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NOBODIES AT HOME

BY

GEORGE GISSING.


III.
Of Good Address

THERE is no severer test of personal vanity than to view oneself in the great mirrors of a pretentious shop. The day had been when Mr. Benjamin Borrows shrank from this ordeal, like any common man; now he was grown so accustomed to the experience, and so thoroughly satisfied with its results, that he could scarce have recalled the time when his five foot six of diagonal frock-coat and grey trousers, set against whatever background, seemed less than the type of perfect man. His head did not count; he had never been known to speak with complacency of his features; he regarded the head, if at all, as a graceful culmination to the statuesque scheme of frock-coat and trousers. He would maintain, perhaps with a little self-consciousness, that in a shop-walker face mattered little or nothing. In this walk through life the requisites for notable success were two: a perfect figure—Nature's free gift to her favourites—and a good address, also largely a native endowment, but in its completeness the result of art.

Never was man more satisfied with himself. In his unemphasised thought, his natural, everyday view of things, he, Benjamin Borrows, simply represented the great establishment which for some years he had adorned. The firm was nothing—a mere name on the tongue of the public or a signature on cheques. When the doors swung open it was he who moved gracefully forward; he, who, like an urbane host, welcomed the guests to his counters. To be sure, he did not literally stand alone in his function; practically the other shop-walkers had no existence for him. His was the department of most importance. When fashionable ladies thought of the shop, must it not undoubtedly be his figure that rose before their mental eyes?

He could afford to look upon rivals with tolerance, with magnanimity. His progress had .been smooth; step after step of advancement—what more natural from raw boyhood to his present pinnacle at the age of thirty-five. No miseries to look back upon, for he started with the advantage of parents comfortably off, and had not to lament a single indiscretion, such as often retard or wreck the aspiring shopman. Not one? Ah, well, it might have proved a rather awkward incident, but, as usual, fortune favoured him.

The story was this. Some six or seven years ago, ere yet his wisdom had matured, a less noble form of vanity took possession of him; he, the most cold-blooded and least extravagant of young men, began to pose before his fellows as a brilliant example of immorality. At that time, there shone in the London music-halls a star whose name was Miss Effie Dover; her portraits illumined the windows of public-houses; her songs echoed from a million lips. Lovely she was not, but her figure, displayed with fine audacity, obscured defects of visage. The rumour ran that a certain notorious young peer took a special interest in her virtue. Now Benjamin Borrows, in expansive mood, one day confided to a friend that he knew Miss Dover; that he knew her very well indeed; that, in point of fact, he occasionally called upon her at unconventional hours. When this was deemed incredible, and made a subject of mockery, Mr. Borrows smiled. So confident was the smile, so supremely fatuous, that his friend's scepticism suffered a shock.

"Look here," said the doubter, at length. "I'll bet you a quid to a halfpenny that if you send in your card when she's singing at the Oxford she won't see you."

"Done, my boy," returned Borrows quietly

And that very evening the two repaired together to the doors of the music-hall, where Mr. Borrows, in his friend's sight scribbled on a visiting-card: "Let me see you for a moment after your turn." The card was sent in, and after a brief delay Mr. Borrows, by special summons, followed it. More than that, presently he came forth again escorting Miss Dover, led her to the waiting brougham, chatted with friendly smiles at the door of the vehicle, and, as it drove off, turned to his gasping acquaintance—

"A quid, if you please, my dear fellow."

The loser remarked that it was a rummy go, and, though under pledge of secrecy, told everything to other young men of the shop. Mr. Borrows enjoyed a singular fame, very sweet to his mind at that stage of development. Yet he rejoiced with trembling. Should this matter reach the ears of his employers they might not improbably regard it as unbusinesslike, they might feel called upon to speak with him on the subject. In which case, he would suffer peculiar ignominy.

Shortly after, Miss Effie Dover left England to fulfil a foreign engagement, and from abroad came the news of her sudden death. Benjamin Borrows could never again be induced to speak of her—perhaps a natural reserve, seeing that the girl was his sister.

The sole indiscretion with which his memory charged itself.

Nowadays, as for some years past, he lived with his aged mother in a little house at Stamford Hill, fulfilling many filial duties, and in secret contemplating matrimony. To what brilliant alliance did he aspire?

For a long time he had been intimate with a humble family named Rocket, small tradespeople in a northern suburb; about once a month he paid them a Sunday visit, condescended to sit at their tea-table, and occasionally to share their supper. It by no means appeared that the cause of this assiduity was admiration for the only daughter, a young woman now midway in her twenties; yet Borrows was all but resolved to honour the family by marrying Jane Rocket. He never entertained a doubt of his success if, and whenever, he bowed to the proposal; he firmly believed that Miss Rocket regarded him with tenderness only equalled by her admiration. She would not dare to think of him as a possible husband; in her view, no doubt, he kept up his acquaintance with the family out of mere goodness, the loyalty of a man who will not forsake his old friends merely because he has risen in the world. The fact was that in this society Mr. Borrows felt himself entirely at ease; he had homely tastes, enjoyed a domestic atmosphere, and would never have dreamt of marrying any woman who was likely to waste his money or in any way regard herself as his superior. Jane Rocket he observed with close though marked scrutiny; saw and approved her economic disposition, her skill in simple cooking, her quiet taste in dress. She would make him an admirable wife—when it suited him to begin house-keeping. Little fear, it seemed to him, that another wooer might intervene. Presently, in a few months' time perhaps, he would permit himself the satisfaction of letting fall a significant word when he chanced to be alone with Jane; the timid joy with which she was bound to hear him would prove a pleasant flattery. It seem to him that she had shown a certain nervousness when even in an off-hand way he alluded to ladies of fashion, of title, with whom his distinguished position brought him into contact. Poor little Jane doubtless imagined that his life concealed many a romance; she probably pictured him with his ambitious thoughts fixed upon some highly ornamental person. Very gently would he break the truth to her—with every regard for her nerves.

Few men knew in such perfect combination the delights of self-importance and of a conscience thoroughly at rest.

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