Part 1 out of 8
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Jerome K. Jerome
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"Shouldn't wonder," the old House answers. "I never knew a worse--nor
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
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
"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
The good dame evidently perceived her error, and made haste to correct
"Oh, you! You are lucky enough," she replied; "I was thinking of your
"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
"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
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
Suddenly a new thought came to me, or rather the recollection of an
"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
"No, she ain't."
"And don't contradict. Your mamma's husband is your papa, who lives
"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
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
"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
"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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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,
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"Of course, it must be," said my mother.
I suppose I must have dozed, for the next words I heard the grey man
"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
At this point a hissing sound arose from the neighbourhood of the
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"So did I, Master Paul," was Susan's rejoinder; "that was his
"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
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
"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,
"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
"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
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
"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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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.
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