He paused with rhetorical defiance, but as no one answered he proceeded to express the teachers and officers in terms of unmentionable quantities. Suddenly he turned upon a big, vacant-looking boy at his side.
“What’s yer name, fat-’ead?” he asked.
The boy backed away a pace or two, and stood gently moving his head about, and staring with his large pale eyes, as a calf stares at a dog.
“Speak, you dyin’ oyster!” said Clem, kicking his shins.
“Ernest,” said the boy, with a sudden gasp, turning fiery red and twisting his fingers into knots.
“Ernest what?” said Clem. “But it don’t matter, for your sort always belongs to the fine old family of Looney. You’re a deal too good for the likes of us. Why, you ought to ’ave a private asylum all to yerself. Hi, Missus!” he shouted to the porter’s wife who was passing through the room. “This young nobleman’s name’s Looney, isn’t it?”
“Looks as if it ’ad ought to be,” she answered, with a smile, for she avoided unnecessary difficulties. It was her duty to act as mother to the children in the probation ward, and she had already mothered about five thousand.
“Well, Looney,” Clem went on as soon as she had gone, “I’ll give you a fair run for your money. By next Sunday week you must ’ave a sore ’ead or sore eyes, or I’ll see as you get both. But p’raps I may as well take two of the lot of yer in ’and at once.”
He seized the daft creature and Alfred by the short hair at the back of their heads, and began running them up and down as a pair of ponies. The others laughed, partly for flattery, partly for change.
“That don’t sound as if they was un’appy, do it, sir?” said the porter’s wife, coming in again at that moment with one of the managers, who was paying a “surprise visit” to the school.
“No, indeed!” he answered heartily. “Well, boys, having a real good time, are you? That’s right. Better being here than starving outside, isn’t it?”
“Oh yuss, sir, a deal better!” said Clem. “Plenty to eat ’ere, sir, and nobody to be crule to yer, and nice little lessons for an hour in the afternoon!”
It was getting dark, and as the gas was lit and cast its yellow glare over the large room, Alfred thought how his mother must just then be lighting the candle to give Ben and the baby their tea.
So the children waited the due fortnight for the appearance of disease. But no one “broke out.” Looney, it is true, developed a very sore head, but the doctor declared there was nothing contagious about it; at which neglect of scientific precaution Clem expressed justifiable disgust. For, indeed, he could have diagnosed the case completely himself, as a sore due to compulsory friction of the epidermis against an iron bedstead. But as science remained deaf to his protests, he hastened to get first pick of the regulation suits and shoes, and when fairly