A Child, by John Galsworthy

from Commentary

In Kensington Gardens, [Footnote: Kensington Gardens: in southwest London.] that February day, it was very still. Trees, stripped of every leaf, raised their bare clean twigs towards a sky so grey and so unstirring that there might never have been wind or sun. And on those branches pigeons sat, silent, as though they understood that there was no new life as yet; they seemed waiting, loth to spread their wings lest they should miss the coming of the Spring.

Down in the grass the tiniest green flames were burning, a sign of the fire flowers that would leap up if the sun would feed them.

And on a seat there sat a child.

He sat between his father and his mother, looking straight before him. It was plain that the reason why he looked so straight before him was that he really had not strength to care to look to right or left—so white his face was, so puny were his limbs. His clothes had evidently been designed for others, and this was fortunate, for they prevented the actual size of him from being seen. He was not, however, what is called neglected; his face was clean, and the utmost of protection that Fate and the condition of his parents had vouchsafed was evidently lavished on him, for round his neck there was a little bit of draggled fur which should have been round the neck of her against whose thin shabby side he leaned. This mother of his was looking at the ground; and from the expression of her face she seemed to think that looking at the ground was all life had to offer.

The father sat with his eyes shut. He had shabby clothes, a grey face, and a grey collar that had once been white. Above the collar his thin cheeks had evidently just been shaved—for it was Saturday, and by the colour of those cheeks, and by his boots, whose soles, hardly thicker than a paper sheet, still intervened between him and the ground, he was seen not to be a tramp or outdoor person, but an indoor worker of some sort, and very likely out of work, who had come out to rest in the company of his wife and family. His eyes being shut, he sat without the pain of looking at a single thing, moving his jaw at intervals from side to side.

And between the man and the woman, the child sat, very still, evidently on good terms with them, not realising that they had brought him out of a warm darkness where he had been happy, out of a sweet nothingness, into which, and soon perhaps, he would pass again—not realising that they had so neglected to keep pace with things, or that things had so omitted to keep pace with them, that he himself had eaten in his time about one half the food he should have eaten, and that of the wrong sort. By the expression of his face, that pale small ghost had evidently grasped the truth that things were as they had to be. He seemed to sit there reviewing his own life, and taking for granted that it must be what it was, from hour to hour, and day to day, and year to year.

And before me, too, the incidents of his small journey passed. I saw him in the morning getting off the family bed, where it was sometimes warm, and chewing at a crust of bread before he set off to school in company with other children, some of whom were stouter than himself; saw him carrying in his small fist the remnants of his feast, and dropping it, or swopping it away for peppermints, because it tired him to consume it, having no juices to speak of in his little stomach. I seemed to understand that, accustomed as he was to eating little, he almost always wanted to eat less, not because he had any wish to die—nothing so extravagant—but simply that he nearly always felt a little sick; I felt that his pale, despondent mother was always urging him to eat, when there were things to eat, and that this bored him, since they did not strike him as worth all that trouble with his jaws. She must have found it difficult indeed to persuade him that there was any point at all in eating; for, from his looks, he could manifestly not now enjoy anything but peppermints and kippered herrings. I seemed to see him in his school, not learning, not wanting to learn anything, nor knowing why this should be so, ignorant of the dispensations of a Providence who—after hesitating long to educate him lest this should make his parents paupers—now compelled his education, having first destroyed his stomach that he might be incapable of taking in what he was taught. That small white creature could not as yet have grasped the notion that the welfare of the future lay, not with the future, but with the past. He only knew that every day he went to school with little in his stomach, and every day came back from school with less.

All this he seemed to be reviewing as he sat there, but not in thought; his knowledge was too deep for words; he was simply feeling, as a child that looked as he looked would naturally be feeling, on that bench between his parents. He opened his little mouth at times, as a small bird will open its small beak, without apparent purpose; and his lips seemed murmuring:

"My stomach feels as if there were a mouse inside it; my legs are aching; it's all quite natural, no doubt!"

To reconcile this apathy of his with recollections of his unresting, mirthless energy down alleys and on doorsteps, it was needful to remember human nature, and its exhaustless cruse [Footnote: Exhaustless cruse. See I Kings XVII: 8-16.] of courage. For, though he might not care to live, yet, while he was alive he would keep his end up, because he must—there was no other way. And why exhaust himself in vain regrets and dreams of things he could not see, and hopes of being what he could not be! That he had no resentment against anything was certain from his patient eyes—not even against those two who sat, one on either side of him—unaware that he was what he was, in order that they who against his will had brought him into being, might be forced by law to keep a self-respect they had already lost, and have the insufficiency of things he could not eat. For he had as yet no knowledge of political economy. He evidently did not view his case in any petty, or in any party, spirit; he did not seem to look on himself as just a half-starved child that should have cried its eyes out till it was fed at least as well as the dogs that passed him; he seemed to look on himself as that impersonal, imperial thing—the Future of the Race.

So profound his apathy!

And, as I looked, the "Future of the Race" turned to his father:

"'Ark at the bird!" he said.

It was a pigeon, who high upon a tree had suddenly begun to croon. One could see his head outlined against the grey unstirring sky, first bending back, then down into his breast, then back again; and that soft song of his filled all the air, like an invocation of fertility.

"The Future of the Race" watched him for a minute without moving, and suddenly he laughed. That laugh was a little hard noise like the clapping of two boards—there was not a single drop of blood in it, nor the faintest sound of music; so might a marionette [Footnote: Marionette: a puppet moved by strings.] have laughed—a figure made of wood and wire.

And in that laugh I seemed to hear innumerable laughter, the laughter in a million homes of the myriad unfed.

So laughed the Future of the richest and the freest and the proudest race that has ever lived on earth, that February afternoon, with the little green flames lighted in the grass, under a sky that knew not wind or sun—so he laughed at the pigeon that was calling for the Spring.

—JOHN GALSWORTHY.

[Footnote: Why could the child enjoy only "peppermints and kippered herring"? Why does the author call the child the "Future of the Race"? Is the term used seriously or ironically? What plea does the author make for all childhood? Does the portrait of the child seem real or exaggerated? Does the author place the blame for such conditions as made this child an unhappy weakling? Compare this portrait with that of Muhammad Din.]

Louise de la Ramee