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Chapter 12 The Pleasantest Club in London

All perambulators lead to Kensington Gardens.

Not, however, that you will see David in his perambulator much longer, for soon after I first shook his faith in his mother, it came to him to be up and doing, and he up and did in the Broad Walk itself, where he would stand alone most elaborately poised, signing imperiously to the British public to time him, and looking his most heavenly just before he fell. He fell with a dump, and as they always laughed then, he pretended that this was his funny way of finishing.

That was on a Monday. On Tuesday he climbed the stone stair of the Gold King, looking over his shoulder gloriously at each step, and on Wednesday he struck three and went into knickerbockers. For the Kensington Gardens, you must know, are full of short cuts, familiar to all who play there; and the shortest leads from the baby in long clothes to the little boy of three riding on the fence. It is called the Mother’s Tragedy.

If you are a burgess of the gardens (which have a vocabulary of their own), the faces of these quaint mothers are a clock to you, in which you may read the ages of their young. When he is three they are said to wear the knickerbocker face, and you may take it from me that Mary assumed that face with a sigh; fain would she have kept her boy a baby longer, but he insisted on his rights, and I encouraged him that I might notch up another point against her. I was now seeing David once at least every week, his mother, who remained culpably obtuse to my sinister design, having instructed Irene that I was to be allowed to share him with her, and we had become close friends, though the little nurse was ever a threatening shadow in the background. Irene, in short, did not improve with acquaintance. I found her to be high and mighty, chiefly, I think, because she now wore a nurse’s cap with streamers, of which the little creature was ludicrously proud. She assumed the airs of an official person, and always talked as if generations of babies had passed through her hands. She was also extremely jealous, and had a way of signifying disapproval of my methods that led to many coldnesses and even bickerings between us, which I now see to have been undignified. I brought the following accusations against her:

That she prated too much about right and wrong.

That she was a martinet.

That she pretended it was a real cap, with real streamers, when she knew Mary had made the whole thing out of a muslin blind. I regret having used this argument, but it was the only one that really damped her.

On the other hand, she accused me of spoiling him.

Of not thinking of his future.

Of never asking him where he expected to go to if he did such things.

Of telling him tales that had no moral application.

Of saying that the handkerchief disappeared into nothingness, when it really disappeared into a small tin cup, attached to my person by a piece of elastic.

To this last charge I plead guilty, for in those days I had a pathetic faith in legerdemain, and the eyebrow feat (which, however, is entirely an affair of skill) having yielded such good results, I naturally cast about for similar diversions when it ceased to attract. It lost its hold on David suddenly, as I was to discover was the fate of all of them; twenty times would he call for my latest, and exult in it, and the twenty-first time (and ever afterward) he would stare blankly, as if wondering what the man meant. He was like the child queen who, when the great joke was explained to her, said coldly, “We are not amused,” and, I assure you, it is a humiliating thing to perform before an infant who intimates, after giving you ample time to make your points, that he is not amused. I hoped that when David was able to talk--and not merely to stare at me for five minutes and then say “hat”--his spoken verdict, however damning, would be less expressive than his verdict without words, but I was disillusioned. I remember once in those later years, when he could keep up such spirited conversations with himself that he had little need for any of us, promising him to do something exceedingly funny with a box and two marbles, and after he had watched for a long time he said gravely, “Tell me when it begins to be funny.”

I confess to having received a few simple lessons in conjuring, in a dimly lighted chamber beneath a shop, from a gifted young man with a long neck and a pimply face, who as I entered took a barber’s pole from my pocket, saying at the same time, “Come, come, sir, this will never do.” Whether because he knew too much, or because he wore a trick shirt, he was the most depressing person I ever encountered; he felt none of the artist’s joy, and it was sad to see one so well calculated to give pleasure to thousands not caring a dump about it.

The barber’s pole I successfully extracted from David’s mouth, but the difficulty (not foreseen) of knowing how to dispose of a barber’s pole in the Kensington Gardens is considerable, there always being polite children hovering near who run after you and restore it to you. The young man, again, had said that any one would lend me a bottle or a lemon, but though these were articles on which he seemed ever able to lay his hand, I found (what I had never noticed before) that there is a curious dearth of them in the Gardens. The magic egg-cup I usually carried about with me, and with its connivance I did some astonishing things with pennies, but even the penny that costs sixpence is uncertain, and just when you are saying triumphantly that it will be found in the egg-cup, it may clatter to the ground, whereon some ungenerous spectator, such as Irene, accuses you of fibbing and corrupting youthful minds. It was useless to tell her, through clenched teeth, that the whole thing was a joke, for she understood no jokes except her own, of which she had the most immoderately high opinion, and that would have mattered little to me had not David liked them also. There were times when I could not but think less of the boy, seeing him rock convulsed over antics of Irene that have been known to every nursemaid since the year One. While I stood by, sneering, he would give me the ecstatic look that meant, “Irene is really very entertaining, isn’t she?”

We were rivals, but I desire to treat her with scrupulous fairness, and I admit that she had one good thing, to wit, her gutta-percha tooth. In earlier days one of her front teeth, as she told me, had fallen out, but instead of then parting with it, the resourceful child had hammered it in again with a hair-brush, which she offered to show me, with the dents on it. This tooth having in time passed away, its place was supplied by one of gutta-percha, made by herself, which seldom came out except when she sneezed, and ............

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