The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXIV. The Traveller's Fickleness and Fraud
In due course a coroner and his jury sat on the body of Lord Polperro; in the order of things this inquest was publicly reported.
Readers of newspapers learnt that the eccentric nobleman, though in a weak state of health, had the indiscretion to mingle with a crowd on New Year's Eve; that he either accidentally fell or was knocked down by some person unknown in the rough-and-tumble of the hour; in short, that his death might fairly be accounted for by misadventure. The results of the autopsy were not made known in detail, but a professional whisper went about that among the causes contributory to Lord Polperro's death were congestion of the lungs, softening of the brain, chronic inflammation of the stomach, drunkard's liver, and Bright's disease of the kidneys.
The unprofessional persons who came forward were Mr. Gammon, Lord Polperro's housekeeper, and Miss Trefoyle. The name of Greenacre was not so much as mentioned; the existence of a lady named Mrs. Clover remained unknown to court and public.
On the following day Mr. Gammon had a private interview with Miss Trefoyle. He was aware that this privilege had already been sought by and granted to Mr. Greenacre, and as his one great object was to avert shame and sorrow from his friends at Battersea Park, Gammon acquitted himself with entire discretion; that is to say, he did not allow Miss Trefoyle to suspect that there had been anything between him and her brother except a sort of boon companionship. In behaving thus he knew that he was acting as Mrs. Clover most earnestly desired. Not many hours before he had discharged what he felt to be his duty, had made known to Mrs. Clover the facts of her position, and had heard the unforgettable accent of her voice as she entreated him to keep this secret. That there might be no doubt as to the truth of Greenacre's assertions he had accompanied that gentleman to Somerset House, and had perused certain entries in the registers of marriage and of death indicated to him by his friend's forefinger; clearly then, if he and Greenacre kept silence, it would never become known, even to Polperro's kinsfolk, that his lordship had been guilty of bigamy.
Stay! one other person knew the true name of Mrs. Clover's husband--Polly Sparkes.
"Polly be hanged," muttered Gammon.
"When is the wedding?" Greenacre inquired casually in one of their conversations.
"Wedding? Whose wedding?"
Gammon's face darkened. A change had come about in his emotions. He was afraid of Polly, he was weary of Polly, he heartily wished he had never seen Polly's face. For self-scrutiny Gammon had little inclination and less aptitude; he could not have explained the origin and progress of his nearer relations with Miss Sparkes. Going straight to the point, like a man of business, he merely knew that he had made a condemnable mistake, and the question was how to put things right.
"There's one bit of luck," he remarked, instead of answering the inquiry, "she isn't on speaking terms with her aunt."
"I'm rather glad to hear that. But do you think she'll hold out against her curiosity?"
"In any case she won't learn anything from Mrs. Clover. I'm pretty sure of that."
"I can only hope you're right about Mrs. Clover," said Greenacre musingly. "If so, she must be a rather uncommon sort of woman, especially--if you will excuse the remark--in that class."
"She is," replied Gammon with noteworthy emphasis. "I don't know a woman like her--no one like her. I wouldn't mind betting all I have that she'll never speak a word as long as she lives about that man. She'll never tell her daughter. Minnie will suppose that her father turned up somehow just for a few hours and then went off again for good and all."
"Remarkable woman," murmured Greenacre. "It saves trouble, of course."
Possibly he was reflecting whether it might be to his advantage or not to reveal this little matter in Stanhope Gardens. Perhaps it seemed to him on the whole that he had done wisely in making known to Miss Trefoyle only the one marriage (which she might publish or not as her conscience dictated), and that his store of private knowledge was the richer by a detail he might or might not some day utilize. For Mr. Greenacre had a delicacy of his own. He did not merely aim at sordid profits. In avowing his weakness for aristocratic companionship he told a truth which explained many singularities in what would otherwise have been a career of commonplace dishonesty.
"I suppose she must be told," said Gammon with bent head. "Polly, I mean."
"Miss Sparkes is a young lady of an inquiring spirit. She will want to know why she does not benefit by Lord Polperro's death."
"You told her yourself about the will, remember."
"I did. As things turn out it was a pity. By the by, I should like to have seen that document. As Cuthbertson has no knowledge of it, our deceased friend no doubt drafted it himself. More likely than not it would have been both amusing and profitable to the lawyers, like his father's in the days of our youth. I wonder whether he called Mrs. Clover his wife? We shall never solve all these interesting doubts."
"I had better not let Polly know he burnt it," remarked Gammon.
"Why, no; I shouldn't advise that," said the other with a smile. "But I have heard that married men--"
"Shut up! I'm not going to marry her."
Driven to this bold declaration, Gammon at once felt such great relief that he dared everything.
"Then there'll be the devil to pay," said Greenacre.
"Wait a bit. Of course I shall take my time about breaking off."
"Gammon, I am surprised and shocked--not for the first time--at your utter want of principle."
Each caught the other's eye. The muscles of their faces relaxed, and they joined in a mirthful peal.
It was a long and exciting week for the town traveller. Greenacre, always on the look out for romance in common life, was never surprised when he discovered it, but to Gammon it came with such a sense of novelty that he had much ado to keep a clear head for everyday affairs. He drove about London as usual, but beset with fantastic visions and desires. Not only was Polly quite dismissed from his thoughts (in the tender sense), but he found himself constantly occupied with the image of Mrs. Clover, heretofore seldom in his mind, notwithstanding her brightness and comeliness and the friendship they had so long felt for each other. Minnie he had forgotten; the mother came before him in such a new light that he could hardly believe his former wish to call her mother-in-law. This strange emotion was very disturbing. As if he had not worry enough already!
Delicacy kept him away from the china shop. He knew how hard it must be for the poor woman to disguise her feelings before Minnie and other people. Minnie, to be sure, would understand signs of distress as a result of her father's brief reappearance, but Mrs. Clover's position was no less lamentable. He wished to be at her side endeavouring to console her. Yet, as likely as not, all he said would give her more pain than comfort.
Ah, but there was a woman! Was he likely ever to meet another who had pluck and goodness and self-respect like hers? Minnie? Some day, perhaps, being her mother's daughter. But Minnie, after all, was little more than a child. And he could no longer think of her in the old way it made him uncomfortable if he tried to do so.
Polly? Ah, Polly! Polly be hanged!
He had an appointment with her for this evening--not at the theatre door, for Polly no longer went to the theatre. Change in the management had put an end to her pleasant and lucrative evenings; she had tried in vain to get like employment at other places. In a letter received this morning she remarked significantly that of course it was not worth while to take up any other pursuit again.
It could not be called a delightful letter from any point of view. Polly had grown tired of uniform sweetness, and indulged herself in phrases of an acid flavour.
"Haven't you got anything yet to tell me about the will? If I don't hear anything from you before long I shall jolly well go and ask somebody else. I believe you know more than you want to tell, which I call it shameful. Mind you bring some news to-night."
They met at six o'clock in the Lowther Arcade; it was raining, cold, and generally comfortless. By way of cheery beginning Gammon declared that he was hungry, and invited Miss Sparkes to eat with him.
They transferred themselves to a restaurant large enough to allow of their conversing as they chose under cover of many noises. Gammon had by this time made up his mind to a very bold step, a stratagem so audacious that assuredly it deserved to succeed. Only despair could have supplied him with such a suggestion and with the nerve requisite for carrying it out.
"What about that will?" asked Polly, as soon as they were seated and the order had been given
"There is no will."
This answer, and the carelessness with which it was uttered, took away Polly's breath. She glared, and unconsciously handled a table knife in an alarming way.
"What d'you mean? Who are you kidding?"
"He's left no will. And what's more, if he had, your name wouldn't have been in it, old girl."
"Oh, indeed! We'll soon see about that! I'll go straight from 'ere to that 'ouse, see if I don't I'll see his sister for myself this very night, so there!"
"Go it, Polly, you're welcome, my dear. You'll wake 'em up in Stanhope Gardens."
The waiter interrupted their colloquy. Gammon began to eat; Polly, heeding not the savoury dish, kept fierce eyes upon him.
"What d'you mean? Don't go stuffing like a pig but listen to me, and tell me what you're up to."
"You're talking about Lord P., ain't you?" asked Gammon in a lower voice.
"Course I am."
"And you think he was your uncle? So did I till a few days ago. Well, Polly, he wasn't. Lord P. didn't know you from Adam, nor your aunt either."
He chuckled, and ate voraciously. The artifice seemed to him better and better, enjoyment of it gave him a prodigious appetite.
"If you'll get on with your eating I'll tell you about it. Do you remember what I told you about the fellow Quodling in the City? Well, listen to this. Lord P. had another brother knocking about--you understand, a brother--like Quodling, who had no name of his own. And this brother, Polly, is your uncle Clover."
Miss Sparkes did not fail to understand, but she at once and utterly declined to credit the statement.
"You mean to say it wasn't Lord P. at all as I met--as I saw at the theatre?"
"You saw his illegitimate brother, your uncle, and never Lord P. at all. Now just listen. This fellow who called himself Clover is a precious rascal. We don't know as much about him as we'd like to, but I dare say we shall find out more. How did he come to be sitting with those ladies in the theatre, you're wanting to ask? Simple enough. Knowing his likeness to the family of Lord Polperro he palmed himself off on them as a distant relative, just come back from the colonies; they were silly enough to make things soft for him. He seems to have got money, no end of it, out of Lord P. No doubt he was jolly frightened when you spotted him, and you know how he met you once or twice and tipped you. That's the story of your Uncle Clover, Polly."
The girl was impressed. She could believe anything ill of Mrs. Clover's husband. Her astonishment at learning that he was a lord had never wholly subsided. That he should be a cunning rascal seemed vastly more probable.
"But what about that letter you sent--eh?" pursued Gammon with an artful look. "Didn't you address it to Lord P. himself? So you did, Polly. But listen to this. By that time Lord P. and his people had found out Clover's little game; never mind how, but they had. You remember that he wouldn't come again to meet you at Lincoln's Inn. Good reason, old girl; he had had to make himself scarce. Lord P. had set a useful friend of his--that's Greenacre--to look into Clover's history. Greenacre, you must know, is a private detective." He nodded solemnly. "Well now, when your letter came to Lord P. he showed it to Greenacre, and they saw at once that it couldn't be meant for him, but no doubt was meant for Clover. 'I'll see to this,' said Greenacre. And so he came to meet us that night."
"But it was you told me he was Lord P.," came from the listener.
"I did, Polly. Not to deceive you, my dear, but because I was taken in myself. I'd found what they call a mare's nest. I was on the wrong scent. I take all the blame to myself."
"But why did Greenacre go on with us like that? Why didn't he say at once that it wasn't Lord P. as had met me?"
"Why? Because private detectives are cautious chaps. Greenacre wanted to catch Clover, and didn't care to go talking about the story to everybody. He deceived me, Polly, just as much as you."
She had begun to eat, swallowing a mouthful now and then mechanically, the look of resentful suspicion still on her face.
"And what do you think?" pursued her companion, after a delicious draught of lager beer. "Would you believe that only a day or two before Lord P.'s death the fellow Clover went to your aunt's house, to the china shop, and stayed overnight there! What do you think of that, eh? He did. Ask Mrs. Clover. He went there to hide, and to get money from his wife."
This detail evidently had a powerful effect. Polly ate and drank and ruminated, one eye on the speaker.
"I got to know of that," went on the wily Gammon. "And I told Greenacre. And Greenacre made me tell it to Lord P. himself. And that's how I came to be with Lord P. on New Year's Eve! Now you've got it all."
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Polly with ferocity.
"Ah, why? I was ashamed to, my dear. I couldn't own up that I'd made a fool of myself and you too."
"How did you know that he'd been at my aunt's?"
"She sent for me, Polly; sent for me and told me, because I was an old friend. And I was so riled at the fellow coming and going in that way that I spoke to Greenacre about it. And then Greenacre told me how things were. I felt a fool, I can tell you. But the fact is, I never saw two men so like in the face as Clover and Lord P."
"When you was there--at my aunt's--did you talk about me?" asked the girl with a peculiar awkwardness.
"Not a word, I swear! We were too much taken up with the other business."
For a minute or two neither spoke.
"And you mean to say," burst at length from Polly, "that my uncle's still alive and going about?"
"All alive and kicking, not a doubt of it, and Lord P. buried at Kensal Green; no will left behind him, and all his property going to the next of kin, of course. Now listen here, Polly. I want to tell you that I shouldn't wonder if you have a letter from Greenacre. He may be asking you to meet him."
"Just to have a talk about Clover--see? He's still after Clover, and he thinks you might be of use to him. I leave it to you--understand? You can meet him if you like; there's no harm. He'll tell you all the story if you ask him nicely."
On this idea, which had occurred to him in the course of his glowing mendacity, Gammon acted as soon as he and Polly had said good-bye. He discovered Greenacre, who no longer slept at the Bilboes, but in a house of like cosiness and obscurity a little farther west; told him of the brilliant ingenuity with which he had escaped from a galling complication, and received his promise of assistance in strengthening the plot. Greenacre wrote to Polly that very night, and on the morrow conversed with her, emphasizing by many devices the secrecy and importance of their interview. Would Polly engage to give him the benefit of her shrewdness, her knowledge of life, in his search for the man Clover? His air of professional eagerness, his nods, winks, and flattery so wrought upon the girl that she ceased to harbour suspicion. Her primitive mind, much fed on penny fiction, accepted all she was told, and in the consciousness of secret knowledge affecting lords and ladies she gave up without a sigh the air-drawn vision of being herself actually a member of an aristocratic family.
At the same time she thought of Gammon with disappointment, with vague irritation, and began all but to wish that she had never weakly pardoned him for his insulting violence at Mrs. Bubbs'.