My uncle was the first real breach I found in the great front of Bladesover the world had presented me, for Chatham was not so much a breach as a confirmation. But my uncle had no respect for Bladesover and Eastry—none whatever. He did not believe in them. He was blind even to what they were. He propounded strange phrases about them, he exfoliated and wagged about novel and incredible ideas.
“This place,” said my uncle, surveying it from his open doorway in the dignified stillness of a summer afternoon, “wants Waking Up!”
I was sorting up patent medicines in the corner.
“I’d like to let a dozen young Americans loose into it,” said my uncle. “Then we’d see.”
I made a tick against Mother Shipton’s Sleeping Syrup. We had cleared our forward stock.
“Things must be happening somewhere, George,” he broke out in a querulously rising note as he came back into the little shop. He fiddled with the piled dummy boxes of fancy soap and scent and so forth that adorned the end of the counter, then turned about petulantly, stuck his hands deeply into his pockets and withdrew one to scratch his head. “I must do something,” he said. “I can’t stand it.
“I must invent something. And shove it. . . . I could.
“Or a play. There’s a deal of money in a play, George. What would you think of me writing a play eh? . . . There’s all sorts of things to be done.
“Or the stog-igschange.”
He fell into that meditative whistling of his.
“Sac-ramental wine!” he swore, “this isn’t the world—it’s Cold Mutton Fat! That’s what Wimblehurst is! Cold Mutton Fat!—dead and stiff! And I’m buried in it up to the arm pits. Nothing ever happens, nobody wants things to happen ’scept me! Up in London, George, things happen. America! I wish to Heaven, George, I’d been born American—where things hum.
“What can one do here? How can one grow? While we’re sleepin’ here with our Capital oozing away into Lord Eastry’s pockets for rent-men are up there. . . . ” He indicated London as remotely over the top of the dispensing counter, and then as a scene of great activity by a whirl of the hand and a wink and a meaning smile at me.
“What sort of things do they do?” I asked.
“Rush about,” he said. “Do things! Somethin’ glorious. There’s cover gambling. Ever heard of that, George?” He drew the air in through his teeth. “You put down a hundred say, and buy ten thousand pounds worth. See? That’s a cover of one per cent. Things go up one, you sell, realise cent per cent; down, whiff, it’s gone! Try again! Cent per cent, George, every day. Men are made or done for in an hour. And the shoutin’! Zzzz. . . . Well, that’s one way, George. Then another way—there’s Corners!”
“They’re rather big things, aren’t they?” I ventured.
“Oh, if you go in for wheat or steel—yes. But suppose you tackled a little thing, George. Just some little thing that only needed a few thousands. Drugs for example. Shoved all you had into it—staked your liver on it, so to speak. Take a drug—take ipecac, for example. Take a lot of ipecac. Take all there is! See? There you are! There aren’t unlimited supplies of ipecacuanha—can’t be!—and it’s a thing people must have. Then quinine again! You watch your chance, wait for a tropical war breaking out, let’s say, and collar all the quinine. Where are they? Must have quinine, you know. Eh? Zzzz.
“Lord! there’s no end of things—no end of little things. Dill-water—all the suffering babes yowling for it. Eucalyptus again—cascara—witch hazel—menthol—all the toothache things. Then there’s antiseptics, and curare, cocaine. . . . ”
“Rather a nuisance to the doctors,” I reflected.
“They got to look out for themselves. By Jove, yes. They’ll do you if they can, and you do them. Like brigands. That makes it romantic. That’s the Romance of Commerce, George. You’re in the mountains there! Think of having all the quinine in the world, and some millionaire’s pampered wife gone ill with malaria, eh? That’s a squeeze, George, eh? Eh? Millionaire on his motor car outside, offering you any price you liked. That ’ud wake up Wimblehurst. . . . Lord! You haven’t an Idea down here. Not an idea. Zzzz.”
He passed into a rapt dream, from which escaped such fragments as: “Fifty per cent. advance sir; security—to-morrow. Zzzz.”
The idea of cornering a drug struck upon my mind then as a sort of irresponsible monkey trick that no one would ever be permitted to do in reality. It was the sort of nonsense one would talk to make Ewart laugh and set him going on to still odder possibilities. I thought it was part of my uncle’s way of talking. But I’ve learnt differently since. The whole trend of modern money-making is to foresee something that will presently be needed and put it out of reach, and then to haggle yourself wealthy. You buy up land upon which people will presently want to build houses, you secure rights that will bar vitally important developments, and so on, and so on. Of course the naive intelligence of a boy does not grasp the subtler developments of human inadequacy. He begins life with a disposition to believe in the wisdom of grown-up people, he does not realise how casual and disingenuous has been the development of law and custom, and he thinks that somewhere in the state there is a power as irresistible as a head master’s to check mischievous and foolish enterprises of every sort. I will confess that when my uncle talked of cornering quinine, I had a clear impression that any one who contrived to do that would pretty certainly go to jail. Now I know that any one who could really bring it off would be much more likely to go to the House of Lords!
My uncle ranged over the gilt labels of his bottles and drawers for a while, dreaming of corners in this and that. But at last he reverted to Wimblehurst again.
“You got to be in London when these things are in hand. Down here—!
“Jee-rusalem!” he cried. “Why did I plant myself here? Everything’s done. The game’s over. Here’s Lord Eastry, and he’s got everything, except what his lawyers get, and before you get any more change this way you’ll have to dynamite him—and them. He doesn’t want anything more to happen. Why should he? Any chance ’ud be a loss to him. He wants everything to burble along and burble along and go on as it’s going for the next ten thousand years, Eastry after Eastry, one parson down another come, one grocer dead, get another! Any one with any ideas better go away. They have gone away! Look at all these blessed people in this place! Look at ’em! All fast asleep, doing their business out of habit—in a sort of dream, Stuffed men would do just as well—just. They’ve all shook down into their places. They don’t want anything to happen either. They’re all broken in. There you are! Only what are they all alive for? . . .
“Why can’t they get a clockwork chemist?”
He concluded as he often concluded these talks. “I must invent something,—that’s about what I must do. Zzzz. Some convenience.
“Something people want. . . . Strike out. . . . You can’t think, George, of anything everybody wants and hasn’t got? I mean something you could turn out retail under a shilling, say? Well, you think, whenever you haven’t got anything better to do. See?”
So I remember my uncle in that first phase, young, but already a little fat, restless, fretful, garrulous, putting in my fermenting head all sorts of discrepant ideas. Certainly he was educational. . . .
For me the years at Wimblehurst were years of pretty active growth. Most of my leisure and much of my time in the shop I spent in study. I speedily mastered the modicum of Latin necessary for my qualifying examinations, and—a little assisted by the Government Science and Art Department classes that were held in the Grammar School—went on with my mathematics. There were classes in physics, in chemistry, in mathematics and machine drawing, and I took up these subjects with considerable avidity. Exercise I got chiefly in the form of walks. There was some cricket in the summer and football in the winter sustained by young men’s clubs that levied a parasitic blackmail of the big people and the sitting member, but I was never very keen at these games. I didn’t find any very close companions among the youths of Wimblehurst. They struck me, after my cockney schoolmates, as loutish and slow, servile and furtive, spiteful and mean. We used to swagger, but these countrymen dragged their feet and hated an equal who didn’t; we talked loud, but you only got the real thoughts of Wimblehurst in a knowing undertone behind its hand. And even then they weren’t much in the way of thoughts.
No, I didn’t like those young countrymen, and I’m no believer in the English countryside under the Bladesover system as a breeding ground for honourable men. One hears a frightful lot of nonsense about the Rural Exodus and the degeneration wrought by town life upon our population. To my mind, the English townsman, even in the slums, is infinitely better spiritually, more courageous, more imaginative and cleaner, than his agricultural cousin. I’ve seen them both when they didn’t think they were being observed, and I know. There was something about my Wimblehurst companions that disgusted me. It’s hard to define. Heaven knows that at that cockney boarding-school at Goudhurst we were coarse enough; the Wimblehurst youngsters had neither words nor courage for the sort of thing we used to do—for our bad language, for example; but, on the other hand, they displayed a sort of sluggish, real lewdness, lewdness is the word—a baseness of attitude. Whatever we exiled urbans did at Goudhurst was touched with something, however coarse, of romantic imagination. We had read the Boys of England, and told each other stories. In the English countryside there are no books at all, no songs, no drama, no valiant sin even; all these things have never come or they were taken away and hidden generations ago, and the imagination aborts and bestialises. That, I think, is where the real difference against the English rural man lies. It is because I know this that I do not share in the common repinings because our countryside is being depopulated, because our population is passing through the furnace of the towns. They starve, they suffer, no doubt, but they come out of it hardened, they come out of it with souls.
Of an evening the Wimblehurst blade, shiny-faced from a wash and with some loud finery, a coloured waistcoat or a vivid tie, would betake himself to the Eastry Arms billiard-room, or to the bar parlour of some minor pub where nap could be played. One soon sickened of his slow knowingness, the cunning observation of his deadened eyes, his idea of a “good story,” always, always told in undertones, poor dirty worm! his shrewd, elaborate maneuvers for some petty advantage, a drink to the good or such-like deal. There rises before my eyes as I write, young Hopley Dodd, the son of the Wimblehurst auctioneer, the pride of Wimblehurst, its finest flower, with his fur waistcoat and his bulldog pipe, his riding breeches—he had no horse—and his gaiters, as he used to sit, leaning forward and watching the billiard-table from under the brim of his artfully tilted hat. A half-dozen phrases constituted his conversation: “hard lines!” he used to say, and “Good baazness,” in a bass bleat. Moreover, he had a long slow whistle that was esteemed the very cream of humorous comment. Night after night he was there.
Also you knew he would not understand that I could play billiards, and regarded every stroke I made as a fluke. For a beginner I didn’t play so badly, I thought. I’m not so sure now; that was my opinion at the time. But young Dodd’s scepticism and the “good baazness” finally cured me of my disposition to frequent the Eastry Arms, and so these noises had their value in my world.
I made no friends among the young men of the place at all, and though I was entering upon adolescence I have no love-affair to tell of here. Not that I was not waking up to that aspect of life in my middle teens I did, indeed, in various slightly informal ways scrape acquaintance with casual Wimblehurst girls; with a little dressmaker’s apprentice I got upon shyly speaking terms, and a pupil teacher in the National School went further and was “talked about” in connection with me but I was not by any means touched by any reality of passion for either of these young people; love—love as yet came to me only in my dreams. I only kissed these girls once or twice. They rather disconcerted than developed those dreams. They were so clearly not “it.” I shall have much to say of love in this story, but I may break it to the reader now that it is my role to be a rather ineffectual lover. Desire I knew well enough—indeed, too well; but love I have been shy of. In all my early enterprises in the war of the sexes, I was torn between the urgency of the body and a habit of romantic fantasy that wanted every phase of the adventure to be generous and beautiful. And I had a curiously haunting memory of Beatrice, of her kisses in the bracken and her kiss upon the wall, that somehow pitched the standard too high for Wimblehurst’s opportunities. I will not deny I did in a boyish way attempt a shy, rude adventure or so in love-making at Wimblehurst; but through these various influences, I didn’t bring things off to any extent at all. I left behind me no devastating memories, no splendid reputation. I came away at last, still inexperienced and a little thwarted, with only a natural growth of interest and desire in sexual things.
If I fell in love with any one in Wimblehurst it was with my aunt. She treated me with a kindliness that was only half maternal—she petted my books, she knew about my certificates, she made fun of me in a way that stirred my heart to her. Quite unconsciously I grew fond of her. . . .
My adolescent years at Wimblehurst were on the whole laborious, uneventful years that began in short jackets and left me in many ways nearly a man, years so uneventful that the Calculus of Variations is associated with one winter, and an examination in Physics for Science and Art department Honours marks an epoch. Many divergent impulses stirred within me, but the master impulse was a grave young disposition to work and learn and thereby in some not very clearly defined way get out of the Wimblehurst world into which I had fallen. I wrote with some frequency to Ewart, self-conscious, but, as I remember them, not intelligent letters, dated in Latin and with lapses into Latin quotation that roused Ewart to parody. There was something about me in those days more than a little priggish. But it was, to do myself justice, something more than the petty pride of learning. I had a very grave sense of discipline and preparation that I am not ashamed at all to remember. I was serious. More serious than I am at the present time. More serious, indeed, than any adult seems to be. I was capable then of efforts—of nobilities. . . . They are beyond me now. I don’t see why, at forty, I shouldn’t confess I respect my own youth. I had dropped being a boy quite abruptly. I thought I was presently to go out into a larger and quite important world and do significant things there. I thought I was destined to do something definite to a world that had a definite purpose. I did not understand then, as I do now, that life was to consist largely in the world’s doing things to me. Young people never do seem to understand that aspect of things. And, as I say, among my educational influences my uncle, all unsuspected, played a leading part, and perhaps among other things gave my discontent with Wimblehurst, my desire to get away from that clean and picturesque emptiness, a form and expression that helped to emphasise it. In a way that definition made me patient. “Presently I shall get to London,” I said, echoing him.
I remember him now as talking, always talking, in those days. He talked to me of theology, he talked of politics, of the wonders of science and the marvels of art, of the passions and the affections, of the immortality of the soul and the peculiar actions of drugs; but predominantly and constantly he talked of getting on, of enterprises, of inventions and great fortunes, of Rothschilds, silver kings, Vanderbilts, Goulds, flotations, realisations and the marvelous ways of Chance with men—in all localities, that is to say, that are not absolutely sunken to the level of Cold Mutton Fat.
When I think of those early talks, I figure him always in one of three positions. Either we were in the dispensing lair behind a high barrier, he pounding up things in a mortar perhaps, and I rolling pill-stuff into long rolls and cutting it up with a sort of broad, fluted knife, or he stood looking out of the shop door against the case of sponges and spray-diffusers, while I surveyed him from behind the counter, or he leant against the little drawers behind the counter, and I hovered dusting in front. The thought of those early days brings back to my nostrils the faint smell of scent that was always in the air, marbled now with streaks of this drug and now of that, and to my eyes the rows of jejune glass bottles with gold labels, mirror-reflected, that stood behind him. My aunt, I remember, used sometimes to come into the shop in a state of aggressive sprightliness, a sort of connubial ragging expedition, and get much fun over the abbreviated Latinity of those gilt inscriptions. “Ol Amjig, George,” she would read derisively, “and he pretends it’s almond oil! Snap!—and that’s mustard. Did you ever, George?
“Look at him, George, looking dignified. I’d like to put an old label on to him round the middle like his bottles are, with Ol Pondo on it. That’s Latin for Impostor, George must be. He’d look lovely with a stopper.”
“You want a stopper,” said my uncle, projecting his face. . . .
My aunt, dear soul, was in those days quite thin and slender, with a delicate rosebud completion and a disposition to connubial badinage, to a sort of gentle skylarking. There was a silvery ghost of lisping in her speech. She was a great humourist, and as the constraint of my presence at meals wore off, I became more and more aware of a filmy but extensive net of nonsense she had woven about her domestic relations until it had become the reality of her life. She affected a derisive attitude to the world at large and applied the epithet “old” to more things than I have ever heard linked to it before or since. “Here’s the old news-paper,” she used to say—to my uncle. “Now don’t go and get it in the butter, you silly old Sardine!”
“What’s the day of the week, Susan?” my uncle would ask.
“Old Monday, Sossidge,” she would say, and add, “I got all my Old Washing to do. Don’t I know it!” . . .
She had evidently been the wit and joy of a large circle of schoolfellows, and this style had become a second nature with her. It made her very delightful to me in that quiet place. Her customary walk even had a sort of hello! in it. Her chief preoccupation in life was, I believe, to make my uncle laugh, and when by some new nickname, some new quaintness or absurdity, she achieved that end, she was, behind a mask of sober amazement, the happiest woman on earth. My uncle’s laugh when it did come, I must admit was, as Baedeker says, “rewarding.” It began with gusty blowings and snortings, and opened into a clear “Ha ha!” but in fullest development it included, in those youthful days, falling about anyhow and doubling up tightly, and whackings of the stomach, and tears and cries of anguish. I never in my life heard my uncle laugh to his maximum except at her; he was commonly too much in earnest for that, and he didn’t laugh much at all, to my knowledge, after those early years. Also she threw things at him to an enormous extent in her resolve to keep things lively in spite of Wimblehurst; sponges out of stock she threw, cushions, balls of paper, clean washing, bread; and once up the yard when they thought that I and the errand boy and the diminutive maid of all work were safely out of the way, she smashed a boxful of eight-ounce bottles I had left to drain, assaulting my uncle with a new soft broom. Sometimes she would shy things at me—but not often. There seemed always laughter round and about her—all three of us would share hysterics at times—and on one occasion the two of them came home from church shockingly ashamed of themselves, because of a storm of mirth during the sermon. The vicar, it seems, had tried to blow his nose with a black glove as well as the customary pocket-handkerchief. And afterwards she had picked up her own glove by the finger, and looking innocently but intently sideways, had suddenly by this simple expedient exploded my uncle altogether. We had it all over again at dinner.
“But it shows you,” cried my uncle, suddenly becoming grave, “what Wimblehurst is, to have us all laughing at a little thing like that! We weren’t the only ones that giggled. Not by any means! And, Lord! it was funny!”
Socially, my uncle and aunt were almost completely isolated. In places like Wimblehurst the tradesmen’s wives always are isolated socially, all of them, unless they have a sister or a bosom friend among the other wives, but the husbands met in various bar-parlours or in the billiard-room of the Eastry Arms. But my uncle, for the most part, spent his evenings at home. When first he arrived in Wimblehurst I think he had spread his effect of abounding ideas and enterprise rather too aggressively; and Wimblehurst, after a temporary subjugation, had rebelled and done its best to make a butt of him. His appearance in a public-house led to a pause in any conversation that was going on.
“Come to tell us about everything, Mr. Pond’revo?” some one would say politely.
“You wait,” my uncle used to answer, disconcerted, and sulk for the rest of his visit.
Or some one with an immense air of innocence would remark to the world generally, “They’re talkin’ of rebuildin’ Wimblehurst all over again, I’m told. Anybody heard anything of it? Going to make it a reg’lar smartgoin’, enterprisin’ place—kind of Crystal Pallas.”
“Earthquake and a pestilence before you get that,” my uncle would mutter, to the infinite delight of every one, and add something inaudible about “Cold Mutton Fat.” . . .
We were torn apart by a financial accident to my uncle of which I did not at first grasp the full bearings. He had developed what I regarded as an innocent intellectual recreation which he called stock-market meteorology. I think he got the idea from one use of curves in the graphic presentation of associated variations that he saw me plotting. He secured some of my squared paper and, having cast about for a time, decided to trace the rise and fall of certain lines and railways. “There’s something in this, George,” he said, and I little dreamt that among other things that were in it, was the whole of his spare money and most of what my mother had left to him in trust for me.
“It’s as plain as can be,” he said. “See, here’s one system of waves and here’s another! These are prices for Union Pacifics—extending over a month. Now next week, mark my words, they’ll be down one whole point. We’re getting near the steep part of the curve again. See? It’s absolutely scientific. It’s verifiable. Well, and apply it! You buy in the hollow and sell on the crest, and there you are!”
I was so convinced of the triviality of this amusement that to find at last that he had taken it in the most disastrous earnest overwhelmed me.
He took me for a long walk to break it to me, over the hills towards Yare and across the great gorse commons by Hazelbrow.
“There are ups and downs in life, George,” he said—halfway across that great open space, and paused against the sky. . . . “I left out one factor in the Union Pacific analysis.”
“Did you?” I said, struck by the sudden chance in his voice. “But you don’t mean?”
I stopped and turned on him in the narrow sandy rut of pathway and he stopped likewise.
“I do, George. I do mean. It’s bust me! I’m a bankrupt here and now.”
“The shop’s bust too. I shall have to get out of that.”
“Oh, you!—you’re all right. You can transfer your apprenticeship, and—er—well, I’m not the sort of man to be careless with trust funds, you can be sure. I kept that aspect in mind. There’s some of it left George—trust me!—quite a decent little sum.”
“But you and aunt?”
“It isn’t quite the way we meant to leave Wimblehurst, George; but we shall have to go. Sale; all the things shoved about and ticketed—lot a hundred and one. Ugh! . . . It’s been a larky little house in some ways. The first we had. Furnishing—a spree in its way. . . . Very happy . . . ” His face winced at some memory. “Let’s go on, George,” he said shortly, near choking, I could see.
I turned my back on him, and did not look round again for a little while.
“That’s how it is, you see, George.” I heard him after a time.
When we were back in the high road again he came alongside, and for a time we walked in silence.
“Don’t say anything home yet,” he said presently. “Fortunes of War. I got to pick the proper time with Susan—else she’ll get depressed. Not that she isn’t a first-rate brick whatever comes along.”
“All right,” I said, “I’ll be careful”; and it seemed to me for the time altogether too selfish to bother him with any further inquiries about his responsibility as my trustee. He gave a little sigh of relief at my note of assent, and was presently talking quite cheerfully of his plans. . . . But he had, I remember, one lapse into moodiness that came and went suddenly. “Those others!” he said, as though the thought had stung him for the first time.
“What others?” I asked.
“Damn them!” said he.
“But what others?”
“All those damned stick-in-the-mud-and-die-slowly tradespeople: Ruck, the butcher, Marbel, the grocer. Snape! Gord! George, how they’ll grin!”
I thought him over in the next few weeks, and I remember now in great detail the last talk we had together before he handed over the shop and me to his successor. For he had the good luck to sell his business, “lock, stock, and barrel”—in which expression I found myself and my indentures included. The horrors of a sale by auction of the furniture even were avoided.
I remember that either coming or going on that occasion, Ruck, the butcher, stood in his doorway and regarded us with a grin that showed his long teeth.
“You half-witted hog!” said my uncle. “You grinning hyaena”; and then, “Pleasant day, Mr. Ruck.”
“Goin’ to make your fortun’ in London, then?” said Mr. Ruck, with slow enjoyment.
That last excursion took us along the causeway to Beeching, and so up the downs and round almost as far as Steadhurst, home. My moods, as we went, made a mingled web. By this time I had really grasped the fact that my uncle had, in plain English, robbed me; the little accumulations of my mother, six hundred pounds and more, that would have educated me and started me in business, had been eaten into and was mostly gone into the unexpected hollow that ought to have been a crest of the Union Pacific curve, and of the remainder he still gave no account. I was too young and inexperienced to insist on this or know how to get it, but the thought of it all made streaks of decidedly black anger in that scheme of interwoven feelings. And you know, I was also acutely sorry for him—almost as sorry as I was for my aunt Susan. Even then I had quite found him out. I knew him to be weaker than myself; his incurable, irresponsible childishness was as clear to me then as it was on his deathbed, his redeeming and excusing imaginative silliness. Through some odd mental twist perhaps I was disposed to exonerate him even at the cost of blaming my poor old mother who had left things in his untrustworthy hands.
I should have forgiven him altogether, I believe, if he had been in any manner apologetic to me; but he wasn’t that. He kept reassuring me in a way I found irritating. Mostly, however, his solicitude was for Aunt Susan and himself.
“It’s these Crises, George,” he said, “try Character. Your aunt’s come out well, my boy.”
He made meditative noises for a space.
“Had her cry of course,”—the thing had been only too painfully evident to me in her eyes and swollen face—“who wouldn’t? But now—buoyant again! . . . She’s a Corker.
“We’ll be sorry to leave the little house of course. It’s a bit like Adam and Eve, you know. Lord! what a chap old Milton was!
“’The world was all before them, where to choose|
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.’
It sounds, George. . . . Providence their guide! . . . Well—thank goodness there’s no imeedgit prospect of either Cain or Abel!
“After all, it won’t be so bad up there. Not the scenery, perhaps, or the air we get here, but—life! We’ve got very comfortable little rooms, very comfortable considering, and I shall rise. We’re not done yet, we’re not beaten; don’t think that, George. I shall pay twenty shillings in the pound before I’ve done—you mark my words, George,—twenty—five to you. . . . I got this situation within twenty-four hours—others offered. It’s an important firm—one of the best in London. I looked to that. I might have got four or five shillings a week more—elsewhere. Quarters I could name. But I said to them plainly, wages to go on with, but opportunity’s my game—development. We understood each other.”
He threw out his chest, and the little round eyes behind his glasses rested valiantly on imaginary employers.
We would go on in silence for a space while he revised and restated that encounter. Then he would break out abruptly with some banal phrase.
“The Battle of Life, George, my boy,” he would cry, or “Ups and Downs!”
He ignored or waived the poor little attempts I made to ascertain my own position. “That’s all right,” he would say; or, “Leave all that to me. I’ll look after them.” And he would drift away towards the philosophy and moral of the situation. What was I to do?
“Never put all your resources into one chance, George; that’s the lesson I draw from this. Have forces in reserve. It was a hundred to one, George, that I was right—a hundred to one. I worked it out afterwards. And here we are spiked on the off-chance. If I’d have only kept back a little, I’d have had it on U.P. next day, like a shot, and come out on the rise. There you are!”
His thoughts took a graver turn.
“It’s where you’ll bump up against Chance like this, George, that you feel the need of religion. Your hard-and-fast scientific men—your Spencers and Huxleys—they don’t understand that. I do. I’ve thought of it a lot lately—in bed and about. I was thinking of it this morning while I shaved. It’s not irreverent for me to say it, I hope—but God comes in on the off-chance, George. See? Don’t you be too cocksure of anything, good or bad. That’s what I make out of it. I could have sworn. Well, do you think I—particular as I am—would have touched those Union Pacifics with trust money at all, if I hadn’t thought it a thoroughly good thing—good without spot or blemish? . . . And it was bad!
“It’s a lesson to me. You start in to get a hundred percent. and you come out with that. It means, in a way, a reproof for Pride. I’ve thought of that, George—in the Night Watches. I was thinking this morning when I was shaving, that that’s where the good of it all comes in. At the bottom I’m a mystic in these affairs. You calculate you’re going to do this or that, but at bottom who knows at all what he’s doing? When you most think you’re doing things, they’re being done right over your head. You’re being done—in a sense. Take a hundred-to one chance, or one to a hundred—what does it matter? You’re being Led.”
It’s odd that I heard this at the time with unutterable contempt, and now that I recall it—well, I ask myself, what have I got better?
“I wish,” said I, becoming for a moment outrageous, “You were being Led to give me some account of my money, uncle.”
“Not without a bit of paper to figure on, George, I can’t. But you trust me about that never fear. You trust me.”
And in the end I had to.
I think the bankruptcy hit my aunt pretty hard. There was, so far as I can remember now, a complete cessation of all those cheerful outbreaks of elasticity, no more skylarking in the shop nor scampering about the house. But there was no fuss that I saw, and only little signs in her complexion of the fits of weeping that must have taken her. She didn’t cry at the end, though to me her face with its strain of self-possession was more pathetic than any weeping. “Well” she said to me as she came through the shop to the cab, “Here’s old orf, George! Orf to Mome number two! Good-bye!” And she took me in her arms and kissed me and pressed me to her. Then she dived straight for the cab before I could answer her.
My uncle followed, and he seemed to me a trifle too valiant and confident in his bearing for reality. He was unusually white in the face. He spoke to his successor at the counter. “Here we go!” he said. “One down, the other up. You’ll find it a quiet little business so long as you run it on quiet lines—a nice quiet little business. There’s nothing more? No? Well, if you want to know anything write to me. I’ll always explain fully. Anything—business, place or people. You’ll find Pil Antibil. a little overstocked by-the-by, I found it soothed my mind the day before yesterday making ’em, and I made ’em all day. Thousands! And where’s George? Ah! there you are! I’ll write to you, George, fully, about all that affair. Fully!”
It became clear to me as if for the first time, that I was really parting from my aunt Susan. I went out on to the pavement and saw her head craned forward, her wide-open blue eyes and her little face intent on the shop that had combined for her all the charms of a big doll’s house and a little home of her very own. “Good-bye!” she said to it and to me. Our eyes met for a moment—perplexed. My uncle bustled out and gave a few totally unnecessary directions to the cabman and got in beside her. “All right?” asked the driver. “Right,” said I; and he woke up the horse with a flick of his whip. My aunt’s eyes surveyed me again. “Stick to your old science and things, George, and write and tell me when they make you a Professor,” she said cheerfully.
She stared at me for a second longer with eyes growing wider and brighter and a smile that had become fixed, glanced again at the bright little shop still saying “Ponderevo” with all the emphasis of its fascia, and then flopped back hastily out of sight of me into the recesses of the cab. Then it had gone from before me and I beheld Mr. Snape, the hairdresser, inside his store regarding its departure with a quiet satisfaction and exchanging smiles and significant headshakes with Mr. Marbel.
I was left, I say, as part of the lock, stock, and barrel, at Wimblehurst with my new master, a Mr. Mantell; who plays no part in the progress of this story except in so far as he effaced my uncle’s traces. So soon as the freshness of this new personality faded, I began to find Wimblehurst not only a dull but a lonely place, and to miss my aunt Susan immensely. The advertisements of the summer terms for Cough Linctus were removed; the bottles of coloured water—red, green, and yellow—restored to their places; the horse announcing veterinary medicine, which my uncle, sizzling all the while, had coloured in careful portraiture of a Goodwood favourite, rewhitened; and I turned myself even more resolutely than before to Latin (until the passing of my preliminary examination enabled me to drop that), and then to mathematics and science.
There were classes in Electricity and Magnetism at the Grammar School. I took a little “elementary” prize in that in my first year and a medal in my third; and in Chemistry and Human Physiology and Sound, Light and Heat, I did well. There was also a lighter, more discursive subject called Physiography, in which one ranged among the sciences and encountered Geology as a process of evolution from Eozoon to Eastry House, and Astronomy as a record of celestial movements of the most austere and invariable integrity. I learnt out of badly-written, condensed little text-books, and with the minimum of experiment, but still I learnt. Only thirty years ago it was, and I remember I learnt of the electric light as an expensive, impracticable toy, the telephone as a curiosity, electric traction as a practical absurdity. There was no argon, no radium, no phagocytes—at least to my knowledge, and aluminium was a dear, infrequent metal. The fastest ships in the world went then at nineteen knots, and no one but a lunatic here and there ever thought it possible that men might fly.
Many things have happened since then, but the last glance I had of Wimblehurst two years ago remarked no change whatever in its pleasant tranquillity. They had not even built any fresh houses—at least not actually in the town, though about the station there had been some building. But it was a good place to do work in, for all its quiescence. I was soon beyond the small requirements of the Pharmaceutical Society’s examination, and as they do not permit candidates to sit for that until one and twenty, I was presently filling up my time and preventing my studies becoming too desultory by making an attack upon the London University degree of Bachelor of Science, which impressed me then as a very splendid but almost impossible achievement. The degree in mathematics and chemistry appealed to me as particularly congenial—albeit giddily inaccessible. I set to work. I had presently to arrange a holiday and go to London to matriculate, and so it was I came upon my aunt and uncle again. In many ways that visit marked an epoch. It was my first impression of London at all. I was then nineteen, and by a conspiracy of chances my nearest approach to that human wilderness had been my brief visit to Chatham. Chatham too had been my largest town. So that I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.
I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station—a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.
Afterwards I drove in a cab down a cañon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside—it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days—seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men. Down a turning I found the Temperance Hotel Mr. Mantell had recommended to me. The porter in a green uniform who took over my portmanteau, seemed, I thought, to despise me a good deal.
Matriculation kept me for four full days and then came an afternoon to spare, and I sought out Tottenham Court Road through a perplexing network of various and crowded streets. But this London was vast! it was endless! it seemed the whole world had changed into packed frontages and hoardings and street spaces. I got there at last and made inquiries, and I found my uncle behind the counter of the pharmacy he managed, an establishment that did not impress me as doing a particularly high-class trade. “Lord!” he said at the sight of me, “I was wanting something to happen!”
He greeted me warmly. I had grown taller, and he, I thought, had grown shorter and smaller and rounder but otherwise he was unchanged. He struck me as being rather shabby, and the silk hat he produced and put on, when, after mysterious negotiations in the back premises he achieved his freedom to accompany me, was past its first youth; but he was as buoyant and confident as ever.
“Come to ask me about all that,” he cried. “I’ve never written yet.”
“Oh, among other things,” said I, with a sudden regrettable politeness, and waived the topic of his trusteeship to ask after my aunt Susan.
“We’ll have her out of it,” he said suddenly; “we’ll go somewhere. We don’t get you in London every day.”
“It’s my first visit,” I said, “I’ve never seen London before”; and that made him ask me what I thought of it, and the rest of the talk was London, London, to the exclusion of all smaller topics. He took me up the Hampstead Road almost to the Cobden statue, plunged into some back streets to the left, and came at last to a blistered front door that responded to his latch-key, one of a long series of blistered front doors with fanlights and apartment cards above. We found ourselves in a drab-coloured passage that was not only narrow and dirty but desolatingly empty, and then he opened a door and revealed my aunt sitting at the window with a little sewing-machine on a bamboo occasional table before her, and “work”—a plum-coloured walking dress I judged at its most analytical stage—scattered over the rest of the apartment.
At the first glance I judged my aunt was plumper than she had been, but her complexion was just as fresh and her China blue eye as bright as in the old days.
“London,” she said, didn’t “get blacks” on her.
She still “cheeked” my uncle, I was pleased to find. “What are you old Poking in for at this time—Gubbitt?,” she said when he appeared, and she still looked with a practised eye for the facetious side of things. When she saw me behind him, she gave a little cry and stood up radiant. Then she became grave.
I was surprised at my own emotion in seeing her. She held me at arm’s length for a moment, a hand on each shoulder, and looked at me with a sort of glad scrutiny. She seemed to hesitate, and then pecked little kiss off my cheek.
“You’re a man, George,” she said, as she released me, and continued to look at me for a while.
Their menage was one of a very common type in London. They occupied what is called the dining-room floor of a small house, and they had the use of a little inconvenient kitchen in the basement that had once been scullery. The two rooms, bedroom behind and living room in front, were separated by folding-doors that were never now thrown back, and indeed, in the presence of a visitor, not used at all. There was of course no bathroom or anything of that sort available, and there was no water supply except to the kitchen below. My aunt did all the domestic work, though she could have afforded to pay for help if the build of the place had not rendered that inconvenient to the pitch of impossibility. There was no sort of help available except that of indoor servants, for whom she had no accommodation. The furniture was their own; it was partly secondhand, but on the whole it seemed cheerful to my eye, and my aunt’s bias for cheap, gay-figured muslin had found ample score. In many ways I should think it must have been an extremely inconvenient and cramped sort of home, but at the time I took it, as I was taking everything, as being there and in the nature of things. I did not see the oddness of solvent decent people living in a habitation so clearly neither designed nor adapted for their needs, so wasteful of labour and so devoid of beauty as this was, and it is only now as I describe this that I find myself thinking of the essential absurdity of an intelligent community living in such makeshift homes. It strikes me now as the next thing to wearing second-hand clothes.
You see it was a natural growth, part of that system to which Bladesover, I hold, is the key. There are wide regions of London, miles of streets of houses, that appear to have been originally designed for prosperous-middle-class homes of the early Victorian type. There must have been a perfect fury of such building in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Street after street must have been rushed into being, Campden Town way, Pentonville way, Brompton way, West Kensington way in the Victoria region and all over the minor suburbs of the south side.
I am doubtful if many of these houses had any long use as the residences of single families if from the very first almost their tenants did not makeshift and take lodgers and sublet. They were built with basements, in which their servants worked and lived—servants of a more submissive and troglodytic generation who did not mind stairs. The dining-room (with folding doors) was a little above the ground level, and in that the wholesome boiled and roast with damp boiled potatoes and then pie to follow, was consumed and the numerous family read and worked in the evening, and above was the drawing-room (also with folding doors), where the infrequent callers were received. That was the vision at which those industrious builders aimed. Even while these houses were being run up, the threads upon the loom of fate were shaping to abolish altogether the type of household that would have fitted them. Means of transit were developing to carry the moderately prosperous middle-class families out of London, education and factory employment were whittling away at the supply of rough, hardworking, obedient girls who would stand the subterranean drudgery of these places, new classes of hard-up middle-class people such as my uncle, employees of various types, were coming into existence, for whom no homes were provided. None of these classes have ideas of what they ought to be, or fit in any legitimate way into the Bladesover theory that dominates our minds. It was nobody’s concern to see them housed under civilised conditions, and the beautiful laws of supply and demand had free play. They had to squeeze in. The landlords came out financially intact from their blundering enterprise. More and more these houses fell into the hands of married artisans, or struggling widows or old servants with savings, who became responsible for the quarterly rent and tried to sweat a living by sub-letting furnished or unfurnished apartments.
I remember now that a poor grey-haired old woman who had an air of having been roused from a nap in the dust bin, came out into the area and looked up at us as we three went out from the front door to “see London” under my uncle’s direction. She was the sub-letting occupier; she squeezed out a precarious living by taking the house whole and sub-letting it in detail and she made her food and got the shelter of an attic above and a basement below by the transaction. And if she didn’t chance to “let” steadily, out she went to pauperdom and some other poor, sordid old adventurer tried in her place. . . .
It is a foolish community that can house whole classes, useful and helpful, honest and loyal classes, in such squalidly unsuitable dwellings. It is by no means the social economy it seems, to use up old women, savings and inexperience in order to meet the landlord’s demands. But any one who doubts this thing is going on right up to to-day need only spend an afternoon in hunting for lodgings in any of the regions of London I have named.
But where has my story got to? My uncle, I say, decided I must be shown London, and out we three went as soon as my aunt had got her hat on, to catch all that was left of the day.
It pleased my uncle extremely to find I had never seen London before. He took possession of the metropolis forthwith. “London, George,” he said, “takes a lot of understanding. It’s a great place. Immense. The richest town in the world, the biggest port, the greatest manufacturing town, the Imperial city—the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world! See those sandwich men down there! That third one’s hat! Fair treat! You don’t see poverty like that in Wimblehurst George! And many of them high Oxford honour men too. Brought down by drink! It’s a wonderful place, George—a whirlpool, a maelstrom! whirls you up and whirls you down.”
I have a very confused memory of that afternoon’s inspection of London. My uncle took us to and fro showing us over his London, talking erratically, following a route of his own. Sometimes we were walking, sometimes we were on the tops of great staggering horse omnibuses in a heaving jumble of traffic, and at one point we had tea in an Aerated Bread Shop. But I remember very distinctly how we passed down Park Lane under an overcast sky, and how my uncle pointed out the house of this child of good fortune and that with succulent appreciation.
I remember, too, that as he talked I would find my aunt watching my face as if to check the soundness of his talk by my expression.
“Been in love yet, George?” she asked suddenly, over a bun in the tea-shop.
“Too busy, aunt,” I told her.
She bit her bun extensively, and gesticulated with the remnant to indicate that she had more to say.
“How are you going to make your fortune?” she said so soon as she could speak again. “You haven’t told us that.”
“’Lectricity,” said my uncle, taking breath after a deep draught of tea.
“If I make it at all,” I said. “For my part I think shall be satisfied with something less than a fortune.”
“We’re going to make ours—suddenly,” she said.
“So he old says.” She jerked her head at my uncle.
“He won’t tell me when—so I can’t get anything ready. But it’s coming. Going to ride in our carriage and have a garden. Garden—like a bishop’s.”
She finished her bun and twiddled crumbs from her fingers. “I shall be glad of the garden,” she said. “It’s going to be a real big one with rosaries and things. Fountains in it. Pampas grass. Hothouses.”
“You’ll get it all right,” said my uncle, who had reddened a little.
“Grey horses in the carriage, George,” she said. “It’s nice to think about when one’s dull. And dinners in restaurants often and often. And theatres—in the stalls. And money and money and money.”
“You may joke,” said my uncle, and hummed for a moment.
“Just as though an old Porpoise like him would ever make money,” she said, turning her eyes upon his profile with a sudden lapse to affection. “He’ll just porpoise about.”
“I’ll do something,” said my uncle, “you bet! Zzzz!” and rapped with a shilling on the marble table.
“When you do you’ll have to buy me a new pair of gloves,” she said, “anyhow. That finger’s past mending. Look! you Cabbage—you.” And she held the split under his nose, and pulled a face of comical fierceness.
My uncle smiled at these sallies at the time, but afterwards, when I went back with him to the Pharmacy—the low-class business grew brisker in the evening and they kept open late—he reverted to it in a low expository tone. “Your aunt’s a bit impatient, George. She gets at me. It’s only natural. . . . A woman doesn’t understand how long it takes to build up a position. No. . . . In certain directions now—I am—quietly—building up a position. Now here. . . . I get this room. I have my three assistants. Zzzz. It’s a position that, judged by the criterion of imeedjit income, isn’t perhaps so good as I deserve, but strategically—yes. It’s what I want. I make my plans. I rally my attack.”
“What plans,” I said, “are you making?”
“Well, George, there’s one thing you can rely upon, I’m doing nothing in a hurry. I turn over this one and that, and I don’t talk—indiscreetly. There’s— No! I don’t think I can tell you that. And yet, why not?”
He got up and closed the door into the shop. “I’ve told no one,” he remarked, as he sat down again. “I owe you something.”
His face flushed slightly, he leant forward over the little table towards me.
“Listen!” he said.
“Tono-Bungay,” said my uncle very slowly and distinctly.
I thought he was asking me to hear some remote, strange noise. “I don’t hear anything,” I said reluctantly to his expectant face. He smiled undefeated. “Try again,” he said, and repeated, “Tono-Bungay.”
“Oh, that!” I said.
“Eh?” said he.
“But what is it?”
“Ah!” said my uncle, rejoicing and expanding. “What is it? That’s what you got to ask? What won’t it be?” He dug me violently in what he supposed to be my ribs. “George,” he cried—“George, watch this place! There’s more to follow.”
And that was all I could get from him.
That, I believe, was the very first time that the words Tono-Bungay ever heard on earth—unless my uncle indulged in monologues in his chamber—a highly probable thing. Its utterance certainly did not seem to me at the time to mark any sort of epoch, and had I been told this word was the Open Sesame to whatever pride and pleasure the grimy front of London hid from us that evening, I should have laughed aloud.
“Coming now to business,” I said after a pause, and with a chill sense of effort; and I opened the question of his trust.
My uncle sighed, and leant back in his chair. “I wish I could make all this business as clear to you as it is to me,” he said. “However—Go on! Say what you have to say.”
After I left my uncle that evening I gave way to a feeling of profound depression. My uncle and aunt seemed to me to be leading—I have already used the word too often, but I must use it again—dingy lives. They seemed to be adrift in a limitless crowd of dingy people, wearing shabby clothes, living uncomfortably in shabby second-hand houses, going to and fro on pavements that had always a thin veneer of greasy, slippery mud, under grey skies that showed no gleam of hope of anything for them but dinginess until they died. It seemed absolutely clear to me that my mother’s little savings had been swallowed up and that my own prospect was all too certainly to drop into and be swallowed up myself sooner or later by this dingy London ocean. The London that was to be an adventurous escape from the slumber of Wimblehurst, had vanished from my dreams. I saw my uncle pointing to the houses in Park Lane and showing a frayed shirt-cuff as he did so. I heard my aunt: “I’m to ride in my carriage then. So he old says.”
My feelings towards my uncle were extraordinarily mixed. I was intensely sorry not only for my aunt Susan but for him—for it seemed indisputable that as they were living then so they must go on—and at the same time I was angry with the garrulous vanity and illness that had elipped all my chance of independent study, and imprisoned her in those grey apartments. When I got back to Wimblehurst I allowed myself to write him a boyishly sarcastic and sincerely bitter letter. He never replied. Then, believing it to be the only way of escape for me, I set myself far more grimly and resolutely to my studies than I had ever done before. After a time I wrote to him in more moderate terms, and he answered me evasively. And then I tried to dismiss him from my mind and went on working.
Yes, that first raid upon London under the moist and chilly depression of January had an immense effect upon me. It was for me an epoch-making disappointment. I had thought of London as a large, free, welcoming, adventurous place, and I saw it slovenly and harsh and irresponsive.
I did not realise at all what human things might be found behind those grey frontages, what weakness that whole forbidding facade might presently confess. It is the constant error of youth to over-estimate the Will in things. I did not see that the dirt, the discouragement, the discomfort of London could be due simply to the fact that London was a witless old giantess of a town, too slack and stupid to keep herself clean and maintain a brave face to the word. No! I suffered from the sort of illusion that burnt witches in the seventeenth century. I endued her grubby disorder with a sinister and magnificent quality of intention.
And my uncle’s gestures and promises filled me with doubt and a sort of fear for him. He seemed to me a lost little creature, too silly to be silent, in a vast implacable condemnation. I was full of pity and a sort of tenderness for my aunt Susan, who was doomed to follow his erratic fortunes mocked by his grandiloquent promises.
I was to learn better. But I worked with the terror of the grim underside of London in my soul during all my last year at Wimblehurst.