The church bells were ringing for morning service as Mr. Vickers, who had been for a stroll with Mr. William Russell and a couple of ferrets, returned home to breakfast. Contrary to custom, the small front room and the kitchen were both empty, and breakfast, with the exception of a cold herring and the bitter remains of a pot of tea, had been cleared away.
[Illustration: “Mr. Vickers had been for a stroll with Mr. William Russell.”]
“I’ve known men afore now,” murmured Mr. Vickers, eyeing the herring disdainfully, “as would take it by the tail and smack’em acrost the face with it.”
He cut himself a slice of bread, and, pouring out a cup of cold tea, began his meal, ever and anon stopping to listen, with a puzzled face, to a continuous squeaking overhead. It sounded like several pairs of new boots all squeaking at once, but Mr. Vickers, who was a reasonable man and past the age of self-deception, sought for a more probable cause.
A particularly aggressive squeak detached itself from the others and sounded on the stairs. The resemblance to the noise made by new boots was stronger than ever. It was new boots. The door opened, and Mr. Vickers, with a slice of bread arrested half-way to his mouth, sat gazing in astonishment at Charles Vickers, clad for the first time in his life in new raiment from top to toe. Ere he could voice inquiries, an avalanche of squeaks descended the stairs, and the rest of the children, all smartly clad, with Selina bringing up the rear, burst into the room.
“What is it?” demanded Mr. Vickers, in a voice husky with astonishment; “a bean-feast?”
Miss Vickers, who was doing up a glove which possessed more buttons than his own waistcoat, looked up and eyed him calmly. “New clothes—and not before they wanted’em,” she replied, tartly.
“New clothes?” repeated her father, in a scandalized voice. “Where’d they get’em?”
“Shop,” said his daughter, briefly.
Mr. Vickers rose and, approaching his offspring, inspected them with the same interest that he would have bestowed upon a wax-works. A certain stiffness of pose combined with the glassy stare which met his gaze helped to favour the illusion.
“For once in their lives they’re respectable,” said Selina, regarding them with moist eyes. “Soap and water they’ve always had, bless’em, but you’ve never seen’em dressed like this before.”
Before Mr. Vickers could frame a reply a squeaking which put all the others in the shade sounded from above. It crossed the floor on hurried excursions to different parts of the room, and then, hesitating for a moment at the head of the stairs, came slowly and ponderously down until Mrs. Vickers, looking somewhat nervous, stood revealed before her expectant husband. In scornful surprise he gazed at a blue cloth dress, a black velvet cape trimmed with bugles, and a bonnet so aggressively new that it had not yet accommodated itself to Mrs. Vickers’s style of hair-dressing.