November 26, 1874
"At the Races"
“I hear you, mother.”
“John, I—I wish to speak seriously to you, my son.”
“Very well. I’m listening.”
Little Mrs. Thurlow stood up, to give her words more weight. They did not seem to mean any thing at all to her; she was such a very little woman, and her back ached so much, and her hands trembled so that she had to steady herself on the back of a chair.
She suddenly remembered how John’s father used to stroke her pretty pink hands and call her “Baby,” and say no trouble should ever come nigh her. And when he sailed on his last cruise, he said John would be her comfort until he came back. And now John was breaking her heart!
“You will not go to Eppton with that boy, tomorrow, dear? I mean, you shall not go, John. I certainly will have some authority over you.”
John was standing, too, looking her full in the face. The angry red came into her cheeks and then died out as quickly, and her blue eyes were full of tears. “You wont go, Johnny, dear? You wont vex mother?”
John shut his mouth tight and shrugged his shoulders. He had very lately found out that women were a weak lot, and that men ought to control things in the world, and that he was a man. His mother was so little and so fussy, and she never knew her own mind two minutes! A pretty thing if she was going to say, “You shall,” and “You shall not,” to him all his life!
“Don’t go to Eppton, Johnny,” she continued coaxing. “I’m sure if—if your father were here, he would say that Walcot boy was a very bad companion for you.”
“And what’ll I do at home if I stay? It’s a holiday,” said John, savagely shaking off the hand she laid gently on his arm. His voice was growing deep, like a man’s. He was taller than she in these last few months, and looked over her head as they stood together. He studied books and talked of things of which she knew nothing.
And yet it was only the other day she held him in her arms—her baby! Only the other day! Now that his father was away, and she almost feared might be dead, what had she in the world but her little boy? She always thought God had given him to her, just to her, to be her own. Now he was going from her fast, fast. He came home with that Walcot boy the other night, with the smell of liquor on his breath. He had not let her kiss him for days, not touch his mouth—the sweet mouth where she used to watch the teeth coming like pearls one by one.
She grew pale, her eyes were wild with terror, as she caught him by the arm. “O, for God’s sake, don’t turn away from me, John! It would be better we were dead together than that you should go this road that you are going.”
“I’m going nowhere but to Eppton, to see a horse-race,” he replied, roughly. “And if I stay at home, what can I do to amuse myself?”
Mrs. Thurlow glanced from side to side in dismay. When he could be amused with toys or a story-book, she managed very well, but now—
“You might fish in the morning, and I’ll take you with me to the sewing society in the evening,” with brightening face.
John’s scowl grew darker, but he made no direct reply. His mother’s tears hurt him strangely.
“Very well. I’m going to bed now. We’ll take it over in the morning,” lighting his candle and going off abruptly.
After he heard his mother shut her chamber-door he went down stairs, and out to the drug-shop, where he was sure to find Tom Walcot. That gay city youth laughed a good deal at the early-to-bed habits of the village boys. Day, the druggist, noticed the two lads talking eagerly together for a long time. John appeared reluctant and worried.
“Don’t mind her,” said Walcot, on leaving. “They’re all alike. Weak, weak as water. You’re doing no harm. It’s time you took matters into your own hands. And be sure and bring—“, lowering his voice. “It will show the boys what class in society you belong to. They are all nobby dressers.”
“Jack,” said Mr. Day, as he put up his shutters, “I’d steer clear of that Walcot fellow, if I were you. Nobody knows any thing about him. It don’t become your father’s son to be hail fellow well met with a lad like that.”
Day said to his wife that night, it was a thousand pities Jack had not his father to manage him just now. Dr. Thurlow was as thorough a gentleman as there was in the navy, and John was on the high-road to become a blackguard.
Nearly four years had passed since the ship on which Dr. Thurlow was surgeon had left on the long cruise, and he was expected home soon.
By daylight the next morning John and his friend were jogging along the road to Eppton. John’s face was unusually red, and his eyes unsteady. He took out a heavy gold watch from his pocket now and then, and flashed in the sun a diamond ring that he wore on his little finger.
“That’s a reg’lar old turnip,” said Walcott, glancing at the watch furtively. “No notion of its value, have you?”
“Six or seven hundred,” said John, loftily. “It was my grandfather’s. It’s got the family crest on it in jewels, d’ye see? I suppose the boys will understand that.”
“O, they’ll appreciate the watch, no fear,” with a laugh.
“I borrowed mother’s ring, too,” turning it to make it sparkle. “I don’t know what she’ll say if she misses them. But she ought to let me show people that I’m not a beggar, when I go into society.”
“Certainly. By the way, did you bring any money, Jack? You know I told you there’d be fun betting. All our set risk a little, just for the fun of the thing. Of course they don’t care to win. Money counts for nothing with these fellows. But it looks well to bet, you see.”
“No, I didn’t bring any,” John said, flushing hotly. “The truth is, Tom, I wont bet. It would break mother’s heart, I do believe, if I did that.”
“Bah!” muttered Walcot, with unlimited disgust. “Break her heart, indeed! Well, well, you’ll learn to be a man some time.”
Eppton, the country town, was reached in a couple of hours, and John was introduced to “the boys.” Now John, full of conceit as he was, was shrewd enough, and was quick to see that the coarse faces, gaudy clothes and sham jewelry of the young men were very different from those which should belong to gentlemen or gentlemen’s sons. But as he had no money to bet they treated him with indifference, leaving him to Walcot during the day.
The races were exciting. There was a certain delight, too, in standing in a crowd, sucking the end of an unlighted cigar, (he knew he would be sick, if he smoked,) stroking the down on his upper lip with the jewelled finger.
But as the day waned even these pleasures paled. The oaths and obscenity about him sickened the boy. He remembered it was time for his mother to read the chapter and the evening prayers. The little fussy, dear woman! She might be fussy and weak, but her religion seemed to John at that moment a pure and awful thing, before which these men and their “world” were vile and insignificant.
He touched Walcot on his shoulder. “I’m going home now, Tom.”
The men around hastily glanced at each other.
“Come, take a drink, first. I can’t go back tonight, Jack,” said Walcot. “You’ll have to trudge alone, if you will go. Better stay where you are.”
“No. And I’ll not drink any thing more. Good-evening, gentlemen.”
He hurried through the crowded streets to the turnpike leading home. The day had been a disappointment, after all. He might as well have been fishing or at the sewing society for all the pleasure he had had. And yet a boy ought to have some amusement, he thought.
He trudged on miserable enough, with an aching head and uncertain step. “As for the wine, what do I take it for? I hate it, and it makes me sick as death. If Walcot wouldn’t jeer at cold water prigs!”
The sun had set before he started homeward. The road lay between hills. When he had gone a mile or two, he found himself in almost absolute darkness. He trudged on manfully, though and had reached the Narrows, where the hill rose on one side of the road and the river ran on the other, when he observed four figures, apparently waiting for him. One was in form so like Walcot, that he thought the boys had changed their minds, and determined to go back with him.
“Is that you, Tom?” he shouted.
The man came quickly up to him. He was masked.
“I want the time of night, boy,” he said, in a strained voice.
John, trembling, buttoned his coat tightly over his watch.
“I want to know what time it is!” drawing a revolver and pointing it at his head.
“The watch is not mine,” cried John, yelling, “Help, help!” for a moment, until a blow on the head felled and stunned him. He knew, however, that his watch and ring were dragged from him before another blow left him lifeless.
When he came to himself a man was lifting him into a buggy standing on the road. In the darkness, and his bewilderment from the blow he had received, he could just see that the man was large and powerfully built.
“Are you going to kill me?” John asked, quietly enough, considering the importance of the case.
The gentleman laughed. “No. You’ve had rough usage enough, poor fellow. You are too young a boy to be drunk and fighting,” arranging the cushions about him in the seat, and taking the results. “Now tell me all about it.”
There was something so strong and kind in his voice that the boy nervously told him the whole story, with sobs and tears.
“It is mother I care for,” he said. “To think how I turned against her!”
The gentleman looked down at him closely, his own face strangely agitated. He took the boy’s hand and held it, crushing it in his own until John almost cried out.
They stopped at the cottage door. John’s mother stood at the gate, where the poor little woman had been watching all day. When she saw the boy come staggering down the path towards her, she ran to meet him, and then stopped short, looking at the man behind him, with a wild cry of “George! George!”
“Yes,” said Dr. Thurlow to his wife, the next day, “It has all ended like a story in a book. The police have the thieves and we have the watch and ring, and I came home just when I was needed—in more ways than one. No fear, little woman, of our boy. He only needs a man’s stronger hand to guide him and to make him fit to appreciate his mother.”
University of Connecticut