Chapter III. The China Shop
 

Mr. Gammon took his way down Kennington Road, walking at a leisurely pace, smiting his leg with his doubled dog-whip, and looking about him with his usual wideawake, contented air. He had in perfection the art of living for the moment, no art in his case, but a natural characteristic, for which it never occurred to him to be grateful. Indeed, it is a common characteristic in the world to which Mr. Gammon belonged. He and his like take what the heavens send them, grumbling or rejoicing, but never reflecting upon their place in the sum of things. To Mr. Gammon life was a wonderfully simple matter. He had his worries and his desires, but so long as he suffered neither from headache nor stomach-ache, these things interfered not at all with his enjoyment of a fine morning.

He was in no hurry to make for Dulwich; as he walked along his thoughts began to turn in a different direction, and on reaching the end of Upper Kennington Lane he settled the matter by striking towards Vauxhall Station. A short railway journey and another pleasant saunter brought him to a street off Battersea Park Road, and to a china shop, over which stood the name of Clover.

In the window hung a card with an inscription in bold letters: "Glass, china, and every kind of fashionable ornament for the table for hire on moderate terms." Mr. Gammon read this with an appreciative smile, which. accompanied by a nod, became a greeting to Mrs. Clover, who was aware of him from within the shop. He entered.

"How does it go?"

"Two teas and a supper yesterday. A wedding breakfast this morning."

"Bravo! What did I tell you? You'll want a bigger place before the end of the year."

The shop was well stocked, the window well laid out; everything indicated a flourishing, though as yet a small, business. Mrs. Clover, a neat, comely, and active woman, with a complexion as clear as that of her own best china, chatted vivaciously with the visitor, whilst she superintended the unpacking of a couple of crates by a muscular youth and a young lady (to use the technical term), her shop assistant.

"Why are you off to-day?" she inquired presently, after moving to the doorway for more private talk.

Mr. Gammon made his explanation with spirit and humour.

"You're a queer man, if ever there was one," Mrs. Clover remarked after watching him for a moment and averting her eyes as soon as they were met by his. "You know your own business best, but I should have thought--"

It was a habit of hers to imply a weighty opinion by suddenly breaking off, a form of speech known to the grammarians by a name which would have astonished Mrs. Clover. Few women of her class are prone to this kind of emphasis. Her friendly manner had a quietness, a reserve in its cordiality, which suited well with the frank, pleasant features of a matron not yet past her prime.

"It's all right," he replied, more submissively than he was wont to speak. "I shall do better next time; I'm looking out for a permanency."

"So you have been for ten years, to my knowledge."

They laughed together. At this point came an interruption in the shape of a customer who drove up in a hansom: a loudly-dressed woman, who, on entering the shop, conversed with Mrs. Clover in the lowest possible voice, and presently returned to her vehicle with uneasy glances left and right. Mr. Gammon, who had walked for some twenty yards, sauntered back to the shop, and his friend met him on the threshold.

"That's the sort," she whispered with a merry eye. "Eight-roomed 'ouse near Queen's Road Station. Wants things for an at 'ome--teaspoons as well--couldn't I make it ninepence the two dozen! That's the kind of place where there'll be breakages. But they pay well, the breakages do."

"Well, I won't keep you now," said Gammon. "I'm going to have a peep at the bow-wows. Could I look in after closing?"

Mrs. Clover turned her head away, pretending to observe the muscular youth within.

"Fact is," he pursued, "I want to speak to you about Polly."

"What about her?"

"Nothing much. I'll tell you this evening."

Without more words he nodded and went off. Mrs. Clover stood for a moment with an absent expression on her comely face, then turned into the shop and gave the young man in shirt-sleeves a bit of her mind about the time he was taking over his work.

She was anything but a bad-tempered woman. Her rating had no malice in it, and only signified that she could not endure laziness.

"Hot, is it? Of course it's hot. What do you expect in June? You don't mind the heat when you're playing cricket, I know."

"No, mum," replied the young giant with a grin.

"How many runs did you make last Saturday?"

"Fifty-three, mum, and caught out."

"Then don't go talking to me about the heat. Finish that job and run off with this filter to Mrs. Gubbins's."

Her life had not lacked variety. Married at eighteen, after a month's courtship, to a man of whom she knew next to nothing, she lived for a time in Liverpool, where her husband--older by ten years--pursued various callings in the neighbourhood of the docks. After the birth of her only child, a daughter, they migrated to Glasgow, and struggled with great poverty for several years. This period was closed by the sudden disappearance of Mr. Clover. He did not actually desert his wife and child; at regular intervals letters and money arrived from him addressed to the care of Mrs. Clover's parents, who kept a china shop at Islington; beyond the postmarks, which indicated constant travel in England and abroad, these letters (always very affectionate) gave no information as to the writer's circumstances. When Mrs. Clover had lived with her parents for about three years she was summoned by her husband to Dulwich, where the man had somehow established himself as a cab proprietor; he explained his wanderings as the result of mere restlessness, and with this cold comfort Mrs. Clover had to be content. By degrees they settled into a not unhappy life; the girl, Minnie, was growing up, the business might have been worse, everything seemed to promise unbroken domestic tranquillity, when one fine day Mr. Clover was again missing. Again he sent letters and money, the former written in a strangely mingled mood of grief and hopefulness, the remittance varying from half a sovereign to a ten-pound note. This time the letters were invariably posted in London, but in different districts. Clover declared that he was miserable away from home, and, without offering any reason for his behaviour, promised that he would soon return.

Six years had since elapsed. To afford herself occupation Mrs. Clover went into the glass and china business, assisted by her parents' experience, and by the lively interest of her friend Mr. Gammon. Minnie Clover, a pretty and interesting girl, was now employed at Doulton's potteries. All would have been well but for the harassing mystery that disturbed their lives. Clover's letters were still posted in London; money still came from him, sometimes in remittances of as much as twenty pounds. But handwriting and composition often suggested that the writer was either ill or intoxicated. The latter seemed not unlikely, for Clover had always inclined to the bottle. His wife no longer distressed herself. The first escapade she had forgiven; the second estranged her. She had resolved, indeed, that if her husband did again present himself his home should not be under her roof.

The shop closed at eight. At a quarter past the house-bell rang and a small servant admitted Mr. Gammon, who came along the passage and into the back parlour, where Mrs. Clover was wont to sit. As usual at this hour her daughter was present. Minnie sat reading; she rose for a moment to greet the visitor, spoke a word or two very modestly, even shyly, and let her eyes fall again upon the book. Considering the warmth of the day it was not unnatural that Mr. Gammon showed a very red face, shining with moisture; but his decided hilarity, his tendency to hum tunes and beat time with his feet, his noisy laughter and expansive talk, could hardly be attributed to the same cause. Having taken a seat near Minnie he kept his look steadily fixed upon her, and evidently discoursed with a view of affording her amusement; not altogether successfully it appeared, for the young girl--she was but seventeen--grew more and more timid, less and less able to murmur replies. She was prettier than her mother had ever been, and spoke with a better accent. Her features suggested a more delicate physical inheritance than Mrs. Clover's comeliness could account for. As a matter of fact she had her father's best traits, though Mrs. Glover frequently thanked goodness that in character she by no means resembled him.

Mr. Gammon was in the midst of a vivid description of a rat hunt, in which a young terrier had displayed astonishing mettle, when his hostess abruptly interposed.

"Minnie, I wish you'd put your hat on and run round to Mrs. Walker's for me. I'll give you a message when you're ready."

Very willingly the girl rose and left the room. Mr. Gammon, whose countenance had fallen, turned to the mother with jocose remonstrance.

"Now I call that too bad. What did you want to go sending her away for?"

"What does it matter?" was Mrs. Clover's reply, uttered good-humouredly, but with some impatience. "The child doesn't want to hear about rats and terriers."

"Child? I don't call her a child. Besides, you'd only to give me a hint to talk of something else." He leaned forward, and softened his voice to a note of earnest entreaty. "She won't be long, will she?"

"Oh, I dare say not!"

A light tap at the door called Mrs. Clover away. She whispered outside with Minnie and returned smiling.

"Have you told her to be quick?"

Mrs. Clover did not answer the question. Sitting with her arms on the round table she looked Mr. Gammon steadily in the face, and said with decision

"Never you come here again after you've been to Dulwich!"

"Why not?"

"Never mind. I don't want to have to speak plainer. If ever I have to--"

Mrs. Clover made her great effect of the pregnant pause. The listener, who had sobered wonderfully, sat gazing at her, his blue eyes comically rueful.

"She isn't coming back at all?" fell from his lips.

"Of course she isn't."

"Well, I'm blest if I thought you could be so unkind, Mrs. Clover."

She was silent for three ticks of the clock, an odd hardness having come over her face, then, flushing just a little, as if after an effort, she smiled again, and spoke in her ordinary tone.

"What had you to say about Polly?"

"Polly?--Polly be hanged! I half believe Polly's no better than she should be."

The flush on Mrs. Clover's face deepened and she spoke severely.

"What do you mean by saying such things?"

"I didn't meant to," exclaimed Gammon, with hasty penitence. "Look here, I really didn't; but you put me out. She had some presents given her, that's all."

" I know it," said Mrs. Clover. "She's been here to-day--called this afternoon."

"Polly did?"

"Yes, and behaved very badly too. I don't know what's coming to the girl. If I had a temper like that I'd--"

What Mrs. Clover would do remained conjectural.

"It's a good thing," remarked the other, laughing. "Trust Polly to take care of herself. She cheeked you, did she?"

They discussed Miss Sparkes very thoroughly. There had been a battle royal in the afternoon, for the girl came only to "show off" and make herself generally offensive. Mrs. Clover desired to be friendly with her sister's daughter, but would stand no "cheek," and had said so.

"Polly's all right," remarked Mr. Gammon finally. "Don't you fret about her. She ain't that kind. I know 'em."

"Then why did you say just now--"

"Because you riled me, sending Minnie away."

Again Mrs. Clover reflected, and again she looked her friend steadily in the face.

"Why did you want her to stay?"

Mr. Gammon's heated visage glowed with incredible fervour. He shrugged his shoulders, shuffled his feet, and at length burst out with:

"Well, I should think you know. It isn't the first time I've showed it, I should think."

"Then I'm very sorry. I'm real sorry."

The words fell gently, and one might have thought that Mrs. Clover was softening the rejection of a tender proposal made to herself.

"You mean it's no good?" said the man.

"Not the least, not a bit. And never could be."

Mr. Gammon nodded several times, as if calculating the force of the blow, and nerving himself to bear it.

"Well, if you say it," he replied at length, "I suppose it's a fact--but I call it hard lines. Ever since I was old enough to think of marrying I've been looking out for the right girl--always looking out, and now I thought I'd found her. Hanged if it isn't hard lines! I could have married scores--scores; but do you suppose I'd have a girl that showed she was only waiting for me to say the word? Not me! That's what took me in Minnie. She's the first of that kind I ever knew--the only one. But, I say, do you mean you won't let me try? You surely don't mean that, Mrs. Clover?"

"Yes, I do. I mean just that, Mr. Gammon."

"Why? Because I haven't got a permanency?"

"Oh, no."

"Because I--because I go to Dulwich?"

"No."

"Why, then?"

"I can't tell you why, and I don't know why, but I mean it. And what's more"--her eyes sparkled--"if ever you say such word to Minnie you never pass my door again."

This seemed to take Mr. Gammon's breath away. After a rather long silence he looked about for his hat, then for his dog-whip.

"I'll say good night, Mrs. Clover. Hot, isn't it? Hottest day yet. I say, you're not riled with me? That's all right. See you again before long."

He did not make straight for home, but rambled in a circuit for the next hour. When darkness had fallen he found himself again near the china shop, and paused, for a moment only, by the door. On the opposite side of the street stood a man who had also paused in a slow walk, and who also looked towards the shop. But Mr. Gammon went his way without so much as a glance at that dim figure.