The History of Mr. Polly
The History of Mr. Polly
H. G. Wells
Chapter the First
Chapter the Second
Chapter the Third
Chapter the Fourth
Chapter the Fifth
Chapter the Sixth
Chapter the Seventh
Chapter the Eighth
Chapter the Ninth
Chapter the Tenth
Beginnings, and the Bazaar
“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly
increased emphasis: “’Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of
his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”
He was sitting on a stile between two threadbare looking fields, and
suffering acutely from indigestion.
He suffered from indigestion now nearly every afternoon in his life,
but as he lacked introspection he projected the associated discomfort
upon the world. Every afternoon he discovered afresh that life as a
whole and every aspect of life that presented itself was “beastly.”
And this afternoon, lured by the delusive blueness of a sky that was
blue because the wind was in the east, he had come out in the hope of
snatching something of the joyousness of spring. The mysterious
alchemy of mind and body refused, however, to permit any joyousness
whatever in the spring.
He had had a little difficulty in finding his cap before he came out.
He wanted his cap—the new golf cap—and Mrs. Polly must needs fish
out his old soft brown felt hat. “’Ere’s your ’at,” she said in a
tone of insincere encouragement.
He had been routing among the piled newspapers under the kitchen
dresser, and had turned quite hopefully and taken the thing. He put it
on. But it didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. He put a trembling
hand upon the crown of the thing and pressed it on his head, and tried
it askew to the right and then askew to the left.
Then the full sense of the indignity offered him came home to him. The
hat masked the upper sinister quarter of his face, and he spoke with a
wrathful eye regarding his wife from under the brim. In a voice thick
with fury he said: “I s’pose you’d like me to wear that silly Mud Pie
for ever, eh? I tell you I won’t. I’m sick of it. I’m pretty near sick
of everything, comes to that.... Hat!”
He clutched it with quivering fingers. “Hat!” he repeated. Then he
flung it to the ground, and kicked it with extraordinary fury across
the kitchen. It flew up against the door and dropped to the ground
with its ribbon band half off.
“Shan’t go out!” he said, and sticking his hands into his jacket
pockets discovered the missing cap in the right one.
There was nothing for it but to go straight upstairs without a word,
and out, slamming the shop door hard.
“Beauty!” said Mrs. Polly at last to a tremendous silence, picking up
and dusting the rejected headdress. “Tantrums,” she added. “I ’aven’t
patience.” And moving with the slow reluctance of a deeply offended
woman, she began to pile together the simple apparatus of their recent
meal, for transportation to the scullery sink.
The repast she had prepared for him did not seem to her to justify his
ingratitude. There had been the cold pork from Sunday and some nice
cold potatoes, and Rashdall’s Mixed Pickles, of which he was
inordinately fond. He had eaten three gherkins, two onions, a small
cauliflower head and several capers with every appearance of appetite,
and indeed with avidity; and then there had been cold suet pudding to
follow, with treacle, and then a nice bit of cheese. It was the pale,
hard sort of cheese he liked; red cheese he declared was indigestible.
He had also had three big slices of greyish baker’s bread, and had
drunk the best part of the jugful of beer.... But there seems to be no
pleasing some people.
“Tantrums!” said Mrs. Polly at the sink, struggling with the mustard
on his plate and expressing the only solution of the problem that
occurred to her.
And Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of
life—which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He
hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and
his wife and his neighbours—every blessed neighbour—and with
indescribable bitterness he hated himself.
“Why did I ever get in this silly Hole?” he said. “Why did I ever?”
He sat on the stile, and looked with eyes that seemed blurred with
impalpable flaws at a world in which even the spring buds were wilted,
the sunlight metallic and the shadows mixed with blue-black ink.
To the moralist I know he might have served as a figure of sinful
discontent, but that is because it is the habit of moralists to ignore
material circumstances,—if indeed one may speak of a recent meal as a
circumstance,—with Mr. Polly circum. Drink, indeed, our teachers
will criticise nowadays both as regards quantity and quality, but
neither church nor state nor school will raise a warning finger
between a man and his hunger and his wife’s catering. So on nearly
every day in his life Mr. Polly fell into a violent rage and hatred
against the outer world in the afternoon, and never suspected that it
was this inner world to which I am with such masterly delicacy
alluding, that was thus reflecting its sinister disorder upon the
things without. It is a pity that some human beings are not more
transparent. If Mr. Polly, for example, had been transparent or even
passably translucent, then perhaps he might have realised from the
Laocoon struggle he would have glimpsed, that indeed he was not so
much a human being as a civil war.
Wonderful things must have been going on inside Mr. Polly. Oh!
wonderful things. It must have been like a badly managed industrial
city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence,
strikes, the forces of law and order doing their best, rushings to and
fro, upheavals, the Marseillaise, tumbrils, the rumble and the
thunder of the tumbrils....
I do not know why the east wind aggravates life to unhealthy people.
It made Mr. Polly’s teeth seem loose in his head, and his skin feel
like a misfit, and his hair a dry, stringy exasperation....
Why cannot doctors give us an antidote to the east wind?
“Never have the sense to get your hair cut till it’s too long,” said
Mr. Polly catching sight of his shadow, “you blighted, degenerated
Paintbrush! Ugh!” and he flattened down the projecting tails with an
Mr. Polly’s age was exactly thirty-five years and a half. He was a
short, compact figure, and a little inclined to a localised
embonpoint. His face was not unpleasing; the features fine, but a
trifle too pointed about the nose to be classically perfect. The
corners of his sensitive mouth were depressed. His eyes were ruddy
brown and troubled, and the left one was round with more of wonder in
it than its fellow. His complexion was dull and yellowish. That, as I
have explained, on account of those civil disturbances. He was, in the
technical sense of the word, clean shaved, with a small sallow patch
under the right ear and a cut on the chin. His brow had the little
puckerings of a thoroughly discontented man, little wrinklings and
lumps, particularly over his right eye, and he sat with his hands in
his pockets, a little askew on the stile and swung one leg. “Hole!” he
He broke into a quavering song. “Ro-o-o-tten Be-e-astly Silly Hole!”
His voice thickened with rage, and the rest of his discourse was
marred by an unfortunate choice of epithets.
He was dressed in a shabby black morning coat and vest; the braid that
bound these garments was a little loose in places; his collar was
chosen from stock and with projecting corners, technically a
“wing-poke”; that and his tie, which was new and loose and rich in
colouring, had been selected to encourage and stimulate customers—for
he dealt in gentlemen’s outfitting. His golf cap, which was also from
stock and aslant over his eye, gave his misery a desperate touch. He
wore brown leather boots—because he hated the smell of blacking.
Perhaps after all it was not simply indigestion that troubled him.
Behind the superficialities of Mr. Polly’s being, moved a larger and
vaguer distress. The elementary education he had acquired had left him
with the impression that arithmetic was a fluky science and best
avoided in practical affairs, but even the absence of book-keeping and
a total inability to distinguish between capital and interest could
not blind him for ever to the fact that the little shop in the High
Street was not paying. An absence of returns, a constriction of
credit, a depleted till, the most valiant resolves to keep smiling,
could not prevail for ever against these insistent phenomena. One
might bustle about in the morning before dinner, and in the afternoon
after tea and forget that huge dark cloud of insolvency that gathered
and spread in the background, but it was part of the desolation of
these afternoon periods, these grey spaces of time after meals, when
all one’s courage had descended to the unseen battles of the pit, that
life seemed stripped to the bone and one saw with a hopeless
Let me tell the history of Mr. Polly from the cradle to these present
“First the infant, mewling and puking in its nurse’s arms.”
There had been a time when two people had thought Mr. Polly the most
wonderful and adorable thing in the world, had kissed his toe-nails,
saying “myum, myum,” and marvelled at the exquisite softness and
delicacy of his hair, had called to one another to remark the peculiar
distinction with which he bubbled, had disputed whether the sound he
had made was just da da, or truly and intentionally dadda, had
washed him in the utmost detail, and wrapped him up in soft, warm
blankets, and smothered him with kisses. A regal time that was, and
four and thirty years ago; and a merciful forgetfulness barred Mr.
Polly from ever bringing its careless luxury, its autocratic demands
and instant obedience, into contrast with his present condition of
life. These two people had worshipped him from the crown of his head
to the soles of his exquisite feet. And also they had fed him rather
unwisely, for no one had ever troubled to teach his mother anything
about the mysteries of a child’s upbringing—though of course the
monthly nurse and her charwoman gave some valuable hints—and by his
fifth birthday the perfect rhythms of his nice new interior were
already darkened with perplexity ....
His mother died when he was seven.
He began only to have distinctive memories of himself in the time when
his education had already begun.
I remember seeing a picture of Education—in some place. I think it
was Education, but quite conceivably it represented the Empire
teaching her Sons, and I have a strong impression that it was a wall
painting upon some public building in Manchester or Birmingham or
Glasgow, but very possibly I am mistaken about that. It represented a
glorious woman with a wise and fearless face stooping over her
children and pointing them to far horizons. The sky displayed the
pearly warmth of a summer dawn, and all the painting was marvellously
bright as if with the youth and hope of the delicately beautiful
children in the foreground. She was telling them, one felt, of the
great prospect of life that opened before them, of the spectacle of
the world, the splendours of sea and mountain they might travel and
see, the joys of skill they might acquire, of effort and the pride of
effort and the devotions and nobilities it was theirs to achieve.
Perhaps even she whispered of the warm triumphant mystery of love that
comes at last to those who have patience and unblemished hearts....
She was reminding them of their great heritage as English children,
rulers of more than one-fifth of mankind, of the obligation to do and
be the best that such a pride of empire entails, of their essential
nobility and knighthood and the restraints and the charities and the
disciplined strength that is becoming in knights and rulers....
The education of Mr. Polly did not follow this picture very closely.
He went for some time to a National School, which was run on severely
economical lines to keep down the rates by a largely untrained staff,
he was set sums to do that he did not understand, and that no one made
him understand, he was made to read the catechism and Bible with the
utmost industry and an entire disregard of punctuation or
significance, and caused to imitate writing copies and drawing copies,
and given object lessons upon sealing wax and silk-worms and potato
bugs and ginger and iron and such like things, and taught various
other subjects his mind refused to entertain, and afterwards, when he
was about twelve, he was jerked by his parent to “finish off” in a
private school of dingy aspect and still dingier pretensions, where
there were no object lessons, and the studies of book-keeping and
French were pursued (but never effectually overtaken) under the
guidance of an elderly gentleman who wore a nondescript gown and took
snuff, wrote copperplate, explained nothing, and used a cane with
remarkable dexterity and gusto.
Mr. Polly went into the National School at six and he left the private
school at fourteen, and by that time his mind was in much the same
state that you would be in, dear reader, if you were operated upon for
appendicitis by a well-meaning, boldly enterprising, but rather
over-worked and under-paid butcher boy, who was superseded towards the
climax of the operation by a left-handed clerk of high principles but
intemperate habits,—that is to say, it was in a thorough mess. The
nice little curiosities and willingnesses of a child were in a jumbled
and thwarted condition, hacked and cut about—the operators had left,
so to speak, all their sponges and ligatures in the mangled
confusion—and Mr. Polly had lost much of his natural confidence, so
far as figures and sciences and languages and the possibilities of
learning things were concerned. He thought of the present world no
longer as a wonderland of experiences, but as geography and history,
as the repeating of names that were hard to pronounce, and lists of
products and populations and heights and lengths, and as lists and
dates—oh! and boredom indescribable. He thought of religion as the
recital of more or less incomprehensible words that were hard to
remember, and of the Divinity as of a limitless Being having the
nature of a schoolmaster and making infinite rules, known and unknown
rules, that were always ruthlessly enforced, and with an infinite
capacity for punishment and, most horrible of all to think of!
limitless powers of espial. (So to the best of his ability he did not
think of that unrelenting eye.) He was uncertain about the spelling
and pronunciation of most of the words in our beautiful but abundant
and perplexing tongue,—that especially was a pity because words
attracted him, and under happier conditions he might have used them
well—he was always doubtful whether it was eight sevens or nine
eights that was sixty-three—(he knew no method for settling the
difficulty) and he thought the merit of a drawing consisted in the
care with which it was “lined in.” “Lining in” bored him beyond
But the indigestions of mind and body that were to play so large a
part in his subsequent career were still only beginning. His liver and
his gastric juice, his wonder and imagination kept up a fight against
the things that threatened to overwhelm soul and body together.
Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still
intensely curious. He had cheerful phases of enterprise, and about
thirteen he suddenly discovered reading and its joys. He began to read
stories voraciously, and books of travel, provided they were also
adventurous. He got these chiefly from the local institute, and he
also “took in,” irregularly but thoroughly, one of those inspiring
weeklies that dull people used to call “penny dreadfuls,” admirable
weeklies crammed with imagination that the cheap boys’ “comics” of
to-day have replaced. At fourteen, when he emerged from the valley of
the shadow of education, there survived something, indeed it survived
still, obscured and thwarted, at five and thirty, that pointed—not
with a visible and prevailing finger like the finger of that beautiful
woman in the picture, but pointed nevertheless—to the idea that there
was interest and happiness in the world. Deep in the being of Mr.
Polly, deep in that darkness, like a creature which has been beaten
about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion
that over and above the things that are jolly and “bits of all right,”
there was beauty, there was delight, that somewhere—magically
inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere, were pure and easy and
joyous states of body and mind.
He would sneak out on moonless winter nights and stare up at the
stars, and afterwards find it difficult to tell his father where he
He would read tales about hunters and explorers, and imagine himself
riding mustangs as fleet as the wind across the prairies of Western
America, or coming as a conquering and adored white man into the
swarming villages of Central Africa. He shot bears with a revolver—a
cigarette in the other hand—and made a necklace of their teeth and
claws for the chief’s beautiful young daughter. Also he killed a lion
with a pointed stake, stabbing through the beast’s heart as it stood
He thought it would be splendid to be a diver and go down into the
dark green mysteries of the sea.
He led stormers against well-nigh impregnable forts, and died on the
ramparts at the moment of victory. (His grave was watered by a
He rammed and torpedoed ships, one against ten.
He was beloved by queens in barbaric lands, and reconciled whole
nations to the Christian faith.
He was martyred, and took it very calmly and beautifully—but only
once or twice after the Revivalist week. It did not become a habit
He explored the Amazon, and found, newly exposed by the fall of a
great tree, a rock of gold.
Engaged in these pursuits he would neglect the work immediately in
hand, sitting somewhat slackly on the form and projecting himself in a
manner tempting to a schoolmaster with a cane.... And twice he had
Recalled to the realities of life, he would rub himself or sigh deeply
as the occasion required, and resume his attempts to write as good as
copperplate. He hated writing; the ink always crept up his fingers and
the smell of ink offended him. And he was filled with unexpressed
doubts. Why should writing slope down from right to left? Why
should downstrokes be thick and upstrokes thin? Why should the
handle of one’s pen point over one’s right shoulder?
His copy books towards the end foreshadowed his destiny and took the
form of commercial documents. “Dear Sir,” they ran, “Referring to
your esteemed order of the 26th ult., we beg to inform you,” and so
The compression of Mr. Polly’s mind and soul in the educational
institutions of his time, was terminated abruptly by his father
between his fourteenth and fifteenth birthday. His father—who had
long since forgotten the time when his son’s little limbs seemed to
have come straight from God’s hand, and when he had kissed five minute
toe-nails in a rapture of loving tenderness—remarked:
“It’s time that dratted boy did something for a living.”
And a month or so later Mr. Polly began that career in business that
led him at last to the sole proprietorship of a bankrupt outfitter’s
shop—and to the stile on which he was sitting.
Mr. Polly was not naturally interested in hosiery and gentlemen’s
outfitting. At times, indeed, he urged himself to a spurious curiosity
about that trade, but presently something more congenial came along
and checked the effort. He was apprenticed in one of those large,
rather low-class establishments which sell everything, from pianos and
furniture to books and millinery, a department store in fact, The Port
Burdock Drapery Bazaar at Port Burdock, one of the three townships
that are grouped around the Port Burdock naval dockyards. There he
remained six years. He spent most of the time inattentive to business,
in a sort of uncomfortable happiness, increasing his indigestion.
On the whole he preferred business to school; the hours were longer
but the tension was not nearly so great. The place was better aired,
you were not kept in for no reason at all, and the cane was not
employed. You watched the growth of your moustache with interest and
impatience, and mastered the beginnings of social intercourse. You
talked, and found there were things amusing to say. Also you had
regular pocket money, and a voice in the purchase of your clothes, and
presently a small salary. And there were girls. And friendship! In the
retrospect Port Burdock sparkled with the facets of quite a cluster of
remembered jolly times.
(“Didn’t save much money though,” said Mr. Polly.)
The first apprentices’ dormitory was a long bleak room with six beds,
six chests of drawers and looking glasses and a number of boxes of
wood or tin; it opened into a still longer and bleaker room of eight
beds, and this into a third apartment with yellow grained paper and
American cloth tables, which was the dining-room by day and the men’s
sitting-and smoking-room after nine. Here Mr. Polly, who had been an
only child, first tasted the joys of social intercourse. At first
there were attempts to bully him on account of his refusal to consider
face washing a diurnal duty, but two fights with the apprentices next
above him, established a useful reputation for choler, and the
presence of girl apprentices in the shop somehow raised his standard
of cleanliness to a more acceptable level. He didn’t of course have
very much to do with the feminine staff in his department, but he
spoke to them casually as he traversed foreign parts of the Bazaar, or
got out of their way politely, or helped them to lift down heavy
boxes, and on such occasions he felt their scrutiny. Except in the
course of business or at meal times the men and women of the
establishment had very little opportunity of meeting; the men were in
their rooms and the girls in theirs. Yet these feminine creatures, at
once so near and so remote, affected him profoundly. He would watch
them going to and fro, and marvel secretly at the beauty of their hair
or the roundness of their necks or the warm softness of their cheeks
or the delicacy of their hands. He would fall into passions for them
at dinner time, and try and show devotions by his manner of passing
the bread and margarine at tea. There was a very fair-haired,
fair-skinned apprentice in the adjacent haberdashery to whom he said
“good-morning” every morning, and for a period it seemed to him the
most significant event in his day. When she said, “I do hope it will
be fine to-morrow,” he felt it marked an epoch. He had had no sisters,
and was innately disposed to worship womankind. But he did not betray
as much to Platt and Parsons.
To Platt and Parsons he affected an attitude of seasoned depravity
towards womankind. Platt and Parsons were his contemporary apprentices
in departments of the drapery shop, and the three were drawn together
into a close friendship by the fact that all their names began with P.
They decided they were the Three Ps, and went about together of an
evening with the bearing of desperate dogs. Sometimes, when they had
money, they went into public houses and had drinks. Then they would
become more desperate than ever, and walk along the pavement under the
gas lamps arm in arm singing. Platt had a good tenor voice, and had
been in a church choir, and so he led the singing; Parsons had a
serviceable bellow, which roared and faded and roared again very
wonderfully; Mr. Polly’s share was an extraordinary lowing noise, a
sort of flat recitative which he called “singing seconds.” They would
have sung catches if they had known how to do it, but as it was they
sang melancholy music hall songs about dying soldiers and the old
folks far away.
They would sometimes go into the quieter residential quarters of Port
Burdock, where policemen and other obstacles were infrequent, and
really let their voices soar like hawks and feel very happy. The dogs
of the district would be stirred to hopeless emulation, and would keep
it up for long after the Three Ps had been swallowed up by the night.
One jealous brute of an Irish terrier made a gallant attempt to bite
Parsons, but was beaten by numbers and solidarity.
The Three Ps took the utmost interest in each other and found no other
company so good. They talked about everything in the world, and would
go on talking in their dormitory after the gas was out until the other
men were reduced to throwing boots; they skulked from their
departments in the slack hours of the afternoon to gossip in the
packing-room of the warehouse; on Sundays and Bank holidays they went
for long walks together, talking.
Platt was white-faced and dark, and disposed to undertones and mystery
and a curiosity about society and the demi-monde. He kept himself
au courant by reading a penny paper of infinite suggestion called
Modern Society. Parsons was of an ampler build, already promising
fatness, with curly hair and a lot of rolling, rollicking, curly
features, and a large blob-shaped nose. He had a great memory and a
real interest in literature. He knew great portions of Shakespeare and
Milton by heart, and would recite them at the slightest provocation.
He read everything he could get hold of, and if he liked it he read it
aloud. It did not matter who else liked it. At first Mr. Polly was
disposed to be suspicious of this literature, but was carried away by
Parsons’ enthusiasm. The Three Ps went to a performance of “Romeo and
Juliet” at the Port Burdock Theatre Royal, and hung over the gallery
fascinated. After that they made a sort of password of: “Do you bite
your thumbs at Us, Sir?”
To which the countersign was: “We bite our thumbs.”
For weeks the glory of Shakespeare’s Verona lit Mr. Polly’s life. He
walked as though he carried a sword at his side, and swung a mantle
from his shoulders. He went through the grimy streets of Port Burdock
with his eye on the first floor windows—looking for balconies. A
ladder in the yard flooded his mind with romantic ideas. Then Parsons
discovered an Italian writer, whose name Mr. Polly rendered as
“Bocashieu,” and after some excursions into that author’s remains the
talk of Parsons became infested with the word “amours,” and Mr.
Polly would stand in front of his hosiery fixtures trifling with paper
and string and thinking of perennial picnics under dark olive trees in
the everlasting sunshine of Italy.
And about that time it was that all Three Ps adopted turn-down collars
and large, loose, artistic silk ties, which they tied very much on one
side and wore with an air of defiance. And a certain swashbuckling
And then came the glorious revelation of that great Frenchman whom Mr.
Polly called “Rabooloose.” The Three Ps thought the birth feast of
Gargantua the most glorious piece of writing in the world, and I am
not certain they were wrong, and on wet Sunday evenings where there
was danger of hymn singing they would get Parsons to read it aloud.
Towards the several members of the Y. M. C. A. who shared the
dormitory, the Three Ps always maintained a sarcastic and defiant
“We got a perfect right to do what we like in our corner,” Platt
maintained. “You do what you like in yours.”
“But the language!” objected Morrison, the white-faced, earnest-eyed
improver, who was leading a profoundly religious life under great
“Language, man!” roared Parsons, “why, it’s Literature!”
“Sunday isn’t the time for Literature.”
“It’s the only time we’ve got. And besides—”
The horrors of religious controversy would begin....
Mr. Polly stuck loyally to the Three Ps, but in the secret places of
his heart he was torn. A fire of conviction burnt in Morrison’s eyes
and spoke in his urgent persuasive voice; he lived the better life
manifestly, chaste in word and deed, industrious, studiously kindly.
When the junior apprentice had sore feet and homesickness Morrison
washed the feet and comforted the heart, and he helped other men to
get through with their work when he might have gone early, a
superhuman thing to do. Polly was secretly a little afraid to be left
alone with this man and the power of the spirit that was in him. He
Platt, also struggling with things his mind could not contrive to
reconcile, said “that confounded hypocrite.”
“He’s no hypocrite,” said Parsons, “he’s no hypocrite, O’ Man. But
he’s got no blessed Joy de Vive; that’s what’s wrong with him. Let’s
go down to the Harbour Arms and see some of those blessed old captains
“Short of sugar, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly, slapping his trouser pocket.
“Oh, carm on,” said Parsons. “Always do it on tuppence for a
“Lemme get my pipe on,” said Platt, who had recently taken to smoking
with great ferocity. “Then I’m with you.”
Pause and struggle.
“Don’t ram it down, O’ Man,” said Parsons, watching with knitted
brows. “Don’t ram it down. Give it Air. Seen my stick, O’ Man? Right
And leaning on his cane he composed himself in an attitude of
sympathetic patience towards Platt’s incendiary efforts.
Jolly days of companionship they were for the incipient bankrupt on
the stile to look back upon.
The interminable working hours of the Bazaar had long since faded from
his memory—except for one or two conspicuous rows and one or two
larks—but the rare Sundays and holidays shone out like diamonds among
pebbles. They shone with the mellow splendour of evening skies
reflected in calm water, and athwart them all went old Parsons
bellowing an interpretation of life, gesticulating, appreciating and
making appreciate, expounding books, talking of that mystery of his,
the “Joy de Vive.”
There were some particularly splendid walks on Bank holidays. The
Three Ps would start on Sunday morning early and find a room in some
modest inn and talk themselves asleep, and return singing through the
night, or having an “argy bargy” about the stars, on Monday evening.
They would come over the hills out of the pleasant English
country-side in which they had wandered, and see Port Burdock spread
out below, a network of interlacing street lamps and shifting tram
lights against the black, beacon-gemmed immensity of the harbour
“Back to the collar, O’ Man,” Parsons would say. There is no
satisfactory plural to O’ Man, so he always used it in the singular.
“Don’t mention it,” said Platt.
And once they got a boat for the whole summer day, and rowed up past
the moored ironclads and the black old hulks and the various shipping
of the harbour, past a white troopship and past the trim front and the
ships and interesting vistas of the dockyard to the shallow channels
and rocky weedy wildernesses of the upper harbour. And Parsons and Mr.
Polly had a great dispute and quarrel that day as to how far a big gun
The country over the hills behind Port Burdock is all that an
old-fashioned, scarcely disturbed English country-side should be. In
those days the bicycle was still rare and costly and the motor car had
yet to come and stir up rural serenities. The Three Ps would take
footpaths haphazard across fields, and plunge into unknown winding
lanes between high hedges of honeysuckle and dogrose. Greatly daring,
they would follow green bridle paths through primrose studded
undergrowths, or wander waist deep in the bracken of beech woods.
About twenty miles from Port Burdock there came a region of hop
gardens and hoast crowned farms, and further on, to be reached only by
cheap tickets at Bank Holiday times, was a sterile ridge of very clean
roads and red sand pits and pines and gorse and heather. The Three Ps
could not afford to buy bicycles and they found boots the greatest
item of their skimpy expenditure. They threw appearances to the winds
at last and got ready-made workingmen’s hob-nails. There was much
discussion and strong feeling over this step in the dormitory.
There is no country-side like the English country-side for those who
have learnt to love it; its firm yet gentle lines of hill and dale,
its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its
castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms
and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and
shining threads of rivers; its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards
and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other
country-sides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none
that shine so steadfastly throughout the year. Picardy is pink and
white and pleasant in the blossom time, Burgundy goes on with its
sunshine and wide hillsides and cramped vineyards, a beautiful tune
repeated and repeated, Italy gives salitas and wayside chapels and
chestnuts and olive orchards, the Ardennes has its woods and
gorges—Touraine and the Rhineland, the wide Campagna with its distant
Apennines, and the neat prosperities and mountain backgrounds of South
Germany, all clamour their especial merits at one’s memory. And there
are the hills and fields of Virginia, like an England grown very big
and slovenly, the woods and big river sweeps of Pennsylvania, the trim
New England landscape, a little bleak and rather fine like the New
England mind, and the wide rough country roads and hills and woodland
of New York State. But none of these change scene and character in
three miles of walking, nor have so mellow a sunlight nor so
diversified a cloudland, nor confess the perpetual refreshment of the
strong soft winds that blow from off the sea as our Mother England
It was good for the Three Ps to walk through such a land and forget
for a time that indeed they had no footing in it all, that they were
doomed to toil behind counters in such places as Port Burdock for the
better part of their lives. They would forget the customers and
shopwalkers and department buyers and everything, and become just
happy wanderers in a world of pleasant breezes and song birds and
The arrival at the inn was a great affair. No one, they were
convinced, would take them for drapers, and there might be a pretty
serving girl or a jolly old lady, or what Parsons called a “bit of
character” drinking in the bar.
There would always be weighty enquiries as to what they could have,
and it would work out always at cold beef and pickles, or fried ham
and eggs and shandygaff, two pints of beer and two bottles of ginger
beer foaming in a huge round-bellied jug.
The glorious moment of standing lordly in the inn doorway, and staring
out at the world, the swinging sign, the geese upon the green, the
duck-pond, a waiting waggon, the church tower, a sleepy cat, the blue
heavens, with the sizzle of the frying audible behind one! The keen
smell of the bacon! The trotting of feet bearing the repast; the click
and clatter as the tableware is finally arranged! A clean white cloth!
“Ready, Sir!” or “Ready, Gentlemen.” Better hearing that than “Forward
Polly! look sharp!”
The going in! The sitting down! The falling to!
“Bread, O’ Man?”
“Right O! Don’t bag all the crust, O’ Man.”
Once a simple mannered girl in a pink print dress stayed and talked
with them as they ate; led by the gallant Parsons they professed to be
all desperately in love with her, and courted her to say which she
preferred of them, it was so manifest she did prefer one and so
impossible to say which it was held her there, until a distant
maternal voice called her away. Afterwards as they left the inn she
waylaid them at the orchard corner and gave them, a little shyly,
three keen yellow-green apples—and wished them to come again some
day, and vanished, and reappeared looking after them as they turned
the corner—waving a white handkerchief. All the rest of that day they
disputed over the signs of her favour, and the next Sunday they went
But she had vanished, and a mother of forbidding aspect afforded no
If Platt and Parsons and Mr. Polly live to be a hundred, they will
none of them forget that girl as she stood with a pink flush upon her,
faintly smiling and yet earnest, parting the branches of the hedgerows
and reaching down apple in hand. Which of them was it, had caught her
spirit to attend to them?...
And once they went along the coast, following it as closely as
possible, and so came at last to Foxbourne, that easternmost suburb of
Brayling and Hampsted-on-the-Sea.
Foxbourne seemed a very jolly little place to Mr. Polly that
afternoon. It has a clean sandy beach instead of the mud and pebbles
and coaly défilements of Port Burdock, a row of six bathing
machines, and a shelter on the parade in which the Three Ps sat after
a satisfying but rather expensive lunch that had included celery. Rows
of verandahed villas proffered apartments, they had feasted in an
hotel with a porch painted white and gay with geraniums above, and the
High Street with the old church at the head had been full of an
agreeable afternoon stillness.
“Nice little place for business,” said Platt sagely from behind his
It stuck in Mr. Polly’s memory.
Mr. Polly was not so picturesque a youth as Parsons. He lacked
richness in his voice, and went about in those days with his hands in
his pockets looking quietly speculative.
He specialised in slang and the disuse of English, and he played the
rôle of an appreciative stimulant to Parsons. Words attracted him
curiously, words rich in suggestion, and he loved a novel and striking
phrase. His school training had given him little or no mastery of the
mysterious pronunciation of English and no confidence in himself. His
schoolmaster indeed had been both unsound and variable. New words had
terror and fascination for him; he did not acquire them, he could not
avoid them, and so he plunged into them. His only rule was not to be
misled by the spelling. That was no guide anyhow. He avoided every
recognised phrase in the language and mispronounced everything in
order that he shouldn’t be suspected of ignorance, but whim.
“Sesquippledan,” he would say. “Sesquippledan verboojuice.”
“Eh?” said Platt.
“Where?” asked Platt.
“In the warehouse, O’ Man. All among the table-cloths and blankets.
Carlyle. He’s reading aloud. Doing the High Froth. Spuming!
Windmilling! Waw, waw! It’s a sight worth seeing. He’ll bark his
blessed knuckles one of these days on the fixtures, O’ Man.”
He held an imaginary book in one hand and waved an eloquent gesture.
“So too shall every Hero inasmuch as notwithstanding for evermore come
back to Reality,” he parodied the enthusiastic Parsons, “so that in
fashion and thereby, upon things and not under things
articulariously He stands.”
“I should laugh if the Governor dropped on him,” said Platt. “He’d
never hear him coming.”
“The O’ Man’s drunk with it—fair drunk,” said Polly. “I never did.
It’s worse than when he got on to Raboloose.”
The Dismissal of Parsons
Suddenly Parsons got himself dismissed.
He got himself dismissed under circumstances of peculiar violence,
that left a deep impression on Mr. Polly’s mind. He wondered about it
for years afterwards, trying to get the rights of the case.
Parsons’ apprenticeship was over; he had reached the status of an
Improver, and he dressed the window of the Manchester department. By
all the standards available he dressed it very well. By his own
standards he dressed it wonderfully. “Well, O’ Man,” he used to say,
“there’s one thing about my position here,—I can dress a window.”
And when trouble was under discussion he would hold that “little
Fluffums”—which was the apprentices’ name for Mr. Garvace, the senior
partner and managing director of the Bazaar—would think twice before
he got rid of the only man in the place who could make a windowful of
Manchester goods tell.
Then like many a fellow artist he fell a prey to theories.
“The art of window dressing is in its infancy, O’ Man—in its blooming
Infancy. All balance and stiffness like a blessed Egyptian picture. No
Joy in it, no blooming Joy! Conventional. A shop window ought to get
hold of people, grip ’em as they go along. It stands to reason.
His voice would sink to a kind of quiet bellow. “Do they grip?”
Then after a pause, a savage roar; “Naw!”
“He’s got a Heavy on,” said Mr. Polly. “Go it, O’ Man; let’s have some
more of it.”
“Look at old Morrison’s dress-stuff windows! Tidy, tasteful, correct,
I grant you, but Bleak!” He let out the word reinforced to a shout;
“Bleak!” echoed Mr. Polly.
“Just pieces of stuff in rows, rows of tidy little puffs, perhaps one
bit just unrolled, quiet tickets.”
“Might as well be in church, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly.
“A window ought to be exciting,” said Parsons; “it ought to make you
say: El-lo! when you see it.”
He paused, and Platt watched him over a snorting pipe.
“Rockcockyo,” said Mr. Polly.
“We want a new school of window dressing,” said Parsons, regardless of
the comment. “A New School! The Port Burdock school. Day after
tomorrow I change the Fitzallan Street stuff. This time, it’s going to
be a change. I mean to have a crowd or bust!”
And as a matter of fact he did both.
His voice dropped to a note of self-reproach. “I’ve been timid, O’
Man. I’ve been holding myself in. I haven’t done myself Justice. I’ve
kept down the simmering, seething, teeming ideas.... All that’s over
“Over,” gulped Polly.
“Over for good and all, O’ Man.”
Platt came to Polly, who was sorting up collar boxes. “O’ Man’s doing
his Blooming Window.”
“What he said.”
He went on with his collar boxes with his eye on his senior,
Mansfield. Mansfield was presently called away to the counting house,
and instantly Polly shot out by the street door, and made a rapid
transit along the street front past the Manchester window, and so into
the silkroom door. He could not linger long, but he gathered joy, a
swift and fearful joy, from his brief inspection of Parsons’
unconscious back. Parsons had his tail coat off and was working with
vigour; his habit of pulling his waistcoat straps to the utmost
brought out all the agreeable promise of corpulence in his youthful
frame. He was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his
hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired.
All about his feet and knees were scarlet blankets, not folded, not
formally unfolded, but—the only phrase is—shied about. And a great
bar sinister of roller towelling stretched across the front of the
window on which was a ticket, and the ticket said in bold black
So soon as Mr. Polly got into the silk department and met Platt he
knew he had not lingered nearly long enough outside. “Did you see the
boards at the back?” said Platt.
He hadn’t. “The High Egrugious is fairly On,” he said, and dived down
to return by devious subterranean routes to the outfitting department.
Presently the street door opened and Platt, with an air of intense
devotion to business assumed to cover his adoption of that unusual
route, came in and made for the staircase down to the warehouse. He
rolled up his eyes at Polly. “Oh Lor!” he said and vanished.
Irresistible curiosity seized Polly. Should he go through the shop to
the Manchester department, or risk a second transit outside?
He was impelled to make a dive at the street door.
“Where are you going?” asked Mansfield.
“Lill Dog,” said Polly with an air of lucid explanation, and left him
to get any meaning he could from it.
Parsons was worth the subsequent trouble. Parsons really was extremely
rich. This time Polly stopped to take it in.
Parsons had made a huge symmetrical pile of thick white and red
blankets twisted and rolled to accentuate their woolly richness,
heaped up in a warm disorder, with large window tickets inscribed in
blazing red letters: “Cosy Comfort at Cut Prices,” and “Curl up and
Cuddle below Cost.” Regardless of the daylight he had turned up the
electric light on that side of the window to reflect a warm glow upon
the heap, and behind, in pursuit of contrasted bleakness, he was now
hanging long strips of grey silesia and chilly coloured linen
It was wonderful, but—
Mr. Polly decided that it was time he went in. He found Platt in the
silk department, apparently on the verge of another plunge into the
exterior world. “Cosy Comfort at Cut Prices,” said Polly.
“Allittritions Artful Aid.”
He did not dare go into the street for the third time, and he was
hovering feverishly near the window when he saw the governor, Mr.
Garvace, that is to say, the managing director of the Bazaar, walking
along the pavement after his manner to assure himself all was well
with the establishment he guided.
Mr. Garvace was a short stout man, with that air of modest pride that
so often goes with corpulence, choleric and decisive in manner, and
with hands that looked like bunches of fingers. He was red-haired and
ruddy, and after the custom of such complexions, hairs sprang from
the tip of his nose. When he wished to bring the power of the human
eye to bear upon an assistant, he projected his chest, knitted one
brow and partially closed the left eyelid.
An expression of speculative wonder overspread the countenance of Mr.
Polly. He felt he must see. Yes, whatever happened he must see.
“Want to speak to Parsons, Sir,” he said to Mr. Mansfield, and
deserted his post hastily, dashed through the intervening departments
and was in position behind a pile of Bolton sheeting as the governor
came in out of the street.
“What on Earth do you think you are doing with that window, Parsons?”
began Mr. Garvace.
Only the legs of Parsons and the lower part of his waistcoat and an
intervening inch of shirt were visible. He was standing inside the
window on the steps, hanging up the last strip of his background from
the brass rail along the ceiling. Within, the Manchester shop window
was cut off by a partition rather like the partition of an
old-fashioned church pew from the general space of the shop. There was
a panelled barrier, that is to say, with a little door like a pew door
in it. Parsons’ face appeared, staring with round eyes at his
Mr. Garvace had to repeat his question.
“Dressing it, Sir—on new lines.”
“Come out of it,” said Mr. Garvace.
Parsons stared, and Mr. Garvace had to repeat his command.
Parsons, with a dazed expression, began to descend the steps slowly.
Mr. Garvace turned about. “Where’s Morrison? Morrison!”
“Take this window over,” said Mr. Garvace pointing his bunch of
fingers at Parsons. “Take all this muddle out and dress it properly.”
Morrison advanced and hesitated.
“I beg your pardon, Sir,” said Parsons with an immense politeness,
“but this is my window.”
“Take it all out,” said Mr. Garvace, turning away.
Morrison advanced. Parsons shut the door with a click that arrested
“Come out of that window,” he said. “You can’t dress it. If you want
to play the fool with a window——”
“This window’s All Right,” said the genius in window dressing, and
there was a little pause.
“Open the door and go right in,” said Mr. Garvace to Morrison.
“You leave that door alone, Morrison,” said Parsons.
Polly was no longer even trying to hide behind the stack of Bolton
sheetings. He realised he was in the presence of forces too stupendous
to heed him.
“Get him out,” said Mr. Garvace.
Morrison seemed to be thinking out the ethics of his position. The
idea of loyalty to his employer prevailed with him. He laid his hand
on the door to open it; Parsons tried to disengage his hand. Mr.
Garvace joined his effort to Morrison’s. Then the heart of Polly leapt
and the world blazed up to wonder and splendour. Parsons disappeared
behind the partition for a moment and reappeared instantly, gripping a
thin cylinder of rolled huckaback. With this he smote at Morrison’s
head. Morrison’s head ducked under the resounding impact, but he clung
on and so did Mr. Garvace. The door came open, and then Mr. Garvace
was staggering back, hand to head; his autocratic, his sacred
baldness, smitten. Parsons was beyond all control—a strangeness, a
marvel. Heaven knows how the artistic struggle had strained that
richly endowed temperament. “Say I can’t dress a window, you
thundering old Humbug,” he said, and hurled the huckaback at his
master. He followed this up by hurling first a blanket, then an armful
of silesia, then a window support out of the window into the shop. It
leapt into Polly’s mind that Parsons hated his own effort and was glad
to demolish it. For a crowded second Polly’s mind was concentrated
upon Parsons, infuriated, active, like a figure of earthquake with
its coat off, shying things headlong.
Then he perceived the back of Mr. Garvace and heard his gubernatorial
voice crying to no one in particular and everybody in general: “Get
him out of the window. He’s mad. He’s dangerous. Get him out of the
Then a crimson blanket was for a moment over the head of Mr. Garvace,
and his voice, muffled for an instant, broke out into unwonted
Then people had arrived from all parts of the Bazaar. Luck, the ledger
clerk, blundered against Polly and said, “Help him!” Somerville from
the silks vaulted the counter, and seized a chair by the back. Polly
lost his head. He clawed at the Bolton sheeting before him, and if he
could have detached a piece he would certainly have hit somebody with
it. As it was he simply upset the pile. It fell away from Polly, and
he had an impression of somebody squeaking as it went down. It was the
sort of impression one disregards. The collapse of the pile of goods
just sufficed to end his subconscious efforts to get something to hit
somebody with, and his whole attention focussed itself upon the
struggle in the window. For a splendid instant Parsons towered up over
the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active
whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he
went under. There was an instant’s furious struggle, a crash, a second
crash and the crack of broken plate glass. Then a stillness and heavy
Parsons was overpowered....
Polly, stepping over scattered pieces of Bolton sheeting, saw his
transfigured friend with a dark cut, that was not at present bleeding,
on the forehead, one arm held by Somerville and the other by Morrison.
“You—you—you—you annoyed me,” said Parsons, sobbing for breath.
There are events that detach themselves from the general stream of
occurrences and seem to partake of the nature of revelations. Such was
this Parsons affair. It began by seeming grotesque; it ended
disconcertingly. The fabric of Mr. Polly’s daily life was torn, and
beneath it he discovered depths and terrors.
Life was not altogether a lark.
The calling in of a policeman seemed at the moment a pantomime touch.
But when it became manifest that Mr. Garvace was in a fury of
vindictiveness, the affair took on a different complexion. The way in
which the policeman made a note of everything and aspirated nothing
impressed the sensitive mind of Polly profoundly. Polly presently
found himself straightening up ties to the refrain of “’E then ’It you
on the ’Ed and——”
In the dormitory that night Parsons had become heroic. He sat on the
edge of the bed with his head bandaged, packing very slowly and
insisting over and again: “He ought to have left my window alone, O’
Man. He didn’t ought to have touched my window.”
Polly was to go to the police court in the morning as a witness. The
terror of that ordeal almost overshadowed the tragic fact that Parsons
was not only summoned for assault, but “swapped,” and packing his box.
Polly knew himself well enough to know he would make a bad witness. He
felt sure of one fact only, namely, that “’E then ’It ’Im on the ’Ed
and—” All the rest danced about in his mind now, and how it would
dance about on the morrow Heaven only knew. Would there be a
cross-examination? Is it perjoocery to make a slip? People did
sometimes perjuice themselves. Serious offence.
Platt was doing his best to help Parsons, and inciting public opinion
against Morrison. But Parsons would not hear of anything against
Morrison. “He was all right, O’ Man—according to his lights,” said
Parsons. “It isn’t him I complain of.”
He speculated on the morrow. “I shall ’ave to pay a fine,” he said.
“No good trying to get out of it. It’s true I hit him. I hit him”—he
paused and seemed to be seeking an exquisite accuracy. His voice sank
to a confidential note;—“On the head—about here.”
He answered the suggestion of a bright junior apprentice in a corner
of the dormitory. “What’s the Good of a Cross summons?” he replied;
“with old Corks, the chemist, and Mottishead, the house agent, and all
that lot on the Bench? Humble Pie, that’s my meal to-morrow, O’ Man.
Packing went on for a time.
“But Lord! what a Life it is!” said Parsons, giving his deep notes
scope. “Ten-thirty-five a man trying to do his Duty, mistaken perhaps,
but trying his best; ten-forty—Ruined! Ruined!” He lifted his voice
to a shout. “Ruined!” and dropped it to “Like an earthquake.”
“Heated altaclation,” said Polly.
“Like a blooming earthquake!” said Parsons, with the notes of a rising
He meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded
Polly’s mind. “Likely to get another crib, ain’t I—with assaulted the
guvnor on my reference. I suppose, though, he won’t give me refs. Hard
enough to get a crib at the best of times,” said Parsons.
“You ought to go round with a show, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly.
Things were not so dreadful in the police court as Mr. Polly had
expected. He was given a seat with other witnesses against the wall of
the court, and after an interesting larceny case Parsons appeared and
stood, not in the dock, but at the table. By that time Mr. Polly’s
legs, which had been tucked up at first under his chair out of respect
to the court, were extended straight before him and his hands were in
his trouser pockets. He was inventing names for the four magistrates
on the bench, and had got to “the Grave and Reverend Signor with the
palatial Boko,” when his thoughts were recalled to gravity by the
sound of his name. He rose with alacrity and was fielded by an expert
policeman from a brisk attempt to get into the vacant dock. The clerk
to the Justices repeated the oath with incredible rapidity.
“Right O,” said Mr. Polly, but quite respectfully, and kissed the
His evidence was simple and quite audible after one warning from the
superintendent of police to “speak up.” He tried to put in a good word
for Parsons by saying he was “naturally of a choleraic disposition,”
but the start and the slow grin of enjoyment upon the face of the
grave and Reverend Signor with the palatial Boko suggested that the
word was not so good as he had thought it. The rest of the bench was
frankly puzzled and there were hasty consultations.
“You mean ’E ’As a ’Ot temper,” said the presiding magistrate.
“I mean ’E ’As a ’Ot temper,” replied Polly, magically incapable of
aspirates for the moment.
“You don’t mean ’E ketches cholera.”
“I mean—he’s easily put out.”
“Then why can’t you say so?” said the presiding magistrate.
Parsons was bound over.
He came for his luggage while every one was in the shop, and Garvace
would not let him invade the business to say good-by. When Mr. Polly
went upstairs for margarine and bread and tea, he slipped on into the
dormitory at once to see what was happening further in the Parsons
case. But Parsons had vanished. There was no Parsons, no trace of
Parsons. His cubicle was swept and garnished. For the first time in
his life Polly had a sense of irreparable loss.
A minute or so after Platt dashed in.
“Ugh!” he said, and then discovered Polly. Polly was leaning out of
the window and did not look around. Platt went up to him.
“He’s gone already,” said Platt. “Might have stopped to say good-by to
There was a little pause before Polly replied. He thrust his finger
into his mouth and gulped.
“Bit on that beastly tooth of mine,” he said, still not looking at
Platt. “It’s made my eyes water, something chronic. Any one might
think I’d been doing a blooming Pipe, by the look of me.”
Port Burdock was never the same place for Mr. Polly after Parsons had
left it. There were no chest notes in his occasional letters, and
little of the “Joy de Vive” got through by them. Parsons had gone, he
said, to London, and found a place as warehouseman in a cheap
outfitting shop near St. Paul’s Churchyard, where references were not
required. It became apparent as time passed that new interests were
absorbing him. He wrote of socialism and the rights of man, things
that had no appeal for Mr. Polly. He felt strangers had got hold of
his Parsons, were at work upon him, making him into someone else,
something less picturesque.... Port Burdock became a dreariness full
of faded memories of Parsons and work a bore. Platt revealed himself
alone as a tiresome companion, obsessed by romantic ideas about
intrigues and vices and “society women.”
Mr. Polly’s depression manifested itself in a general slackness. A
certain impatience in the manner of Mr. Garvace presently got upon his
nerves. Relations were becoming strained. He asked for a rise of
salary to test his position, and gave notice to leave when it was
It took him two months to place himself in another situation, and
during that time he had quite a disagreeable amount of loneliness,
disappointment, anxiety and humiliation.
He went at first to stay with a married cousin who had a house at
Easewood. His widowed father had recently given up the music and
bicycle shop (with the post of organist at the parish church) that had
sustained his home, and was living upon a small annuity as a guest
with this cousin, and growing a little tiresome on account of some
mysterious internal discomfort that the local practitioner diagnosed
as imagination. He had aged with mysterious rapidity and become
excessively irritable, but the cousin’s wife was a born manager, and
contrived to get along with him. Our Mr. Polly’s status was that of a
guest pure and simple, but after a fortnight of congested hospitality
in which he wrote nearly a hundred letters beginning:
Referring to your advt. in the “Christian World” for an improver in
Gents’ outfitting I beg to submit myself for the situation. Have had
six years’ experience....
and upset a bottle of ink over a toilet cover and the bedroom carpet,
his cousin took him for a walk and pointed out the superior advantages
of apartments in London from which to swoop upon the briefly yawning
“Helpful,” said Mr. Polly; “very helpful, O’ Man indeed. I might have
gone on there for weeks,” and packed.
He got a room in an institution that was partly a benevolent hostel
for men in his circumstances and partly a high minded but forbidding
coffee house and a centre for pleasant Sunday afternoons. Mr. Polly
spent a critical but pleasant Sunday afternoon in a back seat,
inventing such phrases as:
“Soulful Owner of the Exorbiant Largenial Development.”—An Adam’s
Apple being in question.
“Exultant, Urgent Loogoobuosity.”
A manly young curate, marking and misunderstanding his preoccupied
face and moving lips, came and sat by him and entered into
conversation with the idea of making him feel more at home. The
conversation was awkward and disconnected for a minute or so, and then
suddenly a memory of the Port Burdock Bazaar occurred to Mr. Polly,
and with a baffling whisper of “Lill’ dog,” and a reassuring nod, he
rose up and escaped, to wander out relieved and observant into the
varied London streets.
He found the collection of men he found waiting about in wholesale
establishments in Wood Street and St. Paul’s Churchyard (where they
interview the buyers who have come up from the country) interesting
and stimulating, but far too strongly charged with the suggestion of
his own fate to be really joyful. There were men in all degrees
between confidence and distress, and in every stage between
extravagant smartness and the last stages of decay. There were sunny
young men full of an abounding and elbowing energy, before whom the
soul of Polly sank in hate and dismay. “Smart Juniors,” said Polly to
himself, “full of Smart Juniosity. The Shoveacious Cult.” There were
hungry looking individuals of thirty-five or so that he decided must
be “Proletelerians”—he had often wanted to find someone who fitted
that attractive word. Middle-aged men, “too Old at Forty,” discoursed
in the waiting-rooms on the outlook in the trade; it had never been so
bad, they said, while Mr. Polly wondered if “De-juiced” was a
permissible epithet. There were men with an overweening sense of their
importance, manifestly annoyed and angry to find themselves still
disengaged, and inclined to suspect a plot, and men so faint-hearted
one was terrified to imagine their behaviour when it came to an
interview. There was a fresh-faced young man with an unintelligent
face who seemed to think himself equipped against the world beyond all
misadventure by a collar of exceptional height, and another who
introduced a note of gaiety by wearing a flannel shirt and a check
suit of remarkable virulence. Every day Mr. Polly looked round to mark
how many of the familiar faces had gone, and the deepening anxiety
(reflecting his own) on the faces that remained, and every day some
new type joined the drifting shoal. He realised how small a chance his
poor letter from Easewood ran against this hungry cluster of
competitors at the fountain head.
At the back of Mr. Polly’s mind while he made his observations was a
disagreeable flavour of dentist’s parlour. At any moment his name
might be shouted, and he might have to haul himself into the presence
of some fresh specimen of employer, and to repeat once more his
passionate protestation of interest in the business, his possession of
a capacity for zeal—zeal on behalf of anyone who would pay him a
yearly salary of twenty-six pounds a year.
The prospective employer would unfold his ideals of the employee. “I
want a smart, willing young man, thoroughly willing—who won’t object
to take trouble. I don’t want a slacker, the sort of fellow who has to
be pushed up to his work and held there. I’ve got no use for him.”
At the back of Mr. Polly’s mind, and quite beyond his control, the
insubordinate phrasemaker would be proffering such combinations as
“Chubby Chops,” or “Chubby Charmer,” as suitable for the gentleman,
very much as a hat salesman proffers hats.
“I don’t think you’d find much slackness about me, sir,” said Mr.
Polly brightly, trying to disregard his deeper self.
“I want a young man who means getting on.”
“Exactly, sir. Excelsior.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said excelsior, sir. It’s a sort of motto of mine. From Longfellow.
Would you want me to serve through?”
The chubby gentleman explained and reverted to his ideals, with a
faint air of suspicion. “Do you mean getting on?” he asked.
“I hope so, sir,” said Mr. Polly.
“Get on or get out, eh?”
Mr. Polly made a rapturous noise, nodded appreciation, and said
indistinctly—“Quite my style.”
“Some of my people have been with me twenty years,” said the employer.
“My Manchester buyer came to me as a boy of twelve. You’re a
“Church of England,” said Mr. Polly.
“H’m,” said the employer a little checked. “For good all round
business work I should have preferred a Baptist. Still—”
He studied Mr. Polly’s tie, which was severely neat and businesslike,
as became an aspiring outfitter. Mr. Polly’s conception of his own
pose and expression was rendered by that uncontrollable phrasemonger
at the back as “Obsequies Deference.”
“I am inclined,” said the prospective employer in a conclusive manner,
“to look up your reference.”
Mr. Polly stood up abruptly.
“Thank you,” said the employer and dismissed him.
“Chump chops! How about chump chops?” said the phrasemonger with an
air of inspiration.
“I hope then to hear from you, sir,” said Mr. Polly in his best
“If everything is satisfactory,” said the prospective employer.
A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and
nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a
lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins
of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and
Shakespeare with gusto, and uses “Stertoraneous Shover” and “Smart
Junior” as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a
great success under modern business conditions. Mr. Polly dreamt
always of picturesque and mellow things, and had an instinctive hatred
of the strenuous life. He would have resisted the spell of
ex-President Roosevelt, or General Baden Powell, or Mr. Peter Keary,
or the late Dr. Samuel Smiles, quite easily; and he loved Falstaff and
Hudibras and coarse laughter, and the old England of Washington Irving
and the memory of Charles the Second’s courtly days. His progress was
necessarily slow. He did not get rises; he lost situations; there was
something in his eye employers did not like; he would have lost his
places oftener if he had not been at times an exceptionally brilliant
salesman, rather carefully neat, and a slow but very fair
He went from situation to situation, he invented a great wealth of
nicknames, he conceived enmities and made friends—but none so richly
satisfying as Parsons. He was frequently but mildly and discursively
in love, and sometimes he thought of that girl who had given him a
yellow-green apple. He had an idea, amounting to a flattering
certainty, whose youthful freshness it was had stirred her to
self-forgetfulness. And sometimes he thought of Foxbourne sleeping
prosperously in the sun. And he began to have moods of discomfort and
lassitude and ill-temper due to the beginnings of indigestion.
Various forces and suggestions came into his life and swayed him for
longer and shorter periods.
He went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic
architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the
Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a
scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering
portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he
strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind
the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had
the strangest sense of being at home—far more than he had ever been
at home before. “Portly capóns,” he used to murmur to himself, under
the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval
He liked to sit in the nave during the service, and look through the
great gates at the candles and choristers, and listen to the
organ-sustained voices, but the transepts he never penetrated because
of the charge for admission. The music and the long vista of the
fretted roof filled him with a vague and mystical happiness that he
had no words, even mispronounceable words, to express. But some of the
smug monuments in the aisles got a wreath of epithets: “Metrorious
urnfuls,” “funererial claims,” “dejected angelosity,” for example. He
wandered about the precincts and speculated about the people who lived
in the ripe and cosy houses of grey stone that cluster there so
comfortably. Through green doors in high stone walls he caught
glimpses of level lawns and blazing flower beds; mullioned windows
revealed shaded reading lamps and disciplined shelves of brown bound
books. Now and then a dignitary in gaiters would pass him, “Portly
capon,” or a drift of white-robed choir boys cross a distant arcade
and vanish in a doorway, or the pink and cream of some girlish dress
flit like a butterfly across the cool still spaces of the place.
Particularly he responded to the ruined arches of the Benedictine’s
Infirmary and the view of Bell Harry tower from the school buildings.
He was stirred to read the Canterbury Tales, but he could not get on
with Chaucer’s old-fashioned English; it fatigued his attention, and
he would have given all the story telling very readily for a few
adventures on the road. He wanted these nice people to live more and
yarn less. He liked the Wife of Bath very much. He would have liked to
have known that woman.
At Canterbury, too, he first to his knowledge saw Americans.
His shop did a good class trade in Westgate Street, and he would see
them go by on the way to stare at Chaucer’s “Chequers,” and then turn
down Mercery Lane to Prior Goldstone’s gate. It impressed him that
they were always in a kind of quiet hurry, and very determined and
methodical people,—much more so than any English he knew.
“Cultured Rapacicity,” he tried.
“Vorocious Return to the Heritage.”
He would expound them incidentally to his attendant apprentices. He
had overheard a little lady putting her view to a friend near the
Christchurch gate. The accent and intonation had hung in his memory,
and he would reproduce them more or less accurately. “Now does this
Marlowe monument really and truly matter?” he had heard the little
lady enquire. “We’ve no time for side shows and second rate stunts,
Mamie. We want just the Big Simple Things of the place, just the Broad
Elemental Canterbury praposition. What is it saying to us? I want to
get right hold of that, and then have tea in the very room that
Chaucer did, and hustle to get that four-eighteen train back to
He would go over these precious phrases, finding them full of an
indescribable flavour. “Just the Broad Elemental Canterbury
praposition,” he would repeat....
He would try to imagine Parsons confronted with Americans. For his own
part he knew himself to be altogether inadequate....
Canterbury was the most congenial situation Mr. Polly ever found
during these wander years, albeit a very desert so far as
It was after Canterbury that the universe became really disagreeable
to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with
a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade.
It was not the trade he ought to have chosen, though what trade he
ought to have chosen was by no means clear.
He made great but irregular efforts and produced a forced smartness
that, like a cheap dye, refused to stand sunshine. He acquired a sort
of parsimony also, in which acquisition he was helped by one or two
phases of absolute impecuniosity. But he was hopeless in competition
against the naturally gifted, the born hustlers, the young men who
meant to get on.
He left the Canterbury place very regretfully. He and another
commercial gentleman took a boat one Sunday afternoon at
Sturry-on-the-Stour, when the wind was in the west, and sailed it very
happily eastward for an hour. They had never sailed a boat before and
it seemed simple and wonderful. When they turned they found the river
too narrow for tacking and the tide running out like a sluice. They
battled back to Sturry in the course of six hours (at a shilling the
first hour and six-pence for each hour afterwards) rowing a mile in an
hour and a half or so, until the turn of the tide came to help them,
and then they had a night walk to Canterbury, and found themselves
remorselessly locked out.
The Canterbury employer was an amiable, religious-spirited man and he
would probably not have dismissed Mr. Polly if that unfortunate
tendency to phrase things had not shocked him. “A Tide’s a Tide, Sir,”
said Mr. Polly, feeling that things were not so bad. “I’ve no
lune-attic power to alter that.”
It proved impossible to explain to the Canterbury employer that this
was not a highly disrespectful and blasphemous remark.
“And besides, what good are you to me this morning, do you think?”
said the Canterbury employer, “with your arms pulled out of their
So Mr. Polly resumed his observations in the Wood Street warehouses
once more, and had some dismal times. The shoal of fish waiting for
the crumbs of employment seemed larger than ever.
He took counsel with himself. Should he “chuck” the outfitting? It
wasn’t any good for him now, and presently when he was older and his
youthful smartness had passed into the dulness of middle age it would
be worse. What else could he do?
He could think of nothing. He went one night to a music hall and
developed a vague idea of a comic performance; the comic men seemed
violent rowdies and not at all funny; but when he thought of the great
pit of the audience yawning before him he realised that his was an
altogether too delicate talent for such a use. He was impressed by the
charm of selling vegetables by auction in one of those open shops near
London Bridge, but admitted upon reflection his general want of
technical knowledge. He made some enquiries about emigration, but none
of the colonies were in want of shop assistants without capital. He
kept up his attendance in Wood Street.
He subdued his ideal of salary by the sum of five pounds a year, and
was taken at that into a driving establishment in Clapham, which dealt
chiefly in ready-made suits, fed its assistants in an underground
dining-room and kept them until twelve on Saturdays. He found it hard
to be cheerful there. His fits of indigestion became worse, and he
began to lie awake at night and think. Sunshine and laughter seemed
things lost for ever; picnics and shouting in the moonlight.
The chief shopwalker took a dislike to him and nagged him. “Nar then
Polly!” “Look alive Polly!” became the burthen of his days. “As smart
a chap as you could have,” said the chief shopwalker, “but no Zest.
No Zest! No Vim! What’s the matter with you?”
During his night vigils Mr. Polly had a feeling—A young rabbit must
have very much the feeling, when after a youth of gambolling in sunny
woods and furtive jolly raids upon the growing wheat and exciting
triumphant bolts before ineffectual casual dogs, it finds itself at
last for a long night of floundering effort and perplexity, in a
net—for the rest of its life.
He could not grasp what was wrong with him. He made enormous efforts
to diagnose his case. Was he really just a “lazy slacker” who ought to
“buck up”? He couldn’t find it in him to believe it. He blamed his
father a good deal—it is what fathers are for—in putting him to a
trade he wasn’t happy to follow, but he found it impossible to say
what he ought to have followed. He felt there had been something
stupid about his school, but just where that came in he couldn’t say.
He made some perfectly sincere efforts to “buck up” and “shove”
ruthlessly. But that was infernal—impossible. He had to admit himself
miserable with all the misery of a social misfit, and with no clear
prospect of more than the most incidental happiness ahead of him. And
for all his attempts at self-reproach or self-discipline he felt at
bottom that he wasn’t at fault.
As a matter of fact all the elements of his troubles had been
adequately diagnosed by a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman
living at Highbury, wearing a gold pince-nez, and writing for the
most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club. This gentleman
did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally
as “one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has
failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for
order, commensurate with its complexities.”
But phrases of that sort had no appeal for Mr. Polly.
Mr. Polly an Orphan
Then a great change was brought about in the life of Mr. Polly by the
death of his father. His father had died suddenly—the local
practitioner still clung to his theory that it was imagination he
suffered from, but compromised in the certificate with the
appendicitis that was then so fashionable—and Mr. Polly found himself
heir to a debateable number of pieces of furniture in the house of his
cousin near Easewood Junction, a family Bible, an engraved portrait of
Garibaldi and a bust of Mr. Gladstone, an invalid gold watch, a gold
locket formerly belonging to his mother, some minor jewelry and
bric-a-brac, a quantity of nearly valueless old clothes and an
insurance policy and money in the bank amounting altogether to the sum
of three hundred and ninety-five pounds.
Mr. Polly had always regarded his father as an immortal, as an eternal
fact, and his father being of a reserved nature in his declining years
had said nothing about the insurance policy. Both wealth and
bereavement therefore took Mr. Polly by surprise and found him a
little inadequate. His mother’s death had been a childish grief and
long forgotten, and the strongest affection in his life had been for
Parsons. An only child of sociable tendencies necessarily turns his
back a good deal upon home, and the aunt who had succeeded his mother
was an economist and furniture polisher, a knuckle rapper and sharp
silencer, no friend for a slovenly little boy. He had loved other
little boys and girls transitorily, none had been frequent and
familiar enough to strike deep roots in his heart, and he had grown up
with a tattered and dissipated affectionateness that was becoming
wildly shy. His father had always been a stranger, an irritable
stranger with exceptional powers of intervention and comment, and an
air of being disappointed about his offspring. It was shocking to lose
him; it was like an unexpected hole in the universe, and the writing
of “Death” upon the sky, but it did not tear Mr. Polly’s heartstrings
at first so much as rouse him to a pitch of vivid attention.
He came down to the cottage at Easewood in response to an urgent
telegram, and found his father already dead. His cousin Johnson
received him with much solemnity and ushered him upstairs, to look at
a stiff, straight, shrouded form, with a face unwontedly quiet and, as
it seemed, with its pinched nostrils, scornful.
“Looks peaceful,” said Mr. Polly, disregarding the scorn to the best
of his ability.
“It was a merciful relief,” said Mr. Johnson.
There was a pause.
“Second—Second Departed I’ve ever seen. Not counting mummies,” said
Mr. Polly, feeling it necessary to say something.
“We did all we could.”
“No doubt of it, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly.
A second long pause followed, and then, much to Mr. Polly’s great
relief, Johnson moved towards the door.
Afterwards Mr. Polly went for a solitary walk in the evening light,
and as he walked, suddenly his dead father became real to him. He
thought of things far away down the perspective of memory, of jolly
moments when his father had skylarked with a wildly excited little
boy, of a certain annual visit to the Crystal Palace pantomime, full
of trivial glittering incidents and wonders, of his father’s dread
back while customers were in the old, minutely known shop. It is
curious that the memory which seemed to link him nearest to the dead
man was the memory of a fit of passion. His father had wanted to get a
small sofa up the narrow winding staircase from the little room behind
the shop to the bedroom above, and it had jammed. For a time his
father had coaxed, and then groaned like a soul in torment and given
way to blind fury, had sworn, kicked and struck at the offending piece
of furniture and finally wrenched it upstairs, with considerable
incidental damage to lath and plaster and one of the castors. That
moment when self-control was altogether torn aside, the shocked
discovery of his father’s perfect humanity, had left a singular
impression on Mr. Polly’s queer mind. It was as if something
extravagantly vital had come out of his father and laid a warmly
passionate hand upon his heart. He remembered that now very vividly,
and it became a clue to endless other memories that had else been
dispersed and confusing.
A weakly wilful being struggling to get obdurate things round
impossible corners—in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself
and all the trouble of humanity.
He hadn’t had a particularly good time, poor old chap, and now it was
all over. Finished....
Johnson was the sort of man who derives great satisfaction from a
funeral, a melancholy, serious, practical-minded man of five and
thirty, with great powers of advice. He was the up-line ticket clerk
at Easewood Junction, and felt the responsibilities of his position.
He was naturally thoughtful and reserved, and greatly sustained in
that by an innate rectitude of body and an overhanging and forward
inclination of the upper part of his face and head. He was pale but
freckled, and his dark grey eyes were deeply set. His lightest
interest was cricket, but he did not take that lightly. His chief
holiday was to go to a cricket match, which he did as if he was going
to church, and he watched critically, applauded sparingly, and was
darkly offended by any unorthodox play. His convictions upon all
subjects were taciturnly inflexible. He was an obstinate player of
draughts and chess, and an earnest and persistent reader of the
British Weekly. His wife was a pink, short, wilfully smiling,
managing, ingratiating, talkative woman, who was determined to be
pleasant, and take a bright hopeful view of everything, even when it
was not really bright and hopeful. She had large blue expressive eyes
and a round face, and she always spoke of her husband as Harold. She
addressed sympathetic and considerate remarks about the deceased to
Mr. Polly in notes of brisk encouragement. “He was really quite
cheerful at the end,” she said several times, with congratulatory
gusto, “quite cheerful.”
She made dying seem almost agreeable.
Both these people were resolved to treat Mr. Polly very well, and to
help his exceptional incompetence in every possible way, and after a
simple supper of ham and bread and cheese and pickles and cold apple
tart and small beer had been cleared away, they put him into the
armchair almost as though he was an invalid, and sat on chairs that
made them look down on him, and opened a directive discussion of the
arrangements for the funeral. After all a funeral is a distinct social
opportunity, and rare when you have no family and few relations, and
they did not want to see it spoilt and wasted.
“You’ll have a hearse of course,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Not one of them
combinations with the driver sitting on the coffin. Disrespectful I
think they are. I can’t fancy how people can bring themselves to be
buried in combinations.” She flattened her voice in a manner she used
to intimate aesthetic feeling. “I do like them glass hearses,” she
said. “So refined and nice they are.”
“Podger’s hearse you’ll have,” said Johnson conclusively. “It’s the
best in Easewood.”
“Everything that’s right and proper,” said Mr. Polly.
“Podger’s ready to come and measure at any time,” said Johnson.
“Then you’ll want a mourner’s carriage or two, according as to whom
you’re going to invite,” said Mr. Johnson.
“Didn’t think of inviting any one,” said Polly.
“Oh! you’ll have to ask a few friends,” said Mr. Johnson. “You can’t
let your father go to his grave without asking a few friends.”
“Funerial baked meats like,” said Mr. Polly.
“Not baked, but of course you’ll have to give them something. Ham and
chicken’s very suitable. You don’t want a lot of cooking with the
ceremony coming into the middle of it. I wonder who Alfred ought to
invite, Harold. Just the immediate relations; one doesn’t want a great
crowd of people and one doesn’t want not to show respect.”
“But he hated our relations—most of them.”
“He’s not hating them now,” said Mrs. Johnson, “you may be sure of
that. It’s just because of that I think they ought to come—all of
them—even your Aunt Mildred.”
“Bit vulturial, isn’t it?” said Mr. Polly unheeded.
“Wouldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen people if they all came,”
said Mr. Johnson.
“We could have everything put out ready in the back room and the
gloves and whiskey in the front room, and while we were all at the
ceremony, Bessie could bring it all into the front room on a tray and
put it out nice and proper. There’d have to be whiskey and sherry or
port for the ladies....”
“Where’ll you get your mourning?” asked Johnson abruptly.
Mr. Polly had not yet considered this by-product of sorrow. “Haven’t
thought of it yet, O’ Man.”
A disagreeable feeling spread over his body as though he was
blackening as he sat. He hated black garments.
“I suppose I must have mourning,” he said.
“Well!” said Johnson with a solemn smile.
“Got to see it through,” said Mr. Polly indistinctly.
“If I were you,” said Johnson, “I should get ready-made trousers.
That’s all you really want. And a black satin tie and a top hat with a
deep mourning band. And gloves.”
“Jet cuff links he ought to have—as chief mourner,” said Mrs.
“Not obligatory,” said Johnson.
“It shows respect,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“It shows respect of course,” said Johnson.
And then Mrs. Johnson went on with the utmost gusto to the details of
the “casket,” while Mr. Polly sat more and more deeply and droopingly
into the armchair, assenting with a note of protest to all they said.
After he had retired for the night he remained for a long time perched
on the edge of the sofa which was his bed, staring at the prospect
before him. “Chasing the O’ Man about up to the last,” he said.
He hated the thought and elaboration of death as a healthy animal must
hate it. His mind struggled with unwonted social problems.
“Got to put ’em away somehow, I suppose,” said Mr. Polly.
“Wish I’d looked him up a bit more while he was alive,” said Mr.
Bereavement came to Mr. Polly before the realisation of opulence and
its anxieties and responsibilities. That only dawned upon him on the
morrow—which chanced to be Sunday—as he walked with Johnson before
church time about the tangle of struggling building enterprise that
constituted the rising urban district of Easewood. Johnson was off
duty that morning, and devoted the time very generously to the
admonitory discussion of Mr. Polly’s worldly outlook.
“Don’t seem to get the hang of the business somehow,” said Mr. Polly.
“Too much blooming humbug in it for my way of thinking.”
“If I were you,” said Mr. Johnson, “I should push for a first-class
place in London—take almost nothing and live on my reserves. That’s
what I should do.”
“Come the Heavy,” said Mr. Polly.
“Get a better class reference.”
There was a pause. “Think of investing your money?” asked Johnson.
“Hardly got used to the idea of having it yet, O’ Man.”
“You’ll have to do something with it. Give you nearly twenty pounds a
year if you invest it properly.”
“Haven’t seen it yet in that light,” said Mr. Polly defensively.
“There’s no end of things you could put it into.”
“It’s getting it out again I shouldn’t feel sure of. I’m no sort of
Fiancianier. Sooner back horses.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Not my style, O’ Man.”
“It’s a nest egg,” said Johnson.
Mr. Polly made an indeterminate noise.
“There’s building societies,” Johnson threw out in a speculative tone.
Mr. Polly, with detached brevity, admitted there were.
“You might lend it on mortgage,” said Johnson. “Very safe form of
“Shan’t think anything about it—not till the O’ Man’s underground,”
said Mr. Polly with an inspiration.
They turned a corner that led towards the junction.
“Might do worse,” said Johnson, “than put it into a small shop.”
At the moment this remark made very little appeal to Mr. Polly. But
afterwards it developed. It fell into his mind like some small obscure
seed, and germinated.
“These shops aren’t in a bad position,” said Johnson.
The row he referred to gaped in the late painful stage in building
before the healing touch of the plasterer assuages the roughness of
the brickwork. The space for the shop yawned an oblong gap below,
framed above by an iron girder; “windows and fittings to suit tenant,”
a board at the end of the row promised; and behind was the door space
and a glimpse of stairs going up to the living rooms above. “Not a bad
position,” said Johnson, and led the way into the establishment. “Room
for fixtures there,” he said, pointing to the blank wall. The two men
went upstairs to the little sitting-room or best bedroom (it would
have to be) above the shop. Then they descended to the kitchen below.
“Rooms in a new house always look a bit small,” said Johnson.
They came out of the house again by the prospective back door, and
picked their way through builder’s litter across the yard space to the
road again. They drew nearer the junction to where a pavement and
shops already open and active formed the commercial centre of
Easewood. On the opposite side of the way the side door of a
flourishing little establishment opened, and a man and his wife and a
little boy in a sailor suit came into the street. The wife was a
pretty woman in brown with a floriferous straw hat, and the group was
altogether very Sundayfied and shiny and spick and span. The shop
itself had a large plate-glass window whose contents were now veiled
by a buff blind on which was inscribed in scrolly letters: “Rymer,
Pork Butcher and Provision Merchant,” and then with voluptuous
elaboration: “The World-Famed Easewood Sausage.”
Greetings were exchanged between Mr. Johnson and this distinguished
“Off to church already?” said Johnson.
“Walking across the fields to Little Dorington,” said Mr. Rymer.
“Very pleasant walk,” said Johnson.
“Very,” said Mr. Rymer.
“Hope you’ll enjoy it,” said Mr. Johnson.
“That chap’s done well,” said Johnson sotto voce as they went on.
“Came here with nothing—practically, four years ago. And as thin as a
lath. Look at him now!
“He’s worked hard of course,” said Johnson, improving the occasion.
Thought fell between the cousins for a space.
“Some men can do one thing,” said Johnson, “and some another.... For a
man who sticks to it there’s a lot to be done in a shop.”
All the preparations for the funeral ran easily and happily under Mrs.
Johnson’s skilful hands. On the eve of the sad event she produced a
reserve of black sateen, the kitchen steps and a box of tin-tacks, and
decorated the house with festoons and bows of black in the best
possible taste. She tied up the knocker with black crape, and put a
large bow over the corner of the steel engraving of Garibaldi, and
swathed the bust of Mr. Gladstone, that had belonged to the deceased,
with inky swathings. She turned the two vases that had views of Tivoli
and the Bay of Naples round, so that these rather brilliant landscapes
were hidden and only the plain blue enamel showed, and she anticipated
the long-contemplated purchase of a tablecloth for the front room, and
substituted a violet purple cover for the now very worn and faded
raptures and roses in plushette that had hitherto done duty there.
Everything that loving consideration could do to impart a dignified
solemnity to her little home was done.
She had released Mr. Polly from the irksome duty of issuing
invitations, and as the moments of assembly drew near she sent him and
Mr. Johnson out into the narrow long strip of garden at the back of
the house, to be free to put a finishing touch or so to her
preparations. She sent them out together because she had a queer
little persuasion at the back of her mind that Mr. Polly wanted to
bolt from his sacred duties, and there was no way out of the garden
except through the house.
Mr. Johnson was a steady, successful gardener, and particularly good
with celery and peas. He walked slowly along the narrow path down the
centre pointing out to Mr. Polly a number of interesting points in the
management of peas, wrinkles neatly applied and difficulties wisely
overcome, and all that he did for the comfort and propitiation of that
fitful but rewarding vegetable. Presently a sound of nervous laughter
and raised voices from the house proclaimed the arrival of the earlier
guests, and the worst of that anticipatory tension was over.
When Mr. Polly re-entered the house he found three entirely strange
young women with pink faces, demonstrative manners and emphatic
mourning, engaged in an incoherent conversation with Mrs. Johnson. All
three kissed him with great gusto after the ancient English fashion.
“These are your cousins Larkins,” said Mrs. Johnson; “that’s Annie
(unexpected hug and smack), that’s Miriam (resolute hug and smack),
and that’s Minnie (prolonged hug and smack).”
“Right-O,” said Mr. Polly, emerging a little crumpled and breathless
from this hearty introduction. “I see.”
“Here’s Aunt Larkins,” said Mrs. Johnson, as an elderly and stouter
edition of the three young women appeared in the doorway.
Mr. Polly backed rather faint-heartedly, but Aunt Larkins was not to
be denied. Having hugged and kissed her nephew resoundingly she
gripped him by the wrists and scanned his features. She had a round,
sentimental, freckled face. “I should ’ave known ’im anywhere,” she
said with fervour.
“Hark at mother!” said the cousin called Annie. “Why, she’s never set
eyes on him before!”
“I should ’ave known ’im anywhere,” said Mrs. Larkins, “for Lizzie’s
child. You’ve got her eyes! It’s a Resemblance! And as for never
seeing ’im— I’ve dandled him, Miss Imperence. I’ve dandled him.”
“You couldn’t dandle him now, Ma!” Miss Annie remarked with a shriek
All the sisters laughed at that. “The things you say, Annie!” said
Miriam, and for a time the room was full of mirth.
Mr. Polly felt it incumbent upon him to say something. “My dandling
days are over,” he said.
The reception of this remark would have convinced a far more modest
character than Mr. Polly that it was extremely witty.
Mr. Polly followed it up by another one almost equally good. “My turn
to dandle,” he said, with a sly look at his aunt, and convulsed
“Not me,” said Mrs. Larkins, taking his point, “thank you,” and
achieved a climax.
It was queer, but they seemed to be easy people to get on with anyhow.
They were still picking little ripples and giggles of mirth from the
idea of Mr. Polly dandling Aunt Larkins when Mr. Johnson, who had
answered the door, ushered in a stooping figure, who was at once
hailed by Mrs. Johnson as “Why! Uncle Pentstemon!” Uncle Pentstemon
was rather a shock. His was an aged rather than venerable figure; Time
had removed the hair from the top of his head and distributed a small
dividend of the plunder in little bunches carelessly and impartially
over the rest of his features; he was dressed in a very big old frock
coat and a long cylindrical top hat, which he had kept on; he was very
much bent, and he carried a rush basket from which protruded coy
intimations of the lettuces and onions he had brought to grace the
occasion. He hobbled into the room, resisting the efforts of Johnson
to divest him of his various encumbrances, halted and surveyed the
company with an expression of profound hostility, breathing hard.
Recognition quickened in his eyes.
“You here,” he said to Aunt Larkins and then; “You would be....
These your gals?”
“They are,” said Aunt Larkins, “and better gals——”
“That Annie?” asked Uncle Pentstemon, pointing a horny thumb-nail.
“Fancy your remembering her name!”
“She mucked up my mushroom bed, the baggage!” said Uncle Pentstemon
ungenially, “and I give it to her to rights. Trounced her I
did—fairly. I remember her. Here’s some green stuff for you, Grace.
Fresh it is and wholesome. I shall be wanting the basket back and mind
you let me have it.... Have you nailed him down yet? You always was a
bit in front of what was needful.”
His attention was drawn inward by a troublesome tooth, and he sucked
at it spitefully. There was something potent about this old man that
silenced everyone for a moment or so. He seemed a fragment from the
ruder agricultural past of our race, like a lump of soil among things
of paper. He put his basket of vegetables very deliberately on the new
violet tablecloth, removed his hat carefully and dabbled his brow, and
wiped out his hat brim with a crimson and yellow pocket handkerchief.
“I’m glad you were able to come, Uncle,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“Oh, I came” said Uncle Pentstemon. “I came.”
He turned on Mrs. Larkins. “Gals in service?” he asked.
“They aren’t and they won’t be,” said Mrs. Larkins.
“No,” he said with infinite meaning, and turned his eye on Mr. Polly.
“You Lizzie’s boy?” he said.
Mr. Polly was spared much self-exposition by the tumult occasioned by
“Ah! here’s May Punt!” said Mrs. Johnson, and a small woman dressed in
the borrowed mourning of a large woman and leading a very small
long-haired observant little boy—it was his first funeral—appeared,
closely followed by several friends of Mrs. Johnson who had come to
swell the display of respect and made only vague, confused impressions
upon Mr. Polly’s mind. (Aunt Mildred, who was an unexplained family
scandal, had declined Mrs. Johnson’s hospitality.)
Everybody was in profound mourning, of course, mourning in the modern
English style, with the dyer’s handiwork only too apparent, and hats
and jackets of the current cut. There was very little crape, and the
costumes had none of the goodness and specialisation and genuine
enjoyment of mourning for mourning’s sake that a similar continental
gathering would have displayed. Still that congestion of strangers in
black sufficed to stun and confuse Mr. Polly’s impressionable mind. It
seemed to him much more extraordinary than anything he had expected.
“Now, gals,” said Mrs. Larkins, “see if you can help,” and the three
daughters became confusingly active between the front room and the
“I hope everyone’ll take a glass of sherry and a biscuit,” said Mrs.
Johnson. “We don’t stand on ceremony,” and a decanter appeared in the
place of Uncle Pentstemon’s vegetables.
Uncle Pentstemon had refused to be relieved of his hat; he sat stiffly
down on a chair against the wall with that venerable headdress between
his feet, watching the approach of anyone jealously. “Don’t you go
squashing my hat,” he said. Conversation became confused and general.
Uncle Pentstemon addressed himself to Mr. Polly. “You’re a little
chap,” he said, “a puny little chap. I never did agree to Lizzie
marrying him, but I suppose by-gones must be bygones now. I suppose
they made you a clerk or something.”
“Outfitter,” said Mr. Polly.
“I remember. Them girls pretend to be dressmakers.”
“They are dressmakers,” said Mrs. Larkins across the room.
“I will take a glass of sherry. They ’old to it, you see.”
He took the glass Mrs. Johnson handed him, and poised it critically
between a horny finger and thumb. “You’ll be paying for this,” he said
to Mr. Polly. “Here’s to you.... Don’t you go treading on my hat,
young woman. You brush your skirts against it and you take a shillin’
off its value. It ain’t the sort of ’at you see nowadays.”
He drank noisily.
The sherry presently loosened everybody’s tongue, and the early
“There ought to have been a post-mortem,” Polly heard Mrs. Punt
remarking to one of Mrs. Johnson’s friends, and Miriam and another
were lost in admiration of Mrs. Johnson’s decorations. “So very nice
and refined,” they were both repeating at intervals.
The sherry and biscuits were still being discussed when Mr. Podger,
the undertaker, arrived, a broad, cheerfully sorrowful, clean-shaven
little man, accompanied by a melancholy-faced assistant. He conversed
for a time with Johnson in the passage outside; the sense of his
business stilled the rising waves of chatter and carried off
everyone’s attention in the wake of his heavy footsteps to the room
Things crowded upon Mr. Polly. Everyone, he noticed, took sherry with
a solemn avidity, and a small portion even was administered
sacramentally to the Punt boy. There followed a distribution of black
kid gloves, and much trying on and humouring of fingers. “Good
gloves,” said one of Mrs. Johnson’s friends. “There’s a little pair
there for Willie,” said Mrs. Johnson triumphantly. Everyone seemed
gravely content with the amazing procedure of the occasion. Presently
Mr. Podger was picking Mr. Polly out as Chief Mourner to go with Mrs.
Johnson, Mrs. Larkins and Annie in the first mourning carriage.
“Right O,” said Mr. Polly, and repented instantly of the alacrity of
“There’ll have to be a walking party,” said Mrs. Johnson cheerfully.
“There’s only two coaches. I daresay we can put in six in each, but
that leaves three over.”
There was a generous struggle to be pedestrian, and the two other
Larkins girls, confessing coyly to tight new boots and displaying a
certain eagerness, were added to the contents of the first carriage.
“It’ll be a squeeze,” said Annie.
“I don’t mind a squeeze,” said Mr. Polly.
He decided privately that the proper phrase for the result of that
remark was “Hysterial catechunations.”
Mr. Podger re-entered the room from a momentary supervision of the
bumping business that was now proceeding down the staircase.
“Bearing up,” he said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together. “Bearing
That stuck very vividly in Mr. Polly’s mind, and so did the
close-wedged drive to the churchyard, bunched in between two young
women in confused dull and shiny black, and the fact that the wind was
bleak and that the officiating clergyman had a cold, and sniffed
between his sentences. The wonder of life! The wonder of everything!
What had he expected that this should all be so astoundingly
He found his attention converging more and more upon the Larkins
cousins. The interest was reciprocal. They watched him with a kind of
suppressed excitement and became risible with his every word and
gesture. He was more and more aware of their personal quality. Annie
had blue eyes and a red, attractive mouth, a harsh voice and a habit
of extreme liveliness that even this occasion could not suppress;
Minnie was fond, extremely free about the touching of hands and
suchlike endearments; Miriam was quieter and regarded him earnestly.
Mrs. Larkins was very happy in her daughters, and they had the naïve
affectionateness of those who see few people and find a strange cousin
a wonderful outlet. Mr. Polly had never been very much kissed, and it
made his mind swim. He did not know for the life of him whether he
liked or disliked all or any of the Larkins cousins. It was rather
attractive to make them laugh; they laughed at anything.
There they were tugging at his mind, and the funeral tugging at his
mind, too, and the sense of himself as Chief Mourner in a brand new
silk hat with a broad mourning band. He watched the ceremony and
missed his responses, and strange feelings twisted at his
Mr. Polly walked back to the house because he wanted to be alone.
Miriam and Minnie would have accompanied him, but finding Uncle
Pentstemon beside the Chief Mourner they went on in front.
“You’re wise,” said Uncle Pentstemon.
“Glad you think so,” said Mr. Polly, rousing himself to talk.
“I likes a bit of walking before a meal,” said Uncle Pentstemon, and
made a kind of large hiccup. “That sherry rises,” he remarked.
“Grocer’s stuff, I expect.”
He went on to ask how much the funeral might be costing, and seemed
pleased to find Mr. Polly didn’t know.
“In that case,” he said impressively, “it’s pretty certain to cost
more’n you expect, my boy.”
He meditated for a time. “I’ve seen a mort of undertakers,” he
declared; “a mort of undertakers.”
The Larkins girls attracted his attention.
“Let’s lodgin’s and chars,” he commented. “Leastways she goes out to
cook dinners. And look at ’em!
“Dressed up to the nines. If it ain’t borryd clothes, that is. And
they goes out to work at a factory!”
“Did you know my father much, Uncle Pentstemon?” asked Mr. Polly.
“Couldn’t stand Lizzie throwin’ herself away like that,” said Uncle
Pentstemon, and repeated his hiccup on a larger scale.
“That weren’t good sherry,” said Uncle Pentstemon with the first
note of pathos Mr. Polly had detected in his quavering voice.
The funeral in the rather cold wind had proved wonderfully appetising,
and every eye brightened at the sight of the cold collation that was
now spread in the front room. Mrs. Johnson was very brisk, and Mr.
Polly, when he re-entered the house found everybody sitting down.
“Come along, Alfred,” cried the hostess cheerfully. “We can’t very
well begin without you. Have you got the bottled beer ready to open,
Betsy? Uncle, you’ll have a drop of whiskey, I expect.”
“Put it where I can mix for myself,” said Uncle Pentstemon, placing
his hat very carefully out of harm’s way on the bookcase.
There were two cold boiled chickens, which Johnson carved with great
care and justice, and a nice piece of ham, some brawn and a steak and
kidney pie, a large bowl of salad and several sorts of pickles, and
afterwards came cold apple tart, jam roll and a good piece of Stilton
cheese, lots of bottled beer, some lemonade for the ladies and milk
for Master Punt; a very bright and satisfying meal. Mr. Polly found
himself seated between Mrs. Punt, who was much preoccupied with Master
Punt’s table manners, and one of Mrs. Johnson’s school friends, who
was exchanging reminiscences of school days and news of how various
common friends had changed and married with Mrs. Johnson. Opposite him
was Miriam and another of the Johnson circle, and also he had brawn to
carve and there was hardly room for the helpful Betsy to pass behind
his chair, so that altogether his mind would have been amply
distracted from any mortuary broodings, even if a wordy warfare about
the education of the modern young woman had not sprung up between
Uncle Pentstemon and Mrs. Larkins and threatened for a time, in spite
of a word or so in season from Johnson, to wreck all the harmony of
the sad occasion.
The general effect was after this fashion:
First an impression of Mrs. Punt on the right speaking in a refined
undertone: “You didn’t, I suppose, Mr. Polly, think to ’ave your
poor dear father post-mortemed—”
Lady on the left side breaking in: “I was just reminding Grace of the
dear dead days beyond recall—”
Attempted reply to Mrs. Punt: “Didn’t think of it for a moment. Can’t
give you a piece of this brawn, can I?”
Fragment from the left: “Grace and Beauty they used to call us and we
used to sit at the same desk—”
Mrs. Punt, breaking out suddenly: “Don’t swaller your fork, Willy.
You see, Mr. Polly, I used to ’ave a young gentleman, a medical
student, lodging with me—”
Voice from down the table: “’Am, Alfred? I didn’t give you very much.”
Bessie became evident at the back of Mr. Polly’s chair, struggling
wildly to get past. Mr. Polly did his best to be helpful. “Can you get
past? Lemme sit forward a bit. Urr-oo! Right O.”
Lady to the left going on valiantly and speaking to everyone who cares
to listen, while Mrs. Johnson beams beside her: “There she used to sit
as bold as brass, and the fun she used to make of things no one
could believe—knowing her now. She used to make faces at the
mistress through the—”
Mrs. Punt keeping steadily on: “The contents of the stummik at any
rate ought to be examined.”
Voice of Mr. Johnson. “Elfrid, pass the mustid down.”
Miriam leaning across the table: “Elfrid!”
“Once she got us all kept in. The whole school!”
Miriam, more insistently: “Elfrid!”
Uncle Pentstemon, raising his voice defiantly: “Trounce ’er again I
would if she did as much now. That I would! Dratted mischief!”
Miriam, catching Mr. Polly’s eye: “Elfrid! This lady knows Canterbury.
I been telling her you been there.”
Mr. Polly: “Glad you know it.”
The lady shouting: “I like it.”
Mrs. Larkins, raising her voice: “I won’t ’ave my girls spoken of,
not by nobody, old or young.”
Pop! imperfectly located.
Mr. Johnson at large: “Ain’t the beer up! It’s the ’eated room.”
Bessie: “Scuse me, sir, passing so soon again, but—” Rest
inaudible. Mr. Polly, accommodating himself: “Urr-oo! Right? Right
The knives and forks, probably by some secret common agreement, clash
and clatter together and drown every other sound.
“Nobody ’ad the least idea ’ow ’E died,—nobody.... Willie, don’t
golp so. You ain’t in a ’urry, are you? You don’t want to ketch a
train or anything,—golping like that!”
“D’you remember, Grace, ’ow one day we ’ad writing lesson....”
“Nicer girls no one ever ’ad—though I say it who shouldn’t.”
Mrs. Johnson in a shrill clear hospitable voice: “Harold, won’t Mrs.
Larkins ’ave a teeny bit more fowl?”
Mr. Polly rising to the situation. “Or some brawn, Mrs. Larkins?”
Catching Uncle Pentstemon’s eye: “Can’t send you some brawn, sir?”
Loud hiccup from Uncle Pentstemon, momentary consternation followed by
giggle from Annie.
The narration at Mr. Polly’s elbow pursued a quiet but relentless
course. “Directly the new doctor came in he said: ’Everything must be
took out and put in spirits—everything.’”
The narration on the left was flourishing up to a climax. “Ladies,”
she sez, “dip their pens in their ink and keep their noses out of
“Certain people may cast snacks at other people’s daughters, never
having had any of their own, though two poor souls of wives dead and
buried through their goings on—”
Johnson ruling the storm: “We don’t want old scores dug up on such a
day as this—”
“Old scores you may call them, but worth a dozen of them that put them
to their rest, poor dears.”
“Elfrid!”—with a note of remonstrance.
“If you choke yourself, my lord, not another mouthful do you ’ave.
No nice puddin’! Nothing!”
“And kept us in, she did, every afternoon for a week!”
It seemed to be the end, and Mr. Polly replied with an air of being
profoundly impressed: “Really!”
“Elfrid!”—a little disheartened.
“And then they ’ad it! They found he’d swallowed the very key to
unlock the drawer—”
“Then don’t let people go casting snacks!”
“Who’s casting snacks!”
“Elfrid! This lady wants to know, ’ave the Prossers left
“No wish to make myself disagreeable, not to God’s ’umblest worm—”
“Alf, you aren’t very busy with that brawn up there!”
And so on for the hour.
The general effect upon Mr. Polly at the time was at once confusing
and exhilarating; but it led him to eat copiously and carelessly, and
long before the end, when after an hour and a quarter a movement took
the party, and it pushed away its cheese plates and rose sighing and
stretching from the remains of the repast, little streaks and bands of
dyspeptic irritation and melancholy were darkening the serenity of his
He stood between the mantel shelf and the window—the blinds were up
now—and the Larkins sisters clustered about him. He battled with the
oncoming depression and forced himself to be extremely facetious about
two noticeable rings on Annie’s hand. “They ain’t real,” said Annie
coquettishly. “Got ’em out of a prize packet.”
“Prize packet in trousers, I expect,” said Mr. Polly, and awakened
“Oh! the things you say!” said Minnie, slapping his shoulder.
Suddenly something he had quite extraordinarily forgotten came into
“Bless my heart!” he cried, suddenly serious.
“What’s the matter?” asked Johnson.
“Ought to have gone back to shop—three days ago. They’ll make no end
of a row!”
“Lor, you are a Treat!” said cousin Annie, and screamed with
laughter at a delicious idea. “You’ll get the Chuck,” she said.
Mr. Polly made a convulsing grimace at her.
“I’ll die!” she said. “I don’t believe you care a bit!”
Feeling a little disorganized by her hilarity and a shocked expression
that had come to the face of cousin Miriam, he made some indistinct
excuse and went out through the back room and scullery into the little
garden. The cool air and a very slight drizzle of rain was a
relief—anyhow. But the black mood of the replete dyspeptic had come
upon him. His soul darkened hopelessly. He walked with his hands in
his pockets down the path between the rows of exceptionally cultured
peas and unreasonably, overwhelmingly, he was smitten by sorrow for
his father. The heady noise and muddle and confused excitement of the
feast passed from him like a curtain drawn away. He thought of that
hot and angry and struggling creature who had tugged and sworn so
foolishly at the sofa upon the twisted staircase, and who was now
lying still and hidden, at the bottom of a wall-sided oblong pit
beside the heaped gravel that would presently cover him. The stillness
of it! the wonder of it! the infinite reproach! Hatred for all these
people—all of them—possessed Mr. Polly’s soul.
“Hen-witted gigglers,” said Mr. Polly.
He went down to the fence, and stood with his hands on it staring away
at nothing. He stayed there for what seemed a long time. From the
house came a sound of raised voices that subsided, and then Mrs.
Johnson calling for Bessie.
“Gowlish gusto,” said Mr. Polly. “Jumping it in. Funererial Games.
Don’t hurt him of course. Doesn’t matter to him....”
Nobody missed Mr. Polly for a long time.
When at last he reappeared among them his eye was almost grim, but
nobody noticed his eye. They were looking at watches, and Johnson was
being omniscient about trains. They seemed to discover Mr. Polly
afresh just at the moment of parting, and said a number of more or
less appropriate things. But Uncle Pentstemon was far too worried
about his rush basket, which had been carelessly mislaid, he seemed to
think with larcenous intentions, to remember Mr. Polly at all. Mrs.
Johnson had tried to fob him off with a similar but inferior
basket,—his own had one handle mended with string according to a
method of peculiar virtue and inimitable distinction known only to
himself—and the old gentleman had taken her attempt as the gravest
reflection upon his years and intelligence. Mr. Polly was left very
largely to the Larkins trio. Cousin Minnie became shameless and kept
kissing him good-by—and then finding out it wasn’t time to go.
Cousin Miriam seemed to think her silly, and caught Mr. Polly’s eye
sympathetically. Cousin Annie ceased to giggle and lapsed into a
nearly sentimental state. She said with real feeling that she had
enjoyed the funeral more than words could tell.
Mr. Polly Takes a Vacation
Mr. Polly returned to Clapham from the funeral celebration prepared
for trouble, and took his dismissal in a manly spirit.
“You’ve merely anti-separated me by a hair,” he said politely.
And he told them in the dormitory that he meant to take a little
holiday before his next crib, though a certain inherited reticence
suppressed the fact of the legacy.
“You’ll do that all right,” said Ascough, the head of the boot shop.
“It’s quite the fashion just at present. Six Weeks in Wonderful Wood
Street. They’re running excursions....”
“A little holiday”; that was the form his sense of wealth took first,
that it made a little holiday possible. Holidays were his life, and
the rest merely adulterated living. And now he might take a little
holiday and have money for railway fares and money for meals and money
for inns. But—he wanted someone to take the holiday with.
For a time he cherished a design of hunting up Parsons, getting him to
throw up his situation, and going with him to Stratford-on-Avon and
Shrewsbury and the Welsh mountains and the Wye and a lot of places
like that, for a really gorgeous, careless, illimitable old holiday of
a month. But alas! Parsons had gone from the St. Paul’s Churchyard
outfitter’s long ago, and left no address.
Mr. Polly tried to think he would be almost as happy wandering alone,
but he knew better. He had dreamt of casual encounters with
delightfully interesting people by the wayside—even romantic
encounters. Such things happened in Chaucer and “Bocashiew,” they
happened with extreme facility in Mr. Richard Le Gallienne’s very
detrimental book, The Quest of the Golden Girl, which he had read at
Canterbury, but he had no confidence they would happen in England—to
When, a month later, he came out of the Clapham side door at last into
the bright sunshine of a fine London day, with a dazzling sense of
limitless freedom upon him, he did nothing more adventurous than order
the cabman to drive to Waterloo, and there take a ticket for Easewood.
He wanted—what did he want most in life? I think his distinctive
craving is best expressed as fun—fun in companionship. He had already
spent a pound or two upon three select feasts to his fellow
assistants, sprat suppers they were, and there had been a great and
very successful Sunday pilgrimage to Richmond, by Wandsworth and
Wimbledon’s open common, a trailing garrulous company walking about a
solemnly happy host, to wonderful cold meat and salad at the Roebuck,
a bowl of punch, punch! and a bill to correspond; but now it was a
weekday, and he went down to Easewood with his bag and portmanteau in
a solitary compartment, and looked out of the window upon a world in
which every possible congenial seemed either toiling in a situation
or else looking for one with a gnawing and hopelessly preoccupying
anxiety. He stared out of the window at the exploitation roads of
suburbs, and rows of houses all very much alike, either emphatically
and impatiently to let or full of rather busy unsocial people.
Near Wimbledon he had a glimpse of golf links, and saw two elderly
gentlemen who, had they chosen, might have been gentlemen of grace
and leisure, addressing themselves to smite little hunted white balls
great distances with the utmost bitterness and dexterity. Mr. Polly
could not understand them.
Every road he remarked, as freshly as though he had never observed it
before, was bordered by inflexible palings or iron fences or severely
disciplined hedges. He wondered if perhaps abroad there might be
beautifully careless, unenclosed high roads. Perhaps after all the
best way of taking a holiday is to go abroad.
He was haunted by the memory of what was either a half-forgotten
picture or a dream; a carriage was drawn up by the wayside and four
beautiful people, two men and two women graciously dressed, were
dancing a formal ceremonious dance full of bows and curtseys, to the
music of a wandering fiddler they had encountered. They had been
driving one way and he walking another—a happy encounter with this
obvious result. They might have come straight out of happy Theleme,
whose motto is: “Do what thou wilt.” The driver had taken his two
sleek horses out; they grazed unchallenged; and he sat on a stone
clapping time with his hands while the fiddler played. The shade of
the trees did not altogether shut out the sunshine, the grass in the
wood was lush and full of still daffodils, the turf they danced on was
starred with daisies.
Mr. Polly, dear heart! firmly believed that things like that could and
did happen—somewhere. Only it puzzled him that morning that he never
saw them happening. Perhaps they happened south of Guilford. Perhaps
they happened in Italy. Perhaps they ceased to happen a hundred years
ago. Perhaps they happened just round the corner—on weekdays when all
good Mr. Pollys are safely shut up in shops. And so dreaming of
delightful impossibilities until his heart ached for them, he was
rattled along in the suburban train to Johnson’s discreet home and the
briskly stimulating welcome of Mrs. Johnson.
Mr. Polly translated his restless craving for joy and leisure into
Harold Johnsonese by saying that he meant to look about him for a bit
before going into another situation. It was a decision Johnson very
warmly approved. It was arranged that Mr. Polly should occupy his
former room and board with the Johnsons in consideration of a weekly
payment of eighteen shillings. And the next morning Mr. Polly went out
early and reappeared with a purchase, a safety bicycle, which he
proposed to study and master in the sandy lane below the Johnsons’
house. But over the struggles that preceded his mastery it is humane
to draw a veil.
And also Mr. Polly bought a number of books, Rabelais for his own, and
“The Arabian Nights,” the works of Sterne, a pile of “Tales from
Blackwood,” cheap in a second-hand bookshop, the plays of William
Shakespeare, a second-hand copy of Belloc’s “Road to Rome,” an odd
volume of “Purchas his Pilgrimes” and “The Life and Death of Jason.”
“Better get yourself a good book on bookkeeping,” said Johnson,
turning over perplexing pages.
A belated spring was now advancing with great strides to make up for
lost time. Sunshine and a stirring wind were poured out over the land,
fleets of towering clouds sailed upon urgent tremendous missions
across the blue seas of heaven, and presently Mr. Polly was riding a
little unstably along unfamiliar Surrey roads, wondering always what
was round the next corner, and marking the blackthorn and looking out
for the first white flower-buds of the may. He was perplexed and
distressed, as indeed are all right thinking souls, that there is no
may in early May.
He did not ride at the even pace sensible people use who have marked
out a journey from one place to another, and settled what time it will
take them. He rode at variable speeds, and always as though he was
looking for something that, missing, left life attractive still, but a
little wanting in significance. And sometimes he was so unreasonably
happy he had to whistle and sing, and sometimes he was incredibly, but
not at all painfully, sad. His indigestion vanished with air and
exercise, and it was quite pleasant in the evening to stroll about the
garden with Johnson and discuss plans for the future. Johnson was full
of ideas. Moreover, Mr. Polly had marked the road that led to Stamton,
that rising populous suburb; and as his bicycle legs grew strong his
wheel with a sort of inevitableness carried him towards the row of
houses in a back street in which his Larkins cousins made their home
He was received with great enthusiasm.
The street was a dingy little street, a cul-de-sac of very small
houses in a row, each with an almost flattened bow window and a
blistered brown door with a black knocker. He poised his bright new
bicycle against the window, and knocked and stood waiting, and felt
himself in his straw hat and black serge suit a very pleasant and
prosperous-looking figure. The door was opened by cousin Miriam. She
was wearing a bluish print dress that brought out a kind of sallow
warmth in her skin, and although it was nearly four o’clock in the
afternoon, her sleeves were tucked up, as if for some domestic work,
above the elbows, showing her rather slender but very shapely
yellowish arms. The loosely pinned bodice confessed a delicately
For a moment she regarded him with suspicion and a faint hostility,
and then recognition dawned in her eyes.
“Why!” she said, “it’s cousin Elfrid!”
“Thought I’d look you up,” he said.
“Fancy! you coming to see us like this!” she answered.
They stood confronting one another for a moment, while Miriam
collected herself for the unexpected emergency.
“Explorations menanderings,” said Mr. Polly, indicating the bicycle.
Miriam’s face betrayed no appreciation of the remark.
“Wait a moment,” she said, coming to a rapid decision, “and I’ll tell
She closed the door on him abruptly, leaving him a little surprised in
the street. “Ma!” he heard her calling, and swift speech followed, the
import of which he didn’t catch. Then she reappeared. It seemed but an
instant, but she was changed; the arms had vanished into sleeves, the
apron had gone, a certain pleasing disorder of the hair had been at
“I didn’t mean to shut you out,” she said, coming out upon the step.
“I just told Ma. How are you, Elfrid? You are looking well. I didn’t
know you rode a bicycle. Is it a new one?”
She leaned upon his bicycle. “Bright it is!” she said. “What a trouble
you must have to keep it clean!”
Mr. Polly was aware of a rustling transit along the passage, and of
the house suddenly full of hushed but strenuous movement.
“It’s plated mostly,” said Mr. Polly.
“What do you carry in that little bag thing?” she asked, and then
branched off to: “We’re all in a mess to-day you know. It’s my
cleaning up day to-day. I’m not a bit tidy I know, but I do like to
’ave a go in at things now and then. You got to take us as you find
us, Elfrid. Mercy we wasn’t all out.” She paused. She was talking
against time. “I am glad to see you again,” she repeated.
“Couldn’t keep away,” said Mr. Polly gallantly. “Had to come over and
see my pretty cousins again.”
Miriam did not answer for a moment. She coloured deeply. “You do say
things!” she said.
She stared at Mr. Polly, and his unfortunate sense of fitness made him
nod his head towards her, regard her firmly with a round brown eye,
and add impressively: “I don’t say which of them.”
Her answering expression made him realise for an instant the terrible
dangers he trifled with. Avidity flared up in her eyes. Minnie’s voice
came happily to dissolve the situation.
“’Ello, Elfrid!” she said from the doorstep.
Her hair was just passably tidy, and she was a little effaced by a red
blouse, but there was no mistaking the genuine brightness of her
He was to come in to tea, and Mrs. Larkins, exuberantly genial in a
floriferous but dingy flannel dressing gown, appeared to confirm that.
He brought in his bicycle and put it in the narrow, empty passage, and
everyone crowded into a small untidy kitchen, whose table had been
hastily cleared of the débris of the midday repast.
“You must come in ’ere,” said Mrs. Larkins, “for Miriam’s turning out
the front room. I never did see such a girl for cleanin’ up. Miriam’s
’oliday’s a scrub. You’ve caught us on the ’Op as the sayin’ is, but
Welcome all the same. Pity Annie’s at work to-day; she won’t be ’ome
Miriam put chairs and attended to the fire, Minnie edged up to Mr.
Polly and said: “I am glad to see you again, Elfrid,” with a warm
contiguous intimacy that betrayed a broken tooth. Mrs. Larkins got out
tea things, and descanted on the noble simplicity of their lives, and
how he “mustn’t mind our simple ways.” They enveloped Mr. Polly with a
geniality that intoxicated his amiable nature; he insisted upon
helping lay the things, and created enormous laughter by pretending
not to know where plates and knives and cups ought to go. “Who’m I
going to sit next?” he said, and developed voluminous amusement by
attempts to arrange the plates so that he could rub elbows with all
three. Mrs. Larkins had to sit down in the windsor chair by the
grandfather clock (which was dark with dirt and not going) to laugh at
her ease at his well-acted perplexity.
They got seated at last, and Mr. Polly struck a vein of humour in
telling them how he learnt to ride the bicycle. He found the mere
repetition of the word “wabble” sufficient to produce almost
“No foreseeing little accidentulous misadventures,” he said, “none
(Giggle from Minnie.)
“Stout elderly gentleman—shirt sleeves—large straw wastepaper basket
sort of hat—starts to cross the road—going to the oil shop—prodic
refreshment of oil can—”
“Don’t say you run ’im down,” said Mrs. Larkins, gasping. “Don’t say
you run ’im down, Elfrid!”
“Run ’im down! Not me, Madam. I never run anything down. Wabble. Ring
the bell. Wabble, wabble—”
(Laughter and tears.)
“No one’s going to run him down. Hears the bell! Wabble. Gust of wind.
Off comes the hat smack into the wheel. Wabble. Lord! what’s going
to happen? Hat across the road, old gentleman after it, bell, shriek.
He ran into me. Didn’t ring his bell, hadn’t got a bell—just ran
into me. Over I went clinging to his venerable head. Down he went with
me clinging to him. Oil can blump, blump into the road.”
(Interlude while Minnie is attended to for crumb in the windpipe.)
“Well, what happened to the old man with the oil can?” said Mrs.
“We sat about among the debreece and had a bit of an argument. I told
him he oughtn’t to come out wearing such a dangerous hat—flying at
things. Said if he couldn’t control his hat he ought to leave it at
home. High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. ’I tell you,
sir—’ ‘I tell you, sir.’ Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that’s the
sort of thing that’s constantly happening you know—on a bicycle.
People run into you, hens and cats and dogs and things. Everything
seems to have its mark on you; everything.”
“You never run into anything.”
“Never. Swelpme,” said Mr. Polly very solemnly.
“Never, ’E say!” squealed Minnie. “Hark at ’im!” and relapsed into a
condition that urgently demanded back thumping. “Don’t be so silly,”
said Miriam, thumping hard.
Mr. Polly had never been such a social success before. They hung upon
his every word—and laughed. What a family they were for laughter! And
he loved laughter. The background he apprehended dimly; it was very
much the sort of background his life had always had. There was a
threadbare tablecloth on the table, and the slop basin and teapot did
not go with the cups and saucers, the plates were different again, the
knives worn down, the butter lived in a greenish glass dish of its
own. Behind was a dresser hung with spare and miscellaneous crockery,
with a workbox and an untidy work-basket, there was an ailing musk
plant in the window, and the tattered and blotched wallpaper was
covered by bright-coloured grocers’ almanacs. Feminine wrappings hung
from pegs upon the door, and the floor was covered with a varied
collection of fragments of oilcloth. The Windsor chair he sat in was
unstable—which presently afforded material for humour. “Steady, old
nag,” he said; “whoa, my friskiacious palfry!”
“The things he says! You never know what he won’t say next!”
“You ain’t talkin’ of goin’!” cried Mrs. Larkins.
“Supper at eight.”
“Stay to supper with us, now you ’ave come over,” said Mrs.
Larkins, with corroborating cries from Minnie. “’Ave a bit of a walk
with the gals, and then come back to supper. You might all go and meet
Annie while I straighten up, and lay things out.”
“You’re not to go touching the front room mind,” said Miriam.
“Who’s going to touch yer front room?” said Mrs. Larkins, apparently
forgetful for a moment of Mr. Polly.
Both girls dressed with some care while Mrs. Larkins sketched the
better side of their characters, and then the three young people went
out to see something of Stamton. In the streets their risible mood
gave way to a self-conscious propriety that was particularly evident
in Miriam’s bearing. They took Mr. Polly to the Stamton Wreckeryation
ground—that at least was what they called it—with its handsome
custodian’s cottage, its asphalt paths, its Jubilee drinking fountain,
its clumps of wallflower and daffodils, and so to the new cemetery and
a distant view of the Surrey hills, and round by the gasworks to the
canal to the factory, that presently disgorged a surprised and radiant
“El-lo” said Annie.
It is very pleasant to every properly constituted mind to be a centre
of amiable interest for one’s fellow creatures, and when one is a
young man conscious of becoming mourning and a certain wit, and the
fellow creatures are three young and ardent and sufficiently
expressive young women who dispute for the honour of walking by one’s
side, one may be excused a secret exaltation. They did dispute.
“I’m going to ’ave ’im now,” said Annie. “You two’ve been ’aving ’im
all the afternoon. Besides, I’ve got something to say to him.”
She had something to say to him. It came presently. “I say,” she said
abruptly. “I did get them rings out of a prize packet.”
“What rings?” asked Mr. Polly.
“What you saw at your poor father’s funeral. You made out they meant
something. They didn’t—straight.”
“Then some people have been very remiss about their chances,” said Mr.
“They haven’t had any chances,” said Annie. “I don’t believe in making
oneself too free with people.”
“Nor me,” said Mr. Polly.
“I may be a bit larky and cheerful in my manner,” Annie admitted. “But
it don’t mean anything. I ain’t that sort.”
“Right O,” said Mr. Polly.
It was past ten when Mr. Polly found himself riding back towards
Easewood in a broad moonlight with a little Japanese lantern dangling
from his handle bar and making a fiery circle of pinkish light on and
round about his front wheel. He was mightily pleased with himself and
the day. There had been four-ale to drink at supper mixed with
gingerbeer, very free and jolly in a jug. No shadow fell upon the
agreeable excitement of his mind until he faced the anxious and
reproachful face of Johnson, who had been sitting up for him, smoking
and trying to read the odd volume of “Purchas his Pilgrimes,”—about
the monk who went into Sarmatia and saw the Tartar carts.
“Not had an accident, Elfrid?” said Johnson.
The weakness of Mr. Polly’s character came out in his reply. “Not
much,” he said. “Pedal got a bit loose in Stamton, O’ Man. Couldn’t
ride it. So I looked up the cousins while I waited.”
“Not the Larkins lot?”
Johnson yawned hugely and asked for and was given friendly
particulars. “Well,” he said, “better get to bed. I have been reading
that book of yours—rum stuff. Can’t make it out quite. Quite out of
date I should say if you asked me.”
“That’s all right, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly.
“Not a bit of use for anything I can see.”
“Not a bit.”
“See any shops in Stamton?”
“Nothing to speak of,” said Mr. Polly. “Goo-night, O’ Man.”
Before and after this brief conversation his mind ran on his cousins
very warmly and prettily in the vein of high spring. Mr. Polly had
been drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature,
fountains so unsuited to the needs of a decent clerk or shopman,
fountains charged with the dangerous suggestion that it becomes a man
of gaiety and spirit to make love, gallantly and rather carelessly. It
seemed to him that evening to be handsome and humorous and practicable
to make love to all his cousins. It wasn’t that he liked any of them
particularly, but he liked something about them. He liked their youth
and femininity, their resolute high spirits and their interest in him.
They laughed at nothing and knew nothing, and Minnie had lost a tooth
and Annie screamed and shouted, but they were interesting, intensely
And Miriam wasn’t so bad as the others. He had kissed them all and had
been kissed in addition several times by Minnie,—“oscoolatory
He buried his nose in his pillow and went to sleep—to dream of
anything rather than getting on in the world, as a sensible young man
in his position ought to have done.
And now Mr. Polly began to lead a divided life. With the Johnsons he
professed to be inclined, but not so conclusively inclined as to be
inconvenient, to get a shop for himself, to be, to use the phrase he
preferred, “looking for an opening.” He would ride off in the
afternoon upon that research, remarking that he was going to “cast a
strategetical eye” on Chertsey or Weybridge. But if not all roads,
still a great majority of them, led by however devious ways to
Stamton, and to laughter and increasing familiarity. Relations
developed with Annie and Minnie and Miriam. Their various characters
were increasingly interesting. The laughter became perceptibly less
abundant, something of the fizz had gone from the first opening, still
these visits remained wonderfully friendly and upholding. Then back he
would come to grave but evasive discussions with Johnson.
Johnson was really anxious to get Mr. Polly “into something.” His was
a reserved honest character, and he would really have preferred to see
his lodger doing things for himself than receive his money for
housekeeping. He hated waste, anybody’s waste, much more than he
desired profit. But Mrs. Johnson was all for Mr. Polly’s loitering.
She seemed much the more human and likeable of the two to Mr. Polly.
He tried at times to work up enthusiasm for the various avenues to
well-being his discussion with Johnson opened. But they remained
disheartening prospects. He imagined himself wonderfully smartened up,
acquiring style and value in a London shop, but the picture was stiff
and unconvincing. He tried to rouse himself to enthusiasm by the idea
of his property increasing by leaps and bounds, by twenty pounds a
year or so, let us say, each year, in a well-placed little shop, the
corner shop Johnson favoured. There was a certain picturesque interest
in imagining cut-throat economies, but his heart told him there would
be little in practising them.
And then it happened to Mr. Polly that real Romance came out of
dreamland into life, and intoxicated and gladdened him with sweetly
beautiful suggestions—and left him. She came and left him as that
dear lady leaves so many of us, alas! not sparing him one jot or one
tittle of the hollowness of her retreating aspect.
It was all the more to Mr. Polly’s taste that the thing should happen
as things happen in books.
In a resolute attempt not to get to Stamton that day, he had turned
due southward from Easewood towards a country where the abundance of
bracken jungles, lady’s smock, stitchwork, bluebells and grassy
stretches by the wayside under shady trees does much to compensate the
lighter type of mind for the absence of promising “openings.” He
turned aside from the road, wheeled his machine along a faintly marked
attractive trail through bracken until he came to a heap of logs
against a high old stone wall with a damaged coping and wallflower
plants already gone to seed. He sat down, balanced the straw hat on a
convenient lump of wood, lit a cigarette, and abandoned himself to
agreeable musings and the friendly observation of a cheerful little
brown and grey bird his stillness presently encouraged to approach
him. “This is All Right,” said Mr. Polly softly to the little brown
and grey bird. “Business—later.”
He reflected that he might go on this way for four or five years, and
then be scarcely worse off than he had been in his father’s lifetime.
“Vile Business,” said Mr. Polly.
Then Romance appeared. Or to be exact, Romance became audible.
Romance began as a series of small but increasingly vigorous movements
on the other side of the wall, then as a voice murmuring, then as a
falling of little fragments on the hither side and as ten pink finger
tips, scarcely apprehended before Romance became startling and
emphatically a leg, remained for a time a fine, slender, actively
struggling limb, brown stockinged and wearing a brown toe-worn shoe,
and then—. A handsome red-haired girl wearing a short dress of blue
linen was sitting astride the wall, panting, considerably disarranged
by her climbing, and as yet unaware of Mr. Polly....
His fine instincts made him turn his head away and assume an attitude
of negligent contemplation, with his ears and mind alive to every
sound behind him.
“Goodness!” said a voice with a sharp note of surprise.
Mr. Polly was on his feet in an instant. “Dear me! Can I be of any
assistance?” he said with deferential gallantry.
“I don’t know,” said the young lady, and regarded him calmly with
clear blue eyes.
“I didn’t know there was anyone here,” she added.
“Sorry,” said Mr. Polly, “if I am intrudaceous. I didn’t know you
didn’t want me to be here.”
She reflected for a moment on the word. “It isn’t that,” she said,
“I oughtn’t to get over the wall,” she explained. “It’s out of bounds.
At least in term time. But this being holidays—”
Her manner placed the matter before him.
“Holidays is different,” said Mr. Polly.
“I don’t want to actually break the rules,” she said.
“Leave them behind you,” said Mr. Polly with a catch of the breath,
“where they are safe”; and marvelling at his own wit and daring, and
indeed trembling within himself, he held out a hand for her.
She brought another brown leg from the unknown, and arranged her skirt
with a dexterity altogether feminine. “I think I’ll stay on the wall,”
she decided. “So long as some of me’s in bounds—”
She continued to regard him with eyes that presently joined dancing in
an irresistible smile of satisfaction. Mr. Polly smiled in return.
“You bicycle?” she said.
Mr. Polly admitted the fact, and she said she did too.
“All my people are in India,” she explained. “It’s beastly rot—I mean
it’s frightfully dull being left here alone.”
“All my people,” said Mr. Polly, “are in Heaven!”
“Fact!” said Mr. Polly. “Got nobody.”
“And that’s why—” she checked her artless comment on his mourning. “I
say,” she said in a sympathetic voice, “I am sorry. I really am. Was
it a fire or a ship—or something?”
Her sympathy was very delightful. He shook his head. “The ordinary
table of mortality,” he said. “First one and then another.”
Behind his outward melancholy, delight was dancing wildly. “Are you
lonely?” asked the girl.
Mr. Polly nodded.
“I was just sitting there in melancholy rectrospectatiousness,” he
said, indicating the logs, and again a swift thoughtfulness swept
across her face.
“There’s no harm in our talking,” she reflected.
“It’s a kindness. Won’t you get down?”
She reflected, and surveyed the turf below and the scene around and
“I’ll stay on the wall,” she said. “If only for bounds’ sake.”
She certainly looked quite adorable on the wall. She had a fine neck
and pointed chin that was particularly admirable from below, and
pretty eyes and fine eyebrows are never so pretty as when they look
down upon one. But no calculation of that sort, thank Heaven, was
going on beneath her ruddy shock of hair.
“Let’s talk,” she said, and for a time they were both tongue-tied.
Mr. Polly’s literary proclivities had taught him that under such
circumstances a strain of gallantry was demanded. And something in his
blood repeated that lesson.
“You make me feel like one of those old knights,” he said, “who rode
about the country looking for dragons and beautiful maidens and
“Oh!” she said. “Why?”
“Beautiful maiden,” he said.
She flushed under her freckles with the quick bright flush those
pretty red-haired people have. “Nonsense!” she said.
“You are. I’m not the first to tell you that. A beautiful maiden
imprisoned in an enchanted school.”
“You wouldn’t think it enchanted!”
“And here am I—clad in steel. Well, not exactly, but my fiery war
horse is anyhow. Ready to absquatulate all the dragons and rescue
She laughed, a jolly laugh that showed delightfully gleaming teeth. “I
wish you could see the dragons,” she said with great enjoyment. Mr.
Polly felt they were a sun’s distance from the world of everyday.
“Fly with me!” he dared.
She stared for a moment, and then went off into peals of laughter.
“You are funny!” she said. “Why, I haven’t known you five minutes.”
“One doesn’t—in this medevial world. My mind is made up, anyhow.”
He was proud and pleased with his joke, and quick to change his key
neatly. “I wish one could,” he said.
“I wonder if people ever did!”
“If there were people like you.”
“We don’t even know each other’s names,” she remarked with a descent
to matters of fact.
“Yours is the prettiest name in the world.”
“How do you know?”
“It must be—anyhow.”
“It is rather pretty you know—it’s Christabel.”
“What did I tell you?”
“Poorer than I deserve. It’s Alfred.”
“I can’t call you Alfred.”
“It’s a girl’s name!”
For a moment he was out of tune. “I wish it was!” he said, and could
have bitten out his tongue at the Larkins sound of it.
“I shan’t forget it,” she remarked consolingly.
“I say,” she said in the pause that followed. “Why are you riding
about the country on a bicycle?”
“I’m doing it because I like it.”
She sought to estimate his social status on her limited basis of
experience. He stood leaning with one hand against the wall, looking
up at her and tingling with daring thoughts. He was a littleish man,
you must remember, but neither mean-looking nor unhandsome in those
days, sunburnt by his holiday and now warmly flushed. He had an
inspiration to simple speech that no practised trifler with love could
have bettered. “There is love at first sight,” he said, and said it
She stared at him with eyes round and big with excitement.
“I think,” she said slowly, and without any signs of fear or retreat,
“I ought to get back over the wall.”
“It needn’t matter to you,” he said. “I’m just a nobody. But I know
you are the best and most beautiful thing I’ve ever spoken to.” His
breath caught against something. “No harm in telling you that,” he
“I should have to go back if I thought you were serious,” she said
after a pause, and they both smiled together.
After that they talked in a fragmentary way for some time. The blue
eyes surveyed Mr. Polly with kindly curiosity from under a broad,
finely modelled brow, much as an exceptionally intelligent cat might
survey a new sort of dog. She meant to find out all about him. She
asked questions that riddled the honest knight in armour below, and
probed ever nearer to the hateful secret of the shop and his normal
servitude. And when he made a flourish and mispronounced a word a
thoughtful shade passed like the shadow of a cloud across her face.
“Boom!” came the sound of a gong.
“Lordy!” cried the girl and flashed a pair of brown legs at him and
Then her pink finger tips reappeared, and the top of her red hair.
“Knight!” she cried from the other side of the wall. “Knight there!”
“Lady!” he answered.
“Come again to-morrow!”
“At your command. But——”
“Just one finger.”
“What do you mean?”
The rustle of retreating footsteps and silence....
But after he had waited next day for twenty minutes she reappeared, a
little out of breath with the effort to surmount the wall—and head
first this time. And it seemed to him she was lighter and more daring
and altogether prettier than the dreams and enchanted memories that
had filled the interval.
From first to last their acquaintance lasted ten days, but into that
time Mr. Polly packed ten years of dreams.
“He don’t seem,” said Johnson, “to take a serious interest in
anything. That shop at the corner’s bound to be snapped up if he don’t
The girl and Mr. Polly did not meet on every one of those ten days;
one was Sunday and she could not come, and on the eighth the school
reassembled and she made vague excuses. All their meetings amounted to
this, that she sat on the wall, more or less in bounds as she
expressed it, and let Mr. Polly fall in love with her and try to
express it below. She sat in a state of irresponsible exaltation,
watching him and at intervals prodding a vivisecting point of
encouragement into him—with that strange passive cruelty which is
natural to her sex and age.
And Mr. Polly fell in love, as though the world had given way beneath
him and he had dropped through into another, into a world of luminous
clouds and of desolate hopeless wildernesses of desiring and of wild
valleys of unreasonable ecstasies, a world whose infinite miseries
were finer and in some inexplicable way sweeter than the purest gold
of the daily life, whose joys—they were indeed but the merest remote
glimpses of joy—were brighter than a dying martyr’s vision of heaven.
Her smiling face looked down upon him out of heaven, her careless pose
was the living body of life. It was senseless, it was utterly foolish,
but all that was best and richest in Mr. Polly’s nature broke like a
wave and foamed up at that girl’s feet, and died, and never touched
her. And she sat on the wall and marvelled at him and was amused, and
once, suddenly moved and wrung by his pleading, she bent down rather
shamefacedly and gave him a freckled, tennis-blistered little paw to
kiss. And she looked into his eyes and suddenly felt a perplexity, a
curious swimming of the mind that made her recoil and stiffen, and
wonder afterwards and dream....
And then with some dim instinct of self-protection, she went and told
her three best friends, great students of character all, of this
remarkable phenomenon she had discovered on the other side of the
“Look here,” said Mr. Polly, “I’m wild for the love of you! I can’t
keep up this gesticulations game any more! I’m not a Knight. Treat me
as a human man. You may sit up there smiling, but I’d die in torments
to have you mine for an hour. I’m nobody and nothing. But look here!
Will you wait for me for five years? You’re just a girl yet, and it
wouldn’t be hard.”
“Shut up!” said Christabel in an aside he did not hear, and something
he did not see touched her hand.
“I’ve always been just dilletentytating about till now, but I could
work. I’ve just woke up. Wait till I’ve got a chance with the money
“But you haven’t got much money!”
“I’ve got enough to take a chance with, some sort of a chance. I’d
find a chance. I’ll do that anyhow. I’ll go away. I mean what I
say—I’ll stop trifling and shirking. If I don’t come back it won’t
matter. If I do——”
Her expression had become uneasy. Suddenly she bent down towards him.
“Don’t!” she said in an undertone.
“Don’t go on like this! You’re different! Go on being the knight who
wants to kiss my hand as his—what did you call it?” The ghost of a
smile curved her face. “Gurdrum!”
Then through a pause they both stared at each other, listening.
A muffled tumult on the other side of the wall asserted itself.
“Shut up, Rosie!” said a voice.
“I tell you I will see! I can’t half hear. Give me a leg up!”
“You Idiot! He’ll see you. You’re spoiling everything.”
The bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly’s world. He felt as people must
feel who are going to faint.
“You’ve got someone—” he said aghast.
She found life inexpressible to Mr. Polly. She addressed some unseen
hearers. “You filthy little Beasts!” she cried with a sharp note of
agony in her voice, and swung herself back over the wall and vanished.
There was a squeal of pain and fear, and a swift, fierce altercation.
For a couple of seconds he stood agape.
Then a wild resolve to confirm his worst sense of what was on the
other side of the wall made him seize a log, put it against the
stones, clutch the parapet with insecure fingers, and lug himself to a
momentary balance on the wall.
Romance and his goddess had vanished.
A red-haired girl with a pigtail was wringing the wrist of a
schoolfellow who shrieked with pain and cried: “Mercy! mercy! Ooo!
“You idiot!” cried Christabel. “You giggling Idiot!”
Two other young ladies made off through the beech trees from this
outburst of savagery.
Then the grip of Mr. Polly’s fingers gave, and he hit his chin against
the stones and slipped clumsily to the ground again, scraping his
cheek against the wall and hurting his shin against the log by which
he had reached the top. Just for a moment he crouched against the
He swore, staggered to the pile of logs and sat down.
He remained very still for some time, with his lips pressed together.
“Fool,” he said at last; “you Blithering Fool!” and began to rub his
shin as though he had just discovered its bruises.
Afterwards he found his face was wet with blood—which was none the
less red stuff from the heart because it came from slight
It is an illogical consequence of one human being’s ill-treatment that
we should fly immediately to another, but that is the way with us. It
seemed to Mr. Polly that only a human touch could assuage the smart of
his humiliation. Moreover it had for some undefined reason to be a
feminine touch, and the number of women in his world was limited.
He thought of the Larkins family—the Larkins whom he had not been
near now for ten long days. Healing people they seemed to him
now—healing, simple people. They had good hearts, and he had
neglected them for a mirage. If he rode over to them he would be able
to talk nonsense and laugh and forget the whirl of memories and
thoughts that was spinning round and round so unendurably in his
“Law!” said Mrs. Larkins, “come in! You’re quite a stranger, Elfrid!”
“Been seeing to business,” said the unveracious Polly.
“None of ’em ain’t at ’ome, but Miriam’s just out to do a bit of
shopping. Won’t let me shop, she won’t, because I’m so keerless. She’s
a wonderful manager, that girl. Minnie’s got some work at the carpet
place. ’Ope it won’t make ’er ill again. She’s a loving deliket sort,
is Minnie.... Come into the front parlour. It’s a bit untidy, but you
got to take us as you find us. Wot you been doing to your face?”
“Bit of a scrase with the bicycle,” said Mr. Polly.
“Trying to pass a carriage on the on side, and he drew up and ran me
against a wall.”
Mrs. Larkins scrutinised it. “You ought to ’ave someone look after
your scrases,” she said. “That’s all red and rough. It ought to be
cold-creamed. Bring your bicycle into the passage and come in.”
She “straightened up a bit,” that is to say she increased the
dislocation of a number of scattered articles, put a workbasket on the
top of several books, swept two or three dogs’-eared numbers of the
Lady’s Own Novelist from the table into the broken armchair, and
proceeded to sketch together the tea-things with various such
interpolations as: “Law, if I ain’t forgot the butter!” All the while
she talked of Annie’s good spirits and cleverness with her millinery,
and of Minnie’s affection and Miriam’s relative love of order and
management. Mr. Polly stood by the window uneasily and thought how
good and sincere was the Larkins tone. It was well to be back again.
“You’re a long time finding that shop of yours,” said Mrs. Larkins.
“Don’t do to be precipitous,” said Mr. Polly.
“No,” said Mrs. Larkins, “once you got it you got it. Like choosing a
’usband. You better see you got it good. I kept Larkins ’esitating two
years I did, until I felt sure of him. A ’ansom man ’e was as you can
see by the looks of the girls, but ’ansom is as ’ansom does. You’d
like a bit of jam to your tea, I expect? I ’ope they’ll keep their
men waiting when the time comes. I tell them if they think of marrying
it only shows they don’t know when they’re well off. Here’s Miriam!”
Miriam entered with several parcels in a net, and a peevish
expression. “Mother,” she said, “you might ’ave prevented my going
out with the net with the broken handle. I’ve been cutting my fingers
with the string all the way ’ome.” Then she discovered Mr. Polly and
her face brightened.
“Ello, Elfrid!” she said. “Where you been all this time?”
“Looking round,” said Mr. Polly.
“Found a shop?”
“One or two likely ones. But it takes time.”
“You’ve got the wrong cups, Mother.”
She went into the kitchen, disposed of her purchases, and returned
with the right cups. “What you done to your face, Elfrid?” she asked,
and came and scrutinised his scratches. “All rough it is.”
He repeated his story of the accident, and she was sympathetic in a
pleasant homely way.
“You are quiet today,” she said as they sat down to tea.
“Meditatious,” said Mr. Polly.
Quite by accident he touched her hand on the table, and she answered
“Why not?” thought Mr. Polly, and looking up, caught Mrs. Larkins’ eye
and flushed guiltily. But Mrs. Larkins, with unusual restraint, said
nothing. She merely made a grimace, enigmatical, but in its essence
Presently Minnie came in with some vague grievance against the manager
of the carpet-making place about his method of estimating piece work.
Her account was redundant, defective and highly technical, but
redeemed by a certain earnestness. “I’m never within sixpence of what
I reckon to be,” she said. “It’s a bit too ’ot.” Then Mr. Polly,
feeling that he was being conspicuously dull, launched into a
description of the shop he was looking for and the shops he had seen.
His mind warmed up as he talked.
“Found your tongue again,” said Mrs. Larkins. He had. He began to
embroider the subject and work upon it. For the first time it assumed
picturesque and desirable qualities in his mind. It stimulated him to
see how readily and willingly they accepted his sketches. Bright ideas
appeared in his mind from nowhere. He was suddenly enthusiastic.
“When I get this shop of mine I shall have a cat. Must make a home for
a cat, you know.”
“What, to catch the mice?” said Mrs. Larkins.
“No—sleep in the window. A venerable signor of a cat. Tabby. Cat’s
no good if it isn’t tabby. Cat I’m going to have, and a canary! Didn’t
think of that before, but a cat and a canary seem to go, you know.
Summer weather I shall sit at breakfast in the little room behind the
shop, sun streaming in the window to rights, cat on a chair, canary
singing and—Mrs. Polly....”
“Ello!” said Mrs. Larkins.
“Mrs. Polly frying an extra bit of bacon. Bacon singing, cat singing,
canary singing. Kettle singing. Mrs. Polly—”
“But who’s Mrs. Polly going to be?” said Mrs. Larkins.
“Figment of the imagination, ma’am,” said Mr. Polly. “Put in to fill
up picture. No face to figure as yet. Still, that’s how it will be, I
can assure you. I think I must have a bit of garden. Johnson’s the man
for a garden of course,” he said, going off at a tangent, “but I don’t
mean a fierce sort of garden. Earnest industry. Anxious moments.
Fervous digging. Shan’t go in for that sort of garden, ma’am. No! Too
much backache for me. My garden will be just a patch of ’sturtiums and
sweet pea. Red brick yard, clothes’ line. Trellis put up in odd time.
Humorous wind vane. Creeper up the back of the house.”
“Virginia creeper?” asked Miriam.
“Canary creeper,” said Mr. Polly.
“You will ’ave it nice,” said Miriam, desirously.
“Rather,” said Mr. Polly. “Ting-a-ling-a-ling. Shop!”
He straightened himself up and then they all laughed.
“Smart little shop,” he said. “Counter. Desk. All complete. Umbrella
stand. Carpet on the floor. Cat asleep on the counter. Ties and hose
on a rail over the counter. All right.”
“I wonder you don’t set about it right off,” said Miriam.
“Mean to get it exactly right, m’am,” said Mr. Polly.
“Have to have a tomcat,” said Mr. Polly, and paused for an expectant
moment. “Wouldn’t do to open shop one morning, you know, and find the
window full of kittens. Can’t sell kittens....”
When tea was over he was left alone with Minnie for a few minutes, and
an odd intimation of an incident occurred that left Mr. Polly rather
scared and shaken. A silence fell between them—an uneasy silence. He
sat with his elbows on the table looking at her. All the way from
Easewood to Stamton his erratic imagination had been running upon neat
ways of proposing marriage. I don’t know why it should have done, but
it had. It was a kind of secret exercise that had not had any definite
aim at the time, but which now recurred to him with extraordinary
force. He couldn’t think of anything in the world that wasn’t the
gambit to a proposal. It was almost irresistibly fascinating to think
how immensely a few words from him would excite and revolutionise
Minnie. She was sitting at the table with a workbasket among the tea
things, mending a glove in order to avoid her share of clearing away.
“I like cats,” said Minnie after a thoughtful pause. “I’m always
saying to mother, ’I wish we ’ad a cat.’ But we couldn’t ’ave a cat
’ere—not with no yard.”
“Never had a cat myself,” said Mr. Polly. “No!”
“I’m fond of them,” said Minnie.
“I like the look of them,” said Mr. Polly. “Can’t exactly call myself
“I expect I shall get one some day. When about you get your shop.”
“I shall have my shop all right before long,” said Mr. Polly. “Trust
me. Canary bird and all.”
She shook her head. “I shall get a cat first,” she said. “You never
mean anything you say.”
“Might get ’em together,” said Mr. Polly, with his sense of a neat
thing outrunning his discretion.
“Why! ’ow d’you mean?” said Minnie, suddenly alert.
“Shop and cat thrown in,” said Mr. Polly in spite of himself, and his
head swam and he broke out into a cold sweat as he said it.
He found her eyes fixed on him with an eager expression. “Mean to
say—” she began as if for verification. He sprang to his feet, and
turned to the window. “Little dog!” he said, and moved doorward
hastily. “Eating my bicycle tire, I believe,” he explained. And so
He saw his bicycle in the hall and cut it dead.
He heard Mrs. Larkins in the passage behind him as he opened the front
He turned to her. “Thought my bicycle was on fire,” he said. “Outside.
Funny fancy! All right, reely. Little dog outside.... Miriam ready?”
“To go and meet Annie.”
Mrs. Larkins stared at him. “You’re stopping for a bit of supper?”
“If I may,” said Mr. Polly.
“You’re a rum un,” said Mrs. Larkins, and called: “Miriam!”
Minnie appeared at the door of the room looking infinitely perplexed.
“There ain’t a little dog anywhere, Elfrid,” she said.
Mr. Polly passed his hand over his brow. “I had a most curious
sensation. Felt exactly as though something was up somewhere. That’s
why I said Little Dog. All right now.”
He bent down and pinched his bicycle tire.
“You was saying something about a cat, Elfrid,” said Minnie.
“Give you one,” he answered without looking up. “The very day my shop
He straightened himself up and smiled reassuringly. “Trust me,” he
When, after imperceptible manoeuvres by Mrs. Larkins, he found himself
starting circuitously through the inevitable recreation ground with
Miriam to meet Annie, he found himself quite unable to avoid the topic
of the shop that had now taken such a grip upon him. A sense of danger
only increased the attraction. Minnie’s persistent disposition to
accompany them had been crushed by a novel and violent and urgently
expressed desire on the part of Mrs. Larkins to see her do something
in the house sometimes....
“You really think you’ll open a shop?” asked Miriam.
“I hate cribs,” said Mr. Polly, adopting a moderate tone. “In a shop
there’s this drawback and that, but one is one’s own master.”
“That wasn’t all talk?”
“Not a bit of it.”
“After all,” he went on, “a little shop needn’t be so bad.”
“It’s a ’ome,” said Miriam.
“It’s a home.”
“There’s no need to keep accounts and that sort of thing if there’s no
assistant. I daresay I could run a shop all right if I wasn’t
“I should like to see you in your shop,” said Miriam. “I expect you’d
keep everything tremendously neat.”
The conversation flagged.
“Let’s sit down on one of those seats over there,” said Miriam. “Where
we can see those blue flowers.”
They did as she suggested, and sat down in a corner where a triangular
bed of stock and delphinium brightened the asphalted traceries of the
“I wonder what they call those flowers,” she said. “I always like
them. They’re handsome.”
“Delphicums and larkspurs,” said Mr. Polly. “They used to be in the
park at Port Burdock.
“Floriferous corner,” he added approvingly.
He put an arm over the back of the seat, and assumed a more
comfortable attitude. He glanced at Miriam, who was sitting in a lax,
thoughtful pose with her eyes on the flowers. She was wearing her old
dress, she had not had time to change, and the blue tones of her old
dress brought out a certain warmth in her skin, and her pose
exaggerated whatever was feminine in her rather lean and insufficient
body, and rounded her flat chest delusively. A little line of light
lay along her profile. The afternoon was full of transfiguring
sunshine, children were playing noisily in the adjacent sandpit, some
Judas trees were brightly abloom in the villa gardens that bordered
the Recreation Ground, and all the place was bright with touches of
young summer colour. It all merged with the effect of Miriam in Mr.
Her thoughts found speech. “One did ought to be happy in a shop,” she
said with a note of unusual softness in her voice.
It seemed to him that she was right. One did ought to be happy in a
shop. Folly not to banish dreams that made one ache of townless woods
and bracken tangles and red-haired linen-clad figures sitting in
dappled sunshine upon grey and crumbling walls and looking queenly
down on one with clear blue eyes. Cruel and foolish dreams they were,
that ended in one’s being laughed at and made a mock of. There was no
“A shop’s such a respectable thing to be,” said Miriam thoughtfully.
“I could be happy in a shop,” he said.
His sense of effect made him pause.
“If I had the right company,” he added.
She became very still.
Mr. Polly swerved a little from the conversational ice-run upon which
he had embarked.
“I’m not such a blooming Geezer,” he said, “as not to be able to sell
goods a bit. One has to be nosy over one’s buying of course. But I
shall do all right.”
He stopped, and felt falling, falling through the aching silence that
“If you get the right company,” said Miriam.
“I shall get that all right.”
“You don’t mean you’ve got someone—”
He found himself plunging.
“I’ve got someone in my eye, this minute,” he said.
“Elfrid!” she said, turning on him. “You don’t mean—”
Well, did he mean? “I do!” he said.
“Not reely!” She clenched her hands to keep still.
He took the conclusive step.
“Well, you and me, Miriam, in a little shop—with a cat and a
canary—” He tried too late to get back to a hypothetical note. “Just
“You mean,” said Miriam, “you’re in love with me, Elfrid?”
What possible answer can a man give to such a question but “Yes!”
Regardless of the public park, the children in the sandpit and
everyone, she bent forward and seized his shoulder and kissed him on
the lips. Something lit up in Mr. Polly at the touch. He put an arm
about her and kissed her back, and felt an irrevocable act was sealed.
He had a curious feeling that it would be very satisfying to marry and
have a wife—only somehow he wished it wasn’t Miriam. Her lips were
very pleasant to him, and the feel of her in his arm.
They recoiled a little from each other and sat for a moment, flushed
and awkwardly silent. His mind was altogether incapable of controlling
“I didn’t dream,” said Miriam, “you cared—. Sometimes I thought it
was Annie, sometimes Minnie—”
“Always liked you better than them,” said Mr. Polly.
“I loved you, Elfrid,” said Miriam, “since ever we met at your poor
father’s funeral. Leastways I would have done, if I had thought. You
didn’t seem to mean anything you said.
“I can’t believe it!” she added.
“Nor I,” said Mr. Polly.
“You mean to marry me and start that little shop—”
“Soon as ever I find it,” said Mr. Polly.
“I had no more idea when I came out with you—”
“It’s like a dream.”
They said no more for a little while.
“I got to pinch myself to think it’s real,” said Miriam. “What they’ll
do without me at ’ome I can’t imagine. When I tell them—”
For the life of him Mr. Polly could not tell whether he was fullest of
tender anticipations or regretful panic.
“Mother’s no good at managing—not a bit. Annie don’t care for ’ouse
work and Minnie’s got no ’ed for it. What they’ll do without me I
“They’ll have to do without you,” said Mr. Polly, sticking to his
A clock in the town began striking.
“Lor’!” said Miriam, “we shall miss Annie—sitting ’ere and
She rose and made as if to take Mr. Polly’s arm. But Mr. Polly felt
that their condition must be nakedly exposed to the ridicule of the
world by such a linking, and evaded her movement.
Annie was already in sight before a flood of hesitation and terrors
assailed Mr. Polly.
“Don’t tell anyone yet a bit,” he said.
“Only mother,” said Miriam firmly.
Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest
little squiggles of black—looked at in the right light, and yet
consider the blow they can give you upon the heart. You return from a
little careless holiday abroad, and turn over the page of a newspaper,
and against the name of that distant, vague-conceived railway in
mortgages upon which you have embarked the bulk of your capital, you
see instead of the familiar, persistent 95-6 (varying at most to 93
ex. div.) this slightly richer arrangement of marks: 76 1/2—78 1/2.
It is like the opening of a pit just under your feet!
So, too, Mr. Polly’s happy sense of limitless resources was
obliterated suddenly by a vision of this tracery:
instead of the
he had come to regard as the fixed symbol of his affluence.
It gave him a disagreeable feeling about the diaphragm, akin in a
remote degree to the sensation he had when the perfidy of the
red-haired schoolgirl became plain to him. It made his brow moist.
“Going down a vortex!” he whispered.
By a characteristic feat of subtraction he decided that he must have
spent sixty-two pounds.
“Funererial baked meats,” he said, recalling possible items.
The happy dream in which he had been living of long warm days, of open
roads, of limitless unchecked hours, of infinite time to look about
him, vanished like a thing enchanted. He was suddenly back in the hard
old economic world, that exacts work, that limits range, that
discourages phrasing and dispels laughter. He saw Wood Street and its
fearful suspenses yawning beneath his feet.
And also he had promised to marry Miriam, and on the whole rather
He was distraught at supper. Afterwards, when Mrs. Johnson had gone to
bed with a slight headache, he opened a conversation with Johnson.
“It’s about time, O’ Man, I saw about doing something,” he said.
“Riding about and looking at shops, all very debonnairious, O’ Man,
but it’s time I took one for keeps.”
“What did I tell you?” said Johnson.
“How do you think that corner shop of yours will figure out?” Mr.
“You’re really meaning it?”
“If it’s a practable proposition, O’ Man. Assuming it’s practable.
What’s your idea of the figures?”
Johnson went to the chiffonier, got out a letter and tore off the back
sheet. “Let’s figure it out,” he said with solemn satisfaction. “Let’s
see the lowest you could do it on.”
He squared himself to the task, and Mr. Polly sat beside him like a
pupil, watching the evolution of the grey, distasteful figures that
were to dispose of his little hoard.
“What running expenses have we got to provide for?” said Johnson,
wetting his pencil. “Let’s have them first. Rent?...”
At the end of an hour of hideous speculations, Johnson decided: “It’s
close. But you’ll have a chance.”
“M’m,” said Mr. Polly. “What more does a brave man want?”
“One thing you can do quite easily. I’ve asked about it.”
“What’s that, O’ Man?” said Mr. Polly.
“Take the shop without the house above it.”
“I suppose I might put my head in to mind it,” said Mr. Polly, “and
get a job with my body.”
“Not exactly that. But I thought you’d save a lot if you stayed on
here—being all alone as you are.”
“Never thought of that, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly, and reflected
silently upon the needlessness of Miriam.
“We were talking of eighty pounds for stock,” said Johnson. “Of course
seventy-five is five pounds less, isn’t it? Not much else we can cut.”
“No,” said Mr. Polly.
“It’s very interesting, all this,” said Johnson, folding up the half
sheet of paper and unfolding it. “I wish sometimes I had a business of
my own instead of a fixed salary. You’ll have to keep books of
“One wants to know where one is.”
“I should do it all by double entry,” said Johnson. “A little
troublesome at first, but far the best in the end.”
“Lemme see that paper,” said Mr. Polly, and took it with the feeling
of a man who takes a nauseating medicine, and scrutinised his cousin’s
neat figures with listless eyes.
“Well,” said Johnson, rising and stretching. “Bed! Better sleep on it,
“Right O,” said Mr. Polly without moving, but indeed he could as well
have slept upon a bed of thorns.
He had a dreadful night. It was like the end of the annual holiday,
only infinitely worse. It was like a newly arrived prisoner’s backward
glance at the trees and heather through the prison gates. He had to go
back to harness, and he was as fitted to go in harness as the ordinary
domestic cat. All night, Fate, with the quiet complacency, and indeed
at times the very face and gestures of Johnson, guided him towards
that undesired establishment at the corner near the station. “Oh
Lord!” he cried, “I’d rather go back to cribs. I should keep my
money anyhow.” Fate never winced.
“Run away to sea,” whispered Mr. Polly, but he knew he wasn’t man
“Cut my blooming throat.”
Some braver strain urged him to think of Miriam, and for a little
while he lay still....
“Well, O’ Man?” said Johnson, when Mr. Polly came down to breakfast,
and Mrs. Johnson looked up brightly. Mr. Polly had never felt
breakfast so unattractive before.
“Just a day or so more, O’ Man—to turn it over in my mind,” he said.
“You’ll get the place snapped up,” said Johnson.
There were times in those last few days of coyness with his destiny
when his engagement seemed the most negligible of circumstances, and
times—and these happened for the most part at nights after Mrs.
Johnson had indulged everybody in a Welsh rarebit—when it assumed so
sinister and portentous an appearance as to make him think of suicide.
And there were times too when he very distinctly desired to be
married, now that the idea had got into his head, at any cost. Also he
tried to recall all the circumstances of his proposal, time after
time, and never quite succeeded in recalling what had brought the
thing off. He went over to Stamton with a becoming frequency, and
kissed all his cousins, and Miriam especially, a great deal, and found
it very stirring and refreshing. They all appeared to know; and Minnie
was tearful, but resigned. Mrs. Larkins met him, and indeed enveloped
him, with unwonted warmth, and there was a big pot of household jam
for tea. And he could not make up his mind to sign his name to
anything about the shop, though it crawled nearer and nearer to him,
though the project had materialised now to the extent of a draft
agreement with the place for his signature indicated in pencil.
One morning, just after Mr. Johnson had gone to the station, Mr. Polly
wheeled his bicycle out into the road, went up to his bedroom, packed
his long white nightdress, a comb, and a toothbrush in a manner that
was as offhand as he could make it, informed Mrs. Johnson, who was
manifestly curious, that he was “off for a day or two to clear his
head,” and fled forthright into the road, and mounting turned his
wheel towards the tropics and the equator and the south coast of
England, and indeed more particularly to where the little village of
Fishbourne slumbers and sleeps.
When he returned four days later, he astonished Johnson beyond measure
by remarking so soon as the shop project was reopened:
“I’ve took a little contraption at Fishbourne, O’ Man, that I fancy
suits me better.”
He paused, and then added in a manner, if possible, even more offhand:
“Oh! and I’m going to have a bit of a nuptial over at Stamton with one
of the Larkins cousins.”
“Nuptial!” said Johnson.
“Wedding bells, O’ Man. Benedictine collapse.”
On the whole Johnson showed great self-control. “It’s your own affair,
O’ Man,” he said, when things had been more clearly explained, “and I
hope you won’t feel sorry when it’s too late.”
But Mrs. Johnson was first of all angrily silent, and then
reproachful. “I don’t see what we’ve done to be made fools of like
this,” she said. “After all the trouble we’ve ’ad to make you
comfortable and see after you. Out late and sitting up and everything.
And then you go off as sly as sly without a word, and get a shop
behind our backs as though you thought we meant to steal your money. I
’aven’t patience with such deceitfulness, and I didn’t think it of
you, Elfrid. And now the letting season’s ’arf gone by, and what I
shall do with that room of yours I’ve no idea. Frank is frank, and
fair play fair play; so I was told any’ow when I was a girl. Just as
long as it suits you to stay ’ere you stay ’ere, and then it’s off and
no thank you whether we like it or not. Johnson’s too easy with you.
’E sits there and doesn’t say a word, and night after night ’e’s been
addin’ and thinkin’ for you, instead of seeing to his own affairs—”
She paused for breath.
“Unfortunate amoor,” said Mr. Polly, apologetically and indistinctly.
“Didn’t expect it myself.”
Mr. Polly’s marriage followed with a certain inevitableness.
He tried to assure himself that he was acting upon his own forceful
initiative, but at the back of his mind was the completest realisation
of his powerlessness to resist the gigantic social forces he had set
in motion. He had got to marry under the will of society, even as in
times past it has been appointed for other sunny souls under the will
of society that they should be led out by serious and unavoidable
fellow-creatures and ceremoniously drowned or burnt or hung. He would
have preferred infinitely a more observant and less conspicuous rôle,
but the choice was no longer open to him. He did his best to play his
part, and he procured some particularly neat check trousers to do it
in. The rest of his costume, except for some bright yellow gloves, a
grey and blue mixture tie, and that the broad crape hat-band was
changed for a livelier piece of silk, were the things he had worn at
the funeral of his father. So nearly akin are human joy and sorrow.
The Larkins sisters had done wonders with grey sateen. The idea of
orange blossom and white veils had been abandoned reluctantly on
account of the expense of cabs. A novelette in which the heroine had
stood at the altar in “a modest going-away dress” had materially
assisted this decision. Miriam was frankly tearful, and so indeed was
Annie, but with laughter as well to carry it off. Mr. Polly heard
Annie say something vague about never getting a chance because of
Miriam always sticking about at home like a cat at a mouse-hole, that
became, as people say, food for thought. Mrs. Larkins was from the
first flushed, garrulous, and wet and smeared by copious weeping; an
incredibly soaked and crumpled and used-up pocket handkerchief never
left the clutch of her plump red hand. “Goo’ girls, all of them,” she
kept on saying in a tremulous voice; “such-goo-goo-goo-girls!” She
wetted Mr. Polly dreadfully when she kissed him. Her emotion affected
the buttons down the back of her bodice, and almost the last filial
duty Miriam did before entering on her new life was to close that
gaping orifice for the eleventh time. Her bonnet was small and
ill-balanced, black adorned with red roses, and first it got over her
right eye until Annie told her of it, and then she pushed it over her
left eye and looked ferocious for a space, and after that baptismal
kissing of Mr. Polly the delicate millinery took fright and climbed
right up to the back part of her head and hung on there by a pin, and
flapped piteously at all the larger waves of emotion that filled the
gathering. Mr. Polly became more and more aware of that bonnet as time
went on, until he felt for it like a thing alive. Towards the end it
had yawning fits.
The company did not include Mrs. Johnson, but Johnson came with a
manifest surreptitiousness and backed against walls and watched Mr.
Polly with doubt and speculation in his large grey eyes and whistled
noiselessly and doubtful on the edge of things. He was, so to speak,
to be best man, sotto voce. A sprinkling of girls in gay hats from
Miriam’s place of business appeared in church, great nudgers all of
them, but only two came on afterwards to the house. Mrs. Punt brought
her son with his ever-widening mind, it was his first wedding, and a
Larkins uncle, a Mr. Voules, a licenced victualler, very kindly drove
over in a gig from Sommershill with a plump, well-dressed wife to give
the bride away. One or two total strangers drifted into the church and
sat down observantly far away.
This sprinkling of people seemed only to enhance the cool brown
emptiness of the church, the rows and rows of empty pews, disengaged
prayerbooks and abandoned hassocks. It had the effect of a
preposterous misfit. Johnson consulted with a thin-legged,
short-skirted verger about the disposition of the party. The
officiating clergy appeared distantly in the doorway of the vestry,
putting on his surplice, and relapsed into a contemplative
cheek-scratching that was manifestly habitual. Before the bride
arrived Mr. Polly’s sense of the church found an outlet in whispered
criticisms of ecclesiastical architecture with Johnson. “Early Norman
arches, eh?” he said, “or Perpendicular.”
“Can’t say,” said Johnson.
“Telessated pavements, all right.”
“It’s well laid anyhow.”
“Can’t say I admire the altar. Scrappy rather with those flowers.”
He coughed behind his hand and cleared his throat. At the back of his
mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be
criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers
announced the arrival of the bridal party.
The little procession from a remote door became one of the enduring
memories of Mr. Polly’s life. The little verger had bustled to meet
it, and arrange it according to tradition and morality. In spite of
Mrs. Larkins’ “Don’t take her from me yet!” he made Miriam go first
with Mr. Voules, the bridesmaids followed and then himself hopelessly
unable to disentangle himself from the whispering maternal anguish of
Mrs. Larkins. Mrs. Voules, a compact, rounded woman with a square,
expressionless face, imperturbable dignity, and a dress of
considerable fashion, completed the procession.
Mr. Polly’s eye fell first upon the bride; the sight of her filled him
with a curious stir of emotion. Alarm, desire, affection, respect—and
a queer element of reluctant dislike all played their part in that
complex eddy. The grey dress made her a stranger to him, made her
stiff and commonplace, she was not even the rather drooping form that
had caught his facile sense of beauty when he had proposed to her in
the Recreation Ground. There was something too that did not please him
in the angle of her hat, it was indeed an ill-conceived hat with large
aimless rosettes of pink and grey. Then his mind passed to Mrs.
Larkins and the bonnet that was to gain such a hold upon him; it
seemed to be flag-signalling as she advanced, and to the two eager,
unrefined sisters he was acquiring.
A freak of fancy set him wondering where and when in the future a
beautiful girl with red hair might march along some splendid aisle.
Never mind! He became aware of Mr. Voules.
He became aware of Mr. Voules as a watchful, blue eye of intense
forcefulness. It was the eye of a man who has got hold of a situation.
He was a fat, short, red-faced man clad in a tight-fitting tail coat
of black and white check with a coquettish bow tie under the lowest of
a number of crisp little red chins. He held the bride under his arm
with an air of invincible championship, and his free arm flourished a
grey top hat of an equestrian type. Mr. Polly instantly learnt from
the eye that Mr. Voules knew all about his longing for flight. Its
azure pupil glowed with disciplined resolution. It said: “I’ve come to
give this girl away, and give her away I will. I’m here now and things
have to go on all right. So don’t think of it any more”—and Mr. Polly
didn’t. A faint phantom of a certain “lill’ dog” that had hovered just
beneath the threshold of consciousness vanished into black
impossibility. Until the conclusive moment of the service was attained
the eye of Mr. Voules watched Mr. Polly relentlessly, and then
instantly he relieved guard, and blew his nose into a voluminous and
richly patterned handkerchief, and sighed and looked round for the
approval and sympathy of Mrs. Voules, and nodded to her brightly like
one who has always foretold a successful issue to things. Mr. Polly
felt then like a marionette that has just dropped off its wire. But it
was long before that release arrived.
He became aware of Miriam breathing close to him.
“Hullo!” he said, and feeling that was clumsy and would meet the eye’s
disapproval: “Grey dress—suits you no end.”
Miriam’s eyes shone under her hat-brim.
“Not reely!” she whispered.
“You’re all right,” he said with the feeling of observation and
criticism stiffening his lips. He cleared his throat.
The verger’s hand pushed at him from behind. Someone was driving
Miriam towards the altar rail and the clergyman. “We’re in for it,”
said Mr. Polly to her sympathetically. “Where? Here? Right O.” He was
interested for a moment or so in something indescribably habitual in
the clergyman’s pose. What a lot of weddings he must have seen! Sick
he must be of them!
“Don’t let your attention wander,” said the eye.
“Got the ring?” whispered Johnson.
“Pawned it yesterday,” answered Mr. Polly and then had a dreadful
moment under that pitiless scrutiny while he felt in the wrong
The officiating clergy sighed deeply, began, and married them wearily
and without any hitch.
“D’b’loved, we gath’d ’gether sight o’ Gard ’n face this con’gation
join ’gather Man, Worn’ Holy Mat’my which is on’bl state stooted by
Gard in times man’s innocency....”
Mr. Polly’s thoughts wandered wide and far, and once again something
like a cold hand touched his heart, and he saw a sweet face in
sunshine under the shadow of trees.
Someone was nudging him. It was Johnson’s finger diverted his eyes to
the crucial place in the prayer-book to which they had come.
“Wiltou lover, cumfer, oner, keeper sickness and health...”
“Say ‘I will.’”
Mr. Polly moistened his lips. “I will,” he said hoarsely.
Miriam, nearly inaudible, answered some similar demand.
Then the clergyman said: “Who gifs Worn married to this man?”
“Well, I’m doing that,” said Mr. Voules in a refreshingly full voice
and looking round the church. “You see, me and Martha Larkins being
He was silenced by the clergyman’s rapid grip directing the exchange
“Pete arf me,” said the clergyman to Mr. Polly. “Take thee Mirum wed
“Take thee Mirum wed’ wife,” said Mr. Polly.
“Have hold this day ford.”
“Have hold this day ford.”
“Bet worsh, richpoo’....”
Then came Miriam’s turn.
“Lego hands,” said the clergyman; “got the ring? No! On the book. So!
Here! Pete arf me, ‘withis ring Ivy wed.’”
“Withis ring Ivy wed—”
So it went on, blurred and hurried, like the momentary vision of an
utterly beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train....
“Now, my boy,” said Mr. Voules at last, gripping Mr. Polly’s elbow
tightly, “you’ve got to sign the registry, and there you are! Done!”
Before him stood Miriam, a little stiffly, the hat with a slight rake
across her forehead, and a kind of questioning hesitation in her face.
Mr. Voules urged him past her.
It was astounding. She was his wife!
And for some reason Miriam and Mrs. Larkins were sobbing, and Annie
was looking grave. Hadn’t they after all wanted him to marry her?
Because if that was the case—!
He became aware for the first time of the presence of Uncle Pentstemon
in the background, but approaching, wearing a tie of a light mineral
blue colour, and grinning and sucking enigmatically and judiciously
round his principal tooth.
It was in the vestry that the force of Mr. Voules’ personality began
to show at its true value. He seemed to open out and spread over
things directly the restraints of the ceremony were at an end.
“Everything,” he said to the clergyman, “excellent.” He also shook
hands with Mrs. Larkins, who clung to him for a space, and kissed
Miriam on the cheek. “First kiss for me,” he said, “anyhow.”
He led Mr. Polly to the register by the arm, and then got chairs for
Mrs. Larkins and his wife. He then turned on Miriam. “Now, young
people,” he said. “One! or I shall again.”
“That’s right!” said Mr. Voules. “Same again, Miss.”
Mr. Polly was overcome with modest confusion, and turning, found a
refuge from this publicity in the arms of Mrs. Larkins. Then in a
state of profuse moisture he was assaulted and kissed by Annie and
Minnie, who were immediately kissed upon some indistinctly stated
grounds by Mr. Voules, who then kissed the entirely impassive Mrs.
Voules and smacked his lips and remarked: “Home again safe and sound!”
Then with a strange harrowing cry Mrs. Larkins seized upon and bedewed
Miriam with kisses, Annie and Minnie kissed each other, and Johnson
went abruptly to the door of the vestry and stared into the church—no
doubt with ideas of sanctuary in his mind. “Like a bit of a kiss round
sometimes,” said Mr. Voules, and made a kind of hissing noise with his
teeth, and suddenly smacked his hands together with great éclat
several times. Meanwhile the clergyman scratched his cheek with one
hand and fiddled the pen with the other and the verger coughed
“The dog cart’s just outside,” said Mr. Voules. “No walking home
to-day for the bride, Mam.”
“Not going to drive us?” cried Annie.
“The happy pair, Miss. Your turn soon.”
“Get out!” said Annie. “I shan’t marry—ever.”
“You won’t be able to help it. You’ll have to do it—just to disperse
the crowd.” Mr. Voules laid his hand on Mr. Polly’s shoulder. “The
bridegroom gives his arm to the bride. Hands across and down the
middle. Prump. Prump, Perump-pump-pump-pump.”
Mr. Polly found himself and the bride leading the way towards the
Mrs. Larkins passed close to Uncle Pentstemon, sobbing too earnestly
to be aware of him. “Such a goo-goo-goo-girl!” she sobbed.
“Didn’t think I’d come, did you?” said Uncle Pentstemon, but she
swept past him, too busy with the expression of her feelings to
“She didn’t think I’d come, I lay,” said Uncle Pentstemon, a little
foiled, but effecting an auditory lodgment upon Johnson.
“I don’t know,” said Johnson uncomfortably.
“I suppose you were asked. How are you getting on?”
“I was arst,” said Uncle Pentstemon, and brooded for a moment.
“I goes about seeing wonders,” he added, and then in a sort of
enhanced undertone: “One of ’er girls gettin’ married. That’s what I
mean by wonders. Lord’s goodness! Wow!”
“Nothing the matter?” asked Johnson.
“Got it in the back for a moment. Going to be a change of weather I
suppose,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “I brought ’er a nice present, too,
what I got in this passel. Vallyble old tea caddy that uset’ be my
mother’s. What I kep’ my baccy in for years and years—till the hinge
at the back got broke. It ain’t been no use to me particular since, so
thinks I, drat it! I may as well give it ’er as not....”
Mr. Polly found himself emerging from the western door.
Outside, a crowd of half-a-dozen adults and about fifty children had
collected, and hailed the approach of the newly wedded couple with a
faint, indeterminate cheer. All the children were holding something in
little bags, and his attention was caught by the expression of
vindictive concentration upon the face of a small big-eared boy in the
foreground. He didn’t for the moment realise what these things might
import. Then he received a stinging handful of rice in the ear, and a
great light shone.
“Not yet, you young fool!” he heard Mr. Voules saying behind him, and
then a second handful spoke against his hat.
“Not yet,” said Mr. Voules with increasing emphasis, and Mr. Polly
became aware that he and Miriam were the focus of two crescents of
small boys, each with the light of massacre in his eyes and a grubby
fist clutching into a paper bag for rice; and that Mr. Voules was
warding off probable discharges with a large red hand.
The dog cart was in charge of a loafer, and the horse and the whip
were adorned with white favours, and the back seat was confused but
not untenable with hampers. “Up we go,” said Mr. Voules, “old birds in
front and young ones behind.” An ominous group of ill-restrained
rice-throwers followed them up as they mounted.
“Get your handkerchief for your face,” said Mr. Polly to his bride,
and took the place next the pavement with considerable heroism, held
on, gripped his hat, shut his eyes and prepared for the worst. “Off!”
said Mr. Voules, and a concentrated fire came stinging Mr. Polly’s
The horse shied, and when the bridegroom could look at the world again
it was manifest the dog cart had just missed an electric tram by a
hairsbreadth, and far away outside the church railings the verger and
Johnson were battling with an active crowd of small boys for the life
of the rest of the Larkins family. Mrs. Punt and her son had escaped
across the road, the son trailing and stumbling at the end of a
remorseless arm, but Uncle Pentstemon, encumbered by the tea-caddy,
was the centre of a little circle of his own, and appeared to be
dratting them all very heartily. Remoter, a policeman approached with
an air of tranquil unconsciousness.
“Steady, you idiot. Stead-y!” cried Mr. Voules, and then over his
shoulder: “I brought that rice! I like old customs! Whoa! Stead-y.”
The dog cart swerved violently, and then, evoking a shout of
groundless alarm from a cyclist, took a corner, and the rest of the
wedding party was hidden from Mr. Polly’s eyes.
“We’ll get the stuff into the house before the old gal comes along,”
said Mr. Voules, “if you’ll hold the hoss.”
“How about the key?” asked Mr. Polly.
“I got the key, coming.”
And while Mr. Polly held the sweating horse and dodged the foam that
dripped from its bit, the house absorbed Miriam and Mr. Voules
altogether. Mr. Voules carried in the various hampers he had brought
with him, and finally closed the door behind him.
For some time Mr. Polly remained alone with his charge in the little
blind alley outside the Larkins’ house, while the neighbours
scrutinised him from behind their blinds. He reflected that he was a
married man, that he must look very like a fool, that the head of a
horse is a silly shape and its eye a bulger; he wondered what the
horse thought of him, and whether it really liked being held and
patted on the neck or whether it only submitted out of contempt. Did
it know he was married? Then he wondered if the clergyman had thought
him much of an ass, and then whether the individual lurking behind the
lace curtains of the front room next door was a man or a woman. A door
opened over the way, and an elderly gentleman in a kind of embroidered
fez appeared smoking a pipe with a quiet satisfied expression. He
regarded Mr. Polly for some time with mild but sustained curiosity.
Finally he called: “Hi!”
“Hullo!” said Mr. Polly.
“You needn’t ’old that ’orse,” said the old gentleman.
“Spirited beast,” said Mr. Polly. “And,”—with some faint analogy to
ginger beer in his mind—“he’s up today.”
“’E won’t turn ’isself round,” said the old gentleman, “anyow. And
there ain’t no way through for ’im to go.”
“Verbum sap,” said Mr. Polly, and abandoned the horse and turned, to
the door. It opened to him just as Mrs. Larkins on the arm of Johnson,
followed by Annie, Minnie, two friends, Mrs. Punt and her son and at a
slight distance Uncle Pentstemon, appeared round the corner.
“They’re coming,” he said to Miriam, and put an arm about her and gave
her a kiss.
She was kissing him back when they were startled violently by the
shying of two empty hampers into the passage. Then Mr. Voules appeared
holding a third.
“Here! you’ll ’ave plenty of time for that presently,” he said, “get
these hampers away before the old girl comes. I got a cold collation
here to make her sit up. My eye!”
Miriam took the hampers, and Mr. Polly under compulsion from Mr.
Voules went into the little front room. A profuse pie and a large ham
had been added to the modest provision of Mrs. Larkins, and a number
of select-looking bottles shouldered the bottle of sherry and the
bottle of port she had got to grace the feast. They certainly went
better with the iced wedding cake in the middle. Mrs. Voules, still
impassive, stood by the window regarding these things with a faint
“Makes it look a bit thicker, eh?” said Mr. Voules, and blew out both
his cheeks and smacked his hands together violently several times.
“Surprise the old girl no end.”
He stood back and smiled and bowed with arms extended as the others
came clustering at the door.
“Why, Un-clé Voules!” cried Annie, with a rising note.
It was his reward.
And then came a great wedging and squeezing and crowding into the
little room. Nearly everyone was hungry, and eyes brightened at the
sight of the pie and the ham and the convivial array of bottles. “Sit
down everyone,” cried Mr. Voules, “leaning against anything counts as
sitting, and makes it easier to shake down the grub!”
The two friends from Miriam’s place of business came into the room
among the first, and then wedged themselves so hopelessly against
Johnson in an attempt to get out again and take off their things
upstairs that they abandoned the attempt. Amid the struggle Mr. Polly
saw Uncle Pentstemon relieve himself of his parcel by giving it to the
bride. “Here!” he said and handed it to her. “Weddin’ present,” he
explained, and added with a confidential chuckle, “I never thought
I’d ’ave to give you one—ever.”
“Who says steak and kidney pie?” bawled Mr. Voules. “Who says steak
and kidney pie? You ’ave a drop of old Tommy, Martha. That’s what
you want to steady you.... Sit down everyone and don’t all speak at
once. Who says steak and kidney pie?...”
“Vocificeratious,” whispered Mr. Polly. “Convivial vocificerations.”
“Bit of ’am with it,” shouted Mr. Voules, poising a slice of ham on
his knife. “Anyone ’ave a bit of ’am with it? Won’t that little man
of yours, Mrs. Punt—won’t ’e ’ave a bit of ’am?...”
“And now ladies and gentlemen,” said Mr. Voules, still standing and
dominating the crammed roomful, “now you got your plates filled and
something I can warrant you good in your glasses, wot about drinking
the ’ealth of the bride?”
“Eat a bit fust,” said Uncle Pentstemon, speaking with his mouth full,
amidst murmurs of applause. “Eat a bit fust.”
So they did, and the plates clattered and the glasses chinked.
Mr. Polly stood shoulder to shoulder with Johnson for a moment.
“In for it,” said Mr. Polly cheeringly. “Cheer up, O’ Man, and peck a
bit. No reason why you shouldn’t eat, you know.”
The Punt boy stood on Mr. Polly’s boots for a minute, struggling
violently against the compunction of Mrs. Punt’s grip.
“Pie,” said the Punt boy, “Pie!”
“You sit ’ere and ’ave ’am, my lord!” said Mrs. Punt, prevailing.
“Pie you can’t ’ave and you won’t.”
“Lor bless my heart, Mrs. Punt!” protested Mr. Voules, “let the boy
’ave a bit if he wants it—wedding and all!”
“You ’aven’t ’ad ’im sick on your ’ands, Uncle Voules,” said Mrs.
Punt. “Else you wouldn’t want to humour his fancies as you do....”
“I can’t help feeling it’s a mistake, O’ Man,” said Johnson, in a
confidential undertone. “I can’t help feeling you’ve been Rash. Let’s
hope for the best.”
“Always glad of good wishes, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly. “You’d better
have a drink of something. Anyhow, sit down to it.”
Johnson subsided gloomily, and Mr. Polly secured some ham and carried
it off and sat himself down on the sewing machine on the floor in the
corner to devour it. He was hungry, and a little cut off from the rest
of the company by Mrs. Voules’ hat and back, and he occupied himself
for a time with ham and his own thoughts. He became aware of a series
of jangling concussions on the table. He craned his neck and
discovered that Mr. Voules was standing up and leaning forward over
the table in the manner distinctive of after-dinner speeches, tapping
upon the table with a black bottle. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Mr.
Voules, raising his glass solemnly in the empty desert of sound he had
made, and paused for a second or so. “Ladies and gentlemen,—The
Bride.” He searched his mind for some suitable wreath of speech, and
brightened at last with discovery. “Here’s Luck to her!” he said at
“Here’s Luck!” said Johnson hopelessly but resolutely, and raised his
glass. Everybody murmured: “Here’s luck.”
“Luck!” said Mr. Polly, unseen in his corner, lifting a forkful of
“That’s all right,” said Mr. Voules with a sigh of relief at having
brought off a difficult operation. “And now, who’s for a bit more
For a time conversation was fragmentary again. But presently Mr.
Voules rose from his chair again; he had subsided with a contented
smile after his first oratorical effort, and produced a silence by
renewed hammering. “Ladies and gents,” he said, “fill up for the
second toast:—the happy Bridegroom!” He stood for half a minute
searching his mind for the apt phrase that came at last in a rush.
“Here’s (hic) luck to him,” said Mr. Voules.
“Luck to him!” said everyone, and Mr. Polly, standing up behind Mrs.
Voules, bowed amiably, amidst enthusiasm.
“He may say what he likes,” said Mrs. Larkins, “he’s got luck. That
girl’s a treasure of treasures, and always has been ever since she
tried to nurse her own little sister, being but three at the time, and
fell the full flight of stairs from top to bottom, no hurt that any
outward eye ’as even seen, but always ready and helpful, always
tidying and busy. A treasure, I must say, and a treasure I will say,
giving no more than her due....”
She was silenced altogether by a rapping sound that would not be
denied. Mr. Voules had been struck by a fresh idea and was standing up
and hammering with the bottle again.
“The third Toast, ladies and gentlemen,” he said; “fill up, please.
The Mother of the bride. I—er.... Uoo.... Ere!... Ladies and gem,
’Ere’s Luck to ’er!...”
The dingy little room was stuffy and crowded to its utmost limit, and
Mr. Polly’s skies were dark with the sense of irreparable acts.
Everybody seemed noisy and greedy and doing foolish things. Miriam,
still in that unbecoming hat—for presently they had to start off to
the station together—sat just beyond Mrs. Punt and her son, doing her
share in the hospitalities, and ever and again glancing at him with a
deliberately encouraging smile. Once she leant over the back of the
chair to him and whispered cheeringly: “Soon be together now.” Next to
her sat Johnson, profoundly silent, and then Annie, talking vigorously
to a friend. Uncle Pentstemon was eating voraciously opposite, but
with a kindling eye for Annie. Mrs. Larkins sat next to Mr. Voules.
She was unable to eat a mouthful, she declared, it would choke her,
but ever and again Mr. Voules wooed her to swallow a little drop of
There seemed a lot of rice upon everybody, in their hats and hair and
the folds of their garments.
Presently Mr. Voules was hammering the table for the fourth time in
the interests of the Best Man....
All feasts come to an end at last, and the breakup of things was
precipitated by alarming symptoms on the part of Master Punt. He was
taken out hastily after a whispered consultation, and since he had got
into the corner between the fireplace and the cupboard, that meant
everyone moving to make way for him. Johnson took the opportunity to
say, “Well—so long,” to anyone who might be listening, and disappear.
Mr. Polly found himself smoking a cigarette and walking up and down
outside in the company of Uncle Pentstemon, while Mr. Voules replaced
bottles in hampers and prepared for departure, and the womenkind of
the party crowded upstairs with the bride. Mr. Polly felt taciturn,
but the events of the day had stirred the mind of Uncle Pentstemon to
speech. And so he spoke, discursively and disconnectedly, a little
heedless of his listener as wise old men will.
“They do say,” said Uncle Pentstemon, “one funeral makes many. This
time it’s a wedding. But it’s all very much of a muchness,” said Uncle
“’Am do get in my teeth nowadays,” said Uncle Pentstemon, “I can’t
understand it. ’Tisn’t like there was nubbicks or strings or such in
’am. It’s a plain food.
“That’s better,” he said at last.
“You got to get married,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “Some has. Some
hain’t. I done it long before I was your age. It hain’t for me to
blame you. You can’t ’elp being the marrying sort any more than me.
It’s nat’ral-like poaching or drinking or wind on the stummik. You
can’t ’elp it and there you are! As for the good of it, there ain’t no
particular good in it as I can see. It’s a toss up. The hotter come,
the sooner cold, but they all gets tired of it sooner or later.... I
hain’t no grounds to complain. Two I’ve ’ad and berried, and might
’ave ’ad a third, and never no worrit with kids—never....
“You done well not to ’ave the big gal. I will say that for ye.
She’s a gad-about grinny, she is, if ever was. A gad-about grinny.
Mucked up my mushroom bed to rights, she did, and I ’aven’t forgot it.
Got the feet of a centipede, she ’as—ll over everything and neither
with your leave nor by your leave. Like a stray ’en in a pea patch.
Cluck! cluck! Trying to laugh it off. I laughed ’er off, I did.
Dratted lumpin baggage!...”
For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a
reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.
“Wimmin’s a toss up,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “Prize packets they are,
and you can’t tell what’s in ’em till you took ’em ’ome and undone
’em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn’t buy a pig in a poke.
Never. Marriage seems to change the very natures in ’em through and
through. You can’t tell what they won’t turn into—nohow.
“I seen the nicest girls go wrong,” said Uncle Pentstemon, and added
with unusual thoughtfulness, “Not that I mean you got one of that
He sent another crumb on to its long home with a sucking, encouraging
“The wust sort’s the grizzler,” Uncle Pentstemon resumed. “If ever
I’d ’ad a grizzler I’d up and ’it ’er on the ’ed with sumpthin’ pretty
quick. I don’t think I could abide a grizzler,” said Uncle Pentstemon.
“I’d liefer ’ave a lump-about like that other gal. I would indeed. I
lay I’d make ’er stop laughing after a bit for all ’er airs. And mind
where her clumsy great feet went....
“A man’s got to tackle ’em, whatever they be,” said Uncle Pentstemon,
summing up the shrewd observation of an old-world life time. “Good or
bad,” said Uncle Pentstemon raising his voice fearlessly, “a man’s got
to tackle ’em.”
At last it was time for the two young people to catch the train for
Waterloo en route for Fishbourne. They had to hurry, and as a
concluding glory of matrimony they travelled second-class, and were
seen off by all the rest of the party except the Punts, Master Punt
being now beyond any question unwell.
“Off!” The train moved out of the station.
Mr. Polly remained waving his hat and Mrs. Polly her handkerchief
until they were hidden under the bridge. The dominating figure to the
last was Mr. Voules. He had followed them along the platform waving
the equestrian grey hat and kissing his hand to the bride.
They subsided into their seats.
“Got a compartment to ourselves anyhow,” said Mrs. Polly after a
Silence for a moment.
“The rice ’e must ’ave bought. Pounds and pounds!”
Mr. Polly felt round his collar at the thought.
“Ain’t you going to kiss me, Elfrid, now we’re alone together?”
He roused himself to sit forward hands on knees, cocked his hat over
one eye, and assumed an expression of avidity becoming to the
“Never!” he said. “Ever!” and feigned to be selecting a place to kiss
with great discrimination.
“Come here,” he said, and drew her to him.
“Be careful of my ’at,” said Mrs. Polly, yielding awkwardly.
The Little Shop at Fishbourne
For fifteen years Mr. Polly was a respectable shopkeeper in
Years they were in which every day was tedious, and when they were
gone it was as if they had gone in a flash. But now Mr. Polly had good
looks no more, he was as I have described him in the beginning of this
story, thirty-seven and fattish in a not very healthy way, dull and
yellowish about the complexion, and with discontented wrinklings round
his eyes. He sat on the stile above Fishbourne and cried to the
Heavens above him: “Oh! Roo-o-o-tten Be-e-astly Silly Hole!” And he
wore a rather shabby black morning coat and vest, and his tie was
richly splendid, being from stock, and his golf cap aslant over one
Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer
little flower of Mr. Polly’s imagination must be altogether withered
and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But indeed
it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful
experiences, for the gracious aspects of things, for beauty. He still
read books when he had a chance, books that told of glorious places
abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life and
contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped. But
alas! there are not many such books, and for the newspapers and the
cheap fiction that abounded more and more in the world Mr. Polly had
little taste. There was no epithet in them. And there was no one to
talk to, as he loved to talk. And he had to mind his shop.
It was a reluctant little shop from the beginning.
He had taken it to escape the doom of Johnson’s choice and because
Fishbourne had a hold upon his imagination. He had disregarded the
ill-built cramped rooms behind it in which he would have to lurk and
live, the relentless limitations of its dimensions, the inconvenience
of an underground kitchen that must necessarily be the living-room in
winter, the narrow yard behind giving upon the yard of the Royal
Fishbourne Hotel, the tiresome sitting and waiting for custom, the
restricted prospects of trade. He had visualised himself and Miriam
first as at breakfast on a clear bright winter morning amidst a
tremendous smell of bacon, and then as having muffins for tea. He had
also thought of sitting on the beach on Sunday afternoons and of going
for a walk in the country behind the town and picking marguerites
and poppies. But, in fact, Miriam and he were extremely cross at
breakfast, and it didn’t run to muffins at tea. And she didn’t think
it looked well, she said, to go trapesing about the country on
It was unfortunate that Miriam never took to the house from the first.
She did not like it when she saw it, and liked it less as she explored
it. “There’s too many stairs,” she said, “and the coal being indoors
will make a lot of work.”
“Didn’t think of that,” said Mr. Polly, following her round.
“It’ll be a hard house to keep clean,” said Miriam.
“White paint’s all very well in its way,” said Miriam, “but it shows
the dirt something fearful. Better ’ave ’ad it nicely grained.”
“There’s a kind of place here,” said Mr. Polly, “where we might have
some flowers in pots.”
“Not me,” said Miriam. “I’ve ’ad trouble enough with Minnie and ’er
They stayed for a week in a cheap boarding house before they moved in.
They had bought some furniture in Stamton, mostly second-hand, but
with new cheap cutlery and china and linen, and they had supplemented
this from the Fishbourne shops. Miriam, relieved from the hilarious
associations of home, developed a meagre and serious quality of her
own, and went about with knitted brows pursuing some ideal of “’aving
everything right.” Mr. Polly gave himself to the arrangement of the
shop with a certain zest, and whistled a good deal until Miriam
appeared and said that it went through her head. So soon as he had
taken the shop he had filled the window with aggressive posters
announcing in no measured terms that he was going to open, and now he
was getting his stuff put out he was resolved to show Fishbourne what
window dressing could do. He meant to give them boater straws,
imitation Panamas, bathing dresses with novelties in stripes, light
flannel shirts, summer ties, and ready-made flannel trousers for men,
youths and boys. Incidentally he watched the small fishmonger over the
way, and had a glimpse of the china dealer next door, and wondered if
a friendly nod would be out of place. And on the first Sunday in this
new life he and Miriam arrayed themselves with great care, he in his
wedding-funeral hat and coat and she in her going-away dress, and went
processionally to church, a more respectable looking couple you could
hardly imagine, and looked about them.
Things began to settle down next week into their places. A few
customers came, chiefly for bathing suits and hat guards, and on
Saturday night the cheapest straw hats and ties, and Mr. Polly found
himself more and more drawn towards the shop door and the social charm
of the street. He found the china dealer unpacking a crate at the edge
of the pavement, and remarked that it was a fine day. The china dealer
gave a reluctant assent, and plunged into the crate in a manner that
presented no encouragement to a loquacious neighbour.
“Zealacious commerciality,” whispered Mr. Polly to that unfriendly
Miriam combined earnestness of spirit with great practical incapacity.
The house was never clean nor tidy, but always being frightfully
disarranged for cleaning or tidying up, and she cooked because food
had to be cooked and with a sound moralist’s entire disregard of the
quality of the consequences. The food came from her hands done rather
than improved, and looking as uncomfortable as savages clothed under
duress by a missionary with a stock of out-sizes. Such food is too apt
to behave resentfully, rebel and work Obi. She ceased to listen to her
husband’s talk from the day she married him, and ceased to unwrinkle
the kink in her brow at his presence, giving herself up to mental
states that had a quality of secret preoccupation. And she developed
an idea for which perhaps there was legitimate excuse, that he was
lazy. He seemed to stand about in the shop a great deal, to read—an
indolent habit—and presently to seek company for talking. He began to
attend the bar parlour of the God’s Providence Inn with some
frequency, and would have done so regularly in the evening if cards,
which bored him to death, had not arrested conversation. But the
perpetual foolish variation of the permutations and combinations of
two and fifty cards taken five at a time, and the meagre surprises and
excitements that ensue had no charms for Mr. Polly’s mind, which was
at once too vivid in its impressions and too easily fatigued.
It was soon manifest the shop paid only in the least exacting sense,
and Miriam did not conceal her opinion that he ought to bestir himself
and “do things,” though what he was to do was hard to say. You see,
when you have once sunken your capital in a shop you do not very
easily get it out again. If customers will not come to you cheerfully
and freely the law sets limits upon the compulsion you may exercise.
You cannot pursue people about the streets of a watering place,
compelling them either by threats or importunity to buy flannel
trousers. Additional sources of income for a tradesman are not always
easy to find. Wintershed at the bicycle and gramaphone shop to the
right, played the organ in the church, and Clamp of the toy shop was
pew opener and so forth, Gambell, the greengrocer, waited at table and
his wife cooked, and Carter, the watchmaker, left things to his wife
while he went about the world winding clocks, but Mr. Polly had none
of these arts, and wouldn’t, in spite of Miriam’s quietly persistent
protests, get any other. And on summer evenings he would ride his
bicycle about the country, and if he discovered a sale where there
were books he would as often as not waste half the next day in going
again to acquire a job lot of them haphazard, and bring them home tied
about with a string, and hide them from Miriam under the counter in
the shop. That is a heartbreaking thing for any wife with a serious
investigatory turn of mind to discover. She was always thinking of
burning these finds, but her natural turn for economy prevailed with
The books he read during those fifteen years! He read everything he
got except theology, and as he read his little unsuccessful
circumstances vanished and the wonder of life returned to him, the
routine of reluctant getting up, opening shop, pretending to dust it
with zest, breakfasting with a shop egg underdone or overdone or a
herring raw or charred, and coffee made Miriam’s way and full of
little particles, the return to the shop, the morning paper, the
standing, standing at the door saying “How do!” to passers-by, or
getting a bit of gossip or watching unusual visitors, all these things
vanished as the auditorium of a theatre vanishes when the stage is
lit. He acquired hundreds of books at last, old dusty books, books
with torn covers and broken covers, fat books whose backs were naked
string and glue, an inimical litter to Miriam.
There was, for example, the voyages of La Perouse, with many careful,
explicit woodcuts and the frankest revelations of the ways of the
eighteenth century sailorman, homely, adventurous, drunken,
incontinent and delightful, until he floated, smooth and slow, with
all sails set and mirrored in the glassy water, until his head was
full of the thought of shining kindly brown-skinned women, who smiled
at him and wreathed his head with unfamiliar flowers. He had, too, a
piece of a book about the lost palaces of Yucatan, those vast terraces
buried in primordial forest, of whose makers there is now no human
memory. With La Perouse he linked “The Island Nights Entertainments,”
and it never palled upon him that in the dusky stabbing of the “Island
of Voices” something poured over the stabber’s hands “like warm tea.”
Queer incommunicable joy it is, the joy of the vivid phrase that turns
the statement of the horridest fact to beauty!
And another book which had no beginning for him was the second volume
of the Travels of the Abbés Hue and Gabet. He followed those two
sweet souls from their lessons in Thibetan under Sandura the Bearded
(who called them donkeys to their infinite benefit and stole their
store of butter) through a hundred misadventures to the very heart of
Lhassa, and it was a thirst in him that was never quenched to find the
other volume and whence they came, and who in fact they were. He read
Fenimore Cooper and “Tom Cringle’s Log” side by side with Joseph
Conrad, and dreamt of the many-hued humanity of the East and West
Indies until his heart ached to see those sun-soaked lands before he
died. Conrad’s prose had a pleasure for him that he was never able to
define, a peculiar deep coloured effect. He found too one day among a
pile of soiled sixpenny books at Port Burdock, to which place he
sometimes rode on his ageing bicycle, Bart Kennedy’s “A Sailor Tramp,”
all written in livid jerks, and had forever after a kindlier and more
understanding eye for every burly rough who slouched through
Fishbourne High Street. Sterne he read with a wavering appreciation
and some perplexity, but except for the Pickwick Papers, for some
reason that I do not understand he never took at all kindly to
Dickens. Yet he liked Lever and Thackeray’s “Catherine,” and all Dumas
until he got to the Vicomte de Bragelonne. I am puzzled by his
insensibility to Dickens, and I record it as a good historian should,
with an admission of my perplexity. It is much more understandable
that he had no love for Scott. And I suppose it was because of his
ignorance of the proper pronunciation of words that he infinitely
preferred any prose to any metrical writing.
A book he browsed over with a recurrent pleasure was Waterton’s
Wanderings in South America. He would even amuse himself by inventing
descriptions of other birds in the Watertonian manner, new birds that
he invented, birds with peculiarities that made him chuckle when they
occurred to him. He tried to make Rusper, the ironmonger, share this
joy with him. He read Bates, too, about the Amazon, but when he
discovered that you could not see one bank from the other, he lost,
through some mysterious action of the soul that again I cannot
understand, at least a tithe of the pleasure he had taken in that
river. But he read all sorts of things; a book of old Keltic stories
collected by Joyce charmed him, and Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, and
a number of paper-covered volumes, Tales from Blackwood, he had
acquired at Easewood, remained a stand-by. He developed a quite
considerable acquaintance with the plays of William Shakespeare, and
in his dreams he wore cinque cento or Elizabethan clothes, and walked
about a stormy, ruffling, taverning, teeming world. Great land of
sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment and
refuge from the world of everyday!...
The essential thing of those fifteen long years of shopkeeping is Mr.
Polly, well athwart the counter of his rather ill-lit shop, lost in a
book, or rousing himself with a sigh to attend to business.
Meanwhile he got little exercise, indigestion grew with him until it
ruled all his moods, he fattened and deteriorated physically, moods of
distress invaded and darkened his skies, little things irritated him
more and more, and casual laughter ceased in him. His hair began to
come off until he had a large bald space at the back of his head.
Suddenly one day it came to him—forgetful of those books and all he
had lived and seen through them—that he had been in his shop for
exactly fifteen years, that he would soon be forty, and that his life
during that time had not been worth living, that it had been in
apathetic and feebly hostile and critical company, ugly in detail and
mean in scope—and that it had brought him at last to an outlook
utterly hopeless and grey.
I have already had occasion to mention, indeed I have quoted, a
certain high-browed gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a golden
pince-nez and writing for the most part in that beautiful room,
the library of the Reform Club. There he wrestles with what he calls
“social problems” in a bloodless but at times, I think one must admit,
an extremely illuminating manner. He has a fixed idea that something
called a “collective intelligence” is wanted in the world, which means
in practice that you and I and everyone have to think about things
frightfully hard and pool the results, and oblige ourselves to be
shamelessly and persistently clear and truthful and support and
respect (I suppose) a perfect horde of professors and writers and
artists and ill-groomed difficult people, instead of using our brains
in a moderate, sensible manner to play golf and bridge (pretending a
sense of humour prevents our doing anything else with them) and
generally taking life in a nice, easy, gentlemanly way, confound him!
Well, this dome-headed monster of intellect alleges that Mr. Polly was
unhappy entirely through that.
“A rapidly complicating society,” he writes, “which as a whole
declines to contemplate its future or face the intricate problems of
its organisation, is in exactly the position of a man who takes no
thought of dietary or regimen, who abstains from baths and exercise
and gives his appetites free play. It accumulates useless and aimless
lives as a man accumulates fat and morbid products in his blood, it
declines in its collective efficiency and vigour and secretes
discomfort and misery. Every phase of its evolution is accompanied by
a maximum of avoidable distress and inconvenience and human waste....
“Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dulness of our
community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than
the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable,
under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we
contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower
Middle Class. A great proportion of the lower middle class should
properly be assigned to the unemployed and the unemployable. They are
only not that, because the possession of some small hoard of money,
savings during a period of wage earning, an insurance policy or
suchlike capital, prevents a direct appeal to the rates. But they are
doing little or nothing for the community in return for what they
consume; they have no understanding of any relation of service to the
community, they have never been trained nor their imaginations touched
to any social purpose. A great proportion of small shopkeepers, for
example, are people who have, through the inefficiency that comes from
inadequate training and sheer aimlessness, or improvements in
machinery or the drift of trade, been thrown out of employment, and
who set up in needless shops as a method of eking out the savings upon
which they count. They contrive to make sixty or seventy per cent, of
their expenditure, the rest is drawn from the shrinking capital.
Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure
of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic
process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is
exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual
bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means
are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The
secular development of transit and communications has made the
organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical
lines, inevitable; except in the chaotic confusions of newly opened
countries, the day when a man might earn an independent living by
unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever. Yet
every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and
imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to
avert it. Every issue of every trade journal has its four or five
columns of abridged bankruptcy proceedings, nearly every item in which
means the final collapse of another struggling family upon the
resources of the community, and continually a fresh supply of
superfluous artisans and shop assistants, coming out of employment
with savings or ‘help’ from relations, of widows with a husband’s
insurance money, of the ill-trained sons of parsimonious fathers,
replaces the fallen in the ill-equipped, jerry-built shops that
I quote these fragments from a gifted, if unpleasant, contemporary for
what they are worth. I feel this has come in here as the broad aspect
of this History. I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and
swearing in the east wind, and I so returning have a sense of floating
across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular.
There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly—I
suppose he sees clearly—the big process that dooms millions of lives
to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstances, and giving us
no help, no hint, by which we may get that better “collective will and
intelligence” which would dam the stream of human failure, and, on the
other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned,
confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it
were, nettled in greyness and discomfort—with life dancing all about
him; Mr. Polly with a capacity for joy and beauty at least as keen and
subtle as yours or mine.
I have hinted that our Mother England had equipped Mr. Polly for the
management of his internal concerns no whit better than she had for
the direction of his external affairs. With a careless generosity she
affords her children a variety of foods unparalleled in the world’s
history, and including many condiments and preserved preparations
novel to the human economy. And Miriam did the cooking. Mr. Polly’s
system, like a confused and ill-governed democracy, had been brought
to a state of perpetual clamour and disorder, demanding now evil and
unsuitable internal satisfactions, such as pickles and vinegar and the
crackling on pork, and now vindictive external expression, war and
bloodshed throughout the world. So that Mr. Polly had been led into
hatred and a series of disagreeable quarrels with his landlord, his
wholesalers, and most of his neighbours.
Rumbold, the china dealer next door, seemed hostile from the first for
no apparent reason, and always unpacked his crates with a full back to
his new neighbour, and from the first Mr. Polly resented and hated
that uncivil breadth of expressionless humanity, wanted to prod it,
kick it, satirise it. But you cannot satirise a hack, if you have no
friend to nudge while you do it.
At last Mr. Polly could stand it no longer. He approached and prodded
“Ello!” said Rumbold, suddenly erect and turned about.
“Can’t we have some other point of view?” said Mr. Polly. “I’m tired
of the end elevation.”
“Eh?” said Mr. Rumbold, frankly puzzled.
“Of all the vertebracious animals man alone raises his face to the
sky, O’ Man. Well,—why invert it?”
Rumbold shook his head with a helpless expression.
“Don’t like so much Arreary Pensy.”
Rumbold distressed in utter obscurity.
“In fact, I’m sick of your turning your back on me, see?”
A great light shone on Rumbold. “That’s what you’re talking about!” he
“That’s it,” said Polly.
Rumbold scratched his ear with the three strawy jampots he held in his
hand. “Way the wind blows, I expect,” he said. “But what’s the fuss?”
“No fuss!” said Mr. Polly. “Passing Remark. I don’t like it, O’ Man,
“Can’t help it, if the wind blows my stror,” said Mr. Rumbold, still
far from clear about it....
“It isn’t ordinary civility,” said Mr. Polly.
“Got to unpack ’ow it suits me. Can’t unpack with the stror blowing
into one’s eyes.”
“Needn’t unpack like a pig rooting for truffles, need you?”
“Needn’t unpack like a pig.”
Mr. Rumbold apprehended something.
“Pig!” he said, impressed. “You calling me a pig?”
“It’s the side I seem to get of you.”
“’Ere,” said Mr. Rumbold, suddenly fierce and shouting and marking his
point with gesticulated jampots, “you go indoors. I don’t want no row
with you, and I don’t want you to row with me. I don’t know what
you’re after, but I’m a peaceable man—teetotaller, too, and a good
thing if you was. See? You go indoors!”
“You mean to say—I’m asking you civilly to stop unpacking—with your
back to me.”
“Pig ain’t civil, and you ain’t sober. You go indoors and lemme go
on unpacking. You—you’re excited.”
“D’you mean—!” Mr. Polly was foiled.
He perceived an immense solidity about Rumbold.
“Get back to your shop and lemme get on with my business,” said Mr.
Rumbold. “Stop calling me pigs. See? Sweep your pavemint.”
“I came here to make a civil request.”
“You came ’ere to make a row. I don’t want no truck with you. See? I
don’t like the looks of you. See? And I can’t stand ’ere all day
Pause of mutual inspection.
It occurred to Mr. Polly that probably he was to some extent in the
Mr. Rumbold, blowing heavily, walked past him, deposited the jampots
in his shop with an immense affectation that there was no Mr. Polly in
the world, returned, turned a scornful back on Mr. Polly and dived to
the interior of the crate. Mr. Polly stood baffled. Should he kick
this solid mass before him? Should he administer a resounding kick?
He plunged his hands deeply into his trowser pockets, began to whistle
and returned to his own doorstep with an air of profound unconcern.
There for a time, to the tune of “Men of Harlech,” he contemplated the
receding possibility of kicking Mr. Rumbold hard. It would be
splendid—and for the moment satisfying. But he decided not to do it.
For indefinable reasons he could not do it. He went indoors and
straightened up his dress ties very slowly and thoughtfully. Presently
he went to the window and regarded Mr. Rumbold obliquely. Mr. Rumbold
was still unpacking....
Mr. Polly had no human intercourse thereafter with Rumbold for fifteen
years. He kept up a Hate.
There was a time when it seemed as if Rumbold might go, but he had a
meeting of his creditors and then went on unpacking as obtusely as
Hinks, the saddler, two shops further down the street, was a different
case. Hinks was the aggressor—practically.
Hinks was a sporting man in his way, with that taste for checks in
costume and tight trousers which is, under Providence, so mysteriously
and invariably associated with equestrian proclivities. At first Mr.
Polly took to him as a character, became frequent in the God’s
Providence Inn under his guidance, stood and was stood drinks and
concealed a great ignorance of horses until Hinks became urgent for
him to play billiards or bet.
Then Mr. Polly took to evading him, and Hinks ceased to conceal his
opinion that Mr. Polly was in reality a softish sort of flat.
He did not, however, discontinue conversation with Mr. Polly; he would
come along to him whenever he appeared at his door, and converse about
sport and women and fisticuffs and the pride of life with an air of
extreme initiation, until Mr. Polly felt himself the faintest
underdeveloped intimation of a man that had ever hovered on the verge
So he invented phrases for Hinks’ clothes and took Rusper, the
ironmonger, into his confidence upon the weaknesses of Hinks. He
called him the “Chequered Careerist,” and spoke of his patterned legs
as “shivery shakys.” Good things of this sort are apt to get round to
He was standing at his door one day, feeling bored, when Hinks
appeared down the street, stood still and regarded him with a strange
malignant expression for a space.
Mr. Polly waved a hand in a rather belated salutation.
Mr. Hinks spat on the pavement and appeared to reflect. Then he came
towards Mr. Polly portentously and paused, and spoke between his teeth
in an earnest confidential tone.
“You been flapping your mouth about me, I’m told,” he said.
Mr. Polly felt suddenly spiritless. “Not that I know of,” he answered.
“Not that you know of, be blowed! You been flapping your mouth.”
“Don’t see it,” said Mr. Polly.
“Don’t see it, be blowed! You go flapping your silly mouth about me
and I’ll give you a poke in the eye. See?”
Mr. Hinks regarded the effect of this coldly but firmly, and spat
“Understand me?” he enquired.
“Don’t recollect,” began Mr. Polly.
“Don’t recollect, be blowed! You flap your mouth a dam sight too much.
This place gets more of your mouth than it wants.... Seen this?”
And Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size
and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly’s
close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that
and shaken it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his
pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace,
and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in
outward seeming a friend....
Mr. Polly’s intercourse with all his fellow tradesmen was tarnished
sooner or later by some such adverse incident, until not a friend
remained to him, and loneliness made even the shop door terrible.
Shops bankrupted all about him and fresh people came and new
acquaintances sprang up, but sooner or later a discord was inevitable,
the tension under which these badly fed, poorly housed, bored and
bothered neighbours lived, made it inevitable. The mere fact that Mr.
Polly had to see them every day, that there was no getting away from
them, was in itself sufficient to make them almost unendurable to his
frettingly active mind.
Among other shopkeepers in the High Street there was Chuffles, the
grocer, a small, hairy, silently intent polygamist, who was given
rough music by the youth of the neighbourhood because of a scandal
about his wife’s sister, and who was nevertheless totally
uninteresting, and Tonks, the second grocer, an old man with an older,
very enfeebled wife, both submerged by piety. Tonks went bankrupt, and
was succeeded by a branch of the National Provision Company, with a
young manager exactly like a fox, except that he barked. The toy and
sweetstuff shop was kept by an old woman of repellent manners, and so
was the little fish shop at the end of the street. The Berlin-wool
shop having gone bankrupt, became a newspaper shop, then fell to a
haberdasher in consumption, and finally to a stationer; the three
shops at the end of the street wallowed in and out of insolvency in
the hands of a bicycle repairer and dealer, a gramaphone dealer, a
tobacconist, a sixpenny-halfpenny bazaar-keeper, a shoemaker, a
greengrocer, and the exploiter of a cinematograph peep-show—but none
of them supplied friendship to Mr. Polly.
These adventurers in commerce were all more or less distraught souls,
driving without intelligible comment before the gale of fate. The two
milkmen of Fishbourne were brothers who had quarrelled about their
father’s will, and started in opposition to each other; one was stone
deaf and no use to Mr. Polly, and the other was a sporting man with a
natural dread of epithet who sided with Hinks. So it was all about
him, on every hand it seemed were uncongenial people, uninteresting
people, or people who conceived the deepest distrust and hostility
towards him, a magic circle of suspicious, preoccupied and dehumanised
humanity. So the poison in his system poisoned the world without.
(But Boomer, the wine merchant, and Tashingford, the chemist, be it
noted, were fraught with pride, and held themselves to be a cut above
Mr. Polly. They never quarrelled with him, preferring to bear
themselves from the outset as though they had already done so.)
As his internal malady grew upon Mr. Polly and he became more and more
a battle-ground of fermenting foods and warring juices, he came to
hate the very sight, as people say, of every one of these neighbours.
There they were, every day and all the days, just the same, echoing
his own stagnation. They pained him all round the top and back of his
head; they made his legs and arms weary and spiritless. The air was
tasteless by reason of them. He lost his human kindliness.
In the afternoons he would hover in the shop bored to death with his
business and his home and Miriam, and yet afraid to go out because of
his inflamed and magnified dislike and dread of these neighbours. He
could not bring himself to go out and run the gauntlet of the
observant windows and the cold estranged eyes.
One of his last friendships was with Rusper, the ironmonger. Rusper
took over Worthington’s shop about three years after Mr. Polly opened.
He was a tall, lean, nervous, convulsive man with an upturned,
back-thrown, oval head, who read newspapers and the Review of
Reviews assiduously, had belonged to a Literary Society somewhere
once, and had some defect of the palate that at first gave his
lightest word a charm and interest for Mr. Polly. It caused a peculiar
clicking sound, as though he had something between a giggle and a
gas-meter at work in his neck.
His literary admirations were not precisely Mr. Polly’s literary
admirations; he thought books were written to enshrine Great Thoughts,
and that art was pedagogy in fancy dress, he had no sense of phrase or
epithet or richness of texture, but still he knew there were books, he
did know there were books and he was full of large windy ideas of the
sort he called “Modern (kik) Thought,” and seemed needlessly and
helplessly concerned about “(kik) the Welfare of the Race.”
Mr. Polly would dream about that (kik) at nights.
It seemed to that undesirable mind of his that Rusper’s head was the
most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon
him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would
say: “Boil it some more, O’ Man; boil it harder!” or “Six minutes at
least,” allusions Rusper could never make head or tail of, and got at
last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly’s general eccentricity. For a
long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse,
but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption.
Often during the days of this friendship Mr. Polly would leave his
shop and walk over to Mr. Rusper’s establishment, and stand in his
doorway and enquire: “Well, O’ Man, how’s the Mind of the Age
working?” and get quite an hour of it, and sometimes Mr. Rusper would
come into the outfitter’s shop with “Heard the (kik) latest?” and
spend the rest of the morning.
Then Mr. Rusper married, and he married very inconsiderately a woman
who was totally uninteresting to Mr. Polly. A coolness grew between
them from the first intimation of her advent. Mr. Polly couldn’t help
thinking when he saw her that she drew her hair back from her forehead
a great deal too tightly, and that her elbows were angular. His desire
not to mention these things in the apt terms that welled up so richly
in his mind, made him awkward in her presence, and that gave her an
impression that he was hiding some guilty secret from her. She decided
he must have a bad influence upon her husband, and she made it a point
to appear whenever she heard him talking to Rusper.
One day they became a little heated about the German peril.
“I lay (kik) they’ll invade us,” said Rusper.
“Not a bit of it. William’s not the Zerxiacious sort.”
“You’ll see, O’ Man.”
“Just what I shan’t do.”
“Before (kik) five years are out.”
“Oh! Boil it hard!” said Mr. Polly.
Then he looked up and saw Mrs. Rusper standing behind the counter half
hidden by a trophy of spades and garden shears and a knife-cleaning
machine, and by her expression he knew instantly that she understood.
The conversation paled and presently Mr. Polly withdrew.
After that, estrangement increased steadily.
Mr. Rusper ceased altogether to come over to the outfitter’s, and Mr.
Polly called upon the ironmonger only with the completest air of
casuality. And everything they said to each other led now to flat
contradiction and raised voices. Rusper had been warned in vague and
alarming terms that Mr. Polly insulted and made game of him; he
couldn’t discover exactly where; and so it appeared to him now that
every word of Mr. Polly’s might be an insult meriting his resentment,
meriting it none the less because it was masked and cloaked.
Soon Mr. Polly’s calls upon Mr. Rusper ceased also, and then Mr.
Rusper, pursuing incomprehensible lines of thought, became afflicted
with a specialised shortsightedness that applied only to Mr. Polly. He
would look in other directions when Mr. Polly appeared, and his large
oval face assumed an expression of conscious serenity and deliberate
happy unawareness that would have maddened a far less irritable person
than Mr. Polly. It evoked a strong desire to mock and ape, and
produced in his throat a cough of singular scornfulness, more
particularly when Mr. Rusper also assisted, with an assumed
unconsciousness that was all his own.
Then one day Mr. Polly had a bicycle accident.
His bicycle was now very old, and it is one of the concomitants of a
bicycle’s senility that its free wheel should one day obstinately
cease to be free. It corresponds to that epoch in human decay when an
old gentleman loses an incisor tooth. It happened just as Mr. Polly
was approaching Mr. Rusper’s shop, and the untoward chance of a motor
car trying to pass a waggon on the wrong side gave Mr. Polly no choice
but to get on to the pavement and dismount. He was always accustomed
to take his time and step off his left pedal at its lowest point, but
the jamming of the free wheel gear made that lowest moment a
transitory one, and the pedal was lifting his foot for another
revolution before he realised what had happened. Before he could
dismount according to his habit the pedal had to make a revolution,
and before it could make a revolution Mr. Polly found himself among
the various sonorous things with which Mr. Rusper adorned the front of
his shop, zinc dustbins, household pails, lawn mowers, rakes, spades
and all manner of clattering things. Before he got among them he had
one of those agonising moments of helpless wrath and suspense that
seem to last ages, in which one seems to perceive everything and think
of nothing but words that are better forgotten. He sent a column of
pails thundering across the doorway and dismounted with one foot in a
sanitary dustbin amidst an enormous uproar of falling ironmongery.
“Put all over the place!” he cried, and found Mr. Rusper emerging from
his shop with the large tranquillities of his countenance puckered to
anger, like the frowns in the brow of a reefing sail. He gesticulated
speechlessly for a moment.
“Kik—jer doing?” he said at last.
“Tin mantraps!” said Mr. Polly.
“Jer (kik) doing?”
“Dressing all over the pavement as though the blessed town belonged to
And Mr. Polly in attempting a dignified movement realised his
entanglement with the dustbin for the first time. With a low
embittering expression he kicked his foot about in it for a moment
very noisily, and finally sent it thundering to the curb. On its way
it struck a pail or so. Then Mr. Polly picked up his bicycle and
proposed to resume his homeward way. But the hand of Mr. Rusper
“Put it (kik) all (kik kik) back (kik).”
“Put it (kik) back yourself.”
“You got (kik) put it back.”
“Get out of the (kik) way.”
Mr. Rusper laid one hand on the bicycle handle, and the other gripped
Mr. Polly’s collar urgently. Whereupon Mr. Polly said: “Leggo!” and
again, “D’you hear! Leggo!” and then drove his elbow with
considerable force into the region of Mr. Rusper’s midriff. Whereupon
Mr. Rusper, with a loud impassioned cry, resembling “Woo kik” more
than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle,
seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders
downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and
nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper,
entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying
instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails.
There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age,
untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to
amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another—of which
the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn
and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr.
Rusper’s mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that
aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper’s ear before it occurred to
Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn’t bite very hard), while
Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub
Mr. Polly’s face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with
chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn’t from first to last draw
Then it seemed to each of them that the other had become endowed with
many hands and several voices and great accessions of strength. They
submitted to fate and ceased to struggle. They found themselves torn
apart and held up by outwardly scandalised and inwardly delighted
neighbours, and invited to explain what it was all about.
“Got to (kik) puttem all back!” panted Mr. Rusper in the expert grasp
of Hinks. “Merely asked him to (kik) puttem all back.”
Mr. Polly was under restraint of little Clamp, of the toy shop, who
was holding his hands in a complex and uncomfortable manner that he
afterwards explained to Wintershed was a combination of something
romantic called “Ju-jitsu” and something else still more romantic
called the “Police Grip.”
“Pails,” explained Mr. Polly in breathless fragments. “All over the
road. Pails. Bungs up the street with his pails. Look at them!”
“Deliber (kik) lib (kik) liberately rode into my goods (kik).
Constantly (kik) annoying me (kik)!” said Mr. Rusper....
They were both tremendously earnest and reasonable in their manner.
They wished everyone to regard them as responsible and intellectual
men acting for the love of right and the enduring good of the world.
They felt they must treat this business as a profound and publicly
significant affair. They wanted to explain and orate and show the
entire necessity of everything they had done. Mr. Polly was convinced
he had never been so absolutely correct in all his life as when he
planted his foot in the sanitary dustbin, and Mr. Rusper considered
his clutch at Mr. Polly’s hair as the one faultless impulse in an
otherwise undistinguished career. But it was clear in their minds they
might easily become ridiculous if they were not careful, if for a
second they stepped over the edge of the high spirit and pitiless
dignity they had hitherto maintained. At any cost they perceived they
must not become ridiculous.
Mr. Chuffles, the scandalous grocer, joined the throng about the
principal combatants, mutely as became an outcast, and with a sad,
distressed helpful expression picked up Mr. Polly’s bicycle. Gambell’s
summer errand boy, moved by example, restored the dustbin and pails to
“’E ought—’e ought (kik) pick them up,” protested Mr. Rusper.
“What’s it all about?” said Mr. Hinks for the third time, shaking Mr.
Rusper gently. “As ’e been calling you names?”
“Simply ran into his pails—as anyone might,” said Mr. Polly, “and out
he comes and scrags me!”
“(Kik) Assault!” said Mr. Rusper.
“He assaulted me,” said Mr. Polly.
“Jumped (kik) into my dus’bin!” said Mr. Rusper. “That assault? Or
“You better drop it,” said Mr. Hinks.
“Great pity they can’t be’ave better, both of ’em,” said Mr. Chuffles,
glad for once to find himself morally unassailable.
“Anyone see it begin?” said Mr. Wintershed.
“I was in the shop,” said Mrs. Rusper suddenly from the doorstep,
piercing the little group of men and boys with the sharp horror of an
unexpected woman’s voice. “If a witness is wanted I suppose I’ve got a
tongue. I suppose I got a voice in seeing my own ’usband injured. My
husband went out and spoke to Mr. Polly, who was jumping off his
bicycle all among our pails and things, and immediately ’e butted him
in the stomach—immediately—most savagely—butted him. Just after his
dinner too and him far from strong. I could have screamed. But Rusper
caught hold of him right away, I will say that for Rusper....”
“I’m going,” said Mr. Polly suddenly, releasing himself from the
Anglo-Japanese grip and holding out his hands for his bicycle.
“Teach you (kik) to leave things alone,” said Mr. Rusper with an air
of one who has given a lesson.
The testimony of Mrs. Rusper continued relentlessly in the background.
“You’ll hear of me through a summons,” said Mr. Polly, preparing to
wheel his bicycle.
“(Kik) Me too,” said Mr. Rusper.
Someone handed Mr. Polly a collar. “This yours?”
Mr. Polly investigated his neck. “I suppose it is. Anyone seen a tie?”
A small boy produced a grimy strip of spotted blue silk.
“Human life isn’t safe with you,” said Mr. Polly as a parting shot.
“(Kik) Yours isn’t,” said Mr. Rusper....
And they got small satisfaction out of the Bench, which refused
altogether to perceive the relentless correctitude of the behaviour of
either party, and reproved the eagerness of Mrs. Rusper—speaking to
her gently, firmly but exasperatingly as “My Good Woman” and telling
her to “Answer the Question! Answer the Question!”
“Seems a Pity,” said the chairman, when binding them over to keep the
peace, “you can’t behave like Respectable Tradesmen. Seems a Great
Pity. Bad Example to the Young and all that. Don’t do any Good to the
town, don’t do any Good to yourselves, don’t do any manner of Good, to
have all the Tradesmen in the Place scrapping about the Pavement of an
Afternoon. Think we’re letting you off very easily this time, and hope
it will be a Warning to you. Don’t expect Men of your Position to come
up before us. Very Regrettable Affair. Eh?”
He addressed the latter enquiry to his two colleagues.
“Exactly, exactly,” said the colleague to the right.
“Er—(kik),” said Mr. Rusper.
But the disgust that overshadowed Mr. Polly’s being as he sat upon the
stile, had other and profounder justification than his quarrel with
Rusper and the indignity of appearing before the county bench. He was
for the first time in his business career short with his rent for the
approaching quarter day, and so far as he could trust his own handling
of figures he was sixty or seventy pounds on the wrong side of
solvency. And that was the outcome of fifteen years of passive
endurance of dulness throughout the best years of his life! What would
Miriam say when she learnt this, and was invited to face the prospect
of exile—heaven knows what sort of exile!—from their present home?
She would grumble and scold and become limply unhelpful, he knew, and
none the less so because he could not help things. She would say he
ought to have worked harder, and a hundred such exasperating pointless
things. Such thoughts as these require no aid from undigested cold
pork and cold potatoes and pickles to darken the soul, and with these
aids his soul was black indeed.
“May as well have a bit of a walk,” said Mr. Polly at last, after
nearly intolerable meditations, and sat round and put a leg over the
He remained still for some time before he brought over the other leg.
“Kill myself,” he murmured at last.
It was an idea that came back to his mind nowadays with a continually
increasing attractiveness—more particularly after meals. Life he felt
had no further happiness to offer him. He hated Miriam, and there was
no getting away from her whatever might betide. And for the rest there
was toil and struggle, toil and struggle with a failing heart and
dwindling courage, to sustain that dreary duologue. “Life’s insured,”
said Mr. Polly; “place is insured. I don’t see it does any harm to her
He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Needn’t hurt much,” he said. He
began to elaborate a plan.
He found it quite interesting elaborating his plan. His countenance
became less miserable and his pace quickened.
There is nothing so good in all the world for melancholia as walking,
and the exercise of the imagination in planning something presently to
be done, and soon the wrathful wretchedness had vanished from Mr.
Polly’s face. He would have to do the thing secretly and elaborately,
because otherwise there might be difficulties about the life
insurance. He began to scheme how he could circumvent that
He took a long walk, for after all what is the good of hurrying back
to shop when you are not only insolvent but very soon to die? His
dinner and the east wind lost their sinister hold upon his soul, and
when at last he came back along the Fishbourne High Street, his face
was unusually bright and the craving hunger of the dyspeptic was
returning. So he went into the grocer’s and bought a ruddily decorated
tin of a brightly pink fishlike substance known as “Deep Sea Salmon.”
This he was resolved to consume regardless of cost with vinegar and
salt and pepper as a relish to his supper.
He did, and since he and Miriam rarely talked and Miriam thought
honour and his recent behaviour demanded a hostile silence, he ate
fast, and copiously and soon gloomily. He ate alone, for she
refrained, to mark her sense of his extravagance. Then he prowled into
the High Street for a time, thought it an infernal place, tried his
pipe and found it foul and bitter, and retired wearily to bed.
He slept for an hour or so and then woke up to the contemplation of
Miriam’s hunched back and the riddle of life, and this bright
attractive idea of ending for ever and ever and ever all the things
that were locking him in, this bright idea that shone like a baleful
star above all the reek and darkness of his misery....
Making an End to Things
Mr. Polly designed his suicide with considerable care, and a quite
remarkable altruism. His passionate hatred for Miriam vanished
directly the idea of getting away from her for ever became clear in
his mind. He found himself full of solicitude then for her welfare. He
did not want to buy his release at her expense. He had not the
remotest intention of leaving her unprotected with a painfully dead
husband and a bankrupt shop on her hands. It seemed to him that he
could contrive to secure for her the full benefit of both his life
insurance and his fire insurance if he managed things in a tactful
manner. He felt happier than he had done for years scheming out this
undertaking, albeit it was perhaps a larger and somberer kind of
happiness than had fallen to his lot before. It amazed him to think he
had endured his monotony of misery and failure for so long.
But there were some queer doubts and questions in the dim, half-lit
background of his mind that he had very resolutely to ignore. “Sick of
it,” he had to repeat to himself aloud, to keep his determination
clear and firm. His life was a failure, there was nothing more to
hope for but unhappiness. Why shouldn’t he?
His project was to begin the fire with the stairs that led from the
ground floor to the underground kitchen and scullery. This he would
soak with paraffine, and assist with firewood and paper, and a brisk
fire in the coal cellar underneath. He would smash a hole or so in the
stairs to ventilate the blaze, and have a good pile of boxes and
paper, and a convenient chair or so in the shop above. He would have
the paraffine can upset and the shop lamp, as if awaiting refilling,
at a convenient distance in the scullery ready to catch. Then he would
smash the house lamp on the staircase, a fall with that in his hand
was to be the ostensible cause of the blaze, and then he would cut his
throat at the top of the kitchen stairs, which would then become his
funeral pyre. He would do all this on Sunday evening while Miriam was
at church, and it would appear that he had fallen downstairs with the
lamp, and been burnt to death. There was really no flaw whatever that
he could see in the scheme. He was quite sure he knew how to cut his
throat, deep at the side and not to saw at the windpipe, and he was
reasonably sure it wouldn’t hurt him very much. And then everything
would be at an end.
There was no particular hurry to get the thing done, of course, and
meanwhile he occupied his mind with possible variations of the
It needed a particularly dry and dusty east wind, a Sunday dinner of
exceptional virulence, a conclusive letter from Konk, Maybrick, Ghool
and Gabbitas, his principal and most urgent creditors, and a
conversation with Miriam arising out of arrears of rent and leading on
to mutual character sketching, before Mr. Polly could be brought to
the necessary pitch of despair to carry out his plans. He went for an
embittering walk, and came back to find Miriam in a bad temper over
the tea things, with the brewings of three-quarters of an hour in the
pot, and hot buttered muffin gone leathery. He sat eating in silence
with his resolution made.
“Coming to church?” said Miriam after she had cleared away.
“Rather. I got a lot to be grateful for,” said Mr. Polly.
“You got what you deserve,” said Miriam.
“Suppose I have,” said Mr. Polly, and went and stared out of the back
window at a despondent horse in the hotel yard.
He was still standing there when Miriam came downstairs dressed for
church. Something in his immobility struck home to her. “You’d better
come to church than mope,” she said.
“I shan’t mope,” he answered.
She remained still for a moment. Her presence irritated him. He felt
that in another moment he should say something absurd to her, make
some last appeal for that understanding she had never been able to
give. “Oh! go to church!” he said.
In another moment the outer door slammed upon her. “Good riddance!”
said Mr. Polly.
He turned about. “I’ve had my whack,” he said.
He reflected. “I don’t see she’ll have any cause to holler,” he
said. “Beastly Home! Beastly Life!”
For a space he remained thoughtful. “Here goes!” he said at last.
For twenty minutes Mr. Polly busied himself about the house, making
his preparations very neatly and methodically.
He opened the attic windows in order to make sure of a good draught
through the house, and drew down the blinds at the back and shut the
kitchen door to conceal his arrangements from casual observation. At
the end he would open the door on the yard and so make a clean clear
draught right through the house. He hacked at, and wedged off, the
tread of a stair. He cleared out the coals from under the staircase,
and built a neat fire of firewood and paper there, he splashed about
paraffine and arranged the lamps and can even as he had designed,
and made a fine inflammable pile of things in the little parlour
behind the shop. “Looks pretty arsonical,” he said as he surveyed it
all. “Wouldn’t do to have a caller now. Now for the stairs!”
“Plenty of time,” he assured himself, and took the lamp which was to
explain the whole affair, and went to the head of the staircase
between the scullery and the parlour. He sat down in the twilight with
the unlit lamp beside him and surveyed things. He must light the fire
in the coal cellar under the stairs, open the back door, then come up
them very quickly and light the paraffine puddles on each step, then
sit down here again and cut his throat.
He drew his razor from his pocket and felt the edge. It wouldn’t hurt
much, and in ten minutes he would be indistinguishable ashes in the
And this was the end of life for him!
The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him,
never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged
from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he
submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted
on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never
sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather
than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not
matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for
no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had
ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what
was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.
The clock in the back parlour pinged the half hour.
“Time!” said Mr. Polly, and stood up.
For an instant he battled with an impulse to put it all back, hastily,
guiltily, and abandon this desperate plan of suicide for ever.
But Miriam would smell the paraffine!
“No way out this time, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly; and he went slowly
downstairs, matchbox in hand.
He paused for five seconds, perhaps, to listen to noises in the yard
of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel before he struck his match. It trembled
a little in his hand. The paper blackened, and an edge of blue flame
ran outward and spread. The fire burnt up readily, and in an instant
the wood was crackling cheerfully.
Someone might hear. He must hurry.
He lit a pool of paraffine on the scullery floor, and instantly a
nest of snaky, wavering blue flame became agog for prey. He went up
the stairs three steps at a time with one eager blue flicker in
pursuit of him. He seized the lamp at the top. “Now!” he said and
flung it smashing. The chimney broke, but the glass receiver stood the
shock and rolled to the bottom, a potential bomb. Old Rumbold would
hear that and wonder what it was!... He’d know soon enough!
Then Mr. Polly stood hesitating, razor in hand, and then sat down. He
was trembling violently, but quite unafraid.
He drew the blade lightly under one ear. “Lord!” but it stung like a
Then he perceived a little blue thread of flame running up his leg. It
arrested his attention, and for a moment he sat, razor in hand,
staring at it. It must be paraffine on his trousers that had caught
fire on the stairs. Of course his legs were wet with paraffine! He
smacked the flicker with his hand to put it out, and felt his leg burn
as he did so. But his trousers still charred and glowed. It seemed to
him necessary that he must put this out before he cut his throat. He
put down the razor beside him to smack with both hands very eagerly.
And as he did so a thin tall red flame came up through the hole in the
stairs he had made and stood still, quite still as it seemed, and
looked at him. It was a strange-looking flame, a flattish salmon
colour, redly streaked. It was so queer and quiet mannered that the
sight of it held Mr. Polly agape.
“Whuff!” went the can of paraffine below, and boiled over with
stinking white fire. At the outbreak the salmon-coloured flames
shivered and ducked and then doubled and vanished, and instantly all
the staircase was noisily ablaze.
Mr. Polly sprang up and backwards, as though the uprushing tongues of
fire were a pack of eager wolves.
“Good Lord!” he cried like a man who wakes up from a dream.
He swore sharply and slapped again at a recrudescent flame upon his
“What the Deuce shall I do? I’m soaked with the confounded stuff!”
He had nerved himself for throat-cutting, but this was fire!
He wanted to delay things, to put them out for a moment while he did
his business. The idea of arresting all this hurry with water occurred
There was no water in the little parlour and none in the shop. He
hesitated for a moment whether he should not run upstairs to the
bedrooms and get a ewer of water to throw on the flames. At this rate
Rumbold’s would be ablaze in five minutes! Things were going all too
fast for Mr. Polly. He ran towards the staircase door, and its hot
breath pulled him up sharply. Then he dashed out through his shop. The
catch of the front door was sometimes obstinate; it was now, and
instantly he became frantic. He rattled and stormed and felt the
parlour already ablaze behind him. In another moment he was in the
High Street with the door wide open.
The staircase behind him was crackling now like horsewhips and pistol
He had a vague sense that he wasn’t doing as he had proposed, but the
chief thing was his sense of that uncontrolled fire within. What was
he going to do? There was the fire brigade station next door but one.
The Fishbourne High Street had never seemed so empty.
Far off at the corner by the God’s Providence Inn a group of three
stiff hobbledehoys in their black, best clothes, conversed
intermittently with Taplow, the policeman.
“Hi!” bawled Mr. Polly to them. “Fire! Fire!” and struck by a horrible
thought, the thought of Rumbold’s deaf mother-in-law upstairs, began
to bang and kick and rattle with the utmost fury at Rumbold’s shop
“Hi!” he repeated, “Fire!”
That was the beginning of the great Fishbourne fire, which burnt its
way sideways into Mr. Rusper’s piles of crates and straw, and
backwards to the petrol and stabling of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel,
and spread from that basis until it seemed half Fishbourne would be
ablaze. The east wind, which had been gathering in strength all that
day, fanned the flame; everything was dry and ready, and the little
shed beyond Rumbold’s in which the local Fire Brigade kept its manual,
was alight before the Fishbourne fire hose could be saved from
disaster. In marvellously little time a great column of black smoke,
shot with red streamers, rose out of the middle of the High Street,
and all Fishbourne was alive with excitement.
Much of the more respectable elements of Fishbourne society was in
church or chapel; many, however, had been tempted by the blue sky and
the hard freshness of spring to take walks inland, and there had been
the usual disappearance of loungers and conversationalists from the
beach and the back streets when at the hour of six the shooting of
bolts and the turning of keys had ended the British Ramadan, that
weekly interlude of drought our law imposes. The youth of the place
were scattered on the beach or playing in back yards, under threat if
their clothes were dirtied, and the adolescent were disposed in pairs
among the more secluded corners to be found upon the outskirts of the
place. Several godless youths, seasick but fishing steadily, were
tossing upon the sea in old Tarbold’s, the infidel’s, boat, and the
Clamps were entertaining cousins from Port Burdock. Such few visitors
as Fishbourne could boast in the spring were at church or on the
beach. To all these that column of smoke did in a manner address
itself. “Look here!” it said, “this, within limits, is your affair;
what are you going to do?”
The three hobbledehoys, had it been a weekday and they in working
clothes, might have felt free to act, but the stiffness of black was
upon them and they simply moved to the corner by Rusper’s to take a
better view of Mr. Polly beating at the door. The policeman was a
young, inexpert constable with far too lively a sense of the public
house. He put his head inside the Private Bar to the horror of
everyone there. But there was no breach of the law, thank Heaven!
“Polly’s and Rumbold’s on fire!” he said, and vanished again. A window
in the top story over Boomer’s shop opened, and Boomer, captain of the
Fire Brigade, appeared, staring out with a blank expression. Still
staring, he began to fumble with his collar and tie; manifestly he had
to put on his uniform. Hinks’ dog, which had been lying on the
pavement outside Wintershed’s, woke up, and having regarded Mr. Polly
suspiciously for some time, growled nervously and went round the
corner into Granville Alley. Mr. Polly continued to beat and kick at
Then the public houses began to vomit forth the less desirable
elements of Fishbourne society, boys and men were moved to run and
shout, and more windows went up as the stir increased. Tashingford,
the chemist, appeared at his door, in shirt sleeves and an apron, with
his photographic plate holders in his hand. And then like a vision of
purpose came Mr. Gambell, the greengrocer, running out of Clayford’s
Alley and buttoning on his jacket as he ran. His great brass fireman’s
helmet was on his head, hiding it all but the sharp nose, the firm
mouth, the intrepid chin. He ran straight to the fire station and
tried the door, and turned about and met the eye of Boomer still at
his upper window. “The key!” cried Mr. Gambell, “the key!”
Mr. Boomer made some inaudible explanation about his trousers and half
“Seen old Rumbold?” cried Mr. Polly, approaching Mr. Gambell.
“Gone over Downford for a walk,” said Mr. Gambell. “He told me! But
look ’ere! We ’aven’t got the key!”
“Lord!” said Mr. Polly, and regarded the china shop with open eyes. He
knew the old woman must be there alone. He went back to the shop
front and stood surveying it in infinite perplexity. The other
activities in the street did not interest him. A deaf old lady
somewhere upstairs there! Precious moments passing! Suddenly he was
struck by an idea and vanished from public vision into the open door
of the Royal Fishbourne Tap.
And now the street was getting crowded and people were laying their
hands to this and that.
Mr. Rusper had been at home reading a number of tracts upon Tariff
Reform, during the quiet of his wife’s absence in church, and trying
to work out the application of the whole question to ironmongery. He
heard a clattering in the street and for a time disregarded it, until
a cry of Fire! drew him to the window. He pencilled-marked the tract
of Chiozza Money’s that he was reading side by side with one by Mr.
Holt Schooling, made a hasty note “Bal. of Trade say 12,000,000” and
went to look out. Instantly he opened the window and ceased to believe
the Fiscal Question the most urgent of human affairs.
“Good (kik) Gud!” said Mr. Rusper.
For now the rapidly spreading blaze had forced the partition into Mr.
Rumbold’s premises, swept across his cellar, clambered his garden wall
by means of his well-tarred mushroom shed, and assailed the engine
house. It stayed not to consume, but ran as a thing that seeks a
quarry. Polly’s shop and upper parts were already a furnace, and black
smoke was coming out of Rumbold’s cellar gratings. The fire in the
engine house showed only as a sudden rush of smoke from the back, like
something suddenly blown up. The fire brigade, still much under
strength, were now hard at work in the front of the latter building;
they had got the door open all too late, they had rescued the fire
escape and some buckets, and were now lugging out their manual, with
the hose already a dripping mass of molten, flaring, stinking rubber.
Boomer was dancing about and swearing and shouting; this direct attack
upon his apparatus outraged his sense of chivalry. The rest of the
brigade hovered in a disheartened state about the rescued fire escape,
and tried to piece Boomer’s comments into some tangible instructions.
“Hi!” said Rusper from the window. “Kik! What’s up?”
Gambell answered him out of his helmet. “Hose!” he cried. “Hose gone!”
“I (kik) got hose!” cried Rusper.
He had. He had a stock of several thousand feet of garden hose, of
various qualities and calibres, and now he felt was the time to use
it. In another moment his shop door was open and he was hurling pails,
garden syringes, and rolls of garden hose out upon the pavement.
“(Kik),” he cried, “undo it!” to the gathering crowd in the roadway.
They did. Presently a hundred ready hands were unrolling and spreading
and tangling up and twisting and hopelessly involving Mr. Rusper’s
stock of hose, sustained by an unquenchable assurance that presently
it would in some manner contain and convey water, and Mr. Rusper, on
his knees, (kiking) violently, became incredibly busy with wire and
brass junctions and all sorts of mysteries.
“Fix it to the (kik) bathroom tap!” said Mr. Rusper.
Next door to the fire station was Mantell and Throbson’s, the little
Fishbourne branch of that celebrated firm, and Mr. Boomer, seeking in
a teeming mind for a plan of action, had determined to save this
building. “Someone telephone to the Port Burdock and Hampstead-on-Sea
fire brigades,” he cried to the crowd and then to his fellows: “Cut
away the woodwork of the fire station!” and so led the way into the
blaze with a whirling hatchet that effected wonders in no time in
But it was not, after all, such a bad idea of his. Mantell and
Throbsons was separated from the fire station in front by a covered
glass passage, and at the back the roof of a big outhouse sloped down
to the fire station leads. The sturdy ’longshoremen, who made up the
bulk of the fire brigade, assailed the glass roof of the passage with
extraordinary gusto, and made a smashing of glass that drowned for a
time the rising uproar of the flames.
A number of willing volunteers started off to the new telephone office
in obedience to Mr. Boomer’s request, only to be told with cold
official politeness by the young lady at the exchange that all that
had been done on her own initiative ten minutes ago. She parleyed with
these heated enthusiasts for a space, and then returned to the window.
And indeed the spectacle was well worth looking at. The dusk was
falling, and the flames were showing brilliantly at half a dozen
points. The Royal Fishbourne Hotel Tap, which adjoined Mr. Polly to
the west, was being kept wet by the enthusiastic efforts of a string
of volunteers with buckets of water, and above at a bathroom window
the little German waiter was busy with the garden hose. But Mr.
Polly’s establishment looked more like a house afire than most houses
on fire contrive to look from start to finish. Every window showed
eager flickering flames, and flames like serpents’ tongues were
licking out of three large holes in the roof, which was already
beginning to fall in. Behind, larger and abundantly spark-shot gusts
of fire rose from the fodder that was now getting alight in the Royal
Fishbourne Hotel stables. Next door to Mr. Polly, Mr. Rumbold’s house
was disgorging black smoke from the gratings that protected its
underground windows, and smoke and occasional shivers of flame were
also coming out of its first-floor windows. The fire station was
better alight at the back than in front, and its woodwork burnt pretty
briskly with peculiar greenish flickerings, and a pungent flavour. In
the street an inaggressively disorderly crowd clambered over the
rescued fire escape and resisted the attempts of the three local
constables to get it away from the danger of Mr. Polly’s tottering
façade, a cluster of busy forms danced and shouted and advised on the
noisy and smashing attempt to cut off Mantell and Throbson’s from the
fire station that was still in ineffectual progress. Further a number
of people appeared to be destroying interminable red and grey snakes
under the heated direction of Mr. Rusper; it was as if the High Street
had a plague of worms, and beyond again the more timid and less active
crowded in front of an accumulation of arrested traffic. Most of the
men were in Sabbatical black, and this and the white and starched
quality of the women and children in their best clothes gave a note of
ceremony to the whole affair.
For a moment the attention of the telephone clerk was held by the
activities of Mr. Tashingford, the chemist, who, regardless of
everyone else, was rushing across the road hurling fire grenades into
the fire station and running back for more, and then her eyes lifted
to the slanting outhouse roof that went up to a ridge behind the
parapet of Mantell and Throbson’s. An expression of incredulity came
into the telephone operator’s eyes and gave place to hard activity.
She flung up the window and screamed out: “Two people on the roof up
there! Two people on the roof!”
Her eyes had not deceived her. Two figures which had emerged from the
upper staircase window of Mr. Rumbold’s and had got after a perilous
paddle in his cistern, on to the fire station, were now slowly but
resolutely clambering up the outhouse roof towards the back of the
main premises of Messrs. Mantell and Throbson’s. They clambered slowly
and one urged and helped the other, slipping and pausing ever and
again, amidst a constant trickle of fragments of broken tile.
One was Mr. Polly, with his hair wildly disordered, his face covered
with black smudges and streaked with perspiration, and his trouser
legs scorched and blackened; the other was an elderly lady, quietly
but becomingly dressed in black, with small white frills at her neck
and wrists and a Sunday cap of ecru lace enlivened with a black velvet
bow. Her hair was brushed back from her wrinkled brow and plastered
down tightly, meeting in a small knob behind; her wrinkled mouth bore
that expression of supreme resolution common with the toothless aged.
She was shaky, not with fear, but with the vibrations natural to her
years, and she spoke with the slow quavering firmness of the very
“I don’t mind scrambling,” she said with piping inflexibility, “but I
can’t jump and I wunt jump.”
“Scramble, old lady, then—scramble!” said Mr. Polly, pulling her arm.
“It’s one up and two down on these blessed tiles.”
“It’s not what I’m used to,” she said.
“Stick to it!” said Mr. Polly, “live and learn,” and got to the ridge
and grasped at her arm to pull her after him.
“I can’t jump, mind ye,” she repeated, pressing her lips together.
“And old ladies like me mustn’t be hurried.”
“Well, let’s get as high as possible anyhow!” said Mr. Polly, urging
her gently upward. “Shinning up a water-spout in your line? Near as
you’ll get to Heaven.”
“I can’t jump,” she said. “I can do anything but jump.”
“Hold on!” said Mr. Polly, “while I give you a boost.
“So long as it isn’t jumping....”
The old lady grasped the parapet above, and there was a moment of
“Urup!” said Mr. Polly. “Hold on! Gollys! where’s she gone to?...”
Then an ill-mended, wavering, yet very reassuring spring side boot
appeared for an instant.
“Thought perhaps there wasn’t any roof there!” he explained,
scrambling up over the parapet beside her.
“I’ve never been out on a roof before,” said the old lady. “I’m all
disconnected. It’s very bumpy. Especially that last bit. Can’t we sit
here for a bit and rest? I’m not the girl I use to be.”
“You sit here ten minutes,” shouted Mr. Polly, “and you’ll pop like a
roast chestnut. Don’t understand me? Roast chestnut! Roast chestnut!
Pop! There ought to be a limit to deafness. Come on round to the
front and see if we can find an attic window. Look at this smoke!”
“Nasty!” said the old lady, her eyes following his gesture, puckering
her face into an expression of great distaste.
“Can’t hear a word you say.”
He pulled her arm. “Come on!”
She paused for a moment to relieve herself of a series of entirely
unexpected chuckles. “Sich goings on!” she said, “I never did!
Where’s he going now?” and came along behind the parapet to the front
of the drapery establishment.
Below, the street was now fully alive to their presence, and
encouraged the appearance of their heads by shouts and cheers. A sort
of free fight was going on round the fire escape, order represented by
Mr. Boomer and the very young policeman, and disorder by some
partially intoxicated volunteers with views of their own about the
manipulation of the apparatus. Two or three lengths of Mr. Rusper’s
garden hose appeared to have twined themselves round the ladder. Mr.
Polly watched the struggle with a certain impatience, and glanced ever
and again over his shoulder at the increasing volume of smoke and
steam that was pouring up from the burning fire station. He decided to
break an attic window and get in, and so try and get down through the
shop. He found himself in a little bedroom, and returned to fetch his
charge. For some time he could not make her understand his purpose.
“Got to come at once!” he shouted.
“I hain’t ’ad sich a time for years!” said the old lady.
“We’ll have to get down through the house!”
“Can’t do no jumpin’,” said the old lady. “No!”
She yielded reluctantly to his grasp.
She stared over the parapet. “Runnin’ and scurrying about like black
beetles in a kitchin,” she said.
“We’ve got to hurry.”
“Mr. Rumbold ’E’s a very Quiet man. ’E likes everything Quiet. He’ll
be surprised to see me ’ere! Why!—there ’e is!” She fumbled in her
garments mysteriously and at last produced a wrinkled pocket
handkerchief and began to wave it.
“Oh, come on!” cried Mr. Polly, and seized her.
He got her into the attic, but the staircase, he found, was full of
suffocating smoke, and he dared not venture below the next floor. He
took her into a long dormitory, shut the door on those pungent and
pervasive fumes, and opened the window to discover the fire escape was
now against the house, and all Fishbourne boiling with excitement as
an immensely helmeted and active and resolute little figure ascended.
In another moment the rescuer stared over the windowsill, heroic, but
just a trifle self-conscious and grotesque.
“Lawks a mussy!” said the old lady. “Wonders and Wonders! Why! it’s
Mr. Gambell! ’Iding ’is ’ed in that thing! I never did!”
“Can we get her out?” said Mr. Gambell. “There’s not much time.”
“He might git stuck in it.”
“You’ll get stuck in it,” said Mr. Polly, “come along!”
“Not for jumpin’ I don’t,” said the old lady, understanding his
gestures rather than his words. “Not a bit of it. I bain’t no good at
jumping and I wunt.”
They urged her gently but firmly towards the window.
“You lemme do it my own way,” said the old lady at the sill....
“I could do it better if e’d take it off.”
“Oh! carm on!”
“It’s wuss than Carter’s stile,” she said, “before they mended it.
With a cow a-looking at you.”
Mr. Gambell hovered protectingly below. Mr. Polly steered her aged
limbs from above. An anxious crowd below babbled advice and did its
best to upset the fire escape. Within, streamers of black smoke were
pouring up through the cracks in the floor. For some seconds the world
waited while the old lady gave herself up to reckless mirth again.
“Sich times!” she said, and “Poor Rumbold!”
Slowly they descended, and Mr. Polly remained at the post of danger
steadying the long ladder until the old lady was in safety below and
sheltered by Mr. Rumbold (who was in tears) and the young policeman
from the urgent congratulations of the crowd. The crowd was full of an
impotent passion to participate. Those nearest wanted to shake her
hand, those remoter cheered.
“The fust fire I was ever in and likely to be my last. It’s a
scurryin’, ’urryin’ business, but I’m real glad I haven’t missed it,”
said the old lady as she was borne rather than led towards the refuge
of the Temperance Hotel.
Also she was heard to remark: “’E was saying something about ’ot
chestnuts. I ’aven’t ’ad no ’ot chestnuts.”
Then the crowd became aware of Mr. Polly awkwardly negotiating the top
rungs of the fire escape. “’Ere ’e comes!” cried a voice, and Mr.
Polly descended into the world again out of the conflagration he had
lit to be his funeral pyre, moist, excited, and tremendously alive,
amidst a tempest of applause. As he got lower and lower the crowd
howled like a pack of dogs at him. Impatient men unable to wait for
him seized and shook his descending boots, and so brought him to earth
with a run. He was rescued with difficulty from an enthusiast who
wished to slake at his own expense and to his own accompaniment a
thirst altogether heroic. He was hauled into the Temperance Hotel and
flung like a sack, breathless and helpless, into the tear-wet embrace
With the dusk and the arrival of some county constabulary, and first
one and presently two other fire engines from Port Burdock and
Hampstead-on-Sea, the local talent of Fishbourne found itself forced
back into a secondary, less responsible and more observant rôle. I
will not pursue the story of the fire to its ashes, nor will I do more
than glance at the unfortunate Mr. Rusper, a modern Laocoon, vainly
trying to retrieve his scattered hose amidst the tramplings and
rushings of the Port Burdock experts.
In a small sitting-room of the Fishbourne Temperance Hotel a little
group of Fishbourne tradesmen sat and conversed in fragments and anon
went to the window and looked out upon the smoking desolation of their
homes across the way, and anon sat down again. They and their families
were the guests of old Lady Bargrave, who had displayed the utmost
sympathy and interest in their misfortunes. She had taken several
people into her own house at Everdean, had engaged the Temperance
Hotel as a temporary refuge, and personally superintended the housing
of Mantell and Throbson’s homeless assistants. The Temperance Hotel
became and remained extremely noisy and congested, with people sitting
about anywhere, conversing in fragments and totally unable to get
themselves to bed. The manager was an old soldier, and following the
best traditions of the service saw that everyone had hot cocoa. Hot
cocoa seemed to be about everywhere, and it was no doubt very
heartening and sustaining to everyone. When the manager detected
anyone disposed to be drooping or pensive he exhorted that person at
once to drink further hot cocoa and maintain a stout heart.
The hero of the occasion, the centre of interest, was Mr. Polly. For
he had not only caused the fire by upsetting a lighted lamp, scorching
his trousers and narrowly escaping death, as indeed he had now
explained in detail about twenty times, but he had further thought at
once of that amiable but helpless old lady next door, had shown the
utmost decision in making his way to her over the yard wall of the
Royal Fishbourne Hotel, and had rescued her with persistence and
vigour in spite of the levity natural to her years. Everyone thought
well of him and was anxious to show it, more especially by shaking his
hand painfully and repeatedly. Mr. Rumbold, breaking a silence of
nearly fifteen years, thanked him profusely, said he had never
understood him properly and declared he ought to have a medal. There
seemed to be a widely diffused idea that Mr. Polly ought to have a
medal. Hinks thought so. He declared, moreover, and with the utmost
emphasis, that Mr. Polly had a crowded and richly decorated
interior—or words to that effect. There was something apologetic in
this persistence; it was as if he regretted past intimations that Mr.
Polly was internally defective and hollow. He also said that Mr. Polly
was a “white man,” albeit, as he developed it, with a liver of the
deepest chromatic satisfactions.
Mr. Polly wandered centrally through it all, with his face washed and
his hair carefully brushed and parted, looking modest and more than a
little absent-minded, and wearing a pair of black dress trousers
belonging to the manager of the Temperance Hotel,—a larger man than
himself in every way.
He drifted upstairs to his fellow-tradesmen, and stood for a time
staring into the littered street, with its pools of water and
extinguished gas lamps. His companions in misfortune resumed a
fragmentary disconnected conversation. They touched now on one aspect
of the disaster and now on another, and there were intervals of
silence. More or less empty cocoa cups were distributed over the
table, mantelshelf and piano, and in the middle of the table was a tin
of biscuits, into which Mr. Rumbold, sitting round-shoulderedly,
dipped ever and again in an absent-minded way, and munched like a
distant shooting of coals. It added to the solemnity of the affair
that nearly all of them were in their black Sunday clothes; little
Clamp was particularly impressive and dignified in a wide open frock
coat, a Gladstone-shaped paper collar, and a large white and blue tie.
They felt that they were in the presence of a great disaster, the sort
of disaster that gets into the papers, and is even illustrated by
blurred photographs of the crumbling ruins. In the presence of that
sort of disaster all honourable men are lugubrious and sententious.
And yet it is impossible to deny a certain element of elation. Not one
of those excellent men but was already realising that a great door had
opened, as it were, in the opaque fabric of destiny, that they were to
get their money again that had seemed sunken for ever beyond any hope
in the deeps of retail trade. Life was already in their imagination
rising like a Phoenix from the flames.
“I suppose there’ll be a public subscription,” said Mr. Clamp.
“Not for those who’re insured,” said Mr. Wintershed.
“I was thinking of them assistants from Mantell and Throbson’s. They
must have lost nearly everything.”
“They’ll be looked after all right,” said Mr. Rumbold. “Never fear.”
“I’m insured,” said Mr. Clamp, with unconcealed satisfaction. “Royal
“Same here,” said Mr. Wintershed.
“Mine’s the Glasgow Sun,” Mr. Hinks remarked. “Very good company.”
“You insured, Mr. Polly?”
“He deserves to be,” said Rumbold.
“Ra-ther,” said Hinks. “Blowed if he don’t. Hard lines it would
be—if there wasn’t something for him.”
“Commercial and General,” answered Mr. Polly over his shoulder, still
staring out of the window. “Oh! I’m all right.”
The topic dropped for a time, though manifestly it continued to
exercise their minds.
“It’s cleared me out of a lot of old stock,” said Mr. Wintershed;
“that’s one good thing.”
The remark was felt to be in rather questionable taste, and still more
so was his next comment.
“Rusper’s a bit sick it didn’t reach ’im.”
Everyone looked uncomfortable, and no one was willing to point the
reason why Rusper should be a bit sick.
“Rusper’s been playing a game of his own,” said Hinks. “Wonder what he
thought he was up to! Sittin’ in the middle of the road with a pair of
tweezers he was, and about a yard of wire—mending somethin’. Wonder
he warn’t run over by the Port Burdock engine.”
Presently a little chat sprang up upon the causes of fires, and Mr.
Polly was moved to tell how it had happened for the one and twentieth
time. His story had now become as circumstantial and exact as the
evidence of a police witness. “Upset the lamp,” he said. “I’d just
lighted it, I was going upstairs, and my foot slipped against where
one of the treads was a bit rotten, and down I went. Thing was aflare
in a moment!...”
He yawned at the end of the discussion, and moved doorward.
“So long,” said Mr. Polly.
“Good night,” said Mr. Rumbold. “You played a brave man’s part! If you
don’t get a medal—”
He left an eloquent pause.
“’Ear, ’ear!” said Mr. Wintershed and Mr. Clamp. “Goo’night, O’ Man,”
said Mr. Hinks.
“Goo’night All,” said Mr. Polly ...
He went slowly upstairs. The vague perplexity common to popular heroes
pervaded his mind. He entered the bedroom and turned up the electric
light. It was quite a pleasant room, one of the best in the Temperance
Hotel, with a nice clean flowered wallpaper, and a very large
looking-glass. Miriam appeared to be asleep, and her shoulders were
humped up under the clothes in a shapeless, forbidding lump that Mr.
Polly had found utterly loathsome for fifteen years. He went softly
over to the dressing-table and surveyed himself thoughtfully.
Presently he hitched up the trousers. “Miles too big for me,” he
remarked. “Funny not to have a pair of breeches of one’s own.... Like
being born again. Naked came I into the world....”
Miriam stirred and rolled over, and stared at him.
“Hello!” she said.
“Come to bed?”
Pause, while Mr. Polly disrobed slowly.
“I been thinking,” said Miriam, “It isn’t going to be so bad after
all. We shall get your insurance. We can easy begin all over again.”
“H’m,” said Mr. Polly.
She turned her face away from him and reflected.
“Get a better house,” said Miriam, regarding the wallpaper pattern.
“I’ve always ’ated them stairs.”
Mr. Polly removed a boot.
“Choose a better position where there’s more doing,” murmured
“Not half so bad,” she whispered....
“You wanted stirring up,” she said, half asleep....
It dawned upon Mr. Polly for the first time that he had forgotten
He ought to have cut his throat!
The fact struck him as remarkable, but as now no longer of any
particular urgency. It seemed a thing far off in the past, and he
wondered why he had not thought of it before. Odd thing life is! If he
had done it he would never have seen this clean and agreeable
apartment with the electric light.... His thoughts wandered into a
question of detail. Where could he have put the razor down? Somewhere
in the little room behind the shop, he supposed, but he could not
think where more precisely. Anyhow it didn’t matter now.
He undressed himself calmly, got into bed, and fell asleep almost
The Potwell Inn
But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday
circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us
securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a
discovery. If the world does not please you you can change it.
Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether.
You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something
appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter,
something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more
interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame
for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and
dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action
cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and
even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary
compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I
give these things as facts and information, and with no moral
intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed
indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general
air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood
there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.
He could, for example, “clear out.”
It became a wonderful and alluring phrase to him: “clear out!”
Why had he never thought of clearing out before?
He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and
superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and
stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the
bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But
something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by
that flare. Fishbourne wasn’t the world. That was the new, the
essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance.
Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill
himself to get out of it, wasn’t the world.
The insurance money he was to receive made everything humane and
kindly and practicable. He would “clear out,” with justice and
humanity. He would take exactly twenty-one pounds, and all the rest he
would leave to Miriam. That seemed to him absolutely fair. Without
him, she could do all sorts of things—all the sorts of things she was
constantly urging him to do.
And he would go off along the white road that led to Garchester, and
on to Crogate and so to Tunbridge Wells, where there was a Toad Rock
he had heard of, but never seen. (It seemed to him this must needs be
a marvel.) And so to other towns and cities. He would walk and loiter
by the way, and sleep in inns at night, and get an odd job here and
there and talk to strange people. Perhaps he would get quite a lot of
work and prosper, and if he did not do so he would lie down in front
of a train, or wait for a warm night, and then fall into some smooth,
broad river. Not so bad as sitting down to a dentist, not nearly so
bad. And he would never open a shop any more. Never!
So the possibilities of the future presented themselves to Mr. Polly
as he lay awake at nights.
It was springtime, and in the woods so soon as one got out of reach of
the sea wind, there would be anémones and primroses.
A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.
For the first time in many years he had been leading a healthy human
life, living constantly in the open air, walking every day for eight
or nine hours, eating sparingly, accepting every conversational
opportunity, not even disdaining the discussion of possible work. And
beyond mending a hole in his coat that he had made while negotiating
barbed wire, with a borrowed needle and thread in a lodging house, he
had done no work at all. Neither had he worried about business nor
about time and seasons. And for the first time in his life he had seen
the Aurora Borealis.
So far the holiday had cost him very little. He had arranged it on a
plan that was entirely his own. He had started with four five-pound
notes and a pound divided into silver, and he had gone by train from
Fishbourne to Ashington. At Ashington he had gone to the post-office,
obtained a registered letter, and sent his four five-pound notes with
a short brotherly note addressed to himself at Gilhampton Post-office.
He sent this letter to Gilhampton for no other reason in the world
than that he liked the name of Gilhampton and the rural suggestion of
its containing county, which was Sussex, and having so despatched it,
he set himself to discover, mark down and walk to Gilhampton, and so
recover his resources. And having got to Gilhampton at last, he
changed his five-pound note, bought four pound postal orders, and
repeated his manoeuvre with nineteen pounds.
After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world,
about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went
along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and
cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as
happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And
if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him he controlled his mind.
He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this
and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of
country inns, while the big sleek brass jingling horses wait patiently
outside with their waggons; he got a job with some van people who were
wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout and
remained with them for three days, until one of their dogs took a
violent dislike to him and made his duties unpleasant; he talked to
tramps and wayside labourers, he snoozed under hedges by day and in
outhouses and hayricks at night, and once, but only once, he slept in
a casual ward. He felt as the etiolated grass and daisies must do when
you move the garden roller away to a new place.
He gathered a quantity of strange and interesting memories.
He crossed some misty meadows by moonlight and the mist lay low on the
grass, so low that it scarcely reached above his waist, and houses and
clumps of trees stood out like islands in a milky sea, so sharply
denned was the upper surface of the mistbank. He came nearer and
nearer to a strange thing that floated like a boat upon this magic
lake, and behold! something moved at the stern and a rope was whisked
at the prow, and it had changed into a pensive cow, drowsy-eyed,
He saw a remarkable sunset in a new valley near Maidstone, a very red
and clear sunset, a wide redness under a pale cloudless heaven, and
with the hills all round the edge of the sky a deep purple blue and
clear and flat, looking exactly as he had seen mountains painted in
pictures. He seemed transported to some strange country, and would
have felt no surprise if the old labourer he came upon leaning
silently over a gate had addressed him in an unfamiliar tongue....
Then one night, just towards dawn, his sleep upon a pile of brushwood
was broken by the distant rattle of a racing motor car breaking all
the speed regulations, and as he could not sleep again, he got up and
walked into Maidstone as the day came. He had never been abroad in a
town at half-past two in his life before, and the stillness of
everything in the bright sunrise impressed him profoundly. At one
corner was a startling policeman, standing in a doorway quite
motionless, like a waxen image. Mr. Polly wished him “good morning”
unanswered, and went down to the bridge over the Medway and sat on the
parapet very still and thoughtful, watching the town awaken, and
wondering what he should do if it didn’t, if the world of men never
One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of
sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly
this road became strangely, perplexingly familiar. “Lord!” he said,
and turned about and stood. “It can’t be.”
He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely
perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old
lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known
so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there
remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood.
The bracken perhaps was not so high, and most of its fronds still
uncoiled; that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she
had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had
become of her? He counted the years back and marvelled that beauty
should have called to him with so imperious a voice—and signified
He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall,
and saw off under the beech trees two schoolgirls—small,
insignificant, pig-tailed creatures, with heads of blond and black,
with their arms twined about each other’s necks, no doubt telling each
other the silliest secrets.
But that girl with the red hair—was she a countess? was she a queen?
Children perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her?
Had she forgotten altogether?...
A tramp sat by the roadside thinking, and it seemed to the man in the
passing motor car he must needs be plotting for another pot of beer.
But as a matter of fact what the tramp was saying to himself over and
over again was a variant upon a well-known Hebrew word.
“Itchabod,” the tramp was saying in the voice of one who reasons on
the side of the inevitable. “It’s Fair Itchabod, O’ Man. There’s no
going back to it.”
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon one hot day in high May when
Mr. Polly, unhurrying and serene, came to that broad bend of the river
to which the little lawn and garden of the Potwell Inn run down. He
stopped at the sight of the place with its deep tiled roof, nestling
under big trees—you never get a decently big, decently shaped tree by
the seaside—its sign towards the roadway, its sun-blistered green
bench and tables, its shapely white windows and its row of upshooting
hollyhock plants in the garden. A hedge separated it from a
buttercup-yellow meadow, and beyond stood three poplars in a group
against the sky, three exceptionally tall, graceful and harmonious
poplars. It is hard to say what there was about them that made them so
beautiful to Mr. Polly; but they seemed to him to touch a pleasant
scene to a distinction almost divine. He remained admiring them for a
long time. At last the need for coarser aesthetic satisfactions arose
“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirloin for
choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”
The nearer he came to the place the more he liked it. The windows on
the ground floor were long and low, and they had pleasing red blinds.
The green tables outside were agreeably ringed with memories of former
drinks, and an extensive grape vine spread level branches across the
whole front of the place. Against the wall was a broken oar, two
boat-hooks and the stained and faded red cushions of a pleasure boat.
One went up three steps to the glass-panelled door and peeped into a
broad, low room with a bar and beer engine, behind which were many
bright and helpful looking bottles against mirrors, and great and
little pewter measures, and bottles fastened in brass wire upside down
with their corks replaced by taps, and a white china cask labelled
“Shrub,” and cigar boxes and boxes of cigarettes, and a couple of Toby
jugs and a beautifully coloured hunting scene framed and glazed,
showing the most elegant and beautiful people taking Piper’s Cherry
Brandy, and cards such as the law requires about the dilution of
spirits and the illegality of bringing children into bars, and
satirical verses about swearing and asking for credit, and three very
bright red-cheeked wax apples and a round-shaped clock.
But these were the mere background to the really pleasant thing in the
spectacle, which was quite the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen,
seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses
and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the
slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her
a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the
outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight,
well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and
beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about
the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink
and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in
front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite
confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance,
good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready
acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one
side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her
of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.
“My sort,” said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided
between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive
indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.
She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror
flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.
“Law!” she said, her face softening with relief, “I thought you were
“I’m never Jim,” said Mr. Polly.
“You’ve got his sort of hat.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar.
“It just came into my head you was Jim,” said the plump lady,
dismissed the topic and stood up. “I believe I was having forty
winks,” she said, “if all the truth was told. What can I do for you?”
“Cold meat?” said Mr. Polly.
“There is cold meat,” the plump woman admitted.
“And room for it.”
The plump woman came and leant over the bar and regarded him
judicially, but kindly. “There’s some cold boiled beef,” she said, and
added: “A bit of crisp lettuce?”
“New mustard,” said Mr. Polly.
“And a tankard!”
They understood each other perfectly.
“Looking for work?” asked the plump woman.
“In a way,” said Mr. Polly.
They smiled like old friends.
Whatever the truth may be about love, there is certainly such a thing
as friendship at first sight. They liked each other’s voices, they
liked each other’s way of smiling and speaking.
“It’s such beautiful weather this spring,” said Mr. Polly, explaining
“What sort of work do you want?” she asked.
“I’ve never properly thought that out,” said Mr. Polly. “I’ve been
looking round—for Ideas.”
“Will you have your beef in the tap or outside? That’s the tap.”
Mr. Polly had a glimpse of an oaken settle. “In the tap will be
handier for you,” he said.
“Hear that?” said the plump lady.
Presently the silence was broken by a distant howl. “Oooooo-ver!”
“Eh?” she said.
“That’s the ferry. And there isn’t a ferryman.”
“Can you punt?”
“Well—pull the pole out before you reach the end of the punt, that’s
Mr. Polly went out again into the sunshine.
At times one can tell so much so briefly. Here are the facts
then—bare. He found a punt and a pole, got across to the steps on the
opposite side, picked up an elderly gentleman in an alpaca jacket and
a pith helmet, cruised with him vaguely for twenty minutes, conveyed
him tortuously into the midst of a thicket of forget-me-not spangled
sedges, splashed some water-weed over him, hit him twice with the punt
pole, and finally landed him, alarmed but abusive, in treacherous soil
at the edge of a hay meadow about forty yards down stream, where he
immediately got into difficulties with a noisy, aggressive little
white dog, which was guardian of a jacket.
Mr. Polly returned in a complicated manner to his moorings.
He found the plump woman rather flushed and tearful, and seated at one
of the green tables outside.
“I been laughing at you,” she said.
“What for?” asked Mr. Polly.
“I ain’t ’ad such a laugh since Jim come ’ome. When you ’it ’is ’ed,
it ’urt my side.”
“It didn’t hurt his head—not particularly.”
She waved her head. “Did you charge him anything?”
“Gratis,” said Mr. Polly. “I never thought of it.”
The plump woman pressed her hands to her sides and laughed silently
for a space. “You ought to have charged him sumpthing,” she said. “You
better come and have your cold meat, before you do any more puntin’.
You and me’ll get on together.”
Presently she came and stood watching him eat. “You eat better than
you punt,” she said, and then, “I dessay you could learn to punt.”
“Wax to receive and marble to retain,” said Mr. Polly. “This beef is a
Bit of All Right, Ma’m. I could have done differently if I hadn’t been
punting on an empty stomach. There’s a lear feeling as the pole goes
“I’ve never held with fasting,” said the plump woman.
“You want a ferryman?”
“I want an odd man about the place.”
“I’m odd, all right. What’s your wages?”
“Not much, but you get tips and pickings. I’ve a sort of feeling it
would suit you.”
“I’ve a sort of feeling it would. What’s the duties? Fetch and carry?
Ferry? Garden? Wash bottles? Ceteris paribus?”
“That’s about it,” said the fat woman.
“Give me a trial.”
“I’ve more than half a mind. Or I wouldn’t have said anything about
it. I suppose you’re all right. You’ve got a sort of half-respectable
look about you. I suppose you ’aven’t done anything.”
“Bit of Arson,” said Mr. Polly, as if he jested.
“So long as you haven’t the habit,” said the plump woman.
“My first time, M’am,” said Mr. Polly, munching his way through an
excellent big leaf of lettuce. “And my last.”
“It’s all right if you haven’t been to prison,” said the plump woman.
“It isn’t what a man’s happened to do makes ’im bad. We all happen to
do things at times. It’s bringing it home to him, and spoiling his
self-respect does the mischief. You don’t look a wrong ’un. ’Ave you
been to prison?”
“Nor a reformatory? Nor any institution?”
“Not me. Do I look reformed?”
“Can you paint and carpenter a bit?”
“Well, I’m ripe for it.”
“Have a bit of cheese?”
“If I might.”
And the way she brought the cheese showed Mr. Polly that the business
was settled in her mind.
He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and
learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm
tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people
land, embarking, landing and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing
boats and one Canadian canoe, baling out the said vessels and
concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading
inexperienced hirers to start down stream rather than up, repairing
rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to
supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys,
house-painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the tap and
bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork,
whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and
clocks, waiting and tapster’s work generally, beating carpets and
mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar,
moving, tapping and connecting beer casks with their engines, blocking
and destroying wasps’ nests, doing forestry with several trees,
drowning superfluous kittens, and dog-fancying as required, assisting
in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry,
bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning
and “garing” motor cars and bicycles, inflating tires and repairing
punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as
required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and
sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for
visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the
establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a
scullion, the ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages
out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage,
gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda water syphons in
the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and
offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle as occasion
required, keeping in with the local policemen, defending the premises
in general and the orchard in particular from depredators....
“Can but try it,” said Mr. Polly towards tea time. “When there’s
nothing else on hand I suppose I might do a bit of fishing.”
Mr. Polly was particularly charmed by the ducklings.
They were piping about among the vegetables in the company of their
foster mother, and as he and the plump woman came down the garden path
the little creatures mobbed them, and ran over their boots and in
between Mr. Polly’s legs, and did their best to be trodden upon and
killed after the manner of ducklings all the world over. Mr. Polly had
never been near young ducklings before, and their extreme blondness
and the delicate completeness of their feet and beaks filled him with
admiration. It is open to question whether there is anything more
friendly in the world than a very young duckling. It was with the
utmost difficulty that he tore himself away to practise punting, with
the plump woman coaching from the bank. Punting he found was
difficult, but not impossible, and towards four o’clock he succeeded
in conveying a second passenger across the sundering flood from the
inn to the unknown.
As he returned, slowly indeed, but now one might almost say surely, to
the peg to which the punt was moored, he became aware of a singularly
delightful human being awaiting him on the bank. She stood with her
legs very wide apart, her hands behind her back, and her head a little
on one side, watching his gestures with an expression of disdainful
interest. She had black hair and brown legs and a buff short frock and
very intelligent eyes. And when he had reached a sufficient proximity
she remarked: “Hello!”
“Hello,” said Mr. Polly, and saved himself in the nick of time from
“Silly,” said the young lady, and Mr. Polly lunged nearer.
“What are you called?”
“Then I’m Alfred. But I meant to be Polly.”
“I was first.”
“All right. I’m going to be the ferryman.”
“I see. You’ll have to punt better.”
“You should have seen me early in the afternoon.”
“I can imagine it.... I’ve seen the others.”
“What others?” Mr. Polly had landed now and was fastening up the punt.
“What Uncle Jim has scooted.”
“He comes and scoots them. He’ll scoot you too, I expect.”
A mysterious shadow seemed to fall athwart the sunshine and
pleasantness of the Potwell Inn.
“I’m not a scooter,” said Mr. Polly.
“Uncle Jim is.”
She whistled a little flatly for a moment, and threw small stones at a
clump of meadow-sweet that sprang from the bank. Then she remarked:
“When Uncle Jim comes back he’ll cut your insides out.... P’raps, very
likely, he’ll let me see.”
There was a pause.
“Who’s Uncle Jim?” Mr. Polly asked in a faded voice.
“Don’t you know who Uncle Jim is? He’ll show you. He’s a scorcher, is
Uncle Jim. He only came back just a little time ago, and he’s scooted
three men. He don’t like strangers about, don’t Uncle Jim. He can
swear. He’s going to teach me, soon as I can whissle properly.”
“Teach you to swear!” cried Mr. Polly, horrified.
“And spit,” said the little girl proudly. “He says I’m the gamest
little beast he ever came across—ever.”
For the first time in his life it seemed to Mr. Polly that he had come
across something sheerly dreadful. He stared at the pretty thing of
flesh and spirit in front of him, lightly balanced on its stout little
legs and looking at him with eyes that had still to learn the
expression of either disgust or fear.
“I say,” said Mr. Polly, “how old are you?”
“Nine,” said the little girl.
She turned away and reflected. Truth compelled her to add one other
“He’s not what I should call handsome, not Uncle Jim,” she said. “But
he’s a scorcher and no mistake.... Gramma don’t like him.”
Mr. Polly found the plump woman in the big bricked kitchen lighting a
fire for tea. He went to the root of the matter at once.
“I say,” he asked, “who’s Uncle Jim?”
The plump woman blanched and stood still for a moment. A stick fell
out of the bundle in her hand unheeded.
“That little granddaughter of mine been saying things?” she asked
“Bits of things,” said Mr. Polly.
“Well, I suppose I must tell you sooner or later. He’s—. It’s Jim.
He’s the Drorback to this place, that’s what he is. The Drorback. I
hoped you mightn’t hear so soon.... Very likely he’s gone.”
“She don’t seem to think so.”
“’E ’asn’t been near the place these two weeks and more,” said the
“But who is he?”
“I suppose I got to tell you,” said the plump woman.
“She says he scoots people,” Mr. Polly remarked after a pause.
“He’s my own sister’s son.” The plump woman watched the crackling fire
for a space. “I suppose I got to tell you,” she repeated.
She softened towards tears. “I try not to think of it, and night and
day he’s haunting me. I try not to think of it. I’ve been for
easy-going all my life. But I’m that worried and afraid, with death
and ruin threatened and evil all about me! I don’t know what to do! My
own sister’s son, and me a widow woman and ’elpless against his
She put down the sticks she held upon the fender, and felt for her
handkerchief. She began to sob and talk quickly.
“I wouldn’t mind nothing else half so much if he’d leave that child
alone. But he goes talking to her—if I leave her a moment he’s
talking to her, teaching her words and giving her ideas!”
“That’s a Bit Thick,” said Mr. Polly.
“Thick!” cried the plump woman; “it’s ’orrible! And what am I to do?
He’s been here three times now, six days and a week and a part of a
week, and I pray to God night and day he may never come again.
Praying! Back he’s come sure as fate. He takes my money and he takes
my things. He won’t let no man stay here to protect me or do the boats
or work the ferry. The ferry’s getting a scandal. They stand and shout
and scream and use language.... If I complain they’ll say I’m helpless
to manage here, they’ll take away my license, out I shall go—and it’s
all the living I can get—and he knows it, and he plays on it, and he
don’t care. And here I am. I’d send the child away, but I got nowhere
to send the child. I buys him off when it comes to that, and back he
comes, worse than ever, prowling round and doing evil. And not a soul
to help me. Not a soul! I just hoped there might be a day or so.
Before he comes back again. I was just hoping—I’m the sort that
Mr. Polly was reflecting on the flaws and drawbacks that seem to be
inseparable from all the more agreeable things in life.
“Biggish sort of man, I expect?” asked Mr. Polly, trying to get the
situation in all its bearings.
But the plump woman did not heed him. She was going on with her
fire-making, and retailing in disconnected fragments the fearfulness
of Uncle Jim.
“There was always something a bit wrong with him,” she said, “but
nothing you mightn’t have hoped for, not till they took him and
carried him off and reformed him....
“He was cruel to the hens and chickings, it’s true, and stuck a knife
into another boy, but then I’ve seen him that nice to a cat, nobody
could have been kinder. I’m sure he didn’t do no ’arm to that cat
whatever anyone tries to make out of it. I’d never listen to that....
It was that reformatory ruined him. They put him along of a lot of
London boys full of ideas of wickedness, and because he didn’t mind
pain—and he don’t, I will admit, try as I would—they made him think
himself a hero. Them boys laughed at the teachers they set over them,
laughed and mocked at them—and I don’t suppose they was the best
teachers in the world; I don’t suppose, and I don’t suppose anyone
sensible does suppose that everyone who goes to be a teacher or a
chapl’in or a warder in a Reformatory Home goes and changes right away
into an Angel of Grace from Heaven—and Oh, Lord! where was I?”
“What did they send him to the Reformatory for?”
“Playing truant and stealing. He stole right enough—stole the money
from an old woman, and what was I to do when it came to the trial but
say what I knew. And him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a
viper than a human boy. He leans on the bar and looks at me. ’All
right, Aunt Flo,’ he says, just that and nothing more. Time after
time, I’ve dreamt of it, and now he’s come. ‘They’ve Reformed me,’ he
says, ’and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you. So out with
it,’ he says.”
“What did you give him last time?” asked Mr. Polly.
“Three golden pounds,” said the plump woman.
“‘That won’t last very long,’ he says. ’But there ain’t no hurry. I’ll
be back in a week about.’ If I wasn’t one of the hoping sort—”
She left the sentence unfinished.
Mr. Polly reflected. “What sort of a size is he?” he asked. “I’m not
one of your Herculaceous sort, if you mean that. Nothing very
“You’ll scoot,” said the plump woman with conviction rather than
bitterness. “You’d better scoot now, and I’ll try and find some money
for him to go away again when he comes. It ain’t reasonable to expect
you to do anything but scoot. But I suppose it’s the way of a woman in
trouble to try and get help from a man, and hope and hope. I’m the
“How long’s he been about?” asked Mr. Polly, ignoring his own outlook.
“Three months it is come the seventh since he come in by that very
back door—and I hadn’t set eyes on him for seven long years. He stood
in the door watchin’ me, and suddenly he let off a yelp—like a dog,
and there he was grinning at the fright he’d given me. ‘Good old Aunty
Flo,’ he says, ‘ain’t you dee-lighted to see me?’ he says, ‘now I’m
The plump lady went to the sink and filled the kettle.
“I never did like ’im,” she said, standing at the sink. “And seeing
him there, with his teeth all black and broken—. P’raps I didn’t give
him much of a welcome at first. Not what would have been kind to him.
‘Lord!’ I said, ‘it’s Jim.’”
“‘It’s Jim,’ he said. ‘Like a bad shillin’—like a damned bad
shilling. Jim and trouble. You all of you wanted me Reformed and now
you got me Reformed. I’m a Reformatory Reformed Character, warranted
all right and turned out as such. Ain’t you going to ask me in, Aunty
“‘Come in,’ I said, ’I won’t have it said I wasn’t ready to be kind to
“He comes in and shuts the door. Down he sits in that chair. ’I come
to torment you!’ he says, ‘you Old Sumpthing!’ and begins at me.... No
human being could ever have been called such things before. It made me
cry out. ‘And now,’ he says, ’just to show I ain’t afraid of ’urting
you,’ he says, and ups and twists my wrist.”
Mr. Polly gasped.
“I could stand even his vi’lence,” said the plump woman, “if it wasn’t
for the child.”
Mr. Polly went to the kitchen window and surveyed his namesake, who
was away up the garden path with her hands behind her back, and whisps
of black hair in disorder about her little face, thinking, thinking
profoundly, about ducklings.
“You two oughtn’t to be left,” he said.
The plump woman stared at his back with hard hope in her eyes.
“I don’t see that it’s my affair,” said Mr. Polly.
The plump woman resumed her business with the kettle.
“I’d like to have a look at him before I go,” said Mr. Polly, thinking
aloud. And added, “somehow. Not my business, of course.”
“Lord!” he cried with a start at a noise in the bar, “who’s that?”
“Only a customer,” said the plump woman.
Mr. Polly made no rash promises, and thought a great deal.
“It seems a good sort of Crib,” he said, and added, “for a chap who’s
looking for trouble.”
But he stayed on and did various things out of the list I have already
given, and worked the ferry, and it was four days before he saw anything
of Uncle Jim. And so resistent is the human mind to things not yet
experienced that he could easily have believed in that time that there
was no such person in the world as Uncle Jim. The plump woman, after
her one outbreak of confidence, ignored the subject, and little Polly
seemed to have exhausted her impressions in her first communication,
and engaged her mind now with a simple directness in the study and
subjugation of the new human being Heaven had sent into her world. The
first unfavourable impression of his punting was soon effaced; he could
nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters,
and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing
earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being.
She conceded at last that he should be called Mr. Polly, in honour of
her, Miss Polly, even as he desired.
Uncle Jim turned up in the twilight.
Uncle Jim appeared with none of the disruptive violence Mr. Polly had
dreaded. He came quite softly. Mr. Polly was going down the lane
behind the church that led to the Potwell Inn after posting a letter
to the lime-juice people at the post-office. He was walking slowly,
after his habit, and thinking discursively. With a sudden tightening
of the muscles he became aware of a figure walking noiselessly beside
him. His first impression was of a face singularly broad above and
with a wide empty grin as its chief feature below, of a slouching body
and dragging feet.
“Arf a mo’,” said the figure, as if in response to his start, and
speaking in a hoarse whisper. “Arf a mo’, mister. You the noo bloke at
the Potwell Inn?”
Mr. Polly felt evasive. “’Spose I am,” he replied hoarsely, and
quickened his pace.
“Arf a mo’,” said Uncle Jim, taking his arm. “We ain’t doing a
(sanguinary) Marathon. It ain’t a (decorated) cinder track. I want a
word with you, mister. See?”
Mr. Polly wriggled his arm free and stopped. “What is it?” he asked,
and faced the terror.
“I jest want a (decorated) word wiv you. See?—just a friendly word or
two. Just to clear up any blooming errors. That’s all I want. No need
to be so (richly decorated) proud, if you are the noo bloke at
Potwell Inn. Not a bit of it. See?”
Uncle Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter
than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry
neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that
had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty
brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless
mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with
one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye, and
wisps of straight hair strayed from under the blue cricket cap he wore
pulled down obliquely over the latter. He spat between his teeth and
wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist.
“You got to blurry well shift,” he said. “See?”
“Shift!” said Mr. Polly. “How?”
“’Cos the Potwell Inn’s my beat. See?”
Mr. Polly had never felt less witty. “How’s it your beat?” he asked.
Uncle Jim thrust his face forward and shook his open hand, bent like a
claw, under Mr. Polly’s nose. “Not your blooming business,” he said.
“You got to shift.”
“S’pose I don’t,” said Mr. Polly.
“You got to shift.”
The tone of Uncle Jim’s voice became urgent and confidential.
“You don’t know who you’re up against,” he said. “It’s a kindness I’m
doing to warn you. See? I’m just one of those blokes who don’t stick
at things, see? I don’t stick at nuffin’.”
Mr. Polly’s manner became detached and confidential—as though the
matter and the speaker interested him greatly, but didn’t concern him
over-much. “What do you think you’ll do?” he asked.
“If you don’t clear out?”
“Gaw!” said Uncle Jim. “You’d better. ’Ere!”
He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant
Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He
breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.
“What won’t I do?” he said. “Once I start in on you.”
He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. “I’ll make
a mess of you,” he said in his hoarse whisper. “I’ll do you—injuries.
I’ll ’urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ’urt you in ’orrible
ways—’orrible, ugly ways....”
He scrutinised Mr. Polly’s face.
“You’ll cry,” he said, “to see yourself. See? Cry you will.”
“You got no right,” began Mr. Polly.
“Right!” His note was fierce. “Ain’t the old woman me aunt?”
He spoke still closer. “I’ll make a gory mess of you. I’ll cut bits
He receded a little. “I got no quarrel with you,” he said.
“It’s too late to go to-night,” said Mr. Polly.
“I’ll be round to-morrer—’bout eleven. See? And if I finds you—”
He produced a blood-curdling oath.
“H’m,” said Mr. Polly, trying to keep things light. “We’ll consider
“You better,” said Uncle Jim, and suddenly, noiselessly, was going.
His whispering voice sank until Mr. Polly could hear only the dim
fragments of sentences. “Orrible things to you—’orrible things....
Kick yer ugly.... Cut yer—liver out... spread it all about, I
will.... Outing doos. See? I don’t care a dead rat one way or the
And with a curious twisting gesture of the arm Uncle Jim receded until
his face was a still, dim thing that watched, and the black shadows of
the hedge seemed to have swallowed up his body altogether.
Next morning about half-past ten Mr. Polly found himself seated under
a clump of fir trees by the roadside and about three miles and a half
from the Potwell Inn. He was by no means sure whether he was taking a
walk to clear his mind or leaving that threat-marred Paradise for good
and all. His reason pointed a lean, unhesitating finger along the
For after all, the thing was not his quarrel.
That agreeable plump woman, agreeable, motherly, comfortable as she
might be, wasn’t his affair; that child with the mop of black hair who
combined so magically the charm of mouse and butterfly and flitting
bird, who was daintier than a flower and softer than a peach, was no
concern of his. Good heavens! what were they to him? Nothing!...
Uncle Jim, of course, had a claim, a sort of claim.
If it came to duty and chucking up this attractive, indolent,
observant, humorous, tramping life, there were those who had a right
to him, a legitimate right, a prior claim on his protection and
Why not listen to the call of duty and go back to Miriam now?...
He had had a very agreeable holiday....
And while Mr. Polly sat thinking these things as well as he could, he
knew that if only he dared to look up the heavens had opened and the
clear judgment on his case was written across the sky.
He knew—he knew now as much as a man can know of life. He knew he had
to fight or perish.
Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a
confused, entertaining spectacle, he had responded to this impulse and
that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and
painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that
has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and
wrapped about and entangled like a creature born in the jungle who has
never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great
exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him and all the
earth was expectation.
“Not my business,” said Mr. Polly, speaking aloud. “Where the devil do
I come in?”
And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice,
“not my blasted business!”
His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each
with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite
regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed
interpretation of the phrase “Kick you ugly.” There’s a sort of French
wrestling in which you use and guard against feet. Watch the man’s
eye, and as his foot comes up, grip and over he goes—at your mercy if
you use the advantage right. But how do you use the advantage rightly?
When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away
rapidly to a blank discomfort....
“Old cadger! She hadn’t no business to drag me into her quarrels.
Ought to go to the police and ask for help! Dragging me into a quarrel
that don’t concern me.”
“Wish I’d never set eyes on the rotten inn!”
The reality of the case arched over him like the vault of the sky, as
plain as the sweet blue heavens above and the wide spread of hill and
valley about him. Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient
beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face
anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long
as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear, and dulness and
indolence and appetite, which indeed are no more than fear’s three
crippled brothers who make ambushes and creep by night, are against
him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him
in that quest. He had but to lift his eyes to see all that, as much a
part of his world as the driving clouds and the bending grass, but he
kept himself downcast, a grumbling, inglorious, dirty, fattish little
tramp, full of dreads and quivering excuses.
“Why the hell was I ever born?” he said, with the truth almost winning
What do you do when a dirty man who smells, gets you down and under in
the dirt and dust with a knee below your diaphragm and a large hairy
hand squeezing your windpipe tighter and tighter in a quarrel that
isn’t, properly speaking, yours?
“If I had a chance against him—” protested Mr. Polly.
“It’s no Good, you see,” said Mr. Polly.
He stood up as though his decision was made, and was for an instant
struck still by doubt.
There lay the road before him going this way to the east and that to
Westward, one hour away now, was the Potwell Inn. Already things might
be happening there....
Eastward was the wise man’s course, a road dipping between hedges to a
hop garden and a wood and presently no doubt reaching an inn, a
picturesque church, perhaps, a village and fresh company. The wise
man’s course. Mr. Polly saw himself going along it, and tried to see
himself going along it with all the self-applause a wise man feels.
But somehow it wouldn’t come like that. The wise man fell short of
happiness for all his wisdom. The wise man had a paunch and round
shoulders and red ears and excuses. It was a pleasant road, and why
the wise man should not go along it merry and singing, full of summer
happiness, was a miracle to Mr. Polly’s mind, but confound it! the
fact remained, the figure went slinking—slinking was the only word
for it—and would not go otherwise than slinking. He turned his eyes
westward as if for an explanation, and if the figure was no longer
ignoble, the prospect was appalling.
“One kick in the stummick would settle a chap like me,” said Mr.
“Oh, God!” cried Mr. Polly, and lifted his eyes to heaven, and said
for the last time in that struggle, “It isn’t my affair!”
And so saying he turned his face towards the Potwell Inn.
He went back neither halting nor hastening in his pace after this last
decision, but with a mind feverishly busy.
“If I get killed, I get killed, and if he gets killed I get hung.
Don’t seem just somehow.
“Don’t suppose I shall frighten him off.”
The private war between Mr. Polly and Uncle Jim for the possession of
the Potwell Inn fell naturally into three chief campaigns. There was
first of all the great campaign which ended in the triumphant eviction
of Uncle Jim from the inn premises, there came next after a brief
interval the futile invasions of the premises by Uncle Jim that
culminated in the Battle of the Dead Eel, and after some months of
involuntary truce there was the last supreme conflict of the Night
Surprise. Each of these campaigns merits a section to itself.
Mr. Polly re-entered the inn discreetly. He found the plump woman
seated in her bar, her eyes a-stare, her face white and wet with
tears. “O God!” she was saying over and over again. “O God!” The air
was full of a spirituous reek, and on the sanded boards in front of
the bar were the fragments of a broken bottle and an overturned glass.
She turned her despair at the sound of his entry, and despair gave
place to astonishment.
“You come back!” she said.
“Ra-ther,” said Mr. Polly.
“He’s—he’s mad drunk and looking for her.”
“Where is she?”
“Haven’t you sent to the police?”
“No one to send.”
“I’ll see to it,” said Mr. Polly. “Out this way?”
He went to the crinkly paned window and peered out. Uncle Jim was
coming down the garden path towards the house, his hands in his
pockets and singing hoarsely. Mr. Polly remembered afterwards with
pride and amazement that he felt neither faint nor rigid. He glanced
round him, seized a bottle of beer by the neck as an improvised club,
and went out by the garden door. Uncle Jim stopped amazed. His brain
did not instantly rise to the new posture of things. “You!” he cried,
and stopped for a moment. “You—scoot!”
“Your job,” said Mr. Polly, and advanced some paces.
Uncle Jim stood swaying with wrathful astonishment and then darted
forward with clutching hands. Mr. Polly felt that if his antagonist
closed he was lost, and smote with all his force at the ugly head
before him. Smash went the bottle, and Uncle Jim staggered,
half-stunned by the blow and blinded with beer.
The lapses and leaps of the human mind are for ever mysterious. Mr.
Polly had never expected that bottle to break. In the instant he felt
disarmed and helpless. Before him was Uncle Jim, infuriated and
evidently still coming on, and for defence was nothing but the neck of
For a time our Mr. Polly has figured heroic. Now comes the fall again;
he sounded abject terror; he dropped that ineffectual scrap of glass
and turned and fled round the corner of the house.
“Bolls!” came the thick voice of the enemy behind him as one who
accepts a challenge, and bleeding, but indomitable, Uncle Jim entered
“Bolls!” he said, surveying the bar. “Fightin’ with bolls! I’ll show
’im fightin’ with bolls!”
Uncle Jim had learnt all about fighting with bottles in the
Reformatory Home. Regardless of his terror-stricken aunt he ranged
among the bottled beer and succeeded after one or two failures in
preparing two bottles to his satisfaction by knocking off the bottoms,
and gripping them dagger-wise by the necks. So prepared, he went forth
again to destroy Mr. Polly.
Mr. Polly, freed from the sense of urgent pursuit, had halted beyond
the raspberry canes and rallied his courage. The sense of Uncle Jim
victorious in the house restored his manhood. He went round by the
outhouses to the riverside, seeking a weapon, and found an old paddle
boat hook. With this he smote Uncle Jim as he emerged by the door of
the tap. Uncle Jim, blaspheming dreadfully and with dire stabbing
intimations in either hand, came through the splintering paddle like a
circus rider through a paper hoop, and once more Mr. Polly dropped his
weapon and fled.
A careless observer watching him sprint round and round the inn in
front of the lumbering and reproachful pursuit of Uncle Jim might have
formed an altogether erroneous estimate of the issue of the campaign.
Certain compensating qualities of the very greatest military value
were appearing in Mr. Polly even as he ran; if Uncle Jim had strength
and brute courage and the rich toughening experience a Reformatory
Home affords, Mr. Polly was nevertheless sober, more mobile and with a
mind now stimulated to an almost incredible nimbleness. So that he not
only gained on Uncle Jim, but thought what use he might make of this
advantage. The word “strategious” flamed red across the tumult of his
mind. As he came round the house for the third time, he darted
suddenly into the yard, swung the door to behind himself and bolted
it, seized the zinc pig’s pail that stood by the entrance to the
kitchen and had it neatly and resonantly over Uncle Jim’s head as he
came belatedly in round the outhouse on the other side. One of the
splintered bottles jabbed Mr. Polly’s ear—at the time it seemed of no
importance—and then Uncle Jim was down and writhing dangerously and
noisily upon the yard tiles, with his head still in the pig pail and
his bottles gone to splinters, and Mr. Polly was fastening the kitchen
door against him.
“Can’t go on like this for ever,” said Mr. Polly, whooping for breath,
and selecting a weapon from among the brooms that stood behind the
Uncle Jim was losing his head. He was up and kicking the door and
bellowing unamiable proposals and invitations, so that a strategist
emerging silently by the tap door could locate him without difficulty,
steal upon him unawares and—!
But before that felling blow could be delivered Uncle Jim’s ear had
caught a footfall, and he turned. Mr. Polly quailed and lowered his
broom,—a fatal hesitation.
“Now I got you!” cried Uncle Jim, dancing forward in a disconcerting
He rushed to close, and Mr. Polly stopped him neatly, as it were a
miracle, with the head of the broom across his chest. Uncle Jim seized
the broom with both hands. “Lea-go!” he said, and tugged. Mr. Polly
shook his head, tugged, and showed pale, compressed lips. Both tugged.
Then Uncle Jim tried to get round the end of the broom; Mr. Polly
circled away. They began to circle about one another, both tugging
hard, both intensely watchful of the slightest initiative on the part
of the other. Mr. Polly wished brooms were longer, twelve or thirteen
feet, for example; Uncle Jim was clearly for shortness in brooms. He
wasted breath in saying what was to happen shortly, sanguinary,
oriental soul-blenching things, when the broom no longer separated
them. Mr. Polly thought he had never seen an uglier person. Suddenly
Uncle Jim flashed into violent activity, but alcohol slows movement,
and Mr. Polly was equal to him. Then Uncle Jim tried jerks, and for a
terrible instant seemed to have the broom out of Mr. Polly’s hands.
But Mr. Polly recovered it with the clutch of a drowning man. Then
Uncle Jim drove suddenly at Mr. Polly’s midriff, but again Mr. Polly
was ready and swept him round in a circle. Then suddenly a wild hope
filled Mr. Polly. He saw the river was very near, the post to which
the punt was tied not three yards away. With a wild yell, he sent the
broom home into his antagonist’s ribs.
“Woosh!” he cried, as the resistance gave.
“Oh! Gaw!” said Uncle Jim, going backward helplessly, and Mr. Polly
thrust hard and abandoned the broom to the enemy’s despairing clutch.
Splash! Uncle Jim was in the water and Mr. Polly had leapt like a cat
aboard the ferry punt and grasped the pole.
Up came Uncle Jim spluttering and dripping. “You (unprofitable matter,
and printing it would lead to a censorship of novels)! You know I got
a weak chess!”
The pole took him in the throat and drove him backward and downwards.
“Lea go!” cried Uncle Jim, staggering and with real terror in his once
Splash! Down he fell backwards into a frothing mass of water with Mr.
Polly jabbing at him. Under water he turned round and came up again as
if in flight towards the middle of the river. Directly his head
reappeared Mr. Polly had him between the shoulders and under again,
bubbling thickly. A hand clutched and disappeared.
It was stupendous! Mr. Polly had discovered the heel of Achilles.
Uncle Jim had no stomach for cold water. The broom floated away,
pitching gently on the swell. Mr. Polly, infuriated with victory,
thrust Uncle Jim under again, and drove the punt round on its chain in
such a manner that when Uncle Jim came up for the fourth time—and now
he was nearly out of his depth, too buoyed up to walk and apparently
nearly helpless,—Mr. Polly, fortunately for them both, could not
reach him. Uncle Jim made the clumsy gestures of those who struggle
insecurely in the water. “Keep out,” said Mr. Polly. Uncle Jim with a
great effort got a footing, emerged until his arm-pits were out of
water, until his waistcoat buttons showed, one by one, till scarcely
two remained, and made for the camp sheeting.
“Keep out!” cried Mr. Polly, and leapt off the punt and followed the
movements of his victim along the shore.
“I tell you I got a weak chess,” said Uncle Jim, moistly. “This ain’t
“Keep out!” said Mr. Polly.
“This ain’t fair fightin’,” said Uncle Jim, almost weeping, and all
his terrors had gone.
“Keep out!” said Mr. Polly, with an accurately poised pole.
“I tell you I got to land, you Fool,” said Uncle Jim, with a sort of
despairing wrathfulness, and began moving down-stream.
“You keep out,” said Mr. Polly in parallel movement. “Don’t you ever
land on this place again!...”
Slowly, argumentatively, and reluctantly, Uncle Jim waded down-stream.
He tried threats, he tried persuasion, he even tried a belated note of
pathos; Mr. Polly remained inexorable, if in secret a little perplexed
as to the outcome of the situation. “This cold’s getting to my
marrer!” said Uncle Jim.
“You want cooling. You keep out in it,” said Mr. Polly.
They came round the bend into sight of Nicholson’s ait, where the
backwater runs down to the Potwell Mill. And there, after much parley
and several feints, Uncle Jim made a desperate effort and struggled
into clutch of the overhanging osiers on the island, and so got out
of the water with the millstream between them. He emerged dripping and
muddy and vindictive. “By Gaw!” he said. “I’ll skin you for this!”
“You keep off or I’ll do worse to you,” said Mr. Polly.
The spirit was out of Uncle Jim for the time, and he turned away to
struggle through the osiers towards the mill, leaving a shining
trail of water among the green-grey stems.
Mr. Polly returned slowly and thoughtfully to the inn, and suddenly
his mind began to bubble with phrases. The plump woman stood at the
top of the steps that led up to the inn door to greet him.
“Law!” she cried as he drew near, “’asn’t ’e killed you?”
“Do I look like it?” said Mr. Polly.
“But where’s Jim?”
“’E was mad drunk and dangerous!”
“I put him in the river,” said Mr. Polly. “That toned down his
alcolaceous frenzy! I gave him a bit of a doing altogether.”
“Hain’t he ’urt you?”
“Not a bit of it!”
“Then what’s all that blood beside your ear?”
Mr. Polly felt. “Quite a cut! Funny how one overlooks things! Heated
moments! He must have done that when he jabbed about with those
bottles. Hullo, Kiddy! You venturing downstairs again?”
“Ain’t he killed you?” asked the little girl.
“I wish I’d seen more of the fighting.”
“All I saw was you running round the house and Uncle Jim after you.”
There was a little pause. “I was leading him on,” said Mr. Polly.
“Someone’s shouting at the ferry,” she said.
“Right O. But you won’t see any more of Uncle Jim for a bit. We’ve
been having a conversazione about that.”
“I believe it is Uncle Jim,” said the little girl.
“Then he can wait,” said Mr. Polly shortly.
He turned round and listened for the words that drifted across from
the little figure on the opposite bank. So far as he could judge,
Uncle Jim was making an appointment for the morrow. He replied with a
defiant movement of the punt pole. The little figure was convulsed for
a moment and then went on its way upstream—fiercely.
So it was the first campaign ended in an insecure victory.
The next day was Wednesday and a slack day for the Potwell Inn. It was
a hot, close day, full of the murmuring of bees. One or two people
crossed by the ferry, an elaborately equipped fisherman stopped for
cold meat and dry ginger ale in the bar parlour, some haymakers came
and drank beer for an hour, and afterwards sent jars and jugs by a boy
to be replenished; that was all. Mr. Polly had risen early and was
busy about the place meditating upon the probable tactics of Uncle
Jim. He was no longer strung up to the desperate pitch of the first
encounter. But he was grave and anxious. Uncle Jim had shrunken, as
all antagonists that are boldly faced shrink, after the first battle,
to the negotiable, the vulnerable. Formidable he was no doubt, but not
invincible. He had, under Providence, been defeated once, and he might
be defeated altogether.
Mr. Polly went about the place considering the militant possibilities
of pacific things, pokers, copper sticks, garden implements, kitchen
knives, garden nets, barbed wire, oars, clothes lines, blankets,
pewter pots, stockings and broken bottles. He prepared a club with a
stocking and a bottle inside upon the best East End model. He swung it
round his head once, broke an outhouse window with a flying fragment
of glass, and ruined the stocking beyond all darning. He developed a
subtle scheme with the cellar flap as a sort of pitfall, but he
rejected it finally because (A) it might entrap the plump woman, and
(B) he had no use whatever for Uncle Jim in the cellar. He determined
to wire the garden that evening, burglar fashion, against the
possibilities of a night attack.
Towards two o’clock in the afternoon three young men arrived in a
capacious boat from the direction of Lammam, and asked permission to
camp in the paddock. It was given all the more readily by Mr. Polly
because he perceived in their proximity a possible check upon the
self-expression of Uncle Jim. But he did not foresee and no one could
have foreseen that Uncle Jim, stealing unawares upon the Potwell Inn
in the late afternoon, armed with a large rough-hewn stake, should
have mistaken the bending form of one of those campers—who was
pulling a few onions by permission in the garden—for Mr. Polly’s, and
crept upon it swiftly and silently and smitten its wide invitation
unforgettably and unforgiveably. It was an error impossible to
explain; the resounding whack went up to heaven, the cry of amazement,
and Mr. Polly emerged from the inn armed with the frying-pan he was
cleaning, to take this reckless assailant in the rear. Uncle Jim,
realising his error, fled blaspheming into the arms of the other two
campers, who were returning from the village with butcher’s meat and
groceries. They caught him, they smacked his face with steak and
punched him with a bursting parcel of lump sugar, they held him though
he bit them, and their idea of punishment was to duck him. They were
hilarious, strong young stockbrokers’ clerks, Territorials and
seasoned boating men; they ducked him as though it was romping, and all
that Mr. Polly had to do was to pick up lumps of sugar for them and wipe
them on his sleeve and put them on a plate, and explain that Uncle Jim
was a notorious bad character and not quite right in his head.
“Got a regular obsession that the Missis is his Aunt,” said Mr. Polly,
expanding it. “Perfect noosance he is.”
But he caught a glance of Uncle Jim’s eye as he receded before the
campers’ urgency that boded ill for him, and in the night he had a
disagreeable idea that perhaps his luck might not hold for the third
That came soon enough. So soon, indeed, as the campers had gone.
Thursday was the early closing day at Lammam, and next to Sunday the
busiest part of the week at the Potwell Inn. Sometimes as many as six
boats all at once would be moored against the ferry punt and hiring
rowboats. People could either have a complete tea, a complete tea with
jam, cake and eggs, a kettle of boiling water and find the rest, or
refreshments á la carte, as they chose. They sat about, but usually
the boiling water-ers had a delicacy about using the tables and
grouped themselves humbly on the ground. The complete tea-ers with
jam and eggs got the best tablecloth on the table nearest the steps
that led up to the glass-panelled door. The groups about the lawn were
very satisfying to Mr. Polly’s sense of amenity. To the right were the
complete tea-ers with everything heart could desire, then a small
group of three young men in remarkable green and violet and pale-blue
shirts, and two girls in mauve and yellow blouses with common teas and
gooseberry jam at the green clothless table, then on the grass down by
the pollard willow a small family of hot water-ers with a hamper, a
little troubled by wasps in their jam from the nest in the tree and
all in mourning, but happy otherwise, and on the lawn to the right a
ginger beer lot of ’prentices without their collars and very jocular
and happy. The young people in the rainbow shirts and blouses formed
the centre of interest; they were under the leadership of a
gold-spectacled senior with a fluting voice and an air of mystery; he
ordered everything, and showed a peculiar knowledge of the qualities
of the Potwell jams, preferring gooseberry with much insistence. Mr.
Polly watched him, christened him the “benifluous influence,” glanced
at the ’prentices and went inside and down into the cellar in order to
replenish the stock of stone ginger beer which the plump woman had
allowed to run low during the preoccupations of the campaign. It was
in the cellar that he first became aware of the return of Uncle Jim.
He became aware of him as a voice, a voice not only hoarse, but thick,
as voices thicken under the influence of alcohol.
“Where’s that muddy-faced mongrel?” cried Uncle Jim. “Let ’im come out
to me! Where’s that blighted whisp with the punt pole—I got a word to
say to ’im. Come out of it, you pot-bellied chunk of dirtiness, you!
Come out and ’ave your ugly face wiped. I got a Thing for you....
“’E’s ’iding, that’s what ’e’s doing,” said the voice of Uncle Jim,
dropping for a moment to sorrow, and then with a great increment of
wrathfulness: “Come out of my nest, you blinking cuckoo, you, or I’ll
cut your silly insides out! Come out of it—you pock-marked rat!
Stealing another man’s ’ome away from ’im! Come out and look me in the
face, you squinting son of a Skunk!...”
Mr. Polly took the ginger beer and went thoughtfully upstairs to the
“’E’s back,” said the plump woman as he appeared. “I knew ’e’d come
“I heard him,” said Mr. Polly, and looked about. “Just gimme the old
poker handle that’s under the beer engine.”
The door opened softly and Mr. Polly turned quickly. But it was only
the pointed nose and intelligent face of the young man with the gilt
spectacles and discreet manner. He coughed and the spectacles fixed
“I say,” he said with quiet earnestness. “There’s a chap out here
seems to want someone.”
“Why don’t he come in?” said Mr. Polly.
“He seems to want you out there.”
“What’s he want?”
“I think,” said the spectacled young man after a thoughtful moment,
“he appears to have brought you a present of fish.”
“Isn’t he shouting?”
“He is a little boisterous.”
“He’d better come in.”
The manner of the spectacled young man intensified. “I wish you’d come
out and persuade him to go away,” he said. “His language—isn’t quite
“It never was,” said the plump woman, her voice charged with sorrow.
Mr. Polly moved towards the door and stood with his hand on the
handle. The gold-spectacled face disappeared.
“Now, my man,” came his voice from outside, “be careful what you’re
“Oo in all the World and Hereafter are you to call me, me man?” cried
Uncle Jim in the voice of one astonished and pained beyond endurance,
and added scornfully: “You gold-eyed Geezer, you!”
“Tut, tut!” said the gentleman in gilt glasses. “Restrain yourself!”
Mr. Polly emerged, poker in hand, just in time to see what followed.
Uncle Jim in his shirtsleeves and a state of ferocious decolletage,
was holding something—yes!—a dead eel by means of a piece of
newspaper about its tail, holding it down and back and a little
sideways in such a way as to smite with it upward and hard. It struck
the spectacled gentleman under the jaw with a peculiar dead thud, and
a cry of horror came from the two seated parties at the sight. One of
the girls shrieked piercingly, “Horace!” and everyone sprang up. The
sense of helping numbers came to Mr. Polly’s aid.
“Drop it!” he cried, and came down the steps waving his poker and
thrusting the spectacled gentleman before him as once heroes were wont
to wield the ox-hide shield.
Uncle Jim gave ground suddenly, and trod upon the foot of a young man
in a blue shirt, who immediately thrust at him violently with both
“Lea go!” howled Uncle Jim. “That’s the chap I’m looking for!” and
pressing the head of the spectacled gentleman aside, smote hard at Mr.
But at the sight of this indignity inflicted upon the spectacled
gentleman a woman’s heart was stirred, and a pink parasol drove hard
and true at Uncle Jim’s wiry neck, and at the same moment the young
man in the blue shirt sought to collar him and lost his grip again.
“Suffragettes,” gasped Uncle Jim with the ferule at his throat.
“Everywhere!” and aimed a second more successful blow at Mr. Polly.
“Wup!” said Mr. Polly.
But now the jam and egg party was joining in the fray. A stout yet
still fairly able-bodied gentleman in white and black checks enquired:
“What’s the fellow up to? Ain’t there no police here?” and it was
evident that once more public opinion was rallying to the support of
“Oh, come on then all the lot of you!” cried Uncle Jim, and backing
dexterously whirled the eel round in a destructive circle. The pink
sunshade was torn from the hand that gripped it and whirled athwart
the complete, but unadorned, tea things on the green table.
“Collar him! Someone get hold of his collar!” cried the
gold-spectacled gentleman, coming out of the scrimmage, retreating up
the steps to the inn door as if to rally his forces.
“Stand clear, you blessed mantel ornaments!” cried Uncle Jim, “stand
clear!” and retired backing, staving off attack by means of the
Mr. Polly, undeterred by a sense of grave damage done to his nose,
pressed the attack in front, the two young men in violet and blue
skirmished on Uncle Jim’s flanks, the man in white and black checks
sought still further outflanking possibilities, and two of the
apprentice boys ran for oars. The gold-spectacled gentleman, as if
inspired, came down the wooden steps again, seized the tablecloth of
the jam and egg party, lugged it from under the crockery with
inadequate precautions against breakage, and advanced with compressed
lips, curious lateral crouching movements, swift flashings of his
glasses, and a general suggestion of bull-fighting in his pose and
gestures. Uncle Jim was kept busy, and unable to plan his retreat with
any strategic soundness. He was moreover manifestly a little nervous
about the river in his rear. He gave ground in a curve, and so came
right across the rapidly abandoned camp of the family in mourning,
crunching a teacup under his heel, oversetting the teapot, and finally
tripping backwards over the hamper. The eel flew out at a tangent from
his hand and became a mere looping relic on the sward.
“Hold him!” cried the gentleman in spectacles. “Collar him!” and
moving forward with extraordinary promptitude wrapped the best
tablecloth about Uncle Jim’s arms and head. Mr. Polly grasped his
purpose instantly, the man in checks was scarcely slower, and in
another moment Uncle Jim was no more than a bundle of smothered
blasphemy and a pair of wildly active legs.
“Duck him!” panted Mr. Polly, holding on to the earthquake. “Bes’
The bundle was convulsed by paroxysms of anger and protest. One boot
got the hamper and sent it ten yards.
“Go in the house for a clothes line someone!” said the gentleman in
gold spectacles. “He’ll get out of this in a moment.”
One of the apprentices ran.
“Bird nets in the garden,” shouted Mr. Polly. “In the garden!”
The apprentice was divided in his purpose. And then suddenly Uncle Jim
collapsed and became a limp, dead seeming thing under their hands. His
arms were drawn inward, his legs bent up under his person, and so he
“Fainted!” said the man in checks, relaxing his grip.
“A fit, perhaps,” said the man in spectacles.
“Keep hold!” said Mr. Polly, too late.
For suddenly Uncle Jim’s arms and legs flew out like springs released.
Mr. Polly was tumbled backwards and fell over the broken teapot and
into the arms of the father in mourning. Something struck his
head—dazzingly. In another second Uncle Jim was on his feet and the
tablecloth enshrouded the head of the man in checks. Uncle Jim
manifestly considered he had done all that honour required of him, and
against overwhelming numbers and the possibility of reiterated
duckings, flight is no disgrace.
Uncle Jim fled.
Mr. Polly sat up after an interval of an indeterminate length among
the ruins of an idyllic afternoon. Quite a lot of things seemed
scattered and broken, but it was difficult to grasp it all at once. He
stared between the legs of people. He became aware of a voice,
speaking slowly and complainingly.
“Someone ought to pay for those tea things,” said the father in
mourning. “We didn’t bring them ’ere to be danced on, not by no manner
There followed an anxious peace for three days, and then a rough man
in a blue jersey, in the intervals of trying to choke himself with
bread and cheese and pickled onions, broke out abruptly into
“Jim’s lagged again, Missus,” he said.
“What!” said the landlady. “Our Jim?”
“Your Jim,” said the man, and after an absolutely necessary pause for
swallowing, added: “Stealin’ a ’atchet.”
He did not speak for some moments, and then he replied to Mr. Polly’s
enquiries: “Yes, a ’atchet. Down Lammam way—night before last.”
“What’d ’e steal a ’atchet for?” asked the plump woman.
“’E said ’e wanted a ’atchet.”
“I wonder what he wanted a hatchet for?” said Mr. Polly, thoughtfully.
“I dessay ’e ’ad a use for it,” said the gentleman in the blue jersey,
and he took a mouthful that amounted to conversational suicide. There
was a prolonged pause in the little bar, and Mr. Polly did some rapid
He went to the window and whistled. “I shall stick it,” he whispered
at last. “’Atchets or no ’atchets.”
He turned to the man with the blue jersey when he thought him clear
for speech again. “How much did you say they’d given him?” he asked.
“Three munce,” said the man in the blue jersey, and refilled
anxiously, as if alarmed at the momentary clearness of his voice.
Those three months passed all too quickly; months of sunshine and
warmth, of varied novel exertion in the open air, of congenial
experiences, of interest and wholesome food and successful digestion,
months that browned Mr. Polly and hardened him and saw the beginnings
of his beard, months marred only by one anxiety, an anxiety Mr. Polly
did his utmost to suppress. The day of reckoning was never mentioned,
it is true, by either the plump woman or himself, but the name of
Uncle Jim was written in letters of glaring silence across their
intercourse. As the term of that respite drew to an end his anxiety
increased, until at last it even trenched upon his well-earned sleep.
He had some idea of buying a revolver. At last he compromised upon a
small and very foul and dirty rook rifle which he purchased in Lammam
under a pretext of bird scaring, and loaded carefully and concealed
under his bed from the plump woman’s eye.
September passed away, October came.
And at last came that night in October whose happenings it is so
difficult for a sympathetic historian to drag out of their proper
nocturnal indistinctness into the clear, hard light of positive
statement. A novelist should present characters, not vivisect them
The best, the kindliest, if not the justest course is surely to leave
untold such things as Mr. Polly would manifestly have preferred
Mr. Polly had declared that when the cyclist discovered him he was
seeking a weapon that should make a conclusive end to Uncle Jim. That
declaration is placed before the reader without comment.
The gun was certainly in possession of Uncle Jim at that time and no
human being but Mr. Polly knows how he got hold of it.
The cyclist was a literary man named Warspite, who suffered from
insomnia; he had risen and come out of his house near Lammam just
before the dawn, and he discovered Mr. Polly partially concealed in
the ditch by the Potwell churchyard wall. It is an ordinary dry ditch,
full of nettles and overgrown with elder and dogrose, and in no way
suggestive of an arsenal. It is the last place in which you would look
for a gun. And he says that when he dismounted to see why Mr. Polly
was allowing only the latter part of his person to show (and that it
would seem by inadvertency), Mr. Polly merely raised his head and
advised him to “Look out!” and added: “He’s let fly at me twice
already.” He came out under persuasion and with gestures of extreme
caution. He was wearing a white cotton nightgown of the type that has
now been so extensively superseded by pyjama sleeping suits, and his
legs and feet were bare and much scratched and torn and very muddy.
Mr. Warspite takes that exceptionally lively interest in his
fellow-creatures which constitutes so much of the distinctive and
complex charm of your novelist all the world over, and he at once
involved himself generously in the case. The two men returned at Mr.
Polly’s initiative across the churchyard to the Potwell Inn, and came
upon the burst and damaged rook rifle near the new monument to Sir
Samuel Harpon at the corner by the yew.
“That must have been his third go,” said Mr. Polly. “It sounded a bit
The sight inspirited him greatly, and he explained further that he had
fled to the churchyard on account of the cover afforded by tombstones
from the flight of small shot. He expressed anxiety for the fate of
the landlady of the Potwell Inn and her grandchild, and led the way
with enhanced alacrity along the lane to that establishment.
They found the doors of the house standing open, the bar in some
disorder—several bottles of whisky were afterwards found to be
missing—and Blake, the village policeman, rapping patiently at the
open door. He entered with them. The glass in the bar had suffered
severely, and one of the mirrors was starred from a blow from a pewter
pot. The till had been forced and ransacked, and so had the bureau in
the minute room behind the bar. An upper window was opened and the
voice of the landlady became audible making enquiries. They went out
and parleyed with her. She had locked herself upstairs with the little
girl, she said, and refused to descend until she was assured that
neither Uncle Jim nor Mr. Polly’s gun were anywhere on the premises.
Mr. Blake and Mr. Warspite proceeded to satisfy themselves with regard
to the former condition, and Mr. Polly went to his room in search of
garments more suited to the brightening dawn. He returned immediately
with a request that Mr. Blake and Mr. Warspite would “just come and
look.” They found the apartment in a state of extraordinary confusion,
the bedclothes in a ball in the corner, the drawers all open and
ransacked, the chair broken, the lock of the door forced and broken,
one door panel slightly scorched and perforated by shot, and the
window wide open. None of Mr. Polly’s clothes were to be seen, but
some garments which had apparently once formed part of a stoker’s
workaday outfit, two brownish yellow halves of a shirt, and an unsound
pair of boots were scattered on the floor. A faint smell of gunpowder
still hung in the air, and two or three books Mr. Polly had recently
acquired had been shied with some violence under the bed. Mr. Warspite
looked at Mr. Blake, and then both men looked at Mr. Polly. “That’s
his boots,” said Mr. Polly.
Blake turned his eye to the window. “Some of these tiles ’ave just
got broken,” he observed.
“I got out of the window and slid down the scullery tiles,” Mr. Polly
answered, omitting much, they both felt, from his explanation....
“Well, we better find ’im and ’ave a word with ’im,” said Blake.
“That’s about my business now.”
But Uncle Jim had gone altogether....
He did not return for some days. That perhaps was not very wonderful.
But the days lengthened to weeks and the weeks to months and still
Uncle Jim did not recur. A year passed, and the anxiety of him became
less acute; a second healing year followed the first. One afternoon
about thirty months after the Night Surprise the plump woman spoke of
“I wonder what’s become of Jim,” she said.
“I wonder sometimes,” said Mr. Polly.
One summer afternoon about five years after his first coming to the
Potwell Inn Mr. Polly found himself sitting under the pollard willow
fishing for dace. It was a plumper, browner and healthier Mr. Polly
altogether than the miserable bankrupt with whose dyspeptic portrait
our novel opened. He was fat, but with a fatness more generally
diffused, and the lower part of his face was touched to gravity by a
small square beard. Also he was balder.
It was the first time he had found leisure to fish, though from the
very outset of his Potwell career he had promised himself abundant
indulgence in the pleasures of fishing. Fishing, as the golden page of
English literature testifies, is a meditative and retrospective
pursuit, and the varied page of memory, disregarded so long for sake
of the teeming duties I have already enumerated, began to unfold
itself to Mr. Polly’s consideration. A speculation about Uncle Jim
died for want of material, and gave place to a reckoning of the years
and months that had passed since his coming to Potwell, and that to a
philosophical review of his life. He began to think about Miriam,
remotely and impersonally. He remembered many things that had been
neglected by his conscience during the busier times, as, for example,
that he had committed arson and deserted a wife. For the first time he
looked these long neglected facts in the face.
It is disagreeable to think one has committed Arson, because it is an
action that leads to jail. Otherwise I do not think there was a grain
of regret for that in Mr. Polly’s composition. But deserting Miriam
was in a different category. Deserting Miriam was mean.
This is a history and not a glorification of Mr. Polly, and I tell of
things as they were with him. Apart from the disagreeable twinge
arising from the thought of what might happen if he was found out, he
had not the slightest remorse about that fire. Arson, after all, is an
artificial crime. Some crimes are crimes in themselves, would be
crimes without any law, the cruelties, mockery, the breaches of faith
that astonish and wound, but the burning of things is in itself
neither good nor bad. A large number of houses deserve to be burnt,
most modern furniture, an overwhelming majority of pictures and
books—one might go on for some time with the list. If our community
was collectively anything more than a feeble idiot, it would burn most
of London and Chicago, for example, and build sane and beautiful
cities in the place of these pestilential heaps of rotten private
property. I have failed in presenting Mr. Polly altogether if I have
not made you see that he was in many respects an artless child of
Nature, far more untrained, undisciplined and spontaneous than an
ordinary savage. And he was really glad, for all that little drawback
of fear, that he had the courage to set fire to his house and fly and
come to the Potwell Inn.
But he was not glad he had left Miriam. He had seen Miriam cry once or
twice in his life, and it had always reduced him to abject
commiseration. He now imagined her crying. He perceived in a perplexed
way that he had made himself responsible for her life. He forgot how
she had spoilt his own. He had hitherto rested in the faith that she
had over a hundred pounds of insurance money, but now, with his eye
meditatively upon his float, he realised a hundred pounds does not
last for ever. His conviction of her incompetence was unflinching; she
was bound to have fooled it away somehow by this time. And then!
He saw her humping her shoulders and sniffing in a manner he had
always regarded as detestable at close quarters, but which now became
“Damn!” said Mr. Polly, and down went his float and he flicked up a
victim to destruction and took it off the hook.
He compared his own comfort and health with Miriam’s imagined
“Ought to have done something for herself,” said Mr. Polly, rebaiting
his hook. “She was always talking of doing things. Why couldn’t she?”
He watched the float oscillating gently towards quiescence.
“Silly to begin thinking about her,” he said. “Damn silly!”
But once he had begun thinking about her he had to go on.
“Oh blow!” cried Mr. Polly presently, and pulled up his hook to find
another fish had just snatched at it in the last instant. His handling
must have made the poor thing feel itself unwelcome.
He gathered his things together and turned towards the house.
All the Potwell Inn betrayed his influence now, for here indeed he had
found his place in the world. It looked brighter, so bright indeed as
to be almost skittish, with the white and green paint he had lavished
upon it. Even the garden palings were striped white and green, and so
were the boats, for Mr. Polly was one of those who find a positive
sensuous pleasure in the laying on of paint. Left and right were two
large boards which had done much to enhance the inn’s popularity with
the lighter-minded variety of pleasure-seekers. Both marked
innovations. One bore in large letters the single word “Museum,” the
other was as plain and laconic with “Omlets!” The spelling of the
latter word was Mr. Polly’s own, but when he had seen a whole boatload
of men, intent on Lammam for lunch, stop open-mouthed, and stare and
grin and come in and ask in a marked sarcastic manner for “omlets,” he
perceived that his inaccuracy had done more for the place than his
utmost cunning could have contrived. In a year or so the inn was known
both up and down the river by its new name of “Omlets,” and Mr. Polly,
after some secret irritation, smiled and was content. And the fat
woman’s omelettes were things to remember.
(You will note I have changed her epithet. Time works upon us all.)
She stood upon the steps as he came towards the house, and smiled at
“Caught many?” she asked.
“Got an idea,” said Mr. Polly. “Would it put you out very much if I
went off for a day or two for a bit of a holiday? There won’t be much
doing now until Thursday.”
Feeling recklessly secure behind his beard Mr. Polly surveyed the
Fishbourne High Street once again. The north side was much as he had
known it except that Rusper had vanished. A row of new shops replaced
the destruction of the great fire. Mantell and Throbson’s had risen
again upon a more flamboyant pattern, and the new fire station was in
the Swiss-Teutonic style and with much red paint. Next door in the
place of Rumbold’s was a branch of the Colonial Tea Company, and then
a Salmon and Gluckstein Tobacco Shop, and then a little shop that
displayed sweets and professed a “Tea Room Upstairs.” He considered
this as a possible place in which to prosecute enquiries about his
lost wife, wavering a little between it and the God’s Providence Inn
down the street. Then his eye caught a name over the window, “Polly,”
he read, “& Larkins! Well, I’m—astonished!”
A momentary faintness came upon him. He walked past and down the
street, returned and surveyed the shop again.
He saw a middle-aged, rather untidy woman standing behind the counter,
who for an instant he thought might be Miriam terribly changed, and
then recognised as his sister-in-law Annie, filled out and no longer
hilarious. She stared at him without a sign of recognition as he
entered the shop.
“Can I have tea?” said Mr. Polly.
“Well,” said Annie, “you can. But our Tea Room’s upstairs.... My
sister’s been cleaning it out—and it’s a bit upset.”
“It would be,” said Mr. Polly softly.
“I beg your pardon?” said Annie.
“I said I didn’t mind. Up here?”
“I daresay there’ll be a table,” said Annie, and followed him up to a
room whose conscientious disorder was intensely reminiscent of Miriam.
“Nothing like turning everything upside down when you’re cleaning,”
said Mr. Polly cheerfully.
“It’s my sister’s way,” said Annie impartially. “She’s gone out for a
bit of air, but I daresay she’ll be back soon to finish. It’s a nice
light room when it’s tidy. Can I put you a table over there?”
“Let me,” said Mr. Polly, and assisted. He sat down by the open
window and drummed on the table and meditated on his next step while
Annie vanished to get his tea. After all, things didn’t seem so bad
with Miriam. He tried over several gambits in imagination.
“Unusual name,” he said as Annie laid a cloth before him. Annie looked
“Polly. Polly & Larkins. Real, I suppose?”
“Polly’s my sister’s name. She married a Mr. Polly.”
“Widow I presume?” said Mr. Polly.
“Yes. This five years—come October.”
“Lord!” said Mr. Polly in unfeigned surprise.
“Found drowned he was. There was a lot of talk in the place.”
“Never heard of it,” said Mr. Polly. “I’m a stranger—rather.”
“In the Medway near Maidstone. He must have been in the water for
days. Wouldn’t have known him, my sister wouldn’t, if it hadn’t been
for the name sewn in his clothes. All whitey and eat away he was.”
“Bless my heart! Must have been rather a shock for her!”
“It was a shock,” said Annie, and added darkly: “But sometimes a
shock’s better than a long agony.”
“No doubt,” said Mr. Polly.
He gazed with a rapt expression at the preparations before him. “So
I’m drowned,” something was saying inside him. “Life insured?” he
“We started the tea rooms with it,” said Annie.
Why, if things were like this, had remorse and anxiety for Miriam been
implanted in his soul? No shadow of an answer appeared.
“Marriage is a lottery,” said Mr. Polly.
“She found it so,” said Annie. “Would you like some jam?”
“I’d like an egg,” said Mr. Polly. “I’ll have two. I’ve got a sort of
feeling—. As though I wanted keeping up.... Wasn’t particularly good
sort, this Mr. Polly?”
“He was a wearing husband,” said Annie. “I’ve often pitied my
sister. He was one of that sort—”
“Dissolute?” suggested Mr. Polly faintly.
“No,” said Annie judiciously; “not exactly dissolute. Feeble’s more
the word. Weak, ’E was. Weak as water. ’Ow long do you like your eggs
“Four minutes exactly,” said Mr. Polly.
“One gets talking,” said Annie.
“One does,” said Mr.-Polly, and she left him to his thoughts.
What perplexed him was his recent remorse and tenderness for Miriam.
Now he was back in her atmosphere all that had vanished, and the old
feeling of helpless antagonism returned. He surveyed the piled
furniture, the economically managed carpet, the unpleasing pictures on
the wall. Why had he felt remorse? Why had he entertained this
illusion of a helpless woman crying aloud in the pitiless darkness for
him? He peered into the unfathomable mysteries of the heart, and
ducked back to a smaller issue. Was he feeble?
The eggs came up. Nothing in Annie’s manner invited a resumption of
“Business brisk?” he ventured to ask.
Annie reflected. “It is,” she said, “and it isn’t. It’s like that.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and squared himself to his egg. “Was there an
inquest on that chap?”
“What was his name?—Polly!”
“You’re sure it was him?”
“What you mean?”
Annie looked at him hard, and suddenly his soul was black with terror.
“Who else could it have been—in the very cloes ’e wore?”
“Of course,” said Mr. Polly, and began his egg. He was so agitated
that he only realised its condition when he was half way through it
and Annie safely downstairs.
“Lord!” he said, reaching out hastily for the pepper. “One of
Miriam’s! Management! I haven’t tasted such an egg for five years....
Wonder where she gets them! Picks them out, I suppose!”
He abandoned it for its fellow.
Except for a slight mustiness the second egg was very palatable
indeed. He was getting on to the bottom of it as Miriam came in. He
looked up. “Nice afternoon,” he said at her stare, and perceived she
knew him at once by the gesture and the voice. She went white and shut
the door behind her. She looked as though she was going to faint. Mr.
Polly sprang up quickly and handed her a chair. “My God!” she
whispered, and crumpled up rather than sat down.
“It’s you” she said.
“No,” said Mr. Polly very earnestly. “It isn’t. It just looks like me.
“I knew that man wasn’t you—all along. I tried to think it was. I
tried to think perhaps the water had altered your wrists and feet and
the colour of your hair.”
“I’d always feared you’d come back.”
Mr. Polly sat down by his egg. “I haven’t come back,” he said very
earnestly. “Don’t you think it.”
“’Ow we’ll pay back the insurance now I don’t know.” She was
weeping. She produced a handkerchief and covered her face.
“Look here, Miriam,” said Mr. Polly. “I haven’t come back and I’m not
coming back. I’m—I’m a Visitant from Another World. You shut up about
me and I’ll shut up about myself. I came back because I thought you
might be hard up or in trouble or some silly thing like that. Now I
see you again—I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied completely. See? I’m going
to absquatulate, see? Hey Presto right away.”
He turned to his tea for a moment, finished his cup noisily, stood up.
“Don’t you think you’re going to see me again,” he said, “for you
He moved to the door.
“That was a tasty egg,” he said, hovered for a second and vanished.
Annie was in the shop.
“The missus has had a bit of a shock,” he remarked. “Got some sort of
fancy about a ghost. Can’t make it out quite. So Long!”
And he had gone.
Mr. Polly sat beside the fat woman at one of the little green tables
at the back of the Potwell Inn, and struggled with the mystery of
life. It was one of those evenings, serenely luminous, amply and
atmospherically still, when the river bend was at its best. A swan
floated against the dark green masses of the further bank, the stream
flowed broad and shining to its destiny, with scarce a ripple—except
where the reeds came out from the headland—the three poplars rose
clear and harmonious against a sky of green and yellow. And it was as
if it was all securely within a great warm friendly globe of crystal
sky. It was as safe and enclosed and fearless as a child that has
still to be born. It was an evening full of the quality of tranquil,
unqualified assurance. Mr. Polly’s mind was filled with the persuasion
that indeed all things whatsoever must needs be satisfying and
complete. It was incredible that life has ever done more than seemed
to jar, that there could be any shadow in life save such velvet
softnesses as made the setting for that silent swan, or any murmur but
the ripple of the water as it swirled round the chained and gently
swaying punt. And the mind of Mr. Polly, exalted and made tender by
this atmosphere, sought gently, but sought, to draw together the
varied memories that came drifting, half submerged, across the circle
of his mind.
He spoke in words that seemed like a bent and broken stick thrust
suddenly into water, destroying the mirror of the shapes they sought.
“Jim’s not coming back again ever,” he said. “He got drowned five
“Where?” asked the fat woman, surprised.
“Miles from here. In the Medway. Away in Kent.”
“Lor!” said the fat woman.
“It’s right enough,” said Mr. Polly.
“How d’you know?”
“I went to my home.”
“Don’t matter. I went and found out. He’d been in the water some days.
He’d got my clothes and they’d said it was me.”
“It don’t matter. I’m not going back to them.”
The fat woman regarded him silently for some time. Her expression of
scrutiny gave way to a quiet satisfaction. Then her brown eyes went to
“Poor Jim,” she said. “’E ’adn’t much Tact—ever.”
She added mildly: “I can’t ’ardly say I’m sorry.”
“Nor me,” said Mr. Polly, and got a step nearer the thought in him.
“But it don’t seem much good his having been alive, does it?”
“’E wasn’t much good,” the fat woman admitted. “Ever.”
“I suppose there were things that were good to him,” Mr. Polly
speculated. “They weren’t our things.”
His hold slipped again. “I often wonder about life,” he said weakly.
He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting
something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts
with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much
relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the
skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know
good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple
stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
“I set fire to a house—once.”
The fat woman started.
“I don’t feel sorry for it. I don’t believe it was a bad thing to
do—any more than burning a toy like I did once when I was a baby. I
nearly killed myself with a razor. Who hasn’t?—anyhow gone as far as
thinking of it? Most of my time I’ve been half dreaming. I married
like a dream almost. I’ve never really planned my life or set out to
live. I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with everyone. Jim
couldn’t help himself. I shot at him and tried to kill him. I dropped
the gun and he got it. He very nearly had me. I wasn’t a second too
soon—ducking.... Awkward—that night was.... M’mm.... But I don’t
blame him—come to that. Only I don’t see what it’s all up to....
“Like children playing about in a nursery. Hurt themselves at
“There’s something that doesn’t mind us,” he resumed presently. “It
isn’t what we try to get that we get, it isn’t the good we think we do
is good. What makes us happy isn’t our trying, what makes others happy
isn’t our trying. There’s a sort of character people like and stand up
for and a sort they won’t. You got to work it out and take the
consequences.... Miriam was always trying.”
“Who was Miriam?” asked the fat woman.
“No one you know. But she used to go about with her brows knit trying
not to do whatever she wanted to do—if ever she did want to do
He lost himself.
“You can’t help being fat,” said the fat woman after a pause, trying
to get up to his thoughts.
“You can’t,” said Mr. Polly.
“It helps and it hinders.”
“Like my upside down way of talking.”
“The magistrates wouldn’t ’ave kept on the license to me if I ’adn’t
“Then what have we done,” said Mr. Polly, “to get an evening like
this? Lord! look at it!” He sent his arm round the great curve of the
“If I was a nigger or an Italian I should come out here and sing. I
whistle sometimes, but bless you, it’s singing I’ve got in my mind.
Sometimes I think I live for sunsets.”
“I don’t see that it does you any good always looking at sunsets like
you do,” said the fat woman.
“Nor me. But I do. Sunsets and things I was made to like.”
“They don’t ’elp you,” said the fat woman thoughtfully.
“Who cares?” said Mr. Polly.
A deeper strain had come to the fat woman. “You got to die some day,”
“Some things I can’t believe,” said Mr. Polly suddenly, “and one is
your being a skeleton....” He pointed his hand towards the neighbour’s
hedge. “Look at ’em—against the yellow—and they’re just stingin’
nettles. Nasty weeds—if you count things by their uses. And no help
in the life hereafter. But just look at the look of them!”
“It isn’t only looks,” said the fat woman.
“Whenever there’s signs of a good sunset and I’m not too busy,” said
Mr. Polly, “I’ll come and sit out here.”
The fat woman looked at him with eyes in which contentment struggled
with some obscure reluctant protest, and at last turned them slowly to
the black nettle pagodas against the golden sky.
“I wish we could,” she said.
The fat woman’s voice sank nearly to the inaudible.
“Not always,” she said.
Mr. Polly was some time before he replied. “Come here always when I’m
a ghost,” he replied.
“Spoil the place for others,” said the fat woman, abandoning her moral
solicitudes for a more congenial point of view.
“Not my sort of ghost wouldn’t,” said Mr. Polly, emerging from another
long pause. “I’d be a sort of diaphalous feeling—just mellowish and
They said no more, but sat on in the warm twilight until at last they
could scarcely distinguish each other’s faces. They were not so much
thinking as lost in a smooth, still quiet of the mind. A bat flitted
“Time we was going in, O’ Party,” said Mr. Polly, standing up. “Supper
to get. It’s as you say, we can’t sit here for ever.”