The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XIII. Gammon the Crafty
"What did you want to do such a silly thing as that for?"
Polly stared in astonishment.
"What d'you mean?"
"Why did you let out to Mrs. Clover what you knew?"
The girl's colour deepened by a shade (it was already rich), and her eyes grew alarmed, suspicious, watchful.
"I didn't let out what I knew," she answered rather confused.
It was Gammon's turn to watch keenly.
"Not all, of course not," he remarked slyly. "But why couldn't you keep it to yourself that you'd met him?"
Polly's eyes wandered. Gammon smiled with satisfaction.
"I'd have kept that to myself," he said in a friendly way. "I know how it was, of course; you got riled and came out with it. A great pity. She had all but forgot him; now she'll never rest till she's found him out. And you might have seen how much more to your advantage it was to keep a thing like that quiet."
Unwonted mental disturbance was playing tricks with Polly's complexion. She evidently feared to compromise herself, and at the same time desired to know all that was in her companion's mind.
"What business is it of yours?" was the crude phrase that at length fell from her lips, uttered half-heartedly, between resentment and jesting.
"Well, there's the point," replied Gammon, with a laugh. "Queer thing, but it just happens to be particular business of mine."
Polly stared. He nodded.
"There's such a thing, Polly, as going halves in a secret. I've been wondering these last few days whether I should tell you or not. But we're getting on so well together--eh? Better than I expected, for one. I shouldn't feel I was doing right, Polly, if I took any advantage of you."
She was growing excited. Her wiles had given way before superior stratagem, and perhaps before something in herself that played traitor.
"You mean you know about him?" she asked, almost confidentially.
"Not all I want to--yet. He's a sharp customer. But considerably more than you do, Polly, my dear."
"I don't believe you!"
"That has nothing to do with it. Suppose you ask me a question or two. I might be able to tell you something you would like to know."
It was said, of course, without any suspicion of the real state of things; but Gammon saw at once that he had excited an eager curiosity.
"You know where he is, then?" asked Polly.
"Well--we'll say so."
"Where? When did you see him last?"
"We're going too quickly, old girl. The question is, When did you see him last?"
"Ah! you'd like to know, wouldn't you?"
Gammon burst out laughing, ever the surest way of baffling a silly woman. Polly grew hot with anger, then subsided into mortification. She knew the weakness of her position, and inclined ever more to make an ally of the man who had overcome her in battle and carried her off in his arms.
"And the other question is," Gammon proceeded, as if enjoying a huge joke, "When did you see him first?"
"I suppose you know?" she murmured reluctantly.
"Let us suppose I do. And suppose I am trying to make up my mind about the best way of dealing with the little affair. As I told you, I wish Mrs. Clover didn't know about it; but that's your doing. Our friend, Mr. C., wouldn't thank you."
"He knows, then, does he?" cried Polly.
"Mr. C. knows a great many things, my dear. He was not born yesterday. Now, see here, Polly. We're both of us in this, and we'd better be straight with each other. I am no friend of Mr. C., but I am a friend of yours, and if you can help me to get a bit tighter hold of him--Yes, yes, I'll tell you presently. The question is, Whether I can depend upon what he says? Of course, I know all about you; I want to know more about him. Now, is it true that you saw him first at the theatre?"
Polly nodded, and Gammon congratulated himself on his guess.
"And--he wasn't alone?"
"Just what I thought."
"He says he was alone--eh?" asked Polly with eagerness.
"I guess why. Now who was with him, old girl?"
A moment's sulky hesitation and Polly threw away all reserve.
"There was two ladies--if they were ladies; at all events, they was dressed like it. Oldish, both of 'em. One was a foreigner. I know that because I heard her speak; and it wasn't English. The other one spoke back to her in the same way, but I heard her speak English too. And she was the one as sat next to him."
"Good, Polly, we're getting on. And how did you notice him?"
"Well, it was like this," she began to narrate with vivacity. "I offered him a programme--see?--and he gave me half a sovereign and looked up at me, as much as to say he'd like change. And I'd no sooner met his eyes than I knew him. How could I help? He don't look to have changed a bit. And I saw as he knew me. I saw it by a queer sort of wink he give. And then he looked at me frightened like-- didn't he just! Of course, I didn't say nothing, but I kept standing by him a minute or two. And I'd forgot all about the change till he said to me, with a sort of look, 'You may keep that,' he said, and I says, 'Thank you, sir,' and nearly laughed."
"Not a bad tip, eh, Polly?"
"Oh, I've had as good before," she replied, with a brief return to the old manner.
"No doubt he enjoyed himself that evening. He kept spying round for you, didn't he?"
"I saw him look once or twice, and I give him a look back, but I couldn't do much more then; I said to myself I'd keep my eye on him to see if he came out after the first act. And sure enough he did, and there was me standing in his way, and he put his hand out to give me something, and just nodded and went on. It wasn't money, but a bit of paper twisted up and something wrote on it in pencil."
"I thought so, and where were you to meet him?"
"Well, I knew there couldn't be no harm, him being my own uncle," Polly replied with the air of repelling an accusation.
"Of course not; who said there was?"
"Well, it was Lincoln's Inn Fields, the next night. And there he was, sure enough, with his face half hid as if he was ashamed of himself, as well he might be. And he begins with saying as he was very ill and he didn't think he'd live long. But I wasn't to think as he forgot me, and when he died I should find myself provided for. And I wasn't to say a word to nobody or he'd take my name out of his will at once."
"It's all right, Polly. Don't be afraid. All between me and you. But I'll bet he didn't tell you where he was living?"
She shook her head.
"Of course not, I knew that," said Gammon, with a mysterious air. "Well, go on. He met you again, didn't he?"
"Once more, only once."
"Yes, and gave you little presents and told you to be a good gyurl and never disgrace your uncle. Oh, I know him! But he took precious good care not to let you know where he lived."
"But you know?" she exclaimed.
"No fear, Polly. You shall, too, if you have patience, though I don't say it'll be just yet."
A few more questions, and the girl had told everything--Mr. Clover's failure to keep the third appointment and her fruitless watchings since then.
"He got a bit timid, Polly, you see," exclaimed Gammon. "And he was right, too; you couldn't keep it to yourself, you see. You spoil everything with that temper of yours, my dear. Don't be cross, my beauty; it don't matter much, comes to the same thing in the end. Now just look here, Polly. You haven't seen those two ladies again, nor either one of them?"
"You're wrong there," she cried triumphantly.
"Hollo! Steady, Polly. It wasn't the foreigner then?"
"How did you know?"
Gammon chuckled over his good luck.
"Never mind. We'll come to that another time. Who was she with, my dear?"
"Another lady and gentleman, much younger than her. I stood near 'em as long as I could and listened with all my ears, but I couldn't hear nothing any use. But I saw as they went away in a private kerridge, all three together; I saw that much."
"And found where they went to?"
"Go along. How could I?"
"Might have been managed, Polly," he answered musingly. "Never mind, better luck next time. What you've got to do, my angel, is to find where that lady lives--the one that sat next our friend, you know, not the foreigner. Keep your eyes open, Polly, and be smart, and if you tell me where she lives then I shall have something more to say to you. It's between me and you, my beauty. You just bring me that little bit of information and you won't regret it."