Part 2 out of 5
occasion. He hobbled into the room, resisting the efforts of Johnson
to divest him of his various encumbrances, halted and surveyed the
company with an expression of profound hostility, breathing hard.
Recognition quickened in his eyes.
"_You_ here," he said to Aunt Larkins and then; "You _would_ be....
These your gals?"
"They are," said Aunt Larkins, "and better gals----"
"That Annie?" asked Uncle Pentstemon, pointing a horny thumb-nail.
"Fancy your remembering her name!"
"She mucked up my mushroom bed, the baggage!" said Uncle Pentstemon
ungenially, "and I give it to her to rights. Trounced her I
did--fairly. I remember her. Here's some green stuff for you, Grace.
Fresh it is and wholesome. I shall be wanting the basket back and mind
you let me have it.... Have you nailed him down yet? You always was a
bit in front of what was needful."
His attention was drawn inward by a troublesome tooth, and he sucked
at it spitefully. There was something potent about this old man that
silenced everyone for a moment or so. He seemed a fragment from the
ruder agricultural past of our race, like a lump of soil among things
of paper. He put his basket of vegetables very deliberately on the new
violet tablecloth, removed his hat carefully and dabbled his brow, and
wiped out his hat brim with a crimson and yellow pocket handkerchief.
"I'm glad you were able to come, Uncle," said Mrs. Johnson.
"Oh, I _came_" said Uncle Pentstemon. "I _came_."
He turned on Mrs. Larkins. "Gals in service?" he asked.
"They aren't and they won't be," said Mrs. Larkins.
"No," he said with infinite meaning, and turned his eye on Mr. Polly.
"You Lizzie's boy?" he said.
Mr. Polly was spared much self-exposition by the tumult occasioned by
"Ah! here's May Punt!" said Mrs. Johnson, and a small woman dressed in
the borrowed mourning of a large woman and leading a very small
long-haired observant little boy--it was his first funeral--appeared,
closely followed by several friends of Mrs. Johnson who had come to
swell the display of respect and made only vague, confused impressions
upon Mr. Polly's mind. (Aunt Mildred, who was an unexplained family
scandal, had declined Mrs. Johnson's hospitality.)
Everybody was in profound mourning, of course, mourning in the modern
English style, with the dyer's handiwork only too apparent, and hats
and jackets of the current cut. There was very little crape, and the
costumes had none of the goodness and specialisation and genuine
enjoyment of mourning for mourning's sake that a similar continental
gathering would have displayed. Still that congestion of strangers in
black sufficed to stun and confuse Mr. Polly's impressionable mind. It
seemed to him much more extraordinary than anything he had expected.
"Now, gals," said Mrs. Larkins, "see if you can help," and the three
daughters became confusingly active between the front room and the
"I hope everyone'll take a glass of sherry and a biscuit," said Mrs.
Johnson. "We don't stand on ceremony," and a decanter appeared in the
place of Uncle Pentstemon's vegetables.
Uncle Pentstemon had refused to be relieved of his hat; he sat stiffly
down on a chair against the wall with that venerable headdress between
his feet, watching the approach of anyone jealously. "Don't you go
squashing my hat," he said. Conversation became confused and general.
Uncle Pentstemon addressed himself to Mr. Polly. "You're a little
chap," he said, "a puny little chap. I never did agree to Lizzie
marrying him, but I suppose by-gones must be bygones now. I suppose
they made you a clerk or something."
"Outfitter," said Mr. Polly.
"I remember. Them girls pretend to be dressmakers."
"They _are_ dressmakers," said Mrs. Larkins across the room.
"I _will_ take a glass of sherry. They 'old to it, you see."
He took the glass Mrs. Johnson handed him, and poised it critically
between a horny finger and thumb. "You'll be paying for this," he said
to Mr. Polly. "Here's _to_ you.... Don't you go treading on my hat,
young woman. You brush your skirts against it and you take a shillin'
off its value. It ain't the sort of 'at you see nowadays."
He drank noisily.
The sherry presently loosened everybody's tongue, and the early
"There ought to have been a _post-mortem_," Polly heard Mrs. Punt
remarking to one of Mrs. Johnson's friends, and Miriam and another
were lost in admiration of Mrs. Johnson's decorations. "So very nice
and refined," they were both repeating at intervals.
The sherry and biscuits were still being discussed when Mr. Podger,
the undertaker, arrived, a broad, cheerfully sorrowful, clean-shaven
little man, accompanied by a melancholy-faced assistant. He conversed
for a time with Johnson in the passage outside; the sense of his
business stilled the rising waves of chatter and carried off
everyone's attention in the wake of his heavy footsteps to the room
Things crowded upon Mr. Polly. Everyone, he noticed, took sherry with
a solemn avidity, and a small portion even was administered
sacramentally to the Punt boy. There followed a distribution of black
kid gloves, and much trying on and humouring of fingers. "_Good_
gloves," said one of Mrs. Johnson's friends. "There's a little pair
there for Willie," said Mrs. Johnson triumphantly. Everyone seemed
gravely content with the amazing procedure of the occasion. Presently
Mr. Podger was picking Mr. Polly out as Chief Mourner to go with Mrs.
Johnson, Mrs. Larkins and Annie in the first mourning carriage.
"Right O," said Mr. Polly, and repented instantly of the alacrity of
"There'll have to be a walking party," said Mrs. Johnson cheerfully.
"There's only two coaches. I daresay we can put in six in each, but
that leaves three over."
There was a generous struggle to be pedestrian, and the two other
Larkins girls, confessing coyly to tight new boots and displaying a
certain eagerness, were added to the contents of the first carriage.
"It'll be a squeeze," said Annie.
"_I_ don't mind a squeeze," said Mr. Polly.
He decided privately that the proper phrase for the result of that
remark was "Hysterial catechunations."
Mr. Podger re-entered the room from a momentary supervision of the
bumping business that was now proceeding down the staircase.
"Bearing up," he said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together. "Bearing
That stuck very vividly in Mr. Polly's mind, and so did the
close-wedged drive to the churchyard, bunched in between two young
women in confused dull and shiny black, and the fact that the wind was
bleak and that the officiating clergyman had a cold, and sniffed
between his sentences. The wonder of life! The wonder of everything!
What had he expected that this should all be so astoundingly
He found his attention converging more and more upon the Larkins
cousins. The interest was reciprocal. They watched him with a kind of
suppressed excitement and became risible with his every word and
gesture. He was more and more aware of their personal quality. Annie
had blue eyes and a red, attractive mouth, a harsh voice and a habit
of extreme liveliness that even this occasion could not suppress;
Minnie was fond, extremely free about the touching of hands and
suchlike endearments; Miriam was quieter and regarded him earnestly.
Mrs. Larkins was very happy in her daughters, and they had the naive
affectionateness of those who see few people and find a strange cousin
a wonderful outlet. Mr. Polly had never been very much kissed, and it
made his mind swim. He did not know for the life of him whether he
liked or disliked all or any of the Larkins cousins. It was rather
attractive to make them laugh; they laughed at anything.
There they were tugging at his mind, and the funeral tugging at his
mind, too, and the sense of himself as Chief Mourner in a brand new
silk hat with a broad mourning band. He watched the ceremony and
missed his responses, and strange feelings twisted at his
Mr. Polly walked back to the house because he wanted to be alone.
Miriam and Minnie would have accompanied him, but finding Uncle
Pentstemon beside the Chief Mourner they went on in front.
"You're wise," said Uncle Pentstemon.
"Glad you think so," said Mr. Polly, rousing himself to talk.
"I likes a bit of walking before a meal," said Uncle Pentstemon, and
made a kind of large hiccup. "That sherry rises," he remarked.
"Grocer's stuff, I expect."
He went on to ask how much the funeral might be costing, and seemed
pleased to find Mr. Polly didn't know.
"In that case," he said impressively, "it's pretty certain to cost
more'n you expect, my boy."
He meditated for a time. "I've seen a mort of undertakers," he
declared; "a mort of undertakers."
The Larkins girls attracted his attention.
"Let's lodgin's and chars," he commented. "Leastways she goes out to
cook dinners. And look at 'em!
"Dressed up to the nines. If it ain't borryd clothes, that is. And
they goes out to work at a factory!"
"Did you know my father much, Uncle Pentstemon?" asked Mr. Polly.
"Couldn't stand Lizzie throwin' herself away like that," said Uncle
Pentstemon, and repeated his hiccup on a larger scale.
"That _weren't_ good sherry," said Uncle Pentstemon with the first
note of pathos Mr. Polly had detected in his quavering voice.
The funeral in the rather cold wind had proved wonderfully appetising,
and every eye brightened at the sight of the cold collation that was
now spread in the front room. Mrs. Johnson was very brisk, and Mr.
Polly, when he re-entered the house found everybody sitting down.
"Come along, Alfred," cried the hostess cheerfully. "We can't very
well begin without you. Have you got the bottled beer ready to open,
Betsy? Uncle, you'll have a drop of whiskey, I expect."
"Put it where I can mix for myself," said Uncle Pentstemon, placing
his hat very carefully out of harm's way on the bookcase.
There were two cold boiled chickens, which Johnson carved with great
care and justice, and a nice piece of ham, some brawn and a steak and
kidney pie, a large bowl of salad and several sorts of pickles, and
afterwards came cold apple tart, jam roll and a good piece of Stilton
cheese, lots of bottled beer, some lemonade for the ladies and milk
for Master Punt; a very bright and satisfying meal. Mr. Polly found
himself seated between Mrs. Punt, who was much preoccupied with Master
Punt's table manners, and one of Mrs. Johnson's school friends, who
was exchanging reminiscences of school days and news of how various
common friends had changed and married with Mrs. Johnson. Opposite him
was Miriam and another of the Johnson circle, and also he had brawn to
carve and there was hardly room for the helpful Betsy to pass behind
his chair, so that altogether his mind would have been amply
distracted from any mortuary broodings, even if a wordy warfare about
the education of the modern young woman had not sprung up between
Uncle Pentstemon and Mrs. Larkins and threatened for a time, in spite
of a word or so in season from Johnson, to wreck all the harmony of
the sad occasion.
The general effect was after this fashion:
First an impression of Mrs. Punt on the right speaking in a refined
undertone: "You didn't, I suppose, Mr. Polly, think to '_ave_ your
poor dear father post-mortemed--"
Lady on the left side breaking in: "I was just reminding Grace of the
dear dead days beyond recall--"
Attempted reply to Mrs. Punt: "Didn't think of it for a moment. Can't
give you a piece of this brawn, can I?"
Fragment from the left: "Grace and Beauty they used to call us and we
used to sit at the same desk--"
Mrs. Punt, breaking out suddenly: "Don't _swaller_ your fork, Willy.
You see, Mr. Polly, I used to '_ave_ a young gentleman, a medical
student, lodging with me--"
Voice from down the table: "'Am, Alfred? I didn't give you very much."
Bessie became evident at the back of Mr. Polly's chair, struggling
wildly to get past. Mr. Polly did his best to be helpful. "Can you get
past? Lemme sit forward a bit. Urr-oo! Right O."
Lady to the left going on valiantly and speaking to everyone who cares
to listen, while Mrs. Johnson beams beside her: "There she used to sit
as bold as brass, and the fun she used to make of things no one
_could_ believe--knowing her now. She used to make faces at the
mistress through the--"
Mrs. Punt keeping steadily on: "The contents of the stummik at any
rate _ought_ to be examined."
Voice of Mr. Johnson. "Elfrid, pass the mustid down."
Miriam leaning across the table: "Elfrid!"
"Once she got us all kept in. The whole school!"
Miriam, more insistently: "Elfrid!"
Uncle Pentstemon, raising his voice defiantly: "Trounce 'er again I
would if she did as much now. That I would! Dratted mischief!"
Miriam, catching Mr. Polly's eye: "Elfrid! This lady knows Canterbury.
I been telling her you been there."
Mr. Polly: "Glad you know it."
The lady shouting: "I like it."
Mrs. Larkins, raising her voice: "I won't '_ave_ my girls spoken of,
not by nobody, old or young."
Pop! imperfectly located.
Mr. Johnson at large: "_Ain't_ the beer up! It's the 'eated room."
Bessie: "Scuse me, sir, passing so soon again, but--" Rest
inaudible. Mr. Polly, accommodating himself: "Urr-oo! Right? Right
The knives and forks, probably by some secret common agreement, clash
and clatter together and drown every other sound.
"Nobody 'ad the least idea 'ow 'E died,--nobody.... Willie, don't
_golp_ so. You ain't in a 'urry, are you? You don't want to ketch a
train or anything,--golping like that!"
"D'you remember, Grace, 'ow one day we 'ad writing lesson...."
"Nicer girls no one ever 'ad--though I say it who shouldn't."
Mrs. Johnson in a shrill clear hospitable voice: "Harold, won't Mrs.
Larkins '_ave_ a teeny bit more fowl?"
Mr. Polly rising to the situation. "Or some brawn, Mrs. Larkins?"
Catching Uncle Pentstemon's eye: "Can't send _you_ some brawn, sir?"
Loud hiccup from Uncle Pentstemon, momentary consternation followed by
giggle from Annie.
The narration at Mr. Polly's elbow pursued a quiet but relentless
course. "Directly the new doctor came in he said: 'Everything must be
took out and put in spirits--everything.'"
The narration on the left was flourishing up to a climax. "Ladies,"
she sez, "dip their pens _in_ their ink and keep their noses out of
"Certain people may cast snacks at other people's daughters, never
having had any of their own, though two poor souls of wives dead and
buried through their goings on--"
Johnson ruling the storm: "We don't want old scores dug up on such a
day as this--"
"Old scores you may call them, but worth a dozen of them that put them
to their rest, poor dears."
"Elfrid!"--with a note of remonstrance.
"If you choke yourself, my lord, not another mouthful do you '_ave_.
No nice puddin'! Nothing!"
"And kept us in, she did, every afternoon for a week!"
It seemed to be the end, and Mr. Polly replied with an air of being
profoundly impressed: "Really!"
"Elfrid!"--a little disheartened.
"And then they 'ad it! They found he'd swallowed the very key to
unlock the drawer--"
"Then don't let people go casting snacks!"
"_Who's_ casting snacks!"
"Elfrid! This lady wants to _know_, '_ave_ the Prossers left
"No wish to make myself disagreeable, not to God's 'umblest worm--"
"Alf, you aren't very busy with that brawn up there!"
And so on for the hour.
The general effect upon Mr. Polly at the time was at once confusing
and exhilarating; but it led him to eat copiously and carelessly, and
long before the end, when after an hour and a quarter a movement took
the party, and it pushed away its cheese plates and rose sighing and
stretching from the remains of the repast, little streaks and bands of
dyspeptic irritation and melancholy were darkening the serenity of his
He stood between the mantel shelf and the window--the blinds were up
now--and the Larkins sisters clustered about him. He battled with the
oncoming depression and forced himself to be extremely facetious about
two noticeable rings on Annie's hand. "They ain't real," said Annie
coquettishly. "Got 'em out of a prize packet."
"Prize packet in trousers, I expect," said Mr. Polly, and awakened
"Oh! the things you say!" said Minnie, slapping his shoulder.
Suddenly something he had quite extraordinarily forgotten came into
"Bless my heart!" he cried, suddenly serious.
"What's the matter?" asked Johnson.
"Ought to have gone back to shop--three days ago. They'll make no end
of a row!"
"Lor, you _are_ a Treat!" said cousin Annie, and screamed with
laughter at a delicious idea. "You'll get the Chuck," she said.
Mr. Polly made a convulsing grimace at her.
"I'll die!" she said. "I don't believe you care a bit!"
Feeling a little disorganized by her hilarity and a shocked expression
that had come to the face of cousin Miriam, he made some indistinct
excuse and went out through the back room and scullery into the little
garden. The cool air and a very slight drizzle of rain was a
relief--anyhow. But the black mood of the replete dyspeptic had come
upon him. His soul darkened hopelessly. He walked with his hands in
his pockets down the path between the rows of exceptionally cultured
peas and unreasonably, overwhelmingly, he was smitten by sorrow for
his father. The heady noise and muddle and confused excitement of the
feast passed from him like a curtain drawn away. He thought of that
hot and angry and struggling creature who had tugged and sworn so
foolishly at the sofa upon the twisted staircase, and who was now
lying still and hidden, at the bottom of a wall-sided oblong pit
beside the heaped gravel that would presently cover him. The stillness
of it! the wonder of it! the infinite reproach! Hatred for all these
people--all of them--possessed Mr. Polly's soul.
"Hen-witted gigglers," said Mr. Polly.
He went down to the fence, and stood with his hands on it staring away
at nothing. He stayed there for what seemed a long time. From the
house came a sound of raised voices that subsided, and then Mrs.
Johnson calling for Bessie.
"Gowlish gusto," said Mr. Polly. "Jumping it in. Funererial Games.
Don't hurt _him_ of course. Doesn't matter to _him_...."
Nobody missed Mr. Polly for a long time.
When at last he reappeared among them his eye was almost grim, but
nobody noticed his eye. They were looking at watches, and Johnson was
being omniscient about trains. They seemed to discover Mr. Polly
afresh just at the moment of parting, and said a number of more or
less appropriate things. But Uncle Pentstemon was far too worried
about his rush basket, which had been carelessly mislaid, he seemed to
think with larcenous intentions, to remember Mr. Polly at all. Mrs.
Johnson had tried to fob him off with a similar but inferior
basket,--his own had one handle mended with string according to a
method of peculiar virtue and inimitable distinction known only to
himself--and the old gentleman had taken her attempt as the gravest
reflection upon his years and intelligence. Mr. Polly was left very
largely to the Larkins trio. Cousin Minnie became shameless and kept
kissing him good-by--and then finding out it wasn't time to go.
Cousin Miriam seemed to think her silly, and caught Mr. Polly's eye
sympathetically. Cousin Annie ceased to giggle and lapsed into a
nearly sentimental state. She said with real feeling that she had
enjoyed the funeral more than words could tell.
Chapter the Fifth
Mr. Polly Takes a Vacation
Mr. Polly returned to Clapham from the funeral celebration prepared
for trouble, and took his dismissal in a manly spirit.
"You've merely anti-_separated_ me by a hair," he said politely.
And he told them in the dormitory that he meant to take a little
holiday before his next crib, though a certain inherited reticence
suppressed the fact of the legacy.
"You'll do that all right," said Ascough, the head of the boot shop.
"It's quite the fashion just at present. Six Weeks in Wonderful Wood
Street. They're running excursions...."
"A little holiday"; that was the form his sense of wealth took first,
that it made a little holiday possible. Holidays were his life, and
the rest merely adulterated living. And now he might take a little
holiday and have money for railway fares and money for meals and money
for inns. But--he wanted someone to take the holiday with.
For a time he cherished a design of hunting up Parsons, getting him to
throw up his situation, and going with him to Stratford-on-Avon and
Shrewsbury and the Welsh mountains and the Wye and a lot of places
like that, for a really gorgeous, careless, illimitable old holiday of
a month. But alas! Parsons had gone from the St. Paul's Churchyard
outfitter's long ago, and left no address.
Mr. Polly tried to think he would be almost as happy wandering alone,
but he knew better. He had dreamt of casual encounters with
delightfully interesting people by the wayside--even romantic
encounters. Such things happened in Chaucer and "Bocashiew," they
happened with extreme facility in Mr. Richard Le Gallienne's very
detrimental book, _The Quest of the Golden Girl_, which he had read at
Canterbury, but he had no confidence they would happen in England--to
When, a month later, he came out of the Clapham side door at last into
the bright sunshine of a fine London day, with a dazzling sense of
limitless freedom upon him, he did nothing more adventurous than order
the cabman to drive to Waterloo, and there take a ticket for Easewood.
He wanted--what _did_ he want most in life? I think his distinctive
craving is best expressed as fun--fun in companionship. He had already
spent a pound or two upon three select feasts to his fellow
assistants, sprat suppers they were, and there had been a great and
very successful Sunday pilgrimage to Richmond, by Wandsworth and
Wimbledon's open common, a trailing garrulous company walking about a
solemnly happy host, to wonderful cold meat and salad at the Roebuck,
a bowl of punch, punch! and a bill to correspond; but now it was a
weekday, and he went down to Easewood with his bag and portmanteau in
a solitary compartment, and looked out of the window upon a world in
which every possible congenial seemed either toiling in a situation
or else looking for one with a gnawing and hopelessly preoccupying
anxiety. He stared out of the window at the exploitation roads of
suburbs, and rows of houses all very much alike, either emphatically
and impatiently _to let_ or full of rather busy unsocial people.
Near Wimbledon he had a glimpse of golf links, and saw two elderly
gentlemen who, had they chosen, might have been gentlemen of grace
and leisure, addressing themselves to smite little hunted white balls
great distances with the utmost bitterness and dexterity. Mr. Polly
could not understand them.
Every road he remarked, as freshly as though he had never observed it
before, was bordered by inflexible palings or iron fences or severely
disciplined hedges. He wondered if perhaps abroad there might be
beautifully careless, unenclosed high roads. Perhaps after all the
best way of taking a holiday is to go abroad.
He was haunted by the memory of what was either a half-forgotten
picture or a dream; a carriage was drawn up by the wayside and four
beautiful people, two men and two women graciously dressed, were
dancing a formal ceremonious dance full of bows and curtseys, to the
music of a wandering fiddler they had encountered. They had been
driving one way and he walking another--a happy encounter with this
obvious result. They might have come straight out of happy Theleme,
whose motto is: "Do what thou wilt." The driver had taken his two
sleek horses out; they grazed unchallenged; and he sat on a stone
clapping time with his hands while the fiddler played. The shade of
the trees did not altogether shut out the sunshine, the grass in the
wood was lush and full of still daffodils, the turf they danced on was
starred with daisies.
Mr. Polly, dear heart! firmly believed that things like that could and
did happen--somewhere. Only it puzzled him that morning that he never
saw them happening. Perhaps they happened south of Guilford. Perhaps
they happened in Italy. Perhaps they ceased to happen a hundred years
ago. Perhaps they happened just round the corner--on weekdays when all
good Mr. Pollys are safely shut up in shops. And so dreaming of
delightful impossibilities until his heart ached for them, he was
rattled along in the suburban train to Johnson's discreet home and the
briskly stimulating welcome of Mrs. Johnson.
Mr. Polly translated his restless craving for joy and leisure into
Harold Johnsonese by saying that he meant to look about him for a bit
before going into another situation. It was a decision Johnson very
warmly approved. It was arranged that Mr. Polly should occupy his
former room and board with the Johnsons in consideration of a weekly
payment of eighteen shillings. And the next morning Mr. Polly went out
early and reappeared with a purchase, a safety bicycle, which he
proposed to study and master in the sandy lane below the Johnsons'
house. But over the struggles that preceded his mastery it is humane
to draw a veil.
And also Mr. Polly bought a number of books, Rabelais for his own, and
"The Arabian Nights," the works of Sterne, a pile of "Tales from
Blackwood," cheap in a second-hand bookshop, the plays of William
Shakespeare, a second-hand copy of Belloc's "Road to Rome," an odd
volume of "Purchas his Pilgrimes" and "The Life and Death of Jason."
"Better get yourself a good book on bookkeeping," said Johnson,
turning over perplexing pages.
A belated spring was now advancing with great strides to make up for
lost time. Sunshine and a stirring wind were poured out over the land,
fleets of towering clouds sailed upon urgent tremendous missions
across the blue seas of heaven, and presently Mr. Polly was riding a
little unstably along unfamiliar Surrey roads, wondering always what
was round the next corner, and marking the blackthorn and looking out
for the first white flower-buds of the may. He was perplexed and
distressed, as indeed are all right thinking souls, that there is no
may in early May.
He did not ride at the even pace sensible people use who have marked
out a journey from one place to another, and settled what time it will
take them. He rode at variable speeds, and always as though he was
looking for something that, missing, left life attractive still, but a
little wanting in significance. And sometimes he was so unreasonably
happy he had to whistle and sing, and sometimes he was incredibly, but
not at all painfully, sad. His indigestion vanished with air and
exercise, and it was quite pleasant in the evening to stroll about the
garden with Johnson and discuss plans for the future. Johnson was full
of ideas. Moreover, Mr. Polly had marked the road that led to Stamton,
that rising populous suburb; and as his bicycle legs grew strong his
wheel with a sort of inevitableness carried him towards the row of
houses in a back street in which his Larkins cousins made their home
He was received with great enthusiasm.
The street was a dingy little street, a _cul-de-sac_ of very small
houses in a row, each with an almost flattened bow window and a
blistered brown door with a black knocker. He poised his bright new
bicycle against the window, and knocked and stood waiting, and felt
himself in his straw hat and black serge suit a very pleasant and
prosperous-looking figure. The door was opened by cousin Miriam. She
was wearing a bluish print dress that brought out a kind of sallow
warmth in her skin, and although it was nearly four o'clock in the
afternoon, her sleeves were tucked up, as if for some domestic work,
above the elbows, showing her rather slender but very shapely
yellowish arms. The loosely pinned bodice confessed a delicately
For a moment she regarded him with suspicion and a faint hostility,
and then recognition dawned in her eyes.
"Why!" she said, "it's cousin Elfrid!"
"Thought I'd look you up," he said.
"Fancy! you coming to see us like this!" she answered.
They stood confronting one another for a moment, while Miriam
collected herself for the unexpected emergency.
"Explorations menanderings," said Mr. Polly, indicating the bicycle.
Miriam's face betrayed no appreciation of the remark.
"Wait a moment," she said, coming to a rapid decision, "and I'll tell
She closed the door on him abruptly, leaving him a little surprised in
the street. "Ma!" he heard her calling, and swift speech followed, the
import of which he didn't catch. Then she reappeared. It seemed but an
instant, but she was changed; the arms had vanished into sleeves, the
apron had gone, a certain pleasing disorder of the hair had been at
"I didn't mean to shut you out," she said, coming out upon the step.
"I just told Ma. How are you, Elfrid? You _are_ looking well. I didn't
know you rode a bicycle. Is it a new one?"
She leaned upon his bicycle. "Bright it is!" she said. "What a trouble
you must have to keep it clean!"
Mr. Polly was aware of a rustling transit along the passage, and of
the house suddenly full of hushed but strenuous movement.
"It's plated mostly," said Mr. Polly.
"What do you carry in that little bag thing?" she asked, and then
branched off to: "We're all in a mess to-day you know. It's my
cleaning up day to-day. I'm not a bit tidy I know, but I _do_ like to
'_ave_ a go in at things now and then. You got to take us as you find
us, Elfrid. Mercy we wasn't all out." She paused. She was talking
against time. "I _am_ glad to see you again," she repeated.
"Couldn't keep away," said Mr. Polly gallantly. "Had to come over and
see my pretty cousins again."
Miriam did not answer for a moment. She coloured deeply. "You _do say_
things!" she said.
She stared at Mr. Polly, and his unfortunate sense of fitness made him
nod his head towards her, regard her firmly with a round brown eye,
and add impressively: "I don't say _which_ of them."
Her answering expression made him realise for an instant the terrible
dangers he trifled with. Avidity flared up in her eyes. Minnie's voice
came happily to dissolve the situation.
"'Ello, Elfrid!" she said from the doorstep.
Her hair was just passably tidy, and she was a little effaced by a red
blouse, but there was no mistaking the genuine brightness of her
He was to come in to tea, and Mrs. Larkins, exuberantly genial in a
floriferous but dingy flannel dressing gown, appeared to confirm that.
He brought in his bicycle and put it in the narrow, empty passage, and
everyone crowded into a small untidy kitchen, whose table had been
hastily cleared of the _debris_ of the midday repast.
"You must come in 'ere," said Mrs. Larkins, "for Miriam's turning out
the front room. I never did see such a girl for cleanin' up. Miriam's
'oliday's a scrub. You've caught us on the 'Op as the sayin' is, but
Welcome all the same. Pity Annie's at work to-day; she won't be 'ome
Miriam put chairs and attended to the fire, Minnie edged up to Mr.
Polly and said: "I _am_ glad to see you again, Elfrid," with a warm
contiguous intimacy that betrayed a broken tooth. Mrs. Larkins got out
tea things, and descanted on the noble simplicity of their lives, and
how he "mustn't mind our simple ways." They enveloped Mr. Polly with a
geniality that intoxicated his amiable nature; he insisted upon
helping lay the things, and created enormous laughter by pretending
not to know where plates and knives and cups ought to go. "Who'm I
going to sit next?" he said, and developed voluminous amusement by
attempts to arrange the plates so that he could rub elbows with all
three. Mrs. Larkins had to sit down in the windsor chair by the
grandfather clock (which was dark with dirt and not going) to laugh at
her ease at his well-acted perplexity.
They got seated at last, and Mr. Polly struck a vein of humour in
telling them how he learnt to ride the bicycle. He found the mere
repetition of the word "wabble" sufficient to produce almost
"No foreseeing little accidentulous misadventures," he said, "none
(Giggle from Minnie.)
"Stout elderly gentleman--shirt sleeves--large straw wastepaper basket
sort of hat--starts to cross the road--going to the oil shop--prodic
refreshment of oil can--"
"Don't say you run 'im down," said Mrs. Larkins, gasping. "Don't say
you run 'im down, Elfrid!"
"Run 'im down! Not me, Madam. I never run anything down. Wabble. Ring
the bell. Wabble, wabble--"
(Laughter and tears.)
"No one's going to run him down. Hears the bell! Wabble. Gust of wind.
Off comes the hat smack into the wheel. Wabble. _Lord! what's_ going
to happen? Hat across the road, old gentleman after it, bell, shriek.
He ran into me. Didn't ring his bell, hadn't _got_ a bell--just ran
into me. Over I went clinging to his venerable head. Down he went with
me clinging to him. Oil can blump, blump into the road."
(Interlude while Minnie is attended to for crumb in the windpipe.)
"Well, what happened to the old man with the oil can?" said Mrs.
"We sat about among the debreece and had a bit of an argument. I told
him he oughtn't to come out wearing such a dangerous hat--flying at
things. Said if he couldn't control his hat he ought to leave it at
home. High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. 'I tell you,
sir--' 'I tell _you_, sir.' Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that's the
sort of thing that's constantly happening you know--on a bicycle.
People run into you, hens and cats and dogs and things. Everything
seems to have its mark on you; everything."
"_You_ never run into anything."
"Never. Swelpme," said Mr. Polly very solemnly.
"Never, 'E say!" squealed Minnie. "Hark at 'im!" and relapsed into a
condition that urgently demanded back thumping. "Don't be so silly,"
said Miriam, thumping hard.
Mr. Polly had never been such a social success before. They hung upon
his every word--and laughed. What a family they were for laughter! And
he loved laughter. The background he apprehended dimly; it was very
much the sort of background his life had always had. There was a
threadbare tablecloth on the table, and the slop basin and teapot did
not go with the cups and saucers, the plates were different again, the
knives worn down, the butter lived in a greenish glass dish of its
own. Behind was a dresser hung with spare and miscellaneous crockery,
with a workbox and an untidy work-basket, there was an ailing musk
plant in the window, and the tattered and blotched wallpaper was
covered by bright-coloured grocers' almanacs. Feminine wrappings hung
from pegs upon the door, and the floor was covered with a varied
collection of fragments of oilcloth. The Windsor chair he sat in was
unstable--which presently afforded material for humour. "Steady, old
nag," he said; "whoa, my friskiacious palfry!"
"The things he says! You never know what he won't say next!"
"You ain't talkin' of goin'!" cried Mrs. Larkins.
"Supper at eight."
"Stay to supper with _us_, now you '_ave_ come over," said Mrs.
Larkins, with corroborating cries from Minnie. "'Ave a bit of a walk
with the gals, and then come back to supper. You might all go and meet
Annie while I straighten up, and lay things out."
"You're not to go touching the front room mind," said Miriam.
"_Who's_ going to touch yer front room?" said Mrs. Larkins, apparently
forgetful for a moment of Mr. Polly.
Both girls dressed with some care while Mrs. Larkins sketched the
better side of their characters, and then the three young people went
out to see something of Stamton. In the streets their risible mood
gave way to a self-conscious propriety that was particularly evident
in Miriam's bearing. They took Mr. Polly to the Stamton Wreckeryation
ground--that at least was what they called it--with its handsome
custodian's cottage, its asphalt paths, its Jubilee drinking fountain,
its clumps of wallflower and daffodils, and so to the new cemetery and
a distant view of the Surrey hills, and round by the gasworks to the
canal to the factory, that presently disgorged a surprised and radiant
"El-_lo_" said Annie.
It is very pleasant to every properly constituted mind to be a centre
of amiable interest for one's fellow creatures, and when one is a
young man conscious of becoming mourning and a certain wit, and the
fellow creatures are three young and ardent and sufficiently
expressive young women who dispute for the honour of walking by one's
side, one may be excused a secret exaltation. They did dispute.
"I'm going to '_ave_ 'im now," said Annie. "You two've been 'aving 'im
all the afternoon. Besides, I've got something to say to him."
She had something to say to him. It came presently. "I say," she said
abruptly. "I _did_ get them rings out of a prize packet."
"What rings?" asked Mr. Polly.
"What you saw at your poor father's funeral. You made out they meant
something. They didn't--straight."
"Then some people have been very remiss about their chances," said Mr.
"They haven't had any chances," said Annie. "I don't believe in making
oneself too free with people."
"Nor me," said Mr. Polly.
"I may be a bit larky and cheerful in my manner," Annie admitted. "But
it don't _mean_ anything. I ain't that sort."
"Right O," said Mr. Polly.
It was past ten when Mr. Polly found himself riding back towards
Easewood in a broad moonlight with a little Japanese lantern dangling
from his handle bar and making a fiery circle of pinkish light on and
round about his front wheel. He was mightily pleased with himself and
the day. There had been four-ale to drink at supper mixed with
gingerbeer, very free and jolly in a jug. No shadow fell upon the
agreeable excitement of his mind until he faced the anxious and
reproachful face of Johnson, who had been sitting up for him, smoking
and trying to read the odd volume of "Purchas his Pilgrimes,"--about
the monk who went into Sarmatia and saw the Tartar carts.
"Not had an accident, Elfrid?" said Johnson.
The weakness of Mr. Polly's character came out in his reply. "Not
much," he said. "Pedal got a bit loose in Stamton, O' Man. Couldn't
ride it. So I looked up the cousins while I waited."
"Not the Larkins lot?"
Johnson yawned hugely and asked for and was given friendly
particulars. "Well," he said, "better get to bed. I have been reading
that book of yours--rum stuff. Can't make it out quite. Quite out of
date I should say if you asked me."
"That's all right, O' Man," said Mr. Polly.
"Not a bit of use for anything I can see."
"Not a bit."
"See any shops in Stamton?"
"Nothing to speak of," said Mr. Polly. "Goo-night, O' Man."
Before and after this brief conversation his mind ran on his cousins
very warmly and prettily in the vein of high spring. Mr. Polly had
been drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature,
fountains so unsuited to the needs of a decent clerk or shopman,
fountains charged with the dangerous suggestion that it becomes a man
of gaiety and spirit to make love, gallantly and rather carelessly. It
seemed to him that evening to be handsome and humorous and practicable
to make love to all his cousins. It wasn't that he liked any of them
particularly, but he liked something about them. He liked their youth
and femininity, their resolute high spirits and their interest in him.
They laughed at nothing and knew nothing, and Minnie had lost a tooth
and Annie screamed and shouted, but they were interesting, intensely
And Miriam wasn't so bad as the others. He had kissed them all and had
been kissed in addition several times by Minnie,--"oscoolatory
He buried his nose in his pillow and went to sleep--to dream of
anything rather than getting on in the world, as a sensible young man
in his position ought to have done.
And now Mr. Polly began to lead a divided life. With the Johnsons he
professed to be inclined, but not so conclusively inclined as to be
inconvenient, to get a shop for himself, to be, to use the phrase he
preferred, "looking for an opening." He would ride off in the
afternoon upon that research, remarking that he was going to "cast a
strategetical eye" on Chertsey or Weybridge. But if not all roads,
still a great majority of them, led by however devious ways to
Stamton, and to laughter and increasing familiarity. Relations
developed with Annie and Minnie and Miriam. Their various characters
were increasingly interesting. The laughter became perceptibly less
abundant, something of the fizz had gone from the first opening, still
these visits remained wonderfully friendly and upholding. Then back he
would come to grave but evasive discussions with Johnson.
Johnson was really anxious to get Mr. Polly "into something." His was
a reserved honest character, and he would really have preferred to see
his lodger doing things for himself than receive his money for
housekeeping. He hated waste, anybody's waste, much more than he
desired profit. But Mrs. Johnson was all for Mr. Polly's loitering.
She seemed much the more human and likeable of the two to Mr. Polly.
He tried at times to work up enthusiasm for the various avenues to
well-being his discussion with Johnson opened. But they remained
disheartening prospects. He imagined himself wonderfully smartened up,
acquiring style and value in a London shop, but the picture was stiff
and unconvincing. He tried to rouse himself to enthusiasm by the idea
of his property increasing by leaps and bounds, by twenty pounds a
year or so, let us say, each year, in a well-placed little shop, the
corner shop Johnson favoured. There was a certain picturesque interest
in imagining cut-throat economies, but his heart told him there would
be little in practising them.
And then it happened to Mr. Polly that real Romance came out of
dreamland into life, and intoxicated and gladdened him with sweetly
beautiful suggestions--and left him. She came and left him as that
dear lady leaves so many of us, alas! not sparing him one jot or one
tittle of the hollowness of her retreating aspect.
It was all the more to Mr. Polly's taste that the thing should happen
as things happen in books.
In a resolute attempt not to get to Stamton that day, he had turned
due southward from Easewood towards a country where the abundance of
bracken jungles, lady's smock, stitchwork, bluebells and grassy
stretches by the wayside under shady trees does much to compensate the
lighter type of mind for the absence of promising "openings." He
turned aside from the road, wheeled his machine along a faintly marked
attractive trail through bracken until he came to a heap of logs
against a high old stone wall with a damaged coping and wallflower
plants already gone to seed. He sat down, balanced the straw hat on a
convenient lump of wood, lit a cigarette, and abandoned himself to
agreeable musings and the friendly observation of a cheerful little
brown and grey bird his stillness presently encouraged to approach
him. "This is All Right," said Mr. Polly softly to the little brown
and grey bird. "Business--later."
He reflected that he might go on this way for four or five years, and
then be scarcely worse off than he had been in his father's lifetime.
"Vile Business," said Mr. Polly.
Then Romance appeared. Or to be exact, Romance became audible.
Romance began as a series of small but increasingly vigorous movements
on the other side of the wall, then as a voice murmuring, then as a
falling of little fragments on the hither side and as ten pink finger
tips, scarcely apprehended before Romance became startling and
emphatically a leg, remained for a time a fine, slender, actively
struggling limb, brown stockinged and wearing a brown toe-worn shoe,
and then--. A handsome red-haired girl wearing a short dress of blue
linen was sitting astride the wall, panting, considerably disarranged
by her climbing, and as yet unaware of Mr. Polly....
His fine instincts made him turn his head away and assume an attitude
of negligent contemplation, with his ears and mind alive to every
sound behind him.
"Goodness!" said a voice with a sharp note of surprise.
Mr. Polly was on his feet in an instant. "Dear me! Can I be of any
assistance?" he said with deferential gallantry.
"I don't know," said the young lady, and regarded him calmly with
clear blue eyes.
"I didn't know there was anyone here," she added.
"Sorry," said Mr. Polly, "if I am intrudaceous. I didn't know you
didn't want me to be here."
She reflected for a moment on the word. "It isn't that," she said,
"I oughtn't to get over the wall," she explained. "It's out of bounds.
At least in term time. But this being holidays--"
Her manner placed the matter before him.
"Holidays is different," said Mr. Polly.
"I don't want to actually _break_ the rules," she said.
"Leave them behind you," said Mr. Polly with a catch of the breath,
"where they are safe"; and marvelling at his own wit and daring, and
indeed trembling within himself, he held out a hand for her.
She brought another brown leg from the unknown, and arranged her skirt
with a dexterity altogether feminine. "I think I'll stay on the wall,"
she decided. "So long as some of me's in bounds--"
She continued to regard him with eyes that presently joined dancing in
an irresistible smile of satisfaction. Mr. Polly smiled in return.
"You bicycle?" she said.
Mr. Polly admitted the fact, and she said she did too.
"All my people are in India," she explained. "It's beastly rot--I mean
it's frightfully dull being left here alone."
"All _my_ people," said Mr. Polly, "are in Heaven!"
"Fact!" said Mr. Polly. "Got nobody."
"And that's why--" she checked her artless comment on his mourning. "I
say," she said in a sympathetic voice, "I _am_ sorry. I really am. Was
it a fire or a ship--or something?"
Her sympathy was very delightful. He shook his head. "The ordinary
table of mortality," he said. "First one and then another."
Behind his outward melancholy, delight was dancing wildly. "Are _you_
lonely?" asked the girl.
Mr. Polly nodded.
"I was just sitting there in melancholy rectrospectatiousness," he
said, indicating the logs, and again a swift thoughtfulness swept
across her face.
"There's no harm in our talking," she reflected.
"It's a kindness. Won't you get down?"
She reflected, and surveyed the turf below and the scene around and
"I'll stay on the wall," she said. "If only for bounds' sake."
She certainly looked quite adorable on the wall. She had a fine neck
and pointed chin that was particularly admirable from below, and
pretty eyes and fine eyebrows are never so pretty as when they look
down upon one. But no calculation of that sort, thank Heaven, was
going on beneath her ruddy shock of hair.
"Let's talk," she said, and for a time they were both tongue-tied.
Mr. Polly's literary proclivities had taught him that under such
circumstances a strain of gallantry was demanded. And something in his
blood repeated that lesson.
"You make me feel like one of those old knights," he said, "who rode
about the country looking for dragons and beautiful maidens and
"Oh!" she said. "Why?"
"Beautiful maiden," he said.
She flushed under her freckles with the quick bright flush those
pretty red-haired people have. "Nonsense!" she said.
"You are. I'm not the first to tell you that. A beautiful maiden
imprisoned in an enchanted school."
"_You_ wouldn't think it enchanted!"
"And here am I--clad in steel. Well, not exactly, but my fiery war
horse is anyhow. Ready to absquatulate all the dragons and rescue
She laughed, a jolly laugh that showed delightfully gleaming teeth. "I
wish you could _see_ the dragons," she said with great enjoyment. Mr.
Polly felt they were a sun's distance from the world of everyday.
"Fly with me!" he dared.
She stared for a moment, and then went off into peals of laughter.
"You _are_ funny!" she said. "Why, I haven't known you five minutes."
"One doesn't--in this medevial world. My mind is made up, anyhow."
He was proud and pleased with his joke, and quick to change his key
neatly. "I wish one could," he said.
"I wonder if people ever did!"
"If there were people like you."
"We don't even know each other's names," she remarked with a descent
to matters of fact.
"Yours is the prettiest name in the world."
"How do you know?"
"It must be--anyhow."
"It _is_ rather pretty you know--it's Christabel."
"What did I tell you?"
"Poorer than I deserve. It's Alfred."
"_I_ can't call you Alfred."
"It's a girl's name!"
For a moment he was out of tune. "I wish it was!" he said, and could
have bitten out his tongue at the Larkins sound of it.
"I shan't forget it," she remarked consolingly.
"I say," she said in the pause that followed. "Why are you riding
about the country on a bicycle?"
"I'm doing it because I like it."
She sought to estimate his social status on her limited basis of
experience. He stood leaning with one hand against the wall, looking
up at her and tingling with daring thoughts. He was a littleish man,
you must remember, but neither mean-looking nor unhandsome in those
days, sunburnt by his holiday and now warmly flushed. He had an
inspiration to simple speech that no practised trifler with love could
have bettered. "There _is_ love at first sight," he said, and said it
She stared at him with eyes round and big with excitement.
"I think," she said slowly, and without any signs of fear or retreat,
"I ought to get back over the wall."
"It needn't matter to you," he said. "I'm just a nobody. But I know
you are the best and most beautiful thing I've ever spoken to." His
breath caught against something. "No harm in telling you that," he
"I should have to go back if I thought you were serious," she said
after a pause, and they both smiled together.
After that they talked in a fragmentary way for some time. The blue
eyes surveyed Mr. Polly with kindly curiosity from under a broad,
finely modelled brow, much as an exceptionally intelligent cat might
survey a new sort of dog. She meant to find out all about him. She
asked questions that riddled the honest knight in armour below, and
probed ever nearer to the hateful secret of the shop and his normal
servitude. And when he made a flourish and mispronounced a word a
thoughtful shade passed like the shadow of a cloud across her face.
"Boom!" came the sound of a gong.
"Lordy!" cried the girl and flashed a pair of brown legs at him and
Then her pink finger tips reappeared, and the top of her red hair.
"Knight!" she cried from the other side of the wall. "Knight there!"
"Lady!" he answered.
"Come again to-morrow!"
"At your command. But----"
"Just one finger."
"What do you mean?"
The rustle of retreating footsteps and silence....
But after he had waited next day for twenty minutes she reappeared, a
little out of breath with the effort to surmount the wall--and head
first this time. And it seemed to him she was lighter and more daring
and altogether prettier than the dreams and enchanted memories that
had filled the interval.
From first to last their acquaintance lasted ten days, but into that
time Mr. Polly packed ten years of dreams.
"He don't seem," said Johnson, "to take a serious interest in
anything. That shop at the corner's bound to be snapped up if he don't
The girl and Mr. Polly did not meet on every one of those ten days;
one was Sunday and she could not come, and on the eighth the school
reassembled and she made vague excuses. All their meetings amounted to
this, that she sat on the wall, more or less in bounds as she
expressed it, and let Mr. Polly fall in love with her and try to
express it below. She sat in a state of irresponsible exaltation,
watching him and at intervals prodding a vivisecting point of
encouragement into him--with that strange passive cruelty which is
natural to her sex and age.
And Mr. Polly fell in love, as though the world had given way beneath
him and he had dropped through into another, into a world of luminous
clouds and of desolate hopeless wildernesses of desiring and of wild
valleys of unreasonable ecstasies, a world whose infinite miseries
were finer and in some inexplicable way sweeter than the purest gold
of the daily life, whose joys--they were indeed but the merest remote
glimpses of joy--were brighter than a dying martyr's vision of heaven.
Her smiling face looked down upon him out of heaven, her careless pose
was the living body of life. It was senseless, it was utterly foolish,
but all that was best and richest in Mr. Polly's nature broke like a
wave and foamed up at that girl's feet, and died, and never touched
her. And she sat on the wall and marvelled at him and was amused, and
once, suddenly moved and wrung by his pleading, she bent down rather
shamefacedly and gave him a freckled, tennis-blistered little paw to
kiss. And she looked into his eyes and suddenly felt a perplexity, a
curious swimming of the mind that made her recoil and stiffen, and
wonder afterwards and dream....
And then with some dim instinct of self-protection, she went and told
her three best friends, great students of character all, of this
remarkable phenomenon she had discovered on the other side of the
"Look here," said Mr. Polly, "I'm wild for the love of you! I can't
keep up this gesticulations game any more! I'm not a Knight. Treat me
as a human man. You may sit up there smiling, but I'd die in torments
to have you mine for an hour. I'm nobody and nothing. But look here!
Will you wait for me for five years? You're just a girl yet, and it
wouldn't be hard."
"Shut up!" said Christabel in an aside he did not hear, and something
he did not see touched her hand.
"I've always been just dilletentytating about till now, but I could
work. I've just woke up. Wait till I've got a chance with the money
"But you haven't got much money!"
"I've got enough to take a chance with, some sort of a chance. I'd
find a chance. I'll do that anyhow. I'll go away. I mean what I
say--I'll stop trifling and shirking. If I don't come back it won't
matter. If I do----"
Her expression had become uneasy. Suddenly she bent down towards him.
"Don't!" she said in an undertone.
"Don't go on like this! You're different! Go on being the knight who
wants to kiss my hand as his--what did you call it?" The ghost of a
smile curved her face. "Gurdrum!"
Then through a pause they both stared at each other, listening.
A muffled tumult on the other side of the wall asserted itself.
"Shut _up_, Rosie!" said a voice.
"I tell you I will see! I can't half hear. Give me a leg up!"
"You Idiot! He'll see you. You're spoiling everything."
The bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly's world. He felt as people must
feel who are going to faint.
"You've got someone--" he said aghast.
She found life inexpressible to Mr. Polly. She addressed some unseen
hearers. "You filthy little Beasts!" she cried with a sharp note of
agony in her voice, and swung herself back over the wall and vanished.
There was a squeal of pain and fear, and a swift, fierce altercation.
For a couple of seconds he stood agape.
Then a wild resolve to confirm his worst sense of what was on the
other side of the wall made him seize a log, put it against the
stones, clutch the parapet with insecure fingers, and lug himself to a
momentary balance on the wall.
Romance and his goddess had vanished.
A red-haired girl with a pigtail was wringing the wrist of a
schoolfellow who shrieked with pain and cried: "Mercy! mercy! Ooo!
"You idiot!" cried Christabel. "You giggling Idiot!"
Two other young ladies made off through the beech trees from this
outburst of savagery.
Then the grip of Mr. Polly's fingers gave, and he hit his chin against
the stones and slipped clumsily to the ground again, scraping his
cheek against the wall and hurting his shin against the log by which
he had reached the top. Just for a moment he crouched against the
He swore, staggered to the pile of logs and sat down.
He remained very still for some time, with his lips pressed together.
"Fool," he said at last; "you Blithering Fool!" and began to rub his
shin as though he had just discovered its bruises.
Afterwards he found his face was wet with blood--which was none the
less red stuff from the heart because it came from slight
Chapter the Sixth
It is an illogical consequence of one human being's ill-treatment that
we should fly immediately to another, but that is the way with us. It
seemed to Mr. Polly that only a human touch could assuage the smart of
his humiliation. Moreover it had for some undefined reason to be a
feminine touch, and the number of women in his world was limited.
He thought of the Larkins family--the Larkins whom he had not been
near now for ten long days. Healing people they seemed to him
now--healing, simple people. They had good hearts, and he had
neglected them for a mirage. If he rode over to them he would be able
to talk nonsense and laugh and forget the whirl of memories and
thoughts that was spinning round and round so unendurably in his
"Law!" said Mrs. Larkins, "come in! You're quite a stranger, Elfrid!"
"Been seeing to business," said the unveracious Polly.
"None of 'em ain't at 'ome, but Miriam's just out to do a bit of
shopping. Won't let me shop, she won't, because I'm so keerless. She's
a wonderful manager, that girl. Minnie's got some work at the carpet
place. 'Ope it won't make 'er ill again. She's a loving deliket sort,
is Minnie.... Come into the front parlour. It's a bit untidy, but you
got to take us as you find us. Wot you been doing to your face?"
"Bit of a scrase with the bicycle," said Mr. Polly.
"Trying to pass a carriage on the on side, and he drew up and ran me
against a wall."
Mrs. Larkins scrutinised it. "You ought to '_ave_ someone look after
your scrases," she said. "That's all red and rough. It ought to be
cold-creamed. Bring your bicycle into the passage and come in."
She "straightened up a bit," that is to say she increased the
dislocation of a number of scattered articles, put a workbasket on the
top of several books, swept two or three dogs'-eared numbers of the
_Lady's Own Novelist_ from the table into the broken armchair, and
proceeded to sketch together the tea-things with various such
interpolations as: "Law, if I ain't forgot the butter!" All the while
she talked of Annie's good spirits and cleverness with her millinery,
and of Minnie's affection and Miriam's relative love of order and
management. Mr. Polly stood by the window uneasily and thought how
good and sincere was the Larkins tone. It was well to be back again.
"You're a long time finding that shop of yours," said Mrs. Larkins.
"Don't do to be precipitous," said Mr. Polly.
"No," said Mrs. Larkins, "once you got it you got it. Like choosing a
'usband. You better see you got it good. I kept Larkins 'esitating two
years I did, until I felt sure of him. A 'ansom man 'e was as you can
see by the looks of the girls, but 'ansom is as 'ansom does. You'd
like a bit of jam to your tea, I expect? I 'ope they'll keep _their_
men waiting when the time comes. I tell them if they think of marrying
it only shows they don't know when they're well off. Here's Miriam!"
Miriam entered with several parcels in a net, and a peevish
expression. "Mother," she said, "you might '_ave_ prevented my going
out with the net with the broken handle. I've been cutting my fingers
with the string all the way 'ome." Then she discovered Mr. Polly and
her face brightened.
"Ello, Elfrid!" she said. "Where you been all this time?"
"Looking round," said Mr. Polly.
"Found a shop?"
"One or two likely ones. But it takes time."
"You've got the wrong cups, Mother."
She went into the kitchen, disposed of her purchases, and returned
with the right cups. "What you done to your face, Elfrid?" she asked,
and came and scrutinised his scratches. "All rough it is."
He repeated his story of the accident, and she was sympathetic in a
pleasant homely way.
"You are quiet today," she said as they sat down to tea.
"Meditatious," said Mr. Polly.
Quite by accident he touched her hand on the table, and she answered
"Why not?" thought Mr. Polly, and looking up, caught Mrs. Larkins' eye
and flushed guiltily. But Mrs. Larkins, with unusual restraint, said
nothing. She merely made a grimace, enigmatical, but in its essence
Presently Minnie came in with some vague grievance against the manager
of the carpet-making place about his method of estimating piece work.
Her account was redundant, defective and highly technical, but
redeemed by a certain earnestness. "I'm never within sixpence of what
I reckon to be," she said. "It's a bit too 'ot." Then Mr. Polly,
feeling that he was being conspicuously dull, launched into a
description of the shop he was looking for and the shops he had seen.
His mind warmed up as he talked.
"Found your tongue again," said Mrs. Larkins. He had. He began to
embroider the subject and work upon it. For the first time it assumed
picturesque and desirable qualities in his mind. It stimulated him to
see how readily and willingly they accepted his sketches. Bright ideas
appeared in his mind from nowhere. He was suddenly enthusiastic.
"When I get this shop of mine I shall have a cat. Must make a home for
a cat, you know."
"What, to catch the mice?" said Mrs. Larkins.
"No--sleep in the window. A venerable _signor_ of a cat. Tabby. Cat's
no good if it isn't tabby. Cat I'm going to have, and a canary! Didn't
think of that before, but a cat and a canary seem to go, you know.
Summer weather I shall sit at breakfast in the little room behind the
shop, sun streaming in the window to rights, cat on a chair, canary
singing and--Mrs. Polly...."
"Ello!" said Mrs. Larkins.
"Mrs. Polly frying an extra bit of bacon. Bacon singing, cat singing,
canary singing. Kettle singing. Mrs. Polly--"
"But who's Mrs. Polly going to be?" said Mrs. Larkins.
"Figment of the imagination, ma'am," said Mr. Polly. "Put in to fill
up picture. No face to figure as yet. Still, that's how it will be, I
can assure you. I think I must have a bit of garden. Johnson's the man
for a garden of course," he said, going off at a tangent, "but I don't
mean a fierce sort of garden. Earnest industry. Anxious moments.
Fervous digging. Shan't go in for that sort of garden, ma'am. No! Too
much backache for me. My garden will be just a patch of 'sturtiums and
sweet pea. Red brick yard, clothes' line. Trellis put up in odd time.
Humorous wind vane. Creeper up the back of the house."
"Virginia creeper?" asked Miriam.
"Canary creeper," said Mr. Polly.
"You _will_ '_ave_ it nice," said Miriam, desirously.
"Rather," said Mr. Polly. "Ting-a-ling-a-ling. _Shop!_"
He straightened himself up and then they all laughed.
"Smart little shop," he said. "Counter. Desk. All complete. Umbrella
stand. Carpet on the floor. Cat asleep on the counter. Ties and hose
on a rail over the counter. All right."
"I wonder you don't set about it right off," said Miriam.
"Mean to get it exactly right, m'am," said Mr. Polly.
"Have to have a tomcat," said Mr. Polly, and paused for an expectant
moment. "Wouldn't do to open shop one morning, you know, and find the
window full of kittens. Can't sell kittens...."
When tea was over he was left alone with Minnie for a few minutes, and
an odd intimation of an incident occurred that left Mr. Polly rather
scared and shaken. A silence fell between them--an uneasy silence. He
sat with his elbows on the table looking at her. All the way from
Easewood to Stamton his erratic imagination had been running upon neat
ways of proposing marriage. I don't know why it should have done, but
it had. It was a kind of secret exercise that had not had any definite
aim at the time, but which now recurred to him with extraordinary
force. He couldn't think of anything in the world that wasn't the
gambit to a proposal. It was almost irresistibly fascinating to think
how immensely a few words from him would excite and revolutionise
Minnie. She was sitting at the table with a workbasket among the tea
things, mending a glove in order to avoid her share of clearing away.
"I like cats," said Minnie after a thoughtful pause. "I'm always
saying to mother, 'I wish we 'ad a cat.' But we couldn't '_ave_ a cat
'ere--not with no yard."
"Never had a cat myself," said Mr. Polly. "No!"
"I'm fond of them," said Minnie.
"I like the look of them," said Mr. Polly. "Can't exactly call myself
"I expect I shall get one some day. When about you get your shop."
"I shall have my shop all right before long," said Mr. Polly. "Trust
me. Canary bird and all."
She shook her head. "I shall get a cat first," she said. "You never
mean anything you say."
"Might get 'em together," said Mr. Polly, with his sense of a neat
thing outrunning his discretion.
"Why! 'ow d'you mean?" said Minnie, suddenly alert.
"Shop and cat thrown in," said Mr. Polly in spite of himself, and his
head swam and he broke out into a cold sweat as he said it.
He found her eyes fixed on him with an eager expression. "Mean to
say--" she began as if for verification. He sprang to his feet, and
turned to the window. "Little dog!" he said, and moved doorward
hastily. "Eating my bicycle tire, I believe," he explained. And so
He saw his bicycle in the hall and cut it dead.
He heard Mrs. Larkins in the passage behind him as he opened the front
He turned to her. "Thought my bicycle was on fire," he said. "Outside.
Funny fancy! All right, reely. Little dog outside.... Miriam ready?"
"To go and meet Annie."
Mrs. Larkins stared at him. "You're stopping for a bit of supper?"
"If I may," said Mr. Polly.
"You're a rum un," said Mrs. Larkins, and called: "Miriam!"
Minnie appeared at the door of the room looking infinitely perplexed.
"There ain't a little dog anywhere, Elfrid," she said.
Mr. Polly passed his hand over his brow. "I had a most curious
sensation. Felt exactly as though something was up somewhere. That's
why I said Little Dog. All right now."
He bent down and pinched his bicycle tire.
"You was saying something about a cat, Elfrid," said Minnie.
"Give you one," he answered without looking up. "The very day my shop
He straightened himself up and smiled reassuringly. "Trust me," he
When, after imperceptible manoeuvres by Mrs. Larkins, he found himself
starting circuitously through the inevitable recreation ground with
Miriam to meet Annie, he found himself quite unable to avoid the topic
of the shop that had now taken such a grip upon him. A sense of danger
only increased the attraction. Minnie's persistent disposition to
accompany them had been crushed by a novel and violent and urgently
expressed desire on the part of Mrs. Larkins to see her do something
in the house sometimes....
"You really think you'll open a shop?" asked Miriam.
"I hate cribs," said Mr. Polly, adopting a moderate tone. "In a shop
there's this drawback and that, but one is one's own master."
"That wasn't all talk?"
"Not a bit of it."
"After all," he went on, "a little shop needn't be so bad."
"It's a 'ome," said Miriam.
"It's a home."
"There's no need to keep accounts and that sort of thing if there's no
assistant. I daresay I could run a shop all right if I wasn't
"I should like to see you in your shop," said Miriam. "I expect you'd
keep everything tremendously neat."
The conversation flagged.
"Let's sit down on one of those seats over there," said Miriam. "Where
we can see those blue flowers."
They did as she suggested, and sat down in a corner where a triangular
bed of stock and delphinium brightened the asphalted traceries of the
"I wonder what they call those flowers," she said. "I always like
them. They're handsome."
"Delphicums and larkspurs," said Mr. Polly. "They used to be in the
park at Port Burdock.
"Floriferous corner," he added approvingly.
He put an arm over the back of the seat, and assumed a more
comfortable attitude. He glanced at Miriam, who was sitting in a lax,
thoughtful pose with her eyes on the flowers. She was wearing her old
dress, she had not had time to change, and the blue tones of her old
dress brought out a certain warmth in her skin, and her pose
exaggerated whatever was feminine in her rather lean and insufficient
body, and rounded her flat chest delusively. A little line of light
lay along her profile. The afternoon was full of transfiguring
sunshine, children were playing noisily in the adjacent sandpit, some
Judas trees were brightly abloom in the villa gardens that bordered
the Recreation Ground, and all the place was bright with touches of
young summer colour. It all merged with the effect of Miriam in Mr.
Her thoughts found speech. "One did ought to be happy in a shop," she
said with a note of unusual softness in her voice.
It seemed to him that she was right. One did ought to be happy in a
shop. Folly not to banish dreams that made one ache of townless woods
and bracken tangles and red-haired linen-clad figures sitting in
dappled sunshine upon grey and crumbling walls and looking queenly
down on one with clear blue eyes. Cruel and foolish dreams they were,
that ended in one's being laughed at and made a mock of. There was no
"A shop's such a respectable thing to be," said Miriam thoughtfully.
"_I_ could be happy in a shop," he said.
His sense of effect made him pause.
"If I had the right company," he added.
She became very still.
Mr. Polly swerved a little from the conversational ice-run upon which
he had embarked.
"I'm not such a blooming Geezer," he said, "as not to be able to sell
goods a bit. One has to be nosy over one's buying of course. But I
shall do all right."
He stopped, and felt falling, falling through the aching silence that
"If you get the right company," said Miriam.
"I shall get that all right."
"You don't mean you've got someone--"
He found himself plunging.
"I've got someone in my eye, this minute," he said.
"Elfrid!" she said, turning on him. "You don't mean--"
Well, _did_ he mean? "I do!" he said.
"Not reely!" She clenched her hands to keep still.
He took the conclusive step.
"Well, you and me, Miriam, in a little shop--with a cat and a
canary--" He tried too late to get back to a hypothetical note. "Just
"You mean," said Miriam, "you're in love with me, Elfrid?"
What possible answer can a man give to such a question but "Yes!"
Regardless of the public park, the children in the sandpit and
everyone, she bent forward and seized his shoulder and kissed him on
the lips. Something lit up in Mr. Polly at the touch. He put an arm
about her and kissed her back, and felt an irrevocable act was sealed.
He had a curious feeling that it would be very satisfying to marry and
have a wife--only somehow he wished it wasn't Miriam. Her lips were
very pleasant to him, and the feel of her in his arm.
They recoiled a little from each other and sat for a moment, flushed
and awkwardly silent. His mind was altogether incapable of controlling
"I didn't dream," said Miriam, "you cared--. Sometimes I thought it
was Annie, sometimes Minnie--"
"Always liked you better than them," said Mr. Polly.
"I loved you, Elfrid," said Miriam, "since ever we met at your poor
father's funeral. Leastways I _would_ have done, if I had thought. You
didn't seem to mean anything you said.
"I _can't_ believe it!" she added.
"Nor I," said Mr. Polly.
"You mean to marry me and start that little shop--"
"Soon as ever I find it," said Mr. Polly.
"I had no more idea when I came out with you--"
"It's like a dream."
They said no more for a little while.
"I got to pinch myself to think it's real," said Miriam. "What they'll
do without me at 'ome I can't imagine. When I tell them--"
For the life of him Mr. Polly could not tell whether he was fullest of
tender anticipations or regretful panic.
"Mother's no good at managing--not a bit. Annie don't care for 'ouse
work and Minnie's got no 'ed for it. What they'll do without me I
"They'll have to do without you," said Mr. Polly, sticking to his
A clock in the town began striking.
"Lor'!" said Miriam, "we shall miss Annie--sitting 'ere and
She rose and made as if to take Mr. Polly's arm. But Mr. Polly felt
that their condition must be nakedly exposed to the ridicule of the
world by such a linking, and evaded her movement.
Annie was already in sight before a flood of hesitation and terrors
assailed Mr. Polly.
"Don't tell anyone yet a bit," he said.
"Only mother," said Miriam firmly.
Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest
little squiggles of black--looked at in the right light, and yet
consider the blow they can give you upon the heart. You return from a
little careless holiday abroad, and turn over the page of a newspaper,
and against the name of that distant, vague-conceived railway in
mortgages upon which you have embarked the bulk of your capital, you
see instead of the familiar, persistent 95-6 (varying at most to 93
_ex. div._) this slightly richer arrangement of marks: 76 1/2--78 1/2.
It is like the opening of a pit just under your feet!
So, too, Mr. Polly's happy sense of limitless resources was
obliterated suddenly by a vision of this tracery:
instead of the
he had come to regard as the fixed symbol of his affluence.
It gave him a disagreeable feeling about the diaphragm, akin in a
remote degree to the sensation he had when the perfidy of the
red-haired schoolgirl became plain to him. It made his brow moist.
"Going down a vortex!" he whispered.
By a characteristic feat of subtraction he decided that he must have
spent sixty-two pounds.
"Funererial baked meats," he said, recalling possible items.
The happy dream in which he had been living of long warm days, of open
roads, of limitless unchecked hours, of infinite time to look about
him, vanished like a thing enchanted. He was suddenly back in the hard
old economic world, that exacts work, that limits range, that
discourages phrasing and dispels laughter. He saw Wood Street and its
fearful suspenses yawning beneath his feet.
And also he had promised to marry Miriam, and on the whole rather
He was distraught at supper. Afterwards, when Mrs. Johnson had gone to
bed with a slight headache, he opened a conversation with Johnson.
"It's about time, O' Man, I saw about doing something," he said.
"Riding about and looking at shops, all very debonnairious, O' Man,
but it's time I took one for keeps."
"What did I tell you?" said Johnson.
"How do you think that corner shop of yours will figure out?" Mr.
"You're really meaning it?"
"If it's a practable proposition, O' Man. Assuming it's practable.
What's your idea of the figures?"
Johnson went to the chiffonier, got out a letter and tore off the back
sheet. "Let's figure it out," he said with solemn satisfaction. "Let's
see the lowest you could do it on."
He squared himself to the task, and Mr. Polly sat beside him like a
pupil, watching the evolution of the grey, distasteful figures that
were to dispose of his little hoard.
"What running expenses have we got to provide for?" said Johnson,
wetting his pencil. "Let's have them first. Rent?..."
At the end of an hour of hideous speculations, Johnson decided: "It's
close. But you'll have a chance."
"M'm," said Mr. Polly. "What more does a brave man want?"
"One thing you can do quite easily. I've asked about it."
"What's that, O' Man?" said Mr. Polly.
"Take the shop without the house above it."
"I suppose I might put my head in to mind it," said Mr. Polly, "and
get a job with my body."
"Not exactly that. But I thought you'd save a lot if you stayed on
here--being all alone as you are."
"Never thought of that, O' Man," said Mr. Polly, and reflected
silently upon the needlessness of Miriam.
"We were talking of eighty pounds for stock," said Johnson. "Of course
seventy-five is five pounds less, isn't it? Not much else we can cut."
"No," said Mr. Polly.
"It's very interesting, all this," said Johnson, folding up the half
sheet of paper and unfolding it. "I wish sometimes I had a business of
my own instead of a fixed salary. You'll have to keep books of
"One wants to know where one is."
"I should do it all by double entry," said Johnson. "A little
troublesome at first, but far the best in the end."
"Lemme see that paper," said Mr. Polly, and took it with the feeling
of a man who takes a nauseating medicine, and scrutinised his cousin's
neat figures with listless eyes.
"Well," said Johnson, rising and stretching. "Bed! Better sleep on it,
"Right O," said Mr. Polly without moving, but indeed he could as well
have slept upon a bed of thorns.
He had a dreadful night. It was like the end of the annual holiday,
only infinitely worse. It was like a newly arrived prisoner's backward
glance at the trees and heather through the prison gates. He had to go
back to harness, and he was as fitted to go in harness as the ordinary
domestic cat. All night, Fate, with the quiet complacency, and indeed
at times the very face and gestures of Johnson, guided him towards
that undesired establishment at the corner near the station. "Oh
Lord!" he cried, "I'd rather go back to cribs. I _should_ keep my
money anyhow." Fate never winced.
"Run away to sea," whispered Mr. Polly, but he knew he wasn't man
"Cut my blooming throat."
Some braver strain urged him to think of Miriam, and for a little
while he lay still....
"Well, O' Man?" said Johnson, when Mr. Polly came down to breakfast,
and Mrs. Johnson looked up brightly. Mr. Polly had never felt
breakfast so unattractive before.
"Just a day or so more, O' Man--to turn it over in my mind," he said.
"You'll get the place snapped up," said Johnson.
There were times in those last few days of coyness with his destiny
when his engagement seemed the most negligible of circumstances, and
times--and these happened for the most part at nights after Mrs.
Johnson had indulged everybody in a Welsh rarebit--when it assumed so
sinister and portentous an appearance as to make him think of suicide.
And there were times too when he very distinctly desired to be
married, now that the idea had got into his head, at any cost. Also he
tried to recall all the circumstances of his proposal, time after
time, and never quite succeeded in recalling what had brought the
thing off. He went over to Stamton with a becoming frequency, and
kissed all his cousins, and Miriam especially, a great deal, and found
it very stirring and refreshing. They all appeared to know; and Minnie
was tearful, but resigned. Mrs. Larkins met him, and indeed enveloped
him, with unwonted warmth, and there was a big pot of household jam
for tea. And he could not make up his mind to sign his name to
anything about the shop, though it crawled nearer and nearer to him,
though the project had materialised now to the extent of a draft
agreement with the place for his signature indicated in pencil.
One morning, just after Mr. Johnson had gone to the station, Mr. Polly
wheeled his bicycle out into the road, went up to his bedroom, packed
his long white nightdress, a comb, and a toothbrush in a manner that
was as offhand as he could make it, informed Mrs. Johnson, who was
manifestly curious, that he was "off for a day or two to clear his
head," and fled forthright into the road, and mounting turned his
wheel towards the tropics and the equator and the south coast of
England, and indeed more particularly to where the little village of
Fishbourne slumbers and sleeps.
When he returned four days later, he astonished Johnson beyond measure
by remarking so soon as the shop project was reopened:
"I've took a little contraption at Fishbourne, O' Man, that I fancy
suits me better."
He paused, and then added in a manner, if possible, even more offhand:
"Oh! and I'm going to have a bit of a nuptial over at Stamton with one
of the Larkins cousins."
"Nuptial!" said Johnson.
"Wedding bells, O' Man. Benedictine collapse."
On the whole Johnson showed great self-control. "It's your own affair,
O' Man," he said, when things had been more clearly explained, "and I
hope you won't feel sorry when it's too late."
But Mrs. Johnson was first of all angrily silent, and then
reproachful. "I don't see what we've done to be made fools of like
this," she said. "After all the trouble we've 'ad to make you
comfortable and see after you. Out late and sitting up and everything.
And then you go off as sly as sly without a word, and get a shop
behind our backs as though you thought we meant to steal your money. I
'aven't patience with such deceitfulness, and I didn't think it of
you, Elfrid. And now the letting season's 'arf gone by, and what I
shall do with that room of yours I've no idea. Frank is frank, and
fair play fair play; so _I_ was told any'ow when I was a girl. Just as
long as it suits you to stay 'ere you stay 'ere, and then it's off and
no thank you whether we like it or not. Johnson's too easy with you.
'E sits there and doesn't say a word, and night after night 'e's been
addin' and thinkin' for you, instead of seeing to his own affairs--"
She paused for breath.
"Unfortunate amoor," said Mr. Polly, apologetically and indistinctly.
"Didn't expect it myself."
Mr. Polly's marriage followed with a certain inevitableness.