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The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 29760

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

PAUL KEGWORTHY lived with his mother, Mrs. Button, his stepfather, Mr. Button, and six little Buttons, his half brothers and sisters. His was not an ideal home; it consisted in a bedroom, a kitchen and a scullery in a grimy little house in a grimy street made up of rows of exactly similar grimy little houses, and forming one of a hundred similar streets in a northern manufacturing town. Mr. and Mrs. Button worked in a factory and took in as lodgers grimy single men who also worked in factories. They were not a model couple; they were rather, in fact, the scandal of Budge Street, which did not itself enjoy, in Bludston, a reputation for holiness. Neither was good to look upon. Mr. Button, who was Lancashire bred and born, divided the yearnings of his spirit between strong drink and dog-fights. Mrs. Button, a viperous Londoner, yearned for noise. When Mr. Button came home drunk he punched his wife about the head and kicked her about the body, while they both exhausted the vocabulary of vituperation of North and South, to the horror and edification of the neighbourhood. When Mr. Button was sober Mrs. Button chastised little Paul. She would have done so when Mr. Button was drunk, but she had not the time. The periods, therefore, of his mother's martyrdom were those of Paul's enfranchisement. If he saw his stepfather come down the street with steady gait, he fled in terror; if he saw him reeling homeward he lingered about with light and joyous heart.

The brood of young Buttons was fed spasmodically and clad at random, but their meals were regular and their raiment well assorted compared with Paul's. Naturally they came in for clouts and thumps like all the children in Budge Street; it was only Paul who underwent organized chastisement. The little Buttons often did wrong; but in the mother's eyes Paul could never do right. In an animal way she was fond of the children of Button, and in a way equally animal she bore a venomous dislike to the child of Kegworthy. Who and what Kegworthy had been neither Paul nor any inhabitant of Bludston knew. Once the boy inquired, and she broke a worn frying-pan over his head. Kegworthy, whoever he might have been, was wrapt in mystery. She had appeared in the town when Paul was a year old, giving herself out as a widow. That she was by no means destitute was obvious from the fact that she at once rented the house in Budge Street, took in lodgers, and lived at her ease. Button, who was one of the lodgers, cast upon her the eyes of desire and married her. Why she married Button she could never determine. Perhaps she had a romantic idea-and there is romance even in Budge Street-that Button would support her. He very soon shattered any such illusion by appropriating the remainder of her fortune and kicking her into the factory with hobnailed boots. It would be wrong to say that Mrs. Button did not complain; she did. She rent the air of Budge Street with horrible execration; but she went to the factory, where, save for the intervals of retirement rendered necessary by the births of the little Buttons, she was contented enough to stay.

If Paul Kegworthy had been of the same fibre as the little Buttons, he would have felt, thought and acted as they, and this history would never have been written. He would have grown up to man's estate in the factory and have been merged an indistinguishable unit in the drab mass of cloth-capped humans who, at certain hours of the day, flood the streets of Bludston, and swarm on the roofs of clanging and shrieking tramcars, and on Saturday afternoons gather in clotted greyness on the football ground. He might have been sober and industrious-the proletariat of Bludston is not entirely composed of Buttons-but he would have taken the colour of his environment, and the world outside Bludston would never have heard of him. Paul, however, differed greatly from the little Buttons. They, children of the grey cap and the red shawl, resembled hundreds of thousands of little human rabbits similarly parented. Only the trained eye could have identified them among a score or two of their congeners. For the most part, they were dingily fair, with snub noses, coarse mouths, and eyes of an indeterminate blue. Of that type, once blowsily good-looking, was Mrs. Button herself. But Paul wandered a changeling about the Bludston streets. In the rows of urchins in the crowded Board School classroom he sat as conspicuous as any little Martian who might have been bundled down to earth. He had wavy black hair, of raven black, a dark olive complexion, flushed, in spite of haphazard nourishment and nights spent on the stone floor of the reeking scullery, with the warm blood of health, great liquid black eyes, and the exquisitely delicate features of a young Praxitelean god. It was this preposterous perfection which, while redeeming him from ridiculous beauty by giving his childish face a certain rigidity, differentiated him outwardly from his fellows. Mr. Button, to whom the unusual was anathema, declared that the sight of the monstrosity made him sick, and rarely suffered him in his presence; and one day Mrs. Button, discovering him in front of the cracked mirror in which Mr. Button shaved, when his hand was steady enough, on Sunday afternoons, smote him over the face with a pound of rump steak which she happened to be carrying, instinctively desirous not only to correct her son for vanity, but also to spoil the comeliness of which he might be vain.

Until a wonderful and illuminating happening in his eleventh year, little Paul Kegworthy had taken existence with the fatalism of a child. Of his stepfather, who smelt lustily of sour beer, bad tobacco and incidentally of other things undetected by Paul's nostrils, and whom he saw rarely, he dwelt in mortal terror. When he heard of the Devil, at Sunday school, which he attended, to his stepfather's disgust, he pictured the Prince of Darkness not as a gentleman, not even as a picturesque personage with horns and tail, but as Mr. Button. As regards his mother, he had a confused idea that he was a living blight on her existence. He was not sorry, because it was not his fault, but in his childish way he coldly excused her, and, more from a queer consciousness of blighterdom than from dread of her hand and tongue, he avoided her as much as possible. In the little Buttons his experience as scapegoat taught him to take but little interest. From his earliest memories they were the first to be fed, clothed and bedded; to his own share fell the exiguous scraps. As they were much younger than himself, he found no pleasure in their companionship. For society he sought such of the youth of Budge Street as would admit him into their raucous fellowship. But, for some reason which his immature mind could not fathom, he felt a pariah even among his coevals. He could run as fast as Billy Goodge, the undisputed leader of the gang; he could dribble the rag football past him any time he desired; once he had sent him home to his mother with a bleeding nose, and, even in that hour of triumph, popular sympathy had been with Billy, not with him. It was the only problem in existence to which his fatalism did not supply the key. He knew himself to be a better man than Billy Goodge. There was no doubt about it. At school, where Billy was the woodenest blockhead, he was top of his class. He knew things about troy weight and geography and Isaac and the Mariners of England of which Billy did not dream. To Billy the football news in the Saturday afternoon edition of The Bludston Herald was a cryptogram; to him it was an open book. He would stand, acknowledged scholar, at the street corner and read out from the soiled copy retrieved by Chunky, the newsboy, the enthralling story of the football day, never stumbling over a syllable, athrill with the joy of being the umbilicus of a tense world, and, when the recital was over, he would have the mortification of seeing the throng pass away from him with the remorselessness of a cloud scudding from the moon. And he would hear Billy Goodge say exultantly:

"Didn't Aw tell yo' the Wolves hadn't a dog's chance?"

And he would see the admiring gang slap Billy on the back, and hear "Good owd Billy!" and never a word of thanks to him. Then, knowing Billy to be a liar, he would tell him so, yelping shrilly, in Buttonesque vernacular (North and South):

"This morning tha said it was five to one on Sheffield United."

"Listen to Susie!"

The parasitic urchins would yell at the witticism-the eternal petitio principii of childhood, which Billy, secure in his cohort from bloody nose, felt justified in making. And Paul Kegworthy, the rag of a newspaper crumpled tight in his little hand, would watch them disappear and wonder at the paradox of life. In any sphere of human effort, so he dimly and childishly realized, he could wipe out Billy Goodge. He had a soul-reaching contempt for Billy Goodge, a passionate envy of him. Why did Billy hold his position instead of crumbling into dust before him? Assuredly he was a better man than Billy. When, Billy duce et auspice Billy, the gang played at pirates or Red Indians, it was pitiful to watch their ignorant endeavours. Paul, deeply read in the subject, gave them chapter and verse for his suggestions. But they heeded him so little that he would turn away contemptuously, disdaining the travesty of the noble game, and dream of a gang of brighter spirits whom he could lead to glory. Paul had many such dreams wherewith he sought to cheat the realities of existence: but until the Great Happening the dream was not better than the drink: after it came the Vision Splendid.

The wonderful thing happened all because Maisie Shepherd, a slip of a girl of nineteen, staying at St. Luke's Vicarage, spilled a bottle of scent over her frock.

It was the morning of the St. Luke's annual Sunday-school treat. The waggonette was at the vicarage door. The vicar and his wife and daughter waited fussily for Maisie, an unpunctual damsel. The vicar looked at his watch. They were three minutes late, He tut-tutted impatiently. The vicar's daughter ran indoors in search of Maisie and pounced upon her as she sat on the edge of the bed in the act of perfuming a handkerchief. The shock caused the bottle to slip mouth downward from her hand and empty the contents into her lap. She cried out in dismay.

"Never mind," said the vicar's daughter. "Come along. Dad and mother are prancing about downstairs."

"But I must change my dress!"

"You've no time."

"I'm wet through. This is the strongest scent known. It's twenty-six shillings a bottle, and one little drop is enough. I shall be a walking pestilence."

The vicar's daughter laughed heartlessly. "You do smell strong. But you'll disinfect Bludston, and that will be a good thing." Whereupon she dragged the tearful and redolent damsel from the room.

In the hard-featured yard of the schoolhouse the children were assembled-the girls on one side, the boys on the other. Curates and teachers hovered about the intervening space. Almost every child wore its Sunday best. Even the shabbiest little girls had a clean white pinafore to hide deficiencies beneath, and the untidiest little boy showed a scrubbed face. The majority of the boys wore clean collars; some grinned over gaudy neckties. The only one who appeared in his week-day grime and tatterdemalion outfit was little Paul Kegworthy. He had not changed his clothes, because he had no others; and he had not washed his face, because it had not occurred to him to do so. Moreover, Mrs. Button had made no attempt to improve his forlorn aspect, for the simple reason that she had never heard of the Sunday-school treat. It was part of Paul's philosophy to dispense, as far as he could, with parental control. On Sunday afternoons the little Buttons played in the streets, where Paul, had he so chosen, might have played also: but he put himself, so to speak, to Sunday school, where, besides learning lots of queer things about God and Jesus Christ which interested him keenly, he could shine above his fellows by recitations of collects and bits of Catechism, which did not interest him at all. Then he won scores of good-conduct cards, gaudy treasures, with pictures of Daniel in the Lions' Den and the Marriage of Cana and such like, which he secreted preciously beneath a loose slab in the scullery floor. He did not show them to his mother, knowing that she would tear them up and bang him over the head; and for similar reasons he refrained from telling her of the Sunday-school treat. If she came to hear of it, as possibly she would through one of the little Buttons, who might pick up the news in the street, he would be soundly beaten. But there was a chance of her not hearing, and he desired to be no more of a blight than he could help. So Paul, vagabond and self-reliant from his babyhood, turned up at the Sunday-school treat, hatless and coatless, his dirty little toes visible through the holes in his boots, and his shapeless and tattered breeches secured to his person by a single brace. The better-dressed urchins moved away from him and made rude remarks, after the generous manner of their kind; but Paul did not care. Pariahdom was his accustomed portion. He was there for his own pleasure. They were going to ride in a train. They were going to have a wonderful afternoon in a nobleman's park, a place all grass and trees, elusive to the imagination. There was a stupefying prospect of wondrous things in profusion to eat and drink-jam, ginger-beer, cake! So rumour had it; and to unsophisticated Paul rumour was gospel truth. With all these unexperienced joys before him, what cared he for the blankety little blanks who gibed at him? If you imagine that little Paul Kegworthy formulated his thoughts as would the angel choir-boy in the pictures, you are mistaken. The baby language of Bludston would petrify the foc'sle of a tramp, steamer. The North of England is justly proud of its virility.

The Sunday school, marshalled by curates and teachers, awaited the party from the vicarage. The thick and darkened sunshine of Bludston flooded the asphalt of the yard, which sent up a reek of heat, causing curates to fan themselves with their black straw hats, and little boys in clean collars to wriggle in sticky discomfort, while in the still air above the ignoble town hung the heavy pall of smoke. Presently there was the sound of wheels and the sight of the head of the vicar's coachman above the coping of the schoolyard wall. Then the gates opened and the vicar and his wife and Miss Merewether, her daughter, and Maisie Shepherd appeared and were immediately greeted by curates and teachers.

Maisie Shepherd, a stranger in a strange land, pretty, pink, blushing, hatefully self-conscious, detached herself, after a minut

e or two, from the group and looked with timid curiosity on the children. She was a London girl, her head still dancing with the delights of her first season, and she had never been to a Sunday-school treat in her life. Madge Merewether, her old schoolfellow, had told her she was to help amuse the little girls. Heaven knew how she was to do it. Already the unintelligibility of Lancashire speech had filled her with dismay. The array of hard-faced little girls daunted her; she turned to the boys, but she only saw one-the little hatless, coatless scarecrow with the perfect features And arresting grace, who stood out among his smug companions with the singularly vivid incongruity of a Greek Hermes in the central hall of Madame Tussaud's waxwork exhibition. Fascinated, she strayed down the line toward him. She halted, looked for a second or two into a pair of liquid black eyes and then blushed in agonized shyness. She stared at the beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy stared at her, and not a word could she find in her head to speak. She turned abruptly and moved away. The boy broke rank and slowly followed her.

For little Paul Kegworthy the heavens had opened and flooded his senses, till he nearly fainted, with the perfume of celestial lands. The intoxicating sweetness of it bewildered his young brain. It was nothing delicate, evanescent, like the smell of a flower. It as thick, pungent, cloying, compelling. Mouth agape and nostril wide, he followed the exquisite source of the emanation like one in a dream, half across the yard. A curate laughingly and unsuspectingly brought him back to earth by laying hands on him and bundling him back into his place. There he remained, being a docile urchin; but his eyes remained fixed on Maisie Shepherd. She was only a rosebud beauty of an English girl, her beauty heightened by the colour of distress, but to Paul the radiance of her person almost rivalled the wonder of her perfume. It was his first meeting of a goddess face to face, and he surrendered his whole being in adoration.

In a few minutes the children were marched through the squalid streets, a strident band, to the dingy railway station, a grimy proletariat third-class railway station in which the sign "First Class Waiting Room" glared an outrage and a mockery, and were marshalled into the waiting train. The wonderful experience of which Paul had dreamed for weeks-he had never ridden in a train before-began; and soon the murky environs of the town were left behind and the train sped through the open country.

His companions in the railway carriage crowded at the windows, fighting vigorously for right of place; but Paul sat alone in the middle of the seat, unmoved by the new sensation and speed, and by the glimpses of blue sky and waving trees above the others' heads. The glory of the day was blotted out until he should see and smell the goddess again. At the wayside station where they descended he saw her in the distance, and the glory came once more. She caught his eye, smiled and nodded. He felt a queer thrill run through him. He had been singled out from among all the boys. He alone knew her.

Brakes took them from the station down a country road and, after a mile or so, through stone gates of a stately park, where wonder after wonder was set out before Paul's unaccustomed eyes. On either side of this roadway stretched rolling grass with clumps and glades of great trees in their July bravery-more trees than Paul imagined could be in the world. There were sunlit upland patches and cool dells of shade carpeted with golden buttercups, where cattle fed lazily. Once a herd of fallow deer browsing by the wayside scuttled away at the noisy approach of the brakes. Only afterward did Paul learn their name and nature: to him then they were mythical beasts of fairyland. Once also the long pile-of the Tudor house came into view, flashing-white in the sunshine. The teacher in charge of the brake explained that it was the Marquis of Chudley's residence. It was more beautiful than anything Paul had ever seen; it was bigger than many churches put together; the word "Palace" came into his head-it transcended all his preconceived ideas of palaces: yet in such a palace only could dwell the radiant and sweet-smelling lady of his dream. The certainty gave him a curious satisfaction.

They arrived at the spot where the marquees were erected, and at once began the traditional routine of the school treat-games for the girls, manlier sports for the boys. Lord Chudley, patron of the living of St. Luke's, Bludston, and Lord Bountiful of the feast, had provided swing-boats and a merry-go-round which discoursed infernal music to enraptured ears. Paul stood aloof for a while from these delights, his eye on the section of the girls among whom his goddess moved. As soon as she became detached and he could approach her without attracting notice, he crept within the magic circle of the scent and lay down prone, drinking in its intoxication, and, as she moved, he wriggled toward her on his stomach like a young snake.

After a time she came near him. "Why aren't you playing with the other boys?" she asked.

Paul sat on his heels. "Dunno, miss," he said shyly.

She glanced at his rapscallion attire, blushed, and blamed herself for the tactless question. "This is a beautiful place, isn't it?"

"It's heavenly," said Paul, with his eyes on her.

"One scarcely wants to do anything but just-just-well, be here." She smiled.

He nodded and said, "Ay!" Then he grew bolder. "I like being alone," he declared defiantly.

"Then I'll leave you," she laughed.

The blood flushed deep under his unwashed olive skin, and he leaped to his feet. "Aw didn't mean that!" he protested hotly. "It wur them other boys."

She was touched by his beauty and quick sensitiveness. "I was only teasing. I'm sure you like being with me."

Paul had never heard such exquisite tones from human lips. To his ears, accustomed to the harsh Lancashire burr, her low, accentless voice was music. So another of his senses was caught in the enchantment.

"Yo' speak so pretty," said he.

At that moment a spruce but perspiring young teacher came up. "We're going to have some boys' races, miss, and we want the ladies to look on. His lordship has offered prizes. The first is a boys' race-under eleven."

"You can join in that, anyhow," she said to Paul. "Go along and let me see you win."

Paul scudded off, his heart aflame, his hand, as he ran, tucking in the shirt whose evasion from the breeches was beyond the control of the single brace. Besides, crawling on your stomach is dislocating even to the most neatly secured attire. But his action was mechanical. His thoughts were with his goddess. In his inarticulate mind he knew himself to be her champion. He sped under her consecration. He knew he could run. He could run like a young deer. Though despised, could he not outrun any of the youth in Budge Street? He took his place in the line of competing children. Far away in the grassy distance were two men holding a stretched string. On one side of him was a tubby boy with a freckled face and an amorphous nose on which the perspiration beaded; on the other a lank, consumptive creature, in Eton collar and red tie and a sprig of sweet William in his buttonhole, a very superior person. Neither of them desired his propinquity. They tried to hustle him from the line. But Paul, born Ishmael, had his hand against them. The fat boy, smitten beneath the belt, doubled up in pain and the consumptive person rubbed agonized shins. A curate, walking down repressing bulges and levelling up concavities, ordained order. The line stood tense. Away beyond, toward the goal, appeared a white mass, which Paul knew to be the ladies in their summer dresses; and among them, though he could not distinguish her, was she in whose eyes he was to win glory. The prize did not matter. It was for her that he was running. In his childish mind he felt passionately identified with her. He was her champion.

The word was given. The urchins started. Paul, his little elbows squared behind him and his eyes fixed vacantly in space, ran with his soul in the toes that protruded through the ragged old boots. He knew not who was in front or who was behind. It was the madness of battle. He ran and ran, until somebody put his arms round him and stopped him.

"Steady on, my boy-steady on!"

Paul looked round in a dazed way. "Have A' won th' race?"

"I'm afraid not, my lad."

With a great effort he screwed his mind to another question. "Wheer did A' coom in?"

"About sixth, but you ran awfully well."

Sixth! He had come in sixth! Sky and grass and trees and white mass of ladies (among whom was the goddess) and unconsiderable men and boys became a shimmering blur. He seemed to stagger away, stagger miles away, until, finding himself quite alone, he threw himself down under a beech tree, and, after a few moments' vivid realization of what had happened, sobbed out the agony of his little soul's despair. Sixth! He had come in sixth! He had failed miserably in his championship. How she must despise him-she who had sent him forth to victory! And yet how 'had it been possible? How had it been possible that other boys could beat him? He was he. An indomitable personage. Some hideous injustice guided human affairs. Why shouldn't he have won? He could not tell. But he had not won. She had sent him forth to win. He had lost. He had come in a sickening sixth. The disgrace devastated him.

Maisie Shepherd, interested in her child champion, sought him out and easily found him under the beech tree. "Why, what is the matter?"

As he did not answer, she knelt by his side and put her hand on his lean shoulder. "Tell me what has happened."

Again the celestial fragrance overspread his senses. He checked his sobs and wiped his eyes with the back of his grubby hand. "Aw didn't win," he moaned.

"Poor little chap," she said comfortingly. "Did you want to win so very much?"

He got up and stared at her. "Yo' told me to win."

"So you ran for me?"


She rose to her feet and looked down upon him, somewhat overwhelmed by her responsibility. So in ancient days might a fair maiden have regarded her knight who underwent entirely unnecessary batterings for her sake. "Then for me you've won," she said. "I wish I could give you a prize."

But what in the nature of a prize for a gutter imp of eleven does a pocketless young woman attired for the serious business of a school treat carry upon her person? She laughed in pretty embarrassment. "If I gave you something quite useless, what would you do with it?"

"I 'u'd hide it safe, so 'ut nobody should see it," said Paul, thinking of his precious cards.

"Wouldn't you show it to anybody?"

"By Gum!-" he checked himself suddenly. Such, he had learned, was not Sunday-school language. "I wouldno' show it to a dog," said he.

Maisie Shepherd, aware of romantic foolishness, slipped a cornelian heart from a thin gold chain round her neck. "It's all I can give you for a prize, if you will have it."

If he would have it? The Koh-i-Noor' in his clutch (and a knowledge of its value) could not have given him more thrilling rapture. He was speechless with amazement; Maisie, thrilled too, realized that a word spoken would have rung false. The boy gloated over his treasure; but she did not know-how could she?-what it meant to him. To Paul the bauble was a bit of the warm wonder that was she.

"How are you going to keep it?" she asked.

He hoicked a bit of his shirt-tail from his breeches and proceeded to knot the cornelian heart secure therein. Maisie fled rapidly on the verge of hysterics, After that the school treat had but one meaning for Paul. He fed, it is true, in Pantagruelian fashion on luscious viands, transcending his imagination of those which lay behind Blinks the confectioner's window in Bludston: there he succumbed to the animal; but the sports, the swing-boats, the merry-go-round, offered no temptation. He hovered around Maisie Shepherd like a little dog-quite content to keep her in sight. And every two or three minutes he fumbled about his breeches to see that the knotted treasure was safe.

The day sank into late afternoon. The children had been fed. The weary elders had their tea. The vicarage party took a few moments' rest in the shade of a clump of firs some distance away from the marquee. Behind the screen lay Paul, his eyes on his goddess, his heels in the air, a buttercup-stalk between his teeth. He felt the comforting knot beneath his thigh. For the first time, perhaps, in his life, he knew utter happiness. He heard the talk, but did not listen. Suddenly, however, the sound of his own name caused him to prick his ears. Paul Kegworthy! They were talking about him. There could be no mistake. He slithered a foot or two nearer.

"No matter whether his people are drunkards or murderers," said the beloved voice, "he is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. Have you ever spoken to him, Winifred?"

"No," said the vicar's daughter. "Of course I've noticed him. Every one does-he is remarkable."

"I don't believe he's a child of these people at all," Maisie declared. "He's of a different clay. He's as sensitive as-as a sensitive plant. You ought to keep your eye on him, Mr. Merewether. I believe he's a poor little prince in a fairy tale."

"A freak-a lusus naturae" said the vicar.

Paul did not know what a lusus naturae was, but it sounded mighty grand.

"He's a fairy prince, and one day he'll come into his kingdom."

"My dear, if you saw his mother!"

"But I'm sure no one but a princess could be Paul Kegworthy's mother," laughed Maisie.

"And his father?"

"A prince too!"

And Paul listened and drank in his goddess's words greedily. Truth clear as crystal fell from her lips. A wild wonder racked his little soul. She had said that his mother was not his mother, and that his father was a prince. The tidings capped the glory of an effulgent day.

When he sneaked home late Mrs. Button, who had learned how he had misspent his time, gave him a merciless thrashing. Why should he be trapesing about with Sunday schools, she asked, with impolite embroidery, while his poor little brothers and sisters were crying in the street? She would learn him to Mess about with parsons and Sunday-school teachers. She was in process of "learning" him when Mr. Button entered. He swore in a manner which would have turned our armies in Flanders pallid, and kicked Paul into the scullery. There the boy remained and went supperless to his bed of sacks, aching and tearless. Before he slept he put his cornelian heart in his hiding-hole. What cared he for stripes or kicks or curses with the Vision Splendid glowing before his eyes?

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