Chapter XXVI. A Double Event
 

With clang and twang the orchestra (a music-hall orchestra) summoned to hilarity an audience of the first half-hour; stragglers at various prices, but all alike in their manifest subdual by a cold atmosphere, a dull illumination, empty seats, and inferior singers put on for the early "turns." A striking of matches to kindle pipe or cigar, a thudding of heavy boots, clink of glass or pewter, and a waiter's spiritless refrain--"Any orders, gents?" Things would be better presently. In the meantime Mr. Gammon was content to have found a place where he could talk with Polly, sheltered from the January night, at small expense. He sipped thoughtfully from a tumbler of rich Scotch; he glanced cautiously at his companion, who seemed very much under the influence of the hour. Polly, in fact, had hardly spoken. Her winter costume could not compare in freshness and splendour with that which had soothed her soul through the bygone sunny season; to tell the truth, she was all but shabby. But Gammon had no eye for this. He was trying to read Polly's thoughts, and wondering how she could take what he had made up his mind to tell her.

" I saw your aunt yesterday."

"You did?"

"Yes, I did. She was telling me about a letter she had from you some time ago--the last letter you wrote her."

Their eyes met. Miss Sparkes was defiant--on her guard, but not wholly courageous; Gammon twinkled a mocking smile, and held himself ready for whatever might come.

"She shows you people's letters, does she?" said Polly with a sneer.

"This one she did. Good reason. It was funny reading, old girl. That's your opinion of me, is it? Do you mind telling me who the gentleman is--the real gentleman--you think of taking up with?"

Gammon could not strike a really ungenerous note. He had meant to be severe, but did not get beyond sly banter.

"She's a cat for showing it to you!" replied Miss Sparkes. "That was wrote before we--you know what. It was after you'd took your 'ook that Sunday on the Embankment. I didn't mean it. I was a bit cross. I'll pay her out some day for this, see if I don't."

Much more did Polly say, the gist of it all being an evident desire to soothe her companion's feelings. Gammon found himself in an unexpected and awkward position. He had taken for granted an outbreak of violence, he had counted upon the opportunity of mutual invective, he wished to tell Polly to go further. In the face of such singular mildness he was at a loss for weapons. Mere brutality would soon have settled the matter, but of that Mr. Gammon was incapable. At this juncture too, as if in support of Polly's claim to indulgence, a strain, irresistible by heart of man, preluded a song of the affections. Gammon began to understand what a mistake it was to have brought Polly to a music-hall for the purpose of breaking with her. Under cover of the languishing lyric Miss Sparkes put her head nearer to him.

"What am I to do, eh?"

"To do?"

"I cawn't go on like this. Do you want me to get another job somewhere? I sh'd think you might see I cawn't wear this jacket much longer."

The crisis was dreadful. Gammon clutched at the only possible method of appeasing his conscience, and postponing decisive words he took Polly's hand--poorly gloved--and secretly pressed the palm with a coin, which Polly in less than a clock-tick ascertained to be one pound sterling. She smiled. "What's that for?"

"For--for the present."

And in this way another evening went by, leaving things as before.

"I'd never have believed I was such a fool," said Gammon to himself at a late hour. He meant, of course, that experience was teaching him for the first time the force of a moral obligation, which, as theorist, he had always held mere matter for joke. He by no means prided himself on this newly-acquired perception; he saw it only as an obstacle to business-like behaviour. But it was there, and--by jorrocks! the outlook began to alarm him.

Meanwhile Mr. Greenacre was pursuing a laudable object. Greatly pleased at the dexterity with which Miss Sparkes had been hoodwinked in the matter of Lord Polperro and her Uncle Clover, he determined to set all at rest in that direction by making Polly believe that Mr. Clover, her uncle himself as distinct from Lord Polperro, was also dead and gone and done for. Gammon knew of the design and strongly favoured it, for he was annoyed by Mrs. Clover's false position; he wished her to be proclaimed a widow, without the necessity of disagreeable revelations.

An exciting post card brought about one more interview between Miss Sparkes and the so-called private detective. They met in a spot chosen for its impressiveness, the City office of a great line of ocean steamers. When Polly had with some difficulty discovered the place and entered shyly she was met by Greenacre, who at once drew her aside and began talking in a whisper with much show of worry and perturbation. In his hand rustled a printed form, with a few words in pencil.

"It's all over, Miss Sparkes. We have no more hope. This last cable settles it. Don't let me agitate you. But I thought it best that you should come here and see the cable for yourself." Sinking his voice and with his lips at her ear he added, "Your uncle is dead."

Polly was not overcome.

"Is it reely him this time?"

"Clover--not a doubt of it. I got on his track, but too late, he was off to South Africa. Here is a cable from the Cape. He died at sea--some obscure disease, probably an affection of the heart--and was buried off the West Coast. Read it for yourself. 'Clover, second cabin passenger, died and buried 23.4 S., 8.2 S.; effects await instructions.' There he lies at the bottom of the sea, poor fellow. This is only a confirmatory cable; I have spent lots of money in learning particulars. Perhaps you would like to see one of the officials about it, Miss Sparkes? Unfortunately they can only repeat what I have told you."

Polly had no desire to hold converse with these gentlemen; she was thoroughly awed and convinced by Greenacre's tones and the atmosphere of the office.

"I have already communicated with your aunt. I dare say you would like to go and see her."

But neither for this had Polly any present inclination. She wanted to be alone and to reflect. Having made sure that she was not likely to visit Mrs. Clover forthwith, Greenacre took his leave, blending a decent melancholy with the air of importance and hurry proper to a man involved in so much business.

This week she had not entered for the missing word competition; and as few things interested Polly in which she had no personal concern, the morning on which the result was published found her in her ordinary frame of mind. She was thinking of Gammon, determined to hold him to his engagement, but more out of obstinacy than in obedience to the dictates of her heart, which had of late grown decidedly less fervid. Gammon could keep her respectably; he would make a very presentable husband; she did not fear ill treatment from him. On the other hand, she felt only too certain that he would be the stronger. When it came to a struggle (the inevitable result of marriage in Polly's mind) Gammon was not the man to give in. She remembered the battle at Mrs. Bubb's. All very well, that kind of thing, in days of courtship, but after marriage--no! Some girls might be willing to find their master. Polly had always meant to rule, and that undisputedly.

Breakfasting in her bedroom at ten o'clock, she was surprised by the receipt of a telegram. It came from Christopher Parish and ran thus:

"Great news. Do meet me at entrance to Liverpool Street Station one o'clock. Wonderful news."

What this news could be puzzled her for a moment; then she remembered that Mr. Parish had spoke of a possible "rise" at Swettenham's early in the New Year. That must be it. He had got an increase of salary; perhaps five shillings a week more; no doubt.

Would that make any difference? Was it "good enough"? So her thoughts phrased the anxious question.

Regarding Christopher one thing was certain--he would be her very humble slave. She imagined herself his wife, she pictured him inclining to revolt, she saw the results of that feeble insubordination, and laughed aloud. Christopher was respectable; he would undoubtedly continue to rise at Swettenham's, he would take a pride in the magnificence of her costume. When her temper called for natural relief she could quarrel with him by the hour without the least apprehension, and in the end would graciously forgive him. Yes, there was much to be said for Christopher.

A little before one o'clock she was at Liverpool Street, sheltered from a drizzle that brought down all the smoke of myriad chimneys. A slim figure in overcoat and shining hat rushed through the puddles towards her, waving an umbrella to the peril of other people speeding only less frantically.

"Polly! I've got it!"

He could gasp no more; he seized her arm as if for support.

"How much is it?" she asked calmly.

"Five hundred and fifty pounds! Hyjene!"

"What--five hundred and fifty a year?"

Christopher stared at her.

"You don't understand. The missing word. I've got it this week. Cheque for five hundred and fifty pounds! Hyjene!"

"Reely!"

"Look here--here's the cheque! Hyjene!"

Polly fingered the paper, studied the inscription. All the time she was thinking that this sum of money would furnish a house in a style vastly superior to that of Mrs. Nibby's. Mrs. Nibby would go black in the face with envy, hatred, and malice. As she reflected Christopher talked, drawing her to the least-frequented part of the huge roaring railway station.

"Will you, Polly? Why don't you speak? Do, Polly, do!"

She all but spoke, would have done but for an ear-rending whistle from an engine.

"I shall have a rise, too, Polly. I'm feeling my feet at Swettenham's. Who knows what I may get to? Polly, I might--I might some day have a big business of my own, and build a house at Eastbourne. It's all on the cards, Polly. Others have done it before me. Swettenham began as a clerk--he did. Think Polly, five hundred and fifty pounds!--Hyjene!"

She met his eye; she nodded.

"You will?"

"Don't mind if I do."

"Hooray! Hyjene forever! Hooray-ay-ay!"