Part 4 out of 8
So for the first time I understood the joy of talking "shop" with a
fellow craftsman. I told him my favourite authors--Scott, and Dumas,
and Victor Hugo; and to my delight found they were his also; he
agreeing with me that real stories were the best, stories in which
people did things.
"I used to read silly stuff once," I confessed, "Indian tales and that
sort of thing, you know. But mamma said I'd never be able to write if
I read that rubbish."
"You will find it so all through life, Paul," he replied. "The things
that are nice are rarely good for us. And what do you read now?"
"I am reading Marlowe's Plays and De Quincey's Confessions just now,"
I confided to him.
"And do you understand them?"
"Fairly well," I answered. "Mamma says I'll like them better as I go
on. I want to learn to write very, very well indeed," I admitted to
him; "then I'll be able to earn heaps of money."
He smiled. "So you don't believe in Art for Art's sake, Paul?"
I was puzzled. "What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means in our case, Paul," he answered, "writing books for the
pleasure of writing books, without thinking of any reward, without
desiring either money or fame."
It was a new idea to me. "Do many authors do that?" I asked.
He laughed outright this time. It was a delightful laugh. It rang
through the quiet Park, awaking echoes; and caught by it, I laughed
"Hush!" he said; and he glanced round with a whimsical expression of
fear, lest we might have been overheard. "Between ourselves, Paul,"
he continued, drawing me more closely towards him and whispering, "I
don't think any of us do. We talk about it. But I'll tell you this,
Paul; it is a trade secret and you must remember it: No man ever made
money or fame but by writing his very best. It may not be as good as
somebody else's best, but it is his best. Remember that, Paul."
I promised I would.
"And you must not think merely of the money and the fame, Paul," he
added the next moment, speaking more seriously. "Money and fame are
very good things, and only hypocrites pretend to despise them. But if
you write books thinking only of money, you will be disappointed. It
is earned easier in other ways. Tell me, that is not your only idea?"
I pondered. "Mamma says it is a very noble calling, authorship," I
remembered, "and that any one ought to be very proud and glad to be
able to write books, because they give people happiness and make them
forget things; and that one ought to be very good if one is going to
be an author, so as to be worthy to help and teach others."
"And do you try to be good, Paul?" he enquired.
"Yes," I answered; "but it's very hard to be quite good--until of
course you're grown up."
He smiled, but more to himself than to me. "Yes," he said, "I suppose
it is difficult to be good until you are grown up. Perhaps we shall
all of us be good when we're quite grown up." Which, from a gentleman
with a grey beard, appeared to me a puzzling observation.
"And what else does mamma say about literature?" he asked. "Can you
Again I pondered, and her words came back to me. "That he who can
write a great book is greater than a king; that the gift of being able
to write is given to anybody in trust; that an author should never
forget he is God's servant."
He sat for awhile without speaking, his chin resting on his folded
hands supported by his gold-topped cane. Then he turned and laid a
hand upon my shoulder, and his clear, bright eyes were close to mine.
"Your mother is a wise lady, Paul," he said. "Remember her words
always. In later life let them come back to you; they will guide you
better than the chatter of the Clubs."
"And what modern authors do you read?" he asked after a silence: "any
of them--Thackeray, Bulwer Lytton, Dickens?"
"I have read 'The Last of the Barons,'" I told him; "I like that. And
I've been to Barnet and seen the church. And some of Mr. Dickens'."
"And what do you think of Mr. Dickens?" he asked. But he did not seem
very interested in the subject. He had picked up a few small stones,
and was throwing them carefully into the water.
"I like him very much," I answered; "he makes you laugh."
"Not always?" he asked. He stopped his stone-throwing, and turned
sharply towards me.
"Oh, no, not always," I admitted; "but I like the funny bits best. I
like so much where Mr. Pickwick--"
"Oh, damn Mr. Pickwick!" he said.
"Don't you like him?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, I like him well enough, or used to," he replied; "I'm a bit
tired of him, that's all. Does your mamma like Mr.--Mr. Dickens?"
"Not the funny parts," I explained to him. "She thinks he is
"I know," he interrupted, rather irritably, I thought; "a trifle
It surprised me that he should have guessed her exact words. "I don't
think mamma has much sense of humour," I explained to him. "Sometimes
she doesn't even see papa's jokes."
At that he laughed again. "But she likes the other parts?" he
enquired, "the parts where Mr. Dickens isn't--vulgar?"
"Oh, yes," I answered. "She says he can be so beautiful and tender,
when he likes."
Twilight was deepening. It occurred to me to enquire of him again the
"Just over the quarter," he answered, looking at his watch.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I must go now."
"So am I sorry, Paul," he answered. "Perhaps we shall meet again.
Good-bye." Then as our hands touched: "You have never asked me my
name, Paul," he reminded me.
"Oh, haven't I?" I answered.
"No, Paul," he replied, "and that makes me think of your future with
hope. You are an egotist, Paul; and that is the beginning of all
And after that he would not tell me his name. "Perhaps next time we
meet," he said. "Good-bye, Paul. Good luck to you!"
So I went my way. Where the path winds out of sight I turned. He was
still seated upon the bench, but his face was towards me, and he waved
his hand to me. I answered with a wave of mine. And then the
intervening boughs and bushes gradually closed in around me. And
across the rising mist there rose the hoarse, harsh cry:
"All out! All out!"
IN WHICH PAUL IS SHIPWRECKED, AND CAST INTO DEEP WATERS.
My father died, curiously enough, on the morning of his birthday. We
had not expected the end to arrive for some time, and at first did not
know that it had come.
"I have left him sleeping," said my mother, who had slipped out very
quietly in her dressing-gown. "Washburn gave him a draught last
night. We won't disturb him."
So we sat round the breakfast table, speaking in low tones, for the
house was small and flimsy, all sound easily heard through its thin
partitions. Afterwards my mother crept upstairs, I following, and
cautiously opened the door a little way.
The blinds were still down, and the room dark. It seemed a long time
that my mother stood there listening, her ear against the jar. The
first costermonger--a girl's voice, it sounded--passed, crying
shrilly: "Watercreases, fine fresh watercreases with your
breakfast-a'penny a bundle watercreases;" and further off a hoarse
youth was wailing: "Mee-ilk-mee-ilk-oi."
Inch by inch my mother opened the door wider and we stole in. He was
lying with his eyes still closed, the lips just slightly parted. I
had never seen death before, and could not realise it. All that I
could see was that he looked even younger than I had ever seen him
look before. By slow degrees only, it came home to me, the knowledge
that he was gone away from us. For days--for weeks, I would hear his
step behind me in the street, his voice calling to me, see his face
among the crowds, and hastening to meet him, stand bewildered because
it had mysteriously disappeared. But at first I felt no pain
To my mother it was but a short parting. Into her placid faith had
never fallen fear nor doubt. He was waiting for her. In God's good
time they would meet again. What need of sorrow! Without him the
days passed slowly: the house must ever be a little dull when the
good man's away. But that was all. So my mother would speak of him
always--of his dear, kind ways, of his oddities and follies we loved
so to recall, not through tears, but smiles, thinking of him not as of
one belonging to the past, but as of one beckoning to her from the
We lived on still in the old house though ever planning to move, for
the great brick monster had crept closer round about us year by year,
devouring in his progress all things fair. Field and garden, tree and
cottage, time-mellowed house suggesting story, kind hedgerow hiding
hideousness beyond--the few spots yet in that doomed land lingering to
remind one of the sunshine, one by one had he scrunched them between
his ugly teeth. A world apart, this east end of London, this ghetto
of the poor for ever growing, dreariness added year by year to
dreariness, hopelessness stretching ever farther its long, shrivelled
arms, these endless rows of reeking cells where London herds her
slaves. Often of a misty afternoon when we knew that without this
city of the dead life was stirring in the sunshine, we would fare
forth to house-hunt in pleasant suburbs, now themselves added to the
weary catacomb of narrow streets--to Highgate, then a tiny town
connected by a coach with leafy Holloway; to Hampstead with its rows
of ancient red-brick houses, from whose wind-blown heath one saw
beyond the woods and farms, far London's domes and spires, to Wood
Green among the pastures, where smock-coated labourers discussed their
politics and ale beneath wide-spreading elms; to Hornsey, then a
village consisting of an ivy-covered church and one grass-bordered
way. But though we often saw "the very thing for us" and would
discuss its possibilities from every point of view and find them good,
we yet delayed.
"We must think it over," would say my mother; "there is no hurry; for
some reasons I shall be sorry to leave Poplar."
"For what reasons, mother?"
"Oh, well, no particular reason, Paul. Only we have lived there so
long, you know. It will be a wrench leaving the old house."
To the making of man go all things, even to the instincts of the
clinging vine. We fling our tendrils round what is the nearest
castle-keep or pig-stye wall, rain and sunshine fastening them but
firmer. Dying Sir Walter Scott--do you remember?--hastening home from
Italy, fearful lest he might not be in time to breathe again the damp
mists of the barren hills. An ancient dame I knew, they had carried
her from her attic in slumland that she might be fanned by the sea
breezes, and the poor old soul lay pining for what she called her
"home." Wife, mother, widow, she had lived there till the alley's
reek smelt good to her nostrils, till its riot was the voices of her
people. Who shall understand us save He who fashioned us?
So the old house held us to its dismal bosom; and not until within its
homely but unlovely arms, first my aunt, and later on my mother had
died, and I had said good-bye to Amy, crying in the midst of littered
emptiness, did I leave it.
My aunt died as she had lived, grumbling.
"You will be glad to get rid of me, all of you!" she said, dropping
for the first and last time I can recollect into the retort direct;
"and I can't say I shall be very sorry to go myself. It hasn't been
my idea of life."
Poor old lady! That was only a couple of weeks before the end. I do
not suppose she guessed it was so certain or perhaps she might have
been more sentimental.
"Don't be foolish," said my mother, "you're not going to die!"
"What's the use of talking like an idiot," retorted my aunt, "I've got
to do it some time. Why not now, when everything's all ready for it.
It isn't as if I was enjoying myself."
"I am sure we do all we can for you," said my mother. "I know you
do," replied my aunt. "I'm a burden to you. I always have been."
"Not a burden," corrected my mother.
"What does the woman call it then," snapped back my aunt. "Does she
reckon I've been a sunbeam in the house? I've been a trial to
everybody. That's what I was born for; it's my metier."
My mother put her arms about the poor old soul and kissed her. "We
should miss you very much," she said.
"I'm sure I hope they all will!" answered my aunt. "It's the only
thing I've got to leave 'em, worth having."
My mother laughed.
"Maybe it's been a good thing for you, Maggie," grumbled my aunt; "if
it wasn't for cantankerous, disagreeable people like me, gentle,
patient people like you wouldn't get any practice. Perhaps, after
all, I've been a blessing to you in disguise."
I cannot honestly say we ever wished her back; though we certainly did
miss her--missed many a joke at her oddities, many a laugh at her
cornery ways. It takes all sorts, as the saying goes, to make a
world. Possibly enough if only we perfect folk were left in it we
would find it uncomfortably monotonous.
As for Amy, I believe she really regretted her.
"One never knows what's good for one till one's lost it," sighed Amy.
"I'm glad to think you liked her," said my mother.
"You see, mum," explained Amy, "I was one of a large family; and a bit
of a row now and again cheers one up, I always think. I'll be losing
the power of my tongue if something doesn't come along soon."
"Well, you are going to be married in a few weeks now," my mother
But Amy remained despondent. "They're poor things, the men, at a few
words, the best of them," she replied. "As likely as not just when
you're getting interested you turn round to find that they've put on
their hat and gone out."
My mother and I were very much alone after my aunt's death. Barbara
had gone abroad to put the finishing touches to her education--to
learn the tricks of the Nobs' trade, as old Hasluck phrased it; and I
had left school and taken employment with Mr. Stillwood, without
salary, the idea being that I should study for the law.
"You are in luck's way, my boy, in luck's way," old Mr. Gadley had
assured me. "To have commenced your career in the office of
Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal will be a passport for you anywhere.
It will stamp you, my boy."
Mr. Stillwood himself was an extremely old and feeble gentleman--so
old and feeble it seemed strange that he, a wealthy man, had not long
"I am always meaning to," he explained to me one day soon after my
advent in his office. "When your poor father came to me he told me
very frankly the sad fact--that he had only a few more years to live.
'Mr. Kelver,' I answered him, 'do not let that trouble you, so far as
I am concerned. There are one or two matters in the office I should
like to see cleared up, and in these you can help me. When they are
completed I shall retire! Yet, you see, I linger on. I am like the
old hackney coach horse, Mr. Weller--or is it Mr. Jingle--tells us of;
if the shafts were drawn away I should probably collapse. So I jog
on, I jog on.'"
He had married late in life a common woman much younger than himself,
who had brought to him a horde of needy and greedy relatives, and no
doubt, as a refuge from her noisy neighbourhood, the daily peace of
Lombard Street was welcome to him. We saw her occasionally. She was
one of those blustering, "managing" women who go through life under
the impression that making a disturbance is somehow "putting things to
rights." Ridiculously ashamed of her origin, she sought to hide it
under what her friends assured her was the air of a duchess, but
which, as a matter of fact, resembled rather the Sunday manners of an
elderly barmaid. Mr. Gadley alone was not afraid of her; but, on the
contrary, kept her always very much in fear of him, often speaking to
her with refreshing candour. He had known her in the days it was her
desire should be buried in oblivion, and had always resented as a
personal insult her entry into the old established aristocratic firm
of Stillwood & Co.
Her history was peculiar. Mr. Stillwood, when a blase man about town,
verging on forty, had first seen her, then a fair-haired,
ethereal-looking child, in spite of her dirt, playing in the gutter.
To his lasting self-reproach it was young Gadley himself, accompanying
his employer home from Westminster, who had drawn Mr. Stillwood's
attention to the girl by boxing her ears for having, as he passed,
slapped his face with a convenient sprat. Stillwood, acting on the
impulse of the moment, had taken the child by the hand and dragged
her, unwilling, to her father's place of business--a small coal shed
in the Horseferry Road. The arrangement he there made amounted
practically to the purchase of the child. She was sent abroad to
school and the coal shed closed. On her return, ten years later, a
big, handsome young woman, he married her, and learned at leisure the
truth of the old saying, "what's bred in the bone will come out in the
flesh," scrub it and paint it and hide it away under fine clothes as
Her constant complaint against her husband was that he was only a
solicitor, a profession she considered vulgar; and nothing "riled" old
Gadley more than hearing her views upon this point.
"It's not fair to the gals," I once heard her say to him. I was
working in the next room, with the door not quite closed, added to
which she talked at the top of her voice on all subjects. "What real
gentleman, I should like to know, is going to marry the daughter of a
City attorney? As I told him years ago, he ought to have retired and
gone into the House."
"The very thing your poor father used to talk of doing whenever things
were going a bit queer in the retail coal and potato business,"
grunted old Gadley.
Mrs. Stillwood called him a "low beast" in her most aristocratic
tones, and swept out of the room.
Not that old Stillwood himself ever expressed fondness for the law.
"I am not at all sure, Kelver," I remember his saying to me on one
occasion, "that you have done wisely in choosing the law. It makes
one regard humanity morally as the medical profession regards it
physically:--as universally unsound. You suspect everybody of being a
rogue. When people are behaving themselves, we lawyers hear nothing
of them. All we hear of is roguery, trickery and hypocrisy. It
deteriorates the character, Kelver. We live in a perpetual atmosphere
of transgression. I sometimes fancy it may be infectious."
"It does not seem to have infected you, sir," I replied; for, as I
think I have already mentioned, the firm of Stillwood, Waterhead and
Royal was held in legal circles as the synonym for rectitude of
dealing quite old-fashioned.
"I hope not, Kelver, I hope not," the old gentleman replied; "and yet,
do you know, I sometimes suspect myself--wonder if I may not perhaps
be a scamp without realising it. A rogue, you know, Kelver, can
always explain himself into an honest man to his own satisfaction. A
scamp is never a scamp to himself."
His words for the moment alarmed me, for, acting on old Gadley's
advice, I had persuaded my mother to put all her small capital into
Mr. Stillwood's hands for re-investment, a transaction that had
resulted in substantial increase of our small income. But, looking
into his smiling eyes, my momentary fear vanished.
Laughing, he laid his hand upon my shoulder. "One person always be
suspicious of, Kelver--yourself. Nobody can do you so much harm as
Of Washburn we saw more and more. "Hal" we both called him now, for
removing with his gentle, masterful hands my mother's shyness from
about her, he had established himself almost as one of the family, my
mother regarding him as she might some absurdly bearded boy entrusted
to her care without his knowing it, I looking up to him as to some
wonderful elder brother.
"You rest me, Mrs. Kelver," he would say, lighting his pipe and
sinking down into the deep leathern chair that always waited for him
in our parlour. "Your even voice, your soft eyes, your quiet hands,
they soothe me."
"It is good for a man," he would say, looking from one to the other of
us through the hanging smoke, "to test his wisdom by two things: the
face of a good woman, and the ear of a child--I beg your pardon,
Paul--of a young man. A good woman's face is the white sunlight.
Under the gas-lamps who shall tell diamond from paste? Bring it into
the sunlight: does it stand that test? Then it is good. And the
children! they are the waiting earth on which we fling our store. Is
it chaff and dust or living seed? Wait and watch. I shower my
thoughts over our Paul, Mrs. Kelver. They seem to me brilliant, deep,
original. The young beggar swallows them, forgets them. They were
rubbish. Then I say something that dwells with him, that grows. Ah,
that was alive, that was a seed. The waiting earth, it can make use
only of what is true."
"You should marry, Hal," my mother would say. It was her panacea for
"I would, Mrs. Kelver," he answered her on one occasion, "I would
to-morrow if I could marry half a dozen women. I should make an ideal
husband for half a dozen wives. One I should neglect for five days,
and be a burden to upon the sixth."
From any other than Hal my mother would have taken such a remark, made
even in jest, as an insult to her sex. But Hal's smile was a coating
that could sugar any pill.
"I am not one man, Mrs. Kelver, I am half a dozen. If I were to marry
one wife she would be married to six husbands. It is too many for any
woman to manage."
"Have you never fallen in love?" asked my mother.
"Three of me have, but on each occasion the other five of me out-voted
"You're sure six would be sufficient?" queried my mother, smiling.
"Just the right number, Mrs. Kelver. There is one of me must worship,
adore a woman madly, abjectly; grovel before her like the Troubadour
before his Queen of Song, eat her slipper, drink the water she has
washed in, scourge himself before her window, die for a kiss of her
glove flung down with a laugh. She must be scornful, contemptuous,
cruel. There is another I would cherish, a tender, yielding creature,
one whose face would light at my coming, cloud at my going; one to
whom I should be a god. There is a third I, a child of Pan--an ugly
little beast, Mrs. Kelver; horns on head and hoofs on feet, leering
through the wood, seeking its fit mate. And a fourth would wed a
wholesome, homely wench, deep of bosom, broad of hip; fit mother of a
sturdy brood. A fifth could only be content with a true friend, a
comrade wise and witty, a sharer and understander of all joys and
thoughts and feelings. And a last, Mrs. Kelver, yearns for a woman
pure and sweet, clothed in love and crowned with holiness. Shouldn't
we be a handful, Mrs. Kelver, for any one woman in an eight-roomed
But my mother was not to be discouraged. "You will find the woman one
day, Hal, who will be all of them to you--all of them that are worth
having, that is. And your eight-roomed house will be a kingdom!"
"A man is many, and a woman but one," answered Hal.
"That is what men say who are too blind to see more than one side of a
woman," retorted my mother, a little sharply; for the honour and
credit of her own sex in all things was very dear to my mother. And
indeed this I have learned, that the flag of Womanhood you shall ever
find upheld by all true women, flouted only by the false. For a judge
in petticoats is ever but a witness in a wig.
Hal laid aside his pipe and leant forward in his chair. "Now tell us,
Mrs. Kelver, for our guidance, we two young bachelors, what must the
lover of a young girl be?"
Always very serious on this subject of love, my mother answered
gravely: "She asks for the whole of a man, Hal, not merely for a
sixth, nor any other part of him. She is a child asking for a lover
to whom she can look up, who will teach her, guide her, protect her.
She is a queen demanding homage, and yet he is her king whom it is her
joy to serve. She asks to be his partner, his fellow-worker, his
playmate, and at the same time she loves to think of him as her child,
her big baby she must take care of. Whatever he has to give she
has also to respond with. You need not marry six wives, Hal; you will
find your six in one.
"'As the water to the vessel, woman shapes herself to man;' an old
heathen said that three thousand years ago, and others have repeated
him; that is what you mean."
"I don't like that way of putting it," answered my mother. "I mean
that as you say of man, so in every true woman is contained all women.
But to know her completely you must love her with all love."
Sometimes the talk would be of religion, for my mother's faith was no
dead thing that must be kept ever sheltered from the air, lest it
One evening "Who are we that we should live?" cried Hal. "The spider
is less cruel; the very pig less greedy, gluttonous and foul; the
tiger less tigerish; our cousin ape less monkeyish. What are we but
savages, clothed and ashamed, nine-tenths of us?"
"But Sodom and Gomorrah," reminded him my mother, "would have been
spared for the sake of ten just men."
"Much more sensible to have hurried the ten men out, leaving the
remainder to be buried with all their abominations under their own
ashes," growled Hal.
"And we shall be purified," continued my mother, "the evil in us
"Why have made us ill merely to mend us? If the Almighty were so
anxious for our company, why not have made us decent in the
beginning?" He had just come away from a meeting of Poor Law
Guardians, and was in a state of dissatisfaction with human nature
"It is His way," answered my mother. "The precious stone lies hid in
clay. He has His purpose."
"Is the stone so very precious?"
"Would He have taken so much pains to fashion it if it were not? You
see it all around you, Hal, in your daily practice--heroism,
self-sacrifice, love stronger than death. Can you think He will waste
it, He who uses again even the dead leaf?"
"Shall the new leaf remember the new flower?"
"Yes, if it ever knew it. Shall memory be the only thing to die?"
Often of an evening I would accompany Hal upon his rounds. By the
savage tribe he both served and ruled he had come to be regarded as
medicine man and priest combined. He was both their tyrant and their
slave, working for them early and late, yet bullying them
unmercifully, enforcing his commands sometimes with vehement tongue,
and where that would not suffice with quick fists; the counsellor,
helper, ruler, literally of thousands. Of income he could have made
barely enough to live upon; but few men could have enjoyed more sense
of power; and that I think it was that held him to the neighbourhood.
"Nature laid me by and forgot me for a couple of thousand years," was
his own explanation of himself. "Born in my proper period, I should
have climbed to chieftainship upon uplifted shields. I might have
been an Attila, an Alaric. Among the civilised one can only climb by
crawling, and I am too impatient to crawl. Here I am king at once by
force of brain and muscle." So in Poplar he remained, poor in fees
but rich in honour.
The love of justice was a passion with him. The oppressors of the
poor knew and feared him well. Injustice once proved before him,
vengeance followed sure. If the law would not help, he never
hesitated to employ lawlessness, of which he could always command a
satisfactory supply. Bumble might have the Board of Guardians at his
back, Shylock legal support for his pound of flesh; but sooner or
later the dark night brought punishment, a ducking in dock basin or
canal, "Brutal Assault Upon a Respected Resident" (according to the
local papers), the "miscreants" always making and keeping good their
escape, for he was an admirable organiser.
One night it seemed to him necessary that a child should go at once
into the Infirmary.
"It ain't no use my taking her now," explained the mother, "I'll only
get bullyragged for disturbing 'em. My old man was carried there
three months ago when he broke his leg, but they wouldn't take him in
till the morning."
"Oho! oho! oho!" sang Hal, taking the child up in his arms and putting
on his hat. "You follow me; we'll have some sport. Tally ho! tally
ho!" And away we went, Hal heading our procession through the
streets, shouting a rollicking song, the baby staring at him
"Now ring," cried Hal to the mother on our reaching the Workhouse
gate. "Ring modestly, as becomes the poor ringing at the gate of
Charity." And the bell tinkled faintly.
"Ring again!" cried Hal, drawing back into the shadow; and at last the
"Oh, if you please, sir, my baby--"
"Blast your baby!" answered a husky voice, "what d'ye mean by coming
here this time of night?"
"Please, sir, I'm afraid it's dying, and the Doctor--"
The man was no sentimentalist, and to do him justice made no
hypocritical pretence of being one. He consigned the baby and its
mother and the doctor to Hell, and the wicket would have closed but
for the point of Hal's stick.
"Open the gate!" roared Hal. It was idle pretending not to hear Hal
anywhere within half a mile of him when he filled his lungs for a cry.
"Open it quick, you blackguard! You gross vat-load of potato spirit,
That the Governor should speak a language familiar to the governed was
held by the Romans, born rulers of men, essential to authority. This
theory Hal also maintained. His command of idiom understanded by his
people was one of his rods of power. In less time than it took the
trembling porter to loosen the bolts, Hal had presented him with a
word picture of himself, as seen by others, that must have lessened
"I didn't know as it was you, Doctor," explained the man.
"No, you thought you had only to deal with some helpless creature you
could bully. Stir your fat carcass, you ugly cur! I'm in a hurry."
The House Surgeon was away, but an attendant or two were lounging
about, unfortunately for themselves, for Hal, being there, took it
upon himself to go round the ward setting crooked things straight; and
a busy and alarming time they had of it. Not till a couple of hours
later did he fling himself forth again, having enjoyed himself
A gentleman came to reside in the district, a firm believer in the
wisdom of the couplet: "A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree, The
more you beat them the better they be." The spaniel and the walnut
tree he did not possess, so his wife had the benefit of his undivided
energies. Whether his treatment had improved her morally, one cannot
say; her evident desire to do her best may have been natural or may
have been assisted; but physically it was injuring her. He used to
beat her about the head with his strap, his argument being that she
always seemed half asleep, and that this, for the time being, woke her
up. Sympathisers brought complaint to Hal, for the police in that
neighbourhood are to keep the streets respectable. With the life in
the little cells that line them they are no more concerned than are
the scavengers of the sewers with the domestic arrangements of the
"What's he like?" asked Hal.
"He's a big 'un," answered the woman who had come with the tale, "and
he's good with his fists--I've seen him. But there's no getting at
him. He's the sort to have the law on you if you interfere with him,
and she's the sort to help him."
"Any likely time to catch him at it?" asked Hal.
"Saturdays it's as regular as early closing," answered the woman, "but
you might have to wait a bit."
"I'll wait in your room, granny, next Saturday," suggested Hal.
"All right," agreed the woman, "I'll risk it, even if I do get a
bloody head for it."
So that week end we sat very still on two rickety chairs listening to
a long succession of sharp, cracking sounds that, had one not known,
one might have imagined produced by some child monotonously exploding
percussion caps, each one followed by an answering groan. Hal never
moved, but sat smoking his pipe, an ugly smile about his mouth. Only
once he opened his lips, and then it was to murmur to himself: "And
God blessed them and said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply."
The horror ceased at last, and later we heard the door unlock and a
man's foot upon the landing above. Hal beckoned to me, and swiftly we
slipped out and down the creaking stairs. He opened the front door,
and we waited in the evil-smelling little passage. The man came
towards us whistling. He was a powerfully built fellow, rather
good-looking, I remember. He stopped abruptly upon catching sight of
Hal, who stood crouching in the shadow of the door.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Waiting to pull your nose!" answered Hal, suiting the action to the
word. And then laughing he ran down the street, I following.
The man gave chase, calling to us with a string of imprecations to
stop. But Hal only ran the faster, though after a street or two he
slackened, and the man gained on us a little.
So we continued, the distance between us and our pursuer now a little
more, now a little less. People turned and stared at us. A few boys,
scenting grim fun, followed shouting for awhile; but these we soon
out-paced, till at last in deserted streets, winding among warehouses
bordering the river, we three ran alone, between long, lifeless walls.
I looked into Hal's face from time to time, and he was laughing; but
every now and then he would look over his shoulder at the man behind
him still following doggedly, and then his face would be twisted into
a comically terrified grimace. Turning into a narrow cul-de-sac, Hal
suddenly ducked behind a wide brick buttress, and the man, still
running, passed us. And then Hal stood up and called to him, and the
man turned, looked into Hal's eyes, and understood.
He was not a coward. Besides, even a rat when cornered will fight for
its life. He made a rush at Hal, and Hal made no attempt to defend
himself. He stood there laughing, and the man struck him full in the
face, and the blood spurted out and flowed down into his mouth. The
man came on again, though terror was in every line of his face, all
his desire being to escape. But this time Hal drove him back again.
They fought for awhile, if one can call it fighting, till the man, mad
for air, reeled against the wall, stood there quivering convulsively,
his mouth wide open, resembling more than anything else some huge
dying fish. And Hal drew away and waited.
I have no desire to see again the sight I saw that quiet, still
evening, framed by those high, windowless walls, from behind which
sounded with ceaseless regularity the gentle swish of the incoming
tide. All sense of retribution was drowned in the sight of Hal's
evident enjoyment of his sport. The judge had disappeared, leaving
the work to be accomplished by a savage animal loosened for the
The wretched creature flung itself again towards its only door of
escape, fought with the vehemence of despair, to be flung back again,
a hideous, bleeding mass of broken flesh. I tried to cling to Hal's
arm, but one jerk of his steel muscles flung me ten feet away.
"Keep off, you fool!" he cried. "I won't kill him. I'm keeping my
head. I shall know when to stop." And I crept away and waited.
Hal joined me a little later, wiping the blood from his face. We made
our way to a small public-house near the river, and from there Hal
sent a couple of men on whom he could rely with instructions how to
act. I never heard any more of the matter. It was a subject on which
I did not care to speak to Hal. I can only hope that good came of it.
There was a spot--it has been cleared away since to make room for the
approach to Greenwich Tunnel--it was then the entrance to a grain
depot in connection with the Milwall Docks. A curious brick well it
resembled, in the centre of which a roadway wound downward, corkscrew
fashion, disappearing at the bottom into darkness under a yawning
arch. The place possessed the curious property of being ever filled
with a ceaseless murmur, as though it were some aerial maelstrom,
drawing into its silent vacuum all wandering waves of sound from the
restless human ocean flowing round it. No single tone could one ever
distinguish: it was a mingling of all voices, heard there like the
murmur of a sea-soaked shell.
We passed through it on our return. Its work for the day was
finished, its strange, weary song uninterrupted by the mighty waggons
thundering up and down its spiral way. Hal paused, leaning against
the railings that encircled its centre, and listened.
"Hark, do you not hear it, Paul?" he asked. "It is the music of
Humanity. All human notes are needful to its making: the faint wail
of the new-born, the cry of the dying thief; the beating of the
hammers, the merry trip of dancers; the clatter of the teacups, the
roaring of the streets; the crooning of the mother to her babe, the
scream of the tortured child; the meeting kiss of lovers, the sob of
those that part. Listen! prayers and curses, sighs and laughter; the
soft breathing of the sleeping, the fretful feet of pain; voices of
pity, voices of hate; the glad song of the strong, the foolish
complaining of the weak. Listen to it, Paul! Right and wrong, good
and evil, hope and despair, it is but one voice--a single note, drawn
by the sweep of the Player's hand across the quivering strings of man.
What is the meaning of it, Paul? Can you read it? Sometimes it seems
to me a note of joy, so full, so endless, so complete, that I cry:
'Blessed be the Lord whose hammers have beaten upon us, whose fires
have shaped us to His ends!' And sometimes it sounds to me a dying
note, so that I could curse Him who in wantonness has wrung it from
the anguish of His creatures--till I would that I could fling myself,
Prometheus like, between Him and His victims, calling: "My darkness,
but their light; my agony, 0 God; their hope!'"
The faint light from a neighbouring gas-lamp fell upon his face that
an hour before I had seen the face of a wild beast. The ugly mouth was
quivering, tears stood in his great, tender eyes. Could his prayer in
that moment have been granted, could he have pressed against his bosom
all the pain of the world, he would have rejoiced.
He shook himself together with a laugh. "Come, Paul, we have had a
busy afternoon, and I'm thirsty. Let us drink some beer, my boy, good
sound beer, and plenty of it."
My mother fell ill that winter. Mountain born and mountain bred, the
close streets had never agreed with her, and scolded by all of us, she
promised, "come the fine weather," to put sentiment behind her, and go
away from them.
"I'm thinking she will," said Hal, gripping my shoulder with his
strong hand, "but it'll be by herself that she'll go, lad. My wonder
is," he continued, "that she has held out so long. If anything, it is
you that have kept her alive. Now that you are off her mind to a
certain extent, she is worrying about your father, I expect. These
women, they never will believe a man can take care of himself, even in
Heaven. She's never quite trusted the Lord with him, and never will
till she's there to give an eye to things herself."
Hal's prophecy fell true. She left "come the fine weather," as she
had promised: I remember it was the first day primroses were hawked
in the street. But another death had occurred just before; which,
concerning me closely as it does, I had better here dispose of; and
that was the death of old Mr. Stillwood, who passed away rich in
honour and regret, and was buried with much ostentation and much
sincere sorrow; for he had been to many of his clients, mostly old
folk, rather a friend than a mere man of business, and had gained from
all with whom he had come in contact, respect, and from many real
In conformity with the old legal fashions that in his life he had so
fondly clung to, his will was read aloud by Mr. Gadley after the
return from the funeral, and many were the tears its recital called
forth. Written years ago by himself and never altered, its quaint
phraseology was full of kindly thought and expression. No one had
been forgotten. Clerks, servants, poor relations, all had been
treated with even-handed justice, while for those with claim upon him,
ample provision had been made. Few wills, I think, could ever have
been read less open to criticism.
Old Gadley slipped his arm into mine as we left the house. "If you've
nothing to do, young 'un," he said, "I'll get you to come with me to
the office. I have got all the keys in my pocket, and we shall be
quiet. It will be sad work for me, and I had rather we were alone. A
couple of hours will show us everything."
We lighted the wax candles--old Stillwood could never tolerate gas in
his own room--and opening the safe took out the heavy ledgers one by
one, and from them Gadley dictated figures which I wrote down and
"Thirty years I have kept these books for him," said old Gadley, as we
laid by the last of them, "thirty years come Christmas next, he and I
together. No other hands but ours have ever touched them, and now
people to whom they mean nothing but so much business will fling them
about, drop greasy crumbs upon them--I know their ways, the
brutes!--scribble all over them. And he who always would have
everything so neat and orderly!"
We came to the end of them in less than the time old Gadley had
thought needful: in such perfect order had everything been
maintained. I was preparing to go, but old Gadley had drawn a couple
of small keys from his pocket, and was shuffling again towards the
"Only one more," he explained in answer to my look, "his own private
ledger. It will merely be in the nature of a summary, but we'll just
glance through it."
He opened an inner drawer and took from it a small thick volume bound
in green leather and closed with two brass locks. An ancient volume,
it appeared, its strong binding faded and stained. Old Gadley sat
down with it at the dead man's own desk, and snuffing the two shaded
candles, unlocked and opened it. I was standing opposite, so that the
book to me was upside down, but the date on the first page, "1841,"
caught my eye, as also the small neat writing now brown with age.
"So neat, so orderly he always was," murmured old Gadley again,
smoothing the page affectionately with his hand, and I waited for his
But no glib flow of figures fell from him. His eyebrows suddenly
contracted, his body stiffened itself. Then for the next quarter of
an hour nothing sounded in the quiet room but his turning of the
creakling pages. Once or twice he glanced round swiftly over his
shoulder, as though haunted by the idea of some one behind him; then
back to the neat, closely written folios, his little eyes, now
exhibiting a comical look of horror, starting out of his round red
face. First slowly, then quickly with trembling hands he turned the
pages, till the continual ratling of the leaves sounded like strange,
mocking laughter through the silent, empty room; almost one could
imagine it coming from some watching creature hidden in the shadows.
The end reached, he sat staring before him, his whole body quivering,
great beads of sweat upon his shiny bald head.
"Am I mad?" was all he could find to say. "Kelver, am I mad?"
He handed me the book. It was a cynically truthful record of fraud,
extending over thirty years. Every client, every friend, every
relative that had fallen into his net he had robbed: the fortunate
ones of a part, the majority of their all. Its very first entry
debited him with the proceeds of his own partner's estate. Its last
ran --"Re Kelver--various sales of stock." To his credit were his
payments year after year of imaginary interests on imaginary
securities, the surplus accounted for with simple brevity:
"Transferred to own account." No record could have been more clear,
more frank. Beneath each transaction was written its true history;
the actual investments, sometimes necessary, carefully distinguished
from the false. In neat red ink would occur here and there a note for
his own guidance: "Eldest child comes of age August, '73. Be
prepared for trustees desiring production." Turning to "August, '73,"
one found that genuine investment had been made, to be sold again a
few months later on. From beginning to end not a single false step
had he committed. Suspicious clients had been ear-marked: the
trusting discriminated with gratitude, and milked again and again to
As a piece of organisation it was magnificent. No one but a financial
genius could have picked a dozen steps through such a network of
chicanery. For half a lifetime he had moved among it, dignified,
respected and secure.
Whether even he could have maintained his position for another month
was doubtful. Suicide, though hinted at, was proved to have been
impossible. It seemed as though with his amazing audacity he had
tricked even Death into becoming his accomplice.
"But it is impossible, Kelver!" cried Gadley, "this must be some
dream. Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal! What is the meaning of it?"
He took the book into his hands again, then burst into tears. "You
never knew him," wailed the poor little man. "Stillwood, Waterhead
and Royal! I came here as office boy fifty years ago. He was more
like a friend to me than--" and again the sobs shook his little fat
I locked the books away and put him into his hat and coat. But I had
much difficulty in getting him out of the office.
"I daren't, young 'un," he cried, drawing back. "Fifty years I have
walked out of this office, proud of it, proud of being connected with
it. I daren't face the street!"
All the way home his only idea was: Could it not be hidden? Honest,
kindly little man that he was, he seemed to have no thought for the
unfortunate victims. The good name of his master, of his friend,
gone! Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal, a by-word! To have avoided
that I believe he would have been willing for yet another hundred
clients to be ruined.
I saw him to his door, then turned homeward; and to my surprise in a
dark by-street heard myself laughing heartily. I checked myself
instantly, feeling ashamed of my callousness, of my seeming
indifference to the trouble even of myself and my mother. Yet as
there passed before me the remembrance of that imposing and expensive
funeral with its mournful following of tearful faces; the hushed
reading of the will with its accompaniment of rustling approval; the
picture of the admirably sympathetic clergyman consoling with white
hands Mrs. Stillwood, inclined to hysteria, but anxious concerning her
two hundred pounds' worth of crape which by no possibility of means
could now be paid for--recurred to me the obituary notice in "The
Chelsea Weekly Chronicle": the humour of the thing swept all else
before it, and I laughed again--I could not help it--loud and long.
It was my first introduction to the comedy of life, which is apt to be
more brutal than the comedy of fiction.
But nearing home, the serious side of the matter forced itself
uppermost. Fortunately, our supposed dividends had been paid to us by
Mr. Stillwood only the month before. Could I keep the thing from
troubling my mother's last days? It would be hard work. I should
have to do it alone, for a perhaps foolish pride prevented my taking
Hal into my confidence, even made his friendship a dread to me, lest
he should come to learn and offer help. There is a higher generosity,
it is said, that can receive with pleasure as well as bestow favour;
but I have never felt it. Could I be sure of acting my part, of not
betraying myself to her sharp eyes, of keeping newspapers and chance
gossip away from her? Good shrewd Amy I cautioned, but I shrank from
even speaking on the subject to Hal, and my fear was lest he should
blunder into the subject, which for the usual nine days occupied much
public attention. But fortunately he appeared not even to have heard
of the scandal.
Possibly had the need lasted longer I might have failed, but as it
was, a few weeks saw the end.
"Don't leave me to-day, Paul," whispered my mother to me one morning.
So I stayed, and in the evening my mother put her arms around my neck
and I lay beside her, my head upon her breast, as I used to when a
little boy. And when the morning came I was alone.
DESCRIBES THE DESERT ISLAND TO WHICH PAUL WAS DRIFTED.
"Room to let for a single gentleman." Sometimes in an idle hour,
impelled by foolishness, I will knock at the door. It is opened after
a longer or shorter interval by the "slavey"--in the morning,
slatternly, her arms concealed beneath her apron; in the afternoon,
smart in dirty cap and apron. How well I know her! Unchanged, not
grown an inch--her round bewildered eyes, her open mouth, her touzled
hair, her scored red hands. With an effort I refrain from muttering:
"So sorry, forgot my key," from pushing past her and mounting two at a
time the narrow stairs, carpeted to the first floor, but bare beyond.
Instead, I say, "Oh, what rooms have you to let?" when, scuttling to
the top of the kitchen stairs, she will call over the banisters: "A
gentleman to see the rooms." There comes up, panting, a
harassed-looking, elderly female, but genteel in black. She crushes
past the little "slavey," and approaching, eyes me critically.
"I have a very nice room on the first floor," she informs me, "and one
behind on the third."
I agree to see them, explaining that I am seeking them for a young
friend of mine. We squeeze past the hat and umbrella stand: there is
just room, but one must keep close to the wall. The first floor is
rather an imposing apartment, with a marble-topped sideboard measuring
quite three feet by two, the doors of which will remain closed if you
introduce a wad of paper between them. A green table-cloth, matching
the curtains, covers the loo-table. The lamp is perfectly safe so
long as it stands in the exact centre of the table, but should not be
shifted. A paper fire-stove ornament in some mysterious way bestows
upon the room an air of chastity. Above the mantelpiece is a
fly-blown mirror, between the once gilt frame and glass of which can
be inserted invitation cards; indeed, one or two so remain, proving
that the tenants even of "bed-sitting-rooms" are not excluded from
social delights. The wall opposite is adorned by an oleograph of the
kind Cheap Jacks sell by auction on Saturday nights in the Pimlico
Road, and warrant as "hand-made." Generally speaking, it is a Swiss
landscape. There appears to be more "body" in a Swiss landscape than
in scenes from less favoured localities. A dilapidated mill, a
foaming torrent, a mountain, a maiden and a cow can at the least be
relied upon. An easy chair (I disclaim all responsibility for the
adjective), stuffed with many coils of steel wire, each possessing a
"business end" in admirable working order, and covered with horsehair,
highly glazed, awaits the uninitiated. There is one way of sitting
upon it, and only one: by using the extreme edge, and planting your
feet firmly on the floor. If you attempt to lean back in it you
inevitably slide out of it. When so treated it seems to say to you:
"Excuse me, you are very heavy, and you would really be much more
comfortable upon the floor. Thank you so much." The bed is behind
the door, and the washstand behind the bed. If you sit facing the
window you can forget the bed. On the other hand, if more than one
friend come to call on you, you are glad of it. As a matter of fact,
experienced visitors prefer it--make straight for it, refusing with
firmness to exchange it for the easy chair.
"And this room is?"
"Eight shillings a week, sir--with attendance, of course."
"The lamp, sir, is eighteenpence a week; and the kitchen fire, if the
gentleman wishes to dine at home, two shillings."
"Sixpence a scuttle, sir, I charge for coals."
"It's rather a small scuttle."
The landlady bridles a little. "The usual size, I think, sir." One
presumes there is a special size in coal-scuttles made exclusively for
I agree that while I am about it I may as well see the other room, the
third floor back. The landlady opens the door for me, but remains
herself on the landing. She is a stout lady, and does not wish to
dwarf the apartment by comparison. The arrangement here does not
allow of your ignoring the bed. It is the life and soul of the room,
and it declines to efface itself. Its only possible rival is the
washstand, straw-coloured; with staring white basin and jug, together
with other appurtenances. It glares defiantly from its corner. "I
know I'm small," it seems to say; "but I'm very useful; and I won't be
ignored." The remaining furniture consists of a couple of
chairs--there is no hypocrisy about them: they are not easy and they
do not pretend to be easy; a small chest of light-painted drawers
before the window, with white china handles, upon which is a tiny
looking-glass; and, occupying the entire remaining space, after
allowing three square feet for the tenant, when he arrives, an
attenuated four-legged table apparently home-made. The only ornament
in the room is, suspended above the fireplace, a funeral card, framed
in beer corks. As the corpse introduced by the ancient Egyptians into
their banquets, it is hung there perhaps to remind the occupant of the
apartment that the luxuries and allurements of life have their end; or
maybe it consoles him in despondent moments with the reflection that
after all he might be worse off.
The rent of this room is three-and-sixpence a week, also including
attendance; lamp, as for the first floor, eighteen-pence; but kitchen
fire a shilling.
"But why should kitchen fire for the first floor be two shillings, and
for this only one?"
"Well, as a rule, sir, the first floor wants more cooking done."
You are quite right, my dear lady, I was forgetting. The gentleman in
the third floor back! cooking for him is not a great tax upon the
kitchen fire. His breakfast, it is what, madam, we call plain, I
think. His lunch he takes out. You may see him, walking round the
quiet square, up and down the narrow street that, leading to nowhere
in particular, is between twelve and two somewhat deserted. He
carries a paper bag, into which at intervals, when he is sure nobody
is looking, his mouth disappears. From studying the neighbourhood one
can guess what it contains. Saveloys hereabouts are plentiful and
only twopence each. There are pie shops, where meat pies are twopence
and fruit pies a penny. The lady behind the counter, using deftly a
broad, flat knife, lifts the little dainty with one twist clean from
its tiny dish: it is marvellous, having regard to the thinness of the
pastry, that she never breaks one. Roley-poley pudding, sweet and
wonderfully satisfying, more especially when cold, is but a penny a
slice. Peas pudding, though this is an awkward thing to eat out of a
bag, is comforting upon cold days. Then with his tea he takes two
eggs or a haddock, the fourpenny size; maybe on rare occasions, a chop
or steak; and you fry it for him, madam, though every time he urges on
you how much he would prefer it grilled, for fried in your one
frying-pan its flavour becomes somewhat confused. But maybe this is
the better for him, for, shutting his eyes and trusting only to smell
and flavour, he can imagine himself enjoying variety. He can begin
with herrings, pass on to liver and bacon, opening his eyes again for
a moment perceive that he has now arrived at the joint, and closing
them again, wind up with distinct suggestion of toasted cheese, thus
avoiding monotony. For dinner he goes out again. Maybe he is not
hungry, late meals are a mistake; or, maybe, putting his hand into his
pocket and making calculations beneath a lamp-post, appetite may come
to him. Then there are places cheerful with the sound of frizzling
fat, where fried plaice brown and odorous may be had for three
halfpence, and a handful of sliced potatoes for a penny; where for
fourpence succulent stewed eels may be discussed; vinegar ad lib.; or
for sevenpence--but these are red-letter evenings--half a sheep's head
may be indulged in, which is a supper fit for any king, who happened
to be hungry.
I explain that I will discuss the matter with my young friend when he
arrives. The landlady says, "Certainly, sir:" she is used to what
she calls the "wandering Christian;" and easing my conscience by
slipping a shilling into the "slavey's" astonished, lukewarm hand, I
pass out again into the long, dreary street, now echoing maybe to the
sad cry of "Muffins!"
Or sometimes of an evening, the lamp lighted, the remnants of the meat
tea cleared away, the flickering firelight cosifying the dingy rooms,
I go a-visiting. There is no need for me to ring the bell, to mount
the stairs. Through the thin transparent walls I can see you plainly,
old friends of mine, fashions a little changed, that is all. We wore
bell-shaped trousers; eight-and-six to measure, seven-and-six if from
stock; fastened our neckties in dashing style with a horseshoe pin. I
think in the matter of waistcoats we had the advantage of you; ours
were gayer, braver. Our cuffs and collars were of paper: sixpence-
halfpenny the dozen, three-halfpence the pair. On Sunday they were
white and glistening; on Monday less aggressively obvious; on Tuesday
morning decidedly dappled. But on Tuesday evening, when with natty
cane, or umbrella neatly rolled in patent leather case, we took our
promenade down Oxford Street--fashionable hour nine to ten p.m.--we
could shoot our arms and cock our chins with the best. Your
india-rubber linen has its advantages. Storm does not wither it; it
braves better the heat and turmoil of the day. The passing of a
sponge! and your "Dicky" is itself again. We had to use bread-crumbs,
and so sacrifice the glaze. Yet I cannot help thinking that for the
first few hours, at all events, our paper was more dazzling.
For the rest I see no change in you, old friends. I wave you greeting
from the misty street. God rest you, gallant gentlemen, lonely and
friendless and despised; making the best of joyless lives; keeping
yourselves genteel on twelve, fifteen, or eighteen (ah, but you are
plutocrats!) shillings a week; saving something even of that, maybe,
to help the old mother in the country, so proud of her "gentleman" son
who has book learning and who is "something in the City." May nothing
you dismay. Bullied, and badgered, and baited from nine to six though
you may be, from then till bedtime you are rorty young dogs. The
half-guinea topper, "as worn by the Prince of Wales" (ah, how many a
meal has it not cost!), warmed before the fire, brushed and polished
and coaxed, shines resplendent. The second pair of trousers are drawn
from beneath the bed; in the gaslight, with well-marked crease from
top to toe, they will pass for new. A pleasant evening to you! May
your cheap necktie make all the impression your soul can desire! May
your penny cigar be mistaken for Havana! May the barmaid charm your
simple heart by addressing you as "Baby!" May some sweet shop-girl
throw a kindly glance at you, inviting you to walk with her! May she
snigger at your humour; may other dogs cast envious looks at you, and
may no harm come of it!
You dreamers of dreams, you who while your companions play and sleep
will toil upward in the night! You have read Mr. Smiles' "Self-Help,"
Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," and so strengthened attack with
confidence "French Without a Master," "Bookkeeping in Six Lessons."
With a sigh to yourselves you turn aside from the alluring streets,
from the bright, bewitching eyes, into the stuffy air of Birkbeck
Institutions, Polytechnic Schools. May success compensate you for
your youth devoid of pleasure! May the partner's chair you seen in
visions be yours before the end! May you live one day in Clapham in a
And, after all, we have our moments, have we not? The Saturday night
at the play. The hours of waiting, they are short. We converse with
kindred souls of the British Drama, its past and future: we have our
views. We dream of Florence This, Kate That; in a little while we
shall see her. Ah, could she but know how we loved her! Her photo is
on our mantelpiece, transforming the dismal little room into a shrine.
The poem we have so often commenced! when it is finished we will post
it to her. At least she will acknowledge its receipt; we can kiss the
paper her hand has rested on. The great doors groan, then quiver.
Ah, the wild thrill of that moment! Now push for all you are worth:
charge, wriggle, squirm! It is an epitome of life. We are
through--collarless, panting, pummelled from top to toe: but what of
that? Upward, still upward; then downward with leaps at risk of our
neck, from bench to bench through the gloom. We have gained the front
row! Would we exchange sensations with the stallite, strolling
languidly to his seat? The extravagant dinner once a week! We
banquet _a la Francais_, in Soho, for one-and-six, including wine.
Does Tortoni ever give his customers a repast they enjoy more? I trow
My first lodging was an attic in a square the other side of
Blackfriars Bridge. The rent of the room, if I remember rightly, was
three shillings a week with cooking, half-a-crown without. I
purchased a methylated spirit stove with kettle and frying-pan, and
took it without.
Old Hasluck would have helped me willingly, and there were others to
whom I might have appealed, but a boy's pride held me back. I would
make my way alone, win my place in the world by myself. To Hal,
knowing he would sympathise with me, I confided the truth.
"Had your mother lived," he told me, "I should have had something to
say on the subject. Of course, I knew what had happened, but as it
is--well, you need not be afraid, I shall not offer you help; indeed,
I should refuse it were you to ask. Put your Carlyle in your pocket:
he is not all voices, but he is the best maker of men I know. The
great thing to learn of life is not to be afraid of it."
"Look me up now and then," he added, "and we'll talk about the stars,
the future of Socialism, and the Woman Question--anything you like
except about yourself and your twopenny-half-penny affairs."
From another it would have sounded brutal, but I understood him. And
so we shook hands and parted for longer than either of us at the time
expected. The Franco-German War broke out a few weeks later on, and
Hal, the love of adventure always strong within him, volunteered his
services, which were accepted. It was some years before we met again.
On the door-post of a house in Farringdon Street, not far from the
Circus, stood in those days a small brass plate, announcing that the
"Ludgate News Rooms" occupied the third and fourth floors, and that
the admission to the same was one penny. We were a seedy company that
every morning crowded into these rooms: clerks, shopmen, superior
artisans, travellers, warehousemen--all of us out of work. Most of us
were young, but with us was mingled a sprinkling of elder men, and
these latter were always the saddest and most silent of this little
whispering army of the down-at-heel. Roughly speaking, we were
divided into two groups: the newcomers, cheery, confident. These
would flit from newspaper to newspaper with buzz of pleasant
anticipation, select their advertisement as one choosing some dainty
out of a rich and varied menu card, and replying to it as one
"Dear Sir,--in reply to your advertisement in to-day's _Standard_, I
shall be pleased to accept the post vacant in your office. I am of
good appearance and address. I am an excellent--" It was really
marvellous the quality and number of our attainments. French! we
wrote and spoke it fluently, _a la Ahn_. German! of this we possessed
a slighter knowledge, it was true, but sufficient for mere purposes of
commerce. Bookkeeping! arithmetic! geometry! we played with them.
The love of work! it was a passion with us. Our moral character! it
would have adorned a Free Kirk Elder. "I could call on you to-morrow
or Friday between eleven and one, or on Saturday any time up till two.
Salary required, two guineas a week. An early answer will oblige.
The old stagers did not buzz. Hour after hour they sat writing,
steadily, methodically, with day by day less hope and heavier fears:
"Sir,-Your advt. in to-day's _D. T._ I am--" of such and such an age.
List of qualifications less lengthy, set forth with more modesty;
object desired being air of verisimilitude.--"If you decide to engage
me I will endeavour to give you every satisfaction. Any time you like
to appoint I will call on you. I should not ask a high salary to
start with. Yours obediently."
Dozens of the first letter, hundreds of the second, I wrote with
painful care, pen carefully chosen, the one-inch margin down the left
hand side of the paper first portioned off with dots. To three or
four I received a curt reply, instructing me to call. But the shyness
that had stood so in my way during the earlier half of my school days
had now, I know not why, returned upon me, hampering me at every turn.
A shy child grown-up folks at all events can understand and forgive;
but a shy young man is not unnaturally regarded as a fool. I gave the
impression of being awkward, stupid, sulky. The more I strove against
my temperament the worse I became. My attempts to be at my ease, to
assert myself, resulted--I could see it myself--only in rudeness.
"Well, I have got to see one or two others. We will write and let you
know," was the conclusion of each interview, and the end, as far as I
was concerned, of the enterprise.
My few pounds, guard them how I would, were dwindling rapidly.
Looking back, it is easy enough to regard one's early struggles from a
humorous point of view. One knows the story, it all ended happily.
But at the time there is no means of telling whether one's biography
is going to be comedy or tragedy. There were moments when I felt
confident it was going to be the latter. Occasionally, when one is
feeling well, it is not unpleasant to contemplate with pathetic
sympathy one's own death-bed. One thinks of the friends and relations
who at last will understand and regret one, be sorry they had not
behaved themselves better. But myself, there was no one to regret. I
felt very small, very helpless. The world was big. I feared it might
walk over me, trample me down, never seeing me. I seemed unable to
attract its attention.
One morning I found waiting for me at the Reading Room another of the
usual missives. It ran: "Will Mr. P. Kelver call at the above
address to-morrow morning between ten-thirty and eleven. The paper
was headed: "Lott and Co., Indian Commission Agents, Aldersgate
Street." Without much hope I returned to my lodgings, changed my
clothes, donned my silk hat, took my one pair of gloves, drew its silk
case over my holey umbrella; and so equipped for fight with Fate made
my way to Aldersgate Street. For a quarter of an hour or so, being
too soon, I walked up and down the pavement outside the house, gazing
at the second-floor windows, behind which, so the door-plate had
informed me, were the offices of Lott & Co. I could not recall their
advertisement, nor my reply to it. The firm was evidently not in a
very flourishing condition. I wondered idly what salary they would
offer. For a moment I dreamt of a Cheeryble Brother asking me kindly
if I thought I could do with thirty shillings a week as a beginning;
but the next I recalled my usual fate, and considered whether it was
even worth while to climb the stairs, go through what to me was a
painful ordeal, merely to be impressed again with the sense of my own
A fine rain began to fall. I did not wish to unroll my umbrella, yet
felt nervous for my hat. It was five minutes to the half hour.
Listlessly I crossed the road and mounted the bare stairs to the
second floor. Two doors faced me, one marked "Private." I tapped
lightly at the second. Not hearing any response, after a second or
two I tapped again. A sound reached me, but it was unintelligible. I
knocked yet again, still louder. This time I heard a reply in a
shrill, plaintive tone:
"Oh, do come in."
The tone was one of pathetic entreaty. I turned the handle and
entered. It was a small room, dimly lighted by a dirty window, the
bottom half of which was rendered opaque by tissue paper pasted to its
panes. The place suggested a village shop rather than an office.
Pots of jam, jars of pickles, bottles of wine, biscuit tins, parcels
of drapery, boxes of candles, bars of soap, boots, packets of
stationery, boxes of cigars, tinned provisions, guns,
cartridges--things sufficient to furnish a desert island littered
every available corner. At a small desk under the window sat a youth
with a remarkably small body and a remarkably large head; so
disproportionate were the two I should hardly have been surprised had
he put up his hands and taken it off. Half in the room and half out,
"Is this Lott & Co.?" I enquired.
"No," he answered; "it's a room." One eye was fixed upon me, dull and
glassy; it never blinked, it never wavered. With the help of the
other he continued his writing.
"I mean," I explained, coming entirely into the room, "are these the
offices of Lott & Co.?"
"It's one of them," he replied; "the back one. If you're really
anxious for a job, you can shut the door."
I complied with his suggestion, and then announced that I was Mr.
Kelver--Mr. Paul Kelver.
"Minikin's my name," he returned, "Sylvanus Minikin. You don't happen
by any chance to know what you've come for, I suppose?"
Looking at his body, my inclination was to pick my way among the goods
that covered the floor and pull his ears for him. From his grave and
massive face, he might, for all I knew, be the head clerk.
"I have called to see Mr. Lott," I replied, with dignity; "I have an
appointment." I produced the letter from my pocket, and leaning
across a sewing-machine, I handed it to him for his inspection.
Having read it, he suddenly took from its socket the eye with which he
had been hitherto regarding me, and proceeding to polish it upon his
pocket handkerchief, turned upon me his other. Having satisfied
himself, he handed me back my letter.
"Want my advice?" he asked.
I thought it might be useful to me, so replied in the affirmative.
"Hook it," was his curt counsel.
"Why?" I asked. "Isn't he a good employer?"
Replacing his glass eye, he turned again to his work. "If employment
is what you want," answered Mr. Minikin, "you'll get it. Best
employer in London. He'll keep you going for twenty-four hours a day,
and then offer you overtime at half salary."
"I must get something to do," I confessed.
"Sit down then," suggested Mr. Minikin. "Rest while you can."
I took the chair; it was the only chair in the room, with the
exception of the one Minikin was sitting on.
"Apart from his being a bit of a driver," I asked, "what sort of a man
is he? Is he pleasant?"
"Never saw him put out but once," answered Minikin.
It sounded well. "When was that?" I asked.
"All the time I've known him."
My spirits continued to sink. Had I been left alone with Minikin much
longer, I might have ended by following his advice, "hooking it"
before Mr. Lott arrived. But the next moment I heard the other door
open, and some one entered the private office. Then the bell rang,
and Minikin disappeared, leaving the communicating door ajar behind
him. The conversation that I overheard was as follows:
"Why isn't Mr. Skeat here?"
"Because he hasn't come."
"Where are the letters?"
"Under your nose."
"How dare you answer me like that?"
"Well, it's the truth. They are under your nose."
"Did you give Thorneycroft's man my message?"
"What did he answer?"
"Said you were a liar."
"Oh, he did, did he! What did you reply?"
"Asked him to tell me something I didn't know."
"Thought that clever, didn't you?"
Whatever faults might be laid to Mr. Lott's door, he at least, I
concluded, possesssed the virtue of self-control.
"Anybody been here?"
"Mr. Kelver--Mr. Paul Kelver."
"Kelver, Kelver. Who's Kelver?"
"Know what he is--a fool."
"What do you mean?"
"He's come after the place."
"Is he there?"
"What's he like?"
"Not bad looking; fair--"
"Idiot! I mean is he smart?"
"Just at present--got all his Sunday clothes on."
"Send him in to me. Don't go, don't go."
"How can I send him in to you if I don't go?"
"Take these. Have you finished those bills of lading?"
"Good God! when will you have finished them?"
"Half an hour after I have begun them."
"Get out, get out! Has that door been open all the time?"
"Well, I don't suppose it's opened itself."
Minikin re-entered with papers in his hand. "In you go," he said.
"Heaven help you!" And I passed in and closed the door behind me.
The room was a replica of the one I had just left. If possible, it
was more crowded, more packed with miscellaneous articles. I picked
my way through these and approached the desk. Mr. Lott was a small,
dingy-looking man, with very dirty hands, and small, restless eyes. I
was glad that he was not imposing, or my shyness might have descended
upon me; as it was, I felt better able to do myself justice. At once
he plunged into the business by seizing and waving in front of my eyes
a bulky bundle of letters tied together with red tape.
"One hundred and seventeen answers to an advertisement," he cried with
evident satisfaction, "in one day! That shows you the state of the
I agreed it was appalling.
"Poor devils, poor devils!" murmured Mr. Lott "what will become of
them? Some of them will starve. Terrible death, starvation, Kelver;
takes such a long time--especially when you're young."
Here also I found myself in accord with him.
"Living with your parents?"
I explained to him my situation.
I informed him I was entirely dependent upon my own efforts.
"Any money? Anything coming in?"
I told him I had a few pounds still remaining to me, but that after
that was gone I should be penniless.
"And to think, Kelver, that there are hundreds, thousands of young
fellows precisely in your position! How sad, how very sad! How long
have you been looking for a berth?"
"A month," I answered him.
"I thought as much. Do you know why I selected your letter out of the
I replied I hoped it was because he judged from it I should prove
"Because it's the worst written of them all." He pushed it across to
me. "Look at it. Awful, isn't it?"
I admitted that handwriting was not my strong point.
"Nor spelling either," he added, and with truth. "Who do you think
will engage you if I don't?"
"Nobody," he continued, without waiting for me to reply. "A month
hence you will still be looking for a berth, and a month after that.
Now, I'm going to do you a good turn; save you from destitution; give
you a start in life."
I expressed my gratitude.
He waived it aside. "That is my notion of philanthropy: help those
that nobody else will help. That young fellow in the other room--he
isn't a bad worker, he's smart, but he's impertinent."
I murmured that I had gathered so much.
"Doesn't mean to be, can't help it. Noticed his trick of looking at
you with his glass eye, keeping the other turned away from you?"
I replied that I had.
"Always does it. Used to irritate his last employer to madness. Said
to him one day: 'Do turn that signal lamp of yours off, Minikin, and
look at me with your real eye.' What do you think he answered? That
it was the only one he'd got, and that he didn't want to expose it to
shocks. Wouldn't have mattered so much if it hadn't been one of the
ugliest men in London."
I murmured my indignation.
"I put up with him. Nobody else would. The poor fellow must live."
I expressed admiration at Mr. Lott's humanity.
"You don't mind work? You're not one of those good-for-nothings who
sleep all day and wake up when it's time to go home?"
I assured him that in whatever else I might fail I could promise him
"With some of them," complained Mr. Lott, in a tone of bitterness,
"it's nothing but play, girls, gadding about the streets. Work,
business--oh, no. I may go bankrupt; my wife and children may go into
the workhouse. No thought for me, the man that keeps them, feeds
them, clothes them. How much salary do you want?"
I hesitated. I gathered this was not a Cheeryble Brother; it would be
necessary to be moderate in one's demands. "Five-and-twenty shillings
a week," I suggested.
He repeated the figure in a scream. "Five-and-twenty shillings for
writing like that! And can't spell commission! Don't know anything
about the business. Five-and-twenty!--Tell you what I'll do: I'll
give you twelve."
"But I can't live on twelve," I explained.
"Can't live on twelve! Do you know why? Because you don't know how
to live. I know you all. One veal and ham pie, one roley-poley, one
Dutch cheese and a pint of bitter."
His recital made my mouth water.
"You overload your stomachs, then you can't work. Half the diseases
you young fellows suffer from are brought about by overeating."
"Now, you take my advice," continued Mr. Lott; "try vegetarianism. In
the morning, a little oatmeal. Wonderfully strengthening stuff,
oatmeal: look at the Scotch. For dinner, beans. Why, do you know
there's more nourishment in half a pint of lentil beans than in a
pound of beefsteak--more gluten. That's what you want, more gluten;
no corpses, no dead bodies. Why, I've known young fellows,
vegetarians, who have lived like fighting cocks on sevenpence a day.
Seven times seven are forty-nine. How much do you pay for your room?"
I told him.
"Four-and-a-penny and two-and-six makes six-and-seven. That leaves
you five and fivepence for mere foolery. Good God! what more do you
"I'll take eighteen, sir," I answered. "I can't really manage on
"Very well, I won't beat you down," he answered. "Fifteen shillings a
"I said eighteen," I persisted.
"Well, and I said fifteen," he retorted, somewhat indignant at the
quibbling. "That's splitting the difference, isn't it? I can't be
fairer than that."
I dared not throw away the one opportunity that had occurred.
Anything was better than return to the Reading Rooms, and the empty
days full of despair. I accepted, and it was agreed that I should
come the following Monday morning.
"Nabbed?" was Minikin's enquiry on my return to the back office for my
"What's he wasting on you?"
"Fifteen shillings a week," I whispered.
"Felt sure somehow that he'd take a liking to you," answered Minikin.
"Don't be ungrateful and look thin on it."
Outside the door I heard Mr. Lott's shrill voice demanding to know
where postage stamps were to be found.
"At the Post-office," was Minikin's reply.
The hours were long--in fact, we had no office hours; we got away when
we could, which was rarely before seven or eight--but my work was
interesting. It consisted of buying for unfortunate clients in India
or the Colonies anything they might happen to want, from a stage coach
to a pot of marmalade; packing it and shipping it across to them. Our
"commission" was anything they could be persuaded to pay over and
above the value of the article. I was not much interfered with.
There was that to be said for Lott & Co., so long as the work was done
he was quite content to leave one to one's own way of doing it. And
hastening through the busy streets, bargaining in shop or warehouse,
bustling important in and out the swarming docks, I often thanked my
stars that I was not as some poor two-pound-a-week clerk chained to a
The fifteen shillings a week was a tight fit; but that was not my
trouble. Reduce your denominator--you know the quotation. I found it
no philosophical cant, but a practical solution of life. My food cost
me on the average a shilling a day. If more of us limited our
commissariat bill to the same figure, there would be less dyspepsia
abroad. Generally I cooked my own meals in my own frying-pan; but
occasionally I would indulge myself with a more orthodox dinner at a
cook shop, or tea with hot buttered toast at a coffee-shop; and but
for the greasy table-cloth and the dirty-handed waiter, such would
have been even greater delights. The shilling a week for amusements
afforded me at least one, occasionally two, visits to the theatre, for
in those days there were Paradises where for sixpence one could be a
god. Fourpence a week on tobacco gave me half-a-dozen cigarettes a
day; I have spent more on smoke and derived less satisfaction. Dress
was my greatest difficulty. One anxiety in life the poor man is
saved: he knows not the haunting sense of debt. My tailor never
dunned me. His principle was half-a-crown down on receipt of order,
the balance on the handing over of the goods. No system is perfect;
the method avoided friction, it is true; yet on the other hand it was
annoying to be compelled to promenade, come Sundays, in shiny elbows
and frayed trousers, knowing all the while that finished, waiting, was
a suit in which one might have made one's mark--had only one shut
one's eyes passing that pastry-cook's window on pay-day. Surely there
should be a sumptuary law compelling pastry-cooks to deal in cellars
or behind drawn blinds.
Were it because of its mere material hardships that to this day I
think of that period of my life with a shudder, I should not here
confess to it. I was alone. I knew not a living soul to whom I dared
to speak, who cared to speak to me. For those first twelve months
after my mother's death I lived alone, thought alone, felt alone. In
the morning, during the busy day, it was possible to bear; but in the
evenings the sense of desolation gripped me like a physical pain. The
summer evenings came again, bringing with them the long, lingering
light so laden with melancholy. I would walk into the Parks and,
sitting there, watch with hungry eyes the men and women, boys and
girls, moving all around me, talking, laughing, interested in one
another; feeling myself some speechless ghost, seeing but not seen,
crying to the living with a voice they heard not. Sometimes a
solitary figure would pass by and glance back at me; some lonely
creature like myself longing for human sympathy. In the teeming city
must have been thousands such--young men and women to whom a friendly
ear, a kindly voice, would have been as the water of life. Each
imprisoned in his solitary cell of shyness, we looked at one another
through the grating with condoling eyes; further than that was
forbidden to us. Once, in Kensington Gardens, a woman turned, then
slowly retracing her steps, sat down beside me on the bench. Neither
of us spoke; had I done so she would have risen and moved away; yet
there was understanding between us. To each of us it was some comfort
to sit thus for a little while beside the other. Had she poured out
her heart to me, she could have told me nothing more than I knew: "I,
too, am lonely, friendless; I, too, long for the sound of a voice, the
touch of a hand. It is hard for you, it is harder still for me, a
girl; shut out from the bright world that laughs around me; denied the
right of youth to joy and pleasure; denied the right of womanhood to
love and tenderness."
The footsteps to and fro grew fewer. She moved to rise. Stirred by
an impulse, I stretched out my hand, then seeing the flush upon her
face, drew it back hastily. But the next moment, changing her mind,
she held hers out to me, and I took it. It was the first clasp of a
hand I had felt since six months before I had said good-bye to Hal.
She turned and walked quickly away. I stood watching her; she never
looked round, and I never saw her again.
I take no credit to myself for keeping straight, as it is termed,
during these days. For good or evil, my shyness prevented my taking
part in the flirtations of the streets. Whether inviting eyes were
ever thrown to me as to others, I cannot say. Sometimes, fancying
so--hoping so, I would follow. Yet never could I summon up sufficient
resolution to face the possible rebuff before some less timid swain
would swoop down upon the quarry. Then I would hurry on, cursing
myself for the poorness of my spirit, fancying mocking contempt in the
laughter that followed me.
On a Sunday I would rise early and take long solitary walks into the
country. One winter's day--I remember it was on the road between
Edgware and Stanmore--there issued from a by-road a little ahead of me
a party of boys and girls, young people about my own age, bound
evidently on a skating expedition. I could hear the musical ring of
their blades, clattering as they walked, and the sound of their merry
laughter so clear and bell-like through the frosty air. And an aching
anguish fell upon me. I felt a mad desire to run after them, to plead
with them to let me walk with them a little way, to let me laugh and
talk with them. Every now and then they would pirouette to cry some
jest to one another. I could see their faces: the girls' so sweetly
alluring, framed by their dainty hats and furs, the bright colour in
their cheeks, the light in their teasing eyes. A little further on
they turned aside into a by-lane, and I stood at the corner listening
till the last echo of their joyous voices died away, and on a stone
that still remains standing there I sat down and sobbed.
I would walk about the streets always till very late. I dreaded the
echoing clang of the little front door when I closed it behind me, the
climbing of the silent stairs, the solitude that waited for me in my
empty room. It would rise and come towards me like some living thing,
kissing me with cold lips. Often, unable to bear the closeness of its
presence, I would creep out into the streets. There, even though it
followed me, I was not alone with it. Sometimes I would pace them the
whole night, sharing them with the other outcasts while the city
Occasionally, during these nightly wanderings would come to me moments
of exaltation when fear fell from me and my blood would leap with joy
at prospect of the fierce struggle opening out before me. Then it was
the ghostly city sighing round me that seemed dead, I the only living
thing real among a world of shadows. In long, echoing streets I would
laugh and shout. Misunderstanding policemen would turn their
bull's-eyes on me, gruffly give me practical advice: they knew not
who I was! I stood the centre of a vast galanty-show: the phantom
houses came and went; from some there shone bright lights; the doors
were open, and little figures flitted in and out, the tiny coaches
glided to and fro, manikins grotesque but pitiful crept across the
Then the mood would change. The city, grim and vast, stretched round
me endless. I crawled, a mere atom, within its folds, helpless,
insignificant, absurd. The houseless forms that shared my vigil were
my fellows. What were we? Animalcule upon its bosom, that it saw
not, heeded not. For company I would mingle with them: ragged men,
frowsy women, ageless youths, gathered round the red glow of some
Rarely would we speak to one another. More like animals we browsed
there, sipping the halfpenny cup of hot water coloured with coffee
grounds (at least it was warm), munching the moist slab of coarse
cake; looking with dull, indifferent eyes each upon the wretchedness
of the others. Perhaps some two would whisper to each other in
listless, monotonous tone, broken here and there by a short, mirthless
laugh; some shivering creature, not yet case-hardened to despair,
seek, perhaps, the relief of curses that none heeded. Later, a faint
chill breeze would shake the shadows loose, a thin, wan light streak
the dark air with shade, and silently, stealthily, we would fade away
PAUL, ESCAPING FROM HIS SOLITUDE, FALLS INTO STRANGE COMPANY. AND
BECOMES CAPTIVE TO ONE OF HAUGHTY MIEN.
All things pass, even the self-inflicted sufferings of shy young men,
condemned by temperament to solitude. Came the winter evenings, I
took to work: in it one may drown much sorrow for oneself. With its
handful of fire, its two candles lighted, my "apartment" was more
inviting. I bought myself paper, pens and ink. Great or small, what
more can a writer do? He is but the would-be medium: will the spirit
voices employ him or reject him?
London, with its million characters, grave and gay; its ten thousand
romances, its mysteries, its pathos, and its humour, lay to my hand.
It stretched before me, asking only intelligent observation, more or
less truthful report. But that I could make a story out of the things
I really knew never occurred to me. My tales were of cottage maidens,
of bucolic yeomen. My scenes were laid in windmills, among mountains,
or in moated granges. I fancy this phase of folly is common to most
A trail of gentle melancholy lay over them. Sentiment was more
popular then than it is now, and, as do all beginners, I scrupulously
followed fashion. Generally speaking, to be a heroine of mine was
fatal. However naturally her hair might curl--and curly hair, I
believe, is the hall-mark of vitality; whatever other indications of
vigorous health she might exhibit in the first chapter, such as
"dancing eyes," "colour that came and went," "ringing laughter,"
"fawn-like agility," she was tolerably certain, poor girl, to end in
an untimely grave. Snowdrops and early primroses (my botany I worked
up from a useful little volume, "Our Garden Favourites, Illustrated")
grew there as in a forcing house; and if in the neighbourhood of the
coast, the sea-breezes would choose that particular churchyard,
somewhat irreverently, for their favourite playground. Years later a
white-haired man would come there leading little children by the hand,
and to them he would tell the tale anew, which must have been a dismal
entertainment for them.
Now and then, by way of change, it would be the gentleman who would
fall a victim of the deadly atmosphere of my literature. It was of no
particular consequence, so he himself would conclude in his last
soliloquy; "it was better so." Snowdrops and primroses, for whatever
consolation they might have been to him, it was hopeless for him to
expect; his grave, marked by a rude cross, being as a rule situate in
an exceptionally unfrequented portion of the African veldt or amid
burning sands. For description of final scenery on these occasions a
visit to the British Museum reading-room would be necessary.
Dismal little fledgelings! And again and again would I drive them
from the nest; again and again they fluttered back to me, soiled,
crumpled, physically damaged. Yet one person had admired them, cried
All methods I tried. Sometimes I would send them forth accompanied by
a curt business note of the take-it-or-leave-it order. At other times
I would attach to it pathetic appeals for its consideration.
Sometimes I would give value to it, stating that the price was five
guineas and requesting that the cheque should be crossed; at other
times seek to tickle editorial cupidity by offering this, my first
contribution to their pages, for nothing--my sample packet, so to
speak, sent gratis, one trial surely sufficient. Now I would write
sarcastically, enclosing together with the stamped envelope for return
a brutally penned note of rejection. Or I would write frankly,
explaining elaborately that I was a beginner, and asking to be told my
Not one found a resting place for its feet. A month, a week, a couple
of days, they would remain away from me, then return. I never lost a
single one. I wished I had. It would have varied the monotony.
I hated the poor little slavey who, bursting joyously into the room,
would hold them out to me from between her apron-hidden thumb and
finger; her chronic sniff I translated into contempt. If flying down
the stairs at the sound of the postman's knock I secured it from his
hands, it seemed to me he smiled. Tearing them from their envelopes,
I would curse them, abuse them, fling them into the fire sometimes;
but before they were more than scorched I would snatch them out,
smooth them, reread them. The editor himself could never have seen
them; it was impossible; some jealous underling had done this thing.
I had sent them to the wrong paper. They had arrived at the
inopportune moment. Their triumph would come. Rewriting the first
and last sheets, I would send them forth again with fresh hope.
Meanwhile, understanding that the would-be happy warrior must shine in
camp as well as field, I sought to fit myself also for the social side
of life. Smoking and drinking were the twin sins I found most
difficulty in acquiring. I am not claiming a mental excellence so
much as confessing a bodily infirmity. The spirit had always been
willing, but my flesh was weak. Fired by emulation, I had at school
occasionally essayed a cigarette. The result had been distinctly
unsatisfactory, and after some two or three attempts, I had abandoned,
for the time being, all further endeavour; excusing my
faint-heartedness by telling myself with sanctimonious air that
smoking was bad for growing boys; attempting to delude myself by
assuming, in presence of contemporaries of stronger stomach, fine pose
of disapproval; yet in my heart knowing myself a young hypocrite,
disguising physical cowardice in the robes of moral courage: a
self-deception to which human nature is prone.
So likewise now and again I had tasted the wine that was red, and that
stood year in, year out, decanted on our sideboard. The true
inwardness of St. Paul's prescription had been revealed to me; the
attitude--sometimes sneered at--of those who drink it under doctor's
orders, regarding it purely as a medicine, appeared to me reasonable.
I had noticed also that others, some of them grown men even, making
wry faces, when drinking my mother's claret, and had concluded
therefrom that taste for strong liquor was an accomplishment less
easily acquired than is generally supposed. The lack of it in a young
man could be no disgrace, and accordingly effort in that direction
also had I weakly postponed.
But now, a gentleman at large, my education could no longer be
delayed. To the artist in particular was training--and severe
training--an absolute necessity. Recently fashion has changed
somewhat, but a quarter of a century ago a genius who did not smoke
and drink--and that more than was good for him--would have been
dismissed without further evidence as an impostor. About the genius I
was hopeful, but at no time positively certain. As regarded the
smoking and drinking, so much at least I could make sure of. I set to
work methodically, conscientiously. Smoking, experience taught me,
was better practised on Saturday nights, Sunday affording me the
opportunity of walking off the effects. Patience and determination
were eventually crowned with success: I learned to smoke a cigarette
to all appearance as though I were enjoying it. Young men of less
character might here have rested content, but attainment of the
highest has always been with me a motive force. The cigarette
conquered, I next proceeded to attack the cigar. My first one I
remember well: most men do. It was at a smoking concert held in the
Islington Drill Hall, to which Minikin had invited me. Not feeling
sure whether my growing dizziness were due solely to the cigar, or in
part to the hot, over-crowded room, I made my excuses and slipped out.
I found myself in a small courtyard, divided from a neighbouring
garden by a low wall. The cause of my trouble was clearly the cigar.
My inclination was to take it from my mouth and see how far I could
throw it. Conscience, on the other hand, urged me to persevere. It
occurred to me that if climbing on to the wall I could walk along it
from end to end, there would be no excuse for my not heeding the
counsels of perfection. If, on the contrary, try as I might, the wall
proved not wide enough for my footsteps, then I should be entitled to
lose the beastly thing, and, as best I could, make my way home to bed.
I attained the wall with some difficulty and commenced my
self-inflicted ordeal. Two yards further I found myself lying across
the wall, my legs hanging down one side, my head overhanging the
other. The position proving suitable to my requirements, I maintained
it. Inclination, again seizing its opportunity, urged me then and
there to take a solemn vow never to smoke again. I am proud to write
that through that hour of temptation I remained firm; strengthening
myself by whispering to myself: "Never despair. What others can do,
so can you. Is not all victory won through suffering?"
A liking for drink I had found, if possible, even yet more difficult
of achievement. Spirits I almost despaired of. Once, confusing
bottles, I drank some hair oil in mistake for whiskey, and found it
decidedly less nauseous. But twice a week I would force myself to
swallow a glass of beer, standing over myself insisting on my draining
it to the bitter dregs. As reward afterwards, to take the taste out
of my mouth, I would treat myself to chocolates; at the same time
comforting myself by assuring myself that it was for my good, that
there would come a day when I should really like it, and be grateful
to myself for having been severe with myself.
In other and more sensible directions I sought also to progress.
Gradually I was overcoming my shyness. It was a slow process. I
found the best plan was not to mind being shy, to accept it as part of
my temperament, and with others laugh at it. The coldness of an
indifferent world is of service in hardening a too sensitive skin.
The gradual rubbings of existence were rounding off my many corners.
I became possible to my fellow creatures, and they to me. I began to
take pleasure in their company.
By directing me to this particular house in Nelson Square, Fate had
done to me a kindness. I flatter myself we were an interesting
menagerie gathered together under its leaky roof. Mrs. Peedles, our
landlady, who slept in the basement with the slavey, had been an
actress in Charles Keane's company at the old Princess's. There, it
is true, she had played only insignificant parts. London, as she
would explain to us was even then but a poor judge of art, with
prejudices. Besides an actor-manager, hampered by a wife--we
understood. But previously in the Provinces there had been a career
of glory: Juliet, Amy Robsart, Mrs. Haller in "The Stranger"--almost
the entire roll of the "Legitimates". Showed we any signs of
disbelief, proof was forthcoming: handbills a yard long, rich in