It was a day or so after this conversation— a day or so, that is, after the burning of the Experimental Farm— that Winkles came to Redwood and showed him an insulting letter. It was an anonymous letter, and an author should respect his character’s secrets. “You are only taking credit for a natural phenomenon,” said the letter, “and trying to advertise yourself by your letter to the Times. You and your Boomfood! Let me tell you, this absurdly named food of yours has only the most accidental connection with those big wasps and rats. The plain fact is there is an epidemic of Hypertrophy— Contagious Hypertrophy— which you have about as much claim to control as you have to control the solar system. The thing is as old as the hills. There was Hypertrophy in the family of Anak. Quite outside your range, at Cheasing Eyebright, at the present time there is a baby— ”
“Shaky up and down writing. Old gentleman apparently,” said Redwood. “But it’s odd a baby— ”
He read a few lines further, and had an inspiration.
“By Jove!” said he. “That’s my missing Mrs. Skinner!”
He descended upon her suddenly in the afternoon of the following day.
She was engaged in pulling onions in the little garden before her daughter’s cottage when she saw him coming through the garden gate. She stood for a moment “consternated,” as the country folks say, and then folded her arms, and with the little bunch of onions held defensively under her left elbow, awaited his approach. Her mouth opened and shut several times; she mumbled her remaining tooth, and once quite suddenly she curtsied, like the blink of an arc-light.
“I thought I should find you,” said Redwood.
“I thought you might, sir,” she said, without joy.
“’E ain’t never written to me, Sir, not once, nor come nigh of me since I came here. Sir.” “Don’t you know what’s become of him?”
“Him not having written, no, Sir,” and she edged a step towards the left with an imperfect idea of cutting off Redwood from the barn door.
“No one knows what has become of him,” said Redwood.
“I dessay ’e knows,” said Mrs. Skinner.
“He doesn’t tell.”
“He was always a great one for looking after ’imself and leaving them that was near and dear to ’im in trouble, was Skinner. Though clever as could be,” said Mrs. Skinner… .
“Where’s this child?” asked Redwood abruptly.
She begged his pardon.
“This child I hear about, the child you’ve been giving our stuff to— the child that weighs two stone.”
Mrs. Skinner’s hands worked, and she dropped the onions. “Reely, Sir,” she protested, “I don’t hardly know, Sir, what you mean. My daughter, Sir, Mrs. Caddles, ’as a baby, Sir.” And she made an agitated curtsey and tried to look innocently inquiring by tilting her nose to one side.
“You’d better let me see that baby, Mrs. Skinner,” said Redwood.
Mrs. Skinner unmasked an eye at him as she led the way towards the barn. “Of course, Sir, there may ’ave been a little, in a little can of Nicey I give his father to bring over from the farm, or a little perhaps what I happened to bring about with me, so to speak. Me packing in a hurry and all … ”
“Um!” said Redwood, after he had cluckered to the infant for a space. “Oom!”
He told Mrs. Caddles the baby was a very fine child indeed, a thing that was getting well home to her intelligence— and he ignored her altogether after that. Presently she left the barn— through sheer insignificance.
“Now you’ve started him, you’ll have to keep on with him, you know,” he said to Mrs. Skinner.
He turned on her abruptly. “Don’t splash it about this time,” he said.
“Splash it about, Sir?”
“Oh! you know.”
She indicated knowledge by convulsive gestures.
“You haven’t told these people here? The parents, the squire and so on at the big house, the doctor, no one?”
Mrs. Skinner shook her head.
“I wouldn’t,” said Redwood… .
He went to the door of the barn and surveyed the world about him. The door of the barn looked between the end of the cottage and some disused piggeries through a five-barred gate upon the highroad. Beyond was a high, red brick-wall rich with ivy and wallflower and pennywort, and set along the top with broken glass. Beyond the corner of the wall, a sunlit notice-board amidst green and yellow branches reared itself above the rich tones of the first fallen leaves and announced that “Trespassers in these Woods will be Prosecuted.” The dark shadow of a gap in the hedge threw a stretch of barbed wire into relief.
“Um,” said Redwood, then in a deeper note, “Oom!”
There came a clatter of horses and the sound of wheels, and Lady Wondershoot’s greys came into view. He marked the faces of coachman and footman as the equipage approached. The coachman was a very fine specimen, full and fruity, and he drove with a sort of sacramental dignity. Others might doubt their calling and position in the world, he at any rate was sure— he drove her ladyship. The footman sat beside him with folded arms and a face of inflexible certainties. Then the great lady herself became visible, in a hat and mantle disdainfully inelegant, peering through her glasses. Two young ladies protruded necks and peered also.
The Vicar passing on the other side swept off the hat from his David’s brow unheeded… .
Redwood remained standing in the doorway for a long time after the carriage had passed, his hands folded behind him. His eyes went to the green, grey upland of down, and into the cloud-curdled sky, and came back to the glass-set wall. He turned upon the cool shadows within, and amidst spots and blurs of colour regarded the giant child amidst that Rembrandtesque gloom, naked except for a swathing of flannel, seated upon a huge truss of straw and playing with its toes.
“I begin to see what we have done,” he said.
He mused, and young Caddles and his own child and Cossar’s brood mingled in his musing.
He laughed abruptly. “Good Lord!” he said at some passing thought.
He roused himself presently and addressed Mrs. Skinner. “Anyhow he mustn’t be tortured by a break in his food. That at least we can prevent. I shall send you a can every six months. That ought to do for him all right.”
Mrs. Skinner mumbled something about “if you think so, Sir,” and “probably got packed by mistake… . Thought no harm in giving him a little,” and so by the aid of various aspen gestures indicated that she understood.
So the child went on growing.
“Practically,” said Lady Wondershoot, “he’s eaten up every calf in the place. If I have any more of this sort of thing from that man Caddies— ”