Fair, very fair were the poor little streets in the moonlight as Johnny walked home, and very sweet the p. 213air. It was a good world, a kind world, a world as one may see it who has emptied a bottle of good champagne. Johnny would have shaken hands with anybody on the way—probably even with Butson if he had met him; but nobody made the offer, and even the baked-chestnut man—he was still there, by the high wall—growled merely when Johnny gave him good night. And so Johnny went to dreams of gentle grey eyes in a dimpled face with brown hair about it. For few of the song-book beauties were Nora Sansom’s. Her hair was neither golden nor black, but simple brown like the hair of most other people, and her eyes were mere grey; yet Johnny dreamed.
As for the two angels from Bayswater who caused all these things to come to pass, they looked at the dancing from the gallery, and said that it was really very creditable, considering; quite surprising, indeed, for people of that class, and they hoped it didn’t lead to immorality. And they went home virtuously conscious of having done their duty toward the Submerged. But the lady left her gilt-handled lorgnon in the cab, whereof the gentleman hadn’t thought to take the number. And the lady said a great many times before they went to bed (and after) that it was Just Like a Man.
The weeks went, and the time neared when dancing at the Institute would end for the season—would end with a bang and a dazzle in a “long night,” when dancing would be kept up shamelessly till something nearer one o’clock than twelve. Johnny counted, first the weeks, then the days, and last the hours. Not because of the dancing, although that was amusing, but because he was to take Nora Sansom with his double ticket. For herself, she may have counted days and hours, or may not; but true it was that she sat up late on several nights, with nun’s veiling and ribbons, making a dress for the occasion—the first fine frock that had been hers. And every night she hid it carefully.
Each dressmaking-class night of late it had been Johnny’s privilege to guard her home-going to the end of that second street—never farther. Twice she had come to dancing, and by that small practice was already Johnny’s superior at the exercise; for a big-shouldered novice of eleven stone two is a slower pupil than any girl of eighteen in the world. And they were very welcome one to the other, and acquaintance bettered day p. 215by day. Once Johnny ventured a question about the adventure of the morning, now more than three years ago, but learned little from Miss Sansom’s answer. The lady who was ill was her relation, she said, and she found her; and then she talked of something else.
And so till the evening before the “long night.” It was the rule at the Institute to honour the long night with gloves and white ties, by way of compromise with evening dress; and Johnny bought his gloves with discretion and selected his tie with care. Then he went to the Institute, took a turn or two at the bars, climbed up the rope, and gave another member a lesson with the gloves. Thus refreshed, he dressed himself in his walking clothes, making sure that the tie and the gloves were safe in his pocket, and set out for home. There was no dressmaking class that night, so that he need not wait. But outside and plainly waiting for him, was Nora Sansom herself. Johnny thought she had been crying: as in fact she had.
“Oh, Mr. May,” she said. “I’m very sorry, but—I thought you might be here, and—and—I’m afraid I shan’t be able to come to-morrow!”
“Not come! But—but why?”
“I’m sorry—I’m very sorry, Mr. May; but I can’t tell you—really.”
There was a quiver of the lip, and her voice was a little uneven, as though there were danger of more tears. p. 216But Johnny was not disappointed merely; he was also angry, and it was hard to conceal the fact. So he said nothing, but turned and walked a few steps by her side.
“I—hope you won’t mind,” she pursued, uneasy at his silence. “I’m very much disappointed—very much indeed.” And it was plain that she was. “But there’ll be a good many there. And you’ll have plenty of partners.” This last she found a hard thing to say.
“I don’t care how many’ll be there,” Johnny replied. “I shan’t go.”
It was said curtly, almost angrily, but Nora Sansom heard it with an odd little tremor of pleasure. Though she merely said, “But why not? There’s no reason why you should be disappointed too.”
“Anyhow, I’m not going,” he said; and after a pause added: “Perhaps you might ha’ gone if I hadn’t asked you!”
“Oh, I shouldn’t!” she answered, with tears in eyes and voice. “You know I shouldn’t! I never go anywhere!”
Johnny instantly felt himself a brute. “No,” he said. “I know you don’t. I didn’t mean anything unkind. But I won’t go.”
“Do you really mean it?”
“Of course. I’m not going without you.” He might have said something more, but a little group of people p. 217came straggling past. And the girl, with her eyes on this group, said the first thing that came to her tongue.
“Where will you go then?”
“Oh anywhere. I don’t know. Walk about, perhaps.”
She looked shyly up in his face, and down again. “I might go for a walk,” she said.
Johnny’s heart gave a great beat. “Alone?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Perhaps.”
But she would be questioned into nothing definite. If she took a walk, she might go in such and such a direction, passing this or that place at seven o’clock, or half-past. That was all. And now she must hurry away, for she had already been too long.
What mattered the dance to Johnny now? A fig for the dance. Let them dance that liked, and let them dance the floor through if it pleased them. But how was it that Nora Sansom could take a walk to-morrow evening, yet could not come to the Institute? That was difficult to understand. Still, hang the dance!
For Nora it would be harder to speak. Howbeit indeed the destruction of the looked-for evening’s gladness, in her first fine frock, had been a bitter thing. p. 218But that day her hiding-place had been discovered, and now the dress that had cost such thoughtful design and such hopeful labour was lying, rolled and ticketed, on a pawnbroker’s shelf.
That they must come to Blackwall Pier was assured. For there were no streets, no crowds, no rumbling waggons; there were the wide sky and the unresting river, the breeze, the ships, and the endless train of brown-sailed barges. No unseamanlike garden-seats dishonoured the quay then, and strolling lovers sat on bollards or chains, or sat not at all.
Here came Johnny and Nora Sansom when the shrinking arc of daylight was far and yellow in the west, and the Kentish hills away to the left grew dusk and mysterious. The tide ran high, and tugs were busy. A nest of them, with steam up, lay under the wharf wall to the right of the pier-barge, waiting for work; some were already lighted, and, on the rest, men were trimming the lamps or running them up, while a cheerful glow came from each tiny cabin and engine-room. Rascal boys flitted about the quays and gangways—the boys that are always near boats and water, ever failing to get drowned, and ever dodging the pestered men who try to prevent it.
The first star of the evening steadied and brightened, p. 220and soon was lost amid other stars. Below, the river set its constellations as silently, one after another, trembling and blinking; and meteor tugs shot across its firmament, in white and green and red. Along shore the old Artichoke Tavern, gables and piles, darkened and melted away, and then lit into a little Orion, a bright cluster in the bespangled riverside. Ever some new sail came like a ghost up reach out of the gloom, rounded the point, and faded away; and by times some distant voice was heard in measured cry over water.
They said little; for what need to talk? They loitered awhile near the locks, and saw the turning Trinity light with its long, solemn wink, heard a great steamer hoot, far down Woolwich reach. Now the yellow in the sky was far and dull indeed, and a myriad of stars trembled over the brimming river. A tug puffed and sobbed, and swung out from the group under the wharf, beating a glistering tail of spray, and steaming off at the head of a train of lighters. Out from the dark of Woolwich Reach came a sailing-ship under bare spars, drawn by another tug. In the middle of the river the ship dropped anchor, and the tug fell back to wait, keeping its place under gentle steam.
They walked on the wharf, by the iron cranes, and far to the end, under the windows of the abandoned Brunswick Hotel. Here they were quite alone, and p. 221here they sat together on a broad and flat-topped old bollard.
Presently said Johnny, “Are you sorry for the dance now—Nora?” And lost his breath at the name.
Nora—he called her Nora; was she afraid or was she glad? What was this before her? But with her eyes she saw only the twinkling river, with the lights and the stars.
Presently she answered. “I was very sorry,” she said slowly . . . “of course.”
Still she saw but the river and the lights; but she was glad; timid, too, but very glad. Johnny’s hand stole to her side, took hers, and kept it. . . . “No,” she said, “not sorry—now.”
What was before her mattered nothing; he sat by her—held her hand. . . . “Not sorry now—Johnny!”
Why came tears so readily to her eyes? Truly they had long worn their path. But this—this was joy. . . . He bent his head, and kissed her. The wise old Trinity light winked very slowly, and winked again.
So they sat and talked; sometimes whispered. Vows, promises, nonsense all—what mattered the words to so wonderful a tune? And the eternal stars, a million ages away, were nearer, all nearer, than the world of common life about them. What was for her she knew p. 222now and saw—she also: a new heaven and a new earth.
Over the water from the ship came, swinging and slow, a stave of the chanty:—
“I’m a flying-fish sailor straight home from Hong-Kong—
Aye! Aye! Blow the man down!
Blow the man down, bully, blow the man down—
O give us some time to blow the man down!
Ye’re a dirty Black-Baller just in from New York—
Aye! Aye! Blow the man down!
Blow the man down, bully, blow the man down—
O give us some time to blow the man down!”
Time went, but time was not for them. Where the tug-engineer, thrusting up his head for a little fresh air, saw but a prentice-lad and his sweetheart on a bollard, there sat Man and Woman, enthroned and exultant in face of the worlds.
The ship swung round on the tide, bringing her lights square and her stem for the opening lock. The chanty went wailing to its end:—
“Blow the man down, bully, blow the man down—
To my Aye! Aye! Blow the man down!
Singapore Harbour to gay London town—
O give us some time to blow the man down!”
The tug headed for the dock and the ship went in her wake with slow state, a gallant shadow amid the blue.
p. 223Soon the tide stood, and stood, and then began its ebb. For a space there was a deeper stillness as the dim wharves hung in mid-mist, and water and sky were one. Then the air stirred and chilled, stars grew sharper, and the Thames turned its traffic seaward.
Happiness never stayed long with Nora Sansom. Little, indeed, had been her portion, and it was a poor sort at best. But this new joy was so great that it must needs be short of life; and in truth she saw good reason. From the moment of parting with Johnny doubts had troubled her; and doubts grew to distress—even to misery. She saw no end—no end but sorrow. She had been carried away; she had forgotten. And in measure as her sober senses awoke she saw that all this gladness could but end in heart-break and bereavement. Better, then, end all quickly and have done with the pang. But herein she misjudged her strength.
Doubts and perplexities assailed Johnny also, though for a time they grew to nothing sharper. He would have gone home straightway, proud and joyful, if a little sheepish, to tell his mother the tale of that evening. But Nora had implored him to say nothing yet. She wanted time to think things over, she said. And she left him at the familiar corner, two streets beyond the Institute, begging him to come no farther, for this time, at anyrate. Next evening was the evening of the p. 225dressmaking class. He saw her for a few minutes, on her way through those two familiar streets, and he thought she looked unwell.
A few nights later he saw her again. Plainly she had been crying. When they came to a deserted street of shut-up wharves he asked her why.
“Only—only I’ve been thinking!” she said.
“About you, Johnny—about you and me. We—I think—we’re very young, aren’t we?”
That had not struck him as a difficulty. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know about that. I s’pose we are, like others. But I shall be out o’ my time in two years and a half, or not much more, and then—”
“Yes, then,” she said, catching at the word, “p’raps then it will be different—and—I mean we shall be older and know better, Johnny. And—now—we can often see one another and talk like friends—and—” She looked up to read his eyes, trembling.
Something cold took Johnny by the throat, and checked his voice. “But—what—you don’t mean—that?”
“Yes,” she said, though it was bitter hard. “It’ll be best—I’m sure, Johnny!”
Johnny gulped, and his voice hardened. “Oh!” he said, “if you want to throw me over you might say so, in straight English!”
p. 226“Oh—don’t talk like that, Johnny!” she pleaded, and laid her hand on his arm. “It’s unkind! You know it’s unkind!”
“No—it’s only plain an’ honest. I don’t understand this half-and-half business—seeing each other ‘like friends’ an’ all that.”
One more effort she made to hold her position—but her strength was near gone. “It’ll be better, Johnny—truly it will! You—you might meet someone you’d like better, and—”