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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 27679

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

PAUL looked from side to side at the palely lit faces of the spectators, trying to distinguish Barney Bill and Jane. But he did not see them. He was disappointed and depressed, seized with a curious yearning for his own people. Vehicle after vehicle drew up and carried away the remainder of the platform group, and Paul was left in the doorway with the President and Honorary Secretary of the local lodge. The little crowd began to melt away. Suddenly his heart leaped and, after a hasty good night to the two officials, he sprang forward and, to their astonishment, gripped the hand of a bent and wizened old man.

"Barney Bill! This is good. Where is Jane?"

"Close by," said Bill.

The President and Honorary Secretary waved farewells and marched away. Out of the gloom came Jane, somewhat shyly. He took both her hands and looked upon her, and laughed. "My dear Jane! What ages since we lost each other!"

"Seven years, Mr. Savelli."

"'Mr. Savelli!' Rubbish! Paul."

"Begging your pardon," said Barney Bill, "but I've got a pal 'ere what I've knowed long before you was born, and he'd like to tell yer how he enjoyed your speech."

A tall man, lean and bearded, and apparently very well dressed, came forward.

"This is my old pal, Silas Finn," said Bill.

"Delighted to meet you, Mr. Finn," said Paul, shaking hands.

"I too," said the man gravely.

"Silas Finn's a Councillor of the Borough," said Bill proudly.

"You should have been on the platform," said Paul.

"I attended in my private capacity," replied Mr. Finn.

He effaced himself. Paul found himself laughing into Barney Bill's twinkling eyes. "Dear old Bill," he cried, clapping his old friend on the shoulder. "How are things going? How's the caravan? I've looked out for it on so many country roads."

"I'm thinking of retiring," said Bill. "I can only do a few summer months now-and things isn't what they was."

"And Jane?" He turned to her.

"I'm Mr. Finn's secretary."

"Oh," said Paul. Mr. Finn, then, was an important person.

The drill hall attendant shut the door, and save for the street lamps they were in gloom. There was an embarrassed little silence. Paul broke it by saying: "We must exchange addresses, and fix up a meeting for a nice long talk."

"If you would like to have a talk with your old friends now, my house is at your disposal," said Mr. Finn, in a soft, melancholy voice. "It is not far from here."

"That's very kind of you-but I couldn't trespass on your hospitality."

"Gor bless you," exclaimed Barney Bill. "Nothing of the kind. Didn't I tell yer I've knowed him since we was lads together? And Jane lives there."

Paul laughed. "In that case-"

"You'll be most welcome," said Mr. Finn. "This way."

He went ahead with Barney Bill, whose queer side limp awoke poignant memories of the Bludston brickfield. Paul followed with Jane.

"And what have you been doing?" he asked.

"Typewriting. Then Bill came across Mr. Finn, whom he hadn't seen for years, and got me the position of secretary. Otherwise I've been doing nothing particular."

"If you knew what a hunt I had years ago to find you," he said, and began to explain the set of foolish circumstances when they turned the corner of the drill hall and found a four-wheeled cab waiting.

"I had already engaged it for my friends and myself," Mr. Finn explained. "Will you get in?"

Jane and Paul and Mr. Finn entered the cab. Barney Bill, who liked air and for whom the raw November night was filled apparently with balmy zephyrs, clambered in his crablike way next the driver. They started.

"What induced you to come to-night?" Paul asked.

"We saw the announcement in the newspapers," replied Jane. "Barney Bill said the Mr. Paul Savelli could be no one else but you. I said it couldn't."

"Why?" he asked sharply.

"There are heaps of people of the same name."

"But you didn't think I was equal to it?"

She laughed a short laugh. "That's just how you used to talk. You haven't changed much."

"I hope I haven't," replied Paul earnestly. "And I don't think you've changed either."

"Very little has happened to change me," said Jane.

The cab lumbered on through dull, dimly lit, residential roads. Only by the swinging gleam of an occasional street lamp could Paul distinguish the faces of his companions. "I hope you're on our side, Mr. Finn," he said politely to his host, who sat on the small back seat.

"I don't disagree with much that you said to-night. But you are on the side of wealth and aristocracy. I am on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed."

"But so am I," cried Paul. "The work of every day of my life tends to help them."

"You're a Conservative and I'm a Radical."

"What do labels matter? We're both attacking the same problem, only from different angles."

"Very likely, Mr. Savelli; but you'll pardon me if, according to my political creed, I regard your angle as an obtuse one."

Paul wondered greatly who he could be, this grave, intelligent friend of Barney Bill's, who spoke with such dignity and courtesy. In his speech was a trace of rough accent; but his words were chosen with precision.

"You think we glance off, whereas your attack is more direct," laughed Paul.

"That is so. I hope you don't mind my saying it. You were the challenger."

"I was. But anyhow we're not going to be enemies."

"God forbid," said Mr. Finn.

Presently the cab stopped before a fairly large detached house standing back from the road. A name which Paul could not decipher was painted on the top bar of the gate. They trooped through and up some steps to the front door, which Mr. Finn opened with his latchkey. The first impression that Paul had on entering a wide vestibule was a blaze of gilt frames containing masses of bright, fresh paint. A parlour-maid appeared, and helped with hats and coats.

"We are having a very simple supper, Mr. Savelli. Will you join us?" said Mr. Finn.

"With the greatest pleasure," said Paul.

The host threw open the dining-room door on the right. Jane and Paul entered; were alone for a few moments, during which Paul heard Barney Bill say in a hoarse whisper: "Let me have my hunk of bread and beef in the kitchen, Silas. You know as how I hates a fork and I likes to eat in my shirt sleeves."

Paul seized Jane by the arms and regarded her luminously. He murmured: "Did you hear? The dear old chap!"

She raised clear, calm eyes. "Aren't you shocked?"

He shook her. "What do you take me for?"

Jane was rebellious. "For what girls in my position generally call a 'toff.' You--"

"You're horrid," said Paul.

"The word's horrid, not me. You're away up above us."

"'Us' seems to be very prosperous, anyhow," said Paul, looking round him. Jane watched him jealously and saw his face change. The dining room, spaciously proportioned, was, like the vestibule, a mass of gilt frames and staring paint. Not an inch of wall above the oak dado was visible. Crude landscapes, wooden portraits, sea studies with waves of corrugated iron, subject pictures of childishly sentimental appeal, blinded the eyes. It looked as if a kindergarten had been the selecting committee for an exhibition of the Royal Academy. It looked also as if the kindergarten had replaced the hanging committee also. It was a conglomerate massacre. It was pictorial anarchy. It was individualism baresark, amok, crazily frantic. And an execrably vile, nerve-destroying individualism at that.

Paul released Jane, who kept cool, defiant eyes on him.

"What do you think of it?"

He smiled. "A bit disconcerting."

"The whole house is like this."

"It's so new," said Paul.

He looked about him again. The long table was plainly laid for three at the far end. The fare consisted of a joint of cold beef, a cold tart suggestive of apple, a bit of Cheshire cheese, and celery in a glass vase. Of table decoration of any kind there was no sign. A great walnut monstrosity meagrely equipped performed the functions of a sideboard. The chairs, ten straight-backed, and two easy by the fireplace, of which one was armless, were upholstered in saddlebag, yellow and green. In the bay of the red-curtained window was a huge terra-cotta bust of an ivy-crowned and inane Austrian female. There was a great fireplace in which a huge fire blazed cheerily, and on the broad, deep hearth stood little coloured plaster figures of stags, of gnomes, of rabbits, one ear dropping, the other ear cocked, of galloping hounds unknown to the fancy, scenting and pursuing an invisible foe.

She watched him as he scanned the room.

"Who is Mr. Finn?" he asked in a low voice.

"Many years ago he was 'Finn's Fried Fish.' Now he's 'Fish Palaces, Limited.' They're all over London. You can't help seeing them even from a motor car."

"I've seen them," said Paul.

The argument outside the door having ended in a victory for the host, he entered the room, pushing Barney Bill gently in front of him. For the first time Paul saw him in the full light. He beheld a man sharply featured, with hair and beard, once raven-black, irregularly streaked with white-there seemed to be no intermediary shades of grey-and deep melancholy eyes. There hung about him the atmosphere of infinite, sorrowful patience that might mark a Polish patriot. As the runner of a successful fried fish concern he was an incongruity. As well, thought Paul, picture the late Cardinal Newman sharpening knife on steel outside a butcher's shop, and crying, "buy, buy," in lusty invitation. Then Paul noticed that he was oddly apparelled. He wore the black frock-coat suit of a Methodist preacher at the same time as the rainbow tie, diamond tie-pin, heavy gold watch-chain, diamond ring and natty spats of a professional bookmaker. The latter oddities, however, did not detract from the quiet, mournful dignity of his face and manner. Paul felt himself in the presence of an original personality.

The maid came in and laid a fourth place. Mr. Finn waved Paul to a seat on his right, Barney Bill to one next Paul; Jane sat on his left.

"I will ask a blessing," said Mr. Finn.

He asked one for two minutes in the old-fashioned Evangelical way, bringing his guest into his address to the Almighty with an almost pathetic courtesy. "I am afraid, Mr. Savelli," said he, when he sat down and began to carve the beef, "I have neither wine nor spirits to offer you. I am a strict teetotaller; and so is Miss Seddon. But as I knew my old friend Simmons would be unhappy without his accustomed glass of beer-"

"That's me," said Barney Bill, nudging Paul with his elbow. "Simmons. You never knowed that afore, did yer? Beg pardon, guv'nor, for interrupting."

"Well, there's a jug of beer-and that is all at this hour, except water, that I can put before you."

Paul declared that beer was delicious and peculiarly acceptable after public speaking, and demonstrated his appreciation by draining the glass which the maid poured out.

"You wanted that badly, sonny," said Barney Bill. "The next thing to drinking oneself is to see another chap what enjoys swallering it."

"Bill!" said Jane reprovingly.

Barney Bill cocked his white poll across the table with the perkiness of a quaint bird-Paul saw that the years had brought a striation of tiny red filaments to his weather-beaten face-and fixed her with his little glittering eyes. "Bill what? You think I'm 'urting his feelings?" He jerked a thumb towards his host. "I ain't. He thinks good drink's bad because bad has come of it to him-not that he ever took a drop too much, mind yer-but bad has come of it to him, and I think good drink's good because nothing but good has come of it to me. And we've agreed to differ. Ain't we, Silas?"

"If every man were as moderate as you, and I am sure as Mr. Savelli, I should have nothing to say against it. Why should I? But the working man, unhappily, is not moderate."

"I see," said Paul. "You preach, or advocate-I think you preach-total abstinence, and so feel it your duty to abstain yourself."

"That is so," said Mr. Finn, helping himself to mustard. "I don't wish to bore you with my concerns; but I'm a fairly large employer of labour. Now I have found that by employing only pledged abstainers I get extraordinary results. I exact a very high rate of insurance, towards a fund-I need not go into details-to which I myself contribute a percentage-a far higher rate than would be possible if they spent their earnings on drink. I invest the whole lot in my business-their stoppages from wages and my contributions. I guarantee them 3 per cent.; I give them, actually, the dividends that accrue to the holders of ordinary stock in my company. They also have the general advantages of insurance-sickness, burial, maternity, and so forth-that they would get from an ordinary benefit society."

"But that's enormous," cried Paul, with keen interest. "On the face of it, it seems impossible. It seems entirely uneconomic. Co-operative trading is one thing; private insurance another. But how can you combine the two?"

"The whole secret lies in the marvellously increased efficiency of the employee." He developed his point.

Paul listened attentively. "But," said he, when his host concluded, "isn't it rather risky? Supposing, for the sake of argument, your business failed."

Mr. Finn held up the lean, brown hand on which the diamond sparkled. "My business cannot fail."

Paul started. The assertion had a strange solemnity. "Without impertinence," said he, "why can't it fail?"

"Because God is guiding it," said Silas Finn.

The fanatic spoke. Paul regarded him with renewed interest. The black hair streaked with white, banging over the temples on the side away from the parting, the queerly streaked beard, the clear-cut ascetic featur

es, the deep, mournful eyes in whose depths glowed a soul on fire, gave him the appearance of a mad but sanctified apostle. Barney Bill, who profoundly distrusted all professional drinkers of water, such as Mr. Finn's employees, ate his cold beef silently, in the happy surmise that no one was paying the least attention to his misperformances with knife, fork and fingers. Jane looked steadily from Paul to Silas and from Silas to Paul.

Paul said: "How do you know God is guiding it?"

At the back of his mind was an impulse of mirth-there was a touch of humorous blasphemy in the conception of the Almighty as managing director of "Fish Palaces, Limited"-but the nominal earthly managing director saw not the slightest humour in the proposition.

"Who is guiding you in your brilliant career?" he asked.

Paul threw out his hands, in the once practised and now natural foreign gesture. "I'm not an atheist. Of course I believe in God, and I thank Him for all His mercies-"

"Yes, yes," said his host. "That I shouldn't question. But a successful man's thanks to God are most often merely conventional. Don't think I wish to be offensive. I only want to get at the root of things. You are a young man, eight-and-twenty-"

"How do you know that?" laughed Paul.

"Oh, your friends have told me. You are young. You have a brilliant position. You have a brilliant future. Were you born to it?"

There was Jane on the opposite side of the table, entirely uninterested in her food, looking at him in her calm, clear way. She was so wholesome, so sane, in her young yet mature English lower-class beauty. She had broad brows. Her mass of dark brown hair was rather too flawlessly arranged. He felt a second's irritation at not catching any playfully straying strand. She was still the Jane of his boyhood, but a Jane developed, a Jane from whom no secrets were hid, a searching, questioning and quietly disturbing Jane.

"A man is born to his destiny, whatever destiny may be," said Paul.

"That is Mohammedan fatalism," said Mr. Finn, "unless one means by destiny the guiding hand of the Almighty. Do you believe that you're under the peculiar care of God?"

"Do you, Mr. Finn?"

"I have said so. I ask you. Do you?"

"In a general way, yes," said Paul. "In your particular sense, no. You question me frankly and I answer frankly. You would not like me to answer otherwise."

"Certainly not," said his host.

"Then," Paul continued, with a smile, "I must say that from my childhood I have been fired with a curious certainty that I would succeed in life. Chance has helped me. How far a divine hand has been specially responsible, it isn't for me to conjecture. But I know that if I hadn't believed in myself I shouldn't have had my small measure of success."

"You believe in yourself?"

"Yes. And I believe in making others believe in me."

"That is strange-very strange." Mr. Finn fixed him with his deep, sorrowful eyes. "You believe that you're predestined to a great position. You believe that you have in you all that is needful to attain it. That has carried you through. Strange!" He put his hand to his temple, elbow on table, and still regarded Paul. "But there's God behind it all. Mr. Savelli," he said earnestly, after a slight pause, "you are twenty-eight; I am fifty-eight; so I'm more than old enough to be your father. You'll forgive my taking up the attitude of the older man. I have lived a life such as your friends on the platform to-night-honorable, clean, sweet people-I've nothing to say against them-have no conception. I am English, of course-London born. My father was an Englishman; but my mother was a Sicilian. She used to go about with a barrel-organ-my father ran away with her. I have that violent South in my blood, and I've lived nearly all my days in London. I've had to pay dearly for my blood. The only compensation it has given me is a passion for art"-he waved his lean, bediamonded hand towards the horrific walls. "That is external-in a way-mere money has enabled me to gratify my tastes; but, as I was saying, I have lived a life of strange struggle, material, physical, and"-he brought down his free hand with a bang on the table-"it is only by the grace of God and the never-ceasing presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ by my side, that-that I am able to offer you my modest hospitality this evening."

Paul felt greatly drawn to the man. He was beyond doubt sincere. He wore the air of one who had lived fiercely, who had suffered, who had conquered; but the air of one whose victory was barren, who was looking into the void for the things unconquerable yet essential to salvation. Paul made a little gesture of attention. He could find no words to reply. A man's deep profession of faith is unanswerable.

"Ah," said Barney Bill, "you ought to have come along o' me, Silas, years ago in the old 'bus. You mightn't have got all these bright pictures, but you wouldn't have had these 'ere gloomy ideas. I don't say as how I don't hold with Gawd," he explained, with uplifted forefinger and cocked head; "but if ever I thinks of Him, I like to feel that He's in the wind or in the crickle-crackle of the earth, just near and friendly like, but not a-worrying of a chap, listening for every cuss-word as he uses to his old horse, and measuring every half-pint he pours down his dusty throat. No. That ain't my idea of Gawd. But then I ain't got religion."

"Still the same old pagan," laughed Paul.

"No, not the same, sonny," said Barney Bill, holding up his knife, which supported a morsel of cheese. "Old. Rheumaticky. Got to live in a 'ouse when it rains-me who never keered whether I was baked to a cinder or wet through! I ain't a pagan no more. I'm a crock."

Jane smiled affectionately at the old man, and her face was lit with rare sweetness when she smiled. "He really is just the same," she said.

"He hasn't changed much in forty years," said Mr. Finn.

"I was a good Conservative then, as I am now," said Bill. "That's one thing, anyhow. So was you, Silas. But you had Radical leanings."

Barney Bill's remark set the talk on political lines. Paul learned that his host had sat for a year or more as a Progressive on the Hickney Heath Borough Council and aspired to a seat in Parliament.

"The Kingdom of Heaven," said he, not unctuously or hypocritically, but in his grave tone of conviction, "is not adequately represented in the House."

Paul pointed out that in the House of Lords one had the whole bench of Bishops.

"I'm not a member of the Established Church, Mr. Savelli," replied Mr. Finn. "I'm a Dissenter-a Free Zionist."

"I've heard him conduc' the service," said Barney Bill. "He built the Meeting House close by, yer know. I goes sometimes to try and get converted. But I'm too old and stiff in the j'ints. No longer a pagan, but a crock, sonny. But I likes to listen to him. Gorbli-bless me, it's a real bean feast-that's what it is. He talks straight from the shoulder, he does, just as you talked to-night. Lets 'em 'ave it bing-bang in the eye. Don't he, Jane?"

"Bill means," she explained, with the shadow of a smile, for Paul's benefit, "that Mr. Finn is an eloquent preacher."

"D'yer suppose he didn't understand what I meant?" he exclaimed, setting down the beer glass which he was about to raise to his lips. "Him, what I discovered reading Sir Walter Scott with the cover off when he was a nipper with no clothes on? You understood, sonny."

"Of course I did." He laughed gaily and turned to his host, who had suffered Barney Bill's queer eulogy with melancholy indulgence. "One of these days I should like to come and hear you preach."

"Any Sunday, at ten and six. You would be more than welcome."

The meal was over. Barney Bill pulled a blackened clay pipe from his waistcoat pocket and a paper of tobacco.

"I'm a non-smoker," said Mr. Finn to Paul, "and I'm sorry I've nothing to offer you-I see little company, so I don't keep cigars in the house-but if you would care to smoke--" he waved a courteous and inviting hand.

Paul whipped out his cigarette case. It was of gold-a present last Christmas from the Winwood fitting part of the equipment of a Fortunate Youth. He opened it, offered a cigarette to Barney Bill.

"Garn!" said the old man. "I smokes terbakker," and he filled his pipe with shag.

Mr. Finn rose from the table. "Will you excuse me, Mr. Savelli, if I leave you? I get up early to attend to my business. I must be at Billingsgate at half-past five to buy my fish. Besides, I have been preventing your talk with our friends. So pray don't go. Good-night, Mr. Savelli."

As he shook hands Paul met the sorrowful liquid eyes fixed on him with strange earnestness. "I must thank you for your charming hospitality. I hope you'll allow me to come and see you again."

"My house is yours."

It was a phrase-a phrase of Castilian politeness-oddly out of place in the mouth of a Free Zionist purveyor of fried fish. But it seemed to have more than a Castilian, more than a Free Zionist significance. He was still pondering over it when Mr. Finn, having bidden Jane and Barney Bill good-night, disappeared.

"Ah!" said Barney Bill, lifting up the beer jug in order to refill his glass, and checked whimsically by the fact of its emptiness. "Ah," said he, setting down the jug and limping round the table, "let us hear as how you've been getting on, sonny."

They drew their chairs about the great hearth, in which the idiotic little Viennese plaster animals sported in movement eternally arrested, and talked of the years that had passed. Paul explained once more his loss of Jane and his fruitless efforts to find her.

"We didn't know," said Jane. "We thought that either you were dead or had forgotten us-or had grown too big a man for us."

"Axing your pardon," said Barney Bill, taking his blackened clay from his lips and holding it between his gnarled fingers, "you said so. I didn't. I always held that, if he wasn't dead, the time would come when, as it was to-night, the three of us would be sitting round together. I maintained," he added solemnly after a puff or two, "that his heart was in the right place. I'm a broken-down old crock, no longer a pagan; but I'm right. Ain't I, sonny?" He thrust an arm into the ribs of Paul, who was sitting between them.

Paul looked at Jane. "I think this proves it."

She returned his look steadily. "I own I was wrong. But a woman only proves herself to be right by always insisting that she is wrong."

"My dear Jane," cried Paul. "Since when have you become so psychological?"

"Gorblime," said Barney Bill, "what in thunder's that?"

"I know," said Jane. "You"-to Paul-"were good enough to begin my education. I've tried since to go on with it."

"It's nothing to do with edication," said Barney Bill. "It's fac's. Let's have fac's. Jane and I have been tramping the same old high-road, but you've been climbing mountains-yer and yer gold cigarette cases. Let's hear about it."

So Paul told his story, and as he told it, it seemed to him, in its improbability, more like a fairy-tale than the sober happenings of real life.

"You've said nothing about the princess," Jane remarked, when he had ended.

"The princess?"

"Yes. Where does she come in?"

"The Princess Zobraska is a friend of my employers."

"But you and she are great friends," Jane persisted quietly. "That's obvious to anybody. I was standing quite close when you helped her into the motor car."

"I didn't see you."

"I took care you didn't. She looks charming."

"Most princesses are charming-when they've no particular reason to be otherwise," said Paul. "It is their metier-their profession."

There was a little silence. Jane, cheek on hand, looked thoughtfully into the fire. Barney Bill knocked' the ashes out of his pipe and thrust it in his pocket. "It's getting late, sonny."

Paul looked at his watch. It was past one o'clock. He jumped up. "I hope to goodness you haven't to begin work at half-past five," he said to Jane.

"No. At eight." She rose as he stretched out his hand. "You don't know what it is to see you again, Paul. I can't tell you. Some things are upsetting. But I'm glad. Oh, yes, I'm glad, Paul dear. Don't think I'm not."

Her voice broke a little. They were the first gentle words she had given him all the evening. Paul smiled and kissed her hand as he had kissed that of the princess, and, still holding it, said: "Don't I know you of old? And if you suppose I haven't thought of you and felt the need of you, you're very much mistaken. Now I've found you, I'm not going to let you go again."

She turned her head aside and looked down; there was the slightest movement of her plump shoulders. "What's the good? I can't do anything for you now, and you can't do anything for me. You're on the way to becoming a great man. To me, you're a great man already. Don't you see?"

"My dear, I was an embryonic Shelley, Raphael, Garrick, and Napoleon when you first met me," he said jestingly.

"But then you didn't belong to their-to their sphere. Now you do. Your friends are lords and ladies and-and princesses-"

"My friends," cried Paul, "are people with great true hearts-like the Winwoods-and the princess, if you like-and you, and Barney Bill."

"That's a sentiment as does you credit," said the old man. "Great true hearts! Now if you ain't satisfied, my dear, you're a damn criss-cross female. And yer ain't, are yer?' She laughed and Paul laughed. The little spell of intensity was broken. There were pleasant leave-takings.

"I'll set you on your road a bit," said Barney Bill. "I live in the neighbourhood. Good-bye, Jane."

She went with them to the front door, and stood in the gusty air watching them until they melted into the darkness.

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