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In which I join the clog dancers; fail to get the cream tarts; and incur the wrath of Mr. Hawkins.
WE ARRIVED just inside the door to the alley were the five boys who had been clog dancing. They were huddled together, not playing or talking, and when the red-faced man led me up to them they looked at me curiously, without a word. Each one had his stage dress in a brown paper bundle under his arm, and in the gas light they looked ragged and tired.
"This 'ere's the new little boy what's a-going to come with us," said the red-faced man, holding my hand so tight it hurt, and I squirmed. The other boys did not say a word. They looked at me, and all those staring eyes made me uncomfortable.
"Speak up, there!" roared the man suddenly, and they all jumped. "Say 'Yes, sir, yes, Mr. 'Awkins,' when I speak to you."
"Yes, sir, yes, Mr. 'Awkins!" they all said.
"Now step up, young fellers; we're going to our nice 'ome and 'ave cream tarts for our supper," Mr. Hawkins said. He nodded to the stage doorkeeper, a silent whiskered man who sat smoking a pipe, and we all filed out through the dark little alley into the street.
It was a cold foggy night. The street lamps were weird ghostly-looking blurs in the mist, and our steps sounded hollow and muffled. I had never been out so late before, and the strange look of things in the fog and the emptiness of the streets, with only a cab rattling by, now and then, made me shiver.
The boys walked ahead, and Mr. Hawkins and I followed close behind. We walked for a long time, till my legs began to ache and my fingers stopped hurting and grew numb in Mr. Hawkins' hard grip. My mind was all a-muddle and confused, so that the only thing I thought of clearly was my mother, and how pleased she would be when I came home again rich, with three and sixpence and a velvet suit.
We came at last to a doorway with a lamp burning dimly over it, and Mr. Hawkins herded the boys into it. A very fat dirty woman opened the door and said something shrill to us. Then we climbed many flights of dark stairs, and Mr. Hawkins let go my hand to open a door.
A damp musty smell came out as we stumbled in. It was a poor dirty room, furnished with two beds and a long table with chairs about it.
"Well, 'ere we are 'ome!" said Mr. Hawkins cheerfully. "Now for a nice 'ot supper, what?" The boys did not say a word. They sat down and watched him, looking now and then at the door. I rubbed my aching fingers and looked at him, too. The wart was still there on his lower eyelid, and I could not take my eyes from it.
After a while the fat woman came in with our supper — chops and ale for Mr. Hawkins; plates of porridge and thick slices of bread for us. The boys all fell to eating hungrily, but I pushed my plate back and looked at Mr. Hawkins, who was eating his chops and drinking his ale with great enjoyment.
"Where are the cream tarts?" I asked him.
"Cream tarts! Who ever 'eard of, cream tarts for supper?" he shouted. "Cream tarts!" He chuckled and repeated it over and over, till I felt ashamed and confused. Then he thrust his great red face almost against mine and roared in a terrible voice, "That's enough, young feller! I'll cream tart you! I'll jolly well cream tart you!" I shrank into my chair, frightened.
"You don't want cream tarts," he said. "You want a caning. You want a good hard caning, don't you?"
"No, sir," I said. "Oh, no, sir, please."
"Oh, you don't, don't you? Yes, you do. You want a caning, that's what you want. Where's my cane?" he roared in a frightful voice. I crouched in my chair in such terrible fear I could not even cry out until his great hand gripped my shoulder. Then I shrieked in agony.
He only shook me and flung me back in the chair, but from that moment I lived in terror of him — a terror that colored everything during the day and at night made my dreams horrible. The other boys were afraid of him, too. When he was with us we sat silent and wary, looking at him. He used to swing his cane as he walked up and down the room in the evenings, and we watched it in fearful fascination, though I do not remember that he ever caned one of us. It was the constant fear of his doing it that was so terrible. Sometimes when he had locked us in the room and gone away in the morning the boldest boys used to make fantastic threats of the things they would do to him when he returned, but they said them under their breath, with an eye on the door, and the rest of us quaked as we listened.
In the evenings we were marched out before him to music-halls. These music-halls were different from the ones my mother sang in. They were large rooms, with rough wooden benches and tables arranged around a square in the center, where we danced. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and heavy with the smell of ale and stout, and the ugly bearded faces of hundreds of men staring at us confused me sometimes so that I could hardly dance. I was so little, so weary from hunger and the constant fear of Mr. Hawkins, that my feet felt too heavy to lift in the hard steps, and my head swam in the glare of the lights. I wanted so much to crawl away to a quiet dark place where I could rest and feel my mother's hand tucking in the covers, that sometimes I sobbed as I danced, but I never stopped nor missed a step; I did not dare.
For all the pain and fear in my childish heart I did the steps very well, so that often the crowd cheered "the young 'un" and called for more. Then, while they shouted and banged their mugs of ale on the tables, I would wearily dance again and again, until all my body ached. Sometimes they threw money to me, and then, after they let me go at last, Mr. Hawkins would go through my pockets for it and rap my head with his knuckles, under the suspicion that I had concealed some.
All my memory of those weeks is colored by my terror of him. It never left me. When he was in the room I got as far as possible from him and sat quite still, staring at his face and the wart on his eyelid and his great cane. When he was gone I sat and brooded about him and shivered. At the table, hungry as I was, I could not swallow my porridge under the gaze of his awful eye.
At last one night when we reached the music-hall where we were to dance we found it in great uproar. The audience was standing on benches and tables and shouting, "Slug 'im! Slug 'im! Slug 'im!" in horrible waves of sound. In the center, where we were to dance, two men were fighting.
Mr. Hawkins pushed us before him through the crowd to a place close to them. I saw their strong naked bodies glistening under the gas flare and heard the terrible smashing blows. There was a sweetish sickening smell in the air which made me feel ill, and the roar of the crowd terrified me. Then one of the men reeled, staggered backward and fell. He was close to me and I saw his face, a shapeless mass of flesh, with no eyes, covered with blood, with blood running from the open mouth. The horror of it struck my childish mind so, after all those weeks of terror, that I fainted.
I was revived in time to dance, and the crowd, excited by the fight, threw us a great deal of money. When he searched my pockets at the door, Mr. Hawkins stooped low, put his great face almost against mine and swore, but he did not rap me with his knuckles. I was in a kind of stupor, quivering all over, and could not walk, so he put me up on his shoulder, as my father used to do, and started home.
A long time afterward I knew I was standing between his knees, while he tipped my head back and looked closely at me.
"Hingratitude, that's wot it is," he said fiercely. "Speak up, young 'un. Don't you 'ave a-plenty to eat of good 'olesome porridge? Don't you 'ave a good kind master wot never canes yer?"
"Oh, yes, sir," I said, in a panic of fear.
"Then don't you go a-being ungrateful, and a-dying on my 'ands, like young Jim done," he roared at me furiously. "You 'ear? Stubbornness, that's wot it is. I won't 'ave it!"