The Related Muff

by E. Nesbit

 

 

WE had never seen our cousin Sidney till that Christmas Eve, and we didn't want to see him then, and we didn't like him when we did see him. He was just dumped down into the middle of us by mother, at a time when it would have been unkind to her to say how little we wanted him.

We knew already that there wasn't to be any proper Christmas for us, because Aunt Ellie—the one who always used to send the necklaces and carved things from India, and remembered everybody's birthday—had come home ill. Very ill she was, at a hotel in London, and mother had to go to her, and, of course, father was away with his ship.

And then after we had said good-bye to mother, and told her how sorry we were, we were left to ourselves, and told each other what a shame it was, and no presents or anything. And then mother came suddenly back in a cab, and we all shouted 'Hooray' when we saw the cab stop, and her get out of it. And then we saw she was getting something out of the cab, and our hearts leapt up like the man's in the piece of school poetry when he beheld a rainbow in the sky—because we thought she had remembered about the presents, and the thing she was getting out of the cab was them.

Of course it was not—it was Sidney, very thin and yellow, and looking as sullen as a pig.

We opened the front door. Mother didn't even come in. She just said, 'Here's your Cousin Sidney. Be nice to him and give him a good time, there's darlings. And don't forget he's your visitor, so be very extra nice to him.'

I have sometimes thought it was the fault of what mother said about the visitor that made what did happen happen, but I am almost sure really that it was the fault of us, though I did not see it at the time, and even now I'm sure we didn't mean to be unkind. Quite the opposite. But the events of life are very confusing, especially when you try to think what made you do them, and whether you really meant to be naughty or not. Quite often it is not—but it turns out just the same.

When the cab had carried mother away—Hilda said it was like a dragon carrying away a queen—we said, 'How do you do' to our Cousin Sidney, who replied, 'Quite well, thank you.'

And then, curiously enough, no one could think of anything more to say.

Then Rupert—which is me—remembered that about being a visitor, and he said:

'Won't you come into the drawing-room?'

He did when he had taken off his gloves and overcoat. There was a fire in the drawing-room, because we had been going to have games there with mother, only the telegram came about Aunt Ellie.

So we all sat on chairs in the drawing-room, and thought of nothing to say harder than ever.

Hilda did say, 'How old are you?' but, of course, we knew the answer to that. It was ten.

And Hugh said, 'Do you like England or India best?'

And our cousin replied, 'India ever so much, thank you.'

I never felt such a duffer. It was awful. With all the millions of interesting things that there are to say at other times, and I couldn't think of one. At last I said, 'Do you like games?'

And our cousin replied, 'Some games I do,' in a tone that made me sure that the games he liked wouldn't be our kind, but some wild Indian sort that we didn't know.

I could see that the others were feeling just like me, and I knew we could not go on like this till tea-time. And yet I didn't see any other way to go on in. It was Hilda who cut the Gorgeous knot at last. She said:

Hugh, let you and I go and make a lovely surprise for Rupert and Sidney.'

And before I could think of any way of stopping them without being downright rude to our new cousin, they had fled the scene, just like any old conspirators. Rupert—me, I mean—was left alone with the stranger. I said:

'Is there anything you'd like to do?'

And he said, ' No, thank you.'

Then neither of us said anything for a bit—and I could hear the others shrieking with laughter in the hall.

I said, 'I wonder what the surprise will be like.'

He said, 'Yes, I wonder'; but I could tell from his tone that he did not wonder a bit.

The others were yelling with laughter. Have you ever noticed how very amused people always are when you're not there? If you're in bed - ill, or in disgrace, or anything—it always sounds like far finer jokes than ever occur when you are not out of things.

'Do you like reading?' said I—who am Rupert—in the tones of despair.

'Yes,' said the cousin.

'Then take a book,' I said hastily, for I really could not stand it another second, 'and you just read till the surprise is ready. I think I ought to go and help the others. I'm the eldest, you know.'

I did not wait—I suppose if you're ten you can choose a book for yourself—and I went.

Hilda's idea was just Indians, but I thought a wigwam would be nice. So we made one with the hall table and the fur rugs off the floor. If everything had been different, and Aunt Ellie hadn't been ill, we were to have had turkey for dinner. The turkey's feathers were splendid for Indians, and the striped blankets off Hugh's and my beds, and all mother's beads. The hall is big like a room, and there was a fire. The afternoon passed like a beautiful dream. When Rupert had done his own feathering and blanketing, as well as brown paper moccasins, he helped the others. The tea-bell rang before we were quite dressed. We got Louisa to go up and tell our cousin that the surprise was ready, and we all got inside the wigwam. It was a very tight fit, with the feathers and the blankets.

He came down the stairs very 'slowly, reading all the time, and when he got to the mat at the bottom of the stairs we burst forth in all our war-paint from the wigwam. It upset, because Hugh and Hilda stuck between the table's legs, and it fell on the stone floor with quite a loud noise. The wild Indians picked themselves up out of the ruins and did the finest war-dance I've ever seen in front of my cousin Sidney.

He gave one little scream, and then sat down suddenly on the bottom steps. He leaned his head against the banisters and we thought he was admiring the war-dance, till Eliza, who had been laughing and making as much noise as any one, suddenly went up to him and shook him.

'Stop that noise; she said to us, 'he's gone off into a dead faint.'

He had.

Of course we were very sorry and all that, but we never thought he'd be such a muff as to be frightened of three Red Indians and a wigwam that happened to upset. He was put to bed, and we had our teas.

'I wish we hadn't,' Hilda said.

' So do I,' said Hugh.

But Rupert said, 'No one could have expected a cousin of ours to be a chicken-hearted duffer. He's a muff. It's bad enough to have a muff in the house at all, and at Christmas time, too. But a related muff!'

Still the affair had cast a gloom, and we were glad when it was bed-time.

Next day was Christmas Day, and no presents, and nobody but the servants to wish a Merry Christmas to.

Our cousin Sidney came down to breakfast, and as it was Christmas Day Rupert bent his proud spirit to own he was sorry about the Indians.

Sidney said, 'It doesn't matter. I'm sorry too. Only I didn't expect it.'

We suggested two or three games, such as Parlour Cricket, National Gallery, and Grab—but Sidney said he would rather read. So we said would he mind if we played out the Indian game which we had dropped, out of politeness, when he fainted.

He said:

'I don't mind at all, now I know what it is you're up to. No, thank you, I'd rather read,' he added, in reply to Rupert's unselfish offer to dress him for the part of Sitting Bull.

So he read Treasure Island, and we fought on the stairs with no casualties except the gas globes, and then we scalped all the dolls - putting on paper scalps first because Hilda wished it—and we scalped Eliza as she passed through the hall—hers was a white scalp with lacey stuff on it and long streamers.

And when it was beginning to get dark we thought of flying machines. Of course Sidney wouldn't play at that either, and Hilda and Hugh were contented with paper wings—there were some rolls of rather decent yellow and pink crinkled paper that mother had bought to make lamp shades of. They made wings of this, and then they played at fairies up and down the stairs, while Sidney sat at the bottom of the stairs and went on reading Treasure Island. But Rupert was determined to have a flying machine, with real flipper-flappery wings, like at Hendon. So he got two brass fireguards out of the spare room and mother's bedroom, and covered them with newspapers fastened on with string. Then he got a tea-tray and fastened it on to himself with rug-straps, and then he slipped his arms in between the string and the fire-guards, and went to the top of the stairs and shouting, 'Look out below there! Beware Flying Machines!' he sat down suddenly on the tray, and tobogganed gloriously down the stairs, flapping his fire-guard wings. It was a great success, and felt more like flying than anything he ever played at. But Hilda had not had time to look out thoroughly, because he did not wait any time between his warning and his descent. So that she was still fluttering, in the character of Queen of the Butterfly Fairies, about half-way down the stairs when the flying machine, composed of the two guards, the tea-tray, and Rupert, started from the top of them, and she could only get out of the way by standing back close against the wall. Unluckily the place where she was, was also the place where the gas was burning in a little recess. You remember we had broken the globe when we were playing Indians.

Now, of course, you know what happened, because you have read Harriett and the Matches, and all the rest of the stories that have been written to persuade children not to play with fire. No one was playing with fire that day, it is true, or doing anything really naughty at all—but however naughty we had been the thing that happened couldn't have been much worse. For the flying machine as it came rushing round the curve of the staircase banged against the legs of Hilda. She screamed and stumbled back. Her pink paper wings went into the gas that hadn't a globe. They flamed up, her hair frizzled, and her lace collar caught fire. Rupert could not do anything because he was held fast in his flying machine, and he and it were rolling painfully on the mat at the bottom of the stairs.

Hilda screamed.

I have since heard that a great yellow light fell on the pages of Treasure Island.

Next moment Treasure Island went spinning across the room. Sidney caught up the fur rug that was part of the wigwam, and as Hilda, screaming horribly, and with wings not of paper but of flames, rushed down the staircase, and stumbled over the flying machine, Sidney threw the rug over her, and rolled her over and over on the floor.

'Lie down!' he cried. 'Lie down! It's the only way.'

But somehow people never will lie down when their clothes are on fire, any more than they will lie still in the water if they think they are drowning, and some one is trying to save them. It came to something very like a fight. Hilda fought and struggled. Rupert got out of his fire-guards and added himself and his tea-tray to the scrimmage. Hugh slid down to the knob of the banisters and sat there yelling. The servants came rushing in.

But by that time the fire was out. And Sidney gasped out, 'It's all right. You aren't burned, Hilda, are you?'

Hilda was much too frightened to know whether she was burnt or not, but Eliza looked her over, and it turned out that only her neck was a little scorched, and a good deal of her hair frizzled off short.

Every one stood, rather breathless and pale, and every one's face was much dirtier than customary, except Hugh's, which he had, as usual, dirtied thoroughly quite early in the afternoon. Rupert felt perfectly awful, ashamed and proud and rather sick. 'You're a regular hero, Sidney,' he said—and it was not easy to say -'and yesterday I said you were a related muff. And I'm jolly sorry I did. Shake hands, won't you?'

Sidney hesitated.

'Too proud?' Rupert's feelings were hurt, and I should not wonder if he spoke rather fiercely.

'It's-it's a little burnt, I think,' said Sidney, 'don't be angry,' and he held out the left hand.

Rupert grasped it.

'I do beg your pardon,' he said, 'you are a hero!'

Sidney's hand was bad for ever so long, but we were tremendous chums after that.

It was when they'd done the hand up with scraped potato and salad oil—a great, big, fat, wet plaster of it—that I said to him:

I don't care if you don't like games. Lets be pals.'

And he said, ' I do like games, but I couldn't care about anything with mother so ill. I know you'll think I'm a muff, but I'm not really, only I do love her so.'

And with that he began to cry, and I thumped him on the back, and told him exactly what a beast I knew I was, to comfort him.

When Aunt Ellie was well again we kept Christmas on the 6th of January, which used to be Christmas Day in middle-aged times.

Father came home before New Year, and he had a silver medal made, with a flame on one side, and on the other Sidney's name, and 'For Bravery.'

If I had not been tied up in fire-guards and tea-trays perhaps I should have thought of the rug and got the medal. But I do not grudge it to Sidney. He deserved it. And he is not a muff. I see now that a person might very well be frightened at finding Indians in the hall of a strange house, especially if the person had just come from the kind of India where the Indians are quite a different sort, and much milder, with no feathers and wigwams and war-dances, but only dusky features and University Degrees.