Tales of the Thames/Marygold
WHEN I came round the bend which lies below Harts Wood Hill, it was plain to me that the Honourable Humphrey was not in his bed. Such a tow-row and a din I had not heard in Ye Daisy Belle these six months and more. Twenty carpenters these might well have been at work in the one cabin of that rotting old tub which was his home. No mock seaman upon a variety stage ever roared a more discordant song than the Honourable one then treated himself to. The aureola of light before his windows was worthy of a regatta.
Midnight was struck upon the clocks at Pangbourne as I rowed past the islands. A warming westerly wind had scattered the mists and conjured up a little ocean of bubblinig waves. The woods took the shape of castles and strongholds sett upon black hills; the wash of the water over the sedge grasses was a dirge, very mournful and lonely to hear. I had not looked to find company upon the Thames at such an hour, least of all the company of the Honourable one. Rare was the day when he could afford a candle against the dark; rare the occasion when he had not fuddled away his wits with any drink that he could get long before ten o'clock struck. But here he was at midnight hammering away like a blacksmith at his business; and so well possessed of his senses that he could remember the whole of a stanza.
In my astonishment at the discovery, I had let the skiff drift, and now she had run into a dark pool lying very black beneath the great chestnut-tree at the head of the reach. It was some minutes' work with the right scull to get her to the stream again; and when I had pulled up to Ye Daisy Belle the miscellaneous entertainment of music and wood-chopping was no longer to be heard. But all the blinds of the house-boat—for so it must be styled—were drawn up; and the Honourable one was plainly to be seen. I observed then that he had begged or borrowed, probably from the cottagers on the opposite shore, no less than four tin paraffin lamps; and with these to light him he was fairly occupied in the decoration of his saloon. Here and there upon the walls he had nailed a few of his own sketches—pretty suggestions of genius that were never more than suggestions. From the rail above his windows, a pair of yellow muslin curtains, woefully creased in the hanging, fluttered upon the freshening breeze. His dozen of crack-backed books, which lay usually face down upon the floor, were now dusted and set upon a rack. There was a great bunch of buttercups upon the table; another bunch of marsh marigold which he was then arranging in an old pewter pot brought down by him years ago from Oxford, as I knew. And as if all these things were not strange enough, his own attire was sufficiently ludicrous to serve a clown at a fair. For he wore nothing else than an old tattered dressing-gown and the relics of an opera-hat which had survived the epoch of his respectability.
He knew me at the first hail, and came running out upon his gangway, wearing no socks, but only affair of heelless carpet slippers."
"Jack," said he, "is that you?"
"My own self," said I.
"The very man I wanted," cried he, running back to the cabin. "I 've a present to make you. Catch that."
He threw something heavy into my skiff, and it hit me on the leg. When I had finished the whole of the expression thus drawn from me, I found that it was a bottle of Scotch whisky.
"Did you catch it?" he asked, appearing at the window again a moment later.
"With my shin," said I, "but what the——"
"Look out, there 's another coming," he went on, "two, three, four—one green Chartreuse and one cognac. Have you got it all aboard?"
"Humphrey," said I, unable to make anything out of it, "you 've been——"
"Exactly," said he, "I haven't touched a spoonful since six o'clock. I 've been being sober. Surprise you, eh? Well, come aboard and look round. Man, I 'm just a born carpenter."
Late as it was, I pulled the gig up to his steps and made fast the painter. There was such a strange suggestion of suppressed excitement about the always mysterious Humphrey that I determined to probe the matter there and then. And I had not been in his tiny saloon a minute when he told me the whole of it.
"Jack," said he, "do you remember Marygold?"
"What, the tow-haired girl in the 'fit-up' company?"
"Yes; but I don't call it that myself. I 'll show you her picture."
He led the way to the tiniest of little bed-rooms wherein a single candle was burning. The whole place had been scoured until its boards were as white as paper; the sheets upon the bed were new and of fine linen; a pretty pair of muslin curtains hung down from the windows; there was a big jar of purple orchis set upon the washstand. But the chief ornament of the apartment was a sketch in crayons of the lady I had styled the "tow-haired girl in the fit-up company." It was the first complete thing of Humphrey Duncan's I had ever seen. All else had been genius in drink. But the art of this was not to be denied. It was plain to a layman like myself. A work to call exclamations from critics—a work in which soul was to be read, the whole soul of a man breathed out in beauteous thoughts of shape and colour. And now it was hung in a dark wood frame over the little bed, and the eyes of the man were fixed upon it in surpassing love.
"Is it like her?" he asked, when some minutes had passed without a word.
"It is like what she might have been," said I, for the thing was almost an absurd ideal.
"I don't agree to that," said he, and there was some anger in his voice.
"But it 's obvious, my dear fellow," said I; "the woman never had those eyes."
"Jack," said he, suddenly becoming very serious, "don't speak of her like that. I 'm going to marry her to-morrow."
Any comment upon my lips stood dumb. If he had told me that he was going to hang himself, he could not have surprised me more. Even the soft note in his own voice was pitiable to hear. I knew then in his tipsy musings he had conjured up from a very slut of the theatre this ideal of purity and of grace; had made of a white face and a yellow wisp of hair this ethereal creature, who now looked down upon him from his canvas. And to-morrow night he would carry home the real to share this dismal cabin, this mite of a house-boat where alone he had a pillow for his head or a crust to eat. No effort of folly could have devised an enterprise more grotesque.
"Come," said he, still holding up the candle for me to see the face, "aren't you going to congratulate me?"
"To congratulate you—why I never thought of that, but, of course——"
"You don't," said he; "well, I 'll do what I can with the other thing."
He set down the light brusquely, and led the way back to his sitting-room, still full of the flowers for which he had been finding vases. I thought that he brushed some of these out of his way rather roughly; but he was only looking for his pipe, and when he had lighted it he sat in his one basket armchair and smoked furiously.
"Jack," said he, when I had watched him for some minutes, "you don't understand me. It would be odd if you did. What am I, in Heaven's name? Is there any poor devil on God's earth more lonely?"
I did not like to ask him whose fault that was, and presently he went on with it
"Very well, then; seeing no man cares the snap of his fingers for me, why should I care the snap of my fingers for any man? Is that logic or is it not?"
"It 's quite unanswerable," said I.
"Of course it is. You must know yourself what a good woman may be to any man. And why not to me?"
I felt a little shudder ripple upon me when he spoke of a "good woman," but I held my tongue.
"Why not to me," he rambled on, with the wandering thoughts of the dipsomaniac. "God knows, there 's little here to keep any man from himself! When she comes, Jack, it will be different."
"Let 's hope it will, old man."
"My bit will go farther with no slate at The Willows against me," he continued, "and if I can finish a picture or two, we 'll do very well. I 've made a good beginning to-night, you must admit."
"Capital! I sha'n't be able to walk for three days."
"And this time it 's business. You don't suppose I 'd break my word to her."
"She has your word, then?"
"Well, not exactly that. She never asked it, you see. But I 'm giving it her in intention, which is the same thing. That 's why I threw the liquor overboard."
"And you really meant what you said about to-morrow?"
"Meant it? Good God, I meant it with all my heart and soul! You may come to the church if you like."
"Thanks, but I 'm booked to fish the Kennet."
"Well, lend me your gig anyway; there 's no seat in my dinghy. I should like her to find things a bit smart, Jack. I 'm not much of a tidy man myself, and there isn't much here to please any woman. Still, I 've done something, and I 'll do more before morning. And when she 's here you 'll soon know it. It 's astonishing what a woman can do with a few yards of ribbon and a handful of flowers. I saw her room up at The Swan the other day, and it was a picture. A neater little thing does not breathe. Oh, it 's horrible to think of the life she's led with those ranting cads about her all all day. Thank God that will be done with to-morrow."
"Does she like the idea of having her home in a house-boat?" I ventured to ask.
He laughed merrily.
"That 's what I 've got to ask her," he said. "You see, she thinks I 'm staying up at the hotel in Goring, I 've kept the old ship as a surprise for her. But she knows I 'm a poor man: I wouldn't hide that from her, Jack."
"And she doesn't mind the prospect of living on a hundred a year?"
He looked a little pained.
"I don't put it to her quite like that. You must admit that I can make a few hundreds if I take to work seriously; and, of course, I shall do that now. There will be something to work for, and I must look ahead and think of the day when there may be more than two people to provide for here. Eh, old man, these things will happen."
"Of course they will. You 're right to be prudent. But it 's all very sudden, Humphrey. I didn't know you met her more than half-a-dozen times."
"Ah, there you 're wrong. I was down with her pretty well a fortnight at Aldershot, and after that at Hastings. We saw a good deal of each other in the winter. She 's a good girl, that I know, and I shall be a better man when I 'm married to her."
I did not dare, in answer to this earnest assurance, to tell him that I had my doubts; and after I had sat awhile listening to all his excited hopes, I remembered that it must be one o'clock, and rose to go. His last word was to remind me that he would want my gig at ten o'clock, the wedding being appointed for half-past ten at Whitchurch; and with that I rowed off to my own house-boat, then lying above Pangbourne. There was a heavy white mist now steaming in the reach, and the whole weight of the night seemed to lie cold upon the river, so that I was very glad to get into the cabin and to the supper which my man had not forgotten to spread upon the table. And when I had lighted my pipe, and had settled in the chair, I fell again to thinking of the Honourable Humphrey.
Humphrey Duncan his whole name was. The second son of Lord Yardley, the man's life had been a record of waste since the day they sent him clown from Merton for persistent drunkenness. When London had done with him, and there was not a Jew remaining from whom he could get a five-pound note, his friends came together for that which they called a final settlement of his case. They agreed to allow him one hundred pounds a year if he would submit to perpetual exile from town and all those old haunts wherein he had cut such a sorry figure. Since his thirtieth year—and that was thirty-six months ago—he had lived alone upon the miserable barge-like house-boat which he called Ye Daisy Belle. There, no man or woman came near him. Save for myself and such company as he found at the neighbouring inns, he was utterly alone. The solitude and the shame of his position added fire to his craving. A pleasant, big-hearted, by no means uncultured man when sober, he was now a confirmed dipsomaniac. Nothing but absolute confinement could have drawn him from the gulf into which he had plunged. An optimist would have given him a couple of years of life; a pessimist three months. And this was the man who was about to throw in his lot with a tow-haired chorus girl, and to begin life anew under the inspiration of her painted face.
From any point of view, this wild idea of Humphrey's seemed little less than a tragedy. The man had one foot in the grave; he was the victim of a mania which was in itself a disease and not a vice. What money he was possessed of sufficed barely for his own wants. It was horrible to contemplate the moment when he would carry home this chit of a girl to add to his burdens. That she would save him from himself was not to be thought of. The day for such a redemption was long past. Nor did I deceive myself with the hope that she was the kind of creature who could bring the smallest influence to bear upon any man. The more I thought of it, in fact, the more I pitied him. He was going to his death quick enough as it was; it was appalling to remember that a child of his might come to that desperate heritage of weakness and mania. His resolution to leave the drink alone could be nothing less than a farce. I had heard him take it a dozen times in a month. It heralded his Christmas debauch; it was the strength of his midsummer madness. And he had never to my knowledge held to it three days together. What hope, then, could there be for him under conditions of deeper poverty and new responsibilities?
These thoughts and others kept me from my bed that night. At four o'clock, when the sun rose, I was still smoking in my cabin. The picture of the lonely man working there to make his poor boat gay haunted me. With all his follies and repulsive weaknesses, there was in him that which men love in their friends. Hung about as he was with the dead branches of searching vices and wrecked hopes, a certain sap of nobility and of good-heartedness yet flowed in his veins. His fine figure and clear-cut face, still to be called handsome, unquestionably intellectual, only added to the pity of it. The exacting ideal he had conjured up out of the very dull reality of the theatre spoke of that tenderness and respect with which he had treated all women. I had never shut my eyes to the fact that I felt a sincere friendship for him; but what to do to help him in this, the last crisis of his life as it must be, I knew no more than the dead.
At a quarter past four o'clock, finding no answer to the enigma, I went upstairs and lay down in a steamer-chair. A warm westerly breeze had come up again with the sun, and the sweetness of the morning was exhilarating beyond experience. The light airs brought delicious perfumes on their breath; the field against which my ship was moored was ablaze with marsh-marigold; countless dusky purple snake's-heads gave colour to the waving grasses of the backwater. The very solitude, the lap of the little waves in the pool, the first warmth of a May sun, the note of birds in the near woods, the sport of the rising chub, the deserted towing-path, the shuttered cottages—all these helped to that sense of perfect rest which is the best of the river's unnumbered gifts. But the thought of the man yonder and of his tragedy kept me from sleep. I found myself saying, this thing must not be; I began to wonder what his plight would be a week, a month hence. Would his friends continue to pay him the pittance under these new conditions? How long would his Marygold suffer the hardships of her home? What would become of him when she went back to her old occupations? And yet, was it business of mine? Prudence answered, "No."
As I sat upon the roof of my ship, I could see Ye Daisy Belle moored up there where the river bends towards the islands. Smoke rising from the tin chimney of the kitchen told me that Humphrey was still awake. I beheld him presently carrying pots of ferns to the roof, and busy in his endeavour to mend the tattered awning. The flimsy curtains with which he had decorated his saloon now streamed out straight in the breeze. The man himself had put on an old Merton coat and white flannels. I was glad to see his activity, and to remember that all the drink he had aboard was safe in my own gig. He could be sober at any rate upon his wedding-day.
When I had watched him thus a little while, and had concluded that he must go on as he would for anything I could do, the strong air of morning got the better of me, and I slept in the chair. Humphrey himself eventually awoke me somewhere about the hour of half-past five. He had sculled himself down in his dinghy, and now hailed me with a strength of voice above the ordinary.
"Jack, ahoy! You lazy old beggar, get up, or I 'll shy a boot at you."
I rubbed my eyes and asked him what he wanted.
"Are you forgetting it 's my wedding-day," said he, "and you asleep when you should be wishing me luck? Look at the sunrise; isn't it beautiful? Jack, I feel twenty again."
He sprang upon the ladder and came up to me. His face was flushed and his eyes were very bright. I saw that he had changed his dress again, and wore the only black coat he had possessed for five years. A buttonhole of rosebuds helped him to smartness; but his patent leather boots were woefully seedy, and his shirt-cuffs were frayed beyond concealment.
"Old man," said he, when he had come up to me, "I haven't slept a wink all night for thinking of Marygold. I can't believe it 's true that she 's coming to me even now. That 's the way of it. Life has cheated me pretty often; but if it cheats me to-day, my God, I shall go mad! You can't know what that girl is to me; I tremble when I touch her hands. I don't believe there 's been a minute for a month past when I haven't seen her face near mine. It seems to be another world to think of her."
He went on in the same excited strain for some time, then suddenly reminded me of my promise to lend him the gig.
"I wouldn't fancy bringing her home in that dirty old tub, you see," said he, "and you can think that I 'd like to put the best side on things to-day. She 's coming over from Oxford by the nine fifteen, and we shall have a bit of a breakfast at the Elephant after. Her company was playing at Oxford last night, and she 's bringing over half-a-dozen of her friends to see her off. They 're not the kind of men you and I like, but that can't be helped to-day. I shall take care that she keeps out of their way after this. It 's pretty bad to remember that she was ever with such a lot, but what can you say? A girl can't starve, and she 's no people. It will be different when we 're together. And if she likes the old place, we 'll soon make it what it should be. If you 'll let me have the gig now, I could smarten it up with a few flowers against her coming. I 'm sure you 'll do this for me, Jack."
I told him that he might have the gig, and he hurried away to decorate her. He was so wound up that his hand shook while he fixed the stretcher; and it was then that I remembered the present he had made me overnight. The liquor still lay where he had tossed it, and I called out to him to hand it up to me.
"You'd better make a sort of bailiff of that," said I; "I'm rather jealous of my presents."
"Quite right," he cried; "I shall be the better without it."
With this he handed the stuff up to me, bottle by bottle, until there remained but one of cognac, of which the cork had been drawn. A glass of the spirit had been drunk, perhaps, and when he observed this, he paused.
"Don't you think I ought to have a little brandy in the house?" he asked.
His question struck upon my ear like a strange suggestion. I had only to command and he would leave the brandy with me. For a moment a whole freshet of reasoning rushed upon my brain. But I remained dumb.
"You see," he went on, "she might be ill. It would be cruel, don't you think, Jack, to have nothing about?"
"I—I never thought of that."
"Then I 'll take it. Good luck to you, old man. When I see you again, she 'll be my wife."
He rowed away rapidly, leaving me with unspoken words upon my lips. It was not until he was out of hail that the whole of the responsibility I had taken upon myself began to be a burden. Had I done well to let him go? Was there any happiness for him with this woman? Would marriage help him? Again, I reasoned as I had reasoned during the night; again, the answer was the same. I could only mutter, "God help him," and go to my bed!
At twelve o'clock, my man knocked upon my bed-room door, and told me that strange things were happening at Ye Daisy Belle.
"There 's two boat-loads of theatricals gone up the river, Sir," said he, "and now they 're calling for Mister Duncan. I rather fancy he don't hear 'em, Sir."
I jumped from my bunk and began to dress.
"Is there a lady with the party, Robert?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"I didn't see any of that kind," he replied; "there 's a woman in red——"
I interrupted him sharply.
"And Mr. Duncan?"
"Don't ask me that, Sir; you may guess how he is."
A few minutes later, I sculled to Ye Daisy Belle in Humphrey's dinghy. Half-a-dozen skiffs were drifting around the wretched hulk. In one of them the woman named Marygold was screeching coarse abuse with all her lungs. A blatant cad, in a long grey overcoat and a low hat, was hammering at the cabin door with a stick. Three more of the same order were swelling the chorus and consoling the girl. But the Honourable Humphrey lay insensible upon his sofa.
I turned the gang away with threats of the police, and then put the man to bed. Nor was the burden of my responsibility any longer a heavy one.