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- JEREMY - 3/48 -
in all infants of tender years, that he was a failure, a dirty man, and disliked children. He very rarely spoke to them; was once quite wildly enraged when Mary was discovered licking his paints. (It was the paints he seemed anxious about, not in the least the poor little thing's health, as his sister Amy said), and had publicly been heard to say that his brother-in-law had only got the children he deserved.
Nevertheless Jeremy had always been interested in him. He liked his fat round shape, his rough, untidy grey hair, his scarlet slippers, his blue tam-o'-shanter, the smudges of paint sometimes to be discovered on his cheeks, and the jingling noises he made in his pocket with his money. He was certainly more fun than Aunt Amy.
There, then, they all were with their presents and their birthday faces.
"Shall I undo them for you, darling?" of course said Aunt Amy. Jeremy shook his head (he did not say what he thought of her) and continued to tug at the string. He was given a large pair of scissors. He received (from Father) a silver watch, (from Mother) a paint-box, a dark blue and gold prayer book with a thick squashy leather cover (from Aunt Amy).
He was in an ecstasy. How he had longed for a watch, just such a turnip-shaped one, and a paint-box. What colours he could make! Even Aunt Amy's prayer book was something, with its squashy cover and silk marker (only why did Aunt Amy never give him anything sensible?). He stood there, his face flushed, his eyes sparkling, the watch in one hand and the paint-box in the other. Remarks were heard like: "You mustn't poke it with, your finger, Jerry darling, or you'll break the hands off"; and "I thought he'd, better have the square sort, and not the tubes. They're so squashy"; and "You'll be able to learn your Collect so easily with that big print, Jerry dear. Very kind of you, Amy."
Meanwhile he was aware that Uncle Samuel had given him nothing. There was a little thick catch of disappointment in his throat, not because he wanted a present, but because he liked Uncle Samuel. Suddenly, from somewhere behind him his uncle said: "Shut your eyes, Jerry. Don't open them until I tell you"--then rather crossly, "No, Amy, leave me alone. I know what I'm about, thank you."
Jeremy shut his eyes tight. He closed them so that the eyelids seemed to turn right inwards and red lights flashed. He stood there for at least a century, all in darkness, no one saying anything save that once Mary cried "Oh!" and clapped her hands, which same cry excited him to such a pitch that he would have dug his nails into his hands had he not so consistently in the past bitten them that there were no nails with which to dig. He waited. He waited. He waited. He was not eight, he was eighty when at last Uncle Samuel said, "Now you may look."
He opened his eyes and turned; for a moment the nursery, too, rocked in the unfamiliar light. Then he saw. On the middle of the nursery carpet was a village, a real village, six houses with red roofs, green windows and white porches, a church with a tower and a tiny bell, an orchard with flowers on the fruit trees, a green lawn, a street with a butcher's shop, a post office, and a grocer's. Villager Noah, Mrs. Noah and the little Noahs, a field with cows, horses, dogs, a farm with chickens and even two pigs. . .
He stood, he stared, he drew a deep breath.
"It comes all the way from Germany," said Aunt Amy, who always made things uninteresting if she possibly could.
There was much delighted talk. Jeremy said nothing. But Uncle Samuel understood.
"Glad you like it," he said, and left the room.
"Aren't you pleased ?" said Helen.
Jeremy still said nothing.
"Sausages. Sausages!" cried Mary, as Gladys, grinning, entered with a dish of a lovely and pleasant smell. But Jeremy did not turn. He simply stood there--staring.
It is of the essence of birthdays that they cannot maintain throughout a long day the glorious character of their early dawning. In Polchester thirty years ago there were no cinematographs, no theatre save for an occasional amateur performance at the Assembly Rooms and, once and again, a magic-lantern show. On this particular day, moreover, Mr. and Mrs. Cole were immensely busied with preparations for some parochial tea. Miss Trefusis had calls to make, and, of course, Uncle Samuel was invisible. The Birthday then suddenly became no longer a birthday but an ordinary day--with an extraordinary standard. This is why so many birthdays end in tears.
But Jeremy, as was usual with him, took everything quietly. He might cry aloud about such an affair as the conquest of the wicker chair because that did not deeply matter to him, but about the real things he was silent. The village was one of the real things; during all the morning he remained shut up in his soul with it, the wide world closed off from them by many muffled doors. How had Uncle Samuel known that he had deep in his own inside, so deep that he had not mentioned it even to himself, wanted something just like this? Thirty years ago there were none of the presents that there are for children now--no wonderful railways that run round the nursery from Monte Carlo to Paris with all the stations marked; no dolls that are so like fashionable women that you are given a manicure set with them to keep their nails tidy; no miniature motor-cars that run of themselves and go for miles round the floor without being wound up. Jeremy knew none of these things, and was the happier that he did not. To such a boy such a village was a miracle. . . . It had not come from Germany, as Aunt Amy said, but from heaven. But it was even more of Uncle Samuel than the village that he was thinking. When they started--Helen, Mary and he in charge of the Jampot--upon their afternoon walk, he was still asking himself the same questions. How had Uncle Samuel known so exactly? Had it been a great trouble to bring from so far away? Had Uncle Samuel thought it bad of him not to thank him?
He was lost in such considerations when the Jampot inquired of him the way that their walk should take--it was his choice because it was his Birthday. He had no choice. There was one walk that far exceeded all others in glory, straight down Orange Street, straight again through the Market, past the Assembly Rooms and the Town Hall, past the flower and fruit stalls, and the old banana woman under the green umbrella and the toy stall with coloured balloons, the china dogs and the nodding donkeys, up the High Street, into the cobble- stones of the Close, whence one could look down, between the houses on to the orchards, round the Cathedral with the meadows, Pol Meads sloping down to the river, so through Orchard Lane into Orange Street once again.
Such a walk combined every magic and delight known to the heart of man, but it was not generally allowed, because Jeremy would drag past the shops, the stalls in the Market Place and the walk behind the Cathedral, whence one might sometimes see boats on the river, sheep and cows in the meads, and, in their proper season, delight of delights--lambs.
They set out. . .
Thirty years ago the winter weather in Polchester was wonderful. Now, of course, there are no hard winters, no frost, no snow, no waits, no snowmen, and no skating on the Pol. Then there were all those things. To-day was of a hard, glittering frost; the sun, like a round, red lacquer tray, fell heavily, slowly through a faint pale sky that was not strong enough to sustain it. The air had the cold, sweet twang of peppermints in the throat. Polchester was a painted town upon a blue screen, the Cathedral towers purple against the sky; the air was scented with burning leaves, and cries from the town rose up clear and hard, lingering and falling like notes of music. Somewhere they were playing football, and the shouting was distant and regular like the tramp of armed men. "Three" struck the Cathedral clock, as though it were calling "Open Sesame." Other lesser clocks repeated the challenge cry through the town. "Woppley- -Woppley--Why!" sung the man who was selling skins down Orange Street. The sky, turning slowly from blue to gold, shone mysteriously through the glass of the street lamps, and the sun began to wrap itself in tints of purple and crocus and iris.
"Woppley--Woppley--Why!" screamed the skin-man suddenly appearing at the top of the street.
"Now 'urry, Master Jeremy," said the Jampot, "or we shall never get 'ome this night, and I might have known you'd choose the longest walk possible. Come along, Miss Mary, now--none of that dawdling."
Jeremy, in his H.M.S. Adventure's cap and rough blue navy coat, felt himself superior to the Jampot, so he only said, "Oh, don't bother, Nurse," and then in the same breath, "I'll run you down the hill, Mary," and before anyone could say a word there they were at the bottom of Orange Street, as though they had fallen into a well. The sun was gone, the golden horizon was gone--only the purple lights began to gather about their feet and climb slowly the high black houses.
Mary liked this, because she now had Jeremy to herself. She began hurriedly, so that she should lose no time:
"Shall I tell you a story, Jeremy? I've got a new one. Once upon a time there were three little boys, and they lived in a wood, and an old witch ate them, and the Princess who had heaps of jewellery and a white horse and a lovely gold dress came, and it was snowing and the witch--"
This was always Mary's way. She loved to tell Jeremy interesting stories, and he did not mind because he did not listen and could meanwhile think his own thoughts.
His chief decision arrived at as he marched along was that he would keep the village to himself; no one else should put their fingers into it, arrange the orchard with the coloured trees, decide upon the names of the Noah family, settle the village street in its final order, ring the bell of the church, or milk the cows. He alone would do all these things. And, so considering, he seemed to himself very like God. God, he supposed, could pull Polchester about, root out a house here, another there, knock the Assembly Rooms down and send a thunderbolt on to the apple woman's umbrella. Well, then--so could
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