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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 23959

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


IT was a day of dust and blaze. Dust lay thick on the ground, it filled the air, it silvered the lower branches of the wayside trees, it turned the old brown horse into a dappled grey, it powdered the black hair of Barney Bill and of Paul until they looked like vagabond millers. They sat side by side on the footboard while the old horse jogged on, whisking flies away with a scanty but persistent tail.

Paul, barefoot and barelegged, hatless, coatless, absorbed blaze and dust with the animal content of a young lizard. A month's summer wandering had baked him to gipsy brown. A month's sufficient food and happiness had filled gaunt hollows in his face and covered all too visible ribs with flesh. Since his flight from Bludston his life had been one sensuous trance. His hungry young soul had been gorged with beauty-the beauty of fields and trees and rolling country, of still, quivering moons and starlit nights, of exultant freedom, of never-failing human sympathy. He had a confused memory of everything. They had passed through many towns as similar to Bludston as one factory chimney to another, and had plied their trade in many a mean street, so much the counterpart of Budge Street that he had watched a certain window or door with involuntary trepidation, until he realized that it was not Budge Street, that he was a happy alien to its squalor, that he was a butterfly, a thing of woods and hedgerows fluttering for an inconsequent moment in the gloom. He came among them, none knew whence he was going, none knew whither. He was conscious of being a creature of mystery. He pitied the fettered youth of these begrimed and joyless towns-slaves, Men with Muckrakes (he had fished up an old "Pilgrim's Progress" from the lower depths of the van), who obstinately refused to raise their eyes to the glorious sun in heaven. In his childish arrogance he would ask Barney Bill, "Why don't they go away and leave it, like me?" And the wizened little man would reply, with the flicker of an eyelid unperceived by Paul, "Because they haven't no 'igh-born parents waiting for 'em. They're born to their low estate, and they knows it." Which to Paul was a solution of peculiar comfort.

Even the blackened lands between the towns had their charm for Paul, in that he had a gleeful sense of being excluded from the wrath of God, which fell continuously upon them and the inhabitants thereof. And here and there a belt of leafy country gave promise, or confirmed Barney Bill's promise, of the Paradise that would come. Besides, what mattered the perpetuations of Bludston brickfields when the Land of Beulah shimmered ahead in the blue distance, when "Martin Chuzzlewit" lay open on his knees, when the smell of the bit of steak sizzling on the cooking stove stung his young blood? And now they were in Warwickshire, county of verdant undulations and deep woods and embowered villages. Every promise that Barney Bill had made to him of beauty was in process of fulfilment. There were no more blighted towns, no more factories, no more chimneys belching forth smoke. This was the Earth, the real broad-bosomed Mother Earth. What he had left was the Hell upon Earth. What he was going to might be Paradise, but Paul's imagination rightly boggled at the conception of a Paradise more perfect. And, as Paul's prescient wit had conjectured, he was learning many things; the names of trees and wild flowers, the cries of birds, the habits of wayside beasts; what was good for a horse to eat and what was bad; which was the Waggon, and Orion's Belt and the Bunch of Keys in the heavens; how to fry bacon and sew up rents in his clothing; how to deal with his fellow-man, or, rather, with his fellow-woman, in a persuasive manner; how to snare a rabbit or a pheasant and convert it into food, and how, at the same time, to evade the terrors of the law; the differences between wheat and oats and barley; the main lines of cleavage between political parties, hitherto a puzzle to Paul, for Barney Bill was a politician (on the Conservative side) and read his newspaper and argued craftily in taverns; and the styles and titles of great landowners by whose estates they passed; and how to avoid the nets that were perpetually spread by a predatory sex before the feet of the incautious male. On the last point Barney Bill was eloquent; but Paul, with delicious memories sanctifying his young soul, turned a deaf ear to his misogyny. Barney Bill was very old and crooked and dried up; what beautiful lady would waste her blandishments on him? Even the low-born lasses with whom they at times consorted had scarce an eye for Barney Bill. The grapes were sour. Paul smiled indulgently on the little foible of his friend.

They jogged along the highroad on this blazing and dusty day. Their bower of wicker chairs crackled in the heat. It was too hot for sustained conversation. Once Barney Bill said: "If Bob"-Bob was the old horse's unimaginative name-"if Bob doesn't have a drink soon his darned old hide'll crack."

Ten minutes later: "Nothing under a quart'll wash down this dust."

"Have a drink of water," suggested Paul, who had already adopted this care for drouth, with satisfactory results.

"A grown man's thirst and a boy's thirst is two entirely different things," said Barney Bill sententiously. "To spoil this grown-up thirst of mine with water would be a crime."

A mile or so farther on the road he stretched out a lean brown arm and pointed. "See that there clump of trees? Behind that is the Little Bear Inn. They gives you cool china pots with blue round the edge. You can only have 'em if you asks for 'em, Jim Blake, the landlord, being pertickler-like. And if yer breaks em-"

"What would happen?" asked Paul, who was always very much impressed by Barney Bill's detailed knowledge of the roads and the inns of England.

Barney Bill shook his head. "It would break 'is 'eart. Them pots was being used when William the Conqueror was a boy."

"Ten-sixty-six to ten-eighty-seven," said Paul the scholar. "They mun be nine hundred years old."

"Not quite," said Barney Bill, with an air of scrupulous desire for veracity. "But nearly. Lor' lumme!" he exclaimed, after a pause, "it makes one think, doesn't it? One of them there quart mugs-suppose it has been filled, say, ten times a day, every day for nine hundred years-my Gosh! what a Pacific Ocean of beer must have been poured from it! It makes one come over all of religious-like when one puts it to one's head."

Paul did not reply, and reverential emotion kept Barney Bill silent until they reached the clump of trees and the Little Bear Inn.

It was set back from the road, in a kind of dusty courtyard masked off on one side by a gigantic elm and on the other by the fringe of an orchard with ruddy apples hanging patiently beneath the foliage. Close by the orchard stood the post bearing the signboard on which the Little Bear, an engaging beast, was pictured, and presiding in a ceremonious way over the horse-trough below. In the shade of the elm stretched a trestle table and two wooden benches. The old inn, gabled, half-timbered, its upper story overhanging the doorway, bent and crippled, though serene, with age, mellow in yellow and russet, spectacled, as befitted its years, with leaded diamond panes, crowned deep in secular thatch, smiled with the calm and homely peace of everlasting things. Its old dignity even covered the perky gilt inscription over the doorway, telling how James Blake was licensed to sell a variety of alcoholic beverages. One human figure alone was visible, as the chairs and mat-laden van slowly turned from the road toward the horse-trough-that of a young man in straw hat and grey flannels making a water-colour sketch of the inn.

Barney Bill slid off the footboard, and, looking neither to right nor left, bolted like a belated crab into the cool recesses of the bar in search of ambrosia from the blue-and-white china mug. Paul, also afoot, led Bob to the trough. Bob drank with the lusty moderation of beasts. When he had assuaged his thirst Paul backed him into the road and, slinging over his head a comforting nosebag, left him to his meal.

The young man, sitting on an upturned wooden case, at the extreme edge of the elm tree's shade, a slender easel before him, a litter of paraphernalia on the ground by his side, painted assiduously. Paul idly crept behind him and watched in amazement the smears of wet colour, after a second or two of apparent irrelevance, take their place in the essential structure of the drawing. He stood absorbed. He knew that there were such things as pictures. He knew, too, that they were made by hands. But he had never seen one in the making. After a while the artist threw back his head, looked at the inn and looked at his sketch. There was a hot bit of thatch at the corner near the orchard, and, below the eaves, bold shadow. The shadow had not come right. He put in a touch of burnt umber and again considered the effect.

"Confound it! that's all wrong," he muttered.

"It's blue," said Paul.

The artist started, twisted his head, and for the first time became conscious of the ragamuffin's presence. "Oh, you see it blue, do you?" He smiled ironically.

"Ay," said Paul, with pointing finger. "Look at it. It's not brown, anyhow. Yon's black inside and blue outside."

The young man shaded his brow and gazed intently. Brilliant sunshine plays the deuce with tones. "My hat!" cried he, "you're right. It was this confounded yellow of the side of the house." He put in a few hasty strokes. "That better?"

"Ay," said Paul.

The artist laid down his brush, and swung round on his box, clasping knees. "How the devil did you manage to see that when I didn't?"

"Dun-no!" said Paul.

The young man stretched himself and lit a cigarette.

"What are yo' doing that for, mister?" Paul asked seriously.

"That?"

"Ay," said Paul. "You mun have a reason."

"You're a queer infant," laughed the artist. "Do you really want to know?"

"I've asked yo'," said Paul.

"Well, if you're anxious to know, I'm an architect on a holiday, and I'm sketching any old thing I come across. I don't pretend to be a painter, my youthful virtuoso, and that's why I go wrong sometimes on colour. Do you know what an architect is?"

"No," said Paul, eagerly. "What is it?"

He had been baffled by the meaning of the word, which he had seen all his life, inscribed on a brass plate in the Bludston High Street: "E. Thomson, Architect & Surveyor." It had seemed to him odd, cryptically fascinating.

The young man laughed and explained; Paul listened seriously. Another mystery was solved. He had often wondered how the bricklayers knew where to lay the bricks. He grasped the idea that they were but instruments carrying out the conception of the architect's brain. "I'd like to be an architect," he said.

"Would you?" After a pause the young man continued: "Anyhow, you can earn a shilling. Just sit down there and let me make a sketch of you."

"What for?" asked Paul.

"Because you're a picturesque person. Now, I suppose you'll be asking me what's the meaning of picturesque?"

"Nay," said Paul. "I know. Yo' see it in books. 'Th' owd grey tower stood out picturesque against the crimson sky.'"

"Hullo! you're a literary gent," said the young man.

"Ay," replied Paul proudly. He was greatly attracted towards this new acquaintance, whom, by his speech and dress and ease of manner, he judged to belong to the same caste as his lost but ever-remembered goddess.

The young man picked up pencil and sketch-book and posed Paul at the end of the seat by the trestle table. "Now, then," said he, setting to work. "Head a little more that way. Capital. Don't move. If you're very quiet I'll give you a shilling." Presently he asked, "What are you? If you hadn't been a literary gent I'd have thought you might be a gipsy."

Paul flushed and started. "I'm not a gipsy."

"Steady, steady," exclaimed the artist. "I've just said you couldn't be one. Italian? You don't look English."

For the first time the idea of exotic parentage entered Paul's head. He dallied for a moment or two with the thought. "I dunno what I am," he said romantically.

"Oh? What's your father?" The young man motioned with his head toward the inn.

"Yon's not my father," said Paul. "It's only Barney Bill."

"Only Barney Bill?" echoed the other, amused. "Well, who is your father?"

"Dunno," said Paul.

"And your mother?"

"Dunno, either," said Paul, in a mysterious tone. "I dunno if my parents are living or dead. I think they're living."

"That's interesting. What are you doing with what's-his-name Bill?"

"I'm just travelling wi' him to London."

"And what are you going to do in London?"

"I'll see when I get there," said Paul.

"So you're out for adventure?"

"Ay," said the boy, a gleam of the Vision dancing before his eyes. "That's it. I'm going on an adventure."

"There, keep like that," cried the artist. "Don't stir. I do believe I'm getting you. Holy Moses, it will be great! If only I could catch the expression! There's nothing like adventure, is there? The glorious uncertainty of it! To wake up in the morning and know that the unexpected is bound to happen during the day. Exciting, isn't it?"

"Ay," said Paul, his face aglow.

The young man worked tense and quick at the luminous eyes. He broke a long silence by asking, "What's your name?"

"Paul Kegworthy."

"Paul? That's odd." In the sphere of life to which the ragged urchin belonged Toms and Bills and Jims were as thick as blackberries, but Pauls were rare.

"What's odd?" said Paul.

"Your name. How did you get it? It's uncommon."

"I suppose it is," said Paul. "I never thowt of it. I never knew anybody of that name afore."

Here was another sign and token of romantic origin suddenly revealed. Paul felt the thrill of it. He resisted a temptation to ask his new friend whether it was an appellation generally reserved for princes.

"Look here, joking apart," said the artist, putting in the waves of the thick black hair, "are you really going to be dumped down in London to seek your fortune? Don't you know anybody there?"

"No," said Paul.

"How are you going to live?"

Paul dived a hand into his breeches pocket and jingled coins. "I've got th' brass," said he.

"How much?"

"Three shillings and sevenpence-ha'penny," said Paul, with an opulent air. "And yo'r shilling will make it four and sevenpence-ha'penny."

"Good God!" said-the young man. He went on drawing for some time in silence. Then he said: "My brother is a painter-rather a swell-a Royal Academician. He would love to paint you. So would other fellows. You could easily earn your living as a model-doing as a business, you know, what you're doing now for fun, more or less."

"How much could I earn?"

"It all depends. Say a pound to thirty shillings a week."

Paul gasped and sat paralyzed. Artist, dusty road, gaudy van, distant cornfields and uplands were blotted from his senses. The cool waves of Pactolus lapped his feet.

"Come and look me up when you get to London," continued the friendly voice. "My name is Rowlatt-W. W. Rowlatt, 4, Gray's Inn Square. Can you remember it?"

"Ay," said Paul.

"Shall I write it down?"

"Nay. 'W. W. Rowlatt, 4, Gray's Inn Square.' I'm noan likely to forget it. I never forget nowt," said Paul, life returning through a vein of boastfulness.

"Tell me all you remember," said Mr. Rowlatt, with a laugh.

"I can say all the Kings of England, with their dates, and the counties and chief towns of Great Britain and Ireland, and all the weights and measures, and 'The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold-'"

"Holy Moses!" cried Rowlatt. "Anything else?"

"Ay. Lots more," said Paul, anxious to stamp vividly the impression he saw that he was making. "I know the Plagues of Egypt."

"I bet you don't."

"Rivers of Blood, Frogs, Lice, Flies, Murrain, Boils, Hails, Locusts, Darkness and Death of Firstborn," said Paul, in a breath.

"Jehosaphat!" cried Rowlatt. "I suppose now you'd have no difficulty in reciting the Thirty-nine Articles."

Paul puckered his forehead in thought. "D'yo' mean," he asked after a pause, "the Thirty-nine Articles o' Religion, as is in th' Prayerbuk? I ha' tried to read 'em, but couldno' understand 'em reet."

Rowlatt, who had not expected his facetious query to be so answered, stopped his drawing for a moment. "What in the name of goodness attracted you to the Thirty-nine Articles?"

"I wanted to learn about things," said Paul.

The young man looked at him and smiled. "Self-education is a jolly good thing," said he. "Learn all you can, and you'll be a famous fellow one of these days. But you must cultivate a sense of humour."

Paul was about to seek enlightenment as to this counsel when Barney Bill appeared, cool and refreshed, from the inn door, and lifted a cheery voice. "Let's be getting along, sonny."

Rowlatt held up a detaining hand. "Just a couple of minutes, if you can spare them. I've nearly finished."

"All right, sir," said Barney Bill, limping across the yard. "Taking a picture of him?"

The artist nodded. Barney Bill looked over his shoulder. "By Gosh!" he cried in admiration. "By Gosh!"

"It has come out rather well, hasn't it?" said the artist, complacently.

"It's the living image of 'im," said Barney Bill.

"He tells me he's going up to London to seek his fortune," said Rowlatt, putting in the finishing touches.

"And his 'igh-born parents," said Barney Bill, winking at Paul.

Paul flushed and wriggled uncomfortably. Instinct deprecated crude revelation of the mystery of his birth to the man of refinement. He felt that Barney Bill was betraying confidence. Gutter-bred though he was, he accused his vagrant protector of a lack of good taste. Of such a breach he himself, son of princes, could not have been guilty. Luckily, and, as Paul thought, with admirable tact, Mr. Rowlatt did not demand explanation.

"A young Japhet in search of a father. Well, I hope he'll find him. There's nothing like romance. Without it life is flat and dead. It's what atmosphere is to a picture."

"And onions to a stew," said Barney Bill.

"Quite right," said Rowlatt. "Paul, my boy, I think after all you'd better stick to Mr.-?"

"Barney Bill, sir, at your service. And, if you want a comfortable chair, or an elegant mat, or a hearth brush at a ridiculous cheap price"-he waved toward the van. Rowlatt turned his head and, laughing, looked into the twinkling black eyes. "I don't for a moment expect you to buy, sir, but I was only a-satisfying of my artistic conscience."

Rowlatt shut his sketch-book with a snap, and rose. "Let us have a drink," said he. "Artists should be better acquainted."

He whispered a message to Paul, who sped to the inn and presently returned with a couple of the famous blue and white mugs frothing deliciously at the brims. The men, their lips to the bubbles, nodded to each other. The still beat of the August noon enveloped their bodies, but a streak of heavenly coolness trickled through their souls. Paul, looking at them enviously, longed to be grown up.

Then followed a pleasant half-hour of desultory talk. Although the men did not make him, save for here and there a casual reference, the subject of their conversation, Paul, with the Vision shimmering before his eyes, was sensitive enough to perceive in a dim and elusive way that he was at the back of each man's thoughts and that, for his sake, each was trying to obtain the measure of the other. At last Barney Bill, cocking at the sun the skilled eye of the dweller in the wilderness, called the time for departure.

"Could I see th' picture?" asked Paul.

Rowlatt passed him the sketch-book. The sudden sight of oneself as one appears in another's eyes is always a shock, even to the most sophisticated sitter. To Paul it was uncanny. He had often seen his own reflection and was familiar with his own appearance, but this was the first time that he had looked at himself impersonally. The sketch was vivid, the likeness excellent; the motive, the picturesque and romantic.

A proud lift of the chin, an eager glance in the eye, a sensitive curve of the lip attracted his boyish egotism. The portrait was an ideal, something to live up to. Involuntarily he composed his features.

Barney Bill again called time. Paul surrendered the sketch-book reluctantly. Rowlatt, with a cheery word, handed him the shilling fee. Paul, than whom none better knew the magic quality of money, hesitated for a second. The boy in the sketch would have refused. Paul drew himself up. "Nay, I'll take noan. I liked doing it."

Rowlatt laughed and pocketed the coin. "All right," said he, with a playful bow. "I'm exceedingly indebted to your courtesy."

Barney Bill gave Paul an approving glance. "Good for you, boy. Never take money you've not earned. Good day to you, sir"-he touched his cap. "And"-with a motion toward the empty mugs-"thank you kindly."

Rowlatt strolled with them to the van, Barney Bill limping a pace or two ahead. "Remember what I told you, my young friend," said he in a low voice. "I don't go back upon my word. I'll help you. But if you're a wise boy and know what's good for you, you'll stick to Mr. Barney Bill and the freedom of the high-road and the light heart of the vagabond. You'll have a devilish sight more happiness in the end."

But Paul, who already looked upon his gipsy self as dead as his Bludston self, and these dead selves as stepping-stones to higher things, turned a deaf ear to his new friend's paradoxical philosophy. "I'll remember," said he. "Mr. W. W. Rowlatt, 4, Gray's Inn Square."

The young architect watched the van with its swinging, creaking excrescences lumber away down the hot and dusty road, and turned with a puzzled expression to his easel. Joy in the Little Bear Inn had for the moment departed. Presently he found himself scribbling a letter in pencil to his brother, the Royal Academician.

"So you see, my dear fellow," he wrote toward the end of the epistle, "I am in a quandary. That the little beggar is of startling beauty is undeniable. That he has got his bill agape, like a young bird, for whatever food of beauty and emotion and knowledge comes his way is obvious to any fool. But whether, in what I propose, I'm giving a helping hand to a kind of wild genius, or whether I'm starting a vain boy along the primrose path in the direction of everlasting bonfire, I'm damned if I know."

But Paul jogged along by the side of Barney Bill in no such state of dubiety. God was in His Heaven, arranging everything for his especial benefit. All was well with the world where dazzling destinies like his were bound to be fulfilled.

"I've heard of such things," said Barney Bill with a reflective twist of his head, when Paul had told him of Mr. Rowlatt's suggestion. "A cousin of mine married a man who knew a gal who used to stand in her birthday suit in front of a lot of young painter chaps-and I'm bound to say he used to declare she was as good a gal as his own wife, especially seeing as how she supported an old father what had got a stroke, and a houseful of young brothers and sisters. So I'm not saying there's any harm in it. And I wouldn't stand in your way, sonny, seeing as how you want to get to your 'igh-born parents. You might find 'em on the road, and then again you mightn't. And thirty bob a week at fourteen-no-it would be flying in the face of Providence to say 'don't do it! But what licks me is: what the blazes do they want with a little varmint like you? Why shouldn't they pay thirty bob a week to paint me?"

Paul did not reply, being instinctively averse from wounding susceptibilities. But in his heart rose a high pity for the common though kindly clay that was Barney Bill.

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