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Chapter 6

THE ENCHANTED STREET


In Thrums Street, as it ought to have been called, herded at least
one-half of the Thrums folk in London, and they formed a colony, of
which the grocer at the corner sometimes said wrathfully that not a
member would give sixpence for anything except Bibles or whiskey. In the
streets one could only tell they were not Londoners by their walk, the
flagstones having no grip for their feet, or, if they had come south
late in life, by their backs, which they carried at the angle on which
webs are most easily supported. When mixing with the world they talked
the English tongue, which came out of them as broad as if it had been
squeezed through a mangle, but when the day's work was done, it was only
a few of the giddier striplings that remained Londoners. For the
majority there was no raking the streets after diversion, they spent the
hour or two before bed-time in reproducing the life of Thrums. Few of
them knew much of London except the nearest way between this street and
their work, and their most interesting visitor was a Presbyterian
minister, most of whose congregation lived in much more fashionable
parts, but they were almost exclusively servant girls, and when
descending area-steps to visit them he had been challenged often and
jocularly by policemen, which perhaps was what gave him a subdued and
furtive appearance.

The rooms were furnished mainly with articles bought in London, but
these became as like Thrums dressers and seats as their owners could
make them, old Petey, for instance, cutting the back off a chair because
he felt most at home on stools. Drawers were used as baking-boards,
pails turned into salt-buckets, floors were sanded and hearthstones
ca'med, and the popular supper consisted of porter, hot water, and
soaked bread, after every spoonful of which, they groaned pleasantly,
and stretched their legs. Sometimes they played at the dambrod, but more
often they pulled down the blinds on London and talked of Thrums in
their mother tongue. Nevertheless few of them wanted to return to it,
and their favorite joke was the case of James Gloag's father, who being
home-sick flung up his situation and took train for Thrums, but he was
back in London in three weeks.

Tommy soon had the entry to these homes, and his first news of the
inmates was unexpected. It was that they were always sleeping. In broad
daylight he had seen Thrums men asleep on beds, and he was somewhat
ashamed of them until he heard the excuse. A number of the men from
Thrums were bakers, the first emigrant of this trade having drawn others
after him, and they slept great part of the day to be able to work all
night in a cellar, making nice rolls for rich people. Baker Lumsden, who
became a friend of Tommy, had got his place in the cellar when his
brother died, and the brother had succeeded Matthew Croall when he died.

They die very soon, Tommy learned from Lumsden, generally when they are
eight and thirty. Lumsden was thirty-six, and when he died his nephew
was to get the place. The wages are good.

Then there were several masons, one of whom, like the first baker, had
found work for all the others, and there were men who had drifted into
trades strange to their birthplace, and there was usually one at least
who had come to London to "better himself" and had not done it as yet.
The family Tommy liked best was the Whamonds, and especially he liked
old Petey and young Petey Whamond. They were a large family of women and
men, all of whom earned their living in other streets, except the old
man, who kept house and was a famous knitter of stockings, as probably
his father had been before him. He was a great one, too, at telling what
they would be doing at that moment in Thrums, every corner of which was
as familiar to him as the ins and outs of the family hose. Young Petey
got fourteen shillings a week from a hatter, and one of his duties was
to carry as many as twenty band-boxes at a time through fashionable
streets; it is a matter for elation that dukes and statesmen had often
to take the curb-stone, because young Petey was coming. Nevertheless
young Petey was not satisfied, and never would be (such is the Thrums
nature) until he became a salesman in the shop to which he acted at
present as fetch and carry, and he used to tell Tommy that this position
would be his as soon as he could sneer sufficiently at the old hats.
When gentlemen come into the shop and buy a new hat, he explained, they
put it on, meaning to tell you to send the old one to their address, and
the art of being a fashionable hatter lies in this: you must be able to
curl your lips so contemptuously at the old hat that they tell you
guiltily to keep it, as they have no further use for it. Then they
retire ashamed of their want of moral courage and you have made an extra
half-guinea.

"But I aye snort," young Petey admitted, "and it should be done without
a sound." When he graduated, he was to marry Martha Spens, who was
waiting for him at Tillyloss. There was a London seamstress whom he
preferred, and she was willing, but it is safest to stick to Thrums.

When Tommy was among his new friends a Scotch word or phrase often
escaped his lips, but old Petey and the others thought he had picked it
up from them, and would have been content to accept him as a London waif
who lived somewhere round the corner. To trick people so simply,
however, is not agreeable to an artist, and he told them his name was
Tommy Shovel, and that his old girl walloped him, and his father found
dogs, all which inventions Thrums Street accepted as true. What is much
more noteworthy is that, as he gave them birth, Tommy half believed them
also, being already the best kind of actor.

Not all the talking was done by Tommy when he came home with news, for
he seldom mentioned a Thrums name, of which his mother could not tell
him something more. But sometimes she did not choose to tell, as when he
announced that a certain Elspeth Lindsay, of the Marywellbrae, was dead.
After this she ceased to listen, for old Elspeth had been her
grandmother, and she had now no kin in Thrums.

"Tell me about the Painted Lady," Tommy said to her. "Is it true she's a
witch?" But Mrs. Sandys had never heard of any woman so called: the
Painted Lady must have gone to Thrums after her time.

"There ain't no witches now," said Elspeth tremulously; Shovel's mother
had told her so.

"Not in London," replied Tommy, with contempt; and this is all that was
said of the Painted Lady then. It is the first mention of her in these
pages.

The people Mrs. Sandys wanted to hear of chiefly were Aaron Latta and
Jean Myles, and soon Tommy brought news of them, but at the same time he
had heard of the Den, and he said first:

"Oh, mother, I thought as you had told me about all the beauty places
in Thrums, and you ain't never told me about the Den."

His mother heaved a quick breath. "It's the only place I hinna telled
you o'," she said.

"Had you forget, it mother?"

Forget the Den! Ah, no, Tommy, your mother had not forgotten the Den.

"And, listen, Elspeth, in the Den there's a bonny spring of water called
the Cuttle Well. Had you forgot the Cuttle Well, mother?"

No, no; when Jean Myles forgot the names of her children she would still
remember the Cuttle Well. Regardless now of the whispering between Tommy
and Elspeth, she sat long over the fire, and it is not difficult to
fathom her thoughts. They were of the Den and the Cuttle Well.

Into the life of every man, and no woman, there comes a moment when he
learns suddenly that he is held eligible for marriage. A girl gives him
the jag, and it brings out the perspiration. Of the issue elsewhere of
this stab with a bodkin let others speak; in Thrums its commonest effect
is to make the callant's body take a right angle to his legs, for he has
been touched in the fifth button, and he backs away broken-winded. By
and by, however, he is at his work--among the turnip-shoots,
say--guffawing and clapping his corduroys, with pauses for uneasy
meditation, and there he ripens with the swedes, so that by the
back-end of the year he has discovered, and exults to know, that the
reward of manhood is neither more nor less than this sensation at the
ribs. Soon thereafter, or at worst, sooner or later (for by holding out
he only puts the women's dander up), he is led captive to the Cuttle
Well. This well has the reputation of being the place where it is most
easily said.

The wooded ravine called the Den is in Thrums rather than on its western
edge, but is so craftily hidden away that when within a stone's throw
you may give up the search for it; it is also so deep that larks rise
from the bottom and carol overhead, thinking themselves high in the
heavens before they are on a level with Nether Drumley's farmland. In
shape it is almost a semicircle, but its size depends on you and the
maid. If she be with you, the Den is so large that you must rest here
and there; if you are after her boldly, you can dash to the Cuttle Well,
which was the trysting-place, in the time a stout man takes to lace his
boots; if you are of those self-conscious ones who look behind to see
whether jeering blades are following, you may crouch and wriggle your
way onward and not be with her in half an hour.

Old Petey had told Tommy that, on the whole, the greatest pleasure in
life on a Saturday evening is to put your back against a stile that
leads into the Den and rally the sweethearts as they go by. The lads,
when they see you, want to go round by the other stile, but the lasses
like it, and often the sport ends spiritedly with their giving you a
clout on the head.

Through the Den runs a tiny burn, and by its side is a pink path, dyed
this pretty color, perhaps, by the blushes the ladies leave behind them.
The burn as it passes the Cuttle Well, which stands higher and just out
of sight, leaps in vain to see who is making that cooing noise, and the
well, taking the spray for kisses, laughs all day at Romeo, who cannot
get up. Well is a name it must have given itself, for it is only a
spring in the bottom of a basinful of water, where it makes about as
much stir in the world as a minnow jumping at a fly. They say that if a
boy, by making a bowl of his hands, should suddenly carry off all the
water, a quick girl could thread her needle at the spring. But it is a
spring that will not wait a moment.

Men who have been lads in Thrums sometimes go back to it from London or
from across the seas, to look again at some battered little house and
feel the blasts of their bairnhood playing through the old wynds, and
they may take with them a foreign wife. They show her everything, except
the Cuttle Well; they often go there alone. The well is sacred to the
memory of first love. You may walk from the well to the round cemetery
in ten minutes. It is a common walk for those who go back.

First love is but a boy and girl playing at the Cuttle Well with a
bird's egg. They blow it on one summer evening in the long grass, and on
the next it is borne away on a coarse laugh, or it breaks beneath the
burden of a tear. And yet--I once saw an aged woman, a widow of many
years, cry softly at mention of the Cuttle Well. "John was a good man to
you," I said, for John had been her husband. "He was a leal man to me,"
she answered with wistful eyes, "ay, he was a leal man to me--but it
wasna John I was thinking o'. You dinna ken what makes me greet so
sair," she added, presently, and though I thought I knew now I was
wrong. "It's because I canna mind his name," she said.

So the Cuttle Well has its sad memories and its bright ones, and many of
the bright memories have become sad with age, as so often happens to
beautiful things, but the most mournful of all is the story of Aaron
Latta and Jean Myles. Beside the well there stood for long a great pink
stone, called the Shoaging, Stone, because it could be rocked like a
cradle, and on it lovers used to cut their names. Often Aaron Latta and
Jean Myles sat together on the Shoaging Stone, and then there came a
time when it bore these words cut by Aaron Latta:

HERE LIES THE MANHOOD OF AARON LATTA, A FOND SON, A FAITHFUL FRIEND
AND A TRUE LOVER, WHO VIOLATED THE FEELINGS OF SEX ON THIS SPOT, AND IS
NOW THE SCUNNER OF GOD AND MAN

Tommy's mother now heard these words for the first time, Aaron having
cut them on the stone after she left Thrums, and her head sank at each
line, as if someone had struck four blows at her.

The stone was no longer at the Cuttle Well. As the easiest way of
obliterating the words, the minister had ordered it to be broken, and of
the pieces another mason had made stands for watches, one of which was
now in Thrums Street.

"Aaron Latta ain't a mason now," Tommy rattled on: "he is a warper,
because he can warp in his own house without looking on mankind or
speaking to mankind. Auld Petey said he minded the day when Aaron Latta
was a merry loon, and then Andrew McVittie said, 'God behears, to think
that Aaron Latta was ever a merry man!' and Baker Lumsden said, 'Curse
her!'"

His mother shrank in her chair, but said nothing, and Tommy explained:
"It was Jean Myles he was cursing; did you ken her, mother? she ruined
Aaron Latta's life."

"Ay, and wha ruined Jean Myles's life?" his mother cried passionately.

Tommy did not know, but he thought that young Petey might know, for
young Petey had said: "If I had been Jean Myles I would have spat in
Aaron's face rather than marry him."

Mrs. Sandys seemed pleased to hear this.

"They wouldna tell me what it were she did," Tommy went on; "they said
it was ower ugly a story, but she were a bad one, for they stoned her
out of Thrums. I dinna know where she is now, but she were stoned out of
Thrums!"

"No alane?"

"There was a man with her, and his name was--it was--"

His mother clasped her hands nervously while Tommy tried to remember the
name. "His name was Magerful Tam," he said at length.

"Ay," said his mother, knitting her teeth, "that was his name."

"I dinna mind any more," Tommy concluded. "Yes, I mind they aye called
Aaron Latta 'Poor Aaron Latta.'"

"Did they? I warrant, though, there wasna one as said 'Poor Jean
Myles'?"

She began the question in a hard voice, but as she said "Poor Jean
Myles" something caught in her throat, and she sobbed, painful dry sobs.

"How could they pity her when she were such a bad one?" Tommy answered
briskly.

"Is there none to pity bad ones?" said his sorrowful mother.

Elspeth plucked her by the skirt. "There's God, ain't there?" she said,
inquiringly, and getting no answer she flopped upon her knees, to say a
babyish prayer that would sound comic to anybody except to Him to whom
it was addressed.

"You ain't praying for a woman as was a disgrace to Thrums!" Tommy
cried, jealously, and he was about to raise her by force, when his
mother stayed his hand.

"Let her alane," she said, with a twitching mouth and filmy eyes. "Let
her alane. Let my bairn pray for Jean Myles."

James M. Barrie