Chapter II. A Missing Uncle
 

He glanced at Mrs. Bubb, at the disorderly remnants of breakfast on the long deal table, then at Polly, whose face was crimson with the joy of combat.

"Don't let me interrupt you, ladies. Blaze away! if I may so express myself. It does a man good to see such energy on a warm morning."

"I've said all I'm a-goin' to say," exclaimed Mrs. Bubb, as she mopped her forehead with a greasy apron. "I've warned her, that's all, and I mean her well, little as she deserves it. Now, you, Moggie, don't stand gahpin' there git them breakfast things washed up, can't you? It'll be tea time agin before the beds is made. And what's come to you this morning?"

She addressed Mr. Gammon, who had seated himself on a corner of the table, as if to watch and listen. He was a short, thick-set man with dark, wiry hair roughened into innumerable curls, and similar whiskers ending in a clean razor-line halfway down the cheek. His eyes were blue and had a wondering innocence, which seemed partly the result of facetious affectation, as also was the peculiar curve of his lips, ever ready for joke or laughter. Yet the broad, mobile countenance had lines of shrewdness and of strength, plain enough whenever it relapsed into gravity, and the rude shaping of jaw and chin might have warned anyone disposed to take advantage of the man's good nature. He wore a suit of coarse tweed, a brown bowler hat, a blue cotton shirt with white stock and horseshoe pin, rough brown leggings, tan boots, and in his hand was a dog-whip. This costume signified that Mr. Gammon felt at leisure, contrasting as strongly as possible with the garb in which he was wont to go about his ordinary business--that of commercial traveller. He had a liking for dogs, and kept a number of them in the back premises of an inn at Dulwich, whither he usually repaired on Sundays. When at Dulwich, Mr. Gammon fancied himself in completely rural seclusion; it seemed to him that he had shaken off the dust of cities, that he was far from the clamour of the crowd, amid peace and simplicity; hence his rustic attire, in which he was fond of being photographed with dogs about him. A true-born child of town, he would have found the real country quite unendurable; in his doggy rambles about Dulwich he always preferred a northerly direction, and was never so happy as when sitting in the inn-parlour amid a group of friends whose voices rang the purest Cockney. Even in his business he disliked engagements which took him far from London; his "speciality" (as he would have said) was town travel, and few men had had more varied experience in that region of enterprise.

"I'm going to have a look at the bow-wows," he replied to Mrs. Bubb. "Polly won't come with me; unkind of her, ain't it?"

"Mr. Gammon," remarked the young lady with a severe glance, "I'll thank you not to be so familiar with my name. If you don't know any better, let me tell you it's very ungentlemanly."

He rose, doffed his hat, bowed profoundly, and begged her pardon, in acknowledgment of which Polly gave a toss of the head. Miss Sparkes was neither beautiful nor stately, but her appearance had the sort of distinction which corresponds to these qualities in the society of Kennington Road; she filled an appreciable space in the eyes of Mr. Gammon; her abundance of auburn hair, her high colour, her full lips and excellent teeth, her finely-developed bust, and the freedom of her poses (which always appeared to challenge admiration and anticipate impertinence) had their effectiveness against a kitchen background, and did not entirely lose it when she flitted about the stalls at the theatre selling programmes. She was but two-and-twenty. Mr. Gammon had reached his fortieth year. In general his tone of intimacy passed without rebuke; at moments it had seemed not unacceptable. But Polly's temper was notoriously uncertain, and her frankness never left people in doubt as to the prevailing mood.

"Would you like a little ball-pup. Miss Sparkes?" he pursued in a conciliatory tone. "A lovely little button-ear? There's a new litter say the word, and I'll bring you one."

"Thank you. I don't care for dogs."

"No? But I'm sure you would if you kept one. Now, I have a cobby little fox terrier--just the dog for a lady. No? Or a sweet little black-and-tan--just turning fifteen pounds, with a lovely neck and kissing spots on both cheeks. I wouldn't offer her to everybody."

"Very good of you," replied Miss Sparkes contemptuously.

"Why ain't you goin' to business?" asked the landlady.

"I'll tell you. We had a little difference of opinion yesterday. The governors have been disappointed about a new line in the fancy leather; it wouldn't go, and I told them the reason, but that wasn't good enough. They hinted that it was my fault. Of course, I said nothing; I never do in such cases. But--this morning I had breakfast in bed."

He spoke with eyes half closed and an odd vibration of the upper lip, then broke into a laugh.

"You're an independent party, you are," said Mrs. Bubb, eyeing him with admiration.

"It was always more than I could do to stand a hint of that kind. Not so long ago I used to lose my temper, but I've taken pattern by Polly--I mean Miss Sparkes--and now I do it quietly. That reminds me"--his look changed to seriousness--"do you know anyone of the name of Quodling?"

Polly--to whom he spoke--answered with a dry negative.

"Sure? Try and think if you ever heard your uncle speak of the name."

The girl's eyes fell as if, for some reason, she felt a momentary embarrassment. It passed, but in replying she looked away from Mr. Gammon.

"Quodling? Never heard it--why?"

"Why, there is a man called Quodling who might be your uncle's twin brother--he looks so like him. I caught sight of him in the City, and tracked him till I got to know his place of business and his name. For a minute or two I thought I'd found your uncle; I really did. Gosh! I said to myself, there's Clover at last! I wonder I didn't pin him like a bull terrier. But, as you know, I'm cautious--that's how I've made my fortune, Polly."

Miss Sparkes neither observed the joke nor resented the name; she was listening with a preoccupied air.

"You'll never find him," said Mrs. Bubb, shaking her head.

"Don't be so sure of that. I shan't lose sight of this man Quodling. It's the strangest likeness I ever saw, and I shan't be satisfied till I've got to know if he has any connexion with the name of Clover. It ain't easy to get at, but I'll manage it somehow. Now, if I had Polly to help me--I mean Miss Sparkes--"

With a muttering of impatience the girl rose; in the same moment she drew from her belt a gold watch, and deliberately consulted it. Observing this Mrs. Bubb looked towards Mr. Gammon, who, also observant, returned the glance.

"I shan't want dinner," Polly remarked in an off-hand way as she moved towards the door.

"Going to see Mrs. Clover?" Gammon inquired.

"I'm sick of going there. It's always the same talk."

"Wait till your 'usband runs away from you and stays away for five years," said Mrs. Bubb with a renewal of anger, "and then see what you find to talk about."

Polly laughed and went away humming.

"If it wasn't that I feel afraid for her," continued Mrs. Bubb in a lower voice, "I'd give that young woman notice to quit. Her cheek's getting past everything. Did you see her gold watch and chain?"

"Yes, I did; where does it come from?"

"That's more than I can tell you, Mr. Gammon. I don't want to think ill of the girl, but there's jolly queer goin's-on. And she's so brazen about it! I don't know what to think."

Gammon knitted his brows and gazed round the kitchen.

"I think Polly's straight," he observed at length. "I don't seem to notice anything wrong with her except her cheek and temper. She'll have to be taken down a peg one of these days, but I don't envy the man that'll have the job. It won't be me, for certain," he added with a laugh.

Moggie came into the room, bringing a telegram.

"For me?" said Gammon. "Just what I expected." Reading, he broadened his visage into a grin of infinite satisfaction. "'Please explain absence. Hope nothing wrong.' How kind of them, ain't it! Yesterday they chucked me; now they're polite. Reply-paid too; very considerate. They shall have their reply."

He laid the blank form on the table and wrote upon it in pencil, every letter beautifully shaped in a first-rate commercial hand:

"Go to Bath and get your heads shaved." "You ain't a-goin' to send that!" exclaimed Mrs. Bubb, when he had held the message to her for perusal.

"It'll do them good. They're like Polly--want taking down a peg."

Moggie ran off with the paper to the waiting boy, and Mr. Gammon laughed for five minutes uproariously.

"Would you like a little bull-pup, Mrs. Bubb? he asked at length.

"Not me, Mr. Gammon. I've enough pups of my own, thank you all the same."