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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 24102

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


THE Fates arranged Barney Bill's entrance late on a Saturday afternoon in August. It was not dramatic. It was merely casual. They laid the scene in the brickfield.

It had rained all day, and now there was sullen clearance. Paul, who had been bathing with some factory boys in the not very savoury canal a mile or so distant, had wandered mechanically to his brickfield library, which, by means of some scavenging process, he managed to keep meagrely replenished. Here he had settled himself with a dilapidated book on his knees for an hour's intellectual enjoyment. It was not a cheerful evening. The ground was sodden, and rank emanations rose from the refuse. From where he sat he could see an angry sunset like a black-winged dragon with belly of flame brooding over the town. The place wore an especial air of desolation. Paul felt depressed. Bathing in the pouring wet is a chilly sport, and his midday meal of cold potatoes had not been invigorating. These he had grabbed, and, having done them up hastily in newspaper, had bolted with them out of the house. He had been fined heavily for slackness during the week, and Mr. Button's inevitable wrath at docked wages he desired to undergo as late as possible. Then, the sun had blazed furiously during the last six imprisoned days, and now the long-looked for hours of freedom were disfigured by rain and blight. He resented the malice of things. He also resented the invasion of his brickfield by an alien van, a gaudy vehicle, yellow and red, to the exterior of which clinging wicker chairs, brooms, brushes and jute mats gave the impression of a lunatic's idea of decoration. An old horse, hobbled a few feet away, philosophically cropped the abominable grass. On the front of the van a man squatted with food and drink. Paul hated him as a trespasser and a gormandizer.

Presently the man, shading his eyes with his hand, scrutinized the small, melancholy figure, and then, hopping from his perch, sped toward him with a nimble and curiously tortuous gait.

He approached, a wiry, almost wizened, little man of fifty, tanned to gipsy brown. He had a shrewd thin face, with an oddly flattened nose, and little round moist dark eyes that glittered like diamonds. He wore cloth cap on the back of his head, showing in front a thick mass of closely cropped hair. His collarless shirt was open at the neck and his sleeves were rolled up above the elbow.

"You're Polly Kegworthy's kid, ain't you?" he asked.

"Ay," said Paul.

"Seen you afore, haven't I?" Then Paul remembered. Three or four times during his life, at long, long intervals, the van had passed down Budge Street, stopping at houses here and there. About two years ago, coming home, he had met it at his own door. His mother and the little man were talking together. The man had taken him under the chin and twisted his face up. "Is that the nipper?" he had asked.

His mother had nodded, and, releasing Paul with a clumsy gesture of simulated affection, had sent him with twopence for a pint of beer to the public-house at the end of the street. He recalled how the man had winked his little bright eye at his mother before putting the jug to his lips.

"I browt th' beer for yo'," said Paul.

"You did. It was the worst beer, bar none, I've ever had. I can taste it now." He made a wry face. Then he cocked his head on one side. "I suppose you're wondering who I am?" said he.

"Ay," said Paul. "Who art tha?"

"I'm Barney Bill," replied the man. "Did you never hear of me? I'm known on the road from Taunton to Newcastle and from Hereford to Lowestoft. You can tell yer mother that you seed me."

A smile curled round Paul's lips at the comic idea of giving his mother unsolicited information. "Barney Bill?" said he.

"Yuss," said the man. Then, after a pause, "What are you doing of there?"

"Reading," said Paul.

"Let's have a look at it."

Paul regarded him suspiciously; but there was kindliness in the twinkling glance. He handed him the sorry apology for a book.

Barney Bill turned it over. 'Why, said he, "it ain't got no beginning and no end. It's all middle. 'Kenilworth.' Do yer like it?"

"Ay!" said Paul. "It's foine."

"Who do yer think wrote it?"

As both cover and a hundred pages at the beginning, including the title-page, to say nothing of a hundred pages at the end, were missing, Paul had no clue to the authorship.

"Dunno," said he.

"Sir Walter Scott."

Paul jumped to his feet. Sir Walter Scott, he knew not why or how, was one of those bright names that starred in his historical darkness, like Caesar and Napoleon and Ridley and Latimer and W. G. Grace.

"Tha' art sure? Sir Water Scott?"

The shock of meeting Sir Walter in the flesh could not have been greater. The man nodded. "Think I'd tell yer a lie? I do a bit of reading myself in the old 'bus there"-he jerked a thumb-"I've got some books now. Would yer like to see 'em?"

Would a mouse like cheese? Paul started off with his new companion.

"If it wasn't for a book or two, I'd go melancholy mad and bust myself," the latter remarked.

Paul's spirit leaped toward a spiritual brother. It was precisely his own case.

"You'll find a lot of chaps that don't hold with books. Dessay you've met 'em?"

Paul laughed, precipient of irony.

Barney Bill continued: "I've heard some on 'em say: 'What's the good of books? Give me nature,' and they goes and asks for it at the public-'ouse. Most say nothing at all, but just booze."

"Like father," said Paul.

"Eh?" cried his friend sharply.

"Sam Button, what married mother."

"Ali! so he boozes a lot, does he?"

Paul drew an impressionistic and lurid picture of Mr. Button.

"And they fight?"

"Like billy-o," said Paul.

They reached the van. Barney Bill, surprisingly agile in spite of his twisted leg, sprang into the interior. Paul, standing between the shafts, looked in with curiosity. There was a rough though not unclean bed running down one side. Beyond, at the stern, so to speak, was a kind of galley containing cooking stove, kettle and pot. There were shelves, some filled with stock-in-trade, others with miscellaneous things, the nature of which he could not distinguish in the gloom. Barney Bill presently turned and dumped an armful of books on the footboard an inch or two below Paul's nose. Paul scanned the title pages. They were: Goldsmith's "Animated Nature," "Enquire Within Upon Everything," an old bound volume of "Cassell's Family Reader," "The Remains of Henry Kirke White," and "Martin Chuzzlewit." The owner looked down upon them proudly.

"I've got some more, but I can't get at 'em."

Paul regarded him with envy. This was a man of great possessions. "How long are yo' going to stay here?" he asked hopefully.

"Till sunrise to-morrow."

Paul's face fell. He seemed to have no luck nowadays.

Barney Bill let himself down to a sitting position on the footboard and reached to the end for a huge pork pie and a clasp knife which lay beside a tin can. "I'll go on with my supper," said he; then noticing a wistful, hungry look in the child's eyes, "Have a bit?" he asked.

He cut off a mighty hunk and put it into Paul's ready hand. Paul perched himself beside him, and they both ate for a long while in silence, dangling their legs. Now and again the host passed the tin of tea to wash down the food. The flaming dragon died into a smoky red above the town. A light or two already appeared in the fringe of mean houses. Twilight fell rapidly.

"Oughtn't you to be getting home?"

Paul, his hunger appeased, grinned. His idea was to sneak into the scullery just after the public-houses closed, when his mother would be far too much occupied with Mr. Button to worry about him. Chastisement would then be postponed till the morning. Artlessly he laid the situation before his friend, who led him on to relate other amenities of his domestic life.

"Well, I'm jiggered!" said Barney Bill. "She must be a she-devil!"

Paul cordially agreed. He had already imagined the Prince of Darkness in the guise of Mr. Button; Mrs. Button was in every way fit to be the latter's diabolical mate. Encouraged by sympathy and shrewd questions, he sketched in broad detail his short career, glorifying himself as the prize scholar and the erstwhile Grand Llama of Budge Street, and drawing a dismal picture of the factory. Barney Bill listened comprehendingly. Then, smoking a well-blackened clay, he began to utter maledictions on the suffocating life in towns and to extol his own manner of living. Having an appreciative audience, he grew eloquent over his lonely wanderings the length and breadth of the land; over the joy of country things, the sweetness of the fields, the wayside flowers, the vaulted highways in the leafy summer, the quiet, sleepy towns, the fragrant villages, the peace and cleanness of the open air.

The night had fallen, and in the cleared sky the stars shone bright. Paul, his head against the lintel of the van door, looked up at them, enthralled by the talk of Barney Bill. The vagabond merchant had the slight drawling inflection of the Home Counties, which gave a soothing effect to a naturally soft voice. To Paul it was the pipes of Pan.

"It mightn't suit everybody," said Barney Bill philosophically. "Some folks prefer gas to laylock. I don't say that they're wrong. But I likes laylock."

"What's laylock?" asked Paul.

His friend explained. No lilac bloomed in the blighted Springs of Bludston.

"Does it smell sweet?"

"Yuss. So does the may and the syringa and the new-mown hay and the seaweed. Never smelt any of 'em?"

"No," sighed Paul, sensuously conscious of new and vague horizons. "I once smelled summat sweet," he said dreamily. "It wur a lady."

"D'ye mean a woman?"

"No. A lady. Like what yo' read of."

"I've heard as they do smell good; like violets-some on 'em," the philosopher remarked.

Drawn magnetically to this spiritual brother, Paul said almost without volition, "She said I were the son of a prince."

"Son of a WOT?" cried Barney Bill, sitting up with a jerk that shook a volume or two onto the ground.

Paul repeated the startling word.

"Lor' lumme!" exclaimed the other, "don't yer know who yer father was?"

Paul told of his disastrous attempts to pierce the mystery of his birth.

"A frying-pan? Did she now? That's a mother for yer."

Paul disowned her. He disowned her with reprehensible emphasis.

Barney Bill pulled reflectively at his pipe. Then he laid a bony hand on the boy's shoulder. "Who do you think yer mother was?" he asked gravely. "A princess?"

"Ay, why not?" said Paul.

"Why not?" echoed Barney Bill. "Why not? You're a blooming lucky kid. I wish I was a missin' heir. I know what I'd do."

"What?" asked Paul, the ingenuous.

"I'd find my 'igh-born parents."

"How?" asked Paul.

"I'd go through the whole of England, asking all the princes I met. You don't meet 'em at every village pump, ye know," he added quickly, lest the boy, detecting the bantering note, should freeze into reserve; "but, if you keep yer eyes skinned and yer ears standing up, you can learn where they are. Lor' lumme! I wouldn't be a little nigger slave in a factory if I was the missin' heir. Not much. I wouldn't be starved and beaten by Sam and Polly Button. Not me. D'ye think yer aforesaid 'igh-born parents are going to dive down into this stinkin' suburb of hell to find yer out? Not likely. You've got to find 'em sonny. Yer can find anybody on the 'ighroad if yer tramps long enough. What d'yer think?"

"I'll find 'em," said Paul, in dizzy contemplation of possibilities.

"When are yer going to start?" asked Barney Bill.

Paul felt his wages jingle in his pocket. He was a capitalist. The thrill of independence swept him from head to foot. What time like the present? "I'll start now," said he.

It was night. Quite dark, save for the stars; the lights already disappearing in the fringe of mean houses whose outline was merged against the blackness

of the town; the green and red and white disks along the railway line behind the dim mass of the gasworks; the occasional streak of conglomerate fireflies that was a tramcar; and the red, remorseless glow of here and there a furnace that never was extinct in the memory of man. And, save for the far shriek of trains, the less remote and more frequent clanging of passing tramcars along the road edged with the skeleton cottages, and, startlingly near, the vain munching and dull footfall of the old horse, all was still. Compared with home and Budge Street, it was the reposeful quiet of the tomb. Barney Bill smoked for a time in silence, while Paul sat with clenched fists and a beating heart. The simplicity of the high adventure dazed him. All he had to do was to walk away-walk and walk, free as a sparrow.

Presently Barney Bill slid from the footboard. "You stay here, sonny, till I come back."

He limped away across the dim brickfield and sat down at the edge of the hollow where the woman had been murdered. He had to think; to decide a nice point of ethics. A vagrant seller of brooms and jute mats, even though he does carry about with him "Cassell's Family Reader" and "The Remains of Henry Kirke White," is distracted by few psychological problems. Sufficient for the day is the physical thereof. And when a man like Barney Bill is unencumbered by the continuous feminine, the ordinary solution of life is simple. But now the man had to switch his mind back to times before Paul was born, when the eternal feminine had played the very devil with him, when all sorts of passions and emotions had whirled his untrained being into dizziness. No passions or emotions now affected him; but their memory created an atmosphere of puzzledom. He had to adjust values. He had to deputize for Destiny. He also had to harmonize the pathetically absurd with the grimly real. He took off his cap and scratched his cropped head. After a while he damned something indefinite and hastened in his dot-and-carry-one fashion to the van.

"Quite made up yer mind to go in search of yer 'ighborn parents?"

"Ay," said Paul.

"Like me to give yer a lift, say, as far as London?"

Paul sprang to the ground and opened his mouth to speak. But his knees grew weak and he quivered all over like one who beholds the god. The abstract nebulous romance of his pilgrimage had been crystallized, in a flash, into the concrete. "Ay," he panted.

"Ay!" and he steadied himself with his back and elbows against the shafts.

"That's all right," said Barney Bill, in a matter-of fact way, calm and godlike to Paul. "You can make up a bed on the floor of the old 'bus with some of them there mats inside and we'll turn in and have a sleep, and start at sunrise."

He clambered into the van, followed by Paul, and lit an oil lamp. In a few moments Paul's bed was made. He threw himself down. The resilient surface of the mats was luxury after the sacking on the scullery stone. Barney Bill performed his summary toilet, blew out the lamp and went to his couch.

Presently Paul started up, smitten by a pang straight through his heart. He sprang to his feet. "Mister," he cried in the darkness, not knowing how else to address his protector. "I mun go whoam."

"Wot?" exclaimed the other. "Thought better of it already? Well, go, then, yer little 'eathen 'ippocrite!"

"I'll coom back," said Paul.

"Yer afeared, yer little rat," said Barney Bill, out of the blackness.

"I'm not," retorted Paul indignantly. "I'm freeten'd of nowt."

"Then what d'yer want to go for? If you've made up yer mind to come along of me, just stay where you are. If you go home they'll nab you and whack you for staying out late, and lock you up, and you'll not be able to get out in time in the morning. And I ain't a-going to wait for yer, I tell yer straight."

"I'll be back," said Paul.

"Don't believe it. Good mind not to let yer go."

The touch of genius suddenly brushed the boy's forehead. He drew from his pockets the handful of silver and copper that was his week's wages, and, groping in the darkness, poured it over Barney Bill. "Then keep that for me till I coom back."

He fumbled hurriedly for the latch of the van door, found it, and leaped out into the waste under the stars, just as the owner of the van rose with a clatter of coins. To pick up money is a deeply rooted human instinct. Barney Bill lit his lamp, and, uttering juicy though innocuous flowers of anathema, searched for the scattered treasure. When he had retrieved three shillings and sevenpence-halfpenny he peered out. Paul was far away. Barney Bill put the money on the shelf and looked at it in a puzzled way. Was it an earnest of the boy's return, or was it a bribe to let him go? The former hypothesis seemed untenable, for if he got nabbed his penniless condition would be such an aggravation of his offence as to call down upon him a more ferocious punishment than he need have risked. And why in the name of sanity did he want to go home? To kiss his sainted mother in her sleep? To pack his blankety portmanteau? Barney Bill's fancy took a satirical turn. On the latter hypothesis, the boy was in deadly fear, and preferred the certainty of the ferocious punishment to the terrors of an unknown future. Barney Bill smoked a reflective pipe, looking at the matter from the two points of view. Not being able to decide, he put out his lamp, shut his door and went to sleep.

Dawn awoke him. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Paul was not there. He did not expect him to be there. He felt sorry. The poor little kid had funked it. He had hoped for better stuff. He rose and stretched himself, put on socks and boots, lit his cooking stove, set a kettle to boil and, opening the door, remained for a while breathing the misty morning air. Then he let himself down and proceeded to the back of the van, where stood a pail of water and a tin basin, his simple washing apparatus. Having sluiced head and neck and dried them with something resembling a towel, he hooked up the pail, stowed the basin in a rack, unslung a nosebag, which he attached to the head of the old horse, and went indoors to prepare his own elementary breakfast. That over, he put the horse into the shafts. Barney Bill was a man of his word. He was not going to wait for Paul; but he cast a glance round the limited horizon of the brickfield, hoping, against reason, to see the little slim figure emerge from some opening and run toward him.

"Darn the boy!" said Barney Bill, taking off his cap and scratching his wet head.

A low moan broke the dead silence of the Sunday dawn. He started and looked about him. He listened. There was another. The moans were those of a sleeper. He bent down and looked under the van. There lay Paul, huddled up, fast asleep on the bare ground.

"Well, I'm jiggered! I'm just jiggered. Here, you-hello!" cried Barney Bill.

Paul awakened suddenly, half sat up, grinned, grabbed at something on the ground beside him and wriggled out between the wheels.

"How long you been there?"

"About two hours," said Paul.

"Why didn't yer wake me?"

"I didn't like to disturb thee," said Paul.

"Did yer go home?"

"Ay," said Paul.

"Into the house?"

Paul nodded and smiled. Now, that it was all over, he could smile. But only afterwards, when he had greater command of language, could he describe the awful terror that shook his soul when he opened the front door, crept twice through the darkness of the sleeping kitchen and noiselessly closed the door again.

For many months he felt the terror of his dreams. Briefly he told Barney Bill of his exploit. How he had to lurk in the shadow of the street during the end of a battle between the Buttons, in which the lodgers and a policeman had intervened. How he had to wait-interminable hours-until the house was quiet. How he had stumbled over things in the drunken disorder of the kitchen floor, dreading to arouse the four elder little Buttons who slept in the room. How narrowly he had missed running into the arms of the policeman who had passed the door some seconds before he opened it. How he had crouched on the pavement until the policeman turned the corner, and how he had fled in the opposite direction.

"And if yer mother had caught ye, what would she have done to yer?"

"Half-killed me," said Paul.

Barney Bill twisted his head on one side and looked at him out of his twinkling eyes. Paul thought he resembled a grotesque bird.

"Wot did yer do it for?" he asked.

"This," said Paul, holding out a grubby palm in which lay the precious cornelian heart.

His friend blinked at it. "Wot the blazes is the good of that?"

"It's a talisman," replied Paul, who, having come across the word in a book, had at once applied it to his treasure.

"Lor' lumme!" cried Barney Bill. "And it was for that bit of stuff yer ran the risk of being flayed alive by yer loving parents?"

Paul was quick to detect a note of admiration underlying the superficial contemptuousness of the words. "I'd ha' gone through fire and water for it," he declared theatrically.

"Lor' lumme!" said Barney Bill again.

"I got summat else," said Paul, taking from his pocket his little pack of Sunday-school cards.

Barney Bill examined them gravely. "I think you'd better do away with these."

"Why?"

"They establishes yer identity," said Barney Bill.

"What's that?"

Barney Bill explained. Paul was running away from home. The police, informed of the fact, would raise a hue-and-cry. The cards, if found, would be evidence. Paul laughed. The constabulary was not popular in Budge Street.

"Mother ain't going to ha' nowt to do with the police, nor father, either."

He hinted that the cards might be useful later. His childish vanity loved the trivial encomiums inscribed thereon. They would impress beholders who had not the same reasons for preoccupation as Barney Bill.

"You're thinking of your 'igh-born parents," said Barney Bill. "All right, keep 'em. Only hide 'ern away safe. And now get in and let us clear out of this place. It smelts like a cheese with an escape of gas running through it. And you'd better stay inside and not show your face all day long. I don't want to be had up for kidnapping."

Paul jumped in. Barney Bill clambered onto the footboard and took the reins. The old horse started and the van jolted its way to the road, on which as yet no tramcars clattered. As the van turned, Paul, craning his neck out of the window, obtained the last glimpse of Bludston. He had no regrets. As far as such a thought could be formulated in his young mind, he wished that the place could be blotted out from his memory, as it was now hidden forever from his vision. He stood at the little window, facing south, gazing toward the unknown region at the end of which lay London, city of dreams. He was not quite fourteen. His destiny was before him, and to the fulfilment thereof he saw no hindrance. No more would the remorseless factory hook catch him from his sleep and swing him into the relentless machine. Never again, would he hear his mother's shrewish voice or feel her heavy, greasy hand about his ears. He was free-free to read, free to sleep, free to talk, free to drink in the beauty of the lazy hours. Vaguely he was conscious that one of the wonders that would come would be his own expansion. He would learn many things which he did not know, things that would fit him for his high estate. He looked down upon the foreshortened figure of Barney Bill, his cloth cap, his shoulders, his bare brown arms, a patch of knee. To the boy, at that moment, he was less a man than an instrument of Destiny guiding him, not knowing why, to the Promised Land.

At last on the quiet road Paul saw a bicyclist approaching them. Mindful of Barney Bill's injunction, he withdrew his head. Presently he lay down on the couch, and, soothed by the jogging of the van and the pleasant creaking of the baskets, fell into the deep sleep of tired and happy childhood.

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