The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter IV. Polly and Mr. Parish
Two first-rate quarrels in one day put Polly Sparkes into high good humour. On leaving her aunt's house in the afternoon she strolled into Battersea Park, and there treated herself to tea and cakes at a little round table in the open air. Mrs. Clover, though the quarrel was prolonged until four o'clock, had offered no refreshments, which seemed to Miss Sparkes a very gross instance of meanness and inhospitality.
At a table near to her sat two girls, for some reason taking a holiday, who conversed in a way which proved them to be "mantle hands," and Polly listened and smiled. Did she not well remember the day when the poverty of home sent her, a little girl, to be "trotter" in a workroom? But she soon found her way out of that. A sharp tongue, a bold eye, and a brilliant complexion helped her on, step by step, or jump by jump, till she had found much more agreeable ways of supporting herself. All unimpeachable, for Polly was fiercely virtuous, and put a very high value indeed upon such affections as she had to dispose of.
The girls were appraising her costume; she felt their eyes and enjoyed the envy in them. Her hat, with its immense bunch of poppies; her blouse of shot silk in green and violet; her gold watch, carelessly drawn out and returned to its pocket. "Now what do you think I am? A real lady, I'll bet!" She caught a whisper about her hair. Red, indeed! Didn't they wish they had anything like it! Polly could have told them that at a ball she graced with her presence not long ago her hair was done up with no less than seventy-two pins. Think of that! Seventy-two pins!
She munched a cream tart, and turned her back upon the envious pair.
Back to Kennington Road by omnibus, riding outside, her eyes and hair doing execution upon a young man in a very high collar, who was, she saw, terribly tempted to address her, but, happily for himself, could not pluck up courage. Polly liked to be addressed by strange young men; experience had made her so skilful in austere rebuke.
She rested in her bedroom, as stuffy and disorderly a room as could have been found in all Kennington Road. Moggie, the general, was only allowed to enter it in the occupant's presence, otherwise who knew what prying and filching might go on? She paid a very low rent, thanks to Mrs. Bubb's good nature, but the strained relations between them made it possible that she would have to leave, and she had been thinking to-day that she could very well afford a room in a better neighbourhood; not that, all things considered, she desired to quit this house, but Mrs. Bubb took too much upon herself. Mrs. Bubb was the widow of a police officer; one of her children was in the Police Orphanage at Twickenham, and for the support of each of the others she received half a crown a week. This, to be sure, justified the good woman in a certain spirit of pride; but when it came to calling names and making unpleasant insinuations--If a young lady cannot have a harmless and profitable secret, what is the use of being a young lady?
On the way to her duties at the theatre, about seven o'clock, she entered a little stationer's shop m an obscure street, and asked with a smile whether any letter had arrived for her. Yes, there was one addressed in a careless hand to "Miss Robinson." This, in another obscure street hard by she opened. On half a sheet of notepaper was printed with pen and ink the letters W. S. T.--that was all. Polly had no difficulty in interpreting this cipher. She tore up envelope and paper, and walked briskly on.
There was but a poor "house" this evening. Commission on programmes would amount to very little indeed; but the young gentleman with the weak eyes, who came evening after evening, and must have seen the present piece a hundred times or so, gave her half a crown, weeping copiously from nervousness as he touched her hand. He looked about seventeen, and Polly, who always greeted him with a smile of sportive condescension, wondered how his parents or guardians could allow him to live so recklessly.
She left half an hour before the end of the performance with a girl who accompanied her a short way, talking and laughing noisily. Along the crowded pavement they were followed by a young man, of whose proximity Miss Sparkes was well aware, though she seemed not to have noticed him--a slim, narrow-shouldered, high-hatted figure, with the commonest of well-meaning faces set just now in a tremulously eager, pursuing look. When Polly's companion made a dart for an omnibus this young man, suddenly red with joy, took a quick step forward, and Polly saw him beside her in an attitude of respectful accost.
"Awfully jolly to meet you like this."
"Sure you haven't been waiting?" she asked with good humour.
"Well--I--you said you didn't mind, you know; didn't you?"
"Oh, I don't mind!" she laughed. "If you've nothing better to do. There's my bus."
"Oh, I say! Don't be in such a hurry. I was going to ask you"--he panted--"if you'd come and have just a little supper, if you wouldn't mind."
"Nonsense! You know you can't afford it."
"Oh, yes, I can--quite well. It would be awfully kind of you."
Polly laughed a careless acceptance, and they pressed through the roaring traffic of cross-ways towards an electric glare. In a few minutes they were seated amid plush and marble, mirrors and gilding, in a savoury and aromatic atmosphere. Nothing more delightful to Polly, who drew off her gloves and made herself thoroughly comfortable, whilst the young man--his name was Christopher Parish--nervously scanned a bill of fare. As his bearing proved, Mr. Parish was not quite at home amid these splendours. As his voice and costume indicated, he belonged to the great order of minor clerks, and would probably go dinnerless on the morrow to pay for this evening's festival. The waiter overawed him, and after a good deal of bungling, with anxious consultation of his companion's appetite, he ordered something, the nature of which was but dimly suggested to him by its name. Having accomplished this feat he at once became hilarious, and began to eat large quantities of dry bread.
Quite without false modesty in the matter of eating and drinking, Polly made a hearty supper. Christopher ate without consciousness of what was before him, and talked ceaselessly of his good fortune in getting a berth at Swettenham's, the great house of Swettenham Brothers, tea merchants.
"An enormous place--simply enormous! What do you think they pay in rent?--three thousand eight hundred pounds a year! Could you believe it? Three thousand eight hundred pounds! And how many people do you think they employ? Now just guess, do; just make a shot at it!"
"How do I know? Two or three hundred, I dessay."
Christopher's face shone with triumph.
"One thousand--three hundred--and forty-two! Could you believe it?"
"Oh, I dessay," Polly replied, with her mouth full.
"Enormous, isn't it? Why, it's like a town in itself!"
Had his own name been Swettenham he could hardly have shown more pride in these figures. When Polly inquired how much they made a year he was unable to reply with exactitude, but the mere thought of what such a total must be all but overcame him. Personally he profited by his connexion with the great firm to the extent of two pounds a week, an advance of ten shillings on what he had hitherto earned. And his prospects! Why, they were limitless. Once let a fellow get into Swettenham's--
"You're not doing so bad for a single man," remarked Polly, with facetious malice in her eye. "But it won't run to a supper like this very often."
"Oh--well--not often, of course." His voice quavered into sudden despondency. "Just now and then, you know. Have some cheese?"
He paid the bill right bravely and added sixpence for the waiter, though it cost him as great a pang as the wrenching of a double tooth. A rapid calculation told him that he must dine at the Aerated Bread Shop for several days to come. Whilst he was thus computing Polly drew out her gold watch. It caught his eye, he stood transfixed, and his stare rose from the watch to Polly's face.
"Just after eleven," she remarked airily, and began to hum.
Christopher had but a silver watch, an heirloom of considerable antiquity, and the chain was jet. Sunk of a sudden in profoundest gloom he led the way to the exit, walking like a shamefaced plebeian who had got into the room by mistake. Polly's spirits were higher than ever. Just beyond the electric glare she thrust her arm under that of her mute companion.
"You don't want me to git run over, do you?"
Parish had a thrill of satisfaction, but with difficulty he spoke.
"Let's get out of this crowd--beastly, isn't it?"
"I don't mind a crowd. I like it when I've someone to hang on by."
"Oh, I don't mind it, I like just what you like. What time did you say it was, Miss Sparkes?"
"Just eleven. Time I was gettin' 'ome. There'll be a bus at the corner."
"I hoped you were going to walk," urged Christopher timidly.
"S'pose I might just as well--if you'll take care of me."
It was a long time since Polly had been so gracious, so mild. All the way down Whitehall, across the bridge, and into Kennington Road she chatted of a hundred things, but never glanced at the one which held complete possession of Christopher's mind. Many times he brought himself all but to the point of mentioning it, yet his courage invariably failed. The risk was too great; it needed such a trifling provocation to disturb Polly's good humour. He perspired under the warmth of the night and from the tumult of his feelings.
"You mustn't meet me again for a week," said Polly when her dwelling was within sight.
"Because I say so--that's enough, ain't it?"
"I've told you you're not to say 'Polly,'" she interrupted archly.
"You're awfully good, you know--but I wish--"
"What? Never mind; tell me next time. Ta-ta!"
She ran off, and Christopher had no heart to detain her. For five minutes he hung over the parapet at Westminster, watching the black flood and asking what was the use of life. On the whole Mr. Parish found life decidedly agreeable, and after a night's rest, a little worry notwithstanding, he could go to the City in the great morning procession, one of myriads exactly like him, and would hopefully dip his pen in the inkpots of Swettenham Brothers.
Moggie, the general, was just coming from the public-house with two foaming jugs, one for Mrs. Bubb, the other for Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman, her first-floor lodgers. Miss Sparkes passed her disdainfully, and entered with the aid of a latch-key. From upstairs sounded a banjo, preluding; then the sound of Mr. Cheeseman's voice chanting a popular refrain:
Come where the booze is cheaper, Come where the pots 'old more, Come where the boss is a bit of a joss, Come to the pub next door!
Polly could not resist this invitation. She looked in at the Cheesemans' sitting-room and enjoyed half an hour of friendly gossip before going to bed.