“That’s my look-out; time to talk about that when it comes. The other night you let me kiss you, and you kissed me back—told me you loved me. Now you don’t. Maybe you’ve met someone you like better.”
She held out no more. Her head fell on his shoulder, and she broke into an agony of tears. “O Johnny, Johnny, that is cruel! You don’t know how cruel it is! I shall never like anybody better than you—never half so much. Don’t be unkind! I’ve not one friend in the world but you, and I do love you more than anything.”
With that Johnny was ready to kick himself for a ruffian. He looked about, but nobody else was in the shadowy street. He kissed Nora, he called himself hard names, and he quieted her, though she still sobbed. And there was no more talk of mere friendship. She had tried her compromise, and had broken down. But p. 227presently Johnny ventured to ask if she foresaw any difficulty with her parents.
“Father’s dead,” she said simply. “He’s been dead for years.” This was the first word of her family matters that Johnny had heard. Should he come to see her mother? The question struck her like a blow.
“No—no, Johnny,” she said. “Not yet—no, you mustn’t. I can’t tell you why—I can’t really; at anyrate not now.” Then after a pause, “O Johnny, I’m in such trouble! Such trouble, Johnny!” And she wept again.
But tell her trouble she would not. At anyrate not then. And in the end she left Johnny much mystified, and near as miserable as herself, because of his blind helplessness in this unrevealed affliction.
Inexpert in mysteries, he was all incomprehension. What was this trouble that he must not be told of? He did not even know where Nora lived. Why shouldn’t she tell him? Why did she never let him see her as far as home? This much he knew: that she had a mother, but had lost her father by death. And this he had but just learned from her under stress of tears. He was not to see her mother—at least not yet. And Nora was in sore trouble, but refused to say what the trouble was. That night he moped and brooded. And at Maidment and Hurst’s next morning—it was Saturday—Mr. Cottam the gaffer swore, and made remarks about p. 228the expedience of being thoroughly awake before dinner-time. More, at one o’clock Johnny passed the pay-box without taking his money, and turned back for it, when reminded, amid the chaff of his shopmates, many offers of portership, and some suggestions to scramble the slighted cash.
Not far from the yard-gate he saw a small crowd of people about a public-house; and as he neared he perceived Mother Born-drunk in the midst of it. The publican had refused to serve her—indeed, had turned her out—and now she swayed about his door and proclaimed him at large.
“’Shultin’ a lady!” she screamed hoarsely. “Can’t go in plashe ’thout bein’ ’shulted. ’Shulted by low common public-’oush. I won’t ’ave it!”
“Don’t you stand it, ducky!” sang out a boy. “You give ’em what for!”
For a moment she seemed inclined to turn her wrath on her natural enemy, the boy, but her eye fell on a black bottle with a broken neck, lying in the gutter. “Gi’ ’em what for?” she hiccupped, stooping for the bottle, “Yesh, I’ll gi’ ’em what for!” and with that flung the bottle at the largest window in sight.
There was a crash, a black hole in the midst of the plate glass, and a vast “spider” of cracks to its farthest corners. Mother Born-drunk stood and stared, perhaps a little sobered. Then a barman ran out, tucking in his p. 229apron, and took her by the arm. There were yells and screams and struggles, and cheers from blackguard boys; and Mother Born-drunk was hauled off, screaming and sliding and stumbling, between a policeman and the publican.
Johnny told his mother, when he reached home, that her old acquaintance Emma Pacey was like to endure a spell of gaol. But what occupied his mind was Nora’s trouble, and he forgot Mother Born-drunk for three or four days.
Then came the next evening of the dressmaking class at the Institute, and he went, never doubting to meet Nora as she came away. At the door the housekeeper, who was also hall-porter, beckoned, and gave him a letter, left earlier in the day. It was addressed to him by name, in a weak and straggling female hand, and for a moment he stared at it, not a little surprised. When he tore open the envelope he found a blotchy, tear-stained rag of a letter, and read this:—
“My Dearest Johnny,—It is all over now and I do hope you will forgive me for not telling you before. This is to say good-bye and God bless you and pray forget all about me. It was wrong of me to let it go so far but I did love you so Johnny, and I could not help it and then I didn’t know what to do. I can never come to the classes again with all this disgrace and everything printed in the newspapers and I must get work somewhere where they don’t know me. I would rather die, but I must look after her as well as I can, Johnny, because she is my mother. Burn this at once and forget all about me and some day you will meet p. 230some nice girl belonging to a respectable family and nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t try to find me—that will only make us both miserable. Good-bye and please forgive me.
What was this? What did it all mean? He stood in the gymnasium dressing-room to read it, and when he looked up, the gaslight danced and the lockers spun about him. The one clear thing was that Nora said good-bye, and was gone.
Presently his faculties assorted themselves, and he read the letter again; and then once more. It was “all over” and she asked him to forgive her for not telling him before. Telling him what? She told him nothing now. She would never come to the Institute again, and he didn’t know her address, and he mustn’t try to find her. But then there was “everything printed in the newspapers.” Of course, he must look at the newspapers; why so long realising that? He went to the reading-room and applied himself to the pile of papers and magazines that littered the table. One paper after another he searched and searched again, but saw nothing that he could connect with Nora, by any stretch of imagination. Till he found a stray sheet of the day before, with rings of coffee-stain on it. The “police intelligence” lay uppermost, and in the midst of the column the name Emma Sansom, in italic letters, caught his p. 231eye. She was forty-one, and was charged with drunkenness and wilful damage. A sentence more, and everything stood displayed, as by a flash of lightning; for he had witnessed the offence himself, on Saturday. Emma Sansom was the married name of Emma Pacey, whom the boys called Mother Born-drunk; and the woman was Nora’s mother!
Now it was plain—all, from the very beginning, when the child wandered in the night seeking her strayed and drunken mother, and inquired for her with the shamed excuse that she was ill. This was why he was not to call to see Nora’s mother; and it was for this that Nora hindered him from seeing her home.
There was the shameful report, all at length. The publican’s tale was simple and plain enough. He had declined to serve the prisoner because she was drunk, and as she refused to leave, he had her turned out, though, he said, she made no particular resistance. Shortly afterward he heard a crash, and found a broken bottle and a great deal of broken glass in the bar. He had gone outside, and saw the prisoner being held by his barman. His plate-glass window was smashed, and it was worth ten pounds. There was little more evidence. The police told his worship that the prisoner had been fined small sums for drunkenness before, but she was usually inoffensive, except for collecting crowds of boys. This was the first charge against her involving damage. p. 232She was the widow of a ship’s officer lost at sea, and she had a small annuity, but was chiefly supported of late by her daughter—a dressmaker—a very respectable young woman. The daughter was present (the reporter called her “a prepossessing young female in great distress”), and she wished to be allowed to pay the damage in small instalments. But in the end her mother was sent to prison for a month in default of payment of fine and damage. For indeed the daughter was a minor, and her undertaking was worthless.
One thing Johnny looked for eagerly, but did not find—the prisoner’s address. Whether consideration for the daughter had prompted the reporter to that suppression, or whether it was due to accident, Johnny could not guess. In other reports in the same column some addresses were given and some not. But straightway Johnny went to beg the housekeeper that he might rummage the store of old papers for those of the day before. For to desert Nora now, in her trouble, was a thing wholly inconceivable; and so far from burning the letter, he put it, envelope and all, in his safest pocket, and felt there, more than once, to be assured of its safety.
But the address was in none of the papers. In fact the report was in no more than three, and in one of those it was but five lines long. What should he do? He could not even write her one line of comfort. And p. 233he had been going on with his work placidly all Monday while Nora had been standing up in a police-court, weeping and imploring mercy for her wretched mother! If he had known he could scarce have done anything to aid her. But helplessness was no consolation—rather the cruellest of aggravations.
Well, there stood the matter, and raving would not help it, nor would beating the table—nor even the head—with the fist. He must somehow devise a way to reach Nora.