"Do you expect me to believe that?" cried Mrs Partridge.
"No," said Chook; "but yer will w'en yer go 'ome an' find your 'ouse empty."
"An' who moved me?"
"Me an' Liz," said Chook. "The picnic wasn't till next week, an' Liz an' me thought we'd give yer a surprise."
For the first time in her life Mrs Partridge was speechless. She saw that she had been tricked shamefully. They had ransacked her house, and laid bare all the secrets of her little luxuries. She quailed as she remembered what they had found in the cupboard and the bottom drawer of the wardrobe. Never again could she face Chook and Pinkey, knowing what they did, and take her pickings of the shop. Suddenly she recovered her tongue, and turned on Chook, transformed with rage.
"William will break every bone in yer body when 'e 'ears what you've done," she cried, "mark my words. An' in case I never see yer again, let me tell yer somethin' that's been on my mind ever since I first met you. If that ginger-headed cat 'idin' behind the bedroom door 'adn't married yer, nobody else would, for you're that ugly it 'ud pay yer to grow whiskers an' 'ide yer face."
And with this parting shot she marched out of the shop and disappeared in the darkness.
DAD WEEPS ON A TOMBSTONE
The scene at Cremorne Point had suddenly reminded Clara that she was playing with fire. In the beginning she had consented to these meetings to humour the parent of her best pupil, and gradually she had drifted into an intimacy with Jonah without the courage to end it. To her fastidious taste his physical deformity and the flavour of Cardigan Street that still clung about his speech and manners put him out of court as a possible lover; but it had gratified her pride to discover that he was in love with her, and as he never expressed himself more plainly than by furtive glances and sudden inflections in his voice, she felt sure of her power to keep him at a distance.
These outings, indeed, had nearly fallen through, when Jonah, fumbling for words and afraid to say what was on his mind, had touched on a detail of his business. To his surprise Clara caught fire like straw, fascinated at being shown the inner workings of the "Silver Shoe". And from that time a curious attitude had grown between them. Jonah talked of his business, and stared at Clara as she listened, forgetful of him, her mind absorbed in details of profit and loss. She found the position easy to maintain, for Jonah, catching at straws, demanded no positive encouragement. A chance word or look from her was rich matter for a week's thought, twisted and turned in his mind till it meant all he desired.
She saw clearly and coldly that Jonah had placed her on a pedestal, and she determined never to step down of her own accord, recognizing with the instinct for business that had surprised Jonah that she would lose more than she would gain. And yet the sudden glimpse of passion in Jonah had whetted her appetite for more. It had recalled the days of her engagement with a singular bitterness and pleasure. She thought with a hateful persistence of her first love, the man who had accustomed her to admiration and then shuffled out of the engagement, forced by the attitude of his relatives to her father. But for weeks after the scene at Cremorne Jonah had retired within himself terrified lest he should alarm her and put an end to their outings. So far she had timed their meetings for the daylight out of prudence, but, pricked on by curiosity, she had begun to dally on the return journey, desiring and fearing some token of his adoration.
Meanwhile Jonah swung like a pendulum between hope and despair. He dimly suspected that a bolder man would have had his declaration out and done with long ago, and he waited for a favourable opportunity; but it came and went, and left him speechless. He had accepted Ada as the typical woman, and now found himself as much at sea as if he had discovered a new species, for he never suspected that any other woman had it in her power, given a favourable opportunity, to lead him to this new world of sensation. Women had always been shy of him, and with his abnormal shape and his absorption in business it had been easy for him to miss what lay beneath the surface. But for the accident of his meeting with Clara, his temperament would have carried him through life, unconscious of love from his own experience and regarding it as a fable of women and poets.
Jonah never spent money willingly, except where Ray was concerned, and Clara in their first meetings had been surprised and chilled by his anxiety to get the value of his money. He had informed her, bluntly, that money was not made by spending it; but for some months he had been surprised by a desire to spend his money to adorn and beautify this woman. Clara, however, maintaining her independence with a wary eye, had refused to take presents from him. He had become more civilized and more human under the weight of his generous emotions, but they could find no outlet.
It was the affair of Hans Paasch that opened his eye to the power for good that she exercised over him. When his shop had closed for want of customers, Paasch found that his failing eyesight and methodical slowness barred him from competing with younger and quicker men, and, his mind weakened and bewildered by disaster, he had turned for help to his first and only love, the violin. For some years he had taught a few pupils who were too poor to pay the fees of the professional teachers, and, persuaded that pupils would flock to him if he gave his whole time to it he took a room and set up as a teacher. In six months he had to choose between starvation by inches or playing dance music in Bob Fenner's hall for fifteen shillings a week. For a while he endured this, playing popular airs that he hated and despised for the larrikins whom he hated and feared, a nightly butt and target for their coarse jests. Then he preferred starvation, and found himself in the gutter with the clothes he stood up in and his fiddle. He had joined the army of mendicant musicians, who scrape a tune in front of hotels and shops, living on charity thinly veiled.
They had passed him one night on their return from Mosman, playing in front of a public-house to an audience of three loafers. The streets had soon dragged him to their level. Unkempt and half starved, he wore the look of the vagrant who sleeps in his clothes for want of bedding. Grown childish in his distress, he had forgotten his lifelong habits of neatness and precision, going to pieces like a man who takes to drink.
Clara, who knew his history, was horrified at the sight. She thought he lived comfortably on a crust of bread by giving lessons. Jonah turned sulky when she reproached him.
"I don't see 'ow I'm ter blame for this any more'n if 'e'd come to the gutter through drink. It was a fair go on the Road, an' if I beat 'im an' the others, it was because I was a better man at the game. I spent nearly all my money in that little shanty where I started, an' 'im an' the others looked on an' 'oped I'd starve. Yer talk about me bein' cruel an' callous. It's the game that's cruel, not me. I knocked 'im out all right, but wot 'ud be the use of knockin' 'im down with one 'and an' pickin' 'im up with the other?"
"You say yourself that he took you off the streets, and gave you a living."
"So 'e did, but 'e got 'is money's worth out of me. I did the work of a man, an' saved 'im pounds for years. Yer wouldn't 'ave such a sentimental way of lookin' at things if yer'd been a steet-arab, sellin' newspapers, an' no one ter make it 'is business whether yer lived or starved."
"But surely you can't see him in that condition without feeling sorry for him?"
"Oh yes, I can; 'e's no friend of mine. 'E told everybody on the Road that I went shares with the Devil," said Jonah, with an uneasy grin. "'Ere, I'll show yer wot 'e thinks of me."
He felt in his pocket for a coin, and crossed the street. Paasch had finished his piece, and putting his fiddle under his arm, turned to the loafers with a beseeching air. They looked the other way and discussed the weather. Then Jonah stepped up to him and thrust the coin into his hand. Paasch, feeling something unaccustomed in his fingers, held it up to the light. It was a sovereign, and he blinked in wonder at the coin then at the giver, convinced that it was a trick. Then he recognized Jonah, and a look of passionate fear and anger convulsed his features. He threw down the coin as if it had burnt him, crying:
"No, I vill not take your cursed moneys. Give me back mine shop and mine business that you stole from me. You are a rich man and ride in your carriage, and I am the beggar, but I would not change with you. The great gods shall mock at you. Money you shall have in plenty while I starve, but never your heart's desire, for like a dog did you bite the hand that fed you."
Suddenly his utterance was choked by a violent fit of coughing, and he stared at Jonah, crazed with hate and prophetic fury. A crowd began to gather, and Jonah, afraid of being recognized, walked rapidly away.
"Now yer can see fer yerself," he cried, sullenly.
"Yes, I see," said Clara, strangely excited; "and I think you would be as cruel with a woman as you are with a man."
"I've given yer no cause ter say that," protested Jonah.
"Perhaps not," said Clara; "but that man won't last through the winter unless he's cared for. And if he dies, his blood will be on your head, and your luck will turn. His crazy talk made me shiver. Promise me to do something for him."
"Ye're talkin' like a novelette," said Jonah, roughly.
But Paasch's words had struck a superstitious chord in Jonah, and he went out of his way to find a plan for relieving the old man without showing his hand. He consulted his solicitors, and then an advertisement in the morning papers offered a reward to anyone giving the whereabouts of Hans Paasch, who left Hassloch in Bavaria in 1860, and who would hear of something to his advantage by calling on Harris & Harris, solicitors. A month later Jonah held a receipt for twelve pounds ten, signed by Hans Paasch, the first instalment of an annuity of fifty pounds a year miraculously left him by a distant cousin in Germany.
He showed this to Clara while they were crossing in the boat to Mosman. She listened to him in silence. Then a flush coloured her cheeks.
"You'll never regret that," she said; "it's the best day's work you ever did."
"I 'ope I'll never regret anythin' that gives you pleasure," said Jonah, feeling very noble and generous, and surprised at the ease with which he turned a compliment.
They had the Point to themselves, as usual, and Clara went to the edge of the rocks to see what ships had come and gone during the week, trying to identify one that she had read about in the papers. Jonah watched her in silence, marking every detail of her tall figure with a curious sense of possession that years of intimacy had never given him with Ada. And yet she kept him at a distance with a skill that exasperated him and provoked his admiration. One day when he had held her hand a moment too long, she had withdrawn it with an explanation that sounded like an apology. She explained that from a child she had been unable to endure the touch of another person; that she always preferred to walk rather than ride in a crowded bus or tram because bodily contact with others set her nerves on edge. It was a nervous affection, she explained, inherited from her mother. Jonah had his own opinion of this malady, but he admitted to himself that she would never enter a crowd or a crush.
The result of her pleading for Paasch had put her in a high good humour. It was the first certain proof of her power over Jonah, and she chattered gaily. She had risen in her own esteem. But presently, to her surprise, Jonah took some papers from his pocket and frowned over them.
"It's very impolite to read in other people's company," she remarked, with a sudden coolness.
"I beg yer pardon," said Jonah, starting suddenly, as if a whip had touched him. She never failed to reprove him for any lapse in manners, and Jonah winced without resentment.
"I thought this might interest yer," he continued. "I'm puttin' Steel in as manager at last, an' this is the agreement."
"Who advised you to do that?" said Clara, with an angry flush.
"Well, Johnson's been complainin' of overwork fer some time, but Miss Giltinan decided me. She's very keen on me openin' up branches in the suburbs."
"You place great weight on Miss Giltinan's opinion," said Clara, jealously.
"Ter tell the truth, I do," said Jonah. "Next ter yerself, she's got the best 'ead fer business of any woman I know."
"I don't agree with it at all," said Clara. "You're the brains of the "Silver Shoe", and another man's ideas will clash with yours."
"No fear!" said Jonah. "I've got 'im tied down in black and white by my solicitors."
Clara ran her eye over the typewritten document, reading some of the items aloud.
"'Turn over the stock three times a year'! What does that mean?" And she listened while Jonah explained, the position of pupil and tutor suddenly reversed.
"'Ten and a half per cent bonus, in addition to his salary, if he shows an increase on last year's sales.'"
"'Net profits on the departments not to exceed twenty-five per cent.,'" read Clara in amazement. "Why, I should have thought the more profit he made, the better for you."
"No fear," said Jonah, with a grin; "I can't 'ave a man puttin' up the price of the Silver Shoe with his eye on his bonus."
Then a long discussion followed that lasted till nightfall. As the night promised to be fine, Jonah persuaded her to take tea at a dilapidated refreshment-room, halfway to the jetty, and they continued the discussion over cups of discoloured water and stale cakes. When they reached the Point again the moon was rising clear in the sky, and they sat and watched in silence the gradual illumination of the harbour. The wind had dropped, and tiny ripples alone broke the surface of the water. On the opposite shore the beaches lay obscured in the faint light of the moon, growing momently stronger, the land and water melted and confounded together in the grey light. The lesser stars fled at the slow approach of the moon, and in an hour she floated alone in the sky, save for the larger planets, Hooding the deep abysses of the night with a gleam of silver, tender and caressing that softened the angles and blotted details in brooding shadows.
Overhead curved the arch of night, a deep, flawless blue with velvety depths, pale and diluted with light as it touched the skyline. On the right, in the farther distance, Circular Quay flashed with the gleam of electric arcs, each contracted into a star of four points. And they glittered on the waterline like clustered gems without visible setting. A fainter glow marked the packed suburbs of the east; and then the lamps, flung like jewels in the night, picked out the line of shore to Rose Bay and the Heads.
Ferry-boats were crossing the harbour, jewelled and glittering with electric bulbs, moving in the distance without visible effort with the motion of swans, the throb of engines and the swirl of water lost in the distance. It was a symphony in light, each detached gleam on the sombre shore hanging
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear.
Between the moon and the eye the water lay like a sheet of frosted glass; elsewhere the water rippled without life or colour, treacherous and menacing in the night.
Jonah turned and looked at the woman beside him. They were alone on the rocky headland, the city and the world of men seemed remote and unreal, cut off by the silvery light and the brooding shadows. It dawned slowly on him that his relations with this woman were independent of time and space. Of all things visible, it was she alone that mattered. Often enough he had missed his cue, but now, as if answering a question, he began speaking softly, as if he were talking to himself:
"Clara!—Clara Grimes!—Clara! I've wanted ter say that out aloud fer months, but I've never found the place ter say it in. It sounds quite natural 'ere. Yer know that I love yer—I've seen it in yer face, but yer don't know that you're the first woman I ever wanted. No, yer needn't run away. I'm afraid ter touch yer, an' yer know it. Yer thought because I was married that I knew all about women. Why, I didn't know what women were made for till I met you. I thought w'en I 'ad the shop an' my boy that I had everythin' I wanted, but the old woman was right. There's a lot more in this world than I ever dreamt of. Seein' you opened my eyes. An' now I want yer altogether. I want ter see yer face every 'our of the day, an' tell yer whatever comes into my mind. I spend 'ours talkin' to yer w'en I'm by myself."
"It's only my right," he went on, with increased energy. "I'm a man in spite of my shape, an' I only ask fer what I'm entitled to. I can see that other men 'ave been gittin' these things without me knowin' it. I used ter grin at Chook, but I was the fool. I had everythin' that I could see that was worth 'avin', an' somehow I wasn't satisfied. I never could see much in this life. I often wondered what it was all about. But now I understand. What's this for," and he indicated the dreamy peaceful scene with a sweep of his hand, "if it only leaves yer starin' and wonderin'? I know now. It's ter make me think about yer an' want yer. Well, yer've made a man of me, an' it's up ter yous ter make the best of me." He broke off with a short laugh. "P'raps this sound funny ter you. I've 'eard old women at the Salvos' meetings talk like this, tellin' of the wonderful things they found out w'en they got converted."
Clara had listened in silence, with an intent, curious expression on her face. Jonah's words were like balm to her pride, lacerated three years ago by her broken engagement. And she listened, immensely pleased and a little afraid, like a mischievous child that has set fire to the curtains. Jonah's face was turned to her, and as she looked at him her curiosity was changed to awe at the sight of passion on fire. She thought of the crazy fiddler's words, and felt in herself an infinite sadness, for she knew that Jonah would never gain his heart's desire.
"I've 'ad my say," he continued, "an' now I'll talk sense. You're a grown woman, an' yer know what all this means. I can give yer anythin' yer like: a house an' servants; everythin' yer want. What do yer say?"
Clara had gone white to the lips. It had come at last, and the "Silver Shoe" was within her reach, but the gift was incomplete. She must decline it, and take her chances for the future.
"Not quite everything, Joe," she replied gently, afraid of wounding him. "Ever since I was a girl I've had something to be ashamed of through no fault of my own—my drunken father, the street we live in, our genteel poverty; and now, when I seem to have missed all my chances, you come along, and offer me everything I want with the main thing left out. Oh, I know those cottages where the husband is a stranger, and the neighbours watch them behind the curtains, and pump the servant over the back fence! I'm too proud for that sort of thing. Oh, what a rotten world this is!" she cried passionately, and burst into a storm of weeping. It was the most natural action of her life.
Jonah sat and stared at the lights of the Quay, dismayed by her tears but relieved in his mind. He had spoken at last; already he was framing fresh arguments to persuade her. Presently she dried her eyes and looked at him with the ghost of a smile. Then began a discussion which threatened to last all night, neither of them giving way from the position they had taken up, neither yielding an inch to the other's entreaties. Suddenly Jonah looked at his watch with an exclamation. It was nearly ten. In the heat of argument they had forgotten the lapse of time. They scrambled over boulders and through the lantana bushes down to the path, and just caught the boat.
When they reached the Quay they were surprised again by the splendour of the night. The moon, just past the full, flooded the streets with white light that left deep shadows between the buildings like a charcoal drawing. They took a tram to the Haymarket, as they were afraid of being recognized in the Waterloo cars, and reached Regent Street after eleven. The hotels had disgorged their customers, who were talking loudly in groups on the footpath or lurching homeward with uneven steps. Jonah was explaining that he must see Clara all the way home on account of the lateness of the hour, when he was astonished to hear someone sobbing in the monumental mason's yard as if his heart would break. He turned and looked. The headstones and white marble crosses stood in rows with a faint resemblance to a graveyard; the moonlight fell clear and cold on these monuments awaiting a purchaser. Some, already sold, were lettered in black with the name of the departed. Jonah and Clara stared, puzzled by the noise, when they saw an old man in the rear of the yard in a top hat and a frock coat, clinging to a marble cross. He lurched round, and instantly Clara, with a gasp of amazement and shame, recognized her father.
She moved into the shadows of a house, humiliated to her soul by this exhibition; but Jonah laughed, in spite of himself, at the figure cut by Dad among the ready-made monuments. As he laughed, Dad caught sight of him, and clinging to a marble angel with one arm for support, beckoned wildly with the other.
"Come here—come here," he cried between his sobs. "I'm all alone with the dead, and nobody to shed a tear 'cep' meself. Shame on you, shame on you," he cried, raising his voice in bitter grief, "to pass the poor fellows in their graves without sheddin' tear!"
He stopped and stared with drunken gravity at the name on the nearest tombstone, trying to read the words which danced before his eyes in the clear light. Jonah saw them plainly.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF SARAH JAMES, Aged Eighty-five.
A fresh burst of grief announced that Dad had deciphered the lettering.
"Sam!" he cried bitterly. "Me old fren' Sam! To think of bringing him here without letting me know! The besh fren' I ever had."
Here sobs choked his utterance. He stooped and examined the shining marble slab again, lurching from one side to the other with incessant motion.
"An' not a flowersh onsh grave!" he cried. "Sam was awf'ly fond flowersh."
"Get away 'ome, or the Johns'll pinch yer," said Jonah.
Dad stopped and stared at him with a glimmering of reason in his fuddled brain.
"I know yoush," he cried, with a cunning leer. "An' I know your fren' there. She isn't yer missis. She never is, y' know. Naughty boy!" he cried, wagging his finger at Jonah; "but I wont split on pal."
That reminded him of the deceased Sam, and he turned again to the monument.
"Goo'bye, Sam," he cried suddenly, under the impression that he had been to a funeral. "I've paid me respecks to an ol' fren', an' now we'll both sleep in peace."
"Come away and leave him," whispered Clara, trembling with disgust and mortification.
"No fear!" said Jonah. "The Johns down 'ere don't know 'im, an' they'll lumber 'im. You walk on ahead, an' I'll steer 'im 'ome."
He looked round; there was not a cab to be seen.
He led Dad out of the stonemason's yard with difficulty, as he wanted to wait for the mourning coaches. Then, opposite the mortuary, he remembered his little present for the Duchess, and insisted on going back.
"Wheresh my lil' present for Duchess?" he wailed. "Can't go 'ome without lil' present."
Jonah was in despair. At last he rolled his handkerchief into a ball and thrust it into Dad's hand.
Then Dad, relieved and happy, cast Jonah off, and stood for a moment like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Jonah watched anxiously, expecting him to fall, but all at once, with a forward lurch Dad broke into a run, safe on his feet as a spinning top. Jonah had forgotten Dad's run, famous throughout all Waterloo, Redfern, and Alexandria.
A FATAL ACCIDENT
As Clara crossed the tunnel at Cleveland Street, she found that she had a few minutes to spare, and stopped to admire the Silver Shoe from the opposite footpath. Triumphant and colossal, treading the air securely above the shop, the glittering shoe dominated the street with the insolence of success. More than once it had figured in her dreams, endowed with the fantastic powers of Aaron's rod, swallowing its rivals at a gulp or slowly crushing the life out of the bruised limbs.
Her eye travelled to the shop below, with its huge plate-glass windows framed in brass, packed with boots set at every angle to catch the eye. The array of shining brass rods and glass stands, the gaudy ticket on each pair of boots with the shillings marked in enormous red figures and the pence faintly outlined beside them, pleased her eye like a picture. To-day the silver lettering was covered with narrow posters announcing that Jonah's red-letter sale was to begin to-morrow. And as she stared at this huge machine for coining money, she remembered, with a sudden disdain, her home with its atmosphere of decay and genteel poverty. She was conscious of some change in herself. The slight sense of physical repugnance to the hunchback had vanished since his declaration. He and his shop stood for power and success. What else mattered?
Her spirits drooped suddenly as she remembered the obstacle that lay between her and the pride of openly sharing the triumphs of the Silver Shoe as she already shared its secrets. She thought with dismay of the furtive meetings drawn out for years without hope of relief unless the impossible happened. A watched pot never boils, and Ada was a young woman.
She crossed the street and entered the shop, her eye scouting for Jonah as she walked to the foot of the stairs, for since the appointment of a manager, Jonah had found time to slip up to the room after the lesson to ask her to play for him, on the plea that the piano was spoiling for want of use. And he waited impatiently for these stolen moments, with a secret desire to see her beneath his roof in a domestic setting that gave him a keener sense of intimacy than the swish of waters and wide spaces of sea and sky. But to-day she looked in vain, and Miss Giltinan, seeing the swift look of inquiry, stepped up to her.
"Mr Jones was called away suddenly over some arrangements for our sale that opens to-morrow. He left word with me that he'd be back as soon as possible," she said.
Clara thanked her, and flushed slightly. It seemed as if Jonah were excusing himself in public for missing an appointment. As she went up the stairs one shopman winked at the other and came across with a pair of hobnailed boots in his hand.
"This'll never do," he whispered, "the boss missin' his lesson. He'll get behind in his practice."
"Wotcher givin' us?" replied the other. "The boss don't take lessons; it's the kid."
"Of course he don't," said the other with a leer. "He learns a lot here by lookin' on, an' she tells him the rest at Mosman in the pale moonlight. If I won a sweep, I'd take a few lessons meself an' cut him out."
He became aware that Miss Giltinan was standing behind him, and raised his voice.
"I was tellin' Harris that the price of these bluchers ought to be marked down; they're beginning to sweat," he explained, turning to Miss Giltinan and showing her some small spots like treacle on the uppers.
"Mr Jones doesn't pay you good money to talk behind his back; and if you take the trouble to look at the tag, you'll see those boots have already been marked down," she replied indignantly.
The shopman slinked away without a word. Miss Giltinan was annoyed. It was not the first time that she had heard these scandalous rumours, for the shop was alive with whispers, some professing to know every detail of the meetings between Jonah and the music-teacher, naming to a minute the boat they caught on their return from Mosman. Jonah had contrived to avoid the faces that were familiar to him, but he had forgotten that he must be seen and recognized by people unknown to him. Miss Giltinan's clear and candid mind rejected these rumours for lying inventions, incapable of belief that her idol, Jonah, would carry on with any woman. They talked about him going upstairs to hear the piano. What was more natural when he couldn't play it himself? And she dismissed the matter from her mind and went about her business.
Clara gave Ray his lesson, listening between whiles for a rapid step from below, but none came. She decided to go, and picked up her gloves. But as she passed the bedroom door on the landing, a voice that she recognized for Ada's called out "Is that you, Miss Grimes?"
"Yes," said Clara, and paused.
The voice sounded faint and thin, like that of a sick woman.
"'Ow is it y'ain't playin' anythin' to-day?" she continued.
"Mr Jones is out," replied Clara, annoyed by this conversation through the crack of a door, and anxious to get away.
"Oh, is 'e?" said Ada, with an increase of energy in her voice. "I wish yer'd come in fer a minit, if ye're not in a 'urry."
Clara pushed the door open, and went in. It was her first sight of the bedroom, and she recoiled in dismay. The place was like a pigsty. Ada was lying on the bed, still tossed and disordered from last night, in a dirty dressing-gown. A basin of soapy water stood on the washstand, and the carpeted floor was littered with clothes, a pile of penny novelettes, and a collection of odds and ends on their way to the rag-bag. In spite of the huge bedroom suite with its streaked and speckled mirrors, the room seemed half furnished.
For a moment Clara was puzzled, and then her quick, feminine eye noted a complete absence of the common knick-knacks and trifles that indicate the refinement or vulgarity of the owner. She remembered that Jonah had told her that Ada pawned everything she could lay hands on since he stopped her allowance. But she was more surprised at the change in Ada herself. Months ago Ada had begun to avoid her, ashamed of her slovenly looks, and now Clara scarcely recognized her. Her eyes were sunken, her cheeks had fallen in, and a bluish pallor gave her the look of one recovering from a long illness. The room had not been aired, and the accumulated odours of the night turned Clara sick. She was thinking of some excuse to get away when Ada began to speak with a curious whine, quite unlike her old manner.
"I'm ashamed ter ask yer in, Miss Grimes, the room's in such a state; but I've been very ill, with no one ter talk to fer days past. Not that I'm ter blame. I 'ope it's niver your lot to 'ave a 'usband with thousan's in the bank, an' too mean ter keep a servant. 'Ere am I from mornin' ter night, slavin' an' drudgin', an' me with a leg that bad I can 'ardly stand on it. I'll just show yer wot state I'm in. It's breakin' out all over. Me blood's that bad fer want of proper food an' nourishment." She began to unfasten a dirty bandage below her knee. Clara turned her head in disgust. The flesh was covered with ulcerated sores.
"I don't know 'ow you find 'im, Miss Grimes," she continued, her voice rising in anger, "but if yer believe me, a meaner man niver walked the earth. I've 'ad ter pawn the things in this very room ter pay the baker an' the grocer. That's 'ow 'e makes 'is money. Starvin' 'is own wife ter squeeze a few shillin's for 'is bankin' account. 'E knows I can't go outside the door, 'cause I've got nuthin' ter put on; but 'e takes jolly good care ter go down town an' live on the fat of the land."
From the next room came the fitful, awkward sounds of a five-finger exercise from Ray. Clara listened with silent contempt to this torrent of abuse. She knew that it was false that the more Jonah gave her, the more she spent on drink. And as she looked at Ada's face, ravaged by alcohol, a stealthy thought crept into her mind that set her heart beating. Suddenly Ada's anger dropped like a spent fire.
"Did yer say Mr Jones was busy in the shop?" she inquired, feebly.
"No," said Clara, "I understand that he went down town on important business, and won't be back till late."
"Thank yer," said Ada, with a curious glitter in her eyes. "Would yer mind callin' Ray in? I want ter send 'im on a message to the grocer's."
Clara went into the next room and sent Ray to his mother, stopping for a minute to shut the keyboard and put the music straight. After every lesson she was accustomed to examine the piano as if it were her own property. When she entered the bedroom again, Ada was whispering rapidly to Ray. She looked up as Clara entered, and gave him some money in a piece of paper.
"An' tell 'im I'll send the rest to-morrer," she added aloud. Ray went down the back stairs, swinging an empty millet-bag in his hand. For another five minutes Clara remained standing, to show that she was anxious to get away, while Ada abused her husband, giving detailed accounts of his meanness and neglect. Suddenly her mood changed.
"I'm afraid I mustn't keep yer any longer, Miss Grimes," she said abruptly; "an' thank yer fer lookin' in ter see 'ow I was."
Clara, surprised and relieved at the note of dismissal in her voice, took her leave.
She went down the winding staircase at the rear of the shop, opposite the cashier's desk. The pungent odour of leather was delightful in her nostrils after the stale smell of the room above, and she halted at the turn of the landing to admire the huge shop, glittering with varnish, mirrors, and brass rods. Then she looked round for Jonah, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The sight of Ada, ravaged by alcohol, had filled her with strange thoughts, and she walked up Regent Street, comparing Ada with her own father, who seemed to thrive on beer. There must be some difference in their constitutions, for Ada was clearly going to pieces, and...the thought entered her mind again that quickened her pulse. She had never thought of that! She was passing the "Angel" with its huge white globes and glittering mirrors that reflected the sun's rays, when she caught sight of Ray coming out of the side door, swinging an empty millet-bag in his hand. A sudden light flashed on her mind. Ada's invitation into the bedroom, the inquiry about Jonah, and her sudden dismissal all meant this.
"Did you get what your mother wanted?" she asked the child, with a thumping sensation in her heart.
"No," said Ray carelessly; "the man wouldn't give me the medicine. He told me to go home and fetch the rest of the money."
"How much more do you want?" asked Clara, in a curious tone.
"Eighteen pence," said Ray, showing two half-crowns in his hand.
Clara hesitated, with parched lips. She remembered Ada's face, ravaged by brandy. She was a physical wreck, and six months ago...perhaps another bottle...
The thought grazed her mind with a stealthy, horrible suggestion. She felt in her purse with trembling fingers, and found a shilling and a sixpence.
"Go and get your mother's medicine," she whispered, putting the money into Ray's hand; "but don't tell her that you met me, or she may scold you."
Ray turned in at the side door, and Clara, white to the lips, hurried round the corner.
It took Ray half an hour to cover the short distance between the Angel and the Silver Shoe, with a bottle of brandy swinging carelessly in the millet-bag. Cassidy himself, all smiles, had carefully wrapped it in paper. Ray had promised to hurry home with the medicine for his mother, but, as usual, the shop windows were irresistible. Some of his early trips to the "Angel" had taken half a day.
Meanwhile Ada lay on the bed in an agony of attention, atrociously alert to every sound, hearing with every nerve in her body. Her nerves had collapsed under the repeated debauches, and the scream of an engine shunting in the railway yards went through her like a knife. The confused rumble of carts in Regent Street, the familiar sounds from the shop below, the slamming of a door, a voice raised in inquiry, the monotonous, kindly echoes of life, struck on the raw edges of her nerves, exasperating her to madness.
And through it all her ears sought for two sounds with agonizing acuteness—the firm, rapid step of Jonah mounting the stairs winding from the shop, or the nonchalant, laggard footfall of Ray ascending from the stairs at the rear. Would Cassidy send the bottle and trust her for the other eighteen pence? Would Jonah hurry back to meet Miss Grimes? Presently her ear distinguished the light, uncertain step of Ray. Every nerve in her body leapt for joy when she saw the bottle. She looked at the clock, it was nearly four. She had at least an hour clear, for Jonah would be in no hurry now that he had missed the music-lesson. She snatched the bag from the astonished child.
"Go an' see if yer father's in the shop. If 'e ain't there, yer can go an' play in the lane till 'e comes back," she cried.
Her hands shook as she held the bottle, but with a supreme effort she controlled her muscles and drew the cork without a sound, an accomplishment that she had learned in the back parlour of the Angel. She poured out half a glass, and swallowed it neat. The fiery liquid burnt her throat and brought the tears to her eyes, but she endured it willingly for the sake of the blessed relief that always followed. A minute later she repeated the dose and lay down on the bed. In ten minutes the seductive liquid had calmed her nerves like oil on troubled waters. She listened to the familiar sounds of the shop and the street with a delicious languor and sense of comfort in her body. In an hour she had reached the maudlin stage, and the bottle was half empty.
She felt at peace with the world, and began to think kindly of Jonah. Hazily she remembered her bitter speech to Miss Grimes, and wondered at her violence. There was nothing the matter with him. He had been a good husband to her, working day and night to get on in the world. She felt a sudden desire to be friendly with him. Maudlin tears of self-reproach filled her eyes as she thought how she had stood in his way instead of helping him. She would mend her ways, give up the drink which was killing her, and take her proper position, with a fine house and servants. With a fatuous obstinacy in her sodden brain, she decided not to lose a minute, but to go and surprise Jonah with her noble resolutions.
She got to her feet, and saw the brandy bottle. Ah! Jonah must not know that she had been drinking, and with the last conscious act of her clouded brain she staggered into the sitting-room and hid the bottle under the cushions of the sofa. Then, conscious of nothing but her resolve, she lurched to the top of the stairs. It was nearly dark, and she felt for the railing, but the weight of her body sent an atrocious pain through her leg, and to ease it she took a step forward to put her weight on the other. And then, without fear, and without the desire or the power to save herself, she stepped into space and fell headlong down the winding staircase that she had always dreaded, rolling and bumping with a horrible noise on the wooden steps down to the shop, where the electric lights had just been switched on. She rolled sideways, and lay, with a curious slackness in her limbs, in front of the cashier's desk. One of the shopmen, startled by the noise, turned, and then, with a look of horror on his face, ran to the door. He bumped into Jonah, who was coming from the ladies' department.
"Wot the devil's this?" cried Jonah.
The man turned and pointed to the huddled heap at the foot of the stairs.
"It's yer missis. She fell from the top. 'Er face is looking the wrong way."
Jonah ran forward and shouted for a doctor. Then he knelt down and tried to lift Ada into a sitting posture, but her head sagged on one side. And Jonah realized suddenly, with a curious feeling of detachment, that he was free. When the doctor arrived, he told them that death had been instantaneous, as she had broken her neck in the fall.
The next day the "Silver Shoe" was closed on account of the funeral. The Grimes family sent a wreath, but Jonah looked in vain for Clara among the mourners. He was disappointed but relieved, fearing that the exultation in his heart would betray him in the presence of strangers. He dwelt with rapture on the moment in which he would meet her face to face, free to love and be loved, willing to lose some precious hours for the sake of rehearsing schemes for the future in his mind. He listened without emotion to the conventional regrets of the mourners, agreeing mechanically with their empty remarks on his great loss, a mocking devil in his brain.
The day after the funeral the Silver Shoe returned to business, and Jonah spent the morning in the shop, too nervous to sit idle. He had spent a sleepless night debating whether he should go to Clara or wait till she came to him of her own accord. The shop was alive with customers, drawn by the red-letter sale, but there was no sign of the one woman above all he desired to see. Suddenly he decided, with a certainty that astonished him, that she would come in the afternoon. After dinner he stayed in the sitting-room, fidgeting with impatience. He looked for something to do, and remembered that he had still to clear up the mystery of Ada's drunken bout. All the shop-hands had denied lending her money, and the mystery was increased by his finding no bottle in the usual hiding places. Ray, when questioned about brandy, had stared at him with bewildered eyes. And to calm his nerves he made another search of the rooms.
He turned out the drawers and cupboards, meeting everywhere evidence of Ada's slovenly habits. And at the sight and touch of the tawdry laces and flaring ribbons he was surprised by an emotion of tenderness and pity for his dead wife. He realized that the last link had snapped that bound him to Cardigan Street and the Push. Something vibrated in him as he thought of the woman who had shared his youth, and he understood suddenly that no other woman could disturb her possession of the years that were dead. Clara could share the future with him, but half his life belonged irrevocably to Ada.
He had searched every likely nook and corner of the rooms, and found nothing. The absence of the bottle set him thinking. He became certain that the hand of another was in this. Ada had never left her room; therefore the bottle had been brought to her. And the one who brought it had taken it away again. Clara had been the last one to see her alive, and of course...He stopped with an unshaped thought in his mind, and then smiled at it for an absurdity. Tired with his exertions, he sat on the sofa, digging his elbow into the cushion, and instantly felt something hard underneath. The next moment he was on his feet, holding in his hands the bottle of brandy, half empty. He stared stupidly at the bottle that had sent Ada to her death and set him free, wondering who had paid for it and brought it into the house. As he turned the bottle in his hands, examining it with the morbid interest with which one examines a bloodstained knife, he heard a light tap on the door.
"Come in," he cried, absorbed in his discovery.
He turned with the bottle in his hands, to find Clara standing in the doorway with a tremulous smile on her lips. But, as Jonah turned, her eye fell on the bottle.
"I've been a day findin' this," said Jonah; "but now..."
An extraordinary change in Clara's face stopped the words on his lips. The tremulous smile on her parted lips changed to a nervous grin, and her colour turned to a greyish white as she stared at the bottle, her eyes dilated with horror. For some moments there was a dreadful silence, in which Jonah distinctly heard Miss Giltinan giving an order downstairs. Slowly he looked from Clara to the bottle. Again he stared at the frightened woman, and his mind leapt to a dreadful certainty.
"Come in, an' shut the door," he said. His voice was little more than a whisper.
Clara obeyed him mechanically.
"Sit down," he added, putting the bottle on the table.
For a while each stared at the other, too stunned to move or speak. Jonah's world had fallen about his ears, and Clara's dreams of wealth mocked at her and fled.
Suddenly, in the deadly silence, Jonah began to speak.
"So it was you, was it? I never thought of that. I wonder what brought yer 'ere just as I found this? They say murder will out, an' I believe it now. If this 'appened to anybody else, 'e'd go mad. But I can stand it. I'm tough. I fought my way up from the gutter. An' ye're the woman that I worshipped....For God's sake, woman, speak! Make up something that I can believe. Say yer never 'ad a 'and in this, an' I'll kiss the ground yer walk on. No, it wouldn't be any use. I couldn't believe the angel Gabriel, if he looked at me with that face. Yer paid for that bottle an' brought it 'ere. I saw that the moment yer set eyes on it. Yer thought Ada wasn't goin' ter hell fast enough, an' yer'd give 'er a shove. An' I see now why yer did it. Yer wanted ter step into 'er shoes, an' 'andle my money. It wasn't me yer wanted. I might 'ave known that. It was the shop that yer were always talkin' about. An' if yer 'adn't walked in at that door just now, I should never 'ave suspected. Screamin' funny, ain't it? She wasn't much loss, but she was a thousand times better than the ladylike devil that killed her. I don't know 'ow the law stands in a case like this. Yer may be safe from that, but yer've got me ter deal with first. Yer led me on with yer damned airs to believe in things I've never dreamt of before. An' now yer've killed the best in me as sure as yer murdered my wife. Well, yer must pay for that, too."
Clara sat on the chair like one in a trance. She understood in a numbed kind of way that something dreadful was going to happen. O God, she had never meant to do wrong! And if this was the punishment, let it come quickly. Jonah had been walking backwards and forwards with nervous steps, and she noted every detail of his person with a fixed stare. The early repugnance to his deformity returned with horror as she studied the large head, wedged between the shoulders as if a giant's hand had pressed it down, the projecting hump, and the unnaturally long arms ending in the hard, hairy fist of the shoemaker.
She felt that he was going to kill her. She wanted to speak, to cry out that she was not so guilty as he thought, but her tongue was like a rasp. Suddenly Jonah stopped in front of her. Her stony silence had maddened him, and in a moment he was transformed into the old-time larrikin, accustomed to demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He rushed at her with a cry like an animal, and caught her by the throat with his powerful hands. But the contact of his fingers with that delicate flesh that he had never dared to touch before brought him to his senses. A violent shudder shook him like ague, his fingers relaxed, and with a sobbing cry, dreadful to hear, he dragged the fainting woman to her feet and pushed her towards the door, crying "Go, go, for God's sake!"
She walked unsteadily through the shop with a face the colour of chalk, hearing and seeing nothing. The red-letter sale was in full swing. A crowd of customers jostled one another as they passed in and out; the coins clinked merrily in the till. Miss Giltinan caught sight of her face, and wondered. Half an hour later, growing suspicious, she ran upstairs, and knocked at the door on a pretext of business. Hearing nothing, she opened the door, with her heart in her mouth, and looked in. Jonah was crouching motionless on the end of the sofa, his head buried among the cushions, like a stricken animal. Puzzled, but reassured, she closed the door gently and went downstairs.
* * * * *
Jonah never saw Clara again. He spent a week in the depths, groping blindly, hating life for its deceptions. Then, one day, his passion of hatred and loathing for Clara left him suddenly, as a garrison surrenders without a blow. He took a cab to her house, and knocked at the door. A curtain moved, but the door remained unopened. A month later he learned that she had married her old love, the clerk in the Lands Department, transferred by request to Wagga, beyond the reach of Dad and his reputation. The following year Jonah married Miss Giltinan, chiefly on account of Ray, who was growing unmanageable; and on Monday morning it was one of the sights of Regent Street to see the second Mrs Jones step into her sulky to drive round and inspect the suburban branches of the "Silver Shoe" which Jonah had opened under her direction.
Chook and Pinkey did not need to stare at sixpence before spending it, but their fortune was long in the making. Meanwhile Chook consoled himself with the presence of a sturdy son, the image of Pinkey, with a mop of curls the colour of a new penny.