Chapter Four
 

In this warm summer weather Gissing slept on a little outdoor balcony that opened off the nursery. The world, rolling in her majestic seaway, heeled her gunwale slowly into the trough of space. Disked upon this bulwark, the sun rose, and promptly Gissing woke. The poplars flittered in a cool stir. Beyond the tadpole pond, through a notch in the landscape, he could see the far darkness of the hills. That fringe of woods was a railing that kept the sky from flooding over the earth.

The level sun, warily peering over the edge like a cautious marksman, fired golden volleys unerringly at him. At once Gissing was aware and watchful. Brief truce was over: the hopeless war with Time began anew.

This was his placid hour. Light, so early, lies timidly along the ground. It steals gently from ridge to ridge; it is soft, unsure. That blue dimness, receding from bole to bole, is the skirt of Night's garment, trailing off toward some other star. As easily as it slips from tree to tree, it glides from earth to Orion.

Light, which later will riot and revel and strike pitilessly down, still is tender and tentative. It sweeps in rosy scythe-strokes, parallel to earth. It gilds, where later it will burn.

Gissing lay, without stirring. The springs of the old couch were creaky, and the slightest sound might arouse the children within. Now, until they woke, was his peace. Purposely he had had the sleeping porch built on the eastern side of the house. Making the sun his alarm clock, he prolonged the slug-a-bed luxury. He had procured the darkest and most opaque of all shades for the nursery windows, to cage as long as possible in that room Night the silencer. At this time of the year, the song of the mosquito was his dreaded nightingale. In spite of fine-mesh screens, always one or two would get in. Mrs. Spaniel, he feared, left the kitchen door ajar during the day, and these Borgias of the insect world, patiently invasive, seized their chance. It was a rare night when a sudden scream did not come from the nursery every hour or so. "Daddy, a keeto, a keeto!" was the anguish from one of the trio. The other two were up instantly, erect and yelping in their cribs, small black paws on the rail, pink stomachs candidly exposed to the winged stilleto. Lights on, and the room must be explored for the lurking foe. Scratching themselves vigorously, the fun of the chase assuaged the smart of those red welts. Gissing, wise by now, knew that after a forager the mosquito always retires to the ceiling, so he kept a stepladder in the room. Mounted on this, he would pursue the enemy with a towel, while the children screamed with merriment. Then stomachs must be anointed with more citronella; sheets and blankets reassembled, and quiet gradually restored. Life, as parents know, can be supported on very little sleep.

But how delicious to lie there, in the morning freshness, to hear the earth stir with reviving gusto, the merriment of birds, the exuberant clink of milk-bottles set down by the back-door, the whole complex machinery of life begin anew! Gissing was amazed now, looking back upon his previous existence, to see himself so busy, so active. Few people are really lazy, he thought: what we call laziness is merely maladjustment. For in any department of life where one is genuinely interested, he will be zealous beyond belief. Certainly he had not dreamed, until he became (in a manner of speaking) a parent, that he had in him such capacity for detail.

This business of raising a family, though-- had he any true aptitude for it? or was he forcing himself to go through with it? Wasn't he, moreover, incurring all the labours of parenthood without any of its proper dignity and social esteem? Mrs. Chow down the street, for instance, why did she look so sniffingly upon him when she heard the children, in the harmless uproar of their play, cry him aloud as Daddy? Uncle, he had intended they should call him; but that is, for beginning speech, a hard saying, embracing both a palatal and a liquid. Whereas Da-da--the syllables come almost unconsciously to the infant mouth. So he had encouraged it, and even felt an irrational pride in the honourable but unearned title.

A little word, Daddy, but one of the most potent, he was thinking. More than a word, perhaps: a great social engine: an anchor which, cast carelessly overboard, sinks deep and fast into the very bottom. The vessel rides on her hawser, and where are your blue horizons then?

But come now, isn't one horizon as good as another? And do they really remain blue when you reach them?

Unconsciously he stirred, stretching his legs deeply into the comfortable nest of his couch. The springs twanged. Simultaneous clamours! The puppies were awake.

They yelled to be let out from the cribs. This was the time of the morning frolic. Gissing had learned that there is only one way to deal with the almost inexhaustible energy of childhood. That is, not to attempt to check it, but to encourage and draw it out. To start the day with a rush, stimulating every possible outlet of zeal; meanwhile taking things as calmly and quietly as possible himself, sitting often to take the weight off his legs, and allowing the youngsters to wear themselves down. This, after all, is Nature's own way with man; it is the wise parent's tactic with children. Thus, by dusk, the puppies will have run themselves almost into a stupor; and you, if you have shrewdly husbanded your strength, may have still a little power in reserve for reading and smoking.

The before-breakfast game was conducted on regular routine. Children show their membership in the species by their love of strict habit.

Gissing let them yell for a few moments--as long as he thought the neighbours would endure it--while he gradually gathered strength and resolution, shook off the cowardice of bed. Then he strode into the nursery. As soon as they heard him raising the shades there was complete silence. They hastened to pull the blankets over themselves, and lay tense, faces on paws, with bright expectant upward eyes. They trembled a little with impatience. It was all he could do to restrain himself from patting the sleek heads, which always seemed to shine with extra polish after a night's rolling to and fro on the flattened pillows. But sternness was a part of the game at this moment. He solemnly unlatched and lowered the tall sides of the cribs.

He stood in the middle of the room, with a gesture of command. "Quiet now," he said. "Quiet, until I tell you!"

Yelpers could not help a small whine of intense emotion, which slipped out unintended. The eyes of Groups and Bunks swivelled angrily toward their unlucky brother. It was his failing: in crises he always emitted haphazard sounds. But this time Gissing, with lenient forgiveness, pretended not to have heard.

He returned to the balcony, and reentered his couch, where he lay feigning sleep. In the nursery was a terrific stillness.

It was the rule of the game that they should lie thus, in absolute quiet, until he uttered a huge imitation snore. Once, after a particularly exhausting night, he had postponed the snore too long: he fell asleep. He did not wake for an hour, and then found the tragic three also sprawled in amazing slumber. But their pillows were wet with tears. He never succumbed again, no matter how deeply tempted.

He snored. There were three sprawling thumps, a rush of feet, and a tumbling squeeze through the screen door. Then they were on the couch and upon him, with panting yelps of glee. Their hot tongues rasped busily over his face. This was the great tickling game. Remembering his theory of conserving energy, he lay passive while they rollicked and scrambled, burrowing in the bedclothes, quivering imps of absurd pleasure. All that was necessary was to give an occasional squirm, to tweak their ribs now and then, so that they believed his heart was in the sport. Really he got quite a little rest while they were scuffling. No one knew exactly what was the imagined purpose of the lark--whether he was supposed to be trying to escape from them, or they from him. Like all the best games, it had not been carefully thought out.

"Now, children," said Gissing presently. "Time to get dressed."

It was amazing how fast they were growing. Already they were beginning to take a pride in trying to dress themselves. While Gissing was in the bathroom, enjoying his cold tub (and under the stimulus of that icy sluice forming excellent resolutions for the day) the children were sitting on the nursery floor eagerly studying the intricacies of their gear. By the time he returned they would have half their garments on wrong; waist and trousers front side to rear; right shoes on left feet; buttons hopelessly mismated to buttonholes; shoelacings oddly zigzagged. It was far more trouble to permit their ambitious bungling, which must be undone and painstakingly reassembled, than to have clad them all himself, swiftly revolving and garmenting them like dolls. But in these early hours of the day, patience still is robust. It was his pedagogy to encourage their innocent initiatives, so long as endurance might permit.

Best of all, he enjoyed watching them clean their teeth. It was delicious to see them, tiptoe on their hind legs at the basin, to which their noses just reached; mouths gaping wide as they scrubbed with very small toothbrushes. They were so elated by squeezing out the toothpaste from the tube that he had not the heart to refuse them this privilege, though it was wasteful. For they always squeezed out more than necessary, and after a moment's brushing their mouths became choked and clotted with the pungent foam. Much of this they swallowed, for he had not been able to teach them to rinse and gargle. Their only idea regarding any fluid in the mouth was to swallow it; so they coughed and strangled and barked. Gissing had a theory that this toothpaste foam most be an appetizer, for he found that the more of it they swallowed, the better they ate their breakfast.

After breakfast he hurried them out into the garden, before the day became too hot. As he put a new lot of prunes to soak in cold water, he could not help reflecting how different the kitchen and pantry looked from the time of Fuji. The ice-box pan seemed to be continually brimming over. Somehow--due, he feared, to a laxity on Mrs. Spaniel's part--ants had got in. He was always finding them inside the ice-box, and wondered where they came from. He was amazed to find how negligent he was growing about pots and pans: he began cooking a new mess of oatmeal in the double boiler without bothering to scrape out the too adhesive remnant of the previous porridge. He had come to the conclusion that children are tougher and more enduring than Dr. Holt will admit; and that a little carelessness in matters of hygiene and sterilization does not necessarily mean instant death.

Truly his once dainty menage was deteriorating. He had put away his fine china, put away the linen napery, and laid the table with oil cloth. He had even improved upon Fuji's invention of scuppers by a little trough which ran all round the rim of the table, to catch any possible spillage. He was horrified to observe how inevitably callers came at the worst possible moment. Mr. and Mrs. Chow, for instance, drew up one afternoon in their spick-and-span coupe with their intolerably spotless only child sitting self-consciously beside them. Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers were just then filling the garden with horrid clamour. They had been quarrelling, and one had pushed the other two down the back steps. Gissing, who had attempted to find a quiet moment to scald the ants out of the ice-box, had just rushed forth and boxed them all. As he stood there, angry and waving a steaming dishclout, to Chows appeared. The puppies at once set upon little Sandy Chow, and had thoroughly. mauled his starched sailor suit in the driveway before two minutes were past. Gissing could not help laughing, for he suspected that there had been a touch of malice in the Chows coming just at that time.

He had given up his flower garden, too. It was all he could do to shove the lawn-mower around, in the dusk, after the puppies were in bed. Formerly he had found the purr of the twirling blades a soothing stimulus to thought; but nowadays he could not even think consecutively. Perhaps, he thought, the residence of the mind is in the legs, not in the head; for when your legs are thoroughly weary you can't seem to think.

So he had decided that he simply must have more help in the cooking and housework. He had instructed Mrs. Spaniel to send the washing to the steam-laundry, and spend her three days in the kitchen instead. A huge bundle had come back from the laundry, and he had paid the driver $15.98. With dismay he sorted the clean, neatly folded garments. Here was the worthy Mrs. Spaniel's list, painstakingly written out in her straggling script:--

MR. GISHING FAMILY WOSH

8 towls
6 pymjarm Mr Gishing
12 rompers
3 blowses
6 cribb sheets
1 Mr. Gishing sheat
4 wastes
3 wosh clothes
2 onion sutes Mr Gishing
6 smal onion sutes
4 pillo slipes
3 sherts
18 hankerchifs smal
6 hankerchifs large
8 colers
3 overhauls
10 bibbs
2 table clothes (coca stane)
1 table clothe (prun juce and eg)

After contemplating this list, Gissing went to his desk and began to study his accounts. A resolve was forming in his mind.