The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXII. New Year's Eve
Gammon had the strangest sensation. He felt as though he were acting in a melodrama; he stood in a constrained position, as if the eyes of the house were upon him; he suffered from a sort of stage fright. Much more of this kind of thing would assuredly unsettle his wits. To recover tone he helped himself to a stiff glass of whisky.
"That's right," said his host encouragingly. "Make yourself comfortable. Greenacre may drop in at any moment. You can't think how much better I feel, Gammon. So clear in the mind, you know--why, it has only just occurred to me, this is New Year's Eve."
"So it is. Here's to your health and happiness, Lord Polperro!"
"Thank you, my dear Gammon. I heartily wish you the same. To-morrow, or at all events in a few days, a new life begins for me, as you know. In the climate of the south of Europe, with my wife and the little girl--ah, but for this idiotic title!--I was saying--"
He began to wander unintelligibly, then complained of physical sufferings, then coughed until he sank in exhaustion.
Time went on. Gammon began to ask himself how long he should wait. At half-past ten he made a suggestion that his lordship might do worse than go to bed, but this was ill received.
"By no means. Greenacre may be here at any moment. He will certainly come to-night. If he doesn't come, do you know what occurs to me? Why shouldn't we drive into the City and ask whether he has returned?"
"He lives at a place--a sort of hotel--which he calls the Bilboes. Greenacre is eccentric, but thoroughly trustworthy. He had a gentleman's education."
"He lives there, does he?" exclaimed Gammon.
"Finds it convenient, I suppose. Yes, we will go and inquire--we certainly will."
Gammon's objections were unheeded. No one could take any harm, said Lord Polperro, from driving in a closed cab to the City and back. He would leave directions that if Greenacre called during their absence he should be asked to wait. So they made ready and went forth, and once more a hansom bore them through the dark, cold night.
Lord Polperro talked unceasingly, and from his rambling hints it was not difficult to conjecture the business on which Greenacre had been dispatched to Ireland. Someone had to be discovered: a doubt as to whether some person was alive or dead had to be set at rest. Gammon ventured a few questions, which were answered evasively, but the nature of his companion's anxiety was by this time clear enough to him. He felt quite as desirous of meeting Greenacre as Lord Polperro himself. Every hour spent in this way added to his responsibility, and he had made up his mind that at the earliest possible moment to-morrow he would himself see Mr. Cuthbertson, and confide to him everything that had happened during this extraordinary day.
As the cab ascended Ludgate Hill it passed through crowds of people moving in the same direction. Gammon was for a moment surprised, then he called to mind again that it was New Year's Eve; the people were thronging to hear St. Paul's strike the hour of midnight. Last year he had himself joined in this celebration. He remembered with a smile that he reached home by circuitous routes, and after one or two short intervals of repose on convenient doorsteps. What was more, on that very night he had first made Greenacre's acquaintance at a bar; they swore eternal brotherhood, and Greenacre borrowed half a sovereign, never repaid.
With Gammon's help the cabman found his way to the Bilboes.
"Don't get out," he said to his companion. "I'll ask if he has come."
Lord Polperro suddenly aroused himself and tumbled out of the vehicle; but for Gammon's attention he would have fallen full length. They entered together, and by a confused process of inquiry learnt that Greenacre was still absent.
"Does he live here?" Gammon asked of a waiter whom he had drawn aside.
"He has a bedroom, sir."
Lord Polperro said that he felt a sudden faintness and must take refreshment. Having drunk, he began to talk in a loud voice about his private affairs, addressing a stranger who sat by him and whom he took for Gammon.
"I shall stay here. I shall certainly wait here for Greenacre. I can't run the risk of missing him to-night."
Gammon caught him by the arm and persuaded him to come out into the passage; but the only result of this was that Lord Polperro dismissed the cab, repeating obstinately that he would wait Greenacre's arrival.
"But ten to one he's waiting for us down yonder," urged Gammon.
"He won't wait very long, and we shall pass him on the road if we go back now. I tell you it is my pleasure to remain here! You forget yourself, Gammon. I know we are old friends, but you forget our positions."
The man of commerce laughed contemptuously.
"Look here," he said the next moment. "Let's walk as far as St. Paul's and have a look at the crowd."
"The crowd? What crowd?"
When he had heard the explanation his lordship readily assented. Certainly they would stroll as far as St. Paul's and back again, by that time Greenacre might have come. It seemed probable that when they had gone a little distance Lord Polperro would feel shaky and consent to take a cab. Drink, however, had invigorated the man; he reeled a little and talked very huskily, but declared that the walk was enjoyable.
"Let's go into the crowd, Gammon. I like a crowd. What are those bells ringing for? Yes, yes, of course, I remember--New Year's Eve. I had no idea that people came here to see the New Year in. I shall come again. I shall come every year; it's most enjoyable."
They entered the Churchyard and were soon amid a noisy, hustling throng, an assembly composed of clerks and countermen, roughs and pickpockets, with a sprinkling of well-to-do rowdies, and numerous girls or women, whose shrieks, screams, and yelps sounded above the deeper notes of masculine uproar. Gammon, holding tight to his companion's arm, endeavoured to pilot him in a direction where the crowd was thinnest, still moving westward; but Lord Polperro caught the contagion of the tumult and began pressing vehemently into the surging mass.
"This does me good, Gammon. It's a long time since I've mixed with people. I always enjoyed a crowd. Holloo--o--o!"
His excited shout made him cough terribly; none the less he pushed on.
"You'll come to harm," said the other. "Don't be a fool; get out of this."
A struggle began between them; but by this time they were so thickly encompassed that Gammon had small chance of forcing his companion away. Lord Polperro did not resent the tugs at his arm; he took it for genial horseplay, and only shouted louder.
"On we go! This makes one feel alive, eh? Splendid idea to come and see this. Hollo--o--o!"
Blackguards in front of him were bellowing a filthy song; his lordship tried to join in the melody. A girl who was jammed against him shot liquid into his ear out of a squirt, and another of her kind knocked his hat off; he struggled to recover it, but someone was beforehand with him and sent the silky headgear flying skyward, after which it was tossed from hand to hand and then trampled under foot.
"Now you'll catch your bloomin' death of cold," said Gammon. "Stick on to me and get out of this."
"I'm all right! Leave me alone, can't you! How often have I a damned chance of enjoying myself?"
It was the first syllable of bad language that Gammon had heard from Polperro's lips. Struck with the fact, and all the more conscious of his duty to this high-born madman, he hit on a device for rescuing him from the crowd.
"Look!" he cried suddenly, "there's Greenacre!"
"Where?" replied the other, all eagerness.
"Just in front; don't you see him? This way; come along, or we shall lose him."
Flecks of dim white had for some minutes been visible above their heads; it was beginning to snow. Gammon shouldered his way steadily, careful not to come into quarrelsome conflict. Polperro hung on behind, shouting Greenacre's name. This clamour and the loss of his hat drew attention upon him; he was a mark for squirts and missiles, to say nothing of verbal insult. St. Paul's struck the first note of twelve, and from all the bestial mob arose a howl and roar. Polperro happened to press against a drunken woman; she caught him by his disordered hair and tugged at it, yelling into his face. To release himself he bent forward, pushing the woman away; the result was a violent blow from her fist, after which she raised a shriek as if of pain and terror. Instantly a man sprang forward to her defence, and he, too, planted his fist between the eyes of the hapless peer. Gammon saw at once that they were involved in a serious row, the very thing he had been trying to avoid. He would not desert his friend, and was too plucky to see him ill-used with out reprisals. The rough's blows were answered with no less vigour by the man of commerce.
"Hook it!" shouted Gammon to the tottering Polperro. "Get out of it!"
The clock was still striking; the crowd kept up its brutal blare, aided by shrill instruments of noise. Only a few people heard Polperro's shout defying the enemy.
"Let him come on! Let him come on like a man! Take that, you ruffian, and that!"
Gammon, knowing the conflict grossly unequal, did not scruple to fight his own way. Polperro, wildly thrashing about him with both fists, excited wrath in every direction. There was a general scrimmage; shouts of rage mingled with wild laughter; the throng crushed this way and that. Grappling in his own defence with a big brute who had clutched his throat, Gammon saw Polperro go down. It was his last glimpse of the unfortunate man. Fighting savagely he found himself borne far away by an irresistible rush, and when he had lost sight of his foe he tried vainly to return to the place where Polperro had fallen. The police were now interfering, the crowd swayed more violently than ever, and began to scatter itself in off-streets.
From church towers of east and west chimes rang merrily for the New Year. Softly fell the snow from a black sky, and was forthwith trodden into slush.
Though he was badly mauled and felt sick Gammon would not abandon the hope of discovering his friend. After resting for a few minutes against the front of a shop he moved again into the crowd, now much thinner, and soon to be altogether dispersed. The helmets of policemen drew him in a certain direction; two constables were clearing the way, and he addressed them, asking whether they had seen a bareheaded man recently damaged in a fight.
"There's been a disturbance over yonder," one replied, carelessly pointing to a spot where other helmets could be discerned.
Thither Gammon made his way. He found police and public gathered thickly about some person invisible; a vigorous effort and he got near enough to see a recumbent body, quite still, on which the flakes of snow were falling.
"Let me look at him," he requested of a constable who would have pushed him away. "It's a friend of mine, I believe."
Yes, it was Lord Polperro, unconscious, and with blood about his mouth.
The police were waiting as a matter of professional routine to see whether he recovered his senses; they had, of course, classed him as "drunk and incapable."
"I say," Gammon whispered to one of them, "let me tell you who that is."
The conference led to the summoning of a cab, which by police direction was driven to the nearest hospital, St. Bartholomew's. Here Gammon soon learnt that the case was considered serious, so serious that the patient has been put to bed and must there remain.
Utterly done up Gammon threw himself into the cab to be driven to Kennington Road. When he reached Mrs. Bubb's he was fast asleep, but there a voice addressed him which restored his consciousness very quickly indeed.