“There, there, don’t you mind me. I’m all right!” she said. “Like it? Why, it’s a birthday such as Perks never ‘ad, not even when ‘e was a boy and stayed with his uncle, who was a corn chandler in his own account. He failed afterwards. Like it? Oh–” and then she went on and said all sorts of things that I won’t write down, because I am sure that Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis would not like me to. Their ears got hotter and hotter, and their faces redder and redder, at the kind things Mrs. Perks said. They felt they had done nothing to deserve all this praise.
At last Peter said: “Look here, we’re glad you’re pleased. But if you go on saying things like that, we must go home. And we did want to stay and see if Mr. Perks is pleased, too. But we can’t stand this.”
“I won’t say another single word,” said Mrs. Perks, with a beaming face, “but that needn’t stop me thinking, need it? For if ever–”
“Can we have a plate for the buns?” Bobbie asked abruptly. And then Mrs. Perks hastily laid the table for tea, and the buns and the honey and the gooseberries were displayed on plates, and the roses were put in two glass jam jars, and the tea-table looked, as Mrs. Perks said, “fit for a Prince.”
“To think!” she said, “me getting the place tidy early, and the little ‘uns getting the wild-flowers and all–when never did I think there’d be anything more for him except the ounce of his pet particular that I got o’ Saturday and been saving up for ‘im ever since. Bless us! ‘e isearly!”
Perks had indeed unlatched the latch of the little front gate.
“Oh,” whispered Bobbie, “let’s hide in the back kitchen, and you tell him about it. But give him the tobacco first, because you got it for him. And when you’ve told him, we’ll all come in and shout, ‘Many happy returns!'”
It was a very nice plan, but it did not quite come off. To begin with, there was only just time for Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis to rush into the wash-house, pushing the young and open-mouthed Perks children in front of them. There was not time to shut the door, so that, without at all meaning it, they had to listen to what went on in the kitchen. The wash-house was a tight fit for the Perks children and the Three Chimneys children, as well as all the wash- house’s proper furniture, including the mangle and the copper.
“Hullo, old woman!” they heard Mr. Perks’s voice say; “here’s a pretty set-out!”
“It’s your birthday tea, Bert,” said Mrs. Perks, “and here’s a ounce of your extry particular. I got it o’ Saturday along o’ your happening to remember it was your birthday to-day.”
“Good old girl!” said Mr. Perks, and there was a sound of a kiss.
“But what’s that pram doing here? And what’s all these bundles? And where did you get the sweetstuff, and–”
The children did not hear what Mrs. Perks replied, because just then Bobbie gave a start, put her hand in her pocket, and all her body grew stiff with horror.
“Oh!” she whispered to the others, “whatever shall we do? I forgot to put the labels on any of the things! He won’t know what’s from who. He’ll think it’s all us, and that we’re trying to be grand or charitable or something horrid.”
“Hush!” said Peter.
And then they heard the voice of Mr. Perks, loud and rather angry.
“I don’t care,” he said; “I won’t stand it, and so I tell you straight.”
“But,” said Mrs. Perks, “it’s them children you make such a fuss about–the children from the Three Chimneys.”
“I don’t care,” said Perks, firmly, “not if it was a angel from Heaven. We’ve got on all right all these years and no favours asked. I’m not going to begin these sort of charity goings-on at my time of life, so don’t you think it, Nell.”
“Oh, hush!” said poor Mrs Perks; “Bert, shut your silly tongue, for goodness’ sake. The all three of ’ems in the wash-house a-listening to every word you speaks.”
“Then I’ll give them something to listen to,” said the angry Perks; “I’ve spoke my mind to them afore now, and I’ll do it again,” he added, and he took two strides to the wash-house door, and flung it wide open–as wide, that is, as it would go, with the tightly packed children behind it.
“Come out,” said Perks, “come out and tell me what you mean by it. ‘Ave I ever complained to you of being short, as you comes this charity lay over me?”
“Oh!” said Phyllis, “I thought you’d be so pleased; I’ll never try to be kind to anyone else as long as I live. No, I won’t, not never.”
She burst into tears.
“We didn’t mean any harm,” said Peter.
“It ain’t what you means so much as what you does,” said Perks.
“Oh, don’t!” cried Bobbie, trying hard to be braver than Phyllis, and to find more words than Peter had done for explaining in. “We thought you’d love it. We always have things on our birthdays.”
“Oh, yes,” said Perks, “your own relations; that’s different.”
“Oh, no,” Bobbie answered. “not our own relations. All the servants always gave us things at home, and us to them when it was their birthdays. And when it was mine, and Mother gave me the brooch like a buttercup, Mrs. Viney gave me two lovely glass pots, and nobody thought she was coming the charity lay over us.”
“If it had been glass pots here,” said Perks, “I wouldn’t ha’ said so much. It’s there being all this heaps and heaps of things I can’t stand. No–nor won’t, neither.”
“But they’re not all from us–” said Peter, “only we forgot to put the labels on. They’re from all sorts of people in the village.”
“Who put ’em up to it, I’d like to know?” asked Perks.
“Why, we did,” sniffed Phyllis.
Perks sat down heavily in the elbow-chair and looked at them with what Bobbie afterwards described as withering glances of gloomy despair.
“So you’ve been round telling the neighbours we can’t make both ends meet? Well, now you’ve disgraced us as deep as you can in the neighbourhood, you can just take the whole bag of tricks back w’ere it come from. Very much obliged, I’m sure. I don’t doubt but what you meant it kind, but I’d rather not be acquainted with you any longer if it’s all the same to you.” He deliberately turned the chair round so that his back was turned to the children. The legs of the chair grated on the brick floor, and that was the only sound that broke the silence.
Then suddenly Bobbie spoke.
“Look here,” she said, “this is most awful.”
“That’s what I says,” said Perks, not turning round.
“Look here,” said Bobbie, desperately, “we’ll go if you like–and you needn’t be friends with us any more if you don’t want, but–”
“We shall always be friends with you, however nasty you are to us,” sniffed Phyllis, wildly.
“Be quiet,” said Peter, in a fierce aside.
“But before we go,” Bobbie went on desperately, “do let us show you the labels we wrote to put on the things.”
“I don’t want to see no labels,” said Perks, “except proper luggage ones in my own walk of life. Do you think I’ve kept respectable and outer debt on what I gets, and her having to take in washing, to be give away for a laughing-stock to all the neighbours?”
“Laughing?” said Peter; “you don’t know.”
“You’re a very hasty gentleman,” whined Phyllis; “you know you were wrong once before, about us not telling you the secret about the Russian. Do let Bobbie tell you about the labels!”
“Well. Go ahead!” said Perks, grudgingly.
“Well, then,” said Bobbie, fumbling miserably, yet not without hope, in her tightly stuffed pocket, “we wrote down all the things everybody said when they gave us the things, with the people’s names, because Mother said we ought to be careful–because–but I wrote down what she said–and you’ll see.”
But Bobbie could not read the labels just at once. She had to swallow once or twice before she could begin.
Mrs. Perks had been crying steadily ever since her husband had opened the wash-house door. Now she caught her breath, choked, and said:–
“Don’t you upset yourself, Missy. I know you meant it kind if he doesn’t.”
“May I read the labels?” said Bobbie, crying on to the slips as she tried to sort them. “Mother’s first. It says:–
“‘Little Clothes for Mrs. Perks’s children.’ Mother said, ‘I’ll find some of Phyllis’s things that she’s grown out of if you’re quite sure Mr. Perks wouldn’t be offended and think it’s meant for charity. I’d like to do some little thing for him, because he’s so kind to you. I can’t do much because we’re poor ourselves.'”
“That’s all right,” said Perks, “your Ma’s a born lady. We’ll keep the little frocks, and what not, Nell.”
“Then there’s the perambulator and the gooseberries, and the sweets,” said Bobbie, “they’re from Mrs. Ransome. She said: ‘I dare say Mr. Perks’s children would like the sweets. And the perambulator was got for my Emmie’s first–it didn’t live but six months, and she’s never had but that one. I’d like Mrs. Perks to have it. It would be a help with her fine boy. I’d have given it before if I’d been sure she’d accept of it from me.’ She told me to tell you,” Bobbie added, “that it was her Emmie’s little one’s pram.”
“I can’t send that pram back, Bert,” said Mrs Perks, firmly, “and I won’t. So don’t you ask me–”
“I’m not a-asking anything,” said Perks, gruffly.
“Then the shovel,” said Bobbie. “Mr. James made it for you himself. And he said–where is it? Oh, yes, here! He said, ‘You tell Mr. Perks it’s a pleasure to make a little trifle for a man as is so much respected,’ and then he said he wished he could shoe your children and his own children, like they do the horses, because, well, he knew what shoe leather was.”
“James is a good enough chap,” said Perks.
“Then the honey,” said Bobbie, in haste, “and the boot-laces. He said he respected a man that paid his way–and the butcher said the same. And the old turnpike woman said many was the time you’d lent her a hand with her garden when you were a lad–and things like that came home to roost–I don’t know what she meant. And everybody who gave anything said they liked you, and it was a very good idea of ours; and nobody said anything about charity or anything horrid like that. And the old gentleman gave Peter a gold pound for you, and said you were a man who knew your work. And I thought you’d love to know how fond people are of you, and I never was so unhappy in my life. Good-bye. I hope you’ll forgive us some day–”
She could say no more, and she turned to go.
“Stop,” said Perks, still with his back to them; “I take back every word I’ve said contrary to what you’d wish. Nell, set on the kettle.”
“We’ll take the things away if you’re unhappy about them,” said Peter; “but I think everybody’ll be most awfully disappointed, as well as us.”
“I’m not unhappy about them,” said Perks; “I don’t know,” he added, suddenly wheeling the chair round and showing a very odd-looking screwed-up face, “I don’t know as ever I was better pleased. Not so much with the presents–though they’re an A1 collection–but the kind respect of our neighbours. That’s worth having, eh, Nell?”
“I think it’s all worth having,” said Mrs. Perks, “and you’ve made a most ridiculous fuss about nothing, Bert, if you ask me.”
“No, I ain’t,” said Perks, firmly; “if a man didn’t respect hisself, no one wouldn’t do it for him.”
“But everyone respects you,” said Bobbie; “they all said so.”
“I knew you’d like it when you really understood,” said Phyllis, brightly.
“Humph! You’ll stay to tea?” said Mr. Perks.
Later on Peter proposed Mr. Perks’s health. And Mr. Perks proposed a toast, also honoured in tea, and the toast was, “May the garland of friendship be ever green,” which was much more poetical than anyone had expected from him.
* * * * * *
“Jolly good little kids, those,” said Mr. Perks to his wife as they went to bed.
“Oh, they’re all right, bless their hearts,” said his wife; “it’s you that’s the aggravatingest old thing that ever was. I was ashamed of you–I tell you–”
“You didn’t need to be, old gal. I climbed down handsome soon as I understood it wasn’t charity. But charity’s what I never did abide, and won’t neither.”
* * * * * *
All sorts of people were made happy by that birthday party. Mr. Perks and Mrs. Perks and the little Perkses by all the nice things and by the kind thoughts of their neighbours; the Three Chimneys children by the success, undoubted though unexpectedly delayed, of their plan; and Mrs. Ransome every time she saw the fat Perks baby in the perambulator. Mrs. Perks made quite a round of visits to thank people for their kind birthday presents, and after each visit felt that she had a better friend than she had thought.
“Yes,” said Perks, reflectively, “it’s not so much what you does as what you means; that’s what I say. Now if it had been charity–”
“Oh, drat charity,” said Mrs. Perks; “nobody won’t offer you charity, Bert, however much you was to want it, I lay. That was just friendliness, that was.”
When the clergyman called on Mrs. Perks, she told him all about it. “It was friendliness, wasn’t it, Sir?” said she.
“I think,” said the clergyman, “it was what is sometimes called loving-kindness.”
So you see it was all right in the end. But if one does that sort of thing, one has to be careful to do it in the right way. For, as Mr. Perks said, when he had time to think it over, it’s not so much what you do, as what you mean.