Transcriber's note: Inconsistent and missing punctuation have been corrected without comment. The 'oe' and 'ae' ligatures have been changed to 'oe' and 'ae'. Obvious spelling mistakes have been corrected. A list of corrections from the original is included at the end of the book Text enclosed between equal signs was in bold face in the original (bold).
WHEN GHOST MEETS GHOST
+ - + BY WILLIAM DE MORGAN + + JOSEPH VANCE An intensely human and humorous novel of life near London in the '50s. $1.75. ALICE-FOR-SHORT The story of a London waif, a friendly artist, his friends and family. $1.75. SOMEHOW GOOD A lovable, humorous romance of modern England. $1.75. IT NEVER CAN HAPPEN AGAIN A strange story of certain marital complications. Notable for the beautiful Judith Arkroyd with stage ambitions, Blind Jim, and his daughter Lizarann. $1.75. AN AFFAIR OF DISHONOR Perhaps the author's most dramatic novel. It deals with the events that followed a duel in Restoration days in England. $1.75. A LIKELY STORY Begins comfortably enough with a little domestic quarrel in a studio. The story shifts suddenly, however, to a brilliantly told tragedy of the Italian Renaissance embodied in a girl's portrait. $1.35 net. WHEN GHOST MEETS GHOST A long, genial tale of old mysteries and young lovers in England in the '50s. $1.60 net. + +
WHEN GHOST MEETS GHOST
WILLIAM DE MORGAN
Author of "Joseph Vance," "Alice-for-Short," Etc.
Copyright, 1914, by Henry Holt and Company
Published February, 1914
Dedicated to The Spirit of Fiction
0. SAPPS COURT 3 I. DAVE AND HIS FAMILY 6 II. A SHORTAGE OF MUD 16 III. DAVE'S ACCIDENT 24 IV. BACK FROM THE HOSPITAL 30 V. MRS. PRICHARD 40 VI. THE STORY OF THE TWINS 45 VII. DAVE'S CONVALESCENT HAVEN 60 VIII. DAVE'S RETURN TO SAPPS COURT 72 IX. A VERDICT OF DEATH BY DROWNING 84 X. AT THE TOWERS 93 XI. MR. PELLEW AND MISS DICKENSON 110 XII. THE MAN WHO WAS SHOT 117 XIII. AN INQUIRY FOR A WIDOW 127 XIV. A SUCCESSFUL CAPTURE 134 XV. WHAT AUNT M'RIAR OVERHEARD 150 XVI. THE INNER LIFE OF SAPPS COURT 156 XVII. HOW ADRIAN WAS NURSED AT THE TOWERS 171 XVIII. HOW GWEN AND THE COUNTESS VISITED ADRIAN 185 XIX. GWEN'S VERY BAD NIGHT 200 XX. SLOW AND FAST APPROXIMATION 208 XXI. A RAPID ARRIVAL 220 XXII. A CONFESSION AND ITS EFFECTS 239 XXIII. GWEN'S VISIT TO MRS. MARRABLE 258 XXIV. THE SLOW APPROXIMATION GOES SLOWLY ON 272 XXV. A GAME OF WHIST 282 XXVI. HOW AUNT M'RIAR'S STORY CAME OUT 293 XXVII. HOW SAPPS HEARD A VISITOR WAS COMING 312 XXVIII. GWEN'S VISIT, AND WHAT ENDED IT 320 XXIX. HOW THE SLOW COUPLE BECAME ENGAGED 331 XXX. GWEN'S ACCOUNT OF THE CRASH 351 XXXI. MRS. PRICHARD AT CAVENDISH SQUARE 364 XXXII. AT THE ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS 379
I. AUNT M'RIAR'S HUSBAND 389 II. GWEN'S VISIT TO PENSHAM 412 III. HOW THE TWINS SAW EACH OTHER 429 IV. MAISIE AT THE TOWERS 444 V. MOTHERWARDS IN THE DARK 461 VI. HOW MAISIE LOVED POMONA 474 VII. GWEN'S NIGHT-FLIGHT TO LONDON 491 VIII. MAISIE AT STRIDES COTTAGE 498 IX. THE DUTIFUL SON 511 X. GWEN'S SECOND VISIT TO SAPPS COURT 528 XI. IN PARK LANE 543 XII. AN ENLIGHTENMENT 563 XIII. HOW GWEN TOLD SAPPS COURT 576 XIV. GWEN'S RETURN, AND THE TASK BEFORE HER 591 XV. GWEN FACES THE MUSIC 607 XVI. DR. NASH TELLS GRANNY MARRABLE 626 XVII. THE COUNTESS CALLS AT PENSHAM 646 XVIII. WHAT FOLLOWED AT CHORLTON 665 XIX. THE MEETING 677 XX. THE NIGHT AFTER THEY KNEW IT 686 XXI. SAPPS COURT AGAIN 703 XXII. STRIDES COTTAGE AGAIN 721 XXIII. GWEN'S VISIT TO PENSHAM 734 XXIV. PENSHAM AT STRIDES COTTAGE 751 XXV. A FESTIVITY AT THE TOWERS 764 XXVI. ANOTHER NIGHT WATCH 776 XXVII. HOW SHE SAW THE MODEL AGAIN 793 XXVIII. HOW HER SON CAME TOO LATE 807 XXIX. A RIGHT CROSS-COUNTER THAT LANDED 826 A BELATED PENDRIFT 853
WHEN GHOST MEETS GHOST
A CONNECTING-LINK BETWEEN THE WRITER AND THE STORY, AMOUNTING TO VERY LITTLE. THERE WAS A COURT SOME FIFTY YEARS SINCE IN LONDON, SOMEWHERE, THAT IS NOW NOWHERE. THAT'S ALL!
Some fifty years ago there still remained, in a street reachable after inquiry by turning to the left out of Tottenham Court Road, a rather picturesque Court with an archway; which I, the writer of this story, could not find when I tried to locate it the other day. I hunted for it a good deal, and ended by coming away in despair and going for rest and refreshment to a new-born teashop, where a number of young ladies had lost their individuality, and the one who brought my tea was callous to me and mine because you pay at the desk. But she had an orderly soul, for she turned over the lump of sugar that had a little butter on it, so as to lie on the buttery side and look more tidy-like.
If the tea had been China tea, fresh-made, it might have helped me to recollecting the name of that Court, which I am sorry to say I have forgotten. But it was Ceylon and had stood. However, it was hot. Only you will never convince me that it was fresh-made, not even if you have me dragged asunder by wild horses. Its upshot was, for the purpose of this story, that it did not help me to recollect the name of that Court.
I have to confess with shame that I have written the whole of what follows under a false pretence; having called it out of its name, to the best of my belief, throughout. I know it had a name. It does not matter; the story can do without accuracy—commonplace matter of fact!
But do what I will, I keep on recollecting new names for it, and each seems more plausible than the other. Coltsfoot Court, Barretts Court, Chesterfield Court, Sapps Court! Any one of these, if I add seventeen-hundred-and-much, or eighteen-hundred-and-nothing-to-speak-of, seems to fit this Court to a nicety. Suppose we make it Sapps Court, and let it go at that!
Oh, the little old corners of the world that were homes and are gone! Years hence the Court we will call Sapps will still dwell in some old mind that knew its every brick, and be portrayed to credulous hearers yet unborn as an unpretentious Eden, by some laudator of its tempus actum—some forgotten soul waiting for emancipation in an infirmary or almshouse.
Anyhow, I can remember this Court, and can tell a tale it plays a part in, only not very quick.
Anybody might have passed down the main street and never noticed it, because its arched entry didn't give on the street, but on a bay or cul-de-sac just long enough for a hansom to drive into but not to turn round in. There was nothing to arrest the attention of the passer-by, self-absorbed or professionally engaged; simultaneous possibilities, in his case.
But if the passer-by forgot himself and neglected his proper function in life at the moment that he came abreast of this cul-de-sac, he may have thereby come to the knowledge of Sapps Court; and, if a Londoner, may have wondered why he never knew of it before. For there was nothing in the external appearance of its arched entry to induce him to face the difficulties incidental to entering it. He may even have nursed intentions of saying to a friend who prided himself on his knowledge of town:—"I say, Old Cock, you think yourself mighty clever and all that, but I bet you can't tell me where Sapps Court is." If, however, he never went down Sapps Court at all—merely looked at his inscription and, recollecting his own place in nature, passed on—I shouldn't be surprised.
It went downhill under the archway when you did go in, and you came to a step. If you did not tumble owing to the suddenness and depth of this step, you came to another; and were stupefied by reaching the ground four inches sooner than you expected, and made conscious that your skeleton had been driven an equal distance upwards through your system. Then you could see Sapps Court, but under provocation, from its entry. When you recovered your temper you admitted that it was a better Court than you had anticipated.
All the residences were in a row on the left, and there was a dead wall on the right with an inscription on a stone in it that said the ground twelve inches beyond belonged to somebody else. This wall was in the confidence of the main street, lending itself to a fiction that the houses therein had gardens or yards behind them. They hadn't; but the tenants believed they had, and hung out chemises and nightgowns and shirts to dry in the areas they built up their faith on; and really, if they were properly wrung out afore hung up there was nothing to complain of, because the blacks didn't hold on, not to crock, but got shook off or blew away of theirselves. We put this in the language of our informant.
However, the story has no business on the other side of this wall. What concerns it is the row of houses on the left.
If ever a row of houses bore upon them the stamp of having been overtaken and surrounded by an unexpected city, these did. The wooden palings that still skirted the breathing-room in front of them almost said aloud to every newcomer:—"Where is the strip of land gone that we could see beyond, day by day; that belonged to God-knows-who; whose further boundary was the road the haycarts brought their loads on, drawn by deliberate horses that had bells?" The persistent sunflowers that still struggled into being behind them told tales of how big they were in youth, years ago, when they could turn to the sun and hope to catch his eye. The stray wallflowers murmured to all who had ears to hear:—"This is how we smelt in days gone by—but oh!—so much stronger!" The wooden shutters, outside the ground-floors that really stood upon the ground, told, if you chose to listen, of how they kept the houses safe from thieves in moonlit nights a century ago; and the doors between them—for each house was three windows wide—opened straight into the kitchen. So they were, or had been, cottages. But the miscreant in possession twenty years ago, instigated by a jerry-builder, had added a storey and removed the tiled roofs whose garrets were every bit as good as the jerry-built rooms that took their place. Sapp himself may have done it—one knows nothing of his principles—and at the same time in a burst of overweening vanity called his cottages his Court. But one rather likes to think that Sapp was with his forbears when this came about, when the wall was built up opposite, and the cottages could no longer throw their dust everywhere, but had to resort to a common dustbin at the end of the Court, which smelt so you could smell it quite plain across the wall when the lid was off. That dustbin was the outward and visible sign of the decadence of Sapp.
OF DAVE AND DOLLY WARDLE AND THEIR UNCLE MOSES, WHO HAD BEEN A PRIZEFIGHTER, AND THEIR AUNT M'RIAR, WHO KEPT AN EYE ON THEM. OF DAVE'S SERVICES TO THE PUBLIC, AND OF ANOTHER PUBLIC THAT NEARLY MADE UNCLE MO BANKRUPT. OF HIS PAST BATTLES, NOTABLY ONE WITH A SWEEP. OF MRS. PRICHARD AND MRS. BURR, WHO LIVED UPSTAIRS. OF A BAD ACCIDENT THAT BEFELL DAVE, AND OF SIMEON STYLITES. HOW UNCLE MO STRAPPED UP DAVE'S HEAD WITH DIACHYLUM BOUGHT BY A VERY BAD BOY, MICHAEL RAGSTROAR, THE LIKE OF WHOM YOU NEVER! OF THE JUDGEMENT OF SOLOMON, AND DAVE'S CAT
In the last house down the Court, the one that was so handy to the dustbin, lived a very small boy and a still smaller sister. There were other members of the household—to wit, their Uncle Moses and their Aunt M'riar, who were not husband and wife, but respectively brother and sister of Dave's father and mother. Uncle Moses' name was Wardle, Aunt M'riar's that of a deceased or vanished husband. But Sapps Court was never prepared to say offhand what this name was, and "Aunt M'riar" was universal. So indeed was "Uncle Mo"; but, as No. 7 had been spoken of as "Wardle's" since his brother took the lower half of the house for himself and his first wife, with whom he had lived there fifteen years, the name Wardle had come to be the name of the house. This brother had been some ten years younger than Moses, and had had apparently more than his fair share of the family weddings; as "old Mo," if he ever was married, had kept the lady secret; from his brother's family certainly, and presumably from the rest of the world.
Our little boy was the sort of boy you were sorry was ever going to be eleven, because at five years and ten months he was that square and compact, that chunky and yet that tender, that no right-minded person could desire him to be changed to an impudent young scaramouch like young Michael Ragstroar four doors higher up, who was eleven and a regular handful.
His name was Dave Wardle, after his father; and his sister's Dorothea, after her mother. Both names appeared on a tombstone in the parish churchyard, and you might have thought they was anybody, said Public Opinion; which showed that Dave and his sister were orphans. Both had recollections of their father, but the funeral he indulged in three years since had elbowed other memories out of court. Of their mother they only knew by hearsay, as Dave was only three years old when his sister committed matricide, quite unconsciously, and you could hear her all the way up the Court. Pardon the story's way of introducing attestations to some fact of interest or importance in the language in which its compiler has received it.
They were good children to do with, said their Aunt M'riar, so long as you kep' an eye. And a good job they were, because who was to do her work if she was every minute prancing round after a couple of young monkeys? This was a strained way of indicating the case; but there can be no doubt of its substantial truth. So Aunt M'riar felt at rest so long as Dave was content to set up atop of the dustbin-lid and shout till he was hoarse; all the while using a shovel, that was public property, as a gong.
Perhaps Dave took his sister Dolly into his confidence about the nature of the trust he conceived himself to hold in connection with this dustbin. To others of the inhabitants he was reticent, merely referring to an emolument he was entitled to. "The man on the lid," he said, "has a farden." He said this with such conviction that few had the heart to deny the justice of the claim outright, resorting to subterfuges to evade a cash settlement. One had left his change on the piano; another was looking forward to an early liquidation of small liabilities on the return of his ship to port; another would see about it next time Sunday come of a Friday, and so on. But only his Uncle Moses ever gave him an actual farthing, and Dave deposited it in a cat on the mantelshelf, who was hollow by nature, and provided by art with a slot in the dorsal vertebrae. It could be shook out if you wanted it, and Dave occasionally took it out of deposit in connection with a course of experiments he was interested in. He wished to determine how far he could spit it out.
This inquiry was a resource against ennui on rainy days and foggy days and days that were going to clear up later. All these sorts were devised by the malignity of Providence for the confusion of small boys yearning to be on active service, redistributing property, obstructing traffic, or calling attention to personal peculiarities of harmless passers-by. But it was not so inexhaustible but that cases occurred when those children got that unsettled and masterful there was no abiding their racket; and as for Dolly, her brother was making her every bit as bad as himself. At such times a great resource was to induce Uncle Moses to tell some experiences of a glorious past, his own. For he had been a member of the Prize Ring, and had been slapped on the back by Dukes, and had even been privileged to grasp a Royal hand. He was now an unwieldy giant, able to get about with a stick when the day was fine, but every six months less inclined for the effort.
Uncle Moses, when he retired from public life, had put all his winnings, which were considerable, into a long lease of a pot-house near Golden Square, where he was well-known and very popular. If, however, there had been a rock on the premises and he had had all the powers of his namesake, four-half would have had to run as fast from it as ever did water from the rock in Horeb, to keep down the thirst of Golden Square. For Uncle Moses not only refused to take money from old friends who dwelt in his memory, but weakly gave way to constructive allegations of long years of comradeship in a happy past, which his powers of recollection did not enable him to contradict. "Wot, old Moses!—you'll never come for to go for to say you've forgot old Swipey Sam, jist along in the Old Kent Road—Easy Shavin' one 'apenny or an arrangement come to by the week!" Or merely, "Seein' you's as good as old times come alive again, mate." Suchlike appeals were almost invariable from any customer who got fair speech of Uncle Moses in his own bar. In his absence these claims were snuffed out roughly by a prosaic barman—even the most pathetic ones, such as that of an extinct thimblerigger for whom three small thimbles and one little pea had ceased for ever, years ago, when he got his fingers in a sausage-machine. But Uncle Moses was so much his own barman that this generosity told heavily against his credit; and he would certainly have been left a pauper but for the earnest counsels of an old friend known in his circle of Society as Affability Bob, although his real name was Jeremiah Alibone. By him he was persuaded to dispose of the lease of the "Marquess of Montrose" while it still had some value, and to retire on a pound a week. This might have been more had he invested all the proceeds in an annuity. "But, put it I do!" said he. "I don't see my way to no advantage for David and Dorothy, and this here young newcome, if I was to hop the twig." For this was at the time of the birth of little Dave, nearly six years before the date of this story.
Affability Bob applauded his friend's course of action in view of its motive. "But," said he, "I tell you this, Moses. If you'd 'a' gone on standin' Sam to every narrycove round about Soho much longer, 'No effects' would have been your vardict, sir." To which Uncle Moses replied, "Right you are, old friend," and changed the subject.
However, there you have plenty to show what a rich mine of past experience Uncle Moses had to dig in. The wonder was that Dave and Dolly refused to avail themselves of its wealth, always preferring a monotonous repetition of an encounter their uncle had had with a Sweep. He could butt, this Sweep could, like a battering-ram, ketching hold upon you symultaneous round the gaiters. He was irresistible by ordinary means, his head being unimpressionable by direct impact. But Uncle Moses had been one too many for him, having put a lot of thinking into the right way of dealing with his system.
He had perceived that the hardest head, struck evenly on both sides at the same moment, must suffer approximately as much as if jammed against the door-post and catched full with a fair round swing. Whereas had these blows followed one another on a yielding head, the injury it inflicted as a battering-ram might have outweighed the damage it received in inflicting it. As it was, Peter—so Uncle Moses called the Sweep—was for one moment defenceless, being preoccupied in seizing his opponent by the ankles; and although his cranium had no sinuses, and was so thick it could crush a quart-pot like an opera-hat, it did not court a fourth double concussion, and this time he was destined to disappoint his backers.
His opponent, who in those days was known as the Hanley Linnet, suffered very little in the encounter. No doubt you know that a man in fine training can take an amazing number of back-falls on fair ground, clear of snags and brickbats; and, of course, the Linnet's seconds made a special point of this, examining careful and keeping an eye to prevent the introduction of broke-up rubbish inside the ropes by parties having an interest, or viciously disposed.
"There you are again, Uncle Mo, a-tellin' and a-tellin' and a-tellin'!" So Aunt M'riar would say when she heard this narrative going over well-known ground for the thousandth time. "And them children not lettin' you turn round in bed, I call it!" This was in reference to Dave and Dolly's severity about the text. The smallest departure from the earlier version led to both them children pouncing at once. Dave would exclaim reproachfully:—"You did say a Sweep with one blind eye, Uncle Mo!" and Dolly would confirm his words with as much emphasis as her powers of speech allowed. "Essoodid, a 'Weep with one b'ind eye!"—also reproachfully. Then Uncle Moses would supply a corrected version of whatever was defective, in this case an eye not quite blind, but nearly, owing to a young nipper, no older than Dave, aiming a broken bottle at him as the orficers was conducting of him to the Station, after a fight Wandsworth way, the other party being took off to the Horspital for dead.
The Jews, I am told, won't stand any nonsense when they have their sacred writings copied, always destroying every inaccurate MS. the moment an error is spotted in it. Dave and Dolly were not the Jews, but they were as intolerant of variation in the text of this almost sacred legend of the Sweep. "S'ow me how you punched him, wiv Dave's head," Dolly would say; and she would be most exacting over the dramatic rendering of this ancient fight. "Percisely this way like I'm showing you—only harder," was Uncle Moses' voucher for his own accuracy. "Muss harder?" inquired Dolly. "Well—a tidy bit harder!" said the veteran with truth. The head of the Sweep's understudy, Dave, was not equal to a full-dress rehearsal. So Dolly had to be content with the promise of a closer reading of the part when her brother was growed up.
But it was rather like Aunt M'riar said, for Uncle Moses. Those two young Turks didn't allow their uncle no latitude, in the manner of speaking. He couldn't turn round in bed.
These rainy days, when the children could not possibly be allowed out, taxed their guardians' patience just to the point of making them—suppose we say—not ungrateful to Providence when old Mrs. Prichard upstairs giv' leave for the children to come and play up in her room. She was the only other in-dweller in the house, living in the front and back attics with Mrs. Burr, who took jobs out in the dressmaking, and very moderate charges. When Mrs. Burr worked at home, Mrs. Prichard enjoyed her society and knitted, while Mrs. Burr cut out and basted. Very few remarks were passed; for though Mrs. Burr was snappish now and again, company was company, and Mrs. Prichard she put up with a little temper at times, because we all had our trials; and Mrs. Burr was considered good at heart, though short with you now and again. Hence when loneliness became irksome, Mrs. Prichard found Dave and Dolly a satisfaction, so long as nothing was broke. It was a pleasant extension of the experience of their early youth to play at monarchs, military celebrities, professional assassins, and so on, in old Mrs. Prichard's room upstairs. And sometimes nothing was broke. Otherwise one day at No. 7, Sapps Court, was much the same as another.
Uncle Mo's residence in Sapps Court dated many years before the coming of Aunt M'riar; in fact, as far back as the time he was deprived of his anchorage in Soho. He was then taken in by his brother, recently a widower; and no question had ever arisen of his quitting the haven he had been, as it were, towed into as a derelict; until, some years later, David announced that he was thinking of Dolly Tarver at Ealing. Moses smoked through a pipe in silence, so as to give full consideration; then said, like an easy-going old boy as he was:—"You might do worse, Dave. I can clear out, any minute. You've only got to sing out." To which his brother had replied:—"Don't you talk of clearing out, not till Miss Tarver she tells you." Moses' answer was:—"I'm agreeable, Dave"; and the matter dropped until some time after, when he had made Dolly Tarver's acquaintance. She, on hearing that her union with David would send Mo again adrift, had threatened to declare off if such a thing was so much as spoke of. So Moses had remained on, in the character of a permanency saturated with temporariness; and, when the little boy Dave began to take his place in Society, proceeded to appropriate—so said the child's parents—more than an uncle's fair share of him.
Then came the tragedy of his mother's death, causing the Court to go into mourning, and leaving Dave with a sister, too young to be conscious of responsibility for it. Not too young, however, to make her case heard—the case all living things have against the Power that creates them without so much as asking leave. The riot she made being interpreted by both father and uncle as protest against Mrs. Twiggins, a midwife who made herself disagreeable—or, strictly speaking, more disagreeable; being normally unpleasant, and apt to snap when spoke to, however civil—it was thought desirable to call in the help of her Aunt M'riar, who was living with her family at Ealing as a widow without incumbrance. Dolly junior appeared to calm down under Aunt M'riar's auspices, though every now and then her natural indignation got the better of her self-restraint. Dave junior was disgusted with his sister at first, but softened gradually towards her as she matured.
His father did not long survive the death of his young wife. Even an omnibus-driver is not exempt from inflammation of the lungs, although the complaint is not so fatal among persons exposed to all weathers as among leaders of indoor lives. A violent double pneumonia carried off Uncle Mo's brother, six months after he became a widower, and about three years before the date of this story.
Whether in some other class of life a marriageable uncle and aunt—sixty and forty respectively—would have accepted their condominium of the household that was left, it is not for the story to discuss. Uncle Moses refused to give up the two babies, and Aunt M'riar refused to leave them, and—as was remarked by both—there you were! It was an impasse. The only effect it had on the position was that Uncle Mo's temporariness got a little boastful, and slighted his permanency. The latter, however, paid absolutely no attention to the insult, and the only change that took place in the three following years at No. 7, Sapps Court, had nothing to do with the downstairs tenants. Some months before the first date of the story, a variation came about in the occupancy upstairs, Mrs. Prichard and Mrs. Burr taking the place of some parties who, if the truth was told, were rather a riddance. The fact is merely recorded as received; nothing further has transpired regarding these persons.
Mrs. Prichard was a very old lady who seldom showed herself outside of her own room—so the Court testified—but who, when she did so, impressed the downstairs tenants as of unfathomable antiquity and a certain pictorial appearance, causing Uncle Mo to speak of her as an old picter, and Dave to misapprehend her name. For he always spoke of her as old Mrs. Picture. Mrs. Burr dawned upon the Court as a civil-spoken person who was away most part of the day, and who did not develope her identity vigorously during the first year of her tenancy. One is terribly handicapped by one's own absence, as a member of any Society.
* * * * *
As time went on, Dave and Dolly, who began life with an idea that Sapps Court was the Universe, became curious about what was going on outside. They grew less contented with the dustbin, and ambition dictated to Dave an enthronement on an iron post at the entrance, under the archway. The delight of sitting on this post was so great that Dave willingly faced the fact that he could not get down, and whenever he could persuade anyone to put him up ran a risk of remaining there sine die. When he could not induce a native of the Court to do this, he endeavoured to influence the outer public, not without success. For when it came to understand—that public—that the grubby little tenant of Dave's grubby little shirt and trousers was not asking the time nor for a hoyp'ny, but was murmuring shyly:—"I soy, mawster, put me up atop," at the same time slapping the post on either side with two grubby little, fat hands, it would unbend and comply, telling Dave to hold on tight, and never asking no questions how ever the child was to be got off of it when the time came. Because people are that selfish and inconsiderate.
The difficulty of getting down off of it all by himself, without a friendly supporting hand in the waistband of his trousers, was connected with the form of this post's head. It was not a disused twenty-four pounder with a shot in its muzzle, as so many posts are, but a real architectural post, cast from a pattern at the foundry. Its capital expanded at the top, and its projecting rim made its negotiation difficult to climbers, if small; hard to get round from below, and perilous to leave hold of all of a sudden-like, in order to grasp the shaft in descent. But then, it was this very expansion that provided a seat for Dave, which the other sort of post would hardly have afforded.
How did Simeon Stylites manage to scrat on? One prefers to think that an angel put him on his column, carrying him somewhat as one carries a cat; and called for him to be taken down at convenient intervals by appointment. The mind revolts at the idea that he really never came down, quite never! But then, when the starving man is on at the Aquarium, we—that is to say, the humane public—are apt to give way to mere maudlin sentimentalism, and hope he is cheating. And when a person at a Music Hall folds backwards and looks through his legs at us forwards, we always hope he feels no strain—nothing but a great and justifiable professional pride. It is not a pleasant feeling that any of these good people are suffering on our behalf. However, in the case of Simeon Stylites there was a mixture of motives, no doubt.
Dave Wardle was too young to have motives, and had none, unless the desire to surprise and impress Dolly had weight with him. But he had the longing on him which that young gentleman in the poem expressed by writing the Latin for taller on a flag; and to gratify it had scaled the dustbin as the merest infant. It was an Alpine record. But the iron post was no mere Matterhorn. It was like Peter Bot's Mountain; and once you was up, there you were, and no getting down!
The occasional phrases for which I am indebted to Aunt M'riar which have crept into the text recently—not, as I think, to its detriment—were used by her after a mishap which befell her nephew owing to the child's impatience. If he'd only a had the sense to set still a half a minute longer, she would have done them frills and could have run up the Court a'most as soon as look at you. But she hoped what had happened would prove a warning, not only to Dave, but to all little boys in a driving hurry to get off posts. And not only to them either, but to Youth generally, to pay attention to what was said to it by Age and Experience, neither of which ever climb up posts without some safe guarantee of being able to climb down again.
What had happened was that Dave had cut his head on the ornate plinth of that cast-iron post, his hands missing their grip as his legs caught the shaft, so that he turned over backwards and his occiput suffered. He showed a splendid spirit—quite Spartan, in fact—bearing in mind his uncle's frequent homilies on the subject of crying; a thing no little boy, however young, should dream of. Dolly was under no such obligation, according to Uncle Moses, being a female or the rudiment of one, and on this occasion she roared for herself and her brother, too. Aunt M'riar was in favour of taking the child to Mr. Ekins, the apothecary, for skilled surgery to deal with the case, but Uncle Moses scouted the idea.
"Twopenn'orth o' stroppin' and a basin o' warm water," said he, "and I'll patch him up equal to Guy's Hospital.... Got no diacklum? Then send one of those young varmints outside for it.... You've no call to go yourself." For a various crowd of various ages under twelve had come from nowhere to enjoy the tragic incident.
"Twopenn'orth of diaculum plaster off of Mr. Ekings the 'poarthecary?" said that young Michael Ragstroar, thrusting himself forward and others backward; because, you see, he was such a cheeky, precocious young vagabond. "Mean to say I can't buy twopenn'orth of diaculum plaster off of Mr. Ekings the 'poarthecary? Mean to say my aunt that orkupies a 'ouse in Chiswick clost to high-water mark don't send me to the 'poarthecaries just as often as not? For the mixture to be taken regular ... Ah!—where's the twopence? 'And over!"
Whereupon, such is the power of self-confidence over everyone else, that Aunt M'riar entrusted twopence to this youth, quite forgetting that he was only eleven. Yet her faith in him was not ill-founded, for he returned like an echo as to promptitude. Only, unlike the echo, he came back louder than he went, and more positive.
"There's the quorntity and no cheatin'," said he. "You can medger it up with a rule if you like. It'll medger, you find if it don't! Like I told you! And a 'apenny returned on the transaction." The tension of the situation did not admit of the measuring test—nor indeed had Aunt M'riar data to go upon—and as for the halfpenny, it stood over.
Uncle Moses had not laid false claim to surgical skill, and was able to strap the wound a'most as if he'd been brought up to it. By the time it was done Dave's courage was on the wane, and he wasn't sorry to lie his head down and shut to his eyes. Because the lids thereof were like the lids of plate-chests.
However, before he went off very sound asleep—so sound you might have took him for a image—he heard what passed between Uncle Moses and Michael, whose name has been spelt herein so that you should think of it as Sapps Court did; but its correct form is Rackstraw.
"Now, young potato-peelin's, how much money did the doctor hand you back for that diacklum?"
"Penny. Said he'd charge it up to the next Dook that come to his shop."
Thereupon Aunt M'riar taxed the speaker with perfidy. "Why, you little untrue, lyin', deceitful story," she said. "To think you should say it was only a ha'penny!"
"I never said no such a thing. S'elp me!"
"''Apenny returned on the transaction' was the very identical selfsame words." Thus Aunt M'riar testified. "And what is more," she added inconsecutively, "I do not believe you've any such an aunt, nor yet ever been to Chiswick."
But young potato-peelings, so called from his father's vocation of costermonger, defended himself with indignation. "Warn't that square?" said he. "He never said I warn't to keep it all, didn't that doctor!" Then he took a high position as of injured virtue. "There's your 'apenny! There's both your 'apennies! Mean to say I 'aven't kep' 'em safe for yer?" Uncle Moses allowed the position of bailee, but disposed of the penny as Solomon suggested in the case of the baby, giving one halfpenny to Michael, and putting the other in Dave's cat on the mantelshelf.
He justified this course afterwards on the ground that the doctor's refund was made to the actual negotiator, and that Aunt M'riar had in any case received full value for her money. Who could say that the doctor, if referred to, would not have repudiated Aunt M'riar's claim in toto?
Warnings, cautions, and moral lessons derived from this incident had due weight with Dave for several days; in fact, until his cut healed over. Then he forgot them and became as bad as ever.
HOW DAVE FAILED TO PROFIT BY HIS EXPERIENCE. OF PAOLO TOSCANELLI AND CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. OF A NEW SHORE DAVE AND DOLLY REACHED BY EXPLORATION, ROUND THE CORNER; AND OF OTHER NAVIGATORS WHO HAD, IN THIS CASE, MADE IT FOR THEMSELVES. OF THE PUBLIC SPIRIT OF DAVE AND DOLLY, AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF A BARRAGE. HOW MRS. TAPPING AND MRS. RILEY HEARD THE ENGINES. OF A SHORTAGE OF MUD, AND A GREAT RESOLVE OF DAVE'S. WHY NOT SOME NEW MUD FROM THE NEW SHORE?
The interest of Dave's accident told in the last chapter is merely collateral. It shows how narrow an escape the story that follows had not only of never being finished, but even of never being written. For if its events had never happened, it goes near to certainty that they would never have been narrated. Near, but not quite. For even if Dave had profited by these warnings, cautions, and moral lessons to the extent of averting what now appears to have been Destiny, some imaginative author might have woven a history showing exactly what might have happened to him if he had not been a good boy. And that history, in the hands of a master—one who had the organ of the conditional praeterpluperfect tense very large—might have worked out the same as this.
The story may be thankful that no such task has fallen to its author's lot. It is so much easier to tell something that actually did happen than to make up as you go.
Dave was soon as bad as ever—no doubt of it. Only he kept clear of that post. The burnt child dreads the fire, and the chances are that admonitions not to climb up on posts had less to do with his abstention from this one than the lesson the post itself had hammered into the back of his head. Exploration of the outer world—of the regions imperfectly known beyond that post—had so far produced no fatal consequences; so that Aunt M'riar's and Uncle Mo's warnings to the children to keep within bounds had not the same convincing character.
But a time was at hand for the passion of exploration to seize upon these two very young people, and to become an excitement as absorbing to them as the discovery of America to Paolo Toscanelli and Christopher Columbus. At first it was satisfied by the cul-de-sac recess on which Sapps Court opened. But this palled, and no wonder! How could it compete with the public highway out of which it branched, especially when there was a new shore—that is to say, sewer—in course of construction?
To stand on the edge of a chasm which certainly reached to the bowels of the earth, and to see them shovelled up from platform to platform by agencies that spat upon their hands for some professional reason whenever there came a lull in the supply from below, was to find life worth living indeed. These agencies conversed continually about an injury that had been inflicted on them by the Will of God, the selfish caprice of their employers, or the cupidity of the rich. They appeared to be capable of shovelling in any space, however narrow, almost to the extent of surrendering one dimension and occupying only a plane surface. But it hadn't come to that yet. The battens that kept the trench-sides vertical were wider apart than what you'd have thought, when you come to try 'em with a two-fut rule. And the short lengths of quartering that kep' 'em apart were not really intersecting the diggers' anatomies as the weaver's shuttle passes through the warp. That was only the impression of the unconcerned spectator as he walked above them over the plank bridge that acknowledged his right of way across the road. His sympathies remained unentangled. If people navigated, it was their own look out. You see, these people were navvies, or navigators, although it strains one's sense of language to describe them so.
The best of it was to come. For in time the lowest navvy was threatened with death by misadventure, unless he come up time enough to avoid the water. The small pump the job had been making shift with was obliged to acknowledge itself beaten, and to make way for one with two handles, each with room for two pumpers; and this in turn was discarded in favour of a noisy affair with a donkey-engine, which brought up the yellow stream as fast as ever a gutter of nine-inch plank, nailed up to a V, would carry it away. And it really was a most extraordinary thing that of all those navigators there was not one that had not predicted in detail exactly the course of events that had come about. Mr. Bloxam, the foreman, had told the governor that there would be no harm in having the pump handy, seeing they would go below the clay. And each of the others had—so they themselves said—spoken in the same sense, in some cases using a most inappropriate adjective to qualify the expected flood. Why, even Sleepy Joe had seen that! Sleepy Joe was this same foreman, and he lived in a wooden hutch on the job, called The Office.
But the watershed of any engine—whatever may be its donkey-power, and whatever that name implies—slops back where a closed spout changes suddenly to an open gutter, and sets up independent lakes and rivers. This one sent its overflow towards Sapps Court, the incline favouring its distribution along the gutter of the cul-de-sac, which lay a little lower than the main street it opened out of. Its rich, ochrous rivulets—containing no visible trace of haemorrhage, in spite of that abuse of an adjective—were creeping slowly along the interstices of cobblestone paving that still outlived the incoming of Macadam, when Dave and Dolly Wardle ventured out of their archway to renew a survey, begun the previous day, of the fascinating excavation in the main street.
Here was an opportunity for active and useful service not to be lost. Dave immediately cast about to scrape up and collect such mud as came ready to hand, and with it began to build up an intercepting embankment to stop the foremost current, that was winding slowly, like Vesuvian lava, on the line of least resistance. Dolly followed his example, filling a garment she called her pinafore with whatever mould or debris was attainable, and bringing it with much gravity and some pride to help on the structure of the dyke. A fiction, rather felt than spoken, got in the air that Sapps Court and its inhabitants would be overwhelmed as by Noah's flood, except for the exertions of Dave and his sister. It appealed to some friends of the same age, also inhabitants of the Court, and with their assistance and sympathy it really seemed—in this fiction—that a catastrophe might be averted. You may imagine what a drove of little grubs those children looked in the course of half an hour. Not that any of them were particularly spruce to begin with.
However, there was the embankment holding back the dirty yellow water; and now the pump was running on steady-like, there didn't so much come slopping over to add to the deluge that threatened Sapps Court. The policeman—the only one supposed to exist, although in form he varied slightly—made an inquiry as to what was going on, to be beforehand with Anarchy. He said:—"What are you young customers about, taking the Company's water?" That seemed to embody an indictment without committing the accuser to particulars. But he took no active steps, and a very old man with a fur cap, and no teeth, and big bones in his cheeks, said:—"It don't make no odds to we, I take it." He was a prehistoric navvy, who had become a watchman, and was responsible for red lanterns hooked to posts on the edge of chasms to warn carts off. He was going to sleep in half a tent, soothed or otherwise by the unflagging piston of that donkey-engine, which had made up its mind to go till further notice.
The men were knocking off work, and it was getting on for time for those children to have their suppers and be put to bed. But as Aunt M'riar had some trimming to finish, and it was a very fine evening, there was no harm in leaving them alone a few minutes longer. As for any attractive influences of supper, those children never come in of theirselves, and always had to be fetched.
An early lamplighter—for this was in September, 1853—passed along the street with a ladder, dropping stars as he went. There are no lamplighters now, no real ones that run up ladders. Their ladders vanished first, leaving them with a magic wand that lighted the gas as soon as you got the tap turned; only that was ever so long, as often as not. Perhaps things are better now that lamps light themselves instinctively at the official hour of sunset. At any rate, one has the satisfaction of occasionally seeing one that won't go out, but burns on into the daylight to spite the Authorities.
They were cold stars, almost green, that this lamplighter dropped; but this was because the sun had left a flood of orange-gold behind it, enough to make the tune from "Rigoletto" an organ was playing think it was being composed in Italy again. The world was a peaceful world, because Opulence, inflated and moderate, had gone out of town: the former to its country-house, or a foreign hotel; the latter to lodgings at the seaside to bathe out of machines and prey on shrimps. The lull that reigned in and about Sapps Court was no doubt a sort of recoil or backwater from other neighbourhoods, with high salaries or real and personal estate, whose dwellings were closed and not being properly ventilated by their caretakers. It reacted on business there, every bit as much as in Oxford Street; and that was how Tapping's the tallow-chandler's—where you got tallow candles and dips, as well as composites; for in those days they still chandled tallow—didn't have a single customer in for ten whole minutes by the clock. In that interval Mrs. Tapping seized the opportunity to come out in the street and breathe the air. So did Mrs. Riley next door, and they stood conversing on the topics of the day, looking at the sunset over the roofs of the cul-de-sac this story has reference to. For Mrs. Tapping's shop was in the main road, opposite to where the embankment operations were in hand.
"Ye never will be tellin' me now, Mrs. Tapping, that ye've not hur-r-rd thim calling 'Fire!' in the sthrate behind? Fy-urr, fy-urr, fy-urr!" This is hard to write as Mrs. Riley spoke it, so great was her command of the letter r.
"Now you name it, Mrs. Riley, deny it I can't. But to the point of taking notice to bear in mind—why no! It was on my ears, but only to be let slip that minute. Small amounts and accommodations frequent, owing to reductions on quantity took, distrack attention. I was a-sayin' to my stepdaughter only the other day that hearin' is one thing and listenin' is another. And she says to me, she says, I was talking like a book, she says. Her very expression and far from respectful! So I says to her, not to be put upon, 'Lethear,' I says, 'books ain't similar all through but to seleck from, and I go accordin'....'" Mrs. Tapping, whose system was always to turn the conversation to some incident in which she had been prominent, might have developed this one further, but Mrs. Riley interrupted her with Celtic naivete.
"D'ye mane to say, me dyurr, that ye can't hearr 'em now? Kape your tongue silent and listen!" A good, full brogue permits speech that would offend in colourless Saxon; and Mrs. Tapping made no protest, but listened. Sure enough the rousing, maddening "Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire!" was on its way at speed somewhere close at hand. It grew and lessened and died. And Mrs. Riley was triumphant. "That's a larrudge fire, shure!" said she, transposing her impression of the enthusiasm of the engine to the area of the conflagration. Cold logic perceives that an engine may be just as keen to pump on a cottage as on a palace, before it knows which. Mrs. Riley had come from Tipperary, and had brought a sympathetic imagination with her, leaving any logic she possessed behind.
A few minutes before the lamplighter passed—saying to the old watchman:—"Goin' to bed, Sam?" and on receiving the reply, "Time enough yet!" rejoining sarcastically:—"Time enough for a quart!"—the labourers at the dyke had recognised the fact that unless new material could be obtained, the pent-up waters would burst the curb and bound, rejoicing to be free, and rush headlong to the nearest drain. All the work would be lost unless a fresh supply could be obtained; the ruling fiction of a new Noachian deluge might prove a deadly reality instead of, as now, a theoretical contingency under conditions which engineering skill might avert. The Sappers and Miners who were roused from their beds to make good a dynamited embankment and block the relentless Thames did not work with a more untiring zeal to baffle a real enemy than did Dave and Dolly to keep out a fictitious one, and hypothetically save Uncle Moses and Aunt M'riar from drowning. But all efforts would be useless if there was to be a shortage of mud.
The faces of our little friends, and their little friends, were earnestness itself as they concentrated on the great work in the glow of the sunset. They had no eyes for its glories. The lamplighter even, dropping jewels as he went, passed them by unheeded. The organ interpreted Donizetti in vain. Despair seemed imminent when Dolly, who, though small, was as keen as the keenest of the diggers, came back after a special effort with no more than the merest handful of gutter-scrapings, saying with a most pathetic wail:—"I tan't det no more!"
Then it was that a great resolve took shape in the heart of Dave. It found utterance in the words:—"Oy wants some of the New Mud the Men spoyded up with their spoyds," and pointed to an ambitious scheme for securing some of the fine rich clay that lay in a tempting heap beyond the wooden bridge across the sewer-trench. The bridge that Dave had never even stood upon, much less crossed!
The daring, reckless courage of the enterprise! Dolly gasped with awe and terror. She was too small to find at a moment's notice any terms in which she could dissuade Dave from so venturesome a project. Besides, her faith in her brother amounted to superstition. Dave must know what was practicable and righteous. Was he not nearly six years old? She stood speechless and motionless, her heart in her mouth as she watched him go furtively across that awful bridge of planks and get nearer and nearer to his prize.
There were lions in his path, as there used to be in the path of knights-errant when they came near the castles of necromancers who held beautiful princesses captive—to say nothing of full-blown dragons and alluring syrens. These lions took in one case, the form of a butcher-boy, who said untruthfully:—"Now, young hobstacle, clear out o' this! Boys ain't allowed on bridges;" and in another that of Michael Ragstroar, who said, "Don't you let the Company see you carryin' off their property. They'll rip you open as soon as look at you. You'll be took afore the Beak." Dave was not yet old enough to see what a very perverted view of legal process these words contained, but his blue eyes looked mistrustfully at the speaker as he watched him pass up the street towards the Wheatsheaf, swinging a yellow jug with ridges round its neck and a full corporation. Michael had been sent to fetch the beer.
If the blue eyes had not remained fixed on that yellow jug and its bearer till both vanished through the swing-door of the Wheatsheaf—if their owner's mistrust of his informant had been strong enough to cancel the misgivings that crossed his baby mind, only a few seconds sooner, would things have gone otherwise with Dave? Would he have used that beautiful lump of clay, as big as a man of his age could carry, on the works that were to avert Noah's flood from Sapps Court? Would he and Dolly not probably have been caught at their escapade by an indignant Aunt M'riar, corrected, duly washed and fed, and sent to bed sadder and wiser babies? So few seconds might have made the whole difference.
Or, if that heap of clay had been thrown on the other side of the trench, on the pavement instead of towards the traffic—why then the children might have taken all they could carry, and Old Sam would have countenanced them, in reason, as like as not. But how little one gains by thinking what might have been! The tale is to tell, and tells that these things were not otherwise, but thus.
* * * * *
Uncle Moses was in the room on the right of the door, called the parlour, smoking a pipe with the old friend whose advice had probably kept him from coming on the parish.
"Aunt M'riar!" said he, tapping his pipe out on the hob, and taking care the ashes didn't get in the inflammable stove-ornament, "I don't hear them young customers outside. What's got 'em?"
"Don't you begin to fret and werrit till I tell you to it, Moses. The children's safe and not in any mischief—no more than usual. Mr. Alibone seen 'em." For although the world called this friend Affability Bob and Uncle Moses gave him his christened name, Aunt M'riar always spoke of him, quite civil-like, thus.
"You see the young nippers, Jerry?" said the old prizefighter; who always got narvous, as you might say, though scarcely alarmed, when they got out of sight and hearing; even if it was for no more time than what an egg takes.
"Jist a step beyond the archway, Mosey," said Mr. Alibone. "Paddlin' and sloppin' about with the water off o' the shore-pump. It's all clean water, Mrs. Catchpole, only for a little clay." Aunt M'riar, whose surname was an intrinsic improbability in the eyes of Public Opinion, and who was scarcely ever called by it, except by Mr. Jerry, expressed doubts. So he continued:—"You see, they're sinking for a new shore clear of the old one. So nothing's been opened into."
"Well," said Aunt M'riar, "I certainly did think the flaviour was being kep' under wonderful. But now you put it so, I understand. What I say is—if dirt, then clean dirt; and above all no chemicals!... What's that you're saying, Uncle Mo?"
"Why, I was a-thinking," said Uncle Moses, who seemed restless, "I was a-thinking, Bob, that you and me might have our pipes outside, being dry underfoot." For Uncle Moses, being gouty, was ill-shod for wet weather. He was slippered, though not lean. And though Mrs. Burr, coming in just then, added her testimony that the children were quite safe and happy, only making a great mess, Uncle Moses would not be content to remain indoors, but must needs be going out. "These here young juveniles," said he, outside in the Court, "where was it you took stock of 'em, did you say?"
"Close to hand," said Affability Bob. "One step out of the archway. There you'll find 'em, old man. Don't you fret your kidneys. They're all right. Hear the engines?"
"Whereabouts is the fire?"
"Somewhere down by Walworth. I saw the smoke, crossing Hungerford Bridge. This engine's coming down our road outside."
"I reckon she may be, by the sound. She'll be half-way to Blackfriars before we're out of this here Court. If she gets by where the road's up! Maybe she'll have to go back."
"There she stops! What's the popilation shoutin' at?" For the tramp of the engine's horses, heard plain enough on the main road, came to an end abruptly, and sounds ensued—men's shouts, women's cries—not reconcilable with the mere stoppage of a fire-engine by unexpected narrows or an irregular coal-cart.
"Couldn't say, I'm sure. They're a nizy lot in these parts." So said Uncle Moses, and walked slowly up the Court, stopping for breath half-way.
WHY THAT ENGINE STOPPED. BUT THE WHEELS HAD NOT GONE OVER DAVE. HOW PETER JACKSON CARRIED HIM AWAY TO THE HOSPITAL. OF DOLLY'S DESPAIR AT THE COLLAPSE OF THE BARRAGE, AND OF AN OLD COCK, NAMED SAM. MRS. TAPPING'S EXPERIENCES, AND HER DAUGHTER, ALETHEA. OF THE VICISSITUDES OF THE PUBLIC, AND ITS AMAZING RECUPERATIVE POWERS. HOW UNCLE MOSES AND MR. ALIBONE WENT TO THE HOSPITAL
So few seconds would have made the whole difference. But so engrossing had Dave found the contemplation of Michael Ragstroar and his yellow jug, so exciting particularly was its disappearance into the swing-door of the Wheatsheaf, that he forgot even the new mud that the men had spaded up with their spades. And these seconds slipped by never to return. Then when Michael had vanished, the little man stooped to secure his cargo. It was slippery and yet tenacious; had been detachable with difficulty from the spade that wrenched it from the virgin soil of its immemorial home, and was now difficult to carry. But Dave grappled bravely with it and turned to go back across the bridge.
A coming whirlwind, surely, in the distance of the street—somewhere now where all the gas-lamps' cold green stars are merged in one—now nearer, nearer still; and with it, bringing folk to doors and windows to see them pass, the war-cry of the men that fight the flames. Charioteers behind blood-horses bathed in foam; heads helmeted in flashing splendour; eyes all intent upon the track ahead, keen to anticipate the risks of headlong speed and warn the dilatory straggler from its path. Nearer and nearer—in a moment it will pass and take some road unknown to us, to say to fires that even now are climbing up through roof and floor, clasping each timber in a sly embrace fatal as the caress of Death itself:—"Thus far shalt thou go and no farther!" Close upon us now, to be stayed with a sudden cry—something in the path! Too late!
Too late, though the strong hand that held the reins brought back the foaming steeds upon their haunches, with startled eyes and quivering nostrils all agape. Too late, though the helmeted men on the engine's flank were down, almost before its swerve had ceased, to drag at every risk from beneath the plunging hoofs the insensible body of the child that had slipped from a clay heap by the roadside, on which it stood to gaze upon the coming wonder, and gone headlong down quite suddenly upon the open road.
You who read this, has it ever fallen to your lot to guide two swift horses at a daring speed through the narrow ways, the ill-driven vehicles, the careless crowds and frequent drunkards of the slum of a great city? If so, you have earned some right to sit in judgment on the fire-engine that ran our little friend down. But you will be the last of all men to condemn that fire-engine.
"Dead, mate?" One of the helmeted men asks this of the other as they escape from the plunging hoofs. They are used to this sort of thing—to every sort of thing.
"Insensible," says the other, who holds in his arms the rescued child, a mere scrap of dust and clay and pallor and a little blood.
A fire-engine calculates its rights to pause in fractions of a minute. The unused portion of twenty seconds the above conversation leaves, serves for a glance round in search of some claimant of the child, or a responsible police-officer to take over the case. Nothing presents itself but Mrs. Tapping, too much upset to be coherent, and not able to identify the child; Mrs. Riley, little better, but asking:—"Did the whales go overr it, thin?" The old man Sam, the watchman, is working round from his half-tent, where he sleeps in the traffic, but cannot possibly negotiate the full extent of trench and bridge for fifty seconds more. Time cannot be lavished waiting for him. The man at the reins, with seeming authority, clinches the matter.
"You stop, Peter Jackson. Hospital! Don't you let the child out of your hands before you get there. Understand?—All clear in front?" Two men, who have taken the horses' heads, to soothe their shaken nerves with slaps and suitable exclamations, now give them back to their owners, leaving them free to rear high once or twice to relieve feeling; while they themselves go back, each to his own place on the engine. A word of remonstrance from the driver about that rearing, and they are off again, the renewed fire-cry scarcely audible in the distance by the time Old Sam gets across the wooden bridge.
To him, as to a responsible person, says Peter Jackson:—"Know where he belongs?"—and to Mrs. Riley, as to one not responsible, but deserving of sympathy:—"No—the wheels haven't been over him."
"Down yonder Court, I take it. Couldn't say for sartin." So says Sam; and Mrs. Tapping discerns with pious fervour the Mercy of God in this occurrence, He not having flattened the child out on the road outright.
But Peter Jackson's question implied no intention to communicate with the little victim's family. To do so would be a clear dereliction of duty; an offence against discipline. He has his instructions, and in pursuance of them strides away to the Hospital without another word, bearing in his arms a light burden so motionless that it is hard to credit it with life. So quickly has the whole thing passed, that the drift of idlers hard on his heels is a fraction of what a couple more minutes would have made it. It will have grown before they reach the Middlesex, short as the distance is. Then a police-sergeant, who joins them half-way, will take notes and probably go to find the child's parents; while Peter Jackson, chagrined at this hitch in his day's fire-eating, will go off Walworth way at the best speed he may, after handing over his charge to an indisputable House-Surgeon.
One can picture to oneself how the whole thing might pass as it did, between the abrupt check of the engine's career, heard by Uncle Moses and his friend, and the two or three minutes later when they emerged through the archway to find Dolly in despair; not from any knowledge of the accident to Dave, for intense preoccupation and a rampart of clay had kept her in happy ignorance of it, but because the water had broken bounds and Noah's flood had come with a vengeance. Questioned as to Dave's whereabouts, she embarked on a lengthy stuttered explanation of how Dave had dode round there—pointing to the clay heap—to det some of the new mud the men had spoyded up with their spoyds. She reproduced his words, of course. Uncle Moses was trying to detect her meaning without much success, when he became aware that the old man in the fur cap who had shouted more than once, "I say, master!" was addressing him.
"Is that old cock singing out to one of we, Jerry?" said Uncle Moses. And then replied to the old cock:—"Say what you've got to say, mate! Come a bit nigher."
Thereupon Old Sam crossed the bridge, slowly, as Uncle Moses moved to meet him. "Might you happen to know anything of this little boy?" said old Sam.
Uncle Moses caught the sound of disaster in his accent, before his words came to an end. "What's the little boy?" said he. "Where have you got him?" And Dolly, startled by the strange sound in her uncle's voice, forgot Noah's flood, and stood dumb and terrified with outstretched muddy hands.
"I may be in the wrong of it, master"—thus Old Sam in his slow way, a trial to impatience—"but maybe this little maid's brother. They've took him across to the Hospital." Old Sam did not like to have to say this. He softened it as much as he could. Do you not see how? Omit the word "across," and see how relentless it makes the message. Do you ask why? Impossible to say—but it does!
Then Uncle Moses shouted out hoarsely, not like himself: "The Hospital—the Hospital—hear that, Bob! Our boy Dave in the Hospital!" and, catching his friend's arm, "Ask him—ask more!" His voice dropped and his breath caught. He was a bad subject for sudden emotions.
"Tell it out, friend—any word that comes first!" says Mr. Alibone. And then Old Sam, tongue-freed, gives the facts as known to him. He ends with:—"Th' young child could never have been there above a minute, all told, before the engine come along, and might have took no warning at twice his age for the vairy sudden coming of it." He dwells upon the shortness of the time Dave had been on the spot as though this minimised the evil. "I shouldn't care to fix the blame, for my own part," says he, shaking his head in venerable refusal of judicial functions not assigned to him so far.
"Is the child killed, man? Say what you know!" Thus Mr. Alibone brusquely. For he has caught a question Uncle Moses just found voice for:—"Killed or not?"
The old watchman is beginning slowly:—"That I would not undertake to say, sir...." when he is cut off short by Mrs. Riley, anxious to attest any pleasant thing, truly if possible; but if otherwise, anyhow!—"Kilt is it? No, shure thin! Insinsible." And then adds an absolutely gratuitous statement from sheer optimism:—"Shure, I hur-r-d thim say so mesilf, and I wouldn't mislade ye, me dyurr. Will I go and till his mother so for ye down the Court? To till her not to alarrum hersilf!"
But by this time Uncle Moses had rallied. The momentary qualm had been purely physical, connected with something that a year since had caused a medical examination of his heart with a stethoscope. He had been too great an adept in the art of rallying after knock-down blows in his youth to go off in a faint over this. He had felt queer, for all that. Still, he declined Mrs. Riley's kindly meant offer. "Maybe I'll make the best job of it myself," said he. "Thanking you very kindly all the same, ma'am!" After which he and his friend vanished back into Sapps Court, deciding as they went that it would be best to persuade Aunt M'riar to remain at home, while they themselves went to the Hospital, to learn the worst. It would never do to leave Dolly alone, or even in charge of neighbours.
Mrs. Riley's optimism lasted till Uncle Moses and Mr. Alibone disappeared, taking with them Dolly, aware of something terrible afoot; too small to understand the truth, whatever it was; panic-stricken and wailing provisionally to be even with the worst. Then, all reason for well-meaning falsehood being at an end, the Irishwoman looked facts in the face with the resolution that never flinches before the mishaps of one's fellow-man, especially when he is a total stranger.
"The power man!" said she. "He'll have sane the last of his little boy alive, only shure one hasn't the harrut to say the worrd. Throubles make thimsilves fast enough without the tilling of thim, and there'll be manes and to spare for the power payple to come to the knowledge without a worrd from you or me, Mrs. Tapping."
Then said Mrs. Tapping, on the watch for an opening through which she could thrust herself into the conversation; as a topic, you understand:—"Now there, Mrs. Riley, you name the very reason why I always stand by like, not to introduce my word. Not but that I will confess to the temptation undergone this very time to say that by God's will the child was took away from us, undeniable. Against that temptation I kep' my lips shut. Only I will say this much, and no concealment, that if my husband had been spared, being now a widow fourteen years, and heard me keep silence many a time, he might have said it again and again, like he said it a hundred times if he said it once when alive and able to it:—'Mary Ann Tapping, you do yourself no justice settin' still and list'nin', with your tongue in your mouth God gave you, and you there to use it!' And I says to Tapping, fifty times if I said it once, 'Tapping,' says I, 'you better know things twiced before you say 'em for every onced you say 'em before you know 'em.' Then Tapping, he says, was that to point at 'Lethear? And I says yes, though the girl was then young and so excusable. But she may learn better, I says, and made allowance though mistaken...." This is just as good a point for Mrs. Tapping to cease at as any other in the story. In reality Heaven only knows when she ceased.
A very miscellaneous public gathered round and formed false ideas of what had happened from misinformants. The most popular erroneous report ran towards connecting it somehow with the sewer-trench, influencing people to look down into its depths and watch for the reappearance of something supposed to be expected back. So much so that more than one inoffensive person asked the man in charge of the pumping engine—which went honourably on without a pause—whether "it" was down there. He was a morose and embittered man—had been crossed in love, perhaps—for he met all inquiries by another:—"Who are you a-speaking to?" and, on being told, added:—"Then why couldn't you say so?" Humble apology had then to be content with, "No, it ain't down there and never has been, if you ask me,"—in answer to the previous question.
Old Sam endeavoured more than once to point out that the accident need not necessarily end fatally. He invented tales of goods-trains that had passed over him early in life, and the surgical skill that had left him whole and sound. Trains were really unknown in his boyhood, but there was no one to contradict him. The public, stimulated to hopefulness, produced analogous experiences. It had had a hay-cart over it, with a harvest-home on the top, such as we see in pictures. It had had the Bangor coach over it, going down hill, and got caught in the skid. It had been under an artillery corps and field-guns at a gallop, when the Queen revoo'd the troops in Hyde Park. And look at it now! Horse-kicks and wheel-crushing really had a bracing tendency; gave the constitution tone, and seldom left any ill effects.
Only their consequences must be took in time. Well!—hadn't the child gone to the Hospital? Dissentients who endeavoured to suggest that broken bones and dislocations were unknown before the invention of surgeons, were rebuked by the citation of instances of neglected compound fractures whose crippled owners became athletes after their bones had been scientifically reset, having previously been rebroken in the largest number of places the narrator thought he could get credence for. Hope told her flattering tale very quickly, for when Dave's uncle and Jerry Alibone reappeared on their way to find the truth at the Hospital, her hearers were ready with encouragement, whether they knew anything about the matter or not. "I don't believe they do," said Uncle Moses, and Mr. Alibone replied—"Not they, bless your heart!" But it was refreshing for all that.
They met the police-sergeant on the way, coming from the Hospital to bring the report and make inquiry about the child's belongings. They credited him with superhuman insight when he addressed them with:—"Either of you the father of a child knocked down by Fire-engine 67A in this street—taken into accident ward?" He spoke just as though Engine 68B had knocked another child down in the next street, and so on all over London.
But his sharpness was merely human. For scarcely a soul had passed but paused to look round after them, wondering at the set jaw and pallid face of the huge man who limped on a stick, seeming put to it to keep the speed. Uncle Moses, you see, was a fine man in his own way of the prizefighter type; and now, in his old age, worked out a little like Dr. Samuel Johnson.
The report, as originally received by the police-officer, was that the child was not killed but still unconscious. A good string of injuries were credited to the poor little man, including a dislocated femur and concussion of the brain. Quite enough, alone!—for the patient, his friends and relations. The House-Surgeon, speaking professionally, spoke also hopefully of undetected complications in the background. We might pull him through for all that. This report was materially softened for the child's family. Better not say too much to the parents at present, either way!
HOW UNCLE MO AND HIS FRIEND COULD NOT GET MUCH ENCOURAGEMENT. DOLLY'S ATTITUDE. ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, AND DOLLY'S PUDDING. HOW UNCLE MO'S SPIRITS WENT DOWN INTO HIS BOOTS. HOW PETER JACKSON THE FIREMAN INTERVIEWED MICHAEL RAGSTROAR, UPSIDE DOWN, AND BROUGHT AUNT M'RIAR'S HEART INTO HER MOUTH. HOW DAVE CAME HOME IN A CAB, AND MICHAEL RAGSTROAR GOT A RIDE FOR NOTHING. OF SISTER NORA, WHO GOT ON THE COURT'S VISITING LIST BEFORE IT CAME OUT THAT SHE WAS MIXED UP WITH ARISTOCRATS
The present writer, half a century since—he was then neither we nor a writer—trod upon a tiny sapling in the garden of the house then occupied by his kith and kin. It was broken off an inch from the ground, and he distinctly remembers living a disgraced life thereafter because of the beautiful tree that sapling might have become but for his inconsiderate awkwardness. If the censorious spirit that he aroused could have foreseen the tree that was to grow from the forgotten residuum of the accident, the root that it left in the ground, it would not perhaps have passed such a sweeping judgment. Any chance wayfarer in St. John's Wood may see that tree now—from the end of the street, for that matter.
So perhaps the old prizefighter might have mustered more hope in response to Aunt M'riar's plucky rally against despair. The tiny, white, motionless figure on the bed in the accident ward, that had uttered no sound since he saw it on first arriving at the Hospital, might have been destined to become that of a young engineer on a Dreadnought, or an unfledged dragoon, for any authenticated standard of Impossibility.
The House-Surgeon and his Senior, one of the heads of the Institution,—interviewed by Uncle Moses and Aunt M'riar when they came late by special permission and appointment, hoping to hear the child's voice once more, and found him still insensible and white—testified that the action of the heart was good. The little man had no intention of dying if he could live. But both his medical attendants knew that the tremulous inquiry whether there was any hope of a recovery—within a reasonable time understood, of course—was really a petition for a favourable verdict at any cost. And they could not give one, for all they would have been glad to do so. They have to damn so many hopes in a day's work, these Accident Warders!
"It's no use asking us," said they, somehow conjointly. "There's not a surgeon in all England that could tell you whether it will be life or death. We can only say the patient is making a good fight for it." They seemed very much interested in the case, though, and in the queer old broken-hearted giant that sobbed over the half-killed baby that could not hear nor answer, speak to it as he might.
"What did you say your name was?" said the Senior Surgeon to Uncle Moses.
"Moses Wardle of Hanley, called the Linnet. Ye see, I was a Member of the Prize Ring, many years. Fighting Man, you might say."
"I had an idea I knew the name, too. When I was a youngster thirty odd years ago I took an interest in that sort of thing. You fought Bob Brettle, and the umpires couldn't agree."
"That was it, master. Well, I had many a turn up—turn up and turn down, either way as might be. But I had a good name. I never sold a backer. I did my best by them that put their money on me." For the moneychanger, the wagermonger, creeps in and degrades the noble science of damaging one's fellow-man effectively; even as in old years he brought discredit on cock-fighting, in which at least—you cannot deny it—the bird cuts a better figure than he does in his native farmyard.
"Come round after twelve to-morrow, and we may know more," said the House-Surgeon. "It's not regular—but ask for me." And then the older Surgeon shook Uncle Moses by the hand, quite respectful-like—so Mr. Jerry said to Aunt M'riar later—and the two went back, sad and discouraged, to Sapps Court.
What made it all harder to bear was the difficulty of dealing with Dolly. Dolly knew, of course, that Dave had been took to the Horsetickle—that was the nearest she could get to the word, after frequent repetitions—and that he was to be made well, humanly speaking, past a doubt. The little maid had to be content with assurances to this effect, inserting into the treaty a stipulation as to time.
"Dave's doin' to tum home after dinner," said she, when that meal seemed near at hand. And Uncle Moses never had the heart to say no.
Then when no Dave had come, and Dolly had wept for him in vain, and a cloth laid announced supper, Dolly said—moved only by that landmark of passing time—"Dave is a-doin' to tum home after supper; he is a-doin', Uncle Mo, he is a-doin'!" And what could her aunt and uncle do but renew the bill, as it were; the promise to pay that could only be fulfilled by the production of Dave, whole and sound.
She refused food except on condition that an exactly similar helping should be conveyed to Dave in the Horsetickle. She withdrew the condition that Uncle Moses and herself should forthwith convey Dave's share of the repast to him, in consideration of a verbal guarantee that little girls were not allowed in such Institutions. Why she accepted this so readily is a mystery. Possibly the common form of instruction to little girls, dwelling on their exclusion by statute or usage from advantages enjoyed by little boys, may have had its weight. Little girls, exempli gratia, may not lie on their backs and kick their legs up. Little boys are at liberty to do so, subject to unimportant reservations, limiting the area at their disposal for the practice. It is needless—and might be thought indelicate—to instance the numerous expressions that no little girl should use under any circumstances, which are regarded as venial sin in little boys, except of course on Sunday. Society does not absolutely countenance the practices of spitting and sniffing in little boys, but it closes its eyes and passes hypocritically by on the other side of the road; while, on the other hand, little girls indulging in these vices would either be cast out into the wilderness, or have to accept the role of penitent Magdalens. Therefore when Dolly was told that little girls were not allowed in Hospitals, it may only have presented itself to her as another item in a code of limitations already familiar.
The adhibition in visible form of a pendant to her own allowance of pudding or bread-and-milk, to be carried to the Horsetickle by Uncle Moses on his next visit, had a sedative effect, and she was contented with it, without insisting on seeing the pledge carried out. Her imagination was satisfied, as a child's usually is, with any objective transaction. Moreover, a dexterous manipulation of the position improved matters. The portion allotted to Dave was removed, ostensibly to keep it warm for him, but reproduced to do duty as a second helping for Dolly. Of course, it had to be halved again for Dave's sake, and an ancient puzzle solved itself in practice. The third halving was not worth sending to the Hospital. Even so a step too small to take was left for Achilles when the tortoise had only just started. "Solvitur ambulando," said Philosophy, and a priori reasoning took a back place.
Her constant inquiries about the date of Dave's cure and return were an added and grievous pain to her aunt and uncle. It was easy for the moment to procrastinate, but how if the time should come for telling her that Dave would never come back—no, never?
But the time was not to come yet. For a few days Life showed indecision, and Uncle Mo and Aunt M'riar had a thumping heart apiece each time they stood by the little, still, white figure on the bed and thought the breath was surely gone. They were allowed in the ward every day, contrary to visitor-rule, apparently because of Uncle Mo's professional eminence in years gone by—an odd reason when one thinks of it! It was along of that good gentleman, God bless him!—said Aunt M'riar—that knew Uncle Mo's name in the Ring. In fact, the good gentleman had said to the House-Surgeon in private converse: "You see, there's no doubt the old chap ended sixteen rounds with Brettle in a draw, and Jem Mace had a near touch with Brettle. No, no—we must let him see the case day by day." So Uncle Mo saw the case each day, and each day went away to transact such business with Hope as might be practicable. And each day, on his return, there was a voice heard in Sapps Court, Dolly weeping for her elder brother, and would not be comforted. "Oo did said oo would fess Dave back from the Horsetickle, oo know oo did, Uncle Mo"; and similar reproaches, mixed themselves with her sobs. But for many days she got no consolation beyond assurance that Dave would come to-morrow, discharged cured.
Then, one windy morning, a punctual equinoctial gale, gathering up its energies to keep inoffensive persons awake all night and, if possible, knock some chimney-stacks down, blew Uncle Mo's pipelight out, and caused him to make use of an expression. And Aunt M'riar reproved that expression, saying:—"Not with that blessed boy lying there in the Hospital should you say such language, Moses, more like profane swearing, I call it, than a Christian household."
"He's an old Heathen, ma'am, is Moses," said Mr. Alibone, who was succeeding in lighting his own pipe, in spite of the wind in at the street door. Because, as we have seen, in this Court—unlike the Courts of Law or Her Majesty's Court of St. James's—the kitchens opened right on the street. Not but what, for all that, there was the number where you would expect, on a shiny boss you could rub clean and give an appearance. Aunt M'riar said so, and must have known.
Uncle Moses shook his head gravely over his own delinquency, as if he truly felt it just as much as anybody. But when he got his pipe lighted, instead of being cheerful and making the most of what the doctor had said that very day, his spirits went down into his boots, which was a way they had.
"'Tain't any good to make believe," said he. "Supposin' our boy never comes back, M'riar!"
"There, now!" said Aunt M'riar. "To hear you talk, Mo, wouldn't anybody think! And after what Dr. Prime said only this afternoon! I should be ashamed."
"What was it Dr. Prime said, Mo?" asked Mr. Alibone, quite cheerful-like. "Tell us again, old man." For you see, Uncle Moses he'd brought back quite an encouraging report, whatever anyone see fit to say, when he come back from the Hospital. Dr. Prime was the House-Surgeon.
"I don't take much account of him," said Uncle Mo. "A well-meanin' man, but too easy by half. One o' your good-natured beggars. Says a thing to stuff you up like! For all I could see, my boy was as white as that bit of trimmin' in your hand, M'riar."
"But won't you tell us what the doctor said, Mo?" said Mr. Alibone. "I haven't above half heard the evening's noose." He'd just come in to put a little heart into Moses.
"Said the little child had a better colour. But I don't set any store by that." And then what does Uncle Moses do but reg'lar give away and go off sobbing like a baby. "Oh, M'riar, M'riar, we shall never have our boy back—no, never!"
And then Aunt M'riar, who was a good woman if ever Mr. Alibone come across one—this is what that gentleman could and did tell a friend after, incorporated verbatim in the text—she up and she says:—"For shame of yourself, Mo, for to go and forget yourself like that before Mr. Alibone! I tell you I believe we shall have the boy back in a week, all along o' what Dr. Prime said." On which, and a further representation that he would wake Dolly if he went on like that, Uncle Mo he pulled himself together and smoked quiet. Whereupon Aunt M'riar dwelt upon the depressing effect a high wind in autumn has on the spirits, with the singular result referred to above, of their retractation into their owner's boots, like quicksilver in a thermometer discouraged by the cold. After which professional experience was allowed some weight, and calmer counsels prevailed.
About this time an individual in a sort of undress uniform, beginning at the top in an equivocal Tam-o'-Shanter hat, sauntered into the cul-de-sac to which Sapps Court was an appendix. He appeared to be unconcerned in human affairs, and indeed independent of Time, Space, and Circumstance. He addressed a creature that was hanging upside down on some railings, apparently by choice.