Part 3 out of 5
He tried to assure himself that he was acting upon his own forceful
initiative, but at the back of his mind was the completest realisation
of his powerlessness to resist the gigantic social forces he had set
in motion. He had got to marry under the will of society, even as in
times past it has been appointed for other sunny souls under the will
of society that they should be led out by serious and unavoidable
fellow-creatures and ceremoniously drowned or burnt or hung. He would
have preferred infinitely a more observant and less conspicuous role,
but the choice was no longer open to him. He did his best to play his
part, and he procured some particularly neat check trousers to do it
in. The rest of his costume, except for some bright yellow gloves, a
grey and blue mixture tie, and that the broad crape hat-band was
changed for a livelier piece of silk, were the things he had worn at
the funeral of his father. So nearly akin are human joy and sorrow.
The Larkins sisters had done wonders with grey sateen. The idea of
orange blossom and white veils had been abandoned reluctantly on
account of the expense of cabs. A novelette in which the heroine had
stood at the altar in "a modest going-away dress" had materially
assisted this decision. Miriam was frankly tearful, and so indeed was
Annie, but with laughter as well to carry it off. Mr. Polly heard
Annie say something vague about never getting a chance because of
Miriam always sticking about at home like a cat at a mouse-hole, that
became, as people say, food for thought. Mrs. Larkins was from the
first flushed, garrulous, and wet and smeared by copious weeping; an
incredibly soaked and crumpled and used-up pocket handkerchief never
left the clutch of her plump red hand. "Goo' girls, all of them," she
kept on saying in a tremulous voice; "such-goo-goo-goo-girls!" She
wetted Mr. Polly dreadfully when she kissed him. Her emotion affected
the buttons down the back of her bodice, and almost the last filial
duty Miriam did before entering on her new life was to close that
gaping orifice for the eleventh time. Her bonnet was small and
ill-balanced, black adorned with red roses, and first it got over her
right eye until Annie told her of it, and then she pushed it over her
left eye and looked ferocious for a space, and after that baptismal
kissing of Mr. Polly the delicate millinery took fright and climbed
right up to the back part of her head and hung on there by a pin, and
flapped piteously at all the larger waves of emotion that filled the
gathering. Mr. Polly became more and more aware of that bonnet as time
went on, until he felt for it like a thing alive. Towards the end it
had yawning fits.
The company did not include Mrs. Johnson, but Johnson came with a
manifest surreptitiousness and backed against walls and watched Mr.
Polly with doubt and speculation in his large grey eyes and whistled
noiselessly and doubtful on the edge of things. He was, so to speak,
to be best man, _sotto voce_. A sprinkling of girls in gay hats from
Miriam's place of business appeared in church, great nudgers all of
them, but only two came on afterwards to the house. Mrs. Punt brought
her son with his ever-widening mind, it was his first wedding, and a
Larkins uncle, a Mr. Voules, a licenced victualler, very kindly drove
over in a gig from Sommershill with a plump, well-dressed wife to give
the bride away. One or two total strangers drifted into the church and
sat down observantly far away.
This sprinkling of people seemed only to enhance the cool brown
emptiness of the church, the rows and rows of empty pews, disengaged
prayerbooks and abandoned hassocks. It had the effect of a
preposterous misfit. Johnson consulted with a thin-legged,
short-skirted verger about the disposition of the party. The
officiating clergy appeared distantly in the doorway of the vestry,
putting on his surplice, and relapsed into a contemplative
cheek-scratching that was manifestly habitual. Before the bride
arrived Mr. Polly's sense of the church found an outlet in whispered
criticisms of ecclesiastical architecture with Johnson. "Early Norman
arches, eh?" he said, "or Perpendicular."
"Can't say," said Johnson.
"Telessated pavements, all right."
"It's well laid anyhow."
"Can't say I admire the altar. Scrappy rather with those flowers."
He coughed behind his hand and cleared his throat. At the back of his
mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be
criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers
announced the arrival of the bridal party.
The little procession from a remote door became one of the enduring
memories of Mr. Polly's life. The little verger had bustled to meet
it, and arrange it according to tradition and morality. In spite of
Mrs. Larkins' "Don't take her from me yet!" he made Miriam go first
with Mr. Voules, the bridesmaids followed and then himself hopelessly
unable to disentangle himself from the whispering maternal anguish of
Mrs. Larkins. Mrs. Voules, a compact, rounded woman with a square,
expressionless face, imperturbable dignity, and a dress of
considerable fashion, completed the procession.
Mr. Polly's eye fell first upon the bride; the sight of her filled him
with a curious stir of emotion. Alarm, desire, affection, respect--and
a queer element of reluctant dislike all played their part in that
complex eddy. The grey dress made her a stranger to him, made her
stiff and commonplace, she was not even the rather drooping form that
had caught his facile sense of beauty when he had proposed to her in
the Recreation Ground. There was something too that did not please him
in the angle of her hat, it was indeed an ill-conceived hat with large
aimless rosettes of pink and grey. Then his mind passed to Mrs.
Larkins and the bonnet that was to gain such a hold upon him; it
seemed to be flag-signalling as she advanced, and to the two eager,
unrefined sisters he was acquiring.
A freak of fancy set him wondering where and when in the future a
beautiful girl with red hair might march along some splendid aisle.
Never mind! He became aware of Mr. Voules.
He became aware of Mr. Voules as a watchful, blue eye of intense
forcefulness. It was the eye of a man who has got hold of a situation.
He was a fat, short, red-faced man clad in a tight-fitting tail coat
of black and white check with a coquettish bow tie under the lowest of
a number of crisp little red chins. He held the bride under his arm
with an air of invincible championship, and his free arm flourished a
grey top hat of an equestrian type. Mr. Polly instantly learnt from
the eye that Mr. Voules knew all about his longing for flight. Its
azure pupil glowed with disciplined resolution. It said: "I've come to
give this girl away, and give her away I will. I'm here now and things
have to go on all right. So don't think of it any more"--and Mr. Polly
didn't. A faint phantom of a certain "lill' dog" that had hovered just
beneath the threshold of consciousness vanished into black
impossibility. Until the conclusive moment of the service was attained
the eye of Mr. Voules watched Mr. Polly relentlessly, and then
instantly he relieved guard, and blew his nose into a voluminous and
richly patterned handkerchief, and sighed and looked round for the
approval and sympathy of Mrs. Voules, and nodded to her brightly like
one who has always foretold a successful issue to things. Mr. Polly
felt then like a marionette that has just dropped off its wire. But it
was long before that release arrived.
He became aware of Miriam breathing close to him.
"Hullo!" he said, and feeling that was clumsy and would meet the eye's
disapproval: "Grey dress--suits you no end."
Miriam's eyes shone under her hat-brim.
"Not reely!" she whispered.
"You're all right," he said with the feeling of observation and
criticism stiffening his lips. He cleared his throat.
The verger's hand pushed at him from behind. Someone was driving
Miriam towards the altar rail and the clergyman. "We're in for it,"
said Mr. Polly to her sympathetically. "Where? Here? Right O." He was
interested for a moment or so in something indescribably habitual in
the clergyman's pose. What a lot of weddings he must have seen! Sick
he must be of them!
"Don't let your attention wander," said the eye.
"Got the ring?" whispered Johnson.
"Pawned it yesterday," answered Mr. Polly and then had a dreadful
moment under that pitiless scrutiny while he felt in the wrong
The officiating clergy sighed deeply, began, and married them wearily
and without any hitch.
"_D'b'loved, we gath'd 'gether sight o' Gard 'n face this con'gation
join 'gather Man, Worn' Holy Mat'my which is on'bl state stooted by
Gard in times man's innocency_...."
Mr. Polly's thoughts wandered wide and far, and once again something
like a cold hand touched his heart, and he saw a sweet face in
sunshine under the shadow of trees.
Someone was nudging him. It was Johnson's finger diverted his eyes to
the crucial place in the prayer-book to which they had come.
"Wiltou lover, cumfer, oner, keeper sickness and health..."
"Say 'I will.'"
Mr. Polly moistened his lips. "I will," he said hoarsely.
Miriam, nearly inaudible, answered some similar demand.
Then the clergyman said: "Who gifs Worn married to this man?"
"Well, _I'm_ doing that," said Mr. Voules in a refreshingly full voice
and looking round the church. "You see, me and Martha Larkins being
He was silenced by the clergyman's rapid grip directing the exchange
"Pete arf me," said the clergyman to Mr. Polly. "Take thee Mirum wed
"Take thee Mirum wed' wife," said Mr. Polly.
"Have hold this day ford."
"Have hold this day ford."
"Bet worsh, richpoo'...."
Then came Miriam's turn.
"Lego hands," said the clergyman; "got the ring? No! On the book. So!
Here! Pete arf me, 'withis ring Ivy wed.'"
"Withis ring Ivy wed--"
So it went on, blurred and hurried, like the momentary vision of an
utterly beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train....
"Now, my boy," said Mr. Voules at last, gripping Mr. Polly's elbow
tightly, "you've got to sign the registry, and there you are! Done!"
Before him stood Miriam, a little stiffly, the hat with a slight rake
across her forehead, and a kind of questioning hesitation in her face.
Mr. Voules urged him past her.
It was astounding. She was his wife!
And for some reason Miriam and Mrs. Larkins were sobbing, and Annie
was looking grave. Hadn't they after all wanted him to marry her?
Because if that was the case--!
He became aware for the first time of the presence of Uncle Pentstemon
in the background, but approaching, wearing a tie of a light mineral
blue colour, and grinning and sucking enigmatically and judiciously
round his principal tooth.
It was in the vestry that the force of Mr. Voules' personality began
to show at its true value. He seemed to open out and spread over
things directly the restraints of the ceremony were at an end.
"Everything," he said to the clergyman, "excellent." He also shook
hands with Mrs. Larkins, who clung to him for a space, and kissed
Miriam on the cheek. "First kiss for me," he said, "anyhow."
He led Mr. Polly to the register by the arm, and then got chairs for
Mrs. Larkins and his wife. He then turned on Miriam. "Now, young
people," he said. "One! or _I_ shall again."
"That's right!" said Mr. Voules. "Same again, Miss."
Mr. Polly was overcome with modest confusion, and turning, found a
refuge from this publicity in the arms of Mrs. Larkins. Then in a
state of profuse moisture he was assaulted and kissed by Annie and
Minnie, who were immediately kissed upon some indistinctly stated
grounds by Mr. Voules, who then kissed the entirely impassive Mrs.
Voules and smacked his lips and remarked: "Home again safe and sound!"
Then with a strange harrowing cry Mrs. Larkins seized upon and bedewed
Miriam with kisses, Annie and Minnie kissed each other, and Johnson
went abruptly to the door of the vestry and stared into the church--no
doubt with ideas of sanctuary in his mind. "Like a bit of a kiss round
sometimes," said Mr. Voules, and made a kind of hissing noise with his
teeth, and suddenly smacked his hands together with great _eclat_
several times. Meanwhile the clergyman scratched his cheek with one
hand and fiddled the pen with the other and the verger coughed
"The dog cart's just outside," said Mr. Voules. "No walking home
to-day for the bride, Mam."
"Not going to drive us?" cried Annie.
"The happy pair, Miss. _Your_ turn soon."
"Get out!" said Annie. "I shan't marry--ever."
"You won't be able to help it. You'll have to do it--just to disperse
the crowd." Mr. Voules laid his hand on Mr. Polly's shoulder. "The
bridegroom gives his arm to the bride. Hands across and down the
middle. Prump. Prump, Perump-pump-pump-pump."
Mr. Polly found himself and the bride leading the way towards the
Mrs. Larkins passed close to Uncle Pentstemon, sobbing too earnestly
to be aware of him. "Such a goo-goo-goo-girl!" she sobbed.
"Didn't think _I'd_ come, did you?" said Uncle Pentstemon, but she
swept past him, too busy with the expression of her feelings to
"She didn't think I'd come, I lay," said Uncle Pentstemon, a little
foiled, but effecting an auditory lodgment upon Johnson.
"I don't know," said Johnson uncomfortably.
"I suppose you were asked. How are you getting on?"
"I was _arst_," said Uncle Pentstemon, and brooded for a moment.
"I goes about seeing wonders," he added, and then in a sort of
enhanced undertone: "One of 'er girls gettin' married. That's what I
mean by wonders. Lord's goodness! Wow!"
"Nothing the matter?" asked Johnson.
"Got it in the back for a moment. Going to be a change of weather I
suppose," said Uncle Pentstemon. "I brought 'er a nice present, too,
what I got in this passel. Vallyble old tea caddy that uset' be my
mother's. What I kep' my baccy in for years and years--till the hinge
at the back got broke. It ain't been no use to me particular since, so
thinks I, drat it! I may as well give it 'er as not...."
Mr. Polly found himself emerging from the western door.
Outside, a crowd of half-a-dozen adults and about fifty children had
collected, and hailed the approach of the newly wedded couple with a
faint, indeterminate cheer. All the children were holding something in
little bags, and his attention was caught by the expression of
vindictive concentration upon the face of a small big-eared boy in the
foreground. He didn't for the moment realise what these things might
import. Then he received a stinging handful of rice in the ear, and a
great light shone.
"Not yet, you young fool!" he heard Mr. Voules saying behind him, and
then a second handful spoke against his hat.
"Not yet," said Mr. Voules with increasing emphasis, and Mr. Polly
became aware that he and Miriam were the focus of two crescents of
small boys, each with the light of massacre in his eyes and a grubby
fist clutching into a paper bag for rice; and that Mr. Voules was
warding off probable discharges with a large red hand.
The dog cart was in charge of a loafer, and the horse and the whip
were adorned with white favours, and the back seat was confused but
not untenable with hampers. "Up we go," said Mr. Voules, "old birds in
front and young ones behind." An ominous group of ill-restrained
rice-throwers followed them up as they mounted.
"Get your handkerchief for your face," said Mr. Polly to his bride,
and took the place next the pavement with considerable heroism, held
on, gripped his hat, shut his eyes and prepared for the worst. "Off!"
said Mr. Voules, and a concentrated fire came stinging Mr. Polly's
The horse shied, and when the bridegroom could look at the world again
it was manifest the dog cart had just missed an electric tram by a
hairsbreadth, and far away outside the church railings the verger and
Johnson were battling with an active crowd of small boys for the life
of the rest of the Larkins family. Mrs. Punt and her son had escaped
across the road, the son trailing and stumbling at the end of a
remorseless arm, but Uncle Pentstemon, encumbered by the tea-caddy,
was the centre of a little circle of his own, and appeared to be
dratting them all very heartily. Remoter, a policeman approached with
an air of tranquil unconsciousness.
"Steady, you idiot. Stead-y!" cried Mr. Voules, and then over his
shoulder: "I brought that rice! I like old customs! Whoa! Stead-y."
The dog cart swerved violently, and then, evoking a shout of
groundless alarm from a cyclist, took a corner, and the rest of the
wedding party was hidden from Mr. Polly's eyes.
"We'll get the stuff into the house before the old gal comes along,"
said Mr. Voules, "if you'll hold the hoss."
"How about the key?" asked Mr. Polly.
"I got the key, coming."
And while Mr. Polly held the sweating horse and dodged the foam that
dripped from its bit, the house absorbed Miriam and Mr. Voules
altogether. Mr. Voules carried in the various hampers he had brought
with him, and finally closed the door behind him.
For some time Mr. Polly remained alone with his charge in the little
blind alley outside the Larkins' house, while the neighbours
scrutinised him from behind their blinds. He reflected that he was a
married man, that he must look very like a fool, that the head of a
horse is a silly shape and its eye a bulger; he wondered what the
horse thought of him, and whether it really liked being held and
patted on the neck or whether it only submitted out of contempt. Did
it know he was married? Then he wondered if the clergyman had thought
him much of an ass, and then whether the individual lurking behind the
lace curtains of the front room next door was a man or a woman. A door
opened over the way, and an elderly gentleman in a kind of embroidered
fez appeared smoking a pipe with a quiet satisfied expression. He
regarded Mr. Polly for some time with mild but sustained curiosity.
Finally he called: "Hi!"
"Hullo!" said Mr. Polly.
"You needn't 'old that '_orse_," said the old gentleman.
"Spirited beast," said Mr. Polly. "And,"--with some faint analogy to
ginger beer in his mind--"he's up today."
"'E won't turn 'isself round," said the old gentleman, "anyow. And
there ain't no way through for 'im to go."
"_Verbum_ sap," said Mr. Polly, and abandoned the horse and turned, to
the door. It opened to him just as Mrs. Larkins on the arm of Johnson,
followed by Annie, Minnie, two friends, Mrs. Punt and her son and at a
slight distance Uncle Pentstemon, appeared round the corner.
"They're coming," he said to Miriam, and put an arm about her and gave
her a kiss.
She was kissing him back when they were startled violently by the
shying of two empty hampers into the passage. Then Mr. Voules appeared
holding a third.
"Here! you'll '_ave_ plenty of time for that presently," he said, "get
these hampers away before the old girl comes. I got a cold collation
here to make her sit up. My eye!"
Miriam took the hampers, and Mr. Polly under compulsion from Mr.
Voules went into the little front room. A profuse pie and a large ham
had been added to the modest provision of Mrs. Larkins, and a number
of select-looking bottles shouldered the bottle of sherry and the
bottle of port she had got to grace the feast. They certainly went
better with the iced wedding cake in the middle. Mrs. Voules, still
impassive, stood by the window regarding these things with a faint
"Makes it look a bit thicker, eh?" said Mr. Voules, and blew out both
his cheeks and smacked his hands together violently several times.
"Surprise the old girl no end."
He stood back and smiled and bowed with arms extended as the others
came clustering at the door.
"Why, _Un_-_cle_ Voules!" cried Annie, with a rising note.
It was his reward.
And then came a great wedging and squeezing and crowding into the
little room. Nearly everyone was hungry, and eyes brightened at the
sight of the pie and the ham and the convivial array of bottles. "Sit
down everyone," cried Mr. Voules, "leaning against anything counts as
sitting, and makes it easier to shake down the grub!"
The two friends from Miriam's place of business came into the room
among the first, and then wedged themselves so hopelessly against
Johnson in an attempt to get out again and take off their things
upstairs that they abandoned the attempt. Amid the struggle Mr. Polly
saw Uncle Pentstemon relieve himself of his parcel by giving it to the
bride. "Here!" he said and handed it to her. "Weddin' present," he
explained, and added with a confidential chuckle, "_I_ never thought
I'd '_ave_ to give you one--ever."
"Who says steak and kidney pie?" bawled Mr. Voules. "Who says steak
and kidney pie? You '_ave_ a drop of old Tommy, Martha. That's what
you want to steady you.... Sit down everyone and don't all speak at
once. Who says steak and kidney pie?..."
"Vocificeratious," whispered Mr. Polly. "Convivial vocificerations."
"Bit of 'am with it," shouted Mr. Voules, poising a slice of ham on
his knife. "Anyone '_ave_ a bit of 'am with it? Won't that little man
of yours, Mrs. Punt--won't 'e '_ave_ a bit of 'am?..."
"And now ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Voules, still standing and
dominating the crammed roomful, "now you got your plates filled and
something I can warrant you good in your glasses, wot about drinking
the 'ealth of the bride?"
"Eat a bit fust," said Uncle Pentstemon, speaking with his mouth full,
amidst murmurs of applause. "Eat a bit fust."
So they did, and the plates clattered and the glasses chinked.
Mr. Polly stood shoulder to shoulder with Johnson for a moment.
"In for it," said Mr. Polly cheeringly. "Cheer up, O' Man, and peck a
bit. No reason why _you_ shouldn't eat, you know."
The Punt boy stood on Mr. Polly's boots for a minute, struggling
violently against the compunction of Mrs. Punt's grip.
"Pie," said the Punt boy, "Pie!"
"You sit 'ere and '_ave_ 'am, my lord!" said Mrs. Punt, prevailing.
"Pie you can't '_ave_ and you won't."
"Lor bless my heart, Mrs. Punt!" protested Mr. Voules, "let the boy
'_ave_ a bit if he wants it--wedding and all!"
"You 'aven't 'ad 'im sick on your 'ands, Uncle Voules," said Mrs.
Punt. "Else you wouldn't want to humour his fancies as you do...."
"I can't help feeling it's a mistake, O' Man," said Johnson, in a
confidential undertone. "I can't help feeling you've been Rash. Let's
hope for the best."
"Always glad of good wishes, O' Man," said Mr. Polly. "You'd better
have a drink of something. Anyhow, sit down to it."
Johnson subsided gloomily, and Mr. Polly secured some ham and carried
it off and sat himself down on the sewing machine on the floor in the
corner to devour it. He was hungry, and a little cut off from the rest
of the company by Mrs. Voules' hat and back, and he occupied himself
for a time with ham and his own thoughts. He became aware of a series
of jangling concussions on the table. He craned his neck and
discovered that Mr. Voules was standing up and leaning forward over
the table in the manner distinctive of after-dinner speeches, tapping
upon the table with a black bottle. "Ladies and gentlemen," said Mr.
Voules, raising his glass solemnly in the empty desert of sound he had
made, and paused for a second or so. "Ladies and gentlemen,--The
Bride." He searched his mind for some suitable wreath of speech, and
brightened at last with discovery. "Here's Luck to her!" he said at
"Here's Luck!" said Johnson hopelessly but resolutely, and raised his
glass. Everybody murmured: "Here's luck."
"Luck!" said Mr. Polly, unseen in his corner, lifting a forkful of
"That's all right," said Mr. Voules with a sigh of relief at having
brought off a difficult operation. "And now, who's for a bit more
For a time conversation was fragmentary again. But presently Mr.
Voules rose from his chair again; he had subsided with a contented
smile after his first oratorical effort, and produced a silence by
renewed hammering. "Ladies and gents," he said, "fill up for the
second toast:--the happy Bridegroom!" He stood for half a minute
searching his mind for the apt phrase that came at last in a rush.
"Here's (hic) luck to _him_," said Mr. Voules.
"Luck to him!" said everyone, and Mr. Polly, standing up behind Mrs.
Voules, bowed amiably, amidst enthusiasm.
"He may say what he likes," said Mrs. Larkins, "he's _got_ luck. That
girl's a treasure of treasures, and always has been ever since she
tried to nurse her own little sister, being but three at the time, and
fell the full flight of stairs from top to bottom, no hurt that any
outward eye 'as even seen, but always ready and helpful, always
tidying and busy. A treasure, I must say, and a treasure I will say,
giving no more than her due...."
She was silenced altogether by a rapping sound that would not be
denied. Mr. Voules had been struck by a fresh idea and was standing up
and hammering with the bottle again.
"The third Toast, ladies and gentlemen," he said; "fill up, please.
The Mother of the bride. I--er.... Uoo.... Ere!... Ladies and gem,
'Ere's Luck to 'er!..."
The dingy little room was stuffy and crowded to its utmost limit, and
Mr. Polly's skies were dark with the sense of irreparable acts.
Everybody seemed noisy and greedy and doing foolish things. Miriam,
still in that unbecoming hat--for presently they had to start off to
the station together--sat just beyond Mrs. Punt and her son, doing her
share in the hospitalities, and ever and again glancing at him with a
deliberately encouraging smile. Once she leant over the back of the
chair to him and whispered cheeringly: "Soon be together now." Next to
her sat Johnson, profoundly silent, and then Annie, talking vigorously
to a friend. Uncle Pentstemon was eating voraciously opposite, but
with a kindling eye for Annie. Mrs. Larkins sat next to Mr. Voules.
She was unable to eat a mouthful, she declared, it would choke her,
but ever and again Mr. Voules wooed her to swallow a little drop of
There seemed a lot of rice upon everybody, in their hats and hair and
the folds of their garments.
Presently Mr. Voules was hammering the table for the fourth time in
the interests of the Best Man....
All feasts come to an end at last, and the breakup of things was
precipitated by alarming symptoms on the part of Master Punt. He was
taken out hastily after a whispered consultation, and since he had got
into the corner between the fireplace and the cupboard, that meant
everyone moving to make way for him. Johnson took the opportunity to
say, "Well--so long," to anyone who might be listening, and disappear.
Mr. Polly found himself smoking a cigarette and walking up and down
outside in the company of Uncle Pentstemon, while Mr. Voules replaced
bottles in hampers and prepared for departure, and the womenkind of
the party crowded upstairs with the bride. Mr. Polly felt taciturn,
but the events of the day had stirred the mind of Uncle Pentstemon to
speech. And so he spoke, discursively and disconnectedly, a little
heedless of his listener as wise old men will.
"They do say," said Uncle Pentstemon, "one funeral makes many. This
time it's a wedding. But it's all very much of a muchness," said Uncle
"'Am _do_ get in my teeth nowadays," said Uncle Pentstemon, "I can't
understand it. 'Tisn't like there was nubbicks or strings or such in
'am. It's a plain food.
"That's better," he said at last.
"You _got_ to get married," said Uncle Pentstemon. "Some has. Some
hain't. I done it long before I was your age. It hain't for me to
blame you. You can't 'elp being the marrying sort any more than me.
It's nat'ral-like poaching or drinking or wind on the stummik. You
can't 'elp it and there you are! As for the good of it, there ain't no
particular good in it as I can see. It's a toss up. The hotter come,
the sooner cold, but they all gets tired of it sooner or later.... I
hain't no grounds to complain. Two I've 'ad and berried, and might
'_ave_ '_ad_ a third, and never no worrit with kids--never....
"You done well not to '_ave_ the big gal. I will say that for ye.
She's a gad-about grinny, she is, if ever was. A gad-about grinny.
Mucked up my mushroom bed to rights, she did, and I 'aven't forgot it.
Got the feet of a centipede, she 'as--ll over everything and neither
with your leave nor by your leave. Like a stray 'en in a pea patch.
Cluck! cluck! Trying to laugh it off. _I_ laughed 'er off, I did.
Dratted lumpin baggage!..."
For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a
reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.
"Wimmin's a toss up," said Uncle Pentstemon. "Prize packets they are,
and you can't tell what's in 'em till you took 'em 'ome and undone
'em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn't buy a pig in a poke.
Never. Marriage seems to change the very natures in 'em through and
through. You can't tell what they won't turn into--nohow.
"I seen the nicest girls go wrong," said Uncle Pentstemon, and added
with unusual thoughtfulness, "Not that I mean _you_ got one of that
He sent another crumb on to its long home with a sucking, encouraging
"The _wust_ sort's the grizzler," Uncle Pentstemon resumed. "If ever
I'd 'ad a grizzler I'd up and 'it 'er on the 'ed with sumpthin' pretty
quick. I don't think I could abide a grizzler," said Uncle Pentstemon.
"I'd liefer '_ave_ a lump-about like that other gal. I would indeed. I
lay I'd make 'er stop laughing after a bit for all 'er airs. And mind
where her clumsy great feet went....
"A man's got to tackle 'em, whatever they be," said Uncle Pentstemon,
summing up the shrewd observation of an old-world life time. "Good or
bad," said Uncle Pentstemon raising his voice fearlessly, "a man's got
to tackle 'em."
At last it was time for the two young people to catch the train for
Waterloo _en route_ for Fishbourne. They had to hurry, and as a
concluding glory of matrimony they travelled second-class, and were
seen off by all the rest of the party except the Punts, Master Punt
being now beyond any question unwell.
"Off!" The train moved out of the station.
Mr. Polly remained waving his hat and Mrs. Polly her handkerchief
until they were hidden under the bridge. The dominating figure to the
last was Mr. Voules. He had followed them along the platform waving
the equestrian grey hat and kissing his hand to the bride.
They subsided into their seats.
"Got a compartment to ourselves anyhow," said Mrs. Polly after a
Silence for a moment.
"The rice 'e must '_ave_ bought. Pounds and pounds!"
Mr. Polly felt round his collar at the thought.
"Ain't you going to kiss me, Elfrid, now we're alone together?"
He roused himself to sit forward hands on knees, cocked his hat over
one eye, and assumed an expression of avidity becoming to the
"Never!" he said. "Ever!" and feigned to be selecting a place to kiss
with great discrimination.
"Come here," he said, and drew her to him.
"Be careful of my 'at," said Mrs. Polly, yielding awkwardly.
Chapter the Seventh
The Little Shop at Fishbourne
For fifteen years Mr. Polly was a respectable shopkeeper in
Years they were in which every day was tedious, and when they were
gone it was as if they had gone in a flash. But now Mr. Polly had good
looks no more, he was as I have described him in the beginning of this
story, thirty-seven and fattish in a not very healthy way, dull and
yellowish about the complexion, and with discontented wrinklings round
his eyes. He sat on the stile above Fishbourne and cried to the
Heavens above him: "Oh! Roo-o-o-tten Be-e-astly Silly Hole!" And he
wore a rather shabby black morning coat and vest, and his tie was
richly splendid, being from stock, and his golf cap aslant over one
Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer
little flower of Mr. Polly's imagination must be altogether withered
and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But indeed
it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful
experiences, for the gracious aspects of things, for beauty. He still
read books when he had a chance, books that told of glorious places
abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life and
contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped. But
alas! there are not many such books, and for the newspapers and the
cheap fiction that abounded more and more in the world Mr. Polly had
little taste. There was no epithet in them. And there was no one to
talk to, as he loved to talk. And he had to mind his shop.
It was a reluctant little shop from the beginning.
He had taken it to escape the doom of Johnson's choice and because
Fishbourne had a hold upon his imagination. He had disregarded the
ill-built cramped rooms behind it in which he would have to lurk and
live, the relentless limitations of its dimensions, the inconvenience
of an underground kitchen that must necessarily be the living-room in
winter, the narrow yard behind giving upon the yard of the Royal
Fishbourne Hotel, the tiresome sitting and waiting for custom, the
restricted prospects of trade. He had visualised himself and Miriam
first as at breakfast on a clear bright winter morning amidst a
tremendous smell of bacon, and then as having muffins for tea. He had
also thought of sitting on the beach on Sunday afternoons and of going
for a walk in the country behind the town and picking _marguerites_
and poppies. But, in fact, Miriam and he were extremely cross at
breakfast, and it didn't run to muffins at tea. And she didn't think
it looked well, she said, to go trapesing about the country on
It was unfortunate that Miriam never took to the house from the first.
She did not like it when she saw it, and liked it less as she explored
it. "There's too many stairs," she said, "and the coal being indoors
will make a lot of work."
"Didn't think of that," said Mr. Polly, following her round.
"It'll be a hard house to keep clean," said Miriam.
"White paint's all very well in its way," said Miriam, "but it shows
the dirt something fearful. Better '_ave_ '_ad_ it nicely grained."
"There's a kind of place here," said Mr. Polly, "where we might have
some flowers in pots."
"Not me," said Miriam. "I've 'ad trouble enough with Minnie and 'er
They stayed for a week in a cheap boarding house before they moved in.
They had bought some furniture in Stamton, mostly second-hand, but
with new cheap cutlery and china and linen, and they had supplemented
this from the Fishbourne shops. Miriam, relieved from the hilarious
associations of home, developed a meagre and serious quality of her
own, and went about with knitted brows pursuing some ideal of "'aving
everything right." Mr. Polly gave himself to the arrangement of the
shop with a certain zest, and whistled a good deal until Miriam
appeared and said that it went through her head. So soon as he had
taken the shop he had filled the window with aggressive posters
announcing in no measured terms that he was going to open, and now he
was getting his stuff put out he was resolved to show Fishbourne what
window dressing could do. He meant to give them boater straws,
imitation Panamas, bathing dresses with novelties in stripes, light
flannel shirts, summer ties, and ready-made flannel trousers for men,
youths and boys. Incidentally he watched the small fishmonger over the
way, and had a glimpse of the china dealer next door, and wondered if
a friendly nod would be out of place. And on the first Sunday in this
new life he and Miriam arrayed themselves with great care, he in his
wedding-funeral hat and coat and she in her going-away dress, and went
processionally to church, a more respectable looking couple you could
hardly imagine, and looked about them.
Things began to settle down next week into their places. A few
customers came, chiefly for bathing suits and hat guards, and on
Saturday night the cheapest straw hats and ties, and Mr. Polly found
himself more and more drawn towards the shop door and the social charm
of the street. He found the china dealer unpacking a crate at the edge
of the pavement, and remarked that it was a fine day. The china dealer
gave a reluctant assent, and plunged into the crate in a manner that
presented no encouragement to a loquacious neighbour.
"Zealacious commerciality," whispered Mr. Polly to that unfriendly
Miriam combined earnestness of spirit with great practical incapacity.
The house was never clean nor tidy, but always being frightfully
disarranged for cleaning or tidying up, and she cooked because food
had to be cooked and with a sound moralist's entire disregard of the
quality of the consequences. The food came from her hands done rather
than improved, and looking as uncomfortable as savages clothed under
duress by a missionary with a stock of out-sizes. Such food is too apt
to behave resentfully, rebel and work Obi. She ceased to listen to her
husband's talk from the day she married him, and ceased to unwrinkle
the kink in her brow at his presence, giving herself up to mental
states that had a quality of secret preoccupation. And she developed
an idea for which perhaps there was legitimate excuse, that he was
lazy. He seemed to stand about in the shop a great deal, to read--an
indolent habit--and presently to seek company for talking. He began to
attend the bar parlour of the God's Providence Inn with some
frequency, and would have done so regularly in the evening if cards,
which bored him to death, had not arrested conversation. But the
perpetual foolish variation of the permutations and combinations of
two and fifty cards taken five at a time, and the meagre surprises and
excitements that ensue had no charms for Mr. Polly's mind, which was
at once too vivid in its impressions and too easily fatigued.
It was soon manifest the shop paid only in the least exacting sense,
and Miriam did not conceal her opinion that he ought to bestir himself
and "do things," though what he was to do was hard to say. You see,
when you have once sunken your capital in a shop you do not very
easily get it out again. If customers will not come to you cheerfully
and freely the law sets limits upon the compulsion you may exercise.
You cannot pursue people about the streets of a watering place,
compelling them either by threats or importunity to buy flannel
trousers. Additional sources of income for a tradesman are not always
easy to find. Wintershed at the bicycle and gramaphone shop to the
right, played the organ in the church, and Clamp of the toy shop was
pew opener and so forth, Gambell, the greengrocer, waited at table and
his wife cooked, and Carter, the watchmaker, left things to his wife
while he went about the world winding clocks, but Mr. Polly had none
of these arts, and wouldn't, in spite of Miriam's quietly persistent
protests, get any other. And on summer evenings he would ride his
bicycle about the country, and if he discovered a sale where there
were books he would as often as not waste half the next day in going
again to acquire a job lot of them haphazard, and bring them home tied
about with a string, and hide them from Miriam under the counter in
the shop. That is a heartbreaking thing for any wife with a serious
investigatory turn of mind to discover. She was always thinking of
burning these finds, but her natural turn for economy prevailed with
The books he read during those fifteen years! He read everything he
got except theology, and as he read his little unsuccessful
circumstances vanished and the wonder of life returned to him, the
routine of reluctant getting up, opening shop, pretending to dust it
with zest, breakfasting with a shop egg underdone or overdone or a
herring raw or charred, and coffee made Miriam's way and full of
little particles, the return to the shop, the morning paper, the
standing, standing at the door saying "How do!" to passers-by, or
getting a bit of gossip or watching unusual visitors, all these things
vanished as the auditorium of a theatre vanishes when the stage is
lit. He acquired hundreds of books at last, old dusty books, books
with torn covers and broken covers, fat books whose backs were naked
string and glue, an inimical litter to Miriam.
There was, for example, the voyages of La Perouse, with many careful,
explicit woodcuts and the frankest revelations of the ways of the
eighteenth century sailorman, homely, adventurous, drunken,
incontinent and delightful, until he floated, smooth and slow, with
all sails set and mirrored in the glassy water, until his head was
full of the thought of shining kindly brown-skinned women, who smiled
at him and wreathed his head with unfamiliar flowers. He had, too, a
piece of a book about the lost palaces of Yucatan, those vast terraces
buried in primordial forest, of whose makers there is now no human
memory. With La Perouse he linked "The Island Nights Entertainments,"
and it never palled upon him that in the dusky stabbing of the "Island
of Voices" something poured over the stabber's hands "like warm tea."
Queer incommunicable joy it is, the joy of the vivid phrase that turns
the statement of the horridest fact to beauty!
And another book which had no beginning for him was the second volume
of the Travels of the _Abbes_ Hue and Gabet. He followed those two
sweet souls from their lessons in Thibetan under Sandura the Bearded
(who called them donkeys to their infinite benefit and stole their
store of butter) through a hundred misadventures to the very heart of
Lhassa, and it was a thirst in him that was never quenched to find the
other volume and whence they came, and who in fact they were. He read
Fenimore Cooper and "Tom Cringle's Log" side by side with Joseph
Conrad, and dreamt of the many-hued humanity of the East and West
Indies until his heart ached to see those sun-soaked lands before he
died. Conrad's prose had a pleasure for him that he was never able to
define, a peculiar deep coloured effect. He found too one day among a
pile of soiled sixpenny books at Port Burdock, to which place he
sometimes rode on his ageing bicycle, Bart Kennedy's "A Sailor Tramp,"
all written in livid jerks, and had forever after a kindlier and more
understanding eye for every burly rough who slouched through
Fishbourne High Street. Sterne he read with a wavering appreciation
and some perplexity, but except for the Pickwick Papers, for some
reason that I do not understand he never took at all kindly to
Dickens. Yet he liked Lever and Thackeray's "Catherine," and all Dumas
until he got to the Vicomte de Bragelonne. I am puzzled by his
insensibility to Dickens, and I record it as a good historian should,
with an admission of my perplexity. It is much more understandable
that he had no love for Scott. And I suppose it was because of his
ignorance of the proper pronunciation of words that he infinitely
preferred any prose to any metrical writing.
A book he browsed over with a recurrent pleasure was Waterton's
Wanderings in South America. He would even amuse himself by inventing
descriptions of other birds in the Watertonian manner, new birds that
he invented, birds with peculiarities that made him chuckle when they
occurred to him. He tried to make Rusper, the ironmonger, share this
joy with him. He read Bates, too, about the Amazon, but when he
discovered that you could not see one bank from the other, he lost,
through some mysterious action of the soul that again I cannot
understand, at least a tithe of the pleasure he had taken in that
river. But he read all sorts of things; a book of old Keltic stories
collected by Joyce charmed him, and Mitford's Tales of Old Japan, and
a number of paper-covered volumes, _Tales from Blackwood_, he had
acquired at Easewood, remained a stand-by. He developed a quite
considerable acquaintance with the plays of William Shakespeare, and
in his dreams he wore cinque cento or Elizabethan clothes, and walked
about a stormy, ruffling, taverning, teeming world. Great land of
sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment and
refuge from the world of everyday!...
The essential thing of those fifteen long years of shopkeeping is Mr.
Polly, well athwart the counter of his rather ill-lit shop, lost in a
book, or rousing himself with a sigh to attend to business.
Meanwhile he got little exercise, indigestion grew with him until it
ruled all his moods, he fattened and deteriorated physically, moods of
distress invaded and darkened his skies, little things irritated him
more and more, and casual laughter ceased in him. His hair began to
come off until he had a large bald space at the back of his head.
Suddenly one day it came to him--forgetful of those books and all he
had lived and seen through them--that he had been in his shop for
exactly fifteen years, that he would soon be forty, and that his life
during that time had not been worth living, that it had been in
apathetic and feebly hostile and critical company, ugly in detail and
mean in scope--and that it had brought him at last to an outlook
utterly hopeless and grey.
I have already had occasion to mention, indeed I have quoted, a
certain high-browed gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a _golden_
_pince_-_nez_ and writing for the most part in that beautiful room,
the library of the Reform Club. There he wrestles with what he calls
"social problems" in a bloodless but at times, I think one must admit,
an extremely illuminating manner. He has a fixed idea that something
called a "collective intelligence" is wanted in the world, which means
in practice that you and I and everyone have to think about things
frightfully hard and pool the results, and oblige ourselves to be
shamelessly and persistently clear and truthful and support and
respect (I suppose) a perfect horde of professors and writers and
artists and ill-groomed difficult people, instead of using our brains
in a moderate, sensible manner to play golf and bridge (pretending a
sense of humour prevents our doing anything else with them) and
generally taking life in a nice, easy, gentlemanly way, confound him!
Well, this dome-headed monster of intellect alleges that Mr. Polly was
unhappy entirely through that.
"A rapidly complicating society," he writes, "which as a whole
declines to contemplate its future or face the intricate problems of
its organisation, is in exactly the position of a man who takes no
thought of dietary or regimen, who abstains from baths and exercise
and gives his appetites free play. It accumulates useless and aimless
lives as a man accumulates fat and morbid products in his blood, it
declines in its collective efficiency and vigour and secretes
discomfort and misery. Every phase of its evolution is accompanied by
a maximum of avoidable distress and inconvenience and human waste....
"Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dulness of our
community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than
the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable,
under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we
contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower
Middle Class. A great proportion of the lower middle class should
properly be assigned to the unemployed and the unemployable. They are
only not that, because the possession of some small hoard of money,
savings during a period of wage earning, an insurance policy or
suchlike capital, prevents a direct appeal to the rates. But they are
doing little or nothing for the community in return for what they
consume; they have no understanding of any relation of service to the
community, they have never been trained nor their imaginations touched
to any social purpose. A great proportion of small shopkeepers, for
example, are people who have, through the inefficiency that comes from
inadequate training and sheer aimlessness, or improvements in
machinery or the drift of trade, been thrown out of employment, and
who set up in needless shops as a method of eking out the savings upon
which they count. They contrive to make sixty or seventy per cent, of
their expenditure, the rest is drawn from the shrinking capital.
Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure
of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic
process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is
exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual
bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means
are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The
secular development of transit and communications has made the
organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical
lines, inevitable; except in the chaotic confusions of newly opened
countries, the day when a man might earn an independent living by
unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever. Yet
every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and
imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to
avert it. Every issue of every trade journal has its four or five
columns of abridged bankruptcy proceedings, nearly every item in which
means the final collapse of another struggling family upon the
resources of the community, and continually a fresh supply of
superfluous artisans and shop assistants, coming out of employment
with savings or 'help' from relations, of widows with a husband's
insurance money, of the ill-trained sons of parsimonious fathers,
replaces the fallen in the ill-equipped, jerry-built shops that
I quote these fragments from a gifted, if unpleasant, contemporary for
what they are worth. I feel this has come in here as the broad aspect
of this History. I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and
swearing in the east wind, and I so returning have a sense of floating
across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular.
There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly--I
suppose he sees clearly--the big process that dooms millions of lives
to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstances, and giving us
no help, no hint, by which we may get that better "collective will and
intelligence" which would dam the stream of human failure, and, on the
other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned,
confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it
were, nettled in greyness and discomfort--with life dancing all about
him; Mr. Polly with a capacity for joy and beauty at least as keen and
subtle as yours or mine.
I have hinted that our Mother England had equipped Mr. Polly for the
management of his internal concerns no whit better than she had for
the direction of his external affairs. With a careless generosity she
affords her children a variety of foods unparalleled in the world's
history, and including many condiments and preserved preparations
novel to the human economy. And Miriam did the cooking. Mr. Polly's
system, like a confused and ill-governed democracy, had been brought
to a state of perpetual clamour and disorder, demanding now evil and
unsuitable internal satisfactions, such as pickles and vinegar and the
crackling on pork, and now vindictive external expression, war and
bloodshed throughout the world. So that Mr. Polly had been led into
hatred and a series of disagreeable quarrels with his landlord, his
wholesalers, and most of his neighbours.
Rumbold, the china dealer next door, seemed hostile from the first for
no apparent reason, and always unpacked his crates with a full back to
his new neighbour, and from the first Mr. Polly resented and hated
that uncivil breadth of expressionless humanity, wanted to prod it,
kick it, satirise it. But you cannot satirise a hack, if you have no
friend to nudge while you do it.
At last Mr. Polly could stand it no longer. He approached and prodded
"Ello!" said Rumbold, suddenly erect and turned about.
"Can't we have some other point of view?" said Mr. Polly. "I'm tired
of the end elevation."
"Eh?" said Mr. Rumbold, frankly puzzled.
"Of all the vertebracious animals man alone raises his face to the
sky, O' Man. Well,--why invert it?"
Rumbold shook his head with a helpless expression.
"Don't like so much Arreary Pensy."
Rumbold distressed in utter obscurity.
"In fact, I'm sick of your turning your back on me, see?"
A great light shone on Rumbold. "That's what you're talking about!" he
"That's it," said Polly.
Rumbold scratched his ear with the three strawy jampots he held in his
hand. "Way the wind blows, I expect," he said. "But what's the fuss?"
"No fuss!" said Mr. Polly. "Passing Remark. I don't like it, O' Man,
"Can't help it, if the wind blows my stror," said Mr. Rumbold, still
far from clear about it....
"It isn't ordinary civility," said Mr. Polly.
"Got to unpack 'ow it suits me. Can't unpack with the stror blowing
into one's eyes."
"Needn't unpack like a pig rooting for truffles, need you?"
"Needn't unpack like a pig."
Mr. Rumbold apprehended something.
"Pig!" he said, impressed. "You calling me a pig?"
"It's the side I seem to get of you."
"'Ere," said Mr. Rumbold, suddenly fierce and shouting and marking his
point with gesticulated jampots, "you go indoors. I don't want no row
with you, and I don't want you to row with me. I don't know what
you're after, but I'm a peaceable man--teetotaller, too, and a good
thing if _you_ was. See? You go indoors!"
"You mean to say--I'm asking you civilly to stop unpacking--with your
back to me."
"Pig ain't civil, and you ain't sober. You go indoors and _lemme_ _go_
on unpacking. You--you're excited."
"D'you mean--!" Mr. Polly was foiled.
He perceived an immense solidity about Rumbold.
"Get back to your shop and _lemme_ get on with my business," said Mr.
Rumbold. "Stop calling me pigs. See? Sweep your pavemint."
"I came here to make a civil request."
"You came 'ere to make a row. I don't want no truck with you. See? I
don't like the looks of you. See? And I can't stand 'ere all day
Pause of mutual inspection.
It occurred to Mr. Polly that probably he was to some extent in the
Mr. Rumbold, blowing heavily, walked past him, deposited the jampots
in his shop with an immense affectation that there was no Mr. Polly in
the world, returned, turned a scornful back on Mr. Polly and dived to
the interior of the crate. Mr. Polly stood baffled. Should he kick
this solid mass before him? Should he administer a resounding kick?
He plunged his hands deeply into his trowser pockets, began to whistle
and returned to his own doorstep with an air of profound unconcern.
There for a time, to the tune of "Men of Harlech," he contemplated the
receding possibility of kicking Mr. Rumbold hard. It would be
splendid--and for the moment satisfying. But he decided not to do it.
For indefinable reasons he could not do it. He went indoors and
straightened up his dress ties very slowly and thoughtfully. Presently
he went to the window and regarded Mr. Rumbold obliquely. Mr. Rumbold
was still unpacking....
Mr. Polly had no human intercourse thereafter with Rumbold for fifteen
years. He kept up a Hate.
There was a time when it seemed as if Rumbold might go, but he had a
meeting of his creditors and then went on unpacking as obtusely as
Hinks, the saddler, two shops further down the street, was a different
case. Hinks was the aggressor--practically.
Hinks was a sporting man in his way, with that taste for checks in
costume and tight trousers which is, under Providence, so mysteriously
and invariably associated with equestrian proclivities. At first Mr.
Polly took to him as a character, became frequent in the God's
Providence Inn under his guidance, stood and was stood drinks and
concealed a great ignorance of horses until Hinks became urgent for
him to play billiards or bet.
Then Mr. Polly took to evading him, and Hinks ceased to conceal his
opinion that Mr. Polly was in reality a softish sort of flat.
He did not, however, discontinue conversation with Mr. Polly; he would
come along to him whenever he appeared at his door, and converse about
sport and women and fisticuffs and the pride of life with an air of
extreme initiation, until Mr. Polly felt himself the faintest
underdeveloped intimation of a man that had ever hovered on the verge
So he invented phrases for Hinks' clothes and took Rusper, the
ironmonger, into his confidence upon the weaknesses of Hinks. He
called him the "Chequered Careerist," and spoke of his patterned legs
as "shivery shakys." Good things of this sort are apt to get round to
He was standing at his door one day, feeling bored, when Hinks
appeared down the street, stood still and regarded him with a strange
malignant expression for a space.
Mr. Polly waved a hand in a rather belated salutation.
Mr. Hinks spat on the pavement and appeared to reflect. Then he came
towards Mr. Polly portentously and paused, and spoke between his teeth
in an earnest confidential tone.
"You been flapping your mouth about me, I'm told," he said.
Mr. Polly felt suddenly spiritless. "Not that I know of," he answered.
"Not that you know of, be blowed! You been flapping your mouth."
"Don't see it," said Mr. Polly.
"Don't see it, be blowed! You go flapping your silly mouth about me
and I'll give you a poke in the eye. See?"
Mr. Hinks regarded the effect of this coldly but firmly, and spat
"Understand me?" he enquired.
"Don't recollect," began Mr. Polly.
"Don't recollect, be blowed! You flap your mouth a dam sight too much.
This place gets more of your mouth than it wants.... Seen this?"
And Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size
and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly's
close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that
and shaken it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his
pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace,
and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in
outward seeming a friend....
Mr. Polly's intercourse with all his fellow tradesmen was tarnished
sooner or later by some such adverse incident, until not a friend
remained to him, and loneliness made even the shop door terrible.
Shops bankrupted all about him and fresh people came and new
acquaintances sprang up, but sooner or later a discord was inevitable,
the tension under which these badly fed, poorly housed, bored and
bothered neighbours lived, made it inevitable. The mere fact that Mr.
Polly had to see them every day, that there was no getting away from
them, was in itself sufficient to make them almost unendurable to his
frettingly active mind.
Among other shopkeepers in the High Street there was Chuffles, the
grocer, a small, hairy, silently intent polygamist, who was given
rough music by the youth of the neighbourhood because of a scandal
about his wife's sister, and who was nevertheless totally
uninteresting, and Tonks, the second grocer, an old man with an older,
very enfeebled wife, both submerged by piety. Tonks went bankrupt, and
was succeeded by a branch of the National Provision Company, with a
young manager exactly like a fox, except that he barked. The toy and
sweetstuff shop was kept by an old woman of repellent manners, and so
was the little fish shop at the end of the street. The Berlin-wool
shop having gone bankrupt, became a newspaper shop, then fell to a
haberdasher in consumption, and finally to a stationer; the three
shops at the end of the street wallowed in and out of insolvency in
the hands of a bicycle repairer and dealer, a gramaphone dealer, a
tobacconist, a sixpenny-halfpenny bazaar-keeper, a shoemaker, a
greengrocer, and the exploiter of a cinematograph peep-show--but none
of them supplied friendship to Mr. Polly.
These adventurers in commerce were all more or less distraught souls,
driving without intelligible comment before the gale of fate. The two
milkmen of Fishbourne were brothers who had quarrelled about their
father's will, and started in opposition to each other; one was stone
deaf and no use to Mr. Polly, and the other was a sporting man with a
natural dread of epithet who sided with Hinks. So it was all about
him, on every hand it seemed were uncongenial people, uninteresting
people, or people who conceived the deepest distrust and hostility
towards him, a magic circle of suspicious, preoccupied and dehumanised
humanity. So the poison in his system poisoned the world without.
(But Boomer, the wine merchant, and Tashingford, the chemist, be it
noted, were fraught with pride, and held themselves to be a cut above
Mr. Polly. They never quarrelled with him, preferring to bear
themselves from the outset as though they had already done so.)
As his internal malady grew upon Mr. Polly and he became more and more
a battle-ground of fermenting foods and warring juices, he came to
hate the very sight, as people say, of every one of these neighbours.
There they were, every day and all the days, just the same, echoing
his own stagnation. They pained him all round the top and back of his
head; they made his legs and arms weary and spiritless. The air was
tasteless by reason of them. He lost his human kindliness.
In the afternoons he would hover in the shop bored to death with his
business and his home and Miriam, and yet afraid to go out because of
his inflamed and magnified dislike and dread of these neighbours. He
could not bring himself to go out and run the gauntlet of the
observant windows and the cold estranged eyes.
One of his last friendships was with Rusper, the ironmonger. Rusper
took over Worthington's shop about three years after Mr. Polly opened.
He was a tall, lean, nervous, convulsive man with an upturned,
back-thrown, oval head, who read newspapers and the _Review of
Reviews_ assiduously, had belonged to a Literary Society somewhere
once, and had some defect of the palate that at first gave his
lightest word a charm and interest for Mr. Polly. It caused a peculiar
clicking sound, as though he had something between a giggle and a
gas-meter at work in his neck.
His literary admirations were not precisely Mr. Polly's literary
admirations; he thought books were written to enshrine Great Thoughts,
and that art was pedagogy in fancy dress, he had no sense of phrase or
epithet or richness of texture, but still he knew there were books, he
did know there were books and he was full of large windy ideas of the
sort he called "Modern (kik) Thought," and seemed needlessly and
helplessly concerned about "(kik) the Welfare of the Race."
Mr. Polly would dream about that (kik) at nights.
It seemed to that undesirable mind of his that Rusper's head was the
most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon
him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would
say: "Boil it some more, O' Man; boil it harder!" or "Six minutes at
least," allusions Rusper could never make head or tail of, and got at
last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly's general eccentricity. For a
long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse,
but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption.
Often during the days of this friendship Mr. Polly would leave his
shop and walk over to Mr. Rusper's establishment, and stand in his
doorway and enquire: "Well, O' Man, how's the Mind of the Age
working?" and get quite an hour of it, and sometimes Mr. Rusper would
come into the outfitter's shop with "Heard the (kik) latest?" and
spend the rest of the morning.
Then Mr. Rusper married, and he married very inconsiderately a woman
who was totally uninteresting to Mr. Polly. A coolness grew between
them from the first intimation of her advent. Mr. Polly couldn't help
thinking when he saw her that she drew her hair back from her forehead
a great deal too tightly, and that her elbows were angular. His desire
not to mention these things in the apt terms that welled up so richly
in his mind, made him awkward in her presence, and that gave her an
impression that he was hiding some guilty secret from her. She decided
he must have a bad influence upon her husband, and she made it a point
to appear whenever she heard him talking to Rusper.
One day they became a little heated about the German peril.
"I lay (kik) they'll invade us," said Rusper.
"Not a bit of it. William's not the Zerxiacious sort."
"You'll see, O' Man."
"Just what I shan't do."
"Before (kik) five years are out."
"Oh! Boil it hard!" said Mr. Polly.
Then he looked up and saw Mrs. Rusper standing behind the counter half
hidden by a trophy of spades and garden shears and a knife-cleaning
machine, and by her expression he knew instantly that she understood.
The conversation paled and presently Mr. Polly withdrew.
After that, estrangement increased steadily.
Mr. Rusper ceased altogether to come over to the outfitter's, and Mr.
Polly called upon the ironmonger only with the completest air of
casuality. And everything they said to each other led now to flat
contradiction and raised voices. Rusper had been warned in vague and
alarming terms that Mr. Polly insulted and made game of him; he
couldn't discover exactly where; and so it appeared to him now that
every word of Mr. Polly's might be an insult meriting his resentment,
meriting it none the less because it was masked and cloaked.
Soon Mr. Polly's calls upon Mr. Rusper ceased also, and then Mr.
Rusper, pursuing incomprehensible lines of thought, became afflicted
with a specialised shortsightedness that applied only to Mr. Polly. He
would look in other directions when Mr. Polly appeared, and his large
oval face assumed an expression of conscious serenity and deliberate
happy unawareness that would have maddened a far less irritable person
than Mr. Polly. It evoked a strong desire to mock and ape, and
produced in his throat a cough of singular scornfulness, more
particularly when Mr. Rusper also assisted, with an assumed
unconsciousness that was all his own.
Then one day Mr. Polly had a bicycle accident.
His bicycle was now very old, and it is one of the concomitants of a
bicycle's senility that its free wheel should one day obstinately
cease to be free. It corresponds to that epoch in human decay when an
old gentleman loses an incisor tooth. It happened just as Mr. Polly
was approaching Mr. Rusper's shop, and the untoward chance of a motor
car trying to pass a waggon on the wrong side gave Mr. Polly no choice
but to get on to the pavement and dismount. He was always accustomed
to take his time and step off his left pedal at its lowest point, but
the jamming of the free wheel gear made that lowest moment a
transitory one, and the pedal was lifting his foot for another
revolution before he realised what had happened. Before he could
dismount according to his habit the pedal had to make a revolution,
and before it could make a revolution Mr. Polly found himself among
the various sonorous things with which Mr. Rusper adorned the front of
his shop, zinc dustbins, household pails, lawn mowers, rakes, spades
and all manner of clattering things. Before he got among them he had
one of those agonising moments of helpless wrath and suspense that
seem to last ages, in which one seems to perceive everything and think
of nothing but words that are better forgotten. He sent a column of
pails thundering across the doorway and dismounted with one foot in a
sanitary dustbin amidst an enormous uproar of falling ironmongery.
"Put all over the place!" he cried, and found Mr. Rusper emerging from
his shop with the large tranquillities of his countenance puckered to
anger, like the frowns in the brow of a reefing sail. He gesticulated
speechlessly for a moment.
"Kik--jer doing?" he said at last.
"Tin mantraps!" said Mr. Polly.
"Jer (kik) doing?"
"Dressing all over the pavement as though the blessed town belonged to
And Mr. Polly in attempting a dignified movement realised his
entanglement with the dustbin for the first time. With a low
embittering expression he kicked his foot about in it for a moment
very noisily, and finally sent it thundering to the curb. On its way
it struck a pail or so. Then Mr. Polly picked up his bicycle and
proposed to resume his homeward way. But the hand of Mr. Rusper
"Put it (kik) all (kik kik) back (kik)."
"Put it (kik) back yourself."
"You got (kik) put it back."
"Get out of the (kik) way."
Mr. Rusper laid one hand on the bicycle handle, and the other gripped
Mr. Polly's collar urgently. Whereupon Mr. Polly said: "Leggo!" and
again, "D'you _hear_! Leggo!" and then drove his elbow with
considerable force into the region of Mr. Rusper's midriff. Whereupon
Mr. Rusper, with a loud impassioned cry, resembling "Woo kik" more
than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle,
seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders
downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and
nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper,
entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying
instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails.
There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age,
untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to
amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another--of which
the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn
and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr.
Rusper's mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that
aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper's ear before it occurred to
Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn't bite very hard), while
Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub
Mr. Polly's face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with
chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn't from first to last draw
Then it seemed to each of them that the other had become endowed with
many hands and several voices and great accessions of strength. They
submitted to fate and ceased to struggle. They found themselves torn
apart and held up by outwardly scandalised and inwardly delighted
neighbours, and invited to explain what it was all about.
"Got to (kik) puttem all back!" panted Mr. Rusper in the expert grasp
of Hinks. "Merely asked him to (kik) puttem all back."
Mr. Polly was under restraint of little Clamp, of the toy shop, who
was holding his hands in a complex and uncomfortable manner that he
afterwards explained to Wintershed was a combination of something
romantic called "Ju-jitsu" and something else still more romantic
called the "Police Grip."
"Pails," explained Mr. Polly in breathless fragments. "All over the
road. Pails. Bungs up the street with his pails. Look at them!"
"Deliber (kik) lib (kik) liberately rode into my goods (kik).
Constantly (kik) annoying me (kik)!" said Mr. Rusper....
They were both tremendously earnest and reasonable in their manner.
They wished everyone to regard them as responsible and intellectual
men acting for the love of right and the enduring good of the world.
They felt they must treat this business as a profound and publicly
significant affair. They wanted to explain and orate and show the
entire necessity of everything they had done. Mr. Polly was convinced
he had never been so absolutely correct in all his life as when he
planted his foot in the sanitary dustbin, and Mr. Rusper considered
his clutch at Mr. Polly's hair as the one faultless impulse in an
otherwise undistinguished career. But it was clear in their minds they
might easily become ridiculous if they were not careful, if for a
second they stepped over the edge of the high spirit and pitiless
dignity they had hitherto maintained. At any cost they perceived they
must not become ridiculous.
Mr. Chuffles, the scandalous grocer, joined the throng about the
principal combatants, mutely as became an outcast, and with a sad,
distressed helpful expression picked up Mr. Polly's bicycle. Gambell's
summer errand boy, moved by example, restored the dustbin and pails to
"'_E_ ought--'_e_ ought (kik) pick them up," protested Mr. Rusper.
"What's it all about?" said Mr. Hinks for the third time, shaking Mr.
Rusper gently. "As 'e been calling you names?"
"Simply ran into his pails--as anyone might," said Mr. Polly, "and out
he comes and scrags me!"
"(Kik) Assault!" said Mr. Rusper.
"He assaulted _me_," said Mr. Polly.
"Jumped (kik) into my dus'bin!" said Mr. Rusper. "That assault? Or
"You better drop it," said Mr. Hinks.
"Great pity they can't be'ave better, both of 'em," said Mr. Chuffles,
glad for once to find himself morally unassailable.
"Anyone see it begin?" said Mr. Wintershed.
"_I_ was in the shop," said Mrs. Rusper suddenly from the doorstep,
piercing the little group of men and boys with the sharp horror of an
unexpected woman's voice. "If a witness is wanted I suppose I've got a
tongue. I suppose I got a voice in seeing my own 'usband injured. My
husband went out and spoke to Mr. Polly, who was jumping off his
bicycle all among our pails and things, and immediately 'e butted him
in the stomach--immediately--most savagely--butted him. Just after his
dinner too and him far from strong. I could have screamed. But Rusper
caught hold of him right away, I will say that for Rusper...."
"I'm going," said Mr. Polly suddenly, releasing himself from the
Anglo-Japanese grip and holding out his hands for his bicycle.
"Teach you (kik) to leave things alone," said Mr. Rusper with an air
of one who has given a lesson.
The testimony of Mrs. Rusper continued relentlessly in the background.
"You'll hear of me through a summons," said Mr. Polly, preparing to
wheel his bicycle.
"(Kik) Me too," said Mr. Rusper.
Someone handed Mr. Polly a collar. "This yours?"
Mr. Polly investigated his neck. "I suppose it is. Anyone seen a tie?"
A small boy produced a grimy strip of spotted blue silk.
"Human life isn't safe with you," said Mr. Polly as a parting shot.
"(Kik) Yours isn't," said Mr. Rusper....
And they got small satisfaction out of the Bench, which refused
altogether to perceive the relentless correctitude of the behaviour of
either party, and reproved the eagerness of Mrs. Rusper--speaking to
her gently, firmly but exasperatingly as "My Good Woman" and telling
her to "Answer the Question! Answer the Question!"
"Seems a Pity," said the chairman, when binding them over to keep the
peace, "you can't behave like Respectable Tradesmen. Seems a Great
Pity. Bad Example to the Young and all that. Don't do any Good to the
town, don't do any Good to yourselves, don't do any manner of Good, to
have all the Tradesmen in the Place scrapping about the Pavement of an
Afternoon. Think we're letting you off very easily this time, and hope
it will be a Warning to you. Don't expect Men of your Position to come
up before us. Very Regrettable Affair. Eh?"
He addressed the latter enquiry to his two colleagues.
"Exactly, exactly," said the colleague to the right.
"Er--(kik)," said Mr. Rusper.
But the disgust that overshadowed Mr. Polly's being as he sat upon the
stile, had other and profounder justification than his quarrel with
Rusper and the indignity of appearing before the county bench. He was
for the first time in his business career short with his rent for the
approaching quarter day, and so far as he could trust his own bandling
of figures he was sixty or seventy pounds on the wrong side of
solvency. And that was the outcome of fifteen years of passive
endurance of dulness throughout the best years of his life! What would
Miriam say when she learnt this, and was invited to face the prospect
of exile--heaven knows what sort of exile!--from their present home?
She would grumble and scold and become limply unhelpful, he knew, and
none the less so because he could not help things. She would say he
ought to have worked harder, and a hundred such exasperating pointless
things. Such thoughts as these require no aid from undigested cold
pork and cold potatoes and pickles to darken the soul, and with these
aids his soul was black indeed.
"May as well have a bit of a walk," said Mr. Polly at last, after
nearly intolerable meditations, and sat round and put a leg over the
He remained still for some time before he brought over the other leg.
"Kill myself," he murmured at last.
It was an idea that came back to his mind nowadays with a continually
increasing attractiveness--more particularly after meals. Life he felt
had no further happiness to offer him. He hated Miriam, and there was
no getting away from her whatever might betide. And for the rest there
was toil and struggle, toil and struggle with a failing heart and
dwindling courage, to sustain that dreary duologue. "Life's insured,"
said Mr. Polly; "place is insured. I don't see it does any harm to her
He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Needn't hurt much," he said. He
began to elaborate a plan.
He found it quite interesting elaborating his plan. His countenance
became less miserable and his pace quickened.
There is nothing so good in all the world for melancholia as walking,
and the exercise of the imagination in planning something presently to
be done, and soon the wrathful wretchedness had vanished from Mr.
Polly's face. He would have to do the thing secretly and elaborately,
because otherwise there might be difficulties about the life
insurance. He began to scheme how he could circumvent that
He took a long walk, for after all what is the good of hurrying back
to shop when you are not only insolvent but very soon to die? His
dinner and the east wind lost their sinister hold upon his soul, and
when at last he came back along the Fishbourne High Street, his face
was unusually bright and the craving hunger of the dyspeptic was
returning. So he went into the grocer's and bought a ruddily decorated
tin of a brightly pink fishlike substance known as "Deep Sea Salmon."
This he was resolved to consume regardless of cost with vinegar and
salt and pepper as a relish to his supper.
He did, and since he and Miriam rarely talked and Miriam thought
honour and his recent behaviour demanded a hostile silence, he ate
fast, and copiously and soon gloomily. He ate alone, for she
refrained, to mark her sense of his extravagance. Then he prowled into
the High Street for a time, thought it an infernal place, tried his
pipe and found it foul and bitter, and retired wearily to bed.
He slept for an hour or so and then woke up to the contemplation of
Miriam's hunched back and the riddle of life, and this bright
attractive idea of ending for ever and ever and ever all the things
that were locking him in, this bright idea that shone like a baleful
star above all the reek and darkness of his misery....
Chapter the Eighth
Making an End to Things
Mr. Polly designed his suicide with considerable care, and a quite
remarkable altruism. His passionate hatred for Miriam vanished
directly the idea of getting away from her for ever became clear in
his mind. He found himself full of solicitude then for her welfare. He
did not want to buy his release at her expense. He had not the
remotest intention of leaving her unprotected with a painfully dead
husband and a bankrupt shop on her hands. It seemed to him that he
could contrive to secure for her the full benefit of both his life
insurance and his fire insurance if he managed things in a tactful
manner. He felt happier than he had done for years scheming out this
undertaking, albeit it was perhaps a larger and somberer kind of
happiness than had fallen to his lot before. It amazed him to think he
had endured his monotony of misery and failure for so long.
But there were some queer doubts and questions in the dim, half-lit
background of his mind that he had very resolutely to ignore. "Sick of
it," he had to repeat to himself aloud, to keep his determination
clear and firm. His life was a failure, there was nothing more to
hope for but unhappiness. Why shouldn't he?
His project was to begin the fire with the stairs that led from the
ground floor to the underground kitchen and scullery. This he would
soak with _paraffine_, and assist with firewood and paper, and a brisk
fire in the coal cellar underneath. He would smash a hole or so in the
stairs to ventilate the blaze, and have a good pile of boxes and
paper, and a convenient chair or so in the shop above. He would have
the _paraffine_ can upset and the shop lamp, as if awaiting refilling,
at a convenient distance in the scullery ready to catch. Then he would
smash the house lamp on the staircase, a fall with that in his hand
was to be the ostensible cause of the blaze, and then he would cut his
throat at the top of the kitchen stairs, which would then become his
funeral pyre. He would do all this on Sunday evening while Miriam was
at church, and it would appear that he had fallen downstairs with the
lamp, and been burnt to death. There was really no flaw whatever that
he could see in the scheme. He was quite sure he knew how to cut his
throat, deep at the side and not to saw at the windpipe, and he was
reasonably sure it wouldn't hurt him very much. And then everything
would be at an end.
There was no particular hurry to get the thing done, of course, and
meanwhile he occupied his mind with possible variations of the
It needed a particularly dry and dusty east wind, a Sunday dinner of
exceptional virulence, a conclusive letter from Konk, Maybrick, Ghool
and Gabbitas, his principal and most urgent creditors, and a
conversation with Miriam arising out of arrears of rent and leading on
to mutual character sketching, before Mr. Polly could be brought to
the necessary pitch of despair to carry out his plans. He went for an
embittering walk, and came back to find Miriam in a bad temper over
the tea things, with the brewings of three-quarters of an hour in the
pot, and hot buttered muffin gone leathery. He sat eating in silence
with his resolution made.
"Coming to church?" said Miriam after she had cleared away.
"Rather. I got a lot to be grateful for," said Mr. Polly.
"You got what you deserve," said Miriam.
"Suppose I have," said Mr. Polly, and went and stared out of the back
window at a despondent horse in the hotel yard.
He was still standing there when Miriam came downstairs dressed for
church. Something in his immobility struck home to her. "You'd better
come to church than mope," she said.
"I shan't mope," he answered.
She remained still for a moment. Her presence irritated him. He felt
that in another moment he should say something absurd to her, make
some last appeal for that understanding she had never been able to
give. "Oh! _go_ to church!" he said.
In another moment the outer door slammed upon her. "Good riddance!"
said Mr. Polly.
He turned about. "I've had my whack," he said.
He reflected. "I don't see she'll have any cause to holler," he
said. "Beastly Home! Beastly Life!"
For a space he remained thoughtful. "Here goes!" he said at last.
For twenty minutes Mr. Polly busied himself about the house, making
his preparations very neatly and methodically.
He opened the attic windows in order to make sure of a good draught
through the house, and drew down the blinds at the back and shut the
kitchen door to conceal his arrangements from casual observation. At
the end he would open the door on the yard and so make a clean clear
draught right through the house. He hacked at, and wedged off, the
tread of a stair. He cleared out the coals from under the staircase,
and built a neat fire of firewood and paper there, he splashed about
_paraffine_ and arranged the lamps and can even as he had designed,
and made a fine inflammable pile of things in the little parlour
behind the shop. "Looks pretty arsonical," he said as he surveyed it
all. "Wouldn't do to have a caller now. Now for the stairs!"
"Plenty of time," he assured himself, and took the lamp which was to
explain the whole affair, and went to the head of the staircase
between the scullery and the parlour. He sat down in the twilight with
the unlit lamp beside him and surveyed things. He must light the fire
in the coal cellar under the stairs, open the back door, then come up
them very quickly and light the _paraffine_ puddles on each step, then
sit down here again and cut his throat.
He drew his razor from his pocket and felt the edge. It wouldn't hurt
much, and in ten minutes he would be indistinguishable ashes in the
And this was the end of life for him!
The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him,
never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged
from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he
submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted
on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never
sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather
than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not
matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for
no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had
ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what
was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.
The clock in the back parlour pinged the half hour.
"Time!" said Mr. Polly, and stood up.
For an instant he battled with an impulse to put it all back, hastily,
guiltily, and abandon this desperate plan of suicide for ever.
But Miriam would smell the _paraffine_!
"No way out this time, O' Man," said Mr. Polly; and he went slowly
downstairs, matchbox in hand.
He paused for five seconds, perhaps, to listen to noises in the yard
of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel before he struck his match. It trembled
a little in his hand. The paper blackened, and an edge of blue flame
ran outward and spread. The fire burnt up readily, and in an instant
the wood was crackling cheerfully.
Someone might hear. He must hurry.
He lit a pool of _paraffine_ on the scullery floor, and instantly a
nest of snaky, wavering blue flame became agog for prey. He went up
the stairs three steps at a time with one eager blue flicker in
pursuit of him. He seized the lamp at the top. "Now!" he said and
flung it smashing. The chimney broke, but the glass receiver stood the
shock and rolled to the bottom, a potential bomb. Old Rumbold would
hear that and wonder what it was!... He'd know soon enough!
Then Mr. Polly stood hesitating, razor in hand, and then sat down. He
was trembling violently, but quite unafraid.
He drew the blade lightly under one ear. "Lord!" but it stung like a
Then he perceived a little blue thread of flame running up his leg. It
arrested his attention, and for a moment he sat, razor in hand,
staring at it. It must be _paraffine_ on his trousers that had caught
fire on the stairs. Of course his legs were wet with _paraffine_! He
smacked the flicker with his hand to put it out, and felt his leg burn
as he did so. But his trousers still charred and glowed. It seemed to
him necessary that he must put this out before he cut his throat. He
put down the razor beside him to smack with both hands very eagerly.
And as he did so a thin tall red flame came up through the hole in the
stairs he had made and stood still, quite still as it seemed, and
looked at him. It was a strange-looking flame, a flattish salmon
colour, redly streaked. It was so queer and quiet mannered that the
sight of it held Mr. Polly agape.
"Whuff!" went the can of _paraffine_ below, and boiled over with
stinking white fire. At the outbreak the salmon-coloured flames
shivered and ducked and then doubled and vanished, and instantly all
the staircase was noisily ablaze.
Mr. Polly sprang up and backwards, as though the uprushing tongues of
fire were a pack of eager wolves.
"Good Lord!" he cried like a man who wakes up from a dream.
He swore sharply and slapped again at a recrudescent flame upon his
"What the Deuce shall I do? I'm soaked with the confounded stuff!"
He had nerved himself for throat-cutting, but this was fire!
He wanted to delay things, to put them out for a moment while he did
his business. The idea of arresting all this hurry with water occurred
There was no water in the little parlour and none in the shop. He
hesitated for a moment whether he should not run upstairs to the
bedrooms and get a ewer of water to throw on the flames. At this rate
Rumbold's would be ablaze in five minutes! Things were going all too
fast for Mr. Polly. He ran towards the staircase door, and its hot
breath pulled him up sharply. Then he dashed out through his shop. The
catch of the front door was sometimes obstinate; it was now, and
instantly he became frantic. He rattled and stormed and felt the
parlour already ablaze behind him. In another moment he was in the
High Street with the door wide open.
The staircase behind him was crackling now like horsewhips and pistol
He had a vague sense that he wasn't doing as he had proposed, but the
chief thing was his sense of that uncontrolled fire within. What was
he going to do? There was the fire brigade station next door but one.
The Fishbourne High Street had never seemed so empty.
Far off at the corner by the God's Providence Inn a group of three
stiff hobbledehoys in their black, best clothes, conversed
intermittently with Taplow, the policeman.
"Hi!" bawled Mr. Polly to them. "Fire! Fire!" and struck by a horrible
thought, the thought of Rumbold's deaf mother-in-law upstairs, began
to bang and kick and rattle with the utmost fury at Rumbold's shop
"Hi!" he repeated, "_Fire!_"
That was the beginning of the great Fishbourne fire, which burnt its
way sideways into Mr. Rusper's piles of crates and straw, and
backwards to the petrol and stabling of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel,
and spread from that basis until it seemed half Fishbourne would be
ablaze. The east wind, which had been gathering in strength all that
day, fanned the flame; everything was dry and ready, and the little
shed beyond Rumbold's in which the local Fire Brigade kept its manual,
was alight before the Fishbourne fire hose could be saved from
disaster. In marvellously little time a great column of black smoke,
shot with red streamers, rose out of the middle of the High Street,
and all Fishbourne was alive with excitement.
Much of the more respectable elements of Fishbourne society was in
church or chapel; many, however, had been tempted by the blue sky and
the hard freshness of spring to take walks inland, and there had been
the usual disappearance of loungers and conversationalists from the
beach and the back streets when at the hour of six the shooting of
bolts and the turning of keys had ended the British Ramadan, that
weekly interlude of drought our law imposes. The youth of the place
were scattered on the beach or playing in back yards, under threat if
their clothes were dirtied, and the adolescent were disposed in pairs
among the more secluded corners to be found upon the outskirts of the
place. Several godless youths, seasick but fishing steadily, were
tossing upon the sea in old Tarbold's, the infidel's, boat, and the
Clamps were entertaining cousins from Port Burdock. Such few visitors
as Fishbourne could boast in the spring were at church or on the
beach. To all these that column of smoke did in a manner address
itself. "Look here!" it said, "this, within limits, is your affair;
what are you going to do?"
The three hobbledehoys, had it been a weekday and they in working
clothes, might have felt free to act, but the stiffness of black was
upon them and they simply moved to the corner by Rusper's to take a
better view of Mr. Polly beating at the door. The policeman was a
young, inexpert constable with far too lively a sense of the public
house. He put his head inside the Private Bar to the horror of
everyone there. But there was no breach of the law, thank Heaven!
"Polly's and Rumbold's on fire!" he said, and vanished again. A window
in the top story over Boomer's shop opened, and Boomer, captain of the
Fire Brigade, appeared, staring out with a blank expression. Still
staring, he began to fumble with his collar and tie; manifestly he had
to put on his uniform. Hinks' dog, which had been lying on the
pavement outside Wintershed's, woke up, and having regarded Mr. Polly
suspiciously for some time, growled nervously and went round the
corner into Granville Alley. Mr. Polly continued to beat and kick at
Then the public houses began to vomit forth the less desirable
elements of Fishbourne society, boys and men were moved to run and
shout, and more windows went up as the stir increased. Tashingford,
the chemist, appeared at his door, in shirt sleeves and an apron, with
his photographic plate holders in his hand. And then like a vision of
purpose came Mr. Gambell, the greengrocer, running out of Clayford's
Alley and buttoning on his jacket as he ran. His great brass fireman's
helmet was on his head, hiding it all but the sharp nose, the firm
mouth, the intrepid chin. He ran straight to the fire station and
tried the door, and turned about and met the eye of Boomer still at
his upper window. "The key!" cried Mr. Gambell, "the key!"
Mr. Boomer made some inaudible explanation about his trousers and half
"Seen old Rumbold?" cried Mr. Polly, approaching Mr. Gambell.
"Gone over Downford for a walk," said Mr. Gambell. "He told me! But
look 'ere! We 'aven't got the key!"
"Lord!" said Mr. Polly, and regarded the china shop with open eyes. He
_knew_ the old woman must be there alone. He went back to the shop
front and stood surveying it in infinite perplexity. The other
activities in the street did not interest him. A deaf old lady
somewhere upstairs there! Precious moments passing! Suddenly he was
struck by an idea and vanished from public vision into the open door
of the Royal Fishbourne Tap.
And now the street was getting crowded and people were laying their
hands to this and that.
Mr. Rusper had been at home reading a number of tracts upon Tariff
Reform, during the quiet of his wife's absence in church, and trying
to work out the application of the whole question to ironmongery. He
heard a clattering in the street and for a time disregarded it, until
a cry of Fire! drew him to the window. He pencilled-marked the tract
of Chiozza Money's that he was reading side by side with one by Mr.
Holt Schooling, made a hasty note "Bal. of Trade say 12,000,000" and
went to look out. Instantly he opened the window and ceased to believe
the Fiscal Question the most urgent of human affairs.
"Good (kik) Gud!" said Mr. Rusper.
For now the rapidly spreading blaze had forced the partition into Mr.
Rumbold's premises, swept across his cellar, clambered his garden wall
by means of his well-tarred mushroom shed, and assailed the engine
house. It stayed not to consume, but ran as a thing that seeks a
quarry. Polly's shop and upper parts were already a furnace, and black
smoke was coming out of Rumbold's cellar gratings. The fire in the
engine house showed only as a sudden rush of smoke from the back, like
something suddenly blown up. The fire brigade, still much under
strength, were now hard at work in the front of the latter building;
they had got the door open all too late, they had rescued the fire
escape and some buckets, and were now lugging out their manual, with
the hose already a dripping mass of molten, flaring, stinking rubber.
Boomer was dancing about and swearing and shouting; this direct attack
upon his apparatus outraged his sense of chivalry. The rest of the
brigade hovered in a disheartened state about the rescued fire escape,
and tried to piece Boomer's comments into some tangible instructions.