Moggie, the general, knocked at Mr. Gammon's door, and was answered by a sleepy "Hallo?"
"Mrs. Bubb wants to know if you know what time it is, sir? 'Cos it's half-past eight an' more."
"All right!" sounded cheerfully from within. "Any letters for me?"
"Yes, sir; a 'eap."
"Bring 'em up, and put 'em under the door. And tell Mrs. Bubb I'll have breakfast in bed; you can put it down outside and shout. And I say, Moggie, ask somebody to run across and get me a 'Police News' and 'Clippings' and 'The Kennel' -- understand? Two eggs, Moggie, and three rashers, toasted crisp -- understand?"
As the girl turned to descend a voice called to her from another room on the same floor, a voice very distinctly feminine, rather shrill, and a trifle imperative.
"Moggie, I want my hot water-sharp!"
"It ain't nine yet, miss," answered Moggie in a tone of remonstrance.
"I know that -- none of your cheek! If you come up here hollering at people's doors, how can anyone sleep? Bring the hot water at once, and mind it is hot."
"You'll have to wait till it gits 'ot, miss."
"Shall I? If it wasn't too much trouble I'd come out and smack your face for you, you dirty little wretch!"
The servant -- she was about sixteen, and no dirtier than became her position -- scampered down the stairs, burst into the cellar kitchen, and in a high, tearful wail complained to her mistress of the indignity she had suffered. There was no living in the house with that Miss Sparkes, who treated everybody like dirt under her feet. Smack her face, would she? What next? And all because she said the water would have to be 'otted. And Mr. Gammon wanted his breakfast in bed, and -- and -- why, there now, it had all been drove out of her mind by that Miss Sparkes.
Mrs. Bubb, the landlady, was frying some sausages for her first-floor lodgers; as usual at this hour she wore (presumably over some invisible clothing) a large shawl and a petticoat, her thin hair, black streaked with grey, knotted and pinned into a ball on the top of her head. Here and there about the kitchen ran four children, who were snatching a sort of picnic breakfast whilst they made ready for school. They looked healthy enough, and gabbled, laughed, sang, without heed to the elder folk. Their mother, healthy too, and with no ill-natured face-a slow, dull, sluggishly-mirthful woman of a common London type-heard Moggie out, and shook up the sausages before replying.
"Never you mind Miss Sparkes; I'll give her a talkin' to when she comes down. What was it as Mr. Gammon wanted? Breakfast in bed? And what else? I never see such a girl for forgetting!"
"Well, didn't I tell you as my 'ead had never closed the top!" urged Moggie in plaintive key. "How can I 'elp myself?"
"Here, take them letters up to him, and ask again; and if Miss Sparkes says anything don't give her no answer -- see? Billy, fill the big kettle, and put it on before you go. Sally, you ain't a-goin' to school without brushin' your 'air? Do see after your sister, Janey, an' don't let her look such a slap-cabbage. Beetrice, stop that 'ollerin'; it fair mismerizes me!"
Having silently thrust five letters under Mr. Gammon's door, Moggie gave a very soft tap, and half whispered a request that the lodger would repeat his orders. Mr. Gammon did so with perfect good humour. As soon as his voice had ceased that of Miss Sparkes sounded from the neighbouring bedroom.
"Is that the water?"
For the pleasure of the thing Moggie stood to listen, an angry grin on her flushed face.
"Moggie! -- I'll give that little beast what for! Are you there?"
The girl made a quick motion with both her hands as if clawing an enemy's face, then coughed loudly, and went away with a sound of stamping on the thinly-carpeted stairs. One minute later Miss Sparkes' door opened and Miss Sparkes herself rushed forth -- a startling vision of wild auburn hair about a warm complexion, and a small, brisk figure girded in a flowery dressing-gown. She called at the full pitch of her voice for Mrs. Bubb.
"Do you hear me? Mrs. Bubb, have the kindness to send me up my hot water immejately! This moment, if you please!"
There came an answer, but not from the landlady. It sounded so near to Miss Sparkes that she sprang back into her room.
"Patience, Polly! All in good time, my dear. Wrong foot out of bed this morning?"
Her door slammed, and there followed a lazy laugh from Mr. Gammon's chamber.
In due time the can of hot water was brought up, and soon after it came a tray for Mr. Gammon, on which, together with his breakfast, lay the three newspapers he had bespoken. Polly Sparkes throughout her leisurely toilet was moved to irritation and curiosity by the sound of frequent laughter on the other side of the party wall -- uproarious peals, long chucklings in a falsetto key, staccato bursts of mirth.
"That is the comic stuff in 'Clippings,'" she said to herself with an involuntary grin. "What a fool he is! And why's he staying in bed this morning? Got his holiday, I suppose. I'd make better use of it than that."
She came forth presently in such light and easy costume as befitted a young lady of much leisure on a hot morning of June. Meaning to pass an hour or two in quarrelling with Mrs. Bubb she had arrayed herself thus early with more care than usual, that her colours and perfumes might throw contempt upon the draggle-tailed landlady, whom, by the by, she had known since her childhood. On the landing, where she paused for a moment, she hummed an air, with the foreseen result that Mr. Gammon called out to her.
She vouchsafed no answer.
"Will you come with me to see my bow-wows this fine day?"
"No, Mr. Gammon, I certainly will not!"
"Thank you, Polly, I felt a bit afraid you might say yes."
The tone was not offensive, whatever the words might be, and the laugh that came after would have softened any repartee, with its undernote of good humour and harmless gaiety. Biting her lips to preserve the dignity of silence, Polly passed downstairs. Sunshine through a landing window illumined the dust floating thickly about the staircase and heated the familiar blend of lodging-house smells -- the closeness of small rooms that are never cleansed, the dry rot of wall-paper, plaster, and old wood, the fustiness of clogged carpets trodden thin, the ever-rising vapours from a sluttish kitchen. As Moggie happened to be wiping down the front steps the door stood open, affording a glimpse of trams and omnibuses, cabs and carts, with pedestrians bobbing past in endless variety -- the life of Kennington Road -- all dust and sweat under a glaring summer sun. To Miss Sparkes a cheery and inviting spectacle -- for the whole day was before her, to lounge or ramble until the hour which summoned her to the agreeable business of selling programmes at a fashionable theatre. The employment was precarious; even with luck in the way of tips it meant nothing very brilliant; but something had happened lately which made Polly indifferent to this view of the matter. She had a secret, and enjoyed it all the more because it enabled her to excite not envy alone, but dark suspicions in the people who observed her.
Mrs. Bubb, for instance -- who so far presumed upon old acquaintance as to ask blunt questions, and offer homely advice -- plainly thought she was going astray. It amused Polly to encourage this misconception, and to take offence on every opportunity. As she went down into the kitchen she fingered a gold watch-chain that hung from her blouse to a little pocket at her waist. Mrs. Bubb would spy it at once, and in course of the quarrel about this morning's hot water would be sure to allude to it.
It turned out one of the finest frays Polly had ever enjoyed, and was still rich in possibilities when, at something past eleven, the kitchen door suddenly opened and there entered Mr. Gammon.
He glanced at Mrs. Bubb, at the disorderly remnants of breakfast on the long deal table, then at Polly, whose face was crimson with the joy of combat.
"Don't let me interrupt you, ladies. Blaze away! if I may so express myself. It does a man good to see such energy on a warm morning."
"I've said all I'm a-goin' to say," exclaimed Mrs. Bubb, as she mopped her forehead with a greasy apron. "I've warned her, that's all, and I mean her well, little as she deserves it. Now, you, Moggie, don't stand gahpin' there git them breakfast things washed up, can't you? It'll be tea time agin before the beds is made. And what's come to you this morning?"
She addressed Mr. Gammon, who had seated himself on a corner of the table, as if to watch and listen. He was a short, thick-set man with dark, wiry hair roughened into innumerable curls, and similar whiskers ending in a clean razor-line halfway down the cheek. His eyes were blue and had a wondering innocence, which seemed partly the result of facetious affectation, as also was the peculiar curve of his lips, ever ready for joke or laughter. Yet the broad, mobile countenance had lines of shrewdness and of strength, plain enough whenever it relapsed into gravity, and the rude shaping of jaw and chin might have warned anyone disposed to take advantage of the man's good nature. He wore a suit of coarse tweed, a brown bowler hat, a blue cotton shirt with white stock and horseshoe pin, rough brown leggings, tan boots, and in his hand was a dog-whip. This costume signified that Mr. Gammon felt at leisure, contrasting as strongly as possible with the garb in which he was wont to go about his ordinary business -- that of commercial traveller. He had a liking for dogs, and kept a number of them in the back premises of an inn at Dulwich, whither he usually repaired on Sundays. When at Dulwich, Mr. Gammon fancied himself in completely rural seclusion; it seemed to him that he had shaken off the dust of cities, that he was far from the clamour of the crowd, amid peace and simplicity; hence his rustic attire, in which he was fond of being photographed with dogs about him. A true-born child of town, he would have found the real country quite unendurable; in his doggy rambles about Dulwich he always preferred a northerly direction, and was never so happy as when sitting in the inn-parlour amid a group of friends whose voices rang the purest Cockney. Even in his business he disliked engagements which took him far from London; his "speciality" (as he would have said) was town travel, and few men had had more varied experience in that region of enterprise.
"I'm going to have a look at the bow-wows," he replied to Mrs. Bubb. "Polly won't come with me; unkind of her, ain't it?"
"Mr. Gammon," remarked the young lady with a severe glance, "I'll thank you not to be so familiar with my name. If you don't know any better, let me tell you it's very ungentlemanly."
He rose, doffed his hat, bowed profoundly, and begged her pardon, in acknowledgment of which Polly gave a toss of the head. Miss Sparkes was neither beautiful nor stately, but her appearance had the sort of distinction which corresponds to these qualities in the society of Kennington Road; she filled an appreciable space in the eyes of Mr. Gammon; her abundance of auburn hair, her high colour, her full lips and excellent teeth, her finely-developed bust, and the freedom of her poses (which always appeared to challenge admiration and anticipate impertinence) had their effectiveness against a kitchen background, and did not entirely lose it when she flitted about the stalls at the theatre selling programmes. She was but two-and-twenty. Mr. Gammon had reached his fortieth year. In general his tone of intimacy passed without rebuke; at moments it had seemed not unacceptable. But Polly's temper was notoriously uncertain, and her frankness never left people in doubt as to the prevailing mood.
"Would you like a little ball-pup. Miss Sparkes?" he pursued in a conciliatory tone. "A lovely little button-ear? There's a new litter say the word, and I'll bring you one."
"Thank you. I don't care for dogs."
"No? But I'm sure you would if you kept one. Now, I have a cobby little fox terrier -- just the dog for a lady. No? Or a sweet little black-and-tan -- just turning fifteen pounds, with a lovely neck and kissing spots on both cheeks. I wouldn't offer her to everybody."
"Very good of you," replied Miss Sparkes contemptuously.
"Why ain't you goin' to business?" asked the landlady.
"I'll tell you. We had a little difference of opinion yesterday. The governors have been disappointed about a new line in the fancy leather; it wouldn't go, and I told them the reason, but that wasn't good enough. They hinted that it was my fault. Of course, I said nothing; I never do in such cases. But -- this morning I had breakfast in bed."
He spoke with eyes half closed and an odd vibration of the upper lip, then broke into a laugh.
"You're an independent party, you are," said Mrs. Bubb, eyeing him with admiration.
"It was always more than I could do to stand a hint of that kind. Not so long ago I used to lose my temper, but I've taken pattern by Polly -- I mean Miss Sparkes -- and now I do it quietly. That reminds me" -- his look changed to seriousness -- "do you know anyone of the name of Quodling?"
Polly -- to whom he spoke -- answered with a dry negative.
"Sure? Try and think if you ever heard your uncle speak of the name."
The girl's eyes fell as if, for some reason, she felt a momentary embarrassment. It passed, but in replying she looked away from Mr. Gammon.
"Quodling? Never heard it -- why?"
"Why, there is a man called Quodling who might be your uncle's twin brother -- he looks so like him. I caught sight of him in the City, and tracked him till I got to know his place of business and his name. For a minute or two I thought I'd found your uncle; I really did. Gosh! I said to myself, there's Clover at last! I wonder I didn't pin him like a bull terrier. But, as you know, I'm cautious -- that's how I've made my fortune, Polly."
Miss Sparkes neither observed the joke nor resented the name; she was listening with a preoccupied air.
"You'll never find him," said Mrs. Bubb, shaking her head.
"Don't be so sure of that. I shan't lose sight of this man Quodling. It's the strangest likeness I ever saw, and I shan't be satisfied till I've got to know if he has any connexion with the name of Clover. It ain't easy to get at, but I'll manage it somehow. Now, if I had Polly to help me -- I mean Miss Sparkes----"
With a muttering of impatience the girl rose; in the same moment she drew from her belt a gold watch, and deliberately consulted it. Observing this Mrs. Bubb looked towards Mr. Gammon, who, also observant, returned the glance.
"I shan't want dinner," Polly remarked in an off-hand way as she moved towards the door.
"Going to see Mrs. Clover?" Gammon inquired.
"I'm sick of going there. It's always the same talk."
"Wait till your 'usband runs away from you and stays away for five years," said Mrs. Bubb with a renewal of anger, "and then see what you find to talk about."
Polly laughed and went away humming.
"If it wasn't that I feel afraid for her," continued Mrs. Bubb in a lower voice, "I'd give that young woman notice to quit. Her cheek's getting past everything. Did you see her gold watch and chain?"
"Yes, I did; where does it come from?"
"That's more than I can tell you, Mr. Gammon. I don't want to think ill of the girl, but there's jolly queer goin's-on. And she's so brazen about it! I don't know what to think."
Gammon knitted his brows and gazed round the kitchen.
"I think Polly's straight," he observed at length. "I don't seem to notice anything wrong with her except her cheek and temper. She'll have to be taken down a peg one of these days, but I don't envy the man that'll have the job. It won't be me, for certain," he added with a laugh.
Moggie came into the room, bringing a telegram.
"For me?" said Gammon. "Just what I expected." Reading, he broadened his visage into a grin of infinite satisfaction. "'Please explain absence. Hope nothing wrong.' How kind of them, ain't it! Yesterday they chucked me; now they're polite. Reply-paid too; very considerate. They shall have their reply."
He laid the blank form on the table and wrote upon it in pencil, every letter beautifully shaped in a first-rate commercial hand:
"Go to Bath and get your heads shaved."
"You ain't a-goin' to send that!" exclaimed Mrs. Bubb, when he had held the message to her for perusal.
"It'll do them good. They're like Polly -- want taking down a peg."
Moggie ran off with the paper to the waiting boy, and Mr. Gammon laughed for five minutes uproariously.
"Would you like a little bull-pup, Mrs. Bubb? he asked at length.
"Not me, Mr. Gammon. I've enough pups of my own, thank you all the same."
Mr. Gammon took his way down Kennington Road, walking at a leisure]y pace, smiting his leg with his doubled dog-whip, and looking about him with his usual wideawake, contented air. He had in perfection the art of living for the moment, no art in his case, but a natural characteristic, for which it never occurred to him to be grateful. Indeed, it is a common characteristic in the world to which Mr. Gammon belonged. He and his like take what the heavens send them, grumbling or rejoicing, but never reflecting upon their place in the sum of things. To Mr. Gammon life was a wonderfully simple matter. He had his worries and his desires, but so long as he suffered neither from headache nor stomach-ache, these things interfered not at all with his enjoyment of a fine morning.
He was in no hurry to make for Dulwich; as he walked along his thoughts began to turn in a different direction, and on reaching the end of Upper Kennington Lane he settled the matter by striking towards Vauxhall Station. A short railway journey and another pleasant saunter brought him to a street off Battersea Park Road, and to a china shop, over which stood the name of Clover.
In the window hung a card with an inscription in bold letters: "Glass, china, and every kind of fashionable ornament for the table for hire on moderate terms." Mr. Gammon read this with an appreciative smile, which. accompanied by a nod, became a greeting to Mrs. Clover, who was aware of him from within the shop. He entered.
"How does it go?"
"Two teas and a supper yesterday. A wedding breakfast this morning."
"Bravo! What did I tell you? You'll want a bigger place before the end of the year."
The shop was well stocked, the window well laid out; everything indicated a flourishing, though as yet a small, business. Mrs. Clover, a neat, comely, and active woman, with a complexion as clear as that of her own best china, chatted vivaciously with the visitor, whilst she superintended the unpacking of a couple of crates by a muscular youth and a young lady (to use the technical term), her shop assistant.
"Why are you off to-day?" she inquired presently, after moving to the doorway for more private talk.
Mr. Gammon made his explanation with spirit and humour.
"You're a queer man, if ever there was one," Mrs. Clover remarked after watching him for a moment and averting her eyes as soon as they were met by his. "You know your own business best, but I should have thought----"
It was a habit of hers to imply a weighty opinion by suddenly breaking off, a form of speech known to the grammarians by a name which would have astonished Mrs. Clover. Few women of her class are prone to this kind of emphasis. Her friendly manner had a quietness, a reserve in its cordiality, which suited well with the frank, pleasant features of a matron not yet past her prime.
"It's all right," he replied, more submissively than he was wont to speak. "I shall do better next time; I'm looking out for a permanency."
"So you have been for ten years, to my knowledge."
They laughed together. At this point came an interruption in the shape of a customer who drove up in a hansom: a loudly-dressed woman, who, on entering the shop, conversed with Mrs. Clover in the lowest possible voice, and presently returned to her vehicle with uneasy glances left and right. Mr. Gammon, who had walked for some twenty yards, sauntered back to the shop, and his friend met him on the threshold.
"That's the sort," she whispered with a merry eye. "Eight-roomed 'ouse near Queen's Road Station. Wants things for an at 'ome -- teaspoons as well -- couldn't I make it ninepence the two dozen! That's the kind of place where there'll be breakages. But they pay well, the breakages do."
"Well, I won't keep you now," said Gammon. "I'm going to have a peep at the bow-wows. Could I look in after closing?"
Mrs. Clover turned her head away, pretending to observe the muscular youth within.
"Fact is," he pursued, "I want to speak to you about Polly."
"What about her?"
"Nothing much. I'll tell you this evening."
Without more words he nodded and went off. Mrs. Clover stood for a moment with an absent expression on her comely face, then turned into the shop and gave the young man in shirt-sleeves a bit of her mind about the time he was taking over his work.
She was anything but a bad-tempered woman. Her rating had no malice in it, and only signified that she could not endure laziness.
"Hot, is it? Of course it's hot. What do you expect in June? You don't mind the heat when you're playing cricket, I know."
"No, mum," replied the young giant with a grin.
"How many runs did you make last Saturday?"
"Fifty-three, mum, and caught out."
"Then don't go talking to me about the heat. Finish that job and run off with this filter to Mrs. Gubbins's."
Her life had not lacked variety. Married at eighteen, after a month's courtship, to a man of whom she knew next to nothing, she lived for a time in Liverpool, where her husband -- older by ten years -- pursued various callings in the neighbourhood of the docks. After the birth of her only child, a daughter, they migrated to Glasgow, and struggled with great poverty for several years. This period was closed by the sudden disappearance of Mr. Clover. He did not actually desert his wife and child; at regular intervals letters and money arrived from him addressed to the care of Mrs. Clover's parents, who kept a china shop at Islington; beyond the postmarks, which indicated constant travel in England and abroad, these letters (always very affectionate) gave no information as to the writer's circumstances. When Mrs. Clover had lived with her parents for about three years she was summoned by her husband to Dulwich, where the man had somehow established himself as a cab proprietor; he explained his wanderings as the result of mere restlessness, and with this cold comfort Mrs. Clover had to be content. By degrees they settled into a not unhappy life; the girl, Minnie, was growing up, the business might have been worse, everything seemed to promise unbroken domestic tranquillity, when one fine day Mr. Clover was again missing. Again he sent letters and money, the former written in a strangely mingled mood of grief and hopefulness, the remittance varying from half a sovereign to a ten-pound note. This time the letters were invariably posted in London, but in different districts. Clover declared that he was miserable away from home, and, without offering any reason for his behaviour, promised that he would soon return.
Six years had since elapsed. To afford herself occupation Mrs. Clover went into the glass and china business, assisted by her parents' experience, and by the lively interest of her friend Mr. Gammon. Minnie Clover, a pretty and interesting girl, was now employed at Doulton's potteries. All would have been well but for the harassing mystery that disturbed their lives. Clover's letters were still posted in London; money still came from him, sometimes in remittances of as much as twenty pounds. But handwriting and composition often suggested that the writer was either ill or intoxicated. The latter seemed not unlikely, for Clover had always inclined to the bottle. His wife no longer distressed herself. The first escapade she had forgiven; the second estranged her. She had resolved, indeed, that if her husband did again present himself his home should not be under her roof.
The shop closed at eight. At a quarter past the house-bell rang and a small servant admitted Mr. Gammon, who came along the passage and into the back parlour, where Mrs. Clover was wont to sit. As usual at this hour her daughter was present. Minnie sat reading; she rose for a moment to greet the visitor, spoke a word or two very modestly, even shyly, and let her eyes fall again upon the book. Considering the warmth of the day it was not unnatural that Mr. Gammon showed a very red face, shining with moisture; but his decided hilarity, his tendency to hum tunes and beat time with his feet, his noisy laughter and expansive talk, could hardly be attributed to the same cause. Having taken a seat near Minnie he kept his look steadily fixed upon her, and evidently discoursed with a view of affording her amusement; not altogether successfully it appeared, for the young girl -- she was but seventeen -- grew more and more timid, less and less able to murmur replies. She was prettier than her mother had ever been, and spoke with a better accent. Her features suggested a more delicate physical inheritance than Mrs. Clover's comeliness could account for. As a matter of fact she had her father's best traits, though Mrs. Glover frequently thanked goodness that in character she by no means resembled him.
Mr. Gammon was in the midst of a vivid description of a rat hunt, in which a young terrier had displayed astonishing mettle, when his hostess abruptly interposed.
"Minnie, I wish you'd put your hat on and run round to Mrs. Walker's for me. I'll give you a message when you're ready."
Very willingly the girl rose and left the room. Mr. Gammon, whose countenance had fallen, turned to the mother with jocose remonstrance.
"Now I call that too bad. What did you want to go sending her away for?"
"What does it matter?" was Mrs. Clover's reply, uttered good-humouredly, but with some impatience. "The child doesn't want to hear about rats and terriers."
"Child? I don't call her a child. Besides, you'd only to give me a hint to talk of something else." He leaned forward, and softened his voice to a note of earnest entreaty. "She won't be long, will she?"
"Oh, I dare say not!"
A light tap at the door called Mrs. Clover away. She whispered outside with Minnie and returned smiling.
"Have you told her to be quick?"
Mrs. Clover did not answer the question. Sitting with her arms on the round table she looked Mr. Gammon steadily in the face, and said with decision
"Never you come here again after you've been to Dulwich!"
"Never mind. I don't want to have to speak plainer. If ever I have to----"
Mrs. Clover made her great effect of the pregnant pause. The listener, who had sobered wonderfully, sat gazing at her, his blue eyes comically rueful.
"She isn't coming back at all?" fell from his lips.
"Of course she isn't."
"Well, I'm blest if I thought you could be so unkind, Mrs. Clover."
She was silent for three ticks of the clock, an odd hardness having come over her face, then, flushing just a little, as if after an effort, she smiled again, and spoke in her ordinary tone.
"What had you to say about Polly?"
"Polly? -- Polly be hanged! I half believe Polly's no better than she should be."
The flush on Mrs. Clover's face deepened and she spoke severely.
"What do you mean by saying such things?"
"I didn't meant to," exclaimed Gammon, with hasty penitence. "Look here, I really didn't; but you put me out. She had some presents given her, that's all."
" I know it," said Mrs. Clover. "She's been here to-day -- called this afternoon."
"Yes, and behaved very badly too. I don't know what's coming to the girl. If I had a temper like that I'd----"
What Mrs. Clover would do remained conjectural.
"It's a good thing," remarked the other, laughing. "Trust Polly to take care of herself. She cheeked you, did she?"
They discussed Miss Sparkes very thoroughly. There had been a battle royal in the afternoon, for the girl came only to "show off" and make herself generally offensive. Mrs. Clover desired to be friendly with her sister's daughter, but would stand no "cheek," and had said so.
"Polly's all right," remarked Mr. Gammon finally. "Don't you fret about her. She ain't that kind. I know 'em."
"Then why did you say just now----"
"Because you riled me, sending Minnie away."
Again Mrs. Clover reflected, and again she looked her friend steadily in the face.
"Why did you want her to stay?"
Mr. Gammon's heated visage glowed with incredible fervour. He shrugged his shoulders, shuffled his feet, and at length burst out with:
"Well, I should think you know. It isn't the first time I've showed it, I should think."
"Then I'm very sorry. I'm real sorry."
The words fell gently, and one might have thought that Mrs. Clover was softening the rejection of a tender proposal made to herself.
"You mean it's no good?" said the man.
"Not the least, not a bit. And never could be."
Mr. Gammon nodded several times, as if calculating the force of the blow, and nerving himself to bear it.
"Well, if you say it," he replied at length, "I suppose it's a fact -- but I call it hard lines. Ever since I was old enough to think of marrying I've been looking out for the right girl -- always looking out, and now I thought I'd found her. Hanged if it isn't hard lines! I could have married scores -- scores; but do you suppose I'd have a girl that showed she was only waiting for me to say the word? Not me! That's what took me in Minnie. She's the first of that kind I ever knew -- the only one. But, I say, do you mean you won't let me try? You surely don't mean that, Mrs. Clover?"
"Yes, I do. I mean just that, Mr. Gammon."
"Why? Because I haven't got a permanency?"
"Because I -- because I go to Dulwich?"
"I can't tell you why, and I don't know why, but I mean it. And what's more" -- her eyes sparkled -- "if ever you say such word to Minnie you never pass my door again."
This seemed to take Mr. Gammon's breath away. After a rather long silence he looked about for his hat, then for his dog-whip.
"I'll say good night, Mrs. Clover. Hot, isn't it? Hottest day yet. I say, you're not riled with me? That's all right. See you again before long."
He did not make straight for home, but rambled in a circuit for the next hour. When darkness had fallen he found himself again near the china shop, and paused, for a moment only, by the door. On the opposite side of the street stood a man who had also paused in a slow walk, and who also looked towards the shop. But Mr. Gammon went his way without so much as a glance at that dim figure.
Two first-rate quarrels in one day put Polly Sparkes into high good humour. On leaving her aunt's house in the afternoon she strolled into Battersea Park, and there treated herself to tea d cakes at a little round table in the open air. Mrs. Clover, though the quarrel was prolonged until four o'clock, had offered no refreshments, which seemed to Miss Sparkes a very gross instance of meanness and inhospitality.
At a table near to her sat two girls, for some reason taking a holiday, who conversed in a way which proved them to be "mantle hands," and Polly listened and smiled. Did she not well remember the day when the poverty of home sent her, a little girl, to be "trotter" in a workroom? But she soon found her way out of that. A sharp tongue, a bold eye, and a brilliant complexion helped her on, step by step, or jump by jump, till she had found much more agreeable ways of supporting herself. All unimpeachable, for Polly was fiercely virtuous, and put a very high value indeed upon such affections as she had to dispose of.
The girls were appraising her costume; she felt their eyes and enjoyed the envy in them. Her hat, with its immense bunch of poppies; her blouse of shot silk in green and violet; her gold watch, carelessly drawn out and returned to its pocket. "Now what do you think I am? A real lady, I'll bet!" She caught a whisper about her hair. Red, indeed! Didn't they wish they had anything like it! Polly could have told them that at a ball she graced with her presence not long ago her hair was done up with no less than seventy-two pins. Think of that! Seventy-two pins!
She munched a cream tart, and turned her back upon the envious pair.
Back to Kennington Road by omnibus, riding outside, her eyes and hair doing execution upon a young man in a very high collar, who was, she saw, terribly tempted to address her, but, happily for himself, could not pluck up courage. Polly liked to be addressed by strange young men; experience had made her so skilful in austere rebuke.
She rested in her bedroom, as stuffy and disorderly a room as could have been found in all Kennington Road. Moggie, the general, was only allowed to enter it in the occupant's presence, otherwise who knew what prying and filching might go on? She paid a very low rent, thanks to Mrs. Bubb's good nature, but the strained relations between them made it possible that she would have to leave, and she had been thinking to-day that she could very well afford a room in a better neighbourhood; not that, all things considered, she desired to quit this house, but Mrs. Bubb took too much upon herself. Mrs. Bubb was the widow of a police officer; one of her children was in the Police Orphanage at Twickenham, and for the support of each of the others she received half a crown a week. This, to be sure, justified the good woman in a certain spirit of pride; but when it came to calling names and making unpleasant insinuations---- If a young lady cannot have a harmless and profitable secret, what is the use of being a young lady?
On the way to her duties at the theatre, about seven o'clock, she entered a little stationer's shop m an obscure street, and asked with a smile whether any letter had arrived for her. Yes, there was one addressed in a careless hand to "Miss Robinson." This, in another obscure street hard by she opened. On half a sheet of notepaper was printed with pen and ink the letters W. S. T. -- that was all. Polly had no difficulty in interpreting this cipher. She tore up envelope and paper, and walked briskly on.
There was but a poor "house" this evening. Commission on programmes would amount to very little indeed; but the young gentleman with the weak eyes, who came evening after evening, and must have seen the present piece a hundred times or so, gave her half a crown, weeping copiously from nervousness as he touched her hand. He looked about seventeen, and Polly, who always greeted him with a smile of sportive condescension, wondered how his parents or guardians could allow him to live so recklessly.
She left half an hour before the end of the performance with a girl who accompanied her a short way, talking and laughing noisily. Along the crowded pavement they were followed by a young man, of whose proximity Miss Sparkes was well aware, though she seemed not to have noticed him -- a slim, narrow-shouldered, high-hatted figure, with the commonest of well-meaning faces set just now in a tremulously eager, pursuing look. When Polly's companion made a dart for an omnibus this young man, suddenly red with joy, took a quick step forward, and Polly saw him beside her in an attitude of respectful accost.
"Awfully jolly to meet you like this."
"Sure you haven't been waiting?" she asked with good humour.
"Well -- I -- you said you didn't mind, you know; didn't you?"
"Oh, I don't mind!" she laughed. "If you've nothing better to do. There's my bus."
"Oh, I say! Don't be in such a hurry. I was going to ask you" -- he panted -- "if you'd come and have just a little supper, if you wouldn't mind."
"Nonsense! You know you can't afford it."
"Oh, yes, I can -- quite well. It would be awfully kind of you."
Polly laughed a careless acceptance, and they pressed through the roaring traffic of cross-ways towards an electric glare. In a few minutes they were seated amid plush and marble, mirrors and gilding, in a savoury and aromatic atmosphere. Nothing more delightful to Polly, who drew off her gloves and made herself thoroughly comfortable, whilst the young man -- his name was Christopher Parish -- nervously scanned a bill of fare. As his bearing proved, Mr. Parish was not quite at home amid these splendours. As his voice and costume indicated, he belonged to the great order of minor clerks, and would probably go dinnerless on the morrow to pay for this evening's festival. The waiter overawed him, and after a good deal of bungling, with anxious consultation of his companion's appetite, he ordered something, the nature of which was but dimly suggested to him by its name. Having accomplished this feat he at once became hilarious, and began to eat large quantities of dry bread.
Quite without false modesty in the matter of eating and drinking, Polly made a hearty supper. Christopher ate without consciousness of what was before him, and talked ceaselessly of his good fortune in getting a berth at Swettenham's, the great house of Swettenham Brothers, tea merchants.
"An enormous place -- simply enormous! What do you think they pay in rent? -- three thousand eight hundred pounds a year! Could you believe it? Three thousand eight hundred pounds! And how many people do you think they employ? Now just guess, do; just make a shot at it!"
"How do I know? Two or three hundred, I dessay."
Christopher's face shone with triumph.
"One thousand -- three hundred -- and forty-two! Could you believe it?"
"Oh, I dessay," Polly replied, with her mouth full.
"Enormous, isn't it? Why, it's like a town in itself!"
Had his own name been Swettenham he could hardly have shown more pride in these figures. When Polly inquired how much they made a year he was unable to reply with exactitude, but the mere thought of what such a total must be all but overcame him. Personally he profited by his connexion with the great firm to the extent of two pounds a week, an advance of ten shillings on what he had hitherto earned. And his prospects! Why, they were limitless. Once let a fellow get into Swettenham's----
"You're not doing so bad for a single man," remarked Polly, with facetious malice in her eye. "But it won't run to a supper like this very often."
"Oh -- well -- not often, of course." His voice quavered into sudden despondency. "Just now and then, you know. Have some cheese?"
"Don't mind -- Gorgonzoler."
He paid the bill right bravely and added sixpence for the waiter, though it cost him as great a pang as the wrenching of a double tooth. A rapid calculation told him that he must dine at the Aérated Bread Shop for several days to come. Whilst he was thus computing Polly drew out her gold watch. It caught his eye, he stood transfixed, and his stare rose from the watch to Polly's face.
"Just after eleven," she remarked airily, and began to hum.
Christopher had but a silver watch, an heirloom of considerable antiquity, and the chain was jet. Sunk of a sudden in profoundest gloom he led the way to the exit, walking like a shamefaced plebeian who had got into the room by mistake. Polly's spirits were higher than ever. Just beyond the electric glare she thrust her arm under that of her mute companion.
"You don't want me to git run over, do you?"
Parish had a thrill of satisfaction, but with difficulty he spoke.
"Let's get out of this crowd -- beastly, isn't it?"
"I don't mind a crowd. I like it when I've someone to hang on by."
"Oh, I don't mind it, I like just what you like. What time did you say it was, Miss Sparkes?"
"Just eleven. Time I was gettin' 'ome. There'll be a bus at the corner."
"I hoped you were going to walk," urged Christopher timidly.
"S'pose I might just as well -- if you'll take care of me."
It was a long time since Polly had been so gracious, so mild. All the way down Whitehall, across the bridge, and into Kennington Road she chatted of a hundred things, but never glanced at the one which held complete possession of Christopher's mind. Many times he brought himself all but to the point of mentioning it, yet his courage invariably failed. The risk was too great; it needed such a trifling provocation to disturb Polly's good humour. He perspired under the warmth of the night and from the tumult of his feelings.
"You mustn't meet me again for a week," said Polly when her dwelling was within sight.
"Because I say so -- that's enough, ain't it?"
"I say -- Polly----"
"I've told you you're not to say 'Polly,'" she interrupted archly.
"You're awfully good, you know -- but I wish----"
"What? Never mind; tell me next time. Ta-ta!"
She ran off, and Christopher had no heart to detain her. For five minutes he hung over the parapet at Westminster, watching the black flood and asking what was the use of life. On the whole Mr. Parish found life decidedly agreeable, and after a night's rest, a little worry notwithstanding, he could go to the City in the great morning procession, one of myriads exactly like him, and would hopefully dip his pen in the inkpots of Swettenham Brothers.
Moggie, the general, was just coming from the public-house with two foaming jugs, one for Mrs. Bubb, the other for Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman, her first-floor lodgers. Miss Sparkes passed her disdainfully, and entered with the aid of a latch-key. From upstairs sounded a banjo, preluding; then the sound of Mr. Cheeseman's voice chanting a popular refrain:
Polly could not resist this invitation. She looked in at the Cheesemans' sitting-room and enjoyed half an hour of friendly gossip before going to bed.
Scarcely had quiet fallen upon the house -- it was half an hour after midnight -- when at the front door sounded a discreet but resolute knocking. Mrs. Bubb, though she had retired to her chamber, was not yet wholly unpresentable; reluctantly, and with wonder, she went to answer the untimely visitor. After a short parley through the gap of the chained door she ascended several flights and sought to arouse Mr. Gammon -- no easy task.
"What's up?" shouted her lodger in a voice of half-remembered conviviality. "House on fire?"
"I hope not indeed. There wouldn't have been much chance for you if it was. It's your friend Mr. Greenacre, as says he must see you for a minute."
"All right; send him up, please. What the dickens can he want at this time o' night!"
Mr. Gammon having promised to see his visitor out again, with due attention to the house door, the landlady showed a light whilst Mr. Greenacre mounted the stairs. The gas-jet in his friend's bedroom displayed him as a gaunt, ill-dressed man of about forty, with a long unwholesome face, lank hair, and prominent eyes. He began with elaborate apologies, phrased and uttered with more refinement than his appearance would have led one to expect. No; he would on no account be seated. Under the circumstances he could not dream of staying more than two, or at most three, minutes. He felt really ashamed of himself for such a flagrant breach of social custom; but if his friend would listen patiently for one minute -- nay, for less.
"I know what you're driving at," broke in Gammon good-humouredly, as he sat in bed with his knees up. "You've nowhere to sleep -- ain't that it?"
"No, no; I assure you no!" exclaimed the other, with unfailing politeness. "I have excellent lodgings in the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; besides, you don't imagine I should disturb you after midnight for such a trivial cause! You have heard of the death of Lord Bolsover?"
"Never knew he was living," cried Gammon.
"Nonsense, you are an incorrigible joker. The poor fellow died nearly a week ago. Of course I must attend his funeral to-morrow down at Hitchin; I really couldn't neglect to attend his funeral. And here comes my difficulty. At present I'm driving a' Saponaria' van, and I shall have to provide a substitute, you see. I thought I had found one, a very decent fellow called Grosvenor, who declares, by the by, that he can trace his connexion with the aristocratic house -- interesting, isn't it? But Grosvenor has got into trouble to-day -- something about passing a bad half-crown -- a mere mistake, I'm quite sure. Now I've been trying to find someone else -- not an easy thing; and as I must have a substitute by nine to-morrow, I came in despair to you. I'm sure in your wide acquaintance, my dear Gammon----"
"Hold on, what's 'Saponaria'?"
"A new washing powder; only started a few days. Big vans, painted vermilion and indigo, going about town and suburbs distributing handbills and so on."
"I see. But look here, Greenacre, what's all this rot about Lord Bolsover?"
"My dear Gammon," protested the other. "I really can't allow you to speak in that way. I make all allowance for the hour and the circumstances, but when it comes to the death of a dear friend----"
"How the devil come you to be his friend, or he yours?" shouted Gammon in comical exasperation.
"Why, surely you have heard me speak of him. Yet, perhaps not. It was rather a painful subject. The fact is, I once gave the poor fellow a severe thrashing; it was before he succeeded to the title I was obliged to do it. Poor Bolsover confessed afterwards that he had behaved badly (there was a lady in the case), but it put an end to our intimacy. And now he's gone, and the least I can do is to attend his funeral. That reminds me, Gammon, I fear I shall have to borrow a sovereign, if it's quite convenient to you. There's the hire of the black suit, you see, and the fare to Hitchin. Do you think you could?"
He paused delicately, whereupon Gammon burst into a roar of laughter which echoed through the still house.
"You're the queerest devil I know," was the remark that followed. "It's no use trying to make out what you're really up to."
"I have stated the case in very clear terms," replied Greenacre solemnly. "The chief thing is to find a substitute to drive the 'Saponaria' van."
"What sort of animal in the shafts?"
"Two -- a pail of Welsh cobs -- good little goers."
"By jingo!" shouted Gammon, "I'll tool 'em round myself. I'm off for to-morrow, and a job of that kind would just suit me."
Greenacre's face brightened with relief. He began to describe the route which the "Saponaria" van had to pursue.
"It's the south-east suburbs to-morrow, the main thoroughfares of Greenwich, Blackheath, Lewisham, and all round there. There are certain shops to call at to drop bills and samples; no order-taking. Here's the list. At likely places you throw out a shower of these little blue cards. Best is near a Board School when the children are about. I'm greatly obliged to you, Gammon; I never thought you'd be able to do it yourself. Could you be at the stable just before nine? I'd meet you and give you a send-off. Bait at -- where is it?" He consulted the notebook. "Yes, Prince of Wales's Feathers, Catford Bridge; no money out of pocket; all settled in the plan of campaign. Rest the cobs for an hour or so. Get round to the stables again about five, and I'll be there. It's very Kind of you; I'm very greatly obliged. And if you could -- without inconvenience----"
His eyes fell upon Gammon's clothing, which lay heaped on a chair. On the part of the man in bed there was a moment's hesitation, but Gammon had never refused a loan which it was in his power to grant. In a few minutes he fulfilled his promise to Mrs. Bubb, seeing Greenacre safely out of the house, and making fast the front door again; then he turned in and slept soundly till seven o'clock.
All went well in the morning. The sun shone and there was a pleasant north-west breeze; in high spirits Gammon mounted the big but light van, which seemed to shout in its brilliancy of red and blue paint.
It was some time since he had had the pleasure of driving a pair. Greenacre had not overpraised the cobs; their start promised an enjoyable day. He was not troubled by any sense of indignity unfailing humour and a vast variety of experience preserved him from such thoughts. As always, he threw himself into the business of the moment with conscientious gusto; he had "Saponaria" at heart, and was as anxious to advertise the new washing powder as if the profits were all his own. At one spot where a little crowd chanced to gather about the van he delivered an address, a fervid eulogy of "Saponaria," declaring his conviction (based on private correspondence) that in a week or two it would be exclusively used in all the laundries of the Royal Family.
At one shop where he was instructed to call he found a little trap waiting, and as he entered there came out a man whom he knew by sight, evidently a traveller, who mounted the trap and drove off. The shopkeeper was in a very disagreeable mood and returned Gammon's greeting roughly.
"Something wrong?" asked Gammon with his wonted cheeriness.
"Saw that chap in the white 'at? I've just told him str'ight that if he comes into this shop again I'll kick 'im. I told him str'ight -- see?"
"Did you? I like to hear a man talk like that. It shows there's something in him. Who is the fellow? I seem to remember him somehow."
"Quodlings' traveller. And he's lost them my orders. And I shall write and tell 'em so. I never did like that chap; but when he comes in 'ere, with his white 'at, telling me how to manage my own business, and larfin', yis larfin', why, I've done with him. And I told him str'ight," etc.
"Quodlings', eh?" said Gammon reflectively. "They're likely to be wanting a new traveller, I should say."
"They will if they take my advice," replied the shopkeeper. "And that I shall give 'em, 'ot and strong."
As he drove on Gammon mused over this incident. The oil and colour business was not one of his "specialities," but he knew a good deal about it, and could easily learn what remained. The name of Quodling interested him, being that of the man in the City who so strikingly resembled Mr. Clover; who, moreover, was probably connected in some way with the oil and colour firm. It might be well to keep an eye on Quodlings' -- a substantial concern, likely to give one a chance of the "permanency" which was, on the whole, desirable.
He had a boy with him to hold the horses, a sharp lad, whose talk gave him amusement when he was tired of thinking. They found a common interest in dogs. Gammon invited the youngster to come and see his "bows-wows" at Dulwich, and promised him his choice out of the litter of bull terriers. With animation he discoursed upon the points of this species of dog -- the pure white coat; the long, lean, punishing head, flat above; the breadth behind the ears, the strength of back. He warned his young friend against the wiles of the "faker," who had been known to pipeclay a mottled animal and deceive the amateur. Altogether the day proved so refreshing that Gammon was sorry when its end drew near.
Greenacre was late for his appointment at the stables; he came in a suit of black, imperfectly fitting, and a chimney-pot hat some years old, looking very much like an undertaker's man. His appearance seemed to prove that he really had attended a funeral, which renewed Gammon's wonder. As a matter of course they repaired to the nearest eating-house to have a meal together -- an eating-house of the old fashion, known also as a coffee-shop, which Gammon greatly preferred to any kind of restaurant. There, on the narrow seats with high wooden backs, as uncomfortable a sitting as could be desired, with food before him of worse quality and worse cooked than any but English-speaking mortals would endure, he always felt at home, and was pleasantly reminded of the days of his youth, when a supper of eggs and bacon at some such resort rewarded him for a long week's toil and pinching. Sweet to him were the rancid odours, delightfully familiar the dirty knives, the twisted forks, the battered teaspoons, not unwelcome the day's newspaper, splashed with brown coffee and spots of grease. He often lamented that this kind of establishment was growing rare, passing away with so many other features of old London.
More fastidious, Greenacre could have wished his egg some six months fresher, and his drink less obviously a concoction of rinsings. But he was a guest, and his breeding did not allow him to complain. Of the funeral he shrank from speaking; but the few words he dropped were such as would have befitted 'a genuine grief. Gammon even heard him murmur, unconsciously, "poor Bolsover."
Having eaten they wended their way to a little public-house, with a parlour known only to the favoured few, where Greenacre, after a glass or two of rum -- a choice for which he thought it necessary to apologize -- began to discourse upon a topic peculiarly his own.
"I couldn't help thinking to-day, Gammon, what a strange assembly there would be if all a man's relatives came to his funeral. Nearly all of us must have such lots of distant connexions that we know nothing about. Now a man like Bolsover -- an aristocrat, with fifty or more acknowledged relatives in good position -- think how many more there must be in out-of-the-way places, poor and unknown. Ay, and some of them not so very distant kinsfolk either. Think of the hosts of illegitimate children, for instance -- some who know who they are, and some who don't."
This was said so significantly that Gammon wondered whether it had a personal application.
"It's a theory of mine," pursued the other, his prominent eyes fixed on some far vision, "that every one of us, however poor, has some wealthy relative, if he could only be found. I mean a relative within reasonable limits, not a cousin fifty times removed. That's one of the charms of London to me. A little old man used to cobble my boots for me a few years ago in Ball's Pond Road, He had an idea that one of his brothers, who went out to New Zealand and was no more heard of, had made a great fortune; said he'd dreamt about it again and again, and couldn't get rid of the fancy. Well, now, the house in which he lived took fire, and the poor old chap was burnt in his bed, and so his name got into the newspapers. A day or two after I heard that his brother -- the one he spoke of -- had been living for some years scarcely a mile away at Stoke Newington -- a man rolling in money, a director of the British and Colonial Bank."
"Rummy go!" remarked Gammon.
"When I was a lad," pursued the other, after sipping at his refilled glass, "I lived just by an old church in the City, and I knew the verger, and he used to let me look over the registers. I think that's what gave me my turn for genealogy. I believe there are fellows who get a living by hunting up pedigrees; that would just suit me, if I only knew how to start in the business."
Gammon looked up and asked abruptly.
"Know anybody called Quodling?"
"Quodling? No one personally. But there's a firm of Quodling, brushmakers or something."
"Oil and colourmen?"
"Yes, to be sure. Quodling? Now I come to think of it -- why do you ask?"
"There's a man in the City called Quodling, a silk broker. For private reasons I should like to know something about him."
Greenacre gazed absently at his friend, like one who tries to piece together old memories.
"Lost it," he muttered at length in a discontented tone. "Something about a Mrs. Quodling and a lawsuit -- big lawsuit that used to be talked about when I was a boy. My father was a lawyer, you know."
"Was he? It's the first time you ever told me," replied Gammon with a chuckle.
"Nonsense! I must have mentioned it many a time. I've often noticed, Gammon, how very defective your memory is. You should use a mnemonic system. I made a splendid one some years ago; it helped me immensely."
"I could have felt sure," said Gammon, " that you told me once your father was a coal merchant."
"Why, so he was -- later on. Am I to understand, Gammon, that you accuse me of distorting facts?"
With the end of his third tumbler there had come upon Greenacre a tendency to maudlin dignity and sensitiveness; he laid a hand on his friend's arm and looked at him with pained reproach.
"Gammon! I was never inclined to mendacity, though I confess to mendicity I have occasionally fallen. To you, Gammon, I could not lie; I respect you, I admire you, in spite of the great distance between us in education and habits of mind. If I thought you accused me of falsehood, my dear Gammon, it would distress me deeply. Assure me that you don't. I am easily put out to-day. The death of poor Bolsover -- my friend before he succeeded to the title. And that reminds me. But for a mere accident I might myself at this moment have borne a title. My mother, before her marriage, refused the offer of a man who rose to wealth and honours, and only a year or two ago died a baronet. Well, well, the chances of life the accidents of birth!"
He shook his head for some minutes, murmuring inarticulate regrets.
"I think I'll just have one more, Gammon."
"I think not, old boy. Where did you say you lived?"
"Oh, that's all right. Most comfortable lodgings in the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. If you have the slightest doubt of my veracity, leave me, Gammon; I beg you will leave me. I -- in fact, I have an appointment with a gentleman I met at poor Bolsover's funeral."
With no little difficulty Gammon led him away, and by means of an omnibus landed him at length near St. Martin's Church. No entreaty could induce the man to give his address. He protested that a few minutes' walk would bring him home, and as he seemed to have sobered sufficiently, Gammon left him sitting on the church steps -- a strange object in his borrowed suit of mourning and his antiquated top hat.
Polly Sparkes had a father. That Mr. Sparkes still lived was not known to the outer circles of Polly's acquaintance; she never spoke of her family, and it was not easy to think of Polly in the filial relation. For some years she had lived in complete independence, now and then exchanging a letter with her parent, but seeing him rarely. Not that they were on ill terms, unpleasantness of that kind had been avoided by their satisfaction in living apart. Polly sometimes wished she had a father "to be proud of" -- a sufficiently intelligible phrase on Polly's lips; but for the rest she thought of him with tolerance as a good, silly sort of man, who "couldn't help himself" -- that is to say, could not help being what he was.
And Mr. Sparkes was a waiter, had been a waiter for some thirty years, and would probably pursue the calling as long as he was fit for it. In this fact he saw nothing to be ashamed of. It had never occurred to him that anyone could or should be ashamed of the position; nevertheless, Mr. Sparkes was a disappointed, even an embittered, man; and that for a subtle reason, which did credit to his sensibility.
All his life he had been employed at Chaffey's. As a boy of ten he joined Chaffey's in the capacity of plate washer; zeal and conduct promoted him, and seniority made him at length head waiter. In those days Chaffey's was an eating-house of the old kind, one long room with "boxes"; beef its staple dish, its drink a sound porter at twopence a pint. How many thousand times had Mr. Sparkes shouted the order "One ally-mode!" The chief, almost the only, variant was "One 'ot!" which signified a cut from the boiled round, served of course with carrots and potatoes, remarkable for their excellence. Midday dinner was the only meal recognized at Chaffey's; from twelve to half-past two the press of business kept everyone breathless and perspiring. Before and after these hours little if anything was looked for, and at four o'clock the establishment closed its doors.
But it came to pass that the proprietor of Chaffey's died, and the business fell into the hands of a young man with new ideas. Within a few months Chaffey's underwent a transformation; it was pulled down, rebuilt, enlarged, beautified; nothing left of its old self but the name. In place of the homely eating-house there stood a large hall, painted and gilded and set about with mirrors, furnished with marble tables and cane-bottomed chairs -- to all appearances a restaurant on the France-Italian pattern. Yet Chaffey's remained English, flagrantly English, in its viands and its waiters. The new proprietor aimed at combining foreign glitter with the prices and the entertainment acceptable to a public of small means. Moreover, he prospered. The doors were now open from nine o'clock in the morning to twelve at night. There was a bar for the supply of alcoholic drinks -- the traditional porter had always been fetched from a neighbouring house -- and frivolities such as tea and coffee were in constant demand.
This change told grievously upon Mr. Sparkes. At the first mention of it he determined to resign but the weakness in his character shrank from such a decided step, and he allowed himself to be drawn into a painfully false position. The proprietor did not wish to lose him. Mr. Sparkes was a slim, upright, grave-featured man, whose deportment had its market value; his side-whiskers and shaven lip gave him a decidedly clerical aspect, which, together with long experience and a certain austerity of command, well fitted him for superintending the younger waiters. His salary was increased, his "tips" represented a much larger income than heretofore. At the old Chaffey's every diner gave him a penny, whilst at the new he often received twopence, and customers were much more numerous. But every copper he pouched cost Mr. Sparkes a pang of humiliation; his "Thank you, sir," had the urbanity which had become mechanical, but more often than not he sneered inwardly, despising himself and those upon whom he waited.
To one person alone did he exhibit all the bitterness of his feelings, and that was Mrs. Clover, the sister of his deceased wife. With her he occasionally spent a Sunday evening in the parlour behind the china shop, and there would speak the thoughts that oppressed him.
"It isn't that I've any quarrel with the foreign rest'rants, Louisa. They're all right in their way. They suit a certain public, and they charge certain prices. But what I do think is mean and low -- mean and low -- is to be neither one thing nor the other; to make a sort of show as if you was 'igh-clawss, and then have it known as you're the cheapest of the cheap. Potatoes! That I should live to see Chaffey's 'anding out such potatoes! They're more like food for pigs, and I've known the day when Chaffey's 'ud have thrown 'em at the 'ead of anybody as delivered 'em such offal. It isn't a place for a self-respecting man, and I feel it more and more. If a shop-boy wants to take out his sweetheart and make a pretence of doing it grand, where does he go to? Why, to Chaffey's. He couldn't afford a real rest'rant; but Chaffey's looks the same, and Chaffey's is cheap. To hear 'em ordering roast fowl and Camumbeer cheese to follow -- it fair sickens me. Roast fowl! a old 'en as wouldn't be good enough for a real rest'rant to make inter soup! And the Camumbeer! I've got my private idea, Louisa, about what that Camumbeer is made of. And when I think of the Cheshire and the Cheddar we used to top up with! It's 'art-breaking."
From a speaker with such a countenance all this was very impressive. Mrs. Clover shook her head and wondered what England was coming to. In return she would tell of the people who came to her shop to hire cups and saucers just to make a show when they had a friend to tea with them. There was much of the right spirit in both these persons, for they sincerely despised shams, though they were not above profiting by the snobberies of others. But Mrs. Clover found amusement in the state of things, whereas Mr. Sparkes grew more despondent the more he talked, and always added with a doleful self-reproach:
"If I'd been half a man I should have left. They'd have taken me on at Simpkin's, I know they would, or at the Old City Chop House, if I'd waited for a vacancy. Who'd take me on now? Why, they'd throw it in my face that I came from Chaffey's, and I shouldn't have half a word to say for myself."
It was very seldom that he received a written invitation from his sister-in-law, but he heard from her in these hot days of June that she particularly wished to see him as soon as possible. The message he thought, must have some reference to Mrs. Clover's husband, whose reappearance at any moment would have been no great surprise, even after an absence of six years. Mr. Sparkes had a strong objection to mysterious persons; he was all for peace and comfort in a familiar routine, and for his own part had often hoped that the man Clover was by this time dead and buried. Responding as soon as possible to Mrs. Clover's summons, he found that she wished to speak to him about his daughter. Mrs. Clover showed herself seriously disturbed by Polly's recent behaviour; she told of the newly-acquired jewellery, of the dresses in which Miss Sparkes went " flaunting," of the girl's scornful refusal to answer natural inquiries.
"The long and the short of it is, Ebenezer, you ought to see her, and find out what's going on. There may be nothing wrong, and I don't say there is; but that watch and chain of hers wasn't bought under twenty pounds -- that I'll answer for, and it's a very queer thing, to say the least of it. What business was it of mine. she asked. I shouldn't wonder if she says the same to you; but it's your plain duty to have a talk with her, don't you think so now?"
To have a talk with Polly, especially on such a subject, was no easy or pleasant undertaking for Mr. Sparkes, who had so long resigned all semblance of parental authority. But as a conscientious man he could not stand aside when his only surviving daughter seemed in peril. After an exchange of post cards a meeting took place between them on the Embankment below Waterloo Bridge, for neither father nor child had anything in the nature of a home beyond the indispensable bedroom, and their only chance of privacy was in the open air. Having no desire to quarrel with her parent (it would have been so very one-sided and uninspiriting) Polly began in a conciliatory tone.
"Aunt Louisa's been making a bother, has she? Just like her. Don't you listen to her fussicking, dad. What's all the row about? I've had a present given to me; well, what of that? You can look at it for yourself. I can't tell you who give it me, 'cos I've promised I wouldn't; but you'll know some day, and then you'll larff. It ain't nothing to fret your gizzard about; so there. I'm old enough to look after myself, and if I ain't I never shall be; so there."
This did not satisfy Mr. Sparkes. He saw that the watch and chain were certainly valuable, and he could not imagine how the girl had become honourably possessed of them, save as the gift of an admirer; but the mere fact of such an admirer's exacting secrecy implied a situation of danger.
"I don't like the look of it, Polly," he remarked; with a nervous attempt to be severe.
"All right, dad; then don't like the look of it. The watch is good enough for me."
It took Mr. Sparkes two or three minutes to understand this joke. Whilst he was reflecting upon it a thought suddenly passed through his mind, which startled him by its suggestiveness.
"It ain't your Uncle Clover, is it?"
The girl laughed loudly as if at a preposterous question.
"Him? Why, I've as good as forgot there was such a man! What do you mean? Why, I shouldn't know him if I saw him. What made you think of that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Who knows when and where he may turn up, or what he'll do?"
"That's a good 'un! My Uncle Clover indeed! Whatever put that into your 'ead?"
Her ejaculations of wonder and disdain continued until the close of the interview, and Mr. Sparkes went his way, convinced that Polly was being pursued by some wealthy man, probably quite unprincipled -- the kind of man who frequents "proper rest'rants" and sits in the stalls at "theaytres," where, doubtless, Polly had made his acquaintance. After brooding a day or two on this idea he procured a sheet of the cheapest note-paper and sat down in his bedroom, high up at Chaffey's, to compose a letter for his daughter's behoof.
"Your affectionate father
This epistle at once pleased and angered Polly. Though a greedy she was not a mercenary young woman; she had little cunning, and her vulgar ambitions were consistent with a good deal of honest feeling. To do her justice, she had never considered the possibility that her father might have money to bequeath; his disclosure surprised her, and caused her to reflect for the first time that Chaffey's head waiter had long held a tolerably lucrative position, whilst his expenses must have been trivial; so much the better for her. On the other hand, she strongly resented his suspicions and warnings. In the muddled obscurity of Polly's consciousness there was a something which stood for womanly pride. She knew very well what dangers perpetually surrounded her, and she contrasted herself with the girls who weakly, or recklessly, threw themselves away. Divided thus between injury and gratitude she speedily answered her father's letter, writing upon a sheet of scented grass-green note-paper, deeply ribbed, which made her pen blot, splutter, and sprawl far more than it would have done on a smooth surface.
"From your loving
Polly posted her letter on the way to the theatre. This evening she had a private engagement for ten o'clock, and on setting forth to the appointed place she looked carefully about her to make sure that no one watched or followed her. Christopher Parish was not the only young man who had a habit of standing to wait for her at the theatre door. Upon him she could lay her commands with some assurance that they would be observed, but others were less submissive, and at times had given her trouble. To be sure, she could always get rid of importunate persons by the use of her special gift, that primitive sarcasm which few cared to face for more than a minute or two; but with admirers Polly wished to be as far as possible gracious, never coming to extremities with one of them until she was quite certain that she thoroughly disliked him. Finding the coast clear (which after all slightly disappointed her) she walked sharply into another street, where she hailed a passing hansom, and was driven to Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Here, on the quiet pavement shadowed by the College of Surgeons, she lingered in expectancy. Ten was striking, but she looked in vain for the figure she would recognize -- that of a well-dressed, middle-aged man, with a white silk comforter about his neck, and drawn up so as to hide his mouth. Twice she had met him here, and on each occasion he was waiting for her when she arrived. Five minutes passed -- ten minutes. She grew very impatient and, as a necessary consequence, very angry. To avoid unpleasant attention from the few people who walked by, she had to pace backwards and forwards as if going about her business. When the clocks chimed the first quarter Polly was in a turmoil of anger, blended with disappointment and apprehension. She could not have made a mistake. The message she had received was "W. S. T.," which meant "Wednesday same time." Some accident must have interfered. At twenty minutes past ten she had lost all hope. She must go home, and wait for a possible communication on the morrow.
Swinging her skirts, clenching her fists, and talking silently at a great rate, she walked in the direction of Chancery Lane. At a corner someone going in the opposite direction caught sight of her and stopped. Polly was so preoccupied that she would not have noticed the figure had it merely passed; by stopping it drew her attention, and she beheld Christopher Parish.
"Why, Miss Sparkes!"
He held out his hand, but to no purpose. Polly had her eyes fixed upon him, and they flashed with hostility.
"What do you mean by it?"
"Mean by what?"
The young man was astonished; his hand dropped, and he trembled before her.
"How dare you spy after me? Nasty little wretch!"
"Spy after you, Miss Sparkes? Why, I hadn't the least idea of anything of the kind; I swear I hadn't! I was just taking a walk----"
"Oh, yes! Of course! You're always taking a walk, aren't you? And you always come just this way 'cause it's nice and convenient for Lambeth Road, ain't it? I've a good mind to call a p'liceman and give you in charge for stopping me in the street!"
"Well, did ever anybody hear such a thing as this?" exclaimed Mr. Parish, faint in voice and utterly at a loss for protestations at all effective. "I tell you I was only taking a walk -- that's to say, I've been with a friend."
"A friend? Oh, yes, of course. What friend?"
"It's somebody you don't know; his name----"
"Oh, of course, I don't know him! And I don't know you either after to-night, so just remember that, Mr. Parish. The idea! If I can't take two steps without being followed and spied upon! And you call yourself a gentleman. Get out of my way, please. If you want to follow and spy, you're quite at liberty to do so. P'r'aps it'll ease your nasty little mind. Don't talk to me! What business have you got to stop me in the street, I'd like to know? If you're not careful I shall send a complaint to your employers, and then you'll have plenty of time to go taking walks."
She turned from him and pursued her way, but not so quickly as before. Christopher, limp with misery, tried to move off in another direction, but in spite of himself he was drawn after her. By Chancery Lane and along the Strand he kept her in sight, often with difficulty, for he durst not draw nearer than some twenty yards. At Charing Cross she stopped, and by her movements showed that she was looking for an omnibus. Parish longed to approach, quivered with the ever-recurrent impulse, but his fear prevailed. In a more lucid state of mind he would probably have remarked that Polly allowed a great many omnibuses to go by, and that she was surely waiting much longer than she need have done. But at length she jumped in and disappeared, whereupon Mr. Parish spent all the money he had with him on a large brandy and soda, hoping it would make him drunk.
The door of the house in Kennington Road stood open; in the passage Mr. Gammon and Mr. Cheeseman were conversing genially. They nodded to Polly, but did not speak. Passing them to the head of the kitchen stairs she called to Mrs. Bubb, and that lady's voice summoned her to descend.
"Are you alone?" asked Miss Sparkes sharply.
"There's only Mrs. Cheeseman."
Polly went down into the kitchen, where Mrs. Cheeseman, a stout woman of slatternly appearance, was sitting with her legs crossed and a plate of shrimps in her lap.
"Have a srimp, Polly?" began Mrs. Bubb, anxious to dismiss the memory of recent discord.
"Thank you, Mrs. Bubb, if I have a fancy for srimps I can afford to buy them for myself."
"Well, you are nasty! Ain't she real obstropolous, Mrs. Cheeseman? I never knew a nastier-tempered girl in all my life, that I never did. There's actially no living with her."
"Now set down, Polly," urged the stout woman in an unctuous voice. "Set down, do, an' tike things easy. You'll worrit your sweet self to death before you're many years older if you go on like this."
"I'm much obliged to you, Mrs. Cheeseman," answered Polly, holding herself very stiff; "but I didn't come here to set down, nor to talk neither. But I'm glad you're here, because you'll be a witness to what I say. I've come to give Mrs. Bubb a week's notice. She's often enough told me that she wants to keep her house respectable, and I'm sure she'll be glad to get rid of people as don't suit her. It's the first time I was ever told that I disgraced a 'ouse, and I hope it'll be the last time too. When I pay my rent to-morrow morning you'll please to understand, Mrs. Bubb, that I've given a week's notice. I may be a disgrace, but I dare say there's people as won't be ashamed to let me a room. And that's what I came to say, and now I've said it, and Mrs. Cheeseman is a witness."
This was spoken so rapidly that it left Polly breathless and with a very high colour. The elder women looked at each other, and Mrs. Cheeseman, with a shrimp in her mouth, resumed the attempt at pacification.
"Now, see 'ere, Polly. You're a young gyell, my dear, and a 'andsome gyell, as we all know, and you've only one fault, which there ain't no need to mention it. And we're all fond of you, Polly, that s the fact. Ain't we all fond of her, Mrs. Bubb?"
"Oh, yes, she's very fond of me!" exclaimed the girl. "And so is my Aunt Louisa. And to show it they go telling everybody that I ain't respectable, that I'm a disgrace to a decent 'ouse. D'you think I'll stand it?" Of a sudden she changed from irony to fierceness. "What do you mean by it, Mrs. Bubb? Did you never hear of people being prosecuted for taking away people's characters? Just you mind what you're about, Mrs. Bubb. I give you fair warning, and that's all I have to say to you."
Having relieved her feelings with these and a few more verbal missiles, Polly ran up the kitchen steps. In the passage the two men were still conversing; at sight of Polly they stopped with an abruptness which did not escape her observation. No doubt, she said to herself, they had been talking about her. No doubt, too, they had their reasons for letting her go by as before without a word. Only when she was half-way up the first flight of stairs did Mr. Cheeseman call to her a "Goodnight, Miss Sparkes," to which she made no reply whatever.
On the morrow she called at the little stationer's shop, but no letter awaited her. She decided to be again at the rendezvous that evening, lest there should have been some mistake in her cipher message; but she lingered near the College of Surgeons in vain. Polly's heart sank as she went home, for to-night there was no one to quarrel with. Mrs. Bubb and all the lodgers had shown that they meant to hold aloof; not even Moggie would look at her or speak a word. It was quite an unprecedented state of things, and Polly found it disagreeable.
There was only one consolation, and that a poor one. She had received a letter from Christopher Parish, a letter of abject remonstrance and entreaty. He grovelled at her feet. He talked frantically of poison and the river. If she would but meet him and hear him in his own defence! And Polly quite meaning to do so, gave herself the pleasure of appearing obdurate for a couple of days.
At the theatre she examined every row of spectators in stalls and dress-circle, having he own reason for thinking that she might discover certain face. But no such fortune befell her, and still no letter came.
At home she suffered increasing discomfort. For one thing she had to seek her meals in the nearest coffee-shop instead of going down into Mrs. Bubb's kitchen and gossiping as she ate at the family deal table, amid the dirt and disorder which custom had made pleasant. When in the house she locked herself in her bedroom, reading the kind of print that interested her, or lying in sullen idleness on the bed. Numerous as were her acquaintances elsewhere, they did not compensate her for the loss of domestic habit, As the week drew on she bethought herself that she must look for new lodgings. In giving notice to Mrs. Bubb she had not believed for a moment that it would come to this she felt, sure that her old friend would make up the quarrel and persuade her to stay. Nothing of the kind; for once she was taken most literally at her word. There were moments when Polly felt disposed to cry.
It vexed her much more than she would have thought to miss the jocose greetings of her neigh hour Mr. Gammon. As usual he sang in his bedroom of a morning, as usual be shouted orders and questions to Moggie, but for her he had never a word. She listened for him as he came out of the room, and once so far humbled herself as to affect a cough in his bearing. Mr. Gammon paid no attention.
Then she raged at him -- of course, satto voce. Many were the phrases of abuse softly hurled at him as he passed her door. The worst of it was that none of them seemed really applicable; her vision of the man defeated all such contumely. She had never disliked Mr. Gammon; oddly enough, she seemed to think of him with a more decided friendliness now that his conduct demanded her enmity. She asked herself whether he really believed any harm of her. It looked very much as if he did, and the thought sometimes kept her awake for fully a quarter of an hour.
It was the last day but one of her week. To-morrow she must either submit to the degradation of begging Mrs. Bubb's leave to remain, or pack her boxes and have them removed before nightfall. Worry had ended by giving her a slight headache, a very rare thing indeed. Moreover, it rained, and breakfast was only obtainable by walking some distance.
"Oh, the beasts!" Polly exclaimed to herself, as she pulled on her boots, meaning the inhabitants of the house all together.
Mr. Gammon opened his door and shouted down the staircase.
"Moggie! Fry me three eggs this morning with the bacon -- do you hear?"
Three eggs! Fried with bacon! And all comfortably set out at the end of the kitchen table. And to think that she might be going down to breakfast at the same time, with Mr. Gammon's jokes for a relish!
"Oh, the wretches! The mean, selfish brutes!"
She stamped about the floor to ease her nerves as she put on a common hat and an old jacket. She unlocked her door with violence, banged it open, and slammed it to again. From the staircase window she saw that the rain was falling more heavily, and she could not wait, for she felt hungry -- after hearing about those three eggs. If she met anyone down below!
And, as chance had it, she met Mrs. Cheeseman just coming up to her room from the kitchen with a dish of sausages. The woman grinned and turned her head away. Polly had never been so tempted to commit an assault; she thought. with a burning brain how effective would be one smart stroke on the dish of sausages with the handle of her umbrella.
Still hot from this encounter in the passage she came face to face with Mrs. Bubb. The landlady seemed to hesitate, but before Polly had gone by she addressed her with exaggerated politeness.
"Good morning, Miss Sparkes. So I s'pose we're losing you to-morrow?"
"Yes, you are," Polly replied, from a parched throat, glaring at her enemy.
"Oh, then I'll put the card up!"
"Do! I wouldn't lose no time about it. And listen to this, Mrs. Bubb. Next time you see your friend Mrs. Clover, you may tell her that if she wants to know where her precious 'usband is she's not to ask me, 'cos I wouldn't let her know, not if she was on her death-bed!"
Having uttered this surprising message, with point and emphasis worthy of its significance, Polly hastened from the house. And Mrs. Bubb stood looking after her in bewilderment.
Convinced that his life was blighted, Mr. Gammon sang and whistled with more than usual vivacity as he dressed each morning. It was not in his nature to despond; he had received many a knock-down blow, and always came up fresher after it. Mrs. Clover's veto upon his tender hopes with regard to Minnie had not only distressed, but greatly surprised him; for during the last few months he had often said to himself that, whether Minnie favoured his suit or not, her mother's goodwill was a certainty. His advances had been of the most delicate, no word of distinct wooing had passed his lips; but he thought of Minnie a great deal, and came to the decision that in her the hopes of his life were centred. It might be that Minnie had no inkling of his intentions; she was so modest, so unlike the everyday girls who tittered and ogled with every marriageable man; on that very account he had made her his ideal. And Mrs. Clover would help him as a mother best knows how. The shock of learning that Mrs. Clover would do no such thing utterly confused his mind. He still longed for Minnie, yet seemed of a sudden hopelessly remote from her. He could not determine whether he had given her up or not; he did not know whether to bow before Mrs. Clover or to protest and persevere. He liked Mrs. Clover far too much to be angry with her; he respected Minnie far too much to annoy her by an unwelcome courtship; he wished, in fact, that he had not made a fool of himself that evening, and wanted things to be as they were before.
In the meantime he occupied himself in looking out for a new engagement Plenty were to be had, but he aimed at something better than had satisfied him hitherto. He must get a "permanency"; at his age it was time he settled into a life of respect able routine. But for his foolish habit of living from hand to mouth, now in this business, now in that, indulging his taste for variety, Mrs. Clover would never, he felt sure, have "put her foot down" in that astonishing way. The best thing he could do was to show himself in a new light.
Thanks to his good nature, his practicality, and the multitude of his acquaintances, all manner of shiftless or luckless fellows were in the habit of looking to him for advice and he]p. As soon as they found themselves adrift they turned to Gammon. Every day he had a letter asking him to find a "berth" or a "billet" for some out-at-elbows friend, and in a surprising number of cases he was able to make a useful suggestion. It would have paid him to start an employment agency; as it was, instead of receiving fees, he very often supplied his friends' immediate necessities out of his own pocket. The more he earned the more freely he bestowed, so that his occasional strokes of luck in commerce were of no ultimate benefit to him. No man in his Position had a larger credit; for weeks at a time he could live without cash expenditure; but this was seldom necessary.
By a mental freak which was characteristic of him he nursed the thought of connecting himself with Messrs. Quodling & Son, oil and colour merchants. Theirs was a large and sound business, both in town and country. It might not be easy to become traveller to such a firm, but his ingenious mind tossed and turned the possibilities of the case, and after a day or two spent in looking up likely men -- which involved a great deal of drinking in a great variety of public resorts -- he came across an elderly traveller who had represented Quodlings on a northern circuit, and who boasted a certain acquaintance with Quodling the senior. Thus were things set in train. At a second meeting with the venerable bagman -- who had a wonderful head for whisky -- Gammon acquired so much technical information that oil and colours might fairly be set down among his numerous "specialities." Moreover, his friend promised to speak a word for him in the right quarter when opportunity offered.
"By the way," Gammon remarked carelessly, "are these Quodlings any relation to Quodling the silk broker in the City?"
His companion smiled over the rim of a deep tumbler, and continued to smile through a long draught.
"Why do you ask?"
"No particular reason. Happen to know the other man -- by sight."
"They're brothers -- Quodling senior and the broker."
"What's the joke?" asked Gammon, as the other still smiled.
"Old joke -- very old joke. The two men just as unlike as they could be -- in face, I mean. I never took the trouble to inquire about it, but I've been told there was a lawsuit years ago, something to do with the will of Lord somebody, who left money to old Mrs. Quodling -- who wasn't old then. Don't know the particulars, but I'm told that something turned on the likeness of the younger boy to the man who made the will -- see!"
"Ah! Oh!" muttered Gammon reflectively.
"An uppish, high-notioned fellow, Quodling the broker. Won't have anything to do with his brother. He's nothing much himself; went through the court not very long ago."
Gammon promised himself to look into this story when he had time. That it could in any way concern him he did not seriously suppose, but he liked to track things out. Some day he would have another look at Quodling the broker, who so strongly resembled Mrs. Clover's husband. Both of them, it seemed, bore a likeness to some profligate aristocrat. Just the kind of thing to interest that queer fish Greenacre.
In the height of the London season nothing pleased Gammon more than to survey the streets from an omnibus. Being just now a man of leisure he freely indulged himself, spending an hour or two each day in the liveliest thoroughfares. It was a sure way of forgetting his cares. Sometimes he took a box place and chatted with the driver, or he made acquaintances, male and female, on the cosy cross seats just broad enough for two. The London panorama under a sky of June feasted his laughing eyes. Now he would wave a hand to a friend on the pavement or borne past on another bus; now he would chuckle at a bit of comedy in real life. Huge hotels and brilliant shops vividly impressed him, though he saw them for the thousandth time; a new device in advertising won his ungrudging admiration. Above all he liked to find himself in the Strand at that hour of the day when east and west show a double current of continuous traffic, tight wedged in the narrow street, moving at a mere footpace, every horse's nose touching the back of the next vehicle. The sun could not shine too hotly; it made colours brighter, gave a new beauty to the glittering public-houses, where names of cooling drinks seemed to cry aloud. He enjoyed a "block," and was disappointed unless he saw the policeman at Wellington Street holding up his hand whilst the cross traffic from north and south rolled grandly through. It always reminded him of the Bible story -- Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea.
He was in the full enjoyment of this spectacle when an odour of cloves breathed across his face, and a voice addressed him.
"Isn't that you, Mr. Gammon? Well, if I didn't think so!"
The speaker was a young woman, who, with a male companion, had just mounted the bus and seated herself at Gammon's back. Facing round he recognized her as a friend of Polly Sparkes, Miss Waghorn by name, who adorned a refreshment bar at the theatre where Polly sold programmes. With a marked display of interesting embarrassment Miss Waghorn introduced him to her companion, Mr. Nibby, who showed himself cordial.
"I've often heard talk of you, Mr. Gammon; glad to meet you, sir. I think it's Berlin wools, isn't it?"
"Well, it was, sir, but it's been fancy leather goods lately, and now it's going to be something else. You are the Gillingwater burners, I believe, sir?"
Mr. Nibby betrayed surprise.
"And may I ask you how you know that?"
"Oh, I've a good memory for faces. I travelled with you on the Underground not very long ago, and saw the name on some samples you had."
"Now, that's what I call smart observation, Carrie," said the Gillingwater burners, beaming upon Miss Waghorn.
"Oh, we all know that Mr. Gammon's more than seven" replied the young lady with a throaty laugh, and her joke was admirably received.
"Business good, sir?" asked Gammon.
"Not bad for the time of year, sir. Is it true, do you know, that Milligan of Bishopsgate has burst up?"
"I heard so yesterday; not surprised; business very badly managed. Great shame, too, for I know he got it very cheap, and there was a fortune in it. Two years ago I could have bought the whole concern for a couple of thousand."
"You don't say so!"
Mr. Gammon was often heard to remark that he could have bought this, that, or the other thing for something paltry, such as a couple of thousands. It was not idle boasting, such opportunities had indeed come in his way, and, with his generous optimism, he was content to ignore the fact that only the money was wanting.
"What's wrong with Polly Sparkes?" inquired the young lady presently, again sending a waft of cloves into Gammon's face.
"That's what I want to know," he answered facetiously.
"She's awful cut up about something. I thought you was sure to know what it was, Mr. Gammon. She says a lot of you has been using her shimeful."
"Oh, she does, does she?"
"You should hear her talk! Now it's her landlydy -- now it's her awnt -- now it's I don't know who. To hear her -- she's been used shimeful. She says she's been drove out of the 'ouse. I didn't think it of you, Mr. Gammon."
At the moment the bus was drawing slowly near to a popular wine-shop. Mr. Nibby whispered to Miss Waghorn, who dropped her eyes and looked demure; whereupon he addressed Gammon.
"What do you say to a glass of dry sherry, sir?"
"Right you are, sir!"
So the omnibus was stopped to allow Miss Waghorn to alight, and all three turned into the wine-shop. Dry sherry not being to Miss Waghorn's taste she chose sweet port, drinking it as one to the manner born, and talking the while in hoarse whispers, with now and then an outburst of shrill laughter. The dark, narrow space before the counter or bar was divided off with wooden partitions as at a pawnbroker's; each compartment had a high stool for the luxuriously inclined, and along the wall ran a bare wooden bench. Not easily could a less inviting place of refreshment have been constructed; but no such thought occurred to its frequenters, who at this hour were numerous. Squeezed together in a stifling atmosphere of gas and alcohol, with nothing to look at but the row of great barrels whence the wine was drawn, these merry folk quenched their midsummer thirst and gave their wits a jog, and drank good fellowship with merciless ill-usage of the Queen's English. Miss Waghorn talked freely of Polly Sparkes, repeating all the angry things that Polly had said, and persistingly wanting to know what the "bother" was all about.
"It's for her own good," said Gammon with significant brevity.
He did not choose to say more or to ask any questions which might turn to Polly's disadvantage. For his own part he seldom gave a thought to the girl, and was far from imagining that she cared whether he kept on friendly terms with her or not. At his landlady's suggestion he had joined in the domestic plot for sending Polly to "Coventry" -- a phrase, by the by, which would hardly have been understood in Mrs. Bubb's household; he argued that it might do her good, and that in any case some such demonstration was called for by her outrageous temper. If Polly could not get on with people who were sincerely her friends and had always wished her well, let her go elsewhere and exercise her ill-humour on strangers. Gammon did not believe that she would go; day after day he expected to hear that the quarrel was made up, and that Polly had cleared her reputation by a few plain words.
But this was the last day save one of Polly's week, and as yet she had given no sign. On coming down into the kitchen to discuss his fried eggs and bacon he saw at once that Mrs. Bubb was seriously perturbed; with huffings and cuffings -- a most unusual thing -- she had just despatched her children to school, and was now in conflict with Moggie about a broken pie-dish, which the guilty general had concealed in the back-yard. A prudent man in the face of such tempers, Gammon sat down without speaking, and fell to on the viands which Mrs. Bubb -- also silent -- set before him. In a minute or two, having got rid of Moggie and closed the kitchen door, Mrs. Bubb came near and addressed him in a subdued voice.
"What d'you think? It's her uncle! It's Clover!"
"Eh? What is?"
"Why, it's him as 'as been giving her things."
"Has she said so?" asked Gammon, with eager interest.
"I met her as she was coming down just now and she was in a tearin' rage, and she says to me, she says, 'When you see my awnt,' she says, 'you tell her I know all about her 'usband, and that I wouldn't tell her anything not if she went down on her bended knees! There now!'"
The uneducated man may perchance repeat with exactness something that has been said to him, or in his hearing; for the uneducated woman such accuracy is impossible. Mrs. Bubb meant to be strictly truthful, but in the nature of things she would have gone astray, even had Polly's message taken a much simpler form than wrathful sarcasm gave to it. However, she conveyed the spirit of Polly's words, and Gammon was so excited by the report that he sprang up, overturning his cup of coffee.
"Oh, cuss it! Never mind; most's gone on to my trousers. She said that? And to think we never thought of it! Where is she? When'll she be back?"
"I don't know. But she says she's going to leave to-morrow, and looks as if she meant it, too. Hadn't I better send to Mrs. Clover?"
"I tell you what, send and ask her to come here to-night; say it's very important. We'll have them face to face -- by jorrocks, we will!"
"Polly mayn't be 'ome before half-past ten or eleven."
"Never mind. I tell you we'll have them face to face. If it comes to that I'll pay for a cab for Mrs. Clover to go home in. Tell her to be here at eight. Stop. You mustn't have the trouble; I can very well go round myself. Yes, I'll go myself and arrange it."
"It may be a lie," remarked Mrs. Bubb.
"So it may be, but somehow I don't think so. The rummiest thing that that never came into my head! I shouldn't be a bit surprised if Clover ain't living in Belgrave Square, or some such place. Just the kind of thing that happens with these mysterious johnnies. She'll have come across him somewhere, and he's bribed her to keep it dark -- see? What a gooseberry I was never to think of it! We'll have 'em face to face!"
"Suppose Polly won't?"
"Won't? Gosh, but she shall! If I have to carry her downstairs, she shall! Think we're going to let her keep a thing like this to herself? You just wait and see. Leave it to me, that's all. Lucky there's only friends in the house. Polly, likes a row, and, by jorrocks, she shall have one!"
Content with her four lodgers, Mrs. Bubb reserved the rooms on the ground floor for her own use. In that at the back she slept with the two younger children; the other two had a little bed in the front room, which during the daytime served as a parlour. On occasions of ceremony -- when the parlour was needed in the evening -- the children slept in a bare attic next to that occupied by Moggie; and this they looked upon as a treat, for it removed them from their mother's observation, and gave opportunities for all sorts of adventurous pranks.
Thus were things arranged for to-night. Mrs. Bubb swept and garnished her parlour for the becoming reception of a visitor whom she could not but "look up to." Mrs. Clover's origin was as humble as her own, and her education not much better, but natural gifts and worldly circumstances had set a distance between them. Partly, perhaps, because she was the widow of a police constable Mrs. Bubb gave all due weight to social distinctions; she knew her "place," and was incapable of presuming. With Polly Sparkes she did not hesitate to use freedom, for Polly could not pretend to be on a social level with her aunt, and as a young girl of unformed character naturally owed deference to an experienced matron who took a kindly interest in her.
There had been some question of inviting Mr. Sparkes, but Mr. Gammon spoke against it. No; let Polly have a fair chance, first of all, of unbosoming herself before her aunt and her landlady. If she refused to do so, why then other steps must be taken.
Gammon passed the day in high spirits, which, with the aid of seasonable beverages, tended to hilarious excitement. The thing was going to be as good as a play. In his short dialogue with Mrs. Clover he withheld from her the moving facts of the case, telling her only that her niece was going to quit Mrs. Bubb's, and that it behoved her to assist in a final appeal to the girl's better feelings. His own part in the affair was merely, he explained, that of a messenger, sent to urge the invitation. Mrs. Clover willingly consented to come. Not a word passed between them with reference to their last conversation, but Mr. Gammon made it plain that he nursed no resentment, and the lady of the china shop behaved very amicably indeed.
At six o'clock Polly came home to dress for the theatre. She left again, having spoken to no one. Soon afterwards Gammon, who in fact had watched for her departure, entered the house and held a conversation with Mrs. Bubb in the parlour, where already the table was laid for supper at half-past eight. Scarcely had eight struck when Mrs. Clover, who had alighted from an omnibus, sounded her pleasant rat-tat -- self-respecting, and such as did credit to the house, but with no suggestion of arrogance. As her habit was she kissed Mrs. Bubb -- a very kindly and gracious thing to do. She asked after the children, and was sorry she could not see them. In her attire Mrs. Clover preserved the same happy medium as in her way of plying the knocker; it was sufficiently elaborate to show consideration for her hostess, yet not so grand as to overwhelm by contrast. She looked, indeed, so pleasant, and so fresh, and so young that it was as difficult to remember the troubles of her life as it was to bear in mind that she had a daughter seventeen years of age. Mr. Gammon, who made up a trio at the supper table, put on his best behaviour. It might perhaps have been suspected that he had quenched his thirst more often than was needful on a day of showers and falling temperature, but at supper he drank only two glasses of mild ale, and casually remarked, as he poured out the second, that he had serious thoughts of becoming a total abstainer.
"You might do worse than that," said Mrs. Clover meaningly, but with good nature.
"You think so? Say the word, Mrs. Clover, and I'll do it."
"I shan't say the word, because I know you couldn't live without a glass of beer. There's no harm in that. But when----"
The remark was left incomplete.
"Hush!" came from Mrs. Bubb in the same moment. "Wasn't that the front door?"
All listened. A heavy step was ascending the stairs.
"Only Mr. Cheeseman," said the landlady with a sigh of agitation. "Of course it couldn't be Polly yet."
Not till the repast was comfortably despatched did Mr. Gammon give a sign that it might now be well to inform Mrs. Clover of what had happened. He nodded gravely to Mrs. Bubb, who with unaffected nervousness, causing her to ramble and stumble for many minutes in mazes of circumlocution, at length conveyed the fact to her anxious listener that Polly Sparkes had said something or other which implied a knowledge of Mr. Clover's whereabouts. Committed to this central fact, and urged by Mrs. Clover's growing impatience, the good woman came out at length with her latest version of Polly's remarkable utterance.
"And what she said was this, Mrs. Clover. When next you goes tale-telling to my awnt, she says -- just as nasty as she could -- when next you goes making trouble with my Aunt Louisa, she says, you can tell her, she says, that there's nobody but me knows where her 'usband is, and what he's a-doin' of but I wouldn't let her know, she says, not if it was to save her from death and burial in the workus! That's what Polly said to me this very morning, and the words made that impression on my mind that I shall never forget them to the last day of my life."
" Did you ever!" exclaimed or rather murmured Mrs. Clover, for she was astonished and agitated. Her face lost its wholesome tone for a moment, her hands moved as if to repel something, and at length she sat quite still gazing at Mrs. Bubb.
"And don't you think it queer," put in Mr. Gammon, "that we never hit on that?"
"I'm sure I should never have thought of such a thing," replied Mrs. Clover heavily, despondently.
"And who knows," cried Mrs. Bubb, "whether it's true after all? Polly's been that nasty, how if she's made it up just to spite us?"
Mrs. Clover nodded, and seemed to find relief.
"I shouldn't a bit wonder. How should Polly know about him? It seems to me a most unlikely thing -- the most unlikely thing I ever heard of. I shall never believe it till she's proved her words. I won't believe it -- I can't believe it -- never!"
Her voice rose on tremulous notes, her eyes wandered disdainfully. She looked at Gammon and immediately looked away again. He, as though in answer to an appeal, spoke with decision.
"What we're here for, Mrs. Clover, is to put Polly face to face with you and so get the truth out of her. That we will do, cost what it may. We're not going to have that girl making trouble and disturbance just to please herself. I don't want to poke myself into other people's business, and I'm sure you won't think I do."
"Of course not, Mr. Gammon. 'T ain't likely I should think so of you."
"You know me better. I was just going to say that I'm a man of business, and perhaps I can help to clear up this job in a business-like way. That's what I'm here for. If I didn't think I could be of some use to you I should make myself scarce. What I propose is this, Mrs. Clover. When Polly comes in -- never mind how late it is, I'll see you safe 'ome -- let her get upstairs just as usual. Then you go up to her door and you knock and you just say, 'Polly, it's me, and I want a word with you; let me come in, please?' If she lets you in, all right; have a talk and see what comes of it. If she won't let you in just come down again and let us know, and then we'll think what's to be done next."
This suggestion was approved, and time went on as the three discussed the mystery from every point of view. At about ten o'clock Mrs. Bubb's ear caught the sound of a latch-key at the front door. She started up; her companions did the same. By opening the door of the parlour an inch or two it was ascertained that a person had entered the house and gone quickly upstairs. This could only be Polly, for Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman were together in their sitting-room above, their voices audible from time to time.
"Now then, Mrs. Clover," said Gammon, "up you go. Don't be nervous; it's only Polly Sparkes, and she's more call to be afraid of you than you of her."
"I should think so, indeed," assented Mrs. Bubb. "Don't give way, my dear. Whativer you do, don't give way. I'm sure I feel for you. It's fair crool, it is."
Mrs. Clover said nothing, and made a great effort to command herself. Her friends escorted her to the foot of the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman had their door ajar, knowing well what was in progress, for the landlady had not been able to keep her counsel at such a dramatic crisis; but fortunately Mrs. Clover was unaware of this. With light, quick foot she mounted the flight of stairs and knocked softly at Polly's door.
"Well? Who's that?" sounded in a careless voice.
"It's me, Polly -- your Aunt Louisa. Will you let me come in?"
"What do you want?"
The tone of the inquiry was not encouraging, and Mrs. Clover delayed a moment before she spoke again.
"I want to speak to you, Polly," she said at length, with firmness. "You know what it's about. Let me come in, please."
"I've got nothing to say to you about anything," answered Polly, in a tone of unmistakable decision. "You're only wasting your time, and the sooner you go 'ome the better."
She spoke near to the door, and with her last word sharply turned the key. Only just in time, for Mrs. Clover was that moment trying the handle when she heard the excluding snap. Natural feeling so much prevailed with her that she gave the door a shake, whereat her niece laughed,
"You're a bad, wicked, deceitful girl " exclaimed Mrs. Clover hotly. "I don't believe a word you said, not a word! You're going to the bad as fast as ever you can, and you know it, and you don't care, and I'm sure I don't care! Somebody ought to box your ears soundly, miss. I wouldn't have such a temper as yours not for untold money. And when you want a friend, and haven't a penny in the world, don't come to me, because I won't look at you, and won't own you. And remember that, miss!"
Again Polly laughed, this time in high notes of wrathful derision. Before the sound had died away Mrs. Clover was at the foot of the staircase, where Gammon and Mrs. Bubb awaited her.
"It's all a make-up," she declared vehemently. "I won't believe a word of it. She's made fools of us -- the nasty, ill-natured thing!"
Trembling with excitement she was obliged to sit down in the parlour, whilst Mrs. Bubb hovered about her with indignant consolation. Gammon, silent as yet, stood looking on. As he watched Mrs. Clover's countenance his own underwent a change; there was a ruffling of the brows, a working of the lips, and in his good-humoured blue eyes a twinkling of half-amused, half-angry determination.
"Look here," he began, thrusting his hands into his side pockets. "You've come all this way, Mrs. Clover, to see Polly, and see her you shall."
"I don't want to, Mr. Gammon! I couldn't----"
"Now steady a bit -- quiet -- don't lose your head. Whether you want to see her or not, I want you to, and what's more you shall see her. If Polly's trying to make fools of us she shan't have all the fun; if she's telling the truth she shall have a fair chance of proving it; if she's lying we'll have a jolly good try to make her jolly well ashamed of herself. See here, Mrs. Bubb, will you do as I ask you?"
"And what's that, Mr. Gammon?" asked the landlady, eager to show her spirit.
"You go up to Polly's room, and you say this: 'Miss Sparkes,' you say, 'you've got to come downstairs and see your aunt. If you'll come, quite well and good; if you won't, I just got to tell you that the lock on your door is easy forced, and expense shan't stand in the way.' Now you just go and say that."
Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover exchanged glances. Both were plainly impressed by this masculine suggestion, but they hesitated.
"I don't want to make an upset in the house," said Mrs. Clover. "There isn't a word of truth in what she said; I feel sure of that, and it's no use."
"If you ask me," Gammon interposed," I'm not at all sure about that. It seems to me just as likely as not that she has come across Mr. Clover -- just as likely as not
Angry agitation again took hold of Polly's aunt, who was very easily swayed by an opinion from Mr. Gammon. The landlady, too, gave willing ear to his words.
"Do you mean," she asked, "that we should really break the door open?"
"I do; and what's more -- I'll pay the damage. Go up, Mrs. Bubb, and just say what I told you; and let's see how she takes it."
Mrs. Clover began a faint objection, but Mrs. Bubb did not heed it. Her face set in the joy of battle, she turned from the room and ran upstairs.
Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman squeezed together at their partly-open door, were following the course of events with a delighted eagerness which threatened to break all bounds of discretion. Their grinning faces signalled to Mrs. Bubb as she went by, and she, no less animated, waved a hand to them as if promising richer entertainment. The next minute she was heard parleying with Miss Sparkes. Polly received her, as was to be expected, with acrimonious defiance.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Mrs. Bubb! Go and clean up your dirty kitchen. It'll take you all your time."
There needed but this to fire the landlady to extremities. Her answer rang through the house. Dirty kitchen, indeed! And how many meals had Miss Sparkes eaten there at cost price -- aye, often for nothing at all! And who was it as made most dirt, coming in at all hours of the day and night from running about the streets?
"Very well, my lady! Are you going to turn that key or not? That's all I want to know."
"I'll have pity on your ignorance," replied Polly, "and tell you more than that. I'm going to bed, and going to try to get to sleep if there's any chance of it in a 'ouse like this, which might be a 'sylum for inebriates."
Mrs. Bubb laughed, the strangest laugh ever heard from her respectable lips. Words were needless, and in a few seconds she panted before her friends downstairs.
"She says she's a-goin' to bed. Of all the shimeless creatures! Called me every nime she could turn her tongue to! And wouldn't open her door not if the 'ouse was burning. Do you hear her?"
Mr. Gammon buttoned his coat from top to bottom, smoothed his moustache and his side-whiskers, and had the air of a man who is in readiness for stern duty.
"I want both of you to come up with me," he said quietly.
Mrs. Clover began to look alarmed, even embarrassed.
"But perhaps she's really gone to bed."
"All right, she shall have time," he nodded, laughing. "I want both of you to come up to see fair play."
"But, Mr. Gammon, I shouldn't like----"
"Mrs. Clover, you've come here to see Polly, and you've a right to see Polly, and by jorrocks you shall see Polly! Follow me upstairs. I've said all that need be said; now to business."
They ascended; Gammon three steps at a stride, the others in a hurry and a flutter. Light streamed from the Cheesemans' room; the first-floor lodgers; incapable any longer of self-restraint, were out on the landing. On the next floor it was dark, but Mr. Gammon saw a gleam along the bottom of Polly's door. He knocked -- the knock of a policeman armed with a warrant.
"Oh, it's you this time, is it? Come just to say good night? You needn't have put yourself out."
"Miss Sparkes, are you in your proper dress?"
"What d'you mean?" Polly answered resentfully. "You've been drinking again, I suppose."
"Not at all, my dear. I asked you for a good and sufficient reason. I'm going to break your door open, that's all, and I wish to give you fair warning. Are you dressed or not?"
"Impudent wretch! What are you doing here? What business is it of yours?"
"I'm the only strong man handy, that's all. Paid for the job, being out of work just now."
Mrs. Bubb tittered; Mrs. Cheeseman, down below, choked audibly.
"Will you answer that question or not? Very good; I give you till I've counted fifty, slow. When I say fifty, bang goes the bloomin' door."
Amid an awful silence, enveloped, as it were, by the dull rumbling of vehicles without, Mr. Gammon's voice began counting. He expected to hear Polly's key turn in the lock, so did Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover. But the key moved not.
"Forty-eight -- forty-nine -- fifty!"
Gammon drew back to give himself impetus, and rushed against the door. With raised foot he struck it just by the handle, and the house seemed to quiver. A second assault was successful; with crash and splintering the lock yielded, the door flew open. At the far side of the room stood Polly, but in no attitude of surrender; she held a clothes brush, and as soon as the assailant showed himself flung it violently at his head. Another missile would have followed, but Gammon was too quick; with a red Indian yell of victory he crossed the floor at one bound and had Polly in his arms.
"Look out, ladies!" he shouted. "See fair play!"
Mrs. Bubb vented her emotions in "Oh my!" and "Did you ever!" with little screams of excitement verging on sheer laughter. It avenged her delightfully to see Miss Sparkes gripped by the waist and hoisted for removal. But Mrs. Clover was evidently possessed by very different feelings. Drawing back, as if in alarm or shame, a glow on each cheek, she uttered an involuntary cry of protest.
"No, Mr. Gammon, I can't have that!"
It was doubtful whether the champion heard, for he unmistakably had his work set. Tooth and nail Polly contested every inch of ground. One moment her little fists were pummelling Gammon in the face, the next she tugged at his hair. Then again she scratched and kicked simultaneously, her voice meanwhile screaming insult and menace, which must have been audible in the neighbours' houses.
"Stop!" entreated Mrs. Clover. "Put her down at once!" she commanded. "Do you hear me, Mr. Gammon?"
Whether he did or not, the bold bagman paid no heed. He had at length a firmer grip of Polly with one of her arms imprisoned. He neared the head of the stairs, the women falling back before him.
"Mind what you're up to," he was heard to shout good-humouredly as ever. "If you trip me we shall both break our blessed necks."
"How dare you!" shrieked the voice of the captive, now growing hoarse. "I'll give you in charge the minute I get downstairs! Ugly beast, I'll give you all in charge!"
The descent began. But that Polly was slightly made, a man of Gammon's physique would have found it impossible to carry her down the stairs; as it was he soon began puffing and groaning. In spite of the risk Polly still struggled -- two stair-railings were wrenched away on the first flight. Then appeared Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman, red and perspiring with muffled laughter.
"You may laugh, you wretches!" Polly shrieked. "I'll give you all in charge, see if I don't. You've all took part in an assault -- see what you'll get for it!"
After that she no longer resisted, except for an occasional kick on her bearer's shins. They reached the ground floor; they tottered into the parlour; close upon them followed Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover. Set upon her feet, Polly seemed for a moment about to rush to the window; a second thought led her to the mirror over the mantelpiece, where, fiercely eyeing the reflected group behind her, she made shift to smooth her hair and arrange her dress. Gammon had sunk upon a chair and was mopping his forehead. He had suffered far more than Polly in the encounter, and looked indeed, with wild hair, scratched face, burst collar, loose necktie, a startling object.
"Now, then!" the girl moved towards him, fists clenched, as if to renew hostilities. "What d'you mean by this? Just you tell me what you mean by it."
"As soon as I can get breath, my dear. I meant to bring you down to speak to your aunt, and I've done it -- see ?"
" I'm ashamed of you, Mr. Gammon," exclaimed Mrs. Clover severely. "I never thought you would go so far as this."
"Ashamed of him, are you?" shrieked the girl, turning furiously upon her relative. "Be ashamed of yourself! What do you call yourself, eh? A respectable woman? And you look on while your own niece is treated in this way. Why, a costermonger's wife wouldn't disgrace herself so. No wonder your 'usband run away from you!"
"Oh, this low, vulgar, horrid girl!" cried her aunt in a revulsion of feeling. "How she can be any relative of mine I'm sure I don't know."
"Ugh! you nasty, ungrateful young woman, you!" chimed in Mrs. Bubb. "To speak to your kind awnt like that, as has been taking your part when I'm sure I wouldn't 'a done! I'd like to see you put on bread and water. till you owned up whether you've told lies or not."
Mrs. Clover was moved to the point of shedding tears, though her handkerchief soon stopped the flow.
"Polly," she said, raising her voice above the hubbub, "you've treated me that bad there's no words for it. But I can't believe you'll let me go away like this, without knowing whether you've really seen Mr. Clover or not. Just tell me, do."
"Oh, it's just tell you, is it! After you've had me knocked about and insulted by a dirty rough like that Gammon----"
"You've heard me say I never thought he meant to behave so. I wouldn't have had it for anything."
Whilst Mrs. Clover was speaking Gammon beckoned to the landlady, and together they retreated from the room, closing the door behind them. On the stairs stood Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman eager for the latest news of the fray. At their invitation Mrs. Bubb and the hero of the evening stepped up, and for a quarter of an hour Mrs. Clover was left alone with her niece. Then the landlady's attention was called by a voice from below.
"I must be going, Mrs. Bubb; I'll say good night."
Quickly Mrs. Bubb descended; she saw at a glance that Polly's wrath had in no degree diminished, and that Mrs. Clover was no whit easier in mind; but both had become silent. Merely saying that she would see her hostess again before long, the lady of the china shop took a hurried leave and quitted the house.
She had walked but a few yards when Mr. Gammon's voice sounded at her shoulder.
"I'll see you part of the way home," he said genially.
"I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Gammon," was Mrs. Clover's reply, "but I can find my own way."
"You'll let me see you into a 'bus, at all events."
"Please don't trouble; I'd much rather you didn't."
"Why?" asked Gammon bluntly.
"Because I had. I'll say good night."
She stood still looking him in the face with cold displeasure; only for a moment though, as her eyes could not bear the honest look in his.
"Right you are," said Gammon with affected carelessness. "Just as you like. I won't force my company on anyone."
Mrs. Clover made the movement which in women of her breeding signifies a formal bow -- hopelessly awkward, rigid, and self-conscious -- and walked rapidly away. The man, not a little crestfallen, swung round on his heel.
"What's wrong now?" he asked himself. "It can t be about Minnie, for she was all right till after supper. And why it should make her angry because I lugged that cat Polly downstairs is more than I can understand. Well, I shan't die of it."
On re-entering the house he found all quiet. Polly had returned to her chamber, Mrs. Bubb was in the Cheesemans' room. He went down into the kitchen, where the gas was burning, and sat till the landlady came down.
"I don't see as you did much good," was Mrs. Bubb's first remark, in the tone which signifies reaction after excitement. "It weren't worth breaking a door in, it seems to me."
Gammon hung his head.
"Didn't Polly tell her anything?"
"She stuck out she knew where the 'usband was, and that's all."
"How do you know?"
"Polly said so as she went upstairs, and 'oped her awnt 'ud sleep well on it."
"H'm! I suppose that's why I couldn't get a word out of Mrs. Clover. Have the door mended, Mrs. Bubb, and charge me with it. Got anything to drink handy?"
"That I 'aven't, Mr. Gammon, except water."
Gammon looked at his watch.
"Why, it's only just half-past eleven. Hanged if I didn't think it was past midnight! I must go round and get a drop of something."
When he came back from quenching his thirst the house was in darkness. He strode the familiar ascent, and by Polly's door (barricaded inside with the chest of drawers) hummed a mirthful strain. As he jumped into bed the events of the evening all at once struck him in such a comical light that he uttered a great guffaw, and for the next ten minutes he lay under the bedclothes shaking with laughter.
At noon next day a cab drove up to Mrs. Bubb's house; from it alighted Miss Sparkes, who, with the help of the cabman, brought downstairs a tin box, a wooden box, two bandboxes, and three newspaper bundles. With no one did she exchange a word of farewell; the Cheesemans' were out, the landlady and Moggie kept below stairs. So Polly turned her back upon Kennington Road, and shook the dust thereof from her feet for ever.
Willingly she had accepted a proposal that she should share the room of her friend Miss Waghorn, who was to be married in a month's time to Mr. Nibby, and did not mind a little inconvenience. The room was on the third floor of a house at the north end of Shaftesbury Avenue; it measured twelve feet by fourteen. When Polly's bandboxes had been thrust under the bed and her larger luggage built up in a corner, there was nice standing room both for her and Miss Waghorn. The house contained ten rooms in all, and its population (including seven children) amounted to twenty-three. In this warm weather the atmosphere within doors might occasionally be a trifle close, but Shaftesbury Avenue is a fine broad street, and has great advantages of situation.
To Mr. Gammon's casual inquiry, Mrs. Bubb replied that she neither knew nor cared whither Polly had betaken herself. Himself having no great curiosity in the matter, and being much absorbed in his endeavour to obtain an engagement with the house of Quodling, he let Polly slip from his mind for a few days, until one morning came a letter from her. Positively, and to his vast surprise, a letter addressed to him by Miss Sparkes, with her abode fully indicated in the usual place. True, the style of the epistle was informal. It began:
"You took advantage of me because there wasn't a man in the house to take my part, as I don't call that grinning monkey of a Cheeseman a man at all. If you like to call where I am now, I shall have the pleasure of introducing you to somebody that will give you the good hiding you deserve for being a coward and a brute.
Gammon laughed over this for half an hour. He showed it to Mrs. Bubb, who was again on the old terms with him, and Mrs. Bubb wanted to exhibit it to Mrs. Cheeseman.
"No, don't do that," he interposed gently. "We'll keep it between ourselves."
"Oh, I don't know. The girl can't help herself; she was born that way, you know."
"I only hope she won't pay some rough to follow you at night and bash you," said Mrs. Bubb warningly.
"I don't think that. No, no; Polly's bark is worse than her bite any day."
On the evening of that day, about ten o'clock, he chanced to be in Oxford Street, and as he turned southward it occurred to him that he would so far act upon Polly's invitation as to walk down the Avenue and glance at the house where she lived. He did so, and it surprised him to see that she had taken up her abode in so mean-looking a place; he was not aware, of course, that. Miss Waghorn found the quarters good enough for her own more imposing charms and not less brilliant wardrobe.
Walking on, at Cambridge Circus he came face to face with Miss Sparkes herself, accompanied by Miss Waghorn. To his hat salute and amiable smile Polly replied with a fierce averting of the look. Her friend nodded cheerfully, and they passed. Two minutes after he found Miss Waghorn beside him.
"Hallo! Left Polly?"
"I want you to come back with me, Mr. Gammon," replied the maiden archly. "I 'ear you've offended Miss Sparkes. I don't know what it is, I'm sure, and I don't ask to be told, 'cause it's none of my business; but I want to make you friends again, and I'm sure you'll apologize to her."
"Eh? Apologize? Why, of course I will; only too delighted."
"That's nice of you. I always said you were a nice man, ask Polly if I didn't."
"The same to you, my dear, and many of 'em! Come along."
As if wholly unaware of what was happening Polly had proceeded homewards, not so fast, however, but that the others overtook her with ease before she reached the house.
"How do you do, Miss Sparkes?" began her enemy, not without diffidence as she turned upon him. "I'm surprised to hear from Miss Waghorn that something I've said or done has riled you, if I may use the expression. I couldn't have meant it; I'm sure I 'umbly beg pardon."
Strange to say, by this imperfect expression of regret, Miss Sparkes allowed herself to be mollified. Presenting a three-quarter countenance with a forbearing smile, she answered in the formula of her class:
"Oh, I'm sure it's granted."
"There now, we're all friends again," said Carrie Waghorn. "Miss Sparkes is living with me for the present, Mr. Gammon. There'll be changes before long" -- she looked about her with prudish embarrassment -- "but, of course, we shall be seeing you again. Do you know the address, Mr. Gammon?"
She mentioned the number of the house, and carefully repeated it, whilst Polly turned away as if the conversation did not interest her. Thereupon Mr. Gammon bade them good night, and went his way, marvelling that Polly Sparkes had all at once become so placable. Was it a stratagem to throw him off his guard and bring him into the clutches of some avenger one of these nights? One never knew what went on in the minds of such young women as Polly.
Next morning he had another surprise, a letter from his friend Greenacre, inviting him, with many phrases of studious politeness, to dine that day at a great hotel, the hour eight o'clock, and begging him to reply by telegram addressed to the same hotel. This puzzled Gammon, yet less than it could have done at an earlier stage of their acquaintance. He had abandoned the hope of explaining Greenacre's mysterious circumstances, and the attempt to decide whether his stories were worthy of belief or not. Half suspecting that he might be the victim of a hoax he telegraphed an acceptance, and thought no more of the matter until evening approached. Part of his day was spent in helping a distracted shopkeeper on the verge of failure to obtain indulgence from certain of his creditors he also secured a place as errand boy for the son of a poor woman with whom he had lodged until her house was burnt down one Bank Holiday; and he made a trip to Hammersmith to give evidence at the police-court for a friend charged with assaulting a policeman. Just before eight o'clock, after a hasty wash and brush up at a public lavatory, he presented himself at the great hotel, where, from a lounge in the smoking-room, Greenacre rose to welcome him. Greenacre indubitably, but much better dressed than Gammon had ever seen him, and with an air of lively graciousness which was very impressive. The strange fellow offered not a word of explanation, but chatted as though their meeting in such places as this were an everyday occurrence.
"I have something interesting to tell you," he observed, when they were seated in the brilliant dining-room, with olives, sardines, and the like to toy with before the serious commencement of their meal. "You remember -- when was it? not long ago -- asking me about a family named Quodling?"
"Of course I do. It was only the other day at----"
"Ah, just so, yes," interposed Greenacre, suavely ignoring the locality. "You know my weakness for looking up family histories. I happened to be talking with my friend Beeching yesterday -- Aldham Beeching, you know, the Q.C. -- and Quodling came into my head. I mentioned the name. It was as I thought. I had, you know, a vague recollection of Quodling as connected with a lawsuit when I was a boy. Beeching could tell me all about it."
"Well, what was it?"
"Queer story. A Mrs. Quodling, a widow, or believed to be a widow, came in for a large sum of money under the will of Lord Polperro, the second baron -- uncle, I am told, of his present lordship. This will was contested by the family; a very complicated affair, Beeching tells me. Mrs. Quodling, whose character was attacked, declared that she knew Lord Polperro in an honourable way, and that he had taken a great interest in her children -- two young boys. Now these boys were produced in court, then it was seen -- excellent soup this -- that they bore little if any resemblance to each other; and at the same time it was made evident, by exhibition of a portrait, that the younger boy had a face with a strong likeness to the testator, and many witnesses declared the same. Interesting, isn't it?"
"For the widow," remarked Gammon.
"Uncommonly awkward, though she gained her case for all that. Polperro, it seems, had a shady reputation -- heavy drinker, and so on. There were strong characteristics -- some peculiarity of the nose. The old chap used to say that there was the nose of the Bourbons and the nose of the Trefoyles, his family name."
"Trefoyle. Cornish, you know. Rum lot they always seem to have been. Barony created by George III for some personal service. The first Polperro is said to have lived a year or two as a gipsy, and at another time as a highwayman. There's a portrait of him, Beeching tells me, in somebody's history of Cornwall, showing to perfection the Trefoyle nose."
"Same as Quodling's, then," exclaimed Gammon. "Quodling, the broker?"
"Precisely. I would suggest, my dear fellow, that you don't speak quite so loud. Francis Quodling was the boy who so strongly resembled the Lord Polperro of the lawsuit. Nose with high arch, and something queer about the nostril."
"Yes! and hanged if it isn't just the same as----"
A deprecatory gesture from his friend stopped Gammon on the point of uttering the name "Clover." Again he had sinned against the proprieties by unduly raising his voice, and he subsided in confusion.
"You were going to say?" murmured the host politely.
"Oh, nothing. There's a man I know has just the same nose, that's all."
"That's very interesting. And considering the Polperro reputation, it wouldn't surprise me to come across a good many such noses. You remember my favourite speculation. It comes in very well here, doesn't it? Is all this information of any service to you?"
"Much obliged to you for your trouble. I don't know that I can make any use of it; but yes, it does give a sort of hint."
On reflection Gammon decided to keep the matter to himself. He had set his mind on discovering Mrs. Clover's husband, and was all the more determined to perform this feat since the recent events in Kennington Road. Mrs. Clover had treated him unkindly; he would prove to her that this had no effect upon his zeal in her service. Polly Sparkes was making fun of him, and the laugh should yet be on his side. Greenacre, with his mysterious connexions, might be of use, but must not be allowed to run away with the credit of the discovery. As for these stories about Lord Polperro, it might turn out that Clover was illegitimately related to the noble family -- no subject for boasting, though possibly an explanation of his strange life. If Polly were really in communication with him---- "Ho, ho! Very good! Ha, ha!"
"What now?" asked Greenacre.
"Nothing! Queer fancy I had."
After dinner they smoked together for an hour, the host talking incessantly, and for the most part in a vein of reminiscence. To hear him one would have supposed that he had always lived in the society of distinguished people; never a word referring to poverty or mean employment fell from his lips.
"Poor Bolsover!" he remarked. "Did I tell you that I had a very kind letter from his widow?"
"I haven't seen you since."
"Ah, no, to be sure. I wrote, or rather I left a card at the town house. Charming letter in reply. The poor lady is still quite young. She was a Thompson of Derbyshire. I never knew the family at all well."
Gammon mused, and it occurred to him in his knowledge of the world that Greenacre's connexion with the house of Bolsover might be that of a begging-letter writer. There might have been some slight acquaintance in years gone by between this strange fellow and young Lord Bolsover -- subsequently made a source of profit. Perchance, Greenacre's prosperity at this moment resulted from a skilful appeal to the widowed lady.
Inclined to facetiousness by a blend of choice beverages, Gammon could not resist a joke at the moment when he took leave.
"Been out with the 'Saponaria' van to-day?" he enquired innocently.
Greenacre looked steadily at him with eyes of gentle reproach.
"I'm afraid I don't understand that allusion," he replied gravely. "Is it a current jest? I am not much in the way of hearing that kind of thing. By the by, let me know if I can help you in any more genealogies."
"I will. So long, old man."
And with a wink -- an undeniable wink, an audacious wink -- Mr. Gammon sallied from the hotel
Before going to bed he wrote a letter -- a letter to Miss Sparkes. Would she see him the day after to-morrow, Sunday, if he strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue at ten a.m.? It would greatly delight him, and perhaps she might be persuaded to take a little jaunt to Dulwich and look at his bow-wows.
There was time enough for Polly to reply to this invitation, but reply she did not. None the less, Gammon was walking about near her lodgings at ten o'clock on Sunday morning. It seemed to him that he once or twice perceived a face at an upper window, but at a quarter past the hour Miss Sparkes had not come forth. He was on the point of going boldly to the door when a recognizable figure approached -- that of Mr. Nibby. The men hailed each other.
"Waiting for somebody?" inquired the representative of the Gillingwater burner, a twinkle in his eye.
To avoid the risk of complications Gammon avowed that he was looking out for Miss Sparkes, with whom he wanted a word on private business.
"First rate!" exclaimed Mr. Nibby. "She's coming along with Miss Waghorn and me to my brother's at 'Endon -- the "Blue Anchor"; do you know it? Nice little property. You'll have to join us; first rate. I'm only afraid it may rine. Do you think it will rine?"
"May or may not," replied Gammon, staring at the clouds and thinking over the situation as it concerned himself. "If it's going to rine, it will, you know."
"That's true. I'll just let 'em know I'm here."
But at this moment the two young ladies came forth, blushing and resplendent. Hats were doffed and hands were shaken.
"Why, is that you, Mr. Gammon?" cried Carrie Waghorn when the ceremony was over, as if only just aware of his presence. "Well, this is a surprise, isn't it, Polly?"
Miss Sparkes seemed barely to recognize Mr. Gammon, but of necessity she took a place by his side, and walked on with a rhythmic tossing of the head, which had a new adornment -- a cluster of great blue flowers, unknown to the botanist, in the place of her everyday poppies.
"If you don't want me," remarked Gammon, glancing at her, "you've only to say so, and I'm off."
Polly looked up at the sky, and answered with a question.
"Do you think it's going to rine?"
"Well, you are polite."
"What's the rine got to do with politeness? I say, why didn't you answer my letter?"
"I pay no attention to impertinence," replied Miss Sparkes haughtily.
"Oh, that's it? Never mind; we shall get on better presently. I say, Polly, do you see you've left marks on my face?"
Polly set her lips and kept a severe silence.
"I don't mind 'em," Gammon continued. "Rather proud of 'em. If anybody asks me how I got the scratches----"
The girl looked sharply at him.
"Do you mean to say you'd tell? Well, if you call that gentlemanly----"
"Wouldn't tell the truth, Polly, not for as many kisses as there are scratches, my dear."
Polly bridled -- young women of her class still bridle -- but looked rather pleased. And Gammon chuckled to himself, thinking that all went well.
The rain came, but for all that they had a day of enjoyment, spent chiefly in an arbour, not quite rainproof, on the skittle-ground behind the "Blue Anchor" at Hendon. Continuous was the popping of corks, and frequent were the outbursts of hilarity. Polly did not abandon her reserve with Mr. Gammon; now and then she condescended to smile at his sallies of wit, whereas she screamed at a joke from others. The landlord of the " Blue Anchor" was a widower of about thirty, and had some claims to be considered a lady's man; to him Polly directed her friendly looks and remarks with a freedom which could not but excite attention.
"Is that the fellow that's going to give me a thrashing?" Gammon asked of her at length in an aside.
"Don't be a silly," she answered, turning her back.
"Because, if so, I'd better get the start of him. There's a convenient bit of ground here."
He spoke with such seeming seriousness that Polly showed alarm.
"Don't be a silly, Mr. Gammon. If you misbehave yourself, I'll never speak to you again."
"Well,what I want to know is, am I to be on guard? Am I to mind my eye whenever I'm near you?"
He spoke as if with a real desire to be relieved from apprehension. At this moment their companions had drawn apart, and they could converse unheard.
"You know very well what you deserve," replied Polly, looking askance at him. "And if such a thing ever was to happen again -- well, you'd see, that's all."
Therewith the peace, or at all events the truce, was concluded, and Miss Sparkes allowed herself to meet Mr. Gammon's advances with frankness and appreciation. The fact that he did unmistakably make advances secretly surprised her, but not more than Gammon was surprised to find himself coming into favour.
A few days later the opportunity for which he waited came to pass, and he was invited to an interview with Quodling & Son; that is to say, with a person who was neither Quodling nor Quodling's son, but held a position of authority at their place of business in Norton Folgate. Whenever the chance was given him of applying personally for any post that he desired, Mr. Gammon felt a reasonable assurance of success. Honesty was written broadly upon his visage; capability declared itself in his speech. He could win the liking and confidence of any ordinary man of business in ten minutes. It happened, fortunately, that the firm of Quodling needed just such a representative. As Gammon knew, they had been unlucky in their town traveller of late, and they looked just now more to the "address," the personal qualities, of an applicant for the position, than to his actual acquaintance with their business, which was greatly a matter of routine. Mr. Gammon was accepted on trial, and in a day or two began his urban travels.
Particular about the horses he drove, Gammon saw with pleasure the young dark-bay cob, stylishly harnessed, which pawed delicately as he mounted the neat little trap put at his disposal. It is the blessedness of a mind and temper such as his that the things which charm at the beginning of life continue to give pleasure, scarce abated, as long as the natural force remains. At forty years of age Gammon set off about his business with all the zest of a healthy boy. The knowledge he had gained, all practical, and, so to speak, for external application, could never become the burden of the philosopher; if he had any wisdom at all it consisted in the lack of self-consciousness, the animal acceptance of whatever good the hour might bring. He and his bay cob were very much on the same footing; granted but a method of communication and they would have understood each other. Even so with his "bow-wows," as he called them. He rose superior to horse and dog mainly in that one matter of desire for a certain kind of female companionship; and this strain of idealism, naturally enough, was the cause of almost the only discontent he ever knew.
Joyously he rattled about the highways and by-ways of greater London. The position he had now obtained was to become a "permanency"; to Quodling & Son he could attach himself, making his services indispensable. One of these days -- not just yet -- he would look in at Mrs. CIover's and see whether she still kept in the same resentful mind towards him. It was an odd thing that nowadays he gave more thought to Mrs. Clover than to Minnie. The young girl glimmered very far away, at a height above him; he had made a mistake and frankly recognized it. But Mrs. Clover, his excellent friend of many years, shone with no such superiority, and was not above rebuke for any injustice she might do him. Probably by this time she had forgotten her fretfulness, a result of overstrung nerves. She would ask his pardon -- and ought to do so.
He thought of Polly Sparkes, but always with a peculiar smile, inclining to a grimace. Polly had "come round" in the most astonishing way. But she would "come round" yet more before he had done with her. His idea was to take Polly to Dulwich and show her the bow-wows; he saw possibilities of a quiet meal together at the inn. The difficulty was to reassure her natural tremors, without losing the ground he had gained by judicious approaches.
About the middle of July he prevailed upon her to accept his invitation, and to come alone, though Polly continued to declare that she hated dogs, and that she had never in her life gone to so remote and rural a spot as Dulwich without a "lady friend" to keep her in countenance.
"Everything must have a beginning," said Gammon merrily.
"If you let those people know, I'll never speak to you again."
She referred to Mrs. Bubb and her household, of whom she had never ceased to speak with animus.
"Honour bright, they shan't hear a whisper of it."
So on a Sunday morning they made the journey by omnibus for the sake of the fresh air, Polly remarking again and again on her great condescension, reaffirming her dislike of dogs, and declaring that if a drop of rain fell she would turn about homeward forthwith. None the less did she appear to find pleasure in Mr. Gammon's society. If his gossip included a casual mention of some young lady, a friend of his, she pressed for information concerning that person, and never seemed quite satisfied with what she was told about her. Slyly observant of this, her companion multiplied his sportive allusions, and was amused to find Polly grow waspish. Then again he soothed her with solid flattery; nothing of the kind was too gross for Polly's appetite. And so conversing they shortened the journey to remote Dulwich.
With gathered skirts and a fear, partly real but more affected, Miss Sparkes entered the yard where Gammon's dogs were kept. (As a matter of fact he shared in their ownership with the landlord of the public-house, a skilful breeder.) When puppies gambolled about her she woke the echoes with a scream. From a fine terrier, a "game" dog whose latest exploit was the killing of a hundred rats in six minutes, she backed trembling, and even put out a hand to Gammon as if for protection. Polly's behaviour, indeed, was such as would have been proper in a fine lady forty years ago, the fashion having descended to her class just as fashions in costume are wont to do at a shorter interval. When Gammon begged her to feel the "feather" of a beautiful collie she at length did so with great timidity, and a moment after, to show how doggy she was becoming, she spoke of the "feather" of a little black-and-tan, whereat Gammon smiled broadly. On the whole they much enjoyed themselves, and had a good appetite at dinner time.
The meal was laid for them in a small private room, which smelt principally of stale tobacco and stale chimney soot. The water-bottle on the table was encrusted with a white enamel advertisement of somebody's whisky, and had another such recommendation legible on its base. The tray used by the girl in attendance was enamelled with the name of somebody's brandy. On the walls hung three brightly-coloured calendars, each an advertisement: one of sewing machines, one of a popular insurance office, one of a local grocery business. The other mural adornments were old coloured pictures of racehorses and faded photographs of dogs. A clock on the mantelpiece (not going) showed across its face the name of a firm that dealt in aërated waters.
Coarse and plentiful were the viands, and Polly did justice to them. She had excellent teeth, a very uncommon thing in girls of her kind; but Polly's parents were of country origin. With these weapons she feared not even the pastry set before her, which it was just possible to break with an ordinary fork.
Towards the end Gammon grew silent and meditative. He kept gazing at the windows as if for aid in some calculation. When Polly at last threw down her cheese-knife, glowing with the thought that she had dined well at somebody else's expense, he leaned forward on the table, looked her in the eyes, and began a momentous dialogue.
"What did you want to do such a silly thing as that for?"
Polly stared in astonishment.
"What d'you mean?"
"Why did you let out to Mrs. Clover what you knew?"
The girl's colour deepened by a shade (it was already rich), and her eyes grew alarmed, suspicious, watchful.
"I didn't let out what I knew," she answered rather confused.
It was Gammon's turn to watch keenly.
"Not all, of course not," he remarked slyly. "But why couldn't you keep it to yourself that you'd met him?
Polly's eyes wandered. Gammon smiled with satisfaction.
"I'd have kept that to myself," he said in a friendly way. "I know how it was, of course; you got riled and came out with it. A great pity. She had all but forgot him; now she'll never rest till she's found him out. And you might have seen how much more to your advantage it was to keep a thing like that quiet."
Unwonted mental disturbance was playing tricks with Polly's complexion. She evidently feared to compromise herself, and at the same time desired to know all that was in her companion's mind.
"What business is it of yours?" was the crude phrase that at length fell from her lips, uttered half-heartedly, between resentment and jesting.
"Well, there's the point," replied Gammon, with a laugh. "Queer thing, but it just happens to be particular business of mine."
Polly stared. He nodded.
"There's such a thing, Polly, as going halves in a secret. I've been wondering these last few days whether I should tell you or not. But we're getting on so well together -- eh? Better than I expected, for one. I shouldn't feel I was doing right, Polly, if I took any advantage of you."
She was growing excited. Her wiles had given way before superior stratagem, and perhaps before something in herself that played traitor.
"You mean you know about him?" she asked, almost confidentially.
"Not all I want to -- yet. He's a sharp customer. But considerably more than you do, Polly, my dear."
"I don't believe you!"
"That has nothing to do with it. Suppose you ask me a question or two. I might be able to tell you something you would like to know."
It was said, of course, without any suspicion of the real state of things; but Gammon saw at once that he had excited an eager curiosity.
"You know where he is, then?" asked Polly.
"Well -- we'll say so."
"Where? When did you see him last?"
"We're going too quickly, old girl. The question is, When did you see him last?"
"Ah! you'd like to know, wouldn't you?"
Gammon burst out laughing, ever the surest way of baffling a silly woman. Polly grew hot with anger, then subsided into mortification. She knew the weakness of her position, and inclined ever more to make an ally of the man who had overcome her in battle and carried her off in his arms.
"And the other question is," Gammon proceeded, as if enjoying a huge joke, "When did you see him first?"
"I suppose you know?" she murmured reluctantly.
"Let us suppose I do. And suppose I am trying to make up my mind about the best way of dealing with the little affair. As I told you, I wish Mrs. Clover didn't know about it; but that's your doing. Our friend, Mr. C., wouldn't thank you."
"He knows, then, does he?" cried Polly.
"Mr. C. knows a great many things, my dear. He was not born yesterday. Now, see here, Polly. We're both of us in this, and we'd better be straight with each other. I am no friend of Mr. C., but I am a friend of yours, and if you can help me to get a bit tighter hold of him---- Yes, yes, I'll tell you presently. The question is, Whether I can depend upon what he says? Of course, I know all about you; I want to know more about him. Now, is it true that you saw him first at the theatre?"
Polly nodded, and Gammon congratulated himself on his guess.
"And -- he wasn't alone?"
"Just what I thought."
"He says he was alone -- eh?" asked Polly with eagerness.
"I guess why. Now who was with him, old girl?"
A moment's sulky hesitation and Polly threw away all reserve.
"There was two ladies -- if they were ladies; at all events, they was dressed like it. Oldish, both of 'em. One was a foreigner. I know that because I heard her speak; and it wasn't English. The other one spoke back to her in the same way, but I heard her speak English too. And she was the one as sat next to him."
"Good, Polly, we're getting on. And how did you notice him?"
"Well, it was like this," she began to narrate with vivacity. "I offered him a programme -- see? -- and he gave me half a sovereign and looked up at me, as much as to say he'd like change. And I'd no sooner met his eyes than I knew him. How could I help? He don't look to have changed a bit. And I saw as he knew me. I saw it by a queer sort of wink he give. And then he looked at me frightened like -- didn't he just! Of course, I didn't say nothing, but I kept standing by him a minute or two. And I'd forgot all about the change till he said to me, with a sort of look, 'You may keep that,' he said, and I says, 'Thank you, sir,' and nearly laughed."
"Not a bad tip, eh, Polly?"
"Oh, I've had as good before," she replied, with a brief return to the old manner.
"No doubt he enjoyed himself that evening. He kept spying round for you, didn't he?"
"I saw him look once or twice, and I give him a look back, but I couldn't do much more then; I said to myself I'd keep my eye on him to see if he came out after the first act. And sure enough he did, and there was me standing in his way, and he put his hand out to give me something, and just nodded and went on. It wasn't money, but a bit of paper twisted up and something wrote on it in pencil."
"I thought so, and where were you to meet him?"
"Well, I knew there couldn't be no harm, him being my own uncle," Polly replied with the air of repelling an accusation.
"Of course not; who said there was?"
"Well, it was Lincoln's Inn Fields, the next night. And there he was, sure enough, with his face half hid as if he was ashamed of himself, as well he might be. And he begins with saying as he was very ill and he didn't think he'd live long. But I wasn't to think as he forgot me, and when he died I should find myself provided for. And I wasn't to say a word to nobody or he'd take my name out of his will at once."
"It's all right, Polly. Don't be afraid. All between me and you. But I'll bet he didn't tell you where he was living?"
She shook her head.
"Of course not, I knew that," said Gammon, with a mysterious air. "Well, go on. He met you again, didn't he?"
"Once more, only once."
"Yes, and gave you little presents and told you to be a good gyurl and never disgrace your uncle. Oh, I know him! But he took precious good care not to let you know where he lived."
"But you know?" she exclaimed.
"No fear, Polly. You shall, too, if you have patience, though I don't say it'll be just yet."
A few more questions, and the girl had told everything -- Mr. Clover's failure to keep the third appointment and her fruitless watchings since then.
"He got a bit timid, Polly, you see," exclaimed Gammon. "And he was right, too; you couldn't keep it to yourself, you see. You spoil everything with that temper of yours, my dear. Don't be cross, my beauty; it don't matter much, comes to the same thing in the end. Now just look here, Polly. You haven't seen those two ladies again, nor either one of them?"
"You're wrong there," she cried triumphantly.
"Hollo! Steady, Polly. It wasn't the foreigner then?"
"How did you know?"
Gammon chuckled over his good luck.
"Never mind. We'll come to that another time. Who was she with, my dear?"
"Another lady and gentleman, much younger than her. I stood near 'em as long as I could and listened with all my ears, but I couldn't hear nothing any use. But I saw as they went away in a private kerridge, all three together; I saw that much."
"And found where they went to?"
"Go along. How could I?"
"Might have been managed, Polly," he answered musingly. "Never mind, better luck next time. What you've got to do, my angel, is to find where that lady lives -- the one that sat next our friend, you know, not the foreigner. Keep your eyes open, Polly, and be smart, and if you tell me where she lives then I shall have something more to say to you. It's between me and you, my beauty. You just bring me that little bit of information and you won't regret it."
Christopher Parish lived at home, that is to say, he was not a lodger under an alien roof, like the majority of such young men in London, but abode with his own people -- his mother, his elder brother, and his brother's wife. They had a decent little house in Kennington, managed -- rather better than such houses generally are -- by Mrs. Parish the younger, who was childless, and thus able to devote herself to what she called "hyjene," a word constantly on her lips and on those of her husband. Mr. Theodore Parish, aged about five-and-thirty, was an audit clerk in the offices of a railway company, and he loved to expatiate on the hardship of his position, which lay in the fact that he could not hope for a higher income than one hundred and fifty pounds, and this despite the trying and responsible nature of the duties he discharged. After dwelling upon this injustice he would add, with peculiar gravity, that really in certain moods one all but inclined to give a hearing to the arguments of socialistic agitators. In other moods, and these more frequent, Mr. Parish indulged in native optimism, tempered by anxiety in matters of "hyjene." He was much preoccupied with the laundry question.
"Now, are you quite sure, Ada, that this laundress is a conscientious woman? Does she manage her establishment on modern principles? I beg you will make a personal inspection. If ever a laundress refuses to let you make a personal inspection be sure there is something wrong. Just think how vital it is, this washing question. We send our clothes, our personal garments, to a strange house to be mixed with----"
And so on at great length, Mrs. Theodore listening patiently and approvingly. With equal solicitude did they discuss the food upon their table.
"Theo, I shall have to change our baker."
"Ah, indeed! Why?"
"I hardly like to tell you, but perhaps I had better. I have only just found out that a sewer-trap quite close to his shop gives out a most offensive affluvia, especially in this hot weather. The air must be full of germs. I hardly know whet her we ought to eat even this loaf. What do you think?"
Every one's dinner was spoilt. Theodore declared that really, when one considered the complicated and expensive machinery of local government, if sewer traps and affluvias were allowed to exist in the immediate neighbourhood of bakers' shops, why it really made one inclined to think and ask whether there might not be something in the arguments of the Socialists.
Christopher one day brought home some knickknack which he had bought from a City pedlar, one of those men who stand at the edge of the pavement between a vigilant police and a menacing vehicular traffic. It amused his sister-in-law, who showed it to her husband. Theodore having learnt whence it came was not a little concerned.
"Now, if that isn't like Christopher! When will that boy learn ordinary prudence? The idea of buying things from a man whose clothes more likely than not reek with infection! Dear me! Has he never reflected where those fellows live? Destroy the thing at once and wash your hands very carefully, I beg. I do hope you haven't been making pastry or lemonade? As if the inevitable risks of life were not enough."
It was, of course, utterly unsuspected by the elder members of the household that Christopher had "formed a connexion," in so innocent a sense, with a young woman who sold programmes and took tips at the theatre. That connexion had come about in the simplest way. One Sunday evening, a year ago, Christopher was returning from Clapham Common on the top of a crowded tram, and next to him sat a girl with a fresh colour, whom he eyed with respectfully furtive admiration. This young person had paid her fare, but carelessly dropped the ticket, and it chanced that an inspector who came on board at a certain point raised the question whether she had really paid. The conductor weakly expressed a doubt, suggesting that this passenger had ascended with two or three other people since his last collection of fares. Here was a chance for young Mr. Parish, who could give conscientious evidence. Very hot in the face, he declared, affirmed, and asseverated that the young lady was telling the truth, and his energy at length prevailed. Of course, this led to colloquy between the two. Polly Sparkes, for she it was, behaved modestly but graciously. It was true she had exhibited short temper in her passage with the officials, but Christopher thought this a becoming spirit. In his eyes she was lovely, and could do nothing amiss. When she alighted he did so too, frowning upon the conductor by way of final rebuke. Their ways appeared to be the same, as if inadvertently they walked together along Kennington Road. And so pleasant was their conversation that Polly went some way past Mrs. Bubb's before saying that she must bid her new companion good-bye. Trembling at his audacity, Christopher humbly put the question whether he might not hope to see the young lady again; and Polly laughed and tittered, and said she didn't know, but p'r'aps. Thereupon Mr. Parish nervously made an offering of his name and address, and Polly, tittering again, exclaimed that they lived quite near each other, and playfully made known the position of her dwelling. So were the proprieties complied with, and so began the enslavement of Christopher.
He had since told all there was to tell about his family and circumstances, Polly in return throwing out a few vague hints as to her own private affairs. Christopher would have liked to invite her to his home, but lacked courage; his mother, his brother, and Mrs. Theodore -- what would they say? The rigour of their principles overawed him. He often thought of abandoning his home, but neither for that step had he the necessary spirit of independence. Miss Sparkes no longer seemed to him of virtues compact; he sadly admitted in his wakeful hours that she had a temper; he often doubted whether she ever gave him a serious thought. But the fact remained that Polly did not send him about his business, and at times even seemed glad to see him, until that awful night when, by deplorable accident, he encountered her near Lincoln's Inn. That surely was the end of everything. Christopher, after tottering home he knew not how, wept upon his pillow. Of course he was jealous as well as profoundly hurt. Not without some secret reason had Polly met him so fiercely, brutally. He would try to think of her no more; she was clearly not destined to be his.
For a full fortnight he shunned the whole region of London in which Polly might be met. He was obliged, of course, to pass each night in Kennington, but he kept himself within doors there. Then he could bear his misery no longer. Three lachrymose letters had elicited no response; he wrote once more, and thus:
DEAREST MISS SPARKES,
Yours for now and eternity,
To this dread summons Polly at length yielded. She met Christopher, and they paced together on the embankment in front of St. Thomas's Hospital. It rained a little, and was so close that they both dripped with perspiration.
"P'r'aps I was a bit short with you," Polly admitted after listening to her admirer's remonstrances, uttered in a choking voice. "But I can't stand being spied after, and spied after I won't be."
"I have told you, Polly, at the very least sixty or seventy times, that I've never done such a thing, and wouldn't, and couldn't. It never came into my 'ead."
"Well, then, we won't say no more about it, and don't put me out again, that's all."
"But there's something else, Polly. You know very well, Polly, what a lot I think of you, don't you now?"
"Oh, I dessay," she replied with careless indulgence.
"Then why won't you let me see you oftener, and -- and that kind of thing, you know?"
This was vague, but perfectly intelligible to the hearer. She gave an impatient little laugh.
"Oh, don't be silly! Go on!"
"But it isn't silly. You know what I mean. And you said----"
"There you go, bringing up what I said. Don't worry me. If you can't talk quiet and friendly we'd better not see each other at all. I shouldn't wonder if that was best for both of us."
Polly had never been less encouraging. She seemed preoccupied, and spoke in an idle, inattentive way. Her suggestion that they should "part friends," though she returned upon it several times, did not sound as if it were made in earnest, and this was Christopher's one solace.
"Will you meet me reg'lar once a week," he pleaded, "just for a talk?"
"No, it's too often."
"I know what that means," exclaimed the young man in the bitterness of his soul. "There's somebody else. Yes, that's it; there's somebody else."
"Well, and what if there was?" asked Polly, looking far away. "I don't see as it would be any business of yours."
"Oh, just listen to that!" cried Christopher. "That's how a girl talks to you when she knows you're ready to jump into the river! It's my belief that girls haven't much feeling."
The outrageous audacity of this avowal saved the speaker from Polly's indignation. She saw that he was terribly driven, and, in spite of herself, once more softened towards him; for Polly had never disliked Mr. Parish; from the very first his ingenuous devotedness excited in her something, however elementary, of reciprocal feeling. She thought him comely to look upon, and had often reflected upon how pleasant it was to rule a man by her slightest look or word. To be sure, Christopher's worldly position was nothing to boast of; but one' knew him for the steady, respectable young clerk, who is more likely than not to advance by modest increments of salary. Miss Sparkes would have perceived, had she been capable of intellectual perception, that Christopher answered fairly well to one of her ideals. Others there were, which tended to draw her from him, but she had never yet deliberately turned her back upon the young man.
So now, instead of answering bitterness with wrath, she spoke more gently than of wont.
"Don't take on in that way, you'll only have a headache to-morrow. I can't promise to meet you regular, but you can write, and I'll let you know when I'm ready for a talk. There now, won't that do?"
Christopher had to make it do, and presently accepted the conditions with tolerable grace. Before they parted Polly even assured him that if ever there was anyone else she would deal honestly with him and let him know. This being as much as to say that he might still hope, Christopher cast away his thoughts of self-destruction, and went home with an appetite for a late supper.
Two months elapsed before anything of moment occurred in the relations thus established. Then at one of their brief meetings Polly delighted the young man by telling him that he might wait for her outside the theatre on a certain evening of the same week. Hitherto such awaitings had been forbidden.
"Won't I, just!" cried Mr. Parish. "And you'll come and have some supper?"
"I can't promise; I may want to ask you to do something for me. Just you be ready, that's all."
He promised exultingly, and when the evening came took up his position a full hour before Polly could be expected to come forth.
Now this was the first night of a new piece at Polly's theatre, and she, long watching in vain for the reappearance of the lady whose address she was to discover for Mr. Gammon, thought it a very possible thing that a person who had been twice to see the old entertainment might attend the first performance of the new. Her mysterious uncle had never again communicated with her, and Polly began to doubt what Mr. Gammon's knowledge really was; but she had given her confidence beyond recall, and, though with many vicissitudes of feeling, she still wished to keep Gammon sole ally in this strange affair. Once or twice indeed she had felt disposed to tell Christopher that there was "someone else"; but nothing Gammon had said fully justified this, and Polly, though an emotional young woman, had a good deal of prudence. One thing was certain, she very much desired to bring her old enemy to the point of a declaration. How she would receive it when it came she could not wholly determine.
Her conjecture regarding the unknown lady was justified. Among the first who entered the stalls was a man whom Polly seemed to remember, and close behind him came first a younger lady, then the one for whom her eyes had searched night after night. In supplying them with programmes Polly observed and listened with feverish attention. The elder woman had slightly grizzled hair; her age could not be less than fifty, but she was in good health and spirits. With the intention of describing her to Gammon, Polly noticed that she had a somewhat masculine nose, high in the bridge.
A quarter of an hour before the end of the piece Polly, dressed for departure, came forth and discovered her faithful slave.
"Now listen to me," she said, checking his blandishments. "I told you there might be something to do for me, and there is."
Parish was all eagerness.
"There'll be three people coming out from the stalls, a gentleman and two ladies. I'll show you them -- see? They'll drive off in a kerridge -- see? And I want you to find out where they go."
Nothing could have been more startling to Christopher, in whose mind began a whirl of suspicions and fears.
"Why? What for?" he asked involuntarily.
Polly was short with him.
"All right, if you won't do it say so, and I'll ask somebody else. I've no time to lose."
He gasped and stammered. Yes, yes, of course he would do it. He had not dreamt of refusing. He would run after the carriage, however far.
"Don't be a silly. You'll have to take a 'ansom and tell the driver to follow -- see?"
Yes, oh, yes, of course. He would do so. He trembled with excessive nervousness, and but for the sharp, contemptuous directions given him by Miss Sparkes must have hopelessly bungled the undertaking. Indeed, it was not easy to carry out in the confusion before a theatre when the audience is leaving, and bearing in mind the regulations concerning vehicles. Their scheme was based upon the certainty that the carriage must proceed at a very moderate pace for some two or three hundred yards; within that limit or a very little beyond it -- at all events, before his breath was exhausted -- Christopher would certainly be able to hail a cab.
"Tell the cabby they're friends of yours," said Polly, "and you're going to the same 'ouse. You look quite respectable enough with your 'igh 'at. That's what I like about you; you always look respectable."
"But -- but he will set me down right beside the people."
"Well, what if he does, gooseberry? Can't you just pay him quietly? They'll think you're for next door."
"But -- but it may be a big house by itself somewhere."
"Well, silly. They'll think it's a mistake, that's all. What's the matter in the dark? You do as I tell you. And when you've got to know the address -- you can take your time about that, of course -- come back along Shaftesbury Avenue and give three knocks at the door, and I'll come down."
It flashed through Christopher's mind that he would be terribly late in getting home, but there was no help for it. If he refused this undertaking, or failed to carry it out successfully, Polly would cast him off. The gloom of a desperate mood fell upon him. He had the feeling of a detective or of a criminal, he knew not which; the mystery of the affair was a hideous oppression.
Even the initial step, that of watching the trio of strangers into their brougham, was not without difficulty. The pavement began to be crowded. Clutching her slave by the arm, Polly managed. to hold a position whence she could see the people who descended the front steps of the theatre, and at length her energy was rewarded. The ladies she could not have recognized, for they were muffled against the night air, but their male companion she "spotted" -- that was the word in her mind -- with certainty.
"There! See those three? That's them," she whispered excitedly. "Off you go!"
And off he went, as if life depended upon it; his eyes on the brougham, his heart throbbing violently, moisture dropping from his forehead and making his collar limp. The carriage disengaged itself, the pace quickened, he began to run, and collided with pedestrians who cursed him. Now -- now or never -- a cab!
By good luck he plunged into a hansom wanting a fare.
"The carriage -- friends of mine -- that carriage!"
"Ketch 'em up?" asked the driver briskly.
"No -- same 'ouse -- follow!"
As he flung himself into the vehicle he seriously feared he was on the point of breaking a blood vessel, never had he been at such extremity of breath. But his eyes clung to the brougham in dread lest he should lose sight of it, or confuse it with another. The driver whipped his horse. Thank goodness, the carriage remained well in sight. But if there should come a block! A perilous point was Piccadilly Circus. Never, it seemed to him, had the streets of London roared with such a tumult of traffic. Right! The Circus was passed; now Piccadilly with its blessed quietness. What a speed they kept! Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, and -- what road was that? Christopher's geography failed him; he pretended to no familiarity with the West End. On swept his hansom in what he felt to be a most impudent pursuit; nay, for all he knew, it might subject him to the suspicion of the police. The cabby need not follow so close; why, the horse's nose all but touched the brougham now and then. How much farther? How was he to get back? He could not possibly reach home till one in the morning.
The brougham made a sharp curve, the hansom followed. Then came a sudden stop.
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