" said Ruth.

Kirk did not appear in the least ashamed of himself.

"Ruth, this kid is the most amazing kid. Do you know what happened just now? He was running along and he tripped and came down flat. And he didn't even think of crying. He just picked himself up, and----"

"That was very brave of you, Billy. But, seriously, Kirk, you shouldn't hug him like that. Think what Aunt Lora would say!"

"Aunt Lora be----Bother Aunt Lora!"

"Well, I won't give you away. If she heard, she would write a book about it. And she was just starting to come up when I was downstairs. We came in together. You had better fly while there's time."

It was sound advice, and Kirk took it.

It was not till some time later, going over the incident again in his mind, he realized how very lightly Ruth had treated what, if she really adhered to Mrs. Porter's views on hygiene, should have been to her a dreadful discovery. The reflection was pleasant to him for a moment; it seemed to draw Ruth and himself closer together; then he saw the reverse side of it.

If Ruth did not really believe in this absurd hygienic nonsense, why had she permitted it to be practised upon the boy? There was only one answer, and it was the one which Kirk had already guessed at. She did it because it gave her more freedom, because it bored her to look after the child herself, because she was not the same Ruth he had left at the studio when he started with Hank Jardine for Colombia.