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A Man from the North
There grows in the North Country a certain kind of youth of whom it may be said that he is born to be a Londoner. The metropolis, and everything that appertains to it, that comes down from it, that goes up into it, has for him an imperious fascination. Long before schooldays are over he learns to take a doleful pleasure in watching the exit of the London train from the railway station. He stands by the hot engine and envies the very stoker. Gazing curiously into the carriages, he wonders that men and women who in a few hours will be treading streets called Piccadilly and the Strand can contemplate the immediate future with so much apparent calmness; some of them even have the audacity to look bored. He finds it difficult to keep from throwing himself in the guard's van as it glides past him; and not until the last coach is a speck upon the distance does he turn away and, nodding absently to the ticket-clerk, who knows him well, go home to nurse a vague ambition and dream of Town.
London is the place where newspapers are issued, books written, and plays performed. And this youth, who now sits in an office, reads all the newspapers. He knows exactly when a new work by a famous author should appear, and awaits the reviews with impatience. He can tell you off-hand the names of the pieces in the bills of the twenty principal West-end theatres, what their quality is, and how long they may be expected to run; and on the production of a new play, the articles of the dramatic critics provide him with sensations almost as vivid as those of the most zealous first-nighter at the performance itself.
Sooner or later, perhaps by painful roads, he reaches the goal of his desire. London accepts him—on probation; and as his strength is, so she demeans herself. Let him be bold and resolute, and she will make an obeisance, but her heel is all too ready to crush the coward and hesitant; and her victims, once underfoot, do not often rise again.
Although he had visited London but once before, and then only for a few hours, he was not unfamiliar with the topography of the town, having frequently studied it in maps and an old copy of Kelly's directory.
He walked slowly up Park Side and through Piccadilly, picking out as he passed them the French Embassy, Hyde Park Corner, Apsley House, Park Lane, and Devonshire House. As he drank in the mingled glare and glamour of Piccadilly by night,—the remote stars, the high sombre trees, the vast, dazzling interiors of clubs, the sinuous, flickering lines of traffic, the radiant faces of women framed in hansoms,—he laughed the laugh of luxurious contemplation, acutely happy. At last, at last, he had come into his inheritance. London accepted him. He was hers; she his; and nothing should part them. Starvation in London would itself be bliss. But he had no intention of starving! Filled with great purposes, he straightened his back, and just then a morsel of mud thrown up from a bus-wheel splashed warm and gritty on his cheek. He wiped it off caressingly, with a smile.
Although it was Saturday night, and most of the shops were closed, an establishment where watches and trinkets of "Anglo-Spanish" gold, superb in appearance and pillowed on green plush, were retailed at alluring prices, still threw a brilliant light on the pavement, and Richard crossed the road to inspect its wares. He turned away, but retraced his steps and entered the shop. An assistant politely inquired his wishes.
"I want one of those hunters you have in the window at 29/6," said Richard, with a gruffness which must have been involuntary.
"Yes, sir. Here is one. We guarantee that the works are equal to the finest English lever."
"I'll take it." He put down the money.
"Thank you. Can I show you anything else?"
"Nothing, thanks," still more gruffly.
"We have some excellent chains...."
"Nothing else, thanks." And he walked out, putting his purchase in his pocket. A perfectly reliable gold watch, which he had worn for years, already lay there.
At Piccadilly Circus he loitered, and then crossed over and went along Coventry Street to Leicester Square. The immense façade of the Ottoman Theatre of Varieties, with its rows of illuminated windows and crescent moons set against the sky, rose before him, and the glory of it was intoxicating. It is not too much to say that the Ottoman held a stronger fascination for Richard than any other place in London. The British Museum, Fleet Street, and the Lyceum were magic names, but more magical than either was the name of the Ottoman. The Ottoman, on the rare occasions when it happened to be mentioned in Bursley, was a synonym for all the glittering vices of the metropolis. It stank in the nostrils of the London delegates who came down to speak at the annual meetings of the local Society for the Suppression of Vice. But how often had Richard, somnolent in chapel, mitigated the rigours of a long sermon by dreaming of an Ottoman ballet,—one of those voluptuous spectacles, all legs and white arms, which from time to time were described so ornately in the London daily papers.
The brass-barred swinging doors of the Grand Circle entrance were simultaneously opened for him by two human automata dressed exactly alike in long semi-military coats, a very tall man and a stunted boy. He advanced with what air of custom he could command, and after taking a ticket and traversing a heavily decorated corridor encountered another pair of swinging doors; they opened, and a girl passed out, followed by a man who was talking to her vehemently in French. At the same moment a gust of distant music struck Richard's ear. As he climbed a broad, thick-piled flight of steps, the music became louder, and a clapping of hands could be heard. At the top of the steps hung a curtain of blue velvet; he pushed aside its stiff, heavy folds with difficulty, and entered the auditorium.
The smoke of a thousand cigarettes enveloped the furthest parts of the great interior in a thin bluish haze, which was dissipated as it reached the domed ceiling in the rays of a crystal chandelier. Far in front and a little below the level of the circle lay a line of footlights broken by the silhouette of the conductor's head. A diminutive, solitary figure in red and yellow stood in the centre of the huge stage; it was kissing its hands to the audience with a mincing, operatic gesture; presently it tripped off backwards, stopping at every third step to bow; the applause ceased, and the curtain fell slowly.
The broad, semicircular promenade which flanked the seats of the grand circle was filled with a well-dressed, well-fed crowd. The men talked and laughed, for the most part, in little knots, while in and out, steering their way easily and rapidly among these groups, moved the women: some with rouged cheeks, greasy vermilion lips, and enormous liquid eyes; others whose faces were innocent of cosmetics and showed pale under the electric light; but all with a peculiar, exaggerated swing of the body from the hips, and all surreptitiously regarding themselves in the mirrors which abounded on every glowing wall.
Richard stood aloof against a pillar. Near him were two men in evening dress conversing in tones which just rose above the general murmur of talk and the high, penetrating tinkle of glass from the bar behind the promenade.
"And what did she say then?" one of the pair asked smilingly. Richard strained his ear to listen.
"Well, she told me," the other said, speaking with a dreamy drawl, while fingering his watch-chain absently and gazing down at the large diamond in his shirt,—"shetold me that she said she'd do for him if he didn't fork out. But I don't believe her. You know, of course.... There's Lottie...."
The band suddenly began to play, and after a few crashing bars the curtain went up for the ballet. The rich coup d'oeil which presented itself provoked a burst of clapping from the floor of the house and the upper tiers, but to Richard's surprise no one in his proximity seemed to exhibit any interest in the entertainment. The two men still talked with their backs to the stage, the women continued to find a pathway between the groups, and from within the bar came the unabated murmur of voices and tinkle of glass.
Richard never took his dazed eyes from the stage. The moving pageant unrolled itself before him like a vision, rousing new sensations, tremors of strange desires. He was under a spell, and when at last the curtain descended to the monotonous roll of drums, he awoke to the fact that several people were watching him curiously. Blushing slightly, he went to a far corner of the promenade. At one of the little tables a woman sat alone. She held her head at an angle, and her laughing, lustrous eyes gleamed invitingly at Richard. Without quite intending to do so he hesitated in front of her, and she twittered a phrase ending in chéri.
He abruptly turned away. He would have been very glad to remain and say something clever, but his tongue refused its office, and his legs moved of themselves.
At midnight he found himself in Piccadilly Circus, unwilling to go home. He strolled leisurely back to Leicester Square. The front of the Ottoman was in darkness, and the square almost deserted.
He walked home to Raphael Street. The house was dead, except for a pale light in his own room. At the top of the bare, creaking stairs he fumbled a moment for the handle of his door, and the regular sound of two distinct snores descended from an upper storey. He closed the door softly, locked it, and glanced round the room with some eagerness. The smell of the expiring lamp compelled him to unlatch both windows. He extinguished the lamp, and after lighting a couple of candles on the mantelpiece drew a chair to the fireplace and sat down to munch an apple. The thought occurred to him: "This is my home—for how long?"
"Why the dickens didn't I say something to that girl?"
Between the candles on the mantelpiece was a photograph of his sister, which he had placed there before going out. He looked at it with a half smile, and murmured audibly several times:
"Why the dickens didn't I say something to that girl, with her chéri?"
The woman of the photograph seemed to be between thirty and forty years of age. She was fair, with a mild, serious face, and much wavy hair. The forehead was broad and smooth and white, the cheek-bones prominent, and the mouth somewhat large. The eyes were a very light grey; they met the gaze of the spectator with a curious timid defiance, as if to say, "I am weak, but I can at least fight till I fall." Underneath the eyes—the portrait was the work of an amateur, and consequently had not been robbed of all texture by retouching—a few crowsfeet could be seen.
As far back as Richard's memory went, he and Mary had lived together and alone in the small Red House which lay half a mile out of Bursley, towards Turnhill, on the Manchester road. At one time it had been rurally situated, creeping plants had clothed its red walls, and the bare patch behind it had been a garden; but the gradual development of a coal-producing district had covered the fields with smooth, mountainous heaps of grey refuse, and stunted or killed every tree in the neighbourhood. The house was undermined, and in spite of iron clamps had lost most of its rectangles, while the rent had dropped to fifteen pounds a year.
Mary was very much older than her brother, and she had always appeared to him exactly the mature woman of the photograph. Of his parents he knew nothing except what Mary had told him, which was little and vague, for she watchfully kept the subject at a distance.
She had supported herself and Richard in comfort by a medley of vocations, teaching the piano, collecting rents, and practising the art of millinery. They had few friends. The social circles of Bursley were centred in its churches and chapels; and though Mary attended the Wesleyan sanctuary with some regularity, she took small interest in prayer-meetings, class-meetings, bazaars, and all the other minor religious activities, thus neglecting opportunities for intercourse which might have proved agreeable. She had sent Richard to the Sunday-school; but when, at the age of fourteen, he protested that Sunday-school was "awful rot," she answered calmly, "Don't go, then;" and from that day his place in class was empty. Soon afterwards the boy cautiously insinuated that chapel belonged to the same category as Sunday-school, but the hint failed of its effect.
The ladies of the town called sometimes, generally upon business, and took afternoon tea. Once the vicar's wife, who wished to obtain musical tuition for her three youngest daughters at a nominal fee, came in and found Richard at a book on the hearthrug.
"Ah!" said she. "Just like his father, is he not, Miss Larch?" Mary made no reply.
The house was full of books. Richard knew them all well by sight, but until he was sixteen he read only a select handful of volumes which had stood the test of years. Often he idly speculated as to the contents of some of the others,—"Horatii Opera," for instance: had that anything to do with theatres?—yet for some curious reason, which when he grew older he sought for in vain, he never troubled himself to look into them. Mary read a good deal, chiefly books and magazines fetched for her by Richard from the Free Library.
When he was about seventeen, a change came. He was aware dimly, and as if by instinct, that his sister's life in the early days had not been without its romance. Certainly there was something hidden between her and William Vernon, the science master at the Institute, for they were invariably at great pains to avoid each other. He sometimes wondered whether Mr. Vernon was connected in any way with the melancholy which was never, even in her brightest moments, wholly absent from Mary's demeanour. One Sunday night—Richard had been keeping house—Mary, coming in late from chapel, threw his arms round his neck as he opened the door, and, dragging down his face to hers, kissed him hysterically again and again.
"Dicky, Dick," she whispered, laughing and crying at the same time, "something's happened. I'm almost an old woman, but something's happened!"
"I know," said Richard, retreating hurriedly from her embrace. "You're going to marry Mr. Vernon."
"But how could you tell?"
"Oh! I just guessed."
"You don't mind, Dick, do you?"
"I! Mind!" Afraid lest his feelings should appear too plainly, he asked abruptly for supper.
Mary gave up her various callings, the wedding took place, and William Vernon came to live with them. It was then that Richard began to read more widely, and to form a definite project of going to London.
He could not fail to respect and like William. The life of the married pair seemed to him idyllic; the tender, furtive manifestations of affection which were constantly passing between Mary and her sedate, middle-aged husband touched him deeply, and at the thought of the fifteen irretrievable years during which some ridiculous misunderstanding had separated this loving couple, his eyes were not quite as dry as a youth could wish. But with it all he was uncomfortable. He felt himself an intruder upon holy privacies; if at meal-times husband and wife clasped hands round the corner of the table, he looked at his plate; if they smiled happily upon no discoverable provocation, he pretended not to notice the fact. They did not need him. Their hearts were full of kindness for every living thing, but unconsciously they stood aloof. He was driven in upon himself, and spent much of his time either in solitary walking or hidden in an apartment called the study.
He ordered magazines whose very names Mr. Holt, the principal bookseller in Bursley, was unfamiliar with, and after the magazines came books of verse and novels enclosed in covers of mystic design, and printed in a style which Mr. Holt, though secretly impressed, set down as eccentric. Mr. Holt's shop performed the functions of a club for the dignitaries of the town; and since he took care that this esoteric literature was well displayed on the counter until called for, the young man's fame as a great reader soon spread, and Richard began to see that he was regarded as a curiosity of which Bursley need not be ashamed. His self-esteem, already fostered into lustiness by a number of facile school successes, became more marked, although he was wise enough to keep a great deal of it to himself.
One evening, after Mary and her husband had been talking quietly some while, Richard came into the sitting-room.
"I don't want any supper," he said, "I'm going for a bit of a walk."
"Shall we tell him?" Mary asked, smiling, after he had left the room.
"Please yourself," said William, also smiling.
"He talks a great deal about going to London. I hope he won't go till—after April; I think it would upset me."
"You need not trouble, I think, my dear," William answered. "He talks about it, but he isn't gone yet."
Mr. Vernon was not quite pleased with Richard. He had obtained for him—being connected with the best people in the town—a position as shorthand and general clerk in a solicitor's office, and had learnt privately that though the youth was smart enough, he was scarcely making that progress which might have been expected. He lacked "application." William attributed this shortcoming to the excessive reading of verse and obscure novels.
April came, and, as Mr. Vernon had foretold, Richard still remained in Bursley. But the older man was now too deeply absorbed in another matter to interest himself at all in Richard's movements,—a matter in which Richard himself exhibited a shy concern. Hour followed anxious hour, and at last was heard the faint, fretful cry of a child in the night. Then stillness. All that Richard ever saw was a coffin, and in it a dead child at a dead woman's feet.
Fifteen months later he was in London.
Mr. Curpet, of the firm of Curpet and Smythe, whose name was painted in black and white on the dark green door, had told him that the office hours were from nine-thirty to six. The clock of the Law Courts was striking a quarter to ten. He hesitated a moment, and then seized the handle; but the door was fast, and he descended the two double flights of iron stairs into the quadrangle.
New Serjeant's Court was a large modern building of very red brick with terra-cotta facings, eight storeys high; but in spite of its faults of colour and its excessive height, ample wall spaces and temperate ornamentation gave it a dignity and comeliness sufficient to distinguish it from other buildings in the locality. In the centre of the court was an oval patch of brown earth, with a few trees whose pale-leaved tops, struggling towards sunlight, reached to the middle of the third storey. Round this plantation ran an immaculate roadway of wooden blocks, flanked by an equally immaculate asphalt footpath. The court possessed its own private lamp-posts, and these were wrought of iron in an antique design.
Men and boys, grave and unconsciously oppressed by the burden of the coming day, were continually appearing out of the gloom of the long tunnelled entrance and vanishing into one or other of the twelve doorways. Presently a carriage and pair drove in, and stopped opposite Richard. A big man of about fifty, with a sagacious red and blue face, jumped alertly out, followed by an attentive clerk carrying a blue sack. It seemed to Richard that he knew the features of the big man from portraits, and, following the pair up the staircase of No. 2, he discovered from the legend on the door through which they disappeared that he had been in the presence of Her Majesty's Attorney-General. Simultaneously with a misgiving as to his ability to reach the standard of clerical ability doubtless required by Messrs. Curpet and Smythe, who did business cheek by jowl with an attorney-general and probably employed him, came an elevation of spirit as he darkly guessed what none can realise completely, that a man's future lies on his own knees, and on the knees of no gods whatsoever.
He continued his way upstairs, but Messrs. Curpet and Smythe's portal was still locked. Looking down the well, he espied a boy crawling reluctantly and laboriously upward, with a key in his hand which he dragged across the bannisters. In course of time the boy reached Messrs. Curpet and Smythe's door, and opening it stepped neatly over a pile of letters which lay immediately within. Richard followed him.
"Oh! My name's Larch," said Richard, as if it had just occurred to him that the boy might be interested in the fact. "Do you know which is my room?"
The boy conducted him along a dark passage with green doors on either side, to a room at the end. It was furnished mainly with two writing-tables and two armchairs; in one corner was a disused copying-press, in another an immense pile of reporters' note-books; on the mantelpiece, a tumbler, a duster, and a broken desk lamp.
"That's your seat," said the boy, pointing to the larger table, and disappeared. Richard disposed of his coat and hat and sat down, trying to feel at ease and not succeeding.
At five minutes past ten a youth entered with the "Times" under his arm. Richard waited for him to speak, but he merely stared and took off his overcoat. Then he said,—
"You've got my hook. If you don't mind I'll put your things on this other one."
"Certainly," assented Richard.
The youth spread his back luxuriously to the empty fireplace and opened the "Times," when another and smaller boy put his head in at the door.
"Jenkins, Mr. Alder wants the 'Times.'"
The youth silently handed over the advertisement pages which were lying on the table. In a minute the boy returned.
"Mr. Alder says he wants the inside of the 'Times.'"
"Tell Mr. Alder to go to hell, with my compliments." The boy hesitated.
"Go on, now," Jenkins insisted. The boy hung on the door-handle, smiling dubiously, and then went out.
"Here, wait a minute!" Jenkins called him back. "Perhaps you'd better give it him. Take the damn thing away."
A sound of hurried footsteps in the next room was succeeded by an imperious call for Jenkins, at which Jenkins slipped nimbly into his chair and untied a bundle of papers.
"Jenkins!" the call came again, with a touch of irritation in it, but Jenkins did not move. The door was thrust open.
"Oh! You are there, Jenkins. Just come in and take a letter down." The tones were quite placid.
"Yes, Mr. Smythe."
"I never take any notice of Smythe's calls," said Jenkins, when he returned. "If he wants me, he must either ring or fetch me. If I once began it, I should be running in and out of his room all day, and I've quite enough to do without that."
"Fidgety, eh?" Richard suggested.
"Fidgety's no word for it, I tell you. Alder—that's the manager, you know—said only yesterday that he has less trouble with forty Chancery actions of Curpet's than with one county-court case of Smythe's. I know I'd a jolly sight sooner write forty of Curpet's letters than ten of Smythe's. I wish I'd got your place, and you'd got mine. I suppose you can write shorthand rather fast."
"Middling," said Richard. "About 120."
"Oh! We had a man once who could do 150, but he'd been a newspaper reporter. I do a bit over a hundred, if I've not had much to drink overnight. Let's see, they're giving you twenty-five bob, aren't they?"
"The man before you had thirty-five, and he couldn't spell worth a brass button. I only get fifteen, although I've been here seven years. A damn shame I call it! But Curpet's beastly near. If he'd give some other people less, and me a bit more...."
"Who are 'some other people'?" asked Richard, smiling.
"Well, there's old Aked. He sits in the outer office—you won't have seen him because he doesn't generally come till eleven. They give him a pound a week, just for doing a bit of engrossing when he feels inclined to engross, and for being idle when he feels inclined to be idle. He's a broken-down something or other,—used to be clerk to Curpet's father. He has some dibs of his own, and this just finds him amusement. I bet he doesn't do fifty folios a week. And he's got the devil's own temper."
Jenkins was proceeding to describe other members of the staff when the entry of Mr. Curpet himself put an end to the recital. Mr. Curpet was a small man, with a round face and a neatly trimmed beard.
"Good morning, Larch. If you'll kindly come into my room, I'll dictate my letters. Good morning, Jenkins." He smiled and withdrew, leaving Richard excessively surprised at his suave courtesy.
In his own room Mr. Curpet sat before a pile of letters, and motioned Richard to a side table.
"You will tell me if I go too fast," he said, and began to dictate regularly, with scarcely a pause. The pile of letters gradually disappeared into a basket. Before half a dozen letters were done Richard comprehended that he had become part of a business machine of far greater magnitude than anything to which he had been accustomed in Bursley. This little man with the round face dealt impassively with tens of thousands of pounds; he mortgaged whole streets, bullied railway companies, and wrote familiarly to lords. In the middle of one long letter, a man came panting in, whom Richard at once took for Mr. Alder, the Chancery manager. His rather battered silk hat was at the back of his head, and he looked distressed.
"I'm sorry to say we've lost that summons in Rice v. The L. R. Railway."
"Really!" said Mr. Curpet. "Better appeal, and brief a leader, eh?"
"Can't appeal, Mr. Curpet."
"Well, we must make the best of it. Telegraph to the country. I'll write and keep them calm. It's a pity they were so sure. Rice will have to economise for a year or two. What was my last word, Larch?" The dictation proceeded.
One hour was allowed for lunch, and Richard spent the first moiety of it in viewing the ambrosial exteriors of Strand restaurants. With the exception of the coffee-house at Bursley, he had never been in a restaurant in his life, and he was timid of entering any of those sumptuous establishments whose swinging doors gave glimpses of richly decorated ceilings, gleaming tablecloths, and men in silk hats greedily consuming dishes placed before them by obsequious waiters.
At last, without quite knowing how he got there, he sat in a long, low apartment, papered like an attic bedroom, and odorous of tea and cake. The place was crowded with young men and women indifferently well-dressed, who bent over uncomfortably small oblong marble-topped tables. An increasing clatter of crockery filled the air. Waitresses, with pale, vacant faces, dressed in dingy black with white aprons, moved about with difficulty at varying rates of speed, but none of them seemed to betray an interest in Richard. Behind the counter, on which stood great polished urns emitting clouds of steam, were several women whose superior rank in the restaurant was denoted by a black apron, and after five minutes had elapsed Richard observed one of these damsels pointing out himself to a waitress, who approached and listened condescendingly to his order.
A thin man, rather more than middle-aged, with a grey beard and slightly red nose, entered and sat down opposite to Richard. Without preface he began, speaking rather fast and with an expressive vivacity rarely met with in the ageing,—
"Well, my young friend, how do you like your new place?"
Richard stared at him.
"Are you Mr. Aked?"
"The same. I suppose Master Jenkins has made you acquainted with all my peculiarities of temper and temperament.—Glass of milk, roll, and two pats of butter—and, I say, my girl, try not to keep me waiting as long as you did yesterday." There was a bright smile on his face, which the waitress unwillingly returned.
"Don't you know," he went on, looking at Richard's plate,—"don't you know that tea and ham together are frightfully indigestible?"
"I never have indigestion."
"No matter. You soon will have if you eat tea and ham together. A young man should guard his digestion like his honour. Sounds funny, doesn't it? But it's right. An impaired digestive apparatus has ruined many a career. It ruined mine. You see before you, sir, what might have been an author of repute, but for a wayward stomach."
"You write?" Richard asked, interested at once, but afraid lest Mr. Aked might be cumbrously joking.
"I used to." The old man spoke with proud self-consciousness.