“And did you know her then—his wife?”
“On’y by sight, an’ not to say to speak to, me bein’ a quiet sort. I knew Butson since—in the shops; most took ’im for a bachelor. Well, I wasn’t at Lime’us very long; I came away to this part an’ see no more of ’er—though o’ course I see ’im, often. When you told me ’e’d married your mother it took me aback a bit at first. But then, thinks I, I expect the first one’s dead—must be. But after that, the other day, when you told me what a right down bad ’un ’e was, I begun to think wuss of ’im. I knew ’e’d bin livin’ idle, but I didn’t guess ’e treated ’er so bad. An’ when you talked o’ wantin’ to get rid of ’im, I got a notion. If ’e’s bad enough for what ’e’s done, thinks I, ’e’s bad enough for anythink. P’raps ’is fust wife ’s alive after all, an’ if she is, why the job’s done! Anyway, I puts it, I’ll risk p. 260a day or two auf on it. An’ I did, an’ ’ere’s a nice old bloomin’ mess I made! Oh, I ought to be poleaxed!”
“Well of course there’s been a row,” Johnny said gloomily, “an’ I expect it’ll knock trade to pieces here, an’ half kill mother. But you couldn’t very well help a row in a thing like this.”
“I bin three days findin” ’er. My old lan’lady’s dead, an’ I ’ad to try an’ find ’er sister. Nobody knew where the sister was, but after a lot o’ bother a old woman sends me to a cousin—in the workus. Cousin in the workus thinks the sister’s dead too, but tells me to go an’ ask at a newspaper-shop in Bromley. Newspaper-shop’s shut up—people gone. Find the man as moved ’em, an’ ’e sends me to Bow—another newspaper-shop. People there send me right back to Poplar; party o’ the name o’ Bushell. Party o’ the name o’ Bushell very friendly, an’ sends me to Old Ford; then I went to Bow again, an’ so I dodged about, up an’ down, till I run across Mrs. Butson up on ’Omerton Marshes, keepin’ a laundry. That was to-day, that was.
“Well, she took it mighty cool at first. When I told ’er I knew where ’er ’usband was, she told me I might keep my knowledge to myself, for she didn’t want ’im. Very cool she was, till I told ’er ’e’d married again, an’ at that she shut ’er jaw with a snap, an’ glared at me. So I just told ’er what I knew, an’ ’ow it ’ud be a charity p. 261to give ’im a scare on the quiet, an’ send ’im away from ’ere, an’ ‘All right,’ she says. ‘Jest you show me where they live,’ she says; ‘I’ll give ’im a scare!’ ‘Right,’ says I, but I made conditions. She wus to wait at the street-corner, an’ I was to send in a message for ’im to come out. Then we was to give ’im ten minutes to go an’ git ’is clo’es, if ’e wanted any, make any excuse ’e liked, an’ clear out; so as to do it all quiet an’ peaceable, an’ nobody the wiser. ‘All right,’ she says, ‘jest you show me the place, that’s all!’ So I brought ’er. But when we got to the corner an’ I told ’er which ’ouse, auf she went at a bolt, an’—an’ set up all that row ’fore I could stop ’er! Who’d ’a’ thought of ’er actin’ contradictory like that?”
It was not altogether so dense a mystery to Johnny as it was to the simpler Hicks, twice his age, though more a boy than himself. But he assured Hicks that after all he had done a good turn, and no price was too high for riddance of Butson. “Mother’ll be grateful to you, too, when she’s a bit quieter, an’ knows about it,” he said. And presently he added thoughtfully, “I think I ought to have guessed something o’ the sort, with his sneaking in an’ out so quiet, an’ being afraid o’ the p’lice. There’s lots o’ things I see through now, that I ought to have seen through before: not wantin’ the new name over the door, for one!”
. . . . .
p. 262Till the shutters were up that night, and the door well bolted, Nan May was urgent that that horrible woman must be kept out. And when at last she slept, in mere exhaustion, she awoke in a fit of trembling and choking, beseeching somebody to take the woman away.
Bessy, like Johnny, had a sense of relief, though she slept not at all, and dreaded vaguely. But withal she was conscious of some intangible remembrance of that red-faced woman with the harsh voice; and it was long—days—ere it returned to her that she had heard the voice high above the shouts of the beanfeasters in the Forest on the day when Uncle Isaac had brought Butson to the cottage.
Mr. Dunkin’s notice to quit arrived early the next morning. The service of that notice was a duty he owed to society, morality, conscience, virtue, propriety, religion, and several other things, which he enumerated without hesitation. He could not have sat in his pew the next day with any comfort, knowing that such a duty remained unperformed; he would have felt a hypocrite.
The notice might have come before, for the trade had been good and steady; but Mr. Dunkin also had heard the whispers that the ship-yard might be shut, and he had hesitated long. Now, however, there was no alternative—if Mrs. May were left to flaunt her infamy the trade must decline under the scandal, and the place fall worthless again. More, her expulsion at this time would seem less a seizure of the new branch than a popular vindication of righteousness.
Johnny was at home when the notice came. He had sent a message to Mr. Cottam, pleading urgent family affairs.
“Might have expected it,” Johnny said, giving the p. 264paper to Hicks, whom he had called into counsel. “Anyway mother swears she can’t show her face in the shop again. She seems almost afraid to come out of her bedroom, talks wild about disgracing her children, an’ wishes she was dead. She’s pretty bad, an’ as to the shop—that’s done up. Question is what to do now.”
Then Hicks rose to his feet, and met the occasion face to face. “We’ll do this thing between us,” he said, “and damn everybody! I ain’t a man o’ business, not special, but I got you all into this ’ere mess an’ I’ll see you out of it, or I’ll bust. Fust thing, this ’ere Mr. Dunkin’s game’s plain enough. ’Ere’s a very decent business goin’ on, an’ ’e takes this excuse to collar it ’isself. You ain’t took the shutters down yet, an’ we won’t take ’em down. We’ll stick up a big bill ‘Business come to a end,’ or such other words, an’ let the customers go where they like an’ ’ope they won’t come back. Then p’raps ’e’ll come along in a day or two an’ offer to buy the stock, thinkin’ ’e’ll get it for next to nothin’, you bein’ all at sixes an’ sevens. We won’t sell it—not one farden candle. But we won’t say so. No. We’ll fight cokum. We’ll ask ’im to think over it for another day or two an’ see if ’e can’t make it a quid or two more. ’E’ll let it slide all the week if we do it right, expectin’ to land us at the last minute an’ make us take anythink. But we’ll just be walkin’ the stuff all away very quiet in the evenin’s, in a barrer, an’ then ’e’ll come into a empty p. 265shop unexpected, an’ ’e won’t know what the customers is used to, an’ that’ll give ’im fits for another week or two. See?”
“But where shall we take the stuff?”
“Take it? Lord, anywhere!” replied Hicks, with a sweep of the hand. “There’s plenty o’ empty shops ready to be took everywhere. Why the number I’ve seen these two or three days ’ud surprise ye! Some ain’t as good as others p’raps, but that we’ll settle in the week. It’s just beginnin’ again, that’s all, same as what ye did three or four year back! Lord, we’ll do it, I tell ye—do it flyin’!” Long Hicks waved his arms enthusiastically. “As to the—the ha’pence,” he went on, “p’raps your mother’s got some, p’raps she ain’t—don’t matter either way. I’m a single man, an’ bin in good work years, an’ I got a bit in the savin’s bank. All right! I ain’t goin’ to offer no favours, so don’t sing out! Sixpence in the pound’s all I get out o’ the Post Office, an’ that ain’t much. I’m open to make it a bit more—three per cent. if ye like—on loan; any security, or none—there’s plenty in the place in the Forest an’ the stock an’ all—’ave it yer own way. Business! ’Ard business! That’s all it is. An’ now we’ll clear decks. Fust, get your mother an’ sister out o’ this, somewhere out o’ Harbour Lane, where they ain’t known, an’ where they’ll quit frettin’.”
p. 266“Where?” Hicks’s impetuosity left Johnny’s wits lagging.
“Temp’ry lodgin’s. Needn’t be fur; next parish is as good as fifty mile auf, in London. Better. An’ by George! now I think of it, I see the very place when I was goin’ round. Party o’ the name o’ Bushell, in Poplar. ’Ouse too big for ’em—got a furnished bedroom to let; showed it me, case I might know anyone an’ send ’em, them ’avin’ done me a turn sendin’ me to Old Ford. What’s more, there’ll be two more rooms, unfurnished, next week, tenant goin’ out—young gal, a dressmaker. So we can take them too, if we get pushed, an’ run the sticks in there. There’s luck to begin with! Why, things’ll go like clockwork!”
Hicks rushed off to make sure of the lodging, and in half an hour was back with a four-wheeled cab.
“Get ’em down an’ pop ’em in sharp,” said Hicks. “I’ve told the cabby where to go. You go with ’em an’ make ’em comfortable, an’ I’ll wait ’ere till you come back. Mind—people at the ’ouse on’y know she’s in trouble ’cos ’er ’usband’s run away, an’ I paid a week in advance. Go on—I’ll keep out o’ the way in the back till they’re clear auf; they don’t want to see me.”
Nan and Bessy wore veils, and hurried into the cab, while Johnny glowered fiercely at every face he could see turned toward them. To Johnny the streets seemed p. 267unreasonably familiar as the cab jolted through them—unreasonably like what they were a day ago, before this blow fell and knocked the world out of shape. They went out through Blackwall Cross, by the High Street, and past the Institute, where the familiar housekeeper—the housekeeper who had given him Nora’s farewell letter—stood on the steps with a broom; through the two streets, and past that corner where they had parted—it seemed years ago. As to when they might meet again, and how—that was not to be thought of now. His head was too full already.
“Oh, give us some time to blow the man down!” roared Mr. Bushell, splashing and puffing amid much yellow soap and cold water in the wash-house, whither he had gone for a wash, on coming home from his tug. The voice thundered and rolled through the house, and on the first floor, strangers not used to it grew muddled in their conversation.
“Blow the man down, bully, blow the man down—
To my Aye! Aye! Blow the man down!
Singapore Harbour to gay London town—
Oh, give us some time to blow the man down!”
Up on the first floor landing, “A-a-ah! pore dears!” said Mrs. Bushell, fat and sympathetic, looking up at Johnny, with her head aside and her hands clasped. “Pore dears! No, nobody shan’t disturb ’em! Lor, ’ow I do feel for ’em; an’ you too, Mr. May. Lucky you’re growed up to be a comfort to yer pore mar! There—I won’t say nothin’ about yer father! Runnin’ away so disgraceful an’ all. But I can’t think what parents is comin’ to, some of ’em. There’s the pore gal as is leavin’ the other two rooms o’ Monday, now—sich a quiet, p. 269well-be’aved young lady; we wouldn’t ’a’ let ’em stop a week if it wasn’t for ’er sake, bein’ so ’ard to find a respectable lodgin’s with sich a mother. But there—’er mother worries the pore thing’s life out—alwis drinkin’—an’ now she’s akchally in gaol for breakin’ a public-’ouse winder! An’ I sez—”
“Public-house window!” Johnny’s breath came short and thick. “What’s her name?”
“P’raps I shouldn’t ’a’ mentioned it to a stranger, but lor, I don’t s’pose you know ’er, an’ it’s Sansom. But—”
“Where is she? Show me! In here? Is she in now?” Johnny made dashes at divers door-handles with one hand, while Mrs. Bushell, confounded and scandalised, restrained him desperately by the opposite arm. It took some impatient moments to make it plain to the landlady that he intended no violent assault, nor, on consideration, even the rudeness of dashing into a lady’s rooms unannounced. Whereupon Mrs. Bushell went to a door and knocked, Johnny close at her heels. And presently the door opened.
“Oh Johnny, Johnny, I wish you hadn’t! . . . We shall only—” But with that the words died on the breast of Johnny’s coat. Mrs. Bushell’s eyes opened round, and then her mouth; and then Mrs. Bushell went off very quietly downstairs—eyes and mouth and face p. 270all round—and out into the wash-house; and “Blow the Man Down” stopped in the middle.
“Oh, but you know what I said, Johnny! We can’t—you know we can’t!”
“Nonsense! I shan’t let you go now. I’ve got a disreputable mother now—or so they say. Have you heard of yours—since?”
“She’s in the infirmary—very bad. Something’s been forming on the liver for years, the doctor says; and when she couldn’t get anything to drink she broke down at once. But what did you say about your mother?”
Johnny told her the tale. “And now,” he added in the end, “she’s in there, worn out an’ broken down, an’ not a woman in the world to comfort her but my sister. Come in, an’ help.” And they went in together.
At the end of a week Long Hicks stood astounded at his own performances. At the end of a year he was still astonished, and proud inordinately; and till the end of his life he will never forget the smallest particular of that week’s exploits. The policeman who came with a warrant for Butson, the young man from Mr. Dunkin, who came about the stock, the other young man that came the next time—he polished them all off, and half a dozen others, in the most dashing and businesslike manner. He found a new shop—found a score of shops, in fact, so that Nan May was fain to rouse herself and choose, lest some hopeless sepulchre of trade were rented without her knowledge. And this was good, for it gave her work to do and to think of, and once set going, she buckled to her task with all her old energy, and a world of riper experience. The shop was not so fortunately placed as that at Harbour Lane, and trade was never quite so good as it had been there when at its best. More, its place was in a dingy street, out of sight of the river and the ships. But it was a fairly busy thoroughfare, and things could be sold there, which was p. 272the main consideration. And it was Hicks’s triumph to stock this shop with the stock from Harbour Lane—conveyed secretly by night, on a truck, with many chucklings, after cunning putting-off of Mr. Dunkin. The tale whereof he would tell ever after with bashful glee, together with the tale of the sad emptiness and disorganisation of Mr. Dunkin’s new branch at its opening on Monday morning. And Uncle Isaac (who found his niece’s new shop ere long) assured the listener by frequent proclamation, that Mr. Hicks was a gentleman of vast business ability, and a genius at enterprise.
“Yus, a genius, that’s what I say, Mr. Cottam—a genius of uncommon talent.” It was a wet afternoon, when Cottam and Hicks had taken ten minutes’ shelter in the round-house by the quay-side: and presently were joined by Uncle Isaac, on his way across from the docks.
Mr. Cottam grunted. He had met Uncle Isaac twice before.
“Lord!” Uncle Isaac went on, gazing at the uneasy Hicks with steadfast admiration, “Lord! If ’e was on’y ambitious’ ’e might be anythink! What a ornament ’e ’d be to a Diplomatic Corpse! Talk about Enterprise! Why at Enterprise an’ any sort o’ circumventions ’e’s—’e’s—why there, as I alwis say, ’e might be Ambashador to ’er Majesty’s possessions!”
p. 273The shower flagged, and men came out on the quays. Mr. Cottam rose from the coil he had been sitting on, took his gaze out of space, and fixed it on the wall over Uncle Isaac’s head. “Mr. Mundy!” he trumpeted, in the manner of a man beginning a speech to an expectant multitude; raising his forefinger to his shoulder and lowering it till it rested on Uncle Isaac’s chest; “Mr. Mundy!”
Then he paused, and Uncle Isaac said, “Yus, Mr. Cottam.”
The pause endured and grew impressive; till at last the foreman’s face relaxed, his gaze descended till it met Uncle Isaac’s, and he chuckled aloud, stabbing him playfully with the forefinger. “Why—what a windy ol’ kidder you are!” said Mr. Cottam; and stamped off along the quay, croaking and chuckling all over.