MoboReader > Literature > All Roads Lead to Calvary

   Chapter 6 6

All Roads Lead to Calvary By Jerome K. Jerome Characters: 23868

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


One day Joan, lunching at the club, met Madge Singleton.

"I've had such a funny letter from Flossie," said Joan, "begging me almost with tears in her ink to come to her on Sunday evening to meet a 'gentleman friend' of hers, as she calls him, and give her my opinion of him. What on earth is she up to?"

"It's all right," answered Madge. "She doesn't really want our opinion of him-or rather she doesn't want our real opinion of him. She only wants us to confirm hers. She's engaged to him."

"Flossie engaged!" Joan seemed surprised.

"Yes," answered Madge. "It used to be a custom. Young men used to ask young women to marry them. And if they consented it was called 'being engaged.' Still prevails, so I am told, in certain classes."

"Thanks," said Joan. "I have heard of it."

"I thought perhaps you hadn't from your tone," explained Madge.

"But if she's already engaged to him, why risk criticism of him," argued Joan, ignoring Madge's flippancy. "It's too late."

"Oh, she's going to break it off unless we all assure her that we find him brainy," Madge explained with a laugh. "It seems her father wasn't brainy and her mother was. Or else it was the other way about: I'm not quite sure. But whichever it was, it led to ructions. Myself, if he's at all possible and seems to care for her, I intend to find him brilliant."

"And suppose she repeats her mother's experience," suggested Joan.

"There were the Norton-Browns," answered Madge. "Impossible to have found a more evenly matched pair. They both write novels-very good novels, too; and got jealous of one another; and threw press-notices at one another's head all breakfast-time; until they separated. Don't know of any recipe myself for being happy ever after marriage, except not expecting it."

"Or keeping out of it altogether," added Joan.

"Ever spent a day at the Home for Destitute Gentlewomen at East Sheen?" demanded Madge.

"Not yet," admitted Joan. "May have to, later on."

"It ought to be included in every woman's education," Madge continued. "It is reserved for spinsters of over forty-five. Susan Fleming wrote an article upon it for the Teacher's Friend; and spent an afternoon and evening there. A month later she married a grocer with five children. The only sound suggestion for avoiding trouble that I ever came across was in a burlesque of the Blue Bird. You remember the scene where the spirits of the children are waiting to go down to earth and be made into babies? Someone had stuck up a notice at the entrance to the gangway: 'Don't get born. It only means worry.'"

Flossie had her dwelling-place in a second floor bed-sitting-room of a lodging house in Queen's Square, Bloomsbury; but the drawing-room floor being for the moment vacant, Flossie had persuaded her landlady to let her give her party there; it seemed as if fate approved of the idea. The room was fairly full when Joan arrived. Flossie took her out on the landing, and closed the door behind them.

"You will be honest with me, won't you?" pleaded Flossie, "because it's so important, and I don't seem able to think for myself. As they say, no man can be his own solicitor, can he? Of course I like him, and all that-very much. And I really believe he loves me. We were children together when Mummy was alive; and then he had to go abroad; and has only just come back. Of course, I've got to think of him, too, as he says. But then, on the other hand, I don't want to make a mistake. That would be so terrible, for both of us; and of course I am clever; and there was poor Mummy and Daddy. I'll tell you all about them one day. It was so awfully sad. Get him into a corner and talk to him. You'll be able to judge in a moment, you're so wonderful. He's quiet on the outside, but I think there's depth in him. We must go in now."

She had talked so rapidly Joan felt as if her hat were being blown away. She had difficulty in recognizing Flossie. All the cocksure pertness had departed. She seemed just a kid.

Joan promised faithfully; and Flossie, standing on tiptoe, suddenly kissed her and then bustled her in.

Flossie's young man was standing near the fire talking, or rather listening, to a bird-like little woman in a short white frock and blue ribbons. A sombre lady just behind her, whom Joan from the distance took to be her nurse, turned out to be her secretary, whose duty it was to be always at hand, prepared to take down any happy idea that might occur to the bird-like little woman in the course of conversation. The bird-like little woman was Miss Rose Tolley, a popular novelist. She was explaining to Flossie's young man, whose name was Sam Halliday, the reason for her having written "Running Waters," her latest novel.

"It is daring," she admitted. "I must be prepared for opposition. But it had to be stated."

"I take myself as typical," she continued. "When I was twenty I could have loved you. You were the type of man I did love."

Mr. Halliday, who had been supporting the weight of his body upon his right leg, transferred the burden to his left.

"But now I'm thirty-five; and I couldn't love you if I tried." She shook her curls at him. "It isn't your fault. It is that I have changed. Suppose I'd married you?"

"Bit of bad luck for both of us," suggested Mr. Halliday.

"A tragedy," Miss Tolley corrected him. "There are millions of such tragedies being enacted around us at this moment. Sensitive women compelled to suffer the embraces of men that they have come to loathe. What's to be done?"

Flossie, who had been hovering impatient, broke in.

"Oh, don't you believe her," she advised Mr. Halliday. "She loves you still. She's only teasing you. This is Joan."

She introduced her. Miss Tolley bowed; and allowed herself to be drawn away by a lank-haired young man who had likewise been waiting for an opening. He represented the Uplift Film Association of Chicago, and was wishful to know if Miss Tolley would consent to altering the last chapter and so providing "Running Waters" with a happy ending. He pointed out the hopelessness of it in its present form, for film purposes.

The discussion was brief. "Then I'll send your agent the contract to-morrow," Joan overheard him say a minute later.

Mr. Sam Halliday she liked at once. He was a clean-shaven, square-jawed young man, with quiet eyes and a pleasant voice.

"Try and find me brainy," he whispered to her, as soon as Flossie was out of earshot. "Talk to me about China. I'm quite intelligent on China."

They both laughed, and then shot a guilty glance in Flossie's direction.

"Do the women really crush their feet?" asked Joan.

"Yes," he answered. "All those who have no use for them. About one per cent. of the population. To listen to Miss Tolley you would think that half the women wanted a new husband every ten years. It's always the one per cent. that get themselves talked about. The other ninety-nine are too busy."

"You are young for a philosopher," said Joan.

He laughed. "I told you I'd be all right if you started me on China," he said.

"Why are you marrying. Flossie?" Joan asked him. She thought his point of view would be interesting.

"Not sure I am yet," he answered with a grin. "It depends upon how I get through this evening." He glanced round the room. "Have I got to pass all this crowd, I wonder?" he added.

Joan's eyes followed. It was certainly an odd collection. Flossie, in her hunt for brains, had issued her invitations broadcast; and her fate had been that of the Charity concert. Not all the stars upon whom she had most depended had turned up. On the other hand not a single freak had failed her. At the moment, the centre of the room was occupied by a gentleman and two ladies in classical drapery. They were holding hands in an attitude suggestive of a bas-relief. Joan remembered them, having seen them on one or two occasions wandering in the King's Road, Chelsea; still maintaining, as far as the traffic would allow, the bas-relief suggestion; and generally surrounded by a crowd of children, ever hopeful that at the next corner they would stop and do something really interesting. They belonged to a society whose object was to lure the London public by the force of example towards the adoption of the early Greek fashions and the simpler Greek attitudes. A friend of Flossie's had thrown in her lot with them, but could never be induced to abandon her umbrella. They also, as Joan told herself, were reformers. Near to them was a picturesque gentleman with a beard down to his waist whose "stunt"-as Flossie would have termed it-was hygienic clothing; it seemed to contain an undue proportion of fresh air. There were ladies in coats and stand-up collars, and gentlemen with ringlets. More than one of the guests would have been better, though perhaps not happier, for a bath.

"I fancy that's the idea," said Joan. "What will you do if you fail? Go back to China?"

"Yes," he answered. "And take her with me. Poor little girl."

Joan rather resented his tone.

"We are not all alike," she remarked. "Some of us are quite sane."

He looked straight into her eyes. "You are," he said. "I have been reading your articles. They are splendid. I'm going to help."

"How can you?" she said. "I mean, how will you?"

"Shipping is my business," he said. "I'm going to help sailor men. See that they have somewhere decent to go to, and don't get robbed. And then there are the Lascars, poor devils. Nobody ever takes their part."

"How did you come across them?" she asked. "The articles, I mean. Did Flo give them to you?"

"No," he answered. "Just chance. Caught sight of your photo."

"Tell me," she said. "If it had been the photo of a woman with a bony throat and a beaky nose would you have read them?"

He thought a moment. "Guess not," he answered. "You're just as bad," he continued. "Isn't it the pale-faced young clergyman with the wavy hair and the beautiful voice that you all flock to hear? No getting away from nature. But it wasn't only that." He hesitated.

"I want to know," she said.

"You looked so young," he answered. "I had always had the idea that it was up to the old people to put the world to rights-that all I had to do was to look after myself. It came to me suddenly while you were talking to me-I mean while I was reading you: that if you were worrying yourself about it, I'd got to come in, too-that it would be mean of me not to. It wasn't like being preached to. It was somebody calling for help."

Instinctively she held out her hand and he grasped it.

Flossie came up at the same instant. She wanted to introduce him to Miss Lavery, who had just arrived.

"Hullo!" she said. "Are you two concluding a bargain?"

"Yes," said Joan. "We are founding the League of Youth. You've got to be in it. We are going to establish branches all round the world."

Flossie's young man was whisked away. Joan, who had seated herself in a small chair, was alone for a few minutes.

Miss Tolley had chanced upon a Human Document, with the help of which she was hopeful of starting a "Press Controversy" concerning the morality, or otherwise, of "Running Waters." The secretary stood just behind her, taking notes. They had drifted quite close. Joan could not help overhearing.

"It always seemed to me immoral, the marriage ceremony," the Human Document was explaining. She was a thin, sallow woman, with an untidy head and restless eyes that seemed to be always seeking something to look at and never finding it. "How can we pledge the future? To bind oneself to live with a man when perhaps we have ceased to care for him; it's hideous."

Miss Tolley murmured agreement.

"Our love was beautiful," continued the Human Document, eager, apparently, to relate her experience for the common good; "just because it was a free gift. We were not fettered to one another. At any moment either of u

s could have walked out of the house. The idea never occurred to us; not for years-five, to be exact."

The secretary, at a sign from Miss Tolley, made a memorandum of it.

"And then did your feelings towards him change suddenly?" questioned Miss Tolley.

"No," explained the Human Document, in the same quick, even tones; "so far as I was concerned, I was not conscious of any alteration in my own attitude. But he felt the need of more solitude-for his development. We parted quite good friends."

"Oh," said Miss Tolley. "And were there any children?"

"Only two," answered the Human Document, "both girls."

"What has become of them?" persisted Miss Tolley.

The Human Document looked offended. "You do not think I would have permitted any power on earth to separate them from me, do you?" she answered. "I said to him, 'They are mine, mine. Where I go, they go. Where I stay, they stay.' He saw the justice of my argument."

"And they are with you now?" concluded Miss Tolley.

"You must come and see them," the Human Document insisted. "Such dear, magnetic creatures. I superintend their entire education myself. We have a cottage in Surrey. It's rather a tight fit. You see, there are seven of us now. But the three girls can easily turn in together for a night, Abner will be delighted."

"Abner is your second?" suggested Miss Tolley.

"My third," the Human Document corrected her. "After Eustace, I married Ivanoff. I say 'married' because I regard it as the holiest form of marriage. He had to return to his own country. There was a political movement on foot. He felt it his duty to go. I want you particularly to meet the boy. He will interest you."

Miss Tolley appeared to be getting muddled. "Whose boy?" she demanded.

"Ivanoff's," explained the Human Document. "He was our only child."

Flossie appeared, towing a white-haired, distinguished-looking man, a Mr. Folk. She introduced him and immediately disappeared. Joan wished she had been left alone a little longer. She would like to have heard more. Especially was she curious concerning Abner, the lady's third. Would the higher moral law compel him, likewise, to leave the poor lady saddled with another couple of children? Or would she, on this occasion, get in-or rather, get off, first? Her own fancy was to back Abner. She did catch just one sentence before Miss Tolley, having obtained more food for reflection than perhaps she wanted, signalled to her secretary that the note-book might be closed.

"Woman's right to follow the dictates of her own heart, uncontrolled by any law," the Human Document was insisting: "That is one of the first things we must fight for."

Mr. Folk was a well-known artist. He lived in Paris. "You are wonderfully like your mother," he told Joan. "In appearance, I mean," he added. "I knew her when she was Miss Caxton. I acted with her in America."

Joan made a swift effort to hide her surprise. She had never heard of her mother having been upon the stage.

"I did not know that you had been an actor," she answered.

"I wasn't really," explained Mr. Folk. "I just walked and talked naturally. It made rather a sensation at the time. Your mother was a genius. You have never thought of going on the stage yourself?"

"No," said Joan. "I don't think I've got what you call the artistic temperament. I have never felt drawn towards anything of that sort."

"I wonder," he said. "You could hardly be your mother's daughter without it."

"Tell me," said Joan. "What was my mother like? I can only remember her as more or less of an invalid."

He did not reply to her question. "Master or Mistress Eminent Artist," he said; "intends to retire from his or her particular stage, whatever it may be. That paragraph ought always to be put among the obituary notices."

"What's your line?" he asked her. "I take it you have one by your being here. Besides, I am sure you have. I am an old fighter. I can tell the young soldier. What's your regiment?"

Joan laughed. "I'm a drummer boy," she answered. "I beat my drum each week in a Sunday newspaper, hoping the lads will follow."

"You feel you must beat that drum," he suggested. "Beat it louder and louder and louder till all the world shall hear it."

"Yes," Joan agreed, "I think that does describe me."

He nodded. "I thought you were an artist," he said. "Don't let them ever take your drum away from you. You'll go to pieces and get into mischief without it."

"I know an old actress," he continued. "She's the mother of four. They are all on the stage and they've all made their mark. The youngest was born in her dressing-room, just after the curtain had fallen. She was playing the Nurse to your mother's Juliet. She is still the best Nurse that I know. 'Jack's always worrying me to chuck it and devote myself to the children,' she confided to me one evening, while she was waiting for her cue. 'But, as I tell him, I'm more helpful to them being with them half the day alive than all the day dead.' That's an anecdote worth remembering, when your time comes. If God gives woman a drum he doesn't mean man to take it away from her. She hasn't got to be playing it for twenty-four hours a day. I'd like you to have seen your mother's Cordelia."

Flossie was tacking her way towards them. Joan acted on impulse. "I wish you'd give me your address," she said "where I could write to you. Or perhaps you would not mind my coming and seeing you one day. I would like you to tell me more about my mother."

He gave her his address in Paris where he was returning almost immediately.

"Do come," he said. "It will take me back thirty-three years. I proposed to your mother on La Grande Terrasse at St. Germain. We will walk there. I'm still a bachelor." He laughed, and, kissing her hand, allowed himself to be hauled away by Flossie, in exchange for Mrs. Phillips, for whom Miss Lavery had insisted on an invitation.

Joan had met Mrs. Phillips several times; and once, on the stairs, had stopped and spoken to her; but had never been introduced to her formally till now.

"We have been meaning to call on you so often," panted Mrs. Phillips. The room was crowded and the exertion of squeezing her way through had winded the poor lady. "We take so much interest in your articles. My husband-" she paused for a second, before venturing upon the word, and the aitch came out somewhat over-aspirated-"reads them most religiously. You must come and dine with us one evening."

Joan answered that she would be very pleased.

"I will find out when Robert is free and run up and let you know," she continued. "Of course, there are so many demands upon him, especially during this period of national crisis, that I spare him all the social duties that I can. But I shall insist on his making an exception in your case."

Joan murmured her sense of favour, but hoped she would not be allowed to interfere with more pressing calls upon Mr. Phillips's time.

"It will do him good," answered Mrs. Phillips; "getting away from them all for an hour or two. I don't see much of him myself."

She glanced round and lowered her voice. "They tell me," she said, "that you're a B.A."

"Yes," answered Joan. "One goes in for it more out of vanity, I'm afraid, than for any real purpose that it serves."

"I took one or two prizes myself," said Mrs. Phillips. "But, of course, one forgets things. I was wondering if you would mind if I ran up occasionally to ask you a question. Of course, as you know, my 'usband 'as 'ad so few advantages"-the lady's mind was concerned with more important matters, and the aspirates, on this occasion, got themselves neglected-"It is wonderful what he 'as done without them. But if, now and then, I could 'elp him-"

There was something about the poor, foolish painted face, as it looked up pleadingly, that gave it a momentary touch of beauty.

"Do," said Joan, speaking earnestly. "I shall be so very pleased if you will."

"Thank you," said the woman. Miss Lavery came up in a hurry to introduce her to Miss Tolley. "I am telling all my friends to read your articles," she added, resuming the gracious patroness, as she bowed her adieus.

Joan was alone again for a while. A handsome girl, with her hair cut short and parted at the side, was discussing diseases of the spine with a curly-headed young man in a velvet suit. The gentleman was describing some of the effects in detail. Joan felt there was danger of her being taken ill if she listened any longer; and seeing Madge's brother near the door, and unoccupied, she made her way across to him.

Niel Singleton, or Keeley, as he called himself upon the stage, was quite unlike his sister. He was short and plump, with a preternaturally solemn face, contradicted by small twinkling eyes. He motioned Joan to a chair and told her to keep quiet and not disturb the meeting.

"Is he brainy?" he whispered after a minute.

"I like him," said Joan.

"I didn't ask you if you liked him," he explained to her. "I asked you if he was brainy. I'm not too sure that you like brainy men."

"Yes, I do," said Joan. "I like you, sometimes."

"Now, none of that," he said severely. "It's no good your thinking of me. I'm wedded to my art. We are talking about Mr. Halliday."

"What does Madge think of him?" asked Joan.

"Madge has fallen in love with him, and her judgment is not to be relied upon," he said. "I suppose you couldn't answer a straight question, if you tried."

"Don't be so harsh with me," pleaded Joan meekly. "I'm trying to think. Yes," she continued, "decidedly he's got brains."

"Enough for the two of them?" demanded Mr. Singleton. "Because he will want them. Now think before you speak."

Joan considered. "Yes," she answered. "I should say he's just the man to manage her."

"Then it's settled," he said. "We must save her."

"Save her from what?" demanded Joan.

"From his saying to himself: 'This is Flossie's idea of a party. This is the sort of thing that, if I marry her, I am letting myself in for.' If he hasn't broken off the engagement already, we may be in time."

He led the way to the piano. "Tell Madge I want her," he whispered. He struck a few notes; and then in a voice that drowned every other sound in the room, struck up a comic song.

The effect was magical.

He followed it up with another. This one with a chorus, consisting chiefly of "Umpty Umpty Umpty Umpty Ay," which was vociferously encored.

By the time it was done with, Madge had discovered a girl who could sing "Three Little Pigs;" and a sad, pale-faced gentleman who told stories. At the end of one of them Madge's brother spoke to Joan in a tone more of sorrow than of anger.

"Hardly the sort of anecdote that a truly noble and high-minded young woman would have received with laughter," he commented.

"Did I laugh?" said Joan.

"Your having done so unconsciously only makes the matter worse," observed Mr. Singleton. "I had hoped it emanated from politeness, not enjoyment."

"Don't tease her," said Madge. "She's having an evening off."

Joan and the Singletons were the last to go. They promised to show Mr. Halliday a short cut to his hotel in Holborn.

"Have you thanked Miss Lessing for a pleasant evening?" asked Mr. Singleton, turning to Mr. Halliday.

He laughed and put his arm round her. "Poor little woman," he said. "You're looking so tired. It was jolly at the end." He kissed her.

He had passed through the swing doors; and they were standing on the pavement waiting for Joan's bus.

"Why did we all like him?" asked Joan. "Even Miss Lavery. There's nothing extraordinary about him."

"Oh yes there is," said Madge. "Love has lent him gilded armour. From his helmet waves her crest," she quoted. "Most men look fine in that costume. Pity they can't always wear it."

The conductor seemed impatient. Joan sprang upon the step and waved her hand.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares