On the threshold
My father sent me to bed early that night, though I was very eager to stay up, for every word which this man said held my attention. His face, his manner, the large waves and sweeps of his white hands, his easy air of superiority, his fantastic fashion of talk, all filled me with interest and wonder. But, as I afterwards learned, their conversation was to be about myself and my own prospects, so I was despatched to my room, whence far into the night I could hear the deep growl of my father and the rich tones of my uncle, with an occasional gentle murmur from my mother, as they talked in the room beneath. I had dropped asleep at last, when I was awakened suddenly by something wet being pressed against my face, and by two warm arms which were cast round me. My mother’s cheek was against my own, and I could hear the click of her sobs, and feel her quiver and shake in the darkness. A faint light stole through the latticed window, and I could dimly see that she was in white, with her black hair loose upon her shoulders. “You won’t forget us, Roddy? You won’t forget us?” “Why, mother, what is it?” “Your uncle, Roddy - he is going to take you away from us.” “When, mother?” “To-morrow.” God forgive me, how my heart bounded for joy, when hers, which was within touch of it, was breaking with sorrow! “Oh, mother!” I cried. “To London?” “First to Brighton, that he may present you to the Prince. Next day to London, where you will meet the great people, Roddy, and learn to look down upon - to look down upon your poor, simple, old-fashioned father and mother.” I put my arms about her to console her, but she wept so that, for all my seventeen years and pride of manhood, it set me weeping also, and with such a hiccoughing noise, since I had not a woman’s knack of quiet tears, that it finally turned her own grief to laughter. “Charles would be flattered if he could see the gracious way in which we receive his kindness,” said she. “Be still, Roddy dear, or you will certainly wake him.” “I’ll not go if it is to grieve you,” I cried. “Nay, dear, you must go, for it may be the one great chance of your life. And think how proud it will make us all when we hear of you in the company of Charles’s grand friends. But you will promise me not to gamble, Roddy? You heard to-night of the dreadful things which come from it.” “I promise you, mother.” “And you will be careful of wine, Roddy? You are young and unused to it.” “Yes, mother.” “And play-actresses also, Roddy. And you will not cast your underclothing until June is in. Young Master Overton came by his death through it. Think well of your dress, Roddy, so as to do your uncle credit, for it is the thing for which he is himself most famed. You have but to do what he will direct. But if there is a time when you are not meeting grand people, you can wear out your country things, for your brown coat is as good as new, and the blue one, if it were ironed and relined, would take you through the summer. I have put out your Sunday clothes with the nankeen vest, since you are to see the Prince to-morrow, and you will wear your brown silk stockings and buckle shoes. Be guarded in crossing the London streets, for I am told that the hackney coaches are past all imagining. Fold your clothes when you go to bed, Roddy, and do not forget your evening prayers, for, oh, my dear boy, the days of temptation are at hand, when I will no longer be with you to help you.” So with advice and guidance both for this world and the next did my mother, with her soft, warm arms around me, prepare me for the great step which lay before me. My uncle did not appear at breakfast in the morning, but Ambrose brewed him a dish of chocolate and took it to his room. When at last, about midday, he did descend, he was so fine with his curled hair, his shining teeth, his quizzing glass, his snow-white ruffles, and his laughing eyes, that I could not take my gaze from him. “Well, nephew,” he cried, “what do you think of the prospect of coming to town with me?” “I thank you, sir, for the kind interest which you take in me,” said I. “But you must be a credit to me. My nephew must be of the best if he is to be in keeping with the rest of me.” “You’ll find him a chip of good wood, sir,” said my father. “We must make him a polished chip before we have done with him. Your aim, my dear nephew, must always be to be in bon ton. It is not a case of wealth, you understand. Mere riches cannot do it. Golden Price has forty thousand a year, but his clothes are disastrous. I assure you that I saw him come down St. James’s Street the other day, and I was so shocked at his appearance that I had to step into Vernet’s for a glass of orange brandy. No, it is a question of natural taste, and of following the advice and example of those who are more experienced than yourself.” “I fear, Charles, that Roddy’s wardrobe is country-made,” said my mother. “We shall soon set that right when we get to town. We shall see what Stultz or Weston can do for him,” my uncle answered. “We must keep him quiet until he has some clothes to wear.” This slight upon my best Sunday suit brought a flush to my mother’s cheeks, which my uncle instantly observed, for he was quick in noticing trifles. “The clothes are very well for Friar’s Oak, sister Mary,” said he. “And yet you can understand that they might seem rococo in the Mall. If you leave him in my hands I shall see to the matter.” “On how much, sir,” asked my father, “can a young man dress in town?” “With prudence and reasonable care, a young man of fashion can dress upon eight hundred a year,” my uncle answered. I saw my poor father’s face grow longer. “I fear, sir, that Roddy must keep his country clothes,” said he. “Even with my prize-money - ” “Tut, sir!” cried my uncle. “I already owe Weston something over a thousand, so how can a few odd hundreds affect it? If my nephew comes with me, my nephew is my care. The point is settled, and I must refuse to argue upon it.” He waved his white hands as if to brush aside all opposition. My parents tried to thank him, but he cut them short. “By the way, now that I am in Friar’s Oak, there is another small piece of business which I have to perform,” said he. “I believe that there is a fighting-man named Harrison here, who at one time might have held the championship. In those days poor Avon and I were his principal backers. I should like to have a word with him.” You may think how proud I was to walk down the village street with my magnificent relative, and to note out of the corner of my eye how the folk came to the doors and windows to see us pass. Champion Harrison was standing outside the smithy, and he pulled his cap off when he saw my uncle. “God bless me, sir! Who’d ha’ thought of seem’ you at Friar’s Oak? Why, Sir Charles, it brings old memories back to look at your face again.” “Glad to see you looking so fit, Harrison,” said my uncle, running his eyes over him. “Why, with a week’s training you would be as good a man as ever. I don’t suppose you scale more than thirteen and a half?” “Thirteen ten, Sir Charles. I’m in my fortieth year, but I am sound in wind and limb, and if my old woman would have let me off my promise, I’d ha’ had a try with some of these young ones before now. I hear that they’ve got some amazin’ good stuff up from Bristol of late.” “Yes, the Bristol yellowman has been the winning colour of late. How d’ye do, Mrs. Harrison? I don’t suppose you remember me?” She had come out from the house, and I noticed that her worn face - on which some past terror seemed to have left its shadow - hardened into stern lines as she looked at my uncle. “I remember you too well, Sir Charles Tregellis,” said she. “I trust that you have not come here to-day to try to draw my husband back into the ways that he has forsaken.” “That’s the way with her, Sir Charles,” said Harrison, resting his great hand upon the woman’s shoulder. “She’s got my promise, and she holds me to it! There was never a better or more hard-working wife, but she ain’t what you’d call a patron of sport, and that’s a fact.” “Sport!” cried the woman, bitterly. “A fine sport for you, Sir Charles, with your pleasant twenty-mile drive into the country and your luncheon-basket and your wines, and so merrily back to London in the cool of the evening, with a well-fought battle to talk over. Think of the sport that it was to me to sit through the long hours, listening for the wheels of the chaise which would bring my man back to me. Sometimes he could walk in, and sometimes he was led in, and sometimes he was carried in, and it was only by his clothes that I could know him - ” “Come, wifie,” said Harrison, patting her on the shoulder. “I’ve been cut up in my time, but never as bad as that.” “And then to live for weeks afterwards with the fear that every knock at the door may be to tell us that the other is dead, and that my man may have to stand in the dock and take his trial for murder.” “No, she hasn’t got a sportin’ drop in her veins,” said Harrison. “She’d never make a patron, never! It’s Black Baruk’s business that did it, when we thought he’d napped it once too often. Well, she has my promise, and I’ll never sling my hat over the ropes unless she gives me leave.” “You’ll keep your hat on your head like an honest, God-fearing man, John,” said his wife, turning back into the house. “I wouldn’t for the world say anything to make you change your resolutions,” said my uncle. “At the same time, if you had wished to take a turn at the old sport, I had a good thing to put in your way.” “Well, it’s no use, sir,” said Harrison, “but I’d be glad to hear about it all the same.” “They have a very good bit of stuff at thirteen stone down Gloucester way. Wilson is his name, and they call him Crab on account of his style.” Harrison shook his head. “Never heard of him, sir.” “Very likely not, for he has never shown in the P.R. But they think great things of him in the West, and he can hold his own with either of the Belchers with the mufflers.” “Sparrin’ ain’t fightin’,” said the smith “I am told that he had the best of it in a by-battle with Noah James, of Cheshire.” “There’s no gamer man on the list, sir, than Noah James, the guardsman,” said Harrison. “I saw him myself fight fifty rounds after his jaw had been cracked in three places. If Wilson could beat him, Wilson will go far.” “So they think in the West, and they mean to spring him on the London talent. Sir Lothian Hume is his patron, and to make a long story short, he lays me odds that I won’t find a young one of his weight to meet him. I told him that I had not heard of any good young ones, but that I had an old one who had not put his foot into a ring for many years, who would make his man wish he had never come to London. “‘Young or old, under twenty or over thirty-five, you may bring whom you will at the weight, and I shall lay two to one on Wilson,’ said he. I took him in thousands, and here I am.” “It won’t do, Sir Charles,” said the smith, shaking his head. “There’s nothing would please me better, but you heard for yourself.” “Well, if you won’t fight, Harrison, I must try to get some promising colt. I’d be glad of your advice in the matter. By the way, I take the chair at a supper of the Fancy at the Waggon and Horses in St. Martin’s Lane next Friday. I should be very glad if you will make one of my guests. Halloa, who’s this?” Up flew his glass to his eye. Boy Jim had come out from the forge with his hammer in his hand. He had, I remember, a grey flannel shirt, which was open at the neck and turned up at the sleeves. My uncle ran his eyes over the fine lines of his magnificent figure with the glance of a connoisseur. “That’s my nephew, Sir Charles.” “Is he living with you?” “His parents are dead.” “Has he ever been in London?” “No, Sir Charles. He’s been with me here since he was as high as that hammer.” My uncle turned to Boy Jim. “I hear that you have never been in London,” said he. “Your uncle is coming up to a supper which I am giving to the Fancy next Friday. Would you care to make one of us?” Boy Jim’s dark eyes sparkled with pleasure. “I should be glad to come, sir.” “No, no, Jim,” cried the smith, abruptly. “I’m sorry to gainsay you, lad, but there are reasons why I had rather you stayed down here with your aunt.” “Tut, Harrison, let the lad come!” cried my uncle. “No, no, Sir Charles. It’s dangerous company for a lad of his mettle. There’s plenty for him to do when I’m away.” Poor Jim turned away with a clouded brow and strode into the smithy again. For my part, I slipped after him to try to console him, and to tell him all the wonderful changes which had come so suddenly into my life. But I had not got half through my story, and Jim, like the good fellow that he was, had just begun to forget his own troubles in his delight at my good fortune, when my uncle called to me from without. The curricle with its tandem mares was waiting for us outside the cottage, and Ambrose had placed the refection-basket, the lap-dog, and the precious toilet-box inside of it. He had himself climbed up behind, and I, after a hearty handshake from my father, and a last sobbing embrace from my mother, took my place beside my uncle in the front. “Let go her head!” cried he to the ostler, and with a snap, a crack, and a jingle, away we went upon our journey. Across all the years how clearly I can see that spring day, with the green English fields, the windy English sky, and the yellow, beetle-browed cottage in which I had grown from a child to a man. I see, too, the figures at the garden gate: my mother, with her face turned away and her handkerchief waving; my father, with his blue coat and his white shorts, leaning upon his stick with his hand shading his eyes as he peered after us. All the village was out to see young Roddy Stone go off with his grand relative from London to call upon the Prince in his own palace. The Harrisons were waving to me from the smithy, and John Cummings from the steps of the inn, and I saw Joshua Allen, my old schoolmaster, pointing me out to the people, as if he were showing what came from his teaching. To make it complete, who should drive past just as we cleared the village but Miss Hinton, the play-actress, the pony and phaeton the same as when first I saw her, but she herself another woman; and I thought to myself that if Boy Jim had done nothing but that one thing, he need not think that his youth had been wasted in the country. She was driving to see him, I have no doubt, for they were closer than ever, and she never looked up nor saw the hand that I waved to her. So as we took the curve of the road the little village vanished, and there in the dip of the Downs, past the spires of Patcham and of Preston, lay the broad blue sea and the grey houses of Brighton, with the strange Eastern domes and minarets of the Prince’s Pavilion shooting out from the centre of it. To every traveller it was a sight of beauty, but to me it was the world - the great wide free world - and my heart thrilled and fluttered as the young bird’s may when it first hears the whirr of its own flight, and skims along with the blue heaven above it and the green fields beneath. The day may come when it may look back regretfully to the snug nest in the thornbush, but what does it reck of that when spring is in the air and youth in its blood, and the old hawk of trouble has not yet darkened the sunshine with the ill-boding shadow of its wings?