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  • 1902
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that it is funny?”

Faintly, dimly, this aspect of the case, for the very first time, began to present itself to me; but I should have preferred Norah to have been impressed by its tragedy.

“That is not all,” I said. “I nearly ran away with another man’s wife.”

I was glad to notice that sobered her somewhat. “Nearly? Why not quite?” she asked more seriously.

“She thought I was some young idiot with money,” I replied bitterly, pleased with the effect I had produced. “Vane had told her a pack of lies. When she found out I was only a poor devil, ruined, disgraced, without a sixpence–—” I made a gesture expressive of eloquent contempt for female nature generally.

“I am sorry,” said Norah; “I told you you would fall in love with something real.”

Her words irritated me, unreasonably, I confess. “In love!” I replied; “good God, I was never in love with her!”

“Then why did you nearly run away with her?”

I was wishing now I had not mentioned the matter; it promised to be difficult of explanation. “I don’t know,” I replied irritably. “I thought she was in love with me. She was very beautiful–at least, other people seemed to think she was. Artists are not like ordinary men. You must live–understand life, before you can teach it to others. When a beautiful woman is in love with you–or pretends to be, you–you must say something. You can’t stand like a fool and–“

Again her laughter interrupted me; this time she made no attempt to hide it. The sparrows chirped angrily, and flew off to continue their conversation somewhere where there would be less noise.

“You are the biggest baby, Paul,” she said, so soon as she could speak, “I ever heard of.” She seized me by the shoulders, and turned me round. “If you weren’t looking so ill and miserable, I would shake you, Paul, till there wasn’t a bit of breath left in your body.”

“How much money do you owe?” she asked–“to the people in the company and anybody else, I mean–roughly?”

“About a hundred and fifty pounds,” I answered.

“Then if you rest day or night, Paul, till you have paid that hundred and fifty–every penny of it–I’ll think you the meanest cad in London!”

Her grey eyes were flashing quite alarmingly. I felt almost afraid of her. She could be so vehement at times.

“But how can I?” I asked.

“Go straight home,” she commanded, “and write something funny: an article, story–anything you like; only mind that it is funny. Post it to me to-morrow, at the latest. Dan is in London, editing a new weekly. I’ll have it copied out and sent to him. I shan’t say who it is from. I shall merely ask him to read it and reply, at once. If you’ve a grain of grit left in you, you’ll write something that he will be glad to have and to pay for. Pawn that ring on your finger and get yourself a good breakfast”–it was my mother’s wedding-ring, the only piece of dispensable property I had not parted with–“_she_ won’t mind helping you. But nobody else is going to–except yourself.”

She looked at her watch. “I must be off.” She turned again. “There is something I was forgetting. B–“–she mentioned the name of the dramatist whose play Vane had stolen–“has been looking for you for the last three months. If you hadn’t been an idiot you might have saved yourself a good deal of trouble. He is quite certain it was Vane stole the manuscript. He asked the nurse to bring it to him an hour after Vane had left the house, and it couldn’t be found. Besides, the man’s character is well known. And so is yours. I won’t tell it you,” she laughed; “anyhow, it isn’t that of a knave.”

She made a step towards me, then changed her mind. “No,” she said, “I shan’t shake hands with you till you have paid the last penny that you owe. Then I shall know that you are a man.”

She did not look back. I watched her, till the sunlight, streaming in my eyes, raised a golden mist between us.

Then I went to my work.

CHAPTER IX.

THE PRINCESS OF THE GOLDEN LOCKS SENDS PAUL A RING.

It took me three years to win that handshake. For the first six months I remained in Deptford. There was excellent material to be found there for humorous articles, essays, stories; likewise for stories tragic and pathetic. But I owed a hundred and fifty pounds–a little over two hundred it reached to, I found, when I came to add up the actual figures. So I paid strict attention to business, left the tears to be garnered by others–better fitted maybe for the task; kept to my own patch, reaped and took to market only the laughter.

At the beginning I sent each manuscript to Norah; she had it copied out, debited me with the cost received payment, and sent me the balance. At first my earnings were small; but Norah was an excellent agent; rapidly they increased. Dan grew quite cross with her, wrote in pained surprise at her greed. The “matter” was fair, but in no way remarkable. Any friend of hers, of course, he was anxious to assist; but business was business. In justice to his proprietors, he could not and would not pay more than the market value. Miss Deleglise, replying curtly in the third person, found herself in perfect accord with Mr. Brian as to business being business. If Mr. Brian could not afford to pay her price for material so excellent, other editors with whom Miss Deleglise was equally well acquainted could and would. Answer by return would greatly oblige, pending which the manuscript then in her hands she retained. Mr. Brian, understanding he had found his match, grumbled but paid. Whether he had any suspicion who “Jack Homer” might be, he never confessed; but he would have played the game, pulled his end of the rope, in either case. Nor was he allowed to decide the question for himself. Competition was introduced into the argument. Of purpose a certain proportion of my work my agent sent elsewhere. “Jack Homer” grew to be a commodity in demand. For, seated at my rickety table, I laughed as I wrote, the fourth wall of the dismal room fading before my eyes revealing vistas beyond.

Still, it was slow work. Humour is not an industrious maid; declines to be bustled, will work only when she feels inclined–does not often feel inclined; gives herself a good many unnecessary airs; if worried, packs up and goes off, Heaven knows where! comes back when she thinks she will: a somewhat unreliable young person. To my literary labours I found it necessary to add journalism. I lacked Dan’s magnificent assurance. Fate never befriends the nervous. Had I burst into the editorial sanctum, the editor most surely would have been out if in, would have been a man of short ways, would have seen to it that I went out quickly. But the idea was not to be thought of; Robert Macaire himself in my one coat would have been diffident, apologetic. I joined the ranks of the penny-a-liners–to be literally exact, three halfpence a liners. In company with half a dozen other shabby outsiders–some of them young men like myself seeking to climb; others, older men who had sunk–I attended inquests, police courts; flew after fire engines; rejoiced in street accidents; yearned for murders. Somewhat vulture-like we lived precariously upon the misfortunes of others. We made occasional half crowns by providing the public with scandal, occasional crowns by keeping our information to ourselves.

“I think, gentlemen,” would explain our spokesman in a hoarse whisper, on returning to the table, “I think the corpse’s brother-in-law is anxious that the affair, if possible, should be kept out of the papers.”

The closeness and attention with which we would follow that particular case, the fulness and completeness of our notes, would be quite remarkable. Our spokesman would rise, drift carelessly away, to return five minutes later, wiping his mouth.

“Not a very interesting case, gentlemen, I don’t think. Shall we say five shillings apiece?” Sometimes a sense of the dignity of our calling would induce us to stand out for ten.

And here also my sense of humour came to my aid; gave me perhaps an undue advantage over my competitors. Twelve good men and true had been asked to say how a Lascar sailor had met his death. It was perfectly clear how he had met his death. A plumber, working on the roof of a small two-storeyed house, had slipped and fallen on him. The plumber had escaped with a few bruises; the unfortunate sailor had been picked up dead. Some blame attached to the plumber. His mate, an excellent witness, told us the whole story.

“I was fixing a gas-pipe on the first floor,” said the man. “The prisoner was on the roof.”

“We won’t call him ‘the prisoner,'” interrupted the coroner, “at least, not yet. Refer to him, if you please, as the ‘last witness.'”

“The last witness,” corrected himself the man. “He shouts down the chimney to know if I was ready for him.”

“‘Ready and waiting,’ I says.

“‘Right,’ he says; ‘I’m coming in through the window.’

“‘Wait a bit,’ I says; ‘I’ll go down and move the ladder for you.

“‘It’s all right,’ he says; ‘I can reach it.’

“‘No, you can’t,’ I says. ‘It’s the other side of the chimney.’

“‘I can get round,’ he says.

“Well, before I knew what had happened, I hears him go, smack! I rushes to the window and looks out: I see him on the pavement, sitting up like.

“‘Hullo, Jim,’ I says. ‘Have you hurt yourself?’

“‘I think I’m all right,’ he says, ‘as far as I can tell. But I wish you’d come down. This bloke I’ve fallen on looks a bit sick.'”

The others headed their flimsy “Sad Accident,” a title truthful but not alluring. I altered mine to “Plumber in a Hurry–Fatal Result.” Saying as little as possible about the unfortunate sailor, I called the attention of plumbers generally to the coroner’s very just remarks upon the folly of undue haste; pointed out to them, as a body, the trouble that would arise if somehow they could not cure themselves of this tendency to rush through their work without a moment’s loss of time.

It established for me a useful reputation. The sub-editor of one evening paper condescended so far as to come out in his shirt-sleeves and shake hands with me.

“That’s the sort of thing we want,” he told me; “a light touch, a bit of humour.”

I snatched fun from fires (I sincerely trust the insurance premiums were not overdue); culled quaintness from street rows; extracted merriment from catastrophes the most painful, and prospered.

Though often within a stone’s throw of the street, I unremittingly avoided the old house at Poplar. I was suffering inconvenience at this period by reason of finding myself two distinct individuals, contending with each other. My object was to encourage the new Paul–the sensible, practical, pushful Paul, whose career began to look promising; to drive away from interfering with me his strangely unlike twin–the old childish Paul of the sad, far-seeing eyes. Sometimes out of the cracked looking-glass his wistful, yearning face would plead to me; but I would sternly shake my head. I knew well his cunning. Had I let him have his way, he would have led me through the maze of streets he knew so well, past the broken railings (outside which be would have left my body standing), along the weedy pathway, through the cracked and dented door, up the creaking staircase to the dismal little chamber where we once–he and I together–had sat dreaming foolish dreams.

“Come,” he would whisper; “it is so near. Let us push aside the chest of drawers very quietly, softly raise the broken sash, prop it open with the Latin dictionary, lean our elbows on the sill, listen to the voices of the weary city, voices calling to us from the darkness.”

But I was too wary to be caught. “Later on,” I would reply to him; “when I have made my way, when I am stronger to withstand your wheedling. Then I will go with you, if you are still in existence, my sentimental little friend. We will dream again the old impractical, foolish dreams–and laugh at them.”

So he would fade away, and in his place would nod to me approvingly a businesslike-looking, wide-awake young fellow.

But to one sentimental temptation I succumbed. My position was by now assured; there was no longer any reason for my hiding myself. I determined to move westward. I had not intended to soar so high, but passing through Guildford Street one day, the creeper-covered corner house that my father had once thought of taking recalled itself to me. A card was in the fanlight. I knocked and made enquiries. A bed-sitting-room upon the third floor was vacant. I remembered it well the moment the loquacious landlady opened its door.

“This shall be your room, Paul,” said my father. So clearly his voice sounded behind me that I turned, forgetting for the moment it was but a memory. “You will be quiet here, and we can shut out the bed and washstand with a screen.”

So my father had his way. It was a pleasant, sunny little room, overlooking the gardens of the hospital. I followed my father’s suggestion, shut out the bed and washstand with a screen. And sometimes of an evening it would amuse me to hear my father turn the handle of the door.

“How are you getting on–all right?”

“Famously.”

Often there came back to me the words he had once used. “You must be the practical man, Paul, and get on. Myself, I have always been somewhat of a dreamer. I meant to do such great things in the world, and somehow I suppose I aimed too high. I wasn’t–practical.”

“But ought not one to aim high?” I had asked.

My father had fidgeted in his chair. “It is very difficult to say. It is all so–so very ununderstandable. You aim high and you don’t hit anything–at least, it seems as if you didn’t. Perhaps, after all, it is better to aim at something low, and–and hit it. Yet it seems a pity–one’s ideals, all the best part of one–I don’t know why it is. Perhaps we do not understand.”

For some months I had been writing over my own name. One day a letter was forwarded to me by an editor to whose care it had been addressed. It was a short, formal note from the maternal Sellars, inviting me to the wedding of her daughter with a Mr. Reginald Clapper. I had almost forgotten the incident of the Lady ‘Ortensia, but it was not unsatisfactory to learn that it had terminated pleasantly. Also, I judged from an invitation having been sent me, that the lady wished me to be witness of the fact that my desertion had not left her disconsolate. So much gratification I felt I owed her, and accordingly, purchasing a present as expensive as my means would permit, I made my way on the following Thursday, clad in frock coat and light grey trousers, to Kennington Church.

The ceremony was already in progress. Creeping on tiptoe up the aisle, I was about to slip into an empty pew, when a hand was laid upon my sleeve.

“We’re all here,” whispered the O’Kelly; “just room for ye.”

Squeezing his hand as I passed, I sat down between the Signora and Mrs. Peedles. Both ladies were weeping; the Signora silently, one tear at a time clinging fondly to her pretty face as though loath to fall from it; Mrs. Peedles copiously, with explosive gurgles, as of water from a bottle.

“It is such a beautiful service,” murmured the Signora, pressing my hand as I settled myself down. “I should so–so love to be married.”

“Me darling,” whispered the O’Kelly, seizing her other hand and kissing it covertly behind his open Prayer Book, “perhaps ye will be–one day.”

The Signora through her tears smiled at him, but with a sigh shook her head.

Mrs. Peedles, clad, so far as the dim November light enabled me to judge, in the costume of Queen Elizabeth–nothing regal; the sort of thing one might assume to have been Her Majesty’s second best, say third best, frock–explained that weddings always reminded her how fleeting a thing was love.

“The poor dears!” she sobbed. “But there, there’s no telling. Perhaps they’ll be happy. I’m sure I hope they may be. He looks harmless.”

Jarman, stretching out a hand to me from the other side of Mrs. Peedles, urged me to cheer up. “Don’t wear your ‘eart upon your sleeve,” he advised. “Try and smile.”

In the vestry I met old friends. The maternal Sellars, stouter than ever, had been accommodated with a chair–at least, I assumed so, she being in a sitting posture; the chair itself was not in evidence. She greeted me with more graciousness than I had expected, enquiring after my health with pointedness and an amount of tender solicitude that, until the explanation broke upon me, somewhat puzzled me.

Mr. Reginald Clapper was a small but energetic gentleman, much impressed, I was glad to notice, with a conviction of his own good fortune. He expressed the greatest delight at being introduced to me, shook me heartily by the hand, and hoped we should always be friends.

“Won’t be my fault if we’re not,” he added. “Come and see us whenever you like.” He repeated this three times. I gathered the general sentiment to be that he was acting, if anything, with excess of generosity.

Mrs. Reginald Clapper, as I was relieved to know she now was, received my salute to a subdued murmur of applause. She looked to my eyes handsomer than when I had last seen her, or maybe my taste was growing less exacting. She also trusted she might always regard me as a friend. I replied that it would be my hope to deserve the honour; whereupon she kissed me of her own accord, and embracing her mother, shed some tears, explaining the reason to be that everybody was so good to her.

Brother George, less lank than formerly, hampered by a pair of enormous white kid gloves, superintended my signing of the register, whispering to me sympathetically: “Better luck next time, old cock.”

The fat young lady–or, maybe, the lean young lady, grown stouter, I cannot say for certain–who feared I had forgotten her, a thing I assured her utterly impossible, was good enough to say that, in her opinion, I was worth all the others put together.

“And so I told her,” added the fat young lady–or the lean one grown stouter, “a dozen times if I told her once. But there!”

I murmured my obligations.

Cousin Joseph, ‘whom I found no difficulty in recognising by reason of his watery eyes, appeared not so chirpy as of yore.

“You take my tip,” advised Cousin Joseph, drawing me aside, “and keep out of it.”

“You speak from experience?” I suggested.

“I’m as fond of a joke,” said the watery-eyed Joseph, “as any man. But when it comes to buckets of water–“

A reminder from the maternal Sellars that breakfast had been ordered for eleven o’clock caused a general movement and arrested Joseph’s revelations.

“See you again, perhaps,” he murmured, and pushed past me.

What Mrs. Sellars, I suppose, would have alluded to as a cold col-la-shon had been arranged for at a restaurant near by. I walked there in company with Uncle and Aunt Gutton; not because I particularly desired their companionship, but because Uncle Gutton, seizing me by the arm, left me no alternative.

“Now then, young man,” commenced Uncle Gutton kindly, but boisterously so soon as we were in the street, at some little distance behind the others, “if you want to pitch into me, you pitch away. I shan’t mind, and maybe it’ll do you good.”

I informed him that nothing was further from my desire.

“Oh, all right,” returned Uncle Gutton, seemingly disappointed. “If you’re willing to forgive and forget, so am I. I never liked you, as I daresay you saw, and so I told Rosie. ‘He may be cleverer than he looks,’ I says, ‘or be may be a bigger fool than I think him, though that’s hardly likely. You take my advice and get a full-grown article, then you’ll know what you’re doing.’

I told him I thought his advice had been admirable.

“I’m glad you think so,” he returned, somewhat puzzled; “though if you wanted to call me names I shouldn’t have blamed you. Anyhow, you’ve took it like a sensible chap. You’ve got over it, as I always told her you would. Young men out of story-books don’t die of broken hearts, even if for a month or two they do feel like standing on their head in the water-butt.”

“Why, I was in love myself three times,” explained Uncle Gutton, “before I married the old woman.”

Aunt Gutton sighed and said she was afraid gentlemen didn’t feel these things as much as they ought to.

“They’ve got their living to earn,” retorted Uncle Gutton.

I agreed with Uncle Gutton that life could not be wasted in vain regret.

“As for the rest,” admitted Uncle Gutton, handsomely, “I was wrong. You’ve turned out better than I expected you would.”

I thanked him for his improved opinion, and as we entered the restaurant we shook hands.

Minikin we found there waiting for us. He explained that having been able to obtain only limited leave of absence from business, he had concluded the time would be better employed at the restaurant than at the church. Others were there also with whom I was unacquainted, young sparks, admirers, I presume, of the Lady ‘Ortensia in her professional capacity, fellow-clerks of Mr. Clapper, who was something in the City. Altogether we must have numbered a score.

Breakfast was laid in a large room on the first floor. The wedding presents stood displayed upon a side-table. My own, with my card attached, had not been seen by Mrs. Clapper till that moment. She and her mother lingered, examining it.

“Real silver!” I heard the maternal Sellars whisper, “Must have paid a ten pound note for it.”

“I hope you’ll find it useful,” I said.

The maternal Sellars, drifting away, joined the others gathered together at the opposite end of the room.

“I suppose you think I set my cap at you merely because you were a gentleman,” said the Lady ‘Ortensia.

“Don’t let’s talk about it,” I answered. “We were both foolish.”

“I don’t want you to think it was merely that,” continued the Lady ‘Ortensia. “I did like you. And I wouldn’t have disgraced you–at least, I’d have tried not to. We women are quick to learn. You never gave me time.”

“Believe me, things are much better as they are,” I said.

“I suppose so,” she answered. “I was a fool.” She glanced round; we still had the corner to ourselves. “I told a rare pack of lies,” she said; “I didn’t seem able to help it; I was feeling sore all over. But I have always been ashamed of myself. I’ll tell them the truth, if you like.”

I thought I saw a way of making her mind easy. “My dear girl,” I said, “you have taken the blame upon yourself, and let me go scot-free. It was generous of you.”

“You mean that?” she asked.

“The truth,” I answered, “would shift all the shame on to me. It was I who broke my word, acted shabbily from beginning to end.”

“I hadn’t looked at it in that light,” she replied. “Very well, I’ll hold my tongue.”

My place at breakfast was to the left of the maternal Sellars, the Signora next to me, and the O’Kelly opposite. Uncle Gutton faced the bride and bridegroom. The disillusioned Joseph was hidden from me by flowers, so that his voice, raised from time to time, fell upon my ears, embellished with the mysterious significance of the unseen oracle.

For the first quarter of an hour or so the meal proceeded almost in silence. The maternal Sellars when not engaged in whispered argument with the perspiring waiter, was furtively occupied in working sums upon the table-cloth by aid of a blunt pencil. The Signora, strangely unlike her usual self, was not in talkative mood.

“It was so kind of them to invite me,” said the Signora, speaking low. “But I feel I ought not to have come.

“Why not?” I asked

“I’m not fit to be here,” murmured the Signora in a broken voice. “What right have I at wedding breakfasts? Of course, for dear Willie it is different. He has been married.”

The O’Kelly, who never when the Signora was present seemed to care much for conversation in which she was unable to participate, took advantage of his neighbour’s being somewhat deaf to lapse into abstraction. Jarman essayed a few witticisms of a general character, of which nobody took any notice. The professional admirers of the Lady ‘Ortensia, seated together at a corner of the table, appeared to be enjoying a small joke among themselves. Occasionally, one or another of them would laugh nervously. But for the most part the only sounds to be heard were the clatter of the knives and forks, the energetic shuffling of the waiter, and a curious hissing noise as of escaping gas, caused by Uncle Gutton drinking champagne.

With the cutting, or, rather, the smashing into a hundred fragments, of the wedding cake–a work that taxed the united strength of bride and bridegroom to the utmost–the atmosphere lost something of its sombreness. The company, warmed by food, displaying indications of being nearly done, commenced to simmer. The maternal Sellars, putting away with her blunt pencil considerations of material nature, embraced the table with a smile.

“But it is a sad thing,” sighed the maternal Sellars the next moment, with a shake of her huge head, “when your daughter marries, and goes away and leaves you.”

“Damned sight sadder,” commented Uncle Gutton, “when she don’t go off, but hangs on at home year after year and expects you to keep her.”

I credit Uncle Gutton with intending this as an aside for the exclusive benefit of the maternal Sellars; but his voice was not of the timbre that lends itself to secrecy. One of the bridesmaids, a plain, elderly girl, bending over her plate, flushed scarlet. I concluded her to be Miss Gutton.

“It doesn’t seem to me,” said Aunt Gutton from the other end of the table, “that gentlemen are as keen on marrying nowadays as they used to be.”

“Got to know a bit about it, I expect,” sounded the small, shrill voice of the unseen Joseph.

“To my thinking,” exclaimed a hatchet-faced gentleman, “one of the evils crying most loudly for redress at the present moment is the utterly needless and monstrous expense of legal proceedings.” He spoke rapidly and with warmth. “Take divorce. At present, what is it? The rich man’s luxury.”

Conversation appeared to be drifting in a direction unsuitable to the occasion; but Jarman was fortunately there to seize the helm.

“The plain fact of the matter is,” said Jarman, “girls have gone up in value. Time was, so I’ve heard, when they used to be given away with a useful bit of household linen, maybe a chair or two. Nowadays–well, it’s only chaps wallowing in wealth like Clapper there as can afford a really first-class article.”

Mr. Clapper, not a gentleman in other respects of exceptional brilliancy, possessed one quality that popularity-seekers might have envied him: the ability to explode on the slightest provocation into a laugh instinct with all the characteristics of genuine delight.

“Give and take,” observed the maternal Sellars, so soon as Mr. Clapper’s roar had died away; “that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re married.”

“Give a deal more than you bargained for and take what you don’t want–that sums it up,” came the bitter voice of the unseen.

“Oh, do be quiet, Joe,” advised the stout young lady, from which I concluded she had once been the lean young lady. “You talk enough for a man.”

“Can’t I open my mouth?” demanded the indignant oracle.

“You look less foolish when you keep it shut,” returned the stout young lady.

“We’ll show them how to get on,” observed the Lady ‘Ortensia to her bridegroom, with a smile.

Mr. Clapper responded with a gurgle.

“When me and the old girl there fixed things up,” said Uncle Gutton, “we didn’t talk no nonsense, and we didn’t start with no misunderstandings. ‘I’m not a duke,’ I says–“

“Had she been mistaking you for one?” enquired Minikin.

Mr. Clapper commented, not tactfully, but with appreciative laugh. I feared for a moment lest Uncle Gutton’s little eyes should leave his head.

“Not being a natural-born, one-eyed fool,” replied Uncle Gutton, glaring at the unabashed Minikin, “she did not. ‘I’m not a duke,’ I says, and _she_ had sense enough to know as I was talking sarcastic like. ‘I’m not offering you a life of luxury and ease. I’m offering you myself, just what you see, and nothing more.’

“She took it?” asked Minikin, who was mopping up his gravy with his bread.

“She accepted me, sir,” returned Uncle Gutton, in a voice that would have awed any one but Minikin. “Can you give me any good reason for her not doing so?”

“No need to get mad with me,” explained Minikin. “I’m not blaming the poor woman. We all have our moments of despair.”

The unfortunate Clapper again exploded. Uncle Gutton rose to his feet. The ready Jarman saved the situation.

“‘Ear! ‘ear!” cried Jarman, banging the table with the handles of two knives. “Silence for Uncle Gutton! ‘E’s going to propose a toast. ‘Ear, ‘ear!”

Mrs. Clapper, seconding his efforts, the whole table broke into applause.

“What, as a matter of fact, I did get up to say–” began Uncle Gutton.

“Good old Uncle Gutton!” persisted the determined Jarman. “Bride and bridegroom–long life to ’em!”

Uncle Sutton, evidently pleased, allowed his indignation against Minikin to evaporate.

“Well,” said Uncle Gutton, “if you think I’m the one to do it–“

The response was unmistakable. In our enthusiasm we broke two glasses and upset a cruet; a small, thin lady was unfortunate enough to shed her chignon. Thus encouraged, Uncle Sutton launched himself upon his task. Personally, I should have been better pleased had Fate not interposed to assign to him the duty.

Starting with a somewhat uninstructive history of his own career, he suddenly, and for no reason at all obvious, branched off into fierce censure of the Adulteration Act. Reminded of the time by the maternal Sellars, he got in his first sensible remark by observing that with such questions, he took it, the present company was not particularly interested, and directed himself to the main argument. To his, Uncle Gutton’s, foresight, wisdom and instinctive understanding of humanity, Mr. Clapper, it appeared, owed his present happiness. Uncle Gutton it was who had divined from the outset the sort of husband the fair Rosina would come eventually to desire–a plain, simple, hard-working, level-headed sort of chap, with no hity-tity nonsense about him: such an one, in short, as Mr. Clapper himself–(at this Mr. Clapper expressed approval by a lengthy laugh)–a gentleman who, so far as Uncle Gutton’s knowledge went, had but one fault: a silly habit of laughing when there was nothing whatever to laugh at; of which, it was to be hoped, the cares and responsibilities of married life would cure him. (To the rest of the discourse Mr. Clapper listened with a gravity painfully maintained.) There had been moments, Uncle Gutton was compelled to admit, when the fair Rosina had shown inclination to make a fool of herself–to desire in place of honest worth mere painted baubles. He used the term in no offensive sense. Speaking for himself, what a man wanted beyond his weekly newspaper, he, Uncle Gutton, was unable to understand; but if there were fools in the world who wanted to read rubbish written by other fools, then the other fools would of course write it; Uncle Gutton did not blame them. He mentioned no names, but what he would say was: a plain man for a sensible girl, and no painted baubles.

The waiter here entering with a message from the cabman to the effect that if he was to catch the twelve-forty-five from Charing Cross, it was about full time he started, Uncle Gutton was compelled to bring his speech to a premature conclusion. The bride and bridegroom were hustled into their clothes. There followed much female embracing and male hand-shaking. The rice having been forgotten, the waiter was almost thrown downstairs, with directions to at once procure some. There appearing danger of his not returning in time, the resourceful Jarman suggested cold semolina pudding as a substitute. But the idea was discouraged by the bride. A slipper of remarkable antiquity, discovered on the floor and regarded as a gift from Providence, was flung from the window by brother George, with admirable aim, and alighted on the roof of the cab. The waiter, on his return, not being able to find it, seemed surprised.

I walked back as far as the Obelisk with the O’Kelly and the Signora, who were then living together in Lambeth. Till that morning I had not seen the O’Kelly since my departure from London, nearly two years before, so that we had much to tell each other. For the third time now had the O’Kelly proved his utter unworthiness to be the husband of the lady to whom he still referred as his “dear good wife.”

“But, under the circumstances, would it not be better,” I suggested, “for her to obtain a divorce? Then you and the Signora could marry and there would be an end to the whole trouble.”

“From a strictly worldly point of view,” replied the O’Kelly, “it certainly would be; but Mrs. O’Kelly”–his voice took to itself unconsciously a tone of reverence–is not an ordinary woman. You can have no conception, my dear Kelver, of her goodness. I had a letter from her only two months ago, a few weeks after the–the last occurrence. Not one word of reproach, only that if I trespassed against her even unto seven times seven she would still consider it her duty to forgive me; that the ‘home’ would always be there for me to return to and repent.”

A tear stood in the O’Kelly’s eye. “A beautiful nature,” he commented. “There are not many women like her.”

“Not one in a million!” added the Signora, with enthusiasm.

“Well, to me it seems like pure obstinacy,” I said.

The O’Kelly spoke quite angrily. “Don’t ye say a word against her! I won’t listen to it. Ye don’t understand her. She never will despair of reforming me.”

“You see, Mr. Kelver,” explained the Signora, “the whole difficulty arises from my unfortunate profession. It is impossible for me to keep out of dear Willie’s way. If I could earn my living by any other means, I would; but I can’t. And when he sees my name upon the posters, it’s all over with him.”

“I do wish, Willie, dear,” added the Signora in tones of gentle reproof, “that you were not quite so weak.”

“Me dear,” replied the O’Kelly, “ye don’t know how attractive ye are or ye wouldn’t blame me.”

I laughed. “Why don’t you be firm,” I suggested to the Signora, “send him packing about his business?”

“I ought to,” admitted the Signora. “I always mean to, until I see him. Then I don’t seem able to say anything–not anything I ought to.”

“Ye do say it,” contradicted the O’Kelly. “Ye’re an angel, only I won’t listen to ye.”

“I don’t say it as if I meant it,” persisted the Signora. “It’s evident I don’t.”

“I still think it a pity,” I said, “someone does not explain to Mrs. O’Kelly that a divorce would be the truer kindness.”

“It is difficult to decide,” argued the Signora. “If ever you should want to leave me–“

“Me darling!” exclaimed the O’Kelly.

“But you may,” insisted the Signora. “Something may happen to help you, to show you how wicked it all is. I shall be glad then to think that you will go back to her. Because she is a good woman, Willie, you know she is.”

“She’s a saint,” agreed Willie.

At the Obelisk I shook hands with them, and alone pursued my way towards Fleet Street.

The next friend whose acquaintance I renewed was Dan. He occupied chambers in the Temple, and one evening a week or two after the ‘Ortensia marriage, I called upon him. Nothing in his manner of greeting me suggested the necessity of explanation. Dan never demanded anything of his friends beyond their need of him. Shaking hands with me, he pushed me down into the easy-chair, and standing with his back to the fire, filled and lighted his pipe.

“I left you alone,” he said. “You had to go through it, your slough of despond. It lies across every path–that leads to anywhere. Clear of it?”

“I think so,” I replied, smiling.

“You are on the high road,” he continued. “You have only to walk steadily. Sure you have left nothing behind you–in the slough?”

“Nothing worth bringing out of it,” I said. “Why do you ask so seriously?”

He laid his hand upon my head, rumpling my hair, as in the old days.

“Don’t leave him behind you,” he said; “the little boy Paul–Paul the dreamer.”

I laughed. “Oh, he! He was only in my way.”

“Yes, here,” answered Dan. “This is not his world. He is of no use to you here; won’t help you to bread and cheese–no, nor kisses either. But keep him near you. Later, you will find, perhaps, that all along he has been the real Paul–the living, growing Paul; the other–the active, worldly, pushful Paul, only the stuff that dreams are made of, his fretful life a troubled night rounded by a sleep.”

“I have been driving him away,” I said. “He is so–so impracticable.”

Dan shook his head gravely. “It is not his world,” he repeated. “We must eat, drink–be husbands, fathers. He does not understand. Here he is the child. Take care of him.”

We sat in silence for a little while–for longer, perhaps, than it seemed to us–Dan in the chair opposite to me, each of us occupied with his own thoughts.

“You have an excellent agent,” said Dan; “retain her services as long as you can. She possesses the great advantage of having no conscience, as regards your affairs. Women never have where they–“

He broke off to stir the fire.

“You like her?” I asked. The words sounded feeble. It is only the writer who fits the language to the emotion; the living man more often selects by contrast.

“She is my ideal woman,” returned Dan; “true and strong and tender; clear as crystal, pure as dawn. Like her!”

He knocked the ashes from his pipe. “We do not marry our ideals,” he went on. “We love with our hearts, not with our souls. The woman I shall marry”–he sat gazing into the fire, a smile upon his face–“she will be some sweet, clinging, childish woman, David Copperfield’s Dora. Only I am not Doady, who always seems to me to have been somewhat of a– He reminds me of you, Paul, a little. Dickens was right; her helplessness, as time went on, would have bored him more and more instead of appealing to him.”

“And the women,” I suggested, “do they marry their ideals?”

He laughed. “Ask them.”

“The difference between men and women,” he continued, “is very slight; we exaggerate it for purposes of art. What sort of man do you suppose he is, Norah’s ideal? Can’t you imagine him?–But I can tell you the type of man she will marry, ay, and love with all her heart.”

He looked at me from under his strong brows drawn down, a twinkle in his eye.

“A nice enough fellow–clever, perhaps, but someone–well, someone who will want looking after, taking care of, managing; someone who will appeal to the mother side of her–not her ideal man, but the man for whom nature intended her.”

“Perhaps with her help,” I said, “he may in time become her ideal.”

“There’s a long road before him,” growled Dan.

It was Norah herself who broke to me the news of Barbara’s elopment with Hal. I had seen neither of them since my return to London. Old Hasluck a month or so before I had met in the City one day by chance, and he had insisted on my lunching with him. I had found him greatly changed. His buoyant self-assurance had deserted him; in its place a fretful eagerness had become his motive force. At first he had talked boastingly: Had I seen the _Post_ for last Monday, the _Court Circular_ for the week before? Had I read that Barbara had danced with the Crown Prince, that the Count and Countess Huescar had been entertaining a Grand Duke? What [duplicated line of text] I think of that! and such like. Was not money master of the world? Ay, and the nobs should be made to acknowledge it!

But as he had gulped down glass after glass the brag had died away.

“No children,” he had whispered to me across the table; “that’s what I can’t understand. Nearly four years and no children! What’ll be the good of it all? Where do I come in? What do I get? Damn these rotten popinjays! What do they think we buy them for?”

It was in the studio on a Monday morning that Norah told me. It was the talk of the town for the next day–and the following eight. She had heard it the evening before at supper, and had written to me to come and see her.

“I thought you would rather hear it quietly,” said Norah, “than learn it from a newspaper paragraph. Besides, I wanted to tell you this. She did wrong when she married, putting aside love for position. Now she has done right. She has put aside her shame with all the advantages she derived from it. She has proved herself a woman: I respect her.”

Norah would not have said that to please me had she not really thought it. I could see it from that light; but it brought me no comfort. My goddess had a heart, passions, was a mere human creature like myself. From her cold throne she had stepped down to mingle with the world. So some youthful page of Arthur’s court may have felt, learning the Great Queen was but a woman.

I never spoke with her again but once. That was an evening three years later in Brussels. Strolling idly after dinner the bright lights of a theatre invited me to enter. It was somewhat late; the second act had commenced. I slipped quietly into my seat, the only one vacant at the extreme end of the front row of the first range; then, looking down upon the stage, met her eyes. A little later an attendant whispered to me that Madame G– would like to see me; so at the fall of the curtain I went round. Two men were in the dressing-room smoking, and on the table were some bottles of champagne. She was standing before her glass, a loose shawl about her shoulders.

“Excuse my shaking hands,” she said. “This damned hole is like a furnace; I have to make up fresh after each act.”

She held them up for my inspection with a laugh; they were smeared with grease.

“D’you know my husband?” she continued. “Baron G–; Mr. Paul Kelver.”

The Baron rose. He was a red-faced, pot-bellied little man. “Delighted to meet Mr. Kelver,” he said, speaking in excellent English. “Any friend of my wife’s is always a friend of mine.”

He held out his fat, perspiring hand. I was not in the mood to attach much importance to ceremony. I bowed and turned away, careless whether he was offended or not.

“I am glad I saw you,” she continued. “Do you remember a girl called Barbara? You and she were rather chums, years ago.

“Yes,” I answered, “I remember her.”

“Well, she died, poor girl, three years ago.” She was rubbing paint into her cheeks as she spoke. “She asked me if ever I saw you to give you this. I have been carrying it about with me ever since.”

She took a ring from her finger. It was the one ring Barbara had worn as a girl, a chrysolite set plainly in a band of gold. I had noticed it upon her hand the first time I had seen her, sitting in my father’s office framed by the dusty books and papers. She dropped it into my outstretched palm.

“Quite a pretty little romance,” laughed the Baron.

“That’s all,” added the woman at the glass. “She said you would understand.”

From under her painted lashes she flashed a glance at me. I hope never to see again that look upon a woman’s face.

“Thank you,” I said. “Yes, I understand. It was very kind of you. I shall always wear it.”

Placing the ring upon my finger, I left the room.

CHAPTER X.

PAUL FINDS HIS WAY.

Slowly, surely, steadily I climbed, putting aside all dreams, paying strict attention to business. Often my other self, little Paul of the sad eyes, would seek to lure me from my work. But for my vehement determination never to rest for a moment till I had purchased back my honesty, my desire–growing day by day, till it became almost a physical hunger–to feel again the pressure of Norah’s strong white hand in mine, he might possibly have succeeded. Heaven only knows what then he might have made of me: politician, minor poet, more or less able editor, hampered by convictions–something most surely of but little service to myself. Now and again, with a week to spare–my humour making holiday, nothing to be done but await patiently its return–I would write stories for my own pleasure. They made no mark; but success in purposeful work is of slower growth. Had I persisted–but there was money to be earned. And by the time my debts were paid, I had established a reputation.

“Madness!” argued practical friends. “You would be throwing away a certain fortune for, at the best, a doubtful competence. The one you know you can do, the other–it would be beginning your career all over again.”

“You would find it almost impossible now,” explained those who spoke, I knew, words of wisdom, of experience. “The world would never listen to you. Once a humourist always a humourist. As well might a comic actor insist upon playing Hamlet. It might be the best Hamlet ever seen upon the stage; the audience would only laugh–or stop away.”

Drawn by our mutual need of sympathy, “Goggles” and I, seeking some quiet corner in the Club, would pour out our souls to each other. He would lay before me, at some length, his conception of Romeo–an excellent conception, I have no doubt, though I confess it failed to interest me. Somehow I could not picture him to myself as Romeo. But I listened with every sign of encouragement. It was the price I paid him for, in turn, listening to me while I unfolded to him my ideas how monumental literature, helpful to mankind, should be imagined and built up.

“Perhaps in a future existence,” laughed Goggles, one evening, rising as the clock struck seven, “I shall be a great tragedian, and you a famous poet. Meanwhile, I suppose, as your friend Brian puts it, we are both sinning our mercies. After all, to live is the most important thing in life.”

I had strolled with him so far as the cloak-room and was helping him to get into his coat.

“Take my advice”–tapping me on the chest, he fixed his funny, fishy eyes upon me. Had I not known his intention to be serious, I should have laughed, his expression was so comical. “Marry some dear little woman (he was married himself to a placid lady of about twice his own weight); “one never understands life properly till the babies come to explain it to one.”

I returned to my easy-chair before the fire. Wife, children, home! After all, was not that the true work of man–of the live man, not the dreamer? I saw them round me, giving to my life dignity, responsibility. The fair, sweet woman, helper, comrade, comforter, the little faces fashioned in our image, their questioning voices teaching us the answers to life’s riddles. All other hopes, ambitions, dreams, what were they? Phantoms of the morning mist fading in the sunlight.

Hodgson came to me one evening. “I want you to write me a comic opera,” he said. He had an open letter in his hand which he was reading. “The public seem to be getting tired of these eternal translations from the French. I want something English, something new and original.”

“The English is easy enough,” I replied; “but I shouldn’t clamour for anything new and original if I were you.”

“Why not?” he asked, looking up from his letter.

“You might get it,” I answered. “Then you would be disappointed.”

He laughed. “Well, you know what I mean–something we could refer to as ‘new and original’ on the programme. What do you say? It will be a big chance for you, and I’m willing to risk it. I’m sure you can do it. People are beginning to talk about you.”

I had written a few farces, comediettas, and they had been successful. But the chief piece of the evening is a serious responsibility. A young man may be excused for hesitating. It can make, but also it can mar him. A comic opera above all other forms of art–if I may be forgiven for using the sacred word in connection with such a subject–demands experience.

I explained my fears. I did not explain that in my desk lay a four-act drama throbbing with humanity, with life, with which it had been my hope–growing each day fainter–to take the theatrical public by storm, to establish myself as a serious playwright.

“It’s very simple,” urged Hodgson. “Provide Atherton plenty of comic business; you ought to be able to do that all right. Give Gleeson something pretty in waltz time, and Duncan a part in which she can change her frock every quarter of an hour or so, and the thing is done.”

“I’ll tell you what,” continued Hodgson, “I’ll take the whole crowd down to Richmond on Sunday. We’ll have a coach, and leave the theatre at half-past ten. It will be an opportunity for you to study them. You’ll be able to have a talk with them and get to know just what they can do. Atherton has ideas in his head; he’ll explain them to you. Then, next week, we’ll draw up a contract and set to work.”

It was too good an opportunity to let slip, though I knew that if successful I should find myself pinned down firmer than ever to my role of jester. But it is remunerative, the writing of comic opera.

A small crowd had gathered in the Strand to see us start.

“Nothing wrong, is there?” enquired the leading lady, in a tone of some anxiety, alighting a quarter of an hour late from her cab. “It isn’t a fire, is it?”

“Merely assembled to see you,” explained Mr. Hodgson, without raising his eyes from his letters.

“Oh, good gracious!” cried the leading lady, “do let us get away quickly.”

“Box seat, my dear,” returned Mr. Hodgson.

The leading lady, accepting the proffered assistance of myself and three other gentlemen, mounted the ladder with charming hesitation. Some delay in getting off was caused by our low comedian, who twice, making believe to miss his footing, slid down again into the arms of the stolid door-keeper. The crowd, composed for the most part of small boys approving the endeavour to amuse them, laughed and applauded. Our low comedian thus encouraged, made a third attempt upon his hands and knees, and, gaining the roof, sat down upon the tenor, who smiled somewhat mechanically.

The first dozen or so ‘busses we passed our low comedian greeted by rising to his feet and bowing profoundly. afterwards falling back upon either the tenor or myself. Except by the tenor and myself his performance appeared to be much appreciated. Charing Cross passed, and nobody seeming to be interested in our progress, to the relief of the tenor and myself, he settled down.

“People sometimes ask me,” said the low comedian, brushing the dust off his knees, “why I do this sort of thing off the stage. It amuses me.”

“I was coming up to London the other day from Birmingham,” he continued. “At Willesden, when the ticket collector opened the door, I sprang out of the carriage and ran off down the platform. Of course, he ran after me, shouting to all the others to stop me. I dodged them for about a minute. You wouldn’t believe the excitement there was. Quite fifty people left their seats to see what it was all about. I explained to them when they caught me that I had been travelling second with a first-class ticket, which was the fact. People think I do it to attract attention. I do it for my own pleasure.”

“It must be a troublesome way of amusing oneself,” I suggested.

“Exactly what my wife says,” he replied; “she can never understand the desire that comes over us all, I suppose, at times, to play the fool. As a rule, when she is with me I don’t do it.”

“She’s not here today?” I asked, glancing round.

“She suffers so from headaches,” he answered, “she hardly ever goes anywhere.”

“I’m sorry.” I spoke not out of mere politeness; I really did feel sorry.

During the drive to Richmond this irrepressible desire to amuse himself got the better of him more than once or twice. Through Kensington he attracted a certain amount of attention by balancing the horn upon his nose. At Kew he stopped the coach to request of a young ladies’ boarding school change for sixpence. At the foot of Richmond Hill he caused a crowd to assemble while trying to persuade a deaf old gentleman in a Bath-chair to allow his man to race us up the hill for a shilling.

At these antics and such like our party laughed uproariously, with the exception of Hodgson, who had his correspondence to attend to, and an elegant young lady of some social standing who had lately emerged from the Divorce Court with a reputation worth to her in cash a hundred pounds a week.

Arriving at the hotel quarter of an hour or so before lunch time, we strolled into the garden. Our low comedian, observing an elderly gentleman of dignified appearance sipping a glass of Vermouth at a small table, stood for a moment rooted to the earth with astonishment, then, making a bee-line for the stranger, seized and shook him warmly by the hand. We exchanged admiring glances with one another.

“Charlie is in good form to-day,” we told one another, and followed at his heels.

The elderly gentleman had risen; he looked puzzled. “And how’s Aunt Martha?” asked him our low comedian. “Dear old Aunt Martha! Well, I am glad! You do look bonny! How is she?”

“I’m afraid–” commenced the elderly gentleman. Our low comedian started back. Other visitors had gathered round.

“Don’t tell me anything has happened to her! Not dead? Don’t tell me that!”

He seized the bewildered gentleman by the shoulders and presented to him a face distorted by terror.

“I really have not the faintest notion what you are talking about,” returned the gentleman, who seemed annoyed. “I don’t know you.”

“Not know me? Do you mean to tell me you’ve forgotten–? Isn’t your name Steggles?”

“No, it isn’t,” returned the stranger, somewhat shortly.

“My mistake,” replied our low comedian. He tossed off at one gulp what remained of the stranger’s Vermouth and walked away rapidly.

The elderly gentleman, not seeing the humour of the joke, one of our party to soothe him explained to him that it was Atherton, _the_ Atherton–Charlie Atherton.

“Oh, is it,” growled the elderly gentleman. “Then will you tell him from me that when I want his damned tomfoolery I’ll come to the theatre and pay for it.”

“What a disagreeable man,” we said, as, following our low comedian, we made our way into the hotel.

During lunch he continued in excellent spirits; kissed the bald back of the waiter’s head, pretending to mistake it for a face, called for hot mustard and water, made believe to steal the silver, and when the finger-bowls arrived, took off his coat and requested the ladies to look the other way.

After lunch he became suddenly serious, and slipping his arm through mine, led me by unfrequented paths.

“Now, about this new opera,” he said; “we don’t want any of the old stale business. Give us something new.”

I suggested that to do so might be difficult.

“Not at all,” he answered. “Now, my idea is this. I am a young fellow, and I’m in love with a girl.”

I promised to make a note of it.

“Her father, apopletic old idiot–make him comic: ‘Damme, sir! By gad!’ all that sort of thing.”

By persuading him that I understood what he meant, I rose in his estimation.

“He won’t have anything to say to me–thinks I’m an ass. I’m a simple sort of fellow–on the outside. But I’m not such a fool as I look.”

“You don’t think we are getting too much out of the groove?” I enquired.

His opinion was that the more so the better.

“Very well. Then, in the second act I disguise myself. I’ll come on as an organ-grinder, sing a song in broken English, then as a policeman, or a young swell about town. Give me plenty of opportunity, that’s the great thing–opportunity to be really funny, I mean. We don’t want any of the old stale tricks.”

I promised him my support.

“Put a little pathos in it,” he added, “give me a scene where I can show them I’ve something else in me besides merely humour. We don’t want to make them howl, but just to feel a little. Let’s send them out of the theatre saying: ‘Well, Charlie’s often made me laugh, but I’m damned if I knew he could make me cry before!’ See what I mean?”

I told him I thought I did.

The leading lady, meeting us on our return, requested, with pretty tone of authority, everybody else to go away and leave us. There were cries of ‘Naughty!” The leading lady, laughing girlishly, took me by the hand and ran away with me.

“I want to talk to you,” said the leading lady, as soon as we had reached a secluded seat overlooking the river, “about my part in the new opera. Now, can’t you give me something original? Do.”

Her pleading was so pretty, there was nothing for it but to pledge compliance.

“I am so tired of being the simple village maiden,” said the leading lady; “what I want is a part with some opportunity in it–a coquettish part. I can flirt,” assured me the leading lady, archly. “Try me.”

I satisfied her of my perfect faith.

“You might,” said the leading lady, “see your way to making the plot depend upon me. It always seems to me that the woman’s part is never made enough of in comic opera. I am sure a comic opera built round a woman would be a really great success. Don’t you agree with me, Mr. Kelver,” pouted the leading lady, laying her pretty hand on mine. “We are much more interesting than the men–now, aren’t we?”

Personally, as I told her, I agreed with her.

The tenor, sipping tea with me on the balcony, beckoned me aside.

“About this new opera,” said the tenor; “doesn’t it seem to you the time has come to make more of the story–that the public might prefer a little more human interest and a little less clowning?”

I admitted that a good plot was essential.

“It seems to me,” said the tenor, “that if you could write an opera round an interesting love story, you would score a success. Of course, let there be plenty of humour, but reduce it to its proper place. As a support, it is excellent; when it is made the entire structure, it is apt to be tiresome–at least, that is my view.”

I replied with sincerity that there seemed to me much truth in what he said.

“Of course, so far as I am personally concerned,” went on the tenor, “it is immaterial. I draw the same salary whether I’m on the stage five minutes or an hour. But when you have a man of my position in the cast, and give him next to nothing to do–well, the public are disappointed.”

“Most naturally,” I commented.

“The lover,” whispered the tenor, noticing the careless approach towards us of the low comedian, “that’s the character they are thinking about all the time–men and women both. It’s human nature. Make your lover interesting–that’s the secret.”

Waiting for the horses to be put to, I became aware of the fact that I was standing some distance from the others in company with a tall, thin, somewhat oldish-looking man. He spoke in low, hurried tones, fearful evidently of being overheard and interrupted.

“You’ll forgive me, Mr. Kelver,” he said–“Trevor, Marmaduke Trevor. I play the Duke of Bayswater in the second act.”

I was unable to recall him for the moment; there were quite a number of small parts in the second act. But glancing into his sensitive face, I shrank from wounding him.

“A capital performance,” I lied. “It has always amused me.

He flushed with pleasure. “I made a great success some years ago,” he said, “in America with a soda-water syphon, and it occurred to me that if you could, Mr. Kelver, in a natural sort of way, drop in a small part leading up to a little business with a soda-water syphon, it might help the piece.”

I wrote him his soda-water scene, I am glad to remember, and insisted upon it, in spite of a good deal of opposition. Some of the critics found fault with the incident, as lacking in originality. But Marmaduke Trevor was quite right, it did help a little.

Our return journey was an exaggerated repetition of our morning drive. Our low comedian produced hideous noises from the horn, and entered into contests of running wit with ‘bus drivers–a decided mistake from his point of view, the score generally remaining with the ‘bus driver. At Hammersmith, seizing the opportunity of a block in the traffic, he assumed the role of Cheap Jack, and, standing up on the back seat, offered all our hats for sale at temptingly low prices.

“Got any ideas out of them?” asked Hodgson, when the time came for us to say good-night.

“I’m thinking, if you don’t mind,” I answered, “of going down into the country and writing the piece quietly, away from everybody.”

“Perhaps you are right,” agreed Hodgson. “Too many cooks– Be sure and have it ready for the autumn.”

I wrote it with some pleasure to myself amid the Yorkshire Wolds, and was able to read it to the whole company assembled before the close of the season. My turning of the last page was followed by a dead silence. The leading lady was the first to speak. She asked if the clock upon the mantelpiece could be relied upon; because, if so, by leaving at once, she could just catch her train. Hodgson, consulting his watch, thought, if anything, it was a little fast. The leading lady said she hoped it was, and went. The only comforting words were spoken by the tenor. He recalled to our mind a successful comic opera produced some years before at the Philharmonic. He distinctly remembered that up to five minutes before the raising of the curtain everybody had regarded it as rubbish. He also had a train to catch. Marmaduke Trevor, with a covert shake of the hand, urged me not to despair. The low comedian, the last to go, told Hodgson he thought he might be able to do something with parts of it, if given a free hand. Hodgson and I left alone, looked at each other.

“It’s no good,” said Hodgson, “from a box-office point of view. Very clever.”

“How do you know it is no good from a box-office point of view?” I ventured to enquire.

“I never made a mistake in my life,” replied Hodgson.

“You have produced one or two failures,” I reminded him.

“And shall again,” he laughed. “The right thing isn’t easy to get.”

“Cheer up,” he added kindly, “this is only your first attempt. We must try and knock it into shape at rehearsal.”

Their notion of “knocking it into shape” was knocking it to pieces.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” would say the low comedian; “we’ll cut that scene out altogether.” Joyously he would draw his pencil through some four or five pages of my manuscript.

“But it is essential to the story,” I would argue.

“Not at all.”

“But it is. It is the scene in which Roderick escapes from prison and falls in love with the gipsy.”

“My dear boy, half-a-dozen words will do all that. I meet Roderick at the ball. ‘Hallo, what are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, I have escaped from prison.’ ‘Good business. And how’s Miriam?’ ‘Well and happy–she is going to be my wife!’ What more do you want?”

“I have been speaking to Mr. Hodgson,” would observe the leading lady, “and he agrees with me, that if instead of falling in love with Peter, I fell in love with John–“

“But John is in love with Arabella.”

“Oh, we’ve cut out Arabella. I can sing all her songs.

The tenor would lead me into a corner. “I want you to write in a little scene for myself and Miss Duncan at the beginning of the first act. I’ll talk to her about it. I think it will be rather pretty. I want her–the second time I see her–to have come out of her room on to a balcony, and to be standing there bathed in moonlight.”

“But the first act takes place in the early morning.”

“I’ve thought of that. We must alter it to the evening.”

“But the opera opens with a hunting scene. People don’t go hunting by moonlight.”

“It will be a novelty. That’s what’s wanted for comic opera. The ordinary hunting scene! My dear boy, it has been done to death.”

I stood this sort of thing for a week. “They are people of experience,” I argued to myself; “they must know more about it than I do.” By the end of the week I had arrived at the conclusion that anyhow they didn’t. Added to which I lost my temper. It is a thing I should advise any lady or gentleman thinking of entering the ranks or dramatic authorship to lose as soon as possible. I took both manuscripts with me, and, entering Mr. Hodgson’s private room, closed the door behind me. One parcel was the opera as I had originally written it, a neat, intelligible manuscript, whatever its other merits. The second, scored, interlined, altered, cut, interleaved, rewritten, reversed, turned inside out and topsy-turvy–one long, hopeless confusion from beginning to end–was the opera, as, everybody helping, we had “knocked it into shape.”

“That’s your opera,” I said, pushing across to him the bulkier bundle. “If you can understand it, if you can make head or tail of it, if you care to produce it, it is yours, and you are welcome to it. This is mine!” I laid it on the table beside the other. “It may be good, it may be bad. If it is played at all it is played as it is written. Regard the contract as cancelled, and make up your mind.”

He argued with force, and he argued with eloquence. He appealed to my self-interest, he appealed to my better nature. It occupied him forty minutes by the clock. Then he called me an obstinate young fool, flung the opera as “knocked into shape” into the waste-paper basket–which was the only proper place for it, and, striding into the middle of the company, gave curt directions that the damned opera was to be played as it was written, and be damned to it!

The company shrugged its shoulders, and for the next month kept them shrugged. For awhile Hodgson remained away from the rehearsals, then returning, developed by degrees a melancholy interest in the somewhat gloomy proceedings.

So far I had won, but my difficulty was to maintain the position. The low comedian, reciting his lines with meaningless monotony, would pause occasionally to ask of me politely, whether this or that passage was intended to be serious or funny.

“You think,” the leading lady would enquire, more in sorrow than in anger, “that any girl would behave in this way–any real girl, I mean?”

“Perhaps the audience will understand it,” would console himself hopefully the tenor. “Myself, I confess I don’t.”

With a sinking heart concealed beneath an aggressively disagreeable manner, I remained firm in my “pigheaded conceit,” as it was regarded, Hodgson generously supporting me against his own judgment.

“It’s bound to be a failure,” he told me. “I am spending some twelve to fifteen hundred pounds to teach you a lesson. When you have learnt it we’ll square accounts by your writing me an opera that will pay.”

“And if it does succeed?” I suggested.

“My dear boy,” replied Hodgson, “I never make mistakes.”

From all which a dramatic author of more experience would have gathered cheerfulness and hope, knowing that the time to be depressed is when the manager and company unanimously and unhesitatingly predict a six months’ run. But new to the business, I regarded my literary career as already at an end. Belief in oneself is merely the match with which one lights oneself. The oil is supplied by the belief in one of others; if that be not forthcoming, one goes out. Later on I might try to light myself again, but for the present I felt myself dark and dismal. My desire was to get away from my own smoke and smell. The final dress rehearsal over, I took my leave of all concerned. The next morning I would pack a knapsack and start upon a walking tour through Holland. The English papers would not reach me. No human being should know my address. In a month or so I would return, the piece would have disappeared–would be forgotten. With courage, I might be able to forget it myself.

“I shall run it for three weeks,” said Hodgson, “then we’ll withdraw it quietly, ‘owing to previous arrangements’; or Duncan can suddenly fall ill–she’s done it often enough to suit herself; she can do it this once to suit me. Don’t be upset. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in the piece; indeed, there is a good deal that will be praised. The idea is distinctly original. As a matter of fact, that’s the fault with it,” added Hodgson, “it’s too original.”

“You said you wanted it original,” I reminded him.

He laughed. “Yes, but original for the stage, I meant–the old dolls in new frocks.”

I thanked him for all his kindness, and went home and packed my knapsack.

For two months I wandered, avoiding beaten tracks, my only comrades a few books, belonging to no age, no country. My worries fell from me, the personal affairs of Paul Kelver ceasing to appear the be all and the end all of the universe. But for a chance meeting with Wellbourne, Deleglise’s amateur caretaker of Gower Street fame, I should have delayed yet longer my return. It was in one of the dead cities of the Zuyder Zee. I was sitting under the lindens on the grass-grown quay, awaiting a slow, crawling boat that, four miles off, I watched a moving speck across the level pastures. I heard his footsteps in the empty market-place behind me, and turned my head. I did not rise, felt even no astonishment; anything might come to pass in that still land of dreams. He seated himself beside me with a nod, and for awhile we smoked in silence.

“All well with you?” I asked.

“I am afraid not,” he answered; “the poor fellow is in great trouble.”

“I’m not Wellbourne himself,” he went on, in answer to my look; “I am only his spirit. Have you ever tested that belief the Hindoos hold: that a man may leave his body, wander at will for a certain period, remembering only to return ere the thread connecting him with flesh and blood be stretched to breaking point? It is quite correct. I often lock the door of my lodging, leave myself behind, wander a free Spirit.”

He pulled from his pocket a handful of loose coins and looked at them. “The thread that connects us, I am sorrow to say, is wearing somewhat thin,” he sighed; “I shall have to be getting back to him before long–concern myself again with his troubles, follies. It is somewhat vexing. Life is really beautiful, when one is dead.”

“What was the trouble?” I enquired.

“Haven’t you heard?” he replied. “Tom died five weeks ago, quite suddenly, of syncope. We had none of us any idea.”

So Norah was alone in the world. I rose to my feet. The slowly moving speck had grown into a thin, dark streak; minute by minute it took shape and form.

“By the way, I have to congratulate you,” said Wellbourne. “Your opera looked like being a big thing when I left London. You didn’t sell outright, I hope?”

“No,” I answered. “Hodgson never expressed any desire to buy.”

“Lucky for you,” said Wellbourne.

I reached London the next evening. Passing the theatre on my way to Queen’s Square, it occurred to me to stop my cab for a few minutes and look in.

I met the low comedian on his way to his dressing-room. He shook me warmly by the hand.

“Well,” he said, “we’re pulling them in. I was right, you see, Give me plenty of opportunity.’ That’s what I told you, didn’t I? Come and see the piece. I think you will agree with me that I have done you justice.”

I thanked him.

“Not at all,” he returned; “it’s a pleasure to work, when you’ve got something good to work on.”

I paid my respects to the leading lady.

“I am so grateful to you,” said the leading lady. “It is so delightful to play a real live woman, for a change.”

The tenor was quite fatherly.

“It is what I have been telling Hodgson for years,” he said, “give them a simple human story.”

Crossing the stage, I ran against Marmaduke Trevor.

“You will stay for my scene,” he urged.

“Another night,” I answered. “I have only just returned.”

He sank his voice to a whisper. “I want to talk to you on business, when you have the time. I am thinking of taking a theatre myself–not just now, but later on. Of course, I don’t want it to get about.”

I assured him of my secrecy.

“If it comes off, I want you to write for me. You understand the public. We will talk it over.”

He passed onward with stealthy tread.

I found Hodgson in the front of the house.

“Two stalls not sold and six seats in the upper circle,” he informed me; “not bad for a Thursday night.”

I expressed my gratification.

“I knew you could do it,” said Hodgson, “I felt sure of it merely from seeing that comedietta of yours at the Queen’s. I never make a mistake.”

Correction under the circumstances would have been unkind. Promising to see him again in the morning, I left him with his customary good conceit of himself unimpaired, and went on to the Square. I rang twice, but there was no response. I was about to sound a third and final summons, when Norah joined me on the step. She had been out shopping and was laden with parcels.

“We must wait to shake hands,” she laughed, as she opened the door. “I hope you have not been kept long. Poor Annette grows deafer every day.”

“Have you nobody in the house with you but Annette?” I asked.

“No one. You know it was a whim of his. I used to get quite cross with him at times. But I should not like to go against his wishes–now.”

“Was there any reason for it?” I asked.

“No,” she answered; “if there had been I could have argued him out of it.” She paused at the door of the studio. “I’ll just get rid of these,” she said, “and then I will be with you.”

A wood fire was burning on the open hearth, flashing alternate beams of light and shadow down the long bare room. The high oak stool stood in its usual place beside the engraving desk, upon which lay old Deleglise’s last unfinished plate, emitting a dull red glow. I paced the creaking boards with halting steps, as through some ghostly gallery hung with dim portraits of the dead and living. In a little while Norah entered and came to me with outstretched hand.

“We will not light the lamp,” she said, “the firelight is so pleasant.”

“But I want to see you,” I replied.

She had seated herself upon the broad stone kerb. With her hand she stirred the logs; they shot into a clear white flame. Thus, the light upon her face, she raised it gravely towards mine. It spoke to me with fuller voice. The clear grey eyes were frank and steadfast as ever, but shadow had passed into them, deepening them, illuminating them.

For a space we talked of our two selves, our trivial plans and doings.

“Tom left something to you,” said Norah, rising, “not in his will, that was only a few lines. He told me to give it to you, with his love.”

She brought it to me. It was the picture he had always treasured, his first success; a child looking on death; “The Riddle” he had named it.

We spoke of him, of his work, which since had come to be appraised at truer value, for it was out of fashion while he lived.

“Was he a disappointed man, do you think?” I asked.

“No,” answered Norah. “I am sure not. He was too fond of his work.”

“But he dreamt of becoming a second Millet. He confessed it to me once. And he died an engraver.”

“But they were good engravings,” smiled Norah.

“I remember a favourite saying of his,” continued Norah, after a pause; “I do not know whether it was original or not. ‘The stars guide us. They are not our goal.'”

“Ah, yes, we aim at the moon and–hit the currant bush.”

“It is necessary always to allow for deflection,” laughed Norah. “Apparently it takes a would-be poet to write a successful comic opera.”

“Ah, you do not understand!” I cried. “It was not mere ambition; cap and bells or laurel wreath! that is small matter. I wanted to help. The world’s cry of pain, I used to hear it as a boy. I hear it yet. I meant to help. They that are heavy laden. I hear their cry. They cry from dawn to dawn and none heed them: we pass upon the other side. Man and woman, child and beast. I hear their dumb cry in the night. The child’s sob in the silence, the man’s fierce curse of wrong. The dog beneath the vivisector’s knife, the overdriven brute, the creature tortured for an hour that a gourmet may enjoy an instant’s pleasure; they cried to me. The wrong and the sorrow and the pain, the long, low, endless moan God’s ears are weary of; I hear it day and night. I thought to help.”

I had risen. She took my face between her quiet, cool hands.

“What do we know? We see but a corner of the scheme. This fortress of laughter that a few of you have been set apart to guard–this rallying-point for all the forces of joy and gladness! how do you know it may not be the key to the whole battle! It is far removed from the grand charges and you think yourself forgotten. Trust your leader, be true to your post.”

I looked into her sweet grey eyes.

“You always help me,” I said.

“Do I?” she answered. “I am so glad.”

She put her firm white hand in mine.