Part 1 out of 5
Curtis A. Weyant, Charles Franks, and the Distributed Proofreading Team
The History of Mr. Polly
H. G. Wells
Chapter the First
Beginnings, and the Bazaar
"Hole!" said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly
increased emphasis: "'Ole!" He paused, and then broke out with one of
his private and peculiar idioms. "Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!"
He was sitting on a stile between two threadbare looking fields, and
suffering acutely from indigestion.
He suffered from indigestion now nearly every afternoon in his life,
but as he lacked introspection he projected the associated discomfort
upon the world. Every afternoon he discovered afresh that life as a
whole and every aspect of life that presented itself was "beastly."
And this afternoon, lured by the delusive blueness of a sky that was
blue because the wind was in the east, he had come out in the hope of
snatching something of the joyousness of spring. The mysterious
alchemy of mind and body refused, however, to permit any joyousness
whatever in the spring.
He had had a little difficulty in finding his cap before he came out.
He wanted his cap--the new golf cap--and Mrs. Polly must needs fish
out his old soft brown felt hat. "'_Ere's_ your 'at," she said in a
tone of insincere encouragement.
He had been routing among the piled newspapers under the kitchen
dresser, and had turned quite hopefully and taken the thing. He put it
on. But it didn't feel right. Nothing felt right. He put a trembling
hand upon the crown of the thing and pressed it on his head, and tried
it askew to the right and then askew to the left.
Then the full sense of the indignity offered him came home to him. The
hat masked the upper sinister quarter of his face, and he spoke with a
wrathful eye regarding his wife from under the brim. In a voice thick
with fury he said: "I s'pose you'd like me to wear that silly Mud Pie
for ever, eh? I tell you I won't. I'm sick of it. I'm pretty near sick
of everything, comes to that.... Hat!"
He clutched it with quivering fingers. "Hat!" he repeated. Then he
flung it to the ground, and kicked it with extraordinary fury across
the kitchen. It flew up against the door and dropped to the ground
with its ribbon band half off.
"Shan't go out!" he said, and sticking his hands into his jacket
pockets discovered the missing cap in the right one.
There was nothing for it but to go straight upstairs without a word,
and out, slamming the shop door hard.
"Beauty!" said Mrs. Polly at last to a tremendous silence, picking up
and dusting the rejected headdress. "Tantrums," she added. "I 'aven't
patience." And moving with the slow reluctance of a deeply offended
woman, she began to pile together the simple apparatus of their recent
meal, for transportation to the scullery sink.
The repast she had prepared for him did not seem to her to justify his
ingratitude. There had been the cold pork from Sunday and some nice
cold potatoes, and Rashdall's Mixed Pickles, of which he was
inordinately fond. He had eaten three gherkins, two onions, a small
cauliflower head and several capers with every appearance of appetite,
and indeed with avidity; and then there had been cold suet pudding to
follow, with treacle, and then a nice bit of cheese. It was the pale,
hard sort of cheese he liked; red cheese he declared was indigestible.
He had also had three big slices of greyish baker's bread, and had
drunk the best part of the jugful of beer.... But there seems to be no
pleasing some people.
"Tantrums!" said Mrs. Polly at the sink, struggling with the mustard
on his plate and expressing the only solution of the problem that
occurred to her.
And Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of
life--which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He
hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and
his wife and his neighbours--every blessed neighbour--and with
indescribable bitterness he hated himself.
"Why did I ever get in this silly Hole?" he said. "Why did I ever?"
He sat on the stile, and looked with eyes that seemed blurred with
impalpable flaws at a world in which even the spring buds were wilted,
the sunlight metallic and the shadows mixed with blue-black ink.
To the moralist I know he might have served as a figure of sinful
discontent, but that is because it is the habit of moralists to ignore
material circumstances,--if indeed one may speak of a recent meal as a
circumstance,--with Mr. Polly _circum_. Drink, indeed, our teachers
will criticise nowadays both as regards quantity and quality, but
neither church nor state nor school will raise a warning finger
between a man and his hunger and his wife's catering. So on nearly
every day in his life Mr. Polly fell into a violent rage and hatred
against the outer world in the afternoon, and never suspected that it
was this inner world to which I am with such masterly delicacy
alluding, that was thus reflecting its sinister disorder upon the
things without. It is a pity that some human beings are not more
transparent. If Mr. Polly, for example, had been transparent or even
passably translucent, then perhaps he might have realised from the
Laocoon struggle he would have glimpsed, that indeed he was not so
much a human being as a civil war.
Wonderful things must have been going on inside Mr. Polly. Oh!
wonderful things. It must have been like a badly managed industrial
city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence,
strikes, the forces of law and order doing their best, rushings to and
fro, upheavals, the _Marseillaise_, tumbrils, the rumble and the
thunder of the tumbrils....
I do not know why the east wind aggravates life to unhealthy people.
It made Mr. Polly's teeth seem loose in his head, and his skin feel
like a misfit, and his hair a dry, stringy exasperation....
Why cannot doctors give us an antidote to the east wind?
"Never have the sense to get your hair cut till it's too long," said
Mr. Polly catching sight of his shadow, "you blighted, degenerated
Paintbrush! Ugh!" and he flattened down the projecting tails with an
Mr. Polly's age was exactly thirty-five years and a half. He was a
short, compact figure, and a little inclined to a localised
_embonpoint_. His face was not unpleasing; the features fine, but a
trifle too pointed about the nose to be classically perfect. The
corners of his sensitive mouth were depressed. His eyes were ruddy
brown and troubled, and the left one was round with more of wonder in
it than its fellow. His complexion was dull and yellowish. That, as I
have explained, on account of those civil disturbances. He was, in the
technical sense of the word, clean shaved, with a small sallow patch
under the right ear and a cut on the chin. His brow had the little
puckerings of a thoroughly discontented man, little wrinklings and
lumps, particularly over his right eye, and he sat with his hands in
his pockets, a little askew on the stile and swung one leg. "Hole!" he
He broke into a quavering song. "Ro-o-o-tten Be-e-astly Silly Hole!"
His voice thickened with rage, and the rest of his discourse was
marred by an unfortunate choice of epithets.
He was dressed in a shabby black morning coat and vest; the braid that
bound these garments was a little loose in places; his collar was
chosen from stock and with projecting corners, technically a
"wing-poke"; that and his tie, which was new and loose and rich in
colouring, had been selected to encourage and stimulate customers--for
he dealt in gentlemen's outfitting. His golf cap, which was also from
stock and aslant over his eye, gave his misery a desperate touch. He
wore brown leather boots--because he hated the smell of blacking.
Perhaps after all it was not simply indigestion that troubled him.
Behind the superficialities of Mr. Polly's being, moved a larger and
vaguer distress. The elementary education he had acquired had left him
with the impression that arithmetic was a fluky science and best
avoided in practical affairs, but even the absence of book-keeping and
a total inability to distinguish between capital and interest could
not blind him for ever to the fact that the little shop in the High
Street was not paying. An absence of returns, a constriction of
credit, a depleted till, the most valiant resolves to keep smiling,
could not prevail for ever against these insistent phenomena. One
might bustle about in the morning before dinner, and in the afternoon
after tea and forget that huge dark cloud of insolvency that gathered
and spread in the background, but it was part of the desolation of
these afternoon periods, these grey spaces of time after meals, when
all one's courage had descended to the unseen battles of the pit, that
life seemed stripped to the bone and one saw with a hopeless
Let me tell the history of Mr. Polly from the cradle to these present
"First the infant, mewling and puking in its nurse's arms."
There had been a time when two people had thought Mr. Polly the most
wonderful and adorable thing in the world, had kissed his toe-nails,
saying "myum, myum," and marvelled at the exquisite softness and
delicacy of his hair, had called to one another to remark the peculiar
distinction with which he bubbled, had disputed whether the sound he
had made was _just da da_, or truly and intentionally dadda, had
washed him in the utmost detail, and wrapped him up in soft, warm
blankets, and smothered him with kisses. A regal time that was, and
four and thirty years ago; and a merciful forgetfulness barred Mr.
Polly from ever bringing its careless luxury, its autocratic demands
and instant obedience, into contrast with his present condition of
life. These two people had worshipped him from the crown of his head
to the soles of his exquisite feet. And also they had fed him rather
unwisely, for no one had ever troubled to teach his mother anything
about the mysteries of a child's upbringing--though of course the
monthly nurse and her charwoman gave some valuable hints--and by his
fifth birthday the perfect rhythms of his nice new interior were
already darkened with perplexity ....
His mother died when he was seven.
He began only to have distinctive memories of himself in the time when
his education had already begun.
I remember seeing a picture of Education--in some place. I think it
was Education, but quite conceivably it represented the Empire
teaching her Sons, and I have a strong impression that it was a wall
painting upon some public building in Manchester or Birmingham or
Glasgow, but very possibly I am mistaken about that. It represented a
glorious woman with a wise and fearless face stooping over her
children and pointing them to far horizons. The sky displayed the
pearly warmth of a summer dawn, and all the painting was marvellously
bright as if with the youth and hope of the delicately beautiful
children in the foreground. She was telling them, one felt, of the
great prospect of life that opened before them, of the spectacle of
the world, the splendours of sea and mountain they might travel and
see, the joys of skill they might acquire, of effort and the pride of
effort and the devotions and nobilities it was theirs to achieve.
Perhaps even she whispered of the warm triumphant mystery of love that
comes at last to those who have patience and unblemished hearts....
She was reminding them of their great heritage as English children,
rulers of more than one-fifth of mankind, of the obligation to do and
be the best that such a pride of empire entails, of their essential
nobility and knighthood and the restraints and the charities and the
disciplined strength that is becoming in knights and rulers....
The education of Mr. Polly did not follow this picture very closely.
He went for some time to a National School, which was run on severely
economical lines to keep down the rates by a largely untrained staff,
he was set sums to do that he did not understand, and that no one made
him understand, he was made to read the catechism and Bible with the
utmost industry and an entire disregard of punctuation or
significance, and caused to imitate writing copies and drawing copies,
and given object lessons upon sealing wax and silk-worms and potato
bugs and ginger and iron and such like things, and taught various
other subjects his mind refused to entertain, and afterwards, when he
was about twelve, he was jerked by his parent to "finish off" in a
private school of dingy aspect and still dingier pretensions, where
there were no object lessons, and the studies of book-keeping and
French were pursued (but never effectually overtaken) under the
guidance of an elderly gentleman who wore a nondescript gown and took
snuff, wrote copperplate, explained nothing, and used a cane with
remarkable dexterity and gusto.
Mr. Polly went into the National School at six and he left the private
school at fourteen, and by that time his mind was in much the same
state that you would be in, dear reader, if you were operated upon for
appendicitis by a well-meaning, boldly enterprising, but rather
over-worked and under-paid butcher boy, who was superseded towards the
climax of the operation by a left-handed clerk of high principles but
intemperate habits,--that is to say, it was in a thorough mess. The
nice little curiosities and willingnesses of a child were in a jumbled
and thwarted condition, hacked and cut about--the operators had left,
so to speak, all their sponges and ligatures in the mangled
confusion--and Mr. Polly had lost much of his natural confidence, so
far as figures and sciences and languages and the possibilities of
learning things were concerned. He thought of the present world no
longer as a wonderland of experiences, but as geography and history,
as the repeating of names that were hard to pronounce, and lists of
products and populations and heights and lengths, and as lists and
dates--oh! and boredom indescribable. He thought of religion as the
recital of more or less incomprehensible words that were hard to
remember, and of the Divinity as of a limitless Being having the
nature of a schoolmaster and making infinite rules, known and unknown
rules, that were always ruthlessly enforced, and with an infinite
capacity for punishment and, most horrible of all to think of!
limitless powers of espial. (So to the best of his ability he did not
think of that unrelenting eye.) He was uncertain about the spelling
and pronunciation of most of the words in our beautiful but abundant
and perplexing tongue,--that especially was a pity because words
attracted him, and under happier conditions he might have used them
well--he was always doubtful whether it was eight sevens or nine
eights that was sixty-three--(he knew no method for settling the
difficulty) and he thought the merit of a drawing consisted in the
care with which it was "lined in." "Lining in" bored him beyond
But the _indigestions_ of mind and body that were to play so large a
part in his subsequent career were still only beginning. His liver and
his gastric juice, his wonder and imagination kept up a fight against
the things that threatened to overwhelm soul and body together.
Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still
intensely curious. He had cheerful phases of enterprise, and about
thirteen he suddenly discovered reading and its joys. He began to read
stories voraciously, and books of travel, provided they were also
adventurous. He got these chiefly from the local institute, and he
also "took in," irregularly but thoroughly, one of those inspiring
weeklies that dull people used to call "penny dreadfuls," admirable
weeklies crammed with imagination that the cheap boys' "comics" of
to-day have replaced. At fourteen, when he emerged from the valley of
the shadow of education, there survived something, indeed it survived
still, obscured and thwarted, at five and thirty, that pointed--not
with a visible and prevailing finger like the finger of that beautiful
woman in the picture, but pointed nevertheless--to the idea that there
was interest and happiness in the world. Deep in the being of Mr.
Polly, deep in that darkness, like a creature which has been beaten
about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion
that over and above the things that are jolly and "bits of all right,"
there was beauty, there was delight, that somewhere--magically
inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere, were pure and easy and
joyous states of body and mind.
He would sneak out on moonless winter nights and stare up at the
stars, and afterwards find it difficult to tell his father where he
He would read tales about hunters and explorers, and imagine himself
riding mustangs as fleet as the wind across the prairies of Western
America, or coming as a conquering and adored white man into the
swarming villages of Central Africa. He shot bears with a revolver--a
cigarette in the other hand--and made a necklace of their teeth and
claws for the chief's beautiful young daughter. Also he killed a lion
with a pointed stake, stabbing through the beast's heart as it stood
He thought it would be splendid to be a diver and go down into the
dark green mysteries of the sea.
He led stormers against well-nigh impregnable forts, and died on the
ramparts at the moment of victory. (His grave was watered by a
He rammed and torpedoed ships, one against ten.
He was beloved by queens in barbaric lands, and reconciled whole
nations to the Christian faith.
He was martyred, and took it very calmly and beautifully--but only
once or twice after the Revivalist week. It did not become a habit
He explored the Amazon, and found, newly exposed by the fall of a
great tree, a rock of gold.
Engaged in these pursuits he would neglect the work immediately in
hand, sitting somewhat slackly on the form and projecting himself in a
manner tempting to a schoolmaster with a cane.... And twice he had
Recalled to the realities of life, he would rub himself or sigh deeply
as the occasion required, and resume his attempts to write as good as
copperplate. He hated writing; the ink always crept up his fingers and
the smell of ink offended him. And he was filled with unexpressed
doubts. _Why_ should writing slope down from right to left? _Why_
should downstrokes be thick and upstrokes thin? _Why_ should the
handle of one's pen point over one's right shoulder?
His copy books towards the end foreshadowed his destiny and took the
form of commercial documents. "_Dear Sir_," they ran, "_Referring to
your esteemed order of the 26th ult., we beg to inform you_," and so
The compression of Mr. Polly's mind and soul in the educational
institutions of his time, was terminated abruptly by his father
between his fourteenth and fifteenth birthday. His father--who had
long since forgotten the time when his son's little limbs seemed to
have come straight from God's hand, and when he had kissed five minute
toe-nails in a rapture of loving tenderness--remarked:
"It's time that dratted boy did something for a living."
And a month or so later Mr. Polly began that career in business that
led him at last to the sole proprietorship of a bankrupt outfitter's
shop--and to the stile on which he was sitting.
Mr. Polly was not naturally interested in hosiery and gentlemen's
outfitting. At times, indeed, he urged himself to a spurious curiosity
about that trade, but presently something more congenial came along
and checked the effort. He was apprenticed in one of those large,
rather low-class establishments which sell everything, from pianos and
furniture to books and millinery, a department store in fact, The Port
Burdock Drapery Bazaar at Port Burdock, one of the three townships
that are grouped around the Port Burdock naval dockyards. There he
remained six years. He spent most of the time inattentive to business,
in a sort of uncomfortable happiness, increasing his indigestion.
On the whole he preferred business to school; the hours were longer
but the tension was not nearly so great. The place was better aired,
you were not kept in for no reason at all, and the cane was not
employed. You watched the growth of your moustache with interest and
impatience, and mastered the beginnings of social intercourse. You
talked, and found there were things amusing to say. Also you had
regular pocket money, and a voice in the purchase of your clothes, and
presently a small salary. And there were girls. And friendship! In the
retrospect Port Burdock sparkled with the facets of quite a cluster of
remembered jolly times.
("Didn't save much money though," said Mr. Polly.)
The first apprentices' dormitory was a long bleak room with six beds,
six chests of drawers and looking glasses and a number of boxes of
wood or tin; it opened into a still longer and bleaker room of eight
beds, and this into a third apartment with yellow grained paper and
American cloth tables, which was the dining-room by day and the men's
sitting-and smoking-room after nine. Here Mr. Polly, who had been an
only child, first tasted the joys of social intercourse. At first
there were attempts to bully him on account of his refusal to consider
face washing a diurnal duty, but two fights with the apprentices next
above him, established a useful reputation for choler, and the
presence of girl apprentices in the shop somehow raised his standard
of cleanliness to a more acceptable level. He didn't of course have
very much to do with the feminine staff in his department, but he
spoke to them casually as he traversed foreign parts of the Bazaar, or
got out of their way politely, or helped them to lift down heavy
boxes, and on such occasions he felt their scrutiny. Except in the
course of business or at meal times the men and women of the
establishment had very little opportunity of meeting; the men were in
their rooms and the girls in theirs. Yet these feminine creatures, at
once so near and so remote, affected him profoundly. He would watch
them going to and fro, and marvel secretly at the beauty of their hair
or the roundness of their necks or the warm softness of their cheeks
or the delicacy of their hands. He would fall into passions for them
at dinner time, and try and show devotions by his manner of passing
the bread and margarine at tea. There was a very fair-haired,
fair-skinned apprentice in the adjacent haberdashery to whom he said
"good-morning" every morning, and for a period it seemed to him the
most significant event in his day. When she said, "I _do_ hope it will
be fine to-morrow," he felt it marked an epoch. He had had no sisters,
and was innately disposed to worship womankind. But he did not betray
as much to Platt and Parsons.
To Platt and Parsons he affected an attitude of seasoned depravity
towards womankind. Platt and Parsons were his contemporary apprentices
in departments of the drapery shop, and the three were drawn together
into a close friendship by the fact that all their names began with P.
They decided they were the Three Ps, and went about together of an
evening with the bearing of desperate dogs. Sometimes, when they had
money, they went into public houses and had drinks. Then they would
become more desperate than ever, and walk along the pavement under the
gas lamps arm in arm singing. Platt had a good tenor voice, and had
been in a church choir, and so he led the singing; Parsons had a
serviceable bellow, which roared and faded and roared again very
wonderfully; Mr. Polly's share was an extraordinary lowing noise, a
sort of flat recitative which he called "singing seconds." They would
have sung catches if they had known how to do it, but as it was they
sang melancholy music hall songs about dying soldiers and the old
folks far away.
They would sometimes go into the quieter residential quarters of Port
Burdock, where policemen and other obstacles were infrequent, and
really let their voices soar like hawks and feel very happy. The dogs
of the district would be stirred to hopeless emulation, and would keep
it up for long after the Three Ps had been swallowed up by the night.
One jealous brute of an Irish terrier made a gallant attempt to bite
Parsons, but was beaten by numbers and solidarity.
The Three Ps took the utmost interest in each other and found no other
company so good. They talked about everything in the world, and would
go on talking in their dormitory after the gas was out until the other
men were reduced to throwing boots; they skulked from their
departments in the slack hours of the afternoon to gossip in the
packing-room of the warehouse; on Sundays and Bank holidays they went
for long walks together, talking.
Platt was white-faced and dark, and disposed to undertones and mystery
and a curiosity about society and the _demi-monde_. He kept himself
_au courant_ by reading a penny paper of infinite suggestion called
_Modern Society_. Parsons was of an ampler build, already promising
fatness, with curly hair and a lot of rolling, rollicking, curly
features, and a large blob-shaped nose. He had a great memory and a
real interest in literature. He knew great portions of Shakespeare and
Milton by heart, and would recite them at the slightest provocation.
He read everything he could get hold of, and if he liked it he read it
aloud. It did not matter who else liked it. At first Mr. Polly was
disposed to be suspicious of this literature, but was carried away by
Parsons' enthusiasm. The Three Ps went to a performance of "Romeo and
Juliet" at the Port Burdock Theatre Royal, and hung over the gallery
fascinated. After that they made a sort of password of: "Do you bite
your thumbs at Us, Sir?"
To which the countersign was: "We bite our thumbs."
For weeks the glory of Shakespeare's Verona lit Mr. Polly's life. He
walked as though he carried a sword at his side, and swung a mantle
from his shoulders. He went through the grimy streets of Port Burdock
with his eye on the first floor windows--looking for balconies. A
ladder in the yard flooded his mind with romantic ideas. Then Parsons
discovered an Italian writer, whose name Mr. Polly rendered as
"Bocashieu," and after some excursions into that author's remains the
talk of Parsons became infested with the word "_amours_," and Mr.
Polly would stand in front of his hosiery fixtures trifling with paper
and string and thinking of perennial picnics under dark olive trees in
the everlasting sunshine of Italy.
And about that time it was that all Three Ps adopted turn-down collars
and large, loose, artistic silk ties, which they tied very much on one
side and wore with an air of defiance. And a certain swashbuckling
And then came the glorious revelation of that great Frenchman whom Mr.
Polly called "Rabooloose." The Three Ps thought the birth feast of
Gargantua the most glorious piece of writing in the world, and I am
not certain they were wrong, and on wet Sunday evenings where there
was danger of hymn singing they would get Parsons to read it aloud.
Towards the several members of the Y. M. C. A. who shared the
dormitory, the Three Ps always maintained a sarcastic and defiant
"We got a perfect right to do what we like in our corner," Platt
maintained. "You do what you like in yours."
"But the language!" objected Morrison, the white-faced, earnest-eyed
improver, who was leading a profoundly religious life under great
"_Language_, man!" roared Parsons, "why, it's _Literature_!"
"Sunday isn't the time for Literature."
"It's the only time we've got. And besides--"
The horrors of religious controversy would begin....
Mr. Polly stuck loyally to the Three Ps, but in the secret places of
his heart he was torn. A fire of conviction burnt in Morrison's eyes
and spoke in his urgent persuasive voice; he lived the better life
manifestly, chaste in word and deed, industrious, studiously kindly.
When the junior apprentice had sore feet and homesickness Morrison
washed the feet and comforted the heart, and he helped other men to
get through with their work when he might have gone early, a
superhuman thing to do. Polly was secretly a little afraid to be left
alone with this man and the power of the spirit that was in him. He
Platt, also struggling with things his mind could not contrive to
reconcile, said "that confounded hypocrite."
"He's no hypocrite," said Parsons, "he's no hypocrite, O' Man. But
he's got no blessed Joy de Vive; that's what's wrong with him. Let's
go down to the Harbour Arms and see some of those blessed old captains
"Short of sugar, O' Man," said Mr. Polly, slapping his trouser pocket.
"Oh, _carm_ on," said Parsons. "Always do it on tuppence for a
"Lemme get my pipe on," said Platt, who had recently taken to smoking
with great ferocity. "Then I'm with you."
Pause and struggle.
"Don't ram it down, O' Man," said Parsons, watching with knitted
brows. "Don't ram it down. Give it Air. Seen my stick, O' Man? Right
And leaning on his cane he composed himself in an attitude of
sympathetic patience towards Platt's incendiary efforts.
Jolly days of companionship they were for the incipient bankrupt on
the stile to look back upon.
The interminable working hours of the Bazaar had long since faded from
his memory--except for one or two conspicuous rows and one or two
larks--but the rare Sundays and holidays shone out like diamonds among
pebbles. They shone with the mellow splendour of evening skies
reflected in calm water, and athwart them all went old Parsons
bellowing an interpretation of life, gesticulating, appreciating and
making appreciate, expounding books, talking of that mystery of his,
the "Joy de Vive."
There were some particularly splendid walks on Bank holidays. The
Three Ps would start on Sunday morning early and find a room in some
modest inn and talk themselves asleep, and return singing through the
night, or having an "argy bargy" about the stars, on Monday evening.
They would come over the hills out of the pleasant English
country-side in which they had wandered, and see Port Burdock spread
out below, a network of interlacing street lamps and shifting tram
lights against the black, beacon-gemmed immensity of the harbour
"Back to the collar, O' Man," Parsons would say. There is no
satisfactory plural to O' Man, so he always used it in the singular.
"Don't mention it," said Platt.
And once they got a boat for the whole summer day, and rowed up past
the moored ironclads and the black old hulks and the various shipping
of the harbour, past a white troopship and past the trim front and the
ships and interesting vistas of the dockyard to the shallow channels
and rocky weedy wildernesses of the upper harbour. And Parsons and Mr.
Polly had a great dispute and quarrel that day as to how far a big gun
The country over the hills behind Port Burdock is all that an
old-fashioned, scarcely disturbed English country-side should be. In
those days the bicycle was still rare and costly and the motor car had
yet to come and stir up rural serenities. The Three Ps would take
footpaths haphazard across fields, and plunge into unknown winding
lanes between high hedges of honeysuckle and dogrose. Greatly daring,
they would follow green bridle paths through primrose studded
undergrowths, or wander waist deep in the bracken of beech woods.
About twenty miles from Port Burdock there came a region of hop
gardens and hoast crowned farms, and further on, to be reached only by
cheap tickets at Bank Holiday times, was a sterile ridge of very clean
roads and red sand pits and pines and gorse and heather. The Three Ps
could not afford to buy bicycles and they found boots the greatest
item of their skimpy expenditure. They threw appearances to the winds
at last and got ready-made workingmen's hob-nails. There was much
discussion and strong feeling over this step in the dormitory.
There is no country-side like the English country-side for those who
have learnt to love it; its firm yet gentle lines of hill and dale,
its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its
castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms
and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and
shining threads of rivers; its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards
and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other
country-sides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none
that shine so steadfastly throughout the year. Picardy is pink and
white and pleasant in the blossom time, Burgundy goes on with its
sunshine and wide hillsides and cramped vineyards, a beautiful tune
repeated and repeated, Italy gives salitas and wayside chapels and
chestnuts and olive orchards, the Ardennes has its woods and
gorges--Touraine and the Rhineland, the wide Campagna with its distant
Apennines, and the neat prosperities and mountain backgrounds of South
Germany, all clamour their especial merits at one's memory. And there
are the hills and fields of Virginia, like an England grown very big
and slovenly, the woods and big river sweeps of Pennsylvania, the trim
New England landscape, a little bleak and rather fine like the New
England mind, and the wide rough country roads and hills and woodland
of New York State. But none of these change scene and character in
three miles of walking, nor have so mellow a sunlight nor so
diversified a cloudland, nor confess the perpetual refreshment of the
strong soft winds that blow from off the sea as our Mother England
It was good for the Three Ps to walk through such a land and forget
for a time that indeed they had no footing in it all, that they were
doomed to toil behind counters in such places as Port Burdock for the
better part of their lives. They would forget the customers and
shopwalkers and department buyers and everything, and become just
happy wanderers in a world of pleasant breezes and song birds and
The arrival at the inn was a great affair. No one, they were
convinced, would take them for drapers, and there might be a pretty
serving girl or a jolly old lady, or what Parsons called a "bit of
character" drinking in the bar.
There would always be weighty enquiries as to what they could have,
and it would work out always at cold beef and pickles, or fried ham
and eggs and shandygaff, two pints of beer and two bottles of ginger
beer foaming in a huge round-bellied jug.
The glorious moment of standing lordly in the inn doorway, and staring
out at the world, the swinging sign, the geese upon the green, the
duck-pond, a waiting waggon, the church tower, a sleepy cat, the blue
heavens, with the sizzle of the frying audible behind one! The keen
smell of the bacon! The trotting of feet bearing the repast; the click
and clatter as the tableware is finally arranged! A clean white cloth!
"Ready, Sir!" or "Ready, Gentlemen." Better hearing that than "Forward
Polly! look sharp!"
The going in! The sitting down! The falling to!
"Bread, O' Man?"
"Right O! Don't bag all the crust, O' Man."
Once a simple mannered girl in a pink print dress stayed and talked
with them as they ate; led by the gallant Parsons they professed to be
all desperately in love with her, and courted her to say which she
preferred of them, it was so manifest she did prefer one and so
impossible to say which it was held her there, until a distant
maternal voice called her away. Afterwards as they left the inn she
waylaid them at the orchard corner and gave them, a little shyly,
three keen yellow-green apples--and wished them to come again some
day, and vanished, and reappeared looking after them as they turned
the corner--waving a white handkerchief. All the rest of that day they
disputed over the signs of her favour, and the next Sunday they went
But she had vanished, and a mother of forbidding aspect afforded no
If Platt and Parsons and Mr. Polly live to be a hundred, they will
none of them forget that girl as she stood with a pink flush upon her,
faintly smiling and yet earnest, parting the branches of the hedgerows
and reaching down apple in hand. Which of them was it, had caught her
spirit to attend to them?...
And once they went along the coast, following it as closely as
possible, and so came at last to Foxbourne, that easternmost suburb of
Brayling and Hampsted-on-the-Sea.
Foxbourne seemed a very jolly little place to Mr. Polly that
afternoon. It has a clean sandy beach instead of the mud and pebbles
and coaly _defilements_ of Port Burdock, a row of six bathing
machines, and a shelter on the parade in which the Three Ps sat after
a satisfying but rather expensive lunch that had included celery. Rows
of verandahed villas proffered apartments, they had feasted in an
hotel with a porch painted white and gay with geraniums above, and the
High Street with the old church at the head had been full of an
agreeable afternoon stillness.
"Nice little place for business," said Platt sagely from behind his
It stuck in Mr. Polly's memory.
Mr. Polly was not so picturesque a youth as Parsons. He lacked
richness in his voice, and went about in those days with his hands in
his pockets looking quietly speculative.
He specialised in slang and the disuse of English, and he played the
role of an appreciative stimulant to Parsons. Words attracted him
curiously, words rich in suggestion, and he loved a novel and striking
phrase. His school training had given him little or no mastery of the
mysterious pronunciation of English and no confidence in himself. His
schoolmaster indeed had been both unsound and variable. New words had
terror and fascination for him; he did not acquire them, he could not
avoid them, and so he plunged into them. His only rule was not to be
misled by the spelling. That was no guide anyhow. He avoided every
recognised phrase in the language and mispronounced everything in
order that he shouldn't be suspected of ignorance, but whim.
"Sesquippledan," he would say. "Sesquippledan verboojuice."
"Eh?" said Platt.
"Where?" asked Platt.
"In the warehouse, O' Man. All among the table-cloths and blankets.
Carlyle. He's reading aloud. Doing the High Froth. Spuming!
Windmilling! Waw, waw! It's a sight worth seeing. He'll bark his
blessed knuckles one of these days on the fixtures, O' Man."
He held an imaginary book in one hand and waved an eloquent gesture.
"So too shall every Hero inasmuch as notwithstanding for evermore come
back to Reality," he parodied the enthusiastic Parsons, "so that in
fashion and thereby, upon things and not _under_ things
articulariously He stands."
"I should laugh if the Governor dropped on him," said Platt. "He'd
never hear him coming."
"The O' Man's drunk with it--fair drunk," said Polly. "I never did.
It's worse than when he got on to Raboloose."
Chapter the Second
The Dismissal of Parsons
Suddenly Parsons got himself dismissed.
He got himself dismissed under circumstances of peculiar violence,
that left a deep impression on Mr. Polly's mind. He wondered about it
for years afterwards, trying to get the rights of the case.
Parsons' apprenticeship was over; he had reached the status of an
Improver, and he dressed the window of the Manchester department. By
all the standards available he dressed it very well. By his own
standards he dressed it wonderfully. "Well, O' Man," he used to say,
"there's one thing about my position here,--I _can_ dress a window."
And when trouble was under discussion he would hold that "little
Fluffums"--which was the apprentices' name for Mr. Garvace, the senior
partner and managing director of the Bazaar--would think twice before
he got rid of the only man in the place who could make a windowful of
Manchester goods _tell_.
Then like many a fellow artist he fell a prey to theories.
"The art of window dressing is in its infancy, O' Man--in its blooming
Infancy. All balance and stiffness like a blessed Egyptian picture. No
Joy in it, no blooming Joy! Conventional. A shop window ought to get
hold of people, 'grip 'em as they go along. It stands to reason.
His voice would sink to a kind of quiet bellow. "_Do_ they grip?"
Then after a pause, a savage roar; "_Naw_!"
"He's got a Heavy on," said Mr. Polly. "Go it, O' Man; let's have some
more of it."
"Look at old Morrison's dress-stuff windows! Tidy, tasteful, correct,
I grant you, but Bleak!" He let out the word reinforced to a shout;
"Bleak!" echoed Mr. Polly.
"Just pieces of stuff in rows, rows of tidy little puffs, perhaps one
bit just unrolled, quiet tickets."
"Might as well be in church, O' Man," said Mr. Polly.
"A window ought to be exciting," said Parsons; "it ought to make you
say: El-_lo_! when you see it."
He paused, and Platt watched him over a snorting pipe.
"Rockcockyo," said Mr. Polly.
"We want a new school of window dressing," said Parsons, regardless of
the comment. "A New School! The Port Burdock school. Day after
tomorrow I change the Fitzallan Street stuff. This time, it's going to
be a change. I mean to have a crowd or bust!"
And as a matter of fact he did both.
His voice dropped to a note of self-reproach. "I've been timid, O'
Man. I've been holding myself in. I haven't done myself Justice. I've
kept down the simmering, seething, teeming ideas.... All that's over
"Over," gulped Polly.
"Over for good and all, O' Man."
Platt came to Polly, who was sorting up collar boxes. "O' Man's doing
his Blooming Window."
"What he said."
He went on with his collar boxes with his eye on his senior,
Mansfield. Mansfield was presently called away to the counting house,
and instantly Polly shot out by the street door, and made a rapid
transit along the street front past the Manchester window, and so into
the silkroom door. He could not linger long, but he gathered joy, a
swift and fearful joy, from his brief inspection of Parsons'
unconscious back. Parsons had his tail coat off and was working with
vigour; his habit of pulling his waistcoat straps to the utmost
brought out all the agreeable promise of corpulence in his youthful
frame. He was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his
hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired.
All about his feet and knees were scarlet blankets, not folded, not
formally unfolded, but--the only phrase is--shied about. And a great
bar sinister of roller towelling stretched across the front of the
window on which was a ticket, and the ticket said in bold black
So soon as Mr. Polly got into the silk department and met Platt he
knew he had not lingered nearly long enough outside. "Did you see the
boards at the back?" said Platt.
He hadn't. "The High Egrugious is fairly On," he said, and dived down
to return by devious subterranean routes to the outfitting department.
Presently the street door opened and Platt, with an air of intense
devotion to business assumed to cover his adoption of that unusual
route, came in and made for the staircase down to the warehouse. He
rolled up his eyes at Polly. "Oh _Lor_!" he said and vanished.
Irresistible curiosity seized Polly. Should he go through the shop to
the Manchester department, or risk a second transit outside?
He was impelled to make a dive at the street door.
"Where are you going?" asked Mansfield.
"Lill Dog," said Polly with an air of lucid explanation, and left him
to get any meaning he could from it.
Parsons was worth the subsequent trouble. Parsons really was extremely
rich. This time Polly stopped to take it in.
Parsons had made a huge symmetrical pile of thick white and red
blankets twisted and rolled to accentuate their woolly richness,
heaped up in a warm disorder, with large window tickets inscribed in
blazing red letters: "Cosy Comfort at Cut Prices," and "Curl up and
Cuddle below Cost." Regardless of the daylight he had turned up the
electric light on that side of the window to reflect a warm glow upon
the heap, and behind, in pursuit of contrasted bleakness, he was now
hanging long strips of grey silesia and chilly coloured linen
It was wonderful, but--
Mr. Polly decided that it was time he went in. He found Platt in the
silk department, apparently on the verge of another plunge into the
exterior world. "Cosy Comfort at Cut Prices," said Polly.
"Allittritions Artful Aid."
He did not dare go into the street for the third time, and he was
hovering feverishly near the window when he saw the governor, Mr.
Garvace, that is to say, the managing director of the Bazaar, walking
along the pavement after his manner to assure himself all was well
with the establishment he guided.
Mr. Garvace was a short stout man, with that air of modest pride that
so often goes with corpulence, choleric and decisive in manner, and
with hands that looked like bunches of fingers. He was red-haired and
ruddy, and after the custom of such _complexions_, hairs sprang from
the tip of his nose. When he wished to bring the power of the human
eye to bear upon an assistant, he projected his chest, knitted one
brow and partially closed the left eyelid.
An expression of speculative wonder overspread the countenance of Mr.
Polly. He felt he must _see_. Yes, whatever happened he must _see_.
"Want to speak to Parsons, Sir," he said to Mr. Mansfield, and
deserted his post hastily, dashed through the intervening departments
and was in position behind a pile of Bolton sheeting as the governor
came in out of the street.
"What on Earth do you think you are doing with that window, Parsons?"
began Mr. Garvace.
Only the legs of Parsons and the lower part of his waistcoat and an
intervening inch of shirt were visible. He was standing inside the
window on the steps, hanging up the last strip of his background from
the brass rail along the ceiling. Within, the Manchester shop window
was cut off by a partition rather like the partition of an
old-fashioned church pew from the general space of the shop. There was
a panelled barrier, that is to say, with a little door like a pew door
in it. Parsons' face appeared, staring with round eyes at his
Mr. Garvace had to repeat his question.
"Dressing it, Sir--on new lines."
"Come out of it," said Mr. Garvace.
Parsons stared, and Mr. Garvace had to repeat his command.
Parsons, with a dazed expression, began to descend the steps slowly.
Mr. Garvace turned about. "Where's Morrison? Morrison!"
"Take this window over," said Mr. Garvace pointing his bunch of
fingers at Parsons. "Take all this muddle out and dress it properly."
Morrison advanced and hesitated.
"I beg your pardon, Sir," said Parsons with an immense politeness,
"but this is _my_ window."
"Take it all out," said Mr. Garvace, turning away.
Morrison advanced. Parsons shut the door with a click that arrested
"Come out of that window," he said. "You can't dress it. If you want
to play the fool with a window----"
"This window's All Right," said the genius in window dressing, and
there was a little pause.
"Open the door and go right in," said Mr. Garvace to Morrison.
"You leave that door alone, Morrison," said Parsons.
Polly was no longer even trying to hide behind the stack of Bolton
sheetings. He realised he was in the presence of forces too stupendous
to heed him.
"Get him out," said Mr. Garvace.
Morrison seemed to be thinking out the ethics of his position. The
idea of loyalty to his employer prevailed with him. He laid his hand
on the door to open it; Parsons tried to disengage his hand. Mr.
Garvace joined his effort to Morrison's. Then the heart of Polly leapt
and the world blazed up to wonder and splendour. Parsons disappeared
behind the partition for a moment and reappeared instantly, gripping a
thin cylinder of rolled huckaback. With this he smote at Morrison's
head. Morrison's head ducked under the resounding impact, but he clung
on and so did Mr. Garvace. The door came open, and then Mr. Garvace
was staggering back, hand to head; his autocratic, his sacred
baldness, smitten. Parsons was beyond all control--a strangeness, a
marvel. Heaven knows how the artistic struggle had strained that
richly endowed temperament. "Say I can't dress a window, you
thundering old Humbug," he said, and hurled the huckaback at his
master. He followed this up by hurling first a blanket, then an armful
of silesia, then a window support out of the window into the shop. It
leapt into Polly's mind that Parsons hated his own effort and was glad
to demolish it. For a crowded second Polly's mind was concentrated
upon Parsons, infuriated, active, like a figure of earthquake with
its coat off, shying things headlong.
Then he perceived the back of Mr. Garvace and heard his gubernatorial
voice crying to no one in particular and everybody in general: "Get
him out of the window. He's mad. He's dangerous. Get him out of the
Then a crimson blanket was for a moment over the head of Mr. Garvace,
and his voice, muffled for an instant, broke out into unwonted
Then people had arrived from all parts of the Bazaar. Luck, the ledger
clerk, blundered against Polly and said, "Help him!" Somerville from
the silks vaulted the counter, and seized a chair by the back. Polly
lost his head. He clawed at the Bolton sheeting before him, and if he
could have detached a piece he would certainly have hit somebody with
it. As it was he simply upset the pile. It fell away from Polly, and
he had an impression of somebody squeaking as it went down. It was the
sort of impression one disregards. The collapse of the pile of goods
just sufficed to end his subconscious efforts to get something to hit
somebody with, and his whole attention focussed itself upon the
struggle in the window. For a splendid instant Parsons towered up over
the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active
whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he
went under. There was an instant's furious struggle, a crash, a second
crash and the crack of broken plate glass. Then a stillness and heavy
Parsons was overpowered....
Polly, stepping over scattered pieces of Bolton sheeting, saw his
transfigured friend with a dark cut, that was not at present bleeding,
on the forehead, one arm held by Somerville and the other by Morrison.
"You--you--you--you annoyed me," said Parsons, sobbing for breath.
There are events that detach themselves from the general stream of
occurrences and seem to partake of the nature of revelations. Such was
this Parsons affair. It began by seeming grotesque; it ended
disconcertingly. The fabric of Mr. Polly's daily life was torn, and
beneath it he discovered depths and terrors.
Life was not altogether a lark.
The calling in of a policeman seemed at the moment a pantomime touch.
But when it became manifest that Mr. Garvace was in a fury of
vindictiveness, the affair took on a different complexion. The way in
which the policeman made a note of everything and aspirated nothing
impressed the sensitive mind of Polly profoundly. Polly presently
found himself straightening up ties to the refrain of "'E then 'It you
on the 'Ed and----"
In the dormitory that night Parsons had become heroic. He sat on the
edge of the bed with his head bandaged, packing very slowly and
insisting over and again: "He ought to have left my window alone, O'
Man. He didn't ought to have touched my window."
Polly was to go to the police court in the morning as a witness. The
terror of that ordeal almost overshadowed the tragic fact that Parsons
was not only summoned for assault, but "swapped," and packing his box.
Polly knew himself well enough to know he would make a bad witness. He
felt sure of one fact only, namely, that "'E then 'It 'Im on the 'Ed
and--" All the rest danced about in his mind now, and how it would
dance about on the morrow Heaven only knew. Would there be a
cross-examination? Is it perjoocery to make a slip? People did
sometimes perjuice themselves. Serious offence.
Platt was doing his best to help Parsons, and inciting public opinion
against Morrison. But Parsons would not hear of anything against
Morrison. "He was all right, O' Man--according to his lights," said
Parsons. "It isn't him I complain of."
He speculated on the morrow. "I shall '_ave_ to pay a fine," he said.
"No good trying to get out of it. It's true I hit him. I hit him"--he
paused and seemed to be seeking an exquisite accuracy. His voice sank
to a confidential note;--"On the head--about here."
He answered the suggestion of a bright junior apprentice in a corner
of the dormitory. "What's the Good of a Cross summons?" he replied;
"with old Corks, the chemist, and Mottishead, the house agent, and all
that lot on the Bench? Humble Pie, that's my meal to-morrow, O' Man.
Packing went on for a time.
"But Lord! what a Life it is!" said Parsons, giving his deep notes
scope. "Ten-thirty-five a man trying to do his Duty, mistaken perhaps,
but trying his best; ten-forty--Ruined! Ruined!" He lifted his voice
to a shout. "Ruined!" and dropped it to "Like an earthquake."
"Heated altaclation," said Polly.
"Like a blooming earthquake!" said Parsons, with the notes of a rising
He meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded
Polly's mind. "Likely to get another crib, ain't I--with assaulted the
guvnor on my reference. I suppose, though, he won't give me refs. Hard
enough to get a crib at the best of times," said Parsons.
"You ought to go round with a show, O' Man," said Mr. Polly.
Things were not so dreadful in the police court as Mr. Polly had
expected. He was given a seat with other witnesses against the wall of
the court, and after an interesting larceny case Parsons appeared and
stood, not in the dock, but at the table. By that time Mr. Polly's
legs, which had been tucked up at first under his chair out of respect
to the court, were extended straight before him and his hands were in
his trouser pockets. He was inventing names for the four magistrates
on the bench, and had got to "the Grave and Reverend Signor with the
palatial Boko," when his thoughts were recalled to gravity by the
sound of his name. He rose with alacrity and was fielded by an expert
policeman from a brisk attempt to get into the vacant dock. The clerk
to the Justices repeated the oath with incredible rapidity.
"Right O," said Mr. Polly, but quite respectfully, and kissed the
His evidence was simple and quite audible after one warning from the
superintendent of police to "speak up." He tried to put in a good word
for Parsons by saying he was "naturally of a choleraic disposition,"
but the start and the slow grin of enjoyment upon the face of the
grave and Reverend Signor with the palatial Boko suggested that the
word was not so good as he had thought it. The rest of the bench was
frankly puzzled and there were hasty consultations.
"You mean 'E 'As a 'Ot temper," said the presiding magistrate.
"I mean 'E 'As a 'Ot temper," replied Polly, magically incapable of
aspirates for the moment.
"You don't mean 'E ketches cholera."
"I mean--he's easily put out."
"Then why can't you say so?" said the presiding magistrate.
Parsons was bound over.
He came for his luggage while every one was in the shop, and Garvace
would not let him invade the business to say good-by. When Mr. Polly
went upstairs for margarine and bread and tea, he slipped on into the
dormitory at once to see what was happening further in the Parsons
case. But Parsons had vanished. There was no Parsons, no trace of
Parsons. His cubicle was swept and garnished. For the first time in
his life Polly had a sense of irreparable loss.
A minute or so after Platt dashed in.
"Ugh!" he said, and then discovered Polly. Polly was leaning out of
the window and did not look around. Platt went up to him.
"He's gone already," said Platt. "Might have stopped to say good-by to
There was a little pause before Polly replied. He thrust his finger
into his mouth and gulped.
"Bit on that beastly tooth of mine," he said, still not looking at
Platt. "It's made my eyes water, something chronic. Any one might
think I'd been doing a blooming Pipe, by the look of me."
Chapter the Third
Port Burdock was never the same place for Mr. Polly after Parsons had
left it. There were no chest notes in his occasional letters, and
little of the "Joy de Vive" got through by them. Parsons had gone, he
said, to London, and found a place as warehouseman in a cheap
outfitting shop near St. Paul's Churchyard, where references were not
required. It became apparent as time passed that new interests were
absorbing him. He wrote of socialism and the rights of man, things
that had no appeal for Mr. Polly. He felt strangers had got hold of
his Parsons, were at work upon him, making him into someone else,
something less picturesque.... Port Burdock became a dreariness full
of faded memories of Parsons and work a bore. Platt revealed himself
alone as a tiresome companion, obsessed by romantic ideas about
intrigues and vices and "society women."
Mr. Polly's depression manifested itself in a general slackness. A
certain impatience in the manner of Mr. Garvace presently got upon his
nerves. Relations were becoming strained. He asked for a rise of
salary to test his position, and gave notice to leave when it was
It took him two months to place himself in another situation, and
during that time he had quite a disagreeable amount of loneliness,
disappointment, anxiety and humiliation.
He went at first to stay with a married cousin who had a house at
Easewood. His widowed father had recently given up the music and
bicycle shop (with the post of organist at the parish church) that had
sustained his home, and was living upon a small annuity as a guest
with this cousin, and growing a little tiresome on account of some
mysterious internal discomfort that the local practitioner diagnosed
as imagination. He had aged with mysterious rapidity and become
excessively irritable, but the cousin's wife was a born manager, and
contrived to get along with him. Our Mr. Polly's status was that of a
guest pure and simple, but after a fortnight of congested hospitality
in which he wrote nearly a hundred letters beginning:
_Referring to your advt. in the "Christian World" for an improver in
Gents' outfitting I beg to submit myself for the situation. Have had
six years' experience...._
and upset a bottle of ink over a toilet cover and the bedroom carpet,
his cousin took him for a walk and pointed out the superior advantages
of apartments in London from which to swoop upon the briefly yawning
"Helpful," said Mr. Polly; "very helpful, O' Man indeed. I might have
gone on there for weeks," and packed.
He got a room in an institution that was partly a benevolent hostel
for men in his circumstances and partly a high minded but forbidding
coffee house and a centre for pleasant Sunday afternoons. Mr. Polly
spent a critical but pleasant Sunday afternoon in a back seat,
inventing such phrases as:
"Soulful Owner of the Exorbiant Largenial Development."--An Adam's
Apple being in question.
"Exultant, Urgent Loogoobuosity."
A manly young curate, marking and misunderstanding his preoccupied
face and moving lips, came and sat by him and entered into
conversation with the idea of making him feel more at home. The
conversation was awkward and disconnected for a minute or so, and then
suddenly a memory of the Port Burdock Bazaar occurred to Mr. Polly,
and with a baffling whisper of "Lill' dog," and a reassuring nod, he
rose up and escaped, to wander out relieved and observant into the
varied London streets.
He found the collection of men he found waiting about in wholesale
establishments in Wood Street and St. Paul's Churchyard (where they
interview the buyers who have come up from the country) interesting
and stimulating, but far too strongly charged with the suggestion of
his own fate to be really joyful. There were men in all degrees
between confidence and distress, and in every stage between
extravagant smartness and the last stages of decay. There were sunny
young men full of an abounding and elbowing energy, before whom the
soul of Polly sank in hate and dismay. "Smart Juniors," said Polly to
himself, "full of Smart Juniosity. The Shoveacious Cult." There were
hungry looking individuals of thirty-five or so that he decided must
be "Proletelerians"--he had often wanted to find someone who fitted
that attractive word. Middle-aged men, "too Old at Forty," discoursed
in the waiting-rooms on the outlook in the trade; it had never been so
bad, they said, while Mr. Polly wondered if "De-juiced" was a
permissible epithet. There were men with an overweening sense of their
importance, manifestly annoyed and angry to find themselves still
disengaged, and inclined to suspect a plot, and men so faint-hearted
one was terrified to imagine their behaviour when it came to an
interview. There was a fresh-faced young man with an unintelligent
face who seemed to think himself equipped against the world beyond all
misadventure by a collar of exceptional height, and another who
introduced a note of gaiety by wearing a flannel shirt and a check
suit of remarkable virulence. Every day Mr. Polly looked round to mark
how many of the familiar faces had gone, and the deepening anxiety
(reflecting his own) on the faces that remained, and every day some
new type joined the drifting shoal. He realised how small a chance his
poor letter from Easewood ran against this hungry cluster of
competitors at the fountain head.
At the back of Mr. Polly's mind while he made his observations was a
disagreeable flavour of dentist's parlour. At any moment his name
might be shouted, and he might have to haul himself into the presence
of some fresh specimen of employer, and to repeat once more his
passionate protestation of interest in the business, his possession of
a capacity for zeal--zeal on behalf of anyone who would pay him a
yearly salary of twenty-six pounds a year.
The prospective employer would unfold his ideals of the employee. "I
want a smart, willing young man, thoroughly willing--who won't object
to take trouble. I don't want a slacker, the sort of fellow who has to
be pushed up to his work and held there. I've got no use for him."
At the back of Mr. Polly's mind, and quite beyond his control, the
insubordinate phrasemaker would be proffering such combinations as
"Chubby Chops," or "Chubby Charmer," as suitable for the gentleman,
very much as a hat salesman proffers hats.
"I don't think you'd find much slackness about _me_, sir," said Mr.
Polly brightly, trying to disregard his deeper self.
"I want a young man who means getting on."
"Exactly, sir. Excelsior."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said excelsior, sir. It's a sort of motto of mine. From Longfellow.
Would you want me to serve through?"
The chubby gentleman explained and reverted to his ideals, with a
faint air of suspicion. "Do _you_ mean getting on?" he asked.
"I hope so, sir," said Mr. Polly.
"Get on or get out, eh?"
Mr. Polly made a rapturous noise, nodded appreciation, and said
indistinctly--"_Quite_ my style."
"Some of my people have been with me twenty years," said the employer.
"My Manchester buyer came to me as a boy of twelve. You're a
"Church of England," said Mr. Polly.
"H'm," said the employer a little checked. "For good all round
business work I should have preferred a Baptist. Still--"
He studied Mr. Polly's tie, which was severely neat and businesslike,
as became an aspiring outfitter. Mr. Polly's conception of his own
pose and expression was rendered by that uncontrollable phrasemonger
at the back as "Obsequies Deference."
"I am inclined," said the prospective employer in a conclusive manner,
"to look up your reference."
Mr. Polly stood up abruptly.
"Thank you," said the employer and dismissed him.
"Chump chops! How about chump chops?" said the phrasemonger with an
air of inspiration.
"I hope then to hear from you, sir," said Mr. Polly in his best
"If everything is satisfactory," said the prospective employer.
A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and
nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a
lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins
of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and
Shakespeare with gusto, and uses "Stertoraneous Shover" and "Smart
Junior" as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a
great success under modern business conditions. Mr. Polly dreamt
always of picturesque and mellow things, and had an instinctive hatred
of the strenuous life. He would have resisted the spell of
ex-President Roosevelt, or General Baden Powell, or Mr. Peter Keary,
or the late Dr. Samuel Smiles, quite easily; and he loved Falstaff and
Hudibras and coarse laughter, and the old England of Washington Irving
and the memory of Charles the Second's courtly days. His progress was
necessarily slow. He did not get rises; he lost situations; there was
something in his eye employers did not like; he would have lost his
places oftener if he had not been at times an exceptionally brilliant
salesman, rather carefully neat, and a slow but very fair
He went from situation to situation, he invented a great wealth of
nicknames, he conceived enmities and made friends--but none so richly
satisfying as Parsons. He was frequently but mildly and discursively
in love, and sometimes he thought of that girl who had given him a
yellow-green apple. He had an idea, amounting to a flattering
certainty, whose youthful freshness it was had stirred her to
self-forgetfulness. And sometimes he thought of Foxbourne sleeping
prosperously in the sun. And he began to have moods of discomfort and
lassitude and ill-temper due to the beginnings of indigestion.
Various forces and suggestions came into his life and swayed him for
longer and shorter periods.
He went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic
architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the
Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a
scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering
portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he
strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind
the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had
the strangest sense of being at home--far more than he had ever been
at home before. "Portly _capons_," he used to murmur to himself, under
the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval
He liked to sit in the nave during the service, and look through the
great gates at the candles and choristers, and listen to the
organ-sustained voices, but the transepts he never penetrated because
of the charge for admission. The music and the long vista of the
fretted roof filled him with a vague and mystical happiness that he
had no words, even mispronounceable words, to express. But some of the
smug monuments in the aisles got a wreath of epithets: "Metrorious
urnfuls," "funererial claims," "dejected angelosity," for example. He
wandered about the precincts and speculated about the people who lived
in the ripe and cosy houses of grey stone that cluster there so
comfortably. Through green doors in high stone walls he caught
glimpses of level lawns and blazing flower beds; mullioned windows
revealed shaded reading lamps and disciplined shelves of brown bound
books. Now and then a dignitary in gaiters would pass him, "Portly
capon," or a drift of white-robed choir boys cross a distant arcade
and vanish in a doorway, or the pink and cream of some girlish dress
flit like a butterfly across the cool still spaces of the place.
Particularly he responded to the ruined arches of the Benedictine's
Infirmary and the view of Bell Harry tower from the school buildings.
He was stirred to read the Canterbury Tales, but he could not get on
with Chaucer's old-fashioned English; it fatigued his attention, and
he would have given all the story telling very readily for a few
adventures on the road. He wanted these nice people to live more and
yarn less. He liked the Wife of Bath very much. He would have liked to
have known that woman.
At Canterbury, too, he first to his knowledge saw Americans.
His shop did a good class trade in Westgate Street, and he would see
them go by on the way to stare at Chaucer's "Chequers," and then turn
down Mercery Lane to Prior Goldstone's gate. It impressed him that
they were always in a kind of quiet hurry, and very determined and
methodical people,--much more so than any English he knew.
"Cultured Rapacicity," he tried.
"Vorocious Return to the Heritage."
He would expound them incidentally to his attendant apprentices. He
had overheard a little lady putting her view to a friend near the
Christchurch gate. The accent and intonation had hung in his memory,
and he would reproduce them more or less accurately. "Now does this
Marlowe monument really and truly _matter_?" he had heard the little
lady enquire. "We've no time for side shows and second rate stunts,
Mamie. We want just the Big Simple Things of the place, just the Broad
Elemental Canterbury praposition. What is it saying to us? I want to
get right hold of that, and then have tea in the very room that
Chaucer did, and hustle to get that four-eighteen train back to
He would go over these precious phrases, finding them full of an
indescribable flavour. "Just the Broad Elemental Canterbury
praposition," he would repeat....
He would try to imagine Parsons confronted with Americans. For his own
part he knew himself to be altogether inadequate....
Canterbury was the most congenial situation Mr. Polly ever found
during these wander years, albeit a very desert so far as
It was after Canterbury that the universe became really disagreeable
to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with
a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade.
It was not the trade he ought to have chosen, though what trade he
ought to have chosen was by no means clear.
He made great but irregular efforts and produced a forced smartness
that, like a cheap dye, refused to stand sunshine. He acquired a sort
of parsimony also, in which acquisition he was helped by one or two
phases of absolute impecuniosity. But he was hopeless in competition
against the naturally gifted, the born hustlers, the young men who
meant to get on.
He left the Canterbury place very regretfully. He and another
commercial gentleman took a boat one Sunday afternoon at
Sturry-on-the-Stour, when the wind was in the west, and sailed it very
happily eastward for an hour. They had never sailed a boat before and
it seemed simple and wonderful. When they turned they found the river
too narrow for tacking and the tide running out like a sluice. They
battled back to Sturry in the course of six hours (at a shilling the
first hour and six-pence for each hour afterwards) rowing a mile in an
hour and a half or so, until the turn of the tide came to help them,
and then they had a night walk to Canterbury, and found themselves
remorselessly locked out.
The Canterbury employer was an amiable, religious-spirited man and he
would probably not have dismissed Mr. Polly if that unfortunate
tendency to phrase things had not shocked him. "A Tide's a Tide, Sir,"
said Mr. Polly, feeling that things were not so bad. "I've no
lune-attic power to alter that."
It proved impossible to explain to the Canterbury employer that this
was not a highly disrespectful and blasphemous remark.
"And besides, what good are you to me this morning, do you think?"
said the Canterbury employer, "with your arms pulled out of their
So Mr. Polly resumed his observations in the Wood Street warehouses
once more, and had some dismal times. The shoal of fish waiting for
the crumbs of employment seemed larger than ever.
He took counsel with himself. Should he "chuck" the outfitting? It
wasn't any good for him now, and presently when he was older and his
youthful smartness had passed into the dulness of middle age it would
be worse. What else could he do?
He could think of nothing. He went one night to a music hall and
developed a vague idea of a comic performance; the comic men seemed
violent rowdies and not at all funny; but when he thought of the great
pit of the audience yawning before him he realised that his was an
altogether too delicate talent for such a use. He was impressed by the
charm of selling vegetables by auction in one of those open shops near
London Bridge, but admitted upon reflection his general want of
technical knowledge. He made some enquiries about emigration, but none
of the colonies were in want of shop assistants without capital. He
kept up his attendance in Wood Street.
He subdued his ideal of salary by the sum of five pounds a year, and
was taken at that into a driving establishment in Clapham, which dealt
chiefly in ready-made suits, fed its assistants in an underground
dining-room and kept them until twelve on Saturdays. He found it hard
to be cheerful there. His fits of indigestion became worse, and he
began to lie awake at night and think. Sunshine and laughter seemed
things lost for ever; picnics and shouting in the moonlight.
The chief shopwalker took a dislike to him and nagged him. "Nar then
Polly!" "Look alive Polly!" became the burthen of his days. "As smart
a chap as you could have," said the chief shopwalker, "but no _Zest_.
No _Zest_! No _Vim_! What's the matter with you?"
During his night vigils Mr. Polly had a feeling--A young rabbit must
have very much the feeling, when after a youth of gambolling in sunny
woods and furtive jolly raids upon the growing wheat and exciting
triumphant bolts before ineffectual casual dogs, it finds itself at
last for a long night of floundering effort and perplexity, in a
net--for the rest of its life.
He could not grasp what was wrong with him. He made enormous efforts
to diagnose his case. Was he really just a "lazy slacker" who ought to
"buck up"? He couldn't find it in him to believe it. He blamed his
father a good deal--it is what fathers are for--in putting him to a
trade he wasn't happy to follow, but he found it impossible to say
what he ought to have followed. He felt there had been something
stupid about his school, but just where that came in he couldn't say.
He made some perfectly sincere efforts to "buck up" and "shove"
ruthlessly. But that was infernal--impossible. He had to admit himself
miserable with all the misery of a social misfit, and with no clear
prospect of more than the most incidental happiness ahead of him. And
for all his attempts at self-reproach or self-discipline he felt at
bottom that he wasn't at fault.
As a matter of fact all the elements of his troubles had been
adequately diagnosed by a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman
living at Highbury, wearing a gold _pince_-_nez_, and writing for the
most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club. This gentleman
did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally
as "one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has
failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for
order, commensurate with its complexities."
But phrases of that sort had no appeal for Mr. Polly.
Chapter the Fourth
Mr. Polly an Orphan
Then a great change was brought about in the life of Mr. Polly by the
death of his father. His father had died suddenly--the local
practitioner still clung to his theory that it was imagination he
suffered from, but compromised in the certificate with the
appendicitis that was then so fashionable--and Mr. Polly found himself
heir to a debateable number of pieces of furniture in the house of his
cousin near Easewood Junction, a family Bible, an engraved portrait of
Garibaldi and a bust of Mr. Gladstone, an invalid gold watch, a gold
locket formerly belonging to his mother, some minor jewelry and
_bric_-a-brac, a quantity of nearly valueless old clothes and an
insurance policy and money in the bank amounting altogether to the sum
of three hundred and ninety-five pounds.
Mr. Polly had always regarded his father as an immortal, as an eternal
fact, and his father being of a reserved nature in his declining years
had said nothing about the insurance policy. Both wealth and
bereavement therefore took Mr. Polly by surprise and found him a
little inadequate. His mother's death had been a childish grief and
long forgotten, and the strongest affection in his life had been for
Parsons. An only child of sociable tendencies necessarily turns his
back a good deal upon home, and the aunt who had succeeded his mother
was an economist and furniture polisher, a knuckle rapper and sharp
silencer, no friend for a slovenly little boy. He had loved other
little boys and girls transitorily, none had been frequent and
familiar enough to strike deep roots in his heart, and he had grown up
with a tattered and dissipated affectionateness that was becoming
wildly shy. His father had always been a stranger, an irritable
stranger with exceptional powers of intervention and comment, and an
air of being disappointed about his offspring. It was shocking to lose
him; it was like an unexpected hole in the universe, and the writing
of "Death" upon the sky, but it did not tear Mr. Polly's heartstrings
at first so much as rouse him to a pitch of vivid attention.
He came down to the cottage at Easewood in response to an urgent
telegram, and found his father already dead. His cousin Johnson
received him with much solemnity and ushered him upstairs, to look at
a stiff, straight, shrouded form, with a face unwontedly quiet and, as
it seemed, with its pinched nostrils, scornful.
"Looks peaceful," said Mr. Polly, disregarding the scorn to the best
of his ability.
"It was a merciful relief," said Mr. Johnson.
There was a pause.
"Second--Second Departed I've ever seen. Not counting mummies," said
Mr. Polly, feeling it necessary to say something.
"We did all we could."
"No doubt of it, O' Man," said Mr. Polly.
A second long pause followed, and then, much to Mr. Polly's great
relief, Johnson moved towards the door.
Afterwards Mr. Polly went for a solitary walk in the evening light,
and as he walked, suddenly his dead father became real to him. He
thought of things far away down the perspective of memory, of jolly
moments when his father had skylarked with a wildly excited little
boy, of a certain annual visit to the Crystal Palace pantomime, full
of trivial glittering incidents and wonders, of his father's dread
back while customers were in the old, minutely known shop. It is
curious that the memory which seemed to link him nearest to the dead
man was the memory of a fit of passion. His father had wanted to get a
small sofa up the narrow winding staircase from the little room behind
the shop to the bedroom above, and it had jammed. For a time his
father had coaxed, and then groaned like a soul in torment and given
way to blind fury, had sworn, kicked and struck at the offending piece
of furniture and finally wrenched it upstairs, with considerable
incidental damage to lath and plaster and one of the castors. That
moment when self-control was altogether torn aside, the shocked
discovery of his father's perfect humanity, had left a singular
impression on Mr. Polly's queer mind. It was as if something
extravagantly vital had come out of his father and laid a warmly
passionate hand upon his heart. He remembered that now very vividly,
and it became a clue to endless other memories that had else been
dispersed and confusing.
A weakly wilful being struggling to get obdurate things round
impossible corners--in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself
and all the trouble of humanity.
He hadn't had a particularly good time, poor old chap, and now it was
all over. Finished....
Johnson was the sort of man who derives great satisfaction from a
funeral, a melancholy, serious, practical-minded man of five and
thirty, with great powers of advice. He was the up-line ticket clerk
at Easewood Junction, and felt the responsibilities of his position.
He was naturally thoughtful and reserved, and greatly sustained in
that by an innate rectitude of body and an overhanging and forward
inclination of the upper part of his face and head. He was pale but
freckled, and his dark grey eyes were deeply set. His lightest
interest was cricket, but he did not take that lightly. His chief
holiday was to go to a cricket match, which he did as if he was going
to church, and he watched critically, applauded sparingly, and was
darkly offended by any unorthodox play. His convictions upon all
subjects were taciturnly inflexible. He was an obstinate player of
draughts and chess, and an earnest and persistent reader of the
_British Weekly_. His wife was a pink, short, wilfully smiling,
managing, ingratiating, talkative woman, who was determined to be
pleasant, and take a bright hopeful view of everything, even when it
was not really bright and hopeful. She had large blue expressive eyes
and a round face, and she always spoke of her husband as Harold. She
addressed sympathetic and considerate remarks about the deceased to
Mr. Polly in notes of brisk encouragement. "He was really quite
cheerful at the end," she said several times, with congratulatory
gusto, "quite cheerful."
She made dying seem almost agreeable.
Both these people were resolved to treat Mr. Polly very well, and to
help his exceptional incompetence in every possible way, and after a
simple supper of ham and bread and cheese and pickles and cold apple
tart and small beer had been cleared away, they put him into the
armchair almost as though he was an invalid, and sat on chairs that
made them look down on him, and opened a directive discussion of the
arrangements for the funeral. After all a funeral is a distinct social
opportunity, and rare when you have no family and few relations, and
they did not want to see it spoilt and wasted.
"You'll have a hearse of course," said Mrs. Johnson. "Not one of them
combinations with the driver sitting on the coffin. Disrespectful I
think they are. I can't fancy how people can bring themselves to be
buried in combinations." She flattened her voice in a manner she used
to intimate aesthetic feeling. "I _do_ like them glass hearses," she
said. "So refined and nice they are."
"Podger's hearse you'll have," said Johnson conclusively. "It's the
best in Easewood."
"Everything that's right and proper," said Mr. Polly.
"Podger's ready to come and measure at any time," said Johnson.
"Then you'll want a mourner's carriage or two, according as to whom
you're going to invite," said Mr. Johnson.
"Didn't think of inviting any one," said Polly.
"Oh! you'll _have_ to ask a few friends," said Mr. Johnson. "You can't
let your father go to his grave without asking a few friends."
"Funerial baked meats like," said Mr. Polly.
"Not baked, but of course you'll have to give them something. Ham and
chicken's very suitable. You don't want a lot of cooking with the
ceremony coming into the middle of it. I wonder who Alfred ought to
invite, Harold. Just the immediate relations; one doesn't want a great
crowd of people and one doesn't want not to show respect."
"But he hated our relations--most of them."
"He's not hating them _now_," said Mrs. Johnson, "you may be sure of
that. It's just because of that I think they ought to come--all of
them--even your Aunt Mildred."
"Bit vulturial, isn't it?" said Mr. Polly unheeded.
"Wouldn't be more than twelve or thirteen people if they _all_ came,"
said Mr. Johnson.
"We could have everything put out ready in the back room and the
gloves and whiskey in the front room, and while we were all at the
ceremony, Bessie could bring it all into the front room on a tray and
put it out nice and proper. There'd have to be whiskey and sherry or
port for the ladies...."
"Where'll you get your mourning?" asked Johnson abruptly.
Mr. Polly had not yet considered this by-product of sorrow. "Haven't
thought of it yet, O' Man."
A disagreeable feeling spread over his body as though he was
blackening as he sat. He hated black garments.
"I suppose I must have mourning," he said.
"Well!" said Johnson with a solemn smile.
"Got to see it through," said Mr. Polly indistinctly.
"If I were you," said Johnson, "I should get ready-made trousers.
That's all you really want. And a black satin tie and a top hat with a
deep mourning band. And gloves."
"Jet cuff links he ought to have--as chief mourner," said Mrs.
"Not obligatory," said Johnson.
"It shows respect," said Mrs. Johnson.
"It shows respect of course," said Johnson.
And then Mrs. Johnson went on with the utmost gusto to the details of
the "casket," while Mr. Polly sat more and more deeply and droopingly
into the armchair, assenting with a note of protest to all they said.
After he had retired for the night he remained for a long time perched
on the edge of the sofa which was his bed, staring at the prospect
before him. "Chasing the O' Man about up to the last," he said.
He hated the thought and elaboration of death as a healthy animal must
hate it. His mind struggled with unwonted social problems.
"Got to put 'em away somehow, I suppose," said Mr. Polly.
"Wish I'd looked him up a bit more while he was alive," said Mr.
Bereavement came to Mr. Polly before the realisation of opulence and
its anxieties and responsibilities. That only dawned upon him on the
morrow--which chanced to be Sunday--as he walked with Johnson before
church time about the tangle of struggling building enterprise that
constituted the rising urban district of Easewood. Johnson was off
duty that morning, and devoted the time very generously to the
admonitory discussion of Mr. Polly's worldly outlook.
"Don't seem to get the hang of the business somehow," said Mr. Polly.
"Too much blooming humbug in it for my way of thinking."
"If I were you," said Mr. Johnson, "I should push for a first-class
place in London--take almost nothing and live on my reserves. That's
what I should do."
"Come the Heavy," said Mr. Polly.
"Get a better class reference."
There was a pause. "Think of investing your money?" asked Johnson.
"Hardly got used to the idea of having it yet, O' Man."
"You'll have to do something with it. Give you nearly twenty pounds a
year if you invest it properly."
"Haven't seen it yet in that light," said Mr. Polly defensively.
"There's no end of things you could put it into."
"It's getting it out again I shouldn't feel sure of. I'm no sort of
Fiancianier. Sooner back horses."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Not my style, O' Man."
"It's a nest egg," said Johnson.
Mr. Polly made an indeterminate noise.
"There's building societies," Johnson threw out in a speculative tone.
Mr. Polly, with detached brevity, admitted there were.
"You might lend it on mortgage," said Johnson. "Very safe form of
"Shan't think anything about it--not till the O' Man's underground,"
said Mr. Polly with an inspiration.
They turned a corner that led towards the junction.
"Might do worse," said Johnson, "than put it into a small shop."
At the moment this remark made very little appeal to Mr. Polly. But
afterwards it developed. It fell into his mind like some small obscure
seed, and germinated.
"These shops aren't in a bad position," said Johnson.
The row he referred to gaped in the late painful stage in building
before the healing touch of the plasterer assuages the roughness of
the brickwork. The space for the shop yawned an oblong gap below,
framed above by an iron girder; "windows and fittings to suit tenant,"
a board at the end of the row promised; and behind was the door space
and a glimpse of stairs going up to the living rooms above. "Not a bad
position," said Johnson, and led the way into the establishment. "Room
for fixtures there," he said, pointing to the blank wall. The two men
went upstairs to the little sitting-room or best bedroom (it would
have to be) above the shop. Then they descended to the kitchen below.
"Rooms in a new house always look a bit small," said Johnson.
They came out of the house again by the prospective back door, and
picked their way through builder's litter across the yard space to the
road again. They drew nearer the junction to where a pavement and
shops already open and active formed the commercial centre of
Easewood. On the opposite side of the way the side door of a
flourishing little establishment opened, and a man and his wife and a
little boy in a sailor suit came into the street. The wife was a
pretty woman in brown with a floriferous straw hat, and the group was
altogether very Sundayfied and shiny and spick and span. The shop
itself had a large plate-glass window whose contents were now veiled
by a buff blind on which was inscribed in scrolly letters: "Rymer,
Pork Butcher and Provision Merchant," and then with voluptuous
elaboration: "The World-Famed Easewood Sausage."
Greetings were exchanged between Mr. Johnson and this distinguished
"Off to church already?" said Johnson.
"Walking across the fields to Little Dorington," said Mr. Rymer.
"Very pleasant walk," said Johnson.
"Very," said Mr. Rymer.
"Hope you'll enjoy it," said Mr. Johnson.
"That chap's done well," said Johnson _sotto voce_ as they went on.
"Came here with nothing--practically, four years ago. And as thin as a
lath. Look at him now!
"He's worked hard of course," said Johnson, improving the occasion.
Thought fell between the cousins for a space.
"Some men can do one thing," said Johnson, "and some another.... For a
man who sticks to it there's a lot to be done in a shop."
All the preparations for the funeral ran easily and happily under Mrs.
Johnson's skilful hands. On the eve of the sad event she produced a
reserve of black sateen, the kitchen steps and a box of tin-tacks, and
decorated the house with festoons and bows of black in the best
possible taste. She tied up the knocker with black crape, and put a
large bow over the corner of the steel engraving of Garibaldi, and
swathed the bust of Mr. Gladstone, that had belonged to the deceased,
with inky swathings. She turned the two vases that had views of Tivoli
and the Bay of Naples round, so that these rather brilliant landscapes
were hidden and only the plain blue enamel showed, and she anticipated
the long-contemplated purchase of a tablecloth for the front room, and
substituted a violet purple cover for the now very worn and faded
raptures and roses in plushette that had hitherto done duty there.
Everything that loving consideration could do to impart a dignified
solemnity to her little home was done.
She had released Mr. Polly from the irksome duty of issuing
invitations, and as the moments of assembly drew near she sent him and
Mr. Johnson out into the narrow long strip of garden at the back of
the house, to be free to put a finishing touch or so to her
preparations. She sent them out together because she had a queer
little persuasion at the back of her mind that Mr. Polly wanted to
bolt from his sacred duties, and there was no way out of the garden
except through the house.
Mr. Johnson was a steady, successful gardener, and particularly good
with celery and peas. He walked slowly along the narrow path down the
centre pointing out to Mr. Polly a number of interesting points in the
management of peas, wrinkles neatly applied and difficulties wisely
overcome, and all that he did for the comfort and propitiation of that
fitful but rewarding vegetable. Presently a sound of nervous laughter
and raised voices from the house proclaimed the arrival of the earlier
guests, and the worst of that anticipatory tension was over.
When Mr. Polly re-entered the house he found three entirely strange
young women with pink faces, demonstrative manners and emphatic
mourning, engaged in an incoherent conversation with Mrs. Johnson. All
three kissed him with great gusto after the ancient English fashion.
"These are your cousins Larkins," said Mrs. Johnson; "that's Annie
(unexpected hug and smack), that's Miriam (resolute hug and smack),
and that's Minnie (prolonged hug and smack)."
"Right-O," said Mr. Polly, emerging a little crumpled and breathless
from this hearty introduction. "I see."
"Here's Aunt Larkins," said Mrs. Johnson, as an elderly and stouter
edition of the three young women appeared in the doorway.
Mr. Polly backed rather faint-heartedly, but Aunt Larkins was not to
be denied. Having hugged and kissed her nephew resoundingly she
gripped him by the wrists and scanned his features. She had a round,
sentimental, freckled face. "I should '_ave_ known 'im anywhere," she
said with fervour.
"Hark at mother!" said the cousin called Annie. "Why, she's never set
eyes on him before!"
"I should '_ave_ known 'im anywhere," said Mrs. Larkins, "for Lizzie's
child. You've got her eyes! It's a Resemblance! And as for _never
seeing 'im_-- I've _dandled_ him, Miss Imperence. I've dandled him."
"You couldn't dandle him now, Ma!" Miss Annie remarked with a shriek
All the sisters laughed at that. "The things you say, Annie!" said
Miriam, and for a time the room was full of mirth.
Mr. Polly felt it incumbent upon him to say something. "_My_ dandling
days are over," he said.
The reception of this remark would have convinced a far more modest
character than Mr. Polly that it was extremely witty.
Mr. Polly followed it up by another one almost equally good. "My turn
to dandle," he said, with a sly look at his aunt, and convulsed
"Not me," said Mrs. Larkins, taking his point, "_thank_ you," and
achieved a climax.
It was queer, but they seemed to be easy people to get on with anyhow.
They were still picking little ripples and giggles of mirth from the
idea of Mr. Polly dandling Aunt Larkins when Mr. Johnson, who had
answered the door, ushered in a stooping figure, who was at once
hailed by Mrs. Johnson as "Why! Uncle Pentstemon!" Uncle Pentstemon
was rather a shock. His was an aged rather than venerable figure; Time
had removed the hair from the top of his head and distributed a small
dividend of the plunder in little bunches carelessly and impartially
over the rest of his features; he was dressed in a very big old frock
coat and a long cylindrical top hat, which he had kept on; he was very
much bent, and he carried a rush basket from which protruded coy
intimations of the lettuces and onions he had brought to grace the