The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter VIII. Mr. Gammon's Resolve
Convinced that his life was blighted, Mr. Gammon sang and whistled with more than usual vivacity as he dressed each morning. It was not in his nature to despond; he had received many a knock-down blow, and always came up fresher after it. Mrs. Clover's veto upon his tender hopes with regard to Minnie had not only distressed, but greatly surprised him; for during the last few months he had often said to himself that, whether Minnie favoured his suit or not, her mother's goodwill was a certainty. His advances had been of the most delicate, no word of distinct wooing had passed his lips; but he thought of Minnie a great deal, and came to the decision that in her the hopes of his life were centred. It might be that Minnie had no inkling of his intentions; she was so modest, so unlike the everyday girls who tittered and ogled with every marriageable man; on that very account he had made her his ideal. And Mrs. Clover would help him as a mother best knows how. The shock of learning that Mrs. Clover would do no such thing utterly confused his mind. He still longed for Minnie, yet seemed of a sudden hopelessly remote from her. He could not determine whether he had given her up or not; he did not know whether to bow before Mrs. Clover or to protest and persevere. He liked Mrs. Clover far too much to be angry with her; he respected Minnie far too much to annoy her by an unwelcome courtship; he wished, in fact, that he had not made a fool of himself that evening, and wanted things to be as they were before.
In the meantime he occupied himself in looking out for a new engagement Plenty were to be had, but he aimed at something better than had satisfied him hitherto. He must get a "permanency"; at his age it was time he settled into a life of respect able routine. But for his foolish habit of living from hand to mouth, now in this business, now in that, indulging his taste for variety, Mrs. Clover would never, he felt sure, have "put her foot down" in that astonishing way. The best thing he could do was to show himself in a new light.
Thanks to his good nature, his practicality, and the multitude of his acquaintances, all manner of shiftless or luckless fellows were in the habit of looking to him for advice and help. As soon as they found themselves adrift they turned to Gammon. Every day he had a letter asking him to find a "berth" or a "billet" for some out-at-elbows friend, and in a surprising number of cases he was able to make a useful suggestion. It would have paid him to start an employment agency; as it was, instead of receiving fees, he very often supplied his friends' immediate necessities out of his own pocket. The more he earned the more freely he bestowed, so that his occasional strokes of luck in commerce were of no ultimate benefit to him. No man in his Position had a larger credit; for weeks at a time he could live without cash expenditure; but this was seldom necessary.
By a mental freak which was characteristic of him he nursed the thought of connecting himself with Messrs. Quodling & Son, oil and colour merchants. Theirs was a large and sound business, both in town and country. It might not be easy to become traveller to such a firm, but his ingenious mind tossed and turned the possibilities of the case, and after a day or two spent in looking up likely men--which involved a great deal of drinking in a great variety of public resorts--he came across an elderly traveller who had represented Quodlings on a northern circuit, and who boasted a certain acquaintance with Quodling the senior. Thus were things set in train. At a second meeting with the venerable bagman--who had a wonderful head for whisky--Gammon acquired so much technical information that oil and colours might fairly be set down among his numerous "specialities." Moreover, his friend promised to speak a word for him in the right quarter when opportunity offered.
"By the way," Gammon remarked carelessly, "are these Quodlings any relation to Quodling the silk broker in the City?"
His companion smiled over the rim of a deep tumbler, and continued to smile through a long draught.
"Why do you ask?"
"No particular reason. Happen to know the other man--by sight."
"They're brothers--Quodling senior and the broker."
"What's the joke?" asked Gammon, as the other still smiled.
"Old joke--very old joke. The two men just as unlike as they could be--in face, I mean. I never took the trouble to inquire about it, but I've been told there was a lawsuit years ago, something to do with the will of Lord somebody, who left money to old Mrs. Quodling--who wasn't old then. Don't know the particulars, but I'm told that something turned on the likeness of the younger boy to the man who made the will--see!"
"Ah! Oh!" muttered Gammon reflectively.
"An uppish, high-notioned fellow, Quodling the broker. Won't have anything to do with his brother. He's nothing much himself; went through the court not very long ago."
Gammon promised himself to look into this story when he had time. That it could in any way concern him he did not seriously suppose, but he liked to track things out. Some day he would have another look at Quodling the broker, who so strongly resembled Mrs. Clover's husband. Both of them, it seemed, bore a likeness to some profligate aristocrat. Just the kind of thing to interest that queer fish Greenacre.
In the height of the London season nothing pleased Gammon more than to survey the streets from an omnibus. Being just now a man of leisure he freely indulged himself, spending an hour or two each day in the liveliest thoroughfares. It was a sure way of forgetting his cares. Sometimes he took a box place and chatted with the driver, or he made acquaintances, male and female, on the cosy cross seats just broad enough for two. The London panorama under a sky of June feasted his laughing eyes. Now he would wave a hand to a friend on the pavement or borne past on another bus; now he would chuckle at a bit of comedy in real life. Huge hotels and brilliant shops vividly impressed him, though he saw them for the thousandth time; a new device in advertising won his ungrudging admiration. Above all he liked to find himself in the Strand at that hour of the day when east and west show a double current of continuous traffic, tight wedged in the narrow street, moving at a mere footpace, every horse's nose touching the back of the next vehicle. The sun could not shine too hotly; it made colours brighter, gave a new beauty to the glittering public-houses, where names of cooling drinks seemed to cry aloud. He enjoyed a "block," and was disappointed unless he saw the policeman at Wellington Street holding up his hand whilst the cross traffic from north and south rolled grandly through. It always reminded him of the Bible story--Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea.
He was in the full enjoyment of this spectacle when an odour of cloves breathed across his face, and a voice addressed him.
"Isn't that you, Mr. Gammon? Well, if I didn't think so!"
The speaker was a young woman, who, with a male companion, had just mounted the bus and seated herself at Gammon's back. Facing round he recognized her as a friend of Polly Sparkes, Miss Waghorn by name, who adorned a refreshment bar at the theatre where Polly sold programmes. With a marked display of interesting embarrassment Miss Waghorn introduced him to her companion, Mr. Nibby, who showed himself cordial.
"I've often heard talk of you, Mr. Gammon; glad to meet you, sir. I think it's Berlin wools, isn't it?"
"Well, it was, sir, but it's been fancy leather goods lately, and now it's going to be something else. You are the Gillingwater burners, I believe, sir?"
Mr. Nibby betrayed surprise.
"And may I ask you how you know that?"
"Oh, I've a good memory for faces. I travelled with you on the Underground not very long ago, and saw the name on some samples you had."
"Now, that's what I call smart observation, Carrie," said the Gillingwater burners, beaming upon Miss Waghorn.
"Oh, we all know that Mr. Gammon's more than seven" replied the young lady with a throaty laugh, and her joke was admirably received.
"Business good, sir?" asked Gammon.
"Not bad for the time of year, sir. Is it true, do you know, that Milligan of Bishopsgate has burst up?"
"I heard so yesterday; not surprised; business very badly managed. Great shame, too, for I know he got it very cheap, and there was a fortune in it. Two years ago I could have bought the whole concern for a couple of thousand."
"You don't say so!"
Mr. Gammon was often heard to remark that he could have bought this, that, or the other thing for something paltry, such as a couple of thousands. It was not idle boasting, such opportunities had indeed come in his way, and, with his generous optimism, he was content to ignore the fact that only the money was wanting.
"What's wrong with Polly Sparkes?" inquired the young lady presently, again sending a waft of cloves into Gammon's face.
"That's what I want to know," he answered facetiously.
"She's awful cut up about something. I thought you was sure to know what it was, Mr. Gammon. She says a lot of you has been using her shimeful."
"Oh, she does, does she?"
"You should hear her talk! Now it's her landlydy--now it's her awnt--now it's I don't know who. To hear her--she's been used shimeful. She says she's been drove out of the 'ouse. I didn't think it of you, Mr. Gammon."
At the moment the bus was drawing slowly near to a popular wine-shop. Mr. Nibby whispered to Miss Waghorn, who dropped her eyes and looked demure; whereupon he addressed Gammon.
"What do you say to a glass of dry sherry, sir?"
"Right you are, sir!"
So the omnibus was stopped to allow Miss Waghorn to alight, and all three turned into the wine-shop. Dry sherry not being to Miss Waghorn's taste she chose sweet port, drinking it as one to the manner born, and talking the while in hoarse whispers, with now and then an outburst of shrill laughter. The dark, narrow space before the counter or bar was divided off with wooden partitions as at a pawnbroker's; each compartment had a high stool for the luxuriously inclined, and along the wall ran a bare wooden bench. Not easily could a less inviting place of refreshment have been constructed; but no such thought occurred to its frequenters, who at this hour were numerous. Squeezed together in a stifling atmosphere of gas and alcohol, with nothing to look at but the row of great barrels whence the wine was drawn, these merry folk quenched their midsummer thirst and gave their wits a jog, and drank good fellowship with merciless ill-usage of the Queen's English. Miss Waghorn talked freely of Polly Sparkes, repeating all the angry things that Polly had said, and persistingly wanting to know what the "bother" was all about.
"It's for her own good," said Gammon with significant brevity.
He did not choose to say more or to ask any questions which might turn to Polly's disadvantage. For his own part he seldom gave a thought to the girl, and was far from imagining that she cared whether he kept on friendly terms with her or not. At his landlady's suggestion he had joined in the domestic plot for sending Polly to "Coventry"--a phrase, by the by, which would hardly have been understood in Mrs. Bubb's household; he argued that it might do her good, and that in any case some such demonstration was called for by her outrageous temper. If Polly could not get on with people who were sincerely her friends and had always wished her well, let her go elsewhere and exercise her ill-humour on strangers. Gammon did not believe that she would go; day after day he expected to hear that the quarrel was made up, and that Polly had cleared her reputation by a few plain words.
But this was the last day save one of Polly's week, and as yet she had given no sign. On coming down into the kitchen to discuss his fried eggs and bacon he saw at once that Mrs. Bubb was seriously perturbed; with huffings and cuffings--a most unusual thing--she had just despatched her children to school, and was now in conflict with Moggie about a broken pie-dish, which the guilty general had concealed in the back-yard. A prudent man in the face of such tempers, Gammon sat down without speaking, and fell to on the viands which Mrs. Bubb--also silent--set before him. In a minute or two, having got rid of Moggie and closed the kitchen door, Mrs. Bubb came near and addressed him in a subdued voice.
"What d'you think? It's her uncle! It's Clover!"
"Eh? What is?"
"Why, it's him as 'as been giving her things."
"Has she said so?" asked Gammon, with eager interest.
"I met her as she was coming down just now and she was in a tearin' rage, and she says to me, she says, 'When you see my awnt,' she says, 'you tell her I know all about her 'usband, and that I wouldn't tell her anything not if she went down on her bended knees! There now!'"
The uneducated man may perchance repeat with exactness something that has been said to him, or in his hearing; for the uneducated woman such accuracy is impossible. Mrs. Bubb meant to be strictly truthful, but in the nature of things she would have gone astray, even had Polly's message taken a much simpler form than wrathful sarcasm gave to it. However, she conveyed the spirit of Polly's words, and Gammon was so excited by the report that he sprang up, overturning his cup of coffee.
"Oh, cuss it! Never mind; most's gone on to my trousers. She said that? And to think we never thought of it! Where is she? When'll she be back?"
"I don't know. But she says she's going to leave to-morrow, and looks as if she meant it, too. Hadn't I better send to Mrs. Clover?"
"I tell you what, send and ask her to come here to-night; say it's very important. We'll have them face to face--by jorrocks, we will!"
"Polly mayn't be 'ome before half-past ten or eleven."
"Never mind. I tell you we'll have them face to face. If it comes to that I'll pay for a cab for Mrs. Clover to go home in. Tell her to be here at eight. Stop. You mustn't have the trouble; I can very well go round myself. Yes, I'll go myself and arrange it."
"It may be a lie," remarked Mrs. Bubb.
"So it may be, but somehow I don't think so. The rummiest thing that that never came into my head! I shouldn't be a bit surprised if Clover ain't living in Belgrave Square, or some such place. Just the kind of thing that happens with these mysterious johnnies. She'll have come across him somewhere, and he's bribed her to keep it dark--see? What a gooseberry I was never to think of it! We'll have 'em face to face!"
"Suppose Polly won't?"
"Won't? Gosh, but she shall! If I have to carry her downstairs, she shall! Think we're going to let her keep a thing like this to herself? You just wait and see. Leave it to me, that's all. Lucky there's only friends in the house. Polly, likes a row, and, by jorrocks, she shall have one!"