Chapter X. The Storming of the Fort
 

Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman squeezed together at their partly-open door, were following the course of events with a delighted eagerness which threatened to break all bounds of discretion. Their grinning faces signalled to Mrs. Bubb as she went by, and she, no less animated, waved a hand to them as if promising richer entertainment. The next minute she was heard parleying with Miss Sparkes. Polly received her, as was to be expected, with acrimonious defiance.

"Oh, it's you, is it, Mrs. Bubb! Go and clean up your dirty kitchen. It'll take you all your time."

There needed but this to fire the landlady to extremities. Her answer rang through the house. Dirty kitchen, indeed! And how many meals had Miss Sparkes eaten there at cost price--aye, often for nothing at all! And who was it as made most dirt, coming in at all hours of the day and night from running about the streets?

"Very well, my lady! Are you going to turn that key or not? That's all I want to know."

"I'll have pity on your ignorance," replied Polly, "and tell you more than that. I'm going to bed, and going to try to get to sleep if there's any chance of it in a 'ouse like this, which might be a 'sylum for inebriates."

Mrs. Bubb laughed, the strangest laugh ever heard from her respectable lips. Words were needless, and in a few seconds she panted before her friends downstairs.

"She says she's a-goin' to bed. Of all the shimeless creatures! Called me every nime she could turn her tongue to! And wouldn't open her door not if the 'ouse was burning. Do you hear her?"

Mr. Gammon buttoned his coat from top to bottom, smoothed his moustache and his side-whiskers, and had the air of a man who is in readiness for stern duty.

"I want both of you to come up with me," he said quietly.

Mrs. Clover began to look alarmed, even embarrassed.

"But perhaps she's really gone to bed."

"All right, she shall have time," he nodded, laughing. "I want both of you to come up to see fair play."

"But, Mr. Gammon, I shouldn't like--"

"Mrs. Clover, you've come here to see Polly, and you've a right to see Polly, and by jorrocks you shall see Polly! Follow me upstairs. I've said all that need be said; now to business."

They ascended; Gammon three steps at a stride, the others in a hurry and a flutter. Light streamed from the Cheesemans' room; the first-floor lodgers; incapable any longer of self-restraint, were out on the landing. On the next floor it was dark, but Mr. Gammon saw a gleam along the bottom of Polly's door. He knocked--the knock of a policeman armed with a warrant.

"Miss Sparkes!"

"Oh, it's you this time, is it? Come just to say good night? You needn't have put yourself out."

"Miss Sparkes, are you in your proper dress?"

"What d'you mean?" Polly answered resentfully. "You've been drinking again, I suppose."

"Not at all, my dear. I asked you for a good and sufficient reason. I'm going to break your door open, that's all, and I wish to give you fair warning. Are you dressed or not?"

"Impudent wretch! What are you doing here? What business is it of yours?"

"I'm the only strong man handy, that's all. Paid for the job, being out of work just now."

Mrs. Bubb tittered; Mrs. Cheeseman, down below, choked audibly.

"Will you answer that question or not? Very good; I give you till I've counted fifty, slow. When I say fifty, bang goes the bloomin' door."

Amid an awful silence, enveloped, as it were, by the dull rumbling of vehicles without, Mr. Gammon's voice began counting. He expected to hear Polly's key turn in the lock, so did Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover. But the key moved not.

"Forty-eight--forty-nine--fifty!"

Gammon drew back to give himself impetus, and rushed against the door. With raised foot he struck it just by the handle, and the house seemed to quiver. A second assault was successful; with crash and splintering the lock yielded, the door flew open. At the far side of the room stood Polly, but in no attitude of surrender; she held a clothes brush, and as soon as the assailant showed himself flung it violently at his head. Another missile would have followed, but Gammon was too quick; with a red Indian yell of victory he crossed the floor at one bound and had Polly in his arms.

"Look out, ladies!" he shouted. "See fair play!"

Mrs. Bubb vented her emotions in "Oh my!" and "Did you ever!" with little screams of excitement verging on sheer laughter. It avenged her delightfully to see Miss Sparkes gripped by the waist and hoisted for removal. But Mrs. Clover was evidently possessed by very different feelings. Drawing back, as if in alarm or shame, a glow on each cheek, she uttered an involuntary cry of protest.

"No, Mr. Gammon, I can't have that!"

It was doubtful whether the champion heard, for he unmistakably had his work set. Tooth and nail Polly contested every inch of ground. One moment her little fists were pummelling Gammon in the face, the next she tugged at his hair. Then again she scratched and kicked simultaneously, her voice meanwhile screaming insult and menace, which must have been audible in the neighbours' houses.

"Stop!" entreated Mrs. Clover. "Put her down at once!" she commanded. "Do you hear me, Mr. Gammon?"

Whether he did or not, the bold bagman paid no heed. He had at length a firmer grip of Polly with one of her arms imprisoned. He neared the head of the stairs, the women falling back before him.

"Mind what you're up to," he was heard to shout good-humouredly as ever. "If you trip me we shall both break our blessed necks."

"How dare you!" shrieked the voice of the captive, now growing hoarse. "I'll give you in charge the minute I get downstairs! Ugly beast, I'll give you all in charge!"

The descent began. But that Polly was slightly made, a man of Gammon's physique would have found it impossible to carry her down the stairs; as it was he soon began puffing and groaning. In spite of the risk Polly still struggled--two stair-railings were wrenched away on the first flight. Then appeared Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman, red and perspiring with muffled laughter.

"You may laugh, you wretches!" Polly shrieked. "I'll give you all in charge, see if I don't. You've all took part in an assault--see what you'll get for it!"

After that she no longer resisted, except for an occasional kick on her bearer's shins. They reached the ground floor; they tottered into the parlour; close upon them followed Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover. Set upon her feet, Polly seemed for a moment about to rush to the window; a second thought led her to the mirror over the mantelpiece, where, fiercely eyeing the reflected group behind her, she made shift to smooth her hair and arrange her dress. Gammon had sunk upon a chair and was mopping his forehead. He had suffered far more than Polly in the encounter, and looked indeed, with wild hair, scratched face, burst collar, loose necktie, a startling object.

"Now, then!" the girl moved towards him, fists clenched, as if to renew hostilities. "What d'you mean by this? Just you tell me what you mean by it."

"As soon as I can get breath, my dear. I meant to bring you down to speak to your aunt, and I've done it--see?"

" I'm ashamed of you, Mr. Gammon," exclaimed Mrs. Clover severely. "I never thought you would go so far as this."

"Ashamed of him, are you?" shrieked the girl, turning furiously upon her relative. "Be ashamed of yourself! What do you call yourself, eh? A respectable woman? And you look on while your own niece is treated in this way. Why, a costermonger's wife wouldn't disgrace herself so. No wonder your 'usband run away from you!"

"Oh, this low, vulgar, horrid girl!" cried her aunt in a revulsion of feeling. "How she can be any relative of mine I'm sure I don't know."

"Ugh! you nasty, ungrateful young woman, you!" chimed in Mrs. Bubb. "To speak to your kind awnt like that, as has been taking your part when I'm sure I wouldn't 'a done! I'd like to see you put on bread and water. till you owned up whether you've told lies or not."

Mrs. Clover was moved to the point of shedding tears, though her handkerchief soon stopped the flow.

"Polly," she said, raising her voice above the hubbub, "you've treated me that bad there's no words for it. But I can't believe you'll let me go away like this, without knowing whether you've really seen Mr. Clover or not. Just tell me, do."

"Oh, it's just tell you, is it! After you've had me knocked about and insulted by a dirty rough like that Gammon--"

"You've heard me say I never thought he meant to behave so. I wouldn't have had it for anything."

Whilst Mrs. Clover was speaking Gammon beckoned to the landlady, and together they retreated from the room, closing the door behind them. On the stairs stood Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman eager for the latest news of the fray. At their invitation Mrs. Bubb and the hero of the evening stepped up, and for a quarter of an hour Mrs. Clover was left alone with her niece. Then the landlady's attention was called by a voice from below.

"I must be going, Mrs. Bubb; I'll say good night."

Quickly Mrs. Bubb descended; she saw at a glance that Polly's wrath had in no degree diminished, and that Mrs. Clover was no whit easier in mind; but both had become silent. Merely saying that she would see her hostess again before long, the lady of the china shop took a hurried leave and quitted the house.

She had walked but a few yards when Mr. Gammon's voice sounded at her shoulder.

"I'll see you part of the way home," he said genially.

"I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Gammon," was Mrs. Clover's reply, "but I can find my own way."

"You'll let me see you into a 'bus, at all events."

"Please don't trouble; I'd much rather you didn't."

"Why?" asked Gammon bluntly.

"Because I had. I'll say good night."

She stood still looking him in the face with cold displeasure; only for a moment though, as her eyes could not bear the honest look in his.

"Right you are," said Gammon with affected carelessness. "Just as you like. I won't force my company on anyone."

Mrs. Clover made the movement which in women of her breeding signifies a formal bow--hopelessly awkward, rigid, and self-conscious--and walked rapidly away. The man, not a little crestfallen, swung round on his heel.

"What's wrong now?" he asked himself. "It can t be about Minnie, for she was all right till after supper. And why it should make her angry because I lugged that cat Polly downstairs is more than I can understand. Well, I shan't die of it."

On re-entering the house he found all quiet. Polly had returned to her chamber, Mrs. Bubb was in the Cheesemans' room. He went down into the kitchen, where the gas was burning, and sat till the landlady came down.

"I don't see as you did much good," was Mrs. Bubb's first remark, in the tone which signifies reaction after excitement. "It weren't worth breaking a door in, it seems to me."

Gammon hung his head.

"Didn't Polly tell her anything?"

"She stuck out she knew where the 'usband was, and that's all."

"How do you know?"

"Polly said so as she went upstairs, and 'oped her awnt 'ud sleep well on it."

"H'm! I suppose that's why I couldn't get a word out of Mrs. Clover. Have the door mended, Mrs. Bubb, and charge me with it. Got anything to drink handy?"

"That I 'aven't, Mr. Gammon, except water."

Gammon looked at his watch.

"Why, it's only just half-past eleven. Hanged if I didn't think it was past midnight! I must go round and get a drop of something."

When he came back from quenching his thirst the house was in darkness. He strode the familiar ascent, and by Polly's door (barricaded inside with the chest of drawers) hummed a mirthful strain. As he jumped into bed the events of the evening all at once struck him in such a comical light that he uttered a great guffaw, and for the next ten minutes he lay under the bedclothes shaking with laughter.