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THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD

Or Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

I



David and I Set Forth Upon a Journey

Sometimes the little boy who calls me father brings me an
invitation from his mother: "I shall be so pleased if you will
come and see me," and I always reply in some such words as these:
"Dear madam, I decline." And if David asks why I decline, I
explain that it is because I have no desire to meet the woman.

"Come this time, father," he urged lately, "for it is her
birthday, and she is twenty-six," which is so great an age to
David, that I think he fears she cannot last much longer.

"Twenty-six, is she, David?" I replied. "Tell her I said she
looks more."

I had my delicious dream that night. I dreamt that I too was
twenty-six, which was a long time ago, and that I took train to a
place called my home, whose whereabouts I see not in my waking
hours, and when I alighted at the station a dear lost love was
waiting for me, and we went away together. She met me in no
ecstasy of emotion, nor was I surprised to find her there; it was
as if we had been married for years and parted for a day. I like
to think that I gave her some of the things to carry.

Were I to tell my delightful dream to David's mother, to whom I
have never in my life addressed one word, she would droop her
head and raise it bravely, to imply that I make her very sad but
very proud, and she would be wishful to lend me her absurd little
pocket handkerchief. And then, had I the heart, I might make a
disclosure that would startle her, for it is not the face of
David's mother that I see in my dreams.

Has it ever been your lot, reader, to be persecuted by a pretty
woman who thinks, without a tittle of reason, that you are bowed
down under a hopeless partiality for her? It is thus that I have
been pursued for several years now by the unwelcome sympathy of
the tender-hearted and virtuous Mary A----. When we pass in the
street the poor deluded soul subdues her buoyancy, as if it were
shame to walk happy before one she has lamed, and at such times
the rustle of her gown is whispered words of comfort to me, and
her arms are kindly wings that wish I was a little boy like
David. I also detect in her a fearful elation, which I am unaware
of until she has passed, when it comes back to me like a faint
note of challenge. Eyes that say you never must, nose that says
why don't you? and a mouth that says I rather wish you could:
such is the portrait of Mary A---- as she and I pass by.

Once she dared to address me, so that she could boast to David
that I had spoken to her. I was in the Kensington Gardens, and
she asked would I tell her the time please, just as children ask,
and forget as they run back with it to their nurse. But I was
prepared even for this, and raising my hat I pointed with my
staff to a clock in the distance. She should have been
overwhelmed, but as I walked on listening intently, I thought
with displeasure that I heard her laughing.

Her laugh is very like David's, whom I could punch all day in
order to hear him laugh. I dare say she put this laugh into him.
She has been putting qualities into David, altering him, turning
him forever on a lathe since the day she first knew him, and
indeed long before, and all so deftly that he is still called a
child of nature. When you release David's hand he is immediately
lost like an arrow from the bow. No sooner do you cast eyes on
him than you are thinking of birds. It is difficult to believe
that he walks to the Kensington Gardens; he always seems to have
alighted there: and were I to scatter crumbs I opine he would
come and peck. This is not what he set out to be; it is all the
doing of that timid-looking lady who affects to be greatly
surprised by it. He strikes a hundred gallant poses in a day;
when he tumbles, which is often, he comes to the ground like a
Greek god; so Mary A---- has willed it. But how she suffers that
he may achieve! I have seen him climbing a tree while she stood
beneath in unutterable anguish; she had to let him climb, for
boys must be brave, but I am sure that, as she watched him, she
fell from every branch.

David admires her prodigiously; he thinks her so good that she
will be able to get him into heaven, however naughty he is.
Otherwise he would trespass less light-heartedly. Perhaps she
has discovered this; for, as I learn from him, she warned him
lately that she is not such a dear as he thinks her.

"I am very sure of it," I replied.

"Is she such a dear as you think her?" he asked me.

"Heaven help her," I said, "if she be not dearer than that."

Heaven help all mothers if they be not really dears, for their
boy will certainly know it in that strange short hour of the day
when every mother stands revealed before her little son. That
dread hour ticks between six and seven; when children go to bed
later the revelation has ceased to come. He is lapt in for the
night now and lies quietly there, madam, with great, mysterious
eyes fixed upon his mother. He is summing up your day. Nothing
in the revelations that kept you together and yet apart in play
time can save you now; you two are of no age, no experience of
life separates you; it is the boy's hour, and you have come up
for judgment. "Have I done well to-day, my son?" You have got
to say it, and nothing may you hide from him; he knows all. How
like your voice has grown to his, but more tremulous, and both so
solemn, so unlike the voice of either of you by day.

"You were a little unjust to me to-day about the apple; were you
not, mother?"

Stand there, woman, by the foot of the bed and cross your hands
and answer him.

"Yes, my son, I was. I thought--"

But what you thought will not affect the verdict.

"Was it fair, mother, to say that I could stay out till six, and
then pretend it was six before it was quite six?"

"No, it was very unfair. I thought--"

"Would it have been a lie if I had said it was quite six?"

"Oh, my son, my son! I shall never tell you a lie again."

"No, mother, please don't."

"My boy, have I done well to-day on the whole?"

Suppose he were unable to say yes.

These are the merest peccadilloes, you may say. Is it then a
little thing to be false to the agreement you signed when you got
the boy? There are mothers who avoid their children in that
hour, but this will not save them. Why is it that so many women
are afraid to be left alone with their thoughts between six and
seven? I am not asking this of you, Mary. I believe that when
you close David's door softly there is a gladness in your eyes,
and the awe of one who knows that the God to whom little boys say
their prayers has a face very like their mother's.

I may mention here that David is a stout believer in prayer, and
has had his first fight with another young Christian who
challenged him to the jump and prayed for victory, which David
thought was taking an unfair advantage.

"So Mary is twenty-six! I say, David, she is getting on. Tell
her that I am coming in to kiss her when she is fifty-two."

He told her, and I understand that she pretended to be indignant.
When I pass her in the street now she pouts. Clearly preparing
for our meeting. She has also said, I learn, that I shall not
think so much of her when she is fifty-two, meaning that she will
not be so pretty then. So little does the sex know of beauty.
Surely a spirited old lady may be the prettiest sight in the
world. For my part, I confess that it is they, and not the young
ones, who have ever been my undoing. Just as I was about to fall
in love I suddenly found that I preferred the mother. Indeed, I
cannot see a likely young creature without impatiently
considering her chances for, say, fifty-two. Oh, you mysterious
girls, when you are fifty-two we shall find you out; you must
come into the open then. If the mouth has fallen sourly yours
the blame: all the meannesses your youth concealed have been
gathering in your face. But the pretty thoughts and sweet ways
and dear, forgotten kindnesses linger there also, to bloom in
your twilight like evening primroses.

Is it not strange that, though I talk thus plainly to David about
his mother, he still seems to think me fond of her? How now, I
reflect, what sort of bumpkin is this, and perhaps I say to him
cruelly: "Boy, you are uncommonly like your mother."

To which David: "Is that why you are so kind to me?"

I suppose I am kind to him, but if so it is not for love of his
mother, but because he sometimes calls me father. On my honour
as a soldier, there is nothing more in it than that. I must not
let him know this, for it would make him conscious, and so break
the spell that binds him and me together. Oftenest I am but
Captain W---- to him, and for the best of reasons. He addresses me
as father when he is in a hurry only, and never have I dared ask
him to use the name. He says, "Come, father," with an accursed
beautiful carelessness. So let it be, David, for a little while
longer.

I like to hear him say it before others, as in shops. When in
shops he asks the salesman how much money he makes in a day, and
which drawer he keeps it in, and why his hair is red, and does he
like Achilles, of whom David has lately heard, and is so
enamoured that he wants to die to meet him. At such times the
shopkeepers accept me as his father, and I cannot explain the
peculiar pleasure this gives me. I am always in two minds then,
to linger that we may have more of it, and to snatch him away
before he volunteers the information, "He is not really my
father."

When David meets Achilles I know what will happen. The little
boy will take the hero by the hand, call him father, and drag him
away to some Round Pond.

One day, when David was about five, I sent him the following
letter: "Dear David: If you really want to know how it began,
will you come and have a chop with me to-day at the club?"

Mary, who, I have found out, opens all his letters, gave her
consent, and, I doubt not, instructed him to pay heed to what
happened so that he might repeat it to her, for despite her
curiosity she knows not how it began herself. I chuckled,
guessing that she expected something romantic.

He came to me arrayed as for a mighty journey, and looking
unusually solemn, as little boys always do look when they are
wearing a great coat. There was a shawl round his neck. "You
can take some of them off," I said, "when we come to summer."

"Shall we come to summer?" he asked, properly awed.

"To many summers," I replied, "for we are going away back, David,
to see your mother as she was in the days before there was you."

We hailed a hansom. "Drive back six years," I said to the cabby,
"and stop at the Junior Old Fogies' Club."

He was a stupid fellow, and I had to guide him with my umbrella.

The streets were not quite as they had been in the morning. For
instance, the bookshop at the corner was now selling fish. I
dropped David a hint of what was going on.

"It doesn't make me littler, does it?" he asked anxiously; and
then, with a terrible misgiving: "It won't make me too little,
will it, father?" by which he meant that he hoped it would not do
for him altogether. He slipped his hand nervously into mine, and
I put it in my pocket.

You can't think how little David looked as we entered the portals
of the club.