Peter might justly have complained that his birth was too calmly
received. For Peter’s mother accepted him without demur. Women who nurse
themselves more thoroughly than they nurse their babies will
incredulously hear that Mrs. Paragon made little difference in her life
on Peter’s account until within four hours of his coming. Nevertheless
Peter was a healthy baby, shapeless and mottled.
Mrs. Paragon was tall and fair, with regular features and eyes set well
apart. They looked at you candidly, and you were aware of their friendly
interest. They perfectly expressed the simplicity and peace of her
character. She was mild and immovable; with a strength that was felt by
all who dealt with her, though she rarely asserted it. She had the slow,
deep life of a mother.
Mr. Paragon was at all points contrasted. He was short, and already at
this time he was stout. He had had no teaching; but he was not an
ignorant man. He was naturally of an active mind; and he had read
extensively the literature that suited his habit of reflection.
Mr. Paragon was the son of a small tradesman, and had by the death of
his parents been thrown upon the London streets. After ten years he had
emerged as a managing clerk.
Had Mr. Paragon been well treated he might have reached his fortieth
year sunny and charitable, with a cheerful faith in people and
institutions. But living a celibate life, insufficiently fed, shabbily
clothed, and never doubting his mental superiority to prosperous
employers, he had naturally adopted extremely bitter views of the world.
Surmounting a shelf of Mr. Paragon’s favourite books was a plaster bust
of Bradlaugh. The shelf itself included Tom Paine’s _Rights of Man_,
Godwin’s _Political Justice_, and the works of Voltaire in forty English
volumes. Mr. Paragon talked the language of Godwin’s philosophic day.
Priests, kings, aristocracies, and governments were his familiar bogies.
He went every Sunday to a Labour church where extracts from Shelley and
Samuel Butler were read by the calendar; and he was a successful orator
of a powerful group of rebels among the railwaymen.
Mr. Paragon was more Falstaff than Cassius to the eye. There was
something a little ludicrous in Mr. Paragon, with legs well apart, hands
deep in his trousers, demonstrating that religion was a device of
government for the deception of simple men, and that property was theft.
Mrs. Paragon loved her husband, and ignored his opinions. He on his side
found rest after the bitterness of his early years in the shelter of
her wisdom. His anarchism became more and more an intellectual
indulgence. Gradually the edge was taken from his temper. He began to
enjoy his grievances now that they no longer pinched him. His charity,
in a way that charity has, extended with his circumference. He was
earning £4 a week, and he had in his wife a housekeeper who could make
£4 cover the work of £6. Mrs. Paragon did not, like many of her friends,
overtask an incompetent drudge at £10 a year. She saved her money, and
halved her labour. Ends met; and things were decently in order. Mr.
Paragon was happy; insured against reasonable disaster; with sufficient
energy and spirit left at the end of a day’s work to take himself
seriously as a citizen and a man.
There were times when Mr. Paragon took himself very seriously indeed. On
the evening of the day when Mr. Samuel, curate of the parish, called to
urge Mrs. Paragon to have Peter christened, Mr. Paragon talked so
incisively that only his wife could have guessed how little he intended.
“No priests,” he said. “That’s final.”
He looked in fierce dispute at Mrs. Paragon; but meeting her calm eyes,
looked hastily away at Peter, who was sleeping by the fire in a clothes
Mrs. Paragon was dishing up the evening meal; and Mr. Paragon saw that a
reasonably large pie-dish had appeared from the oven, from which arose a
browned pyramid of sliced potatoes. The kitchen was immediately filled
with a savour only to be associated with Mr. Paragon’s favourite supper.
Mrs. Paragon ignored the eagerness with which he drew to the table.
Shepherd’s pie is a simple thing, but not as Mrs. Paragon made it. Mr.
Paragon, as he spooned generously into the steaming dish, had forgotten
Mr. Samuel till Mrs. Paragon reminded him.
“Mr. Samuel,” she said, “is only doing his duty.”
Mr. Paragon washed down a large mouthful of pie with small beer. Another
mouthful was cooling upon the end of his fork.
“Who made it his duty?” he asked.
Mrs. Paragon never answered these rhetorical questions; and Mr. Paragon
added, after a mouthful:
“There are honest jobs.”
“Yes, dear; but Mr. Samuel believes in christening.”
“Perhaps he does. Mr. Samuel believes that the animals went in two by
There was a long pause. Then Mrs. Paragon left the table to serve a
large suet pudding studded with raisins.
She dealt with it in silence. Mr. Paragon, as always on these occasions
when they were pulling different ways, felt as if he were trying to make
waves in a pool by blowing upon the surface. He could never more than
superficially ruffle the spirit of his wife. He was obscurely aware
that she had inexhaustible reserves.
The meal concluded without further conversation; but, when Mr. Paragon
had eaten more than was good for him, he began to feel that impulsive
necessity to be generous which invariably overtook him sooner or later
in his differences with Mrs. Paragon. He looked at her amiably:
“I see it like this,” he said. “Mr. Samuel thinks he’s right. But he’s
not going to stuff it into my boy. I’m an independent man, and I think
“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. Paragon. “I don’t know whether Mr. Samuel is
right or wrong. I want to do the best for Peter.”
Mr. Paragon looked sharply at his wife. She was sitting comfortably
beside the clothes basket, resting for the first time since seven
o’clock in the morning. There was not the remotest suggestion that she
was resisting him. Nevertheless Mr. Paragon was aware of a passive
antagonism. He was sure she wanted Peter to be christened; he was also
sure that none of his very reasonable views affected her in the least
He was right. Mrs. Paragon liked to hear her husband talk. But logic did
not count in her secure world. She knew only what she wanted and felt.
Calm and unutterable sense was all her genius; and Mr. Paragon felt,
rather than knew, that his books and opinions were feathers in the
“If Peter isn’t christened,” Mrs. Paragon softly pursued, “he’ll be
getting ideas into his head. I want him to start like other boys. Let
him find out for himself whether Mr. Samuel’s right or wrong. If you
keep Peter away from Church he’ll think there’s something wrong with
“Something wrong with it!” exploded Mr. Paragon. “I’ll tell you what’s
wrong with it.”
Mr. Paragon proceeded to do so at some length. Mrs. Paragon was quite
content to see Mr. Paragon spending his force. Mr. Paragon talked for a
long time, ending in firm defiance.
“I don’t see a son of mine putting pennies into the plate for the
clergyman’s Easter Holiday Fund,” he noisily concluded. “When my son is
old enough to read Genesis, he’ll be old enough to read the _Origin of
Species_ and the works of Voltaire.”
Thereafter he sat for the rest of the evening by the kitchen fire
reading his favourite volume of the forty–the adventures of Candide and
But for a few moments the reading was interrupted, for Peter suddenly
woke and yelled for food. As Mrs. Paragon sat with the child, Mr.
Paragon had never felt more conscious of her serenity, of her immovable
strength, of her eternity. He watched her over the pages of his book.
When he again looked into the adventures of Candide they had lost
something of their zest. He wondered between the lines whether the
patriarch of Ferney would have written with quite so definite an
assurance and clarity if once he had looked into the eyes of Mrs.
A few days later Peter was christened at the local church.
Miranda was thirteen years old, and she lived in the next house. She was
Peter’s best friend. They had soon discovered that their ideas as to a
good game were similar, and for many years they had played inseparably.
Already Mrs. Paragon and Mrs. Smith had decided to open a way through
the wall that divided the two gardens.
To-day this breach in the wall had been filled in by Miranda with
packing-cases and an old chair. Miranda stood beside her defences of the
breach with sword and shield on the summit of a wall less than nine
At the wall’s foot was Peter. He was his favourite hero–Shakespeare’s
“How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit.”
The moment had come for Miranda to descend from the wall and deliver the
keys of the city. But Miranda this morning refused the usual programme.
Peter, hearing that the text of Shakespeare would not on this occasion
be followed, resolved that none of the horrors of war should be spared.
He came to the attack with a battering-ram.
“Saint George! Saint George!” he shouted, and the ram rushed forward.
“France! France!” Miranda screamed, and unexpectedly emptied a pail of
cold water upon Peter’s head.
Peter left the ram and swiftly retreated.
Both parties were by this time lost to respect of consequences. Into
Peter’s mind there suddenly intruded Shakespeare’s vision of himself.
“… And at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.”
Fire! Obviously this was the retort.
Nothing in the world burns so fiercely as a well-dried bundle of straw.
Within half a minute of the match there was literally a roar of flame,
ascending into the crevices of Miranda’s breach. She rushed into the
smoke, swayed, and leaped blindly into her father’s marrow-bed.
Her father’s marrows had been tenderly nursed to the threshold of
perfection. It was a portion of his routine to come into the garden
after breakfast to inspect, feel, weigh in his hands, and liberally to
discourse upon marrows. But nothing at that moment could sober Miranda.
She did not care.
Peter was for the moment awed into inaction by a fire which burned more
rapidly than he had intended; but he climbed at last upon the wall, saw
Miranda prone among the marrows, and, surging with conquest, leaped
furiously upon her.
Peter was more complicated than Miranda. Miranda did not yet know that
she had ruined her father’s marrows. She was mercifully made to feel and
to know one thing at a time; and at this moment she felt that the only
thing in the world that mattered was to kill Peter.
But Peter realised in mid-air that he, too, would soon be standing amid
extended ruins of the marrow-bed. His moment of indecision was fatal.
Spreading his legs, to avoid a particularly fine vegetable, he fell
headlong. Miranda was swiftly upon him, and they rolled among the shoots
and blossoms. Peter forgot his scruples. He drew the dagger at his belt,
Triumph was stillborn. He felt himself suddenly lifted from the
marrow-bed, and was next aware of some vigorous blows indelicately
Mrs. Smith had returned from marketing, and looked for her daughter. The
fire was not difficult to perceive; it was roaring to heaven. Nor was
Miranda easily overlooked, for she was in her death-agony.
Miranda calmly stood by, waiting until Mrs. Smith was free to deal with
her. Miranda was always sensible. Her turn would come.
Mrs. Smith suddenly dropped Peter into the marrows, and turned the
garden hose upon Peter’s fire. Peter, scrambling to his feet, watched
her with dry, contemptuous eyes. The fire was furiously crackling,
shooting up spark and flame. It was beautiful and splendid. Peter found
himself wondering in his humiliation how Mrs. Smith could so callously
“I never saw such children,” said Mrs. Smith. “I don’t know what your
father will say, Miranda.”
Mrs. Smith was a hard-working wife. She had no time for thought or
imagination. She dealt with Miranda, and children generally, by rote.
“Mischief” was something that children loved, for which they were
punished. It was recognised as the sort of thing serious people avoided.
“I don’t know what your father will say, Miranda.” The phrase was
automatic with Mrs. Smith. Miranda knew that her father would say less
than her mother.
“It was my fire,” said Peter, smouldering wickedly; “and they are my
“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Mrs. Smith; “you’d better go away.”
At this point Mrs. Paragon appeared above the wall.
“Peter,” she said, “you might have burned the house down.”
How different, Peter thought, was his mother from Mrs. Smith. His mother
understood. Obviously it was wrong to burn the house down. He saw the
point. His mother hadn’t any theories about mischief.
Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Paragon exchanged some sentiments on the waywardness
of children, and the fire being quenched, Miranda was kept indoors for
the rest of the day. Peter wistfully wandered between meals about the
scene of his morning’s adventure. He was burning with a sense of wrong.
He admitted his fault. He had imperilled the house, and he had helped to
destroy his neighbour’s marrows. But he felt that Mrs. Smith’s view of
things was perverse, and that his humiliation had been out of all
proportion to his offence. At the thought of Miranda’s imprisonment he
Peter ended the day in a softer mood. In the evening he had seen Mr.
Smith inspecting the ruins of his marrow bed. He knew exactly what Mr.
Smith was feeling. He remembered how he himself had felt when Mrs. Smith
had made him destroy a platform he had built in the chestnut tree at the
foot of the garden.
Peter dashed through the gap in the wall. Mr. Smith, a kind little man
with the temperament of an angel, looked him sorrowfully in the face.
Peter’s contrition was manifest and perfectly understood.
“Bit of a mess, eh!” said Mr. Smith with an affectation that it did not
“I’m sorry,” said Peter. “It’s a shame. I’m awfully sorry.”
“That’s all right,” said Mr. Smith. Then he added cheerfully: “Your
father will put it right.”
Mr. Smith, as a gardener, was the pupil of Mr. Paragon. But though he
had complete confidence in his instructor, his belief that anyone would
ever be able to make anything of the mangled vegetation between them was
obviously pretended for Peter’s sake; and Peter knew this as well as he.
Peter brushed away the necessary tears, and was about to obey an impulse
to grip Mr. Smith’s hand in sympathy, when Mrs. Smith called her husband
sharply to supper.
Peter watched him disappear into the house with a sudden conviction that
life was difficult. Already he heard the voice, thin and penetrating, of
Mrs. Smith, raised in a discourse upon mischief.
Peter went in to his mother to tell her that he had apologised to Mr.
Smith. He knew it would please her, and he also knew that his father,
when he came home, would treat him with justice and understanding.