One of the envelopes had Skeffington's trade mark stamped upon it, and contained a bank-note and a sheet closely type-written on both sides.
"Half a second, Jimmy," said he, and began to read.
I poured myself out a cup of cold coffee, and, avoiding the bacon and eggs, which lay embalmed in frozen grease, began to lunch off bread and marmalade.
"I'll do it," he burst out when he had finished. "It's a sweat—a fearful sweat, but——
"Skeffington's have written urging me to undertake a rather original advertising scheme. They're very pressing, and they've enclosed a tenner in advance. They want me to do them a tragedy in four acts. I sent them the scenario last week. I sketched out a skeleton plot in which the hero is addicted to a strictly moderate use of Skeffington's Sloe Gin. His wife adopts every conceivable measure to wean him from this harmless, even praiseworthy indulgence. At the end of the second act she thinks she has cured him. He has promised to gratify what he regards as merely a capricious whim on her part. 'I will give—yes, I will give it up, darling!' 'George! George!' She falls on his neck. Over her shoulder he winks at the audience, who realise that there is more to come. Curtain. In Act 3 the husband is seen sitting alone in his study. His wife has gone to a party. The man searches in a cupboard for something to read. Instead of a novel, however, he lights on a bottle of Skeffington's Sloe Gin. Instantly the old overwhelming craving returns. He hesitates. What does it matter? She will never know. He gulps down glass after glass. He sinks into an intoxicated stupor. His wife enters. Curtain again. Act 4. The draught of nectar tasted in the former act after a period of enforced abstinence has produced a deadly reaction. The husband, who previously improved his health, his temper, and his intellect by a strictly moderate use of Skeffington's Sloe Gin, has now become a ghastly dipsomaniac. His wife, realising too late the awful effect of her idiotic antagonism to Skeffington's, experiences the keenest pangs of despair. She drinks laudanum, and the tragedy is complete."
"Fine," I said, finishing the coffee.
"In a deferential postscript," said Julian, "Skeffington's suggest an alternative ending, that the wife should drink, not laudanum, but Sloe Gin, and grow, under its benign influence, resigned to the fate she has brought on her husband and herself. Resignation gives way to hope. She devotes her life to the care of the inebriate man, and, by way of pathetic retribution, she lives precisely long enough to nurse him back to sanity. Which finale do you prefer?"
"Yours!" I said.
"Thank you," said Julian, considerably gratified. "So do I. It's terser, more dramatic, and altogether a better advertisement. Skeffington's make jolly good sloe gin, but they can't arouse pity and terror. Yes, I'll do it; but first let me spend the tenner."
"I'm taking a holiday, too, today," I said. "How can we amuse ourselves?"
Julian had opened the last of his letters. He held up two cards.
"Tickets for Covent Garden Ball tonight," he said. "Why not come? It's sure to be a good one."
"I should like to," I said. "Thanks."
Julian dropped from his hammock, and began to get his bath ready.
We arranged to dine early at the Maison Suisse in Rupert Street— table d'hte one franc, plus twopence for mad'moiselle—and go on to the gallery of a first night. I was to dress for Covent Garden at Julian's after the theatre, because white waistcoats and the franc table d'hte didn't go well together.
When I dined out, I usually went to the Maison Suisse. I shall never have the chance of going again, even if, as a married man, I were allowed to do so, for it has been pulled down to make room for the Hicks Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. When I did not dine there, I attended a quaint survival of last century's coffee-houses in Glasshouse Street: Tall, pew-like boxes, wooden tables without table-cloths, panelled walls; an excellent menu of chops, steaks, fried eggs, sausages, and other British products. Once the resort of bucks and Macaronis, Ford's coffee-house I found frequented by a strange assortment of individuals, some of whom resembled bookmakers' touts, others clerks of an inexplicably rustic type. Who these people really were I never discovered.
"I generally have supper at Pepolo's," said Julian, as we left the theatre, "before a Covent Garden Ball. Shall we go on there?"
There are two entrances to Pepolo's restaurant, one leading to the ground floor, the other to the brasserie in the basement. I liked to spend an hour or so there occasionally, smoking and watching the crowd. Every sixth visit on an average I would happen upon somebody interesting among the ordinary throng of medical students and third-rate clerks—watery-eyed old fellows who remembered Cremorne, a mahogany derelict who had spent his youth on the sea when liners were sailing-ships, and the apprentices, terrorised by bullying mates and the rollers of the Bay, lay howling in the scuppers and prayed to be thrown overboard. He told me of one voyage on which the Malay cook went mad, and, escaping into the ratlines, shot down a dozen of the crew before he himself was sniped.
The supper tables are separated from the brasserie by a line of stucco arches, and as it was now a quarter to twelve the place was full. At a first glance it seemed that there were no empty supper tables. Presently, however, we saw one, laid for four, at which only one man was sitting.
"Hullo!" said Julian, "there's Malim. Let's go and see if we can push into his table. Well, Malim, how are you? Do you know Cloyster?"
Mr. Malim had a lofty expression. I should have put him down as a scholarly recluse. His first words upset this view somewhat.
"Coming to Covent Garden?" he said, genially. "I am. So is Kit. She'll be down soon."
"Good," said Julian; "may Jimmy and I have supper at your table?"
"Do," said Malim. "Plenty of room. We'd better order our food and not wait for her."
We took our places, and looked round us. The hum of conversation was persistent. It rose above the clatter of the supper tables and the sudden bursts of laughter.
It was now five minutes to twelve. All at once those nearest the door sprang to their feet. A girl in scarlet and black had come in.
"Ah, there's Kit at last," said Malim.
"They're cheering her," said Julian.
As he spoke, the tentative murmur of a cheer was caught up by everyone. Men leaped upon chairs and tables.
"Hullo, hullo, hullo!" said Kit, reaching us. "Kiddie, when they do that it makes me feel shy."
She was laughing like a child. She leaned across the table, put her arms round Malim's neck, and kissed him. She glanced at us.
Malim smiled quietly, but said nothing.
She kissed Julian, and she kissed me.
"Now we're all friends," she said, sitting down.
"Better know each other's names," said Malim. "Kit, this is Mr. Cloyster. Mr. Cloyster, may I introduce you to my wife?"
I MEET MR. THOMAS BLAKE (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
Someone had told me that, the glory of Covent Garden Ball had departed. It may be so. Yet the floor, with its strange conglomeration of music-hall artists, callow university men, shady horse-dealers, and raucous military infants, had an atmosphere of more than meretricious gaiety. The close of an old year and the birth of a new one touch the toughest.
The band was working away with a strident brassiness which filled the room with noise. The women's dresses were a shriek of colour. The vulgarity of the scene was so immense as to be almost admirable. It was certainly interesting.
Watching his opportunity, Julian presently drew me aside into the smoking-room.
"Malim," he said, "has paid you a great compliment."
"Really," I said, rather surprised, for Julian's acquaintance had done nothing more, to my knowledge, than give me a cigar and a whiskey-and-soda.
"He's introduced you to his wife."
"Very good of him, I'm sure."
"You don't understand. You see Kit for what she is: a pretty, good-natured creature bred in the gutter. But Malim—well, he's in the Foreign Office and is secretary to Sir George Grant."
"Then what in Heaven's name," I cried, "induced him to marry——"
"My dear Jimmy," said Julian, adroitly avoiding the arm of an exuberant lady impersonating Winter, and making fair practice with her detachable icicles, "it was Kit or no one. Just consider Malim's position, which was that of thousands of other men of his type. They are the cleverest men of their schools; they are the intellectual stars of their Varsities. I was at Oxford with Malim. He was a sort of tin god. Double-first and all that. Just like all the rest of them. They get what is looked upon as a splendid appointment under Government. They come to London, hire comfortable chambers or a flat, go off to their office in the morning, leave it in the evening, and are given a salary which increases by regular gradations from an initial two hundred a year. Say that a man begins this kind of work at twenty-four. What are his matrimonial prospects? His office work occupies his entire attention (the idea that Government clerks don't work is a fiction preserved merely for the writers of burlesque) from the moment he wakes in the morning until dinner. His leisure extends, roughly speaking, from eight-thirty until twelve. The man whom I am discussing, and of whom Malim is a type, is, as I have already proved, intellectual. He has, therefore, ambitions. The more intellectual he is the more he loathes the stupid routine of his daily task. Thus his leisure is his most valuable possession. There are books he wants to read—those which he liked in the days previous to his slavery—and new ones which he sees published every day. There are plays he wants to see performed. And there are subjects on which he would like to write—would give his left hand to write, if the loss of that limb wouldn't disqualify him for his post. Where is his social chance? It surely exists only in the utter abandonment of his personal projects. And to go out when one is tied to the clock is a poor sort of game. But suppose he does seek the society of what friends he can muster in London. Is he made much of, fussed over? Not a bit of it. Brainless subalterns, ridiculous midshipmen, have, in the eyes of the girl whom he has come to see, a reputation that he can never win. They're in the Service; they're so dashing; they're so charmingly extravagant; they're so tremendous in face of an emergency that their conversational limitations of "Yes" and "No" are hailed as brilliant flights of genius. Their inane anecdotes, their pointless observations are positively courted. It is they who retire to the conservatory with the divine Violet, whose face is like the Venus of Milo's, whose hair (one hears) reaches to her knees, whose eyes are like blue saucers, and whose complexion is a pink poem. It is Jane, the stumpy, the flat-footed—Jane, who wears glasses and has all the virtues which are supposed to go with indigestion: big hands and an enormous waist—Jane, I repeat, who is told off to talk to a man like Malim. If, on the other hand, he and his fellows refuse to put on evening clothes and be bored to death of an evening, who can blame them? If they deliberately find enough satisfaction for their needs in the company of a circle of men friends and the casual pleasures of the town, selfishness is the last epithet with which their behaviour can be charged. Unselfishness has been their curse. No sane person would, of his own accord, become the automaton that a Government office requires. Pressure on the part of relations, of parents, has been brought to bear on them. The steady employment, the graduated income, the pension—that fatal pension—has been danced by their fathers and their mothers and their Uncle Johns before their eyes. Appeals have been made to them on filial, not to say religious, grounds. Threats would have availed nothing; but appeals—downright tearful appeals from mamma, husky, hand-gripping appeals from papa—that is what has made escape impossible. A huge act of unselfishness has been compelled; a lifetime of reactionary egotism is inevitable and legitimate. I was wrong when I said Malim was typical. He has to the good an ingenuity which assists naturally in the solution of the problem of self and circumstance. A year or two ago chance brought him in contact with Kit. They struck up a friendship. He became an habitu at the Fried Fish Shop in Tottenham Court Road. Whenever we questioned his taste he said that a physician recommended fish as a tonic for the brain. But it was not his brain that took Malim to the fried fish shop. It was his heart. He loved Kit, and presently he married her. One would have said this was an impossible step. Misery for Malim's people, his friends, himself, and afterwards for Kit. But Nature has endowed both Malim and Kit with extraordinary commonsense. He kept to his flat; she kept to her job in the fried fish shop. Only, instead of living in, she was able to retire after her day's work to a little house which he hired for her in the Hampstead Road. Her work, for which she is eminently fitted, keeps her out of mischief. His flat gives the impression to his family and the head of his department that he is still a bachelor. Thus, all goes well."
"I've often read in the police reports," I said, "of persons who lead double lives, and I'm much interested in——"
Malim and Kit bore down upon us. We rose.
"It's the march past," observed the former. "Come upstairs."
"Kiddie," said Kit, "give me your arm."
At half-past four we were in Wellington Street. It was a fine, mild morning, and in the queer light of the false dawn we betook ourselves to the Old Hummums for breakfast. Other couples had done the same. The steps of the Hummums facing the market harboured already a waiting crowd. The doors were to be opened at five. We also found places on the stone steps. The market was alive with porters, who hailed our appearance with every profession of delight. Early hours would seem to lend a certain acidity to their badinage. By-and-by a more personal note crept into their facetious comments. Two guardsmen on the top step suddenly displayed, in return, a very creditable gift of repartee. Covent Garden market was delighted. It felt the stern joy which warriors feel with foemen worthy of their steel. It suspended its juggling feats with vegetable baskets, and devoted itself exclusively to the task of silencing our guns. Porters, costers, and the riff-raff of the streets crowded in a semicircle around us. Just then it was borne in on us how small our number was. A solid phalanx of the toughest customers in London faced us. Behind this semicircle a line of carts had been drawn up. Unseen enemies from behind this laager now began to amuse themselves by bombarding us with the product of the market garden. Tomatoes, cauliflowers, and potatoes came hurtling into our midst. I saw Julian consulting his watch. "Five minutes more," he said. I had noticed some minutes back that the ardour of the attack seemed to centre round one man in particular—a short, very burly man in a costume that seemed somehow vaguely nautical. His face wore the expression of one cheerfully conscious of being well on the road to intoxication. He was the ringleader. It was he who threw the largest cabbage, the most pass tomato. I don't suppose he had ever enjoyed himself so much in his life. He was standing now on a cart full of potatoes, and firing them in with tremendous force.
Kit saw him too.
"Why, there's that blackguard Tom!" she cried.
She had been told to sit down behind Malim for safety. Before anyone could stop her, or had guessed her intention, she had pushed her way through us and stepped out into the road.
It was so unexpected that there was an involuntary lull in the proceedings.
She pointed an accusing finger at the man, who gaped beerily.
"Tom, who pinched farver's best trousers, and popped them?"
There was a roar of laughter. A moment before, and Tom had been the pet of the market, the energetic leader, the champion potato-slinger. Now he was a thing of derision. His friends took up the question. Keen anxiety was expressed on all sides as to the fate of father's trousers. He was requested to be a man and speak up.
The uproar died away as it was seen that Kit had not yet finished.
"Cheese it, some of yer," shouted a voice. "The lady wants to orsk him somefin' else."
"Tom," said Kit, "who was sent with tuppence to buy postage-stamps and spent it on beer?"
The question was well received by the audience. Tom was beaten. A potato, vast and nobbly, fell from his palsied hand. He was speechless. Then he began to stammer.
"Just you stop it, Tom," shouted Kit triumphantly. "Just you stop it, d'you 'ear, you stop it."
She turned towards us on the steps, and, taking us all into her confidence, added: "'E's a nice thing to 'ave for a bruvver, anyway."
Then she rejoined Malim, amid peals of laughter from both armies. It was a Homeric incident.
Only a half-hearted attempt was made to renew the attack. And when the door of the Hummums at last opened, Malim observed to Julian and me, as we squashed our way in, that if a man's wife's relations were always as opportune as Kit's, the greatest objection to them would be removed.
I MEET THE REV. JOHN HATTON (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
I saw a great deal of Malim after that. He and Julian became my two chief mainstays when I felt in need of society. Malim was a man of delicate literary skill, a genuine lover of books, a severe critic of modern fiction. Our tastes were in the main identical, though it was always a blow to me that he could see nothing humorous in Mr. George Ade, whose Fables I knew nearly by heart. The more robust type of humour left him cold.
In all other respects we agreed.
There is a never-failing fascination in a man with a secret. It gave me a pleasant feeling of being behind the scenes, to watch Malim, sitting in his armchair, the essence of everything that was conventional and respectable, with Eton and Oxford written all over him, and to think that he was married all the while to an employee in a Tottenham Court Road fried-fish shop.
Kit never appeared in the flat: but Malim went nearly every evening to the little villa. Sometimes he took Julian and myself, more often myself alone, Julian being ever disinclined to move far from his hammock. The more I saw of Kit the more thoroughly I realized how eminently fitted she was to be Malim's wife. It was a union of opposites. Except for the type of fiction provided by "penny libraries of powerful stories." Kit had probably not read more than half a dozen books in her life. Grimm's fairy stories she recollected dimly, and she betrayed a surprising acquaintance with at least three of Ouida's novels. I fancy that Malim appeared to her as a sort of combination of fairy prince and Ouida guardsman. He exhibited the Oxford manner at times rather noticeably. Kit loved it.
Till I saw them together I had thought Kit's accent and her incessant mangling of the King's English would have jarred upon Malim. But I soon found that I was wrong. He did not appear to notice.
I learned from Kit, in the course of my first visit to the villa, some further particulars respecting her brother Tom, the potato-thrower of Covent Garden Market. Mr. Thomas Blake, it seemed, was the proprietor and skipper of a barge. A pleasant enough fellow when sober, but too much given to what Kit described as "his drop." He had apparently left home under something of a cloud, though whether this had anything to do with "father's trousers" I never knew. Kit said she had not seen him for some years, though each had known the other's address. It seemed that the Blake family were not great correspondents.
"Have you ever met John Hatton?" asked Malim one night after dinner at his flat.
"John Hatton?" I answered. "No. Who is he?"
"A parson. A very good fellow. You ought to know him. He's a man with a number of widely different interests. We were at Trinity together. He jumps from one thing to another, but he's frightfully keen about whatever he does. Someone was saying that he was running a boys' club in the thickest part of Lambeth."
"There might be copy in it," I said.
"Or ideas for advertisements for Julian," said Malim. "Anyway, I'll introduce you to him. Have you ever been in the Barrel?"
"What's the Barrel?"
"The Barrel is a club. It gets the name from the fact that it's the only club in England that allows, and indeed urges, its members to sit on a barrel. John Hatton is sometimes to be found there. Come round to it tomorrow night."
"All right," I replied. "Where is it?"
"A hundred and fifty-three, York Street, Covent Garden. First floor."
"Very well," I said. "I'll meet you there at twelve o'clock. I can't come sooner because I've got a story to write."
Twelve had just struck when I walked up York Street looking for No. 153.
The house was brilliantly lighted on the first floor. The street door opened on to a staircase, and as I mounted it the sound of a piano and a singing voice reached me. At the top of the stairs I caught sight of a waiter loaded with glasses. I called to him.
"Mr. Cloyster, sir? Yessir. I'll find out whether Mr. Malim can see you, sir."
Malim came out to me. "Hatton's not here," he said, "but come in. There's a smoking concert going on."
He took me into the room, the windows of which I had seen from the street.
There was a burst of cheering as we entered the room. The song was finished, and there was a movement among the audience. "It's the interval," said Malim.
Men surged out of the packed front room into the passage, and then into a sort of bar parlour. Malim and I also made our way there. "That's the fetish of the club," said Malim, pointing to a barrel standing on end; "and I'll introduce you to the man who is sitting on it. He's little Michael, the musical critic. They once put on an operetta of his at the Court. It ran about two nights, but he reckons all the events of the world from the date of its production."
"Mr. Cloyster—Mr. Michael."
The musician hopped down from the barrel and shook hands. He was a dapper little person, and had a trick of punctuating every sentence with a snigger.
"Cheer-o," he said genially. "Is this your first visit?"
I said it was.
"Then sit on the barrel. We are the only club in London who can offer you the privilege." Accordingly I sat on the barrel, and through a murmur of applause I could hear Michael telling someone that he'd first seen that barrel five years before his operetta came out at the Court.
At that moment a venerable figure strode with dignity into the bar.
"Maundrell," said Malim to me. "The last of the old Bohemians. An old actor. Always wears the steeple hat and a long coat with skirts."
The survivor of the days of Kean uttered a bellow for whisky-and-water. "That barrel," he said, "reminds me of Buckstone's days at the Haymarket. After the performance we used to meet at the Caf de l'Europe, a few yards from the theatre. Our secret society sat there."
"What was the society called, Mr. Maundrell?" asked a new member with unusual intrepidity.
"Its name," replied the white-headed actor simply, "I shall not divulge. It was not, however, altogether unconnected with the Pink Men of the Blue Mountains. We used to sit, we who were initiated, in a circle. We met to discuss the business of the society. Oh, we were the observed of all observers, I can assure you. Our society was extensive. It had its offshoots in foreign lands. Well, we at these meetings used to sit round a barrel—a great big barrel, which had a hole in the top. The barrel was not merely an ornament, for through the hole in the top we threw any scraps and odds and ends we did not want. Bits of tobacco, bread, marrow bones, the dregs of our glasses—anything and everything went into the barrel. And so it happened, as the barrel became fuller and fuller, strange animals made their appearance—animals of peculiar shape and form crawled out of the barrel and would attempt to escape across the floor. But we were on their tracks. We saw them. We headed them off with our sticks, and we chased them back again to the place where they had been born and bred. We poked them in, sir, with our sticks."
Mr. Maundrell emitted a placid chuckle at this reminiscence.
"A good many members of this club," whispered Malim to me, "would have gone back into that barrel."
A bell sounded. "That's for the second part to begin," said Malim.
We herded back along the passage. A voice cried, "Be seated, please, gentlemen."
At the far end of the room was a table for the chairman and the committee, and to the left stood a piano. Everyone had now sat down except the chairman, who was apparently not in the room. There was a pause. Then a man from the audience whooped sharply and clambered over the table and into the place of the chairman. He tapped twice with the mallet. "Get out of that chair," yelled various voices.
"Gentlemen," said the man in the chair. A howl of execration went up, and simultaneously the door was flung open. A double file of white-robed Druids came, chanting, into the room.
The Druids carried in with them a small portable tree which they proceeded to set upright. The chant now became extremely topical. Each Druid sang a verse in turn, while his fellow Druids danced a stately measure round the tree. As the verse was being sung, an imitation granite altar was hastily erected.
The man in the chair, who had so far smoked a cigarette in silence, now tapped again with his mallet. "Gentlemen," he observed.
The Druids ended their song abruptly, and made a dash at the occupant of the chair. The audience stood up. "A victim for our ancient rites!" screamed the Druids, falling upon the man and dragging him towards the property altar.
The victim showed every sign of objection to early English rites; but he was dislodged, and after being dragged, struggling, across the table, subsided quickly on the floor. The mob surged about and around him. He was hidden from view. His position, however, could be located by a series of piercing shrieks.
The door again opened. Mr. Maundrell, the real chairman of the evening, stood on the threshold. "Chair!" was now the word that arose on every side, and at this signal the Druids disappeared at a trot past the long-bearded, impassive Mr. Maundrell. Their victim followed them, but before he did so he picked up his trousers which were lying on the carpet.
All the time this scene had been going on, I fancied I recognised the man in the chair. In a flash I remembered. It was Dawkins who had coached First Trinity, and whom I, as a visitor once at the crew's training dinner, had last seen going through the ancient and honourable process of de-bagging at the hands of his light-hearted boat.
"Come on," said Malim. "Godfrey Lane's going to sing a patriotic song. They will let him do it. We'll go down to the Temple and find John Hatton."
We left the Barrel at about one o'clock. It was a typical London late autumn night. Quiet with the peace of a humming top; warm with the heat generated from mellow asphalt and resinous wood-paving.
We turned from Bedford Street eastwards along the Strand.
Between one and two the Strand is as empty as it ever is. It is given over to lurchers and policemen. Fleet Street reproduces for this one hour the Sahara.
"When I knock at the Temple gate late at night," said Malim, "and am admitted by the night porter, I always feel a pleasantly archaic touch."
I agreed with him. The process seemed a quaint admixture of an Oxford or Cambridge college, Gottingen, and a feudal keep. And after the gate had been closed behind one, it was difficult to realise that within a few yards of an academic system of lawns and buildings full of living traditions and associations which wainscoting and winding stairs engender, lay the modern world, its American invaders, its new humour, its women's clubs, its long firms, its musical comedies, its Park Lane, and its Strand with the hub of the universe projecting from the roadway at Charing Cross, plain for Englishmen to gloat over and for foreigners to envy.
Sixty-two Harcourt Buildings is emblazoned with many names, including that of the Rev. John Hatton. The oak was not sported, and our rap at the inner door was immediately answered by a shout of "Come in!" As we opened it we heard a peculiar whirring sound. "Road skates," said Hatton, gracefully circling the table and then coming to a standstill. I was introduced. "I'm very glad to see you both," he said. "The two other men I share these rooms with have gone away, so I'm killing time by training for my road-skate tour abroad. It's trying for one's ankles."
"Could you go downstairs on them?" said Malim.
"Certainly," he replied, "I'll do so now. And when we're down, I'll have a little practice in the open."
Whereupon he skated to the landing, scrambled down the stairs, sped up Middle Temple Lane, and called the porter to let us out into Fleet Street. He struck me as a man who differed in some respects from the popular conception of a curate.
"I'll race you to Ludgate Circus and back," said the clergyman.
"You're too fast," said Malim; "it must be a handicap."
"We might do it level in a cab," said I, for I saw a hansom crawling towards us.
"Done," said the Rev. John Hatton. "Done, for half-a-crown!"
I climbed into the hansom, and Malim, about to follow me, found that a constable, to whom the soil of the City had given spontaneous birth, was standing at his shoulder. "Wot's the game?" inquired the officer, with tender solicitude.
"A fine night, Perkins," remarked Hatton.
"A fine morning, beggin' your pardon, sir," said the policeman facetiously. He seemed to be an acquaintance of the skater.
"Reliability trials," continued Hatton. "Be good enough to start us, Perkins."
"Very good, sir," said Perkins.
"Drive to Ludgate Circus and back, and beat the gentleman on the skates," said Malim to our driver, who was taking the race as though he assisted at such events in the course of his daily duty.
"Hi shall say, 'Are you ready? Horf!'"
"We shall have Perkins applying to the Jockey Club for Ernest Willoughby's job," whispered Malim.
"Are you ready? Horf!"
Hatton was first off the mark. He raced down the incline to the Circus at a tremendous speed. He was just in sight as he swung laboriously round and headed for home. But meeting him on our outward journey, we noticed that the upward slope was distressing him. "Shall we do it?" we asked.
"Yessir," said our driver. And now we, too, were on the up grade. We went up the hill at a gallop: were equal with Hatton at Fetter Lane, and reached the Temple Gate yards to the good.
The ancient driver of a four-wheeler had been the witness of the finish.
He gazed with displeasure upon us.
"This 'ere's a nice use ter put Fleet Street to, I don't think," he said coldly.
This sarcastic rebuke rather damped us, and after Hatton had paid Malim his half-crown, and had invited me to visit him, we departed.
"Queer chap, Hatton," said Malim as we walked up the Strand.
I was to discover at no distant date that he was distinctly a many-sided man. I have met a good many clergymen in my time, but I have never come across one quite like the Rev. John Hatton.
JULIAN LEARNS MY SECRET (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
A difficulty in the life of a literary man in London is the question of getting systematic exercise. At school and college I had been accustomed to play games every day, and now I felt the change acutely.
It was through this that I first became really intimate with John Hatton, and incidentally with Sidney Price, of the Moon Assurance Company. I happened to mention my trouble one night in Hatton's rooms. I had been there frequently since my first visit.
"None of my waistcoats fit," I remarked.
"My dear fellow," said Hatton, "I'll give you exercise and to spare; that is to say, if you can box."
"I'm not a champion," I said; "but I'm fond of it. I shouldn't mind taking up boxing again. There's nothing like it for exercise."
"Quite right, James," he replied; "and exercise, as I often tell my boys, is essential."
"What boys?" I asked.
"My club boys," said Hatton. "They belong to the most dingy quarter of the whole of London—South Lambeth. They are not hooligans. They are not so interesting as that. They represent the class of youth that is a stratum or two above hooliganism. Frightful weeds. They lack the robust animalism of the class below them, and they lack the intelligence of the class above them. The fellows at my club are mostly hard-working mechanics and under-paid office boys. They have nothing approaching a sense of humour or the instinct of sport."
"Not very encouraging," I said.
"Nor picturesque," said Hatton; "and that is why they've been so neglected. There is romance in an out-and-out hooligan. It interests people to reform him. But to the outsider my boys are dull. I don't find them so. But then I know them. Boxing lessons are just what they want. In fact, I was telling Sidney Price, an insurance clerk who lives in Lambeth and helps me at the club, only yesterday how much I wished we could teach them to use the gloves."
"I'll take it on, then, Hatton, if you like," I said. "It ought to keep me in form."
I found that it did. I ceased to be aware of my liver. That winter I was able to work to good purpose, and the result was that I arrived. It dawned upon me at last that the "precarious" idea was played out. One could see too plainly the white sheet and phosphorus.
And I was happy. Happier, perhaps, than I had ever hoped to be. Happier, in a sense, than I can hope to be again. I had congenial work, and, what is more, I had congenial friends.
What friends they were!
Julian—I seem to see him now sprawling in his hammock, sucking his pipe, planning an advertisement, or propounding some whimsical theory of life; and in his eyes he bears the pain of one whose love and life are spoilt. Julian—no longer my friend.
Kit and Malim—what evenings are suggested by those names.
Evenings alone with Malim at his flat in Vernon Place. An unimpeachable dinner, a hand at picquet, midnight talk with the blue smoke wreathing round our heads.
Well, Malim and I are unlikely to meet again in Vernon Place. Nor shall we foregather at the little house in the Hampstead Road, the house which Kit enveloped in an inimitable air of domesticity. Her past had not been unconnected with the minor stage. She could play on the piano from ear, and sing the songs of the street with a charming cockney twang. But there was nothing of the stage about her now. She was born for domesticity and, as the wife of Malim, she wished to forget all that had gone before. She even hesitated to give us her wonderful imitations of the customers at the fried fish shop, because in her heart she did not think such impersonations altogether suitable for a respectable married woman.
It was Malim who got me elected to the Barrel Club. I take it that I shall pay few more visits there.
I have mentioned at this point the love of my old friends who made my first years in London a period of happiness, since it was in this month of April that I had a momentous conversation with Julian about Margaret.
He had come to Walpole Street to use my typewriter, and seemed amazed to find that I was still living in much the same style as I had always done.
"Let me see," he said. "How long is it since I was here last?"
"You came some time before Christmas."
"Ah, yes," he said reminiscently. "I was doing a lot of travelling just then." And he added, thoughtfully, "What a curious fellow you are, Jimmy. Here are you making——" He glanced at me.
"Oh, say a thousand a year."
"—Fifteen hundred a year, and you live in precisely the same shoddy surroundings as you did when your manuscripts were responsible for an extra size in waste-paper baskets. I was surprised to hear that you were still in Walpole Street. I supposed that, at any rate, you had taken the whole house."
His eyes raked the little sitting-room from the sham marble mantelpiece to the bamboo cabinet. I surveyed it, too, and suddenly it did seem unnecessarily wretched and depressing.
Julian looked at me curiously.
"There's some mystery here," he said.
"Don't be an ass, Julian," I replied weakly.
"It's no good denying it," he retorted; "there's some mystery. You're a materialist. You don't live like this from choice. If you were to follow your own inclinations, you'd do things in the best style you could run to. You'd be in Jermyn Street; you'd have your man, a cottage in Surrey; you'd entertain, go out a good deal. You'd certainly give up these dingy quarters. My friendship for you deplores a mammoth skeleton in your cupboard, James. My study of advertising tells me that this paltry existence of yours does not adequately push your name before the public. You're losing money, you're——"
"Stop, Julian," I exclaimed.
"Cherchez," he continued, "cherchez——"
"Stop! Confound you, stop! I tell you——"
"Come," he said laughing. "I mustn't force your confidence; but I can't help feeling it's odd——"
"When I came to London," I said, firmly, "I was most desperately in love. I was to make a fortune, incidentally my name, marry, and live happily ever after. There seemed last year nothing complex about that programme. It seemed almost too simple. I even, like a fool, thought to add an extra touch of piquancy to it by endeavouring to be a Bohemian. I then discovered that what I was attempting was not so simple as I had imagined. To begin with, Bohemians diffuse their brains in every direction except that where bread-and-butter comes from. I found, too, that unless one earns bread-and-butter, one has to sprint very fast to the workhouse door to prevent oneself starving before one gets there; so I dropped Bohemia and I dropped many other pleasant fictions as well. I took to examining pavements, saw how hard they were, had a look at the gutters, and saw how broad they were. I noticed the accumulation of dirt on the house fronts, the actual proportions of industrial buildings. I observed closely the price of food, clothes, and roofs."
"You became a realist."
"Yes; I read a good deal of Gissing about then, and it scared me. I pitied myself. And after that came pity for the girl I loved. I swore that I would never let her come to my side in the ring where the monster Poverty and I were fighting. If you've been there you've been in hell. And if you come out with your soul alive you can't tell other people what it felt like. They couldn't understand."
Julian nodded. "I understand, you know," he said gravely.
"Yes, you've been there," I said. "Well, you've seen that my little turn-up with the monster was short and sharp. It wasn't one of the old-fashioned, forty-round, most-of-a-lifetime, feint-for-an-opening, in-and-out affairs. Our pace was too fast for that. We went at it both hands, fighting all the time. I was going for the knock-out in the first round. Not your method, Julian."
"No," said Julian; "it's not my method. I treat the monster rather as a wild animal than as a hooligan; and hearing that wild animals won't do more than sniff at you if you lie perfectly still, I adopted that ruse towards him to save myself the trouble of a conflict. But the effect of lying perfectly still was that I used to fall asleep; and that works satisfactorily."
"Julian," I said, "I detect a touch of envy in your voice. You try to keep it out, but you can't. Wait a bit, though. I haven't finished.
"As you know, I had the monster down in less than no time. I said to myself, 'I've won. I'll write to Margaret, and tell her so!' Do you know I had actually begun to write the letter when another thought struck me. One that started me sweating and shaking. 'The monster,' I said again to myself, 'the monster is devilish cunning. Perhaps he's only shamming! It looks as if he were beaten. Suppose it's only a feint to get me off my guard. Suppose he just wants me to take my eyes off him so that he may get at me again as soon as I've begun to look for a comfortable chair and a mantelpiece to rest my feet on!' I told myself that I wouldn't risk bringing Margaret over. I didn't dare chance her being with me if ever I had to go back into the ring. So I kept jumping and stamping on the monster. The referee had given me the fight and had gone away; and, with no one to stop me, I kicked the life out of him."
"No, you didn't," interrupted Julian. "Excuse me, I'm sure you didn't. I often wake up and hear him prowling about."
"Yes; but there's a separate monster set apart for each of us. It's Fate who arranges the programme, and, by stress of business, Fate postpones many contests so late that before they can take place the man has died. Those who die before their fight comes on are called rich men. To return, however, to my own monster: I was at last convinced that he was dead a thousand times——"
"How long have you had this conviction?" asked Julian.
"The absolute certainty that my monster has ceased to exist came to me this morning whilst I brushed my hair."
"Ah," said Julian; "and now, I suppose, you really will write to Miss Margaret——" He paused.
"To Miss Margaret Goodwin," he repeated.
"Look here, Julian," I said irritably; "it's no use your repeating every observation I make as though you were Massa Johnson on Margate Sands."
"What's the matter?"
I was silent for a moment. Then I confessed.
"Julian," I said, "I can't write to her. You need neither say that I'm a blackguard nor that you're sorry for us both. At this present moment I've no more affection for Margaret than I have for this chair. When precisely I left off caring for her I don't know. Why I ever thought I loved her I don't know, either. But ever since I came to London all the love I did have for her has been ebbing away every day."
"Had you met many people before you met her?" asked Julian slowly.
"No one that counted. Not a woman that counted, that's to say. I am shy with women. I can talk to them in a sort of way, but I never seem able to get intimate. Margaret was different. She saved my life, and we spent the summer in Guernsey together."
"And you seriously expected not to fall in love?" Julian laughed "My dear Jimmy, you ought to write a psychological novel."
"Possibly. But, in the meantime, what am I to do?"
Julian stood up.
"She's in love with you, I suppose?"
He stood looking at me.
"Well, can't you speak?" I said.
He turned away, shrugging his shoulders. "One's got one's own right and one's own wrong," he grumbled, lighting his pipe.
"I know what you're thinking," I said.
He would not look at me.
"You're thinking," I went on, "what a cad I am not to have written that letter." I sat down resting my head on my hands. After all—love and liberty—they're both very sweet.
"I'm thinking," said Julian, watching the smoke from his pipe abstractedly, "that you will probably write tonight; and I think I know how you're feeling."
"Julian," I said, "must it be tonight? Why? The letter shall go. But must it be tonight?"
"No," he said; "but you've made up your mind, so why put off the inevitable?"
"I can't," I exclaimed; "oh, I really can't. I must have my freedom a little longer."
"You must give it up some day. It'll be all the harder when you've got to face it."
"I don't mind that. A little more freedom, just a little; and then I'll tell her to come to me."
He smoked in silence.
"Surely," I said, "this little more freedom that I ask is a small thing compared with the sacrifice I have promised to make?"
"You won't let her know it's a sacrifice?"
"Of course not. She shall think that I love her as I used to."
"Yes, you ought to do that," he said softly. "Poor devil," he added.
"Am I too selfish?" I asked.
He got up to go. "No," he said. "To my mind, you're entitled to a breathing space before you give up all that you love best. But there's a risk."
"Of her finding out by some other means than yourself and before your letter comes, that the letter should have been written earlier. Do you sign all your stuff with your own name?"
"Well, then, she's bound to see how you're getting on. She'll see your name in the magazines, in newspapers and in books. She'll know you don't write for nothing, and she'll make calculations."
I was staggered.
"You mean—?" I said.
"Why, it will occur to her before long that your statement of your income doesn't square with the rest of the evidence; and she'll wonder why you pose as a pauper when you're really raking in the money with both hands. She'll think it over, and then she'll see it all."
"I see," I said, dully. "Well, you've taken my last holiday from me. I'll write to her tonight, telling her the truth."
"I shouldn't, necessarily. Wait a week or two. You may quite possibly hit on some way out of the difficulty. I'm bound to say, though, I can't see one myself at the moment."
"Nor can I," I said.
TOM BLAKE AGAIN (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
Hatton's Club boys took kindly to my course of instruction. For a couple of months, indeed, it seemed that another golden age of the noble art was approaching, and that the rejuvenation of boxing would occur, beginning at Carnation Hall, Lambeth.
Then the thing collapsed like a punctured tyre.
At first, of course, they fought a little shy. But when I had them up in line, and had shown them what a large proportion of an eight-ounce glove is padding, they grew more at ease. To be asked suddenly to fight three rounds with one of your friends before an audience, also of your friends, is embarrassing. One feels hot and uncomfortable. Hatton's boys jibbed nervously. As a preliminary measure, therefore, I drilled them in a class at foot-work and the left lead. They found the exercise exhilarating. If this was the idea, they seemed to say, let the thing go on. Then I showed them how to be highly scientific with a punch ball. Finally, I sparred lightly with them myself.
In the rough they were impossible boxers. After their initial distrust had evaporated under my gentle handling of them, they forgot all I had taught them about position and guards. They bored in, heads down and arms going like semicircular pistons. Once or twice I had to stop them. They were easily steadied. They hastened to adopt a certain snakiness of attack instead of the frontal method which had left them so exposed. They began to cultivate a kind of negative style. They were tremendously impressed by the superiority of science over strength.
I am not sure that I did not harp rather too much on the scientific note. Perhaps if I had referred to it less, the ultimate disaster would not have been quite so appalling. On the other hand, I had not the slightest suspicion that they would so exaggerate my meaning when I was remarking on the worth of science, how it "tells," and how it causes the meagre stripling to play fast and loose with huge, brawny ruffians—no cowards, mark you—and hairy as to their chests.
But the weeds at Hatton's Club were fascinated by my homilies on science. The simplicity of the thing appealed to them irresistibly. They caught at the expression, "Science," and regarded it as the "Hey Presto!" of a friendly conjurer who could so arrange matters for them that powerful opponents would fall flat, involuntarily, at the sight of their technically correct attitude.
I did not like to destroy their illusions. Had I said to them, "Look here, science is no practical use to you unless you've got low-bridged, snub noses, protruding temples, nostrils like the tubes of a vacuum-cleaner, stomach muscles like motor-car wheels, hands like legs of mutton, and biceps like transatlantic cables"—had I said that, they would have voted boxing a fraud, and gone away to quarrel over a game of backgammon, which was precisely what I wished to avoid.
So I let them go on with their tapping and feinting and side-slipping.
To make it worse they overheard Sidney Price trying to pay me a compliment. Price was the insurance clerk who had attached himself to Hatton and had proved himself to be of real service in many ways. He was an honest man, but he could not box. He came down to the hall one night after I had given four or five lessons, to watch the boys spar. Of course, to the uninitiated eye it did seem as though they were neat in their work. The sight was very different from the absurd exhibition which Price had seen on the night I started with them. He might easily have said, if he was determined to compliment me, that they had "improved," "progressed," or something equally adequate and innocuous. But no. The man must needs be effusive, positively gushing. He came to me in transports. "Wonderful!" he said. "Wonderful!"
"What's wonderful?" I said, a shade irritably.
"Their style," he said loudly, so that they could all hear, "their style. It's their style that astonishes me."
I hustled him away as soon as I could, but the mischief was done.
Style ran through Hatton's Club boys like an epidemic. Carnation Hall fairly buzzed with style. An apology for a blow which landed on your chest with the delicacy of an Agag among butterflies was extolled to the skies because it was a stylish blow. When Alf Joblin, a recruit, sent Walter Greenway sprawling with a random swing on the mark, there was a pained shudder. Not only Walter Greenway, but the whole club explained to Alf that the swing was a bad swing, an awful violation of style, practically a crime. By the time they had finished explaining, Alf was dazed; and when invited by Walter to repeat the hit with a view to his being further impressed with its want of style, did so in such half-hearted fashion that Walter had time to step stylishly aside and show Alf how futile it is to be unscientific.
To the club this episode was decently buried in an unremembered past. To me, however, it was significant, though I did not imagine it would ever have the tremendous sequel which was brought about by the coming of Thomas Blake.
Fate never planned a coup so successfully. The psychology of Blake's arrival was perfect. The boxers of Carnation Hall had worked themselves into a mental condition which I knew was as ridiculous as it was dangerous. Their conceit and their imagination transformed the hall into a kind of improved National Sporting Club. They went about with an air of subdued but tremendous athleticism. They affected a sort of self-conscious nonchalance. They adopted an odiously patronising attitude towards the once popular game of backgammon. I daresay that picture is not yet forgotten where a British general, a man of blood and iron, is portrayed as playing with a baby, to the utter neglect of a table full of important military dispatches. Well, the club boys, to a boy, posed as generals of blood and iron when they condescended to play backgammon. They did it, but they let you see that they did not regard it as one of the serious things of life.
Also, knowing that each other's hitting was so scientific as to be harmless, they would sometimes deliberately put their eye in front of their opponent's stylish left, in the hope that the blow would raise a bruise. It hardly ever did. But occasionally——! Oh, then you should have seen the hero-with-the-quiet-smile look on their faces as they lounged ostentatiously about the place. In a word, they were above themselves. They sighed for fresh worlds to conquer. And Thomas Blake supplied the long-felt want.
Personally, I did not see his actual arrival. I only saw his handiwork after he had been a visitor awhile within the hall. But, to avoid unnecessary verbiage and to avail myself of the privilege of an author, I will set down, from the evidence of witnesses, the main points of the episode as though I myself had been present at his entrance.
He did not strike them, I am informed, as a particularly big man. He was a shade under average height. His shoulders seemed to them not so much broad as "humpy." He rolled straight in from the street on a wet Saturday night at ten minutes to nine, asking for "free tea."
I should mention that on certain Fridays Hatton gave a free meal to his parishioners on the understanding that it was rigidly connected with a Short Address. The preceding Friday had been such an occasion. The placards announcing the tea were still clinging to the outer railings of the hall.
When I said that Blake asked for free tea, I should have said, shouted for free tea. He cast one decisive glance at Hatton's placards, and rolled up. He shot into the gate, up the steps, down the passage, and through the door leading into the big corrugated-iron hall which I used for my lessons. And all the time he kept shouting for free tea.
In the hall the members of my class were collected. Some were changing their clothes; others, already changed, were tapping the punch-ball. They knew that I always came punctually at nine o'clock, and they liked to be ready for me. Amongst those present was Sidney Price.
Thomas Blake brought up short, hiccuping, in the midst of them. "Gimme that free tea!" he said.
Sidney Price, whose moral fortitude has never been impeached, was the first to handle the situation.
"My good man," he said, "I am sorry to say you have made a mistake."
"A mistake!" said Thomas, quickly taking him up. "A mistake! Oh! What oh! My errer?"
"Quite so," said Price, diplomatically; "an error."
Thomas Blake sat down on the floor, fumbled for a short pipe, and said, "Seems ter me I'm sick of errers. Sick of 'em! Made a bloomer this mornin'—this way." Here he took into his confidence the group which had gathered uncertainly round him. "My wife's brother, 'im wot's a postman, owes me arf a bloomin' thick 'un. 'E's a hard-working bloke, and ter save 'im trouble I came down 'ere from Brentford, where my boat lies, to catch 'im on 'is rounds. Lot of catchin' 'e wanted, too—I don't think. Tracked 'im by the knocks at last. And then, wot d'yer think 'e said? Didn't know nothing about no ruddy 'arf thick 'un, and would I kindly cease to impede a public servant in the discharge of 'is dooty. Otherwise—the perlice. That, mind you, was my own brother-in-law. Oh, he's a nice man, I don't think!"
Thomas Blake nodded his head as one who, though pained by the hollowness of life, is resigned to it, and proceeded to doze.
The crowd gazed at him and murmured.
Sidney Price, however, stepped forward with authority.
"You'd better be going," he said; and he gently jogged the recumbent boatman's elbow.
"Leave me be! I want my tea," was the muttered and lyrical reply.
"Hook it!" said Price.
"Without my tea?" asked Blake, opening his eyes wide.
"It was yesterday," explained Price, brusquely. "There isn't any free tea tonight."
The effect was magical. A very sinister expression came over the face of the prostrate one, and he slowly clambered to his feet.
"Ho!" he said, disengaging himself from his coat. "Ho. There ain't no free tea ternight, ain't there? Bills stuck on them railings in errer, I suppose. Another bloomin' errer. Seems to me I'm sick of errers. Wot I says is, 'Come on, all of yer.' I'm Tom Blake, I am. You can arst them down at Brentford. Kind old Tom Blake, wot wouldn't hurt a fly; and I says, 'Come on, all of yer,' and I'll knock yer insides through yer backbones."
Sidney Price spoke again. His words were honeyed, but ineffectual.
"I'm honest old Tom, I am," boomed Thomas Blake, "and I'm ready for the lot of yer: you and yer free tea and yer errers."
At this point Alf Joblin detached himself from the hovering crowd and said to Price: "He must be cowed. I'll knock sense into the drunken brute."
"Well," said Price, "he's got to go; but you won't hurt him, Alf, will you?"
"No," said Alf, "I won't hurt him. I'll just make him look a fool. This is where science comes in."
"I'm honest old Tom," droned the boatman.
"If you will have it," said Alf, with fine aposiopesis.
He squared up to him.
Now Alf Joblin, like the other pugilists of my class, habitually refrained from delivering any sort of attack until he was well assured that he had seen an orthodox opening. A large part of every round between Hatton's boys was devoted to stealthy circular movements, signifying nothing. But Thomas Blake had not had the advantage of scientific tuition. He came banging in with a sweeping right. Alf stopped him with his left. Again Blake swung his right, and again he took Alf's stopping blow without a blink. Then he went straight in, right and left in quick succession. The force of the right was broken by Alf's guard, but the left got home on the mark; and Alf Joblin's wind left him suddenly. He sat down on the floor.
To say that this tragedy in less than five seconds produced dismay among the onlookers would be incorrect. They were not dismayed. They were amused. They thought that Alf had laid himself open to chaff. Whether he had slipped or lost his head they did not know. But as for thinking that Alf with all his scientific knowledge was not more than a match for this ignorant, intoxicated boatman, such a reflection never entered their heads. What is more, each separate member of the audience was convinced that he individually was the proper person to illustrate the efficacy of style versus untutored savagery.
As soon, therefore, as Alf Joblin went writhing to the floor, and Thomas Blake's voice was raised afresh in a universal challenge, Walter Greenway stepped briskly forward.
And as soon as Walter's guard had been smashed down by a most unconventional attack, and Walter himself had been knocked senseless by a swing on the side of the jaw, Bill Shale leaped gaily forth to take his place.
And so it happened that, when I entered the building at nine, it was as though a devastating tornado had swept down every club boy, sparing only Sidney Price, who was preparing miserably to meet his fate.
To me, standing in the doorway, the situation was plain at the first glance. Only by a big effort could I prevent myself laughing outright. It was impossible to check a grin. Thomas Blake saw me.
"Hullo!" I said; "what's all this?"
He stared at me.
"'Ullo!" he said, "another of 'em, is it? I'm honest old Tom Blake, I am, and wot I say is——"
"Why honest, Mr. Blake?" I interrupted.
"Call me a liar, then!" said he. "Go on. You do it. Call it me, then, and let's see."
He began to shuffle towards me.
"Who pinched his father's trousers, and popped them?" I inquired genially.
He stopped and blinked.
"Eh?" he said weakly.
"And who," I continued, "when sent with twopence to buy postage-stamps, squandered it on beer?"
His jaw dropped, as it had dropped in Covent Garden. It must be very unpleasant to have one's past continually rising up to confront one.
"Look 'ere!" he said, a conciliatory note in his voice, "you and me's pals, mister, ain't we? Say we're pals. Of course we are. You and me don't want no fuss. Of course we don't. Then look here: this is 'ow it is. You come along with me and 'ave a drop."
It did not seem likely that my class would require any instruction in boxing that evening in addition to that which Mr. Blake had given them, so I went with him.
Over the moisture, as he facetiously described it, he grew friendliness itself. He did not ask after Kit, but gave his opinion of her gratuitously. According to him, she was unkind to her relations. "Crool 'arsh," he said. A girl, in fact, who made no allowances for a man, and was over-prone to Sauce and the Nasty Snack.
We parted the best of friends.
"Any time you're on the Cut," he said, gripping my hand with painful fervour, "you look out for Tom Blake, mister. Tom Blake of the Ashlade and Lechton. No ceremony. Jest drop in on me and the missis. Goo' night."
At the moment of writing Tom Blake is rapidly acquiring an assured position in the heart of the British poetry-loving public. This incident in his career should interest his numerous admirers. The world knows little of its greatest men.
JULIAN'S IDEA (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
I had been relating, on the morning after the Blake affair, the stirring episode of the previous night to Julian. He agreed with me that it was curious that our potato-thrower of Covent Garden market should have crossed my path again. But I noticed that, though he listened intently enough, he lay flat on his back in his hammock, not looking at me, but blinking at the ceiling; and when I had finished he turned his face towards the wall—which was unusual, since I generally lunched on his breakfast, as I was doing then, to the accompaniment of quite a flow of languid abuse.
I was in particularly high spirits that morning, for I fancied that I had found a way out of my difficulty about Margaret. That subject being uppermost in my mind, I guessed at once what Julian's trouble was.
"I think you'd like to know, Julian," I said, "whether I'd written to Guernsey."
"It's all right," I said.
"You've told her to come?"
"No; but I'm able to take my respite without wounding her. That's as good as writing, isn't it? We agreed on that."
"Yes; that was the idea. If you could find a way of keeping her from knowing how well you were getting on with your writing, you were to take it. What's your idea?"
"I've hit on a very simple way out of the difficulty," I said. "It came to me only this morning. All I need do is to sign my stuff with a pseudonym."
"You only thought of that this morning?"
"My dear chap, I thought of it as soon as you told me of the fix you were in."
"You might have suggested it."
Julian slid to the floor, drained the almost empty teapot, rescued the last kidney, and began his breakfast.
"I would have suggested it," he said, "if the idea had been worth anything."
"What! What's wrong with it?"
"My dear man, it's too risky. It's not as though you kept to one form of literary work. You're so confoundedly versatile. Let's suppose you did sign your work with a nom de plume."
"Say, George Chandos."
"All right. George Chandos. Well, how long would it be, do you think, before paragraphs appeared, announcing to the public, not only of England but of the Channel Islands, that George Chandos was really Jimmy Cloyster?"
"What rot!" I said. "Why the deuce should they want to write paragraphs about me? I'm not a celebrity. You're talking through your hat, Julian."
Julian lit his pipe.
"Not at all," he said. "Count the number of people who must necessarily be in the secret from the beginning. There are your publishers, Prodder and Way. Then there are the editors of the magazine which publishes your Society dialogue bilge, and of all the newspapers, other than the Orb, in which your serious verse appears. My dear Jimmy, the news that you and George Chandos were the same man would go up and down Fleet Street and into the Barrel like wildfire. And after that the paragraphs."
I saw the truth of his reasoning before he had finished speaking. Once more my spirits fell to the point where they had been before I hit upon what I thought was such a bright scheme.
Julian's pipe had gone out while he was talking. He lit it again, and spoke through the smoke:
"The weak point of your idea, of course, is that you and George Chandos are a single individual."
"But why should the editors know that? Why shouldn't I simply send in my stuff, typed, by post, and never appear myself at all?"
"My dear Jimmy, you know as well as I do that that wouldn't work. It would do all right for a bit. Then one morning: 'Dear Mr. Chandos,—I should be glad if you could make it convenient to call here some time between Tuesday and Thursday.—Yours faithfully. Editor of Something-or-other.' Sooner or later a man who writes at all regularly for the papers is bound to meet the editors of them. A successful author can't conduct all his business through the post. Of course, if you chucked London and went to live in the country——"
"I couldn't," I said. "I simply couldn't do it. London's got into my bones."
"It does," said Julian.
"I like the country, but I couldn't live there. Besides, I don't believe I could write there—not for long. All my ideas would go."
"Just so," he said. "Then exit George Chandos."
"My scheme is worthless, you think, then?"
"As you state it, yes."
"You mean——?" I prompted quickly, clutching at something in his tone which seemed to suggest that he did not consider the matter entirely hopeless.
"I mean this. The weak spot in your idea, as I told you, is that you and George Chandos have the same body. Now, if you could manage to provide George with separate flesh and blood of his own, there's no reason——"
"By Jove! you've hit it. Go on."
"Listen. Here is my rough draft of what I think might be a sound, working system. How many divisions does your work fall into, not counting the Orb?"
"Well, of course, I do a certain amount of odd work, but lately I've rather narrowed it down, and concentrated my output. It seemed to me a better plan than sowing stuff indiscriminately through all the papers in London."
"Well, how many stunts have you got? There's your serious verse—one. And your Society stuff—two. Any more?"
"Novels and short stories."
"Class them together—three. Any more?
"No; that's all."
"Very well, then. What you must do is to look about you, and pick carefully three men on whom you can rely. Divide your signed stuff between these three men. They will receive your copy, sign it with their own names, and see that it gets to wherever you want to send it. As far as the editorial world is concerned, and as far as the public is concerned, they will become actually the authors of the manuscripts which you have prepared for them to sign. They will forward you the cheques when they arrive, and keep accounts to which you will have access. I suppose you will have to pay them a commission on a scale to be fixed by mutual arrangement. As regards your unsigned work, there is nothing to prevent your doing that yourself—'On Your Way,' I mean, whenever there's any holiday work going: general articles, and light verse. I say, though, half a moment."
"I've thought of a difficulty. The editors who have been taking your stuff hitherto may have a respect for the name of James Orlebar Cloyster which they may not extend to the name of John Smith or George Chandos, or whoever it is. I mean, it's quite likely the withdrawal of the name will lead to the rejection of the manuscript."
"Oh no; that's all right," I said. "It's the stuff they want, not the name. I don't say that names don't matter. They do. But only if they're big names. Kipling might get a story rejected if he sent it in under a false name, which they'd have taken otherwise just because he was Kipling. What they want from me is the goods. I can shove any label on them I like. The editor will read my ghosts' stuff, see it's what he wants, and put it in. He may say, 'It's rather like Cloyster's style,' but he'll certainly add, 'Anyhow, it's what I want.' You can scratch that difficulty, Julian. Any more?"
"I think not. Of course, there's the objection that you'll lose any celebrity you might have got. No one'll say, 'Oh, Mr. Cloyster, I enjoyed your last book so much!'"
"And no one'll say, 'Oh, do you write, Mr. Cloyster? How interesting! What have you written? You must send me a copy.'"
"That's true. In any case, it's celebrity against the respite, obscurity against Miss Goodwin. While the system is in operation you will be free but inglorious. You choose freedom? All right, then. Pass the matches."
THE FIRST GHOST (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
Such was the suggestion Julian made; and I praised its ingenuity, little thinking how bitterly I should come to curse it in the future.
I was immediately all anxiety to set the scheme working.
"Will you be one of my three middlemen, Julian?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"Thanks!" he said; "it's very good of you, but I daren't encroach further on my hours of leisure. Skeffington's Sloe Gin has already become an incubus."
I could not move him from this decision.
It is not everybody who, in a moment of emergency, can put his hand on three men of his acquaintance capable of carrying through a more or less delicate business for him. Certainly I found a difficulty in making my selection. I ran over the list of my friends in my mind. Then I was compelled to take pencil and paper, and settle down seriously to what I now saw would be a task of some difficulty. After half an hour I read through my list, and could not help smiling. I had indeed a mixed lot of acquaintances. First came Julian and Malim, the two pillars of my world. I scratched them out. Julian had been asked and had refused; and, as for Malim, I shrank from exposing my absurd compositions to his critical eye. A man who could deal so trenchantly over a pipe and a whisky-and-soda with Established Reputations would hardly take kindly to seeing my work in print under his name. I wished it had been possible to secure him, but I did not disguise it from myself that it was not.
The rest of the list was made up of members of the Barrel Club (impossible because of their inherent tendency to break out into personal paragraphs); writers like Fermin and Gresham, above me on the literary ladder, and consequently unapproachable in a matter of this kind; certain college friends, who had vanished into space, as men do on coming down from the 'Varsity, leaving no address; John Hatton, Sidney Price, and Tom Blake.
There were only three men in that list to whom I felt I could take my suggestion. Hatton was one, Price was another, and Blake was the third. Hatton should have my fiction, Price my Society stuff, Blake my serious verse.
That evening I went off to the Temple to sound Hatton on the subject of signing my third book. The wretched sale of my first two had acted as something of a check to my enthusiasm for novel-writing. I had paused to take stock of my position. My first two novels had, I found on re-reading them, too much of the 'Varsity tone in them to be popular. That is the mistake a man falls into through being at Cambridge or Oxford. He fancies unconsciously that the world is peopled with undergraduates. He forgets that what appeals to an undergraduate public may be Greek to the outside reader and, unfortunately, not compulsory Greek. The reviewers had dealt kindly with my two books ("this pleasant little squib," "full of quiet humour," "should amuse all who remember their undergraduate days"); but the great heart of the public had remained untouched, as had the great purse of the public. I had determined to adopt a different style. And now my third book was ready. It was called, When It Was Lurid, with the sub-title, A Tale of God and Allah. There was a piquant admixture of love, religion, and Eastern scenery which seemed to point to a record number of editions.
I took the type-script of this book with me to the Temple.
Hatton was in. I flung When It Was Lurid on the table, and sat down.
"What's this?" inquired Hatton, fingering the brown-paper parcel. "If it's the corpse of a murdered editor, I think it's only fair to let you know that I have a prejudice against having my rooms used as a cemetery. Go and throw him into the river."
"It's anything but a corpse. It's the most lively bit of writing ever done. There's enough fire in that book to singe your tablecloth."
"You aren't going to read it to me out loud?" he said anxiously.
"Have I got to read it when you're gone?"
"Not unless you wish to."
"Then why, if I may ask, do you carry about a parcel which, I should say, weighs anything between one and two tons, simply to use it as a temporary table ornament? Is it the Sandow System?"
"No," I said; "it's like this."
And suddenly it dawned on me that it was not going to be particularly easy to explain to Hatton just what it was that I wanted him to do.
I made the thing clear at last, suppressing, of course, my reasons for the move. When he had grasped my meaning, he looked at me rather curiously.
"Doesn't it strike you," he said, "that what you propose is slightly dishonourable?"
"You mean that I have come deliberately to insult you, Hatton?"
"Our conversation seems to be getting difficult, unless you grant that honour is not one immovable, intangible landmark, fixed for humanity, but that it is a commodity we all carry with us in varying forms."
"Personally, I believe that, as a help to identification, honour-impressions would be as useful as fingerprints."
"Good! You agree with me. Now, you may have a different view; but, in my opinion, if I were to pose as the writer of your books, and gained credit for a literary skill——"
"You won't get credit for literary skill out of the sort of books I want you to put your name to. They're potboilers. You needn't worry about Fame. You'll be a martyr, not a hero."
"You may be right. You wrote the book. But, in any case, I should be more of a charlatan than I care about."
"You won't do it?" I said. "I'm sorry. It would have been a great convenience to me."
"On the other hand," continued Hatton, ignoring my remark, "there are arguments in favour of such a scheme as you suggest."
"Stout fellow!" I said encouragingly.
"To examine the matter in its—er—financial—to suppose for a moment—briefly, what do I get out of it?"
"Ten per cent."
He looked thoughtful.
"The end shall justify the means," he said. "The money you pay me can do something to help the awful, the continual poverty of Lambeth. Yes, James Cloyster, I will sign whatever you send me."
"Good for you," I said.
"And I shall come better out of the transaction than you."
No one would credit the way that man—a clergyman, too—haggled over terms. He ended by squeezing fifteen per cent out of me.
THE SECOND GHOST (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
The reasons which had led me to select Sidney Price as the sponsor of my Society dialogues will be immediately apparent to those who have read them. They were just the sort of things you would expect an insurance clerk to write. The humour was thin, the satire as cheap as the papers in which they appeared, and the vulgarity in exactly the right quantity for a public that ate it by the pound and asked for more. Every thing pointed to Sidney Price as the man.
It was my intention to allow each of my three ghosts to imagine that he was alone in the business; so I did not get Price's address from Hatton, who might have wondered why I wanted it, and had suspicions. I applied to the doorkeeper at Carnation Hall; and on the following evening I rang the front-door bell of The Hollyhocks, Belmont Park Road, Brixton.
Whilst I was waiting on the step, I was able to get a view through the slats of the Venetian blind of the front ground-floor sitting-room. I could scarcely restrain a cry of pure aesthetic delight at what I saw within. Price was sitting on a horse-hair sofa with an arm round the waist of a rather good-looking girl. Her eyes were fixed on his. It was Edwin and Angelina in real life.
Up till then I had suffered much discomfort from the illustrated record of their adventures in the comic papers. "Is there really," I had often asked myself, "a body of men so gifted that they can construct the impossible details of the lives of nonexistent types purely from imagination? If such creative genius as theirs is unrecognized and ignored, what hope of recognition is there for one's own work?" The thought had frequently saddened me; but here at last they were—Edwin and Angelina in the flesh!
I took the gallant Sidney for a fifteen-minute stroll up and down the length of the Belmont Park Road. Poor Angelina! He came, as he expressed it, "like a bird." Give him a sec. to slip on a pair of boots, he said, and he would be with me in two ticks.
He was so busy getting his hat and stick from the stand in the passage that he quite forgot to tell the lady that he was going out, and, as we left, I saw her with the tail of my eye sitting stolidly on the sofa, still wearing patiently the expression of her comic-paper portraits.
The task of explaining was easier than it had been with Hatton.
"Sorry to drag you out, Price," I said, as we went down the steps.
"Don't mention it, Mr. Cloyster," he said. "Norah won't mind a bit of a sit by herself. Looked in to have a chat, or is there anything I can do?"
"It's like this," I said. "You know I write a good deal?"
"Well, it has occurred to me that, if I go on turning out quantities of stuff under my own name, there's a danger of the public getting tired of me."
"Now, I'm with you there, mind you," he said. "'Can't have too much of a good thing,' some chaps say. I say, 'Yes, you can.' Stands to reason a chap can't go on writing and writing without making a bloomer every now and then. What he wants is to take his time over it. Look at all the real swells—'Erbert Spencer, Marie Corelli, and what not—you don't find them pushing it out every day of the year. They wait a bit and have a look round, and then they start again when they're ready. Stands to reason that's the only way."
"Quite right," I said; "but the difficulty, if you live by writing, is that you must turn out a good deal, or you don't make enough to live on. I've got to go on getting stuff published, but I don't want people to be always seeing my name about."
"You mean, adopt a nom de ploom?"
"That's the sort of idea; but I'm going to vary it a little."
And I explained my plan.
"But why me?" he asked, when he had understood the scheme. "What made you think of me?"
"The fact is, my dear fellow," I said, "this writing is a game where personality counts to an enormous extent. The man who signs my Society dialogues will probably come into personal contact with the editors of the papers in which they appear. He will be asked to call at their offices. So you see I must have a man who looks as if he had written the stuff."
"I see," he said complacently. "Dressy sort of chap. Chap who looks as if he knew a thing or two."
"Yes. I couldn't get Alf Joblin, for instance."
We laughed together at the notion.
"Poor old Alf!" said Sidney Price.
"Now you probably know a good deal about Society?"
"Rather" said Sidney. "They're a hot lot. My word! Saw The Walls of Jericho three times. Gives it 'em pretty straight, that does. Visits of Elizabeth, too. Chase me! Used to think some of us chaps in the 'Moon' were a bit O.T., but we aren't in it—not in the same street. Chaps, I mean, who'd call a girl behind the bar by her Christian name as soon as look at you. One chap I knew used to give the girl at the cash-desk of the 'Mecca' he went to bottles of scent. Bottles of it—regular! 'Here you are, Tottie,' he used to say, 'here's another little donation from yours truly.' Kissed her once. Slap in front of everybody. Saw him do it. But, bless you, they'd think nothing of that in the Smart Set. Ever read 'God's Good Man'? There's a book! My stars! Lets you see what goes on. Scorchers they are."
"That's just what my dialogues point out. I can count on you, then?"
He said I could. He was an intelligent young man, and he gave me to understand that all would be well. He would carry the job through on the strict Q.T. He closely willingly with my offer of ten per cent, thus affording a striking contrast to the grasping Hatton. He assured me he had found literary chaps not half bad. Had occasionally had an idea of writing a bit himself.
We parted on good terms, and I was pleased to think that I was placing my "Dialogues of Mayfair" and my "London and Country House Tales" in really competent and appreciative hands.
THE THIRD GHOST (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
There only remained now my serious verse, of which I turned out an enormous quantity. It won a ready acceptance in many quarters, notably the St. Stephen's Gazette. Already I was beginning to oust from their positions on that excellent journal the old crusted poetesses who had supplied it from its foundation with verse. The prices they paid on the St. Stephen's were in excellent taste. In the musical world, too, I was making way rapidly. Lyrics of the tea-and-muffin type streamed from my pen. "Sleep whilst I Sing, Love," had brought me in an astonishing amount of money, in spite of the music-pirates. It was on the barrel-organs. Adults hummed it. Infants crooned it in their cots. Comic men at music-halls opened their turns by remarking soothingly to the conductor of the orchestra, "I'm going to sing now, so you go to sleep, love." In a word, while the boom lasted, it was a little gold-mine to me.
Thomas Blake was as obviously the man for me here as Sidney Price had been in the case of my Society dialogues. The public would find something infinitely piquant in the thought that its most sentimental ditties were given to it by the horny-handed steerer of a canal barge. He would be greeted as the modern Burns. People would ask him how he thought of his poems, and he would say, "Oo-er!" and they would hail him as delightfully original. In the case of Thomas Blake I saw my earnings going up with a bound. His personality would be a noble advertisement.
He was aboard the Ashlade or Lechton on the Cut, so I was informed by Kit. Which information was not luminous to me. Further inquiries, however, led me to the bridge at Brentford, whence starts that almost unknown system of inland navigation which extends to Manchester and Birmingham.
Here I accosted at a venture a ruminative bargee. "Tom Blake?" he repeated, reflectively. "Oh! 'e's been off this three hours on a trip to Braunston. He'll tie up tonight at the Shovel."
"Where's the Shovel?"
"Past Cowley, the Shovel is." This was spoken in a tired drawl which was evidently meant to preclude further chit-chat. To clinch things, he slouched away, waving me in an abstracted manner to the towpath.
I took the hint. It was now three o'clock in the afternoon. Judging by the pace of the barges I had seen, I should catch Blake easily before nightfall. I set out briskly. An hour's walking brought me to Hanwell, and I was glad to see a regular chain of locks which must have considerably delayed the Ashlade and Lechton.
The afternoon wore on. I went steadily forward, making inquiries as to Thomas's whereabouts from the boats which met me, and always hearing that he was still ahead.
Footsore and hungry, I overtook him at Cowley. The two boats were in the lock. Thomas and a lady, presumably his wife, were ashore. On the Ashlade's raised cabin cover was a baby. Two patriarchal-looking boys were respectively at the Ashlade's and Lechton's tillers. The lady was attending to the horse.
The water in the lock rose gradually to a higher level.
"Hold them tillers straight!" yelled Thomas. At which point I saluted him. He was a little blank at first, but when I reminded him of our last meeting his face lit up at once. "Why, you're the mister wot——"
"Nuppie!" came in a shrill scream from the lady with the horse. "Nuppie!"
"Yes, Ada!" answered the boy on the Ashlade.
"Liz ain't tied to the can. D'you want 'er to be drownded? Didn't I tell you to be sure and tie her up tight?"
"So I did, Ada. She's untied herself again. Yes, she 'as. 'Asn't she, Albert?"
This appeal for corroboration was directed to the other small boy on the Lechton. It failed signally.
"No, you did not tie Liz to the chimney. You know you never, Nuppie."
"Wait till we get out of this lock!" said Nuppie, earnestly.
The water pouring in from the northern sluice was forcing the tillers violently against the southern sluice gates.
"If them boys," said Tom Blake in an overwrought voice, "lets them tillers go round, it's all up with my pair o' boats. Lemme do it, you——" The rest of the sentence was mercifully lost in the thump with which Thomas's feet bounded on the Ashlade's cabin-top. He made Liz fast to the circular foot of iron chimney projecting from the boards; then, jumping back to the land, he said, more in sorrow than in anger: "Lazy little brats! an' they've 'ad their tea, too."
Clear of the locks, I walked with Thomas and his ancient horse, trying to explain what I wanted done. But it was not until we had tied up for the night, had had beer at the Shovel, and (Nuppie and Albert being safely asleep in the second cabin) had met at supper that my instructions had been fully grasped. Thomas himself was inclined to be diffident, and had it not been for Ada would, I think, have let my offer slide. She was enthusiastic. It was she who told me of the cottage they had at Fenny Stratford, which they used as headquarters whilst waiting for a cargo.
"That can be used as a permanent address," I said. "All you have to do is to write your name at the end of each typewritten sheet, enclose it in the stamped envelope which I will send you, and send it by post. When the cheques come, sign them on the back and forward them to me. For every ten pounds you forward me, I'll give you one for yourself. In any difficulty, simply write to me—here's my own address—and I'll see you through it."
"We can't go to prison for it, can we, mister?" asked Ada suddenly, after a pause.
"No," I said; "there's nothing dishonest in what I propose."
"Oh, she didn't so much mean that," said Thomas, thoughtfully.
They gave me a shakedown for the night in the cargo.
Just before turning in, I said casually, "If anyone except me cashed the cheques by mistake, he'd go to prison quick."
"Yes, mister," came back Thomas's voice, again a shade thoughtfully modulated.
EVA EVERSLEIGH (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
With my system thus in full swing I experienced the intoxication of assured freedom. To say I was elated does not describe it. I walked on air. This was my state of mind when I determined to pay a visit to the Gunton-Cresswells. I had known them in my college days, but since I had been engaged in literature I had sedulously avoided them because I remembered that Margaret had once told me they were her friends.
But now there was no need for me to fear them on that account, and thinking that the solid comfort of their house in Kensington would be far from disagreeable, thither, one afternoon in spring, I made my way. It is wonderful how friendly Convention is to Art when Art does not appear to want to borrow money.
No. 5, Kensington Lane, W., is the stronghold of British respectability. It is more respectable than the most respectable suburb. Its attitude to Mayfair is that of a mother to a daughter who has gone on the stage and made a success. Kensington Lane is almost tolerant of Mayfair. But not quite. It admits the success, but shakes its head.
Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell took an early opportunity of drawing me aside, and began gently to pump me. After I had responded with sufficient docility to her leads, she reiterated her delight at seeing me again. I had concluded my replies with the words, "I am a struggling journalist, Mrs. Cresswell." I accompanied the phrase with a half-smile which she took to mean—as I intended she should—that I was amusing myself by dabbling in literature, backed by a small, but adequate, private income.
"Oh, come, James," she said, smiling approvingly, "you know you will make a quite too dreadfully clever success. How dare you try to deceive me like that? A struggling journalist, indeed."
But I knew she liked that "struggling journalist" immensely. She would couple me and my own epithet together before her friends. She would enjoy unconsciously an imperceptible, but exquisite, sensation of patronage by having me at her house. Even if she discussed me with Margaret I was safe. For Margaret would give an altogether different interpretation of the smile with which I described myself as struggling. My smile would be mentally catalogued by her as "brave"; for it must not be forgotten that as suddenly as my name had achieved a little publicity, just so suddenly had it utterly disappeared.
* * * * *
Towards the end of May, it happened that Julian dropped into my rooms about three o'clock, and found me gazing critically at a top-hat.
"I've seen you," he remarked, "rather often in that get-up lately."
"It is, perhaps, losing its first gloss," I answered, inspecting my hat closely. I cared not a bit for Julian's sneers; for the smell of the flesh-pots of Kensington had laid hold of my soul, and I was resolved to make the most of the respite which my system gave me.
"What salon is to have the honour today?" he asked, spreading himself on my sofa.
"I'm going to the Gunton-Cresswells," I replied.
Julian slowly sat up.
"Ah?" he said conversationally.
"I've been asked to meet their niece, a Miss Eversleigh, whom they've invited to stop with them. Funny, by the way, that her name should be the same as yours."