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Chapter XVII

Profound depression subsequent to port-poisoning. An iniquitous plot and its consequences. Insubordination of Miss Botterill. I retire from the firm of Mr Chrysostom Lorton. A crushing rejoinder and its repetition. Second journey to Enfield. Transformation of Mrs Chrysostom's boudoir. Unexpected repentance of Mrs Chrysostom. Unfortunate results of this for myself. Fruitless termination of interview.

Such was the cross that had suddenly been imposed upon me - a cross so gigantic and of such a character that only the most prolonged and assiduous training could have enabled me to bear it. Indeed, for some little time it seemed only too likely that it would prove too crushing even for me; and had not Nature intervened with a period of merciful unconsciousness, this would almost certainly have been the case. Fortunately I arrived home, however, as my father has assured me, in a deep though stertorous slumber, and did not awake until nearly eleven o'clock on the following Monday morning. There was thus accorded me an opportunity for the recuperation of those vital reserves that would even then, as I slowly began to realize, be desperately hard put to it to give me adequate support.

I say slowly because, when I first woke, my physical nausea was so great that I was totally unable to form a clear judgement upon the events of the previous evening. Nor was my mother, never a fluent speaker, more communicative than usual. I had been brought home, she said, by two young gentlemen, whose names she did not know, and a doctor had been called in, at my father's request, who had made a diagnosis with which my father disagreed. Indeed my father, I gathered, had been considerably upset, and had spent a restless night in consequence, and my mother had been obliged on three separate occasions to prepare him a cup of malted milk. She then awaited my orders for breakfast. But this was a meal that I was compelled to omit. And it was only after she had left me that my memory began to recover itself and to lay its sombre offerings at the feet of my judgement. Then I rang the bell again and inquired of my mother the exact terms of the doctor's diagnosis. But she shook her head and referred me to my father, who would be able to tell me, she said, when he returned from business.

`Not that it much matters,' she added, `for you'd be sure to disagree with it.'

`I certainly should,' I replied, `and I certainly shall. I was poisoned - deliberately poisoned - by the wicked woman with whom I had my supper.'

`An actress, I believe,' said my mother.

`Whom I was prepared to save,' I said, `from a deserved perdition.'

My mother was silent for a moment.

`Is that all?' she said.

`How do you mean, all?' I asked.

`I mean, may I go now?'

`Oh, yes, yes,' I said. `Shut the door quietly, please; and I should like my shaving water in about an hour.'

Then I lay back quietly, closing my eyes in pain and rehearsing such speeches as would be necessary to put both Mr Chrysostom Lorton and Ezekiel Stool in the full possession of the facts of the case. It would also be essential, I foresaw, to call a further special meeting of the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory Union and to make a point of addressing, at the earliest opportunity, the Society for the Prevention of the Strong Drink Traffic. It would be equally important, too, in my capacity of gap-filler, to prepare an explanatory petition for use at the local prayer-meetings, the majority of which had contributed members to last night's audience in the Porter Street Drill Hall. Yes, it was all coming back to me in its devilish ingenuity (for it had evidently been a plot on the part of Mr Maidstone's daughter), and she might depend upon it that if legal redress were possible, it should be extracted from her to the last farthing.

But was it possible? The more I considered it, the more doubtful I became. And even were it possible, would it be expedient? The condition of my head forbade an immediate answer. Indeed I was now the subject of a thirst so overwhelming that without pausing to summon my mother, I was obliged to quench it from the various receptacles within easy reach upon my wash-hand stand. I was profoundly shocked, too, by the aspect of my countenance, as this was disclosed to me by my looking-glass; and accustomed as I was to a frequently concealed tongue, I had never before seen it so deeply obscured. Even after I had shaved and dressed, indeed, I was a little doubtful as to whether I should be able to complete the journey to town. But I was determined if possible not only to make the attempt, but to perform my usual afternoon duties. After a cup of tea therefore, and a fragment of dried herring, I ventured into the street and mounted an omnibus, arriving in Paternoster Row at about two o'clock to find Miss Botterill in charge of the show-room.

`Good afternoon,' I said. `I have been the victim of a dastardly plot, or I should have been in my place this morning as usual.'

`Good afternoon,' she replied, `and please, Mr Chrysostom said, would you go up to his room as soon as you arrived.'

`Certainly,' I said, `and when I come down, Miss Botterill, I should like to see that counter looking a little tidier.'

Miss Botterill hesitated.

`I'm just rearranging it,' she said. `I propose in future to have it less crowded.'

I stared at her.

`You propose what?' I asked.

`I propose in future,' she said, `to have a bowl of flowers upon it and merely a very few of our latest books.'

Depleted as I felt, I yet retained command of myself.

`But, my dear Miss Botterill,' I said, `permit me to remind you that your duty is to obey and not propose. You will therefore kindly restore the counter to its previous appearance and remember in future that you are not show-room manager.

`But I am,' she said.

She continued her rearranging.

Deprived of breath, I could only stand and watch her.

Then I leapt forward and gripped her shoulder.

`Oh, how dare you?' I cried. `How dare you, woman?'

She began to scream. But I declined to let her go until several of the clerks had emerged from the correspondence room. Then I flung her from me heavily, turned upon my heel, and instantly proceeded to Mr Chrysostom's office. He was standing at the door.

`What's all this screaming?' he said.

`I regret to say,' I replied, `that Miss Botterill has been insubordinate.'

`Insubordinate?' he said. `And to whom, please?'

`To myself,' I replied, `as your representative.'

`Then kindly understand,' he said, `kindly understand, sir, that after last night

I waved my hand.

`One moment,' I said. `It is to explain about last night that I have managed to force myself to come and see you.'

He distended his cheeks.

`Then you could have spared yourself the trouble,' he said. `I don't want to see your face again.'

`But, my dear sir,' I said.

`I'm not your dear sir,' he shouted. `I'm not your dear anything. I've no further use for you.'

But I held up my hand again.

`I must beg you to control yourself,' I said, `until this unfortunate mishap has been fully explained to you.'

`Mishap?' he said. `Do you call it a mishap, sir, to invite your employer to a religious gathering and leave him to be received by a thing like a stunted gorilla, because you're too drunk to stand by yourself?'

`But, my dear sir,' I began.

`Don't say that again,' he said. `Don't say anything again. I don't want to hear it. You were drunk, sir. You were damnably drunk. You were so drunk that you fell off the platform.'

Involuntarily I winced, as who would not have done? But once more I held up my hand.

`Mr Lorton,' I said, `you have forgotten who I am, or such words could never have escaped you. And I was neither drunk, nor would have such a thing have been possible. I was merely suffering from deliberate port-poisoning.'

If anything, however, he became more violent.

`Port-poisoning?' he bawled. `What's port-poisoning? Port isn't poison, sir. I drink it myself. In fact, I was obliged, sir, to drink some of your own - an excellent port, sir, that probably saved my life.'

`I regret to hear it,' I said. `But allow me to point out to you that the fluid you mention was not my own, and that I had been informed by its donors that it was a species of fruit squash, imported from Portugal and known as Portugalade.'

`But, good God, sir, there's no such thing.'

`Precisely,' I replied. `That's my point.'

`Your point?' he cried. `What do you mean by your point?'

`Why, that I was refreshed,' I said, `and subsequently disabled by a beverage that has no existence.'

`Then you're a fool,' he said. `You're either a knave, sir - a drunken knave - or a fool.'

`Then am I to understand,' I said, `that I am no longer show-room manager?'

`You're no longer anything,' he said, `in any business of mine.'

I leaned against the wall.

`And you call yourself a Xtian gentleman?' I said.

`I certainly do,' he said, `and I thank God for it.'

Then I stood erect again, dashing the tears from my eyes. He pulled out his handkerchief.

`Don't wet me,' he said.

`It was inadvertent,' I said.

`I'm glad to hear it,' he replied.

`And I apologize,' I said, `to the moisture.'

For a moment he gaped at me, and little wonder. It was perhaps the crushingest remark in human history.

`I apologize,' I said, `to the moisture.'

Yes, it must have cut him to the quick.

It was so crushing, indeed, that I repeated it to Miss Botterill.

`Miss Botterill,' I said, `I am leaving.'

`Yes, I know,' she said. `I knew before you came.'

`May I beg,' I replied, `that you won't interrupt me.'

She was silent, and I continued.

`And one of my tears,' I said, `fell on Mr Chrysostom.'

`Oh dear,' she said. `Poor Mr Chrysostom.'

`So I apologized,' I said.

`Quite right,' she said.

`But not to Mr Chrysostom,' I said. `I apologized to the moisture.'

`To the moisture?' she said. `What moisture?'

`Why, to the moisture,' I explained, `of the tear.'

She stared at me with her mouth open.

`But what was the good of that?' she asked. `The moisture couldn't hear you.'

`No. It couldn't hear me,' I said, `it couldn't hear me, Miss Botterill. But don't you see that by apologizing to the moisture, I was conveying to Mr Chrysostom, in the most trenchant way possible, my own opinion of his character.'

`No, I don't,' said Miss Botterill. `I don't see it at all.'

`Then I'll explain it,' I said, `over again.'

Just at that moment, however, a customer entered the show-room, and although I waited for several minutes, another customer entered the show-room just as the first was departing. I therefore decided to leave the premises, spurning them, as I did so, with my right foot, and it was not until I had already turned into Ludgate Hill that I suddenly remembered my unused weapon. Mrs Chrysostom Lorton - I had utterly forgotten her. Indeed I had never seen her since my first interview. But she had always been there, of course - there in the background - ready to be used in an emergency like this. I stopped short. Yes, I had forgotten her. But to have remembered her was to act at once. For there could be no doubt about it. It would be wholly impossible for her to afford to sit still and have me dismissed. I therefore advanced to the kerbstone and hailed an omnibus, and within half an hour of conceiving the idea was in a third-class carriage leaving Liverpool Street Station upon my second visit to Enfield. Depressed as I was, too, both physically and mentally, in spite of my crushing rejoinder to Mr Chrysostom, my spirits perceptibly rose as I neared my destination, stimulated by the memory of my previous triumph. For though a good many years had now elapsed since I last stood in that lascivious boudoir, Time had not dimmed the spiritual victory that it had been my privilege to gain there.

It was with an eye, therefore, comparatively clear that I once more approached Paternoster Towers and with a hand almost steady that I again knocked at its front door. Nor was the strange parlourmaid that received my card and presently conducted me to Mrs Chrysostom's room appreciably less respectful in her demeanour than the gentle domestic that had first received me. But the room itself, apart from its floor, which was now almost lecherous in its degree of polish, was so transformed that for several moments I could scarcely believe myself in the same apartment. Gone was the French-looking writing-table with its reflected legs. Gone was the nude huntress with the splinter in her calf Gone was the oval mirror with its indelicate Cupids. Gone even was the photograph signed Your aff. Chrysostom. Nay, gone was the very couch with its sensuous cushions, and in its place stood a low divan, padded it was true, and not uncomfortably, but cushioned and draped with the sombrest purple.

There hung upon the walls, too, what were apparently lists of commandments, engraved upon parchment in foreign characters, while in each angle of the room stood a sort of shrine containing an alabaster image and an electric candle. Moreover, although it was still daylight, the curtains were drawn; a casket of incense swung from the ceiling; and between the lists of commandments, hung various religious implements, phylacteries, wands, and sacrificial knives.

Profound, and indeed disturbing, however, as were the changes in the room, those in Mrs Chrysostom were even more remarkable, although in actual appearance she had altered very little since I had last been obliged to interview her. It was just conceivable, in fact, that for less disciplined eyes she might still have retained a certain attraction, not unenhanced by the severity of her gown and the sober arrangement of her hair. Parted at the side, this now fell over her brow in a single yellowish-coloured wave, while her dark dress - it was still clinging, I noticed - was unadorned in every respect. Her whole mien, too, was entirely different, and as she drooped, as it were, into the room, she extended her hand to me with a sort of grave surprise, as if I had been some stranger whom she had never seen.

`How do you do?' she said, sinking upon the divan. `This is my little temple. Won't you sit down?'

I glanced about me.

`I can't offer you a chair,' she said. `But you'll find my prayer-mat just behind you.'

Just as I put my heel upon it, however, it began to slip, and leaning over, she put her finger upon it.

`Let me hold it,' she said, `while you lower yourself. I once had a visitor who lost two of his trouser-buttons.'

`It was myself,' I said.

She looked at me steadfastly.

`But surely,' she said, `I haven't seen you before?'

I bowed to her gravely.

`You certainly have,' I said.

She lifted her eyebrows a little.

`But can that be possible?' she asked.

`It is not only possible,' I said, `but it actually happened.'

Her tapering fore-finger touched my knee.

`Then forgive me,' she said, `but, if I may venture to say so, hasn't Time been exceedingly kind to you?'

I stared at her.

`I don't quite follow,' I said.

`No, of course not,' she said, `your modesty would forbid it. But I can scarcely conceive that, if such had not been the case, I should have failed to remember you.'

`Of course I have matured,' I said.

She nodded imperceptibly.

`That is what I meant,' she said. `I think you must have.'

`But it is rather about the future,' I said, `than the past that I have been obliged to call upon you this afternoon.'

Her eyes became dreamy, although they were still fixed upon me.

`Ah, the future,' she said, `the unknown future.'

`And you will be sorry to hear,' I said, `that owing to a misunderstanding, Mr Chrysostom has requested me to leave.'

`Do you mean my husband?' she asked.

`Why, of course,' I replied.

`Dear Chrysostom,' she said. `This is some of his hair.'

She showed me a small locket containing the article mentioned.

`I am compelled to remind you,' I said, `that you were not always so affectionate.'

`No, that's true,' she said, `that's very true. But happily I also have matured.'

I stared at her again, a trifle uneasily.

`Then perhaps you have forgotten,' I said, `your friend Septimus?'

`Completely,' she said. `Was there one?'

Had the floor been less slippery, I should have risen to my feet.

`Mr Septimus Lorton,' I said, `your husband's brother.'

`You mean the one,' she said, `that's just passed on?'

`Passed on?' I replied. `Where to?'

She waved her hands towards several of the shrines.

`Ah, if we but knew,' she said, `if we but knew, Mr Carp.'

`But do you mean to tell me,' I cried, `that he's defunct?'

`Run over,' she said, `last week.'

For a moment, I must confess, I was a little taken aback.

`But that doesn't alter the fact,' I said, `that he was your lover.'

`Very likely not,' she said. `I don't remember. But I daresay you're right. There have been so many.'

`But do you mean to say,' I asked, `that there has been more than one?'

`Oh far, far more than one,' she said.

I began to rise again, and she put her finger on the mat. `Let me hold it,' she said, `while you get up.'

This she did, and after a certain amount of difficulty, I once more towered above her.

`But your husband?' I said. `Does your husband know?'

`Everything,' she said. `In fact, all.'

I took a deep breath, followed by another.

`But what did he say?' I asked at last.

She closed her eyes for a moment.

`I'm afraid I oughtn't to tell you,' she said. `You see, since then I've embraced religion.'

`Religion?' I said. `What religion?'

`Every religion,' she said. `I've embraced them all.'

`But how could you do that?' I asked.

`Oh, there was no difficulty,' she said. `It has always been natural to me to embrace.'

I glanced round the room.

`But certain religions,' I said, `involve the slaughter of human beings.'

`Yes, I know,' she said. `I've included them. That's why those knives are hanging on the wall.'

`But surely you don't practise them?' I said.

`No, they're cancelled out,' she said, `by the religions that forbid the taking of life.'

`But it seems to me,' I said, `that, at that rate, all your religions cancel each other out.'

`Yes,' she replied. `That's what it often seems to me.'

`But then you haven't a religion at all?'

`Well, I sometimes doubt it,' she said. `I often wonder if I did the right thing in embracing them?' I

It was not to discuss her religion, however, that I had journeyed to Enfield, as I was now somewhat tartly obliged to remind her.

`And you seem to be forgetting,' I added, `that I've just been dismissed from the employment you were compelled to find me.'

`Yes, I know,' she said. `But why should I remember it?'

`Because you might prefer,' I said, `to get the decision altered.'

She lifted her eyes to me.

`Prefer it to what?' she inquired.

`Why, to permitting your husband,' I said, `to hear from my lips the story of your relations with his brother Septimus.'

`Oh, but I don't mind that,' she said, `now that I've repented. And besides, as I told you, I'd forgotten all about it.'

With growing uneasiness, I took another deep breath.

`But surely you're not prepared,' I said, `to let me tell him?'

`On the contrary,' she said, `I should welcome it, though I doubt if it would interest him after all the others.'

I began to sway a little.

`But, my dear Mrs Chrysostom,' I said, `if you behave like that, I shall remain dismissed.'

`But surely, Mr Carp,' she answered, `and I can see you're a good man, it's the only behaviour consistent with repentance.'

I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped my forehead.

`Then you wouldn't speak a word,' I asked, `on my behalf?'

She shook her head gently.

`It is one of my rules,' she said, `never to interfere with dear Chrysostom's business.'

I glanced round the room again. My hat was on one of the shrines.

`And you haven't yet told me,' she said, `that you're glad I've repented.'

`Oh, I am,' I said. `I am glad.'

`Then I mustn't detain you,' she said. `Mind the polish.'

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