Nurse, with her mouth full of pins, for she was cutting out a linen suit for Vernon, replied.
‘Little boys going on asking foolish questions,’ said Nurse, with the deftness of a long professional career behind her.
That afternoon Vernon’s father came into the nursery. There was a queer furtive look about him—unhappy and defiant. He winced slightly before Vernon’s round interested gaze.
‘I’m going to London. Goodbye, old chap.’
‘Are you going to London because you kissed Winnie?’ inquired Vernon with interest.
His father uttered the kind of word that Vernon knew he was not supposed to hear—much less ever repeat. It was, he knew, a word that gentlemen used but little boys didn’t. So great a fascination did that fact lend it, that Vernon was in the habit of sending himself to sleep by repeating it over to himself in company with another forbidden word. The other word was Corsets.
‘Who the devil told you that?’
‘Nobody told me,’ said Vernon after reflecting a minute.
‘Then how did you know?’
‘Didn’t you, then?’ inquired Vernon.
His father crossed the room without answering.
‘Winnie kisses me sometimes,’ remarked Vernon. ‘But I didn’t like it much. I have to kiss her too. The gardener kisses her a lot. He seems to like it. I think kissing’s silly. Should I like kissing Winnie better if I was grown up, Father?’
‘Yes,’ he said deliberately. ‘I think you would. Sons, you know, sometimes grow up very like their fathers.’
‘I’d like to be like you,’ said Vernon. ‘You’re a jolly good rider. Sam said so. He said there wasn’t your equal in the county and that a better judge of horse flesh never lived.’ Vernon brought out the latter words rapidly. ‘I’d rather be like you than Mummy. Mummy gives a horse a sore back. Sam said so.’
There was a further pause.
‘Mummy’s gotaheadacheanlyingdown,’ proceeded Vernon.
‘Have you said goodbye to her?’
‘Are you going to? Because you’ll have to be quick. That’s the dogcart coming round now.’
‘I expect I shan’t have time.’
Vernon nodded wisely.
‘I daresay that would be a good plan. I don’t like having to kiss people when they’re crying. I don’t like Mummy kissing me much anyway. She squeezes too hard and she talks in your ear. I think I’d almost rather kiss Winnie. Which would you, Father?’
He was disconcerted by his father’s abrupt withdrawal from the room. Nurse had come in a moment before. She stood respectfully aside to let the master pass, and Vernon had a vague idea that she had managed to make his father uncomfortable.
Katie, the under-housemaid, came in to lay tea. Vernon built bricks in the corner. The old peaceful nursery atmosphere closed round him again.
There was a sudden interruption. His mother stood in the doorway. Her eyes were swollen with crying. She dabbed them with a handkerchief. She stood there theatrically miserable.
‘He’s gone,’ she cried. ‘Without a word to me. Without a word. Oh, my little son. My little son.’
She swept across the floor and gathered Vernon in her arms. The tower, at least one storey higher than any he had ever built before, crashed into ruins. His mother’s voice, loud and distraught, burrowed into his ear.
‘My child—my little son—swear that you’ll never forsake me—swear it—swear it—’
Nurse came across to them.
‘There, Ma’am, there, Ma’am, don’t take on so. You’d better get back to bed. Edith shall bring you a nice cup of hot tea.’
Her tone was authoritative—severe.
His mother still sobbed and clasped him closer. Vernon’s whole body began to stiffen in resistance. He could bear it a little while longer—a very little while longer—and he’d do anything Mummy wanted if only she’d let go of him.
‘You must make up to me, Vernon—make up to me for the suffering your father has caused me—Oh, my God, what shall I do?’
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Vernon was aware of Katie, silent, ecstatic, enjoying the scene.
‘Come along, Ma’am,’ said Nurse. ‘You’ll only upset the child.’
The authority in her voice was so marked this time that Vernon’s mother succumbed to it. Leaning weakly on Nurse’s arm, she allowed herself to be led from the room.
Nurse returned a few minutes later very red in the face.
‘My,’ said Katie, ‘didn’t she take on? Regular hysterics—that’s what they call it! Well, this has been a to do! You don’t think she’ll do a mischief to herself, do you? Those nasty ponds in the garden. The Master is a one—not that he hasn’t a lot to put up with from Her. All them scenes and tantrums—’
‘That’ll do, my girl,’ said Nurse. ‘You can get back to your work, and under-servants discussing a matter of this kind with their betters is a thing that I’ve never known take place in a gentleman’s house. Your mother ought to have trained you better.’
With a toss of her head, Katie withdrew. Nurse moved round the nursery table, shifting cups and plates with unwonted sharpness. Her lips moved, muttering to herself.
‘Putting ideas into the child’s head. I’ve no patience with it …’
CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_3e85da75-db40-5119-91a4-61d0f47dd695)
A new nursemaid came, a thin white girl with protruding eyes. Her name was Isabel, but she was called Susan as being ‘more suitable’. This puzzled Vernon very much. He asked Nurse for an explanation.
‘There are names that are suitable to the gentry, Master Vernon, and names that are suitable for servants. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Then why is her real name Isabel?’