The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXV. The Missing Word
Just at this time the inhabitants of England--one might say of the British Isles--but more especially those privileged to dwell in London and its suburbs, submitted to one of the waves of intellectual excitement which, as is well known, are wont at intervals to pass over this fervidly imaginative people. Some representative person--ingenious, philosophic, and ardent for the public good--had conceived in a bright moment a thought destined to stir with zeal the pensive leisure of millions. This genius owned, or edited, a weekly paper already dear to the populace, and one day he announced in its columns a species of lottery--ignoble word dignified by the use here made of it. Readers of adequate culture were invited to exercise their learning and their wit in the conjectural completion of a sentence--no quotation, but an original apophthegm--whereof one word was represented by a blank. Each competitor sent, together with the fruit of his eager brain, a small sum of money, and the brilliant enthusiast who at the earliest moment declared the missing word reaped as guerdon the total of these numerous remittances. It was an amusement worthy of our time; it appealed alike to the villa and the humble lodging, encouraged the habit of literary and logical discussion, gave an impulse to the sale of dictionaries. High and low, far and wide, a spirit of noble emulation took hold upon the users of the English tongue. "The missing word"--from every lip fell the phrase which had at first sounded so mysteriously; its vogue exceeded that, in an earlier time, of "the missing link." The demand for postage stamps to be used in transmitting the entrance fee threatened to disorganize that branch of the public service; sorting clerks and letter carriers, though themselves contributory, grew dismayed at the additional labour imposed upon them.
Naturally the infection was caught by most of the lively little group of Londoners in whose fortunes we are interested. Mr. Gammon threw himself with mirthful ardour into a competition which might prove so lucrative. Mr. Greenacre gave part of his supple mind to this new branch. of detective energy. The newly-wedded pair, Mr. and Mrs. Nibby, ceased from the wrangling that follows upon a honeymoon, and incited each other to a more profitable contest. The Parish household devoted every possible moment with native earnestness to the choice and the weighing of vocables. Polly Sparkes, unable to get upon the track of her missing uncle, abandoned her fiery intelligence to the missing word. The Cheeseman couple, Mrs. Bubb, nay, even Moggie the general, dared verbal conjecture and risked postage stamps. Only in a certain china shop near Battersea Park Road was the tumult unregarded, for Mrs. Clover had fallen from her wonted health, her happy temper, and Minnie in good truth cared neither for the recreation nor the dangled prize.
When Gammon and Polly met they talked no longer of Lord Polperro or Uncle Clover, but of words.
"I've got it this time, Polly! I swear I've got it! 'Undeserved misfortune is often a--to the noble mind.' Why, it's stimulus, of course!"
"I never heard the word," declared Polly. "I'm sending in stroke."
"Stroke? What do you mean by that?"
"What do I mean by it? Why, what they want to say is, that 'Undeserved misfortune is often a blow to the noble mind,' don't they? But blow can't be the word, 'cause everybody'd get it. The dictionary gives stroke for blow, and I'm sure that's it."
"Rot! they don't mean to say that at all! It ain't a blow to the noble mind, it's just the opposite; that's what they mean."
"How can it be the opposyte?" shrilled Polly. "Ain't it a knock-down if you get what you don't deserve?"
"I tell you they don't mean that. Can't you understand? Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face."
"Is it?" retorted Polly with indignation. "If I've got a plain nose, why didn't you tell me so before? If that's your way of talking to a lady--"
"Don't be a fool, Polly! It's a saying, ain't it?"
And they parted as usual, in dudgeon on both sides, which was not soothed when both found themselves wrong in the literary contest; for the missing word this week, discovered by an East-end licensed victualler, was pick-me-up.
Public opinion found fault with this editorial English. There rose a general murmur; the loftier spirits demanded a purer vocabulary, the multitude wanted to know whether that licensed victualler really existed. All looked for an easy word next week; easy it must be this time, or the game would begin to lose its zest. When the new number went forth in its myriads of copies, and was snatched from street vendors, stalls, shops, general expectation seemed to be justified.
"As nations grow civilized they give more and more attention to--"
Every man, every woman, had a word ready. Mr. Greenacre said nothing, but hastily wrote down genealogy. Gammon, before consulting with Polly Sparkes, sent off his postage stamps and commerce. Mr. and Mrs. Parish declared in one shout that the word could only be hyjene.
"Nonsense!" said Christopher, who was in the room. "That's just because you're always thinking of it."
For all that, as he went to business the word hummed in his head. It might be the solution after all; his objection originated only in scorn of a word so familiar, and therefore, he had thought at first, so improbable. But, really, the more he thought of it--
In his pocket he carried an envelope, already addressed, and a blank sheet of paper enfolding stamps. Should he once more enter the lottery--risk the price of a luncheon? He had resolved not to do so, but every moment the temptation gained upon him. "Hyjene." By the by, how did one spell the word? H-y--he grew uncertain at the third letter. Misspelling, he knew, would invalidate his chance; on the other hand, he must post as soon as possible; already thousands of answers were on their way to the office of the editor.
He was sitting in a London Bridge tram-car. At its next stoppage there entered a staid old gentleman, with whom he had made the Cityward journey for years; they always nodded to each other. This morning the grave senior chanced to take a place at his side, and a greeting passed between them. Christopher felt a sudden impulse, upon which he acted before timidity and other obstacles could interfere.
"Would you tell me, sir," he whispered, "the c'rect spelling of hyjene; meaning 'ealthiness, you know?"
"Why, what a queer thing!" answered his neighbour with all friendliness. "I've just been reading the word in the paper. Here is it."
He folded the sheet conveniently for Christopher's inspection, and pointed--
Mr. Parish read eagerly, his eyes close to the print, dreading lest he should forget.
"Thanks very much, sir. I--a friend of mine told me I was wrong. I knew I wasn't--thanks awfully!"
The white-haired man smiled approval, and returned to his study of the news. Christopher kept spelling the word in silence, and though the weather was very cold, soon perspired under the dread that he had got a letter wrong. At St. George's Church agitation quite overcame him; he hurried from the car, ran into a by-street, and with his pocket pencil wrote on the blank sheet of paper "Hygiene." Yes, he had it right. It looked right. Now for the nearest letter-box.
But his faith in "Hygiene" had risen to such fervour that he dreaded the delay of postal delivery. Why not carry the letter himself to the editorial office, which was at no very great distance? He would, even though it made him late at Swettenham's. And he began to run.
Panting, but exultant, he delivered his answer in the national competition, thus gaining a march upon the unhappy multitudes who dwelt far away, and whose resource and energy fell short of his. Then he looked at the time and was frightened; he would be dreadfully unpunctual at business; Swettenham's might meet him with stern rebuke. There was nothing for it, he hailed a cab.
Only in the middle of the morning did he remember that he had in his pocket a love-letter to Polly Sparkes, which he had meant to post early. He had seen Polly a few days ago, and suspected that she was in some sort of trouble and difficulty, possibly--though she denied it--caused by her want of employment. Polly declared that she had resources which enabled her to take a holiday. Not very long ago such a statement would have racked Christopher with jealous suspicions; suspicious he was, and a little uneasy, but not to the point of mental torture. The letter in his pocket declared that he could never cease to love Polly, and that he groaned over the poverty which condemned him to idle hopes; for all that, he thought much less of her just now than of the missing word. And when, in the luncheon hour, he posted his amorous missive, it was with almost a careless hand.
On this same day it happened that Mr. Gammon, speeding about his business in Messrs. Quodlings' neat little trap, found he could conveniently stop for a midday meal somewhere near Battersea Park Road. The boy who accompanied him took the horse to bait, and Mr. Gammon presently directed his steps to the little china shop.
Mrs. Clover had just finished dinner; her female assistant had returned into the shop, and by her Gammon sent a request for a moment's private conversation. He soon entered the sitting-room
"It's strange you have looked in to-day," said Mrs. Clover, with the dull air of one who has a headache. "I wanted to see you."
"I'm very glad."
He sat down at a distance from her and observed her face. This was a new habit of his; he saw more, much more, than he had been wont to see in the healthy, sweet-tempered, and still young countenance; its present languor disturbed him
"What was it, Mrs. Clover?" he asked in a voice not quite like his own.
"Well, I wanted to speak about Polly. Her father has been here asking questions."
Gammon set his lips almost angrily.
"I don't know as anything is. But--have you heard anything about her going to be married?"
"Has she told her father that?" he asked, with a shuffle of his feet.
"Not in plain words. But she's doing nothing--except roam about the streets--and she won't give any straightforward account of herself. Now would you mind telling me, Mr. Gammon, whether"--her eyes fell--"I mean, if you've done anything since that night, you know, to make her offended with you?"
"Offended? Not that I know of," was his prompt answer with genuine surprise.
Mrs. Clover watched him, and seemed not dissatisfied.
"I'll tell you why I ask. Some time ago she wrote me a queer letter. It said she was going to be married--or thought about it; and there was something I couldn't understand about you. I shall show you that letter. I think it's only right."
She withdrew for a moment and returned with Polly's abusive epistle, which she handed to her visitor.
Gammon first read it, then looked for a date, but none was discernible.
"When did you get this?" he asked.
Mrs. Clover could mention the very day, and on reflecting Gammon felt sure that Polly must have written this just before the exciting events which threw him and her into each other's arms. In the same moment he recalled Polly's eagerness to become possessed of a letter she had posted to him--the letter he was not to open.
"You may well say it's queer." He laughed and laughed again. "She gives me a nice character, eh? And you've been wondering what I'd done? All I've got to say is, that it's a blessed lie from beginning to end. But perhaps you won't believe me?"
"I will believe you if you tell me plain and straight that you hadn't done anything wrong--nothing to be ashamed of."
"Well, then, I do tell you that. I never gave her the least cause to speak of me in that way. It's all lies."
"I more than half thought it was."
Mrs. Clover heaved a sigh and looked more cheerful.
"And what," she added, "does she mean about marrying a gentleman?"
"That's more than I can tell you."
Again he laughed, laughed like a man enjoying sudden relief of mind.
"More than I can tell you, Mrs. Clover. But I'll see if I can't find out; indeed I will. Her friends, the Nibby's, may be able to tell me something. Have you asked her to come and see you?"
"No. For one thing I don't know the address, and after a letter like this--"
"Quite right. Leave it to me." He bent his head, hesitated, and added quietly, "I may have something to tell you."
Thereupon they parted, and Mrs. Clover felt her head so much better that she was able to attend to business.