The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XII. Polly Condescends
There was time enough for Polly to reply to this invitation, but reply she did not. None the less, Gammon was walking about near her lodgings at ten o'clock on Sunday morning. It seemed to him that he once or twice perceived a face at an upper window, but at a quarter past the hour Miss Sparkes had not come forth. He was on the point of going boldly to the door when a recognizable figure approached--that of Mr. Nibby. The men hailed each other.
"Waiting for somebody?" inquired the representative of the Gillingwater burner, a twinkle in his eye.
To avoid the risk of complications Gammon avowed that he was looking out for Miss Sparkes, with whom he wanted a word on private business.
"First rate!" exclaimed Mr. Nibby. "She's coming along with Miss Waghorn and me to my brother's at 'Endon--the "Blue Anchor"; do you know it? Nice little property. You'll have to join us; first rate. I'm only afraid it may rine. Do you think it will rine?"
"May or may not," replied Gammon, staring at the clouds and thinking over the situation as it concerned himself. "If it's going to rine, it will, you know."
"That's true. I'll just let 'em know I'm here."
But at this moment the two young ladies came forth, blushing and resplendent. Hats were doffed and hands were shaken.
"Why, is that you, Mr. Gammon?" cried Carrie Waghorn when the ceremony was over, as if only just aware of his presence. "Well, this is a surprise, isn't it, Polly?"
Miss Sparkes seemed barely to recognize Mr. Gammon, but of necessity she took a place by his side, and walked on with a rhythmic tossing of the head, which had a new adornment--a cluster of great blue flowers, unknown to the botanist, in the place of her everyday poppies.
"If you don't want me," remarked Gammon, glancing at her, "you've only to say so, and I'm off."
Polly looked up at the sky, and answered with a question.
"Do you think it's going to rine?"
"Well, you are polite."
"What's the rine got to do with politeness? I say, why didn't you answer my letter?"
"I pay no attention to impertinence," replied Miss Sparkes haughtily.
"Oh, that's it? Never mind; we shall get on better presently. I say, Polly, do you see you've left marks on my face?"
Polly set her lips and kept a severe silence.
"I don't mind 'em," Gammon continued. "Rather proud of 'em. If anybody asks me how I got the scratches--"
The girl looked sharply at him.
"Do you mean to say you'd tell? Well, if you call that gentlemanly--"
"Wouldn't tell the truth, Polly, not for as many kisses as there are scratches, my dear."
Polly bridled--young women of her class still bridle--but looked rather pleased. And Gammon chuckled to himself, thinking that all went well.
The rain came, but for all that they had a day of enjoyment, spent chiefly in an arbour, not quite rainproof, on the skittle-ground behind the "Blue Anchor" at Hendon. Continuous was the popping of corks, and frequent were the outbursts of hilarity. Polly did not abandon her reserve with Mr. Gammon; now and then she condescended to smile at his sallies of wit, whereas she screamed at a joke from others. The landlord of the "Blue Anchor" was a widower of about thirty, and had some claims to be considered a lady's man; to him Polly directed her friendly looks and remarks with a freedom which could not but excite attention.
"Is that the fellow that's going to give me a thrashing?" Gammon asked of her at length in an aside.
"Don't be a silly," she answered, turning her back.
"Because, if so, I'd better get the start of him. There's a convenient bit of ground here."
He spoke with such seeming seriousness that Polly showed alarm.
"Don't be a silly, Mr. Gammon. If you misbehave yourself, I'll never speak to you again."
"Well, what I want to know is, am I to be on guard? Am I to mind my eye whenever I'm near you?"
He spoke as if with a real desire to be relieved from apprehension. At this moment their companions had drawn apart, and they could converse unheard.
"You know very well what you deserve," replied Polly, looking askance at him. "And if such a thing ever was to happen again--well, you'd see, that's all."
Therewith the peace, or at all events the truce, was concluded, and Miss Sparkes allowed herself to meet Mr. Gammon's advances with frankness and appreciation. The fact that he did unmistakably make advances secretly surprised her, but not more than Gammon was surprised to find himself coming into favour.
A few days later the opportunity for which he waited came to pass, and he was invited to an interview with Quodling and Son; that is to say, with a person who was neither Quodling nor Quodling's son, but held a position of authority at their place of business in Norton Folgate. Whenever the chance was given him of applying personally for any post that he desired, Mr. Gammon felt a reasonable assurance of success. Honesty was written broadly upon his visage; capability declared itself in his speech. He could win the liking and confidence of any ordinary man of business in ten minutes. It happened, fortunately, that the firm of Quodling needed just such a representative. As Gammon knew, they had been unlucky in their town traveller of late, and they looked just now more to the "address," the personal qualities, of an applicant for the position, than to his actual acquaintance with their business, which was greatly a matter of routine. Mr. Gammon was accepted on trial, and in a day or two began his urban travels.
Particular about the horses he drove, Gammon saw with pleasure the young dark-bay cob, stylishly harnessed, which pawed delicately as he mounted the neat little trap put at his disposal. It is the blessedness of a mind and temper such as his that the things which charm at the beginning of life continue to give pleasure, scarce abated, as long as the natural force remains. At forty years of age Gammon set off about his business with all the zest of a healthy boy. The knowledge he had gained, all practical, and, so to speak, for external application, could never become the burden of the philosopher; if he had any wisdom at all it consisted in the lack of self-consciousness, the animal acceptance of whatever good the hour might bring. He and his bay cob were very much on the same footing; granted but a method of communication and they would have understood each other. Even so with his "bow-wows," as he called them. He rose superior to horse and dog mainly in that one matter of desire for a certain kind of female companionship; and this strain of idealism, naturally enough, was the cause of almost the only discontent he ever knew.
Joyously he rattled about the highways and by-ways of greater London. The position he had now obtained was to become a "permanency"; to Quodling & Son he could attach himself, making his services indispensable. One of these days--not just yet--he would look in at Mrs. CIover's and see whether she still kept in the same resentful mind towards him. It was an odd thing that nowadays he gave more thought to Mrs. Clover than to Minnie. The young girl glimmered very far away, at a height above him; he had made a mistake and frankly recognized it. But Mrs. Clover, his excellent friend of many years, shone with no such superiority, and was not above rebuke for any injustice she might do him. Probably by this time she had forgotten her fretfulness, a result of overstrung nerves. She would ask his pardon--and ought to do so.
He thought of Polly Sparkes, but always with a peculiar smile, inclining to a grimace. Polly had "come round" in the most astonishing way. But she would "come round" yet more before he had done with her. His idea was to take Polly to Dulwich and show her the bow-wows; he saw possibilities of a quiet meal together at the inn. The difficulty was to reassure her natural tremors, without losing the ground he had gained by judicious approaches.
About the middle of July he prevailed upon her to accept his invitation, and to come alone, though Polly continued to declare that she hated dogs, and that she had never in her life gone to so remote and rural a spot as Dulwich without a "lady friend" to keep her in countenance.
"Everything must have a beginning," said Gammon merrily.
"If you let those people know, I'll never speak to you again."
She referred to Mrs. Bubb and her household, of whom she had never ceased to speak with animus.
"Honour bright, they shan't hear a whisper of it."
So on a Sunday morning they made the journey by omnibus for the sake of the fresh air, Polly remarking again and again on her great condescension, reaffirming her dislike of dogs, and declaring that if a drop of rain fell she would turn about homeward forthwith. None the less did she appear to find pleasure in Mr. Gammon's society. If his gossip included a casual mention of some young lady, a friend of his, she pressed for information concerning that person, and never seemed quite satisfied with what she was told about her. Slyly observant of this, her companion multiplied his sportive allusions, and was amused to find Polly grow waspish. Then again he soothed her with solid flattery; nothing of the kind was too gross for Polly's appetite. And so conversing they shortened the journey to remote Dulwich.
With gathered skirts and a fear, partly real but more affected, Miss Sparkes entered the yard where Gammon's dogs were kept. (As a matter of fact he shared in their ownership with the landlord of the public-house, a skilful breeder.) When puppies gambolled about her she woke the echoes with a scream. From a fine terrier, a "game" dog whose latest exploit was the killing of a hundred rats in six minutes, she backed trembling, and even put out a hand to Gammon as if for protection. Polly's behaviour, indeed, was such as would have been proper in a fine lady forty years ago, the fashion having descended to her class just as fashions in costume are wont to do at a shorter interval. When Gammon begged her to feel the "feather" of a beautiful collie she at length did so with great timidity, and a moment after, to show how doggy she was becoming, she spoke of the "feather" of a little black-and-tan, whereat Gammon smiled broadly. On the whole they much enjoyed themselves, and had a good appetite at dinner time.
The meal was laid for them in a small private room, which smelt principally of stale tobacco and stale chimney soot. The water-bottle on the table was encrusted with a white enamel advertisement of somebody's whisky, and had another such recommendation legible on its base. The tray used by the girl in attendance was enamelled with the name of somebody's brandy. On the walls hung three brightly-coloured calendars, each an advertisement: one of sewing machines, one of a popular insurance office, one of a local grocery business. The other mural adornments were old coloured pictures of racehorses and faded photographs of dogs. A clock on the mantelpiece (not going) showed across its face the name of a firm that dealt in aerated waters.
Coarse and plentiful were the viands, and Polly did justice to them. She had excellent teeth, a very uncommon thing in girls of her kind; but Polly's parents were of country origin. With these weapons she feared not even the pastry set before her, which it was just possible to break with an ordinary fork.
Towards the end Gammon grew silent and meditative. He kept gazing at the windows as if for aid in some calculation. When Polly at last threw down her cheese-knife, glowing with the thought that she had dined well at somebody else's expense, he leaned forward on the table, looked her in the eyes, and began a momentous dialogue.