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The Town Traveller By George Gissing Characters: 11843

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

A square-imposing houses about a space of verdure. That was what Christopher perceived as he looked wildly round, flung back the apron, jumped out. His position was awful; voices of the persons alighting from the brougham seemed to sound at his very ear; he had become one of the party; the man in evening dress stared at him. But even in this dread moment so bent was he on fulfilling his mission that he at once cast an eye over the front of the house to fix it in his memory. There was a magnificent display of flowers at every window; the houses immediately right and left had no flowers at all.

Then he fumbled for money. Coppers, a sixpence, a shilling, no other small change, and he durst not offer so little as eighteenpence. (However, Heaven be thanked! the people had gone in and the brougham was moving away.) In his purse he had half a sovereign.

"Got change?" he inquired as boldly as possible.

"How much?" returned the driver curtly, for he had noticed with curiosity that his fare exchanged no greeting with the carriage people and that the door was shut.

"Change for half a sovereign. Seven shillings would do."

"Ain't got it. See, fourpence in 'apence, that's all."

The man's eye began to alarm Christopher. He shook with indecision, he gulped down his bitterness, he handed the golden coin.

"All right; never mind change."

"Thanky, sir. Good night."

And Mr. Parish was alone on the pavement. So grievously did he feel for the loss of that half-sovereign that for some moments he could think of nothing else. His heart burned against Polly. What had she got to do with those people in the big house? How could he be sure that it did not imply some shameful secret? And he must go throwing away his hard-earned money! Gladly he would have spent it on a supper for Polly; but to pay ten shillings for a half-crown drive! A whole blessed half-sovereign!

Another carriage drove up and stopped at the next house. Christopher remembered that he must discover the address, an easy matter enough. He found that the square was called Stanhope Gardens; he noted the number of the house with flowers. Then, weary, disgusted, he started on his eastward walk. Omnibuses, of course, there were none. The chance of a train at some underground station seemed too doubtful to think about; in any case he had no more money to waste.

On he plodded, heavily, angrily-Cromwell Road, Brompton Road, at last Piccadilly, and so into familiar districts, though he had never walked here so late at night. Of course there would be nasty questions to-morrow; Theodore would look grave, and Ada would be virtuously sour, and his mother-but perhaps they would not worry her by disclosing such things. Unaccustomed to express himself with violence, Christopher at about half-past twelve found some relief in a timid phrase or two of swearing.

When he reached Shaftesbury Avenue he was dog-tired. The streets had now become very quiet; he felt a doubt as to the possibility of knocking at a house door. But Polly had said he was to do so, be the hour what it might. The front of the house was dark, not a glimmer in any windows. Doubtfully he drew near and knocked thrice.

Minutes passed, nearly five, in fact, then he knocked again. He would wait five minutes more, and then-

But the door softly opened.

"That you?" said Polly's voice.

"Yes, it is."

She opened the door wide, and he saw by the light from the street that she was dressed as usual.

"How late you are! Well? Can't you speak?"

"I'm dead beat, that's the truth," he replied, leaning against the door-post. "Walked back all the way from South Kensington."

"Oh, it was there, was it?" said Polly, without heed to his complaint. "What's the address?"

"I tell you what, Polly," broke from Christopher's dry lips, "I think you might show a bit more feeling for a fellow when he's walked himself to death-"

"You might have took a cab just for this once."

"A cab! Why, the other one cost me half a sovereign!"

"Half a sovereign!" echoed Polly in amazement. "To South Kensington!"

It did not occur to Mr. Parish that such a detail might be left unmentioned. In these little matters there is a difference between class and class. Polly was not, of course, surprised at his letting her know what the mission had cost him, but the sum made her indignant.

"Well, he had you, that cabby!"

Christopher related the circumstances, still leaning in exhaustion against the door-post, and Miss Sparkes, who under no conceivable stress could have suffered herself to be so "done out of" a piece of gold, scarcely knew whether to despise or to pity him. After all, a compassionate feeling prevailed, sure sign that there was something disinterested in her association with this young man.

"I'm very sorry," she said; "I never thought it 'ud cost you that much."

"I shouldn't care a bit," Christopher replied, "if you treated me better now I've got here."

Polly moved just a little nearer to him, ever so little, but the movement was appreciable. Unfortunately Christopher was too weary to notice it.

"What was the address?" she asked in an undertone, which, had but Mr. Parish understood, fitly accompanied that little movement.

He told her bluntly, and Polly repeated the words

"And now I suppose I may say good night," Christopher added, still with discontent.

"Well, thank you very much for getting me that address."

"But you won't tell me what you want it for?"

"I will some time. I can't just now. It's awful late, and we mustn't stand talking here."

Again she came one step nearer. Now if Christopher Parish had not lost half a Sovereign, or if he had been less worn out, or if the mystery of the evening had not lain so heavy on his mind, assuredly he would have noticed this onward coming; for, as a rule, the young man was sensitive and perceptive enough, all things consider

ed. Alas! he did not look into Polly's face, which in the dusk of the doorway had turned towards his.

"I'll be going then," he muttered. "Good night. Jolly long walk before me still."

"I'm very sorry. I am, really."

"Oh, never mind! When shall I see you again?"

The crucial moment was past. Polly drew a step back and held the door.

"I'll write before long. Good night, and thank you."

Mr. Parish plodded away down the avenue, saying to himself that he was blest if he'd be made a fool of like this much longer.

The next morning Polly wrote a line to Mr. Gammon, and two days later, on Sunday, they met in that little strip of garden on the Embankment which lies between Charing Cross Station and Waterloo Bridge. It was the first week of October; a cold wind rustled the yellowing plane trees, and open-air seats offered no strong temptation. The two conversed as they walked along. Polly had not mentioned in her letter any special reason for wishing to see Mr. Gammon, nor did she hasten to make known her discovery.

"Why do you wear a 'at like that on a Sunday?" she began by asking, tartly.

"Because it's comfortable, I suppose," answered Gammon, reflecting for the first time that it was not very respectful to come to this rendezvous in a "bowler." Polly had never mentioned the matter before, though she had thought about it. "You like the chimney-pot better?"

"Why, of course I do. On a Sunday, too, who wouldn't?"

"I'll bear it in mind, my dear. My chimney-pot wants ironing. Have it done to-morrow if I can find time."

Polly scrutinized the costume of a girl walking with a soldier, and asked all at once indifferently:

"Do you know anybody called Gildersleeve?"

"Gildersleeve? Don't think so. No. Why?"

She searched his face to make sure that he did not simulate ignorance.

"Well, you wanted me to find out where that lady lived-you know-her as was with Mr. C-at the theatre."

"And you've got it?" cried Gammon excitedly.

Yes, she had got it, and by consulting a directory at a public-house she had discovered the name of the family residing at that address. Gildersleeve? The name conveyed nothing to Mr. Gammon; none the less he was delighted.

"Good for you, Polly! But how did you do it?"

She put on an air of mystery. Never mind how; there was the address, if he could make any use of it. Gammon smiled provokingly.

"Some friend of yours, eh? You're well off for friends, Polly. I ask no questions, my dear; no business of mine. Much obliged to you, all the same."

"If you're so particular about who it was," said Polly, with her air of pique and propriety, "well, it's a boy. So you needn't look at me like that."

"A boy, eh?"

"Well, that's what I think him. He's a young clurk in the City as I've known long enough, and I think him a boy. Of course you're always ready to believe harm of me-that's nothing new. And if the truth was known, you go talkin' to Mrs. Bubb and them Cheesemans."

"I don't! I told you I shouldn't, and I don't!"

"You do!"

"It's a lie!"

"You're one yourself!" retorted Polly with heat.

Thereupon Mr. Gammon turned about and walked off. Polly could not believe that he would really go. Scorning to look back she paced on for some minutes, but no familiar step approached her; when at length she looked round Mr. Gammon was nowhere to be seen. This extraordinary behaviour she attributed to jealousy, and so was not entirely displeased. But the idea of leaving her in the middle of the street, as one might say! Did one ever! And just after he'd got what he wanted.

"All right, old fellow! Wait till you want to see me again, that's all."

To have his word disbelieved was the one thing fatal to Gammon's temper. He strode off in a towering rage, determined to hold no more communication with Miss Sparkes, and blaming himself for having got into such an ambiguous position towards her. As if he had ever really cared one snap of the fingers for the red-headed spitfire! She to tell him to his face that his word was not to be trusted! He had never stood that yet, from man or woman!

At this rate he would presently have no female friends at all. Mrs. Clover he had not once seen since the evening at Mrs. Bubb's, and every day that went by put a greater distance between them. He understood her unfriendliness; she thought this the best way of destroying any hopes he might still entertain with reference to Minnie; yes, that was the only possible explanation of her silence. It was too bad; Mrs. Clover might have put more faith in him. Now he would not visit her; he would not write. If she wished to see him again, let her acknowledge the wrong she had done him.

As for the muddle about her husband, be hanged to it! He would think no more about the business. Ten to one this address that Polly had obtained would be quite useless. How could he go to strangers (named Gildersleeve) and coolly inquire of them whether they knew a man named Clover? Of course they would have him kicked into the street, and Serve him right.

Polly and her boy! A young City clerk, eh? Old enough to wear a chimney-pot, he'd be bound. Polly was fond of chimney-pots. There, he had done with her, and with Clover and Quodling and Gildersleeve, and all the rest of the puzzle.

As he suddenly entered the house Moggie ran to him up the kitchen stairs.

"There's been a gentleman for you, Mr. Gammon."

"Oh! Who was it?"

"Mr. Greenacres, driving a trap, and the 'orse wouldn't stand still, and he said he'd see you some other time."

"Greenacre, eh? All right."

He sat for a quarter of an hour in his bedroom, unable to decide how he should spend the rest of the day. After all, perhaps, he ought not to have abandoned Polly so abruptly. In her own way she had been doing him a kindness, and as for her temper, well, she couldn't help it.

He would go to Dulwich and see the bow-wows.

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