Johnny’s months went uneventfully. At Maidment and Hurst’s he applied himself zealously to his trade—the more because home was a dull place now—and he was as smart a lad as any in the shop of his age, or perhaps of a few months older. He could turn back an eyelid, too, and whip away an iron filing, or a speck of emery grit, with such address and certainty as might astonish a surgeon. The operation was one that every engineer’s apprentice grew apt at, and exceptional dexterity like Johnny’s was a matter of pride, a distinction zealously striven for, an accomplishment to exercise at every opportunity. Johnny felt that he had passed with honours on the memorable day when Cottam, the gaffer, roared to him from the other end of the shop to come and attend to his eye, afflicted with a sharp grain of brass. “No—not you,” quoth Mr. Cottam, in answer to instant offers of help from those hard by. “This ’ere’ll stick like a nail in a barn door. Where’s young May? D’y’ear? Where’s young Jack May?”
Much of his practical knowledge Johnny owed to Long Hicks. That recluse, whose sole friend hitherto p. 196had been his accordion, now declared for a second hobby, which was to turn Johnny into the best workman at Maidment and Hurst’s before his time was out. “You’ve got all the chances,” said Long Hicks. “You’re servin’ yer time on small work—alwis best for trainin’ a first-rate man. I’m reckoned a good fitter, but I served time mostly on big work, or I’d ’a’ bin better.”
He recommended Johnny to qualify as a marine engineer when his apprenticeship was over, even if he intended to live a shore life. “You get yer c’tificates, an’ then you’re all right,” he would say. “An’ the better c’tificates you get the better you’ll do, afloat or ashore. So as soon as your time’s out, off you go an’ serve your year at sea as fourth or fifth of a good boat, if you can get the job. The rest’ll be easy as winkin’ to a quick young chap like you. You can draw nice an’ neat—I can put a thing down acc’rate enough, but I can’t draw it neat—and what with one thing an’ another I b’lieve you could pass your second now. I ought to ’a’ done it, p’raps, but I lose me ’ed at anythin’ like a ’xamination. An’ I never ’ad over-much schoolin’. Them compound multiplications ’ud ’ave me over ev’ry time. I s’pose you don’t think nothin’ of a compound multiplication?”
Johnny admitted that he had gone a long way beyond that rule of arithmetic.
“Yus,” Hicks answered. “I’ve got beyond it, too, p. 197teachin’ meself. I know ’ow to do ’em well enough. But Lord! what a strain they are! Tons, ’undredweights, quarters, pounds, ounces, an’ grains, an’ multiply ’em by five ’undred an’ twenty-seven thousan’ six ’undred an’ eighty-three. There ain’t no end to a job like that, an’ yer brain on the stretch all the time, ’cos a tick out’ll make it about a million tons wrong in the end. It ’ud send me foamin’ mad, at a ’xamination an’ all, with a chap waitin’ for the sum! Phew!” And Long Hicks’s forehead went clammy at the fancy.
“But there,” he proceeded, “you’re all right. You’ll knock auf your second’s examination easy as marbles; an’ then you’ll do yer chief’s ’an extry chief’s all in one, an’ then you’ll do the Board o’ Trade, an’ be a guarantee chief or anythin’ ye like! You will, by George!” and the lank man gazed in Johnny’s face (Johnny was sitting on Hicks’s bed) with much respect and admiration, being fully persuaded, in the enthusiasm of the moment, that the lad had already as good as achieved the triumphs he prophesied.
But there was work to do, and Johnny did it. Mechanical drawing, when its novelty had worn off, was less delightful than the fancy-free draughtsmanship he had practised as a schoolboy, and it had an arid twang of decimals and vulgar fractions. Still, for a time there was a charm in the gradual unfolding of the inner principles of his work, and in the disclosure, piece by piece, p. 198of the cunning complication that stood ministrant on the main simplicity of a great steam engine; till the beauty of the thing in its completeness came in sight, with something of surprise in it. Though this, too, grew a commonplace as familiarity cheapened it, and then his work was work merely. And so it went till half the time of his apprenticeship was over, and he was eighteen, and a sinewy young fellow.
Sometimes he drew at home, and sometimes in Hicks’s room. Hicks had a few books—editions a little out of date, some of them, but all useful—and these were at Johnny’s service: Seaton’s Manual, Reed’s Handbook, Donaldson’s Drawing and Rough Sketching, and the like. Hicks’s room was inconvenient for drawing, but nothing would tempt Hicks next door, and once or twice Mr. Butson had come home when Johnny’s drawing-board and implements littered the table in the shop-parlour, and made objections.
“My eye!” exclaimed Hicks, one evening, in face of a crank-shaft elevation and sections, as Johnny held it up on the board; “why that’s a drawin’ good enough to put in a frame! I tell ye what, me lad. With a bit more practice, an’ a bit o’ the reg’lar professional touch, you’ll be good enough for a draughtsman’s job. Lord! you’ll be a master some day, an’ I’ll come an’ get a job of you! Look ’ere, no more o’ this gropin’ about alone. Round you go to the Institute, an’ chip into the p. 199Mechanical Drawin’ class. That’s your game. They’ll put you up to the reg’lar drawin’-auffice capers.”
Thus urged, Johnny went to the Institute. This was an evening school, founded by a ship-builder twenty years earlier. Here a few lads, earnest as Johnny, came to work and to learn, and a great many more, differently disposed, came to dabble. There was a gymnasium, too, and a cricket-club, and plenty of boxing. And girls came, to learn cookery and dressmaking: and there were sometimes superior visitors from other parts, oozing with inexpensive patronage, who spoke of Johnny and his companions as the Degraded Classes, who were to be Raised from the Depths.
And so in the Institute Johnny drew, and learned the proper drawing-office manner of projection. Learned also the muscle-grinder and the long-arm balance on the horizontal bar, and more particularly learned to pop in a straight left, to duck and counter, and to give and take a furious pounding for three minutes on end without losing wind or good-humour. So that his attention was diverted from home, and for long he saw nothing of the misery his mother suffered in secret, nothing of the meek endurance of Bessy; and for the more reason because both studied to keep him ignorant, and to show him cheerful faces.
But there came an evening when his eyes were opened—in some degree, at least. Perhaps something p. 200especially perverse had happened in a Spring Handicap (Spring Handicaps were just beginning), perhaps it was some other of the vexations that beset a gentlemanly career: but certainly Mr. Henry Butson came into Harbour Lane in no amiable mood. At the corner, where a public-house shed light across the street, he ran into a stout bare-armed girl in a faded ultramarine hat, and made to push her roughly aside. But the girl stood her ground, and planted an untender elbow near the spot where his watch-chain hung resplendent. “Garn!” she cried, “bought the street, ’ave yer?” And then as he sought to pass on: “D’y’ear! Ye got yer collar an’ yer chain; where’s yer muzzle?”
Nowise mollified by this outrage, Mr. Butson came scowling in at the shop door, and taking no notice of Nan, who stood at the counter, entered the back parlour and slammed the door behind him. It was barely nine o’clock, and so early a return was uncommon.
Bessy sat by the fireside, sewing. Mr. Butson was angry with the world, sorely needing someone to bully, and Bessy was providentially convenient. He put a cigar into his mouth and strode across to the shelf in the corner, shoving the girl and her chair and her crutch out of his way in a heap. The shelf carried Bessy’s tattered delight of old books; and, dragging a random handful of leaves from among them, while a confused p. 201bunch fell on the floor, he twisted up one leaf and thrust it into the gas flame.
Bessy seized his arm. “O don’t!” she pleaded. “Please don’t! Not out of the book! There’s a lot I made on the mantelpiece! Don’t, O don’t!”
Indeed a glass vase stood full of pipe-lights. But he jerked his elbow into her face, knocking her backward, and swore savagely. He lit his pipe with the precious leaf, and then, because Bessy wept, he took another handful from the shelf and pitched it on the fire. At this, pleading the harder, she limped forward to snatch them off, but Mr. Butson, with a timely fling of the foot, checked her sound leg, and brought her headlong on the fender.
“Yus,” he roared, furious at the contumacy, “you take ’em auf, when I put ’em on! Go on, an’ see what I’ll do to ye? Damn lazy skewshanked ’eifer!” He took her by the shoulder as she made to rise, and pushed her forward. “Go an’ earn yer livin’, y’idle slut!”
Nan, in the shop, heard from the beginning, and trembled. Her impulse to interfere she checked as she might, for she well knew that would worsen Bessy’s plight; but it was choking hard.
In the midst Johnny burst in from the street, whistling. “Why, mother,” he said, “what’s up? Ill? You look—what’s that?”
p. 202“No—nothing, Johnny. Don’t go in. I’ll go. Stay—”
But there was a cry and a noise of falling. Johnny flung open the parlour door and stood aghast.
. . . Butson pushed the girl forward. “Go an’ earn yer livin’, y’ idle slut! Get out o’ this!”
For a second Johnny stared. Then he reached Butson at a spring and knocked him backward with a swing of his right fist. The crutch lay behind the man’s heels and tripped him, so that he sat backward on the floor, mightily astonished. Johnny snatched the poker and waved it close about Butson’s head.
“Don’t you move!” he cried, white with passion. “Don’t you try to get up, or I’ll beat your head in!”
Mr. Butson raised his arm to save his skull, but caught a blow across the bone that sent it numb to his side.
“Johnny—don’t!” cried Nan, snatching at his arm. “O Henry! pray don’t—”
“Get away, mother,” said Johnny, “or I’ll have to hit his head! You blackguard coward! You—you’re a meaner hound even than I took you for! You’ll touch my sister—a lame girl—will you?” At the thought he struck, but again Nan caught at him, and only Mr. Butson’s shoulder suffered.
“Don’t, Johnny!” his mother entreated. “Think o’ the neighbours! They can hear next door!”
p. 203So they could, and for the sake of trade the proprieties of Harbour Lane must be respected. To have a row in the house was a scandal unpardonable in Harbour Lane. In the height of his anger Johnny remembered, and instinctively dropped his voice. “Very well,” he said, “then call a p’liceman—I’ll lock him up!”
Johnny’s anger kept his reason half astray yet, or he would have remembered that to have a member of the household taken off by a policeman would be more disgraceful than twenty rows. But Mr. Butson’s consternation, though momentary, was plain.
“Johnny, Johnny,” pleaded poor Nan, “think of the disgrace! Do let’s make it up—for my sake, Johnny!”
Bessy was crying in a corner, and Nan was choking and sobbing. Johnny wavered, and the poker stopped in mid-air. Butson took heart of grace and moved to get up, though he kept his eye on the poker. “Better take ’im away,” he growled to Nan, “if ye don’t want me to smash ’im!”
Straightway the poker waved again, and Mr. Butson changed his mind as to getting up. “Smash me?” Johnny asked. “Smash me, eh? Keep a civil tongue, or you shall have it now! See?” and he thrust the point against Mr. Butson’s nose, leaving a black smear. “Don’t think I care for you! If this was anywhere else I’d ha’ broken your head in twenty places! Now you sit there an’ listen to me, Mr. Butson. What you are we know. You came p. 204here starving, with about half a suit o’ boiler clothes in the world, and my mother fed you—out o’ charity, an’ worse luck. She fed you, and she put clothes on your lazy carcase, and you cadged and begged as a mongrel dog wouldn’t. Stop where you are, or you’ll have it!” This with another flourish of the poker and another smear on the nose. Mr. Butson sat up again, a figure of ignominy.
“You talked my mother over, and you married her, and you’ve lived on her ever since, like a gentleman—or like what you think’s a gentleman—you, not worth boy’s pay on a mud-barge! Now see here! I’m not a boy now—or at anyrate I’m not a little one. I’m within half a head as tall as you. I’m not so strong as you now perhaps, and I know I’m not as big. But some day I shall be stronger, because you’re rotting yourself with idleness and booze, and then I’ll give you a bigger hiding than you can carry, for what I saw just now! You look forward to that! Until then, if you put your hand within a foot of my sister again, I’ll brain you with this poker, or I’ll stick something into you,—I’ll go for you with whatever I can lay hold of! Now you remember that!”
Johnny’s voice was loud again, and once more Nan appealed.
“All right, mother,” he answered, more quietly, “but I’ll make him understand. I shall keep a little more at home in the evenings now, my fine fellow, and I shall p. 205take all this table to draw on, whether you like it or not, unless my sister or my mother want to use it. I’ve got more right here than you. And if I go out I’ll ask about your behaviour when I come in. I’ve kept quiet and knuckled under to you, for the sake of peace, and so as not to worry mother. There’s been enough o’ that. If you want rows you shall have ’em! I’ll make you as frightened of me as you are of the p’lice. Ah! you know what I mean!” Johnny had no idea of what he meant himself, but he had been sharp enough to observe the effect of his earlier allusion to the police, and he followed it up. “You know what I mean! You’d look a deal more at home in gaol than here, in a white shirt, eating other people’s victuals!”
Mr. Butson decided that bluster would not do just at present. He wondered if Johnny really did know anything, and how much. But surely not, or he would go a good deal farther. Anyway, best be cautious. So Mr. Butson growled, “Oh, all right. Damn lot o’ fuss to make over nothin’. I don’t want no words.”
And Bessy, still crying, took hold of her brother’s arm and said, “Don’t say any more, Johnny, please. I—I—p’raps I oughtn’t to ha’ done what I did!”
“What you did!” Johnny answered, not so cheaply appeased. “You do what you like, Bess—I’ll see he don’t interfere. He says he don’t want any words—he shan’t have ’em. He’ll have something harder if he touches p. 206you! Let go my arm a minute. Go on, you can get up now!” This to Butson, with the black nose. “You’d better go an’ wash yourself. But none o’ your tricks! If you try to lay hold o’ me from behind, or anything like that, you’ll get it, with anything I can catch hold of! So now you know!”
And Mr. Henry Butson, growling indistinctly, went out to wash his face, closely watched by Johnny, poker in hand.
Next door, on one side, heads were thrust out at the back-door to listen to the unwonted noise of quarrelling at the chandler’s; and on the other side other heads were thrust out at the front door. Because the law of irregularity in the building of Harbour Lane decreed a back-garden to the one house and a front-garden to the other.
His home in Harbour Lane grew less sufferable than ever to Mr. Butson’s tastes. His contempt remained for the sordid surroundings, the vulgar trade, the simple wife—for everything about the place in fact, with the reasonable exceptions of the money he extracted from it and the food he ate there; and now there was the new affliction of an unsubmissive stepson. A stepson, moreover, who watched, and who kept alert ears for any expedient assertion of authority whereat he might raise mutiny; a most objectionable stepson in every way, far too big, and growing bigger every day; who would not forget bygones, and who had a nasty, suggestive way of handling the poker—a large poker, an unnecessarily heavy poker for a sitting-room. And he seemed to suspect things too, and talked unpleasantly of the police; a thing that turned one hot and cold together. So Mr. Butson went more up West, and sought longer solace in the society of the bars.
As for Johnny, finding Butson ceasing, so far as he could see, from active offence, he gave thought to other things; though watching still. His drawing was among p. 208the other matters that claimed his care; but chief of them all was a different thing altogether.
For at the Institute he had found the girl he first saw on the dark morning when he set out to be an engineer. He had seen her since—once as he was on his way to a ship-launch, and twice a little later; then not at all for eighteen months at least, till he began to forget. But now that he saw her again and found her a woman—or grown as much a woman as he was grown a man—he wondered that he could ever have forgotten for a moment; more, when he had seen her twice or thrice, and knew the turn of her head and the nearing of her step, he was desperately persuaded that nothing in the world, nor time nor tide, could make him forget again. So that he resolved to learn to dance.
But the little society that danced at the Institute saw nothing of her, this radiant unforgettable. She came twice a week to the dressmaking class; wherein she acted as monitor or assistant to the teacher, being, as Johnny later discovered—by vast exertions—a dressmaker herself, in her daily work. She made no friendships, walked sedately apart, and was in some sort a mystery; being for these reasons regarded as “stuck-up” by the girls of the class, and so made a target for many small needle-thrusts of spite. Johnny had a secret notion that she remembered him; because she would pass him with so extreme an unconsciousness in her p. 209manner, so very blank an unacquaintance in her eyes. Neat and grey in her dress, she had ever a placid gravity of air, almost odd by contrast with the unceasing smirk and giggle of the rest of the girls of the Institute. And her name—another happy discovery, attained at great expense of artless diplomacy—was Nora Sansom.
And now for awhile the practice of orthographic projection suffered from neglect and abstraction of mind. Long Hicks, all ignorant of the cause, was mightily concerned, and expostulated, with a face of perplexed surprise, much poking of fingers through the hair, and jerking at the locks thus separated. But it was a great matter that tugged so secretly at Johnny’s mind, and daily harder at his heart-strings, till he blushed in solitude to find himself so weak a creature. Nora Sansom did not come to the dancing. She knew nobody that he knew. She was unapproachable as—as a Chinese Empress. How to approach Nora Sansom? And at the thought he gulped and tingled, and was more than a little terrified. He was not brought to a stand by contemplation of any distinct interposing labyrinth of conventional observance, such as he who can see can pick his way through in strict form; but by a difficulty palpable to instinct rather than figured in mind: an intangible barrier that vexed Johnny to madness, so that he hammered the Institute punching-ball p. 210with blind fury. And again, because the world was now grown so many heavens wider, he would sit and dream of things beyond its farthest margin yet. And between plan and section, crank-shaft and piston, he would wake to find himself designing monograms of the letters N. S. and J. M. Altogether becoming a sad young fool, such as none of us ever was in the like circumstances.
But an angel—two angels, to be exact, both of them rather stout—came one night to Johnny’s aid. They came all unwitting, in a cab, being man and wife, and their simple design was to see for themselves the Upraising of the Hopeless Residuum. They had been told, though they scarce believed, that at the Institute, far East—much farther East than Whitechapel, and therefore, without doubt, deeper sunk in dirt and iniquity—the young men and women danced together under regular ball-room conventions, neither bawling choruses nor pounding one another with quart pots. It was even said that partners were introduced in proper form before dancing—a thing so ludicrous in its incongruity as to give no choice but laughter. So the two doubters from the West End (it was only Bayswater, really) took a cab, to see these things for themselves.
But, having taken no pains to inform themselves of the order of things at the Institute, they arrived on an evening when there was no dancing. This was very p. 211annoying, and they said so, with acerbity. They were, indeed, so very indignant at the disconformity of the arrangements to their caprice, and so extremely and so obviously important, and the lady waggled her gilt-handled lorgnon with such offended majesty, that it was discussed among those in direction whether or not something might be done to appease them. And in the end, after a few hasty inquiries, the classes were broken up for the evening and an off-hand dance was declared, to the music extracted from the Institute piano and the fiddle of a blushing young amateur.
The girls came in gay and chattering from the dressmaking class, and the lads rushed to exchange gymnasium-flannels for the clothes they had come in—all unconscious that they were to be made a show of. They who kept their dancing-shoes on the premises triumphed in their foresight, and Johnny was among them. As for him, he had seen Nora Sansom coming in with the others, alone and a little shy, and he resolved to seize occasion with both hands.
And he did so very gallantly, with less trepidation than at a calmer moment he would have judged possible. First a quadrille was called, and Johnny’s courage rose—for as yet he had no great confidence in his dancing in general, but he did know the figures of a quadrille, having learned them by rote, as most boys learn Euclid. He laid hands on the mild young p. 212shopman who had unexpectedly found himself appointed master of ceremonies, and in two minutes he was standing in a set with Nora Sansom at his side. The sheer pride of it disorganised his memory, so that it was lucky they were a side couple, or there would have been a rout in the first figure. Johnny’s partner knew very little or nothing of dancing, but she was quick to learn, and Johnny, a rank beginner himself, had a proud advantage in his knowledge of the figures—unstable as it was. So that the thing went very joyfully, and the girl’s eyes grew brighter and her face gayer each moment to the end. For her life had been starved of merriment, and here was merriment in plenty, of the sort a girl loves.
Four or five dances were all there were, for the place shut at ten. To dance them all with Nora Sansom were impossible and scandalous, for everybody was very “particular” at the Institute. But Johnny went as far as two and a “sit out,” and extracted a half-promise that she would come and dance some other time. More, he walked two streets of the way home with her, and the way was paved with clouds of glory. Why he might go no farther he could not guess, but there he was dismissed, quite unmistakably, though pleasantly enough.