Will Warburton by George Gissing
Just a year since the day when Allchin's band played at the first floor windows above Jollyman's new grocery stores.
From the very beginning, business promised well. He and his assistant had plenty of work; there was little time for meditation; when not serving customers, he was busy with practical details of grocerdom, often such as he had not foreseen, matters which called for all his energy and ingenuity. A gratifying aspect of the life was that, day by day, he handled his returns in solid cash. Jollyman's gave no credit; all goods had to be paid for on purchase or delivery; and to turn out the till when the shop had closed--to make piles of silver and mountains of copper, with a few pieces of gold beside them--put a cheering end to the day's labour. Warburton found himself clinking handfuls of coin, pleased with the sound. Only at the end of the first three months, the close of the year, did he perceive that much less than he had hoped of the cash taken could be reckoned as clear profit. He had much to learn in the cunning of retail trade, and it was a kind of study that went sorely against the grain with him. Happily, at Christmas time came Norbert Franks (whom Will had decided not to take into his confidence) and paid his debt of a hundred and twenty pounds. This set things right for the moment. Will was able to pay a three-and-a-half per cent. dividend to his mother and sister, and to fare ahead hopefully.
He would rather not have gone down to The Haws that Christmastide, but feared that his failure to do so might seem strange. The needful prevarication cost him so many pangs that he came very near to confessing the truth; he probably would have done so, had not his mother been ailing, and, it seemed to him, little able to bear the shock of such a disclosure. So the honest deception went on. Will was supposed to be managing a London branch of the Applegarth business. Great expenditure on advertising had to account for the smallness of the dividend at first. No one less likely than the ladies at The Haws to make trouble in such a matter. They had what sufficed to them, and were content with it. Thinking over this in shame-faced solitude, Warburton felt a glow of proud thankfulness that his mother and sister were so unlike the vulgar average of mankind--that rapacious multitude, whom nothing animates but a chance of gain, with whom nothing weighs but a commercial argument. A new tenderness stirred within him, and resolutely he stamped under foot the impulses of self-esteem, of self-indulgence, which made his life hard to bear.
It was with a hard satisfaction that he returned to the shop, and found all going on in the usual way, Allchin grinning a hearty welcome as he weighed out sugar. Will's sister talked of the scents of her garden, how they refreshed and inspirited her to him, the odour of the shop--new-roasted coffee predominated to-day--had its invigorating effect; it meant money, and money meant life, the peaceful, fruitful life of those dear to him. He scarcely gave himself time to eat dinner, laid for him, as usual, by Mrs. Allchin, in the sitting-room behind the shop; so eager was he to get on his apron, and return to profitable labour.
At first, he had endured a good deal of physical fatigue. Standing for so many hours a day wearied him much more than walking would have done, and with bodily exhaustion came at times a lowness of spirits such as he had never felt. His resource against this misery was conversation with Allchin. In Allchin he had a henchman whose sturdy optimism and gross common sense were of the utmost value. The brawny assistant, having speedily found a lodger according to the agreement, saw himself in clover, and determined that, if he could help it, his fortunes should never again suffer eclipse. He and his wife felt a reasonable gratitude to the founder of their prosperity --whom, by the bye, they invariably spoke of as "Mr. Jollyman"-- and did their best to smooth for him the unfamiliar path he was treading.
The success with which Warburton kept his secret, merely proved how solitary most men are amid the crowds of London, and how easy it is for a Londoner to disappear from among his acquaintances whilst continuing to live openly amid the city's roar. No one of those who cared enough about him to learn that he had fallen on ill-luck harboured the slightest suspicion of what he was doing; he simply dropped out of sight, except for the two or three who, in a real sense of the word, could be called his friends. The Pomfrets, whom he went to see at very long intervals, supposed him to have some sort of office employment, and saw nothing in his demeanour to make them anxious about him. As for Norbert Franks, why, he was very busy, and came not oftener than once a month to his friend's obscure lodgings; he asked no intrusive questions, and, like the Pomfrets, could only suppose that Warburton had found a clerkship somewhere. They were not quite on the old terms, for each had gone through a crisis of life, and was not altogether the same as before; but their mutual liking subsisted. Obliged to retrench his hospitality, Warburton never seemed altogether at his ease when Franks was in his room; nor could he overcome what seemed to him the shame of having asked payment of a debt from a needy friend, notwithstanding the fact, loudly declared by Franks himself, that nothing could have been more beneficial to the debtor's moral health. So Will listened rather than talked, and was sometimes too obviously in no mood for any sort of converse.
Sherwood he had not seen since the disastrous optimist's flight into Wales; nor had there come any remittance from him since the cheque for a hundred pounds. Two or three times, however, Godfrey had written--thoroughly characteristic letters--warm, sanguine, self-reproachful. From Wales he had crossed over to Ireland, where he was working at a scheme for making a fortune out of Irish eggs and poultry. In what the "work" consisted, was not clear, for he had no money, beyond a small loan from his relative which enabled him to live; but he sent a sheet of foolscap covered with computations whereby his project was proved to be thoroughly practical and vastly lucrative.
Meanwhile, he had made one new acquaintance, which was at first merely a source of amusement to him, but little by little became something more. In the winter days, when his business was new, there one day came into the shop a rather sour-lipped and querulous-voiced lady, who after much discussion of prices, made a modest purchase and asked that the goods might be sent for her. On hearing her name --Mrs. Cross--the grocer smiled, for he remembered that the Crosses of whom he knew from Norbert Franks, lived at Walham Green, and the artist's description of Mrs. Cross tallied very well with the aspect and manner of this customer. Once or twice the lady returned; then, on a day of very bad weather, there came in her place a much younger and decidedly more pleasing person, whom Will took to be Mrs. Cross's daughter. Facial resemblance there was none discoverable; in bearing, in look, in tone, the two were different as women could be; but at the younger lady's second visit, his surmise was confirmed, for she begged him to change a five-pound note, and, as the custom is in London shops, endorsed it with her name--"Bertha Cross." Franks had never spoken much of Miss Cross; "rather a nice sort of girl," was as far as his appreciation went. And with this judgment Will at once agreed; before long, he would have inclined to be more express in his good opinion. Before summer came, he found himself looking forward to the girl's appearance in the shop, with a sense of disappointment when--as generally happened--Mrs. Cross came in person. The charm of the young face lay for him in its ever-present suggestion of a roguishly winsome smile, which made it difficult not to watch too intently the play of her eyes and lips. Then, her way of speaking, which was altogether her own. It infused with a humorous possibility the driest, most matter-of-fact remarks, and Will had to guard himself against the temptation to reply in a corresponding note.
"I suppose you see no more of those people--what's their name-- the Crosses?" he let fall, as if casually, one evening when Franks had come to see him."
"Lost sight of them altogether," was the reply. "Why do you ask?"
"I happened to think of them," said Will; and turned to another subject.