The House of Cobwebs and Other Stories
Part 5 out of 6
not tune his voice to the tradesman note, and on the slightest provocation
he became, quite unintentionally, offensive. Such a man had no chance
whatever in this flowery and bowery little suburb.
Yet he came hither with hopes. One circumstance seemed to him especially
favourable: the shop was also a post-office, and no one could fail to see
(it was put most impressively by the predecessor who sold him the business)
how advantageous was this blending of public service with commercial
interest; especially as there was no telegraphic work to make a skilled
assistant necessary. As a matter of course, people using the post-office
would patronise the chemist; and a provincial chemist can add to his
legitimate business sundry pleasant little tradings which benefit himself
without provoking the jealousy of neighbour shopmen. 'It will be your own
fault, my dear sir, if you do not make a very good thing of it indeed. The
sole and sufficient explanation of--of the decline during this last year or
two is my shocking health. I really have _not_ been able to do justice to
Necessarily, Mr. Farmiloe entered into negotiation with the postal
authorities; and it was with some little disappointment that he learnt how
very modest could be his direct remuneration for the responsibilities and
labours he undertook. The Post-Office is a very shrewdly managed department
of the public service; it has brought to perfection the art of obtaining
_maximum_ results with a _minimum_ expenditure. But Mr. Farmiloe remembered
the other aspect of the matter; he would benefit so largely by this
ill-paid undertaking that grumbling was foolish. Moreover, the thing
carried dignity with it; he served his Majesty, he served the nation.
And--ha, ha!--how very odd it would be to post one's letters in one's own
post-office. One might really get a good deal of amusement out of the
thought, after business hours. His age was eight-and-thirty. For some years
he had pondered matrimony, though without fixing his affections on any
particular person. It was plain, indeed, that he ought to marry. Every
tradesman is made more respectable by wedlock, and a chemist who, in some
degree, resembles a medical man, seems especially to stand in need of the
matrimonial guarantee. Had it been feasible, Mr. Farmiloe would have
brought a wife with him from the town where he had lived for the past few
years, but he was in the difficult position of knowing not a single
marriageable female to whom he could address himself with hope or with
self-respect. Natural shyness had always held him aloof from reputable
women; he felt that he could not recommend himself to them--he who had such
an unlucky aptitude for saying the wrong word or keeping silence when
speech was demanded. With the men of his acquaintance he could relieve his
sense of awkwardness and deficiency by becoming aggressive; in fact, he had
a reputation for cantankerousness, for pugnacity, which kept most of his
equals in some awe of him, and to perceive this was one solace amid many
discontents. Nicely dressed and well-spoken and good-looking women above
the class of domestic servants he worshipped from afar, and only in
vivacious moments pictured himself as the wooer of such a superior being.
It seemed as though fate could do nothing with Mr. Farmiloe. At
six-and-thirty he suffered the shock of learning that a relative--an old
woman to whom he had occasionally written as a matter of kindness (Farmiloe
could do such things)--had left him by will the sum of L600. It was
strictly a shock; it upset his health for several days, and not for a week
or two could he realise the legacy as a fact. Just when he was beginning to
look about him with a new air of confidence, the solicitors who were
managing the little affair for him drily acquainted him with the fact that
his relative's will was contested by other kinsfolk whom the old woman had
passed over, on the ground that she was imbecile and incapable of
conducting her affairs. There followed a law-suit, which consumed many
months and cost a good deal of money; so that, though he won his case, Mr.
Farmiloe lost all satisfaction in his improved circumstances, and was only
more embittered against the world at large.
Then, no sooner had he purchased his business, than he learnt from smiling
neighbours that he had paid considerably too much for it. His predecessor,
beyond a doubt, would have taken very much less; had, indeed, been on the
point of doing so just when Mr. Farmiloe appeared. This kind of experience
is a trial to any man. It threw Mr. Farmiloe into a silent rage, with the
result that two or three customers who chanced to enter his shop declared
that they would never have anything more to do with such a surly creature.
And now began his torment--a form of exasperation peculiar to his dual
capacity of shopkeeper and manager of a post-office. All day long he stood
on the watch for customers--literally stood, now behind the counter, now in
front of it, his eager and angry eyes turning to the door whenever the
steps of a passer-by sounded without. If the door opened his nerves began
to tingle, and he straightened himself like a soldier at attention. For a
moment he suffered an agony of doubt. Would the person entering turn to the
counter or to the post-office? And seldom was his hope fulfilled; not one
in four of the people who came in was a genuine customer; the post-office,
always the post-office. A stamp, a card, a newspaper wrapper, a
postal-order, a letter to be registered--anything but an honest purchase
across the counter or the blessed tendering of a prescription to make up.
From vexation he passed to annoyance, to rage, to fury; he cursed the
post-office, and committed to eternal perdition the man who had waxed
eloquent upon its advantages.
Of course, he had hired an errand-boy, and never had errand-boy so little
legitimate occupation. Resolved not to pay him for nothing, Mr. Farmiloe
kept him cleaning windows, washing bottles, and the like, until the lad
fairly broke into rebellion. If this was the sort of work he was engaged
for he must have higher wages; he wasn't over strong and his mother said he
must lead an open-air life--that was why he had taken the place. To be
bearded thus in his own shop was too much for Mr. Farmiloe, he seized the
opportunity of giving his wrath full swing, and burst into a frenzy of
vilification. Just as his passion reached its height (he stood with his
back to the door) there entered a lady who wished to make a large purchase
of disinfectants. Alarmed and scandalised at what was going on, she had no
sooner crossed the threshold than she turned again, and hurried away. Her
friends were not long in learning from her that the new chemist was a most
violent man, a most disagreeable person--the very last man one could think
of doing business with.
The home was but poorly furnished, and Mr. Farmiloe had engaged a very
cheap general servant, who involved him in dirt and discomfort. It was a
matter of talk among the neighbouring tradesmen that the chemist lived in a
beggarly fashion. When the dismissed errand-boy spread the story of how he
had been used, people jumped to the conclusion that Mr. Farmiloe drank.
Before long there was a legend that he had been suffering from an acute
attack of delirium tremens.
The post-office, always the post-office. If he sat down at a meal the
shop-bell clanged, and hope springing eternal, he hurried forth in
readiness to make up a packet or concoct a mixture; but it was an old lady
who held him in talk for ten minutes about rates of postage to South
America. When, by rare luck, he had a prescription to dispense (the hideous
scrawl of that pestilent Dr. Bunker) in came somebody with letters and
parcels which he was requested to weigh; and his hand shook so with rage
that he could not resume his dispensing for the next quarter of an hour.
People asked extraordinary questions, and were surprised, offended, when he
declared he could not answer them. When could a letter be delivered at a
village on the north-west coast of Ireland? Was it true that the
Post-Office contemplated a reduction of rates to Hong-Kong? Would he
explain in detail the new system of express delivery? Invariably he
betrayed impatience, and occasionally he lost his temper; people went away
exclaiming what a _horrid man_ he was!
'Mr. What's-your-name,' said a shopkeeper one day, after receiving a short
answer, 'I shall make it my business to complain of you to the
Postmaster-General. I don't come here to be insulted.'
'Who insulted you?' returned Farmiloe like a sullen schoolboy.
'Why, you did. And you are always doing it.'
'If I did'--terror stole upon the chemist's heart--'I didn't mean it, and
I--I'm sure I apologise. It's a way I have.'
'A damned bad way, let me tell you. I advise you to get out of it.'
'So you should be.'
And the tradesman walked off, only half appeased.
Mr. Farmiloe could have shed tears in his mortification, and for some
minutes he stood looking at a bottle of laudanum, wishing he had the
courage to have done with life. Plainly he could not live very long unless
things improved. His ready money was coming to an end, rents and taxes
loomed before him. An awful thought of bankruptcy haunted him in the early
The most frequent visitor to the post-office was a well-dressed,
middle-aged man, who spoke civilly, and did his business in the fewest
possible words. Mr. Farmiloe rather liked the look of him, and once or
twice made conversational overtures, but with no encouraging result. One
day, feeling bolder than usual the chemist ventured to speak what he had in
mind. After supplying the grave gentleman with stamps and postal-orders, he
said, in a tone meant to be conciliatory--
'I don't know whether you ever have need of mineral waters, sir?'
'Why, yes, sometimes. My ordinary tradesman supplies them.'
'I thought I'd just mention that I keep them in stock.'
'I've noticed,' went on the luckless apothecary, his bosom heaving with a
sense of his wrongs, 'that you're a pretty large customer of the
post-office, and it seems to me'--he meant to speak jocosely--'that it
would be only fair if you gave _me_ a turn now and then. I get next to
nothing out of _this_, you know. I should be much obliged if you--'
The man of few words was looking at him, half in surprise, half in
indignation, and when the chemist blundered into silence he spoke:--
'I really have nothing to do with that. As a matter of fact, I was on the
point of making a little purchase in your shop, but I decidedly object to
this kind of behaviour, and shall make my purchase elsewhere.'
He strode solemnly into the street, and Mr. Farmiloe, unconscious of all
about him, glared at vacancy.
Whether from the angry tradesman, or from some lady with whom Mr. Farmiloe
had been abrupt, a complaint did presently reach the postal authorities,
with the result that an official called at the chemist's shop. The
interview was unpleasant. It happened that Mr. Farmiloe (not for the first
time) had just then allowed himself to run out of certain things always in
demand by the public--halfpenny stamps, for instance. Moreover, his
accounts were not in perfect order. This, he had to hear, was emphatically
unbusinesslike, and, in brief, would not do.
'It shall not occur again, sir,' mumbled the unhappy man. 'But, if you
consider my position--'
'Mr. Farmiloe, allow me to tell you that this is a matter for your _own_
consideration, and no one else's.'
'True, sir, quite true. Still, when you come to think of it--I assure
'The only assurance I want is that the business of the post-office will be
properly attended to, and that assurance I must have. I shall probably call
again before long. Good morning.'
It was always with a savage satisfaction that Mr. Farmiloe heard the clock
strike eight on Saturday evening. His shop remained open till ten, but at
eight came the end of the post-office business. If, as happened, any one
entered five minutes too late, it delighted him to refuse their request.
These were the only moments in which he felt himself a free man. After
eating his poor supper, he smoked a pipe or two of cheap tobacco, brooding;
or he fingered the pages of his menacing account-books; or, very rarely, he
walked about the dark country roads, asking himself, with many a
tragi-comic gesture and ejaculation, why he could not get on like other
One afternoon it seemed that he, at length, had his chance. There entered a
maidservant with a prescription to be made up and sent as soon as possible.
A glance at the name delighted Mr. Farmiloe; it was that of the richest
family in the suburbs. The medicine, to be sure, was only for a governess,
but his existence was recognised, and the patronage of such people would do
him good. But for the never-sufficiently-to-be-condemned handwriting of Dr.
Bunker, the prescription offered no difficulty. Rubbing his palms together,
and smiling as he seldom smiled, he told the domestic that the medicine
should be delivered in less than half an hour.
Scarcely had he begun upon it, when a lady came in, a lady whom he knew
well. Her business was at the post-office side, and she looked a peremptory
demand for his attention. Inwardly furious, he crossed the shop.
'Be so good as to tell me what this will cost by book-post.'
It seemed to be a pamphlet. Giving a glance at one of the open ends, Mr.
Farmiloe saw handwriting within, and his hostility to the woman found vent
in a sharp remark.
'There's a written communication in this. It will be letter rate.'
The lady eyed him with terrible scorn.
'You will oblige me by minding your own business. Your remark is the merest
impertinence. That packet consists of MS., and will, therefore, go at book
rate. Be so good as to weigh it at once.'
Mr. Farmiloe lost all control of himself, and well-nigh screamed.
'No, madam, I will _not_ weigh it. And let me inform you, as you are so
ignorant, that to weigh packets is not part of my duty. I do it merely to
oblige civil persons, and you, madam, are not one of them.'
The lady instantly turned and withdrew.
'Damn the post-office!' yelled Mr. Farmiloe, alone with his errand-boy, and
shaking his fist in the air. 'This very day I write to give it up. I
say--_damn_ the post-office.'
He returned to his dispensing, completed it, wrapped up the bottle in the
customary manner, and despatched the boy to the house.
Five minutes later a thought flashed through his mind which put him in a
cold sweat. He happened to glance along the shelf from which he had taken
the bottle containing the last ingredient of the mixture, and it struck
him, with all the force of a horrible doubt, that he had made a mistake. In
the irate confusion of his thoughts, he had done the dispensing almost
mechanically. The bottle he ought to have taken down was _that_, but had he
not actually poured from that other? Of poisoning there was no fear, but,
if indeed he had made a slip, the result would be a very extraordinary
mixture; so surprising, in fact, that the patient would be sure to speak to
Dr. Bunker about it. Good heavens! He felt sure he had made the mistake.
Any other man would have taken down the two bottles in question, and have
examined the mouths of them for traces of moisture. Mr. Farmiloe, a victim
of destiny, could do nothing so reasonable. Heedless of the fact that his
shop remained unguarded, he seized his hat and rushed after the errand-boy.
If he could only have a sniff at the mixture it would either confirm his
fear or set his mind at rest. He tore along the road--and was too late. The
boy met him, having just completed his errand.
With a wild curse he sped to the house, he rushed to the tradesman's door.
The medicine just delivered! He must examine it--he feared there was a
mistake--an extraordinary oversight.
The bottle had not yet been upstairs. Mr. Farmiloe tore off the wrapper,
wrenched out the cork, sniffed--and smiled feebly.
'Thank you. I'm glad to find there was _no_ mistake. I'll take it back, and
have it wrapped up again, and send it immediately--immediately. And, by the
bye'--he fumbled in his pocket for half-a-crown, still smiling like a
detected culprit--'I'm sure you won't mention this little affair. A new
assistant of mine--stupid fellow--I am going to get rid of him at once.
Thank you, thank you.'
Notwithstanding that half-crown the incident was, of course, talked of
through the house before a quarter of an hour had elapsed. Next day it was
the gossip of the suburbs; and the day after the city itself heard the
story. People were alarmed and scandalised. Why, such a chemist was a
public danger! One lady declared that he ought at once to be 'struck off
And so in a sense he was. Another month and the flowery, bowery little
suburb knew him no more. He hid himself in a great town, living on the
wreck of his fortune whilst he sought a place as an assistant. A leaky pair
of boots and a bad east wind found the vulnerable spot of his constitution.
After all, there was just enough money left to bury him.
On a summer afternoon two surly men sat together in a London lodging. One
of them occupied an easy-chair, smoked a cigarette, and read the newspaper;
the other was seated at the table, with a mass of papers before him, on
which he laboured as though correcting exercises. They were much of an age,
and that about thirty, but whereas the idler was well dressed, his
companion had a seedy appearance and looked altogether like a man who
neglected himself. For half an hour they had not spoken.
Of a sudden the man in the chair jumped up.
'Well, I have to go into town,' he said gruffly, 'and it's uncertain when I
shall be back. Get that stuff cleared off, and reply to the urgent
letters--mind you write in the proper tone to Dixon--as soapy as you can
make it. Tell Miss Brewer we can't reduce the fees, but that we'll give her
credit for a month. Guarantee the Leicestershire fellow a pass if he begins
The other, who listened, bit the end of his wooden penholder to splinters.
'All right,' he replied. 'But, look here, I want a little money.'
'So do I.'
'Yes, but you're not like me, without a coin in your pocket. Look here,
give me half-a-crown. I have absolute need of it. Why, I can't even get my
hair cut. I'm sick of this slavery.'
'Then go and do better,' cried the well-dressed man insolently. 'You were
glad enough of the job when I offered it to you. It's no good your looking
to me for money. I can do no more myself than just live; and as soon as I
see a chance, you may be sure I shall clear out of this rotten business.'
He moved towards the door, but before opening it stood hesitating.
'Want to get your hair cut, do you? Well, there's sixpence, and it's all I
The door closed. And the man at the table, leaning back, stared gloomily at
the sixpenny piece on the table before him.
His name was Topham; he had a university degree and a damaged reputation.
Six months ago, when his choice seemed to be between staying in the streets
and turning sandwich-man, luck had made him acquainted with Mr. Rudolph
Starkey, who wrote himself M.A. of Dublin University and advertised a
system of tuition by correspondence. In return for mere board and lodging
Topham became Mr. Starkey's assistant; that is to say, he did by far the
greater part of Mr. Starkey's work. The tutorial business was but
moderately successful; still, it kept its proprietor in cigarettes, and
enabled him to pass some hours a day at a club, where he was convinced that
before long some better chance in life would offer itself to him. Having
always been a lazy dog, Starkey regarded himself as an example of industry
unrewarded; being as selfish a fellow as one could meet, he reproached
himself with the unworldliness of his nature, which had so hindered him in
a basely material age. One of his ventures was a half-moral, half-practical
little volume entitled _Success in Life_. Had it been either more moral or
more practical, this book would probably have yielded him a modest income,
for such works are dear to the British public; but Rudolph Starkey, M.A.,
was one of those men who do everything by halves and snarl over the
Topham's fault was that of a man who had followed his instincts but too
thoroughly. They brought him to an end of everything, and, as Starkey said,
he had been glad enough to take the employment which was offered without
any inconvenient inquiries. The work which he undertook he did competently
and honestly for some time without a grumble. Beginning with a certain
gratitude to his employer, though without any liking, he soon grew to
detest the man, and had much ado to keep up a show of decent civility in
their intercourse. Of better birth and breeding than Starkey, he burned
with resentment at the scant ceremony with which he was treated, and
loathed the meanness which could exact so much toil for such poor
remuneration. When offering his terms Starkey had talked in that bland way
characteristic of him with strangers.
'I'm really ashamed to propose nothing better to a man of your standing.
But--well, I'm making a start, you see, and the fact of the matter is that,
just at present, I could very well manage to do all the work myself. Still,
if you think it worth your while, there's no doubt we shall get on
capitally together, and, of course, I need not say, as soon as our progress
justifies it, we must come to new arrangements. A matter of six or seven
hours a day will be all I shall ask of you at present. For my own part, I
work chiefly at night.'
By the end of the first month Topham was working, not six or seven, but ten
or twelve hours a day, and his spells of labour only lengthened as time
went on. Seeing himself victimised, he one day alluded to the promise of
better terms, but Starkey turned sour.
'You surprise me, Topham. Here are we, practically partners, doing our best
to make this thing a success, and all at once you spring upon me an
unreasonable demand. You know how expensive these rooms are--for we must
have a decent address. If you are dissatisfied, say so, and give me time to
look out for some one else.'
Topham was afraid of the street, and that his employer well knew. The
conversation ended in mutual sullenness, which thenceforward became the
note of their colloquies. Starkey felt himself a victim of ingratitude, and
consequently threw even more work upon his helpless assistant. That the
work was so conscientiously done did not at all astonish him. Now and then
he gave himself the satisfaction of finding fault: just to remind Topham
that his bread depended on another's goodwill. Congenial indolence grew
upon him, but he talked only the more of his ceaseless exertions. Sometimes
in the evening he would throw up his arms, yawn wearily, and declare that
so much toil with such paltry results was a heart-breaking thing.
Topham stared sullenly at the sixpence. This was but the latest of many
insults, yet never before had he so tasted the shame of his subjection.
Though he was earning a living, and a right to self-respect, more
strenuously than Starkey ever had, this fellow made him feel like a
mendicant. His nerves quivered, he struck the table fiercely, shouting
within himself, 'Brute! Cad!' Then he pocketed the coin and got on with his
It was toil of a peculiarly wearisome and enervating kind. Starkey's
advertisements, which were chiefly in the country newspapers, put him in
communication with persons of both sexes, and of any age from seventeen
onwards, the characteristic common to them all being inexperience and
intellectual helplessness. Most of these correspondents desired to pass
some examination; a few aimed--or professed to aim--merely at
self-improvement, or what they called 'culture.' Starkey, of course,
undertook tuition in any subject, to any end, stipulating only that his
fees should be paid in advance. Throughout the day his slave had been
correcting Latin and Greek exercises, papers in mathematical or physical
science, answers to historical questions: all elementary and many
grotesquely bad. On completing each set he wrote the expected comment;
sometimes briefly, sometimes at considerable length. He now turned to a
bundle of so-called essays, and on opening the first could not repress a
groan. No! This was beyond his strength. He would make up the parcels for
post, write the half-dozen letters that must be sent to-day, and go out.
Had he not sixpence in his pocket?
Just as he had taken this resolve some one knocked at the sitting-room
door, and with the inattention of a man who expects nothing, Topham bade
'A gen'man asking for Mr. Starkey, sir,' said the servant.
'All right. Send him in.'
And then entered a man whose years seemed to be something short of fifty, a
hale, ruddy-cheeked, stoutish man, whose dress and bearing made it probable
that he was no Londoner.
'Mr. Starkey, M.A.?' he inquired, rather nervously, though his smile and
his upright posture did not lack a certain dignity.
'Quite right,' murmured Topham, who was authorised to represent his
principal to any one coming on business. 'Will you take a seat?'
'You will know my name,' began the stranger. 'Wigmore--Abraham Wigmore.'
'Very glad to meet you, Mr. Wigmore. I was on the point of sending your
last batch of papers to the post. You will find, this time, I have been
able to praise them unreservedly.'
The listener fairly blushed with delight; then he grasped his short beard
with his left hand and laughed silently, showing excellent teeth.
'Well, Mr. Starkey,' he replied at length in a moderately subdued voice, 'I
did really think I'd managed better than usual. But there's much thanks due
to you, sir. You've helped me, Mr. Starkey, you really have. And that's one
reason why, happening to come up to London, I wished to have the pleasure
of seeing you; I really did want to thank you, sir.'
Topham was closely observing this singular visitor. He had always taken
'Abraham Wigmore' for a youth of nineteen or so, some not over-bright, but
plodding and earnest clerk or counter-man in the little Gloucestershire
town from which the correspondent wrote; it astonished him to see this
mature and most respectable person. They talked on. Mr. Wigmore had a
slight west-country accent, but otherwise his language differed little from
that of the normally educated; in every word he revealed a good and kindly,
if simple, nature. At length a slight embarrassment interfered with the
flow of his talk, which, having been solely of tuitional matters, began to
take a turn more personal. Was he taking too much of Mr. Starkey's time?
Reassured on this point, he begged leave to give some account of himself.
'I dare say, Mr. Starkey, you're surprised to see how old I am. It seems
strange to you, no doubt, that at my age I should be going to school.' He
grasped his beard and laughed. 'Well, it is strange, and I'd like to
explain it to you. To begin with, I'll tell you what my age is; I'm
seven-and-forty. Only that. But I'm the father of two daughters--both
married. Yes, I was married young myself, and my good wife died long ago,
more's the pity.'
He paused, looked round the room, stroked his hard-felt hat, Topham
murmuring a sympathetic sound.
'Now, as to my business, Mr. Starkey. I'm a fruiterer and greengrocer. I
might have said fruiterer alone; it sounds more respectable, but the honest
truth is, I do sell vegetables as well, and I want you to know that, Mr.
Starkey. Does it make you feel ashamed of me?'
'My dear sir! What business could be more honourable? I heartily wish I had
one as good and as lucrative.'
'Well, that's your kindness, sir,' said Wigmore, with a pleased smile. 'The
fact is, I have done pretty well, though I'm not by any means a rich man:
comfortable, that's all. I gave my girls a good schooling, and what with
that and their good looks, they've both made what may be called better
marriages than might have been expected. For down in our country, you know,
sir, a shopkeeper is one thing, and a gentleman's another. Now my girls
have married gentlemen.'
Again he paused, and with emphasis. Again Topham murmured, this time
'One of them is wife to a young solicitor; the other to a young gentleman
farmer. And they've both gone to live in another part of the country. I
dare say you understand that, Mr. Starkey?'
The speaker's eyes had fallen; at the same time a twitching of the brows
and hardening of the mouth changed the expression of his face, marking it
with an unexpected sadness, all but pain.
'Do you mean, Mr. Wigmore,' asked Topham, 'that your daughters desire to
live at a distance from you?'
'Well, I'm sorry to say that's what I do mean, Mr. Starkey. My son-in-law
the solicitor had intended practising in the town where he was born;
instead of that he went to another a long way off. My son-in-law the
gentleman farmer was to have taken a farm close by us; he altered his mind,
and went into another county. You see, sir! It's quite natural: I find no
fault. There's never been an unkind word between any of us. But--'
He was growing more and more embarrassed. Evidently the man had something
he wished to say, something to which he had been leading up by this
disclosure of his domestic affairs; but he could not utter his thoughts.
Topham tried the commonplaces naturally suggested by the situation; they
were received with gratitude, but still Mr. Wigmore hung his head and
talked vaguely, with hesitations, pauses.
'I've always been what one may call serious-minded, Mr. Starkey. As a boy I
liked reading, and I've always had a book at hand for my leisure time--the
kind of book that does one good. Just now I'm reading _The Christian Year_.
And since my daughters married--well, as I tell you, Mr. Starkey, I've done
pretty well in business--there's really no reason why I should keep on in
my shop, if I chose to--to do otherwise.'
'I quite understand,' interrupted Topham, in whom there began to stir a
thought which made his brain warm. 'You would like to retire from business.
And you would like to--well, to pursue your studies more seriously.'
Again Wigmore looked grateful, but even yet the burden was not off his
'I know,' he resumed presently, turning his hat round and round, 'that it
sounds a strange thing to say, but--well, sir, I've always done my best to
live as a religious man.'
'Of that I have no doubt whatever, Mr. Wigmore.'
'Well, then, sir, what I should like to ask you is this. Do you think, if I
gave up the shop and worked very hard at my studies--with help, of course,
with help,--do you think, Mr. Starkey, that I could hope to get on?'
He was red as a peony; his voice choked.
'You mean,' put in Topham, he, too, becoming excited, 'to become a really
'Yes, sir, yes. But more than that. I want, Mr. Starkey, to make
myself--something--so that my daughters and my sons-in-law would never feel
ashamed of me--so that their children won't be afraid to talk of their
grandfather. I know it's a very bold thought, sir, but if I could--'
'Speak, Mr. Wigmore,' cried Topham, quivering with curiosity, 'speak more
plainly. What do you wish to become? With competent help--of course, with
competent help--anything is possible.'
'Really?' exclaimed the other. 'You mean that, Mr. Starkey? Then, sir'--he
leaned forward, blushing, trembling, gasping--'could I get to be--a
Topham fell back into his chair. For two or three minutes he was mute with
astonishment; then the very soul of him sang jubilee.
'My dear Mr. Wigmore,' he began, restraining himself to an impressive
gravity. 'I should be the last man to speak lightly of the profession of a
clergyman or to urge any one to enter the Church whom I thought unfitted
for the sacred office. But in your case, my good sir, there can be no such
misgiving. I entertain no doubt whatever of your fitness--your moral
fitness, and I will go so far as to say that with competent aid you might,
in no very long time, be prepared for the necessary examination.'
The listener laughed with delight. He began to talk rapidly, all diffidence
subdued. He told how the idea had first come to him, how he had brooded
upon it, how he had worked at elementary lesson-books, very secretly--then
how the sight of Starkey's advertisement had inspired him with hope.
'Just to get to be a curate--that's all. I should never be worthy of being
a vicar or a rector. I don't look so high as that, Mr. Starkey. But a
curate is a clergyman, and for my daughters to be able to say their father
is in the Church--that would be a good thing, sir, a good thing!'
He slapped his knee, and again laughed with joy. Meanwhile Topham seemed to
have become pensive, his head was on his hand.
'Oh,' he murmured at length, 'if I had time to work seriously with you,
several hours a day.'
Wigmore looked at him, and let his eyes fall: 'You are, of course, very
busy, Mr. Starkey!'
Topham waved his hand at the paper-covered table, and appeared to sink into
despondency. Thereupon Wigmore cautiously and delicately approached the
next thought he had in mind, Topham--cunning fellow--at one moment
facilitating, at another retarding what he wished to say. It came out at
last. Would it be quite impossible for Mr. Starkey to devote himself to one
'Mr. Wigmore, I will be frank with you. If I asked an equivalent for the
value of my business as a business, I could not expect you to agree to such
a proposal. But, to speak honestly, my health has suffered a good deal from
overwork, and I must take into consideration the great probability that in
any case, before long, I shall be obliged to find some position where the
duties were less exhausting.'
'Good gracious!' exclaimed the listener. 'Why, you'll kill yoursel, sir.
And I'm bound to say, you look far from well.'
Topham smiled pathetically, paused a moment as if to reflect, and continued
in the same tone of genial confidence. Let us consider the matter in
detail. Do you propose, Mr. Wigmore, to withdraw from business at once?'
The fruiterer replied that he could do so at very short notice. Questioned
as to his wishes regarding a place of residence, he declared that he was
ready to live in any place where, being unknown, he could make, as it were,
a new beginning.
'You would not feel impatient,' said Topham, 'if, say, two or three years
had to elapse before you could be ordained?'
'Impatient,' said the other cheerily. 'Why, if it took ten years I would go
through with it. When I make up my mind about a thing, I'm not easily
dismayed. If I could have your help, sir--'
The necessity of making a definite proposal turned Topham pale; he was so
afraid of asking too much. Almost in spite of himself, he at length spoke.
'Suppose we say--if I reside with you--that you pay me a salary of, well,
L200 a year?'
The next moment he inwardly raged. Wigmore's countenance expressed such
contentment, that it was plain the good man would have paid twice that sum.
'Ass!' cried Topham, in his mind. 'I always undervalue myself.'
* * * * *
It was late that evening when Starkey came home; to his surprise he found
that Topham was later still. In vain he sat writing until past one o'clock.
Topham did not appear, and indeed never came back at all. The overworked
corresponding tutor was taking his ease at the seaside on the strength of a
quarter's salary in advance, which Mr. Wigmore, tremulously anxious to
clinch their bargain, had insisted on paying him. Before leaving London he
had written to Starkey, apologising for his abrupt departure, 'The result
of unforeseen circumstances.' He enclosed six penny stamps in repayment of
a sum lent, and added--
'When I think of my great debt to you I despair of expressing my gratitude.
Be assured, however, that the name of Starkey will always be cherished in
Under that name Topham dwelt with the retired shopkeeper, and assiduously
discharged his tutorial duties. A day came when, relying upon the
friendship between them, and his pupil's exultation in the progress
achieved, the tutor unbosomed himself. Having heard the whole story,
Wigmore laughed a great deal, and declared that such a fellow as Starkey
was rightly served.
'But,' he inquired, after reflection, 'how was it the man never wrote to
ask why I sent no more work?'
'That asks for further confession. While at the seaside I wrote, in a
disguised hand, a letter supposed to come from a brother of yours in which
I said you were very ill and must cease your correspondence. Starkey hadn't
the decency to reply, but if he had done so I should have got his letter at
Mr. Wigmore looked troubled for a moment. However, this too was laughed
away, and the pursuit of gentility went on as rigorously as ever.
But Topham, musing over his good luck, thought with a shiver on how small
an accident it had depended. Had Starkey been at home when the fruiterer
called, he, it was plain, would have had the offer of this engagement.
'With the result that dear old Wigmore would have been bled for who knows
how many years by a mere swindler. Whereas he is really being educated,
and, for all I know, may some day adorn the Church of England.' Such
thoughts are very consoling.
A LODGER IN MAZE POND
Harvey Munden had settled himself in a corner of the club smoking-room,
with a cigar and a review. At eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning in
August he might reasonably expect to be undisturbed. But behold, there
entered a bore, a long-faced man with a yellow waistcoat, much dreaded by
all the members; he stood a while at one of the tables, fingering
newspapers and eyeing the solitary. Harvey heard a step, looked up, and
The bore began his attack in form; Harvey parried with as much resolution
as his kindly nature permitted.
'You know that Dr. Shergold is dying?' fell casually from the imperturbable
Munden was startled into attention, and the full flow of gossip swept about
him. Yes, the great Dr. Shergold lay dying; there were bulletins in the
morning papers; it seemed unlikely that he would see another dawn.
'Who will benefit by his decease?' inquired the bore. 'His nephew, do you
'A remarkable man, that--a _most_ remarkable man. He was at Lady Teasdale's
the other evening, and he talked a good deal. Upon my word, it reminded one
of Coleridge, or Macaulay,--that kind of thing. Certainly most brilliant
talk. I can't remember what it was all about--something literary. A sort of
fantasia, don't you know. Wonderful eloquence. By the bye, I believe he is
a great friend of yours?'
'Oh, we have known each other for a long time.'
'Somebody was saying that he had gone in for medicine--walking one of the
hospitals--that kind of thing.'
'Yes, he's at Guy's.'
To avoid infinite questioning, Harvey flung aside his review and went to
glance at the _Times_. He read the news concerning the great physician.
Then, as his pursuer drew near again, he hastily departed.
By midday he was at London Bridge. He crossed to the Surrey side, turned
immediately to the left, and at a short distance entered one of the vaulted
thoroughfares which run beneath London Bridge Station. It was like the
mouth of some monstrous cavern. Out of glaring daylight he passed into
gloom and chill air; on either side of the way a row of suspended lamps
gave a dull, yellow light, revealing entrances to vast storehouses, most of
them occupied by wine merchants; an alcoholic smell prevailed over
indeterminate odours of dampness. There was great concourse of drays and
waggons; wheels and the clang of giant hoofs made roaring echo, and above
thundered the trains. The vaults, barely illumined with gas-jets, seemed of
infinite extent; dim figures moved near and far, amid huge barrels, cases,
packages; in rooms partitioned off by glass framework men sat writing. A
curve in the tunnel made it appear much longer than it really was; till
midway nothing could be seen ahead but deepening darkness; then of a sudden
appeared the issue, and beyond, greatly to the surprise of any one who
should have ventured hither for the first time, was a vision of magnificent
plane-trees, golden in the August sunshine--one of the abrupt contrasts
which are so frequent in London, and which make its charm for those who
wander from the beaten tracks; a transition from the clangorous cave of
commerce to a sunny leafy quietude, amid old houses--some with quaint
tumbling roofs--and byways little frequented.
The planes grow at the back of Guy's Hospital, and close by is a short
narrow street which bears the name of Maze Pond. It consists for the most
part of homely, flat-fronted dwellings, where lodgings are let to medical
students. At one of these houses Harvey Munden plied the knocker.
He was answered by a trim, rather pert-looking girl, who smiled familiarly.
'Mr. Shergold isn't in, sir,' she said at once, anticipating his question.
'But he _will_ be very soon. Will you step in and wait?'
'I think I will.'
As one who knew the house, he went upstairs, and entered a sitting-room on
the first floor. The girl followed him.
'I haven't had time to clear away the breakfast things,' she said, speaking
rapidly and with an air. 'Mr. Shergold was late this mornin'; he didn't get
up till nearly ten, an' then he sat writin' letters. Did he know as you was
'No; I looked in on the chance of finding him, or learning where he was.'
'I'm sure he'll be in about half-past twelve, 'cause he said to me as he
was only goin' to get a breath of air. He hasn't nothing to do at the
'ospital just now.'
'Has he talked of going away?'
'Going away?' The girl repeated the words sharply, and examined the
speaker's face. 'Oh, he won't be goin' away just yet, I think.'
Munden returned her look with a certain curiosity, and watched her as she
began to clink together the things upon the table. Obviously she esteemed
herself a person of some importance. Her figure was not bad, and her
features had the trivial prettiness so commonly seen in London girls of the
lower orders,--the kind of prettiness which ultimately loses itself in fat
and chronic perspiration. Her complexion already began to show a tendency
to muddiness, and when her lips parted, they showed decay of teeth. In
dress she was untidy; her hair exhibited a futile attempt at elaborate
arrangement; she had dirty hands.
Disposed to talk, she lingered as long as possible, but Harvey Munden had
no leanings to this kind of colloquy; when the girl took herself off, he
drew a breath of satisfaction, and smiled the smile of an intellectual man
who has outlived youthful follies.
He stepped over to the lodger's bookcase. There were about a hundred
volumes, only a handful of them connected with medical study. Seeing a
volume of his own Munden took it down and idly turned the pages; it
surprised him to discover a great many marginal notes in pencil, and an
examination of these showed him that Shergold must have gone carefully
through the book with an eye to the correction of its style; adjectives
were deleted and inserted, words of common usage removed for others which
only a fine literary conscience could supply, and in places even the
punctuation was minutely changed. Whilst he still pondered this singular
manifestation of critical zeal, the door opened, and Shergold came in.
A man of two-and-thirty, short, ungraceful, ill-dressed, with features as
little commonplace as can be imagined. He had somewhat a stern look, and on
his brow were furrows of care. Light-blue eyes tended to modify the all but
harshness of his lower face; when he smiled, as on recognising his friend,
they expressed a wonderful innocence and suavity of nature; overshadowed,
in thoughtful or troubled mood, by his heavy eyebrows, they became deeply
pathetic. His nose was short and flat, yet somehow not ignoble; his full
lips, bare of moustache, tended to suggest a melancholy fretfulness. But
for the high forehead, no casual observer would have cared to look at him a
second time; but that upper story made the whole countenance vivid with
intellect, as though a light beamed upon it from above.
'You hypercritical beggar!' cried Harvey, turning with the volume in his
hand. 'Is this how you treat the glorious works of your contemporaries?'
Shergold reddened and was mute.
'I shall take this away with me,' pursued the other, laughing. 'It'll be
worth a little study.'
'My dear fellow--you won't take it ill of me--I didn't really mean it as a
criticism,' the deep, musical voice stammered in serious embarrassment.
'Why, wasn't it just this kind of thing that caused a quarrel between
George Sand and Musset?'
'Yes, yes; but George Sand was such a peremptory fellow, and Musset such a
vapourish young person. Look! I'll show you what I meant.'
'Thanks,' said Munden, 'I can find that out for myself.' He thrust the book
into his coat-pocket. 'I came to ask you if you are aware of your uncle's
'Of course I am.
'When did you see him last?'
'See him?' Shergold's eyes wandered vaguely. 'Oh, to talk with him, about a
'Did you part friendly?'
'On excellent terms. And last night I went to ask after him. Unfortunately
he didn't know any one, but the nurse said he had been mentioning my name,
and in a kind way.'
'Capital! Hadn't you better walk in that direction this afternoon?'
'Yes, perhaps I had, and yet, you know, I hate to have it supposed that I
am hovering about him.'
'All the same, go.'
Shergold pointed to a chair. 'Sit down a bit. I have been having a talk
with Dr. Salmon. He discourages me a good deal. You know it's far from
certain that I shall go on with medicine.'
'Far from certain!' the other assented, smiling. 'By the bye, I hear that
you have been in the world of late. You were at Lady Teasdale's not long
Perhaps it was partly his vexation at the book incident,--Shergold seemed
unable to fix his thoughts on anything; he shuffled in his seat and kept
glancing nervously towards the door.
'I was delighted to hear it,' said his friend. 'That's a symptom of health.
Go everywhere; see everybody--that's worth seeing. They got you to talk, I
'Who has been telling you? I'm afraid I talked a lot of rubbish; I had
shivers of shame all through a sleepless night after it. But some one
brought up Whistler, and etching, and so on, and I had a few ideas of which
I wanted to relieve my mind. And, after all, there's a pleasure in talking
to intelligent people. Henry Wilt was there with his daughters. Clever
girls, by Jove! And Mrs. Peter Rayne--do you know her?'
'Know of her, that's all.'
'A splendid woman--brains, brains! Upon my soul, I know no such delight as
listening to a really intellectual woman, when she's also beautiful. I
shake with delight--and what women one does meet, nowadays! Of course the
world never saw their like. I have my idea of Aspasia--but there are lots
of grander women in London to-day. One ought to live among the rich. What a
wretched mistake, when one can help it, to herd with narrow foreheads,
however laudable your motive! Since I got back among the better people my
life has been trebled--oh, centupled--in value!'
'My boy,' remarked Munden quietly, 'didn't I say something to this effect
on a certain day nine years ago?'
'Don't talk of it,' the other replied, waving his hand in agitation. 'We'll
never look back at that.'
'Your room is stuffy,' said Munden, rising. 'Let us go and have lunch
'Yes, we will! Just a moment to wash my hands--I've been in the
The friends went downstairs. At the foot they passed the landlady's
daughter: she drew back, but, as Shergold allowed his companion to pass
into the street, her voice made itself heard behind him.
'Shall you want tea, Mr. Shergold?'
Munden turned sharply and looked at the girl. Shergold did not look at her,
but he delayed for a moment and appeared to balance the question. Then, in
a friendly voice, he said--
'No, thank you. I may not be back till late in the evening.' And he went on
'Cheeky little beggar that,' Munden observed, with a glance at his friend.
'Oh, not a bad girl in her way. They've made me very comfortable. All the
same, I shan't grieve when the day of departure comes.'
It was not cheerful, the life-story of Henry Shergold. At two-and-twenty he
found himself launched upon the world, with a university education
incomplete and about forty pounds in his pocket. A little management, a
little less of boyish pride, and he might have found the means to go
forward to his degree, with pleasant hopes in the background; but Henry was
a Radical, a scorner of privilege, a believer in human perfectibility. He
got a place in an office, and he began to write poetry--some of which was
published and duly left unpaid for. A year later there came one fateful day
when he announced to his friend Harvey Munden that he was going to be
married. His chosen bride was the daughter of a journeyman tailor--a tall,
pale, unhealthy girl of eighteen, whose acquaintance he had made at a
tobacconist's shop, where she served. He was going to marry her on
principle--principle informed with callow passion, the passion of a youth
who has lived demurely, more among books than men. Harvey Munden flew into
a rage, and called upon the gods in protest. But Shergold was not to be
shaken. The girl, he declared, had fallen in love with him during
conversations across the counter; her happiness was in his hands, and he
would not betray it. She had excellent dispositions; he would educate her.
The friends quarrelled about it, and Shergold led home his bride.
With the results which any sane person could have foretold. The marriage
was a hideous disaster; in three years it brought Shergold to an attempted
suicide, for which he had to appear at the police-court. His relative, the
distinguished doctor, who had hitherto done nothing for him, now came
forward with counsel and assistance. Happily the only child of the union
had died at a few weeks old, and the wife, though making noisy proclamation
of rights, was so weary of her husband that she consented to a separation.
But in less than a year the two were living together again; Mrs. Shergold
had been led by her relatives to believe that some day the poor fellow
would have his uncle's money, and her wiles ultimately overcame Shergold's
resistance. He, now studying law at the doctor's expense, found himself
once more abandoned, and reduced to get his living as a solicitor's clerk.
His uncle had bidden him good-bye on a postcard, whereon was illegibly
scribbled something about 'damned fools.'
He bore the burden for three more years, then his wife died. One night,
after screaming herself speechless in fury at Shergold's refusal to go with
her to a music-hall, she had a fit on the stairs, and in falling received
The man was free, but terribly shattered. Only after a long sojourn abroad,
at his kinsman's expense, did he begin to recover health. He came back and
entered himself as a student at Guy's, greatly to Dr. Shergold's
satisfaction. His fees were paid and a small sum was allowed him to live
upon--a very small sum. By degrees some old acquaintances began to see him,
but it was only quite of late that he had accepted invitations from people
of social standing, whom he met at the doctor's house. The hints of his
story that got about made him an interesting figure, especially to women,
and his remarkable gifts were recognised as soon as circumstances began to
give him fair play. All modern things were of interest to him, and his
knowledge, acquired with astonishing facility, formed the fund of talk
which had singular charm alike for those who did and those who did not
understand it. Undeniably shy, he yet, when warmed to a subject, spoke with
nerve and confidence. In days of jabber, more or less impolite, this
appearance of an articulate mortal, with soft manners and totally
unaffected, could not but excite curiosity. Lady Teasdale, eager for the
uncommon, chanced to observe him one evening as he conversed with his
neighbour at the dinner-table; later, in the drawing-room, she encouraged
him with flattery of rapt attention to a display of his powers; she
resolved to make him a feature of her evenings. Fortunately, his kindred
with Dr. Shergold made a respectable introduction, and Lady Teasdale
whispered it among matrons that he would inherit from the wealthy doctor,
who had neither wife nor child. He might not be fair to look upon, but
handsome is that handsome has.
And now the doctor lay sick unto death. Society was out of town, but Lady
Teasdale, with a house full of friends about her down in Hampshire, did not
forget her _protege_; she waited with pleasant expectation for the young
man's release from poverty.
It came in a day or two. Dr. Shergold was dead, and an enterprising
newspaper announced simultaneously that the bulk of his estate would pass
to Mr. Henry Shergold, a gentleman at present studying for his uncle's
profession. This paragraph caught the eye of Harvey Munden, who sent a line
to his friend, to ask if it was true. In reply he received a mere postcard:
'Yes. Will see you before long.' But Harvey wanted to be off to Como, and
as business took him into the city, he crossed the river and sought Maze
Pond. Again the door was opened to him by the landlady's daughter; she
stood looking keenly in his face, her eyes smiling and yet suspicious.
'Mr. Shergold in?' he asked carelessly.
'No, he isn't.' There was a strange bluntness about this answer. The girl
stood forward, as if to bar the entrance, and kept searching his face.
'When is he likely to be?'
'I don't know. He didn't say when he went out.'
A woman's figure appeared in the background. The girl turned and said
sharply, 'All right, mother, it's only somebody for Mr. Shergold.'
'I'll go upstairs and write a note,' said Munden, in a rather peremptory
The other drew back and allowed him to pass, but with evident
disinclination. As he entered the room, he saw that she had followed. He
went up to a side-table, on which lay a blotting-book, with other
requisites for writing, and then he stood for a moment as if in meditation.
'Your name is Emma, isn't it?' he inquired, looking at the girl with a
'Yes, it is.'
'Well then, Emma, shut the door, and let's have a talk. Your mother won't
mind, will she?' he added slyly.
The girl tossed her head.
'I don't see what it's got to do with mother.' She closed the door, but did
not latch it. 'What do you want to talk about?'
'You're a very nice girl to look at, Emma, and I've always admired you when
you opened the door to me. I've always liked your nice, respectful way of
speaking, but somehow you don't speak quite so nicely to-day. What has put
Her eyes did not quit his face for a moment; her attitude betokened the
utmost keenness of suspicious observation.
'Nothing's put me out, that I know of.'
'Yet you don't speak very nicely--not very respectfully. Perhaps'--he
paused--'perhaps Mr. Shergold is going to leave?'
'P'r'aps he may be.'
'And you're vexed at losing a lodger.'
He saw her lip curl and then she laughed.
'You're wrong there.'
'Then _what_ is it?'
He drew near and made as though he would advance a familiar arm. Emma
'All right,' she exclaimed, with an insolent nod. 'I'll tell Mr. Shergold.'
'Tell Mr. Shergold? Why? What has it to do with him?'
'A good deal.'
'Indeed? For shame, Emma! I never expected _that_!'
'What do you mean?' she retorted hotly. 'You keep your impudence to
yourself. If you want to know, Mr. Shergold is going to _marry_ me--so
The stroke was effectual. Harvey Munden stood as if transfixed, but he
recovered himself before a word escaped his lips.
'Ah, that alters the case. I beg your pardon. You won't make trouble
between old friends?'
Vanity disarmed the girl's misgiving. She grinned with satisfaction.
'That depends how you behave.'
'Oh, you don't know me. But promise, now; not a word to Shergold.'
She gave a conditional promise, and stood radiant with her triumph.
'Thanks, that's very good of you. Well, I won't trouble to leave a note.
You shall just tell Shergold that I am leaving England to-morrow for a
holiday. I should _like_ to see him, of course, and I may possibly look
round this evening. If I can't manage it, just tell him that I think he
ought to have given me a chance of congratulating him. May I ask when it is
Emma resumed an air of prudery, 'Before very long, I dessay.'
'I wish you joy. Well, I mustn't talk longer now, but I'll do my best to
look in this evening, and then we can all chat together.'
He laughed and she laughed back; and thereupon they parted.
A little after nine that evening, when only a grey reflex of daylight
lingered upon a cloudy sky, Munden stood beneath the plane-trees by Guy's
Hospital waiting. He had walked the length of Maze Pond and had ascertained
that his friend's window as yet showed no light; Shergold was probably
still from home. In the afternoon he had made inquiry at the house of the
deceased doctor, but of Henry nothing was known there; he left a message
for delivery if possible, to the effect that he would call in at Maze Pond
between nine and ten.
At a quarter past the hour there appeared from the direction of London
Bridge a well-known figure, walking slowly, head bent. Munden moved
forward, and, on seeing him, Shergold grasped his hand feverishly.
'Ha! how glad I am to meet you, Munden! Come; let us walk this way.' He
turned from Maze Pond. 'I got your message up yonder an hour or two ago. So
glad I have met you here, old fellow.'
'Well, your day has come,' said Harvey, trying to read his friend's
features in the gloom.
'He has left me about eighty thousand pounds,' Shergold replied, in a low,
shaken voice. 'I'm told there are big legacies to hospitals as well.
Heavens! how rich he was!'
'When is the funeral?'
'Where shall you live in the meantime?'
'I don't know--I haven't thought about it.'
'I should go to some hotel, if I were you,' said Munden, 'and I have a
proposal to make. If I wait till Saturday, will you come with me to Como?'
Shergold did not at once reply. He was walking hurriedly, and making rather
strange movements with his head and arms. They came into the shadow of the
vaulted way beneath London Bridge Station. At this hour the great tunnel
was quiet, save when a train roared above; the warehouses were closed; one
or two idlers, of forbidding aspect, hung about in the murky gaslight, and
from the far end came a sound of children at play.
'You won't be wanted here?' Munden added.
'No--no--I think not.' There was agitation in the voice.
'Then you will come?'
'Yes, I will come.' Shergold spoke with unnecessary vehemence and laughed
'What's the matter with you?' his friend asked.
'Nothing--the change of circumstances, I suppose. Let's get on. Let us go
somewhere--I can't help reproaching myself; I ought to feel or show a
decent sobriety; but what was the old fellow to me? I'm grateful to him.'
'There's nothing else on your mind?'
Shergold looked up, startled.
'What do you mean? Why do you ask?'
They stood together in the black shadow of an interval between two lamps.
After reflecting for a moment, Munden decided to speak.
'I called at your lodgings early to-day, and somehow I got into talk with
the girl. She was cheeky, and her behaviour puzzled me. Finally she made an
incredible announcement--that you had asked her to marry you. Of course
it's a lie?'
'To marry her?' exclaimed the listener hoarsely, with an attempt at
laughter. 'Do you think that likely--after all I have gone through?'
'No, I certainly don't. It staggered me. But what I want to know is, can
she cause trouble?'
'How do I know?--a girl will lie so boldly. She might make a scandal, I
suppose; or threaten it, in hope of getting money out of me.'
'But is there any ground for a scandal?' demanded Harvey.
'Not the slightest, as you mean it.'
'I'm glad to hear that. But she may give you trouble. I see the thing
doesn't astonish you very much; no doubt you were aware of her character.'
'Yes, yes; I know it pretty well. Come, let us get out of this squalid
inferno; how I hate it! Have you had dinner? I don't want any. Let us go to
your rooms, shall we? There'll be a hansom passing the bridge.'
They walked on in silence, and when they had found a cab they drove
westward, talking only of Dr. Shergold's affairs. Munden lived in the
region of the Squares, hard by the British Museum; he took his friend into
a comfortably furnished room, the walls hidden with books and prints, and
there they sat down to smoke, a bottle of whisky within easy reach of both.
It was plain to Harvey that some mystery lay in his friend's reserve on the
subject of the girl Emma; he was still anxious, but would not lead the talk
to unpleasant things. Shergold drank like a thirsty man, and the whisky
seemed to make him silent. Presently he fell into absolute muteness, and
lay wearily back in his chair.
'The excitement has been too much for you,' Munden remarked.
Shergold looked at him, with a painful embarrassment in his features; then
suddenly he bent forward.
'Munden, it's I who have lied. I _did_ ask that girl to marry me.'
'Because for a moment I was insane.' They stared at each other.
'Has she any hold upon you?' Munden asked slowly.
'None whatever, except this frantic offer of mine.'
'Into which she inveigled you?'
'I can't honestly say she did; it was entirely my own fault. She has never
behaved loosely, or even like a schemer. I doubt whether she knew anything
about my uncle, until I told her last night.'
He spoke rapidly, in a thick voice, moving his arms in helpless
protestation. His look was one of unutterable misery.
'Well,' observed Munden, 'the frenzy has at all events passed. You have the
common-sense to treat it as if it had never been; and really I am tempted
to believe that it was literal lunacy. Last night were you drunk?'
'I had drunk nothing. Listen, and I will tell you all about it. I am a fool
about women. I don't know what it is--certainly not a sensual or passionate
nature; mine is nothing of the sort. It's sheer sentimentality, I suppose.
I can't be friendly with a woman without drifting into mawkish
tenderness--there's the simple truth. If I had married happily, I don't
think I should have been tempted to go about philandering. The society of a
wife I loved and respected would be sufficient. But there's that need in
me--the incessant hunger for a woman's sympathy and affection. Such a
hideous mistake as mine when I married would have made a cynic of most men;
upon me the lesson has been utterly thrown away. I mean that, though I can
talk of women rationally enough with a friend, I am at their mercy when
alone with them--at the mercy of the silliest, vulgarest creature. After
all, isn't it very much the same with men in general? The average man--how
does he come to marry? Do you think he deliberately selects? Does he fall
in love, in the strict sense of the phrase, with that one particular girl?
No; it comes about by chance--by the drifting force of circumstances. Not
one man in ten thousand, when he thinks of marriage, waits for the ideal
wife--for the woman who makes capture of his soul or even of his senses.
Men marry without passion. Most of us have a very small circle for choice;
the hazard of everyday life throws us into contact with this girl or that,
and presently we begin to feel either that we have compromised ourselves,
or that we might as well save trouble and settle down as soon as possible,
and the girl at hand will do as well as another. More often than not it is
the girl who decides for us. In more than half the marriages it's the woman
who has practically proposed. She puts herself in a man's way. With her it
rests almost entirely whether a man shall think of her as a possible wife
or not. She has endless ways of putting herself forward without seeming to
do so. As often as not, it's mere passivity that effects the end. She has
only to remain seated instead of moving away; to listen with a smile
instead of looking bored; to be at home instead of being out,--and she is
making love to a man. In a Palace of Truth how many husbands would have to
confess that it decidedly surprised them when they found themselves engaged
to be married? The will comes into play only for a moment or two now and
then. Of course it is made to seem responsible, and in a sense it _is_
responsible, but, in the vast majority of cases, purely as an animal
instinct, confirming the suggestion of circumstances.'
'There's something in all this,' granted the listener, 'but it doesn't
explain the behaviour of a man who, after frightful experience in
marriage--after recovering his freedom--after finding himself welcomed by
congenial society--after inheriting a fortune to use as he likes--goes and
offers himself to an artful hussy in a lodging-house.'
'That's the special case. Look how it came to pass. Months ago I knew I was
drifting into dangerous relations with that girl. Unfortunately I am not a
rascal: I can't think of girls as playthings; a fatal conscientiousness in
an unmarried man of no means. Day after day we grew more familiar. She used
to come up and ask me if I wanted anything; and of course I knew that she
began to come more often than necessary. When she laid a meal for me, we
talked--half an hour at a time. The mother, doubtless, looked on with
approval; Emma had to find a husband, and why not me as well as another?
They knew I was a soft creature--that I never made a row about
anything--was grateful for anything that looked like kindness--and so on.
Just the kind of man to be captured. But no--I don't want to make out that
I am their victim; that's a feeble excuse, and a worthless one. The average
man would either have treated the girl as a servant, and so kept her at her
distance, or else he would have alarmed her by behaviour which suggested
anything you like but marriage. As for me, I hadn't the common-sense to
take either of these courses. I made a friend of the girl; talked to her
more and more confidentially; and at last--fatal moment--told her my
history. Yes, I was ass enough to tell that girl the whole story of my
life. Can you conceive such folly?
'Yet the easiest thing in the world to understand. We were alone in the
house one evening. After trying to work for about an hour I gave it up. I
knew that the mother was out, and I heard Emma moving downstairs. I was
lonely and dispirited--wanted to talk--to talk about myself to some one who
would give a kind ear. So I went down, and made some excuse for beginning a
conversation in the parlour. It lasted a couple of hours; we were still
talking when the mother came back. I didn't persuade myself that I cared
for Emma, even then. Her vulgarisms of speech and feeling jarred upon me.
But she was feminine; she spoke and looked gently, with sympathy. I enjoyed
that evening--and you must bear in mind what I have told you before, that I
stand in awe of refined women. I am their equal, I know; I can talk with
them; their society is an exquisite delight to me;--but when it comes to
thinking of intimacy with one of them--! Perhaps it is my long years of
squalid existence. Perhaps I have come to regard myself as doomed to life
on a lower level. I find it an impossible thing to imagine myself offering
marriage--making love--to a girl such as those I meet in the big houses.'
'You will outgrow that,' said Munden.
'Yes, yes,--I hope and believe so. And wouldn't it be criminal to deny
myself even the chance, now that I have money? All to-day I have been
tortured like a soul that beholds its salvation lost by a moment's weakness
of the flesh. You can imagine what my suffering has been; it drove me into
sheer lying. I had resolved to deny utterly that I had asked Emma to marry
me--to deny it with a savage boldness, and take the consequences.'
'A most rational resolve, my dear fellow. Pray stick to it. But you haven't
told me yet how the dizzy culmination of your madness was reached. You say
that you proposed _last night_?'
'Yes--and simply for the pleasure of telling Emma, when she had accepted
me, that I had eighty thousand pounds! You can't understand that? I suppose
the change of fortune has made me a little light-headed; I have been going
about with a sense of exaltation which has prompted me to endless follies.
I have felt a desire to be kind to people--to bestow happiness--to share my
joy with others. If I had some of the doctor's money in my pocket, I should
have given away five-pound notes.'
'You contented yourself,' said Munden, laughing, 'with giving a
promissory-note for the whole legacy.'
'Yes; but try to understand. Emma came up to my room at supper-time, and as
usual we talked. I didn't say anything about my uncle's death--yet I felt
the necessity of telling her creep fatally upon me. There was a conflict in
my mind, between common-sense and that awful sentimentality which is my
curse. When Emma came up again after supper, she mentioned that her mother
was gone with a friend to a theatre. "Why don't you go?" I said. "Oh, I
don't go anywhere." "But after all," I urged consolingly, "August isn't
exactly the time for enjoying the theatre." She admitted it wasn't; but
there was the Exhibition at Earl's Court, she had heard so much of it, and
wanted to go. "Then suppose we go together one of these evenings?"
'You see? Idiot!--and I couldn't help it. My tongue spoke these imbecile
words in spite of my brain. All very well, if I had meant what another man
would; but I didn't, and the girl knew I didn't. And she looked at me--and
then--why, mere brute instinct did the rest--no, not mere instinct, for it
was complicated with that idiot desire to see how the girl would look, hear
what she would say, when she knew that I had given her eighty thousand
pounds. You can't understand?'
'As a bit of morbid psychology--yes.'
'And the frantic proceeding made me happy! For an hour or two I behaved as
if I loved the girl with all my soul. And afterwards I was still happy. I
walked up and down my bedroom, making plans for the future--for her
education, and so on. I saw all sorts of admirable womanly qualities in
her. I _was_ in love with her, and there's an end of it!'
Munden mused for a while, then laid down his pipe.
'Remarkably suggestive, Shergold, the name of the street in which you have
been living. Well, you don't go back there?'
'No. I have come to my senses. I shall go to an hotel for to-night, and
send presently for all my things.'
'To be sure, and on Saturday--or on Friday evening, if you like, we leave
It was evident that Shergold rejoiced with trembling.
'But I can't stick to the lie.' he said. 'I shall compensate the girl. You
see, by running away I make confession that there's something wrong. I
shall see a solicitor and put the matter into his hands.'
'As you please. But let the solicitor exercise his own discretion as to
'Damages!' Shergold pondered the word. 'I suppose she won't drag me into
court--make a public ridicule of me? If so, there's an end of my hopes. I
couldn't go among people after that.'
'I don't see why not. But your solicitor will probably manage the affair.
They have their methods,' Munden added drily.
Early the next morning Shergold despatched a telegram to Maze Pond,
addressed to his landlady. It said that he would be kept away by business
for a day or two. On Friday he attended his uncle's funeral, and that
evening he left Charing Cross with Harvey Munden, _en route_ for Como.
There, a fortnight later, Shergold received from his solicitor a
communication which put an end to his feigning of repose and hopefulness.
That he did but feign, Harvey Munden felt assured; signs of a troubled
conscience, or at all events of restless nerves, were evident in all his
doing and conversing; now he once more made frank revelation of his
'There's the devil to pay. She won't take money. She's got a lawyer, and is
going to bring me into court. I've authorised Reckitt to offer as much as
five thousand pounds,--it's no good. He says her lawyer has evidently
encouraged her to hope for enormous damages, and then she'll have the
satisfaction of making me the town-talk. It's all up with me, Munden. My
hopes are vanished like--what is it in Dante?--_il fumo in aere ed in aqua
Smoking a Cavour, Munden lay back in the shadow of the pergola, and seemed
to disdain reply.
'What's the good of advising a man born to be fooled? Why, let the ---- do
'We mustn't forget that it's all my fault.'
'Yes, just as it's your own fault you didn't die on the day of your birth!'
'I must raise the offer--'
'By all means; offer ten thousand. I suppose a jury would give her two
hundred and fifty.'
'But the scandal--the ridicule--'
'Face it. Very likely it's the only thing that would teach you wisdom and
save your life.'
'That's one way of looking at it. I half believe it might be effectual.'
He kept alone for most of the day. In the evening, from nine to ten, he
went upon the lake with Harvey, but could not talk; his blue eyes were sunk
in a restless melancholy, his brows were furrowed, he kept making short,
nervous movements, as though in silent remonstrance with himself. And when
the next morning came, and Harvey Munden rang the bell for his coffee, a
waiter brought him a note addressed in Shergold's hand. 'I have started for
London,' ran the hurriedly written lines. 'Don't be uneasy; all I mean to
do is to stop the danger of a degrading publicity; the fear of _that_ is
too much for me. I have an idea, and you shall hear how I get on in a few
The nature of that promising idea Munden never learnt. His next letter from
Shergold came in about ten days; it informed him very briefly that the
writer was 'about to be married,' and that in less than a week he would
have started with his wife on a voyage round the world. Harvey did not
reply; indeed, the letter contained no address.
One day in November he was accosted at the club by his familiar bore.
'So your friend Shergold is dead?'
'Dead? I know nothing of it.'
'Really? They talked of it last night at Lady Teasdale's. He died a few
days ago, at Calcutta. Dysentery, or something of that kind. His wife
cabled to some one or other.'
THE SALT OF THE EARTH
Strong and silent the tide of Thames flowed upward, and over it swept the
morning tide of humanity. Through white autumnal mist yellow sunbeams
flitted from shore to shore. The dome, the spires, the river frontages
slowly unveiled and brightened: there was hope of a fair day.
Not that it much concerned this throng of men and women hastening to their
labour. From near and far, by the league-long highways of South London,
hither they converged each morning, and joined the procession across the
bridge; their task was the same to-day as yesterday, regardless of gleam or
gloom. Many had walked such a distance that they plodded wearily, looking
neither to right nor left. The more vigorous strode briskly on, elbowing
their way, or nimbly skipping into the road to gain advance; yet these also
had a fixed gaze, preoccupied or vacant, seldom cheerful. Here and there a
couple of friends conversed; girls, with bag or parcel and a book for the
dinner hour, chattered and laughed; but for the most part lips were mute
amid the clang and roar of heavy-laden wheels.
It was the march of those who combat hunger with delicate hands: at the
pen's point, or from behind the breastwork of a counter, or trusting to
bare wits pressed daily on the grindstone. Their chief advantage over the
sinewy class beneath them lay in the privilege of spending more than they
could afford on house and clothing; with rare exceptions they had no hope,
no chance, of reaching independence; enough if they upheld the threadbare
standard of respectability, and bequeathed it to their children as a
solitary heirloom. The oldest looked the poorest, and naturally so; amid
the tramp of multiplying feet, their steps had begun to lag when speed was
more than ever necessary; they saw newcomers outstrip them, and trudged
under an increasing load.
No eye surveying this procession would have paused for a moment on Thomas
Bird. In costume there was nothing to distinguish him from hundreds of
rather shabby clerks who passed along with their out-of-fashion chimney-pot
and badly rolled umbrella; his gait was that of a man who takes no exercise
beyond the daily walk to and from his desk; the casual glance could see
nothing in his features but patient dullness tending to good humour. He
might be thirty, he might be forty--impossible to decide. Yet when a ray of
sunshine fell upon him, and he lifted his eyes to the eastward promise,
there shone in his countenance something one might vainly have sought
through the streaming concourse of which Thomas Bird was an unregarded
atom. For him, it appeared, the struggling sunlight had a message of hope.
Trouble cleared from his face; he smiled unconsciously and quickened his
For fifteen years he had walked to and fro over Blackfriars Bridge, leaving
his home in Camberwell at eight o'clock and reaching it again at seven.
Fate made him a commercial clerk as his father before him; he earned more
than enough for his necessities, but seemed to have reached the limit of
promotion, for he had no influential friends, and he lacked the capacity to
rise by his own efforts. There may have been some calling for which Thomas
was exactly suited, but he did not know of it; in the office he proved
himself a trustworthy machine, with no opportunity of becoming anything
else. His parents were dead, his kindred scattered, he lived, as for
several years past, in lodgings. But it never occurred to him to think of
his lot as mournful. A man of sociable instincts, he had many
acquaintances, some of whom he cherished. An extreme simplicity marked his
tastes, and the same characteristic appeared in his conversation; an easy
man to deceive, easy to make fun of, yet impossible to dislike, or
despise--unless by the despicable. He delighted in stories of adventure, of
bravery by flood or field, and might have posed--had he ever posed at
all--as something of an authority on North Pole expeditions and the
geography of Polynesia.
He received his salary once a month, and to-day was pay-day: the
consciousness of having earned a certain number of sovereigns always set
his thoughts on possible purchases, and at present he was revolving the
subject of his wardrobe. Certainly it needed renewal, but Thomas could not
decide at which end to begin, head or feet. His position in a leading house
demanded a good hat, the bad weather called for new boots. Living
economically as he did, it should have been a simple matter to resolve the
doubt by purchasing both articles, but, for one reason and another, Thomas
seldom had a surplus over the expenses of his lodgings; in practice he
found it very difficult to save a sovereign for other needs.
When evening released him he walked away in a cheerful frame of mind,
grasping the money in his trousers' pocket, and all but decided to make
some acquisition on the way home. Near Ludgate Circus some one addressed
him over his shoulder.
'Good evening, Tom; pleasant for the time of year.'
The speaker was a man of fifty, stout and florid--the latter peculiarity
especially marked in his nose; he looked like a substantial merchant, and
spoke with rather pompous geniality. Thrusting his arm through the clerk's,
he walked with him over Blackfriars Bridge, talking in the friendliest
strain of things impersonal. Beyond the bridge--
'Do you tram it?' he asked, glancing upwards.
'I think so, Mr. Warbeck,' answered the other, whose tone to his
acquaintance was very respectful.
'Ah! I'm afraid it would make me late.--Oh, by the bye, Tom, I'm really
ashamed--most awkward that this kind of thing happens so often, but--could
you, do you think?--No, no; one sovereign only. Let me make a note of it by
the light of this shop-window. Really, the total is getting quite
considerable. Tut, tut! You shall have a cheque in a day or two. Oh, it
can't run on any longer; I'm completely ashamed of myself. Entirely
temporary--as I explained. A cheque on Wednesday at latest. Good-bye, Tom.'
They shook hands cordially, and Mr. Warbeck went off in a hansom. Thomas
Bird, changing his mind about the tram, walked all the way home, and with
bent head. One would have thought that he had just done something
He was wondering, not for the first time, whether Mrs. Warbeck knew or
suspected that her husband was in debt to him. Miss Warbeck--Alma
Warbeck--assuredly had never dreamed of such a thing. The system of casual
loans dated from nearly twelve months ago, and the total was now not much
less than thirty pounds. Mr. Warbeck never failed to declare that he was
ashamed of himself, but probably the creditor experienced more discomfort
of that kind. At the first playful demand Thomas felt a shock. He had known
the Warbecks since he was a lad, had always respected them as somewhat his
social superiors, and, as time went on, had recognised that the difference
of position grew wider: he remaining stationary, while his friends
progressed to a larger way of living. But they were, he thought, no less
kind to him; Mrs. Warbeck invited him to the house about once a month, and
Alma--Alma talked with him in such a pleasant, homely way. Did their
expenditure outrun their means? He would never have supposed it, but for
the City man's singular behaviour. About the cheque so often promised he
cared little, but with all his heart he hoped Mrs. Warbeck did not know.
Somewhere near Camberwell Green, just as he had resumed the debate about
his purchases, a middle-aged woman met him with friendly greeting. Her
appearance was that of a decent shopkeeper's wife.
'I'm so glad I've met you, Mr. Bird. I know you'll be anxious to hear how
our poor friend is getting on.'
She spoke of the daughter of a decayed tradesman, a weak and overworked
girl, who had lain for some weeks in St. Thomas's Hospital. Mrs. Pritchard,
a gadabout infected with philanthropy, was fond of discovering such cases,
and in everyday conversation made the most of her charitable efforts.
'They'll allow her out in another week,' she pursued. 'But, of course, she
can't expect to be fit for anything for a time. And I very much doubt
whether she'll ever get the right use of her limbs again. But what we have
to think of now is to get her some decent clothing. The poor thing has
positively nothing. I'm going to speak to Mrs. Doubleday, and a few other
people. Really, Mr. Bird, if it weren't that I've presumed on your good
nature so often lately--'
She paused and smiled unctuously at him.
'I'm afraid I can't do much,' faltered Thomas, reddening at the vision of a
'No, no; of course not. I'm sure I should never expect--it's only that
every little--_however_ little--_does_ help, you know.'
Thomas thrust a hand into his pocket and brought out a florin, which Mrs.
Pritchard pursed with effusive thanks.
Certain of this good woman's critics doubted her competence as a trustee,
but Thomas Bird had no such misgiving. He talked with kindly interest of
the unfortunate girl, and wished her well in a voice that carried
His lodgings were a pair of very small, mouldy, and ill-furnished rooms; he
took them unwillingly, overcome by the landlady's doleful story of their
long lodgerless condition, and, in the exercise of a heavenly forbearance,
remained year after year. The woman did not cheat him, and Thomas knew
enough of life to respect her for this remarkable honesty; she was simply
an ailing, lachrymose slut, incapable of effort. Her son, a lad who had
failed in several employments from sheer feebleness of mind and body,
practically owed his subsistence to Thomas Bird, whose good offices had at
length established the poor fellow at a hairdresser's. To sit frequently
for an hour at a time, as Thomas did, listening with attention to Mrs.
Batty's talk of her own and her son's ailments, was in itself a marvel of
charity. This evening she met him as he entered, and lighted him into his
'There's a letter come for you, Mr. Bird. I put it down somewheres--why,
now, where _did_ I--? Oh, 'ere it is. You'll be glad to 'ear as Sam did his
first shave to-day, an' his 'and didn't tremble much neither.'
Burning with desire to open the letter, which he saw was from Mrs. Warbeck,
Thomas stood patiently until the flow of words began to gurgle away amid
groans and pantings.
'Well,' he cried gaily, 'didn't I promise Sam a shilling when he'd done his
first shave? If I didn't I ought to have done, and here it is for him.'
Then he hurried into the bedroom, and read his letter by candle-light. It
was a short scrawl on thin, scented, pink-hued notepaper. Would he do Mrs.
Warbeck the 'favour' of looking in before ten to-night? No explanation of
this unusually worded request; and Thomas fell at once into a tremor of
anxiety. With a hurried glance at his watch, he began to make ready for the
visit, struggling with drawers which would neither open nor shut, and
driven to despair by the damp condition of his clean linen.
In this room, locked away from all eyes but his own, lay certain relics
which Thomas worshipped. One was a photograph of a girl of fifteen. At that
age Alma Warbeck promised little charm, and the photograph allowed her
less; but it was then that Thomas Bird became her bondman, as he had ever
since remained. There was also a letter, the only one that he had ever
received from her--'Dear Mr. Bird,--Mamma says will you buy her some more
of those _jewjewbs_ at the shop in the city, and bring them on
Sunday.--Yours sincerely, Alma Warbeck'--written when she was sixteen,
seven years ago. Moreover, there was a playbill, used by Alma on the single
occasion when he accompanied the family to a theatre.
Never had he dared to breathe a syllable of what he thought--'hoped' would
misrepresent him, for Thomas in this matter had always stifled hope.
Indeed, hope would have been irrational. In the course of her teens Alma
grew tall and well proportioned; not beautiful of feature, but pleasing;
not brilliant in personality, but good-natured; fairly intelligent and
moderately ambitious. She was the only daughter of a dubiously active
commission-agent, and must deem it good fortune if she married a man with
three or four hundred a year; but Thomas Bird had no more than his twelve
pounds a month, and did not venture to call himself a gentleman. In Alma he
found the essentials of true ladyhood--perhaps with reason; he had never
heard her say an ill-natured thing, nor seen upon her face a look which
pained his acute sensibilities; she was unpretentious, of equal temper,
nothing of a gossip, kindly disposed. Never for a moment had he flattered
himself that Alma perceived his devotion or cared for him otherwise than as
for an old friend. But thought is free, and so is love. The modest clerk
had made this girl the light of his life, and whether far or near the rays
of that ideal would guide him on his unworldly path.
New shaven and freshly clad, he set out for the Warbecks' house, which was
in a near part of Brixton. Not an imposing house by any means, but an
object of reverence to Thomas Bird. A servant whom he did not
recognise--servants came and went at the Warbecks'--admitted him to the
drawing-room, which was vacant; there, his eyes wandering about the
gimcrack furniture, which he never found in the same arrangement at two
successive visits, he waited till his hostess came in.
Mrs. Warbeck was very stout, very plain, and rather untidy, yet her
countenance made an impression not on the whole disagreeable; with her wide
eyes, slightly parted lips, her homely smile, and unadorned speech, she
counteracted in some measure the effect, upon a critical observer, of the
pretentious ugliness with which she was surrounded. Thomas thought her a
straightforward woman, and perhaps was not misled by his partiality.
Certainly the tone in which she now began, and the tenor of her remarks,
repelled suspicion of duplicity.
'Well, now, Mr. Thomas, I wish to have a talk.' She had thus styled him
since he grew too old to be called Tom; that is to say, since he was
seventeen. He was now thirty-one. 'And I'm going to talk to you just like
the old friends we are. You see? No nonsense; no beating about the bush.
You'd rather have it so, wouldn't you?' Scarce able to articulate, the
visitor showed a cheery assent. 'Yes, I was sure of that. Now--better come
to the point at once--my daughter is--well, no, she isn't yet, but the fact
is I feel sure she'll very soon be engaged.'
The blow was softened by Thomas's relief at discovering that money would
not be the subject of their talk, yet it fell upon him, and he winced.
'You've expected it,' pursued the lady, with bluff good-humour. 'Yes, of
course you have.' She said ''ave,' a weakness happily unshared by her
daughter. 'We don't want it talked about, but I know you can hold your
tongue. Well, it's young Mr. Fisher, of Nokes, Fisher and Co. We haven't
known him long, but he took from the first to Alma, and I have my reasons
for believing that the feeling is _mutial_, though I wouldn't for the world
let Alma hear me say so.'
Young Mr. Fisher. Thomas knew of him; a capable business man, and son of a
worthy father. He kept his teeth close, his eyes down.
'And now,' pursued Mrs. Warbeck, becoming still more genial, 'I'm getting
round to the unpleasant side of the talk, though I don't see that it _need_
be unpleasant. We're old friends, and where's the use of being friendly if
you can't speak your mind, when speak you must? It comes to this: I just
want to ask you quite straightforward, not to be offended or take it ill if
we don't ask you to come here till this business is over and settled. You
see? The fact is, we've told Mr. Fisher he can look in whenever he likes,
and it might happen, you know, that he'd meet you here, and, speaking like
old friends--I think it better not.'
A fire burned in the listener's cheeks, a noise buzzed in his ears. He
understood the motive of this frank request; humble as ever--never humbler
than when beneath this roof--he was ready to avow himself Mr. Fisher's
inferior; but with all his heart he wished that Mrs. Warbeck had found some
other way of holding him aloof from her prospective son-in-law.
'Of course,' continued the woman stolidly, 'Alma doesn't know I'm saying
this. It's just between our two selves. I haven't even spoken of it to Mr.
Warbeck. I'm quite sure that you'll understand that we're obliged to make a
few changes in the way we've lived. It's all very well for you and me to be
comfortable together, and laugh and talk about all sorts of things, but
with one like Alma in the 'ouse, and the friends she's making and the
company that's likely to come here--now you _do_ see what I mean, _don't_
you, now? And you won't take it the wrong way? No, I was sure you wouldn't.
There, now, we'll shake 'ands over it, and be as good friends as ever.' The
handshaking was metaphorical merely. Thomas smiled, and was endeavouring to
shape a sentence, when he heard voices out in the hall.
'There's Alma and her father back,' said Mrs. Warbeck. 'I didn't think
they'd come back so soon; they've been with some new friends of ours.'
Thomas jumped up.
'I can't--I'd rather not see them, please, Mrs. Warbeck. Can you prevent
it?' His voice startled her somewhat, and she hesitated. A gesture of
entreaty sent her from the room. As the door opened Alma was heard laughing
merrily; then came silence. In a minute or two the hostess returned and the
visitor, faltering, 'Thank you. I quite understand,' quietly left the
For three weeks he crossed and recrossed Blackfriars Bridge without meeting
Mr. Warbeck. His look was perhaps graver, his movements less alert, but he
had not noticeably changed; his life kept its wonted tenor. The
florid-nosed gentleman at length came face to face with him on Ludgate Hill
in the dinner-hour--an embarrassment to both. Speedily recovering
self-possession Mr. Warbeck pressed the clerk's hand with fervour and drew
'I've been wanting to see you, Tom. So you keep away from us, do you? I
understand. The old lady has given me a quiet hint. Well, well, you're
quite right, and I honour you for it, Tom. Nothing selfish about _you_; you
keep it all to yourself; I honour you for it, my dear boy. And perhaps I
had better tell you, Alma is to be married in January. After that, same as
before, won't it be?--Have a glass of wine with me? No time? We must have a
quiet dinner together some evening; one of the old chop houses.--There was
something else I wanted to speak about, but I see you're in a hurry. All
right, it'll do next time.'
He waved his hand and was gone. When next they encountered Mr. Warbeck made
bold to borrow ten shillings, without the most distant allusion to his
Thomas Bird found comfort in the assurance that Mrs. Warbeck had kept _her_
secret as the borrower kept _his_.
Alma's father was not utterly dishonoured in his sight.
One day in January, Thomas, pleading indisposition, left work at twelve. He
had a cold and a headache, and felt more miserable than at any time since
his school-days. As he rode home in an omnibus Mr. and Mrs. Warbeck were
entertaining friends at the wedding-breakfast, and Thomas knew it. For an
hour or two in the afternoon he sat patiently under his landlady's talk,
but a fit of nervous exasperation at length drove him forth, and he did not
return till supper-time. Just as he sat down to a basin of gruel, Mrs.
Batty admitted a boy who brought him a message. 'Mother sent me round, Mr.
Bird,' said the messenger, 'and she wants to know if you could just come
and see her; it's something about father. He had some work to do, but he
hasn't come home to do it.'
Without speaking Thomas equipped himself and walked a quarter of a mile to
the lodgings of a married friend of his--a clerk chronically out of work,
and too often in liquor. The wife received him with tears. After eight
weeks without earning a penny, her husband had obtained the job of
addressing five hundred envelopes, to be done at home and speedily. Tempted
forth by an acquaintance 'for half a minute' as he sat down to the task, he
had been absent for three hours, and would certainly return unfit for work.
'It isn't only the money,' sobbed his wife, 'but it might have got him more
work, and now, of course, he's lost the chance, and we haven't nothing more
than a crust of bread left. And--'
Thomas slipped half-a-crown into her hand and whispered, 'Send Jack before
the shops close.' Then, to escape thanks, he shouted out, 'Where's these
blessed envelopes, and where's the addresses? All right, just leave me this
corner of the table and don't speak to me as long as I sit here.'
Between half-past nine and half-past twelve, at the rate of eighty an hour,
he addressed all but half the five hundred envelopes. Then his friend
appeared, dolefully drunk. Thomas would not look at him.
'He'll finish the rest by dinner to-morrow,' said the miserable wife, 'and
that's in time.'
So Thomas Bird went home. He felt better at heart, and blamed himself for
his weakness during the day. He blamed himself often enough for this or
that, knowing not that such as he are the salt of the earth.
THE PIG AND WHISTLE
'I possess a capital of thirty thousand pounds. One-third of this is
invested in railway shares, which bear interest at three and a half per
cent.; another third is in Government stock, and produces two and
three-quarters per cent.; the rest is lent on mortgages, at three per cent.
Calculate my income for the present year.'
This kind of problem was constantly being given out by Mr. Ruddiman,
assistant master at Longmeadows School. Mr. Ruddiman, who had reached the
age of five-and-forty, and who never in his life had possessed
five-and-forty pounds, used his arithmetic lesson as an opportunity for
flight of imagination. When dictating a sum in which he attributed to
himself enormous wealth, his eyes twinkled, his slender body struck a
dignified attitude, and he smiled over the class with a certain genial
condescension. When the calculation proposed did not refer to personal
income it generally illustrated the wealth of the nation, in which Mr.
Ruddiman had a proud delight. He would bid his youngsters compute the
proceeds of some familiar tax, and the vast sum it represented rolled from
his lips on a note of extraordinary satisfaction, as if he gloried in this
evidence of national prosperity. His salary at Longmeadows just sufficed to
keep him decently clad and to support him during the holidays. He had been
a master here for seven years, and earnestly hoped that his services might
be retained for at least seven more; there was very little chance of his
ever obtaining a better position, and the thought of being cast adrift, of
having to betake himself to the school agencies and enter upon new
engagements, gave Mr. Ruddiman a very unpleasant sensation. In his time he
had gone through hardships such as naturally befall a teacher without
diplomas and possessed of no remarkable gifts; that he had never broken
down in health was the result of an admirable constitution and of much
native cheerfulness. Only at such an establishment as Longmeadows--an
old-fashioned commercial 'academy,' recommended to parents by the
healthiness of its rural situation--could he have hoped to hold his ground
against modern educational tendencies, which aim at obliterating Mr.
Ruddiman and all his kind. Every one liked him; impossible not to like a
man so abounding in kindliness and good humour; but his knowledge was
anything but extensive, and his methods in instruction had a fine flavour
of antiquity. Now and then Mr. Ruddiman asked himself what was to become of
him when sickness or old age forbade his earning even the modest income
upon which he could at present count, but his happy temper dismissed the
troublesome reflection. One thing, however, he had decided; in future he
would find some more economical way of spending his holidays. Hitherto he
had been guilty of the extravagance of taking long journeys to see members
of his scattered family, or of going to the seaside, or of amusing himself
(oh, how innocently!) in London. This kind of thing must really stop. In
the coming summer vacation he had determined to save at least five
sovereigns, and he fancied he had discovered a simple way of doing it.
On pleasant afternoons, when he was 'off duty,' Mr. Ruddiman liked to have
a long ramble by himself about the fields and lanes. In solitude he was
never dull; had you met him during one of these afternoon walks, more
likely than not you would have seen a gentle smile on his visage as he
walked with head bent. Not that his thoughts were definitely of agreeable
things; consciously he thought perhaps of nothing at all; but he liked the
sunshine and country quiet, and the sense of momentary independence. Every
one would have known him for what he was. His dress, his gait, his
countenance, declared the under-master. Mr. Ruddiman never carried a
walking-stick; that would have seemed to him to be arrogating a social
position to which he had no claim. Generally he held his hands together
behind him; if not so, one of them would dip its fingers into a waistcoat
pocket and the other grasp the lapel of his coat. If anything he looked
rather less than his age, a result, perhaps, of having always lived with
the young. His features were agreeably insignificant; his body, though
slight of build, had something of athletic outline, due to long practice at
cricket, football, and hockey.
If he had rather more time than usual at his disposal he walked as far as
the Pig and Whistle, a picturesque little wayside inn, which stood alone,
at more than a mile from the nearest village. To reach the Pig and Whistle
one climbed a long, slow ascent, and in warm weather few pedestrians, or,
for the matter of that, folks driving or riding, could resist the
suggestion of the ivy-shadowed porch which admitted to the quaint parlour.
So long was it since the swinging sign had been painted that neither of Pig
nor of Whistle was any trace now discoverable; but over the porch one read
clearly enough the landlord's name: William Fouracres. Only three years ago
had Mr. Fouracres established himself here; Ruddiman remembered his
predecessor, with whom he had often chatted whilst drinking his modest
bottle of ginger beer. The present landlord was a very different sort of
man, less affable, not disposed to show himself to every comer. Customers
were generally served by the landlord's daughter, and with her Mr. Ruddiman
had come to be on very pleasant terms.
But as this remark may easily convey a false impression, it must be added
that Miss Fouracres was a very discreet, well-spoken, deliberate person, of
at least two-and-thirty. Mr. Ruddiman had known her for more than a year
before anything save brief civilities passed between them. In the second
twelvemonth of their acquaintance they reached the point of exchanging
reminiscences as to the weather, discussing the agricultural prospects of
the county, and remarking on the advantage to rural innkeepers of the
fashion of bicycling. In the third year they were quite intimate; so
intimate, indeed, that when Mr. Fouracres chanced to be absent they spoke
of his remarkable history. For the landlord of the Pig and Whistle had a
history worth talking about, and Mr. Ruddiman had learnt it from the
landlord's own lips. Miss Fouracres would never have touched upon the
subject with any one in whom she did not feel confidence; to her it was far
from agreeable, and Mr. Ruddiman established himself in her esteem by
taking the same view of the matter.
Well, one July afternoon, when the summer vacation drew near, the
under-master perspired up the sunny road with another object than that of
refreshing himself at the familiar little inn. He entered by the ivied
porch, and within, as usual, found Miss Fouracres, who sat behind the bar
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