A large woman in a torn dress stood at the gate of a rag and bone dealer's yard. The season was November, the hour midnight, the place a slum in a Midland textile town.
Hanging from the wall of the house beyond was a dirty oil lamp round which the fog circled in a hundred spectral shapes. Seen by its light, she was not pleasant to look upon. Bare-armed, bare-headed, savage chest half bare and sagging in festoons, she stood stayless and unashamed, breathing gin and wickedness. A grin of quiet joy was upon her alcoholic countenance. Nay, more than joy. It was a light of inward ecstasy, and sprang from the fact that a heavy carter's whip was in her hand.
Not many feet from the spot on which she stood was the wall of a neighbor's house. Crouching against it so that he was scarcely visible in the darkness was a boy of thirteen. Without stockings or shoes, he wore only a filthy shirt, a thing that had once been a jacket, and a tattered lower garment which left his thighs half naked.
His face was transfigured with terror.
"Enery Arper," said the woman with a shrill snigger not unlike the whinny of a horse, "Auntie said she'd wait up for you, didn't she? And she always keeps a promise, don't she, my boy?"
The figure six yards away the fog was doing its best to hide cowered yet closer to the wall.
"And what was it, Enery, that Auntie promised you if you come 'ome again with ninepence?" The wheeze of the voice had a note of humor.
The boy was wedged so close to the wall that he had barked the skin off his bare knees. The woman, watching him intently, began to trail the heavy lash on the cobbled yard.
"Said she'd make it up to a shillin' for you, didn't she? … if you come 'ome again with ninepence. Said she'd cut the heart out o' you … same as if it was the eye of a pertater."
A powerful arm was already loose. The eye of an expert had the distance measured to a nicety.
A scream followed that was not human. The heavy whip had caught the boy round the unprotected thighs.
"I'll do ye in this time."
Mad with pain and terror the boy dashed straight at her, charging like a desperate animal, as with leisurely ferocity she prepared for a second cut at him. The impact of his body was so unexpected that it nearly knocked her down.
It was his only chance. Before she could recover her balance he was out of the gate and away in the fog. A lane ran past the yard. He was in it before the whip could reach him again; in it and running for his life.
The lane was short, straight and very narrow, with high walls on both sides. A turn to the right led through a small entry into a by-street which gave access to one of the main thoroughfares of the city. A turn to the left ended in a blank wall which formed a blind alley.
By the time the boy was halfway down the lane, he realized that in his mad terror he had turned to the left instead of to the right. There was no escape. He was in a trap.
A moment he hesitated, sick with fear. He could hear the heavy footfalls of his pursuer; as she plowed through the fog he could hear her wheezy grunts and alcoholic curses.
"Took the wrong turnin', eh?" She was within ten yards. "Hold on a minute, that's all, young man!"
In sheer desperation the boy ran on again, well knowing he could not get beyond the wall at the bottom of the lane. He could see it already. A lamp was there, faintly revealing its grim outline with fog around it.
"I'll do ye in, by God, I will!"
The voice was so near that his knees began to fail. Overcome with terror he threw himself on the ground near the wall. He had neither the strength nor the courage to try again the trick that had saved him a minute ago.
He knew she was standing under the lamp, he knew she was looking for him.
"Ah, Enery, I see yer," she said, with a savage laugh.
Content to know there was no escape for him she paused to get her breath.
The boy began to wriggle along under the lea of the wall, while she stood watching him. The wall was old, and all at once he made a discovery. Close to his head was a small hole, where three or four bricks had fallen out. It was a mere black space, leading he knew not where. But he didn't hesitate. Hardly knowing what he did, he squeezed his head through the hole. And then with the frenzied desperation of a rat in a trap he dragged his body after it.
An oath came from the woman under the lamp, a short ten yards off. She sprang at the wall. She lashed at it again and again, cursing horribly. But it was no use. Her prey had escaped with one savage cut across the heels. She continued to lash at the hole, but the boy was out of her reach.
Where was he? He didn't know. Half dead with fear he could hear her lashing at the wall, but she wouldn't be able to get at him.
With a great effort he rose from his hands and knees. He had hardly strength to stand up. He seemed to be in a sort of garden. There was mold under his feet. It was too dark to see it, but he knew by the smell; also it was damp and sticky. He moved a few yards and his feet became entangled among roots and bushes. And then suddenly a dog began to bark and his heart stood still.
For quite a minute he dared not move another step. The dog sounded very near, yet he could not return by the way he had come. No, in spite of the dog he must find another outlet from this garden. Very cautiously he moved a yard or two, and then stopped to listen. Shaking with terror he then moved on again.
Groping about in the fog and darkness, his teeth chattering with cold, his brain quite numb, it seemed that he would never be able to find a way out. Where was he? He had no idea of anything except the ground under his feet. Now it was a stretch of gravel, now a rubbish heap, now moist earth, now roots and bushes, and then finally, after the lapse of hours as it seemed, he came up against a wall.
It might be the wall through which he had crept. Of that he could not be sure, but yet he did not think it was. He began to follow the line of it, taking care to do so in the opposite direction to the dog whose barking was incessant. As he walked he rubbed his hands along the surface of the wall in the hope of finding a gate.
For a long time he groped through the darkness, but came upon nothing in the least resembling a gate. Again he grew desperate. He would have to wait there until daylight. But he simply dared not do that with the dog straining at his chain, seemingly, only a very few yards off.
Sick with cold and shaking in every limb he began to cry feebly. His knees were knocking, he was at the end of his wits. There was no way out of the garden, yet if he stayed in it the dog would kill him. Suddenly he decided upon the only possible course; he must climb the wall. Not knowing its height, or what there was beyond, or whether it was merely the wall of a house, he began to "shin" up it for all he was worth, grasping its rough surface as well as he could with his hands and his knees and his bare toes. There must be some kind of a top to it, and when the dog broke his chain, as every moment he threatened to do, he might not be able to reach him.
Wild and precarious struggling, in the course of which he was several times within an ace of toppling backwards into the garden, brought his numb fingers at last to a kind of coping. He had just strength enough to draw up his body on to the narrow ledge, only to find that he could not possibly remain on it. The top of the wall was sown thickly with broken glass.
He knew his hands and knees were cut, yet he could hardly feel anything. There was only one thing to do now; he must jump for it – one side or the other. He came to no deliberate decision; at that moment he was completely unbalanced in body and mind, but a voice inside him said suddenly:
Hands and knees instinctively gripping as hard as they could, he slipped over the other side. But it was impossible to keep a hold. He slipped and swayed and slipped again, and then he knew that he was falling … falling … falling through space into the unknown.
Something hit him, something so hard that it seemed to crack him as if he had been an egg. It was the earth. He lay a moment almost without sensation, and then he realized that the dog was no longer barking. Feeling reassured he made an effort to rise. He couldn't move. The sensation was horrible. Perhaps he had broken his back.
He tried several times, and because he could feel no pain the thought seemed to grow upon him. Presently, however, he found he could stand. Still dazed and shaken in every bone, he knew now that he had had the luck to fall upon soft earth. But as soon as he stood up there came a savage grinding pain in his left leg, and he lay down whimpering feebly. He then got up again, and then lay down again, and then suddenly he wished he was dead.
If only he had had the luck to kill himself! But every moment now made the wish seem more vain. He was conscious of one ache after another, in every part of his body; his hands and feet were bleeding, he was sick and sorry, but he seemed to know that death was a long way off. Suddenly he stood up again. The cold, wet earth under him was unendurable. Where was he? He set his teeth, and began to drag his left leg after him in order to find out. Where was he? This place seemed a sort of garden too. But there was no dog in it. The damp soil was merged very soon in substances less gentle to the feet; old crocks and scraps of metal and other debris, the prelude to a rubbish heap. And then without in the least expecting it, he came upon water. The question was answered. He was on the bank of the canal.
The knowledge chilled right through him. Here and now was his chance. It wouldn't take more than a minute if he jumped straight in. But the water looked still and cold and horrible. As he came to the edge he found he couldn't face it. He simply hadn't the pluck.
He limped on a few yards. It might seem easier a bit lower down. But when he came a bit lower down he couldn't face it either, and he stood at the edge of the water crying miserably.
After a while he dragged himself away from the canal. He stumbled over rubbish heaps and stones and brickbats, varied now and then with nettles and twitch grass. He came to a low bridge and crossed it. Nothing would have been easier than to slip over the side; it might have been there for the purpose; but this was one of the places where the fog had lifted a little, again he caught a glimpse of the water and again he moved on.
At last he came to some wooden railings and got through a gap where one or two had been broken. Here the fog was so thick that he lost his bearings altogether. He didn't know in the least where he was, he couldn't see his hand before him; and then he stumbled over something which jarred his hurt foot horribly. The something was a wire.
Of course, it was the railway. He remembered, almost with a feeling of excitement, that the railway was in the next field to the canal. A moment he stood trying to make out things and noises in the fog. Yes, he could hear, at least he thought he could hear, wagons being shunted in the sidings. After he had moved a few yards towards the sound, he was able to make out a red light in the distance.
For some odd reason which he couldn't explain, the feeling of excitement began to grow with the certainty that he was on the line. He could feel the metals, icy cold, smooth and slippery under his feet. He limped along until a dim shape loomed ahead. It was a signal box. By this time his excitement was almost terrible.
He stood a moment listening to the snortings of an engine which he couldn't see, and the clang-clang-clang of the wagons as they were being shunted in the sidings. And then all at once the signal under which he was shivering dropped with a great clatter, and something very deep down in him, a something he had not known existed until that moment, gave a sort of little exultant cry and told him that now was his chance.
Excited almost to the verge of joy he limped past the signal box in order to get away from its lights. If the thing was done at all it would have to be done in darkness. Presently he looked round, and with a sensation of downright terror, found that the lights of the signal box were no longer to be seen. Here the fog was quite thick again; whichever way he looked there was not a single object he could make out in the darkness. But under his bare feet he could feel the broad metals icy, smooth, inexorable.
"Now's your chance," said a gentle voice deep down in himself.
Instantly he lay full length in the six-foot way.
"Set your head on the line," said the voice.
He did as he was told. The sensation of the icy metal under his right ear was so horrible that his heart almost stopped inside him.
"Close your eyes," said the voice, and then it said a little more gently as if it knew that already he was half dead with fear, "Stay just as you are and you'll not know nothink about it."
He closed his eyes.
"Don't move," said the voice. "Stay there and it'll not hurt you."
If he had had a God to pray to, he would have prayed.
The engine seemed a long time on the way. He daren't move hand or foot, he daren't stir a muscle of his body. But as the seconds passed an intense desire came upon him to change the position of his head. It felt so undefended sideways on. Surely it would be better if he turned it round so that…
"Don't move," the voice commanded him. "Keep just like that. Quite still."
He was bound to obey. The voice was stronger than he.
"Eyes shut, and you'll not know nothink."
It was as a mother would have spoken had he ever heard a mother speak.
… The engine was coming. He could hear it snorting and rattling in the distance. He simply daren't listen. He tried to imagine he was already dead. But a frightful crash suddenly broke in upon his brain, and then another, and then another … he had never realized how much it took to…
"Fog signals," said the voice. "Keep just as you are … eyes shut … quite still … quite still."
There it was, grunting and rattling… Know nothink! … there … now…
Grunting, rattling, snorting, what a time it took! In spite of himself he opened his eyes, and found that he was still alive.
"You were on the wrong line after all."
The sound of the voice turned him faint.
There was only one thing to be done now, and this he did without delay. He took his head from the metals and stood up as well as he could. His body was all numb and lifeless, but there was a queer excitement in him somewhere that for the moment made him feel almost happy. After all, he wasn't dead. And in that strange moment that was like a dream he was almost glad he wasn't. Yes, almost glad. It was hard to believe that he should wish to find himself alive, and yet as he stretched his limbs and began to move he couldn't honestly say that after all he wasn't just a little bit pleased.
He was not able to move very fast; he was so dreadfully cold for one thing, and then his left foot was hurt. But now, as he walked along the six-foot way, he felt somehow stronger than he had ever felt in his life before. Of a sudden he crossed the metals and plunged recklessly sideways into the fog. He stumbled over some signal wires and fell on his knees, got up and stumbled over some more. What did it matter? What did anything matter? After all, it was quite easy to die. He must find the right line and make a job of it.
He stopped a moment, and turned this thought over in his mind. And then he heard the voice again.
"Henry Harper, you'll never be able to do that again as long as you live."
The words were gentle and composed, but they struck him like a curse. He knew that they were true. Not as long as he lived would he be able to do again as he had just done. It was as if the judge in his wig whom he had seen that afternoon riding to the Assizes in his gilt carriage had passed a life sentence upon him. His knees began to crumble under him again; he could have shrieked with terror. Crying miserably he limped along into the sidings. He came to a lamp. All around were silent, grim shapes upon which its feeble light was cast. They were loaded wagons, sheeted with tarpaulins. With the amazing recklessness that had just been born in him he determined to find a way into one of them in the hope of being able to lie down and sleep. It was not very difficult to climb up and get under one of the sheets, which happened to have been loosely tied. Also he had the luck to find a bed that would have been more or less comfortable had the night not been so bitterly cold. The wagon was loaded with sacks full of a substance soft and yielding; as a matter of fact, it was flour.
Henry Harper lay down with a feeling of relief and burrowed among the sacks as far as he could get. A mass of aches in body and soul, anything was better than the darkness and damp fog and icy substances cutting into his bare feet. Presently, with the sacks piled all round him, he felt less miserable, and he fell asleep.
How long he slept he didn't know. But it must have been some little time, and the sleep must have been fairly sound, for he was only awakened by a great jolt of the wagon. And before he was fully awake it had begun to move.
Hadn't he better jump out? No, let it move. Let it do anything it liked. Let it go anywhere it pleased. What did it matter? Again he fell asleep.
The next time he awoke he was shivering with cold and feeling very hungry. But the wagon was moving now and no mistake. It was still pitch dark, although the fog seemed to have lifted a bit, but the detonators which had been placed on the line were going off now and again with tremendous reports, signals flew past, and while he lay wondering what he ought to do now, he passed through an array of lights which looked like a station.
He soon came to the conclusion that it was useless to do anything. He couldn't get out of the wagon now even if he wanted to, that was unless he wanted to kill himself. Yes … that was exactly what…
"Lie quiet. Go to sleep," a stern voice commanded him.
He tried to sleep again but soon found he couldn't. He was cold and ill, but after an attack of vomiting he felt better. Meanwhile the wagon rattled on and on through the night, and it seemed to go faster the farther it went.
Where was it going? What did it matter where it went so long as he went with it? But – the sudden thought was like a blow – that was just what did matter! They would find him lying there, and they would give him to the police, and the police would do something to him. He knew all about that, because they had done something to him once already for taking an apple off a stall in the market place. He had only taken one, but they had given him six strokes, and in spite of the cold and the pain in his left leg he still remembered just what they were like.
Perhaps he ought to jump for it. No, that was impossible with his leg like that; the wagon was going too fast. He had better lie quiet and slip out as soon as the wagon stopped at a station. He burrowed far down into the sacks once more, for the sake of the warmth, and after a while he went to sleep again.
And then he had a dream that filled him with terror. The police had found him. The police had found him in the wagon.
He awoke with a start. Rough hands were shaking him. Yes, it was perfectly true!
"Kim up … you!"
It was the voice of the police.
He turned over with a whimper and lifted up his head, only to drop it instantly. He had been blinded by the glare of a lantern held six inches from his eyes.
"Well, damn me," a great, roaring voice surged into his ears. "Here, Ike!"
"What's up now?" said a second voice, roaring like the first.
"Come and look at this."
The boy dug his head into the sacks.
"What's up?" said voice the second.
"What about it? Must ha' got in at Blackhampton."
"Well, damn me."
The boy burrowed deeper and deeper into the sacks.
"Here, come out of it." The owner of the first voice took him by the ear and dragged him out of the wagon.
"What's yer name?"
His captor shook him roughly.
"Enry Arper," whimpered the boy.
"Enry Arper, is it? Well, you are going to have something to 'arp for, you are, my lad."
"Ever had the birch rod, Mister Enry Arper?" inquired the first voice with a kind of grim pleasantness.
The boy didn't answer.
"No? Not had that pleasure? The police are going to cut the skin off o' you and sarve you right. They'll larn you to trespass on to the railway. Fetch the foreman, Ike."
While the boy, securely held by the ear, stood shivering, Ike went leisurely in search of the foreman shunter. It was six o'clock, and that individual, who had been on duty since that hour the previous evening, was on the point of going home. Ike found him in the messroom, where he had gone to exchange his lantern for the small wicker basket in which he brought his meals. His name was Job Lorimer, and being large and fat and florid he sauntered up to the scene of action with an air of frank acceptance of life as it is, that seems to go as a rule with his type of physique and countenance.
"Why, blow me, Iggins, what's all this year?"
"Allow me to introjuice Mr. Enry Arper o' Blackhampton. – Mr. Job Lorimer, foreman shunter, Kentish Town."
"'Owdy do, young man. Pleased to meet you." Mr. Lorimer winked solemnly at both his subordinates. "What can we do for you?"
"Twelve strokes with the birch rod," said subordinate the first.
"Eight for the first offence," said subordinate the second.
Suddenly the boy fell down senseless at the foreman shunter's feet.