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THE JOSS: A REVERSION.

BOOK I.

UNCLE BENJAMIN.

(MARY BLYTH TELLS THE STORY.)

CHAPTER I.

FIRANDOLO'S.

I had had an aggravating day. In everything luck had been against me. I had got down late, and been fined for that. Then when I went into the shop I found I had forgotten my cuffs, and Mr. Broadley, who walks the fancy department, marked me sixpence for that. Just as I was expecting my call for dinner an old lady came in who kept me fussing about till my set came up—and only spent three and two-three after all; so when I did go down alone there was nothing left; and what was left was worse than cold. Though I was as hungry as I very well could be I could scarcely swallow as much as a mouthful; lukewarm boiled mutton cased in solidified fat is not what I care for. Directly after I came up, feeling hungrier than ever, Miss Patten did me out of the sale of a lot of sequin trimming on which there was a ninepenny spiff. I was showing it to a customer, and before I had had half a chance she came and took it clean out of my hands, and sold it right away. It made me crosser than ever. To crown it all, I missed three sales. One lady wanted a veil, and because we had not just the sort she wanted, when she walked out of the shop Mr. Broadley seemed to think it was my fault. He said he would mark me. When some people want a triangular spot you cannot put them off with a round one. It is no use your saying you can. And so I as good as told him.

Not twenty minutes afterwards a girl came in—a mere chit—who wanted some passementerie, beaded. She had brought a pattern. Somehow directly I saw it I thought there would be trouble. I hunted through the stock and found the thing exactly, only there were blue beads where there ought to have been green. As there were a dozen different coloured beads it did not really matter, especially as ours were a green blue, and hers were a blue green. But that chit would not see it. She would not admit that it was a match. When I called Mr. Broadley, and he pointed out to her that the two were so much alike that, at a little distance, you could not tell one from the other, she was quite short. She caught up her old pattern and took herself away. Then Mr. Broadley gave it to me hot. He reminded me that that was two sales I had missed, and that three, on one day, meant dismissal. I did not suppose they would go so far as that, but I did expect that, if I missed again, it would cost me half-a-crown, at least. So, of course, there was I, as it were, on tenterhooks, resolved that rather than I would let anyone else go without a purchase I would force some elevenpence three-farthing thing on her; if I had to pay for it myself. And there was Mr. Broadley hanging about just by my stand, watching me so that I felt I should like to stick my scissors into him.

But I was doomed to be done. Luck was clean against me. Just as we were getting ready to close in came an old woman—one of your red-faced sort, with her bonnet a little on one side of her head. She wanted some torchon lace. Now, strictly speaking, lace is not in my department, but as we are all supposed to serve through, and most of the others were engaged—it is extraordinary how, some nights, people will crowd into the shop just as we are getting ready to close—Mr. Broadley planted her on me. She was a nice old party. She did not know herself what she wanted, but seemed to think I ought to. So far as I could make out, what she really did want was a four shilling lace at fourpence—which we could not exactly supply. At last I called Mr. Broadley to see if he could make her out. On which she actually turned huffy, and declaring that I would not take the trouble to show her anything at all, in spite of all that we could do or say, she marched straight out. Then I had a wigging. Broadley let himself go, before them all. I could have cried—and almost did.

I was three-quarters of an hour late before I got into the street. Emily Purvis was tired of waiting, and Tom Cooper was in a red-hot rage.

“My dear,” began Emily, directly she saw me, “I hope you haven’t hurried. We’re only frozen to the bone.”

“That’s all right,” said Tom. “It’s just the sort of night to hang about this confounded corner.”

It was disagreeable weather. There was a nasty east wind, which seemed to cut right into one, and the pavements were wet and slimy. It all seemed of a piece. I knew Tom’s overcoat was not too thick, nor Emily’s jacket too warm either. When I saw Tom dancing about to keep himself warm, all at once something seemed to go over me, and I had to cry. Then there was a pretty fuss.

“Polly!” exclaimed Emily. “Whatever is the matter with you now?”

And there, in the open street, Tom put his arm about my waist. I told them all about it. You should have heard how they went on at Broadley. It did me good to listen, though I knew it would make no difference to him. They had not had the best of luck either. It seemed that it had been one of those days on which everything goes wrong with everyone. Emily had not got one single spiff, and Tom had had a quarrel with young Clarkson, who had called him Ginger to his face—and the colour of his hair is a frightfully delicate point with Tom. Tom had threatened to punch his head when they went upstairs. I begged and prayed him not to, but there was a gloomy air about him which showed that he would have to do something to relieve his feelings. I felt that punching young Clarkson’s head might do him good—and Clarkson no particular harm.

I do not think that either of us was particularly happy. The streets were nearly deserted. It was bitterly cold. Every now and then a splash of rain was driven into our faces.

“This is, for us, the age of romance,” declared Emily. “You mightn’t think so, but it is. At our age, the world should be alive with romance. We should be steeped in its atmosphere; drink it in with every breath. It should colour both our sleeping and our waking hours. And, instead of that, here we are shivering in this filthy horrid street.”

That was the way she was fond of talking. She was a very clever girl, was Emily, and could use big words more easily than I could little ones. She would have it that romance was the only thing worth living for, and that, as there is no romance in the world to-day, it is not worth while one’s living. I could not quite make out her argument, but that was what it came to so far as I could understand. I wished myself that there was a little more fun about. I was tired of the drapery.

“Shivering!” said Tom. “I’m not only shivering; I’m hungry too. Boiled mutton days I always am.”

“Hungry!” I cried. “I’m starving. I’ve had no dinner or tea, and I’m ready to drop.”

“No! You don’t mean that?”

I did mean it, and so I told him. What with having had nothing to eat, and being tired, and worried, and cold, it was all I could do to drag one foot after another. I just felt as if I was going to be ill. I could have kept on crying all the time.

“Have either of you got any money?” asked Tom. Neither Emily nor I had a penny. “Then I’ll tell you what I’ll do; we’ll all three of us go into Firandolo’s, and I’ll stand Sam.”

I knew he had only enough money to take him home on Sunday, because he had told me so himself the day before. Cardew & Slaughter’s is not the sort of place where they encourage you to spend Sunday in. He had been in last Sunday; and to stop in two Sundays running was to get yourself disliked; I have spent many a Sunday, loitering about the parks and the streets, living on a couple of buns, rather than go in to what they called dinner. And I knew that if we once set foot in Firandolo’s we should spend all he had. Yet I was so faint and hungry that I did not want much pressing. I could not find it in my heart to refuse.

Firandolo’s is something like a restaurant. Including vegetables, and sweets, and cheese, I have counted sixty-seven dishes on the bill of fare at one time, so that you have plenty of choice. For a shilling you can get a perfectly splendid dinner. And for sixpence you can get soup, and bread and cheese and butter; and they bring you the soup in a silver basin which is full to the brim.

At night it is generally crowded, but it was perhaps because the weather was so bad that there were only a few persons in the place when we went in. Directly after we entered someone else came in. He was a big man, and wore a reefer coat and a bowler hat. Seating himself at a table immediately opposite ours, taking off his hat, he wiped his forehead with an old bandanna handkerchief; though what there was to make him warm on a night like that was more than I could say. He had a fringe of iron-grey hair all round his head on a level with his ears. It stood out stiffly, like a sort of crown. Above and below it he was bald. He wore a bristly moustache, and his eyes were almost hidden by the bushiest eyebrows I had ever seen. I could not help noticing him, because I had a kind of fancy that he had been following us for some time. Unless I was mistaken he had passed me just as I had come out of Cardew & Slaughter’s; and ever since, whenever I looked round, I saw him somewhere behind us, as if he were keeping us in sight. I said nothing about it to the others, but I wondered, all the same. I did not like his looks at all. He seemed to me to be both sly and impudent; and though he pretended not to be watching us, I do not believe he took his eyes off us for a single moment.

I do not know what he had; he took a long time in choosing it, whatever it was. We had soup. It was lovely. Hot and tasty; just the very thing I wanted. It made me feel simply pounds better. But, after we had finished, something dreadful happened. The bill came altogether to one and three; we each of us had an extra bread. Tom felt in his pocket for the money. First in one, then in another. Emily and I soon saw that something was wrong, because he felt in every pocket he had. And he looked so queer.

“This is a bit of all right!” he gasped, just as we were beginning to wonder if he was all pockets. “Blessed if I have a single copper on me. I remember now that I left it in my box, so that I shouldn’t spend it.”

He looked at us, and we looked at him, and the waiter stood close by, looking at us all. And behind him was the proprietor, also with an observant eye. Emily and I were dumbfounded. Tom seemed as if he had not another word to say. Just as the proprietor was beginning to come closer, the stranger who had been following us got up and came to us across the room, all the time keeping his eyes on me.

“Pardon me if I take a liberty, but might I ask if I’m speaking to Miss Blyth?”

An odd voice he had; as if he were endeavouring to overcome its natural huskiness by speaking in a whisper. Of course my name is Blyth, and so I told him. But who he was I did not know from Adam. I certainly had never set eyes on him before. He explained, in a fashion; though his explanation came to nothing, after all.

“I knew a—a relative of yours. A pal, he was, of mine; great pals was him and me. So I naturally take an interest in a relative of his.” He turned to Tom. “If so be, sir, as you’ve left your purse at home, which is a kind of accident which might happen to any gentleman at any time, perhaps I might be allowed to pay your little bill.”

Tom had to allow him, though he liked it no more than I did. But we none of us wanted to be sent to prison for obtaining soup on false pretences, which I have been given to understand might have happened. Though, for my part, I would almost as soon have done that as be beholden to that big, bald-headed creature, who spoke as if he had lost his voice, and was doing all he knew to find it. When he had paid the one and three, and what were Tom’s feelings at seeing him do it was more than I could think, because I know his pride, the stranger came out with something else.

“And now, ladies, might I offer you a little something on my own. What do you say to a dozen oysters each, and a bottle of champagne? I believe they’re things ladies are fond of.”

He smiled—such a smile. It sounded tempting. I had never tasted oysters and champagne; though, of course, I had read of them in books, heaps of times. And it is my opinion that Emily would have said yes, if I had given her a chance. But not me. I stood up directly.

“Thank you; but I never touch oysters and champagne—at this time of night.”

“Might I—might I be allowed to offer a little something else. A Welsh rarebit, shall we say?”

Now, as it happens, a Welsh rarebit is a thing that I am fond of, especially when eaten with a glass of stout. I was still hungry, and my mouth watered at the prospect of some real nice, hot toasted cheese. It needed some resolution to decline. But I did. Hungry as I was, I felt as if I had had more than enough of him already.

“I am obliged to you, but I want nothing else. I have had all that I require.”

It was not true; but it seemed to me that it was a case in which truth would not exactly meet the situation. The stranger came close to me, actually whispering in my ear.

“May I hope, Miss Blyth, that you’ll remember me when—when you want a friend?”

I was as stand-offish as I could be.

“I don’t see how I can remember you when I don’t even know your name.”

He spoke to me across the back of his hand.

“My name is Rudd—Isaac Rudd; known to my friends, of whom, the Lord be praised, I’ve many, as Covey. It’s a—a term of endearment, so to speak, Miss Blyth.”

That anyone could apply a term of endearment to such a man as he seemed to be, was more than I believed to be possible.

“If you will let me take your address, Mr. Rudd, I will see that you have your one and three.”

“My address? Ah! Now there you have me. I don’t happen to have an—an address just now. In fact, I’m—I’m moving.”

We were going towards the door. I was beginning to fear that he intended to accompany us home. Nor did I see how we could prevent him, since he was at liberty to take such measures as he chose which would ensure the return of the money he had paid for us. But, as we drew near the entrance, he started back; and his demeanour changed in the most extraordinary way.

“Good-night,” he stammered, retreating farther and farther from us. “Don’t—don’t let me keep you, not—not for another moment.”

We went out. Directly we were in the open air Tom drew a long breath.

“Geewhillikins! A nice scrape I nearly got you in, and myself as well. A pretty hole we should have been in if that fellow hadn’t turned up in the very nick of time. He’s the sort I call a friend in need with a vengeance.”

Emily struck in.

“Polly, why wouldn’t you let us sample his oysters and champagne? Considering he’s a friend of yours, you seemed pretty short with him.”

“My dear, he’s not a friend of mine, nor ever could be; and as for his oysters and champagne, they’d have choked me if I’d touched them.”

“They wouldn’t have choked me, I can tell you that. There is some romance in oysters and champagne, and, as you know very well, romance is what I live for. There’s precious little comes my way; it seems hard it should be snatched from my lips just as I have a chance of tasting it.”

“Hollo! Who on earth——

It was from Tom the exclamation came. He stopped short, with his sentence uncompleted. I turned to see what had caused him to speak—to find myself face to face with the most singular-looking individual I had ever seen.