By W. PETT RIDGE
USUALLY the 6.32 p.m. from London stopped in a casual way at the small wooden station whose name was set out in giant letters of whitened pebbles on the bank; and the engine having sneezed while one or two passengers alighted, and the guard having told the office-boy that if he received any more cheek he would report the office-boy to the Superintendent, the train went on to pursue its journey into the heart of Kent. A July evening found commotion on the narrow platform which a sun had been baking all day, so that the shoes of the waiting villagers left imprints on its tarred and gravelled surface; the office-boy, big with importance and glad to show authority in the presence of a long-limbed, freckled-faced girl who stood back near to the bed of geraniums, ordered them to stand back and go higher up and to come lower down, all in the way of a bustling dog controlling a flock of sheep.
"All with no tickets," shouted the office-boy presently, as the train came in sight far away on the straight lines, "get off of the platform."
"We 're expectin' of somebody," urged one or two of the elders. The freckled-faced girl prepared to leave.
"You can stop where y' are," whispered the office-boy to her. She nodded and came back. "All the rest get down there by the signal-box and wait," he ordered authoritatively.
They obeyed, and made a lump of patient heads near to the level crossing as the oncoming engine whistled at them and drew the train up to a halt. Three or four London children who had had their heads out of the window turned the brass handles and jumped out on the platform. Each bore a label, tied around the neck, and the one boy of the party was addressed to Mrs. Naylor, of Rose Cottage. The long-limbed girl stepped forward to him.
"You want Mrs. Naylor, don't ye?" she asked shyly.
"Wha's that to do with you?" demanded the short boy from London. He had a sharp, acute face, with his hair brought down well over his forehead; his collar was clean, but worn at the edges.
"She's down this way."
"Dessay I can find her," said the short boy curtly, "without you puitin' your spoke in."
"Let me carry your parcel for ye."
"Look 'ere," said the boy, with truculence, "when you 're wanted you shall be sent for. Meanwhile, keep yourself to yourself, and don't you interfere with me. Unnerstand that, if you please."
The train went on, and the children, giving up their tickets to the office-boy, offered themselves and their labels to the consideration of women waiting for them. A hard-faced middle-aged woman took the short boy, and, catching his hand sharply, took him over the level crossing without a word; the long-limbed girl following at a space of a few yards. They walked across the station yard with other women and children to the main road, where they separated.
"You seem to 'ave a rare fund of lively conversation, you country people," remarked the boy satirically, as they went down the dusty road. "Don't you get tired sometimes of talkin' so much?"
"Less noise from you," said the hard-faced woman, "if you please."
"Your name Naylor?" asked the boy.
"Mrs. Naylor," she admitted.
"Mine's Sizzle," he said proudly. "Sizzle Aub'ron Tabor. Lay you don't get eristocratic nimes like Sizzle down ere in this Gaud-forsaken place."
"We have what chrissen names we like," replied the woman tartly.
"My chrissen name is Ruth. My 'usban's name is Saul. Both," added Mrs. Naylor, showing in her turn something of conceit, "both took straight from the Bible."
"Well, I'm 'anged!" remarked the boy.
"And you'll 'ave to behave yourself," went on Mrs. Naylor inconsequently, "the fortnight you 're stayin' down 'ere; and you let me find you up to any of your London tricks, and I 'll punish you jest the same as if you was me own boy."
"How many kids you got?" asked Master Cecil Tabor.
" 'Eaven," said Mrs. Naylor, with something of a catch in her voice, " 'Eaven 'an't blessed us with no children. There's only the two of us, Saul and me."
"You 're a juggins," remarked the boy, "to worry about that. There's plenty of youngsters up in Red Cross Street, where I come from. I reckon anyone could buy as many as they liked there for about three a penny."
"This is where we live," said Mrs. Naylor. "Come round 'ere to the back. Goo'-night, Sarerann." The girl responded.
"Why not go in the front door?" asked the boy.
"Because it ain't Sunday," she replied curtly. "Give your shoes a brush with this bass-broom."
The boy looked back at the roadway as the long-limbed girl passed, and noticed that she went on towards the next cottage, the garden of which was separated from that of Rose Cottage by a wooden barred fence. He imitated the warning sound of an approaching bicycle, and was pleased to see that the girl started affrightedly. In the garden someone who appeared to be a gentleman of colour was washing himself at a basin stood upon a wicker-bottomed chair, and he looked up, his grimy face covered with soapsuds, as the two came into view.
"Wha' cheer, Rewth," he said, nibbing the water from his eyes. "You 've found 'm then?"
"Can't you see I 'ave," she replied tartly. "Get rid some cf that coal-dust and come in to your tea."
" 'Aving a bit of a sluice down, ole man?" asked Master Tabor familiarly.
"Jest gettin' one or two coatin's off," replied Mr. Naylor. "Jiggered if I don't sometimes wish I was a miller 'stead of being in the mucky coal business."
"It makes you a bit dark-complexioned," agreed the boy. "You ought to treat yourself to a powder-puff."
Mr. Naylor had dipped his face again into the basin of soap-water, but on hearing this he threw his head back and roared cheerfully, repeating the last words of the boy's remark with great enjoyment. He came into the kitchen presently with his eyes still black and a dusky look about the rest of his face, and when his wife told him (not, it seemed, for the first time) that his hands were a disgrace to the village, he took the reproach good-temperedly. The three sat down at the white-clothed table to a bread-and-butter tea with green young lettuces tearful at having been plunged into water, and a home-made cake that the boy eyed acutely.
"A pretty character you are," said Mrs. Naylor bitterly, "to 'elp me look after this boy for a 'ole fortnight. Why, to look at you, anyone would think you were a——"
"Say grace, Rewth."
"For what we are 'bout receive Lord make us truly thankful," said Mrs. Naylor, bowing her head. "A low tramp!" she added, looking up.
"What made you marry him?" asked the boy from his side of the table.
"There!" she said with melancholy triumph, "even the boy asks that question. It's a puzzle to everyone, young and old, 'igh and low, rich and——"
"I suppose," said the boy, eating with great appetite, "it was only because you couldn't get no one else to."
"Jigger me!" roared Mr. Naylor with great delight, "if the boy ain't hit the nayul right on the head."
"And I 'll hit him there too," said the woman sharply, "if he talks with his mouth full. Pull up your chair closer, me lad, and behave, and leave off sniffin'."
There seemed at first some probability that the advent of Master Cecil Tabor would increase the number of domestic jars at Rose Cottage, but the fact appeared to be that Mrs. Naylor had always reached a high standard of acerbity, and any change that she made could only be in the direction of amiability. Indeed, later in the evening, when the boy from the Borough, on being ordered to bed, obtained a respite by proceeding to give imitations of music-hall favourites whom he had seen at the South London Palace, he succeeded in arousing a smile from Mrs. Naylor that had been dormant so long that it seemed rather confused and awkward, but was presently followed by other smiles of more assurance. Feeling, later on, that this show of interest was undignified, she gave the boy a good shake and took him up to his small bed-room, where she delivered from the landing, as he undressed, a brief address on the sin of going to theatres, pointing out that these bordered the way to destruction, besides costing money. The boy listened to her for some time, and then, being tired, assured her that she knew nothing of what she was talking, and turning his tired young head on the pillow, went instantly to sleep. Mrs. Naylor walked downstairs and upbraided her husband for not having brought home his cash to be locked up in the usual way.
The boy was taking a first survey of the back garden the next morning, in order to ascertain the possibilities for mischief, when a head appeared over the wooden fence—a head that at this early hour of the day was so fiercely studded with curling-pins that it looked at first sight as though the young woman wore a silver helmet. She coughed, and the boy started from the white currant-bush to which he had been applying himself.
" 'Ello!" he said, regaining his composure, "Freckles!"
"My name ain't Freckles," said the girl, "it's Sarerann Francis."
"Your nime's Freckles," he retorted. "Don't you get in the 'abit of conterdictin'. My name's Sizzle Aub'ron."
"I think I shall call you Suet Puddin'," she said shyly. "You 're very white about the face."
"I can see what's the matter with you," remarked the boy threateningly, "you want your 'ead punched. Stay where you are, and in about two twos——"
"Don't hit me," begged Freckles, bobbing down on her side of the fence. "I don't like being hit."
"What's my nime, then?" asked the boy threateningly.
"Sizzle Auberon Tabor." The shrinking girl repeated it carefully. "Ah!" said the London boy, "don't you ferget it, mind, or else you 'll be sorry you was ever born."
"Come out and 'ave game cricket presently, when I 've finished 'elping mother with the 'ousework," suggested the young woman.
"Dem fine 'and at cricket, you."
"I can bowl round-arm," she said. "and chance it. 'Ev you ever played?"
"Been at it all me life," said the boy, with some want of exactness. "I'm the chempion in our street. We get a jacket and fold it up against the wall, and we make a ball out of anything we can get 'old of, and a bit of wood for a bat, and——
"Sarerann!" called a voice. "Come 'ere this minute, you good-fer-nothing young 'ussy, you!"
"Ten o'clock," whispered Freckles, preparing to go.
"P'raps I shall be there and p'raps I shan't."
As a matter of fact, the boy found himself turned out of the cottage after breakfast, Mr. Naylor having started on a round from his coal depôt with a wagon loaded with fat sacks of coal, and Mrs. Naylor, first tying a handkerchief fiercely around her head, and enveloping herself in a brown holland cover, threw herself with remarkable energy into the work of giving the place a tidy up, which appeared to consist in taking every spotless article laboriously from its place, dusting it, rubbing it, breathing on it and rubbing it again, and eventually returning it to its place in its former immaculate condition. To escape being treated in like manner, the boy went out into the roadway, and discovered presently, to his great annoyance, near a dry ditch into which he slipped, the reason why stinging nettles are so called. He was kicking the nettles and swearing at them resentfully, when a stump fell near him, followed by three more, followed also by a ball. Picking these up, he saw Freckles pointing with one long arm down the road, and he obeyed by carrying them in the direction indicated. There he found a triangle of grass with a barn at the base, which bore posters of a long-departed circus. Freckles appearing, the wickets were pitched, and Freckles said, "Dolly I first innings"; but the boy shouted, "Bags I first go!" and, seizing the bat, declared that in Red Cross Street, Borough, and in other places in London where the national game was played, men always batted first, and girls had to bowl. Anxious to comply with the rulings of town. Freckles took the ball and sent down a round-armer that missed the boy's bat and hit his wicket; but he declined to give up the bat on the ground that the first ball was always given "for love," and was never taken seriously. He found many other ingenious excuses afterwards for not going out, with the result that Freckles had to do most of the running in her awkward long-legged way. The London girls who had arrived with him went by in charge of one of the villagers, and he was about to holloa to them when Freckles begged him not to speak to them, and he consented, with the proviso that she should acknowledge that he could beat her at cricket—a wholly unfounded claim, to which she at once gave her cordial consent.
"What's vour father work at for a livin'?" she asked, as they walked back for dinner.
"He don't work at all," replied the boy, glancing at her aggressively. "You mind yer own business, Freckles."
"Is he independent?"
"Live at 'ome?"
"No he don't," snapped the boy. "He's put away at Wormwood Scrubbs jest now, if you must know."
"Why don't you and your mother go with him?"
The boy looked at her curiously, as though to ascertain whether her attitude was one of ignorance or whether she was only assuming this as a cloak for impudence. He appeared satisfied.
"Silly kid!" he said disdainfully.
The other days of the first week saw him increasing in the favour of his hosts and in the admiration of Freckles. His alertness, his quaint effrontery, his comic songs, his amazing coolness—all these things were new to the couple in whose cottage he was living; when it was found that they were backed up, after a few days, by unexpected little touches of affection, then even Mrs. Naylor gave up her attitude of reproach, and her voice softened when she spoke of him. And when Mr. Naylor was engaged in the laborious work of making up his accounts in the evening and checking his cash the boy was of real use, for he could tell how much five hundredweight at twenty-five shillings a ton came to before Mr. Naylor had written the figures on the slate. Sunday came, and he was conveyed, much against his wish, to the Congregational Chapel, where he showed some signs of restlessness during the prayers, and murmured, "Time, time!" under his breath; but his interest awoke when Freckles and other muslin-dressed young women of the parish, up in the gallery near the harmonium, commenced to sing. Later in the day he so far unbent as to make a defiant offer to Freckles across the wooden fence to accompany her to evening service, and Freckles, walking with him into chapel that evening, knew the joy of pride.
Because everything in this world has an end, Cecil Auberon Tabor's holiday finished, and the office-boy at the station was perhaps the only person in the village who was glad of this. Mrs. Naylor baked vigorously all through the day that the boy might have something to eat on his two hours' journey to London ("He must keep body and soul together," said Mrs. Naylor), and was thus enabled to load him up with meat pasties and cake in sufficient quantity to have kept the whole party of child visitors for a week. To her great regret, Freckles was unable to see him off at the station: the absence of her mother with a married daughter Linton way obliged her to remain in charge of her house, but the London boy kissed her, and said that likely as not they might run up against each other again. Freckles was only able to wave a tearful farewell as the train rushed Londonwards with brown faces of excited children out of the window. Mr. Naylor from the coal-wharf also sent up an adieu that might have been shouted by a fog-horn.
"Saul!" cried Mrs. Naylor that evening.
"Now begin again," answered Mr. Naylor, from his wash-hand stand.
"Come 'ere this minute! Come at once! We 've bin robbed! There's bin burglars! Oh, Saul, we 're ruined!"
"You're makin' a lot o' fuss 'bout nothin' at all, I expect," remarked Mr. Naylor, as he came in leisurely.
"That fi'-pun note that you locked up safe in the tea-caddy last night is gone!"
"Well I'm jiggered!" exclaimed Mr. Naylor. The two stood looking blankly at the caddy "Sims almost," said Mr. Naylor hesitatingly, "as though our—your London boy must 'ave bin and gone and took it."
"Saul," replied Mrs. Naylor, "you was a fool when I knew ye first, and a fool you 'll be till the end of the world. I'd trust that dear boy with untold gold."
"But this was a fi'-pun note," urged Mr. Naylor, thinking he had detected a flaw in the premises.
"I'm ashamed of you. Paul, for even dreamin' of such a thing."
"Any way," said Mr. Naylor, "it's gone."
"Yes," admitted Mrs. Naylor, "it's clean gone. We 'd better send for young 'Obman."
Young Mr. Hobman arriving, took off his peaked cap with its little rampant silvered horse and loosened his waist-belt, and said at the outset that he should have been sent for earlier. When the unreasonableness of this remark was pointed out, P.C. Hobman waved the protests aside and remarked that he had not belonged to the Kent County Constabulary for eighteen months without knowing something of the Law, and if this did not mean a case for the Assizes why then he would eat his walking-stick. Mrs. Naylor ventured to submit that it was necessary, before having a case at the Assizes, first to catch a prisoner, and P.C. Hobman, admitting the force of this rather grudgingly, applied himself to the work of investigation. He searched the back garden for footprints, and Freckles, who had heard all the foregoing talk, watched him from the fence nervously.
"You 've had a bit of a boy from London staying with you," said P.C. Hobman presently. The two nodded. "Then," said the Constable, "it's him what's took it!"
"You're a darned young idiot," burst out Mrs. Naylor, with vehemence.
"That's as may be," said P.C. Hobman equably. "But, anyhow, I 'll borr' a trap and drive over and see our Instructin' Constable, and we 'll see what steps ought to be took."
"Better be half go and look after them gipsies," suggested Mrs. Naylor wildly. "Them's the characters what do all this sort of thieving."
Freckles, from the fence, gave a sigh of relief that was but temporary.
"The boy took it," said P.C. Hobman doggedly. "The gipsies cleared off two days ago. I 'll trot up to London Bridge by the parly in the momin' and we 'll nab him in rather less than no time."
"Hi!" said a voice from the other side of the wooden fence.
"Did you call, Sarerann?"
"Yes," said the girl, with a white face. "I can save you the trouble of sending up to London. I took your fi'-pun note."
"And what 'ave you done with it, you bad, wicked, good-for——"
"Burnt it," said Freckles.
"What ever for?"
"For fun," said Freckles.
"Call your mother this minute."
"She won't be 'ome to-night," said Freckles calmly. "There's a new baby at sister Judith's at Linton."
"My girl," said P.C. Hobman, "I shall most likely have to cart you into Maidstone first thing in the mornin'."
"1 don't care," said Freckles, with a nervous effort at impudence. "I don't of'en get an outing."
"I ought to take you to-night."
"I 'll look sharp after her to-night," said Mrs. Naylor, "whilst you go and see your Instructing Constable about it. And I 'll give her such a talkin' to——"
Poor Freckles, under lock and key in the room that had been occupied by the boy from London, had to listen to Mrs. Naylor's hard, reproachful voice for many hours that night—the while Mr. Naylor slept peaceably. She took all the reproofs without sign of emotion, until Mrs. Naylor pictured the contempt and indignation of the new baby nephew at Linton. In the morning she prepared stolidly for the arrival of the constable. She was looking out of the window, ready dressed for the journey to Maidstone, when a whistle clipped her attention.
"Hullo!" said the office-boy. "In the wrong 'ouse, ain't you?"
"Shall be in a wronger one soon," said Freckles ruefully.
"Got a parcel for Mrs. Naylor," called the boy. "Tell her to 'urry down and sign for it. I must get back sharply to my monthly abstract."
The signature "R. Naylor" being written in the office-boy's book, Mrs. Naylor took the clumsily tied little parcel. It was really more like an amateur envelope than a parcel, and it contained a letter—
I took this away by mistake in the hurry, and I send it back with comps. I am very sorry. Please forgive me. I am going to be a better boy.
Cecil Auberon Tabor.
The five-pound note was inside.
"Sarerann," said Mrs. Naylor solemnly, "when he grows up, your new little nephew will be as proud as proud o' you."