So with the days and the months Nan’s sorrows fell from her, and their harder shapes were lost in her remembrance; and the new days brought a new peace—perhaps even a new dullness. For this was a dull place, this street of flat walls, and grime, and anxious passengers. But what mattered mere dullness of externals when she had hard work to do, and a son to take pride in?
For Nora’s sorrows, who shall speak? There was a hospital bed that she knew well, a pillow whereon a slaty face wasted and grew blank of meaning. And in the end there was a day of driving wet in a clayey cemetery, a day of loneliness, and wonder, and dull calm.
But that day went with the others, and that year went. The streets grew sloppy with winter, dusty with summer: and smoky geraniums struggled into bloom on window-sills, and died off. Miles away the Forest gowned itself anew in green, in brown and in white; and in green the exiles saw it, once a year: but all its dresses were spread for Bessy still, in her dreams.
p. 275Two years were gone, and Johnny was within five months of twenty-one, and the end of his apprenticeship, when on a brave August day he walked in the Forest alone. There would be no Forest excursion for him next year, for then, with good fortune, he would be upon the seas. For the firm had promised him the recommendation that would give him a year’s voyaging as fourth engineer.
Bessy and Nora were sharing the holiday, but they were left to rest at Bob Smallpiece’s cottage. Bob, vast, brown, and leathery, was much as ever. He had seen Johnny and Bessy once each year, but not their mother, since—well since he had gone to London to see his sister. He was not sure whether he should go up to London again soon, or not. Meantime he made tea for his visitors.
They had climbed the hill to gran’dad’s grave, and they had found it green and neat: they had seen another, fresh-closed, beside it, and wondered who was buried there; they had gathered flowers in Monk Wood, and they had stayed long in Loughton Camp; they had come again to the cottage on the glen-side, and Johnny had had to stoop at the door to save his hat, for indeed he was within two inches as big as Bob Smallpiece himself; and now Johnny, being alone, took the path to Wormleyton Pits. It was six years since he p. 276had gone that way last, and he might never go that way again.
Mainly his way lay as it had lain when he carried the basket of sloes, that night when his grandfather had hunted his last moth. Johnny had left childish fancies years behind him, and now the trees were trees merely, one much as the rest, though green and cheerful in the sunlight. But even as on that night his mind had run on London, the longed-for London that was his home now, and stale with familiarity, so now he turned over once more the mystery of the old man’s cutting off: and with as little foreknowledge of the next chances in life’s hatful.
Here branched the track by which he had made for Theydon; there was the tree under which he had last seen the old man’s lantern-light; and then the slade opened, glorious with heather. Brambles and bushes about the pits were changed—this grown higher and wider, that withered off; and the pits—the smaller pits, at least, seemed shallow enough holes under the eyes of a man of near six feet. The deepest pit—the pit—was farthest; and Johnny could see a man, whose figure seemed vaguely familiar, sitting on its edge.
He picked his way across the broken ground and came to the pit on the side opposite to the stranger. There was the hole where the old man had taken his death-blow. Perhaps the bottom had risen an inch or p. 277so because of gravel-washings; but the big stone in the middle was still plain to see.
The man opposite was trimming wooden pegs with a pocket-knife. He wore corduroys, of a cut that Johnny held in remembrance. Johnny watched for a few seconds, and then the man turned up a leathery brown face, and Johnny knew him. It was Amos Honeywell, notable as a poacher, and chief of a family of poachers. Amos put a peg into his pocket and began on another.
“Well, Amos!” called Johnny across the pit; “you don’t know me!”
The man looked up, and stared. “No,” he said, “I dun’t.”
Johnny gave him his name.
“What?” answered Amos, putting away his peg unfinished. “Johnny May? The boy as used to be along o’ oad May the butterfly man, as died in a axdent in this ’ere very pit?”
“Yes—if it was an accident.”
“Oh, it was that all right ’nough. But, why, ye’re twice as tall: an’ ’taren’t so long, nayther.” Amos paused, staring mightily at Johnny, and slapped his thigh. “Why,” he said, “it’s the curiousest thing in natur, seein’ you now, an’ here too. Did ye see e’er a funeral las’ Wednesday?”
p. 278“Up to chu’ch where yer gran’father’s buried. But no—y’aren’t livin’ hereabout now, o’ coase. Well it is the rarest conglomeration ever I see, me seein’ you ’ere at this ’ere very pit, an’ ’im buried on’y las’ Wednesday, an’ died in a accident too. Fell off a rick, he did.”
“An’ who was he?”
“Coopersale chap, he was, name o’ Stiles. Lived here ’bout six year. But coase you wud’n’ know ’bout him; ’twere he as did the accident.”
“Did the accident? What d’ye mean?”
Amos Honeywell got up from his seat, and jerked his thumb toward the pit-bottom. “This here one,” he said. “Yer gran’father.”
“D’ you mean he killed him?”
“Dun’t much matter what ye call it now the chap’s dead, but I wouldn’t put it killed—not meanin’.” Amos Honeywell came slouching along the pit-edge, talking as he came. “See, he was a Coopersale chap an’ new here, an’ knowed few. Well, he sees this here’s a likely spot for a rabbit or so, an’ he puts up a few pegs an’ a wire or two, just arter dark: you know. In the middle of it he sees a strange oad chap comin’ with a lantern, searchin’—searchin’ what for? Why for wires, he thinks, o’ coase. He hides in some brambles, but t’oad chap gets nigher an’ nigher an’ presen’ly Stiles he sees he’s about caught. So he ups on a sudden an’ knocks the oad chap over, an’ grabs the wires an’ then p. 279he bolts. Oad chap goes over into pit of a lump, an’ he falls awk’ard an’—an’ well—there y’are!”
“And how long ha’ you known this?”
“Knowed it? Knowed it all time, same as others.”
“An’ never said a word of it, nor told the police?”
“Why no,” Amos answered, with honest indignation. “Wudn’t hev us get the poer chap in trouble, wud ye?”
And this was the mystery: nothing of wonder at all, nothing but a casual crossing of ways: just a chance from the hatful, like all the rest of it. And Amos—well, he was right, too, by such lights as he could see.
. . . . . .
Light was low behind the hills, and dusk dimmed the keeper’s honest face as he waved his friends goodbye. Yes, he would come to them in London, one of these days. Soon? Well, then, soon.
Together the three went down the scented lanes, where the white ghost-moths began to fly, and so into the world of new adventure.