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Title: The Philistine: A Story
Author: E M Delafield
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302141h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2013
Most recent update: May 2013

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The Philistine: A Story


E M Delafield

Published in Harpers Magazine, May 1926

He was rather a stolid little boy, but they did their very best with him.

He had, of course, exactly the same treats as the other children, the same pleasures, the same privileges. His toys and presents were better than theirs, if anything, because his aunt, in her heart of hearts, knew him to be less attractive than her own Cynthia and Jeremy and Diana.

For one thing, Colin wasn't as good-looking as they were, and for another, he was less intelligent. Cynthia, at nine years old, had a vivid, original mind, and the few people—but they were people who really knew—to whom Lady Verulam showed her little poems had seen great promise in them.

Jeremy, a year younger, had thick, tight curls of brown hair all over his head, beautiful, long-lashed brown eyes, and an adorable smile. His manners were perfect. He said things—innocent, naive, irresistible things—about God, and the fairies, and how much he loved his mother.

Lady Verulam's youngest girl, Diana, was precociously intelligent too, with a delightfully extensive and grown-up vocabulary at five years old. She had straight, square-cut bobbed brown hair like Cynthia, but she was lovelier than either of the others, and her eyes were a pure, deep blue, fringed with long, curled black lashes.

All Lady Verulam's artist friends wanted to paint Diana, but only Sir Frederick Lorton, the best known portrait-painter in England, was allowed to do so. The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Colin was the only child of Lady Verulam's widowed brother-in-law, and he had been sent home to her from India when his mother died. He had been five years old then, and now he was eight.

He was a dear little boy, and Lady Verulam felt remorsefully that he might have been adarling little boy if it hadn't been that Cynthia and Jeremy and Diana unconsciously set such a very high standard of charm and intelligence. Intelligence counted for so very much, in that political-artistic section of society in which the Verulams lived. Most children of wealthy parents could be made tolerably pretty, after all, and if they weren't born with brains and personality they stood little chance of individual distinction.

Not that Colin hadn't got personality.

Lady Verulam, who was President of the Cult of the Children Society, and had written a little book about child-psychology, had studied Colin on his own merits, as it were. And she quite recognized that he had character, and even imagination, of a sort, although when the children were all taken to see "Peter Pan" and told to clap their hands if they believed in fairies, he was the only one of Lady Verulam's large party who didn't clap.

"But Idon't believe in them, really," said Colin, rather pale.

"But Tinker-Bell!" protested Jeremy, "She'd have died if we hadn't clapped!"

"And we do believe in fairies," said Cynthia firmly.

"Then it was all right for you to clap," said Colin. "There were enough of you without me."

But afterwards he was very silent for a long while and looked worried.

Lady Verulam saw that and she changed her seat in one of the intervals and came beside him.

"Do you like it, darling?"

"Oh, yes," he said, unusually emphatic. But his face hadn't grown scarlet with excitement, like little Diana's, and he wasn't delightfully, stammeringly enthusiastic, like Jeremy. Presently he asked Lady Verulam in rather a troubled way:

"I wasn't unkind or naughty, was I, not to clap for Tinker Bell?"

"Not at all," she was obliged to answer. "The children were only asked to clap if they believed in fairies."

"I don't really believe in them," Colin said apologetically. "Do you, Aunt Doreen?"

"Shall I tell you a secret?" she answered, bending her charming, smiling face down to his. "I like topretend that I believe in fairies, little Colin."

Anyone of the others would have responded to her whimsical fancy—they'd have understood. But Colin only looked up at her with solemn gray eyes staring rather stupidly out of a puzzled face.

"Do you?" was all he said.

"Oh, belovedest, isn't it marvelous!" said Cynthia, her eyes shining and dancing with sheer rapture.

Well, Colin hadn't got the same capacity for enjoyment, that was all. And even if he'd had it, he wouldn't have been able to express it in words.

He was anordinary child.

"He'll never suffer as much as I'm afraid my darlings will, because he'll never feel as much," said Lady Verulam to the French nursery governess, who had so many certificates of her training as a teacher, and as a student of psychology, and as a hospital nurse, that she was as expensive as a finishing-governess.

"Probably not, Lady Verulam. But I think they do one another good. Cynthia's and Jeremy's enthusiastic ways will help Colin to be less stolid in time. And in one way, of course, it's a relief that he's not as excitable as they are."

The head-nurse said the same.

Diana before a party or a pantomime was positively ill with excitement sometimes. They never dared to tell her of anything until just before it was going to happen.

But Colin never looked forward to things like that. He lived in the present.

"Such a relief," said Lady Verulam rather wistfully. She couldn't help wondering sometimes what her brother-in-law, Vivian, would think of his only child, when he came home...But Colin's mother, whom she had known well as a girl, had been rather stolid, too.

Every day the children went to play in Kensington Gardens. The little procession came out at the front door of the house in Lowndes Square, and Lady Verulam, who adored her children, watched them from the window of the dining room where she was having breakfast after her ride in the Park.

First the under-nurse and the footman, carefully lifting the smart white perambulator down the steps, then Nurse, in stiff white piqué, carrying the rose-colored silk bundle that was the four-months-old baby, and depositing him carefully among his lacey shawls and pillows, under the silk-fringed summer awning of the pram. Then Diana, adorable in a tiny, skimpy frock of palest lemon color, with lemon-colored streamers falling from her shade hat and sandals on her beautiful little slim brown feet. She was carrying a ridiculous little doll's parasol and walking by herself, just as she always did. There was a certain dainty pride about Diana that never allowed her to accept the nurse's hand. She walked by the side of the pram, erect and exquisite.

After the nursery party, Mademoiselle and the elder children came down the steps. In the gardens, they would all coalesce, but the nursery party always started first.

Lady Verulam, peeping out between the window-boxes of scarlet geraniums and white daisies and the edge of the red-striped sun blind, watched them.

Mademoiselle was neat, efficient, French-looking—from the top of her shiny black straw hat, tipped forward over her black hair, to the black patent-leather belt placed very low down on her short-sleeved black-and-white check frock, and the pointed tips of her buttoned black boots. She was drawing on black kid gloves, that came half-way up her arms.

One on each side of her, were the two little boys. They were dressed alike, in white silk shirts and silk ties, and dark knickerbockers. Neither wore a cap, and Jeremy's thick curls looked burnished in the strong July sunlight. People always turned to look at him and at those wonderful curls.

Colin's hair was quite straight, and it suited him best to have it cut very short. It was of no particular color. Both little boys held themselves very upright, but while Colin was stocky and rather short, Jeremy was tall and slim and beautifully made, like a little statue.

Then Cynthia came out of the house, quick and slender and radiating vitality in every graceful gesture. Her frock and hat were the replica of little Diana's, but instead of the minute, absurd parasol, some heavenly instinct had caused her to take from the big glass bowl in the hall a handful of great mauve sweet peas that looked like butterflies against the pale, soft folds of her frock.

Cynthia's strong, instinctive sense of beauty was a joy to her mother.

She seemed to dance, rather than walk, along the hot pavement, her long, slim brown legs bare to the sun. From the little vivid, glancing gesture of her hands and head, Lady Verulam knew that she was talking. She could even guess what Cynthia was talking about—the party.

They were giving a party the next day on Colin's birthday, just before going down into the country. It was, actually, three years since the Verulams had given a children's party. One thing and another had prevented it.

This was called Colin's party but, as usual, the other children were far more excited about it than he was.

Lady Verulam herself was a tiny bit excited about it because for the first time Royalty—very young Royalty—was to be her guest.

She wanted the party to be a great success.

Smiling, she turned away from the window.

Cynthia's mother had been quite right. The children were talking about the party.

"I'm looking forward to it more than I've ever looked forward to anything in all my life," said Jeremy solemnly. "I think if anything happened to prevent it now I'd die."

"Oh, no, you wouldn't," said Cynthia scornfully. "Besides, nothing could happen to prevent it."

They knew little of disappointments, any of them. They were not allowed to experience disappointments if their mother could possibly prevent it because they were such terribly highly strung children.

"Mademoiselle, may Diana be told about the party yet?"

"She may be told, but she isn't to know which day it is till the last minute," said Mademoiselle, who knew very well that it would be impossible to keep sharp little Diana from the infectious excitement and sense of preparation that had already begun to pervade the house.

So they were able to talk about the party freely when they joined Diana and the nurses.

Cynthia did not want to talk about anything else, and the others always followed her lead. Except sometimes Colin, who was what Nurse called "independent."

He was independent to-day, and when he grew tired of hearing Cynthia and Jeremy discuss what games they would play at the party, and Diana chatter about her new frock with the roses on it, he got up and went away and bounced his ball on the Broad Walk.

He was pleased about the party, and Aunt Doreen had allowed him to choose what the entertainment should be, and he had chosen a conjuror, and she had said thatperhaps he would have a cable from Daddy, like last year, for his birthday—but Colin didn't feel that he could think, and talk, and plan about nothing but the party, like the others.

Mademoiselle often said that he had no imagination, and Colin felt sure that she was right. He wasn't certain that he even wanted to have an imagination, much. He knew that he was stupid, compared with Jeremy and Cynthia, but at least he didn't have crying fits—like a girl—as Jeremy occasionally had, and he didn't stammer from pure eagerness as Cynthia did when she got excited.

He did hope, very much, that there might be a cable from Daddy on his birthday, because that would be something of his very own. No one would be able to say that the others cared more than he did, because it wouldn't have anything at all to do with the others.

Feeling rather mean but not able to help it, Colin secretly wished that the others mightn't know anything at all about his cable if it did come. Then they couldn't exclaim and be excited and say things and make Colin feel—and look—stupider than ever.

On the way home he was very silent, trying to think of a plan by which he could prevent the other children from seeing his cable. Perhaps they'd be so busy getting ready for the party that they wouldn't remember about it.

When the next day came it really seemed as though it might be so.

The children flew up and down stairs, even down into the kitchen where the good-natured chef showed them the cakes, and the jellies and the pink and white creams, and dishes of colored sweets, and an amusing log made out of of chocolate with chopped-up green stuff all over it and cream inside it.

They ran into the dining room, too, and saw the long, decorated table and the rows of little gilt chairs.

"There are other chairs in the drawing-room—millions more of them, for the conjuror," said Diana.

"Let's go up there."

"Let's," said Cynthia and Jeremy.

They dashed off.

Colin was just going to follow when he looked out of the window. He had been looking out of the window at intervals all day long.

But this time a telegraph boy really was crossing the square and glancing up at the numbers. It must, surely, be Daddy's cable, and he could take it himself and open it and there'd be nobody there to say that he didn't seem to care half as much as Master Jeremy, not if it were his own father...

Colin, for once moving quickly, ran out to the hall and opened the front door before the boy could ring the bell.

"Is it a foreign telegram—a cable?" he asked anxiously.

"Yes, addressed Verulam."

"Then it's mine," said Colin with decision. "There isn't any answer."

He had often heard this said and felt sure it was right.

The telegraph boy, whistling, went away.

Colin retreated to the linen cupboard on the schoolroom landing which was large and light, and to which people seldom came, and sat down on the floor to decipher his birthday cable.

Regret inform you Major Vivian Verulam dangerously ill cholera will cable progress.

Colin's face slowly became pink and then the color ebbed away again and left him rather white. He sat on the floor of the linen cupboard for a long while, not moving.

If Aunt Doreen knew about the cable, the party would have to be stopped, surely. And Diana would cry herself ill, and everybody would be in a dreadful state, and what would happen to all those beautiful cakes? Probably they would be vexed with him, too, for having opened the telegram.

Colin's mind, his slowly moving, tenacious mind, had not yet begun to work on the exact meaning of "dangerously ill." For days he had heard of nothing but the party, and the party had become the alpha and omega of existence.

It was impossible that it should be stopped. "If no one knows but me," thought Colin, "it'll be all right."

He had a horrible feeling that it would be naughty to say nothing about the cable, and yet he felt that they would all blame him if he told about it and stopped the party. Nothing mattered, really, except the party. They had thought he didn't understand what a great event it was because he couldn't get excited like the others, but at least he could see how very important they all thought it.

Presently he stuffed the cable into the pocket of his breeches, rose slowly and carefully to his feet, and went into the schoolroom again.

The brilliant, successful party was over, the gilt chairs were stacked together, seat upon seat, ready to be taken away again, and the children—each one with a beautiful present—had all long since gone home.

Cynthia and Jeremy and Colin and Diana had been put to bed. Jeremy had said, "Thank you, you darling, beautiful Mummie, for such a lovely, glittering party."

His choice of words was always fantastic and charming.

Even Colin had hugged his aunt with unusual enthusiasm and said he'd never enjoyed any party so much.

"No wonder," said Mademoiselle to Nurse, with whom she was on friendly terms.

"That conjuror was good, wasn't he?" said Nurse. "The best in London, they say. I never saw anything like him, myself. Why,I couldn't have told how he got those toys into the box with the flags."

"If you please, Nurse," said the under-nurse, entering with her hands full of little garments, "I found this in Master Colin's pocket."

She put the crumpled telegram, in its torn envelope, into Nurse's hands.

Nurse put on her spectacles and read it and said, "What in the name of gracious—" and handed the telegram to Mademoiselle.

There was a knock at the door and the housemaid came in.

"If you please, Nurse, her Ladyship wishes to see you in the boudoir at once."

"Take this," said Mademoiselle, with presence of mind and gave back the telegram.

In the boudoir Lady Verulam sat with another telegram open in front of her. Her pretty face was pale and tearstained.

"Nurse, I'm afraid there's bad news from India. Master Colin—poor little boy—his father is very ill, I'm afraid. I don't quite understand, but we think—"

"I beg your pardon, my lady. Is it anything to do with this? Florence found it, opened like that, in the pocket of Master Colin's every-day pair of knickerbockers."

Lady Verulam read the cable, read it again, compared it with the one she held, and turned bewildered, almost frightened eyes upon the nurse.

"But this one must have come before the other one—the one I've got," she said. "Who opened it?"

"Master Colin must have done it, my lady. And never said a word—"

"He couldn't have understood."

"Is the news in the second telegram worse, my lady?"

"It says that Major Verulam is getting weaker and we must expect—" she chocked a little. "We didn't understand and Sir Frederick is telephoning now to Whitehall, to see if they can give us any further particulars. But Ican't understand—"

She looked at the crumpled telegram again and again.

"This must have come hours ago—before the party. Howcould he have got hold of it?"

"The children were all over the place, my lady—up and down stairs, watching the men getting things ready. Master Colin might have got to the door and opened it just when the telegram was delivered."

"But it was addressed—oh, oh, poor little boy! It was only addressed to Verulam. He must have thought it was a cable for his birthday—I see—that's what happened—that's why he opened it."

"But, excuse me, my lady, why didn't he say anything to anybody? He's quite old enough to understand."

Nurse was respectfully indignant, but Lady Verulam was only tearful and unspeakably bewildered.

"I must go up to him—"

"I beg your pardon, my lady, he's asleep. They all are now, even Miss Diana, but Master Colin was asleep before any of them, though not being so excitable as the others."

"Then I can't wake him," said Lady Verulam irresolutely. "It would only upset him. And there may be news in the morning—one way or the other."

There was no more news in the morning, however, and Lady Verulam was obliged to send for Colin. She wasn't angry with him—even if his father hadn't been dying, it was against her principles to be angry with any child—but her gentleness met with very little response.

He didn't seem to understand that his father, whom he scarcely remembered, was very ill and might be going to die. His lack of imagination was absolute.

"But why didn't you bring the telegram to me, darling? I quite understand that you opened it by mistake, but you must have known it was important and that you ought to tell about it."

Colin began to cry.

She reasoned with him, and petted him, and even spoke severely to him, but he was sulky and frightened and would not say a word. At last, in despair, she sent him upstairs again.

Ten minutes later Cynthia came flying down to her mother's room, her lovely mop of hair disordered, her brilliant little face glowing. "Mummie, may I tell you what I think about Colin? Nurse doesn't understand—nor Mademoiselle, nor any of them—but I think I do."

"Tell me, precious," said Lady Verulam. She had great faith in the intuition of this sensitive, intelligent little daughter of hers.

Cynthia put her arms round her mother's neck and whispered earnestly.

"I think Colin opened the telegram about poor Uncle Vivian just before the party, and he did understand what it was, and he thought it would spoil the party and p'raps—p'raps put it off altogether, and that's why he wouldn't say anything. He didn't want all of us to be unhappy—he knew we were looking forward so to the party."

"My darling! What makes you think that?"

"It's what I'd have done," said Cynthia, her eyes shining. "I would, truly, Mummie, if my heart had been breaking—I'd have kept that dreadful telegram all to myself and let all the others enjoy the party and even have pretended that I was enjoying it too."

"My sweet—I believe you would. But if that was it, why didn't poor little Colin come to me as soon as the party was over?"

"Mummie, you know you were with the grown-ups who stayed after we'd gone to bed, and I'm sure he was waiting till you came to say good-night. And you never did."

"Nurse said you were all asleep—Colin must have gone quickly off to sleep, after all."

"But, Mummie," said Cynthia quickly, "he's very little, and one can't always keep awake, even if it's most important, and Colin especially, he's always such a sleepy head—"

"I know," said Lady Verulam.

She thought, although she did not say so, that Colin's insensitiveness had always been rather remarkable, and that where Cynthia might, as she had just said, have felt her heart to be "breaking," Colin was quite capable of falling asleep in mere reaction from an unwonted emotional strain.

She was touched at Cynthia's generous understanding and inclined to accept her interpretation.

"Poor little Colin!" she said softly. "It was brave and unselfish of him to want everyone else to enjoy the party first...although it was a mistake, and I still don't understand why he couldn't explain to me this morning."

"Mummie, you know Colin never can explain anything," said Cynthia reproachfully.

That was perfectly true. How clever she was! Lady Verulam kissed Cynthia in silence. In her heart of hearts she couldn't help feeling that, dreadful though it was to have been entertaining on such a scale while her brother-in-law was dying, it would have been very, very difficult to know what to do if the bad news had reached her when it should have reached her, just as the preparations for the party were being completed.

"You do understand about Colin, don't you, Mummie? Because Mademoiselle isn't being a bit nice to him, and she says he has no heart and that he didn't show the telegram because he didn't want the party to be stopped, and then afterwards he was afraid to tell."

"I'll speak to her," said Lady Verulam. Mademoiselle was always inclined to be hard on Colin. She couldn't bear what she called his phleqme britannique. Lady Verulam did not for a moment believe her interpretation to be the true one. She would sooner trust to Cynthia's quick sympathies.

According to Cynthia, little Colin had really been rather heroic. He must have had a dreadful weight on his little mind, all through the festivities...

Tender-hearted Lady Verulam found the tears rising into her eyes at the thought of it. She felt as though she had always been unjust to Colin, who had so little imagination, and couldn't express himself with fire and poetry and clearness like her own children. And now perhaps she had alienated him by not understanding or appreciating his self-sacrifice, and he would be less willing than ever to talk to her.

Before she saw Colin again a third cable had arrived.

Major Vivian Verulam was not going to die. He had turned the corner.

The joy and relief of the good news pervaded the house, and even Mademoiselle kissed Colin—who rubbed his cheek vigorously after the salute—and said nothing more about his having no heart. But Lady Verulam, who, like her children, was highly strung, had worked herself up on Colin's behalf, and she told Mademoiselle and Nurse as well that they had all of them misunderstood Colin, and that there were unsuspected depths of bravery and unselfishness in his childish heart.

There came, gradually, to be a feeling throughout the big household in Lowndes Square that this was so. Colin might be less wonderful than were Cynthia and Jeremy and Diana, but he, too, had had his moment—his exalted and inspired moment.

Three months later Major Verulam came home on sick leave.

He made friends with his son—an enduring friendship. They resembled each other in many ways, and he never seemed to expect or to desire from Colin enthusiasms and demonstrations that would have been equally alien to them both.

He was, indeed, the only person who ever heard Colin's own version of his behavior on the day of the party.

"You see, Daddy, I opened the telegram because I thought it was from you, for me on my birthday, like the year before, and when I saw it said you were ill I did think it would mean stopping the party, and that would have been dreadful."

"Were you so frightfully keen about the party?"

"It wasn't so much that, but there'd have been such a lot of fuss about it, and they—all the others—had been so excited—and everything was ready—men had come all on purpose to bring the little gold chairs, Daddy, and to arrange the flowers and things—It would have been so dreadful, to stop it all."

"I see what you mean. And certainly it wouldn't have doneme any good, as far as that went. But why didn't you tell them afterwards, old man? Aunt Doreen wouldn't have been angry with you, would she?"

"Oh, no, she's never angry."

"Well, then—"

Colin colored faintly.

"You see, Daddy, I didn't know you as well then as I do now, did I? And the party was fun, and the conjuror such a very, very clever one."

He gazed up at his father with solemn, trustful eyes.

"I quite and completely forgot all about the telegram till I woke up next morning," said Colin.


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