Read CHAPTER IX - YOUNG JOHN SCARLETT of The Golden Scarecrow, free online book, by Hugh Walpole, on ReadCentral.com.

I

That fatal September the September that was to see young John take his adventurous way to his first private school surely, steadily approached.

Mrs. Scarlett, an emotional and sentimental little woman, vibrating and taut like a telegraph wire, told herself repeatedly that she would make no sign.  The preparations proceeded, the date September 23rd was constantly evoked, a dreadful ghost, by the careless, light-hearted family.  Mr. Scarlett made no sign.

From the hour of John’s birth nearly ten years ago Mrs. Scarlett had never known a day when she had not been compelled to control her sentimental affections.  From the first John had been an adorable baby, from the first he had followed his father in the rejection of all sentiment as un-English, and even if larger questions are involved, unpatriotic, but also from the first he had hinted, in surprising, furtive, agitating moments, at poetry, imagination, hidden, romantic secrets.  Tom, May, Clare, the older children, had never been known to hint at anything hints were not at all in their line, and of imagination they had not, between them, enough to fill a silver thimble they were good, sturdy, honest children, with healthy stomachs and an excellent determination to do exactly the things that their class and generation were bent upon doing.  Mrs. Scarlett was fond of them, of course, and because she was a sentimental woman she was sometimes quite needlessly emotional about them, but John no.  John was of another world.

The other children felt, beyond question, this difference.  They deferred to John about everything and regarded him as leader of the family, and in their deference there was more than simply a recognition of his sturdy independence.  Even John’s father, Mr. Reginald Scarlett, a K.C., and a man of a most decisive and emphatic bearing, felt John’s difference.

John’s appearance was unengaging rather than handsome a snub nose, grey eyes, rather large ears, a square, stocky body and short, stout legs.  He was certainly the most independent small boy in England, and very obstinate; when any proposal that seemed on the face of it absurd was made to him, he shut up like a box.  His mouth would close, his eyes disappear, all light and colour would die from his face, and it was as though he said:  “Well, if you are stupid enough to persist in this thing you can compel me, of course you are physically stronger than I but you will only get me like this quite dead and useless, and a lot of good may it do you!”

There were times, of course, when he could be most engagingly pleasant.  He was courteous, on occasion, with all the beautiful manners that, we are told, are yielding so sadly before the spread of education and the speed of motor-cars you never could foretell the guest that he would prefer, and it was nothing to him that here was an aunt, an uncle, or a grandfather who must be placated, and there an uninvited, undesired caller who mattered nothing at all.  Mr. Scarlett’s father he offended mortally by expressing, in front of him, dislike for hair that grew in bushy profusion out of that old gentleman’s ears.

“But you could cut it off,” he argued, in a voice thick with surprised disgust.  His grandfather, who was a baronet, and very wealthy, predicted a dismal career for his grandchild.

All the family realised quite definitely that nothing could be done with John.  It was fortunate, indeed, that he was, on the whole, of a happy and friendly disposition.  He liked the world and things that he found in it.  He liked games, and food, and adventure he liked quite tolerably his family he liked immensely the prospect of going to school.

There were other things strange, uncertain things that lay like the dim, uncertain pattern of some tapestry in the back of his mind.  He gave them, as the months passed, less and less heed.  Only sometimes when he was asleep....

Meanwhile, his mother, with the heroism worthy of Boadicea, that great and savage warrior, kept his impulses of devotion, of sacrifice, of adoration, in her heart.  John had no need of them; very long ago, Reginald Scarlett, then no K.C., with all the K.C. manner, had told her that he did not need them either.  She gave her dinner parties, her receptions, her political gatherings tremulous and smiling she faced a world that thought her a wise, capable little woman, who would see her husband a judge and peer one of these days.

“Mrs. Scarlett a woman of great social ambition,” was their definition of her.

“Mrs. Scarlett the mother of John,” was her own.

II

On a certain night, early in the month of September, young John dreamt again but for the first time for many months the dream that had, in the old days, come to him so often.  In those days, perhaps, he had not called it a dream.  He had not given it a name, and in the quiet early days he had simply greeted, first a protector, then a friend.  But that was all very long ago, when one was a baby and allowed oneself to imagine anything.  He had, of course, grown ashamed of such confiding fancies, and as he had become more confident had shoved away, with stout, determined fingers, those dim memories, poignancies, regrets.  How childish one had been at four, and five, and six!  How independent and strong now, on the very edge of the world of school!  It perturbed him, therefore, that at this moment of crisis this old dream should recur, and it perturbed him the more, as he lay in bed next morning and thought it over, that it should have seemed to him at the time no dream at all, but simply a natural and actual occurrence.

He had been asleep, and then he had been awake.  He had seen, sitting on his bed and looking at him with mild, kind eyes his old Friend.  His Friend was always the same, conveying so absolutely kindness and protection, and his beard, his hands, the appealing humour of his gaze, recalled to John the early years, with a swift, imperative urgency.  John, so independent and assured, felt, nevertheless, again that old alarm of a strange, unreal world, and the necessity of an appeal for protection from the only one of them all who understood.

“Hallo!” said John.

“Well?” said his Friend.  “It’s many months since I’ve been to see you, isn’t it?”

“That’s not my fault,” said John.

“In a way, it is.  You haven’t wanted me, have you?  Haven’t given me a thought.”

“There’s been so much to do.  I’m going to school, you know.”

“Of course.  That’s why I have come now.”

Beside the window a dark curtain blew forward a little, bulged as though some one were behind it, thinned again in the pale dim shadows of a moon that, beyond the window, fought with driving clouds.  That curtain would how many ages ago! have tightened young John’s heart with terror, and the contrast made by his present slim indifference drew him, in some warm, confiding fashion, closer to his visitor.

“Anyway, I’m jolly glad you’ve come now.  I haven’t really forgotten you, ever.  Only in the day-time ”

“Oh, yes, you have,” his Friend said, smiling.  “It’s natural enough and right that you should.  But if only you will believe always that I once was here, if only you’ll not be persuaded into thinking me impossible, silly, absurd, sentimental with ever so many other things that’s all I’ve come now to ask you.”

“Why, how should I ever?” John demanded indignantly.

“After all, I was a help for a long time when things were difficult and you had so much to learn all that time you wanted me, and I was here.”

“Of course,” said John politely, but feeling within him that warning of approaching sentiment that he had learnt by now so fundamentally to dread.

Very well his friend understood his apprehension.

“That’s all.  I’ve only come to you now to ask you to make me a promise a very easy one.”

“Yes?” said John.

“It’s only that when you go off to school before you leave this house you will just, for a moment, remember me just then, and say good-bye to me.  We’ve been a lot here in these rooms, in these passages, up and down together, and if only, as you go, you’ll think of me, I’ll be there....  Every year you’ve thought of me less that doesn’t matter but it matters more than you know that you should remember me just for an instant, just to say good-bye.  Will you promise me?”

“Why, of course,” said John.

“Don’t forget!  Don’t forget!  Don’t forget!” And the kindly shadow had faded, the voice lingering about the room, mingling with the faint silver moonlight, passing out into the wider spaciousness of the rolling clouds.

III

With the clear light of morning came the confident certainty that it had all been the merest dream, and yet that certainty did not sweep the affair, as it should have done, from young John’s brain and heart.  He was puzzled, perplexed, disturbed, unhappy.  The “twenty-third” was approaching with terrible rapidity, and it was essential now that he should summon to aid all the forces of manly self-control and common-sense.  And yet, just at this time, of all others, came that disturbing dream, and, in its train, absurd memories and fancies, burdened, too, with an urgent prompting of gratitude to some one or something.  He shook it off, he obstinately rebelled, but he dreaded the night, and, with a sigh of relief, hailed the morning that followed a dreamless sleep.

Worst of all, he caught himself yielding to thoughts like these:  “But he was kind to me awfully decent” (a phrase caught from his elder brother).  “I remember how He ...”  And then he would shake himself.  “It was only a silly old dream.  He wasn’t real a bit.  I’m not a rotten kid now that thinks fairies and all that true.”

He was bothered, too, by the affectionate sentiment (still disguised, but ever, as the days proceeded, more thinly) of his mother and sisters.  The girls, May and Clare, adored young John.  His elder brother was away with a school friend.  John, therefore, was left to feminine attention, and very tiresome he found it.  May and Clare, girls of no imagination, saw only the drama that they might extract for themselves out of the affair.  They knew what school was like, especially at first John was going to be utterly wretched, miserably homesick, bullied, kept in over horrible sums and impossible Latin exercises, ill-fed, and trodden upon at games.  They did not really believe these things they knew that their brother, Tom, had always had a most pleasant time, and John was precisely the type of boy who would prosper at school, but they indulged, just for this fortnight, their romantic sentiment, never alluded in speech to school and its terrors, but by their pitying avoidance of the subject filled the atmosphere with their agitation.  They were working things for John May, handkerchiefs, and Clare, a comforter; their voices were soft and charged with omens, their eyes were bright with the drama of the event, as though they had been supporting some young Christian relation before his encounter with the lions.  John hated more and more and more.

But more terrible to him than his sisters was his mother.  He was too young to understand what his departure meant to her, but he knew that there was something real here that needed comforting.  He wanted to comfort her, and yet hated the atmosphere of emotion that he felt in himself as well as in her.  They ought to know, he argued, that the least little thing would make him break down like an ass and behave as no man should, and yet they were doing everything....  Oh, if only Tom were here!  Then, at any rate, would be brutal common-sense.  There were special meals for him during this fortnight, and an eager inviting of his opinion as to how the days should be spent.  On the last night of all they were to go to the theatre a real play this time, none of your pantomime!

There was, moreover, all the business of clothes fine, rich, stiff new garments a new Eton jacket, a round black coat, a shining bowler-hat, new boots.  He watched this stir with a brave assumption that he had been surveying it all his life, but a horrible tight pain in the bottom of his throat told him that he was a bravado, almost a liar.

He found himself, now that the “twenty-third” was gaping right there in front of him, with its fiery throat wide and flaming, doing the strangest thing.  He was frightened of the dusk, he would run through the passage and up the stairs at breathless speed, he would look for a moment at the lamp-lit square with the lights of the opposite houses tigers’ eyes, and the trees filmy like smoke, then would hastily draw the curtains and greet the warm inhabited room with a little gasp of reassurance.  Strangest of all, he found himself often in the old nursery at the top of the house.  Very seldom did any one come there now, and it had the pathos of a room grown cold and comfortless.  Most of the toys were put away or given to hospitals, but the rocking-horse with his Christmas-tree tail was there, and the doll’s-house, and a railway with trains and stations.

He was here.  He was saying to himself:  “Yes, it was just over there, by the window, that He came that time.  He talked to me there.  That other time it was when I was down by the doll’s-house.  He showed me the smoke coming up from the chimneys when the sun stuck through, and the moon was all red one night, and the stars.”

He found himself gazing out over the square, over the twisted chimneys, that seemed to be laughing at him, over the shining wires and glittering roofs, out to the mist that wrapped the city beyond his vision so vast, so huge, so many people March Square was nothing.  He was nothing John Scarlett nothing at all.

Then, with a sigh, he turned back.  His Friend, the other night, had been real enough.  Fairies, ghosts, goblins and dragons everything was real.  Everything.  It was all terrible, terrible to think of, but, above and beyond all else, he must not forget, on the day of his departure, that farewell; something disastrous would come upon him were he so ungrateful.

And then he would go downstairs again, down to newspapers and fires, toast and tea, the large print of Frith’s “Railway Station,” and the coloured supplement of Greiffenhagen’s “Idyll,” and the tattered numbers of the Windsor and the Strand magazines, and, behold, all these things were real and all the things in the nursery unreal.  Could it be that both worlds were real?  Even now, at his tender years, that old business of connecting the Dream and the Business was at his throat.

“Teal Tea!  Tea!” Frantic screams from May.  “There’s some new jam, and, John, mother says she wants you to try on some underclothes afterwards.  Those others didn’t do, she said....”

There came then the disastrous hour an hour that John was never, in all his after-life, to forget.  On a wild stormy evening he found himself in the nursery.  A week remained now to-day fortnight he would be in another world, an alarming, fierce, tremendous world.  He looked at the rocking-horse with its absurd tail and the patch on its back, that had been worn away by its faithful riders, and suddenly he was crying.  This was a thing that he never did, that he had strenuously, persistently refrained from doing all these weeks, but now, in the strangest way, it was the conviction that the world into which he was going wouldn’t care in the least for the doll’s-house, and would mock brutally, derisively at the rocking-horse, that defeated him.  It was even the knowledge that, in a very short time, he himself would be mocking.

He sat down on the floor and cried.  The door opened; before he could resist or make any movement, his mother’s arms were about him, his mother’s cheek against his, and she was whispering:  “Oh, my darling, my darling!”

The horrible thing then occurred.  He was savage, with a wild, fierce, protesting rage.  His cheeks flamed.  His tears were instantly dried.  That he should have been caught thus!  That, when he had been presenting so brave and callous a front to the world, at the one weak and shameful moment he should have been discovered!  He scarcely realised that this was his mother, he did not care who it was.  It was as though he had been delivered into the most horrible and shameful of traps.  He pushed her from him; he struggled fiercely on his feet.  He regarded her with fiery eyes.

“It isn’t I wasn’t you oughtn’t to have come in.  You needn’t imagine ”

He burst from the room.  A shameful, horrible experience.

But it cannot be denied that he was ashamed afterwards.  He loved his mother, whereas he merely liked the rest of the family.  He would not hurt her for worlds, and yet, why must she

And strangely, mysteriously, her attitude was confused in his mind with his dreams, and his Friend, and the red moon, and the comic chimneys.

He knew, however, that, during this last week he must be especially nice to his mother, and, with an elaborate courtesy and strained attention, he did his best.

The last night arrived, and, very smart and excited, they went to the theatre.  The boxes had been packed, and stood in a shining and self-conscious trio in John’s bedroom.  The new play-box was there, with its stolid freshness and the black bands at the corners; inside, there was a multitude of riches, and it was, of course, a symbol of absolute independence and maturity.  John was wearing the new Eton jacket, also a new white waistcoat; the parting in his hair was straighter than it had ever been before, his ears were pink.  The world seemed a confused mixture of soap and starch and lights.  Piccadilly Circus was a cauldron of bubbling colour.

His breath came in little gasps, but his face, with its snub nose and large mouth, was grave and composed; up and down his back little shivers were running.  When the car stopped outside the theatre he gave a little gulp.  His father, who was, for once, moved by the occasion, said an idiotic thing;

“Excited, my son?”

With his head high he walked ahead of them, trod on a lady’s dress, blushed, heard his father say:  “Look where you’re going, my boy,” heard May giggle, frowned indignantly, and was conscious of the horrid pressure of his collar-stud against his throat; arrived, hot, confused, and very proud, in the dark splendour of the box.

The first play of his life, and how magnificent a play it was!  It might have been a rotten affair with endless conversations luckily there were no discussions at all.  All the characters either loved or hated one another too deeply to waste time in talk.  They were Roundheads and Cavaliers, and a splendid hero, who had once been a bad fellow, but was now sorry, fought nine Roundheads at once, and was tortured “off” with red lights and his lady waiting for results before a sympathetic audience.

During the torture scene John’s heart stopped entirely, his brow was damp, his hand sought his mother’s, found it, and held it very hard.  She, as she felt his hot fingers pressing against hers, began to see the stage through a mist of tears.  She had behaved very well during the past weeks, but the soul that she adored was, to-morrow morning, to be hurled out, wildly, helter-skelter, to receive such tarnishing as it might please Fate to think good.

“I can’t let him go!  I can’t let him go!”

The curtain came down.

John turned, his eyes wide, his cheeks pale with a pink spot on the middle of each.

“I say, pass those chocolates along!” he whispered hoarsely.  Then, recovering himself a little:  “I wonder what they did to him?  They must have done something to his legs, because they were all crooked when he came out.”