CHAPTER I--BARBOX BROTHERS
"G uard! What place is this?"
"Mugby Junction, sir."
"A windy place!"
"Yes, it mostly is, sir."
"And looks comfortless indeed!"
"Yes, it generally does, sir."
"Is it a rainy night still?"
"Open the door. I`ll get out."
"You`ll have, sir," said the guard, glistening with drops of wet, and looking at the tearful face of his watch by the light of his lantern as the traveller descended, "three minutes here."
"More, I think.--For I am not going on."
"Thought you had a through ticket, sir?"
"So I have, but I shall sacrifice the rest of it. I want my luggage."
"Please to come to the van and point it out, sir. Be good enough to look very sharp, sir. Not a moment to spare."
The guard hurried to the luggage van, and the traveller hurried after him. The guard got into it, and the traveller looked into it.
"Those two large black portmanteaus in the corner where your light shines. Those are mine."
"Name upon `em, sir?"
"Stand clear, sir, if you please. One. Two. Right!"
Lamp waved. Signal lights ahead already changing. Shriek from engine. Train gone.
"Mugby Junction!" said the traveller, pulling up the woollen muffler round his throat with both hands. "At past three o`clock of a tempestuous morning! So!"
He spoke to himself. There was no one else to speak to. Perhaps, though there had been any one else to speak to, he would have preferred to speak to himself. Speaking to himself he spoke to a man within five years of fifty either way, who had turned grey too soon, like a neglected fire; a man of pondering habit, brooding carriage of the head, and suppressed internal voice; a man with many indications on him of having been much alone.
He stood unnoticed on the dreary platform, except by the rain and by the wind. Those two vigilant assailants made a rush at him. "Very well," said he, yielding. "It signifies nothing to me to what quarter I turn my face."
Thus, at Mugby Junction, at past three o`clock of a tempestuous morning, the traveller went where the weather drove him.
Not but what he could make a stand when he was so minded, for, coming to the end of the roofed shelter (it is of considerable extent at Mugby Junction), and looking out upon the dark night, with a yet darker spirit-wing of storm beating its wild way through it, he faced about, and held his own as ruggedly in the difficult direction as he had held it in the easier one. Thus, with a steady step, the traveller went up and down, up and down, up and down, seeking nothing and finding it.
A place replete with shadowy shapes, this Mugby Junction in the black hours of the four-and-twenty. Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end. Half-miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back. Red-hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering. Iron-barred cages full of cattle jangling by midway, the drooping beasts with horns entangled, eyes frozen with terror, and mouths too: at least they have long icicles (or what seem so) hanging from their lips. Unknown languages in the air, conspiring in red, green, and white characters. An earthquake, accompanied with thunder and lightning, going up express to London. Now, all quiet, all rusty, wind and rain in possession, lamps extinguished, Mugby Junction dead and indistinct, with its robe drawn over its head, like Caesar.
Now, too, as the belated traveller plodded up and down, a shadowy train went by him in the gloom which was no other than the train of a life. From whatsoever intangible deep cutting or dark tunnel it emerged, here it came, unsummoned and unannounced, stealing upon him, and passing away into obscurity. Here mournfully went by a child who had never had a childhood or known a parent, inseparable from a youth with a bitter sense of his namelessness, coupled to a man the enforced business of whose best years had been distasteful and oppressive, linked to an ungrateful friend, dragging after him a woman once beloved. Attendant, with many a clank and wrench, were lumbering cares, dark meditations, huge dim disappointments, monotonous years, a long jarring line of the discords of a solitary and unhappy existence.
The traveller recalled his eyes from the waste into which they had been staring, and fell back a step or so under the abruptness, and perhaps the chance appropriateness, of the question.
"Oh! My thoughts were not here for the moment. Yes. Yes. Those two portmanteaus are mine. Are you a Porter?"
"On Porter`s wages, sir. But I am Lamps."
The traveller looked a little confused.
"Who did you say you are?"
"Lamps, sir," showing an oily cloth in his hand, as farther explanation.
"Surely, surely. Is there any hotel or tavern here?"
"Not exactly here, sir. There is a Refreshment Room here, but--" Lamps, with a mighty serious look, gave his head a warning roll that plainly added--"but it`s a blessed circumstance for you that it`s not open."
"You couldn`t recommend it, I see, if it was available?"
"Ask your pardon, sir. If it was -?"
"It ain`t my place, as a paid servant of the company, to give my opinion on any of the company`s toepics,"--he pronounced it more like toothpicks,--"beyond lamp-ile and cottons," returned Lamps in a confidential tone; "but, speaking as a man, I wouldn`t recommend my father (if he was to come to life again) to go and try how he`d be treated at the Refreshment Room. Not speaking as a man, no, I would NOT."
The traveller nodded conviction. "I suppose I can put up in the town? There is a town here?" For the traveller (though a stay-athome compared with most travellers) had been, like many others, carried on the steam winds and the iron tides through that Junction before, without having ever, as one might say, gone ashore there.
"Oh yes, there`s a town, sir! Anyways, there`s town enough to put up in. But," following the glance of the other at his luggage, "this is a very dead time of the night with us, sir. The deadest time. I might a`most call it our deadest and buriedest time."
"No porters about?"
"Well, sir, you see," returned Lamps, confidential again, "they in general goes off with the gas. That`s how it is. And they seem to have overlooked you, through your walking to the furder end of the platform. But, in about twelve minutes or so, she may be up."
"Who may be up?"
"The three forty-two, sir. She goes off in a sidin` till the Up X passes, and then she"--here an air of hopeful vagueness pervaded Lamps--"does all as lays in her power."
"I doubt if I comprehend the arrangement."
"I doubt if anybody do, sir. She`s a Parliamentary, sir. And, you see, a Parliamentary, or a Skirmishun--"
"Do you mean an Excursion?"
"That`s it, sir.--A Parliamentary or a Skirmishun, she mostly DOES go off into a sidin`. But, when she CAN get a chance, she`s whistled out of it, and she`s whistled up into doin` all as,"--Lamps again wore the air of a highly sanguine man who hoped for the best,-"all as lays in her power."
He then explained that the porters on duty, being required to be in attendance on the Parliamentary matron in question, would doubtless turn up with the gas. In the meantime, if the gentleman would not very much object to the smell of lamp-oil, and would accept the warmth of his little room The gentleman, being by this time very cold, instantly closed with the proposal. A greasy little cabin it was, suggestive, to the sense of smell, of a cabin in a Whaler. But there was a bright fire burning in its rusty grate, and on the floor there stood a wooden stand of newly trimmed and lighted lamps, ready for carriage service. They made a bright show, and their light, and the warmth, accounted for the popularity of the room, as borne witness to by many impressions of velveteen trousers on a form by the fire, and many rounded smears and smudges of stooping velveteen shoulders on the adjacent wall. Various untidy shelves accommodated a quantity of lamps and oilcans, and also a fragrant collection of what looked like the pockethandkerchiefs of the whole lamp family.
As Barbox Brothers (so to call the traveller on the warranty of his luggage) took his seat upon the form, and warmed his now ungloved hands at the fire, he glanced aside at a little deal desk, much blotched with ink, which his elbow touched. Upon it were some scraps of coarse paper, and a superannuated steel pen in very reduced and gritty circumstances.
From glancing at the scraps of paper, he turned involuntarily to his host, and said, with some roughness:
"Why, you are never a poet, man?"
Lamps had certainly not the conventional appearance of one, as he stood modestly rubbing his squab nose with a handkerchief so exceedingly oily, that he might have been in the act of mistaking himself for one of his charges. He was a spare man of about the Barbox Brothers time of life, with his features whimsically drawn upward as if they were attracted by the roots of his hair. He had a peculiarly shining transparent complexion, probably occasioned by constant oleaginous application; and his attractive hair, being cut short, and being grizzled, and standing straight up on end as if it in its turn were attracted by some invisible magnet above it, the top of his head was not very unlike a lamp-wick.
"But, to be sure, it`s no business of mine," said Barbox Brothers. "That was an impertinent observation on my part. Be what you like."
"Some people, sir," remarked Lamps in a tone of apology, "are sometimes what they don`t like."
"Nobody knows that better than I do," sighed the other. "I have been what I don`t like, all my life."
"When I first took, sir," resumed Lamps, "to composing little ComicSongs--like--"
Barbox Brothers eyed him with great disfavour.
"--To composing little Comic-Songs-like--and what was more hard--to singing `em afterwards," said Lamps, "it went against the grain at that time, it did indeed."
Something that was not all oil here shining in Lamps`s eye, Barbox Brothers withdrew his own a little disconcerted, looked at the fire, and put a foot on the top bar. "Why did you do it, then?" he asked after a short pause; abruptly enough, but in a softer tone. "If you didn`t want to do it, why did you do it? Where did you sing them? Public-house?"
To which Mr. Lamps returned the curious reply: "Bedside."
At this moment, while the traveller looked at him for elucidation, Mugby Junction started suddenly, trembled violently, and opened its gas eyes. "She`s got up!" Lamps announced, excited. "What lays in her power is sometimes more, and sometimes less; but it`s laid in her power to get up to-night, by George!"
The legend "Barbox Brothers," in large white letters on two black surfaces, was very soon afterwards trundling on a truck through a silent street, and, when the owner of the legend had shivered on the pavement half an hour, what time the porter`s knocks at the Inn Door knocked up the whole town first, and the Inn last, he groped his way into the close air of a shut-up house, and so groped between the sheets of a shut-up bed that seemed to have been expressly refrigerated for him when last made.
"You remember me, Young Jackson?"
"What do I remember if not you? You are my first remembrance. It was you who told me that was my name. It was you who told me that on every twentieth of December my life had a penitential anniversary in it called a birthday. I suppose the last communication was truer than the first!"
"What am I like, Young Jackson?"
"You are like a blight all through the year to me. You hard-lined, thin-lipped, repressive, changeless woman with a wax mask on. You are like the Devil to me; most of all when you teach me religious things, for you make me abhor them."
"You remember me, Mr. Young Jackson?" In another voice from another quarter.
"Most gratefully, sir. You were the ray of hope and prospering ambition in my life. When I attended your course, I believed that I should come to be a great healer, and I felt almost happy--even though I was still the one boarder in the house with that horrible mask, and ate and drank in silence and constraint with the mask before me, every day. As I had done every, every, every day, through my school-time and from my earliest recollection."
"What am I like, Mr. Young Jackson?"
"You are like a Superior Being to me. You are like Nature beginning to reveal herself to me. I hear you again, as one of the hushed crowd of young men kindling under the power of your presence and knowledge, and you bring into my eyes the only exultant tears that ever stood in them."
"You remember Me, Mr. Young Jackson?" In a grating voice from quite another quarter.
"Too well. You made your ghostly appearance in my life one day, and announced that its course was to be suddenly and wholly changed. You showed me which was my wearisome seat in the Galley of Barbox Brothers. (When THEY were, if they ever were, is unknown to me; there was nothing of them but the name when I bent to the oar.) You told me what I was to do, and what to be paid; you told me afterwards, at intervals of years, when I was to sign for the Firm, when I became a partner, when I became the Firm. I know no more of it, or of myself."
"What am I like, Mr. Young Jackson?"
"You are like my father, I sometimes think. You are hard enough and cold enough so to have brought up an acknowledged son. I see your scanty figure, your close brown suit, and your tight brown wig; but you, too, wear a wax mask to your death. You never by a chance remove it--it never by a chance falls off--and I know no more of you."
Throughout this dialogue, the traveller spoke to himself at his window in the morning, as he had spoken to himself at the Junction overnight. And as he had then looked in the darkness, a man who had turned grey too soon, like a neglected fire: so he now looked in the sun-light, an ashier grey, like a fire which the brightness of the sun put out.
The firm of Barbox Brothers had been some offshoot or irregular branch of the Public Notary and bill-broking tree. It had gained for itself a griping reputation before the days of Young Jackson, and the reputation had stuck to it and to him. As he had imperceptibly come into possession of the dim den up in the corner of a court off Lombard Street, on whose grimy windows the inscription Barbox Brothers had for many long years daily interposed itself between him and the sky, so he had insensibly found himself a personage held in chronic distrust, whom it was essential to screw tight to every transaction in which he engaged, whose word was never to be taken without his attested bond, whom all dealers with openly set up guards and wards against. This character had come upon him through no act of his own. It was as if the original Barbox had stretched himself down upon the office floor, and had thither caused to be conveyed Young Jackson in his sleep, and had there effected a metempsychosis and exchange of persons with him. The discovery-aided in its turn by the deceit of the only woman he had ever loved, and the deceit of the only friend he had ever made: who eloped from him to be married together--the discovery, so followed up, completed what his earliest rearing had begun. He shrank, abashed, within the form of Barbox, and lifted up his head and heart no more.
But he did at last effect one great release in his condition. He broke the oar he had plied so long, and he scuttled and sank the galley. He prevented the gradual retirement of an old conventional business from him, by taking the initiative and retiring from it. With enough to live on (though, after all, with not too much), he obliterated the firm of Barbox Brothers from the pages of the PostOffice Directory and the face of the earth, leaving nothing of it but its name on two portmanteaus.
"For one must have some name in going about, for people to pick up," he explained to Mugby High Street, through the Inn window, "and that name at least was real once. Whereas, Young Jackson!--Not to mention its being a sadly satirical misnomer for Old Jackson."
He took up his hat and walked out, just in time to see, passing along on the opposite side of the way, a velveteen man, carrying his day`s dinner in a small bundle that might have been larger without suspicion of gluttony, and pelting away towards the Junction at a great pace.
"There`s Lamps!" said Barbox Brothers. "And by the bye--"
Ridiculous, surely, that a man so serious, so self-contained, and not yet three days emancipated from a routine of drudgery, should stand rubbing his chin in the street, in a brown study about Comic Songs.
"Bedside?" said Barbox Brothers testily. "Sings them at the bedside? Why at the bedside, unless he goes to bed drunk? Does, I shouldn`t wonder. But it`s no business of mine. Let me see. Mugby Junction, Mugby Junction. Where shall I go next? As it came into my head last night when I woke from an uneasy sleep in the carriage and found myself here, I can go anywhere from here. Where shall I go? I`ll go and look at the Junction by daylight. There`s no hurry, and I may like the look of one Line better than another."
But there were so many Lines. Gazing down upon them from a bridge at the Junction, it was as if the concentrating Companies formed a great Industrial Exhibition of the works of extraordinary ground spiders that spun iron. And then so many of the Lines went such wonderful ways, so crossing and curving among one another, that the eye lost them. And then some of them appeared to start with the fixed intention of going five hundred miles, and all of a sudden gave it up at an insignificant barrier, or turned off into a workshop. And then others, like intoxicated men, went a little way very straight, and surprisingly slued round and came back again. And then others were so chock-full of trucks of coal, others were so blocked with trucks of casks, others were so gorged with trucks of ballast, others were so set apart for wheeled objects like immense iron cotton-reels: while others were so bright and clear, and others were so delivered over to rust and ashes and idle wheelbarrows out of work, with their legs in the air (looking much like their masters on strike), that there was no beginning, middle, or end to the bewilderment.
Barbox Brothers stood puzzled on the bridge, passing his right hand across the lines on his forehead, which multiplied while he looked down, as if the railway Lines were getting themselves photographed on that sensitive plate. Then was heard a distant ringing of bells and blowing of whistles. Then, puppet-looking heads of men popped out of boxes in perspective, and popped in again. Then, prodigious wooden razors, set up on end, began shaving the atmosphere. Then, several locomotive engines in several directions began to scream and be agitated. Then, along one avenue a train came in. Then, along another two trains appeared that didn`t come in, but stopped without. Then, bits of trains broke off. Then, a struggling horse became involved with them. Then, the locomotives shared the bits of trains, and ran away with the whole.
"I have not made my next move much clearer by this. No hurry. No need to make up my mind to-day, or to-morrow, nor yet the day after. I`ll take a walk."
It fell out somehow (perhaps he meant it should) that the walk tended to the platform at which he had alighted, and to Lamps`s room. But Lamps was not in his room. A pair of velveteen shoulders were adapting themselves to one of the impressions on the wall by Lamps`s fireplace, but otherwise the room was void. In passing back to get out of the station again, he learnt the cause of this vacancy, by catching sight of Lamps on the opposite line of railway, skipping along the top of a train, from carriage to carriage, and catching lighted namesakes thrown up to him by a coadjutor.
"He is busy. He has not much time for composing or singing Comic Songs this morning, I take it."
The direction he pursued now was into the country, keeping very near to the side of one great Line of railway, and within easy view of others. "I have half a mind,"` he said, glancing around, "to settle the question from this point, by saying, `I`ll take this set of rails, or that, or t`other, and stick to it.` They separate themselves from the confusion, out here, and go their ways."
Ascending a gentle hill of some extent, he came to a few cottages. There, looking about him as a very reserved man might who had never looked about him in his life before, he saw some six or eight young children come merrily trooping and whooping from one of the cottages, and disperse. But not until they had all turned at the little garden-gate, and kissed their hands to a face at the upper window: a low window enough, although the upper, for the cottage had but a story of one room above the ground.
Now, that the children should do this was nothing; but that they should do this to a face lying on the sill of the open window, turned towards them in a horizontal position, and apparently only a face, was something noticeable. He looked up at the window again. Could only see a very fragile, though a very bright face, lying on one cheek on the window-sill. The delicate smiling face of a girl or woman. Framed in long bright brown hair, round which was tied a light blue band or fillet, passing under the chin.
He walked on, turned back, passed the window again, shyly glanced up again. No change. He struck off by a winding branch-road at the top of the hill--which he must otherwise have descended--kept the cottages in view, worked his way round at a distance so as to come out once more into the main road, and be obliged to pass the cottages again. The face still lay on the window-sill, but not so much inclined towards him. And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument, and yet it produced no sound that reached his ears.
"Mugby Junction must be the maddest place in England," said Barbox Brothers, pursuing his way down the hill. "The first thing I find here is a Railway Porter who composes comic songs to sing at his bedside. The second thing I find here is a face, and a pair of hands playing a musical instrument that DON`T play!"
The day was a fine bright day in the early beginning of November, the air was clear and inspiriting, and the landscape was rich in beautiful colours. The prevailing colours in the court off Lombard Street, London city, had been few and sombre. Sometimes, when the weather elsewhere was very bright indeed, the dwellers in those tents enjoyed a pepper-and-salt-coloured day or two, but their atmosphere`s usual wear was slate or snuff coloured.
He relished his walk so well that he repeated it next day. He was a little earlier at the cottage than on the day before, and he could hear the children upstairs singing to a regular measure, and clapping out the time with their hands.
"Still, there is no sound of any musical instrument," he said, listening at the corner, "and yet I saw the performing hands again as I came by. What are the children singing? Why, good Lord, they can never be singing the multiplication table?"
They were, though, and with infinite enjoyment. The mysterious face had a voice attached to it, which occasionally led or set the children right. Its musical cheerfulness was delightful. The measure at length stopped, and was succeeded by a murmuring of young voices, and then by a short song which he made out to be about the current month of the year, and about what work it yielded to the labourers in the fields and farmyards. Then there was a stir of little feet, and the children came trooping and whooping out, as on the previous day. And again, as on the previous day, they all turned at the garden-gate, and kissed their hands--evidently to the face on the window-sill, though Barbox Brothers from his retired post of disadvantage at the corner could not see it.
But, as the children dispersed, he cut off one small straggler--a brown-faced boy with flaxen hair--and said to him:
"Come here, little one. Tell me, whose house is that?"
The child, with one swarthy arm held up across his eyes, half in shyness, and half ready for defence, said from behind the inside of his elbow:
"And who," said Barbox Brothers, quite as much embarrassed by his part in the dialogue as the child could possibly be by his, "is Phoebe?"
To which the child made answer: "Why, Phoebe, of course."
The small but sharp observer had eyed his questioner closely, and had taken his moral measure. He lowered his guard, and rather assumed a tone with him: as having discovered him to be an unaccustomed person in the art of polite conversation.
"Phoebe," said the child, "can`t be anybobby else but Phoebe. Can she?"
"No, I suppose not." "Well," returned the child, "then why did you ask me?"
Deeming it prudent to shift his ground, Barbox Brothers took up a new position.
"What do you do there? Up there in that room where the open window is. What do you do there?"
"Cool," said the child.
"Co-o-ol," the child repeated in a louder voice, lengthening out the word with a fixed look and great emphasis, as much as to say: "What`s the use of your having grown up, if you`re such a donkey as not to understand me?"
"Ah! School, school," said Barbox Brothers. "Yes, yes, yes. And Phoebe teaches you?"
The child nodded.
"Tound it out, have you?" said the child.
"Yes, I have found it out. What would you do with twopence, if I gave it you?"
The knock-down promptitude of this reply leaving him not a leg to stand upon, Barbox Brothers produced the twopence with great lameness, and withdrew in a state of humiliation.
But, seeing the face on the window-sill as he passed the cottage, he acknowledged its presence there with a gesture, which was not a nod, not a bow, not a removal of his hat from his head, but was a diffident compromise between or struggle with all three. The eyes in the face seemed amused, or cheered, or both, and the lips modestly said: "Good-day to you, sir."
"I find I must stick for a time to Mugby Junction," said Barbox Brothers with much gravity, after once more stopping on his return road to look at the Lines where they went their several ways so quietly. "I can`t make up my mind yet which iron road to take. In fact, I must get a little accustomed to the Junction before I can decide."
So, he announced at the Inn that he was "going to stay on for the present," and improved his acquaintance with the Junction that night, and again next morning, and again next night and morning: going down to the station, mingling with the people there, looking about him down all the avenues of railway, and beginning to take an interest in the incomings and outgoings of the trains. At first, he often put his head into Lamps`s little room, but he never found Lamps there. A pair or two of velveteen shoulders he usually found there, stooping over the fire, sometimes in connection with a clasped knife and a piece of bread and meat; but the answer to his inquiry, "Where`s Lamps?" was, either that he was "t`other side the line," or, that it was his off-time, or (in the latter case) his own personal introduction to another Lamps who was not his Lamps. However, he was not so desperately set upon seeing Lamps now, but he bore the disappointment. Nor did he so wholly devote himself to his severe application to the study of Mugby Junction as to neglect exercise. On the contrary, he took a walk every day, and always the same walk. But the weather turned cold and wet again, and the window was never open.
At length, after a lapse of some days, there came another streak of fine bright hardy autumn weather. It was a Saturday. The window was open, and the children were gone. Not surprising, this, for he had patiently watched and waited at the corner until they WERE gone.
"Good-day," he said to the face; absolutely getting his hat clear off his head this time.
"Good-day to you, sir."
"I am glad you have a fine sky again to look at."
"Thank you, sir. It is kind if you."
"You are an invalid, I fear?"
"No, sir. I have very good health."
"But are you not always lying down?"
"Oh yes, I am always lying down, because I cannot sit up! But I am not an invalid."
The laughing eyes seemed highly to enjoy his great mistake.
"Would you mind taking the trouble to come in, sir? There is a beautiful view from this window. And you would see that I am not at all ill--being so good as to care."
It was said to help him, as he stood irresolute, but evidently desiring to enter, with his diffident hand on the latch of the garden-gate. It did help him, and he went in.
The room up-stairs was a very clean white room with a low roof. Its only inmate lay on a couch that brought her face to a level with the window. The couch was white too; and her simple dress or wrapper being light blue, like the band around her hair, she had an ethereal look, and a fanciful appearance of lying among clouds. He felt that she instinctively perceived him to be by habit a downcast taciturn man; it was another help to him to have established that understanding so easily, and got it over.
There was an awkward constraint upon him, nevertheless, as he touched her hand, and took a chair at the side of her couch.
"I see now," he began, not at all fluently, "how you occupy your hand. Only seeing you from the path outside, I thought you were playing upon something."
She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace. A lacepillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it, as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted.
"That is curious," she answered with a bright smile. "For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work."
"Have you any musical knowledge?"
She shook her head.
"I think I could pick out tunes, if I had any instrument, which could be made as handy to me as my lace-pillow. But I dare say I deceive myself. At all events, I shall never know."
"You have a musical voice. Excuse me; I have heard you sing."
"With the children?" she answered, slightly colouring. "Oh yes. I sing with the dear children, if it can be called singing."
Barbox Brothers glanced at the two small forms in the room, and hazarded the speculation that she was fond of children, and that she was learned in new systems of teaching them?
"Very fond of them," she said, shaking her head again; "but I know nothing of teaching, beyond the interest I have in it, and the pleasure it gives me when they learn. Perhaps your overhearing my little scholars sing some of their lessons has led you so far astray as to think me a grand teacher? Ah! I thought so! No, I have only read and been told about that system. It seemed so pretty and pleasant, and to treat them so like the merry Robins they are, that I took up with it in my little way. You don`t need to be told what a very little way mine is, sir," she added with a glance at the small forms and round the room.
All this time her hands were busy at her lace-pillow. As they still continued so, and as there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs, Barbox Brothers took the opportunity of observing her. He guessed her to be thirty. The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful. Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.
He saw her eyes in the act of rising towards his, and he directed his towards the prospect, saying: "Beautiful, indeed!"
"Most beautiful, sir. I have sometimes had a fancy that I would like to sit up, for once, only to try how it looks to an erect head. But what a foolish fancy that would be to encourage! It cannot look more lovely to any one than it does to me."
Her eyes were turned to it, as she spoke, with most delighted admiration and enjoyment. There was not a trace in it of any sense of deprivation.
"And those threads of railway, with their puffs of smoke and steam changing places so fast, make it so lively for me," she went on. "I think of the number of people who can go where they wish, on their business, or their pleasure; I remember that the puffs make signs to me that they are actually going while I look; and that enlivens the prospect with abundance of company, if I want company. There is the great Junction, too. I don`t see it under the foot of the hill, but I can very often hear it, and I always know it is there. It seems to join me, in a way, to I don`t know how many places and things that I shall never see."
With an abashed kind of idea that it might have already joined himself to something he had never seen, he said constrainedly: "Just so."
"And so you see, sir," pursued Phoebe, "I am not the invalid you thought me, and I am very well off indeed."
"You have a happy disposition," said Barbox Brothers: perhaps with a slight excusatory touch for his own disposition.
"Ah! But you should know my father," she replied. "His is the happy disposition!--Don`t mind, sir!" For his reserve took the alarm at a step upon the stairs, and he distrusted that he would be set down for a troublesome intruder. "This is my father coming."
The door opened, and the father paused there.
"Why, Lamps!" exclaimed Barbox Brothers, starting from his chair. "How do you do, Lamps?"
To which Lamps responded: "The gentleman for Nowhere! How do you DO, sir?"
And they shook hands, to the greatest admiration and surprise of Lamp`s daughter.
"I have looked you up half-a-dozen times since that night," said Barbox Brothers, "but have never found you."
"So I`ve heerd on, sir, so I`ve heerd on," returned Lamps. "It`s your being noticed so often down at the Junction, without taking any train, that has begun to get you the name among us of the gentleman for Nowhere. No offence in my having called you by it when took by surprise, I hope, sir?"
"None at all. It`s as good a name for me as any other you could call me by. But may I ask you a question in the corner here?"
Lamps suffered himself to be led aside from his daughter`s couch by one of the buttons of his velveteen jacket.
"Is this the bedside where you sing your songs?"
The gentleman for Nowhere clapped him on the shoulder, and they faced about again.
"Upon my word, my dear," said Lamps then to his daughter, looking from her to her visitor, "it is such an amaze to me, to find you brought acquainted with this gentleman, that I must (if this gentleman will excuse me) take a rounder."
Mr. Lamps demonstrated in action what this meant, by pulling out his oily handkerchief rolled up in the form of a ball, and giving himself an elaborate smear, from behind the right ear, up the cheek, across the forehead, and down the other cheek to behind his left ear. After this operation he shone exceedingly.
"It`s according to my custom when particular warmed up by any agitation, sir," he offered by way of apology. "And really, I am throwed into that state of amaze by finding you brought acquainted with Phoebe, that I--that I think I will, if you`ll excuse me, take another rounder." Which he did, seeming to be greatly restored by it.
They were now both standing by the side of her couch, and she was working at her lace-pillow. "Your daughter tells me," said Barbox Brothers, still in a half-reluctant shamefaced way, "that she never sits up."
"No, sir, nor never has done. You see, her mother (who died when she was a year and two months old) was subject to very bad fits, and as she had never mentioned to me that she WAS subject to fits, they couldn`t be guarded against. Consequently, she dropped the baby when took, and this happened."
"It was very wrong of her," said Barbox Brothers with a knitted brow, "to marry you, making a secret of her infirmity.`
"Well, sir!" pleaded Lamps in behalf of the long-deceased. "You see, Phoebe and me, we have talked that over too. And Lord bless us! Such a number on us has our infirmities, what with fits, and what with misfits, of one sort and another, that if we confessed to `em all before we got married, most of us might never get married."
"Might not that be for the better?"
"Not in this case, sir," said Phoebe, giving her hand to her father.
"No, not in this case, sir," said her father, patting it between his own.
"You correct me," returned Barbox Brothers with a blush; "and I must look so like a Brute, that at all events it would be superfluous in me to confess to THAT infirmity. I wish you would tell me a little more about yourselves. I hardly knew how to ask it of you, for I am conscious that I have a bad stiff manner, a dull discouraging way with me, but I wish you would."
"With all our hearts, sir," returned Lamps gaily for both. "And first of all, that you may know my name--"
"Stay!" interposed the visitor with a slight flush. "What signifies your name? Lamps is name enough for me. I like it. It is bright and expressive. What do I want more?"
"Why, to be sure, sir," returned Lamps. "I have in general no other name down at the Junction; but I thought, on account of your being here as a first-class single, in a private character, that you might--"
The visitor waved the thought away with his hand, and Lamps acknowledged the mark of confidence by taking another rounder.
"You are hard-worked, I take for granted?" said Barbox Brothers, when the subject of the rounder came out of it much dirtier than be went into it.
Lamps was beginning, "Not particular so"--when his daughter took him up.
"Oh yes, sir, he is very hard-worked. Fourteen, fifteen, eighteen hours a day. Sometimes twenty-four hours at a time."
"And you," said Barbox Brothers, "what with your school, Phoebe, and what with your lace-making--"
"But my school is a pleasure to me," she interrupted, opening her brown eyes wider, as if surprised to find him so obtuse. "I began it when I was but a child, because it brought me and other children into company, don`t you see? THAT was not work. I carry it on still, because it keeps children about me. THAT is not work. I do it as love, not as work. Then my lace-pillow;" her busy hands had stopped, as if her argument required all her cheerful earnestness, but now went on again at the name; "it goes with my thoughts when I think, and it goes with my tunes when I hum any, and THAT`S not work. Why, you yourself thought it was music, you know, sir. And so it is to me."
"Everything is!" cried Lamps radiantly. "Everything is music to her, sir."
"My father is, at any rate," said Phoebe, exultingly pointing her thin forefinger at him. "There is more music in my father than there is in a brass band."
"I say! My dear! It`s very fillyillially done, you know; but you are flattering your father," he protested, sparkling.
"No, I am not, sir, I assure you. No, I am not. If you could hear my father sing, you would know I am not. But you never will hear him sing, because he never sings to any one but me. However tired he is, he always sings to me when he comes home. When I lay here long ago, quite a poor little broken doll, he used to sing to me. More than that, he used to make songs, bringing in whatever little jokes we had between us. More than that, he often does so to this day. Oh! I`ll tell of you, father, as the gentleman has asked about you. He is a poet, sir."
"I shouldn`t wish the gentleman, my dear," observed Lamps, for the moment turning grave, "to carry away that opinion of your father, because it might look as if I was given to asking the stars in a molloncolly manner what they was up to. Which I wouldn`t at once waste the time, and take the liberty, my dear."
"My father," resumed Phoebe, amending her text, "is always on the bright side, and the good side. You told me, just now, I had a happy disposition. How can I help it?"
"Well; but, my dear," returned Lamps argumentatively, "how can I help it? Put it to yourself sir. Look at her. Always as you see her now. Always working--and after all, sir, for but a very few shillings a week--always contented, always lively, always interested in others, of all sorts. I said, this moment, she was always as you see her now. So she is, with a difference that comes to much the same. For, when it is my Sunday off and the morning bells have done ringing, I hear the prayers and thanks read in the touchingest way, and I have the hymns sung to me--so soft, sir, that you couldn`t hear `em out of this room--in notes that seem to me, I am sure, to come from Heaven and go back to it."
It might have been merely through the association of these words with their sacredly quiet time, or it might have been through the larger association of the words with the Redeemer`s presence beside the bedridden; but here her dexterous fingers came to a stop on the lace-pillow, and clasped themselves around his neck as he bent down. There was great natural sensibility in both father and daughter, the visitor could easily see; but each made it, for the other`s sake, retiring, not demonstrative; and perfect cheerfulness, intuitive or acquired, was either the first or second nature of both. In a very few moments Lamps was taking another rounder with his comical features beaming, while Phoebe`s laughing eyes (just a glistening speck or so upon their lashes) were again directed by turns to him, and to her work, and to Barbox Brothers.
"When my father, sir," she said brightly, "tells you about my being interested in other people, even though they know nothing about me-which, by the bye, I told you myself--you ought to know how that comes about. That`s my father`s doing."
"No, it isn`t!" he protested.
"Don`t you believe him, sir; yes, it is. He tells me of everything he sees down at his work. You would be surprised what a quantity he gets together for me every day. He looks into the carriages, and tells me how the ladies are dressed--so that I know all the fashions! He looks into the carriages, and tells me what pairs of lovers he sees, and what new-married couples on their wedding trip-so that I know all about that! He collects chance newspapers and books--so that I have plenty to read! He tells me about the sick people who are travelling to try to get better--so that I know all about them! In short, as I began by saying, he tells me everything he sees and makes out down at his work, and you can`t think what a quantity he does see and make out."
"As to collecting newspapers and books, my dear," said Lamps, "it`s clear I can have no merit in that, because they`re not my perquisites. You see, sir, it`s this way: A Guard, he`ll say to me, `Hallo, here you are, Lamps. I`ve saved this paper for your daughter. How is she a-going on?` A Head-Porter, he`ll say to me, `Here! Catch hold, Lamps. Here`s a couple of wollumes for your daughter. Is she pretty much where she were?` And that`s what makes it double welcome, you see. If she had a thousand pound in a box, they wouldn`t trouble themselves about her; but being what she is--that is, you understand," Lamps added, somewhat hurriedly, "not having a thousand pound in a box--they take thought for her. And as concerning the young pairs, married and unmarried, it`s only natural I should bring home what little I can about THEM, seeing that there`s not a Couple of either sort in the neighbourhood that don`t come of their own accord to confide in Phoebe."
She raised her eyes triumphantly to Barbox Brothers as she said:
"Indeed, sir, that is true. If I could have got up and gone to church, I don`t know how often I should have been a bridesmaid. But, if I could have done that, some girls in love might have been jealous of me, and, as it is, no girl is jealous of me. And my pillow would not have been half as ready to put the piece of cake under, as I always find it," she added, turning her face on it with a light sigh, and a smile at her father.
The arrival of a little girl, the biggest of the scholars, now led to an understanding on the part of Barbox Brothers, that she was the domestic of the cottage, and had come to take active measures in it, attended by a pail that might have extinguished her, and a broom three times her height. He therefore rose to take his leave, and took it; saying that, if Phoebe had no objection, he would come again.
He had muttered that he would come "in the course of his walks." The course of his walks must have been highly favourable to his return, for he returned after an interval of a single day.
"You thought you would never see me any more, I suppose?" he said to Phoebe as he touched her hand, and sat down by her couch.
"Why should I think so?" was her surprised rejoinder.
"I took it for granted you would mistrust me."
"For granted, sir? Have you been so much mistrusted?"
"I think I am justified in answering yes. But I may have mistrusted, too, on my part. No matter just now. We were speaking of the Junction last time. I have passed hours there since the day before yesterday."
"Are you now the gentleman for Somewhere?" she asked with a smile.
"Certainly for Somewhere; but I don`t yet know Where. You would never guess what I am travelling from. Shall I tell you? I am travelling from my birthday."
Her hands stopped in her work, and she looked at him with incredulous astonishment.
"Yes," said Barbox Brothers, not quite easy in his chair, "from my birthday. I am, to myself, an unintelligible book with the earlier chapters all torn out, and thrown away. My childhood had no grace of childhood, my youth had no charm of youth, and what can be expected from such a lost beginning?" His eyes meeting hers as they were addressed intently to him, something seemed to stir within his breast, whispering: "Was this bed a place for the graces of childhood and the charms of youth to take to kindly? Oh, shame, shame!"
"It is a disease with me," said Barbox Brothers, checking himself, and making as though he had a difficulty in swallowing something, "to go wrong about that. I don`t know how I came to speak of that. I hope it is because of an old misplaced confidence in one of your sex involving an old bitter treachery. I don`t know. I am all wrong together."
Her hands quietly and slowly resumed their work. Glancing at her, he saw that her eyes were thoughtfully following them.
"I am travelling from my birthday," he resumed, "because it has always been a dreary day to me. My first free birthday coming round some five or six weeks hence, I am travelling to put its predecessors far behind me, and to try to crush the day--or, at all events, put it out of my sight--by heaping new objects on it."
As he paused, she looked at him; but only shook her head as being quite at a loss.
"This is unintelligible to your happy disposition," he pursued, abiding by his former phrase as if there were some lingering virtue of self-defence in it. "I knew it would be, and am glad it is. However, on this travel of mine (in which I mean to pass the rest of my days, having abandoned all thought of a fixed home), I stopped, as you have heard from your father, at the Junction here. The extent of its ramifications quite confused me as to whither I should go, FROM here. I have not yet settled, being still perplexed among so many roads. What do you think I mean to do? How many of the branching roads can you see from your window?"
Looking out, full of interest, she answered, "Seven."
"Seven," said Barbox Brothers, watching her with a grave smile. "Well! I propose to myself at once to reduce the gross number to those very seven, and gradually to fine them down to one--the most promising for me--and to take that."
"But how will you know, sir, which IS the most promising?" she asked, with her brightened eyes roving over the view.
"Ah!" said Barbox Brothers with another grave smile, and considerably improving in his ease of speech. "To be sure. In this way. Where your father can pick up so much every day for a good purpose, I may once and again pick up a little for an indifferent purpose. The gentleman for Nowhere must become still better known at the Junction. He shall continue to explore it, until he attaches something that he has seen, heard, or found out, at the head of each of the seven roads, to the road itself. And so his choice of a road shall be determined by his choice among his discoveries."
Her hands still busy, she again glanced at the prospect, as if it comprehended something that had not been in it before, and laughed as if it yielded her new pleasure.
"But I must not forget," said Barbox Brothers, "(having got so far) to ask a favour. I want your help in this expedient of mine. I want to bring you what I pick up at the heads of the seven roads that you lie here looking out at, and to compare notes with you about it. May I? They say two heads are better than one. I should say myself that probably depends upon the heads concerned. But I am quite sure, though we are so newly acquainted, that your head and your father`s have found out better things, Phoebe, than ever mine of itself discovered."
She gave him her sympathetic right hand, in perfect rapture with his proposal, and eagerly and gratefully thanked him.
"That`s well!" said Barbox Brothers. "Again I must not forget (having got so far) to ask a favour. Will you shut your eyes?"
Laughing playfully at the strange nature of the request, she did so.
"Keep them shut," said Barbox Brothers, going softly to the door, and coming back. "You are on your honour, mind, not to open you eyes until I tell you that you may?"
"Yes! On my honour."
"Good. May I take your lace-pillow from you for a minute?"
Still laughing and wondering, she removed her hands from it, and he put it aside.
"Tell me. Did you see the puffs of smoke and steam made by the morning fast-train yesterday on road number seven from here?"
"Behind the elm-trees and the spire?"
"That`s the road," said Barbox Brothers, directing his eyes towards it.
"Yes. I watched them melt away."
"Anything unusual in what they expressed?"
"No!" she answered merrily.
"Not complimentary to me, for I was in that train. I went--don`t open your eyes--to fetch you this, from the great ingenious town. It is not half so large as your lace-pillow, and lies easily and lightly in its place. These little keys are like the keys of a miniature piano, and you supply the air required with your left hand. May you pick out delightful music from it, my dear! For the present--you can open your eyes now--good-bye!"
In his embarrassed way, he closed the door upon himself, and only saw, in doing so, that she ecstatically took the present to her bosom and caressed it. The glimpse gladdened his heart, and yet saddened it; for so might she, if her youth had flourished in its natural course, having taken to her breast that day the slumbering music of her own child`s voice.