If That Were My Child!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"Ah, good evening, Mr. Pelby! Good evening, Mr. Manly! I am glad to see you! Mrs. Little and I were just saying that we wished some friends would step in."
"Well, how do you do this evening, Mrs. Little?" said Mr. Pelby, after they were all seated. "You look remarkably well. And how is your little family?"
"We are all bright and hearty," Mrs. Little replied, smiling. "Little Tommy has just gone off to bed. If you had come in a few minutes sooner, you would have seen the dear little fellow. He's as lively and playful as a cricket."
"How old is he now?" asked Mr. Manly.
"He will be two years and six months old the twenty-third of next month."
"Just the age of my Edward. How much I would like to see him!"
"I don't think he has gone to sleep yet," said the fond mother of an only child, rising and going off to her chamber.
"You bachelors don't sympathize much with us fathers of families," said Mr. Little, laughing, to Mr. Pelby.
"How should we?"
"True enough! But then you can envy us; and no doubt do."
"It's well enough for you to think so, Little. But, after all, I expect we are the better off."
"Don't flatter yourself in any such way, Mr. Pelby. I've been . . . "
"Here's the darling!" exclaimed Mrs. Little, bounding gayly in the room at the moment, with Tommy, who was laughing and tossing his arms about in delight at being taken up from his bed, into which he had gone reluctantly.
"Come to papa, Tommy," said Mr. Little, reaching out his hands. "Now ain't that a fine little fellow?" he continued, looking from face to face of his two friends, and showing off Tommy to the best possible advantage that his night-gown would permit. And he was a sweet child; with rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes, and clustering golden ringlets.
"Indeed he is a lovely child," Mr. Manly said earnestly.
"A very fine child," Mr. Pelby remarked, mechanically.
"We'll match him with the town!" broke in Mrs. Little, unable to keep down the upswelling, delighted affection of her heart.
By this time, Tommy's bewildered senses were restored, and he began to look about him with lively interest. His keen eyes soon detected Mr. Pelby's bright gold chain, and well knowing that it betokened a watch, he slid quickly down from his father's lap, and stood beside the knee of the nice bachelor visitor.
"He's not afraid of strangers," said Mrs. Little, her eyes sparkling with pleasure, as they followed every movement of her child.
"Tee watch," said Tommy.
"It'll bite" said Mr. Pelby.
"Tee watch!" reiterated the child, grasping the chain.
With not the best grace in the world, Mr. Pelby drew out his beautiful gold chain, and submitted it to the rude grasp, as he thought, of Tommy.
"Oh, ma! ma! Tee watch! tee watch!" cried the child, almost wild with delight — at the same time advancing towards her as far as the chain would permit, and then tugging at it as hard as he could, to the no small discomfort of the visitor, who, seeing no movement of relief on the part of either parent, was forced to slip the chain over his head, and trust Tommy to carry his favorite time-keeper to his mother.
"Tommy'll be a watch-maker, I expect. Nothing pleases him so much as a watch," remarked the father.
Mr. Pelby did not reply. He dared not, for he felt that, were he to trust himself to speak, he would betray feelings that politeness required him to conceal.
"There!" suddenly exclaimed the mother, catching eagerly at the watch, which Tommy had dropped, and recovering it just in time to save it from injury.
"Gim me! gim me! gim me!" cried Tommy, seizing her hands, and endeavoring to get possession again of the valuable timepiece, which had escaped so narrowly.
"There, now," said Mrs. Little, yielding to the child's eager importunity, and permitting him again to take possession of the watch. "But you must hold it tighter."
Mr. Pelby was on nettles; but he dared not interfere.
"Open it," said Tommy, endeavoring to loose the hinge of the case with his tiny thumb-nail.
"Oh, no; you mustn't open it, Tommy."
"Open it!" resumed Tommy, in a higher and more positive tone.
"I can't open it," said the mother, pretending to make an earnest effort to loose the case.
"O-pen — it!" screamed the child, in a loud angry tone.
"Here, take it to Mr. Pelby, he will open it for you." And the watch was again entrusted to Tommy's care, who bore it, and, as fortune would have it, safely too, to its owner.
Of course, Mr. Pelby could do no better, and so he displayed the jewels and internal arrangement of his watch to the curious gaze of the child. At first, Tommy was well pleased to look alone: but soon the ends of his fingers itched to touch, and touch he did, quite promptly; and, of course, Mr. Pelby very naturally drew back the hand that held the watch; and just as naturally did Tommy suddenly extend his and grasp the receding prize. With some difficulty, Mr. Pelby succeeded in disengaging the fingers of the child, and then hastily closing the watch, he slipped it into his pocket.
"There, it's gone!" said he.
"Tee de watch!" replied Tommy.
"It's gone clear off."
"Tee de watch!" said Tommy more emphatically.
"Here, come see mine," said the father.
"No!" replied the child, angrily.
Mr. Pelby, to quiet Tommy, now took him upon his lap, and called his attention to a large cameo breast-pin. This pleased him at once, and he amused himself with pulling at it, and sadly rumpling the visitor's snow-white shirt. Next he began to dive into his pockets, revealing pen-knife, tooth-pick, etc. etc. This was worse than to let him have the watch; and so, as a lesser evil, the gold watch was again drawn from its hiding-place. The little fellow was once more wild with delight.
But Pelby was so evidently annoyed, that Mr. Little could not help observing it; and he at length said to his wife —
"Hadn't you better take Tommy upstairs, my dear? He is too troublesome."
Mr. Pelby had it on his tongue's end to say, "Oh, no, he doesn't trouble me at all!" But he was afraid — not to tell a falsehood — but that the child would be allowed to remain; so he said nothing.
"Come, Tommy," said Mrs. Little, holding out her hands.
"No!" replied the child emphatically.
"No!" still louder and more emphatic.
"Yes, come, dear."
"No, I won't!"
"Yes, but you must!" Mrs. Little said, taking hold of him.
At this, Tommy clung around the neck of Mr. Pelby, struggling and kicking with all his might against the effort of his mother to disengage him; who finally succeeded, and bore him, screaming at the top of his voice, from the room.
"If that were my child," said Mr. Pelby, after they had left the house, "I'd half kill him — but I'd make a better boy of him! I never saw such an ill-behaved, rude little rascal in my life!"
"Children are children, Mr. Pelby," quietly remarked his auditor, Mr. Manly, who had half a dozen "little responsibilities" himself.
"Hard bargains at the best, I know. But then I have seen well-behaved children; and, if parents would only take proper pains with them, all might be trained to good behavior and obedience. If I had a child, it would act different, I know, from what that one did this evening."
"Old bachelors' children, you know," Mr. Manly said, with a smile.
"O yes, I know. But silly adages don't excuse neglectful parents," replied Mr. Pelby, a little touched at the allusion.
"That is true, Mr. Pelby. But what I meant you to understand by the remark was, that those who have no children of their own, are too often lacking in a due consideration and forbearance towards those of other people. I have quite a house full and I know that I take great pains with them, and that the true management of them costs me much serious consideration; and yet I have known some of mine to act much worse than Tommy Little did this evening."
"Well, all I have to say in the matter, friend Manly, is this — If I had a child that acted as rudely as that young one did tonight, I would teach him a lesson that he would not forget for the next twelve months!"
"You don't know what you would do, if you had a child, Pelby. An active, restless child requires patience and continued forbearance; and, if it should be your lot to have such a one, I am sure your natural affection and good sense would combine to prevent your playing the unreasonable tyrant over it."
"Perhaps it would. But I am sure I should not think my natural affection and good sense pledged to let my child do as he pleased, and annoy everyone that came to the house."
"You were exceedingly annoyed, then, tonight?"
"Annoyed! Why, I could hardly sit in my chair. And when the young imp came pawing me and climbing over me, I could hardly help tossing him off of my lap upon the floor."
"You did not seem so much irritated. I really thought you were pleased with the little fellow."
"Now, that is too bad, Manly! I'd had rather have a monkey screwing and twisting about in my lap! It was as much as I could do to be civil to either his father or mother for allowing their brat to torment me as he did. First, I must be kissed by his bread and butter mouth; and then he made me suffer a kind of martyrdom in fear of my elegant watch. A watch is not the thing for a child to play with, and I am astonished at Mr. Little for allowing his young one to annoy a visitor in that way."
"Blame them as much as you please, but don't feel unkindly towards the child," said Manly. "He knows no better. Your watch delighted him, and of course he wanted it, and any attempt to deprive him of it, was very naturally resisted. His parents are fond of him — and well they may be — and pet him a great deal; thus he has learned to expect every visitor to notice him, and also expects to notice and make free with every visitor. This is all very natural."
"Natural enough, and so is it to steal; but that doesn't make it right. Children should be taught, from the first, to be reserved in the presence of strangers, and never to come near them unless invited. If I had one, I'll be bound he wouldn't disgrace me as Little's child did him tonight."
"We'll see, one of these days, perhaps," was Manly's quiet remark; and the friends parted company.
Ten years often make a great difference in a man's condition, habits, and feelings. Ten years passed away, and Mr. Pelby was a husband, and the father of three interesting children — indulged, of course, and "pretty considerably" spoiled, yet interesting withal, and, in the eyes of their father, not to be compared for beauty, good manners, etc. with any other children inhabiting the same city. William, the oldest boy, had not quite completed his sixth year. Emma, a rosy-cheeked, chubby little thing, when asked her age, could say —
"Four years old last June."
And Henry was just the age that Tommy Little was when he so terribly annoyed Mr. Pelby. Now, as to Henry's accomplishments, they were many and various. He could be a good boy when he felt in a pleasant humor — and could storm, and fret, and pout in way so well understood by all parents, that it would be a more than duty requires, to describe it here.
But strange mutation of disposition! — Mr. Pelby could bear these fits of perverseness with a philosophy that would have astonished even himself, could he have for a moment realized his former state of mind. When Henry became ill-tempered from any cause, Mr. Pelby had learned that to get into an ill-humor also, would be only adding fuel to flame; and so, on such occasions, he sought affectionately to calm and soothe his ruffled feelings. If Henry, or Emma, or William, from any exuberance of happy feelings, were noisy or boisterous, he did not think it right to check them suddenly, because he was a little annoyed. He tried, rather, to feel glad with them — to partake of their joy. In short, a wife and two or three children, do wonders sometimes!
Now it so happened about this time, that Mr. and Mrs. Manly and Mr. and Mrs. Little were spending an evening with Mr. and Mrs. Pelby. William and Emma had their suppers prepared for them in the kitchen, and then, as usual, were put to bed; but "dear little Henry" was so interesting to his parents, and they naturally thought must be so interesting to their company — that he was allowed to sit up and come to the tea-table. As Mrs. Pelby had no dining-room, the back parlor was used for this purpose, and so all the progressive arrangements of the tea-table were visible.
"Oh, dinne weddy! dinne weddy!" cried little Henry, sliding down from the lap of Mrs. Little — whose collar he had been rumpling so that it was hardly fit to be seen — as soon as he saw the tablecloth laid; and, running for a chair, he was soon perched up in it, calling lustily for "meat."
"Oh, no, no, Henry! dinner not ready yet!" said Mrs. Pelby, starting forward, and endeavoring to remove the child from his seat; but Henry screamed and resisted.
"Oh, let him sit, mother!" interfered Mr. Pelby. "The little dear doesn't understand waiting as we do."
"Yes, but, father, it is time that he had learned. Tea isn't near ready yet; and if he is allowed to sit here, he will pull and haul everything about," responded Mrs. Pelby.
"Oh, never mind, mother! Give him some meat, and he'll be quiet enough. I never like to see little folks made to wait for grown people; they cannot understand nor appreciate the reason of it."
And so little Henry was permitted to remain at the table, picking first at one thing and then at another, much to the discomfort and mortification of his mother, who could not see in this indulgence anything very interesting. Mrs. Little was relieved, although her collar was disfigured past hope.
After a while, tea was announced, and the company sat down.
"Me toffee! me toffee!" cried Henry, stretching out his hands impatiently. "Me toffee, ma! me toffee, ma!" as soon as Mrs. Pelby was seated before the tea-tray, and had commenced supplying the cups with cream and sugar.
"Yes — yes — Henry shall have coffee. H-u-s-h — there — be quiet — that's a good boy," she said, soothingly. But —
"Me toffee, ma! me toffee, ma! me toffee, ma!" was continued without a moment's cessation. "Ma! ma! ma! me toffee! me toffee!"
"Yes, yes, yes! you shall have coffee in a moment; only be patient, child!" Mrs. Pelby now said, evidently worried; for Henry was crying at the top of his voice, and impatiently shaking his hands and vibrating his whole body.
But he ceased not a moment until his mother, before any of the company had been served, prepared him a cup of milk and warm water, sweetened. Placing his lips to the edge of the cup, Henry drank the whole of it, before the table was more than half served.
"Me more toffee, ma!"
Mrs. Pelby paused, and looked him in the face with an expression of half despair and half astonishment.
"Me more toffee, ma!" continued Henry.
"Yes, wait a moment, and I'll give you more," she said.
"More toffee, ma!" in a louder voice.
"Yes, in a moment."
"More toffee, ma!" This time louder and more impatiently.
To keep the peace, a second cup of milk and hot water had to be prepared, and then Mrs. Pelby finished waiting on her company. But it soon appeared that the second cup had not really been wanted, for now that he had it, the child could not swallow more than two or three draughts. His amusement now consisted in playing in his saucer with a spoon, which being perceived by his mother, she said to him —
"There now, Henry, you didn't want that, after all. Come, let me pour your tea back into the cup, and set the cup on the platter, or you will spill it;" at the same time making a motion to do what she had proposed. But —
"No! no! no!" cried the child, clinging to the saucer, and attempting to remove it out of his mother's reach. This he did so suddenly, that the entire contents were thrown into Mrs. Little's lap.
"Oh my! Mrs. Little!" exclaimed Mrs. Pelby, really distressed; "that is too bad! Come, Henry, you must go away from the table;" at the same time attempting to remove him. But he cried —
"No! no! no!" so loud, that she was constrained to desist.
"There, let him sit; he won't do so any more," said Mr. Pelby. "That was very naughty, Henry. Come, now, if you want your tea, drink it, or let me put it away."
Henry already knew enough of his father to be convinced that when he spoke in a certain low, emphatic tone, he was in earnest; and so he very quietly put his mouth down to his saucer and pretended to drink, though it would have been as strange as pouring water into a full cup without overflowing it, as for him to have let any more go down his throat, without spilling a portion already there out at the top.
Tea was at last over, and Mrs. Little, on rising from the table, had opportunity and leisure to examine her beautiful silk dress, now worn for the second time. Fortunately, it was of a color that tea would not injure, although it was by no means pleasant to have a whole front completely saturated. Mrs. Pelby made many apologies, but Mr. Pelby called it a "family accident," and one of a kind that married people were so familiar with, as scarcely to be annoyed by them.
"Come here, Henry," said he. "Just see what you have done! Now go kiss the lady, and say, 'I'm sorry.'"
The little fellow's eye brightened, and going up to Mrs. Little, he pouted out his cherry lips, and, as she kissed him, he said, with a suddenly-assumed demure, penitent look — "I torry."
"What's Henry sorry for?" asked Mrs. Little, instantly softening towards the child, and taking him on her knee.
"I torry," he repeated, but in a much livelier tone, at the same time that he clambered up and stood in her lap, with his little hands again crushing her beautiful French collar.
"Come here, Henry," said Mr. Manly, who saw that Mrs. Little was annoyed at this; but Henry would not move. He had espied a bright comb in Mrs. Little's head, and had just laid violent hands upon it, threatening every moment to flood that lady's neck and shoulders with her own dishevelled tresses.
"Come and see my watch," said Mr. Manly.
This was enough. Henry slid from Mrs. Little's lap instantly, and in the next minute was seated on Mr. Manly's knee, examining that gentleman's time-keeper. Between opening and shutting the watch, holding it first to his own and then to Mr. Manly's ear, Henry spent full a quarter of an hour. Even that considerate, kind-hearted gentleman's patience began to be impaired, and he could not help thinking that his friend, Mr. Pelby, ought to be thoughtful enough to relieve him. Once or twice he made a movement to replace the watch in his pocket, but this was instantly perceived by the child, and as promptly resisted. The little fellow had an instinctive perception that Mr. Manly did not wish him to have the watch, and for that very reason retained possession of it long beyond the time that he would have done if it had been fully relinquished to him.
At last he tired of the glittering toy, and returned to annoy Mrs. Little; but she was saved by the appearance of a servant with fruit and cakes.
"Dim me cake! dim me cake!" cried Henry, seizing hold of the servant's clothes, and pulling her so suddenly as almost to cause her to drop the tray that was in her hands.
To keep the peace, Henry was helped first of all, to a slice of pound-cake.
"Mo' cake," he said, in a moment or two after, unable to articulate with any degree of distinctness, for his mouth was so full that each cheek stood out, and his lips essayed in vain to close over the abundant supply within. Another piece was given, and this disappeared as quickly. Then he wanted an apple, and as soon as he got one, he cried for a second and a third. Then —
But we will not chronicle the sayings and doings of little Henry any further; more than to say, that he soon, from being allowed to sit up beyond the accustomed hour, grew fretful and exceedingly troublesome, preventing all pleasant interaction between the visitors and visited, and that at nine o'clock he was carried off screaming to his bed.
"If that were my child," said Mr. Little, pausing at his own door, and turning around to Mr. and Mrs. Manly, who had accompanied his wife thus far on their way home, "I would teach him better manners, or I would half kill him. I never saw such an ill-trained little imp in my life!"
"Children are children, you know," was Mr. Manly's quiet reply.
"Yes, but children may be made to behave — if any pains at all are taken with them. It is really unpardonable for anyone to let a child like that annoy visitors as he did us this evening."
"Few children of his age, Mr. Little, unless of a remarkably quiet and obedient disposition, are much better than Pelby's little boy."
"As to that, Mr. Manly," broke in Mrs. Little, "there's our Tommy, a fine boy of twelve, as you know. He never acted like that when he was a child. I never had a bit of trouble with him when we had company. We could bring him down into the parlor when he was of Henry Pelby's age, and he would go round and kiss all the ladies so sweetly, and then go off to bed, like a little man, as he was."
"Ah, Mrs. Little, you forget," said Mr. Manly, laughing.
"Oh, no, indeed, Mr. Manly. I don't forget these things. We could do anything with Tommy at his age, and it was because we managed him rightly. You can do anything with children you please."
"Indeed, then, Mrs. Little, it is more than I can say," remarked Mrs. Manly. "If my children could be made anything at all of, they would have been different from what they are; and yet, I believe," she added, with a feeling of maternal pride, "they are not the worst children I have ever seen."
"Good-nights" were now exchanged, and, after Mr. and Mrs. Manly had walked a few steps, the former said,
"Well, this is a curious world that we live in. Ten years ago, Pelby, then a trim bachelor, as particular as any of the tribe, said, in allusion to Tommy Little — 'If that were my child, I would half kill him, but I'd make a better boy of him!'"
"Yes, those were his very words. We were spending an evening at Mr. and Mrs. Little's, and when Tommy was about two years old or so; and Pelby was terribly annoyed by him. He acted pretty much as all children do — that is, pretty much as Henry did tonight. But Pelby couldn't endure it with any kind of patience."
"Ha! ha!" laughed out Mrs. Manly, in spite of herself. "How completely the tables have been turned!"
"Yes, they have been, certainly. But what is a little singular is, that neither of the parties concerned, seem to have gained wisdom by their experience. Pelby forgets how other people's children once annoyed him, and Mr. and Mrs. Little seem to be entirely unconscious that their paragon was very much like all other little boys when he was only about two or three years old. For my part, I think we should be careful not to let our children trespass upon visitors. None can feel the same interest in them that we do, or exercise the same forbearance towards their faults. Faults they all have, which need especial care in their correction; and these should be allowed to appear as rarely as possible under circumstances which prevent a beneficial check being placed upon them. For this reason, you know, we have made it a matter of concern not to let our children, while, too young to understand something of propriety — be present, but for a very short time, when we had company. The moment they become rude or too familiar, they were quietly taken from the room."
"Yes; and knowing as I do," said Mrs. Manly, "how very restless some children with active minds are, I am never disposed to look with unfavorable eyes upon any — even when wild, turbulent, and heedless. They act as they feel; and so far as evil tendencies show themselves, we know they are inherited, and that it is not in the power of the child to remove them. We should then be moved, it seems to me, with a purer affection for them; with something of pity mixed with our love, and, instead of allowing their wrong actions to repulse us — we should draw towards them with a desire to teach them what is wrong, and impart to them some power to overcome evil."
"If all thought as you, Mary," said Mr. Manly, as they reached their own doors, "we would hear no one railing out against other people's children — while he indulged his own. A fault too common with most parents."