THE EASTER EGG

It was distinctly hard lines for Lady Barbara, who came of

good fighting stock, and was one of the bravest women of her

generation, that her son should be so undisguisedly a

coward. Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have

possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage

could certainly never be imputed to him. As a child he had

suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish

funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for

others which were more formidable from the fact of having a

carefully-thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of

animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the

Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion

of life belts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to

require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for

clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse

soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended

not to see her son’s prevailing weakness; with her usual

courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and,

mother-like, loved him none the less.

Continental travel, anywhere away from the great tourist

tracks, was a favoured hobby with Lady Barbara, and Lester

joined her as often as possible. Eastertide usually found

her at Knobaltheim, an upland township in one of those small

princedoms that make inconspicuous freckles on the map of

Central Europe.

A long-standing acquaintanceship with the reigning family

made her a personage of due importance in the eyes of her

old friend the Burgomaster, and she was anxiously consulted

by that worthy on the momentous occasion when the Prince

made known his intention of coming in person to open a

sanatorium outside the town. All the usual items in a

programme of welcome, some of them fatuous and commonplace,

others quaint and charming, had been arranged for, but the

Burgomaster hoped that the resourceful English lady might

have something new and tasteful to suggest in the way of

loyal greeting. The Prince was known to the outside world,

if at all, as an old-fashioned reactionary, combating modern

progress, as it were, with a wooden sword; to his own people

he was known as a kindly old gentleman with a certain

endearing stateliness which had nothing of standoffishness

about it. Knobaltheim was anxious to do its best. Lady

Barbara discussed the matter with Lester and one or two

acquaintances in her little hotel, but ideas were difficult

to come by.

“Might I suggest something to the gnaedige Frau?”

asked a sallow high-cheekboned lady to whom the Englishwoman

had spoken once or twice, and whom she had set down in her

mind as probably a Southern Slav.

“Might I suggest something for the Reception Fest?” she

went on, with a certain shy eagerness. “Our little child

here, our baby, we will dress him in little white coat, with

small wings, as an Easter angel, and he will carry a large

white Easter egg, and inside shall be a basket of plover

eggs, of which the Prince is so fond, and he shall give it

to his Highness as Easter offering. It is so pretty an

idea; we have seen it done once in Styria.”

Lady Barbara looked dubiously at the proposed Easter

angel, a fair, wooden-faced child of about four years old.

She had noticed it the day before in the hotel, and wondered

rather how such a tow-headed child could belong to such a

dark-visaged couple as the woman and her husband; probably,

she thought, an adopted baby, especially as the couple were

not young.

“Of course Gnaedige Frau will escort the little child

up to the Prince,” pursued the woman; “but he will be

quite good, and do as he is told.”

“We haf some pluffers’ eggs shall come fresh from Wien,”

said the husband.

The small child and Lady Barbara seemed equally

unenthusiastic about the pretty idea; Lester was openly

discouraging, but when the Burgomaster heard of it he was

enchanted. The combination of sentiment and plovers’ eggs

appealed strongly to his Teutonic mind.

On the eventful day the Easter angel, really quite

prettily and quaintly dressed, was a centre of kindly

interest to the gala crowd marshalled to receive his

Highness. The mother was unobtrusive and less fussy than

most parents would have been under the circumstances, merely

stipulating that she should place the Easter egg herself in

the arms that had been carefully schooled how to hold the

precious burden. Then Lady Barbara moved forward, the child

marching stolidly and with grim determination at her side.

It had been promised cakes and sweeties galore if it gave

the egg well and truly to the kind old gentleman who was

waiting to receive it. Lester had tried to convey to it

privately that horrible smackings would attend any failure

in its share of the proceedings, but it is doubtful if his

German caused more than an immediate distress. Lady Barbara

had thoughtfully provided herself with an emergency supply

of chocolate sweetmeats; children may sometimes be

timeservers, but they do not encourage long accounts. As

they approached nearer to the princely dais Lady Barbara

stood discreetly aside, and the stolid-faced infant walked

forward alone, with staggering but steadfast gait.

encouraged by a murmur of elderly approval. Lester,

standing in the front row of the onlookers, turned to scan

the crowd for the beaming faces of the happy parents. In a

side-road which led to the railway station he saw a cab;

entering the cab with every appearance of furtive haste were

the dark-visaged couple who had been so plausibly eager for

the “pretty idea.” The sharpened instinct of cowardice

lit up the situation to him in one swift flash. The blood

roared and surged to his head as though thousands of

floodgates had been opened in his veins and arteries, and

his brain was the common sluice in which all the torrents

met. He saw nothing but a blur around him. Then the blood

ebbed away in quick waves, till his very heart seemed

drained and empty, and he stood nervelessly, helplessly,

dumbly watching the child, bearing its accursed burden with

slow, relentless steps nearer and nearer to the group that

waited sheep-like to receive him. A fascinated curiosity

compelled Lester to turn his head towards the fugitives; the

cab had started at hot pace in the direction of the station.

The next moment Lester was running, running faster than

any of those present had ever seen a man run, and—he was

not running away. For that stray fraction of his life some

unwonted impulse beset him, some hint of the stock he came

from, and he ran unflinchingly towards danger. He stooped

and clutched at the Easter egg as one tries to scoop up the

ball in Rugby football. What he meant to do with it he had

not considered, the thing was to get it. But the child had

been promised cakes and sweetmeats if it safely gave the egg

into the hands of the kindly old gentleman; it uttered no

scream but it held to its charge with limpet grip. Lester

sank to his knees, tugging savagely at the tightly clasped

burden, and angry cries rose from the scandalized onlookers.

A questioning, threatening ring formed round him, then

shrank back in recoil as he shrieked out one hideous word.

Lady Barbara heard the word and saw the crowd race away like

scattered sheep, saw the Prince forcibly hustled away by his

attendants; also she saw her son lying prone in an agony of

overmastering terror, his spasm of daring shattered by the

child’s unexpected resistance, still clutching frantically,

as though for safety, at that white-satin gew-gaw, unable to

crawl even from its deadly neighbourhood, able only to

scream and scream and scream. In her brain she was dimly

conscious of balancing, or striving to balance, the abject

shame which had him now in thrall against the one compelling

act of courage which had flung him grandly and madly on to

the point of danger. It was only for the fraction of a

minute that she stood watching the two entangled figures,

the infant with its woodenly obstinate face and body tense

with dogged resistance, and the boy limp and already nearly

dead with a terror that almost stifled his screams; and over

them the long gala streamers flapping gaily in the sunshine.

She never forgot the scene; but then, it was the last she

ever saw.

Lady Barbara carries her scarred face with its sightless

eyes as bravely as ever in the world, but at Eastertide her

friends are careful to keep from her ears any mention of the

children’s Easter symbol.