Philip Gibbs.

Beauty and Nick, a novel of the stage and the home--the artistic temperament in fateful action online

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Online LibraryPhilip GibbsBeauty and Nick, a novel of the stage and the home--the artistic temperament in fateful action → online text (page 1 of 21)
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She stood quite silent for a moment, staring at Nick.






















NICHOLAS BARTON was born with a queer tem-
perament. He was one of those who think
a great deal but say very little. He was a dreamer,
something, perhaps, of a poet. At least beneath all
his quietude and reserve there was a great well of
emotion, with deep waters which threatened to rise
and overwhelm him when they wer.e slii'ted by kind-
ness or unkindness, by queer unexpected beauties
of sound or color or scent, or by some keen, sharp
touch from one of those mysterious fingers of fate
which sometimes come out of the darkness to pluck
at human heart strings.

He was conscious of great mysteries about him.
Sometimes he walked a little way toward them, with
peering eyes, with a wild beating of the heart, with
an adventurous fear, like a primitive creature in a
great forest. Then, panic-stricken, he would hurry
back to his familiar work, saying nothing of his
venture, or of the things he had seen.

He was very watchful, and, as it were, always on
his guard, as though encompassed by hidden perils.
Because it seemed to him that at any moment the
vast powers about him might change the familiar



into the unfamiliar, the known into the unknown.
And it was of the unknown that he was afraid,
though he was tempted to explore it.

Yet he was not a coward, nor weak-willed, nor of
morbid moods. There were times when he showed
extraordinary courage, facing great dangers with a
quiet and noble resolution. His strength of will
amounted at times to a stubborn obstinacy when not
all the great powers about him, not Bristles nor
Beauty nor Polly not even the Beast could make
him budge an inch if he did not want to budge. As
for being .morbid, 'I think Nicholas Barton's history
'will prove the falsity of such a charge. He was a
dre.utt-er, and he liked loneliness, and he indulged
in queer, fantastic, and, sometimes, preposterous
imaginations, but his dreams were such as come to
people who are sensitive to the beauty and wonder of
life, and in his loneliness he was cheerful, and busy
with brain and hands. His chief desire was to get
at the truth of things, and that kept him busy. Be-
cause in spite of his insatiable curiosity, his intense
inquisitiveness, his probings and searchings, the
truth of things was always difficult to grasp. Truth
was always playing a game of hide-and-seek, like
God, like the squirrel (whom he loved better than
God), like Bristles when he said "Let's be bears!"
and disappeared under the table-cloth.

Yet it was this desire for truth, this questioning


of his soul, the big, eternal queries in his eyes, which
gave to Nicholas Barton his peculiar power, and
made people a little frightened of him. Even before
he had uttered his first word in the world, when he
lay dumb and watchful in a wheeled carriage, Bris-
tles had been scared by his son's eyes.

"He seems to look into one's bones," said Bristles.
"I believe he knows what an awful rotter I am."

"He frightens me sometimes with the enormous
gravity in those blue eyes of his," said Beauty. "I
am sure he knows when I lose my temper with you."

"You shouldn't lose your temper with me," said
Bristles. "You know how much I love you."

"That is why," said Beauty. "If you had a little
bit of the bully in you I should be as meek as a
lamb. I think every woman should marry a bully."

"Hush!" said Bristles. "The kid is listening."

"How absurd of you! As if he could under-
stand!" said Beauty.

And yet she had a quaint idea that Nicholas Bar-
ton, her son, had listened and understood. For his
blue eyes were fixed upon her with his great desire
for truth. He had that grave stare, before which,
a few years later in his life, his mother drooped her
eyelashes so as to hide her soul.

That was when he was eight years old, and after
the Beast had come.

During those eight years of life he had been mak-


ing many strange discoveries about the world in
which he lived. He discovered that he was not
the only kid in the world, but that there were
thousands of kids, each of them belonging to a
Bristles and a Beauty, and living in the square
holes behind the big walls which hid them from
him after they had run away from the shadows
which crept across the grass and stole down from
the tree-trunks and whispered together in dark
corners, just about the time when the lamps became
alive. That discovery came to him gradually. It
must have been when he was four years old that
the tremendous fact of other kids, more than ever
he could count by using his ten fingers over and over
again, burst upon him like a thunder clap. It made
him feel rather miserable at first, because, as he
told Polly, it made him feel frightfully little. Of
course Polly could not understand she never could
and he did not take the trouble to explain to her.
It was about this time that he made the discovery
that the world was ever so much bigger than the
biggest thing he could think of. It was bigger, even,
than Battersea Park. Polly said it was a million
times bigger than Battersea Park, but then she
could not tell him what a million was. After count-
ing up to twenty she said it was ever so much more,
but she couldn't be bothered. That made him feel
frightfully little, too, and he was glad to get back
home, where sizes were more convenient, and where


he felt bigger, although he had to climb almost as
high as the sky he never could count the number
of steps exactly right each time before he reached
his front door, and although the grandfather's clock
in the hall was an enormous giant with a great
cavern inside his stomach. But here, once past the
grandfather's clock, he was safe safe from the
thought of bigness which frightened him. His own
room was full of little things, a chair in which he
could sit without dangling his legs, a bed in which
he could lie without wondering whether he would
ever find his way out again, and a chest of drawers
which he could overlook if he stood on a hassock.
That was where most of his friends lived most of
them like the British Army, and the Golliwog, and
the Lady Without-a-head, and the Crab which
wouldn't walk, lived in a crowded-up way in a cup-
board which sometimes he didn't dare to open in
the dark because the Golliwog seemed to blink its
eyes, rather nastily, and because Something might
jump out. But other friends lived in different parts
of the room. Peter Rabbit always lived on the
mantelpiece, next to Jemmy, the Dog-with-one-ear,
and not far away from Bill, the Cat Without-a-
tail. The Wheelbarrow lived under the washstand,
with its ears sticking out. The Red Engine lived
in the hearth-place, ready to steam away on far
journeys with him as soon as he fell asleep.

In the dining-room his best friends were the Lions


with rings through their noses on the sideboard
they were laughing lions, though he had never found
out the joke and the hassock on the hearth-rug,
which was a fat, comfortable old fellow who didn't
mind being kicked, and the arm-chair where Bristles
sat when he smoked his pipe, which always held
out its arms as though longing to embrace some-
body. At the back of the arm-chair were two but-
tons like eyes, which winked and blinked in the
firelight, so that Nicholas Barton used to turn round
to see if they were looking when he stole across
the room to peep inside the sideboard cupboard, or
when he went to the window to see if the lamps had
come to life after the shadow-people had come into
the street. Here in the dining-room also lived the
magic carpet, where a great forest grew, full of
flowers and creeping plants, in which Nicholas
Barton used to wander on great adventures, until
sometimes he was so tired that he fell asleep.

With these friends, and many others in the kitchen
and the bedrooms such as Mr. Big Kettle, Mr.
Rolling Pin, and the magic clothes-horse, which
could be changed into a giant's castle, a railway sta-
tion, or a butcher's shop, Nicholas was more intimate
and unreserved than with the people who did not
understand them. He often whispered things to
Peter Rabbit, or into one of the hassock's ears,
which he would not have told to Bristles or Beauty,
or even to Polly, because he understood them, and



they understood him. They never laughed at him
when he made one of his big discoveries. They
never told him to do things which he didn't want
to do, and they never surprised him by doing the
most unexpected things when he wasn't ready for
them. Besides, their whole life was lived inside
the flat, so that he knew all about them, whereas
Bristles and Beauty were always going away myste-
riously and leading a secret life of which he had
no knowledge or share.

Although he was always watching these two
people he could never be quite sure of them, or make
out the mystery of them. Bristles was a man of
queer habits and queer character. He was pretty
good at fairy tales in the early morning after Nick
had come in from his own room to snuggle into
Bristles' bed and pinch his nose, but presently, just
at the exciting point where the Small Boy was
knocking at the door of the Giant's Castle, or when
he had been wisked up to the stars on a witch's
broom-stick, Bristles would give a great yawn so
that Nick would feel as if he might tumble to the
very bottom of Red Lane and calmly go to sleep
again. If Nick ventured to pinch his nose once more
which was not always a safe thing to do and
if he went on with the story, it was just as likely
as not he would muddle the whole thing up and
change the Small Boy into a Fairy Princess, or
the witch into an ugly dragon with fiery nostrils.


He was a most forgetful man, and made Nick be-
lieve that all men had this habit of forgetfulness, so
that he was terrified lest the same thing might creep
upon him as he grew older and older every time the
clock ticked. Bristles would begin a game of bears
under the table-cloth, and behave very well for a
little while, but then suddenly he would forget, and
instead of growling like a bear would begin to roar
like a lion, or grunt like a pig, or crow like a
cock-a-doodle-doo. Or if he pretended to be a
railway train on the way to the North Pole, his
forgetfulness would come on suddenly and he would
change into a fire-engine, so that the whole game
went astray, in spite of Nick's angry shouts.

He was a weak fellow, too, was Bristles. Some-
times he would pretend to get very angry, and
threaten to give Nick a jolly good hiding, but Nick
pooh-poohed his threats, knowing the falsity of them.
Once, when Nick called Beauty a dirty toad, a
beastly wretch, and a nasty damn thing all names
learned from Polly in her moments of excitement
Bristles was ordered by Beauty herself to take him
into the bedroom and thrash him severely. For a
long time Bristles refused, pleading that Nick did
not mean what he said and that he was too young
to be thrashed, and that, after all, boys will be boys.
Both people had red faces Beauty was like a flam-
ing poppy and spoke in loud voices, while Nick


looked from one to the other with grave, observant

"Good heavens! the boy will go to the bad if he
is not beaten sometimes,'* cried Beauty. "Surely
you are not going to let him see that you are afraid
of punishing him, are you?"

At the end of the argument, Bristles took Nick by
the hand and led him to the bedroom, and carefully
closed the door.

"Look here, Nick, old boy," said Bristles, "I
have got to beat you. So take it like a man."

Nick gave a piercing howl before a finger had
been laid upon him, and made a frightful noise,
while Bristles became very pale, and then thrust
a penny into his hand and said:

"I'm sorry, old man. Stop crying, and tell Beauty
you didn't mean what you said."

Some time after Bristles and Nick strolled back
into the drawing-room. Bristles was whistling in
a careless way, while Nick, clasping his penny, was
wondering why Bristles always whistled when he
tried to hide anything from Beauty.

"I hope you gave it to him hot and strong," said
Beauty. "I never heard such language from a

Bristles nodded, and said, "He won't speak like
that again."

Beauty drew Nick close to her, and whispered
into his ear:


"Bristles didn't want to hurt you, Nick, but you
must be punished when you do bad things."

Nick gazed into Beauty's eyes, in his grave,
thoughtful way.

"Bristles didn't hurt me. He didn't touch me.
And I don't see why I should be punished when I
do bad things. Nobody ever punished you."

"What?" cried Beauty, looking at Bristles with
eyes like glowing fires. "You didn't touch him,
after all? Oh, you blithering idiot!"

She was furiously angry, and Bristles said
"Damn" and then was very quiet while he filled
and smoked his pipe. And from that day Nick had
no fear of Bristles, and knew him to be a weak-willed
fellow. But they were good friends, for Bristles
was, on the whole, obedient, and understood things,
and was not so grown-up in his mind as most
people who have lost belief in magic carpets, and
chairs with blinking eyes, and old lions with rings
through their noses, who laugh and laugh at some
joke which they never tell.

Yet even with Bristles one could not feel quite
safe. Nick knew that between this man and Beauty
there were secrets which they hid from him. He
heard them quarreling sometimes after he had gone
to bed. At least, it was generally Beauty who quar-
reled, in a rather shrill, high voice, like the top notes
in the piano, while Bristles only grunted, or rumbled
in the bass notes. Having been away all day, he


would come home sometimes looking sulky (as Polly
would say when Nick put on the same look), and
instead of playing games, would say, "I don't feel
like it to-night, old man," and sit staring into the
fire though he never could see the same pictures
there which Nick saw and giving every now and
then a big sigh, and then getting up quite suddenly,
to pace up and down the room just like a lion at
the Zoo, with the same worried look in his eyes.

Beauty was hardly ever at home in the evenings,
and perhaps that accounted for the sulkiness of
Bristles. Nick believed that must be the reason, for
he asked one day:

"Why do you play at lions all by yourself?"

"Because I am as lonely as an old lion in a cage,"
said Bristles.

"Why are you as lonely as an old lion in a cage?"
asked Nick.

"Because Beauty, my lady lioness, goes to play
with monkeys," said Bristles.

After that he burst out laughing, and said:
"After all, I am not quite lonely. Let you and I
play at bears."

But Nick wondered within himself why did
Beauty go and play with monkeys. Or, if she was
so fond of monkeys, why didn't she take Bristles to
join in the game?

It was only very rarely- that Bristles went. When
he did, he put on black clothes and a waistcoat with


a big hole in the middle of it, so that a stiff white
shirt showed through, and a hat that folded in and
out with a click. But it didn't agree with him.
Nick always knew that he would be sulky next morn-
ing after he had been to see Beauty play with the

Perhaps it was because he could not lie in bed
so long as Beauty. He was always up to break-
fast with Nick, while Beauty lay in bed until lunch
time, so that Nick had to go on tip-toe past her
door, lest he should get "What for," as Polly said.

That was one of the differences between Beauty
and Bristles, though it did not explain all the mys-
tery of them. There were other differences.
Bristles was out all day, and Beauty was out all
night or, at least, so far into the night that Nick
was never awake when she came back. Bristles
dressed himself, just like he had taught Nick to
dress himself, but Beauty always wanted Polly to
help her, and Polly was always in a bad humor
during dressing-time, and said "Drat the woman!"
when Beauty called for hot water, and "Lord Al-
mighty!" when she called for a clean chemise, and
"Oh, what a life!" when Beauty sat back in a
blue dressing-gown while Polly did her hair, and
while Nick sat on a small stool in a room littered
with clothes about the floor, with newspapers, sup-
per things, cigarette-ends, and paper-backed novels
with lovely ladies on the covers.



But none of these picture ladies were quite as
lovely as Beauty. It was quite a long time before
Nick made that discovery. He made it one morn-
ing when Polly was doing Beauty's hair. It was
long golden hair, which shone and sparkled in the
sunlight which came through the window. It seemed
to Nick that it flowed down from Beauty's head
like a river of gold which he had once seen in a
waking dream. And as she sat smiling at her own
image in the glass, while she smoked a gold-tipped
cigarette, it seemed to Nick that her face was like
one of the dream princesses whom he had once mar-
ried in a great castle when Peter Rabbit had gone
on a big adventure with him. Only Beauty was
not quite the same as the dream princess, because
she had blue eyes instead of green, and because her
smile showed a row of teeth like little white birds
in a nest of rose-leaves.

"Why are you so lovely, Beauty?" asked Nick.

"Bless the boy!" said Beauty, laughing. "I sup-
pose God made me so."

"But why did God make Polly so ugly and you so

It was Polly's turn to laugh.

"Lor', ma'am, what do you say to that?"

"Perhaps because God made Polly so good, and
me so wicked," said Beauty, who seemed to find a
great joke in Nick's most serious questioning.

"That's no reason at all," said Nick. "It would


have been more sensible if God had made both of
you lovely and both of you good."

Polly laughed so much that she dropped all
Beauty's hair-pins, which Nick picked up one by
one, wishing to goodness that grown-up people did
not laugh at the wrong places. But Beauty did not
laugh this time. She put her head down a little
and said :

"I wish God could have managed that, little Nick.
It would have been so much better for me. It would
save me such a lot of worry."

Nick came to the conclusion that God, whom he
imagined to be a very big and superior kind of
policeman with white gloves and enormous brass
buttons, always watching people from mysterious
hiding-places, had had a quarrel with Beauty, and
wanted to prosecute her for not keeping off the
grass. The idea rather frightened him, because he
was afraid that she might be taken away one day,
by a sudden pounce.

He was often rather frightened about Beauty, be-
cause she had rather alarming ways. For one thing,
she was always in a great hurry, except in getting
out of bed. She would hurry over her meals, and
keep calling out to Polly to hurry up, and then whisk
away in a hansom cab, like Cinderella in the fairy
coach. Sometimes she came home rather breath-
lessly, and told Bristles or Polly that she had just
flown in for a few minutes and must fly off again



as soon as possible. Nicholas had believed at first
that she really possessed the power of flying, but
when he saw with his own eyes that she generally
drove up in a cab, he considered that she was not
quite truthful which was a shock to him.

Another of her alarming ways was the habit of
talking to herself laughing to herself, and crying
to herself in the dining-room when the door was
shut. Nick often held his breath and listened to
Beauty's voice speaking inside the room, saying the
same things over and over again. Once he heard
her laughing quite loudly, not once, but many times,
and he believed she must have found out the joke
at which the lions on the sideboard were always
smiling. He wanted to ask her, but somehow the
fact that ske had shut him outside the door before
she began to laugh to herself made him afraid.

She frightened him also by getting angry quite
quickly and suddenly, by slapping him on the hand
so that it was as red as though it had been stung
by a bee, and then kissing it and crying out that
she didn't mean to hurt her darling Nick and that
she was a wretch to lose her temper. Once she lost
her temper so badly it was about something that
Bristles said that she look a vase off the mantel-
piece and let it drop onto the fireplace, so that it
smashed into a hundred pieces, which Polly had to
clear away with a dustpan and broom. Nick felt
his heart going tick-tock like the big clock in the



hall, and his eyes growing larger and larger until
they seemed as big as his head. There was a
dead silence for a moment after that awful crash.
Then Bristles shrugged his shoulders up to his ears
Nick learned the trick from him and went out of
the room whistling a tune. Beauty put her hands
to her face, and tear-water oozed through her fingers,
and her body shook like a tree in Battersea Park
when the wind blows. It was the sight of Beauty's
shaking body which made Nick suddenly rush to
her, clutching at her skirts with a great howl of
grief. Then, to his surprise, Beauty took her hands
away from her face, and burst out laughing,
although her eyes were all moist and shining.

"If you ever break a vase like that," she said, "I'll
skin you alive, Nick."

"Why did you break it?" asked Nick.

"Because I had a monkey on my back," said
Beauty. "Such an evil little monkey."

Nick walked round and looked at his mother's

"I think you tell most frightful whoppers," he

And yet he knew that better than anything in the
world to him was Beauty on her good days. That
was when she was not in a hurry for once, but curled
up on the hearth-rug with him, telling him queer
little fairy-tales, better than any that Bristles could
tell, because all her people seemed alive and spoke in



different voices, so that it really seemed as if they
were in the room; and when she came and knel"
down by the side of his bed with her arms clasped
about him, letting him ask all the questions he
wanted to ask, and answering them in a voice which
sounded like music in his ears when at last he could
not keep his eyes open; and when she came to him
in wonderful dresses, all white and shimmering, like
a cloud in the sky, and said : "Do you think I look
pretty to-night, my Nick?" and bent to kiss him
so that he could take deep breaths of the scent in
her hair, like the smell of the flower-beds in the
Park, and stroke her soft white arms, and whisper
his love for her. Sometimes at these times there
was an excited light in her eyes, so that they shone
like the candles on each side of his mantelpiece,
and sometimes she would swish up her skirts and
dance about the room on the tips of her toes, and
sometimes Bristles would come in and stand with
his hands in his pockets staring at her with a queer
smile, until she sank into a deep curtsey and into
the waves of her white dress before him, when he
would hold out his hand and raise her up, and kiss
her on the arm as she danced out of the room. Those
were scenes which Nick cherished in his heart, and
which long afterward he remembered like wonder-
ful dreams.

It was in his sixth year that he made his greatest
discovery about Beauty.



It was made in the kitchen, where he was build-
ing a giant's castle out of a cardboard box, while
Polly was ironing handkerchiefs, and spitting on the
hot iron so that it made that splendid sizzling noise
which Nick loved to hear. It was between one of
the spits that she gave a great sigh and said :

"The Lord be praised / ain't a hactress!"

"What is a hactress?" asked Nick.

"Your mother is a hactress, my poor poppet,"
said Polly.

Nick was silent. It was clear to him from Polly's
tone of voice that a hactress was a very awful and
horrid thing.

"Why shouldn't she be a hactress?" he said, put-
ting himself on his guard.

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Online LibraryPhilip GibbsBeauty and Nick, a novel of the stage and the home--the artistic temperament in fateful action → online text (page 1 of 21)