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Chapter III

My parents' studies in the upbringing of children. A successful instance of non-vaccination. Further example of my father's consideration for others. My mother's ill-health. My parents engage a charwoman. Her appearance and character. Physical characteristics of her son. Deplorable social result of the war. Continued presumption of charwoman's son. I rebuff him. Affection for grey rabbit. Charwoman's son's cannon and the use made of it by him. Scenes of violence and intervention of my father. Intervention of charwoman. A lethargic vicar. Was he also immoral? My father transfers his worship to St James-the-Least-of-All.

Apart from the ill-health to which I have previously made reference, but which was punctuated with intervals of comparative well-being, I have always regarded my first five or six years as a particularly fruitful period. At my father's desire, almost in this case a command, my mother began to study various books on childhood, such as Dr Brewinson's Childish Complaints, Mrs Edward Podmere's Diet in Infancy, the Reverend Ambrose Walker's First Steps in Religion, Wilbur P. Nathan's The Babe and the Infinite, Mrs Wood-Mortimer's Clothes and the Young, and Jonathan and Cornwall's Dictionary of Home Medicine. Each of these, with the exception of the Dictionary, was borrowed in turn from the nearest public library, and it became my mother's custom to consecrate her afternoon rest hour to the perusal of these volumes.

According to an arrangement suggested by my father, she would study one chapter each afternoon, or alternatively three and a half pages of the Dictionary of Home Medicine. On his return from work, and after she had washed up the supper dishes  — for my father at this time did not employ a domestic — he would put her through a searching examination upon what she had read earlier in the day. If, as was frequently the case, since my mother was not naturally scholastic, she failed to satisfy her examiner, he would playfully impose upon her the little penalty of again going through her task before she went to bed. And on such occasions, if he had not fallen asleep, he would re-examine her when she came to bid him good-night. If, on the other hand, her replies had been judged adequate, it was an understood thing that she might claim an extra kiss. So seriously, indeed, did my mother apply herself that she began to grow unattractively thin; and once, when she had failed in her examination on three successive nights, she actually burst into tears. For this feminine weakness, when she asked his pardon, my father, of course, readily forgave her, merely pointing out that, with my future at stake, he was obviously unable to relax his standards.

Regarding me thus, from the very first, as a sacred trust committed to their charge, this is but a small example of the immense and unremitting care with which my parents undertook me. But it will at least suffice to show that they had not underrated the high task for which they had been called. To my father especially, as the months slipped all too quickly by, I became inexpressibly dear; and it was for that reason, among others, that I escaped the torments of vaccination. Though Jonathan and Cornwall's Dictionary of Home Medicine advocated this operation on historical grounds, my father had an instinctive, but none the less well-reasoned, horror of the knife. Himself the subject of frequent boils, he would never permit these to be lanced, invariably giving orders that they should be poulticed until Nature herself brought about their evacuation. Nor can I say that, in my own case, he has been other than completely justified. It is true that I have suffered, and still do suffer, apart from the indigestion previously referred to, from several forms of neurasthenia, a marked tendency to eczema, occipital headaches, sour eructations, and flatulent distension of the abdomen. But from small-pox, although entirely unvaccinated, I have always remained singularly immune.

A similar prescience, too, sufficed to protect me from the anguish and indignity of personal chastisement. For although in principle my father was an ardent supporter of this, and indeed had administered it to several of his relatives' children, he had never required it, he said, in his own case, and did not propose to have it inflicted on me. And it was the abrogation of this rule, although not until my seventh year, by the son of a powerful Hibernian charwoman that first revealed to me, in a never-to-be-forgotten flash, some of the profoundest depths of human iniquity.

It was soon after my sixth birthday that my father was first compelled to employ a charwoman, owing to an attack of unconsciousness on the part of my mother. For several months she had been complaining of breathlessness, incident upon certain of her domestic duties, such as floor-scrubbing, home laundry-work, cleaning the front steps, and polishing the boots and shoes. With his usual consideration my father had instantly remitted various other tasks proper to her position, such as the baking of bread twice a week, and the knitting of the family socks and stockings; and he had further excused her from my own daily tuition in both Latin and arithmetic. Involving, as these subjects did, considerable previous preparation, this was, of course, a sensible relief, obtained though it was at some hazard to my own intellectual future. But despite all these concessions, she continued to be unwell, and finally, as I have said, lapsed into unconsciousness.

For a brief period, therefore, and after medical advice, my father resolved to employ extraneous aid, and at a very considerable financial sacrifice engaged a person called Mrs O'Flaherty. The widow of a colour-sergeant, and one of the church scrubbers, she was highly recommended by the vicar of St James-the-Lesser-Still, and was not devoid, in certain deceptive respects, of the superficial charm of her race. Ominously developed as she was, both below and above the waist, her features were informed with an unintelligent but specious cheerfulness; and these, together with a not unattractive complexion, sufficed for some time to impose upon my mother.

My father, from the beginning, had his doubts of her character, but in view of the vicar's recommendation, decided to employ her; and for the first month or two, apart from her habit of singing, found no cause for particular complaint. He even went as far, upon my mother's intercession, as to allow the woman to bring her youngest child with her, a somewhat gross and over-exuberant lad a few months younger than myself.

That this youth, practically a gutter-snipe, and afterwards a private in the army, should have become a Brigadier-General in the late war, and even have received, as I understand, some kind of decoration, was one of the most deplorable of the many social upheavals for which that disaster was responsible.

From the very outset, with that sensitiveness of vision granted by Providence to certain children, I regarded this new intruder with the deepest suspicion. Obviously inheriting the physique of his mother, and as it seemed the proclivities of his father, his chief article of amusement appeared to be a small cannon, equipped with a spring for purposes of propulsion. This he offered to lend me on the occasion of his first visit, but declining his advances I moved to another room, where I continued my study of a book upon the apostles, written for the young by a Somersetshire clergyman.

Undeterred, however, by a reticence that should have been more than sufficient for a boy with the least good feeling, Desmond, for that was his pretentious name, made a similar offer on his second visit. Again I declined and removed myself, subsequently mentioning the matter to my father, who instantly gave orders that for the future Mrs O'Flaherty's boy was to be confined to the kitchen.

‘You will kindly make it clear,’ he said, ‘to your son that I cannot have my own son disturbed, and that admission to my house does not necessarily include admission to my social circle.’

Unfortunately, owing to a very natural slip due to the rapidity of his elocution, my father pronounced these words as sershle soakle; and I have never forgotten the vulgar and ill-concealed grin with which Mrs O'Flaherty promised to attend to the matter.

Upon the following Saturday, however, a beautiful day in June, with the gerania in the front garden in full bloom, Desmond O'Flaherty again began to make overtures to me through the open door of the kitchen. The parlour door being again ajar, I was, of course, visible to him as I reclined on the sofa; and I instantly observed that he had brought his cannon with him and that its muzzle was pointing towards myself. Informing me that his pocket was full of peas, suitably dried for the purposes of ammunition, he then invited me to become his companion in a game of definitely military character.

This I refused, and I can still recall every detail of all that followed. Happily employed combing a grey rabbit, to which I was deeply attached, and which I had named, but a day or two previously, after the major prophet Isaiah, I heard a faint click, and the next moment was violently struck upon the back of my hand. Unable to suppress a cry of pain, I involuntarily tightened my grip on Isaiah, who suddenly turned his head and made a movement as if about to bite my index finger. Realizing as I did, from my knowledge of the Dictionary of Home Medicine, the fatal consequences that might possibly have ensued, I flung him from me and sprang to the floor, almost beside myself with fear and anguish. With an expression of reproach that cut me to the very heart Isaiah then retreated behind the harmonium; and at the same moment I heard a raucous laugh proceeding from the direction of Desmond.

But for Desmond and his mother I was alone in the house, yet I did not hesitate to advance towards the kitchen and grind the cannon beneath my foot. Twice I stamped upon it in what still seems to me a wholly righteous indignation, and in a couple of seconds I had reduced it to an irreparable wreck. For a moment Desmond said nothing. I had taken him by surprise. But then he rushed towards me with a kind of snort, and fiercely hit me on a face already suffused with tears. I turned away from him shaken with sobs. But his bestial appetites were still unsated. A second and a third time he hit me, on both occasions on the neck, and followed this up by an assault with his foot upon the lower portion of my back. But my cries, now almost amounting to shrieks, had by this time attracted Mrs O'Flaherty, and at the same instant my father, returning early, unlocked the front door. In a flash I was in his arms and had sobbed out to him the whole pitiful tale. I felt him quiver and then control himself, as he gently placed me to one side. Then he advanced to Desmond, pointing to the crumpled cannon.

‘Pick that up,’ he said, ‘and leave this house for ever.’

Desmond replied insolently that he would not do so, whereupon my father struck him smartly upon the cheek. For a moment Desmond glared at him, and then, lowering his head, he rushed at my father, beating him with both fists. Taken unawares, my father was obliged to sit heavily down upon an entirely unpadded hall chair, and once again I observed a malignant smile upon the face of Mrs O'Flaherty. But it was only momentary. For, thrusting the little savage away from him, my father hit him twice with the handle of his walking-stick.

As well aimed as they were richly deserved, these blows took instant effect, the first knocking the evil lad sideways, and the second dividing the integument of his forehead.

Suffering though he was, my father then rose to his feet and was once more about to address Desmond, when Mrs O'Flaherty, revealed in her true character, ferociously caught him by the shoulders. As I have already recorded, she was a woman of repulsively over-developed physique, and she now began to shake my father so violently that his upper denture fell to the ground.

‘You little whelp!’ she cried, with incredible blasphemy, ‘you little whelp of a bullying puffball!’

Then to my horror, no less than to his own, she lifted him bodily from the ground. For a brief moment, or so it seemed to me, I was on the verge of a merciful oblivion, but the next instant I beheld Mrs O'Flaherty thrusting my father's head into her pail. It was a commodious pail, very nearly full with incompletely clean water, and containing in addition the saturate garment with which it was her habit to wash the linoleum. Three separate times she immersed his head in this, even submerging the backs of his ears, and when at last she released him, and he had regained his breath, he was more moved than I had ever seen him.

Always eloquent, his denunciation of her conduct, deservedly attuned to the level of her understanding, was of a severity that has scarcely been equalled even in the writings of my rabbit's namesake. Time after time, with a holy passion that repeatedly interfered with his respiration, he felt it obligatory to adjure his Creator to consign such a soul to its just perdition. And when Mrs O'Flaherty handed him his upper denture he dashed it once more to the ground. Finally he commanded her to leave the house instantly, frankly informing her that he should prosecute her for assault.

‘Yes, it’ll look real nice,’ she said, ‘in the local papers, chippin' a child's 'ead open and 'avin' yer own in a pail.’

The malevolence with which she said this was almost inconceivable. But, as my father pointed out to me when she had gone, it raised issues of the profoundest importance that would demand his most serious consideration. For while in his own person — in propria persona* — it might be his duty to bring her before the magistrates, it might be no less important, as a sidesman of the Established Church, to avoid the contingent publicity. This, indeed, was the decision to which he ultimately came, and as an instance of what may be called, perhaps, his sanctified statesmanship, it has always seemed to me to shed a peculiar radiance upon one of the sublimest aspects of his character. With regard, however, to the lethargy, little less than criminal, of the vicar of St James-the-Lesser-Still, I have always been at a loss; and I cannot help suspecting, as indeed my father openly suggested to him, that his relations with Mrs O'Flaherty were not at all what they should have been. For not only did he deprecate, having heard my father's narrative, what he weakly described as any precipitate action, but she was actually observed by an acquaintance of my father's scrubbing the church floor upon the following evening.

Under such circumstances my father had no choice but to hasten instantly to the vicarage, where he confronted the vicar with the suggestion — an extremely natural one — already referred to. But his reply, as my father has often assured me, was neither Xtian nor even gentlemanly, and my father was obliged therefore, with the deepest reluctance, once more to transfer his worship. It was a serious step, but he had been fortified with the experience previously forced upon him at St James-the-Less, and in less than five months he had become one of the foremost sidesmen at St James-the-Least-of-All, Kennington Oval.

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