Sweetwilliam A Child's Story
( Originally Published 1916 )
Translated by William De ta Feld.
IT was a hot evening in September. Two children, a boy and a girl, were alone in the old wainscoted room of an ancient market town. They were very quiet, almost sad, as children are wont to be after romping all day and when bedtime is drawing near. Dusk was stealing in ; the lamplighter had gone on his rounds ; the blue, green, and red lights were shining most beautifully in their huge vases at the chemist's, across the road.
Mary loved to watch the lamplighter every evening, and the bright colours of the shop opposite her own house had been like friends to her ever since she could toddle up to the window. Just now she was flattening her face against the casement, drumming a slow tune on the pane with her small chubby hand. A feeling of great loneliness, even of fear, came over her she did not know why, for her brother George was sitting on the table quite close to her. He was trying to read in the quick fading light ; his beautiful young face was grave, the white brow under the golden hair was puckered.
The whole house was mysteriously silent. Little Mary could stand that silence no longer.
" What are you reading, George ? "
The boy put down with a light sigh the printed card he was holding.
" I am studying the Scouts' laws, Mary."
" But you are a Scout yourself, George ; don't you know your own laws ? "
" Not all of them, at least not the new ones, now that we are at war."
" That horrid war ! "
" You don't know what war means, Mary ; no little girl understands anything at all about it."
" I am a big girl now, and I know quite well what war is."
" What is it, then ? "
" It is . . . it is everything and everybody being different."
" You talk nonsense, Mary, and bad grammar too."
" I don't. Everything is different ; everybody is different."
" Is Father different ? "
" Most different."
" But he is at the front, and you have not seen him for a year ? "
" That's exactly why he is different. He was always here before, he always came in after the lamplighter had passed, and he carried me on his back, and he laughed, and I laughed and shouted, and Mother laughed, and everyone laughed. Is it not different now ? The house is so dull, so quiet."
" Of course ; but Father is just the same, I know, 'though he is not here. Fathers never change. Only boys and girls change, because they grow."
" Well, Mother is quite, quite different now," said Mary with a little sob in her voice.
" I don't see any change in Mother."
" Don't you, George ? She was so pretty before ; now she is not pretty at all. She always told me lovely tales every day about the Magic Prince and the Ugly Mouse, and about the dreadful robbers in the dark cave by the sea. Now she never tells me any exciting stories. She sits all day long, knitting, in the window, and watching for the telegraph-boy or for the post-woman. Her eyes are red they were blue before . . . she is quite changed. George, come a little nearer to me ; I want to whisper a secret into your ear."
" I hate secrets they are so silly."
" This one is not silly, and it is just one only one : I think, George, that Mother does not love us any more, not since the war began."
" What rubbish ! Mothers don't change ; they change even less than fathers. But we ought not to expect stories about robbers and mice and princes in war-time. Grown-up people have other things to think about than that ; they are busy and anxious."
" That horrid, horrid war 1 All was so very jolly before ! George, I want to tell you another secret."
" Another ? You said ` just one.' "
" Only one more ; it is about Nurse. She is different too ; she never scolds now, and she never pulls my hair when she combs it."
" What more do you want ? "
" I want her to love me, I want her to talk to me, I want her to play with me ; but she reads the newspapers all_ day long, and at night, when I have said my prayers, and when she thinks I am asleep, and when I only half open one of my eyes, Nurse reads an old and very dirty letter. She cries, and her nose gets red, as red as the red glass at the chemist's ; and I cannot go to sleep because she sighs so loudly. Before the war she used to sing and to bring me my dolls to say good-night to them, and she was such a dear, jolly nurse."
" Well, your dolls have not changed, have they ? " " Most changed. They are now hospital nurses, or post-women, or tramway-women."
" And before the war ? "
" They were lovely, fashionable ladies, with long trains and jewels and hats with big feathers. One of them was a Russian she was a dancer, called Palowna ; she had a very short skirt of all colours, quite shiny, and flowers in her hair. Now she is called Nurse Jones of the Red Cross Society. It is so dull ! Before the war my dolls all slept under blankets in their little beds beside mine."
" Now they sleep under little silk flags the national flags of all the countries which fight for England. I keep changing them every day, but to-night I put the Italian flag on top of the others."
" Because it is very pretty ; it is green, white, and red. We bought it in the street yesterday. So you see that I am quite right, George, that war changes everybody and everything."
" Am I changed ? "
" Most changed. You were a nice little boy before, and a very nice bigger brother to me. And now you are not a real, real brother ; you forget me for hours and hours and days. You are only a Scout, you only think of war and ships and aircraft and guns, and you keep drawing- these ugly for-tresses and submarines. I hate the war, which changes everybody and everything except my pet robin in our back garden."
" The robin is just the same, is he ? "
" He is, and he is not. I had to change his name. He was called Sweetwilliam before the war, and he always flew to the open window when I called him in that way."
" And now ? "
" Now he is called Garibaldi, because he has a red waistcoat. You know, Garibaldi was an Italian hero in a scarlet shirt. When the war broke out, you were away, George, and as you were away, you cannot remember. It was very strange. One day, soon after Father went to the front, I offered a little cheese to the robin, as I do every morning. He loves cheese, and always takes it out of my hand. That day I called him, as I always did, ' Sweet-william,' but he would not come. He perched on a branch near the window, and I could see he was very hungry. He is always hungry when it is cold weather, and when he has small children, because he gives half of the cheese to his children and eats half himself."
" Well, he hopped about wildly from branch to branch. I held out the cheese so long that my fingers were quite blue. I called him over and over again by his very own name. He would not come, he would not take anything out of my hand ; he turned his head away, as if he was sick, and then he got quite angry and ruffled his feathers and screamed and flew away."
" Did he come back ? "
" Yes ; but not all that day. I was so sad, so lonely, as sad and lonely as I am tonight I don't know exactly why. Then next day I told Uncle Fred all about it at breakfast. Uncle Fred knows much about birds, but he was in a great hurry, because he was going to Belgium, and he only laughed and laughed loudly. Then he said, ` Well done, little patriotic robin ! ' and as he kissed me good-bye, he said : ` Mary, you should christen your bird Garibaldi ; ' and he told me about the Italian soldier who was so good, so brave, and so true, and who wore a red shirt. Next day I opened the window, and I shouted : ` Garibaldi, Garibaldi,' and the robin came at once. He was very, very pleased, and he ate quite a lot from my hand. Nurse said it was French cheese, and since then he takes it every day. He has two children now, a boy and a girl brother and sister like you and me ; and I have called them Joffre and Joffrette pretty names I saw in Nurse's horrid paper. . . ."
" Listen, Mary. There is a regiment coming ódo you hear the band ? The soldiers are in the street. I want to be a soldier too."
" And leave me all alone ? "
" I must defend England, and Mother, and you." " But you are only a boy ! "
" Even a boy can help."
Before Mary could turn round, George had left the room, and had joined the soldiers in the street below.
The old house was very still. It was almost dark now ; the music of the drums and fifes had died away in the distance ; no sound was heard excepting the sobs of a very lonely little girl ; and in the back garden a robin was chirping his young ones to sleep in their nest.