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Two Boys
by [?]

He was by no means ill-looking, and quite certainly no fool. His face carried the stamp of his father’s ability. It puzzled me what he could be doing with that pile of papers and magazines; or why, having burdened himself with them, he should choose to sit and stare instead of reading them. For his station lay but a twenty minutes’ run below mine, and it was impossible that in the time he could have glanced through the half of them.

He had been staring at me, or through me, maybe for half an hour, when our train slowed down and came to a standstill above the steep valley between Bodmin Road and Doublebois. After a couple of minutes’ wait, the boy rose and went to the window in the corridor to see what was happening; and I took this opportunity to glance across at the papers scattered on the vacant seat. They included three or four sixpenny and threepenny magazines; a large illustrated paper (Black and White, I think); half a dozen penny weeklies–Tit-bits, Answers, Pearson’s Weekly, Cassell’s Saturday Journal; I forget what others: halfpenny papers in a heap–all kinds of Cuts, Snippets, Siftings, Echoes, Snapshots, and Side-lights; Pars about People, Christian Sweepings, Our Happy Fireside, and The Masher. Many lay face downward, coyly hiding their titles but disclosing such headlines as “Facts about the Flag,” “Books which have influenced the Bishop of London,” “He gave ’em Fits!” “Our Unique Competition,” “Mr. Cecil Rhodes: a Powerful Personality,” “What becomes of old Stage Scenery.”

In the midst of my survey the train began to move forward again, and the boy came back to his seat.

“It’s only some platelayers on the viaduct,” he explained. “They held up their flag against us. I suppose they were just finishing a job.”

“Nasty place to leave the rails,” said I, glancing over the parapet upon the green tree-tops fifty feet below us.”

“I was thinking that,” said he, and a queer tremor in his young voice made me glance at him sharply. Then suddenly I understood–or thought I did.

“You, at any rate, are pretty well insured,” said I.

“Twenty thousand pounds, and a little over: the coupons cost four and twopence altogether, and then at the end of the journey you can use up all the reading.”

“Wonderful!” I kept a serious face. “And I suppose all this time you’ve been staring at me, amazed by the recklessness of your elders.”

He flushed slightly. “Have I been staring? I beg your pardon, I’m sure: it’s a trick I have. I begin thinking of things, and then–“

“Thinking, I suppose, of how it would feel to be in a collision, or what it would be like to leap such a parapet as that and find ourselves dropping–dropping–into space? But you shouldn’t, really. It isn’t healthy in a boy like you: and if you’ll listen to one who has known what nerves are, it may too easily grow to mean something worse.”

“But it isn’t that–exactly,” he protested; “though of course all that comes into it. I’m not a–a funk, sir! I was thinking more of the –of what would come afterwards, you know.”

“Oh dear!” I groaned to myself. “It’s worse than ever: here’s a little prig worrying about his soul. I shouldn’t advise you to trouble about that, either,” I said aloud.

“But I don’t trouble about it.” He hesitated, and stumbled into a burst of confidence. “You see, I’m no good at games–athletics and that sort of thing–“

Again he stopped, and I nodded to encourage him.

“And I’m no swell at schoolwork, either. I went to school late, and after home it all seems so young–if you understand?”

I thought I did. With his polite grown-up manner I could understand his isolation among the urchins, the masters, and all the interests of an ordinary school.