A Question of Policy
A QUESTION OF POLICY.
By W. PETT RIDGE.
THE Climax Tea-Rooms were doing an excellent trade—the hour being six o'clock, p.m.—and young Mrs. Bell, the proprietress, bustled up and down between the two rows of oblong marble tables, hurrying the two moon-faced young women who assisted her, temporising with waiting customers, and welcoming new arrivals. The window facing East India Dock Road bore strips of paper plastered upon it, giving the suggestion that it had been in a fight and had got rather the worst of it, closer inspection proved that these bore enticing notices. "A Fourpenny Tea for Twopence! Good Manners and Good Food! We Invite a Trial!" Waiting customers found the journals which are still called comic to inspect; others, who had been served, propped an evening paper against their metal teapot to read an alluring inquest case, the while they blew at the contents of their cup and sipped noisily. A clean-shaven brown-faced man, with an undecided chin, came in between the swing-doors and sat cautiously on a vacant seat near the window. He concealed himself in ambush behind a Star.
"Good evening, Sir!" said young Mrs. Bell. "Lovely weather for the time of the year, isn't it?" Mrs. Bell held a plate of thick toast which she was conveying to another customer. "Cup of tea? Anything else?"
"Yes," said the clean-shaven man in a hoarse whisper.
"What like, Sir?"
"You!" he said, glancing suddenly over the edge of the Star.
"Robert!" she exclaimed. The toast slipped from the plate to the floor. "What—what's made you come back?"
"Fact of the matter is——" he began
"'Ush!" she said with great concern. She stooped to pick up the pieces of toast.
"All right," he said obediently. "I'll 'ush, then, Louiser."
The two assistants came up to him at intervals when the stress of customers relaxed, and brought newspapers. Mrs. Bell, trembling, glanced frequently in his direction, and the cups and saucers that she handled rattled and chinked. The elder round-faced assistant stood by his table and, sweeping imaginary crumbs from it, inspected him curiously.
"Seafarin' gentleman?" she asked
"I say," repeated the waitress, "are you a seafaring"—she glanced at his hands—"person?"
"To a certain extent," he said with reserve, "I am."
"Must be very nice and open to be sailin' on the ocean wave. What I mean is, it can't be nearly so stuffy, you see, as being cooped up in a place like this with the gas going all day. The sea, now, must be so different."
"It 's got its drawbacks," said the man.
"After all, though." remarked the waitress, "I expect you 're glad to get back to London again." She smiled at him. "Nice to get back, you see, to your wife."
"WHAT?" roared the man.
"Ain't you married? " she asked.
"Look 'ere." he said with asperity. "D'ye know what you are talkin' about?"
"Keroline!" called her mistress from place; the clatter and rattle and bang of the counter.
"Come 'ere this instant, and help wash up."
When the tea-rooms were nearly free of patrons, Mrs. Bell came slowly down the gangway to the customer. He was still there, behind the evening paper, and she spoke to him in a low voice as she looked out at East India Dock Road and at the people hurrying homeward to Bow. The two young assistants were clearing off traces of the struggle that had just taken traffic outside helped to prevent the conversation from being heard.
"Whatever possessed you?" demanded Mrs. Bell. "If there's anything foolish to be done, you must he at it."
"Why," he expostulated, "ain't I your 'usband? After all——"
"I told you I'd send for you when it was safe for you to come back. And 'ere you come blunderin' into the place——"
"I come in like a gentleman."
"And you'd better go out like one," she said. "Sooner you get away from here the better."
"Better for who?"
"Better for you," she said meaningly; "better for everybody."
"I like the way you talk," said Mr. Bell with satire. "Anybody'd think I hadn't any business 'ere."
"More you 'aven't. This is my business. I bought it with the money as I wrote and told you that come to me over your insurance policy. When I'm ready to pay it back, I'll let you know. At present you 're supposed to be dead."
"Supposed to be," he admitted: "But," he added with spirit, "I ain't."
"You 'll look silly if you come to life now, Robert," said his wife.
"I shall look sillier if I don't. How long d' you think I'm going to keep playin' in this blooming farce, Louiser?" he asked, tapping at the marble table.
"Leave off knockin' that table, and listen to me. Do you know what 'll 'appen if you 're recognised?"
"Bah!" said Mr. Bell uneasily. "Who'd recognise me without me beard and mestache? Who'd be likely to come all the way from Rotherhithe and——"
"Once you're recognised," said Mrs. Bell solemnly, "you'll find yourself in the 'ands of the law. And d'you know what the law 'll say to you? I 've made it my business to find out, Robert. For pretendin' to be dead, and wrong information being sent 'ome by others to your widow, and her thereby getting a matter of two 'undred pounds out of an insurance company, the penalty is——"
She turned, and bent down to whisper.
Go on with you!" said Mr. Bell with great concern. "Who's been filling your silly young 'ead with that nonsense? The lor can see a joke as well as anyone. Besides, it wasn't my fault that they thought I was done for."
"If you don't believe me, ask someone else. 'Ere's a sergeant going along outside now. Shall I call him in, and——?"
"Don't you go being a stupid young stupid," begged Mr. Bell, wiping his forehead with a scarlet handkerchief. "Can't you see that you'd get into trouble as well?"
"Pardon me," she said. "I simply acted on the letter and the certificate what come to me. And if you think I'm going to pay back the two 'undred this week just for the sake of you——"
"Yes, but—— Look 'ere, Louiser. Try to unnerstand. You, being a fond and, I may say, affectionate wife, you naturally want your 'usband to be here with you and give a 'and with business Don't you now?"
"I can manage the shop by meself," said Mrs. Bell.
"Granted, granted," he said anxiously. "A better business-woman never lived. All the same, you naturally want me to stay on and make meself generally useful."
"Do I, indeed?"
"As you very properly argue, a wife has got a perfect right to expect that her 'usband shall make his 'ome under the same roof as her, and not to go voyaging about on a cargo-vessel that doesn't keep in the same position for two seconds together. And, mind you, I think you 're right."
"I'm gettin' along," declared Mrs. Bell, "very well as I am, Robert, and I don't want no interference either from you or anyone else. I'm a widow woman with a character to keep up in Poplar, and——"
"How can you talk like that when I'm your lorful married 'usband sitting 'ere and drinkin' cold coffee?"
"Ah!" said Mrs. Bell with a sigh, "it'd be different, of course, if you was still alive."
"I'm as live as ever I was."
"You dare to go and tell that to the insurance company!"
There was a pause. Mr. Bell rose, found his new bowler hat, and first punched a dent in it and then punched out the dent.
"For aggravatingness," he siiid strenuously, "for want of logic, and for general wrong-'eadedness, commend me to a woman."
"Good evening, Sir," she said loudly as she opened the door for him, "and thank you!"
Mr. Robert Bell walked home to his lodging in Pekin Street, Poplar, a moody and a solitary man. He had been back in England but twenty-four hours, and it seemed to him that although life on a sailing-vessel had many grievous drawbacks, a sailing-vessel was ahead of London for comfort. There, at any rate, he had always been able to console himself with the thought of a cordial welcome at some distant date; by endeavouring to anticipate that joy he had, it appeared, only succeeded in giving it indefinite postponement He had assumed the name of Merryweather on his return, and this name he had given to his new landlady, together with erroneous information to the effect that he had relatives in the neighbourhood whose address he had forgotten.
"I 've found 'em!" said his landlady exultantly, as he stumbled into the narrow, dimly lighted passage. She turned up the little oil-lamp standing on the bracket, and the oil-lamp, annoyed, began to smoke furiously. "I 've found 'em, Mr, Merrywealher, and glad enough I am to 'ave been of some service to you." She was a vivacious old lady in a beaded cap, with a lively knowledge of the affairs of other people, and just now keenly interested in the new occupant of her bed-sitting-room. "And you mustn't thank me, because I'm only too pleased to bring friends and rel'tives together."
"Now what are you cacklin' about, Ma'am?" he asked politely.
"Ah," replied the old lady cheerfully, "you 'll soon know. We shan't be long now. It 'll be as good as a play to see you two meet." She wept and rubbed her eyes. "People may say what they like, but there's nothing in all this wide world to be compared to two lovin' 'earts."
"Let me 'ave my supper," he said patiently, "and then leave me be. I want to 'ave a smoke and a think."
"You won't do much thinking," remarked the landlady knowingly, "when you 'ear the news I 've got for you. You said your name was Merryweather, didn't you?"
"I don't deny it."
"And you said you'd got friends near 'ere—you'd forgot the address."
"I might have let fall a casual remark," said Mr. Bell carefully, as he held the handle of his door, "or statement to that effect. Whatever I said I 'll slick to."
"I knew that," replied the old landlady. "I 'ope I can tell a gentleman from a mere common person. Some people look down on sailors and such-like, but I'm not one of that sort. As I often say, where would Old England be without 'em!"
"'Urry up with that supper," said Mr. Bell.
"Shall I lay for two, Mr. Merryweather?" asked the old lady.
"Course not! I'm only one."
"But the lady?"
"Why," she said, "your wife!" Mr. Bell pulled the handle from the door and stood looking at her blankly. The landlady gave a gesture of self- reproval. "That's me all over. I forget what I 'ave said and I forget what I 'aven't said. What I ought to 'ave told you before blurting it out like that was that I 've discovered your wife, Mrs. Merryweather, in Grundy Street; that she's simply overjoyed to 'ear of you, and I 've asked her to come 'ere this evening."
"Then," said Mr. Bell solemnly, and shaking the white door-handle in the old lady's face, "you jest listen to me. You 've asked her to come 'ere; you can jest jolly well ask her to go away again. I'm not goin' to see her."
"Well, well, well," said the amazed landlady, "'ere's a pretty how-d'ye-do! And she talked so affectionate about you, too, and she says, 'Oh!' she says, 'I do so long to look on my sweet one's face again.' I had the least drop of spirits with her, and we drank your very good 'ealth."
"Very kind of you," said Mr. Bell doggedly, "but that don't affect my position. When she comes, you get rid of her, and, in future, don't you go potterin' about and mixing yourself up in my affairs, because I won't 'ave it. See? I 've got plenty to worry about," added Mr. Bell fiercely—"more than you think for—and I don't want no interferin' old cat——"
"When you 've quite done using language," interrupted the old lady, bridling, "p'raps you'll kindly put back that door-'andle where you found it. Letting you my ground-floor front for a paltry four and six a-week don't entitle you to walk about with bits of it in your 'ands. So there, now!" She went towards the kitchen, soliloquising. "Interferin' old cat, indeed. I'll learn him!"
It was an hour later that Mr. Bell, by dint of staring hard at a model of H.M.S. Temeraire weathering a gale on a furious sea of blue linen, came to the decision chat there were no means known to civilisation by which he could compel the proprietress of the Climax Tea-Rooms to recognise his rights. He pitied himself sincerely, and, indeed, that seemed the only action that he could take without incurring some risk. She was, he knew, an obstinate young woman.
"You might as well argue," muttered Mr. Bell disconsolately, "with a brick wall."
He would have to find a berth and live on as a bachelor, contenting himself with an occasional cup of tea at the rooms and the opportunity of listening to her. He would have to comport himself, too, with respect, or she might forbid him to enter the doors even as a customer. Mr. Bell had returned to the table and was thoughtfully finishing the remainder of his supper when a knock came at the door. His landlady shuffled through the passage to answer. He rose quickly, and opening the door, took off the handle, closed the door again, and listened anxiously.
"Is my long-lost 'usband in?" asked a high strident voice. "I 've left me glasses at 'ome,but no doubt I shall recognise him."
"Come inside, Ma'am," said the landlady in injured tones, "and let me shut the door. Your 'usband, I'm sorry to say, has got a 'asty temper."
"I 'll temper him," said the loud-voiced lady, "if he comes any of his cheek with me. He's been away from me for six year, and the least he can do now he has come 'ome is to apologise."
"Spoke like a true woman. Ma'am," remarked the landlady applaudingly. She tapped at the door. "Mr. Merryweather! Mr. Merryweather! Opin the door. 'Ere's your wife come to see you."
"Go away," shouted Mr. Bell, "and don't be a silly juggins."
"That voice!" exclaimed the new arrival ecstatically. "Oh, I could swear to it amongst a thousin'!"
"Come, Mr. Merryweather," called the landlady in appealing tones, "open the door like a man."
"I ain't her 'usband at all," bawled Mr. Bell. "Tell her to be off 'ome again, and leave me be."
"Oh," cried the lady pathetically, "he disowns me! Oh, that it should have come to this! Oh, that I should 'ave lived lo see this day! Oh, that—oh, that——"
"She's faintin'!" screamed the landlady. "If you are a man, and not a block of wood, opin the door, Mr. Merrywiather, and lend me a 'and!"
Thus appealed to, Mr. Bell opened the door. His landlady was endeavouring to support a very large woman whose eyes were half closed; she carried a small shiny bag, from which a cork peeped shyly. Mr. Bell assisted to drag her into his room, and his landlady, with an adroitness that did her credit, found a flat bottle in the visitor's shiny bag, and extracting the cork first, sampled the contents herself and then pressed them upon their owner. That lady, after taking a long sip, sat up limply on the chair and looked around vacantly.
"Where am I?" she asked feebly. "Has there bin a accident?"
"No, dear," replied the landlady; "there ain't bin no accident; it's only your nerves that 'ave give way."
"You'll be as right as rain," said Mr. Bell, "when you 've rested a bit."
"That voice again," said the lady dreamily. "Can I be awake?"
"She identities you," remarked the landlady with a triumphant air.
"Shut up your nonsense," begged Mr. Bell uneasily. The recovering woman's eyes wandered round the room slowly. "You 're jumpin' at conclusions, you are, and it's only makin' her worse."
"Walter!" tried the lady, starting up. "Oh, Walter! Has the sea give up its dead?"
"No," said Mr. Bell, struggling to escape from the large woman's embrace; "it ain't."
"You 're altered, loved one," said the large woman pathetically, "sadly altered; but I knowed you at once. Oh, how thankful we ought to be for this precious moment."
"'Ere!" protested Mr. Bell, "take your arms away from my neck!"
"Never, Merryweather!" she cried. "Never so long as life's left in me!"
"Make her leggo," cried Mr. Bell. "She's strangling of me."
"And who," she said, releasing him, "who, Merrywcather, has a better right?"
"Lot of use putting on clean collars." grumbled Mr. Bell, adjusting his necktie. "Now have a good look at me, and tell the truth, and put a end to all this misunderstanding."
"That was always his amusing way." explained Mrs. Merryweather to the landlady. "I don't suppose there was ever his equal for a joke—not this side of Aldgate, at any rate."
"Joke or no joke," said the landlady, "I'm amply repaid for all my trouble by seeing you two brought together again. And as I daresay you 've a lot to talk about, I 'll leave you alone for a bit."
"If you go from this room," declared Mr. Bell aggressively, "I shall jump out of the window."
"He's overcome with joy, I expect," whispered the landlady. "He don't know whether he's on his 'ead or his 'eels. I 've seen 'em took that way before now. He 'll calm down presently, I shouldn't wonder."
"There 'll be precious little calm about," cried Mr. Bell furiously, "if you two women don't get out of my room. 'Ere am I worried 'alf out of me senses about another—another affair, and you come 'ere jawin' and cacklin' and faintin'——"
"Merryweather!" said the large lady impressively, "look me in the face."
"Look me in the face and asnwer me true. I can bear it. We women are used to suffering——"
"I'm sure!" murmured the landlady, sniffing.
"And I only want to know the worst. Tell me the truth, and I 'll leave you in peace."
"I 'll tell you anything if you 'll only do that."
"'Ave you," asked Mrs. Merryweather formally, "'ave you got yourself mixed up with Another?"
"Yes," said Mr. Bell, "I 'ave."
"Lead me to the front door, Mrs. What-is-it," requested the large lady in a pained voice. "My 'eart is full of woe and bitterness against the world. To think that I 'ave found him only to lose him again! My grief is more than I can bear. Never, never, never in this world shall I be seen to smile again! Is there anything left in the bottle?"
The landlady found the flat bottle, and Mrs. Merryweather sipped it, making a wry face, as though it contained the most repugnant and displeasing of restoratives.
"Lean on my shoulder, Mem," said the sympathetic landlady. "Shows you what men are."
"But don't you fancy," cried Mrs. Merryweather at the doorway, with a sudden outburst of fury, "don't you imagine for one single moment, my fine fellow, that you 're going to get off scotfree. Don't you let me leave you with the idea that you 're going to 'ave it all your own way. I 'll keep my eyes on you—such as they are—and I 'll never let you 'ave one moment's peace."
"'Earear!" said the landlady.
"You shall never be free from me. I 'll track you, if needs be, to the uttermost ends of the earth. I 'll put the County Council on you. I 'll watch you and foller you, and denounce you night and day. I 'll give up the rest of my life to showing you up in your true colours. I 'll—I 'll——"
"Go on," said the landlady in an encouraging way, "let him have it hot."
"No," said the large Mrs. Merryweather tearfully, "I can't say no more. I'm but a poor, weak woman, and I love him in spite of all."
"Bye-bye," said Mr. Bell, with a fine affectation of indifference. "Mind the mat."
Mr. Bell, after a sleepless night, rose early and succeeded in finding work at an engineer's in Canning Town. The long sea-voyage had aided the change in his features by tanning his complexion, and when at the shop he met a man with whom he had once worked in Rotherhithe, and this man, so far from recognising, gave him a history of old acquaintances whom he called "softs"—a gallery of foolish gentlemen in which Mr. Bell was at once hurt and gratified to find that he himself figured—then he no longer feared detection. After work he went home and washed and apparelled himself with care, and slipped away quietly without another encounter with his landlady, who, however, put her head out of the first-floor window and called after him.
"'Ound!" screamed the landlady.
At the Climax Tea-Rooms he took his seat near to the door, jerking his head carelessly in acknowledgment of his wife's business-like smile. He ordered tea and a poached egg from the head assistant, noting the while furtively that his wife behind the counter was watching them both.
"Nice row I got into over you," whispered Caroline, as she brought the metal teapot. "Don't look at her, or else she 'll think we 're talking about her, you see."
"What's the trouble now?"
"Oh!" said the young woman confidentially, "it was all about last evenin'. After you was gone, you see, I 'appened to say in course of conversation, you see, what a nice face you had, and—— Don't you go getting conceited, mind!"
"I 'll take care," promised Mr. Bell, interested. "Go on!"
"And so I was talking about you, you see, and quite by chance, I remarked that if you come in again, you see, I should set my cap at you."
"Very 'armless remark."
"Upon which," whispered Caroline tragically, "upon which she flies into a passion, you see—calls me everything but a lady. I answers back, you see, and end of it all was I give her a week's notice, you see."
"I'm sorry there's been this upset," said Mr. Bell with a gratified air, "all on my account."
"Oh, it's nothing!" said Caroline lightly. "Plenty of places open for a good worker like me."
"Do you mind doing me a great favour and earning at the same time a pair of kid gloves?"
"Seven and a half," remarked Caroline, beaming.
"Mind talking to me in rather a friendly way while I'm 'ere this evening?"
"Give her the needle, won't it?" said the girl sportively.
"That's what I mean," said Mr. Bell. "It 'll learn her a lesson."
"Keroline," called her mistress sharply, "come 'ere this minute."
Caroline obeyed, but soon found an opportunity to make her way again in the direction of the doorway, where she gave Mr. Bell two violets to place in the button-hole of his coat, and made several remarks in a tone of voice that managed to reach the burning, indignant ears of young Mrs. Bell. Such as: "Oh, you are a tease!" and "If you say I'm nice-lookin' again I shall slap your face!" and "I expect you 've said all that to a lot of gels before," and other phrases of similar import. When Mrs. Bell could endure this no longer she came from behind the counter and ordered Caroline to take her place, saying that she herself would look after the tables.
"Good evening. Ma'am," said Mr. Bell.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Bell, "good evening."
"Been a nice, bright day."
"Thought it seemed rather miserable."
There was a pause. Mr. Bell, under cover of an evening paper, reached out and touched her hand. She did not reprove him, and he pressed her hand; whereupon she seemed to realise the situation, and moved it away quickly.
"Are you comfortable where you 're lodging?" she asked sharply.
Mr. Bell drank deeply from his thick cup before answering.
"I don't think," he said, "I do not think, that I knew what comfort was before I went there. I'm waited on hand and foot; the landlady couldn't be more attentive if I was one of the family. I think I 'm very fortunate in 'aving hit on such a 'appy 'ome."
"Is she young?"
"Depends on what you call young," said Mr. Bell evasively. "Anyhow, I promised her I wouldn't be late back this evening; so, with your permission. Ma'am, I 'll pay up and take my departure. Will you call the good-looking gel that waited on me?"
"No!" said young Mrs. Bell. "You needn't pay for what you 've had."
"Pardon me," he replied with laborious politeness, "I prefer to pay as I go. There's sixpence; and that 'll be a penny for Caroline."
"If you don't take it up at once," she said heatedly, "I 'll throw it out into the road."
"That's your look-out, Ma'am. Where did I put my hat?"
"You needn't be in such a hurry," urged Mrs. Bell, fingering her pinafore-bands nervously. "I 've been thinking that I could afford to pay back that money soon, and so, if you returned to England in a few years' time——"
"My landlady's waiting."
"Let her wait," cried the young woman. "What right's she got to expect you to be at her beck and call? Why don't you be independent?"
"How can I?" asked Mr. Bell, "when I'm dead?"
She moved her slippered foot agitatedly on the floor and bit her lips. Mr. Bell found his hat and rose. She glanced at him, but he preserved his stolid expression and commenced to hum a sea-song. From outside the swing-doors there came the sibilant whisper of women's voices, changing to louder tones as the two doors pressed open. Large Mrs. Merryweather entered first and looked around in a short-sighted manner, as she fumbled with her spectacle-case.
"My 'usband 'ere?" she asked loudly.
"Your husband," replied Mrs. Bell, "is not here."
"A lie!" exclaimed Mr. Bell's landlady, following in; "nothing more nor less than a low lie. There he stands, a-shrinking and a-cowering like the 'ound he is!"
"I ain't a-shrinking," declared Mr. Bell valiantly, "and I ain't a-cowerin'."
"Merryweather!" said the large lady, "one last appeal I make to you. Before I call upon the lor to help me, give in to the promptings of the heart and return to your 'ome. If it's a hot supper you want, you shall 'ave it. If it's your pipe you want, you can smoke it now all over the 'ouse. If ever I was 'arsh with you in the old days, we 'll let bygones be bygones, and begin afresh."
"You 'll excuse me," said Mrs. Bell, trembling, "but will you kindly let me know what you 're jolly well talking about?"
"Come 'ere," said the landlady to Mrs. Bell privately. "I 'll explain it all in two words."
"Don't you interfere."
"It's a case," persisted the landlady, "of man and wife meeting after what you may term years of absence, him being seeposed to be dead, and her thinkin' she was a widow. And it's me that's brought 'em together."
"Do you mean," said Mrs. Bell, pushing the old landlady aside, "to look me in the face and tell me that this is your 'usband?"
"Isn't his name Merryweather?" inquired the large lady.
"Never you mind what his name is. You put on your glasses"—here Mrs. Bell with a trembling hand turned up the gas until it whistled madly—"and look at him well, and then tell me the truth—if you can," she added.
"I had them in me bag last night," said Mrs. Merryweather as she fixed her spectacles, "only they'd got underneath the bottle." Mr. Bell put on the serious air of a man about to be photographed. "Now let's see."
"This 'll prove it," said the landlady with confidence. "This is the last act, this is."
"Mrs. What-is-it!" exclaimed Mrs. Merryweather feebly.
"There 's some 'orrid error. This ain't my 'usband at all."
"Nonsense!" said the landlady. "Take another look."
"I don't want to take no more looks," said the large lady tearfully. "My dream of joy is o'er. Take me away, take me away! How far is it to the Eastern Hotel?"
"Now," said Mrs. Bell to the landlady, "now, perhaps, you 're satisfied, Ma'am!"
"Far from it," declared the exasperated old woman as she piloted her charge to the door. "Far from it, Ma'am. He may chuckle and he may sneer and he may crow, but he's somebody's 'usband, and I don't spare trouble, breath, nor time until I find out whose."
"I must be getting along," said Mr. Bell.
"Wait a bit, Robert," commanded young Mrs. Bell. "Before you two ladies go on to the public-'ouse to have your——"
"Medicine," moaned Mrs. Merryweather.
"Allow me to inform you that this gentleman is my 'usband; and that anybody that goes interferin' with him has got me to reckon with."
"Jest my luck," said the old landlady gloomily as she went out. "I'm always losing lodgers."
"And I s'pose I'd better move along 'ome, Louiser," remarked Mr. Bell when the two ladies had gone.
"Don't be so foolish," said Mrs. Bell, patting his cheek. "You 're at 'ome now."