In his very comfortable suburban home Mr Venables sat at a late breakfast, gloomy and unsmiling.
Mrs Venables, seated opposite, tried to remember just how long ago it was since she had last seen him smile.
And how strange it seemed, she reflected, that, back in the old days, when dashing Joe Venables had carried her off her feet and into matrimony, he had been known in their set as "The Laughing Cavalier" -- after that picture. But ever since the Depression descended Joe had grown like that: morose, preoccupied, weighted with a thousand cares that he brusquely refused to discuss. "Women don't understand these things."
Mrs Venables was rather glad she did not. Yet, in the old days Joe had come to her with all his troubles. He was sick, that was it; and the doctors seemed to be able to do nothing about it.
Their daughter, Ella, seated at Mr Venables' right, stole furtive glances at him from time to time, seeming to seek opportunity for speech. Mr Venables knew al about that; but he was not going to give her the chance. Wanted to talk about that cheerful young ass, Kirk, who had been hanging about her lately - one of those typical moderns who faced life as if it were a gigantic tennis match, and took the bumps, if they came, with an idiotic smirk.
That thought indicated pretty clearly Mr Venables' recent state of mind. Smiles, for him, had become idiotic smirks, cheery laughter was inane sniggering; bright conversation, inconsequent cackle and an absurd waste of valuable time. A jest was almost a social offence.
Mr Venables grunted and turned his attention from the financial columns to the news pages of his paper. Motor accidents, burglaries, political crises, sudden death and disaster. What an age! What a country!
"Are you taking the car, dear?" asked Mrs Venables, as he rose. "If not, Ella and I thought of going to town for a little Christmas shopping. The new maid can manage well enough alone."
Mr Venables was not taking the car. His views on Christmas shopping were indicated by a glum silence and a yet deeper gloom. Mr Venables held the unexpressed opinion that no one connected with the house of Venables should be seen in that car -- an out-of-date 1929 model, sound enough, but, oh! shockingly out-moded. But the new model he had half promised himself this year was out of the question. True, his business showed signs of improving of late -- in fact, had improved. Also, he had ample spare cash. But every sensible man knew that another depression was lurking just ahead somewhere. One could not be too careful; life was full of snares; hope was folly.
So, on his short walk to the station, Mr Venables continued to wallow in self-pity almost to the point of enjoyment. he had found a mead of gloomy satisfaction in the fact that, before he could reach the platform the 10.2 train, which he had purposed to catch, drew out with a sneer for his fatuous last-minute rush. Oh, well; just another pin-prick; he was used to them.
Mr Venables sat down to wait twenty minutes for the next train with consciously patient resignation. Gazing abstractedly at a garish hoarding across the way, he mentally epitomised the whole of his recent attitude toward life and the activities of civilised man: "The world was a wash-out."
The long platform was deserted save where, at the far end, a strange-seeming youth of queer garb and figure, walked up and down in the sunlight. Idly, Mr Venables found himself taking note of his clothes as the youth strolled toward him. His outer garments, no two of which matched, were much worn, but meticulously clean, and mended here and there with extreme care. A rather absurd high white collar was encircled by a tie of most amazing color and pattern. Cheap black boots, most of which were revealed by the inadequate trousers, had been brought to such a high polish that they shone like twin mirrors; and in his hand the youth carried a crudely-arranged bunch of various flowers.
He continued to walk toward Mr Venables, pausing every little while to fix strangely puzzled eyes upon some commonplace object. Then his queerly gentle face would crinkle into a delighted smile and he would pass on.
"Dipsy," decided Mr Venables. "Those sort of people should be put away and cared for."
Almost immediately this opinion was strengthened, for, pausing before him, the strange youth beamed down upon him as upon some happy fellow-voyager to the Blessed Isles.
"Isn't it a most glorious day, sir?" he asked.
Mr Venables had not noticed it before; but to save discussion, he agreed, curtly.
"Sometimes I think," pursued the youth, "that God must have a glorious time making mornings like these for His people to enjoy. My mother says He does."
"Quite," said Mr Venables intelligently, as a sane man humoring a less-fortunate fellow.
"I like the rain, too," said the youth. "It rained yesterday, you remember. I spent an hour watching it. Like little silver spears it fell, sparkling and splashing. I didn't imagine it could be so wonderful. May I sit down on this seat, sir?"
Mr Venables pointed out briefly that their seats were there for the use of the public. Anyone might use them. He began to hope his train would come soon.
"Thanks," said the youth, quite as if he had received gracious permission. For some minutes he sat contemplating his glowing boots, thrust out before him. Stealing a furtive glance, Mr Venables was almost shocked by the look of almost ecstasy he saw. No man, he decided, could be so supremely happy as this young man seemed, and yet remain sane.
"Have you noticed my boots?" said the youth suddenly. "Mother said I worked too hard on them. But to see the polish coming on the dull surface was almost a miracle. It delighted me. I have always loved smooth-feeling things, like furniture and glass. They have always seemed kindly things, somehow. Mother says that is a quaint fancy. Of course you have heard of my mother, sir? Everybody has. I am Albert Martin."
"Of course," said Mr Venables, who could not remember ever having seen this strange being before.
"My mother," the youth babbled on, "is the most wonderful woman in al the world, and the most beautiful. You heard about her gift, sir, her Christmas gift to me this year? It was in the papers. She gave me a miracle, sir. Not many mothers have done that. We have been very patient for many years; she said we must be. And now that it has come, she wants me to believe that God did it all. But she can't deceive me any longer. He helped, of course; but it was her gift. Don't you think it was wonderful, sir?"
"Amazing," said Mr Venables for lack of something else to say. This young fellow puzzled him. A seeming imbecile, yet with strange flashes of wisdom and gifts of expression that somehow did not fit.
The next moment his earlier suspicions were confirmed as, pointing to a crudely-drawn soap advertisement, the youth burst forth again in strange excitement.
"Just look at that picture, sir! isn't it glorious? The little girl's hair. That's yellow, I know; and her eyes are blue. And that's green grass - beautiful green. Isn't color exciting? The most astonishing thing! Flowers, look! Could anything be lovelier? Doesn't color delight you, amaze you, too, sir?"
"Naturally," said Mr Venables, as he noted, with relief, the train drawing into the station. "Well, we've had quite a pleasant chat. This is my train."
"Mine too!" cried the youth, springing to his feet. "I'm going second. But don't you trouble, sir. I'll find a seat quite easily. A merry Christmas, sir."
Mr Venables mumbled some vague reply as the young man hastened away, calling cheerfully to a porter who stood by.
"Good luck, Albert," answered the porter. "Take care of yourself in town. Watch out for traffic."
"Trust me," cried the youth. "I know. Mother has warned me."
And he entered a carriage with a rapt, expectant air of one who sets out upon a great adventure.
"Bit excited today, ain't he, sir?" said the porter, as he held the carriage door for the important Mr Venables. "Wonderful operation, wasn't it?"
"Operation?" said Mr Venables, standing within the carriage. "I don't understand."
"I thought you knew, sir," replied the porter. "I thought everyone around here knew old Mrs Martin. Does a bit of cleanin' and scrubbin' about the district. For years an' years she's been savin' up dribs an' drabs to pay for her Albert's Christmas gift, as she calls it. Some of us tried to help her in a quiet way; but she wasn't takin' that on. Pride? You'd be surprised, sir. An' then, by a bit of luck, when that big doctor feller came from London this year, she had enough saved up. So Albert got his Christmas gift at last. Bit of all right, wasn't it? No wonder he's excited. This is the first day he's been out by himself, seein' things."
"But this operation?" asked Mr Venables. "Was it for the brain?"
"Brain, sir? How d'yer mean? Excuse me, I thought you'd be bound to know. Young Albert, before this operation - in fact, ever since he was a bit of a year-old baby -- has been stone blind."
"Blind!" gasped Mr Venables, suddenly finding his seat. "Blind!"
"Merry Christmas, sir," said the porter, and the train got under way.
For the first few miles Mr Venables recalled meticulously every detail of his encounter, finding a new and amazing significance in every remark of his recent companion.
And then Mr Venables had the grace to begin to fell very much ashamed of the self-pitying Mr Joseph Venables.
A little later he found himself making plans, surprising plans, Christmas plans. Gloom was lifting. His point of view veering in a most astonishing way.
That young what's-his-name, for instance, young Kirk. He must be rung up today. Better suggest a tennis party, an excursion in the car -- something like that. He'd think it over.
Incidentally, a few hours later the same young Kirk slowly replaced a telephone receiver with a light in his face that was a very fair imitation of the light that wreathed the eager face of Albert Martin.
At the fourth stopping-place, Mr Alfred Meeks, grave business man and fellow grouch of Mr Venables, ponderously entered the compartment.
"Morning," groaned Mr Meeks with customary gloom; then glanced up, surprised at the hearty note in the reply of Mr Venables.
"The Christmas spirit," thought Mr Meeks. Who'd have guessed a man like Venables had time for that sort of foolishness." And he sought silent refuge in his morning paper. None of that goodwill poppycock for sensible Alfred Meeks.
Glancing over his paper a few minutes later, he was shocked to observe Venables gazing abstractedly at nothing and actually smiling at some secret thought.
At that moment, Mr Venables, in self-communion, became astonishingly articulate.
"Blind," said Mr Venables. "Stone blind."
"What d'you mean? Who?" barked the startled Mr Meeks.
"Albert Martin," answered Mr Venables, inanely. "And," he added, "myself, for nearly as many years."
"Yes, of course, I see," said Mr Meeks mendaciously.
"Starting to celebrate already," he added to himself. "Who'd have thought it, of Venables. Ah, well; it gets 'em all ways. Breaking up at last."
And Mr Meeks again raised his paper as a barrier between a still sagacious business man and that idiotic smirk of poor old Mr Venables.
"C. J. Dennis"
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003|