Not for six weeks, at least, Johnny judged, could he beg the day’s holiday that was to take him and Bessy back to the forest; and it might be more. That would be in July—or even August—and probably the weather would be more trustworthy then. As for Bessy, she counted the days on the almanack, and tapped the yellow-faced old barometer that had been gran’dad’s, a dozen times a day. Johnny laughed at her impatience, and invented endless weather prophecies “just from America” putting the weather for the whole of July at every possible shade of unpleasantness, from blizzards to floods and thunderstorms.
The days went quietly—they were even dull. Mr. Butson did what he could to make himself agreeable, and several times praised a set of callipers that Johnny had made—a set of callipers that Johnny, in fact, thought very well of himself. So that he seemed not such a bad fellow, perhaps, after all, though a bit of a sponge.
There was nothing to cause it, to all seeming, but it was a fact that just now Nan May grew thoughtful and p. 165absent of manner. She would pause in the midst of needlework, as though to think; and more than once at such a time, Bessy, looking up from her own work, saw that her mother’s troubled gaze was fixed on herself. Nan May put away the anxious look as well as she might, and bent to her work again; but Bessy wondered.
Johnny, too, fancied that his mother was scarce so cheerful as was her wont, though he thought of it less than Bessy. But one Sunday afternoon, meeting her by her bedroom door, he took her cheeks between his palms, and looked hard in her face. “Mother,” he said, “I believe you’ve been crying! What’s up?”
She put a hand on each of his wrists, and made a shift to smile. “That’s nonsense,” she said, and tried to pull his hands down. “You’re gettin’ too strong for your poor old mother to keep you in order!”
But she brightened, always, when Mr. Butson came in the evening; though Mr. Butson’s conversation scarce seemed of so inspiriting a character as to account wholly for the change. Still, it interested her. It was mostly about his grievances at the hands of the world; and Nan May was a ready sympathiser.
It was very near to the day (at last fixed) for the excursion, when Bessy woke in the night at the striking of a match. Her mother was lighting a candle, her back toward the bed. She took the candle and passed out, into Johnny’s room at the back. Bessy listened, but she p. 166heard no talk; heard nothing, indeed, but Johnny’s heavy breathing, so still was the night. Presently her mother returned, and stood over her, still with the candle; gazing on her face, it seemed to Bessy—as well as she could see through her half-closed eyes—much as she had gazed when she paused in her needlework, though now her cheeks were wet with tears. With that Bessy opened wide her eyes, and “Mother!” she said. “What’s the matter? Are you ill?”
Nan May turned and blew out the light. “No, Bess, no; I’m all right,” she said, and crept into bed. “It’s not—not much. I woke up, that’s all—with a bad dream.” She kissed the girl, and put her arm about her neck. “You’ve always been a good girl, Bessy,” she went on. “You wouldn’t turn against me, would you?”
“Why no, mother! But—”
“Not whatever happened?”
“No—of course not,” she kissed her mother again. “But why?”
“It’s nothing. Only the dream—just the dream, Bess. Go to sleep.”
The longed-for holiday came with a fine Monday morning, and Bessy, in a muslin frock that her mother had helped to make for the occasion, was impatient, an hour too soon, because Johnny lingered in bed; enjoying the luxury of “losing a quarter” without paying the penalty.
But Johnny was ready for breakfast before eight, and, seeing the shop-door open, ran to take down the shutters, a thing his mother commonly did herself, because of his absence at work. “I always put ’em up, and for once I’ll take ’em down,” he said, prancing in with the first. “Look out, mother, or I’ll bowl you over!”
“O no, Johnny,” she said, “leave ’em. I’ll only have to—” and at that she stopped.
“Only have to what?” Johnny asked, going for another. “Only have to serve the customers, eh, ’cause the shop’s open? Of course you will—it ain’t your holiday, you know—it’s ours! Look out again! Shoo!”
Bessy rattled at the old barometer still, though for half an hour it had refused to move its hand a shade; p. 168and she asked Johnny for the fiftieth time if he were perfectly sure that the proper train wasn’t earlier than they were supposing. And when at last Johnny admitted that it was time to start, Nan May kissed them and bade them good-bye with so wistful an earnestness that Johnny was moved to pleasantry. “All right, mother,” he said, “we’re coming back some day you know!”
They were scarce half-way to the railway-station when Bessy said: “Johnny, I don’t think mother’s been very well lately. There’ll be another train soon; shall we go back an’—an’ just see if she’s all right, first?”
Johnny laughed. “That’s a good idea!” he said. “An’ then I s’pose we’d better miss the next, an’ go back to see how she’s getting on then, an’ the one after that, eh? Mother’s all right. She’s been thinking a bit about—you know, gran’dad an’ all that; and because we’re goin’ to the forest it reminds her of it. Come on—don’t begin the day with dumps!”
There was interest for both of them in the railway journey. They changed trains at Stepney, and after a station or two more came in distant sight of a part of the road they had traversed, on Bank’s cart, when they came to London, two winters back. There was the great, low, desolate wilderness, treeless and void of any green thing, seen now from nearer the midst, with the road p. 169bounding it in the distance; and here was the chemical manure-factory, close at hand this time, with its stink at short-hitting range, so that every window in the train went up with a bang, and everybody in the long third-class carriage coughed, or grimaced, or spat, or swore, according to sex and habit.
Then, out beyond Stratford, through Leyton and Leytonstone, they saw that the town had grown much in twenty months, and was still growing. Close, regular streets of little houses, all of one pattern, stared in raw brick, or rose, with a forlorn air of crumbling sponginess, amid sparse sticks of scaffolding. Bessy wondered how the butterflies were faring in the forest, and how much farther they had been driven since she left it. Then the wide country began to spin past, and pleasant single houses, and patches of wood. The hills about Chigwell stood bright and green across the Roding valley, as the low ground ran away between, and the high forest land came up at the other side of the line. Till the train stood in Loughton Station.
Through the village Bessy, flushed and eager, stumped and swung at a pace that kept Johnny walking his best. Staple Hill was the nearest corner of the forest, and for Staple Hill they made direct. Once past the street-end it rose before them, round and gay, deep and green in the wood that clothed it. Boys were p. 170fishing in the pond at its foot, and the stream ran merrily under the dusty road.
“Come, Johnny!” Bessy cried. “Straight over the hill!” Nor did she check her pace till the wide boughs shaded them, and her crutch went softly on the mossy earth among old leaves. Then she stood and laughed aloud, and was near crying. “Smell it, Johnny!” she cried, “smell it! Isn’t it heavenly?”
They went up the slope, across tiny glades, and between thick clumps of undergrowth gay with dog-roses, Bessy’s eyes and ears alert for everything, tree, bird, or flower; now spying out some noisy jay that upbraided their intrusion, now standing to hark for a distant woodpecker. Johnny enjoyed the walk too, but with a soberer delight; as became an engineer taking a day’s relaxation amid the scenes of childish play now half forgotten.
Down the other side of the hill they went, and over the winding stream at the bottom. Truly it seemed a tiny stream now, and Johnny wondered that he should ever have been proud of jumping it. He found a bend where the water rushed through a narrow channel by the side of a bed of clean-washed gravel, and got Bess across, though she scrambled down and up with little help, such was her enthusiasm.
Then the trees grew sparser, and over the deep-grown flat of Debden Slade Bessy stopped again and p. 171again to recognise some well-remembered wild-flower; and little brown butterflies skimmed over the rushes and tall grass, the sun mounted higher, and everything was brisk and bright and sweet-smelling. Brother and sister climbed the hill before them slowly, often staying to look back over the great prospect of rolling woodland, ever widening as they rose. Till at last they stood at the point of the ridge, in the gap through the earthwork made by ancient Britons.
This beyond all others was the spot that Bessy had loved best. This ragged ring of crumbling rampart and ditch, grown thick with fantastic hornbeams, pollarded out of all common shape; its inner space a crowded wonder of tall bracken, with rare patches of heather; its outer angles watching over the silent woods below, and dominating the hills that ranked beyond; this was the place where best an old book from the shelf would fill a sunny afternoon. For the camp was a romance in itself, a romance of closer presence than anything printed on paper. Here, two thousand years ago, the long-haired savages had stood, in real fact, with spears and axes, brandishing defiance to foes on the hillside. Here they had entrenched themselves against the Roman legions—they and their chief, fierce Cassivellaunus: more, to her, than a name in an old history-book. For had not she seen the wild prince a hundred times in her day-dreams, stalking under the p. 172oaks—with the sheeted Druids? Till the wood grew alive with phantoms, and she hid her face in her book.
And now she sat here again, in the green shade, and looked out over the thousand tree-tops, merry with the sunlight. How long had she left it all? What was that fancy of a ride to London, of ship-yards, and of a chandler’s-shop? But Johnny whistled to a robin on a twig, and she turned and looked at him, to see that here was the engineer, indeed, and the painter of the chandler’s-shop. Still, which was the dream, that or this?
Left alone, Bessy would have sat here all the day. But there were other places not to be forgotten, as Johnny reminded her. Over the heather they went, then, to Monk Wood, where the trees were greater and the flowers were more abundant than anywhere else in the forest; and they did not leave it till Johnny insisted on dinner. Now this dinner was a great excitement; for at setting out Johnny had repelled every suggestion of sandwiches in a bag, and now dauntlessly marched into an inn on the main road and ordered whatever was ready, with two glasses of beer. Bessy, overwhelmed by the audacity of the act, nevertheless preserved her appetite, and even drank a little of the beer. And the adventure cost Johnny four shillings.
“Mother’s having her dinner alone,” said Bessy in a p. 173flutter of timid delight. “She doesn’t guess we’re having ours at the Red Deer!”
Hence it was not far, by the lanes, to the high churchyard, for the flowers gathered in Monk Wood were for gran’dad’s grave, and it was a duty of the day to mark the condition of the little headstone. All was well with it, and it surprised them to find the grass cut neatly, and a little clump of pansies growing on the mound. Bessy suspected Bob Smallpiece.
And so went a perfect day. Their tea they took in Bob Smallpiece’s lodge. The keeper admitted having “gone over” old Mr. May’s grave with the grass shears—just once or twice. He avoided making any definite reply to Johnny’s and Bessy’s invitations to come to Harbour Lane again. Perhaps he’d come again, he said, some day. Meanwhile, had they seen the cottage? As they had not, they set out all three together, and looked at it.
The new tenancy had made little change. Down the glen the white walls first peeped from among the trunks, and then the red tiles, just as ever. The woodman was at work mending the old fence—it was always being mended somewhere. The turbulent little garden still tumbled and surged against it, threatening to lay it flat at any moment. Very naturally, the woodman and his wife, though perfectly civil, took less personal interest in Johnny and Bessy than Johnny and Bessy took in p. 174them and the cottage, so that it was not long ere a last look was taken at the old fence, and Bob Smallpiece went off another way on his walk of duty.
Shadows grew long, and thickets dark. To revisit every remembered nook had been impossible, but they had seen and lingered in all them that had most delighted Bessy in old times—all but Wormleyton Pits. Johnny had turned that way once, thoughtlessly; but “No,” Bessy said—almost whispered—with her hand on his arm, “not that way, Johnny!”
And now they turned their backs on the fast darkening forest and took a steep lane for the village below. The sweet smells, that go up at the first blink of the evening star, met them on the breeze; and when they turned for their last look toward the woods, the trees on the hill-top, tall sentinels of the host beyond, barred the red west and nodded them and the sun goodbye.
Out of the stony lane, Loughton was lighted, and at the end of a dusty road was a small constellation of gas-lamps and railway signals. Now it was plain that both were a little tired—Bessy perhaps more than a little. But the train gave a welcome rest, and there were no passengers to see, even if she slept, for they were alone in their compartment. They had passed two stations, when Johnny, who had been standing to look out at the opposite window, turned and saw that his p. 175sister was dozing, with her head bent forward and her face hidden by the crutch-handle. It was so wholly her figure as she sat in the cab at the old man’s funeral, that Johnny started, and sat where he stood, though he had never once called the thing to mind since that day. And he took the crutch gently away, to look at her face. But it was calm and untroubled; and he put his hand at the farther side of it and pressed it to his shoulder; for plainly she was tired out, and there were no cushions in the carriage.
It was nearing ten o’clock when at last they turned into Harbour Lane. From a back street came the old watchman’s cry, “Pa-a-ast nine o’clock!” as he went his round in search of orders to wake early risers; and lights in bedroom windows told of early risers already seeking sleep. Nobody was in the shop, but as they came in, Johnny thought he saw his mother’s face vanish from beside the muslin curtain that obscured the glass in the back-parlour door.
They passed through the shop, and into the back parlour. Their mother and Mr. Butson sat facing them, side by side. Mr. Butson had a new suit of clothes, and their mother wore her best, and smiles and tears were in her face. Something had happened. What was it? Bessy and Johnny, scarce within the door, stood and stared.
p. 176“Johnny—Bessy—” Nan faltered, looking from one to the other. “Have you—enjoyed your holiday? . . . Won’t you—kiss me, Johnny?”
She rose and made a step toward them. But something struck them still, and they looked, wondering, from Nan to Butson, and back to their mother again. . . . What was it?
Johnny moved first, and kissed his mother, absently, gazing at Mr. Butson the while. Mr. Butson, who was smoking, said nothing, but lay back in his chair and considered the ash of his cigar.
Nan’s anxiety was plain to see. She put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and an arm on Bessy’s neck. “I,—we—you won’t be vexed because I didn’t tell you, will you?” she said, pale, but trying to smile, “I—we—Mr. Butson . . . Johnny, Bessy—don’t look so!” Tears ran down her cheeks, and she bent her head on Johnny’s other shoulder. “We’ve been married to-day!”
The shock left Johnny and Bessy numb, and, though Bessy was quicker, the change took Johnny two or three days to realise—even to understand. His first distinct impression was one of injury and resentment. He had been tricked—hoodwinked. His mother—even his mother had deceived him and Bessy. Why? Why not tell them first?
She would have told them, he was sure; she told them everything. Butson had persuaded her to keep them in ignorance till the thing was done, lest they should rebel, and perhaps bring her to a change of mood. And Johnny’s guess was a good one. . . . Forthwith his resentment became something more; hate, mere hate for this man who had come between him and his mother—this cadger of suppers thrusting himself into their intimate life. . . .
And yet—perhaps this was simple anger at the slight and the deception; jealousy at finding a stranger as dear to his mother as himself was. Butson might turn out none so bad a fellow. He was very decent over the callipers, for instance. . . . Curse the callipers! p. 178Johnny’s anger was not to be reasoned down. On Sunday he had his own mother. Now there was nothing but Butson’s wife.
More, the man was his father—his stepfather; chief authority in the house, with respect and obedience due to him. That seemed intolerable. For a moment Johnny had mad notions of leaving home altogether, and shifting for himself—going aboard ship, abroad, anywhere. But that would be to leave Bess alone—and his mother; his mother might need him yet.
He told Long Hicks, as they tramped to work over the locks and bridges in the bright morning, early and still; and it surprised him to see Hicks’s tacit concern at the news. The long man reddened and stuttered, and checked himself suddenly at an imminent outburst of speech. But that was all; he offered no opinion and made no remark; and as he was given to suppressed excitement on small occasion, Johnny presently forgot it.
As for Bessy, her distress, quiet as it was, was beyond telling. Her association with her mother had been so intimate that this change was stark bereavement; and for Butson and his coarse pretence her feeling was sheer repulsion.
Neither boy nor girl had the habit of dissimulation, and though they said little, it needed small discernment to guess something of their sentiments. Poor Nan was p. 179dismayed to perceive that they did not take to Butson instant on the news of the novel relationship. Indeed, it perplexed her. For in her simple view he was a resplendent person of finer mould, sore hit by a cruel world, and entitled to the respectful sympathy, at least and coldest, of the merest stranger. More, nobody could be more completely devoted than he to the interests of Johnny and Bessy; he had most vehemently assured her of it, again and again. But after all, the thing was sudden; they must realise his true worth soon. Though meantime she was distressed extremely.