Part 4 out of 5
"Hi!" said Rusper from the window. "Kik! What's up?"
Gambell answered him out of his helmet. "Hose!" he cried. "Hose gone!"
"I (kik) got hose!" cried Rusper.
He had. He had a stock of several thousand feet of garden hose, of
various qualities and calibres, and now he felt was the time to use
it. In another moment his shop door was open and he was hurling pails,
garden syringes, and rolls of garden hose out upon the pavement.
"(Kik)," he cried, "undo it!" to the gathering crowd in the roadway.
They did. Presently a hundred ready hands were unrolling and spreading
and tangling up and twisting and hopelessly involving Mr. Rusper's
stock of hose, sustained by an unquenchable assurance that presently
it would in some manner contain and convey water, and Mr. Rusper, on
his knees, (kiking) violently, became incredibly busy with wire and
brass junctions and all sorts of mysteries.
"Fix it to the (kik) bathroom tap!" said Mr. Rusper.
Next door to the fire station was Mantell and Throbson's, the little
Fishbourne branch of that celebrated firm, and Mr. Boomer, seeking in
a teeming mind for a plan of action, had determined to save this
building. "Someone telephone to the Port Burdock and Hampstead-on-Sea
fire brigades," he cried to the crowd and then to his fellows: "Cut
away the woodwork of the fire station!" and so led the way into the
blaze with a whirling hatchet that effected wonders in no time in
But it was not, after all, such a bad idea of his. Mantell and
Throbsons was separated from the fire station in front by a covered
glass passage, and at the back the roof of a big outhouse sloped down
to the fire station leads. The sturdy 'longshoremen, who made up the
bulk of the fire brigade, assailed the glass roof of the passage with
extraordinary gusto, and made a smashing of glass that drowned for a
time the rising uproar of the flames.
A number of willing volunteers started off to the new telephone office
in obedience to Mr. Boomer's request, only to be told with cold
official politeness by the young lady at the exchange that all that
had been done on her own initiative ten minutes ago. She parleyed with
these heated enthusiasts for a space, and then returned to the window.
And indeed the spectacle was well worth looking at. The dusk was
falling, and the flames were showing brilliantly at half a dozen
points. The Royal Fishbourne Hotel Tap, which adjoined Mr. Polly to
the west, was being kept wet by the enthusiastic efforts of a string
of volunteers with buckets of water, and above at a bathroom window
the little German waiter was busy with the garden hose. But Mr.
Polly's establishment looked more like a house afire than most houses
on fire contrive to look from start to finish. Every window showed
eager flickering flames, and flames like serpents' tongues were
licking out of three large holes in the roof, which was already
beginning to fall in. Behind, larger and abundantly spark-shot gusts
of fire rose from the fodder that was now getting alight in the Royal
Fishbourne Hotel stables. Next door to Mr. Polly, Mr. Rumbold's house
was disgorging black smoke from the gratings that protected its
underground windows, and smoke and occasional shivers of flame were
also coming out of its first-floor windows. The fire station was
better alight at the back than in front, and its woodwork burnt pretty
briskly with peculiar greenish flickerings, and a pungent flavour. In
the street an inaggressively disorderly crowd clambered over the
rescued fire escape and resisted the attempts of the three local
constables to get it away from the danger of Mr. Polly's tottering
facade, a cluster of busy forms danced and shouted and advised on the
noisy and smashing attempt to cut off Mantell and Throbson's from the
fire station that was still in ineffectual progress. Further a number
of people appeared to be destroying interminable red and grey snakes
under the heated direction of Mr. Rusper; it was as if the High Street
had a plague of worms, and beyond again the more timid and less active
crowded in front of an accumulation of arrested traffic. Most of the
men were in Sabbatical black, and this and the white and starched
quality of the women and children in their best clothes gave a note of
ceremony to the whole affair.
For a moment the attention of the telephone clerk was held by the
activities of Mr. Tashingford, the chemist, who, regardless of
everyone else, was rushing across the road hurling fire grenades into
the fire station and running back for more, and then her eyes lifted
to the slanting outhouse roof that went up to a ridge behind the
parapet of Mantell and Throbson's. An expression of incredulity came
into the telephone operator's eyes and gave place to hard activity.
She flung up the window and screamed out: "Two people on the roof up
there! Two people on the roof!"
Her eyes had not deceived her. Two figures which had emerged from the
upper staircase window of Mr. Rumbold's and had got after a perilous
paddle in his cistern, on to the fire station, were now slowly but
resolutely clambering up the outhouse roof towards the back of the
main premises of Messrs. Mantell and Throbson's. They clambered slowly
and one urged and helped the other, slipping and pausing ever and
again, amidst a constant trickle of fragments of broken tile.
One was Mr. Polly, with his hair wildly disordered, his face covered
with black smudges and streaked with perspiration, and his trouser
legs scorched and blackened; the other was an elderly lady, quietly
but becomingly dressed in black, with small white frills at her neck
and wrists and a Sunday cap of ecru lace enlivened with a black velvet
bow. Her hair was brushed back from her wrinkled brow and plastered
down tightly, meeting in a small knob behind; her wrinkled mouth bore
that expression of supreme resolution common with the toothless aged.
She was shaky, not with fear, but with the vibrations natural to her
years, and she spoke with the slow quavering firmness of the very
"I don't mind scrambling," she said with piping inflexibility, "but I
can't jump and I _wunt_ jump."
"Scramble, old lady, then--scramble!" said Mr. Polly, pulling her arm.
"It's one up and two down on these blessed tiles."
"It's not what I'm used to," she said.
"Stick to it!" said Mr. Polly, "live and learn," and got to the ridge
and grasped at her arm to pull her after him.
"I can't jump, mind ye," she repeated, pressing her lips together.
"And old ladies like me mustn't be hurried."
"Well, let's get as high as possible anyhow!" said Mr. Polly, urging
her gently upward. "Shinning up a water-spout in your line? Near as
you'll get to Heaven."
"I _can't_ jump," she said. "I can do anything but jump."
"Hold on!" said Mr. Polly, "while I give you a boost.
"So long as it isn't jumping...."
The old lady grasped the parapet above, and there was a moment of
"Urup!" said Mr. Polly. "Hold on! Gollys! where's she gone to?..."
Then an ill-mended, wavering, yet very reassuring spring side boot
appeared for an instant.
"Thought perhaps there wasn't any roof there!" he explained,
scrambling up over the parapet beside her.
"I've never been out on a roof before," said the old lady. "I'm all
disconnected. It's very bumpy. Especially that last bit. Can't we sit
here for a bit and rest? I'm not the girl I useto be."
"You sit here ten minutes," shouted Mr. Polly, "and you'll pop like a
roast chestnut. Don't understand me? _Roast chestnut!_ Roast chestnut!
POP! There ought to be a limit to deafness. Come on round to the
front and see if we can find an attic window. Look at this smoke!"
"Nasty!" said the old lady, her eyes following his gesture, puckering
her face into an expression of great distaste.
"Can't hear a word you say."
He pulled her arm. "Come on!"
She paused for a moment to relieve herself of a series of entirely
unexpected chuckles. "_Sich_ goings on!" she said, "I never did!
Where's he going now?" and came along behind the parapet to the front
of the drapery establishment.
Below, the street was now fully alive to their presence, and
encouraged the appearance of their heads by shouts and cheers. A sort
of free fight was going on round the fire escape, order represented by
Mr. Boomer and the very young policeman, and disorder by some
partially intoxicated volunteers with views of their own about the
manipulation of the apparatus. Two or three lengths of Mr. Rusper's
garden hose appeared to have twined themselves round the ladder. Mr.
Polly watched the struggle with a certain impatience, and glanced ever
and again over his shoulder at the increasing volume of smoke and
steam that was pouring up from the burning fire station. He decided to
break an attic window and get in, and so try and get down through the
shop. He found himself in a little bedroom, and returned to fetch his
charge. For some time he could not make her understand his purpose.
"Got to come at once!" he shouted.
"I hain't '_ad_ _sich_ a time for years!" said the old lady.
"We'll have to get down through the house!"
"Can't do no jumpin'," said the old lady. "No!"
She yielded reluctantly to his grasp.
She stared over the parapet. "Runnin' and scurrying about like black
beetles in a kitchin," she said.
"We've got to hurry."
"Mr. Rumbold 'E's a very Quiet man. 'E likes everything Quiet. He'll
be surprised to see me 'ere! Why!--there 'e is!" She fumbled in her
garments mysteriously and at last produced a wrinkled pocket
handkerchief and began to wave it.
"Oh, come ON!" cried Mr. Polly, and seized her.
He got her into the attic, but the staircase, he found, was full of
suffocating smoke, and he dared not venture below the next floor. He
took her into a long dormitory, shut the door on those pungent and
pervasive fumes, and opened the window to discover the fire escape was
now against the house, and all Fishbourne boiling with excitement as
an immensely helmeted and active and resolute little figure ascended.
In another moment the rescuer stared over the windowsill, heroic, but
just a trifle self-conscious and grotesque.
"Lawks a mussy!" said the old lady. "Wonders and Wonders! Why! it's
Mr. Gambell! 'Iding 'is 'ed in that thing! I _never_ did!"
"Can we get her out?" said Mr. Gambell. "There's not much time."
"He might git stuck in it."
"_You'll_ get stuck in it," said Mr. Polly, "come along!"
"Not for jumpin' I don't," said the old lady, understanding his
gestures rather than his words. "Not a bit of it. I bain't no good at
jumping and I _wunt_."
They urged her gently but firmly towards the window.
"You _lemme_ do it my own way," said the old lady at the sill....
"I could do it better if e'd take it off."
"Oh! _carm_ on!"
"It's wuss than Carter's stile," she said, "before they mended it.
With a cow a-looking at you."
Mr. Gambell hovered protectingly below. Mr. Polly steered her aged
limbs from above. An anxious crowd below babbled advice and did its
best to upset the fire escape. Within, streamers of black smoke were
pouring up through the cracks in the floor. For some seconds the world
waited while the old lady gave herself up to reckless mirth again.
"_Sich_ times!" she said, and "_Poor_ Rumbold!"
Slowly they descended, and Mr. Polly remained at the post of danger
steadying the long ladder until the old lady was in safety below and
sheltered by Mr. Rumbold (who was in tears) and the young policeman
from the urgent congratulations of the crowd. The crowd was full of an
impotent passion to participate. Those nearest wanted to shake her
hand, those remoter cheered.
"The fust fire I was ever in and likely to be my last. It's a
scurryin', 'urryin' business, but I'm real glad I haven't missed it,"
said the old lady as she was borne rather than led towards the refuge
of the Temperance Hotel.
Also she was heard to remark: "'E was saying something about 'ot
chestnuts. _I_ 'aven't 'ad no 'ot chestnuts."
Then the crowd became aware of Mr. Polly awkwardly negotiating the top
rungs of the fire escape. "'Ere 'e comes!" cried a voice, and Mr.
Polly descended into the world again out of the conflagration he had
lit to be his funeral pyre, moist, excited, and tremendously alive,
amidst a tempest of applause. As he got lower and lower the crowd
howled like a pack of dogs at him. Impatient men unable to wait for
him seized and shook his descending boots, and so brought him to earth
with a run. He was rescued with difficulty from an enthusiast who
wished to slake at his own expense and to his own accompaniment a
thirst altogether heroic. He was hauled into the Temperance Hotel and
flung like a sack, breathless and helpless, into the tear-wet embrace
With the dusk and the arrival of some county constabulary, and first
one and presently two other fire engines from Port Burdock and
Hampstead-on-Sea, the local talent of Fishbourne found itself forced
back into a secondary, less responsible and more observant role. I
will not pursue the story of the fire to its ashes, nor will I do more
than glance at the unfortunate Mr. Rusper, a modern Laocoon, vainly
trying to retrieve his scattered hose amidst the tramplings and
rushings of the Port Burdock experts.
In a small sitting-room of the Fishbourne Temperance Hotel a little
group of Fishbourne tradesmen sat and conversed in fragments and anon
went to the window and looked out upon the smoking desolation of their
homes across the way, and anon sat down again. They and their families
were the guests of old Lady Bargrave, who had displayed the utmost
sympathy and interest in their misfortunes. She had taken several
people into her own house at Everdean, had engaged the Temperance
Hotel as a temporary refuge, and personally superintended the housing
of Mantell and Throbson's homeless assistants. The Temperance Hotel
became and remained extremely noisy and congested, with people sitting
about anywhere, conversing in fragments and totally unable to get
themselves to bed. The manager was an old soldier, and following the
best traditions of the service saw that everyone had hot cocoa. Hot
cocoa seemed to be about everywhere, and it was no doubt very
heartening and sustaining to everyone. When the manager detected
anyone disposed to be drooping or pensive he exhorted that person at
once to drink further hot cocoa and maintain a stout heart.
The hero of the occasion, the centre of interest, was Mr. Polly. For
he had not only caused the fire by upsetting a lighted lamp, scorching
his trousers and narrowly escaping death, as indeed he had now
explained in detail about twenty times, but he had further thought at
once of that amiable but helpless old lady next door, had shown the
utmost decision in making his way to her over the yard wall of the
Royal Fishbourne Hotel, and had rescued her with persistence and
vigour in spite of the levity natural to her years. Everyone thought
well of him and was anxious to show it, more especially by shaking his
hand painfully and repeatedly. Mr. Rumbold, breaking a silence of
nearly fifteen years, thanked him profusely, said he had never
understood him properly and declared he ought to have a medal. There
seemed to be a widely diffused idea that Mr. Polly ought to have a
medal. Hinks thought so. He declared, moreover, and with the utmost
emphasis, that Mr. Polly had a crowded and richly decorated
interior--or words to that effect. There was something apologetic in
this persistence; it was as if he regretted past intimations that Mr.
Polly was internally defective and hollow. He also said that Mr. Polly
was a "white man," albeit, as he developed it, with a liver of the
deepest chromatic satisfactions.
Mr. Polly wandered centrally through it all, with his face washed and
his hair carefully brushed and parted, looking modest and more than a
little absent-minded, and wearing a pair of black dress trousers
belonging to the manager of the Temperance Hotel,--a larger man than
himself in every way.
He drifted upstairs to his fellow-tradesmen, and stood for a time
staring into the littered street, with its pools of water and
extinguished gas lamps. His companions in misfortune resumed a
fragmentary disconnected conversation. They touched now on one aspect
of the disaster and now on another, and there were intervals of
silence. More or less empty cocoa cups were distributed over the
table, mantelshelf and piano, and in the middle of the table was a tin
of biscuits, into which Mr. Rumbold, sitting round-shoulderedly,
dipped ever and again in an absent-minded way, and munched like a
distant shooting of coals. It added to the solemnity of the affair
that nearly all of them were in their black Sunday clothes; little
Clamp was particularly impressive and dignified in a wide open frock
coat, a Gladstone-shaped paper collar, and a large white and blue tie.
They felt that they were in the presence of a great disaster, the sort
of disaster that gets into the papers, and is even illustrated by
blurred photographs of the crumbling ruins. In the presence of that
sort of disaster all honourable men are lugubrious and sententious.
And yet it is impossible to deny a certain element of elation. Not one
of those excellent men but was already realising that a great door had
opened, as it were, in the opaque fabric of destiny, that they were to
get their money again that had seemed sunken for ever beyond any hope
in the deeps of retail trade. Life was already in their imagination
rising like a Phoenix from the flames.
"I suppose there'll be a public subscription," said Mr. Clamp.
"Not for those who're insured," said Mr. Wintershed.
"I was thinking of them assistants from Mantell and Throbson's. They
must have lost nearly everything."
"They'll be looked after all right," said Mr. Rumbold. "Never fear."
"_I'm_ insured," said Mr. Clamp, with unconcealed satisfaction. "Royal
"Same here," said Mr. Wintershed.
"Mine's the Glasgow Sun," Mr. Hinks remarked. "Very good company."
"You insured, Mr. Polly?"
"He deserves to be," said Rumbold.
"Ra-ther," said Hinks. "Blowed if he don't. Hard lines it _would_
be--if there wasn't something for him."
"Commercial and General," answered Mr. Polly over his shoulder, still
staring out of the window. "Oh! I'm all right."
The topic dropped for a time, though manifestly it continued to
exercise their minds.
"It's cleared me out of a lot of old stock," said Mr. Wintershed;
"that's one good thing."
The remark was felt to be in rather questionable taste, and still more
so was his next comment.
"Rusper's a bit sick it didn't reach '_im_."
Everyone looked uncomfortable, and no one was willing to point the
reason why Rusper should be a bit sick.
"Rusper's been playing a game of his own," said Hinks. "Wonder what he
thought he was up to! Sittin' in the middle of the road with a pair of
tweezers he was, and about a yard of wire--mending somethin'. Wonder
he warn't run over by the Port Burdock engine."
Presently a little chat sprang up upon the causes of fires, and Mr.
Polly was moved to tell how it had happened for the one and twentieth
time. His story had now become as circumstantial and exact as the
evidence of a police witness. "Upset the lamp," he said. "I'd just
lighted it, I was going upstairs, and my foot slipped against where
one of the treads was a bit rotten, and down I went. Thing was aflare
in a moment!..."
He yawned at the end of the discussion, and moved doorward.
"So long," said Mr. Polly.
"Good night," said Mr. Rumbold. "You played a brave man's part! If you
don't get a medal--"
He left an eloquent pause.
"'Ear, 'ear!" said Mr. Wintershed and Mr. Clamp. "Goo'night, O' Man,"
said Mr. Hinks.
"Goo'night All," said Mr. Polly ...
He went slowly upstairs. The vague perplexity common to popular heroes
pervaded his mind. He entered the bedroom and turned up the electric
light. It was quite a pleasant room, one of the best in the Temperance
Hotel, with a nice clean flowered wallpaper, and a very large
looking-glass. Miriam appeared to be asleep, and her shoulders were
humped up under the clothes in a shapeless, forbidding lump that Mr.
Polly had found utterly loathsome for fifteen years. He went softly
over to the dressing-table and surveyed himself thoughtfully.
Presently he hitched up the trousers. "Miles too big for me," he
remarked. "Funny not to have a pair of breeches of one's own.... Like
being born again. Naked came I into the world...."
Miriam stirred and rolled over, and stared at him.
"Hello!" she said.
"Come to bed?"
Pause, while Mr. Polly disrobed slowly.
"I been thinking," said Miriam, "It isn't going to be so bad after
all. We shall get your insurance. We can easy begin all over again."
"H'm," said Mr. Polly.
She turned her face away from him and reflected.
"Get a better house," said Miriam, regarding the wallpaper pattern.
"I've always 'ated them stairs."
Mr. Polly removed a boot.
"Choose a better position where there's more doing," murmured
"Not half so bad," she whispered....
"You _wanted_ stirring up," she said, half asleep....
It dawned upon Mr. Polly for the first time that he had forgotten
He ought to have cut his throat!
The fact struck him as remarkable, but as now no longer of any
particular urgency. It seemed a thing far off in the past, and he
wondered why he had not thought of it before. Odd thing life is! If he
had done it he would never have seen this clean and agreeable
apartment with the electric light.... His thoughts wandered into a
question of detail. Where could he have put the razor down? Somewhere
in the little room behind the shop, he supposed, but he could not
think where more precisely. Anyhow it didn't matter now.
He undressed himself calmly, got into bed, and fell asleep almost
Chapter the Ninth
The Potwell Inn
But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday
circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us
securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a
discovery. If the world does not please you _you can change it_.
Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether.
You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something
appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter,
something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more
interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame
for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and
dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action
cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and
even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary
compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I
give these things as facts and information, and with no moral
intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed
indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general
air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood
there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.
He could, for example, "clear out."
It became a wonderful and alluring phrase to him: "clear out!"
Why had he never thought of clearing out before?
He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and
superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and
stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the
bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But
something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by
that flare. _Fishbourne wasn't the world_. That was the new, the
essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance.
Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill
himself to get out of it, _wasn't the world_.
The insurance money he was to receive made everything humane and
kindly and practicable. He would "clear out," with justice and
humanity. He would take exactly twenty-one pounds, and all the rest he
would leave to Miriam. That seemed to him absolutely fair. Without
him, she could do all sorts of things--all the sorts of things she was
constantly urging him to do.
And he would go off along the white road that led to Garchester, and
on to Crogate and so to Tunbridge Wells, where there was a Toad Rock
he had heard of, but never seen. (It seemed to him this must needs be
a marvel.) And so to other towns and cities. He would walk and loiter
by the way, and sleep in inns at night, and get an odd job here and
there and talk to strange people. Perhaps he would get quite a lot of
work and prosper, and if he did not do so he would lie down in front
of a train, or wait for a warm night, and then fall into some smooth,
broad river. Not so bad as sitting down to a dentist, not nearly so
bad. And he would never open a shop any more. Never!
So the possibilities of the future presented themselves to Mr. Polly
as he lay awake at nights.
It was springtime, and in the woods so soon as one got out of reach of
the sea wind, there would be anemones and primroses.
A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.
For the first time in many years he had been leading a healthy human
life, living constantly in the open air, walking every day for eight
or nine hours, eating sparingly, accepting every conversational
opportunity, not even disdaining the discussion of possible work. And
beyond mending a hole in his coat that he had made while negotiating
barbed wire, with a borrowed needle and thread in a lodging house, he
had done no work at all. Neither had he worried about business nor
about time and seasons. And for the first time in his life he had seen
the Aurora Borealis.
So far the holiday had cost him very little. He had arranged it on a
plan that was entirely his own. He had started with four five-pound
notes and a pound divided into silver, and he had gone by train from
Fishbourne to Ashington. At Ashington he had gone to the post-office,
obtained a registered letter, and sent his four five-pound notes with
a short brotherly note addressed to himself at Gilhampton Post-office.
He sent this letter to Gilhampton for no other reason in the world
than that he liked the name of Gilhampton and the rural suggestion of
its containing county, which was Sussex, and having so despatched it,
he set himself to discover, mark down and walk to Gilhampton, and so
recover his resources. And having got to Gilhampton at last, he
changed his five-pound note, bought four pound postal orders, and
repeated his manoeuvre with nineteen pounds.
After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world,
about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went
along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and
cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as
happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And
if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him he controlled his mind.
He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this
and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of
country inns, while the big sleek brass jingling horses wait patiently
outside with their waggons; he got a job with some van people who were
wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout and
remained with them for three days, until one of their dogs took a
violent dislike to him and made his duties unpleasant; he talked to
tramps and wayside labourers, he snoozed under hedges by day and in
outhouses and hayricks at night, and once, but only once, he slept in
a casual ward. He felt as the etiolated grass and daisies must do when
you move the garden roller away to a new place.
He gathered a quantity of strange and interesting memories.
He crossed some misty meadows by moonlight and the mist lay low on the
grass, so low that it scarcely reached above his waist, and houses and
clumps of trees stood out like islands in a milky sea, so sharply
denned was the upper surface of the mistbank. He came nearer and
nearer to a strange thing that floated like a boat upon this magic
lake, and behold! something moved at the stern and a rope was whisked
at the prow, and it had changed into a pensive cow, drowsy-eyed,
He saw a remarkable sunset in a new valley near Maidstone, a very red
and clear sunset, a wide redness under a pale cloudless heaven, and
with the hills all round the edge of the sky a deep purple blue and
clear and flat, looking exactly as he had seen mountains painted in
pictures. He seemed transported to some strange country, and would
have felt no surprise if the old labourer he came upon leaning
silently over a gate had addressed him in an unfamiliar tongue....
Then one night, just towards dawn, his sleep upon a pile of brushwood
was broken by the distant rattle of a racing motor car breaking all
the speed regulations, and as he could not sleep again, he got up and
walked into Maidstone as the day came. He had never been abroad in a
town at half-past two in his life before, and the stillness of
everything in the bright sunrise impressed him profoundly. At one
corner was a startling policeman, standing in a doorway quite
motionless, like a waxen image. Mr. Polly wished him "good morning"
unanswered, and went down to the bridge over the Medway and sat on the
parapet very still and thoughtful, watching the town awaken, and
wondering what he should do if it didn't, if the world of men never
One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of
sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly
this road became strangely, perplexingly familiar. "Lord!" he said,
and turned about and stood. "It can't be."
He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely
perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old
lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known
so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there
remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood.
The bracken perhaps was not so high, and most of its fronds still
uncoiled; that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she
had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had
become of her? He counted the years back and marvelled that beauty
should have called to him with so imperious a voice--and signified
He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall,
and saw off under the beech trees two schoolgirls--small,
insignificant, pig-tailed creatures, with heads of blond and black,
with their arms twined about each other's necks, no doubt telling each
other the silliest secrets.
But that girl with the red hair--was she a countess? was she a queen?
Children perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her?
Had she forgotten altogether?...
A tramp sat by the roadside thinking, and it seemed to the man in the
passing motor car he must needs be plotting for another pot of beer.
But as a matter of fact what the tramp was saying to himself over and
over again was a variant upon a well-known Hebrew word.
"Itchabod," the tramp was saying in the voice of one who reasons on
the side of the inevitable. "It's Fair Itchabod, O' Man. There's no
going back to it."
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon one hot day in high May when
Mr. Polly, unhurrying and serene, came to that broad bend of the river
to which the little lawn and garden of the Potwell Inn run down. He
stopped at the sight of the place with its deep tiled roof, nestling
under big trees--you never get a decently big, decently shaped tree by
the seaside--its sign towards the roadway, its sun-blistered green
bench and tables, its shapely white windows and its row of upshooting
hollyhock plants in the garden. A hedge separated it from a
buttercup-yellow meadow, and beyond stood three poplars in a group
against the sky, three exceptionally tall, graceful and harmonious
poplars. It is hard to say what there was about them that made them so
beautiful to Mr. Polly; but they seemed to him to touch a pleasant
scene to a distinction almost divine. He remained admiring them for a
long time. At last the need for coarser aesthetic satisfactions arose
"Provinder," he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. "Cold sirlion for
choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread."
The nearer he came to the place the more he liked it. The windows on
the ground floor were long and low, and they had pleasing red blinds.
The green tables outside were agreeably ringed with memories of former
drinks, and an extensive grape vine spread level branches across the
whole front of the place. Against the wall was a broken oar, two
boat-hooks and the stained and faded red cushions of a pleasure boat.
One went up three steps to the glass-panelled door and peeped into a
broad, low room with a bar and beer engine, behind which were many
bright and helpful looking bottles against mirrors, and great and
little pewter measures, and bottles fastened in brass wire upside down
with their corks replaced by taps, and a white china cask labelled
"Shrub," and cigar boxes and boxes of cigarettes, and a couple of Toby
jugs and a beautifully coloured hunting scene framed and glazed,
showing the most elegant and beautiful people taking Piper's Cherry
Brandy, and cards such as the law requires about the dilution of
spirits and the illegality of bringing children into bars, and
satirical verses about swearing and asking for credit, and three very
bright red-cheeked wax apples and a round-shaped clock.
But these were the mere background to the really pleasant thing in the
spectacle, which was quite the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen,
seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses
and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the
slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her
a fat woman, but Mr. Polly's innate sense of epithet told him from the
outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight,
well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and
beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about
the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink
and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in
front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite
confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance,
good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready
acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one
side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her
of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.
"_My_ sort," said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided
between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive
indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.
She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror
flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.
"Law!" she said, her face softening with relief, "I thought you were
"I'm never Jim," said Mr. Polly.
"You've got his sort of hat."
"Ah!" said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar.
"It just came into my head you was Jim," said the plump lady,
dismissed the topic and stood up. "I believe I was having forty
winks," she said, "if all the truth was told. What can I do for you?"
"Cold meat?" said Mr. Polly.
"There _is_ cold meat," the plump woman admitted.
"And room for it."
The plump woman came and leant over the bar and regarded him
judicially, but kindly. "There's some cold boiled beef," she said, and
added: "A bit of crisp lettuce?"
"New mustard," said Mr. Polly.
"And a tankard!"
They understood each other perfectly.
"Looking for work?" asked the plump woman.
"In a way," said Mr. Polly.
They smiled like old friends.
Whatever the truth may be about love, there is certainly such a thing
as friendship at first sight. They liked each other's voices, they
liked each other's way of smiling and speaking.
"It's such beautiful weather this spring," said Mr. Polly, explaining
"What sort of work do you want?" she asked.
"I've never properly thought that out," said Mr. Polly. "I've been
looking round--for Ideas."
"Will you have your beef in the tap or outside? That's the tap."
Mr. Polly had a glimpse of an oaken settle. "In the tap will be
handier for you," he said.
"Hear that?" said the plump lady.
Presently the silence was broken by a distant howl. "Oooooo-_ver_!"
"Eh?" she said.
"That's the ferry. And there isn't a ferryman."
"Can you punt?"
"Well--pull the pole out before you reach the end of the punt, that's
Mr. Polly went out again into the sunshine.
At times one can tell so much so briefly. Here are the facts
then--bare. He found a punt and a pole, got across to the steps on the
opposite side, picked up an elderly gentleman in an alpaca jacket and
a pith helmet, cruised with him vaguely for twenty minutes, conveyed
him tortuously into the midst of a thicket of forget-me-not spangled
sedges, splashed some water-weed over him, hit him twice with the punt
pole, and finally landed him, alarmed but abusive, in treacherous soil
at the edge of a hay meadow about forty yards down stream, where he
immediately got into difficulties with a noisy, aggressive little
white dog, which was guardian of a jacket.
Mr. Polly returned in a complicated manner to his moorings.
He found the plump woman rather flushed and tearful, and seated at one
of the green tables outside.
"I been laughing at you," she said.
"What for?" asked Mr. Polly.
"I ain't 'ad such a laugh since Jim come 'ome. When you 'it 'is 'ed,
it 'urt my side."
"It didn't hurt his head--not particularly."
She waved her head. "Did you charge him anything?"
"Gratis," said Mr. Polly. "I never thought of it."
The plump woman pressed her hands to her sides and laughed silently
for a space. "You ought to have charged him sumpthing," she said. "You
better come and have your cold meat, before you do any more puntin'.
You and me'll get on together."
Presently she came and stood watching him eat. "You eat better than
you punt," she said, and then, "I dessay you could learn to punt."
"Wax to receive and marble to retain," said Mr. Polly. "This beef is a
Bit of All Right, Ma'm. I could have done differently if I hadn't been
punting on an empty stomach. There's a lear feeling as the pole goes
"I've never held with fasting," said the plump woman.
"You want a ferryman?"
"I want an odd man about the place."
"I'm odd, all right. What's your wages?"
"Not much, but you get tips and pickings. I've a sort of feeling it
would suit you."
"I've a sort of feeling it would. What's the duties? Fetch and carry?
Ferry? Garden? Wash bottles? _Ceteris paribus?_"
"That's about it," said the fat woman.
"Give me a trial."
"I've more than half a mind. Or I wouldn't have said anything about
it. I suppose you're all right. You've got a sort of half-respectable
look about you. I suppose you 'aven't _done_ anything."
"Bit of Arson," said Mr. Polly, as if he jested.
"So long as you haven't the habit," said the plump woman.
"My first time, M'am," said Mr. Polly, munching his way through an
excellent big leaf of lettuce. "And my last."
"It's all right if you haven't been to prison," said the plump woman.
"It isn't what a man's happened to do makes 'im bad. We all happen to
do things at times. It's bringing it home to him, and spoiling his
self-respect does the mischief. You don't _look_ a wrong 'un. 'Ave you
been to prison?"
"Nor a reformatory? Nor any institution?"
"Not me. Do I _look_ reformed?"
"Can you paint and carpenter a bit?"
"Well, I'm ripe for it."
"Have a bit of cheese?"
"If I might."
And the way she brought the cheese showed Mr. Polly that the business
was settled in her mind.
He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and
learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm
tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people
land, embarking, landing and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing
boats and one Canadian canoe, baling out the said vessels and
concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading
inexperienced hirers to start down stream rather than up, repairing
rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to
supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys,
house-painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the tap and
bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork,
whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and
clocks, waiting and tapster's work generally, beating carpets and
mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar,
moving, tapping and connecting beer casks with their engines, blocking
and destroying wasps' nests, doing forestry with several trees,
drowning superfluous kittens, and dog-fancying as required, assisting
in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry,
bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning
and "garing" motor cars and bicycles, inflating tires and repairing
punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as
required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and
sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for
visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the
establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a
scullion, the ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages
out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage,
gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda water syphons in
the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and
offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle as occasion
required, keeping in with the local policemen, defending the premises
in general and the orchard in particular from depredators....
"Can but try it," said Mr. Polly towards tea time. "When there's
nothing else on hand I suppose I might do a bit of fishing."
Mr. Polly was particularly charmed by the ducklings.
They were piping about among the vegetables in the company of their
foster mother, and as he and the plump woman came down the garden path
the little creatures mobbed them, and ran over their boots and in
between Mr. Polly's legs, and did their best to be trodden upon and
killed after the manner of ducklings all the world over. Mr. Polly had
never been near young ducklings before, and their extreme blondness
and the delicate completeness of their feet and beaks filled him with
admiration. It is open to question whether there is anything more
friendly in the world than a very young duckling. It was with the
utmost difficulty that he tore himself away to practise punting, with
the plump woman coaching from the bank. Punting he found was
difficult, but not impossible, and towards four o'clock he succeeded
in conveying a second passenger across the sundering flood from the
inn to the unknown.
As he returned, slowly indeed, but now one might almost say surely, to
the peg to which the punt was moored, he became aware of a singularly
delightful human being awaiting him on the bank. She stood with her
legs very wide apart, her hands behind her back, and her head a little
on one side, watching his gestures with an expression of disdainful
interest. She had black hair and brown legs and a buff short frock and
very intelligent eyes. And when he had reached a sufficient proximity
she remarked: "Hello!"
"Hello," said Mr. Polly, and saved himself in the nick of time from
"Silly," said the young lady, and Mr. Polly lunged nearer.
"What are you called?"
"Then I'm Alfred. But I meant to be Polly."
"I was first."
"All right. I'm going to be the ferryman."
"I see. You'll have to punt better."
"You should have seen me early in the afternoon."
"I can imagine it.... I've seen the others."
"What others?" Mr. Polly had landed now and was fastening up the punt.
"Whaim has scooted."
"He conies and scoots them. He'll scoot you too, I expect."
A mysterious shadow seemed to fall athwart the sunshine and
pleasantness of the Potwell Inn.
"I'm not a scooter," said Mr. Polly.
"Uncle Jim is."
She whistled a little flatly for a moment, and threw small stones at a
clump of meadow-sweet that sprang from the bank. Then she remarked:
"When Uncle Jim comes back he'll cut your insides out.... P'raps, very
likely, he'll let me see."
There was a pause.
"_Who's_ Uncle Jim?" Mr. Polly asked in a faded voice.
"Don't you know who Uncle Jim is? He'll show you. He's a scorcher, is
Uncle Jim. He only came back just a little time ago, and he's scooted
three men. He don't like strangers about, don't Uncle Jim. He _can_
swear. He's going to teach me, soon as I can whissle properly."
"Teach you to swear!" cried Mr. Polly, horrified.
"_And_ spit," said the little girl proudly. "He says I'm the gamest
little beast he ever came across--ever."
For the first time in his life it seemed to Mr. Polly that he had come
across something sheerly dreadful. He stared at the pretty thing of
flesh and spirit in front of him, lightly balanced on its stout little
legs and looking at him with eyes that had still to learn the
expression of either disgust or fear.
"I say," said Mr. Polly, "how old are you?"
"Nine," said the little girl.
She turned away and reflected. Truth compelled her to add one other
"He's not what I should call handsome, not Uncle Jim," she said. "But
he's a scorcher and no mistake.... Gramma don't like him."
Mr. Polly found the plump woman in the big bricked kitchen lighting a
fire for tea. He went to the root of the matter at once.
"I say," he asked, "who's Uncle Jim?"
The plump woman blanched and stood still for a moment. A stick fell
out of the bundle in her hand unheeded.
"That little granddaughter of mine been saying things?" she asked
"Bits of things," said Mr. Polly.
"Well, I suppose I must tell you sooner or later. He's--. It's Jim.
He's the Drorback to this place, that's what he is. The Drorback. I
hoped you mightn't hear so soon.... Very likely he's gone."
"_She_ don't seem to think so."
"'E 'asn't been near the place these two weeks and more," said the
"But who is he?"
"I suppose I got to tell you," said the plump woman.
"She says he scoots people," Mr. Polly remarked after a pause.
"He's my own sister's son." The plump woman watched the crackling fire
for a space. "I suppose I got to tell you," she repeated.
She softened towards tears. "I try not to think of it, and night and
day he's haunting me. I try not to think of it. I've been for
easy-going all my life. But I'm that worried and afraid, with death
and ruin threatened and evil all about me! I don't know what to do! My
own sister's son, and me a widow woman and 'elpless against his
She put down the sticks she held upon the fender, and felt for her
handkerchief. She began to sob and talk quickly.
"I wouldn't mind nothing else half so much if he'd leave that child
alone. But he goes talking to her--if I leave her a moment he's
talking to her, teaching her words and giving her ideas!"
"That's a Bit Thick," said Mr. Polly.
"Thick!" cried the plump woman; "it's 'orrible! And what am I to do?
He's been here three times now, six days and a week and a part of a
week, and I pray to God night and day he may never come again.
Praying! Back he's come sure as fate. He takes my money and he takes
my things. He won't let no man stay here to protect me or do the boats
or work the ferry. The ferry's getting a scandal. They stand and shout
and scream and use language.... If I complain they'll say I'm helpless
to manage here, they'll take away my license, out I shall go--and it's
all the living I can get--and he knows it, and he plays on it, and he
don't care. And here I am. I'd send the child away, but I got nowhere
to send the child. I buys him off when it comes to that, and back he
comes, worse than ever, prowling round and doing evil. And not a soul
to help me. Not a soul! I just hoped there might be a day or so.
Before he comes back again. I was just hoping--I'm the sort that
Mr. Polly was reflecting on the flaws and drawbacks that seem to be
inseparable from all the more agreeable things in life.
"Biggish sort of man, I expect?" asked Mr. Polly, trying to get the
situation in all its bearings.
But the plump woman did not heed him. She was going on with her
fire-making, and retailing in disconnected fragments the fearfulness
of Uncle Jim.
"There was always something a bit wrong with him," she said, "but
nothing you mightn't have hoped for, not till they took him and
carried him off and reformed him....
"He was cruel to the hens and chickings, it's true, and stuck a knife
into another boy, but then I've seen him that nice to a cat, nobody
could have been kinder. I'm sure he didn't do no 'arm to that cat
whatever anyone tries to make out of it. I'd never listen to that....
It was that reformatory ruined him. They put him along of a lot of
London boys full of ideas of wickedness, and because he didn't mind
pain--and he don't, I will admit, try as I would--they made him think
himself a hero. Them boys laughed at the teachers they set over them,
laughed and mocked at them--and I don't suppose they was the best
teachers in the world; I don't suppose, and I don't suppose anyone
sensible does suppose that everyone who goes to be a teacher or a
chapl'in or a warder in a Reformatory Home goes and changes right away
into an Angel of Grace from Heaven--and Oh, Lord! where was I?"
"What did they send him to the Reformatory for?"
"Playing truant and stealing. He stole right enough--stole the money
from an old woman, and what was I to do when it came to the trial but
say what I knew. And him like a viper a-looking at me--more like a
viper than a human boy. He leans on the bar and looks at me. 'All
right, Aunt Flo,' he says, just that and nothing more. Time after
time, I've dreamt of it, and now he's come. 'They've Reformed me,' he
says, 'and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you. So out with
it,' he says."
"What did you give him last time?" asked Mr. Polly.
"Three golden pounds," said the plump woman.
"'That won't last very long,' he says. 'But there ain't no hurry. I'll
be back in a week about.' If I wasn't one of the hoping sort--"
She left the sentence unfinished.
Mr. Polly reflected. "What sort of a size is he?" he asked. "I'm not
one of your Herculaceous sort, if you mean that. Nothing very
"You'll scoot," said the plump woman with conviction rather than
bitterness. "You'd better scoot now, and I'll try and find some money
for him to go away again when he comes. It ain't reasonable to expect
you to do anything but scoot. But I suppose it's the way of a woman in
trouble to try and get help from a man, and hope and hope. I'm the
"How long's he been about?" asked Mr. Polly, ignoring his own outlook.
"Three months it is come the seventh since he come in by that very
back door--and I hadn't set eyes on him for seven long years. He stood
in the door watchin' me, and suddenly he let off a yelp--like a dog,
and there he was grinning at the fright he'd given me. 'Good old Aunty
Flo,' he says, 'ain't you dee-lighted to see me?' he says, 'now I'm
The plump lady went to the sink and filled the kettle.
"I never did like 'im," she said, standing at the sink. "And seeing
him there, with his teeth all black and broken--. P'raps I didn't give
him much of a welcome at first. Not what would have been kind to him.
'Lord!' I said, 'it's Jim.'"
"'It's Jim,' he said. 'Like a bad shillin'--like a damned bad
shilling. Jim and trouble. You all of you wanted me Reformed and now
you got me Reformed. I'm a Reformatory Reformed Character, warranted
all right and turned out as such. Ain't you going to ask me in, Aunty
"'Come in,' I said, 'I won't have it said I wasn't ready to be kind to
"He comes in and shuts the door. Down he sits in that chair. 'I come
to torment you!' he says, 'you Old Sumpthing!' and begins at me.... No
human being could ever have been called such things before. It made me
cry out. 'And now,' he says, 'just to show I ain't afraid of 'urting
you,' he says, and ups and twists my wrist."
Mr. Polly gasped.
"I could stand even his vi'lence," said the plump woman, "if it wasn't
for the child."
Mr. Polly went to the kitchen window and surveyed his namesake, who
was away up the garden path with her hands behind her back, and whisps
of black hair in disorder about her little face, thinking, thinking
profoundly, about ducklings.
"You two oughtn't to be left," he said.
The plump woman stared at his back with hard hope in her eyes.
"I don't see that it's _my_ affair," said Mr. Polly.
The plump woman resumed her business with the kettle.
"I'd like to have a look at him before I go," said Mr. Polly, thinking
aloud. And added, "somehow. Not my business, of course."
"Lord!" he cried with a start at a noise in the bar, "who's that?"
"Only a customer," said the plump woman.
Mr. Polly made no rash promises, and thought a great deal.
"It seems a good sort of Crib," he said, and added, "for a chap who's
looking for trouble."
But he stayed on and did various things out of the list I have already
given, and worked the ferry, and it was four days before he saw anything
of Uncle Jim. And so _resistent_ is the human mind to things not yet
experienced that he could easily have believed in that time that there
was no such person in the world as Uncle Jim. The plump woman, after
her one outbreak of confidence, ignored the subject, and little Polly
seemed to have exhausted her impressions in her first communication,
and engaged her mind now with a simple directness in the study and
subjugation of the new human being Heaven had sent into her world. The
first unfavourable impression of his punting was soon effaced; he could
nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters,
and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing
earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being.
She conceded at last that he should be called Mr. Polly, in honour of
her, Miss Polly, even as he desired.
Uncle Jim turned up in the twilight.
Uncle Jim appeared with none of the disruptive violence Mr. Polly had
dreaded. He came quite softly. Mr. Polly was going down the lane
behind the church that led to the Potwell Inn after posting a letter
to the lime-juice people at the post-office. He was walking slowly,
after his habit, and thinking discursively. With a sudden tightening
of the muscles he became aware of a figure walking noiselessly beside
him. His first impression was of a face singularly broad above and
with a wide empty grin as its chief feature below, of a slouching body
and dragging feet.
"Arf a mo'," said the figure, as if in response to his start, and
speaking in a hoarse whisper. "Arf a mo', mister. You the noo bloke at
the Potwell Inn?"
Mr. Polly felt evasive. "'Spose I am," he replied hoarsely, and
quickened his pace.
"Arf a mo'," said Uncle Jim, taking his arm. "We ain't doing a
(sanguinary) Marathon. It ain't a (decorated) cinder track. I want a
word with you, mister. See?"
Mr. Polly wriggled his arm free and stopped. "What is it?" he asked,
and faced the terror.
"I jest want a (decorated) word wiv you. See?--just a friendly word or
two. Just to clear up any blooming errors. That's all I want. No need
to be so (richly decorated) proud, if you _are_ the noo bloke at
Potwell Inn. Not a bit of it. See?"
Uncle Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter
than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry
neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that
had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty
brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless
mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with
one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye, and
wisps of straight hair strayed from under the blue cricket cap he wore
pulled down obliquely over the latter. He spat between his teeth and
wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist.
"You got to blurry well shift," he said. "See?"
"Shift!" said Mr. Polly. "How?"
"'Cos the Potwell Inn's _my_ beat. See?"
Mr. Polly had never felt less witty. "How's it your beat?" he asked.
Uncle Jim thrust his face forward and shook his open hand, bent like a
claw, under Mr. Polly's nose. "Not your blooming business," he said.
"You got to shift."
"S'pose I don't," said Mr. Polly.
"You got to shift."
The tone of Uncle Jim's voice became urgent and confidential.
"You don't know who you're up against," he said. "It's a kindness I'm
doing to warn you. See? I'm just one of those blokes who don't stick
at things, see? I don't stick at nuffin'."
Mr. Polly's manner became detached and confidential--as though the
matter and the speaker interested him greatly, but didn't concern him
over-much. "What do you think you'll do?" he asked.
"If you don't clear out?"
"_Gaw!_" said Uncle Jim. "You'd better. '_Ere!_"
He gripped Mr. Polly's wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant
Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He
breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly's face.
"What _won't_ I do?" he said. "Once I start in on you."
He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. "I'll make
a mess of you," he said in his hoarse whisper. "I'll do you--injuries.
I'll 'urt you. I'll kick you ugly, see? I'll 'urt you in 'orrible
ways--'orrible, ugly ways...."
He scrutinised Mr. Polly's face.
"You'll cry," he said, "to see yourself. See? Cry you will."
"You got no right," began Mr. Polly.
"Right!" His note was fierce. "Ain't the old woman me aunt?"
He spoke still closer. "I'll make a gory mess of you. I'll cut bits
He receded a little. "I got no quarrel with _you_," he said.
"It's too late to go to-night," said Mr. Polly.
"I'll be round to-morrer--'bout eleven. See? And if I finds you--"
He produced a blood-curdling oath.
"H'm," said Mr. Polly, trying to keep things light. "We'll consider
"You better," said Uncle Jim, and suddenly, noiselessly, was going.
His whispering voice sank until Mr. Polly could hear only the dim
fragments of sentences. "Orrible things to you--'orrible things....
Kick yer ugly.... Cut yer--liver out... spread it all about, I
will.... Outing doos. See? I don't care a dead rat one way or the
And with a curious twisting gesture of the arm Uncle Jim receded until
his face was a still, dim thing that watched, and the black shadows of
the hedge seemed to have swallowed up his body altogether.
Next morning about half-past ten Mr. Polly found himself seated under
a clump of fir trees by the roadside and about three miles and a half
from the Potwell Inn. He was by no means sure whether he was taking a
walk to clear his mind or leaving that threat-marred Paradise for good
and all. His reason pointed a lean, unhesitating finger along the
For after all, the thing was not _his_ quarrel.
That agreeable plump woman, agreeable, motherly, comfortable as she
might be, wasn't his affair; that child with the mop of black hair who
combined so magically the charm of mouse and butterfly and flitting
bird, who was daintier than a flower and softer than a peach, was no
concern of his. Good heavens! what were they to him? Nothing!...
Uncle Jim, of course, _had_ a claim, a sort of claim.
If it came to duty and chucking up this attractive, indolent,
observant, humorous, tramping life, there were those who had a right
to him, a legitimate right, a prior claim on his protection and
Why not listen to the call of duty and go back to Miriam now?...
He had had a very agreeable holiday....
And while Mr. Polly sat thinking these things as well as he could, he
knew that if only he dared to look up the heavens had opened and the
clear judgment on his case was written across the sky.
He knew--he knew now as much as a man can know of life. He knew he had
to fight or perish.
Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a
confused, entertaining spectacle, he had responded to this impulse and
that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and
painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that
has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and
wrapped about and entangled like a creature born in the jungle who has
never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great
exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him and all the
earth was expectation.
"Not my business," said Mr. Polly, speaking aloud. "Where the devil do
_I_ come in?"
And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice,
"not my blasted business!"
His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each
with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite
regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed
interpretation of the phrase "Kick you ugly." There's a sort of French
wrestling in which you use and guard against feet. Watch the man's
eye, and as his foot comes up, grip and over he goes--at your mercy if
you use the advantage right. But how do you use the advantage rightly?
When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away
rapidly to a blank discomfort....
"Old cadger! She hadn't no business to drag me into her quarrels.
Ought to go to the police and ask for help! Dragging me into a quarrel
that don't concern me."
"Wish I'd never set eyes on the rotten inn!"
The reality of the case arched over him like the vault of the sky, as
plain as the sweet blue heavens above and the wide spread of hill and
valley about him. Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient
beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face
anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long
as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear, and dulness and
indolence and appetite, which indeed are no more than fear's three
crippled brothers who make ambushes and creep by night, are against
him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him
in that quest. He had but to lift his eyes to see all that, as much a
part of his world as the driving clouds and the bending grass, but he
kept himself downcast, a grumbling, inglorious, dirty, fattish little
tramp, full of dreads and quivering excuses.
"Why the hell was I ever born?" he said, with the truth almost winning
What do you do when a dirty man who smells, gets you down and under in
the dirt and dust with a knee below your diaphragm and a large hairy
hand squeezing your windpipe tighter and tighter in a quarrel that
isn't, properly speaking, yours?
"If I had a chance against him--" protested Mr. Polly.
"It's no Good, you see," said Mr. Polly.
He stood up as though his decision was made, and was for an instant
struck still by doubt.
There lay the road before him going this way to the east and that to
Westward, one hour away now, was the Potwell Inn. Already things might
be happening there....
Eastward was the wise man's course, a road dipping between hedges to a
hop garden and a wood and presently no doubt reaching an inn, a
picturesque church, perhaps, a village and fresh company. The wise
man's course. Mr. Polly saw himself going along it, and tried to see
himself going along it with all the self-applause a wise man feels.
But somehow it wouldn't come like that. The wise man fell short of
happiness for all his wisdom. The wise man had a paunch and round
shoulders and red ears and excuses. It was a pleasant road, and why
the wise man should not go along it merry and singing, full of summer
happiness, was a miracle to Mr. Polly's mind, but confound it! the
fact remained, the figure went slinking--slinking was the only word
for it--and would not go otherwise than slinking. He turned his eyes
westward as if for an explanation, and if the figure was no longer
ignoble, the prospect was appalling.
"One kick in the stummick would settle a chap like me," said Mr.
"Oh, God!" cried Mr. Polly, and lifted his eyes to heaven, and said
for the last time in that struggle, "It isn't my affair!"
And so saying he turned his face towards the Potwell Inn.
He went back neither halting nor hastening in his pace after this last
decision, but with a mind feverishly busy.
"If I get killed, I get killed, and if he gets killed I get hung.
Don't seem just somehow.
"Don't suppose I shall _frighten_ him off."
The private war between Mr. Polly and Uncle Jim for the possession of
the Potwell Inn fell naturally into three chief campaigns. There was
first of all the great campaign which ended in the triumphant eviction
of Uncle Jim from the inn premises, there came next after a brief
interval the futile invasions of the premises by Uncle Jim that
culminated in the Battle of the Dead Eel, and after some months of
involuntary truce there was the last supreme conflict of the Night
Surprise. Each of these campaigns merits a section to itself.
Mr. Polly re-entered the inn discreetly. He found the plump woman
seated in her bar, her eyes a-stare, her face white and wet with
tears. "O God!" she was saying over and over again. "O God!" The air
was full of a spirituous reek, and on the sanded boards in front of
the bar were the fragments of a broken bottle and an overturned glass.
She turned her despair at the sound of his entry, and despair gave
place to astonishment.
"You come back!" she said.
"Ra-ther," said Mr. Polly.
"He's--he's mad drunk and looking for her."
"Where is she?"
"Haven't you sent to the police?"
"No one to send."
"I'll see to it," said Mr. Polly. "Out this way?"
He went to the crinkly paned window and peered out. Uncle Jim was
coming down the garden path towards the house, his hands in his
pockets and singing hoarsely. Mr. Polly remembered afterwards with
pride and amazement that he felt neither faint nor rigid. He glanced
round him, seized a bottle of beer by the neck as an improvised club,
and went out by the garden door. Uncle Jim stopped amazed. His brain
did not instantly rise to the new posture of things. "You!" he cried,
and stopped for a moment. "You--_scoot!_"
"_Your_ job," said Mr. Polly, and advanced some paces.
Uncle Jim stood swaying with wrathful astonishment and then darted
forward with clutching hands. Mr. Polly felt that if his antagonist
closed he was lost, and smote with all his force at the ugly head
before him. Smash went the bottle, and Uncle Jim staggered,
half-stunned by the blow and blinded with beer.
The lapses and leaps of the human mind are for ever mysterious. Mr.
Polly had never expected that bottle to break. In the instant he felt
disarmed and helpless. Before him was Uncle Jim, infuriated and
evidently still coming on, and for defence was nothing but the neck of
For a time our Mr. Polly has figured heroic. Now comes the fall again;
he sounded abject terror; he dropped that ineffectual scrap of glass
and turned and fled round the corner of the house.
"Bolls!" came the thick voice of the enemy behind him as one who
accepts a challenge, and bleeding, but indomitable, Uncle Jim entered
"Bolls!" he said, surveying the bar. "Fightin' with bolls! I'll show
'im fightin' with bolls!"
Uncle Jim had learnt all about fighting with bottles in the
Reformatory Home. Regardless of his terror-stricken aunt he ranged
among the bottled beer and succeeded after one or two failures in
preparing two bottles to his satisfaction by knocking off the bottoms,
and gripping them dagger-wise by the necks. So prepared, he went forth
again to destroy Mr. Polly.
Mr. Polly, freed from the sense of urgent pursuit, had halted beyond
the raspberry canes and rallied his courage. The sense of Uncle Jim
victorious in the house restored his manhood. He went round by the
outhouses to the riverside, seeking a weapon, and found an old paddle
boat hook. With this he smote Uncle Jim as he emerged by the door of
the tap. Uncle Jim, blaspheming dreadfully and with dire stabbing
intimations in either hand, came through the splintering paddle like a
circus rider through a paper hoop, and once more Mr. Polly dropped his
weapon and fled.
A careless observer watching him sprint round and round the inn in
front of the lumbering and reproachful pursuit of Uncle Jim might have
formed an altogether erroneous estimate of the issue of the campaign.
Certain compensating qualities of the very greatest military value
were appearing in Mr. Polly even as he ran; if Uncle Jim had strength
and brute courage and the rich toughening experience a Reformatory
Home affords, Mr. Polly was nevertheless sober, more mobile and with a
mind now stimulated to an almost incredible nimbleness. So that he not
only gained on Uncle Jim, but thought what use he might make of this
advantage. The word "strategious" flamed red across the tumult of his
mind. As he came round the house for the third time, he darted
suddenly into the yard, swung the door to behind himself and bolted
it, seized the zinc pig's pail that stood by the entrance to the
kitchen and had it neatly and resonantly over Uncle Jim's head as he
came belatedly in round the outhouse on the other side. One of the
splintered bottles jabbed Mr. Polly's ear--at the time it seemed of no
importance--and then Uncle Jim was down and writhing dangerously and
noisily upon the yard tiles, with his head still in the pig pail and
his bottles gone to splinters, and Mr. Polly was fastening the kitchen
door against him.
"Can't go on like this for ever," said Mr. Polly, whooping for breath,
and selecting a weapon from among the brooms that stood behind the
Uncle Jim was losing his head. He was up and kicking the door and
bellowing unamiable proposals and invitations, so that a strategist
emerging silently by the tap door could locate him without difficulty,
steal upon him unawares and--!
But before that felling blow could be delivered Uncle Jim's ear had
caught a footfall, and he turned. Mr. Polly quailed and lowered his
broom,--a fatal hesitation.
"_Now_ I got you!" cried Uncle Jim, dancing forward in a disconcerting
He rushed to close, and Mr. Polly stopped him neatly, as it were a
miracle, with the head of the broom across his chest. Uncle Jim seized
the broom with both hands. "Lea-go!" he said, and tugged. Mr. Polly
shook his head, tugged, and showed pale, compressed lips. Both tugged.
Then Uncle Jim tried to get round the end of the broom; Mr. Polly
circled away. They began to circle about one another, both tugging
hard, both intensely watchful of the slightest initiative on the part
of the other. Mr. Polly wished brooms were longer, twelve or thirteen
feet, for example; Uncle Jim was clearly for shortness in brooms. He
wasted breath in saying what was to happen shortly, sanguinary,
oriental soul-blenching things, when the broom no longer separated
them. Mr. Polly thought he had never seen an uglier person. Suddenly
Uncle Jim flashed into violent activity, but alcohol slows movement,
and Mr. Polly was equal to him. Then Uncle Jim tried jerks, and for a
terrible instant seemed to have the broom out of Mr. Polly's hands.
But Mr. Polly recovered it with the clutch of a drowning man. Then
Uncle Jim drove suddenly at Mr. Polly's midriff, but again Mr. Polly
was ready and swept him round in a circle. Then suddenly a wild hope
filled Mr. Polly. He saw the river was very near, the post to which
the punt was tied not three yards away. With a wild yell, he sent the
broom home into his antagonist's ribs.
"Woosh!" he cried, as the resistance gave.
"Oh! _Gaw_!" said Uncle Jim, going backward helplessly, and Mr. Polly
thrust hard and abandoned the broom to the enemy's despairing clutch.
Splash! Uncle Jim was in the water and Mr. Polly had leapt like a cat
aboard the ferry punt and grasped the pole.
Up came Uncle Jim spluttering and dripping. "You (unprofitable matter,
and printing it would lead to a censorship of novels)! You know I got
a weak _chess_!"
The pole took him in the throat and drove him backward and downwards.
"Lea go!" cried Uncle Jim, staggering and with real terror in his once
Splash! Down he fell backwards into a frothing mass of water with Mr.
Polly jabbing at him. Under water he turned round and came up again as
if in flight towards the middle of the river. Directly his head
reappeared Mr. Polly had him between the shoulders and under again,
bubbling thickly. A hand clutched and disappeared.
It was stupendous! Mr. Polly had discovered the heel of Achilles.
Uncle Jim had no stomach for cold water. The broom floated away,
pitching gently on the swell. Mr. Polly, infuriated with victory,
thrust Uncle Jim under again, and drove the punt round on its chain in
such a manner that when Uncle Jim came up for the fourth time--and now
he was nearly out of his depth, too buoyed up to walk and apparently
nearly helpless,--Mr. Polly, fortunately for them both, could not
reach him. Uncle Jim made the clumsy gestures of those who struggle
insecurely in the water. "Keep out," said Mr. Polly. Uncle Jim with a
great effort got a footing, emerged until his arm-pits were out of
water, until his waistcoat buttons showed, one by one, till scarcely
two remained, and made for the camp sheeting.
"Keep out!" cried Mr. Polly, and leapt off the punt and followed the
movements of his victim along the shore.
"I tell you I got a weak chess," said Uncle Jim, moistly. "This ain't
"Keep out!" said Mr. Polly.
"This ain't fair fightin'," said Uncle Jim, almost weeping, and all
his terrors had gone.
"Keep out!" said Mr. Polly, with an accurately poised pole.
"I tell you I got to land, you Fool," said Uncle Jim, with a sort of
despairing wrathfulness, and began moving down-stream.
"You keep out," said Mr. Polly in parallel movement. "Don't you ever
land on this place again!..."
Slowly, argumentatively, and reluctantly, Uncle Jim waded down-stream.
He tried threats, he tried persuasion, he even tried a belated note of
pathos; Mr. Polly remained inexorable, if in secret a little perplexed
as to the outcome of the situation. "This cold's getting to my
_marrer_!" said Uncle Jim.
"You want cooling. You keep out in it," said Mr. Polly.
They came round the bend into sight of Nicholson's ait, where the
backwater runs down to the Potwell Mill. And there, after much parley
and several feints, Uncle Jim made a desperate effort and struggled
into clutch of the overhanging _osiers_ on the island, and so got out
of the water with the millstream between them. He emerged dripping and
muddy and vindictive. "By _Gaw_!" he said. "I'll skin you for this!"
"You keep off or I'll do worse to you," said Mr. Polly.
The spirit was out of Uncle Jim for the time, and he turned away to
struggle through the _osiers_ towards the mill, leaving a shining
trail of water among the green-grey stems.
Mr. Polly returned slowly and thoughtfully to the inn, and suddenly
his mind began to bubble with phrases. The plump woman stood at the
top of the steps that led up to the inn door to greet him.
"Law!" she cried as he drew near, "'asn't 'e killed you?"
"Do I look like it?" said Mr. Polly.
"But where's Jim?"
"'E was mad drunk and dangerous!"
"I put him in the river," said Mr. Polly. "That toned down his
alcolaceous frenzy! I gave him a bit of a doing altogether."
"Hain't he 'urt you?"
"Not a bit of it!"
"Then what's all that blood beside your ear?"
Mr. Polly felt. "Quite a cut! Funny how one overlooks things! Heated
moments! He must have done that when he jabbed about with those
bottles. Hullo, Kiddy! You venturing downstairs again?"
"Ain't he killed you?" asked the little girl.
"I wish I'd seen more of the fighting."
"All I saw was you running round the house and Uncle Jim after you."
There was a little pause. "I was leading him on," said Mr. Polly.
"Someone's shouting at the ferry," she said.
"Right O. But you won't see any more of Uncle Jim for a bit. We've
been having a _conversazione_ about that."
"I believe it _is_ Uncle Jim," said the little girl.
"Then he can wait," said Mr. Polly shortly.
He turned round and listened for the words that drifted across from
the little figure on the opposite bank. So far as he could judge,
Uncle Jim was making an appointment for the morrow. He replied with a
defiant movement of the punt pole. The little figure was convulsed for
a moment and then went on its way upstream--fiercely.
So it was the first campaign ended in an insecure victory.
The next day was Wednesday and a slack day for the Potwell Inn. It was
a hot, close day, full of the murmuring of bees. One or two people
crossed by the ferry, an elaborately equipped fisherman stopped for
cold meat and dry ginger ale in the bar parlour, some haymakers came
and drank beer for an hour, and afterwards sent jars and jugs by a boy
to be replenished; that was all. Mr. Polly had risen early and was
busy about the place meditating upon the probable tactics of Uncle
Jim. He was no longer strung up to the desperate pitch of the first
encounter. But he was grave and anxious. Uncle Jim had shrunken, as
all antagonists that are boldly faced shrink, after the first battle,
to the negotiable, the vulnerable. Formidable he was no doubt, but not
invincible. He had, under Providence, been defeated once, and he might
be defeated altogether.
Mr. Polly went about the place considering the militant possibilities
of pacific things, _pokers_, copper sticks, garden implements, kitchen
knives, garden nets, barbed wire, oars, clothes lines, blankets,
pewter pots, stockings and broken bottles. He prepared a club with a
stocking and a bottle inside upon the best East End model. He swung it
round his head once, broke an outhouse window with a flying fragment
of glass, and ruined the stocking beyond all darning. He developed a
subtle scheme with the cellar flap as a sort of pitfall, but he
rejected it finally because (A) it might entrap the plump woman, and
(B) he had no use whatever for Uncle Jim in the cellar. He determined
to wire the garden that evening, burglar fashion, against the
possibilities of a night attack.
Towards two o'clock in the afternoon three young men arrived in a
capacious boat from the direction of Lammam, and asked permission to
camp in the paddock. It was given all the more readily by Mr. Polly
because he perceived in their proximity a possible check upon the
self-expression of Uncle Jim. But he did not foresee and no one could
have foreseen that Uncle Jim, stealing unawares upon the Potwell Inn
in the late afternoon, armed with a large rough-hewn stake, should
have mistaken the bending form of one of those campers--who was
pulling a few onions by permission in the garden--for Mr. Polly's, and
crept upon it swiftly and silently and smitten its wide invitation
unforgettably and unforgiveably. It was an error impossible to
explain; the resounding whack went up to heaven, the cry of amazement,
and Mr. Polly emerged from the inn armed with the frying-pan he was
cleaning, to take this reckless assailant in the rear. Uncle Jim,
realising his error, fled blaspheming into the arms of the other two
campers, who were returning from the village with butcher's meat and
groceries. They caught him, they smacked his face with steak and
punched him with a bursting parcel of lump sugar, they held him though
he bit them, and their idea of punishment was to duck him. They were
hilarious, strong young stockbrokers' clerks, _Territorials_ and
seasoned boating men; they ducked him as though it was romping, and all
that Mr. Polly had to do was to pick up lumps of sugar for them and wipe
them on his sleeve and put them on a plate, and explain that Uncle Jim
was a notorious bad character and not quite right in his head.
"Got a regular obsession that the Missis is his Aunt," said Mr. Polly,
expanding it. "Perfect noosance he is."
But he caught a glance of Uncle Jim's eye as he receded before the
campers' urgency that boded ill for him, and in the night he had a
disagreeable idea that perhaps his luck might not hold for the third
That came soon enough. So soon, indeed, as the campers had gone.
Thursday was the early closing day at Lammam, and next to Sunday the
busiest part of the week at the Potwell Inn. Sometimes as many as six
boats all at once would be moored against the ferry punt and hiring
rowboats. People could either have a complete tea, a complete tea with
jam, cake and eggs, a kettle of boiling water and find the rest, or
refreshments _a la carte_, as they chose. They sat about, but usually
the boiling water-_ers_ had a delicacy about using the tables and
grouped themselves humbly on the ground. The _complete_ tea-_ers_ with
jam and eggs got the best tablecloth on the table nearest the steps
that led up to the glass-panelled door. The groups about the lawn were
very satisfying to Mr. Polly's sense of amenity. To the right were the
_complete_ tea-_ers_ with everything heart could desire, then a small
group of three young men in remarkable green and violet and pale-blue
shirts, and two girls in mauve and yellow blouses with common teas and
gooseberry jam at the green clothless table, then on the grass down by
the pollard willow a small family of hot water-_ers_ with a hamper, a
little troubled by wasps in their jam from the nest in the tree and
all in mourning, but happy otherwise, and on the lawn to the right a
ginger beer lot of 'prentices without their collars and very jocular
and happy. The young people in the rainbow shirts and blouses formed
the centre of interest; they were under the leadership of a
gold-spectacled senior with a fluting voice and an air of mystery; he
ordered everything, and showed a peculiar knowledge of the qualities
of the Potwell jams, preferring gooseberry with much insistence. Mr.
Polly watched him, christened him the "benifluous influence," glanced
at the 'prentices and went inside and down into the cellar in order to
replenish the stock of stone ginger beer which the plump woman had
allowed to run low during the preoccupations of the campaign. It was
in the cellar that he first became aware of the return of Uncle Jim.
He became aware of him as a voice, a voice not only hoarse, but thick,
as voices thicken under the influence of alcohol.
"Where's that muddy-faced mongrel?" cried Uncle Jim. "Let 'im come out
to me! Where's that blighted whisp with the punt pole--I got a word to
say to 'im. Come out of it, you pot-bellied chunk of dirtiness, you!
Come out and '_ave_ your ugly face wiped. I got a Thing for you....
"'E's 'iding, that's what 'e's doing," said the voice of Uncle Jim,
dropping for a moment to sorrow, and then with a great increment of
wrathfulness: "Come out of my nest, you blinking cuckoo, you, or I'll
cut your silly insides out! Come out of it--you pock-marked rat!
Stealing another man's 'ome away from 'im! Come out and look me in the
face, you squinting son of a Skunk!..."
Mr. Polly took the ginger beer and went thoughtfully upstairs to the
"'E's back," said the plump woman as he appeared. "I knew 'e'd come
"I heard him," said Mr. Polly, and looked about. "Just gimme the old
poker handle that's under the beer engine."
The door opened softly and Mr. Polly turned quickly. But it was only
the pointed nose and intelligent face of the young man with the gilt
spectacles and discreet manner. He coughed and the spectacles fixed
"I say," he said with quiet earnestness. "There's a chap out here
seems to want someone."
"Why don't he come in?" said Mr. Polly.
"He seems to want you out there."
"What's he want?"
"I _think_," said the spectacled young man after a thoughtful moment,
"he appears to have brought you a present of fish."
"Isn't he shouting?"
"He _is_ a little boisterous."
"He'd better come in."
The manner of the spectacled young man intensified. "I wish you'd come
out and persuade him to go away," he said. "His language--isn't quite
"It never was," said the plump woman, her voice charged with sorrow.
Mr. Polly moved towards the door and stood with his hand on the
handle. The gold-spectacled face disappeared.
"Now, my man," came his voice from outside, "be careful what you're
"Oo in all the World and Hereafter are you to call me, me man?" cried
Uncle Jim in the voice of one astonished and pained beyond endurance,
and added scornfully: "You gold-eyed Geezer, you!"
"Tut, tut!" said the gentleman in gilt glasses. "Restrain yourself!"
Mr. Polly emerged, poker in hand, just in time to see what followed.
Uncle Jim in his shirtsleeves and a state of ferocious decolletage,
was holding something--yes!--a dead eel by means of a piece of
newspaper about its tail, holding it down and back and a little
sideways in such a way as to smite with it upward and hard. It struck
the spectacled gentleman under the jaw with a peculiar dead thud, and
a cry of horror came from the two seated parties at the sight. One of
the girls shrieked piercingly, "Horace!" and everyone sprang up. The
sense of helping numbers came to Mr. Polly's aid.
"Drop it!" he cried, and came down the steps waving his poker and
thrusting the spectacled gentleman before him as once heroes were wont
to wield the ox-hide shield.
Uncle Jim gave ground suddenly, and trod upon the foot of a young man
in a blue shirt, who immediately thrust at him violently with both
"Lea go!" howled Uncle Jim. "That's the chap I'm looking for!" and
pressing the head of the spectacled gentleman aside, smote hard at Mr.
But at the sight of this indignity inflicted upon the spectacled
gentleman a woman's heart was stirred, and a pink parasol drove hard
and true at Uncle Jim's wiry neck, and at the same moment the young
man in the blue shirt sought to collar him and lost his grip again.
"Suffragettes," gasped Uncle Jim with the ferule at his throat.
"Everywhere!" and aimed a second more successful blow at Mr. Polly.
"Wup!" said Mr. Polly.
But now the jam and egg party was joining in the fray. A stout yet
still fairly able-bodied gentleman in white and black checks enquired:
"What's the fellow up to? Ain't there no police here?" and it was
evident that once more public opinion was rallying to the support of
"Oh, come on then all the LOT of you!" cried Uncle Jim, and backing