The House of Cobwebs and Other Stories
Part 2 out of 6
angle of walls and ceiling there still clung a good many cobwebs, and the
state of the paper was deplorable. A blind hung at the window, but the
floor had no carpet. In one corner stood a little camp bed, neatly made for
the day; a table and a chair, of the cheapest species, occupied the middle
of the floor, and on the hearth was an oil cooking-stove.
'It's wonderful how little one really wants,' remarked Mr. Spicer, 'at all
events in weather such as this. I find that I get along here very well
indeed. The only expense I had was for the water-supply. And really, sir,
when one comes to think of it, the situation is pleasant. If one doesn't
mind loneliness--and it happens that I don't. I have my books, sir--'
He opened the door of a cupboard containing several shelves. The first
thing Goldthorpe's eye fell upon was the concertina; he saw also sundry
articles of clothing, neatly disposed, a little crockery, and, ranged on
the two top shelves, some thirty volumes, all of venerable aspect.
'Literature, sir,' pursued Mr. Spicer modestly, 'has always been my
comfort. I haven't had very much time for reading, but my motto, sir, has
been _nulla dies sine linea_.'
It appeared from his pronunciation that Mr. Spicer was no classical
scholar, but he uttered the Latin words with infinite gusto, and timidly
watched their effect upon the listener.
'This is delightful,' cried Mr. Goldthorpe. 'Will you let me have the front
room? I could work here splendidly--splendidly! What rent do you ask, Mr.
'Why really, sir, to tell you the truth I don't know what to say. Of course
the windows must be seen to. The fact is, sir, if you felt disposed to do
that at your own expense, and--and to have the room cleaned, and--and, let
us say, to bear half the water-rate whilst you are here, why, really, I
hardly feel justified in asking anything more.'
It was Goldthorpe's turn to be embarrassed, for, little as he was prepared
to pay, he did not like to accept a stranger's generosity. They discussed
the matter in detail, with the result that for the arrangement which Mr.
Spicer had proposed there was substituted a weekly rent of two shillings,
the lease extending over a period of three months. Goldthorpe was to live
quite independently, asking nothing in the way of domestic service;
moreover, he was requested to introduce no other person to the house, even
as casual visitor. These conditions Mr. Spicer set forth, in a commercial
hand, on a sheet of notepaper, and the agreement was solemnly signed by
both contracting parties.
On the way home to breakfast Goldthorpe reviewed his position now that he
had taken this decisive step. It was plain that he must furnish his room
with the articles which Mr. Spicer found indispensable, and this outlay, be
as economical as he might, would tell upon the little capital which was to
support him for three months. Indeed, when all had been done, and he found
himself, four days later, dwelling on the top story of the house of
cobwebs, a simple computation informed him that his total expenditure,
after payment of rent, must not exceed fifteenpence a day. What matter? He
was in the highest spirits, full of energy and hope. His landlord had been
kind and helpful in all sorts of ways, helping him to clean the room, to
remove his property from the old lodgings, to make purchases at the lowest
possible rate, to establish himself as comfortably as circumstances
permitted. And when, on the first morning of his tenancy, he was awakened
by a brilliant sun, the young man had a sensation of comfort and
satisfaction quite new in his experience; for he was really at home; the
bed he slept on, the table he ate at and wrote upon, were his own
possessions; he thought with pity of his lodging-house life, and felt a
joyous assurance that here he would do better work than ever before.
In less than a week Mr. Spicer and he were so friendly that they began to
eat together, taking it in turns to prepare the meal. Now and then they
walked in company, and every evening they sat smoking (very cheap tobacco)
in the wild garden. Little by little Mr. Spicer revealed the facts of his
history. He had begun life, in a midland town, as a chemist's errand-boy,
and by steady perseverance, with a little pecuniary help from relatives,
had at length risen to the position of chemist's assistant. For
five-and-twenty years he practised such rigid economy that, having no one
but himself to provide for, he began to foresee a possibility of passing
his old age elsewhere than in the workhouse. Then befell the death of his
uncle, which was to have important consequences for him. Mr. Spicer told
the story of this exciting moment late one evening, when, kept indoors by
rain, the companions sat together upstairs, one on each side of the rusty
and empty fireplace.
'All my life, Mr. Goldthorpe, I've thought what a delightful thing it must
be to have a house of one's own. I mean, really of one's own; not only a
rented house, but one in which you could live and die, feeling that no one
had a right to turn you out. Often and often I've dreamt of it, and tried
to imagine what the feeling would be like. Not a large, fine house--oh
dear, no! I didn't care how small it might be; indeed, the smaller the
better for a man of my sort. Well, then, you can imagine how it came upon
me when I heard--But let me tell you first that I hadn't seen my uncle for
fifteen years or more. I had always thought him a well-to-do man, and I
knew he wasn't married, but the truth is, it never came into my head that
he might leave me something. Picture me, Mr. Goldthorpe--you have
imagination, sir--standing behind the counter and thinking about nothing
but business, when in comes a young gentleman--I see him now--and asks for
Mr. Spicer. "Spicer is my name, sir," I said. "And you are the nephew,"
were his next words, "of the late Mr. Isaac Spicer, of Clapham, London?"
That shook me, sir, I assure you it did, but I hope I behaved decently. The
young gentleman went on to tell me that my uncle had left no will, and that
I was believed to be his next-of-kin, and that if so, I inherited all his
property, the principal part of which was three houses in London. Now try
and think, Mr. Goldthorpe, what sort of state I was in after hearing that.
You're an intellectual man, and you can enter into another's mind. Three
houses! Well, sir, you know what houses those were. I came up to London at
once (it was last autumn), and I saw my uncle's lawyer, and he told me all
about the property, and I saw it for myself. Ah, Mr. Goldthorpe! If ever a
man suffered a bitter disappointment, sir!'
He ended on a little laugh, as if excusing himself for making so much of
his story, and sat for a moment with head bowed.
'Fate played you a nasty trick there,' said Goldthorpe. 'A knavish trick.'
'One felt almost justified in using strong language, sir--though I always
avoid it on principle. However, I must tell you that the houses weren't
all. Luckily there was a little money as well, and, putting it with my own
savings, sir, I found it would yield me an income. When I say an income, I
mean, of course, for a man in my position. Even when I have to go into
lodgings, when my houses become the property of the ground-landlord--to my
mind, Mr. Goldthorpe, a very great injustice, but I don't set myself up
against the law of the land--I shall just be able to live. And that's no
small blessing, sir, as I think you'll agree.'
'Rather! It's the height of human felicity, Mr. Spicer. I envy you vastly.'
'Well, sir, I'm rather disposed to look at it in that light myself. My
nature is not discontented, Mr. Goldthorpe. But, sir, if you could have
seen me when the lawyer began to explain about the houses! I was absolutely
ignorant of the leasehold system; and at first I really couldn't
understand. The lawyer thought me a fool, I fear, sir. And when I came down
here and saw the houses themselves! I'm afraid, Mr. Goldthorpe, I'm really
afraid, sir, I was weak enough to shed a tear.'
They were sitting by the light of a very small lamp, which did not tend to
'Come,' cried Goldthorpe, 'after all, the houses are yours for a
twelvemonth. Why shouldn't we both live on here all the time? It'll be a
little breezy in winter, but we could have the fireplaces knocked into
shape, and keep up good fires. When I've sold my book I'll pay a higher
rent, Mr. Spicer. I like the old house, upon my word I do! Come, let us
have a tune before we go to bed.'
Smiling and happy, Mr. Spicer fetched from the cupboard his concertina, and
after the usual apology for what he called his 'imperfect mastery of the
instrument,' sat down to play 'Home, Sweet Home.' He had played it for
years, and evidently would never improve in his execution. After 'Home,
Sweet Home' came 'The Bluebells of Scotland,' after that 'Annie Laurie';
and Mr. Spicer's repertory was at an end. He talked of learning new pieces,
but there was not the slightest hope of this achievement.
Mr. Spicer's mental development had ceased more than twenty years ago,
when, after extreme efforts, he had attained the qualification of chemist's
assistant. Since then the world had stood still with him. Though a true
lover of books, he knew nothing of any that had been published during his
own lifetime. His father, though very poor, had possessed a little
collection of volumes, the very same which now stood in Mr. Spicer's
cupboard. The authors represented in this library were either English
classics or obscure writers of the early part of the nineteenth century.
Knowing these books very thoroughly, Mr. Spicer sometimes indulged in a
quotation which would have puzzled even the erudite. His favourite poet was
Cowper, whose moral sentiments greatly soothed him. He spoke of Byron like
some contemporary who, whilst admitting his lordship's genius, felt an
abhorrence of his life. He judged literature solely from the moral point of
view, and was incapable of understanding any other. Of fiction he had read
very little indeed, for it was not regarded with favour by his parents.
Scott was hardly more than a name to him. And though he avowed acquaintance
with one or two works of Dickens, he spoke of them with an uneasy smile, as
if in some doubt as to their tendency. With these intellectual
characteristics, Mr. Spicer naturally found it difficult to appreciate the
attitude of his literary friend, a young man whose brain thrilled in
response to modern ideas, and who regarded himself as the destined leader
of a new school of fiction. Not indiscreet, Goldthorpe soon became aware
that he had better talk as little as possible of the work which absorbed
his energies. He had enough liberality and sense of humour to understand
and enjoy his landlord's conversation, and the simple goodness of the man
inspired him with no little respect. Thus they got along together
remarkably well. Mr. Spicer never ceased to feel himself honoured by the
presence under his roof of one who--as he was wont to say--wielded the pen.
The tradition of Grub Street was for him a living fact. He thought of all
authors as struggling with poverty, and continued to cite
eighteenth-century examples by way of encouraging Goldthorpe and animating
his zeal. Whilst the young man was at work Mr. Spicer moved about the house
with soundless footsteps. When invited into his tenant's room he had a
reverential demeanour, and the sight of manuscript on the bare deal table
caused him to subdue his voice.
The weeks went by, and Goldthorpe's novel steadily progressed. In London he
had only two or three acquaintances, and from them he held aloof, lest
necessity or temptation should lead to his spending money which he could
not spare. The few letters which he received were addressed to a
post-office--impossible to shock the nerves of a postman by requesting him
to deliver correspondence at this dead house, of which the front door had
not been opened for years. The weather was perfect; a great deal of
sunshine, but as yet no oppressive heat, even in the chambers under the
roof. Towards the end of June Mr. Spicer began to amuse himself with a
little gardening. He had discovered in the coal-hole an ancient fork, with
one prong broken and the others rusting away. This implement served him in
his slow, meditative attack on that part of the jungle which seemed to
offer least resistance. He would work for a quarter of an hour, then,
resting on his fork, contemplate the tangled mass of vegetation which he
had succeeded in tearing up.
'Our aim should be,' he said gravely, when Goldthorpe came to observe his
progress, 'to clear the soil round about those vegetables and flowers which
seem worth preserving. These broad-beans, for instance--they seem to be a
very fine sort. And the Jerusalem artichokes. I've been making inquiry
about the artichokes, and I'm told they are not ready to eat till the
autumn. The first frost is said to improve them. They're fine plants--very
Already the garden had supplied them with occasional food, but they had to
confess that, for the most part, these wild vegetables lacked savour. The
artichokes, now shooting up into a leafy grove, were the great hope of the
future. It would be deplorable to quit the house before this tuber came to
'The worst of it is,' remarked Mr. Spicer one day, when he was perspiring
freely, 'that I can't help thinking of how different it would be if this
garden was really my own. The fact is, Mr. Goldthorpe, I can't put much
heart into the work; no, I can't. The more I reflect, the more indignant I
become. Really now, Mr. Goldthorpe, speaking as an intellectual man, as a
man of imagination, could anything be more cruelly unjust than this
leasehold system? I assure you, it keeps me awake at night; it really
The tenor of his conversation proved that Mr. Spicer had no intention of
leaving the house until he was legally obliged to do so. More than once he
had an interview with his late uncle's solicitor, and each time he came
back with melancholy brow. All the details of the story were now familiar
to him; he knew all about the lawsuits which had ruined the property.
Whenever he spoke of the ground-landlord, known to him only by name, it was
with a severity such as he never permitted himself on any other subject.
The ground-landlord was, to his mind, an embodiment of social injustice.
'Never in my life, Mr. Goldthorpe, did I grudge any payment of money as I
grudge the ground-rent of these houses. I feel it as robbery, sir, as sheer
robbery, though the sum is so small. When, in my ignorance, the matter was
first explained to me, I wondered why my uncle had continued to pay this
rent, the houses being of no profit to him. But now I understand, Mr.
Goldthorpe; the sense of possession is very sweet. Property's property,
even when it's leasehold and in ruins. I grudge the ground-rent bitterly,
but I feel, sir, that I couldn't bear to lose my houses until the fatal
moment, when lose them I must.'
In August the thermometer began to mark high degrees. Goldthorpe found it
necessary to dispense with coat and waistcoat when he was working, and at
times a treacherous languor whispered to him of the delights of idleness.
After one particularly hot day, he and his landlord smoked together in the
dusking garden, both unusually silent. Mr. Spicer's eye dwelt upon the
great heap of weeds which was resulting from his labour; an odour somewhat
too poignant arose from it upon the close air. Goldthorpe, who had been
rather headachy all day, was trying to think into perfect clearness the
last chapters of his book, and found it difficult.
'You know,' he said all at once, with an impatient movement, 'we ought to
be at the seaside.'
'The seaside?' echoed his companion, in surprise. 'Ah, it's a long time
since I saw the sea, Mr. Goldthorpe. Why, it must be--yes, it is at least
'Really? I've been there every year of my life till this. One gets into the
way of thinking of luxuries as necessities. I tell you what it is. If I
sell my book as soon as it's done, we'll have a few days somewhere on the
south coast together.'
Mr. Spicer betrayed uneasiness.
'I should like it much,' he murmured, 'but I fear, Mr. Goldthorpe, I
greatly fear I can't afford it.'
'Oh, but I mean that you shall go with me as my guest! But for you, Mr.
Spicer, I might never have got my book written at all.'
'I feel it an honour, sir, I assure you, to have a literary man in my
house,' was the genial reply. 'And you think the _work_ will soon be
Mr. Spicer always spoke of his tenant's novel as 'the work'--which on his
lips had a very large and respectful sound.
'About a fortnight more,' answered Goldthorpe with grave intensity.
The heat continued. As he lay awake before getting up, eager to finish his
book, yet dreading the torrid temperature of his room, which made the brain
sluggish and the hand slow, Goldthorpe saw how two or three energetic
spiders had begun to spin webs once more at the corners of the ceiling; now
and then he heard the long buzzing of a fly entangled in one of these webs.
The same thing was happening in Mr. Spicer's chamber. It did not seem worth
while to brush the new webs away.
'When you come to think of it, sir,' said the landlord, 'it's the spiders
who are the real owners of these houses. When I go away, they'll be pulled
down; they're not fit for human habitation. Only the spiders are really at
home here, and the fact is, sir, I don't feel I have the right to disturb
them. As a man of imagination, Mr. Goldthorpe, you'll understand my
Only with a great effort was the novel finished. Goldthorpe had lost his
appetite (not, perhaps, altogether a disadvantage), and he could not sleep;
a slight fever seemed to be constantly upon him. But this work was a
question of life and death to him, and he brought it to an end only a few
days after the term he had set himself. The complete manuscript was
exhibited to Mr. Spicer, who expressed his profound sense of the privilege.
Then, without delay, Goldthorpe took it to the publishing house in which he
had most hope.
The young author could now do nothing but wait, and, under the
circumstances, waiting meant torture. His money was all but exhausted; if
he could not speedily sell the book, his position would be that of a mere
pauper. Supported thus long by the artist's enthusiasm, he fell into
despondency, saw the dark side of things. To be sure, his mother (a widow
in narrow circumstances) had written pressing him to take a holiday 'at
home,' but he dreaded the thought of going penniless to his mother's house,
and there, perchance, receiving bad news about his book. An ugly feature of
the situation was that he continued to feel anything but well; indeed, he
felt sure that he was getting worse. At night he suffered severely; sleep
had almost forsaken him. Hour after hour he lay listening to mysterious
noises, strange crackings and creakings through the desolate house;
sometimes he imagined the sound of footsteps in the bare rooms below; even
hushed voices, from he knew not where, chilled his blood at midnight. Since
crumbs had begun to lie about, mice were common; they scampered as if in
revelry above the ceiling, and under the floor, and within the walls.
Goldthorpe began to dislike this strange abode. He felt that under any
circumstances it would be impossible for him to dwell here much longer.
When his last coin was spent, and he had no choice but to pawn or sell
something for a few days' subsistence, the manuscript came back upon his
hands. It had been judged--declined.
That morning he felt seriously unwell. After making known the catastrophe
to Mr. Spicer--who was stricken voiceless--he stood silent for a minute or
two, then said with quiet resolve:
'It's all up. I've no money, and I feel as if I were going to have an
illness. I must say good-bye to you, old friend.'
'Mr. Goldthorpe!' exclaimed the other solemnly; 'I entreat you, sir, to do
nothing rash! Take heart, sir! Think of Samuel Johnson, think of
'The extent of my rashness, Mr. Spicer, will be to raise enough money on my
watch to get down into Derbyshire. I must go home. If I don't, you'll have
the pleasant job of taking me to a hospital.'
Mr. Spicer insisted on lending him the small sum he needed. An hour or two
later they were at St. Pancras Station, and before sunset Goldthorpe had
found harbourage under his mother's roof. There he lay ill for more than a
month, and convalescent for as long again. His doctor declared that he must
have been living in some very unhealthy place, but the young man preferred
to explain his illness by overwork. It seemed to him sheer ingratitude to
throw blame on Mr. Spicer's house, where he had been so contented and
worked so well until the hot days of latter August. Mr. Spicer himself
wrote kind and odd little letters, giving an account of the garden, and
earnestly hoping that his literary friend would be back in London to taste
the Jerusalem artichokes. But Christmas came and went, and Goldthorpe was
still at his mother's house.
Meanwhile the manuscript had gone from publisher to publisher, and at
length, on a day in January--date ever memorable in Goldthorpe's
life--there arrived a short letter in which a certain firm dryly intimated
their approval of the story offered them, and their willingness to purchase
the copyright for a sum of fifty pounds. The next morning the triumphant
author travelled to London. For two or three days a violent gale had been
blowing, with much damage throughout the country; on his journey Goldthorpe
saw many great trees lying prostrate, beaten, as though scornfully, by the
cold rain which now descended in torrents. Arrived in town, he went to the
house where he had lodged in the time of comparative prosperity, and there
was lucky enough to find his old rooms vacant. On the morrow he called upon
the gracious publishers, and after that, under a sky now become more
gentle, he took his way towards the abode of Mr. Spicer.
Eager to communicate the joyous news, glad in the prospect of seeing his
simple-hearted friend, he went at a great pace up the ascending road. There
were the three houses, looking drearier than ever in a faint gleam of
winter sunshine. There were his old windows. But--what had happened to the
roof? He stood in astonishment and apprehension, for, just above the room
where he had dwelt, the roof was an utter wreck, showing a great hole, as
if something had fallen upon it with crushing weight. As indeed was the
case; evidently the chimney-stack had come down, and doubtless in the
recent gale. Seized with anxiety on Mr. Spicer's account, he ran round to
the back of the garden and tried the door; but it was locked as usual. He
strained to peer over the garden wall, but could discover nothing that
threw light on his friend's fate; he noticed, however, a great grove of
dead, brown artichoke stems, seven or eight feet high. Looking up at the
back windows, he shouted Mr. Spicer's name; it was useless. Then, in
serious alarm, he betook himself to the house on the other side of the
passage, knocked at the door, and asked of the woman who presented herself
whether anything was known of a gentleman who dwelt where the chimney-stack
had just fallen. News was at once forthcoming; the event had obviously
caused no small local excitement. It was two days since the falling of the
chimney, which happened towards evening, when the gale blew its hardest.
Mr. Spicer was at that moment sitting before the fire, and only by a
miracle had he escaped destruction, for an immense weight of material came
down through the rotten roof, and even broke a good deal of the flooring.
Had the occupant been anywhere but close by the fireplace, he must have
been crushed to a mummy; as it was, only a few bricks struck him,
inflicting severe bruises on back and arms. But the shock had been serious.
When his shouts from the window at length attracted attention and brought
help, the poor man had to be carried downstairs, and in a thoroughly
helpless state was removed to the nearest hospital.
'Which room was he in?' inquired Goldthorpe. 'Back or front?'
'In the front room. The back wasn't touched.'
Musing on Mr. Spicer's bad luck--for it seemed as if he had changed from
the back to the front room just in order that the chimney might fall on
him--Goldthorpe hastened away to the hospital. He could not be admitted
to-day, but heard that his friend was doing very well; on the morrow he
would be allowed to see him.
So at the visitors' hour Goldthorpe returned. Entering the long accident
ward, he searched anxiously for the familiar face, and caught sight of it
just as it began to beam recognition. Mr. Spicer was sitting up in bed; he
looked pale and meagre, but not seriously ill; his voice quivered with
delight as he greeted the young man.
'I heard of your inquiring for me yesterday, Mr. Goldthorpe, and I've
hardly been able to live for impatience to see you. How are you, sir? How
are you? And what news about the _work_, sir?'
'We'll talk about that presently, Mr. Spicer. Tell me all about your
accident. How came you to be in the front room?'
'Ah, sir,' replied the patient, with a little shake of the head, 'that
indeed was singular. Only a few days before, I had made a removal from my
room into yours. I call it yours, sir, for I always thought of it as yours;
but thank heaven you were not there. Only a few days before. I took that
step, Mr. Goldthorpe, for two reasons: first, because water was coming
through the roof at the back in rather unpleasant quantities, and secondly,
because I hoped to get a little morning sun in the front. The fact is, sir,
my room had been just a little depressing. Ah, Mr. Goldthorpe, if you knew
how I have missed you, sir! But the _work_--what news of the _work_?'
Smiling as though carelessly, the author made known his good fortune. For a
quarter of an hour Mr. Spicer could talk of nothing else.
'This has completed my cure!' he kept repeating. 'The work was composed
under my roof, my own roof, sir! Did I not tell you to take heart?'
'And where are you going to live?' asked Goldthorpe presently. 'You can't
go back to the old house.'
'Alas! no, sir. All my life I have dreamt of the joy of owning a house. You
know how the dream was realised, Mr. Goldthorpe, and you see what has come
of it at last. Probably it is a chastisement for overweening desires, sir.
I should have remembered my position, and kept my wishes within bounds.
But, Mr. Goldthorpe, I shall continue to cultivate the garden, sir. I shall
put in spring lettuces, and radishes, and mustard and cress. The property
is mine till midsummer day. You shall eat a lettuce of my growing, Mr.
Goldthorpe; I am bent on that. And how I grieve that you were not with me
at the time of the artichokes--just at the moment when they were touched by
the first frost!'
'Ah! They were really good, Mr. Spicer?'
'Sir, they seemed good to _me_, very good. Just at the moment of the first
Among the men whom I saw occasionally at the little club in Mortimer
Street,--and nowhere else,--was one who drew my attention before I had
learnt his name or knew anything about him. Of middle age, in the fullness
of health and vigour, but slenderly built; his face rather shrewd than
intellectual, interesting rather than pleasing; always dressed as the
season's mode dictated, but without dandyism; assuredly he belonged to the
money-spending, and probably to the money-getting, world. At first sight of
him I remember resenting his cap-a-pie perfection; it struck me as bad
form--here in Mortimer Street, among fellows of the pen and the palette.
'Oh,' said Harvey Munden, 'he's afraid of being taken for one of us. He
buys pictures. Not a bad sort, I believe, if it weren't for his
'Ireton. Has a house in Fitzjohn Avenue, and a high-trotting wife.'
Six months later I recalled this description of Mrs. Ireton. She was the
talk of the town, the heroine of the newest divorce case. By that time I
had got to know her husband; perhaps once a fortnight we chatted at the
club, and I found him an agreeable acquaintance. Before the Divorce Court
flashed a light of scandal upon his home, I felt that there was more in him
than could be discovered in casual gossip; I wished to know him better.
Something of shyness marked his manner, and like all shy men he sometimes
appeared arrogant. He had a habit of twisting his moustache nervously and
of throwing quick glances in every direction as he talked; if he found some
one's eye upon him, he pulled himself together and sat for a moment as if
before a photographer. One easily perceived that he was not a man of
liberal education; he had rather too much of the 'society' accent; his
pronunciation of foreign names told a tale. But I thought him good-hearted,
and when the penny-a-liners began to busy themselves with his affairs, I
felt sorry for him.
Nothing to his dishonour came out in the trial. He and his interesting
spouse had evidently lived a cat-and-dog life throughout the three years of
their marriage, but the countercharges brought against him broke down
completely. It was abundantly proved that he had _not_ kept a harem
somewhere near Leicester Square; that he had _not_ thrown a decanter at
Mrs. Ireton. She, on the other hand, left the court with tattered
reputation. Ireton got his release, and the weekly papers applauded.
But in Mortimer Street we saw him no more. Some one said that he had gone
to live in Paris; some one else reported that he had purchased an estate in
Bucks. Presently he was forgotten.
Some three years went by, and I was spending the autumn at a village by the
New Forest. One day I came upon a man kneeling under a hedge, examining
some object on the ground,--fern or flower, or perhaps insect. His costume
showed that he was no native of the locality; I took him for a stray
townsman, probably a naturalist. He wore a straw hat and a rough summer
suit; a wallet hung from his shoulder. The sound of my steps on crackling
wood caused him to turn and look at me. After a moment's hesitation I
And he knew me; he smiled, as I had often seen him smile, with a sort of
embarrassment. We greeted each other.
'Look here,' he said at once, when the handshaking was over, 'can you tell
me what this little flower is?'
I stooped, but was unable to give him the information he desired.
'You don't go in for that kind of thing?'
'I'm having a turn at it. I want to know the flowers and ferns. I have a
book at my lodgings, and I look the things up when I get home.'
His wallet contained a number of specimens; he plucked up the little plant
by the root, and stowed it away. I watched him with curiosity. Perhaps I
had seen only his public side; perhaps even then he was capable of dressing
roughly, and of rambling for his pleasure among fields and wood. But such a
possibility had never occurred to me. I wondered whether his brilliant wife
had given him a disgust for the ways of town. If so, he was a more
interesting man than I had supposed.
'Where are you staying?' he asked, after a glance this way and that.
I named the village, two miles away.
In a few minutes he overcame his reserve and began to talk of the things
which he knew interested me. We discussed the books of the past season, the
exhibitions, the new men in letters and art. Ireton said that he had been
living at a wayside inn for about a week; he thought of moving on, and, as
I had nothing to do, suppose he came over for a few days to the village
where I was camped? I welcomed the proposal.
'There's an inn, I dare say? I like the little inns in this part of the
country. Dirty, of course, and the cooking hideous; but it's pleasant for a
change. I like to be awoke by the cock crowing, and to see the grubby
little window when I open my eyes.'
I began to suspect that he had come down in the world. Could his prosperity
have been due to Mrs. Treton? Had she carried off the money? He might
affect a liking for simple things when grandeur was no longer in his reach.
Yet I remembered that he had undoubtedly been botanising before he knew of
my approach, and such a form of pastime seemed to prove him sincere.
By chance I witnessed his arrival the next morning. He drove up in a
farmer's trap, his luggage a couple of large Gladstone-bags. That day and
the next we spent many hours together. His vanity, though not outgrown, was
in abeyance; he talked with easy frankness, yet never of what I much
desired to know, his own history and present position. It was his intellect
that he revealed to me. I gathered that he had given much time to study
during the past three years, and incidentally it came out that he had been
living abroad; his improved pronunciation of the names of French artists
was very noticeable. At his age--not less than forty-five--this advance
argued no common mental resources. Whether he had suffered much, I could
not determine; at present he seemed light-hearted enough.
Certainly there was no affectation in his pursuit of botany; again and
again I saw him glow with genuine delight when he had identified a plant.
After all, this might be in keeping with his character, for even in the old
days he had never exhibited--at all events to me--a taste for the ignobler
luxuries, and he had seemed to me a very clean-minded man. I never knew any
one who refrained so absolutely from allusion, good or bad, to his friends
or acquaintances. He might have stood utterly alone in the world, a simple
spectator of civilisation.
At length I ventured upon a question.
'You never see any of the Mortimer Street men?'
'No,' he answered carelessly, 'I haven't come in their way lately,
That evening our ramble led us into an enclosure where game was preserved.
We had lost our way, and Ireton, scornful of objections, struck across
country, making for a small plantation which he thought he remembered.
Here, among the trees, we were suddenly face to face with an old gentleman
of distinguished bearing, who regarded us sternly.
'Is it necessary,' he said, 'to tell you that you are trespassing?'
The tone was severe, but not offensive. I saw my companion draw himself to
his full height.
'Not at all necessary,' he answered, in a voice that surprised me, it was
so nearly insolent. 'We are making our way to the road as quickly as
'Then be so good as to take the turning to the right when you reach the
field,' said our admonisher coldly. And he turned his back upon us.
I looked at Ireton. To my astonishment he was pallid, the lines of his
countenance indicating fiercest wrath. He marched on in silence till we had
reached the field.
'The fellow took us for cheap-trippers, I suppose,' then burst from his
'Not very likely.'
'Then why the devil did he speak like that?'
The grave reproof had exasperated him; he was flushed and his hands
trembled. I observed him with the utmost interest, and it became clear from
the angry words he poured forth that he could not endure to be supposed
anything but a gentleman at large. Here was the old characteristic; it had
merely been dormant. I tried to laugh him out of his irritation, but soon
saw that the attempt was dangerous. On the way home he talked very little;
the encounter in the wood had thoroughly upset him.
Next morning he came into my room with a laugh that I did not like; he
seated himself stiffly, looked at me from beneath his knitted brows, and
said in an aggressive tone:
'I have got to know all about that impudent old fellow.'
'Indeed? Who is he?'
'A poverty-stricken squire, with an old house and a few acres--the remnants
of a large estate gambled away by his father. I know him by name, and I'm
quite sure that he knows me. If I had offered him my card, as I thought of
doing, I dare say his tone would have changed.'
This pettishness amused me so much that I pretended to be a little sore
'His poverty, I suppose, has spoilt his temper.'
'No doubt,--I can understand that,' he added, with a smile. 'But I don't
allow people to treat me like a tramp. I shall go up and see him this
'And insist on an apology?'
'Oh, there'll be no need of insisting. The fellow has several unmarried
It seemed to me that my companion was bent on showing his worst side. I
returned to my old thoughts of him; he was snobbish, insolent, generally
detestable; but a man to be studied, and I let him talk as he would.
The reduced squire was Mr. Humphrey Armitage, of Brackley Hall. For my own
part, the demeanour of this gentleman had seemed perfectly adapted to the
occasion; we were strangers plunging through his preserves, and his tone to
us had nothing improper; it was we who owed an apology. In point of
breeding, I felt sure that Ireton could not compare with Mr. Armitage for a
moment, and it seemed to me vastly improbable that the invader of Brackley
Hall would meet with the kind of reception he anticipated.
I saw Ireton when he set out to pay his call. His Gladstone-bags had
provided him with the costume of Piccadilly; from shining hat to
patent-leather shoes, he was immaculate. Seeing that he had to walk more
than a mile, that the month was September, and that he could not pretend to
have come straight from town, this apparel struck me as not a little
inappropriate; I could only suppose that the man had no social tact.
At seven in the evening he again sought me. His urban glories were
exchanged for the ordinary attire, but I at once read in his face that he
had suffered no humiliation.
'Come and dine with me at the inn,' he exclaimed cordially; 'if one may use
such a word as _dine_ under the circumstances.'
'To-morrow I dine with the Armitages.'
He regarded me with an air of infinite satisfaction. Surprised, I held my
peace. 'It was as I foresaw. The old fellow welcomed me with open arms. His
daughters gave me tea. I had really a very pleasant time.'
I mused and wondered.
'You didn't expect it; I can see that.'
'You told me that Mr. Armitage would recognise your name,' I answered
'Precisely. Not long ago I gave him, through an agent, a very handsome
price for some pictures he had to sell.'
Again he looked at me, watching the effect of his words.
'Of course,' he continued, 'there were ample apologies for his treatment of
us yesterday. By the bye, I take it for granted you don't carry a
dress-suit in your bag?'
'To be sure--pray don't misunderstand me. I meant that you had expressly
told me of your avoidance of all such formalities. Therefore you will be
glad that I excused you from dining at the Hall.'
For a moment I felt uncomfortable, but after all I _was_ glad not to have
the trouble of refusing on my own account.
'Thanks,' I said, 'you did the right thing.'
We walked over to the inn, and sat down at a rude but not unsatisfying
table. After dinner, Ireton proposed that we should smoke in the garden.
'It's quiet, and we can talk.' The sun had just set; the sky was
magnificent with afterglow. Ireton's hint about privacy led me to hope that
he was going to talk more confidentially than hitherto, and I soon found
that I was not mistaken.
'Do you know,' he began, calling me by my name, 'I fancy you have been
criticising me--yes, I know you have. You think I made an ass of myself
about that affair in the wood. Well, I have no doubt I did. Now that it has
turned out pleasantly, I can see and admit that there was nothing to make a
'Very well. Now, you're a writer. You like to get at the souls of men.
Suppose I show you a bit of mine.'
He had drunk freely of the potent ale, and was now sipping a strong tumbler
of hot whisky. Possibly this accounted in some measure for his
'Up to the age of five-and-twenty I was clerk in a drug warehouse. To this
day even the faintest smell of drugs makes my heart sink. If I can help it,
I never go into a chemist's shop. I was getting a pound a week, and I not
only lived on it, but kept up a decent appearance. I always had a good suit
of clothes for Sundays and holidays--made at a tailor's in Holborn. Since
he disappeared I've never been able to find any one who fitted me so well.
I paid six-and-six a week for a top bedroom in a street near Gray's Inn
Road. Did you suppose I had gone through the mill?'
I made no answer, and, after looking at me for a moment, Ireton resumed:
'Those were damned days! It wasn't the want of good food and good lodgings
that troubled me most,--but the feeling that I was everybody's inferior.
There's no need to tell you how I was brought up; I was led to expect
better things, that's enough. I never got used to being ordered about. When
I was told to do this or that, I answered with a silent curse,--and I
wonder it didn't come out sometimes. That's my nature. If I had been born
the son of a duke, I couldn't have resented a subordinate position more
fiercely than I did. And I used to rack my brain with schemes for getting
out of it. Many a night I have lain awake for hours, trying to hit on some
way of earning my living independently. I planned elaborate forgeries. I
read criminal cases in the newspapers to get a hint that I might work upon.
Well, that only means that I had exhausted all the honest attempts, and
found them all no good. I was in despair, that's all.'
He finished his whisky and shouted to the landlord, who presently brought
him another glass.
'What's that bird making the strange noise?'
'A night-jar, I think.'
'Nice to be sitting here, isn't it? I had rather be here than in the
swellest London club. Well, I was going to tell you how I got out of that
beastly life. You know, I'm really a very quiet fellow. I like simple
things; but all my life, till just lately, I never had a chance of enjoying
them; of living as I chose. The one thing I can't stand is to feel that I
am looked down upon. That makes a madman of me.'
He drank, and struck a match to relight his pipe.
'One Saturday afternoon I went to an exhibition in Coventry Street. The
pictures were for sale, and admission was free. I have always been fond of
water-colours; at that time it was one of my ambitions to possess a really
good bit of landscape in water-colour but, of course, I knew that the
prices were beyond me. Well, I walked through the gallery, and there was
one thing that caught my fancy; I kept going back to it again and again. It
was a bit of sea-coast by Ewart Merry,--do you know him? He died years ago;
his pictures fetch a fairly good price now. As I was looking at it, the
fellow who managed the show came up with a man and woman to talk about
another picture near me; he tried his hardest to persuade them to buy, but
they wouldn't, and I dare say it disturbed his temper. Seeing him stand
there alone, I stepped up to him, and asked the price of the water-colour.
He just gave a look at me, and said, "Too much money for you."
'Now, you must remember that I was in my best clothes, and I certainly
didn't look like a penniless clerk. If the fellow had struck a blow at me,
I couldn't have been more astonished than I was by that answer.
Astonishment was the first feeling, and it lasted about a second; then my
heart gave a great leap, and began to beat violently, and for a moment I
couldn't see anything, and I felt hot and cold by turns. I can remember
this as well as if it happened yesterday; I must have gone through it in
memory many thousands of times.'
I observed his face, and saw that even now he suffered from the
'When he had spoken, the blackguard turned away. I couldn't move, and the
wonder is that I didn't swallow his insult, and sneak out of the place,--I
was so accustomed, you see, to repress myself. But of a sudden something
took hold of me, and pushed me forward,--it really didn't seem to be my own
will. I said, "Wait a minute"; and the man turned round. Then I stood
looking him in the eyes. "Are you here," I said, "to sell pictures, or to
insult people who come to buy?" I must have spoken in a voice he didn't
expect; he couldn't answer, and stared at me. "I asked you the price of
that water-colour, and you will be good enough to answer me civilly." Those
were my very words. They came without thinking, and afterwards I felt
satisfied with myself when I remembered them. It wouldn't have been
unnatural if I had sworn at him, but this was the turning-point of my life,
and I behaved in a way that surprised myself. At last he replied, "The
price is forty guineas," and he was going off again, but I stopped him. "I
will buy it. Take my name and address." "When will it be paid for?" he
asked. "On Monday."
'I followed him to the table, and he entered my name and address in a book.
Then I looked straight at him again. "Now, you understand," I said, "that
that picture is mine, and I shall either come or send for it about one
o'clock on Monday. If I hadn't wanted it specially, you would have lost a
sale by your impertinence." And I marched out of the room.
'But I was in a fearful state. I didn't know where I was going,--I walked
straight on, street after street, and just missed being run over half a
dozen times. Perspiration dripped from me. The only thing I knew was that I
had triumphed over a damned brute who had insulted me. I had stopped his
mouth; he believed he had made a stupid mistake; he could never have
imagined that a fellow without a sovereign in the world was speaking to him
like that. If I had knocked him down the satisfaction would have been very
slight in comparison.'
The gloom of nightfall had come upon us, and I could no longer see his face
distinctly, but his voice told me that he still savoured that triumph. He
spoke with exultant passion. I was beginning to understand Ireton.
'Isn't the story interesting?' he asked, after a pause.
'Very. Pray go on.'
'Well, you mustn't suppose that it was a mere bit of crazy bravado. I knew
how I was going to get the money--the forty guineas. And as soon as I could
command myself, I went to do the business.
'A fellow-clerk in the drug warehouse had been badly in want of money not
long before that, and I knew he had borrowed twenty pounds from a loan
office, paying it back week by week, with heavy interest, out of his screw,
poor devil. I could do the same. I went straight off to the lender. It was
a fellow called Crowther; he lived in Dean Street, Soho; in a window on the
ground floor there was a card with "Sums from One pound to a Hundred lent
at short notice." I was lucky enough to find him at home; we did our
business in a little back room, where there was a desk and a couple of
chairs, and nothing else but dirt. I expected to find an oldish man, but he
seemed about my own age, and on the whole I didn't dislike the look of
him,--a rather handsome young fellow, fairly well dressed, with a taking
sort of smile. I began by telling him where I was employed, and mentioned
my fellow-clerk, whom he knew. That made him quite cheerful; he offered me
a drink, and we got on very well. But he thought forty guineas a big sum;
would I tell him what I wanted it for? No, I wouldn't do that. Well, how
long would it take me to pay it back? Could I pay a pound a week? No, I
couldn't. He began to shake his head and to look at me thoughtfully. Then
he asked no end of questions, to find out who I was and what people I had
belonging to me, and what my chances were. Then he made me have another
drink, and at last I was persuaded into telling him the whole story. First
of all he stared, and then he laughed; I never saw a man laugh more
heartily. At last he said, "Why didn't you tell me you had value in hand?
See here, I'll look at that picture on Monday morning, and I shouldn't
wonder if we can do business." This alarmed me,--I was afraid he might get
talking to the picture-dealer. But he promised not to say a word about me.
'On Sunday I sent a note to the warehouse, saying that I should not be able
to come to business till Monday afternoon. It was the first time I had ever
done such a thing, and I knew I could invent some story to excuse myself.
Most of that day I spent in bed; I didn't feel myself, yet it was still a
great satisfaction to me that I had got the better of that brute. On Monday
at twelve I kept the appointment in Dean Street. Crowther hadn't come in,
and I sat for a few minutes quaking. When he turned up, he was quite
cheerful. "Look here!" he said, "will you sell me that picture for thirty
pounds?" "What then?" I asked. "Why, then you can pay me another thirty
pounds, and I'll give you twelve months to do it in. You shall have your
forty guineas at once." I tried to reflect, but I was too agitated.
However, I saw that to pay thirty pounds in a year meant that I must live
on about eight shillings a week. "I don't know how I'm to do it," I said.
He looked at me. "Well, I won't be hard on you. Look here, you shall pay me
six bob a week till the thirty quid's made up. Now, you can do _that_?" Yes
I could do that, and I agreed. In another ten minutes our business was
settled,--my signature was so shaky that I might safely have disowned it
afterwards. Then we had a drink at a neighbouring pub, and we walked
together towards Coventry Street. Crowther was to wait for me near the
'I entered with a bold step, promising myself pleasure in a new triumph
over the brute. But he wasn't there. I saw only an under-strapper. I had no
time to lose, for I must be at business by two o'clock. I paid the
money--notes and gold--and took away the picture under my arm. Of course,
it had been removed from the frame in which I first saw it, and the
assistant wrapped it up for me in brown paper. At the street corner I
surrendered it to Crowther. "Come and see me after business to-morrow," he
said, "I should like to have a bit more talk with you."
'So I had come out of it gloriously. I cared nothing about losing the
picture, and I didn't grieve over the six shillings a week that I should
have to pay for the next two years. If I went into that gallery again, I
should be treated respectfully--that was sufficient.'
He laughed, and for a minute or two we sat silent. From the inn sounded
rustic voices; the village worthies were gathered for their evening
'That's the best part of my story,' said Ireton at length. 'What followed
is commonplace. Still, you might like to hear how I bridged the gulf, from
fourteen shillings a week to the position I now hold. Well, I got very
intimate with Crowther, and found him really a very decent fellow. He had a
good many irons in the fire. Besides his loan office, which paid much
better than you would imagine, he had a turf commission agency, which
brought him in a good deal of money, and shortly after I met him he became
part proprietor of a club in Soho. He very soon talked to me in the
frankest way of all his doings; I think he was glad to be on friendly terms
with me simply because I was better educated and could behave decently. I
don't think he ever did anything illegal, and he had plenty of good
feeling,--but that didn't prevent him from squeezing eighty per cent, or so
out of many a poor devil who had borrowed to save himself or his family
from starvation. That was all business; he drew the sharpest distinctions
between business and private relations, and was very ignorant. I never knew
a man so superstitious. Every day he consulted signs and omens. For
instance, to decide whether the day was to be lucky for him--in betting and
so on--he would stand at a street corner and count the number of white
horses that passed in five minutes; if he had made up his mind on an even
number, and an even number passed, then he felt safe in following his
impulses for the day; if the number were odd, he would do little or no
speculation. When he was going to play cards for money, he would find a
beggar and give him something, even if he had to walk a great distance to
do it. He often used to visit an Italian who kept fortune-telling canaries,
and he always followed the advice he got. It put him out desperately if he
saw the new moon through glass, or over his left shoulder. There was no end
to his superstitions, and, whether by reason of them or in spite of them,
he certainly prospered. When he died, ten or twelve years ago, he left
fifteen thousand pounds.
'I have to thank him for my own good luck. "Look here," he said to me,
"it's only duffers that go on quill-driving at a quid a week. A fellow like
you ought to be doing better." "Show me the way," I said. And I was ready
to do whatever he told me. I had a furious hunger for money; the adventure
in Coventry Street had thoroughly unsettled me, and I would have turned
burglar rather than go on much longer as a wretched slave, looked down upon
by everybody, and exposed to insult at every corner. I dreamed of
money-making, and woke up feverish with determination. At last Crowther
gave me a few jobs to do for him in my off-time. They weren't very nice
jobs, and I shouldn't like to explain them to you; but they brought me in
half a sovereign now and then. I began to get an insight into the baser
modes of filling one's pocket. Then something happened; my mother died, and
I became the owner of a house at Notting Hill of fifty pounds rental. I
talked over my situation with Crowther, and he advised me, as it turned
out, thoroughly well. I was to raise money on this house,--not to sell
it,--and take shares in a new music-hall which Crowther was connected with.
There's no reason why I shouldn't tell you; it was the Marlborough. I did
take shares, and at the end of the second twelve months I was drawing a
dividend of sixty per cent. I have never drawn less than thirty, and the
year before last we touched seventy-five. At present I am a shareholder in
three other halls,--and they don't do badly.
'I suppose it isn't only good luck; no doubt I have a sort of talent for
money-making, but I never knew it before I met Crowther. By just opening my
eyes to the fact that money could be earned in other ways than at the
regular kinds of employment, he gave me a start, and I went ahead. There
isn't a man in the world has suffered more than I have for want of money,
and no one ever worked with a fiercer resolve to get out of the hell of
contemptible poverty. It would fill a book, the history of my money-making.
The first big sum I ever was possessed of came to me at the age of
two-and-thirty, when I sold a proprietary club (the one Crowther had a
share in and which I had ultimately got into my own hands) for nine
thousand pounds; but I owed about half of this. I went on and on, and I got
into society; _that_ came through the Marlborough,--a good story, but I
mustn't tell it. At last I married--a rich woman.'
He paused, and I thought, but was not quite sure, that I heard him sigh.
'We won't talk about that either. I shall not marry a rich woman again,
that's all. In fact, I don't care for such people; my best friends, real
friends, are all more or less strugglers, and perhaps there's no harm in
saying that it gives me pleasure to help them when I've a chance. I like to
buy a picture of a poor devil artist. I like to smoke my pipe with good
fellows who never go out of their way for money's sake. All the same, it's
a good thing to be well off. But for that, now, I couldn't make the
acquaintance of such people as these at Brackley Hall. I more than half
like them. Old Armitage is a gentleman, and looks back upon generations of
gentlemen, his ancestors. Ah! you can't buy that! And his daughters are
devilish nice girls, with sweet soft voices. I'm glad the old fellow met us
It was now dark; I looked up and saw the stars brightening. We sat for
another quarter of an hour, each busy with his own thoughts, then rose and
parted for the night.
A week later, when I returned to London, Ireton was still living at the
little inn, and a letter I received from him at the beginning of October
told me he had just left. 'The country was exquisite that last week,' he
wrote;--and it struck me that 'exquisite' was a word he must have caught
from some one else's lips.
I heard from him again in the following January. He wrote from the Isle of
Wight, and informed me that in the spring he was to be married to Miss
Ethel Armitage, second daughter of Humphrey Armitage, Esq., of Brackley
It was twenty years ago, and on an evening in May. All day long there had
been sunshine. Owing, doubtless, to the incident I am about to relate, the
light and warmth of that long-vanished day live with me still; I can see
the great white clouds that moved across the strip of sky before my window,
and feel again the spring languor which troubled my solitary work in the
heart of London.
Only at sunset did I leave the house. There was an unwonted sweetness in
the air; the long vistas of newly lit lamps made a golden glow under the
dusking flush of the sky. With no purpose but to rest and breathe, I
wandered for half an hour, and found myself at length where Great Portland
Street opens into Marylebone Road. Over the way, in the shadow of Trinity
Church, was an old bookshop, well known to me: the gas-jet shining upon the
stall with its rows of volumes drew me across. I began turning over pages,
and--invariable consequence--fingering what money I had in my pocket. A
certain book overcame me; I stepped into the little shop to pay for it.
While standing at the stall, I had been vaguely aware of some one beside
me, a man who also was looking over the books; as I came out again with my
purchase, this stranger gazed at me intently, with a half-smile of peculiar
interest. He seemed about to say something. I walked slowly away; the man
moved in the same direction. Just in front of the church he made a quick
movement to my side, and spoke.
'Pray excuse me, sir--don't misunderstand me--I only wished to ask whether
you have noticed the name written on the flyleaf of the book you have just
The respectful nervousness of his voice naturally made me suppose at first
that the man was going to beg; but he seemed no ordinary mendicant. I
judged him to be about sixty years of age; his long, thin hair and
straggling beard were grizzled, and a somewhat rheumy eye looked out from
his bloodless, hollowed countenance; he was very shabbily clad, yet as a
fallen gentleman, and indeed his accent made it clear to what class he
originally belonged. The expression with which he regarded me had so much
intelligence, so much good-nature, and at the same time such a pathetic
diffidence, that I could not but answer him in the friendliest way. I had
not seen the name on the flyleaf, but at once I opened the book, and by the
light of a gas-lamp read, inscribed in a very fine hand, 'W. R.
'It is my name,' said the stranger, in a subdued and uncertain voice.
'Indeed? The book used to belong to you?'
'It belonged to me.' He laughed oddly, a tremulous little crow of a laugh,
at the same time stroking his head, as if to deprecate disbelief. 'You
never heard of the sale of the Christopherson library? To be sure, you were
too young; it was in 1860. I have often come across books with my name in
them on the stalls--often. I had happened to notice this just before you
came up, and when I saw you look at it, I was curious to see whether you
would buy it. Pray excuse the freedom I am taking. Lovers of books--don't
The broken question was completed by his look, and when I said that I quite
understood and agreed with him he crowed his little laugh.
'Have you a large library?' he inquired, eyeing me wistfully.
'Oh dear, no. Only a few hundred volumes. Too many for one who has no house
of his own.'
He smiled good-naturedly, bent his head, and murmured just audibly:
'My catalogue numbered 24,718.'
I was growing curious and interested. Venturing no more direct questions, I
asked whether, at the time he spoke of, he lived in London.
'If you have five minutes to spare,' was the timid reply, 'I will show you
my house. I mean'--again the little crowing laugh--'the house which _was_
Willingly I walked on with him. He led me a short distance up the road
skirting Regent's Park, and paused at length before a house in an imposing
'There,' he whispered, 'I used to live. The window to the right of the
door--that was my library. Ah!'
And he heaved a deep sigh.
'A misfortune befell you,' I said, also in a subdued voice.
'The result of my own folly. I had enough for my needs, but thought I
needed more. I let myself be drawn into business--I, who knew nothing of
such things--and there came the black day--the black day.'
We turned to retrace our steps, and walking slowly, with heads bent, came
in silence again to the church.
'I wonder whether you have bought any other of my books?' asked
Christopherson, with his gentle smile, when we had paused as if for
I replied that I did not remember to have come across his name before;
then, on an impulse, asked whether he would care to have the book I carried
in my hand; if so, with pleasure I would give it him. No sooner were the
words spoken than I saw the delight they caused the hearer. He hesitated,
murmured reluctance, but soon gratefully accepted my offer, and flushed
with joy as he took the volume.
'I still have a few books,' he said, under his breath, as if he spoke of
something he was ashamed to make known. 'But it is very rarely indeed that
I can add to them. I feel I have not thanked you half enough.'
We shook hands and parted.
My lodging at that time was in Camden Town. One afternoon, perhaps a
fortnight later, I had walked for an hour or two, and on my way back I
stopped at a bookstall in the High Street. Some one came up to my side; I
looked, and recognised Christopherson. Our greeting was like that of old
'I have seen you several times lately,' said the broken gentleman, who
looked shabbier than before in the broad daylight, 'but I--I didn't like to
speak. I live not far from here.'
'Why, so do I,' and I added, without much thinking what I said, 'do you
'Alone? oh no. With my wife.'
There was a curious embarrassment in his tone. His eyes were cast down and
his head moved uneasily.
We began to talk of the books on the stall, and turning away together
continued our conversation. Christopherson was not only a well-bred but a
very intelligent and even learned man. On his giving some proof of
erudition (with the excessive modesty which characterised him), I asked
whether he wrote. No, he had never written anything--never; he was only a
bookworm, he said. Thereupon he crowed faintly and took his leave.
It was not long before we again met by chance. We came face to face at a
street corner in my neighbourhood, and I was struck by a change in him. He
looked older; a profound melancholy darkened his countenance; the hand he
gave me was limp, and his pleasure at our meeting found only a faint
'I am going away,' he said in reply to my inquiring look. 'I am leaving
'I fear so, and yet'--he made an obvious effort--'I am glad of it. My
wife's health has not been very good lately. She has need of country air.
Yes, I am glad we have decided to go away--very glad--very glad indeed!'
He spoke with an automatic sort of emphasis, his eyes wandering, and his
hands twitching nervously. I was on the point of asking what part of the
country he had chosen for his retreat, when he abruptly added:
'I live just over there. Will you let me show you my books?'
Of course I gladly accepted the invitation, and a couple of minutes' walk
brought us to a house in a decent street where most of the ground-floor
windows showed a card announcing lodgings. As we paused at the door, my
companion seemed to hesitate, to regret having invited me.
'I'm really afraid it isn't worth your while,' he said timidly. 'The fact
is, I haven't space to show my books properly.'
I put aside the objection, and we entered. With anxious courtesy
Christopherson led me up the narrow staircase to the second-floor landing,
and threw open a door. On the threshold I stood astonished. The room was a
small one, and would in any case have only just sufficed for homely
comfort, used as it evidently was for all daytime purposes; but certainly a
third of the entire space was occupied by a solid mass of books, volumes
stacked several rows deep against two of the walls and almost up to the
ceiling. A round table and two or three chairs were the only
furniture--there was no room, indeed, for more. The window being shut, and
the sunshine glowing upon it, an intolerable stuffiness oppressed the air.
Never had I been made so uncomfortable by the odour of printed paper and
'But,' I exclaimed, 'you said you had only a _few_ books! There must be
five times as many here as I have.'
'I forget the exact number,' murmured Christopherson, in great agitation.
'You see, I can't arrange them properly. I have a few more in--in the other
He led me across the landing, opened another door, and showed me a little
bedroom. Here the encumberment was less remarkable, but one wall had
completely disappeared behind volumes, and the bookishness of the air made
it a disgusting thought that two persons occupied this chamber every night.
We returned to the sitting-room, Christopherson began picking out books
from the solid mass to show me. Talking nervously, brokenly, with now and
then a deep sigh or a crow of laughter, he gave me a little light on his
history. I learnt that he had occupied these lodgings for the last eight
years; that he had been twice married; that the only child he had had, a
daughter by his first wife, had died long ago in childhood; and
lastly--this came in a burst of confidence, with a very pleasant
smile--that his second wife had been his daughter's governess. I listened
with keen interest, and hoped to learn still more of the circumstances of
this singular household.
'In the country,' I remarked, 'you will no doubt have shelf room?'
At once his countenance fell; he turned upon me a woebegone eye. Just as I
was about to speak again sounds from within the house caught my attention;
there was a heavy foot on the stairs, and a loud voice, which seemed
familiar to me.
'Ah!' exclaimed Christopherson with a start, 'here comes some one who is
going to help me in the removal of the books. Come in, Mr. Pomfret, come
The door opened, and there appeared a tall, wiry fellow, whose sandy hair,
light blue eyes, jutting jawbones, and large mouth made a picture
suggestive of small refinement but of vigorous and wholesome manhood. No
wonder I had seemed to recognise his voice. Though we only saw each other
by chance at long intervals, Pomfret and I were old acquaintances.
'Hallo!' he roared out, 'I didn't know you knew Mr. Christopherson.'
'I'm just as much surprised to find that _you_ know him!' was my reply.
The old book-lover gazed at us in nervous astonishment, then shook hands
with the newcomer, who greeted him bluffly, yet respectfully. Pomfret spoke
with a strong Yorkshire accent, and had all the angularity of demeanour
which marks the typical Yorkshireman. He came to announce that everything
had been settled for the packing and transporting of Mr. Christopherson's
library; it remained only to decide the day.
'There's no hurry,' exclaimed Christopherson. 'There's really no hurry. I'm
greatly obliged to you, Mr. Pomfret, for all the trouble you are taking.
We'll settle the date in a day or two--a day or two.'
With a good-humoured nod Pomfret moved to take his leave. Our eyes met; we
left the house together. Out in the street again I took a deep breath of
the summer air, which seemed sweet as in a meadow after that stifling room.
My companion evidently had a like sensation, for he looked up to the sky
and broadened out his shoulders.
'Eh, but it's a grand day! I'd give something for a walk on Ilkley Moors.'
As the best substitute within our reach we agreed to walk across Regent's
Park together. Pomfret's business took him in that direction, and I was
glad of a talk about Christopherson. I learnt that the old book-lover's
landlady was Pomfret's aunt. Christopherson's story of affluence and ruin
was quite true. Ruin complete, for at the age of forty he had been obliged
to earn his living as a clerk or something of the kind. About five years
later came his second marriage.
'You know Mrs. Christopherson?' asked Pomfret.
'No! I wish I did. Why?'
'Because she's the sort of woman it does you good to know, that's all.
She's a lady--_my_ idea of a lady. Christopherson's a gentleman too,
there's no denying it; if he wasn't, I think I should have punched his head
before now. Oh, I know 'em well! why, I lived in the house there with 'em
for several years. She's a lady to the end of her little finger, and how
her husband can 'a borne to see her living the life she has, it's more than
I can understand. By--! I'd have turned burglar, if I could 'a found no
other way of keeping her in comfort.'
'She works for her living, then?'
'Ay, and for his too. No, not teaching; she's in a shop in Tottenham Court
Road; has what they call a good place, and earns thirty shillings a week.
It's all they have, but Christopherson buys books out of it.'
'But has he never done anything since their marriage?'
'He did for the first few years, I believe, but he had an illness, and that
was the end of it. Since then he's only loafed. He goes to all the
book-sales, and spends the rest of his time sniffing about the second-hand
shops. She? Oh, she'd never say a word! Wait till you've seen her.'
'Well, but,' I asked, 'what has happened. How is it they're leaving
'Ay, I'll tell you; I was coming to that. Mrs. Christopherson has relatives
well off--a fat and selfish lot, as far as I can make out--never lifted a
finger to help her until now. One of them's a Mrs. Keeting, the widow of
some City porpoise, I'm told. Well, this woman has a home down in Norfolk.
She never lives there, but a son of hers goes there to fish and shoot now
and then. Well, this is what Mrs. Christopherson tells my aunt, Mrs.
Keeting has offered to let her and her husband live down yonder, rent free,
and their food provided. She's to be housekeeper, in fact, and keep the
place ready for any one who goes down.'
'Christopherson, _I_ can see, would rather stay where he is.'
'Why, of course, he doesn't know how he'll live without the bookshops. But
he's glad for all that, on his wife's account. And it's none too soon, I
can tell you. The poor woman couldn't go on much longer; my aunt says she's
just about ready to drop, and sometimes, I know, she looks terribly bad. Of
course, she won't own it, not she; she isn't one of the complaining sort.
But she talks now and then about the country--the places where she used to
live. I've heard her, and it gives me a notion of what she's gone through
all these years. I saw her a week ago, just when she had Mrs. Keeting's
offer, and I tell you I scarcely knew who it was! You never saw such a
change in any one in your life! Her face was like that of a girl of
seventeen. And her laugh--you should have heard her laugh!'
'Is she much younger than her husband?' I asked.
'Twenty years at least. She's about forty, I think.' I mused for a few
'After all, it isn't an unhappy marriage?'
'Unhappy?' cried Pomfret. 'Why, there's never been a disagreeable word
between them, that I'll warrant. Once Christopherson gets over the change,
they'll have nothing more in the world to ask for. He'll potter over his
'You mean to tell me,' I interrupted, 'that those books have all been
bought out of his wife's thirty shillings a week?'
'No, no. To begin with, he kept a few out of his old library. Then, when he
was earning his own living, he bought a great many. He told me once that
he's often lived on sixpence a day to have money for books. A rum old owl;
but for all that he's a gentleman, and you can't help liking him. I shall
be sorry when he's out of reach.'
For my own part, I wished nothing better than to hear of Christopherson's
departure. The story I had heard made me uncomfortable. It was good to
think of that poor woman rescued at last from her life of toil, and in
these days of midsummer free to enjoy the country she loved. A touch of
envy mingled, I confess, with my thought of Christopherson, who henceforth
had not a care in the world, and without reproach might delight in his
hoarded volumes. One could not imagine that he would suffer seriously by
the removal of his old haunts. I promised myself to call on him in a day or
two. By choosing Sunday, I might perhaps be lucky enough to see his wife.
And on Sunday afternoon I was on the point of setting forth to pay this
visit, when in came Pomfret. He wore a surly look, and kicked clumsily
against the furniture as he crossed the room. His appearance was a
surprise, for, though I had given him my address, I did not in the least
expect that he would come to see me; a certain pride, I suppose,
characteristic of his rugged strain, having always made him shy of such
'Did you ever hear the like of _that_!' he shouted, half angrily. 'It's all
over. They're not going! And all because of those blamed books!'
And spluttering and growling, he made known what he had just learnt at his
aunt's home. On the previous afternoon the Christophersons had been
surprised by a visit from their relatives and would-be benefactress, Mrs.
Keeting. Never before had that lady called upon them; she came, no doubt
(this could only be conjectured), to speak with them of their approaching
removal. The close of the conversation (a very brief one) was overheard by
the landlady, for Mrs. Keeting spoke loudly as she descended the stairs.
'Impossible! Quite impossible! I couldn't think of it! How could you dream
for a moment that I would let you fill my house with musty old books? Most
unhealthy! I never knew anything so extraordinary in my life, never!' And
so she went out to her carriage, and was driven away. And the landlady,
presently having occasion to go upstairs, was aware of a dead silence in
the room where the Christophersons were sitting. She knocked--prepared with
some excuse--and found the couple side by side, smiling sadly. At once they
told her the truth. Mrs. Keeting had come because of a letter in which Mrs.
Christopherson had mentioned the fact that her husband had a good many
books, and hoped he might be permitted to remove them to the house in
Norfolk. She came to see the library--with the result already heard. They
had the choice between sacrificing the books and losing what their relative
'Christopherson refused?' I let fall.
'I suppose his wife saw that it was too much for him. At all events, they'd
agreed to keep the books and lose the house. And there's an end of it. I
haven't been so riled about anything for a long time!'
Meantime I had been reflecting. It was easy for me to understand
Christopherson's state of mind, and without knowing Mrs. Keeting, I saw
that she must be a person whose benefactions would be a good deal of a
burden. After all, was Mrs. Christopherson so very unhappy? Was she not the
kind of woman who lived by sacrifice--one who had far rather lead a life
disagreeable to herself than change it at the cost of discomfort to her
husband? This view of the matter irritated Pomfret, and he broke into
objurgations, directed partly against Mrs. Keeting, partly against
Christopherson. It was an 'infernal shame,' that was all he could say. And
after all, I rather inclined to his opinion.
When two or three days had passed, curiosity drew me towards the
Christophersons' dwelling. Walking along the opposite side of the street, I
looked up at their window, and there was the face of the old bibliophile.
Evidently he was standing at the window in idleness, perhaps in trouble. At
once he beckoned to me; but before I could knock at the house-door he had
descended, and came out.
'May I walk a little way with you?' he asked.
There was worry on his features. For some moments we went on in silence.
'So you have changed your mind about leaving London?' I said, as if
'You have heard from Mr. Pomfret? Well--yes, yes--I think we shall stay
where we are--for the present.'
Never have I seen a man more painfully embarrassed. He walked with head
bent, shoulders stooping; and shuffled, indeed, rather than walked. Even so
might a man bear himself who felt guilty of some peculiar meanness.
Presently words broke from him.
'To tell you the truth, there's a difficulty about the books.' He glanced
furtively at me, and I saw he was trembling in all his nerves. 'As you see,
my circumstances are not brilliant.' He half-choked himself with a crow.
'The fact is we were offered a house in the country, on certain conditions,
by a relative of Mrs. Christopherson; and, unfortunately, it turned out
that my library is regarded as an objection--a fatal objection. We have
quite reconciled ourselves to staying where we are.'
I could not help asking, without emphasis, whether Mrs. Christopherson
would have cared for life in the country. But no sooner were the words out
of my mouth than I regretted them, so evidently did they hit my companion
in a tender place.
'I think she would have liked it,' he answered, with a strangely pathetic
look at me, as if he entreated my forbearance.
'But,' I suggested, 'couldn't you make some arrangements about the books?
Couldn't you take a room for them in another house, for instance?'
Christopherson's face was sufficient answer; it reminded me of his
pennilessness. 'We think no more about it,' he said. 'The matter is
There was no pursuing the subject. At the next parting of the ways we took
leave of each other.
I think it was not more than a week later when I received a postcard from
Pomfret. He wrote: 'Just as I expected. Mrs. C. seriously ill.' That was
Mrs. C. could, of course, only mean Mrs. Christopherson. I mused over the
message--it took hold of my imagination, wrought upon my feelings; and that
afternoon I again walked along the interesting street.
There was no face at the window. After a little hesitation I decided to
call at the house and speak with Pomfret's aunt. It was she who opened the
door to me.
We had never seen each other, but when I mentioned my name and said I was
anxious to have news of Mrs. Christopherson, she led me into a
sitting-room, and began to talk confidentially.
She was a good-natured Yorkshirewoman, very unlike the common London
landlady. 'Yes, Mrs. Christopherson had been taken ill two days ago. It
began with a long fainting fit. She had a feverish, sleepless night; the
doctor was sent for; and he had her removed out of the stuffy,
book-cumbered bedroom into another chamber, which luckily happened to be
vacant. There she lay utterly weak and worn, all but voiceless, able only
to smile at her husband, who never moved from the bedside day or night. He,
too,' said the landlady, 'would soon break down: he looked like a ghost,
and seemed "half-crazed."'
'What,' I asked, 'could be the cause of this illness?'
The good woman gave me an odd look, shook her head, and murmured that the
reason was not far to seek.
'Did she think,' I asked, 'that disappointment might have something to do
Why, of course she did. For a long time the poor lady had been all but at
the end of her strength, and _this_ came as a blow beneath which she sank.
'Your nephew and I have talked about it,' I said. 'He thinks that Mr.
Christopherson didn't understand what a sacrifice he asked his wife to
'I think so too,' was the reply. 'But he begins to see it now, I can tell
you. He says nothing but.'
There was a tap at the door, and a hurried tremulous voice begged the
landlady to go upstairs.
'What is it, sir?' she asked.
'I'm afraid she's worse,' said Christopherson, turning his haggard face to
me with startled recognition. 'Do come up at once, please.'
Without a word to me he disappeared with the landlady. I could not go away;
for some ten minutes I fidgeted about the little room, listening to every
sound in the house. Then came a footfall on the stairs, and the landlady
'It's nothing,' she said. 'I almost think she might drop off to sleep, if
she's left quiet. He worries her, poor man, sitting there and asking her
every two minutes how she feels. I've persuaded him to go to his room, and
I think it might do him good if you went and had a bit o' talk with him.'
I mounted at once to the second-floor sitting-room, and found
Christopherson sunk upon a chair, his head falling forwards, the image of
despairing misery. As I approached he staggered to his feet. He took my
hand in a shrinking, shamefaced way, and could not raise his eyes. I
uttered a few words of encouragement, but they had the opposite effect to
'Don't tell me that,' he moaned, half resentfully. 'She's dying--she's
dying--say what they will, I know it.'
'Have you a good doctor?'
'I think so--but it's too late--it's too late.'
As he dropped to his chair again I sat down by him. The silence of a minute
or two was broken by a thunderous rat-tat at the house-door. Christopherson
leapt to his feet, rushed from the room; I, half fearing that he had gone
mad, followed to the head of the stairs.
In a moment he came up again, limp and wretched as before.
'It was the postman,' he muttered. 'I am expecting a letter.'
Conversation seeming impossible, I shaped a phrase preliminary to
withdrawal; but Christopherson would not let me go.
'I should like to tell you,' he began, looking at me like a dog under
punishment, 'that I have done all I could. As soon as my wife fell ill, and
when I saw--I had only begun to think of it in that way--how she felt the
disappointment, I went at once to Mrs. Keeting's house to tell her that I
would sell the books. But she was out of town. I wrote to her--I said I
regretted my folly--I entreated her to forgive me and to renew her kind
offer. There has been plenty of time for a reply, but she doesn't answer.'
He had in his hand what I saw was a bookseller's catalogue, just delivered
by the postman. Mechanically he tore off the wrapper and even glanced over
the first page. Then, as if conscience stabbed him, he flung the thing
'The chance has gone!' he exclaimed, taking a hurried step or two along the
little strip of floor left free by the mountain of books. 'Of course she
said she would rather stay in London! Of course she said what she knew
would please me! When--when did she ever say anything else! And I was cruel
enough--base enough--to let her make the sacrifice!' He waved his arms
frantically. 'Didn't I know what it cost her? Couldn't I see in her face
how her heart leapt at the hope of going to live in the country! I knew
what she was suffering; I _knew_ it, I tell you! And, like a selfish
coward, I let her suffer--I let her drop down and die--die!'
'Any hour,' I said, 'may bring you the reply from Mrs. Keeting. Of course
it will be favourable, and the good news--'
'Too late, I have killed her! That woman won't write. She's one of the
vulgar rich, and we offended her pride; and such as she never forgive.'
He sat down for a moment, but started up again in an agony of mental
'She is dying--and there, there, that's what has killed her!' He
gesticulated wildly towards the books. 'I have sold her life for those.
With this cry he seized half a dozen volumes, and, before I could
understand what he was about, he had flung up the window-sash, and cast the
books into the street. Another batch followed; I heard the thud upon the
pavement. Then I caught him by the arm, held him fast, begged him to
'They shall all go!' he cried. 'I loathe the sight of them. They have
killed my dear wife!'
He said it sobbing, and at the last words tears streamed from his eyes. I
had no difficulty now in restraining him. He met my look with a gaze of
infinite pathos, and talked on while he wept.
'If you knew what she has been to me! When she married me I was a ruined
man twenty years older. I have given her nothing but toil and care. You
shall know everything--for years and years I have lived on the earnings of
her labour. Worse than that, I have starved and stinted her to buy books.
Oh, the shame of it! The wickedness of it! It was my vice--the vice that
enslaved me just as if it had been drinking or gambling. I couldn't resist
the temptation--though every day I cried shame upon myself and swore to
overcome it. She never blamed me; never a word--nay, not a look--of a
reproach. I lived in idleness. I never tried to save her that daily toil at
the shop. Do you know that she worked in a shop?--She, with her knowledge
and her refinement leading such a life as that! Think that I have passed
the shop a thousand times, coming home with a book in my hands! I had the
heart to pass, and to think of her there! Oh! Oh!'
Some one was knocking at the door. I went to open, and saw the landlady,
her face set in astonishment, and her arms full of books.
'It's all right,' I whispered. 'Put them down on the floor there; don't
bring them in. An accident.'
Christopherson stood behind me; his look asked what he durst not speak. I
said it was nothing, and by degrees brought him into a calmer state.
Luckily, the doctor came before I went away, and he was able to report a
slight improvement. The patient had slept a little and seemed likely to
sleep again. Christopherson asked me to come again before long--there was
no one else, he said, who cared anything about him--and I promised to call
the next day.
I did so, early in the afternoon. Christopherson must have watched for my
coming: before I could raise the knocker the door flew open, and his face
gleamed such a greeting as astonished me. He grasped my hand in both his.
'The letter has come! We are to have the house.'
'And how is Mrs. Christopherson?'
'Better, much better, Heaven be thanked! She slept almost from the time
when you left yesterday afternoon till early this morning. The letter came
by the first post, and I told her--not the whole truth,' he added, under
his breath. 'She thinks I am to be allowed to take the books with me; and
if you could have seen her smile of contentment. But they will all be sold
and carried away before she knows about it; and when she sees that I don't
care a snap of the fingers!'
He had turned into the sitting-room on the ground floor. Walking about
excitedly, Christopherson gloried in the sacrifice he had made. Already a
letter was despatched to a bookseller, who would buy the whole library as
it stood. But would he not keep a few volumes? I asked. Surely there could
be no objection to a few shelves of books; and how would he live without
them? At first he declared vehemently that not a volume should be kept--he
never wished to see a book again as long as he lived. But Mrs.
Christopherson? I urged. Would she not be glad of something to read now and
then? At this he grew pensive. We discussed the matter, and it was arranged
that a box should be packed with select volumes and taken down into Norfolk
together with the rest of their luggage. Not even Mrs. Keeting could object
to this, and I strongly advised him to take her permission for granted.
And so it was done. By discreet management the piled volumes were stowed in
bags, carried downstairs, emptied into a cart, and conveyed away, so
quietly that the sick woman was aware of nothing. In telling me about it,
Christopherson crowed as I had never heard him; but methought his eye
avoided that part of the floor which had formerly been hidden, and in the
course of our conversation he now and then became absent, with head bowed.
Of the joy he felt in his wife's recovery there could, however, be no
doubt. The crisis through which he had passed had made him, in appearance,
a yet older man; when he declared his happiness tears came into his eyes,
and his head shook with a senile tremor.
Before they left London, I saw Mrs. Christopherson--a pale, thin, slightly
made woman, who had never been what is called good-looking, but her face,
if ever face did so, declared a brave and loyal spirit. She was not joyous,
she was not sad; but in her eyes, as I looked at them again and again, I
read the profound thankfulness of one to whom fate has granted her soul's
The school was assembled for evening prayers, some threescore boys
representing for the most part the well-to-do middle class of a
manufacturing county. At either end of the room glowed a pleasant fire, for
it was February and the weather had turned to frost.
Silence reigned, but on all the young faces turned to where the headmaster
sat at his desk appeared an unwonted expression, an eager expectancy, as
though something out of the familiar routine were about to happen. When the
master's voice at length sounded, he did not read from the book before him;
gravely, slowly, he began to speak of an event which had that day stirred
the little community with profound emotion.
'Two of our number are this evening absent. Happily, most happily, absent
but for a short time; in our prayers we shall render thanks to the good
Providence which has saved us from a terrible calamity. I do not desire to
dwell upon the circumstance that one of these boys, Chadwick, had committed
worse than an imprudence in venturing upon the Long Pond; it was in
disregard of my injunction; I had distinctly made it known that the ice was
still unsafe. We will speak no more of that. All we can think of at present
is the fact that Chadwick was on the point of losing his life; that in all
human probability he would have been drowned, but for the help heroically
afforded him by one of his schoolfellows. I say heroically, and I am sure I
do not exaggerate; in the absence of Humplebee I may declare that he nobly
perilled his own life to save that of another. It was a splendid bit of
courage, a fine example of pluck and promptitude and vigour. We have all
cause this night to be proud of Humplebee.'
The solemn voice paused. There was an instant's profound silence. Then,
from somewhere amid the rows of listeners, sounded a clear, boyish note.
'Sir, may we give three cheers for Humplebee?'
The threescore leapt to their feet, and volleys of cheering made the
schoolroom echo. Then the master raised his hand, the tumult subsided, and
after a few moments of agitated silence, prayers began.
Next morning there appeared as usual at his desk a short, thin, red-headed
boy of sixteen, whose plain, freckled face denoted good-humour and a
certain intelligence, but would never have drawn attention amongst the
livelier and comelier physiognomies grouped about him. This was Humplebee.
Hitherto he had been an insignificant member of the school, one of those
boys who excel neither at games nor at lessons, of whom nothing is
expected, and rarely, if ever, get into trouble, and who are liked in a
rather contemptuous way. Of a sudden he shone glorious; all tongues were
busy with him, all eyes regarded him, every one wished for the honour of
his friendship. Humplebee looked uncomfortable. He had the sniffy
beginnings of a cold, the result of yesterday's struggle in icy water, and
his usual diffident and monosyllabic inclination were intensified by the
position in which he found himself. Clappings on the shoulder from bigger
boys who had been wont to joke about his name made him flush nervously; to
be addressed as 'Humpy,' or 'Beetle,' or 'Buz,' even though in a new tone,
seemed to gratify him as little as before. It was plain that Humplebee
would much have liked to be left alone. He stuck as closely as possible to
his desk, and out of school-time tried to steal apart from the throng.
But an ordeal awaited him. Early in the afternoon there arrived, from a
great town not far away, a well-dressed and high-complexioned man, whose
every look and accent declared commercial importance. This was Mr.
Chadwick, father of the boy who had all but been drowned. He and the
headmaster held private talk, and presently they sent for Humplebee. Merely
to enter the 'study' was at any time Humplebee's dread; to do so under the
present circumstances cost him anguish of spirit.
'Ha! here he is!' exclaimed Mr. Chadwick, in the voice of bluff geniality
which seemed to him appropriate. 'Humplebee, let me shake hands with you!
Humplebee, I am proud to make your acquaintance; prouder still to thank
you, to thank you, my boy!'
The lad was painfully overcome; his hands quivered, he stood like one
convicted of disgraceful behaviour.
'I think you have heard of me, Humplebee. Leonard has no doubt spoken to
you of his father. Perhaps my name has reached you in other ways?'
'Yes, sir,' faltered the boy.
'You mean that you know me as a public man?' urged Mr. Chadwick, whose eyes
glimmered a hungry vanity.
'Yes, sir,' whispered Humplebee.
'Ha! I see you already take an intelligent interest in things beyond
school. They tell me you are sixteen, Humplebee. Come, now; what are your
ideas about the future? I don't mean'--Mr. Chadwick rolled a laugh--'about
the future of mankind, or even the future of the English race; you and I
may perhaps discuss such questions a few years hence. In the meantime, what
are your personal ambitions? In brief, what would you like to be,
Under the eye of his master and of the commercial potentate, Humplebee
stood voiceless; he gasped once or twice like an expiring fish.
'Courage, my boy, courage!' cried Mr. Chadwick. 'Your father, I believe,
destines you for commerce. Is that your own wish? Speak freely. Speak as
though I were a friend you have known all your life.'
'I should like to please my father, sir,' jerked from the boy's lips.
'Good! Admirable! That's the spirit I like, Humplebee. Then you have no
marked predilection? That was what I wanted to discover--well, well, we
shall see. Meanwhile, Humplebee, get on with your arithmetic. You are good
at arithmetic, I am sure?'
'Not very, sir.'
'Come, come, that's your modesty. But I like you none the worse for it,
Humplebee. Well, well, get on with your work, my boy, and we shall see, we
Therewith, to his vast relief, Humplebee found himself dismissed. Later in
the day he received a summons to the bedroom where Mr. Chadwick's son was
being carefully nursed. Leonard Chadwick, about the same age as his
rescuer, had never deigned to pay much attention to Humplebee, whom he
regarded as stupid and plebeian; but the boy's character was marked by a
generous impulsiveness, which came out strongly in the present
'Hallo, Humpy!' he cried, raising himself up when the other entered. 'So
you pulled me out of that hole! Shake hands, Buzzy, old fellow! You've had
a talk with my governor, haven't you? What do you think of him?'
Humplebee muttered something incoherent.
'My governor's going to make your fortune, Humpy!' cried Leonard. 'He told
me so, and when he says a thing he means it. He's going to start you in
business when you leave school; most likely you'll go into his own office.
How will you like that, Humpy? My governor thinks no end of you; says
you're a brick, and so you are. I shan't forget that you pulled me out of
that hole, old chap. We shall be friends all our lives, you know. Tell me
what you thought of my governor?'
When he was on his legs again, Leonard continued to treat Humplebee with
grateful, if somewhat condescending, friendliness. In the talks they had
together the great man's son continually expatiated upon his preserver's
brilliant prospects. Beyond possibility of doubt Humplebee would some day
be a rich man; Mr. Chadwick had said so, and whatever he purposed came to
pass. To all this Humplebee listened in a dogged sort of way, now and then
smiling, but seldom making verbal answer. In school he was not quite the
same boy as before his exploit; he seemed duller, less attentive, and at
times even incurred reproaches for work ill done--previously a thing
unknown. When the holidays came, no boy was so glad as Humplebee; his heart
sang within him as he turned his back upon the school and began the journey
That home was in the town illuminated by Mr. Chadwick's commercial and
municipal brilliance; over a small draper's shop in one of the outskirt
streets stood the name of Humplebee the draper. About sixty years of age,
he had known plenty of misfortune and sorrows, with scant admixture of
happiness. Nowadays things were somewhat better with him; by dint of severe
economy he had put aside two or three hundred pounds, and he was able,
moreover, to give his son (an only child) what is called a sound education.
In the limited rooms above the shop there might have been a measure of
quiet content and hopefulness, but for Mrs. Humplebee. She, considerably
younger than her husband, fretted against their narrow circumstances, and
grudged the money that was being spent--wasted, she called it--on the boy
From his father Harry never heard talk of pecuniary troubles, but the
mother lost no opportunity of letting him know that they were poor,
miserably poor; and adding, that if he did not work hard at school he was
simply a cold-hearted criminal, and robbed his parents of their bread.
But during the last month or two a change had come upon the household. One
day the draper received a visit from the great Mr. Chadwick, who told a
wonderful story of Harry's heroism, and made proposals sounding so nobly
generous that Mr. Humplebee was overcome with gratitude.
Harry, as his father knew, had no vocation for the shop; to get him a place
in a manufacturer's office seemed the best thing that could be aimed at,
and here was Mr. Chadwick talking of easy book-keeping, quick advancement,
and all manner of vaguely splendid possibilities in the future. The
draper's joy proved Mrs. Humplebee's opportunity. She put forward a project
which had of late been constantly on her mind and on her lips, to wit, that
they should transfer their business into larger premises, and give
themselves a chance of prosperity. Humplebee need no longer hesitate. He
had his little capital to meet the first expenses, and if need arose there
need not be the slightest doubt that Mr. Chadwick would assist him. A kind
gentleman Mr. Chadwick! Had he not expressly desired to see Harry's mother,
and had he not assured her in every way possible of his debt and gratitude
he felt towards all who bore the name of Humplebee? The draper, if he
neglected his opportunity, would be an idiot--a mere idiot.
So, when the boy came home for his holidays he found two momentous things
decided; first, that he should forthwith enter Mr. Chadwick's office;
secondly, that the little shop should be abandoned and a new one taken in a
Now Harry Humplebee had in his soul a secret desire and a secret
abhorrence. Ever since he could read his delight had been in books of
natural history; beasts, birds, and fishes possessed his imagination, and
for nothing else in the intellectual world did he really care. With poor
resources he had learned a great deal of his beloved subjects. Whenever he
could get away into the fields he was happy; to lie still for hours
watching some wild thing, noting its features and its ways, seemed to him
perfect enjoyment. His treasure was a collection, locked in a cupboard at
home, of eggs, skeletons, butterflies, beetles, and I know not what. His
father regarded all this as harmless amusement, his mother contemptuously
tolerated it or, in worse humour, condemned it as waste of time. When at
school the boy had frequent opportunities of pursuing his study, for he was
in mid country and could wander as he liked on free afternoons; but neither
the headmaster nor his assistant thought it worth while to pay heed to
Humplebee's predilection. True, it had been noticed more than once that in
writing an 'essay' he showed unusual observation of natural things; this,
however, did not strike his educators as a matter of any importance; it was
not their business to discover what Humplebee could do, and wished to do,
but to make him do things they regarded as desirable. Humplebee was marked
for commerce; he must study compound interest, and be strong at discount.
Yet the boy loathed every such mental effort, and the name of 'business'
made him sick at heart.
How he longed to unbosom himself to his father! And in the first week of
his holiday he had a chance of doing so, a wonderful chance, such as had
never entered his dreams. The town possessed a museum of Natural History,
where, of course, Harry had often spent leisure hours. Half a year ago a
happy chance had brought him into conversation with the curator, who could
not but be struck by the lad's intelligence, and who took an interest in
him. Now they met again; they had one or two long talks, with the result
that, on a Sunday afternoon, the curator of the museum took the trouble to
call upon Mr. Humplebee, to speak with him about his son. At the museum was
wanted a lad with a taste for natural history, to perform at first certain
easy duties, with the prospect of further advancement here or elsewhere. It
seemed to the curator that Harry was the very boy for the place; would Mr.
Humplebee like to consider this suggestion? Now, if it had been made to him
half a year ago, such an offer would have seemed to Mr. Humplebee well
worth consideration, and he knew that Harry would have heard of it with
delight; as it was, he could not entertain the thought for a moment.
Impossible to run the risk of offending Mr. Chadwick; moreover, who could
hesitate between the modest possibilities of the museum and such a career
as waited the lad under the protection of his powerful friend? With nervous
haste the draper explained how matters stood, excused himself, and begged
that not another word on the subject might be spoken in his son's hearing.
Harry Humplebee knew what he had lost; the curator, in talk with him, had
already thrown out his suggestion; at their next meeting he discreetly made
known to the boy that other counsels must prevail. For the first time Harry
felt a vehement impulse, prompting him to speak on his own behalf, to
assert and to plead for his own desires. But courage failed him. He heard
his father loud in praise of Mr. Chadwick, intent upon the gratitude and
respect due to that admirable man. He knew how his mother would exclaim at
the mere hint of disinclination to enter the great man's office. And so he
held his peace, though it cost him bitterness of heart and even secret
tears. A long, long time passed before he could bring himself to enter
again the museum doors.
He sat on a stool in Mr. Chadwick's office, a clerk at a trifling salary.
Everything, his father reminded him, must have a beginning; let him work
well and his progress would be rapid. Two years passed and he was in much
the same position; his salary had increased by one half, but his work
remained the same, mechanical, dreary, hateful to him in its monotony.
Meanwhile his father's venture in the new premises had led to great
embarrassments; business did not thrive; the day came when Mr. Humplebee,
trembling and shamefaced, felt himself drawn to beg help of his son's
so-called benefactor. He came away from the interview with empty hands.
Worse than that, he had heard things about Harry which darkened his mind
with a new anxiety.
'I greatly fear,' said Mr. Chadwick, 'that your son must seek a place in
some other office. It's a painful thing; I wish I could have kept him; but
the fact of the matter is that he shows utter incapacity. I have no fault
to find with him otherwise; a good lad; in a smaller place of business he
might do well enough. But he's altogether below the mark in an office such
as _mine_. Don't distress yourself, Mr. Humplebee, I beg, I shall make it
my care to inquire for suitable openings; you shall hear from me--you shall
hear from me. Pray consider that your son is under notice to leave this day
month. As for the--other matter of which you spoke, I can only repeat that
the truest kindness is only to refuse assistance. I assure you it is. The
circumstances forbid it. Clearly, what you have to do is to call together
your creditors, and arrive at an understanding. It is my principle never to
try to prop up a hopeless concern such as yours evidently is. Good day to
you, Mr. Humplebee; good day.'
A year later several things had happened. Mr. Humplebee was dead; his
penniless widow had gone to live in another town on the charity of poor
relatives, and Harry Humplebee sat in another office, drawing the salary at
which he had begun under Mr. Chadwick, his home a wretched bedroom in the
house of working-folk.
It did not appear to the lad that he had suffered any injustice. He knew
his own inaptitude for the higher kind of office work, and he had expected
his dismissal by Mr. Chadwick long before it came. What he did resent, and
profoundly, was Mr. Chadwick's refusal to aid his father in that last
death-grapple with ruinous circumstance. At the worst moment Harry wrote a
letter to Leonard Chadwick, whom he had never seen since he left school. He
told in simple terms the position of his family, and, without a word of
justifying reminiscence, asked his schoolfellow to help them if he could.
To this letter a reply came from London. Leonard Chadwick wrote briefly and
hurriedly, but in good-natured terms; he was really very sorry indeed that
he could do so little; the fact was, just now he stood on anything but good
terms with his father, who kept him abominably short of cash. He enclosed
five pounds, and, if possible, would soon send more.
'Don't suppose I have forgotten what I owe you. As soon as ever I find
myself in an independent position you shall have substantial proof of my
enduring gratitude. Keep me informed of your address.'
Humplebee made no second application, and Leonard Chadwick did not again
The years flowed on. At five-and-twenty Humplebee toiled in the same
office, but he could congratulate himself on a certain progress; by dogged
resolve he had acquired something like efficiency in the duties of a
commercial clerk, and the salary he now earned allowed him to contribute to
the support of his mother. More or less reconciled to the day's labour, he
had resumed in leisure hours his favourite study; a free library supplied
him with useful books, and whenever it was possible he went his way into
the fields, searching, collecting, observing. But his life had another
interest, which threatened rivalry to this intellectual pursuit. Humplebee
had set eyes upon the maiden destined to be his heart's desire; she was the
daughter of a fellow-clerk, a man who had grown grey in service of the
ledger; timidly he sought to win her kindness, as yet scarce daring to
hope, dreaming only of some happy change of position which might encourage
him to speak. The girl was as timid as himself; she had a face of homely
prettiness, a mind uncultured but sympathetic; absorbed in domestic cares,
with few acquaintances, she led the simplest of lives, and would have been
all but content to live on in gentle hope for a score of years. The two
were beginning to understand each other, for their silence was more
eloquent than their speech.
One summer day--the last day of his brief holiday--Humplebee was returning
by train from a visit to his mother. Alone in a third-class carriage,
seeming to read a newspaper, but in truth dreaming of a face he hoped to
see in a few hours, he suddenly found himself jerked out of his seat, flung
violently forward, bumped on the floor, and last of all rolled into a sort
of bundle, he knew not where. Recovering from a daze, he said to himself,
'Why, this is an accident--a collision!' Then he tried to unroll himself,
and in the effort found that one of his arms was useless; more than that,
it pained him horribly. He stood up and tottered on to the seat. Then the
carriage-door opened, and a voice shouted--
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