THE NIGHT CLUB
"May I ask," said Shelton, as he and the youth came out into the chilly street, "What it is you call the 'Den'?"
His companion smilingly answered:
"Oh, the night club. We take it in turns. Thursday is my night. Would you like to come? You see a lot of types. It's only round the corner."
Shelton digested a momentary doubt, and answered:
They reached the corner house in an angle of a dismal street, through the open door of which two men had just gone in. Following, they ascended some wooden, fresh-washed stairs, and entered a large boarded room smelling of sawdust, gas, stale coffee, and old clothes. It was furnished with a bagatelle board, two or three wooden tables, some wooden forms, and a wooden bookcase. Seated on these wooden chairs, or standing up, were youths, and older men of the working class, who seemed to Shelton to be peculiarly dejected. One was reading, one against the wall was drinking coffee with a disillusioned air, two were playing chess, and a group of four made a ceaseless clatter with the bagatelle.
A little man in a dark suit, with a pale face, thin lips, and deep-set, black-encircled eyes, who was obviously in charge, came up with an anaemic smile.
"You 're rather late," he said to Curly, and, looking ascetically at Shelton, asked, without waiting for an introduction: "Do you play chess? There 's young Smith wants a game."
A youth with a wooden face, already seated before a fly-blown chess-board, asked him drearily if he would have black or white. Shelton took white; he was oppressed by the virtuous odour of this room.
The little man with the deep blue eyes came up, stood in an uneasy attitude, and watched:
"Your play's improving, young Smith," he said; "I should think you'd be able to give Banks a knight." His eyes rested on Shelton, fanatical and dreary; his monotonous voice was suffering and nasal; he was continually sucking in his lips, as though determined to subdue 'the flesh. "You should come here often," he said to Shelton, as the latter received checkmate; "you 'd get some good practice. We've several very fair players. You're not as good as Jones or Bartholomew," he added to Shelton's opponent, as though he felt it a duty to put the latter in his place. "You ought to come here often," he repeated to Shelton; "we have a lot of very good young fellows"; and, with a touch of complacence, he glanced around the dismal room. "There are not so many here tonight as usual. Where are Toombs and Body?"
Shelton, too, looked anxiously around. He could not help feeling sympathy with Toombs and Body.
"They 're getting slack, I'm afraid," said the little deep-eyed man. "Our principle is to amuse everyone. Excuse me a minute; I see that Carpenter is doing nothing." He crossed over to the man who had been drinking coffee, but Shelton had barely time to glance at his opponent and try to think of a remark, before the little man was back. "Do you know anything about astronomy?" he asked of Shelton. "We have several very interested in astronomy; if you could talk to them a little it would help."
Shelton made a motion of alarm.
"Please-no," said he; "I--"
"I wish you'd come sometimes on Wednesdays; we have most interesting talks, and a service afterwards. We're always anxious to get new blood"; and his eyes searched Shelton's brown, rather tough-looking face, as though trying to see how much blood there was in it. "Young Curly says you 've just been around the world; you could describe your travels."
"May I ask," said Shelton, "how your club is made up?"
Again a look of complacency, and blessed assuagement, visited the little man.
"Oh," he said, "we take anybody, unless there 's anything against them. The Day Society sees to that. Of course, we shouldn't take anyone if they were to report against them. You ought to come to our committee meetings; they're on Mondays at seven. The women's side, too--"
"Thank you," said Shelton; "you 're very kind--"
"We should be pleased," said the little man; and his face seemed to suffer more than ever. "They 're mostly young fellows here to-night, but we have married men, too. Of course, we 're very careful about that," he added hastily, as though he might have injured Shelton's prejudices--"that, and drink, and anything criminal, you know."
"And do you give pecuniary assistance, too?"
"Oh yes," replied the little man; "if you were to come to our committee meetings you would see for yourself. Everything is most carefully gone into; we endeavour to sift the wheat from the chaff."
"I suppose," said Shelton, "you find a great deal of chaff?"
The little man smiled a suffering smile. The twang of his toneless voice sounded a trifle shriller.
"I was obliged to refuse a man to-day--a man and a woman, quite young people, with three small children. He was ill and out of work; but on inquiry we found that they were not man and wife."
There was a slight pause; the little man's eyes were fastened on his nails, and, with an appearance of enjoyment, he began to bite them. Shelton's face had grown a trifle red.
"And what becomes of the woman and the children in a case like that?" he said.
The little man's eyes began to smoulder.
"We make a point of not encouraging sin, of course. Excuse me a minute; I see they've finished bagatelle."
He hurried off, and in a moment the clack of bagatelle began again. He himself was playing with a cold and spurious energy, running after the balls and exhorting the other players, upon whom a wooden acquiescence seemed to fall.
Shelton crossed the room, and went up to young Curly. He was sitting on a bench, smiling to himself his private smiles.
"Are you staying here much longer?" Shelton asked.
Young Curly rose with nervous haste.
"I 'm afraid," he said, "there 's nobody very interesting here to-night."
"Oh, not at all!" said Shelton; "on the contrary. Only I 've had a rather tiring day, and somehow I don't feel up to the standard here."
His new acquaintance smiled.
"Oh, really! do you think--that is--"
But he had not time to finish before the clack of bagatelle balls ceased, and the voice of the little deep-eyed man was heard saying: "Anybody who wants a book will put his name down. There will be the usual prayer-meeting on Wednesday next. Will you all go quietly? I am going to turn the lights out."
One gas-jet vanished, and the remaining jet flared suddenly. By its harder glare the wooden room looked harder too, and disenchanting. The figures of its occupants began filing through the door. The little man was left in the centre of the room, his deep eyes smouldering upon the backs of the retreating members, his thumb and finger raised to the turncock of the metre.
"Do you know this part?" asked young Curly as they emerged into the street. "It 's really jolly; one of the darkest bits in London--it is really. If you care, I can take you through an awfully dangerous place where the police never go." He seemed so anxious for the honour that Shelton was loath to disappoint him. "I come here pretty often," he went on, as they ascended a sort of alley rambling darkly between a wall and row of houses.
"Why?" asked Shelton; "it does n't smell too nice."
The young man threw up his nose and sniffed, as if eager to add any new scent that might be about to his knowledge of life.
"No, that's one of the reasons, you know," he said; "one must find out. The darkness is jolly, too; anything might happen here. Last week there was a murder; there 's always the chance of one."
Shelton stared; but the charge of morbidness would not lie against this fresh-cheeked stripling.
"There's a splendid drain just here," his guide resumed; "the people are dying like flies of typhoid in those three houses"; and under the first light he turned his grave, cherubic face to indicate the houses. "If we were in the East End, I could show you other places quite as good. There's a coffee-stall keeper in one that knows all the thieves in London; he 's a splendid type, but," he added, looking a little anxiously at Shelton, "it might n't be safe for you. With me it's different; they 're beginning to know me. I've nothing to take, you see."
"I'm afraid it can't be to-night," said Shelton; "I must get back."
"Do you mind if I walk with you? It's so jolly now the stars are out."
"Delighted," said Shelton; "do you often go to that club?"
His companion raised his hat, and ran his fingers through his hair.
"They 're rather too high-class for me," he said. "I like to go where you can see people eat--school treats, or somewhere in the country. It does one good to see them eat. They don't get enough, you see, as a rule, to make bone; it's all used up for brain and muscle. There are some places in the winter where they give them bread and cocoa; I like to go to those."
"I went once," said Shelton, "but I felt ashamed for putting my nose in."
"Oh, they don't mind; most of them are half-dead with cold, you know. You see splendid types; lots of dipsomaniacs . . . . It 's useful to me," he went on as they passed a police-station, "to walk about at night; one can take so much more notice. I had a jolly night last week in Hyde Park; a chance to study human nature there."
"And do you find it interesting?" asked Shelton.
His companion smiled.
"Awfully," he replied; "I saw a fellow pick three pockets."
"What did you do?"
"I had a jolly talk with him."
Shelton thought of the little deep-eyed man; who made a point of not encouraging sin.
"He was one of the professionals from Notting Hill, you know; told me his life. Never had a chance, of course. The most interesting part was telling him I 'd seen him pick three pockets--like creeping into a cave, when you can't tell what 's inside."
"He showed me what he 'd got--only fivepence halfpenny."
"And what became of your friend?" asked Shelton.
"Oh, went off; he had a splendidly low forehead."
They had reached Shelton's rooms.
"Will you come in," said the latter, "and have a drink?"
The youth smiled, blushed, and shook his head.
"No, thank you," he said; "I have to walk to Whitechapel. I 'm living on porridge now; splendid stuff for making bone. I generally live on porridge for a week at the end of every month. It 's the best diet if you're hard up"; once more blushing and smiling, he was gone.
Shelton went upstairs and sat down on his bed. He felt a little miserable. Sitting there, slowly pulling out the ends of his white tie, disconsolate, he had a vision of Antonia with her gaze fixed wonderingly on him. And this wonder of hers came as a revelation--just as that morning, when, looking from his window, he had seen a passer-by stop suddenly and scratch his leg; and it had come upon him in a flash that that man had thoughts and feelings of his own. He would never know what Antonia really felt and thought. "Till I saw her at the station, I did n't know how much I loved her or how little I knew her"; and, sighing deeply, he hurried into bed.
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