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Chapter 11 The Runaway Perambulator

I sometimes met David in public places such as the Kensington Gardens, where he lorded it surrounded by his suite and wearing the blank face and glass eyes of all carriage-people. On these occasions I always stalked by, meditating on higher things, though Mary seemed to think me very hard-hearted, and Irene, who had become his nurse (I forget how, but fear I had something to do with it), ran after me with messages, as, would I not call and see him in his home at twelve o’clock, at which moment, it seemed, he was at his best.

No, I would not.

“He says tick-tack to the clock,” Irene said, trying to snare me.

“Pooh!” said I.

“Other little ’uns jest says ‘tick-tick,’” she told me, with a flush of pride.

“I prefer ‘tick-tick,’” I said, whereat she departed in dudgeon.

Had they had the sense to wheel him behind a tree and leave him, I would have looked, but as they lacked it, I decided to wait until he could walk, when it would be more easy to waylay him. However, he was a cautious little gorbal who, after many threats to rise, always seemed to come to the conclusion that he might do worse than remain where he was, and when he had completed his first year I lost patience with him.

“When I was his age,” I said to Irene, “I was running about.” I consulted them casually about this matter at the club, and they had all been running about at a year old.

I made this nurse the following offer: If she would bring the dilatory boy to my rooms and leave him there for half-an-hour I would look at him. At first Mary, to whom the offer was passed on, rejected it with hauteur, but presently she wavered, and the upshot was that Irene, looking scornful and anxious, arrived one day with the perambulator. Without casting eyes on its occupant, I pointed Irene to the door: “In half-an-hour,” I said.

She begged permission to remain, and promised to turn her back, and so on, but I was obdurate, and she then delivered herself of a passionately affectionate farewell to her charge, which was really all directed against me, and ended with these powerful words: “And if he takes off your socks, my pretty, may he be blasted for evermore.”

“I shall probably take off her socks,” I said carelessly to this.

Her socks. Do you see what made Irene scream?

“It is a girl, is it not?” I asked, thus neatly depriving her of coherent speech as I pushed her to the door. I then turned round to--to begin, and, after reflecting, I began by sitting down behind the hood of his carriage. My plan was to accustom him to his new surroundings before bursting on the scene myself.

I had various thoughts. Was he awake? If not, better let him wake naturally. Half-an-hour was a long time. Why had I not said quarter-of-an-hour? Anon, I saw that if I was to sit there much longer I should have said an hour, so I whistled softly; but he took no notice. I remember trying to persuade myself that if I never budged till Irene’s return, it would be an amusing triumph over Mary. I coughed, but still there was no response. Abruptly, the fear smote me, perhaps he is not there.

I rose hastily, and was striding forward, when I distinctly noticed a covert movement somewhere near the middle of the carriage, and heard a low gurgle, which was instantly suppressed. I stopped dead at this sharp reminder that I was probably not the only curious person in the room, and for a long moment we both lay low, after which, I am glad to remember, I made the first advance. Earlier in the day I had arranged some likely articles on a side-table: my watch and chain, my bunch of keys, and two war-medals for plodding merit, and with a glance at these (as something to fall back upon), I stepped forward doggedly, looking (I fear now) a little like a professor of legerdemain. David was sitting up, and he immediately fixed his eyes upon me.

It would ill become me to attempt to describe this dear boy to you, for of course I know really nothing about children, so I shall say only this, that I thought him very like what Timothy would have been had he ever had a chance.

I to whom David had been brought for judgment, now found myself being judged by him, and this rearrangement of the pieces seemed so natural that I felt no surprise; I felt only a humble craving to hear him signify that I would do. I have stood up before other keen judges and deceived them all, but I made no effort to deceive David; I wanted to, but dared not. Those unblinking eyes were too new to the world to be hooded by any of its tricks. In them I saw my true self. They opened for me that pedler’s pack of which I have made so much ado, and I found that it was weighted less with pretty little sad love-tokens than with ignoble thoughts and deeds and an unguided life. I looked dejectedly at David, not so much, I think, because I had such a sorry display for him, as because I feared he would not have me in his service. I seemed to know that he was making up his mind once and for all.

And in the end he smiled, perhaps only because I looked so frightened, but the reason scarcely mattered to me, I felt myself a fine fellow at once. It was a long smile, too, opening slowly to its fullest extent (as if to let me in), and then as slowly shutting.

Then, to divert me from sad thoughts, or to rivet our friendship, or because the time had come for each of us to show the other what he could do, he immediately held one foot high in the air. This made him slide down the perambulator, and I saw at once that it was very necessary to replace him. But never before had I come into such close contact with a child; the most I had ever done was, when they were held up to me, to shut my eyes and kiss a vacuum. David, of course, though no doubt he was eternally being replaced, could tell as little as myself how it was contrived, and yet we managed it between us quite easily. His body instinctively assumed a certain position as I touched him, which compelled my arms to fall into place, and the thing was done. I felt absurdly pleased, but he was already considering what he should do next.

He again held up his foot, which had a gouty appearance owing to its being contained in a dumpy little worsted sack, and I thought he proposed to repeat his first performance, but in this I did him an injustice, for, unlike Porthos, he was one who scorned to do the same feat twice; perhaps, like the conjurors, he knew that the audience were more on the alert the second time.

I discovered that he wanted me to take off his sock!

Remembering Irene’s dread warnings on this subject I must say that I felt uneasy. Had he heard her, and was he daring me? And what dire thing could happen if the sock was removed? I sought to reason with him, but he signed to me to look sharp, and I removed the sock. The part of him thus revealed gave David considerable pleasure, but I noticed, as a curious thing, that he seemed to have no interest in the other foot.

However, it was not there merely to be looked at, for after giving me a glance which said “Now observe!” he raised his bare foot and ran his mouth along the toes, like one playing on a barbaric instrument. He then tossed his foot aside, smiled his long triumphant smile and intimated that it was now my turn to do something. I thought the best thing I could do would be to put his sock on him again, but as soon as I tried to do so I discovered why Irene had warned me so portentously against taking it off. I should say that she had trouble in socking him every morning.

Nevertheless I managed to slip it on while he was debating what to do with my watch. I bitterly regretted that I could do nothing with it myself, put it under a wine-glass, for instance, and make it turn into a rabbit, which so many people can do. In the meantime David, occupied with similar thoughts, very nearly made it disappear altogether, and I was thankful to be able to pull it back by ............

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