The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XVIII. Lord Polperro's Representative
By discreet inquiry Mr. Gammon procured an introduction to "Debrett," who supplied him with a great deal of information. In the first place he learned that the present Lord Polperro, fourth of that title, was not the son, but the brother of the Lord Polperro preceding him, both being offspring, it was plain, of the peer whose will occasioned a lawsuit some forty years ago. Granted the truth of scandalous rumour, which had such remarkable supports in facial characteristics, the present bearer of the title would be, in fact, half-brother to Francis Quodling. Again, it was discoverable that the Lord Polperro of to-day succeeded to the barony in the very year of Mrs. Clover's husband's second disappearance.
"Just what I said," was Gammon's mental comment as he thumped the aristocratic pages.
Now for the women. To begin with, Lord Polperro was set down a bachelor--ha! ha! Then he had one sister, Miss Adela Trefoyle, older than himself, and that might very well be the lady who was seen beside him at the theatre. Then again, though his elder brother's male children had died, there was living a daughter, by name Adeline, recently wedded to--by jorrocks!--Lucian Gildersleeve, Esquire. Why, here was "the whole boiling of 'em!"
Mr. Gammon eagerly jotted down the particulars in his notebook, and swallowed the whisky at his side with gusto. Not once, however, had he asked himself why this man of guiles and freaks chose to mask under the name of Clover, an omission to be accounted for not by any lack of wit, but by mere educational defect. He could not have been further from suspecting that his utterance of the name Clover had given his genealogical friend a most important clue, and a long start in the search for the missing man.
Impatiently he awaited the early nightfall of the morrow. Business had to be attended to as usual; but he went about with a bearing of extraordinary animation, now laughing to himself, now snapping his fingers, now (when he chanced to be out of people's sight) twirling round on one leg. Either of yesterday's events would have sufficed to exhilarate him; together they whipped his blood and frothed his fancy. He had found Clover, who was a lord! He had won the love of Polly Sparkes, who was the finest girl living! Did ever the bagman of an oil and colour firm speed about his duties with such springs of excitement bubbling within him?
And Mrs. Clover? Ought she not to be told at once? Had he any right to keep to himself such a discovery as this? He knew, by police court precedent, that a false name in marriage did not invalidate the contract. Beyond shadow of doubt Mrs. Clover was Lady Polperro. And Minnie--why, suppose Minnie had favoured his suit, he would have been son-in-law of a peer! As it was, whom might not the girl marry! She would pass from the neighbourhood of Battersea Park Road to a house in Mayfair or Belgravia; from Doulton's and the china shop to unimaginable heights of social dignity. And who more fit for the new sphere? Mr. Gammon sighed, but in a moment remembered Polly and snapped his fingers.
A little before five o'clock he was hovering within sight of the coffee tavern, which already threw radiance into the murky and muddy street. In a minute or two he saw Polly and exchanged a quick word with her.
"Up you go! You'll find all ready. If he comes I shall see him, and I'll look in when you've had a little talk."
Polly disappeared, and Mr. Gammon again hovered. But who was this approaching? Of all unwelcome people at this moment, hanged if it wasn't Greenacre! What did the fellow want here? He was staring about him as if to make sure of an address. Worse than that, he stepped up to the private door of the coffee-tavern and rang the bell.
Shrinking aside into darkness, Gammon felt a shiver of unaccountable apprehension, which was quickly followed by a thrill of angry annoyance. What did this mean? The door had opened, Greenacre was admitted. What the devil did this mean? If it wasn't enough to make a fellow want to wring another fellow's neck!
He waited thirty seconds, thinking it was five minutes, then went to the door, rang, and entered.
"Who came in just now, miss?"
"The gentleman for the young lydy, sir."
" By jorrocks!"
Gammon mounted the stairs at break-neck speed and burst into the private sitting-room. There stood Polly, with her head up, looking pert indignation and surprise, and before her stood Greenacre, discoursing in his politest tone.
"What are you doing here?" asked Gammon breathlessly. "What are you up to, eh?"
"Ah, Gammon, how do you do? I'm glad you've dropped in. Let us sit down and have a quiet talk."
The man of mystery was very well dressed, very cool, more than equal to the situation. He took for granted the perfect friendliness of both Polly and Gammon, smiled from one to the other, and as he seated himself, drew out a cigarette case.
"I'm sure Miss Sparkes won't mind. I have already apologized, Gammon, for the necessity of introducing myself. You, I am sure, will forgive me when you learn the position of affairs. I'm so glad you happened to drop in."
Declining a cigarette, Gammon stared about him in angry confusion. He had no words ready. Greenacre's sang-froid, though it irritated him excessively, shamed him into quiet behaviour.
"When you entered, Gammon, I was just explaining to Miss Sparkes that I am here on behalf of her uncle, Lord Polperro."
"Oh, you are. And how do you come to know him?"
"Singular accident. The kind of thing that is constantly happening in London. Lord Polperro is living next door to an old friend of mine, a man I haven't seen for some seven or eight years till the other day. I happened to hear of my friend's address, called upon him, and there met his lordship. Now wasn't it a strange thing, Gammon? Just when you and I were so interested in a certain puzzle, a delightful bit of genealogy. Lord Polperro and I quite took to each other. He seemed to like my chat, and, in fact, we have been seeing a good deal of each other for a week or two."
"You kept this to yourself, Gammon."
"For a sufficient reason--anything but a selfish one. You, I may remark, also made a discovery and kept it to yourself."
"It was my own business."
"Certainly. Don't dream that I find fault with you, my dear fellow. It was the most natural thing in the world. Now let me explain. I grieve to tell you that Lord Polperro is in very poor health. To be explicit, he is suffering from a complication of serious disorders, among them disease of the heart." He paused to let his announcement have its full effect. "You will understand why I am here to represent him. Lord Polperro dare not, simply dare not, expose himself to an agitating interview; it might--it probably would--cost him his life. Miss Sparkes, I am sure you would not like to see your noble relative fall lifeless at your feet?"
Polly looked at Gammon, who, in spite of wrath, could not help smiling.
"He didn't do it in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Greenacre."
"He did not; but I very greatly fear that those meetings--of course I have heard of them--helped to bring about the crisis under which he is now suffering, as also did a certain other meeting which you will recollect, Gammon. Pray tell me, did Lord Polperro seem to you in robust health?"
"Can't say he did. Looked jolly seedy."
"Precisely. Acting on my advice he has left town for a few days. I shall join him to-morrow, and do my best to keep up his spirits. You will now see the necessity for using great caution, great consideration, in this strange affair. We can be quite frank with each other, Gammon, and of course we have no secrets from my new and valued friend--if she will let me call her so--Miss Polly Sparkes. One has but to look at Miss Sparkes to see the sweetness and thoughtfulness of her disposition. Come now, we are going to make a little plot together, to act for the best. I am sure we do not wish Lord Polperro's death. I am sure you do not, Miss Sparkes."
Polly again looked at Gammon, and muttered that of course she didn't. Gammon grinned. Feeling sure of his power to act independently, if need were, he began to see the jocose side of things.
"One question I should like to ask," continued Greenacre, lighting a second cigarette. "Has Mrs. Clover--as we will continue to call her, with an implied apology--been informed yet?"
"I haven't told her," said Gammon frankly.
"And I'm sure I haven't," added Polly, who had begun to observe Mr. Greenacre with a less hostile eye, and was recovering her native vivacity.
Greenacre looked satisfied.
"Then I think you have acted very wisely indeed--as one might have expected from Miss Sparkes. I don't mean I shouldn't have expected it from you too, Gammon; but you and I are not on ceremony, old man. Now let me have your attention. We begin by admitting that Lord Polperro has put himself in a very painful position. Painful, let me tell you, in every sense. Lord Polperro desires nothing so much--nothing so much--as to be reunited to his family. He longs for the society of his wife and daughter. What more natural in a man who feels that his days are numbered! Lord Polperro bitterly laments the follies of his life which are explained, Gammon, as you and I know, by the character he inherited. We know the peculiarities of the Trefoyle family. Some of them I must not refer to in the presence of a young lady such as Miss Sparkes." Polly looked at her toes and smirked. "But Lord Polperro's chief fault seems to have been an insuperable restlessness, which early took the form of a revolt against the habits and prejudices of aristocratic life. Knowing so much of that life myself, I must say that I understand him; that, to a certain extent, I sympathize with him. When a youth he desired the liberty of a plebeian station, and sought it under disguises. You must remember that at that time he had very little prospect of ever succeeding to the title. Let me give you a little genealogy."
"Needn't trouble," put in Gammon. "I know it all. Got it out of a book. I'll tell you afterwards, Polly."
"Ah, got it out of a book? Why, you are becoming quite a genealogist, Gammon, I need only say, then, that he did not give a thought to the title. He chose to earn his own bread, and live his own life, like ordinary mortals. He took the name of Clover. Of course, you see why."
"Hanged if I do," said Gammon.
"Why, my dear fellow, are not clover and trefoil the same things? Don't you see? Trefoyle. Only a little difference of accent."
"Never heard the word. Did you, Polly?"
"Ah! not unnatural. An out-of-the-way word." Greenacre hid his contempt beneath a smile. "Well now, I repeat that Lord Polperro longs to return to the bosom of his family. He has even gone in the darkness of the night to look at his wife's abode, and returned home in misery. A fact! At this moment--your attention, I beg--I am assisting him to form a plan by which he will be enabled to live a natural life without the unpleasantness of public gossip. I do not yet feel at liberty to describe our project, but it is ripening. What I ask you is this. Will you trust us? Miss Sparkes, have I your confidence?"
"It's all very well," threw in Gammon, before Polly could reply. "But what if he drops down dead, as you say he might do? What about his family then?"
"Gammon," replied the other with great solemnity, "I asked whether I had your confidence. Do you, or do you not, believe me when I tell you that Lord Polperro has long since executed a will by which not only are his wife and his daughter amply--most amply--provided for, but even more distant relatives on his wife's side?"
He gazed impressively at Miss Sparkes, whose eyes twinkled as she turned with a jerk to Gammon.
"Look here, Greenacre," exclaimed the man of commerce, "let's be business-like. I may trust you, or I may not. What I want to know is, how long are we to wait before he comes to the shop down yonder and behaves like an honest man? Just fix a date, and I'll make a note of it."
"My dear Gammon--"
"I cannot fix a date on my own responsibility. It depends so greatly on his lordship's health. I can only assure you that at the earliest possible moment Lady Polperro will be summoned to an interview with her husband. By the by, I trust her ladyship is quite well?"
"Oh, she's all right," replied Gammon impatiently.
"And the Honourable Minnie Trefoyle--she, too, enjoys good health, I trust?"
Polly and Gammon exchanged a stare, followed by laughter, which was a little forced on the man's part.
"That's Miss Clover," he remarked. "Sounds queer, doesn't it?"
"That's her reel name?" cried Polly.
"Indeed it is, Miss Sparkes," replied Greenacre. "But let me remind you--if it is not impertinent--that beauty and grace can very well afford to dispense with titles. I think, Gammon, you and I know a case in point."
Polly tossed her head and shuffled her feet, well pleased with the men's laughter.
"And if it comes to that," Greenacre pursued, "I don't mind saying, Gammon, that I suspect you to be a confoundedly lucky and enviable dog. May I congratulate him, Miss Sparkes?"
"Oh, you can if you like, Mr.--I forget your name."
"I do so then, Gammon. I congratulate you, and I envy you. Heigh-ho! I'm a lonely bachelor myself, Miss Sparkes--no, hang it, Miss Polly. You may well look pityingly at me."
"I'm sure I don't, Mr.--I can't remember your name," answered Polly with a delighted giggle.
"See here, Greenacre," Gammon interposed genially, "Miss Sparkes and I will have to talk this over. Mind you, I give no promise. I found out for myself who Mr. Clover was, and I hold myself free to do what I think fit. You quite understand?"
Greenacre nodded absently. Then he cleared his throat.
"I quite understand, my dear boy. I should like just to remind you that there's really nothing to be gained, one way or the other, by interfering with Lord Polperro before he has made his plans. The ladies would in no way be benefited, and it's very certain no one else would be. No doubt you'll bear that in mind."
"Of course I shall. You may take it from me, Greenacre, that I'm tolerably wide awake. Can I still address you at the Bilboes?"
"You can," was the grave and dignified reply. "And now, as I happen to have an appointment at the other end of the town, I really must say good-bye. I repeat, Miss Sparkes, you may trust me absolutely. I have your interests and those of my friend Gammon--the same thing now--thoroughly at heart. You will hear from his lordship, Miss Sparkes--no, hang it, Miss Polly. You will very soon have a line from his lordship, who, I may venture to say, is really attached to you. He speaks of you all most touchingly. Good evening, Miss Polly, not good-bye; we are to meet again very soon. And who knows all the happy changes that are before you. Ta-ta, Gammon. Rely upon me; I never failed a friend yet."
So saying he took his leave with bows and flourishes. Shortly after Polly and Gammon went into the superior room of the tavern and had tea together, talking at a great rate, one as excited as the other. Miss Sparkes being already attired for her evening duties they parted only when they were obliged to do so, agreeing to meet again when Polly left the theatre.
To pass this interval of time Mr. Gammon dropped into a music-hall. He wished to meditate on what had come to his knowledge. Had it not been that Lord Polperro was, in a sense, a public institution, and could not escape him, he would have felt uneasy about the doings of that remarkable fellow Greenacre; as it was, he preferred to muse on the advantages certain to befall Minnie and her mother, and perchance Polly Sparkes. After all, the niece of a lord must benefit substantially by the connexion, and by consequence that young lady's husband. No one could have been freer from secondary motives than he, when he found himself falling in love with Polly; and if it turned out a marriage of unforeseen brilliancy, why, so much the better. Polly had not altered towards him--dear, affectionate girl that she was I He would act honourably; she should have the chance of reconsidering her position; but--
A damsel, sparingly clad, was singing in the serio-comic vein, with a dance after each stanza. As he sipped his whisky, and watched and listened, Gammon felt his heart glow within him. The melody was lulling; it had a refrain of delicious sentiment. The listener's eyes grew moist; there rose a lump in his throat. Dear Polly! Lovely Polly! Would he not cherish her to the day of his death? How could he have fancied that he loved anyone else? Darling Polly!
When the singer withdrew he clapped violently, and thereupon called for another Scotch hot, with lemon.
As a matter of course a friend soon discovered him, a man who declared himself in a whisper "stonebroke," and said, after a glass of the usual beverage, that if the truth must be told he had looked in here this evening to save himself from the torments of despair. Three young children, and the missus just going to have another. Did Gammon know of any opening in the cork line?
" Afraid not," replied the traveller, "but I know a man out Hoxton way who's pushing a new lamp-glass cleaner. You might give him a look in. It goes well, I'm told, in the eastern suburbs."
Presently a coin of substantial value passed from Gammon's pocket into that of his gloomy friend.
"Poor devil!" said the good fellow to himself. "He married a tripe-dresser's daughter, and she nags him. Never had a chance to marry a jolly little girl who turned out to have a lord for her uncle!"
So he drank and applauded, and piped his eye and drank again, till it was time to meet Polly. When he went forth into the cold street never was man more softly amorous, more mirthfully exultant, more kindly disposed to all the dwellers upon earth. Life abounds in such forms of happiness, yet we are told that it is a sad and sorry affair!