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  • 1902
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So for the first time I understood the joy of talking “shop” with a fellow craftsman. I told him my favourite authors–Scott, and Dumas, and Victor Hugo; and to my delight found they were his also; he agreeing with me that real stories were the best, stories in which people did things.

“I used to read silly stuff once,” I confessed, “Indian tales and that sort of thing, you know. But mamma said I’d never be able to write if I read that rubbish.”

“You will find it so all through life, Paul,” he replied. “The things that are nice are rarely good for us. And what do you read now?”

“I am reading Marlowe’s Plays and De Quincey’s Confessions just now,” I confided to him.

“And do you understand them?”

“Fairly well,” I answered. “Mamma says I’ll like them better as I go on. I want to learn to write very, very well indeed,” I admitted to him; “then I’ll be able to earn heaps of money.”

He smiled. “So you don’t believe in Art for Art’s sake, Paul?”

I was puzzled. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means in our case, Paul,” he answered, “writing books for the pleasure of writing books, without thinking of any reward, without desiring either money or fame.”

It was a new idea to me. “Do many authors do that?” I asked.

He laughed outright this time. It was a delightful laugh. It rang through the quiet Park, awaking echoes; and caught by it, I laughed with him.

“Hush!” he said; and he glanced round with a whimsical expression of fear, lest we might have been overheard. “Between ourselves, Paul,” he continued, drawing me more closely towards him and whispering, “I don’t think any of us do. We talk about it. But I’ll tell you this, Paul; it is a trade secret and you must remember it: No man ever made money or fame but by writing his very best. It may not be as good as somebody else’s best, but it is his best. Remember that, Paul.”

I promised I would.

“And you must not think merely of the money and the fame, Paul,” he added the next moment, speaking more seriously. “Money and fame are very good things, and only hypocrites pretend to despise them. But if you write books thinking only of money, you will be disappointed. It is earned easier in other ways. Tell me, that is not your only idea?”

I pondered. “Mamma says it is a very noble calling, authorship,” I remembered, “and that any one ought to be very proud and glad to be able to write books, because they give people happiness and make them forget things; and that one ought to be very good if one is going to be an author, so as to be worthy to help and teach others.”

“And do you try to be good, Paul?” he enquired.

“Yes,” I answered; “but it’s very hard to be quite good–until of course you’re grown up.”

He smiled, but more to himself than to me. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose it is difficult to be good until you are grown up. Perhaps we shall all of us be good when we’re quite grown up.” Which, from a gentleman with a grey beard, appeared to me a puzzling observation.

“And what else does mamma say about literature?” he asked. “Can you remember?”

Again I pondered, and her words came back to me. “That he who can write a great book is greater than a king; that the gift of being able to write is given to anybody in trust; that an author should never forget he is God’s servant.”

He sat for awhile without speaking, his chin resting on his folded hands supported by his gold-topped cane. Then he turned and laid a hand upon my shoulder, and his clear, bright eyes were close to mine.

“Your mother is a wise lady, Paul,” he said. “Remember her words always. In later life let them come back to you; they will guide you better than the chatter of the Clubs.”

“And what modern authors do you read?” he asked after a silence: “any of them–Thackeray, Bulwer Lytton, Dickens?”

“I have read ‘The Last of the Barons,'” I told him; “I like that. And I’ve been to Barnet and seen the church. And some of Mr. Dickens’.”

“And what do you think of Mr. Dickens?” he asked. But he did not seem very interested in the subject. He had picked up a few small stones, and was throwing them carefully into the water.

“I like him very much,” I answered; “he makes you laugh.”

“Not always?” he asked. He stopped his stone-throwing, and turned sharply towards me.

“Oh, no, not always,” I admitted; “but I like the funny bits best. I like so much where Mr. Pickwick–“

“Oh, damn Mr. Pickwick!” he said.

“Don’t you like him?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, I like him well enough, or used to,” he replied; “I’m a bit tired of him, that’s all. Does your mamma like Mr.–Mr. Dickens?”

“Not the funny parts,” I explained to him. “She thinks he is occasionally–“

“I know,” he interrupted, rather irritably, I thought; “a trifle vulgar.”

It surprised me that he should have guessed her exact words. “I don’t think mamma has much sense of humour,” I explained to him. “Sometimes she doesn’t even see papa’s jokes.”

At that he laughed again. “But she likes the other parts?” he enquired, “the parts where Mr. Dickens isn’t–vulgar?”

“Oh, yes,” I answered. “She says he can be so beautiful and tender, when he likes.”

Twilight was deepening. It occurred to me to enquire of him again the time.

“Just over the quarter,” he answered, looking at his watch.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I must go now.”

“So am I sorry, Paul,” he answered. “Perhaps we shall meet again. Good-bye.” Then as our hands touched: “You have never asked me my name, Paul,” he reminded me.

“Oh, haven’t I?” I answered.

“No, Paul,” he replied, “and that makes me think of your future with hope. You are an egotist, Paul; and that is the beginning of all art.”

And after that he would not tell me his name. “Perhaps next time we meet,” he said. “Good-bye, Paul. Good luck to you!”

So I went my way. Where the path winds out of sight I turned. He was still seated upon the bench, but his face was towards me, and he waved his hand to me. I answered with a wave of mine. And then the intervening boughs and bushes gradually closed in around me. And across the rising mist there rose the hoarse, harsh cry:

“All out! All out!”

CHAPTER X.

IN WHICH PAUL IS SHIPWRECKED, AND CAST INTO DEEP WATERS.

My father died, curiously enough, on the morning of his birthday. We had not expected the end to arrive for some time, and at first did not know that it had come.

“I have left him sleeping,” said my mother, who had slipped out very quietly in her dressing-gown. “Washburn gave him a draught last night. We won’t disturb him.”

So we sat round the breakfast table, speaking in low tones, for the house was small and flimsy, all sound easily heard through its thin partitions. Afterwards my mother crept upstairs, I following, and cautiously opened the door a little way.

The blinds were still down, and the room dark. It seemed a long time that my mother stood there listening, her ear against the jar. The first costermonger–a girl’s voice, it sounded–passed, crying shrilly: “Watercreases, fine fresh watercreases with your breakfast-a’penny a bundle watercreases;” and further off a hoarse youth was wailing: “Mee-ilk-mee-ilk-oi.”

Inch by inch my mother opened the door wider and we stole in. He was lying with his eyes still closed, the lips just slightly parted. I had never seen death before, and could not realise it. All that I could see was that he looked even younger than I had ever seen him look before. By slow degrees only, it came home to me, the knowledge that he was gone away from us. For days–for weeks, I would hear his step behind me in the street, his voice calling to me, see his face among the crowds, and hastening to meet him, stand bewildered because it had mysteriously disappeared. But at first I felt no pain whatever.

To my mother it was but a short parting. Into her placid faith had never fallen fear nor doubt. He was waiting for her. In God’s good time they would meet again. What need of sorrow! Without him the days passed slowly: the house must ever be a little dull when the good man’s away. But that was all. So my mother would speak of him always–of his dear, kind ways, of his oddities and follies we loved so to recall, not through tears, but smiles, thinking of him not as of one belonging to the past, but as of one beckoning to her from the future.

We lived on still in the old house though ever planning to move, for the great brick monster had crept closer round about us year by year, devouring in his progress all things fair. Field and garden, tree and cottage, time-mellowed house suggesting story, kind hedgerow hiding hideousness beyond–the few spots yet in that doomed land lingering to remind one of the sunshine, one by one had he scrunched them between his ugly teeth. A world apart, this east end of London, this ghetto of the poor for ever growing, dreariness added year by year to dreariness, hopelessness stretching ever farther its long, shrivelled arms, these endless rows of reeking cells where London herds her slaves. Often of a misty afternoon when we knew that without this city of the dead life was stirring in the sunshine, we would fare forth to house-hunt in pleasant suburbs, now themselves added to the weary catacomb of narrow streets–to Highgate, then a tiny town connected by a coach with leafy Holloway; to Hampstead with its rows of ancient red-brick houses, from whose wind-blown heath one saw beyond the woods and farms, far London’s domes and spires, to Wood Green among the pastures, where smock-coated labourers discussed their politics and ale beneath wide-spreading elms; to Hornsey, then a village consisting of an ivy-covered church and one grass-bordered way. But though we often saw “the very thing for us” and would discuss its possibilities from every point of view and find them good, we yet delayed.

“We must think it over,” would say my mother; “there is no hurry; for some reasons I shall be sorry to leave Poplar.”

“For what reasons, mother?”

“Oh, well, no particular reason, Paul. Only we have lived there so long, you know. It will be a wrench leaving the old house.”

To the making of man go all things, even to the instincts of the clinging vine. We fling our tendrils round what is the nearest castle-keep or pig-stye wall, rain and sunshine fastening them but firmer. Dying Sir Walter Scott–do you remember?–hastening home from Italy, fearful lest he might not be in time to breathe again the damp mists of the barren hills. An ancient dame I knew, they had carried her from her attic in slumland that she might be fanned by the sea breezes, and the poor old soul lay pining for what she called her “home.” Wife, mother, widow, she had lived there till the alley’s reek smelt good to her nostrils, till its riot was the voices of her people. Who shall understand us save He who fashioned us?

So the old house held us to its dismal bosom; and not until within its homely but unlovely arms, first my aunt, and later on my mother had died, and I had said good-bye to Amy, crying in the midst of littered emptiness, did I leave it.

My aunt died as she had lived, grumbling.

“You will be glad to get rid of me, all of you!” she said, dropping for the first and last time I can recollect into the retort direct; “and I can’t say I shall be very sorry to go myself. It hasn’t been my idea of life.”

Poor old lady! That was only a couple of weeks before the end. I do not suppose she guessed it was so certain or perhaps she might have been more sentimental.

“Don’t be foolish,” said my mother, “you’re not going to die!”

“What’s the use of talking like an idiot,” retorted my aunt, “I’ve got to do it some time. Why not now, when everything’s all ready for it. It isn’t as if I was enjoying myself.”

“I am sure we do all we can for you,” said my mother. “I know you do,” replied my aunt. “I’m a burden to you. I always have been.”

“Not a burden,” corrected my mother.

“What does the woman call it then,” snapped back my aunt. “Does she reckon I’ve been a sunbeam in the house? I’ve been a trial to everybody. That’s what I was born for; it’s my metier.”

My mother put her arms about the poor old soul and kissed her. “We should miss you very much,” she said.

“I’m sure I hope they all will!” answered my aunt. “It’s the only thing I’ve got to leave ’em, worth having.”

My mother laughed.

“Maybe it’s been a good thing for you, Maggie,” grumbled my aunt; “if it wasn’t for cantankerous, disagreeable people like me, gentle, patient people like you wouldn’t get any practice. Perhaps, after all, I’ve been a blessing to you in disguise.”

I cannot honestly say we ever wished her back; though we certainly did miss her–missed many a joke at her oddities, many a laugh at her cornery ways. It takes all sorts, as the saying goes, to make a world. Possibly enough if only we perfect folk were left in it we would find it uncomfortably monotonous.

As for Amy, I believe she really regretted her.

“One never knows what’s good for one till one’s lost it,” sighed Amy.

“I’m glad to think you liked her,” said my mother.

“You see, mum,” explained Amy, “I was one of a large family; and a bit of a row now and again cheers one up, I always think. I’ll be losing the power of my tongue if something doesn’t come along soon.”

“Well, you are going to be married in a few weeks now,” my mother reminded her.

But Amy remained despondent. “They’re poor things, the men, at a few words, the best of them,” she replied. “As likely as not just when you’re getting interested you turn round to find that they’ve put on their hat and gone out.”

My mother and I were very much alone after my aunt’s death. Barbara had gone abroad to put the finishing touches to her education–to learn the tricks of the Nobs’ trade, as old Hasluck phrased it; and I had left school and taken employment with Mr. Stillwood, without salary, the idea being that I should study for the law.

“You are in luck’s way, my boy, in luck’s way,” old Mr. Gadley had assured me. “To have commenced your career in the office of Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal will be a passport for you anywhere. It will stamp you, my boy.”

Mr. Stillwood himself was an extremely old and feeble gentleman–so old and feeble it seemed strange that he, a wealthy man, had not long ago retired.

“I am always meaning to,” he explained to me one day soon after my advent in his office. “When your poor father came to me he told me very frankly the sad fact–that he had only a few more years to live. ‘Mr. Kelver,’ I answered him, ‘do not let that trouble you, so far as I am concerned. There are one or two matters in the office I should like to see cleared up, and in these you can help me. When they are completed I shall retire! Yet, you see, I linger on. I am like the old hackney coach horse, Mr. Weller–or is it Mr. Jingle–tells us of; if the shafts were drawn away I should probably collapse. So I jog on, I jog on.'”

He had married late in life a common woman much younger than himself, who had brought to him a horde of needy and greedy relatives, and no doubt, as a refuge from her noisy neighbourhood, the daily peace of Lombard Street was welcome to him. We saw her occasionally. She was one of those blustering, “managing” women who go through life under the impression that making a disturbance is somehow “putting things to rights.” Ridiculously ashamed of her origin, she sought to hide it under what her friends assured her was the air of a duchess, but which, as a matter of fact, resembled rather the Sunday manners of an elderly barmaid. Mr. Gadley alone was not afraid of her; but, on the contrary, kept her always very much in fear of him, often speaking to her with refreshing candour. He had known her in the days it was her desire should be buried in oblivion, and had always resented as a personal insult her entry into the old established aristocratic firm of Stillwood & Co.

Her history was peculiar. Mr. Stillwood, when a blase man about town, verging on forty, had first seen her, then a fair-haired, ethereal-looking child, in spite of her dirt, playing in the gutter. To his lasting self-reproach it was young Gadley himself, accompanying his employer home from Westminster, who had drawn Mr. Stillwood’s attention to the girl by boxing her ears for having, as he passed, slapped his face with a convenient sprat. Stillwood, acting on the impulse of the moment, had taken the child by the hand and dragged her, unwilling, to her father’s place of business–a small coal shed in the Horseferry Road. The arrangement he there made amounted practically to the purchase of the child. She was sent abroad to school and the coal shed closed. On her return, ten years later, a big, handsome young woman, he married her, and learned at leisure the truth of the old saying, “what’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh,” scrub it and paint it and hide it away under fine clothes as you will.

Her constant complaint against her husband was that he was only a solicitor, a profession she considered vulgar; and nothing “riled” old Gadley more than hearing her views upon this point.

“It’s not fair to the gals,” I once heard her say to him. I was working in the next room, with the door not quite closed, added to which she talked at the top of her voice on all subjects. “What real gentleman, I should like to know, is going to marry the daughter of a City attorney? As I told him years ago, he ought to have retired and gone into the House.”

“The very thing your poor father used to talk of doing whenever things were going a bit queer in the retail coal and potato business,” grunted old Gadley.

Mrs. Stillwood called him a “low beast” in her most aristocratic tones, and swept out of the room.

Not that old Stillwood himself ever expressed fondness for the law.

“I am not at all sure, Kelver,” I remember his saying to me on one occasion, “that you have done wisely in choosing the law. It makes one regard humanity morally as the medical profession regards it physically:–as universally unsound. You suspect everybody of being a rogue. When people are behaving themselves, we lawyers hear nothing of them. All we hear of is roguery, trickery and hypocrisy. It deteriorates the character, Kelver. We live in a perpetual atmosphere of transgression. I sometimes fancy it may be infectious.”

“It does not seem to have infected you, sir,” I replied; for, as I think I have already mentioned, the firm of Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal was held in legal circles as the synonym for rectitude of dealing quite old-fashioned.

“I hope not, Kelver, I hope not,” the old gentleman replied; “and yet, do you know, I sometimes suspect myself–wonder if I may not perhaps be a scamp without realising it. A rogue, you know, Kelver, can always explain himself into an honest man to his own satisfaction. A scamp is never a scamp to himself.”

His words for the moment alarmed me, for, acting on old Gadley’s advice, I had persuaded my mother to put all her small capital into Mr. Stillwood’s hands for re-investment, a transaction that had resulted in substantial increase of our small income. But, looking into his smiling eyes, my momentary fear vanished.

Laughing, he laid his hand upon my shoulder. “One person always be suspicious of, Kelver–yourself. Nobody can do you so much harm as yourself.”

Of Washburn we saw more and more. “Hal” we both called him now, for removing with his gentle, masterful hands my mother’s shyness from about her, he had established himself almost as one of the family, my mother regarding him as she might some absurdly bearded boy entrusted to her care without his knowing it, I looking up to him as to some wonderful elder brother.

“You rest me, Mrs. Kelver,” he would say, lighting his pipe and sinking down into the deep leathern chair that always waited for him in our parlour. “Your even voice, your soft eyes, your quiet hands, they soothe me.”

“It is good for a man,” he would say, looking from one to the other of us through the hanging smoke, “to test his wisdom by two things: the face of a good woman, and the ear of a child–I beg your pardon, Paul–of a young man. A good woman’s face is the white sunlight. Under the gas-lamps who shall tell diamond from paste? Bring it into the sunlight: does it stand that test? Then it is good. And the children! they are the waiting earth on which we fling our store. Is it chaff and dust or living seed? Wait and watch. I shower my thoughts over our Paul, Mrs. Kelver. They seem to me brilliant, deep, original. The young beggar swallows them, forgets them. They were rubbish. Then I say something that dwells with him, that grows. Ah, that was alive, that was a seed. The waiting earth, it can make use only of what is true.”

“You should marry, Hal,” my mother would say. It was her panacea for all mankind.

“I would, Mrs. Kelver,” he answered her on one occasion, “I would to-morrow if I could marry half a dozen women. I should make an ideal husband for half a dozen wives. One I should neglect for five days, and be a burden to upon the sixth.”

From any other than Hal my mother would have taken such a remark, made even in jest, as an insult to her sex. But Hal’s smile was a coating that could sugar any pill.

“I am not one man, Mrs. Kelver, I am half a dozen. If I were to marry one wife she would be married to six husbands. It is too many for any woman to manage.”

“Have you never fallen in love?” asked my mother.

“Three of me have, but on each occasion the other five of me out-voted him.”

“You’re sure six would be sufficient?” queried my mother, smiling.

“Just the right number, Mrs. Kelver. There is one of me must worship, adore a woman madly, abjectly; grovel before her like the Troubadour before his Queen of Song, eat her slipper, drink the water she has washed in, scourge himself before her window, die for a kiss of her glove flung down with a laugh. She must be scornful, contemptuous, cruel. There is another I would cherish, a tender, yielding creature, one whose face would light at my coming, cloud at my going; one to whom I should be a god. There is a third I, a child of Pan–an ugly little beast, Mrs. Kelver; horns on head and hoofs on feet, leering through the wood, seeking its fit mate. And a fourth would wed a wholesome, homely wench, deep of bosom, broad of hip; fit mother of a sturdy brood. A fifth could only be content with a true friend, a comrade wise and witty, a sharer and understander of all joys and thoughts and feelings. And a last, Mrs. Kelver, yearns for a woman pure and sweet, clothed in love and crowned with holiness. Shouldn’t we be a handful, Mrs. Kelver, for any one woman in an eight-roomed house?”

But my mother was not to be discouraged. “You will find the woman one day, Hal, who will be all of them to you–all of them that are worth having, that is. And your eight-roomed house will be a kingdom!”

“A man is many, and a woman but one,” answered Hal.

“That is what men say who are too blind to see more than one side of a woman,” retorted my mother, a little sharply; for the honour and credit of her own sex in all things was very dear to my mother. And indeed this I have learned, that the flag of Womanhood you shall ever find upheld by all true women, flouted only by the false. For a judge in petticoats is ever but a witness in a wig.

Hal laid aside his pipe and leant forward in his chair. “Now tell us, Mrs. Kelver, for our guidance, we two young bachelors, what must the lover of a young girl be?”

Always very serious on this subject of love, my mother answered gravely: “She asks for the whole of a man, Hal, not merely for a sixth, nor any other part of him. She is a child asking for a lover to whom she can look up, who will teach her, guide her, protect her. She is a queen demanding homage, and yet he is her king whom it is her joy to serve. She asks to be his partner, his fellow-worker, his playmate, and at the same time she loves to think of him as her child, her big baby she must take care of. Whatever he has to give she has also to respond with. You need not marry six wives, Hal; you will find your six in one.

“‘As the water to the vessel, woman shapes herself to man;’ an old heathen said that three thousand years ago, and others have repeated him; that is what you mean.”

“I don’t like that way of putting it,” answered my mother. “I mean that as you say of man, so in every true woman is contained all women. But to know her completely you must love her with all love.”

Sometimes the talk would be of religion, for my mother’s faith was no dead thing that must be kept ever sheltered from the air, lest it crumble.

One evening “Who are we that we should live?” cried Hal. “The spider is less cruel; the very pig less greedy, gluttonous and foul; the tiger less tigerish; our cousin ape less monkeyish. What are we but savages, clothed and ashamed, nine-tenths of us?”

“But Sodom and Gomorrah,” reminded him my mother, “would have been spared for the sake of ten just men.”

“Much more sensible to have hurried the ten men out, leaving the remainder to be buried with all their abominations under their own ashes,” growled Hal.

“And we shall be purified,” continued my mother, “the evil in us washed away.”

“Why have made us ill merely to mend us? If the Almighty were so anxious for our company, why not have made us decent in the beginning?” He had just come away from a meeting of Poor Law Guardians, and was in a state of dissatisfaction with human nature generally.

“It is His way,” answered my mother. “The precious stone lies hid in clay. He has His purpose.”

“Is the stone so very precious?”

“Would He have taken so much pains to fashion it if it were not? You see it all around you, Hal, in your daily practice–heroism, self-sacrifice, love stronger than death. Can you think He will waste it, He who uses again even the dead leaf?”

“Shall the new leaf remember the new flower?”

“Yes, if it ever knew it. Shall memory be the only thing to die?”

Often of an evening I would accompany Hal upon his rounds. By the savage tribe he both served and ruled he had come to be regarded as medicine man and priest combined. He was both their tyrant and their slave, working for them early and late, yet bullying them unmercifully, enforcing his commands sometimes with vehement tongue, and where that would not suffice with quick fists; the counsellor, helper, ruler, literally of thousands. Of income he could have made barely enough to live upon; but few men could have enjoyed more sense of power; and that I think it was that held him to the neighbourhood.

“Nature laid me by and forgot me for a couple of thousand years,” was his own explanation of himself. “Born in my proper period, I should have climbed to chieftainship upon uplifted shields. I might have been an Attila, an Alaric. Among the civilised one can only climb by crawling, and I am too impatient to crawl. Here I am king at once by force of brain and muscle.” So in Poplar he remained, poor in fees but rich in honour.

The love of justice was a passion with him. The oppressors of the poor knew and feared him well. Injustice once proved before him, vengeance followed sure. If the law would not help, he never hesitated to employ lawlessness, of which he could always command a satisfactory supply. Bumble might have the Board of Guardians at his back, Shylock legal support for his pound of flesh; but sooner or later the dark night brought punishment, a ducking in dock basin or canal, “Brutal Assault Upon a Respected Resident” (according to the local papers), the “miscreants” always making and keeping good their escape, for he was an admirable organiser.

One night it seemed to him necessary that a child should go at once into the Infirmary.

“It ain’t no use my taking her now,” explained the mother, “I’ll only get bullyragged for disturbing ’em. My old man was carried there three months ago when he broke his leg, but they wouldn’t take him in till the morning.”

“Oho! oho! oho!” sang Hal, taking the child up in his arms and putting on his hat. “You follow me; we’ll have some sport. Tally ho! tally ho!” And away we went, Hal heading our procession through the streets, shouting a rollicking song, the baby staring at him openmouthed.

“Now ring,” cried Hal to the mother on our reaching the Workhouse gate. “Ring modestly, as becomes the poor ringing at the gate of Charity.” And the bell tinkled faintly.

“Ring again!” cried Hal, drawing back into the shadow; and at last the wicket opened.

“Oh, if you please, sir, my baby–“

“Blast your baby!” answered a husky voice, “what d’ye mean by coming here this time of night?”

“Please, sir, I’m afraid it’s dying, and the Doctor–“

The man was no sentimentalist, and to do him justice made no hypocritical pretence of being one. He consigned the baby and its mother and the doctor to Hell, and the wicket would have closed but for the point of Hal’s stick.

“Open the gate!” roared Hal. It was idle pretending not to hear Hal anywhere within half a mile of him when he filled his lungs for a cry. “Open it quick, you blackguard! You gross vat-load of potato spirit, you–“

That the Governor should speak a language familiar to the governed was held by the Romans, born rulers of men, essential to authority. This theory Hal also maintained. His command of idiom understanded by his people was one of his rods of power. In less time than it took the trembling porter to loosen the bolts, Hal had presented him with a word picture of himself, as seen by others, that must have lessened his self-esteem.

“I didn’t know as it was you, Doctor,” explained the man.

“No, you thought you had only to deal with some helpless creature you could bully. Stir your fat carcass, you ugly cur! I’m in a hurry.”

The House Surgeon was away, but an attendant or two were lounging about, unfortunately for themselves, for Hal, being there, took it upon himself to go round the ward setting crooked things straight; and a busy and alarming time they had of it. Not till a couple of hours later did he fling himself forth again, having enjoyed himself greatly.

A gentleman came to reside in the district, a firm believer in the wisdom of the couplet: “A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree, The more you beat them the better they be.” The spaniel and the walnut tree he did not possess, so his wife had the benefit of his undivided energies. Whether his treatment had improved her morally, one cannot say; her evident desire to do her best may have been natural or may have been assisted; but physically it was injuring her. He used to beat her about the head with his strap, his argument being that she always seemed half asleep, and that this, for the time being, woke her up. Sympathisers brought complaint to Hal, for the police in that neighbourhood are to keep the streets respectable. With the life in the little cells that line them they are no more concerned than are the scavengers of the sewers with the domestic arrangements of the rats.

“What’s he like?” asked Hal.

“He’s a big ‘un,” answered the woman who had come with the tale, “and he’s good with his fists–I’ve seen him. But there’s no getting at him. He’s the sort to have the law on you if you interfere with him, and she’s the sort to help him.”

“Any likely time to catch him at it?” asked Hal.

“Saturdays it’s as regular as early closing,” answered the woman, “but you might have to wait a bit.”

“I’ll wait in your room, granny, next Saturday,” suggested Hal.

“All right,” agreed the woman, “I’ll risk it, even if I do get a bloody head for it.”

So that week end we sat very still on two rickety chairs listening to a long succession of sharp, cracking sounds that, had one not known, one might have imagined produced by some child monotonously exploding percussion caps, each one followed by an answering groan. Hal never moved, but sat smoking his pipe, an ugly smile about his mouth. Only once he opened his lips, and then it was to murmur to himself: “And God blessed them and said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply.”

The horror ceased at last, and later we heard the door unlock and a man’s foot upon the landing above. Hal beckoned to me, and swiftly we slipped out and down the creaking stairs. He opened the front door, and we waited in the evil-smelling little passage. The man came towards us whistling. He was a powerfully built fellow, rather good-looking, I remember. He stopped abruptly upon catching sight of Hal, who stood crouching in the shadow of the door.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Waiting to pull your nose!” answered Hal, suiting the action to the word. And then laughing he ran down the street, I following.

The man gave chase, calling to us with a string of imprecations to stop. But Hal only ran the faster, though after a street or two he slackened, and the man gained on us a little.

So we continued, the distance between us and our pursuer now a little more, now a little less. People turned and stared at us. A few boys, scenting grim fun, followed shouting for awhile; but these we soon out-paced, till at last in deserted streets, winding among warehouses bordering the river, we three ran alone, between long, lifeless walls. I looked into Hal’s face from time to time, and he was laughing; but every now and then he would look over his shoulder at the man behind him still following doggedly, and then his face would be twisted into a comically terrified grimace. Turning into a narrow cul-de-sac, Hal suddenly ducked behind a wide brick buttress, and the man, still running, passed us. And then Hal stood up and called to him, and the man turned, looked into Hal’s eyes, and understood.

He was not a coward. Besides, even a rat when cornered will fight for its life. He made a rush at Hal, and Hal made no attempt to defend himself. He stood there laughing, and the man struck him full in the face, and the blood spurted out and flowed down into his mouth. The man came on again, though terror was in every line of his face, all his desire being to escape. But this time Hal drove him back again. They fought for awhile, if one can call it fighting, till the man, mad for air, reeled against the wall, stood there quivering convulsively, his mouth wide open, resembling more than anything else some huge dying fish. And Hal drew away and waited.

I have no desire to see again the sight I saw that quiet, still evening, framed by those high, windowless walls, from behind which sounded with ceaseless regularity the gentle swish of the incoming tide. All sense of retribution was drowned in the sight of Hal’s evident enjoyment of his sport. The judge had disappeared, leaving the work to be accomplished by a savage animal loosened for the purpose.

The wretched creature flung itself again towards its only door of escape, fought with the vehemence of despair, to be flung back again, a hideous, bleeding mass of broken flesh. I tried to cling to Hal’s arm, but one jerk of his steel muscles flung me ten feet away.

“Keep off, you fool!” he cried. “I won’t kill him. I’m keeping my head. I shall know when to stop.” And I crept away and waited.

Hal joined me a little later, wiping the blood from his face. We made our way to a small public-house near the river, and from there Hal sent a couple of men on whom he could rely with instructions how to act. I never heard any more of the matter. It was a subject on which I did not care to speak to Hal. I can only hope that good came of it.

There was a spot–it has been cleared away since to make room for the approach to Greenwich Tunnel–it was then the entrance to a grain depot in connection with the Milwall Docks. A curious brick well it resembled, in the centre of which a roadway wound downward, corkscrew fashion, disappearing at the bottom into darkness under a yawning arch. The place possessed the curious property of being ever filled with a ceaseless murmur, as though it were some aerial maelstrom, drawing into its silent vacuum all wandering waves of sound from the restless human ocean flowing round it. No single tone could one ever distinguish: it was a mingling of all voices, heard there like the murmur of a sea-soaked shell.

We passed through it on our return. Its work for the day was finished, its strange, weary song uninterrupted by the mighty waggons thundering up and down its spiral way. Hal paused, leaning against the railings that encircled its centre, and listened.

“Hark, do you not hear it, Paul?” he asked. “It is the music of Humanity. All human notes are needful to its making: the faint wail of the new-born, the cry of the dying thief; the beating of the hammers, the merry trip of dancers; the clatter of the teacups, the roaring of the streets; the crooning of the mother to her babe, the scream of the tortured child; the meeting kiss of lovers, the sob of those that part. Listen! prayers and curses, sighs and laughter; the soft breathing of the sleeping, the fretful feet of pain; voices of pity, voices of hate; the glad song of the strong, the foolish complaining of the weak. Listen to it, Paul! Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and despair, it is but one voice–a single note, drawn by the sweep of the Player’s hand across the quivering strings of man. What is the meaning of it, Paul? Can you read it? Sometimes it seems to me a note of joy, so full, so endless, so complete, that I cry: ‘Blessed be the Lord whose hammers have beaten upon us, whose fires have shaped us to His ends!’ And sometimes it sounds to me a dying note, so that I could curse Him who in wantonness has wrung it from the anguish of His creatures–till I would that I could fling myself, Prometheus like, between Him and His victims, calling: “My darkness, but their light; my agony, 0 God; their hope!'”

The faint light from a neighbouring gas-lamp fell upon his face that an hour before I had seen the face of a wild beast. The ugly mouth was quivering, tears stood in his great, tender eyes. Could his prayer in that moment have been granted, could he have pressed against his bosom all the pain of the world, he would have rejoiced.

He shook himself together with a laugh. “Come, Paul, we have had a busy afternoon, and I’m thirsty. Let us drink some beer, my boy, good sound beer, and plenty of it.”

My mother fell ill that winter. Mountain born and mountain bred, the close streets had never agreed with her, and scolded by all of us, she promised, “come the fine weather,” to put sentiment behind her, and go away from them.

“I’m thinking she will,” said Hal, gripping my shoulder with his strong hand, “but it’ll be by herself that she’ll go, lad. My wonder is,” he continued, “that she has held out so long. If anything, it is you that have kept her alive. Now that you are off her mind to a certain extent, she is worrying about your father, I expect. These women, they never will believe a man can take care of himself, even in Heaven. She’s never quite trusted the Lord with him, and never will till she’s there to give an eye to things herself.”

Hal’s prophecy fell true. She left “come the fine weather,” as she had promised: I remember it was the first day primroses were hawked in the street. But another death had occurred just before; which, concerning me closely as it does, I had better here dispose of; and that was the death of old Mr. Stillwood, who passed away rich in honour and regret, and was buried with much ostentation and much sincere sorrow; for he had been to many of his clients, mostly old folk, rather a friend than a mere man of business, and had gained from all with whom he had come in contact, respect, and from many real affection.

In conformity with the old legal fashions that in his life he had so fondly clung to, his will was read aloud by Mr. Gadley after the return from the funeral, and many were the tears its recital called forth. Written years ago by himself and never altered, its quaint phraseology was full of kindly thought and expression. No one had been forgotten. Clerks, servants, poor relations, all had been treated with even-handed justice, while for those with claim upon him, ample provision had been made. Few wills, I think, could ever have been read less open to criticism.

Old Gadley slipped his arm into mine as we left the house. “If you’ve nothing to do, young ‘un,” he said, “I’ll get you to come with me to the office. I have got all the keys in my pocket, and we shall be quiet. It will be sad work for me, and I had rather we were alone. A couple of hours will show us everything.”

We lighted the wax candles–old Stillwood could never tolerate gas in his own room–and opening the safe took out the heavy ledgers one by one, and from them Gadley dictated figures which I wrote down and added up.

“Thirty years I have kept these books for him,” said old Gadley, as we laid by the last of them, “thirty years come Christmas next, he and I together. No other hands but ours have ever touched them, and now people to whom they mean nothing but so much business will fling them about, drop greasy crumbs upon them–I know their ways, the brutes!–scribble all over them. And he who always would have everything so neat and orderly!”

We came to the end of them in less than the time old Gadley had thought needful: in such perfect order had everything been maintained. I was preparing to go, but old Gadley had drawn a couple of small keys from his pocket, and was shuffling again towards the safe.

“Only one more,” he explained in answer to my look, “his own private ledger. It will merely be in the nature of a summary, but we’ll just glance through it.”

He opened an inner drawer and took from it a small thick volume bound in green leather and closed with two brass locks. An ancient volume, it appeared, its strong binding faded and stained. Old Gadley sat down with it at the dead man’s own desk, and snuffing the two shaded candles, unlocked and opened it. I was standing opposite, so that the book to me was upside down, but the date on the first page, “1841,” caught my eye, as also the small neat writing now brown with age.

“So neat, so orderly he always was,” murmured old Gadley again, smoothing the page affectionately with his hand, and I waited for his dictation.

But no glib flow of figures fell from him. His eyebrows suddenly contracted, his body stiffened itself. Then for the next quarter of an hour nothing sounded in the quiet room but his turning of the creakling pages. Once or twice he glanced round swiftly over his shoulder, as though haunted by the idea of some one behind him; then back to the neat, closely written folios, his little eyes, now exhibiting a comical look of horror, starting out of his round red face. First slowly, then quickly with trembling hands he turned the pages, till the continual ratling of the leaves sounded like strange, mocking laughter through the silent, empty room; almost one could imagine it coming from some watching creature hidden in the shadows.

The end reached, he sat staring before him, his whole body quivering, great beads of sweat upon his shiny bald head.

“Am I mad?” was all he could find to say. “Kelver, am I mad?”

He handed me the book. It was a cynically truthful record of fraud, extending over thirty years. Every client, every friend, every relative that had fallen into his net he had robbed: the fortunate ones of a part, the majority of their all. Its very first entry debited him with the proceeds of his own partner’s estate. Its last ran –“Re Kelver–various sales of stock.” To his credit were his payments year after year of imaginary interests on imaginary securities, the surplus accounted for with simple brevity: “Transferred to own account.” No record could have been more clear, more frank. Beneath each transaction was written its true history; the actual investments, sometimes necessary, carefully distinguished from the false. In neat red ink would occur here and there a note for his own guidance: “Eldest child comes of age August, ’73. Be prepared for trustees desiring production.” Turning to “August, ’73,” one found that genuine investment had been made, to be sold again a few months later on. From beginning to end not a single false step had he committed. Suspicious clients had been ear-marked: the trusting discriminated with gratitude, and milked again and again to meet emergency.

As a piece of organisation it was magnificent. No one but a financial genius could have picked a dozen steps through such a network of chicanery. For half a lifetime he had moved among it, dignified, respected and secure.

Whether even he could have maintained his position for another month was doubtful. Suicide, though hinted at, was proved to have been impossible. It seemed as though with his amazing audacity he had tricked even Death into becoming his accomplice.

“But it is impossible, Kelver!” cried Gadley, “this must be some dream. Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal! What is the meaning of it?”

He took the book into his hands again, then burst into tears. “You never knew him,” wailed the poor little man. “Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal! I came here as office boy fifty years ago. He was more like a friend to me than–” and again the sobs shook his little fat body.

I locked the books away and put him into his hat and coat. But I had much difficulty in getting him out of the office.

“I daren’t, young ‘un,” he cried, drawing back. “Fifty years I have walked out of this office, proud of it, proud of being connected with it. I daren’t face the street!”

All the way home his only idea was: Could it not be hidden? Honest, kindly little man that he was, he seemed to have no thought for the unfortunate victims. The good name of his master, of his friend, gone! Stillwood, Waterhead and Royal, a by-word! To have avoided that I believe he would have been willing for yet another hundred clients to be ruined.

I saw him to his door, then turned homeward; and to my surprise in a dark by-street heard myself laughing heartily. I checked myself instantly, feeling ashamed of my callousness, of my seeming indifference to the trouble even of myself and my mother. Yet as there passed before me the remembrance of that imposing and expensive funeral with its mournful following of tearful faces; the hushed reading of the will with its accompaniment of rustling approval; the picture of the admirably sympathetic clergyman consoling with white hands Mrs. Stillwood, inclined to hysteria, but anxious concerning her two hundred pounds’ worth of crape which by no possibility of means could now be paid for–recurred to me the obituary notice in “The Chelsea Weekly Chronicle”: the humour of the thing swept all else before it, and I laughed again–I could not help it–loud and long. It was my first introduction to the comedy of life, which is apt to be more brutal than the comedy of fiction.

But nearing home, the serious side of the matter forced itself uppermost. Fortunately, our supposed dividends had been paid to us by Mr. Stillwood only the month before. Could I keep the thing from troubling my mother’s last days? It would be hard work. I should have to do it alone, for a perhaps foolish pride prevented my taking Hal into my confidence, even made his friendship a dread to me, lest he should come to learn and offer help. There is a higher generosity, it is said, that can receive with pleasure as well as bestow favour; but I have never felt it. Could I be sure of acting my part, of not betraying myself to her sharp eyes, of keeping newspapers and chance gossip away from her? Good shrewd Amy I cautioned, but I shrank from even speaking on the subject to Hal, and my fear was lest he should blunder into the subject, which for the usual nine days occupied much public attention. But fortunately he appeared not even to have heard of the scandal.

Possibly had the need lasted longer I might have failed, but as it was, a few weeks saw the end.

“Don’t leave me to-day, Paul,” whispered my mother to me one morning. So I stayed, and in the evening my mother put her arms around my neck and I lay beside her, my head upon her breast, as I used to when a little boy. And when the morning came I was alone.

BOOK II.

CHAPTER I

DESCRIBES THE DESERT ISLAND TO WHICH PAUL WAS DRIFTED.

“Room to let for a single gentleman.” Sometimes in an idle hour, impelled by foolishness, I will knock at the door. It is opened after a longer or shorter interval by the “slavey”–in the morning, slatternly, her arms concealed beneath her apron; in the afternoon, smart in dirty cap and apron. How well I know her! Unchanged, not grown an inch–her round bewildered eyes, her open mouth, her touzled hair, her scored red hands. With an effort I refrain from muttering: “So sorry, forgot my key,” from pushing past her and mounting two at a time the narrow stairs, carpeted to the first floor, but bare beyond. Instead, I say, “Oh, what rooms have you to let?” when, scuttling to the top of the kitchen stairs, she will call over the banisters: “A gentleman to see the rooms.” There comes up, panting, a harassed-looking, elderly female, but genteel in black. She crushes past the little “slavey,” and approaching, eyes me critically.

“I have a very nice room on the first floor,” she informs me, “and one behind on the third.”

I agree to see them, explaining that I am seeking them for a young friend of mine. We squeeze past the hat and umbrella stand: there is just room, but one must keep close to the wall. The first floor is rather an imposing apartment, with a marble-topped sideboard measuring quite three feet by two, the doors of which will remain closed if you introduce a wad of paper between them. A green table-cloth, matching the curtains, covers the loo-table. The lamp is perfectly safe so long as it stands in the exact centre of the table, but should not be shifted. A paper fire-stove ornament in some mysterious way bestows upon the room an air of chastity. Above the mantelpiece is a fly-blown mirror, between the once gilt frame and glass of which can be inserted invitation cards; indeed, one or two so remain, proving that the tenants even of “bed-sitting-rooms” are not excluded from social delights. The wall opposite is adorned by an oleograph of the kind Cheap Jacks sell by auction on Saturday nights in the Pimlico Road, and warrant as “hand-made.” Generally speaking, it is a Swiss landscape. There appears to be more “body” in a Swiss landscape than in scenes from less favoured localities. A dilapidated mill, a foaming torrent, a mountain, a maiden and a cow can at the least be relied upon. An easy chair (I disclaim all responsibility for the adjective), stuffed with many coils of steel wire, each possessing a “business end” in admirable working order, and covered with horsehair, highly glazed, awaits the uninitiated. There is one way of sitting upon it, and only one: by using the extreme edge, and planting your feet firmly on the floor. If you attempt to lean back in it you inevitably slide out of it. When so treated it seems to say to you: “Excuse me, you are very heavy, and you would really be much more comfortable upon the floor. Thank you so much.” The bed is behind the door, and the washstand behind the bed. If you sit facing the window you can forget the bed. On the other hand, if more than one friend come to call on you, you are glad of it. As a matter of fact, experienced visitors prefer it–make straight for it, refusing with firmness to exchange it for the easy chair.

“And this room is?”

“Eight shillings a week, sir–with attendance, of course.”

“Any extras?”

“The lamp, sir, is eighteenpence a week; and the kitchen fire, if the gentleman wishes to dine at home, two shillings.”

“And fire?”

“Sixpence a scuttle, sir, I charge for coals.”

“It’s rather a small scuttle.”

The landlady bridles a little. “The usual size, I think, sir.” One presumes there is a special size in coal-scuttles made exclusively for lodging-house keepers.

I agree that while I am about it I may as well see the other room, the third floor back. The landlady opens the door for me, but remains herself on the landing. She is a stout lady, and does not wish to dwarf the apartment by comparison. The arrangement here does not allow of your ignoring the bed. It is the life and soul of the room, and it declines to efface itself. Its only possible rival is the washstand, straw-coloured; with staring white basin and jug, together with other appurtenances. It glares defiantly from its corner. “I know I’m small,” it seems to say; “but I’m very useful; and I won’t be ignored.” The remaining furniture consists of a couple of chairs–there is no hypocrisy about them: they are not easy and they do not pretend to be easy; a small chest of light-painted drawers before the window, with white china handles, upon which is a tiny looking-glass; and, occupying the entire remaining space, after allowing three square feet for the tenant, when he arrives, an attenuated four-legged table apparently home-made. The only ornament in the room is, suspended above the fireplace, a funeral card, framed in beer corks. As the corpse introduced by the ancient Egyptians into their banquets, it is hung there perhaps to remind the occupant of the apartment that the luxuries and allurements of life have their end; or maybe it consoles him in despondent moments with the reflection that after all he might be worse off.

The rent of this room is three-and-sixpence a week, also including attendance; lamp, as for the first floor, eighteen-pence; but kitchen fire a shilling.

“But why should kitchen fire for the first floor be two shillings, and for this only one?”

“Well, as a rule, sir, the first floor wants more cooking done.”

You are quite right, my dear lady, I was forgetting. The gentleman in the third floor back! cooking for him is not a great tax upon the kitchen fire. His breakfast, it is what, madam, we call plain, I think. His lunch he takes out. You may see him, walking round the quiet square, up and down the narrow street that, leading to nowhere in particular, is between twelve and two somewhat deserted. He carries a paper bag, into which at intervals, when he is sure nobody is looking, his mouth disappears. From studying the neighbourhood one can guess what it contains. Saveloys hereabouts are plentiful and only twopence each. There are pie shops, where meat pies are twopence and fruit pies a penny. The lady behind the counter, using deftly a broad, flat knife, lifts the little dainty with one twist clean from its tiny dish: it is marvellous, having regard to the thinness of the pastry, that she never breaks one. Roley-poley pudding, sweet and wonderfully satisfying, more especially when cold, is but a penny a slice. Peas pudding, though this is an awkward thing to eat out of a bag, is comforting upon cold days. Then with his tea he takes two eggs or a haddock, the fourpenny size; maybe on rare occasions, a chop or steak; and you fry it for him, madam, though every time he urges on you how much he would prefer it grilled, for fried in your one frying-pan its flavour becomes somewhat confused. But maybe this is the better for him, for, shutting his eyes and trusting only to smell and flavour, he can imagine himself enjoying variety. He can begin with herrings, pass on to liver and bacon, opening his eyes again for a moment perceive that he has now arrived at the joint, and closing them again, wind up with distinct suggestion of toasted cheese, thus avoiding monotony. For dinner he goes out again. Maybe he is not hungry, late meals are a mistake; or, maybe, putting his hand into his pocket and making calculations beneath a lamp-post, appetite may come to him. Then there are places cheerful with the sound of frizzling fat, where fried plaice brown and odorous may be had for three halfpence, and a handful of sliced potatoes for a penny; where for fourpence succulent stewed eels may be discussed; vinegar ad lib.; or for sevenpence–but these are red-letter evenings–half a sheep’s head may be indulged in, which is a supper fit for any king, who happened to be hungry.

I explain that I will discuss the matter with my young friend when he arrives. The landlady says, “Certainly, sir:” she is used to what she calls the “wandering Christian;” and easing my conscience by slipping a shilling into the “slavey’s” astonished, lukewarm hand, I pass out again into the long, dreary street, now echoing maybe to the sad cry of “Muffins!”

Or sometimes of an evening, the lamp lighted, the remnants of the meat tea cleared away, the flickering firelight cosifying the dingy rooms, I go a-visiting. There is no need for me to ring the bell, to mount the stairs. Through the thin transparent walls I can see you plainly, old friends of mine, fashions a little changed, that is all. We wore bell-shaped trousers; eight-and-six to measure, seven-and-six if from stock; fastened our neckties in dashing style with a horseshoe pin. I think in the matter of waistcoats we had the advantage of you; ours were gayer, braver. Our cuffs and collars were of paper: sixpence- halfpenny the dozen, three-halfpence the pair. On Sunday they were white and glistening; on Monday less aggressively obvious; on Tuesday morning decidedly dappled. But on Tuesday evening, when with natty cane, or umbrella neatly rolled in patent leather case, we took our promenade down Oxford Street–fashionable hour nine to ten p.m.–we could shoot our arms and cock our chins with the best. Your india-rubber linen has its advantages. Storm does not wither it; it braves better the heat and turmoil of the day. The passing of a sponge! and your “Dicky” is itself again. We had to use bread-crumbs, and so sacrifice the glaze. Yet I cannot help thinking that for the first few hours, at all events, our paper was more dazzling.

For the rest I see no change in you, old friends. I wave you greeting from the misty street. God rest you, gallant gentlemen, lonely and friendless and despised; making the best of joyless lives; keeping yourselves genteel on twelve, fifteen, or eighteen (ah, but you are plutocrats!) shillings a week; saving something even of that, maybe, to help the old mother in the country, so proud of her “gentleman” son who has book learning and who is “something in the City.” May nothing you dismay. Bullied, and badgered, and baited from nine to six though you may be, from then till bedtime you are rorty young dogs. The half-guinea topper, “as worn by the Prince of Wales” (ah, how many a meal has it not cost!), warmed before the fire, brushed and polished and coaxed, shines resplendent. The second pair of trousers are drawn from beneath the bed; in the gaslight, with well-marked crease from top to toe, they will pass for new. A pleasant evening to you! May your cheap necktie make all the impression your soul can desire! May your penny cigar be mistaken for Havana! May the barmaid charm your simple heart by addressing you as “Baby!” May some sweet shop-girl throw a kindly glance at you, inviting you to walk with her! May she snigger at your humour; may other dogs cast envious looks at you, and may no harm come of it!

You dreamers of dreams, you who while your companions play and sleep will toil upward in the night! You have read Mr. Smiles’ “Self-Help,” Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” and so strengthened attack with confidence “French Without a Master,” “Bookkeeping in Six Lessons.” With a sigh to yourselves you turn aside from the alluring streets, from the bright, bewitching eyes, into the stuffy air of Birkbeck Institutions, Polytechnic Schools. May success compensate you for your youth devoid of pleasure! May the partner’s chair you seen in visions be yours before the end! May you live one day in Clapham in a twelve-roomed house!

And, after all, we have our moments, have we not? The Saturday night at the play. The hours of waiting, they are short. We converse with kindred souls of the British Drama, its past and future: we have our views. We dream of Florence This, Kate That; in a little while we shall see her. Ah, could she but know how we loved her! Her photo is on our mantelpiece, transforming the dismal little room into a shrine. The poem we have so often commenced! when it is finished we will post it to her. At least she will acknowledge its receipt; we can kiss the paper her hand has rested on. The great doors groan, then quiver. Ah, the wild thrill of that moment! Now push for all you are worth: charge, wriggle, squirm! It is an epitome of life. We are through–collarless, panting, pummelled from top to toe: but what of that? Upward, still upward; then downward with leaps at risk of our neck, from bench to bench through the gloom. We have gained the front row! Would we exchange sensations with the stallite, strolling languidly to his seat? The extravagant dinner once a week! We banquet _a la Francais_, in Soho, for one-and-six, including wine. Does Tortoni ever give his customers a repast they enjoy more? I trow not.

My first lodging was an attic in a square the other side of Blackfriars Bridge. The rent of the room, if I remember rightly, was three shillings a week with cooking, half-a-crown without. I purchased a methylated spirit stove with kettle and frying-pan, and took it without.

Old Hasluck would have helped me willingly, and there were others to whom I might have appealed, but a boy’s pride held me back. I would make my way alone, win my place in the world by myself. To Hal, knowing he would sympathise with me, I confided the truth.

“Had your mother lived,” he told me, “I should have had something to say on the subject. Of course, I knew what had happened, but as it is–well, you need not be afraid, I shall not offer you help; indeed, I should refuse it were you to ask. Put your Carlyle in your pocket: he is not all voices, but he is the best maker of men I know. The great thing to learn of life is not to be afraid of it.”

“Look me up now and then,” he added, “and we’ll talk about the stars, the future of Socialism, and the Woman Question–anything you like except about yourself and your twopenny-half-penny affairs.”

From another it would have sounded brutal, but I understood him. And so we shook hands and parted for longer than either of us at the time expected. The Franco-German War broke out a few weeks later on, and Hal, the love of adventure always strong within him, volunteered his services, which were accepted. It was some years before we met again.

On the door-post of a house in Farringdon Street, not far from the Circus, stood in those days a small brass plate, announcing that the “Ludgate News Rooms” occupied the third and fourth floors, and that the admission to the same was one penny. We were a seedy company that every morning crowded into these rooms: clerks, shopmen, superior artisans, travellers, warehousemen–all of us out of work. Most of us were young, but with us was mingled a sprinkling of elder men, and these latter were always the saddest and most silent of this little whispering army of the down-at-heel. Roughly speaking, we were divided into two groups: the newcomers, cheery, confident. These would flit from newspaper to newspaper with buzz of pleasant anticipation, select their advertisement as one choosing some dainty out of a rich and varied menu card, and replying to it as one conferring favour.

“Dear Sir,–in reply to your advertisement in to-day’s _Standard_, I shall be pleased to accept the post vacant in your office. I am of good appearance and address. I am an excellent–” It was really marvellous the quality and number of our attainments. French! we wrote and spoke it fluently, _a la Ahn_. German! of this we possessed a slighter knowledge, it was true, but sufficient for mere purposes of commerce. Bookkeeping! arithmetic! geometry! we played with them. The love of work! it was a passion with us. Our moral character! it would have adorned a Free Kirk Elder. “I could call on you to-morrow or Friday between eleven and one, or on Saturday any time up till two. Salary required, two guineas a week. An early answer will oblige. Yours truly.”

The old stagers did not buzz. Hour after hour they sat writing, steadily, methodically, with day by day less hope and heavier fears:

“Sir,-Your advt. in to-day’s _D. T._ I am–” of such and such an age. List of qualifications less lengthy, set forth with more modesty; object desired being air of verisimilitude.–“If you decide to engage me I will endeavour to give you every satisfaction. Any time you like to appoint I will call on you. I should not ask a high salary to start with. Yours obediently.”

Dozens of the first letter, hundreds of the second, I wrote with painful care, pen carefully chosen, the one-inch margin down the left hand side of the paper first portioned off with dots. To three or four I received a curt reply, instructing me to call. But the shyness that had stood so in my way during the earlier half of my school days had now, I know not why, returned upon me, hampering me at every turn. A shy child grown-up folks at all events can understand and forgive; but a shy young man is not unnaturally regarded as a fool. I gave the impression of being awkward, stupid, sulky. The more I strove against my temperament the worse I became. My attempts to be at my ease, to assert myself, resulted–I could see it myself–only in rudeness.

“Well, I have got to see one or two others. We will write and let you know,” was the conclusion of each interview, and the end, as far as I was concerned, of the enterprise.

My few pounds, guard them how I would, were dwindling rapidly. Looking back, it is easy enough to regard one’s early struggles from a humorous point of view. One knows the story, it all ended happily. But at the time there is no means of telling whether one’s biography is going to be comedy or tragedy. There were moments when I felt confident it was going to be the latter. Occasionally, when one is feeling well, it is not unpleasant to contemplate with pathetic sympathy one’s own death-bed. One thinks of the friends and relations who at last will understand and regret one, be sorry they had not behaved themselves better. But myself, there was no one to regret. I felt very small, very helpless. The world was big. I feared it might walk over me, trample me down, never seeing me. I seemed unable to attract its attention.

One morning I found waiting for me at the Reading Room another of the usual missives. It ran: “Will Mr. P. Kelver call at the above address to-morrow morning between ten-thirty and eleven. The paper was headed: “Lott and Co., Indian Commission Agents, Aldersgate Street.” Without much hope I returned to my lodgings, changed my clothes, donned my silk hat, took my one pair of gloves, drew its silk case over my holey umbrella; and so equipped for fight with Fate made my way to Aldersgate Street. For a quarter of an hour or so, being too soon, I walked up and down the pavement outside the house, gazing at the second-floor windows, behind which, so the door-plate had informed me, were the offices of Lott & Co. I could not recall their advertisement, nor my reply to it. The firm was evidently not in a very flourishing condition. I wondered idly what salary they would offer. For a moment I dreamt of a Cheeryble Brother asking me kindly if I thought I could do with thirty shillings a week as a beginning; but the next I recalled my usual fate, and considered whether it was even worth while to climb the stairs, go through what to me was a painful ordeal, merely to be impressed again with the sense of my own worthlessness.

A fine rain began to fall. I did not wish to unroll my umbrella, yet felt nervous for my hat. It was five minutes to the half hour. Listlessly I crossed the road and mounted the bare stairs to the second floor. Two doors faced me, one marked “Private.” I tapped lightly at the second. Not hearing any response, after a second or two I tapped again. A sound reached me, but it was unintelligible. I knocked yet again, still louder. This time I heard a reply in a shrill, plaintive tone:

“Oh, do come in.”

The tone was one of pathetic entreaty. I turned the handle and entered. It was a small room, dimly lighted by a dirty window, the bottom half of which was rendered opaque by tissue paper pasted to its panes. The place suggested a village shop rather than an office. Pots of jam, jars of pickles, bottles of wine, biscuit tins, parcels of drapery, boxes of candles, bars of soap, boots, packets of stationery, boxes of cigars, tinned provisions, guns, cartridges–things sufficient to furnish a desert island littered every available corner. At a small desk under the window sat a youth with a remarkably small body and a remarkably large head; so disproportionate were the two I should hardly have been surprised had he put up his hands and taken it off. Half in the room and half out, I paused.

“Is this Lott & Co.?” I enquired.

“No,” he answered; “it’s a room.” One eye was fixed upon me, dull and glassy; it never blinked, it never wavered. With the help of the other he continued his writing.

“I mean,” I explained, coming entirely into the room, “are these the offices of Lott & Co.?”

“It’s one of them,” he replied; “the back one. If you’re really anxious for a job, you can shut the door.”

I complied with his suggestion, and then announced that I was Mr. Kelver–Mr. Paul Kelver.

“Minikin’s my name,” he returned, “Sylvanus Minikin. You don’t happen by any chance to know what you’ve come for, I suppose?”

Looking at his body, my inclination was to pick my way among the goods that covered the floor and pull his ears for him. From his grave and massive face, he might, for all I knew, be the head clerk.

“I have called to see Mr. Lott,” I replied, with dignity; “I have an appointment.” I produced the letter from my pocket, and leaning across a sewing-machine, I handed it to him for his inspection. Having read it, he suddenly took from its socket the eye with which he had been hitherto regarding me, and proceeding to polish it upon his pocket handkerchief, turned upon me his other. Having satisfied himself, he handed me back my letter.

“Want my advice?” he asked.

I thought it might be useful to me, so replied in the affirmative.

“Hook it,” was his curt counsel.

“Why?” I asked. “Isn’t he a good employer?”

Replacing his glass eye, he turned again to his work. “If employment is what you want,” answered Mr. Minikin, “you’ll get it. Best employer in London. He’ll keep you going for twenty-four hours a day, and then offer you overtime at half salary.”

“I must get something to do,” I confessed.

“Sit down then,” suggested Mr. Minikin. “Rest while you can.”

I took the chair; it was the only chair in the room, with the exception of the one Minikin was sitting on.

“Apart from his being a bit of a driver,” I asked, “what sort of a man is he? Is he pleasant?”

“Never saw him put out but once,” answered Minikin.

It sounded well. “When was that?” I asked.

“All the time I’ve known him.”

My spirits continued to sink. Had I been left alone with Minikin much longer, I might have ended by following his advice, “hooking it” before Mr. Lott arrived. But the next moment I heard the other door open, and some one entered the private office. Then the bell rang, and Minikin disappeared, leaving the communicating door ajar behind him. The conversation that I overheard was as follows:

“Why isn’t Mr. Skeat here?”

“Because he hasn’t come.”

“Where are the letters?”

“Under your nose.”

“How dare you answer me like that?”

“Well, it’s the truth. They are under your nose.”

“Did you give Thorneycroft’s man my message?”

“Yes.”

“What did he answer?”

“Said you were a liar.”

“Oh, he did, did he! What did you reply?”

“Asked him to tell me something I didn’t know.”

“Thought that clever, didn’t you?”

“Not bad.”

Whatever faults might be laid to Mr. Lott’s door, he at least, I concluded, possesssed the virtue of self-control.

“Anybody been here?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“Mr. Kelver–Mr. Paul Kelver.”

“Kelver, Kelver. Who’s Kelver?”

“Know what he is–a fool.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s come after the place.”

“Is he there?”

“Yes.”

“What’s he like?”

“Not bad looking; fair–“

“Idiot! I mean is he smart?”

“Just at present–got all his Sunday clothes on.”

“Send him in to me. Don’t go, don’t go.”

“How can I send him in to you if I don’t go?”

“Take these. Have you finished those bills of lading?”

“No.”

“Good God! when will you have finished them?”

“Half an hour after I have begun them.”

“Get out, get out! Has that door been open all the time?”

“Well, I don’t suppose it’s opened itself.”

Minikin re-entered with papers in his hand. “In you go,” he said. “Heaven help you!” And I passed in and closed the door behind me.

The room was a replica of the one I had just left. If possible, it was more crowded, more packed with miscellaneous articles. I picked my way through these and approached the desk. Mr. Lott was a small, dingy-looking man, with very dirty hands, and small, restless eyes. I was glad that he was not imposing, or my shyness might have descended upon me; as it was, I felt better able to do myself justice. At once he plunged into the business by seizing and waving in front of my eyes a bulky bundle of letters tied together with red tape.

“One hundred and seventeen answers to an advertisement,” he cried with evident satisfaction, “in one day! That shows you the state of the labour market!”

I agreed it was appalling.

“Poor devils, poor devils!” murmured Mr. Lott “what will become of them? Some of them will starve. Terrible death, starvation, Kelver; takes such a long time–especially when you’re young.”

Here also I found myself in accord with him.

“Living with your parents?”

I explained to him my situation.

“Any friends?”

I informed him I was entirely dependent upon my own efforts.

“Any money? Anything coming in?”

I told him I had a few pounds still remaining to me, but that after that was gone I should be penniless.

“And to think, Kelver, that there are hundreds, thousands of young fellows precisely in your position! How sad, how very sad! How long have you been looking for a berth?”

“A month,” I answered him.

“I thought as much. Do you know why I selected your letter out of the whole batch?”

I replied I hoped it was because he judged from it I should prove satisfactory.

“Because it’s the worst written of them all.” He pushed it across to me. “Look at it. Awful, isn’t it?”

I admitted that handwriting was not my strong point.

“Nor spelling either,” he added, and with truth. “Who do you think will engage you if I don’t?”

“Nobody,” he continued, without waiting for me to reply. “A month hence you will still be looking for a berth, and a month after that. Now, I’m going to do you a good turn; save you from destitution; give you a start in life.”

I expressed my gratitude.

He waived it aside. “That is my notion of philanthropy: help those that nobody else will help. That young fellow in the other room–he isn’t a bad worker, he’s smart, but he’s impertinent.”

I murmured that I had gathered so much.

“Doesn’t mean to be, can’t help it. Noticed his trick of looking at you with his glass eye, keeping the other turned away from you?”

I replied that I had.

“Always does it. Used to irritate his last employer to madness. Said to him one day: ‘Do turn that signal lamp of yours off, Minikin, and look at me with your real eye.’ What do you think he answered? That it was the only one he’d got, and that he didn’t want to expose it to shocks. Wouldn’t have mattered so much if it hadn’t been one of the ugliest men in London.”

I murmured my indignation.

“I put up with him. Nobody else would. The poor fellow must live.”

I expressed admiration at Mr. Lott’s humanity.

“You don’t mind work? You’re not one of those good-for-nothings who sleep all day and wake up when it’s time to go home?”

I assured him that in whatever else I might fail I could promise him industry.

“With some of them,” complained Mr. Lott, in a tone of bitterness, “it’s nothing but play, girls, gadding about the streets. Work, business–oh, no. I may go bankrupt; my wife and children may go into the workhouse. No thought for me, the man that keeps them, feeds them, clothes them. How much salary do you want?”

I hesitated. I gathered this was not a Cheeryble Brother; it would be necessary to be moderate in one’s demands. “Five-and-twenty shillings a week,” I suggested.

He repeated the figure in a scream. “Five-and-twenty shillings for writing like that! And can’t spell commission! Don’t know anything about the business. Five-and-twenty!–Tell you what I’ll do: I’ll give you twelve.”

“But I can’t live on twelve,” I explained.

“Can’t live on twelve! Do you know why? Because you don’t know how to live. I know you all. One veal and ham pie, one roley-poley, one Dutch cheese and a pint of bitter.”

His recital made my mouth water.

“You overload your stomachs, then you can’t work. Half the diseases you young fellows suffer from are brought about by overeating.”

“Now, you take my advice,” continued Mr. Lott; “try vegetarianism. In the morning, a little oatmeal. Wonderfully strengthening stuff, oatmeal: look at the Scotch. For dinner, beans. Why, do you know there’s more nourishment in half a pint of lentil beans than in a pound of beefsteak–more gluten. That’s what you want, more gluten; no corpses, no dead bodies. Why, I’ve known young fellows, vegetarians, who have lived like fighting cocks on sevenpence a day. Seven times seven are forty-nine. How much do you pay for your room?”

I told him.

“Four-and-a-penny and two-and-six makes six-and-seven. That leaves you five and fivepence for mere foolery. Good God! what more do you want?”

“I’ll take eighteen, sir,” I answered. “I can’t really manage on less.”

“Very well, I won’t beat you down,” he answered. “Fifteen shillings a week.”

“I said eighteen,” I persisted.

“Well, and I said fifteen,” he retorted, somewhat indignant at the quibbling. “That’s splitting the difference, isn’t it? I can’t be fairer than that.”

I dared not throw away the one opportunity that had occurred. Anything was better than return to the Reading Rooms, and the empty days full of despair. I accepted, and it was agreed that I should come the following Monday morning.

“Nabbed?” was Minikin’s enquiry on my return to the back office for my hat.

I nodded.

“What’s he wasting on you?”

“Fifteen shillings a week,” I whispered.

“Felt sure somehow that he’d take a liking to you,” answered Minikin. “Don’t be ungrateful and look thin on it.”

Outside the door I heard Mr. Lott’s shrill voice demanding to know where postage stamps were to be found.

“At the Post-office,” was Minikin’s reply.

The hours were long–in fact, we had no office hours; we got away when we could, which was rarely before seven or eight–but my work was interesting. It consisted of buying for unfortunate clients in India or the Colonies anything they might happen to want, from a stage coach to a pot of marmalade; packing it and shipping it across to them. Our “commission” was anything they could be persuaded to pay over and above the value of the article. I was not much interfered with. There was that to be said for Lott & Co., so long as the work was done he was quite content to leave one to one’s own way of doing it. And hastening through the busy streets, bargaining in shop or warehouse, bustling important in and out the swarming docks, I often thanked my stars that I was not as some poor two-pound-a-week clerk chained to a dreary desk.

The fifteen shillings a week was a tight fit; but that was not my trouble. Reduce your denominator–you know the quotation. I found it no philosophical cant, but a practical solution of life. My food cost me on the average a shilling a day. If more of us limited our commissariat bill to the same figure, there would be less dyspepsia abroad. Generally I cooked my own meals in my own frying-pan; but occasionally I would indulge myself with a more orthodox dinner at a cook shop, or tea with hot buttered toast at a coffee-shop; and but for the greasy table-cloth and the dirty-handed waiter, such would have been even greater delights. The shilling a week for amusements afforded me at least one, occasionally two, visits to the theatre, for in those days there were Paradises where for sixpence one could be a god. Fourpence a week on tobacco gave me half-a-dozen cigarettes a day; I have spent more on smoke and derived less satisfaction. Dress was my greatest difficulty. One anxiety in life the poor man is saved: he knows not the haunting sense of debt. My tailor never dunned me. His principle was half-a-crown down on receipt of order, the balance on the handing over of the goods. No system is perfect; the method avoided friction, it is true; yet on the other hand it was annoying to be compelled to promenade, come Sundays, in shiny elbows and frayed trousers, knowing all the while that finished, waiting, was a suit in which one might have made one’s mark–had only one shut one’s eyes passing that pastry-cook’s window on pay-day. Surely there should be a sumptuary law compelling pastry-cooks to deal in cellars or behind drawn blinds.

Were it because of its mere material hardships that to this day I think of that period of my life with a shudder, I should not here confess to it. I was alone. I knew not a living soul to whom I dared to speak, who cared to speak to me. For those first twelve months after my mother’s death I lived alone, thought alone, felt alone. In the morning, during the busy day, it was possible to bear; but in the evenings the sense of desolation gripped me like a physical pain. The summer evenings came again, bringing with them the long, lingering light so laden with melancholy. I would walk into the Parks and, sitting there, watch with hungry eyes the men and women, boys and girls, moving all around me, talking, laughing, interested in one another; feeling myself some speechless ghost, seeing but not seen, crying to the living with a voice they heard not. Sometimes a solitary figure would pass by and glance back at me; some lonely creature like myself longing for human sympathy. In the teeming city must have been thousands such–young men and women to whom a friendly ear, a kindly voice, would have been as the water of life. Each imprisoned in his solitary cell of shyness, we looked at one another through the grating with condoling eyes; further than that was forbidden to us. Once, in Kensington Gardens, a woman turned, then slowly retracing her steps, sat down beside me on the bench. Neither of us spoke; had I done so she would have risen and moved away; yet there was understanding between us. To each of us it was some comfort to sit thus for a little while beside the other. Had she poured out her heart to me, she could have told me nothing more than I knew: “I, too, am lonely, friendless; I, too, long for the sound of a voice, the touch of a hand. It is hard for you, it is harder still for me, a girl; shut out from the bright world that laughs around me; denied the right of youth to joy and pleasure; denied the right of womanhood to love and tenderness.”

The footsteps to and fro grew fewer. She moved to rise. Stirred by an impulse, I stretched out my hand, then seeing the flush upon her face, drew it back hastily. But the next moment, changing her mind, she held hers out to me, and I took it. It was the first clasp of a hand I had felt since six months before I had said good-bye to Hal. She turned and walked quickly away. I stood watching her; she never looked round, and I never saw her again.

I take no credit to myself for keeping straight, as it is termed, during these days. For good or evil, my shyness prevented my taking part in the flirtations of the streets. Whether inviting eyes were ever thrown to me as to others, I cannot say. Sometimes, fancying so–hoping so, I would follow. Yet never could I summon up sufficient resolution to face the possible rebuff before some less timid swain would swoop down upon the quarry. Then I would hurry on, cursing myself for the poorness of my spirit, fancying mocking contempt in the laughter that followed me.

On a Sunday I would rise early and take long solitary walks into the country. One winter’s day–I remember it was on the road between Edgware and Stanmore–there issued from a by-road a little ahead of me a party of boys and girls, young people about my own age, bound evidently on a skating expedition. I could hear the musical ring of their blades, clattering as they walked, and the sound of their merry laughter so clear and bell-like through the frosty air. And an aching anguish fell upon me. I felt a mad desire to run after them, to plead with them to let me walk with them a little way, to let me laugh and talk with them. Every now and then they would pirouette to cry some jest to one another. I could see their faces: the girls’ so sweetly alluring, framed by their dainty hats and furs, the bright colour in their cheeks, the light in their teasing eyes. A little further on they turned aside into a by-lane, and I stood at the corner listening till the last echo of their joyous voices died away, and on a stone that still remains standing there I sat down and sobbed.

I would walk about the streets always till very late. I dreaded the echoing clang of the little front door when I closed it behind me, the climbing of the silent stairs, the solitude that waited for me in my empty room. It would rise and come towards me like some living thing, kissing me with cold lips. Often, unable to bear the closeness of its presence, I would creep out into the streets. There, even though it followed me, I was not alone with it. Sometimes I would pace them the whole night, sharing them with the other outcasts while the city slept.

Occasionally, during these nightly wanderings would come to me moments of exaltation when fear fell from me and my blood would leap with joy at prospect of the fierce struggle opening out before me. Then it was the ghostly city sighing round me that seemed dead, I the only living thing real among a world of shadows. In long, echoing streets I would laugh and shout. Misunderstanding policemen would turn their bull’s-eyes on me, gruffly give me practical advice: they knew not who I was! I stood the centre of a vast galanty-show: the phantom houses came and went; from some there shone bright lights; the doors were open, and little figures flitted in and out, the tiny coaches glided to and fro, manikins grotesque but pitiful crept across the star-lit curtain.

Then the mood would change. The city, grim and vast, stretched round me endless. I crawled, a mere atom, within its folds, helpless, insignificant, absurd. The houseless forms that shared my vigil were my fellows. What were we? Animalcule upon its bosom, that it saw not, heeded not. For company I would mingle with them: ragged men, frowsy women, ageless youths, gathered round the red glow of some coffee stall.

Rarely would we speak to one another. More like animals we browsed there, sipping the halfpenny cup of hot water coloured with coffee grounds (at least it was warm), munching the moist slab of coarse cake; looking with dull, indifferent eyes each upon the wretchedness of the others. Perhaps some two would whisper to each other in listless, monotonous tone, broken here and there by a short, mirthless laugh; some shivering creature, not yet case-hardened to despair, seek, perhaps, the relief of curses that none heeded. Later, a faint chill breeze would shake the shadows loose, a thin, wan light streak the dark air with shade, and silently, stealthily, we would fade away and disappear.

CHAPTER II.

PAUL, ESCAPING FROM HIS SOLITUDE, FALLS INTO STRANGE COMPANY. AND BECOMES CAPTIVE TO ONE OF HAUGHTY MIEN.

All things pass, even the self-inflicted sufferings of shy young men, condemned by temperament to solitude. Came the winter evenings, I took to work: in it one may drown much sorrow for oneself. With its handful of fire, its two candles lighted, my “apartment” was more inviting. I bought myself paper, pens and ink. Great or small, what more can a writer do? He is but the would-be medium: will the spirit voices employ him or reject him?

London, with its million characters, grave and gay; its ten thousand romances, its mysteries, its pathos, and its humour, lay to my hand. It stretched before me, asking only intelligent observation, more or less truthful report. But that I could make a story out of the things I really knew never occurred to me. My tales were of cottage maidens, of bucolic yeomen. My scenes were laid in windmills, among mountains, or in moated granges. I fancy this phase of folly is common to most youthful fictionists.

A trail of gentle melancholy lay over them. Sentiment was more popular then than it is now, and, as do all beginners, I scrupulously followed fashion. Generally speaking, to be a heroine of mine was fatal. However naturally her hair might curl–and curly hair, I believe, is the hall-mark of vitality; whatever other indications of vigorous health she might exhibit in the first chapter, such as “dancing eyes,” “colour that came and went,” “ringing laughter,” “fawn-like agility,” she was tolerably certain, poor girl, to end in an untimely grave. Snowdrops and early primroses (my botany I worked up from a useful little volume, “Our Garden Favourites, Illustrated”) grew there as in a forcing house; and if in the neighbourhood of the coast, the sea-breezes would choose that particular churchyard, somewhat irreverently, for their favourite playground. Years later a white-haired man would come there leading little children by the hand, and to them he would tell the tale anew, which must have been a dismal entertainment for them.

Now and then, by way of change, it would be the gentleman who would fall a victim of the deadly atmosphere of my literature. It was of no particular consequence, so he himself would conclude in his last soliloquy; “it was better so.” Snowdrops and primroses, for whatever consolation they might have been to him, it was hopeless for him to expect; his grave, marked by a rude cross, being as a rule situate in an exceptionally unfrequented portion of the African veldt or amid burning sands. For description of final scenery on these occasions a visit to the British Museum reading-room would be necessary.

Dismal little fledgelings! And again and again would I drive them from the nest; again and again they fluttered back to me, soiled, crumpled, physically damaged. Yet one person had admired them, cried over them–myself.

All methods I tried. Sometimes I would send them forth accompanied by a curt business note of the take-it-or-leave-it order. At other times I would attach to it pathetic appeals for its consideration. Sometimes I would give value to it, stating that the price was five guineas and requesting that the cheque should be crossed; at other times seek to tickle editorial cupidity by offering this, my first contribution to their pages, for nothing–my sample packet, so to speak, sent gratis, one trial surely sufficient. Now I would write sarcastically, enclosing together with the stamped envelope for return a brutally penned note of rejection. Or I would write frankly, explaining elaborately that I was a beginner, and asking to be told my faults–if any.

Not one found a resting place for its feet. A month, a week, a couple of days, they would remain away from me, then return. I never lost a single one. I wished I had. It would have varied the monotony.

I hated the poor little slavey who, bursting joyously into the room, would hold them out to me from between her apron-hidden thumb and finger; her chronic sniff I translated into contempt. If flying down the stairs at the sound of the postman’s knock I secured it from his hands, it seemed to me he smiled. Tearing them from their envelopes, I would curse them, abuse them, fling them into the fire sometimes; but before they were more than scorched I would snatch them out, smooth them, reread them. The editor himself could never have seen them; it was impossible; some jealous underling had done this thing. I had sent them to the wrong paper. They had arrived at the inopportune moment. Their triumph would come. Rewriting the first and last sheets, I would send them forth again with fresh hope.

Meanwhile, understanding that the would-be happy warrior must shine in camp as well as field, I sought to fit myself also for the social side of life. Smoking and drinking were the twin sins I found most difficulty in acquiring. I am not claiming a mental excellence so much as confessing a bodily infirmity. The spirit had always been willing, but my flesh was weak. Fired by emulation, I had at school occasionally essayed a cigarette. The result had been distinctly unsatisfactory, and after some two or three attempts, I had abandoned, for the time being, all further endeavour; excusing my faint-heartedness by telling myself with sanctimonious air that smoking was bad for growing boys; attempting to delude myself by assuming, in presence of contemporaries of stronger stomach, fine pose of disapproval; yet in my heart knowing myself a young hypocrite, disguising physical cowardice in the robes of moral courage: a self-deception to which human nature is prone.

So likewise now and again I had tasted the wine that was red, and that stood year in, year out, decanted on our sideboard. The true inwardness of St. Paul’s prescription had been revealed to me; the attitude–sometimes sneered at–of those who drink it under doctor’s orders, regarding it purely as a medicine, appeared to me reasonable. I had noticed also that others, some of them grown men even, making wry faces, when drinking my mother’s claret, and had concluded therefrom that taste for strong liquor was an accomplishment less easily acquired than is generally supposed. The lack of it in a young man could be no disgrace, and accordingly effort in that direction also had I weakly postponed.

But now, a gentleman at large, my education could no longer be delayed. To the artist in particular was training–and severe training–an absolute necessity. Recently fashion has changed somewhat, but a quarter of a century ago a genius who did not smoke and drink–and that more than was good for him–would have been dismissed without further evidence as an impostor. About the genius I was hopeful, but at no time positively certain. As regarded the smoking and drinking, so much at least I could make sure of. I set to work methodically, conscientiously. Smoking, experience taught me, was better practised on Saturday nights, Sunday affording me the opportunity of walking off the effects. Patience and determination were eventually crowned with success: I learned to smoke a cigarette to all appearance as though I were enjoying it. Young men of less character might here have rested content, but attainment of the highest has always been with me a motive force. The cigarette conquered, I next proceeded to attack the cigar. My first one I remember well: most men do. It was at a smoking concert held in the Islington Drill Hall, to which Minikin had invited me. Not feeling sure whether my growing dizziness were due solely to the cigar, or in part to the hot, over-crowded room, I made my excuses and slipped out. I found myself in a small courtyard, divided from a neighbouring garden by a low wall. The cause of my trouble was clearly the cigar. My inclination was to take it from my mouth and see how far I could throw it. Conscience, on the other hand, urged me to persevere. It occurred to me that if climbing on to the wall I could walk along it from end to end, there would be no excuse for my not heeding the counsels of perfection. If, on the contrary, try as I might, the wall proved not wide enough for my footsteps, then I should be entitled to lose the beastly thing, and, as best I could, make my way home to bed. I attained the wall with some difficulty and commenced my self-inflicted ordeal. Two yards further I found myself lying across the wall, my legs hanging down one side, my head overhanging the other. The position proving suitable to my requirements, I maintained it. Inclination, again seizing its opportunity, urged me then and there to take a solemn vow never to smoke again. I am proud to write that through that hour of temptation I remained firm; strengthening myself by whispering to myself: “Never despair. What others can do, so can you. Is not all victory won through suffering?”

A liking for drink I had found, if possible, even yet more difficult of achievement. Spirits I almost despaired of. Once, confusing bottles, I drank some hair oil in mistake for whiskey, and found it decidedly less nauseous. But twice a week I would force myself to swallow a glass of beer, standing over myself insisting on my draining it to the bitter dregs. As reward afterwards, to take the taste out of my mouth, I would treat myself to chocolates; at the same time comforting myself by assuring myself that it was for my good, that there would come a day when I should really like it, and be grateful to myself for having been severe with myself.

In other and more sensible directions I sought also to progress. Gradually I was overcoming my shyness. It was a slow process. I found the best plan was not to mind being shy, to accept it as part of my temperament, and with others laugh at it. The coldness of an indifferent world is of service in hardening a too sensitive skin. The gradual rubbings of existence were rounding off my many corners. I became possible to my fellow creatures, and they to me. I began to take pleasure in their company.

By directing me to this particular house in Nelson Square, Fate had done to me a kindness. I flatter myself we were an interesting menagerie gathered together under its leaky roof. Mrs. Peedles, our landlady, who slept in the basement with the slavey, had been an actress in Charles Keane’s company at the old Princess’s. There, it is true, she had played only insignificant parts. London, as she would explain to us was even then but a poor judge of art, with prejudices. Besides an actor-manager, hampered by a wife–we understood. But previously in the Provinces there had been a career of glory: Juliet, Amy Robsart, Mrs. Haller in “The Stranger”–almost the entire roll of the “Legitimates”. Showed we any signs of disbelief, proof was forthcoming: handbills a yard long, rich in