AT thirteen our young Englishman was pale and undersized. Like his mother he was a trifle exopthalmic. His features were delicate and undistinguished and his bearing circumspect. Some more vigorous element in his heredity, however, struggled against the effects of his early restriction; he grew irregularly and inelegantly to average proportions, and his profile became firmer as he got into his later teens. There was a repressed drive in him throughout his life — as we shall see. He did not actually cease growing until he was nearly thirty.
For some reason he never learnt either to whistle properly or throw hard. His mother may have checked early attempts at whistling, and so he developed a sort of hiss-whistle with his upper teeth well over the lower. And as for throwing, he was. ambidextrous, which in fact meant that he was not dexterous with either hand. He lobbed with his left hand and learnt belatedly to throw with his right. He could never throw very high or very far, and that was just as well, because an undetected astigmatism made his direction uncertain. In those days there was no examination of school children’s eyes; you had to put up with the eyes God had given you. So that he also jumped uncertainly and to the best of his ability avoided jumping.
His life had been so completely shielded from mental or physical harm that until he went to Mr Myame’s school for young gentlemen at the age of eleven and a half, he had no child associates whatever. But there he found school-fellows, and some of them were even permitted to invite him home to tea. He always had to assure his mother they were nice little boys before she allowed him to go. They had families, sisters and cousins, and his circle increased.
He became a boarder instead of a day boy in Mr Myame’s Commercial Academy when his mother died, and for a time he shared the bleak “Joseph Hart” dormitory, the larger one, with six other boys, which the ever-solicitous Mr Myame in list slippers might prowl through at any hour of the night.
And since Edward Albert had no home to go to, his first summer holidays were spent among the alarming circumstances of animal life at large and unashamed, in a Wiltshire farm belonging to Mr Myame’s brother-inlaw. There were fields in which great cows grazed and stared at you, chewing slowly as they meditated your death, and there was not the slightest protection for the passer-by. There were horses, and once at sundown three of them started galumphing round a field most terrifyingly. Edward Albert dreamt about it afterwards. There were unmuzzled dogs. There was a lot of poultry with no sense of decency whatever. Awful! And you couldn’t help looking and you sort of knew and you sort of didn’t know. And you didn’t want anyone to see you were looking, either. There were ducks, but they weren’t so bad. There were geese that would come at you very alarmingly if you went near them, but then you needn’t go near them, and otherwise they were perfectly respectable. They disapproved, it seemed, of everybody. And there was Master Horace Budd, aged ten,, very sturdy and rosy, who was coming back to London to be a boarder, too, next quarter.
“I promised Mother not to hit you,” said Master Horry, “and I won’t. But if you want a fight —”
“I don’t want a fight,” said Edward Albert. “I don’t fight,”
“Not just a punching match?”
“No. I don’t like fighting.”
“I promised Mother. Why won’t you come and ride on the old horse like I do?”
“I don’t want to.”
“I didn’t promise anything about not setting Boxer on to you.”
“If you do anything to me,” said Edward Albert, “anything I don’t like, I’ll kill you. I’ll just kill you. I know away. See?”
This gave Horry pause. “Nobody’s talking of killing people,” he said.
“I am” said Edward Albert.
“Oh, come and feed the rabbits,” said Horry, and then after a pause for reflection. “You got a knife?”
Edward Albert whistled after his fashion for a moment or so. “I don’t do it that way,” he said. “I got a way of my own.”
He had a way of his own in his imagination. For behind his unobtrusive fa9ade Edward Albert led a life of lurid reverie. He liked to be the still man who never spoke, the Secret Killer, the Avenger, the Hand of Doom. And he and Bert Bloxham, with the big fair cranium, and Nuts MacBryde of the warts, belonged to a secret society, the Hidden Hand of Camden Town. It had passwords and secret signs, and you were admitted by an Ordeal. You had to stand with your finger in a gas-jet for five seconds. It hurt no end, you smarted for days afterwards, and you could smell your flesh burning. But let it be recorded that Edward Albert stood up to the test. He licked his finger first, but Bert Bloxham, who hadn’t thought of that, made him wipe it dry.
The headquarters of the Hidden Hand of Camden Town were in the room over the disused stable behind Bert Bloxham’s aunt’s house. You went up to it by an almost vertical ladder. She was an extremely indifferent aunt, a heavy, silent woman in chapel, and with no trace of family resemblance to Bertie, and she never on any occasion ventured up that ladder. So the Hidden Hand had an admirable library of “bloods” stowed away there, and three black masks and three dark lanterns which stank of Brunswick Black when they were lit, an air-gun and a knuckle-duster, and there it planned a reign of terror that reached from King’s Cross to Primrose Hill. Little did the people of that region know how terrorised they were.
On dark winter evenings the Hidden Hand would prowl sometimes for as long as an hour, with their dark lanterns nestling hotly inside their jackets and their masks on, actually on, except when a policeman was spotted. Then “Nix and we dissemble.”
In this fashion these desperadoes just raised hell. They swore and used forbidden words — Nuts’ every other word was an oath — he thought nothing of saying “Godormighty” — and they had a pack of real cards, “the Devil’s picture — books”, and gambled with them at Beat your Neighbour out of doors and Grab and suchlike skin games for almost unlimited stakes. Afterwards Nuts learnt Map from a cousin. For some obscure reason they always played for dollars and generally wore their masks while doing so. They swore and spat. They did not play for cash, they gave chits and kept a record, and at one time Nuts owed Edward Albert over five thousand dollars and Bert half as much again. That was a pretty load to carry for boys still under thirteen. Since it was quite within the range of possibilities that they would be smelt over when they went home, they did not smoke. Nuts had tried chewing tobacco, using a partially-smoked cigarette he had picked up, but his reaction was so prompt and so extremely unpleasant for everyone concerned that the experiment was not repeated.
Such was the hidden life that flowed darkly beneath the fair surface of Edward Albert’s meek discretion.
His mother, remarking how often he went to tea with Bert Bloxham or the MacBrydes — though indeed he never went near the MacBrydes — suggested a return of hospitality. For a time he was disposed to resist this. He did not know what his mother would think of Nuts’ vocabulary if perchance his tongue was loosened, nor did he know what his fellow-toughs of the Hidden Hand might think of his home life. She pressed the proposal. “They’re regular chaps,” he said. All the more reason for knowing them. He stipulated for fruit cake and ice cream.
“Of course, darling,” said his mother.
“They may seem a bit rough,” he said.
“All boys are rough,” she said flatteringly.
She did them well. They both came looking morbidly clean, and for a while everyone was too busy feeding Tor any other sort of behaviour. They made noises, but good wholesome noises, and chiefly when they drank. “Thank you, Mam,” they said to all Mrs Tewler’s proposals, and for a time they hardly said anything else. Sighs of satisfaction marked the conclusion of the feast.
“I wish I had your appetites,” said Mrs Tewler.
And then came the crucial moment when Mrs Tewler said, “And now what shall we do?” But she knew just what they were going to do. And believe it or not, these devils incarnate, these gamblers who thought nothing of staking a hundred dollars on a single throw, these wicked toughs who clothed themselves with cursing as with a garment, became as little children again. The Hidden Hand played Snakes and Ladders and Race Game and said “Thank you for our luvlay tea, Mam,” just as though they really were the quite nice little boys Edward Albert had said they were.
Bert belched slightly as he said it, but Mother had not seemed to be aware of that.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15