A youth came into the small tobacconist’s and inquired, across the counter, whether there happened to be in the neighbourhood a branch establishment of a well-known firm (mentioned by name) dealing in similar goods and guaranteeing to save the consumer thirty-three per cent. He required the information, it appeared, because he contemplated buying a packet of cigarettes.
No, said the proprietor (after he finished his speech and the youth had gone), not quite the limit. Near to the edge, I admit; but remembering my friend, Mr. Ardwick, I can’t say it’s what you’d call the highest possible. It was a privilege to know Ardwick; he was, without any doubt whatsoever, a masterpiece. I’ve give up all hopes of ever finding his equal.
p. 18He was a customer here at the time Mrs. Ingram had the shop—and when I say customer, of course I don’t mean that he ever handed over a single halfpenny. Mrs. Ingram had only been a widow for about a twelvemonth, and naturally enough she liked gentlemen’s society; and Ardwick, after he got his compensation out of the County Council—that, by the by, was one of his triumphs—he had nothing else to do, and he became very much attached to that chair what you’re sitting on now. He’d call in to have a look at the morning paper, and read it through from start to finish; later in the day he’d call to see the evening paper, and keep tight hold of it till he’d come to the name of the printers at the foot of the last page. Between whiles he’d pretend to make himself handy at dusting the counter, and help himself to a pipe of tobacco, out of the shag-jar. It was a pretty sight to see old Ardwick, before he left of an evening, talk, as he filled a pocket with matches out of the stand, about the way the rich robbed the poor.
Having caught sight of Mrs. Ingram’s pass-book that she was sending to the bank—he offered to post it, and walked all the p. 19way to Lombard Street and stuck to the twopence—Ardwick makes up his mind to take the somewhat desperate step of proposing to Mrs. I.
“Very kind of you,” she says, “but I fancy, Mr. Ardwick, you’re a shade too stingy to run in double harness with me. Poor Ingram,” she says, “was always freehanded with his money, and if I should ever get married again it will have to be to some one of a similar disposition. But thank you all the same,” she says, “for asking!”
Ardwick ran across his friend Kimball in Downham Road that evening and lent him a match, and said Kimball was the very party he wanted to meet. They had a long, confidential sort of talk together outside the fire-station, and they came to such high words that a uniformed man, who was talking to one of his girls, threatened to turn the hose on them. The two strolled down Kingsland Road in a cooler frame of mind, and when they said “Good-night” at the canal bridge Kimball promised to do the best for Mr. Ardwick that lay in his power. Kimball explained that he was not going to do it out of friendship, but mainly because his wife p. 20had recently docked his allowance, and, in consequence, he felt a grudge against the sex in general.
“I promise you,” said Mr. Ardwick, still shaking his hand, “that you won’t lose over the transaction.”
“Knowing you as I do,” remarked Kimball, “I quite recognise that it’ll take a bit of doing to make anything out of it.”
Mr. Ardwick was in the shop, here, the following afternoon. Mrs. Ingram felt surprised to see him at that hour, and she locks up the till pretty smartly and moves the box of World-Famed Twopenny Cheroots.
“Something you said, Mrs. Ingram,” he began, “has been worryin’ of me, and I’ve called round to talk it over. You seem to have got the impression in your mind that I’m, if anything, a trifle close with my money. I should like to convince you, ma’am, that you are doing me an injustice, and to prove it I’m going to adopt a very simple plan.”
“Have you brought back that watch of mine I gave you to get mended?”
“One topic at a time,” urged Mr. Ardwick. “My idea of benevolence is something wider and broader than that of most people.” He p. 21glanced at the clock. “What I propose to do is this. To the first customer what enters this shop after half-past three I shall present the sum of five pound.”
“Five quid,” he said, in a resolute sort of manner. “The first one, mind you, after half-past three. It wants two minutes to the half-hour now. All you’ve got to do, ma’am, is to stand where you are, and to judge whether I’m a man of a generous disposition or whether I’m the opposite.”
As the clock turned the half-hour an old woman came in and put down four farthings for snuff; when she had gone Mr. Ardwick mentioned that he knew for a fact that the clock was a trifle fast. An elderly gentleman in workhouse clothes came for a screw of tobacco; Mr. Ardwick pointed out to Mrs. Ingram that he never proposed to extend his offer to those supported by the State. Kimball arrived at twenty-five minutes to, and Mr. Ardwick glared at him privately for not keeping the appointment. Kimball bought a box of wooden matches, and was leaving the shop when Mr. Ardwick called him.
“My man,” he said, “your face and your p. 22general appearance suggest you are not one of those who are termed favourites of fortune. Tell me, now, have you ever been the recipient, so to speak, of a stroke of luck?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said Kimball, answering very respectfully.
“Never had a windfall of any kind? No sudden descent of manna from above? Very well, then.” Mr. Ardwick took out his cheque-book and asked Mrs. I. for pen and ink. “Be so kind as to give me your full name, and it will be my pleasure to hand you over a handsome gift. I hope you will lay out the sum to the best advantage, and I trust it may prove a turning-point, a junction as it were, in your life!”
Mr. Ardwick was talking across the counter to Mrs. Ingram about the pleasures of exercising charity, and the duty of those who possessed riches towards them who had none, when a most horrible idea seemed to occur to him, and he darted out of the shop like a streak of lightning. In Kingsland Road he just caught a motor-omnibus that was going towards the City, and on the way through Shoreditch he complained, whilst he mopped his forehead, because the conductor did not p. 23make the bus go quicker. Near Cornhill there was a block of traffic, and he slipped down and ran for his life. As he came near the bank he caught sight of Kimball descending the steps. Mr. Ardwick threw himself, exhausted, across a dustbin on the edge of the pavement, and burst into tears.
He mentioned to me afterwards that it was not so much the loss of the money that affected him as the knowledge that a fellow man had broke his word. That was what upset Mr. Ardwick. He tried to explain all this at the time to a City constable.
“You get away home,” advised the City constable, “and try to sleep it off. That’s your best plan. Unless you want me to take you down to Cloak Lane for the night.”
Mr. Ardwick felt very much hurt at this insinuation on his character, because, partly on account of his principles and partly because he hated giving money away, he was strict teetotal; but the remark furnished him with an idea, and he acted on it without a moment’s delay. He returned to Dalston Junction, and there, by great good luck, he found Kimball—Kimball smoking a big cigar and trying to persuade a railway-porter to accept one. p. 24Mr. Ardwick went up to him and took the cigar.
“I congratulate you ’eartily,” he said, slapping Kimball on the shoulder in a jolly sort of way. “There isn’t many that could brag of having done Samuel Ardwick in the eye, but I always admit it when I come across my superior. There’s only one favour I want you to grant.”
“You gave me the cheque, and I’ve got a perfect right to it. What we may have agreed upon beforehand has nothing whatever to do with the matter.”
“All I ask you to do,” went on Mr. Ardwick, “is to allow me to celebrate the occasion by inviting you to have a little snack at a restaurant close by. A meal, I mean. A proper dinner. Food, and a bottle of something with it.”
“This don’t sound like you,” remarked Kimball.
“I shan’t make the offer twice,” warned Mr. Ardwick.
Kimball strolled along with him rather reluctantly and somewhat suspiciously up Stoke Newington Road. Mr. Ardwick stopped outside an Italian eating-place, had a good p. 25look at the prices of everything in a brass frame near the doorway, gave a deep sigh, and led the way in.
It was here that, in my opinion, Mr. A. made a blunder; he admitted himself to me later that he was not acquainted with the quality of the wine or the capacity of his friend Kimball. The foreign waiter, being told confidentially that price was an object, recommended a quarter-bottle of what he called Vin Ordinaire at sevenpence. It was only when Kimball was starting on the fourth of these that Mr. Ardwick discovered he could have sent out for a full bottle at the cost of one-and-nine. He himself took no food and no beverage of any description, but just sat back, smoking the cigar, totting up the expenses, and keeping a watchful eye on his guest.
“Is it a fruity wine?” asked Mr. Ardwick, when the last quarter-bottle was opened. Kimball lifted up his glass.
“I shouldn’t like to say there was much of that about it,” he answered. “As a matter of fact, it doesn’t taste of anything.”
“But surely it goes to your head!”
“It goes to my head,” agreed Kimball, p. 26“because I put it there; but it don’t seem to have any effect on the brain. Sheer waste of my time, so far as I can gather.”
“Look here!” said Mr. Ardwick, with a determined effort. “I want to have a quiet talk with you. I’ve stood this very excellent meal, and it’s only right you should do something for me in return.”
“Anything within reason.”
“I’m not the man to ask you to do anything else. You’ve had your little joke at my expense and now my suggestion is that you hand across the five pounds, and we’ll both have a good laugh over the transaction. I admit you played your part uncommonly well. You ran it rather close, and if you’d been a minute or so later, my lad, you’d have found the bank closed, and then I could have stopped payment.”
“I got there,” said Kimball, “at one minute past four, and the doors were shut!”
Mr. Ardwick settled up, and told Kimball exactly what he thought of him.
“Imposing on generosity,” he said heatedly—“that’s your game!”
He went off home to write a letter to the bank, and to recognise that matters had, p. 27after all, turned out better than he might have expected. In the evening he made his usual call here, dressed up special, and evidently anxious to find out what sort of an effect his display of benevolence had made on Mrs. I.
“I can’t help seeing,” she said confidentially, taking the evening paper from another customer and handing it to Mr. Ardwick, “that I’ve, all along, done you an injustice. I liked your conversation, and I had no fault to find with your general behaviour; but somehow I had an idea that you rather over-did the economical.”
“If I come across a really deserving case,” remarked Mr. Ardwick modestly, “I’m prepared to give away my last penny. I don’t say I scatter my money broadcast, but when I do give I give liberally and with both hands.”
“I was telling the poor man,” said Mrs. Ingram, “that he ought to feel very much indebted to you. You’ve stood him on his feet, so to speak, and, whatever it may lead to, he’s only got you to thank.”
“Don’t make too much of a mere trifle.”
“I advised him to put half of it away in p. 28the Post Office, and use the other half to rig himself out in a new suit and look respectable.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted Mr. Ardwick, rather anxiously, “but when did you say all this to him?”
“About a hour or so ago,” she replied, “when he came in and asked me to change the cheque for him. Knowing all the circumstances, of course I didn’t hesitate a single moment!”
I was doing a bit of debt-collecting at the time, said the proprietor of the tobacconist’s shop, and that was how I became acquainted with Mrs. Ingram. She felt grateful over my success with what was undoubtedly a tough job, and one word led to another, and eventually I consented to propose to her. She’ll be down directly. Wait and have a glance at her, and tell me if you think I acted wisely.
Dazed by sudden introduction to a distinguished company, he glanced eagerly and confusedly around in the hope of finding some one who would give him a smile of encouragement. The most distinguished of all, seated opposite to him, acknowledged his bow and gave the order that a chair should be offered, and this was accepted.
Conversation did not immediately turn upon his affairs, and the delay enabled him to lean back and compose his mind; presently, no doubt, the others would switch discussion to the subject which excused his presence in this magnificent building. It had a strong scent of newness, a suggestion of the slate pencils used for the purpose of calculations in his early youth, calculations which were so often incorrect that he remembered p. 30how frequently in setting down a total he instinctively rubbed it out, under the impression that whatever he had written must be wrong. He did not become really clever in the management of figures until his London life began in Tooley Street, and that seemed a good many centuries ago. What was it, ’80 or ’81? February of ’80 it must have been; early part of February. Thirty-two years, that made him forty-six. He could remember the start quite clearly.
* * * * *
As he stepped out into a wooden shed that was called London Bridge Station, a matronly woman, to whom he gave assistance in finding an outside porter for her deal box, referred to him in a sentence of thanks as a smart little nipper, and this, an auspicious compliment, sent him to the barrier and out into Railway Approach with a good conceit of himself. In the telegraph-office he wrote on a form in a confident way, as though he had been used all his life to the dispatching of telegrams:
“Arrived safely. Good journey. Best love.—Ben.”
p. 31The clerk on the other side of the counter mentioned that it would stand a better chance of reaching its destination if the name and address of the recipient were filled in. This constituted something in the nature of a check, and in the adjoining parcels-office he endeavoured to apply a remedy by knocking peremptorily with twopence and demanding instant attention.
“In a hurry?” asked the porter, nettled. “Because, if so, you’d better wait till your hurry’s over. Bad enough to be ordered about by grown-ups; I’m certainly not going to be dictated to by slips of boys. D’you hear?”
He urged that no harm had been intended.
“What you intend,” said the porter, giving a snatch at the parcel, “and what you do are very different things. Now then, don’t stand there all day gazing! What d’you want me to do with this? Boil it, or what?”
The lad answered, with respect, that he desired it should be sent by Parcels Delivery to the Peckham address given on the label; the man inspected very carefully, in the evident hope of discovering some flaw or p. 32defect that would enable him to decline the commission. He had to be content with throwing it, with a whirl, through the air into a corner, snatching at the twopence and giving a curt order, “Now be off with you!” To the question concerning the whereabouts of Tooley Street, he replied that if the lad could fly, he might reach it in two seconds; assuming him not to be so exceptionally gifted, the time could be given as two minutes.
“Thank you, very much indeed, sir, for all your kindness.”
The man looked at him narrowly, to make certain that this remark was not intended as chaff, and, reassured on the point, came out of the office and walked with him down the slope, where they faced a large corner public-house plastered over with orange bills and, above, a banner which said imperatively “Vote for Clarke.”
The porter explained the meaning of all this, and made two prophecies: first, that Dizzy would, as a result of the day’s election, get a valentine; second, that Gladstone might be taken down a notch. Returning confidence for confidence, the lad told him this was his first day in London, and his p. 33father had urged him to be honest and straight. They parted on excellent terms.
The incident proved a faithful sample of the happenings of a wonderful day. On the first floor of the number which he held in his memory, the surroundings were so much at variance with early anticipations that he feared he had made some disastrous blunder, until Mr. Cruttwell, head of the firm, slapped him joyously on the shoulder, declaring he had arrived just in time to see the fun. The office was rather dark, because the windows were covered with election bills, but gas flared generously. Everybody, from the head down to a clerk only slightly older than the new lad, smoked pipes or cigars; some appeared inclined to smoke both at once. The head, raising his voice that it might be heard above the clatter, introduced him, and six men came over at once, saying:
“How do, young Stansfield? Wish you could manage this for me.”
And the lad found himself in the very thick of it, so to speak, without a moment’s delay. Cheering from the street below came now and again, startling him and causing him to rush to the windows in the endeavour to p. 34ascertain the cause; gentlemen with silk hats at the backs of their heads ran up two stairs at a time to ask how things were going, or to give news of how things were going, bringing tasks or appealing for them, roaring suggestions or shouting advice, talking privately in one corner and illustrating their arguments by pencilling figures on the wallpaper.
At eleven o’clock Mr. Cruttwell took him out, and, carrying a square brown-paper parcel of cards, he made the acquaintance of Southwark under lively circumstances. Mr. Cruttwell did not seem to know exactly what to be doing, but his plan was never to cease doing something, and he constantly appealed to the lad.
“Come along, come along, come along! Don’t lag, my boy, don’t lag!” or, “Now then, slowcoach! Have you gone to sleep again? Keep your eyes open, for goodness’ sake, or we shall never win!”
A most unfair suggestion, for the only founded charge against young Stansfield was that he stared at everything going on; shops arrested him, sandwichmen proved an effective bar to progress. In waiting outside a p. 35leather merchant’s in St. Thomas’s Street, a detachment of Borough youths of about his own age came up with a threatening air.
“Who you for?” they demanded menacingly.
“Find out!” he answered.
“Want your ’ead punched?”
“Yes!” he said.
Disinclined to comply with any request, they conferred amongst themselves.
“What’s inside that parcel? What’s inside that parcel? Going to tell us, or ain’t you?”
He began to feel terrified, and looked around for assistance. The people who were standing by did not seem to have any prejudices on one side or the other, and he was preparing to use his left arm as a guard and the parcel in his right hand as a weapon, when Mr. Cruttwell fortunately reappeared. The lads scampered off.
“You’re a plucky little chap,” said Mr. Cruttwell, in good humour after his call and slightly more rosy in complexion. “Some country youngsters would have been afraid.”
He proceeded to give a short political lecture as they strolled back under the arches to Tooley Street, asserting that the manner p. 36in which Stansfield had tackled the Borough lads should be the method adopted by Great Britain in dealing with Russia. Prince Gortschakoff might have counted himself clever, and was, no doubt, uncommonly wily, but we, too, had men just as ingenious, and this Gortschy had discovered, and others would discover to their cost. Mr. Cruttwell began to use oratorical gesture, and in one fine sweep of the arm sent the lad’s bowler hat into the roadway, restoring it with an apology that made the owner feel on a manly level with the best.
“Don’t go out to lunch,” said Mr. Cruttwell, “in case anything crops up. Send for it, and charge it to the office!”
* * * * *
He awoke from these thoughts on hearing his name mentioned, but some one interrupted with a deferential, “Will you excuse me, my lord, if I—” Leaning back, he went on with the glance over his shoulder at the past.
* * * * *
Easy to recall everything that stood on the table at the lunch in Tooley Street, partly because he assisted at the preparation. p. 37Acting under orders, he spread the sheets of a financial paper and, still obeying commands, accepted a sovereign, and, scurrying across the roadway, went up the steps, bolted over the Approach (with a dreadful fear that he might be run down by twenty omnibuses), and at the hotel made cautious purchases, rejecting so many cold fowls that the lady who served him called the manageress, demanding whether, as she had always understood, the birds were to be sold in chronological order, or whether a customer was to be permitted to make selection. The manageress decided that both parties to the contest were right, and encouraged the young woman with the reminder that, in view of the pressure of the day, everything that could be called eatable would probably be sold out before closing time.
So young Stansfield, taking the parcels and dear life in his hands, made once more the risky journey across the Approach. This over, the skating horses on the descent of Tooley Street gave him no terrors.
“No, no, no!” whispered one of the other juniors. “You mustn’t sit down with them, my rustic friend. We shall have to p. 38wait on them, and what they leave we—” He gave the remainder of the sentence in pantomime.
“Then I hope they won’t overdo it,” remarked the lad. “I begin to feel peckish.”
As lunch proceeded, the juniors cutting bread and filling glasses, men wearing favours who looked in at the doorway, crying, “Hallo, hallo! Feeding-time at the Zoo, eh?” were immediately invited to take knife and fork and help themselves, which they did with such enthusiasm that the juniors were near to the edge of tears, when Mr. Cruttwell stood up and said:
“Now, then, let’s bustle about, or we shan’t get our man in!”
The three clerks under twenty appeared to have some idea of compelling young Stansfield to attend upon them, but he pointed out that this arrangement would leave nobody to wait upon him, and he expressed a strong and decided preference for the principle of share and share alike. They gave in, robbing the act of some of its grace by pointing out that this must on no account be taken as a precedent, and that his good fortune in beginning London life on such a wonderful p. 39day did not mean that his business career would consist entirely of a beanfeast.
They also introduced him, rather severely, to certain table manners which he had not hitherto met, and he found himself greatly obstructed by a rule which prevented one from holding the leg of a fowl and dispensing with the assistance of a knife. The remains of a very fine old Stilton struck him as possessing a flavour entirely different from the American or Dutch to which he had been accustomed at home; the drawback was that you could not eat much of it.
“Do you smoke, Stansfield?”
“I’m not a slave to it!”
“You soon will be,” they prophesied. “Find the matches for us.”
As they puffed at their pipes, he read the financial journal spread upon the table, beginning with a casual attention, presently becoming interested. One or two points were dim to him, and he asked questions, but the others were either not completely informed, or they preferred to reserve the knowledge for private use, and they failed to explain to him why, if the newspaper people were aware that certain investments could p. 40not fail to be remunerative, the newspaper people gave the valuable tip away, instead of reserving it for their own personal benefit.
The three appeared more at home on another question, and he, having once drawn Silvio in a Derby sweepstake, could contribute something to this discussion. They told him a useful man was always to be found near the cab-rank in front of the Brighton Company’s station, to whom a shilling or more could be safely confided.
The talk on this subject became animated; they gave the new lad some absolutely safe and certain news concerning a horse running in the next month, news which had come to them in a roundabout way, but starting, so they declared, from the brother of a jockey whose name they mentioned with bated breath. Young Stansfield suggested it would look well if they were to affect some engagement on business affairs; but the rest said, “Not for Joe!” They, however, agreed, very handsomely, that he could do as he pleased.
He cleared the table, filled waste-paper baskets with remnants, set desks in order, placed empty bottles out of the way. Thus he proved the only one who was giving any p. 41signs of work when Mr. Cruttwell returned, in a state of some disturbance because of news he had received concerning the prospects of one of the two opposition candidates. Mr. Cruttwell distributed blame on the others by praising young Stansfield.
“This lad is going to get on in the world!” he asserted emphatically. “I flatter myself I’m a judge of character, and I don’t have to look twice at anybody. Simply disgraceful the way you youngsters loaf about and take no interest in anything but how to avoid work. Now then, set to, all of you, and follow his example. No wonder trade’s so bad. I shall be in again directly, and if I find any of you lolling about I shall simply—”.
They reproved the lad severely for marring an otherwise perfect day, and he hastened to inform them he had no more considerable taste for labour than that which they possessed; his only idea had been to avoid, by use of ingenuity, the disaster that had fallen upon them. He knew as well as they that nothing was to be gained by a too persistent attention to the desk, and he hoped time would succeed in persuading them he was worthy of their companionship.
p. 42They gave in reluctantly, and before the seniors returned had given him some useful hints, which he stored carefully in the recesses of his brain.
The arrangement made by his mother was that he should reach Peckham by seven o’clock, and he felt anxious to do this, for Aunt Mabel was a cheery, irresponsible person who, on her rare visits to the country, always brought a budget of amusing songs and some excellent riddles; there seemed good reason to hope that life at Peckham would be free from the close and rigid supervision exercised at home. But the others said the announcement of the election result would be the event of a lifetime, something that might never happen again, and he stayed on till a late hour, enjoying the noisy crowds and the turbulent rushes, and responding to shouted appeals for three cheers. When the poll was declared, he joined in the exultant shrieks of triumph, and a stout old lady from Long Lane insisted upon teaching him an Irish jig. Mr. Cruttwell found him, shook hands heartily, and told him the nation was perfectly sound at heart.
p. 43As he went in the direction of Peckham he found in his pocket the change given at the International Hotel. It had not been asked for, it would probably not now be asked for. Before reaching Bricklayers’ Arms he came to the decision to invest a part, and to back Vendetta. A wonderful beginning!
* * * * *
His name was again mentioned. He stood up, gripping the bar in front of him.
“Benjamin Stansfield,” recited the clerk, seated below the judge, “you are charged for that you—feloniously and fraudulently—” A rumble of words. “How say you, Benjamin Stansfield: are you guilty, or not guilty?”
“Guilty!” he replied.