But the children were not always so vindictive and blood-thirsty. All three could be very tender sometimes. Even Maria was not wholly implacable and merciless, she had a pretty side as well. Their neighbour at the Manor House, Colonel William Stumper, C.B., experienced this gentler quality in the trio. He was Mother's cousin, too.
They were inclined to like this Colonel Stumper, C.B. For one thing he limped, and that meant, they decided, that he had a wooden leg. They never called it such, of course, but indicated obliquely that the injured limb was made of oak or walnut, by referring to the other as "his living leg," "his good leg," and so forth. For another thing, he did not smile at them; and for a third, he did not ask foolish questions in an up-and-down voice (assumed for the moment), as though they were invalids, idiots, or tailless puppies who could not answer. He frowned at them. He said furiously, "How are you, creatures?" And--he gave usually at least a shilling to each.
"That makes three shillings altogether," as Tim cleverly explained.
"But not three shillings for each of us," Maria qualified the praise. "I only got one." She took it out of her mouth and showed it by way of proof.
"You'll swallow it," warned Judy, "and then you won't have none at all."
If received early in the week, they reported their good fortune to the Authorities; but if Sunday was too near, they waited. Daddy had a queer idea of teasing sometimes. "Just in time for to-morrow's collection," he would be apt to say; and though he did not really mean it perhaps, there was a hint of threat in the suggestion that quenched high spirits at the moment.
"You see, he takes the plate round," Judy told them, "and so feels ashamed." She did not explain the feeling ashamed. It was just that her father, who always did things thoroughly, had to say something, and so picked on that. "Monday or Tuesday's safest," was her judgment.
Maria rolled her eyes round like a gigantic German doll.
"Never's best," she gave as her opinion.
But that was sly. The others reproved her quickly.
"Daddy likes to know," they told her. "Monday or Tuesday's all right." They agreed just to mention the matter only. There was no need to "say a lot."
So they liked this Colonel Stumper, C.B. They liked his "title," declaring that the letters stood for "Come Back," and referring to their owner as "Come Back Stumper." Some day, when he was gone for good, he was to be promoted to K.C.B., meaning "Kan't-Come-Back." But they preferred him as he was, plain C.B., because they did not want to lose him. They declared that "Companion to the Bath" was just nonsense invented by a Radical Government. For in politics, of course, they followed their father's lead, and their father had distinctly stated more than once that "the policy of a Radical Government was some-funny-word-or-other nonsense," which statement helped them enormously in forming their own opinions on several other topics as well. In personal disagreements, for instance--they never "squabbled"--the final insult was to say, "My dear, you're as silly as a something-or-other Radical Govunment," for there was no answer to this anywhere in the world.
Come-Back Stumper, therefore, though casual outsiders might never have guessed it, was a valuable ally. He was what Mother called "a character" as well, and if the children used this statement in praise of him, while adopting in their carelessness a revised version, "he has no character," this was not Come-Back Stumper's fault. He was also an "extinguished soldger," and had seen much service in foreign parts. India with its tigers, elephants, and jungles, was in his heated atmosphere deliciously, and his yellow tint, as of an unripe orange, was due to something they had learned from hearsay to describe as "curried liver trouble." All this, and especially his dead or wooden leg, was distinctly in his favour. Come-Back Stumper was real. Also, he was hard and angular in appearance, short, brisk in manner, square-shouldered, and talked like a General who was bothered about something in a battle. His opinions were most decided. His conversation consisted of negatives, refusals and blank denials. If Come-Back Stumper agreed with what was said, it meant that he was feeling unwell with an attack of curried-liver-trouble. The children understood him. He understood the children, too.
"It's a jolly morning, William," from Daddy would be met with "Might be worse" and a snort like the sneeze of the nursery cat, but a direct invitation of any sort was simply declined point blank. "Care to see The Times, William?" ensured the answer, "Oh, no, thanks; there's never anything worth reading in it." This was as regular as breakfast when Cousin William was staying in the house. It was, in fact, Daddy's formula when he settled into his armchair for a quiet half-hour's read. Daddy's question was the mere politeness of a host. It was sham, but Cousin William's answer was as real as breakfast. The formula was a mechanical certainty, as certain as that pressing a button in the wall produced Thompson in the room.
Accordingly, when Mother said, "Now, don't bother your Cousin William, children; he doesn't want you," this individual would instantly shoulder arms and state the exact contrary with fiery emphasis.
"If you've no objection," came the testy answer, "and if it's all the same to you, Cecilia"--a shade sarcastically, this--"it's precisely what I do want."
And he would look at the children in a way that suggested the most intimate of secret understanding between himself and them. More, he would rise and leave the room with the impetus of a soldier going out to fight, and would play with Judy, Tim, and Maria in a fashion that upset the household routine and made the trio unmanageable for the Authorities for hours afterwards.
"He's an honourable gentleman like the gentlemen in Parliament," declared Judy, "and that's my opinion of why I think him nice."
"And when I'm grown-up," was Tim's verdict, "I'll be a soldger just exactly the same, only not yellow, and taller, and not so thick in the middle, and much, much richer, and with C.B. in front of my name as well as at the end."
Maria, not being present at the time, said nothing audible. But she liked him, too, unquestionably. Otherwise she would have announced the fact without delay. "He is a lump rather," she had been heard to remark, referring to his actual bulk and slowness of movement when in play. But it was nicely, very nicely meant.
"I am sure your Cousin William would rather be left alone to read quietly," said Mother, seeing the trio approach that individual stealthily after tea in the library one evening. He was deep in a big armchair, and deep in a book as well. The children were allowed downstairs after their schoolroom tea for an hour when nothing particular was on. "Wouldn't you, William?" she added. She went on knitting a sort of muffler thing she held up close to the lamp. She expected no reply, apparently.
Cousin William made none. But he raised the level of his book so that it hid his face. A moment before, the eyes had been looking over the top at the advancing trio, watching their movements narrowly.
The children did not answer either. They separated. They scouted. They executed a flank attack in open order. Three minutes later Colonel Stumper was surrounded. And no word was spoken; the scouts just perched and watched him. He was not actually reading, for he had not turned a page for about ten minutes, and it was not a picture book. The difficulty was, however, to get him started. If only Mother would help them! Then Mother, unwittingly, did so. For she dropped her ball of wool, and finding no one at hand to recover it, she looked vaguely round the room--and saw them. And she shook her head at them.
"Don't bother him just now," she whispered again, "he's got a cold. Here, Maria, pick up my wool, darling, will you?" But while Tim (for Maria only moved her eyes) picked up the wool obediently, Cousin William picked up himself with difficulty, tossed his book into the deep arm-chair, and stalked without a single word towards the door. Mother watched him with one eye, but the children did not stir a muscle.
"William, you're not going to bed, are you?" she asked kindly, "or would you like to, perhaps? And have your dinner in your room, and a warm drink just before going to sleep? That's the best thing for a cold, I always think."
He turned at the door and faced her. "Thank you very much," he said with savage emphasis, "but I am not ill, and I am not going to bed." The negatives sounded like pistol shots. "My cold is nothing to speak of." And he was gone, leaving a trail of fire in the air.
The children, cunning in their generation, did not move. There were moments in life, and this was one of them, when "stir a finger and you're a dead man" was really true. No finger stirred, no muscle twitched; one pair of eyelids fluttered, nothing more. And Mother, happy with her recovered ball of wool, was presently lost in the muffler thing she knitted, forgetful of their presence, if not of their very existence. Signals meanwhile were made and answered by means of some secret code that birds and animals understand. The plan was matured in silence.
"Good-night, Mother," said Judy innocently, a few moments later, stepping up and kissing her.
"Good-night," said Tim gravely, doing likewise.
Maria kissed, but said no word at all. They did not linger, as their custom was, to cuddle in or hear a fairy story. To-night they were good and businesslike.
"Good-night, duckies," said Mother, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. "It's not quite bed-time yet, but it's been a long day, and you're tired out. I shall be up presently to hear your prayers and tuck you up. And, Judy, you might tell Jackman--"
But the room was empty, the children vanished. The door banged softly, cutting off the sentence in its middle, and Mother resumed her knitting, smiling quietly to herself. And in the hall outside Come-Back Stumper was discovered, warming his Army back before the open fire of blazing logs. He looked like a cart-horse, the shadows made him spread so. Maria pushed him to one side. She pushed, at least, but he did not move exactly. Yet somehow, by a kind of sidling process, he took up a new position in regard to the fire and themselves, the result of which was that they occupied the best places, while he stood at one corner in an attitude which resisted attack and yet invited it.
"Good-evening," remarked Maria; "are you warm?"
"Oh, no," exclaimed Tim, "that's not it at all. The thing is, shall we play hide-and-seek, or would you really rather go to bed, as Mother said, and have dinner and hot drinks?"
"Nonsense," cried Judy with authority. "He's got an awful cold, and he's got to go to bed at once. He's shivering all over. It's Nindian fever."
"No, really, really--" began Stumper, but was not allowed to finish.
"Thin captain biscuits soaked in hot milk with ginger, nutmeg, lemon, and whisky," announced Judy, "would be best." And she shot towards the door, her hair untied and flying.
"But, my dear, I assure you--"
"Or Bath Olivers," she interrupted, "because they soak better. You know nothing," she added motheringly; "no man ever does." There was contempt in her voice as well as pity.
"Why do you know nothing?" inquired Maria, with a blaze of staring eyes, as the door slammed upon her vanishing sister.
"I think you know everything," said Tim with pride, decidedly, "only you've forgotten it in India. I think it's silly."
"The milk and stuff?" agreed the soldier. "Yes, so do I. And I hate biscuits, and ginger makes me hot and ill--"
"Iller than you are already?" asked Maria, "because that means bed."
"Maria," he snapped angrily, "I'm not ill at all. If you go on saying I'm ill, of course I shall get ill. I never felt better in my life."
Tim turned round like a top. "Then let's play hide-and-seek," he cried. "Let's hide before Judy gets back, and she can come and never find us!"
Cousin William suggested they were not enough to play that game, and was of opinion that Aunt Emily might be invited too.
"Oh, no," Tim gave his decided verdict, "not women. They can't hide properly. They bulge."
And at that moment Judy appeared in the doorway across the hall.
"It's coming," she cried. "I've ordered everything--hot milk and Bath Olivers and preserved ginger and--"
Cousin William took the matter into his own hands then, for the situation was growing desperate. "Look here," he suggested gravely, yet without enthusiasm, "I'll take the milk and stuff upstairs when I've got into bed, and meanwhile we'll do something else. I'm--that is, my cold is too bad to play a game, but I'll tell you a story about--er--about a tiger--if you like?" The last three words were added as a question. An answer, however, was not immediately forthcoming. For the moment was a grave one. It was admitted that Come-Back Stumper could play a game with credit and success, even an active game like hide-and-seek; but it was not known yet that he could tell a story. The fate of the evening, therefore, hung upon the decision.
"A tiger!" said Tim, doubtfully, weighing probabilities. "A tiger you shot, was it, or just--a tiger?" A sign, half shadow and half pout, was in his face. Maria and Judy waited upon their brother's decision with absolute confidence, meanwhile.
Colonel Stumper moved artfully backwards towards a big horsehair sofa, beneath the deer heads and assegais from Zululand. He did it on tiptoe, aware that this mysterious and suggestive way of walking has a marked effect on children in the dark. "I did not shoot it," he said, "because I lived with it. It was the most extraordinary tiger that was ever known--"
"In the world. And I ought to know, because, as I say, I lived with it for days--"
"Nearly, but not quite. I lived in its cave with the cubs and other things, half-eaten deer and cows and the bones of Hindus--"
"Were the bones black? However did you escape? Why didn't the tiger eat you?"
He drew the children closely round him on the sofa. "I'll tell you," he said, "for this is an inaugural occasion, and I've never told the story before to any one in the world. The experience was incredible, and no one would believe it. But the proof that it really happened is that the tiger has left its mark upon me till I die--"
"But you haven't died--yet, I mean," Maria observed.
"He means teeth, silly," Tim squelched her.
"Died in another sense than the one you mean," the great soldier and former administrator of a province continued, "dyed yellow--"
"Oh-h-h! Is that why--?"
"That is why," he replied pathetically. "For living with that tiger family so long, I almost turned into one myself. The tiger nature got into me. I snarl and growl, I use my teeth ferociously when hungry, I walk stealthily on tiptoe, I let my whiskers grow, and my colour has the tint of Indian tigers' skins."
"Have you got a tail, too?"
He glared into the blue eyes of Maria, sternly. "It's growing," he whispered horribly, "it's growing."
There was a pause in which credulity shook hands with faith. Belief was in the air. If doubt did whisper, "Let me see, please," it was too low to be quite audible. Come-Back Stumper was surrounded by an atmosphere of black-edged glory suddenly; he wore a halo; his feet were dipped in mystery.
"Then what's an orgully occasion?" somebody asked.
"This!" replied Stumper. But he uttered it so savagely that no one cared to press for further details. Clearly it was a secret and confidential moment, and "inaugural occasion" had something to do with the glory of wearing an incipient tail. Glory and mystery clothed Stumper from that moment with Indian splendour. At least, he thought so....
"And the tiger?" came the whispering question.
"Ugh-h-h-h!" he shuddered; "I'll tell you. But I must think a moment quietly first."
"His tail hurts," Maria told Tim beneath her breath, while they waited for the story to begin.
"So would yours," was the answer, "if you had a cold at the same time, too. A girl would simply cry." And he looked contempt at her, but unutterable respect at his soldier friend.
"This tiger," began the traveller, in a heavy voice, "was a--a very unusual tiger. I met it, that is to say, most unexpectedly. It was in a tropical jungle, where the foliage was so thick that the sunlight hardly penetrated at all. It was dark as night even in the daytime. There were monkeys overhead and snakes beneath, and bananas were so plentiful that every time my elephant knocked against a tree a shower of fruit fell down like hail and tickled its skin."
"You were on an elephant, then?"
"We were all on elephants. On my particular elephant there was a man to load for me and a man to guide the beast. We moved slowly and cautiously. It was dark, as I said, but the showers of falling bananas made yellow streaks against the black that the elephant constantly mistook for tigers flying through the air as they leaped in silent fury against the howdah in which we crouched upon his back. The howdah, you know, is the saddle."
"Was the elephant friendly?"
"Very friendly indeed; but he found it difficult to see, and all of a sudden he would give a hop and a jump that nearly flung me off his shoulders. For a long time--"
"That was the bananas tickling him, I suppose?"
"This continued without anything dangerous happening, but all at once he gave a tremendous leap into the air, lifted his trunk, trumpeted like an Army bugle, and then set off at full speed through the tangled jungle. He had stupidly stepped upon a cobra! And the cobra, before it was squashed to pulp, had stung him between the big and little toe."
"On purpose?" Judy asked.
"In an Indian jungle everything's done on purpose. My elephant raced away, trumpeting in agony, at twenty miles an hour. The driver lost his balance and fell off; the other man, scrambling along to take his place and steer the monster, fell off after him, taking both my guns with him as he went; and I myself, crouching in the swaying howdah, and holding on for grim death, continued to tear through the jungle on top of my terrified and angry elephant. Then, suddenly, the branch of a tree caught the howdah in the middle and swept it clear. The elephant rushed on. The howdah, with myself inside it, swung in mid-air like a caught balloon. But I saw it could not hold on long. There was just time to scramble out of it into safety upon the branch when there came a sound of ripping, and the thing fell smash upon the ground some twenty feet below, leaving me alone in an Indian jungle--up a tree."
And he paused a moment to produce the right effect and reap the inevitable glory of applause.
Out of the breathless silence sprang a voice at once: "Was the elephant badly hurt?" And then another: "I thought elephants were too big to feel a bite like that." Followed by a third--Maria's: "It wasn't fair to step on it and expect it to do nothing."
But no single word about his own predicament--its horror, danger, loneliness, and risk. No single syllable. Even the Hindus, the driver, and the man who carried the guns, were left unmentioned. Bananas were equally ignored. The tiger itself had passed into oblivion.
"Thanks most awfully," said Tim, politely, after an interval. "It must have been awful for you." It was said as spokesman for the other listeners. All were kind and grateful, but actual interest there was none. They took the pause to mean that the story was at an end; but they had not cared about it because they--did not believe it.
"Simply awful," the boy added, as though, perhaps, he had not made it quite clear that he wished to thank yet could not honestly praise. "Wasn't it, Judy?" And he jerked his head round towards his elder sister.
"Oh, awful--yes," agreed that lady.
But neither of them risked inviting the opinion of Maria. Her uncompromising nature was too well known for that. Nevertheless, unasked, she offered her criticism too: "Awful," she said, her podgy face unmoved, her blue eyes fixed upon the ceiling. And the whole room seemed to give a long, deep sigh.
Now, for the hero, this was decidedly an awkward moment; he had done his best and miserably failed. He was no story-teller, and they had found him out. None the less, however, he was a real hero. He faced the situation as a brave man should:
"Tell me how you knew," he asked at length, facing the situation. "What made you guess?"
"Because, in the first place, you're not an atom like a tiger, anyhow," explained Judy.
"And you made the jungle so very dark," said Tim, "that you simply couldn't have seen the bananas falling."
"And we know you haven't got a tail at all," Maria added, clinchingly.
"Of course," he agreed; "your discernment does you credit, very great credit indeed. Few of the officials under me in India had as much."
Judy looked soothingly at him and stroked his sleeve. Somehow or other she divined, it seemed, he felt mortified and ashamed. He was a dear old thing, whatever happened.
"Never mind," she whispered, "it really doesn't matter. It was very nice to hear about your tiger. Besides--it must hurt awfully, having a cold like this."
"I knew," put in Tim sympathetically, "the moment you began about the bananas falling. But I didn't say anything, because I knew it couldn't last--anything that began like that."
"But it got wonderful towards the end," insisted Judy.
"Till he was in the tree," objected her brother. "He never could really have got along a branch like that."
"No," agreed Judy, thoughtfully, "that was rather silly."
They continued discussing the story for some time as though its creator was elsewhere. He kept very still. Maria already slept in a soft and podgy ball on his lap....
"I am a lonely old thing," he said suddenly, with a long sigh, for in reality he was deeply disappointed at his failure, and had aspired to be their story-teller as well as playmate. Ordinary life bored him dreadfully. He had melancholy yearnings after youth and laughter. "Let's do something else now. What do you say to a turn of hide-and-seek? Eh?"
The miraculous Maria woke at this, yawned like a cat, and nearly rolled off on to the floor. "I dreamed of a real tiger," she informed every one. But no one was listening. Judy and Tim were prancing wildly.
"If your cold isn't too bad," cried Judy, "it would be lovely." No grown-up could have been more thoughtful of his welfare than she was.
"I'll hide," he said, "and in five minutes you come and find me." He went towards the door into the passage.
"Choose a warm place, and keep out of draughts," she cried after him. And he was gone. He nearly collided with a servant carrying a tray, but the servant, hearing his secret instructions, vanished again instantly in the direction of the kitchen. Five minutes later--an alleged five minutes--the children began their search. But they never found him. They hunted high and low, from attic to cellar, in gun-room, scullery, and pantry, even climbing up the ladder from the box-room to the roof, but without result. Colonel Stumper had disappeared. He was K.C.B.
"D'you think he's offended?" suggested Judy, as they met at length in the hall to consider the situation.
"Of course not," said Tim emphatically, "a man like that! He's written a book on Scouting!"
"I've finished," Maria mentioned briefly, and sat down.
On Judy's puzzled face there appeared an anxious expression then. His cold, she remembered, was very heavy. "I looked under every sofa and into every cupboard," she said, as though she feared he might have choked or suffocated. They stood in front of the fireplace and began to talk about other things. Their interest in the game was gone, they were tired of looking; but at the back of their minds was a secret annoyance, though at the same time a sense of great respect for the man who could conceal himself so utterly from sight. A touch of the marvellous was in it somehow.
"There's no good hiding like that," they felt indignantly. Still it was rather wonderful, after all. A man "like that" could do anything. He might even be up a chimney somewhere. He might be anywhere! They felt a little creepy....
"P'raps he is a sort of tiger thing," whispered some one ... and they were rather relieved when the drawing-room door opened and Mother appeared, knitting her scarlet muffler as she walked. The scene of scolding, explanation, and excuses that followed--for it was half an hour after bed-time--was cut short by Maria informing the company that she was "awfully tired," with a sigh that meant she would like to be carried up to bed. She was carried. The procession moved slowly, Tim and Judy bringing up the rear. But while Tim talked about a water-rat he meant to kill next day with an air-gun, Judy used her eyes assiduously, still hoping to discover Cousin William crumpled up in some incredible hiding-place. They told their mother nothing. The matter was private. It was between themselves and him. It would have to be cleared up on the morrow--if they remembered. On the upper landing, however, there was a curious sound. Maria, half asleep in the maternal arms, did not hear it, apparently, but the other two children exchanged sudden, recriminating glances. A door stood ajar, and light came through it from the room within. This curious sound came with it. It was a sneeze--a regular Nindian sneeze.
"We never thought of looking there," they said reproachfully. Come-Back Stumper had simply gone to bed.