He should have told about his throat. He was supposed to say, if he was feeling ill, so he could be ordered to bed to stare at the ceiling. That was how you got better. But he couldn't do that today. This was a special day. It had finally come, and he didn't want to miss anything. He wanted to jump and jump with happiness. His uncle was coming to visit. This uncle's name was Donald, and then came mother's old name, from before she met father. Archie had many uncles. Everyone did. Archie had so many, in fact, that he had not even met them all. But this was the best one. He was the one who picked Archie up under the arms, and spun and spun so all the world was streaks around the two of them laughing. He didn't say that Archie was too heavy, even though Archie was getting to be a big boy.
Last time, he had come to visit, it had been night, and Archie been sent to bed before the sound of the coach even came. But he waited awake, and he flew, flew in his bare feet, and mother fussed, but Nan couldn't even catch him, and Uncle Donald lifted him up, and settled into a chair, and no one sent Archie away. (Mother didn't mind, and Nan was a servant, really, although she told Archie what to do, and spanked him when she thought he deserved it.) Archie had been permitted to lap- sit, and listen, and Uncle Donald's waistcoat was cold with the air from the night, and the fire was hot and tight on Archie's small face, and he must have fallen asleep. Someone had carried him up and put him to bed.
He had been 4 then. It had been before his birthday.
But he was five now, big. Archie hopped out of bed, and slipped on the smock that Nan had laid out for him. His belly was light with something that felt like soap bubbles, and his throat felt sandy and funny. He swallowed, to coat it with spit. That helped, some.
The stairs were soft wood under his bare feet. He reached up above his head, to hold the banister. That way he could walk close to the edge, and they squeaked less. The fire had been laid, in the room at the bottom of the stairs, but Archie could tell by the weak light of the window, that it was very early.
The front door was big and heavy. Archie liked his family front door. He liked to lean against it, and feel the safe and solid heat under his hands. He liked to lick the door sometimes too, it tasted of smoke as old as the times of stories. But everyone tried to stop him from doing that, everyone down to the lowest under-maid, who had to call him 'Master Archie.'
Usually, he went out the kitchen door. But if he did that today, they would stop him. He would be sent off to have his face washed, or be made to eat oatmeal, or something stupid like that. The big door was heavy. He had to reach up, and really tug. Then it swung suddenly, and crushed his bare toes a little. But they were not bleeding, so he was brave.
The world outside was lovely. He could smell the green and the flowers, and the cold wet under his feet, and the sun was warm on his hair and shoulders. He stood on the doorstep, deciding where to go. The dooryard sloped away down to the pond where the ducks lived. Archie liked the ducks. He fed them stale bread, sometimes, if there was any. They never forgot, and when he went to the pond, they ran to him wagging their bottoms. But there were also geese, at the pond. They were not nice at all. They put their long necks out, and wings up, and they chased him, and hissed. They bit too him, and that really hurt. Besides, the sun was shining on the pond now, and the light was hard and glassy, and it made Archie's head feel sore inside.
The cool shadows under the trees looked better. He had a little hollow in the roots of the large oak, where he kept some important things. He got his acorns out, and lined them up. They looked like a line of sailing ships. He gave the orders gruffly, and sailed them through the loamy sea. It was easy to make his voice gruff. It felt low and strange anyway.
When he tired of this, he found a sharp stick, and practiced his letters in the dust. That was another thing to tell uncle! Archie could read already, and write! Archie smiled, thinking of how pleased uncle would be. Sitting with father, following his pointing finger, Archie had learned all on his own. Father said in the spring Archie would be breeched, and then have a tutor come. Everyone said that Archie was clever.
Archie lowered his face, to sight along the ground. Tiny ants struggled down and up again, trying to cross the letters he had scratched into the earth. There was a red ant trapped in the cross-piece of letter 'A.' Archie lifted the ant out, on the back of his fingernail, and watched it creep away into the world.
Archie put his head down, in the soft earth. He could feel how the world must be to the little red ant, so big, and with the awful wind, blowing away the warm sun. The edge seemed too far and the sky wobbled and swooped. The heat was making him shiver, and now Archie could feel his tears making little mud streaks. His throat was so sore. He rose up on his knees, he would go back to the house. He could go back to bed, sleep until he felt better. That would be the best thing to do. But the sky was pressing, and his legs hurt. Why did his legs hurt?
Then the sky pressed him down hard. He cried in shame, and knew he had wet his smock.
* * *
He opened his eyes, and the world swam and hurt. he was in his own narrow bed, in his room. He was so hot and sick, his head ached, his face felt swollen and scraped. That made no sense at all. But it was hard to think anyway. Even his tongue hurt. He put his fingers on it, and they came away streaked with blood. Archie could see that the light had moved. It was nearly evening. He had missed uncle day. He had not been able to be there when the horses and the coach came around the corner of the drive. He had not been able to run to uncle Donald and say all the things he had planned. He had wet himself, and got packed off to bed like a baby. He shut his eyes. The tears leaked out anyway. And that was bad too.
Later, it was dark., Mother was in the chair by his bed. Her face looked tired and sad, lit on one side by the single bed-table candle. She was asleep. He curled small, on his side to watch her. It made him feel better. He had been watching, and resting for a while that way, when he heard foot-steps clattering down the hall. Elsie the under-maid was talking to her sister, who worked in the kitchen.
“Foaming like a dog from what I heard...such a shame.”
“Wonder what they'll do with him now? Send him away do you think?”
Archie pulled the pillow over his head.
He waited a long time, hot and shivery, but mother slept on.
It was much later when the door to his room creaked open.
Archie knew at once who it was , framed in the doorway. And his heart lifted.
“Archie, you should be asleep.” Uncle Donald's voice could be loud. Archie had heard him bellow sometimes, and when he sang it was very bold, and sounded bad. But this time he spoke so soft that his breath wouldn't trouble a feather.
“I was waiting for you.” Archie said in a small voice. “I had so many things to tell you.”
Uncle Donald came into the room. He gently shook Archie's mother on the shoulder. “Bed for you Mary.” He said. “I'll stay with the boy for now.”
“Very well,” Archie's mother said. She kissed them both. First she kissed Archie on both his eyes, just the way she always did. Then she kissed Uncle Donald. She could do that, Archie knew, because she was his sister.
Archie's uncle settled into the chair. . He had brought his own candle with him. Now the room was brighter. The colors still swam a little, but Archie didn't mind now. Uncle Donald looked at him closely. Then he picked Archie up, blankets and all, and nestled him into his lap in the chair. Uncle Donald wore a long blue coat. The coat meant that he was in the Navy. And that was the reason that he couldn't visit as often as Archie wished. Now Archie was able to cuddle up to the blue coat, and it smelled of Uncle Donald, and the wool of it was fierce good against Archie's cheek.
“I got sick.” Archie said
“Yes. You did. You still are sick. You have scarlet fever. You will have to rest in bed and get better.” Uncle Donald sounded very sure.
“I bit my tongue.” Archie added. “And I fell down. I don't know why.”
“Ah.” said Uncle Donald. “That happens sometimes. Did things seem all sideways and wrong first?”
“Yes,” Archie said, and then his voice felt small, as he asked his own question. “Did I do something bad?”
“No, Archie not at all.” Uncle Donald's voice sounded funny now, as if his throat was sore too, suddenly. “It may never happen again. But if it does, as you get older you'll be able to go someplace safe and quiet. That way you won't hurt yourself. You'll probably still bite your tongue though. And you'll have a head-ache after.” Archie nodded resignedly.
They sat and talked for a while, and uncle Donald put his hands on Archie's face, and the hands were big and hard and cool, and they took some of the hurting heat away.
“How do you know about the tongue biting thing?” Archie asked
His uncle smiled gently. “Fits? I used to have them too. But they went away when I grew up. Sometimes that happens.”
“I hope that happens to me. I hope it never comes again.”
“I know, but even if it does, you will be all right.” The calm certainty in the older lower voice reminded Archie of his best news.
“I can read now, Uncle Donald. All myself.”
“I know, your parents told me. And I brought you a book. We can look at it together in the morning. You can show me your reading. But you have to stay in bed, and get better.”
Archie couldn't wait and see. “What kind of book is it?” He was quivering like a puppy.
“It's a book about Navy ships. It has a lot of pictures too, so you can see what everything looks like. It even has a picture of Admiral Howe.”
“Do you –“Archie paused. This was a big question now. “Do you think I can be in the Navy too?”
Uncle Donald smiled. “Archie Kennedy,” he said “They'll be lucky to have you.”