The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter IX. Polly's Defiance
Content with her four lodgers, Mrs. Bubb reserved the rooms on the ground floor for her own use. In that at the back she slept with the two younger children; the other two had a little bed in the front room, which during the daytime served as a parlour. On occasions of ceremony--when the parlour was needed in the evening--the children slept in a bare attic next to that occupied by Moggie; and this they looked upon as a treat, for it removed them from their mother's observation, and gave opportunities for all sorts of adventurous pranks.
Thus were things arranged for to-night. Mrs. Bubb swept and garnished her parlour for the becoming reception of a visitor whom she could not but "look up to." Mrs. Clover's origin was as humble as her own, and her education not much better, but natural gifts and worldly circumstances had set a distance between them. Partly, perhaps, because she was the widow of a police constable Mrs. Bubb gave all due weight to social distinctions; she knew her "place," and was incapable of presuming. With Polly Sparkes she did not hesitate to use freedom, for Polly could not pretend to be on a social level with her aunt, and as a young girl of unformed character naturally owed deference to an experienced matron who took a kindly interest in her.
There had been some question of inviting Mr. Sparkes, but Mr. Gammon spoke against it. No; let Polly have a fair chance, first of all, of unbosoming herself before her aunt and her landlady. If she refused to do so, why then other steps must be taken.
Gammon passed the day in high spirits, which, with the aid of seasonable beverages, tended to hilarious excitement. The thing was going to be as good as a play. In his short dialogue with Mrs. Clover he withheld from her the moving facts of the case, telling her only that her niece was going to quit Mrs. Bubb's, and that it behoved her to assist in a final appeal to the girl's better feelings. His own part in the affair was merely, he explained, that of a messenger, sent to urge the invitation. Mrs. Clover willingly consented to come. Not a word passed between them with reference to their last conversation, but Mr. Gammon made it plain that he nursed no resentment, and the lady of the china shop behaved very amicably indeed.
At six o'clock Polly came home to dress for the theatre. She left again, having spoken to no one. Soon afterwards Gammon, who in fact had watched for her departure, entered the house and held a conversation with Mrs. Bubb in the parlour, where already the table was laid for supper at half-past eight. Scarcely had eight struck when Mrs. Clover, who had alighted from an omnibus, sounded her pleasant rat-tat--self-respecting, and such as did credit to the house, but with no suggestion of arrogance. As her habit was she kissed Mrs. Bubb--a very kindly and gracious thing to do. She asked after the children, and was sorry she could not see them. In her attire Mrs. Clover preserved the same happy medium as in her way of plying the knocker; it was sufficiently elaborate to show consideration for her hostess, yet not so grand as to overwhelm by contrast. She looked, indeed, so pleasant, and so fresh, and so young that it was as difficult to remember the troubles of her life as it was to bear in mind that she had a daughter seventeen years of age. Mr. Gammon, who made up a trio at the supper table, put on his best behaviour. It might perhaps have been suspected that he had quenched his thirst more often than was needful on a day of showers and falling temperature, but at supper he drank only two glasses of mild ale, and casually remarked, as he poured out the second, that he had serious thoughts of becoming a total abstainer.
"You might do worse than that," said Mrs. Clover meaningly, but with good nature.
"You think so? Say the word, Mrs. Clover, and I'll do it."
"I shan't say the word, because I know you couldn't live without a glass of beer. There's no harm in that. But when--"
The remark was left incomplete.
"Hush!" came from Mrs. Bubb in the same moment. "Wasn't that the front door?"
All listened. A heavy step was ascending the stairs.
"Only Mr. Cheeseman," said the landlady with a sigh of agitation. "Of course it couldn't be Polly yet."
Not till the repast was comfortably despatched did Mr. Gammon give a sign that it might now be well to inform Mrs. Clover of what had happened. He nodded gravely to Mrs. Bubb, who with unaffected nervousness, causing her to ramble and stumble for many minutes in mazes of circumlocution, at length conveyed the fact to her anxious listener that Polly Sparkes had said something or other which implied a knowledge of Mr. Clover's whereabouts. Committed to this central fact, and urged by Mrs. Clover's growing impatience, the good woman came out at length with her latest version of Polly's remarkable utterance.
"And what she said was this, Mrs. Clover. When next you goes tale-telling to my awnt, she says--just as nasty as she could--when next you goes making trouble with my Aunt Louisa, she says, you can tell her, she says, that there's nobody but me knows where her 'usband is, and what he's a-doin' of but I wouldn't let her know, she says, not if it was to save her from death and burial in the workus! That's what Polly said to me this very morning, and the words made that impression on my mind that I shall never forget them to the last day of my life."
" Did you ever!" exclaimed or rather murmured Mrs. Clover, for she was astonished and agitated. Her face lost its wholesome tone for a moment, her hands moved as if to repel something, and at length she sat quite still gazing at Mrs. Bubb.
"And don't you think it queer," put in Mr. Gammon, "that we never hit on that?"
"I'm sure I should never have thought of such a thing," replied Mrs. Clover heavily, despondently.
"And who knows," cried Mrs. Bubb, "whether it's true after all? Polly's been that nasty, how if she's made it up just to spite us?"
Mrs. Clover nodded, and seemed to find relief.
"I shouldn't a bit wonder. How should Polly know about him? It seems to me a most unlikely thing--the most unlikely thing I ever heard of. I shall never believe it till she's proved her words. I won't believe it--I can't believe it--never!"
Her voice rose on tremulous notes, her eyes wandered disdainfully. She looked at Gammon and immediately looked away again. He, as though in answer to an appeal, spoke with decision.
"What we're here for, Mrs. Clover, is to put Polly face to face with you and so get the truth out of her. That we will do, cost what it may. We're not going to have that girl making trouble and disturbance just to please herself. I don't want to poke myself into other people's business, and I'm sure you won't think I do."
"Of course not, Mr. Gammon. 'T ain't likely I should think so of you."
"You know me better. I was just going to say that I'm a man of business, and perhaps I can help to clear up this job in a business-like way. That's what I'm here for. If I didn't think I could be of some use to you I should make myself scarce. What I propose is this, Mrs. Clover. When Polly comes in--never mind how late it is, I'll see you safe 'ome--let her get upstairs just as usual. Then you go up to her door and you knock and you just say, 'Polly, it's me, and I want a word with you; let me come in, please?' If she lets you in, all right; have a talk and see what comes of it. If she won't let you in just come down again and let us know, and then we'll think what's to be done next."
This suggestion was approved, and time went on as the three discussed the mystery from every point of view. At about ten o'clock Mrs. Bubb's ear caught the sound of a latch-key at the front door. She started up; her companions did the same. By opening the door of the parlour an inch or two it was ascertained that a person had entered the house and gone quickly upstairs. This could only be Polly, for Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman were together in their sitting-room above, their voices audible from time to time.
"Now then, Mrs. Clover," said Gammon, "up you go. Don't be nervous; it's only Polly Sparkes, and she's more call to be afraid of you than you of her."
"I should think so, indeed," assented Mrs. Bubb. "Don't give way, my dear. Whativer you do, don't give way. I'm sure I feel for you. It's fair crool, it is."
Mrs. Clover said nothing, and made a great effort to command herself. Her friends escorted her to the foot of the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseman had their door ajar, knowing well what was in progress, for the landlady had not been able to keep her counsel at such a dramatic crisis; but fortunately Mrs. Clover was unaware of this. With light, quick foot she mounted the flight of stairs and knocked softly at Polly's door.
"Well? Who's that?" sounded in a careless voice.
"It's me, Polly--your Aunt Louisa. Will you let me come in?"
"What do you want?"
The tone of the inquiry was not encouraging, and Mrs. Clover delayed a moment before she spoke again.
"I want to speak to you, Polly," she said at length, with firmness. "You know what it's about. Let me come in, please."
"I've got nothing to say to you about anything," answered Polly, in a tone of unmistakable decision. "You're only wasting your time, and the sooner you go 'ome the better."
She spoke near to the door, and with her last word sharply turned the key. Only just in time, for Mrs. Clover was that moment trying the handle when she heard the excluding snap. Natural feeling so much prevailed with her that she gave the door a shake, whereat her niece laughed,
"You're a bad, wicked, deceitful girl!" exclaimed Mrs. Clover hotly. "I don't believe a word you said, not a word! You're going to the bad as fast as ever you can, and you know it, and you don't care, and I'm sure I don't care! Somebody ought to box your ears soundly, miss. I wouldn't have such a temper as yours not for untold money. And when you want a friend, and haven't a penny in the world, don't come to me, because I won't look at you, and won't own you. And remember that, miss!"
Again Polly laughed, this time in high notes of wrathful derision. Before the sound had died away Mrs. Clover was at the foot of the staircase, where Gammon and Mrs. Bubb awaited her.
"It's all a make-up," she declared vehemently. "I won't believe a word of it. She's made fools of us--the nasty, ill-natured thing!"
Trembling with excitement she was obliged to sit down in the parlour, whilst Mrs. Bubb hovered about her with indignant consolation. Gammon, silent as yet, stood looking on. As he watched Mrs. Clover's countenance his own underwent a change; there was a ruffling of the brows, a working of the lips, and in his good-humoured blue eyes a twinkling of half-amused, half-angry determination.
"Look here," he began, thrusting his hands into his side pockets. "You've come all this way, Mrs. Clover, to see Polly, and see her you shall."
"I don't want to, Mr. Gammon! I couldn't--"
"Now steady a bit--quiet--don't lose your head. Whether you want to see her or not, I want you to, and what's more you shall see her. If Polly's trying to make fools of us she shan't have all the fun; if she's telling the truth she shall have a fair chance of proving it; if she's lying we'll have a jolly good try to make her jolly well ashamed of herself. See here, Mrs. Bubb, will you do as I ask you?"
"And what's that, Mr. Gammon?" asked the landlady, eager to show her spirit.
"You go up to Polly's room, and you say this: 'Miss Sparkes,' you say, 'you've got to come downstairs and see your aunt. If you'll come, quite well and good; if you won't, I just got to tell you that the lock on your door is easy forced, and expense shan't stand in the way.' Now you just go and say that."
Mrs. Bubb and Mrs. Clover exchanged glances. Both were plainly impressed by this masculine suggestion, but they hesitated.
"I don't want to make an upset in the house," said Mrs. Clover. "There isn't a word of truth in what she said; I feel sure of that, and it's no use."
"If you ask me," Gammon interposed, "I'm not at all sure about that. It seems to me just as likely as not that she has come across Mr. Clover--just as likely as not."
Angry agitation again took hold of Polly's aunt, who was very easily swayed by an opinion from Mr. Gammon. The landlady, too, gave willing ear to his words.
"Do you mean," she asked, "that we should really break the door open?"
"I do; and what's more--I'll pay the damage. Go up, Mrs. Bubb, and just say what I told you; and let's see how she takes it."
Mrs. Clover began a faint objection, but Mrs. Bubb did not heed it. Her face set in the joy of battle, she turned from the room and ran upstairs.