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The Marvellous Land of Snergs
By E. A. Wyke-Smith, George Morrow
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A PLACE APART
IF any seafaring person, such as a yachtsman, were to sail round the corner of Watkyns Bay in the morning, he would find large numbers of children playing in the water, and would be either pleased or depressed at the sight according to the way his nature was originally formed. Certainly he would wonder how they came to be there, in such a lonely place and so very much at home, the little ones splashing about in the shallow parts and chasing each other over the sand, and the bigger ones swimming out to rafts and diving from them, and all shouting and squeaking. But this is a case of supposing, for no yacht or any other vessel will ever round the corner of the bay and no sail will ever be seen on the skyline, the reason being that it is the land of the S.R.S.C. and therefore a place set apart. If a yachtsman were ever tempted to sail in that direction he would be met by baffling winds from the nor'-east, alternating with baffling winds from the sou'-west, and this, combined with the prevalence of waterspouts, would make him repent of his purpose, and he could consider himself lucky if he got out of those waters lashed to what was left of the mast.
There is one exception to the rule that no outsider can sail near there, and that is the case of Vanderdecken and his men, who put in and camped some two and a half miles north of the bay. Owing to his rash oath that he would beat round the Cape of Good Hope if he beat round it till Doomsday he found himself doing so, and though this was rough luck on his crew, who had not made any rash oaths, naturally they had to beat round with him. It is supposed that the curse wore thin after a few hundred years; at any rate they managed to slip into the waters of the S.R.S.C. during the vernal equinox, and there they are now, camped in little huts, with the ship anchored in the mouth of a river and in a shocking state of barnacles.
THE bay is named after Miss Watkyns, who is not only the Principal but the originator of the S.R.S.C., or Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children. Like a good many ladies who have no children of their own she was greatly interested in them, and being a little interfering in her ways she became in time a noted figure in police courts and was often laughed at by the public. This brought her in contact with other ladies similarly disposed and finally the Society was formed, its object being the removal of children who are obviously not wanted by their parents, or parent as the case may be. The greatest care is taken to void mistakes, but once a child is removed it is never returned, and it soon forgets what happened when it was with its parents (or parent) for the air of the place is splendid for forgetting. There are cases where, after some years with the Society (or what would be some years if time counted there in the ordinary way), a child is delivered over to some person who ardently desires one; but the selection of such a person needs even greater care to avoid mistakes.
Miss Watkyns is a lady of intelligence far above the ordinary, and in addition to being a great organizer she has no mean knowledge of the sciences. These qualities enabled her not only to discover the existence of the Land of the Snergs (in itself a marvellous piece of brain work) but also how to get there without a nasty spill. I do not propose to go into details of how she managed this (as it would take a book twice as long as this one) but will merely state that she admitted into the Society twenty-two carefully selected ladies (each of whom had four or five children ready to be removed from their homes without notice) and made the most careful preparations for transferring them all to the new land.
It was arranged that each lady should come with one well wrapped up superfluous child, as this would be all that they could carry at one time and the rest could be fetched later. They were to bring also for each one a bundle containing blankets, woollies, and two combination suits of wear-resisting fabric, and to use their discretion with regard to small extras, such as wash rags, fine tooth combs and the like. All went excellently. They met on Hampstead Heath one blowy October night at 11.30, and by 12.15 Miss Watkyns had inspected and passed all bundles and seen that all hands had taken a cup of hot milk or cocoa. Then she gave the word and away they all went on a high wind.
From this slight beginning grew the organization of the S.R.S.C. as it is today, with 478 superfluous children under its care and more coming. As this is purely a narrative of the extraordinary adventures that befell two of the children owing to their foolish disregard of the laws so wisely made for their benefit (a narrative which should not be without improving effect on the minds of my younger readers), I will not give more than a brief account of the ways and means by which the Society attains its object.
WAYS AND MEANS
THE children are divided into two classes, according to size and age. The little ones wear one-piece garments known as the "slip-on," which have the advantage that they can be slipped off for bathing with one wriggle. The older ones wear two-piece garments; the boys having shorts and shirts and the girls skirts and blouses. Woolly coats are worn in the cold weather, which lasts only for a few seasonable weeks at Christmas time. For most of the year they do not wear shoes, but what are called slinkers.
The houses are on the higher ground just behind Watkyns Bay, and are all of one story. They are made of a criss-cross framework of timbers, with walls of clay mixed with little mashed-up shells in between the timbers, very strong and neat in appearance. Inside, the walls are plastered and painted light pink or blue. Behind the houses there is a wide stretch of turf, on which are swings and arrangements for healthful games such as net-ball and bumble-puppy. Not far away the forest begins with few trees at first and mostly bushes, where they play at pretence Indians and Robin Hood and so forth; but the trees soon grow thicker and thicker until it is quite shady even at midday in some parts. A pleasant place, with soft lawns here and there and a variety of ferns, but it is not wise to let the children roam about there too much for it is quite easy to get lost. Beyond the forest, a long day's march away, is the town of the Snergs, who built the houses for the Society as well as doing other useful things of which I will give an account later.
Each house has a protecting fence twelve feet from the walls to keep away the cinnamon bears, who live in the forest and who form friendships with the children when on their walks. This is all very well in its way, but the bears had the habit of trying to get into the houses at night, and, when they found the doors shut, of lying down outside and rubbing against the walls at intervals, which kept the children awake and made them giggle and whisper in a silly way, so the fence was put up. The bears are of fair size, with softish fur smelling slightly of cinnamon, hence the name. They must not be confused with the large grizzly bears which, rumour has it, live beyond the deep river on the other side of the Snerg country, as also tigers, unicorns, a dragon or two, and other creatures full of original sin.
With the exception of the very little ones each child has to attend to its own bed, and on Saturdays to refill the mattresses with little buds like hops, which have a pleasant aromatic smell and induce sleep. The old hops are thrown out on the beach at high tide. Saturday is the clean-up time. Lockers are tidied, pinafores are ironed, and puppies and other animals that need it are washed with soap; altogether there is a good deal of what the Gentlemen of the Life Guards call spit and polish, so as to be ready for Sunday. The smallest children have beds with rockers, Miss Watkyns having little patience with newfangled ideas about not rocking children.
A good deal of worry and argument has been caused by the amount of animal life in and round about the houses. There is a craze for pets, and Miss Watkyns' attempt to limit at the rate of one pet animal to each three children resulted in quarrels and sulking in corners, and finally it came to the rule of one child one animal. Puppies, kittens and small rabbits are the most popular; badgers are discouraged. At one time the elder children got excited over a recitation from the poets concerning a girl who owned a lamb which followed her about everywhere, even to school, where it made the other scholars laugh, and after that it was nothing but lambs. At length Miss Watkyns decided that only those who showed perfect behaviour for a month could have one, and that limited the number right enough. At the end of the month only two smug little girls had qualified for lambs, and by that time the rage for mongeese had come up.
Another source of trouble over animals is the food question. The ladies as a rule are rather sentimental in their ideas and it needed all the firmness and common sense of Miss Watkyns to prevent a wave of sloppiness passing over the Society and damaging the children's character and insides. Some even went to the length of proposing that the food should consist entirely of bread, butter, milk, and green stuff; and the experiment was actually tried for a time, with the result that the children broke out in pimples. Then fish diet was added, it being supposed that fish feel no pain when they are caught, only a little regret, but this was also a failure; the little ones' systems still cried out for meat and gravy in moderation. Finally, Miss Watkyns put her foot down firmly and arranged that a supply of sheep and hares, etc., be delivered at regular intervals by the Snergs, who are not at all sentimental about killing animals; in fact they rather like it, being great hunters.
THE Snergs are a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength. Probably they are some offshoot of the pixies who once inhabited the hills and forests of England, and who finally disappeared about the reign of Henry VIII. Their language is not very difficult and the children especially learn to speak it in a few weeks, which helps to strengthen my theory of their origin. The ladies, however, never learn to speak the language with fluency, and the little slang expressions are quite beyond them; but owing to the untiring energy of Miss Watkyns, that brainy woman, they now have a little Snerg grammar, with a vocabulary and some easy exercises.
The Snergs took a great interest in the Society's development and offered their services at an early date. It soon came to pass that they did all the heavy work, such as building (at which they are expert), gardening, painting and decorating, and the more troublesome part of the housework, such as swabbing floors. They come in batches and spend some weeks at work; then they say they are homesick, which means they have got tired of it, and they go home as soon as another batch can take their place. In return for these services they receive instruction in up-to-date methods from Miss Watkyns' Encyclopaedia, little presents from London or some other large town when one of the ladies has gone there on business, and those little general advantages, difficult to specify in words, which come from intercourse with refined females.
If the children go to the woods to collect berries or mushrooms or whatever else happens to be in season, or to play at outlaws or a little scalping party, a Snerg or two goes with them to shoo away obtrusive bears. When they are bathing a Snerg or two sits on a rock ready to dive in and pick out any child that has got into trouble. It is interesting to see how they reach such a one with a few vigorous strokes, take it to land, up-end it by the heels to let the water run out, and lay it on the grass to dry.
The Snergs dress in tight-fitting woollen hose, with a jerkin of the same material and a leather belt, and little round leather caps rather like the deeper kinds of saucers. When at home most of them live in the town; some few have their mills and farms a little distance away, but they come in pretty often for they are gregarious people, loving company. The town has one main street which goes rambling round corners, with one or two little alleys branching off from it through archways and so forth, and the houses are three or four or more stories in height, built in an irregular way of timber and clay and plaster, top-heavy in appearance though sound in reality even if a bit elastic. If a house leans over more than it should they prop it up by timbers reaching across to the house opposite, this generally giving them an excuse for making a little covered-in passage way on the timbers so that they can visit one another without all the fuss of going downstairs and up again, they being great on visits. You never know when a Snerg will finish with his house because he is always making additions to it, such as throwing out bay windows, or carrying a balcony on stilts to one of the big trees near by and then building a spare bedroom in the tree itself, and the like fool tricks.
They are long-lived people; roughly speaking they live as long as oaks. For instance those Snergs who remember the excitement caused by the landing of William the Conqueror (1066) are old, old gaffers, opinionated, sitting in armchairs. The men who remember the Wars of the Roses are middle-aged and of ripe judgment (in so far as a Snerg ever has judgment), while those born about the time of the Gunpowder Plot have still something of the gay insouciance of youth. The babies date from Trafalgar and upwards.
They are great on feasts, which they have in the open air at long tables joined end on and following the turns of the street. This is necessary because nearly everybody is invited—that is to say, commanded to come, because the King gives the feasts, though each person has to bring his share of food and drink and put it in the general stock. Of late years the procedure has changed owing to the enormous number of invitations that had to be sent; the commands are now understood and only invitations to stay away are sent to the people who are not wanted on the particular occasion. They are sometimes hard up for a reason for a feast, and then the Master of the Household, whose job it is, has to hunt for a reason, such as its being somebody's birthday. Once they had a feast because it was nobody's birthday that day.
The King presides at the head of the table, with the best people on either hand, and there they sit in the mellow evening light and tell tales of the brave days of old and listen to the sound of harps. But at the other end of the table, round the corner and out of sight, there is often a good deal of reckless behaviour and talk, since there is no one to check the number of cups of mead they drink; and the truth is they get slightly tiddleums, and laugh far too much and grab off each other's caps and throw them in other fellow's faces, and so on. Queer people.
The tale is going to start very soon but it will be necessary to give some account of the two children, Sylvia and Joe, who got mixed up with the strange doings I have mentioned, and also of Vanderdecken and his men, because if it had not been for them I really don't know how things would have come out as well as they did. Let us begin with Sylvia.
SYLVIA'S mother was a widow who lived in a commodious house in London and who was much admired, and whom we will call Mrs Walker because it was not her name. Though she was rather proud of Sylvia in a way, because she was a pretty little girl with hair that curled naturally, she never bothered about her very much owing to her Society engagements. She never, for example, made her laugh with the business of the little pigs, or pretended to eat her, beginning with the feet, and she never bored people by exhibiting her little frocks to show how she was growing out of them; in fact, she never saw her at all except sometimes when she spared a moment to run upstairs before going to dinners and dances and the like. But she provided a capable nurse called Norah who was skilled in all things necessary for young ones, including interesting tales, and this worked finely until Norah had to go away and marry a young man in the sausage business. The new nurse who came had her own society engagements to attend to (though not such classy ones) and could not spare very much time for Sylvia.
Excerpted from The Marvellous Land of Snergs by E. A. Wyke-Smith, George Morrow. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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