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Paul Kelver

Part 5 out of 8

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notes of exclamation: "On Tuesday Evening! By Special Desire!!!
Blessington's Theatre! In the Meadow, adjoining the Falcon
Arms!"--"On Saturday! Under the Patronage of Col. Sir William and the
Officers of the 74th!!!! In the Corn Exchange!" Maybe it would
convince us further were she to run through a passage here and there,
say Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene, or from Ophelia's entrance in
the fourth act? It would be no trouble; her memory was excellent. We
would hasten to assure her of our perfect faith.

Listening to her, it was difficult, as she herself would frankly
admit, to imagine her the once "arch Miss Lucretia Barry;" looking at
her, to remember there had been an evening when she had been "the
cynosure of every eye." One found it necessary to fortify oneself
with perusal of underlined extracts from ancient journals, much
thumbed and creased, thoughtfully lent to one for the purpose. Since
those days Fate had woven round her a mantle of depression. She was
now a faded, watery-eyed little woman, prone on the slightest
provocation to sit down suddenly On the nearest chair and at once
commence a history of her troubles. Quite unconscious of this
failing, it was an idea of hers that she was an exceptionally cheerful
person.

"But there, fretting's no good. We must grin and bear things in this
world," she would conclude, wiping her eyes upon her apron. "It's
better to laugh than to cry, I always say." And to prove that this
was no mere idle sentiment, she would laugh then and there upon the
spot.

Much stair-climbing had bestowed upon her a shortness of breath, which
no amount of panting in her resting moments was able to make good.

"You don't know 'ow to breathe," explained our second floor front to
her on one occasion, a kindly young man; "you don't swallow it, you
only gargle with it. Take a good draught and shut your mouth; don't
be frightened of it; don't let it out again till it's done something:
that's what it's 'ere for."

He stood over her with his handkerchief pressed against her mouth to
assist her; but it was of no use.

"There don't seem any room for it inside me," she explained.

Bells had become to her the business of life; she lived listening for
them. Converse to her was a filling in of time while waiting for
interruptions.

A bottle of whiskey fell into my hands that Christmas time, a present
from a commercial traveller in the way of business. Not liking
whiskey myself, it was no sacrifice for me to reserve it for the
occasional comfort of Mrs. Peedles, when, breathless, with her hands
to her side, she would sink upon the chair nearest to my door. Her
poor, washed-out face would lighten at the suggestion.

"Ah, well," she would reply, "I don't mind if I do. It's a poor heart
that never rejoices."

And then, her tongue unloosened, she would sit there and tell me
stories of my predecessors, young men lodgers who like myself had
taken her bed-sitting-rooms, and of the woes and misfortunes that had
overtaken them. I gathered that a more unlucky house I could not have
selected. A former tenant of my own room, of whom I strangely
reminded her, had written poetry on my very table. He was now in
Portland doing five years for forgery. Mrs. Peedles appeared to
regard the two accomplishments as merely different expressions of the
same art. Another of her young men, as she affectionately called us,
had been of studious ambition. His career up to a point appeared to
have been brilliant. "What he mightn't have been," according to Mrs.
Peedles, there was practically no saying; what he happened to be at
the moment of conversation was an unpromising inmate of the Hanwell
lunatic asylum.

"I've always noticed it," Mrs. Peedles would explain; "it's always the
most deserving, those that try hardest, to whom trouble comes. I'm
sure I don't know why."

I was glad on the whole when that bottle of whiskey was finished. A
second might have driven me to suicide.

There was no Mr. Peedles--at least, not for Mrs. Peedles, though as an
individual he continued to exist. He had been "general utility" at the
Princess's--the old terms were still in vogue at that time--a fine
figure of a man in his day, so I was given to understand, but one
easily led away, especially by minxes. Mrs. Peedles spoke bitterly of
general utilities as people of not much use.

For working days Mrs. Peedles had one dress and one cap, both black
and void of ostentation; but on Sundays and holidays she would appear
metamorphosed. She had carefully preserved the bulk of her stage
wardrobe, even to the paste-decked shoes and tinsel jewelry.
Shapeless in classic garb as Hermia, or bulgy in brocade and velvet as
Lady Teazle, she would receive her few visitors on Sunday evenings,
discarded puppets like herself, with whom the conversation was of
gayer nights before their wires had been cut; or, her glory hid from
the ribald street beneath a mackintosh, pay her few calls. Maybe it
was the unusual excitement that then brought colour into her furrowed
cheeks, that straightened and darkened her eyebrows, at other times so
singularly unobtrusive. Be this how it may, the change was
remarkable, only the thin grey hair and the work-worn hands remaining
for purposes of identification. Nor was the transformation merely one
of surface. Mrs. Peedles hung on her hook behind the kitchen door,
dingy, limp, discarded; out of the wardrobe with the silks and satins
was lifted down to be put on as an undergarment Miss Lucretia Barry,
like her costumes somewhat aged, somewhat withered, but still
distinctly "arch."

In the room next to me lived a law-writer and his wife. They were
very old and miserably poor. The fault was none of theirs. Despite
copy-books maxims, there is in this world such a thing as
ill-luck-persistent, monotonous, that gradually wears away all power
of resistance. I learned from them their history: it was hopelessly
simple, hopelessly uninstructive. He had been a schoolmaster, she a
pupil teacher; they had married young, and for a while the world had
smiled upon them. Then came illness, attacking them both: nothing
out of which any moral could be deduced, a mere case of bad drains
resulting in typhoid fever. They had started again, saddled by debt,
and after years of effort had succeeded in clearing themselves, only
to fall again, this time in helping a friend. Nor was it even a case
of folly: a poor man who had helped them in their trouble, hardly
could they have done otherwise without proving themselves ungrateful.
And so on, a tedious tale, commonplace, trivial. Now listless,
patient, hard working, they had arrived at an animal-like indifference
to their fate, content so long as they could obtain the bare
necessities of existence, passive when these were not forthcoming,
their interest in life limited to the one luxury of the poor--an
occasional glass of beer or spirits. Often days would go by without
his obtaining any work, and then they would more or less starve. Law
documents are generally given out to such men in the evening, to be
returned finished the next morning. Waking in the night, I would hear
through the thin wooden partition that divided our rooms the even
scratching of his pen.

Thus cheek by jowl we worked, I my side of the screen, he his: youth
and age, hope and realisation.

Out of him my fears fashioned a vision of the future. Past his door I
would slink on tiptoe, dread meeting him upon the stairs. Once had
not he said to himself: "The world's mine oyster?" May not the
voices of the night have proclaimed him also king? Might I not be but
an idle dreamer, mistaking desire for power? Would not the world
prove stronger than I? At such times I would see my life before me:
the clerkship at thirty shillings a week rising by slow instalments,
it may be, to one hundred and fifty a year; the four-roomed house at
Brixton; the girl wife, pretty, perhaps, but sinking so soon into the
slatternly woman; the squalling children. How could I, unaided,
expect to raise myself from the ruck? Was not this the more likely
picture?

Our second floor front was a young fellow in the commercial line.
Jarman was Young London personified--blatant yet kind-hearted;
aggressively self-assertive, generous to a fault; cunning, yet at the
same time frank; shrewd, cheery, and full of pluck. "Never say die"
was his motto, and anything less dead it would be difficult to
imagine. All day long he was noisy, and all night long he snored. He
woke with a start, bathed like a porpoise, sang while dressing, roared
for his boots, and whistled during his breakfast. His entrance and
exit were always to an orchestration of banging doors, directions
concerning his meals shouted at the top of his voice as he plunged up
or down the stairs, the clattering and rattling of brooms and pails
flying before his feet. His departure always left behind it the
suggestion that the house was now to let; it came almost as a shock to
meet a human being on the landing. He would have conveyed an
atmosphere of bustle to the Egyptian pyramids.

Sometimes carrying his own supper-tray, arranged for two, he would
march into my room. At first, resenting his familiarity, I would hint
at my desire to be alone, would explain that I was busy.

"You fire away, Shakespeare Redivivus," he would reply. "Don't delay
the tragedy. Why should London wait? I'll keep quiet."

But his notion of keeping quiet was to retire into a corner and there
amuse himself by enacting a tragedy of his own in a hoarse whisper,
accompanied by appropriate gesture.

"Ah, ah!" I would hear him muttering to himself, "I 'ave killed 'er
good old father; I 'ave falsely accused 'er young man of all the
crimes that I 'ave myself committed; I 'ave robbed 'er of 'er
ancestral estates. Yet she loves me not! It is streeange!" Then
changing his bass to a shrill falsetto: "It is a cold and dismal
night: the snow falls fast. I will leave me 'at and umbrella be'ind
the door and go out for a walk with the chee-ild. Aha! who is this?
'E also 'as forgotten 'is umbrella. Ah, now I know 'im in the pitch
dark by 'is cigarette! Villain, murderer, silly josser! it is you!"
Then with lightning change of voice and gesture: "Mary, I love yer!"
"Sir Jasper Murgatroyd, let me avail myself of this opportunity to
tell you what I think of you--" "No, no; the 'ouses close in 'alf an
hour; there is not tee-ime. Fly with me instead!" "Never! Un'and
me!" "'Ear me! Ah, what 'ave I done? I 'ave slipped upon a piece of
orange peel and broke me 'ead! If you will kindly ask them to turn
off the snow and give me a little moonlight, I will confess all."

Finding it (much to Jarman's surprise) impossible to renew the thread
of my work, I would abandon my attempts at literature, and instead
listen to his talk, which was always interesting. His conversation
was, it is true, generally about himself, but it was none the less
attractive on that account. His love affairs, which appeared to be
numerous, formed his chief topic. There was no reserve about Jarman:
his life contained no secret chambers. What he "told her straight,"
what she "up and said to him" in reply was for all the world that
cared to hear. So far his search after the ideal had met with but ill
success.

"Girls," he would say, "they're all alike, till you know 'em. So long
as they're trying to palm themselves off on yer, they'll persuade you
there isn't such another article in all the market. When they've got
yer order--ah, then yer find out what they're really made of. And you
take it from me, 'Omer Junior, most of 'em are put together cheap.
Bah! it sickens me sometimes to read the way you paper-stainers talk
about 'em-angels, goddesses, fairies! They've just been getting at
yer. You're giving 'em just the price they're asking without
examining the article. Girls ain't a special make, like what you seem
to think 'em. We're all turned out of the same old slop shop."

"Not that I say, mind yer," he would continue, "that there are none of
the right sort. They're to be 'ad--real good 'uns. All I say is,
taking 'em at their own valuation ain't the way to do business with
'em."

What he was on the look out for--to quote his own description--was a
really first class article, not something from which the paint would
come off almost before you got it home.

"They're to be found," he would cheerfully affirm, "but you've got to
look for 'em. They're not the sort that advertises."

Behind Jarman in the second floor back resided one whom Jarman had
nicknamed "The Lady 'Ortensia." I believe before my arrival there had
been love passages between the two; but neither of them, so I
gathered, had upon closer inspection satisfied the other's standard.
Their present attitude towards each other was that of insult thinly
veiled under exaggerated politeness. Miss Rosina Sellars was, in her
own language, a "lady assistant," in common parlance, a barmaid at the
Ludgate Hill Station refreshment room. She was a large, flabby young
woman. With less powder, her complexion might by admirers have been
termed creamy; as it was, it presented the appearance rather of
underdone pastry. To be on all occasions "quite the lady" was her
pride. There were those who held the angle of her dignity to be
exaggerated. Jarman would beg her for her own sake to be more careful
lest one day she should fall down backwards and hurt herself. On the
other hand, her bearing was certainly calculated to check familiarity.
Even stockbrokers' clerks--young men as a class with the bump of
reverence but poorly developed--would in her presence falter and grow
hesitating. She had cultivated the art of not noticing to something
approaching perfection. She could draw the noisiest customer a glass
of beer, which he had never ordered; exchange it for three of whiskey,
which he had; take his money and return him his change without ever
seeing him, hearing him, or knowing he was there. It shattered the
self-assertion of the youngest of commercial travellers. Her tone and
manner, outside rare moments of excitement, were suggestive of an
offended but forgiving iceberg. Jarman invariably passed her with his
coat collar turned up to his ears, and even thus protected might have
been observed to shiver. Her stare, in conjunction with her "I beg
your pardon!" was a moral douche that would have rendered apologetic
and explanatory Don Juan himself.

To me she was always gracious, which by contrast to her general
attitude towards my sex of studied disdain, I confess flattered me.
She was good enough to observe to Mrs. Peedles, who repeated it to me,
that I was the only gentleman in the house who knew how to behave
himself.

The entire first floor was occupied by an Irishman and--they never
minced the matter themselves, so hardly is there need for me to do so.
She was a charming little dark-eyed woman, an ex-tight-rope dancer,
and always greatly offended Mrs. Peedles by claiming Miss Lucretia
Barry as a sister artiste.

"Of course I don't know how it may be now," would reply Mrs. Peedles,
with some slight asperity; "but in my time we ladies of the legitimate
stage used to look down upon dancers and such sort. Of course, no
offence to you, Mrs. O'Kelly."

Neither of them was in the least offended.

"Sure, Mrs. Peedles, ye could never have looked down upon the
Signora," the O'Kelly would answer laughing. "Ye had to lie back and
look up to her. Why, I've got the crick in me neck to this day!"

"Ah! my dear, and you don't know how nervous I was when glancing down
I'd see his handsome face just underneath me, thinking that with one
false step I might spoil it for ever," would reply the Signora.

"Me darling! I'd have died happy, just smothered in loveliness!"
would return the O'Kelly; and he and the Signora would rush into each
other's arms, and the sound of their kisses would quite excite the
little slavey sweeping down the stairs outside.

He was a barrister attached in theory to the Western Circuit; in
practice, somewhat indifferent to it, much more attached to the lower
strata of Bohemia and the Signora. At the present he was earning all
sufficient for the simple needs of himself and the Signora as a
teacher of music and singing. His method was simple and suited
admirably the locality. Unless specially requested, he never troubled
his pupils with such tiresome things as scales and exercises. His
plan was to discover the song the young man fancied himself singing,
the particular jingle the young lady yearned to knock out of the
piano, and to teach it to them. Was it "Tom Bowling?" Well and good.
Come on; follow your leader. The O'Kelly would sing the first line.

"Now then, try that. Don't be afraid. Just open yer mouth and gave
it tongue. That's all right. Everything has a beginning. Sure,
later on, we'll get the time and tune, maybe a little expression."

Whether the system had any merit in it, I cannot answer. Certain it
was that as often as not it achieved success. Gradually--say, by the
end of twelve eighteen-penny lessons--out of storm and chaos "Tom
Bowling" would emerge, recognisable for all men to hear. Had the
pupil any voice to start with, the O'Kelly improved it; had he none,
the O'Kelly would help him to disguise the fact.

"Take it easy, now; take it easy," the O'Kelly would counsel. "Sure,
it's a delicate organ, yer voice. Don't ye strain it now. Ye're at
yer best when ye're just low and sweet."

So also with the blushing pianiste. At the end of a month a tune was
distinctly discernible; she could hear it herself, and was happy. His
repute spread.

Twice already had he eloped with the Signora (and twice again was he
to repeat the operation, before I finally lost sight of him: to break
oneself of habit is always difficult) and once by well-meaning friends
had he been induced to return to home, if not to beauty. His wife,
who was considerably older than himself, possessed, so he would inform
me with tears in his eyes, every moral excellence that should attract
mankind. Upon her goodness and virtue, her piety and
conscientiousness he would descant to me by the half hour. His
sincerity it was impossible to question. It was beyond doubt that he
respected her, admired her, honoured her. She was a saint, an
angel--a wretch, a villain such as he, was not fit to breathe the same
pure air. To do him justice, it must be admitted he showed no
particular desire to do so. As an aunt or grandmother, I believe he
would have suffered her gladly. He had nothing to say against her,
except that he found himself unable to live with her.

That she must have been a lady of exceptional merit one felt
convinced. The Signora, who had met her only once, and then under
somewhat trying conditions, spoke her praises with equal enthusiasm.
Had she, the Signora, enjoyed the advantage of meeting such a model
earlier, she, the Signora, might have been a better woman. It seemed
a pity the introduction could not have taken place sooner and under
different circumstances. Could they both have adopted her as a sort
of mutual mother-in-law, it would have given them, I am positive, the
greatest satisfaction. On her occasional visits they would have vied
with each other in showing her affectionate attention. For the
deserted lady I tried to feel sorry, but could not avoid the
reflection that it would have been better for all parties had she been
less patient and forgiving. Her husband was evidently much more
suited to the Signora.

Indeed, the relationship between these two was more a true marriage
than one generally meets with. No pair of love-birds could have been
more snug together. In their virtues and failings alike they fitted
each other. When sober the immorality of their behaviour never
troubled them; in fact, when sober nothing ever troubled them. They
laughed, joked, played through life, two happy children. To be
shocked at them was impossible. I tried it and failed.

But now and again there came an evening when they were not sober. It
happened when funds were high. On such occasion the O'Kelly would
return laden with bottles of a certain sweet champagne, of which they
were both extremely fond; and a friend or two would be invited to
share in the festivity. Whether any exceptional quality resided in
this particular brand of champagne I am not prepared to argue; my own
personal experience of it has prompted me to avoid it for the rest of
my life. Its effect upon them was certainly unique. Instead of
intoxicating them, it sobered them: there is no other way of
explaining it. With the third or fourth glass they began to take
serious views of life. Before the end of the second bottle they would
be staring at each other, appalled at contemplation of their own
transgression. The Signora, the tears streaming down her pretty face,
would declare herself a wicked, wicked woman; she had dragged down
into shame the most blameless, the most virtuous of men. Emptying her
glass, she would bury her face in her hands, and with her elbows on
her knees, in an agony of remorse, sit rocking to and fro. The
O'Kelly, throwing himself at her feet, would passionately abjure her
to "look up." She had, it appeared, got hold of the thing at the
wrong end; it was he who had dragged her down.

At this point metaphor would become confused. Each had been dragged
down by the other one and ruined; also each one was the other one's
good angel. All that was commendable in the Signora, she owed to the
O'Kelly. Whatever was not discreditable about the O'Kelly was in the
nature of a loan from the Signora. With the help of more champagne
the right course would grow plain to them. She would go back
broken-hearted but repentant to the tight-rope; he would return a
better but a blighted man to Mrs. O'Kelly and the Western Circuit.
This would be their last evening together on earth. A fresh bottle
would be broached, and the guest or guests called upon to assist in
the ceremony of renunciation; glasses full to the brim this time.

So much tragedy did they continue to instil into the scene that on the
first occasion of my witnessing it I was unable to refrain from
mingling my tears with theirs. As, however, the next morning they had
forgotten all about it, and as nothing came of it, nor of several
subsequent repetitions, I should have believed a separation between
them impossible but that even while I was an inmate of the house the
thing actually happened.

It came about in this wise. His friends, having discovered him, had
pointed out to him again his duty. The Signora--a really excellent
little woman so far as intention was concerned--had seconded their
endeavours, with the result that on a certain evening in autumn we of
the house assembled all of us on the first floor to support them on
the occasion of their final--so we all deemed it then--leave-taking.
For eleven o'clock two four-wheeled cabs had been ordered, one to
transport the O'Kelly with his belongings to Hampstead and
respectability; in the other the Signora would journey sorrowfully to
the Tower Basin, there to join a circus company sailing for the
Continent.

I knocked at the door some quarter of an hour before the appointed
hour of the party. I fancy the idea had originated with the Signora.

"Dear Willie has something to say to you," she had informed me that
morning on the stairs. "He has taken a sincere liking to you, and it
is something very important."

They were sitting one each side the fireplace, looking very serious; a
bottle of the sobering champagne stood upon the table. The Signora
rose and kissed me gravely on the brow; the O'Kelly laid both hands
upon my shoulders, and sat me down on a chair between them.

"Mr. Kelver," said the Signora, "you are very young."

I hinted--it was one of those rare occasions upon which gallantry can
be combined with truth--that I found myself in company.

The Signora smiled sadly, and shook her head.

"Age," said the O'Kelly, "is a matter of feeling. Kelver, may ye
never be as old as I am feeling now."

"As _we_ are feeling," corrected the Signora. "Kelver," said the
O'Kelly, pouring out a third glass of champagne, "we want ye to
promise us something."

"It will make us both happier," added the Signora.

"That ye will take warning," continued the O'Kelly, "by our wretched
example. Paul, in this world there is only one path to possible
happiness. The path of strict--" he paused.

"Propriety," suggested the Signora.

"Of strict propriety," agreed the O'Kelly. "Deviate from it,"
continued the O'Kelly, impressively, "and what is the result?"

"Unutterable misery," supplied the Signora.

"Ye think we two have been happy here together," said the O'Kelly.

I replied that such was the conclusion to which observation had
directed me.

"We tried to appear so," explained the Signora; "it was merely on the
outside. In reality all the time we hated each other. Tell him,
Willie, dear, how we have hated each other."

"It is impossible," said the O'Kelly, finishing and putting down his
glass, "to give ye any idea, Kelver, how we have hated each other."

"How we have quarrelled!" said the Signora. "Tell him, dear, how we
have quarrelled."

"All day long and half the night," concluded the O'Kelly.

"Fought," added the Signora. "You see, Mr. Kelver, people in--in our
position always do. If it had been otherwise, if--if everything had
been proper, then of course we should have loved each other. As it
is, it has been a cat and dog existence. Hasn't it been a cat and dog
existence, Willie?"

"It's been just hell upon earth," murmured the O'Kelly, with his eyes
fixed gloomily upon the fire-stove ornament. Deadly in earnest though
they both were, I could not repress a laugh, their excellent intention
was so obvious. The Signora burst into tears.

"He doesn't believe us," she wailed.

"Me dear," replied the O'Kelly, throwing up his part with promptness
and satisfaction, "how could ye expect it? How could he believe that
any man could look at ye and hate ye?"

"It's all my fault," cried the little woman; "I am such a wicked
creature. I cannot even be miserable when I am doing wrong. A decent
woman in my place would have been wretched and unhappy, and made
everybody about her wretched and unhappy, and so have set a good
example and have been a warning. I don't seem to have any conscience,
and I do try." The poor little lady was sobbing her heart out.

When not shy I could be sensible, and of the O'Kelly and the Signora
one could be no more shy than of a pair of robin redbreasts. Besides,
I was really fond of them; they had been very good to me.

"Dear Miss Beltoni," I answered, "I am going to take warning by you
both."

She pressed my hand. "Oh, do, please do," she murmured. "We really
have been miserable--now and then."

"I am never going to be content," I assured her, "until I find a lady
as charming and as amiable as you, and if ever I get her I'll take
good care never to run any risk of losing her."

It sounded well and pleased us all. The O'Kelly shook me warmly by
the hand, and this time spoke his real feelings.

"Me boy," he said, "all women are good--for somebody. But the woman
that is good for yerself is better for ye than a better woman who's
the best for somebody else. Ye understand?"

I said I did.

At eight o'clock precisely Mrs. Peedles arrived--as Flora MacDonald,
in green velvet jacket and twelve to fifteen inches of plaid stocking.
As a topic fitting the occasion we discussed the absent Mr. Peedles
and the subject of deserted wives in general.

"A fine-looking man," allowed Mrs. Peedles, "but weak--weak as water."

The Signora agreed that unfortunately there did exist such men: 'twas
pitiful but true.

"My dear," continued Mrs. Peedles, "she wasn't even a lady."

The Signora expressed astonishment at the deterioration in Mr.
Peedles' taste thus implied.

"I won't go so far as to say we never had a difference," continued
Mrs. Peedles, whose object appeared to be an impartial statement of
the whole case. "There may have been incompatability of temperament,
as they say. Myself, I have always been of a playful
disposition--frivolous, some might call me."

The Signora protested; the O'Kelly declined to listen to such
aspersion on her character even from Mrs. Peedles herself.

Mrs. Peedles, thus corrected, allowed that maybe frivolous was too
sweeping an accusation: say sportive.

"But a good wife to him I always was," asserted Mrs. Peedles, with a
fine sense of justice; "never flighty, like some of them. I challenge
any one to accuse me of having been flighty."

We felt we should not believe any one who did, and told her so.

Mrs. Peedles, drawing her chair closer to the Signora, assumed a
confidential attitude. "If they want to go, let 'em go, I always
say," she whispered loudly into the Signora's ear. "Ten to one
they'll find they've only jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire.
One can always comfort oneself with that."

There seemed to be confusion in the mind of Mrs. Peedles. Her
virtuous sympathies, I gathered, were with the Signora. Mr. O'Kelly's
return to Mrs. O'Kelly evidently manifested itself in the light of a
shameful desertion. Having regard to the fact, patent to all who knew
him, that the poor fellow was sacrificing every inclination to stern
sense of duty, such view of the matter was rough on him. But
philosophers from all ages have agreed that our good deeds are the
whips with which Fate punishes us for our bad.

"My dear," continued Mrs. Peedles, "when Mr. Peedles left me I thought
that I should never smile again. Yet here you see me laughing away
through life, just as ever. You'll get over it all right." And Mrs.
Peedles wiped away her tears and smiled upon the Signora; upon which
the Signora commenced to cry again.

Happily, timely diversion was made at this point by the bursting into
the room of Jarman, who upon perceiving Mrs. Peedles, at once gave
vent to a hoot, supposed to be expressive of Scottish joy, and without
a moment's hesitation commenced to dance a reel.

My neighbours of the first floor knocked at the door a little while
afterwards; and genteelly late arrived Miss Rosina Sellars, coldly
gleaming in a decollete but awe-inspiring costume of mingled black and
scarlet, out of which her fair, if fleshy, neck and arms shone
luxuriant.

We did not go into supper; instead, supper came into us from the
restaurant at the corner of the Blackfriars Road. I cannot say that
at first it was a festive meal. The O'Kelly and the Signora made
effort, as in duty bound, to be cheerful, but for awhile were somewhat
unsuccessful. The third floor front wasted no time in speech, but ate
and drank copiously. Miss Sellars, retaining her gloves--which was
perhaps wise, her hands being her weak point--signalled me out, much
to my embarrassment, as the recipient of her most polite conversation.
Mrs. Peedles became reminiscent of parties generally. Seeing that
most of Mrs. Peedles' former friends and acquaintances were either
dead or in more or less trouble, her efforts did not tend to enliven
the table. One gathering, of which the present strangely reminded
her, was a funeral, chiefly remarkable from discovery of the romantic
fact, late in the proceedings, that the gentleman in whose honour the
whole affair had been organised was not dead at all; but instead,
having taken advantage of an error arising out of a railway accident,
was at the moment eloping with the wife of his own chief mourner. As
Mrs. Peedles explained, and as one could well credit, it had been an
awkward position for all present. Nobody had quite known whether to
feel glad or sorry--with the exception of the chief mourner, upon
whose personal undertaking that the company might regard the ceremony
as merely postponed, festivities came to an end.

Our prop and stay from a convivial point of view was Jarman. As a
delicate attention to Mrs. Peedles and her costume he sunk his
nationality and became for the evening, according to his own
declaration, "a braw laddie." With her--his "sonsie lassie," so he
termed her--he flirted in the broadest, if not purest, Scotch. The
O'Kelly for him became "the Laird;" the third floor "Jamie o' the
Ilk;" Miss Sellars, "the bonnie wee rose;" myself, "the chiel."
Periods of silence were dispersed by suggestions that we should "hoot
awa'," Jarman himself setting us the example.

With the clearance away of the eatables, making room for the
production of a more varied supply of bottles, matters began to mend.
Mrs. Peedles became more arch, Jarman's Scotch more striking and
extensive, the Lady 'Ortensia's remarks less depressingly genteel, her
aitches less accentuated.

Jarman rose to propose the health of the O'Kelly, coupled with that of
the Signora. To the O'Kelly, in a burst of generosity, Jarman
promised our united patronage. To Jarman it appeared that by
employing the O'Kelly to defend us whenever we got into trouble with
the police, and by recommending him to our friends, a steady income
should be assured to him.

The O'Kelly replied feelingly to the effect that Nelson Square,
Blackfriars, would ever remain engraved upon his memory as the fairest
and brightest spot on earth. Personally, nothing would have given him
greater pleasure than to die among the dear friends who now surrounded
him. But there was such a thing as duty, and he and the Signora had
come to the conclusion that true happiness could only be obtained by
acting according to one's conscience, even if it made one miserable.

Jarman, warming to his work, then proposed the health of Mrs. Peedles,
as true-hearted and hard-breathing a lady as ever it had been his
privilege to know. Her talent for cheery conversation was familiar to
us all, upon it he need not enlarge; all he would say was that
personally never did she go out of his room without leaving him more
cheerful than when she entered it.

After that--I forget in what--we drank the health of the Lady
'Ortensia. Persons there were--Jarman would not attempt to disguise
the fact--who complained that the Lady 'Ortensia was too distant, "too
stand-offish." With such complaint he himself had no sympathy; but
tastes differed. If the Lady 'Ortensia were inclined to be exclusive,
who should blame her? Everybody knew their own business best. For use
in a second floor front he could not honestly recommend the Lady
'Ortensia; it would not be giving her a fair chance, and it would not
be giving the second floor a fair chance. But for any gentleman
fitting up marble halls, for any one on the lookout for a really
"toney article," Jarman would say: Inquire for Miss Rosina Sellars,
and see that you get her.

There followed my turn. There had been literary chaps in the past,
Jarman admitted so much. Against them he had nothing to say. They
had no doubt done their best. But the gentleman whose health Jarman
wished the company now to drink had this advantage over them: that
they were dead, and he wasn't. Some of this gentleman's work Jarman
had read--in manuscript; but that was a distinction purely temporary.
He, Jarman, claimed to be no judge of literature, but this he could
and would say, it took a good deal to make him miserable, yet this the
literary efforts of Mr. Kelver invariably accomplished.

Mrs. Peedles, speaking without rising, from personal observation in
the daytime--which she hoped would not be deemed a liberty;
literature, even in manuscript, being, so to speak, public
property--found herself in a position to confirm all that Mr. Jarman
had remarked. Speaking as one not entirely without authority on the
subject of literature and the drama, Mrs. Peedles could say that
passages she had read had struck her as distinctly not half bad. Some
of the love-scenes, in particular, had made her to feel quite a girl
again. How he had acquired such knowledge was not for her to say.
Cries of "Naughty!" from Jarman, and "Oh, Mr. Kelver, I shall be quite
afraid of you," roguishly from Miss Sellars.

The O'Kelly, who, having abandoned his favourite champagne for less
sobering liquor, had since supper-time become rapidly more cheerful,
felt sure there was a future before me. That he had not seen any of
my work, so he assured me, in no way lessened his opinion of it. One
thing only would he impress upon me: that the best work was the
result of strict attention to virtue. His advice to me was to marry
young and be happy.

My persevering efforts of the last few months towards the acquisition
of convivial habits appeared this evening to be receiving their
reward. The O'Kelly's sweet champagne I had drunk with less dislike
than hitherto; a white, syrupy sort of stuff, out of a fat and
artistic-looking bottle, I had found distinctly grateful to the
palate. Dimly the quotation about taking things at the flood, and so
getting on quickly, floated through my brain, coupled with another one
about fortune favouring the bold. It had seemed to me a good occasion
to try for the second time in my life a full flavoured cigar. I had
selected with the caution of a connoisseur one of mottled green
complexion from the O'Kelly's largest box. And so far all had gone
well. An easy self-confidence, delightful by reason of its novelty,
had replaced my customary shyness; a sense of lightness--of positive
airiness, emanating from myself, pervaded all things. Tossing off
another glass of the champagne, I rose to reply.

Modesty in my present mood would have been affectation. To such dear
and well-beloved friends I had no hesitation in admitting the truth,
that I was a clever fellow--a damned clever fellow. I knew it, they
knew it, in a short time everybody would know it. But they need not
fear that in the hour of my pride, when it arrived, I should prove
ungrateful. Never should I forget their kindness to me, a lonely
young man, alone in a lonely-- Here the pathos of my own situation
overcame me; words seemed weak. "Jarman--" I meant, putting my hand
upon his head, to have blessed him for his goodness to me; but he
being not exactly where he looked to be, I just missed him, and sat
down on the edge of my chair, which was a hard one. I had not
intended this to be the end of my speech, by a long one; but Jarman,
whispering to me: "Ended at exactly the right moment; shows the born
orator," strong inclination to remain seated, now that I was down
seconding his counsel, and the company being clearly satisfied, I
decided to leave things where they were.

A delightful dreaminess was stealing over me. Everything and
everybody appeared to be a long way off, but, whether because of this
or in spite of it, exceedingly attractive. Never had I noticed the
Signora so bewitching; in a motherly sort of way even the third floor
front was good to look upon; Mrs. Peedles I could almost have believed
to be the real Flora MacDonald sitting in front of me. But the vision
of Miss Rosina Sellars made literally my head to swim. Never before
had I dared to cast upon female loveliness the satisfying gaze with
which I now boldly regarded her every movement. Evidently she noticed
it, for she turned away her eyes. I had heard that exceptionally
strong-minded people merely by concentrating their will could make
other, ordinary people, do just whatever they, the exceptionally
strong-minded people, wished. I willed that Miss Rosina Sellars
should turn her eyes again towards me. Victory crowned my efforts.
Evidently I was one of these exceptionally strong-minded persons.
Slowly her eyes came round and met mine with a smile--a helpless,
pathetic smile that said, so I read it: "You know no woman can resist
you: be merciful!"

Inflamed by the brutal lust of conquest, I suppose I must have willed
still further, for the next thing I remember is sitting with Miss
Sellars on the sofa, holding her hand, the while the O'Kelly sang a
sentimental ballad, only one line of which comes back to me: "For the
angels must have told him, and he knows I love him now," much stress
upon the "now." The others had their backs towards us. Miss Sellars,
with a look that pierced my heart, dropped her somewhat large head
upon my shoulder, leaving, as I observed the next day, a patch of
powder on my coat.

Miss Sellars observed that one of the saddest things in the world was
unrequited love.

I replied gallantly, "Whateryou know about it?"

"Ah, you men, you men," murmured Miss Sellars; "you're all alike."

This suggested a personal aspersion on my character. "Not allus," I
murmured.

"You don't know what love is," said Miss Sellars. "You're not old
enough."

The O'Kelly had passed on to Sullivan's "Sweethearts," then in its
first popularity.

"Oh, love for a year--a week--a day!
But oh for the love that loves al-wa-ay[s]!"

Miss Sellars' languishing eyes were fixed upon me; Miss Sellars' red
lips pouted and twitched; Miss Sellars' white bosom rose and fell.
Never, so it seemed to me, had so large an amount of beauty been
concentrated in one being.

"Yeserdo," I said. "I love you."

I stooped to kiss the red lips, but something was in my way. It
turned out to be a cold cigar. Miss Sellars thoughtfully removed it,
and threw it away. Our lips met. Her large arms closed about my neck
and held me tight.

"Well, I'm sure!" came the voice of Mrs. Peedles, as from afar. "Nice
goings on!"

I have vague remembrance of a somewhat heated discussion, in which
everybody but myself appeared to be taking extreme interest--of Miss
Sellars in her most ladylike and chilling tones defending me against
the charge of "being no gentleman," which Mrs. Peedles was explaining
nobody had said I wasn't. The argument seemed to be of the circular
order. No gentleman had ever kissed Miss Sellars who had not every
right to do so, nor ever would. To kiss Miss Sellars without such
right was to declare oneself no gentleman. Miss Sellars appealed to
me to clear my character from the aspersion of being no gentleman. I
was trying to understand the situation, when Jarman, seizing me
somewhat roughly by the arm, suggested my going to bed. Miss Sellars,
seizing my other arm, suggested my refusing to go to bed. So far I
was with Miss Sellars. I didn't want to go to bed, and said so. My
desire to sit up longer was proof positive to Miss Sellars that I was
a gentleman, but to no one else. The argument shifted, the question
being now as to whether Miss Sellars were a lady. To prove the point
it was, according to Miss Sellars, necessary that I should repeat I
loved her. I did repeat it, adding, with faint remembrance of my own
fiction, that if a life's devotion was likely to be of the slightest
further proof, my heart's blood was at her service. This cleared the
air, Mrs. Peedles observing that under such circumstances it only
remained for her to withdraw everything she had said; to which Miss
Sellars replied graciously that she had always known Mrs. Peedles to
be a good sort at the bottom.

Nevertheless, gaiety was gone from among us, and for this, in some way
I could not understand, I appeared to be responsible. Jarman was
distinctly sulky. The O'Kelly, suddenly thinking of the time, went to
the door and discovered that the two cabs were waiting. The third
floor recollected that work had to be finished. I myself felt sleepy.

Our host and hostess departed; Jarman again suggested bed, and this
time I agreed with him. After a slight misunderstanding with the
door, I found myself upon the stairs. I had never noticed before that
they were quite perpendicular. Adapting myself to the changed
conditions, I climbed them with the help of my hands. I accomplished
the last flight somewhat quickly, and feeling tired, sat down the
moment I was within my own room. Jarman knocked at the door. I told
him to come in; but he didn't. It occurred to me that the reason was
I was sitting on the floor with my back against the door. The
discovery amused me exceedingly and I laughed; and Jarman, baffled,
descended to his own floor. I found getting into bed a difficulty,
owing to the strange behaviour of the room. It spun round and round.
Now the bed was just in front of me, now it was behind me. I managed
at last to catch it before it could get past me, and holding on by the
ironwork, frustrated its efforts to throw me out again on to the
floor.

But it was some time before I went to sleep, and over my intervening
experiences I draw a veil.

CHAPTER III.

GOOD FRIENDS SHOW PAUL THE ROAD TO FREEDOM. BUT BEFORE SETTING OUT,
HE WILL GO A-VISITING.

The sun was streaming into my window when I woke in the morning. I
sat up and listened. The roar of the streets told me plainly that the
day had begun without me. I reached out my hand for my watch; it was
not in its usual place upon the rickety dressing-table. I raised
myself still higher and looked about me. My clothes lay scattered on
the floor. One boot, in solitary state, occupied the chair by the
fireplace; the other I could not see anywhere.

During the night my head appeared to have grown considerably. I
wondered idly for the moment whether I had not made a mistake and put
on Minikin's; if so, I should be glad to exchange back for my own.
This thing I had got was a top-heavy affair, and was aching most
confoundedly.

Suddenly the recollection of the previous night rushed at me and shook
me awake. From a neighbouring steeple rang chimes: I counted with
care. Eleven o'clock. I sprang out of bed, and at once sat down upon
the floor.

I remembered how, holding on to the bed, I had felt the room waltzing
wildly round and round. It had not quite steadied itself even yet.
It was still rotating, not whirling now, but staggering feebly, as
though worn out by its all-night orgie. Creeping to the wash-stand, I
succeeded, after one or two false plunges, in getting my head inside
the basin. Then, drawing on my trousers with difficulty and reaching
the easy-chair, I sat down and reviewed matters so far as I was able,
commencing from the present and working back towards the past.

I was feeling very ill. That was quite clear. Something had
disagreed with me.

"That strong cigar," I whispered feebly to myself; "I ought never to
have ventured upon it. And then the little room with all those people
in it. Besides, I have been working very hard. I must really take
more exercise.

It gave me some satisfaction to observe that, shuffling and cowardly
though I might be, I was not a person easily bamboozled.

"Nonsense," I told myself brutally; "don't try to deceive me. You
were drunk."

"Not drunk," I pleaded; "don't say drunk; it is such a coarse
expression. Some people cannot stand sweet champagne, so I have
heard. It affected my liver. Do please make it a question of liver."

"Drunk," I persisted unrelentingly, "hopelessly, vulgarly drunk--drunk
as any 'Arry after a Bank Holiday."

"It is the first time," I murmured.

"It was your first opportunity," I replied.

"Never again," I promised.

"The stock phrase," I returned.

"How old are you?"

"Nineteen."

"So you have not even the excuse of youth. How do you know that it
will not grow upon you; that, having thus commenced a downward career,
you will not sink lower and lower, and so end by becoming a confirmed
sot?"

My heavy head dropped into my hands, and I groaned. Many a temperance
tale perused on Sunday afternoons came back to me. Imaginative in all
directions, I watched myself hastening toward a drunkard's grave, now
heroically struggling against temptation, now weakly yielding, the
craving growing upon me. In the misty air about me I saw my father's
white face, my mother's sad eyes. I thought of Barbara, of the scorn
that could quiver round that bewitching mouth; of Hal, with his
tremendous contempt for all forms of weakness. Shame of the present
and terror of the future between them racked my mind.

"It shall be never again!" I cried aloud. "By God, it shall!" (At
nineteen one is apt to be vehement.) "I will leave this house at
once," I continued to myself aloud; "I will get away from its
unwholesome atmosphere. I will wipe it out of my mind, and all
connected with it. I will make a fresh start. I will--"

Something I had been dimly conscious of at the back of my brain came
forward and stood before me: the flabby figure of Miss Rosina
Sellars. What was she doing here? What right had she to step between
me and my regeneration?

"The right of your affianced bride," my other half explained, with a
grim smile to myself.

"Did I really go so far as that?"

"We will not go into details," I replied; "I do not wish to dwell upon
them. That was the result."

"I was--I was not quite myself at the time. I did not know what I was
doing."

"As a rule, we don't when we do foolish things; but we have to abide
by the consequences, all the same. Unfortunately, it happened to be
in the presence of witnesses, and she is not the sort of lady to be
easily got rid of. You will marry her and settle down with her in two
small rooms. Her people will be your people. You will come to know
them better before many days are passed. Among them she is regarded
as 'the lady,' from which you can judge of them. A nice commencement
of your career, is it not, my ambitious young friend? A nice mess you
have made of it!"

"What am I to do?" I asked.

"Upon my word, I don't know," I answered.

I passed a wretched day. Ashamed to face Mrs. Peedles or even the
slavey, I kept to my room, with the door locked. At dusk, feeling a
little better--or, rather, less bad, I stole out and indulged in a
simple meal, consisting of tea without sugar and a kippered herring,
at a neighbouring coffee-house. Another gentleman, taking his seat
opposite to me and ordering hot buttered toast, I left hastily.

At eight o'clock in the evening Minikin called round from the office
to know what had happened. Seeking help from shame, I confessed to
him the truth.

"Thought as much," he answered. "Seems to have been an A1 from the
look of you."

"I am glad it has happened, now it is over," I said to him. "It will
be a lesson I shall never forget."

"I know," said Minikin. "Nothing like a fair and square drunk for
making you feel real good; better than a sermon."

In my trouble I felt the need of advice; and Minikin, though my
junior, was, I knew, far more experienced in worldly affairs than I
was.

"That's not the worst," I confided to him. "What do you think I've
done?"

"Killed a policeman?" suggested Minikin.

"Got myself engaged."

"No one like you quiet fellows for going it when you do begin,"
commented Minikin. "Nice girl?"

"I don't know," I answered. "I only know I don't want her. How can I
get out of it?"

Minikin removed his left eye and commenced to polish it upon his
handkerchief, a habit he had when in doubt. From looking into it he
appeared to derive inspiration.

"Take-her-own-part sort of a girl?"

I intimated that he had diagnosed Miss Rosina Sellars correctly.

"Know how much you're earning?"

"She knows I live up here in this attic and do my own cooking," I
answered.

Minikin glanced round the room. "Must be fond of you."

"She thinks I'm clever," I explained, "and that I shall make my way.

"And she's willing to wait?"

I nodded.

"Well, I should let her wait," replied Minikin, replacing his eye.
"There's plenty of time before you."

"But she's a barmaid, and she'll expect me to walk with her, to take
her out on Sundays, to go and see her friends. I can't do it.
Besides, she's right: I mean to get on. Then she'll stick to me.
It's awful!"

"How did it happen?" asked Minikin.

"I don't know," I replied. "I didn't know I had done it till it was
over."

"Anybody present?"

"Half-a-dozen of them," I groaned.

The door opened, and Jarman entered; he never troubled to knock
anywhere. In place of his usual noisy greeting, he crossed in silence
and shook me gravely by the hand.

"Friend of yours?" he asked, indicating Minikin.

I introduced them to each other.

"Proud to meet you," said Jarman.

"Glad to hear it," said Minikin. "Don't look as if you'd got much
else to be stuck up about."

"Don't mind him," I explained to Jarman. "He was born like it."

"Wonderful gift" replied Jarman. "D'ye know what I should do if I 'ad
it?" He did not wait for Minikin's reply. "'Ire myself out to break
up evening parties. Ever thought of it seriously?"

Minikin replied that he would give the idea consideration.

"Make your fortune going round the suburbs," assured him Jarman.
"Pity you weren't 'ere last night," he continued; "might 'ave saved
our young friend 'ere a deal of trouble. Has 'e told you the news?"

I explained that I had already put Minikin in possession of all the
facts.

"Now you've got a good, steady eye," said Jarman, upon whom Minikin,
according to his manner, had fixed his glass orb; "'ow d'ye think 'e
is looking?"

"As well as can be expected under the circumstances, don't you think?"
answered Minikin.

"Does 'e know the circumstances? Has 'e seen the girl?" asked Jarman.

I replied he had not as yet enjoyed that privilege. "Then 'e don't
know the worst," said Jarman. "A hundred and sixty pounds of 'er, and
still growing! Bit of a load for 'im, ain't it?"

"Some of 'em do have luck," was Minikin's rejoinder. Jarman leant
forward and took further stock for a few seconds of his new
acquaintance.

"That's a fine 'ead of yours," he remarked; "all your own? No
offence," continued Jarman, without giving Minikin time for repartee.
"I was merely thinking there must be room for a lot of sense in it.
Now, what do you, as a practical man, advise 'im: dose of poison, or
Waterloo Bridge and a brick?"

"I suppose there's no doubt," I interjected, "that we are actually
engaged?"

"Not a blooming shadow," assured me Jarman, cheerfully, "so far as
she's concerned."

"I shall tell her plainly," I explained, "that I was drunk at the
time."

"And 'ow are you going to convince 'er of it?" asked Jarman. "You
think your telling 'er you loved 'er proves it. So it would to
anybody else, but not to 'er. You can't expect it. Besides, if every
girl is going to give up 'er catch just because the fellow 'adn't all
'is wits about 'im at the time--well, what do you think?" He appealed
to Minikin.

To Minikin it appeared that if such contention were allowed girls
might as well shut up shop.

Jarman, who now that he had "got even" with Minikin, was more friendly
disposed towards that young man, drew his chair closer to him and
entered upon a private and confidential argument, from which I
appeared to be entirely excluded.

"You see," explained Jarman, "this ain't an ordinary case. This
chap's going to be the future Poet Laureate. Now, when the Prince of
Wales invites him to dine at Marlborough 'ouse, 'e don't want to go
there tacked on to a girl that carries aitches with her in a bag, and
don't know which end of the spoon out of which to drink 'er soup."

"It makes a difference, of course," agreed Minikin.

"What we've got to do," said Jarman, "is to get 'im out of it. And
upon my sivvy, blessed if I see 'ow to do it!"

"She fancies him?" asked Minikin.

"What she fancies," explained Jarman, "is that nature intended 'er to
be a lady. And it's no good pointing out to 'er the mistake she's
making, because she ain't got sense enough to see it."

"No good talking straight to her," suggested Minikin, "telling her
that it can never be?"

"That's our difficulty," replied Jarman; "it can be. This chap"--I
listened as might a prisoner in the dock to the argument of counsel,
interested but impotent--"don't know enough to come in out of the
rain, as the saying is. 'E's just the sort of chap this sort of thing
does 'appen to."

"But he don't want her," urged Minikin. "He says he don't want her."

"Yes, to you and me," answered Jarman; "and of course 'e don't. I'm
not saying 'e's a natural born idiot. But let 'er come along and do a
snivel--tell 'im that 'e's breaking 'er 'eart, and appeal to 'im to
be'ave as a gentleman, and all that sort of thing, and what do you
think will be the result?"

Minikin agreed that the problem presented difficulties.

"Of course, if 'twas you or me, we should just tell 'er to put 'erself
away somewhere where the moth couldn't get at 'er and wait till we
sent round for 'er; and there'd be an end of the matter. But with 'im
it's different."

"He is a bit of a soft," agreed Minikin.

"'Tain't 'is fault," explained Jarman; "'twas the way 'e was brought
up. 'E fancies girls are the sort of things one sees in plays, going
about saying 'Un'and me!' 'Let me pass!' Maybe some of 'em are, but
this ain't one of 'em."

"How did it happen?" asked Minikin.

"'Ow does it 'appen nine times out of ten?" returned Jarman. "'E was
a bit misty, and she was wide awake. 'E gets a bit spoony, and--well,
you know."

"Artful things, girls," commented Minikin.

"Can't blame 'em," returned Jarman, with generosity; "it's their
business. Got to dispose of themselves somehow. Oughtn't to be
binding without a written order dated the next morning; that'd make it
all right."

"Couldn't prove a prior engagement?" suggested Minikin.

"She'd want to see the girl first before she'd believe it--only
natural," returned Jarman.

"Couldn't get a girl?" urged Minikin.

"Who could you trust?" asked the cautious Jarman. "Besides, there
ain't time. She's letting 'im rest to-day; to-morrow evening she'll
be down on 'im."

"Don't see anything for it," said Minikin, "but for him to do a bunk."

"Not a bad idea that," mused Jarman; "only where's 'e to bunk to?"

"Needn't go far," said Minikin.

"She'd find 'im out and follow 'im," said Jarman. "She can look after
herself, mind you. Don't you go doing 'er any injustice."

"He could change his name," suggested Minikin.

"'Ow could 'e get a crib?" asked Jarman; "no character, no
references."

"I've got it," cried Jarman, starting up; "the stage!"

"Can he act?" asked Minikin.

"Can do anything," retorted my supporter, "that don't want too much
sense. That's 'is sanctuary, the stage. No questions asked, no
character wanted. Lord! why didn't I think of it before?"

"Wants a bit of getting on to, doesn't it?" suggested Minikin.

"Depends upon where you want to get," replied Jarman. For the first
time since the commencement of the discussion he turned to me. "Can
you sing?" he asked me.

I replied that I could a little, though I had never done so in public.

"Sing something now," demanded Jarman; "let's 'ear you. Wait a
minute!" he cried.

He slipped out of the room. I heard him pause upon the landing below
and knock at the door of the fair Rosina's room. The next minute he
returned.

"It's all right," he explained; "she's not in yet. Now, sing for all
you're worth. Remember, it's for life and freedom."

I sang "Sally in Our Alley," not with much spirit, I am inclined to
think. With every mention of the lady's name there rose before me the
abundant form and features of my _fiancee_, which checked the feeling
that should have trembled through my voice. But Jarman, though not
enthusiastic, was content.

"It isn't what I call a grand opera voice," he commented, "but it
ought to do all right for a chorus where economy is the chief point to
be considered. Now, I'll tell you what to do. You go to-morrow
straight to the O'Kelly, and put the whole thing before 'im. 'E's a
good sort; 'e'll touch you up a bit, and maybe give you a few
introductions. Lucky for you, this is just the right time. There's
one or two things comin' on, and if Fate ain't dead against you,
you'll lose your amorita, or whatever it's called, and not find 'er
again till it's too late."

I was not in the mood that evening to feel hopeful about anything; but
I thanked both of them for their kind intentions and promised to think
the suggestion over on the morrow, when, as it was generally agreed, I
should be in a more fitting state to bring cool judgment to bear upon
the subject; and they rose to take their departure.

Leaving Minikin to descend alone, Jarman returned the next minute.
"Consols are down a bit this week," he whispered, with the door in his
hand. "If you want a little of the ready to carry you through, don't
go sellin' out. I can manage a few pounds. Suck a couple of lemons
and you'll be all right in the morning. So long."

I followed his advice regarding the lemons, and finding it correct,
went to the office next morning as usual. Lott & Co., in
consideration of my agreeing to a deduction of two shillings on the
week's salary, allowed himself to overlook the matter. I had intended
acting on Jarman' S advice, to call upon the O'Kelly at his address of
respectability in Hampstead that evening, and had posted him a note
saying I was coming. Before leaving the office, however, I received a
reply to the effect that he would be out that evening, and asking me
to make it the following Friday instead. Disappointed, I returned to
my lodgings in a depressed state of mind. Jarman 's scheme, which had
appeared hopeful and even attractive during the daytime, now loomed
shadowy and impossible before me. The emptiness of the first floor
parlour as I passed its open door struck a chill upon me, reminding me
of the disappearance of a friend to whom, in spite of moral
disapproval, I had during these last few months become attached.
Unable to work, the old pain of loneliness returned upon me. I sat
for awhile in the darkness, listening to the scratching of the pen of
my neighbour, the old law-writer, and the sense of despair that its
sound always communicated to me encompassed me about this evening with
heavier weight than usual.

After all, was not the sympathy of the Lady 'Ortensia, stimulated for
personal purposes though it might be, better than nothing? At least,
here was some living creature to whom I belonged, to whom my existence
or nonexistence was of interest, who, if only for her own sake, was
bound to share my hopes, my fears.

It was in this mood that I heard a slight tap at the door. In the dim
passage stood the small slavey, holding out a note. I took it, and
returning, lighted my candle. The envelope was pink and scented. It
was addressed, in handwriting not so bad as I had expected, to "Paul
Kelver, Esquire." I opened it and read:

"Dr mr. Paul--I herd as how you was took hill hafter the party. I
feer you are not strong. You must not work so hard or you will be
hill and then I shall be very cros with you. I hop you are well now.
If so I am going for a wark and you may come with me if you are good.
With much love. From your affechonat
ROSIE."

In spite of the spelling, a curious, tingling sensation stole over me
as I read this my first love-letter. A faint mist swam before my
eyes. Through it, glorified and softened, I saw the face of my
betrothed, pasty yet alluring, her large white fleshy arms stretched
out invitingly toward me. Moved by a sudden hot haste that seized me,
I dressed myself with trembling hands; I appeared to be anxious to act
without giving myself time for thought. Complete, with a colour in my
cheeks unusual to them, and a burning in my eyes, I descended and
knocked with a nervous hand at the door of the second floor back.

"Who's that?" came in answer Miss Sellars' sharp tones.

"It is I--Paul."

"Oh, wait a minute, dear." The tone was sweeter. There followed the
sound of scurried footsteps, a rustling of clothes, a banging of
drawers, a few moments' dead silence, and then:

"You can come in now, dear."

I entered. It was a small, untidy room, smelling of smoky lamp; but
all I saw distinctly at the moment was Miss Sellars with her arms
above her head, pinning her hat upon her straw-coloured hair.

With the sight of her before me in the flesh, my feelings underwent a
sudden revulsion. During the few minutes she had kept me waiting
outside the door I had suffered from an almost uncontrollable desire
to turn the handle and rush in. Now, had I acted on impulse, I should
have run out. Not that she was an unpleasant-looking girl by any
means; it was the atmosphere of coarseness, of commonness, around her
that repelled me. The fastidiousness--finikinness; if you will--that
would so often spoil my rare chop, put before me by a waitress with
dirty finger-nails, forced me to disregard the ample charms she no
doubt did possess, to fasten my eyes exclusively upon her red, rough
hands and the one or two warts that grew thereon.

"You're a very naughty boy," told me Miss Sellars, finishing the
fastening of her hat. "Why didn't you come in and see me in the
dinner-_h_our? I've a great mind not to kiss you."

The powder she had evidently dabbed on hastily was plainly visible
upon her face; the round, soft arms were hidden beneath ill-fitting
sleeves of some crapey material, the thought of which put my teeth on
edge. I wished her intention had been stronger. Instead, relenting,
she offered me her flowery cheek, which I saluted gingerly, the taste
of it reminding me of certain pale, thin dough-cakes manufactured by
the wife of our school porter and sold to us in playtime at four a
penny, and which, having regard to their satisfying quality, had been
popular with me in those days.

At the top of the kitchen stairs Miss Sellars paused and called down
shrilly to Mrs. Peedles, who in course of time appeared, panting.

"Oh, me and Mr. Kelver are going out for a short walk, Mrs. Peedles.
I shan't want any supper. Good night."

"Oh, good night, my dear," replied Mrs. Peedles. "Hope you'll enjoy
yourselves. Is Mr. Kelver there?"

"He's round the corner," I heard Miss Sellars explain in a lower
voice; and there followed a snigger.

"He's a bit shy, ain't he?" suggested Mrs. Peedles in a whisper.

"I've had enough of the other sort," was Miss Sellars' answer in low
tones.

"Ah, well; it's the shy ones that come out the strongest after a
bit--leastways, that's been my experience."

"He'll do all right. So long."

Miss Sellars, buttoning a burst glove, rejoined me.

"I suppose you've never had a sweetheart before?" asked Miss Sellars,
as we turned into the Blackfriars Road.

I admitted that this was my first experience.

"I can't a-bear a flirty man," explained Miss Sellars. "That's why I
took to you from the beginning. You was so quiet."

I began to wish that nature had bestowed upon me a noisier
temperament.

"Anybody could see you was a gentleman," continued Miss Sellars.
"Heaps and heaps of hoffers I've had--_h_undreds you might almost say.
But what I've always told 'em is, 'I like you very much indeed as a
friend, but I'm not going to marry any one but a gentleman.' Don't
you think I was right?"

I murmured it was only what I should have expected of her.

"You may take my harm, if you like," suggested Miss Sellars, as we
crossed St. George's Circus; and linked, we pursued our way along the
Kennington Park Road.

Fortunately, there was not much need for me to talk. Miss Sellars was
content to supply most of the conversation herself, and all of it was
about herself.

I learned that her instincts since childhood had been toward
gentility. Nor was this to be wondered at, seeing that her family--on
her mother's side, at all events,--were connected distinctly with "the
_h_ighest in the land." _Mesalliances_, however, are common in all
communities, and one of them, a particularly flagrant specimen--her
"Mar" had, alas! contracted, having married--what did I think? I
should never guess--a waiter! Miss Sellars, stopping in the act of
crossing Newington Butts to shudder at the recollection of her female
parent's shame, was nearly run down by a tramcar.

Mr. and Mrs. Sellars did not appear to have "hit it off" together.
Could one wonder: Mrs. Sellars with an uncle on the Stock Exchange,
and Mr. Sellars with one on Peckham Rye? I gathered his calling to
have been, chiefly, "three shies a penny." Mrs. Sellars was now,
however, happily dead; and if no other good thing had come out of the
catastrophe, it had determined Miss Sellars to take warning by her
mother's error and avoid connection with the lowly born. She it was
who, with my help, would lift the family back again to its proper
position in society.

"It used to be a joke against me," explained Miss Sellars, "heven when
I was quite a child. I never could tolerate anything low. Why, one
day when I was only seven years old, what do you think happened?"

I confessed my inability to guess.

"Well, I'll tell you," said Miss Sellars; "it'll just show you. Uncle
Joseph--that was father's uncle, you understand?"

I assured Miss Sellars that the point was fixed in my mind.

"Well, one day when he came to see us he takes a cocoanut out of his
pocket and offers it to me. 'Thank you,' I says; 'I don't heat
cocoanuts that have been shied at by just anybody and missed!' It
made him so wild. After that," explained Miss Sellars, "they used to
call me at home the Princess of Wales."

I murmured it was a pretty fancy.

"Some people," replied Miss Sellars, with a giggle, "says it fits me;
but, of course, that's only their nonsense."

Not knowing what to reply, I remained silent, which appeared to
somewhat disappoint Miss Sellars.

Out of the Clapham Road we turned into a by-street of two-storeyed
houses.

"You'll come in and have a bit of supper?" suggested Miss Sellars.
"Mar's quite hanxious to see you."

I found sufficient courage to say I was not feeling well, and would
much rather return home.

"Oh, but you must just come in for five minutes, dear. It'll look so
funny if you don't. I told 'em we was coming."

"I would really rather not," I urged; "some other evening." I felt a
presentiment, I confided to her, that on this particular evening I
should not shine to advantage.

"Oh, you mustn't be so shy," said Miss Sellars. "I don't like shy
fellows--not too shy. That's silly." And Miss Sellars took my arm
with a decided grip, making it clear to me that escape could be
obtained only by an unseemly struggle in the street; not being
prepared for which, I meekly yielded.

We knocked at the door of one of the small houses, Miss Sellars
retaining her hold upon me until it had been opened to us by a lank
young man in his shirt-sleeves and closed behind us.

"Don't gentlemen wear coats of a hevening nowadays?" asked Miss
Sellars, tartly, of the lank young man. "New fashion just come in?"

"I don't know what gentlemen wear in the evening or what they don't,"
retorted the lank young man, who appeared to be in an aggressive mood.
"If I can find one in this street, I'll ast him and let you know."

"Mother in the droaring-room?" enquired Miss Sellars, ignoring the
retort.

"They're all of 'em in the parlour, if that's what you mean," returned
the lank young man, "the whole blooming shoot. If you stand up
against the wall and don't breathe, there'll just be room for you."

Sweeping by the lank young man, Miss Sellars opened the parlour door,
and towing me in behind her, shut it.

"Well, Mar, here we are," announced Miss Sellars. An enormously stout
lady, ornamented with a cap that appeared to have been made out of a
bandanna handkerchief, rose to greet us, thus revealing the fact that
she had been sitting upon an extremely small horsehair-covered
easy-chair, the disproportion between the lady and her support being
quite pathetic.

"I am charmed, Mr.--"

"Kelver," supplied Miss Sellars.

"Kelver, to make your ac-quain-tance," recited Mrs. Sellars in the
tone of one repeating a lesson.

I bowed, and murmured that the honour was entirely mine.

"Don't mention it," replied Mrs. Sellars. "Pray be seated."

Mrs. Sellars herself set the example by suddenly giving way and
dropping down into her chair, which thus again became invisible. It
received her with an agonised groan.

Indeed, the insistence with which this article of furniture throughout
the evening cal1ed attention to its sufferings was really quite
distracting. With every breath that Mrs. Sellars took it moaned
wearily. There were moments when it literally shrieked. I could not
have accepted Mrs. Sellars' offer had I wished, there being no chair
vacant and no room for another. A young man with watery eyes, sitting
just behind me between a fat young lady and a lean one, rose and
suggested my taking his place. Miss Sellars introduced me to him as
her cousin Joseph something or other, and we shook hands.

The watery-eyed Joseph remarked that it had been a fine day between
the showers, and hoped that the morrow would be either wet or dry;
upon which the lean young lady, having slapped him, asked admiringly
of the fat young lady if he wasn't a "silly fool;" to which the fat
young lady replied, with somewhat unnecessary severity, I thought,
that no one could help being what they were born. To this the lean
young lady retorted that it was with precisely similar reflection that
she herself controlled her own feelings when tempted to resent the fat
young lady's "nasty jealous temper."

The threatened quarrel was nipped in the bud by the discretion of Miss
Sellars, who took the opportunity of the fat young lady's momentary
speechlessness to introduce me promptly to both of them. They also, I
learned, were cousins. The lean girl said she had "erd on me," and
immediately fell into an uncontrollable fit of giggles; of which the
watery-eyed Joseph requested me to take no notice, explaining that she
always went off like that at exactly three-quarters to the half-hour
every evening, Sundays and holidays excepted; that she had taken
everything possible for it without effect, and that what he himself
advised was that she should have it off.

The fat girl, seizing the chance afforded her, remarked genteelly that
she too had "heard hof me," with emphasis upon the "hof." She also
remarked it was a long walk from Blackfriars Bridge.

"All depends upon the company, eh? Bet they didn't find it too long."

This came from a loud-voiced, red-faced man sitting on the sofa beside
a somewhat melancholy-looking female dressed in bright green. These
twain I discovered to be Uncle and Aunt Gutton. From an observation
dropped later in the evening concerning government restrictions on the
sale of methylated spirit, and hastily smothered, I gathered that
their line was oil and colour.

Mr. Gutton's forte appeared to be badinage. He it was who, on my
explaining my heightened colour as due to the closeness of the
evening, congratulated his niece on having secured so warm a partner.

"Will be jolly handy," shouted Uncle Gutton, "for Rosina, seeing she's
always complaining of her cold feet."

Here the lank young man attempted to squeeze himself into the room,
but found his entrance barred by the square, squat figure of the
watery-eyed young man.

"Don't push," advised the watery-eyed young man. "Walk over me
quietly."

"Well, why don't yer get out of the way," growled the lank young man,
now coated, but still aggressive.

"Where am I to get to?" asked the watery-eyed young man, with some
reason. "Say the word and I'll 'ang myself up to the gas bracket."

"In my courting days," roared Uncle Gutton, "the girls used to be able
to find seats, even if there wasn't enough chairs to go all round."

The sentiment was received with varying degrees of approbation. The
watery-eyed young man, sitting down, put the lean young lady on his
knee, and in spite of her struggles and sounding slaps, heroically
retained her there.

"Now, then, Rosie," shouted Uncle Gutton, who appeared to have
constituted himself master of the ceremonies, "don't stand about, my
girl; you'll get tired."

Left to herself, I am inclined to think my _fiancee_ would have spared
me; but Uncle Gutton, having been invited to a love comedy, was not to
be cheated of any part of the performance, and the audience clearly
being with him, there was nothing for it but compliance. I seated
myself, and amid plaudits accommodated the ample and heavy Rosina upon
my knee.

"Good-bye," called out to me the watery-eyed young man, as behind the
fair Rosina I disappeared from his view. "See you again later on."

"I used to be a plump girl myself before I married," observed Aunt
Gutton. "Plump as butter I was at one time."

"It isn't what one eats," said the maternal Sellars. "I myself don't
eat enough to keep a fly, and my legs--"

"That'll do, Mar," interrupted the filial Sellars, tartly.

"I was only going to say, my dear--"

"We all know what you was going to say, Mar," retorted Miss Sellars.
"We've heard it before, and it isn't interesting."

Mrs. Sellars relapsed into silence.

"'Ard work and plenty of it keeps you thin enough, I notice," remarked
the lank young man, with bitterness. To him I was now introduced, he
being Mr. George Sellars. "Seen 'im before," was his curt greeting.

At supper--referred to by Mrs. Sellars again in the tone of one
remembering a lesson, as a cold col-la-tion, with the accent on the
"tion"--I sat between Miss Sellars and the lean young lady, with Aunt
and Uncle Gutton opposite to us. It was remarked with approval that I
did not appear to be hungry.

"Had too many kisses afore he started," suggested Uncle Gutton, with
his mouth full of cold roast pork and pickles. "Wonderfully
nourishing thing, kisses, eh? Look at mother and me. That's all we
live on."

Aunt Gutton sighed, and observed that she had always been a poor
feeder.

The watery-eyed young man, observing he had never tasted them
himself--at which sally there was much laughter--said he would not
mind trying a sample if the lean young lady would kindly pass him one.

The lean young lady opined that, not being used to high living, it
might disagree with him.

"Just one," pleaded the watery-eyed young man, "to go with this bit of
cracklin'."

The lean young lady, amid renewed applause, first thoughtfully wiping
her mouth, acceded to his request.

The watery-eyed young man turned it over with the air of a gourmet.

"Not bad," was his verdict. "Reminds me of onions." At this there
was another burst of laughter.

"Now then, ain't Paul goin' to have one?" shouted Uncle Gutton, when
the laughter had subsided.

Amid silence, feeling as wretched as perhaps I have ever felt in my
life before or since, I received one from the gracious Miss Sellars,
wet and sounding.

"Looks better for it already," commented the delighted Uncle Gutton.
"He'll soon get fat on 'em."

"Not too many at first," advised the watery-eyed young man. "Looks to
me as if he's got a weak stomach."

I think, had the meal lasted much longer, I should have made a dash
for the street; the contemplation of such step was forming in my mind.
But Miss Sellars, looking at her watch, declared we must be getting
home at once, for the which I could have kissed her voluntarily; and,
being a young lady of decision, at once rose and commenced
leave-taking. Polite protests were attempted, but these, with
enthusiastic assistance from myself, she swept aside.

"Don't want any one to walk home with you?" suggested Uncle Gutton.
"Sure you won't feel lonely by yourselves, eh?"

"We shan't come to no harm," assured him Miss Sellars.

"P'raps you're right," agreed Uncle Gutton. "There don't seem to be
much of the fiery and untamed about him, so far as I can see."

"'Slow waters run deep,'" reminded us Aunt Gutton, with a waggish
shake of her head.

"No question about the slow," assented Uncle Gutton. "If you don't
like him--" observed Miss Sellars, speaking with dignity.

"To be quite candid with you, my girl, I don't," answered Uncle
Gutton, whose temper, maybe as the result of too much cold pork and
whiskey, seemed to have suddenly changed.

"Well, he happens to be good enough for me," recommenced Miss Sellars.

"I'm sorry to hear a niece of mine say so," interrupted Uncle Gutton.
"If you want my opinion of him--"

"If ever I do I'll call round some time when you're sober and ast you
for it," returned Miss Sellars. "And as for being your niece, you was
here when I came, and I don't see very well as how I could have got
out of it. You needn't throw that in my teeth."

The gust was dispersed by the practical remark of brother George to
the effect that the last tram for Walworth left the Oval at
eleven-thirty; to which he further added the suggestion that the
Clapham Road was wide and well adapted to a row.

"There ain't going to be no rows," replied Uncle Gutton, returning to
amiability as suddenly as he had departed from it. "We understand
each other, don't we, my girl?"

"That's all right, uncle. I know what you mean," returned Miss
Sellars, with equal handsomeness.

"Bring him round again when he's feeling better," added Uncle Gutton,
"and we'll have another look at him."

"What you want," advised the watery-eyed young man on shaking hands
with me, "is complete rest and a tombstone."

I wished at the time I could have followed his prescription.

The maternal Sellars waddled after us into the passage, which she
completely blocked. She told me she was delight-ted to have met me,
and that she was always at home on Sundays.

I said I would remember it, and thanked her warmly for a pleasant
evening, at Miss Sellars' request calling her Ma.

Outside, Miss Sellars agreed that my presentiment had proved
correct--that I had not shone to advantage. Our journey home on a
tramcar was a somewhat silent proceeding. At the door of her room she
forgave me, and kissed me good night. Had I been frank with her, I
should have thanked her for that evening's experience. It had made my
course plain to me.

The next day, which was Thursday, I wandered about the streets till
two o'clock in the morning, when I slipped in quietly, passing Miss
Sellars' door with my boots in my hand.

After Mr. Lott's departure on Friday, which, fortunately, was pay-day,
I set my desk in order and confided to Minikin written instructions
concerning all matters unfinished.

"I shall not be here to-morrow," I told him. "Going to follow your
advice."

"Found anything to do?" he asked.

"Not yet," I answered.

"Suppose you can't get anything?"

"If the worst comes to the worst," I replied, "I can hang myself."

"Well, you know the girl. Maybe you are right," he agreed.

"Hope it won't throw much extra work on you," I said.

"Well, I shan't be catching it if it does," was his answer. "That's
all right."

He walked with me to the "Angel," and there we parted.

"If you do get on to the stage," he said, "and it's anything worth
seeing, and you send me an order, and I can find the time, maybe I'll
come and see you."

I thanked him for his promised support and jumped upon the tram.

The O'Kelly's address was in Belsize Square. I was about to ring and
knock, as requested by a highly-polished brass plate, when I became
aware of pieces of small coal falling about me on the doorstep.
Looking up, I perceived the O'Kelly leaning out of an attic window.
From signs I gathered I was to retire from the doorstep and wait. In
a few minutes the door opened and his hand beckoned me to enter.

"Walk quietly," he whispered; and on tip-toe we climbed up to the
attic from where had fallen the coal. "I've been waiting for ye,"
explained the O'Kelly, speaking low. "Me wife--a good woman, Paul;
sure, a better woman never lived; ye'll like her when ye know her,
later on--she might not care about ye're calling. She'd want to know
where I met ye, and--ye understand? Besides," added the O'Kelly, "we
can smoke up here;" and seating himself where he could keep an eye
upon the door, near to a small cupboard out of which he produced a
pipe still alight, the O'Kelly prepared himself to listen.

I told him briefly the reason of my visit.

"It was my fault, Paul," he was good enough to say; "my fault
entirely. Between ourselves, it was a damned silly idea, that party,
the whole thing altogether. Don't ye think so?"

I replied that I was naturally prejudiced against it myself.

"Most unfortunate for me," continued the O'Kelly; "I know that. Me
cabman took me to Hammersmith instead of Hampstead; said I told him
Hammersmith. Didn't get home here till three o'clock in the morning.
Most unfortunate--under the circumstances."

I could quite imagine it.

"But I'm glad ye've come," said the O'Kelly. "I had a notion ye did
something foolish that evening, but I couldn't remember precisely
what. It's been worrying me."

"It's been worrying me also, I can assure you," I told him; and I gave
him an account of my Wednesday evening's experience.

"I'll go round to-morrow morning," he said, "and see one or two
people. It's not a bad idea, that of Jarman's. I think I may be able
to arrange something for ye."

He fixed a time for me to call again upon him the next day, when Mrs.
O'Kelly would be away from home. He instructed me to walk quietly up
and down on the opposite side of the road with my eye on the attic
window, and not to come across unless he waved a handkerchief.

Rising to go, I thanked him for his kindness. "Don't put it that way,
me dear Paul," he answered. "If I don't get ye out of this scrape I
shall never forgive meself. If we damned silly fools don't help one
another," he added, with his pleasant laugh, "who is to help us?"

We crept downstairs as we had crept up. As we reached the first
floor, the drawing-room door suddenly opened.

"William!" cried a sharp voice.

"Me dear," answered the O'Kelly, snatching his pipe from his mouth and
thrusting it, still alight, into his trousers pocket. I made the rest
of the descent by myself, and slipping out, closed the door behind me
as noiselessly as possible.

Again I did not return to Nelson Square until the early hours, and the
next morning did not venture out until I had heard Miss Sellars, who
appeared to be in a bad temper, leave the house. Then running to the
top of the kitchen stairs, I called for Mrs. Peedles. I told her I
was going to leave her, and, judging the truth to be the simplest
explanation, I told her the reason why.

"My dear," said Mrs. Peedles, "I am only too glad to hear it. It
wasn't for me to interfere, but I couldn't help seeing you were making
a fool of yourself. I only hope you'll get clear off, and you may
depend upon me to do all I can to help you."

"You don't think I'm acting dishonourably, do you, Mrs. Peedles?" I
asked.

"My dear," replied Mrs. Peedles, "it's a difficult world to live
in--leastways, that's been my experience of it."

I had just completed my packing--it had not taken me long--when I
heard upon the stairs the heavy panting that always announced to me
the up-coming of Mrs. Peedles. She entered with a bundle of old
manuscripts under her arm, torn and tumbled booklets of various shapes
and sizes. These she plumped down upon the rickety table, and herself
upon the nearest chair.

"Put them in your box, my dear," said Mrs. Peedles. "They'll come in
useful to you later on."

I glanced at the bundle. I saw it was a collection of old plays in
manuscript-prompt copies, scored, cut and interlined. The top one I
noticed was "The Bloodspot: Or the Maiden, the Miser and the
Murderer;" the second, "The Female Highwayman."

"Everybody's forgotten 'em," explained Mrs. Peedles, "but there's some
good stuff in all of them."

"But what am I to do with them?" I enquired.

"Just whatever you like, my dear," explained Mrs. Peedles. "It's
quite safe. They're all of 'em dead, the authors of 'em. I've picked
'em out most carefully. You just take a scene from one and a scene
from the other. With judgment and your talent you'll make a dozen
good plays out of that little lot when your time comes."

"But they wouldn't be my plays, Mrs. Peedles," I suggested.

"They will if I give them to you," answered Mrs. Peedles. "You put
'em in your box. And never mind the bit of rent," added Mrs. Peedles;
"you can pay me that later on."

I kissed the kind old soul good-bye and took her gift with me to my
new lodgings in Camden Town. Many a time have I been hard put to it
for plot or scene, and more than once in weak mood have I turned with
guilty intent the torn and crumpled pages of Mrs. Peedles's donation
to my literary equipment. It is pleasant to be able to put my hand
upon my heart and reflect that never yet have I yielded to the
temptation. Always have I laid them back within their drawer, saying
to myself, with stern reproof:

"No, no, Paul. Stand or fall by your own merits. Never
plagiarise--in any case, not from this 'little lot.'"

CHAPTER IV.

LEADS TO A MEETING.

"Don't be nervous," said the O'Kelly, "and don't try to do too much.
You have a very fair voice, but it's not powerful. Keep cool and open
your mouth."

It was eleven o'clock in the morning. We were standing at the
entrance of the narrow court leading to the stage door. For a
fortnight past the O'Kelly had been coaching me. It had been nervous
work for both of us, but especially for the O'Kelly. Mrs. O'Kelly, a
thin, acid-looking lady, of whom I once or twice had caught a glimpse
while promenading Belsize Square awaiting the O'Kelly's signal, was a
serious-minded lady, with a conscientious objection to all music not
of a sacred character. With the hope of winning the O'Kelly from one
at least of his sinful tendencies, the piano had been got rid of, and
its place in the drawing-room filled by an American organ of
exceptionally lugubrious tone. With this we had had to make shift,
and though the O'Kelly--a veritable musical genius--had succeeded in
evolving from it an accompaniment to "Sally in Our Alley" less
misleading and confusing than might otherwise have been the case, the
result had not been to lighten our labours. My rendering of the
famous ballad had, in consequence, acquired a dolefulness not intended
by the composer. Sung as I sang it, the theme became, to employ a
definition since grown hackneyed as applied to Art, a problem ballad.
Involuntarily one wondered whether the marriage would turn out as
satisfactorily as the young man appeared to anticipate. Was there
not, when one came to think of it, a melancholy, a pessimism ingrained
within the temperament of the complainful hero that would ill assort
with those instincts toward frivolity the careful observer could not
avoid discerning in the charming yet nevertheless somewhat shallow
character of Sally.

"Lighter, lighter. Not so soulful," would demand the O'Kelly, as the
solemn notes rolled jerkily from the groaning instrument beneath his
hands.

Once we were nearly caught, Mrs. O'Kelly returning from a district
visitors' committee meeting earlier than was expected. Hastily I was
hidden in a small conservatory adjutting from the first floor landing,
where, crouching behind flower-pots, I listened in fear and trembling
to the severe cross-examination of the O'Kelly.

"William, do not prevaricate. It was not a hymn."

"Me dear, so much depends upon the time. Let me give ye an example of
what I mean."

"William, pray in my presence not to play tricks with sacred melodies.
If you have no respect for religion, please remember that I have.
Besides, why should you be playing hymns in any time at ten o'clock in
the morning? It is not like you, William, and I do not credit your
explanation. And you were singing. I distinctly heard the word
'Sally' as I opened the door."

"Salvation, me dear," corrected the O'Kelly.

"Your enunciation, William, is not usually so much at fault."

"A little hoarseness, me dear," explained the O'Kelly.

"Your voice did not sound hoarse. Perhaps it will be better if we do
not pursue the subject further."

With this the O'Kelly appeared to agree.

"A lady a little difficult to get on with when ye're feeling well and
strong," so the O'Kelly would explain her; "but if ye happen to be
ill, one of the kindest, most devoted of women. When I was down with
typhoid three years ago, a tenderer nurse no man could have had. I
shall never forget it. And so she would be again to-morrow, if there
was anything serious the matter with me."

I murmured the well-known quotation.

"Mrs. O'Kelly to a T," concurred the O'Kelly. "I sometimes wonder if
Lady Scott may not have been the same sort of woman."

"The unfortunate part of it is," continued the O'Kelly, "that I'm such
a healthy beggar; it don't give her a chance. If I were only a
chronic invalid, now, there's nothing that woman would not do to make
me happy. As it is--" The O'Kelly struck a chord. We resumed our
studies.

But to return to our conversation at the stage door.

"Meet me at the Cheshire Cheese at one o'clock," said the O'Kelly,
shaking hands. "If ye don't get on here, we'll try something else;
but I've spoken to Hodgson, and I think ye will. Good luck to ye!"

He went his way and I mine. In a glass box just behind the door a
curved-nose, round-eyed little man, looking like an angry bird in a
cage, demanded of me my business. I showed him my letter of
appointment.

"Up the passage, across the stage, along the corridor, first floor,
second door on the right," he instructed me in one breath, and shut
the window with a snap.

I proceeded up the passage. It somewhat surprised me to discover that
I was not in the least excited at the thought of this, my first
introduction to "behind the scenes."

I recall my father's asking a young soldier on his return from the
Crimea what had been his sensations at the commencement of his first
charge.

"Well," replied the young fellow, "I was worrying all the time,
remembering I had rushed out leaving the beer tap running in the
canteen, and I could not forget it."

So far as the stage I found my way in safety. Pausing for a moment
and glancing round, my impression was not so much disillusionment
concerning all things theatrical as realisation of my worst
forebodings. In that one moment all glamour connected with the stage
fell from me, nor has it since ever returned to me. From the tawdry
decorations of the auditorium to the childish make-belief littered
around on the stage, I saw the Theatre a painted thing of shreds and
patches--the grown child's doll's-house. The Drama may improve us,
elevate us, interest and teach us. I am sure it does; long may it
flourish! But so likewise does the dressing and undressing of dolls,
the opening of the front of the house, and the tenderly putting of
them away to bed in rooms they completely fill, train our little dears
to the duties and the joys of motherhood. Toys! what wise child
despises them? Art, fiction, the musical glasses: are they not
preparing us for the time, however distant, when we shall at last be
grown up?

In a maze of ways beyond the stage I lost myself, but eventually,

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