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Authors: Henry Williamson

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“Ning-a-ning man, Mummie! Ning-a-ning man come!”

“Yes, dear, he did come, but hush, Uncle Hugh is speaking.”

“Well, if you ask my opinion, Hugh, to be perfectly frank, I do not feel myself properly qualified to give an opinion on the matter.”

Hugh Turney hid his desire to scoff at this typical Dickybird remark. Hetty did her best to help.

“I like Gonzalo the Wandering Violinist, Hugh. At least I think I do. Though the Ning-a-ning Man is more homely, perhaps. Really, I like both.”

Very helpful, thought Richard, as he withdrew from the group about the door-mat. He disliked prolonged farewells, especially by or outside an open door. He went into the kitchen, to find the stone jar of carbolic acid, meaning to go over, with a damp rag, every possible place which might have been touched by Hugh Turney.

At the gate Hetty was saying, “Don’t leave it so long before we meet again, Hugh dear. Come one afternoon early, if you can, and we will have a picnic tea on the Hill, it is lovely up there. You know we are moving to our own house, don’t you? So we shan’t be here much longer.”

“Yes, Mamma told me. You’ll miss your old Ning-a-ning man, won’t you, Pilly boy?”

The child stared up at him. “Bile inn, p’e, Uncle Hoo, more bile inn, p’e.”

“He appreciates the broken-hearted clown, bless him,” said Hugh, caressing the boy’s hair with a hand. “Your boy’s got the artistic temperament, Hetty—poor little devil.”

“Yes, he loves beautiful things, I am sure. The trouble is, if he sees a thing which Dickie has interested him in, he immediately wants it.”

“Don’t we all? Well, not necessarily what your respected spouse, the Man in the Moon, is interested in, perhaps—but human nature is entirely based on imitation, Hett.”

“Still, you won’t be a naughty boy and take Daddy’s butterflies again, will you, Phil?”

“No, no,” said the child, earnestly. “Pilly naughty boy!”

“Dickie’s butterflies mean such a lot to him—to Dickie, I mean,” explained Hetty.

“And to Pilly boy, too, of course, if he sees them through his papa’s eyes first. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! When’s the other due, Hett?”

“In June, Hugh. Now, dear, I don’t want to hurry you, but Dickie will want his meal. You know the new address, do you? Number eleven Hillside Road. Let me know how you get on, won’t you, and don’t leave it so long next time.”

“Any news of Theodora?” asked Hugh.

“I haven’t heard for quite six months, Hughie. I think she is still in Greece.”

Richard was waiting, with his own bowl and flannel (which he
had decided to burn afterwards) in the kitchen. The smell of carbolic had turned him faint, his interior already being in a state of interior bubbling due to lack of food, and incipient exhaustion. Would they never say goodbye to one another? Must they gossip their heads off on his threshold, like any other occupant of Comfort Road? Had they no idea of good form?

At last the door was shut, and Richard’s feelings could be vented. Hetty tried not to show her tears as, standing in the parlour, while Richard wiped all possible places which Hughie might have touched with his person, she endured complaints about what, to her, had been a happy chance visitation. Her husband’s attitude was inexplicable to her: a fuss over nothing at all.

“I gave you every possible hint that I did not w r ant your brother in the house, did I not, repeatedly? And the moment my back is turned you flout my authority in my own house, and without a thought of possible consequences! If you care nothing for me, at least you should think of your little donkey boy, who is being spoiled by your indulgence to his every whim! Oh, I can see it happening! I am not deceived! Well, let me tell you this, once and for all! I will seek protection in a way you will not like if your brother Hugh comes here again! It is my duty to protect innocent life!”

Hetty stared at Richard in puzzlement, and fear. She knew he was exacting, and was easily upset, but she had not seen him in such a state before. What could be the matter with him? Was he ill, or sickening for some illness? Just because her brother had sat in the “Sportsman”, the armchair in green Russian leather Mamma had given him for a Christmas present when they first came to Comfort House, he was working himself up into a rage.

“Do you hear me?” cried Richard, flinging the cloth into the pail of disinfectant. “Either you obey my behests honourably, or you leave my house! Yes, it has come to that! Do you hear what I am saying?”

His voice was thin and high with agitation. He was breathing fast. His face was pale and strained. What could have come over him? The child stood between them, looking up first at one face, then the other. His eyes were dull, almost mournful. “No, no,” he muttered, and began to cry.

“Send the boy out of the room, please! I have something to say to you! You have only yourself to blame for what you are going to hear!”

Hetty took Phillip into the kitchen. The fireguard was up and fastened to its hooks. She lifted the edges of the tablecloth and laid them over the table. She hid the poker on the rack. She shut the cupboard doors. She locked the scullery door. What else could he touch, upset, break, and so make Dickie——? Perhaps he was hungry. She gave him a crust of bread, hastily spread with beef dripping. “Now be a good boy, Sonny, stop crying dear, and for goodness gracious’ sake don’t do anything to annoy your father. Mummy won’t be gone long, play with your golliwog, there’s a dear little son.” She left him sitting on the floor, the safest place, thumb in mouth, and clutching with his other hand a fragment of silk, part of an old petticoat of hers. To Hetty this was most pathetic: for she had not been able to feed him at her breast, and from an early time the piece of silk, called Hanky, had been the substitute.

“You may consider that I am being unreasonable, and altogether guilty of exceptionable conduct,” began Richard, in a determinedly quiet voice, when she had returned to the front room. “So perhaps the time has come to tell you a certain fact. I feel it is my duty to communicate to you a certain fact, as it were under duress, for I am breaking a confidence in telling you; but since you do not seem able to accept what I ask of you in a loyal manner, I have no other alternative. Very well, then! I requested you not to admit your brother into this house for a very good and proper reason. You have thought he has suffered for some time from rheumatism, or neuritis, or arthritis, have you not?”

“Yes, dear, of course, naturally, I have believed what Mamma has told me.”

“Well, I conceive it my duty to acquaint you with the truth of the matter, since, as I have said, you are not amenable to ordinary common loyalty to my requests. You understand what I am saying, I hope?”

“Yes, Dickie, but please do not keep the suspense much longer. Phillip is crying. I don’t think he knows you, dear, when you are angry, and he does so love you, really he does.”

The baby was kicking inside her; and the kicks seemed to be also upon the front part of her brain. She tried hard to keep back tears.

“Well, let me tell you this, Hetty, your brother Hugh is suffering from something highly contagious. I am not at liberty to say what it is, but the nature of the disease is that it would be gross dereliction of duty on my part if I did not show every concern for the welfare of, not only Phillip, but of yourself, and myself as bread-winner. I suggest that when next you see Sidney Cakebread, you ask him to tell you, for he is my informant, and as he is a gentleman, I accept his word without question.”

“Yes, dear, of course, naturally. I had no idea, I assure you——”

“Well, I am glad that you are at last aware of your responsibilities in the matter. Now if you have thoroughly washed your hands, may I please have something to eat? And do please, I beg of you, accept what I ask of you in future.”

“Of course, dear, I am so very sorry. Now I have the food all ready, a nice broth on the hob, and then some brawn with your favourite mango chutney. I must go and see about it. I hope little Phillip has been good.”

“Why should he not be good? There is no need for such anxiety. A boy will be a boy, you know. By the way, did you cut the string round one of my butterfly boxes?”

“No, dear, of course not!” Hetty was emphatic. “I have kept Phil out of the room, dear, when I could, but he goes in because he wants to be like you, you know. ‘Daddy’s things, Daddy’s things’ is what he is saying all the while you are away, dear. I am sure it is not the things so much, Dickie, as that you showed them to him, and he sees them as part of you.”

“Oh, come now, that is pure Irish blarney! Naturally a child is inquisitive, and wants to acquire property as soon as it can! But the law of meum et tuum has to be respected, and the sooner a child realises this, the happier for all concerned.”

“Yes, dear. If you will excuse me, I will see about your meal. There is a letter for you, I think from your brother John.”

“I’ll finish this job first, and be ready in, say, ten minutes.”

Hetty escaped, with relief, to the kitchen. And there, oh dear! “Sonny, Sonny, what have you done now! Oh, you are a trial to me, really you are, my son!”

The boy had got hold of her pair of scissors, and with them was sitting on the floor, cutting up a copy of
a feeling almost of horror Hetty read the date—Saturday, 16 March, 1897. It was that morning’s paper!

Fortunately at that moment Mrs. Feeney called over the garden fence, to enquire about the scrubbing out of the new house, and so Hetty was able to ask her if Mr. Feeney would get another copy as soon as possible from the shop by the station.

She returned to the kitchen to find that Richard had come into the room, seen the damage, and picking up Phillip, had set him across his knees, and lifting up his skirts, struck him several times sharply on his thin little bottom. The boy screamed so much that he had difficulty in uttering the word “Mummy!” as he held out his arms to her. He seemed to be choking. The shock was great, because it was the first time he had been struck, or punished at all. Hitherto Daddy had been someone huge and kind and safe, a familiar presence promising wonder and fun. “Daddy! Daddy!” he cried, for the familiar presence he had lost.

, upon reflection, after his meal, regretted that he had not kept a stiff upper lip in the matter of Hugh Turney’s visit; he was ashamed because he had behaved weakly. After all, Hetty had not known the full seriousness of his condition; and he himself had shown Phillip how to cut out pictures to be pasted upon a screen later, for the nursery in the new home. Ah well, things would be better in the new environs of the Hill.

With these near-optimistic reflections he set out that afternoon with his wife, pushing the child in the mailcart. The boy’s sailor suit was now complete with a straw-hat with
on the band. They were going to visit Lindenheim, as already to himself Richard called the brick and slated semi-detached house. The gate was not yet in position, but the posts were set. Later he would get a painter to put the name of his mother’s old home in Germany on the top bar, in white letters. The gate of course would be green. A hedge of privet was to be-planted by the builder, as part of the agreement.

Hetty was delighted with the house. She had seen it during the building, several times; but now that Dickie had the key on his-ring, to unlock the front door, it was really a home, their own little house. Knowing that he would be hurt if she did not share his ideas about every room, she was ready to agree with all he said. But to her surprise he asked her first for her ideas about the arrangement of the rooms.

While she was wondering what to reply, he declared that the withdrawing-room downstairs must have new curtains, and contain her own furniture; that the end room, with its french double-windows, opening on to the steps leading down to the garden, must be the sitting-room.

“Yes, dear, it will be nice for you to be quiet here in your Sportsman armchair, to read your paper when you come home, and not be disturbed by me or the children. They can be with, me in the kitchen.”

But Richard would not hear of this. She must not think of herself merely as a servant, a maid of all work, a nursemaid. No, the children would be looked after by Minne, and they would sleep with her in the eastern bedroom, above the sitting-room.

“Minnie?” exclaimed Hetty, in surprise. “Do you mean the Minnie who was your own nurse?”

“Yes,” replied Richard. “I heard from John today. As you know, Minne has been with him since Jenny died, but his housekeeper does not get on with her, apparently, and so Minne is leaving. He asked me if we would like her to come to us, now we have a larger house. Minne can look after Phillip, and this will enable you to get some proper rest at night. You need it badly, and so do I.”

Richard, whenever he had spoken of his German nurse to Hetty, had praised her for steadfastness and kindness, and so Hetty had a picture in her mind of Minne as a wonderful person. And as Dickie liked her so much, surely it would be the very thing to have her with them. But could they afford it? She must say nothing to disappoint him.

Hetty knew that her husband was not earning very much money. He was not yet able to afford a proper meal for himself in the middle of the day. She occasionally peeped into his diary, where every expenditure was recorded, and occasionally one of his thoughts.
he had written recently. He spent 4½
a week on an ounce of Navy Cut, one of his few pleasures. He had started to smoke after his father’s death had brought him a little money. What the sum was she was not sure, but as he had bought the house out of that money she supposed he could not have much left. He allowed her twenty-five shillings a week for the housekeeping, including her own and the baby’s clothes; and as she had to pay Mrs. Feeney the charwoman out of this, she imagined that Minnie’s wages would have to come out of her weekly allowance as well. Oh dear, she did not see how it could possibly be done!

“Well, what do you think? It would give you more leisure, and I might even give you a bicycle for your birthday present if you are very good,” he said indulgently. She could see that he was pleased with the thought of his old nurse coming.

“My brother John had generously offered to pay Minne’s wages, twenty-six pounds a year. They are not exactly wages,
you understand, but rather in the nature of a pension to an old and faithful servant and friend of the family.”

“Yes, dear, of course, naturally. But, Dickie, do forgive me mentioning it, but I cannot help wondering if Minnie will think perhaps that I am so different in my ways from what she has been used to, dear. Otherwise I am sure it is wonderfully kind of you to think of help for me.”

“Don’t be so humble, little wife,” said Richard. “How would you like to play tennis at the club? You need more social life, so do I. And Minne’s coming will enable us both to go out more.”

But Hetty was still anxious within. The past two years had been a time of almost ceaseless work. She could not fully realise what Dickie was saying.

“Yes, it will be wonderful with Minne in the house: she is a woman of high principles and standards,” went on Richard. “It will be something new for her, a little house in the suburbs. But there, things have changed greatly for her since she left her native Bavaria with my mother after the brutal Bismarck had killed her father and brothers in the war.”

Hetty looked at Sonny, sitting on a soap box. He was eating, as an especial treat, a sandwich of Gentleman’s Relish. His large blue eyes were upon his father; she knew he was taking in all Dickie said—if not the words, at least the feeling behind them. How nice it was when Dickie was in a calm mood!

There were to be no further upsets that day, even when the child added to the wandering stains of water on the stairs and bathroom floor, deliberately, his father declared. Had the little cuss not pointed at them with his finger as they wobbled, with the movements of the battered pail, upon the floor, and then added to them in imitation?

“He’s only a little man,” said Dickie, and lifting the boy up, carried him to the proper place. There, of course, nothing happened, perhaps because a little black spider was struggling upon the surface of the water. The child was absorbed in the sight. His father held down a piece of newspaper for the insect to climb upon, and then opened the window and put it on the sill, saying that spiders were good insects, eating up disease-carrying flies.

“Yes, my boy,” said Richard, addressing his son, as they were
having tea in the kitchen, ‘you have to thank not only a donkey, but the Prussians for your existence here today. For if Bismarck had not decided to federate the German states and principalities, by fire and sword, perhaps I would not have been here, and then most certainly you would not.”

“Noo house pider,” exclaimed Phillip, pointing upwards to the bathroom sill above the kitchen window.

“By Jove, the boy has got the bump of location,” exclaimed the proud father. “He knows the direction of the bathroom! And not yet two years old.”

Hetty looked at the child proudly. “He takes after his father,” she said, “don’t you, Sonny?”

The child got off the box to seize his mug of milk and gulp it. Then he hastened out of the room, and they heard his boots clumping up the stairs. Richard followed, stepping over him, to shut the bathroom door. He did not want any imaginary spiders being rescued. Nor any of the bedroom windows shattered by pieces of wood. So the explorer was carried downstairs again, and re-seated on the soap box, and told to contain his impatience.

Richard became reminiscent as he sipped a mug of tea.

“When I was a small boy, we children were always led to say good-morning to our father and mother by Minne. The boys had to bow to them in turn, and the girls to curtsey. And this was repeated in the evening, before we went to bed. But you”—to the child—“you little donkey boy, you crawl whithersoever you will, you peer and pry everywhere, little fingers picking and stealing, as though by divine right. Don’t you? Come, confess now! Who went to Dad’s butterfly box, and cut the string? Who took Dad’s silver fritillaries off the pins, and broke them? Why, Dad was keeping them for you, you donkey, for when you are bigger, when you will care for such things, and see in them memories of the woods and hills of your genesis.”


The child understood little of what was said, but he felt the feeling coming from Daddy. Daddy was the one who played with him and showed him wonderful daddy-things out of boxes and drawers and off high shelves. The spanking was entirely forgotten; indeed, the condition by which it had come upon him had no connection in his mind with Daddy. His recording nervous consciousness had been shocked at the time; fear and
pain had momentarily broken its continuity; but as Hetty had said, from the idea of her brother Hugh, it had not been Daddy hurting him, but something outside and beyond Daddy. Which indeed was the truth, the rare clear truth that many centuries before had been expounded by Jesus of Nazareth: an instinctive truth, a primal truth. A child’s mind is instinctive, through its feelings, which are of its parents.

Hetty’s mind likewise was instinctive; she felt happiness flowing into her when Dickie, who was by nature kind and careful, spoke like that to his son. She thought of her child as Dickie’s son; it was her dearest wish that he should grow up to be the companion that he needed.


After tea Daddy got down on his hands and knees and pretended to be a dog chasing a little donkey. He went slowly, flapping his hands on the bare boards, moving slowly and lumberingly, lest the boy be over-stimulated. The game went on, with frequent meetings between dog and donkey, to avoid any prolonged suspense for the little one. Sometimes the dog flapped and thumped away with the excited donkey in chase; after a reassuring hug, the pursuit was reversed. It went on round the doors of the rooms and down the passages. The house resounded with the child’s delighted cries, until Richard made a mistake. He hid in the coal hole, and came out suddenly and so frightened the donkey, who was transformed into a screaming baby that would not be comforted until his mother had him, sobbing convulsively, in her arms, to draw the square of silk over his cheek. Immediately into mouth went the thumb, silk clutched in the other hand. Sonny was safe.

Richard went away to look at the garden; but the light was beginning to fade; and the cawing of rooks in the row of elms behind the bottom fence seemed to him harsh and noisy.

He was walking up the little slope towards the french windows when a door opened in the lower house, and over the garden fence a tall thin man with beard and gold spectacles looked out. He bowed, and bade Richard good-day in a voice of extreme gentleness. The bow and greeting was returned. Nothing more. Richard was relieved. It was proper that a near neighbour should keep his distance, it augured well for the future.

A few minutes later, from the south window in the sitting-room,
as already he called it, Richard saw his neighbour again. He wore the usual frock coat and black tie with starched linen collar, and this time apparently his wife was with him, a small woman with a mass of ginger-coloured hair piled on her head. She was so small that the top of the pile appeared to be well below her husband’s shoulder.

“That must be Mrs. Bigge,” said Hetty, glancing through the pane. “Mrs. Feeney does for her, and said I would like her very much.”

“Mrs. Bigge!” exclaimed Richard. “Extremes certainly seem to have met in that marriage!” and he laughed at his joke. So did Phillip, because Daddy was laughing.


When, a fortnight later, the Maddisons were installed in Lindenheim, Mrs. Bigge of No. 10—Montrose was the name on the sky-light over the door—became at once a friend of Hetty’s. She came in during the first morning, and offered to bring her a cup of tea.

“You won’t mind a little body like me not leaving a card on you first, will you, Mrs. Maddison? I am my own card, I always say. Well, I hope you will like your new home, dear. And what a dear little boy you have, to be sure! Do you mind me calling you ‘dear’? I am very nearly old enough to be your mother, you know.”

Mrs. Bigge’s voice was broad and deep, in odd contrast to her small size. “Yes, Mrs. Feeney has told me and my dear hubby, that’s Mr. Bigge, Josiah is his name, all about you, so I feel like an old friend already. We have a daughter, Norah, still at school, but finishing this year, when she hopes to get her licentiate of the Academy of Music, to be a teacher, you know. Does your little boy like music? Mr. Bigge, that’s Josiah, plays the harp, but only to amuse himself, not professionally, of course.”

Hetty was delighted. “Then we will be musical neighbours, Mrs. Bigge, for Mr. Maddison plays the ’cello, or used to before our marriage. I have always hoped that he would take it up again.”

“Well, dear, I am sure you are very busy, but if you want anything, don’t hesitate to pop in and tell me, will you now? We are all on this earth to help one another, and pass by the way once only. You will want good fires, won’t you, to dry out the house? Do you know any of the other neighbours, dear? Well,
I expect you will soon enough. The couple below us are called Groat, he is a master in a school in Deptford. His wife, poor thing, has one glass eye, her brother shot it out when she was a girl, with an arrow, playing Indians, and now for the rest of her life she has to wear a glass one. So don’t be put off her, if she appears to glare at you if you meet her in the road; it is the glass eye glaring, not her own one, dear.”

And with this neighbourly information Mrs. Bigge hurried back into her own house, leaving Hetty happily ironing on the new kitchen table, her range burning brightly and the flue turned to heat the hot water in the tank over the bath. She was delighted that now she had hot water out of the tap, as well as a copper in the scullery for boiling on washing day. Mrs. Feeney was coming on Mondays to wash for her, and to clean up the house, as well as a half-day on Wednesday mornings.

The boy’s second birthday anniversary was approaching. Coltsfoot was in flower among its grey soft leaves in the clay of the garden, part of which lay in hardening regular lumps turned up by Richard. He dug, as in everything he undertook, with extreme thoroughness. He had noticed some navvies digging a trench for the water-pipe during the past winter, and observed how their corduroy trousers were hitched by a strap below the knee. Inserted into the strap on each right leg was a scraper, like a flat wooden spoon. They had dipped their spades in a bucket of water before each thrust of the blade, to help ease off each stiff clot. That was the correct way to dig in clay, so Richard had copied them. He had carved a wooden scraper, but fastened it on the handle of his spade, by a flat spring he fixed there. He dipped the blade in water, he heaved up a clot, he slid it off sideways. Impossible to get any weed-roots clear of such a solid, cold, sticky lump, so the idea was a bare-fallow: the sun to bake them: then later he would sprinkle compost among them, and after a favourable rain and a period of partial drying out, he would tap them with a fork, and they would surely disintegrate.

BOOK: Donkey Boy
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