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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 22719

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


FOR splenetic reasons which none but the Buttons of this world can appreciate, Paul was forbidden, under pain of ghastly tortures, to go near the Sunday school again, and, lest he should defy authority, he was told off on Sunday afternoons to mind the baby, either in the street or the scullery, according to the weather, while the other little Buttons were not allowed to approach him. The defection of the brilliant scholar having been brought to the vicar's notice, he ventured to call one Saturday afternoon on the Buttons, but such was the contumely with which he was received that the good man hastily retreated. In lung power he was outmatched. In repartee he was singularly outclassed. He then sent the superintendent of the school, a man of brawn and zeal, to see what muscular Christianity could accomplish. But muscular Christianity, losing its head, came off with a black eye. After that the Buttons were left alone, and no friendly hand drew Paul within the gates of his Sunday Paradise. He thought of it with aching wistfulness. The only thing that the superintendent could do was to give him surreptitiously a prayer-book, bidding him perfect himself in the Catechism in view of future Confirmation. But, as emulation of his fellows and not religious zeal was the mainspring of Paul's enthusiasm, the pious behest was disregarded. Paul dived into the volume occasionally, however, for intellectual entertainment.

As for the fragrant and beautiful goddess, she had disappeared into thin air. Paul hung for a week or two about the vicarage, in the hope of seeing her, but in vain. As a matter of fact, Maisie Shepherd had left for Scotland the morning after the school treat; people don't come to Bludston for long and happy holidays. So Paul had to feed his ardent little soul on memories. That she had not been an impalpable creature of his fancy was proven by the precious cornelian heart. Her words, too, were written in fine flame across his childish mind. Paul began to live the life of dreams.

He longed for books. The fragmentary glimpses of history and geography in the Board school standard whetted without satisfying his imagination. There was not a book in the house in Budge Street, and he had never a penny to buy one. Sometimes Button would bring home a dirty newspaper, which Paul would steal and read in secret, but its contents seemed to lack continuity. He thirsted for a story. Once a generous boy, since dead-he was too good to live had given him a handful of penny dreadfuls, whence he had derived his knowledge of pirates and Red Indians. Too careless and confident, he had left them about the kitchen, and his indignant mother had used them to light the fire. The burning of his library was an enduring tragedy. He realized that it must be reconstituted; but how? His nimble wit hit on a plan. Vagrant as an unowned dog, he could roam the streets at pleasure. Why should he not sell newspapers-in a quarter of the town, be it understood, remote from both factory and Budge Street? He sold newspapers for three weeks before he was found out. Then he was chastised and forced to go on selling newspapers with no profit to himself, for his person was rigorously searched and coppers confiscated as soon as he came home. But during the three weeks' traffic on his own account he had amassed a sufficient hoard of pennies for the purchase of several books in gaudy paper covers exposed for sale in the little stationer's shop round the corner. Soon he discovered that if he could batik a copper or two on his way home his mother would be none the wiser. The stationer became his banker, and when the amount of the deposit equaled the price of a book, Paul withdrew his money's worth. So a goodly library of amazing rubbish was stored by degrees under the scullery slab, until it outgrew safe accommodation; whereupon Paul transferred the bulk of it to a hole in a bit of waste ground, a deserted brickfield on the ragged outskirts of the town. At last misfortune befell him. One dreary afternoon of rain he dropped his new bundle of papers in the mud of the roadway. To avoid death he had to spring from the path of a thundering tramcar. A heavy cart ran over the bundle. While he was ruefully and hastily gathering the papers together, a band of street children swooped down and kicked them lustily about the filth. He was battling with one urchin when a policeman grabbed him. With an elusive twist he escaped and ran like a terrified hare. Disaster followed, and that was the end of his career as a newsvendor.

Greater leisure for reading, however, compensated the loss of the occasional penny. He read dazzling tales of dukes with palaces (like Chudley Court), and countesses with ropes of diamonds in their hair, who all bore a resemblance to the fragrant one. And dukes and countesses lived the most resplendent lives, and spoke such beautiful language, and had such a way with them! He felt a curious pride in being able to enter into all their haughty emotions. Then, one day, he began a story about a poor little outcast boy in a slum. At first he did not care for it. His soaring spirit disdained boys in slums. It had its being on higher planes. But he read on, and, reading on, grew interested, until interest was intensified into absorption For the outcast boy in the slums, you must know, was really the kidnapped child of a prince and a princess, and after the most romantic adventures was enfolded in his parents' arms, married a duke's beauteous daughter, whom in his poverty he had worshipped from afar, and drove away with his bride in a coach-and-six.

To little Paul Kegworthy the clotted nonsense was a revelation from on high. He was that outcast boy. The memorable pronouncement of the goddess received confirmation in some kind of holy writ. The Vision Splendid, hitherto confused, crystallized into focus. He realized vividly how he differed in feature and form and intellect and character from the low crowd with whom he was associated. His unpopularity was derived from envy. His manifest superiority was gall to their base natures. Yes, he had got to the heart of the mystery. Mrs. Button was not his mother. For reasons unknown he had been kidnapped. Aware of his high lineage, she hated him and beat him and despitefully used him. She never gushed, it is true, over her offspring; but the little Buttons flourished under genuine motherment. They, inconsiderable brats, were her veritable children. Whereas he, Paul-it was as plain as daylight. Somewhere far away in the great world, an august and griefstricken pair, at that very moment, were mourning the loss of their only son. There they were, in their marble palace, surrounded by flunkeys all crimson and gold (men servants were always "gorgeously apparelled flunkeys" in Paul's books), sitting at a table loaded with pineapples on golden dishes, and eating out their hearts with longing. He could hear their talk.

"If only our beloved son were with us," said the princess, wiping away a tear.

"We must be patient, my sweet Highness," replied the prince, with lofty resignation stamped on his noble brow. "Let us trust to Heaven to remove the cankerworm that is gnawing our vitals."

Paul felt very sorry for them, and he, too, wiped away a tear.

For many years he remembered that day. He was alone in his brickfield on a gusty March morning-the Easter holidays had released him from school-squatting by his hole under the lee of a mass of earth and rubbish. It was a mean expanse, blackened by soot and defiled by refuse. Here and there bramble and stunted gorse struggled for an existence; but the flora mainly consisted in bits of old boots and foul raiment protruding grotesquely from the soil, half-buried cans, rusty bits of iron, and broken bottles. On one side the backs of grimy little houses, their yards full of fluttering drab underwear, marked the edge of the hopeless town which rose above them in forbidding buildings, belching chimney shafts and the spikes of a couple of spires. On the other sides it was bounded by the brick walls of factories, the municipal gasworks and the approach to the railway station, indicated by signal-posts standing out against the sky like gallows, and a tram-line bordered by a row of skeleton cottages. Golgotha was a grim garden compared with Paul's brickfield. Sometimes the children of the town scuttled about it like dingy little rabbits. But more often it was a desolate solitude. Perhaps all but the lowest of the parents of Bludston had put the place out of bounds, as gipsies and other dwellers in vans were allowed to camp there. It also bore an evil name because a night murder or two had been committed in its murky seclusion. Paul knew the exact spot, an ugly cavity toward the gasworks end, where a woman had been "done in," and even he, lord of the brickfield, preferred to remain at a purifying distance. But it was his own domain. He felt in it a certain pride of possession. The hollow under the lee of the rubbish-heap, by the side of the hole where he kept his paper library, was the most homelike place he knew.

For many years he remembered that day. The light that never was on sea or land fell upon the brickfield. He had read the story at one stretch. He had sat there for hours reading, for hours rapt in his Vision. At last material darkness began to gather round him, and he awoke with a start to realization that he had been sitting there most of the day. With a sigh he replaced his book in the hole, which he cunningly masked with a lump of hard clay, and, feeling stiff and cold, ran, childlike, homeward. In the silence of the night he took out his cornelian heart and fondled it. The day had been curiously like, yet utterly unlike, the day on which she had taken it from her neck. In a dim fashion he knew that the two days were of infinite significance in his life and were complementary. He had been waiting, as it were, for nine months for this day's revelation, this day's confirmation.

Paul rose the next morning, a human being with a fixed idea, an unquestioned faith in his destiny. His star shone clear. He was born to great things. In those early years that followed it was not a matter of an imaginative child's vanity, but the unalterable, serene conviction of a child's soul. The prince and princess were realities, his future greatness a magnificent certitude. You must remember this, if you would understand Paul's after-life. It was built on this radiant knowledge. In the afternoon he met Billy Goodge and the gang. They were playing at soldiers, Billy distinguished by a cocked hat made out of newspaper and a wooden sword.

"Coom on, Susie, wi be going to knock hell out of the boys in Stamford Street."

Paul folded his arms and looked at him contemptuously, as became one of his noble blood. "You could no' knock hell out of a bug."

"What's that tha says?"

Paul repeated the insult.

"Say that agen!" blustered the cocked-hatted leader.

Paul said it again and nothing happened, Billy received vociferous and sanguinary advice couched in sanguinary terms.

"Try and hit me!" said Billy.

The scene was oddly parallel with one in the story of the outcast boy of the gutter. Paul, conscious of experiment, calmly went up to him and kicked him. He kicked him hard. The sensation was delicious. Bil

ly edged away. He knew from past experience that if it came to blows he was no match for Paul, but hitherto, having shown fight, he had received the support of the gang. Now, however, there was an extraordinary quality in Paul's defiance which took the spirit out of him. Once more he was urged by the ragged brats to deeds of blood. He did not respond. Paul kicked him again before his followers. If he could have gone on kicking him for ever and ever what delirium of joy were eternity! Billy edged farther away. The mongrel game-cock was beaten. Paul, dramatically conscious of what the unrecognized prince would do in such a circumstance, advanced, smacked his face, plucked the cocked hat from his head, the sword from his hand, and invested himself with these insignia of leadership, Billy melted silently into the subfusc air of Budge Street. The ragged regiment looked around and there was no Billy. Paul Kegworthy, the raggedest of them all, with nothing to recommend him but his ridiculous exotic beauty and the paper and wooden spolia opima of the vanquished, stood before them, a tattered Caesar. The gang hung spellbound. They were ready, small band of heroes, to follow him against the hordes of Stamford Street. They only awaited his signal. Paul tasted a joy known but to few of the sons of men-absolute power over, and supreme contempt for, his fellows. He stood for a moment or two, in the grey, miserable street discordant with the wailings of babies and the clamour of futile little girls, who, after the manner of women, had no idea of political crisis, and the shrill objurgations of slattern mothers and the raucous cries of an idealist vendor of hyacinths, and, cocked hat on head and wooden sword in hand, he looked at his fawning army. Then came the touch of genius that was often to characterize his actions in after years. It was mimetic, as he had read of such a thing in his paper-covered textbooks-but it was none the less a touch of genius. He frowned on the dirty, ignoble little boys. What had he in common with them-he, the son of a prince? Nothing. He snapped his sword across his knee, tore his cocked hat in two, and, casting the fragments before them, marched proudly toward the very last place on the face of the earth that he desired to visit-his own home. The army remained for a few seconds bewildered by the dramatic and unexpected, and, leaderless, did what many a real army has done in similar circumstances, straggled into disintegration.

Thenceforward, Paul, had he so chosen, could have ruled despotically in Budge Street. But he did not choose. The games from which he used to be excluded, or in which he used to be allowed to join on sufferance, no longer appealed to him. He preferred to let Joey Meakin lead the gang, vice Billy Goodge deposed, while he himself remained aloof. Now and then he condescended to arbitrate between disputants or to kick a little brute of a bully, but he felt that, in doing so, he was derogating from his high dignity. It was his joy to feel himself a dark, majestic power overshadowing the street, a kind of Grand Llama hidden in mystery. Often he would walk through the midst of the children, seemingly unconscious of their existence, acting strenuously to himself his part of a high-born prince.

This lasted till a dark and awful day when Mr. Button pitched him into the factory. These were times before kindly Education Acts and Factory Acts decreed that no boy under twelve years of age should work in a factory, and that every boy under fourteen should spend half his time at the factory and half at school. Paul's education was considered complete, and he had to plunge into full time at the grim and grinding place. He had joined the great army of workers. A wide gulf separated him from the gang of Budge Street. It existed for him no more than did the little girls and babies. Life changed its aspect entirely. Gone were the days of vagabondage, the lazy, the delicious even though cold and hungry hours of dreaming and reading in the brickfield; gone was the happy freedom of the chartered libertine of the gutter. He was bound, a little slave, like hundreds of other little slaves and thousands of big ones, to a relentless machine. He entered the hopeless factory gate at six in the morning and left it at half-past five in the evening; and, his rough food swallowed, slunk to his kennel in the scullery like a little tired dog. And Mr. Button drank, and beat Mrs. Button, and Mrs. Button beat Paul whenever she felt in the humour and had anything handy to do it with, and, as a matter of course, confiscated his wages on Saturday and set him to mind the baby on Sunday afternoons. In the monotony, weariness and greyness of life the glory of the Vision began to grow dim.

In the factory he was not thrown into competition with other boys. He was the skip, the drudge, the carrier and fetcher, the cleaner and polisher for a work-bench of men devoid of sentiment and blind to his princely qualities. He tried, indeed, by nimbleness of hand and intelligence, to impress them with his superiority to his predecessors, but they were not impressed. At the most he escaped curses. His mind began to work in the logic of the real. Entrance into his kingdom implied as a primary condition release from the factory. But how could such release come, when every morning a remorseless and insensate hook-just like a certain hook in the machinery whose deadly certainty of grip fascinated and terrified him, caught him from his morning sleep every morning of his life, save Sunday, and swung him inexorably into the factory? He looked around and saw that no one was released, except through death or illness or incompetence. And the incompetent starved. Any child in Budge Street with a grain of sense knew that. There was no release. He, son of a prince, would work for ever and ever in Bludston. His heart failed him. And there was no one to whom he could tell the tragic and romantic story of his birth. One or two happy gleams of brightness, however, lightened his darkness and prevented the Vision from fading entirely into the greyness of the factory sky. Once the Owner, an unspeakable god with a bald pink head and a paunch vastly chained with gold, conducted a party of ladies over the works. One of the latter, a very grand lady, noticed him at his bench and came-and spoke kindly to him. Her voice had the same sweet timbre as his goddess's. After she had left him his quick ears caught her question to the Owner: "Where did you get your young Apollo? Not out of Lancashire, surely? He's wonderful." And just before she passed out of sight she turned and looked at him and smiled. He learned on inquiry that she was the Marchioness of Chudley. The instant recognition of him by one of his own aristocratic caste revived his faith. The day would assuredly come. Suppose it had been his own mother, instead of the Marchioness? Stranger things happened in the books. The other gleam proceeded from one of the workmen at his bench, a serious and socialistic person who occasionally lent him something to read: Foxe's "Book of Martyrs," "Mill on Liberty," Bellamy's "Looking Backward," at that time at the height of its popularity. And sometimes he would talk to Paul about collectivism and the new era that was coming when there would be no such words as rich and poor, because there would be no such classes as they denoted.

Paul would say: "Then a prince will be no better than a factory hand?"

"There won't be any princes, I tell thee," his friend would reply, and launch out into a denunciation of tyrants.

But this did not suit Paul. If there were to be no princes, where, would he come in? So, while grateful to the evangelist for talking to him and treating him as a human being, he totally rejected his gospel. It struck at the very foundations of his visionary destiny. He was afraid to argue, for his friend was vehement. Also confession of aristocratic prejudices might turn friendship into enmity. But his passionate antagonism to the communistic theory, all the more intense through suppression, strengthened his fantastic faith. Still, the transient smile of a marchioness and the political economy of a sour-avised operative are not enough to keep alive the romance of underfed, ill-clad, overdriven childhood. And after a while he was deprived even of the latter consolation, his friend being shifted to another end of the factory. In despair he turned to Ada, the eldest of the little Buttons, who now had reached years of comparative discretion, and strove to interest her in his dreams, veiling his identity under a fictitious name; but Ada, an unimaginative and practical child with a growing family to look after, either listened stupidly or consigned him, in the local vernacular, to perdition.

"But suppose 'it was me that was the unknown prince? Supposing it was me I've been talking about all the time? Supposing it was me that went away and came back in a gold coach and six horses, with a duke's daughter all over diamonds by my side, what would tha say?"

"I think tha art nowt but a fool," said the elderly child of ten, "and, if mother heard thee, she'd lamm the life out of thee."

Paul had the sickening sensation of the man who has confided the high secrets of his soul to coarsefibred woman. He turned away, darkly conscious of having magnanimously given Ada a chance to mount with him into the upper air, which opportunity she, daughter of earth, had, in her purblind manner, refused. Thenceforward Ada was to him an unnoticeable item in the cosmos.

One hopeless month succeeded another, until a cloud seemed to close round Paul's brain, rendering him automatic in his actions, merely animal in his half-satisfied appetites. Fines and curses were his portion at the factory; curses and beatings-deserved if Justice held a hurried scale at home. Paul, who had read of suicide in The Bludston Herald, turned his thoughts morbidly to death. But his dramatic imagination always carried him beyond' his own demise to the scene in the household when his waxlike corpse should be discovered dangling from a rope fixed to the hook in the kitchen ceiling. He posed cadaverous before a shocked Budge Street, before a conscience-stricken factory; and he wept on his sack bed in the scullery because the prince and the princess, his august parents, would never know that he had died. A whit less gloomy were his imaginings of the said prince and princess rushing into the house, in the nick of time, just before life was extinct, and cutting him down. How they were to find him he did not know. This side-track exploration of possibilities was a symptom of sanity.

Yet, Heaven knows what would have happened to Paul, after a year or so at the factory, if Barney Bill, a grotesque god from the wide and breezy spaces of the world, had not limped into his life.

Barney Bill wore the cloth cap and conventional and unpicturesque, though shapeless and weather-stained, garment of the late nineteenth century. Neither horns nor goat's feet were visible; nor was the pipe of reed on which he played. Yet he played, in Paul's ear, the comforting melody of Pan, and the glory of the Vision once more flooded Paul's senses, and the factory and Budge Street and the Buttons and the scullery faded away like an evil dream.

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