The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XIX. Not in the Secret
Since his adventure in knight-errantry Christopher Parish had suffered terrible alternations of hope and despair. For fear of offending Miss Sparkes he did not press for an explanation of the errand on which she had sent him enough that he was again permitted to see her, to entertain her modestly, and to hold her attention whilst he discoursed on the glories of the firm of Swettenham. Every week supplied him with new and astounding Swettenham statistics. He was able to report, as "an absolute fact," that a junior member of the firm--a junior, mind you--was building a house at Eastbourne which would cost him, all told, not one penny less than sixty-five thousand pounds! He would like to see that house; in fact, he must see it. When Easter came round would Miss Sparkes honour him with her company on a day trip to Eastbourne, that they might gaze together on the appalling mansion?
"P'r'aps," replied Polly, "if you're good."
Whereat Mr. Parish perspired with ecstasy, and began at once to plan the details of the outing.
Indeed, Polly was very gracious to him, and presently something happened which enhanced her graciousness--perhaps increased her genuine liking for the amiable young man. Her friend, Miss Waghorn, was about to be married to Mr. Nibby. It was a cheerless time of the year for a wedding, but Mr. Nibby had just come in for a little legacy, on the strength of which he took a house in a southeast suburb, and furnished it on the hire system, with a splendour which caused Miss Waghorn to shriek in delight, and severely tested the magnanimity of Polly's friendship. Polly was to be a bridesmaid, and must needs have a becoming dress but where was it to come from? Her perfidious uncle had vanished (she knew not yet who that uncle really was), and her "tips" of late had been--in Polly's language--measly. In the course of friendly chat she mentioned to Mr. Parish that the wedding was for that day week, and added, with head aside, that she couldn't imagine what she was going to wear.
"I shall patch up some old dress, I s'pose. Lucky it's dark weather."
Christopher became meditative, and seemed to shirk the subject. But on the morrow there arrived for Polly a letter addressed in his handwriting--an envelope rather--which contained two postal orders, each for one pound, but not a word on the paper enfolding them.
"Well now," cried Polly within herself, "if that ain't gentlemanly of him! Who'd a' thought it! And me just going to put my bracelet away!"
By which she meant that she was about to pawn her jewellery to procure a bridesmaid's dress. Gratitude, for the moment, quite overcame her. She sat down and wrote a letter of thanks, so worded that the recipient was beside himself for a whole day. He in turn wrote a letter of three full sheets, wherein, among other lyrical extravagances, he expressed a wish that by dying a death of slow torture he could endow Miss Sparkes with fabulous wealth. How gladly would he perish, knowing that she would come to lay artificial flowers upon his grave, and to the end of her life see that the letters on his tombstone were kept legible
So Polly made a handsome appearance at the wedding. As a matter of fact, she came near to exciting unpleasantness between bride and bridegroom, so indiscreet was Mr. Nibby in his spoken and silent admiration. After consuming a great deal of indifferent champagne at Mr. Nibby's lodgings the blissful couple departed to spend a week at Bournemouth, and Polly returned to the room in Shaftesbury Avenue, which henceforth she would occupy alone. "And a good riddance!" she said to herself pettishly as she stripped off her wedding garments.
On this very evening she wrote to Mr. Gammon--the letter he was never to read.
Mr. Gammon had received an invitation to the ceremony, but through pressure of business was unable to accept it. He felt, too, that there would have been awkwardness in thus meeting with Polly for the first time since their rupture on the Embankment.
Polly, of course, concluded that he kept away solely because he did not wish to see her. In the mood induced by this reflection, and by the turbid emotions natural to such a day, she penned her farewell to the insulting and perfidious man. Mr. Gammon was informed that never and nowhere would Miss Sparkes demean herself by exchanging another word with him; that he was a low and vulgar and ignorant person, without manners enough for a road-scraper; moreover, that she had long since been the object of sincere attentions from someone so vastly his superior that they were not to be named in the same month. This overflow of feeling was some relief, but Polly could not rest until she had also written to Mrs. Clover. She made known to her aunt that Mr. Gammon had of late been guilty of such insolent behaviour to her (the writer) that she had serious thoughts of seeking protection from the police. "As he is such a great friend of yours and Minnie's, I thought I had better warn you. Perhaps you might like to try and teach him better behaviour, though I can't say as you are the person to do it. And you may be pleased to hear that I should not wonder if I am shortly to be married to a gentleman, which it won't surprise you after that if I am unable to see anything more of you and your family."
But for a violent storm which broke out after eleven that night, just as she finished these compositions, Polly would have posted them forthwith, and Mr. Gammon would in that case have received his letter by the first post next morning. As it was they remained in Polly's room all night, and only an hour or two after their actual dispatch came the fateful telegram which was to make such a revolution in Miss Sparkes' sentiments and prospects. Mrs. Clover duly received her missive, and gave a good deal of thought to it, Being a woman of some self-command she spoke no word of the matter to Minnie nor, though greatly tempted, did she pen a reply, but in a few days she sent a quiet invitation to Polly's father, desiring the pleasure of his company at tea on Sunday.
Mr. Sparkes came. He was in very low spirits, for during the past week Chaffey's had disgraced itself (if Chaffey's could now be disgraced) by supplying a supper at eighteen-pence per head, exclusive of liquors, to certain provincial representatives of the Rag, Bone, and Bottle Dealers' Alliance in town for the purpose of attending a public meeting. He called it 'art-breaking, he did. The long and short of it was, he must prepare himself--and Chaffey's--for the inevitable farewell. Why, it wasn't as if they had supplied the rag-tags with a good supper. You should have seen the stuff put before them; every blessed dish a hash-up of leavings and broken meats. No man with a vestige of self-respect could continue to wait at such entertainments. And this amid the gilding and the plush and the marble-topped tables, which sickened one with their surface imitation of real rest'rants.
"Wouldn't you like to retire into private life, Ebenezer?" asked his hostess. "I'm sure you could, couldn't you?"
"Well, Louisa," he replied with hesitation, "if it comes to that, I could. But I hardly know how I should spend my time."
The conversation turned to the subject of Polly, and, as they were alone together, Mrs. Clover exhibited the letter she had received from that young lady.
"Now what have you to say to that, Ebenezer? Don't you call it shameful?"
Mr. Sparkes sighed deeply.
"I've warned her, Louisa, I've warned her solemn. What more can I do?"
"You see how she goes on about Mr. Gammon. Now I'm as sure as I am of anything that it's all lies. I don't believe Mr. Gammon has insulted her. There was something happened before she left Mrs. Bubb's--a bit of unpleasantness there's no need to talk about; but I'm as sure as I sit here, Ebenezer, that Mr. Gammon wouldn't insult any girl in the way Polly says."
"Why don't you ask him?"
Mrs. Clover glanced at the door and betrayed uneasiness.
"To tell you the truth he doesn't come here just now. You won't let it go any further, Ebenezer, but the truth is he began to take a sort of fancy to Minnie, and he told me about it, just as he ought to a'done, and I had to tell him plain that it wasn't a bit of use. For one thing Minnie was too young, and what's more, she hadn't even given half a thought to him in that way; and I wouldn't have the child worried about such things, because, as you know, she's delicate, and it doesn't take much to upset her in her mind, and then she can't sleep at nights. So I told Mr. Gammon plain and straight, and he took it in the right spirit, but he hasn't been here since. And I'm as sure as anything that Polly's letter is a nasty, mean bit of falsehood, though I'm sorry to have to say it to you, Ebenezer."
Mr. Sparkes had the beginning of a cold in the head, which did not tend to make him cheerful. Sitting by the fireside, very upright in his decent suit of Sunday black, he looked more than ever like a clergyman, perchance a curate who is growing old without hope of a benefice. Fortunately there entered about tea-time a young man in much better spirits, evidently a welcome friend of Mrs. Clover's; his name was Nelson. On his arrival Minnie joined the company, and it would have been remarked by anyone with an interest in the affairs of the family that Mrs. Clover was not at all reluctant to see her daughter and this young man amiably conversing. Mr. Nelson had something not unlike the carriage and tone of a gentleman; he talked quietly, though light-heartedly, and from remarks he let fall it appeared that he was somehow connected with the decorative arts. Minnie and he dropped into a discussion of some new ceramic design put forth by Doulton's; they seemed to understand each other, and grew more animated as they exchanged opinions. The hostess, meanwhile, kept glancing at them with a smile of benevolence.
At the tea table Mr. Nelson gratified Mr. Sparkes by an allusion to almost the only topic--apart from Chaffey's--which could draw that grave man into continuous speech. Mr. Sparkes had but one recreation, that of angling; for many years he had devoted such hours of summer leisure as Chaffey's granted him to piscatory excursions, were it only as far as the Welsh Harp. Finding this young man disposed to lend a respectful ear, and to venture intelligent questions, he was presently discoursing at large.
"Chub? Why chub's a kind of carp, don't you see. There's no fish pulls harder than a chub, not in the ordinary way of fishing. A chub he'll pull just like a little pig; he will indeed, if you believe me."
"And a jack, uncle," put in Minnie, who liked to please the old man. "Doesn't a jack pull hard?"
"Well, it's like this, my dear; it depends on the bottom when it's jack. If the bottom's weedy--see?--you must keep your line tight on a jack. Let him run and you're as like as not to lose thirty or forty yards of your line."
"And the lines are expensive, aren't they, uncle?"
"Well, my dear, I give eighteen and six for my preserved jack line--hundred yards. Eighteen and six!"
There followed one of his old stories, of a jack which had been eating up young ducklings on a certain pond; how he had baited for this fellow with a live duckling, the hook through the tips of its wings, got him in twenty minutes, and he turned the scale at four-and-twenty pounds. Roach and perch were afterwards discussed. In Mr. Sparkes' opinion the best bait for these fish was a bit of dough kneaded up with loose wool. Chaffey's--at all events, Chaffey's of to-day--would not have known its head waiter could it have seen and heard him as he thus held forth. The hostess showed a fear lest Mr. Nelson should have more than enough of Cockney angling; but he and Minnie were at one in good-natured attentiveness, and in the end Mrs. Clover overcame her uneasiness.
A few days after this Minnie's mother, overcoming a secret scruple and yielding to a long desire, allowed herself to write a letter to Mr. Gammon. It was a very simple, not ill-composed letter; its object to express regret for the ill temper she had shown, now many weeks ago, on her parting with Mr. Gammon in Kennington Road. Would he not look in at the china shop just in the old way? It would please her very much, for indeed she had never meant or dreamt a termination to their friendship. They had known each other so long. Would not Mr. Gammon overlook her foolishness, remembering all she had had to go through? So she signed herself his "friend always the same," and having done so looked at the last line rather timidly, and made haste to close the letter.
An answer arrived without undue delay, and Mrs. Clover went apart to read it, her breath quicker than usual, and her fingers tremulous. Mr. Gammon wrote with unfeigned cordiality, just like himself. He hoped to call very soon, though it might still be a few weeks. There was nothing to forgive on his part; he wasn't such a fool as to be angry with an old friend for a few hasty words. But the truth was he had a lot of business on his hands; he was doing his best to get into a permanency at Quodlings' of Norton Folgate, and he knew Mrs. Clover would be glad to hear that. Let her give his kind regards to Miss Minnie, and believe him when he said that he was just as friendly disposed as ever.
Beneath these words Mrs. Clover naturally enough detected nothing of the strange experiences in which Mr. Gammon was involved. "Kind regards to Minnie." Yes, there was the explanation of his silence. He called her his "old friend," a phrase of double meaning. Mrs. Clover, in spite of her good sense, was vexed, and wished he had not said "old." Why, had she not a year or two the advantage of him in youthfulness?