A little man in a dark suit, with a pale face, thin lips, and deep-set, black-encircled eyes, who was obviously in charge, came up with an anaemic smile.
"You 're rather late," he said to Curly, and, looking ascetically at Shelton, asked, without waiting for an introduction: "Do you play chess? There 's young Smith wants a game."
A youth with a wooden face, already seated before a fly-blown chess-board, asked him drearily if he would have black or white. Shelton took white; he was oppressed by the virtuous odour of this room.
The little man with the deep blue eyes came up, stood in an uneasy attitude, and watched:
"Your play's improving, young Smith," he said; "I should think you'd be able to give Banks a knight." His eyes rested on Shelton, fanatical and dreary; his monotonous voice was suffering and nasal; he was continually sucking in his lips, as though determined to subdue 'the flesh. "You should come here often," he said to Shelton, as the latter received checkmate; "you 'd get some good practice. We've several very fair players. You're not as good as Jones or Bartholomew," he added to Shelton's opponent, as though he felt it a duty to put the latter in his place. "You ought to come here often," he repeated to Shelton; "we have a lot of very good young fellows"; and, with a touch of complacence, he glanced around the dismal room. "There are not so many here tonight as usual. Where are Toombs and Body?"
Shelton, too, looked anxiously around. He could not help feeling sympathy with Toombs and Body.
"They 're getting slack, I'm afraid," said the little deep-eyed man. "Our principle is to amuse everyone. Excuse me a minute; I see that Carpenter is doing nothing." He crossed over to the man who had been drinking coffee, but Shelton had barely time to glance at his opponent and try to think of a remark, before the little man was back. "Do you know anything about astronomy?" he asked of Shelton. "We have several very interested in astronomy; if you could talk to them a little it would help."
Shelton made a motion of alarm.
"Please-no," said he; "I—"
"I wish you'd come sometimes on Wednesdays; we have most interesting talks, and a service afterwards. We're always anxious to get new blood"; and his eyes searched Shelton's brown, rather tough-looking face, as though trying to see how much blood there was in it. "Young Curly says you 've just been around the world; you could describe your travels."
"May I ask," said Shelton, "how your club is made up?"
Again a look of complacency, and blessed assuagement, visited the little man.
"Oh," he said, "we take anybody, unless there 's anything against them. The Day Society sees to that. Of course, we shouldn't take anyone if they were to report against them. You ought to come to our committee meetings; they're on Mondays at seven. The women's side, too—"
"Thank you," said Shelton; "you 're very kind—"
"We should be pleased," said the little man; and his face seemed to suffer more than ever. "They 're mostly young fellows here to-night, but we have married men, too. Of course, we 're very careful about that," he added hastily, as though he might have injured Shelton's prejudices—"that, and drink, and anything criminal, you know."
"And do you give pecuniary assistance, too?"
"Oh yes," replied the little man; "if you were to come to our committee meetings you would see for yourself. Everything is most carefully gone into; we endeavour to sift the wheat from the chaff."
"I suppose," said Shelton, "you find a great deal of chaff?"
The little man smiled a suffering smile. The twang of his toneless voice sounded a trifle shriller.
"I was obliged to refuse a man to-day—a man and a woman, quite young people, with three small children. He was ill and out of work; but on inquiry we found that they were not man and wife."
There was a slight pause; the little man's eyes were fastened on his nails, and, with an appearance of enjoyment, he began to bite them. Shelton's face had grown a trifle red.
"And what becomes of the woman and the children in a case like that?" he said.
The little man's eyes began to smoulder.
"We make a point of not encouraging sin, of course. Excuse me a minute; I see they've finished bagatelle."
He hurried off, and in a moment the clack of bagatelle began again. He himself was playing with a cold and spurious energy, running after the balls and exhorting the other players, upon whom a wooden acquiescence seemed to fall.
Shelton crossed the room, and went up to young Curly. He was sitting on a bench, smiling to himself his private smiles.
"Are you staying here much longer?" Shelton asked.
Young Curly rose with nervous haste.
"I 'm afraid," he said, "there 's nobody very interesting here to-night."
"Oh, not at all!" said Shelton; "on the contrary. Only I 've had a rather tiring day, and somehow I don't feel up to the standard here."
His new acquaintance smiled.
"Oh, really! do you think—that is—"
But he had not time to finish before the clack of bagatelle balls ceased, and the voice of the little deep-eyed man was heard saying: "Anybody who wants a book will put his name down. There will be the usual prayer-meeting on Wednesday next. Will you all go quietly? I am going to turn the lights out."
One gas-jet vanished, and the remaining jet flared suddenly. By its harder glare the wooden room looked harder too, and disenchanting. The figures of its occupants began filing through the door. The little man was left in the centre of the room, his deep eyes smouldering upon the backs of the retreating members, his thumb and finger raised to the turncock of the metre.
"Do you know this part?" asked young Curly as they emerged into the street. "It 's really jolly; one of the darkest bits in London—it is really. If you care, I can take you through an awfully dangerous place where the police never go." He seemed so anxious for the honour that Shelton was loath to disappoint him. "I come here pretty often," he went on, as they ascended a sort of alley rambling darkly between a wall and row of houses.
"Why?" asked Shelton; "it does n't smell too nice."
The young man threw up his nose and sniffed, as if eager to add any new scent that might be about to his knowledge of life.
"No, that's one of the reasons, you know," he said; "one must find out. The darkness is jolly, too; anything might happen here. Last week there was a murder; there 's always the chance of one."
Shelton stared; but the charge of morbidness would not lie against this fresh-cheeked stripling.
"There's a splendid drain just here," his guide resumed; "the people are dying like flies of typhoid in those three houses"; and under the first light he turned his grave, cherubic face to indicate the houses. "If we were in the East End, I could show you other places quite as good. There's a coffee-stall keeper in one that knows all the thieves in London; he 's a splendid type, but," he added, looking a little anxiously at Shelton, "it might n't be safe for you. With me it's different; they 're beginning to know me. I've nothing to take, you see."
"I'm afraid it can't be to-night," said Shelton; "I must get back."
"Do you mind if I walk with you? It's so jolly now the stars are out."
"Delighted," said Shelton; "do you often go to that club?"
His companion raised his hat, and ran his fingers through his hair.
"They 're rather too high-class for me," he said. "I like to go where you can see people eat—school treats, or somewhere in the country. It does one good to see them eat. They don't get enough, you see, as a rule, to make bone; it's all used up for brain and muscle. There are some places in the winter where they give them bread and cocoa; I like to go to those."
"I went once," said Shelton, "but I felt ashamed for putting my nose in."
"Oh, they don't mind; most of them are half-dead with cold, you know. You see splendid types; lots of dipsomaniacs . . . . It 's useful to me," he went on as they passed a police-station, "to walk about at night; one can take so much more notice. I had a jolly night last week in Hyde Park; a chance to study human nature there."
"And do you find it interesting?" asked Shelton.
His companion smiled.
"Awfully," he replied; "I saw a fellow pick three pockets."
"What did you do?"
"I had a jolly talk with him."
Shelton thought of the little deep-eyed man; who made a point of not encouraging sin.
"He was one of the professionals from Notting Hill, you know; told me his life. Never had a chance, of course. The most interesting part was telling him I 'd seen him pick three pockets—like creeping into a cave, when you can't tell what 's inside."
"He showed me what he 'd got—only fivepence halfpenny."
"And what became of your friend?" asked Shelton.
"Oh, went off; he had a splendidly low forehead."
They had reached Shelton's rooms.
"Will you come in," said the latter, "and have a drink?"
The youth smiled, blushed, and shook his head.
"No, thank you," he said; "I have to walk to Whitechapel. I 'm living on porridge now; splendid stuff for making bone. I generally live on porridge for a week at the end of every month. It 's the best diet if you're hard up"; once more blushing and smiling, he was gone.
Shelton went upstairs and sat down on his bed. He felt a little miserable. Sitting there, slowly pulling out the ends of his white tie, disconsolate, he had a vision of Antonia with her gaze fixed wonderingly on him. And this wonder of hers came as a revelation—just as that morning, when, looking from his window, he had seen a passer-by stop suddenly and scratch his leg; and it had come upon him in a flash that that man had thoughts and feelings of his own. He would never know what Antonia really felt and thought. "Till I saw her at the station, I did n't know how much I loved her or how little I knew her"; and, sighing deeply, he hurried into bed.
POLE TO POLE
The waiting in London for July to come was daily more unbearable to Shelton, and if it had not been for Ferrand, who still came to breakfast, he would have deserted the Metropolis. On June first the latter presented himself rather later than was his custom, and announced that, through a friend, he had heard of a position as interpreter to an hotel at Folkestone.
"If I had money to face the first necessities," he said, swiftly turning over a collection of smeared papers with his yellow fingers, as if searching for his own identity, "I 'd leave today. This London blackens my spirit."
"Are you certain to get this place," asked Shelton.
"I think so," the young foreigner replied; "I 've got some good enough recommendations."
Shelton could not help a dubious glance at the papers in his hand. A hurt look passed on to Ferrand's curly lips beneath his nascent red moustache.
"You mean that to have false papers is as bad as theft. No, no; I shall never be a thief—I 've had too many opportunities," said he, with pride and bitterness. "That's not in my character. I never do harm to anyone. This"—he touched the papers—"is not delicate, but it does harm to no one. If you have no money you must have papers; they stand between you and starvation. Society, has an excellent eye for the helpless—it never treads on people unless they 're really down." He looked at Shelton.
"You 've made me what I am, amongst you," he seemed to say; "now put up with me!"
"But there are always the workhouses," Shelton remarked at last.
"Workhouses!" returned Ferrand; "certainly there are—regular palaces: I will tell you one thing: I've never been in places so discouraging as your workhouses; they take one's very heart out."
"I always understood," said Shelton coldly; "that our system was better than that of other countries."
Ferrand leaned over in his chair, an elbow on his knee, his favourite attitude when particularly certain of his point.
"Well," he replied, "it 's always permissible to think well of your own country. But, frankly, I've come out of those places here with little strength and no heart at all, and I can tell you why." His lips lost their bitterness, and he became an artist expressing the result of his experience. "You spend your money freely, you have fine buildings, self-respecting officers, but you lack the spirit of hospitality. The reason is plain; you have a horror of the needy. You invite us—and when we come you treat us justly enough, but as if we were numbers, criminals, beneath contempt—as if we had inflicted a personal injury on you; and when we get out again, we are naturally degraded."
Shelton bit his lips.
"How much money will you want for your ticket, and to make a start?" he asked.
The nervous gesture escaping Ferrand at this juncture betrayed how far the most independent thinkers are dependent when they have no money in their pockets. He took the note that Shelton proffered him.
"A thousand thanks," said he; "I shall never forget what you have done for me"; and Shelton could not help feeling that there was true emotion behind his titter of farewell.
He stood at the window watching Ferrand start into the world again; then looked back at his own comfortable room, with the number of things that had accumulated somehow—the photographs of countless friends, the old arm-chairs, the stock of coloured pipes. Into him restlessness had passed with the farewell clasp of the foreigner's damp hand. To wait about in London was unbearable.
He took his hat, and, heedless of direction, walked towards the river. It was a clear, bright day, with a bleak wind driving showers before it. During one of such Shelton found himself in Little Blank Street. "I wonder how that little Frenchman that I saw is getting on!" he thought. On a fine day he would probably have passed by on the other side; he now entered and tapped upon the wicket.
No. 3 Little Blank Street had abated nothing of its stone-flagged dreariness; the same blowsy woman answered his inquiry. Yes, Carolan was always in; you could never catch him out—seemed afraid to go into the street! To her call the little Frenchman made his appearance as punctually as if he had been the rabbit of a conjurer. His face was as yellow as a guinea.
"Ah! it's you, monsieur!" he said.
"Yes," said Shelton; "and how are you?"
"It 's five days since I came out of hospital," muttered the little Frenchman, tapping on his chest; "a crisis of this bad atmosphere. I live here, shut up in a box; it does me harm, being from the South. If there's anything I can do for you, monsieur, it will give me pleasure."
"Nothing," replied Shelton, "I was just passing, and thought I should like to hear how you were getting on."
"Come into the kitchen,—monsieur, there is nobody in there. 'Brr! Il fait un froid etonnant'!"
"What sort of customers have you just now?" asked Shelton, as they passed into the kitchen.
"Always the same clientele," replied the little man; "not so numerous, of course, it being summer."
"Could n't you find anything better than this to do?"
The barber's crow's-feet radiated irony.
"When I first came to London," said he, "I secured an engagement at one of your public institutions. I thought my fortune made. Imagine, monsieur, in that sacred place I was obliged to shave at the rate of ten a penny! Here, it's true, they don't pay me half the time; but when I'm paid, I 'm paid. In this, climate, and being 'poitrinaire', one doesn't make experiments. I shall finish my days here. Have you seen that young man who interested you? There 's another! He has spirit, as I had once—'il fait de la philosophie', as I do—and you will see, monsieur, it will finish him. In this world what you want is to have no spirit. Spirit ruins you."
Shelton looked sideways at the little man with his sardonic, yellow, half-dead face, and the incongruity of the word "spirit" in his mouth struck him so sharply that he smiled a smile with more pity in it than any burst of tears.
"Shall we 'sit down?" he said, offering a cigarette.
"Merci, monsieur, it is always a pleasure to smoke a good cigarette. You remember, that old actor who gave you a Jeremiad? Well, he's dead. I was the only one at his bedside; 'un vrai drole'. He was another who had spirit. And you will see, monsieur, that young man in whom you take an interest, he'll die in a hospital, or in some hole or other, or even on the highroad; having closed his eyes once too often some cold night; and all because he has something in him which will not accept things as they are, believing always that they should be better. 'Il n'y a riens de plus tragique'!"
"According to you, then," said Shelton—and the conversation seemed to him of a sudden to have taken too personal a turn—"rebellion of any sort is fatal."
"Ah!" replied the little man, with the eagerness of one whose ideal it is to sit under the awning of a cafe, and talk life upside down, "you pose me a great problem there! If one makes rebellion; it is always probable that one will do no good to any one and harm one's self. The law of the majority arranges that. But I would draw your attention to this"—and he paused; as if it were a real discovery to blow smoke through his nose—"if you rebel it is in all likelihood because you are forced by your nature to rebel; this is one of the most certain things in life. In any case, it is necessary to avoid falling between two stools—which is unpardonable," he ended with complacence.
Shelton thought he had never seen a man who looked more completely as if he had fallen between two stools, and he had inspiration enough to feel that the little barber's intellectual rebellion and the action logically required by it had no more than a bowing acquaintanceship.
"By nature," went on the little man, "I am an optimist; it is in consequence of this that I now make pessimism. I have always had ideals; seeing myself cut off from them for ever, I must complain; to complain, monsieur, is very sweet!"
Shelton wondered what these ideals had been, but had no answer ready; so he nodded, and again held out his cigarettes, for, like a true Southerner, the little man had thrown the first away, half smoked.
"The greatest pleasure in life," continued the Frenchman, with a bow, "is to talk a little to a being who is capable of understanding you. At present we have no one here, now that that old actor's dead. Ah! there was a man who was rebellion incarnate! He made rebellion as other men make money, 'c'etait son metier'; when he was no longer capable of active revolution, he made it getting drunk. At the last this was his only way of protesting against Society. An interesting personality, 'je le regrette beaucoup'. But, as you see, he died in great distress, without a soul to wave him farewell, because as you can well understand, monsieur, I don't count myself. He died drunk. 'C'etait un homme'!"
Shelton had continued staring kindly at the little man; the barber added hastily:
"It's difficult to make an end like that one has moments of weakness."
"Yes," assented Shelton, "one has indeed."
The little barber looked at him with cynical discretion.
"Oh!" he said, "it 's to the destitute that such things are important. When one has money, all these matters—"
He shrugged his shoulders. A smile had lodged amongst his crow's-feet; he waved his hand as though to end the subject.
A sense of having been exposed came over Shelton.
"You think, then," said he, "that discontent is peculiar to the destitute?"
"Monsieur," replied the little barber, "a plutocrat knows too well that if he mixes in that 'galere' there 's not a dog in the streets more lost than he."
"The rain is over. I hope you 'll soon be better; perhaps you 'll accept this in memory of that old actor," and he slipped a sovereign into the little Frenchman's hand.
The latter bowed.
"Whenever you are passing, monsieur," he said eagerly, "I shall be charmed to see you."
And Shelton walked away. "'Not a dog in the streets more lost,'" thought he; "now what did he mean by that?"
Something of that "lost dog" feeling had gripped his spirit. Another month of waiting would kill all the savour of anticipation, might even kill his love. In the excitement of his senses and his nerves, caused by this strain of waiting, everything seemed too vivid; all was beyond life size; like Art—whose truths; too strong for daily use, are thus, unpopular with healthy people. As will the bones in a worn face, the spirit underlying things had reached the surface; the meanness and intolerable measure of hard facts, were too apparent. Some craving for help, some instinct, drove him into Kensington, for he found himself before his, mother's house. Providence seemed bent on flinging him from pole to pole.
Mrs. Shelton was in town; and, though it was the first of June, sat warming her feet before a fire; her face, with its pleasant colour, was crow's-footed like the little barber's, but from optimism, not rebellion. She, smiled when she saw her son; and the wrinkles round her eyes twinkled, with vitality.
"Well, my dear boy," she said, "it's lovely to see you. And how is that sweet girl?"
"Very well, thank you," replied Shelton.
"She must be such a dear!"
"Mother," stammered Shelton, "I must give it up."
"Give it up? My dear Dick, give what up? You look quite worried. Come and sit down, and have a cosy chat. Cheer up!" And Mrs. Shelton; with her head askew, gazed at her son quite irrepressibly.
"Mother," said Shelton, who, confronted by her optimism, had never, since his time of trial began, felt so wretchedly dejected, "I can't go on waiting about like this."
"My dear boy, what is the matter?";
"Everything is wrong!"
"Wrong?" cried Mrs. Shelton. "Come, tell me all, about it!"
But Shelton, shook his head.
"You surely have not had a quarrel——"
Mrs. Shelton stopped; the question seemed so vulgar—one might have asked it of a groom.
"No," said Shelton, and his answer sounded like a groan.
"You know, my dear old Dick," murmured his mother, "it seems a little mad."
"I know it seems mad."
"Come!" said Mrs. Shelton, taking his hand between her own; "you never used to be like this."
"No," said Shelton, with a laugh; "I never used to be like this."
Mrs. Shelton snuggled in her Chuda shawl.
"Oh," she said, with cheery sympathy, "I know exactly how you feel!"
Shelton, holding his head, stared at the fire, which played and bubbled like his mother's face.
"But you're so fond of each other," she began again. "Such a sweet girl!"
Mrs. Shelton again seized his hand, and this time pressed it to her soft, warm cheek, that had lost the elasticity of youth.
"Oh!" she cried again; "I understand. I know exactly what you 're feeling." But Shelton saw from the fixed beam in her eyes that she had not an inkling. To do him justice, he was not so foolish as to try to give her one. Mrs. Shelton sighed. "It would be so lovely if you could wake up to-morrow and think differently. If I were you, my dear, I would have a good long walk, and then a Turkish bath; and then I would just write to her, and tell her all about it, and you'll see how beautifully it'll all come straight"; and in the enthusiasm of advice Mrs. Shelton rose, and, with a faint stretch of her tiny figure, still so young, clasped her hands together. "Now do, that 's a dear old Dick! You 'll just see how lovely it'll be!" Shelton smiled; he had not the heart to chase away this vision. "And give her my warmest love, and tell her I 'm longing for the wedding. Come, now, my dear boy, promise me that's what you 'll do."
And Shelton said: "I'll think about it."
Mrs. Shelton had taken up her stand with one foot on the fender, in spite of her sciatica.
"Cheer up!" she cried; her eyes beamed as if intoxicated by her sympathy.
Wonderful woman! The uncomplicated optimism that carried her through good and ill had not descended to her son.
From pole to pole he had been thrown that day, from the French barber, whose intellect accepted nothing without carping, and whose little fingers worked all day, to save himself from dying out, to his own mother, whose intellect accepted anything presented with sufficient glow, but who, until she died, would never stir a finger. When Shelton reached his rooms, he wrote to Antonia:
I can't wait about in London any longer; I am going down to Bideford to start a walking tour. I shall work my way to Oxford, and stay there till I may come to Holm Oaks. I shall send you my address; do write as usual.
He collected all the photographs he had of her—amateur groups, taken by Mrs. Dennant—and packed them in the pocket of his shooting-jacket. There was one where she was standing just below her little brother, who was perched upon a wall. In her half-closed eyes, round throat, and softly tilted chin, there was something cool and watchful, protecting the ragamuffin up above her head. This he kept apart to be looked at daily, as a man says his prayers.