He resolved, first, to try the Institute. Nora’s name and address must be on the class registers; but what business had he with the girl’s class registers? As diplomatist his failure was lamentable. He could invent no reasonable excuses, and ignoble defeat was his fate at the hands of the rigid lady who managed the girls department of the Institute. Then he took to prowling about all the streets that lay beyond that second corner that had marked the end of their evening walks, watching for her; searching also, desperately, for some impossible sign about a house that might suggest that she lived in it. Thus he spent the daylight of two evenings watching a little muslin-hung window, because the muslin was tied with a ribbon of a sort he remembered her to have worn, and because he chose to fancy a neatness and a daintiness about the tying that might well be hers. But on the second evening as dusk fell the window opened, and a hairy, red-bearded man in blue shirt sleeves put out his head and leaned on the sill to smoke his pipe and watch the red sky. Johnny swung away savagely, and called himself a fool for his pains; p. 235and indeed, he could ill afford to waste time, for Maidment and Hurst claimed him till five each day, and a few hours in the evening were all that remained; more, Nora would change her lodgings—perhaps had done so already.
After this he screwed his courage so high as to go to the police-station where the charge against Nora’s mother must have been taken, and to ask for her address. But the cast-iron-faced inspector in charge took his name and address instead, as a beginning, and then would tell him nothing. And at last, maddened and reckless, he went to the publican, and demanded the information of him. Now if Johnny had had a little more worldly experience, a little more cunning, and a great deal more coolness, he would have done this at first, and, beginning by ordering a drink, he would have opened a casual conversation, led it to the matter of the window, and in the end would have gained his point quietly and easily. But as it was, he did none of these things. He ordered no drink, and he made a blunt request, taking little thought of its manner, none of the publican’s point of view, and perhaps forgetting that the man was in no way responsible for the rebuffs already endured. The publican, for his part, was already in a bad temper, because of the clumsy tapping of a barrel and ensuing “cheek” of the potman. So he answered Johnny’s demand by asking if he had come to pay for the window; p. 236and receiving the negative reply he had expected, he urgently recommended the intruder’s departure “outside”: in such terms as gave no choice but compliance.
So that now, in extremity, Johnny resolved on a last expedient: one that had been vaguely in his mind for a day or two, though he had yet scarce had courage to consider it seriously. This was, to tell his mother the whole thing; and to induce her, if he might, to ask the address at the Institute—perhaps on some pretext of dressmaking business. He was not hopeful, for he well knew that any hint of traffic with the family of one such as Nora’s mother would be a horror to her. But he could see nothing else, and to sit still were intolerable. Moreover he guessed that his mother must suspect something from his preoccupation, and his neglect of his drawing. Though indeed poor Nan was most at pains, just then, to conceal troubles of her own.
Mr. Butson, in fact, began to chafe under the restraints of narrow circumstances. Not that he was poorer than had been his habit—indeed he was much better off—but that his needs had expanded with his prosperity and with his successes in society. And it was just now that his wife began to attempt retrenchment. Probably she was encouraged by the outrageous revolt of her son, a revolt which had made advisable a certain degree of caution on the part of himself, the head of the household. She spoke of a rumour that the ship-yard p. 237opposite might close, as so many other Thames ship-yards had closed of late years. That, she said, would mean ruin for the shop, and she must try to save what little she might, meantime. An absurdity, of course, in Mr. Butson’s view. He felt no interest in the rumours of old women about ship-yards, and petty measurement of the sordid chances of trade irritated him. If his wife found one source of profit running dry, she must look out and tap another, that was all. So long as he got what he wanted he troubled little about the manner of its getting. But now he ran near having less than he wanted, and his wife was growing even less accommodating. She went so far as to hint of withholding the paltry sum the lad earned; he should have it himself, she thought, to buy his clothes, and to save toward the end of his apprenticeship. More than this, Mr. Butson much suspected that Johnny had actually had his own money for some while past, and that Mrs. Butson had descended to the mean subterfuge of representing as his earnings a sum which in reality she extracted each week from the till; an act of pure embezzlement. And then there was the cottage in Epping Forest. She wouldn’t sell it now, though she wanted to sell when she first left it. What good was there in keeping it? True there was three-and-sixpence a week of rent, but that was nothing; it would go in a round of drinks, or in half a round, in any distinguished bar; and there were deductions even p. 238from the three-and-sixpence. Sold, the cottage might produce a respectable sum—perhaps a hundred pounds—at anyrate eighty. The figures stirred his blood. What a magnificent dash a man might cut with eighty pounds! And a fortune might be made out of it, too, if it were used wisely, and not buried away in a wretched three-and-sixpenny cottage. Properly invested on judicious flat-race Certainties, it would double itself about twice a week. So he made it very plain to Nan that the sale of the cottage for what it would fetch and the handing over of the proceeds was a plan he insisted on. But the stupid woman wouldn’t see it. It was plain that she was beginning to over-estimate her importance in the establishment, by reason that of late she had not been sufficiently sworn at, shoved, thumped, and twisted and pinched on the arms. That was the worst of kindness to a woman—she took advantage.
So that he was obliged to begin to thump again. There was no need to do it so that Johnny might know, and so cause a low disturbance. In fact, Johnny took little notice of things at home just now, no longer made inquiries, nor lifted the poker with so impudent a stare; and he was scarce indoors at all. Wherefore Mr. Butson punched and ruffianed—being careful to leave no disreputable marks in visible spots, such as black eyes—and sometimes he kicked; and he demanded more money and more, but all the while insisted on the sale of the p. 239cottage. The monstrous laws of conveyance made it impossible for him to lay hands on the deeds and sell the place himself, or he would have done it, of course. And he made it advisable, too, for Bessy to avoid him—and that had a better effect than any direct attack on Nan. Till at last the woman was so far reduced that she was near a very dangerous rebellion indeed—nearer than Mr. Butson suspected. For she began to think of attempting a separation by magistrate’s order, shameful as it would be in the neighbourhood. Though she feared greatly.
So it was when Johnny turned toward home on an evening a little before nine o’clock, sick of blind searching, and ready to tell his mother the story of Nora Sansom, first to last. At Harbour Lane corner he saw Butson walking off, and wondered to see him about Blackwall so early in the evening.
Nobody was in the shop, and Johnny went through so quietly that he surprised his mother and Bessy, in the shop-parlour, crying bitterly. Nan sat on a chair and Bessy bent over her, and no concealment was possible. Johnny was seized by a dire surmise. “Mother! What’s this?” he said. “What’s he been doing?”
Nan bent lower, but answered nothing. Johnny looked toward Bessy, almost sternly. “He—he’s beaten mother again,” Bessy blurted, between sobs.
“Beaten mother! Again!” Johnny’s face was white, p. 240and his nostrils stood wide and round. “Beaten mother! Again!”
“He’s always doing it now,” Bessy sobbed. “And wanting more money. I’d a good mind to tell you before, but—but—”
“Beaten mother!” The room swam before Johnny’s eyes. “Why—”
Nan rose to close the door. “No, Johnny,” she said meekly. “I’m a bit upset, but don’t let it upset you. Don’t you—”
“What’s the matter with your leg? You’re limping!”
“He kicked her! I saw him kick at her ankle!” Bessy burst out, pouring forth the tale unrestrained. “I tried to stop him and—and—”
“And then he hit you?” asked Johnny, not so white in the cheeks now, but whiter than ever about the mouth.
“Yes; but it was mother most!” and Bessy wept afresh.
Perhaps his evenings of disappointment had chastened Johnny’s impatience. He knew that the man was out of reach now, and he forced his fury down. In ten minutes he knew the whole thing, between Bessy’s outpourings and Nan’s tearful admissions.
“When is he coming back?”
They did not know—probably he would be late, p. 241as usual. “But don’t go doing anything hasty, Johnny,” Nan implored; “I’m so afraid of you doing something rash! It’s not much, really—I’m a bit upset, but—”
“I’ll have to think about this,” Johnny said, with such calmness that Nan felt somewhat reassured, though Bessy was inwardly afraid. “I’m going out for an hour.”
He strode away to the Institute, walking by instinct, and seeing nothing till he was under the lettered lamp. He went to the dressing-room and hurried into his flannels. In the gymnasium the instructor, a brawny sergeant of grenadiers, was watching some lads on the horizontal bar. Johnny approached him with a hesitating request for a “free spar.”
“Free spar, my lad?” said the sergeant. “What’s up? Gettin’ cheeky? Want to give me a hidin’?”
“No, sergeant,” Johnny answered. “Not such a fool as that. But I never had a free spar with a man much heavier than myself, and—and I just want to try, that’s all!”
There was a comprehending twinkle about the sergeant’s eyes. “Right,” he said; “you’re givin’ me near two stone—that’s if you’re a bit over eleven. Fetch the gloves.”
At another time Johnny would never have conceived the impudence of asking the sergeant—once champion of the army—for a free spar. Even a “light” spar with p. 242the sergeant was something of an undertaking, wherein one was apt to have both hands full, and a bit over. But the lad had his reasons now.
He dashed at the professor with a straight lead, and soon the blows were going like hail on a window-pane. The sergeant stood like a rock, and Johnny’s every rush was beaten back as by hammer-blows on the head. But he came again fresh and eager, and buzzed his master merrily about the head, getting in a very respectable number of straight drives, such as would knock an ordinary man down, though the sergeant never winked; and bringing off one on the “mark” that did knock out a grunt, much as a punch in that region will knock one out of a squeaking doll.
“Steady,” the sergeant called after two long rounds had been sparred. “You’ll get stiff if you keep on at that rate, my lad, and that’s not what you want, I reckon!” This last with a grin. “You haven’t been boxin’ regular you know, just lately.”
“But you’re all right,” he added, as they walked aside. “Your work keeps you in good condition. Not quite so quick as you would ha’ been if you’d been sparrin’ every evening, o’course. But quick enough for your job, I expect.” And again Johnny saw the cunning twinkle.
It was about closing time, and when Johnny had p. 243changed his clothes, he found the sergeant leaving also. He thanked him and bade him good-night.
“Good-night, May,” the sergeant called, and turned into the street. But he swung back along the footpath after Johnny, and asked, “Is it to-morrow?”
“Oh, I ain’t a sergeant—I’m a stranger. There’s a sergeant goes to that moral establishment p’raps,” with a nod at the Institute, “but he behaves strictly proper. I’m just a chap out in the street that would like to see the fight, that’s all. When is it?”
“I don’t quite know that myself,” Johnny answered.
“Oh—like that, is it? Hum.” The sergeant was thoughtful for a moment—perhaps incredulous. Then he said, “Well, can’t be helped, I suppose. Anyway, keep your left goin’ strong, but don’t lead quite so reckless, with your head up an’ no guard. You’re good enough. An’ the bigger he is, the more to hit!”
Mr. Butson was perhaps a shade relieved when he returned home that night and found all quiet, and Johnny in bed. He had half expected that his inopportune return might have caused trouble. But the night after, as he came from the railway station, a little earlier than usual, Johnny stopped him in the street.
“I want to speak to you,” he said. “Just come round by the dock wall.”
His manner was quiet and businesslike, but Mr. Butson wondered. “Why?” he asked. “Can’t you tell me here?”
“No, I can’t. There are too many people about. It’s money in your pocket if you come.”
Mr. Butson went. What it meant he could not imagine, but Johnny usually told the truth, and he said it would be money in his pocket—a desirable disposition of the article. The dock wall was just round a corner. A tall, raking wall at one side of a sparsely lit road that was empty at night, and a lower wall at the other; the road reached by a flight of steps rising from the street, and a gateway in the low wall.
p. 245“Well, what is it now?” Mr. Butson asked, suspiciously, as Johnny stopped under a gas-lamp and looked right and left along the deserted road.
“Only just this,” Johnny replied, with simple distinctness. “You wanted mother to give you my money every week, though in fact she’s been letting me keep it. Well, here’s my last week’s money”—he shook it in his hand—“and I’ll give it you if you’ll stand up here and fight me.”
“What? Fight you? You?” Mr. Butson laughed; but he felt a secret uneasiness.
“Yes, me. You’d rather fight a woman, no doubt, or a lame girl. But I’m going to give you a change, and make you fight me—here.” Johnny flung his jacket on the ground and his hat on it.
“Don’t be such a young fool,” quoth Mr. Butson loftily. “Put on your jacket an’ come home.”
“Yes—presently,” Johnny replied grimly. “Presently I’ll go home, and take you with me. Come, you’re ready enough to punch my mother, without being asked; or my sister. Come and punch me, and take pay for it!”
Mr. Butson was a little uncomfortable. “I suppose,” he sneered, “you’ve got a knife or a poker or somethin’ about you like what you threatened me with before!”
“I haven’t even brought a stick. You’re the sort o’ p. 246coward I expected, though you’re bigger than me and heavier. Come—” he struck the man a heavy smack on the mouth. “Now fight!”
Butson snarled, and cut at the lad’s head with the handle of his walking stick. But Johnny’s arm straightened like a flash, and Butson rolled over.
“What I thought you’d do,” remarked Johnny, seizing his wrist and twisting the stick away. “Now get up. Come on!”
Mr. Butson sat and gasped. He fingered his nose gently, and found it very tender, and bleeding. He seemed to have met a thunderbolt in the dark. He turned slowly over on his knees, and so got on his feet.
“Hit me—come, hit me!” called Johnny, sparring at him. “Fancy I’m only my mother, you cur! Come, I’m hitting you—see! So!” He seized the man by the ear, twisted it, and rapped him about the face. The treatment would have roused a sheep. Butson sprang at Johnny, grappled with him, and for a moment bore him back. Johnny asked nothing better. He broke ground, checked the rush with half-arm hits, and stopped it with a quick double left, flush in the face.
It was mere slaughter; Johnny was too hard, too scientific, too full of cool hatred. The wretched Butson, bigger and heavier as he might be, was flaccid from soft living, and science he had none. But he fought like a p. 247rat in a corner—recking nothing of rule, but kicking, biting, striking, wrestling madly; though to small purpose: for his enemy, deadly calm and deadly quick, saw every movement ere it was made, and battered with savage precision.