The Slowcoach

Author: Edward Verrall Lucas

Chapter 1: The Avories

Once upon a time there was a nice family. Its name was Avory, and it lived in an old house in Chiswick, where the Thames is so sad on grey days and so gay on sunny ones.

Mr.—or rather Captain—Avory was dead; he had been wounded at Spion Kop, and died a few years after. Mrs. Avory was thirty-five, and she had four children. The eldest was Janet, aged fourteen, and the youngest was Gregory Bruce, aged seven. Between these came Robert Oliver, who was thirteen, and Hester, who was nine.

They were all very fond of each other, and they rarely quarreled. (If they had done so, I should not be telling this story. You don’t catch me writing books about people who quarrel.) They adored their mother.

The name of the Avories’ house was "The Gables," which was a better name than many houses have, because there actually were gables in its roof. Hester, who had funny ideas, wanted to see all the people who lived in all the houses that are called "The Gables" everywhere drawn up in a row so that she might examine them. She used to lie awake at night and wonder how many there would be. "I’m sure mother would be the most beautiful, anyway," she used to say.

History was Hester’s passion. She could read history all day. Here she differed from Robert Oliver, who was all for geography. Their friends knew of these tastes, of course, and so Hester’s presents were nearly always history books or portraits of great men, such as Napoleon and Shakespeare, both of whom she almost worshipped, while Robert’s were compasses and maps. He also had a mapmeasurer (from Mr. Lenox), and at the moment at which this story opens, his birthday being just over, he was the possessor of a pedometer, which he carried fastened to his leg, under his knickerbockers, so that it was certain to register every time he took a step. He kept a careful record of the distance he had walked since his birthday, and could tell you at any time what it was, if you gave him a minute or two to crawl under the table and undo his clothes. He could be heard grunting in dark places all day long, having been forbidden by Janet to undress in public.

Robert’s birthday was on June 20, Hester’s on November 8, and Janet’s on February 28. She had the narrowest escape, you see, of getting birthdays only once in every four years; which is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being. Gregory Bruce was a little less lucky, for his birthday was on December 20, which is so near to Christmas Day that mean persons have been known to make one gift do for both events. None the less, Gregory’s possessions were very numerous; for he had many friends, and most of them were careful to keep these two great anniversaries apart.

Gregory’s particular passion just now was the names of engines, of which he had one of the finest collections in Europe; but a model aeroplane which Mr. Scott had given him was beginning to turn his thoughts towards the conquest of the air, and whereas he used to tell people that he meant to be an engine driver when he grew up, he was now adding, "or a man like Wilbur Wright."

Most children have wanted to fly ever since "Peter Pan" began, and, as I dare say you have heard, some have tried from the nursery window, with perfectly awful results, having neglected to have their shoulders first touched magically; but Gregory Bruce Avory wanted to fly in a more regular and scientific manner. He wanted to fly like an engineer. To his mind, indeed, the flying part of "Peter Pan" was the least fascinating; he preferred the underground home, and the fight with the Indians, and the mechanism of the crocodile. For a short time, in fact, his only ambition had been to be the crocodile’s front half.

Janet, on the other hand, liked Nana and the pathetic motherly parts the best; Robert’s favourite was Smee, and often at meal times he used to say, "Woe is me, I have no knife"; while Hester was happiest in the lagoon scene. This difference of taste in one small family shows how important it is for anyone who writes a play to put a lot of variety into it.

Janet, the eldest, was also the most practical. She was, in fact, towards the others almost more of a younger mother than an elder sister. Not that Mrs. Avory neglected them at all; but Janet relieved her of many little duties. She always knew when their feet were likely to be wet, and Robert had once said that she had "stocking changing on the brain." She could cook, too, especially cakes, and the tradesmen had a great respect for her judgment when she went shopping. She knew when a joint would be too fat, and you should see her pointing out the bone!

Janet was a tall girl, and very active, and, in spite of her responsibilities, very jolly. She played hockey as well almost as a boy, which is, of course, saying everything, and her cricket was good, too. Her bowling was fast and straight, and usually too much for Robert, who knew, however, the initials of all the gentlemen and the Christian names and birthplaces of most of the professionals. Gregory could not bear cricket, except when it was his own innings, which he seemed to enjoy during its brief duration. Hester thought it dull throughout, so that Janet had to depend upon Robert and the Rotherams for the best games.

Janet had very straight fair hair, and just enough freckles to be pretty. She looked nicest in blue. Hester, on the contrary, was a dark little thing, whose best frock was always red.

As for the boys—it doesn’t matter what boys are like; but Gregory, I might say, usually had black hands: not because he was naturally a grubby little beast, but because engineers do. Robert, on the contrary, was disposed to be dressy, and he declined to allow his mother or Janet to buy his socks or neckties without first consulting him as to colours.

Among the friends of the family must be put first Uncle Chris, who was Captain Avory’s brother and a lawyer in Golden Square. Uncle Chris looked after Mrs. Avory’s money and gave advice. He was very nice, and came to dinner every Sunday (hot roast beef and horse radish sauce). There was an Aunt Chris, too, but she was an invalid and could not leave her room, where she lay all the time and remembered birthdays.

Next to Uncle Chris came Mr. Scott, who was a famous author and a very good cricketer on the lawn, and Mr. Lenox, who was private secretary to a real lord, and therefore had lots of time and money. Both Mr. Scott and Mr. Lenox were bachelors, as the best friends of families always are; unless, of course, their wives are invalids.

Gregory, who was more social than Robert, also knew one policeman, one coachman, three chauffeurs, and several Chiswick boatmen extremely intimately. Robert’s principal friend outside the family was a bird stuffer in Hammersmith; but he does not come into this story.

The Avories did not go to boarding school, or, indeed, to any school in the ordinary way at all; Mrs. Avory said she could not spare them. Instead they were visited every day except Saturdays by Mr. Crawley and Miss Bingham, who taught them the things that one is supposed to know—Mr. Crawley taking the boys in the old billiard room, and Miss Bingham the girls in the morning room. At some of the lessons—such as history —they all joined. The classes were attended also by the Rotherams, the doctor’s children, who lived at "Fir Grove," and Horace Campbell, the only son of the vicar. So it was a kind of school, after all.

Horace Campbell had always intended to be a cowboy when he grew up, but a visit to a play called "Raffles" was now rather inclining him to gentlemanly burglary. William Rotheram, like Gregory, leaned towards flying; but Jack Rotheram voted steadily for the sea, and talked of little but Osborne.

Mary Rotheram played with a bat almost as straight as "Plum" Warner’s, and she knew most of the old Somersetshire songs— "Mowing the Barley," and "Lord Rendal," and "Seventeen come Sunday"—by heart, and sang them beautifully. Gregory, who used to revel in Sankey’s hymns as sung by Eliza Pollard, the parlourmaid, now thought that the Somerset music was the only real kind. Mary Rotheram had a snub nose and quantities of freckle and a very nice nature.

"The Gables" had a large garden, with a shrubbery of evergreens in it and a cedar. It was not at all a garden-party garden, because there was a well-worn cricketpitch right in the middle of the lawn, and Gregory had a railway system where the best flowers ought to be; but it was a garden full of fun, and old Kink, the gardener, managed to get a great many vegetables out of it, too, although not so many as Collins thought he ought to.

Collins was the cook, a fat, smiling, hot lady of about fifty, who had been with Mrs. Avory ever since she married. Collins understood children thoroughly, and made cakes that were rather wet underneath. Her Yorkshire pudding (for Sunday’s dinner) was famous, and her horse radish sauce was so perfect that it brought tears to the eyes.

Collins collected picture postcards and adored the family. She had never been cross to any of them, but her way with the butcher’s boy and the grocer’s boy and the fishmonger’s boy was terrible.

She snapped their heads off (so to speak) every morning, and old Kink spent quite a lot of his time in rubbing from off the backdoor the awful things they wrote about her in chalk.

The parlourmaid was Eliza Pollard, who had red hair and a kind heart, but was continually falling out with her last young man and getting another. She told Hester all about it. Hester had a special knack of being told about the servants’ young men, for she knew also all about those of Eliza Pollard’s predecessors.

The housemaid was Jane Masters, who helped Eliza Pollard to make the beds. Jane Masters did not hold with fickleness in love—in fact, she couldn’t abide it—and therefore she was steadily true to a young man called ’Erb, who looked after the lift at the Stores, and was a particular friend of Gregory’s in consequence. No man who had charge of a lift could fail to be admired by Gregory.

Finally—and very likely she ought to have come first—was Runcie, or Mrs. Runciman, who had not only been the nurse of all the Avories, but of Mrs. Avory before them, when Mrs. Avory was a slip of a girl named Janet Easton. Runcie was then quite young herself, and why she was suddenly called Mrs. no one ever quite knew, for she had never married. And now she was getting on for sixty, and had not much to do except sympathize with the Avories and reprove the servants. She had a nice sitting room of her own, where she sat comfortably every afternoon when such work as she did was done, and received visits from her pets, as she called the children (none of whom, however, was quite so dear to her as their mother), and listened to their adventures.

On those evenings on which he came to "The Gables" Mr. Lenox always looked in on her for a little gossip; and this was called his "runcible spoon"—the joke being that Mr. Lenox and Runcie were engaged to be married.

And now you know the Avory family root and branch.


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Chicago: Edward Verrall Lucas, "Chapter 1: The Avories," The Slowcoach, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Slowcoach Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2022,

MLA: Lucas, Edward Verrall. "Chapter 1: The Avories." The Slowcoach, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in The Slowcoach, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2022.

Harvard: Lucas, EV, 'Chapter 1: The Avories' in The Slowcoach, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Slowcoach. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2022, from