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NOBODIES AT HOME

GEORGE GISSING.


IV.
By the Kerb.

COLLAR studs, three a penny. Collar studs, a penny for three."

The bright sun ought to have warmed him, but he had the shivering look of the half-starved and the raggedly clad. His eyes watered, his pasty skin was marked with pustules; mere stubble of what once had been a moustache and beard roughened the lower parts of his face. But at this moment, as he shuffled along the gutter, and sang his nasal litany to the flow of Cheapside, memory had revived his youth. It was twenty years' ago; he saw himself a thin, bloodless, yellow-haired lad, with large pale blue eyes and a cast of features peculiarly attractive to the girls of his acquaintance. All the money he could spare went in hair oils and haherdashery. He stood again behind the counter of the shop at Hammersmith, end smiled sweetly upon female customers.

"Collar studs, three a penny. Collar studs, a penny for three."

But his health was against him. Of four children older than himself, only one lived to maturity; she had lost her place as a barmaid owing to epileptic fits, and was living mysteriously. Could he help it? His mother had recently died in the hospital; his father had died of old ago at thirty-seven. And now the long hours of the shop began to tell upon him. He always woke with a headache; his spindle legs shook as he dressed himself; his stomach declared against anything but light food. The Christmas season, ah, that was a bad time! They picked him from under the counter at eleven one evening, and had to put him to bed. Could he help it?

Lucky for him, then, that he had so good a friend as Mrs. Billings, the young wife of a town traveller. She let him have the top back room for two shillings a week, and his meals at cost price. She treated him as a child, called him "deary," made him go out for a walk by the river every morning, and felt sure he would be well enough to get another place before his few pounds had come to an end. But he tried in vain. With his face, too! Why, said Mrs. Billings merrily, someone ought to pay him a salary just to stand as an ornament of the shop, an enticement to customers. He curled his yellow hair, did all he could to make his moustache grow, and stood for hours before the looking-glass pondering his prospects.

Then came the day when he had not a penny. And he went down into the kitchen to Mrs. Billings—they two were alone in the house—and tears flowed from his blue eyes as he asked her what was to become of him. Mrs. Billings stood behind his chair, and began to stroke his head, and at length laid her cheek against his, and—well, could he help it? She had no children, and her husband neglected her.

"Collar studs, three a penny. Collar studs, a penny for three. Thank you, sir!"

So he lived on in the top back bedroom, lodged and fed gratis. Of course, Mr. Billings knew nothing of that; no, no. And it went on for two years; yes, two whole years. His health improved wonderfully, but at the same time he grew more and more disinclined for work. He was grateful to Mrs. Billings, and wouldn't for the world have done anything "nasty;" yet there was the girl at Fulham with whom he walked and talked familiarly on evenings when Mr. Billings happened to be at home. A flyaway sort of girl, who made a jest of it when he asked timidly whether she would some day marry him. And pray how would he support her? He didn't know; he knew nothing; he had no energy for anything save the culture of his thin moustache and the choosing of cheap neckties. But he was handsomer than ever, and, by dint of a little effort, might get a place again in a shop. Mrs. Billings had of late often urged him to try for employment. For some reason she was beginning to fear her husband. She cried a little now and then, and let her tears fall upon the young man's waistcoat.

A chance offered; a light place, with a very small salary. He determined to lay by every penny, with a view to marriage. But no sooner had he told Mrs. Billings than, to his astonishment, she insisted on his going to live elsewhere. "You've got tired of me, then?" She would not admit it, but go he must. Something would happen; she had no peace of mind, day or night; her husband, she felt sure, had conceived suspicions. And that very day she got rid of him.

"Now then, where are you drivin' to? Want to run over me, do you? Look out? Well, wasn't I a-lookin' out? Gurr!"

(He felt very shaky this morning, and was very absent-minded. For several minutes he had stood mute, his head hanging over the tray with its trios of collar studs. The sun was getting too hot here; he must move across into the shade.)

Back again behind the counter; all day long feeling tired and hungry, yet with no appetite for any food he could procure. Worse than that, he had lost sight of the girl at Fulham, and now came an ugly story about her. She had only amused herself in his company. When the opportunity came—the fellow with a pocket full of money—the old story. It was seventeen years behind him, but he sighed.

One morning as he dressed, he had a fainting fit. It was beginning all over again. His health wouldn't stand the shop. So long as he had nothing to do, whilst he was looked after and carefully fed, the physical weakness gave him no trouble; as soon as he began to work he broke down. Gawd! What would become of him? He must live; and for a twelvemonth after leaving the shop he somehow managed to do so, chiefly by begging. Then, one night in Oxford Street, he met the Fulham girl. What she had been doing meanwhile it was easy to see. They turned off into a dark street and talked. The next night they met again, and he was richer for the meeting by two half-crowns. And again, and again; week after week. And he took a lodging not far from where the girl dwelt.

Could he help it? He must live, yet no one would supply him with the means to live honestly. He hadn't an hour's work in his slim, starved body. If a girl of the pavement had a friendship for him, and pitied his hard lot, and out of her superfluity enabled him to keep body and soul together, where was the harm of it?

"Collar studs, three a penny. Collar studs, a penny for three."

The policeman might stare at him just as hard as he liked. All but forty years of age, and he had never once been "in trouble," never once. Forty years, handicapped as he was, and still able to look a constable in the face. Big red chaps, all muscle and beef—easy enough for them to get a living. Ugly devils, too, most of them; whilst he—well, he hadn't quite the looks of a few years ago, but didn't that girl with the blue feather turn to glance at him a second time in Old Street last night?

If only he could find Mrs. Billings again; that was what he wished. The Fulham girl was dead long since, and in the end she had come to treat him meanly. Perhaps she couldn't help it. But he felt sure Mrs. Billings was alive somewhere, and in good circumstances. Ah, she was the only one he ever really cared for. And if she knew what he had come to—that his home was by the kerb, and his sleeping-place in a beastly hole by Old Street, how it would hurt her! As likely as not, her husband had really begun to suspect; that accounted, perhaps, for her disappearance from the old neighbourhood, seventeen years ago. If only he could meet her again—just to talk of times gone by!

"Collar studs, three a penny. Collar studs, a penny for three."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.