The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XVII. Polly Shows Weakness
It was spoken with quiet confidence. Gammon smiled as he looked steadily into the pale, thin face, which at once grew mottled with a disturbance of the blood.
"You are making a mistake, sir," replied an indistinct voice, with an effort at dignity.
"Oh, no, not a bit of it. Not now I've heard you speak, Mr. Clover."
"I don't understand you, sir," sounded more clearly, the pallid visage now a muddy red and the eyes moist. "That is not my name. Be so good as to go your way."
"Certainly. I just wanted to make sure, that's all. No fuss. Good morning, Mr. Clover."
Gammon drew back. He heard the order "Charing Cross," and the cab drew away.
After a moment or two of irresolution Gammon walked hurriedly back to the nearest public-house, where he called for a glass of bitter and the Directory. With the former he slaked a decided dryness of the throat, the latter he searched eagerly in the section "Court." There it was! "Polperro, Lord, 16, Lowndes Mansions, Sloane Street, S.W. Junior Ramblers' Club. Trefoyle, Liskeard, Cornwall."
With thoughts tuned to anything but the oil and colour business he returned to Quodlings' and had his interview with the head of the firm. Mr. Quodling, senior, was a gruff, heavy-featured man, decidedly of coarse fibre; when moved he swore with gusto, and it did not take much to put him out. At present he was in an irritable mood, and, very unlike his habit, gave scant attention to the affair of which Gammon spoke. It would not have improved his temper had he known that the town traveller was amusing himself with the reflection that there was no trace of personal resemblance between him and his brother Francis, who, on the other hand, bore a very strong likeness indeed to--Lord Polperro.
As soon as he could get away Gammon dispatched a telegram. It was to Miss Sparkes, whom he requested to meet him at the theatre door that night when she left. "Something very important to tell you."
This was done on a tell-tale impulse; it showed in what direction his thoughts and mind most readily turned just now. Thinking it over in the hours that followed he doubted whether, after all, he would tell Polly exactly what had happened; she could be useful to him in the way he intended without knowing more than she had discovered for herself. Doubt as to the identity of Lord Polperro with Mrs. Clover's husband he had none whatever--face, voice, trick of lips, and eyebrows made mistake an impossibility; but he must bring the man into a position where there would be no choice but to reveal himself, and, so far as Gammon knew, no one but Polly could help to that end. With Mrs. Clover he would communicate when the facts of the strange story were made plain; not yet a while. And as for Greenacre, why, it was splendid to have got beforehand with that keen-scented fellow. The promise to keep silence held good only whilst their search might be hindered by someone's indiscretion. Now that the search was over he felt himself free to act as he chose.
But what an astounding discovery! Again and again, by jorrocks!
He was near the theatre long before his time. He had never waited so long or so impatiently for anyone since the days of his first sweethearting, twenty and odd years ago. When Polly at length came out she met him with a shyness and awkwardness which he fancied he perfectly understood.
"I want you to come with me where we can have a quiet talk," he said at once in a tone of eager cordiality. "It's too wet for walking; we'll have a cab."
Polly gazed at him in unfeigned surprise, and asked where they were to go. Not far, he replied; here was a cab; in with her. And before she could decide upon resistance Polly was seated by him. Gammon then explained that he had the use of a sitting-room at a coffee tavern; they would be there in a minute or two, There was good news for her--news that couldn't be told in the street or in a crowded restaurant.
"Did you get my letter?" she asked, shrinking as far from him as space allowed.
"I posted it this morning," Polly answered in a timidly sullen voice.
He had not been home since breakfast-time. She had written to him? Now, wasn't that a queer thing! All yesterday he, too, had thought of writing, and to-day would have done so in any case. Never mind, the letter would be waiting for him. Was it nice? Was it sweet and amiable, like herself? Ha ha! Ho ho!
As he laughed the cab drew up with a jerk. Polly saw that she was in a familiar thoroughfare and in front of a respectable establishment, but it was not without a little distrust that she entered by the private door and went upstairs. A large room, so ugly and uncomfortable that it helped to reassure her, was quickly lighted. Gammon requested the woman in attendance to bring pen, ink, and paper, whereat Polly again stared her surprise.
"Come and sit over here," said Gammon, "away from the door. Now make yourself comfortable, old girl. Sure you won't have anything?"
The writing materials were brought; the door was closed.
"Now we're all right. A long time since we saw each other, Polly. Have you heard anything? Any more about Mr. C.?"
She shook her head.
"Well, look here now, I want you to write to him. You didn't believe me when I said I knew. Well, you'll believe me now. I want you to write to him, and to ask him to meet you here. If he won't come I know what to do next. But you just write a few lines; you know how. You want to see him at this coffee tavern at five o'clock tomorrow; he's to come to the private door and ask for Miss--let's say Miss Ellis--that'll do. I shall be here, but not in the room at first; I'll come in when you've had a little talk. I don't think he'll refuse to come when he sees you've got his address."
"What is the address?"
"Patience, my dear; wait till you've written the letter. I'll walk up and down the room whilst you do it."
He began pacing, but Polly made no movement towards the table. She was strangely sullen, or, perhaps, depressed; not at all like herself, even when in anger. She cast glances at her companion, and seemed desirous of saying something--of making some protest--but her tongue failed her.
"No hurry," Gammon remarked, after humming through a tune. "Think it out. Only a line or two."
"Are you telling me the truth about my letter?" she suddenly asked. "You haven't read it?"
"I assure you I haven't. That's a treat for when I get home."
Still she delayed, but before Gammon had taken many more steps she was seated at the table, and biting the end of the penholder.
"You'll have to tell me what to say."
"All right. Take the words down."
He dictated with all possible brevity. The letter was folded and enclosed. Only in the last few minutes had Gammon quite decided to share his knowledge with Polly. As she bent her head and wrote, something in the attitude--perhaps a suggestion of domesticity-- appealed to his emotions, which were ready for such a juncture as this. After all there were not many girls prettier than Polly, or with more of the attractiveness of their sex. He looked, looked till he could not turn away.
"Now then for the address. I'll write it on this piece of paper, and you shall copy it."
Polly watched him, puzzled by the nervous grin on his face. She took the paper, on which he had written as legibly as he could--
"Lord Polperro, 16, Lowndes Mansions, Sloane Street, S.W."
And having read it she stared at him.
"What d'you mean?"
"That's the address."
"Are you making a fool of me?" Polly exclaimed, angry suspicion flashing in her eyes.
"I tell you that's your uncle's address. Now be careful, Polly! I won't stand it a second time."
He was only half joking. Excitement tingled in him--the kind of excitement which might lead either to rage or caresses. He swayed now on one foot, now on the other, as if preparing for a dance, and his fists were clenched upon his hips.
"You mean to say that's his reel name?" cried Polly, she, too, quivering and reddening.
"I do. Now mind, Polly; mind what you say, my girl! I won't stand it a second time."
"Don't go on like a ijiot!" exclaimed the girl, starting up from her chair. "Of course I'll believe it if you tell me you're not kidding. And you mean to say he's a lord?"
"See for yourself."
"And his name ain't Clover at all? Then what's my, awnt's name?"
Why, Lady Polperro, of course! And Minnie is--well, I don't exactly know--Lady Minnie Polperro, I suppose. And you--no, I don't think it gives you a title; but, you see, you are the niece of Lord Polperro. Think of that, Polly; you've got a lord for your uncle--a peer of the realm!
He came nearer and nearer as he spoke, his eyes distended with wild merriment, his arms swinging.
"And it's me that found it out, Polly! What have you got to say for it? Eh, old girl? What have you got to say?"
Polly uttered a scream of laughter and threw herself forward. Gammon's arms were ready; they clasped her and hugged her, she not dreaming of resistance--anything but that. Only when her face was very red, and her hat all but off, and her hair beginning to come loose, did she gently put him away.
"That'll do; that's enough."
"You mean it, don't you?" asked Gammon, tenderly enfolding her waist.
"I s'pose so; it looks like it. That'll do; let me git my breath. What a silly you are!"
"And were you fond of me all the time, Polly?" he whispered at her ear as she sat down.
"I dessay; how do I know? It's quite certain you wasn't fond of me, or you'd never have gone off like you did that Sunday."
"Why, I've been fond of you for no end of a time! Haven't I showed it in lots of ways? You must have known, and you did know."
"When you smashed my door in and fought me?" asked Polly with a shamefaced laugh.
"You don't think I'd have taken all that trouble if it hadn't been for the pleasure of carrying you downstairs?"
"But there wasn't much love about you, Polly. You hit jolly hard, old girl, and you kicked and you scratched. Why, I've bruises yet!"
"Serve you right! Do let me put my 'air and my 'at straight."
"I say, Polly--" and he whispered something.
"I s'pose so--some day," was her answer, with head bent over the hat she was smoothing into shape.
"But won't you think yourself too good for me? Remember, you've got a lord for your uncle."
It returned upon both with the freshness of surprise; even Polly had quite lost sight of the startling fact during the last few minutes. They looked at the unaddressed letter; they gazed into each other's faces.
"You haven't gone and made a mistake?" asked Polly in an awed undertone.
"There now! You didn't think; you're beginning to be sorry."
"No, I'm not."
"You are; I can see it."
"Oh, all right; have it your own way! I thought you wouldn't be so sweet-tempered very long. You're all alike, you men."
"Why, it's you that can't keep your temper!" shouted Gammon. "I only wanted to hear you say it wouldn't make any difference, happen what might."
"And didn't I say it wouldn't?" shrilled Polly. "What more can I say?"
Strangely enough a real tear had started in her eye. Gammon saw it and was at once remorseful. He humbled himself before her; he declared himself a beast and a brute. Polly was a darling: far too good for him, too sweet and gentle and lovely. He ought to think himself the happiest man living, by jorrocks if he oughtn't! Just one more! Why, he liked a girl to have spirit! He wouldn't give tuppence farthing for fifty girls that couldn't speak up for themselves. And if she was the niece of a lord, why, she deserved it and a good deal more. She ought to be Lady Polly straight away; and hanged if he wouldn't call her so.
"Hadn't we better get this letter addressed?" Polly asked, very amiable again.
"Yes; it's getting late, I'm afraid."
Polly drew up to the table, but her hand was so unsteady that it cost her much trouble to manage the pen.
"I've wrote it awful bad. Does it matter?"
"Bad? Why it's beautifully written, Polly--Lady Polly, I mean. I've got a stamp."
She stuck it on to the envelope with an angle upwards; and Gammon declared that it was beautifully done; he never knew anyone stamp a letter so nicely. As she gazed at the completed missive Polly had a sudden thought which made a change in her countenance. She looked round.
"What is it?"
"He hasn't got another wife, has he?"
"Not likely," answered Gammon. "If so he's committed bigamy, and so much the worse for him. Your aunt must have been his first--it was so long ago."
"Couldn't you find out? Isn't there a book as gives all about lords and their families? I've heard so."
"I believe there is," replied the other thoughtfully. "I'll get a look at it somewhere. He's scamp enough for anything, I've no doubt. He comes of a bad lot, Polly. There's all sorts of queer stories about his father--at least, I suppose it was his father."
"Tell me some," said Polly with eagerness.
"Oh, I will some day. But now I come to think of it, I don't know when he became Lord Polperro. He couldn't, of course, till the death of his father. Most likely the old man was alive when he married your aunt. It's easy to understand now why he's led such a queer life, isn't it? I shouldn't a bit wonder if he went away the second time because his father had died. I'll find out about it. Would you believe, when I met him in the street and spoke to him, he pretended he'd never heard such a name as Clover!"
"You met him, did you? When?"
"Oh--I'll tell you all about that afterwards. It's getting late. We shall have lots of talk. You'll let me take you home? We'll have a cab, shall we? Lady Pollys don't walk about the streets on a wet night."
She stood in thought.
"I want you to do something for me."
"Right you are! Tell me and I'll do it like a shot, see if I don't."
His arm again encircled her, and this time Polly did not talk of her 'at or her 'air. Indeed, she bent her head, half hiding her face against him.
"You know that letter I sent you?"
"What's in it? Something nicey-picey?"
"I want you to let me go to the 'ouse with you--just to the door--and I want you to give me that letter back--just as it is--without opening it. You will, won't you, deary?"
"Of course I will, if you really mean it."
"I do, it was a narsty letter. I couldn't bear to have you read it now."
Gammon had no difficulty in imagining the kind of epistle which Polly would desire suppressed; yet, for some obscure reason, he would rather have read it. But his promise was given. Polly, in turn, promised to write another letter for him as soon as possible.
So they drove in a hansom, through a night which washed the fog away, to Kennington Road, and whilst Polly kept her place in the vehicle Gammon ran upstairs. There lay the letter on his dressing-table. He hastened down with it, and before handing it to its writer kissed the envelope.
"Go along!" exclaimed Polly, in high good humour, as she reached out with eager fingers.
Late as it was he accompanied her to Shaftesbury Avenue, and they parted tenderly after having come to an agreement about the next evening.