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A SOLITARY little path ran across the fields not far from the house. It lay deep among tall grasses and the withered brittle stalks of last autumn's goldenrod, and here Gissing rambled in the green hush of twilight, after the puppies were in bed. In less responsible days he would have lain down on his back, with all four legs upward, and cheerily shrugged and rolled to and fro, as the crisp ground-stubble was very pleasing to the spine. But now he paced soberly, the smoke from his pipe eddying just above the top of the grasses. He had much to meditate.
The dogwood tree by the house was now in flower. The blossoms, with their four curved petals, seemed to spin like tiny white propellers in the bright air. When he saw them fluttering Gissing had a happy sensation of movement. The business of those tremulous petals seemed to be thrusting his whole world forward and forward, through the viewless ocean of space. 'He felt as though he were on a ship — as, indeed, we are. He had never been down to the open sea, but he had imagined it. There, he thought, there must be the satisfaction of a real horizon.
Horizons had been a great disappointment to him. In earlier days he had often slipped out of the house not long after sunrise, and had marvelled at the blue that lies upon the skyline. Here, about him, were the clear familiar colours of the world he knew; but yonder, on the hills, were trees and spaces of another more heavenly tint. That soft blue light, if he could reach it, must be the beginning of what his mind required.
He envied Mr. Poodle, whose cottage was on that very hillslope that rose so imperceptibly into sky. One morning he ran and ran, in the lifting day, but always the blue receded. Hot and unbuttoned, he came by the curate's house, just as the latter emerged to pick up the morning paper.
"Where does the blue begin?" Gissing panted, 'trying hard to keep his tongue from sliding out so wetly.
The curate looked a trifle disturbed. He feared that something unpleasant had happened, and that his assistance might be required before breakfast.
"It is going to be a warm day," he said politely, and stooped for the newspaper, as a delicate hint.
"Where does — ?" began Gissing, quivering; but at that moment, looking round, he saw that it had hoaxed him again. Far away, on his own hill the other side of the village, shone the evasive colour. As usual, he had been too impetuous. He had not watched it while he ran; it had circled round behind him. He resolved to be more methodical.
The curate gave him a blank to fill in, relative to baptizing the children, and was relieved to see him hasten away.
But all this was some time ago. As he walked the meadow path, Gissing suddenly realized that lately he had had little opportunity for pursuing blue horizons. Since Fuji's departure every moment, from dawn to dusk, was occupied. In three weeks he had had three different servants, but none of them would stay. The place was too lonely, they said, and with three puppies the work was too hard. The washing, particularly, was a horrid problem. Inexperienced as a parent, Gissing was probably too proud: he wanted the children always to look clean and soigné. The last cook had advertised herself as a General Houseworker, afraid of nothing; but as soon as she saw the week's wash in the hamper (including twenty-one grimy rompers), she telephoned to the station for a taxi. Gissing wondered why it was that the working classes were not willing to do one-half as much as he, who had been reared to indolent ease. Even more, he was irritated by a suspicion of the ice-wagon driver. He could not prove it, but he had an idea that this uncouth fellow obtained a commission from the Airedales and Collies, who had large mansions in the neighbourhood, for luring maids from the smaller homes. Of course Mrs. Airedale and Mrs. Collie could afford to pay any wages at all. So now the best he could do was to have Mrs. Spaniel, the charwoman, come up from the village to do the washing and ironing, two days a week. The rest of the work he undertook himself. On a clear afternoon, when the neighbours were not looking; he would take his own shirts and things down to the pond — putting them neatly in the bottom of the red express-wagon, with the puppies sitting on the linen, so no one would see. While the puppies played about and hunted for tadpoles, he would wash his shirts himself.
His legs ached as he took his evening stroll — keeping within earshot of the house, so as to hear any possible outcry from the nursery. He had been on his feet all day. But he reflected that there was a real satisfaction in his family tasks, however gruelling. Now, at last (he said to himself), I am really a citizen, not a mere dilettante. Of course it is arduous. No one who is not a parent realizes, for example, the extraordinary amount of buttoning and unbuttoning necessary in rearing children. I calculate that 50,000 buttonings are required for each one before it reaches the age of even rudimentary independence. With the energy so expended one might write a great novel or chisel a statue. Never mind: these urchins must be my Works of Art. If one were writing a novel, he could not delegate to a hired servant the composition of laborious chapters.
So he took his responsibility gravely. This was partly due to the christening service, perhaps, which had gone off very charmingly. It had not been without its embarrassments. None of the neighbouring ladies would stand as godmother, for they were secretly dubious as to the children's origin; so he had asked good Mrs. Spaniel to act in that capacity. She, a simple kindly creature, was much flattered, though certainly she can have understood very little of the symbolical rite. Gissing, filling out the form that Mr. Poodle had given him, had put down the names of an entirely imaginary brother and sister-in-law of his, "deceased," whom he asserted as the parents. He had been so busy with preparations that he did not find time, before the ceremony, to study the text of the service; and when he and Mrs. Spaniel stood beneath the font with an armful of ribboned infancy, he was frankly startled by the magnitude of the promises exacted from him. He found that, on behalf of the children, he must "renounce the devil and all his work, the vain pomp and glory of the world ;" that he must pledge himself to see that these infants would "crucify the old man and utterly abolish the whole body of sin." It was rather doubtful whether they would do so, he reflected, as he felt them squirming in his arms while Mrs. Spaniel was busy trying to keep their socks on. When the curate exhorted him "to follow the innocency" of these little ones, it was disconcerting to have one of them burst into a piercing yammer, and wriggle so forcibly that it slipped quite out of its little embroidered shift and flannel band. But the actual access to the holy basin was more seemly, perhaps due to the children imagining they were going to find tadpoles there. When Mr. Poodle held them up they smiled with a vague almost bashful simplicity; and Mrs. Spaniel could not help murmuring "The darlings!" The curate, less experienced with children, had insisted on holding all three at once, and Gissing feared lest one of them might swarm over the surpliced shoulder and fall splash into the font. But though they panted a little with excitement, they did nothing to mar the solemn instant. While Mrs. Spaniel was picking up the small socks with which the floor was strewn, Gissing was deeply moved by the poetry of the ceremony. He felt that something had really been accomplished toward "burying the Old Adam." And if Mrs. Spaniel ever grew disheartened at the wash-tubs, he was careful to remind her of the beautiful phrase about the mystical washing away of sin.
They had been christened Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers, three traditional names in his family.
Indeed, he was reflecting as he walked in the dusk, Mrs. Spaniel was now his sheet anchor. Fortunately she showed signs of becoming extraordinarily attached to the puppies. On the two days a week when she came up from the village, it was even possible for him to get a little relaxation — to run down to the station for tobacco, or to lie in the hammock briefly with a book. Looking off from his airy porch, he could see the same blue distances that had always tempted him, but he felt too passive to wonder about them. He had given up the idea of trying to get any other servants. If it had been possible, he would have engaged Mrs. Spaniel to sleep in the house and be there permanently; but she had children of her own down in the shantytown quarter of the village, and had to go back to them at night. But certainly he made every effort to keep her contented. It was a long steep climb up from the hollow, so he allowed her to come in a taxi and charge it to his account. Then, on condition that she would come on Saturdays also, to help him clean up for Sunday, he allowed her, on that day, to bring her own children too, and all the puppies played riotously together around the place. But this he presently discontinued, for the clamour became so deafening that the neighbours complained. Besides, the young Spaniels, who were a little older, got Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers into noisy and careless habits of speech.
He was anxious that they should grow up refined, and was distressed by little Shaggy Spaniel having brought up the Comic Section of a Sunday paper. With childhood's instinctive taste for primitive effects, the puppies fell in love with the coloured cartoons, and badgered him continually for "funny papers."
There is a great deal more to think about in raising children (he said to himself) than is intimated in Dr. Holt's book on Care and Feeding. Even in matters that he had always taken for granted, such as fairy tales, he found perplexity. After supper — (he now joined the children in their evening bread and milk, for after cooking them a hearty lunch of meat and gravy and potatoes and peas and the endless spinach and carrots that the doctors advise, to say nothing of the prunes, he had no energy to prepare a special dinner for himself) — after supper it was his habit to read to them, hoping to give their imaginations a little exercise before they went to bed. He was startled to find that Grimm and Hans Andersen, which he had considered as authentic classics for childhood, were full of very strong stuff — morbid sentiment, bloodshed, horror, and all manner of painful circumstance. Reading the tales aloud, he edited as he went along; but he was subject to that curious weakness that afflicts some people: reading aloud made him helplessly sleepy: after a page or so he would fall into a doze, from which he would be awakened by the crash of a lamp or some other furniture. The children, seized with that furious hilarity that usually begins just about bedtime, would race madly about the house until some breakage or a burst of tears woke him from his trance. He would thrash them all and put them to bed howling. When they were asleep he would be touched with tender compassion, and steal in to tuck them up, admiring the innocence of each unconscious muzzle on its pillow. Sometimes, in a crisis of his problems, he thought of writing to Dr. Holt for advice; but the will-power was lacking.
It is really astonishing how children can exhaust one, he used to think. Sometimes, after a long day, he was even too weary to correct their grammar. "You lay down!" Groups would admonish Yelpers, who was capering in his crib while Bunks was being lashed in with the largest size of safety pins. And Gissing, doggedly passing from one to another, was really too fatigued to reprove the verb, picked up from Mrs. Spaniel.
Fairy tales proving a disappointment, he had great hopes of encouraging them in drawing. He bought innumerable coloured crayons and stacks of scribbling paper. After supper they would all sit down around the dining-room table and he drew pictures for them. Tongues depending with concentrated excitement, the children would try to copy these pictures and colour them. In spite of having three complete sets of crayons, a full roster of colours could rarely be found at drawing time. Bunks had the violet when Groups wanted it, and so on. But still, this was often the happiest hour of the day. Gissing drew amazing trains, elephants, ships, and rainbows, with the spectrum of colours correctly arranged and blended. The children specially loved his landscapes, which were opulently tinted and magnificent in long perspectives. He found himself always colouring the far horizons a pale and haunting blue.
He was meditating these things when a shrill yammer recalled him to the house.