The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter V. A Nondescript
Scarcely had quiet fallen upon the house--it was half an hour after midnight--when at the front door sounded a discreet but resolute knocking. Mrs. Bubb, though she had retired to her chamber, was not yet wholly unpresentable; reluctantly, and with wonder, she went to answer the untimely visitor. After a short parley through the gap of the chained door she ascended several flights and sought to arouse Mr. Gammon--no easy task.
"What's up?" shouted her lodger in a voice of half-remembered conviviality. "House on fire?"
"I hope not indeed. There wouldn't have been much chance for you if it was. It's your friend Mr. Greenacre, as says he must see you for a minute."
"All right; send him up, please. What the dickens can he want at this time o' night!"
Mr. Gammon having promised to see his visitor out again, with due attention to the house door, the landlady showed a light whilst Mr. Greenacre mounted the stairs. The gas-jet in his friend's bedroom displayed him as a gaunt, ill-dressed man of about forty, with a long unwholesome face, lank hair, and prominent eyes. He began with elaborate apologies, phrased and uttered with more refinement than his appearance would have led one to expect. No; he would on no account be seated. Under the circumstances he could not dream of staying more than two, or at most three, minutes. He felt really ashamed of himself for such a flagrant breach of social custom; but if his friend would listen patiently for one minute--nay, for less.
"I know what you're driving at," broke in Gammon good-humouredly, as he sat in bed with his knees up. "You've nowhere to sleep--ain't that it?"
"No, no; I assure you no!" exclaimed the other, with unfailing politeness. "I have excellent lodgings in the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; besides, you don't imagine I should disturb you after midnight for such a trivial cause! You have heard of the death of Lord Bolsover?"
"Never knew he was living," cried Gammon.
"Nonsense, you are an incorrigible joker. The poor fellow died nearly a week ago. Of course I must attend his funeral to-morrow down at Hitchin; I really couldn't neglect to attend his funeral. And here comes my difficulty. At present I'm driving a' Saponaria' van, and I shall have to provide a substitute, you see. I thought I had found one, a very decent fellow called Grosvenor, who declares, by the by, that he can trace his connexion with the aristocratic house--interesting, isn't it? But Grosvenor has got into trouble to-day--something about passing a bad half-crown--a mere mistake, I'm quite sure. Now I've been trying to find someone else--not an easy thing; and as I must have a substitute by nine to-morrow, I came in despair to you. I'm sure in your wide acquaintance, my dear Gammon--"
"Hold on, what's 'Saponaria'?"
"A new washing powder; only started a few days. Big vans, painted vermilion and indigo, going about town and suburbs distributing handbills and so on."
"I see. But look here, Greenacre, what's all this rot about Lord Bolsover?"
"My dear Gammon," protested the other. "I really can't allow you to speak in that way. I make all allowance for the hour and the circumstances, but when it comes to the death of a dear friend--"
"How the devil come you to be his friend, or he yours?" shouted Gammon in comical exasperation.
"Why, surely you have heard me speak of him. Yet, perhaps not. It was rather a painful subject. The fact is, I once gave the poor fellow a severe thrashing; it was before he succeeded to the title I was obliged to do it. Poor Bolsover confessed afterwards that he had behaved badly (there was a lady in the case), but it put an end to our intimacy. And now he's gone, and the least I can do is to attend his funeral. That reminds me, Gammon, I fear I shall have to borrow a sovereign, if it's quite convenient to you. There's the hire of the black suit, you see, and the fare to Hitchin. Do you think you could?"
He paused delicately, whereupon Gammon burst into a roar of laughter which echoed through the still house.
"You're the queerest devil I know," was the remark that followed. "It's no use trying to make out what you're really up to."
"I have stated the case in very clear terms," replied Greenacre solemnly. "The chief thing is to find a substitute to drive the 'Saponaria' van."
"What sort of animal in the shafts?"
"Two--a pail of Welsh cobs--good little goers."
"By jingo!" shouted Gammon, "I'll tool 'em round myself. I'm off for to-morrow, and a job of that kind would just suit me."
Greenacre's face brightened with relief. He began to describe the route which the "Saponaria" van had to pursue.
"It's the south-east suburbs to-morrow, the main thoroughfares of Greenwich, Blackheath, Lewisham, and all round there. There are certain shops to call at to drop bills and samples; no order-taking. Here's the list. At likely places you throw out a shower of these little blue cards. Best is near a Board School when the children are about. I'm greatly obliged to you, Gammon; I never thought you'd be able to do it yourself. Could you be at the stable just before nine? I'd meet you and give you a send-off. Bait at--where is it?" He consulted the notebook. "Yes, Prince of Wales's Feathers, Catford Bridge; no money out of pocket; all settled in the plan of campaign. Rest the cobs for an hour or so. Get round to the stables again about five, and I'll be there. It's very Kind of you; I'm very greatly obliged. And if you could--without inconvenience--"
His eyes fell upon Gammon's clothing, which lay heaped on a chair. On the part of the man in bed there was a moment's hesitation, but Gammon had never refused a loan which it was in his power to grant. In a few minutes he fulfilled his promise to Mrs. Bubb, seeing Greenacre safely out of the house, and making fast the front door again; then he turned in and slept soundly till seven o'clock.
All went well in the morning. The sun shone and there was a pleasant north-west breeze; in high spirits Gammon mounted the big but light van, which seemed to shout in its brilliancy of red and blue paint.
It was some time since he had had the pleasure of driving a pair. Greenacre had not overpraised the cobs; their start promised an enjoyable day. He was not troubled by any sense of indignity unfailing humour and a vast variety of experience preserved him from such thoughts. As always, he threw himself into the business of the moment with conscientious gusto; he had "Saponaria" at heart, and was as anxious to advertise the new washing powder as if the profits were all his own. At one spot where a little crowd chanced to gather about the van he delivered an address, a fervid eulogy of "Saponaria," declaring his conviction (based on private correspondence) that in a week or two it would be exclusively used in all the laundries of the Royal Family.
At one shop where he was instructed to call he found a little trap waiting, and as he entered there came out a man whom he knew by sight, evidently a traveller, who mounted the trap and drove off. The shopkeeper was in a very disagreeable mood and returned Gammon's greeting roughly.
"Something wrong?" asked Gammon with his wonted cheeriness.
"Saw that chap in the white 'at? I've just told him str'ight that if he comes into this shop again I'll kick 'im. I told him str'ight--see?"
"Did you? I like to hear a man talk like that. It shows there's something in him. Who is the fellow? I seem to remember him somehow."
"Quodlings' traveller. And he's lost them my orders. And I shall write and tell 'em so. I never did like that chap; but when he comes in 'ere, with his white 'at, telling me how to manage my own business, and larfin', yis larfin', why, I've done with him. And I told him str'ight," etc.
"Quodlings', eh?" said Gammon reflectively. "They're likely to be wanting a new traveller, I should say."
"They will if they take my advice," replied the shopkeeper. "And that I shall give 'em, 'ot and strong."
As he drove on Gammon mused over this incident. The oil and colour business was not one of his "specialities," but he knew a good deal about it, and could easily learn what remained. The name of Quodling interested him, being that of the man in the City who so strikingly resembled Mr. Clover; who, moreover, was probably connected in some way with the oil and colour firm. It might be well to keep an eye on Quodlings'--a substantial concern, likely to give one a chance of the "permanency" which was, on the whole, desirable.
He had a boy with him to hold the horses, a sharp lad, whose talk gave him amusement when he was tired of thinking. They found a common interest in dogs. Gammon invited the youngster to come and see his "bows-wows" at Dulwich, and promised him his choice out of the litter of bull terriers. With animation he discoursed upon the points of this species of dog--the pure white coat; the long, lean, punishing head, flat above; the breadth behind the ears, the strength of back. He warned his young friend against the wiles of the "faker," who had been known to pipeclay a mottled animal and deceive the amateur. Altogether the day proved so refreshing that Gammon was sorry when its end drew near.
Greenacre was late for his appointment at the stables; he came in a suit of black, imperfectly fitting, and a chimney-pot hat some years old, looking very much like an undertaker's man. His appearance seemed to prove that he really had attended a funeral, which renewed Gammon's wonder. As a matter of course they repaired to the nearest eating-house to have a meal together--an eating-house of the old fashion, known also as a coffee-shop, which Gammon greatly preferred to any kind of restaurant. There, on the narrow seats with high wooden backs, as uncomfortable a sitting as could be desired, with food before him of worse quality and worse cooked than any but English-speaking mortals would endure, he always felt at home, and was pleasantly reminded of the days of his youth, when a supper of eggs and bacon at some such resort rewarded him for a long week's toil and pinching. Sweet to him were the rancid odours, delightfully familiar the dirty knives, the twisted forks, the battered teaspoons, not unwelcome the day's newspaper, splashed with brown coffee and spots of grease. He often lamented that this kind of establishment was growing rare, passing away with so many other features of old London.
More fastidious, Greenacre could have wished his egg some six months fresher, and his drink less obviously a concoction of rinsings. But he was a guest, and his breeding did not allow him to complain. Of the funeral he shrank from speaking; but the few words he dropped were such as would have befitted 'a genuine grief. Gammon even heard him murmur, unconsciously, "poor Bolsover."
Having eaten they wended their way to a little public-house, with a parlour known only to the favoured few, where Greenacre, after a glass or two of rum--a choice for which he thought it necessary to apologize--began to discourse upon a topic peculiarly his own.
"I couldn't help thinking to-day, Gammon, what a strange assembly there would be if all a man's relatives came to his funeral. Nearly all of us must have such lots of distant connexions that we know nothing about. Now a man like Bolsover--an aristocrat, with fifty or more acknowledged relatives in good position--think how many more there must be in out-of-the-way places, poor and unknown. Ay, and some of them not so very distant kinsfolk either. Think of the hosts of illegitimate children, for instance--some who know who they are, and some who don't."
This was said so significantly that Gammon wondered whether it had a personal application.
"It's a theory of mine," pursued the other, his prominent eyes fixed on some far vision, "that every one of us, however poor, has some wealthy relative, if he could only be found. I mean a relative within reasonable limits, not a cousin fifty times removed. That's one of the charms of London to me. A little old man used to cobble my boots for me a few years ago in Ball's Pond Road, He had an idea that one of his brothers, who went out to New Zealand and was no more heard of, had made a great fortune; said he'd dreamt about it again and again, and couldn't get rid of the fancy. Well, now, the house in which he lived took fire, and the poor old chap was burnt in his bed, and so his name got into the newspapers. A day or two after I heard that his brother--the one he spoke of--had been living for some years scarcely a mile away at Stoke Newington--a man rolling in money, a director of the British and Colonial Bank."
"Rummy go!" remarked Gammon.
"When I was a lad," pursued the other, after sipping at his refilled glass, "I lived just by an old church in the City, and I knew the verger, and he used to let me look over the registers. I think that's what gave me my turn for genealogy. I believe there are fellows who get a living by hunting up pedigrees; that would just suit me, if I only knew how to start in the business."
Gammon looked up and asked abruptly.
"Know anybody called Quodling?"
"Quodling? No one personally. But there's a firm of Quodling, brushmakers or something."
"Oil and colourmen?"
"Yes, to be sure. Quodling? Now I come to think of it--why do you ask?"
"There's a man in the City called Quodling, a silk broker. For private reasons I should like to know something about him."
Greenacre gazed absently at his friend, like one who tries to piece together old memories.
"Lost it," he muttered at length in a discontented tone. "Something about a Mrs. Quodling and a lawsuit--big lawsuit that used to be talked about when I was a boy. My father was a lawyer, you know."
"Was he? It's the first time you ever told me," replied Gammon with a chuckle.
"Nonsense! I must have mentioned it many a time. I've often noticed, Gammon, how very defective your memory is. You should use a mnemonic system. I made a splendid one some years ago; it helped me immensely."
"I could have felt sure," said Gammon, "that you told me once your father was a coal merchant."
"Why, so he was--later on. Am I to understand, Gammon, that you accuse me of distorting facts?"
With the end of his third tumbler there had come upon Greenacre a tendency to maudlin dignity and sensitiveness; he laid a hand on his friend's arm and looked at him with pained reproach.
"Gammon! I was never inclined to mendacity, though I confess to mendicity I have occasionally fallen. To you, Gammon, I could not lie; I respect you, I admire you, in spite of the great distance between us in education and habits of mind. If I thought you accused me of falsehood, my dear Gammon, it would distress me deeply. Assure me that you don't. I am easily put out to-day. The death of poor Bolsover--my friend before he succeeded to the title. And that reminds me. But for a mere accident I might myself at this moment have borne a title. My mother, before her marriage, refused the offer of a man who rose to wealth and honours, and only a year or two ago died a baronet. Well, well, the chances of life the accidents of birth!"
He shook his head for some minutes, murmuring inarticulate regrets.
"I think I'll just have one more, Gammon."
"I think not, old boy. Where did you say you lived?"
"Oh, that's all right. Most comfortable lodgings in the parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. If you have the slightest doubt of my veracity, leave me, Gammon; I beg you will leave me. I--in fact, I have an appointment with a gentleman I met at poor Bolsover's funeral."
With no little difficulty Gammon led him away, and by means of an omnibus landed him at length near St. Martin's Church. No entreaty could induce the man to give his address. He protested that a few minutes' walk would bring him home, and as he seemed to have sobered sufficiently, Gammon left him sitting on the church steps--a strange object in his borrowed suit of mourning and his antiquated top hat.