He was on his way from his bachelor flat to the club, a man of middle age with a slight stoop, and an expression of face firm yet gentle, the blue eyes with light and courage in them, and a faint hint of melancholy—or was it resignation?—about the strong mouth. It was early in April, a slight drizzle of warm rain falling through the coming dusk; but spring was in the air, a bird sang rapturously on a pavement tree. And the man’s heart wakened at the sound, for it was the lift of the year, and low in the western sky above the London roofs there was a band of tender colour.
His way led him past one of the great terminal stations that open the gates of London seawards; the birds, the coloured clouds, and the thought of a sunny coast-line worked simultaneously in his heart. These messages of spring woke music in him. The music, however, found no expression, beyond a quiet sigh, so quiet that not even a child, had he carried one in his big arms, need have noticed it. His pace quickened, his figure straightened up, he lifted his eyes and there was a new light in them. Upon the wet pavement, where the street lamps already laid their network of faint gold, he saw, perhaps a dozen yards front of him, the figure of a little boy.
The boy, for some reason, caught his attention and his interest vividly. He was dressed in Etons, the broad white collar badly rumpled, the pointed coat hitched grotesquely sidedays, while, from beneath the rather grimy straw hat, his thick light hair escaped at various angles. This general air of effort and distress was due to the fact that the little fellow was struggling with a bag packed evidently to bursting point, too big and heavy for him to manage for more than ten yards at a time. He changed it from one hand to the other, resting it in the intervals upon the ground, each effort making it rub against his leg so that the trousers were hoisted considerably above the boot. He was a pathetic figure.
‘I must help him,’ said the man. ‘He’ll never get there at this rate. He’ll miss his train to the sea.’ For his destination was obvious, since a pair of wooden spades was tied clumsily and insecurely to the straps of the bursting bag.
Occasionally, too, the lad, who seemed about ten years old, looked about him to right and left, questionably, anxiously, as though he expected someone—someone to help, or perhaps to meet him. His behaviour even gave the impression that he was not quite sure of his way. The man hurried to overtake him.
‘I really must give the little beggar a hand,’ he repeated to himself, as he went. He smiled. The fatherly, protective side of him, naturally strong, was touched—touched a little more, perhaps, than the occasion seemed to warrant. The smile broadened into a jolly laugh, as he came up against the great stuffed bag, now resting on the pavement, its owner panting beside it, still looking to right and left alternately. At which instant, exactly, the boy, hearing his step, turned round, and for the first time looked him full in the face with a pair of big blue eyes that held unabashed and happy welcome in them.
‘Oh, I say, sir, it’s most awfully ripping of you,’ he said in a confiding voice, before the man had time to speak. ‘I hunted everywhere; but I never thought of looking behind me.’
But the man, standing dumb and astonished for a few seconds beside the little fellow, missed the latter sentence altogether, for there was in the clear blue eyes an expression so trustful, so frankly affectionate almost, and in the voice music of so natural a kind, that all the tenderness in him rose; like a sudden tide, and he yearned towards the boy as though he were his little son.
Thought, born of some sudden revival of emotion, flashed back swiftly across a stretch of twelve blank years. . . and for an instant the lines of the mouth grew deeper, though in the eyes the light turned softer, brighter. . .
‘It’s too big for you, my boy,’ he said, recovering himself with a jolly laugh; ‘or, rather, you’re not big enough—yet—for it—eh! Where to, now? Ah! the station, I suppose?’ And he stooped to grasp the handles of the bulging bag, first poking the spades more securely in beneath the straps; but in doing so became aware that something the boy had said had given him pain. What was it? Why was it? This stray little stranger, met upon the London pavements! Yet so swift is thought that, even while he stooped and before his fingers actually touched the leather, he had found what hurt him—and smiled a little at himself. It was the mode of address the boy made use of, contradicting faintly the affectionate expression in the eyes. It was the word ‘sir’ that made him feel like a schoolmaster or a tutor; it made him feel old. It was not the word he needed, and— yes—had longed for, somehow almost expected. And there was such strange trouble in his mind and heart that, as he grasped the bag, he did not catch the boy’s rejoinder to his question. But, of course, it must be the railway station; he was going to the seaside for Easter; his people would be at the ticket-office waiting for him. Bracing himself a little for the effort, he seized the leather handles and lifted the bag from the ground.
‘Oh, thanks awfully, sir!’ repeated the boy. He watched him with a true schoolboy grin of gratitude, as though it were great fun, yet also with a true urchin’s sense that the proper thing had happened, since such jobs, of course, were for grown-up men. And this time, though he used the objectionable word again, the voice betrayed recognition of the fact that he somehow had a right to look to this particular man for help, and that this particular man only did the right and natural thing in giving help.
But the man, swaying sideways, nearly lost his balance. He had calculated automatically the probable energy necessary to lift the weight; he had put this energy forth. He received a shock as though he had been struck, for the bag had no weight at all; it was as light as a feather. It might have been of tissue-paper, a phantom bag. And the shock was mental as well as physical. His mind swayed with his body.
‘By jove!’ cried the boy, strutting merrily beside him, hands in his pockets. ‘Thanks most awfully. This is jolly!’
The objectionable word was omitted, but the man scarcely heard the words at all. For a mist swam before his eyes, the street lamps grew blurred and distant, the drizzle thickened in the air. He still heard the wild, sweet song of the bird, still knew the west had gold upon its lips. It was the rest of the world about him that grew dim. Strange thoughts rose in a cloud. Reality and dream played games, the games of childhood, through his heart. Memories, robed flamingly, trooped past his inner sight, radiant, swift and as of yesterday, closing his eyelids for a moment to the outer world. Rossetti came to him, singing too sweetly a hidden pain in perfect words across those twelve blank years: ‘The Hour that might have been, yet might not be, which man’s and woman’s heart conceived and bore, yet whereof time was barren. . .’ In a second’s flash the entire sonnet, ‘Stillborn Love’, passed on this inner screen ‘with eyes where burning memory lights love home. . .’
Mingled with these—all in an instant of time—came practical thoughts as well. This boy! The ridiculous effort he made to carry this ridiculously light bag! The poignant tenderness, the awakened yearning! Was it a girl dressed up? The happy face, the innocent, confiding smile, the music in the voice, the dear soft blue eyes, and yet, at the same time, something that was not there—some indescribable, incalculable element that was lacking. He felt acutely this curious lack. What was it? Who was this merry youngster? He glanced down cautiously as they moved side by side. He felt shy, hopeful, marvellously tender. His heart yearned inexpressibly; the boy, looking elsewhere, did not notice the examination, did not notice, of course, that his companion caught his breath and walked uncertainly.
But the man was troubled. The face reminded him, as he gazed, of many children, of children he had loved and played with, both boys and girls, his Substitute Children, as he had always called them in his heart. . . Then, suddenly, the boy came closer and took his arm. They were close upon the station now. The sweet human perfume of a small, deeply loved, helpless and dependent little life rose past his face.
He suddenly blurted out: ‘But, I say, this bag of yours—it weighs simply nothing!’
The boy laughed—a ring of true careless joy was in the sound. He looked up.
‘Do you know what’s in it? Shall I tell you?’ He added in a whisper: ‘I will, if you like.’ But the man was suddenly afraid and dared not ask.
‘Brown paper probably,’ he evaded laughingly; ‘or birds’ eggs. You’ve been up to some wicked lark or other.’
The little chap clasped both hands upon the supporting arm. He took a quick, dancing step or two, then stopped dead, and made the man stop with him. He stood on tiptoe to reach the distant ear. His face wore a lovely smile of truth and trust and delight.
‘My future,’ he whispered. And the man turned into ice.
They entered the great station. The last of the daylight was shut out. They reached the ticketoffice. The crowds hurrying people surged about them. The man set down the bag. For a moment or two the boy looked quickly about him to right and left, searching, then turned his big blue eyes upon the other with his radiant smile:
‘She’s in the waiting-room as usual,’ he said. ‘I’ll go and fetch her—though she ought to know you’re here.’ He stood on tiptoe, his hands upon the other’s shoulders, his face thrust close. ‘Kiss me, father. I shan’t be a second.’
‘You little beggar!’ said the man, in a voice he could not control; then, opening his big arms wide, saw only an empty space before him.
He turned and walked slowly back to his flat instead of to the club; and when he got home he read over for the thousandth time the letter—its ink a little faded during the twelve intervening years—in which she had accepted his love two short weeks before death took her.