Boys and Girls.
This is the tale of two terraces, of two families who lived therein, of several boys and many girls, and especially of one Darsie, her education, adventures, and ultimate romance.
Darsie was the second daughter in a family of six, and by reason of her upsetting nature had won for herself that privilege of priority which by all approved traditions should have belonged to Clemence, the elder sister. Clemence was serene and blonde; in virtue of her seventeen years her pigtail was now worn doubled up, and her skirts had reached the discreet level of her ankles. She had a soft pink and white face, and a pretty red mouth, the lips of which permanently fell apart, disclosing two small white teeth in the centre of the upper gum, because of which peculiarity her affectionate family had bestowed upon her the nickname of “Bunnie.” Perhaps the cognomen had something to do with her subordinate position. It was impossible to imagine any one with the name of “Bunnie” queening it over that will-o’-the-wisp, that electric flash, that tantalising, audacious creature who is the heroine of these pages.
Darsie at fifteen! How shall one describe her to the unfortunates who have never beheld her in the flesh? It is for most girls an awkward age, an age of angles, of ungainly bulk, of awkward ways, self-conscious speech, crass ignorance, and sublime conceit. Clemence had passed through this stage with much suffering of spirits on her own part and that of her relations; Lavender, the third daughter, showed at thirteen preliminary symptoms of appalling violence; but Darsie remained as ever that fascinating combination of a child and a woman of the world, which had been her characteristic from earliest youth. Always graceful and alert, she sailed triumphant through the trying years, with straight back, graceful gait, and eyes a-shine with a happy self-confidence. “I am here!” announced Darsie’s eyes to an admiring world. “Let the band strike up!”
Some inherent quality in Darsie—some grace, some charm, some spell—which she wove over the eyes of beholders, caused them to credit her with a beauty which she did not possess. Even her family shared in this delusion, and set her up as the superlative in degree, so that “as pretty as Darsie” had come to be regarded a climax of praise. The glint of her chestnut hair, the wide, bright eyes, the little oval face set on a long, slim throat smote the onlooker with instant delight, and so blinded him that he had no sight left with which to behold the blemishes which walked hand in hand. Photographs valiantly strove to demonstrate the truth; pointed out with cruel truth the stretching mouth, the small, inadequate nose, but even the testimony of sunlight could not convince the blind. They sniffed, and said: “What a travesty! Never again to that photographer! Next time we’ll try the man in C— Street,” and Darsie’s beauty lived on, an uncontroverted legend.
By a triumph of bad management, which the Garnett girls never ceased to deplore, their three brothers came at the end instead of the beginning of the family. Three grown-up brothers would have been a grand asset; big boys who would have shown a manly tenderness towards the weaknesses of little sisters; who would have helped and amused; big boys going to school, young men going to college, coming home in the vacations, bringing their friends, acting as squires and escorts to the girls at home. Later on brothers at business, wealthy brothers, generous brothers; brothers who understood how long quarter-day was in coming round, and how astonishingly quickly a girl’s allowance vanishes into space! Clemence, Darsie, and Lavender had read of such brothers in books, and would have gladly welcomed their good offices in the flesh, but three noisy, quarrelsome, more or less grimy schoolboys, superbly indifferent to “those girls”—this was another, and a very different tale! Harry was twelve—a fair, blunt-featured lad with a yawning cavity in the front of his mouth, the result of one of the many accidents which had punctuated his life. On the top story of the Garnett house there ran a narrow passage, halfway along which, for want of a better site, a swing depended from two great iron hooks. Harry, as champion swinger, ever striving after fresh flights, had one day in a frenzy of enthusiasm swung the rings free from their hold, and descended, swing and all, in a crash on the oil-clothed floor. The crash, the shrieks of the victim and his attendant sprites, smote upon Mrs Garnett’s ears as she sat wrestling with the “stocking basket” in a room below, and as she credibly avowed, took years from her life. Almost the first objects which met her eye, when, in one bound, as it seemed, she reached the scene of the disaster, was a selection of small white teeth scattered over the oil-clothed floor. Henceforth for years Harry pursued his way minus front teeth, and the nursery legend darkly hinted that so injured had been the gums by his fall that no second supply could be expected. Harry avowed a sincere aspiration that this should be the case. “I can eat as much without them,” he declared, “and when I grow up I’ll have them false, and be an explorer, and scare savages like the man in Rider Haggard,” so that teeth, or no teeth, would appear to hold the secret of his destiny.
Russell had adenoids, and snored. His peculiarities included a faculty for breaking his bones, at frequent and inconvenient occasions, an insatiable curiosity about matters with which he had no concern, and a most engaging and delusive silkiness of manner. “Gentleman Russell,” a title bestowed by his elders, had an irritating effect on an elder brother conscious of being condemned by the contrast, and when quoted downstairs brought an unfailing echo of thumps in the seclusion of the playroom.
Tim played on his privileges as “littlest,” and his mother’s barely concealed partiality, and was as irritating to his elders as a small person can be, who is always present when he is not wanted, absent when he is, in peace adopts the airs of a conqueror, and in warfare promptly cries, and collapses into a curly-headed baby boy, whom the authorities declare it is “cr–uel” to bully!
For the rest, the house was of the high and narrow order common to town terraces, inconveniently crowded by its many inmates, and viewed from without, of a dark and grimy appearance.
Sandon Terrace had no boast to make either from an architectural or a luxurious point of view, and was so obviously inferior to its neighbour, Napier Terrace, that it was lacerating to the Garnett pride to feel that their sworn friends the Vernons were so much better domiciled than themselves. Napier Terrace had a strip of garden between itself and the rough outer world; big gateways stood at either end, and what Vie Vernon grandiloquently spoke of as “a carriage sweep” curved broadly between. Divided accurately among the houses in the terrace, the space of ground apportioned to each was limited to a few square yards, but the Vernons were chronically superior on the subject of “the grounds,” and in springtime when three hawthorns, a lilac, and one spindly laburnum-tree struggled into bloom, their airs were beyond endurance.
The Vernons had also a second claim to superiority over the Garnetts, inasmuch as they were the proud possessors of an elder brother, a remote and learned person who gained scholarships, and was going to be Prime Minister when he was grown up. Dan at eighteen, coaching with a tutor preparatory to going up to Cambridge, was removed by continents of superiority from day-school juniors. Occasionally in their disguise of the deadly jealousy which in truth consumed them, the Garnett family endeavoured to make light of the personality of this envied person. To begin with, his name! “Dan” was well enough. “Dan” sounded a boy-like boy, a manly man; of a “Dan” much might be expected in the way of sport and mischief, but—oh, my goodness—Daniel! The Garnetts discussed the cognomen over the play-room fire.
“It must be so embarrassing to have a Bible name!” Lavender opined. “Think of church! When they read about me I should be covered with confusion, and imagine that every one was staring at our pew!”
Clemence stared thoughtfully into space. “I, Clemence, take thee Daniel,” she recited slowly, and shuddered. “No—really, I couldn’t!”
“He wouldn’t have you!” the three boys piped; even Tim, who plainly was talking of matters he could not understand, added his note to the chorus, but Darsie cocked her little head, and added eagerly—
“Couldn’t you, really? What could you, do you think?”
Clemence stared again, more rapt than ever.
“Lancelot, perhaps,” she opined, “or Sigismund. Everard’s nice too, or Ronald or Guy—”
“Bah! Sugary. I couldn’t! Daniel is ugly,” Darsie admitted, “but it’s strong. Dan Vernon will fight lions like the Bible one; they’ll roar about him, and his enemies will cast him in, but they’ll not manage to kill him. He’ll trample them under foot, and leave them behind, like milestones on the road.” Darsie was nothing if not inaccurate, but in the bosom of one’s own family romantic flights are not allowed to atone for discrepancies, and the elder sister was quick to correct.
“Daniel didn’t fight the lions! What’s the use of being high falutin’ and making similes that aren’t correct?”
“Dear Clemence, you are so literal!” Darsie tilted her head with an air of superiority which reduced the elder to silence, the while she cogitated painfully why such a charge should be cast as a reproach. To be literal was to be correct. Daniel had not fought the lions! Darsie had muddled up the fact in her usual scatterbrain fashion, and by good right should have deplored her error. Darsie, however, was seldom known to do anything so dull; she preferred by a nimble change of front to put others in the wrong, and keep the honours to herself. Now, after a momentary pause, she skimmed lightly on to another phase of the subject. “What should you say was the character and life history of a woman who could call her eldest child ‘Daniel,’ the second ‘Viola Imogen,’ and the third and fourth ‘Hannah’ and ‘John’?”
Clemence had no inspiration on the subject. She said: “Don’t be silly!” sharply, and left it to Lavender to supply the necessary stimulus.
“Tell us, Darsie, tell us! You make it up—”
“My dear, it is evident to the meanest intellect. She was the child of a simple country household, who, on her marriage, went to live in a town; and when her first-born son was born, she pined to have him christened by her father’s name in the grey old church beneath the ivy tower; so they travelled there, and the white-haired sire held the infant at the font, while the tears furrowed his aged cheeks. But—by slow degrees the insidious effects of the great capital invaded the mind of the sweet young wife, and the simple tastes of her girlhood turned to vanity, so that when the second babe was born, and her husband wished to call her Hannah after her sainted grandmother, she wept, and made an awful fuss, and would not be consoled until he gave in to Viola Imogen, and a christening cloak trimmed with plush. And she was christened in a city church, and the organ pealed, and the godmothers wore rich array, and the poor old father stayed at home and had a slice of christening cake sent by the post. But the years passed on. Saddened and sobered by the discipline of life, aged and worn, her thoughts turned once more to her quiet youth, and when at last a third child—”
“There’s only two years between them!”
Darsie frowned, but continued her narrative in a heightened voice—
”—Was laid in her arms, and her husband suggested ‘Ermyntrude’; she shuddered, and murmured softly, ‘Hannah—plainHannah!’ and plain Hannah she has been ever since!”
A splutter of laughter greeted this dénouement, for in truth Hannah Vernon was not distinguished for her beauty, being one of the plainest, and at the same time the most good-natured of girls.
Lavender cried eagerly—
“Go on! Make up some more,” but Clemence from the dignity of seventeen years felt bound to protest—
“I don’t think you—ought! It’s not your business. Mrs Vernon’s a friend, and she wouldn’t be pleased. To talk behind her back—”
“All right,” agreed Darsie swiftly. “Let’s crack nuts!”
Positively she left one breathless! One moment poised on imaginary flights, weaving stories from the baldest materials, drawing allegories of the lives of her friends, the next—an irresponsible wisp, with no thought in the world but the moment’s frolic; but whatever might be the fancy of the moment she drew her companions after her with the magnetism of a born leader.
In the twinkling of an eye the scene was changed, the Vernons with their peculiarities were consigned to the limbo of forgotten things, while boys and girls squatted on the rug scrambling for nuts out of a paper bag, and cracking them with their teeth with monkey-like agility.
“How many can you crack at a time? Bet you I can crack more than you!” cried Darsie loudly.
Categories: English Literature