[ Previous || Index || Next ]

Chapter IX

Effect upon my father of his disclosure. My Xtian confidence in journeying to Enfield. Paternoster Towers and its mistress. Unfortunate detachment of my posterior trouser-buttons. Triumphant success of my interview. A kindly parlourmaid and her male friend. I secure a position under Mr Chrysostom Lorton. Melancholy death of Silas Whey.

Profoundly, and indeed permanently, as it had shaken him - when I turned up the lamp again my father was an old man - I cannot say that the substance of his communication was entirely unfamiliar to me, or that I had not been aware, to a certain extent, of a new significance attaching to my person. Appreciably over five feet in height, with a pectoral girth of twenty-six inches, my abdominal measurement (fully clothed of course) was but little less than a yard, and for some time I had been unable to help noticing that I was not unattractive to the opposite sex. I had, in fact, deemed it advisable to inform Emily Smith, who, as I have said, was somewhat my senior, that while I was still agreeable to remain her companion, there could be no question between us of ultimate matrimony; and I had several times discussed with Simeon and Silas Whey the qualities to be demanded from a possible wife.

Even had I not been fortified, therefore, with the details, imparted at such a price to me by my father, I should not have felt myself wholly unequipped in confronting Mrs Chrysostom Lorton; and, as it was, I made the journey to Enfield serene in the knowledge of my instructed manhood. This was the more fortunate in that, devoid of anxiety, I was enabled to profit very fully from an expedition considerably the most involved that I had ever engaged upon unaccompanied.

Nothing would have been easier, for instance, than, dazed by its magnitude, to have wandered for hours in Liverpool Street Station, whereas a few courteous and clearly-phrased questions soon led my footsteps to the appropriate platform. Similarly, had I been engrossed with a fearful apprehension of the ordeal that awaited me, I might have been blind to the interesting objects that presented themselves to my carriage window; whereas I was moved to pity and apprehension by the rough streets of Bethnal Green, pricked to audible curiosity by the uncommon nomenclature of Seven Sisters, agreeably reminded, at Bruce Grove, of the well-known Caledonian monarch, and so overcome by mirth, as we drew into Lower Edmonton, at a sudden recollection of John Gilpin that an elderly female who was sitting opposite me hastily left the compartment.

I was able to observe, too, with satisfaction, the busy and prosperous aspect of Enfield, and although, as I drew near to the mansion of Mr Chrysostom Lorton, I was naturally a little sobered by the imminence of my task, I was gratified to perceive in Paternoster Towers a concrete testimony to the worth of his enterprise. Solidly constructed of red brick and surrounded by well-trimmed lawns and flower-beds, it was further adhered to by a couple of large conservatories and approached by a broad, gravelled drive. Nor was I less satisfied by the humble and respectful demeanour of the good-looking parlourmaid who opened the door, and who had proceeded, having taken my hat and stick, to admit me to her mistress's boudoir.

`Mrs Lorton,' she said, `will be down in a minute.'

`I thank you,' I replied. `I will await her arrival.'

Favourably as I had been impressed, however, it must not be assumed that I had in any degree relaxed my guard; and though I was aware, of course, that I held every advantage I made a rapid survey of the contents of the room.

Of no great size, it had evidently been furnished to minister almost entirely to the senses, and it was perhaps not surprising that I was unable to discern a single text upon its walls. Upon a parquet floor polished to a degree that was almost lascivious in its smoothness, elaborate table-legs stood reflected and a voluptuous rug or two solicited the feet. Upon the mantelpiece stood an oval mirror, indecently surrounded by likenesses of Cupid, and beside it a nude female, fashioned in bronze, was extracting a thorn from her left calf. Flushing involuntarily, I turned away from these only to observe upon a French-looking writing-table a large photograph of an elderly man, pathetically signed `Your aff. Chrysostom'. Beneath this, in a confusion that was probably characteristic, lay a half-finished letter to somebody called Loo-Loo and several others addressed to `Dearest Nina' that I did not hesitate to peruse. Most of these, as I discovered, were but little more than the vapid productions of obvious worldlings. But two were invitations to card parties and one, to my horror, contained the word `blasted'.

This was the one, indeed, upon which I was engaged when the door of the room was abruptly thrown open with a lack of refinement that I ought perhaps to have expected, but that for a moment completely unnerved me. In fact, it did more. For in the effort to recover myself the rug upon which I was standing slid across the floor, leaving behind it not only the upper and middle but the lower middle portions of my frame. Poised in mid-air, my feet having accompanied the rug, I was entirely unable to support these, and was obliged in consequence to assume with the extremest suddenness a sedentary position upon the parquet. Nor was that all. For when, at the third attempt, I succeeded in once more standing upright, the left of my two posterior trouser-buttons fell with a sharp metallic sound upon the floor. Here it paused for a moment, and then standing upon its circumference followed the rug in the direction of Mrs Lorton.

`Dear me,' she said, `I'm afraid I interrupted you. Is this your button?'

She stooped and picked it up.

With a supreme effort, and despite the most poignant anguish, I regained command of myself and requested her to return it. Hardly had she done so, however, when there came a second metallic sound, and the comrade of the first button also rolled to her feet.

`Oh, dear, she said, `isn't that the other one? What do you suppose will happen now?'

Only those who have experienced the extreme discomfort of the simultaneous loss of both posterior trouser-buttons, and the consequent approach to the back of the neck of the bifurcation-point of the braces, will be able to appreciate the enormous handicap under which Providence had now seen fit to place me. In the manual effort, too, which became instantly necessary to prevent the downward corrugation of my trousers, the first button slipped from my grasp and again bounced upon the parquet.

`Oh, I say,' said Mrs Lorton, `is this a new kind of game, or are you trying to put me at my ease?'

With a silent but powerful petition, I drew myself as erect as the circumstances permitted.

`It is neither a game,' I said, holding up my trousers, `nor am I entering into personal relations with you. In fact, it is my duty to make it quite clear to you that you are no sort of temptation to me.'

Clad in some close-fitting fabric that exuded a most licentious scent, I could see at once that these well-chosen words had had a profound and immediate effect upon her. Turning her back on me, she emitted a hoarse gasp, and then collapsing upon the sofa, she lay there choking and convulsed in what appeared to be an attack of acute hysteria. Startled but unmoved, and still sustaining my trousers, I gravely awaited her recovery.

`Oh dear,' she said, wiping her eyes, and then after looking at me again, she collapsed once more. Then she sat up, fanning herself with her handkerchief.

`You must really forgive me,' she said, `but you looked so stern.'

`I should scarcely have thought,' I replied, inclining my head a little, `that as a Xtian gentleman you could have expected me to look otherwise.'

`Oh no,' she said, `no, of course not. Just suppose - oh dear, oh dear.'

Then she wiped her eyes again.

`Wouldn't you be better sitting down?' she asked.

`I thank you,' I said. `But I prefer to stand.'

She folded up her handkerchief and placed it in a small bag.

`Well, you know best,' she said. `What do you want me to do?'

`I had imagined,' I said, `that that had already been indicated to you by your fellow-accomplice, Mr Septimus Lorton.'

`I say,' she replied, `you do use long words. Aren't you considered to be frightfully clever?'

I bowed again.

`In my own circle,' I said, `I am not considered, I believe, to be unintelligent.'

`And so you want Chrys,' she said, `to give you a job?'

`You are doubtless aware,' I replied, `of the alternative.'

`You mean if he doesn't,' she said, `you'll tell him about me and Septimus.'

`As a Xtian gentleman,' I said, `it would become my duty.'

`I wonder what he'd say,' she said. `When do you want to see him?'

`The sooner the better,' I said. `I should prefer this afternoon.'

She rose to her feet.

`Then I'll have to write him a note,' she said. `But it'll never do to mention poor Septimus.'

She crossed to the writing-table and began nibbling her pen.

`Of course it's rather difficult,' she said, `to know what to tell him.'

I bowed again, a trifle grimly perhaps.

`The way of transgressors,' I reminded her, `is seldom easy.

`No, I suppose not,' she said. `How clever you are. Aren't they frightfully proud of you at home?'

`I trust,' I said, `that I have deserved their affection.'

`Oh, I'm sure of it,' she replied. `Now let me see.'

She frowned for a moment and then began writing in a peculiarly large and childish hand.

`Of course I'll have to tell him,' she said, `that you were at Septimus's school, where you were frightfully struck with the Lorton Bible, but that you didn't like Septimus - that'll be sure to please him - and so you didn't ask him to help you.

Her face began to brighten as she put this on paper, and I noticed that she was protruding the tip of her tongue.

`So you came here all by yourself, thinking he'd be at home, as it was the Easter holidays, and when you found he wasn't, you asked to see me instead, and I was most frightfully taken up with you.'

Here she made a blot, but observed that it didn't matter, and then pronounced each word as she slowly inscribed it.

`He seems a most lovable and religious young man, and I do hope you'll help him all you can. Cross, cross, cross - those are for kisses - your ever loving and devoted Nina.'

Then she handed me the letter.

`There you are,' she said. `Now you'll know exactly what you'll have to tell him.'

Releasing one of my hands, I read it quickly but carefully and returned it to her without comment.

`Will it do?' she said.

`I can only hope,' I replied, `that, for your own sake, madam, it will.'

She put it into an envelope and handed it back to me.

`Then I mustn't detain you,' she said, `any longer.'

Nor did I wish to stay. But I was now face to face with a situation of the utmost difficulty. Growingly repugnant as was this woman's presence to me, and singularly complete as had been my moral triumph, both my posterior trouser-buttons were still lying upon the floor.

`Oh, I see,' she said, `would you like to take them with you? I'll put them in an envelope and then you won't lose them.'

She accordingly did so, handing me the envelope, which I quickly took from her and placed in my pocket.

`You see, I'm afraid,' she said, `that I could hardly trust myself to - to actually sew them on.'

I bowed to her coldly, ignoring the split infinitive.

`Nor should I have seen fit,' I said, `to concede you the opportunity.'

Obviously shamed, she lowered her eyes, and to hide her confusion rang the bell, and I am glad to acknowledge that the entrance of the good-looking parlourmaid was not wholly unwelcome to me. Though but a menial, I had already discovered in her some of the most desirable female qualities, and I am happy to record that in a moment of acute anxiety, she played an humble but not unworthy part.

Mrs Lorton turned to her.

`Oh, Parker,' she said, `poor Mr Carp has had a most unfortunate accident.'

Parker glanced at my hands.

`Yes, that's the trouble,' said Mrs Lorton. `Isn't it awkward for him?'

Parker looked at me with genuine sympathy.

`Oh, poor gentleman,' she said, `it must be.'

`You see,' said Mrs Lorton, `as a Xtian gentleman he's quite unable to let them go.'

`Oh, quite,' said Parker, `quite - except for a moment, perhaps, just to get a firmer hold.'

Mrs Lorton opened the door.

`So perhaps you'll help him,' she said, `all you can.'

Parker glanced at her inquiringly.

`I mean, put his stick under his arm and his hat on.'

`Oh, gladly,' said Parker, `ever so gladly.'

`And escort him down the drive and open the front gate for him.'

Preceded by Parker, therefore, I left the room, and though it was perhaps unfortunate that there were two other servants in the hall, at Parker's request one of them brought my hat, which Parker herself put on my head, while the other inserted my walking-stick, handle foremost, beneath my left arm-pit. Thanking them graciously, but without undue familiarity, and once again preceded by Parker, I then moved down the drive, of which this gentle domestic opened the front gate for me. Nor was that the last service that she was privileged to render me, for acting upon a suggestion that she had obligingly volunteered, I visited a tailor in Enfield High Street to whom, as I soon discovered, she hoped to be betrothed. An admirable young man, he had not as yet made up his mind as to whether it would be discreet to grant her request, but he was happy to provide me with two entirely new buttons and personally to affix them to the brink of my trousers.

Completely restored, then, in respect of my clothes, and physically recuperated with some excellent buns, I was enabled to assimilate the scenes of my return journey with an even keener appreciation, and to arrive at Paternoster Row in the full confidence of final success. Not having a visiting-card, I had made up my mind to announce myself as a messenger from Mrs Chrysostom; and, as it proved, this was the means of securing me an almost immediate audience. A somewhat short and extremely stout man with a heavily-coloured face and a drooping grey moustache, Mr Chrysostom Lorton, whom I recognized from his photograph, might rather have been a general than a man of commerce; and I cannot say that a first inspection of him gave me entire satisfaction. Undoubtedly well-dressed, with a serpentine gold ring encasing the lower portion of each third finger, I was rather disagreeably affected both by his bushy and protruding eyebrows as well as by his attitude towards a slight mischance associated with the inception of our interview. For in presenting the envelope, with which I had assured him Mrs Chrysostom had entrusted me, I unfortunately in the first place handed him the one in which she had placed my posterior trouser-buttons. For a moment he stared at them with bulging eyeballs, and then I regret to say that he apparently forgot himself.

`Good God,' he said, `what the hell - crumph, crumph - what do you mean, sir?'

Equally surprised, I have always been glad to remember that I was the first to recover my equanimity. Laughing merrily, I handed him the second envelope - in point of bestowal, of course, the first.

`Although you must not assume,' I said, `that my natural mirth in any degree condones your involuntary blasphemy.'

`Condones my what?' he said. `Crumph, crumph. But how the devil did she get hold of them?'

Still clinging to the original envelope, whose texture he obviously recognized, his globular eyes continued to be focused on the two buttons before him. Briefly I explained to him the circumstances of their detachment. But for a considerable time he kept referring to the subject.

`I don't like it,' he said, `I don't like it at all. It's not seemly. It might have been very serious.'

Then a new suspicion darkened his countenance.

`I suppose I may assume,' he said, `that you've had them replaced?'

I bowed reassuringly.

`By a tailor in Enfield,' I said, `who was incidentally a great admirer of you.'

His face cleared a little.

`Eh, what?' he said. `An admirer, you say? What was his name?'

I informed him and he nodded his head.

`Ah, yes, yes,' he said, `a worthy young fellow.'

By an auspicious chance too - if indeed it were one - a female clerk now entered the room, bearing in her hands a specimen copy of the nineteenth edition of the Bible for Schools. He glanced up from his wife's letter.

`Yes, yes,' he said, `that will interest you.'

`Nothing,' I replied, `could have interested me more, unless perhaps a specimen of the twentieth.'

Afterwards, as I shall show, my initial distrust of the man proved to have been only too well founded. But, as matters turned out on this particular afternoon, I left his office as a junior assistant. Placed under the charge of the show-room manager, I was to help this gentleman with his accounts and to act when necessary as a salesman of the firm's congenial and Xtian literature. It was a supreme moment - it was perhaps, in a good many ways, the supremest moment of my life - and I did not hesitate, after some further buns, to make suitable acknowledgement of it in St Paul's Cathedral. Nor was the news with which I was confronted on my return to Angela Gardens entirely able to counteract the deep satisfaction with which it filled me.

Nevertheless it was perhaps a timely reminder of the ever-present imminence of eternity, and it was certainly one that I have made a point of recalling in many subsequent moments of elation. For hardly had I opened the front gate when somebody touched me on the shoulder, and turning round, I observed Simeon Whey looking more preoccupied than I had ever seen him. His lips, at any rate, were moving rather convulsively and his laryngeal spasm was extremely marked.

`Kck,' he said. `It's Silas.'

`Dear me,' I replied. `What's the matter with him?'

`Kck,' he repeated. `He's dead.'

`You don't say so?' I cried. `What did he die of?'

For some seconds he was unable to speak, obviously struggling with his vocal cords, and then with a blast of exceptional sadness he managed to expel the mournful details. Suffering, as it appeared, from a temporary gastric distension, the amiable lad had gone to the medicine chest, where he had unfortunately mistaken the cyanide of potassium for the bicarbonate of soda.

[ Previous || Index || Next ]