The Test (Ridge)
By W. PETT RIDGE
"AND now," said Miss Hazlewood, glancing at her reflection in a shop window, as the omnibus went down King's Road, "suppose we leave off talking nonsense, and take a serious view of matters. Would you care to be introduced to my people?"
"In answer to your esteemed favour," said young Mr. Manners, "I beg to state that few of the remarks exchanged between us can be correctly described as nonsense. Sentiment, yes. Romance, yes. Love, yes. But nonsense, certainly no. Regarding the second paragraph of your communication, I am willing to take any view proposed by you. As to the third, I have never before heard any allusions to your relatives."
"There is a reason for that." She checked a sigh and gazed ahead thoughtfully. "But we have known each other now for over six weeks——"
"Seems more like six minutes."
"And I think it would be as well for you to brace yourself up to meet them."
"You talk," remarked the young man, "as though it were going to be in the nature of a trying ordeal."
"Some people find them a little difficult," said Miss Hazlewood. "We'll get down at the Town Hall."
"It occurs to me it might be a shrewd and commendable act to give our patronage, instead, to the first house over the way. And if on this occasion you will allow me, my affluent and wage-earning sweetheart, to pay for the two tickets——"
"We have discussed that already," she interrupted. "I earn very good money in Oxford Street—more than you do Westminster way. There is no reason why I should be an expense to you. Apart from that, we are not going to the Chelsea Palace this evening. We are going to a different sort of entertainment. We shall see whether you find it equally amusing."
"My warmest thanks," he said, "for the pains you are taking on my behalf. I have sometimes read of this sort of experience, but I have not hitherto had to undergo it."
She looked at him affectionately and, for a moment only, hesitated.
"You've got to go through with the job, my lad," she declared, "sooner or later, and I have decided that it is to be sooner. Come along!"
They walked along the south side of King's Road, crossed Oakley Street, and presently found themselves in Poulton Street. On the way Miss Hazlewood explained, with something less than her usual business-like self-possession, that her folk were plain folk, and, being plain folk, made no attempt to put on the veneer of courtesy towards strangers. The mind was sound, but, in the general opinion, the deportment scarcely reached perfection. Miss Hazlewood admitted she had, on occasions, taken friends to the house, and they had come away announcing to her a definite intention not to repeat the visit even if offered all the gold held by the Bank of England.
"Didn't you say they lived in Poulton Street?" he asked suddenly.
"Danvers Street," she said, "and I have not hitherto mentioned the address. What made you think of Poulton Street?"
Her companion was about to make an urgent plea for exemption, when a hand gave salutation from a window in Danvers Street, and the owner disappeared quickly in order to open the front door. From that moment Mr. Manners offered no protests.
"Well, Gertie," said the thin woman, in mournful tones, "got another young chap at last, then. Hasn't been for the want of trying that you ain't caught one before. Bring him in and let's have a look."
"This is Fred, mother," said the girl. "Fred, this is mother."
The lady of the house rubbed palm on apron as a preliminary to a hearty and determined shake of the hands. She assured the young man that he was as welcome as the flowers in May, but cautioned him not to expect too much hospitality, for if he did, then he was bound to know disappointment. Times, she said, leading the way to the front room, were not what times had been. The years when the family kept a good table, and took beer with supper every night of their lives, were now gone, and she saw no prospect that they would ever return. Her husband, she hinted, felt the deprivation less acutely, because he was able to get his drink at licensed premises where, owing to the fact that he had once been prominent in boxing circles, he rarely found himself called on to pay for his own refreshment.
"You'll find my husband very entertaining," she went on, "—set down, both of you, if you can find chairs you can trust—when he comes in, but if I was you, young man, I wouldn't contradict him. Gertie's father can't bear being contradicted. If he's unable to find words to answer you, he doubles his fist, and then everybody has to look out for 'emselves. He don't stop to think, mind you. He jest lets fly."
"I make no doubt," said Mr. Manners pleasantly, "that he and I will get along well enough together. One has to make allowances."
"I'd rather," she urged, "that you didn't give him anything, mister. If you want to make a loan of any kind, hand it over to me. Don't give to him, whatever you do, or else——"
"Mother, mother!" pleaded the girl anxiously.
"Gertie," ordered the elder woman, with solemnity, "be respectful to your parents. Don't you know what the Bible says about honouring your father and mother? Very well, then. Take care I don't have to speak to you twice; otherwise, you'll know it! Go into the kitchen and see if you can't do some washing up."
In the girl's absence the hostess spoke loudly and more freely. She informed the caller that the circumstance of her daughter sharing rooms with a young lady friend, instead of living under the control and superintendence of a good mother, was one of the most regrettable incidents in a life not free from mental anguish. She declared a serpent's tooth was nothing to it. Not, mind you, that Gertie, in herself, could be reckoned as altogether to blame. Oh, no. Any girl who progressed in the world felt naturally eager to mix with her betters, and in this desire the existence of home was forgotten. As a matter of accuracy, Gertie had not called, before the present moment, for three months—close upon three months ago that she paid a visit.
"Alone?" asked Mr. Manners politely.
The door of the sitting-room was open, and it appeared the door of the kitchen had not been closed. Consequently the young man received nothing more than a wink in reply to his question; the wink conveyed a suggestion that it would be well not to show extravagant inquisitiveness. The lady of the house proceeded to qualify some of the information communicated, and declared that Gertie was a dutiful child, as children went in these days, and perhaps, when she married, the old friendly relations might be taken up afresh. Certainly there would always be a knife and fork for her at Danvers Street, and a knife and fork for her husband; whether in addition there would be anything to eat was a detail in regard to which no guarantee could be made. It depended on office work.
"Are you," asked Mr. Manners, with elaborate surprise, "engaged in an office?"
"I am," she answered.
"If I'm not there to sweep up after the clerks have gone, who else would be likely to do it? As a matter o' fact, I haven't been long back from my work this evening," she went on. "Just at present I'm engaged in a building in Victoria Street."
"Oddly enough, I, too, am engaged in a building in Victoria Street."
"Bless my soul!" she exclaimed, in tones of exaggerated amazement. A thundering single knock came at the front door. "Gertie," she cried, "I'll let your poor father in. Go"—to Mr. Manners—"into the kitchen and have a little 'eart to 'eart talk with her, whilst I have a word with my old lad."
It seemed to Mr. Manners that the girl was not engaged with anything like violent industry on domestic occupations; she welcomed his arrival with a wan smile. The kitchen had two Windsor chairs, and from one he evicted a grey cat. From the other he removed a jug and a thick tumbler.
"And," asked Miss Hazlewood, with an effort at cheerfulness, "what do you think of mother?"
"She strikes me," he answered carefully, "as somewhat—how shall I say it?— somewhat unusual. Perhaps the most unusual person I ever encountered."
"Wait until you see father."
"He is," she said definitely.
"I suppose," he remarked, "it would not be necessary, when we are married, to see a great deal of them?"
"They would scarcely be daily visitors, but, of course, filial respect has to be thought of. You don't, I hope, ask me to ignore them altogether?"
"We can discuss that later."
"No!" declared Miss Hazlewood, with resolution. "We must discuss it now. I might have kept the two in concealment, but I preferred you should know them, and ascertain for yourself whether or not it affected your proposal to me. It's not too late to back out."
"Gertrude mine," he said, "you are now talking as they talk at Colney Hatch. All the same, I am bound to admit that your maternal parent is not exactly my ideal of a mother-in-law. I can imagine we should not be too well pleased if, when we were entertaining friends, she suddenly barged in."
"Take time to consider it," begged the girl. "I don't want you to do anything you will be sorry for afterwards."
"What I can't quite understand is why, earning the excellent salary you do, you fail to make them adequate grants that would permit——"
The lady of the house apologised for interrupting, and announced that her husband was now ready to give an interview to the young gentleman. "I've told him all about you," she said elatedly, "and you'll find him, sir, as nice as nice can be."
The large man offered to Mr. Manners an enormous hand, saying, "Put it there!" and inflicted a grip which made the visitor wish that less cordiality had been shown. They sat opposite each other, and the large man rested an elbow on an irresponsible round table that leaned over at his pressure. Mr. Manners tendered a cigarette case.
"I've smoked shag all my life," declared the other firmly, "and shag I shall continue to smoke so long as I have the 'ealth and the strength to dror at a pipe. After you with that match, gov'nor." He lighted up. "Now, then"—leaning more heavily on the table—"we don't want no quarrelling, we don't want no disputatingness, we don't want no upset of any description whatsoever. All we want is to know whether you're a-going to act fair and square towards our Gladys."
"Gertrude," corrected the young man.
"If I like to call her Gladys for short"—he spoke with grim deliberation—"do you fancy you're the chap to stop me? Bo you think, for a single moment, I'm going to allow a mere whipper-snapper like you——"
"Keep a civil tongue," ordered young Manners sharply.
"What else am I doing?"
"Being as grossly offensive," he explained, "as you can be."
"You ain't seen me at my best, gov'nor," said the large man, rather taken aback, "or you wouldn't say that. When I make up my mind to be what you call grossly offensive, I'm in the 'abit of using language that turns the air blue for miles. I rec'lect once, when a 'chap was brought 'ere as you are being brought now——" He stopped abruptly.
"Try to comprehend this," directed Manners. "Arouse your sluggish brain and——"
"Now, who's being grossly offensive?"
"And realise that I am not going to allow you to talk to me as you have talked to others. You will speak respectfully, and you will speak decently."
"But see how you're 'andicapping me!" pleaded the man. "All very well for parties of education like yourself to do without what is termed language, but I've got no other way of expressing myself."
"Then remain silent," ordered Manners.
"Sooner than do that, I'd offer to fight you, 'ere and now."
"I'm ready," said the young man.
He took off his jacket. The large man watched intently as links were undone and a sleeve rolled back.
"There's something about you, gov'nor," he said deferentially, "that I admire. You've got pluck, you have. On the other 'and, I've got the science. That's where I should have you, once we cleared the room for a set-to."
"You are over-fat," said Manners, "and over-flabby. It must be years since you put the gloves on."
"I had to give it up," he said, "owing to a weak 'eart."
"Your heart may be weak, but I'll bet it's sounder than your intelligence."
"Is that," asked the man, puzzled, "intended for a compliment? If so, I accept it, and I assure you, gov'nor, that my one desire is that we may become the best of friends. And now put your jacket on and set down, and let me 'ear all about you and this girl of ours. If I went over the mark in anything I said, you must put it down to a father's anxiety. She's our one ewe lamb, and if anything amiss occurred to her——" He found a grubby handkerchief, and in rubbing eyes expressed regret that he had no drink to tender either to his guest or to himself.
He amended this defect later by borrowing a shilling. As he went, he conveyed to Manners his good wishes, and spoke with relish of the treatment he intended to serve out to any beverages provided at the wedding breakfast.
"I like them," announced young Manners to his companion, as they waited for the omnibus later opposite the Town Hall. "A trifle crude, perhaps, but I like them."
"So glad, dear."
"In these times," continued Manners, "when affectation is discovered almost everywhere, it is refreshing to encounter folk who say what they mean and mean what they say."
"And you don't care for me the less because——"
"My love," he cried, "I can honestly say this—what has happened this evening has not in any way diminished my affection for you!"
At the offices in Victoria Street the following night, the charwoman looked in at the draughtsmen's room where Manners was working at a desk. She coughed to obtain his attention.
"Oh, yes!"—detaching himself from the task. "Of course. Settling day. Now, in the course of our previous discussion here, when I noticed that you gave Miss Hazlewood's name as a reference, you mentioned the sum she paid you for pretending, on occasions, to be her mother."
"Seven-and-six, sir. But with everything going up in price——"
"You gave me the wrong address. I had the fright of my life when I discovered we had gone through Poulton Street."
"We moved in a 'urry, sir," she explained, "owing to circumstances. But I managed to let the young lady know. You see, as I told you, she wanted to be loved, sir, not for the money she's earning, but for herself alone, and heretofore the visit has always put the gentleman off. And seeing that, by chance, I 'appened to be able to give you previous information, and seeing that we shan't get the job again——"
He handed over a Treasury note. "Don't bother about a receipt!" he said.