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A ZOOLOGICAL GARDEN
After his journey up from Dover, Shelton was still fathering his luggage at Charing Cross, when the foreign girl passed him, and, in spite of his desire to say something cheering, he could get nothing out but a shame-faced smile. Her figure vanished, wavering into the hurly-burly; one of his bags had gone astray, and so all thought of her soon faded from his mind. His cab, however, overtook the foreign vagrant marching along towards Pall Mall with a curious, lengthy stride--an observant, disillusioned figure.
The first bustle of installation over, time hung heavy on his hands. July loomed distant, as in some future century; Antonia's eyes beckoned him faintly, hopelessly. She would not even be coming back to England for another month.
. . . I met a young foreigner in the train from Dover [he wrote to her]--a curious sort of person altogether, who seems to have infected me. Everything here has gone flat and unprofitable; the only good things in life are your letters.... John Noble dined with me yesterday; the poor fellow tried to persuade me to stand for Parliament. Why should I think myself fit to legislate for the unhappy wretches one sees about in the streets? If people's faces are a fair test of their happiness, I' d rather not feel in any way responsible....
The streets, in fact, after his long absence in the East, afforded him much food for thought: the curious smugness of the passers-by; the utterly unending bustle; the fearful medley of miserable, over-driven women, and full-fed men, with leering, bull-beef eyes, whom he saw everywhere--in club windows, on their beats, on box seats, on the steps of hotels, discharging dilatory duties; the appalling chaos of hard-eyed, capable dames with defiant clothes, and white-cheeked hunted-looking men; of splendid creatures in their cabs, and cadging creatures in their broken hats--the callousness and the monotony!
One afternoon in May he received this letter couched in French:
3, BLANK ROW
MY DEAR SIR,
Excuse me for recalling to your memory the offer of assistance you so kindly made me during the journey from Dover to London, in which I was so fortunate as to travel with a man like you. Having beaten the whole town, ignorant of what wood to make arrows, nearly at the end of my resources, my spirit profoundly discouraged, I venture to avail myself of your permission, knowing your good heart. Since I saw you I have run through all the misfortunes of the calendar, and cannot tell what door is left at which I have not knocked. I presented myself at the business firm with whose name you supplied me, but being unfortunately in rags, they refused to give me your address. Is this not very much in the English character? They told me to write, and said they would forward the letter. I put all my hopes in you.
Believe me, my dear sir,
(whatever you may decide)
Shelton looked at the envelope, and saw, that it, bore date a week ago. The face of the young vagrant rose before him, vital, mocking, sensitive; the sound of his quick French buzzed in his ears, and, oddly, the whole whiff of him had a power of raising more vividly than ever his memories of Antonia. It had been at the end of the journey from Hyeres to London that he had met him; that seemed to give the youth a claim.
He took his hat and hurried, to Blank Row. Dismissing his cab at the corner of Victoria Street he with difficulty found the house in question. It was a doorless place, with stone-flagged corridor--in other words, a "doss-house." By tapping on a sort of ticket-office with a sliding window, he attracted the attention of a blowsy woman with soap-suds on her arms, who informed him that the person he was looking for had gone without leaving his address.
"But isn't there anybody," asked Shelton, "of whom I can make inquiry?"
"Yes; there's a Frenchman." And opening an inner door she bellowed: "Frenchy! Wanted!" and disappeared.
A dried-up, yellow little man, cynical and weary in the face, as if a moral steam-roller had passed over it, answered this call, and stood, sniffing, as it were, at Shelton, on whom he made the singular impression of some little creature in a cage.
"He left here ten days ago, in the company of a mulatto. What do you want with him, if I may ask?" The little man's yellow cheeks were wrinkled with suspicion.
Shelton produced the letter.
"Ah! now I know you"--a pale smile broke through the Frenchman's crow's-feet--"he spoke of you. 'If I can only find him,' he used to say, 'I 'm saved.' I liked that young man; he had ideas."
"Is there no way of getting at him through his consul?"
The Frenchman shook his head.
"Might as well look for diamonds at the bottom of the sea."
"Do you think he will come back here? But by that time I suppose, you'll hardly be here yourself?"
A gleam of amusement played about the Frenchman's teeth:
"I? Oh, yes, sir! Once upon a time I cherished the hope of emerging; I no longer have illusions. I shave these specimens for a living, and shall shave them till the day of judgment. But leave a letter with me by all means; he will come back. There's an overcoat of his here on which he borrowed money--it's worth more. Oh, yes; he will come back--a youth of principle. Leave a letter with me; I'm always here."
Shelton hesitated, but those last three words, "I'm always here," touched him in their simplicity. Nothing more dreadful could be said.
"Can you find me a sheet of paper, then?" he asked; "please keep the change for the trouble I am giving you."
"Thank you," said the Frenchman simply; "he told me that your heart was good. If you don't mind the kitchen, you could write there at your ease."
Shelton wrote his letter at the table of this stone-flagged kitchen in company with an aged, dried-up gentleman; who was muttering to himself; and Shelton tried to avoid attracting his attention, suspecting that he was not sober. Just as he was about to take his leave, however, the old fellow thus accosted him:
"Did you ever go to the dentist, mister?" he said, working at a loose tooth with his shrivelled fingers. "I went to a dentist once, who professed to stop teeth without giving pain, and the beggar did stop my teeth without pain; but did they stay in, those stoppings? No, my bhoy; they came out before you could say Jack Robinson. Now, I shimply ask you, d'you call that dentistry?" Fixing his eyes on Shelton's collar, which had the misfortune to be high and clean, he resumed with drunken scorn: "Ut's the same all over this pharisaical counthry. Talk of high morality and Anglo-Shaxon civilisation! The world was never at such low ebb! Phwhat's all this morality? Ut stinks of the shop. Look at the condition of Art in this counthry! look at the fools you see upon th' stage! look at the pictures and books that sell! I know what I'm talking about, though I am a sandwich man. Phwhat's the secret of ut all? Shop, my bhoy! Ut don't pay to go below a certain depth! Scratch the skin, but pierce ut--Oh! dear, no! We hate to see the blood fly, eh?"
Shelton stood disconcerted, not knowing if he were expected to reply; but the old gentleman, pursing up his lips, went on:
"Sir, there are no extremes in this fog-smitten land. Do ye think blanks loike me ought to exist? Whoy don't they kill us off? Palliatives--palliatives--and whoy? Because they object to th' extreme course. Look at women: the streets here are a scandal to the world. They won't recognise that they exist--their noses are so dam high! They blink the truth in this middle-class counthry. My bhoy"--and he whispered confidentially--"ut pays 'em. Eh? you say, why shouldn't they, then?" (But Shelton had not spoken.) "Well, let'em! let 'em! But don't tell me that'sh morality, don't tell me that'sh civilisation! What can you expect in a counthry where the crimson, emotions are never allowed to smell the air? And what'sh the result? My bhoy, the result is sentiment, a yellow thing with blue spots, like a fungus or a Stilton cheese. Go to the theatre, and see one of these things they call plays. Tell me, are they food for men and women? Why, they're pap for babes and shop-boys! I was a blanky actor moyself!"
Shelton listened with mingled feelings of amusement and dismay, till the old actor, having finished, resumed his crouching posture at the table.
"You don't get dhrunk, I suppose?" he said suddenly--"too much of 'n Englishman, no doubt."
"Very seldom," said Shelton.
"Pity! Think of the pleasures of oblivion! Oi 'm dhrunk every night."
"How long will you last at that rate?"
"There speaks the Englishman! Why should Oi give up me only pleasure to keep me wretched life in? If you've anything left worth the keeping shober for, keep shober by all means; if not, the sooner you are dhrunk the better--that stands to reason."
In the corridor Shelton asked the Frenchman where the old man came from.
"Oh, and Englishman! Yes, yes, from Belfast very drunken old man. You are a drunken nation"--he made a motion with his hands "he no longer eats--no inside left. It is unfortunate-a man of spirit. If you have never seen one of these palaces, monsieur, I shall be happy to show you over it."
Shelton took out his cigarette case.
"Yes, yes," said the Frenchman, making a wry nose and taking a cigarette; "I'm accustomed to it. But you're wise to fumigate the air; one is n't in a harem."
And Shelton felt ashamed of his fastidiousness.
"This," said the guide, leading him up-stairs and opening a door, "is a specimen of the apartments reserved for these princes of the blood." There were four empty beds on iron legs, and, with the air of a showman, the Frenchman twitched away a dingy quilt. "They go out in the mornings, earn enough to make them drunk, sleep it off, and then begin again. That's their life. There are people who think they ought to be reformed. 'Mon cher monsieur', one must face reality a little, even in this country. It would be a hundred times better for these people to spend their time reforming high Society. Your high Society makes all these creatures; there's no harvest without cutting stalks. 'Selon moi'," he continued, putting back the quilt, and dribbling cigarette smoke through his nose, "there's no grand difference between your high Society and these individuals here; both want pleasure, both think only of themselves, which is very natural. One lot have had the luck, the other--well, you see." He shrugged. "A common set! I've been robbed here half a dozen times. If you have new shoes, a good waistcoat, an overcoat, you want eyes in the back of your head. And they are populated! Change your bed, and you'll run all the dangers of not sleeping alone. 'V'la ma clientele'! The half of them don't pay me!" He, snapped his yellow sticks of fingers. "A penny for a shave, twopence a cut! 'Quelle vie'! Here," he continued, standing by a bed, "is a gentleman who owes me fivepence. Here's one who was a soldier; he's done for! All brutalised; not one with any courage left! But, believe me, monsieur," he went on, opening another door, "when you come down to houses of this sort you must have a vice; it's as necessary as breath is to the lungs. No matter what, you must have a vice to give you a little solace--'un peu de soulagement'. Ah, yes! before you judge these swine, reflect on life! I've been through it. Monsieur, it is not nice never to know where to get your next meal. Gentlemen who have food in their stomachs, money in their pockets, and know where to get more, they never think. Why should they--'pas de danger'! All these cages are the same. Come down, and you shall see the pantry." He took Shelton through the kitchen, which seemed the only sitting-room of the establishment, to an inner room furnished with dirty cups and saucers, plates, and knives. Another fire was burning there. "We always have hot water," said the Frenchman, "and three times a week they make a fire down there"--he pointed to a cellar--"for our clients to boil their vermin. Oh, yes, we have all the luxuries."
Shelton returned to the kitchen, and directly after took leave of the little Frenchman, who said, with a kind of moral button-holing, as if trying to adopt him as a patron:
"Trust me, monsieur; if he comes back--that young man--he shall have your letter without fail. My name is Carolan Jules Carolan; and I am always at your service."
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