The sweet spring winds came laughing down the street, bearing a voice that mingled with their music.
Daddy! Daddy! vite; il y a un paquet!' sounded in a child's excited cry. 'It arrives this afternoon. It's got the Edinburgh postmark. Here is the notice. C'est enorme!'
The figure of Jimbo shot round the corner, dancing into view. He waved a bit of yellow paper in his hand. A curious pang tore its way into the big man's heart as he saw him--a curious, deep, searching pain that yet left joy all along its trail. Positively moisture dimmed his eyes a second.
But Jimbo belonged to some one else.
Daddy's wumbled head projected instantly again from the window beneath.
'A box?' he asked, equally excited. 'A box from Scotland? Why, we had one only last month. Bless their hearts! How little they know what help and happiness. ... 'The rest of the sentence disappeared with the head; and a moment later Jimbo was heard scampering up the stairs. Both men went out to meet him.
The little boy was breathless with excitement, yet the spirit of the man of affairs worked strongly in him. He deliberately suppressed hysterics. He spoke calmly as might be, both hands in his trouser- pockets beneath the blouse of blue cotton that stuck out like a ballet skirt all round. The belt had slipped down. His eyes were never still. He pulled one hand out, holding the crumpled paper up for inspection.
'It's a paquet,' he said, 'comme ca.' He used French and English mixed, putting the latter in for his cousin's benefit. He had little considerate ways like that. It's coming from Scotland, et puis ca pese soixante-quinze kilos. Oh, it's big. It's enormous. The last one weighed,' he hesitated, forgetful, 'much, much less,' he finished. He paused, looking like a man who has solved a problem by stating it.
'One hundred and fifty pounds,' exclaimed his father, just as eager as the boy. 'Let me look,' and he held his hand out for the advice from the railway. 'What can be in it?'
'Something for everybody,' said Jimbo decidedly. 'All the village knows it. It will come by the two o'clock train from Bale, you know.' He gave up the paper unwillingly. It was his badge of office. 'That's the paper about it,' he added again.
Daddy read out slowly the advice of consignment, with dates and weights and address of sender and recipient, while Jimbo corrected the least mistake. He knew it absolutely by heart.
'There'll be dresses and boots for the girls this time,' he announced, 'and something big enough for Mother to wear, too. You can tell---'
'How can you tell?' asked Daddy, laughing slyly, immensely pleased about it all.
'Oh, by the weight of the paquet, comme ca,' was the reply. 'It weighs 75 kilos. That means there must be something for Mummy in it.'
The author turned towards his cousin, hiding his smile. 'It's a box of clothes,' he explained, 'from my cousins in Scotland, Lady X you know, and her family. Things they give away--usually to their maids and what-not. Awfully good of them, isn't it? They pay the carriage too,' he added. It was an immense relief to him.
'Things they can't wear,' put in Jimbo, 'but very good things-- suits, blouses, shirts, collars, boots, gloves, and--oh, toute sorte de choses comme ca.'
'Isn't it nice of 'em,' repeated Daddy. It made life easier for him-- ever so much easier. 'A family like that has such heaps of things. And they always pay the freight. It saves me a pretty penny I can tell you. Why, I haven't bought the girls a dress for two years or more. And Edward's dressed like a lord, I tell you,' referring to his eldest boy now at an expensive tutor's. 'You can understand the excitement when a box arrives. We call it the Magic Box.'
Rogers understood. It had puzzled him before why the children's clothes, Daddy's and Mummy's as well for that matter, were such an incongruous assortment of village or peasant wear, and smart, well-cut garments that bore so obviously the London mark.
'They're very rich indeed,' said Jimbo. 'They have a motor car. These are the only things that don't fit them. There's not much for me usually; I'm too little yet. But there's lots for the girls and the others.' And 'the others,' it appeared, included the Widow Jequier, the Postmaster and his wife, the carpenter's family, and more than one household in the village who knew the use and value of every centimetre of ribbon. Even the retired governesses got their share. No shred or patch was ever thrown away as useless. The assortment of cast-off clothing furnished Sunday Bests to half the village for weeks to come. A consignment of bullion could not have given half the pleasure and delight that the arrival of a box produced.
But midi was ringing, and dejeuner had to be eaten first. Like a meal upon the stage, no one ate sincerely; they made a brave pretence, but the excitement was too great for hunger. Every one was in the secret--the Postmaster (he might get another hat out of it for himself) had let it out with a characteristic phrase: 'Il y a un paquet pour la famille anglaise!' Yet all feigned ignorance. The children exchanged mysterious glances, and afterwards the governesses hung about the Post Office, simulating the purchase of stamps at two o'clock. But every one watched Daddy's movements, for he it was who would say the significant words.
And at length he said them. 'Now, we had better go down to the station,' he observed casually, 'and see if there is anything for us.' His tone conveyed the impression that things often arrived in this way; it was an everyday affair. If there was nothing, it didn't matter much. His position demanded calmness.
'Very well,' said Jimbo. 'I'll come with you.' He strutted off, leading the way.
'And I, and I,' cried Monkey and Jane Anne, for it was a half-holiday and all were free. Jimbo would not have appeared to hurry for a kingdom.
'I think I'll join you, too,' remarked Mother, biting her lips, 'only please go slowly.' There were hills to negotiate.
They went off together in a party, and the governesses watched them go. The Widow Jequier put her head out of the window, pretending she was feeding the birds. Her sister popped out opportunely to post a letter. The Postmaster opened his guichet window and threw a bit of string into the gutter; and old Miss Waghorn, just then appearing for her daily fifteen minutes' constitutional, saw the procession and asked him, 'Who in the world all those people were?' She had completely forgotten them. 'Le barometre a monte,' he replied, knowing no word of English, and thinking it was her usual question about the weather. He reported daily the state of the barometer. 'Vous n'aurez pas besoin d'un parapluie.' 'Mercy,' she said, meaning merci.
The train arrived, and with it came the box. They brought it up themselves upon the little hand-cart--le char. It might have weighed a ton and contained priceless jewels, the way they tugged and pushed, and the care they lavished on it. Mother puffed behind, hoping there would be something to fit Jimbo this time.
'Shall we rest a moment?' came at intervals on the hill, till at last Monkey said, 'Sit on the top, Mummy, and we'll pull you too.' And during the rests they examined the exterior, smelt it, tapped it, tried to see between the cracks, and ventured endless and confused conjectures as to its probable contents.
They dragged the hand-cart over the cobbles of the courtyard, and heaved the box up the long stone staircase. It was planted at length on the floor beside the bed of Mlle. Lemaire, that she might witness the scene from her prison windows. Daddy had the greatest difficulty in keeping order, for tempers grow short when excitement is too long protracted. The furniture was moved about to make room. Orders flew about like grape-shot. Everybody got in everybody else's way. But finally the unwieldy packing-case was in position, and a silence fell upon the company.
'My gum, we've put it upside down,' said Daddy, red in the face with his exertions. It was the merest chance that there was no wisp of straw yet in his beard.
'Then the clothes will all be inside out,' cried Monkey, 'and we shall have to stand on our heads.'
'You silly,' Jane Anne rebuked her, yet half believing it was true, while Jimbo, holding hammer and chisel ready, looked unutterable contempt. 'Can't you be serious for a moment?' said his staring blue eyes.
The giant chest was laboriously turned over, the two men straining every muscle in the attempt. Then, after a moment's close inspection again to make quite sure, Daddy spoke gravely. Goodness, how calm he was!
'Jimbo, boy, pass me the hammer and the chisel, will you?'
In breathless silence the lid was slowly forced open and the splintered pieces gingerly removed. Sheets of dirty brown paper and bundles of odorous sacking came into view.
'Perhaps that's all there is,' suggested Jinny.
'Ugh! What a whiff!' said Monkey.
'Fold them up carefully and put them in a corner,' ordered Mother. Jane Anne religiously obeyed. Oh dear, how slow she was about it!
Then everybody came up very close, heads bent over, hands began to stretch and poke. You heard breathing--nothing more.
'Now, wait your turn,' commanded Mother in a dreadful voice, 'and let your Father try on everything first.' And a roar of laughter made the room echo while Daddy extracted wonder after wonder that were packed in endless layers one upon another.
Perhaps what would have struck an observer most of all would have been the strange seriousness against which the comedy was set. The laughter was incessant, but it was a weighty matter for all that. The bed- ridden woman, who was sole audience, understood that; the parents understood it too. Every article of clothing that could be worn meant a saving, and the economy of a franc was of real importance. The struggles of la famille anglaise to clothe and feed and educate themselves were no light affair. The eldest boy, now studying for the consular service, absorbed a third of their entire income. The sacrifices involved for his sake affected each one in countless ways. And for two years now these magic boxes had supplied all his suits and shirts and boots. The Scotch cousins luckily included a boy of his own size who had extravagant taste in clothes. A box sometimes held as many as four excellent suits. Daddy contented himself with one a year --ordered ready-made from the place they called Chasbakerinhighholborn.' Mother's clothes were 'wropp in mystery' ever. No one ever discovered where they came from or how she made them. She did. It seemed always the same black dress and velvet blouse.
Gravity and laughter, therefore, mingled in Daddy's face as he drew out one paper parcel after another, opened it, tried the article on himself, and handed it next to be tried on similarly by every one in turn.
And the first extraction from the magic box was a curious looking thing that no one recognised. Daddy unfolded it and placed it solemnly on his head. He longed for things for himself, but rarely found them. He tried on everything, hoping it might 'just do,' but in the end yielded it with pleasure to the others. He rarely got more than a pair of gloves or a couple of neckties for himself. The coveted suits just missed his size.
Grave as a judge he balanced the erection on his head. It made a towering heap. Every one was puzzled. 'It's a motor cap,' ventured some one at length in a moment of intuition.
'It's several!' cried Monkey. She snatched the bundle and handed it to Mother. There were four motor caps, neatly packed together. Mother put on each in turn. They were in shades of grey. They became her well.
'You look like a duchess,' said Daddy proudly. 'You'd better keep them all.'
'I think perhaps they'll do,' she said, moving to the glass, 'if no one else can wear them.' She flushed a little and looked self- conscious.
'They want long pins,' suggested Jinny. 'They'll keep the rain off too, like an umbrella.' She laughed and clapped her hands. Mother pinned one on and left it there for the remainder of the afternoon. The unpacking of the case continued.
The next discovery was gloves. The lid of the box looked like a counter in a glove shop. There were gloves of leather and chamois, gauntlets, driving-gloves, and gloves of suede, yellow, brown, and grey. All had been used a little, but all were good. 'They'll wash,' said Jane Anne. They were set aside in a little heap apart. No one coveted them. It was not worth while. In the forests of Bourcelles gloves were at a discount, and driving a pleasure yet unknown. Jinny, however a little later put on a pair of ladies' suede that caught her fancy, and wore them faithfully to the end of the performance, just to keep her mother's motor cap in countenance.
The main contents of the box were as yet unbroached, however, and when next an overcoat appeared, with velvet collar and smart, turned-up cuffs, Daddy beamed like a boy and was into it before any one could prevent. He went behind a screen. The coat obviously did not fit him, but he tugged and pulled and wriggled his shoulders with an air of 'things that won't fit must be made to fit.'
'You'll bust the seams! You'll split the buttons! See what's in the pockets!' cried several voices, while he shifted to and fro like a man about to fight.
'It may stretch,' he said hopefully. 'I think I can use it. It's just what I want.' He glanced up at his wife whose face, however, was relentless.
'Maybe,' replied the practical mother, 'but it's more Edward's build, perhaps.' He looked fearfully disappointed, but kept it on. Edward got the best of every box. He went on with the unpacking, giving the coat sly twitches from time to time, as he pulled out blouses, skirts, belts, queer female garments, boots, soft felt hats--the green Homburg he put on at once, as who should dare to take it from him--black and brown Trilbys, shooting-caps, gaiters, flannel shirts, pyjamas, and heaven knows what else besides.
The excitement was prodigious, and the floor looked like a bargain sale. Everybody talked at once; there was no more pretence of keeping order Mlle. Lemaire lay propped against her pillows, watching the scene with feelings between tears and laughter. Each member of the family tried on everything in turn, but yielded the treasures instantly at a word from Mother--'That will do for so and so; this will fit Monkey; Jimbo, you take this,' and so on.
The door into the adjoining bedroom was for ever opening and shutting, as the children disappeared with armfuls and reappeared five minutes later, marvellously apparelled. There was no attempt at sorting yet. Blouses and flannel trousers lay upon the floor with boots and motor veils. Every one had something, and the pile set aside for Edward grew apace. Only Jimbo was disconsolate. He was too small for everything; even the ladies' boots were too narrow and too pointed for his little feet. From time to time he rummaged with the hammer and chisel (still held very tightly) among the mass of paper at the bottom. But, as usual, there was nothing but gaudy neckties that he could use. And these he did not care about. He said no word, but stood there watching the others and trying to laugh, only keeping the tears back with the greatest difficulty.
From his position in the background Rogers took it all in. He moved up and slipped a ten-franc piece into the boy's hand. 'Secretaries don't wear clothes like this,' he whispered. 'We'll go into town to-morrow and get the sort of thing you want.'
Jimbo looked up and stared. He stood on tip-toe to kiss him. 'Oh, thank you so much,' he said, fearful lest the others should see; and tucked the coin away into a pocket underneath his cotton blouse. A moment later he came back from the corner where he had hid himself to examine it. 'But, Cousin Henry,' he whispered, utterly astonished, 'it's gold.' He had thought the coin was a ten-centime piece such as Daddy sometimes gave him. He could not believe it. He had never seen gold before. He ran up and told his parents. His sisters were too excited to be told just then. After that he vanished into the passage without being noticed, and when he returned five minutes later his eyes were suspiciously red. But no one heard him say a word about getting nothing out of the box. He stood aside, with a superior manner and looked quietly on. 'It's very nice for the girls,' his expression said. His interest in the box had grown decidedly less. He could buy an entire shop for himself now.
'Mother, Daddy, everybody,' cried an excited voice, 'will you look at me a minute, please! It all fits me perfectly,' and Jinny emerged from the bedroom door. She had been trying on. A rough brown dress of Harris tweed became her well; she wore a motor veil about her head, and another was tied round her neck; a white silk blouse, at least one size too large for her, bulged voluminously from beneath the neat tweed jacket. She wore her suede gloves still. 'And there's an outside pocket in the skirt, you see.' She pulled it up and showed a very pointed pair of brown boots; they were much too long; they looked ridiculous after her square village boots. 'I can waggle my toes in them,' she explained, strutting to and fro to be admired. 'I'm a fashionable monster now!'
But she only held the centre of the stage a minute, for Monkey entered at her heels, bursting with delight in a long green macintosh thrown over another tweed skirt that hid her feet and even trailed behind. A pair of yellow spats were visible sometimes that spread fan-shaped over her boots and climbed half-way up the fat legs.
'It all fits me exaccurately,' was her opinion. The sisters went arm in arm about the room, dancing and laughing.
'We're busy blackmailers,' cried Jinny, using her latest acquisition which she practised on all possible occasions. 'We're in Piccadilly, going to see the Queen for tea.'
They tripped over Monkey's train and one of the spats came off in the struggle for recovery. Daddy, in his Homburg hat, looked round and told them sternly to make less noise. Behind a screen he was getting surreptitiously into a suit that Mother had put aside for Edward. He tried on several in this way, hopeful to the last.
'I think this will fit me all right,' he said presently, emerging with a grave expression on his puckered face. He seemed uncertain about it. He was solemn as a judge. 'You could alter the buttons here and there, you know,' and he looked anxiously at his wife. The coat ran up behind, the waistcoat creased badly owing to the strain, and the trousers were as tight as those of a cavalry officer. Anywhere, and any moment, he might burst out into unexpected revelation. 'A little alteration,' he suggested hopefully, 'and it would be all right--don't you think?' And then he added 'perhaps.'
He turned and showed himself. Even the roar of laughter that greeted his appearance did not quite convince him. He looked like a fat, impoverished bookmaker.
'I think it will fit Edward better,' said Mother again without pity, for she did not like to see her husband look foolish before the children. He disappeared behind the screen, but repeated the performance with two other suits. 'This striped one seems a little looser,' he said; or, 'If you'd let out the trousers at the bottom, I think they would do.' But in the end all he got from the box was two pairs of pink silk pyjamas, the Homburg hat, several pairs of gloves, spats, and gaiters, and half a dozen neckties that no one else would wear. He made his heap carefully in the corner of the room, and later, when the mess was all cleared up and everybody went off with their respective treasures, he entirely forgot them in his pleasure and admiration of the others. He left them lying in the corner. Riquette slept on them that night, and next morning Jimbo brought them over for him to the carpenter's house. And Edward later magnanimously yielded up two flannel shirts because he had so many left over from the previous box. Also a pair of pumps.
'I've not done so badly after all,' was his final matured opinion. 'Poor mother! She got nothing but motor caps.' Jimbo, however, had made a final discovery of value for himself--of some value, at least. When the empty case was overturned as a last hope, he rummaged among the paper with his hammer and chisel, and found four pairs of golf stockings! The legs fitted him admirably, but the feet were much too big. There was some discussion as to whether they had belonged to a very thin-legged boy with big feet or to a girl who had no calves. Luckily, the former was decided upon, for otherwise they would have given no pleasure to Jimbo. Even as it was, he adopted them chiefly because it pleased his parents. Mother cut off the feet and knitted new ones a little smaller. But there was no mystery about those stockings. No special joy went with them. He had watched Mother knitting too often for that; she could make stockings half asleep.
Two hours later, while Jane Ann and Mother prepared the tea in the Den, Daddy, Jimbo, and Cousin Henry went in a procession to the carpenter's house carrying the piles of clothing in their arms to the astonishment of half the village. They were to be re-sorted there in privacy by the 'men,' where the 'children' could not interfere. The things they could not use were distributed later among the governesses; the Pension and the village also, got their share. And the Postmaster got his hat--a black Trilby. He loved its hue.
And for days afterwards the children hoarded their treasures with unholy joy. What delighted them as much as anything, perhaps, were the coronets upon the pyjamas and the shirts. They thought it was a London or Edinburgh laundry mark. But Jimbo told them otherwise: 'It means that Daddy's Cousin is a Lord-and-Waiting, and goes to see the King.' This explanation was generally accepted.
The relief to the parents, however, as they sat up in the Den that night and discussed how much this opportune Magic Box had saved them, may be better imagined than described. The sum ran into many, many francs. Edward had suits now for at least two years. 'He's stopped growing,' said his mother; 'thank goodness,' said his father.
And to the long list he prayed for twice a day Jimbo added of his accord, 'Ceux qui ont envoye la grosse caisse.'