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The Course of True Love
It was advisable that Alice should be
married to young Alf forthwith. But there were difficulties in the way. Alice's
father did not approve of the match even in the special circumstances, and
threatened bashing. And Alice's father, if I may credit Young Alf's rapid
sketch, is not a man to be trifled with. He is a book-maker of unbridled temper,
and is accustomed to be master in his own house. Towards nightfall, when Alice's
mother can still argue but can no longer stand, his remedy is ingenious and
effective. He slings a rope - so young Alf tells me - round her chib, and
fastens it to a hook in the wall. Then Alice's mother can stand, but can no
longer argue. A man, I gather, of strong character, but not lovable. A husband
and father to inspire fear rather than affection.
The opposition of the book-maker was a serious difficulty, but, with the combined forces of Alice and her mother, not an insuperable one. Alice was very anxious for the wedding: Alice's mother, so long as she could stand, was insistent. Young Alf didn't care either way.
So the banns were put up without the knowledge of the book-maker with the unbridled temper, and young Alf was devising a scheme for sneaking the book-maker's pony and cart in order that the ceremony might be carried out with a bit of class.
Meanwhile I was bidden to inspect the nest which young Alf was feathering for his bride.
It wanted but a few days to Christmas when we met at about eight o'clock outside Vauxhall Station, and it was then that young Alf told me of the difficulties which lay in his path to matrimony. The opposition of the book-maker did not trouble him much. The problem of furniture was much more important. and young Alf did not find it at all easy to pick up the precise things that Alice wanted, at the exact price he was willing to give.
'I want one of them brooms,' he remarked, nodding his head at a shop, the doorway of which was barred by the form of the proprietor. 'An' I aven't 'ad a chance to sneak one yet.'
He was troubled, too, at the necessity of purchasing a bed. With all his ingenuity he failed to see how he could acquire one in the ordinary way. So he had taken one on the hire system, paying a small sum down and engaging to pay instalments of five shillings a month.
'It's awright s'long as you pay somefink,' was his consoling reflection.
We turned twice, young Alf keeping slightly in front, according to his custom.
'I fink a lot of my gal,' he said, glancing back over his shoulder.
I replied that I had no doubt she deserved the best he could say of her.
'She deserves a better chap than what I am,' he said.
'Knows 'ow to 'old 'er tongue,' he continued, presently. 'I never told you 'ow she 'eld 'er tongue, did I?'
I said I had not heard the incident.
'Look 'ere, I'll tell yer,' he said. 'You know Ginger, - 'im what I fought the uvver night?'
'That was about Alice, wasn't it?'
'Nor it wasn't the first time there's bin a bit of a row over Ginger. I don't fink Alice liked Ginger; least, not like she liked me. But 'e was always messin' about after 'er. See? Well, one mornin' I got infamation that Alice'd gone to the Canterbury wiv Ginger the night before. I dessay there wasn't no 'arm in it, an' I ain't so sure in me own mind that she went wiv 'im at all. On'y that was 'nough for me. An', meetin' 'er next evenin' down China Walk, I arsts 'er what the 'ell she meant by walkin' wiv Ginger stead o' me. See? An' then I jest gives 'er two for 'erself; one in each eye. See? Well, Alice, she run off 'ome, an' got into bed quick as she could, an' made out as if she was asleep. 'Cause I'd marked 'er, you unnerstand. Presently, in comes 'er muvver, bein' a bit barmy, an' finds Alice layin' in bed makin' out as if she was asleep. So 'er muvver says - "Git up, you lazy 'ussy," she says, "layin' there like as if you was a lidy," she says.
'Alice says she wouldn't, an' put 'er face unnerneaf the cloves. An' wiv that, 'er muvver took an' fetched 'er a clip over the 'ead. See?
'Well, next mornin', Alice's eyes was stannin' out proper wiv the smack I'd give 'er. An' soon as 'er muvver see 'er, she fort of 'ow she'd landed Alice the night fore, an' nuffink'd do for 'er but she must mess Alice about, an' kiss 'er, an' 'ug 'er, an' say:
' "Oh, my darlin', to fink I should a' marked yer like that!"
' 'Course she was sober then, an' when she's sober Alice's muvver's as kind-hearted as you please.'
'And all the time it was you who had - marked her?' I said.
Young Alf stopped short.
' 'Course it was,' he said. 'That's what I mean; an' - look 'ere.'
We had halted under a lamp-post, and Young Alf's eyes were gleaming in this light.
'Alice never said nuffink about it. What you fink o' that?'
I groped in vain for the appropriate answer, while Young Alf's eyes were fixed on my face.
'I fort a lot o' that,' he said, magnanimously, and turned to resume the walk.
As we went along he confided to me something of his plans for the future, when he should have settled down in his own kip with a wife and such sticks as he could collect.
He had by some means acquired a pony and a barrow, and with these he would make his way in the world. With a barrow and a pony a boy may do a lot. He has a stake in the country, and is no longer as the proletariat.
By what means had he acquired the pony and barrow? The question elicited no reply; and I feared the worst. He would go in for selling green-stuff.
'Then do you mean to go straight now?' I asked.
'I dessay I shall sneak a bit now an' then,' replied young Alf. 'Stan's to reason. See, there's lots o' boys makes a good livin' gettin' on to the tail o' market wagons, an rollin' off wiv somefink they can sell wivout a loss. Peas a tanner a peck! See?'
He contemplated but half a reformation, at most. He would sell green-stuff, which is a sufficiently honest employment. But he did not intend to buy it first.
'We're close there,' said young Alf, placing a hand on my arm. 'When you come in, don't you arst me where I got the fings. You swank as I 'ad 'em give me. See?'
'But I said, doesn't Alice - I mean, does Alice think-'
'It's awright if she doesn't know,' he replied, rather impatiently. 'An' she never arsts no questions. Knows 'ow to 'old 'er tongue, Alice does. On'y if she knows I've got anyfink on the crooked - like a bit of jool'ry I give 'er, - she doesn't seem to take no interest in it. See?'
He stopped by a ground-floor window, put his ear to it for a moment, and tapped.
'Awright,' he said.
He drew me back a step or two, to where a door fronted immediately upon the street. We waited. In a few moments it was opened by Alice.
'What ho!' said young Alf.
'I was listenin',' said Alice.
Where did that girl get her voice of liquid gold? We entered, and Alice resumed her seat, drawing her shawl round her. A single candle, already nearly at its last flicker, lightened her vigil. The room contained three chairs, a table, a few odd pieces of crockery, a strip of carpet, and the bedstead of which young Alf had spoken. But Alice directed my attention to the mantelpiece.
'I've jest been puttin' 'em up,' she said. 'Seems to brighten up the place - makes it more 'ome-like, don't it?'
Young Alf walked over to the mantelpiece. 'Can't ardly see em,' he said. 'Let's 'ave annuver candle.'
'Got a penny?' said Alice.
Young Alf hunted in his pockets and drew blank. But the lack was supplied, and Alice went out in search of another candle.
Young Alf picked up the guttering light from the table, and held it aloft so that I might see and admire the pictures.
Nailed to the middle of the wall over the mantelpiece was a framed engraving of a pigeon, which young Alf had certainly not acquired by honest purchase. But there was a sentimental interest about it. For he had started the serious business of life, as you may remember, by sneaking pigeons. Beneath this, the photograph of a horse.
'That's a 'awse I got at Brighton,' said young Alf, holding the candle with one hand and with the other turning the light on to the picture. Sold it up 'ere in Lambef. It's workin' 'ere now.'
A photograph of young Alf and Alice, arm-in-arm, in very low tone, taken in Epping Forest. Another photograph of the book-maker with the unbridled temper. No. Certainly not a lovable man. A man to keep at a respectful distance. This piece of decoration was clearly Alice's idea, and young Alf swept the candle past it. To right and left of the book-maker a pair of coloured prints representing Christ Blessing the Loaves and Fishes, and Christ on the Sea of Galilee.
Alice retumed and the illumination was increased by a candle.
'Alf bought them,' said Alice, indicating the representations of Our Lord; ' 'cause I liked 'em.'
'Give a penny each for 'em,' said young Alf, in apology for being reduced to purchase.
Alice had resumed her seat by the table, and sat with her shawl drawn closely round her. In the clearer light of the extra candle, I had my first view of her face.
Fair hair, dressed low over the forehead and the ears, after the fashion in vogue among the girls engaged in the manufacture of aerated waters; soft grey eyes - long recovered from the imprint of Young Alf's fist; a mouth somewhat too large for absolute beauty, but well shaped; a figure which in a few months will be slim again. Altogether the sort of girl you may find by the hundred whereever there are streets and tramcars and factories. But her voice marked her off.
I wanted to hear it again; but my stock of small talk was unready. I could converse readily enough with young Alf; but when confronted with Alice, I realized that in all that related to the minor interests of life we were very far apart.
She sat quietly by the table, her hands in her lap, looking straight before her. Young Alf busied himself by shifting the respective positions of the pigeon and the horse over the mantelpiece.
'It's awright, isn't it?' said young Alf.
I said that it seemed very comfortable. To Alice I added that I wished her much happiness, and that I thought must be going.
Alice rose, and we shook hands.
'Did I hear you was comin' - Monday?' she said. 'Alf'd be glad.'
Monday was Boxing day, - the day fixed for the wedding.
'And I'd be glad, too,' added Alice.
I promised my presence, and ascertained the place hour of the ceremony.
Young Alf accompanied me to the door, as Alice returned to her chair. As we stood in the doorway he explained that the unbridled book-maker was due at some race-meeting or other on Boxing day; consequently, the pony and cart could be abstracted without difficulty, and the wedding ceremony carried out without the infliction of the threatened bashing.
'Half-past nine, then,' I said. I shall be there punctually.'
Young Alf looked back, and pulled the door behind him. 'What you fink if I didn't turn up?' he asked, with an oblique glance.
'I think you wouldn't get the little present I'm going to give you - when you're married,' I replied.
He said nothing for a few moments. I watched his eyes, as they glanced quickly this way and that way up and down the street.
'Once before,' he said, 'I've bin as far as the church door wiv a gal - and come away.'