I. PAUL, ARRIVED IN A STRANGE LAND, LEARNS MANY THINGS, AND GOES TO MEET THE MAN IN GREY
II. IN WHICH PAUL MAKES ACQUAINTANCE OF THE MAN WITH THE UGLY MOUTH
III. HOW GOOD LUCK KNOCKED AT THE DOOR OF THE MAN IN GREY
IV. PAUL, FALLING IN WITH A GOODLY COMPANY OF PILGRIMS, LEARNS OF THEM THE ROAD THAT HE MUST TRAVEL, AND MEETS THE PRINCESS OF THE GOLDEN LOCKS
V. IN WHICH THERE COMES BY ONE BENT UPON PURSUING HIS OWN WAY
VI. OF THE SHADOW THAT CAME BETWEEN THE MAN IN GREY AND THE LADY OF THE LOVE-LIT EYES
VII. OF THE PASSING OF THE SHADOW
VIII. HOW THE MAN IN GREY MADE READY FOR HIS GOING
IX. OF THE FASHIONING OF PAUL
X. IN WHICH PAUL IS SHIPWRECKED, AND CAST INTO DEEP WATERS
I. DESCRIBES THE DESERT ISLAND TO WHICH PAUL WAS DRIFTED
II. PAUL, ESCAPING FROM HIS SOLITUDE, FALLS INTO STRANGE COMPANY, AND BECOMES CAPTIVE TO ONE OF HAUGHTY MIEN
III. GOOD FRIENDS SHOW PAUL THE ROAD TO FREEDOM. BUT BEFORE SETTING OUT, HE WILL GO A-VISITING
IV. LEADS TO A MEETING
V. HOW ON A SWEET GREY MORNING THE FUTURE CAME TO PAUL
VI. OF THE GLORY AND GOODNESS AND THE EVIL THAT GO TO THE MAKING OF LOVE
VII. HOW PAUL SET FORTH UPON A QUEST
VIII. AND HOW CAME BACK AGAIN
IX. THE PRINCESS OF THE GOLDEN LOCKS SENDS PAUL A RING
X. PAUL FINDS HIS WAY
IN WHICH THE AUTHOR SEEKS TO CAST THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THIS STORY UPON ANOTHER.
At the corner of a long, straight, brick-built street in the far East End of London–one of those lifeless streets, made of two drab walls upon which the level lines, formed by the precisely even window-sills and doorsteps, stretch in weary perspective from end to end, suggesting petrified diagrams proving dead problems–stands a house that ever draws me to it; so that often, when least conscious of my footsteps, I awake to find myself hurrying through noisy, crowded thoroughfares, where flaring naphtha lamps illumine fierce, patient, leaden-coloured faces; through dim-lit, empty streets, where monstrous shadows come and go upon the close-drawn blinds; through narrow, noisome streets, where the gutters swarm with children, and each ever-open doorway vomits riot; past reeking corners, and across waste places, till at last I reach the dreary goal of my memory-driven desire, and, coming to a halt beside the broken railings, find rest.
The house, larger than its fellows, built when the street was still a country lane, edging the marshes, strikes a strange note of individuality amid the surrounding harmony of hideousness. It is encompassed on two sides by what was once a garden, though now but a barren patch of stones and dust where clothes–it is odd any one should have thought of washing–hang in perpetuity; while about the door continue the remnants of a porch, which the stucco falling has left exposed in all its naked insincerity.
Occasionally I drift hitherward in the day time, when slatternly women gossip round the area gates, and the silence is broken by the hoarse, wailing cry of “Coals–any coals–three and sixpence a sack–co-o-o-als!” chanted in a tone that absence of response has stamped with chronic melancholy; but then the street knows me not, and my old friend of the corner, ashamed of its shabbiness in the unpitying sunlight, turns its face away, and will not see me as I pass.
Not until the Night, merciful alone of all things to the ugly, draws her veil across its sordid features will it, as some fond old nurse, sought out in after years, open wide its arms to welcome me. Then the teeming life it now shelters, hushed for a time within its walls, the flickering flare from the “King of Prussia” opposite extinguished, will it talk with me of the past, asking me many questions, reminding me of many things I had forgotten. Then into the silent street come the well-remembered footsteps; in and out the creaking gate pass, not seeing me, the well-remembered faces; and we talk concerning them; as two cronies, turning the torn leaves of some old album where the faded portraits in forgotten fashions, speak together in low tones of those now dead or scattered, with now a smile and now a sigh, and many an “Ah me!” or “Dear, dear!”
This bent, worn man, coming towards us with quick impatient steps, which yet cease every fifty yards or so, while he pauses, leaning heavily upon his high Malacca cane: “It is a handsome face, is it not?” I ask, as I gaze upon it, shadow framed.
“Aye, handsome enough,” answers the old House; “and handsomer still it must have been before you and I knew it, before mean care had furrowed it with fretful lines.”
“I never could make out,” continues the old House, musingly, “whom you took after; for they were a handsome pair, your father and your mother, though Lord! what a couple of children!”
“Children!” I say in surprise, for my father must have been past five and thirty before the House could have known him, and my mother’s face is very close to mine, in the darkness, so that I see the many grey hairs mingling with the bonny brown.
“Children,” repeats the old House, irritably, so it seems to me, not liking, perhaps, its opinions questioned, a failing common to old folk; “the most helpless pair of children I ever set eyes upon. Who but a child, I should like to know, would have conceived the notion of repairing his fortune by becoming a solicitor at thirty-eight, or, having conceived such a notion, would have selected the outskirts of Poplar as a likely centre in which to put up his door-plate?”
“It was considered to be a rising neighbourhood,” I reply, a little resentful. No son cares to hear the family wisdom criticised, even though at the bottom of his heart he may be in agreement with the critic. “All sorts and conditions of men, whose affairs were in connection with the sea would, it was thought, come to reside hereabout, so as to be near to the new docks; and had they, it is not unreasonable to suppose they would have quarrelled and disputed with one another, much to the advantage of a cute solicitor, convenient to their hand.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” retorts the old House, shortly; “why, the mere smell of the place would have been sufficient to keep a sensible man away. And”–the grim brick face before me twists itself into a goblin smile–“he, of all men in the world, as ‘the cute solicitor,’ giving advice to shady clients, eager to get out of trouble by the shortest way, can you fancy it! he who for two years starved himself, living on five shillings a week–that was before you came to London, when he was here alone. Even your mother knew nothing of it till years afterwards–so that no man should be a penny the poorer for having trusted his good name. Do you think the crew of chandlers and brokers, dock hustlers and freight wreckers would have found him a useful man of business, even had they come to settle here?”
I have no answer; nor does the old House wait for any, but talks on.
“And your mother! would any but a child have taken that soft-tongued wanton to her bosom, and not have seen through acting so transparent? Would any but the veriest child that never ought to have been let out into the world by itself have thought to dree her weird in such folly? Children! poor babies they were, both of them.”
“Tell me,” I say–for at such times all my stock of common sense is not sufficient to convince me that the old House is but clay. From its walls so full of voices, from its floors so thick with footsteps, surely it has learned to live; as a violin, long played on, comes to learn at last a music of its own. “Tell me, I was but a child to whom life speaks in a strange tongue, was there any truth in the story?”
“Truth!” snaps out the old House; “just truth enough to plant a lie upon; and Lord knows not much ground is needed for that weed. I saw what I saw, and I know what I know. Your mother had a good man, and your father a true wife, but it was the old story: a man’s way is not a woman’s way, and a woman’s way is not a man’s way, so there lives ever doubt between them.”
“But they came together in the end,” I say, remembering.
“Aye, in the end,” answers the House. “That is when you begin to understand, you men and women, when you come to the end.”
The grave face of a not too recently washed angel peeps shyly at me through the railings, then, as I turn my head, darts back and disappears.
“What has become of her?” I ask.
“She? Oh, she is well enough,” replies the House. “She lives close here. You must have passed the shop. You might have seen her had you looked in. She weighs fourteen stone, about; and has nine children living. She would be pleased to see you.”
“Thank you,” I say, with a laugh that is not wholly a laugh; “I do not think I will call.” But I still hear the pit-pat of her tiny feet, dying down the long street.
The faces thicken round me. A large looming, rubicund visage smiles kindly on me, bringing back into my heart the old, odd mingling of instinctive liking held in check by conscientious disapproval. I turn from it, and see a massive, clean-shaven face, with the ugliest mouth and the loveliest eyes I ever have known in a man.
“Was he as bad, do you think, as they said?” I ask of my ancient friend.
“Shouldn’t wonder,” the old House answers. “I never knew a worse–nor a better.”
The wind whisks it aside, leaving to view a little old woman, hobbling nimbly by aid of a stick. Three corkscrew curls each side of her head bob with each step she takes, and as she draws near to me, making the most alarming grimaces, I hear her whisper, as though confiding to herself some fascinating secret, “I’d like to skin ’em. I’d like to skin ’em all. I’d like to skin ’em all alive!”
It sounds a fiendish sentiment, yet I only laugh, and the little old lady, with a final facial contortion surpassing all dreams, limps beyond my ken.
Then, as though choosing contrasts, follows a fair, laughing face. I saw it in the life only a few hours ago–at least, not it, but the poor daub that Evil has painted over it, hating the sweetness underlying. And as I stand gazing at it, wishing it were of the dead who change not, there drifts back from the shadows that other face, the one of the wicked mouth and the tender eyes, so that I stand again helpless between the two I loved so well, he from whom I learned my first steps in manhood, she from whom I caught my first glimpse of the beauty and the mystery of woman. And again the cry rises from my heart, “Whose fault was it–yours or hers?” And again I hear his mocking laugh as he answers, “Whose fault? God made us.” And thinking of her and of the love I bore her, which was as the love of a young pilgrim to a saint, it comes into my blood to hate him. But when I look into his eyes and see the pain that lives there, my pity grows stronger than my misery, and I can only echo his words, “God made us.”
Merry faces and sad, fair faces and foul, they ride upon the wind; but the centre round which they circle remains always the one: a little lad with golden curls more suitable to a girl than to a boy, with shy, awkward ways and a silent tongue, and a grave, old-fashioned face.
And, turning from him to my old brick friend, I ask: “Would he know me, could he see me, do you think?”
“How should he,” answers the old House, “you are so different to what he would expect. Would you recognise your own ghost, think you?”
“It is sad to think he would not recognise me,” I say.
“It might be sadder if he did,” grumbles the old House.
We both remained silent for awhile; but I know of what the old House is thinking. Soon it speaks as I expected.
“You–writer of stories, why don’t you write a book about him? There is something that you know.”
It is the favourite theme of the old House. I never visit it but it suggests to me this idea.
“But he has done nothing?” I say.
“He has lived,” answers the old House. “Is not that enough?”
“Aye, but only in London in these prosaic modern times,” I persist. “How of such can one make a story that shall interest the people?”
The old House waxes impatient of me.
“‘The people!'” it retorts, “what are you all but children in a dim-lit room, waiting until one by one you are called out to sleep. And one mounts upon a stool and tells a tale to the others who have gathered round. Who shall say what will please them, what will not.”
Returning home with musing footsteps through the softly breathing streets, I ponder the words of the old House. Is it but as some foolish mother thinking all the world interested in her child, or may there lie wisdom in its counsel? Then to my guidance or misguidance comes the thought of a certain small section of the Public who often of an evening commands of me a story; and who, when I have told her of the dreadful giants and of the gallant youths who slay them, of the wood-cutter’s sons who rescue maidens from Ogre-guarded castles; of the Princesses the most beautiful in all the world, of the Princes with magic swords, still unsatisfied, creeps closer yet, saying: “Now tell me a real story,” adding for my comprehending: “You know: about a little girl who lived in a big house with her father and mother, and who was sometimes naughty, you know.”
So perhaps among the many there may be some who for a moment will turn aside from tales of haughty Heroes, ruffling it in Court and Camp, to listen to the story of a very ordinary lad who lived with very ordinary folk in a modern London street, and who grew up to be a very ordinary sort of man, loving a little and grieving a little, helping a few and harming a few, struggling and failing and hoping; and if any such there be, let them come round me.
But let not those who come to me grow indignant as they listen, saying: “This rascal tells us but a humdrum story, where nothing is as it should be;” for I warn all beforehand that I tell but of things that I have seen. My villains, I fear, are but poor sinners, not altogether bad; and my good men but sorry saints. My princes do not always slay their dragons; alas, sometimes, the dragon eats the prince. The wicked fairies often prove more powerful than the good. The magic thread leads sometimes wrong, and even the hero is not always brave and true.
So let those come round me only who will be content to hear but their own story, told by another, saying as they listen, “So dreamt I. Ah, yes, that is true, I remember.”
PAUL, ARRIVED IN A STRANGE LAND, LEARNS MANY THINGS, AND GOES TO MEET THE MAN IN GREY.
Fate intended me for a singularly fortunate man. Properly, I ought to have been born in June, which being, as is well known, the luckiest month in all the year for such events, should, by thoughtful parents, be more generally selected. How it was I came to be born in May, which is, on the other hand, of all the twelve the most unlucky, as I have proved, I leave to those more conversant with the subject to explain. An early nurse, the first human being of whom I have any distinct recollection, unhesitatingly attributed the unfortunate fact to my natural impatience; which quality she at the same time predicted would lead me into even greater trouble, a prophecy impressed by future events with the stamp of prescience. It was from this same bony lady that I likewise learned the manner of my coming. It seems that I arrived, quite unexpectedly, two hours after news had reached the house of the ruin of my father’s mines through inundation; misfortunes, as it was expounded to me, never coming singly in this world to any one. That all things might be of a piece, my poor mother, attempting to reach the bell, fell against and broke the cheval-glass, thus further saddening herself with the conviction–for no amount of reasoning ever succeeded in purging her Welsh blood of its natural superstition–that whatever might be the result of future battles with my evil star, the first seven years of tiny existence had been, by her act, doomed to disaster.
“And I must confess,” added the knobbly Mrs. Fursey, with a sigh, “it does look as though there must be some truth in the saying, after all.”
“Then ain’t I a lucky little boy?” I asked. For hitherto it had been Mrs. Fursey’s method to impress upon me my exceptional good fortune. That I could and did, involuntarily, retire to bed at six, while less happily placed children were deprived of their natural rest until eight or nine o’clock, had always been held up to me as an astounding piece of luck. Some little boys had not a bed at all; for the which, in my more riotous moments, I envied them. Again, that at the first sign of a cold it became my unavoidable privilege to lunch off linseed gruel and sup off brimstone and treacle–a compound named with deliberate intent to deceive the innocent, the treacle, so far as taste is concerned, being wickedly subordinated to the brimstone–was another example of Fortune’s favouritism: other little boys were so astoundingly unlucky as to be left alone when they felt ill. If further proof were needed to convince that I had been signalled out by Providence as its especial protege, there remained always the circumstance that I possessed Mrs. Fursey for my nurse. The suggestion that I was not altogether the luckiest of children was a new departure.
The good dame evidently perceived her error, and made haste to correct it.
“Oh, you! You are lucky enough,” she replied; “I was thinking of your poor mother.”
“Isn’t mamma lucky?”
“Well, she hasn’t been too lucky since you came.”
“Wasn’t it lucky, her having me?”
“I can’t say it was, at that particular time.”
“Didn’t she want me?”
Mrs. Fursey was one of those well-meaning persons who are of opinion that the only reasonable attitude of childhood should be that of perpetual apology for its existence.
“Well, I daresay she could have done without you,” was the answer.
I can see the picture plainly still. I am sitting on a low chair before the nursery fire, one knee supported in my locked hands, meanwhile Mrs. Fursey’s needle grated with monotonous regularity against her thimble. At that moment knocked at my small soul for the first time the problem of life.
Suddenly, without moving, I said:
“Then why did she take me in?”
The rasping click of the needle on the thimble ceased abruptly.
“Took you in! What’s the child talking about? Who’s took you in?”
“Why, mamma. If she didn’t want me, why did she take me in?”
But even while, with heart full of dignified resentment, I propounded this, as I proudly felt, logically unanswerable question, I was glad that she had. The vision of my being refused at the bedroom window presented itself to my imagination. I saw the stork, perplexed and annoyed, looking as I had sometimes seen Tom Pinfold look when the fish he had been holding out by the tail had been sniffed at by Anna, and the kitchen door shut in his face. Would the stork also have gone away thoughtfully scratching his head with one of those long, compass-like legs of his, and muttering to himself. And here, incidentally, I fell a-wondering how the stork had carried me. In the garden I had often watched a blackbird carrying a worm, and the worm, though no doubt really safe enough, had always appeared to me nervous and uncomfortable. Had I wriggled and squirmed in like fashion? And where would the stork have taken me to then? Possibly to Mrs. Fursey’s: their cottage was the nearest. But I felt sure Mrs. Fursey would not have taken me in; and next to them, at the first house in the village, lived Mr. Chumdley, the cobbler, who was lame, and who sat all day hammering boots with very dirty hands, in a little cave half under the ground, his whole appearance suggesting a poor-spirited ogre. I should have hated being his little boy. Possibly nobody would have taken me in. I grew pensive, thinking of myself as the rejected of all the village. What would the stork have done with me, left on his hands, so to speak. The reflection prompted a fresh question.
“Nurse, where did I come from?”
“Why, I’ve told you often. The stork brought you.”
“Yes, I know. But where did the stork get me from?” Mrs. Fursey paused for quite a long while before replying. Possibly she was reflecting whether such answer might not make me unduly conceited. Eventually she must have decided to run that risk; other opportunities could be relied upon for neutralising the effect.
“Oh, from Heaven.”
“But I thought Heaven was a place where you went to,” I answered; “not where you comed from.” I know I said “comed,” for I remember that at this period my irregular verbs were a bewildering anxiety to my poor mother. “Comed” and “goned,” which I had worked out for myself, were particular favourites of mine.
Mrs. Fursey passed over my grammar in dignified silence. She had been pointedly requested not to trouble herself with that part of my education, my mother holding that diverging opinions upon the same subject only confused a child.
“You came from Heaven,” repeated Mrs. Fursey, “and you’ll go to Heaven–if you’re good.”
“Do all little boys and girls come from Heaven?”
“So they say.” Mrs. Fursey’s tone implied that she was stating what might possibly be but a popular fallacy, for which she individually took no responsibility.
“And did you come from Heaven, Mrs. Fursey?” Mrs. Fursey’s reply to this was decidedly more emphatic.
“Of course I did. Where do you think I came from?”
At once, I am ashamed to say, Heaven lost its exalted position in my eyes. Even before this, it had puzzled me that everybody I knew should be going there–for so I was always assured; now, connected as it appeared to be with the origin of Mrs. Fursey, much of its charm disappeared.
But this was not all. Mrs. Fursey’s information had suggested to me a fresh grief. I stopped not to console myself with the reflection that my fate had been but the fate of all little boys and girls. With a child’s egoism I seized only upon my own particular case.
“Didn’t they want me in Heaven then, either?” I asked. “Weren’t they fond of me up there?”
The misery in my voice must have penetrated even Mrs. Fursey’s bosom, for she answered more sympathetically than usual.
“Oh, they liked you well enough, I daresay. I like you, but I like to get rid of you sometimes.” There could be no doubt as to this last. Even at the time, I often doubted whether that six o’clock bedtime was not occasionally half-past five.
The answer comforted me not. It remained clear that I was not wanted either in Heaven nor upon the earth. God did not want me. He was glad to get rid of me. My mother did not want me. She could have done without me. Nobody wanted me. Why was I here?
And then, as the sudden opening and shutting of the door of a dark room, came into my childish brain the feeling that Something, somewhere, must have need of me, or I could not be, Something I felt I belonged to and that belonged to me, Something that was as much a part of me as I of It. The feeling came back to me more than once during my childhood, though I could never put it into words. Years later the son of the Portuguese Jew explained to me my thought. But all that I myself could have told was that in that moment I knew for the first time that I lived, that I was I.
The next instant all was dark again, and I once more a puzzled little boy, sitting by a nursery fire, asking of a village dame questions concerning life.
Suddenly a new thought came to me, or rather the recollection of an old.
“Nurse, why haven’t we got a husband?”
Mrs. Fursey left off her sewing, and stared at me.
“What maggot has the child got into its head now?” was her observation; “who hasn’t got a husband?”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Master Paul; you know your mamma has got a husband.”
“No, she ain’t.”
“And don’t contradict. Your mamma’s husband is your papa, who lives in London.”
“What’s the good of _him_!”
Mrs. Fursey’s reply appeared to me to be unnecessarily vehement.
“You wicked child, you; where’s your commandments? Your father is in London working hard to earn money to keep you in idleness, and you sit there and say ‘What’s the good of him!’ I’d be ashamed to be such an ungrateful little brat.”
I had not meant to be ungrateful. My words were but the repetition of a conversation I had overheard the day before between my mother and my aunt.
Had said my aunt: “There she goes, moping again. Drat me if ever I saw such a thing to mope as a woman.”
My aunt was entitled to preach on the subject. She herself grumbled all day about all things, but she did it cheerfully.
My mother was standing with her hands clasped behind her–a favourite attitude of hers–gazing through the high French window into the garden beyond. It must have been spring time, for I remember the white and yellow crocuses decking the grass.
“I want a husband,” had answered my mother, in a tone so ludicrously childish that at sound of it I had looked up from the fairy story I was reading, half expectant to find her changed into a little girl; “I hate not having a husband.”
“Help us and save us,” my aunt had retorted; “how many more does a girl want? She’s got one.”
“What’s the good of him all that way off,” had pouted my mother; “I want him here where I can get at him.”
I had often heard of this father of mine, who lived far away in London, and to whom we owed all the blessings of life; but my childish endeavours to square information with reflection had resulted in my assigning to him an entirely spiritual existence. I agreed with my mother that such an one, however to be revered, was no substitute for the flesh and blood father possessed by luckier folk–the big, strong, masculine thing that would carry a fellow pig-a-back round the garden, or take a chap to sail in boats.
“You don’t understand me, nurse,” I explained; “what I mean is a husband you can get at.”
“Well, and you’ll ‘get at him,’ poor gentleman, one of these days,” answered Mrs. Fursey. “When he’s ready for you he’ll send for you, and then you’ll go to him in London.”
I felt that still Mrs. Fursey didn’t understand. But I foresaw that further explanation would only shock her, so contented myself with a simple, matter-of-fact question.
“How do you get to London; do you have to die first?”
“I do think,” said Mrs. Fursey, in the voice of resigned despair rather than of surprise, “that, without exception, you are the silliest little boy I ever came across. I’ve no patience with you.”
“I am very sorry, nurse,” I answered; “I thought–”
“Then,” interrupted Mrs. Fursey, in the voice of many generations, “you shouldn’t think. London,” continued the good dame, her experience no doubt suggesting that the shortest road to peace would be through my understanding of this matter, “is a big town, and you go there in a train. Some time–soon now–your father will write to your mother that everything is ready. Then you and your mother and your aunt will leave this place and go to London, and I shall be rid of you.”
“And shan’t we come back here ever any more?”
“And I’ll never play in the garden again, never go down to the pebble-ridge to tea, or to Jacob’s tower?”
“Never again.” I think Mrs. Fursey took a pleasure in the phrase. It sounded, as she said it, like something out of the prayer-book.
“And I’ll never see Anna, or Tom Pinfold, or old Yeo, or Pincher, or you, ever any more?” In this moment of the crumbling from under me of all my footholds I would have clung even to that dry tuft, Mrs. Fursey herself.
“Never any more. You’ll go away and begin an entirely new life. And I do hope, Master Paul,” added Mrs. Fursey, piously, “it may be a better one. That you will make up your mind to–”
But Mrs. Fursey’s well-meant exhortations, whatever they may have been, fell upon deaf ears. Here was I face to face with yet another problem. This life into which I had fallen: it was understandable! One went away, leaving the pleasant places that one knew, never to return to them. One left one’s labour and one’s play to enter upon a new existence in a strange land. One parted from the friends one had always known, one saw them never again. Life was indeed a strange thing; and, would a body comprehend it, then must a body sit staring into the fire, thinking very hard, unheedful of all idle chatter.
That night, when my mother came to kiss me good-night, I turned my face to the wall and pretended to be asleep, for children as well as grown-ups have their foolish moods; but when I felt the soft curls brush my cheek, my pride gave way, and clasping my arms about her neck, and drawing her face still closer down to mine; I voiced the question that all the evening had been knocking at my heart:
“I suppose you couldn’t send me back now, could you? You see, you’ve had me so long.”
“Send you back?”
“Yes. I’d be too big for the stork to carry now, wouldn’t I?”
My mother knelt down beside the bed so that her face and mine were on a level, and looking into her eyes, the fear that had been haunting me fell from me.
“Who has been talking foolishly to a foolish little boy?” asked my mother, keeping my arms still clasped about her neck.
“Oh, nurse and I were discussing things, you know,” I answered, “and she said you could have done without me. Somehow, I did not mind repeating the words now; clearly it could have been but Mrs. Fursey’s fun.
My mother drew me closer to her.
“And what made her think that?”
“Well, you see,” I replied, “I came at a very awkward time, didn’t I; when you had a lot of other troubles.”
My mother laughed, but the next moment looked grave again.
“I did not know you thought about such things,” she said; “we must be more together, you and I, Paul, and you shall tell me all you think, because nurse does not quite understand you. It is true what she said about the trouble; it came just at that time. But I could not have done without you. I was very unhappy, and you were sent to comfort me and help me to bear it.” I liked this explanation better.
“Then it was lucky, your having me?” I said. Again my mother laughed, and again there followed that graver look upon her childish face.
“Will you remember what I am going to say?” She spoke so earnestly that I, wriggling into a sitting posture, became earnest also.
“I’ll try,” I answered; “but I ain’t got a very good memory, have I?”
“Not very,” smiled my mother; “but if you think about it a good deal it will not leave you. When you are a good boy, and later on, when you are a good man, then I am the luckiest little mother in all the world. And every time you fail, that means bad luck for me. You will remember that after I’m gone, when you are a big man, won’t you, Paul?”
So, both of us quite serious, I promised; and though I smile now when I remember, seeing before me those two earnest, childish faces, yet I think, however little success it may be I have to boast of, it would perhaps have been still less had I entirely forgotten.
From that day my mother waxes in my memory; Mrs. Fursey, of the many promontories, waning. There were sunny mornings in the neglected garden, where the leaves played round us while we worked and read; twilight evenings in the window seat where, half hidden by the dark red curtains, we would talk in whispers, why I know not, of good men and noble women, ogres, fairies, saints and demons; they were pleasant days.
Possibly our curriculum lacked method; maybe it was too varied and extensive for my age, in consequence of which chronology became confused within my brain, and fact and fiction more confounded than has usually been considered permissible, even in history. I saw Aphrodite, ready armed and risen from the sea, move with stately grace to meet King Canute, who, throned upon the sand, bade her come no further lest she should wet his feet. In forest glade I saw King Rufus fall from a poisoned arrow shot by Robin Hood; but thanks to sweet Queen Eleanor, who sucked the poison from his wound, I knew he lived. Oliver Cromwell, having killed King Charles, married his widow, and was in turn stabbed by Hamlet. Ulysses, in the Argo, it was fixed upon my mind, had discovered America. Romulus and Remus had slain the wolf and rescued Little Red Riding Hood. Good King Arthur, for letting the cakes burn, had been murdered by his uncle in the Tower of London. Prometheus, bound to the Rock, had been saved by good St. George. Paris had given the apple to William Tell. What matter! the information was there. It needed rearranging, that was all.
Sometimes, of an afternoon, we would climb the steep winding pathway through the woods, past awful precipices, spirit-haunted, by grassy swards where fairies danced o’ nights, by briar and bracken sheltered Caves where fearsome creatures lurked, till high above the creeping sea we would reach the open plateau where rose old Jacob’s ruined tower. “Jacob’s Folly” it was more often called about the country side, and by some “The Devil’s Tower;” for legend had it that there old Jacob and his master, the Devil, had often met in windy weather to wave false wrecking lights to troubled ships. Who “old Jacob” was, I never, that I can remember, learned, nor how nor why he built the Tower. Certain only it is his memory was unpopular, and the fisher folk would swear that still on stormy nights strange lights would gleam and flash from the ivy-curtained windows of his Folly.
But in day time no spot was more inviting, the short moss-grass before its shattered door, the lichen on its crumbling stones. From its topmost platform one saw the distant mountains, faint like spectres, and the silent ships that came and vanished; and about one’s feet the pleasant farm lands and the grave, sweet river.
Smaller and poorer the world has grown since then. Now, behind those hills lie naught but smoky towns and dingy villages; but then they screened a land of wonder where princesses dwelt in castles, where the cities were of gold. Now the ocean is but six days’ journey wide, ending at the New York Custom House. Then, had one set one’s sail upon it, one would have travelled far and far, beyond the golden moonlight, beyond the gate of clouds; to the magic land of the blood red shore, t’other side o’ the sun. I never dreamt in those days a world could be so small.
Upon the topmost platform a wooden seat ran round within the parapet, and sitting there hand in hand, sheltered from the wind which ever blew about the tower, my mother would people for me all the earth and air with the forms of myth and legend–perhaps unwisely, yet I do not know. I took no harm from it, good rather, I think. They were beautiful fancies, most of them; or so my mother turned them, making for love and pity, as do all the tales that live, whether poems or old wives fables. But at that time of course they had no meaning for me other than the literal; so that my mother, looking into my eyes, would often hasten to add: “But that, you know, is only an old superstition, and of course there are no such things nowadays.” Yet, forgetful sometimes of the time, and overtaken homeward by the shadows, we would hasten swiftly through the darkening path, holding each other tightly by the hand.
Spring had waxed to summer, summer waned to autumn. Then my aunt and I one morning, waiting at the breakfast table, saw through the open window my mother skipping, dancing, pirouetting up the garden path. She held a letter open in her hand, which as she drew near she waved about her head, singing:
“Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, then comes Wednesday morning.”
She caught me to her and began dancing with me round the room.
Observed my aunt, who continued steadily to eat bread and butter:
“Just like ’em all. Goes mad with joy. What for? Because she’s going to leave a decent house, to live in a poky hole in the East End of London, and keep one servant.”
To my aunt the second person ever remained a grammatical superfluity. Invariably she spoke not to but of a person, throwing out her conversation in the form of commentary. This had the advantage of permitting the party intended to ignore it as mere impersonal philosophy. Seeing it was generally uncomplimentary, most people preferred so to regard it; but my mother had never succeeded in schooling herself to indifference.
“It’s not a poky hole,” she replied; “it’s an old-fashioned house, near the river.”
“Plaistow marshes!” ejaculated my aunt, “calls it the river!”
“So it is the river,” returned my mother; “the river is the other side of the marshes.”
“Let’s hope it will always stop there,” said my aunt.
“And it’s got a garden,” continued my mother, ignoring my aunt’s last remark; “which is quite an unusual feature in a London house. And it isn’t the East End of London; it is a rising suburb. And you won’t make me miserable because I am too happy.”
“Drat the woman!” said my aunt, “why can’t she sit down and give us our tea before it’s all cold?”
“You are a disagreeable thing!” said my mother.
“Not half milk,” said my aunt. My aunt was never in the least disturbed by other people’s opinion of her, which was perhaps well for her.
For three days my mother packed and sang; and a dozen times a day unpacked and laughed, looking for things wanted that were always found at the very bottom of the very last box looked into, so that Anna, waiting for a certain undergarment of my aunt’s which shall be nameless, suggested a saving of time:
“If I were you, ma’am,” said Anna, “I’d look into the last box you’re going to look into first.”
But it was found eventually in the first box-the box, that is, my mother had intended to search first, but which, acting on Anna’s suggestion, she had reserved till the last. This caused my mother to be quite short with Anna, who she said had wasted her time. But by Tuesday afternoon all stood ready: we were to start early Wednesday morning.
That evening, missing my mother in the house, I sought her in the garden and found her, as I had expected, on her favourite seat under the great lime tree; but to my surprise there were tears in her eyes.
“But I thought you were glad we were going,” I said.
“So I am,” answered my mother, drying her eyes only to make room for fresh tears.
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because I’m sorry to leave here.”
Grown-up folks with their contradictory ways were a continual puzzle to me in those days; I am not sure I quite understand them even now, myself included.
We were up and off next day before the dawn. The sun rose as the wagon reached the top of the hill; and there we paused and took our farewell look at Old Jacob’s Tower. My mother cried a little behind her veil; but my aunt only said, “I never did care for earwigs in my tea;” and as for myself I was too excited and expectant to feel much sentiment about anything.
On the journey I sat next to an exceptionally large and heavy man, who in his sleep–and he slept often–imagined me to be a piece of stuffing out of place. Then, grunting and wriggling, he would endeavour to rub me out, until the continued irritation of my head between the window and his back would cause him to awake, when he would look down upon me reprovingly but not unkindly, observing to the carriage generally: “It’s a funny thing, ain’t it, nobody’s ever made a boy yet that could keep still for ten seconds.” After which he would pat me heartily on the head, to show he was not vexed with me, and fall to sleep again upon me. He was a good-tempered man.
My mother sat occupied chiefly with her own thoughts, and my aunt had found a congenial companion in a lady who had had her cap basket sat upon; so I was left mainly to my own resources. When I could get my head free of the big man’s back, I gazed out of the window, and watched the flying fragments as we shed the world. Now a village would fall from us, now the yellow corn-land would cling to us for awhile, or a wood catch at our rushing feet, and sometimes a strong town would stop us, and hold us, panting for a space. Or, my eyes weary, I would sit and listen to the hoarse singing of the wheels beneath my feet. It was a monotonous chaunt, ever the same two lines:
“Here we suffer grief and pain,
Here we meet to part again,”
followed by a low, rumbling laugh. Sometimes fortissimo, sometimes pianissimo; now vivace, now largo; but ever those same two lines, and ever followed by the same low, rumbling laugh; still to this day the iron wheels sing to me that same song.
Later on I also must have slept, for I dreamt that as the result of my having engaged in single combat with a dragon, the dragon, ignoring all the rules of Fairyland, had swallowed me. It was hot and stuffy in the dragon’s stomach. He had, so it appeared to me, disgracefully overeaten himself; there were hundreds of us there, entirely undigested, including Mother Hubbard and a gentleman named Johnson, against whom, at that period, I entertained a strong prejudice by reason of our divergent views upon the subject of spelling. Even in this hour of our mutual discomfort Johnson would not leave me alone, but persisted in asking me how I spelt Jonah. Nobody was looking, so I kicked him. He sprang up and came after me. I tried to run away, but became wedged between Hop-o’-my-Thumb and Julius Caesar. I suppose our tearing about must have hurt the dragon, for at that moment he gave vent to a most fearful scream, and I awoke to find the fat man rubbing his left shin, while we struggled slowly, with steps growing ever feebler, against a sea of brick that every moment closed in closer round us.
We scrambled out of the carriage into a great echoing cave that might have been the dragon’s home, where, to my alarm, my mother was immediately swooped down upon by a strange man in grey.
“Why’s he do that?” I asked of my aunt.
“Because he’s a fool,” answered my aunt; “they all are.”
He put my mother down and came towards us. He was a tall, thin man, with eyes one felt one would never be afraid of; and instinctively even then I associated him in my mind with windmills and a lank white horse.
“Why, how he’s grown,” said the grey man, raising me in his arms until my mother beside me appeared to me in a new light as quite a little person; “and solid too.”
My mother whispered something. I think from her face, for I knew the signs, it was praise of me.
“And he’s going to be our new fortune,” she added aloud, as the grey man lowered me.
“Then,” said my aunt, who had this while been sitting rigid upon a flat black box, “don’t drop him down a coal-mine. That’s all I say.”
I wondered at the time why the grey man’s pale face should flush so crimson, and why my mother should whisper angrily:
“Flow can you be so wicked, Fanny? How dare you say such a thing?”
“I only said ‘don’t drop him down a coal-mine,'” returned my aunt, apparently much surprised; “you don’t want to drop him down a coal-mine, do you?”
We passed through glittering, joyous streets, piled high each side with all the good things of the earth; toys and baubles, jewels and gold, things good to eat and good to drink, things good to wear and good to see; through pleasant ways where fountains splashed and flowers bloomed. The people wore bright clothes, had happy faces. They rode in beautiful carriages, they strolled about, greeting one another with smiles. The children ran and laughed. London, thought I to myself, is the city of the fairies.
It passed, and we sank into a grim city of hoarse, roaring streets, wherein the endless throngs swirled and surged as I had seen the yellow waters curve and fret, contending, where the river pauses, rock-bound. Here were no bright costumes, no bright faces, none stayed to greet another; all was stern, and swift, and voiceless. London, then, said I to myself, is the city of the giants. They must live in these towering castles side by side, and these hurrying thousands are their driven slaves.
But this passed also, and we sank lower yet until we reached a third city, where a pale mist filled each sombre street. None of the beautiful things of the world were to be seen here, but only the things coarse and ugly. And wearily to and fro its sunless passages trudged with heavy steps a weary people, coarse-clad, and with dull, listless faces. And London, I knew, was the city of the gnomes who labour sadly all their lives, imprisoned underground; and a terror seized me lest I, too, should remain chained here, deep down below the fairy city that was already but a dream.
We stopped at last in a long, unfinished street. I remember our pushing our way through a group of dirty urchins, all of whom, my aunt remarked in passing, ought to be skinned. It was my aunt’s one prescription for all to whom she took objection; but really in the present instance I think it would have been of service; nothing else whatever could have restored them to cleanliness. Then the door closed behind us with an echoing clang, and the small, cold rooms came forward stiffly to greet us.
The man in grey went to the one window and drew back the curtain; it was growing dusk now. My aunt sat on a straight, hard chair and stared fixedly at the three-armed gaselier. My mother stood in the centre of the room with one small ungloved hand upon the table, and I noticed–for I was very near–that the poor little one-legged thing was trembling.
“Of course it’s not what you’ve been accustomed to, Maggie,” said the man in grey; “but it’s only for a little while.”
He spoke in a new, angry voice; but I could not see his face, his back being to the light.
My mother drew his arms around us both.
“It is the best home in all the world,” she said; and thus we stayed for awhile.
“Nonsense,” said my aunt, suddenly; and this aroused us; “it’s a poky hole, as I told her it would be. Let her thank the Lord she’s got a man clever enough to get her out of it. I know him; he never could rest where he was put. Now he’s at the bottom; he’ll go up.”
It sounded to me a very disagreeable speech; but the grey man laughed–I had not heard him laugh till then–and my mother ran to my aunt and kissed her; and somehow the room seemed to become lighter.
For some reason I slept downstairs that night, on the floor, behind a screen improvised out of a clothes horse and a blanket; and later in the evening the clatter of knives and forks and the sound of subdued voices awoke me. My aunt had apparently gone to bed; my mother and the man in grey were talking together over their supper.
“We must buy land,” said the voice of the grey man; “London is coming this way. The Somebodies” (I forget the name my father mentioned) “made all their money by buying up land round New York for a mere song. Then, as the city spread, they became worth millions.”
“But where will you get the money from, Luke?” asked the voice of my mother.
The voice of the grey man answered airily:
“Oh, that’s merely a matter of business. You grant a mortgage. The property goes up in value. You borrow more. Then you buy more–and so on.”
“I see,” said my mother.
“Being on the spot gives one such an advantage,” said the grey man. “I shall know just when to buy. It’s a great thing, being on the spot.”
“Of course, it must be,” said my mother.
I suppose I must have dozed, for the next words I heard the grey man say were:
“Of course you have the park opposite, but then the house is small.”
“But shall we need a very large one?” asked my mother.
“One never knows,” said the grey man. “If I should go into Parliament–”
At this point a hissing sound arose from the neighbourhood of the fire.
“It _looks_,” said my mother, “as if it were done.”
“If you will hold the dish,” said the grey man, “I think I can pour it in without spilling.”
Again I must have dozed.
“It depends,” said the grey man, “upon what he is going to be. For the classics, of course, Oxford.”
“He’s going to be very clever,” said my mother. She spoke as one who knows.
“We’ll hope so,” said the grey man.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said my mother, “if he turned out a poet.”
The grey man said something in a low tone that I did not hear.
“I’m not so sure,” answered my mother, “it’s in the blood. I’ve often thought that you, Luke, ought to have been a poet.”
“I never had the time,” said the grey man. “There were one or two little things–”
“They were very beautiful,” interrupted my mother. The clatter of the knives and forks continued undisturbed for a few moments. Then continued the grey man:
“There would be no harm, provided I made enough. It’s the law of nature. One generation earns, the next spends. We must see. In any case, I think I should prefer Oxford for him.”
“It will be so hard parting from him,” said my mother.
“There will be the vacations,” said the grey man, “when we shall travel.”
IN WHICH PAUL MAKES ACQUAINTANCE OF THE MAN WITH THE UGLY MOUTH.
The case of my father and mother was not normal. You understand they had been separated for some years, and though they were not young in age–indeed, before my childish eyes they loomed quite ancient folk, and in fact my father must have been nearly forty and my mother quit of thirty–yet, as you will come to think yourself, no doubt, during the course of my story, they were in all the essentials of life little more than boy and girl. This I came to see later on, but at that time, had I been consulted by enquiring maid or bachelor, I might unwittingly have given wrong impressions concerning marriage in the general. I should have described a husband as a man who could never rest quite content unless his wife were by his side; who twenty times a day would call from his office door: “Maggie, are you doing anything important? I want to talk to you about a matter of business.” … “Maggie, are you alone? Oh, all right, I’ll come down.” Of a wife I should have said she was a woman whose eyes were ever love-lit when resting on her man; who was glad where he was and troubled where he was not. But in every case this might not have been correct.
Also, I should have had something to say concerning the alarms and excursions attending residence with any married couple. I should have recommended the holding up of feet under the table lest, mistaken for other feet, they should be trodden on and pressed. Also, I should have advised against entry into any room unpreceded by what in Stageland is termed “noise without.” It is somewhat disconcerting to the nervous incomer to be met, the door still in his hand, by a sound as of people springing suddenly into the air, followed by a weird scuttling of feet, and then to discover the occupants sitting stiffly in opposite corners, deeply engaged in book or needlework. But, as I have said, with regard to some households, such precautions might be needless.
Personally, I fear, I exercised little or no controlling influence upon my parents in this respect, my intrusions coming soon to be greeted with: “Oh, it’s only Spud,” in a tone of relief, accompanied generally by the sofa cushion; but of my aunt they stood more in awe. Not that she ever said anything, and, indeed, to do her justice, in her efforts to spare their feelings she erred, if at all, on the side of excess. Never did she move a footstep about the house except to the music of a sustained and penetrating cough. As my father once remarked, ungratefully, I must confess, the volume of bark produced by my aunt in a single day would have done credit to the dying efforts of a hospital load of consumptives; to a robust and perfectly healthy lady the cost in nervous force must have been prodigious. Also, that no fear should live with them that her eyes had seen aught not intended for them, she would invariably enter backwards any room in which they might be, closing the door loudly and with difficulty before turning round: and through dark passages she would walk singing. No woman alive could have done more; yet–such is human nature!–neither my father nor my mother was grateful to her, so far as I could judge.
Indeed, strange as it may appear, the more sympathetic towards them she showed herself, the more irritated against her did they become.
“I believe, Fanny, you hate seeing Luke and me happy together,” said my mother one day, coming up from the kitchen to find my aunt preparing for entry into the drawing-room by dropping teaspoons at five-second intervals outside the door: “Don’t make yourself so ridiculous.” My mother spoke really quite unkindly.
“Hate it!” replied my aunt. “Why should I? Why shouldn’t a pair of turtle doves bill and coo, when their united age is only a little over seventy, the pretty dears?” The mildness of my aunt’s answers often surprised me.
As for my father, he grew positively vindictive. I remember the occasion well. It was the first, though not the last time I knew him lose his temper. What brought up the subject I forget, but my father stopped suddenly; we were walking by the canal bank.
“Your aunt”–my father may not have intended it, but his tone and manner when speaking of my aunt always conveyed to me the impression that he regarded me as personally responsible for her existence. This used to weigh upon me. “Your aunt is the most cantankerous, the most–” he broke off, and shook his fist towards the setting sun. “I wish to God,” said my father, “your aunt had a comfortable little income of her own, with a freehold cottage in the country, by God I do!” But the next moment, ashamed, I suppose, of his brutality: “Not but what sometimes, of course, she can be very nice, you know,” he added; “don’t tell your mother what I said just now.”
Another who followed with sympathetic interest the domestic comedy was Susan, our maid-of-all-work, the first of a long and varied series, extending unto the advent of Amy, to whom the blessing of Heaven. Susan was a stout and elderly female, liable to sudden fits of sleepiness, the result, we were given to understand, of trouble; but her heart, it was her own proud boast, was always in the right place. She could never look at my father and mother sitting anywhere near each other but she must flop down and weep awhile; the sight of connubial bliss always reminding her, so she would explain, of the past glories of her own married state.
Though an earnest enquirer, I was never able myself to grasp the ins and outs of this past married life of Susan’s. Whether her answers were purposely framed to elude curiosity, or whether they were the result of a naturally incoherent mind, I cannot say. Their tendency was to convey confusion.
On Monday I have seen Susan shed tears of regret into the Brussels sprouts, that she had been debarred by the pressure of other duties from lately watering “his” grave, which, I gathered, was at Manor Park. While on Tuesday I have listened, blood chilled, to the recital of her intentions should she ever again enjoy the luxury of getting her fingers near the scruff of his neck.
“But, I thought, Susan, he was dead,” was my very natural comment upon this outbreak.
“So did I, Master Paul,” was Susan’s rejoinder; “that was his artfulness.”
“Then he isn’t buried in Manor Park Cemetery?”
“Not yet; but he’ll wish he was, the half-baked monkey, when I get hold of him.”
“Then he wasn’t a good man?”
“Who says he ain’t a good man?” It was Susan’s flying leaps from tense to tense that most bewildered me. “If anybody says he ain’t I’ll gouge their eye out!”
I hastened to assure Susan that my observation had been intended in the nature of enquiry, not of assertion.
“Brings me a bottle of gin–for my headaches–every time he comes home,” continued Susan, showing cause for opinion, “every blessed time.”
And at some such point as this I would retire to the clearer atmosphere of German grammar or mixed fractions.
We suffered a good deal from Susan one way and another; for having regard to the admirable position of her heart, we all felt it our duty to overlook mere failings of the flesh–all but my aunt, that is, who never made any pretence of being a sentimentalist.
“She’s a lazy hussy,” was the opinion expressed of her one morning by my aunt, who was rinsing; “a gulping, snorting, lazy hussy, that’s what she is.” There was some excuse for my aunt’s indignation. It was then eleven o’clock and Susan was still sleeping off an attack of what she called “new-ralgy.”
“She has seen a good deal of trouble,” said my mother, who was wiping.
“And if she was my cook and housemaid,” replied my aunt, “she would see more, the slut!”
“She’s not a good servant in many respects,” admitted my mother, “but I think she’s good-hearted.”
“Oh, drat her heart,” was my aunt’s retort. “The right place for that heart of hers is on the doorstep. And that’s where I’d put it, and her and her box alongside it, if I had my way.”
The departure of Susan did take place not long afterwards. It occurred one Saturday night. My mother came upstairs looking pale.
“Luke,” she said, “do please run for the doctor.”
“What’s the matter?” asked my father.
“Susan,” gasped my mother, “she’s lying on the kitchen floor breathing in the strangest fashion and quite unable to speak.”
“I’ll go for Washburn,” said my father; “if I am quick I shall catch him at the dispensary.”
Five minutes later my father came back panting, followed by the doctor. This was a big, black-bearded man; added to which he had the knack of looking bigger than even he really was. He came down the kitchen stairs two at a time, shaking the whole house. He brushed my mother aside, and bent over the unconscious Susan, who was on her back with her mouth wide open. Then he rose and looked at my father and mother, who were watching him with troubled faces; and then he opened his mouth, and there came from it a roar of laughter, the like of which sound I had never heard.
The next moment he had seized a pail half full of water and had flung it over the woman. She opened her eyes and sat up.
“Feeling better?” said the doctor, with the pail still in his hand; “have another dose?”
Susan began to gather herself together with the evident intention of expressing her feelings; but before she could find the first word, he had pushed the three of us outside and slammed the door behind us.
From the top of the stairs we could hear Susan’s thick, rancorous voice raging fiercer and fiercer, drowned every now and then by the man’s savage roar of laughter. And, when for want of breath she would flag for a moment, he would yell out encouragement to her, shouting: “Bravo! Go it, my beauty, give it tongue! Bark, bark! I love to hear you,” applauding her, clapping his hands and stamping his feet.
“What a beast of a man,” said my mother.
“He is really a most interesting man when you come to know him,” explained my father.
Replied my mother, stiffly: “I don’t ever mean to know him.” But it is only concerning the past that we possess knowledge.
The riot from below ceased at length, and was followed by a new voice, speaking quietly and emphatically, and then we heard the doctor’s step again upon the stairs.
My mother held her purse open in her hand, and as the man entered the room she went forward to meet him.
“How much do we owe you, Doctor?” said my mother. She spoke in a voice trembling with severity.
He closed the purse and gently pushed it back towards her.
“A glass of beer and a chop, Mrs. Kelver,” he answered, “which I am coming back in an hour to cook for myself. And as you will be without any servant,” he continued, while my mother stood staring at him incapable of utterance, “you had better let me cook some for you at the same time. I am an expert at grilling chops.”
“But, really, Doctor–” my mother began. He laid his huge hand upon her shoulder, and my mother sat down upon the nearest chair.
“My dear lady,” he said, “she’s a person you never ought to have had inside your house. She’s promised me to be gone in half an hour, and I’m coming back to see she keeps her word. Give her a month’s wages, and have a clear fire ready for me.” And before my mother could reply, he had slammed the front door.
“What a very odd sort of a man,” said my mother, recovering herself.
“He’s a character,” said my father; “you might not think it, but he’s worshipped about here.”
“I hardly know what to make of him,” said my mother; “I suppose I had better go out and get some chops;” which she did.
Susan went, as sober as a judge, on Friday, as the saying is, her great anxiety being to get out of the house before the doctor returned. The doctor himself arrived true to his time, and I lay awake–for no human being ever slept or felt he wanted to sleep while Dr. Washburn was anywhere near–and listened to the gusts of laughter that swept continually through the house. Even my aunt laughed that supper time, and when the doctor himself laughed it seemed to me that the bed shook under me. Not liking to be out of it, I did what spoilt little boys and even spoilt little girls sometimes will do under similar stress of feeling, wrapped the blanket round my legs and pattered down, with my face set to express the sudden desire of a sensitive and possibly short-lived child for parents’ love. My mother pretended to be angry, but that I knew was only her company manners. Besides, I really had, if not exactly a pain, an extremely uncomfortable sensation (one common to me about that period) as of having swallowed the dome of St. Paul’s. The doctor said it was a frequent complaint with children, the result of too early hours and too much study; and, taking me on his knee, wrote then and there a diet chart for me, which included one tablespoonful of golden syrup four times a day, and one ounce of sherbet to be placed upon the tongue and taken neat ten minutes before each meal.
That evening will always live in my remembrance. My mother was brighter than I had ever seen her. A flush was on her cheek and a sparkle in her eye, and looking across at her as she sat holding a small painted screen to shield her face from the fire, the sense of beauty became suddenly born within me, and answering an impulse I could not have explained, I slipped down, still with my blanket around me, from the doctor’s knee, and squatted on the edge of the fender, from where, when I thought no one was noticing me, I could steal furtive glances up into her face.
So also my father seemed to me to have become all at once bigger and more dignified, talking with a vigour and an enjoyment that sat newly on him. Aunt Fan was quite witty and agreeable–for her; and even I asked one or two questions, at which, for some reason or another, everybody laughed; which determined me to remember and ask those same questions again on some future occasion.
That was the great charm of the man, that by the magnetic spell of his magnificent vitality he drew from everyone their best. In his company clever people waxed intellectual giants, while the dull sat amazed at their own originality. Conversing with him, Podsnap might have been piquant, Dogberry incisive. But better than all else, I found it listening to his own talk. Of what he spoke I could tell you no more than could the children of Hamelin have told the tune the Pied Piper played. I only know that at the tangled music of his strong voice the walls of the mean room faded away, and that beyond I saw a brave, laughing world that called to me; a world full of joyous fight, where some won and some lost. But that mattered not a jot, because whatever else came of it there was a right royal game for all; a world where merry gentlemen feared neither life nor death, and Fate was but the Master of the Revels.
Such was my first introduction to Dr. Washburn, or to give him the name by which he was known in every slum and alley of that quarter, Dr. Fighting Hal; and in a minor key that evening was an index to the whole man. Often he would wrinkle his nose as a dog before it bites, and then he was more brute than man–brutish in his instincts, in his appetites, brutish in his pleasure, brutish in his fun. Or his deep blue eyes would grow soft as a mother’s, and then you might have thought him an angel in a soft felt hat and a coat so loose-fitting as to suggest the possibility of his wings being folded away underneath. Often have I tried to make up my mind whether it has been better for me or worse that I ever came to know him; but as easy would it be for the tree to say whether the rushing winds and the wild rains have shaped it or mis-shaped.
Susan’s place remained vacant for some time. My mother would explain to the few friends who occasionally came from afar to see us, that her “housemaid” she had been compelled to suddenly discharge, and that we were waiting for the arrival of a new and better specimen. But the months passed and we still waited, and my father on the rare days when a client would ring the office bell, would, after pausing a decent interval, open the front door himself, and then call downstairs indignantly and loudly, to know why “Jane” or “Mary” could not attend to their work. And my mother, that the bread-boy or the milkman might not put it about the neighbourhood that the Kelvers in the big corner house kept no servant, would hide herself behind a thick veil and fetch all things herself from streets a long way off.
For this family of whom I am writing were, I confess, weak and human. Their poverty they were ashamed of as though it were a crime, and in consequence their life was more full of paltry and useless subterfuge than should be perhaps the life of brave men and women. The larder, I fancy, was very often bare, but the port and sherry with the sweet biscuits stood always on the sideboard; and the fire had often to be low in the grate that my father’s tall hat might shine resplendent and my mother’s black silk rustle on Sundays.
But I would not have you sneer at them, thinking all pretence must spring from snobbishness and never from mistaken self-respect. Some fine gentleman writers there be–men whose world is bounded on the east by Bond Street–who see in the struggles of poverty to hide its darns only matter for jest. But myself, I cannot laugh at them. I know the long hopes and fears that centre round the hired waiter; the long cost of the cream and the ice jelly ordered the week before from the confectioner’s. But to me it is pathetic, not ridiculous. Heroism is not all of one pattern. Dr. Washburn, had the Prince of Wales come to see him, would have put his bread and cheese and jug of beer upon the table, and helped His Royal Highness to half. But my father and mother’s tea was very weak that Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith might have a glass of wine should they come to dinner. I remember the one egg for breakfast, my mother arguing that my father should have it because he had his business to attend to; my father insisting that my mother should eat it, she having to go out shopping, a compromise being effected by their dividing it between them, each clamouring for the white as the most nourishing. And I know however little the meal looked upon the table when we started I always rose well satisfied. These are small things to speak of, but then you must bear in mind this is a story moving in narrow ways.
To me this life came as a good time. That I was encouraged to eat treacle in preference to butter seemed to me admirable. Personally, I preferred sausages for dinner; and a supper of fried fish and potatoes, brought in stealthily in a carpet bag, was infinitely more enjoyable than the set meal where nothing was of interest till one came to the dessert. What fun there was about it all! The cleaning of the doorstep by night, when from the ill-lit street a gentleman with a piece of sacking round his legs might very well pass for a somewhat tall charwoman. I would keep watch at the gate to give warning should any one looking like a possible late caller turn the corner of the street, coming back now and then in answer to a low whistle to help my father grope about in the dark for the hearthstone; he was always mislaying the hearthstone. How much better, helping to clean the knives or running errands than wasting all one’s morning dwelling upon the shocking irregularity of certain classes of French verbs; or making useless calculations as to how long X, walking four and a quarter miles an hour, would be overtaking Y, whose powers were limited to three and a half, but who had started two and three quarter hours sooner; the whole argument being reduced to sheer pedantry by reason of no information being afforded to the student concerning the respective thirstiness of X and Y.
Even my father and mother were able to take it lightly with plenty of laughter and no groaning that I ever heard. For over all lay the morning light of hope, and what prisoner, escaping from his dungeon, ever stayed to think of his torn hands and knees when beyond the distant opening he could see the sunlight glinting through the brambles?
“I had no idea,” said my mother, “there was so much to do in a house. In future I shall arrange for the servants to have regular hours, and a little time to themselves, for rest. Don’t you think it right, Luke?”
“Quite right,” replied my father; “and I’ll tell you another thing we’ll do. I shall insist on the landlord’s putting a marble doorstep to the next house we take; you pass a sponge over marble and it is always clean.”
“Or tesselated,” suggested my mother.
“Or tesselated,” agreed my father; “but marble is more uncommon.”
Only once, can I recall a cloud. That was one Sunday when my mother, speaking across the table in the middle of dinner, said to my father, “We might save the rest of that stew, Luke; there’s an omelette coming.”
My father laid down the spoon. “An omelette!”
“Yes,” said my mother. “I thought I would like to try again.”
My father stepped into the back kitchen–we dined in the kitchen, as a rule, it saved much carriage–returning with the wood chopper.
“What ever are you going to do, Luke, with the chopper?” said my mother.
“Divide the omelette,” replied my father.
My mother began to cry.
“Why, Maggie–!” said my father.
“I know the other one was leathery,” said my mother, “but it was the fault of the oven, you know it was, Luke.”
“My dear,” said my father, “I only meant it as a joke.”
“I don’t like that sort of joke,” said my mother; “it isn’t nice of you, Luke.”
I don’t think, to be candid, my mother liked much any joke that was against herself. Indeed, when I come to think of it, I have never met a woman who did, nor man, either.
There had soon grown up a comradeship between my father and myself for he was the youngest thing I had met with as yet. Sometimes my mother seemed very young, and later I met boys and girls nearer to my own age in years; but they grew, while my father remained always the same. The hair about his temples was turning grey, and when you looked close you saw many crow’s feet and lines, especially about the mouth. But his eyes were the eyes of a boy, his laugh the laugh of a boy, and his heart the heart of a boy. So we were very close to each other.
In a narrow strip of ground we called our garden we would play a cricket of our own, encompassed about by many novel rules, rendered necessary by the locality. For instance, all hitting to leg was forbidden, as tending to endanger neighbouring windows, while hitting to off was likewise not to be encouraged, as causing a temporary adjournment of the game, while batter and bowler went through the house and out into the street to recover the ball from some predatory crowd of urchins to whom it had evidently appeared as a gift direct from Heaven. Sometimes rising very early we would walk across the marshes to bathe in a small creek that led down to the river, but this was muddy work, necessitating much washing of legs on the return home. And on rare days we would, taking the train to Hackney and walking to the bridge, row up the river Lea, perhaps as far as Ponder’s End.
But these sports being hedged around with difficulties, more commonly for recreation we would take long walks. There were pleasant nooks even in the neighbourhood of Plaistow marshes in those days. Here and there a graceful elm still clung to the troubled soil. Surrounded on all sides by hideousness, picturesque inns still remained hidden within green walls where, if you were careful not to pry too curiously, you might sit and sip your glass of beer beneath the oak and dream yourself where reeking chimneys and mean streets were not. During such walks my father would talk to me as he would talk to my mother, telling me all his wild, hopeful plans, discussing with me how I was to lodge at Oxford, to what particular branches of study and of sport I was to give my preference, speaking always with such catching confidence that I came to regard my sojourn in this brick and mortar prison as only a question of months.
One day, talking of this future, and laughing as we walked briskly. through the shrill streets, I told him the words my mother had said–long ago, as it seemed to me, for life is as a stone rolling down-hill, and moves but slowly at first; she and I sitting on the moss at the foot of old “Jacob’s Folly”–that he was our Prince fighting to deliver us from the grim castle called “Hard Times,” guarded by the dragon Poverty.
My father laughed and his boyish face flushed with pleasure.
“And she was right, Paul,” he whispered, pressing my small hand in his–it was necessary to whisper, for the street where we were was very crowded, but I knew that he wanted to shout. “I will fight him and I will slay him.” My father made passes in the air with his walking-stick, and it was evident from the way they drew aside that the people round about fancied he was mad. “I will batter down the iron gates and she shall be free. I will, God help me, I will.”
The gallant gentleman! How long and how bravely he fought! But in the end it was the Dragon triumphed, the Knight that lay upon the ground, his great heart still. I have read how, with the sword of Honest Industry, one may always conquer this grim Dragon. But such was in foolish books. In truth, only with the sword of Chicanery and the stout buckler of Unscrupulousness shall you be certain of victory over him. If you care not to use these, pray to your Gods, and take what comes with a stout heart.
HOW GOOD LUCK KNOCKED AT THE DOOR OF THE MAN IN GREY.
“Louisa!” roared my father down the kitchen stairs, “are you all asleep? Here have I had to answer the front door myself.” Then my father strode into his office, and the door slammed. My father could be very angry when nobody was by.
Quarter of an hour later his bell rang with a quick, authoritative jangle. My mother, who was peeling potatoes with difficulty in wash-leather gloves, looked at my aunt who was shelling peas. The bell rang again louder still this time.
“Once for Louisa, twice for James, isn’t it?” enquired my aunt.
“You go, Paul,” said my mother; “say that Louisa–” but with the words a sudden flush overspread my mother’s face, and before I could lay down my slate she had drawn off her gloves and had passed me. “No, don’t stop your lessons, I’ll go myself,” she said, and ran out.
A few minutes later the kitchen door opened softly, and my mother’s hand, appearing through the jar, beckoned to me mysteriously.
“Walk on your toes,” whispered my mother, setting the example as she led the way up the stairs; which after the manner of stairs showed their disapproval of deception by creaking louder and more often than under any other circumstances; and in this manner we reached my parents’ bedroom, where, in the old-fashioned wardrobe, relic of better days, reposed my best suit of clothes, or, to be strictly grammatical, my better.
Never before had I worn these on a week-day morning, but all conversation not germane to the question of getting into them quickly my mother swept aside; and when I was complete, down even to the new shoes–Bluchers, we called them in those days–took me by the hand, and together we crept down as we had crept up, silent, stealthy and alert. My mother led me to the street door and opened it.
“Shan’t I want my cap?” I whispered. But my mother only shook her head and closed the door with a bang; and then the explanation of the pantomime came to me, for with such “business”–comic, shall I call it, or tragic?–I was becoming familiar; and, my mother’s hand upon my shoulder, we entered my father’s office.
Whether from the fact that so often of an evening–our drawing-room being reserved always as a show-room in case of chance visitors; Cowper’s poems, open face-downwards on the wobbly loo table; the half-finished crochet work, suggestive of elegant leisure, thrown carelessly over the arm of the smaller easy-chair–this office would become our sitting-room, its books and papers, as things of no account, being huddled out of sight; or whether from the readiness with which my father would come out of it at all times to play at something else–at cricket in the back garden on dry days or ninepins in the passage on wet, charging back into it again whenever a knock sounded at the front door, I cannot say. But I know that as a child it never occurred to me to regard my father’s profession as a serious affair. To me he was merely playing there, surrounded by big books and bundles of documents, labelled profusely but consisting only of blank papers; by japanned tin boxes, lettered imposingly, but for the most part empty. “Sutton Hampden, Esq.,” I remember was practically my mother’s work-box. The “Drayton Estates” yielded apparently nothing but apples, a fruit of which my father was fond; while “Mortgages” it was not until later in life I discovered had no connection with poems in manuscript, some in course of correction, others completed.
Now, as the door opened, he rose and came towards us. His hair stood up from his head, for it was a habit of his to rumple it as he talked; and this added to his evident efforts to compose his face into an expression of businesslike gravity, added emphasis, if such were needed, to the suggestion of the over long schoolboy making believe.
“This is the youngster,” said my father, taking me from my mother, and passing me on. “Tall for his age, isn’t he?”
With a twist of his thick lips, he rolled the evil-smelling cigar he was smoking from the left corner of his mouth to the right; and held out a fat and not too clean hand, which, as it closed round mine, brought to my mind the picture of the walrus in my natural history book; with the other he flapped me kindly on the head.
“Like ‘is mother, wonderfully like ‘is mother, ain’t ‘e?” he observed, still holding my hand. “And that,” he added with a wink of one of his small eyes towards my father, “is about the ‘ighest compliment I can pay ‘im, eh?”
His eyes were remarkably small, but marvellously bright and piercing; so much so that when he turned them again upon me I tried to think quickly of something nice about him, feeling sure that he could see right into me.
“And where are you thinkin’ of sendin’ ‘im?” he continued; “Eton or ‘Arrow?”
“We haven’t quite made up our minds as yet,” replied my father; “at present we are educating him at home.”
“You take my tip,” said the fat man, “and learn all you can. Look at me! If I’d ‘ad the opportunity of being a schollard I wouldn’t be here offering your father an extravagant price for doin’ my work; I’d be able to do it myself.”
“You seem to have got on very well without it,” laughed my father; and in truth his air of prosperity might have justified greater self-complacency. Rings sparkled on his blunt fingers, and upon the swelling billows of his waistcoat rose and sank a massive gold cable.
“I’d ‘ave done better with it,” he grunted.
“But you look very clever,” I said; and though divining with a child’s cuteness that it was desired I should make a favourable impression upon him, I hoped this would please him, the words were yet spontaneous.
He laughed heartily, his whole body shaking like some huge jelly.
“Well, old Noel Hasluck’s not exactly a fool,” he assented, “but I’d like myself better if I could talk about something else than business, and didn’t drop my aitches. And so would my little gell.”
“You have a daughter?” asked my mother, with whom a child, as a bond of sympathy with the stranger took the place assigned by most women to disrespectful cooks and incompetent housemaids.
“I won’t tell you about ‘er. But I’ll just bring ‘er to see you now and then, ma’am, if you don’t mind,” answered Mr. Hasluck. “She don’t often meet gentle-folks, an’ it’ll do ‘er good.”
My mother glanced across at my father, but the man, intercepting her question, replied to it himself.
“You needn’t be afraid, ma’am, that she’s anything like me,” he assured her quite good-temperedly; “nobody ever believes she’s my daughter, except me and the old woman. She’s a little lady, she is. Freak o’ nature, I call it.”
“We shall be delighted,” explained my mother.
“Well, you will when you see ‘er,” replied Mr. Hasluck, quite contentedly.
He pushed half-a-crown into my hand, overriding my parents’ susceptibilities with the easy good-temper of a man accustomed to have his way in all things.
“No squanderin’ it on the ‘eathen,” was his parting injunction as I left the room; “you spend that on a Christian tradesman.”
It was the first money I ever remember having to spend, that half-crown of old Hasluck’s; suggestions of the delights to be derived from a new pair of gloves for Sunday, from a Latin grammar, which would then be all my own, and so on, having hitherto displaced all less exalted visions concerning the disposal of chance coins coming into my small hands. But on this occasion I was left free to decide for myself.
The anxiety it gave me! the long tossing hours in bed! the tramping of the bewildering streets! Even advice when asked for was denied me.
“You must learn to think for yourself,” said my father, who spoke eloquently on the necessity of early acquiring sound judgment and what he called “commercial aptitude.”
“No, dear,” said my mother, “Mr. Hasluck wanted you to spend it as you like. If I told you, that would be spending it as I liked. Your father and I want to see what you will do with it.”
The good little boys in the books bought presents or gave away to people in distress. For this I hated them with the malignity the lower nature ever feels towards the higher. I consulted my aunt Fan.
“If somebody gave you half-a-crown,” I put it to her, “what would you buy with it?”
“Side-combs,” said my aunt; she was always losing or breaking her side-combs.
“But I mean if you were me,” I explained.
“Drat the child!” said my aunt; “how do I know what he wants if he don’t know himself. Idiot!”
The shop windows into which I stared, my nose glued to the pane! The things I asked the price of! The things I made up my mind to buy and then decided that I wouldn’t buy! Even my patient mother began to show signs of irritation. It was rapidly assuming the dimensions of a family curse, was old Hasluck’s half-crown.
Then one day I made up my mind, and so ended the trouble. In the window of a small plumber’s shop in a back street near, stood on view among brass taps, rolls of lead piping and cistern requisites, various squares of coloured glass, the sort of thing chiefly used, I believe, for lavatory doors and staircase windows. Some had stars in the centre, and others, more elaborate, were enriched with designs, severe but inoffensive. I purchased a dozen of these, the plumber, an affable man who appeared glad to see me, throwing in two extra out of sheer generosity.
Why I bought them I did not know at the time, and I do not know now. My mother cried when she saw them. My father could get no further than: “But what are you going to do with them?” to which I was unable to reply. My aunt, alone, attempted comfort.
“If a person fancies coloured glass,” said my aunt, “then he’s a fool not to buy coloured glass when he gets the chance. We haven’t all the same tastes.”
In the end, I cut myself badly with them and consented to their being thrown into the dust-bin. But looking back, I have come to regard myself rather as the victim of Fate than of Folly. Many folks have I met since, recipients of Hasluck’s half-crowns–many a man who has slapped his pocket and blessed the day he first met that “Napoleon of Finance,” as later he came to be known among his friends–but it ever ended so; coloured glass and cut fingers. Is it fairy gold that he and his kind fling round? It would seem to be.
Next time old Hasluck knocked at our front door a maid in cap and apron opened it to him, and this was but the beginning of change. New oilcloth glistened in the passage. Lace curtains, such as in that neighbourhood were the hall-mark of the plutocrat, advertised our rising fortunes to the street, and greatest marvel of all, at least to my awed eyes, my father’s Sunday clothes came into weekday wear, new ones taking their place in the great wardrobe that hitherto had been the stronghold of our gentility; to which we had ever turned for comfort when rendered despondent by contemplation of the weakness of our outer walls. “Seeing that everything was all right” is how my mother would explain it. She would lay the lilac silk upon the bed, fondly soothing down its rustling undulations, lingering lovingly over its deep frosted flounces of rich Honiton. Maybe she had entered the room weary looking and depressed, but soon there would proceed from her a gentle humming as from some small winged thing when the sun first touches it and warms it, and sometimes by the time the Indian shawl, which could go through a wedding ring, but never would when it was wanted to, had been refolded and fastened again with the great cameo brooch, and the poke bonnet, like some fractious child, shaken and petted into good condition, she would be singing softly to herself, nodding her head to the words: which were generally to the effect that somebody was too old and somebody else too bold and another too cold, “so he wouldn’t do for me;” and stepping lightly as though the burden of the years had fallen from her.
One evening–it was before the advent of this Hasluck–I remember climbing out of bed, for trouble was within me. Creatures, indescribable but heavy, had sat upon my chest, after which I had fallen downstairs, slowly and reasonably for the first few hundred flights, then with haste for the next million miles or so, until I found myself in the street with nothing on but my nightshirt. Personally, I was shocked, but nobody else seemed to mind, and I hailed a two-penny ‘bus and climbed in. But when I tried to pay I found I hadn’t any pockets, so I jumped out and ran away and the conductor came after me. My feet were like lead, and with every step he gained on me, till with a scream I made one mighty effort and awoke.
Feeling the need of comfort after these unpleasant but by no means unfamiliar experiences, I wrapped some clothes round me and crept downstairs. The “office” was dark, but to my surprise a light shone from under the drawing-room door, and I opened it.
The candles in the silver candlesticks were lighted, and in state, one in each easy-chair, sat my father and mother, both in their best clothes; my father in the buckled shoes and the frilled shirt that I had never seen him wear before, my mother with the Indian shawl about her shoulders, and upon her head the cap of ceremony that reposed three hundred and sixty days out of the year in its round wicker-work nest lined with silk. They started guiltily as I pushed open the door, but I congratulate myself that I had sense enough–or was it instinct–to ask no questions.
The last time I had seen them, three hours ago, they had been engaged, the lights carefully extinguished, cleaning the ground floor windows, my father the outside, my mother within, and it astonished me the change not only in their appearance, but in their manner and bearing, and even in their very voices. My father brought over from the sideboard the sherry and sweet biscuits and poured out and handed a glass to my mother, and he and my mother drank to each other, while I between them ate the biscuits, and the conversation was of Byron’s poems and the great glass palace in Hyde Park.
I wonder am I disloyal setting this down? Maybe to others it shows but a foolish man and woman, and that is far from my intention. I dwell upon such trifles because to me the memory of them is very tender. The virtues of our loved ones we admire, yet after all ’tis but what we expected of them: how could they do otherwise? Their failings we would forget; no one of us is perfect. But over their follies we love to linger, smiling.
To me personally, old Hasluck’s coming and all that followed thereupon made perhaps more difference than to any one else. My father now was busy all the day; if not in his office, then away in the grim city of the giants, as I still thought of it; while to my mother came every day more social and domestic duties; so that for a time I was left much to my own resources.
Rambling–“bummelling,” as the Germans term it–was my bent. This my mother would have checked, but my father said:
“Don’t molly-coddle him. Let him learn to be smart.”
“I don’t think the smart people are always the nicest,” demurred my mother. “I don’t call you at all ‘smart,’ Luke.”
My father appeared surprised, but reflected.
“I should call myself smart–in a sense,” he explained, after consideration.
“Perhaps you are right, dear,” replied my mother; “and of course boys are different from girls.”
Sometimes I would wander Victoria Park way, which was then surrounded by many small cottages in leafy gardens; or even reach as far as Clapton, where old red brick Georgian houses still stood behind high palings, and tall elms gave to the wide road on sunny afternoons an old-world air of peace. But such excursions were the exception, for strange though it may read, the narrow, squalid streets had greater hold on me. Not the few main thoroughfares, filled ever with a dull, deep throbbing as of some tireless iron machine; where the endless human files, streaming ever up and down, crossing and recrossing, seemed mere rushing chains of flesh and blood, working upon unseen wheels; but the dim, weary, lifeless streets–the dark, tortuous roots, as I fancied them, of that grim forest of entangled brick. Mystery lurked in their gloom. Fear whispered from behind their silence. Dumb figures flitted swiftly to and fro, never pausing, never glancing right nor left. Far-off footsteps, rising swiftly into sound, as swiftly fading, echoed round their lonely comers. Dreading, yet drawn on, I would creep along their pavements as through some city of the dead, thinking of the eyes I saw not watching from the thousand windows; starting at each muffled sound penetrating the long, dreary walls, behind which that close-packed, writhing life lay hid.
One day there came a cry from behind a curtained window. I stood still for a moment and then ran; but before I could get far enough away I heard it again, a long, piercing cry, growing fiercer before it ceased; so that I ran faster still, not heeding where I went, till I found myself in a raw, unfinished street, ending in black waste land, bordering the river. I stopped, panting, wondering how I should find my way again. To recover myself and think I sat upon the doorstep of an empty house, and there came dancing down the road with a curious, half-running, half-hopping step–something like a water wagtail’s–a child, a boy about my own age, who, after eyeing me strangely sat down beside me.
We watched each other for a few minutes; and I noticed that his mouth kept opening and shutting, though he said nothing. Suddenly, edging closer to me, he spoke in a thick whisper. It sounded as though his mouth were full of wool.
“Wot ‘appens to yer when yer dead?”
“If you’re good you go to Heaven. If you’re bad you go to Hell.”
“Long way off, both of ’em, ain’t they?”
“Yes. Millions of miles.”
“They can’t come after yer? Can’t fetch yer back again?”
The doorstep that we occupied was the last. A yard beyond began the black waste of mud. From the other end of the street, now growing dark, he never took his staring eyes for an instant.
“Ever seen a stiff ‘un–a dead ‘un?”
“I ‘ave–stuck a pin into ‘im. ‘E never felt it. Don’t feel anything when yer dead, do yer?”
All the while he kept swaying his body to and fro, twisting his arms and legs, and making faces. Comical figures made of ginger-bread, with quaintly curved limbs and grinning features, were to be bought then in bakers’ shops: he made me hungry, reminding me of such.
“Of course not. When you are dead you’re not there, you know. Our bodies are but senseless clay.” I was glad I remembered that line. I tried to think of the next one, which was about food for worms; but it evaded me.
“I like you,” he said; and making a fist, he gave me a punch in the chest. It was the token of palship among the youth of that neighbourhood, and gravely I returned it, meaning it, for friendship with children is an affair of the instant, or not at all, and I knew him for my first chum.
He wormed himself up.
“Yer won’t tell?” he said.