Even when the last of the medicine bottles were cleared away and she was supposed to have “had” convalescence, Harriet did not get well. She was a thin child with big brown eyes and a lot of reddish hair that did not exactly curl, but had a wiriness that made it stand back from her face rather like Alice’s hair in Alice in Wonderland. Since her illness Harriet had looked all eyes, hair, and legs, and seemed to have no face at all--so much so that her brothers Alec, Toby and Edward said she had turned into a daddy-longlegs. Mrs. Johnson, whose name was Olivia, tried to scold the boys for teasing Harriet, but her scolding was not very convincing, because inside she could not help feeling that if a daddy-longlegs had a lot of hair and big eyes it would look very like Harriet.
Harriet’s father was named George Johnson. He had a shop. It was not a usual sort of shop, because what it sold was entirely dependent on what his brother William grew, shot or caught. There had been a time when the Johnson family was rich. They had owned a large house in the country with plenty of land round it, and some fishing and shooting. The children’s great-grandfather had not been able to afford to live in the big house, so he had built himself a smaller house on the edge of his property and rented the big house to other people. When his eldest son, the children’s grandfather, came into the property he could not afford to live even in the new smaller house, so he brought up the children’s father and their Uncle William in the lodge by the gates. But when he was killed in a motor accident and the children’s Uncle William inherited the property, he was so poor he could not afford to live even in the lodge. So Uncle William decided the cheapest plan would be to live in two rooms in the house that his grandfather had built, and to rent the lodge.
When he had thought of this he said to his brother George, the children’s father, “I tell you what, young feller me lad,”--he was the sort of man who spoke that way--“I’ll keep a nice chunk of garden and a bit of shootin’ and fishin’ and I’ll make the garden pay, and you can have the produce, trout from the river, and game from the woods, and keep a shop in London and sell it, and before you can say ‘Bob’s me uncle’ you’ll be a millionaire.”
It did not matter how often anyone said “Bob’s your uncle” for George did not become a millionaire. Uncle William had not married, and lived very comfortably in his two rooms in the smaller house on the edge of his estate, but one reason why he lived so comfortably was that he ate the best of everything that he grew, caught or shot. The result of this was that George and Olivia and the children lived very leanly indeed on the proceeds of the shop. It was not only that William ate everything worth eating that made life so hard for them, but also that people who buy in shops expect to go to special places for special things. When they are buying fruit they do not expect to be asked if they could do with a nice rabbit or a trout, especially when the rabbit and the trout are not very nice because the best ones have been eaten by an Uncle William.
The children’s father was an optimist by nature, and he tried to believe that he could not be a failure and that anything he started would succeed in the end. He also had a deep respect and trust for his brother William.
“Don’t let’s get downhearted, Olivia,” he would say. “It’s all a matter of time and educating the public. The public can be educated to anything if only they’re given time.”
Olivia very seldom argued with George. She was not an arguing sort of person, and anyway she was very fond of him, but she did sometimes wonder if they would not all starve before the public could be taught to buy old, tired grouse which had been too tough for Uncle William, when what they had come to buy was vegetables.
One of the things that was most difficult for Olivia, and indeed for the whole family, was that what would not sell had to be eaten. This made a great deal of trouble because Uncle William had a large appetite and seldom sent more than one of any kind of fish or game, and the result was that the family meals were made up of several different kinds of food, which meant a lot of cooking.
“What is there for lunch today, Olivia?” George would ask, usually adding politely, “Sure to be delicious.”
Olivia would answer, “There’s enough rabbit for two, there is a very small pike, there is grouse--but I don’t really know about that, it seems to be very, very old, as if it had been dead a long time--and there’s sauerkraut. I’m afraid everybody must eat cabbage of some sort today. We’ve had over seven hundred from Uncle William this week, and it’s only Wednesday.”
One of the worst things to Harriet about having been ill was that she was not allowed to go to school, and her mother would not let her help in the house.
“Do go out, darling, you look so terribly thin and spindly. Why don’t you go down to the river? I know it’s rather dull by yourself, but you like watching boats go by.”
Harriet did like watching boats go by and was glad that her father had chosen to have his shop in outer London near the Thames, so she could see boats go by. But boat-watching is a summer thing, and Harriet was unlucky in that she had been ill all summer and was putting up with the getting-well stage in the autumn. Nobody, she thought, could want to go and look at a river in the autumn.