Far away at the end of the table sat Father, the kind, handsome and provident man. At this end sat Mother, her crinoline spread abroad. On Mother’s right was Mr. Matthew Arnold. On each side of the table the warned children ate their food gravely, all except Topaz on Mother’s left. Topaz, who could not be squelched, was perched there on the top of two cushions, as innocent as a poached egg. Mother sat gracious, fatigued, heavy behind the majestic crinoline with the last and fatal child.
Said Mr. Matthew Arnold in large and musical tones, speaking across the children and three jellied fowls to Father who with divided attention carved, “It is now my hope to make a survey of the educational systems of France and Germany with a view to the establishment in this country of reasonable educational facilities for every child, rich or poor. You will agree with me, Mr. Edgeworth, that a modicum of education, given under healthy and happy conditions, is the right of every boy. This I would extend to girls also.” Thus spoke Mr. Matthew Arnold.
Father, as he carved for ten people, made encouraging sounds, although he had not yet considered this novel idea. He was, however, prepared to do so. He looked forward to a pleasant afternoon with this agreeable and enlightened person who was a coming Inspector of Schools, a present poet, and a son of Arnold of Rugby.
Mother’s quiet sombre gaze swept round the table, dwelt for a moment thoughtfully on the poet, rested on Father busy with the jellied fowls, rested on the two young grown-up daughters, on the four sons, on the little Topaz at her side, and on the ministering Cook and Emma.
Topaz was anxious to be noticed. But nobody was noticed today except Mr. Matthew Arnold. Not Annie, Mary, Blakey, George, John, nor Joe. She determined to be noticed immediately, so she spoke across the table to the guest.
As she was so unimportant no one paid her any attention at first until she was heard to say, “. . . and it’s got a lovely yellow glass handle and you pull it and it goes woosh! Woosh, woosh!” she trumpeted, and smiled happily at Mr. Matthew Arnold.
“What goes woosh, my child?” he asked.
“Our new —”
“Topaz!” thundered Father, and Mother put out a grieved and loving hand. The outraged brothers and sisters looked across and downwards. Only Mr. Matthew Arnold regarded Topaz without horror.
“Topaz, eat your bread and butter,” commanded Mother. But Topaz had succeeded. She had been noticed, although she had failed to tell Mr. Matthew Arnold about their new plumbing.
Excerpted from The Innocent Traveller by Ethel Wilson Afterword by P.K. Page. Copyright © 2008 by Ethel Wilson Afterword by P.K. Page. Excerpted by permission of New Canadian Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.