MoboReader > Literature > Vain Fortune

   Chapter 3 No.3

Vain Fortune By George Moore Characters: 20083

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Then he wandered, not knowing where he was going, still in the sensation of his escape, a little amused, and yet with a shadow of fear upon his soul, for he grew more and more conscious of the fact that he was homeless, if not quite penniless. Suddenly he stopped walking. Night was thickening in the street, and he had to decide where he would sleep. He could not afford to pay more than five or six shillings a week for a room, and he thought of Holloway, as being a neighbourhood where creditors would not be able to find him. So he retraced his steps, and, tired and footsore, entered the Tottenham Court Road by the Oxford Street end.

There the omnibuses stopped. A conductor shouted for fares, with the light of the public-house lamps on his open mouth. There was smell of mud, of damp clothes, of bad tobacco, and where the lights of the costermongers' barrows broke across the footway the picture was of a group of three coarse, loud-voiced girls, followed by boys. There were fish shops, cheap Italian restaurants, and the long lines of low houses vanished in crapulent night. The characteristics of the Tottenham Court Road impressed themselves on Hubert's mind, and he thought how he would have to bear for at least three weeks with all the grime of its poverty. It would take about that time to finish his play, and the neighbourhood would suit his purpose excellently well. So long as he did not pass beyond it he ran little risk of discovery, and to secure himself against friends and foes he penetrated farther northward, not stopping till he reached the confines of Holloway.

Then a little dim street caught his eye, and he knocked at the door of the first house exhibiting a card in the parlour window. But they did not let their bedroom under seven shillings, and this seemed to Hubert to be an extravagant price. He tried farther on, and at last found a clean room for six shillings. Having no luggage, he paid a week's rent in advance, and the landlady promised to get him a small table, on which he could write, a small table that would fit in somewhere near the window. She asked him when he would like to be called, and put the candlestick on the chair. Hubert looked round the room, and a moment sufficed to complete the survey. It was about seven feet long. The lower half of the window was curtained by a piece of muslin hardly bigger than a good-sized pocket-handkerchief; to do anything in this room except to lie in bed seemed difficult, and Hubert sat down on the bed and emptied out his pockets. He had just four pounds, and the calculation how long he could live on such a sum took him some time. His breakfast, whether he had it at home or in the coffee-house, would cost him at least fourpence. He thought he would be able to obtain a fairly good dinner in one of the little Italian restaurants for ninepence. His tea would cost the same as his breakfast. To these sums he must add twopence for tobacco and a penny for an evening paper-impossible to do without tobacco, and he must know what was going on in the world. He could therefore live for one shilling and eightpence a day-eleven shillings a week-to which he would have to add six shillings a week for rent, altogether seventeen shillings a week. He really did not see how he could do it cheaper. Four times seventeen are sixty-eight; sixty-eight shillings for a month of life, and he had eighty shillings-twelve shillings for incidental expenses; and out of that twelve shillings he must buy a shirt, a sponge, and a tooth brush, and when they were bought there would be very little left. He must finish his play under the month. Nothing could be clearer than that.

Next morning he asked the landlady to let him have a cup of tea and some bread and butter, and he ate as much bread as he could, to save himself from being hungry in the middle of the day. He began work immediately, and continued until seven, and feeling then somewhat light-headed, but satisfied with himself, went to the nearest Italian restaurant. The food was better than he expected; but he spent twopence more than he had intended, so, to accustom himself to a life of strict measure and discipline, he determined to forego his tea that evening. And so he lived and worked until the end of the week.

But the situation he had counted on to complete his fourth act had proved almost impracticable in the working out; he laboured on, however, and at the end of the tenth day at least one scene satisfied him. He read it over slowly, carefully, thought about it, decided that it was excellent, and lay down on his bed to consider it. At that moment it struck him that he had better calculate how much he had spent in the last ten days. He gathered himself into a sitting posture and counted his money; he had spent thirty shillings, and at that rate his money would not hold out till the end of the month. He must reduce his expenditure; but how? Impossible to find a room where he could live more cheaply than in the one he had got, and it is not easy to dine in London on less than ninepence. Only the poor can live cheaply. He pressed his hands to his face. His head seemed like splitting, and his monetary difficulty, united with his literary difficulties, produced a momentary insanity. Work that morning was impossible, so he went out to study the eating-houses of the neighbourhood. He must find one where he could dine for sixpence. Or he might buy a pound of cooked beef and take it home with him in a paper bag; but that would seem an almost intolerable imprisonment in his little room. He could go to a public-house and dine off a sausage and potato. But at that moment his attention was caught by black letters on a dun, yellowish ground: 'Lockhart's Cocoa Rooms.' Not having breakfasted, he decided to have a cup of cocoa and a roll.

It was a large, barn-like place, the walls covered with a coat of grey-blue paint. Under the window there was a zinc counter, with zinc urns always steaming, emiting odours of tea, coffee, and cocoa. The seats were like those which give a garden-like appearance to the tops of some omnibuses. Each was made to hold two persons, and the table between them was large enough for four plates and four pairs of hands. A few hollow-chested men, the pale vagrants of civilisation, drowsed in the corners. They had been hunted through the night by the policeman, and had come in for something hot. Hubert noted the worn frock-coats, and the miserable arms coming out of shirtless sleeves. One looked up inquiringly, and Hubert thought how slight had become the line that divided him from the outcast. A serving-maid collected the plates, knives and forks, when the customers left, and carried them back to the great zinc counter.

Impressed by his appearance, she brought him what he had ordered and took the money for it, although the custom of the place was for the customer to pay for food at the counter and carry it himself to the table at which he chose to eat. Hubert learnt that there was no set dinner, but there was a beef-steak pudding at one, price fourpence, a penny potatoes, a penny bread. So by dining at Lockhart's he would be able to cut down his daily expense by at least twopence; that would extend the time to finish his play by nearly a week. And if his appetite were not keen, he could assuage it with a penny plum pudding; or he could take a middle course, making his dinner off a sausage and mashed potatoes. The room was clean, well lighted, and airy; he could read his paper there, and forget his troubles in the observation of character. He even made friends. An old wizen creature, who had been a prize-fighter, told him of his triumphs. If he hadn't broke his hand on somebody's nose he'd have been champion light-weight of England. 'And to think that I have come to this,' he added emphatically. 'Even them boys knock me about now, and 'alf a century ago I could 'ave cleared the bloomin' place.' There was a merry little waif from the circus who loved to come and sit with Hubert. She had been a rider, she said, but had broken her leg on one occasion, and cut her head all open on another, and had ended by running away with some one who had deserted her. 'So here I am,' she remarked, with a burst of laughter, 'talking to you. Did you never hear of Dolly Dayrell?' Hubert confessed that he had not. 'Why,' she said, 'I thought every one had.'

About eight o'clock in the evening, the table near the stairs was generally occupied by flower-girls, dressed in dingy clothes, and brightly feathered hats. They placed their empty baskets on the floor, and shouted at their companions-men who sold newspapers, boot-laces, and cheap toys. About nine the boys came in, the boys who used to push the old prize-fighter about, and Hubert soon began to perceive how representative they were of all vices-gambling, theft, idleness, and cruelty were visible in their faces. They were led by a Jew boy who sold penny jewellery at the corner of Oxford Street, and they generally made for the tables at the end of the room, for there, unless custom was slack indeed, they could defeat the vigilance of the serving-maid and play at nap at their ease. The tray of penny jewellery was placed at the corner of a table, and a small boy set to watch over it. His duty was also to shuffle his feet when the servant-maid approached, and a precious drubbing he got if he failed to shuffle them loud enough. The ''ot un,' as he was nicknamed, always had a pack of cards in his pocket, and to annex everything left on the tables he considered to be his privilege. One day, when he was asked how he came by the fine carnation in his buttonhole, he said it was a present from Sally, neglecting to add that he had told the child to steal it from a basket which a flower-girl had just put down.

"'A dirty, hignominious lot, them boys is.'"

Hubert hated this boy, and once could not resist boxing his ears. The ''ot un' writhed easily out of his reach, and then assailed him with foul language, and so loud were his

words that they awoke the innocent cause of the quarrel, a weak, sickly-looking man, with pale blue eyes and a blonde beard. Hubert had protected him before now against the brutality of the boys, who, when they were not playing nap, divided their pleasantries between him and the decrepit prize-fighter. He came in about nine, took a cup of coffee from the counter, and settled himself for a snooze. The boys knew this, and it was their amusement to keep him awake by pelting him with egg-shells and other missiles. Hubert noticed that he had always with him a red handkerchief full of some sort of loose rubbish, which the boys gathered when it fell about the floor, or purloined from the handkerchief when they judged that the owner was sufficiently fast asleep. Hubert now saw that the handkerchief was filled with bits of coloured chalk, and guessed that the man must be a pavement artist.

'A dirty, hignominious lot, them boys is,' said the artist, fixing his pale, melancholy eyes on Hubert; 'bad manners, no eddication, and, above all, no respect.'

'They are an unmannerly lot-that Jew boy especially. I don't think there's a vice he hasn't got.'

The artist stared at Hubert a long time in silence. A thought seemed to be stirring in his mind.

'I'm speaking, I can see, to a man of eddication. I'm a fust-rate judge of character, though I be but a pavement artist; but a picture's none the less a picture, no matter where it is drawn. That's true, ain't it?'

'Quite true. A horse is a horse, and an ass is an ass, no matter what stable you put them into.'

The artist laughed a guttural laugh, and, fixing his pale blue porcelain eyes on Hubert, he said-

'Yes; see I made no bloomin' error when I said you was a man of eddication. A literary gent, I should think. In the reporting line, most like. Down in the luck like myself. What was it-drink? Got the chuck?'

'No,' said Hubert, 'never touch it. Out of work.'

'No offence, master, we're all mortal, we is all weak, and in misfortune we goes to it. It was them boys that drove me to it.'

'How was that?'

'They was always round my show; no getting rid of them, and their remarks created a disturbance; the perlice said he wouldn't 'ave it, and when the perlice won't 'ave it, what's a poor man to do? They are that hignorant. But what's the use of talking of it, it only riles me.' The blue-eyed man lay back in his seat, and his head sank on his chest. He looked as if he were going to sleep again, but on Hubert's asking him to explain his troubles, he leaned across the table.

'Well, I'll tell yer. Yer be an eddicated man, and I likes to talk to them that 'as 'ad an eddication. Yer says, and werry truly, just now, that changing the stable don't change an 'orse into a hass, or a hass into an 'orse. That is werry true, most true, none but a eddicated man could 'ave made that 'ere hobservation. I likes yer for it. Give us yer 'and. The public just thinks too much of the stable, and not enough of what's inside. Leastways that's my experience of the public, and I 'ave been a-catering for the public ever since I was a growing lad-sides of bacon, ships on fire, good old ship on fire.... I knows the public. Yer don't follow me?'

'Not quite.'

'A moment, and I'll explain. You'll admit there's no blooming reason except the public's blooming hignorance why a man shouldn't do as good a picture on the pavement as on a piece of canvas, provided he 'ave the blooming genius. There is no doubt that with them 'ere chalks and a nice smooth stone that Raphael-I 'ave been to the National Gallery and 'ave studied 'is work, and werry fine some of it is, although I don't altogether hold-but that's another matter. What was I a-saying of? I remember,-that with them 'ere chalks, and a nice smooth stone, there's no reason why a masterpiece shouldn't be done. That's right, ain't it? I ask you, as a man of eddication, to say if that ain't right; as a representative of the Press, I asks you to say.' Hubert nodded, and the pale-eyed man continued. 'Well, that's what the public won't see, can't see. Raphael, says I, could 'ave done a masterpiece with them 'ere chalks and a nice smooth stone. But do yer think 'e 'd 'ave been allowed? Do yer think the perlice would 'ave stood it? Do yer think the public would 'ave stood him doing masterpieces on the pavement? I'd give 'im just one afternoon. Them boys would 'ave got 'im into trouble, just as they did me. Raphael would 'ave been told to wipe them out just as I was.'

The conversation paused; and, half amused, half frightened, Hubert considered the pale vague face, and he was struck by the scattered look of aspiration that wandered in the pale blue eyes.

'I'll tell you,' said the man, growing more excited, and leaning further across the table; 'I'll tell you, because I knows you for an eddicated man, and won't blab. S'pose yer thinks, like the rest of the world, that the chaps wot smears, for it ain't drawing, the pavement with bits of bacon, a ship on fire, and the regulation oysters, does them out of their own 'eads?' Hubert nodded. 'I'm not surprised that you do, all the world do, and the public chucks down its coppers to the poor hartist; but 'e aint no hartist, no more than is them 'ere boys that did for my show.' Leaning still further forward, he lowered his voice to a whisper. 'They learns it all by 'art; there is schools for the teaching of it down in Whitechapel. They can just do what they learns by 'art, not one of them could draw that 'ere chair or table from natur'; but I could. I 'ave an original talent. It was a long time afore I found out it was there,' he said, tapping his forehead; 'but it is there,' he said, fixing his eyes on Hubert, 'and when it is there they can't take it away-I mean my mates-though they do laugh at my ideas. They call me "the genius," for they don't believe in me, but I believe in myself, and they laughs best that laughs last.... I don't know,' he said, looking round him, his eyes full of reverie, 'that the public liked my fancy landscapes better than the ship on fire, but I said the public will come to them in time, and I continued my fancy landscapes. But one day in Trafalgar Square it came on to rain very 'eavy, and I went for shelter into the National Gallery. It was my fust visit, and I was struck all of a 'eap, and ever since I can 'ardly bring myself to go on with the drudgery of the piece of bacon, and the piece of cheese, with the mouse nibbling at it. And ever since my 'ead 'as been filled with other things, though for a long time I could not make exactly out what. I 'ave 'eard that that is always the case with men that 'as an idea-daresay you 'ave found it so yourself. So in my spare time I goes to the National to think it out, and in studying the pictures there I got wery interested in a chap called Hetty, and 'e do paint the female form divine. I says to myself, Why not go in for lovely woman? the public may not care for fancy landscapes, but the public allus likes a lovely woman, and, as well as being popular, lovely woman is 'igh 'art. So, after dinner hour, I sets to work, and sketches in a blue sea with three bathers, and two boxes, with the 'orse's head looking out from behind one of the boxes. For a fust attempt at the nude, I assure you-it ain't my way to blow my own trumpet, but I can say that the crowd that 'ere picture did draw was bigger than any that 'ad assembled about the bits o' bacon and ship-a-fire of all the other coves. 'Ad I been let alone, I should 'ave made my fortune, but the crowd was so big and the curiosity so great that it took the perlice all their time to keep the pavement from being blocked. It wasn't that the public didn't like it enough, it was that the public liked it too much, that was the reason of my misfortune.'

'What do you mean?' said Hubert.

'Well, yer see them boys was a-hawking their cheap toys in the neighbourhood, and when they got wind of my success they comes round to see, and they remains on account of the crowd. Pockets was picked, I don't say they wasn't, and the perlice turned rusty, and then a pious old gent comes along, and 'earing the remarks of them boys, which I admit wasn't nice, complains to the hauthorities, and I was put down! Now, what I wants to know is why my art should be made to suffer for the beastly-mindedness of them 'ere boys.'

Hubert admitted that there seemed to be an injustice somewhere, and asked the artist if he had never tried again.

'Try again? Should think I did. When once a man 'as tasted of 'igh art, he can't keep his blooming fingers out of it. It was impossible after the success of my bathers to go back to the bacon, so I thought I would circumvent the hauthorities. I goes to the National Gallery, makes a sketch, 'ere it is,' and after some fumbling in his breast pocket, he produced a greasy piece of paper, which he handed to Hubert. 'S'pose yer know the picture?' Hubert admitted that he did not. 'Well, that is a drawing from Gainsborough's celebrated picture of Medora a-washing of her feet.... But the perlice wouldn't 'ave it any more than my original, 'e said it was worse than the bathers at Margaret, and when I told the hignorant brute wot it was, 'e said he wanted no hargument, that 'e wouldn't 'ave it.'

Hubert had noticed, during the latter part of the narrative, a look of dubious cunning twinkling in the pale eyes; but now this look died away, and the eyes resumed their habitual look of vague reverie.

'I've been 'ad up before the Beak: from him I expected more enlightenment, but he, too, said 'e wouldn't 'ave it, and I got a month. But I'll beat them yet, the public is on my side, and if it worn't for them 'ere boys, I'd say that the public could be helevated. They calls me "the genius," and they is right.' Then something seemed to go out like a flame, the face grew dim, and changed expression. 'It is 'ere all right,' he said, no longer addressing Hubert, but speaking to himself, 'and since it is there, it must come out.'

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