Triangles of Life, and other stories/Triangles of Life
Triangles of Life
I. THE REASON
ALL Australia. All of the best you have seen or read, or remember of it; of what has been written about it by its own sons and in Australia. And a timber-cutter's camp just within the blazing, blinding, humming, waving, shimmering and pulsating great dusty and gritty heart of it. Tents about, seeming only not to blaze off like so much paper, and bough cook's-shed at the junction of two lanes of piled cut scrub. A sky darkened and dusky and lowering with drought haze and a boiled sun steaming in the centre of it. A heat that blinds to darkness with perspiration and chills momentarily and frightens men.
"God Forgive Billy" was in a bad way. He had a touch of the "dry 'orrers," as One-Eyed-Bogan said, who had had great experience with the "Horrors," both with his own and his mates', and dry and otherwise. When the men came they found no dinner ready, and they found Billy sitting in the dust and ashes of his "floor," his back propped against an upright of the shed, a bucket half full of potatoes between his legs, and a butcher's knife held loosely in his helpless nerveless hand, lying knuckles down in the dust, and rocking a little like a broken live thing—and his greasy kerosene tins round him. Great, shiny black crows were flopping round indignantly, interrupted in a premature grace ; a great repulsive-looking goanna skurried and sidled off, turning his head evilly, and went up the baked, ashen bark of a tree ; and a close inspection might have revealed the fact that the black ants had already suspended hostilities in their slow, sure and bloodthirsty and merciless war of extermination against a colony of red ants on the bank of the creek (with its one yellow dam or waterhole), and their lines were drawing back towards their base—the shed. He said the Devil had taken the boiling corned beef out of the pot, and so it was no use going on with the potatoes. He described the devil, and supposed it must have been a French one, because it "certingly wearn't a English one." One-Eyed-Bogan took a stick and looked and poked in the kerosene tin hanging over the fire, and the meat was gone all right, or rather all wrong. He was a man who liked to see for himself, and he always looked twice at least—on account of his one eye, perhaps.
The meat had really been taken by the mangy, hairless, hide-covered skeleton of a starved Kangaroo dog, "belonging to King Billy," that was known to be hanging about. There was "any God's quantity of rabbits," but dogs starve on rabbits. Billy himself, the royal one, afterwards admitted the fact, and Billy was a truthful potentate. He had seen his dog do it—take the meat out of the boiling water by a corner that stuck up, and from over the lee of the blazing fire, just as described as a lie once by one of the Bulletin's contributors, and just as I saw it done when a boy, and describe it here as a fact.
Billy said that the other Billy sat down along a op when he saw the dog do that. Billy (the royal one) said he believed his dog belong-it the devil, and he bin borrow poison along-a rabbit poisoner's camp, and bin kill-it. He showed the scalp, for like all truthful men, black or white, he believed truth to be no good at all without undoubted material or written evidence behind it.
They carried Billy under the patchy "shade" of some gidgea, and laid him down and watered him till the grateful ground ceased to steam, and was much darker than the shade.
Billy sat up and told them that this was what they call the Four Lanes, and yonder straight ahead was Shepperton-on-Tems, and over there was Halliford and Sunbury-on-Tems, and that was a backwater of the Terns, with the willers an' watercress an' ole mill and rustic bridge, an', twisting himself round, "there was Shawlton (Charlton) jest round the corner, with Bob Howe's farm first, and the Farmers' Arms, and then the village, with Shawlton House opposite, where yer see them poplers over the hedge, and then Harry Leonard's farm, with Upper Sunbury further on, an' the London Road leadin' to Stains an' Windser Castle an' Hampton Court—an'—an' London and everywheere else for all he know'd." Blue smoke crawled along the ground from the burning off, and he said "that was the ground mist comin' up, an' it was gettin' chilly," and he proposed that they'd all go to the Farmers' Arms, where he'd fill up the pewter.
Little "God Forgive Billy," the greenest of New Chum Jackeroos, had been sent up by the Government, or Labour Bureau—that is he was given a pass and some rations, and sent away almost from the ship into the disc of Australia, of which he knew absolutely nothing except the awful blaze and dust of it—the blasting reason-shaking contrast from the green lanes of England—which was driving him mad. He had learned potato-peeling and rough cooking aboard the ship, and was liked here because of his fresh innocence, mild and obliging disposition, his gentle nursing and attention to Bogan when he had a touch o' the sun, and his smile, which was dimples deepened and lengthened a bit, hardened and fixed. Besides, he could play both mouth-organ and tin whistle. And he had one surprising gift altogether out of keeping with his appearance and character or nature. A gift that astonished all who saw an exhibition of it for the first time—and startled some. He could act the drunken man. That is a certain type of him. And the type was Australian, and not English. He was a perfect face-maker in this respect—for it was a silent part. He'd half turn away and damp his hair and moustache swiftly, by a quick pass or sleight of hand, and his hair would be dank, his moustache slobbered, and his hand would pass drunkenly over it to fling the surplus beers away, and his limbs would go, and his left eyelid keep dropping, like a lid, and—and he'd be Billy very drunk, who had never been drunk in his life.
Was it the Billy of previous incarnation come out again for the moment?
They never grew tired of Seeing Billy do it, and "Come and see Bill the cook drunk" was a common invitation to strangers and new-comers. They intended to use him for practical jokes on the boss, etc., but it wasn't in Billy's nature to agree to anything like that.
One-Eyed Bogan was left in camp that afternoon to mutual satisfaction, to look after poor Little Billy and his dry horrors, because Bogan was the most casual, easy-going, and pipe-lighting, and water-bag-seeking worker in that hell's vineyard—as well as the strongest and least nervous man in camp. Besides, he said he had experience with lunatics, and (besides) he owed a debt of gratitude to Billy, and they reckoned he would be kinder to the little fellow on that account.
"And you never know how snake-quick an' cunning an' strong them little fellers is when they're drunk or ratty. But I'm cunnin' enough, I reckon, 'n' strong enough too for pore little Billy."
One-Eyed Bogan had a naturally sinister expression, and had been otherwise damaged about the face in many gambling and drinking rows, and his green patch and glaring eye must have been very soothing indeed to a mild little new chum going mad through heat, trouble and loneliness in a strange and fearful land.
Bogan said at tea that he'd fixed Billy with his eye all right, which was very apparent, for Billy was much worse, and had to be kept sitting on the rough stool between two of them—who humoured and watched him as a little child—because he only wanted to go down that lane and have a dip in the Thames back-water now it was dusk, and no one was about.
Bogan reckoned he was safe enough for the night, with any one to watch him, turn about, and quite harmless. But he saw the thing in another light, later on, when Billy confessed tearfully to Jack Moonlight that he thought he was going mad, because he kept craving to peel Bogan's head with the chopper, like a big pumpkin, and quarter it. He said the Voices were urging him all the time to do it—he could hear them all the time he was speaking. And he wanted to be tied up.
Just before dark a solitary swagman, or "traveller," came along—on his way from a shearing shed to the coach-road, he said and seeing and hearing how things stood, he volunteered to look after Billy first part of the night, as he'd only made a short stage, and rest over next day, if they liked, with an eye to Billy and the cooking. He said he'd had to do with such cases before, and understood. He was a likely looking chap for the job—tall, with saddish brown eyes—so they washed a tin plate, knife and fork, and pint pot for him, with an audible breath of relief. But afterwards One-Eyed Bogan carefully collected the chopper, knives and forks, and all edged tools about camp and lashed them together in a bundle with bagging, a spare tent fly, and bits of clothes-line and wire—for general safety, he said. He said, "Yer couldn't be too careful in these here cases." He made his bed in the open, on some boughs, under the saplings, and laid the bundle beside it, and tied a cord to it and to his arm when he laid him down to rest. But he was seen, when they all were down, save Billy and his new warder, sitting up against the rising moon, and not like a "Queen of Night palm" either, and passing his hand nervously over his "pumpkin" and glancing, apprehensively, it seemed, from Billy and his new mate to the wood-heap—perhaps he was thinking of mashed raw pumpkin.
Bogan gets a fright here through Jack Moonlight stumbling over him.
Then he was seen no more, and in the morning, just as they were reckoning that he'd "gone off too," and worse calamity of all! had taken the tools, he came out of the scrub from another direction with his bundle and blankets on his shoulder, and looking as if he'd passed a bad night. He said, "Yer could never be too careful in these here cases. They was so —— cunnin', and allers turned agin them as was nearest an' dearest to 'em. That was a sure sign." Which reminds me that I could never see why it should be considered a sure, or even extra, or even one sign of insanity that patients turn against friends and relatives first, and cleave to strangers. Look more like a sign of returning, or temporary, sanity, the more I think of it.
Next evening Billy was better, though he feared it coming on with the night. He had taken a great liking to the new man, whom he persisted in recognizing as a long-lost village school-mate. The swagman said he had been taken to England as a child, but remembered very little of it, and nothing of Billy. Billy showed no inclination to peel his potatoes, however, and during the evening, the It and the Voices not coming on, he told him all about it. How he had left home and run to London first, because it was gloomy at home, and there was always trouble. There was big trouble, not his, but he should 'a'stayed an' shared it. He had a right in it. He hoped, with a momentary loss of himself and a fluttering raising of uncertain fingers to his temples, that "Bob," the new man, wouldn't mention a word of it in Shepparton or anywheres. He was sick an' weak, or he wouldn't have talked on it. .... "And his poor old mother!—Poor mother!" He shed tears and his voice broke into the whine that no man likes to hear. "He'd left trouble that he had as much right in as any o' them. Left poor mother dyin' broken-hearted on it, and Tom t' fight it out. Poor old Tom! Good old Tom as he was allers havin' 'dry ' words with—an' all his own fault. ..."
The stranger, who treated him as a perfectly rational being, listened with seeming interest, sympathized, soothed, and assured Billy over and over again, with astonishing patience, that it was all going to be mended and fixed up, and that Billy was going home almost directly the job was done.
About here there came what some writers call a "diversion." It certainly diverted Bogan's dreams, if he dreamed. It diverted Jack Moonlight in his quiet way, and was probably a relief to the new-comer. He heard some one, or something, coming through the scrub, then a silence (he heard that too), as if the man or animal had stopped, or was moving quietly. Then he fancied a shadow was bending over Bogan, but before he was sure there was a yell, and sounds like the sudden getting up of a dray horse that has been stumbled over in his sleep by a blundering old working bullock, and badly frightened. The shadows blended and went down; then one rose, and then the other, and there was bad language, then presently one shadow settled down again, and the language grumbled out on the night breeze. Bob was just going across with Billy to see, when he met Jack Moonlight, who seemed to have a "hiccup," or a catch, in his stomach.
"What's up?" asked Bob, with the adjectives necessary in new acquaintanceships.
"Oh, it's only Bogan," said Moonlight; "I dunno what the hell he wanted to play up like that for. I was coming from the fires, and I only bent over him and rubbed his head with my pipe bowl, to see if he was awake, and I told him to keep an eye out for God Forgive Billy."
Billy had a strong objection, connected with the earth's 'lectricity, to sleeping on his usual bed of boughs and blanket on the ground, and he had a horror of the tent. He said he'd got too much 'lectricity coming round the world, and that was what was the matter with him. He said he should never have come halfway round the world, which was correct, and having come so far he should have gone the other half and finished it—which was sane enough. So Bob made Bill's bed on the rough sapling bench or table, under the dead-bough shed, and persuaded him to lie down. The posts had been "puddled," or clay rammed, down hard round them, and the cavities kept filled with water, to keep the ants off the table, so Billy was isolated from them, if not from the earth's electricity. His friend told him he was, that the water and clay acted as perfect world insulator, and he seemed satisfied.
Almost before Bob was aware, he had commenced that long, quiet, calm, deceptive sleep, which so often cruelly raises hopes in the hearts of relatives and friends of such "cases" in the earliest stages, but which never deceives mental doctors or nurses. Bob sat on the sapling seat bench with his back against a corner upright, and commenced his watch of Billy—and of other things—
I. Childhood: Rows and scenes and scenes and rows, violent rows that frightened; father and mother separated; home a hell. Boy slavery and freedom,
II. Cheap boarding house, pretty, but hysterical, daughter; mother, step-father, and sisters; rows and scenes more violent than at home. Tale of ill-treatment. Last big row. Cab, box, and hurried, mad marriage at a "matrimonial bureau." Seven years of it.
III. Police court. Desertion. "Judicial separation." Maintenance order. Reconciliation—court—reconciliation—court. Summons for desertion, and maintenance. Summons, summons, summons, Darlinghurst. And the full knowledge of what sort of woman she was.
He shook it off, or lifted his mind from under it. He had gone through so much that he had this power: that he could do this at will almost. The moon rose over the scrub, and all things softened. It was cool, and even growing chilly, as drought nights do grow, and he drew the blanket up over Billy, who never stirred. Then he leaned back against the corner sapling, when he heard his voice called; the close, yet far away call, very distinct. "Robert!" His elbows jumped to his sides as he straightened, but he'd heard that voice before. Then, clear and distinct: "Read, Robert—read!"
At the first start he thrust out his hand towards Billy, and his hand touched Billy's hand, which lay, palm up, on the saplings; he was drawing back with a momentary sense of shame at his fear when Billy's fingers closed over his, as a sleeping child's might. Then he looked up, and across, and set his mind to read. Then gradually the "Four Lanes" took shape, and he saw the cool green, peaceful English scene, as Billy had. The ground mist was "coming up," and dusk coming on—dusking the moonlight at first—and he saw two figures coming, or seeming more to float toward him from the direction of Shepperton-on-Thames—as in a picture from the dawn of memory. Then suddenly the figures were close to him and plain—save the faces. The girl wore a dark jacket, such as worn in England five or six years ago, and a dark hat with much forward brim, held down to hide the face, which always gives a girl a more hang-dog and guilty look than any slouch hat worn any way can give a man. And to Bob it seemed his wife, as he last saw her—under cross-examination. And who was the man? He seemed to have had both arms round the woman—or girl—in the first part of the vision, now he had only one, the left, and the right was risen as though to hide his face, shut out of sight, or ward off a blow. The attitude chilled Bob with a strange fear. Who was the man? What was Bob to do? What would Bob do? He seemed to be lying against the outside of a ditch with eyes just above the grass. Should he attack the man as "all the world" would expect him to do, or slip down and along the bottom of the ditch quietly? There was no "world" to see, so he was just sinking down, with that strange, calm, easy "will power," or whatever it is, which makes all the difference between hypnotic influence and "nightmare" when, with a sudden upheaval, as of a wave, he was beside the girl. He was the man with one arm round her and the other up to ward off. He was struggling and grappling with Billy, the little scrub cutter's lunatic cook, while watching whom he had fallen asleep, and—with the sudden, violent, half dislocating jerk of all the limbs and body that often accompanies an awakening from hypnotic trance, he was awake, and standing up, in his proper senses, cool and collected. It was as though nightmare, with its violent awakening, had come to the rescue from hypnotism. And Billy lay as he had fallen asleep, still sleeping peacefully. The awful hot, ghostly daylight was over the scrub, looking the same as drought nightfall. Billy woke at his usual time, and in his usual manner, save for saying cheerily, "Oh! I'm all right now, mates!" Then with a fearful pause, he flung his wavering fingers up hopelessly to his head and said, "Oh—oh, them Voices, Bob!"
Next day, the last of the job, Billy was worse, and they had to run him down or round him up several times, but the drays came out and the men cleared up without loss of time, and went into the station for their cheques, taking Billy with them. And leaving the King Billy monarch of all he surveyed—just think of it, for hundreds of miles—and sixteen dogs and two gins. They took Billy with them—and a trusted, sober, station hand, sent by the super—to the coach road, where Poisonous Jimmy kept a pub-store and post office, and there was a "police camp" (a brick and iron one) handy. Billy had a pleasant ride—through English lanes—to Poisonous Jimmy's—though he rode and walked with devils most of the time. He pointed out all the features of the imaginary panorama—to propitiate them perhaps. Poisonous Jimmy's was like a deserted and dried-up slaughter yard, with the offal shed only left and cleaned up a bit, and set in big dust and sand patch in the blazing scrub desert. Here the stranger got a packet of dusty letters and a lot of copies of a Sydney paper. Then he began to act peculiar. He got the loan of the private parlour from the landlady, and, after much hunting, borrowed some scraps of brown paper. Then he got on the right side of the girl to make him some paste. Then he went through his bundle of papers and marked many paragraphs, some verse, and other matter with the stump of a blue pencil. Then he cut out all the marked pieces carefully with his penknife, and pasted them on strips of brown paper; then he borrowed a carpenter's rule, measured the strips carefully, and entered the result in a pocket-book!
The girl noticed first, of course. Then she whispered to the landlady, who went and had an indifferent look, as also had Poisonous Jimmy. They'd seen too many drink and drought "looneys" to take much notice. Then One-Eyed Bogan went to see for himself, and glared in quite awhile with his one eye.
"——! Blowed if he ain't took it from Billy!" he said. "I told yer yer couldn't be too careful in them cases! Lunatic-doctors an' lunatic-nurses all get it more or less themselves if they stick to the game long enough. Who the blazes next, I wonder?"
Then the new lunatic wanted a piece of white paper, and the landlady humoured him—as she had done the others—to "save trouble and for the sake of peace and quietness." She found it at the bottom of a "band-box" (where did that term come from to Australia?). Then he wrapped the brown paper with the slips pasted on, folded it, tied it neatly with twine, addressed, stamped—and posted it to a newspaper!
"And I'll have to send it, because it's stamped," said Poisonous Jimmy. "Couldn't keep it back without a doctor's certificate. You chaps had better give the policeman a hint—what goes in the coach with your mate. T'other looney's goin' too."
But just a little rite had to be performed that belongs to the Bushman's Creed in another man's trouble be he Bushman or or Chinaman and which is usually performed on the quiet, mysteriously, furtively, and looks more like a low class conspiracy, or better class robbery being planned than anything else. But in Billy's case it didn't matter. Bogan collected the men in the bar, and took off his old black slouch calico crowned straw hat. But Jack Moonlight objected jocularly that there were edges of straw inside under which coins might slip in a hat held by experienced hands (he was a noted gambler and so was One-Eyed Bogan).
So One-Eyed Bogan borrowed Moonlight's hat, "chucked" "half-a-caser" in it for a send-off, and passed it round. In a shearing shed in full swing in a good season it would have been quids, half-quids, casers, and at the lowest half-casers permitted. But scrub-cutting is low down and "red hot" in a bad season. "Anyways," Bogan said, " there was enough to get a clean shirt and socks and a handkerchief and boot laces for Billy." When Bogan got his last shearing cheque he went to Sydney and ended up, or rather began a new life in the Darlinghurst Receiving House, with a pair of torn trousers, a shirt, the best part of a waistcoat, a new elastic side-boot, and one sock. He sang "Home, Sweet Home!" all the first night in the padded cell "an' that'll show how bad I was!" he said.
And at the last moment, Bogan told the policeman in charge of Billy, for his comfort on a thirty-mile dry stretch, that "he'd better keep his eye on the other fellow too!" And the driver was a noted eccentric, and there were no other passengers—but—well, all men are mad more or less—and more Out Back in drought time. So perhaps the inspector thought himself lucky to have no more than three looneys on hand—and one of them he knew. Better the lunatic you know than the one you don't. Then they went their various ways through their common hells to their private ones, sober, drunken and domestic.
"But," said Bob to the policeman, casually, as they plunged into a fifty-mile bank of dust, "that's a hard case, that one-eyed chap they call the Bogan. What lark was he up to when he took your lug?"
Which satisfied the constable at once that it was only another little practical joke attempted on the police, whereas Bob might have talked to him till Sydney, and never convinced him that his new and previous mates had been in earnest, but mistaken.
Bob now became Billy's brother Tom, and was told all about it again—about Billy's troubles in Australia—and so on through all the freaks of a disordered brain to Redfern Terminus.
Billy was taken to the Receiving House, where Bob went to see him, and they saved him from Callan Park.
Some weeks later a boat of the Bright Star Line wanted a fourth or fifth cook (and as many shillings a month firemen as they could get), and Billy went as cook, and the other lunatic saw him off with a supply of tobacco and a parcel of clean things.
And there was one little man with a smile in England who never talked of Australia.In 1901 Robert Cleaves went to London with great hopes—and deep fears—as a writer, and struck a period of "mental dismay," as I heard it called by another who went to London with great hopes as a young poet, and came back grey. But it was more than "mental dismay" with Bob, it was mental horror—or horrors—most of the time, for he had heavy private trouble on him, and no funds, relatives or friends. In the lowest depth of the dismay, and on the verge of rags and starvation, he thought of "Shawlton" and "God Forgive Billy."
TAKE the steamer from Circular Quay or Woolloomooloo Bay, or Dalgety's Wharf, or from any other port you may in Australia—the White Star Line—all one class—or the Orient, or any other line that suits your condition, circumstances or convenience (or is it Fate?), and you'll cross the Pacific, Canada, or the everlasting eternal States and the Atlantic—or go round by the other side of Africa and see the peak (of Teneriffe), if it isn't too cloudy. Or by Colombo and the Red Sea and up Suez Lane, and by Italy—Genoa—(and the Street of Stars, you know)—where there'll be more to see—and you'll come eventually to Plymouth or Prince Alfred's Docks—anyway to London.
I arrived on Saturday, and started out exploring on Monday morning from No. 4 Windsor Terrace, City Road—where Micawber lived—and struck across country, and got bushed, of course. London has more sameness and monotony, for its size, than the Bush. Somewhere in the wilds between St. Pancras (a rather dirty, dusty and immoral Saint) and High Holborn, I inquired of a tall man leaning comfortably against a post outside a tavern—a beerhouse—for the way to Waterloo Station. He thought, rubbed well behind his ear with the ball of his palm, and asked, as an afterthought, or last chance—
"Does it matter much?"
"Beg pardon," I said.
"Is it particular?" he said.
"Well," I said, "the last train leaves before midnight, I believe, and I want to be there before then."
"O—o—oh!" he said. "Why that's—let's see— that's—that's—why, you've got eight or ten hours yet." Then, confidently, "Tell you what to do I They sell good ale here: an' a comfortable parlour. You might drop in for awhile an' have a rest, and by that time me or some one might be able to direct yer. No, I don't want any. I'll jest watch here in case a likely director comes along. Or, wait a minute, I could direct where you'll find a policeman! There's one on point just round the corner."
I looked at him hard, but could make nothing of him. He was a Bushman in disguise, I think.
However, I found High Holborn. Or, rather, it found me, and swung me in, and there I bumped against a buck youth with a vacantly inquiring expression, prominent pale eyes, and very large and prominent buck teeth. Otherwise he was just the kind of new chum we set grubbing about the Homestead until we can trust him alone beyond the first fence. He was examining and picking his teeth with great attention in a grotesque mirror on one side of a shop window—a fat woman with a shawl was fixing her hair and hat in the other, which was concave—hairpins and hatpins between her teeth. I passed behind them, and before the reflections several times, but not the ghost of a ghost of a sign of a smile on either of their screamingly distorted features—their sweet counterfeits. So I concluded there was no frivolity here (though I wondered if these were of the people for whom my agent advised me to write humorous stuff), and I tapped the youth and inquired the way to the Strand.
"The Strained? Oh, yes—the Strained. Take the first turn round that there half-corner, where you see them green buses going round. That Chawnchery Lane. Foller them green buses—they'll take yer right into the Strained. Don't take no notice of them there courts."
I thanked him and went on, but felt that he had hesitated. Then he was at my shoulders again, rather vaguely in the rush and rattle, but with the air of a man who had, on second thought, decided to tell me of something, of no particular importance, but which might be worth my while to know, which had happened, or occurred to him, since we last met.
"That's right. Go on as I tell yer. Foller them green buses, and don't take no notice of them bloody courts."
As if there was a deadly feud of long standing between his tribe and the courts. It must have been deadly, and of considerable previousness, for they don't, as a rule, hint of private or family quarrels to outsiders in England. They say that such and such is " no class " in North London—and that's about all. And, by the way, it was the " Strained " at that time —before the widening; and I may remark that Pall Mall is "Paul Mawl," "Pell Mell," or "Pal Mal," to those who know it best. Also there were many tram and bus routes, and different colours to each one, and different shades for each section and branch, and they were covered with advertisements with " grounds " of all colour, so the wanderer might just as well be colour blind.
Cross Waterloo Bridge and take train from a big grimy station there on the right-hand side—up the river by train to Shepperton-on-"Tems." You might stroll round—they are pleasant lanes between deep ditches and blackberry hedges on autumn afternoons. You might stroll round by pleasant brooks, within sound of the river; and by some brickfields, that cannot spoil the scene, and come into the story towards the end, and little unsuspected "hamlets"—that's the word—lying in wait, half-hidden in side pockets, nooks and corners of the hedges—like shy children who want to give you a pleasant surprise—and you'll come to either Halliford, Sunbury, Upper Sunbury, or Sunbury-on-Thames. But I want to get you to Charlton, and you'll be lost in English lanes. But you'll be directed. You'll meet a fresh, peachy-bloomed-faced, clear-eyed youth, with the bulk limbs and plod of an English farm labourer, a detached and shelving underlip, which might do if it were trimmed and shored or braced up—were it not for a vague chin, which is hopeless—and a general expression like a blank note of interrogation—if such a thing could be. But he'll direct you according to the best of his lights.
"Chawlton, sir? Oh, yes, sir! Chawlton. You take that lane wot yer see there, sir, and foller it till yer come to a bridge goin' across the water, sir. No, sir, that's not the "Tems," sir—that's only a backwater runnin' inter the Tems, sir. Git through the fence to the right jest before yer come to the bridge, sir; don't cross the bridge. Don't cross the bridge, sir. Git through a panel jist at the foot of the bridge where yer see a path worn, sir. (Don't take no notice of that lane on the other side, sir.) When yer git through yer'll see medder in front of yer, sir—yer'll be in the medder, in fact, sir. Go right across the medder till yer comes to a gate with a turnstile and another stile on either side, sir. Yer can take whichever yer like, sir." (I looked at him for a sign of a bucolic humour, but none was there.) "Go through there an' yer in Harry Leonard's farm, sir. Go right through by the house, and it'll bring yer right inter the road agenst Chawlton, sir. (Mind and don't take no notice of that there lane I told yer of, sir.)"
The farmhouse stands, or rather squats, low, in dark, damp-looking greenery, just inside the orchard—this is on low-lying Terns gravel flats—with a heavy roof of red tiles—stained like iron rust, and some of them glass—that comes down so low behind that you could scratch your shoulders against the eaves. But there are rooms in the roof that hid the mysteries of the births of great, great grandfathers. The old farmhouse, as is the case of many others, looks as if it were taller at one time—higher and lighter at one time, but had settled down, like a big rusty old hen, over ceaseless generations of chickens. Stable, barn, and one big outhouse of wide—12-inch—weatherboards, tarred. Big trees along the lane to the road "heliums," or beeches, or something it doesn't matter and "hashes" at the hend of it, "agenst the road." Also big, mossy logs that were never cut up for firewood. The short lane runs from the back of the house into the road, and from the road to the kitchen door, or, to be precise, to the outer kitchen, or slush-house, door. As seems the case with most farmhouses round here. The front approach and front door is either a mystery or a legend—a vague bucolic superstition. Maybe there was a front entrance, and visitors, and light—in other days.
Farmer's wife dead—the village people never talk of her to new-comers—perhaps not amongst themselves. Leonard took another woman, with a baby girl—his or some one else's—as housekeeper. Baby grown to fresh, pretty little English village beauty—"fresh" as a half -broken filly—"Miss Leonard." Her girl friend, adopted sister, or something, as companion.
Leonard, who has a little to do with the story, stands smoking—hand to pipe, casually—in the front back-side, or whatever it is, gateway, leading into the road. He is a stoutish man, calm, contented in the gloaming, with a calmness and content that he has made for himself, or rather has made his farm hands make for him (for he owns them body and soul)— with a smile that is watch-dog like, and not altogether bland at any time. Something suggestive of the mastiff with nothing on his mind and stroked by—passers-by or a dog of lesser degree succeeding in being, or seeming, unconscious under certain circumstances. Something saturnine. Two youths in their Sunday clothes, crouched behind a heap of metal a bit along to the right, and whom the blackberry overgrowth had prevented from diving into the ditch in time. They have been coming to see the girls, up at the house, under the impression that Mr. Leonard was gone to Shepperton on club business. Another young fellow, who was up at the house, slips down and out desperately—out past Leonard, bending obsequiously, and an apologetic and propitiatory hat held vertically, parallel to his ear—as if Leonard were a stationary funeral and the boy were forced by haste, and much against his will, to disobey the last injunction of the deceased, and pass the corpse.
A little man, who has been busy about the stable, passes out. A little man in corduroys, and that heavily seamed, double-fronted, calico-lined, monkey-jacket sort of coat they wear. A little man with pale blue eyes and a smile—a fixed smile. I've seen big men with it. It is as though there were deep merry dimples once, and they extended into the care and age lines, down the cheeks and into a fixed smile. I've wondered how such men manage at a funeral. But sudden and deep sorrow affects such expressions painfully; more so than in ordinary or seldom smiling men. You've seen the ghastly attempt at a smile of the smileless. But the reverse well, in ordinary circumstances, liken it to a big good-natured dog, sitting smiling his twelve-inch smile, and his master putting on a severe or mocking expression and persisting in catching his eye.
Mr. Leonard said, " Well, Billy!—as the sayin' is."
And Billy said, " Good evenin', Mr. Leonard."
And Mr. Leonard says, " Good evenin', Billy (as the sayin' is)," and something about the morning's work, perhaps. " Don't forget them there, etc., in the morning, Billy." And Billy says, " Alright, sir, " and turns towards the village.
And Billy's corduroys flicker away in the dusk. He passes and is passed by a tall, oldish man (oldish is the word) with a bend—or—stay—by an elderly man—an elderly labouring man, who would be tall but for the bend. An elderly labouring man with a squarish face—oblong, but features square, rather. Gladstonian face without the politics, and a dirty-looking grey frill beard, like the hair of a white Scotch terrier that's been in the ashes and wants washing. We don't notice that they nod or speak to each other in passing, but something makes us feel that it's just the same as if they did. The old man is bent from the hips up, and carries his arms with his hands clasped behind—on a lower rear gable as it were—or the end of the rain slope. He wears no coat, of course, but generally a calico-backed waistcoat hanging open in front, and a red speckled handkerchief round his neck, knotted under his frill. One fancies that his running (on some improbable village occasion) would a question of his legs keeping up, perforce, indignantly, and with breathless difficulty, with the forward top-heavy weight of his body. He is the farm and village handy man, "Jack-of-all- trades," but wait a minute "Jack" doesn't fit him say Old-George-of-all-trades. And his name is George, too. Old George Higgins; and he is, or, rather was, father-in-law to the little man with a smile.
Mr. Leonard says, "Well, George (as the sayin' is), ain't yer fixed them pipes at the Bow Winders yet?"
And old George says, " Not yet, sir. I'm jist going up for somethin' fer a bit more 'roddin'." And he plods up the lane. "Roddin'" is a sewer pipe-cleaning arrangement of his, composed of stout wire, old clothes-line, pliable poles, sticks, etc.—and more of the Bow Winders later.
Charlton is a name on a big grained and varnished gate in a high brick wall, much higher in one place, where there is a tennis ground or something behind it. Glimpses through the gate, when it opens to the carriage—opens reluctantly and shuts quickly—jealously and indignantly behind it—reveal an oblong two-storied house, partly end on, very fresh and clean, painted in light colour with French grey about the windows, and splashed and sprayed with ivy.
"Chawlton" is the farm labourers' village opposite, on the frontage of the farm. Six square, two storied cottages, or rather hutches, of dirty, smoky-looking brown brick, with dirty, smoky-looking tiles, but why I don't know, for this is far from London's smoke and grit. Perhaps it was soiled or inferior material from the kilns. Gable roofs all running the same way, and the houses in a straight row and exactly alike. Two or three-foot hawthorn hedge in front, and no division whatever, save an old batten here and there—and the footpaths running up to the back fence—between the vegetable gardens behind. The cottages are double, yet square; four pigeon-hole rooms aside; kitchen-dining-and-general-living-room, with the narrowest and steepest of little stairs running up through it—sort of dirty little ladder with the rungs boxed in. Inevitable dark little parlour in front, with the pitiful little useless toy "suite" on time payment, which is never used. They draw the blind and open the front door sometimes, like the dusty lid of a chest on end, to let some one see the suite, who hasn't seen it before. Two bedrooms upstairs. I haven't seen them, so I don't know what they're like. There must be a spare room for Granny, or Aunt Emma, when she comes for her annual holiday. Some of the family, if there is one, sleep on made-up beds downstairs on such occasions.
But opposite the gate with "Charlton" on it is a double cottage of a much better class, with bow or bay windows—"fitted up like London." This is the Bow Winders that Leonard speaks of. Five rooms; one extended above the wash-house, coal-house and convenience. Sewage runs into a mysterious hole somewhere at the bottom of the orchard. The sewage of the labourers' cottages is buried at the back of the gardens, mostly by moonlight or lantern light. The people of Charlton paid the farmer the difference in the expense of building a better class cottage opposite their gate, so that a square brick hutch wouldn't blink in, with its little sore eyes, as it were, when the carriage came out. Hence the Bow Winders.
English village owners and builders seem to have a fixed idea that English families—each of its own class—are born in couples, or twos, or twins, to live together as twins, and grow up, and down, together as twins, for in modern villages round London the hutches or houses are twins, with, even in the better class, or week-end village, seldom a dividing hedge or fence more than breast high. Perhaps this was to save extra walls and space. Maybe it is conducive to morality, and mitigates curiosity, speculation, gossiping and mischief making, where people see pretty well what's going on and what the next door people are doing, all the time. But it helps build up those awful things called "respectability" and "keeping up appearances," and the awful better-class English Silence. The 3s. per week hutch-twins are kept apart, of course, and the £25, £30, £45 and £50 to £100, and so on—pounds a year twin villas clan together in clannish silence, so class distinctions cannot clash. And the common people pull their forelock harder and squirm lower the higher the rent a man pays per quarter for his house. This twin-villaed, paling-fenceless style does very well in conservative, cast-iron-customed, own-business-minding and necessarily polite, trades-entranced English better class villages, as also in twin-hutched, spiritless, farm slave villages, where all the women have to go out and take their chance at the butcher's cart; but it would never do in wide, free, democratic Australia, where your neighbour, if so built and constituted, is free to loom up over the shrubbery and curse and criticize, and tradespeople and carters to fling things on the front verandah and smoke in their fellow-countrymen's or women's faces—whether they smoke or not, as many union barbers do now in Sydney, where Mrs. Liberty-Freedom is free to forget, as painfully, frequently, and freely as she dares, that she is a lady—or ought to be one.
I had my fences raised three or four feet in Harpenden, a day-end village, but that was nothing. We were Australians and therefore unconventional. Also we were used to living alone and privately in the Bush. I only had one suit at a time, but that was nothing. I was an Australian, and therefore had money. I fled to London for the first winter, where there were lights, privacy and humanity.
Fate sent a friend and an Australian to me in a high flat in Clovelly Mansions in Gray's Inn Road (where an "old maid" once "lived a life of woe"), in London. And, in order to escape from London and high rent for the second summer I sent my friend scouting. Fate sent him, in a circle almost, to Chawlton, at a time when one of the "Winders" was vacant. And I took it and got some blinds and things from Stains, and we were accepted at once as writin' gents or something from London, who wanted to have a lark or somethin', and do as they liked. Had we gone in bags and barefoot it would have been the same. We didn't work and therefore we were gents.
Leonard had "some things" on the beams in the tarred shed. A double bedstead, washstand, etc., and some chairs, also a mattress, palliasse, quilt and pillows, almost new, and tied up in a light, but good, reddish carpet, like a gigantic man-o'-warsman's bundle. The things were good, much better than was generally found in the cottages, and I took them, and started to get the Winder ready for the family. Higgins was told off to carry the things down and fix them up for me, for "being gents" we were supposed to be incapable. Higgins carried them all down on his head, and, looking at it now in an Australian Bush, and not from an English farm-labouring-village light, I think it was one of the cruellest loads that a man ever was called upon to carry.
There was, next the Bow Winders, on the outside, an old house of brick set in criss-cross beams, with rooms in the steep tiled roof, of course, and let to a painter, which house was older than the oldest inhabitant knew, and had been occupied by the Higginses in other and far better days. Before the Higginses were labourers to the Leonards. Days that have long gone out of England for ever.
Along towards Shepperton, some hundred yards or so from the end hutch of the village, was the village beerhouse—"beer-shop" they call it in London (they call things by their names)—with a low door that you stumbled in through, on to sanded floors, and under a low dark old ceiling, with the inevitable great beam, anywhere but in the centre. I stood outside that door late one night, after returning from London, and rapped at family bedroom window above—in the roof —and scared them all, and shook hands with the landlord afterwards—when he put his head out—to soothe him, and said I only wanted to borrow some matches. But that was nothing, for was not I a gent?
I still see the Gypsies dropping in, calling to each other on fine days, and calling for their ale, the hags demanding the funnel-shaped warmer from over the bar, pouring their half-pint into it, and sticking it down amongst the coals. And then hurrying out and on after the caravans.
And old Higgins in the cold sunlight standing outside the door, his bend rather more pronounced than usual, and hands held half hanging, well out and forward—in the attitude of an exhausted pelican, and asking for arf-a-pint to be brought out to him. "Hiff you please, missus." For he's bin fixin' them thundrin' drain pipes at they "Winders" agen, and ain't fit to come in.
And also, on Sunday morning, the brightest time, between church and dinner, a memory glimpse of a bright fair-haired little maid in charge of her jolly, good-natured and rather irresponsible young dad, and her extremely neat and clean but rather "fresh" and equally irresponsible old grandfather.
" Now then, grandfather, if—you— don't—come—home—to—dinner—at—once I'll tell mother you've been drinking more beer agen—so there! There's two bottles at home." Then that quick, inimitable, unexpected, startling little-woman comment, " You're old enough to have more sense if father ain't."
Chorus: "That's a good 'un,"
The parlour with a long table piano at one end and a small-paned window at the other—like one of our narrower ones laid on its side to fit the inn. A model of a ship over the mantel and above it a portrait of the landlord's own ship. For he was a youngish man-o'-warsman, retired on rheumatism, and his wife a youngish woman with reddish hair, the last and only surviving child of a long line of village publicans. They were childless, and during his rheumatic attacks she referred to him to gentlemen customers as "her baby." There was a hole into the bar, opposite the piano, through which the landlord might serve drinks—and keep an eye on his wife. Clients, for whom the landlord refused to "slate it" further until settled with, made grumbling and nasty comments about babies.
The long side parlour, sacred to Leonard and his equals and one or two of the elders, and doubly sacred on Club or meeting nights when births, deaths, accidents and widows and orphans were provided against, or arranged for, or disposed of. Then the solemn conclave would relax.
Leonard, who always said " As the sayin' is," and would be indicated, particularized and disposed of right off and at once and for ever in the Bush by some variation of his habitual expression. "The Sayin' Ass," for instance.
He would like to say a few words, as the sayin' is. He had heard, as the sayin' is, all as had been said, as the sayin' is, here this afternoon, as the sayin' is. Now, gentlemen, as the sayin' ——He started to tell me a yarn once (as the sayin' is), and after about half an hour, introductory, mostly "as the savin' is," an' so to make it short, as the sayin' is, he went to Australia, as the sayin' is, and kept an hotel, as the sayin' is, but, anyhows, as the sayin' is——Another as the sayin' is—or whatever you call them places, as the sayin' is—I was never up in geography, as the sayin' is, but, anyhows, as the sayin' is——Another tall good-natured sawney arose occasionally to say he " 'ad a happy thought." Who would he be in the Bush but "Happy Thought"? or some pleasant variation of it, say Happy Squeak, Happy Yell, Happy Shriek, Happy Streak, Happy Smell—or Happy Stink.
This was in the House of Lords—with a gentleman or two—walking tourists or cyclists, occasionally at the lower side table by the window, when the lords of the village would edge further along the table and lower their voices in respect to strangers who were or might be gents. Or a motor would break down, and the folk come in out of the rain. Then the lords of the village would sidle out and home with all expedition, despite a polite protest from one of the gents, and a footman or two would drop in for a glass in the bar, amongst the British commons, who'd make room, but were never so impressed as the lords.
The British commons sat round on narrowest of stools, and by narrowest of tables, boxed in with narrowest of settees, with the window, by the fireplace, in the little, low, saw-dusted bar-room; one generally in front of the fire in a position favourable for holding forth on opportunities, or leaning against the mantel, hooked on to it with one elbow, the other arm hanging loosely, and hanging himself, rather forward seemingly—either somewhat exhausted with the last effort, or in half unconscious acknowledgment of applause or approbation, imaginary on his part or otherwise. They passed the big pewter on Saturday nights, and the old homely, good-humoured greeting jokes about, or at the old changeless, good-humoured butts, and the sly three-cornered, homely digs at each other. And discussed interesting and important little trivial events of their work day. And joked about the ever convenient scandal about Bob So-and-so and Mrs. ——, or Lizzie , etc., etc. Men talk good-humoredly and leniently about these things and bigger scandals, be they social or political, because they recognize that they are sinners themselves—which women never do—and are mute, inglorious and inactive swindlers, by necessity or the dead hopeless weight of circumstances.
And they'd talk of old yarns, and men who told them —"Bill Stubbins, wot used to tell that there yarn about, etc., etc.," or "Tom Scroggin'—he could tell that yarn. I've never heard no one as could tell it like him, poor Bill"; or "That chap as come to work in the brickfields one year; I never could remember that man's name—as used t' sing that song about, etc., etc." But this is more like the Bush.
And they'd talk of men who left their village and went to London or "abroad"—which is everywhere else—and more of men who went abroad and wrote back, and still more of men who came back, and, which was equally frequent in such cases, went abroad again. And of men of whose deaths, fortunes, entrance into high society, or the gaol, or accessions to fame or the gallows they had heard rumours of. In undoubted cases (the fireplace ornament):—
"———An' he wos a stannin' here on this very spot where I'm a stannin' now, a-talking to you——" In a loud impressive, not to say aggressive tone, and with a forward sling of the arm and forefinger, that sounded and looked, from the other side of the road, and through the door or window, like one-half of a domestic row.
But old Higgins was a refreshing change—for the first time at least—when they could get him past a certain point in drinking, which happy circumstance had to be brought about very delicately, with much guile, great circumspection and carefully veiled diplomacy. If there happened to be a strange, unobtrusive face or two present, it was so much the easier. They feigned to be careless of his presence, and greatly and warmly interested in a conversation or argument amongst themselves, which was full of carefully "blinded" little traps for Higgins. Long association and practice, and many tacitly understood mental rehearsals had made them perfect. They'd pass the pewter to him, out of his turn, and leave it longer in his hand, in an absent-minded way. Then, presently, he'd begin to get uneasy, and edge and shuffle on his seat, and move his bend towards the fireplace—and one would nudge me respectfully.
Higgins had possessed and studied from boyhood an old elementary book of Euclid the only thing he ever read, except an occasional newspaper, which he studied for the same reason that "free thinkers" study the Bible.
"Life" he'd say, after some preliminary shuffles, coughs and grunts, "is wot I call made up of triangles—ekal hatteral triangles. Circles is made up of triangles, and made with triangles, if you consider the legs of the compass the sides, and the lines between the points the bases. Squares is double triangles when you run a line to opposite corners. Oblongs, the same way, is hobtuse or haycute angles—an' both. An' a right hangle is a right hangle, no matter which side you might lay it on. It's a right angle if you lay it flat, but all sorts of angles if you run lines from the corners to the bases—which yer can't in wot I call the equell try hangles of life.
"Now this is my case" (this was before the trouble with his daughter), "there's that there Lizzie o' mine at the happix, and me and the missus at the hextremities of the base. We can't come no nearer for a right hangle try-hangle is rigid. We might change corners, but that would make no difference between me and the missus, but one of us, if we could agree about it, or to take turn 'en turn about, might change corners with Lizzie—which might do her some good—but we'd be just as far from each other as ever. And if we laid the triangle flat we'd be just as far off as ever, and it would do none of us any good. An' if we was to put hinges on it it wouldn't make no difference.
"Now, if I was to go out and another man—say, a younger an' more experienced one—was t' take my place I—I—well, I don't know who'd be at the happix pretty soon, but one on 'em would."
(A Voice: "Mrs. Higgins is jest out the door listnin' all the time!")
"She's gone to Shepperd's for starch—an' eye out for a likely second, maybe. My ole woman is fore-seein'."
"But what about Billy here?"
"Well, if I died, an' Billy an' Lizzie gets married. I know where Billy would be—where I left—for a while at least. And anyways, supposin' I didn't die. I know who'd be at the happix, expecially if it was a girl. An' so on with the triangles of life; children, and more children, allus crowdin' the happexes, an' the old people bustin' themselves to death shorin' up the legs or bases of the ekel try hangles of life, till they give out of old age, and then summon comes down as often as not."
"Life is a triangle," once said Brennan, the silent semi-foreman (a Reynold's Newspaper reader), to the surprise of all, who had dropped in, in the absence of his wife and her mother from the village, to get his bottle filled. "Life is a tryangle. You're right there, Higgins, and you and me and the rest of us in hundreds of English villages are shoring up the props. And they're comin' down, Higgins!" and he went out.
They stared at one another, and "Wot's come over to Brennan to-night," they grumbled. "He must be gettin' speerits from somewhere.
Poor old Higgins! Pausing for wind in the dusty field in a sweltering mid-afternoon, with a hoe, or other handy implement—or a piece of "roddin'" of suitable length, at the Winders—one end planted between his hob-nailed boots, and his hands resting on or grasping the other end—and his frilled chin on the uppermost hand—he formed an eloquent triangle of life, that only needed the last life blow to knock sideways, backways, frontways, or anyways, and have it over.
Who would he be but "Old Tryangles" in the Bush?
The village had its stale mysteries—two of them. When the old cottage had been some time empty, on account of the Higginses being unable to pay the rent charged for the home of their ancestors, there came an unknown but respectable looking woman in black to Leonard, who said she was an invalid with an only daughter, and needed country air, and she persuaded Leonard to let her have the place at the ordinary rental. By and by a man came round, a short stout man, like a cross between an old Maori chief and an English labourer. Leonard spoke to her about it, and she said he was her husband. He became the village and roundabouts house-painter. They had lots of books, bound volumes of old magazines, London journals, etc., that looked as if they had belonged to a library. I talked to the girl, who seemed peculiar, and was a bit deaf, and we exchanged books. They were from Hindia, she said. She told me some of her history, and wrote the rest. It seemed she was entitled to estates in Scotland from a dead uncle, but there had been a lot of trouble, and she had lost them but there was a big law-suit coming on between her lawyers and the others. The painter and his wife were faithful old servants of her uncle's estates, who had thrown in their lot with her, and were sticking to her. Her poor faithful servants! she hoped to reward them in the near future. She was hengaged to a hofficer in Hindia, but had given him up when she came home and found she'd been robbed of her fortune. He wrote frantic letters, but she had made up her mind for his sake, and he would never find her, not until she came into her hown. If never, then never.
She was a curious lunatic, but hardly to be wondered at, being the only girl in that village, alone and apart, with some common mystery or disgrace over her, and some tons of London Journal literature. He might have been a librarian, book-worm, book-dealer, thief, receiver of stolen property, fugitive from India—or anything.
She went to Shepperton three nights a week with an old fiddle case (which she called her violin), and—and came back again; as thousands of sane girls do from other towns. She said she was taking lessons—as thousands of other girls do.
The other mystery was a Scotchman, who lived alone in a barred and barricaded house, that looked as if it had been built for a bakery (I don't know why I thought so), along about the middle of the big cabbage field, and kept about twenty extremely optimistic and friendly dogs. Some said he had to keep them or lose a legacy. Others said that he had a big fortune and estates in the north, and preferred to live alone, but was bound by the will to keep up five carriages, and so many pairs of horses, and so many coachmen, butlers, stewards, footmen, maid servants, gardeners, etc., etc., etc., which he did. With a man with a likely eye to look after them, too, I should think. 'Twas also said that his wife came in a carriage to see him "every once in two years," but never went inside, or even left the carriage. No one had been inside. He was a pleasant man; had been a gentleman; was certainly educated and intelligent, and seemed well read, and he never washed so far as I could see—save perhaps when he sweated and used his handkerchief. But he was never seen to sweat, and no one had ever "seed no handkercher." I made inquiries. He used to run round and across fields with his dogs, early mornings. He paid cash, and publican and tradespeople were scandalized when I called him "Scotty." They called him Mr. Morton, and all treated him with respect. He might have been a lunatic, a coiner, or forger, a ruined author—or publisher—or an ordinary dirty eccentric refugee from society. So the Scotch hermits seem to be settling in England, as well as Scotch doctors, publishers and general imposters. It was a sad day for the English when England was annexed by Scotland. The English people have been against the alleged union from the very first, I believe.
Have you noticed that our hatters, or hermits, are, as a rule, scrupulously clean about their persons, tents and caves? as well as clean mouthed? Perhaps they are hermits to be clean and fresh, while the others are to be dirty.
I never saw the parson at or near the village, though he had a bike, and was a well knit, active man, quite young—an athlete, in fact, and a keen sportsman. He had a tombstone in the churchyard, sacred to the memory of his third wife—or was it his fourth?—and they said that "parson was keep'n company again." He wore tourist jacket, cap, knickerbockers, and a bike—the last mostly between his legs—whenever I saw him. He seemed an improvement on "The Private Secretary." But I can't think exactly in which way. He might have been more useful out here in an English eleven.
The Shepperton doctor was Scottish—and a friend of mine. So I won't write about him.
There was that something of the "sullen, silent" atmosphere—without the "half-devil and half-child" business about the village which had struck me forcibly while school teaching a pah of low-class Maories at the other side of the world a year or two before. Men and women worked in the fields for, the men from fifteen shillings to a pound a week, and the women seven to eleven shillings. I used to hear them calling each other in the dark, on bitter cold mornings. Those who had children, and no old granny capable of looking after them, used to club together and pay one of their number to look after the children while they were in the fields. Some had to pay to have old granny looked after, too. The children who were old enough to do so worked in the fields. The woman with the hoe was there, plenty of her—not twenty miles from London—bag aprons and the hoes. There was an old solitary couple I noticed often in the big cabbage field. They lived in one hole in the end of an old hovel, but were clean on Sundays. I've often seen them plod home, bent, in the rain, with sacks tied on and their hoes on their shoulders bags heavy with wet, and hobnailed boots—they both wore them—heavy with clay. End of a "good" week they'd come into the beerhouse for their pints, or half-pints. Their philosophy was—grim—practical they talked—or drivelled, or doted, or cackled, about "them as 'as it," sometimes: not resentfully, discontentedly, enviously, or covetously, but from habit, as other old couples had done before them for generations. She treated him as a rather useless overgrown child with whom she "had no patience," and he defended himself, or rather took it all with grumbling humour or sarcasm—as other old couples have done for generations. It seemed as though they had been only children of old couples right back to the beginning of 'em, and it had ended, or was ending, without a child. In bad weeks they sometimes "wished as they 'ad it"—but you couldn't conceive them as being in earnest about it. If they had "it" suddenly and survived the shock, there would probably be no old couple on earth—or young couple either—who would know less what to do with it. The fear of "they lawyers," and "they banks," and "they thieves" would probably drive them to bury it, and sleep on it, and fight about it, and shift it to a new place every night, and sleep on it there, and end by not sleeping at all, because of watching each other all night. And it might end by one poisoning—or hoeing—the other. Or they'd turn misers and die in dirt and starvation.
There were no village beauties, nor dancing on the village green in that village. (I wonder if there ever had been in England.) Because there was no green, and an utter absence of girls. They had to go to service before they were old enough. Or to a factory. Girls prefer the factory in England, both in this and "better-class" villages. Because, after factory hours, long as they be, the girl's time is her own. And because English middle class mistresses are seldom human beings where" maids "are concerned, and "keeping up appearances" is a fetish, a religion—very life to them.
The farm hands on Saturday nights sometimes went home three or four arm-in-arm, singing "Comrades—comrades—since the days where we were boys—sharin'—each other's—sorrers—sharin'—each other's joys." Never anything else. They shared their joys on a bank outside the Winders one night, and I complained on the grounds of the sleeping children. I never heard them share each other's joys after that, and have always been remorseful and sorry about it.
The men—as I mentioned before—got from fifteen shillings to twenty shillings per week, and the women from seven shillings to eleven shillings in the season. They paid three shillings for their hutches—deducted from their wages—twopence a pint for their ale, and anything from threepence to one shilling per week on the suites that were never used. Besides club fees for births, illness and burials (which seemed the only things that ever happened there). I don't pretend to know how they did it, but they grew their own vegetables, and got seed potatoes, etc., free, I think. Some worked at the brickfields and other places when not wanted on the farm. They were slaves, and treated as slaves, and seemed invulnerable in their position as willing slaves. I'd often fill the pewter, and be just getting comfortable with them and getting copy when one would spoil it with, "We 'ope we ain't intrudin', sir? We 'ope we ain't makin' too free, sir?" They'd carry a "gent" home beastly drunk and call him "sir" all the time. "Excuse us, sir, but you're bein' sick, sir! Hadn't we better stand yer up agen the wall, sir? Till yer right, sir? Once I said, "For Heaven's sake don't call me sir," which only embarrassed and struck them dumb! It was no use trying to treat them as equals. " He's a gent, and Gol darn it! Why don't he let us treat him like a gent?" And the servants, or "maids," well, if I treated one as I'd treat an Australian girl, she'd reckon I was "no class," and she'd lose cast by being in my service. It's easier to get up amongst the upper class in England. But don't be proud. It's coming in Australia every day.
One Brennan, who lives in the nearest hutch to the Winders, was sort of upper hand on the farm. Sort of super, whose position was not recognized in any way by the farmer, but who was made to feel his responsibility all the same, and who, therefore, seemed sullenly apart from his fellows. He was the trusted man to go to London with the wagon or wagons of fruit and produce in season. Started at four in the morning, got back at any time at night—or next morning in the fog—was probably allowed eighteenpence for travelling expenses, and was secretly known by the whole village to get twenty-two shillings a week, instead of a pound, which was secretly held by his wife and the whole village to be a secret between him and her and the boss. She set out the bread and cheese on the table and the black bottle of ale, late in foggy "Lunnon night," and went out to the front with something over her head, now and then, to look for her chap.
She had a holiday once every two years to a married sister's at Margate, but told me she was going to have on' this ye'. " We ain't going to do this work all me life for nothin'. My chap give it to me this year."
She used to sit outside in the sun and sew calico—well, combinations—with an offhandedness that set even me at my ease, and I was a shy man.
One day I heard him ask her to wash his trousers, and he added "only wash the linin'." Which gave me a poor opinion of his intelligence. But I've thought since that the linin' was probably put in so that it could be undone and drawn out at the bottom of the pants. (I've a vague impression of seeing some so.) For on Sunday morning he sat at the back and read Reynold's Newspaper. He lent it to his wife's father afterwards, who lived with granny next door in the other half of the dog-kennel; but I don't know who he lent it to.
This is no democratic touch, because I'm supposed to be a democrat in a democratic country. It is no literary trick. This was five years ago, and a sign on the face of it of the great change that was coming and is coming to English politics. That the white world never dreamed would come to England. Was it only one sign of the silent, sullen seeming undercurrent of thought, that was going on in that and hundreds of other English villages.
And to such a village had come, some three or four years ago, little Billy with his smile.
And while Billy is getting used to conditions which are strangely new to him after exile to London and a nightmare "abroad," and while men and women are getting used to Billy, who has never changed, I'll tell you of something else.
I have neither stage-room nor time to describe the villages, fairs and gipsies connected with them, though I've seen fairs, from one at Little Hilliford (where Sykes and Oliver Twist passed that morning) to Islington Fair, which is a surprisingly small and cramped affair for its name and fame as indeed are most other famous things in London, from St. Paul's, which seems a dirty old toy at first Australian sight, to the Angel at Islington, or The Cheshire Cheese, in Wine Court Ally, Strand, where, in the little cramped, sawdusted dining-room The Immortal British Bore sat in a corner (where a marble plate on the wall now records the fact) before he got up and made that most original and world-famous proposal of his.
The memories of old Paddy's Market and Paddy's Market Square of twenty years ago will give old Sydneyites a very good idea of the real thing.
Some gipsy caravans are models in woodwork, with polished brasswork inside, and fitted like a ship's cabin. But most of the travelling ones are rough and dirty enough. I shall always remember the gipsies as hurrying on, camping at a fire left by a caravan ahead, probably, for a few minutes it seemed, and hurrying on. Caravan hurrying on after caravan, and gipsies on foot hurrying on after gipsies on foot, talking their own "outlandish," and calling to each other. Running in and out of line to the beerhouse (generally in a pocket of the hedges out of sight of the road till you see it), and hurrying out and on again. But they camped, sometimes by Charlton, where, as in most other places, they were outcast and unappreciated, and were hurried on as soon as possible. Between Charlton and its Four Lanes was a triangular piece of ground, hedged in and known as the "Three Corner Medder," or "Three Corner Loosen," or something, and this the Gipsies sometimes hired from Leonard as a camp for themselves and horses. It was a perfect triangle, and the side lanes, both went to church and the post office, or rather to a stile and a path that ran across a sort of waste or common to the church or the post office, which latter seemed a pretty vine-covered, flower-fronted English village-drama cottage and nothing else.
Across the open space ran a big, old avenue from nowhere to where a court, castle, keep, or stately home of England formerly stood.
The gipsy tents are very low, and rounded—exactly like the round tilts on spring carts and drays, that went out with my childhood, only brown. Exactly as staged in "Romany Rye."
I well remember one day passing two lone caravans camped in one of the lanes, and two sullen, resentful-looking men grazing their horses, with ropes attached, along the roadside. And as we passed I saw the old crone hurrying up and down the steps of one of the caravans. When we returned, an hour or so later, she was poking round the fire like a witch in daylight—and the daylight didn't make any difference—she said—
"Come on, my pretty young gents, and see what you shall see," beckoning me in particular, and she climbed the steps, shutting the lower half of the door.
"Come on, my pretty young gent," she said, " and see the Gipsy child!"
I stood on the lower step and looked in. It was very neat and clean, with a bunk like a ship's bunk in front end of it, and in it lay a young woman with the clearest, freshest olive complexion I ever saw, with the red through it like a blush it may have been a blush—and great brown eyes, half wild, half laughing, if I might put it so—turned to us, and from her side the crone lifted a fine brown baby, naked, as far as I could see in the flash, and she held it up over the door for a moment for my friend to see too. She spoke of broth or something, and I gave her a shilling, and later on sent down some broth, or, to be exact, not liking to ask any of the villagers to carry broth to a common gipsy, I carried it down myself, Australian fashion, and gave it to one of the sullen men, who rubbed off his hat in a surprised manner. Perhaps he thought it was beer. I didn't look back to see. Just round the corner of the hedge I came on Leonard talking to the other man with very little as the say in' is about it.
"I was jest shiftin' of 'em on, as the sayin' is," he said to me. "They're worse than no class, as the sayin' is, and I can't trust my turnips, as the sayin' is."
"But, Mr. Leonard," I said, " one of the young women's just had a child, and she surely could never stand the jolting on in that caravan. It would kill her, man!"
"Don't you be afraid of that, as the sayin' is," he said ; " they're only animals, as the sayin' is— an'——" And so on.
But I persisted, and he said, "Ah, well, as the sayin' is, since you wish it, as the sayin' is, I'll give them another night, as the sayin' is." And he stepped back to the man to tell him that as the gent, as the sayin' is, and, etc. And if they behaved themselves as the sayin' is, etc.
I passed the Three Corner Medder at nightfall next evening, curious to see if the gipsies were gone yet, and the old crone by the fire called to me.
"Come, my pretty young gent, and I'll tell you your fortune true."
I thought it rather mercenary, but, having spent an hour or so at the Farmers' Arms, I went and sat on my heel in front of her, since she didn't rise. She took my wrist in her bony hand, which seemed startlingly white, like a skeleton one, but it may have been a play of moonlight or daylight through a hole in the hedge. Her hair was grey under the hood, a dirty grey, her face was hollow, but the lower half squarish, in thin lines, like her mouth. But her eyes! I hadn't noticed them so much in daylight—perhaps they had contracted like a cat's—but now they seemed the blackest and most piercing I had ever seen. Piercing, but like a shining black wall when you tried to look into them. And they were fastened on mine. I thought of cheap mesmerism or hypnotism, and all the old tricks and patter, as she repeated in a harsh, cracking voice—
My pretty young gent, you may laugh your last,
And laugh till your laugh is through,
But I'll tell you the tale of your dead, dead past,
And I'll tell you all too true.
"Oh, I've heard that before," I said; "tell me something new, granny? "
"The old before the new," she said; "the old before the new." Then, after a pause that seemed no pause, and with a distant humming in my ears and a sudden feeling of helplessness and heaviness, came a voice, or voices—they didn't seem hers—as of a hundred imps singing round in a great mile wide circle—
Wrap me up in my stockwhip and blanket,
And bury me deep down below,
Where the dingoes and crows won't molest me,
In the land where the coolibars grow.
I had fingers and toe to the dust to start up, but she held me as a vice, and I felt a great heaviness and a weight on my shoulders, as if Sampson's hands were there, and I went down again. Heaviness and weight vanished. But I had laughed my last, as far as she was concerned. I had had my laugh through, and was done with—had no further use for it for the time being. The last time I had heard those lines sung it was by a young woman, a girl of eighteen, in a fourth rate pub in Sydney, and she was recklessly drunk—and she had been a schoolmate of mine. It brought as much of the tale of the dead, dead past back to me as I wanted just then, and I let the old gipsy know that without speaking.
" Ah! " she said. " You have brown eyes, and your people may have been of our people once. But you fear the black eyes! You fear the black eyes! "
That was a fact anyway.
Then she, she was sitting on a black box of some kind, folded her skeleton hands on her lap, and turned a little to face the full moon that was just looking over the hedge, and which can look with more expression over an English hedge than over any sea, mountain, plain, bush or scrub in Australia.
Then, taking my hand again, and holding it on her bony knee, she began to sing—and in another voice, but low and sweet, as of an old woman who could sing once, before her voice went (tragically, and before a crowded audience, maybe), patting my hand with her bony one the time—as far as I can remember or reconstruct—
You have come, by bush and town,
From where blue-eyed men are brown,
Drought and rain and sun and shade
Gipsies born and gipsies made,
Follow still the gipsy trade.
Children pray in Sunday school
For princes who shall never rule.
Folk do many foolish things
For the kings who are not kings ;
Men and women bow and crawl
Where no tyrant reigns at all.
And the worst of all things be,
In the light of Liberty.
You have come in strife and pain,
You shall go but come again.
One that's sane shall drive you mad,
One that's mad shall drive you sane.
He whose wealth you helped to make,
Make you rich for your own sake.
You shall sink but rise again,
With the strength of ten times ten,
And shall be a king of men.
Those whose names you write and call
Make you famous over all.
One who's deaf shall make you hear,
One who's blind shall make you see.
Absent ones be ever near,
Nearer still in pain and fear;
One who never dreamed a dream
Shall reveal the mystery
Raise your eyes and you shall see.
[I saw hypnotic visions and illusions here.]
Yesternight in Land o' Scorn,
Was a gipsy baby born.
In the Country of the Blind
Was a sighted stranger kind.
Go you calm, or go you wild,
You have helped a gipsy child;
He shall grow with courage grim,
Strength of sight and strength of limb—
All you lack shall be in him.
Go you far or go you near.
Take no guards, and take no fear.
Where you walk, there he shall run,
In the snow or in the sun.
Shield your daughter and your son.
Lined your face and grey your hair,
Under home or strangest skies,
Sunk in seeming dark despair,
Death or madness everywhere,
Be your friends however fair,
Let your enemies beware
Of dark eyes and of dark hair.
And she hitched round and fixed her own on me, with a jerk, so to speak. I got up in a hurry while I could, and, as she still continued to regard me with that intent night-cat look of hers, I got out half a crown, awkwardly enough, and, as she never moved a finger, I laid it down on the edge of the ashes. She never looked at it, but at me, so I shuffled off, and round the corner I made good time to the Farmers' Arms.
But a strange thing was to happen. I worked all that night, and went out at daybreak with my pipe, and seemed to be swung round in my eccentric strolling past the Three Corners. I thought I'd see how the gipsy camp looked asleep, but it was gone. It was, save for a circular patch of white ashes, as if it had never been. The grass was clean. Even the signs of horses had vanished. I walked over to the place where the fire had been, and there, on the very rim of the circle of white wood ash, lay my new halfcrown. It flashed in my mind then that she had been in a kind of trance when I laid it down and had seen nothing. But when I picked it up I saw that it was marked. Marked deeply round the rim, as I have seen others marked, and with lines and tiny little partly sunk drill holes in many places. Whenever I look at it now I seem to see new marks and combinations. I have never found anybody who could, or would, read it for me.
Some day I may.
III. THE LITTLE MAN WITH THE SMILE
BILLY was a child of, and not with a gloomy family, with dimples as a boy, very grey eyes, and a roguish smile, which changed as he grew to a good-humoured one, and finally to the fixed smile of acquiescence. A tolerant smile he wore, even when his fiendish little elder sister tore at him and struck him. There was nothing but gloom at home, gloom and quarrels, shot occasionally with lurid rows. It must have taken a lot to drive a lad of Billy's nature from home, but driven he was—after his father had been driven to drink, and drank himself away from sordidly, hopeless earthly things. Billy took refuge with an aunt in London, and when she died his smile had found him friends with an old Crimean warman's family—a plasterer, who had a friend or patron, who had friends, who had a friend who helped Billy to a passage to Australia. He and his box got separated at Fenchurch station, and came together unexpectedly at Gibraltar, and that was as far as Billy ever went in confidence, or took his chosen friends on his voyage to Australia. Something was supposed to have happened to him out there, for he returned within six months. Many came and come here who got frightened and "run" before they get their second wind. During the awful heat wave of '96 hundreds came no further than the harbour. In fact, all who could do it, went back by the same boat, or never left it, and went to other places. But Billy came further than that, I believe.
I would never dream of trying to make a "character" of Lizzie Higgins. Had she been a character, nothing in particular might have happened—certainly nothing in particular would have been known to have happened. "Nothing in particular." That was her character, and facial expression, if she had one at all; that was the complexion of every case she was connected with—except the last. And that is nothing in particular now, either to her or the village. Except, perhaps, to poor old Higgins with his bend.
Lizzie was "above medium height," which is commonplace in itself; had the characterless English apple bloom, which dulls and reddens and withers and cracks, but never dies out, and the ingratiating smile, not for men, but for any woman, a rung above her in life—a little classier.
When anything was to be "got up" in a hurry for Charlton it was slipped through the gate after dusk, per servant, to Mrs. Higgins' cottage, with impressive low-voiced instructions—like a mystic rite connected with a better class birth or funeral. Mrs.Higgins' front room—the suite had gone—I'll tell about that later on—was an atmosphere of warmth on cold nights, or rather a punctuation in an atmosphere of fog, sleet, mist, rain or hail. A full stop, as it were, with a ring or halo round it, as some writers put round a period to make it plain for the printer. An atmosphere of warmth and clean fat arms, and the unreproducable smell of clean linen, honestly washed, and clear starching and hot ironing that comes to or from no laundry with its cheating, its flagrantly, brazen dishonesty, and its dirt-hiding, shirt and collar ruining gloss composition. There was the smell of a drop of gin hot there sometimes, they said, but I never noticed it. It couldn't have done otherwise than do Mrs. Higgins and the clothes good. She had all the atmosphere of a model widow washerwoman, though Higgins was a hard-working, steady live man. He never changed. He was never seen in the ironing room. He always came in and went out in a disconnected or detached way through "the back door at the side," whether there were clients' servants or not in the ironing room. His bend came in there too in the other sense, for the door was low, though wide, but it came in at a rather more acute angle, just for all the world (he having his arms behind him) as if he were carrying in a sheet of bark with him on his back (to make an extra bunk with).
Mothers stick to daughters in those villages, and help them in "their trouble," and keep it from the old man till the last moment. Longer if they can. Send her to Aunt Martha, or some one at a distance, for a holiday, or on some pretext. It would hinder the old man's work to know. He must "take his meat, and have his sleep"—or they all might starve— and that wouldn't mend matters. And—well. "She ain't the first and she won't be the last." And sometimes, if the old man proves unreasonably obstinate and for an unreasonable length of time they add again, more decidedly, and somewhat impatiently, "She ain't the first and she won't be the last," and, maybe, "And, well, if it comes to that, he ought to know, or ought to remember, when he was young, or when he was courtin', is meant, I suppose. They say that old Higgins was as straight as any of 'em in his time, though I cannot believe it to look at him now. And that there was a Lizzie at his wedding. And she was Mrs. Higgins."
Lizzie went early to service, in Shepperton, and was trained under a trained servant or maid. They call them all maids. Book-keeping is included in the training, and that, with the mistress, tends to make them what they are. Their very tears seem stony, whether of vexation, sorrow, or love. And Lizzie was less sentimental than the average village girl of her class, to begin with. You've seen the girl who would sit bolt upright, hands down, while the tears of chagrin or disappointment start from eyes set in a face of stone? They are as hopeless as the dark-skinned "white" men, whose faces go grey in anger.
Lizzie kept company with a young man in Shepperton, who was "on the line, on a trine" (as Barry Pain puts it) or—"on the railway," as we'd say, and there was some talk. 'Twas said also that Lizzie's mother helped her. But Lizzie didn't mind "talk." She rather liked it. She went to London afterwards, with the same family. Mistress died, and master went to London with Lizzie to look after the children—or mistress died there, and Lizzie was kept or stayed on. . . . There's such a thing (unwritten yet) as "masters'" rights in England. Certainly in the case of young housekeepers to middle-aged widowers—or husbands whose wives are not wives. "It's only natural," and no one need be any the wiser if master acts all right, in event of "trouble." . . . . But anyway, the young railwayman went to London, by the "trine " I presume, one holiday to see Lizzie, and he never went again. Perhaps he got a practical, common sensible dismissal. Or may be he heard "talk." Lizzie never "talked" herself—whether of past mistresses (or masters) to present ones, or about present ones, outside. This seems a good point in the training. Pity mistresses weren't trained in return.
Lizzie's situation was in a flat in Clovelly Mansions in Grey's Inn Road, where no one knoweth the people next door across the landing (say, seven or eight stories up), and masters and mistresses needn't be married unless they like. Here she made the acquaintance of a young man—a mere boy—in a milk-walk, who served many flats—and had a few of them in his walk of life. His brother had an interest in the firm he worked for, so he was above the ordinary run of milk-walkers—he was some class. And Lizzie kept company, or walked out with him, though I don't know how she did it, unless he never slept, or took her on the milk-walk before daylight. He got the sack for lateness and missing clients. He lingered too long at the servant's entrance of Lizzie's flat, planning for the future—a room and a bit for furniture. They have no time to talk of love and such nonsense.
But before that Lizzie took him, one holiday, to Chawlton to see her folks. Which was right, and good, and natural, and is a pleasing feature of young English pre-marital life. But Lizzie's mistress was young and something human, and had a sense of humour, unusual for young mistresses in flats, where they needn't be married to their husbands unless they like. And Lizzie confided to her, in all seriousness, but in her nothing-in-particular tone, that she was taking Mr. Jinkins (that was young Jenkins, the milk-walker) home, in order to see whether it would " make some talk in Shepperton," where Lizzie had some friends amongst maids and others. Now, as Shepperton was a better-class village, this would seem to give some idea of Lizzie's intelligence and the height of her social ambition, but it doesn't, unless you know that, even in upper-class villages, mistresses drive round and make calls solely to talk about their servants, old or new. I knew one lady, who ordered her carriage and drove a distance to tell her friend that she believed her maid was, etc., etc., etc., etc.
But Lizzie and her young man from London certainly did make some talk in Chawlton, where a little talk goes a long way—with additions and repetitions, reiteration, correction, and denial—and lasts a long time. For a generation sometimes.
But Mr. Jenkins got the vulgar Australian sack, and Lizzie gave him her savings to buy cans, get cards printed, and start in business on his own, independent of his brother, whom she disliked, and to rent a room—or a couple—which shows the practical constancy of many English maids and servants. God help some of them! 'Twas even said she left her situation in the flat and lived in the rooms—or one of them—to assist him with her business ability. I know enough of the character of British servant-galism to believe that she might have done so, and yet have married him in the end, a "bride" in every way.
Anyway, it would have been nothing in particular, and Chawlton would have been none the wiser, save for a rumour. Lizzie mightn't have minded much if it had. It would have given it something to talk about.
But "Jenkins & Co., Milk Vendors, Pure Country Milk," speaking by the card, went as vulgarly bung as any bank, but without hurting any one in particular, and with no hope of reconstruction, and young Jenkins returned to the home of his brother, or rather his sister-in-law, and Lizzie went home to Chawlton for a rest (which made a little talk), and the two speculators never met again in this world, that I know of. Which was nothing in particular in English maidserving and milk-walking circles. They say that Lizzie made up for awhile, first, to an old married, ex-servant she knew, whose son was a clerk and " some class," but we don't want him.
Little Billy and his smile were liked in the village, and popular with the children. He had left home early in life, and had been in various places in and around London. In the north and east, I fancied sometimes, and had worked at many things, and no doubt had often been trusted as caretaker or odd hand because of his smile alone. He worked at the brickyards now, and lived with his married brother Tom, over at Little-Sump thin-on-the-Mud—(a little up the river from Chawlton, on this side). He was the only young man left who was after Lizzie's time at Chawlton, and was therefore new to her, as she pervaded him at the village, and walked home with him from Shepperton one night. His smile was acquiescent. Perhaps she only wanted to see if it would make some talk. It did, and female necks craned over the little quickset front hedge (common to the whole village) to wait for them at dusk—and after it.
Then it appeared to Lizzie that Billy, who was a first-class brick hand, had put together a few pounds, and was thinking of a decent furnished little place of his own, and some 'un to take care of it. He wasn't comfortable with his sister-in-law at Little-Sumpthinon-the-Mud. He wasn't " warm " there, she had too many " dry words " for Tom and the children, and some on 'em was meant for him. So Lizzie began to pervade him in a practical manner, and it made a good deal of talk.
It made more at Little Sumpthin, which was about half the size of Chawlton, for Tom was obstinately opposed to Elizabeth Higgins. And in this his wife agreed with him—she agreed with him in nothing else–not even the weather. But Billy set it all down to her.
The announcement of the engagement made casually, in a nothing-in-particular tone, by Lizzie, made but little talk in the village, either amongst the women—who knew very well what it was worth (the extra nothing-in-particularness in the tone might have warned any one with intelligence, who understood Lizzie), or amongst the men, who bucoliced goodhumoredly about it. But the announcement of the date of the wedding (made in a cheerful nothing-inparticular tone by Lizzie) did make a lot of talk. However, the village agreed that " they had time to think better on it," as old Adams and his young cracked and twisted woodenjudy-doll-wife—the most recent couple there—three years married—put it. But "why"? the village didn't say. Probably because they didn't know.
You see there was nothing else to talk or speculate about at Chawlton at the time. Mrs. Adams hadn't had her proposed twins yet. Young Bob Wheeler hadn't even come to board with the Adamses at that time.
Little Billy rented one of the half -hutches, the one next the Bow Winders, and got the furniture from Staines, partly for cash and partly on time payment, to give himself plenty of time, and provide for unforeseen expenses. He would have taken one of the Winders, which was also vacant, and risked it, but popular opinion overbore him. Besides, Leonard was cautious and far-seeing for both their sakes. Lizzie had aimed at the Winder, but took its loss as nothing in particular, Now the Higginses had a little old-fashioned suite (I'd describe it if I had time, though it wasn't called a "suite," but a "set of cheers an' sofy," or something, when they got it) that had been sewn up in covers and stowed away in the spare room—to make room for the ironing—and regularly unsewn, dusted, and cleaned every spring for ten years or more, and sewn up and stowed again, and was little the worse for its twenty years or so of want of air and human society. It was bought before Lizzie was born. Now Lizzie had told Billy not to buy a suite just yet, so one night, while Billy was away, and with the connivance of one or two neighbour cronies, the new old furniture was carried down, and set out in the freshly-cleaned front parlour of Billy's cottage, where it was discovered by Billy early in the morning, greatly to his surprise, and to his eternal gratitude thereafter, in spite of what came later. But to Lizzie it was nothing in particular, for she had known it all along.
"They be just like startin' as Higgins an' me started, an' meant to keep on," old Mrs. Higgins was heard to say, with a momentary evanishment of the twinkle, I should think. I wonder if she and the old man talked it over that night, and by a dying fire, and by their lonely old selves. I wonder. Yes, I wonder. As they started, and meant to keep on.
They went across the fields to the little grey old composite church—whose repairs looked older than itself, with their filled-in and mended and shored-up cracks—and got married. Or, Lizzie married Billy. " In the spring-time, Joe the ostler and sweet Annie Smith were wed." Old Higgins went round apart and by a way of his own. It was a way of his own, and they knew him, "let 'un bide." They do so in England. I wish they'd do so more in Australia. His figure was seen at times over the hedges, or gaps in them, in his Sunday best, which made small difference in his appearance, and none in his gait or manner; and he steered his bend through the narrow hedges and round unexpected corners like a man with the nose-ring of fate in his nose and his hands tied behind. And so another triangle of life was set up.
And his wife and friends. Well, see the average English melodrama with a village wedding and breakfast—say "Hoodman Blind." It ain't so very far out. And we all rehearse, whether before a wedding or a funeral, though not one speak a word nor make a sign to each other at the rehearsal. And most of us know it.
They gave a breakfast at the beerhouse (I'm beginning to feel brutal), mostly as a tribute to little Billy's goodness and his smile. His brother Tom was not there, and they never spoke again till the end of his world came to Billy.
Leonard dropped in, which was affable of Mr. Leonard, and spoke a few words, which nearly all consisted of "as the sayin' is "—his habitual expression in times of peace, sociality, or festivity.
"He had great pleasure, as the sayin' is, in gettin' up, as the sayin' is, to say a few words, as the sayin' is. I have known the Higginses, as the sayin' is, since ever they was Higginses, as the sayin' is. And I've known Lizzie Higgins, as the sayin' is, since the first day she was an Iggins, as the sayin' is." (Great applause at this unexpected "point," most unexpected by Leonard himself.) "I've—I've nursed her on me knee, as the sayin' is. An' as for Billy there, as the sayin' is—as the sayin' is—has the sayin' is. Here, Snike, as the sayin' is, help the missus an' the girl to clear out all them pewters to the bar, as the sayin' is, an' tell Coxgrave (the landlord) to fill 'em all up, as the sayin' is—and—and— All the pewters in the house, as the sayin' is. I'm winded." He must have stage-fright himself to "shout" like that.
I don't know how the couple put in the time after breakfast, but suppose Lizzie took Billy for a practical stroll, and the others went to work, as the sayin' is.
Lizzie was a model housekeeper.
There came to Chawlton an old chum of Billy's. He couldn't have been a very old chum, but Billy said he was. Anyway, a chap as Billy knowed in London turned up, hard up, but that was between him and Billy.
Bob Cleaves was tall, slight, and quiet, with a good face, brown eyes, and no smile. He is the Man Without a Smile of the story. There's a legend or superstition in the nations that all brown eyes are, or once were, true and kind. Perhaps they were, before they were taught, in love, war, ambition, and commerce, by the hazel, grey, green, and all the evil shades of blue. Bob Cleaves was put up in the spare room for the night after Billy had exhausted the evening and a couple of neighbour cronies telling them all how he and Bob at first met in London, and the times, up and down, and the larks they had had together. One of the cronies listened in silence for an hour or so, and then clinched it—the silence—by saying, "Oh, well, what about havin' a half-pint afore bed?" Bob had been a school child with some of them, but none remembered him favourably, if at all. At the beerhouse Bob was introduced all round; and Billy had a quiet talk with him on the way back, and under the hedge, during which Bob kept saying, "Don't you bother, Billy," "I can put up anywheres," "You always were bothering about me," "I tell you I'll be alright," etc., etc.
That night there was a whispered consultation between Billy and Lizzie in bed. "A lot o' whisperin' goin' on," as guests say under similar and other circumstances. "A hell of a lot er whisperin' goin' on," as our Bill or Jim might say. And next morning Billy had another quiet talk with Bob, and Bob stayed on till Billy got him a job at the brickfields. And Bob stayed on as a boarder. It was a practical proposal, and Lizzie agreed to it; it was as easy to do for two as one, she said. Perhaps it occurred to her vaguely that the thing might make a little talk. It did. Paying boarders didn't come to the hutches every season. The women were indifferent to Bob, but viciously envious—keen on the subject. The men were not interested. And the men were always very conservative with regard to things which were likely to make talk in the village. They got too much of it at meal times and in bed. It was talk that drove one of them to drink and the dogs after twenty years of sober married life. He was the hopeless village sot. But they were a steady class, and not easily driven, as a rule—except in the case of two husbands who were last heard of in Tasmania and New Zealand. The survivors were adverse to others being driven abroad, because, although it eased the labour market, it made more talk. They preferred extra hardship to extra talk.
Bob didn't talk at all, but was none the more popular for that; you see he "wasn't a woman"—jest a labourer like themselves, and "no better than none of 'em." Bob had been " parculiar "from the little that they remembered of him at school. He was supposed to " have notions." He was supposed to be a come-by-chance, "found under a gooseberry bush"—his father unknown, and his "mother" or "aunt" doubtful in both cases. He was supposed to be the son of some one. He was supposed to be related to ——. He was supposed to be somebody-of-importance's brother, nephew, or something. But, as far as I could hear, he was never supposed to be a shy, sensitive, self and village-tortured child, of higher inherited intelligence than the rest.
Anyway, he was sent or taken to London by his mother, or whatever she was, and forgotten.
Poor little Billy was bursting with secrets, several big, astounding ones, which comforted and held him up, no doubt, at periods when Bob seemed slighted or extra unpopular. Big secrets about Bob takin' him into a London newspaper buildin', and showing him round the basement. Astounding secret about Bob slipping him in behind the scenes of a theayter one morning. Bob had been probably lumper or messenger, or one of a legion of imps and devils, in one place, and super, or possibly call boy, in another. The secret that Bob had been married was a secret that Billy didn't want, and had no use for. All he knew was that the marriage had been a mess, a bad job all round, and that was sufficient for Billy. Bob had his big, honest sympathy, and it would have been the same had the wife been an angel and Bob a fiend in married life, and Billy had known it. Billy didn't know anything about married life, and never offered an opinion concerning it either one way or the other.
He was bound to keep the other's secrets, because, once out, they would have led to many questions and speculations, and may have made one or two fiendships. And Bob didn't want either talk or appreciation. Billy's was too much, but Bob bore with him, when he couldn't get away from it. Billy was "too good to be hurt or put down."
His leisure life seemed almost a clause of appreciation and attendance round Bob Cleaves, and the others forebore unkind or sarcastic comments for Billy's sake. Besides, they went in fear of Bob's grammar and pronunciation.
Lizzie admitted to Billy, in a nothing-of-consequence tone, that she didn't like Bob at first—couldn't stand him, in fact. But she didn't mind him now. When Billy, puzzled, asked why, she said, "Oh, nothing in particular." Bob had done nothing to her. Billy confided to Bob, seizing a favourable moment, "It's alright, Bob, she's beginning t' like yer now."
The talk went on amongst the women, lowering and resentful, also impatient, because "nothing seemed to come of it."
There was a woman, in as near the centre of the row of brick dog kennels as possible, who had a hunchbacked daughter, which daughter seemed physically and mentally more a birth of her mother's warped, twisted and evil mind than of her body, which was straight and healthy enough. But she had given her her face. These two were the guardians of the village morality, or immorality, when there was a sign of it, and they kept watch and ward by turns day and night. It was seldom, after dark, but one or the other evil neck was craned over the front hedge, with the pinched and twisted face turning this way and that, to the discomfiture of chance passers-by strolling along pipe in mouth in the dusk, and unaware of the existence of such sinister creatures hereabouts.
A newly-made widow in the other half of their hutch, whose sweet went out of her life with her husband, started a lolly and tobacco shop in the front parlour. And the evil ones never rested nor let their man rest until they started their evil window in opposition. But they couldn't get a boarder like Lizzie. "Just fancy the likes o' her 'avin' a boarder—an' Billy not seein' what that was for."
The husband and father was an elderly labouring man, solid and heavy, such as often drive tip-drays, in moleskins, Crimean shirt, with belts and "bowyang," out here on waterworks, with pipe and handkerchief stuck in belt behind, like a small pistol, to shoot out a boil in his mouth, and a rag to wipe his mouth afterwards. (Any labouring face will do him, so long as the mouth is a nasty one.)
A month or so went by, or some say weeks, and then one beautiful moonlight evening Brennan, the silent man, with Reynolds Newspaper, after listening to Billy and Bob for some minutes, steadied his pipe with his hand and said—
"Look here, Billy, if I was you I wouldn't have Bob stayin' with yer."
"W-why?" gasped Billy, taken too suddenly to gain time by asking, "What's that?"
"Never mind, Billy, it ain't right. I know more'n you do. Take my advice."
"But, man alive, what 'arm 'as Bob——"
"It ain't the 'arm as is done, but the 'arm made on it, and," he added, half mumbling his pipe, " the 'arm as might come of it."
"What?" said Billy, promptly and sharply for him, but perhaps unconsciously so.
"Now, look here, Billy. I know more of the world 'n you do. You've been knocking around London for years, and been abroad, if the truth is known"—(Billy blushed and started) "an' me ain't more'n once or twist a week for an hour or so in ther fruit 'n crop season. But I know more'n you do about men an' women. If you took an' knocked about the world for a lifetime, an' me rooted here, I'd know more about the world an' you do, Billy. Take my advice, an' talk to Bob quietly, an' tell him there's talk. There's other places where he'll do——where he'd be comfortable, I mean." And Brennan jerked impatiently and stood up at the same time. Billy began——
"Why, who the——has been—a——?"
"It's no use, Billy," said the silent man, with the clamp still on. "It's for your own good——an' some one else's. Now I've said it all."
"Do you mean——?"
"I don't mean—to say—one—more—word, Billy, You know me, Billy. I'm your friend in this."
Billy left, rubbing his head, bothered and worried on Bob's account, without yet understanding, and he concluded by wondering what on earth had come over Arthur Brennan. But Brennan was always a rum card.
But, strange to relate, that very week, and within such short times of each other that it fairly twirled poor little Billy's head, three of the other men gave or hinted or blurted out the same advice, according to their different "ways."
And on top of it all, and, of all men, Leonard, standing as described at his side-back-front gate (there was another leading out towards Halliford), called the passing Billy back, and, after an unwonted pause, said, with a preface, almost the same things, in the same words, and in the same manner save for the watch-dog smile and the "sayin' is"—and with the same pipe play, as had Brennan.
"Look here, Billy, as the sayin' is, I don't want to interfere with the village, as the sayin' is—nor anybody's private affairs, as the sayin' is but I know more about the world 'n you do, Billy, as the sayin' is, though you have knocked about London, as the sayin' is, an' been abroad, as the sayin' is as the sayin' is. But I'd advise you to get rid of that there Bob, as the sayin' is. No—! now I've got nothing against him, as the sayin' is, but there's talk, as the sayin' is, and I don't like smash-ups in the village, as the sayin' is. It it will interfere with the rents, as the sayin' is, and leads to intruptions with farm work at an awkward time, as the sayin' is. And I can't build and keep up village for nothing, as the sayin' is. Besides, you're a good tenant, and so is the Higgins, as the sayin' is. Take my advice, as the sayin' is, an' let Bob go and get married, an' settle down like the rest of 'em, as the sayin' is. There'll be boys wanted for the farm yet, as the sayin' is, and girls too. A—a kick's as good as a wink to a blind horse, as the sayin' is."
Even then poor little Billy felt a "catch" of triumph for his friend in the knowledge that Bob had been married, and drew a breath of relief before he knew it, "as the sayin' is."
Then, when little Billy pulled himself together, he set to work at once to get to the root of the matter; and did, after several whispered and determined interviews, that very night.
"So it's that——old bitch an' her henchbeck daughter. I might a-known it wi'out askin'. God forgive Billy ! but I've heerd Bob hisself say, 'Never trust a dwarf, or a hunchback, or a cripple.'" Then he went in to Lizzie.
He started to broach the subject delicately, and found great difficulty, but presently he got at it, without knowing it. He was somewhat surprised to find that she had known about the talk all along, but had considered it less than nothing in particular, and didn't want to be bothered listening about it. But Billy forgot his surprise in his anger on Bob's account, and he warmed up to the thing.
"God forgive Billy ! but I'll show'm I ain't agoin' to have that——old woman an' her henchback daughter acomin' atween Bob an' you an' me. Bob was my chum arter I broke wi' Tom an' all on 'em first time. We was chums and pals in London. Bob came arter I broke wi' Tom last time—or—at—least arter that——sister-in-law o' mine broke it for us." Then with more loss of control. " We was warm, we was me an' Tom. We never had a dry word afore that sister-in-law o' mine came atween us. She'd a come atween meanyou. She tried hard. She set Tom agin you, Lizzie. An' she visits that——old slut with the henchbeck daughter. God forgive Billy! An' now they'd set me agin Bob. An' meanBob never had a dry word yet. God forgive Billy ! But I'll show'm." Then with a change of the weather and a return to calmness. "Don't you take no notice, Lizzie, me girl. It was all because you walked home from Shepperton wi' Bob that night. Now, I'll show'm. (Impressively.) You walk home from Shepperton with Bob as often as he's goin' that way, when I'm not at home to walk to Shepperton wi' yer. You take a walk out with Bob if yer want a walk an' he's willin', an' I'm at ther bricks an' not able to take a stroll with yer. Jest to show'm, Lizzie. Bob's talk won't do yer no 'arm, Lizzie. There's gipsies and tramps, an'—I was obliged to Bob that night, Lizzie, I was. Jest to show'm. I've never been mixed with no talk in my life before like this, an' I won't. But we'll show'm, Lizzie, an' look here, Lizzie, me lass, you can let 'em know I told yer, if yer like, just to let 'em know what I think on it."
Lizzie said she wouldn't be bothered. "But we must be bothered about things like this, Lizzie. But don't you forgit. We'll show'm. Don't you worry. You jest do as I tell yer."
Lizzie said she wouldn't worry.
"God forgive Billy," he said, rendered desperate by her utter indifference towards the man he really worshipped, "God forgive Billy ! but Bob—Bob saved my life with the feaver in in Australia, as I never talk about—an' pulled me through, an'—an' help me home an'—an' God forgive Billy! Bob's married, an' had trouble, an'—an'—Lizzie—has got a kid a little girl with some people in Australia, as he's slavin' for, an'—breakin' his heart for. Who'd think any harm o' Bob. But we'll show'm, Lizzie."
It was a mistake. There were no signs of a little baby with a smile yet.
"Well, why did he come away for?" asked Lizzie.
"She left him," said Billy.
"Well, wasn't he rid of her?"
"No," said Billy, "she took him to court for desertin' her, and made him pay to keep 'er, an' when 'e couldn't pay she put him in gaol. An' if he goes back without all the money he didn't send 'er, she'll put 'im in gaol again."
"But how could she do that if she ran away from him?" asked Lizzie. "Y' talkin' nonsense."
"God forgive Billy! It's the way the law is out there," said Billy. "Now, don't you understand?"
But Lizzie said she didn't understand it at all.
"His talk won't do you no harm," said little Billy with resentful pride in his friend. The tall man without the smile, who didn't talk, could speak earnestly on occasion. Maybe he had once been earnest. He could speak sincerely and sympathetically and kindly of the troubles of others—no doubt he had been sincere, sympathetic and practically kind. Such a man could talk love and seem true, even to a self-loving and vanity-blinded woman. Perhaps he had once been true. He could speak quietly, strongly and very decisively in a misunderstanding, no matter on whose side, and be very impressive. Maybe he had once been a dangerous man in anger. He could make it appear, without saying so, that he had been through more trouble than most men, and in this he was a great relief to the man or woman who cannot be content to be met halfway by the trouble of others, so to speak, but charge, and dodge, and try every way which a rapid tongue can do to break through, outflank and take in the rear the others' defences—and for what good? But anyway, he was a dangerous man with any woman (perhaps unconsciously or half consciously dangerous), the more so because he was incapable, no matter how hard he tried, of constancy. But he may once, and for years, have been domesticated, affectionate, a kind husband and father, and a gentleman in every sense of the word. He may once have believed in himself. Mrs. Coxgrave, the woman with the red hair rheumatic husband, and no child, was on several occasions interrupted, and once by the maternal snake, too, talking earnestly to him in the bar when her husband was laid up above stairs. And it made no talk—"They was only talkin' about rheumatism." I wonder now if——
The evil neck and faces craned over the little quick-set hedges, looking both ways in vain, till one bright afternoon Bob, who avoided the house during Billy's absence, came out of the Farmers' Arms from a silent half-pint, just as Lizzie was passing on her way to Shepperton for a piece of silk for a belt that a new blouse was "waitin' on," and Bob being going there too, as Defoe would put it, for a pair of working boots, and being already turned in that direction, and the eyes of both hags being on them, there was nothing for it but to walk to Shepperton together. Then one evil neck and head was seen over hedges and through gaps going in the direction of Sumpthin-on-Mud, like a swimming snake's head showing out of green water at times, and the other was left on watch. Later on, at dusk, both necks and heads were over the fence, turning, turtle-like, and seeming also curiously turtle-like, as if the creatures were in torture.
But it was Billy who returned with Her Nothing-in-particularness, having joined her where the Four Lanes met, on his happy strolling way home from the bricks. And his smile came too.
The necks and heads retired to their back hole to confer. She (Lizzie) was carryin' it off well—they'd say that much for her. Or it had all come out, and Bob was gone, and they was hidin' it. Or Billy was actin', though no one would have dreamed it of Billy, of all men in the world. "But," said the elder and more experienced snake, "you could never tell them sort of men. There was that there little Wells when his missus was carrying on with, etc., etc. Anyway, if Billy warn't actin' it was a cryin' shame; some of the chaps ought to—— She'd do it herself in a minit if they thought Billy'd bleave a word agenst—— But there, there was no thanks or credit in being mixed up with sich dirty affairs."
So a couple of months went by, or say some weeks, and Billy coming home very tired one evening found no tea ready, for the first time; but Lizzie came in shortly afterwards, having walked home with Bob, who dropped into the Farmers' Arms— which were never stretched out for him, by the way—for his silent half-pint. There seemed something savagely defiant in his manner that evening.
A week or so later the same thing occurred again, and it occurred to Billy that Lizzie was "carrying the thing on."
Then one evening Billy went to the kilns to watch the fires all night, and a lump of shale fell on his foot, hurting it badly, and he came limping home with a mate an hour or so later. The house was in darkness, and Lizzie was not upstairs with one of her occasional nothing-in-particular headaches. The men and women conferred, and he was told that she had gone to Shepperton.
"Well, where's Bob, then?" said Billy.
After hesitating, shuffling, a little bluffing, and a hustling of Billy into bed by the women, it was admitted that Bob had gone too.
But the news of Billy's accident went clod-hopping to Shepperton shortly afterwards, with the farm hand that went for the doctor, and got to Lizzie's ears, and she came hurrying home. And Billy, being in pain, they had dry words after the doctor had gone, and, as poor Mrs. Higgins put it afterwards, they " said things to each other as they couldn't forget," which, summed up, with the sad warning added thereto, will go further, I hope, than poor Mrs. Higgins ever dreamed of it going.
But to Billy the worst result of the dry words was that Bob overheard—or was told—probably by one of the necks and heads over the fence, the only seeming signs of human being in sight when he came home, rather hurriedly, and of whom he inquired the particulars of Billy's accident. Bob went to Halliford that night, and arranged to board and lodge with a silent old couple of whom he'd heard—or, rather, not heard, so to speak. Billy did his best when he recovered, but Bob was never the same to him, and Billy's sorrow for it was deep and sincere."
They was warm, they was. They never had a dry word until d——d cacklin', kack-kak-kakin' ole hags came atween 'em."
And they'd come atween him and Lizzie too, it seemed. She was more careful of the home and Billy than ever in that damnedly pointed way that openhearted little Billy couldn't understand. And his heart began to break with sorrow and anxiety. He was no match for her. Her manner led from "Now, Lizzie, me lass" to dry words; so in the end she wouldn't even tell him that there wasn't nothing in particular the matter with her, and it frightened him as much as when she had told him so, and obstinately refused to enter into details, saying she couldn't be bothered.
Then things began to be hinted to him about Bob's character, and at last plainly, things that he "oughter been told," about Bob and Coxgrave's wife having been seen together in an out-of-the-way place and an out-of-the-way time. And his heart began to change towards Bob. But, God forgive Billy ! never a doubt of Lizzie.
Lizzie had never been able to get on with her mother, so there was no hope for poor Billy in that quarter. They'd have to fight it out between themselves, as she and Higgins had to do, arter they'd started and meant to go on in the same way.
Then the drifting hopelessly apart, as it seems to the husband, of a couple that had ever been hopelessly apart. The sickening suspicion (how long and cruelly it takes to become a settled, serviceable, useful, fruit-bearing certainty) that his wife doesn't love him any longer, the wife who never loved him at all ; that she doesn't want him, she who never did, and only married him on impulse, or for vanity, or caprice, or to be her own mistress in a home of her own, or because of rows at home, or because somebody else wanted him or her, or didn't want her, or through disappointment, chagrin, or spite. What fools men are! Or because, only, of his looks, money, position, name, or fame. The soul-sickening suspicion and fright of the good, kind, generous, or " soft " husband, that his wife wants to get rid of him—the wife who had an eye to that contingency from the first, and had started wanting to get rid of him early. The blindness, the pitiful, unmanly pleading of the husband whose wife is not, and never was, fit to blacken his boots, who never had a sincerely kind thought or considerate moment for him. When the only cure is separation to a distance, a year or two to recover, and a stern and life-long adherence to the creed or philosophy of unforgiveness.
Then the paltry, useless, wasting quarrels. "I didn't want to marry you" . . . "Better men than you," and so on, and wearyingly so on, to the exasperating, maddening and sickening and ruining unending of it all.
Billy was a little man who used to run out of the house, and through a gap in the back hedge, and round through brooks, over stiles and gates, across lanes, and so in a circle home, when very much upset. Lizzie's persistent silence used to make him do this. Some men have wives who nag eternally; others will wait on them for days in obstinate, idiotic silence.
Lizzie considered in a practical, nothing-in-particular way that she might have to see a doctor about Billy's head if he went on like that, and that the doctor might have to put him in the mad-house if he got too bad. They call a spade a spade amongst Lizzie's class in England.
Some wives "never quarrel," but can drive any husband mad, all the same; so one day Billy suddenly felt his arm stiffen and hand clench! . . . . He wrenched himself out of the kitchen in time, and from the verge of "It," and half ran all the way to Shepperton, having stumbled into the Farmers' Arms to borrow a cap, which the Farmers' Arms hastened to lend him without question, and with a rough show of understanding. But neither the Farmers' Arms nor Billy understood yet, though the Arms thought it did. Billy was soon to understand. He caught the train for London with a wild idea of going to some people he'd been "warm" with—but never so warm as he'd been with Bob.
Then the reaction came, and Billy began to think, wildly at first, but he began to think, and the elastic reins of Fate to draw him back, and the more he thought, the stronger they drew, and the more the home he was warm in seemed to ward him off and repel him. He had never yet carried his troubles outside his own home—his father's, brother's, or his own—and his head and limbs gave an impatient jerk of shame at the sharp, sudden thought of having contemplated doing so now.
Then "Lizzie." Then "poor Lizzie!" Then the swift review of his married life, which had been happy compared with past homes and life. Then the horror of "It" (the stiffened arm and clenched fist) struck him with full force in all its sickening, stomach chilling hideousness. The horror that It might happen; but he would see to that.
He got out of the train at Waterloo, but would not go back the same way. He hurried across to the Staines line platform, and caught a train there. That would give him time to think, and calm down. Glimpse of slanting lights on sinister dark water somewhere. He had been a lunatic, a brute, etc. He could see it all now. Lizzie was the best little wife in the world. All her good points were remembered, or imagined, and his bad qualities loomed and ran before him on the same line.… Then the thought that perhaps he'd lost her affections for good and all. But—God forgive Billy!—he'd win her back.… Then the thought the black, tormenting, devilish one.… The thought of the Thing sent him sick to the stomach.
And it was only natural—"A woman must have summon." He took hurried, insane comfort in finding all excuses for Something he feared might happen. Perhaps he had been driving her to summon else's arms all the time in his cursed blindness and obstinacy. If he only had Bob to talk to! But then he had driven Bob away from him too. … It was only natural; a woman would go to summon sooner or later. But he—— He got up and leaned out of the window, and looked ahead with wild nervousness. Then he sat down determinedly, and glanced round quietly, ashamed of his foolishness. The carriage was full, but it was not that; Billy was alone. You can be more alone in an English railway carriage than in any other place in the world. He filled his pipe and lit it as stolidly as the rest, but it was not "acting." Then It all came over again. And the wheels: "Too late—too—late—too late God forgive Billy! God forgive Billy! God forgive Billy! "Bricks and bricks, and lights and streets, and "circuses" swinging. Suburbs and bridges and houses and gardens, and "grounds" and a village, and the London road, and avenues, hedges and fields and lights and river. He took his hand from his pipe, clamping it decisively.
Flashes of reason and comfort—"Too late—too late—too late—God forgive Billy—God forgive Billy, God forgive Billy."
The long walk from Staines in the moonlight seemed as nothing, though he walked for all in the world. It was a dream till he neared Sunbury, where he started and went cold and sick again with a new unexpected sensation or apprehension. He was in that state when a man sees his wife everywhere, in the impossible places and times, with the impossible other man, and whose first instinct is to hide and get away, and next, when it is too late, to follow. I wonder how many mistakes have been made through these states of minds. Just as he reached "Chawlton" the strain snapped, leaving him oh so gratefully tired! It was all over now. He'd go in and go to bed like a sensible man, and——.
The house was shut up and dark, and Lizzie not upstairs, but the signs of having changed her dress hurriedly were in the room. Its very cleanliness rebuked him. This was the first time he'd run out so long, and she'd got anxious and gone to Shepperton to look for him, of course. Her mother's home was shut up, so she wasn't there. But Lizzie was not the one to go to her mother with her troubles, and Billy felt a pang of shame that he had with his. She'd hear in Shepperton that he'd gone in the London train, of course, and was waiting there for him, at a friend's place no doubt. He walked sanely on towards Shepperton. Just before he reached the Four Lanes he saw some one ahead, coming towards him, and in a sudden wave of shame he slipped into the ditch—he had often done that as a lad, but when in mischief. The couple came close, and a feeling of curiosity and mischief came to Billy. It was a happy relief. He drew himself up and laid against the grassy bank of the six-foot ditch. The blurred couple came nearer. "Banged if it ain't that skangtimonious painter's daughter with her fiddle lesson," thought Billy. "I'd 'a took her for Lizzie in a minute. An' who's him? An' who'd 'a thought it? I wonder what the henchbeck and her daughter's bin doin' with their time?"
They came closer, hip to hip, the girl walking haltingly and awkwardly, as girls do when held tightly in such a position. They paused nearly opposite Billy's eyes in the grass, and the man seemed trying to draw the girl aside to the shadow of the opposite hedge, where there was a gate—and some words were spoken. Then Billy was out and at him, and Lizzie, in her new hat, walking rapidly towards "Chawlton." She had dropped the cardboard box as if it were nothing in particular—a holly spray, perhaps.
There was another man in the ditch who crept and ran along the bottom of it. The taller of the two went down, of course, in the unexpectedness of the attack. He got up, threw out his hands blindly and went down again; he was slow this time and started to get up "gropin' like," the watcher said, "when the little 'un laid 'olt on 'im, tryin' to lift 'im an' workin' an' bustin' hisself like a loon- antic."
No doubt Bob was stricken and handicapped with the swift consciousness of his own guiltiness, and it flashed through his mind, at the first blow, that it was vengeance and not footpads that had him.
"God forgive Billy? Get up, you——? Get up, you——? God forgive ——. Are you hurt, you —— ——? Are you hurt, you —— ——? Say it—or—I'll—I'll ——" Bob said "No." A "naw" was sorter jerked out on 'im, the watcher said. Billy slipped round behind him, got his hands under his armpits and strove to lift him.
Then suddenly, Billy let him down on his back and started to run. "He run like a lunatic, towards 'Sumpthin-on-the-Mud.'" "An' it was well he did," said the watcher. "There were a stake layin' alongst 'andy 'an I saw the little 'un glare at it sideways as if it was a snake or a peeler's helmet over the hedge——" (he was a poacher) "In then the 'orrors seemed to come on him an' he runned. I never seed a man run like 'im. He runned tords Sumpthin-on-Mud."
Bob got up, groped for his hat, turned to all Four Lanes, hesitated a moment, and then started to walk swiftly towards "Chawlton."
Little Billy, panting, stumbled into the gutter of Sumpthin-on-Mud, scrambled up, and knocked at his brother's door. There was a light in the " top front winder."
Tom came down and let Billy in without a word, and closed the door behind him.
"'Old me, Tom! 'old me!—All this night!"
Tom struck another match, keeping one hand on Billy's shoulder. Then he lit the lamp—and, the old-sideboard, the old armchair, the old prints, and all the old things that were the old folks' started out in the darkness in the close little room.
Rose came down in an old chintz wrapper, uncovered the fire, put some kindling wood and the kettle on, set out bread and cheese, and, at a jerk of Tom's head, went upstairs again.
Then Billy got up restlessly.
"I—I must go out 'n walk up an' down in the yard a bit, Tom," he said.
" All right, Billy—I'll go out with you."
"I ain't going away, Tom."
"It's all right, Billy, I'll go out with yer. I'll take me pipe an' have a smoke in the open."
Tom sat down on the old stump outside, and Billy walked to and fro rapidly.
He raved, maudlingly, at first. "I tried to be a good husband t'her, Tom!—I did try——" Then incoherently and insanely. Strange to say he never mentioned Bob's name. It was as though Bob were a detail—a forgotten accident, or the unknown man or men in Billy's great life trouble. Tom smoked in silence until the first likely interval.
"Billy, where's your pipe?" he said, smoking his.
"I—I can't smoke, Tom!—Tom—I did try——"
"You can smoke while you're walkin' up an' down. Gimme your pipe." Tom filled the pipe.
"Now light up."
Presently Billy sat down on the wash-stool and said: "You go into bed now, Tom, you've got to go to work in the morning. I'm alright. I'll be in presently."
"And what about you?" said Tom. "You've let your pipe go out—here, catch the matches."
"I'll go in now, Tom, I'm only keeping you up."
Billy sat down in the armchair. Tom on another, smoking and thinking. Presently Billy lifted his head, and his eyes went wide and wild, like a grief-stricken woman's, round the room, and his hands rested loosely on the arms of the chair.
"To think I'm sittin' here in mother's chair like this t'night, Tom!—like this t'night——"
Tom puffed once or twice.
"Poor mother," he muttered, "she didn't last long arter you went, Billy—she didn't lay long, she warn't one of that sort. An' we didn't keep her long, not more'n two days. Work slack, wages low, an' Rose down with little Tommy. Poor mother! all her thoughts were o' you, Billy."
Billy's hopeless eyes went round the room again. Sideboard, china shepherd and shepherdess, crochet-work, shells, coral, model of Dover under glass (very like the real Dover, with toy houses and white and vivid green), chairs with antimacassars, and holland covers, and father on the wall to the left of fireplace, and mother on the wall to right. Billy as a baby, Billy as a boy. Tom as a boy, Billy and Tom together as boys. Jane as a baby, Jane as a girl, Jane and Willie and Tom as children. Aunt Caroline, Uncle Will, and the rest about. Billy's head went slowly down. Tom stood by the chair, laid his hand on his head and ruffled it, as he'd done in his best moods when a boy. The head went right down on the hollow of the arm, as it had done in grief when a boy—the hand stuck up in mute appeal. Tom laid his pipe on the table, hurriedly for him, and took that hand in his own great hard one.
Billy was quiet in the morning. Tom stood over him at breakfast and made him eat—much the same as he'd made him do most things when they were boys. Then he said, "Now fill your pipe and get your hat, Billy, an' come along."
Tom had been out early, or had got what we call a bush telegraphy or mulga wire, for when they reached the Four Lanes he said—
"Now, Billy, she's gone, and taken her things. You go and make the best you can with Leonard about the rent and the furniture, and come back to my place to-night. Rose will take care of yer. And look here, Billy, if you want to go away, I'll help you, and one or two others. To Australia again, if you like. Say the word."
"No," says Billy, "I run away once in a family mess, an' left it all to you an' mother—to the other end of the world. An' God forgive Billy! I'll see it out this time, Tom."
"Gi' me y'hand, Billy," said Tom. "That's the way to talk. I ain't felt so proud of you since you stood up to young Scroggins at school. Now I must git to work." And he turned Billy towards Chawlton, and started him off with a slap on the back.
Leonard took the furniture from Billy, in return for the loss of rent and a tenant.
"Well, Billy, as the sayin' is, all I've got to say, as the sayin' is, is that I told you so, as the sayin' is. I knew it all along, as the sayin' is, and saw it comin', as the sayin' is. But you wouldn't take my advice, as the sayin' is, and—and you've only got yourself to blame, as the sayin' is. But I'll say no more about it, as the sayin' is, an' as the fruit season's on, as the sayin' is, I'll take yer on with Brennan and the horses and the wagons, as the sayin' is, and—and you can sleep in the house if you like till I get a tenant, as the sayin' is."
Think of the last favour!
There are unwritten laws amongst men in English lanes as well as in the Bush. Bob had a woman to keep now, and Billy none, so there was no reason why he should leave his job or be displaced in favour of Billy, even if Billy had wished it. It was all otherwise.
But the brick-makers, becoming used to Bob's grammar and punctuation, chaffed him about Lizzie until the heavy labouring man, who made nasty remarks, tried them on Bob once. Bob knocked him down without a word, glance, or gesture of warning.
"Lie there, you ———! " he said through his teeth. "You ———! If it had not have been for your wife and daughter, I'd not have been living with another man's wife to-day!"
When Lizzie left Bob, which she did as if it was nothing in particular to do, she went to housekeep for a widower in Staines, where, I believe, she was some class, and respected by tradespeople, and looked up to by upper maids.
I heard some more of the story in Nineteen Three, coming along down by Italy, which looks like our own coast, on board the N.D.L. Gera. Billy was aboard—no matter how. I had had chats with him, and a little talk with Tom. Tom and I understood each other without asking questions. Bob, I knew, by one of the merest accidents that always happen in London (or on the road past Suez), was aboard the Karlshruhe, a fortnight ahead. There was another man aboard the Gera—the old suspected Chawlton poacher, George Bowels. Yes, there were poachers at Chawlton. I know, because I have been accessory both before and after the fact, and only lack of experience prevented me from aiding and abetting. However, I've been sort of volunteer, or anauthorised scout, once or twice, sort of non-commissioned spy. The silent language of wrong-doing is learnt and understood like lightning. Wonderful, isn't it? They reckoned I was a gent, and would never give them away: the first time I felt proud of being a gent in England.
George, or Jarge, Bowels was going to Australia as William Southern, an alias that prepossessed me in his favour. Billy and he were shipmates comfortably enough, and neither spoke of the Chawlton in the other's presence, that I could hear. But I got Bowels in a confidential mood one beautiful evening on the fo'c'le head, while Billy was playing cards.
Jarge came to the subject promptly and cheerfully.
"Yes, I was in the ditch, an' see it all. Yes, we as 'as to 'ide in ditches at nights sees many things. We often sees what bigger folk 'ud lose. That Lizzie wasn't no good, she wasn't, and 'ad a child in Lunnen afore ever she seed 'Smilin' Billy.' I knowed it all, though I was never class enough for any on 'em. Me own sisternlaw took care on the child in Lunnen; it died er the measles. Summon Billy's wadges wenter pay, I guess. But Lizzie hadden' done nawthin' with Bob Cleaves that night not yit. I seed 'em meet at the Four Lanes—'e comin' from the bricks an' she from Shepperton. He gin 'er a start, an' then when he stooped t' speak she up an' kissed 'im like it warn't nothing in particular. Then he grabbed 'er an' seemed to lose 'is 'ed. But they 'addin' done nawthin' yit; I heered all the talk. Then she seemed a bit scared o' 'im, but kep' 'er 'ed. She allers kep' it. An' she pulled in towards Chawlton, an' pulled 'im on with 'er, tellin' 'im to be sensible like a good feller. Oh, but 'e was warm, 'e was. Nattrel; bin away from women a long time, I believe. An' then Billy outs o' his ditch an' at 'em. . . . But wot d'ye want to bother about either on 'em for. 'E was a 'ot 'un, an' she no good, an' Billy a fool—as bigger fool as Coxgrave. Why, I seed 'er—Mrs. Coxgrave an' Bob Cleaves—but I could 'a talked, I could. We as 'as to 'ide in ditches sees rum things sometimes. But wot d'ye wanter bother about the like 'er them? I could give yer boggins t' write on, ony day in the week, if that's wot yer want. We as 'ide in ditches—Why, I could tell y'r——"
Some one got up from the other side of the stanchion, and went down on deck. It was Billy, who had come up from cards feeling squeamish, and sat there.
At Suez we heard that the Karlshruhe had lost a blade on a sandbank, and we'd probably catch up to her on the voyage. And Bob aboard. What would it be—fight or silent handshake?