If it would have surprised the mother, it would undoubtedly have surprised the children also to be told how little their parents meant to them. Children seldom have any power of quantitative self-analysis: whatever the facts, they believe as an article of faith that they love Father and Mother first and equally. Actually, the Thornton children had loved Tabby first and foremost in all the world, some of each other second, and hardly noticed their mother’s existence more than once a week. Their father they loved a little more: partly owing to the ceremony of riding home on his stirrups.
Jamaica remained, and blossomed anew, its womb being inexhaustible. Mr. and Mrs. Thornton remained, and with patience and tears tried to reconstruct things, in so far as they could be reconstructed. But the danger which their beloved little ones had been through was not a thing to risk again. Heaven had warned them. The children must go.
Nor was the only danger physical.
“That awful night!” said Mrs. Thornton, once, when discussing their plan of sending them home to schooclass="underline" “Oh my dear, what the poor little things must have suffered! Think how much more acute Fear is to a child! And they were so brave, so English.”
“I don’t believe they realized it.” (He only said that to be contradictious: he could hardly expect it to be taken seriously.)
“You know, I am terribly afraid what permanent, inward effect a shock like that may have on them. Have you noticed they never so much as mention it? In England they would at least be safe from dangers of that sort.”
Meanwhile the children, accepting the new life as a matter of course, were thoroughly enjoying it. Most children, on a railway journey, prefer to change at as many stations as possible.
The rebuilding of Ferndale, too, was a matter of absorbing interest. For there is one advantage to these match-box houses — easy gone, easy come: and once begun, the work proceeded apace. Mr. Thornton himself led the building gang, employing no end of mechanical devices of his own devising, and it was not long before the day came when he stood with his handsome head emerging through the fast dwindling hole in the new roof, shouting directions to the two black carpenters, who, lying spread-eagle in their check shirts, pinned on shingle after shingle — walling him in, like the victim in some horrid story. At last he had to draw in his head, and where it had been the last few shingles were clapped into place.
An hour later the children had looked their last on Ferndale.
When they had been told they were to go to England, they had received it as an isolated fact: thrilling in itself, but without any particular causation — for it could hardly be due to the death of the cat, and nothing else of importance had occurred lately.
The first stage of their journey was by land, to Montego Bay, and the notable thing about it was that the borrowed wagonette was drawn not by a pair of horses or a pair of mules, but by one horse and one mule. Whenever the horse wanted to go fast the mule fell asleep in the shafts: and if the driver woke it up it set off at a gallop, which angered the horse. Their progress would have been slow anyhow, as all the roads were washed away.
John was the only one who could remember England. What he remembered was sitting at the top of a flight of stairs, which was fenced off from him by a little gate, playing with a red toy milk-cart: and he knew, without having to look, that in the room on the left Baby Emily was lying in her cot. Emily said she could remember something which sounded like a Prospect of the Backs of some Brick Houses at Richmond: but she might have invented it. The others had been born in the Island — Edward only just.
They all had, nevertheless, most elaborate ideas about England, built up out of what their parents had told them, and from the books and old magazines they sometimes looked at. Needless to say it was a very Atlantis, a land at the back of the North Wind: and going there was about as exciting as it would be to die and go to Heaven.
John told them all about the top of the stairs for the hundredth time as they drove along; the others listening attentively (as the Believing do to a man remembering his reincarnations).
Suddenly Emily recalled sitting at a window and seeing a big bird with a beautiful tail. At the same time there had been a horrid screeching going on, or perhaps something else disagreeable — she could not quite remember which sense was offended. It did not occur to her that it was this self-same bird which had screeched: and anyhow it was all too vague for her to try to describe it. She switched off to wondering how it was possible actually to sleep when walking, as the driver said the mule did.
They put up for the first night at St. Anne’s, and there another notable thing occurred. Their host was a hardened Creole: and at supper he ate Cayenne pepper with a spoon. Not ordinary Cayenne pepper, mind, such as is sold in shops, which is heavily adulterated with logwood: but the far fierier pure original. This indeed was an Event of the first water: none of them ever forgot it.
The desolation through which they drove is indescribable. Tropical scenery is anyhow tedious, prolific, and gross: the greens more or less uniform: great tubular stems supporting thick leaves: no tree has an outline because it is crushed up against something else — no room . In Jamaica this profusion swarms over the very mountain ranges: and even the peaks are so numerous that on the top of one you are surrounded by others, and can see nothing. There are hundreds of flowers. Then imagine all this luxuriance smashed, as with a pestle and mortar — crushed, pulped, and already growing again! Mr. Thornton and his wife were ready to shout with relief when they caught their first glimpse of the sea, and at last came out in view of the whole beautiful sweep of Montego Bay itself.
In the open sea there was a considerable swelclass="underline" but within the shelter of the coral reef, with its pinhole entrance, all was still as a mirror, where three ships of different sizes lay at anchor, the whole of each beautiful machine repeated in the water under it. Within the Roads lay the Bogue Islands; and immediately to the left of the islands, in the low land at the base of the hills, was the mouth of a small river — swampy, and (Mr. Thornton informed John) infested with crocodiles. The children had never seen a crocodile, and hoped one might venture as far as the town, where they presently arrived: but none did. It was with considerable disappointment that they found they were to go on board the barque at once; for they still hoped that round some corner of the street a crocodile might yet appear.
The Clorinda had let go her anchor in six fathoms: the water so clear, and the light so bright, that as they drew near the reflection suddenly disappeared, and instead they found themselves looking right underneath her and out the other side. The refraction made her seem as flat-bellied as a turtle, as if practically all of her were above the surface: and the anchor on its cable seemed to stream out flatly, like a downwards kite, twisting and twining (owing to the undulating surface) in the writhing coral.
This was the only impression Emily retained of going on board the ship: but the ship itself was a strange enough object, requiring all her attention. John was the only one who could remember the journey out at all clearly. Emily thought she could, but was really only remembering her visualizations of what she had been told: in fact, she found that a real ship was totally unlike the thing she thought she remembered.
By some last whim of the captain’s the shrouds were being set up — tauter than seemed good to the sailors, who grumbled as they strained the creaking lanyards. John did not envy them, winding away at that handle in the hot sun: but he did envy the chap whose job it was to dip his hand in a great pot of aromatic Stockholm tar, and work it into the dead-eyes. He was tarred up to the elbows: and John itched to be so too.