It was not so much the little chap’s look. But to the knot of his sea-kit there was tied a bunch of cottage-flowers—sweet williams, boy’s love, love-lies-bleeding, a few common striped carnations, and a rose or two—and the sight and smell of them in that frowsy ’bus were like tears on thirsty eyelids. We had ceased to pity what we were, but the heart is far withered that cannot pity what it has been; and it made us shudder to look on the young face set towards the road along which we had travelled so far. Only the minor actress dropped a tear; but she was used to expressing emotion, and half-way down the Strand the ’bus stopped and she left us.
The woman with an incurable complaint touched me on the knee.
“Speak to him,” she whispered.
But the whisper did not reach, for I was two hundred miles away, and occupied in starting off to school for the first time. I had two shillings in my pocket; and at the first town where the coach baited I was to exchange these for a coco-nut and a clasp-knife. Also, I was to break the knife in opening the nut, and the nut, when opened, would be sour. A sense of coming evil, therefore, possessed me.
“Why don’t you speak to him?”
The boy glanced up, not catching her words, but suspicious: then frowned and looked defiant.
“Ah,” she went on in the same whisper, “it’s only the young that I pity. Sometimes, sir—for my illness keeps me much awake—I lie at night in my lodgings and listen, and the whole of London seems filled with the sound of children’s feet running. Even by day I can hear them, at the back of the uproar—”
The matrimonial agent grunted and rose, as we halted at the top of Essex Street. I saw him slip a couple of half-crowns into the conductor’s hand: and he whispered something, jerking his head back towards the interior of the ’bus. The boy was brushing his eyes, under pretence of putting his cap forward; and by the time he stole a look around to see if anyone had observed, we had started again. I pretended to stare out of the window, but marked the wet smear on his hand as he laid it on his lap.
In less than a minute it was my turn to alight. Unlike the matrimonial agent, I had not two half-crowns to spare; but, catching the sick woman’s eye, forced up courage to nod and say—
“Good luck, my boy.”
“Good day, sir.”
A moment after I was in the hot crowd, whose roar rolled east and west for miles. And at the back of it, as the woman had said, in street and side-lane and blind-alley, I heard the footfall of a multitude more terrible than an army with banners, the ceaseless pelting feet of children—of Whittingtons turning and turning again.
At Tregarrick Fair they cook a goose in twenty-two different ways; and as no one who comes to the fair would dream of eating any other food, you may fancy what, a reek of cooking fills the narrow grey street soon after mid-day.