Ebooks - Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Them - Tons of Free Stories to Read ~ Main Page

 

 

 

The Tribute by Harry Anable Kniffin

From Brief Stories

The Little Chap reached up a chubby hand to the doorknob. A few persistent tugs and twists and it turned in his grasp. Slowly pushing the door open, he stood hesitating on the threshold of the studio.

The Big Chap looked up from his easel by the window. His gray eyes kindled into a kindly smile, its welcoming effect offset by an admonitory headshake. “Not now, Son,” he said. “I'm busy.”

“Can't I stay a little while, Daddy?” The sturdy little legs carried their owner across the floor as he spoke. “I'll be quiet, like—like I was asleep.”

The Big Chap hesitated, looking first at his canvas and then at the small replica of himself standing before him.

“I got on my new pants,” the youngster was saying, conversationally easing the embarrassment of a possible capitulation. “Mummy says I ought to be proud of them, and because I'm five years old.”

The artist looked gravely down at him. “Proud, Son?” he asked, in the peculiar way he had of reasoning with the Little Chap. “Have you reached the age of five because of anything you have done? Or did you acquire the trousers with money you earned?”

The Little Chap looked up at him questioningly. He had inherited his father's wide gray eyes, and at present their expression was troubled. Then, evidently seeking a more easily comprehended topic, his eyes left his father's and sought the canvas on which was depicted a court scene of mediaeval times. “Who is that, Daddy?” His small index finger pointed to the most prominent figure in the painting.

His father continued to regard him thoughtfully. “One of England's proud kings, Son.”

“And what did he do to be proud of?” came quickly from the youthful inquisitioner.

A hearty laugh escaped the artist. “Bully for you, Son! That's a poser! Aside from taxing the poor and having enemies beheaded, I'm puzzled to know what he really did do to earn his high position.”

The Little Chap squirmed himself between his father's knees and started to scale the heights to his lap, where he finally settled down with a sigh of comfort. “Tell me a story about him,” he said eagerly. “A story with castles, 'n' wars, 'n' everything.”

The artist's gaze rested on the kingly figure in the picture, then wandered away to the window through which he seemed to lose himself in scenes of a far-distant time.

“I'll tell you a story, Son,” he began, slowly and ruminatingly, “of how Loyalty and Service stormed the Stronghold of Honour and Splendour. This proud king you see in the picture lived part of the time in the great castle of Windsor, and the balance of the year in Saint James's Palace in London.”

“It must have cost him a lot for rent,” wisely interpolated the Little Chap.

“No, the people paid the rent, Son. Some of them were glad to do it, for they looked upon their king as a superior being. Among this class of loyal subjects was an old hatter, very poor and humble.”

“What was his name?” asked the Little Chap, apparently greatly interested.

“He had no name. People in those olden days were known by their trade or calling. So he was simply called 'the hatter'.”

“And did he make nice hats?”

“I've no doubt he did, Son. But you mustn't interrupt. Well, the hatter paid his tithes, or taxes, after which, I dare say, he had little enough left to live on. But he appeared not to mind. And whenever the King and Queen rode through the streets in their gilded coach of state, his cracked old voice would cheer lustily, and his hoary head would be bared in deepest reverence.”

“Didn't he ever catch cold?”

“Hush, Son, I'm telling a story! As the hatter grew older he lost his wits and became quite crazy on the subject of his king. He yearned to do something to prove his loyalty. And whenever England engaged in a war, and a proclamation was issued calling for men to fight for King and country, he would be one of the first to volunteer. But they never accepted him, of course, because he was so old.

“With the passing of the years the Queen died, and the King decided to marry again. Great preparations for the ceremony were begun at Westminster Abbey, where the wedding was to take place. The old hatter became greatly excited when he heard the news. His addled wits presently hit upon a wonderful scheme by which he could both honour and serve his sovereign: He would make the King a hat to wear at his wedding!”

“I guess he must 've been a good hatter, after all,” the Little Chap murmured, in a tone of conviction.

“Perhaps, in his time,” his father conceded. “But you must remember he now was old and foolish. His materials were merely such odds and ends as he could gather together, and the result was very disreputable-looking. But in his rheumy old eyes it was the most wonderful hat ever designed for a monarch. He carefully wrapped it in a soiled old cloth and started out to present it to the King. At the palace gates the guards refused him admittance, and cruelly laughed in his face. He tried every means he could think of to have the hat reach its destination. Once he stopped the Court Chamberlain on the street, only to be rebuked for his pains. Another time he waylaid a peer, as he left the House of Lords, and was threatened with arrest. Foiled in all his attempts, the cracked-brained old fellow impatiently awaited the wedding ceremony. At last the great day arrived. All the bells of old London were ringing blithely as the gilded coach, drawn by ten white horses, deposited the King at Westminster Abbey. In the forefront of the vast throng surrounding the entrance stood the hatter.”

“And did he have the hat with him?” asked the Little Chap.

“Yes, Son, he had it with him. And when the King entered the portals of the ancient Abbey, the hatter somehow broke through the line of guards and ran after him crying 'Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Deign to accept this token of a loyal subject's regard!'

“The King turned in surprise And when he saw the ragged old fellow tending him the ridiculous-looking hat, he flew into a great rage and cried angrily: 'How comes this varlet here, interrupting his Sovereign's nuptials and desecrating our Tomb of Kings? Away with him to prison, and let him repent his insolence as he rots in a dungeon!'“

“Why did he do that, Daddy?”

“The Sovereign, Son, was a very proud king, while the hatter was both poor and humble. And at his words the guards hurried forward and hustled the old man out of the Abbey, where his presence was an insult to the Great. In the struggle the hat rolled into the gutter, and one of the King's white horses put his hoof through it. The hatter cried like a child when he saw the work of his loving hands thus ruined. But they carried him off to prison and kept him shut up there until he died and paid the penalty for his crime of desecrating the Abbey.”

“Oh, the poor old hatter! But is that the end of the story, Daddy?” The Little Chap's disappointment was markedly pronounced.

“No, Son, there is a little more to come. I meant to tell you that the hatter had reared a large family of boys. His sons all married and, in turn, raised large families. These numerous relatives or kin took the name of Hatterskin. In course of time that became shortened to Hatkins, and so remained until the British habit of dropping their H's reduced it to Atkins.

“At last the proud King died and was buried with great ceremony in the Abbey. Year followed year, and century succeeded century. England, although blessed with a Royal pair both humane and good, was ruled by an even wiser monarch—the Sovereign People.

“Then came an August day when the black thunder-cloud of war darkened her smiling horizon. Four bloody, terrible years the conflict lasted. And when at last an armistice was signed, the stricken people went wild with joy.”

The Big Chap's gaze returned to the canvas with its scene of mediaeval splendour. A mystic light smouldered in his eyes as, unconscious of his surroundings and his youthful auditor, he continued: “On the second anniversary of that happy day an unprecedented thing happened. Before the ancient Abbey a gun carriage, bearing the flag-draped casket of an unidentified warrior, came to rest on the very spot where the gilded coach of the proud King once had stopped. Again the square was crowded, as on that day in the long ago when the poor hatter foolishly tried to honour his sovereign. The traditions of centuries toppled when the body of the unknown soldier passed through those storied portals followed by the King of England as chief mourner. In the dim, historic chapel the king stood, in advance of princes, prime ministers, and the famous leaders of both army and navy. Like the humble hatter of old his royal head was reverently bared as the nameless hero was laid among the silent company of England's illustrious dead. 'The Boast of Heraldry and the Pomp of Power' bowed in silent homage before the remains of a once common soldier. Thus Loyalty and Service eventually stormed the Stronghold of Honour and Splendour!”

For a moment there was an impressive, brooding silence, broken presently by the Little Chap. “And what was the soldier's name, Daddy?”

Recalled from his revery, the father answered:

He was known, Son, as Tommy Atkins.”

The Little Chap's brow was puckered in thought. At last he laughed delightedly and clapped his hands. “Was the soldier, Daddy, one of the hatter's family—the poor old hatter who was thrown out of the Abbey?”

The Big Chap lifted the child from his lap and placed him on his feet. Then he picked up a brush and turned to his painting.

“I like to think so, Son. But only God knows.”