A quiet, well-dressed man named Shelton, with a brown face and a short, fair beard, stood by the bookstall at Dover Station. He was about to journey up to London, and had placed his bag in the corner of a third-class carriage.
After his long travel, the flat-vowelled voice of the bookstall clerk offering the latest novel sounded pleasant--pleasant the independent answers of a bearded guard, and the stodgy farewell sayings of a man and wife. The limber porters trundling their barrows, the greyness of the station and the good stolid humour clinging to the people, air, and voices, all brought to him the sense of home. Meanwhile he wavered between purchasing a book called Market Hayborough, which he had read and would certainly enjoy a second time, and Carlyle's French Revolution, which he had not read and was doubtful of enjoying; he felt that he ought to buy the latter, but he did not relish giving up the former. While he hesitated thus, his carriage was beginning to fill up; so, quickly buying both, he took up a position from which he could defend his rights. "Nothing," he thought, "shows people up like travelling."
The carriage was almost full, and, putting his bag, up in the rack, he took his seat. At the moment of starting yet another passenger, a girl with a pale face, scrambled in.
"I was a fool to go third," thought Shelton, taking in his neighbours from behind his journal.
They were seven. A grizzled rustic sat in the far corner; his empty pipe, bowl downwards, jutted like a handle from his face, all bleared with the smear of nothingness that grows on those who pass their lives in the current of hard facts. Next to him, a ruddy, heavy-shouldered man was discussing with a grey-haired, hatchet-visaged person the condition of their gardens; and Shelton watched their eyes till it occurred to him how curious a look was in them--a watchful friendliness, an allied distrust--and that their voices, cheerful, even jovial, seemed to be cautious all the time. His glance strayed off, and almost rebounded from the semi-Roman, slightly cross, and wholly self-complacent face of a stout lady in a black-and-white costume, who was reading the Strand Magazine, while her other, sleek, plump hand, freed from its black glove, and ornamented with a thick watch-bracelet, rested on her lap. A younger, bright-cheeked, and self-conscious female was sitting next her, looking at the pale girl who had just got in.
"There's something about that girl," thought Shelton, "they don't like." Her brown eyes certainly looked frightened, her clothes were of a foreign cut. Suddenly he met the glance of another pair of eyes; these eyes, prominent and blue, stared with a sort of subtle roguery from above a thin, lopsided nose, and were at once averted. They gave Shelton the impression that he was being judged, and mocked, enticed, initiated. His own gaze did not fall; this sanguine face, with its two-day growth of reddish beard, long nose, full lips, and irony, puzzled him. "A cynical face!" he thought, and then, "but sensitive!" and then, "too cynical," again.
The young man who owned it sat with his legs parted at the knees, his dusty trouser-ends and boots slanting back beneath the seat, his yellow finger-tips crisped as if rolling cigarettes. A strange air of detachment was about that youthful, shabby figure, and not a scrap of luggage filled the rack above his head.
The frightened girl was sitting next this pagan personality; it was possibly the lack of fashion in his looks that caused, her to select him for her confidence.
"Monsieur," she asked, "do you speak French?"
"Then can you tell me where they take the tickets?
"The young man shook his head.
"No," said he, "I am a foreigner."
The girl sighed.
"But what is the matter, ma'moiselle?"
The girl did not reply, twisting her hands on an old bag in her lap. Silence had stolen on the carriage--a silence such as steals on animals at the first approach of danger; all eyes were turned towards the figures of the foreigners.
"Yes," broke out the red-faced man, "he was a bit squiffy that evening--old Tom."
"Ah!" replied his neighbour, "he would be."
Something seemed to have destroyed their look of mutual distrust. The plump, sleek hand of the lady with the Roman nose curved convulsively; and this movement corresponded to the feeling agitating Shelton's heart. It was almost as if hand and heart feared to be asked for something.
"Monsieur," said the girl, with a tremble in her voice, "I am very unhappy; can you tell me what to do? I had no money for a ticket."
The foreign youth's face flickered.
"Yes?" he said; "that might happen to anyone, of course."
"What will they do to me?" sighed the girl.
"Don't lose courage, ma'moiselle." The young man slid his eyes from left to right, and rested them on Shelton. "Although I don't as yet see your way out."
"Oh, monsieur!" sighed the girl, and, though it was clear that none but Shelton understood what they were saying, there was a chilly feeling in the carriage.
"I wish I could assist you," said the foreign youth; "unfortunately----" he shrugged his shoulders, and again his eyes returned to Shelton.
The latter thrust his hand into his pocket.
"Can I be of any use?" he asked in English.
"Certainly, sir; you could render this young lady the greatest possible service by lending her the money for a ticket."
Shelton produced a sovereign, which the young man took. Passing it to the girl, he said:
"A thousand thanks--'voila une belle action'!"
The misgivings which attend on casual charity crowded up in Shelton's mind; he was ashamed of having them and of not having them, and he stole covert looks at this young foreigner, who was now talking to the girl in a language that he did not understand. Though vagabond in essence, the fellow's face showed subtle spirit, a fortitude and irony not found upon the face of normal man, and in turning from it to the other passengers Shelton was conscious of revolt, contempt, and questioning, that he could not define. Leaning back with half-closed eyes, he tried to diagnose this new sensation. He found it disconcerting that the faces and behaviour of his neighbours lacked anything he could grasp and secretly abuse. They continued to converse with admirable and slightly conscious phlegm, yet he knew, as well as if each one had whispered to him privately, that this shady incident had shaken them. Something unsettling to their notions of propriety-something dangerous and destructive of complacency--had occurred, and this was unforgivable. Each had a different way, humorous or philosophic, contemptuous, sour, or sly, of showing this resentment. But by a flash of insight Shelton saw that at the bottom of their minds and of his own the feeling was the same. Because he shared in their resentment he was enraged with them and with himself. He looked at the plump, sleek hand of the woman with the Roman nose. The insulation and complacency of its pale skin, the passive righteousness about its curve, the prim separation from the others of the fat little finger, had acquired a wholly unaccountable importance. It embodied the verdict of his fellow-passengers, the verdict of Society; for he knew that, whether or no repugnant to the well-bred mind, each assemblage of eight persons, even in a third-class carriage, contains the kernel of Society.
But being in love, and recently engaged, Shelton had a right to be immune from discontent of any kind, and he reverted to his mental image of the cool, fair face, quick movements, and the brilliant smile that now in his probationary exile haunted his imagination; he took out his fiancee's last letter, but the voice of the young foreigner addressing him in rapid French caused him to put it back abruptly.
"From what she tells me, sir," he said, bending forward to be out of hearing of the girl, "hers is an unhappy case. I should have been only too glad to help her, but, as you see"--and he made a gesture by which Shelton observed that he had parted from his waistcoat--"I am not Rothschild. She has been abandoned by the man who brought her over to Dover under promise of marriage. Look"--and by a subtle flicker of his eyes he marked how the two ladies had edged away from the French girl "they take good care not to let their garments touch her. They are virtuous women. How fine a thing is virtue, sir! and finer to know you have it, especially when you are never likely to be tempted."
Shelton was unable to repress a smile; and when he smiled his face grew soft.
"Haven't you observed," went on the youthful foreigner, "that those who by temperament and circumstance are worst fitted to pronounce judgment are usually the first to judge? The judgments of Society are always childish, seeing that it's composed for the most part of individuals who have never smelt the fire. And look at this: they who have money run too great a risk of parting with it if they don't accuse the penniless of being rogues and imbeciles."
Shelton was startled, and not only by an outburst of philosophy from an utter stranger in poor clothes, but at this singular wording of his own private thoughts. Stifling his sense of the unusual for the queer attraction this young man inspired, he said:
"I suppose you're a stranger over here?"
"I've been in England seven months, but not yet in London," replied the other. "I count on doing some good there--it is time!" A bitter and pathetic smile showed for a second on his lips. "It won't be my fault if I fail. You are English, Sir?"
"Forgive my asking; your voice lacks something I've nearly always noticed in the English a kind of--'comment cela s'appelle'--cocksureness, coming from your nation's greatest quality."
"And what is that?" asked Shelton with a smile.
"Complacency," replied the youthful foreigner.
"Complacency!" repeated Shelton; "do you call that a great quality?"
"I should rather say, monsieur, a great defect in what is always a great people. You are certainly the most highly-civilised nation on the earth; you suffer a little from the fact. If I were an English preacher my desire would be to prick the heart of your complacency."
Shelton, leaning back, considered this impertinent suggestion.
"Hum!" he said at last, "you'd be unpopular; I don't know that we're any cockier than other nations."
The young foreigner made a sign as though confirming this opinion.
"In effect," said he, "it is a sufficiently widespread disease. Look at these people here"--and with a rapid glance he pointed to the inmates of the carnage,--"very average persons! What have they done to warrant their making a virtuous nose at those who do not walk as they do? That old rustic, perhaps, is different--he never thinks at all--but look at those two occupied with their stupidities about the price of hops, the prospects of potatoes, what George is doing, a thousand things all of that sort--look at their faces; I come of the bourgeoisie myself--have they ever shown proof of any quality that gives them the right to pat themselves upon the back? No fear! Outside potatoes they know nothing, and what they do not understand they dread and they despise--there are millions of that breed. 'Voila la Societe'! The sole quality these people have shown they have is cowardice. I was educated by the Jesuits," he concluded; "it has given me a way of thinking."
Under ordinary circumstances Shelton would have murmured in a well-bred voice, "Ah! quite so," and taken refuge in the columns of the Daily Telegraph. In place of this, for some reason that he did not understand, he looked at the young foreigner, and asked,
"Why do you say all this to me?"
The tramp--for by his boots he could hardly have been better--hesitated.
"When you've travelled like me," he said, as if resolved to speak the truth, "you acquire an instinct in choosing to whom and how you speak. It is necessity that makes the law; if you want to live you must learn all that sort of thing to make face against life."
Shelton, who himself possessed a certain subtlety, could not but observe the complimentary nature of these words. It was like saying "I'm not afraid of you misunderstanding me, and thinking me a rascal just because I study human nature."
"But is there nothing to be done for that poor girl?"
His new acquaintance shrugged his shoulders.
"A broken jug," said he; "--you'll never mend her. She's going to a cousin in London to see if she can get help; you've given her the means of getting there--it's all that you can do. One knows too well what'll become of her."
Shelton said gravely,
"Oh! that's horrible! Could n't she be induced to go back home? I should be glad--"
The foreign vagrant shook his head.
"Mon cher monsieur," he said, "you evidently have not yet had occasion to know what the 'family' is like. 'The family' does not like damaged goods; it will have nothing to say to sons whose hands have dipped into the till or daughters no longer to be married. What the devil would they do with her? Better put a stone about her neck and let her drown at once. All the world is Christian, but Christian and good Samaritan are not quite the same."
Shelton looked at the girl, who was sitting motionless, with her hands crossed on her bag, and a revolt against the unfair ways of life arose within him.
"Yes," said the young foreigner, as if reading all his thoughts, "what's called virtue is nearly always only luck." He rolled his eyes as though to say: "Ah! La, Conventions? Have them by all means--but don't look like peacocks because you are preserving them; it is but cowardice and luck, my friends--but cowardice and luck!"
"Look here," said Shelton, "I'll give her my address, and if she wants to go back to her family she can write to me."
"She'll never go back; she won't have the courage."
Shelton caught the cringing glance of the girl's eyes; in the droop of her lip there was something sensuous, and the conviction that the young man's words were true came over him.
"I had better not give them my private address," he thought, glancing at the faces opposite; and he wrote down the following: "Richard Paramor Shelton, c/o Paramor and Herring, Lincoln's Inn Fields."
"You're very good, sir. My name is Louis Ferrand; no address at present. I'll make her understand; she's half stupefied just now."
Shelton returned to the perusal of his paper, too disturbed to read; the young vagrant's words kept sounding in his ears. He raised his eyes. The plump hand of the lady with the Roman nose still rested on her lap; it had been recased in its black glove with large white stitching. Her frowning gaze was fixed on him suspiciously, as if he had outraged her sense of decency.
"He did n't get anything from me," said the voice of the red-faced man, ending a talk on tax-gatherers. The train whistled loudly, and Shelton reverted to his paper. This time he crossed his legs, determined to enjoy the latest murder; once more he found himself looking at the vagrant's long-nosed, mocking face. "That fellow," he thought, "has seen and felt ten times as much as I, although he must be ten years younger."
He turned for distraction to the landscape, with its April clouds, trim hedgerows, homely coverts. But strange ideas would come, and he was discontented with himself; the conversation he had had, the personality of this young foreigner, disturbed him. It was all as though he had made a start in some fresh journey through the fields of thought.
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