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Chapter 2

The Little Nursery Governess

As I enter the club smoking-room you are to conceive David
vanishing into nothingness, and that it is any day six years ago
at two in the afternoon. I ring for coffee, cigarette, and
cherry brandy, and take my chair by the window, just as the
absurd little nursery governess comes tripping into the street.
I always feel that I have rung for her.

While I am lifting the coffee-pot cautiously lest the lid fall
into the cup, she is crossing to the post-office; as I select the
one suitable lump of sugar she is taking six last looks at the
letter; with the aid of William I light my cigarette, and now she
is re-reading the delicious address. I lie back in my chair, and
by this time she has dropped the letter down the slit. I toy
with my liqueur, and she is listening to hear whether the postal
authorities have come for her letter. I scowl at a fellow-member
who has had the impudence to enter the smoking-room, and her two
little charges are pulling her away from the post-office. When I
look out at the window again she is gone, but I shall ring for
her to-morrow at two sharp.

She must have passed the window many times before I noticed her.
I know not where she lives, though I suppose it to be hard by.
She is taking the little boy and girl, who bully her, to the St.
James's Park, as their hoops tell me, and she ought to look
crushed and faded. No doubt her mistress overworks her. It must
enrage the other servants to see her deporting herself as if she
were quite the lady.

I noticed that she had sometimes other letters to post, but that
the posting of the one only was a process. They shot down the
slit, plebeians all, but it followed pompously like royalty. I
have even seen her blow a kiss after it.

Then there was her ring, of which she was as conscious as if it
rather than she was what came gaily down the street. She felt it
through her glove to make sure that it was still there. She took
off the glove and raised the ring to her lips, though I doubt not
it was the cheapest trinket. She viewed it from afar by
stretching out her hand; she stooped to see how it looked near
the ground; she considered its effect on the right of her and on
the left of her and through one eye at a time. Even when you saw
that she had made up her mind to think hard of something else,
the little silly would take another look.

I give anyone three chances to guess why Mary was so happy.

No and no and no. The reason was simply this, that a lout of a
young man loved her. And so, instead of crying because she was
the merest nobody, she must, forsooth, sail jauntily down Pall
Mall, very trim as to her tackle and ticketed with the
insufferable air of an engaged woman. At first her complacency
disturbed me, but gradually it became part of my life at two
o'clock with the coffee, the cigarette, and the liqueur. Now
comes the tragedy.

Thursday is her great day. She has from two to three every
Thursday for her very own; just think of it: this girl, who is
probably paid several pounds a year, gets a whole hour to herself
once a week. And what does she with it? Attend classes for
making her a more accomplished person? Not she. This is what
she does: sets sail for Pall Mall, wearing all her pretty things,
including the blue feathers, and with such a sparkle of
expectation on her face that I stir my coffee quite fiercely. On
ordinary days she at least tries to look demure, but on a
Thursday she has had the assurance to use the glass door of the
club as a mirror in which to see how she likes her engaging
trifle of a figure to-day.

In the meantime a long-legged oaf is waiting for her outside the
post-office, where they meet every Thursday, a fellow who always
wears the same suit of clothes, but has a face that must ever
make him free of the company of gentlemen. He is one of your
lean, clean Englishmen, who strip so well, and I fear me he is
handsome; I say fear, for your handsome men have always annoyed
me, and had I lived in the duelling days I swear I would have
called every one of them out. He seems to be quite unaware that
he is a pretty fellow, but Lord, how obviously Mary knows it. I
conclude that he belongs to the artistic classes, he is so easily
elated and depressed; and because he carries his left thumb
curiously, as if it were feeling for the hole of a palette, I
have entered his name among the painters. I find pleasure in
deciding that they are shocking bad pictures, for obviously no
one buys them. I feel sure Mary says they are splendid, she is
that sort of woman. Hence the rapture with which he greets her.
Her first effect upon him is to make him shout with laughter. He
laughs suddenly haw from an eager exulting face, then haw again,
and then, when you are thanking heaven that it is at last over,
comes a final haw, louder than the others. I take them to be
roars of joy because Mary is his, and they have a ring of youth
about them that is hard to bear. I could forgive him everything
save his youth, but it is so aggressive that I have sometimes to
order William testily to close the window.

How much more deceitful than her lover is the little nursery
governess. The moment she comes into sight she looks at the
post- office and sees him. Then she looks straight before her,
and now she is observed, and he rushes across to her in a glory,
and she starts--positively starts--as if he had taken her by
surprise. Observe her hand rising suddenly to her wicked little
heart. This is the moment when I stir my coffee violently. He
gazes down at her in such rapture that he is in everybody's way,
and as she takes his arm she gives it a little squeeze, and then
away they strut, Mary doing nine-tenths of the talking. I fall
to wondering what they will look like when they grow up.

What a ludicrous difference do these two nobodies make to each
other. You can see that they are to be married when he has
twopence.

Thus I have not an atom of sympathy with this girl, to whom
London is famous only as the residence of a young man who
mistakes her for someone else, but her happiness had become part
of my repast at two P.M., and when one day she walked down Pall
Mall without gradually posting a letter I was most indignant. It
was as if William had disobeyed orders. Her two charges were as
surprised as I, and pointed questioningly to the slit, at which
she shook her head. She put her finger to her eyes, exactly like
a sad baby, and so passed from the street.

Next day the same thing happened, and I was so furious that I bit
through my cigarette. Thursday came, when I prayed that there
might be an end of this annoyance, but no, neither of them
appeared on that acquainted ground. Had they changed their post-
office? No, for her eyes were red every day, and heavy was her
foolish little heart. Love had put out his lights, and the
little nursery governess walked in darkness.

I felt I could complain to the committee.

Oh, you selfish young zany of a man, after all you have said to
her, won't you make it up and let me return to my coffee? Not
he.

Little nursery governess, I appeal to you. Annoying girl, be
joyous as of old during the five minutes of the day when you are
anything to me, and for the rest of the time, so far as I am
concerned, you may be as wretched as you list. Show some
courage. I assure you he must be a very bad painter; only the
other day I saw him looking longingly into the window of a cheap
Italian restaurant, and in the end he had to crush down his
aspirations with two penny scones.

You can do better than that. Come, Mary.

All in vain. She wants to be loved; can't do without love from
morning till night; never knew how little a woman needs till she
lost that little. They are all like this.

Zounds, madam, if you are resolved to be a drooping little figure
till you die, you might at least do it in another street.

Not only does she maliciously depress me by walking past on
ordinary days, but I have discovered that every Thursday from two
to three she stands afar off, gazing hopelessly at the romantic
post-office where she and he shall meet no more. In these windy
days she is like a homeless leaf blown about by passers-by.

There is nothing I can do except thunder at William.

At last she accomplished her unworthy ambition. It was a wet
Thursday, and from the window where I was writing letters I saw
the forlorn soul taking up her position at the top of the street:
in a blast of fury I rose with the one letter I had completed,
meaning to write the others in my chambers. She had driven me
from the club.

I had turned out of Pall Mall into a side street, when whom
should I strike against but her false swain! It was my fault,
but I hit out at him savagely, as I always do when I run into
anyone in the street. Then I looked at him. He was hollow-eyed;
he was muddy; there was not a haw left in him. I never saw a
more abject young man; he had not even the spirit to resent the
testy stab I had given him with my umbrella. But this is the
important thing: he was glaring wistfully at the post-office and
thus in a twink I saw that he still adored my little governess.
Whatever had been their quarrel he was as anxious to make it up
as she, and perhaps he had been here every Thursday while she was
round the corner in Pall Mall, each watching the post-office for
an apparition. But from where they hovered neither could see the
other.

I think what I did was quite clever. I dropped my letter unseen
at his feet, and sauntered back to the club. Of course, a
gentleman who finds a letter on the pavement feels bound to post
it, and I presumed that he would naturally go to the nearest
office.

With my hat on I strolled to the smoking-room window, and was
just in time to see him posting my letter across the way. Then I
looked for the little nursery governess. I saw her as woe-begone
as ever; then, suddenly--oh, you poor little soul, and has it
really been as bad as that!

She was crying outright, and he was holding both her hands. It
was a disgraceful exhibition. The young painter would evidently
explode if he could not make use of his arms. She must die if
she could not lay her head upon his breast. I must admit that he
rose to the occasion; he hailed a hansom.

"William," said I gaily, "coffee, cigarette, and cherry brandy."

As I sat there watching that old play David plucked my sleeve to
ask what I was looking at so deedily; and when I told him he ran
eagerly to the window, but he reached it just too late to see the
lady who was to become his mother. What I told him of her
doings, however, interested him greatly; and he intimated rather
shyly that he was acquainted with the man who said,
"Haw-haw-haw." On the other hand, he irritated me by betraying
an idiotic interest in the two children, whom he seemed to regard
as the hero and heroine of the story. What were their names?
How old were they? Had they both hoops? Were they iron hoops, or
just wooden hoops? Who gave them their hoops?

"You don't seem to understand, my boy," I said tartly, "that had
I not dropped that letter, there would never have been a little
boy called David A----." But instead of being appalled by this he
asked, sparkling, whether I meant that he would still be a bird
flying about in the Kensington Gardens.

David knows that all children in our part of London were once
birds in the Kensington Gardens; and that the reason there are
bars on nursery windows and a tall fender by the fire is because
very little people sometimes forget that they have no longer
wings, and try to fly away through the window or up the chimney.

Children in the bird stage are difficult to catch. David knows
that many people have none, and his delight on a summer afternoon
is to go with me to some spot in the Gardens where these
unfortunates may be seen trying to catch one with small pieces of
cake.

That the birds know what would happen if they were caught, and
are even a little undecided about which is the better life, is
obvious to every student of them. Thus, if you leave your empty
perambulator under the trees and watch from a distance, you will
see the birds boarding it and hopping about from pillow to
blanket in a twitter of excitement; they are trying to find out
how babyhood would suit them.

Quite the prettiest sight in the Gardens is when the babies stray
from the tree where the nurse is sitting and are seen feeding the
birds, not a grownup near them. It is first a bit to me and then
a bit to you, and all the time such a jabbering and laughing from
both sides of the railing. They are comparing notes and
inquiring for old friends, and so on; but what they say I cannot
determine, for when I approach they all fly away.

The first time I ever saw David was on the sward behind the
Baby's Walk. He was a missel-thrush, attracted thither that hot
day by a hose which lay on the ground sending forth a gay trickle
of water, and David was on his back in the water, kicking up his
legs. He used to enjoy being told of this, having forgotten all
about it, and gradually it all came back to him, with a number of
other incidents that had escaped my memory, though I remember
that he was eventually caught by the leg with a long string and a
cunning arrangement of twigs near the Round Pond. He never tires
of this story, but I notice that it is now he who tells it to me
rather than I to him, and when we come to the string he rubs his
little leg as if it still smarted.

So when David saw his chance of being a missel-thrush again he
called out to me quickly: "Don't drop the letter!" and there were
tree-tops in his eyes.

"Think of your mother," I said severely.

He said he would often fly in to see her. The first thing he
would do would be to hug her. No, he would alight on the water-
jug first, and have a drink.

"Tell her, father," he said with horrid heartlessness, "always to
have plenty of water in it, 'cos if I had to lean down too far I
might fall in and be drownded."

"Am I not to drop the letter, David? Think of your poor mother
without her boy!"

It affected him, but he bore up. When she was asleep, he said,
he would hop on to the frilly things of her night-gown and peck
at her mouth.

"And then she would wake up, David, and find that she had only a
bird instead of a boy."

This shock to Mary was more than he could endure. "You can drop
it," he said with a sigh. So I dropped the letter, as I think I
have already mentioned; and that is how it all began.

James M. Barrie

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