As both parties were being held in the same building, the corridors were freely adorned with placards pointing out the way by means of hands whose execution revealed much good intention, but little knowledge of anatomy. William easily tracked down the Old Folks’ party.
He listened for a moment outside the door to the confused murmur within, then flew open the door and entered dramatically. Old Folks in various stages of old age sat round the room talking to each other complainingly.
A perspiring young man and woman were trying ineffectively to get them to join in a game. The guests were engaged in discussing among themselves the inadequacy of the tea and the uncomfortableness of the chairs and the piercingness of the draught and the general dullness of the party. ‘’Tisn’t what it used to be in my young days,’ one old man was saying loudly to his neighbours.
William entered with his sack. At the sight of him they brightened. The perspiring young man and woman hurried down to him eagerly. ‘So glad to see you,’ they gasped. ‘You’re awfully late — I suppose Mr Solomon sent you with the things?’ Not much of William’s face could be seen through the all-enveloping beard and wig, but what could be seen signified assent.
A perspiring young man and woman were trying ineffectively to get them to join in a game. The guests were engaged in discussing among themselves the inadequacy of the tea and the uncomfortableness of the chairs…
Richmal Crompton revealed character William Brown, who is known as ‘Just William’ in 1919. The mischievous school boy became a favourite with fans
‘Well, do begin to give them out,’ said the young man. ‘It’s simply ghastly! We can’t get any go into it at all. They won’t do anything but sit round and grumble. I hope you’ve got plenty of tea and ’baccy. That’s what they like best. Are you going to make a speech?’
William hastily shook his head and lowered his sack from his shoulder. ‘Well, begin at this end, will you? And let’s hope to goodness that it’ll cheer them up.’ William began and it was not until he had presented an amazed and outraged old man with a toy engine that it occurred to him that it had been perhaps a mistake to exchange the two sacks. But having begun, he went doggedly on with his task.
He presented to the old men and women around him dolls and small tin motor cars and miniature shops and little wooden boats and garish little picture books and pencil cases — all presents laboriously chosen by the worthy Mr Solomon for the children.
It was evident that the young man and woman helpers were restraining themselves with difficulty. The Old Folks were for the time being paralysed by amazement and indignation. Yet a close observer might have remarked that there was something of satisfaction in their indignation.
They’d grumbled at the tea and room and chairs and draught till they were tired of grumbling at them. Something fresh to grumble at was almost in the nature of a godsend. Of course they’d have grumbled at their presents whatever they’d been, but anything so unusually and satisfactorily easy to grumble at as these unsuitable presents was almost exhilarating.
William had become very thoughtful. He was realising the fact that in all probability his fulfilment of Mr Solomon’s roles that afternoon would not be such as to melt Mr Solomon’s heart towards him and make him admit him as trumpeter into his band
William gathered from the almost homicidal expressions with which the young man and woman helpers were watching him that it would be as well to retire as hastily as possible. He handed his last present, a child’s paintbox, to a deaf and blind old woman by the door, and departed almost precipitately. Then the storm broke out and a torrent of shrill indignation pursued his retreating form. He returned to the little classroom he had chosen as his dressing-room and stood contemplating his other costume and other sack.
Yes, impersonally and impartially he could not help admitting that the changing of the sacks had been a mistake, but it was done now and he must carry on as best as he could. It took some time to change into the Pied Piper costume and he retained his beard and wig in order the better to conceal his identity. Then he shouldered his other sack and set off to follow the numerous placards whose hands crippled apparently by rheumatism or some other terrible complaint continued with dogged British determination to do their duty and point the way to the room where the children were assembled.
William had become very thoughtful. He was realising the fact that in all probability his fulfilment of Mr Solomon’s roles that afternoon would not be such as to melt Mr Solomon’s heart towards him and make him admit him as trumpeter into his band. He doubted if even Ethel’s charm would be strong enough to counterbalance the Old Folks’ presents. And he did so dearly want to enter Mr Solomon’s band as a trumpeter. He must try to think of some way.
He flung open the door of a room in which a few dozen small children gambolled half-heartedly at the bidding of the conscientious ‘helpers’. A little cluster of mothers sat at the end of the room and watched them proudly. The children, seeing him enter with his sack, brightened and, instructed by the helpers, broke into a thin shrill cheer. A helper came down to greet him. ‘How good of you to come,’ she said gushingly. ‘I suppose Mr Solomon couldn’t get off himself. Such an indefatigable worker, isn’t he? The procession first, of course — the children know just what to do — we’ve been rehearsing it.’
He flung open the door of a room in which a few dozen small children gambolled half-heartedly at the bidding of the conscientious ‘helpers’. A little cluster of mothers sat at the end of the room and watched them proudly
The children were already getting into line. The ‘helper’ motioned William to the head of it. William stepped into position. ‘Twice round the room, you know,’ said the helper, ‘and then distribute the presents.’
William began very slowly to walk round the room, his sack on his shoulder, his train of children prancing joyously behind. William’s brain was working quickly. He had not looked into the bag he was carrying, but he had a strong suspicion that he would soon be distributing packets of tea and tobacco to a gathering of outraged children. Surely the fury of the Old Folks presented with dolls and engines would be as nothing to the fury of children presented with packets of tea and tobacco. His hopes of being admitted into Mr Solomon’s band faded into nothingness.
He began his second peregrination of the room. Fond staff gazed in rapt admiration. William walked very slowly. He was trying to put off the evil hour when he must open the sack and take out the packets of tea and tobacco. Then, suddenly, he decided not to await meekly the blows of Fate.
Instead, he’d play a bold game. He’d carry the war into the enemy’s country. The mothers and helpers were surprised when suddenly William, followed by his faithful band (who would have died martyrs’ deaths sooner than lose sight of that sack for one moment), walked out of the door and disappeared from view. But an intelligent helper smiled brightly and said: ‘How thoughtful! He’s just going to take them once round the School outside.’ ‘Perhaps,’ suggested a mother, ‘he’s taken them for a peep at the Old Folks’ party.’ ‘Who is he?’ said another. ‘I thought Mr Solomon was to have come.’
‘Oh, it’s probably one of Mr Solomon’s elder Sunday School boys. He told me once that he believed in training them up in habits of social service. He’s a wonderful man, I think.’ ‘Isn’t he?’ sighed another. ‘Lives for duty — I’m so sorry he couldn’t come today.’ ‘Well, I’m sure,’ said the first, ‘he’d have come if some more pressing duty hadn’t detained him. The dear man’s probably reading to some poor invalid at this moment.’
The first story featuring schoolboy William Brown was published in a magazine in 1919, but it was the release of author Richmal Crompton’s first book about the 11-year-old schoolboy that sparked a phenomenon. Above: the image of Crompton that featured on the cover of her biography
At that moment, as a matter of fact, the dear man had got to the point where he was earnestly informing Ethel that no one had ever — ever — ever understood him in all his life before as she did.
‘I don’t think that Johnnie ought to have gone out of doors,’ complained a mother. ‘He hadn’t got his chest protector on.’ ‘It’s only for a second,’ said a helper soothingly. ‘It will air the room a bit.’ ‘But it won’t put Johnnie’s chest protector on,’ said the mother pugnaciously. ‘And what’s the use of airing the room when we’d only just got it nice and warm for them.’ ‘I’ll go out and see where they are,’ said the helper obligingly. She went out and looked round the School playground.
The School playground was empty. She walked round to the other side of the School. There was no one there. There was no sign of anyone anywhere. She returned to the mothers and other helpers. ‘They must have gone to see the Old Folks’ party,’ she said. ‘If they’re not outside,’ said Johnnie’s mother, ‘I don’t mind. All I meant was that if he was outside he ought to be wearing his chest protector.’ ‘I think,’ said another helper rather haughtily, ‘that that boy ought to have told us that he was going to take them to see the Old Folks. When I offer to help at a party I like to be consulted about the arrangements.’
‘Well, let’s go and find them,’ said Johnnie’s mother. ‘I don’t want Johnnie wandering about these nasty draughty passages without it. I wish now that I’d never taken it off.’ They set off in a body to the room where the Old Folks’ party was being held. The Old Folks, sitting round the room, still held their little dolls or engines and toy boats, and were grumbling to each other about them with morbid relish. One helper was at the piano singing a cheerful little song to which no one was listening. The other was bending over an octogenarian, who despite himself was becoming interested in the workings of his clockwork bus.
This interest, however, was disapproved of by the rest. ‘Disgustin’, I call it!’ an old man was saying to his neighbour holding out the toy train signal with which William had presented him. The neighbour, who was tired of talking about his toy mouse, glared ferociously at the performer.
‘Kickin’ up such a din a body can’t hear himself speak,’ he muttered. The mothers and helpers of the children looked around anxiously, then swept up to the helpers of the Old Folks. A hasty whispered consultation took place. No, the Pied Piper and children had not visited them at all. Probably they had returned to their own rooms by now.
The mothers and helpers hurried back to the room. It was still empty. Talking excitedly, they poured out into the playground. It was empty. They poured out into the street. It was empty. Part of them tore frenziedly up the street and part tore equally frenziedly to search the building again. Everything was empty.
The old legend had come true. A Pied Piper followed by every child in the village had vanished completely from the face of the earth.
Ethel had just sneezed and Mr Solomon was just thinking how much more musically she sneezed than anyone else he had ever met, when the mothers and helpers burst in upon them. The helpers took in the situation at a glance, and never again did Mr Solomon recapture the pedestal from which that glance deposed him.
But that is by the way. The immediate question was the children. The babel was so deafening that it took a long time before Mr Solomon grasped what it was all about. Johnnie’s mother had a penetrating voice, and for a long time Mr Solomon thought that all they had come to say was that Johnnie had lost his chest protector.
The cover of the first book, titled Just William, was published 100 years ago in 1922
When the situation finally dawned on him he blinked with horror and amazement. ‘B-b-but Mr Greene came to give the presents,’ he gasped. ‘It was Mr Greene.’
‘It certainly wasn’t Mr Greene,’ said a helper tartly. ‘It was a boy. We thought it must have been one of your Sunday School boys. We couldn’t see his face plainly because of his beard.’
A feeling of horror stole over Mr Solomon. ‘A b-b-boy?’ he gasped. ‘If I’d known he was going out like that,’ wailed Johnnie’s mother, ‘I’d never have taken it off.’ ‘Wait a minute,’ stammered Mr Solomon excitedly, ‘I-I’ll go and speak to Mr Greene.’
But the visit to Mr Greene was entirely fruitless of missing children. All it produced was the information that Mr Greene had been out all the afternoon and had received no message of any kind from Mr Solomon. ‘They — they can’t really have gone,’ said Mr Solomon. ‘Perhaps they are hiding in some other classroom for a joke.’
With a crowd of distracted mothers at his heels he returned to the School and conducted a thorough and systematic search. Though thorough and systematic as a search could be, it revealed no children. The attitude of the mothers was growing hostile. They evidently looked upon Mr Solomon as solely responsible for the calamity. ‘Sittin’ there,’ muttered a mother fiercely, ‘sittin’ there dallyin’ with red-haired females while our children was bein’ stole — Nero!’
‘’Erod!’ said another not to be outdone in general culture. ‘Crippen!’ said another showing herself more up-to-date. The perspiration was pouring from Mr Solomon’s brow. It was like a nightmare. He could not move anywhere without this crowd of hostile, muttering women. He had a horrible suspicion that they were going to lynch him, hang him from the nearest lamp-post. And what, oh what, in the name of St George’s Hall, had happened to the children? ‘Let us just look up and down the road again,’ he said hoarsely.
Still muttering darkly, they followed him into the road. He looked up and down it wildly. There wasn’t a child to be seen anywhere. The threatening murmurs behind him grew louder. ‘Duck him,’ he heard and ‘Hangin’s too good for him,’ and ‘Wring his neck with my own hands I will if he doesn’t find ’em soon,’ and from Johnnie’s mother: ‘Well, if I find him again it’ll be a lesson to me never to take it off no more.’ ‘I-I’ll go and look round the village,’ said poor Mr Solomon desperately, ‘I’ll go to the police — I promise I’ll find them.’ ‘You’d better,’ said someone darkly.
He tore in panic down the road. He tore in panic up the nearest street. And then suddenly he saw William’s face looking at him over a garden gate. ‘Hello,’ said William. ‘Do you know anything about those children?’ panted Mr Solomon. ‘Yes,’ said William calmly. ‘If you promise to let me be a trumpeter in your band, you can have them. Will you?’ ‘Y-yes,’ spluttered Mr Solomon. ‘On your honour?’ persisted William. ‘Yes,’ said Mr Solomon. ‘An’ Ginger an’ Henry an’ Douglas — all trumpeters?’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr Solomon desperately.
It was at that moment that Mr Solomon decided that not even Ethel’s charm would compensate for having William for a brother-in-law. ‘All right,’ said William. ‘Come round here.’ He led him round to a garage at the back of the house and opened the door. The garage was full of children having the time of their lives, engaged in mimic warfare under the leadership of Ginger and Douglas with ammunition of tea leaves and tobacco.
Certainly the children were appreciating the Old Folks’ presents far more than the Old Folks had appreciated the children’s. Johnnie, the largest and healthiest of the children, was engaged in chewing tobacco and evidently enjoying it. ‘Here they are,’ said William carelessly. ‘You can have ’em if you like. We’re gettin’ a bit tired of them.’
No words of mine could describe the touching reunion between the mothers of the missing children and the children, or between Johnnie and his chest protector. Neither could any words of mine describe the first practice of Mr Solomon’s Sunday School band with William, Ginger and Douglas and Henry as trumpeters. There was, however, only one practice, as after that Mr Solomon wisely decided to go away for a very long holiday.
Taken from William At Christmas, by Richmal Crompton, published by Macmillan at £7.99. Cover by Adam Stower, story illustrations by Thomas Henry. © Edward Ashbee and Catherine Massey 1995. To order a copy for £7.19 (offer valid until December 31, 2022; free P&P on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.