Chapter IV. Annette
 

Sam Wigglesworth had finished with school, which is not quite the same as saying that he had finished his education. A number of causes had combined to bring this event to pass. First, Sam was beyond the age of compulsory attendance at the Public School, the School Register recording him as sixteen years old. Then, Sam's educational career had been anything but brilliant. Indeed, it might fairly be described as dull. All his life he had been behind his class, the biggest boy in his class, which fact might have been to Sam a constant cause of humiliation had he not held as of the slightest moment merely academic achievements. One unpleasant effect which this fact had upon Sam's moral quality was that it tended to make him a bully. He was physically the superior of all in his class, and this superiority he exerted for what he deemed the discipline of younger and weaker boys, who excelled him in intellectual attainment.

Furthermore, Sam, while quite ready to enforce the code of discipline which he considered suitable to the smaller and weaker boys in his class, resented and resisted the attempts of constituted authority to enforce discipline in his own case, with the result that Sam's educational career was, after much long suffering, abruptly terminated by the action of the long-suffering head, Alex Day.

"With great regret I must report," his letter to the School Board ran, "that in the case of Samuel Wigglesworth I have somehow failed to inculcate the elementary principles of obedience to school regulations and of adherence to truth in speech. I am free to acknowledge," went on the letter, "that the defect may be in myself as much as in the boy, but having failed in winning him to obedience and truth-telling, I feel that while I remain master of the school I must decline to allow the influence of this youth to continue in the school. A whole-hearted penitence for his many offences and an earnest purpose to reform would induce me to give him a further trial. In the absence of either penitence or purpose to reform I must regretfully advise expulsion."

Joyfully the School Board, who had for months urged upon the reluctant head this action, acquiesced in the course suggested, and Samuel was forthwith expelled, to his own unmitigated relief but to his father's red and raging indignation at what he termed the "(h)ignorant persecution of their betters by these (h)insolent Colonials," for "'is son 'ad 'ad the advantages of schools of the 'ighest standin' in (H)England."

Being expelled from school Sam forthwith was brought by his father to the office of the mills, where he himself was employed. There he introduced his son to the notice of Mr. Grant Maitland, with request for employment.

The old man looked the boy over.

"What has he been doing?"

"Nothin'. 'E's just left school."

"High School?"

"Naw. Public School." Wigglesworth Sr.'s tone indicated no exalted opinion of the Public School.

"Public School! What grade, eh?"

"Grade? I dinnaw. Wot grade, Samuel? Come, speak (h)up, cawn't yeh?"

"Uh?" Sam's mental faculties had been occupied in observing the activities and guessing the probable fate of a lumber-jack gaily decked in scarlet sash and blue overalls, who was the central figure upon a flaming calendar tacked up behind Mr. Maitland's desk, setting forth the commercial advantages of trading with the Departmental Stores of Stillwell & Son.

"Wot grade in school, the boss is (h)askin'," said his father sharply.

"Grade?" enquired Sam, returning to the commonplace of the moment.

"Yes, what grade in the Public School were you in when you left?" The blue eyes of the boss was "borin' 'oles" through Sam and the voice pierced like a "bleedin' gimblet," as Wigglesworth, Sr., reported to his spouse that afternoon.

Sam hesitated a bare second. "Fourth grade it was," he said with sullen reluctance.

"'Adn't no chance, Samuel 'adn't. Been a delicate child ever since 'is mother stopped suckin' 'im," explained the father with a sympathetic shake of his head.

The cold blue eye appraised the boy's hulking mass.

"'E don't look it," continued Mr. Wigglesworth, noting the keen glance, "but 'e's never been (h)able to bide steady at the school. (H)It's 'is brain, sir."

"His--ah--brain?" Again the blue eyes appraised the boy, this time scanning critically his face for indication of undue brain activity.

"'Is brain, sir," earnestly reiterated the sympathetic parent. "'Watch that (h)infant's brain,' sez the Doctor to the missus when she put 'im on the bottle. And you know, we 'ave real doctors in (H)England, sir. 'Watch 'is brain,' sez 'e, and, my word, the care 'is ma 'as took of that boy's brain is wunnerful, is fair beautiful, sir." Mr. Wigglesworth's voice grew tremulous at the remembrance of that maternal solicitude.

"And was that why he left school?" enquired the boss.

"Well, sir, not (h)exackly," said Mr. Wigglesworth, momentarily taken aback, "though w'en I comes to think on it that must a been at the bottom of it. You see, w'en Samuel went at 'is books of a night 'e'd no more than begin at a sum an' 'e'd say to 'is ma, 'My brain's a-whirlin', ma', just like that, and 'is ma would 'ave to pull 'is book away, just drag it away, you might say. Oh, 'e's 'ad a 'ard time, 'as Samuel." At this point the boss received a distinct shock, for, as his eyes were resting upon Samuel's face meditatively while he listened somewhat apathetically, it must be confessed, to the father's moving tale, the eye of the boy remote from the father closed in a slow but significant wink.

The boss sat up, galvanised into alert attention. "Eh? What?" he exclaimed.

"Yes, sir, 'e's caused 'is ma many a (h)anxious hour, 'as Samuel." Again the eye closed in a slow and solemn wink. "And we thought, 'is ma and me, that we would like to get Samuel into some easy job--"

"An easy job, eh?"

"Yes, sir. Something in the office, 'ere."

"But his brain, you say, would not let him study his books."

"Oh, it was them sums, sir, an' the Jography and the 'Istory an' the Composition, an', an'--wot else, Samuel? You see, these 'ere schools ain't a bit like the schools at 'ome, sir. They're so confusing with their subjecks. Wot I say is, why not stick to real (h)eddication, without the fiddle faddles?"

"So you want an easy job for your son, eh?" enquired Mr. Maitland.

"Boy," he said sharply to Samuel, whose eyes had again become fixed upon the gay and daring lumber-jack. Samuel recalled himself with visible effort. "Why did you leave school? The truth, mind." The "borin'" eyes were at their work.

"Fired!" said Sam promptly.

Mr. Wigglesworth began a sputtering explanation.

"That will do, Wigglesworth," said Mr. Maitland, holding up his hand. "Sam, you come and see me tomorrow here at eight. Do you understand?"

Sam nodded. After they had departed there came through the closed office door the sound of Mr. Wigglesworth's voice lifted in violent declamation, but from Sam no answering sound could be heard.

The school suffered no noticeable loss in the intellectual quality of its activities by the removal of the whirling brain and incidentally its physical integument of Samuel Wigglesworth. To the smaller boys the absence of Sam brought unbounded joy, more especially during the hours of recess from study and on their homeward way from school after dismissal.

More than any other, little Steve Wickes rejoiced in Sam's departure from school. Owing to some mysterious arrangement of Sam's brain cells he seemed to possess an abnormal interest in observing the sufferings of any animal. The squirming of an unfortunate fly upon a pin fascinated him, the sight of a wretched dog driven mad with terror rushing frantically down a street, with a tin can dangling to its tail, convulsed him with shrieking delight. The more highly organised the suffering animal, the keener was Sam's joy. A child, for instance, flying in a paroxysm of fear from Sam's hideously contorted face furnished acute satisfaction. It fell naturally enough that little Steve Wickes, the timid, shrinking, humpbacked son of the dead soldier, Stephen Wickes, afforded Sam many opportunities of rare pleasure. It was Sam that coined and, with the aid of his sycophantic following never wanting to a bully, fastened to the child the nickname of "Humpy Wicksy," working thereby writhing agony in the lad's highly sensitive soul. But Sam did not stay his hand at the infliction of merely mental anguish. It was one of his favorite forms of sport to seize the child by the collar and breeches and, swinging him high over head, hold him there in an anguish of suspense, awaiting the threatened drop. It is to be confessed that Sam was not entirely without provocation at the hands of little Steve, for the lad had a truly uncanny cunning hidden in his pencil, by means of which Sam was held up in caricature to the surreptitious joy of his schoolmates. Sam's departure from school deprived him of the full opportunity he formerly enjoyed of indulging himself in his favourite sport. On this account he took the more eager advantage of any opportunity that offered still to gratify his taste in this direction.

Sauntering sullenly homeward from his interview with the boss and with his temper rasped to a raw edge by his father's wrathful comments upon his "dommed waggin' tongue," he welcomed with quite unusual eagerness the opportunity for indulging himself in his pastime of baiting Humpy Wicksy whom he overtook on his way home from school during the noon intermission.

"Hello, Humpy," he roared at the lad.

Like a frightened rabbit Steve scurried down a lane, Sam whooping after him.

"Come back, you little beast. Do you hear me? I'll learn you to come when you're called," he shouted, catching the terrified lad and heaving him aloft in his usual double-handed grip.

"Let me down, you! Leave me alone now," shrieked the boy, squirming, scratching, biting like an infuriated cat.

"Bite, would you?" said Sam, flinging the boy down. "Now then," catching him by the legs and turning him over on his stomach, "we'll make a wheelbarrow of you. Gee up, Buck! Want a ride, boys?" he shouted to his admiring gallery of toadies. "All aboard!"

While the unhappy Steve, shrieking prayers and curses, was struggling vainly to extricate himself from the hands gripping his ankles, Annette Perrotte, stepping smartly along the street on her way from the box factory, came past the entrance to the lane. By her side strode a broad-shouldered, upstanding youth. Arrested by Steve's outcries and curses she paused.

"What are those boys at, I wonder?" she said. "There's that big lout of a Wigglesworth boy. He's up to no good, I bet you."

"Oh, a kids' row of some kind or ither, a doot," said the youth. "Come along."

"He's hurting someone," said Annette, starting down the lane. "What? I believe it's that poor child, Steve Wickes." Like a wrathful fury she dashed in upon Sam and his company of tormentors and, knocking the little ones right and left, she sprang upon Sam with a fierce cry.

"You great brute!" She seized him by his thatch of thick red hair and with one mighty swing she hurled him clear of Steve and dashed him head on against the lane fence. Sheer surprise held Sam silent for a few seconds, but as he felt the trickle of warm blood run down his face and saw it red upon his hand, his surprise gave place to terror.

"Ouw! Ouw!" he bellowed. "I'm killed, I'm dying. Ouw! Ouw!"

"I hope so," said Annette, holding Steve in her arms and seeking to quiet his sobbing. But as she saw the streaming blood her face paled.

"For the love of Mike, Mack, see if he's hurt," she said in a low voice to her companion.

"Not he! He's makin' too much noise," said the young man. "Here, you young bull, wait till I see what's wrang wi' ye," he continued, stooping over Sam.

"Get away from me, I tell you. Ouw! Ouw! I'm dying, and they'll hang her. Ouw! Ouw! I'm killed, and I'm just glad I am, for she'll be hung to death." Here Sam broke into a vigorous stream of profanity.

"Ay, he's improvin' A doot," said Mack. "Let us be going."

"'Ello! Wot's (h)up?" cried a voice. It was Mr. Wigglesworth on his way home from the mill. "Why, bless my living lights, if it bean't Samuel. Who's been a beatin' of you, Sammy?" His eye swept the crowd. "'Ave you been at my lad?" he asked, stepping toward the young man, whom Annette named Mack.

"Aw, steady up, man. There's naethin' much wrang wi' the lad--a wee scratch on the heid frae fa'in' against the fence yonder."

"Who 'it 'im, I say?" shouted Mr. Wigglesworth. "Was it you?" he added, squaring up to the young man.

"No, it wasn't, Mr. Wigglesworth. It was me." Mr. Wigglesworth turned on Annette who, now that Sam's bellowing had much abated with the appearance of his father upon the scene, had somewhat regained her nerve.

"You?" gasped Mr. Wigglesworth. "You? My Samuel? It's a lie," he cried.

"Hey, mon, guairrd y're tongue a bit," said Mack. "Mind ye're speakin' to a leddy."

"A lidy! A lidy!" Mr. Wigglesworth's voice was eloquent of scorn.

"Aye, a leddy!" said Mack. "An' mind what ye say aboot her tae. Mind y're manners, man."

"My manners, hey? An' 'oo may you be, to learn me manners, you bloomin' (h)ignorant Scotch (h)ass. You give me (h)any of your (h)imperance an' I'll knock y're bloomin' block (h)off, I will." And Mr. Wigglesworth, throwing himself into the approved pugilistic attitude, began dancing about the young Scot.

"Hoot, mon, awa' hame wi' ye. Tak' yon young tyke wi' ye an' gie him a bit wash, he's needin' it," said Mack, smiling pleasantly at the excited and belligerent Mr. Wigglesworth.

At this point Captain Jack, slowly motoring by the lane mouth, turned his machine to the curb and leaped out.

"What's the row here?" he asked, making his way through the considerable crowd that had gathered. "What's the trouble, Wigglesworth?"

"They're knockin' my boy abaht, so they be," exclaimed Mr. Wigglesworth. "But," with growing and righteous wrath, "they'll find (h)out that, wotsomever they do to a kid, w'en they come (h)up agin Joe Wigglesworth they've struck somethin' 'ard--'ard, d'ye 'ear? 'Ard!" And Mr. Wigglesworth made a pass at the young Scot.

"Hold on, Wigglesworth," said Captain Jack quietly, catching his arm. "Were you beating up this kid?" he asked, turning to the young man.

"Nae buddie's beatin' up the lad," said Mack quietly.

"It was me," said the girl, turning a defiant face to Captain Jack.

"You? Why! great Scot! Blest if it isn't Annette."

"Yes, it's me," said the girl, her face a flame of colour.

"By Jove, you've grown up, haven't you? And it was you that--"

"Yes, that big brute was abusing Steve here."

"What? Little Steve Wickes?"

"He was, and I pitched him into the fence. He hit his head and cut it, I guess. I didn't mean--"

"Served him right enough, too, I fancy," said Captain Jack.

"I'll 'ave the law on the lot o' ye, I will. I'm a poor workin' man, but I've got my rights, an' if there's a justice in this Gawd forsaken country I'll 'ave protection for my family." And Mr. Wigglesworth, working up a fury, backed off down the lane.

"Don't fear, Wigglesworth, you'll get all the justice you want. Perhaps Sam will tell us--Hello! Where is Sam?"

But Sam had vanished. He had no mind for an investigation in the presence of Captain Jack.

"Well, well, he can't be much injured, I guess. Meantime, can I give you a lift, Annette?"

"No, thank you," said the girl, the colour in her cheeks matching the crimson ribbon at her throat. "I'm just going home. It's only a little way. I don't--"

"The young leddy is with me, sir," said the young Scotchman quietly.

"Oh, she is, eh?" said Captain Jack, looking him over. "Ah, well, then--Good-bye, Annette, for the present." He held out his hand. "We must renew our old acquaintance, eh?"

"Thank you, sir," said the girl.

"'Sir?' Rot! You aren't going to 'sir' me, Annette, after all the fun and the fights we had in the old days. Not much. We're going to be good chums again, eh? What do you say?"

"I don't know," said Annette, flashing a swift glance into Captain Jack's admiring eyes. "It depends on--"

"On me?"

"I didn't say so." Her head went up a bit.

"On you?"

"I didn't say so."

"Well, let it go. But we will be pals again, Annette, I vow. Good-bye." Captain Jack lifted his hat and moved away.

As he reached his car he ran up against young Rupert Stillwell.

"Deucedly pretty Annette has grown, eh?" said Stillwell.

"Annette's all right," said Jack, rather brusquely, entering his car.

"Working in your box factory, I understand, eh?"

"Don't really know," said Jack carelessly. "Probably."

The crowd had meantime faded away with Captain Jack's going.

"Did na know the Captain was a friend of yours, Annette," said Mack, falling into step beside her.

"No--yes--I don't know. We went to Public School together before the war. I was a kid then." Her manner was abstracted and her eyes were far away. Mack walked gloomily by her on one side, little Steve on the other.

"Huh! He's no your sort, A doot," he said sullenly.

"What do you say?" cried Annette, returning from her abstraction. "What do you mean, 'my sort'?" Her head went high and her eyes flashed.

"He would na look at ye, for ony guid."

"He did look at me though," replied Annette, tossing her head.

"No for ony guid!" repeated Mack, stubbornly.

Annette stopped in her tracks, a burning red on her cheeks and a dangerous light in her black eyes.

"Mr. McNish, that's your road," she said, pointing over his shoulder.

"A'll tak it tae," said McNish, wheeling on his heel, "an' ye can hae your Captain for me."

With never a look at him Annette took her way home.

"Good-bye, Steve," she said, stooping and kissing the boy. "This is your corner."

"Annette," he said, with a quick, shy look up into her face, "I like Captain Jack, don't you?"

"No," she said hurriedly. "I mean yes, of course."

"And I like you too," said the boy, with an adoring look in his deep eyes, "better'n anyone in the world."

"Do you, Steve? I'm glad." Again she stooped swiftly and kissed him. "Now run home."

She hurried home, passed into her room without a word to anyone. Slowly she removed her hat, then turning to her glass she gazed at her flushed face for a few moments. A little smile curved her lips. "He did look at me anyway," she whispered to the face that looked out at her, "he did, he did," she repeated. Then swiftly she covered her eyes. When she looked again she saw a face white and drawn. "He would na look at ye." The words smote her with a chill. Drearily she turned away and went out.