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IT WAS after dinner, an April evening, and Gissing slipped away from the house for a stroll. He was afraid to stay in, because he knew that if he did, Fuji would ask him again to fix the dishcloth rack in the kitchen. Fuji was very short in stature, and could not reach up to the place where the rack was screwed over the sink. Like all people whose minds are very active, Gissing hated to attend to little details like this. It was a weakness in his character. Fuji had asked him six times to fix the rack, but Gissing always pretended to forget about it. To appease his methodical butler he had written on a piece of paper Fix Dishcloth Rack and pinned it on his dressing-table pincushion; but he paid no attention to the memorandum.
He went out into a green April dusk. Down by the pond piped those repeated treble whistlings: they still distressed him with a mysterious unriddled summons, but Mike Terrier had told him that the secret of respectability is to ignore whatever you don't understand. Careful observation of this maxim had somewhat dulled the cry of that shrill queer music. It now caused only a faint pain in his mind. Still, he walked that way because the little meadow by the pond was agreeably soft underfoot. Also, when he walked close beside the water the voices were silent. That is worth noting, he said to himself. If you go directly at the heart of a mystery, it ceases to be a mystery, and becomes only a question of drainage. (Mr. Poodle had told him that if he had the pond and swamp drained, the frog-song would not annoy him.) But to-night, when the keen chirruping ceased, there was still another sound that did not cease — a faint, appealing cry. It caused a prickling on his shoulder blades, it made him both angry and tender. He pushed through the bushes. In a little hollow were three small puppies, whining faintly. They were cold and draggled with mud. Someone had left them there, evidently, to perish. They were huddled close together; their eyes, a cloudy unspeculative blue, were only just opened.
"This is gruesome," said Gissing, pretending to be shocked. "Dear me, innocent pledges of sin, I dare say. Well, there is only one thing to do."
He picked them up carefully and carried them home.
"Quick, Fuji!" he said. "Warm some milk, some of the Grade A, and put a little brandy in it. I'll get the spare-room bed ready."
He rushed upstairs, wrapped the puppies in a blanket, and turned on the electric heater to take the chill from the spare-room. The little pads of their paws were ice-cold, and he filled the hot water bottle and held it carefully to their twelve feet. Their pink stomachs throbbed, and at first he feared they were dying. "They must not die!" he said fiercely. "If they did, it would be a matter for the police, and no end of trouble."
Fuji came up with the milk, and looked very grave when he saw the muddy footprints on the clean sheet.
"Now, Fuji," said Gissing, "do you suppose they can lap, or will we have to pour it down?"
In spite of his superior manner, Fuji was a good fellow in an emergency. It was he who suggested the fountain-pen filler. They washed the ink out of it, and used it to drip the hot brandy-and-milk down the puppies' throats. Their noses, which had been icy, suddenly became very hot and dry. Gissing feared a fever and thought their temperatures should be taken.
"The only thermometer we have," he said, "is the one on the porch, with the mercury split in two. I don't suppose that would do. Have you a clinical thermometer, Fuji?"
Fuji felt that his employer was making too much fuss over the matter.
"No, sir," he said firmly. "They are quite all right. A good sleep will revive them. They will be as fit as possible in the morning."
Fuji went out into the garden to brush the mud from his neat white jacket. His face was inscrutable. Gissing sat by the spare-room bed until he was sure the puppies were sleeping correctly. He closed the door so that Fuji would not hear him humming a lullaby. Three Blind Mice was the only nursery song he could remember, and he sang it over and over again.
When he tiptoed downstairs, Fuji had gone to bed. Gissing went into his study, lit a pipe, and walked up and down, thinking. By and bye he wrote two letters. One was to a bookseller in the city, asking him to send (at once) one copy of Dr. Holt's book on the Care and Feeding of Children, and a well-illustrated edition of Mother Goose. The other was to Mr. Poodle, asking him to fix a date for the christening of Mr. Gissing's three small nephews, who had come to live with him.
"It is lucky they are all boys," said Gissing. "I would know nothing about bringing up girls."
"I suppose," he added after a while, "that I shall have to raise Fuji's wages."
Then he went into the kitchen and fixed the dishcloth rack.
Before going to bed that night he took his usual walk around the house. The sky was freckled with stars. It was generally his habit to make a tour of his property toward midnight, to be sure everything was in good order. He always looked into the ice-box, and admired the cleanliness of Fuji's arrangements. The milk bottles were properly capped with their round cardboard tops; the cheese was never put on the same rack with the butter; the doors of the ice box were carefully latched. Such observations, and the slow twinkle of the fire in the range, deep down under the curfew layer of coals, pleased him. In the cellar he peeped into the garbage can, for it was always a satisfaction to assure himself that Fuji did not waste anything that could be used. One of the laundry tub taps was dripping, with a soft measured tinkle: he said to himself that he really must have it attended to. All these domestic matters seemed more significant than ever when he thought of youthful innocence sleeping upstairs in the spare-room bed. His had been a selfish life hitherto, he feared. These puppies were just what he needed to take him out of himself.
Busy with these thoughts, he did not notice the ironical whistling coming from the pond. He tasted the night air with cheerful satisfaction. "At any rate, to-morrow will be a fine day," he said.
The next day it rained. But Gissing was too busy to think about the weather. Every hour or so during the night he had gone into the spare room to listen attentively to the breathing of the puppies, to pull the blanket over them, and feel their noses. It seemed to him that they were perspiring a little, and he was worried lest they catch cold. His morning sleep (it had always been his comfortable habit to lie abed a trifle late) was interrupted about seven o'clock by a lively clamour across the hall. The puppies were awake, perfectly restored, and while they were too young to make their wants intelligible, they plainly expected some attention. He gave them a pair of old slippers to play with, and proceeded to his own toilet.
As he was bathing them, after breakfast, he tried to enlist Fuji's enthusiasm. "Did you ever see such fat rascals?" he said. "I wonder if we ought to trim their tails? How pink their stomachs are, and how pink and delightful between their toes! You hold these two while I dry the other. No, not that way! Hold them so you support their spines. A puppy's back is very delicate: you can't be too careful. We'll have to do things in a rough-and-ready way until Dr. Holt's book comes. After that we can be scientific."
Fuji did not seem very keen. Presently, in spite of the rain, he was dispatched to the village department store to choose three small cribs and a multitude of safety pins. "Plenty of safety pins is the idea," said Gissing. "With enough safety pins handy, children are easy to manage."
As soon as the puppies were bestowed on the porch, in the sunshine, for their morning nap, he telephoned to the local paperhanger.
"I want you" (he said) "to come up as soon as you can with some nice samples of nursery wallpaper. A lively Mother Goose pattern would do very well." He had already decided to change the spare room into a nursery. He telephoned the carpenter to make a gate for the top of the stairs. He was so busy that he did not even have time to think of his pipe, or the morning paper. At last, just before lunch, he found a breathing space. He sat down in the study to rest his legs, and looked for the Times. It was not in its usual place on his reading table. At that moment the puppies woke up, and he ran out to attend them. He would have been distressed if he had known that Fuji had the paper in the kitchen, and was studying the HELP WANTED columns.
A great deal of interest was aroused in the neighbourhood by the arrival of Gissing's nephews, as he called them. Several of the ladies, who had ignored him hitherto, called, in his absence, and left extra cards. This implied (he supposed, though he was not closely versed in such niceties of society) that there was a Mrs. Gissing, and he was annoyed, for he felt certain they knew he was a bachelor. But the children were a source of nothing but pride to him. They grew with astounding rapidity, ate their food without coaxing,
rarely cried at night, and gave him much amusement by their naïve ways. He was too occupied to be troubled with introspection. Indeed, his well-ordered home was very different from before. The trim lawn, in spite of his zealous efforts, was constantly littered with toys. In sheer mischief the youngsters got into his wardrobe and chewed off the tails of his evening dress coat. But he felt a satisfying dignity and happiness in his new status as head of a family.
What worried him most was the fear that Fuji would complain of this sudden addition to his duties. The butler's face was rather an enigma, particularly at meal times, when Gissing sat at the dinner table surrounded by the three puppies in their high chairs, with a spindrift of milk and prune-juice spattering generously as the youngsters plied their spoons. Fuji had arranged a series of scuppers, made of oilcloth, underneath the chairs; but in spite of this the dining-room rug, after a meal, looked much as the desert place must have after the feeding of the multitude. Fuji, who was pensive, recalled the five loaves and two fishes that produced twelve baskets of fragments. The vacuum cleaner got clogged by a surfeit of crumbs.
Gissing saw that it would be a race between heart and head. If Fuji's heart should become entangled (that is, if the innocent charms of the children should engage his affections) before his reason convinced him that the situation was now too arduous, there was some hope. He tried to ease the problem also by mental suggestion. "It is really remarkable" (he said to Fuji) "that children should give one so little trouble." As he made this remark, he was speeding hotly to and fro between the bathroom and the nursery, trying to get one tucked in bed and another undressed, while the third was lashing the tub into soapy foam.
Fuji made his habitual response, "Very good, sir." But one fears that he detected some insincerity, for the next day, which was Sunday, he gave notice. This generally happens on a Sun- day, because the papers publish more Help Wanted advertisements then than on any other day.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "But when I took this place there was nothing said about three children."
This was unreasonable of Fuji. It is very rare to have everything explained beforehand. When Adam and Eve were put into the Garden of Eden, there was nothing said about the serpent.
However, Gissing did not believe in entreating a servant to stay. He offered to give Fuji a raise, but the butler was still determined to leave.
"My senses are very delicate," he said. "I really cannot stand the — well, the aroma exhaled by those three children when they have had a warm bath."
"What nonsense!" cried Gissing. "The smell of wet, healthy puppies? Nothing is more agreeable. You are cold-blooded: I don't believe you are fond of puppies. Think of their wobbly black noses. Consider how pink is the little cleft between their toes and the main cushion of their feet. Their ears are like silk. Inside their upper jaws are parallel black ridges, most remarkable. I never realized before how beautifully and carefully we are made. I am surprised that you should be so indifferent to these things."
There was a moisture in Fuji's eyes, but he left at the end of the week.