Authors: Gerald Bullet
T. L. Poulton
Wrath, by his meekness,
(And, by his health, sickness)
Is driven away
From our immortal day.
In imagination, not in memory, I can picture the scene vividly enough: Calamy patient and puzzled; his young wife hesitating between temper and tears, not knowing which will the better serve to carry her across a difficult moment. âIf you'd been anything but a blind old bat, Robert, you'd have known without telling. Claud's the very spit of his father, as it happens.' It is all so clear to me that since I was not present at the strange interview, being indeed something less than six years old at the time, it must be that I have had some sort of account of it in later years, and that my intimate knowledge of both personsâof Calamy, of my mother his wifeâhas quickened a bare record into the semblance of a
living memory. Calamy sits in his little shoemaker's shop with a boot in his hand. He peers over his spectacles, mildly but with pain, at the young woman who, with a light word, and from God knows what frivolous impulse, has robbed him of his only child, cheated him of fatherhood. The door of the shop is open, and the bright day sends a broad shaft of light into the small dim room. Calamy, his eyes filled with that news from another world, can see no cause for anger against the woman. He feels that he does not know her, cannot read her heart, cannot find any way out of his own perplexity. He is sharply aware of nothing but his own loneliness in a world of strange faces. For Essie herself is suddenly and terribly alien to him: she is no longer his Essie, the familiar wife of a seven years marriage, but a queer unaccountable woman who has smilingly deceived him all that time, consorting with an unknown man, bearing the stranger's child, and keeping her counsel. Calamy cannot understand her at all. âBut why didn't you tell me before, Essie? Why did you let me thinkâall these yearsââ?'
It was on the heels of some such conversation, I always imagine, that I, that morning, went running into the shop from the breakfast-table where my mother had left me. And
here history begins, and conjectureâexcept such conjecture as inextricably mingles with memoryâtakes a minor part in my symphony. My mother, with an unhappy smile twisting her lips and a false brightness in her eyes, came back into the house as I went into the shop. We met and passed, exchanging neither word nor glance, each of us being busy with private preoccupations. I, with no thought but to watch my father at work for a few minutes before passing on to some other pursuit, planted myself within a yard of Calamy's elbow and stared gravely. He was then something less than forty, twelve years older than his wife. Rather a short thick-set man, blunt-nosed, round-featured, bearded, and looking older than his years. An erratic tuft of whisker sprouted from each cheekbone; the eyebrows were heavy, the hair already sparse. I see now that to an outsider he may have presented a slightly comic appearance; but to me he was my father, and half my world. He was a rural rather than an urban type, though he had lived the best part of his life within fifteen miles of London City. The whole scene, indeed, was, if one chooses to think it so, ridiculously old-fashioned and in the Victorian manner (fittingly, for the Queen still reigned): Calamy
the shoemaker, middle-aged (at least in appearance), bespectacled, dressed for the part, and with a boot held idly on his knees; and myself, a six-year-old child, watching him. Familiar though they were, I had never ceased to take pleasure in his apron, his last, his sharp knife, his cobbler's wax, his dexterity, and the kindness crinkling about his eyes. And the smell of the shop, which seemed to hold all these delights in essence, was a conscious satisfaction to me, so that still, whenever I encounter it, I am back again in the house of my childhood.
He sat so silent, so still, so unregardful of me, that I was moved to put a question.
âWhat are you doing, Robert?'
It amused him to be so addressed by his infant son, and I expected nothing less than a smile in acknowledgement of my sally. But though he looked up at me he did not smile.
âEh?' said Calamy.
He met my look with eyes that seemed vacant of any knowledge of me; then, as I began to be frightened and he saw it, his mind came back as from a long wild journey and he looked at me intently. Intently and with curiosity, not as he had ever looked at me before.
âDon't youâdon't you know me?' I asked. The question slipped out involuntarily. It
had not beenânothing so dreadfulâin my conscious mind. It came from some wise secret corner of a childish and fearful heart, and the tongue had seized and uttered it without my knowing.
At my question his look changed again. Kindness came suddenly into it.
âHas Mother been telling you something?' he asked.
I shook my head. And could think of nothing better than to ask him again what he was doing. It was the boot that troubled me. It was against all expectation and reason that a boot should lie neglected in my father's lap. I wanted to see him at work on it. To make all things clear, I pointed accusingly.
He put the boot aside. âShall I make you a little pair of bootsâboots for a fairy, eh?'
âI'm not a fairy,' I said.
For once I had mistaken his meaning, but he seemed to find a strange meaning in my answer, for he pondered it in a silence that endured longer than my patience.
âA doll then,' he said at length. âHaven't you a doll that would like a new pair of boots? Run and ask them.'
âOh yes,' I cried. âJacko wants a new pair. He told me so this very morning.' This was the kind of conversation I understood. I could
not have too much of it. âWill you please make some for him, Father Calamy?'
Calamy pretended to be very busy. This was all part of our game. âEh? New boots? Well, we'll see. What size does he take, this child of yours?'
We discussed that point in man-to-man fashion. Calamy, meanwhile, was quietly setting to work. First he cut out, with infinite delicacy, a pair of lilliputian bootsoles measuring perhaps an inch from end to end. Enchanted by their promise I resolved that no Jacko, no doll, could ever deserve them; and there flashed into my mind the idea of making a new person, a puppet of my own creation, that should be worthy of them. I would make him from the feet upwards. (And, in the event, I did soâthe first time in history that a man has grown up out of his own boots.)
âHow's that for a start?' said Calamy, but more to himself, I thought, than to me.
I clapped my hands and began dancing delightedly. I had forgotten that I was the grown-up father of a family. The uppers were now being fashioned out of two thin slices of leather; holes were drilled down their front; laces of black thread were inserted. The soles were made smooth and shining underneath, the rest blackened and
polished. And the result was a pair of boots so minute, so perfect, so clamorously suggesting the fellow that must ultimately walk in them, that it seemed to me a miracle. I did not then, for all my precocity, realize how great a miracle.
Lost in rapture over the completed work of art, I did not at once become aware that Calamy's watching eyes had lit up once again with that old, disconcerting light of inquiry. But at last I looked up and met his gaze, and the darkness of another world, an adult world of hunger and desolation, came beating with strong wings about my moment's joy.
âSo, Claud,' said Calamy, as if in question, âyou're not my little boy, after all.'
I stared in dismay, and with a still sharper pang I saw that tears stood in my father's eyes, even while his lips seemed to smile.
âWhy aren't I?' I asked, thinking I had done wrong and was to be punished.
âBut you'll come and play with me just the same, won't you?' added Calamy quickly, stretching out a hand to me.
So it was not I, but he, that was being punished. I clutched his hand. âBut I
to be your little boy,' I cried, gulpingly. My universe was on the point of collapse, and I was aware of a dreadful lonelinessâwhether his
or mine was beyond my question. Stumbling forward I hid my head against the leather apron of his lap. âI will be. I am.' Passion came sobbing out of my small body.
Calamy, in a brisk bustling fashion, patted my head.
âThat's right, my dear. Don't cry any more. I sayâsee what we've forgotten!'
His voice was cheerful and urgent. My grief slowly subsiding, I looked up. âWhat?' I asked.
âWhy, don't you see! I'm a pretty shoemaker, upon my word! These blessed new boots of ours ain't got any tongues in âem.'
I examined the boots, and it was even so. I was duly shocked. âWe'll have to take the laces out,' I explained, âand see about it.'
âSo we shall,' agreed Calamy. âIt's lucky I've got you here to help me. I'd be in a queer pickle without you, I reckon.'
I have asked what frivolous impulse drove my young mother to tell her secret, after keeping it so long. But the very phrase begs a question that has never been answered. I cannot reconcile with my knowledge of her the idea that she was either deliberate, or careless, in that piece of cruelty. My Uncle Claybrook, who married her eldest sister, always believed that some gossip must have reached Calamy which, in innocent indignation, he repeated to her; and that she, who had no instinct or talent for concealment, saw nothing for it but to confess. It is difficult for a son to know and tell the whole truth about his mother; but the difficulty is accidental, not intrinsic; for love, when it is not self-seeking, sharpens the sight, is in fact an indispensable condition of understanding; and though as a child I was too near her to see her in true focus, and too dependent to be capable of impartial witness, I have had abundant time, in the long silence that has supervened, to regard that winsome, wayward, childlike young woman with a steady eye. If she were restored
to me now, I should be almost as much her senior as Calamy was; and the time is long past when I could think of her as a child thinks of its mother. She is now, for me, little more than a character in an old story: a slim girlish creature, with warm reddish-brown hair, delicate features, and lively colouring, both physical and spiritual. She had the animal grace and pretty freedoms of a foal; and, like a foal, she was untamed, unthinking, greedy for delights. There was no meanness in her; if she was over-facile in affection, she was generous, I imagine, in love. She rode her body with an easy rein, and I think that in her heart she could never quite understand why people must find fault with her for that. Her lover, my father, was a younger son of Lord Vengeance, who was enjoying a sedentary old age at Latimer Park, the great gates of which stood a couple of miles from our shop-door. How he met her I never learnt or inquired. I imagine the most accidental kind of encounter, and I see no reason for doubting that it seemed to the lovers an idyllic affair, with honesty, as well as high spirits, on both sides. They were of an age to find secrecy a romantic addition to the romance: for each of them, coming as they did from different worlds, there must have been an element of exotic
delight in the adventure of intimacy. And, whatever verdict may be found against him on the major issue, young Harry Vengeanceâwith or without the connivance of his fatherâexercised a sensitive tact in the matter of reparation. It was against his code, naturally enough, that another and a poorer man should be at the expense of supporting his child; and he was eager, for more than one good reason, to protect Calamy from the revelation that ultimately was forced upon him. We have deceived him, he argued; very well, let us persist in deception; let us deceive him further, and for his good. To this end he invented an Aunt Evangeline for my mother. Aunt Evangeline lived, it appeared, in Australia, and was the widow of a wealthy merchant. She was precisely ninety-two at the moment of her creation, so it was not to be expected that she had many more years to live. My mother was her favourite niece, and after a decent interval of preparation there arrived a solicitor's letter to inform my mother that the dear old lady had died and left her a substantial legacy. I like to think that my parents got a good deal of fun and pleasure out of this nonsense, by which to compensate themselves for the ugly necessity of deceit. Or it may be that they took the whole business lightheartedly
in their stride. Or, again, it may be that the inner pattern of their shared life was complicated by longing and bitterness and unappeasable hungers. All here is conjectureâexcept that I am sure it cost my mother many a pang to be unable to share with Calamy the joke about Aunt Evangeline. This she never did: the truth of it reached me years later from my Uncle Claybrook, as you shall hear. But she and its author spent much ingenuity in embroidering the picture of Aunt Evangelline, long after that beneficent phantom had served her purpose and gone to her long rest. It was a riotous joke between them, a myth to which they joyously added every time they met. An absurd pair!âone can scarcely, at this distance of time, think more harshly of them. Harry Vengeance I saw but twice, in my recollection; and on both occasions I encountered him he was riding along the Icknam Road (now a bus-infected shopping region, but then rural to the point of wildness, with green fields billowing on either side). He hailed me, asked me if I was Mrs Calamy's little boy, lifted me on to the saddle in front of him and gave me a hearty gallop. That was the first occasion (though I fancy there must have been other meetings that had faded from my infant memory), and he
seemed reluctant to be rid of me. But the second time I saw him he only waved a hand in greeting and pricked his horse to a canter. That was my last sight of him, and when I heard, years later, that he had been killed fighting the Boers, it was so that I pictured himâa romantic figure riding to battle. The Victorian touch again. But, indeed, I was a Victorian child.