“Who is your letter from, Henry?” asked the father.
Henry blushed and boggled.
“Pass it over to me.”
Resistance was worse than useless. As in war-time a woman will see her husband set up against a wall and shot before her face, as a conspirator sees the hands of the police close upon papers of the most terrible secrecy, so did Henry watch that scented little package pass with a sense of irrevocable loss into the cold hands of his father. The father opened it, placed a little white enclosure by the side of his coffee-cup for further inspection, and then read the letter—full of “darlings” and “for evers”—with the severe attention he would have given a business letter. Then he handed it across to the mother without a word, but with the look one doctor gives another in discovering a new and terrible symptom in a patient on whom they are consulting. While the mother read, the father opened the little packet, and out rolled a tiny plait of silky brown hair tied into a loop with a blue ribbon.
“Disgusting!” exclaimed the father and mother, simultaneously, to each other, as though the boy was not there.
“I am shocked at you, Henry,” said the mother.
“I shall certainly write to the forward little girl’s parents,” said the father.
“Oh, don’t do that, father,” exclaimed the boy, in terror, and half wondering if so sweet a thing could really be so criminal.
“Don’t dare to speak to me,” said the father. “Leave the breakfast-table. I will see you again this evening.”
Henry knew too well what the verb “to see” signified under the circumstances, and the day passed in such apprehensive gloom that it was a positive relief, when evening had at last come, to feel a walking-cane about him, at once more snaky and more notched than any previously applied to his stubborn young frame. Not to cry was, of course, a point of honour; and as the infuriating absence of tears inflamed the righteous anger of the parent, the stick splintered and broke with a crash, in which accident Henry learned he was responsible for a double offence.
“I wouldn’t have broken that stick for five pounds,” said the father, his interest suddenly withdrawn from his son; “it was given to me by my old friend Tarporley,” which, as can be imagined, was a mighty satisfaction to the sad small soul, smarting, not merely from the stick, but from the sense that life held something stupid in its injustice, in that he was thus being mauled for the most beautiful exalted feeling that had ever visited his young heart.
Those dark ages of oppression were long since passed for Henry and Esther, when Mike began to steal in of an evening to see Esther, and they were only referred to now and again, anecdotally, as the nineteenth century looks back at the days of the Holy Inquisition; but still it was wise to be cautious, for an interdict against Mike’s coming to the house was quite within possibility, even in this comparatively enlightened epoch; and that would have been even more effective than James Mesurier’s old friend Tarporley’s stick of sacred memory.