“Whenever you’ve had enough,” said Johnny, as Butson staggered, and leaned against the wall, “you can stop it, you know, by calling the p’lice. You like the p’lice. There’s always one of ’em in the next street, an’ you’ve only to shout. I shall hammer you till ye do!”
And he hammered. A blow on the ear drove Butson’s head against the wall, and a swing from the other fist brought it away again. He flung himself on the ground.
“Get up!” cried Johnny. “Get up. What, you won’t? All right, you went down by yourself, you know—so’s to be let alone. But I’m coming down too!” and with that he lay beside Butson and struck once more and struck again.
“Chuck it!” groaned Butson. “I’m done! Oh! leave me alone!”
“Leave you alone?” answered Johnny, rising and reaching for his jacket. “Not I. You didn’t leave my mother alone a soon as she asked you, did you? I’ll never pass you again without clouting your head. Come home!”
p. 248He hauled the bruised wretch up by the collar, crammed his hat on his head and cut him across the calves with his own walking stick. “Go on! March!”
“Can’t you leave me alone now?” whined Butson. “You done enough, ain’t ye?”
“No—not near enough. An’ you’ll have a lot more if you don’t do as I tell you. I said I’d take you home, an’ I will. Go on!”
Two or three dark streets led to Harbour Lane, but they were short. It was past closing time, and when they reached the shop the lights were turned down and the door shut. Nan opened to Johnny’s knock, and he thrust Butson in before him. “Here he is,” said Johnny, “not thrashed half enough!”
Dusty and bleeding, his face nigh unrecognisable under cuts and bruises, Butson sat on a box, a figure of shame. Nan screamed and ran to him.
“I did it where the neighbours wouldn’t hear,” Johnny explained, “and if he’d been a man he’d have drowned himself rather than come here, after the way I’ve treated him. He’s a poor cur, an’ I’ll buy a whip for him. There’s the money I promised you” he went on, putting it on the box. “It’s the first you’ve earned for years, and the last you’ll have here, if I can manage it!”
But Nan was crying over that dishonourable head, and wiping it with her handkerchief.
“Why what’s that?” said Long Hicks on the way to work in the morning. “Got cuts all over yer hands!”
“Yes,” Johnny answered laconically. “Fighting.”
“Fightin’!” Long Hicks looked mighty reproachful. “Jest you be careful what company you’re gettin’ into,” he said severely. “You’re neglectin’ yer drawin’ and everything lately, an’ now—fightin’!”
“I ain’t ashamed of it,” Johnny replied gloomily. “An’ I’ve got other things to think about now, besides drawing.”
Hicks stared, stuttered a little, and rubbed his cap over his head. He wondered whether or not he ought to ask questions.
They went a little way in silence, and then Johnny said: “It’s him; Butson.”
“No!” exclaimed Hicks, checking in his stride, and staring at Johnny again. “What! Bin fightin’ Butson?”
Johnny poured out the whole story; and as he told Hicks’s eyes widened, his face flushed and paled, his hands opened and closed convulsively, and again and again he blew and stuttered incomprehensibly.
“Job is, to drive the brute away,” Johnny concluded wearily. “He’ll stop as long as he’s fed. An’ p. 250mother thinks it’s a disgrace to get a separation—goin’ before a magistrate an’ all. I’m only tellin’ you because I know you won’t jaw about it among the neighbours.”
That day Long Hicks got leave of absence for the rest of the week, mightily astonishing Mr. Cottam by the application, for Hicks had never been known to take a holiday before.
“’Awright,” the gaffer growled, “seein’ as we’re slack. There’s one or two standin’ auf for a bit a’ready. But what’s up with you wantin’ time auf? Gittin’ frisky? Runnin’ arter the gals?”
And indeed Long Hicks spent his holiday much like a man who is running after something, or somebody. He took a walking tour of intricate plan, winding and turning among the small streets, up street and down, but tending northward; through Bromley, Bow and Old Ford, and so toward Homerton and the marshes.
Meantime Johnny walked to and from his work alone, and brooded. He could not altogether understand his mother’s attitude toward Butson. She had been willing, even anxious, to get rid of him by any process that would involve no disgrace among the neighbours, and no peril to the trade of the shop; he had made her life miserable; yet now she tended the brute’s cuts and bumps as though he didn’t deserve them, and she cried more than ever. As for Johnny himself, he spared Butson nothing. Rather he drew a hideous p. 251solace from any torture wherewith he might afflict him.
“When are you going to clear out?” he would say. “You’d rather be kept than work, but you don’t like being thrashed, do you? Thrashed by a boy, eh? You’ll enjoy work a deal better than the life I’ll lead you here, I can tell you. I’ll make you glad to drown yourself, mean funk as you are, before I’m done with you! Don’t be too careful with that eye: the sooner it’s well, the sooner I’ll bung it up again!”
Bessy marvelled at this development of morose savagery on her brother’s part. With her, though he spoke little, he was kinder than ever, but it was his pastime to bully Butson: who skulked miserably in the house, being in no fit state for public exhibition.
As to his search for Nora Sansom, Johnny was vaguely surprised to find himself almost indifferent. It would have been useless to worry his mother about it now, and though he spent an hour or two in aimless tramping about the streets, it was with the uppermost feeling that he should rather be at home, bullying Butson. He had no notion why, being little given to introspection; and he was as it were unconscious of his inner conviction that after all Nora could not be entirely lost. While Butson’s punishment was the immediate concern, and as the thing stood, the creature seemed scarce to have been punished at all.
Long Hicks’s holiday had lasted three days, and Mr. Butson’s minor bruises were turning green. It was at the stroke of five in the afternoon, and Bessy was minding shop. From the ship-yard opposite a score or so of men came, in dirty dungaree (for it was Friday), vanguard of the tramping hundreds that issued each day, regular as the clock before the timekeeper’s box. Bessy rose on her crutch, and peeped between a cheese and a packet of candles, out of window. Friday was not a day when many men came in on their way home, because by that time the week’s money was run low, and luxuries were barred. Bessy scarce expected a customer, and it would seem that none was coming.
Peeping so, she grew aware of a stout red-faced woman approaching at a rapid scuttle; and then, almost as the woman reached the door, she saw Hicks at her heels, his face a long figure of dismay.
The woman burst into the shop with a rasping shriek. “I want my ’usband!” she screamed. “Where’s my ’usband?”
“Come away!” called Hicks, deadly pale, and p. 253nervously snatching at her shoulder. “Come away! You know what you promised!”
“Take yer ’and auf me, ye long fool! Where’s my ’usband? Is it you what’s got ’im?” She turned on Bessy and bawled the words in her face.
“No—no it ain’t!” cried Hicks, near beside himself. “Come away, an’—an’ we’ll talk about it outside!”
“Talk! O yus, I’ll give ’im talk!” The woman’s every syllable was a harsh yell, racking to the brain, and already it had drawn a group about the door. “I’ll give ’im talk, an’ ’er too! Would anyone believe,” she went on, turning toward the door and haranguing the crowd, that grew at every word, “as ’ow a woman calling ’erself respectable, an’ keepin’ a shop like any lady, ’ud take away a respectable woman’s ’usband—a lazy good-for-nothin’ scoundril as run away an’ left me thirteen year ago last Whitsun!”
Boys sprang from everywhere, and pelted in to swell the crowd, drawn by the increasing screams. Many of the men, who knew the shop so well, stopped to learn what the trouble was; and soon every window in Harbour Lane displayed a woman’s head, or two.
“My ’usband! Where’s my ’usband? Show me the woman as took my ’usband!”
Nan came and stood in the back parlour doorway, frightened but uncomprehending. The woman turned. “You! You is it?” she shrieked, oversetting a pile p. 254of tins and boxes, and clawing the air above her. “Gimme back my ’usband, you shameless creechor! Where ’a’ ye got ’im? Where’s my ’usband?”
Hicks put his arm about the woman’s waist and swung her back. He was angry now. “Get out!” he said, “I didn’t bring you to make a row like that! You swore you wouldn’t!”
Finding his arm too strong for her, the woman turned on Hicks and set to clawing at his face, never ceasing to scream for her husband. And then Johnny came pushing in at the door, having run from the far street-corner at sight of the crowd.
Hicks, as well as he could for dodging and catching at the woman’s wrists, made violent facial signals to Johnny, who stared, understanding none of them. But he heard the woman’s howls for her husband, and he caught at her arm. “Who is your husband?” he said. “What’s his name?”
“What’s ’is name? Why Butson—’enery Butson’s ’is name! Gimme my ’usband! My ’usband! Let me go, you villain!”
It was like an unexpected blow on the head to Johnny, but, save for a moment, it stunned not at all—rather roused him. “I’ll fetch him!” he cried, and sprang into the house.
Here was release—the man had another wife! He would drag the wretch down to her, and then give him p. 255to the police. No wonder he feared the police! The load was lifted at last—Butson’s punishment was come indeed! Fiercely glad, and thinking of nothing but this, Johnny swung into each room in turn.
But there was no Butson. His pipe lay broken on the front bedroom fender, and his coat hung behind the door; but there was no other sign.
Johnny dashed into the back yard. That, too, was empty. But in the yard behind, the old lighterman, paint-pot in one hand and brush in the other, just as he had broken off in the touching up of his mast, stood, and blinked, and stared, with his mouth open. His house-doors, back and front, stood wide, because of wet paint, and one could see through to the next street. It was by those doorways that Mr. Butson had vanished a minute ago, after scrambling over the wall, hatless, and in his shirt sleeves. And the old lighterman thought it a great liberty, and told Johnny so, with some dignity.
Johnny rushed back to the shop. “Gone!” he cried. “Bolted out at the back!”
He might have offered chase, but his mother lay in a swoon, and Bessy hung over her, hysterical. “Shove that woman out,” he said, and he and Hicks, between them, thrust the bawling termagant into the street and closed the door.
Without, she raged still, and grew hoarser, till a p. 256policeman came to quiet her; and in the end she marched off with him, talking at a loud scream all the way. And Harbour Lane flamed with the news of Nan’s shameless bigamy.
Long Hicks raved and tore at his hair, striding about the shop, and cursing himself with whatever words he could find. Johnny was excited still, but he grew thoughtful. There was more in this business, he saw now, than the mere happy riddance of Butson. What of the future? His mother was prostrated, and lay moaning on her bed. No one was there to tend her but Bessy, and there was no likelihood of help; they had no intimacy with neighbours, and indeed the stark morality of Harbour Lane womankind would have cut it off if they had. For already poor Nan was tried and condemned (as was the expeditious manner of Harbour Lane in such a matter), and no woman could dare so much as brush skirts with her.
“It’s my fault—all of it!” said the unhappy Hicks. “I shouldn’t ’a’ bin such a fool! But how was I to know she’d go on like that, after what she’d agreed to? Oh, damme, I shouldn’t ’a’ meddled!”
Johnny calmed him as well as he might, pulled him into a chair in the shop parlour, and sought to know the meaning of his self-reproaches. “Why not meddle?” p. 258Johnny asked. “When you found her kicking up that row—”
“Ah, but I didn’t, I didn’t!” protested Hicks, rolling his head despairingly and punching his thigh. “I brought her here! It’s all my fault! I thought I was doin’ somethin’ clever, an’ I was silly fool! O, I’d like to shoot meself!”
“Brought her here? Well, tell us about it—no good punching yourself. When did you find out he was married?”
“Knew it years ago; didn’t know the woman was alive, though. Thought she must ’a’ bin dead when you told me he’d married your mother.”
Some light broke on Johnny. “And you took these days off to look for her—was that it?”
“That’s it. An’ I was a fool—made things wuss instead o’ better!”
“Never mind about that—anything’s better than having that brute here. What changed your mind about her being dead?”
“Oh, I dunno. I’ll tell you all there is to it. Long time ago when I was workin’ at Bishop’s an’ lodgin’ in Lime’us, my lan’lady she knew Butson an’ ’is wife too, an’ she told me they led a pretty cat an’ dog life, an’ one day Butson hops the twig. Well his missus wasn’t sorry to lose ’im, an’ she sets to washin’ an’ ironin’ to keep ’erself an’ the kid. But when Butson gets out of p. 259a job (’e was never in one long) ’e goes snivellin’ round to ’er, an’ wants to go back, an’ be kep’. Well the missis makes it pretty ’ot for ’im, you may guess; but she stands ’im for a week or two, givin’ it ’im pretty thick all the time, till Butson ’e cuts away again, an’ never comes back. His missis never bothered about ’im—said she was well quit. This was all before I went to live at Lime’us, but she used to be pals with my lan’lady. I kep’ a bottle o’ whisky then, case of a friend comin’, an’ them two give it what for, between ’em, on the quiet.”