II My Boyhood

MY uncle was a short, bull-necked, thick-barrelled man; his face was large, coarse, and puffy. He had a low, receding forehead and tiny, close-set eyes; his lips were thick, colourless, and protruding. When I was given into his charge I felt terribly afraid of him. I had never seen him before nor heard of our relationship. His harsh voice jarred upon my nerves, yet he spoke kindly to me and carried me from the hospital to a waiting cab tenderly as any woman. We drove to an unfamiliar part of the city, passing on our route a great number of Chinese shops and warehouses. We drew up at last before a small stone building, shop-fronted, situated in a narrow and filthy lane, which was separated by a long row of wharves and dirty terraced houses from the sea. The windows of the shop were half concealed behind grimy shutters, which seemed cemented in their places by the greasy dirt of ages. Between their interstices I perceived slopes of unwashed glass, and stretching beyond, a dim vista of gloomy rubbish: antique horse-pistols, rusted sabres, guns, locks, medallions, silver cruet-stands, lockets, brooches, and rings. Above these tottered decrepit rows of folded clothes, reaching to the ceiling—men's coats, women's cloaks, soldiers' uniforms—tawdry and tattered for the most part, but still retaining traces of their ancient gloss and tinsel. From the lintel swung three gilded balls, and a battered sign-post, whose half-obliterated legend I one day learned to read: “Daniel Rowe, Pawnbroker.” My uncle

  ― 6 ―
paused before the shop and surveyed it with a look of pride. I noticed that all his movements were awkward but stealthy; he trod softly, like a cat, though he lumbered in his gait. His hands were huge, his thumbs were clubbed and stunted, the sight of them made me feel sick. Mentally I contrasted the man with my murdered father and involuntarily shuddered.

“Sonny,” he said presently, “this is home!” He pointed to the signboard. “Yonder is my name, and, well, p'raps it had better be yours too. Can you read?”

I shook my head. “No, sir.”

He glanced at me sharply. “Not ‘sir’ yet,” he muttered; “call me uncle!”

“Uncle,” I replied, obediently.

He laughed and drew me into the shop. “Mother!” he shouted.

A thin woman, with a sharp-featured, acid face, sprang up from behind a counter like a jack-in-the-box. Her hair was crimped close to her head, twisted up in wisps of oily tissue paper.

“So you're back at last!” she cried. Her voice was tart and crisp. “Is that the brat?”

My uncle frowned. “He is my nephew—Lucas—Lucas Rowe.”

The woman sneered, lifting her eyebrows with an expression of bitter superciliousness.

“Rowe!” she cried.

“Lucas,” said he, “go and kiss your aunt!”

I tried to obey, but her eyes obliged me to pause: they hated me.

My uncle broke an awkward silence. “Put the kid to bed!” he growled. “The doctor says he's got to rest for a day or two and only have bread and milk!”

“A whipper snapper!” sneered the woman, “and death in his face; we'll have a funeral pretty soon.”

My uncle stamped his foot and uttered a fierce oath. “Damnation, do as I bid you!” he roared.

The woman wilted before him, plainly terrified. Seizing my arm she dragged me from the shop, and up a flight of stairs to a tiny garret. She tore off my clothes and thrust

  ― 7 ―
me shivering into a dirty little trestle bed, which, nevertheless, almost filled the room. She boxed my ears as I lay helpless before her, and addressed me in a subdued but passionate harangue. Dazed from the blow, I did not understand her words, except that she seemed to promise me a future of hardship and evil.

My recollections of the next twelve years are blurred and scarcely tangible, save for a few vivid landmarks, if that word may be allowed.

I was constantly ill-treated. My uncle alone showed me any kindness; but he was almost always away from home engaged in some mysterious occupation, the name of which was never mentioned. The woman—my aunt—kept the promise she had made me. I was a weak, puling child, nerveless and spiritless, created to be victimised. Mrs. Rowe was a sour, slothful creature, bilious by nature and disposition, bitterly cruel-hearted. She obliged me to do the menial work of the household—to make the beds, scrub the floors, wash the dishes, pots, and pans. Only in the presence of my uncle did she relax her tyranny. At other times I was her drudge and slave. I suffered in silence, too much afraid of her to dispute her will, too much afraid of my uncle to inform him of her persecution. She beat me several times a day, often for no reason except her hate of me. My solitary comfort was gained in sleep. I longed for night throughout each day, and after supper crept to my room noiseless as a phantom. I think my craving for rest was inordinate and must have arisen from some constitutional requirement. I was always dull and drowsy. If left for any time alone, I immediately fell asleep. My aunt never permitted me to sleep long; I was generally aroused with a rawhide switch. She had been a widow when my uncle married her, and possessed a daughter by her former husband, a girl of about my own age, named Judith Kelly. This child, a pretty saucy kitten then, had inherited something of her mother's disposition. She assisted the woman in rendering my life a veritable Hades. She was my sole companion during many years, for I was never allowed to leave the shop,

  ― 8 ―
except upon an errand, and was always cruelly beaten if I loitered or spoke to other children out of doors. Judith loved best to follow me about as I worked, with her mother's switch, and she whipped me when it pleased her fancy. The woman doted on her and spoiled her horribly. Only once did she ever raise her hand against the child, and that was because Judith, in a fit of compassion, scrubbed the kitchen floor for me, when I was ill.

I was very miserable, but I think my brain was clouded. I never imagined it possible to escape my fate or even lighten it. I learned three lessons very thoroughly—how to endure pain, how to be silent, how to hate. I hated my aunt and Judith with an incalculable depth of suppressed passion and energy. My day dreams were all of a dim and distant revenge. I determined that when I should become a man I would torture them to death. These dreams were the only solace of my persecuted hours, but they upheld me; perhaps except for them I would have wasted and died; they gave me something to live for.

Judith and I were sternly forbidden to enter a certain room on the ground floor of the house. Its door was always locked, and we came to regard it as a sort of Bluebeard's chamber, full of awful mystery. Judith was tormented with a ceaseless curiosity concerning it, but my disposition was not inquisitive. Judith longed to explore its mysteries, but I shivered to hear her talk. She called me a spiritless coward; perhaps I was.

One day she brought me a key and thrust it into my hand. “It is the key of the room!” she whispered excitedly, and danced about like a triumphant sprite in the very seventh heaven of delight.

“What room?” I asked, soberly. “We mustn't go into the back room, Judith; it's forbidden!”

She flashed at me a glance of scorn and caught my arm. “Come!” she cried, in a shrill whisper, “mother is asleep.”

I dared neither resist nor refuse, for fear that she would beat me. She pushed me before her to the door of the forbidden room.

“Open it!” she commanded.

Clumsily I obeyed. We entered the chamber. It was

  ― 9 ―
bare of furniture, save three wooden benches and a chair. It had no windows and no other door, but in the centre of the floor yawned a square black hole, which seemed deep as a well. Judith and I timorously approached, hand in hand, and peered over the edge. Far down beneath us shone a tiny star of light. While we gazed at the star two rude hands shot from out the gloom and grasped us. Judith screamed with fright, I fainted. I was aroused with kicks and blows. My uncle stood over me with a stick. Judith was whimpering in a corner. “He stole the key; he made me come!” she cried over and over. My uncle did not cease beating me until a second time I sank into unconsciousness. Afterwards Judith mocked me for my stupid silence. By dint of voluble lying she had escaped punishment and fastened her guilt on my shoulders!

When my uncle was present I called the woman “Aunt,” by her command. But when we were alone, or only Judith was by, she made me name her “Mrs. Rowe” or “Ma-am.” She loathed the word “Aunt” uttered by my lips, but she feared her husband, who appeared to be fond of me, and played the hypocrite so well before him that he believed us to be a very happy family. Sometimes she would take me on her knee and pet me with loving words. My uncle would smile approvingly to see it, and scold me if I displayed any impatience at those endearments. But the fact was that while my aunt caressed me with one hand, she relieved the surging venom of her heart by pinching me with the other, and the marks of her pinches sometimes disfigured my body for days.

Mrs. Rowe did not love my uncle, but she suffered him. He seemed a slow-witted man, dull, gross, and ponderously good-natured, but when once excited he had the temper of a devil. The woman loved to experiment with this temper; it was her dearest amusement, and she exhibited the passion of a true gambler risking her hazard, in the manner she indulged herself. Whenever opportunity occurred she would bait him in a covertly sarcastic fashion, tease him with equivocally insulting phrases, vex him with the sting of poisonous words. If he displayed signs of

  ― 10 ―
rising anger, she took care to soothe him instantly, but in a few moments would recommence the campaign. Sometimes he did not entirely apprehend her, but as if vaguely conscious of the intended lashes, he would curse her broadly into silence. At other times the woman would miscalculate by a hair's breadth the edge of my uncle's intelligence. Then she paid the penalty. He would spring up with the agility of a tiger or a pugilist, catch her in his arms, and, after propping her against a handy wall, pin her there securely with one hand, and with the other, regardless of her screams, strike her again and again in a slow but intensely savage fashion upon the face and chest, until she seemed to faint, whereupon he would let her drop to the floor, and perhaps administer a few kicks by way of a finale.

I watched these proceedings helpless with terror and shivering at the thud of each blow, but deep in my heart I rejoiced to see her punishment. I longed for my uncle's strength, and craved to assume his part. My uncle would quit the house soon after his wife had fallen, swearing horribly. She would then arise, and when satisfied he was really gone, exact vengeance upon me. After one of these vindictive assaults Judith accosted me, animated with a sort of fiercely compassionate contempt.

“You are a fool!” she cried. “When you are beaten, cry, cry, scream out as loud as ever you can, then mother will stop!”

“I can't!” I answered, gloomily. It was the truth. I could not. When the woman commenced to beat me a lump rose in my throat, which prevented any outcry. My heart would swell and almost burst, but I could not but be silent and stare at her, shudderingly anticipating each blow. My stillness infuriated her.

“Don't look at me with your cursed saucer eyes!” she would cry, and sometimes dash her shut hand in my face. If deep, still hate could have killed, how many times she would have died!

I was over twelve years of age before I went to school. Perhaps I should never have gone but for a chance meeting

  ― 11 ―
in the street with a Government truant inspector. He stopped me and asked many questions, which I answered truthfully. He then called on my aunt, and the very next day I was sent off to the nearest public school, but not before I had been severely beaten for having told the inspector the truth. I was placed at first among infants half my age and taught the alphabet, but I soon outstripped my companions and graduated swiftly from class to class. For a long while I was not much happier or better off than when at home. I found that I had exchanged two tyrants for two hundred. The school was almost exclusively attended by the children of larrikins, ill-natured and brutal boys and girls, who bullied and beat me with impunity. I was tall for my age, but so weak and frail that they could nearly all do with me as they wished. Very few failed to take advantage of my feeble frame and pusillanimity, and within a week I became the butt and victim of the school. One day in the playground a vicious little girl stuck a pin deep into my arm. Startled by the pain, I struck her. I had not intended to, for I was horribly afraid of her. But to my astonishment, instead of soundly thrashing me, as, indeed, she could well have done, she ran screaming to the headmaster. Mr. Collins called me presently before the class.

“You struck Amy Higgins!” he said, severely. “A big, hulking boy like you to strike a little girl. What a cowardly thing to do! Are you not ashamed?”

“No,” I replied; “you'd be a coward yourself if you were weak like me.”

“Why did you do it?” he demanded, staring at me with awakened curiosity.

I glanced at the little girl, and suddenly realised the disparity between us. “Perhaps, after all,” I reflected, “she is weaker than I am.” The thought filled me with the joy of hope.

“I hate her!” I answered, quietly.

“Hold out your hand!” said Mr. Collins.

I did so, but instead of caning me, he took my thin fingers between his own and examined them for some seconds, then my face, feature by feature. I met his eyes

  ― 12 ―
tranquilly. I had long ago grown used to punishment. I did not fear the cane at all.

“You hate her?” he asked, puzzled.

“I hate everybody!” I replied.

He dropped my hand in amaze. “Why?”

“Because everybody hates me and beats me.”

“Everybody?” he demanded.

“Yes,” I replied, boldly; “even you; you are going to beat me.”

Mr. Collins frowned and administered six cuts on each of my hands. But from that day I had gained a friend. He watched me, and soon discovering how tortured I was by my schoolmates, gave orders that the pupil teachers should allow me to remain in the class-rooms during play hours if I so wished. Ah, the joy of it! for an hour each day thenceforward I was immune from attack, free to lie down, sleep upon the benches or the floor, or drowsily dream the time away, my weak frame propped comfortably against a desk. Sometimes Mr. Collins would give me a sweet-meat, or a pitiful pupil teacher share with me his lunch. I accepted such attentions gratefully, but I was never really hungry, for my aunt fed me well. It is true that afterwards I had to suffer. When I quitted the school the bigger boys greeted me with stinging words: “sneak,” “suck,” and the like, and with still more stinging flips and blows. Yet I never carried tales to the masters, and suffered their bullying in patient silence.

One term day, after I had been three years at school, I won a prize, a beautiful illustrated copy of “Paradise Lost.” It was the first happy moment of my life when Mr. Collins placed the book in my hands. I was thrilled with delight, and immediately my class was dismissed, hurried homewards to show it to my uncle. I thought he would be glad. But at the corner of the lane in which was my uncle's shop a boy named Sam Pagney wrenched my treasure from me and threw it into a deep open drain beside the path. Tears came into my eyes, the first for years. The pretty book was buried in a mass of filthy slime. Scarcely conscious of what I did, I threw myself upon the bully. A crowd collected about us; in the crowd I saw

  ― 13 ―
my uncle's face. Pagney beat me cruelly, for I knew nothing of fighting, but every blow he gave increased my rage. The strength of madness for a moment visited my flaccid muscles. I seized the bully by the throat, and with one terrible effort threw him into the drain. He broke both his arms in the fall. I thought that my uncle would half-murder me for what I had done, but on the contrary he praised me warmly and gave me half-a-crown; he had seen everything and appeared delighted. Thereafter I was not again molested by my schoolmates. They shrank in dismay from one who had so fiercely revenged himself, and avoided me like the plague. But I had gained what I had always craved for—peace. I developed an engrossing love of study. I read every book I could lay my hands upon, and lived in a world of imaginative dreams. I worked so hard at my lessons that in another three years I became dux of the school.

Mr. Collins took an increased interest in me, and rather than allow me to leave prepared me for the matriculation examination without my uncle's knowledge. I was then a tall, slim lad of nineteen, a dreamer, and an enthusiast in books. I cared for nothing in the world beside. Sometimes I wondered vaguely why my uncle permitted me to remain at school, why he did not oblige me to go into some trade and earn my living; but fearing that if I asked him the reason, my course might be broken, I kept silence, for in my studies I was happy as a king. A year later I passed the matriculation examination with honours in all subjects, and I won the gold medal in Greek.

When I exhibited the journal containing the report of my triumph to my uncle he seemed dazed and scarcely able to credit the evidence of his senses. Judith Kelly kissed me on both cheeks; Mrs. Rowe was speechless, but her eyes were full of angry spite. She hated me doubly for my success.

“To-night,” said my uncle, after a considerable silence, “you shall come with me.”

There was a light of resolution in his eyes.

“Where?” I asked.

He regarded me with a strange look of mingled pride

  ― 14 ―
and affection. “Never mind, lad, you'll know soon enough.”

“You're a fool, Dan!” cried Mrs. Rowe, who appeared to know her husband's mind. “Remember he's not of us; blood will out—look at what he's just done, and without even your knowing, you that's so fond of him, and that he's so fond of!”

My uncle gave her a terrible glance. “Shut your dirty mouth—it's none of your business!” he said, slowly.

“He'll turn out a traitor, Dan, you mark my words!” said Mrs. Rowe.

My uncle, with a quick movement, seized the woman by her hair and dragged her to an inner room. I caught a glimpse of his suddenly bloodshot eyes and tight-wreathed lips as he passed me, the look which was ever the ensign of his fiercest rage. But that evening I was the victim of a new emotion. I hated the woman, but in my heart a sense of chivalry, possibly long dormant, awoke to unexpected life. Scarcely conscious of what I did, I rushed after my uncle and caught his hand, upraised as it was to strike. “Don't, uncle!” I pleaded.

He turned on me the face of a snarling fiend. “Let go and clear out!” he muttered, thickly. “She wants it; she'll have it.”

“She's a woman!” I said.

“Let go, or I'll kill you!” he shouted.


For a long moment we gazed into each other's eyes, watched in terrified silence by the woman and Judith, who stood trembling in the doorway. Then a wonderful thing happened. My uncle's glance drooped, his fit of rage passed from him; he let the woman go, frowned darkly, shook off my grasp, and staggered to the doorway—all without a word. Next second he was out of the house and tramping heavily down the street. We stared after him awhile in deep surprise, then at each other.

Presently the woman laughed. “My God, how he must like you!” she cried.

Her voice was cracked with spleen; bending forward, she spat in my face. I fell back against the wall mad with rage.

  ― 15 ―
I longed to beat her, to crush the life out of her frame; but I asked myself, how could I lift hand against her when I had just prevented my uncle from doing that very thing. I stood trembling in every limb, fiercely biting my lips, a thousand demons toiling in my brain, and she departed, laughing mockingly.

But Judith came forward and wiped my face; very tenderly and sweetly she did it; then she put her arms about my neck and kissed me softly on the lips. I turned from the caress and stared at her helpless as a babe.

“Never mind, Lucas!” she whispered. “I just think you're a darling, that clever, and your eyes are just beautiful. I love you—there!”

I pushed her from me, gasping for breath; her words had thrilled me to the core. No one had ever praised me before. I was obliged to look at her. I saw a girl of nineteen, vulgarly but richly dressed, beautiful of face, her figure rounded and voluptuous. She had big blue-grey eyes, wicked eyes, subtly suggestive of some unknown evil. Her mouth was scarlet, pouting and sensuous. She fascinated and repelled me. My senses seemed disintegrated and dispersed. Some liked, some hated her. My heart was crowded with emotions. I shivered when her swaying body touched mine. I seemed to be awaking from a sleep which had lasted all my life.

“You love me!” I muttered, and tried to read her soul.

“If you like—when you join the Push—I'll be your girl!” she said.

“The Push—what push?” I gasped.

“Oh, go on!” she cried; “I'm not the chicken you think. I don't know nothing, 'cause you know everything; you and your medal. Never mind, take it or leave it—there's whips of others!”

She seemed in a great rage, and flounced off, leaving me in a whirl.

“Judith! Judith!” I cried. But she did not heed. I did not know how I had offended her.