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Chapter XIV

Person and character of Mr Archibald Maidstone. Irreverent attitude towards the firm's publications. Would-be laxity of two constables. Their tardy performance of an obvious duty. Deplorable condition of my Sunday trousers. Their effect on Miss Botterill and Mr Chrysostom Lorton. The arrival and influence of the Reverend Eugene Cake. Mr Maidstone is dismissed and I succeed him. Complete discomfiture of his three elder children.

I have said that he sat down, and even had that been all, it would have been a sufficiently unpleasant encounter, although, as I had instantly seen, it ought certainly to issue in my own immediate commercial advancement. But he did more, for so firmly did he grip my arm that I was compelled to sit down beside him, with what reluctance will be the better imagined when I have briefly described his person and character. By name Archibald Maidstone, he was a tall, gaunt man with high cheek-bones and a grey moustache, and in his earlier life he had held some sort of position in the British mercantile marine. An accident at sea, however, had deprived him of one of his eyes as well as of the two middle fingers of his left hand, and for some time he had been the proprietor of a small and unsuccessful marine store. He had then become a commercial traveller for a firm of grocers that had subsequently failed, and had finally, at the age of forty-one, obtained a minor position in the business of Mr Chrysostom Lorton.

A married man with several children, he had afterwards been appointed show-room manager, and it was as his assistant, as I have already said, that I had entered Mr Lorton's employment. From the outset, however, although I had endeavoured to conceal this, I had both disliked and distrusted him, and in spite of what I presumed to be a species of nautical humour, I had found his attitude towards me peculiarly offensive. I had never been accustomed, for example, as I had been obliged to point out to him, to be addressed as `young-feller-me-lad', or `the bosun's mate', and I had even been compelled to report him to Mr Lorton in order to secure more respectful treatment. I had been deeply concerned, too, to observe the levity with which, in the absence of customers, he would handle and describe the sacred publications of which it was his privilege to be the salesman. `Bilge-water for the Bairns', for instance, was a frequent expression of his for our well-known series of Talks with the Infants, and I had even heard him refer to a parcel of Claudie's Temptations as `another half-hundredweight of the Prigs' Paradise'. Indeed, on one occasion, ignorant of the presence of the author - the celebrated Nonconformist, the Reverend Eugene Cake - he had tossed me a window-copy of Without are Dogs, saying that, if they were `wise bow-wows', they would stay there; and it was only after a second interview with Mr Chrysostom Lorton, the tearful intervention of Mrs Maidstone, and a complete apology to the Reverend Cake, that he was allowed to retain his position.

But for the fact, indeed, that his children were still at school and dependent upon his earnings, and that his wife, who seemed inexplicably attached to him, had been an invalid for some years, he would most certainly have been dismissed, and I had always felt that this should have been done. Nor was I alone in this, for when I ventured to congratulate him on the successful sale of Without are Dogs, the Reverend Cake had entirely agreed with me in de ploring Mr Maidstone's retention in the business.

Such, then, was the man by whose side I was now sitting upon the damp pavement, and from whom I only detached myself after a prolonged struggle, just as a member of the police force came in sight. This was a stalwart constable of somewhat coarse appearance to whom I immediately made myself known, and to whose attention I then brought Mr Maidstone, who was still seated upon the pavement.

`Ha, I see,' he said, `a bit sideways. Do you happen to know where the gentleman lives?'

`I don't know the street,' I said, `nor can I accept your assumption that such a degenerate can be called a gentleman. But I understand that his home is in Greenwich.'

`Num shixteen,' said Mr Maidstone.

The constable bent over him, and raised him to his feet.

`Now, come along,' he said. `Pull yourself together.'

Mr Maidstone swayed for a moment and then saluted us.

`Happit meetu,' he said. `Num shixteen.'

`Sixteen what?' said the constable.

`Manshtroad,' said Mr Maidstone. `Shixteen Manshtroad, Grinsh.'

Then he toppled forward into the constable's arms, but recovered himself and smiled at us affectionately.

The constable turned to me.

`Well, if I was you, sir, I'd put him in a cab and take him home.'

I stared at him in utter amazement.

`But do you mean to say,' I inquired, `that you aren't going to take him in charge?'

`Oh, no need, sir,' he said, `seeing as you know the gentleman - not if you'll put him into a cab and take him home.'

`But, my good man,' I said, `how can I do that? It's a quarter past ten, and I'm going home to bed.'

`Well, we can't leave him here,' said the constable, `or he'll be getting into trouble. What about givin' 'im a 'and to your own 'ouse, sir?'

`To my own house?' I cried. `A person in that condition?'

The constable pushed his helmet back and scratched his forehead.

`Well, it'd be doin' 'im a good turn, sir,' he said, `seein' as 'ow the gentleman's a friend of yours.'

`On the contrary,' I said, `he's neither a friend of mine, nor do I propose to condone his infamy.'

Here Mr Maidstone caught hold of the constable.

`Shinfamous thing,' he said. `Carncondonit.'

Then he sat down again and began to sing a hymn, just as a second constable came round the corner; and after conferring for a moment, they approached me once more with the suggestion that they should conduct Mr Maidstone to Angela Gardens.

`You see, sir,' they said, `we don't want to make no trouble, and maybe some day you'll want a 'and yourself'

For a moment, so casually were the words spoken, I scarcely realized their astounding import. But when I did so, it was, of course, instantly clear to me that I must define my position once and for all. Drawing myself up, therefore, I addressed the two constables with all the firmness of which I was capable.

`You have chosen to be insolent,' I said, `and for that you may rest assured I shall report you to your superiors at my earliest convenience. But I must have you understand, now and for ever, and beyond all possibility of future cavil, that I entirely and absolutely refuse to associate myself with any evasion of the law of this land. This person, whose name is Archibald Maidstone, who is employed by Mr Chrysostom Lorton of Paternoster Row, and whose home, if I have interpreted him rightly, is in Manchester Road, Greenwich, is not only drunk, but, as his actions have proclaimed him, is also disorderly in every sense. As a Xtian gentleman, therefore, no less than as a citizen, whose trousers have been soiled by his agency, I demand that you shall do your duty by removing him to the appropriate place of detention. And I would further have you note that I am aware of both your numbers and shall certainly inform myself of your procedure.'

`Hear, hear,' said Mr Maidstone, `more. Thashway talk to 'em. Manshtroad, Grinsh.'

Then the constables conferred again, and stooping over Mr Maidstone, lifted him once more from the pavement.

`Very good, sir,' they said, `if you can't see your way to look after him, we shall have to take him to the station.'

I bowed to them coldly.

`Since that was so plainly your duty,' I said, `I can only regret your tardy perception of it.'

It will thus be seen that, harassed as I was by the problem provided for me by Ezekiel Stool, I was now confronted with the much more immediate one of purging Mr Lorton's business of Mr Archibald Maidstone. For to me, at any rate, it was imperatively clear that such a person could not possibly remain in it without imperilling the whole of the spiritual prestige that was perhaps its most lucrative asset. At the same time, however, as I also saw, the preliminaries to expulsion would require very careful handling, owing to the choleric temper, the extreme vanity, and the peculiar limitations of Mr Chrysostom himself.

After what can well be imagined, therefore, was a restless night, and not without the profoundest consideration, I decided upon the seat of my Sunday trousers as the best introduction to the subject in hand; and it was with this in view that I refrained from dusting or drying them and carried them to the city with me the next morning.

Nor was I disappointed. For not only did Miss Botterill, my female inferior, visibly recoil from them, but they instantly caught the eye of Mr Chrysostom Lorton as he crossed the show-room on the way to his office. Indeed, disposed as they were, with the seat uppermost, upon one corner of the right-hand counter, it would have been difficult for even the most preoccupied to have passed them without notice, and especially as the moisture that had been transferred to them from the pavement was now being illuminated by the morning sun. Nor was the effect of them upon Mr Chrysostom Lorton less than it had been upon Miss Botterill. Starting back, almost as if he had been lassoed, he stood for a moment staring at them with dilated pupils, and then very softly he approached them on tiptoe with the point of his umbrella extended before him.

`Good God,' he said, `whose are those?'

With an appropriate gesture I signified their ownership. He turned to Miss Botterill.

`Fetch me a chair,' he said.

She pushed one towards him with averted eyes. He fell back into it and waved his hand.

`Take them away,' he said. `Put them somewhere else.'

I removed them from the counter and placed them underneath it.

`Where's Mr Maidstone?' he said.

I replied that he had not come.

`I imagine,' I said, `that he has been detained.'

`Detained?' he cried. `Why should he be detained? What should have detained him? It's ten past nine.'

`Even so,' I replied.

`Then kindly inform me,' he went on, `why you have taken advantage of his absence.'

I looked at him gravely.

`I am not aware,' I said, `of having done any such thing.'

`Not aware?' he said. `Not aware, sir? Where's Miss Botterill? Put this chair back.'

He rose to his feet and stood glaring at me, still pointing his umbrella at the counter.

`Then do you mean to tell me,' he said, `that if Mr Maidstone had been present, your disgusting wearing apparel would still have been there?'

I bowed my head.

`I cannot say,' I replied. `But it was to call his attention to them that I had placed them on the counter.'

He lowered his umbrella.

`To call his attention to them? But what has Mr Maidstone to do with your trousers?'

`In this particular case,' I said, 'a very great deal, since he was solely responsible for their condition.'

He opened his mouth.

`Mr Maidstone?' he gasped.

`Mr Archibald Maidstone,' I said, `your show-room manager.

`But good God,' he said, `you don't mean to tell me that he's in the habit of borrowing your trousers?'

`Unfortunately,' I replied, `that was not necessary. I was myself occupying them on the occasion in question.'

`But I don't understand,' he said. `Where's Miss Botterill? Bring me that chair back. I want to sit down.'

She brought back the chair, and just as she did so, the street door opened to admit a newcomer - none other, indeed, than the Reverend Eugene Cake, bearing the typescript of his new novel.*

It was an important entrance. But Mr Chrysostom still sat staring at the counter, and having greeted Mr Cake rather perfunctorily, demanded a further inspection of the trousers. Once again, therefore, I placed them upon the counter, and once again Miss Botterill recoiled, the Reverend Eugene Cake recoiling also and dropping the typescript of his novel.

`Now,' said Mr Chrysostom, `you have already informed me that you were encased in these nauseating garments, and you have further asserted that Mr Maidstone was solely responsible for their present condition. Mr Maidstone, you tell me, is probably detained somewhere, and it is now a quarter past nine. I may be unintelligent. I may be obtuse. I may be unfit to conduct this business. But I don't understand it, sir. I don't understand it. Where's Miss Botterill? Get Mr Cake a chair.'

With her hand over her face, Miss Botterill ran across the show-room and returned with a chair for Mr Cake. Mr Chrysostom glanced at him.

`Are you comfortable, Cake?'

The Reverend Eugene bowed a little stiffly.

`Very well, then,' said Mr Chrysostom. `Very well, I repeat. And now you must explain, sir. You must explain. I don't want to pre-judge you. I never pre-judge anybody. But I don't like it, sir. I don't like it. And you must allow me to remind you that this is not the first time that you have obliged me to discuss your trousers.'

`Sir,' I replied, `I am deeply aware of it, and none can regret it more than myself, nor the painful circumstances that you have, I think justly, now compelled me to disclose.'

I then very briefly, but with all essential details, described my encounter with Mr Maidstone, concluding with the numbers of the two constables and a surmise that he was being detained to see the magistrate.

When I had finished, Mr Chrysostom was breathing heavily, while Mr Cake was engaged in silent prayer. Then they both rose and stood with their backs to the trousers while Mr Chrysostom gave his orders.

`Miss Botterill,' he said, `when Mr Maidstone arrives, you will please request him to come to my room. Mr Carp, having removed your trousers, you will kindly take charge of the show-room.'

Colouring deeply, Mr Cake touched him on the arm. `I suppose you refer,' he said, `to the trousers on the counter.'

`Eh, what?' said Mr Chrysostom. `Yes, yes, of course. The trousers on the counter. You didn't suppose -?'

`I endeavoured not to,' said Mr Cake. `But perhaps it would have been better to be more explicit.'

Slightly ruffled, however, as was the eminent novelist by the occasion and manner of his reception, he was completely emphatic, as he afterwards assured me, on the necessity for dismissing Mr Maidstone; and indeed Mr Chrysostom, as he also informed me, had needed very little in the way of persuasion.

`In fact, I think I may say,' he said, a couple of hours later, as he passed through the show-room on his way to the street, `that Gnashers of Teeth will find a good friend in Mr Maidstone's successor.'

I clasped his hand.

`I sincerely hope so,' I said.

`It's even more powerful,' he said, `than Without are Dogs.'

It was in this fashion, then, that I became show-room manager with an added, though insufficient emolument, for Mr Maidstone, when he arrived the next morning, was at once dismissed after a brief interview. Explaining at first that he had failed to attend owing to a very violent bilious headache, he was, of course, unable, when pressed by Mr Chrysostom, to deny the truth of my allegations; and it subsequently emerged that, after a night in the police station, he had been fined ten shillings by the local magistrate. Nor did his resentment, when he came downstairs again, assume the physical character that I had feared, although I had taken the precaution of keeping Miss Botterill beside me and holding my police whistle in my left hand. On the contrary, he seemed to recognize not only the grossness of his delinquency, but the inevitable nature of the consequences that had so rightly ensued.

`Well, you've done me in, laddie,' he said. `But I suppose I deserved it.'

`I regret to say,' I replied, `that there can be no doubt of it.'

`But it's going to be hard,' he added, `on the wife and family.'

`The wages of sin,' I said, `are never easy.'

Then Miss Botterill sniffed and pulled out her handkerchief, and Mr Maidstone closed the street door, and but for a diverting sequel upon the following Friday, the incident closed very satisfactorily. Upon that morning, however, Mr Maidstone's three elder children, a girl and two boys, all apparently under fourteen, entered the show-room and peremptorily demanded to be taken upstairs to Mr Chrysostom Lorton. By names, Polly, Arthur, and George, they had come to apply for their father's reinstatement, chiefly, as they alleged, on account of their mother, whom they described as suffering from pulmonary consumption. Needless to say, much to their obvious discomfiture, Mr Chrysostom refused to see them, and after a brief consultation, they filed out again very much more humbly than they had come in. Unpleasant children, it was an amusing episode, and I could not help laughing somewhat heartily, although Polly, who appeared to be the eldest, made a grimace at me as she went out.

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