Tommy & Co. (Windsor Magazine, 1903-04)/Dick Danvers Comes to Life
No. VI—DICK DANVERS COMES TO LIFE
WILLIAM CLODD, mopping his brow, laid down the screwdriver, and stepping back, regarded the result of his labours with evident satisfaction.
“It looks like a bookcase,” said William Clodd. “You might sit in the room for half an hour and never know it wasn't a bookcase.”
What William Clodd had accomplished was this: he had had prepared, after his own design, what appeared to be four shelves laden with works suggestive of thought and erudition. As a matter of fact, it was not a bookcase, but merely a flat board, the books merely the backs of volumes that had long since found their way into the paper-mill. This artful deception William Clodd had screwed upon a cottage piano standing in the corner of the editorial office of Good Humour. Half a dozen real volumes piled upon the top of the piano completed the illusion. As William Clodd had proudly remarked, a casual visitor might easily have been deceived.
“If you had to sit in the room while she was practising mixed scales, you'd be quickly undeceived,” said the editor of Good Humour, one Peter Hope. He spoke bitterly.
“You are not always in,” explained Clodd. “There must be hours when she is here alone, with nothing else to do. Besides, you will get used to it after a while.”
“You, I notice, don't try to get used to it,” snarled Peter Hope. “You always go out the moment she commences.”
“A friend of mine,” continued William Clodd, “worked in an office over a piano-shop for seven years, and when the shop closed, it nearly ruined his business; couldn't settle down to work for want of it.”
“Why doesn't he come here?” asked Peter Hope. “The floor above is vacant.”
“Can't,” explained William Clodd. “He's dead.”
“I can quite believe it,” commented Peter Hope.
“It was a shop where people came and practised, paying sixpence an hour, and he had got to like it—said it made a cheerful background to his thoughts. Wonderful what you can get accustomed to.”
“What's the good of it?” demanded Peter Hope.
“What's the good of it!” retorted William Clodd indignantly. “Every girl ought to know how to play the piano. A nice thing if when her lover asks her to play something to him——”
“I wonder you don't start a matrimonial agency,” sneered Peter Hope. “Love and marriage—you think of nothing else.”
“When you are bringing up a young girl——” argued Clodd.
“But you're not,” interrupted Peter; “that's just what I'm trying to get out of your head. It is I who am bringing her up. And between ourselves, I wish you wouldn't interfere so much.”
“You are not fit to bring up a girl.”
“I've brought her up for seven years without your help. She's my adopted daughter, not yours. I do wish people would learn to mind their own business.”
“You've done very well——”
“Thank you,” said Peter Hope sarcastically. “It's very kind of you. Perhaps when you've time, you'll write me out a testimonial.”
“—up till now,” concluded the imperturbable Clodd. “A girl of eighteen wants to know something else besides mathematics and the classics. You don't understand them.”
“I do understand them,” asserted Peter Hope. “What do you know about them? You're not a father.”
“You've done your best,” admitted William Clodd in a tone of patronage that irritated Peter greatly; “but you're a dreamer; you don't know the world. The time is coming when the girl will have to think of a husband.”
“There's no need for her to think of a husband, not for years,” retorted Peter Hope. “And even when she does, is strumming on the piano going to help her?”
“I tink—I tink,” said Dr. Smith, who had hitherto remained a silent listener, “our young frent Clodd is right. You haf never quite got over your idea dat she was going to be a boy. You haf taught her de tings a boy should know.”
“You cut her hair,” added Clodd.
“I don't,” snapped Peter.
“You let her have it cut—it's the same thing. At eighteen she knows more about the ancient Greeks and Romans than she does about her own frocks.”
“De young girl,” argued the doctor, “what is she? De flower dat makes bright for us de garden of life, de gurgling brook dat murmurs by de dusty highway, de cheerful fire——”
“She can't be all of them,” snapped Peter, who was a stickler for style. “Do keep to one simile at a time.”
“Now you listen to plain sense,” said William Clodd. “You want—we all want—the girl to be a success all round.”
“I want her——” Peter Hope was rummaging among the litter on the desk. It certainly was not there. Peter pulled out a drawer-two drawers. “I wish,” said Peter Hope, “I wish sometimes she wasn't quite so clever.”
The old doctor rummaged among dusty files of papers in a corner. Clodd found it on the mantelpiece concealed beneath the hollow foot of a big brass candlestick, and handed it to Peter.
Peter had one vice—the taking in increasing quantities of snuff, which was harmful for him, as he himself admitted. Tommy, sympathetic to most masculine frailties, was severe, however, upon this one.
“You spill it upon your shirt and on your coat,” had argued Tommy. “I like to see you always neat. Besides, it isn't a nice habit. I do wish, dad, you'd give it up.”
“I must,” Peter had agreed. “I'll break myself of it. But not all at once—it would be a wrench; by degrees, Tommy, by degrees.”
So a compromise had been compounded. Tommy was to hide the snuff-box. It was to be somewhere in the room and to be accessible, but that was all. Peter, when self-control had reached the breaking-point, might try and find it. Occasionally, luck helping Peter, he would find it early in the day, when he would earn his own bitter self-reproaches by indulging in quite an orgy. But more often Tommy's artfulness was such that he would be compelled, by want of time, to abandon the search. Tommy always knew when he had failed by the air of indignant resignation with which he would greet her on her return. Then perhaps towards evening, Peter, looking up, would see the box open before his nose, above it, a pair of reproving black eyes, their severity counterbalanced by a pair of full red lips trying not to smile. And Peter, knowing that only one pinch would be permitted, would dip deeply.
“I want her,” said Peter Hope, feeling with his snuff-box in his hand more confidence in his own judgment, “to be a sensible, clever woman, capable of earning her own living and of being independent; not a mere helpless doll, crying for some man to come and take care of her.”
“A woman's business,” asserted Clodd, “is to be taken care of.”
“Some women, perhaps,” admitted Peter; “but Tommy, you know very well, is not going to be the ordinary type of woman. She has brains; she will make her way in the world.”
“It doesn't depend upon brains,” said Clodd. “She hasn't got the elbows.”
“They are not sharp enough. The last 'bus home on a wet night tells you whether a woman is capable of pushing her own way in the world. Tommy's the sort to get left on the kerb.”
“She's the sort,” retorted Peter, “to make a name for herself and to be able to afford a cab. Don't you bully me!” Peter sniffed self-assertiveness from between his thumb and finger.
“Yes, I shall,” Clodd told him, “on this particular point. The poor girl's got no mother.”
Fortunately for the general harmony the door opened at the moment to admit the subject of discussion.
“Got that Daisy Blossom advertisement out of old Blatchley,” announced Tommy, waving triumphantly a piece of paper over her head.
“No!” exclaimed Peter. “How did you manage it?”
“Asked him for it,” was Tommy's explanation.
“Very odd,” mused Peter; “asked the old idiot for it myself only last week. He refused it point-blank.”
Clodd snorted reproof. “You know I don't like your doing that sort of thing. It isn't proper for a young girl——”
“It's all right,” assured him Tommy; “he's bald!”
“That makes no difference,” was Clodd's opinion.
“Yes it does,” was Tommy's. “I like them bald.”
Tommy took Peter's head between her hands and kissed it, and in doing so noticed the tell-tale specks of snuff.
“Just a pinch, my dear,” explained Peter, “the merest pinch.”
Tommy took up the snuff-box from the desk. “I'll show you where I'm going to put it this time.” She put it in her pocket. Peter's face fell.
“What do you think of it?” said Clodd. He led her to the corner. “Good idea, ain't it?”
“Why, where's the piano?” demanded Tommy.
Clodd turned in delighted triumph to the others.
“Humbug!” growled Peter.
“It isn't humbug,” cried Clodd indignantly. “She thought it was a bookcase—anybody would. You'll be able to sit there and practise by the hour,” explained Clodd to Tommy. “When you hear anybody coming up the stairs, you can leave off.”
“How can she hear anything when she——” A bright idea occurred to Peter. “Don't you think, Clodd, as a practical man,” suggested Peter insinuatingly, adopting the Socratic method, “that if we got her one of those dummy pianos—you know what I mean; it's just like an ordinary piano, only you don't hear it?”
Clodd shook his head. “No good at all. Can't tell the effect she is producing.”
“Quite so. Then, on the other hand, Clodd, don't you think that hearing the effect they are producing may sometimes discourage the beginner?”
Clodd's opinion was that such discouragement was a thing to be battled with.
Tommy, who had seated herself, commenced a scale in contrary motion.
“Well, I'm going across to the printer's now,” explained Clodd, taking up his hat. “Got an appointment with young Grindley at three. You stick to it. A spare half-hour now and then that you never miss does wonders. You've got it in you.” With these encouraging remarks to Tommy, Clodd disappeared.
“Easy for him,” muttered Peter bitterly. “Always does have an appointment outside the moment she begins.”
Tommy appeared to be throwing her very soul into the performance. Passers-by in Crane Court paused, regarded the first-floor windows of the publishing and editorial offices of Good Humour with troubled looks, then hurried on.
“She has—remarkably firm touch!” shouted the doctor into Peter's ear. “Will see you—evening. Someting—say to you.”
The fat little doctor took his hat and departed. Tommy, ceasing suddenly, came over and seated herself on the arm of Peter's chair.
“Feeling grumpy?” asked Tommy.
“It isn't,” explained Peter, “that I mind the noise. I'd put up with that if I could see the good of it.”
“It's going to help me to get a husband, dad. Seems to me an odd way of doing it; but Billy says so, and Billy knows all about everything.”
“I can't understand you, a sensible girl, listening to such nonsense,” said Peter. “It's that which troubles me.”
“Dad, where are your wits?” demanded Tommy. “Isn't Billy acting like a brick? Why, he could go into Fleet Street to half a dozen other papers and make five hundred a year as advertising-agent—you know he could. But he doesn't. He sticks to us. If my making myself ridiculous with that tin pot they persuaded him was a piano is going to please him, isn't it common sense and sound business, to say nothing of good nature and gratitude, for me to do it? Dad, I've got a surprise for him. Listen.” And Tommy, springing from the arm of Peter's chair, returned to the piano.
“What was it?” questioned Tommy, having finished. “Could you recognise it?”
“I think,” said Peter, “it sounded like—— It wasn't 'Home, Sweet Home,' was it?”
Tommy clapped her hands. “Yes, it was. You'll end by liking it yourself, dad. We'll have musical 'At Homes.'”
“Tommy, have I brought you up properly, do you think?”
“No dad, you haven't. You have let me have my own way too much. You know the proverb: 'Good mothers make bad daughters.' Clodd's right; you've spoilt me, dad. Do you remember, dad, when I first came to you, seven years ago, a ragged little brat out of the streets, that didn't know itself whether 'twas a boy or a girl? Do you know what I thought to myself the moment I set eyes on you? 'Here's a soft old Juggins; I'll be all right if I can get in here!' It makes you smart, knocking about in the gutters and being knocked about; you read faces quickly.”
“Do you remember your cooking, Tommy? You 'had an aptitude for it,' according to your own idea.”
Tommy laughed. “I wonder how you stood it.”
“You were so obstinate. You came to me as 'cook and housekeeper,' and as cook and housekeeper, and as nothing else, would you remain. If I suggested any change, up would go your chin into the air. I dared not even dine out too often, you were such a little tyrant. The only thing you were always ready to do, if I wasn't satisfied, was to march out of the house and leave me. Wherever did you get that savage independence of yours?”
“I don't know. I think it must have been from a woman—perhaps she was my mother; I don't know—who used to sit up in the bed and cough, all night it seemed to me. People would come to see us—ladies in fine clothes, and gentlemen with oily hair. I think they wanted to help us. Many of them had kind voices. But always a hard look would come into her face, and she would tell them what even then I knew to be untrue—it was one of the first things I can recollect—that we had everything we wanted, that we needed no help from anyone. They would go away, shrugging their shoulders. I grew up with the feeling that seemed to have been burnt into my brain, that to take from anybody anything you had not earned was shameful. I don't think I could do it even now, not even from you. I am useful to you, dad—I do help you?”
There had crept a terror into Tommy's voice. Peter felt the little hands upon his arm trembling.
“Help me? Why, you work like a nigger—like a nigger is supposed to work, but doesn't. No one—whatever we paid him—would do half as much. I don't want to make your head more swollen than it is, young woman, but you have talent; I am not sure it is not genius.” Peter felt the little hands tighten upon his arm.
“I do want this paper to be a success; that is why I strum upon the piano to please Clodd. Is it humbug?”
“I am afraid it is; but humbug is the sweet oil that helps this whirling world of ours to spin round smoothly. Too much of it cloys: we drop it very gently.
“But you are sure it is only humbug, Tommy?” It was Peter's voice into which fear had entered now. “It is not that you think he understands you better than I do—would do more for you?”
“You want me to tell you all I think of you, and that isn't good for you, dad—not too often. It would be you who would have swelled head then.”
“I am jealous, Tommy, jealous of everyone that comes near you. Life is a tragedy for us old folks. We know there must come a day when you will leave the nest, leave us voiceless, ridiculous, flitting among bare branches. You will understand later, when you have children of your own. This foolish talk about a husband! It is worse for a man than it is for the woman. The mother lives again in her child: the man is robbed of all.”
“Dad, do you know how old I am?—that you are talking terrible nonsense?”
“He will come, little girl.”
“Yes,” answered Tommy, “I suppose he will; but not for a long while—oh, not for a very long while. Don't. It frightens me.”
“You? Why should it frighten you?”
“The pain. It makes me feel a coward. I want it to come; I want to taste life, to drain the whole cup, to understand, to feel. But that is the boy in me. I am more than half a boy, I always have been. But the woman in me: it shrinks from the ordeal.”
“You talk, Tommy, as if love were something terrible.”
“There are all things in it; I feel it, dad. It is life in a single draught. It frightens me.”
The child was standing with her face hidden behind her hands. Old Peter, always very bad at lying, stood silent, not knowing what consolation to concoct. The shadow passed, and Tommy's laughing eyes looked out again.
“Haven't you anything to do, dad—outside, I mean?”
“You want to get rid of me?”
“Well, I've nothing else to occupy me till the proofs come in. I'm going to practise, hard.”
“I think I'll turn over my article on the Embankment,” said Peter.
“There's one thing you all of you ought to be grateful to me for,” laughed Tommy, as she seated herself at the piano. “I do induce you all to take more fresh air than otherwise you would.”
Tommy, left alone, set herself to her task with the energy and thoroughness that were characteristic of her. Struggling with complicated scales, Tommy bent her eyes closer and closer over the pages of Czerny's Exercises. Glancing up to turn a page, Tommy, to her surprise, met the eyes of a stranger. They were brown eyes, their expression sympathetic. Below them, looking golden with the sunlight falling on it, was a moustache and beard cut short in Vandyke fashion, not altogether hiding a pleasant mouth, about the corners of which lurked a smile.
“I beg your pardon,” said the stranger. “I knocked three times. Perhaps you did not hear me?”
“No, I didn't,” confessed Tommy, closing the book of Czerny's Exercises, and rising with chin at an angle that, to anyone acquainted with the chart of Tommy's temperament, might have suggested the advisability of seeking shelter.
“This is the editorial office of Good Humour, is it not?” inquired the stranger.
“Is the editor in?”
“The editor is out.”
“The sub-editor?” suggested the stranger.
“I am the sub-editor.”
The stranger raised his eyebrows. Tommy, on the contrary, lowered hers.
“Would you mind glancing through that?” The stranger drew from his pocket a folded manuscript. “It will not take you a moment. I ought, of course, to have sent it through the post; but I am so tired of sending things through the post.”
The stranger's manner was compounded of dignified impudence combined with pathetic humility. His eyes both challenged and pleaded. Tommy held out her hand for the paper and retired with it behind the protection of the big editorial desk that, flanked on one side by a screen and on the other by a formidable revolving bookcase, stretched fortress-like across the narrow room. The stranger remained standing.
“Yes. It's pretty,” criticised the sub-editor. “Worth printing, perhaps, not worth paying for.”
“Not merely a—a nominal sum, sufficient to distinguish it from the work of the amateur?”
Tommy pursed her lips. “Poetry is quite a drug in the market. We can get as much as we want of it for nothing.”
“Say half a crown,” suggested the stranger.
Tommy shot a swift glance across the desk, and for the first time saw the whole of him. He was clad in a threadbare, long, brown ulster—long, that is, it would have been upon an ordinary man, but the stranger happening to be remarkably tall, it appeared on him ridiculously short, reaching only to his knees. Round his neck and tucked into his waistcoat, thus completely hiding the shirt and collar he may have been wearing or may not, was carefully arranged a blue silk muffler. His hands, which were bare, looked blue and cold. Yet the black frock-coat and waistcoat and French grey trousers bore the unmistakable cut of a first-class tailor and fitted him to perfection. His hat, which he had rested on the desk, shone resplendent, and the handle of his silk umbrella was an eagle's head in gold, with two small rubies for the eyes.
“You can leave it if you like,” consented Tommy. “I'll speak to the editor about it when he returns.”
“You won't forget it?” urged the stranger.
“No,” answered Tommy. “I shall not forget it.” Her black eyes were fixed upon the stranger without her being aware of it. She had dropped unconsciously into her “stocktaking” attitude.
“Thank you very much,” said the stranger. “I will call again to-morrow.”
The stranger, moving backward to the door, went out.
Tommy sat with her face between her hands. Czerny's Exercises lay neglected.
“Anybody called?” asked Peter Hope.
“No,” answered Tommy. “Oh, just a man. Left this—not bad.”
“The old story,” mused Peter, as he unfolded the manuscript. “We all of us begin with poetry. Then we take to prose romances; poetry doesn't pay. Finally, we write articles: 'How to be Happy though Married,' 'What shall we do with our Daughters?' It is life summarised. What is it all about?”
“Oh, the usual sort of thing,” explained Tommy. “He wants half-a-crown for it.”
“Poor devil! Let him have it.”
“That's not business,” growled Tommy.
“Nobody will ever know,” said Peter. “We'll enter it as 'telegrams.'”
The stranger called early the next day, pocketed his half-crown, and left another manuscript—an essay. Also he left behind him his gold-handled umbrella, taking away with him instead an old alpaca thing Clodd kept in reserve for exceptionally dirty weather. Peter pronounced the essay usable.
“He has a style,” said Peter; “he writes with distinction. Make an appointment for me with him.”
Clodd, on missing his umbrella, was indignant. “What's the good of this thing to me?” commented Clodd. “Sort of thing for a dude in a pantomime! The fellow must be a blithering ass!”
Tommy gave to the stranger messages from both when next he called. He appeared more grieved than surprised concerning the umbrellas.
“You don't think Mr. Clodd would like to keep this umbrella in exchange for his own?” he suggested.
“Hardly his style,” explained Tommy.
“It's very peculiar,” said the stranger, with a smile. “I have been trying to get rid of this umbrella for the last three weeks. Once upon a time, when I preferred to keep my own umbrella, people used to take it by mistake, leaving all kinds of shabby things behind them in exchange. Now, when I'd really like to get quit of it, nobody will have it.”
“Why do you want to get rid of it?” asked Tommy. “It looks a very good umbrella.”
“You don't know how it hampers me,” said the stranger. “I have to live up to it. It requires a certain amount of resolution to enter a cheap restaurant accompanied by that umbrella. When I do, the waiters draw my attention to the most expensive dishes and recommend me special brands of their so-called champagne. They seem quite surprised if I only want a chop and a glass of beer. I haven't always got the courage to disappoint them. It is really becoming quite a curse to me. If I use it to stop a 'bus, three or four hansoms dash up and quarrel over me. I can't do anything I want to do. I want to live simply and inexpensively: it will not let me.”
Tommy laughed. “Can't you lose it?”
The stranger laughed also. “Lose it! You have no idea how honest people are. I hadn't myself. The whole world has gone up in my estimation within the last few weeks. People run after me for quite long distances and force it into my hand—people on rainy days who haven't got umbrellas of their own. It is the same with this hat.” The stranger sighed as he took it up. “I am always trying to get off with something reasonably shabby in exchange for it. I am always found out and stopped.”
“Why don't you pawn them?” suggested the practicable Tommy.
The stranger regarded her with admiration. “Do you know, I never thought of that,” said the stranger. “Of course. What a good idea! Thank you so much.”
The stranger departed, evidently much relieved.
“Silly fellow,” mused Tommy. “They won't give him a quarter of the value, and he will say: 'Thank you so much,' and be quite contented.” It worried Tommy a good deal that day, the thought of that stranger's helplessness.
The stranger's name was Richard Danvers. He lived the other side of Holborn, in Featherstone Buildings, but much of his time came to be spent in the offices of Good Humour.
Peter liked him. “Full of promise,” was Peter's opinion. “His criticism of that article of mine on 'The Education of Woman' showed both sense and feeling. A scholar and a thinker.”
Flipp, the office-boy (spelt Philip), liked him; and Flipp's attitude, in general, was censorial. “He's all right,” pronounced Flipp; “nothing stuck-up about him. He's got plenty of sense, lying hidden away.”
Miss Ramsbotham liked him. “The men—the men we think about at all,” explained Miss Ramsbotham—“may be divided into two classes: the men we ought to like, but don't; and the men there is no particular reason for our liking, but that we do. Personally I could get very fond of your friend Dick. There is nothing whatever attractive about him except himself.”
Even Tommy liked him in her way, though at times she was severe with him.
“If you mean a big street,” grumbled Tommy, who was going over proofs, “why not say a big street? Why must you always call it a 'main artery'?”
“I am sorry,” apologised Danvers. “It is not my own idea. You told me to study the higher-class journals.”
“I didn't tell you to select and follow all their faults. Here it is again. Your crowd is always a 'hydra-headed monster'; your tea 'the cup that cheers but not inebriates.'”
“I am afraid I am a deal of trouble to you,” suggested the staff.
“I am afraid you are,” agreed the sub-editor.
“Don't give me up,” pleaded the staff. “I misunderstood you, that is all. I will write English for the future.”
“Shall be glad if you will,” growled the sub-editor.
Dick Danvers rose. “I am so anxious not to get what you call 'the sack' from here.”
The sub-editor, mollified, thought the staff need be under no apprehension, provided it showed itself teachable.
“I have been rather a worthless fellow, Miss Hope,” confessed Dick Danvers. “I was beginning to despair of myself till I came across you and your father. The atmosphere here—I don't mean the material atmosphere of Crane Court—is so invigorating: its simplicity, its sincerity. I used to have ideals. I tried to stifle them. There is a set that sneers at all that sort of thing. Now I see that they are good. You will help me?”
Every woman is a mother. Tommy felt for the moment that she wanted to take this big boy on her knee and talk to him for his good. He was only an overgrown lad. But so exceedingly overgrown! Tommy had to content herself with holding out her hand. Dick Danvers grasped it tightly.
Clodd was the only one who did not approve of him. “How did you get hold of him?” asked Clodd one afternoon, he and Peter alone in the office.
“He came. He came in the usual way,” explained Peter.
“What do you know about him?”
“Nothing. What is there to know? One doesn't ask for a character with a journalist.”
“No, I suppose that wouldn't work. Found out anything about him since?”
“Nothing against him. Why so suspicious of everybody?”
“Because you are just a woolly lamb and want a dog to look after you. Who is he? On a first night he gives away his stall and sneaks into the pit. When you send him to a picture-gallery, he dodges the private view and goes on the first shilling day. If an invitation comes to a public dinner, he asks me to go and eat it for him and tell him what it's all about. That doesn't suggest the frank and honest journalist, does it?”
“It is unusual, it certainly is unusual,” Peter was bound to admit.
“I distrust the man,” said Clodd. “He's not our class. What is he doing here?”
“I will ask him, Clodd; I will ask him straight out.”
“And believe whatever he tells you.”
“No, I shan't.”
“Then what's the good of asking him?”
“Well, what am I to do?” demanded the bewildered Peter.
“Get rid of him,” suggested Clodd.
“Get rid of him?”
“Get him away! Don't have him in and out of the office all day long-looking at her with those collie-dog eyes of his, arguing art and poetry with her in that cushat-dove voice of his. Get him clean away—if it isn't too late already.”
“Nonsense,” said Peter, who had turned white, however. “She's not that sort of girl.”
“Not that sort of girl!” Clodd had no patience with Peter Hope, and told him so. “Why are there never inkstains on her fingers now? There used to be. Why does she always keep a lemon in her drawer? When did she last have her hair cut? I'll tell you if you care to know—five months ago, the week before he came. She used to have it cut once a fortnight: said it tickled her neck. Why does she jump on people when they call her Tommy and tell them that her name is Jane? It never used to be Jane. Maybe when you're a bit older you'll begin to notice things for yourself.”
Clodd jammed his hat on his head and flung himself down the stairs. Peter, slipping out a minute later, bought himself an ounce of snuff.
“Fiddle-de-dee!” said Peter as he helped himself to his thirteenth pinch. “Don't believe it. I'll sound her. I shan't say a word—I'll just sound her.”
Peter stood with his back to the fire. Tommy sat at her desk, correcting proofs of a fanciful story: The Man Without a Past.
“I shall miss him,” said Peter; “I know I shall.”
“Miss whom?” demanded Tommy.
“Danvers,” sighed Peter. “It always happens so. You get friendly with a man; then he goes away—abroad, back to America, Lord knows where. You never see him again.”
Tommy looked up. There was trouble in her face.
“How do you spell 'harassed'?” questioned Tommy! “two r's or one.”
“One r,” Peter informed her, “two s's.”
“I thought so.” The trouble passed from Tommy's face.
“You don't ask when he's going, you don't ask where he's going,” complained Peter. “You don't seem to be interested in the least.”
“I was going to ask, so soon as I had finished correcting this sheet,” explained Tommy. “What reason does he give?”
Peter had crossed over and was standing where he could see her face illumined by the lamplight.
“It doesn't upset you—the thought of his going away, of your never seeing him again?”
“Why should it?” Tommy answered his searching gaze with a slightly puzzled look. “Of course, I'm sorry. He was becoming useful. But we couldn't expect him to stop with us always, could we?”
Peter, rubbing his hands, broke into a chuckle. “I told him 'twas all fiddlesticks. Clodd, he would have it you were growing to care for the fellow.”
“For Dick Danvers?” Tommy laughed. “Whatever put that into his head?”
“Oh, well, there were one or two little things that we had noticed.”
“I mean that Clodd had noticed.”
I'm glad it was Clodd that noticed them, not you, dad, thought Tommy to herself. They'd have been pretty obvious if you had noticed them.
“It naturally made me anxious,” confessed Peter. “You see, we know absolutely nothing of the fellow.”
“Absolutely nothing,” agreed Tommy.
“He may be a man of the highest integrity. Personally, I think he is. I like him. On the other hand, he may be a thorough-paced scoundrel. I don't believe for a moment that he is, but he may be. Impossible to say.”
“Quite impossible,” agreed Tommy.
“Considered merely as a journalist, it doesn't matter. He writes well. He has brains. There's an end of it.”
“He is very painstaking,” agreed Tommy.
“Personally,” added Peter, “I like the fellow.” Tommy had returned to her work.
Of what use was Peter in a crisis of this kind? Peter couldn't scold. Peter couldn't bully. The only person to talk to Tommy as Tommy knew she needed to be talked to was one Jane, a young woman of dignity with sense of the proprieties.
“I do hope that at least you are feeling ashamed of yourself,” remarked Jane to Tommy that same night, as the twain sat together in their little bedroom.
“Done nothing to be ashamed of,” growled Tommy.
“Making a fool of yourself openly, for everybody to notice.”
“Clodd ain't everybody. He's got eyes at the back of his head. Sees things before they happen.”
“Where's your woman's pride: falling in love with a man who has never spoken to you, except in terms of the most ordinary courtesy.”
“I'm not in love with him.”
“A man about whom you know absolutely nothing.”
“Not in love with him.”
“Where does he come from? Who is he?”
“I don't know, don't care; nothing to do with me.”
“Just because of his soft eyes, and his wheedling voice, and that half-caressing, half-devotional manner of his. Do you imagine he keeps it specially for you? I gave you credit for more sense.”
“I'm not in love with him, I tell you. He's down on his luck, and I'm sorry for him, that's all.”
“And if he is, whose fault was it, do you think?”
“It doesn't matter. We are none of us saints. He's trying to pull himself together, and I respect him for it. It's our duty to be charitable and kind to one another in this world!”
“Oh, well, I'll tell you how you can be kind to him: by pointing out to him that he is wasting his time. With his talents, now that he knows his business, he could be on the staff of some big paper, earning a good income. Put it nicely to him, but be firm. Insist on his going. That will be showing true kindness to him—and to yourself, too, I'm thinking, my dear.”
And Tommy understood and appreciated the sound good sense underlying Jane's advice, and the very next day but one, seizing the first opportunity, acted upon it; and all would have gone as contemplated if only Dick Danvers had sat still and listened, as it had been arranged in Tommy's programme that he should.
“But I don't want to go,” said Dick.
“But you ought to want to go. Staying here with us you are doing yourself no good.”
He rose and came to where she stood with one foot upon the fender, looking down into the fire. His doing this disconcerted her. So long as he remained seated at the other end of the room, she was the sub-editor, counselling the staff for its own good. Now that she could not raise her eyes without encountering his, she felt painfully conscious of being nothing more important than a little woman who was trembling.
“It is doing me all the good in the world,” he told her, “being near to you.”
“Oh, please do sit down again,” she urged him. “I can talk to you so much better when you're sitting down.”
But he would not do anything he should have done that day. Instead he took her hands in his, and would not let them go; and the reason and the will went out of her, leaving her helpless.
“Let me be with you always,” he pleaded. “It means the difference between light and darkness to me. You have done so much for me. Will you not finish your work? Will you not trust me? It is no hot passion that can pass away, my love for you. It springs from all that is best in me—from the part of me that is wholesome and joyous and strong, the part of me that belongs to you.”
Releasing her, he turned away.
“The other part of me—the blackguard—it is dead, dear, dead and buried. I did not know I was a blackguard, I thought myself a fine fellow, till one day it came home to me. Suddenly I saw myself as I really was. And the sight of the thing frightened me and I ran away from it. I said to myself I would begin life afresh, in a new country, free of every tie that could bind me to the past. It would mean poverty—privation, maybe, in the beginning. What of that? The struggle would brace me. It would be good sport. Ah, well, you can guess the result: the awakening to the cold facts, the reaction of feeling. In what way was I worse than other men? Who was I, to play the prig in a world where others were laughing and dining? I had tramped your city till my boots were worn into holes. I had but to abandon my quixotic ideals—return to where shame lay waiting for me, to be welcomed with the fatted calf. It would have ended so had I not chanced to pass by your door that afternoon and hear you strumming on the piano.”
So Billy was right, after all, thought Tommy to herself, the piano does help.
“It was so incongruous—a piano in Crane Court—I looked to see where the noise came from. I read the name of the paper on the doorpost. 'It will be my last chance,' I said to myself. 'This shall decide it.'”
He came back to her. She had not moved. “I am not afraid to tell you all this. You are so big-hearted, so human; you will understand, you can forgive. It is all past. Loving you tells a man that he has done with evil. Will you not trust me?”
She put her hands in his. “I am trusting you,” she said, “with all my life. Don't make a muddle of it, dear, if you can help it.”
It was an odd wooing, as Tommy laughingly told herself when she came to think it over in her room that night. But that is how it shaped itself.
What troubled her most was that he had not been quite frank with Peter, so that Peter had to defend her against herself.
“I attacked you so suddenly,” explained Peter, “you had not time to think. You acted from instinct. A woman seeks to hide her love even from herself.”
“I expect, after all, I am more of a girl than a boy,” feared Tommy: “I seem to have so many womanish failings.”
Peter took himself into quite places and trained himself to face the fact that another would be more to her than he had ever been, and Clodd went about his work like a bear with a sore head; but they neither of them need have troubled themselves so much. The marriage did not take place till nearly fifteen years had passed away, and much water had to flow beneath old London Bridge before that day.
The past is not easily got rid of. A tale was once written of a woman who killed her babe and buried it in a lonely wood, and later stole back in the night and saw there, white in the moonlight, a child's hand calling through the earth, and buried it again and yet again; but always that white baby hand called upwards through the earth, trample it down as she would. Tommy read the story one evening in an old miscellany, and sat long before the dead fire, the book open on her lap, and shivered; for now she knew the fear that had been haunting her.
Tommy lived expecting her. She came one night when Tommy was alone, working late in the office. Tommy knew her the moment she entered the door, a handsome woman, with snakelike, rustling skirts. She closed the door behind her, and drawing forward a chair, seated herself the other side of the desk, and the two looked long and anxiously at one another.
“They told me I should find you here alone,” said the woman. “It is better, is it not?”
“Yes,” said Tommy, “it is better.”
“Tell me,” said the woman, “are you very much in love with him?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because, if not—if you have merely accepted him thinking him a good catch—which he isn't, my dear; hasn't a penny to bless himself with, and never will if he marries you—why, then the matter is soon settled. They tell me you are a business-like young lady, and I am prepared to make a business-like proposition.”
There was no answer. The woman shrugged her shoulders.
“If, on the other hand, you are that absurd creature, a young girl in love, why, then, I suppose we shall have to fight for him.”
“It would be more sporting, would it not?” suggested Tommy.
“Let me explain before you decide,” continued the woman. “Dick Danvers left me six months ago, and has kept from me ever since, because he loved me.”
“It sounds a curious reason.”
“I was a married woman when Dick Danvers and I first met. Since he left me—for my sake and his own—I have received information of my husband's death.”
“And does Dick—does he know?” asked the girl.
“Not yet. I have only lately learnt the news myself.”
“Then if it is as you say, when he knows he will go back to you.”
“There are difficulties in the way.”
“My dear, this. To try and forget me, he has been making love to you. Men do these things. I merely ask you to convince yourself of the truth. Go away for six months—disappear entirely. Leave him free—uninfluenced. If he loves you—if it be not merely a sense of honour that binds him—you will find him here on your return. If not—if in the interval I have succeeded in running off with him, well, is not the two or three thousand pounds I am prepared to put into this paper of yours a fair price for such a lover?”
Tommy rose with a laugh of genuine amusement. She could never altogether put aside her sense of humour, let Fate come with what terrifying face it would.
“You may have him for nothing—if he is that man,” the girl told her; “he shall be free to choose between us.”
“You mean you will release him from his engagement?”
“That is what I mean.”
“Why not take my offer? You know the money is needed. It will save your father years of anxiety and struggle. Go away—travel, for a couple of months, if you're afraid of the six. Write him that you must be alone, to think things over.”
The girl turned upon her.
“And leave you a free field to lie and trick?”
The woman, too, had risen. “Do you think he really cares for you? At the moment you interest him. At nineteen every woman is a mystery. When the mood is past—and do you know how long a man's mood lasts, you poor chit? Till he has caught what he is running after, and has tasted it—then he will think not of what he has won, but of what he has lost: of the society from which he has cut himself adrift; of all the old pleasures and pursuits he can no longer enjoy; of the luxuries—necessities to a man of his stamp—that marriage with you has deprived him of. Then your face will be a perpetual reminder to him of what he has paid for it, and he will curse it every time he sees it.”
“You don't know him,” the girl cried. “You know just a part of him—the part you would know. All the rest of him is a good man, that would rather his self-respect than all the luxuries you mention—you included.”
“It seems to resolve itself into what manner of man he is,” laughed the woman.
The girl looked at her watch. “He will be here shortly; he shall tell us himself.”
“How do you mean?”
“That here, between the two of us, he shall decide—this very night.” She showed her white face to the woman. “Do you think I could live through a second day like to this?”
“The scene would be ridiculous.”
“There will be none here to enjoy the humour of it.”
“He will not understand.”
“Oh, yes, he will,” the girl laughed. “Come, you have all the advantages; you are rich, you are clever; you belong to his class. If he elects to stop with me, it will be because he is my man—mine. Are you afraid?”
The woman shivered. She wrapped her fur cloak about her closer and sat down again, and Tommy returned to her proofs. It was press-night, and there was much to be done.
He came a little later, though how long the time may have seemed to the two women one cannot say. They heard his footstep on the stair. The woman rose and went forward, so that when he opened the door she was the first he saw. But he made no sign. Possibly he had been schooling himself for this moment, knowing that sooner or later it must come. The woman held out her hand to him with a smile.
“I have not the honour,” he said.
The smile died from her face. “I do not understand,” she said.
“I have not the honour,” he repeated. “I do not know you.”
The girl was leaning with her back against the desk in a somewhat mannish attitude. He stood between them. It will always remain Life's chief comic success: the man between two women. The situation has amused the world for so many years. Yet, somehow, he contrived to maintain a certain dignity.
“Maybe,” he continued, “you are confounding me with a Dick Danvers who lived in New York up to a few months ago. I knew him well—a worthless scamp you had done better never to have met.”
“You bear a wonderful resemblance to him,” laughed the woman.
“The poor fool is dead,” he answered. “And he left for you, my dear lady, this dying message: that, from the bottom of his soul, he was sorry for the wrong he had done you. He asked you to forgive him—and forget him.”
“The year appears to be opening unfortunately for me,” said the woman. “First my lover, then my husband.”
He had nerved himself to fight the living. This was a blow from the dead. The man had been his friend.
“He was killed, it appears, in that last expedition in July,” answered the woman. “I received the news from the Foreign Office only a fortnight ago.”
An ugly look came into his eyes—the look of a cornered creature fighting for its life. “Why have you followed me here? Why do I find you here alone with her? What have you told her?”
The woman shrugged her shoulders. “Only the truth.”
“All the truth?” he demanded—“all? Ah! be just. Tell her it was not all my fault. Tell her all the truth.”
“What would you have me tell her? That I played Potiphar's wife to your Joseph?”
“Ah, no! The truth—only the truth. That you and I were a pair of idle fools with the devil dancing round us. That we played a fool's game, and that it is over.”
“Is it over? Dick, is it over?” She flung her arms towards him; but he threw her from him almost brutally. “The man is dead, I tell you. His folly and his sin lie dead with him. I have nothing to do with you, nor you with me.”
“Dick!” she whispered. “Dick, cannot you understand? I must speak with you alone.”
But they did not understand, neither the man nor the child.
“Dick, are you really dead?” she cried. “Have you no pity for me? Do you think that I have followed you here to grovel at your feet for mere whim? Am I acting like a woman sane and sound? Don't you see that I am mad, and why I am mad? Must I tell you before her? Dick——” She staggered towards him, and the fine cloak slipped from her shoulders; and then it was that Tommy changed from a child into a woman, and raised the other woman from the ground with crooning words of encouragement such as mothers use, and led her to the inner room. “Do not go,” she said, turning to Dick; “I shall be back in a few minutes.”
He crossed to one of the windows against which beat the City's roar, and it seemed to him as the throb of passing footsteps beating down through the darkness to where he lay in his grave.
She re-entered, closing the door softly behind her. “It is true?” she asked.
“It can be. I had not thought of it.”
They spoke in low, matter-of-fact tones, as people do who have grown weary of their own emotions.
“When did he go away—her husband?”
“About—it is February now, is it not? About eighteen months ago.”
“And died just eight months ago. Rather conveniently, poor fellow.”
“I do not know,” he sanswered listlessly. “I do not intend to marry her.”
“You would leave her alone?”
“It is not as if she were a poor woman. You can do anything with money.”
“It will not mend reputation. Her position in society is everything to that class of woman.”
“My marrying her now,” he pointed out, “would not save her.”
“Practically speaking it would,” the girl pleaded. “The world does not go out of its way to find out things it does not want to know. Marry her as quietly as possible and travel for a year or two.”
“Why should I? Ah! it is easy enough to call a man a coward for defending himself against a woman. What is he to do when he is fighting for his life?”
“There is the child to be considered,” she urged—“your child. You see, dear, we all do wrong sometimes. We must not let others suffer for our fault more—more than we can help.”
He turned to her for the first time. “And you?”
“I? Oh, I shall cry for a little while, but later on I shall laugh, as often. Life is not all love. I have my work.”
He knew her well by this time. And also it came to him that it would be a finer thing to be worthy of her than even to possess her.
So he did her bidding and went out with the other woman. Tommy was glad it was press-night. She would not be able to think for hours to come, and then, perhaps, she would be feeling too tired. Work can be very kind.
Were this an artistic story, here, of course, one would write “Finis.” But in the workaday world one never knows the ending till it comes. Had it been otherwise, I doubt I could have found courage to tell you this story of Tommy. It is not all true—at least, I do not suppose so. One drifts unconsciously a little way into dreamland when one sits oneself down to recall the happenings of long ago; while Fancy, with a sly wink, whispers ever and again to Memory: “Let me tell this incident—picture that scene: I can make it so much more interesting than you would.” But Tommy—how can I put it without saying too much? There is someone I think of when I speak of her? To remember only her dear wounds, and not the healing of them, would have been a task too painful. I love to dwell on their next meeting. Flipp, passing him on the steps, did not know him, the tall, sunburnt gentleman with the sweet, grave-faced little girl.
“Seen that face somewhere before,” mused Flipp, as at the corner of Bedford Street he climbed into a hansom, “seen it somewhere on a thinner man.”
For Dick Danvers, that he did not recognise Flipp, there was more excuse. A very old young man had Flipp become at thirty. Flipp no longer enjoyed popular journalism. He produced it.
The gold-bound doorkeeper feared the mighty Clodd would be unable to see so insignificant an atom as an unappointed stranger, but would let the card of Mr. Richard Danvers plead for itself. To the gold-bound keeper's surprise came down the message that Mr. Danvers was to be at once shown up.
“I thought, somehow, you would come to me first,” said the portly Clodd, advancing with outstretched hand. “And this is——?”
“My little girl, Honor. We have been travelling for the last few months.”
Clodd took the grave, small face between his big, rough hands: “Yes. She is like you. But looks as if she were going to have more sense. Forgive me, I knew your father my dear,” laughed Clodd; “when he was younger.”
They lit their cigars and talked.
“Well, not exactly dead; we amalgamated it,” winked Clodd in answer to Danvers' inquiry. “It was just a trifle too high-class. Besides, the old gentleman was not getting younger. It hurt him a little at first. But then came Tommy's great success, and that has reconciled him to all things. Do they know you are in England?”
“No,” explained Danvers; “we arrived only last night.”
Clodd called directions down the speaking-tube.
“You will find hardly any change in her. One still has to keep one's eye upon her chin. She has not even lost her old habit of taking stock of people. You remember.” Clodd laughed.
They talked a little longer, till there came a whistle, and Clodd put his ear to the tube.
“I have to see her on business,” said Clodd, rising; “you may as well come with me. They are still in the old place, Gough Square.”
Tommy was out, but Peter was expecting her every minute.
Peter did not know Dick, but would not admit it. Forgetfulness was a sign of age, and Peter still felt young.
“I know your face quite well,” said Peter; “can't put a name to it, that's all.”
Clodd whispered it to him, together with information bringing history up to date. And then light fell upon the old lined face. He came towards Dick, meaning to take him by both hands, but, perhaps because he had become somewhat feeble, he seemed glad when the younger man put his arms around him and held him for a moment. It was un-English, and both of them felt a little ashamed of themselves afterwards.
“What we want,” said Clodd, addressing Peter, “we three—you, I, and Miss Danvers—is tea and cakes, with cream in them; and I know a shop where they sell them. We will call back for your father in half an hour.” Clodd explained to Miss Danvers; “he has to talk over a matter of business with Miss Hope.”
“I know,” answered the grave-faced little person. She drew Dick's face down to hers and kissed it. And then the three went out together, leaving Dick standing by the window.
“Couldn't we hide somewhere till she comes?” suggested Miss Danvers. “I want to see her.”
So they waited in the open doorway of a near printing-house till Tommy drove up. Both Peter and Clodd watched the child's face with some anxiety. She nodded gravely to herself three times, then slipped her hand into Peter's.
Tommy opened the door with her latchkey and passed in.