THE END OF AN IDYLL
Tommy never saw Reddy again owing to a fright he got about this time,
for which she was really to blame, though a woman who lived in his house
was the instrument.
It is, perhaps, idle to attempt a summary of those who lived in that
house, as one at least will be off, and another in his place, while we
are giving them a line apiece. They were usually this kind who lived
through the wall from Mrs. Sandys, but beneath her were the two rooms of
Hankey, the postman, and his lodger, the dreariest of middle-aged clerks
except when telling wistfully of his ambition, which was to get out of
the tea department into the coffee department, where there is an easier
way of counting up the figures. Shovel and family were also on this
floor, and in the rooms under them was a newly married couple. When the
husband was away at his work, his wife would make some change in the
furniture, taking the picture from this wall, for instance, and hanging
it on that wall, or wheeling the funny chair she had lain in before she
could walk without a crutch, to the other side of the fireplace, or
putting a skirt of yellow paper round the flower pot, and when he
returned he always jumped back in wonder and exclaimed: "What an immense
improvement!" These two were so fond of one another that Tommy asked
them the reason, and they gave it by pointing to the chair with the
wheels, which seemed to him to be no reason at all. What was this young
husband's trade Tommy never knew, but he was the only prettily dressed
man in the house, and he could be heard roaring in his sleep, "_And_ the
next article?" The meanest looking man lived next door to him. Every
morning this man put on a clean white shirt, which sounds like a
splendid beginning, but his other clothes were of the seediest, and he
came and went shivering, raising his shoulders to his ears and spreading
his hands over his chest as if anxious to hide his shirt rather than to
display it. He and the happy husband were nicknamed Before and After,
they were so like the pictorial advertisement of Man before and after he
has tried Someone's lozenges. But it is rash to judge by outsides; Tommy
and Shovel one day tracked Before to his place of business, and it
proved to be a palatial eating-house, long, narrow, padded with red
cushions; through the door they saw the once despised, now in beautiful
black clothes, the waistcoat a mere nothing, as if to give his shirt a
chance at last, a towel over his arm, and to and fro he darted,
saying "Yessirquitesosir" to the toffs on the seats, shouting
"Twovegonebeef--onebeeronetartinahurry" to someone invisible, and
pocketing twopences all day long, just like a lord. On the same floor as
Before and After lived the large family of little Pikes, who quarrelled
at night for the middle place in the bed, and then chips of ceiling fell
into the room below, tenant Jim Ricketts and parents, lodger the young
woman we have been trying all these doors for. Her the police snapped up
on a charge; that made Tommy want to hide himself--child-desertion.
Shovel was the person best worth listening to on the subject (observe
him, the centre of half a dozen boys), and at first he was for the
defence, being a great stickler for the rights of mothers. But when the
case against the girl leaked out, she need not look to him for help. The
police had found the child in a basket down an area, and being knowing
ones they pinched it to make it cry, and then they pretended to go away.
Soon the mother, who was watching hard by to see if it fell into kind
hands, stole to her baby to comfort it, "and just as she were a kissing
on it and blubbering, the perlice copped her."
"The slut!" said disgusted Shovel, "what did she hang about for?" and in
answer to a trembling question from Tommy he replied, decisively, "Six
"Next case" was probably called immediately, but Tommy vanished, as if
he had been sentenced and removed to the cells.
Never again, unless he wanted six months hard, must he go near Reddy's
home, and so he now frequently accompanied his mother to the place where
she worked. The little room had a funny fireplace called a stove, on
which his mother made tea and the girls roasted chestnuts, and it had no
other ordinary furniture except a long form. But the walls were
mysterious. Three of them were covered with long white cloths, which
went to the side when you tugged them, and then you could see on rails
dozens of garments that looked like nightgowns. Beneath the form were
scores of little shoes, most of them white or brown. In this house
Tommy's mother spent eight hours daily, but not all of them in this
room. When she arrived the first thing she did was to put Elspeth on the
floor, because you cannot fall off a floor; then she went upstairs with
a bucket and a broom to a large bare room, where she stayed so long that
Tommy nearly forgot what she was like.
While his mother was upstairs Tommy would give Elspeth two or three
shoes to eat to keep her quiet, and then he played with the others,
pretending to be able to count them, arranging them in designs, shooting
them, swimming among them, saying "bow-wow" at them and then turning
sharply to see who had said it. Soon Elspeth dropped her shoes and gazed
in admiration at him, but more often than not she laughed in the wrong
place, and then he said ironically: "Oh, in course I can't do nothin';
jest let's see you doing of it, then, cocky!"
By the time the girls began to arrive, singly or in twos and threes, his
mother was back in the little room, making tea for herself or sewing
bits of them that had been torn as they stepped out of a cab, or helping
them to put on the nightgowns, or pretending to listen pleasantly to
their chatter and hating them all the time. There was every kind of
them, gorgeous ones and shabby ones, old tired ones and dashing young
ones, but whether they were the Honorable Mrs. Something or only Jane
Anything, they all came to that room for the same purpose: to get a
little gown and a pair of shoes. Then they went upstairs and danced to a
stout little lady, called the Sylph, who bobbed about like a ball at the
end of a piece of elastic. What Tommy never forgot was that while they
danced the Sylph kept saying, "One, two, three, four; one, two, three,
four," which they did not seem to mind, but when she said "One, two,
three, four, _picture_!" they all stopped and stood motionless, though
it might be with one foot as high as their head and their arms stretched
out toward the floor, as if they had suddenly seen a halfpenny there.
In the waiting-room, how they joked and pirouetted and gossiped, and
hugged and scorned each other, and what slang they spoke and how pretty
they often looked next moment, and how they denounced the one that had
just gone out as a cat with whom you could not get in a word edgeways,
and oh, how prompt they were to give a slice of their earnings to any
"cat" who was hard up! But still, they said, she had talent, but no
genius. How they pitied people without genius.
Have you ever tasted an encore or a reception? Tommy never had his teeth
in one, but he heard much about them in that room, and concluded that
they were some sort of cake. It was not the girls who danced in groups,
but those who danced alone, that spoke of their encores and receptions,
and sometimes they had got them last night, sometimes years ago. Two
girls met in the room, one of whom had stolen the other's reception,
and--but it was too dreadful to write about. Most of them carried
newspaper cuttings in their purses and read them aloud to the others,
who would not listen. Tommy listened, however, and as it was all about
how one house had risen at the girls and they had brought another down,
he thought they led the most adventurous lives.
Occasionally they sent him out to buy newspapers or chestnuts, and then
he had to keep a sharp eye on the police lest they knew about Reddy. It
was a point of honor with all the boys he knew to pretend that the
policeman was after them. To gull the policeman into thinking all was
well they blackened their faces and wore their jackets inside out; their
occupation was a constant state of readiness to fly from him, and when
he tramped out of sight, unconscious of their existence, they emerged
from dark places and spoke in exultant whispers. Tommy had been proud to
join them, but he now resented their going on in this way; he felt that
he alone had the right to fly from the law. And once at least while he
was flying something happened to him that he was to remember better, far
better, than his mother's face.
What set him running on this occasion (he had been sent out to get one
of the girls' shoes soled) was the grandest sight to be seen in
London--an endless row of policemen walking in single file, all with the
right leg in the air at the same time, then the left leg. Seeing at once
that they were after him, Tommy ran, ran, ran until in turning a corner
he found himself wedged between two legs. He was of just sufficient size
to fill the aperture, but after a momentary look he squeezed through,
and they proved to be the gate into an enchanted land.
The magic began at once. "Dagont, you sacket!" cried some wizard.
A policeman's hand on his shoulder could not have taken the wind out of
Tommy more quickly. In the act of starting a-running again he brought
down his hind foot with a thud and stood stock still. Can any one
wonder? It was the Thrums tongue, and this the first time he had heard
it except from his mother.
It was a dull day, and all the walls were dripping wet, this being the
part of London where the fogs are kept. Many men and women were passing
to and fro, and Tommy, with a wild exultation in his breast, peered up
at the face of this one and that; but no, they were only ordinary
people, and he played rub-a-dub with his feet on the pavement, so
furious was he with them for moving on as if nothing had happened. Draw
up, ye carters; pedestrians, stand still; London, silence for a moment,
and let Tommy Sandys listen!
Being but a frail plant in the way of a flood, Tommy was rooted up and
borne onward, but he did not feel the buffeting. In a passion of grief
he dug his fists in his eyes, for the glory had been his for but a
moment. It can be compared to nothing save the parcel (attached to a
concealed string) which Shovel and he once placed on the stair for Billy
Hankey to find, and then whipped away from him just as he had got it
under his arm. But so near the crying, Tommy did not cry, for even while
the tears were rushing to his aid he tripped on the step of a shop, and
immediately, as if that had rung the magic bell again, a voice, a
woman's voice this time, said shrilly, "Threepence ha'penny, and them
jimply as big as a bantam's! Na, na, but I'll gi'e you five bawbees."
Tommy sat down flop on the step, feeling queer in the head. Was it--was
it--was it Thrums? He knew he had been running a long time.
The woman, or fairy, or whatever you choose to call her, came out of
the shop and had to push Tommy aside to get past. Oh, what a sweet foot
to be kicked by. At the time, he thought she was dressed not unlike the
women of his own stair, but this defect in his vision he mended
afterward, as you may hear. Of course, he rose and trotted by her side
like a dog, looking up at her as if she were a cathedral; but she
mistook his awe for impudence and sent him sprawling, with the words,
"Tak that, you glowering partan!"
Do you think Tommy resented this? On the contrary he screamed from where
he lay, "Say it again! say it again!"
She was gone, however, but only, as it were, to let a window open, from
which came the cry, "Davit, have you seen my man?"
A male fairy roared back from some invisible place, "He has gone yont to
Petey's wi' the dambrod."
"I'll dambrod him!" said the female fairy, and the window shut.
Tommy was now staggering like one intoxicated, but he had still some
sense left him, and he walked up and down in front of this house, as if
to take care of it. In the middle of the street some boys were very busy
at a game, carts and lorries passing over them occasionally. They came
to the pavement to play marbles, and then Tommy noticed that one of them
wore what was probably a glengarry bonnet. Could he be a Thrums boy?
At first he played in the stupid London way, but by and by he had to
make a new ring, and he did it by whirling round on one foot. Tommy knew
from his mother that it is only done in this way in Thrums. Oho! Oho!
By this time he was prancing round his discovery, saying, "I'm one,
too--so am I--dagont, does yer hear? dagont!" which so alarmed the boy
that he picked up his marble and fled, Tommy, of course, after him.
Alas! he must have been some mischievous sprite, for he lured his
pursuer back into London and then vanished, and Tommy, searching in vain
for the enchanted street, found his own door instead.
His mother pooh-poohed his tale, though he described the street exactly
as it struck him on reflection, and it bore a curious resemblance to the
palace of Aladdin that Reddy had told him about, leaving his imagination
to fill in the details, which it promptly did, with a square, a
town-house, some outside stairs, and an auld licht kirk. There was no
such street, however, his mother assured him; he had been dreaming. But
if this were so, why was she so anxious to make him promise never to
look for the place again?
He did go in search of it again, daily for a time, always keeping a
look-out for bow-legs, and the moment he saw them, he dived recklessly
between, hoping to come out into fairyland on the other side. For though
he had lost the street, he knew that this was the way in.
Shovel had never heard of the street, nor had Bob. But Bob gave him
something that almost made him forget it for a time. Bob was his
favorite among the dancing girls, and she--or should it be he? The odd
thing about these girls was that a number of them were really boys--or
at least were boys at Christmas-time, which seemed to Tommy to be even
stranger than if they had been boys all the year round. A friend of
Bob's remarked to her one day, "You are to be a girl next winter, ain't
you, Bob?" and Bob shook her head scornfully.
"Do you see any green in my eye, my dear?" she inquired.
Her friend did not look, but Tommy looked, and there was none. He
assured her of this so earnestly that Bob fell in love with him on the
spot, and chucked him under the chin, first with her thumb and then with
her toe, which feat was duly reported to Shovel, who could do it by the
end of the week.
Did Tommy, Bob wanted to know, still think her a mere woman?
No, he withdrew the charge, but--but--She was wearing her outdoor
garments, and he pointed to them, "Why does yer wear them, then?" he
"For the matter of that," she replied, pointing at his frock, "why do
you wear them?" Whereupon Tommy began to cry.
"I ain't not got no right ones," he blubbered. Harum-scarum Bob, who
was a trump, had him in her motherly arms immediately, and the upshot of
it was that a blue suit she had worn when she was Sam Something changed
owners. Mrs. Sandys "made it up," and that is how Tommy got into
Many contingencies were considered in the making, but the suit would fit
Tommy by and by if he grew, or it shrunk, and they did not pass each
other in the night. When proud Tommy first put on his suit the most
unexpected shyness overcame him, and having set off vaingloriously he
stuck on the stair and wanted to hide. Shovel, who had been having an
argument with his old girl, came, all boastful bumps, to him, and Tommy
just stood still with a self-conscious simper on his face. And Shovel,
who could have damped him considerably, behaved in the most honorable
manner, initiating him gravely into the higher life, much as you show
the new member round your club.
It was very risky to go back to Reddy, whom he had not seen for many
weeks; but in trousers! He could not help it. He only meant to walk up
and down her street, so that she might see him from the window, and know
that this splendid thing was he; but though he went several times into
the street, Reddy never came to the window.
The reason he had to wait in vain at Reddy's door was that she was dead;
she had been dead for quite a long time when Tommy came back to look for
her. You mothers who have lost your babies, I should be a sorry knave
were I to ask you to cry now over the death of another woman's child.
Reddy had been lent to two people for a very little while, just as your
babies were, and when the time was up she blew a kiss to them and ran
gleefully back to God, just as your babies did. The gates of heaven are
so easily found when we are little, and they are always standing open to
let children wander in.
But though Reddy was gone away forever, mamma still lived in that house,
and on a day she opened the door to come out, Tommy was standing
there--she saw him there waiting for Reddy. Dry-eyed this sorrowful
woman had heard the sentence pronounced, dry eyed she had followed the
little coffin to its grave; tears had not come even when waking from
illusive dreams she put out her hand in bed to a child who was not
there; but when she saw Tommy waiting at the door for Reddy, who had
been dead for a month, her bosom moved and she could cry again.
Those tears were sweet to her husband, and it was he who took Tommy on
his knee in the room where the books were, and told him that there was
no Reddy now. When Tommy knew that Reddy was a deader he cried bitterly,
and the man said, very gently, "I am glad you were so fond of her."
"'T ain't that," Tommy answered with a knuckle in his eye, "'t ain't
that as makes me cry." He looked down at his trousers and in a fresh
outburst of childish grief he wailed, "It's them!"
Papa did not understand, but the boy explained. "She can't not never
see them now," he sobbed, "and I wants her to see them, and they has
It had come to the man unexpectedly. He put Tommy down almost roughly,
and raised his hand to his head as if he felt a sudden pain there.
But Tommy, you know, was only a little boy.
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