THE FORTUNATE YOUTH
WILLIAM J. LOCKE
PAUL KEGWORTHY lived with his mother, Mrs. Button, his stepfather, Mr. Button, and six little Buttons, his half brothers and sisters. His was not an ideal home; it consisted in a bedroom, a kitchen and a scullery in a grimy little house in a grimy street made up of rows of exactly similar grimy little houses, and forming one of a hundred similar streets in a northern manufacturing town. Mr. and Mrs. Button worked in a factory and took in as lodgers grimy single men who also worked in factories. They were not a model couple; they were rather, in fact, the scandal of Budge Street, which did not itself enjoy, in Bludston, a reputation for holiness. Neither was good to look upon. Mr. Button, who was Lancashire bred and born, divided the yearnings of his spirit between strong drink and dog-fights. Mrs. Button, a viperous Londoner, yearned for noise. When Mr. Button came home drunk he punched his wife about the head and kicked her about the body, while they both exhausted the vocabulary of vituperation of North and South, to the horror and edification of the neighbourhood. When Mr. Button was sober Mrs. Button chastised little Paul. She would have done so when Mr. Button was drunk, but she had not the time. The periods, therefore, of his mother's martyrdom were those of Paul's enfranchisement. If he saw his stepfather come down the street with steady gait, he fled in terror; if he saw him reeling homeward he lingered about with light and joyous heart.
The brood of young Buttons was fed spasmodically and clad at random, but their meals were regular and their raiment well assorted compared with Paul's. Naturally they came in for clouts and thumps like all the children in Budge Street; it was only Paul who underwent organized chastisement. The little Buttons often did wrong; but in the mother's eyes Paul could never do right. In an animal way she was fond of the children of Button, and in a way equally animal she bore a venomous dislike to the child of Keg-worthy. Who and what Kegworthy had been neither Paul nor any inhabitant of Bludston knew. Once the boy inquired, and she broke a worn frying-pan over his head. Kegworthy, whoever he might have been, was wrapt in mystery. She had appeared in the town when Paul was a year old, giving herself out as a widow. That she was by no means destitute was obvious from the fact that she at once rented the house in Budge Street, took in lodgers, and lived at her ease. Button, who was one of the lodgers, cast upon her the eyes of desire and married her. Why she married Button she could never determine. Perhaps she had a romantic idea—and there is romance even in Budge Street-that Button would support her. He very soon shattered any such illusion by appropriating the remainder of her fortune and kicking her into the factory with hobnailed boots. It would be wrong to say that Mrs. Button did not complain; she did. She tent the air of Budge Street with horrible execration; but she went to the factory, where, save for the intervals of retirement rendered necessary by the births of the little Buttons, she was contented enough to stay.
If Paul Kegworthy had been of the same fibre as the little Buttons, he would have felt, thought and acted as they, and this history would never have been written. He would have grown up to man's estate in the factory and have been merged an indistinguishable unit in the drab mass of cloth-capped humans who, at certain hours of the day, flood the streets of Bludston, and swarm on the roofs of clanging and shrieking tramcars, and on Saturday afternoons gather in clotted greyness on the football ground. He might have been sober and industrious-the proletariat of Bludston is not entirely composed of Buttons-but he would have taken the colour of his environment, and the world outside Bludston would never have heard of him. Paul, however, differed greatly from the little Buttons. They, children of the grey cap and the red shawl, resembled hundreds of thousands of little human rabbits similarly parented. Only the trained eye could have identified them among a score or two of their congeners. For the most part, they were dingily fair, with snub noses, coarse mouths, and eyes of an indeterminate blue. Of that type, once blowsily good-looking, was Mrs. Button herself. But Paul wandered a changeling about the Bludston streets. In the rows of urchins in the crowded Board School classroom he sat as conspicuous as any little Martian who might have been bundled down to earth. He had wavy black hair, of raven black, a dark olive complexion, flushed, in spite of haphazard nourishment and nights spent on the stone floor of the reeking scullery, with the warm blood of health, great liquid black eyes, and the exquisitely delicate features of a young Praxitelean god. It was this preposterous perfection which, while redeeming him from ridiculous beauty by giving his childish face a certain rigidity, differentiated him outwardly from his fellows. Mr. Button, to whom the unusual was anathema, declared that the sight of the monstrosity made him sick, and rarely suffered him in his presence; and one day Mrs. Button, discovering him in front of the cracked mirror in which Mr. Button shaved, when his hand was steady enough, on Sunday afternoons, smote him over the face with a pound of rump steak which she happened to be carrying, instinctively desirous not only to correct her son for vanity, but also to spoil the comeliness of which he might be vain.
Until a wonderful and illuminating happening in his eleventh year, little Paul Kegworthy had taken existence with the fatalism of a child. Of his stepfather, who smelt lustily of sour beer, bad tobacco and incidentally of other things undetected by Paul's nostrils, and whom he saw rarely, he dwelt in mortal terror. When he heard of the Devil, at Sunday school, which he attended, to his stepfather's disgust, he pictured the Prince of Darkness not as a gentleman, not even as a picturesque personage with horns and tail, but as Mr. Button. As regards his mother, he had a confused idea that he was a living blight on her existence. He was not sorry, because it was not his fault, but in his childish way he coldly excused her, and, more from a queer consciousness of blighterdom than from dread of her hand and tongue, he avoided her as much as possible. In the little Buttons his experience as scapegoat taught him to take but little interest. From his earliest memories they were the first to be fed, clothed and bedded; to his own share fell the exiguous scraps. As they were much younger than himself, he found no pleasure in their companionship. For society he sought such of the youth of Budge Street as would admit him into their raucous fellowship. But, for some reason which his immature mind could not fathom, he felt a pariah even among his coevals. He could run as fast as Billy Goodge, the undisputed leader of the gang; he could dribble the rag football past him any time he desired; once he had sent him home to his mother with a bleeding nose, and, even in that hour of triumph, popular sympathy had been with Billy, not with him. It was the only problem in existence to which his fatalism did not supply the key. He knew himself to be a better man than Billy Goodge. There was no doubt about it. At school, where Billy was the woodenest blockhead, he was top of his class. He knew things about troy weight and geography and Isaac and the Mariners of England of which Billy did not dream. To Billy the football news in the Saturday afternoon edition of The Bludston Herald was a cryptogram; to him it was an open book. He would stand, acknowledged scholar, at the street corner and read out from the soiled copy retrieved by Chunky, the newsboy, the enthralling story of the football day, never stumbling over a syllable, athrill with the joy of being the umbilicus of a tense world, and, when the recital was over, he would have the mortification of seeing the throng pass away from him with the remorselessness of a cloud scudding from the moon. And he would hear Billy Goodge say exultantly:
"Didn't Aw tell yo' the Wolves hadn't a dog's chance?"
And he would see the admiring gang slap Billy on the back, and hear "Good owd Billy!" and never a word of thanks to him. Then, knowing Billy to be a liar, he would tell him so, yelping shrilly, in Buttonesque vernacular (North and South):
"This morning tha said it was five to one on Sheffield United."
"Listen to Susie!"
The parasitic urchins would yell at the witticism—the eternal petitio principii of childhood, which Billy, secure in his cohort from bloody nose, felt justified in making. And Paul Kegworthy, the rag of a newspaper crumpled tight in his little hand, would watch them disappear and wonder at the paradox of life. In any sphere of human effort, so he dimly and childishly realized, he could wipe out Billy Goodge. He had a soul-reaching contempt for Billy Goodge, a passionate envy of him. Why did Billy hold his position instead of crumbling into dust before him? Assuredly he was a better man than Billy. When, Billy duce et auspice Billy, the gang played at pirates or Red Indians, it was pitiful to watch their ignorant endeavours. Paul, deeply read in the subject, gave them chapter and verse for his suggestions. But they heeded him so little that he would turn away contemptuously, disdaining the travesty of the noble game, and dream of a gang of brighter spirits whom he could lead to glory. Paul had many such dreams wherewith he sought to cheat the realities of existence: but until the Great Happening the dream was not better than the drink: after it came the Vision Splendid.
The wonderful thing happened all because Maisie Shepherd, a slip of a girl of nineteen, staying at St. Luke's Vicarage, spilled a bottle of scent over her f rock.
It was the morning of the St. Luke's annual Sunday-school treat. The waggonette was at the vicarage door. The vicar and his wife and daughter waited fussily for Maisie, an unpunctual damsel. The vicar looked at his watch. They were three minutes late, He tut-tutted impatiently. The vicar's daughter ran indoors in search of Maisie and pounced upon her as she sat on the edge of the bed in the act of perfuming a handkerchief. The shock caused the bottle to slip mouth downward from her hand and empty the contents into her lap. She cried out in dismay.
"Never mind," said the vicar's daughter. "Come along. Dad and mother are prancing about downstairs."
"But I must change my dress!"
"You've no time."
"I'm wet through. This is the strongest scent known. It's twenty-six shillings a bottle, and one little drop is enough. I shall be a walking pestilence."
The vicar's daughter laughed heartlessly. "You do smell strong. But you'll disinfect Bludston, and that will be a good thing." Whereupon she dragged the tearful and redolent damsel from the room.
In the hard-featured yard of the schoolhouse the children were assembled-the girls on one side, the boys on the other. Curates and teachers hovered about the intervening space. Almost every child wore its Sunday best. Even the shabbiest little girls had a clean white pinafore to hide deficiencies beneath, and the untidiest little boy showed a scrubbed face. The majority of the boys wore clean collars; some grinned over gaudy neckties. The only one who appeared in his week-day grime and tatterdemalion outfit was little Paul Kegworthy. He had not changed his clothes, because he had no others; and he had not washed his face, because it had not occurred to him to do so. Moreover, Mrs. Button had made no attempt to improve his forlorn aspect, for the simple reason that she had never heard of the Sunday-school treat. It was part of Paul's philosophy to dispense, as far as he could, with parental control. On Sunday afternoons the little Buttons played in the streets, where Paul, had he so chosen, might have played also: but he put himself, so to speak, to Sunday school, where, besides learning lots of queer things about God and Jesus Christ which interested him keenly, he could shine above his fellows by recitations of collects and bits of Catechism, which did not interest him at all. Then he won scores of good-conduct cards, gaudy treasures, with pictures of Daniel in the Lions' Den and the Marriage of Cana and such like, which he secreted preciously beneath a loose slab in the scullery floor. He did not show them to his mother, knowing that she would tear them up and bang him over the head; and for similar reasons he refrained from telling her of the Sunday-school treat. If she came to hear of it, as possibly she would through one of the little Buttons, who might pick up the news in the street, he would be soundly beaten. But there was a chance of her not hearing, and he desired to be no more of a blight than he could help. So Paul, vagabond and self-reliant from his babyhood, turned up at the Sunday-school treat, hatless and coatless, his dirty little toes visible through the holes in his boots, and his shapeless and tattered breeches secured to his person by a single brace. The better-dressed urchins moved away from him and made rude remarks, after the generous manner of their kind; but Paul did not care. Pariahdom was his accustomed portion. He was there for his own pleasure. They were going to ride in a train. They were going to have a wonderful afternoon in a nobleman's park, a place all grass and trees, elusive to the imagination. There was a stupefying prospect of wondrous things in profusion to eat and drink-jam, ginger-beer, cake! So rumour had it; and to unsophisticated Paul rumour was gospel truth. With all these unexperienced joys before him, what cared he for the blankety little blanks who gibed at him? If you imagine that little Paul Kegworthy formulated his thoughts as would the angel choir-boy in the pictures, you are mistaken. The baby language of Bludston would petrify the foc'sle of a tramp, steamer. The North of England is justly proud of its virility.
The Sunday school, marshalled by curates and teachers, awaited the party from the vicarage. The thick and darkened sunshine of Bludston flooded the asphalt of the yard, which sent up a reek of heat, causing curates to fan themselves with their black straw hats, and little boys in clean collars to wriggle in sticky discomfort, while in the still air above the ignoble town hung the heavy pall of smoke. Presently there was the sound of wheels and the sight of the head of the vicar's coachman above the coping of the schoolyard wall. Then the gates opened and the vicar and his wife and Miss Merewether, her daughter, and Maisie Shepherd appeared and were immediately greeted by curates and teachers.
Maisie Shepherd, a stranger in a strange land, pretty, pink, blushing, hatefully self-conscious, detached herself, after a minute or two, from the group and looked with timid curiosity on the children. She was a London girl, her head still dancing with the delights of her first season, and she had never been to a Sunday-school treat in her life. Madge Merewether, her old schoolfellow, had told her she was to help amuse the little girls. Heaven knew how she was to do it. Already the unintelligibility of Lancashire speech had filled her with dismay. The array of hard-faced little girls daunted her; she turned to the boys, but she only saw one—the little hatless, coatless scarecrow with the perfect features And arresting grace, who stood out among his smug companions with the singularly vivid incongruity of a Greek Hermes in the central hall of Madame Tussaud's waxwork exhibition. Fascinated, she strayed down the line toward him. She halted, looked for a second or two into a pair of liquid black eyes and then blushed in agonized shyness. She stared at the beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy stared at her, and not a word could she find in her head to speak. She turned abruptly and moved away. The boy broke rank and slowly followed her.
For little Paul Kegworthy the heavens had opened and flooded his senses, till he nearly fainted, with the perfume of celestial lands. The intoxicating sweetness of it bewildered his young brain. It was nothing delicate, evanescent, like the smell of a flower. It as thick, pungent, cloying, compelling. Mouth agape and nostril wide, he followed the exquisite source of the emanation like one in a dream, half across the yard. A curate laughingly and unsuspectingly brought him back to earth by laying hands on him and bundling him back into his place. There he remained, being a docile urchin; but his eyes remained fixed on Maisie Shepherd. She was only a rosebud beauty of an English girl, her beauty heightened by the colour of distress, but to Paul the radiance of her person almost rivalled the wonder of her perfume. It was his first meeting of a goddess face to face, and he surrendered his whole being in adoration.
In a few minutes the children were marched through the squalid streets, a strident band, to the dingy railway station, a grimy proletariat third-class railway station in which the sign "First Class Waiting Room" glared an outrage and a mockery, and were marshalled into the waiting train. The wonderful experience of which Paul had dreamed for weeks—he had never ridden in a train before—began; and soon the murky environs of the town were left behind and the train sped through the open country.
His companions in the railway carriage crowded at the windows, fighting vigorously for right of place; but Paul sat alone in the middle of the seat, unmoved by the new sensation and speed, and by the glimpses of blue sky and waving trees above the others' heads. The glory of the day was blotted out until he should see and smell the goddess again. At the wayside station where they descended he saw her in the distance, and the glory came once more. She caught his eye, smiled and nodded. He felt a queer thrill run through him. He had been singled out from among all the boys. He alone knew her.
Brakes took them from the station down a country road and, after a mile or so, through stone gates of a stately park, where wonder after wonder was set out before Paul's unaccustomed eyes. On either side of this roadway stretched rolling grass with clumps and glades of great trees in their July bravery—more trees than Paul imagined could be in the world. There were sunlit upland patches and cool dells of shade carpeted with golden buttercups, where cattle fed lazily. Once a herd of fallow deer browsing by the wayside scuttled away at the noisy approach of the brakes. Only afterward did Paul learn their name and nature: to him then they were mythical beasts of fairyland. Once also the long pile-of the Tudor house came into view, flashing-white in the sunshine. The teacher in charge of the brake explained that it was the Marquis of Chudley's residence. It was more beautiful than anything Paul had ever seen; it was bigger than many churches put together; the word "Palace" came into his head—it transcended all his preconceived ideas of palaces: yet in such a palace only could dwell the radiant and sweet-smelling lady of his dream. The certainty gave him a curious satisfaction.
They arrived at the spot where the marquees were erected, and at once began the traditional routine of the school treat-games for the girls, manlier sports for the boys. Lord Chudley, patron of the living of St. Luke's, Bludston, and Lord Bountiful of the feast, had provided swing-boats and a merry-go-round which discoursed infernal music to enraptured ears. Paul stood aloof for a while from these delights, his eye on the section of the girls among whom his goddess moved. As soon as she became detached and he could approach her without attracting notice, he crept within the magic circle of the scent and lay down prone, drinking in its intoxication, and, as she moved, he wriggled toward her on his stomach like a young snake.
After a time she came near him. "Why aren't you playing with the other boys?" she asked.
Paul sat on his heels. "Dunno, miss," he said shyly.
She glanced at his rapscallion attire, blushed, and blamed herself for the tactless question. "This is a beautiful place, isn't it?"
"It's heavenly," said Paul, with his eyes on her.
"One scarcely wants to do anything but just-just-well, be here." She smiled.
He nodded and said, "Ay!" Then he grew bolder. "I like being alone," he declared defiantly.
"Then I'll leave you," she laughed.
The blood flushed deep under his unwashed olive skin, and he leaped to his feet. "Aw didn't mean that!" he protested hotly. "It wur them other boys."
She was touched by his beauty and quick sensitiveness. "I was only teasing. I'm sure you like being with me."
Paul had never heard such exquisite tones from human lips. To his ears, accustomed to the harsh Lancashire burr, her low, accentless voice was music. So another of his senses was caught in the enchantment.
"Yo' speak so pretty," said he.
At that moment a spruce but perspiring young teacher came up. "We're going to have some boys' races, miss, and we want the ladies to look on. His lordship has offered prizes. The first is a boys' race-under eleven."
"You can join in that, anyhow," she said to Paul. "Go along and let me see you win."
Paul scudded off, his heart aflame, his hand, as he ran, tucking in the shirt whose evasion from the breeches was beyond the control of the single brace. Besides, crawling on your stomach is dislocating even to the most neatly secured attire. But his action was mechanical. His thoughts were with his goddess. In his inarticulate mind he knew himself to be her champion. He sped under her consecration. He knew he could run. He could run like a young deer. Though despised, could he not outrun any of the youth in Budge Street? He took his place in the line of competing children. Far away in the grassy distance were two men holding a stretched string. On one side of him was a tubby boy with a freckled face and an amorphous nose on which the perspiration beaded; on the other a lank, consumptive creature, in Eton collar and red tie and a sprig of sweet William in his buttonhole, a very superior person. Neither of them desired his propinquity. They tried to hustle him from the line. But Paul, born Ishmael, had his hand against them. The fat boy, smitten beneath the belt, doubled up in pain and the consumptive person rubbed agonized shins. A curate, walking down repressing bulges and levelling up concavities, ordained order. The line stood tense. Away beyond, toward the goal, appeared a white mass, which Paul knew to be the ladies in their summer dresses; and among them, though he could not distinguish her, was she in whose eyes he was to win glory. The prize did not matter. It was for her that he was running. In his childish mind he felt passionately identified with her. He was her champion.
The word was given. The urchins started. Paul, his little elbows squared behind him and his eyes fixed vacantly in space, ran with his soul in the toes that protruded through the ragged old boots. He knew not who was in front or who was behind. It was the madness of battle. He ran and ran, until somebody put his arms round him and stopped him.
"Steady on, my boy-steady on!"
Paul looked round in a dazed way. "Have A' won th' race?"
"I'm afraid not, my lad."
With a great effort he screwed his mind to another question. "Wheer did A' coom in?"
"About sixth, but you ran awfully well."
Sixth! He had come in sixth! Sky and grass and trees and white mass of ladies (among whom was the goddess) and unconsiderable men and boys became a shimmering blur. He seemed to stagger away, stagger miles away, until, finding himself quite alone, he threw himself down under a beech tree, and, after a few moments' vivid realization of what had happened, sobbed out the agony of his little soul's despair. Sixth! He had come in sixth! He had failed miserably in his championship. How she must despise him—she who had sent him forth to victory! And yet how 'had it been possible? How had it been possible that other boys could beat him? He was he. An indomitable personage. Some hideous injustice guided human affairs. Why shouldn't he have won? He could not tell. But he had not won. She had sent him forth to win. He had lost. He had come in a sickening sixth. The disgrace devastated him.
Maisie Shepherd, interested in her child champion, sought him out and easily found him under the beech tree. "Why, what is the matter?"
As he did not answer, she knelt by his side and put her hand on his lean shoulder. "Tell me what has happened."
Again the celestial fragrance overspread his senses. He checked his sobs and wiped his eyes with the back of his grubby hand. "Aw didn't win," he moaned.
"Poor little chap," she said comfortingly. "Did you want to win so very much?"
He got up and stared at her. "Yo' told me to win."
"So you ran for me?"
She rose to her feet and looked down upon him, somewhat overwhelmed by her responsibility. So in ancient days might a fair maiden have regarded her knight who underwent entirely unnecessary batterings for her sake. "Then for me you've won," she said. "I wish I could give you a prize."
But what in the nature of a prize for a gutter imp of eleven does a pocketless young woman attired for the serious business of a school treat carry upon her person? She laughed in pretty embarrassment. "If I gave you something quite useless, what would you do with it?"
"I 'u'd hide it safe, so 'ut nobody should see it," said Paul, thinking of his precious cards.
"Wouldn't you show it to anybody?"
"By Gum!—" he checked himself suddenly. Such, he had learned, was not Sunday-school language. "I wouldno' show it to a dog," said he.
Maisie Shepherd, aware of romantic foolishness, slipped a cornelian heart from a thin gold chain round her neck. "It's all I can give you for a prize, if you will have it."
If he would have it? The Koh-i-Noor' in his clutch (and a knowledge of its value) could not have given him more thrilling rapture. He was speechless with amazement; Maisie, thrilled too, realized that a word spoken would have rung false. The boy gloated over his treasure; but she did not know—how could she?—what it meant to him. To Paul the bauble was a bit of the warm wonder that was she.
"How are you going to keep it?" she asked.
He hoicked a bit of his shirt-tail from his breeches and proceeded to knot the cornelian heart secure therein. Maisie fled rapidly on the verge of hysterics, After that the school treat had but one meaning for Paul. He fed, it is true, in Pantagruelian fashion on luscious viands, transcending his imagination of those which lay behind Blinks the confectioner's window in Bludston: there he succumbed to the animal; but the sports, the swing-boats, the merry-go-round, offered no temptation. He hovered around Maisie Shepherd like a little dog-quite content to keep her in sight. And every two or three minutes he fumbled about his breeches to see that the knotted treasure was safe.
The day sank into late afternoon. The children had been fed. The weary elders had their tea. The vicarage party took a few moments' rest in the shade of a clump of firs some distance away from the marquee. Behind the screen lay Paul, his eyes on his goddess, his heels in the air, a buttercup-stalk between his teeth. He felt the comforting knot beneath his thigh. For the first time, perhaps, in his life, he knew utter happiness. He heard the talk, but did not listen. Suddenly, however, the sound of his own name caused him to prick his ears. Paul Kegworthy! They were talking about him. There could be no mistake. He slithered a foot or two nearer.
"No matter whether his people are drunkards or murderers," said the beloved voice, "he is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. Have you ever spoken to him, Winifred?"
"No," said the vicar's daughter. "Of course I've noticed him. Every one does-he is remarkable."
"I don't believe he's a child of these people at all," Maisie declared. "He's of a different clay. He's as sensitive as-as a sensitive plant. You ought to keep your eye on him, Mr. Merewether. I believe he's a poor little prince in a fairy tale."
"A freak—a lusus naturae" said the vicar.
Paul did not know what a lusus naturae was, but it sounded mighty grand.
"He's a fairy prince, and one day he'll come into his kingdom."
"My dear, if you saw his mother!"
"But I'm sure no one but a princess could be Paul Kegworthy's mother," laughed Maisie.
"And his father?"
"A prince too!"
And Paul listened and drank in his goddess's words greedily. Truth clear as crystal fell from her lips. A wild wonder racked his little soul. She had said that his mother was not his mother, and that his father was a prince. The tidings capped the glory of an effulgent day.
When he sneaked home late Mrs. Button, who had learned how he had misspent his time, gave him a merciless thrashing. Why should he be trapesing about with Sunday schools, she asked, with impolite embroidery, while his poor little brothers and sisters were crying in the street? She would learn him to Mess about with parsons and Sunday-school teachers. She was in process of "learning" him when Mr. Button entered. He swore in a manner which would have turned out armies in Flanders pallid, and kicked Paul into the scullery. There the boy remained and went supperless to his bed of sacks, aching and tearless. Before he slept he put his cornelian heart in his hiding-hole. What cared he for stripes or kicks or curses with the Vision Splendid glowing before his eyes?
FOR splenetic reasons which none but the Buttons of this world can appreciate, Paul was forbidden, under pain of ghastly tortures, to go near the Sunday school again, and, lest he should defy authority, he was told off on Sunday afternoons to mind the baby, either in the street or the scullery, according to the weather, while the other little Buttons were not allowed to approach him. The defection of the brilliant scholar having been brought to the vicar's notice, he ventured to call one Saturday afternoon on the Buttons, but such was the contumely with which he was received that the good man hastily retreated. In lung power he was outmatched. In repartee he was singularly outclassed. He then sent the superintendent of the school, a man of brawn and zeal, to see what muscular Christianity could accomplish. But muscular Christianity, losing its head, came off with a black eye. After that the Buttons were left alone, and no friendly hand drew Paul within the gates of his Sunday Paradise. He thought of it with aching wistfulness. The only thing that the superintendent could do was to give him surreptitiously a prayer-book, bidding him perfect himself in the Catechism in view of future Confirmation. But, as emulation of his fellows and not religious zeal was the mainspring of Paul's enthusiasm, the pious behest was disregarded. Paul dived into the volume occasionally, however, for intellectual entertainment.
As for the fragrant and beautiful goddess, she had disappeared into thin air. Paul hung for a week or two about the vicarage, in the hope of seeing her, but in vain. As a matter of fact, Maisie Shepherd had left for Scotland the morning after the school treat; people don't come to Bludston for long and happy holidays. So Paul had to feed his ardent little soul on memories. That she had not been an impalpable creature of his fancy was proven by the precious cornelian heart. Her words, too, were written in fine flame across his childish mind. Paul began to live the life of dreams.
He longed for books. The fragmentary glimpses of history and geography in the Board school standard whetted without satisfying his imagination. There was not a book in the house in Budge Street, and he had never a penny to buy one. Sometimes Button would bring home a dirty newspaper, which Paul would steal and read in secret, but its contents seemed to lack continuity. He thirsted for a story. Once a generous boy, since dead-he was too good to live had given him a handful of penny dreadfuls, whence he had derived his knowledge of pirates and Red Indians. Too careless and confident, he had left them about the kitchen, and his indignant mother had used them to light the fire. The burning of his library was an enduring tragedy. He realized that it must be reconstituted; but how? His nimble wit hit on a plan. Vagrant as an unowned dog, he could roam the streets at pleasure. Why should he not sell newspapers-in a quarter of the town, be it understood, remote from both factory and Budge Street? He sold newspapers for three weeks before he was found out. Then he was chastised and forced to go on selling newspapers with no profit to himself, for his person was rigorously searched and coppers confiscated as soon as he came home. But during the three weeks' traffic on his own account he had amassed a sufficient hoard of pennies for the purchase of several books in gaudy paper covers exposed for sale in the little stationer's shop round the corner. Soon he discovered that if he could batik a copper or two on his way home his mother would be none the wiser. The stationer became his banker, and when the amount of the deposit equaled the price of a book, Paul withdrew his money's worth. So a goodly library of amazing rubbish was stored by degrees under the scullery slab, until it outgrew safe accommodation; whereupon Paul transferred the bulk of it to a hole in a bit of waste ground, a deserted brickfield on the ragged outskirts of the town. At last misfortune befell him. One dreary afternoon of rain he dropped his new bundle of papers in the mud of the roadway. To avoid death he had to spring from the path of a thundering tramcar. A heavy cart ran over the bundle. While he was ruefully and hastily gathering the papers together, a band of street children swooped down and kicked them lustily about the filth. He was battling with one urchin when a policeman grabbed him. With an elusive twist he escaped and ran like a terrified hare. Disaster followed, and that was the end of his career as a newsvendor.
Greater leisure for reading, however, compensated the loss of the occasional penny. He read dazzling tales of dukes with palaces (like Chudley Court), and countesses with ropes of diamonds in their hair, who all bore a resemblance to the fragrant one. And dukes and countesses lived the most resplendent lives, and spoke such beautiful language, and had such a way with them! He felt a curious pride in being able to enter into all their haughty emotions. Then, one day, he began a story about a poor little outcast boy in a slum. At first he did not care for it. His soaring spirit disdained boys in slums. It had its being on higher planes. But he read on, and, reading on, grew interested, until interest was intensified into absorption For the outcast boy in the slums, you must know, was really the kidnapped child of a prince and a princess, and after the most romantic adventures was enfolded in his parents' arms, married a duke's beauteous daughter, whom in his poverty he had worshipped from afar, and drove away with his bride in a coach-and-six.
To little Paul Kegworthy the clotted nonsense was a revelation from on high. He was that outcast boy. The memorable pronouncement of the goddess received confirmation in some kind of holy writ. The Vision Splendid, hitherto confused, crystallized into focus. He realized vividly how he differed in feature and form and intellect and character from the low crowd with whom he was associated. His unpopularity was derived from envy. His manifest superiority was gall to their base natures. Yes, he had got to the heart of the mystery. Mrs. Button was not his mother. For reasons unknown he had been kidnapped. Aware of his high lineage, she hated him and beat him and despitefully used him. She never gushed, it is true, over her offspring; but the little Buttons flourished under genuine motherment. They, inconsiderable brats, were her veritable children. Whereas he, Paul-it was as plain as daylight. Somewhere far away in the great world, an august and griefstricken pair, at that very moment, were mourning the loss of their only son. There they were, in their marble palace, surrounded by flunkeys all crimson and gold (men servants were always "gorgeously apparelled flunkeys" in Paul's books), sitting at a table loaded with pineapples on golden dishes, and eating out their hearts with longing. He could hear their talk.
"If only our beloved son were with us," said the princess, wiping away a tear.
"We must be patient, my sweet Highness," replied the prince, with lofty resignation stamped on his noble brow. "Let us trust to Heaven to remove the cankerworm that is gnawing our vitals."
Paul felt very sorry for them, and he, too, wiped away a tear.
For many years he remembered that day. He was alone in his brickfield on a gusty March morning-the Easter holidays had released him from school-squatting by his hole under the lee of a mass of earth and rubbish. It was a mean expanse, blackened by soot and defiled by refuse. Here and there bramble and stunted gorse struggled for an existence; but the flora mainly consisted in bits of old boots and foul raiment protruding grotesquely from the soil, half-buried cans, rusty bits of iron, and broken bottles. On one side the backs of grimy little houses, their yards full of fluttering drab underwear' marked the edge of the hopeless town which rose above them in forbidding buildings, belching chimney shafts and the spikes of a couple of spires. On the other sides it was bounded by the brick walls of factories, the municipal gasworks and the approach to the railway station, indicated by signal-posts standing out against the sky like gallows, and a tram-line bordered by a row of skeleton cottages. Golgotha was a grim garden compared with Paul's brickfield. Sometimes the children of the town scuttled about it like dingy little rabbits. But more often it was a desolate solitude. Perhaps all but the lowest of the parents of Bludston had put the place out of bounds, as gipsies and other dwellers in vans were allowed to camp there. It also bore an evil name because a night murder or two had been committed in its murky seclusion. Paul knew the exact spot, an ugly cavity toward the gasworks end, where a woman had been "done in," and even he, lord of the brickfield, preferred to remain at a purifying distance. But it was his own domain. He felt in it a certain pride of possession. The hollow under the lee of the rubbish-heap, by the side of the hole where he kept his paper library, was the most homelike place he knew.
For many years he remembered that day. The light that never was on sea or land fell upon the brickfield. He had read the story at one stretch. He had sat there for hours reading, for hours rapt in his Vision. At last material darkness began to gather round him, and he awoke with a start to realization that he had been sitting there most of the day. With a sigh he replaced his book in the hole, which he cunningly masked with a lump of hard clay, and, feeling stiff and cold, ran, childlike, homeward. In the silence of the night he took out his cornelian heart and fondled it. The day had been curiously like, yet utterly unlike, the day on which she had taken it from her neck. In a dim fashion he knew that the two days were of infinite significance in his life and were complementary. He had been waiting, as it were, for nine months for this day's revelation, this day's confirmation.
Paul rose the next morning, a human being with a fixed idea, an unquestioned faith in his destiny. His star shone clear. He was born to great things. In those early years that followed it was not a matter of an imaginative child's vanity, but the unalterable, serene conviction of a child's soul. The prince and princess were realities, his future greatness a magnificent certitude. You must remember this, if you would understand Paul's after-life. It was built on this radiant knowledge. In the afternoon he met Billy Goodge and the gang. They were playing at soldiers, Billy distinguished by a cocked hat made out of newspaper and a wooden sword.
"Coom on, Susie, wi be going to knock hell out of the boys in Stamford Street."
Paul folded his arms and looked at him contemptuously, as became one of his noble blood. "You could no' knock hell out of a bug."
"What's that tha says?"
Paul repeated the insult.
"Say that agen!" blustered the cocked-hatted leader.
Paul said it again and nothing happened, Billy received vociferous and sanguinary advice couched in sanguinary terms.
"Try and hit me!" said Billy.
The scene was oddly parallel with one in the story of the outcast boy of the gutter. Paul, conscious of experiment, calmly went up to him and kicked him. He kicked him hard. The sensation was delicious. Billy edged away. He knew from past experience that if it came to blows he was no match for Paul, but hitherto, having shown fight, he had received the support of the gang. Now, however, there was an extraordinary quality in Paul's defiance which took the spirit out of him. Once more he was urged by the ragged brats to deeds of blood. He did not respond. Paul kicked him again before his followers. If he could have gone on kicking him for ever and ever what delirium of joy were eternity! Billy edged farther away. The mongrel game-cock was beaten. Paul, dramatically conscious of what the unrecognized prince would do in such a circumstance, advanced, smacked his face, plucked the cocked hat from his head, the sword from his hand, and invested himself with these insignia of leadership, Billy melted silently into the subfusc air of Budge Street. The ragged regiment looked around and there was no Billy. Paul Keg worthy, the raggedest of them all, with nothing to recommend him but his ridiculous exotic beauty and the paper and wooden spolia opima of the vanquished, stood before them, a tattered Caesar. The gang hung spellbound. They were ready, small band of heroes, to follow him against the hordes of Stamford Street. They only awaited his signal. Paul tasted a joy known but to few of the sons of men-absolute power over, and supreme contempt for, his fellows. He stood for a moment or two, in the grey, miserable street discordant with the wailings of babies and the clamour of futile little girls, who, after the manner of women, had no idea of political crisis, and the shrill objurgations of slattern mothers and the raucous cries of an idealist vendor of hyacinths, and, cocked hat on head and wooden sword in hand, he looked at his fawning army. Then came the touch of genius that was often to characterize his actions in after years. It was mimetic, as he had read of such a thing in his paper-covered textbooks-but it was none the less a touch of genius. He frowned on the dirty, ignoble little boys. What had he in common with them-he, the son of a prince? Nothing. He snapped his sword across his knee, tore his cocked hat in two, and, casting the fragments before them, marched proudly toward the very last place on the face of the earth that he desired to visit-his own home. The army remained for a few seconds bewildered by the dramatic and unexpected, and, leaderless, did what many a real army has done in similar circumstances, straggled into disintegration.
Thenceforward, Paul, had he so chosen, could have ruled despotically in Budge Street. But he did not choose. The games from which he used to be excluded, or in which he used to be allowed to join on sufferance, no longer appealed to him. He preferred to let Joey Meakin lead the gang, vice Billy Goodge deposed, while he himself remained aloof. Now and then he condescended to arbitrate between disputants or to kick a little brute of a bully, but he felt that, in doing so, he was derogating from his high dignity. It was his joy to feel himself a dark, majestic power overshadowing the street, a kind of Grand Llama hidden in mystery. Often he would walk through the midst of the children, seemingly unconscious of their existence, acting strenuously to himself his part of a high-born prince.
This lasted till a dark and awful day when Mr. Button pitched him into the factory. These were times before kindly Education Acts and Factory Acts decreed that no boy under twelve years of age should work in a factory, and that every boy under fourteen should spend half his time at the factory and half at school. Paul's education was considered complete, and he had to plunge into full time at the grim and grinding place. He had joined the great army of workers. A wide gulf separated him from the gang of Budge Street. It existed for him no more than did the little girls and babies. Life changed its aspect entirely. Gone were the days of vagabondage, the lazy, the delicious even though cold and hungry hours of dreaming and reading in the brickfield; gone was the happy freedom of the chartered libertine of the gutter. He was bound, a little slave, like hundreds of other little slaves and thousands of big ones, to a relentless machine. He entered the hopeless factory gate at six in the morning and left it at half-past five in the evening; and, his rough food swallowed, slunk to his kennel in the scullery like a little tired dog. And Mr. Button drank, and beat Mrs. Button, and Mrs. Button beat Paul whenever she felt in the humour and had anything handy to do it with, and, as a matter of course, confiscated his wages on Saturday and set him to mind the baby on Sunday afternoons. In the monotony, weariness and greyness of life the glory of the Vision began to grow dim.
In the factory he was not thrown into competition with other boys. He was the skip, the drudge, the carrier and fetcher, the cleaner and polisher for a work-bench of men devoid of sentiment and blind to his princely qualities. He tried, indeed, by nimbleness of hand and intelligence, to impress them with his superiority to his predecessors, but they were not impressed. At the most he escaped curses. His mind began to work in the logic of the real. Entrance into his kingdom implied as a primary condition release from the factory. But how could such release come, when every morning a remorseless and insensate hook-just like a certain hook in the machinery whose deadly certainty of grip fascinated and terrified him, caught him from his morning sleep every morning of his life, save Sunday, and swung him inexorably into the factory? He looked around and saw that no one was released, except through death or illness or incompetence. And the incompetent starved. Any child in Budge Street with a grain of sense knew that. There was no release. He, son of a prince, would work for ever and ever in Bludston. His heart failed him. And there was no one to whom he could tell the tragic and romantic story of his birth. One or two happy gleams of brightness, however, lightened his darkness and prevented the Vision from fading entirely into the greyness of the factory sky. Once the Owner, an unspeakable god with a bald pink head and a paunch vastly chained with gold, conducted a party of ladies over the works. One of the latter, a very grand lady, noticed him at his bench and came-and spoke kindly to him. Her voice had the same sweet timbre as his goddess's. After she had left him his quick ears caught her question to the Owner: "Where did you get your young Apollo? Not out of Lancashire, surely? He's wonderful." And just before she passed out of sight she turned and looked at him and smiled. He learned on inquiry that she was the Marchioness of Chudley. The instant recognition of him by one of his own aristocratic caste revived his faith. The day would assuredly come. Suppose it had been his own mother, instead of the Marchioness? Stranger things happened in the books. The other gleam proceeded from one of the workmen at his bench, a serious and socialistic person who occasionally lent him something to read: Foxe's "Book of Martyrs," "Mill on Liberty," Bellamy's "Looking Backward," at that time at the height of its popularity. And sometimes he would talk to Paul about collectivism and the new era that was coming when there would be no such words as rich and poor, because there would be no such classes as they denoted.
Paul would say: "Then a prince will be no better than a factory hand?"
"There won't be any princes, I tell thee," his friend would reply, and launch out into a denunciation of tyrants.
But this did not suit Paul. If there were to be no princes, where, would he come in? So, while grateful to the evangelist for talking to him and treating him as a human being, he totally rejected his gospel. It struck at the very foundations of his visionary destiny. He was afraid to argue, for his friend was vehement. Also confession of aristocratic prejudices might turn friendship into enmity. But his passionate antagonism to the communistic theory, all the more intense through suppression, strengthened his fantastic faith. Still, the transient smile of a marchioness and the political economy of a sour-avised operative are not enough to keep alive the romance of underfed, ill-clad, overdriven childhood. And after a while he was deprived even of the latter consolation, his friend being shifted to another end of the factory. In despair he turned to Ada, the eldest of the little Buttons, who now had reached years of comparative discretion, and strove to interest her in his dreams, veiling his identity under a fictitious name; but Ada, an unimaginative and practical child with a growing family to look after, either listened stupidly or consigned him, in the local vernacular, to perdition.
"But suppose 'it was me that was the unknown prince? Supposing it was me I've been talking about all the time? Supposing it was me that went away and came back in a gold coach and six horses, with a duke's daughter all over diamonds by my side, what would tha say?"
"I think tha art nowt but a fool," said the elderly child of ten, "and, if mother heard thee, she'd lamm the life out of thee."
Paul had the sickening sensation of the man who has confided the high secrets of his soul to coarsefibred woman. He turned away, darkly conscious of having magnanimously given Ada a chance to mount with him into the upper air, which opportunity she, daughter of earth, had, in her purblind manner, refused. Thenceforward Ada was to him an unnoticeable item in the cosmos.
One hopeless month succeeded another, until a cloud seemed to close round Paul's brain, rendering him automatic in his actions, merely animal in his half-satisfied appetites. Fines and curses were his portion at the factory; curses and beatings—deserved if Justice held a hurried scale at home. Paul, who had read of suicide in The Bludston Herald, turned his thoughts morbidly to death. But his dramatic imagination always carried him beyond' his own demise to the scene in the household when his waxlike corpse should be discovered dangling from a rope fixed to the hook in the kitchen ceiling. He posed cadaverous before a shocked Budge Street, before a conscience-stricken factory; and he wept on his sack bed in the scullery because the prince and the princess, his august parents, would never know that he had died. A whit less gloomy were his imaginings of the said prince and princess rushing into the house, in the nick of time, just before life was extinct, and cutting him down. How they were to find him he did not know. This side-track exploration of possibilities was a symptom of sanity.
Yet, Heaven knows what would have happened to Paul, after a year or so at the factory, if Barney Bill, a grotesque god from the wide and breezy spaces of the world, had not limped into his life.
Barney Bill wore the cloth cap and conventional and unpicturesque, though shapeless and weather-stained, garment of the late nineteenth century. Neither horns nor goat's feet were visible; nor was the pipe of reed on which he played. Yet he played, in Paul's ear, the comforting melody of Pan, and the glory of the Vision once more flooded Paul's senses, and the factory and Budge Street and the Buttons and the scullery faded away like an evil dream.
THE Fates arranged Barney Bill's entrance late on a Saturday afternoon in August. It was not dramatic. It was merely casual. They laid the scene in the brickfield.
It had rained all day, and now there was sullen clearance. Paul, who had been bathing with some factory boys in the not very savoury canal a mile or so distant, had wandered mechanically to his brickfield library, which, by means of some scavenging process, he managed to keep meagrely replenished. Here he had settled himself with a dilapidated book on his knees for an hour's intellectual enjoyment. It was not a cheerful evening. The ground was sodden, and rank emanations rose from the refuse. From where he sat he could see an angry sunset like a black-winged dragon with belly of flame brooding over the town. The place wore an especial air of desolation. Paul felt depressed. Bathing in the pouring wet is a chilly sport, and his midday meal of cold potatoes had not been invigorating. These he had grabbed, and, having done them up hastily in newspaper, had bolted with them out of the house. He had been fined heavily for slackness during the week, and Mr. Button's inevitable wrath at docked wages he desired to undergo as late as possible. Then, the sun had blazed furiously during the last six imprisoned days, and now the long-looked for hours of freedom were disfigured by rain and blight. He resented the malice of things. He also resented the invasion of his brickfield by an alien van, a gaudy vehicle, yellow and red, to the exterior of which clinging wicker chairs, brooms, brushes and jute mats gave the impression of a lunatic's idea of decoration. An old horse, hobbled a few feet away, philosophically cropped the abominable grass. On the front of the van a man squatted with food and drink. Paul hated him as a trespasser and a gormandizer.
Presently the man, shading his eyes with his hand, scrutinized the small, melancholy figure, and then, hopping from his perch, sped toward him with a nimble and curiously tortuous gait.
He approached, a wiry, almost wizened, little man of fifty, tanned to gipsy brown. He had a shrewd thin face, with an oddly flattened nose, and little round moist dark eyes that glittered like diamonds. He wore cloth cap on the back of his head, showing in front a thick mass of closely cropped hair. His collarless shirt was open at the neck and his sleeves were rolled up above the elbow.
"You're Polly Kegworthy's kid, ain't you?" he asked.
"Ay," said Paul.
"Seen you afore, haven't I?" Then Paul remembered. Three or four times during his life, at long, long intervals, the van had passed down Budge Street, stopping at houses here and there. About two years ago, coming home, he had met it at his own door. His mother and the little man were talking together. The man had taken him under the chin and twisted his face up. "Is that the nipper?" he had asked.
His mother had nodded, and, releasing Paul with a clumsy gesture of simulated affection, had sent him with twopence for a pint of beer to the public-house at the end of the street. He recalled how the man had winked his little bright eye at his mother before putting the jug to his lips.
"I browt th' beer for yo'," said Paul.
"You did. It was the worst beer, bar none, I've ever had. I can taste it now." He made a wry face. Then he cocked his head on one side. "I suppose you're wondering who I am?" said he.
"Ay," said Paul. "Who art tha?"
"I'm Barney Bill," replied the man. "Did you never hear of me? I'm known on the road from Taunton to Newcastle and from Hereford to Lowestoft. You can tell yer mother that you seed me."
A smile curled round Paul's lips at the comic idea of giving his mother unsolicited information. "Barney Bill?" said he.
"Yuss," said the man. Then, after a pause, "What are you doing of there?"
"Reading," said Paul.
"Let's have a look at it."
Paul regarded him suspiciously; but there was kindliness in the twinkling glance. He handed him the sorry apology for a book.
Barney Bill turned it over. 'Why, said he, "it ain't got no beginning and no end. It's all middle. 'Kenilworth.' Do yer like it?"
"Ay!" said Paul. "It's foine."
"Who do yer think wrote it?"
As both cover and a hundred pages at the beginning, including the title-page, to say nothing of a hundred pages at the end, were missing, Paul had no clue to the authorship.
"Dunno," said he.
"Sir Walter Scott."
Paul jumped to his feet. Sir Walter Scott, he knew not why or how, was one of those bright names that starred in his historical darkness, like Caesar and Napoleon and Ridley and Latimer and W. G. Grace.
"Tha' art sure? Sir Water Scott?"
The shock of meeting Sir Walter in the flesh could not have been greater. The man nodded. "Think I'd tell yer a lie? I do a bit of reading myself in the old 'bus there"-he jerked a thumb—"I've got some books now. Would yer like to see 'em?"
Would a mouse like cheese? Paul started off with his new companion.
"If it wasn't for a book or two, I'd go melancholy mad and bust myself," the latter remarked.
Paul's spirit leaped toward a spiritual brother. It was precisely his own case.
"You'll find a lot of chaps that don't hold with books. Dessay you've met 'em?"
Paul laughed, precipient of irony.
Barney Bill continued: "I've heard some on 'em say: 'What's the good of books? Give me nature,' and they goes and asks for it at the public-'ouse. Most say nothing at all, but just booze."
"Like father," said Paul.
"Eh?" cried his friend sharply.
"Sam Button, what married mother."
"Ali! so he boozes a lot, does he?"
Paul drew an impressionistic and lurid picture of Mr. Button.
"And they fight?"
"Like billy-o," said Paul.
They reached the van. Barney Bill, surprisingly agile in spite of his twisted leg, sprang into the interior. Paul, standing between the shafts, looked in with curiosity. There was a rough though not unclean bed running down one side. Beyond, at the stern, so to speak, was a kind of galley containing cooking stove, kettle and pot. There were shelves, some filled with stock-in-trade, others with miscellaneous things, the nature of which he could not distinguish in the gloom. Barney Bill presently turned and dumped an armful of books on the footboard an inch or two below Paul's nose. Paul scanned the title pages. They were: Goldsmith's "Animated Nature," "Enquire Within Upon Everything," an old bound volume of "Cassell's Family Reader," "The Remains of Henry Kirke White," and "Martin Chuzzlewit." The owner looked down upon them proudly.
"I've got some more, but I can't get at 'em."
Paul regarded him with envy. This was a man of great possessions. "How long are yo' going to stay here?" he asked hopefully.
"Till sunrise to-morrow."
Paul's face fell. He seemed to have no luck nowadays.
Barney Bill let himself down to a sitting position on the footboard and reached to the end for a huge pork pie and a clasp knife which lay beside a tin can. "I'll go on with my supper," said he; then noticing a wistful, hungry look in the child's eyes, "Have a bit?" he asked.
He cut off a mighty hunk and put it into Paul's ready hand. Paul perched himself beside him, and they both ate for a long while in silence, dangling their legs. Now and again the host passed the tin of tea to wash down the food. The flaming dragon died into a smoky red above the town. A light or two already appeared in the fringe of mean houses. Twilight fell rapidly.
"Oughtn't you to be getting home?"
Paul, his hunger appeased, grinned. His idea was to sneak into the scullery just after the public-houses closed, when his mother would be far too much occupied with Mr. Button to worry about him. Chastisement would then be postponed till the morning. Artlessly he laid the situation before his friend, who led him on to relate other amenities of his domestic life.
"Well, I'm jiggered!" said Barney Bill. "She must be a she-devil!"
Paul cordially agreed. He had already imagined the Prince of Darkness in the guise of Mr. Button; Mrs. Button was in every way fit to be the latter's diabolical mate. Encouraged by sympathy and shrewd questions, he sketched in broad detail his short career, glorifying himself as the prize scholar and the erstwhile Grand Llama of Budge Street, and drawing a dismal picture of the factory. Barney Bill listened comprehendingly. Then, smoking a well-blackened clay, he began to utter maledictions on the suffocating life in towns and to extol his own manner of living. Having an appreciative audience, he grew eloquent over his lonely wanderings the length and breadth of the land; over the joy of country things, the sweetness of the fields, the wayside flowers, the vaulted highways in the leafy summer, the quiet, sleepy towns, the fragrant villages, the peace and cleanness of the open air.
The night had fallen, and in the cleared sky the stars shone bright. Paul, his head against the lintel of the van door, looked up at them, enthralled by the talk of Barney Bill. The vagabond merchant had the slight drawling inflection of the Home Counties, which gave a soothing effect to a naturally soft voice. To Paul it was the pipes of Pan.
"It mightn't suit everybody," said Barney Bill philosophically. "Some folks prefer gas to laylock. I don't say that they're wrong. But I likes laylock."
"What's laylock?" asked Paul.
His friend explained. No lilac bloomed in the blighted Springs of Bludston.
"Does it smell sweet?"
"Yuss. So does the may and the syringa and the new-mown hay and the seaweed. Never smelt any of 'em?"
"No," sighed Paul, sensuously conscious of new and vague horizons. "I once smelled summat sweet," he said dreamily. "It wur a lady."
"D'ye mean a woman?"
"No. A lady. Like what yo' read of."
"I've heard as they do smell good; like violets—some on 'em," the philosopher remarked.
Drawn magnetically to this spiritual brother, Paul said almost without volition, "She said I were the son of a prince."
"Son of a WOT?" cried Barney Bill, sitting up with a jerk that shook a volume or two onto the ground.
Paul repeated the startling word.
"Lor' lumme!" exclaimed the other, "don't yer know who yer father was?"
Paul told of his disastrous attempts to pierce the mystery of his birth.
"A frying-pan? Did she now? That's a mother for yer."
Paul disowned her. He disowned her with reprehensible emphasis.
Barney Bill pulled reflectively at his pipe. Then he laid a bony hand on the boy's shoulder. "Who do you think yer mother was?" he asked gravely. "A princess?"
"Ay, why not?" said Paul.
"Why not?" echoed Barney Bill. "Why not? You're a blooming lucky kid. I wish I was a missin' heir. I know what I'd do."
"What?" asked Paul, the ingenuous.
"I'd find my 'igh-born parents."
"How?" asked Paul.
"I'd go through the whole of England, asking all the princes I met. You don't meet 'em at every village pump, ye know," he added quickly, lest the boy, detecting the bantering note, should freeze into reserve; "but, if you keep yer eyes skinned and yer ears standing up, you can learn where they are. Lor' lumme! I wouldn't be a little nigger slave in a factory if I was the missin' heir. Not much. I wouldn't be starved and beaten by Sam and Polly Button. Not me. D'ye think yer aforesaid 'igh-born parents are going to dive down into this stinkin' suburb of hell to find yer out? Not likely. You've got to find 'em sonny. Yer can find anybody on the 'ighroad if yer tramps long enough. What d'yer think?"
"I'll find 'em," said Paul, in dizzy contemplation of possibilities.
"When are yer going to start?" asked Barney Bill.
Paul felt his wages jingle in his pocket. He was a capitalist. The thrill of independence swept him from head to foot. What time like the present? "I'll start now," said he.
It was night. Quite dark, save for the stars; the lights already disappearing in the fringe of mean houses whose outline was merged against the blackness of the town; the green and red and white disks along the railway line behind the dim mass of the gasworks; the occasional streak of conglomerate fireflies that was a tramcar; and the red, remorseless glow of here and there a furnace that never was extinct in the memory of man. And, save for the far shriek of trains, the less remote and more frequent clanging of passing tramcars along the road edged with the skeleton cottages, and, startlingly near, the vain munching and dull footfall of the old horse, all was still. Compared with home and Budge Street, it was the reposeful quiet of the tomb. Barney Bill smoked for a time in silence, while Paul sat with clenched fists and a beating heart. The simplicity of the high adventure dazed him. All he had to do was to walk away—walk and walk, free as a sparrow.
Presently Barney Bill slid from the footboard. "You stay here, sonny, till I come back."
He limped away across the dim brickfield and sat down at the edge of the hollow where the woman had been murdered. He had to think; to decide a nice point of ethics. A vagrant seller of brooms and jute mats, even though he does carry about with him "Cassell's Family Reader" and "The Remains of Henry Kirke White," is distracted by few psychological problems. Sufficient for the day is the physical thereof. And when a man like Barney Bill is unencumbered by the continuous feminine, the ordinary solution of life is simple. But now the man had to switch his mind back to times before Paul was born, when the eternal feminine had played the very devil with him, when all sorts of passions and emotions had whirled his untrained being into dizziness. No passions or emotions now affected him; but their memory created an atmosphere of puzzledom. He had to adjust values. He had to deputize for Destiny. He also had to harmonize the pathetically absurd with the grimly real. He took off his cap and scratched his cropped head. After a while he damned something indefinite and hastened in his dot-and-carry-one fashion to the van.
"Quite made up yer mind to go in search of yer 'ighborn parents?"
"Ay," said Paul.
"Like me to give yer a lift, say, as far as London?"
Paul sprang to the ground and opened his mouth to speak. But his knees grew weak and he quivered all over like one who beholds the god. The abstract nebulous romance of his pilgrimage had been crystallized, in a flash, into the concrete. "Ay," he panted.
"Ay!" and he steadied himself with his back and elbows against the shafts.
"That's all right," said Barney Bill, in a matter-of fact way, calm and godlike to Paul. "You can make up a bed on the floor of the old 'bus with some of them there mats inside and we'll turn in and have a sleep, and start at sunrise."
He clambered into the van, followed by Paul, and lit an oil lamp. In a few moments Paul's bed was made. He threw himself down. The resilient surface of the mats was luxury after the sacking on the scullery stone. Barney Bill performed his summary toilet, blew out the lamp and went to his couch.
Presently Paul started up, smitten by a pang straight through his heart. He sprang to his feet. "Mister," he cried in the darkness, not knowing how else to address his protector. "I mun go whoam."
"Wot?" exclaimed the other. "Thought better of it already? Well, go, then, yer little 'eathen 'ippocrite!"
"I'll coom back," said Paul.
"Yer afeared, yer little rat," said Barney Bill, out of the blackness.
"I'm not," retorted Paul indignantly. "I'm freeten'd of nowt."
"Then what d'yer want to go for? If you've made up yer mind to come along of me, just stay where you are. If you go home they'll nab you and whack you for staying out late, and lock you up, and you'll not be able to get out in time in the morning. And I ain't a-going to wait for yer, I tell yer straight."
"I'll be back," said Paul.
"Don't believe it. Good mind not to let yer go."
The touch of genius suddenly brushed the boy's forehead. He drew from his pockets the handful of silver and copper that was his week's wages, and, groping in the darkness, poured it over Barney Bill. "Then keep that for me till I coom back."
He fumbled hurriedly for the latch of the van door, found it, and leaped out into the waste under the stars, just as the owner of the van rose with a clatter of coins. To pick up money is a deeply rooted human instinct. Barney Bill lit his lamp, and, uttering juicy though innocuous flowers of anathema, searched for the scattered treasure. When he had retrieved three shillings and sevenpence-halfpenny he peered out. Paul was far away. Barney Bill put the money on the shelf and looked at it in a puzzled way. Was it an earnest of the boy's return, or was it a bribe to let him go? The former hypothesis seemed untenable, for if he got nabbed his penniless condition would be such an aggravation of his offence as to call down upon him a more ferocious punishment than he need have risked. And why in the name of sanity did he want to go home? To kiss his sainted mother in her sleep? To pack his blankety portmanteau? Barney Bill's fancy took a satirical turn. On the latter hypothesis, the boy was in deadly fear, and preferred the certainty of the ferocious punishment to the terrors of an unknown future. Barney Bill smoked a reflective pipe, looking at the matter from the two points of view. Not being able to decide, he put out his lamp, shut his door and went to sleep.
Dawn awoke him. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Paul was not there. He did not expect him to be there. He felt sorry. The poor little kid had funked it. He had hoped for better stuff. He rose and stretched himself, put on socks and boots, lit his cooking stove, set a kettle to boil and, opening the door, remained for a while breathing the misty morning air. Then he let himself down and proceeded to the back of the van, where stood a pail of water and a tin basin, his simple washing apparatus. Having sluiced bead and neck and dried them with something resembling a towel, he hooked up the pail, stowed the basin in a rack, unslung a nosebag, which he attached to the head of the old horse, and went indoors to prepare his own elementary breakfast. That over, he put the horse into the shafts. Barney Bill was a man of his word. He was not going to wait for Paul; but lie cast a glance round the limited horizon of the brickfield, hoping, against reason, to see the little slim figure emerge from some opening and run toward him.
"Darn the boy!" said Barney Bill, taking off his cap and scratching his wet head.
A low moan broke the dead silence of the Sunday dawn. He started and looked about him. He listened. There was another. The moans were those of a sleeper. He bent down and looked under the van. There Jay Paul, huddled up, fast asleep on the bare ground.
"Well, I'm jiggered! I'm just jiggered. Here, you—hello!" cried Barney Bill.
Paul awakened suddenly, half sat up, grinned, grabbed at something on the ground beside him and wriggled out between the wheels.
"How long you been there?"
"About two hours," said Paul.
"Why didn't yer wake me?"
"I didn't like to disturb thee," said Paul.
"Did yer go home?"
"Ay," said Paul.
"Into the house?"
Paul nodded and smiled. Now, that it was all over, he could smile. But only afterwards, when he had greater command of language, could he describe the awful terror that shook his soul when he opened the front door, crept twice through the darkness of the sleeping kitchen and noiselessly closed the door again.
For many months he felt the terror of his dreams. Briefly he told Barney Bill of his exploit. How he had to lurk in the shadow of the street during the end of a battle between the Buttons, in which the lodgers and a policeman had intervened. How he had to wait—interminable hours—until the house was quiet. How he had stumbled over things in the drunken disorder of the kitchen floor, dreading to arouse the four elder little Buttons who slept in the room. How narrowly he had missed running into the arms of the policeman who had passed the door some seconds before he opened it. How he had crouched on the pavement until the policeman turned the corner, and how he had fled in the opposite direction.
"And if yer mother had caught ye, what would she have done to yer?"
"Half-killed me," said Paul.
Barney Bill twisted his head on one side and looked at him out of his twinkling eyes. Paul thought he resembled a grotesque bird.
"Wot did yer do it for?" he asked.
"This," said Paul, holding out a grubby palm in which lay the precious cornelian heart.
His friend blinked at it. "Wot the blazes is the good of that?"
"It's a talisman," replied Paul, who, having come across the word in a book, had at once applied it to his treasure.
"Lor' lumme!" cried Barney Bill. "And it was for that bit of stuff yer ran the risk of being flayed alive by yer loving parents?"
Paul was quick to detect a note of admiration underlying the superficial contemptuousness of the words. "I'd ha' gone through fire and water for it," he declared theatrically.
"Lor' lumme!" said Barney Bill again.
"I got summat else," said Paul, taking from his pocket his little pack of Sunday-school cards.
Barney Bill examined them gravely. "I think you'd better do away with these."
"They establishes yer identity," said Barney Bill.
Barney Bill explained. Paul was running away from home. The police, informed of the fact, would raise a hue-and-cry. The cards, if found, would be evidence. Paul laughed. The constabulary was not popular in Budge Street.
"Mother ain't going to ha' nowt to do with the police, nor father, either."
He hinted that the cards might be useful later. His childish vanity loved the trivial encomiums inscribed thereon. They would impress beholders who had not the same reasons for preoccupation as Barney Bill.
"You're thinking of your 'igh-born parents," said Barney Bill. "All right, keep 'em. Only hide 'ern away safe. And now get in and let us clear out of this place. It smelts like a cheese with an escape of gas running through it. And you'd better stay inside and not show your face all day long. I don't want to be had up for kidnapping."
Paul jumped in. Barney Bill clambered onto the footboard and took the reins. The old horse started and the van jolted its way to the road, on which as yet no tramcars clattered. As the van turned, Paul, craning his neck out of the window, obtained the last glimpse of Bludston. He had no regrets. As far as such a thought could be formulated in his young mind, he wished that the place could be blotted out from his memory, as it was now hidden forever from his vision. He stood at the little window, facing south, gazing toward the unknown region at the end of which lay London, city of dreams. He was not quite fourteen. His destiny was before him, and to the fulfilment thereof he saw no hindrance. No more would the remorseless factory hook catch him from his sleep and swing him into the relentless machine. Never again, would he hear his mother's shrewish voice or feel her heavy, greasy hand about his ears. He was free—free to read, free to sleep, free to talk, free to drink in the beauty of the lazy hours. Vaguely he was conscious that one of the wonders that would come would be his own expansion. He would learn many things which he did not know, things that would fit him for his high estate. He looked down upon the foreshortened figure of Barney Bill, his cloth cap, his shoulders, his bare brown arms, a patch of knee. To the boy, at that moment, he was less a man than an instrument of Destiny guiding him, not knowing why, to the Promised Land.
At last on the quiet road Paul saw a bicyclist approaching them. Mindful of Barney Bill's injunction, he withdrew his head. Presently he lay down on the couch, and, soothed by the jogging of the van and the pleasant creaking of the baskets, fell into the deep sleep of tired and happy childhood.
IT was a day of dust and blaze. Dust lay thick on the ground, it filled the air, it silvered the lower branches of the wayside trees, it turned the old brown horse into a dappled grey, it powdered the black hair of Barney Bill and of Paul until they looked like vagabond millers. They sat side by side on the footboard while the old horse jogged on, whisking flies away with a scanty but persistent tail.
Paul, barefoot and barelegged, hatless, coatless, absorbed blaze and dust with the animal content of a young lizard. A month's summer wandering had baked him to gipsy brown. A month's sufficient food and happiness had filled gaunt hollows in his face and covered all too visible ribs with flesh. Since his flight from Bludston his life had been one sensuous trance. His hungry young soul had been gorged with beauty—the beauty of fields and trees and rolling country, of still, quivering moons and starlit nights, of exultant freedom, of never-failing human sympathy. He had a confused memory of everything. They had passed through many towns as similar to Bludston as one factory chimney to another, and had plied their trade in many a mean street, so much the counterpart of Budge Street that he had watched a certain window or door with involuntary trepidation, until he realized that it was not Budge Street, that he was a happy alien to its squalor, that he was a butterfly, a thing of woods and hedgerows fluttering for an inconsequent moment in the gloom. He came among them, none knew whence he was going, none knew whither. He was conscious of being a creature of mystery. He pitied the fettered youth of these begrimed and joyless towns—slaves, Men with Muckrakes (he had fished up ail old "Pilgrim's Progress" from the lower depths of the van), who obstinately refused to raise their eyes to the glorious sun in heaven. In his childish arrogance he would ask Barney Bill, "Why don't they go away and leave it, like me?" And the wizened little man would reply, with the flicker of an eyelid unperceived by Paul, "Because they haven't no 'igh-born parents waiting for 'em. They're born to their low estate, and they knows it." Which to Paul was a solution of peculiar comfort.
Even the blackened lands between the towns had their charm for Paul, in that he had a gleeful sense of being excluded from the wrath of God, which fell continuously upon them and the inhabitants thereof. And here and there a belt of leafy country gave promise, or confirmed Barney Bill's promise, of the Paradise that would come. Besides, what mattered the perpetuations of Bludston brickfields when the Land of Beulah shimmered ahead in the blue distance, when "Martin Chuzzlewit" lay open on his knees, when the smell of the bit of steak sizzling on the cooking stove stung his young blood? And now they were in Warwickshire, county of verdant undulations and deep woods and embowered villages. Every promise that Barney Bill had made to him of beauty was in process of fulfilment. There were no more blighted towns, no more factories, no more chimneys belching forth smoke. This was the Earth, the real broad-bosomed Mother Earth. What he had left was the Hell upon Earth. What he was going to might be Paradise, but Paul's imagination rightly boggled at the conception of a Paradise more perfect. And, as Paul's prescient wit had conjectured, he was learning many things; the names of trees and wild flowers, the cries of birds, the habits of wayside beasts; what was good for a horse to eat and what was bad; which was the Waggon, and Orion's Belt and the Bunch of Keys in the heavens; how to fry bacon and sew up rents in his clothing; how to deal with his fellow-man, or, rather, with his fellow-woman, in a persuasive manner; how to snare a rabbit or a pheasant and convert it into food, and how, at the same time, to evade the terrors of the law; the differences between wheat and oats and barley; the main lines of cleavage between political parties, hitherto a puzzle to Paul, for Barney Bill was a politician (on the Conservative side) and read his newspaper and argued craftily in taverns; and the styles and titles of great landowners by whose estates they passed; and how to avoid the nets that were perpetually spread by a predatory sex before the feet of the incautious male. On the last point Barney Bill was eloquent; but Paul, with delicious memories sanctifying his young soul, turned a deaf ear to his misogyny. Barney Bill was very old and crooked and dried up; what beautiful lady would waste her blandishments on him? Even the low-born lasses with whom they at times consorted had scarce an eye for Barney Bill. The grapes were sour. Paul smiled indulgently on the little foible of his friend.
They jogged along the highroad on this blazing and dusty day. Their bower of wicker chairs crackled in the heat. It was too hot for sustained conversation. Once Barney Bill said: "If Bob"-Bob was the old horse's unimaginative name—"if Bob doesn't have a drink soon his darned old hide'll crack."
Ten minutes later: "Nothing under a quart'll wash down this dust."
"Have a drink of water," suggested Paul, who had already adopted this care for drouth, with satisfactory results.
"A grown man's thirst and a boy's thirst is two entirely different things," said Barney Bill sententiously. "To spoil this grown-up thirst of mine with water would be a crime."
A mile or so farther on the road he stretched out a lean brown arm and pointed. "See that there clump of trees? Behind that is the Little Bear Inn. They gives you cool china pots with blue round the edge. You can only have 'em if you asks for 'em, Jim Blake, the landlord, being pertickler-like. And if yer breaks em—"
"What would happen?" asked Paul, who was always very much impressed by Barney Bill's detailed knowledge of the roads and the inns of England.
Barney Bill shook his head. "It would break 'is 'eart. Them pots was being used when William the Conqueror was a boy."
"Ten-sixty-six to ten-eighty-seven," said Paul the scholar. "They mun be nine hundred years old."
"Not quite," said Barney Bill, with an air of scrupulous desire for veracity. "But nearly. Lor' lumme!" he exclaimed, after a pause, "it makes one think, doesn't it? One of them there quart mugs—suppose it has been filled, say, ten times a day, every day for nine hundred years—my Gosh! what a Pacific Ocean of beer must have been poured from it! It makes one come over all of religious-like when one puts it to one's head."
Paul did not reply, and reverential emotion kept Barney Bill silent until they reached the clump of trees and the Little Bear Inn.
It was set back from the road, in a kind of dusty courtyard masked off on one side by a gigantic elm and on the other by the fringe of an orchard with ruddy apples hanging patiently beneath the foliage. Close by the orchard stood the post bearing the signboard on which the Little Bear, an engaging beast, was pictured, and presiding in a ceremonious way over the horse-trough below. In the shade of the elm stretched a trestle table and two wooden benches. The old inn, gabled, half-timbered, its upper story overhanging the doorway, bent and crippled, though serene, with age, mellow in yellow and russet, spectacled, as befitted its years, with leaded diamond panes, crowned deep in secular thatch, smiled with the calm and homely peace of everlasting things. Its old dignity even covered the perky gilt inscription over the doorway, telling how James Blake was licensed to sell a variety of alcoholic beverages. One human figure alone was visible, as the chairs and mat-laden van slowly turned from the road toward the horse-trough—that of a young man in straw hat and grey flannels making a water-colour sketch of the inn.
Barney Bill slid off the footboard, and, looking neither to right nor left, bolted like a belated crab into the cool recesses of the bar in search of ambrosia from the blue-and-white china mug. Paul, also afoot, led Bob to the trough. Bob drank with the lusty moderation of beasts. When he had assuaged his thirst Paul backed him into the road and, slinging over his head a comforting nosebag, left him to his meal.
The young man, sitting on an upturned wooden case, at the extreme edge of the elm tree's shade, a slender easel before him, a litter of paraphernalia on the ground by his side, painted assiduously. Paul idly crept behind him and watched in amazement the smears of wet colour, after a second or two of apparent irrelevance, take their place in the essential structure of the drawing. He stood absorbed. He knew that there were such things as pictures. He knew, too, that they were made by hands. But he had never seen one in the making. After a while the artist threw back his head, looked at the inn and looked at his sketch. There was a hot bit of thatch at the corner near the orchard, and, below the eaves, bold shadow. The shadow had not come right. He put in a touch of burnt umber and again considered the effect.
"Confound it! that's all wrong," he muttered.
"It's blue," said Paul.
The artist started, twisted his head, and for the first time became conscious of the ragamuffin's presence. "Oh, you see it blue, do you?" He smiled ironically.
"Ay," said Paul, with pointing finger. "Look at it. It's not brown, anyhow. Yon's black inside and blue outside."
The young man shaded his brow and gazed intently. Brilliant sunshine plays the deuce with tones. "My hat!" cried he, "you're right. It was this confounded yellow of the side of the house." He put in a few hasty strokes. "That better?"
"Ay," said Paul.
The artist laid down his brush, and swung round on his box, clasping knees. "How the devil did you manage to see that when I didn't?"
"Dun-no!" said Paul.
The young man stretched himself and lit a cigarette.
"What are yo' doing that for, mister?" Paul asked seriously.
"Ay," said Paul. "You mun have a reason."
"You're a queer infant," laughed the artist. "Do you really want to know?"
"I've asked yo'," said Paul.
"Well, if you're anxious to know, I'm an architect on a holiday, and I'm sketching any old thing I come across. I don't pretend to be a painter, my youthful virtuoso, and that's why I go wrong sometimes on colour. Do you know what an architect is?"
"No," said Paul, eagerly. "What is it?"
He had been baffled by the meaning of the word, which he had seen all his life, inscribed on a brass plate in the Bludston High Street: "E. Thomson, Architect & Surveyor." It had seemed to him odd, cryptically fascinating.
The young man laughed and explained; Paul listened seriously. Another mystery was solved. He had often wondered how the bricklayers knew where to lay the bricks. He grasped the idea that they were but instruments carrying out the conception of the architect's brain. "I'd like to be an architect," he said.
"Would you?" After a pause the young man continued: "Anyhow, you can earn a shilling. Just sit down there and let me make a sketch of you."
"What for?" asked Paul.
"Because you're a picturesque person. Now, I suppose you'll be asking me what's the meaning of picturesque?"
"Nay," said Paul. "I know. Yo' see it in books. 'Th' owd grey tower stood out picturesque against the crimson sky.'"
"Hullo! you're a literary gent," said the young man.
"Ay," replied Paul proudly. He was greatly attracted towards this new acquaintance, whom, by his speech and dress and ease of manner, he judged to belong to the same caste as his lost but ever-remembered goddess.
The young man picked up pencil and sketch-book and posed Paul at the end of the seat by the trestle table. "Now, then," said he, setting to work. "Head a little more that way. Capital. Don't move. If you're very quiet I'll give you a shilling." Presently he asked, "What are you? If you hadn't been a literary gent I'd have thought you might be a gipsy."
Paul flushed and started. "I'm not a gipsy."
"Steady, steady," exclaimed the artist. "I've just said you couldn't be one. Italian? You don't look English."
For the first time the idea of exotic parentage entered Paul's head. He dallied for a moment or two with the thought. "I dunno what I am," he said romantically.