The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXIII. His Lordship Retires
It was the voice of Greenacre, unsteady with wrath, stripped utterly of its bland intonations.
"So here you are! What have you been up to, Gammon? Are you drunk?"
Just as the cab drove up Greenacre was turning reluctantly from the house door, where he had held a warm parley with Mrs. Bubb; the landlady irritable at being disturbed in her first sleep, the untimely visitor much ruffled in temper by various causes.
"Drunk!" echoed Gammon, as he leapt to the pavement and clutched at Greenacre's arm. "Drunk yourself, more likely! Where have you been since you sent that telegram? Hold on a minute." He paid the cabman. "Now then, give an account of yourself."
"What the devil do you mean?" cried the other. "What account do I owe to you?"
"Well, I might answer that question," said Gammon with a grin, "if I took time to calculate."
"We can't talk in the street at this time of night, with snow coming down. Suppose we go up to your room?"
"As you please. But I advise you to talk quietly; the walls and the floors are not over thick."
The latch-key admitted them, and they went as softly as possible up the stairs, only one involuntary kick from Greenacre on sounding wood causing his host to mutter a malediction. By a light in the bedroom they viewed each other, and Greenacre showed astonishment.
"So you are drunk, or have been You've got a black eye, and your clothes are all pulled about. You've been in a row."
"You're not far wrong. Tell' me what you've been doing, and you shall hear where the row was and who was with me."
"Gammon, you've been behaving like a cad--a scoundrel. I didn't think it of you. You went to that place in Sloane Street. No use lying; I've been told you were there. You must have found out I was going away, and you've played old Harry. I didn't think you were a fellow of that sort; I had more faith in you."
Upon mutual recrimination followed an exchange of narratives. Greenacre's came first. He was the victim, he declared, of such ill luck as rarely befell a man. Arriving at Euston by the Irish mail, and hastening to get a cab, whom should he encounter on the very platform but a base-minded ruffian who nursed a spite against him; a low fellow who had taken advantage of his good nature, and who--in short, a man from whom it was impossible to escape, for several good reasons, until they had spent some hours together. He got off a telegram to Lord Polperro, and could do no more till nearly eleven o'clock at night. Arriving headlong at Lowndes Mansions, he learnt with disgust what had gone on there in his absence. And now, what defence had Gammon to offer? What was his game?
"I guess pretty well what yours is, my boy," answered the listener. "And I'm not sorry I've spoilt it."
Thereupon he related the singular train of events between breakfast time this (or rather yesterday) morning and the ringing out of the old year. When it came to a description of Lord Polperro's accident Greenacre lost all control of himself.
"Ass! blockhead! You know no better than to let such a man in his state of health get mixed up m a crowd of roughs at midnight? Good God! He may die!"
"I shouldn't wonder a bit," returned Gammon coolly. "If he does it may be awkward for you, eh?"
From his story he had omitted one detail, thinking it better to keep silence about the burning of the will until he learnt more than Greenacre had as yet avowed to him.
"Fool!" blustered the other. "Idiot!"
"You'd better stop that, Greenacre, or I shan't be the only man with a black eye. Do you want to be kicked downstairs? or would you prefer to drop out of the window? Keep a civil tongue in your head."
At this moment both were startled into silence by a violent thumping at the wall.
It came from the room which used to be occupied by Polly Sparkes, and was accompanied by angry verbal remonstrance from a lodger disturbed in his slumbers.
"Didn't I tell you?" muttered Gammon. "You'd better get home and go to bed; the walk will cool you down. It's all up with your little game for the present. Look here," he added in a friendly whisper, "you may as well tell me. Has he another wife?"
"Find out," was Greenacre's surly answer; "and go to the devil!"
A rush, a scuffling, a crash somewhere which shook the house. The disturbed lodger flung open his door and shouted objurgations. From below sounded the shrill alarm of Mrs. Bubb, from elsewhere the anxious outcries of Mrs. Cheeseman and her husband.
Amid all this Greenacre and his quondam friend somehow reached the foot of the stairs, where the darkness that enveloped their struggle was all at once dispersed by a candle in the hand of Mrs. Bubb.
"Don't alarm yourself," shouted Gammon cheerily, "I'm only kicking this fellow out. No one hurt."
"Well, Mr. Gammon, I do think--"
But the landlady's protest was cut short by a loud slamming of the house-door.
"It's nothing," said the man of commerce, breathing hard. "Very sorry to have disturbed you all. It shan't happen again. Good night, Mrs. Bubb."
He ran up to his room, laughed a good deal as he undressed, and was asleep five minutes afterwards. Before closing his eyes he said to himself that he must rise at seven; business claimed him tomorrow, and he felt it necessary to see Mrs. Clover (or Lady Polperro) with the least possible delay. However tired, Gammon could always wake at the hour he appointed. The dark, snowy morning found him little disposed to turn out; he had something of a headache, and a very bad taste in the mouth; for all that he faced duty with his accustomed vigour. Of course he had to leave the house without breakfast, but a cup of tea at the nearest eating-house supplied his immediate wants, and straightway he betook himself to the china shop near Battersea Park Road.
That was not a pleasant meeting with his friend Mrs. Clover. To describe all that had happened yesterday would have taxed his powers at any time; at eight-thirty a.m. on the first of January, his head aching and his stomach ill at ease, he was not likely to achieve much in the way of lucid narrative. Mrs. Clover regarded him with a severe look. His manifest black eye, and an unwonted slovenliness of appearance, could not but suggest that he had taken leave of the bygone year in a too fervid spirit. His explanations she found difficulty in believing, but the upshot of it all--the fact that her husband lay at St. Bartholomew's Hospital--seemed beyond doubt, and this it was that mainly concerned her.
"I shall go at once," she said in a hard tone, turning her face from him.
"But there's something else I must tell you," pursued Gammon, with much awkwardness. "You don't know--who to ask for."
The woman's eyes, even now not in their depths unkindly, searched him with a startled expression.
"I suppose I shall ask for Mr. Clover?"
"They wouldn't know who you meant. That isn't his real name."
A cry escaped her; she turned pale.
"Not his real name? I thought it--I was afraid of that! Who am I, then? What--what have I a right to call myself?"
With a glance at the door of the sitting-room, nervousness bringing the sweat to his forehead, Gammon told what he knew, all except the burning of the will, and the fact of Greenacre's mission to Ireland. The listener was at first sight utterly bewildered, looked incredulous, and only when certain details had been repeated and emphasized began to grasp the reality of what she heard.
"Oh!" she exclaimed at length in profound agitation, "that explains so many things! I never thought of this, but I've often wondered. I understand now."
She paused, struggling to control herself. Then, not without dignity, in the tone and with the face that are natural at such moments only to a woman here and there; the nobler of her sex, she added:
"I can't go to the hospital. Someone else must tell me about him. I can't go."
"I shall have time to call on my way," said Gammon, "and I could send you a wire."
"Will you? I can't go."
She sobbed, but quietly, hiding her face in her hands. Gammon, more distressed by her emotion than he had ever felt at the sight of a woman weeping, did his clumsy best to solace her. He would call at the hospital straight away and telegraph the news as soon as possible. And anything else he could learn about Lord Polperro should be made known to her without delay. He wrote on a piece of paper the address in Sloane Street, and that of the house in Stanhope Gardens. On the point of departure something occurred to him that it was wise to say.
"I shouldn't do anything just yet." He looked at her impressively. "In your position I should just wait a little. I'm sure it would be better, and I may be able to give you a reason before long."
"I shall do nothing--nothing."
"That's best, I assure you. You're not angry with me? You'll shake hands?"
She gave him her hand; withdrew it quickly; turned to hide her face again. And Gammon hastened Citywards.
A telegram came from him in little more than an hour. It reported that the patient was still unconscious and dangerously ill.
When, later in the afternoon, Gammon went to the hospital to make another inquiry he learnt that Lord Polperro was dead.
Turning away, debating whether to send the widow a. telegram or to break the news by word of mouth, he saw a cab drive up, out of which jumped Mr. Greenacre. Their eyes met, but they exchanged no sign of recognition. Scarcely, however, had Gammon walked a dozen yards when a quick step sounded behind him, and he was addressed in tones of the most conciliatory politeness.
"Gammon, may I beg one word? I owe you an apology. My behaviour last night was quite unjustifiable. I can only explain it by the fact that I had undergone a severe trial to the nerves. I was not myself. May I hope, my dear Gammon, to be forgiven? I apologize most humbly--believe me."
"Oh, that's all right," replied the other with a grin; "I hope I didn't hurt you?"
"My dear fellow, it would have served me right. But no--just a few trifling bruises. By the by, our friend has departed."
"Do you know, Gammon, I think we ought to have a quiet talk. You and I have common interests in this matter. There will be an inquest, you know, and the fact is I think"--he spoke very confidentially--"it might be as well for us both if we came to some sort of mutual understanding. As things have turned out we are victims of circumstances. Might I suggest with all deference that we should dine together very quietly? I know a very suitable place. It's early for dinner, but, to tell the truth, I have had no particular appetite, to-day; in fact, have hardly touched food."
Gammon accepted this invitation and decided to send a telegram to the china shop.
Their conference--tentative on both sides for the first half hour--led eventually to a frank disclosure of all that was in their minds with regard to Lord Polperro. Each possessed of knowledge that made him formidable to the other, should their attitude be one of mutual hostility, they agreed, in Greenacre's phrase, to "pool" all information and then see how they stood. Herein Gammon had the advantage; he learnt much more than it was in his power to communicate, for, whilst Greenacre had been playing a deliberate game, the man of commerce had become possessed of secrets only by chance, which his friend naturally could not believe.
Greenacre had been to Ireland on the track of a woman whom Lord Polperro had lost sight of for some five-and-twenty years; he had obtained satisfactory evidence that this woman was dead--a matter of some moment, seeing that, if still alive, she would have been his lordship's wife. The date of her death was seven years and a few months ago.
"By jorrocks!" cried the listener at this point, greatly disturbed. "Then Mrs. Clover--as we call her--wasn't really his wife at all?"
"I regret to say that she was not," replied Greenacre with proper solemnity. "I grieve to tell you that our deceased friend committed bigamy. Our deceased friend was a most peculiar man; I can't say that I approve of his life, viewed as a whole."
Then came Gammon's disclosure about the burning of the will and about Lord Polperro's intention to see his solicitor.
Greenacre smiled grimly.
"If I may make a personal remark, Gammon," he said in measured tones, "I will confess that I should never have allowed the destruction of that document. You, my friend, if I am not mistaken, had a still greater interest in preventing it. That will provided very handsomely for Mrs. Clover, for Miss Clover, and--I may say liberally--for a young lady named Miss Sparkes."
He smiled more grimly than ever.
Gammon drew in his breath and refrained from speech.
"Of course, I understand his motives," pursued Greenacre. "They were prudent, no doubt, and well meaning. He did not foresee that there would be no opportunity for that interview with his solicitor."
"Look here, Greenacre, I Want to know how you found out first of all that he'd married twice."
"Very simply; I took it for granted that he had. I am a student, as you know, of genealogy, also of human nature in general. In my first interview with Lord Polperro I let fall a word or two which obviously alarmed him. That was quite enough. In his singular state of mind he jumped to the conclusion that--as they say on the stage--I knew everything; and, of course, I very soon did; as much, that is to say, as he himself knew. He married at two-and-twenty a young girl whom he met in Ireland; married her in his right name--Trefoyle (not Clover)--and they travelled together for a year or two. Then somehow they parted, and never saw or heard of each other again. No, there was no child. I had little difficulty in persuading his lordship to let me investigate this matter for him; I did it with complete success. The girl belonged to a peasant family, I may tell you; she led, on the whole, a decidedly adventurous life, and died suddenly on a ship in which she was returning to the old country from America. I gather that she never knew her husband's aristocratic connexion. Of course, I was discretion itself whilst making these inquiries, and I feel pretty sure that no claim will ever be made from that quarter--the peasant family--on our friend's estate."
"Why, then," exclaimed Gammon, "what is to prevent Mrs. Clover from coming forward? She knows nothing; she needn't ever hear a word."
"Gammon, you surprise me. Clearly you haven't the legal mind. How could you reconcile yourself to stand by whilst the law of your country was so grossly defeated?"
"Humbug! Don't use such long words, old chap. But perhaps Polperro's family knew of the marriage?"
"They did not, I can assure you. Our friend was the kind of man who doesn't like the class in which he was born; he preferred a humbler station. He was never on very good terms with his relatives."
"Well, then," Gammon persisted, "who is to let them know that Mrs. Clover wasn't the real wife? Hanged if I see why she shouldn't come forward!"
"My friend," replied Greenacre, smiling gently, "it will be my privilege to make known all the facts of this case to the Honourable Miss Trefoyle, his lordship's sister and nearest surviving relative."
"I regard it as a simple duty. I cannot even argue the subject, Gammon; if you have no conscience, I have."
Gammon sat pondering until light began to break upon him. The other, meanwhile, watched his countenance.
"I see," he said at length bluntly. "You think it'll do you more good to take that side. I see."
"Gammon, my leanings are aristocratic. They always were. It puts me at a disadvantage sometimes in our democratic society. But I disregard that. You may call it prejudice. I, for my part, prefer to call it principle. I take my stand always on the side of birth and position. When you have thought about it I am sure you will forgive this weakness in me. It need not affect our friendship."
"Wait a bit. There's another question I want to ask. What had Lord Polperro to do with the Quodlings?"
"The Quodlings? Ah! I grieve to tell you that Francis Quodling, an illegitimate half-brother of our friend, had of late given trouble to his lordship. Francis Quodling has long been in Queer Street; he seemed to think that he had a claim--a natural claim, I might say--on Lord Polperro. When you first met his lordship he had been seeing the other Quodling on this matter. Pure kindness of heart-- he was very kind-hearted. He wanted to heal a breach between the brothers, and, if possible, to get Francis a partnership in the firm--your firm. I fear he exerted himself vainly."
"Greenacre!" exclaimed the man of commerce, thumping the table. "It's beastly hard lines that that woman and her daughter shouldn't have a penny!"
"I agree with you. By the by, you have told her?"
"Yes, this morning."
"Gammon, you are so impulsive. Still, I suppose she had to know. Yes, I suppose it was inevitable. Will she molest his relatives do you think?"
"She?" Gammon reflected. "I can't quite see her doing it. She may be a bit angry, but--no, I don't think she'll bother anybody. I can't see her doing it."
And still he meditated.
"You reserve to yourself; I presume, the duty of acquainting her with these painful facts?"
"Me tell her? Why, I suppose I must if it comes to that. But--I'm hanged if I shall enjoy it. Who else knows? Jorrocks! there's Polly. I'd forgotten Polly!"
Gammon grew perplexed in mind and shadowed in countenance. Of a truth Polly Sparkes had not once entered his mind since he saw her yesterday. But he must see her again, and that to-night. Whew! He would now have given a substantial sum to deprive Polly of the knowledge he had so recklessly confided to her.
"You are impulsive, my friend," remarked the other, quietly amused. "Impulsive and lacking in foresight."
"And you--Never mind; I won't say it. Still, you used to be a puzzle to me, Greenacre; now I feel as if I was beginning to understand you a bit."
The man of foresight--he was remarkably well-dressed this evening--watched the smoke from his cigarette and smiled.