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SAWDUST AND SIN
A belt of rhododendrons grew close down to one side of our pond; and along the edge of it many things flourished rankly. If you crept through the undergrowth and crouched by the water's rim, it was easy - if your imagination were in healthy working order - to transport yourself in a trice to the heart of a tropical forest. Overhead the monkeys chattered, parrots flashed from bough to bough, strange large blossoms shone around you, and the push and rustle of great beasts moving unseen thrilled you deliciously. And if you lay down with your nose an inch or two from the water, it was not long ere the old sense of proportion vanished clean away. The glittering insects that darted to and fro on its surface became sea-monsters dire, the gnats that hung above them swelled to albatrosses, and the pond itself stretched out into a vast inland sea, whereon a navy might ride secure, and whence at any moment the hairy scalp of a sea serpent might be seen to emerge.
It is impossible, however, to play at tropical forests properly, when homely accents of the human voice intrude; and all my hopes of seeing a tiger seized by a crocodile while drinking (vide picture-books, passim) vanished abruptly, and earth resumed her old dimensions, when the sound of Charlotte's prattle somewhere hard by broke in on my primeval seclusion. Looking out from the bushes, I saw her trotting towards an open space of lawn the other side the pond, chattering to herself in her accustomed fashion, a doll tucked under either arm, and her brow knit with care. Propping up her double burden against a friendly stump, she sat down in front of them, as full of worry and anxiety as a Chancellor on a Budget night.
Her victims, who stared resignedly in front of them, were recognisable as Jerry and Rosa. Jerry hailed from far Japan: his hair was straight and black; his one garment cotton, of a simple blue; and his reputation was distinctly bad. Jerome was his proper name, from his supposed likeness to the holy man who hung in a print on the staircase; though a shaven crown was the only thing in common 'twixt Western saint and Eastern sinner. Rosa was typical British, from her flaxen poll to the stout calves she displayed so liberally, and in character she was of the blameless order of those who have not yet been found out.
I suspected Jerry from the first; there was a latent devilry in his slant eyes as he sat there moodily, and knowing what he was capable of I scented trouble in store for Charlotte. Rosa I was not so sure about; she sat demurely and upright, and looked far away into the tree-tops in a visionary, world-forgetting sort of way; yet the prim purse of her mouth was somewhat overdone, and her eyes glittered unnaturally.
"Now, I'm going to begin where I left off," said Charlotte, regardless of stops, and thumping the turf with her fist excitedly: "and you must pay attention, 'cos this is a treat, to have a story told you before you're put to bed. Well, so the White Rabbit scuttled off down the passage and Alice hoped he'd come back 'cos he had a waistcoat on and her flamingo flew up a tree - but we haven't got to that part yet - you must wait a minute, and - where had I got to?"
Jerry only remained passive until Charlotte had got well under way, and then began to heel over quietly in Rosa's direction. His head fell on her plump shoulder, causing her to start nervously.
Charlotte seized and shook him with vigour, "O Jerry," she cried piteously, "if you're not going to be good, how ever shall I tell you my story?"
Jerry's face was injured innocence itself. "Blame if you like, Madam," he seemed to say, "the eternal laws of gravitation, but not a helpless puppet, who is also an orphan and a stranger in the land."
"Now we'll go on," began Charlotte once more. "So she got into the garden at last - I've left out a lot, but you won't care, I'll tell you some other time - and they were all playing croquet, and that's where the flamingo comes in, and the Queen shouted out, `Off with her head!'"
At this point Jerry collapsed forward, suddenly and completely, his bald pate between his knees. Charlotte was not very angry this time. The sudden development of tragedy in the story had evidently been too much for the poor fellow. She straightened him out, wiped his nose, and, after trying him in various positions, to which he refused to adapt himself, she propped him against the shoulder of the (apparently) unconscious Rosa. Then my eyes were opened, and the full measure of Jerry's infamy became apparent. This, then, was what he had been playing up for. The fellow had designs. I resolved to keep him under close observation.
"If you'd been in the garden," went on Charlotte, reproachfully, "and flopped down like that when the Queen said `Off with his head!' she'd have offed with your head; but Alice wasn't that sort of girl at all. She just said, `I'm not afraid of you, you're nothing but a pack of cards' - oh, dear! I've got to the end already, and I hadn't begun hardly! I never can make my stories last out! Never mind, I'll tell you another one."
Jerry didn't seem to care, now he had gained his end, whether the stories lasted out or not. He was nestling against Rosa's plump form with a look of satisfaction that was simply idiotic; and one arm had disappeared from view - was it round her waist? Rosa's natural blush seemed deeper than usual, her head inclined shyly-it must have been round her waist.
"If it wasn't so near your bedtime," continued Charlotte, reflectively, "I'd tell you a nice story with a bogy in it. But you'd be frightened, and you'd dream of bogies all night. So I'll tell you one about a White Bear, only you mustn't scream when the bear says `Wow,' like I used to, 'cos he's a good bear really - "
Here Rosa fell flat on her back in the deadest of faints. Her limbs were rigid, her eyes glassy; what had Jerry been doing? It must have been something very bad, for her to take on like that. I scrutinised him carefully, while Charlotte ran to comfort the damsel. He appeared to be whistling a tune and regarding the scenery. If I only possessed Jerry's command of feature, I thought to myself, half regretfully, I would never be found out in anything.
"It's all your fault, Jerry," said Charlotte, reproachfully, when the lady had been restored to consciousness: "Rosa's as good as gold, except when you make her wicked. I'd put you in the corner, only a stump hasn't got a corner - wonder why that is? Thought everything had corners. Never mind, you'll have to sit with your face to the wall - SO. Now you can sulk if you like!"
Jerry seemed to hesitate a moment between the bliss of indulgence in sulks with a sense of injury, and the imperious summons of beauty waiting to be wooed at his elbow; then, carried away by his passion, he fell sideways across Rosa's lap. One arm stuck stiffly upwards, as in passionate protestation; his amorous countenance was full of entreaty. Rosa hesitated - wavered - and yielded, crushing his slight frame under the weight of her fullbodied surrender.
Charlotte had stood a good deal, but it was possible to abuse even her patience. Snatching Jerry from his lawless embraces, she reversed him across her knee, and then - the outrage offered to the whole superior sex in Jerry's hapless person was too painful to witness; but though I turned my head away, the sound of brisk slaps continued to reach my tingling ears. When I looked again, Jerry was sitting up as before; his garment, somewhat crumpled, was restored to its original position; but his pallid countenance was set hard. Knowing as I did, only too well, what a volcano of passion and shame must be seething under that impassive exterior, for the moment I felt sorry for him.
Rosa's face was still buried in her frock; it might have been shame, it might have been grief for Jerry's sufferings. But the callous Japanese never even looked her way. His heart was exceeding bitter within him. In merely following up his natural impulses he had run his head against convention, and learnt how hard a thing it was; and the sunshiny world was all black to him.
Even Charlotte softened somewhat at the sight of his rigid misery. "If you'll say you're sorry. Jerome," she said, "I'll say I'm sorry, too."
Jerry only dropped his shoulders against the stump and stared out in the direction of his dear native Japan, where love was no sin, and smacking had not been introduced. Why had he ever left it? He would go back to-morrow - and yet there were obstacles: another grievance. Nature, in endowing Jerry with every grace of form and feature, along with a sensitive soul, had somehow forgotten the gift of locomotion.
There was a crackling in the bushes behind me, with sharp short pants as of a small steam-engine, and Rollo, the black retriever, just released from his chain by some friendly hand, burst through the underwood, seeking congenial company. I joyfully hailed him to stop and be a panther; but he sped away round the pond, upset Charlotte with a boisterous caress, and seizing Jerry by the middle, disappeared with him down the drive. Charlotte raved, panting behind the swift-footed avenger of crime; Rosa lay dishevelled, bereft of consciousness; Jerry himself spread helpless arms to heaven, and I almost thought I heard a cry for mercy, a tardy promise of amendment; but it was too late. The Black Man had got Jerry at last; and though the tear of sensibility might moisten the eye, no one who really knew him could deny the justice of his fate.
Turn to the next chapter: 'YOUNG ADAM CUPID'