With the spring the steady application of paint in Harbour Lane burst into a fury. Everywhere the houses and the flagstaffs and the fences took new coats of many colours, changing as the season went, and the paint-pot traffic fell into a vaster confusion. As tops were “in” among the boys, the smell of paint grew day by day, and when the marble season began little else could be smelt. With July came Fairlop Friday, and Bessy wondered at the passing of a great model of a rigged ship on wheels, drawn by horses, and filled with jubilant shipwrights on their way to Epping Forest, in accord with yearly custom. She had grown to consider the forest as a place so far off (though indeed she knew the distance in mere miles) that it came almost as a surprise to see people starting out to drive there in a few hours with so slow a vehicle, and to return the same night.
Bob Smallpiece had written once or twice (he kept an eye on the empty cottage, and looked out for a tenant), but he had never made a visit, as Nan May had asked him. The last news was that his bedridden old mother was worse, and not expected to live.
The trade went well—better than ever, indeed, and scarce a month passed but Nan May put a sovereign or two in the post-office savings bank; and Uncle Isaac began secretly to look upon the shop in Harbour Lane as a convenient retreat for his later years. Already he took as many meals there as possible, for, as he said, he could get no proper attention in his new lodgings. Of his old friend Mr. Butson he had seen nothing for months. For Butson, he knew, had lost his berth on the steamboat, and had fallen on evil times—and Uncle Isaac never intruded on private griefs of this description.
But late in the year, when the anniversary of Johnny’s apprenticeship was nearing, and when Johnny himself was near a head taller—for he grew quickly now—Uncle Isaac saw Butson from afar as he crossed the docks, and Butson saw him. There was no escape, but Uncle Isaac, with a grin and a wave of the hand, tried to pass on hurriedly, as though urgent business claimed his time. But Mr. Butson rose from his bollard—bollards had been his most familiar furniture for months now—and intercepted him.
“You’ve ’ad about a year now to git that ’urry over,” he said, with something not unlike a sneer. “If you’re goin’ that way, I’ll come along too. Got any ’bacca?”
Uncle Isaac, with a bounteous air that scarce covered his reluctance, pulled out a screw of paper, and Mr. p. 152Butson filled his pipe. For some little way he smoked in silence, for tobacco was an uncommon luxury with him just now, and he enjoyed a succession of puffs with no interruption. Then he said, “Workin’ at Turton’s now?”
“No,” Uncle Isaac replied, with a slight cough. “I—no, I ain’t workin’ there.”
“Thought not. Looked out for y’ often. An’ you moved too.” Butson smoked again for a space, and then went on. “I’ve ’ad a pretty awful year,” he said. “Why I was very near goin’ stokin’ once or twice.” (He had not quite gone, because the chief engineer always sent him ashore.) “Nice thing, that, for a man o’ my bringin’-up.”
They walked on. Truly the bad year had left its marks on Mr. Butson. The soles were three-quarters gone from his boots, and the uppers were cracked. He wore a mixture of ordinary and working clothes, frayed and greasy and torn, and he shivered under a flimsy dungaree jacket, buttoned so close to the neck as to hint an absence of shirt. His bowler hat was weather-beaten and cracked, and the brim behind was beginning to leave the crown because of rain-rot.
Presently Uncle Isaac, impelled to say something, asked, “Bin out all the time?”
“Very near. Got a job on a ’draulic, but the chap p. 153began jawin’ me about somethin’. I wasn’t goin’ to stand that, so I just walked out.”
“Not much. One or two things I got on to, but they didn’t last. Know the laundry over the Cut? Well they took me on there to run the engine, an’ sacked me in a week. Said I was asleep! Measly swine. Much the same at other places. Seemed to want to treat me like—like any common feller. But I showed ’em different to that!”
“Ah!” commented Uncle Isaac absently. He was wondering which way to lead the walk, and how to take leave of his companion. But his invention was at a stand, and presently the other went on.
“Well,” he said, “you ain’t got so much to say as you used. Know any job you can put me on to?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Uncle Isaac with gloomy simplicity. “Trade’s bad—very bad. I bin workin’ short time meself, an’ standin’ auf day after day. Stood auf to-day.”
“Well then, lend us a bob.”
Uncle Isaac started, and made the space between them a foot wider. “Reely, Mr. Butson, I—”
“All right, make it two bob then, if you’d rather. You’ve ’ad more ’n that out o’ me one time an’ another.”
“But—but I tell you I’m unfort’net meself. I bin standin’ auf day after day—”
p. 154“Seems to me you’re tryin’ to stand auf as much as ye can now. Look ’ere.” Mr. Butson stood and faced Uncle Isaac. “I’m broke, clean broke, an’ worse. I’m ’ungry.”
“It’s—it’s very bad,” said Uncle Isaac. “But why not go t’ yer rich relations?”
Butson frowned. “Never mind them,” he said. “I’d rather try an’ tap your small property. What am I to do? I’m at the end of me tether, an’ I’ve tried everything.”
“Ah—Enterprise is what you want,” Uncle Isaac said, being at a loss what else to recommend. “Enterprise. I’ve recommended Enterprise before, with wonderful results—wonderful. An’—an’ ’ow about marryin’? There’s the lan’lady at the Mariner’s Arms. She was alwis very friendly, an’ that’s a life as ought to suit ye.”
“G-r-r-r!” Mr. Butson turned his head with a growl and took to walking again, Uncle Isaac by his side. “She’d want to make a potman of me, an’—an’—well that ain’t much catch, any’ow. If you won’t lend me a bob, stand me a feed o’ some sort. Ain’t ’ad yer tea, ’ave ye?”
Plainly something must be sacrificed to Butson, and it struck Uncle Isaac that the cheapest article would be some of Nan May’s bacon. So he said, “Well, I was thinkin’ o’ poppin’ round to my niece’s to tea. I’m sure she’d make ye very welcome.”
p. 155“Awright. Same niece as give us tea over in the Forest that time?”
“Yus. She’s round in ’arbour Lane.”
The lamplighter scuffled past into the thickening dusk, leaving his sparse trail of light-spots along the dock wall. The two men came through streets where little sitting-rooms, lighted as yet by fires alone, cheered Butson with promise of the meal to come; and when at last he stood in Nan May’s shop, now no place of empty boxes, but ranged close with bacon, cheese, candles, sausages, brawn, spiced beef, many eggs and a multitude of sundries, there was some shadow of the old strut and sulky swagger, hanging oddly about the broken-up Butson of these later days.
Uncle Isaac did it with an air, for an air was an inexpensive embellishment that won him consideration. “Good-evenin’, Nan. I’ve took the liberty (which I’m sure you’ll call it a pleasure) to introduce a of friend to tea which we well remember with ’appier circumstances. Mr. Butson is come to see you.”
Duller eyes than Nan May’s would have seen Butson’s fallen condition at a glance, and it afflicted her to know that while fortune had favoured her it had stricken him so sorely. She led them in, offering Butson a cordiality in some sort exaggerated by her anxiety not to seem to see his poor clothes, nor to treat him a whit the worse for his ill-luck. As for Mr. Butson, he found a good p. 156fire and a clean hearth, with an armchair beside it, in a better room than he had seen for long. Old Mr. May’s photograph hung over the mantelpiece, and below it was the sole remaining butterfly trophy, a small glass case, set when the old man was young. The ragged books that were Bessy’s solace stood on a sideboard top, and Bessy herself, disturbed in reading, was putting one of them carefully in its place. The kettle sang on the hob. And when Johnny came from work he was astonished to find a tea-party of great animation.
Johnny was a big lad now (though he was scarce sixteen years of age), and Mr. Butson condescended to shake hands with him, to condole with him on the choice of the wretched trade that had so ill supported himself, and to exchange a remark or two on the engineering topics of the week.
But chiefly Mr. Butson attended to the meal. Nan May had never seen two men together eat such a meal as his. Plainly he was famished. She was full of pity for this unfortunate, so well brought up (thought the simple soul), so cruelly neglected by his well-to-do relations. She cut more slices of bacon, and more, and still more of bread and butter, quietly placing them to his hand, till at last he was satisfied.
Mr. Butson was refreshed, filled his pipe again from Uncle Isaac’s paper, and gave some attention to the conversation. But the conversation took to itself the property p. 157of rarely travelling far from Mr. Butson and his troubles. He had no false modesty about them. He had parted with almost all his clothes, and hadn’t a shirt to his back. His tools were in pawn, and a man felt discouraged from looking for a job when his tools were “put away,” and he had no money to redeem them. But he would starve sooner than apply to his unnatural relations; he would take the help of strangers first.
When at last Mr. Butson took leave, and went shivering into the gusty night, Uncle Isaac was careful to let him go alone, and to remain, himself, in the shop parlour till his friend was clear away. But Nan May ran down the street after her departed guest. There were a few hurried words of entreaty in the woman’s voice: “Here, Mr. Butson. Do! you really must!”—and she scurried back breathless and a trifle shamefaced. She reached across the counter and shut the till ere she came into the shop parlour.
Uncle Isaac Iooked up sharply in her face as she entered, but went on with his pipe.
This visit was but the first of many from Mr. Butson: until after a very few months he came as regularly as Uncle Isaac himself. He recovered his old appearance a little at a time, one new article of clothing coming after another; but he seemed to have no luck in his quest for a job—or very little. What small success he found was ever brought to naught by the captiousness—even the rudeness—of those in direction, or their unreasonable exactions in the way of work. To simple Nan May he seemed the most shamefully ill-used of exemplars.
Johnny and Bessy were less enthusiastic. Bessy said nothing, but avoided Mr. Butson as much as possible, sitting in the shop when he was in the back parlour. Johnny went for walks in the evening, and grumbled, wondering why his mother encouraged this stranger—“cadging suppers,” as he uncivilly put it. Nan May was hurt at the expression, and feared that the workshop was spoiling Johnny’s manners.
News came from Bob Smallpiece that his poor old mother was dead at last, and buried in the high p. 159churchyard where Johnny’s grandfather lay. Also that Bob would come to London now, for a visit, at the first opportunity. Now it was a fact that Bob Smallpiece, for a year or two, had been inclined to marry; though it was a thing he might never have thought of if he had seen less of Mrs. May. But he was a man of practical temperament, making up in his commonsense for a great lack of agility of mind. There were certain obstacles, he saw—obstacles that must remove of themselves or not at all. First, his old mother. It would not seem fair to bring a wife to nurse a bedridden old woman—at anyrate it was scarce an attraction. More, the old woman herself had a dread of it. She feared the chance of being thought a burden by a newcomer, and would often beg Bob not to marry till she were gone; sometimes with the assurance that she would not be long now. Then—to say nothing of old Mr. May—there had been the children, who, familiar as he was with them, afflicted him, in this particular matter alone, with an odd shyness. Again, when the old man died, the May family must needs come to London, if only that Johnny might go to his trade; while Bob Smallpiece must stay at the forest. But he was ever patient and philosophical.
Now that some difficulties were gone, another arose. Nan May, all unaware of his slow designs, was settled in London, with ties of business. But perhaps, after all, the business was not flourishing—might be a burden p. 160better laid down. And as to Johnny—he was earning wages of some sort now, and at most his apprenticeship would be out when he was twenty-one.
Bob Smallpiece had reserved one piece of news till he could deliver it in person. This was that at last he had let the cottage, at three-and-sixpence a week, to a decent woodman and his wife. And so, wearing a new neckcloth, and with three weeks’ rent in his pocket, Bob Smallpiece appeared in Harbour Lane one spring morning, a vast astonishment of leather and velveteen, such as had never before brought a Blackwall housewife to attention in the midst of her dusting and sweeping. No name was painted over the shop, but no stranger could pass its red and blue and green without stopping to look; least of all Bob Smallpiece, in quest of the place itself. Nan May saw him, and ran to the door; and Bessy, with her crutch and her book, met him half-way to the back-parlour, gay and laughing.
Bob regarded the well-filled shop, the neat room, with some mixture of feelings. Prosperity was excellent in its own way, but it made the new obstacle more formidable. Further, Mrs. May, though she was pleased to hear that the cottage was let, and grateful enough for his trouble in letting it, was not so overjoyed as she might have been if the weekly three-and-sixpence had come at a time of pinching; more, she handled the half-sovereign almost as disrespectfully as the sixpence, and p. 161dropped it into a part of her purse where it fell among other gold. Poor Bob saw the obstacle not only bigger, but double. Not merely was Nan May tied to London by her trade and by Johnny’s apprenticeship, but she was a well-to-do tradeswoman, with whom a poor forest-keeper could expect no more than respectful acquaintance. He half feared she might even offer to pay him for his trouble with the cottage, and grew red and hot with the apprehension. But this affliction was spared him though Nan did venture to ask if his care of her property had involved out-of-pocket expenses; a suggestion which Bob repudiated desperately.
Neither Bessy nor her mother could understand why their visitor’s manner was so constrained and awkward, nor why he announced that he “must be going” after sitting for twenty minutes. But that, of course, was not to be allowed. Johnny would be home in half an hour, and there would be some dinner. So Bob Smallpiece, who wanted to get away somewhere by himself and think things over, remained, and made his part of the conversation as well as he could.
Johnny came, smudgy and hungry, surprised to find that his old friend, big man as he was, seemed to be scarcely so big as when he saw him last, eighteen months ago. For Johnny himself was grown surprisingly, and seemed like to stand as high as Bob Smallpiece’s shoulder by his seventeenth birthday. Bob found more p. 162to talk of now that Johnny had come, and he ate even better than Johnny himself, for nothing spoiled the keeper’s appetite. When could they all come to the forest again for a day? Nan May shook her head. She had no days free but Sundays—she might come some day, perhaps; some Sunday in the vague future. But Johnny might get a day off at a slack time, and he and Bessy would come. Bessy brimmed over with delight at the prospect. Every day, since she had left it, the forest had seemed a more wonderful and a more distant dream; every day some forgotten circumstance, some moment of delight, some long-dead bunch of wildflowers, trifles all, and daily commonplaces once, had come back to lend one more touch to the fairy picture her memory made ever more radiant as the simple facts fell farther into the past. And Johnny, little burdened with pictures of fancy (for he put his imagination away from him now, as a childishness unworthy an engineer), nevertheless thought that as soon as a certain large job was completed at Maidment and Hurst’s the gaffer would doubtless let him lose a day. So it was settled. And when Johnny hurried off to his work, Bob Smallpiece took the opportunity to leave too; for he must go and see his sister, he said.
He went, and saw his sister, and took tea with her; and his sister found him even duller than Nan May had done. For in truth Bob Smallpiece was in a mire of p. 163doubt and hesitation. In a frame of mind so foreign to his simple habit he grew fretful, and left things to chance and impulse. With no definite design in the world, he wandered back to Harbour Lane after tea, and there met, for the first time, Uncle Isaac and Mr. Butson. This company proved uncongenial; and indeed the distinguished Butson was indisposed to be cordial with an Essex bumpkin in a velveteen uniform. So, though Nan May was all kindness, Bob Smallpiece soon took himself off to the train, where his savage moodiness might not be seen. The whole thing was past hope now; though he might have found it hard to tell precisely what had occurred since midday to worsen the look of affairs.