The Rivals

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William was aware of a vague feeling of apprehension when he heard that Joan Clive, the little girl who lived next door, was having a strange cousin to stay for three weeks. All his life, William had accepted Joan's adoration and homage with condescending indifference, but he did not like to imagine a possible rival.

"What's he coming for?" he demanded with an ungracious scowl, perched uncomfortably and dangerously on the high wall that separated the two gardens and glaring down at Joan. "What's he comin' for, any way?"

"'Cause mother's invited him," explained Joan simply, with a shake of her golden curls. "He's called Cuthbert. She says he's a sweet little boy."

"Sweet!" echoed William in a tone of exaggerated horror. "Ugh!"

"Well," said Joan, with the smallest note of indignation in her voice, "you needn't play with him if you don't like."

"Me? Play? With him?" scowled William as if he could not believe his ears. "I'm not likely to go playin' with a kid like wot he'll be!"

Joan raised aggrieved blue eyes.

"You're a horrid boy sometimes, William!" she said. "Any way, I shall have him to play with soon."

It was the first time he had received anything but admiration from her.

He scowled speechlessly.

Cuthbert arrived the next morning.

William was restless and ill-at-ease, and several times climbed the ladder for a glimpse of the guest, but all he could see was the garden inhabited only by a cat and a gardener. He amused himself by throwing stones at the cat till he hit the gardener by mistake and then fled precipitately before a storm of abuse. William and the gardener were enemies of very long standing. After dinner he went out again into the garden and stood gazing through a chink in the wall.

Cuthbert was in the garden.

Though as old and as tall as William, he was dressed in an embroidered tunic, very short knickers, and white socks. Over his blue eyes his curls were brushed up into a golden halo.

He was a picturesque child.

"What shall we do?" Joan was saying. "Would you like to play hide and seek?"

"No; leth not play at rough gameth," said Cuthbert.

With a wild spasm of joy William realised that his enemy lisped. It is always well to have a handle against one's enemies.

"What shall we do, then?" said Joan, somewhat wearily.

"Leth thit down an' I'll tell you fairy thorieth," said Cuthbert.

A loud snort from inside the wall just by his ear startled him, and he clutched Joan's arm.

"What'th that?" he said.

There were sounds of clambering feet on the other side of the wall, then William's grimy countenance appeared.

"Hello, Joan!" he said, ignoring the stranger.

Joan's eyes brightened.

"Come and play with us, William," she begged.

"We don't want dirty little boyth," murmured Cuthbert fastidiously. William could not, with justice, have objected to the epithet. He had spent the last half-hour climbing on to the rafters of the disused coach-house, and dust and cobwebs adorned his face and hair.

"He's always like that," explained Joan, carelessly.

By this time William had thought of a suitable rejoinder.

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