A square -- imposing houses about a space of verdure. That was what Christopher perceived as he looked wildly round, flung back the apron, jumped out. His position was awful; voices of the persons alighting from the brougham seemed to sound at his very ear; he had become one of the party; the man in evening dress stared at him. But even in this dread moment so bent was he on fulfilling his mission that he at once cast an eye over the front of the house to fix it in his memory. There was a magnificent display of flowers at every window; the houses immediately right and left had no flowers at all.
Then he fumbled for money. Coppers, a sixpence, a shilling, no other small change, and he durst not offer so little as eighteenpence. (However, Heaven be thanked! the people had gone in and the brougham was moving away.) In his purse he had half a sovereign.
"Got change?" he inquired as boldly as possible.
"How much?" returned the driver curtly, for he had noticed with curiosity that his fare exchanged no greeting with the carriage people and that the door was shut.
"Change for half a sovereign. Seven shillings would do."
"Ain't got it. See, fourpence in 'apence, that's all."
The man's eye began to alarm Christopher. He shook with indecision, he gulped down his bitterness, he handed the golden coin.
"All right; never mind change."
"Thanky, sir. Good night."
And Mr. Parish was alone on the pavement. So grievously did he feel for the loss of that half-sovereign that for some moments he could think of nothing else. His heart burned against Polly. What had she got to do with those people in the big house? How could he be sure that it did not imply some shameful secret? And he must go throwing away his hard-earned money! Gladly he would have spent it on a supper for Polly; but to pay ten shillings for a half-crown drive! A whole blessed half-sovereign!
Another carriage drove up and stopped at the next house. Christopher remembered that he must discover the address, an easy matter enough. He found that the square was called Stanhope Gardens; he noted the number of the house with flowers. Then, weary, disgusted, he started on his eastward walk. Omnibuses, of course, there were none. The chance of a train at some underground station seemed too doubtful to think about; in any case he had no more money to waste.
On he plodded, heavily, angrily -- Cromwell Road, Brompton Road, at last Piccadilly, and so into familiar districts, though he had never walked here so late at night. Of course there would be nasty questions to-morrow; Theodore would look grave, and Ada would be virtuously sour, and his mother -- but perhaps they would not worry her by disclosing such things. Unaccustomed to express himself with violence, Christopher at about half-past twelve found some relief in a timid phrase or two of swearing.
When he reached Shaftesbury Avenue he was dog-tired. The streets had now become very quiet; he felt a doubt as to the possibility of knocking at a house door. But Polly had said he was to do so, be the hour what it might. The front of the house was dark, not a glimmer in any windows. Doubtfully he drew near and knocked thrice.
Minutes passed, nearly five, in fact, then he knocked again. He would wait five minutes more, and then----
But the door softly opened.
"That you?" said Polly's voice.
"Yes, it is."
She opened the door wide, and he saw by the light from the street that she was dressed as usual.
"How late you are! Well? Can't you speak?"
"I'm dead beat, that's the truth," he replied, leaning against the door-post. "Walked back all the way from South Kensington."
"Oh, it was there, was it?" said Polly, without heed to his complaint. "What's the address?"
"I tell you what, Polly," broke from Christopher's dry lips, "I think you might show a bit more feeling for a fellow when he's walked himself to death----"
"You might have took a cab just for this once."
"A cab! Why, the other one cost me half a sovereign!"
"Half a sovereign!" echoed Polly in amazement. "To South Kensington!"
It did not occur to Mr. Parish that such a detail might be left unmentioned. In these little matters there is a difference between class and class. Polly was not, of course, surprised at his letting her know what the mission had cost him, but the sum made her indignant.
"Well, he had you, that cabby!"
Christopher related the circumstances, still leaning in exhaustion against the door-post, and Miss Sparkes, who under no conceivable stress could have suffered herself to be so "done out of" a piece of gold, scarcely knew whether to despise or to pity him. After all, a compassionate feeling prevailed, sure sign that there was something disinterested in her association with this young man.
"I'm very sorry," she said; "I never thought it 'ud cost you that much."
"I shouldn't care a bit," Christopher replied, "if you treated me better now I've got here."
Polly moved just a little nearer to him, ever so little, but the movement was appreciable. Unfortunately Christopher was too weary to notice it.
"What was the address?" she asked in an undertone, which, had but Mr. Parish understood, fitly accompanied that little movement.
He told her bluntly, and Polly repeated the words
"And now I suppose I may say good night," Christopher added, still with discontent.
"Well, thank you very much for getting me that address."
"But you won't tell me what you want it for?"
"I will some time. I can't just now. It's awful late, and we mustn't stand talking here."
Again she came one step nearer. Now if Christopher Parish had not lost half a Sovereign, or if he had been less worn out, or if the mystery of the evening had not lain so heavy on his mind, assuredly he would have noticed this onward coming; for, as a rule, the young man was sensitive and perceptive enough, all things considered. Alas! he did not look into Polly's face, which in the dusk of the doorway had turned towards his.
"I'll be going then," he muttered. "Good night. Jolly long walk before me still."
"I'm very sorry. I am, really."
"Oh, never mind! When shall I see you again?"
The crucial moment was past. Polly drew a step back and held the door.
"I'll write before long. Good night, and thank you."
Mr. Parish plodded away down the avenue, saying to himself that he was blest if he'd be made a fool of like this much longer.
The next morning Polly wrote a line to Mr. Gammon, and two days later, on Sunday, they met in that little strip of garden on the Embankment which lies between Charing Cross Station and Waterloo Bridge. It was the first week of October; a cold wind rustled the yellowing plane trees, and open-air seats offered no strong temptation. The two conversed as they walked along. Polly had not mentioned in her letter any special reason for wishing to see Mr. Gammon, nor did she hasten to make known her discovery.
"Why do you wear a 'at like that on a Sunday?" she began by asking, tartly.
"Because it's comfortable, I suppose," answered Gammon, reflecting for the first time that it was not very respectful to come to this rendezvous in a "bowler." Polly had never mentioned the matter before, though she had thought about it. "You like the chimney-pot better?"
"Why, of course I do. On a Sunday, too, who wouldn't?"
"I'll bear it in mind, my dear. My chimney-pot wants ironing. Have it done to-morrow if I can find time."
Polly scrutinized the costume of a girl walking with a soldier, and asked all at once indifferently:
"Do you know anybody called Gildersleeve?"
"Gildersleeve? Don't think so. No. Why?"
She searched his face to make sure that he did not simulate ignorance.
"Well, you wanted me to find out where that lady lived -- you know -- her as was with Mr. C---- at the theatre."
"And you've got it?" cried Gammon excitedly.
Yes, she had got it, and by consulting a directory at a public-house she had discovered the name of the family residing at that address. Gildersleeve? The name conveyed nothing to Mr. Gammon; none the less he was delighted.
"Good for you, Polly! But how did you do it?"
She put on an air of mystery. Never mind how; there was the address, if he could make any use of it. Gammon smiled provokingly.
"Some friend of yours, eh? You're well off for friends, Polly. I ask no questions, my dear; no business of mine. Much obliged to you, all the same."
"If you're so particular about who it was," said Polly, with her air of pique and propriety, "well, it's a boy. So you needn't look at me like that."
"A boy, eh?"
"Well, that's what I think him. He's a young clurk in the City as I've known long enough, and I think him a boy. Of course you're always ready to believe harm of me -- that's nothing new. And if the truth was known, you go talkin' to Mrs. Bubb and them Cheesemans."
"I don't! I told you I shouldn't, and I don't!"
"It's a lie!"
"You're one yourself!" retorted Polly with heat.
Thereupon Mr. Gammon turned about and walked off. Polly could not believe that he would really go. Scorning to look back she paced on for some minutes, but no familiar step approached her; when at length she looked round Mr. Gammon was nowhere to be seen. This extraordinary behaviour she attributed to jealousy, and so was not entirely displeased. But the idea of leaving her in the middle of the street, as one might say! Did one ever! And just after he'd got what he wanted.
"All right, old fellow! Wait till you want to see me again, that's all."
To have his word disbelieved was the one thing fatal to Gammon's temper. He strode off in a towering rage, determined to hold no more communication with Miss Sparkes, and blaming himself for having got into such an ambiguous position towards her. As if he had ever really cared one snap of the fingers for the red-headed spitfire! She to tell him to his face that his word was not to be trusted! He had never stood that yet, from man or woman!
At this rate he would presently have no female friends at all. Mrs. Clover he had not once seen since the evening at Mrs. Bubb's, and every day that went by put a greater distance between them. He understood her unfriendliness; she thought this the best way of destroying any hopes he might still entertain with reference to Minnie; yes, that was the only possible explanation of her silence. It was too bad; Mrs. Clover might have put more faith in him. Now he would not visit her; he would not write. If she wished to see him again, let her acknowledge the wrong she had done him.
As for the muddle about her husband, be hanged to it! He would think no more about the business. Ten to one this address that Polly had obtained would be quite useless. How could he go to strangers (named Gildersleeve) and coolly inquire of them whether they knew a man named Clover? Of course they would have him kicked into the street, and Serve him right.
Polly and her boy! A young City clerk, eh? Old enough to wear a chimney-pot, he'd be bound. Polly was fond of chimney-pots. There, he had done with her, and with Clover and Quodling and Gildersleeve, and all the rest of the puzzle.
As he suddenly entered the house Moggie ran to him up the kitchen stairs.
"There's been a gentleman for you, Mr. Gammon."
"Oh! Who was it?"
"Mr. Greenacres, driving a trap, and the 'orse wouldn't stand still, and he said he'd see you some other time."
"Greenacre, eh? All right."
He sat for a quarter of an hour in his bedroom, unable to decide how he should spend the rest of the day. After all, perhaps, he ought not to have abandoned Polly so abruptly. In her own way she had been doing him a kindness, and as for her temper, well, she couldn't help it.
He would go to Dulwich and see the bow-wows.
Commercially he was doing well. Quodling & Son were more than satisfied with him. Excellent prospects lay ahead, and this time it would assuredly be his own fault if he had not secured the " permanency so much desired for him by Mrs. Clover.
By the by, would this make any difference? What if he let Mrs. Clover know of his greatly improved position? She might reconsider things. And yet, as often as he thought of Minnie, he felt that her mother's objection corresponded too well with the disposition of the girl. Minnie was not for him. Well and good, he would find somebody else.
Polly Sparkes? Polly be hanged. Why did her eyes and her teeth and her rosy cheeks keep plaguing him? He had told himself times innumerable that he cared not a snap of the fingers for Polly and all her highly-coloured attractions. If only he had not been such a fool as to treat her shabbily last Sunday morning! He felt sorry, and couldn't get rid of the vexation.
It worried him this afternoon as he left Quodlings in Norton Folgate and walked towards the Bank. He was thinking, too, of a poor fellow with a large family for whom he had tried these last few days to find employment, without the usual success. In Threadneedle Street a hand arrested him.
"Just the man I wanted," said the voice of Mr. Greenacre. He was in an elegant overcoat, with a silk hat of the newest fashion. You remember your promise?
"Nonsense! But we can't talk about it here. Come to the Bilboes. Don't know the Bilboes? What a mood you're in to-day."
Mr. Gammon flattered himself that he knew the City tolerably well, but with the place of refreshment to which his friend now led him he was totally unacquainted. It stood or lurked in a very obscure by-way between the Bank and St. Paul's, and looked externally by no means inviting; within, but for the absence of daylight at all times, it was comfortable enough, and peculiarly quiet -- something between an old inn and a modern public-house, with several small rooms for eating, drinking, smoking, or any other legitimate occupation. The few men who were about had a prosperous appearance, and Gammon saw that they did not belong to his special world.
"What does the name mean?" he inquired, as they seated themselves under a gas-jet in a corner made cosy with a deep divan.
"Bilboes? Oh, I originated it in the days gone by. The proprietor was a man called William Bowes -- you perceive? Poor little Jimmy Todd used to roar about it. The best-natured fellow that ever lived. You've heard me speak of him -- second son of Sir Luke Todd. Died, poor boy, out in India."
"What promise of mine were you talking about?" asked Gammon, when an order for drinks had been given.
"Promise -- promise? Nonsense! You're wool-gathering to-day, my dear boy. By the by, I called at your place on Sunday. I was driving a very fresh pony, new to harness; promised to trot her round a little for a friend of mine. Thought you might have liked a little turn on the Surrey roads."
Greenacre chatted with his usual fluency, and seemed at ease in the world.
"You're doing well just now, eh?" said Gammon presently.
"Thanks; feel remarkably well. A touch of liver now and then, but nothing serious. By the by, anything I can do for you? Any genealogy?"
Gammon had drained his tumbler of hot whisky, and felt better for it. With the second he became more communicative. He asked himself why, after all, he should not hang on to the clue he had obtained from Polly, and why Greenacre should not be made use of.
"Know anything about a Gildersleeve?" he asked with a laugh.
His companion smiled cheerfully, looking at once more interested.
"Gildersleeve! Why, yes, there was a boy of that name -- no, no; it was Gildersleeves, I remember. Any connexion with Quodling?"
"Can't say. The people I mean live in Stanhope Gardens. I don't know anything about them."
Gammon admitted that the name had a significance for him. A matter of curiosity.
"No harm in a bit of genealogy," said Greenacre. "Always interesting. Stanhope Gardens? What number?"
He urged no further question and gave no promise, but Gammon felt sure this time that information would speedily be forthcoming. Scarcely a week passed before Greenacre wrote to him with a request for a meeting at the Bilboes. As usual, the man of mystery approached his subject by indirect routes. Beginning with praise of London as the richest ground of romance discoverable in the world, he proceeded to tell the story of a cats'-meat woman who, after purveying for the cats at a West End mansion for many years, discovered one day that the master of the house was her own son.
"He behaved to her very handsomely. At this moment she is living in a pleasant little villa out Leatherhead way. You see her driving herself in a little donkey-carriage, and throwing bits of meat to pussy-cats at the cottage doors. Touch of nature that, isn't it? By the by, you were speaking of a family named Gildersleeve."
He added this, absently looking about the little room, which just now they had to themselves.
"Know anything about them?" asked Gammon, eyeing him curiously.
"I was just going to say -- ah, yes, to be sure, the Gildersleeves. Now I wonder, Gammon -- forgive me, I can't help wondering -- why this family interests you."
"Oh, nothing. I came across the name."
"Evidently." Greenacre's tone became a little more positive. "I'm sure you have no objection to telling me how and where you came across it."
Gammon had an uncomfortable sense of something unfamiliar in his friend. Greenacre had never spoken in this way to him; it sounded rather too imperative, too much the tone of a superior.
"I don't think I can tell you that," he said awkwardly.
"No? Really? I'm sorry. In that case I can't tell you anything that I have learnt. Yet I fancy it might be worth your while to exchange."
"Your information for mine, you know. What I have is substantial, reliable. I think you can trust me in matters of genealogy. Come now. Am I right in supposing this curiosity of yours is not altogether unconnected with Your interest in Francis Quodling the silk broker? Nothing to me, Gammon; nothing, I assure you. Pure love of genealogical inquiry. Never made a penny out of such things in my life. But I have taken a little trouble, etc. As a matter of friendship -- no? Then we'll drop the subject. By the by have you a black-and-tan to dispose of?"
He passed into a vein so chatty and so amiable that Gammon began to repent of distrusting him. Besides, his information might be really valuable and could not easily be obtained in any other way.
"Look here, Greenacre, I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. The fact is, a man I used to know has disappeared, and I want to find him. He was seen at the theatre with a lady who lives at that house; that's the long and the short of it."
"Good! Now we're getting on in the old way. Age of the man about fifty, eh? And if I remember you said he was like Quodling in the face, Francis Quodling? Just so. H'm. I can assure you, then, that no such individual lives at the house we're speaking of."
"No, but perhaps----"
"One moment. The Gildersleeves are a young married couple. With them lives an older lady----"
Greenacre paused, meditating.
"The name of the missing man?" he added gently.
"Fellow called Clover."
"Clover -- clover? Clo----"
Greenacre's first repetition of the name was mechanical, the next sounded a note of confused surprise, the third broke short in a very singular way, just as if his eyes had suddenly fallen on something which startled him into silence. Yet no one had entered the room, no face had appeared at the door.
"What's up?" asked Gammon.
The other regained his self-possession, as though he had for a moment wandered mentally from the subject they were discussing.
"Forgive me. What name did you say? Yes, yes, Clover. Odd name. Tell me something about him. Where did you know him? What was he?"
Having gone so far, Gammon saw no reason for refusing the details of the story. With the pleasure that every man feels in narrating circumstances known only to a few, he told all he could about the career of Mrs. Clover's husband. Greenacre listened with a placidly smiling attention.
"Just the kind of thing I am always coming across," he remarked. "Everyday story in London. We must find this man. Do you know his Christian name?"
Mrs. Clover called him Mark.
"Mark? May or may not be his own, of course. And now, if you permit the question, who saw this man and recognized him in the theatre?"
Gammon gave a laugh. Then, fearing that he might convey a wrong impression, he answered seriously that it was a niece of Mrs. Clover, a young lady with whom he was on friendly terms, nothing whatever but friendly terms; a most respectable young lady -- anxious, naturally, to bring Mrs. Clover and her husband together again, but discreet enough to have kept the matter quiet as yet. And he explained how it came about that this young lady knew only the address in Stanhope Gardens.
After reflecting upon that, Greenacre urged that it would be just as well not to take the young lady into their counsel for the present, to which his friend readily assented. And so, when they had chatted a little longer, the man of mystery rose "to keep an appointment." Gammon should hear from him in a day or two.
When ten days had gone by without the fulfilment of this promise Gammon grew uneasy. He could not communicate with Greenacre, having no idea' where the man lived or where he was to be heard of; an inquiry at the Bilboes proved that he was not known there. One evening Gammon went to look for himself at the house in Stanhope Gardens; he hung about the place for half an hour, but saw nothing of interest or importance. He walked once or twice along Shaftesbury Avenue, but did not chance to meet Polly, and could not make up his mind to beg an interview with her. At the end of a fortnight Greenacre wrote, and that evening they met again at the obscure house of entertainment.
"It is not often," said Greenacre, in a despondent tone, "that I have found an inquiry so difficult. Of course it interests me all the more, and I shall go on with it, but I must freely confess that I've got nothing yet -- absolutely nothing."
Gammon observed him vigilantly.
"Do you know what has occurred to me?" pursued the other, with a half melancholy droop of the head. "I really begin to fear that the young lady, your friend, may have made a mistake."
"How can that be, when he met her twice and talked with her?"
" You didn't tell me that," replied Greenacre, as if surprised.
"No, I didn't mention it. I thought it was enough to tell you she spied him at the theatre."
He added a brief account of what had happened between Polly and her uncle, Greenacre listening as if this threw new light on the case.
"Then the mistake is mine. It's more interesting than ever. This puts me on my mettle, Gammon. Don't lose courage. I have a wonderful scent in this kind of thing. Above all, not a word to anybody -- you understand the importance of that?"
"That's all right."
"I have a theory -- oh, yes, there's a theory. Without a theory nothing can be done. I am working, Gammon, on the scientific principle of induction."
"Oh, are you!"
"Strictly; it has never failed me yet -- I can't ay now; appointment at ten-thirty. But you all hear from me in a day or two."
"I say," inquired Gammon, "what's your dress now?"
"Address? -- oh, address letters to this place. They'll be all right."
Another fortnight passed. It was now early in November; the weather gloomy, and by no means favourable to evening strolls. Gammon wanted much to see both Polly and Mrs. Clover; he had all but made up his mind to write to both of them, yet could not decide on the proper tone in either case. Was he to be humble to Mrs. Clover? Should he beg pardon of Polly? That kind of thing did not come easily to him.
On a day of thin yellow fog he returned about noon from seeing to a piece of business, the result of which he had to report at once to Mr. Quodling. He entered the clerk's office and asked whether "the governor" was alone.
"No, he ain't," replied a friendly young man. "He's got a lord with him."
"A peer of the realm, sir! I had the honour of taking his ludship's card in -- Lord Poll-parrot. Can't say I ever heard of him before."
"What d'you mean? See here, I'm in a hurry; no kid, Simpson."
"Well, it might be Poll-parrot. As a matter of fact, it's Lord Polperro."
Gammon gazed fixedly at the young man.
"Lord Polperro ? By jorrocks!"
"Know him, Mr. Gammon?" asked another of the clerks.
"I know his name. All right, I'll wait."
Musing on the remarkable coincidence -- which seemed to prove beyond doubt that there still existed some connexion between the family of Quodling and the titled house which he had heard of from Greenacre -- he stood in the entrance passage, and looked out for five minutes through the glass door at the fog-dimmed traffic of Norton Folgate. Then a step sounded behind him. He moved aside and saw a man m a heavy fur-lined overcoat, with a muffler loose about his neck; a thin, unhealthy-looking man, with sharp eyes, rather bloodshot, which turned timidly this way and that, and a high-bridged nose. As soon as he caught sight of the face Gammon drew himself up, every muscle strung. The man observed him, looked again more furtively, stepped past to the door.
It took Gammon but a moment to dart into the clerk's room and ascertain that the person who had just gone out was Lord Polperro. A moment more and he was out in the street. The heavy-coated and mufflered man was walking quickly southward; he waved his umbrella to a passing cab, which, however, did not pull up. Gammon followed for thirty yards. Again the man hailed a cab, and this time successfully. Just as he was about to step into the vehicle Gammon stood beside him.
"How do you do, Mr. Clover?"
It was spoken with quiet confidence. Gammon smiled as he looked steadily into the pale, thin face, which at once grew mottled with a disturbance of the blood.
"You are making a mistake, sir," replied an indistinct voice, with an effort at dignity.
"Oh, no, not a bit of it. Not now I've heard you speak, Mr. Clover."
"I don't understand you, sir," sounded more clearly, the pallid visage now a muddy red and the eyes moist. "That is not my name. Be so good as to go your way."
"Certainly. I just wanted to make sure, that's all. No fuss. Good morning, Mr. Clover."
Gammon drew back. He heard the order "Charing Cross," and the cab drew away.
After a moment or two of irresolution Gammon walked hurriedly back to the nearest public-house, where he called for a glass of bitter and the Directory. With the former he slaked a decided dryness of the throat, the latter he searched eagerly in the section "Court." There it was! "Polperro, Lord, 16, Lowndes Mansions, Sloane Street, S.W. Junior Ramblers' Club. Trefoyle, Liskeard, Cornwall."
With thoughts tuned to anything but the oil and colour business he returned to Quodlings' and had his interview with the head of the firm. Mr. Quodling, senior, was a gruff, heavy-featured man, decidedly of coarse fibre; when moved he swore with gusto, and it did not take much to put him out. At present he was in an irritable mood, and, very unlike his habit, gave scant attention to the affair of which Gammon spoke. It would not have improved his temper had he known that the town traveller was amusing himself with the reflection that there was no trace of personal resemblance between him and his brother Francis, who, on the other hand, bore a very strong likeness indeed to -- Lord Polperro.
As soon as he could get away Gammon dispatched a telegram. It was to Miss Sparkes, whom he requested to meet him at the theatre door that night when she left. "Something very important to tell you."
This was done on a tell-tale impulse; it showed in what direction his thoughts and mind most readily turned just now. Thinking it over in the hours that followed he doubted whether, after all, he would tell Polly exactly what had happened; she could be useful to him in the way he intended without knowing more than she had discovered for herself. Doubt as to the identity of Lord Polperro with Mrs. Clover's husband he had none whatever -- face, voice, trick of lips, and eyebrows made mistake an impossibility; but he must bring the man into a position where there would be no choice but to reveal himself, and, so far as Gammon knew, no one but Polly could help to that end. With Mrs. Clover he would communicate when the facts of the strange story were made plain; not yet a while. And as for Greenacre, why, it was splendid to have got beforehand with that keen-scented fellow. The promise to keep silence held good only whilst their search might be hindered by someone's indiscretion. Now that the search was over he felt himself free to act as he chose.
But what an astounding discovery! Again and again, by jorrocks!
He was near the theatre long before his time. He had never waited so long or so impatiently for anyone since the days of his first sweethearting, twenty and odd years ago. When Polly at length came out she met him with a shyness and awkwardness which he fancied he perfectly understood.
"I want you to come with me where we can have a quiet talk," he said at once in a tone of eager cordiality. "It's too wet for walking; we'll have a cab."
Polly gazed at him in unfeigned surprise, and asked where they were to go. Not far, he replied; here was a cab; in with her. And before she could decide upon resistance Polly was seated by him. Gammon then explained that he had the use of a sitting-room at a coffee tavern; they would be there in a minute or two, There was good news for her -- news that couldn't be told in the street or in a crowded restaurant.
"Did you get my letter?" she asked, shrinking as far from him as space allowed.
"I posted it this morning," Polly answered in a timidly sullen voice.
He had not been home since breakfast-time. She had written to him? Now, wasn't that a queer thing! All yesterday he, too, had thought of writing, and to-day would have done so in any case. Never mind, the letter would be waiting for him. Was it nice? Was it sweet and amiable, like herself? Ha ha! Ho ho!
As he laughed the cab drew up with a jerk. Polly saw that she was in a familiar thoroughfare and in front of a respectable establishment, but it was not without a little distrust that she entered by the private door and went upstairs. A large room, so ugly and uncomfortable that it helped to reassure her, was quickly lighted. Gammon requested the woman in attendance to bring pen, ink, and paper, whereat Polly again stared her surprise.
"Come and sit over here," said Gammon, "away from the door. Now make yourself comfortable, old girl. Sure you won't have anything?"
The writing materials were brought; the door was closed.
"Now we're all right. A long time since we saw each other, Polly. Have you heard anything? Any more about Mr. C.?"
She shook her head.
"Well, look here now, I want you to write to him. You didn't believe me when I said I knew. Well, you'll believe me now. I want you to write to him, and to ask him to meet you here. If he won't come I know what to do next. But you just write a few lines; you know how. You want to see him at this coffee tavern at five o'clock tomorrow; he's to come to the private door and ask for Miss -- let's say Miss Ellis -- that'll do. I shall be here, but not in the room at first; I'll come in when you've had a little talk. I don't think he'll refuse to come when he sees you've got his address."
"What is the address?"
"Patience, my dear; wait till you've written the letter. I'll walk up and down the room whilst you do it."
He began pacing, but Polly made no movement towards the table. She was strangely sullen, or, perhaps, depressed; not at all like herself, even when in anger. She cast glances at her companion, and seemed desirous of saying something -- of making some protest -- but her tongue failed her.
"No hurry," Gammon remarked, after humming through a tune. "Think it out. Only a line or two."
"Are you telling me the truth about my letter?" she suddenly asked. "You haven't read it?"
"I assure you I haven't. That's a treat for when I get home."
Still she delayed, but before Gammon had taken many more steps she was seated at the table, and biting the end of the penholder.
"You'll have to tell me what to say."
"All right. Take the words down."
He dictated with all possible brevity. The letter was folded and enclosed. Only in the last few minutes had Gammon quite decided to share his knowledge with Polly. As she bent her head and wrote, something in the attitude -- perhaps a suggestion of domesticity -- appealed to his emotions, which were ready for such a juncture as this. After all there were not many girls prettier than Polly, or with more of the attractiveness of their sex. He looked, looked till he could not turn away.
"Now then for the address. I'll write it on this piece of paper, and you shall copy it."
Polly watched him, puzzled by the nervous grin on his face. She took the paper, on which he had written as legibly as he could --
And having read it she stared at him.
"What d'you mean?"
"That's the address."
"Are you making a fool of me?" Polly exclaimed, angry suspicion flashing in her eyes.
"I tell you that's your uncle's address. Now be careful, Polly! I won't stand it a second time."
He was only half joking. Excitement tingled in him -- the kind of excitement which might lead either to rage or caresses. He swayed now on one foot, now on the other, as if preparing for a dance, and his fists were clenched upon his hips.
"You mean to say that's his reel name?" cried Polly, she, too, quivering and reddening.
"I do. Now mind, Polly; mind what you say, my girl! I won't stand it a second time."
"Don't go on like a ijiot!" exclaimed the girl, starting up from her chair. "Of course I'll believe it if you tell me you're not kidding. And you mean to say he's a lord?"
"See for yourself."
"And his name ain't Clover at all? Then what's my, awnt's name?"
Why, Lady Polperro, of course! And Minnie is -- well, I don't exactly know -- Lady Minnie Polperro, I suppose. And you -- no, I don't think it gives you a title; but, you see, you are the niece of Lord Polperro. Think of that, Polly; you've got a lord for your uncle -- a peer of the realm!
He came nearer and nearer as he spoke, his eyes distended with wild merriment, his arms swinging.
"And it's me that found it out, Polly! What have you got to say for it? Eh, old girl? What have you got to say?"
Polly uttered a scream of laughter and threw herself forward. Gammon's arms were ready; they clasped her and hugged her, she not dreaming of resistance -- anything but that. Only when her face was very red, and her hat all but off, and her hair beginning to come loose, did she gently put him away.
"That'll do; that's enough."
"You mean it, don't you?" asked Gammon, tenderly enfolding her waist.
"I s'pose so; it looks like it. That'll do; let me git my breath. What a silly you are!"
"And were you fond of me all the time, Polly?" he whispered at her ear as she sat down.
"I dessay; how do I know? It's quite certain you wasn't fond of me, or you'd never have gone off like you did that Sunday."
"Why, I've been fond of you for no end of a time! Haven't I showed it in lots of ways? You must have known, and you did know."
"When you smashed my door in and fought me?" asked Polly with a shamefaced laugh.
"You don't think I'd have taken all that trouble if it hadn't been for the pleasure of carrying you downstairs?"
"But there wasn't much love about you, Polly. You hit jolly hard, old girl, and you kicked and you scratched. Why, I've bruises yet!"
"Serve you right! Do let me put my 'air and my 'at straight."
"I say, Polly----" and he whispered something.
"I s'pose so -- some day," was her answer, with head bent over the hat she was smoothing into shape.
"But won't you think yourself too good for me? Remember, you've got a lord for your uncle."
It returned upon both with the freshness of surprise; even Polly had quite lost sight of the startling fact during the last few minutes. They looked at the unaddressed letter; they gazed into each other's faces.
"You haven't gone and made a mistake?" asked Polly in an awed undertone.
"There now! You didn't think; you're beginning to be sorry."
"No, I'm not."
"You are; I can see it."
"Oh, all right; have it your own way! I thought you wouldn't be so sweet-tempered very long. You're all alike, you men."
"Why, it's you that can't keep your temper!" shouted Gammon. "I only wanted to hear you say it wouldn't make any difference, happen what might."
"And didn't I say it wouldn't?" shrilled Polly. "What more can I say?"
Strangely enough a real tear had started in her eye. Gammon saw it and was at once remorseful. He humbled himself before her; he declared himself a beast and a brute. Polly was a darling: far too good for him, too sweet and gentle and lovely. He ought to think himself the happiest man living, by jorrocks if he oughtn't! Just one more! Why, he liked a girl to have spirit! He wouldn't give tuppence farthing for fifty girls that couldn't speak up for themselves. And if she was the niece of a lord, why, she deserved it and a good deal more. She ought to be Lady Polly straight away; and hanged if he wouldn't call her so.
"Hadn't we better get this letter addressed?" Polly asked, very amiable again.
"Yes; it's getting late, I'm afraid."
Polly drew up to the table, but her hand was so unsteady that it cost her much trouble to manage the pen.
"I've wrote it awful bad. Does it matter?"
"Bad? Why it's beautifully written, Polly -- Lady Polly, I mean. I've got a stamp."
She stuck it on to the envelope with an angle upwards; and Gammon declared that it was beautifully done; he never knew anyone stamp a letter so nicely. As she gazed at the completed missive Polly had a sudden thought which made a change in her countenance. She looked round.
"What is it?"
"He hasn't got another wife, has he?"
"Not likely," answered Gammon. "If so he's committed bigamy, and so much the worse for him. Your aunt must have been his first -- it was so long ago."
"Couldn't you find out? Isn't there a book as gives all about lords and their families? I've heard so."
"I believe there is," replied the other thoughtfully. "I'll get a look at it somewhere. He's scamp enough for anything, I've no doubt. He comes of a bad lot, Polly. There's all sorts of queer stories about his father -- at least, I suppose it was his father."
"Tell me some," said Polly with eagerness.
"Oh, I will some day. But now I come to think of it, I don't know when he became Lord Polperro. He couldn't, of course, till the death of his father. Most likely the old man was alive when he married your aunt. It's easy to understand now why he's led such a queer life, isn't it? I shouldn't a bit wonder if he went away the second time because his father had died. I'll find out about it. Would you believe, when I met him in the street and spoke to him, he pretended he'd never heard such a name as Clover!"
"You met him, did you? When?"
"Oh -- I'll tell you all about that afterwards. It's getting late. We shall have lots of talk. You'll let me take you home? We'll have a cab, shall we? Lady Pollys don't walk about the streets on a wet night."
She stood in thought.
"I want you to do something for me."
"Right you are! Tell me and I'll do it like a shot, see if I don't."
His arm again encircled her, and this time Polly did not talk of her 'at or her 'air. Indeed, she bent her head, half hiding her face against him.
"You know that letter I sent you?"
"What's in it? Something nicey-picey?"
"I want you to let me go to the 'ouse with you -- just to the door -- and I want you to give me that letter back -- just as it is -- without opening it. You will, won't you, deary?"
"Of course I will, if you really mean it."
"I do, it was a narsty letter. I couldn't bear to have you read it now."
Gammon had no difficulty in imagining the kind of epistle which Polly would desire suppressed; yet, for some obscure reason, he would rather have read it. But his promise was given. Polly, in turn, promised to write another letter for him as soon as possible.
So they drove in a hansom, through a night which washed the fog away, to Kennington Road, and whilst Polly kept her place in the vehicle Gammon ran upstairs. There lay the letter on his dressing-table. He hastened down with it, and before handing it to its writer kissed the envelope.
"Go along!" exclaimed Polly, in high good humour, as she reached out with eager fingers.
Late as it was he accompanied her to Shaftesbury Avenue, and they parted tenderly after having come to an agreement about the next evening.
By discreet inquiry Mr. Gammon procured an introduction to "Debrett," who supplied him with a great deal of information. In the first place he learnt that the present Lord Polperro, fourth of that title, was not the son, but the brother of the Lord Polperro preceding him, both being offspring, it was plain, of the peer whose will occasioned a lawsuit some forty years ago. Granted the truth of scandalous rumour, which had such remarkable supports in facial characteristics, the present bearer of the title would be, in fact, half-brother to Francis Quodling. Again, it was discoverable that the Lord Polperro of to-day succeeded to the barony in the very year of Mrs. Clover's husband's second disappearance.
"Just what I said," was Gammon's mental comment as he thumped the aristocratic pages.
Now for the women. To begin with, Lord Polperro was set down a bachelor -- ha ha! Then he had one sister, Miss Adela Trefoyle, older than himself, and that might very well be the lady who was seen beside him at the theatre. Then again, though his elder brother's male children had died, there was living a daughter, by name Adeline, recently wedded to -- by jorrocks! -- Lucian Gildersleeve, Esquire. Why, here was "the whole boiling of 'em!"
Mr. Gammon eagerly jotted down the particulars in his notebook, and swallowed the whisky at his side with gusto. Not once, however, had he asked himself why this man of guiles and freaks chose to mask under the name of Clover, an omission to be accounted for not by any lack of wit, but by mere educational defect. He could not have been further from suspecting that his utterance of the name Clover had given his genealogical friend a most important clue, and a long start in the search for the missing man.
Impatiently he awaited the early nightfall of the morrow. Business had to be attended to as usual; but he went about with a bearing of extraordinary animation, now laughing to himself, now snapping his fingers, now (when he chanced to be out of people's sight) twirling round on one leg. Either of yesterday's events would have sufficed to exhilarate him; together they whipped his blood and frothed his fancy. He had found Clover, who was a lord! He had won the love of Polly Sparkes, who was the finest girl living! Did ever the bagman of an oil and colour firm speed about his duties with such springs of excitement bubbling within him?
And Mrs. Clover? Ought she not to be told at once? Had he any right to keep to himself such a discovery as this? He knew, by police court precedent, that a false name in marriage did not invalidate the contract. Beyond shadow of doubt Mrs. Clover was Lady Polperro. And Minnie -- why, suppose Minnie had favoured his suit, he would have been son-in-law of a peer! As it was, whom might not the girl marry! She would pass from the neighbourhood of Battersea Park Road to a house in Mayfair or Belgravia; from Doulton's and the china shop to unimaginable heights of social dignity. And who more fit for the new sphere? Mr. Gammon sighed, but in a moment remembered Polly and snapped his fingers.
A little before five o'clock he was hovering within sight of the coffee tavern, which already threw radiance into the murky and muddy street. In a minute or two he saw Polly and exchanged a quick word with her.
"Up you go! You'll find all ready. If he comes I shall see him, and I'll look in when you've had a little talk."
Polly disappeared, and Mr. Gammon again hovered. But who was this approaching? Of all unwelcome people at this moment, hanged if it wasn't Greenacre! What did the fellow want here? He was staring about him as if to make sure of an address. Worse than that, he stepped up to the private door of the coffee-tavern and rang the bell.
Shrinking aside into darkness, Gammon felt a shiver of unaccountable apprehension, which was quickly followed by a thrill of angry annoyance. What did this mean? The door had opened, Greenacre was admitted. What the devil did this mean? If it wasn't enough to make a fellow want to wring another fellow's neck!
He waited thirty seconds, thinking it was five minutes, then went to the door, rang, and entered.
"Who came in just now, miss?"
"The gentleman for the young lydy, sir."
" By jorrocks!"
Gammon mounted the stairs at break-neck speed and burst into the private sitting-room. There stood Polly, with her head up, looking pert indignation and surprise, and before her stood Greenacre, discoursing in his politest tone.
"What are you doing here?" asked Gammon breathlessly. "What are you up to, eh?"
"Ah, Gammon, how do you do? I'm glad you've dropped in. Let us sit down and have a quiet talk."
The man of mystery was very well dressed, very cool, more than equal to the situation. He took for granted the perfect friendliness of both Polly and Gammon, smiled from one to the other, and as he seated himself, drew out a cigarette case.
"I'm sure Miss Sparkes won't mind. I have already apologized, Gammon, for the necessity of introducing myself. You, I am sure, will forgive me when you learn the position of affairs. I'm so. g]ad you happened to drop in."
Declining a cigarette, Gammon stared about him in angry confusion. He had no words ready. Greenacre's sang-froid, though it irritated him excessively, shamed him into quiet behaviour.
"When you entered, Gammon, I was just explaining to Miss Sparkes that I am here on behalf of her uncle, Lord Polperro."
"Oh, you are. And how do you come to know him?"
"Singular accident. The kind of thing that is constantly happening in London. Lord Polperro is living next door to an old friend of mine, a man I haven't seen for some seven or eight years till the other day. I happened to hear of my friend's address, called upon him, and there met his lordship. Now wasn't it a strange thing, Gammon? Just when you and I were so interested in a certain puzzle, a delightful bit of genealogy. Lord Polperro and I quite took to each other. He seemed to like my chat, and, in fact, we have been seeing a good deal of each other for a week or two."
"You kept this to yourself, Gammon."
"For a sufficient reason -- anything but a selfish one. You, I may remark, also made a discovery and kept it to yourself."
"It was my own business."
"Certainly. Don't dream that I find fault with you, my dear fellow. It was the most natural thing in the world. Now let me explain. I grieve to tell you that Lord Polperro is in very poor health. To be explicit, he is suffering from a complication of serious disorders, among them disease of the heart." He paused to let his announcement have its full effect. "You will understand why I am here to represent him. Lord Polperro dare not, simply dare not, expose himself to an agitating interview; it might -- it probably would -- cost him his life. Miss Sparkes, I am sure you would not like to see your noble relative fall lifeless at your feet?"
Polly looked at Gammon, who, in spite of wrath, could not help smiling.
"He didn't do it in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Greenacre."
"He did not; but I very greatly fear that those meetings -- of course I have heard of them -- helped to bring about the crisis under which he is now suffering, as also did a certain other meeting which you will recollect, Gammon. Pray tell me, did Lord Polperro seem to you in robust health?"
"Can't say he did. Looked jolly seedy."
"Precisely. Acting on my advice he has left town for a few days. I shall join him to-morrow, and do my best to keep up his spirits. You will now see the necessity for using great caution, great consideration, in this strange affair. We can be quite frank with each other, Gammon, and of course we have no secrets from my new and valued friend -- if she will let me call her so -- Miss Polly Sparkes. One has but to look at Miss Sparkes to see the sweetness and thoughtfulness of her disposition. Come now, we are going to make a little plot together, to act for the best. I am sure we do not wish Lord Polperro's death. I am sure you do not, Miss Sparkes."
Polly again looked at Gammon, and muttered that of course she didn't. Gammon grinned. Feeling sure of his power to act independently, if need were, he began to see the jocose side of things.
"One question I should like to ask," continued Greenacre, lighting a second cigarette. "Has Mrs. Clover -- as we will continue to call her, with an implied apology -- been informed yet?"
"I haven't told her," said Gammon frankly.
"And I'm sure I haven't," added Polly, who had begun to observe Mr. Greenacre with a less hostile eye, and was recovering her native vivacity.
Greenacre looked satisfied.
"Then I think you have acted very wisely indeed -- as one might have expected from Miss Sparkes. I don't mean I shouldn't have expected it from you too, Gammon; but you and I are not on ceremony, old man. Now let me have your attention. We begin by admitting that Lord Polperro has put himself in a very painful position. Painful, let me tell you, in every sense. Lord Polperro desires nothing so much -- nothing so much -- as to be reunited to his family. He longs for the society of his wife and daughter. What more natural in a man who feels that his days are numbered! Lord Polperro bitterly laments the follies of his life which are explained, Gammon, as you and I know, by the character he inherited. We know the peculiarities of the Trefoyle family. Some of them I must not refer to in the presence of a young lady such as Miss Sparkes." Polly looked at her toes and smirked. "But Lord Polperro's chief fault seems to have been an insuperable restlessness, which early took the form of a revolt against the habits and prejudices of aristocratic life. Knowing so much of that life myself, I must say that I understand him; that, to a certain extent, I sympathize with him. When a youth he desired the liberty of a plebeian station, and sought it under disguises. You must remember that at that time he had very little prospect of ever succeeding to the title. Let me give you a little genealogy."
"Needn't trouble," put in Gammon. "I know it all. Got it out of a book. I'll tell you afterwards, Polly."
"Ah, got it out of a book? Why, you are becoming quite a genealogist, Gammon, I need only say, then, that he did not give a thought to the title. He chose to earn his own bread, and live his own life, like ordinary mortals. He took the name of Clover. Of course, you see why."
"Hanged if I do," said Gammon.
"Why, my dear fellow, are not clover and trefoil the same things? Don't you see? Trefoyle. Only a little difference of accent."
"Never heard the word. Did you, Polly?"
"Ah! not unnatural. An out-of- the-way word." Greenacre hid his contempt beneath a smile. "Well now, I repeat that Lord Polperro longs to return to the bosom of his family. He has even gone in the darkness of the night to look at his wife's abode, and returned home in misery. A fact! At this moment -- your attention, I beg -- I am assisting him to form a plan by which he will be enabled to live a natural life without the unpleasantness of public gossip. I do not yet feel at liberty to describe our project, but it is ripening. What I ask you is this. Will you trust us? Miss Sparkes, have I your confidence?"
"It's all very well," threw in Gammon, before Polly could reply. "But what if he drops down dead, as you say he might do? What about his family then?"
"Gammon," replied the other with great solemnity, "I asked whether I had your confidence. Do you, or do you not, believe me when I tell you that Lord Polperro has long since executed a will by which not only are his wife and his daughter amply -- most amply -- provided for, but even more distant relatives on his wife's side?"
He gazed impressively at Miss Sparkes, whose eyes twinkled as she turned with a jerk to Gammon.
"Look here, Greenacre," exclaimed the man of commerce, "let's be business-like. I may trust you, or I may not. What I want to know is, how long are we to wait before he comes to the shop down yonder and behaves like an honest man? Just fix a date, and I'll make a note of it."
"My dear Gammon----"
"I cannot fix a date on my own responsibility. It depends so greatly on his lordship's health. I can only assure you that at the earliest possible moment Lady Polperro will be summoned to an interview with her husband. By the by, I trust her ladyship is quite well?"
"Oh, she's all right," replied Gammon impatiently.
"And the Honourable Minnie Trefoyle -- she, too, enjoys good health, I trust?"
Polly and Gammon exchanged a stare, followed by laughter, which was a little forced on the man's part.
"That's Miss Clover," he remarked. "Sounds queer, doesn't it?"
"That's her reel name?" cried Polly.
"Indeed it is, Miss Sparkes," replied Greenacre. "But let me remind you -- if it is not impertinent -- that beauty and grace can very well afford to dispense with titles. I think, Gammon, you and I know a case in point."
Polly tossed her head and shuffled her feet, well pleased with the men's laughter.
"And if it comes to that," Greenacre pursued, "I don't mind saying, Gammon, that I suspect you to be a confoundedly lucky and enviable dog. May I congratulate him, Miss Sparkes?"
"Oh, you can if you like, Mr.---- I forget your name."
"I do so then, Gammon. I congratulate you, and I envy you. Heigh-ho! I'm a lonely bachelor myself, Miss Sparkes -- no, hang it, Miss Polly. You may well look pityingly at me."
"I'm sure I don't, Mr.---- I can't remember your name," answered Polly with a delighted giggle.
"See here, Greenacre," Gammon interposed genially, "Miss Sparkes and I will have to talk this over. Mind you, I give no promise. I found out for myself who Mr. Clover was, and I hold myself free to do what I think fit. You quite understand?"
Greenacre nodded absently. Then he cleared his throat.
"I quite understand, my dear boy. I should like just to remind you that there's really nothing to be gained, one way or the other, by interfering with Lord Polperro before he has made his plans. The ladies would in no way be benefited, and it's very certain no one else would be. No doubt you'll bear that in mind."
"Of course I shall. You may take it from me, Greenacre, that I'm tolerably wide awake. Can I still address you at the Bilboes?"
"You can," was the grave and dignified reply. "And now, as I happen to have an appointment at the other end of the town, I really must say good-bye. I repeat, Miss Sparkes, you may trust me absolutely. I have your interests and those of my friend Gammon -- the same thing now -- thoroughly at heart. You will hear from his lordship, Miss Sparkes -- no, hang it, Miss Polly. You will very soon have a line from his lordship, who, I may venture to say, is really attached to you. He speaks of you all most touchingly. Good evening, Miss Polly, not good-bye; we are to meet again very soon. And who knows all the happy changes that are before you. Ta-ta, Gammon. Rely upon me; I never failed a friend yet."
So saying he took his leave with bows and flourishes. Shortly after Polly and Gammon went into the superior room of the tavern and had tea together, talking at a great rate, one as excited as the other. Miss Sparkes being already attired for her evening duties they parted only when they were obliged to do so, agreeing to meet again when Polly left the theatre.
To pass this interval of time Mr. Gammon dropped into a music-hall. He wished to meditate on what had come to his knowledge. Had it not been that Lord Polperro was, in a sense, a public institution, and could not escape him, he would have felt uneasy about the doings of that remarkable fellow Greenacre; as it was, he preferred to muse on the advantages certain to befall Minnie and her mother, and perchance Polly Sparkes. After all, the niece of a lord must benefit substantially by the connexion, and by consequence that young lady's husband. No one could have been freer from secondary motives than he, when he found himself falling in love with Polly; and if it turned out a marriage of unforeseen brilliancy, why, so much the better. Polly had not altered towards him -- dear, affectionate girl that she was I He would act honourably; she should have the chance of reconsidering her position; but----
A damsel, sparingly clad, was singing in the serio-comic vein, with a dance after each stanza. As he sipped his whisky, and watched and listened, Gammon felt his heart glow within him. The melody was lulling; it had a refrain of delicious sentiment. The listener's eyes grew moist; there rose a lump in his throat. Dear Polly! Lovely Polly! Would he not cherish her to the day of his death? How could he have fancied that he loved anyone else? Darling Polly!
When the singer withdrew he clapped violently, and thereupon called for another Scotch hot, with lemon.
As a matter of course a friend soon discovered him, a man who declared himself in a whisper "stonebroke," and said, after a glass of the usual beverage, that if the truth must be told he had looked in here this evening to save himself from the torments of despair. Three young children, and the missus just going to have another. Did Gammon know of any opening in the cork line?
" Afraid not," replied the traveller, "but I know a man out Hoxton way who's pushing a new lamp-glass cleaner. You might give him a look in. It goes well, I'm told, in the eastern suburbs."
Presently a coin of substantial value passed from Gammon's pocket into that of his gloomy friend.
"Poor devil!" said the good fellow to himself. "He married a tripe-dresser's daughter, and she nags him. Never had a chance to marry a jolly little girl who turned out to have a lord for her uncle!"
So he drank and applauded, and piped his eye and drank again, till it was time to meet Polly. When he went forth into the cold street never was man more softly amorous, more mirthfully exultant, more kindly disposed to all the dwellers upon earth. Life abounds in such forms of happiness, yet we are told that it is a sad and sorry affair!
Since his adventure in knight-errantry Christopher Parish had suffered terrible alternations of hope and despair. For fear of offending Miss Sparkes he did not press for an explanation of the errand on which she had sent him enough that he was again permitted to see her, to entertain her modestly, and to hold her attention whilst he discoursed on the glories of the firm of Swettenham. Every week supplied him with new and astounding Swettenham statistics. He was able to report, as "an absolute fact," that a junior member of the firm -- a junior, mind you -- was building a house at Eastbourne which would cost him, all told, not one penny less than sixty-five thousand pounds! He would like to see that house; in fact, he must see it. When Easter came round would Miss Sparkes honour him with her company on a day trip to Eastbourne, that they might gaze together on the appalling mansion?
"P'r'aps," replied Polly, "if you're good."
Whereat Mr. Parish perspired with ecstasy, and began at once to plan the details of the outing.
Indeed, Polly was very gracious to him, and presently something happened which enhanced her graciousness -- perhaps increased her genuine liking for the amiable young man. Her friend, Miss Waghorn, was about to be married to Mr. Nibby. It was a cheerless time of the year for a wedding, but Mr. Nibby had just come in for a little legacy, on the strength of which he took a house in a southeast suburb, and furnished it on the hire system, with a splendour which caused Miss Waghorn to shriek in delight, and severely tested the magnanimity of Polly's friendship. Polly was to be a bridesmaid, and must needs have a becoming dress but where was it to come from? Her perfidious uncle had vanished (she knew not yet who that uncle really was), and her "tips" of late had been -- in Polly's language -- measly. In the course of friendly chat she mentioned to Mr. Parish that the wedding was for that day week, and added, with head aside, that she couldn't imagine what she was going to wear.
"I shall patch up some old dress, I s'pose. Lucky it's dark weather."
Christopher became meditative, and seemed to shirk the subject. But on the morrow there arrived for Polly a letter addressed in his handwriting -- an envelope rather -- which contained two postal orders, each for one pound, but not a word on the paper enfolding them.
"Well now," cried Polly within herself, "if that ain't gentlemanly of him! Who'd a' thought it! And me just going to put my bracelet away!"
By which she meant that she was about to pawn her jewellery to procure a bridesmaid's dress. Gratitude, for the moment, quite overcame her. She sat down and wrote a letter of thanks, so worded that the recipient was beside himself for a whole day. He in turn wrote a letter of three full sheets, wherein, among other lyrical extravagances, he expressed a wish that by dying a death of slow torture he could endow Miss Sparkes with fabulous wealth. How gladly would he perish, knowing that she would come to lay artificial flowers upon his grave, and to the end of her life see that the letters on his tombstone were kept legible
So Polly made a handsome appearance at the wedding. As a matter of fact, she came near to exciting unpleasantness between bride and bridegroom, so indiscreet was Mr. Nibby in his spoken and silent admiration. After consuming a great deal of indifferent champagne at Mr. Nibby's lodgings the blissful couple departed to spend a week at Bournemouth, and Polly returned to the room in Shaftesbury Avenue, which henceforth she would occupy alone. "And a good riddance!" she said to herself pettishly as she stripped off her wedding garments.
On this very evening she wrote to Mr. Gammon -- the letter he was never to read.
Mr. Gammon had received an invitation to the ceremony, but through pressure of business was unable to accept it. He felt, too, that there would have been awkwardness in thus meeting with Polly for the first time since their rupture on the Embankment.
Polly, of course, concluded that he kept away solely because he did not wish to see her. In the mood induced by this reflection, and by the turbid emotions natural to such a day, she penned her farewell to the insulting and perfidious man. Mr. Gammon was informed that never and nowhere would Miss Sparkes demean herself by exchanging another word with him; that he was a low and vulgar and ignorant person, without manners enough for a road-scraper; moreover, that she had long since been the object of sincere attentions from someone so vastly his superior that they were not to be named in the same month. This overflow of feeling was some relief, but Polly could not rest until she had also written to Mrs. Clover. She made known to her aunt that Mr. Gammon had of late been guilty of such insolent behaviour to her (the writer) that she had serious thoughts of seeking protection from the police. "As he is such a great friend of yours and Minnie's, I thought I had better warn you. Perhaps you might like to try and teach him better behaviour, though I can't say as you are the person to do it. And you may be pleased to hear that I should not wonder if I am shortly to be married to a gentleman, which it won't surprise you after that if I am unable to see anything more of you and your family."
But for a violent storm which broke out after eleven that night, just as she finished these compositions, Polly would have posted them forthwith, and Mr. Gammon would in that case have received his letter by the first post next morning. As it was they remained in Polly's room all night, and only an hour or two after their actual dispatch came the fateful telegram which was to make such a revolution in Miss Sparkes' sentiments and prospects. Mrs. Clover duly received her missive, and gave a good deal of thought to it, Being a woman of some self-command she spoke no word of the matter to Minnie nor, though greatly tempted, did she pen a reply, but in a few days she sent a quiet invitation to Polly's father, desiring the pleasure of his company at tea on Sunday.
Mr. Sparkes came. He was in very low spirits, for during the past week Chaffey's had disgraced itself (if Chaffey's could now be disgraced) by supplying a supper at eighteen-pence per head, exclusive of liquors, to certain provincial representatives of the Rag, Bone, and Bottle Dealers' Alliance in town for the purpose of attending a public meeting. He called it 'art-breaking, he did. The long and short of it was, he must prepare himself -- and Chaffey's -- for the inevitable farewell. Why, it wasn't as if they had supplied the rag-tags with a good supper. You should have seen the stuff put before them; every blessed dish a hash-up of leavings and broken meats. No man with a vestige of self-respect could continue to wait at such entertainments. And this amid the gilding and the plush and the marble-topped tables, which sickened one with their surface imitation of real rest'rants.
"Wouldn't you like to retire into private life, Ebenezer?" asked his hostess. "I'm sure you could, couldn't you?"
"Well, Louisa," he replied with hesitation, "if it comes to that, I could. But I hardly know how I should spend my time."
The conversation turned to the subject of Polly, and, as they were alone together, Mrs. Clover exhibited the letter she had received from that young lady.
"Now what have you to say to that, Ebenezer? Don't you call it shameful?"
Mr. Sparkes sighed deeply.
"I've warned her, Louisa, I've warned her solemn. What more can I do?"
"You see how she goes on about Mr. Gammon. Now I'm as sure as I am of anything that it's all lies. I don't believe Mr. Gammon has insulted her. There was something happened before she left Mrs. Bubb's -- a bit of unpleasantness there's no need to talk about; but I'm as sure as I sit here, Ebenezer, that Mr. Gammon wouldn't insult any girl in the way Polly says."
"Why don't you ask him?"
Mrs. Clover glanced at the door and betrayed uneasiness.
"To tell you the truth he doesn't come here just now. You won't let it go any further, Ebenezer, but the truth is he began to take a sort of fancy to Minnie, and he told me about it, just as he ought to a'done, and I had to tell him plain that it wasn't a bit of use. For one thing Minnie was too young, and what's more, she hadn't even given half a thought to him in that way; and I wouldn't have the child worried about such things, because, as you know, she's delicate, and it doesn't take much to upset her in her mind, and then she can't sleep at nights. So I told Mr. Gammon plain and straight, and he took it in the right spirit, but he hasn't been here since. And I'm as sure as anything that Polly's letter is a nasty, mean bit of falsehood, though I'm sorry to have to say it to you, Ebenezer."
Mr. Sparkes had the beginning of a cold in the head, which did not tend to make him cheerful. Sitting by the fireside, very upright in his decent suit of Sunday black, he looked more than ever like a clergyman, perchance a curate who is growing old without hope of a benefice. Fortunately there entered about tea-time a young man in much better spirits, evidently a welcome friend of Mrs. Clover's; his name was Nelson. On his arrival Minnie joined the company, and it would have been remarked by anyone with an interest in the affairs of the family that Mrs. Clover was not at all reluctant to see her daughter and this young man amiably conversing. Mr. Nelson had something not unlike the carriage and tone of a gentleman; he talked quietly, though light-heartedly, and from remarks he let fall it appeared that he was somehow connected with the decorative arts. Minnie and he dropped into a discussion of some new ceramic design put forth by Doulton's; they seemed to understand each other, and grew more animated as they exchanged opinions. The hostess, meanwhile, kept glancing at them with a smile of benevolence.
At the tea table Mr. Nelson gratified Mr. Sparkes by an allusion to almost the only topic -- apart from Chaffey's -- which could draw that grave man into continuous speech. Mr. Sparkes had but one recreation, that of angling; for many years he had devoted such hours of summer leisure as Chaffey's granted him to piscatory excursions, were it only as far as the Welsh Harp. Finding this young man disposed to lend a respectful ear, and to venture intelligent questions, he was presently discoursing at large.
"Chub? Why chub's a kind of carp, don't you see. There's no fish pulls harder than a chub, not in the ordinary way of fishing. A chub he'll pull just like a little pig; he will indeed, if you believe me."
"And a jack, uncle," put in Minnie, who liked to please the old man. "Doesn't a jack pull hard?"
"Well, it's like this, my dear; it depends on the bottom when it's jack. If the bottom's weedy -- see? -- you must keep your line tight on a jack. Let him run and you're as like as not to lose thirty or forty yards of your line."
"And the lines are expensive, aren't they, uncle?"
"Well, my dear, I give eighteen and six for my preserved jack line -- hundred yards. Eighteen and six!"
There followed one of his old stories, of a jack which had been eating up young ducklings on a certain pond; how he had baited for this fellow with a live duckling, the hook through the tips of its wings, got him in twenty minutes, and he turned the scale at four-and-twenty pounds. Roach and perch were afterwards discussed. In Mr. Sparkes' opinion the best bait for these fish was a bit of dough kneaded up with loose wool. Chaffey's -- at all events, Chaffey's of to-day -- would not have known its head waiter could it have seen and heard him as he thus held forth. The hostess showed a fear lest Mr. Nelson should have more than enough of Cockney angling; but he and Minnie were at one in good-natured attentiveness, and in the end Mrs. Clover overcame her uneasiness.
A few days after this Minnie's mother, overcoming a secret scruple and yielding to a long desire, allowed herself to write a letter to Mr. Gammon. It was a very simple, not ill-composed letter; its object to express regret for the ill temper she had shown, now many weeks ago, on her parting with Mr. Gammon in Kennington Road. Would he not look in at the china shop just in the old way? It would please her very much, for indeed she had never meant or dreamt a termination to their friendship. They had known each other so long. Would not Mr. Gammon overlook her foolishness, remembering all she had had to go through? So she signed herself his "friend always the same," and having done so looked at the last line rather timidly, and made haste to close the letter.
An answer arrived without undue delay, and Mrs. Clover went apart to read it, her breath quicker than usual, and her fingers tremulous. Mr. Gammon wrote with unfeigned cordiality, just like himself. He hoped to call very soon, though it might still be a few weeks. There was nothing to forgive on his part; he wasn't such a fool as to be angry with an old friend for a few hasty words. But the truth was he had a lot of business on his hands; he was doing his best to get into a permanency at Quodlings' of Norton Folgate, and he knew Mrs. Clover would be glad to hear that. Let her give his kind regards to Miss Minnie, and believe him when he said that he was just as friendly disposed as ever.
Beneath these words Mrs. Clover naturally enough detected nothing of the strange experiences in which Mr. Gammon was involved. "Kind regards to Minnie." Yes, there was the explanation of his silence. He called her his "old friend," a phrase of double meaning. Mrs. Clover, in spite of her good sense, was vexed, and wished he had not said "old." Why, had she not a year or two the advantage of him in youthfulness?
Gammon would gladly have answered in person Mrs. Clover's letter, but he had promised Polly that he would neither visit the china shop nor in any way communicate with her aunt. Polly had made a great point of this, and he thought the reason was not far to seek; she still harboured jealousy of her cousin, and no doubt it would be delightful to make known, just how and when she herself saw fit, her triumph over Minnie. So he kept away from Battersea Park Road, though often wishing to spend an evening there in the old way, with Mrs. Clover's bright face on one side of him and Minnie's modestly bent head on the other.
It would have been so restful after all this excitement, for however he tried to grasp the facts, Mrs. Clover and Minnie still seemed remote from the world of wealth and titles; he could not change their names or see them in any other position than that which was familiar and natural. In talk with Polly he always rose to hilarious anticipations, partly the result of amorous fervour; but this mood did not survive their parting. Alone he was frequently troubled with uneasiness, with misgiving, more so as the days went by without bringing any news from Greenacre. Under the cover of night he visited Lowndes Mansions and hung about there for half an hour, like unto one with sinister intentions; but his trouble profited him nothing. Polly was growing impatient. After the manner of her kind she brooded on suspicions, and hatched numerous more or less wild conjectures. What if Greenacre had spirited Lord Polperro away for some dark purpose of his own? Gammon himself could not help suspecting the mysterious man of deep projects which would tend to the disadvantage of Lord Polperro's forsaken wife and child. At the end of a fortnight he wrote to Greenacre at the Bilboes pressing for information. To his surprise and satisfaction this brought about an interview on the following day. Greenacre seemed radiant with a good conscience.
"All is going well," he declared. "Our noble friend is improving in health, temporarily, at all events. Doubtless it is the result of having his mind more at ease. You can't imagine, Gammon, how that man has been tormented by remorse. I am not yet at liberty to disclose his plans. But I shall certainly be so very soon -- very soon. I won't say Christmas, but before New Year's Day I feel confident I shall have got things completely in order. I will only hint to you that his lordship wishes to retire from the world, to live a perfectly quiet and simple domestic life in a locality which will be favourable to his health. You will agree with us, I know, that this is far better than trying to brave the gossip and scandal of society. I may now tell you, in strict confidence, that our friend has already written a letter to his wife, ready to be posted as soon as ever the last details are settled. By the by, Gammon, I hope there can be no doubt as to Lady Polperro's willingness to concur in what her husband proposes?"
"I don't know anything about that," Gammon replied. "I can't answer for her."
"Naturally. Of course not. But I hope there will be no unexpected difficulty on that side. Lord Polperro has his fears, which I have done my best to dispel. We can but hope, put our trust in the forgiving nature of woman."
It now wanted but a very short time to Christmas. As the day drew near Gammon felt that this state of worrying suspense was growing intolerable. Polly's suspicions were louder, her temper became uncertain; once or twice she forgot herself and used language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. On these occasions Gammon found himself doubting whether she really was the girl after his own heart; he could have wished that she had rather less spirit. Overcome by her persistence, he at length definitely engaged to wait no longer than the end of the year. If by that time Greenacre had not put things in order, Polly was to seek her aunt and make known all that they had discovered.
"We won't be 'umbugged!" she exclaimed. "And it begins to look to me jolly like 'umbugging. I don't know what you think."
Gammon admitted that the state of things was very unsatisfactory, and must come to an end. The last day of the year -- so be it. After that Polly should have her way.
It was the middle of Christmas week. A letter to the Bilboes remained without answer. Gammon and Polly met every day, excited each other, lost their tempers, were stormily reconciled. On the morning of the thirty-first Gammon received four letters begging for pecuniary assistance, but nothing from Greenacre. He had slept badly, his splendid health was beginning to suffer. By jorrocks! there should be an end of this, and that quickly.
As he loitered without appetite over a particularly greasy breakfast, listening to Mrs. Bubb's description of an ailment from which her youngest child was suffering, Moggie came into the kitchen and said that a young man wished to see him. Gammon rushed up to the front door, where, in mist and drizzle, stood a muscular youth whom he did not recognize.
"I'm come from Mrs. Clover's, sir," said this messenger, touching his hat. "She'd be very glad to see you as soon as you could make it convenient to look round."
"Is that all?"
That was all; nothing more could be learnt from the young man, and Gammon promised to come forthwith. Luckily he could absent himself from Quodlings' to-day with no great harm; so after a few words with Mrs. Bubb he pulled on his greatcoat and set off by the speediest way. Only after starting did he remember his promise to Polly. That could not be helped. The case seemed to be urgent, and he must beg for indulgence. He had an appointment with Polly for six o'clock this evening. In the excitement of decisive action (it being the last day of the year) she would probably overlook this small matter.
He found Mrs. Clover in the shop. She reddened at sight of him, and after a hurried greeting asked him to step into the parlour, where she carefully closed the door.
"Mr. Gammon, have you heard anything about my husband?"
The question disconcerted him; he tried ineffectually to shape a denial.
"You have, I can see you have! It doesn't matter. I don't want you to tell me anything. But he's now in this house."
She was greatly agitated, not angry, but beset by perplexities and distress.
"He came last night about ten o'clock -- came to the door wrapped up like a stranger -- it was almost too much for me when I heard his voice. He wanted to come in -- to stay; and of course I let him. Minnie had to know, poor girl. He's in the spare room. Did you know he meant to come?"
"I? Hadn't an idea of it, Mrs. C]over!"
"But you know something about him. He tells me you do. He wants to see you. There's only one thing I ask -- has he been doing wrong? Oh, do tell me that!"
Gammon protested that he knew nothing of the kind, and added that he had only seen the man once, for a minute, now more than a month ago.
"And you kept it from me!" said his friend reproachfully. "I didn't think you'd have done that, Mr. Gammon!"
"There was a reason. I shouldn't have thought of doing it if there hadn't been a good reason."
"Never mind. I won't interfere. I feel as if it had nothing to do with me. Will you go upstairs to him? He looks to me as if he hadn't very long to live, indeed he does. Listen, that's his cough! Oh, I am so upset. It came so sudden. And to think you'd seen him and never told me! Never mind, go up to him, if you will, and see what he wants with you."
Gammon did her bidding. He ascended lightly and tapped at the door Mrs. Clover indicated. A cough sounded from within; then a voice which the visitor recognized, saying," Come in." On the bed, but fully dressed, lay a tall, meagre man, with a woollen comforter about his neck. The room was in good order, and warmed by a fire, which the sufferer's condition seemed to make very necessary. He fixed his eyes on Gammon, as if trying to smile, but defeated in the effort by pain and misery.
"I'm here, you see," he said hoarsely. "There's no doubt about me now."
"Got a bad cold, eh?" replied the other, as cheerfully as he could.
"Yes, a cold. Always have a cold. Would you mind reaching me the kettle?"
He poured out some brandy from a bottle which stood on the floor, and mixed it with a little hot water. Gammon the while observed him with much curiosity. In five years or a little more he had become an old and feeble man; his thin hair was all but completely grey, his flesh had wasted and discoloured, his hand trembled, his breath came with difficulty. Present illness accounted perhaps for the latter symptoms; but, from that glimpse of him in Norton Folgate, Gammon had known that he was much aged and shaken. Hat, overcoat, and muffler had partly disguised what was now evident. He spoke with the accent of an educated man, and in the tone of one whom nature has endowed with amiable qualities. The bottle beside him seemed to explain certain peculiarities of his manner. When he had drunk thirstily he raised himself to a sitting posture, and nodded to his visitor an invitation to take a chair.
"I'm here, you see, Gammon. Here at last."
"Why did you come?"
"Why? -- ah, why indeed!"
Having sighed out this ejaculation he seemed to grow absent, to forget that he was not alone. A violent cough shook him into wakefulness again; he stared at Gammon with red eyes full of pain and fear, and said thickly:
"Are you an honest man -- you?
"Well, I hope so; try to be."
"What's his name? You know him, don't you?"
"Do you mean Greenacre?" asked Gammon, feeling very uncomfortable, for the man before him looked like one who struggles for his last breath.
"Greenacre, yes. What has he told you about me?"
Gammon answered with the simple truth; the situation alarmed him, and he would have nothing more to do with conspiracy in such a case. He could not feel sure that his explanations were followed and understood; now and then the bloodshot eyes turned blankly to him as if in a drunken dream; but in the end he saw a look of satisfaction.
"You're an honest man, aren't you? We used to know each other, you know when. My wife likes you, doesn't she?"
"We've always been friends, of course," Gammon replied.
"Would you mind giving me the kettle?" He mixed another glass of brandy, spilling a great deal in the process. "I don't offer you any, Greenacre, it's medicine; I take it as such. One doesn't offer one's friends a glass of medicine, you know, Greenacre."
"My name is Gammon."
"What am I thinking about! There was something I wanted to ask you. Yes, of course. Does she know?"
"You mean does your wife know who you really are?" said Gammon in a cautious voice.
"Haven't you told her?"
"Then I don't think anyone else has."
The man had fallen back upon the pillow. He began to cough, struggled to raise himself, and became seated on the edge of the bed.
"Well, it's time we were going."
"Where to?" asked Gammon.
The other stared at him in surprise and distress.
"Surely I haven't to tell you all over again! Weren't you listening? You're a man of business, are you not? Surely you ought to have a clear head the first thing in the morning."
"Just tell me again in a word or two. What can I do for you? Do you want to see anybody?"
"Yes, yes, I remember." He laid a hand on his companion's shoulder. "The matter stands thus, Greenacre I trust you implicitly, once more I assure you of that; but it is absolutely necessary for me to see a solicitor."
"All right. What's his name?"
"I'll tell you, Cuthbertson -- Old Jewry Chambers. But first of all let us come to an understanding about that man Quodling. I called upon his brother -- why, I told you all that before, didn't I?"
"You had just been there when I met you in Norton Folgate," said Gammon, who felt that before long his own wits would begin to wander.
"To be sure. And now we really must be going."
He stood up staggering, gained his balance, and walked to the window. The prospect thence seemed to recall him to a consciousness of the actual present, and he looked round appealingly, distressfully.
"I tell you what it is," said Gammon. "You ought to get into bed and have a doctor. Shall I help you?"
"No, no; I regret that I came here, Greenacre. I am not welcome; how could I expect to be? If I am going to be ill it mustn't be here."
"Then let me get a cab and take you to your own place, if your wife is willing."
"That would be best. The truth is I feel terribly queer, Greenacre. Suppose I -- suppose I died here? Of course, I ought never to have come. Think of the talk there would be; and that's just what I wanted to spare them, the talk and the disgrace. It can all be managed by my solicitor. But I felt that come I must. After all, you see, it's home. You understand that? It's really my home. I've been here often at night, just to see the house. The wonder is that I didn't come in before. Of course, I knew I couldn't be welcome -- but one's wife and child, Greenacre. The real wife, whether the other's alive or not."
"What did you say?" he asked in a whisper.
"Nothing -- nothing. You are a good fellow, I am sure, and my wife likes you, that's quite enough. The point is this now, I must destroy that will, and get Cuthbertson to draw a deed of gift, all in order, you know, but nothing that could get wind and make a scandal. The will would be publicly known, I ought to have remembered that. I repeat, Greenacre, that what I have to do is to provide for them both without causing them any trouble or disgrace."
Catching the listener's eye he became silent and confused for a moment, then added quickly:
"I beg your pardon. I addressed you by the wrong name. Gammon, I meant to say. Gammon, my wife's friend, a thoroughly honest man. Have I made myself clear, Gammon? I -- you see how the matter stands?"
Gammon was beginning to see that the matter stood in a perilous position, and that the sooner Mr. Cuthbertson -- if such a person existed -- could be brought on to the scene the better for every one concerned. He asked himself whether he ought to summon Mrs. Clover. His glance towards the door must have betrayed his thought, for the sick man spoke as though in reply to it.
"We will say nothing to her yet, if you please. I -- I begin to feel a little better. Our long confidential talk has done me good. By the by, Greenacre -- I beg your pardon, Gammon -- you quite understand that it is all in the strictest confidence. I trust you implicitly as my dear wife's friend; it is all in her interests, as you see. I think now, if you would kindly get a cab -- yes, I feel quite equal to it now -- we will go to Lowndes Mansions."
The voice was thin, husky, senile; but his tone had more of rationality, and he appeared to have made up his mind to a course of action. Gammon presently went downstairs and told Mrs. Clover that her husband wished to go into town on business. She made no objection, but asked whether Gammon would take the responsibility of looking after him. This he promised. Whether the man would return hither or not was left uncertain.
"If he goes to his own house," said Gammon, "I'll see him safe there and let you know. He lives in the West End. Now don't upset yourself; if he doesn't come back you shall know where he is, and if you want to you shall go and see him. I promise you that. I know all about him, and so shall you; so just keep yourself quiet. He'll have to go to bed and stay there; anyone can see that. If you take my advice you'll let us go out quietly and not speak to him. Just trust to me, Mrs. Clover."
"Do you think he's right in his mind?" she asked.
"Well, he's very shaky, and ought to be kept quiet. What has he told you?"
"Nothing at all; he sat crying for an hour last night, and talked about the old times. When I asked questions he put me off. And when I went into his room this morning he said nothing except that he wanted to see you, and that he must have some brandy for his cold."
"All right; let us leave the house quietly, and I'll see you again to-day or to-morrow. Oh, I say, has a man called Greenacre been here at any time?"
"I don't know anyone of that name," answered Mrs. Clover as she turned distressfully away.
A cab was summoned, and Gammon, having helped the sick man to clothe himself warmly in overcoat and muffler, led him from the house. They drove straightway to Lowndes Mansions.
The movement of the vehicle made Lord Polperro drowsy. In ten minutes he seemed to be asleep, and Gammon had to catch his hat as it was falling forward. When the four-wheeler jolted more than usual he uttered groans; once he shouted loudly, and for a moment stared about him in terror. The man of commerce had never made so unpleasant a journey in his life.
On arriving at their destination it was with much difficulty that Gammon aroused his companion, and with still more that he conveyed him from the cab into the building, a house porter (who smiled significantly) assisting in the job. Lord Polperro, when thoroughly awakened, coughed, groaned, and gasped in a most alarming way. His flat was on the first floor; before reaching it he began to shed tears, and to beg that his medical man might be called immediately. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman dressed as a housekeeper, who viewed his lordship with no great concern. She promised to send a messenger to the doctor's, and left the two men alone in a room comfortably furnished, but without elegance or expensiveness. Gammon waited upon the invalid, placed him at ease by the fireside, and reached him a cellaret from a cupboard full of various liquors. A few draughts of a restorative enabled Lord Polperro to articulate, and he inquired if any letters had arrived for him.
"Look on the writing table, Greenacre. Any thing there?"
There were two letters. The invalid examined them with disappointment and tossed them aside.
"Beggars and blackmailers," he muttered. "Nobody else writes to me.
Of a sudden it occurred to him that he was forgetting the duties of hospitality. He urged his guest to take refreshment; he roused himself, went to the cupboard, brought out half a dozen kinds of beverage.
"And of course you will lunch with me, or will it be dinner? Yes, yes, luncheon of course. Excuse me for one moment, I must give some orders."
He left the room. Gammon, having tossed off a glass of wine, surveyed the objects about him with curiosity. An observer of more education would have glanced with peculiar interest at the books; several volumes lay on the table, one of them a recent work on gipsies, another dealing with the antiquities of Cornwall. For the town traveller these things of course had no significance. But he remarked a painting on the wall, which was probably a portrait of one of Lord Polperro's ancestors -- a youngish man (the Trefoyle nose, not to be mistaken) in a strange wild costume, his head bare under a sky blackening to storm, in his hand a sort of hunting knife, and one of his feet resting on a dead wolf. When his host reappeared Gammon asked him whom the picture represented.
"That? That's my father -- years before I was born. They tell me that he used to say that in his life he had only done one thing to be proud of. It was in some part of Russia. He killed a wolf at close quarters -- only a knife to fight with. He was a fine man, my father. Looks it, don't you think?"
Thirst was upon him again; he drank the first liquor that came to hand, then sat down and was silent.
"You feel better?" said Gammon.
"Better? Oh, thanks, much the same. I shan't be better till things are settled. That won't be long. I expected to hear from Greenacre -- I think you said you knew Greenacre?"
"What is he doing for you?" Gammon inquired, thinking he might as well take advantage of this lucid moment, the result, seemingly, of alcoholic stimulation.
"Doing? We'll talk of that presently. Mind you, I have complete confidence in Greenacre. I regret that I didn't know him long ago." He sighed and began to wander. "My best years gone -- gone! You remember what I was, Gammon? We don't live like other people, something wrong in our blood; we go down -- down. But if I had lived as I was, and let the cursed title alone! That was my mistake, Greenacre. I had found happiness -- a good wife. You know my wife? What am I saying? Of course you do. Never an unkind word from her, never one. How many men can say that? The best woman living, Greenacre."
"You keep forgetting who I am," said his guest bluntly.
Lord Polperro gave him a look of surprise, and with effort cleared his thoughts.
"Ah, I called you Greenacre. Excuse me, Gammon, my wife's friend. Be her friend still, a better woman doesn't live, believe me. You will lunch with me, Gammon. We are to have a long talk. And I want you to go with me to my solicitor's. I must settle that to-day. I thought Greenacre would be back. The fact is, you know, I must recover my health. The south of Europe, Greenacre thinks, and I agree with him. A place where we can live quietly, my wife and the little girl, no one to bother us or to gossip. She shall know when we get there, not before. This climate is bad for me, killing me; in fact, I hope to start in a few days, just us three, I and my wife and the little girl. She shall use the title if she likes, if not we'll leave it behind us. Ah, that was my misfortune, you know. It oughtn't to have come to me."
He was seized with a hiccough, which in a few moments became so violent that he had to abandon the attempt to converse. When it had lasted for half an hour Gammon found his position intolerable. He rose, meaning to leave the room and speak to the housekeeper, but just then the door opened to admit Lord Polperro's medical attendant. This gentleman, after a glance at the patient, who was not aware of his presence, put a few questions to Gammon. The latter than withdrew quietly, went out from the flat and down into the street where the doctor's carriage stood waiting. He was bewildered with the novelty of experience, felt thoroughly out of his element, and would have liked to have escaped from these complications by simply taking a cab to Norton Folgate and forgetting all he left behind. But his promise to Mrs. Clover (or Lady Polperro) forbade this. He was very curious as to the proceedings of that mysterious fellow Greenacre, who, as likely as not, had got Lord Polperro into his power for rascally purposes. What was that half-heard allusion to another wife, who might be alive or dead? Nothing to cause astonishment assuredly, but the matter ought to be cleared up.
He crossed the street and walked up and down, keeping his eye on Lowndes Mansions. Before long the doctor came out and drove away. After much indecision Gammon again entered and knocked at the door of his noble friend. The housekeeper said that Lord Polperro was asking for him impatiently. But when he entered the sitting-room there lay his lordship on the sofa fast asleep.
The sleep lasted for a couple of hours, during which Gammon sat in the room, bearing tedium as best he could. He was afraid to go away, lest an opportunity of learning something important should be lost; but never had time passed so slowly. Some neglect of business was involved, but fortunately he had no appointment that could not be postponed. As he said to himself, it was better to "see the thing through," and to make the most of Greenacre's absence.
When Lord Polperro at length awoke he had command of his intellect (such as remained to him), but groaned in severe pain. His first inquiry was whether any letter or telegram had arrived. Assured that there was nothing he tottered about the room for a few minutes, then declared that he must go to bed.
"I always feel better in the evening, Gammon. You'll excuse me, I know; we are old friends. I must see you again to-day; you'll promise to come back? Oh, how ill I am! I don't think this can go on much longer."
"What did the doctor tell you to do?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing," was the irritable reply. "Of course, I must get away as soon as possible. If only I could hear from Greenacre."
Seeing there was no likelihood of the man's leaving home for the next few hours Gammon promised to return in the afternoon, and so took his leave. On the stairs he passed two ladies, who, as he learnt in a moment by the sound of their knock above, were making a call upon the invalid. In the street stood their carriage. He watched it for some time from the other side of the way until the ladies came forth again. It would have soothed Gammon's mind could he have known that they were Lord Polperro's sister and his niece.
Just as the brief daylight was flickering. out (the air had begun to nip with a threat of frost) he once more presented himself at Lowndes Mansions. In the meantime he had seen Polly Sparkes, informed her of what was happening, and received her promise that she would take no step until he could communicate with her again. This interview revived his spirits; he felt equal to another effort such as that of the morning -- which had taxed him more than the hardest day's work he was ever called upon to do.
Lord Polperro again sat by the fireside with a decanter and glass within his reach. He was evidently more at ease, but seemed to have a difficulty in recognizing his visitor.
"Have you come from Greenacre?" he asked cautiously, peering through the dull light.
"I don't know anything about him."
"No? I cannot understand why I have no news from him. Pray sit down; we were talking about----"
Presently he shook his recollections into order, and when a lamp was brought in he began to talk lucidly.
"Gammon, I feel very uneasy in my mind. This morning I quite intended to have gone and seen Cuthbertson; but I was taken ill, you know. What is the time? I wonder whether Cuthbertson is likely to be at his office still?"
"That's your lawyer, isn't it? Would you like me to go and try to get hold of him? I might bring him here."
"You are very kind, Gammon. For some reason I feel that I really ought to see him to-day. Suppose we go together?"
"But you oughtn't to be out at night, ought you?"
"Oh, I feel much better. Besides, we shall drive, you know -- quite comfortable. I really think we will go. Then you shall come back and dine with me. Yes, I think we will go."
Between this decision and the actual step half an hour was wasted in doubts, fresh resolves, moments of forgetfulness, and slow preparation. A messenger had been dispatched for a cab, and at length almost by force Gammon succeeded in getting his lordship down the stairs and out into the street. They drove to Old Jewry Chambers. Throughout the journey Lord Polperro kept up a constant babbling, which he meant for impressive talk; much of it was inaudible to his companion, from the noise of the cab, and the sentences that could be distinguished were mere repetitions of what he had said before leaving home -- that he felt it absolutely necessary to see Cuthbertson, and that he could not understand Greenacre's silence. They reached the solicitor's office at about half-past five. Lord Polperro entered only to return with a face of disappointment.
"He has gone. No one there but a clerk -- no use."
"Couldn't you find him at his private address?" asked Gammon.
"Private address? to be sure! I'll go in again and ask for it."
Mr. Cuthbertson lived at Streatham.
"I tell you what," said Lord Polperro, whose mind seemed to be invigorated by his activity, "we'll go to Streatham, but first of all we must have something to eat. The fact is, I had no lunch; I begin to feel rather faint."
He bade the cabman drive to any restaurant not far away. There the vehicle was dismissed, and they sat down to a meal. Gammon as usual ate heartily. Lord Polperro pretended to do the same but in reality swallowed only a few mouthfuls, and gave his more serious attention to the wine. Every few minutes he assured his companion in a whisper that he would feel quite at ease when he had seen Cuthbertson.
They looked out the trains to Streatham, and left just in time to catch one. On the journey his lordship dozed. He was growing very husky again, and the cough shook him badly after each effort to talk, so Gammon felt glad to see him resting. By the gaslight in the railway carriage his face appeared to flush and go pale alternately; at moments it looked horribly cadaverous with its half-open eyes, shrivelled lips, and thin, sharp, high-ridged nose. On arriving the man lost all consciousness of where he was and what he purposed; it took many minutes before Gammon could convey him into a cab and extort from him Mr. Cuthbertson's address.
"Greenacre," his lordship kept repeating, "I trust you implicitly. I am convinced you have my interests at heart. When all is settled I shall show myself grateful -- believe me."
Between seven and eight o'clock they drove up to a house on Streatham Hill, and without consulting Lord Polperro, Gammon went to parley at the door. Ill luck pursued them. Mr. Cuthbertson was dining in town, and could not be home till late. When made to understand this Lord Polperro passed from lethargy to violent agitation.
"We must go back at once!" he exclaimed. "To Lowndes Mansions at once Greenacre, tell him to drive straight to Sloane Street. You don't know what depends upon it. We must lose not a moment."
The cabman consented, and the return journey began at a good speed. When Gammon, out of regard for the invalid's condition, insisted on having the window of the hansom dropped, Lord Polperro grumbled and lamented. The cool air did him good; he was beginning to breathe more easily than he had done for a long time.
"You are too imperious with me, Greenacre. I have noticed it in you before. You take too much upon yourself."
"I suppose it's no use telling you once more," said his companion, "that my name isn't Greenacre."
"Dear me! dear me! I beg your pardon a thousand times. I meant to say Gammon. I can't tell you, Gammon, how much I feel your kindness. But for you I should never have managed all this in my state of health. You don't mind coming home with me?"
"Of course not. What are you going to do when you get there?"
"I told you, my dear Gammon, it shall be done this very night, whether I have news or not. I shall see Cuthbertson the first thing to-morrow, and get him to draw the deed of gift. That settles everything; no gossip, no scandal, if anything should happen. Life is so uncertain, and as you see I am in anything but robust health. Yes, it shall be done this very night."
Tired of futile questioning Gammon resolved to wait and see what was done, though it seemed to him more than likely that nothing at all would come of these vehement expressions. At all events Lord Polperro was now wide awake, and seemed in no danger of relapsing into the semi-comatose or semi-delirious condition. He no longer addressed his companion by the name of Greenacre; his talk was marked with a rational reserve; he watched the course of their drive along the highways of South London, and showed satisfaction as they approached his own district.
The cabman was paid with careless liberality, and Lord Polperro ran up the stairs to his flat. More strictly speaking, he ran for a few yards, when breath failed him, and it was all he could do to stagger with loud pantings up the rest of the ascent. Arrived in his sitting-room he sank exhausted on to the nearest chair. Gammon saw that he pointed feebly to the drink cupboard, and heard a gasp that sounded like "brandy."
"Better not," replied the clear-headed man. "I wouldn't if I were you."
But his lordship insisted, looking reproachfully, and the brandy was produced. It did him good; that is to say, it brought colour to his face, and enabled him to sit upright. No sooner was he thus recovered than his eyes fell upon the envelope of a telegram which lay on his writing-table.
"There it is, at last!"
He tore the paper, all but sobbing with agony of impatience.
"Good God, I can't see it! I've gone half blind all at once. Read it for me, Gammon."
"Hope see you to-night. Important news. If not, in morning. -- Greenacre."
"Where did he send it from?"
"Euston, six o'clock."
"Then he came by the Irish day-mail. Why didn't I think of that and meet the train? What does he mean by to-night or to-morrow morning? What does he mean?"
"How can I tell?" replied Gammon. "Perhaps he has called here while you were away."
Lord Polperro rang the bell, only to find that no one had asked for him. He was in a state of pitiable agitation, kept shuffling about the room with coughs and gasps, demanding ceaselessly why Greenacre left the hour of his appearance uncertain. Gammon, scarcely less excited in his own way, shouted assurances that the fellow might turn up at any moment. It was not yet ten o'clock. Why not sit down and wait quietly?
"I will," said the other. "I will thank you, Gammon. I will sit down and wait. But I cannot conceive why he didn't come straight here from Euston. I may as well tell you he has been to Ireland for me on business of the gravest importance. I am not impatient without cause. I trust Greenacre implicitly. He had a gentleman's education. I am convinced he could not deceive me."
More brandy helped him to surmount this crisis, then he was silent for a few minutes. Gammon thought he had begun to doze again, but of a sudden he spoke distinctly and earnestly.
"I am forgetting. You remember what I had decided to do. It shall be done at once, Gammon. I know it will relieve my mind."
He rose, went to the writing-table, unlocked a drawer, and took out a large sealed envelope, on which something was written.
"Gammon, you are witness of what I now do. This is my will, executed about a year ago. I have reasons for wishing to dispose of my property in another way. Cuthbertson will see to that for me to-morrow. A will becomes public. I did not think of that at the time. There!"
He threw the sealed packet into the fire, where it was quickly caught by the flames and consumed.
"Now I feel easier in mind, much easier."
He drank from the replenished glass, smiling and nodding.
Gammon had the strangest sensation. He felt as though he were acting in a melodrama; he stood in a constrained position, as if the eyes of the house were upon him; he suffered from a sort of stage fright. Much more of this kind of thing would assuredly unsettle his wits. To recover tone he helped himself to a stiff glass of whisky.
"That's right," said his host encouragingly. "Make yourself comfortable. Greenacre may drop in at any moment. You can't think how much better I feel, Gammon. So clear in the mind, you know -- why, it has only just occurred to me, this is New Year's Eve."
"So it is. Here's to your health and happiness, Lord Polperro!"
"Thank you, my dear Gammon. I heartily wish you the same. To-morrow, or at all events in a few days, a new life begins for me, as you know. In the climate of the south of Europe, with my wife and the little girl -- ah, but for this idiotic title! -- I was saying----"
He began to wander unintelligibly, then complained of physical sufferings, then coughed until he sank in exhaustion.
Time went on. Gammon began to ask himself how long he should wait. At half-past ten he made a suggestion that his lordship might do worse than go to bed, but this was ill received.
"By no means. Greenacre may be here at any moment. He will certainly come to-night. If he doesn't come, do you know what occurs to me? Why shouldn't we drive into the City and ask whether he has returned?"
"He lives at a place -- a sort of hotel -- which he calls the Bilboes. Greenacre is eccentric, but thoroughly trustworthy. He had a gentleman's education."
"He lives there, does he?" exclaimed Gammon.
"Finds it convenient, I suppose. Yes, we will go and inquire -- we certainly will."
Gammon's objections were unheeded. No one could take any harm, said Lord Polperro, from driving in a closed cab to the City and back. He would leave directions that if Greenacre called during their absence he should be asked to wait. So they made ready and went forth, and once more a hansom bore them through the dark, cold night.
Lord Polperro talked unceasingly, and from his rambling hints it was not difficult to conjecture the business on which Greenacre had been dispatched to Ireland. Someone had to be discovered: a doubt as to whether some person was alive or dead had to be set at rest. Gammon ventured a few questions, which were answered evasively, but the nature of his companion's anxiety was by this time clear enough to him. He felt quite as desirous of meeting Greenacre as Lord Polperro himself. Every hour spent in this way added to his responsibility, and he had made up his mind that at the earliest possible moment to-morrow he would himself see Mr. Cuthbertson, and confide to him everything that had happened during this extraordinary day.
As the cab ascended Ludgate Hill it passed through crowds of people moving in the same direction. Gammon was for a moment surprised, then he called to mind again that it was New Year's Eve; the people were thronging to hear St. Paul's strike the hour of midnight. Last year he had himself joined in this celebration. He remembered with a smile that he reached home by circuitous routes, and after one or two short intervals of repose on convenient doorsteps. What was more, on that very night he had first made Greenacre's acquaintance at a bar; they swore eternal brotherhood, and Greenacre borrowed half a sovereign, never repaid.
With Gammon's help the cabman found his way to the Bilboes.
"Don't get out," he said to his companion. "I'll ask if he has come."
Lord Polperro suddenly aroused himself and tumbled out of the vehicle; but for Gammon's attention he would have fallen full length. They entered together, and by a confused process of inquiry learnt that Greenacre was still absent.
"Does he live here?" Gammon asked of a waiter whom he had drawn aside.
"He has a bedroom, sir."
Lord Polperro said that he felt a sudden faintness and must take refreshment. Having drunk, he began to talk in a loud voice about his private affairs, addressing a stranger who sat by him and whom he took for Gammon.
"I shall stay here. I shall certainly wait here for Greenacre. I can't run the risk of missing him to-night."
Gammon caught him by the arm and persuaded him to come out into the passage; but the only result of this was that Lord Polperro dismissed the cab, repeating obstinately that he would wait Greenacre's arrival.
"But ten to one he's waiting for us down yonder," urged Gammon.
"He won't wait very long, and we shall pass him on the road if we go back now. I tell you it is my pleasure to remain here! You forget yourself, Gammon. I know we are old friends, but you forget our positions."
The man of commerce laughed contemptuously.
"Look here," he said the next moment. "Let's walk as far as St. Paul's and have a look at the crowd."
"The crowd? What crowd?"
When he had heard the explanation his lordship readily assented. Certainly they would stroll as far as St. Paul's and back again, by that time Greenacre might have come. It seemed probable that when they had gone a little distance Lord Polperro would feel shaky and consent to take a cab. Drink, however, had invigorated the man; he reeled a little and talked very huskily, but declared that the walk was enjoyable.
"Let's go into the crowd, Gammon. I like a crowd. What are those bells ringing for? Yes, yes, of course, I remember -- New Year's Eve. I had no idea that people came here to see the New Year in. I shall come again. I shall come every year; it's most enjoyable."
They entered the Churchyard and were soon amid a noisy, hustling throng, an assembly composed of clerks and countermen, roughs and pickpockets, with a sprinkling of well-to-do rowdies, and numerous girls or women, whose shrieks, screams, and yelps sounded above the deeper notes of masculine uproar. Gammon, holding tight to his companion's arm, endeavoured to pilot him in a direction where the crowd was thinnest, still moving westward; but Lord Polperro caught the contagion of the tumult and began pressing vehemently into the surging mass.
"This does me good, Gammon. It's a long time since I've mixed with people. I always enjoyed a crowd. Holloo -- o -- o!"
His excited shout made him cough terribly; none the less he pushed on.
"You'll come to harm," said the other. "Don't be a fool; get out of this."
A struggle began between them; but by this time they were so thickly encompassed that Gammon had small chance of forcing his companion away. Lord Polperro did not resent the tugs at his arm; he took it for genial horseplay, and only shouted louder.
"On we go! This makes one feel alive, eh? Splendid idea to come and see this. Hollo -- o -- o!"
Blackguards in front of him were bellowing a filthy song; his lordship tried to join in the melody. A girl who was jammed against him shot liquid into his ear out of a squirt, and another of her kind knocked his hat off; he struggled to recover it, but someone was beforehand with him and sent the silky headgear flying skyward, after which it was tossed from hand to hand and then trampled under foot.
"Now you'll catch your bloomin' death of cold," said Gammon. "Stick on to me and get out of this."
"I'm all right! Leave me alone, can't you! How often have I a damned chance of enjoying myself?"
It was the first syllable of bad language that Gammon had heard from Polperro's lips. Struck with the fact, and all the more conscious of his duty to this high-born madman, he hit on a device for rescuing him from the crowd.
"Look!" he cried suddenly, "there's Greenacre!"
"Where?" replied the other, all eagerness.
"Just in front; don't you see him? This way; come along, or we shall lose him."
Flecks of dim white had for some minutes been visible above their heads; it was beginning to snow. Gammon shouldered his way steadily, careful not to come into quarrelsome conflict. Polperro hung on behind, shouting Greenacre's name. This clamour and the loss of his hat drew attention upon him; he was a mark for squirts and missiles, to say nothing of verbal insult. St. Paul's struck the first note of twelve, and from all the bestial mob arose a howl and roar. Polperro happened to press against a drunken woman; she caught him by his disordered hair and tugged at it, yelling into his face. To release himself he bent forward, pushing the woman away; the result was a violent blow from her fist, after which she raised a shriek as if of pain and terror. Instantly a man sprang forward to her defence, and he, too, planted his fist between the eyes of the hapless peer. Gammon saw at once that they were involved in a serious row, the very thing he had been trying to avoid. He would not desert his friend, and was too plucky to see him ill-used with out reprisals. The rough's blows were answered with no less vigour by the man of commerce.
"Hook it!" shouted Gammon to the tottering Polperro. "Get out of it!"
The clock was still striking; the crowd kept up its brutal blare, aided by shrill instruments of noise. Only a few people heard Polperro's shout defying the enemy.
"Let him come on! Let him come on like a man! Take that, you ruffian, and that!"
Gammon, knowing the conflict grossly unequal, did not scruple to fight his own way. Polperro, wildly thrashing about him with both fists, excited wrath in every direction. There was a general scrimmage; shouts of rage mingled with wild laughter; the throng crushed this way and that. Grappling in his own defence with a big brute who had clutched his throat, Gammon saw Polperro go down. It was his last glimpse of the unfortunate man. Fighting savagely he found himself borne far away by an irresistible rush, and when he had lost sight of his foe he tried vainly to return to the place where Polperro had fallen. The police were now interfering, the crowd swayed more violently than ever, and began to scatter itself in off-streets.
From church towers of east and west chimes rang merrily for the New Year. Softly fell the snow from a black sky, and was forthwith trodden into slush.
Though he was badly mauled and felt sick Gammon would not abandon the hope of discovering his friend. After resting for a few minutes against the front of a shop he moved again into the crowd, now much thinner, and soon to be altogether dispersed. The helmets of policemen drew him in a certain direction; two constables were clearing the way, and he addressed them, asking whether they had seen a bareheaded man recently damaged in a fight.
"There's been a disturbance over yonder," one replied, carelessly pointing to a spot where other helmets could be discerned.
Thither Gammon made his way. He found police and public gathered thickly about some person invisible; a vigorous effort and he got near enough to see a recumbent body, quite still, on which the flakes of snow were falling.
"Let me look at him," he requested of a constable who would have pushed him away. "It's a friend of mine, I believe."
Yes, it was Lord Polperro, unconscious, and with blood about his mouth.
The police were waiting as a matter of professional routine to see whether he recovered his senses; they had, of course, classed him as "drunk and incapable."
"I say," Gammon whispered to one of them, "let me tell you who that is."
The conference led to the summoning of a cab, which by police direction was driven to the nearest hospital, St. Bartholomew's. Here Gammon soon learnt that the case was considered serious, so serious that the patient has been put to bed and must there remain.
Utterly done up Gammon threw himself into the cab to be driven to Kennington Road. When he reached Mrs. Bubb's he was fast asleep, but there a voice addressed him which restored his consciousness very quickly indeed.
It was the voice of Greenacre, unsteady with wrath, stripped utterly of its bland intonations.
"So here you are! What have you been up to, Gammon? Are you drunk?"
Just as the cab drove up Greenacre was turning reluctantly from the house door, where he had held a warm parley with Mrs. Bubb; the landlady irritable at being disturbed in her first sleep, the untimely visitor much ruffled in temper by various causes.
"Drunk!" echoed Gammon, as he leapt to the pavement and clutched at Greenacre's arm. "Drunk yourself, more likely! Where have you been since you sent that telegram? Hold on a minute." He paid the cabman. "Now then, give an account of yourself."
"What the devil do you mean?" cried the other. "What account do I owe to you?"
"Well, I might answer that question," said Gammon with a grin, "if I took time to calculate."
"We can't talk in the street at this time of night, with snow coming down. Suppose we go up to your room?"
"As you please. But I advise you to talk quietly; the walls and the floors are not over thick."
The latch-key admitted them, and they went as softly as possible up the stairs, only one involuntary kick from Greenacre on sounding wood causing his host to mutter a malediction. By a light in the bedroom they viewed each other, and Greenacre showed astonishment.
"So you are drunk, or have been You've got a black eye, and your clothes are all pulled about. You've been in a row."
"You're not far wrong. Tell' me what you've been doing, and you shall hear where the row was and who was with me."
"Gammon, you've been behaving like a cad -- a scoundrel. I didn't think it of you. You went to that place in Sloane Street. No use lying; I've been told you were there. You must have found out I was going away, and you've played old Harry. I didn't think you were a fellow of that sort; I had more faith in you."
Upon mutual recrimination followed an exchange of narratives. Greenacre's came first. He was the victim, he declared, of such ill luck as rarely befell a man. Arriving at Euston by the Irish mail, and hastening to get a cab, whom should he encounter on the very platform but a base-minded ruffian who nursed a spite against him; a low fellow who had taken advantage of his good nature, and who -- in short, a man from whom it was impossible to escape, for several good reasons, until they had spent some hours together. He got off a telegram to Lord Polperro, and could do no more till nearly eleven o'clock at night. Arriving headlong at Lowndes Mansions, he learnt with disgust what had gone on there in his absence. And now, what defence had Gammon to offer? What was his game?
"I guess pretty well what yours is, my boy," answered the listener. "And I'm not sorry I've spoilt it."
Thereupon he related the singular train of events between breakfast time this (or rather yesterday) morning and the ringing out of the old year. When it came to a description of Lord Polperro's accident Greenacre lost all control of himself.
"Ass! blockhead! You know no better than to let such a man in his state of health get mixed up m a crowd of roughs at midnight? Good God! He may die!"
"I shouldn't wonder a bit," returned Gammon coolly. "If he does it may be awkward for you, eh?"
From his story he had omitted one detail, thinking it better to keep silence about the burning of the will until he learnt more than Greenacre had as yet avowed to him.
"Fool!" blustered the other. "Idiot!"
"You'd better stop that, Greenacre, or I shan't be the only man with a black eye. Do you want to be kicked downstairs? or would you prefer to drop out of the window? Keep a civil tongue in your head."
At this moment both were startled into silence by a violent thumping at the wall.
It came from the room which used to be occupied by Polly Sparkes, and was accompanied by angry verbal remonstrance from a lodger disturbed in his slumbers.
"Didn't I tell you?" muttered Gammon. "You'd better get home and go to bed; the walk will cool you down. It's all up with your little game for the present. Look here," he added in a friendly whisper, "you may as well tell me. Has he another wife?"
"Find out," was Greenacre's surly answer; "and go to the devil!"
A rush, a scuffling, a crash somewhere which shook the house. The disturbed lodger flung open his door and shouted objurgations. From below sounded the shrill alarm of Mrs. Bubb, from elsewhere the anxious outcries of Mrs. Cheeseman and her husband.
Amid all this Greenacre and his quondam friend somehow reached the foot of the stairs, where the darkness that enveloped their struggle was all at once dispersed by a candle in the hand of Mrs. Bubb.
"Don't alarm yourself," shouted Gammon cheerily, "I'm only kicking this fellow out. No one hurt."
"Well, Mr. Gammon, I do think----"
But the landlady's protest was cut short by a loud slamming of the house-door.
"It's nothing," said the man of commerce, breathing hard. "Very sorry to have disturbed you all. It shan't happen again. Good night, Mrs. Bubb."
He ran up to his room, laughed a good deal as he undressed, and was asleep five minutes afterwards. Before closing his eyes he said to himself that he must rise at seven; business claimed him tomorrow, and he felt it necessary to see Mrs. Clover (or Lady Polperro) with the least possible delay. However tired, Gammon could always wake at the hour he appointed. The dark, snowy morning found him little disposed to turn out; he had something of a headache, and a very bad taste in the mouth; for all that he faced duty with his accustomed vigour. Of course he had to leave the house without breakfast, but a cup of tea at the nearest eating-house supplied his immediate wants, and straightway he betook himself to the china shop near Battersea Park Road.
That was not a pleasant meeting with his friend Mrs. Clover. To describe all that had happened yesterday would have taxed his powers at any time; at eight-thirty a.m. on the first of January, his head aching and his stomach ill at ease, he was not likely to achieve much in the way of lucid narrative. Mrs. Clover regarded him with a severe look. His manifest black eye, and an unwonted slovenliness of appearance, could not but suggest that he had taken leave of the bygone year in a too fervid spirit. His explanations she found difficulty in believing, but the upshot of it all -- the fact that her husband lay at St. Bartholomew's Hospital -- seemed beyond doubt, and this it was that mainly concerned her.
"I shall go at once," she said in a hard tone, turning her face from him.
"But there's something else I must tell you," pursued Gammon, with much awkwardness. "You don't know -- who to ask for."
The woman's eyes, even now not in their depths unkindly, searched him with a startled expression.
"I suppose I shall ask for Mr. Clover?"
"They wouldn't know who you meant. That isn't his real name."
A cry escaped her; she turned pale.
"Not his real name? I thought it -- I was afraid of that! Who am I, then? What -- what have I a right to call myself?"
With a glance at the door of the sitting-room, nervousness bringing the sweat to his forehead, Gammon told what he knew, all except the burning of the will, and the fact of Greenacre's mission to Ireland. The listener was at first sight utterly bewildered, looked incredulous, and only when certain details had been repeated and emphasized began to grasp the reality of what she heard.
"Oh!" she exclaimed at length in profound agitation, "that explains so many things! I never thought of this, but I've often wondered. I understand now."
She paused, struggling to control herself. Then, not without dignity, in the tone and with the face that are natural at such moments only to a woman here and there; the nobler of her sex, she added:
"I can't go to the hospital. Someone else must tell me about him. I can't go."
"I shall have time to call on my way," said Gammon, "and I could send you a wire."
"Will you? I can't go."
She sobbed, but quietly, hiding her face in her hands. Gammon, more distressed by her emotion than he had ever felt at the sight of a woman weeping, did his clumsy best to solace her. He would call at the hospital straight away and telegraph the news as soon as possible. And anything else he could learn about Lord Polperro should be made known to her without delay. He wrote on a piece of paper the address in Sloane Street, and that of the house in Stanhope Gardens. On the point of departure something occurred to him that it was wise to say.
"I shouldn't do anything just yet." He looked at her impressively. "In your position I should just wait a little. I'm sure it would be better, and I may be able to give you a reason before long."
"I shall do nothing -- nothing."
"That's best, I assure you. You're not angry with me? You'll shake hands?"
She gave him her hand; withdrew it quickly; turned to hide her face again. And Gammon hastened Citywards.
A telegram came from him in little more than an hour. It reported that the patient was still unconscious and dangerously ill.
When, later in the afternoon, Gammon went to the hospital to make another inquiry he learnt that Lord Polperro was dead.
Turning away, debating whether to send the widow a. telegram or to break the news by word of mouth, he saw a cab drive up, out of which jumped Mr. Greenacre. Their eyes met, but they exchanged no sign of recognition. Scarcely, however, had Gammon walked a dozen yards when a quick step sounded behind him, and he was addressed in tones of the most conciliatory politeness.
"Gammon, may I beg one word? I owe you an apology. My behaviour last night was quite unjustifiable. I can only explain it by the fact that I had undergone a severe trial to the nerves. I was not myself. May I hope, my dear Gammon, to be forgiven? I apologize most humbly -- believe me."
"Oh, that's all right," replied the other with a grin; "I hope I didn't hurt you?"
"My dear fellow, it would have served me right. But no -- just a few trifling bruises. By the by, our friend has departed."
"Dead -- yes!"
"Do you know, Gammon, I think we ought to have a quiet talk. You and I have common interests in this matter. There will be an inquest, you know, and the fact is I think" -- he spoke very confidentially -- "it might be as well for us both if we came to some sort of mutual understanding. As things have turned out we are victims of circumstances. Might I suggest with all deference that we should dine together very quietly? I know a very suitable place. It's early for dinner, but, to tell the truth, I have had no particular appetite, to-day; in fact, have hardly touched food."
Gammon accepted this invitation and decided to send a telegram to the china shop.
Their conference -- tentative on both sides for the first half hour -- led eventually to a frank disclosure of all that was in their minds with regard to Lord Polperro. Each possessed of knowledge that made him formidable to the other, should their attitude be one of mutual hostility, they agreed, in Greenacre's phrase, to "pool" all information and then see how they stood. Herein Gammon had the advantage; he learnt much more than it was in his power to communicate, for, whilst Greenacre had been playing a deliberate game, the man of commerce had become possessed of secrets only by chance, which his friend naturally could not believe.
Greenacre had been to Ireland on the track of a woman whom Lord Polperro had lost sight of for some five-and-twenty years; he had obtained satisfactory evidence that this woman was dead -- a matter of some moment, seeing that, if still alive, she would have been his lordship's wife. The date of her death was seven years and a few months ago.
"By jorrocks!" cried the listener at this point, greatly disturbed. "Then Mrs. Clover -- as we call her -- wasn't really his wife at all?"
"I regret to say that she was not," replied Greenacre with proper solemnity. "I grieve to tell you that our deceased friend committed bigamy. Our deceased friend was a most peculiar man; I can't say that I approve of his life, viewed as a whole."
Then came Gammon's disclosure about the burning of the will and about Lord Polperro's intention to see his solicitor.
Greenacre smiled grimly.
"If I may make a personal remark, Gammon," he said in measured tones, "I will confess that I should never have allowed the destruction of that document. You, my friend, if I am not mistaken, had a still greater interest in preventing it. That will provided very handsomely for Mrs. Clover, for Miss Clover, and -- I may say liberally -- for a young lady named Miss Sparkes."
He smiled more grimly than ever.
Gammon drew in his breath and refrained from speech.
"Of course, I understand his motives," pursued Greenacre. "They were prudent, no doubt, and well meaning. He did not foresee that there would be no opportunity for that interview with his solicitor."
"Look here, Greenacre, I Want to know how you found out first of all that he'd married twice."
"Very simply; I took it for granted that he had. I am a student, as you know, of genealogy, also of human nature in general. In my first interview with Lord Polperro I let fall a word or two which obviously alarmed him. That was quite enough. In his singular state of mind he jumped to the conclusion that -- as they say on the stage -- I knew everything; and, of course, I very soon did; as much, that is to say, as he himself knew. He married at two-and-twenty a young girl whom he met in Ireland; married her in his right name -- Trefoyle (not Clover) -- and they travelled together for a year or two. Then somehow they parted, and never saw or heard of each other again. No, there was no child. I had little difficulty in persuading his lordship to let me investigate this matter for him; I did it with complete success. The girl belonged to a peasant family, I may tell you; she led, on the whole, a decidedly adventurous life, and died suddenly on a ship in which she was returning to the old country from America. I gather that she never knew her husband's aristocratic connexion. Of course, I was discretion itself whilst making these inquiries, and I feel pretty sure that no claim will ever be made from that quarter -- the peasant family -- on our friend's estate."
"Why, then," exclaimed Gammon, "what is to prevent Mrs. Clover from coming forward? She knows nothing; she needn't ever hear a word."
"Gammon, you surprise me. Clearly you haven't the legal mind. How could you reconcile yourself to stand by whilst the law of your country was so grossly defeated?"
"Humbug! Don't use such long words, old chap. But perhaps Polperro's family knew of the marriage?"
"They did not, I can assure you. Our friend was the kind of man who doesn't like the class in which he was born; he preferred a humbler station. He was never on very good terms with his relatives."
"Well, then," Gammon persisted, "who is to let them know that Mrs. Clover wasn't the real wife? Hanged if I see why she shouldn't come forward!"
"My friend," replied Greenacre, smiling gently, "it will be my privilege to make known all the facts of this case to the Honourable Miss Trefoyle, his lordship's sister and nearest surviving relative."
"I regard it as a simple duty. I cannot even argue the subject, Gammon; if you have no conscience, I have."
Gammon sat pondering until light began to break upon him. The other, meanwhile, watched his countenance.
"I see," he said at length bluntly. "You think it'll do you more good to take that side. I see."
"Gammon, my leanings are aristocratic. They always were. It puts me at a disadvantage sometimes in our democratic society. But I disregard that. You may call it prejudice. I, for my part, prefer to call it principle. I take my stand always on the side of birth and position. When you have thought about it I am sure you will forgive this weakness in me. It need not affect our friendship."
"Wait a bit. There's another question I want to ask. What had Lord Polperro to do with the Quodlings?"
"The Quodlings? Ah! I grieve to tell you that Francis Quodling, an illegitimate half-brother of our friend, had of late given trouble to his lordship. Francis Quodling has long been in Queer Street; he seemed to think that he had a claim -- a natural claim, I might say -- on Lord Polperro. When you first met his lordship he had been seeing the other Quodling on this matter. Pure kindness of heart -- he was very kind-hearted. He wanted to heal a breach between the brothers, and, if possible, to get Francis a partnership in the firm -- your firm. I fear he exerted himself vainly."
"Greenacre!" exclaimed the man of commerce, thumping the table. "It's beastly hard lines that that woman and her daughter shouldn't have a penny!"
"I agree with you. By the by, you have told her?"
"Yes, this morning."
"Gammon, you are so impulsive. Still, I suppose she had to know. Yes, I suppose it was inevitable. Will she molest his relatives do you think?"
"She?" Gammon reflected. "I can't quite see her doing it. She may be a bit angry, but -- no, I don't think she'll bother anybody. I can't see her doing it."
And still he meditated.
"You reserve to yourself; I presume, the duty of acquainting her with these painful facts?"
"Me tell her? Why, I suppose I must if it comes to that. But -- I'm hanged if I shall enjoy it. Who else knows? Jorrocks! there's Polly. I'd forgotten Polly!"
Gammon grew perplexed in mind and shadowed in countenance. Of a truth Polly Sparkes had not once entered his mind since he saw her yesterday. But he must see her again, and that to-night. Whew! He would now have given a substantial sum to deprive Polly of the knowledge he had so recklessly confided to her.
"You are impulsive, my friend," remarked the other, quietly amused. "Impulsive and lacking in foresight."
"And you---- Never mind; I won't say it. Still, you used to be a puzzle to me, Greenacre; now I feel as if I was beginning to understand you a bit."
The man of foresight -- he was remarkably well-dressed this evening -- watched the smoke from his cigarette and smiled.
In due course a coroner and his jury sat on the body of Lord Polperro; in the order of things this inquest was publicly reported.
Readers of newspapers learnt that the eccentric nobleman, though in a weak state of health, had the indiscretion to mingle with a crowd on New Year's Eve; that he either accidentally fell or was knocked down by some person unknown in the rough-and-tumble of the hour; in short, that his death might fairly be accounted for by misadventure. The results of the autopsy were not made known in detail, but a professional whisper went about that among the causes contributory to Lord Polperro's death were congestion of the lungs, softening of the brain, chronic inflammation of the stomach, drunkard's liver, and Bright's disease of the kidneys.
The unprofessional persons who came forward were Mr. Gammon, Lord Polperro's housekeeper, and Miss Trefoyle. The name of Greenacre was not so much as mentioned; the existence of a lady named Mrs. Clover remained unknown to court and public.
On the following day Mr. Gammon had a private interview with Miss Trefoyle. He was aware that this privilege had already been sought by and granted to Mr. Greenacre, and as his one great object was to avert shame and sorrow from his friends at Battersea Park, Gammon acquitted himself with entire discretion; that is to say, he did not allow Miss Trefoyle to suspect that there had been anything between him and her brother except a sort of boon companionship. In behaving thus he knew that he was acting as Mrs. Clover most earnestly desired. Not many hours before he had discharged what he felt to be his duty, had made known to Mrs. Clover the facts of her position, and had heard the unforgettable accent of her voice as she entreated him to keep this secret. That there might be no doubt as to the truth of Greenacre's assertions he had accompanied that gentleman to Somerset House, and had perused certain entries in the registers of marriage and of death indicated to him by his friend's forefinger; clearly then, if he and Greenacre kept silence, it would never become known, even to Polperro's kinsfolk, that his lordship had been guilty of bigamy.
Stay! one other person knew the true name of Mrs. Clover's husband -- Polly Sparkes.
"Polly be hanged," muttered Gammon.
"When is the wedding?" Greenacre inquired casually in one of their conversations.
"Wedding? Whose wedding?"
Gammon's face darkened. A change had come about in his emotions. He was afraid of Polly, he was weary of Polly, he heartily wished he had never seen Polly's face. For self-scrutiny Gammon had little inclination and less aptitude; he could not have explained the origin and progress of his nearer relations with Miss Sparkes. Going straight to the point, like a man of business, he merely knew that he had made a condemnable mistake, and the question was how to put things right.
"There's one bit of luck," he remarked, instead of answering the inquiry, "she isn't on speaking terms with her aunt."
"I'm rather glad to hear that. But do you think she'll hold out against her curiosity?"
"In any case she won't learn anything from Mrs. Clover. I'm pretty sure of that."
"I can only hope you're right about Mrs. Clover," said Greenacre musingly. "If so, she must be a rather uncommon sort of woman, especially -- if you will excuse the remark -- in that class."
"She is," replied Gammon with noteworthy emphasis. "I don't know a woman like her -- no one like her. I wouldn't mind betting all I have that she'll never speak a word as long as she lives about that man. She'll never tell her daughter. Minnie will suppose that her father turned up somehow just for a few hours and then went off again for good and all."
"Remarkable woman," murmured Greenacre. "It saves trouble, of course."
Possibly he was reflecting whether it might be to his advantage or not to reveal this little matter in Stanhope Gardens. Perhaps it seemed to him on the whole that he had done wisely in making known to Miss Trefoyle only the one marriage (which she might publish or not as her conscience dictated), and that his store of private knowledge was the richer by a detail he might or might not some day utilize. For Mr. Greenacre had a delicacy of his own. He did not merely aim at sordid profits. In avowing his weakness for aristocratic companionship he told a truth which explained many singularities in what would otherwise have been a career of commonplace dishonesty.
"I suppose she must be told," said Gammon with bent head. "Polly, I mean."
"Miss Sparkes is a young lady of an inquiring spirit. She will want to know why she does not benefit by Lord Polperro's death."
"You told her yourself about the will, remember."
"I did. As things turn out it was a pity. By the by, I should like to have seen that document. As Cuthbertson has no knowledge of it, our deceased friend no doubt drafted it himself. More likely than not it would have been both amusing and profitable to the lawyers, like his father's in the days of our youth. I wonder whether he called Mrs. Clover his wife? We shall never solve all these interesting doubts."
"I had better not let Polly know he burnt it," remarked Gammon.
"Why, no; I shouldn't advise that," said the other with a smile. "But I have heard that married men----"
"Shut up! I'm not going to marry her."
Driven to this bold declaration, Gammon at once felt such great relief that he dared everything.
"Then there'll be the devil to pay," said Greenacre.
"Wait a bit. Of course I shall take my time about breaking off."
"Gammon, I am surprised and shocked -- not for the first time -- at your utter want of principle."
Each caught the other's eye. The muscles of their faces relaxed, and they joined in a mirthful peal.
It was a long and exciting week for the town traveller. Greenacre, always on the look out for romance in common life, was never surprised when he discovered it, but to Gammon it came with such a sense of novelty that he had much ado to keep a clear head for everyday affairs. He drove about London as usual, but beset with fantastic visions and desires. Not only was Polly quite dismissed from his thoughts (in the tender sense), but he found himself constantly occupied with the image of Mrs. Clover, heretofore seldom in his mind, notwithstanding her brightness and comeliness and the friendship they had so long felt for each other. Minnie he had forgotten; the mother came before him in such a new light that he could hardly believe his former wish to call her mother-in-law. This strange emotion was very disturbing. As if he had not worry enough already!
Delicacy kept him away from the china shop. He knew how hard it must be for the poor woman to disguise her feelings before Minnie and other people. Minnie, to be sure, would understand signs of distress as a result of her father's brief reappearance, but Mrs. Clover's position was no less lamentable. He wished to be at her side endeavouring to console her. Yet, as likely as not, all he said would give her more pain than comfort.
Ah, but there was a woman! Was he likely ever to meet another who had pluck and goodness and self-respect like hers? Minnie? Some day, perhaps, being her mother's daughter. But Minnie, after all, was little more than a child. And he could no longer think of her in the old way it made him uncomfortable if he tried to do so.
Polly? Ah, Polly! Polly be hanged!
He had an appointment with her for this evening -- not at the theatre door, for Polly no longer went to the theatre. Change in the management had put an end to her pleasant and lucrative evenings; she had tried in vain to get like employment at other places. In a letter received this morning she remarked significantly that of course it was not worth while to take up any other pursuit again.
It could not be called a delightful letter from any point of view. Polly had grown tired of uniform sweetness, and indulged herself in phrases of an acid flavour.
"Haven't you got anything yet to tell me about the will? If I don't hear anything from you before long I shall jolly well go and ask somebody else. I believe you know more than you want to tell, which I call it shameful. Mind you bring some news to-night."
They met at six o'clock in the Lowther Arcade; it was raining, cold, and generally comfortless. By way of cheery beginning Gammon declared that he was hungry, and invited Miss Sparkes to eat with him.
They transferred themselves to a restaurant large enough to allow of their conversing as they chose under cover of many noises. Gammon had by this time made up his mind to a very bold step, a stratagem so audacious that assuredly it deserved to succeed. Only despair could have supplied him with such a suggestion and with the nerve requisite for carrying it out.
"What about that will?" asked Polly, as soon as they were seated and the order had been given
"There is no will."
This answer, and the carelessness with which it was uttered, took away Polly's breath. She glared, and unconsciously handled a table knife in an alarming way.
"What d'you mean? Who are you kidding?"
"He's left no will. And what's more, if he had, your name wouldn't have been in it, old girl."
"Oh, indeed! We'll soon see about that! I'll go straight from 'ere to that 'ouse, see if I don't I'll see his sister for myself this very night, so there!"
"Go it, Polly, you're welcome, my dear. You'll wake 'em up in Stanhope Gardens."
The waiter interrupted their colloquy. Gammon began to eat; Polly, heeding not the savoury dish, kept fierce eyes upon him.
"What d'you mean? Don't go stuffing like a pig but listen to me, and tell me what you're up to."
"You're talking about Lord P., ain't you?" asked Gammon in a lower voice.
"Course I am."
"And you think he was your uncle? So did I till a few days ago. Well, Polly, he wasn't. Lord P. didn't know you from Adam, nor your aunt either."
He chuckled, and ate voraciously. The artifice seemed to him better and better, enjoyment of it gave him a prodigious appetite.
"If you'll get on with your eating I'll tell you about it. Do you remember what I told you about the fellow Quodling in the City? Well, listen to this. Lord P. had another brother knocking about -- you understand, a brother -- like Quodling, who had no name of his own. And this brother, Polly, is your uncle Clover."
Miss Sparkes did not fail to understand, but she at once and utterly declined to credit the statement.
"You mean to say it wasn't Lord P. at all as I met -- as I saw at the theatre?"
"You saw his illegitimate brother, your uncle, and never Lord P. at all. Now just listen. This fellow who called himself Clover is a precious rascal. We don't know as much about him as we'd like to, but I dare say we shall find out more. How did he come to be sitting with those ladies in the theatre, you're wanting to ask? Simple enough. Knowing his likeness to the family of Lord Polperro he palmed himself off on them as a distant relative, just come back from the colonies; they were silly enough to make things soft for him. He seems to have got money, no end of it, out of Lord P. No doubt he was jolly frightened when you spotted him, and you know how he met you once or twice and tipped you. That's the story of your Uncle Clover, Polly."
The girl was impressed. She could believe anything ill of Mrs. Clover's husband. Her astonishment at learning that he was a lord had never wholly subsided. That he should be a cunning rascal seemed vastly more probable.
"But what about that letter you sent -- eh?" pursued Gammon with an artful look. "Didn't you address it to Lord P. himself? So you did, Polly. But listen to this. By that time Lord P. and his people had found out Clover's little game; never mind how, but they had. You remember that he wouldn't come again to meet you at Lincoln's Inn. Good reason, old girl; he had had to make himself scarce. Lord P. had set a useful friend of his -- that's Greenacre -- to look into Clover's history. Greenacre, you must know, is a private detective." He nodded solemnly. "Well now, when your letter came to Lord P. he showed it to Greenacre, and they saw at once that it couldn't be meant for him, but no doubt was meant for Clover. 'I'll see to this,' said Greenacre. And so he came to meet us that night."
"But it was you told me he was Lord P.," came from the listener.
"I did, Polly. Not to deceive you, my dear, but because I was taken in myself. I'd found what they call a mare's nest. I was on the wrong scent. I take all the blame to myself."
"But why did Greenacre go on with us like that? Why didn't he say at once that it wasn't Lord P. as had met me?"
"Why? Because private detectives are cautious chaps. Greenacre wanted to catch Clover, and didn't care to go talking about the story to everybody. He deceived me, Polly, just as much as you."
She had begun to eat, swallowing a mouthful now and then mechanically, the look of resentful suspicion still on her face.
"And what do you think?" pursued her companion, after a delicious draught of lager beer. "Would you believe that only a day or two before Lord P.'s death the fellow Clover went to your aunt's house, to the china shop, and stayed overnight there! What do you think of that, eh? He did. Ask Mrs. Clover. He went there to hide, and to get money from his wife."
This detail evidently had a powerful effect. Polly ate and drank and ruminated, one eye on the speaker.
"I got to know of that," went on the wily Gammon. "And I told Greenacre. And Greenacre made me tell it to Lord P. himself. And that's how I came to be with Lord P. on New Year's Eve! Now you've got it all."
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Polly with ferocity.
"Ah, why? I was ashamed to, my dear. I couldn't own up that I'd made a fool of myself and you too."
"How did you know that he'd been at my aunt's?"
"She sent for me, Polly; sent for me and told me, because I was an old friend. And I was so riled at the fellow coming and going in that way that I spoke to Greenacre about it. And then Greenacre told me how things were. I felt a fool, I can tell you. But the fact is, I never saw two men so like in the face as Clover and Lord P."
"When you was there -- at my aunt's -- did you talk about me?" asked the girl with a peculiar awkwardness.
"Not a word, I swear! We were too much taken up with the other business."
For a minute or two neither spoke.
"And you mean to say," burst at length from Polly, "that my uncle's still alive and going about?"
"All alive and kicking, not a doubt of it, and Lord P. buried at Kensal Green; no will left behind him, and all his property going to the next of kin, of course. Now listen here, Polly. I want to tell you that I shouldn't wonder if you have a letter from Greenacre. He may be asking you to meet him."
"Just to have a talk about Clover -- see? He's still after Clover, and he thinks you might be of use to him. I leave it to you -- understand? You can meet him if you like; there's no harm. He'll tell you all the story if you ask him nicely."
On this idea, which had occurred to him in the course of his glowing mendacity, Gammon acted as soon as he and Polly had said good-bye. He discovered Greenacre, who no longer slept at the Bilboes, but in a house of like cosiness and obscurity a little farther west; told him of the brilliant ingenuity with which he had escaped from a galling complication, and received his promise of assistance in strengthening the plot. Greenacre wrote to Polly that very night, and on the morrow conversed with her, emphasizing by many devices the secrecy and importance of their interview. Would Polly engage to give him the benefit of her shrewdness, her knowledge of life, in his search for the man Clover? His air of professional eagerness, his nods, winks, and flattery so wrought upon the girl that she ceased to harbour suspicion. Her primitive mind, much fed on penny fiction, accepted all she was told, and in the consciousness of secret knowledge affecting lords and ladies she gave up without a sigh the air-drawn vision of being herself actually a member of an aristocratic family.
At the same time she thought of Gammon with disappointment, with vague irritation, and began all but to wish that she had never weakly pardoned him for his insulting violence at Mrs. Bubbs'.
Just at this time the inhabitants of England -- one might say of the British Isles -- but more especially those privileged to dwell in London and its suburbs, submitted to one of the waves of intellectual excitement which, as is well known, are wont at intervals to pass over this fervidly imaginative people. Some representative person -- ingenious, philosophic, and ardent for the public good -- had conceived in a bright moment a thought destined to stir with zeal the pensive leisure of millions. This genius owned, or edited, a weekly paper already dear to the populace, and one day he announced in its columns a species of lottery -- ignoble word dignified by the use here made of it. Readers of adequate culture were invited to exercise their learning and their wit in the conjectural completion of a sentence -- no quotation, but an original apophthegm -- whereof one word was represented by a blank. Each competitor sent, together with the fruit of his eager brain, a small sum of money, and the brilliant enthusiast who at the earliest moment declared the missing word reaped as guerdon the total of these numerous remittances. It was an amusement worthy of our time; it appealed alike to the villa and the humble lodging, encouraged the habit of literary and logical discussion, gave an impulse to the sale of dictionaries. High and low, far and wide, a spirit of noble emulation took hold upon the users of the English tongue. "The missing word" -- from every lip fell the phrase which had at first sounded so mysteriously; its vogue exceeded that, in an earlier time, of "the missing link." The demand for postage stamps to be used in transmitting the entrance fee threatened to disorganize that branch of the public service; sorting clerks and letter carriers, though themselves contributory, grew dismayed at the additional labour Imposed upon them.
Naturally the infection was caught by most of the lively little group of Londoners in whose fortunes we are interested. Mr. Gammon threw himself with mirthful ardour into a competition which might prove so lucrative. Mr. Greenacre gave part of his supple mind to this new branch. of detective energy. The newly-wedded pair, Mr. and Mrs. Nibby, ceased from the wrangling that follows upon a honeymoon, and incited each other to a more profitable contest. The Parish household devoted every possible moment with native earnestness to the choice and the weighing of vocables. Polly Sparkes, unable to get upon the track of her missing uncle, abandoned her fiery intelligence to the missing word. The Cheeseman couple, Mrs. Bubb, nay, even Moggie the general, dared verbal conjecture and risked postage stamps. Only in a certain china shop near Battersea Park Road was the tumult unregarded, for Mrs. Clover had fallen from her wonted health, her happy temper, and Minnie in good truth cared neither for the recreation nor the dangled prize.
When Gammon and Polly met they talked no longer of Lord Polperro or Uncle Clover, but of words.
"I've got it this time, Polly! I swear I've got it! 'Undeserved misfortune is often a ---- to the noble mind.' Why, it's stimulus, of course!"
"I never heard the word," declared Polly. "I'm sending in stroke."
"Stroke? What do you mean by that?"
"What do I mean by it? Why, what they want to say is, that 'Undeserved misfortune is often a blow to the noble mind,' don't they? But blow can't be the word, 'cause everybody'd get it. The dictionary gives stroke for blow, and I'm sure that's it."
"Rot! they don't mean to say that at all! It ain't a blow to the noble mind, it's just the opposite; that's what they mean."
"How can it be the opposyte?" shrilled Polly. "Ain't it a knock-down if you get what you don't deserve?"
"I tell you they don't mean that. Can't you understand? Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face."
"Is it?" retorted Polly with indignation. "If I've got a plain nose, why didn't you tell me so before? If that's your way of talking to a lady----"
"Don't be a fool, Polly! It's a saying, ain't it?"
And they parted as usual, in dudgeon on both sides, which was not soothed when both found themselves wrong in the literary contest; for the missing word this week, discovered by an East-end licensed victualler, was pick-me-up.
Public opinion found fault with this editorial English. There rose a general murmur; the loftier spirits demanded a purer vocabulary, the multitude wanted to know whether that licensed victualler really existed. All looked for an easy word next week; easy it must be this time, or the game would begin to lose its zest. When the new number went forth in its myriads of copies, and was snatched from street vendors, stalls, shops, general expectation seemed to be justified.
"As nations grow civilized they give more and more attention to----"
Every man, every woman, had a word ready. Mr. Greenacre said nothing, but hastily wrote down genealogy. Gammon, before consulting with Polly Sparkes, sent off his postage stamps and commerce. Mr. and Mrs. Parish declared in one shout that the word could only be hyjene.
"Nonsense!" said Christopher, who was in the room. "That's just because you're always thinking of it."
For all that, as he went to business the word hummed in his head. It might be the solution after all; his objection originated only in scorn of a word so familiar, and therefore, he had thought at first, so improbable. But, really, the more he thought of it----
In his pocket he carried an envelope, already addressed, and a blank sheet of paper enfolding stamps. Should he once more enter the lottery -- risk the price of a luncheon? He had resolved not to do so, but every moment the temptation gained upon him. "Hyjene." By the by, how did one spell the word? H-y -- he grew uncertain at the third letter. Misspelling, he knew, would invalidate his chance; on the other hand, he must post as soon as possible; already thousands of answers were on their way to the office of the editor.
He was sitting in a London Bridge tram-car. At its next stoppage there entered a staid old gentleman, with whom he had made the Cityward journey for years; they always nodded to each other. This morning the grave senior chanced to take a place at his side, and a greeting passed between them. Christopher felt a sudden impulse, upon which he acted before timidity and other obstacles could interfere.
"Would you tell me, sir," he whispered, "the c'rect spelling of hyjene; meaning 'ealthiness, you know?"
"Why, what a queer thing!" answered his neighbour with all friendliness. "I've just been reading the word in the paper. Here is it."
He folded the sheet conveniently for Christopher's inspection, and pointed----
Mr. Parish read eagerly, his eyes close to the print, dreading lest he should forget.
"Thanks very much, sir. I -- a friend of mine told me I was wrong. I knew I wasn't -- thanks awfully!"
The white-haired man smiled approval, and returned to his study of the news. Christopher kept spelling the word in silence, and though the weather was very cold, soon perspired under the dread that he had got a letter wrong. At St. George's Church agitation quite overcame him; he hurried from the car, ran into a by-street, and with his pocket pencil wrote on the blank sheet of paper "Hygiene." Yes, he had it right. It looked right. Now for the nearest letter-box.
But his faith in "Hygiene" had risen to such fervour that he dreaded the delay of postal delivery. Why not carry the letter himself to the editorial office, which was at no very great distance? He would, even though it made him late at Swettenham's. And he began to run.
Panting, but exultant, he delivered his answer in the national competition, thus gaining a march upon the unhappy multitudes who dwelt far away, and whose resource and energy fell short of his. Then he looked at the time and was frightened; he would be dreadfully unpunctual at business; Swettenham's might meet him with stern rebuke. There was nothing for it, he hailed a cab.
Only in the middle of the morning did he remember that he had in his pocket a love-letter to Polly Sparkes, which he had meant to post early. He had seen Polly a few days ago, and suspected that she was in some sort of trouble and difficulty, possibly -- though she denied it -- caused by her want of employment. Polly declared that she had resources which enabled her to take a holiday. Not very long ago such a statement would have racked Christopher with jealous suspicions; suspicious he was, and a little uneasy, but not to the point of mental torture. The letter in his pocket declared that he could never cease to love Polly, and that he groaned over the poverty which condemned him to idle hopes; for all that, he thought much less of her just now than of the missing word. And when, in the luncheon hour, he posted his amorous missive, it was with almost a careless hand.
On this same day it happened that Mr. Gammon, speeding about his business in Messrs. Quodlings' neat little trap, found he could conveniently stop for a midday meal somewhere near Battersea Park Road. The boy who accompanied him took the horse to bait, and Mr. Gammon presently directed his steps to the little china shop.
Mrs. Clover had just finished dinner; her female assistant had returned into the shop, and by her Gammon sent a request for a moment's private conversation. He soon entered the sitting-room
"It's strange you have looked in to-day," said Mrs. Clover, with the dull air of one who has a headache. "I wanted to see you."
"I'm very glad."
He sat down at a distance from her and observed her face. This was a new habit of his; he saw more, much more, than he had been wont to see in the healthy, sweet-tempered, and still young countenance; its present languor disturbed him
"What was it, Mrs. Clover?" he asked in a voice not quite like his own.
"Well, I wanted to speak about Polly. Her father has been here asking questions."
Gammon set his lips almost angrily.
"I don't know as anything is. But -- have you heard anything about her going to be married?"
"Has she told her father that?" he asked, with a shuffle of his feet.
"Not in plain words. But she's doing nothing -- except roam about the streets -- and she won't give any straightforward account of herself. Now would you mind telling me, Mr. Gammon, whether" -- her eyes fell -- "I mean, if you've done anything since that night, you know, to make her offended with you?"
"Offended? Not that I know of," was his prompt answer with genuine surprise.
Mrs. Clover watched him, and seemed not dissatisfied.
"I'll tell you why I ask. Some time ago she wrote me a queer letter. It said she was going to be married -- or thought about it; and there was something I couldn't understand about you. I shall show you that letter. I think it's only right."
She withdrew for a moment and returned with Polly's abusive epistle, which she handed to her visitor.
Gammon first read it, then looked for a date, but none was discernible.
"When did you get this?" he asked.
Mrs. Clover could mention the very day, and on reflecting Gammon felt sure that Polly must have written this just before the exciting events which threw him and her into each other's arms. In the same moment he recalled Polly's eagerness to become possessed of a letter she had posted to him -- the letter he was not to open.
"You may well say it's queer." He laughed and laughed again. "She gives me a nice character, eh? And you've been wondering what I'd done? All I've got to say is, that it's a blessed lie from beginning to end. But perhaps you won't believe me?"
"I will believe you if you tell me plain and straight that you hadn't done anything wrong -- nothing to be ashamed of."
"Well, then, I do tell you that. I never gave her the least cause to speak of me in that way. It's all lies."
"I more than half thought it was."
Mrs. Clover heaved a sigh and looked more cheerful.
"And what," she added, "does she mean about marrying a gentleman?"
"That's more than I can tell you."
Again he laughed, laughed like a man enjoying sudden relief of mind.
"More than I can tell you, Mrs. Clover. But I'll see if I can't find out; indeed I will. Her friends, the Nibby's, may be able to tell me something. Have you asked her to come and see you?"
"No. For one thing I don't know the address, and after a letter like this----"
"Quite right. Leave it to me." He bent his head, hesitated, and added quietly, "I may have something to tell you."
Thereupon they parted, and Mrs. Clover felt her head so much better that she was able to attend to business.
With clang and twang the orchestra (a music-hall orchestra) summoned to hilarity an audience of the first half-hour; stragglers at various prices, but all alike in their manifest subdual by a cold atmosphere, a dull illumination, empty seats, and inferior singers put on for the early "turns." A striking of matches to kindle pipe or cigar, a thudding of heavy boots, clink of glass or pewter, and a waiter's spiritless refrain -- "Any orders, gents?" Things would be better presently. In the meantime Mr. Gammon was content to have found a place where he could talk with Polly, sheltered from the January night, at small expense. He sipped thoughtfully from a tumbler of rich Scotch; he glanced cautiously at his companion, who seemed very much under the influence of the hour. Polly, in fact, had hardly spoken. Her winter costume could not compare in freshness and splendour with that which had soothed her soul through the bygone sunny season; to tell the truth, she was all but shabby. But Gammon had no eye for this. He was trying to read Polly's thoughts, and wondering how she could take what he had made up his mind to tell her.
" I saw your aunt yesterday."
"Yes, I did. She was telling me about a letter she had from you some time ago -- the last letter you wrote her."
Their eyes met. Miss Sparkes was defiant -- on her guard, but not wholly courageous; Gammon twinkled a mocking smile, and held himself ready for whatever might come.
"She shows you people's letters, does she?" said Polly with a sneer.
"This one she did. Good reason. It was funny reading, old girl. That's your opinion of me, is it? Do you mind telling me who the gentleman is -- the real gentleman -- you think of taking up with?"
Gammon could not strike a really ungenerous note. He had meant to be severe, but did not get beyond sly banter.
"She's a cat for showing it to you!" replied Miss Sparkes. "That was wrote before we -- you know what. It was after you'd took your 'ook that Sunday on the Embankment. I didn't mean it. I was a bit cross. I'll pay her out some day for this, see if I don't."
Much more did Polly say, the gist of it all being an evident desire to soothe her companion's feelings. Gammon found himself in an unexpected and awkward position. He had taken for granted an outbreak of violence, he had counted upon the opportunity of mutual invective, he wished to tell Polly to go further. In the face of such singular mildness he was at a loss for weapons. Mere brutality would soon have settled the matter, but of that Mr. Gammon was incapable. At this juncture too, as if in support of Polly's claim to indulgence, a strain, irresistible by heart of man, preluded a song of the affections. Gammon began to understand what a mistake it was to have brought Polly to a music-hall for the purpose of breaking with her. Under cover of the languishing lyric Miss Sparkes put her head nearer to him.
"What am I to do, eh?"
"I cawn't go on like this. Do you want me to get another job somewhere? I sh'd think you might see I cawn't wear this jacket much longer."
The crisis was dreadful. Gammon clutched at the only possible method of appeasing his conscience, and postponing decisive words he took Polly's hand -- poorly gloved -- and secretly pressed the palm with a coin, which Polly in less than a clock-tick ascertained to be one pound sterling. She smiled. "What's that for?"
"For -- for the present."
And in this way another evening went by, leaving things as before.
"I'd never have believed I was such a fool," said Gammon to himself at a late hour. He meant, of course, that experience was teaching him for the first time the force of a moral obligation, which, as theorist, he had always held mere matter for joke. He by no means prided himself on this newly-acquired perception; he saw it only as an obstacle to business-like behaviour. But it was there, and -- by jorrocks! the outlook began to alarm him.
Meanwhile Mr. Greenacre was pursuing a laudable object. Greatly pleased at the dexterity with which Miss Sparkes had been hoodwinked in the matter of Lord Polperro and her Uncle Clover, he determined to set all at rest in that direction by making Polly believe that Mr. Clover, her uncle himself as distinct from Lord Polperro, was also dead and gone and done for. Gammon knew of the design and strongly favoured it, for he was annoyed by Mrs. Clover's false position; he wished her to be proclaimed a widow, without the necessity of disagreeable revelations.
An exciting post card brought about one more interview between Miss Sparkes and the so-called private detective. They met in a spot chosen for its impressiveness, the City office of a great line of ocean steamers. When Polly had with some difficulty discovered the place and entered shyly she was met by Greenacre, who at once drew her aside and began talking in a whisper with much show of worry and perturbation. In his hand rustled a printed form, with a few words in pencil.
"It's all over, Miss Sparkes. We have no more hope. This last cable settles it. Don't let me agitate you. But I thought it best that you should come here and see the cable for yourself." Sinking his voice and with his lips at her ear he added, "Your uncle is dead."
Polly was not overcome.
"Is it reely him this time?"
"Clover -- not a doubt of it. I got on his track, but too late, he was off to South Africa. Here is a cable from the Cape. He died at sea -- some obscure disease, probably an affection of the heart -- and was buried off the West Coast. Read it for yourself. 'Clover, second cabin passenger, died and buried 23.4 S., 8.2 S.; effects await instructions.' There he lies at the bottom of the sea, poor fellow. This is only a confirmatory cable; I have spent lots of money in learning particulars. Perhaps you would like to see one of the officials about it, Miss Sparkes? Unfortunately they can only repeat what I have told you."
Polly had no desire to hold converse with these gentlemen; she was thoroughly awed and convinced by Greenacre's tones and the atmosphere of the office.
"I have already communicated with your aunt. I dare say you would like to go and see her."
But neither for this had Polly any present inclination. She wanted to be alone and to reflect. Having made sure that she was not likely to visit Mrs. Clover forthwith, Greenacre took his leave, blending a decent melancholy with the air of importance and hurry proper to a man involved in so much business.
This week she had not entered for the missing word competition; and as few things interested Polly in which she had no personal concern, the morning on which the result was published found her in her ordinary frame of mind. She was thinking of Gammon, determined to hold him to his engagement, but more out of obstinacy than in obedience to the dictates of her heart, which had of late grown decidedly less fervid. Gammon could keep her respectably; he would make a very presentable husband; she did not fear ill treatment from him. On the other hand, she felt only too certain that he would be the stronger. When it came to a struggle (the inevitable result of marriage in Polly's mind) Gammon was not the man to give in. She remembered the battle at Mrs. Bubb's. All very well, that kind of thing, in days of courtship, but after marriage -- no! Some girls might be willing to find their master. Polly had always meant to rule, and that undisputedly.
Breakfasting in her bedroom at ten o'clock, she was surprised by the receipt of a telegram. It came from Christopher Parish and ran thus:
"Great news. Do meet me at entrance to Liverpool Street Station one o'clock. Wonderful news."
What this news could be puzzled her for a moment; then she remembered that Mr. Parish had spoke of a possible "rise" at Swettenham's early in the New Year. That must be it. He had got an increase of salary; perhaps five shillings a week more; no doubt.
Would that make any difference? Was it "good enough"? So her thoughts phrased the anxious question.
Regarding Christopher one thing was certain -- he would be her very humble slave. She imagined herself his wife, she pictured him inclining to revolt, she saw the results of that feeble insubordination, and laughed aloud. Christopher was respectable; he would undoubtedly continue to rise at Swettenham's, he would take a pride in the magnificence of her costume. When her temper called for natural relief she could quarrel with him by the hour without the least apprehension, and in the end would graciously forgive him. Yes, there was much to be said for Christopher.
A little before one o'clock she was at Liverpool Street, sheltered from a drizzle that brought down all the smoke of myriad chimneys. A slim figure in overcoat and shining hat rushed through the puddles towards her, waving an umbrella to the peril of other people speeding only less frantically.
"Polly! I've got it!"
He could gasp no more; he seized her arm as if for support.
"How much is it?" she asked calmly.
"Five hundred and fifty pounds! Hyjene!"
"What -- five hundred and fifty a year?"
Christopher stared at her.
"You don't understand. The missing word. I've got it this week. Cheque for five hundred and fifty pounds! Hyjene!"
"Look here -- here's the cheque! Hyjene!"
Polly fingered the paper, studied the inscription. All the time she was thinking that this sum of money would furnish a house in a style vastly superior to that of Mrs. Nibby's. Mrs. Nibby would go black in the face with envy, hatred, and malice. As she reflected Christopher talked, drawing her to the least-frequented part of the huge roaring railway station.
"Will you, Polly? Why don't you speak? Do, Polly, do!"
She all but spoke, would have done but for an ear-rending whistle from an engine.
"I shall have a rise, too, Polly. I'm feeling my feet at Swettenham's. Who knows what I may get to? Polly, I might -- I might some day have a big business of my own, and build a house at Eastbourne. It's all on the cards, Polly. Others have done it before me. Swettenham began as a clerk -- he did. Think Polly, five hundred and fifty pounds! -- Hyjene!"
She met his eye; she nodded.
"Don't mind if I do."
"Hooray! Hyjene forever! Hooray-ay-ay!"
Two or three days after this Gammon heard unexpectedly from Mrs. Clover, who enclosed for his perusal a letter she had just received from Polly Sparkes. What, she asked, could be the meaning of Polly's reference to her deceased uncle ' Was there never to be an end of mysteries and miseries in relation to that unhappy man?
Turning to Polly's scrawl (which contrasted so strongly with Mrs. Clover's neat, clear hand), Gammon discovered the passage which had disturbed his correspondent. "You mustn't expect me to go into black for your husband, for uncle I won't call him. I heard about him coming to you for money and then taking his hook because detectives was after him. A nice sort of man. It's a pity he had to be buried at the bottom of the sea, where you can't put up a monniment to him, as I'm sure you would like to do. So this is all I have to say, and I shall not trouble you again."
Here was no puzzle for Gammon, who had approved Greenacre's scheme for finally getting rid of Mr. Clover. But Polly's letter began with an announcement which occasioned him the greatest surprise he had known since the identification of Clover with Lord Polperro. So completely did it engross and confuse his mind that not until some quarter of an hour elapsed could he think about the passage quoted above. "I write to inform you," began Miss Sparkes, without any introductory phrase, "that I am going to be married to a gentleman who has a high place at Swettenham's, the big tea merchants, and his name is Mr. Parish. He has won the missing word, which is five hundred and fifty pounds, and which, every penny of it, he will spend on furniture at one of the best places. You shall have one of our cards when we send them out, though I cannot say you have behaved accordingly. The reason I do not invite you to the wedding is because Mr. Parish's friends are very particular."
After reading these remarkable lines again and again Mr. Gammon was much disposed to shout; but something restrained him. He felt, perhaps, that shouting would be inadequate or even inappropriate. When his first emotions subsided he went quietly forth from the house (it was evening) and took a walk about the adjacent streets, stopping at a stationer's to purchase note-paper. Returned to his room he gently whistled an old-fashioned melody; his face passed from grave thoughtfulness to a merry smile. Before going to bed he meant to write a letter, but there was no hurry; two hours had to pass before the midnight collection.
The letter was brief, lucid, sensible. He explained to Mrs. Clover that the painfulness and difficulty of her situation since Lord Polperro's death had impelled him to a strange, but harmless and justifiable, expedient for putting her affairs in order. He made known the nature of the artifice, which, "for several reasons," he had tried in the first instance upon Polly Sparkes, with complete success. If Mrs. Clover took his advice she would straightway go into moderate mourning and let it be known that her husband was dead. Reserve as to details would seem strange to no one; ordinary acquaintances might be told that Mr. Clover had died abroad, friends and relatives that he had died at sea. He hoped she would not be offended by what he had done, as it relieved her from a wretched burden of secrecy, and greatly improved the position of her daughter, Miss Minnie. She need not reply to this letter unless she liked, and he would make an opportunity of calling upon her before very long.
A week passed without reply.
By discreet inquiry Gammon learnt that Mrs. Clover had assumed the garb of widowhood, and this was quite enough.
"There," he said to himself, "there's an end of lies!" And he shook his shoulders as if to get quite clear of the unpleasant entanglement; for, Mr. Gammon, though ingenious at a pinch, had no natural bent towards falsehood. To be rid at almost the same moment of Mr. Clover and Polly Sparkes seemed to him marvellous good luck; and in these bitter, sodden days of the early year he was lighter hearted than for many months.
He had heard from Polly:
"DEAR MR. GAMMON,
"I don't think we are suited to each other, which is better for both parties. I shall send you a wedding-card in a few days, and I'm sure I wish you all happiness. And so I remain with my best respects,
This time Mr. Gammon felt no restraint upon his mirth. He threw his head back and roared joyously. That same day he went to a jeweller's and purchased -- for more than he could afford -- a suitable trinket, and sent it with a well-meaning note to Polly's address.
Winter brightened into spring, spring bloomed into summer. Gammon had paid several visits to the china shop, where all was going very well indeed. Minnie Clover now spent her evenings almost invariably with the young man interested in ceramic art, but it never disturbed Gammon to have ocular evidence of the fact. With Mrs. Clover he conversed in the respectfully familiar tone of an old friend, now and then reporting little matters which concerned his own welfare, such as his growing conviction that at Quodlings' he had found a "permanency," and his decision to go no more to Dulwich, to sell all his bow-wows, to find another employment for leisure hours.
But he was not wholly at ease. Time after time he had purposed making a confession to Mrs. Clover, time after time he "funked it" -- his own mental phrase -- and put it off.
He grew discontented with his room at Mrs. Bubb's. In getting up these bright mornings he looked with entirely new distaste upon the prospect from his window at the back. Beneath lay parallel strips of ground, divided from each other by low walls. These were called the "gardens" of the houses in Kennington Road, but no blade of grass ever showed upon the black, hard-trodden soil. Lank fowls ran about among discarded furniture and indescribable rubbish, or children -- few as well-tended as Mrs. Bubb's -- played and squabbled under the dropping soot. Beyond rose a huge block of tenements, each story entered from an external platform, the levels connected by flights of iron steps; the lofty roof, used as a drying ground by the female population, was surrounded with iron railings. Gammon had hitherto seen nothing disagreeable in this outlook, nor had the shrieks and curses which at night too frequently sounded from the huge building ever troubled his repose. But he was growing fastidious. He thought constantly of a clean little street not far from Battersea Park -- of a gleaming china shop -- of a little parlour which seemed to him the perfection of comfort and elegance.
Courage and opportunity came together. He sat alone with Mrs. Clover one Sunday evening, and she told him that Minnie was to be married in six months' time. Gammon bore the announcement very well indeed; he seemed really glad to hear it. Then his countenance became troubled, he dropped awkward sentences; with a burst of honest feeling, which made him very red, he at length plunged into his confession. Not a little astonished, Mrs. Clover learnt all that had passed between him and Polly Sparkes, now Polly Parish. Nothing did he extenuate, but he wronged neither Polly nor himself.
"There, I've got it out. You had to know. Thank goodness it's over!"
"Why did you tell me?" asked Mrs. Clover, a flush on her comely face, which could not yet smile, though she asked the question with a suggestion of slyness.
"It seemed only right -- to make things square -- don't you see. I shall know next time I come how you've taken it. And perhaps the next time after that----"
Mrs. Clover was now smiling, and so gently, so modestly, that Gammon forgot all about his scheme for a gradual approach. He began to talk excitedly, and talked for such a long time that his hostess, who wished him to disappear before Minnie's return, had at length to drive him away.
"I shall certainly keep on the shop," were her last words before the door opened. "I've got used to it, and -- it'll keep me out of mischief."
Her merry little laugh echoed in Gammon's ears all the way home, and for hours after. And when, as he rose next morning, he looked out on to the strips of back-yard and the towering tenements, they had lost all their ugliness.
"By jorrocks!" he ejaculated, after gashing his chin with the razor, "I'll send Polly a handsome present next Christmas."
This e-text and its HTML documents are so devised that they can afford a proof of my own drawing up. All rights reserved. No part of this e-text may be reproduced on the Internet without the permission of Mitsuharu Matsuoka.