The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXVII. The Traveller at Rest
Two or three days after this Gammon heard unexpectedly from Mrs. Clover, who enclosed for his perusal a letter she had just received from Polly Sparkes. What, she asked, could be the meaning of Polly's reference to her deceased uncle? Was there never to be an end of mysteries and miseries in relation to that unhappy man?
Turning to Polly's scrawl (which contrasted so strongly with Mrs. Clover's neat, clear hand), Gammon discovered the passage which had disturbed his correspondent. "You mustn't expect me to go into black for your husband, for uncle I won't call him. I heard about him coming to you for money and then taking his hook because detectives was after him. A nice sort of man. It's a pity he had to be buried at the bottom of the sea, where you can't put up a monniment to him, as I'm sure you would like to do. So this is all I have to say, and I shall not trouble you again."
Here was no puzzle for Gammon, who had approved Greenacre's scheme for finally getting rid of Mr. Clover. But Polly's letter began with an announcement which occasioned him the greatest surprise he had known since the identification of Clover with Lord Polperro. So completely did it engross and confuse his mind that not until some quarter of an hour elapsed could he think about the passage quoted above. "I write to inform you," began Miss Sparkes, without any introductory phrase, "that I am going to be married to a gentleman who has a high place at Swettenham's, the big tea merchants, and his name is Mr. Parish. He has won the missing word, which is five hundred and fifty pounds, and which, every penny of it, he will spend on furniture at one of the best places. You shall have one of our cards when we send them out, though I cannot say you have behaved accordingly. The reason I do not invite you to the wedding is because Mr. Parish's friends are very particular."
After reading these remarkable lines again and again Mr. Gammon was much disposed to shout; but something restrained him. He felt, perhaps, that shouting would be inadequate or even inappropriate. When his first emotions subsided he went quietly forth from the house (it was evening) and took a walk about the adjacent streets, stopping at a stationer's to purchase note-paper. Returned to his room he gently whistled an old-fashioned melody; his face passed from grave thoughtfulness to a merry smile. Before going to bed he meant to write a letter, but there was no hurry; two hours had to pass before the midnight collection.
The letter was brief, lucid, sensible. He explained to Mrs. Clover that the painfulness and difficulty of her situation since Lord Polperro's death had impelled him to a strange, but harmless and justifiable, expedient for putting her affairs in order. He made known the nature of the artifice, which, "for several reasons," he had tried in the first instance upon Polly Sparkes, with complete success. If Mrs. Clover took his advice she would straightway go into moderate mourning and let it be known that her husband was dead. Reserve as to details would seem strange to no one; ordinary acquaintances might be told that Mr. Clover had died abroad, friends and relatives that he had died at sea. He hoped she would not be offended by what he had done, as it relieved her from a wretched burden of secrecy, and greatly improved the position of her daughter, Miss Minnie. She need not reply to this letter unless she liked, and he would make an opportunity of calling upon her before very long.
A week passed without reply.
By discreet inquiry Gammon learnt that Mrs. Clover had assumed the garb of widowhood, and this was quite enough.
"There," he said to himself, "there's an end of lies!" And he shook his shoulders as if to get quite clear of the unpleasant entanglement; for, Mr. Gammon, though ingenious at a pinch, had no natural bent towards falsehood. To be rid at almost the same moment of Mr. Clover and Polly Sparkes seemed to him marvellous good luck; and in these bitter, sodden days of the early year he was lighter hearted than for many months.
He had heard from Polly:
"DEAR MR. GAMMON,
"I don't think we are suited to each other, which is better for both parties. I shall send you a wedding-card in a few days, and I'm sure I wish you all happiness. And so I remain with my best respects,
This time Mr. Gammon felt no restraint upon his mirth. He threw his head back and roared joyously. That same day he went to a jeweller's and purchased--for more than he could afford--a suitable trinket, and sent it with a well-meaning note to Polly's address.
Winter brightened into spring, spring bloomed into summer. Gammon had paid several visits to the china shop, where all was going very well indeed. Minnie Clover now spent her evenings almost invariably with the young man interested in ceramic art, but it never disturbed Gammon to have ocular evidence of the fact. With Mrs. Clover he conversed in the respectfully familiar tone of an old friend, now and then reporting little matters which concerned his own welfare, such as his growing conviction that at Quodlings' he had found a "permanency," and his decision to go no more to Dulwich, to sell all his bow-wows, to find another employment for leisure hours.
But he was not wholly at ease. Time after time he had purposed making a confession to Mrs. Clover, time after time he "funked it"--his own mental phrase--and put it off.
He grew discontented with his room at Mrs. Bubb's. In getting up these bright mornings he looked with entirely new distaste upon the prospect from his window at the back. Beneath lay parallel strips of ground, divided from each other by low walls. These were called the "gardens" of the houses in Kennington Road, but no blade of grass ever showed upon the black, hard-trodden soil. Lank fowls ran about among discarded furniture and indescribable rubbish, or children-- few as well-tended as Mrs. Bubb's--played and squabbled under the dropping soot. Beyond rose a huge block of tenements, each story entered from an external platform, the levels connected by flights of iron steps; the lofty roof, used as a drying ground by the female population, was surrounded with iron railings. Gammon had hitherto seen nothing disagreeable in this outlook, nor had the shrieks and curses which at night too frequently sounded from the huge building ever troubled his repose. But he was growing fastidious. He thought constantly of a clean little street not far from Battersea Park--of a gleaming china shop--of a little parlour which seemed to him the perfection of comfort and elegance.
Courage and opportunity came together. He sat alone with Mrs. Clover one Sunday evening, and she told him that Minnie was to be married in six months' time. Gammon bore the announcement very well indeed; he seemed really glad to hear it. Then his countenance became troubled, he dropped awkward sentences; with a burst of honest feeling, which made him very red, he at length plunged into his confession. Not a little astonished, Mrs. Clover learnt all that had passed between him and Polly Sparkes, now Polly Parish. Nothing did he extenuate, but he wronged neither Polly nor himself.
"There, I've got it out. You had to know. Thank goodness it's over!"
"Why did you tell me?" asked Mrs. Clover, a flush on her comely face, which could not yet smile, though she asked the question with a suggestion of slyness.
"It seemed only right--to make things square--don't you see. I shall know next time I come how you've taken it. And perhaps the next time after that--"
Mrs. Clover was now smiling, and so gently, so modestly, that Gammon forgot all about his scheme for a gradual approach. He began to talk excitedly, and talked for such a long time that his hostess, who wished him to disappear before Minnie's return, had at length to drive him away.
"I shall certainly keep on the shop," were her last words before the door opened. "I've got used to it, and--it'll keep me out of mischief."
Her merry little laugh echoed in Gammon's ears all the way home, and for hours after. And when, as he rose next morning, he looked out on to the strips of back-yard and the towering tenements, they had lost all their ugliness.
"By jorrocks!" he ejaculated, after gashing his chin with the razor, "I'll send Polly a handsome present next Christmas."