Two Boys, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The White Wolf and Other Fireside Tales

I daresay they never saw, and perhaps never will see, one another. I met them on separate railway journeys, and the dates are divided by five years almost. One boy was travelling third-class, the other first. The age of each when I made his very slight acquaintance (with the one I did not even exchange a word) was about fourteen. Almost certainly their lives and their stories have no connection outside of my thoughts. But I think of them often, and together. They have grown up; the younger will be a man by this time; if I met them now, their altered faces would probably be quite strange to me. Yet the two boys remain my friends, and that is why I take leave to include them among these stories of my friends.

I.

The first boy (I never heard his name) was seated in the third-class smoking-carriage when I joined my train at Plymouth; seated beside his mother, an over-heated countrywoman in a state of subsiding fussiness. We had a good five minutes to wait, but, as such women always will, she had made a bolt for the first door within reach. Of course she found herself in a smoking compartment, and of course she disliked tobacco, but could not, although she made two false starts, make up her mind to change. She had dropped upon one of the middle seats and dragged her boy down into the next, thus leaving me the only vacant corner. The others were occupied by a couple of drovers and a middle-aged man with a newspaper, which he read column by column, advertisements and all, without raising his eyes for a moment.

The guard just outside the carriage door had his whistle to his lips, and his green flag lifted ready to wave, when the woman asked— "Can anyone tell me if this train goes to London?"

The drovers and I assured her that it did.

"It stops at Bristol, doesn't it? My ticket is for Bristol."

The train was in motion by this time. We set her mind at ease. She opened a limp basket (called a "frail" I believe), produced an apple and offered it to the boy. He shook his head.

He was a passably good-looking coltish boy, in a best suit which he had outgrown, and a hard black hat, the brim of which annoyed him when he leaned back. A binding of black braid advertised what it was meant to conceal—that the cuffs of his jacket had been lengthened; yet as he sat with his hands crossed in his lap he displayed a deal of wrist.

His eyes took my liking at once; eyes of a good grey-black—or, shall I say, of a grey with fine glooms in it. They looked at you straight but without staring; neither furtively nor with embarrassment, nor curiously, nor again sleepily, but with that rare blend of candour and reserve which allowed you to see that he was thinking his own thoughts, and had no reason to be ashamed of them. Having taken stock of us, he gazed thoughtfully out of window. His mother sighed from time to time, and searched her basket to make sure that this, that, or the other trifle had not been left behind. The drovers conversed apart; the middle-aged man (who sat facing the engine) read away pertinaciously at his newspaper, which he kept folded small by reason of the strong southerly breeze playing in through the open window; and I divided my attention between the landscape and the map at the beginning of Stevenson's Kidnapped—then barely a week old, a delight to be approached with trepidation.

So we were sitting when the train crawled over the metals beyond Teignmouth Station, gathered speed, and swung into full view of the open sea. As the first strong breath of it came rushing in at the window I heard a shuffle of feet. The boy had risen, and with his eyes was asking our leave to stand by the door. I drew in my knees to make way for him, and so, after a moment, did the middle-aged man. He did not thank us, but stepped past politely enough and stood with his hand on the leathern window-strap. I stared out of the little side window, wondering what had caught his attention.

And while I wondered, suddenly the child broke into song!

It was the queerest artless performance: it had no tune in it, no intelligible words—it was just a chant rising and falling as the surf at the base of the sea-wall boomed and tossed its spray on the wind fanning his face. And while he chanted, his serious eyes devoured the blue leagues right away to the horizon.

The drovers at the far end of the compartment turned their faces inward and grinned. The middle-aged man looked across at me behind the boy's back with half a smile and resumed his reading. The mother laughed apologetically—

"'Tis his way. He won't be so crazed for it in a few weeks' time, I reckon. He's goin' up to Bristol to be bound apprentice to his uncle. His uncle's master of a sailing ship."

But the boy did not hear. There are four or five tunnels in the red sandstone between Teignmouth and Dawlish, and through these he sang on in a low repressed voice, which broke out high and clear and strong as we swept again into the large wind and sunshine. At Dawlish Station we drew up for a minute, and a porter on the up platform nodded to one of the drovers and asked, "What's the matter with 'ee, in there?" "Nothin', nothin'; we've got a smokin'-concert on," said the drover. Across the rails a group waiting for the down train stood and stared at the boy, whispered, and smiled; and I can still recall the fascinated gaze of a plump urchin of six as he gripped with one hand a wooden spade and with the other his mother's skirt.

But the boy sang on heedless, and still sang on as we left Dawlish behind. There was no jubilation in his chant, but through it all there ran and rang out from time to time a note of high challenge. Perhaps I read too much in it, for in the heart of a boy many thoughts sing together before they come to birth,—and to the destinies we see so distinctly he marches through a haze, drawn onward by incommunicable yearnings. But as, unseen by him, I glanced up at his blown hair and eager parted lips, the chant seemed to grow articulate—

"O Sea, I am coming! O fate, waiting and waited for, I salute you! Friend or adversary, we meet to try each other: for your wonders I have eyes, for your trials a heart. Use me, for I am ready!"

As we turned inland and ran beside the shore of the Exe, his song died down and ceased. For a while he stood conning the river, the boats, the red cliffs and whitewashed towns on the farther bank; and so, as we came in sight of the cathedral towers, stepped back and dropped into his seat.

"Well now," said his mother, "you be a funny boy!"

For a moment he did not seem to hear; then started and came out of his day-dream with a furious blush. I looked away.

II.

The second boy wore a well-cut Eton suit, and sat in the smoking compartment of a padded corridor carriage, with a silk-lined overcoat beside him and a silver-mounted suit-case in the rack above. He was not smoking, nor was he reading; but he sat on a great pile of papers and magazines, and stared straight in front of him—that is to say, straight at me.

His stare, though constant and unrelenting, was not in the least offensive—it had no curiosity in it: he had obviously been contemplating the cushions before I intruded, and since I had chosen to occupy his field of vision he contemplated me.

I had no speaking acquaintance with the boy; but he bore the features of his family, and his initials were on the suit-case above. So I knew him for the only son of a man who had once shown me civility, the youngest and least extravagantly wealthy of three rich brothers. Since one of these brothers had never married and now was not likely to, it lay beyond guessing what wealth the boy would inherit some day.

He was by no means ill-looking, and quite certainly no fool. His face carried the stamp of his father's ability. It puzzled me what he could be doing with that pile of papers and magazines; or why, having burdened himself with them, he should choose to sit and stare instead of reading them. For his station lay but a twenty minutes' run below mine, and it was impossible that in the time he could have glanced through the half of them.

He had been staring at me, or through me, maybe for half an hour, when our train slowed down and came to a standstill above the steep valley between Bodmin Road and Doublebois. After a couple of minutes' wait, the boy rose and went to the window in the corridor to see what was happening; and I took this opportunity to glance across at the papers scattered on the vacant seat. They included three or four sixpenny and threepenny magazines; a large illustrated paper (Black and White, I think); half a dozen penny weeklies—Tit-bits, Answers, Pearson's Weekly, Cassell's Saturday Journal; I forget what others: halfpenny papers in a heap—all kinds of Cuts, Snippets, Siftings, Echoes, Snapshots, and Side-lights; Pars about People, Christian Sweepings, Our Happy Fireside, and The Masher. Many lay face downward, coyly hiding their titles but disclosing such headlines as "Facts about the Flag," "Books which have influenced the Bishop of London," "He gave 'em Fits!" "Our Unique Competition," "Mr. Cecil Rhodes: a Powerful Personality," "What becomes of old Stage Scenery."

In the midst of my survey the train began to move forward again, and the boy came back to his seat.

"It's only some platelayers on the viaduct," he explained. "They held up their flag against us. I suppose they were just finishing a job."

"Nasty place to leave the rails," said I, glancing over the parapet upon the green tree-tops fifty feet below us."

"I was thinking that," said he, and a queer tremor in his young voice made me glance at him sharply. Then suddenly I understood—or thought I did.

"You, at any rate, are pretty well insured," said I.

"Twenty thousand pounds, and a little over: the coupons cost four and twopence altogether, and then at the end of the journey you can use up all the reading."

"Wonderful!" I kept a serious face. "And I suppose all this time you've been staring at me, amazed by the recklessness of your elders."

He flushed slightly. "Have I been staring? I beg your pardon, I'm sure: it's a trick I have. I begin thinking of things, and then—"

"Thinking, I suppose, of how it would feel to be in a collision, or what it would be like to leap such a parapet as that and find ourselves dropping—dropping—into space? But you shouldn't, really. It isn't healthy in a boy like you: and if you'll listen to one who has known what nerves are, it may too easily grow to mean something worse."

"But it isn't that—exactly," he protested; "though of course all that comes into it. I'm not a—a funk, sir! I was thinking more of the —of what would come afterwards, you know."

"Oh dear!" I groaned to myself. "It's worse than ever: here's a little prig worrying about his soul. I shouldn't advise you to trouble about that, either," I said aloud.

"But I don't trouble about it." He hesitated, and stumbled into a burst of confidence. "You see, I'm no good at games—athletics and that sort of thing—"

Again he stopped, and I nodded to encourage him.

"And I'm no swell at schoolwork, either. I went to school late, and after home it all seems so young—if you understand?"

I thought I did. With his polite grown-up manner I could understand his isolation among the urchins, the masters, and all the interests of an ordinary school.

"But my father—you know him, don't you?—he's disappointed about it. He'd like me to bring home prizes or cups. I don't think he'd mind what it was, so long as he could be proud about it. Of course he never says anything: but a fellow gets to know."

"I daresay you're right," I said. "But what has this to do with insuring yourself for twenty thousand pounds?"

"Well, you see, I'm to go into the Bank some day: and I expect my father thinks I shall be just as big a duffer at that. I know he does. But I'm not, if he'd only trust me a bit. So now if we were to smash up—collide, go off the rails, run over a bridge, or something of that sort—just think how he'd feel when he found out I'd cleared twenty thousand by it!"

"So that's what you were picturing to yourself?"

He nodded. "That, and the smash, and all. I kept saying, 'Now—if it comes this moment?' And I wondered a little how it would take you suddenly: whether you'd start up or fall forward—and if you would say anything."

"You are a cheerful companion!"

He grinned politely. "And afterwards—just before the train stopped I had a splendid idea. I began making my will. You see, I know something about investments. I read about them every day."

"In the Boy's Own Paper?"

"We take in the Standard in our school library, and I have it all to myself unless there's a war on. I've heard my father say often that it's a very reliable paper, and so it is, for I've tried it for two years now. So if I left a will telling just how the twenty thousand ought to be invested, it would open my father's eyes more than ever."

"My dear sir," said I, "don't be in a hurry. Serve out your time among the barbarians at school, and I'll promise you in time your father's respectful astonishment."

These were my two boys; and you may wonder why I always think of them together. I do, though: and, what is more, I find that together they help to explain to me my country's greatness.