He could accomplish nothing that required one glimmer of reason, thought or commonsense. He cleaned himself only under bitter compulsion; he lost his bearings equally in town or country after a five-minutes’ stroll. He could track nothing smaller than a tram-car on a single line, and that only if there were no traffic. He could neither hammer a nail, carry an order, tie a knot, light a fire, notice any natural object, except food, or use any edged tool except a table-knife. To crown all, his innumerable errors and omissions were not even funny.
But it is an old law of human nature that if you hold to one known course of conduct—good or evil—you end by becoming an institution; and when he was fifteen or thereabouts William achieved that position. The Pelicans gradually took pride in the notorious fact that they possessed the only Sealed Pattern, Mark A, Ass—an unique jewel, so to speak, of Absolute, Unalterable Incapacity. The poet of a neighbouring troop used to write verses about him, and recite them from public places, such as the tops of passing trams. William made no comment, but wrapped himself up in long silences that he seldom broke till the juniors of the Troop (the elders had given it up long before) tried to do him good turns with their scout-staves.
In private life he assisted his uncle at the mystery of French-polishing, which, he said, was “boiling up things in pots and rubbing down bits of wood.” The boiling-up, he said, he did not mind so much. The rubbing down he hated. Once, too, he volunteered that his uncle and only relative had been in the Navy, and “did not like to be played with “; and the vision of William playing with any human being upset even his Scoutmaster.
Now it happened, upon a certain summer that was really a summer with heat to it, the Pelicans had been lent a dream of a summer camp in a dream of a park, which offered opportunities for every form of diversion, including bridging muddy-banked streams, and unlimited cutting into young alders and undergrowth at large. A convenient village lay just outside the Park wall, and the ferny slopes round the camp were rich in rabbits, not to mention hedgehogs and other fascinating vermin. It was reached—Mr. Hale their Scoutmaster saw to that—after two days’ hard labour, with the Troop push-cart, along sunny roads.
William’s share in the affair was—what it had always been. First he lost most of his kit; next his uncle talked to him after the fashion of the Navy of ’96 before refitting him; thirdly he went lame behind the push-cart by reason of a stone in his shoe, and on arrival in camp dropped—not for the first, second or third time—into his unhonoured office as Camp Orderly, and was placed at the disposal of The Prawn, whose light blue eyes stuck out from his freckled face, and whose long narrow chest was covered with badges. From that point on, the procedure was as usual. Once again did The Prawn assure his Scoutmaster that he would take enormous care of William and give him work suited to his capacity and intelligence. Once again did William grunt and wriggle at the news, and once again in the silence of the deserted camp next morning, while the rest of the Pelicans were joyously mucking themselves up to their young bills at bridging brooks, did he bow his neck to The Prawn’s many orders. For The Prawn was a born organizer. He set William to unpack the push-cart and then to neatly and exactly replace all parcels, bags, tins, and boxes. He despatched him thrice in the forenoon across the hot Park to fetch water from a distant well equipped with a stiff-necked windlass and a split handle that pinched William’s fat palms. He bade him collect sticks, thorny for choice, out of the flanks of a hedge full of ripe nettles against which Scout uniforms offer small protection. He then made him lay them in the camp cooking-place, carefully rejecting the green ones, for most sticks were alike to William; and when everything else failed, he set him to pick up stray papers and rubbish the length and breadth of the camp. All that while, he not only chased him with comments but expected that William would show gratitude to him for forming his young mind.
“’Tisn’t every one ’ud take this amount o’ trouble with you, Mug,” said The Prawn virtuously, when even his energetic soul could make no further work for his vassal. “Now you open that bully-beef tin and we’ll have something to eat, and then you’re off duty—for a bit. I shall try my hand at a little camp-cooking.”
William found the tin—at the very bottom, of course, of the push-cart; cut himself generously over the knuckles in opening it (till The Prawn showed him how this should be done), and in due course, being full of bread and bully, withdrew towards a grateful clump of high fern that he had had his eye on for some time, wriggled deep into it, and on a little rabbit-browsed clearing of turf, stretched out and slept the sleep of the weary who have been up and under strict orders since six A.M. Till that hour of that day, be it remembered, William had given no proof either of intelligence or initiative in any direction.
He waked, slowly as was his habit, and noticed that the shadows were stretching a little, even as he stretched himself. Then he heard The Prawn clanking pot-lids, between soft bursts of song. William sniffed. The Prawn was cooking—was probably qualifying for something or other; The Prawn did nothing but qualify for badges. On reflection William discovered that he loved The Prawn even less this camp than the last, or the one before that. Then he heard the voice of a stranger.
“Yes,” was The Prawn’s reply. “I’m in charge of the camp. Would you like to look at it, sir?”
“’Seen ’em—seen heaps of ’em,” said the unknown. “My son was in ’em once—Buffaloes, out Hendon-way. What are you?”
“Well, just now I’m a sort of temporary Cook,” said The Prawn, whose manners were far better than William’s.
“Temp’ry! Temp’ry!” the stranger puffed. “Can’t be a temp’ry cook any more’n you can be a temp’ry Parson. Not so much. Cookin’s cookin’! Let’s see your notions of cookin’.”
William had never heard any one address The Prawn in these tones, and somehow it cheered him. In the silence that followed he turned on his face and wriggled unostentatiously through the fern, as a Scout should, till he could see that bold man without attracting The Prawn’s notice. And this, too, was the first time that William had ever profited by the instruction of his Scoutmaster or the example of his comrades.
Heavenly sights rewarded him. The Prawn, visibly ill at ease, was shifting from one sinewy leg to the other, while an enormously fat little man with a pointed grey beard and arms like the fins of a fish investigated a couple of pots that hung on properly crutched sticks over the small fire that William had lighted in the cooking-place. He did not seem to approve of what he saw or smelt. And yet it was the impeccable Prawn’s own cookery!
“Lor!” said he at last after more sniffs of contempt, as he replaced the lid. “If you hot up things in tins, that ain’t cookery. That’s vittles—mere vittles! And the way you’ve set that pot on, you’re drawing all the nesty wood-smoke into the water. The spuds won’t take much harm of it, but you’ve ruined the meat. That is meat, ain’t it? Get me a fork.”
William hugged himself. The Prawn, looking exactly, like his namesake well-boiled, fetched a big fork. The little man prodded into the pot.
“It’s stew!” The Prawn explained, but his voice shook.
“Lor!” said the man again. “It’s boilin’! It’s boilin’! You don’t boil when you stew, my son; an’ as for this”—up came a grey slab of mutton—“there’s no odds between this and motor-tyres. Well! Well! As I was sayin’——” He joined his hands behind his globular back and shook his head in silence. After a while, The Prawn tried to assert himself.
“Cookin’ isn’t my strong point,” began The Prawn, “but——”
“Pore boys! Pore boys!” the stranger soliloquized, looking straight in front of him. “Pore little boys! Wicked, I call it. They don’t ever let you make bread, do they, my son?”
The Prawn said they generally bought their bread at a shop.
“Ah! I’m a shopkeeper meself. Marsh, the Baker here, is me. Pore boys! Well! Well! . . . Though it’s against me own interest to say so, I think shops are wicked. They sell people things out o’ tins which save ’em trouble, an’ fill the ’ospitals with stummick-cases afterwards. An’ the muck that’s sold for flour. . . .” His voice faded away and he meditated again. “Well—well! As I was sayin’—— Pore boys! Pore boys! I’m glad you ain’t askin’ me to dinner. Good-bye.”
He rolled away across the fern, leaving The Prawn dumb behind him.
It seemed to William best to wriggle back in his cover as far as he could, ere The Prawn should cal! him to work again. He was not a Scout by instinct, but his uncle had shown him that when things went wrong in the world, some one generally passed it on to some one else. Very soon he heard his name called, acidly, several times. He crawled out from the far, end of the fern-patch, rubbing his eyes, and The Prawn re-enslaved him on the spot. For once in his life William was alert and intelligent, but The Prawn paid him no compliments, nor when the very muddy Pelicans came back from the bridging did The Prawn refer in any way to the visit of Mr. E. M. Marsh & Son, Bakers and Confectioners in the village street just outside the Park wall. Nor, for that matter, did he serve the Pelicans much besides tinned meats for their evening meal.
To say that William did not sleep a wink that night would be what has been called “nature-faking’.’; which is a sin. His system demanded at least nine hours’ rest, but he lay awake for quite twenty minutes, during which he thought intensely, rapidly and joyously. Had he been asked he would have said that his thoughts dealt solely with The Prawn and the judgment that had fallen upon him; but William was no psychologist. He did not know that hate—raging hate against a too-badged, too virtuous senior—had shot him into a new world, exactly as the large blunt shell is heaved through space and dropped into a factory, a garden or a barracks by the charge behind it. And, as the shell, which is but metal and mixed chemicals, needs the mere graze on the fuse to spread itself all over the landscape, so did his mind need but the touch of that hate to flare up and illuminate not only all his world, but his own way through it.
Next morning something sang in his ear that it was long since he had done good turns to any one except his uncle, who was slow to appreciate them. He would amend that error; and the more safely since The Prawn would be off all that day with the Troop on a tramp in the natural history line, and his place as Camp Warden and Provost Marshal would be filled by the placid and easy-going Walrus, whose proper name was Carpenter, who never tried for badges, but who could not see a rabbit without going after him. And the owner of the Park had given full leave to the Pelicans to slay by any means, except a gun, any rabbits they could. So William ingratiated himself with his Superior Officer as soon as the Pelicans had left. . . .
No, the excellent Carpenter did not see that he needed William by his side all day. He might take himself and his bruised foot pretty much where he chose. He went, and this new and active mind of his that he did not realize, accompanied him—straight up the path of duty which, poetry tells us, is so often the road to glory.
He began by cleaning himself and his kit at seven o’clock in the morning, long before the village shops were open. This he did near a postern gate with a crack in it, in the Park wall, commanding a limited but quite sufficient view of the establishment of E. M. Marsh & Son across the street. It was perfect weather, and about eight o’clock Mr. Marsh himself in his shirt-sleeves rolled out to enjoy it before he took down the shutters. Hardly had he shifted the first of them when a fattish Boy Scout with a flat face and a slight limp laid hold of the second and began to slide it towards him.
“Well, well!” said Mr. Marsh. “Ah! Your good turn, eh?”
“ Yes,” said William briefly.
“That’s right! Handsomely now, handsomely,” for the shutter was jamming in its groove. William knew from his uncle that “handsomely “meant slowly and with care. The shutter responded to the coaxing. The others followed.
“Belay!” said Mr. Marsh, wiping his forehead, for, like William, he perspired easily. When he turned round William had gone. The Movies had taught him, though he knew it not, the value of dramatic effect. He continued to watch Mr. Marsh through the crack in the postern—it was the little wooden door at the end of the right of way through the Park—and when, an hour or so later, Mr. Marsh came out of his shop and headed towards it, William retired backwards into the high fern and brambles. The manœuvre would have rejoiced Mr. Hale’s heart, for generally William moved like an elephant with its young. He turned up, quite casually, when Mr. Marsh had puffed his way again into the empty camp. Carpenter was off in pursuit of rabbits, with a pocket full of fine picture-wire. It was the first time William had ever done the honours of any establishment. He came to attention and smiled.
“Well! Well!” Mr. Marsh nodded friendlily. “What are you?”
“Camp-Guard,” said William, improvising for the first time in his life. “Can I show you anything, sir?”
“No, thank’ee. My son was a Scout once. I’ve just come to look round at things. ’No one tryin’ any cookin’ to-day?”
“’Bout’s well. Pore boys! What you goin’ to have for dinner? Tinned stuff?”
“I expect so, sir.”
“D’you like it?”
“’Used to it.” William rather approved of this round person who wasted no time on abstract ideas.
“Pore boys! Well! Well! It saves trouble—for the present. Knots and splices in your stummick afterwards—in ’ospital.” Mr. Marsh looked at the cold camp cooking-place and its three big stones, and sniffed.
“Would you like it lit?” said William, suddenly.
“To cook with.”
“What d’you know about cookin’?” Mr. Marsh’s little eyes opened wide.
“What makes you think I’m a cook?”
“By the way you looked at our cooking-place,” the mendacious William answered. The Prawn had always urged him to cultivate habits of observation. They seemed easy—after you had observed the things.
“Well! Well! Quite a young Sherlock, you are. ’Don’t think much o’ this, though.” Mr. Marsh began to stoop to rearrange the openair hearth to his liking.
“Show me how and I’ll do it,” said William.
“Shove that stone a little more to the left then. Steady—So! That’ll do! Got any wood? No? You slip across to the shop and ask them to give you some small brush-stuff from the oven. Stop! And my apron, too. Marsh is the name.”
William left him chuckling wheezily. When he returned Mr. Marsh clad himself in a long white apron of office which showed so clearly that Carpenter from far off returned at once.
“H’sh! H’sh!” said Mr. Marsh before he could speak. “You carry on with what you’re doing. Marsh is my name. My son was a Scout once. Buffaloes—Hendon-way. It’s all right. Don’t you grudge an old man enjoying himself.”
The Walrus looked amazedly at William moving in three directions at once with his face aflame.
“It’s all right,” said William. “He’s giving us cooking-lessons.” Then—the words. came into his mouth by themselves—“I’ll take the responsibility.”
“Yes, yes! He knew I could cook. Quite a young Sherlock he is! You carry on.” Mr. Marsh turned his back on the Walrus and despatched William again with some orders to his shop across the road. “And you’d better tell ’em to put ’em all in a basket,” he cried after him.
William returned with a fair assortment of mixed material, including eggs, two rashers of bacon, and a packet of patent flour, concerning which last Mr. Marsh said things no baker should say about his own goods. The frying-pan came out of the push-cart, with some other oddments, and it was not till after it was greased that Mr. Marsh demanded William’s name. He got it in full, and it produced strange effects on the little fat man.
“An’ ’ow do you spell your middle name?” he asked.
“Gl-a-double-s-e,” said William.
“Might that be your mother’s?” William nodded. “Well! Well! I wonder now! I do wonder. It’s a great name. There was a Sawyer in the cooking line once, but ’e was a Frenchman and spelt it different. Glasse is serious though. And you say it was your ma’s?” He fell into an abstraction, frying-pan in hand. Anon, as he cracked an egg miraculously on its edge “Whether you’re a descendant or not, it’s worth livin’ up to, a name like that.”
“Why?” said William, as the egg slid into the pan and spread as evenly as paint under an expert’s hand.
“I’ll tell you some day. She was a very great cook—but she’d have come expensive at to-day’s prices. Now, you take the pan an’ I’ll draw me own conclusions.”
The boy worked the pan over the level red fire with a motion that he had learned somehow or other while “boiling up” things for his uncle. It seemed to him natural and easy. Mr. Marsh watched in unbroken silence for at least two minutes.
“ It’s early to say—yet,” was his verdict. “But I ’ave ’opes. You ’ave good ’ands, an’ your knowin’ I was a cook shows you ’ave the instinck. If you ’ave got the Touch—mark you, I only say if—but if you ’ave anything like the Genuine Touch, you’re provided for for life. An’ further—don’t tilt her that way! you ’old your neighbours, friends and employers in the ’ollow of your ’and.”
“How do you mean?” said William, intent on his egg.
“Everything which a man is depends on what ’e puts inside ’im,” was the reply. “A good cook’s a King of men—besides being thunderin’ well off if ’e don’t drink. It’s the only sure business in the whole round world; and I’ve been round it eight times, in the Mercantile Marine, before I married the second Mrs. M.”
William, more interested in the pan than Mr. Marsh’s marriages, made no reply. “Yes, a good cook,” Mr. Marsh went on reminiscently, “even on Board o’ Trade allowance, ’as brought many a ship to port that ’ud otherwise ’ave mut’nied on the ’igh seas.”
The eggs and bacon mellowed together. Mr. Marsh supplied some wonderful last touches and the result was eaten, with the Walrus’s help, sizzling out of the pan and washed down with some stone ginger-beer from the convenient establishment of Mr. E. M. Marsh outside the Park wall.
“I’ve ruined me dinner,” Mr. Marsh confided to the boys, “but I ’aven’t enjoyed myself like this, not since Noah was an able seaman. You wash up, young Sherlock, an’ I’ll tell you something.”
He filled an ancient pipe with eloquent tobacco, and while William scoured the pan, he held forth on the art and science and mystery of cooking as inspiredly as Mr. Jorrocks, Master of Foxhounds, had lectured upon the Chase. The burden of his song was Power—power which, striking directly at the stomach of man, makes the rudest polite, not to say sycophantic, towards a good cook, whether at sea, in camp, in the face of war, or (here he embellished his text with personal experiences) the crowded competitive cities where a good meal was as rare, he declared, as silk pyjamas in a pig-sty. “An’ mark you,” he concluded, “three times a day the ’aughtiest and most overbearin’ of ’em all ’ave to come crawling to you for a round belly-full. Put that in your pipe and smoke it out, young Sherlock!”
He unloosed his sacrificial apron and rolled away.
The Boy Scout is used to strangers who give him good advice on the smallest provocation; but strangers who fill you up with bacon and eggs and ginger-beer are few.
“What started it all?” the Walrus demanded.
“Well, I can’t exactly say,” William answered, and as he had never been known to give a coherent account of anything, the Walrus returned to his wires, and William lay out and dreamed in the fern among the cattle-flies. He had dismissed The Prawn altogether from his miraculously enlarging mind. Very soon he was on the High Seas, a locality which till that instant had never appealed to him, in a gale, issuing bacon and eggs to crews on the edge of mutiny. Next, he was at war, turning the tides of it to victory for his own land by meals of bacon and eggs that brought bemedalled Generals in troops like Pelicans, to his fireplace. Then he was sustaining his uncle, at the door of an enormous restaurant, with plates of bacon and eggs sent out by gilded commissionaires such as guard the cinemas, while his uncle wept with gratitude and remorse, and The Prawn, badges and all, begged for scraps.
His chin struck his chest and half waked him to fresh flights of glory. He might have the Genuine Touch, Mr. Marsh had said it. More over, he, the Mug, had a middle name which filled that great man with respect. All the 47th Postal District should ring with that name, even to the exclusion of the racing-news, in its evening papers. And on his return from camp, or perhaps a day or two later, he would defy his very uncle and escape for ever from the foul business of French-polishing.
Here he slept generously and dreamlessly till evening, when the Pelicans returned, their pouches full of samples of uncookable vegetables and insects, and the Walrus made his report of the day’s Camp doings to the Scoutmaster.
“Wait a minute, Walrus. You say the Mug actually did the cooking?”
“Mr. Marsh had him under instruction, sir. But the Mug did a lot of it—he held the pan over the fire. I saw him, sir. And he washed up afterwards.”
“Did he?” said the Scoutmaster lightly. “Well, that’s something.” But when the Walrus had gone Mr. Hale smote thrice upon his bare knees and laughed, as a Scout should, without noise.
He thanked Mr. Marsh next morning for the interest he had shown in the camp, and suggested (this was while he was buying many very solid buns for a route-march) that nothing would delight the Pelicans more than a few words from Mr. Marsh on the subject of cookery, if he could see his way to it. .
“Quite so,” said Mr. Marsh. “I’m worth listenin’ to. Well! Well! I’ll be along this evening, and, maybe, I’ll bring some odds and ends with me. Send over young Sherlock-Glasse to ’elp me fetch ’em. That’s a boy with ’is stummick in the proper place. ’Know anything about ‘im?”
Mr. Hale knew a good deal, but he did not tell it all. He suggested that William himself should be approached, and would excuse him from the route-march for that purpose.
“Route-march!” said Mr. Marsh in horror. “Lor! The very worst use you can make of your feet is walkin’ on ’em. ’Gives you bunions. Besides, ’e ain’t got the figure for marches. ’E’s a cook by build as well as instinck. ’Eavy in the run, oily in the skin, broad in the beam, short in the arm, but, mark you, light on the feet. That’s the way cooks ought to be issued. You never ’eard of a really good thin cook yet, did you? No. Nor me. An’ I’ve known millions that called ’emselves cooks.”
Mr. Hare regretted that he had not studied the natural history of cooks, and sent William over early in the day.
Mr. Marsh spoke to the Pelicans for an hour that evening beside an open wood fire, from the ashes of which he drew forth (talking all the while) wonderful hot cakes called “dampers”; while from its top he drew off pans full of “lobscouse,” which he said was not to be confounded with “salmagundi,” and a hair-raising compound of bacon, cheese and onions all melted together. And while the Pelicans ate, he convulsed them with mirth or held them breathless with anecdotes of the High Seas and the World, so that the vote of thanks they passed him at the end waked all the cows in the Park. But William sat wrapped in visions, his hands twitching sympathetically to Mr. Marsh’s wizardry among the pots and pans. He knew now what the name of Glasse signified; for he had spent an hour at the back of the baker’s shop reading, in a brown-leather book dated 1767 A.D. and called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by a Lady, and that lady’s name, as it appeared in facsimile at the head of Chap. I., was “H. Glasse.” Torture would not have persuaded him (or Mr. Marsh), by that time, that she was not his direct ancestress; but, as a matter of form, he intended to ask his uncle.
When The Prawn, very grateful that Mr. Marsh had made no reference to his notions of cookery, asked William what he thought of the lecture and exhibition, William came out of his dreams with a start, and “Oh, all right, I suppose, but I wasn’t listening much.” Then The Prawn, who always improved an occasion, lectured him on lack of attention; and William missed all that too. The question in his mind was whether his uncle would let him stay with Mr. Marsh for a couple of days after Camp broke up, or whether he would use the reply-paid telegram, which Mr. Marsh had sent him, for his own French-polishing concerns. When The Prawn’s voice ceased, he not only promised to do better next time, but added, out of a vast and inexplicable pity that suddenly rose up inside him, “And I’m grateful to you, Prawn. I am reelly.”
On his return to town from that wonder-revealing visit, he found the Pelicans treating him with a new respect. For one thing, the Walrus had talked about the bacon and eggs; for another, The Prawn, who when he let himself go could be really funny, had given some artistic imitations of Mr. Marsh’s comments on his cookery. Lastly, Mr. Hale had laid down that William’s future employ would be to cook for the Pelicans when they camped abroad. “And look out that you don’t poison us too much,” he added.
There were occasional mistakes and some very flat failures, but the Pelicans swallowed them all loyally; no one had even a stomach-ache, and the office of Cook’s mate to William was in great demand. The Prawn himself sought it next Spring when the Troop stole a couple of fair May days on the outskirts of a brick-field, and were very happy. But William set him aside in favour of a new and specially hopeless recruit; oily-skinned, fat, short-armed, but light on his feet, and with some notion of lifting pot-lids without wrecking or flooding the whole fireplace.
“You see, Prawn,” he explained, “cookin’ isn’t a thing one can just pick up.”
“Yes, I could—watchin’ you,” The Prawn insisted.
“No. Mr. Marsh says it’s a Gift—same as a Talent.”
“D’you mean to tell me Rickworth’s got it, then?”
“Dunno. It’s my job to find that out—Mr. Marsh says. Anyway, Rickworth told me he liked cleaning out a fryin’ pan because it made him think of what it might be cookin’ next time.”
“Well, if that isn’t silliness, it’s just greediness,” said The Prawn. “What about those dampers you were talking of when I bought the fire-lighters for you this morning?”
William drew one out of the ashes, tapped it lightly with his small hazel-wand of office, and slid it over, puffed and perfect, towards The Prawn.
Once again the wave of pity—the Master’s pity for the mere consuming Public—swept over him as he watched The Prawn wolf it down.
“I’m grateful to you. I reely am, Prawn,” said William Glasse Sawyer.
After all, as he was used to say in later years, if it hadn’t been for The Prawn, where would he have been?