SHOWING HOW TOMMY WAS SUDDENLY TRANSFORMED INTO A YOUNG GENTLEMAN
It would have fared ill with Mrs. Sandys now, had her standoffishness to
her neighbors been repaid in the same coin, but they were full of
sympathy, especially Shovel's old girl, from whom she had often drawn
back offensively on the stair, but who nevertheless waddled up several
times a day with savory messes, explaining, when Mrs. Sandys sniffed,
that it was not the tapiocar but merely the cup that smelt of gin. When
Tommy returned the cups she noticed not only that they were suspiciously
clean, but that minute particles of the mess were adhering to his nose
and chin (perched there like shipwrecked mariners on a rock, just out of
reach of the devouring element), and after this discovery she brought
two cupfuls at a time. She was an Irish, woman who could have led the
House of Commons, and in walking she seldom raised her carpet shoes from
the ground, perhaps because of her weight, for she had an expansive
figure that bulged in all directions, and there were always bits of her
here and there that she had forgotten to lace. Round the corner was a
delightful eating-house, through whose window you were allowed to gaze
at the great sweating dumplings, and Tommy thought Shovel's mother was
rather like a dumpling that had not been a complete success. If he ever
knew her name he forgot it. Shovel, who probably had another name also,
called her his old girl or his old woman or his old lady, and it was a
sight to see her chasing him across the street when she was in liquor,
and boastful was Shovel of the way she could lay on, and he was partial
to her too, and once when she was giving it to him pretty strong with
the tongs, his father (who followed many professions, among them that of
finding lost dogs), had struck her and told her to drop it, and then
Shovel sauced his father for interfering, saying she should lick him as
long as she blooming well liked, which made his father go for him with a
dog-collar; and that was how Shovel lost his eye.
For reasons less unselfish than his old girl's Shovel also was willing
to make up to Tommy at this humiliating time. It might be said of these
two boys that Shovel knew everything but Tommy knew other things, and as
the other things are best worth hearing of Shovel liked to listen to
them, even when they were about Thrums, as they usually were. The very
first time Tommy told him of the wondrous spot, Shovel had drawn a great
breath, and said, thoughtfully:
"I allers knowed as there were sich a beauty place, but I didn't jest
know its name."
"How could yer know?" Tommy asked jealously.
"I ain't sure," said Shovel, "p'raps I dreamed on it."
"That's it," Tommy cried. "I tell yer, everybody dreams on it!" and
Tommy was right; everybody dreams of it, though not all call it Thrums.
On the whole, then, the coming of the kid, who turned out to be called
Elspeth, did not ostracize Tommy, but he wished that he had let the
other girl in, for he never doubted that her admittance would have kept
this one out. He told neither his mother nor his friend of the other
girl, fearing that his mother would be angry with him when she learned
what she had missed, and that Shovel would crow over his blundering, but
occasionally he took a side glance at the victorious infant, and a
poorer affair, he thought, he had never set eyes on. Sometimes it was
she who looked at him, and then her chuckle of triumph was hard to bear.
As long as his mother was there, however, he endured in silence, but the
first day she went out in a vain search for work (it is about as
difficult to get washing as to get into the Cabinet), he gave the infant
a piece of his mind, poking up her head with a stick so that she was
bound to listen.
"You thinks as it was clever on you, does yer? Oh, if I had been on the
"You needn't not try to get round me. I likes the other one five times
better; yes, three times better.
"Thievey, thievey, thief, that's her place you is lying in. What?
"If you puts out your tongue at me again--! What do yer say?
"She was twice bigger than you. You ain't got no hair, nor yet no teeth.
You're the littlest I ever seed. Eh? Don't not speak then, sulks!"
Prudence had kept him away from the other girl, but he was feeling a
great want: someone to applaud him. When we grow older we call it
sympathy. How Reddy (as he called her because she had beautiful
red-brown hair) had appreciated him! She had a way he liked of opening
her eyes very wide when she looked at him. Oh, what a difference from
that thing in the back of the bed!
Not the mere selfish desire to see her again, however, would take him in
quest of Reddy. He was one of those superior characters, was Tommy, who
got his pleasure in giving it, and therefore gave it. Now, Reddy was a
worthy girl. In suspecting her of overreaching him he had maligned her:
she had taken what he offered, and been thankful. It was fitting that he
should give her a treat: let her see him again.
His mother was at last re-engaged by her old employers, her supplanter
having proved unsatisfactory, and as the work lay in a distant street,
she usually took the kid with her, thus leaving no one to spy on Tammy's
movements. Reddy's reward for not playing him false, however, did not
reach her as soon as doubtless she would have liked, because the first
two or three times he saw her she was walking with the lady of his
choice, and of course he was not such a fool as to show himself. But he
walked behind them and noted with satisfaction that the lady seemed to
be reconciled to her lot and inclined to let bygones be bygones; when
at length Reddy and her patron met, Tommy thought this a good sign too,
that Ma-ma (as she would call the lady) had told her not to go farther
away than the lamp-post, lest she should get lost again. So evidently
she had got lost once already, and the lady had been sorry. He asked
Reddy many shrewd questions about how Ma-ma treated her, and if she got
the top of the Sunday egg and had the licking of the pan and wore
flannel underneath and slept at the back; and the more he inquired, the
more clearly he saw that he had got her one of the right kind.
Tommy arranged with her that she should always be on the outlook for him
at the window, and he would come sometimes, and after that they met
frequently, and she proved a credit to him, gurgling with mirth at his
tales of Thrums, and pinching him when he had finished, to make sure
that he was really made just like common human beings. He was a thin,
pale boy, while she looked like a baby rose full blown in a night
because her time was short; and his movements were sluggish, but if she
was not walking she must be dancing, and sometimes when there were few
people in the street, the little armful of delight that she was jumped
up and down like a ball, while Tommy kept the time, singing "Thrummy,
Thrummy, Thrum Thrum Thrummy." They must have seemed a quaint pair to
the lady as she sat at her window watching them and beckoning to Tommy
to come in.
One day he went in, but only because she had come up behind and taken
his hand before he could run. Then did Tommy quake, for he knew from
Reddy how the day after the mother-making episode, Ma-ma and she had
sought in vain for his door, and he saw that the object had been to call
down curses on his head. So that head was hanging limply now.
You think that Tommy is to be worsted at last, but don't be too sure;
you just wait and see. Ma-ma and Reddy (who was clucking rather
heartlessly) first took him into a room prettier even than the one he
had lived in long ago (but there was no bed in it), and then, because
someone they were in search of was not there, into another room without
a bed (where on earth did they sleep?) whose walls were lined with
books. Never having seen rows of books before except on sale in the
streets, Tommy at once looked about him for the barrow. The table was
strewn with sheets of paper of the size that they roll a quarter of
butter in, and it was an amazing thick table, a solid square of wood,
save for a narrow lane down the centre for the man to put his legs
in--if he had legs, which unfortunately there was reason to doubt. He
was a formidable man, whose beard licked the table while he wrote, and
he wore something like a brown blanket, with a rope tied round it at the
middle. Even more uncanny than himself were three busts on a shelf,
which Tommy took to be deaders, and he feared the blanket might blow
open and show that the man also ended at the waist. But he did not, for
presently he turned round to see who had come in (the seat of his chair
turning with him in the most startling way) and then Tommy was relieved
to notice two big feet far away at the end of him.
"This is the boy, dear," the lady said. "I had to bring him in by
Tommy raised his arm instinctively to protect his face, this being the
kind of man who could hit hard. But presently he was confused, and also,
alas, leering a little. You may remember that Reddy had told him she
must not go beyond the lamp-post, lest she should be lost again. She had
given him no details of the adventure, but he learned now from Ma-ma and
Papa (the man's name was Papa) that she had strayed when Ma-ma was in a
shop and that some good kind boy had found her and brought her home; and
what do you say to this, they thought Tommy was that boy! In his
amazement he very nearly blurted out that he was the other boy, but just
then the lady asked Papa if he had a shilling, and this abruptly closed
Tommy's mouth. Ever afterwards he remembered Papa as the man that was
not sure whether he had a shilling until he felt his pockets--a new kind
of mortal to Tommy, who grabbed the shilling when it was offered to
him, and then looked at Reddy imploringly, he was so afraid she would
tell. But she behaved splendidly, and never even shook her head at him.
After this, as hardly need be told, his one desire was to get out of the
house with his shilling before they discovered their mistake, and it was
well that they were unsuspicious people, for he was making strange
hissing sounds in his throat, the result of trying hard to keep his
sniggers under control.
There were many ways in which Tommy could have disposed of his shilling.
He might have been a good boy and returned it next day to Papa. He might
have given Reddy half of it for not telling. It could have carried him
over the winter. He might have stalked with it into the shop where the
greasy puddings were and come rolling out hours afterwards. Some of
these schemes did cross his little mind, but he decided to spend the
whole shilling on a present to his mother, and it was to be something
useful. He devoted much thought to what she was most in need of, and at
last he bought her a colored picture of Lord Byron swimming the
He told her that he got his shilling from two toffs for playing with a
little girl, and the explanation satisfied her; but she could have cried
at the waste of the money, which would have been such a God-send to her.
He cried altogether, however, at sight of her face, having expected it
to look so pleased, and then she told him, with caresses, that the
picture was the one thing she had been longing for ever since she came
to London. How had he known this, she asked, and he clapped his hands
gleefully, and said he just knowed when he saw it in the shop window.
"It was noble of you," she said, "to spend all your siller on me."
"Wasn't it, mother?" he crowed "I'm thinking there ain't many as noble
as I is!"
He did not say why he had been so good to her, but it was because she
had written no letters to Thrums since the intrusion of Elspeth; a
strange reason for a boy whose greatest glory at one time had been to
sit on the fender and exultingly watch his mother write down words that
would be read aloud in the wonderful place. She was a long time in
writing a letter, but that only made the whole evening romantic, and he
found an arduous employment in keeping his tongue wet in preparation for
the licking of the stamp.
But she could not write to the Thrums folk now without telling them of
Elspeth, who was at present sleeping the sleep of the shameless in the
hollow of the bed, and so for his sake, Tommy thought, she meant to
write no more. For his sake, mark you, not for her own. She had often
told him that some day he should go to Thrums, but not with her; she
would be far away from him then in a dark place she was awid to be lying
in. Thus it seemed, to Tommy that she denied herself the pleasure of
writing to Thrums lest the sorry news of Elspeth's advent should spoil
his reception when he went north.
So grateful Tommy gave her the picture, hoping that it would fill the
void. But it did not. She put it on the mantelpiece so that she might
just sit and look at it, she said, and he grinned at it from every part
of the room, but when he returned to her, he saw that she was neither
looking at it nor thinking of it. She was looking straight before her,
and sometimes her lips twitched, and then she drew them into her mouth
to keep them still. It is a kind of dry weeping that sometimes comes to
miserable ones when their minds stray into the happy past, and Tommy sat
and watched her silently for a long time, never doubting that the cause
of all her woe was that she could not write to Thrums.
He had seldom seen tears on his mother's face, but he saw one now. They
had been reluctant to come for many a day, and this one formed itself
beneath her eye and sat there like a blob of blood.
His own began to come more freely. But she needn't not expect him to
tell her to write nor to say that he didn't care what Thrums thought of
him so long as she was happy.
The tear rolled down his mother's thin cheek and fell on the grey shawl
that had come from Thrums.
She did not hear her boy as he dragged a chair to the press and standing
on it got something down from the top shelf. She had forgotten him, and
she started when presently the pen was slipped into her hand and Tommy
said, "You can do it, mother, I wants yer to do it, mother, I won't not
When she saw what he wanted her to do she patted his face approvingly,
but without realizing the extent of his sacrifice. She knew that he had
some maggot in his head that made him regard Elspeth as a sore on the
family honor, but ascribing his views to jealousy she had never tried
seriously to change them. Her main reason for sending no news to Thrums
of late had been but the cost of the stamp, though she was also a little
conscience-stricken at the kind of letters she wrote, and the sight of
the materials lying ready for her proved sufficient to draw her to the
"Is it to your grandmother you is writing the letter?" Tommy asked, for
her grandmother had brought Mrs. Sandys up and was her only surviving
relative. This was all Tommy knew of his mother's life in Thrums, though
she had told him much about other Thrums folk, and not till long
afterwards did he see that there must be something queer about herself,
which she was hiding from him.
This letter was not for her granny, however, and Tommy asked next, "Is
it to Aaron Latta?" which so startled her that she dropped the pen.
"Whaur heard you that name?" she said sharply. "I never spoke it to
"I've heard you saying it when you was sleeping, mother."
"Did I say onything but the name? Quick, tell me."
"You said, 'Oh, Aaron Latta, oh, Aaron, little did we think, Aaron,' and
things like that. Are you angry with me, mother?"
"No," she said, relieved, but it was some time before the desire to
write came back to her. Then she told him "The letter is to a woman that
was gey cruel to me," adding, with a complacent pursing of her lips, the
curious remark, "That's the kind I like to write to best."
The pen went scrape, scrape, but Tommy did not weary, though he often
sighed, because his mother would never read aloud to him what she wrote.
The Thrums people never answered her letters, for the reason, she said,
that those she wrote to could not write, which seemed to simple Tommy to
be a sufficient explanation. So he had never heard the inside of a
letter talking, though a postman lived in the house, and even Shovel's
old girl got letters; once when her uncle died she got a telegram, which
Shovel proudly wheeled up and down the street in a barrow, other blokes
keeping guard at the side. To give a letter to a woman who had been
cruel to you struck Tommy as the height of nobility.
"She'll be uplifted when she gets it!" he cried.
"She'll be mad when she gets it," answered his mother, without looking
This was the letter:--
"MY DEAR ESTHER,--I send you these few scrapes to let you see I have not
forgot you, though my way is now grand by yours. A spleet new black
silk, Esther, being the second in a twelvemonth, as I'm a living woman.
The other is no none tashed yet, but my gudeman fair insisted on buying
a new one, for says he 'Rich folk like as can afford to be mislaird, and
nothing's ower braw for my bonny Jean.' Tell Aaron Latta that. When I'm
sailing in my silks, Esther, I sometimes picture you turning your wincey
again, for I'se uphaud that's all the new frock you've ha'en the year. I
dinna want to give you a scunner of your man, Esther, more by token they
said if your mither had not took him in hand you would never have kent
the color of his nightcap, but when you are wraxing ower your kail-pot
in a plot of heat, just picture me ringing the bell for my servant, and
saying, with a wave of my hand, 'Servant, lay the dinner.' And ony bonny
afternoon when your man is cleaning out stables and you're at the tub in
a short gown, picture my man taking me and the children out a ride in a
carriage, and I sair doubt your bairns was never in nothing more genteel
than a coal cart. For bairns is yours, Esther, and children is mine, and
that's a burn without a brig till't.
"Deary me, Esther, what with one thing and another, namely buying a
sofa, thirty shillings as I'm a sinner, I have forgot to tell you about
my second, and it's a girl this time, my man saying he would like a
change. We have christened her Elspeth after my grandmamma, and if my
auld granny's aye living, you can tell her that's her. My man is
terrible windy of his two beautiful children, but he says he would have
been the happiest gentleman in London though he had just had me, and
really his fondness for me, it cows, Esther, sitting aside me on the
bed, two pounds without the blankets, about the time Elspeth was born,
and feeding me with the fat of the land, namely, tapiocas and sherry
wine. Tell Aaron Latta that.
"I pity you from the bottom of my heart, Esther, for having to bide in
Thrums, but you have never seen no better, your man having neither the
siller nor the desire to take yon jaunts, and I'm thinking that is just
as well, for if you saw how the like of me lives it might disgust you
with your own bit house. I often laugh, Esther, to think that I was once
like you, and looked upon Thrums as a bonny place. How is the old hole?
My son makes grand sport of the onfortunate bairns as has to bide in
Thrums, and I see him doing it the now to his favorite companion, which
is a young gentleman of ladylike manners, as bides in our terrace. So no
more at present, for my man is sitting ganting for my society, and I
daresay yours is crying to you to darn his old socks. Mind and tell
This letter was posted next day by Tommy, with the assistance of Shovel,
who seems to have been the young gentleman of ladylike manners referred
to in the text.
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