The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll/Chapter 33
THE ABASEMENT OF MR. HOOPDRIVER
On Monday morning the two fugitives found themselves breakfasting at the Golden Pheasant in Blandford. They were in the course of an elaborate doubling movement through Dorsetshire towards Ringwood, where Jessie anticipated an answer from her schoolmistress friend. By this time they had been nearly sixty hours together, and you will understand that Mr. Hoopdriver's feelings had undergone a considerable intensification and development. At first Jessie had been only an impressionist sketch upon his mind, something feminine, active, and dazzling, something emphatically "above" him, cast into his company by a kindly fate. His chief idea, at the outset, as you know, had been to live up to her level, by pretending to be more exceptional, more wealthy, better educated, and, above all, better born than he was. His knowledge of the feminine mind was almost entirely derived from the young ladies he had met in business, and in that class (as in military society and among gentlemen's servants) the good old tradition of a brutal social exclusiveness is still religiously preserved. He had an almost intolerable dread of her thinking him a 'bounder.' Later he began to perceive the distinction of her idiosyncracies. Coupled with a magnificent want of experience was a splendid enthusiasm for abstract views of the most advanced description, and her strength of conviction completely carried Hoopdriver away. She was going to Live her Own Life, with emphasis, and Mr. Hoopdriver was profoundly stirred to similar resolves. So soon as he grasped the tenor of her views, he perceived that he himself had thought as much from his earliest years. "Of course," he remarked, in a flash of sexual pride, "a man is freer than a woman. End in the Colonies, y'know, there isn't half the Conventionality you find in society in this country."
He made one or two essays in the display of unconventionality, and was quite unaware that he impressed her as a narrow-minded person. He suppressed the habits of years and made no proposal to go to church. He discussed church-going in a liberal spirit. "It's jest a habit," he said, "jest a custom. I don't see what good it does you at all, really." And he made a lot of excellent jokes at the chimney-pot hat, jokes he had read in the Globe 'turnovers' on that subject. But he showed his gentle breeding by keeping his gloves on all through the Sunday's ride, and ostentatiously throwing away more than half a cigarette when they passed a church whose congregation was gathering for afternoon service. He cautiously avoided literary topics, except by way of compliment, seeing that she was presently to be writing books.
It was on Jessie's initiative that they attended service in the old-fashioned gallery of Blandford church. Jessie's conscience, I may perhaps tell you, was now suffering the severest twinges. She perceived clearly that things were not working out quite along the lines she had designed. She had read her Olive Schreiner and George Egerton, and so forth, with all the want of perfect comprehension of one who is still emotionally a girl. She knew the thing to do was to have a flat and to go to the British Museum and write leading articles for the daily papers until something better came along. If Bechamel (detestable person) had kept his promises, instead of behaving with unspeakable horridness, all would have been well. Now her only hope was that liberal-minded woman, Miss Mergle, who, a year ago, had sent her out, highly educated, into the world. Miss Mergle had told her at parting to live fearlessly and truly, and had further given her a volume of Emerson's Essays and Motley's "Dutch Republic," to help her through the rapids of adolescence.
Jessie's feelings for her stepmother's household at Surbiton amounted to an active detestation. There are no graver or more solemn women in the world than these clever girls whose scholastic advancement has retarded their feminine coquetry. In spite of the advanced tone of 'Thomas Plantagenet's' anti-marital novel, Jessie had speedily seen through that amiable woman's amiable defences. The variety of pose necessitated by the corps of 'Men' annoyed her to an altogether unreasonable degree. To return to this life of ridiculous unreality—unconditional capitulation to 'Conventionality' was an exasperating prospect. Yet what else was there to do?
You will understand, therefore, that at times she was moody (and Mr. Hoopdriver respectfully silent and attentive) and at times inclined to eloquent denunciation of the existing order of things. She was a Socialist, Hoopdriver learnt, and he gave a vague intimation that he went further, intending, thereby, no less than the horrors of anarchism. He would have owned up to the destruction of the Winter Palace indeed, had he had the faintest idea where the Winter Palace was, and had his assurance amounted to certainty that the Winter Palace was destroyed. He agreed with her cordially that the position of women was intolerable, but checked himself on the verge of the proposition that a girl ought not to expect a fellow to hand down boxes for her when he was getting the 'swap' from a customer. It was Jessie's preoccupation with her own perplexities, no doubt, that delayed the unveiling of Mr. Hoopdriver all through Saturday and Sunday. Once or twice, however, there were incidents that put him about terribly—even questions that savoured of suspicion.
On Sunday night, for no conceivable reason, an unwonted wakefulness came upon him. Unaccountably he realised he was a contemptible liar. All through the small hours of Monday he reviewed the tale of his falsehoods, and when he tried to turn his mind from that, the financial problem suddenly rose upon him. He heard two o'clock strike, and three. It is odd how unhappy some of us are at times, when we are at our happiest.
"Good morning, Madam," said Hoopdriver, as Jessie came into the breakfast room of the Golden Pheasant on Monday morning, and he smiled, bowed, rubbed his hands together, and pulled out a chair for her, and rubbed his hands again.
She stopped abruptly, with a puzzled expression on her face. "Where have I seen that before?" she said.
"The chair?" said Hoopdriver, flushing.
She came forward and shook hands with him, looking the while curiously into his face. "And—Madam?"
"It's a habit," said Mr. Hoopdriver, guiltily. "A bad habit. Calling ladies Madam. You must put it down to our colonial roughness. Out there—up country—y'know—the ladies—so rare—we call 'em all Madam."
"You have some funny habits, brother Chris," said Jessie. "Before you sell your diamond shares and go into society, as you say, and stand for Parliament—What a fine thing it is to be a man!—you must cure yourself. That habit of bowing as you do, and rubbing your hands, and looking expectant."
"It's a habit."
"I know. But I don't think it a good one. You don't mind my telling you?"
"Not a bit. I'm grateful."
"I'm blessed or afflicted with a trick of observation," said Jessie, looking at the breakfast table. Mr. Hoopdriver put his hand to his moustache and then, thinking this might be another habit, checked his arm and stuck his hand into his pocket. He felt juiced awkward, to use his private formula. Jessie's eye wandered to the armchair, where a piece of binding was loose, and, possibly to carry out her theory of an observant disposition, she turned and asked him for a pin.
Mr. Hoopdriver's hand fluttered instinctively to his lappel, and there, planted by habit, were a couple of stray pins he had impounded.
"What an odd place to put pins!" exclaimed Jessie, taking it.
"It's 'andy," said Mr. Hoopdriver. "I saw a chap in a shop do it once."
"You must have a careful disposition," she said, over her shoulder, kneeling down to the chair.
"In the centre of Africa—up country, that is—one learns to value pins," said Mr. Hoopdriver, after a perceptible pause. "There weren't over many pins in Africa. They don't lie about on the ground there." His face was now in a fine, red glow. Where would the draper break out next? He thrust his hands into his coat pockets, then took one out again, furtively removed the second pin and dropped it behind him gently. It fell with a loud 'ping' on the fender. Happily she made no remark, being preoccupied with the binding of the chair.
Mr. Hoopdriver, instead of sitting down, went up to the table and stood against it, with his finger-tips upon the cloth. They were keeping breakfast a tremendous time. He took up his rolled serviette, looked closely and scrutinisingly at the ring, then put his hand under the fold of the napkin and examined the texture, and put the thing down again. Then he had a vague impulse to finger his hollow wisdom tooth—happily checked. He suddenly discovered he was standing as if the table was a counter, and sat down forthwith. He drummed with his hand on the table. He felt dreadfully hot and self-conscious.
"Breakfast is late," said Jessie, standing up. "Isn't it?"
Conversation was slack. Jessie wanted to know the distance to Ringwood. Then silence fell again. Mr. Hoopdriver, very uncomfortable and studying an easy bearing, looked again at the breakfast things and then idly lifted the corner of the tablecloth on the ends of his fingers, and regarded it. "Fifteen three," he thought, privately.
"Why do you do that?" said Jessie.
"What?" said Hoopdriver, dropping the tablecloth convulsively.
"Look at the cloth like that. I saw you do it yesterday, too."
Mr. Hoopdriver's face became quite a bright red. He began pulling his moustache nervously. "I know," he said. "I know. It's a queer habit, I know. But out there, you know, there's native servants, you know, and—it's a queer thing to talk about—but one has to look at things to see, don't y'know, whether they're quite clean or not. It's got to be a habit."
"How odd!" said Jessie.
"Isn't it?" mumbled Hoopdriver.
"If I were a Sherlock Holmes," said Jessie, "I suppose I could have told you were a colonial from little things like that. But anyhow, I guessed it, didn't I?"
"Yes," said Hoopdriver, in a melancholy tone, "you guessed it."
Why not seize the opportunity for a neat confession, and add, "unhappily in this case you guessed wrong." Did she suspect? Then, at the psychological moment, the girl bumped the door open with her tray and brought in the coffee and scrambled eggs.
"I am rather lucky with my intuitions, sometimes," said Jessie.
Remorse that had been accumulating in his mind for two days surged to the top of his mind. What a shabby liar he was!
And, besides, he must sooner or later, inevitably, give himself away.
Mr. Hoopdriver helped the eggs and then, instead of beginning, sat with his cheek on his hand, watching Jessie pour out the coffee. His ears were a bright red, and his eyes bright. He took his coffee cup clumsily, cleared his throat, suddenly leant back in his chair, and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "I'll do it," he said aloud.
"Do what?" said Jessie, looking up in surprise over the coffee pot. She was just beginning her scrambled egg.
"Miss Milton—I'm a liar."
He put his head on one side and regarded her with a frown of tremendous resolution. Then in measured accents, and moving his head slowly from side to side, he announced, "Ay'm a deraper."
"You're a draper? I thought—"
"You thought wrong. But it's bound to come up. Pins, attitude, habits—It's plain enough."I'm a draper's assistant let out for a ten-days holiday. Jest a draper's assistant. Not much, is it? A counter-jumper."
"A draper's assistant isn't a position to be ashamed of," she said, recovering, and not quite understanding yet what this all meant.
"Yes, it is," he said, "for a man, in this country now. To be just another man's hand, as I am. To have to wear what clothes you are told, and go to church to please customers, and work—There's no other kind of men stand such hours. A drunken bricklayer's a king to It."
"But why are you telling me this now?"
"It's important you should know at once."
"But, Mr. Benson—"
"That isn't all. If you don't mind my speaking about myself a bit, there's a few things I'd like to tell you. I can't go on deceiving you. My name's not Benson. Why I told you Benson, I don't know. Except that I'm a kind of fool. Well—I wanted somehow to seem more than I was. My name's Hoopdriver."
"And that about South Africa—and that lion."
"And the discovery of diamonds on the ostrich farm. Lies too. And all the reminiscences of the giraffes—lies too. I never rode on no giraffes. I'd be afraid."
He looked at her with a kind of sullen satisfaction. He had eased his conscience, anyhow. She regarded him in infinite perplexity. This was a new side altogether to the man. "But why," she began.
"Why did I tell you such things? I don't know. Silly sort of chap, I expect. I suppose I wanted to impress you. But somehow, now, I want you to know the truth."
Silence. Breakfast untouched. "I thought I'd tell you," said Mr. Hoopdriver. "I suppose it's snobbishness and all that kind of thing, as much as anything. I lay awake pretty near all last night thinking about myself; thinking what a got-up imitation of a man I was, and all that."
"And you haven't any diamond shares, and you are not going into Parliament, and you're not—"
"All Lies," said Hoopdriver, in a sepulchral voice. "Lies from beginning to end. 'Ow I came to tell 'em I don't know."
She stared at him blankly.
"I never set eyes on Africa in my life," said Mr. Hoopdriver, completing the confession. Then he pulled his right hand from his pocket, and with the nonchalance of one to whom the bitterness of death is passed, began to drink his coffee.
"It's a little surprising," began Jessie, vaguely.
"Think it over," said Mr. Hoopdriver. "I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart."
And then breakfast proceeded in silence. Jessie ate very little, and seemed lost in thought. Mr. Hoopdriver was so overcome by contrition and anxiety that he consumed an extraordinarily large breakfast out of pure nervousness, and ate his scrambled eggs for the most part with the spoon that belonged properly to the marmalade. His eyes were gloomily downcast. She glanced at him through her eyelashes. Once or twice she struggled with laughter, once or twice she seemed to be indignant.
"I don't know what to think," she said at last. "I don't know what to make of you—brother Chris. I thought, do you know? that you were perfectly honest. And somehow—"
"I think so still."
"Honest—with all those lies!"
"I don't," said Mr. Hoopdriver. "I'm fair ashamed of myself. But anyhow—I've stopped deceiving you."
"I thought," said the Young Lady in Grey, "that story of the lion—"
"Lord!" said Mr. Hoopdriver. "Don't remind me of that."
"I thought, somehow, I felt, that the things you said didn't ring quite true." She suddenly broke out in laughter, at the expression of his face. "Of course you are honest," she said. "How could I ever doubt it? As if I had never pretended! I see it all now."
Abruptly she rose, and extended her hand across the breakfast things. He looked at her doubtfully, and saw the dancing friendliness in her eyes. He scarcely understood at first. He rose, holding the marmalade spoon, and took her proffered hand with abject humility. "Lord!" he broke out, "if you aren't enough—but there!"
"I see it all now." A brilliant inspiration had suddenly obscured her humour. She sat down suddenly, and he sat down too. "You did it," she said, "because you wanted to help me. And you thought I was too Conventional to take help from one I might think my social inferior."
"That was partly it," said Mr. Hoopdriver.
"How you misunderstood me!" she said.
"You don't mind?"
"It was noble of you. But I am sorry," she said, "you should think me likely to be ashamed of you because you follow a decent trade."
"I didn't know at first, you see," said Mr. Hoopdriver.
And he submitted meekly to a restoration of his self-respect. He was as useful a citizen as could be,—it was proposed and carried,—and his lying was of the noblest. And so the breakfast concluded much more happily than his brightest expectation, and they rode out of ruddy little Blandford as though no shadow of any sort had come between them.
As they were sitting by the roadside among the pine trees half-way up a stretch of hill between Wimborne and Ringwood, however, Mr. Hoopdriver reopened the question of his worldly position.
"Ju think," he began abruptly, removing a meditative cigarette from his mouth, "that a draper's shop-man is a decent citizen?"
"When he puts people off with what they don't quite want, for instance?"
"Need he do that?""Salesmanship," said Hoopdriver. "Wouldn't get a crib if he didn't.—It's no good your arguing. It's not a particularly honest nor a particularly useful trade; it's not very high up; there's no freedom and no leisure—seven to eight-thirty every day in the week; don't leave much edge to live on, does it?—real workmen laugh at us and educated chaps like bank clerks and solicitors' clerks look down on us. You look respectable outside, and inside you are packed in dormitories like convicts, fed on bread and butter and bullied like slaves. You're just superior enough to feel that you're not superior. Without capital there's no prospects; one draper in a hundred don't even earn enough to marry on; and if he does marry, his G. V. can just use him to black boots if he likes, and he daren't put his back up. That's drapery! And you tell me to be contented. Would you be contented if you was a shop girl?"
She did not answer. She looked at him with distress in her brown eyes, and he remained gloomily in possession of the field.
Presently he spoke. "I've been thinking," he said, and stopped.
She turned her face, resting her cheek on the palm of her hand. There was a light in her eyes that made the expression of them tender. Mr. Hoopdriver had not looked in her face while he had talked. He had regarded the grass, and pointed his remarks with red-knuckled hands held open and palms upwards. Now they hung limply over his knees.
"Well?" she said.
"I was thinking it this morning," said Mr. Hoopdriver.
"Of course it's silly."
"It's like this. I'm twenty-three, about. I had my schooling all right to fifteen, say. Well, that leaves me eight years behind.—Is it too late? I wasn't so backward. I did algebra, and Latin up to auxiliary verbs, and French genders. I got a kind of grounding."
"And now you mean, should you go on working?"
"Yes," said Mr. Hoopdriver. "That's it. You can't do much at drapery without capital, you know. But if I could get really educated. . . . I've thought sometimes . . ."
"Why not?" said the Young Lady in Grey.
Mr. Hoopdriver was surprised to see it in that light. "You think? "he said.
"Of course. You are a Man. You are free—" She warmed. "I wish I were you to have the chance of that struggle."
"Am I Man enough?" said Mr. Hoopdriver aloud, but addressing himself. "There's that eight years," he said to her.
"You can make it up. What you call educated men—They're not going on. You can catch them. They are quite satisfied. Playing golf, and thinking of clever things to say to women like my stepmother, and dining out. You're in front of them already in one thing. They think they know everything. You don't. And they know such little things."
"Lord!" said Mr. Hoopdriver. "How you encourage a fellow!"
"If I could only help you," she said, and left an eloquent hiatus. He became pensive again.
"It's pretty evident you don't think much of a draper," he said abruptly.
Another interval. "Hundreds of men," she said, "have come from the very lowest ranks of life. There was Burns, a ploughman; and Hugh Miller, a stonemason; and plenty of others. Dodsley was a footman—"
"But drapers! We're too—sort of shabby genteel to rise. Our coats and cuffs might get crumpled—"
"Wasn't there a Clarke who wrote theology? He was a draper."
"There was one started a sewing cotton, the only one I ever heard tell of."
"Have you ever read 'Hearts Insurgent'?"
"Never," said Mr. Hoopdriver. He did not wait for her context, but suddenly broke out with an account of his literary requirements. "The fact is—I've read precious little. One don't get much of a chance, situated as I am. We have a library at business, and I've gone through that. Most Besant I've read, and a lot of Mrs. Braddon's and Rider Haggard and Marie Corelli—and, well—a Ouida or so. They're good stories, of course, and first-class writers, but they didn't seem to have much to do with me. But there's heaps of books one hears talked about, I haven't read."
"Don't you read any other books but novels?"
"Scarcely ever. One gets tired after business, and you can't get the books. I have been to some extension lectures, of course, '’Lizabethan Dramatists,' it was, but it seemed a little high-flown, you know. And I went and did wood-carving at the same place. But it didn't seem leading nowhere, and I cut my thumb and chucked it."
He made a depressing spectacle, with his face anxious and his hands limp. "It makes me sick," he said, "to think how I've been fooled with. My old schoolmaster ought to have a juiced hiding. He's a thief. He pretended to undertake to make a man of me, and he's stole twenty-three years of my life, filled me up with scraps and sweepings. Here I am! I don't know anything, and I can't do anything, and all the learning time is over."
"Is it?" she said; but he did not seem to hear her.
"My o' people didn't know any better, and went and paid thirty pounds premium—thirty pounds down—to have me made this. The G. V. promised to teach me the trade, and he never taught me anything but to be a Hand. It's the way they do with draper's apprentices. If every swindler was locked up—well, you'd have nowhere to buy tape and cotton. It's all very well to bring up Burns and those chaps, but I'm not that make. Yet I'm not such muck that I might not have been better—with teaching. I wonder what the chaps who sneer and laugh at such as me would be if they'd been fooled about as I've been. At twenty-three—it's a long start."
He looked up with a wintry smile, a sadder and wiser Hoopdriver indeed than him of the glorious imaginings. "It's you done this," he said. "You're real. And it sets me thinking what I really am, and what I might have been. Suppose it was all different—"
"Make it different."
"Work. Stop playing at life. Face it like a man."
"Ah!" said Hoopdriver, glancing at her out of the corners of his eyes. "And even then—
"No! It's not much good. I'm beginning too late."
And there, in blankly thoughtful silence, that conversation ended.