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"Extra speshul--extra speshul--all about Kruger an' his guns!"
The shrill, acrid cry rang down St. James's Street, and a newsboy with a bunch of pink papers under his arm shot hither and thither on the pavement, offering his sensational wares to all he met.
"Extra speshul--extra speshul--all about the war wot's comin'--all about Kruger's guns!"
From an open window on the second floor of a building in the street a man's head was thrust out, listening.
"The war wot's comin'!" he repeated, with a bitter sort of smile. "And all about Kruger's guns. So it is coming, is it, Johnny Bull; and you do know all about his guns, do you? If it is, and you do know, then a shattering big thing is coming, and you know quite a lot, Johnny Bull."
He hummed to himself an impromptu refrain to an impromptu tune:
"Then you know quite a lot, Johnny Bull, Johnny Bull, Then you know quite a lot, Johnny Bull!"
Stepping out of the French window upon a balcony now, he looked down the street. The newsboy was almost below. He whistled, and the lad looked up. In response to a beckoning finger the gutter-snipe took the doorway and the staircase at a bound. Like all his kind, he was a good judge of character, and one glance had assured him that he was speeding upon a visit of profit. Half a postman's knock--a sharp, insistent stroke--and he entered, his thin weasel-like face thrust forward, his eyes glittering. The fire in such eyes is always cold, for hunger is poor fuel to the native flame of life.
"Extra speshul, m'lord--all about Kruger's guns."
He held out the paper to the figure that darkened the window, and he pronounced the g in Kruger soft, as in Scrooge.
The hand that took the paper deftly slipped a shilling into the cold, skinny palm. At its first touch the face of the paper-vender fell, for it was the same size as a halfpenny; but even before the swift fingers had had a chance to feel the coin, or the glance went down, the face regained its confidence, for the eyes looking at him were generous. He had looked at so many faces in his brief day that he was an expert observer.
"Thank y' kindly," he said; then, as the fingers made assurance of the fortune which had come to him, "Ow, thank ye werry much, y'r gryce," he added.
Something alert and determined in the face of the boy struck the giver of the coin as he opened the paper to glance at its contents, and he paused to scan him more closely. He saw the hunger in the lad's eyes as they swept over the breakfast-table, still heavy with uneaten breakfast--bacon, nearly the whole of an omelette, and rolls, toast, marmalade and honey.
"Wait a second," he said, as the boy turned toward the door.
"Yes, y'r gryce."
"Had your breakfast?"
"I has me brekfist w'en I sells me pypers." The lad hugged the remaining papers closer under his arms, and kept his face turned resolutely away from the inviting table. His host correctly interpreted the action.
"Poor little devil--grit, pure grit!" he said under his breath. "How many papers have you got left?" he asked.
The lad counted like lightning. "Ten," he answered. "I'll soon get 'em off now. Luck's wiv me dis mornin'." The ghost of a smile lighted his face.
"I'll take them all," the other said, handing over a second shilling.
The lad fumbled for change and the fumbling was due to honest agitation. He was not used to this kind of treatment.
"No, that's all right," the other interposed.
"But they're only a h'ypenny," urged the lad, for his natural cupidity had given way to a certain fine faculty not too common in any grade of human society.
"Well, I'm buying them at a penny this morning. I've got some friends who'll be glad to give a penny to know all about Kruger's guns." He too softened the g in Kruger in consideration of his visitor's idiosyncrasies.
"You won't be mykin' anythink on them, y'r gryce," said the lad with a humour which opened the doors of Ian Stafford's heart wide; for to him heaven itself would be insupportable if it had no humorists.
"I'll get at them in other ways," Stafford rejoined. "I'll get my profit, never fear. Now what about breakfast? You've sold all your papers, you know."
"I'm fair ready for it, y'r gryce," was the reply, and now the lad's glance went eagerly towards the door, for the tension of labour was relaxed, and hunger was scraping hard at his vitals.
"Well, sit down--this breakfast isn't cold yet.... But, no, you'd better have a wash-up first, if you can wait," Stafford added, and rang a bell.
"Wot, 'ere--brekfist wiv y'r gryce 'ere?"
"Well, I've had mine"--Stafford made a slight grimace--" and there's plenty left for you, if you don't mind eating after me."
"I dusted me clothes dis mornin'," said the boy, with an attempt to justify his decision to eat this noble breakfast. "An' I washed me 'ends--but pypers is muck," he added.
A moment later he was in the fingers of Gleg the valet in the bath-room, and Stafford set to work to make the breakfast piping hot again. It was an easy task, as heaters were inseparable from his bachelor meals, and, though this was only the second breakfast he had eaten since his return to England after three years' absence, everything was in order.
For Gleg was still more the child of habit--and decorous habit--than himself. It was not the first time that Gleg had had to deal with his master's philanthropic activities. Much as he disapproved of them, he could discriminate; and there was that about the newsboy which somehow disarmed him. He went so far as to heap the plate of the lad, and would have poured the coffee too, but that his master took the pot from his hand and with a nod and a smile dismissed him; and his master's smile was worth a good deal to Gleg. It was an exacting if well-paid service, for Ian Stafford was the most particular man in Europe, and he had grown excessively so during the past three years, which, as Gleg observed, had brought great, if quiet, changes in him. He had grown more studious, more watchful, more exclusive in his daily life, and ladies of all kinds he had banished from direct personal share in his life. There were no more little tea-parties and dejeuners chez lui, duly chaperoned by some gracious cousin or aunt--for there was no embassy in Europe where he had not relatives.
"'Ipped--a bit 'ipped. 'E 'as found 'em out, the 'uzzies," Gleg had observed; for he had decided that the general cause of the change in his master was Woman, though he did not know the particular woman who had 'ipped him.
As the lad ate his wonderful breakfast, in which nearly half a pot of marmalade and enough butter for three ordinary people figured, Stafford read the papers attentively, to give his guest a fair chance at the food and to overcome his self-consciousness. He got an occasional glance at the trencherman, however, as he changed the sheets, stepped across the room to get a cigarette, or poked the small fire--for, late September as it was, a sudden cold week of rain had come and gone, leaving the air raw; and a fire was welcome.
At last, when he realized that the activities of the table were decreasing, he put down his paper. "Is it all right?" he asked. "Is the coffee hot?"
"I ain't never 'ad a meal like that, y'r gryce, not never any time," the boy answered, with a new sort of fire in his eyes.
"Was there enough?"
"I've left some," answered his guest, looking at the jar of marmalade and half a slice of toast. "I likes the coffee hot--tykes y'r longer to drink it," he added.
Ian Stafford chuckled. He was getting more than the worth of his money. He had nibbled at his own breakfast, with the perturbations of a crossing from Flushing still in his system, and its equilibrium not fully restored; and yet, with the waste of his own meal and the neglect of his own appetite, he had given a great and happy half-hour to a waif of humanity.
As he looked at the boy he wondered how many thousands there were like him within rifle-shot from where he sat, and he thought each of them would thank whatever gods they knew for such a neglected meal. The words from the scare-column of the paper he held smote his sight:
"War Inevitable--Transvaal Bristling with Guns and Loaded to the Nozzle with War Stores--Milner and Kruger No Nearer a Settlement-- Sullen and Contemptuous Treatment of British Outlander." . . . And so on.
And if war came, if England must do this ugly thing, fulfil her bitter and terrible task, then what about such as this young outlander here, this outcast from home and goodly toil and civilized conditions, this sickly froth of the muddy and dolorous stream of lower England? So much withdrawn from the sources of the possible relief, so much less with which to deal with their miseries--perhaps hundreds of millions, mopped up by the parched and unproductive soil of battle and disease and loss.
He glanced at the paper again. "Britons Hold Your Own," was the heading of the chief article. "Yes, we must hold our own," he said, aloud, with a sigh. "If it comes, we must see it through; but the breakfasts will be fewer. It works down one way or another--it all works down to this poor little devil and his kind."
"Now, what's your name?" he asked.
"Jigger," was the reply.
"Nothin', y'r gryce."
"It's the only nyme I got," was the reply.
"What's your father's or your mother's name?"
"I ain't got none. I only got a sister."
"What's her name?"
"Lou," he answered." That's her real name. But she got a fancy name yistiddy. She was took on at the opera yistiddy, to sing with a hunderd uvver girls on the styge. She's Lulu Luckingham now."
"Oh--Luckingham!" said Stafford, with a smile, for this was a name of his own family, and of much account in circles he frequented. "And who gave her that name? Who were her godfathers and godmothers?"
"I dunno, y'r gryce. There wasn't no religion in it. They said she'd have to be called somefink, and so they called her that. Lou was always plenty for 'er till she went there yistiddy."
"What did she do before yesterday?"
"Sold flowers w'en she could get 'em to sell. 'Twas when she couldn't sell her flowers that she piped up sort of dead wild--for she 'adn't 'ad nothin' to eat, an' she was fair crusty. It was then a gentleman, 'e 'eard 'er singin' hot, an' he says, 'That's good enough for a start,' 'e says, 'an' you come wiv me,' he says. 'Not much,' Lou says, 'not if I knows it. I seed your kind frequent.' But 'e stuck to it, an' says, 'It's stryght, an' a lydy will come for you to-morrer, if you'll be 'ere on this spot, or tell me w'ere you can be found.' An' Lou says, says she, 'You buy my flowers, so's I kin git me bread-baskit full, an' then I'll think it over.' An' he bought 'er flowers, an' give 'er five bob. An' Lou paid rent for both of us wiv that, an' 'ad brekfist; an' sure enough the lydy come next dy an' took her off. She's in the opery now, an' she'll 'ave 'er brekfist reg'lar. I seed the lydy meself. Her picture 's on the 'oardings--"
Suddenly he stopped. "W'y, that's 'er--that's 'er!" he said, pointing to the mantel-piece.
Stafford followed the finger and the glance. It was Al'mah's portrait in the costume she had worn over three years ago, the night when Rudyard Byng had rescued her from the flames. He had bought it then. It had been unpacked again by Gleg, and put in the place it had occupied for a day or two before he had gone out of England to do his country's work--and to face the bitterest disillusion of his life; to meet the heaviest blow his pride and his heart had ever known.
"So that's the lady, is it?" he said, musingly, to the boy, who nodded assent.
"Go and have a good look at it," urged Stafford.
The boy did so. "It's 'er--done up for the opery," he declared.
"Well, Lulu Luckingham is all right, then. That lady will be good to her."
"Right. As soon as I seed her, I whispers to Lou 'You keep close to that there wall,' I sez. 'There's a chimbey in it, an' you'll never be cold,' I says to Lou."
Stafford laughed softly at the illustration. Many a time the lad snuggled up to a wall which had a warm chimney, and he had got his figure of speech from real life.
"Well, what's to become of you?" Stafford asked.
"Me--I'll be level wiv me rent to-day," he answered, turning over the two shillings and some coppers in his pocket; "an' Lou and me's got a fair start."
Stafford got up, came over, and laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I'm going to give you a sovereign," he said--"twenty shillings, for your fair start; and I want you to come to me here next Sunday-week to breakfast, and tell me what you've done with it."
"Me--y'r gryce!" A look of fright almost came into the lad's face. "Twenty bob--me!"
The sovereign was already in his hand, and now his face suffused. He seemed anxious to get away, and looked round for his cap. He couldn't do here what he wanted to do. He felt that he must burst.
"Now, off you go. And you be here at nine o'clock on Sunday-week with the papers, and tell me what you've done."
"Gawd--my Gawd!" said the lad, huskily. The next minute he was out in the hall, and the door was shut behind him. A moment later, hearing a whoop, Stafford went to the window and, looking down, he saw his late visitor turning a cart-wheel under the nose of a policeman, and then, with another whoop, shooting down into the Mall, making Lambeth way.
With a smile he turned from the window. "Well, we shall see," he said. "Perhaps it will be my one lucky speculation. Who knows--who knows!"
His eye caught the portrait of Al'mah on the mantelpiece. He went over and stood looking at it musingly.
"You were a good girl," he said, aloud. "At any rate, you wouldn't pretend. You'd gamble with your immortal soul, but you wouldn't sell it--not for three millions, not for a hundred times three millions. Or is it that you are all alike, you women? Isn't there one of you that can be absolutely true? Isn't there one that won't smirch her soul and kill the faith of those that love her for some moment's excitement, for gold to gratify a vanity, or to have a wider sweep to her skirts? Vain, vain, vain--and dishonourable, essentially dishonourable. There might be tragedies, but there wouldn't be many intrigues if women weren't so dishonourable--the secret orchard rather than the open highway and robbery under arms.... Whew, what a world!"
He walked up and down the room for a moment, his eyes looking straight before him; then he stopped short. "I suppose it's natural that, coming back to England, I should begin to unpack a lot of old memories, empty out the box-room, and come across some useless and discarded things. I'll settle down presently; but it's a thoroughly useless business turning over old stock. The wise man pitches it all into the junk-shop, and cuts his losses."
He picked up the Morning Post and glanced down the middle page--the social column first--with the half-amused reflection that he hadn't done it for years, and that here were the same old names reappearing, with the same brief chronicles. Here, too, were new names, some of them, if not most of them, of a foreign turn to their syllables--New York, Melbourne, Buenos Ayres, Johannesburg. His lip curled a little with almost playful scorn. At St. Petersburg, Vienna, and elsewhere he had been vaguely conscious of these social changes; but they did not come within the ambit of his daily life, and so it had not mattered. And there was no reason why it should matter now. His England was a land the original elements of which would not change, had not changed; for the old small inner circle had not been invaded, was still impervious to the wash of wealth and snobbery and push. That refuge had its sequestered glades, if perchance it was unilluminating and rather heavily decorous; so that he could let the climbers, the toadies, the gold-spillers, and the bribers have the middle of the road.
It did not matter so much that London was changing fast. The old clock on the tower of St. James's would still give the time to his step as he went to and from the Foreign Office, and there were quiet places like Kensington Gardens where the bounding person would never think to stray. Indeed, they never strayed; they only rushed and pushed where their spreading tails could be seen by the multitude. They never got farther west than Rotten Row, which was in possession of three classes of people--those who sat in Parliament, those who had seats on the Stock Exchange, and those who could not sit their horses. Three years had not done it all, but it had done a good deal; and he was more keenly alive to the changes and developments which had begun long before he left and had increased vastly since. Wealth was more and more the master of England--new-made wealth; and some of it was too ostentatious and too pretentious to condone, much less indulge.
All at once his eye, roaming down the columns, came upon the following announcement:
"Mr. and Mrs. Rudyard Byng have returned to town from Scotland for a few days, before proceeding to Wales, where they are presently to receive at Glencader Castle the Duke and Duchess of Sheffield, the Prince and Princess of Cleaves, M. Santon, the French Foreign Minister, the Slavonian Ambassador, the Earl and Countess of Tynemouth, and Mr. Tudor Tempest."
"'And Mr. Tudor Tempest,'" Ian repeated to himself. "Well, she would. She would pay that much tribute to her own genius. Four-fifths to the claims of the body and the social nervous system, and one-fifth to the desire of the soul. Tempest is a literary genius by what he has done, and she is a genius by nature, and with so much left undone. The Slavonian Ambassador--him, and the French Foreign Minister! That looks like a useful combination at this moment--at this moment. She has a gift for combinations, a wonderful skill, a still more wonderful perception--and a remarkable unscrupulousness. She's the naturally ablest woman I have ever known; but she wants to take short-cuts to a worldly Elysium, and it can't be done, not even with three times three millions--and three millions was her price."
Suddenly he got up and went over to a table where were several dispatch-boxes. Opening one, he drew forth from the bottom, where he had placed it nearly three years ago, a letter. He looked at the long, sliding handwriting, so graceful and fine, he caught the perfume which had intoxicated Rudyard Byng, and, stooping down, he sniffed the dispatch-box. He nodded.
"She's pervasive in everything," he murmured. He turned over several other packets of letters in the box. "I apologize," he said, ironically, to these letters. "I ought to have banished her long ago, but, to tell you the truth, I didn't realize how much she'd influence everything--even in a box." He laughed cynically, and slowly opened the one letter which had meant so much to him.
There was no show of agitation. His eye was calm; only his mouth showed any feeling or made any comment. It was a little supercilious and scornful. Sitting down by the table, he spread the letter out, and read it with great deliberation. It was the first time he had looked at it since he received it in Vienna and had placed it in the dispatch-box.
"Dear Ian," it ran, "our year of probation--that is the word isn't it?--is up; and I have decided that our ways must lie apart. I am going to marry Rudyard Byng next month. He is very kind and very strong, and not too ragingly clever. You know I should chafe at being reminded daily of my own stupidity by a very clever man. You and I have had so many good hours together, there has been such confidence between us, that no other friendship can ever be the same; and I shall always want to go to you, and ask your advice, and learn to be wise. You will not turn a cold shoulder on me, will you? I think you yourself realized that my wish to wait a year before giving a final answer was proof that I really had not that in my heart which would justify me in saying what you wished me to say. Oh yes, you knew; and the last day when you bade me good-bye you almost said as much! I was so young, so unschooled, when you first asked me, and I did not know my own mind; but I know it now, and so I go to Rudyard Byng for better or for worse--"
He suddently stopped reading, sat back in his char, and laughed sardonically.
"For richer, for poorer'--now to have launched out on the first phrase, and to have jibbed at the second was distinctly stupid. The quotation could only have been carried off with audacity of the ripest kind. 'For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part, amen--' That was the way to have done it, if it was to be done at all. Her cleverness forsook her when she wrote that letter. 'Our year of probation'--she called it that. Dear, dear, what a poor prevaricator the best prevaricator is! She was sworn to me, bound to me, wanted a year in which to have her fling before she settled down, and she threw me over--like that."
He did not read the rest of the letter, but got up, went over to the fire, threw it in, and watched it burn.
"I ought to have done so when I received it," he said, almost kindly now. "A thing like that ought never to be kept a minute. It's a terrible confession, damning evidence, a self-made exposure, and to keep it is too brutal, too hard on the woman. If anything had happened to me and it had been read, 'Not all the King's horses nor all the King's men could put Humpty Dumpty together again.'"
Then he recalled the brief letter he had written her in reply. Unlike him, she had not kept his answer, when it came into her hands, but, tearing it up into fifty fragments, had thrown it into the waste- basket, and paced her room in shame, anger and humiliation. Finally, she had taken the waste-basket and emptied it into the flames. She had watched the tiny fragments burn in a fire not hotter than that in her own eyes, which presently were washed by a flood of bitter tears and passionate and unavailing protest. For hours she had sobbed, and when she went out into the world the next day, it was with his every word ringing in her ears, as they had rung ever since: the sceptic comment at every feast, the ironical laughter behind every door, the whispered detraction in every loud accent of praise.
"Dear Jasmine," his letter had run, "it is kind of you to tell me of your intended marriage before it occurs, for in these distant lands news either travels slowly or does not reach one at all. I am fortunate in having my information from the very fountain of first knowledge. You have seen and done much in the past year; and the end of it all is more fitting than the most meticulous artist could desire or conceive. You will adorn the new sphere into which you enter. You are of those who do not need training or experience: you are a genius, whose chief characteristic is adaptability. Some people, to whom nature and Providence have not been generous live up to things; to you it is given to live down to them; and no one can do it so well. We have had good times together--happy conversations and some cheerful and entertaining dreams and purposes. We have made the most of opportunity, each in his and her own way. But, my dear Jasmine, don't ever think that you will need to come to me for advice and to learn to be wise. I know of no one from whom I could learn, from whom I have learned, so I much. I am deeply your debtor for revelations which never could have come to me without your help. There is a wonderful future before you, whose variety let Time, not me, attempt to reveal. I shall watch your going on"--(he did not say goings on)--"your Alpine course, with clear memories of things and hours dearer to me than all the world, and with which I would not have parted for the mines of the Rand. I lose them now for nothing--and less than nothing. I shall be abroad for some years, and, meanwhile, a new planet will swim into the universe of matrimony. I shall see the light shining, but its heavenly orbit will not be within my calculations. Other astronomers will watch, and some no doubt will pray, and I shall read in the annals the bright story of the flower that was turned into a star!
"Always yours sincerely,
From the filmy ashes of her letter to him Stafford now turned away to his writing-table. There he sat for a while and answered several notes, among them one to Alice Mayhew, now the Countess of Tynemouth, whose red parasol still hung above the mantel-piece, a relic of the Zambesi--and of other things.
Periodically Lady Tynemouth's letters had come to him while he was abroad, and from her, in much detail, he had been informed of the rise of Mrs. Byng, of her great future, her "delicious" toilettes, her great entertainments for charity, her successful attempts to gather round her the great figures in the political and diplomatic world; and her partial rejection of Byng's old mining and financial confreres and their belongings. It had all culminated in a visit of royalty to their place in Suffolk, from which she had emerged radiantly and delicately aggressive, and sweeping a wider circle with her social scythe.
Ian had read it all unperturbed. It was just what he knew she could and would do; and he foresaw for Byng, if he wanted it, a peerage in the not distant future. Alice Tynemouth was no gossip, and she was not malicious. She had a good, if wayward, heart, was full of sentiment, and was a constant and helpful friend. He, therefore, accepted her invitation now to spend the next week-end with her and her husband; and then, with letters to two young nephews in his pocket, he prepared to sally forth to buy them presents, and to get some sweets for the children of a poor invalid cousin to whom for years he had been a generous friend. For children he had a profound love, and if he had married, he would not have been content with a childless home--with a childless home like that of Rudyard Byng. That news also had come to him from Alice Tynemouth, who honestly lamented that Jasmine Byng had no "balance-wheel," which was the safety and the anchor of women "like her and me," Lady Tynemouth's letter had said.
Three millions then--and how much more now?--and big houses, and no children. It was an empty business, or so it seemed to him, who had come of a large and agreeably quarrelsome and clever family, with whom life had been checkered but never dull.
He took up his hat and stick, and went towards the door. His eyes caught Al'mah's photograph as he passed.
"It was all done that night at the opera," he said. "Jasmine made up her mind then to marry him, . . . I wonder what the end will be.... Sad little, bad little girl.... The mess of pottage at the last? Quien sabe!"
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