The History of Mr. Polly




H. G. Wells




Chapter the First


Beginnings, and the Bazaar






He was sitting on a stile between two threadbare looking fields, and

suffering acutely from indigestion.


He suffered from indigestion now nearly every afternoon in his life,

but as he lacked introspection he projected the associated discomfort

upon the world. Every afternoon he discovered afresh that life as a

And this afternoon, lured by the delusive blueness of a sky that was

blue because the wind was in the east, he had come out in the hope of

snatching something of the joyousness of spring. The mysterious

alchemy of mind and body refused, however, to permit any joyousness

whatever in the spring.


He had had a little difficulty in finding his cap before he came out.

He wanted his cap—the new golf cap—and Mrs. Polly must needs fish

tone of insincere encouragement.


He had been routing among the piled newspapers under the kitchen

dresser, and had turned quite hopefully and taken the thing. He put it

on. But it didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. He put a trembling

hand upon the crown of the thing and pressed it on his head, and tried

it askew to the right and then askew to the left.


Then the full sense of the indignity offered him came home to him. The

hat masked the upper sinister quarter of his face, and he spoke with a

wrathful eye regarding his wife from under the brim. In a voice thick

for ever, eh? I tell you I won’t. I’m sick of it. I’m pretty near sick


flung it to the ground, and kicked it with extraordinary fury across

the kitchen. It flew up against the door and dropped to the ground

with its ribbon band half off.


pockets discovered the missing cap in the right one.


There was nothing for it but to go straight upstairs without a word,

and out, slamming the shop door hard.


woman, she began to pile together the simple apparatus of their recent

meal, for transportation to the scullery sink.


The repast she had prepared for him did not seem to her to justify his

ingratitude. There had been the cold pork from Sunday and some nice

cold potatoes, and Rashdall’s Mixed Pickles, of which he was

inordinately fond. He had eaten three gherkins, two onions, a small

cauliflower head and several capers with every appearance of appetite,

and indeed with avidity; and then there had been cold suet pudding to

follow, with treacle, and then a nice bit of cheese. It was the pale,

hard sort of cheese he liked; red cheese he declared was indigestible.

He had also had three big slices of greyish baker’s bread, and had

drunk the best part of the jugful of beer…. But there seems to be no

pleasing some people.


on his plate and expressing the only solution of the problem that

occurred to her.


And Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of

life—which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He

hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and

his wife and his neighbours—every blessed neighbour—and with

indescribable bitterness he hated himself.



He sat on the stile, and looked with eyes that seemed blurred with

impalpable flaws at a world in which even the spring buds were wilted,

the sunlight metallic and the shadows mixed with blue-black ink.


To the moralist I know he might have served as a figure of sinful

discontent, but that is because it is the habit of moralists to ignore

material circumstances,—if indeed one may speak of a recent meal as a

circumstance,—with Mr. Polly _circum_. Drink, indeed, our teachers

will criticise nowadays both as regards quantity and quality, but

neither church nor state nor school will raise a warning finger

between a man and his hunger and his wife’s catering. So on nearly

every day in his life Mr. Polly fell into a violent rage and hatred

against the outer world in the afternoon, and never suspected that it

was this inner world to which I am with such masterly delicacy

alluding, that was thus reflecting its sinister disorder upon the

things without. It is a pity that some human beings are not more

transparent. If Mr. Polly, for example, had been transparent or even

passably translucent, then perhaps he might have realised from the

Laocoon struggle he would have glimpsed, that indeed he was not so

much a human being as a civil war.


Wonderful things must have been going on inside Mr. Polly. Oh!

wonderful things. It must have been like a badly managed industrial

city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence,

strikes, the forces of law and order doing their best, rushings to and

fro, upheavals, the _Marseillaise_, tumbrils, the rumble and the

thunder of the tumbrils….


I do not know why the east wind aggravates life to unhealthy people.

It made Mr. Polly’s teeth seem loose in his head, and his skin feel

like a misfit, and his hair a dry, stringy exasperation….


Why cannot doctors give us an antidote to the east wind?


urgent hand.





Mr. Polly’s age was exactly thirty-five years and a half. He was a

short, compact figure, and a little inclined to a localised

_embonpoint_. His face was not unpleasing; the features fine, but a

trifle too pointed about the nose to be classically perfect. The

corners of his sensitive mouth were depressed. His eyes were ruddy

brown and troubled, and the left one was round with more of wonder in

it than its fellow. His complexion was dull and yellowish. That, as I

have explained, on account of those civil disturbances. He was, in the

technical sense of the word, clean shaved, with a small sallow patch

under the right ear and a cut on the chin. His brow had the little

puckerings of a thoroughly discontented man, little wrinklings and

lumps, particularly over his right eye, and he sat with his hands in

repeated presently.



His voice thickened with rage, and the rest of his discourse was

marred by an unfortunate choice of epithets.


He was dressed in a shabby black morning coat and vest; the braid that

bound these garments was a little loose in places; his collar was

chosen from stock and with projecting corners, technically a

colouring, had been selected to encourage and stimulate customers—for

he dealt in gentlemen’s outfitting. His golf cap, which was also from

stock and aslant over his eye, gave his misery a desperate touch. He

wore brown leather boots—because he hated the smell of blacking.


Perhaps after all it was not simply indigestion that troubled him.


Behind the superficialities of Mr. Polly’s being, moved a larger and

vaguer distress. The elementary education he had acquired had left him

with the impression that arithmetic was a fluky science and best

avoided in practical affairs, but even the absence of book-keeping and

a total inability to distinguish between capital and interest could

not blind him for ever to the fact that the little shop in the High

Street was not paying. An absence of returns, a constriction of

credit, a depleted till, the most valiant resolves to keep smiling,

could not prevail for ever against these insistent phenomena. One

might bustle about in the morning before dinner, and in the afternoon

after tea and forget that huge dark cloud of insolvency that gathered

and spread in the background, but it was part of the desolation of

these afternoon periods, these grey spaces of time after meals, when

all one’s courage had descended to the unseen battles of the pit, that

life seemed stripped to the bone and one saw with a hopeless



Let me tell the history of Mr. Polly from the cradle to these present




There had been a time when two people had thought Mr. Polly the most

wonderful and adorable thing in the world, had kissed his toe-nails,

delicacy of his hair, had called to one another to remark the peculiar

distinction with which he bubbled, had disputed whether the sound he

had made was _just da da_, or truly and intentionally dadda, had

washed him in the utmost detail, and wrapped him up in soft, warm

blankets, and smothered him with kisses. A regal time that was, and

four and thirty years ago; and a merciful forgetfulness barred Mr.

Polly from ever bringing its careless luxury, its autocratic demands

and instant obedience, into contrast with his present condition of

life. These two people had worshipped him from the crown of his head

to the soles of his exquisite feet. And also they had fed him rather

unwisely, for no one had ever troubled to teach his mother anything

about the mysteries of a child’s upbringing—though of course the

monthly nurse and her charwoman gave some valuable hints—and by his

fifth birthday the perfect rhythms of his nice new interior were

already darkened with perplexity ….


His mother died when he was seven.


He began only to have distinctive memories of himself in the time when

his education had already begun.


I remember seeing a picture of Education—in some place. I think it

was Education, but quite conceivably it represented the Empire

teaching her Sons, and I have a strong impression that it was a wall

painting upon some public building in Manchester or Birmingham or

Glasgow, but very possibly I am mistaken about that. It represented a

glorious woman with a wise and fearless face stooping over her

children and pointing them to far horizons. The sky displayed the

pearly warmth of a summer dawn, and all the painting was marvellously

bright as if with the youth and hope of the delicately beautiful

children in the foreground. She was telling them, one felt, of the

great prospect of life that opened before them, of the spectacle of

the world, the splendours of sea and mountain they might travel and

see, the joys of skill they might acquire, of effort and the pride of

effort and the devotions and nobilities it was theirs to achieve.

Perhaps even she whispered of the warm triumphant mystery of love that

comes at last to those who have patience and unblemished hearts….

She was reminding them of their great heritage as English children,

rulers of more than one-fifth of mankind, of the obligation to do and

be the best that such a pride of empire entails, of their essential

nobility and knighthood and the restraints and the charities and the

disciplined strength that is becoming in knights and rulers….


The education of Mr. Polly did not follow this picture very closely.

He went for some time to a National School, which was run on severely

economical lines to keep down the rates by a largely untrained staff,

he was set sums to do that he did not understand, and that no one made

him understand, he was made to read the catechism and Bible with the

utmost industry and an entire disregard of punctuation or

significance, and caused to imitate writing copies and drawing copies,

and given object lessons upon sealing wax and silk-worms and potato

bugs and ginger and iron and such like things, and taught various

other subjects his mind refused to entertain, and afterwards, when he

private school of dingy aspect and still dingier pretensions, where

there were no object lessons, and the studies of book-keeping and

French were pursued (but never effectually overtaken) under the

guidance of an elderly gentleman who wore a nondescript gown and took

snuff, wrote copperplate, explained nothing, and used a cane with

remarkable dexterity and gusto.


Mr. Polly went into the National School at six and he left the private

school at fourteen, and by that time his mind was in much the same

state that you would be in, dear reader, if you were operated upon for

appendicitis by a well-meaning, boldly enterprising, but rather

over-worked and under-paid butcher boy, who was superseded towards the

climax of the operation by a left-handed clerk of high principles but

intemperate habits,—that is to say, it was in a thorough mess. The

nice little curiosities and willingnesses of a child were in a jumbled

and thwarted condition, hacked and cut about—the operators had left,

so to speak, all their sponges and ligatures in the mangled

confusion—and Mr. Polly had lost much of his natural confidence, so

far as figures and sciences and languages and the possibilities of

learning things were concerned. He thought of the present world no

longer as a wonderland of experiences, but as geography and history,

as the repeating of names that were hard to pronounce, and lists of

products and populations and heights and lengths, and as lists and

dates—oh! and boredom indescribable. He thought of religion as the

recital of more or less incomprehensible words that were hard to

remember, and of the Divinity as of a limitless Being having the

nature of a schoolmaster and making infinite rules, known and unknown

rules, that were always ruthlessly enforced, and with an infinite

capacity for punishment and, most horrible of all to think of!

limitless powers of espial. (So to the best of his ability he did not

think of that unrelenting eye.) He was uncertain about the spelling

and pronunciation of most of the words in our beautiful but abundant

and perplexing tongue,—that especially was a pity because words

attracted him, and under happier conditions he might have used them

well—he was always doubtful whether it was eight sevens or nine

eights that was sixty-three—(he knew no method for settling the

difficulty) and he thought the merit of a drawing consisted in the



But the _indigestions_ of mind and body that were to play so large a

part in his subsequent career were still only beginning. His liver and

his gastric juice, his wonder and imagination kept up a fight against

the things that threatened to overwhelm soul and body together.

Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still

intensely curious. He had cheerful phases of enterprise, and about

thirteen he suddenly discovered reading and its joys. He began to read

stories voraciously, and books of travel, provided they were also

adventurous. He got these chiefly from the local institute, and he

to-day have replaced. At fourteen, when he emerged from the valley of

the shadow of education, there survived something, indeed it survived

still, obscured and thwarted, at five and thirty, that pointed—not

with a visible and prevailing finger like the finger of that beautiful

woman in the picture, but pointed nevertheless—to the idea that there

was interest and happiness in the world. Deep in the being of Mr.

Polly, deep in that darkness, like a creature which has been beaten

about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion

there was beauty, there was delight, that somewhere—magically

inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere, were pure and easy and

joyous states of body and mind.


He would sneak out on moonless winter nights and stare up at the

stars, and afterwards find it difficult to tell his father where he

had been.


He would read tales about hunters and explorers, and imagine himself

riding mustangs as fleet as the wind across the prairies of Western

America, or coming as a conquering and adored white man into the

swarming villages of Central Africa. He shot bears with a revolver—a

cigarette in the other hand—and made a necklace of their teeth and

claws for the chief’s beautiful young daughter. Also he killed a lion

with a pointed stake, stabbing through the beast’s heart as it stood

over him.


He thought it would be splendid to be a diver and go down into the

dark green mysteries of the sea.


He led stormers against well-nigh impregnable forts, and died on the

ramparts at the moment of victory. (His grave was watered by a

nation’s tears.)


He rammed and torpedoed ships, one against ten.


He was beloved by queens in barbaric lands, and reconciled whole

nations to the Christian faith.


He was martyred, and took it very calmly and beautifully—but only

once or twice after the Revivalist week. It did not become a habit

with him.


He explored the Amazon, and found, newly exposed by the fall of a

great tree, a rock of gold.


Engaged in these pursuits he would neglect the work immediately in

hand, sitting somewhat slackly on the form and projecting himself in a

manner tempting to a schoolmaster with a cane…. And twice he had

books confiscated.


Recalled to the realities of life, he would rub himself or sigh deeply

as the occasion required, and resume his attempts to write as good as

copperplate. He hated writing; the ink always crept up his fingers and

the smell of ink offended him. And he was filled with unexpressed

doubts. _Why_ should writing slope down from right to left? _Why_

should downstrokes be thick and upstrokes thin? _Why_ should the

handle of one’s pen point over one’s right shoulder?


His copy books towards the end foreshadowed his destiny and took the



The compression of Mr. Polly’s mind and soul in the educational

institutions of his time, was terminated abruptly by his father

between his fourteenth and fifteenth birthday. His father—who had

long since forgotten the time when his son’s little limbs seemed to

have come straight from God’s hand, and when he had kissed five minute

toe-nails in a rapture of loving tenderness—remarked:



And a month or so later Mr. Polly began that career in business that

led him at last to the sole proprietorship of a bankrupt outfitter’s

shop—and to the stile on which he was sitting.





Mr. Polly was not naturally interested in hosiery and gentlemen’s

outfitting. At times, indeed, he urged himself to a spurious curiosity

about that trade, but presently something more congenial came along

and checked the effort. He was apprenticed in one of those large,

rather low-class establishments which sell everything, from pianos and

furniture to books and millinery, a department store in fact, The Port

Burdock Drapery Bazaar at Port Burdock, one of the three townships

that are grouped around the Port Burdock naval dockyards. There he

remained six years. He spent most of the time inattentive to business,

in a sort of uncomfortable happiness, increasing his indigestion.


On the whole he preferred business to school; the hours were longer

but the tension was not nearly so great. The place was better aired,

you were not kept in for no reason at all, and the cane was not

employed. You watched the growth of your moustache with interest and

impatience, and mastered the beginnings of social intercourse. You

talked, and found there were things amusing to say. Also you had

regular pocket money, and a voice in the purchase of your clothes, and

presently a small salary. And there were girls. And friendship! In the

retrospect Port Burdock sparkled with the facets of quite a cluster of

remembered jolly times.



The first apprentices’ dormitory was a long bleak room with six beds,

six chests of drawers and looking glasses and a number of boxes of

wood or tin; it opened into a still longer and bleaker room of eight

beds, and this into a third apartment with yellow grained paper and

American cloth tables, which was the dining-room by day and the men’s

sitting-and smoking-room after nine. Here Mr. Polly, who had been an

only child, first tasted the joys of social intercourse. At first

there were attempts to bully him on account of his refusal to consider

face washing a diurnal duty, but two fights with the apprentices next

above him, established a useful reputation for choler, and the

presence of girl apprentices in the shop somehow raised his standard

of cleanliness to a more acceptable level. He didn’t of course have

very much to do with the feminine staff in his department, but he

spoke to them casually as he traversed foreign parts of the Bazaar, or

got out of their way politely, or helped them to lift down heavy

boxes, and on such occasions he felt their scrutiny. Except in the

course of business or at meal times the men and women of the

establishment had very little opportunity of meeting; the men were in

their rooms and the girls in theirs. Yet these feminine creatures, at

once so near and so remote, affected him profoundly. He would watch

them going to and fro, and marvel secretly at the beauty of their hair

or the roundness of their necks or the warm softness of their cheeks

or the delicacy of their hands. He would fall into passions for them

at dinner time, and try and show devotions by his manner of passing

the bread and margarine at tea. There was a very fair-haired,

fair-skinned apprentice in the adjacent haberdashery to whom he said

and was innately disposed to worship womankind. But he did not betray

as much to Platt and Parsons.


To Platt and Parsons he affected an attitude of seasoned depravity

towards womankind. Platt and Parsons were his contemporary apprentices

in departments of the drapery shop, and the three were drawn together

into a close friendship by the fact that all their names began with P.

They decided they were the Three Ps, and went about together of an

evening with the bearing of desperate dogs. Sometimes, when they had

money, they went into public houses and had drinks. Then they would

become more desperate than ever, and walk along the pavement under the

gas lamps arm in arm singing. Platt had a good tenor voice, and had

been in a church choir, and so he led the singing; Parsons had a

serviceable bellow, which roared and faded and roared again very

wonderfully; Mr. Polly’s share was an extraordinary lowing noise, a

have sung catches if they had known how to do it, but as it was they

sang melancholy music hall songs about dying soldiers and the old

folks far away.


They would sometimes go into the quieter residential quarters of Port

Burdock, where policemen and other obstacles were infrequent, and

really let their voices soar like hawks and feel very happy. The dogs

of the district would be stirred to hopeless emulation, and would keep

it up for long after the Three Ps had been swallowed up by the night.

One jealous brute of an Irish terrier made a gallant attempt to bite

Parsons, but was beaten by numbers and solidarity.


The Three Ps took the utmost interest in each other and found no other

company so good. They talked about everything in the world, and would

go on talking in their dormitory after the gas was out until the other

men were reduced to throwing boots; they skulked from their

departments in the slack hours of the afternoon to gossip in the

packing-room of the warehouse; on Sundays and Bank holidays they went

for long walks together, talking.


Platt was white-faced and dark, and disposed to undertones and mystery

and a curiosity about society and the _demi-monde_. He kept himself

_au courant_ by reading a penny paper of infinite suggestion called

_Modern Society_. Parsons was of an ampler build, already promising

fatness, with curly hair and a lot of rolling, rollicking, curly

features, and a large blob-shaped nose. He had a great memory and a

real interest in literature. He knew great portions of Shakespeare and

Milton by heart, and would recite them at the slightest provocation.

He read everything he could get hold of, and if he liked it he read it

aloud. It did not matter who else liked it. At first Mr. Polly was

disposed to be suspicious of this literature, but was carried away by



For weeks the glory of Shakespeare’s Verona lit Mr. Polly’s life. He

walked as though he carried a sword at his side, and swung a mantle

from his shoulders. He went through the grimy streets of Port Burdock

with his eye on the first floor windows—looking for balconies. A

ladder in the yard flooded his mind with romantic ideas. Then Parsons

discovered an Italian writer, whose name Mr. Polly rendered as

Polly would stand in front of his hosiery fixtures trifling with paper

and string and thinking of perennial picnics under dark olive trees in

the everlasting sunshine of Italy.


And about that time it was that all Three Ps adopted turn-down collars

and large, loose, artistic silk ties, which they tied very much on one

side and wore with an air of defiance. And a certain swashbuckling



And then came the glorious revelation of that great Frenchman whom Mr.

Gargantua the most glorious piece of writing in the world, and I am

not certain they were wrong, and on wet Sunday evenings where there

was danger of hymn singing they would get Parsons to read it aloud.


Towards the several members of the Y. M. C. A. who shared the

dormitory, the Three Ps always maintained a sarcastic and defiant




improver, who was leading a profoundly religious life under great






The horrors of religious controversy would begin….


Mr. Polly stuck loyally to the Three Ps, but in the secret places of

his heart he was torn. A fire of conviction burnt in Morrison’s eyes

and spoke in his urgent persuasive voice; he lived the better life

manifestly, chaste in word and deed, industrious, studiously kindly.

When the junior apprentice had sore feet and homesickness Morrison

washed the feet and comforted the heart, and he helped other men to

get through with their work when he might have gone early, a

superhuman thing to do. Polly was secretly a little afraid to be left

alone with this man and the power of the spirit that was in him. He

felt watched.


Platt, also struggling with things his mind could not contrive to


he’s got no blessed Joy de Vive; that’s what’s wrong with him. Let’s

go down to the Harbour Arms and see some of those blessed old captains





Pause and struggle.



And leaning on his cane he composed himself in an attitude of

sympathetic patience towards Platt’s incendiary efforts.





Jolly days of companionship they were for the incipient bankrupt on

the stile to look back upon.


The interminable working hours of the Bazaar had long since faded from

his memory—except for one or two conspicuous rows and one or two

larks—but the rare Sundays and holidays shone out like diamonds among

pebbles. They shone with the mellow splendour of evening skies

reflected in calm water, and athwart them all went old Parsons

bellowing an interpretation of life, gesticulating, appreciating and

making appreciate, expounding books, talking of that mystery of his,


There were some particularly splendid walks on Bank holidays. The

Three Ps would start on Sunday morning early and find a room in some

modest inn and talk themselves asleep, and return singing through the

They would come over the hills out of the pleasant English

country-side in which they had wandered, and see Port Burdock spread

out below, a network of interlacing street lamps and shifting tram

lights against the black, beacon-gemmed immensity of the harbour



satisfactory plural to O’ Man, so he always used it in the singular.



And once they got a boat for the whole summer day, and rowed up past

the moored ironclads and the black old hulks and the various shipping

of the harbour, past a white troopship and past the trim front and the

ships and interesting vistas of the dockyard to the shallow channels

and rocky weedy wildernesses of the upper harbour. And Parsons and Mr.

Polly had a great dispute and quarrel that day as to how far a big gun

could shoot.


The country over the hills behind Port Burdock is all that an

old-fashioned, scarcely disturbed English country-side should be. In

those days the bicycle was still rare and costly and the motor car had

yet to come and stir up rural serenities. The Three Ps would take

footpaths haphazard across fields, and plunge into unknown winding

lanes between high hedges of honeysuckle and dogrose. Greatly daring,

they would follow green bridle paths through primrose studded

undergrowths, or wander waist deep in the bracken of beech woods.

About twenty miles from Port Burdock there came a region of hop

gardens and hoast crowned farms, and further on, to be reached only by

cheap tickets at Bank Holiday times, was a sterile ridge of very clean

roads and red sand pits and pines and gorse and heather. The Three Ps

could not afford to buy bicycles and they found boots the greatest

item of their skimpy expenditure. They threw appearances to the winds

at last and got ready-made workingmen’s hob-nails. There was much

discussion and strong feeling over this step in the dormitory.


There is no country-side like the English country-side for those who

have learnt to love it; its firm yet gentle lines of hill and dale,

its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its

castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms

and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and

shining threads of rivers; its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards

and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other

country-sides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none

that shine so steadfastly throughout the year. Picardy is pink and

white and pleasant in the blossom time, Burgundy goes on with its

sunshine and wide hillsides and cramped vineyards, a beautiful tune

repeated and repeated, Italy gives salitas and wayside chapels and

chestnuts and olive orchards, the Ardennes has its woods and

gorges—Touraine and the Rhineland, the wide Campagna with its distant

Apennines, and the neat prosperities and mountain backgrounds of South

Germany, all clamour their especial merits at one’s memory. And there

are the hills and fields of Virginia, like an England grown very big

and slovenly, the woods and big river sweeps of Pennsylvania, the trim

New England landscape, a little bleak and rather fine like the New

England mind, and the wide rough country roads and hills and woodland

of New York State. But none of these change scene and character in

three miles of walking, nor have so mellow a sunlight nor so

diversified a cloudland, nor confess the perpetual refreshment of the

strong soft winds that blow from off the sea as our Mother England



It was good for the Three Ps to walk through such a land and forget

for a time that indeed they had no footing in it all, that they were

doomed to toil behind counters in such places as Port Burdock for the

better part of their lives. They would forget the customers and

shopwalkers and department buyers and everything, and become just

happy wanderers in a world of pleasant breezes and song birds and

shady trees.


The arrival at the inn was a great affair. No one, they were

convinced, would take them for drapers, and there might be a pretty


There would always be weighty enquiries as to what they could have,

and it would work out always at cold beef and pickles, or fried ham

and eggs and shandygaff, two pints of beer and two bottles of ginger

beer foaming in a huge round-bellied jug.


The glorious moment of standing lordly in the inn doorway, and staring

out at the world, the swinging sign, the geese upon the green, the

duck-pond, a waiting waggon, the church tower, a sleepy cat, the blue

heavens, with the sizzle of the frying audible behind one! The keen

smell of the bacon! The trotting of feet bearing the repast; the click

and clatter as the tableware is finally arranged! A clean white cloth!



The going in! The sitting down! The falling to!




Once a simple mannered girl in a pink print dress stayed and talked

with them as they ate; led by the gallant Parsons they professed to be

all desperately in love with her, and courted her to say which she

preferred of them, it was so manifest she did prefer one and so

impossible to say which it was held her there, until a distant

maternal voice called her away. Afterwards as they left the inn she

waylaid them at the orchard corner and gave them, a little shyly,

three keen yellow-green apples—and wished them to come again some

day, and vanished, and reappeared looking after them as they turned

the corner—waving a white handkerchief. All the rest of that day they

disputed over the signs of her favour, and the next Sunday they went

there again.


But she had vanished, and a mother of forbidding aspect afforded no



If Platt and Parsons and Mr. Polly live to be a hundred, they will

none of them forget that girl as she stood with a pink flush upon her,

faintly smiling and yet earnest, parting the branches of the hedgerows

and reaching down apple in hand. Which of them was it, had caught her

spirit to attend to them?…


And once they went along the coast, following it as closely as

possible, and so came at last to Foxbourne, that easternmost suburb of

Brayling and Hampsted-on-the-Sea.


Foxbourne seemed a very jolly little place to Mr. Polly that

afternoon. It has a clean sandy beach instead of the mud and pebbles

and coaly _defilements_ of Port Burdock, a row of six bathing

machines, and a shelter on the parade in which the Three Ps sat after

a satisfying but rather expensive lunch that had included celery. Rows

of verandahed villas proffered apartments, they had feasted in an

hotel with a porch painted white and gay with geraniums above, and the

High Street with the old church at the head had been full of an

agreeable afternoon stillness.


big pipe.


It stuck in Mr. Polly’s memory.





Mr. Polly was not so picturesque a youth as Parsons. He lacked

richness in his voice, and went about in those days with his hands in

his pockets looking quietly speculative.


He specialised in slang and the disuse of English, and he played the

role of an appreciative stimulant to Parsons. Words attracted him

curiously, words rich in suggestion, and he loved a novel and striking

phrase. His school training had given him little or no mastery of the

mysterious pronunciation of English and no confidence in himself. His

schoolmaster indeed had been both unsound and variable. New words had

terror and fascination for him; he did not acquire them, he could not

avoid them, and so he plunged into them. His only rule was not to be

misled by the spelling. That was no guide anyhow. He avoided every

recognised phrase in the language and mispronounced everything in

order that he shouldn’t be suspected of ignorance, but whim.






Carlyle. He’s reading aloud. Doing the High Froth. Spuming!

Windmilling! Waw, waw! It’s a sight worth seeing. He’ll bark his


He held an imaginary book in one hand and waved an eloquent gesture.

fashion and thereby, upon things and not _under_ things






Chapter the Second


The Dismissal of Parsons





Suddenly Parsons got himself dismissed.


He got himself dismissed under circumstances of peculiar violence,

that left a deep impression on Mr. Polly’s mind. He wondered about it

for years afterwards, trying to get the rights of the case.


Parsons’ apprenticeship was over; he had reached the status of an

Improver, and he dressed the window of the Manchester department. By

all the standards available he dressed it very well. By his own


partner and managing director of the Bazaar—would think twice before

he got rid of the only man in the place who could make a windowful of

Manchester goods _tell_.


Then like many a fellow artist he fell a prey to theories.


Infancy. All balance and stiffness like a blessed Egyptian picture. No

Joy in it, no blooming Joy! Conventional. A shop window ought to get

hold of people, ‘grip ’em as they go along. It stands to reason.










He paused, and Platt watched him over a snorting pipe.



tomorrow I change the Fitzallan Street stuff. This time, it’s going to


And as a matter of fact he did both.


Man. I’ve been holding myself in. I haven’t done myself Justice. I’ve

kept down the simmering, seething, teeming ideas…. All that’s over










Polly remembered.


He went on with his collar boxes with his eye on his senior,

Mansfield. Mansfield was presently called away to the counting house,

and instantly Polly shot out by the street door, and made a rapid

transit along the street front past the Manchester window, and so into

the silkroom door. He could not linger long, but he gathered joy, a

swift and fearful joy, from his brief inspection of Parsons’

unconscious back. Parsons had his tail coat off and was working with

vigour; his habit of pulling his waistcoat straps to the utmost

brought out all the agreeable promise of corpulence in his youthful

frame. He was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his

hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired.

All about his feet and knees were scarlet blankets, not folded, not

formally unfolded, but—the only phrase is—shied about. And a great

bar sinister of roller towelling stretched across the front of the

window on which was a ticket, and the ticket said in bold black


So soon as Mr. Polly got into the silk department and met Platt he


to return by devious subterranean routes to the outfitting department.


Presently the street door opened and Platt, with an air of intense

devotion to business assumed to cover his adoption of that unusual

route, came in and made for the staircase down to the warehouse. He


Irresistible curiosity seized Polly. Should he go through the shop to

the Manchester department, or risk a second transit outside?


He was impelled to make a dive at the street door.



to get any meaning he could from it.


Parsons was worth the subsequent trouble. Parsons really was extremely

rich. This time Polly stopped to take it in.


Parsons had made a huge symmetrical pile of thick white and red

blankets twisted and rolled to accentuate their woolly richness,

heaped up in a warm disorder, with large window tickets inscribed in

electric light on that side of the window to reflect a warm glow upon

the heap, and behind, in pursuit of contrasted bleakness, he was now

hanging long strips of grey silesia and chilly coloured linen



It was wonderful, but—


Mr. Polly decided that it was time he went in. He found Platt in the

silk department, apparently on the verge of another plunge into the


He did not dare go into the street for the third time, and he was

hovering feverishly near the window when he saw the governor, Mr.

Garvace, that is to say, the managing director of the Bazaar, walking

along the pavement after his manner to assure himself all was well

with the establishment he guided.


Mr. Garvace was a short stout man, with that air of modest pride that

so often goes with corpulence, choleric and decisive in manner, and

with hands that looked like bunches of fingers. He was red-haired and

ruddy, and after the custom of such _complexions_, hairs sprang from

the tip of his nose. When he wished to bring the power of the human

eye to bear upon an assistant, he projected his chest, knitted one

brow and partially closed the left eyelid.


An expression of speculative wonder overspread the countenance of Mr.

Polly. He felt he must _see_. Yes, whatever happened he must _see_.


deserted his post hastily, dashed through the intervening departments

and was in position behind a pile of Bolton sheeting as the governor

came in out of the street.


began Mr. Garvace.


Only the legs of Parsons and the lower part of his waistcoat and an

intervening inch of shirt were visible. He was standing inside the

window on the steps, hanging up the last strip of his background from

the brass rail along the ceiling. Within, the Manchester shop window

was cut off by a partition rather like the partition of an

old-fashioned church pew from the general space of the shop. There was

a panelled barrier, that is to say, with a little door like a pew door

in it. Parsons’ face appeared, staring with round eyes at his



Mr. Garvace had to repeat his question.




Parsons stared, and Mr. Garvace had to repeat his command.


Parsons, with a dazed expression, began to descend the steps slowly.



Morrison appeared.



Morrison advanced and hesitated.




Morrison advanced. Parsons shut the door with a click that arrested

Mr. Garvace.



there was a little pause.




Polly was no longer even trying to hide behind the stack of Bolton

sheetings. He realised he was in the presence of forces too stupendous

to heed him.



Morrison seemed to be thinking out the ethics of his position. The

idea of loyalty to his employer prevailed with him. He laid his hand

on the door to open it; Parsons tried to disengage his hand. Mr.

Garvace joined his effort to Morrison’s. Then the heart of Polly leapt

and the world blazed up to wonder and splendour. Parsons disappeared

behind the partition for a moment and reappeared instantly, gripping a

thin cylinder of rolled huckaback. With this he smote at Morrison’s

head. Morrison’s head ducked under the resounding impact, but he clung

on and so did Mr. Garvace. The door came open, and then Mr. Garvace

was staggering back, hand to head; his autocratic, his sacred

baldness, smitten. Parsons was beyond all control—a strangeness, a

marvel. Heaven knows how the artistic struggle had strained that

master. He followed this up by hurling first a blanket, then an armful

of silesia, then a window support out of the window into the shop. It

leapt into Polly’s mind that Parsons hated his own effort and was glad

to demolish it. For a crowded second Polly’s mind was concentrated

upon Parsons, infuriated, active, like a figure of earthquake with

its coat off, shying things headlong.


Then he perceived the back of Mr. Garvace and heard his gubernatorial

him out of the window. He’s mad. He’s dangerous. Get him out of the


Then a crimson blanket was for a moment over the head of Mr. Garvace,

and his voice, muffled for an instant, broke out into unwonted



Then people had arrived from all parts of the Bazaar. Luck, the ledger

the silks vaulted the counter, and seized a chair by the back. Polly

lost his head. He clawed at the Bolton sheeting before him, and if he

could have detached a piece he would certainly have hit somebody with

it. As it was he simply upset the pile. It fell away from Polly, and

he had an impression of somebody squeaking as it went down. It was the

sort of impression one disregards. The collapse of the pile of goods

just sufficed to end his subconscious efforts to get something to hit

somebody with, and his whole attention focussed itself upon the

struggle in the window. For a splendid instant Parsons towered up over

the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active

whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he

went under. There was an instant’s furious struggle, a crash, a second

crash and the crack of broken plate glass. Then a stillness and heavy



Parsons was overpowered….


Polly, stepping over scattered pieces of Bolton sheeting, saw his

transfigured friend with a dark cut, that was not at present bleeding,

on the forehead, one arm held by Somerville and the other by Morrison.






There are events that detach themselves from the general stream of

occurrences and seem to partake of the nature of revelations. Such was

this Parsons affair. It began by seeming grotesque; it ended

disconcertingly. The fabric of Mr. Polly’s daily life was torn, and

beneath it he discovered depths and terrors.


Life was not altogether a lark.


The calling in of a policeman seemed at the moment a pantomime touch.

But when it became manifest that Mr. Garvace was in a fury of

vindictiveness, the affair took on a different complexion. The way in

which the policeman made a note of everything and aspirated nothing

impressed the sensitive mind of Polly profoundly. Polly presently


In the dormitory that night Parsons had become heroic. He sat on the

edge of the bed with his head bandaged, packing very slowly and


Polly was to go to the police court in the morning as a witness. The

terror of that ordeal almost overshadowed the tragic fact that Parsons

Polly knew himself well enough to know he would make a bad witness. He

dance about on the morrow Heaven only knew. Would there be a

cross-examination? Is it perjoocery to make a slip? People did

sometimes perjuice themselves. Serious offence.


Platt was doing his best to help Parsons, and inciting public opinion

against Morrison. But Parsons would not hear of anything against


paused and seemed to be seeking an exquisite accuracy. His voice sank


He answered the suggestion of a bright junior apprentice in a corner

that lot on the Bench? Humble Pie, that’s my meal to-morrow, O’ Man.


Packing went on for a time.






He meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded

guvnor on my reference. I suppose, though, he won’t give me refs. Hard



Things were not so dreadful in the police court as Mr. Polly had

expected. He was given a seat with other witnesses against the wall of

the court, and after an interesting larceny case Parsons appeared and

stood, not in the dock, but at the table. By that time Mr. Polly’s

legs, which had been tucked up at first under his chair out of respect

to the court, were extended straight before him and his hands were in

his trouser pockets. He was inventing names for the four magistrates

sound of his name. He rose with alacrity and was fielded by an expert

policeman from a brisk attempt to get into the vacant dock. The clerk

to the Justices repeated the oath with incredible rapidity.




His evidence was simple and quite audible after one warning from the

but the start and the slow grin of enjoyment upon the face of the

grave and Reverend Signor with the palatial Boko suggested that the

word was not so good as he had thought it. The rest of the bench was

frankly puzzled and there were hasty consultations.



aspirates for the moment.





Parsons was bound over.


He came for his luggage while every one was in the shop, and Garvace

would not let him invade the business to say good-by. When Mr. Polly

went upstairs for margarine and bread and tea, he slipped on into the

dormitory at once to see what was happening further in the Parsons

case. But Parsons had vanished. There was no Parsons, no trace of

Parsons. His cubicle was swept and garnished. For the first time in

his life Polly had a sense of irreparable loss.


A minute or so after Platt dashed in.


the window and did not look around. Platt went up to him.



There was a little pause before Polly replied. He thrust his finger

into his mouth and gulped.





Chapter the Third







Port Burdock was never the same place for Mr. Polly after Parsons had

left it. There were no chest notes in his occasional letters, and

said, to London, and found a place as warehouseman in a cheap

outfitting shop near St. Paul’s Churchyard, where references were not

required. It became apparent as time passed that new interests were

absorbing him. He wrote of socialism and the rights of man, things

that had no appeal for Mr. Polly. He felt strangers had got hold of

his Parsons, were at work upon him, making him into someone else,

something less picturesque…. Port Burdock became a dreariness full

of faded memories of Parsons and work a bore. Platt revealed himself

alone as a tiresome companion, obsessed by romantic ideas about


Mr. Polly’s depression manifested itself in a general slackness. A

certain impatience in the manner of Mr. Garvace presently got upon his

nerves. Relations were becoming strained. He asked for a rise of

salary to test his position, and gave notice to leave when it was



It took him two months to place himself in another situation, and

during that time he had quite a disagreeable amount of loneliness,

disappointment, anxiety and humiliation.


He went at first to stay with a married cousin who had a house at

Easewood. His widowed father had recently given up the music and

bicycle shop (with the post of organist at the parish church) that had

sustained his home, and was living upon a small annuity as a guest

with this cousin, and growing a little tiresome on account of some

mysterious internal discomfort that the local practitioner diagnosed

as imagination. He had aged with mysterious rapidity and become

excessively irritable, but the cousin’s wife was a born manager, and

contrived to get along with him. Our Mr. Polly’s status was that of a

guest pure and simple, but after a fortnight of congested hospitality

in which he wrote nearly a hundred letters beginning:




Gents’ outfitting I beg to submit myself for the situation. Have had

six years’ experience…._


and upset a bottle of ink over a toilet cover and the bedroom carpet,

his cousin took him for a walk and pointed out the superior advantages

of apartments in London from which to swoop upon the briefly yawning




He got a room in an institution that was partly a benevolent hostel

for men in his circumstances and partly a high minded but forbidding

coffee house and a centre for pleasant Sunday afternoons. Mr. Polly

spent a critical but pleasant Sunday afternoon in a back seat,

inventing such phrases as:


Apple being in question.




A manly young curate, marking and misunderstanding his preoccupied

face and moving lips, came and sat by him and entered into

conversation with the idea of making him feel more at home. The

conversation was awkward and disconnected for a minute or so, and then

suddenly a memory of the Port Burdock Bazaar occurred to Mr. Polly,

rose up and escaped, to wander out relieved and observant into the

varied London streets.


He found the collection of men he found waiting about in wholesale

establishments in Wood Street and St. Paul’s Churchyard (where they

interview the buyers who have come up from the country) interesting

and stimulating, but far too strongly charged with the suggestion of

his own fate to be really joyful. There were men in all degrees

between confidence and distress, and in every stage between

extravagant smartness and the last stages of decay. There were sunny

young men full of an abounding and elbowing energy, before whom the

hungry looking individuals of thirty-five or so that he decided must

in the waiting-rooms on the outlook in the trade; it had never been so

permissible epithet. There were men with an overweening sense of their

importance, manifestly annoyed and angry to find themselves still

disengaged, and inclined to suspect a plot, and men so faint-hearted

one was terrified to imagine their behaviour when it came to an

interview. There was a fresh-faced young man with an unintelligent

face who seemed to think himself equipped against the world beyond all

misadventure by a collar of exceptional height, and another who

introduced a note of gaiety by wearing a flannel shirt and a check

suit of remarkable virulence. Every day Mr. Polly looked round to mark

how many of the familiar faces had gone, and the deepening anxiety

(reflecting his own) on the faces that remained, and every day some

new type joined the drifting shoal. He realised how small a chance his

poor letter from Easewood ran against this hungry cluster of

competitors at the fountain head.


At the back of Mr. Polly’s mind while he made his observations was a

disagreeable flavour of dentist’s parlour. At any moment his name

might be shouted, and he might have to haul himself into the presence

of some fresh specimen of employer, and to repeat once more his

passionate protestation of interest in the business, his possession of

a capacity for zeal—zeal on behalf of anyone who would pay him a

yearly salary of twenty-six pounds a year.

want a smart, willing young man, thoroughly willing—who won’t object

to take trouble. I don’t want a slacker, the sort of fellow who has to


At the back of Mr. Polly’s mind, and quite beyond his control, the

insubordinate phrasemaker would be proffering such combinations as

very much as a hat salesman proffers hats.


Polly brightly, trying to disregard his deeper self.






The chubby gentleman explained and reverted to his ideals, with a




Mr. Polly made a rapturous noise, nodded appreciation, and said





He studied Mr. Polly’s tie, which was severely neat and businesslike,

as became an aspiring outfitter. Mr. Polly’s conception of his own

pose and expression was rendered by that uncontrollable phrasemonger



Mr. Polly stood up abruptly.



air of inspiration.


salesman manner.






A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and

nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a

lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins

of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and

great success under modern business conditions. Mr. Polly dreamt

always of picturesque and mellow things, and had an instinctive hatred

of the strenuous life. He would have resisted the spell of

ex-President Roosevelt, or General Baden Powell, or Mr. Peter Keary,

or the late Dr. Samuel Smiles, quite easily; and he loved Falstaff and

Hudibras and coarse laughter, and the old England of Washington Irving

and the memory of Charles the Second’s courtly days. His progress was

necessarily slow. He did not get rises; he lost situations; there was

something in his eye employers did not like; he would have lost his

places oftener if he had not been at times an exceptionally brilliant

salesman, rather carefully neat, and a slow but very fair



He went from situation to situation, he invented a great wealth of

nicknames, he conceived enmities and made friends—but none so richly

satisfying as Parsons. He was frequently but mildly and discursively

in love, and sometimes he thought of that girl who had given him a

yellow-green apple. He had an idea, amounting to a flattering

certainty, whose youthful freshness it was had stirred her to

self-forgetfulness. And sometimes he thought of Foxbourne sleeping

prosperously in the sun. And he began to have moods of discomfort and

lassitude and ill-temper due to the beginnings of indigestion.


Various forces and suggestions came into his life and swayed him for

longer and shorter periods.


He went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic

architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the

Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a

scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering

portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he

strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind

the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had

the strangest sense of being at home—far more than he had ever been

the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval



He liked to sit in the nave during the service, and look through the

great gates at the candles and choristers, and listen to the

organ-sustained voices, but the transepts he never penetrated because

of the charge for admission. The music and the long vista of the

fretted roof filled him with a vague and mystical happiness that he

had no words, even mispronounceable words, to express. But some of the

wandered about the precincts and speculated about the people who lived

in the ripe and cosy houses of grey stone that cluster there so

comfortably. Through green doors in high stone walls he caught

glimpses of level lawns and blazing flower beds; mullioned windows

revealed shaded reading lamps and disciplined shelves of brown bound

and vanish in a doorway, or the pink and cream of some girlish dress

flit like a butterfly across the cool still spaces of the place.

Particularly he responded to the ruined arches of the Benedictine’s

Infirmary and the view of Bell Harry tower from the school buildings.

He was stirred to read the Canterbury Tales, but he could not get on

with Chaucer’s old-fashioned English; it fatigued his attention, and

he would have given all the story telling very readily for a few

adventures on the road. He wanted these nice people to live more and

yarn less. He liked the Wife of Bath very much. He would have liked to

have known that woman.


At Canterbury, too, he first to his knowledge saw Americans.


His shop did a good class trade in Westgate Street, and he would see

down Mercery Lane to Prior Goldstone’s gate. It impressed him that

they were always in a kind of quiet hurry, and very determined and

methodical people,—much more so than any English he knew.




He would expound them incidentally to his attendant apprentices. He

had overheard a little lady putting her view to a friend near the

Christchurch gate. The accent and intonation had hung in his memory,

Mamie. We want just the Big Simple Things of the place, just the Broad

Elemental Canterbury praposition. What is it saying to us? I want to

get right hold of that, and then have tea in the very room that

Chaucer did, and hustle to get that four-eighteen train back to


He would go over these precious phrases, finding them full of an


He would try to imagine Parsons confronted with Americans. For his own

part he knew himself to be altogether inadequate….


Canterbury was the most congenial situation Mr. Polly ever found

during these wander years, albeit a very desert so far as

companionship went.





It was after Canterbury that the universe became really disagreeable

to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with

a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade.

It was not the trade he ought to have chosen, though what trade he

ought to have chosen was by no means clear.


He made great but irregular efforts and produced a forced smartness

that, like a cheap dye, refused to stand sunshine. He acquired a sort

of parsimony also, in which acquisition he was helped by one or two

phases of absolute impecuniosity. But he was hopeless in competition

against the naturally gifted, the born hustlers, the young men who

meant to get on.


He left the Canterbury place very regretfully. He and another

commercial gentleman took a boat one Sunday afternoon at

Sturry-on-the-Stour, when the wind was in the west, and sailed it very

happily eastward for an hour. They had never sailed a boat before and

it seemed simple and wonderful. When they turned they found the river

too narrow for tacking and the tide running out like a sluice. They

battled back to Sturry in the course of six hours (at a shilling the

first hour and six-pence for each hour afterwards) rowing a mile in an

hour and a half or so, until the turn of the tide came to help them,

and then they had a night walk to Canterbury, and found themselves

remorselessly locked out.


The Canterbury employer was an amiable, religious-spirited man and he

would probably not have dismissed Mr. Polly if that unfortunate


It proved impossible to explain to the Canterbury employer that this

was not a highly disrespectful and blasphemous remark.



So Mr. Polly resumed his observations in the Wood Street warehouses

once more, and had some dismal times. The shoal of fish waiting for

the crumbs of employment seemed larger than ever.


wasn’t any good for him now, and presently when he was older and his

youthful smartness had passed into the dulness of middle age it would

be worse. What else could he do?


He could think of nothing. He went one night to a music hall and

developed a vague idea of a comic performance; the comic men seemed

violent rowdies and not at all funny; but when he thought of the great

pit of the audience yawning before him he realised that his was an

altogether too delicate talent for such a use. He was impressed by the

charm of selling vegetables by auction in one of those open shops near

London Bridge, but admitted upon reflection his general want of

technical knowledge. He made some enquiries about emigration, but none

of the colonies were in want of shop assistants without capital. He

kept up his attendance in Wood Street.


He subdued his ideal of salary by the sum of five pounds a year, and

was taken at that into a driving establishment in Clapham, which dealt

chiefly in ready-made suits, fed its assistants in an underground

dining-room and kept them until twelve on Saturdays. He found it hard

to be cheerful there. His fits of indigestion became worse, and he

began to lie awake at night and think. Sunshine and laughter seemed

things lost for ever; picnics and shouting in the moonlight.



During his night vigils Mr. Polly had a feeling—A young rabbit must

have very much the feeling, when after a youth of gambolling in sunny

woods and furtive jolly raids upon the growing wheat and exciting

triumphant bolts before ineffectual casual dogs, it finds itself at

last for a long night of floundering effort and perplexity, in a

net—for the rest of its life.


He could not grasp what was wrong with him. He made enormous efforts

father a good deal—it is what fathers are for—in putting him to a

trade he wasn’t happy to follow, but he found it impossible to say

what he ought to have followed. He felt there had been something

stupid about his school, but just where that came in he couldn’t say.

ruthlessly. But that was infernal—impossible. He had to admit himself

miserable with all the misery of a social misfit, and with no clear

prospect of more than the most incidental happiness ahead of him. And

for all his attempts at self-reproach or self-discipline he felt at

bottom that he wasn’t at fault.


As a matter of fact all the elements of his troubles had been

adequately diagnosed by a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman

living at Highbury, wearing a gold _pince_-_nez_, and writing for the

most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club. This gentleman

did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally

failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for


But phrases of that sort had no appeal for Mr. Polly.




Chapter the Fourth


Mr. Polly an Orphan





Then a great change was brought about in the life of Mr. Polly by the

death of his father. His father had died suddenly—the local

practitioner still clung to his theory that it was imagination he

suffered from, but compromised in the certificate with the

appendicitis that was then so fashionable—and Mr. Polly found himself

heir to a debateable number of pieces of furniture in the house of his

cousin near Easewood Junction, a family Bible, an engraved portrait of

Garibaldi and a bust of Mr. Gladstone, an invalid gold watch, a gold

locket formerly belonging to his mother, some minor jewelry and

_bric_-a-brac, a quantity of nearly valueless old clothes and an

insurance policy and money in the bank amounting altogether to the sum

of three hundred and ninety-five pounds.


Mr. Polly had always regarded his father as an immortal, as an eternal

fact, and his father being of a reserved nature in his declining years

had said nothing about the insurance policy. Both wealth and

bereavement therefore took Mr. Polly by surprise and found him a

little inadequate. His mother’s death had been a childish grief and

long forgotten, and the strongest affection in his life had been for

Parsons. An only child of sociable tendencies necessarily turns his

back a good deal upon home, and the aunt who had succeeded his mother

was an economist and furniture polisher, a knuckle rapper and sharp

silencer, no friend for a slovenly little boy. He had loved other

little boys and girls transitorily, none had been frequent and

familiar enough to strike deep roots in his heart, and he had grown up

with a tattered and dissipated affectionateness that was becoming

wildly shy. His father had always been a stranger, an irritable

stranger with exceptional powers of intervention and comment, and an

air of being disappointed about his offspring. It was shocking to lose

him; it was like an unexpected hole in the universe, and the writing

at first so much as rouse him to a pitch of vivid attention.


He came down to the cottage at Easewood in response to an urgent

telegram, and found his father already dead. His cousin Johnson

received him with much solemnity and ushered him upstairs, to look at

a stiff, straight, shrouded form, with a face unwontedly quiet and, as

it seemed, with its pinched nostrils, scornful.


of his ability.



There was a pause.


Mr. Polly, feeling it necessary to say something.




A second long pause followed, and then, much to Mr. Polly’s great

relief, Johnson moved towards the door.


Afterwards Mr. Polly went for a solitary walk in the evening light,

and as he walked, suddenly his dead father became real to him. He

thought of things far away down the perspective of memory, of jolly

moments when his father had skylarked with a wildly excited little

boy, of a certain annual visit to the Crystal Palace pantomime, full

of trivial glittering incidents and wonders, of his father’s dread

back while customers were in the old, minutely known shop. It is

curious that the memory which seemed to link him nearest to the dead

man was the memory of a fit of passion. His father had wanted to get a

small sofa up the narrow winding staircase from the little room behind

the shop to the bedroom above, and it had jammed. For a time his

father had coaxed, and then groaned like a soul in torment and given

way to blind fury, had sworn, kicked and struck at the offending piece

of furniture and finally wrenched it upstairs, with considerable

incidental damage to lath and plaster and one of the castors. That

moment when self-control was altogether torn aside, the shocked

discovery of his father’s perfect humanity, had left a singular

impression on Mr. Polly’s queer mind. It was as if something

extravagantly vital had come out of his father and laid a warmly

passionate hand upon his heart. He remembered that now very vividly,

and it became a clue to endless other memories that had else been

dispersed and confusing.


A weakly wilful being struggling to get obdurate things round

impossible corners—in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself

and all the trouble of humanity.


He hadn’t had a particularly good time, poor old chap, and now it was

all over. Finished….


Johnson was the sort of man who derives great satisfaction from a

funeral, a melancholy, serious, practical-minded man of five and

thirty, with great powers of advice. He was the up-line ticket clerk

at Easewood Junction, and felt the responsibilities of his position.

He was naturally thoughtful and reserved, and greatly sustained in

that by an innate rectitude of body and an overhanging and forward

inclination of the upper part of his face and head. He was pale but

freckled, and his dark grey eyes were deeply set. His lightest

interest was cricket, but he did not take that lightly. His chief

holiday was to go to a cricket match, which he did as if he was going

to church, and he watched critically, applauded sparingly, and was

darkly offended by any unorthodox play. His convictions upon all

subjects were taciturnly inflexible. He was an obstinate player of

draughts and chess, and an earnest and persistent reader of the

_British Weekly_. His wife was a pink, short, wilfully smiling,

managing, ingratiating, talkative woman, who was determined to be

pleasant, and take a bright hopeful view of everything, even when it

was not really bright and hopeful. She had large blue expressive eyes

and a round face, and she always spoke of her husband as Harold. She

addressed sympathetic and considerate remarks about the deceased to


She made dying seem almost agreeable.


Both these people were resolved to treat Mr. Polly very well, and to

help his exceptional incompetence in every possible way, and after a

simple supper of ham and bread and cheese and pickles and cold apple

tart and small beer had been cleared away, they put him into the

armchair almost as though he was an invalid, and sat on chairs that

made them look down on him, and opened a directive discussion of the

arrangements for the funeral. After all a funeral is a distinct social

opportunity, and rare when you have no family and few relations, and

they did not want to see it spoilt and wasted.


combinations with the driver sitting on the coffin. Disrespectful I

think they are. I can’t fancy how people can bring themselves to be









chicken’s very suitable. You don’t want a lot of cooking with the

ceremony coming into the middle of it. I wonder who Alfred ought to

invite, Harold. Just the immediate relations; one doesn’t want a great



that. It’s just because of that I think they ought to come—all of



said Mr. Johnson.


gloves and whiskey in the front room, and while we were all at the

ceremony, Bessie could bring it all into the front room on a tray and

put it out nice and proper. There’d have to be whiskey and sherry or




A disagreeable feeling spread over his body as though he was

blackening as he sat. He hated black garments.





That’s all you really want. And a black satin tie and a top hat with a







And then Mrs. Johnson went on with the utmost gusto to the details of

into the armchair, assenting with a note of protest to all they said.

After he had retired for the night he remained for a long time perched

on the edge of the sofa which was his bed, staring at the prospect


He hated the thought and elaboration of death as a healthy animal must

hate it. His mind struggled with unwonted social problems.








Bereavement came to Mr. Polly before the realisation of opulence and

its anxieties and responsibilities. That only dawned upon him on the

morrow—which chanced to be Sunday—as he walked with Johnson before

church time about the tangle of struggling building enterprise that

constituted the rising urban district of Easewood. Johnson was off

duty that morning, and devoted the time very generously to the

admonitory discussion of Mr. Polly’s worldly outlook.



place in London—take almost nothing and live on my reserves. That’s













Mr. Polly made an indeterminate noise.


Mr. Polly, with detached brevity, admitted there were.



said Mr. Polly with an inspiration.


They turned a corner that led towards the junction.



At the moment this remark made very little appeal to Mr. Polly. But

afterwards it developed. It fell into his mind like some small obscure

seed, and germinated.



The row he referred to gaped in the late painful stage in building

before the healing touch of the plasterer assuages the roughness of

the brickwork. The space for the shop yawned an oblong gap below,

a board at the end of the row promised; and behind was the door space

went upstairs to the little sitting-room or best bedroom (it would

have to be) above the shop. Then they descended to the kitchen below.



They came out of the house again by the prospective back door, and

picked their way through builder’s litter across the yard space to the

road again. They drew nearer the junction to where a pavement and

shops already open and active formed the commercial centre of

Easewood. On the opposite side of the way the side door of a

flourishing little establishment opened, and a man and his wife and a

little boy in a sailor suit came into the street. The wife was a

pretty woman in brown with a floriferous straw hat, and the group was

altogether very Sundayfied and shiny and spick and span. The shop

itself had a large plate-glass window whose contents were now veiled


Greetings were exchanged between Mr. Johnson and this distinguished








lath. Look at him now!



Thought fell between the cousins for a space.






All the preparations for the funeral ran easily and happily under Mrs.

Johnson’s skilful hands. On the eve of the sad event she produced a

reserve of black sateen, the kitchen steps and a box of tin-tacks, and

decorated the house with festoons and bows of black in the best

possible taste. She tied up the knocker with black crape, and put a

large bow over the corner of the steel engraving of Garibaldi, and

swathed the bust of Mr. Gladstone, that had belonged to the deceased,

with inky swathings. She turned the two vases that had views of Tivoli

and the Bay of Naples round, so that these rather brilliant landscapes

were hidden and only the plain blue enamel showed, and she anticipated

the long-contemplated purchase of a tablecloth for the front room, and

substituted a violet purple cover for the now very worn and faded

raptures and roses in plushette that had hitherto done duty there.

Everything that loving consideration could do to impart a dignified

solemnity to her little home was done.


She had released Mr. Polly from the irksome duty of issuing

invitations, and as the moments of assembly drew near she sent him and

Mr. Johnson out into the narrow long strip of garden at the back of

the house, to be free to put a finishing touch or so to her

preparations. She sent them out together because she had a queer

little persuasion at the back of her mind that Mr. Polly wanted to

bolt from his sacred duties, and there was no way out of the garden

except through the house.


Mr. Johnson was a steady, successful gardener, and particularly good

with celery and peas. He walked slowly along the narrow path down the

centre pointing out to Mr. Polly a number of interesting points in the

management of peas, wrinkles neatly applied and difficulties wisely

overcome, and all that he did for the comfort and propitiation of that

fitful but rewarding vegetable. Presently a sound of nervous laughter

and raised voices from the house proclaimed the arrival of the earlier

guests, and the worst of that anticipatory tension was over.


When Mr. Polly re-entered the house he found three entirely strange

young women with pink faces, demonstrative manners and emphatic

mourning, engaged in an incoherent conversation with Mrs. Johnson. All

three kissed him with great gusto after the ancient English fashion.

(unexpected hug and smack), that’s Miriam (resolute hug and smack),



edition of the three young women appeared in the doorway.


Mr. Polly backed rather faint-heartedly, but Aunt Larkins was not to

be denied. Having hugged and kissed her nephew resoundingly she

gripped him by the wrists and scanned his features. She had a round,

said with fervour.



child. You’ve got her eyes! It’s a Resemblance! And as for _never


of laughter.


Miriam, and for a time the room was full of mirth.



The reception of this remark would have convinced a far more modest

character than Mr. Polly that it was extremely witty.




achieved a climax.


It was queer, but they seemed to be easy people to get on with anyhow.

They were still picking little ripples and giggles of mirth from the

idea of Mr. Polly dandling Aunt Larkins when Mr. Johnson, who had

answered the door, ushered in a stooping figure, who was at once

was rather a shock. His was an aged rather than venerable figure; Time

had removed the hair from the top of his head and distributed a small

dividend of the plunder in little bunches carelessly and impartially

over the rest of his features; he was dressed in a very big old frock

coat and a long cylindrical top hat, which he had kept on; he was very

much bent, and he carried a rush basket from which protruded coy

intimations of the lettuces and onions he had brought to grace the

occasion. He hobbled into the room, resisting the efforts of Johnson

to divest him of his various encumbrances, halted and surveyed the

company with an expression of profound hostility, breathing hard.

Recognition quickened in his eyes.






did—fairly. I remember her. Here’s some green stuff for you, Grace.

Fresh it is and wholesome. I shall be wanting the basket back and mind

you let me have it…. Have you nailed him down yet? You always was a


His attention was drawn inward by a troublesome tooth, and he sucked

at it spitefully. There was something potent about this old man that

silenced everyone for a moment or so. He seemed a fragment from the

ruder agricultural past of our race, like a lump of soil among things

of paper. He put his basket of vegetables very deliberately on the new

violet tablecloth, removed his hat carefully and dabbled his brow, and

wiped out his hat brim with a crimson and yellow pocket handkerchief.








Mr. Polly was spared much self-exposition by the tumult occasioned by

further arrivals.


the borrowed mourning of a large woman and leading a very small

long-haired observant little boy—it was his first funeral—appeared,

closely followed by several friends of Mrs. Johnson who had come to

swell the display of respect and made only vague, confused impressions

upon Mr. Polly’s mind. (Aunt Mildred, who was an unexplained family

scandal, had declined Mrs. Johnson’s hospitality.)


Everybody was in profound mourning, of course, mourning in the modern

English style, with the dyer’s handiwork only too apparent, and hats

and jackets of the current cut. There was very little crape, and the

costumes had none of the goodness and specialisation and genuine

enjoyment of mourning for mourning’s sake that a similar continental

gathering would have displayed. Still that congestion of strangers in

black sufficed to stun and confuse Mr. Polly’s impressionable mind. It

seemed to him much more extraordinary than anything he had expected.


daughters became confusingly active between the front room and the



place of Uncle Pentstemon’s vegetables.


Uncle Pentstemon had refused to be relieved of his hat; he sat stiffly

down on a chair against the wall with that venerable headdress between

marrying him, but I suppose by-gones must be bygones now. I suppose






He took the glass Mrs. Johnson handed him, and poised it critically

young woman. You brush your skirts against it and you take a shillin’


He drank noisily.


The sherry presently loosened everybody’s tongue, and the early

coldness passed.


remarking to one of Mrs. Johnson’s friends, and Miriam and another


The sherry and biscuits were still being discussed when Mr. Podger,

the undertaker, arrived, a broad, cheerfully sorrowful, clean-shaven

little man, accompanied by a melancholy-faced assistant. He conversed

for a time with Johnson in the passage outside; the sense of his

business stilled the rising waves of chatter and carried off

everyone’s attention in the wake of his heavy footsteps to the room






Things crowded upon Mr. Polly. Everyone, he noticed, took sherry with

a solemn avidity, and a small portion even was administered

sacramentally to the Punt boy. There followed a distribution of black

gravely content with the amazing procedure of the occasion. Presently

Mr. Podger was picking Mr. Polly out as Chief Mourner to go with Mrs.

Johnson, Mrs. Larkins and Annie in the first mourning carriage.


the phrase.



There was a generous struggle to be pedestrian, and the two other

Larkins girls, confessing coyly to tight new boots and displaying a

certain eagerness, were added to the contents of the first carriage.




He decided privately that the proper phrase for the result of that


Mr. Podger re-entered the room from a momentary supervision of the

bumping business that was now proceeding down the staircase.



That stuck very vividly in Mr. Polly’s mind, and so did the

close-wedged drive to the churchyard, bunched in between two young

women in confused dull and shiny black, and the fact that the wind was

bleak and that the officiating clergyman had a cold, and sniffed

between his sentences. The wonder of life! The wonder of everything!

What had he expected that this should all be so astoundingly



He found his attention converging more and more upon the Larkins

cousins. The interest was reciprocal. They watched him with a kind of

suppressed excitement and became risible with his every word and

gesture. He was more and more aware of their personal quality. Annie

had blue eyes and a red, attractive mouth, a harsh voice and a habit

of extreme liveliness that even this occasion could not suppress;

Minnie was fond, extremely free about the touching of hands and

suchlike endearments; Miriam was quieter and regarded him earnestly.

Mrs. Larkins was very happy in her daughters, and they had the naive

affectionateness of those who see few people and find a strange cousin

a wonderful outlet. Mr. Polly had never been very much kissed, and it

made his mind swim. He did not know for the life of him whether he

liked or disliked all or any of the Larkins cousins. It was rather

attractive to make them laugh; they laughed at anything.


There they were tugging at his mind, and the funeral tugging at his

mind, too, and the sense of himself as Chief Mourner in a brand new

silk hat with a broad mourning band. He watched the ceremony and

missed his responses, and strange feelings twisted at his






Mr. Polly walked back to the house because he wanted to be alone.

Miriam and Minnie would have accompanied him, but finding Uncle

Pentstemon beside the Chief Mourner they went on in front.





He went on to ask how much the funeral might be costing, and seemed

pleased to find Mr. Polly didn’t know.




The Larkins girls attracted his attention.


cook dinners. And look at ’em!




Pentstemon, and repeated his hiccup on a larger scale.


note of pathos Mr. Polly had detected in his quavering voice.


The funeral in the rather cold wind had proved wonderfully appetising,

and every eye brightened at the sight of the cold collation that was

now spread in the front room. Mrs. Johnson was very brisk, and Mr.

Polly, when he re-entered the house found everybody sitting down.

well begin without you. Have you got the bottled beer ready to open,


his hat very carefully out of harm’s way on the bookcase.


There were two cold boiled chickens, which Johnson carved with great

care and justice, and a nice piece of ham, some brawn and a steak and

kidney pie, a large bowl of salad and several sorts of pickles, and

afterwards came cold apple tart, jam roll and a good piece of Stilton

cheese, lots of bottled beer, some lemonade for the ladies and milk

for Master Punt; a very bright and satisfying meal. Mr. Polly found

himself seated between Mrs. Punt, who was much preoccupied with Master

Punt’s table manners, and one of Mrs. Johnson’s school friends, who

was exchanging reminiscences of school days and news of how various

common friends had changed and married with Mrs. Johnson. Opposite him

was Miriam and another of the Johnson circle, and also he had brawn to

carve and there was hardly room for the helpful Betsy to pass behind

his chair, so that altogether his mind would have been amply

distracted from any mortuary broodings, even if a wordy warfare about

the education of the modern young woman had not sprung up between

Uncle Pentstemon and Mrs. Larkins and threatened for a time, in spite

of a word or so in season from Johnson, to wreck all the harmony of

the sad occasion.


The general effect was after this fashion:


First an impression of Mrs. Punt on the right speaking in a refined





You see, Mr. Polly, I used to ‘_ave_ a young gentleman, a medical



Bessie became evident at the back of Mr. Polly’s chair, struggling


Lady to the left going on valiantly and speaking to everyone who cares

as bold as brass, and the fun she used to make of things no one

_could_ believe—knowing her now. She used to make faces at the












Pop! imperfectly located.




The knives and forks, probably by some secret common agreement, clash

and clatter together and drown every other sound.


_golp_ so. You ain’t in a ‘urry, are you? You don’t want to ketch a







Loud hiccup from Uncle Pentstemon, momentary consternation followed by

giggle from Annie.


The narration at Mr. Polly’s elbow pursued a quiet but relentless


Willie,—audible ingurgitation.




having had any of their own, though two poor souls of wives dead and







It seemed to be the end, and Mr. Polly replied with an air of being









And so on for the hour.


The general effect upon Mr. Polly at the time was at once confusing

and exhilarating; but it led him to eat copiously and carelessly, and

long before the end, when after an hour and a quarter a movement took

the party, and it pushed away its cheese plates and rose sighing and

stretching from the remains of the repast, little streaks and bands of

dyspeptic irritation and melancholy were darkening the serenity of his



He stood between the mantel shelf and the window—the blinds were up

now—and the Larkins sisters clustered about him. He battled with the

oncoming depression and forced himself to be extremely facetious about


inextinguishable laughter.



Suddenly something he had quite extraordinarily forgotten came into

his head.






Mr. Polly made a convulsing grimace at her.



Feeling a little disorganized by her hilarity and a shocked expression

that had come to the face of cousin Miriam, he made some indistinct

excuse and went out through the back room and scullery into the little

garden. The cool air and a very slight drizzle of rain was a

relief—anyhow. But the black mood of the replete dyspeptic had come

upon him. His soul darkened hopelessly. He walked with his hands in

his pockets down the path between the rows of exceptionally cultured

peas and unreasonably, overwhelmingly, he was smitten by sorrow for

his father. The heady noise and muddle and confused excitement of the

feast passed from him like a curtain drawn away. He thought of that

hot and angry and struggling creature who had tugged and sworn so

foolishly at the sofa upon the twisted staircase, and who was now

lying still and hidden, at the bottom of a wall-sided oblong pit

beside the heaped gravel that would presently cover him. The stillness

of it! the wonder of it! the infinite reproach! Hatred for all these

people—all of them—possessed Mr. Polly’s soul.



He went down to the fence, and stood with his hands on it staring away

at nothing. He stayed there for what seemed a long time. From the

house came a sound of raised voices that subsided, and then Mrs.

Johnson calling for Bessie.



Nobody missed Mr. Polly for a long time.


When at last he reappeared among them his eye was almost grim, but

nobody noticed his eye. They were looking at watches, and Johnson was

being omniscient about trains. They seemed to discover Mr. Polly

afresh just at the moment of parting, and said a number of more or

less appropriate things. But Uncle Pentstemon was far too worried

about his rush basket, which had been carelessly mislaid, he seemed to

think with larcenous intentions, to remember Mr. Polly at all. Mrs.

Johnson had tried to fob him off with a similar but inferior

basket,—his own had one handle mended with string according to a

method of peculiar virtue and inimitable distinction known only to

himself—and the old gentleman had taken her attempt as the gravest

reflection upon his years and intelligence. Mr. Polly was left very

largely to the Larkins trio. Cousin Minnie became shameless and kept

kissing him good-by—and then finding out it wasn’t time to go.

Cousin Miriam seemed to think her silly, and caught Mr. Polly’s eye

sympathetically. Cousin Annie ceased to giggle and lapsed into a

nearly sentimental state. She said with real feeling that she had

enjoyed the funeral more than words could tell.




Chapter the Fifth


Mr. Polly Takes a Vacation





Mr. Polly returned to Clapham from the funeral celebration prepared

for trouble, and took his dismissal in a manly spirit.



And he told them in the dormitory that he meant to take a little

holiday before his next crib, though a certain inherited reticence

suppressed the fact of the legacy.



that it made a little holiday possible. Holidays were his life, and

the rest merely adulterated living. And now he might take a little

holiday and have money for railway fares and money for meals and money

for inns. But—he wanted someone to take the holiday with.


For a time he cherished a design of hunting up Parsons, getting him to

throw up his situation, and going with him to Stratford-on-Avon and

Shrewsbury and the Welsh mountains and the Wye and a lot of places

like that, for a really gorgeous, careless, illimitable old holiday of

a month. But alas! Parsons had gone from the St. Paul’s Churchyard

outfitter’s long ago, and left no address.


Mr. Polly tried to think he would be almost as happy wandering alone,

but he knew better. He had dreamt of casual encounters with

delightfully interesting people by the wayside—even romantic

happened with extreme facility in Mr. Richard Le Gallienne’s very

detrimental book, _The Quest of the Golden Girl_, which he had read at

Canterbury, but he had no confidence they would happen in England—to



When, a month later, he came out of the Clapham side door at last into

the bright sunshine of a fine London day, with a dazzling sense of

limitless freedom upon him, he did nothing more adventurous than order

the cabman to drive to Waterloo, and there take a ticket for Easewood.


He wanted—what _did_ he want most in life? I think his distinctive

craving is best expressed as fun—fun in companionship. He had already

spent a pound or two upon three select feasts to his fellow

assistants, sprat suppers they were, and there had been a great and

very successful Sunday pilgrimage to Richmond, by Wandsworth and

Wimbledon’s open common, a trailing garrulous company walking about a

solemnly happy host, to wonderful cold meat and salad at the Roebuck,

a bowl of punch, punch! and a bill to correspond; but now it was a

weekday, and he went down to Easewood with his bag and portmanteau in

a solitary compartment, and looked out of the window upon a world in

which every possible congenial seemed either toiling in a situation

or else looking for one with a gnawing and hopelessly preoccupying

anxiety. He stared out of the window at the exploitation roads of

suburbs, and rows of houses all very much alike, either emphatically

and impatiently _to let_ or full of rather busy unsocial people.

Near Wimbledon he had a glimpse of golf links, and saw two elderly

gentlemen who, had they chosen, might have been gentlemen of grace

and leisure, addressing themselves to smite little hunted white balls

great distances with the utmost bitterness and dexterity. Mr. Polly

could not understand them.


Every road he remarked, as freshly as though he had never observed it

before, was bordered by inflexible palings or iron fences or severely

disciplined hedges. He wondered if perhaps abroad there might be

beautifully careless, unenclosed high roads. Perhaps after all the

best way of taking a holiday is to go abroad.


He was haunted by the memory of what was either a half-forgotten

picture or a dream; a carriage was drawn up by the wayside and four

beautiful people, two men and two women graciously dressed, were

dancing a formal ceremonious dance full of bows and curtseys, to the

music of a wandering fiddler they had encountered. They had been

driving one way and he walking another—a happy encounter with this

obvious result. They might have come straight out of happy Theleme,

sleek horses out; they grazed unchallenged; and he sat on a stone

clapping time with his hands while the fiddler played. The shade of

the trees did not altogether shut out the sunshine, the grass in the

wood was lush and full of still daffodils, the turf they danced on was

starred with daisies.


Mr. Polly, dear heart! firmly believed that things like that could and

did happen—somewhere. Only it puzzled him that morning that he never

saw them happening. Perhaps they happened south of Guilford. Perhaps

they happened in Italy. Perhaps they ceased to happen a hundred years

ago. Perhaps they happened just round the corner—on weekdays when all

good Mr. Pollys are safely shut up in shops. And so dreaming of

delightful impossibilities until his heart ached for them, he was

rattled along in the suburban train to Johnson’s discreet home and the

briskly stimulating welcome of Mrs. Johnson.





Mr. Polly translated his restless craving for joy and leisure into

Harold Johnsonese by saying that he meant to look about him for a bit

before going into another situation. It was a decision Johnson very

warmly approved. It was arranged that Mr. Polly should occupy his

former room and board with the Johnsons in consideration of a weekly

payment of eighteen shillings. And the next morning Mr. Polly went out

early and reappeared with a purchase, a safety bicycle, which he

proposed to study and master in the sandy lane below the Johnsons’

house. But over the struggles that preceded his mastery it is humane

to draw a veil.


And also Mr. Polly bought a number of books, Rabelais for his own, and


turning over perplexing pages.


A belated spring was now advancing with great strides to make up for

lost time. Sunshine and a stirring wind were poured out over the land,

fleets of towering clouds sailed upon urgent tremendous missions

across the blue seas of heaven, and presently Mr. Polly was riding a

little unstably along unfamiliar Surrey roads, wondering always what

was round the next corner, and marking the blackthorn and looking out

for the first white flower-buds of the may. He was perplexed and

distressed, as indeed are all right thinking souls, that there is no

may in early May.


He did not ride at the even pace sensible people use who have marked

out a journey from one place to another, and settled what time it will

take them. He rode at variable speeds, and always as though he was

looking for something that, missing, left life attractive still, but a

little wanting in significance. And sometimes he was so unreasonably

happy he had to whistle and sing, and sometimes he was incredibly, but

not at all painfully, sad. His indigestion vanished with air and

exercise, and it was quite pleasant in the evening to stroll about the

garden with Johnson and discuss plans for the future. Johnson was full

of ideas. Moreover, Mr. Polly had marked the road that led to Stamton,

that rising populous suburb; and as his bicycle legs grew strong his

wheel with a sort of inevitableness carried him towards the row of

houses in a back street in which his Larkins cousins made their home



He was received with great enthusiasm.


The street was a dingy little street, a _cul-de-sac_ of very small

houses in a row, each with an almost flattened bow window and a

blistered brown door with a black knocker. He poised his bright new

bicycle against the window, and knocked and stood waiting, and felt

himself in his straw hat and black serge suit a very pleasant and

prosperous-looking figure. The door was opened by cousin Miriam. She

was wearing a bluish print dress that brought out a kind of sallow

warmth in her skin, and although it was nearly four o’clock in the

afternoon, her sleeves were tucked up, as if for some domestic work,

above the elbows, showing her rather slender but very shapely

yellowish arms. The loosely pinned bodice confessed a delicately

rounded neck.


For a moment she regarded him with suspicion and a faint hostility,

and then recognition dawned in her eyes.





They stood confronting one another for a moment, while Miriam

collected herself for the unexpected emergency.



Miriam’s face betrayed no appreciation of the remark.



She closed the door on him abruptly, leaving him a little surprised in

import of which he didn’t catch. Then she reappeared. It seemed but an

instant, but she was changed; the arms had vanished into sleeves, the

apron had gone, a certain pleasing disorder of the hair had been at

least reproved.




Mr. Polly was aware of a rustling transit along the passage, and of

the house suddenly full of hushed but strenuous movement.



cleaning up day to-day. I’m not a bit tidy I know, but I _do_ like to

‘_ave_ a go in at things now and then. You got to take us as you find




She stared at Mr. Polly, and his unfortunate sense of fitness made him

nod his head towards her, regard her firmly with a round brown eye,


Her answering expression made him realise for an instant the terrible

dangers he trifled with. Avidity flared up in her eyes. Minnie’s voice

came happily to dissolve the situation.



Her hair was just passably tidy, and she was a little effaced by a red

blouse, but there was no mistaking the genuine brightness of her



He was to come in to tea, and Mrs. Larkins, exuberantly genial in a

floriferous but dingy flannel dressing gown, appeared to confirm that.

He brought in his bicycle and put it in the narrow, empty passage, and

everyone crowded into a small untidy kitchen, whose table had been

hastily cleared of the _debris_ of the midday repast.


the front room. I never did see such a girl for cleanin’ up. Miriam’s

‘oliday’s a scrub. You’ve caught us on the ‘Op as the sayin’ is, but

Welcome all the same. Pity Annie’s at work to-day; she won’t be ‘ome


Miriam put chairs and attended to the fire, Minnie edged up to Mr.

contiguous intimacy that betrayed a broken tooth. Mrs. Larkins got out

tea things, and descanted on the noble simplicity of their lives, and

geniality that intoxicated his amiable nature; he insisted upon

helping lay the things, and created enormous laughter by pretending

attempts to arrange the plates so that he could rub elbows with all

three. Mrs. Larkins had to sit down in the windsor chair by the

grandfather clock (which was dark with dirt and not going) to laugh at

her ease at his well-acted perplexity.


They got seated at last, and Mr. Polly struck a vein of humour in

telling them how he learnt to ride the bicycle. He found the mere

inextinguishable mirth.



(Giggle from Minnie.)


sort of hat—starts to cross the road—going to the oil shop—prodic




(Laughter and tears.)


Off comes the hat smack into the wheel. Wabble. _Lord! what’s_ going

to happen? Hat across the road, old gentleman after it, bell, shriek.

He ran into me. Didn’t ring his bell, hadn’t _got_ a bell—just ran

into me. Over I went clinging to his venerable head. Down he went with


(Interlude while Minnie is attended to for crumb in the windpipe.)




him he oughtn’t to come out wearing such a dangerous hat—flying at

things. Said if he couldn’t control his hat he ought to leave it at

home. High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. ‘I tell you,

sir—‘ ‘I tell _you_, sir.’ Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that’s the

sort of thing that’s constantly happening you know—on a bicycle.

People run into you, hens and cats and dogs and things. Everything




said Miriam, thumping hard.


Mr. Polly had never been such a social success before. They hung upon

his every word—and laughed. What a family they were for laughter! And

he loved laughter. The background he apprehended dimly; it was very

much the sort of background his life had always had. There was a

threadbare tablecloth on the table, and the slop basin and teapot did

not go with the cups and saucers, the plates were different again, the

knives worn down, the butter lived in a greenish glass dish of its

own. Behind was a dresser hung with spare and miscellaneous crockery,

with a workbox and an untidy work-basket, there was an ailing musk

plant in the window, and the tattered and blotched wallpaper was

covered by bright-coloured grocers’ almanacs. Feminine wrappings hung

from pegs upon the door, and the floor was covered with a varied

collection of fragments of oilcloth. The Windsor chair he sat in was








with the gals, and then come back to supper. You might all go and meet



forgetful for a moment of Mr. Polly.


Both girls dressed with some care while Mrs. Larkins sketched the

better side of their characters, and then the three young people went

out to see something of Stamton. In the streets their risible mood

gave way to a self-conscious propriety that was particularly evident

in Miriam’s bearing. They took Mr. Polly to the Stamton Wreckeryation

ground—that at least was what they called it—with its handsome

custodian’s cottage, its asphalt paths, its Jubilee drinking fountain,

its clumps of wallflower and daffodils, and so to the new cemetery and

a distant view of the Surrey hills, and round by the gasworks to the

canal to the factory, that presently disgorged a surprised and radiant




It is very pleasant to every properly constituted mind to be a centre

of amiable interest for one’s fellow creatures, and when one is a

young man conscious of becoming mourning and a certain wit, and the

fellow creatures are three young and ardent and sufficiently

expressive young women who dispute for the honour of walking by one’s

side, one may be excused a secret exaltation. They did dispute.






Polly, understanding.









It was past ten when Mr. Polly found himself riding back towards

Easewood in a broad moonlight with a little Japanese lantern dangling

from his handle bar and making a fiery circle of pinkish light on and

round about his front wheel. He was mightily pleased with himself and

the day. There had been four-ale to drink at supper mixed with

gingerbeer, very free and jolly in a jug. No shadow fell upon the

agreeable excitement of his mind until he faced the anxious and

reproachful face of Johnson, who had been sitting up for him, smoking

the monk who went into Sarmatia and saw the Tartar carts.






Johnson yawned hugely and asked for and was given friendly

that book of yours—rum stuff. Can’t make it out quite. Quite out of







Before and after this brief conversation his mind ran on his cousins

very warmly and prettily in the vein of high spring. Mr. Polly had

been drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature,

fountains so unsuited to the needs of a decent clerk or shopman,

fountains charged with the dangerous suggestion that it becomes a man

of gaiety and spirit to make love, gallantly and rather carelessly. It

seemed to him that evening to be handsome and humorous and practicable

to make love to all his cousins. It wasn’t that he liked any of them

particularly, but he liked something about them. He liked their youth

and femininity, their resolute high spirits and their interest in him.


They laughed at nothing and knew nothing, and Minnie had lost a tooth

and Annie screamed and shouted, but they were interesting, intensely



And Miriam wasn’t so bad as the others. He had kissed them all and had


He buried his nose in his pillow and went to sleep—to dream of

anything rather than getting on in the world, as a sensible young man

in his position ought to have done.





And now Mr. Polly began to lead a divided life. With the Johnsons he

professed to be inclined, but not so conclusively inclined as to be

inconvenient, to get a shop for himself, to be, to use the phrase he

still a great majority of them, led by however devious ways to

Stamton, and to laughter and increasing familiarity. Relations

developed with Annie and Minnie and Miriam. Their various characters

were increasingly interesting. The laughter became perceptibly less

abundant, something of the fizz had gone from the first opening, still

these visits remained wonderfully friendly and upholding. Then back he

would come to grave but evasive discussions with Johnson.


a reserved honest character, and he would really have preferred to see

his lodger doing things for himself than receive his money for

housekeeping. He hated waste, anybody’s waste, much more than he

desired profit. But Mrs. Johnson was all for Mr. Polly’s loitering.

She seemed much the more human and likeable of the two to Mr. Polly.


He tried at times to work up enthusiasm for the various avenues to

well-being his discussion with Johnson opened. But they remained

disheartening prospects. He imagined himself wonderfully smartened up,

acquiring style and value in a London shop, but the picture was stiff

and unconvincing. He tried to rouse himself to enthusiasm by the idea

of his property increasing by leaps and bounds, by twenty pounds a

year or so, let us say, each year, in a well-placed little shop, the

corner shop Johnson favoured. There was a certain picturesque interest

in imagining cut-throat economies, but his heart told him there would

be little in practising them.


And then it happened to Mr. Polly that real Romance came out of

dreamland into life, and intoxicated and gladdened him with sweetly

beautiful suggestions—and left him. She came and left him as that

dear lady leaves so many of us, alas! not sparing him one jot or one

tittle of the hollowness of her retreating aspect.


It was all the more to Mr. Polly’s taste that the thing should happen

as things happen in books.


In a resolute attempt not to get to Stamton that day, he had turned

due southward from Easewood towards a country where the abundance of

bracken jungles, lady’s smock, stitchwork, bluebells and grassy

stretches by the wayside under shady trees does much to compensate the

turned aside from the road, wheeled his machine along a faintly marked

attractive trail through bracken until he came to a heap of logs

against a high old stone wall with a damaged coping and wallflower

plants already gone to seed. He sat down, balanced the straw hat on a

convenient lump of wood, lit a cigarette, and abandoned himself to

agreeable musings and the friendly observation of a cheerful little

brown and grey bird his stillness presently encouraged to approach


He reflected that he might go on this way for four or five years, and

then be scarcely worse off than he had been in his father’s lifetime.



Then Romance appeared. Or to be exact, Romance became audible.


Romance began as a series of small but increasingly vigorous movements

on the other side of the wall, then as a voice murmuring, then as a

falling of little fragments on the hither side and as ten pink finger

tips, scarcely apprehended before Romance became startling and

emphatically a leg, remained for a time a fine, slender, actively

struggling limb, brown stockinged and wearing a brown toe-worn shoe,

and then—. A handsome red-haired girl wearing a short dress of blue

linen was sitting astride the wall, panting, considerably disarranged

by her climbing, and as yet unaware of Mr. Polly….


His fine instincts made him turn his head away and assume an attitude

of negligent contemplation, with his ears and mind alive to every

sound behind him.




clear blue eyes.




surveying him.



Her manner placed the matter before him.




indeed trembling within himself, he held out a hand for her.


She brought another brown leg from the unknown, and arranged her skirt


She continued to regard him with eyes that presently joined dancing in

an irresistible smile of satisfaction. Mr. Polly smiled in return.



Mr. Polly admitted the fact, and she said she did too.









Mr. Polly nodded.


said, indicating the logs, and again a swift thoughtfulness swept

across her face.




She reflected, and surveyed the turf below and the scene around and




She certainly looked quite adorable on the wall. She had a fine neck

and pointed chin that was particularly admirable from below, and

pretty eyes and fine eyebrows are never so pretty as when they look

down upon one. But no calculation of that sort, thank Heaven, was

going on beneath her ruddy shock of hair.






Mr. Polly’s literary proclivities had taught him that under such

circumstances a strain of gallantry was demanded. And something in his

blood repeated that lesson.


about the country looking for dragons and beautiful maidens and




She flushed under her freckles with the quick bright flush those




horse is anyhow. Ready to absquatulate all the dragons and rescue


Polly felt they were a sun’s distance from the world of everyday.



She stared for a moment, and then went off into peals of laughter.



He was proud and pleased with his joke, and quick to change his key




to matters of fact.












have bitten out his tongue at the Larkins sound of it.





She sought to estimate his social status on her limited basis of

experience. He stood leaning with one hand against the wall, looking

up at her and tingling with daring thoughts. He was a littleish man,

you must remember, but neither mean-looking nor unhandsome in those

days, sunburnt by his holiday and now warmly flushed. He had an

inspiration to simple speech that no practised trifler with love could



She stared at him with eyes round and big with excitement.





after a pause, and they both smiled together.


After that they talked in a fragmentary way for some time. The blue

eyes surveyed Mr. Polly with kindly curiosity from under a broad,

finely modelled brow, much as an exceptionally intelligent cat might

survey a new sort of dog. She meant to find out all about him. She

asked questions that riddled the honest knight in armour below, and

probed ever nearer to the hateful secret of the shop and his normal

servitude. And when he made a flourish and mispronounced a word a

thoughtful shade passed like the shadow of a cloud across her face.



was gone.


Then her pink finger tips reappeared, and the top of her red hair.









The rustle of retreating footsteps and silence….


But after he had waited next day for twenty minutes she reappeared, a

little out of breath with the effort to surmount the wall—and head

first this time. And it seemed to him she was lighter and more daring

and altogether prettier than the dreams and enchanted memories that

had filled the interval.





From first to last their acquaintance lasted ten days, but into that

time Mr. Polly packed ten years of dreams.


anything. That shop at the corner’s bound to be snapped up if he don’t


The girl and Mr. Polly did not meet on every one of those ten days;

one was Sunday and she could not come, and on the eighth the school

reassembled and she made vague excuses. All their meetings amounted to

this, that she sat on the wall, more or less in bounds as she

expressed it, and let Mr. Polly fall in love with her and try to

express it below. She sat in a state of irresponsible exaltation,

watching him and at intervals prodding a vivisecting point of

encouragement into him—with that strange passive cruelty which is

natural to her sex and age.


And Mr. Polly fell in love, as though the world had given way beneath

him and he had dropped through into another, into a world of luminous

clouds and of desolate hopeless wildernesses of desiring and of wild

valleys of unreasonable ecstasies, a world whose infinite miseries

were finer and in some inexplicable way sweeter than the purest gold

of the daily life, whose joys—they were indeed but the merest remote

glimpses of joy—were brighter than a dying martyr’s vision of heaven.

Her smiling face looked down upon him out of heaven, her careless pose

was the living body of life. It was senseless, it was utterly foolish,

but all that was best and richest in Mr. Polly’s nature broke like a

wave and foamed up at that girl’s feet, and died, and never touched

her. And she sat on the wall and marvelled at him and was amused, and

once, suddenly moved and wrung by his pleading, she bent down rather

shamefacedly and gave him a freckled, tennis-blistered little paw to

kiss. And she looked into his eyes and suddenly felt a perplexity, a

curious swimming of the mind that made her recoil and stiffen, and

wonder afterwards and dream….


And then with some dim instinct of self-protection, she went and told

her three best friends, great students of character all, of this

remarkable phenomenon she had discovered on the other side of the



keep up this gesticulations game any more! I’m not a Knight. Treat me

as a human man. You may sit up there smiling, but I’d die in torments

to have you mine for an hour. I’m nobody and nothing. But look here!

Will you wait for me for five years? You’re just a girl yet, and it


he did not see touched her hand.


work. I’ve just woke up. Wait till I’ve got a chance with the money



find a chance. I’ll do that anyhow. I’ll go away. I mean what I

say—I’ll stop trifling and shirking. If I don’t come back it won’t


Her expression had become uneasy. Suddenly she bent down towards him.






Then through a pause they both stared at each other, listening.


A muffled tumult on the other side of the wall asserted itself.





The bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly’s world. He felt as people must

feel who are going to faint.



She found life inexpressible to Mr. Polly. She addressed some unseen

agony in her voice, and swung herself back over the wall and vanished.

There was a squeal of pain and fear, and a swift, fierce altercation.


For a couple of seconds he stood agape.


Then a wild resolve to confirm his worst sense of what was on the

other side of the wall made him seize a log, put it against the

stones, clutch the parapet with insecure fingers, and lug himself to a

momentary balance on the wall.


Romance and his goddess had vanished.


A red-haired girl with a pigtail was wringing the wrist of a



Two other young ladies made off through the beech trees from this

outburst of savagery.


Then the grip of Mr. Polly’s fingers gave, and he hit his chin against

the stones and slipped clumsily to the ground again, scraping his

cheek against the wall and hurting his shin against the log by which

he had reached the top. Just for a moment he crouched against the



He swore, staggered to the pile of logs and sat down.


He remained very still for some time, with his lips pressed together.


shin as though he had just discovered its bruises.


Afterwards he found his face was wet with blood—which was none the

less red stuff from the heart because it came from slight





Chapter the Sixth







It is an illogical consequence of one human being’s ill-treatment that

we should fly immediately to another, but that is the way with us. It

seemed to Mr. Polly that only a human touch could assuage the smart of

his humiliation. Moreover it had for some undefined reason to be a

feminine touch, and the number of women in his world was limited.


He thought of the Larkins family—the Larkins whom he had not been

near now for ten long days. Healing people they seemed to him

now—healing, simple people. They had good hearts, and he had

neglected them for a mirage. If he rode over to them he would be able

to talk nonsense and laugh and forget the whirl of memories and

thoughts that was spinning round and round so unendurably in his





shopping. Won’t let me shop, she won’t, because I’m so keerless. She’s

a wonderful manager, that girl. Minnie’s got some work at the carpet

place. ‘Ope it won’t make ‘er ill again. She’s a loving deliket sort,

is Minnie…. Come into the front parlour. It’s a bit untidy, but you





dislocation of a number of scattered articles, put a workbasket on the

top of several books, swept two or three dogs’-eared numbers of the

_Lady’s Own Novelist_ from the table into the broken armchair, and

proceeded to sketch together the tea-things with various such

she talked of Annie’s good spirits and cleverness with her millinery,

and of Minnie’s affection and Miriam’s relative love of order and

management. Mr. Polly stood by the window uneasily and thought how

good and sincere was the Larkins tone. It was well to be back again.




‘usband. You better see you got it good. I kept Larkins ‘esitating two

years I did, until I felt sure of him. A ‘ansom man ‘e was as you can

see by the looks of the girls, but ‘ansom is as ‘ansom does. You’d

like a bit of jam to your tea, I expect? I ‘ope they’ll keep _their_

men waiting when the time comes. I tell them if they think of marrying


Miriam entered with several parcels in a net, and a peevish

out with the net with the broken handle. I’ve been cutting my fingers

her face brightened.







She went into the kitchen, disposed of her purchases, and returned


He repeated his story of the accident, and she was sympathetic in a

pleasant homely way.




Quite by accident he touched her hand on the table, and she answered

his touch.


and flushed guiltily. But Mrs. Larkins, with unusual restraint, said

nothing. She merely made a grimace, enigmatical, but in its essence



Presently Minnie came in with some vague grievance against the manager

of the carpet-making place about his method of estimating piece work.

Her account was redundant, defective and highly technical, but

feeling that he was being conspicuously dull, launched into a

description of the shop he was looking for and the shops he had seen.

His mind warmed up as he talked.


embroider the subject and work upon it. For the first time it assumed

picturesque and desirable qualities in his mind. It stimulated him to

see how readily and willingly they accepted his sketches. Bright ideas

appeared in his mind from nowhere. He was suddenly enthusiastic.




no good if it isn’t tabby. Cat I’m going to have, and a canary! Didn’t

think of that before, but a cat and a canary seem to go, you know.

Summer weather I shall sit at breakfast in the little room behind the

shop, sun streaming in the window to rights, cat on a chair, canary





up picture. No face to figure as yet. Still, that’s how it will be, I

can assure you. I think I must have a bit of garden. Johnson’s the man

mean a fierce sort of garden. Earnest industry. Anxious moments.

Fervous digging. Shan’t go in for that sort of garden, ma’am. No! Too

much backache for me. My garden will be just a patch of ‘sturtiums and

sweet pea. Red brick yard, clothes’ line. Trellis put up in odd time.






He straightened himself up and then they all laughed.


stand. Carpet on the floor. Cat asleep on the counter. Ties and hose





When tea was over he was left alone with Minnie for a few minutes, and

an odd intimation of an incident occurred that left Mr. Polly rather

scared and shaken. A silence fell between them—an uneasy silence. He

sat with his elbows on the table looking at her. All the way from

Easewood to Stamton his erratic imagination had been running upon neat

ways of proposing marriage. I don’t know why it should have done, but

it had. It was a kind of secret exercise that had not had any definite

aim at the time, but which now recurred to him with extraordinary

force. He couldn’t think of anything in the world that wasn’t the

gambit to a proposal. It was almost irresistibly fascinating to think

how immensely a few words from him would excite and revolutionise

Minnie. She was sitting at the table with a workbasket among the tea

things, mending a glove in order to avoid her share of clearing away.


saying to mother, ‘I wish we ‘ad a cat.’ But we couldn’t ‘_ave_ a cat








thing outrunning his discretion.



head swam and he broke out into a cold sweat as he said it.




He saw his bicycle in the hall and cut it dead.


He heard Mrs. Larkins in the passage behind him as he opened the front









Minnie appeared at the door of the room looking infinitely perplexed.


sensation. Felt exactly as though something was up somewhere. That’s


He bent down and pinched his bicycle tire.









When, after imperceptible manoeuvres by Mrs. Larkins, he found himself

starting circuitously through the inevitable recreation ground with

Miriam to meet Annie, he found himself quite unable to avoid the topic

of the shop that had now taken such a grip upon him. A sense of danger

only increased the attraction. Minnie’s persistent disposition to

accompany them had been crushed by a novel and violent and urgently

expressed desire on the part of Mrs. Larkins to see her do something

in the house sometimes….











assistant. I daresay I could run a shop all right if I wasn’t



The conversation flagged.



They did as she suggested, and sat down in a corner where a triangular

bed of stock and delphinium brightened the asphalted traceries of the

Recreation Ground.



park at Port Burdock.



He put an arm over the back of the seat, and assumed a more

comfortable attitude. He glanced at Miriam, who was sitting in a lax,

thoughtful pose with her eyes on the flowers. She was wearing her old

dress, she had not had time to change, and the blue tones of her old

dress brought out a certain warmth in her skin, and her pose

exaggerated whatever was feminine in her rather lean and insufficient

body, and rounded her flat chest delusively. A little line of light

lay along her profile. The afternoon was full of transfiguring

sunshine, children were playing noisily in the adjacent sandpit, some

Judas trees were brightly abloom in the villa gardens that bordered

the Recreation Ground, and all the place was bright with touches of

young summer colour. It all merged with the effect of Miriam in Mr.

Polly’s mind.


said with a note of unusual softness in her voice.


It seemed to him that she was right. One did ought to be happy in a

shop. Folly not to banish dreams that made one ache of townless woods

and bracken tangles and red-haired linen-clad figures sitting in

dappled sunshine upon grey and crumbling walls and looking queenly

down on one with clear blue eyes. Cruel and foolish dreams they were,

that ended in one’s being laughed at and made a mock of. There was no

mockery here.




His sense of effect made him pause.



She became very still.


Mr. Polly swerved a little from the conversational ice-run upon which

he had embarked.


goods a bit. One has to be nosy over one’s buying of course. But I


He stopped, and felt falling, falling through the aching silence that






He found himself plunging.






He took the conclusive step.





Regardless of the public park, the children in the sandpit and

everyone, she bent forward and seized his shoulder and kissed him on

the lips. Something lit up in Mr. Polly at the touch. He put an arm

about her and kissed her back, and felt an irrevocable act was sealed.

He had a curious feeling that it would be very satisfying to marry and

have a wife—only somehow he wished it wasn’t Miriam. Her lips were

very pleasant to him, and the feel of her in his arm.


They recoiled a little from each other and sat for a moment, flushed

and awkwardly silent. His mind was altogether incapable of controlling

its confusion.




father’s funeral. Leastways I _would_ have done, if I had thought. You

didn’t seem to mean anything you said.









They said no more for a little while.



For the life of him Mr. Polly could not tell whether he was fullest of

tender anticipations or regretful panic.


work and Minnie’s got no ‘ed for it. What they’ll do without me I




A clock in the town began striking.



She rose and made as if to take Mr. Polly’s arm. But Mr. Polly felt

that their condition must be nakedly exposed to the ridicule of the

world by such a linking, and evaded her movement.


Annie was already in sight before a flood of hesitation and terrors

assailed Mr. Polly.







Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest

little squiggles of black—looked at in the right light, and yet

consider the blow they can give you upon the heart. You return from a

little careless holiday abroad, and turn over the page of a newspaper,

and against the name of that distant, vague-conceived railway in

mortgages upon which you have embarked the bulk of your capital, you

see instead of the familiar, persistent 95-6 (varying at most to 93

_ex. div._) this slightly richer arrangement of marks: 76 1/2—78 1/2.


It is like the opening of a pit just under your feet!


So, too, Mr. Polly’s happy sense of limitless resources was

obliterated suddenly by a vision of this tracery:



instead of the



he had come to regard as the fixed symbol of his affluence.


It gave him a disagreeable feeling about the diaphragm, akin in a

remote degree to the sensation he had when the perfidy of the

red-haired schoolgirl became plain to him. It made his brow moist.



By a characteristic feat of subtraction he decided that he must have

spent sixty-two pounds.



The happy dream in which he had been living of long warm days, of open

roads, of limitless unchecked hours, of infinite time to look about

him, vanished like a thing enchanted. He was suddenly back in the hard

old economic world, that exacts work, that limits range, that

discourages phrasing and dispels laughter. He saw Wood Street and its

fearful suspenses yawning beneath his feet.


And also he had promised to marry Miriam, and on the whole rather

wanted to.


He was distraught at supper. Afterwards, when Mrs. Johnson had gone to

bed with a slight headache, he opened a conversation with Johnson.




Polly asked.




Johnson went to the chiffonier, got out a letter and tore off the back


He squared himself to the task, and Mr. Polly sat beside him like a

pupil, watching the evolution of the grey, distasteful figures that

were to dispose of his little hoard.










silently upon the needlessness of Miriam.




my own instead of a fixed salary. You’ll have to keep books of




of a man who takes a nauseating medicine, and scrutinised his cousin’s

neat figures with listless eyes.



have slept upon a bed of thorns.


He had a dreadful night. It was like the end of the annual holiday,

only infinitely worse. It was like a newly arrived prisoner’s backward

glance at the trees and heather through the prison gates. He had to go

back to harness, and he was as fitted to go in harness as the ordinary

domestic cat. All night, Fate, with the quiet complacency, and indeed

at times the very face and gestures of Johnson, guided him towards





Some braver strain urged him to think of Miriam, and for a little

while he lay still….


and Mrs. Johnson looked up brightly. Mr. Polly had never felt

breakfast so unattractive before.




There were times in those last few days of coyness with his destiny

when his engagement seemed the most negligible of circumstances, and

times—and these happened for the most part at nights after Mrs.

Johnson had indulged everybody in a Welsh rarebit—when it assumed so

sinister and portentous an appearance as to make him think of suicide.

And there were times too when he very distinctly desired to be

married, now that the idea had got into his head, at any cost. Also he

tried to recall all the circumstances of his proposal, time after

time, and never quite succeeded in recalling what had brought the

thing off. He went over to Stamton with a becoming frequency, and

kissed all his cousins, and Miriam especially, a great deal, and found

it very stirring and refreshing. They all appeared to know; and Minnie

was tearful, but resigned. Mrs. Larkins met him, and indeed enveloped

him, with unwonted warmth, and there was a big pot of household jam

for tea. And he could not make up his mind to sign his name to

anything about the shop, though it crawled nearer and nearer to him,

though the project had materialised now to the extent of a draft

agreement with the place for his signature indicated in pencil.


One morning, just after Mr. Johnson had gone to the station, Mr. Polly

wheeled his bicycle out into the road, went up to his bedroom, packed

his long white nightdress, a comb, and a toothbrush in a manner that

was as offhand as he could make it, informed Mrs. Johnson, who was

wheel towards the tropics and the equator and the south coast of

England, and indeed more particularly to where the little village of

Fishbourne slumbers and sleeps.


When he returned four days later, he astonished Johnson beyond measure

by remarking so soon as the shop project was reopened:



He paused, and then added in a manner, if possible, even more offhand:






But Mrs. Johnson was first of all angrily silent, and then

comfortable and see after you. Out late and sitting up and everything.

And then you go off as sly as sly without a word, and get a shop

behind our backs as though you thought we meant to steal your money. I

‘aven’t patience with such deceitfulness, and I didn’t think it of

you, Elfrid. And now the letting season’s ‘arf gone by, and what I

shall do with that room of yours I’ve no idea. Frank is frank, and

fair play fair play; so _I_ was told any’ow when I was a girl. Just as

long as it suits you to stay ‘ere you stay ‘ere, and then it’s off and

no thank you whether we like it or not. Johnson’s too easy with you.

‘E sits there and doesn’t say a word, and night after night ‘e’s been


She paused for breath.






Mr. Polly’s marriage followed with a certain inevitableness.


He tried to assure himself that he was acting upon his own forceful

initiative, but at the back of his mind was the completest realisation

of his powerlessness to resist the gigantic social forces he had set

in motion. He had got to marry under the will of society, even as in

times past it has been appointed for other sunny souls under the will

of society that they should be led out by serious and unavoidable

fellow-creatures and ceremoniously drowned or burnt or hung. He would

have preferred infinitely a more observant and less conspicuous role,

but the choice was no longer open to him. He did his best to play his

part, and he procured some particularly neat check trousers to do it

in. The rest of his costume, except for some bright yellow gloves, a

grey and blue mixture tie, and that the broad crape hat-band was

changed for a livelier piece of silk, were the things he had worn at

the funeral of his father. So nearly akin are human joy and sorrow.


The Larkins sisters had done wonders with grey sateen. The idea of

orange blossom and white veils had been abandoned reluctantly on

account of the expense of cabs. A novelette in which the heroine had

assisted this decision. Miriam was frankly tearful, and so indeed was

Annie, but with laughter as well to carry it off. Mr. Polly heard

Annie say something vague about never getting a chance because of

Miriam always sticking about at home like a cat at a mouse-hole, that

became, as people say, food for thought. Mrs. Larkins was from the

first flushed, garrulous, and wet and smeared by copious weeping; an

incredibly soaked and crumpled and used-up pocket handkerchief never

wetted Mr. Polly dreadfully when she kissed him. Her emotion affected

the buttons down the back of her bodice, and almost the last filial

duty Miriam did before entering on her new life was to close that

gaping orifice for the eleventh time. Her bonnet was small and

ill-balanced, black adorned with red roses, and first it got over her

right eye until Annie told her of it, and then she pushed it over her

left eye and looked ferocious for a space, and after that baptismal

kissing of Mr. Polly the delicate millinery took fright and climbed

right up to the back part of her head and hung on there by a pin, and

flapped piteously at all the larger waves of emotion that filled the

gathering. Mr. Polly became more and more aware of that bonnet as time

went on, until he felt for it like a thing alive. Towards the end it

had yawning fits.


The company did not include Mrs. Johnson, but Johnson came with a

manifest surreptitiousness and backed against walls and watched Mr.

Polly with doubt and speculation in his large grey eyes and whistled

noiselessly and doubtful on the edge of things. He was, so to speak,

to be best man, _sotto voce_. A sprinkling of girls in gay hats from

Miriam’s place of business appeared in church, great nudgers all of

them, but only two came on afterwards to the house. Mrs. Punt brought

her son with his ever-widening mind, it was his first wedding, and a

Larkins uncle, a Mr. Voules, a licenced victualler, very kindly drove

over in a gig from Sommershill with a plump, well-dressed wife to give

the bride away. One or two total strangers drifted into the church and

sat down observantly far away.


This sprinkling of people seemed only to enhance the cool brown

emptiness of the church, the rows and rows of empty pews, disengaged

prayerbooks and abandoned hassocks. It had the effect of a

preposterous misfit. Johnson consulted with a thin-legged,

short-skirted verger about the disposition of the party. The

officiating clergy appeared distantly in the doorway of the vestry,

putting on his surplice, and relapsed into a contemplative

cheek-scratching that was manifestly habitual. Before the bride

arrived Mr. Polly’s sense of the church found an outlet in whispered






He coughed behind his hand and cleared his throat. At the back of his

mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be

criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers

announced the arrival of the bridal party.


The little procession from a remote door became one of the enduring

memories of Mr. Polly’s life. The little verger had bustled to meet

it, and arrange it according to tradition and morality. In spite of

with Mr. Voules, the bridesmaids followed and then himself hopelessly

unable to disentangle himself from the whispering maternal anguish of

Mrs. Larkins. Mrs. Voules, a compact, rounded woman with a square,

expressionless face, imperturbable dignity, and a dress of

considerable fashion, completed the procession.


Mr. Polly’s eye fell first upon the bride; the sight of her filled him

with a curious stir of emotion. Alarm, desire, affection, respect—and

a queer element of reluctant dislike all played their part in that

complex eddy. The grey dress made her a stranger to him, made her

stiff and commonplace, she was not even the rather drooping form that

had caught his facile sense of beauty when he had proposed to her in

the Recreation Ground. There was something too that did not please him

in the angle of her hat, it was indeed an ill-conceived hat with large

aimless rosettes of pink and grey. Then his mind passed to Mrs.

Larkins and the bonnet that was to gain such a hold upon him; it

seemed to be flag-signalling as she advanced, and to the two eager,

unrefined sisters he was acquiring.


A freak of fancy set him wondering where and when in the future a

beautiful girl with red hair might march along some splendid aisle.

Never mind! He became aware of Mr. Voules.


He became aware of Mr. Voules as a watchful, blue eye of intense

forcefulness. It was the eye of a man who has got hold of a situation.

He was a fat, short, red-faced man clad in a tight-fitting tail coat

of black and white check with a coquettish bow tie under the lowest of

a number of crisp little red chins. He held the bride under his arm

with an air of invincible championship, and his free arm flourished a

grey top hat of an equestrian type. Mr. Polly instantly learnt from

the eye that Mr. Voules knew all about his longing for flight. Its

give this girl away, and give her away I will. I’m here now and things

beneath the threshold of consciousness vanished into black

impossibility. Until the conclusive moment of the service was attained

the eye of Mr. Voules watched Mr. Polly relentlessly, and then

instantly he relieved guard, and blew his nose into a voluminous and

richly patterned handkerchief, and sighed and looked round for the

approval and sympathy of Mrs. Voules, and nodded to her brightly like

one who has always foretold a successful issue to things. Mr. Polly

felt then like a marionette that has just dropped off its wire. But it

was long before that release arrived.


He became aware of Miriam breathing close to him.



Miriam’s eyes shone under her hat-brim.



criticism stiffening his lips. He cleared his throat.


The verger’s hand pushed at him from behind. Someone was driving

interested for a moment or so in something indescribably habitual in

the clergyman’s pose. What a lot of weddings he must have seen! Sick

he must be of them!




moment under that pitiless scrutiny while he felt in the wrong

waistcoat pocket….


The officiating clergy sighed deeply, began, and married them wearily

and without any hitch.


join ‘gather Man, Worn’ Holy Mat’my which is on’bl state stooted by


Mr. Polly’s thoughts wandered wide and far, and once again something

like a cold hand touched his heart, and he saw a sweet face in

sunshine under the shadow of trees.


Someone was nudging him. It was Johnson’s finger diverted his eyes to

the crucial place in the prayer-book to which they had come.





Miriam, nearly inaudible, answered some similar demand.




He was silenced by the clergyman’s rapid grip directing the exchange

of hands.








Then came Miriam’s turn.




So it went on, blurred and hurried, like the momentary vision of an

utterly beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train….



Before him stood Miriam, a little stiffly, the hat with a slight rake

across her forehead, and a kind of questioning hesitation in her face.

Mr. Voules urged him past her.


It was astounding. She was his wife!


And for some reason Miriam and Mrs. Larkins were sobbing, and Annie

was looking grave. Hadn’t they after all wanted him to marry her?

Because if that was the case—!


He became aware for the first time of the presence of Uncle Pentstemon

in the background, but approaching, wearing a tie of a light mineral

blue colour, and grinning and sucking enigmatically and judiciously

round his principal tooth.





It was in the vestry that the force of Mr. Voules’ personality began

to show at its true value. He seemed to open out and spread over

things directly the restraints of the ceremony were at an end.


hands with Mrs. Larkins, who clung to him for a space, and kissed


He led Mr. Polly to the register by the arm, and then got chairs for



Mr. Polly was overcome with modest confusion, and turning, found a

refuge from this publicity in the arms of Mrs. Larkins. Then in a

state of profuse moisture he was assaulted and kissed by Annie and

Minnie, who were immediately kissed upon some indistinctly stated

grounds by Mr. Voules, who then kissed the entirely impassive Mrs.

Then with a strange harrowing cry Mrs. Larkins seized upon and bedewed

Miriam with kisses, Annie and Minnie kissed each other, and Johnson

went abruptly to the door of the vestry and stared into the church—no

teeth, and suddenly smacked his hands together with great _eclat_

several times. Meanwhile the clergyman scratched his cheek with one

hand and fiddled the pen with the other and the verger coughed







bridegroom gives his arm to the bride. Hands across and down the


Mr. Polly found himself and the bride leading the way towards the

western door.


Mrs. Larkins passed close to Uncle Pentstemon, sobbing too earnestly


swept past him, too busy with the expression of her feelings to

observe him.


foiled, but effecting an auditory lodgment upon Johnson.







what I got in this passel. Vallyble old tea caddy that uset’ be my

mother’s. What I kep’ my baccy in for years and years—till the hinge

at the back got broke. It ain’t been no use to me particular since, so


Mr. Polly found himself emerging from the western door.


Outside, a crowd of half-a-dozen adults and about fifty children had

collected, and hailed the approach of the newly wedded couple with a

faint, indeterminate cheer. All the children were holding something in

little bags, and his attention was caught by the expression of

vindictive concentration upon the face of a small big-eared boy in the

foreground. He didn’t for the moment realise what these things might

import. Then he received a stinging handful of rice in the ear, and a

great light shone.


then a second handful spoke against his hat.


became aware that he and Miriam were the focus of two crescents of

small boys, each with the light of massacre in his eyes and a grubby

fist clutching into a paper bag for rice; and that Mr. Voules was

warding off probable discharges with a large red hand.


The dog cart was in charge of a loafer, and the horse and the whip

were adorned with white favours, and the back seat was confused but

rice-throwers followed them up as they mounted.


and took the place next the pavement with considerable heroism, held

said Mr. Voules, and a concentrated fire came stinging Mr. Polly’s



The horse shied, and when the bridegroom could look at the world again

it was manifest the dog cart had just missed an electric tram by a

hairsbreadth, and far away outside the church railings the verger and

Johnson were battling with an active crowd of small boys for the life

of the rest of the Larkins family. Mrs. Punt and her son had escaped

across the road, the son trailing and stumbling at the end of a

remorseless arm, but Uncle Pentstemon, encumbered by the tea-caddy,

was the centre of a little circle of his own, and appeared to be

dratting them all very heartily. Remoter, a policeman approached with

an air of tranquil unconsciousness.



The dog cart swerved violently, and then, evoking a shout of

groundless alarm from a cyclist, took a corner, and the rest of the

wedding party was hidden from Mr. Polly’s eyes.








And while Mr. Polly held the sweating horse and dodged the foam that

dripped from its bit, the house absorbed Miriam and Mr. Voules

altogether. Mr. Voules carried in the various hampers he had brought

with him, and finally closed the door behind him.


For some time Mr. Polly remained alone with his charge in the little

blind alley outside the Larkins’ house, while the neighbours

scrutinised him from behind their blinds. He reflected that he was a

married man, that he must look very like a fool, that the head of a

horse is a silly shape and its eye a bulger; he wondered what the

horse thought of him, and whether it really liked being held and

patted on the neck or whether it only submitted out of contempt. Did

it know he was married? Then he wondered if the clergyman had thought

him much of an ass, and then whether the individual lurking behind the

lace curtains of the front room next door was a man or a woman. A door

opened over the way, and an elderly gentleman in a kind of embroidered

fez appeared smoking a pipe with a quiet satisfied expression. He

regarded Mr. Polly for some time with mild but sustained curiosity.






the door. It opened to him just as Mrs. Larkins on the arm of Johnson,

followed by Annie, Minnie, two friends, Mrs. Punt and her son and at a

slight distance Uncle Pentstemon, appeared round the corner.


her a kiss.


She was kissing him back when they were startled violently by the

shying of two empty hampers into the passage. Then Mr. Voules appeared

holding a third.


these hampers away before the old girl comes. I got a cold collation


Miriam took the hampers, and Mr. Polly under compulsion from Mr.

Voules went into the little front room. A profuse pie and a large ham

had been added to the modest provision of Mrs. Larkins, and a number

of select-looking bottles shouldered the bottle of sherry and the

bottle of port she had got to grace the feast. They certainly went

better with the iced wedding cake in the middle. Mrs. Voules, still

impassive, stood by the window regarding these things with a faint



his cheeks and smacked his hands together violently several times.


He stood back and smiled and bowed with arms extended as the others

came clustering at the door.



It was his reward.


And then came a great wedging and squeezing and crowding into the

little room. Nearly everyone was hungry, and eyes brightened at the


The two friends from Miriam’s place of business came into the room

among the first, and then wedged themselves so hopelessly against

Johnson in an attempt to get out again and take off their things

upstairs that they abandoned the attempt. Amid the struggle Mr. Polly

saw Uncle Pentstemon relieve himself of his parcel by giving it to the


and kidney pie? You ‘_ave_ a drop of old Tommy, Martha. That’s what

you want to steady you…. Sit down everyone and don’t all speak at




something I can warrant you good in your glasses, wot about drinking



So they did, and the plates clattered and the glasses chinked.


Mr. Polly stood shoulder to shoulder with Johnson for a moment.



The Punt boy stood on Mr. Polly’s boots for a minute, struggling

violently against the compunction of Mrs. Punt’s grip.








Johnson subsided gloomily, and Mr. Polly secured some ham and carried

it off and sat himself down on the sewing machine on the floor in the

corner to devour it. He was hungry, and a little cut off from the rest

of the company by Mrs. Voules’ hat and back, and he occupied himself

for a time with ham and his own thoughts. He became aware of a series

of jangling concussions on the table. He craned his neck and

discovered that Mr. Voules was standing up and leaning forward over

the table in the manner distinctive of after-dinner speeches, tapping

Voules, raising his glass solemnly in the empty desert of sound he had







For a time conversation was fragmentary again. But presently Mr.

Voules rose from his chair again; he had subsided with a contented

smile after his first oratorical effort, and produced a silence by

searching his mind for the apt phrase that came at last in a rush.


Voules, bowed amiably, amidst enthusiasm.


girl’s a treasure of treasures, and always has been ever since she

tried to nurse her own little sister, being but three at the time, and

fell the full flight of stairs from top to bottom, no hurt that any

outward eye ‘as even seen, but always ready and helpful, always

tidying and busy. A treasure, I must say, and a treasure I will say,


She was silenced altogether by a rapping sound that would not be

denied. Mr. Voules had been struck by a fresh idea and was standing up

and hammering with the bottle again.


The Mother of the bride. I—er…. Uoo…. Ere!… Ladies and gem,





The dingy little room was stuffy and crowded to its utmost limit, and

Mr. Polly’s skies were dark with the sense of irreparable acts.

Everybody seemed noisy and greedy and doing foolish things. Miriam,

still in that unbecoming hat—for presently they had to start off to

the station together—sat just beyond Mrs. Punt and her son, doing her

share in the hospitalities, and ever and again glancing at him with a

deliberately encouraging smile. Once she leant over the back of the

her sat Johnson, profoundly silent, and then Annie, talking vigorously

to a friend. Uncle Pentstemon was eating voraciously opposite, but

with a kindling eye for Annie. Mrs. Larkins sat next to Mr. Voules.

She was unable to eat a mouthful, she declared, it would choke her,

but ever and again Mr. Voules wooed her to swallow a little drop of

liquid refreshment.


There seemed a lot of rice upon everybody, in their hats and hair and

the folds of their garments.


Presently Mr. Voules was hammering the table for the fourth time in

the interests of the Best Man….


All feasts come to an end at last, and the breakup of things was

precipitated by alarming symptoms on the part of Master Punt. He was

taken out hastily after a whispered consultation, and since he had got

into the corner between the fireplace and the cupboard, that meant

everyone moving to make way for him. Johnson took the opportunity to

Mr. Polly found himself smoking a cigarette and walking up and down

outside in the company of Uncle Pentstemon, while Mr. Voules replaced

bottles in hampers and prepared for departure, and the womenkind of

the party crowded upstairs with the bride. Mr. Polly felt taciturn,

but the events of the day had stirred the mind of Uncle Pentstemon to

speech. And so he spoke, discursively and disconnectedly, a little

heedless of his listener as wise old men will.




understand it. ‘Tisn’t like there was nubbicks or strings or such in

‘am. It’s a plain food.



hain’t. I done it long before I was your age. It hain’t for me to

blame you. You can’t ‘elp being the marrying sort any more than me.

It’s nat’ral-like poaching or drinking or wind on the stummik. You

can’t ‘elp it and there you are! As for the good of it, there ain’t no

particular good in it as I can see. It’s a toss up. The hotter come,

the sooner cold, but they all gets tired of it sooner or later…. I

hain’t no grounds to complain. Two I’ve ‘ad and berried, and might

‘_ave_ ‘_ad_ a third, and never no worrit with kids—never….


She’s a gad-about grinny, she is, if ever was. A gad-about grinny.

Mucked up my mushroom bed to rights, she did, and I ‘aven’t forgot it.

Got the feet of a centipede, she ‘as—ll over everything and neither

with your leave nor by your leave. Like a stray ‘en in a pea patch.

Cluck! cluck! Trying to laugh it off. _I_ laughed ‘er off, I did.


For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a

reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.


and you can’t tell what’s in ’em till you took ’em ‘ome and undone

’em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn’t buy a pig in a poke.

Never. Marriage seems to change the very natures in ’em through and

through. You can’t tell what they won’t turn into—nohow.



He sent another crumb on to its long home with a sucking, encouraging



I’d ‘ad a grizzler I’d up and ‘it ‘er on the ‘ed with sumpthin’ pretty

lay I’d make ‘er stop laughing after a bit for all ‘er airs. And mind

where her clumsy great feet went….






At last it was time for the two young people to catch the train for

Waterloo _en route_ for Fishbourne. They had to hurry, and as a

concluding glory of matrimony they travelled second-class, and were

seen off by all the rest of the party except the Punts, Master Punt

being now beyond any question unwell.



Mr. Polly remained waving his hat and Mrs. Polly her handkerchief

until they were hidden under the bridge. The dominating figure to the

last was Mr. Voules. He had followed them along the platform waving

the equestrian grey hat and kissing his hand to the bride.


They subsided into their seats.




Silence for a moment.



Mr. Polly felt round his collar at the thought.



He roused himself to sit forward hands on knees, cocked his hat over

one eye, and assumed an expression of avidity becoming to the



with great discrimination.






Chapter the Seventh


The Little Shop at Fishbourne





For fifteen years Mr. Polly was a respectable shopkeeper in



Years they were in which every day was tedious, and when they were

gone it was as if they had gone in a flash. But now Mr. Polly had good

looks no more, he was as I have described him in the beginning of this

story, thirty-seven and fattish in a not very healthy way, dull and

yellowish about the complexion, and with discontented wrinklings round

his eyes. He sat on the stile above Fishbourne and cried to the

wore a rather shabby black morning coat and vest, and his tie was

richly splendid, being from stock, and his golf cap aslant over one



Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer

little flower of Mr. Polly’s imagination must be altogether withered

and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But indeed

it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful

experiences, for the gracious aspects of things, for beauty. He still

read books when he had a chance, books that told of glorious places

abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life and

contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped. But

alas! there are not many such books, and for the newspapers and the

cheap fiction that abounded more and more in the world Mr. Polly had

little taste. There was no epithet in them. And there was no one to

talk to, as he loved to talk. And he had to mind his shop.


It was a reluctant little shop from the beginning.


He had taken it to escape the doom of Johnson’s choice and because

Fishbourne had a hold upon his imagination. He had disregarded the

ill-built cramped rooms behind it in which he would have to lurk and

live, the relentless limitations of its dimensions, the inconvenience

of an underground kitchen that must necessarily be the living-room in

winter, the narrow yard behind giving upon the yard of the Royal

Fishbourne Hotel, the tiresome sitting and waiting for custom, the

restricted prospects of trade. He had visualised himself and Miriam

first as at breakfast on a clear bright winter morning amidst a

tremendous smell of bacon, and then as having muffins for tea. He had

also thought of sitting on the beach on Sunday afternoons and of going

for a walk in the country behind the town and picking _marguerites_

and poppies. But, in fact, Miriam and he were extremely cross at

breakfast, and it didn’t run to muffins at tea. And she didn’t think

it looked well, she said, to go trapesing about the country on



It was unfortunate that Miriam never took to the house from the first.

She did not like it when she saw it, and liked it less as she explored







They stayed for a week in a cheap boarding house before they moved in.

They had bought some furniture in Stamton, mostly second-hand, but

with new cheap cutlery and china and linen, and they had supplemented

this from the Fishbourne shops. Miriam, relieved from the hilarious

associations of home, developed a meagre and serious quality of her

shop with a certain zest, and whistled a good deal until Miriam

appeared and said that it went through her head. So soon as he had

taken the shop he had filled the window with aggressive posters

announcing in no measured terms that he was going to open, and now he

was getting his stuff put out he was resolved to show Fishbourne what

window dressing could do. He meant to give them boater straws,

imitation Panamas, bathing dresses with novelties in stripes, light

flannel shirts, summer ties, and ready-made flannel trousers for men,

youths and boys. Incidentally he watched the small fishmonger over the

way, and had a glimpse of the china dealer next door, and wondered if

a friendly nod would be out of place. And on the first Sunday in this

new life he and Miriam arrayed themselves with great care, he in his

wedding-funeral hat and coat and she in her going-away dress, and went

processionally to church, a more respectable looking couple you could

hardly imagine, and looked about them.


Things began to settle down next week into their places. A few

customers came, chiefly for bathing suits and hat guards, and on

Saturday night the cheapest straw hats and ties, and Mr. Polly found

himself more and more drawn towards the shop door and the social charm

of the street. He found the china dealer unpacking a crate at the edge

of the pavement, and remarked that it was a fine day. The china dealer

gave a reluctant assent, and plunged into the crate in a manner that

presented no encouragement to a loquacious neighbour.


back view….





Miriam combined earnestness of spirit with great practical incapacity.

The house was never clean nor tidy, but always being frightfully

disarranged for cleaning or tidying up, and she cooked because food

had to be cooked and with a sound moralist’s entire disregard of the

quality of the consequences. The food came from her hands done rather

than improved, and looking as uncomfortable as savages clothed under

duress by a missionary with a stock of out-sizes. Such food is too apt

to behave resentfully, rebel and work Obi. She ceased to listen to her

husband’s talk from the day she married him, and ceased to unwrinkle

the kink in her brow at his presence, giving herself up to mental

states that had a quality of secret preoccupation. And she developed

an idea for which perhaps there was legitimate excuse, that he was

lazy. He seemed to stand about in the shop a great deal, to read—an

indolent habit—and presently to seek company for talking. He began to

attend the bar parlour of the God’s Providence Inn with some

frequency, and would have done so regularly in the evening if cards,

which bored him to death, had not arrested conversation. But the

perpetual foolish variation of the permutations and combinations of

two and fifty cards taken five at a time, and the meagre surprises and

excitements that ensue had no charms for Mr. Polly’s mind, which was

at once too vivid in its impressions and too easily fatigued.


It was soon manifest the shop paid only in the least exacting sense,

and Miriam did not conceal her opinion that he ought to bestir himself

when you have once sunken your capital in a shop you do not very

easily get it out again. If customers will not come to you cheerfully

and freely the law sets limits upon the compulsion you may exercise.

You cannot pursue people about the streets of a watering place,

compelling them either by threats or importunity to buy flannel

trousers. Additional sources of income for a tradesman are not always

easy to find. Wintershed at the bicycle and gramaphone shop to the

right, played the organ in the church, and Clamp of the toy shop was

pew opener and so forth, Gambell, the greengrocer, waited at table and

his wife cooked, and Carter, the watchmaker, left things to his wife

while he went about the world winding clocks, but Mr. Polly had none

of these arts, and wouldn’t, in spite of Miriam’s quietly persistent

protests, get any other. And on summer evenings he would ride his

bicycle about the country, and if he discovered a sale where there

were books he would as often as not waste half the next day in going

again to acquire a job lot of them haphazard, and bring them home tied

about with a string, and hide them from Miriam under the counter in

the shop. That is a heartbreaking thing for any wife with a serious

investigatory turn of mind to discover. She was always thinking of

burning these finds, but her natural turn for economy prevailed with



The books he read during those fifteen years! He read everything he

got except theology, and as he read his little unsuccessful

circumstances vanished and the wonder of life returned to him, the

routine of reluctant getting up, opening shop, pretending to dust it

with zest, breakfasting with a shop egg underdone or overdone or a

herring raw or charred, and coffee made Miriam’s way and full of

little particles, the return to the shop, the morning paper, the

getting a bit of gossip or watching unusual visitors, all these things

vanished as the auditorium of a theatre vanishes when the stage is

lit. He acquired hundreds of books at last, old dusty books, books

with torn covers and broken covers, fat books whose backs were naked

string and glue, an inimical litter to Miriam.


There was, for example, the voyages of La Perouse, with many careful,

explicit woodcuts and the frankest revelations of the ways of the

eighteenth century sailorman, homely, adventurous, drunken,

incontinent and delightful, until he floated, smooth and slow, with

all sails set and mirrored in the glassy water, until his head was

full of the thought of shining kindly brown-skinned women, who smiled

at him and wreathed his head with unfamiliar flowers. He had, too, a

piece of a book about the lost palaces of Yucatan, those vast terraces

buried in primordial forest, of whose makers there is now no human

Queer incommunicable joy it is, the joy of the vivid phrase that turns

the statement of the horridest fact to beauty!


And another book which had no beginning for him was the second volume

of the Travels of the _Abbes_ Hue and Gabet. He followed those two

sweet souls from their lessons in Thibetan under Sandura the Bearded

(who called them donkeys to their infinite benefit and stole their

store of butter) through a hundred misadventures to the very heart of

Lhassa, and it was a thirst in him that was never quenched to find the

other volume and whence they came, and who in fact they were. He read

Conrad, and dreamt of the many-hued humanity of the East and West

Indies until his heart ached to see those sun-soaked lands before he

died. Conrad’s prose had a pleasure for him that he was never able to

define, a peculiar deep coloured effect. He found too one day among a

pile of soiled sixpenny books at Port Burdock, to which place he

all written in livid jerks, and had forever after a kindlier and more

understanding eye for every burly rough who slouched through

Fishbourne High Street. Sterne he read with a wavering appreciation

and some perplexity, but except for the Pickwick Papers, for some

reason that I do not understand he never took at all kindly to

until he got to the Vicomte de Bragelonne. I am puzzled by his

insensibility to Dickens, and I record it as a good historian should,

with an admission of my perplexity. It is much more understandable

that he had no love for Scott. And I suppose it was because of his

ignorance of the proper pronunciation of words that he infinitely

preferred any prose to any metrical writing.


A book he browsed over with a recurrent pleasure was Waterton’s

Wanderings in South America. He would even amuse himself by inventing

descriptions of other birds in the Watertonian manner, new birds that

he invented, birds with peculiarities that made him chuckle when they

occurred to him. He tried to make Rusper, the ironmonger, share this

joy with him. He read Bates, too, about the Amazon, but when he

discovered that you could not see one bank from the other, he lost,

through some mysterious action of the soul that again I cannot

understand, at least a tithe of the pleasure he had taken in that

river. But he read all sorts of things; a book of old Keltic stories

collected by Joyce charmed him, and Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, and

a number of paper-covered volumes, _Tales from Blackwood_, he had

acquired at Easewood, remained a stand-by. He developed a quite

considerable acquaintance with the plays of William Shakespeare, and

in his dreams he wore cinque cento or Elizabethan clothes, and walked

about a stormy, ruffling, taverning, teeming world. Great land of

sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment and

refuge from the world of everyday!…


The essential thing of those fifteen long years of shopkeeping is Mr.

Polly, well athwart the counter of his rather ill-lit shop, lost in a

book, or rousing himself with a sigh to attend to business.


Meanwhile he got little exercise, indigestion grew with him until it

ruled all his moods, he fattened and deteriorated physically, moods of

distress invaded and darkened his skies, little things irritated him

more and more, and casual laughter ceased in him. His hair began to

come off until he had a large bald space at the back of his head.

Suddenly one day it came to him—forgetful of those books and all he

had lived and seen through them—that he had been in his shop for

exactly fifteen years, that he would soon be forty, and that his life

during that time had not been worth living, that it had been in

apathetic and feebly hostile and critical company, ugly in detail and

mean in scope—and that it had brought him at last to an outlook

utterly hopeless and grey.





I have already had occasion to mention, indeed I have quoted, a

certain high-browed gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a _golden_

_pince_-_nez_ and writing for the most part in that beautiful room,

the library of the Reform Club. There he wrestles with what he calls

an extremely illuminating manner. He has a fixed idea that something

in practice that you and I and everyone have to think about things

frightfully hard and pool the results, and oblige ourselves to be

shamelessly and persistently clear and truthful and support and

respect (I suppose) a perfect horde of professors and writers and

artists and ill-groomed difficult people, instead of using our brains

in a moderate, sensible manner to play golf and bridge (pretending a

sense of humour prevents our doing anything else with them) and

generally taking life in a nice, easy, gentlemanly way, confound him!

Well, this dome-headed monster of intellect alleges that Mr. Polly was

unhappy entirely through that.


declines to contemplate its future or face the intricate problems of

its organisation, is in exactly the position of a man who takes no

thought of dietary or regimen, who abstains from baths and exercise

and gives his appetites free play. It accumulates useless and aimless

lives as a man accumulates fat and morbid products in his blood, it

declines in its collective efficiency and vigour and secretes

discomfort and misery. Every phase of its evolution is accompanied by

a maximum of avoidable distress and inconvenience and human waste….


community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than

the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable,

under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we

contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower

Middle Class. A great proportion of the lower middle class should

properly be assigned to the unemployed and the unemployable. They are

only not that, because the possession of some small hoard of money,

savings during a period of wage earning, an insurance policy or

suchlike capital, prevents a direct appeal to the rates. But they are

doing little or nothing for the community in return for what they

consume; they have no understanding of any relation of service to the

community, they have never been trained nor their imaginations touched

to any social purpose. A great proportion of small shopkeepers, for

example, are people who have, through the inefficiency that comes from

inadequate training and sheer aimlessness, or improvements in

machinery or the drift of trade, been thrown out of employment, and

who set up in needless shops as a method of eking out the savings upon

which they count. They contrive to make sixty or seventy per cent, of

their expenditure, the rest is drawn from the shrinking capital.

Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure

of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic

process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is

exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual

bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means

are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The

secular development of transit and communications has made the

organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical

lines, inevitable; except in the chaotic confusions of newly opened

countries, the day when a man might earn an independent living by

unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever. Yet

every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and

imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to

avert it. Every issue of every trade journal has its four or five

columns of abridged bankruptcy proceedings, nearly every item in which

means the final collapse of another struggling family upon the

resources of the community, and continually a fresh supply of

superfluous artisans and shop assistants, coming out of employment

with savings or ‘help’ from relations, of widows with a husband’s

insurance money, of the ill-trained sons of parsimonious fathers,

replaces the fallen in the ill-equipped, jerry-built shops that


I quote these fragments from a gifted, if unpleasant, contemporary for

what they are worth. I feel this has come in here as the broad aspect

of this History. I come back to Mr. Polly sitting upon his gate and

swearing in the east wind, and I so returning have a sense of floating

across unbridged abysses between the General and the Particular.

There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding, seeing clearly—I

suppose he sees clearly—the big process that dooms millions of lives

to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstances, and giving us

other hand, Mr. Polly sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned,

confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it

were, nettled in greyness and discomfort—with life dancing all about

him; Mr. Polly with a capacity for joy and beauty at least as keen and

subtle as yours or mine.





I have hinted that our Mother England had equipped Mr. Polly for the

management of his internal concerns no whit better than she had for

the direction of his external affairs. With a careless generosity she

affords her children a variety of foods unparalleled in the world’s

history, and including many condiments and preserved preparations

novel to the human economy. And Miriam did the cooking. Mr. Polly’s

system, like a confused and ill-governed democracy, had been brought

to a state of perpetual clamour and disorder, demanding now evil and

unsuitable internal satisfactions, such as pickles and vinegar and the

crackling on pork, and now vindictive external expression, war and

bloodshed throughout the world. So that Mr. Polly had been led into

hatred and a series of disagreeable quarrels with his landlord, his

wholesalers, and most of his neighbours.


Rumbold, the china dealer next door, seemed hostile from the first for

no apparent reason, and always unpacked his crates with a full back to

his new neighbour, and from the first Mr. Polly resented and hated

that uncivil breadth of expressionless humanity, wanted to prod it,

kick it, satirise it. But you cannot satirise a hack, if you have no

friend to nudge while you do it.


At last Mr. Polly could stand it no longer. He approached and prodded







Rumbold shook his head with a helpless expression.



Rumbold distressed in utter obscurity.






Rumbold scratched his ear with the three strawy jampots he held in his



far from clear about it….







Mr. Rumbold apprehended something.




with you, and I don’t want you to row with me. I don’t know what

you’re after, but I’m a peaceable man—teetotaller, too, and a good





He perceived an immense solidity about Rumbold.




don’t like the looks of you. See? And I can’t stand ‘ere all day


Pause of mutual inspection.


It occurred to Mr. Polly that probably he was to some extent in the



Mr. Rumbold, blowing heavily, walked past him, deposited the jampots

in his shop with an immense affectation that there was no Mr. Polly in

the world, returned, turned a scornful back on Mr. Polly and dived to

the interior of the crate. Mr. Polly stood baffled. Should he kick

this solid mass before him? Should he administer a resounding kick?




He plunged his hands deeply into his trowser pockets, began to whistle

and returned to his own doorstep with an air of profound unconcern.

receding possibility of kicking Mr. Rumbold hard. It would be

splendid—and for the moment satisfying. But he decided not to do it.

For indefinable reasons he could not do it. He went indoors and

straightened up his dress ties very slowly and thoughtfully. Presently

he went to the window and regarded Mr. Rumbold obliquely. Mr. Rumbold

was still unpacking….


Mr. Polly had no human intercourse thereafter with Rumbold for fifteen

years. He kept up a Hate.


There was a time when it seemed as if Rumbold might go, but he had a

meeting of his creditors and then went on unpacking as obtusely as






Hinks, the saddler, two shops further down the street, was a different

case. Hinks was the aggressor—practically.


Hinks was a sporting man in his way, with that taste for checks in

costume and tight trousers which is, under Providence, so mysteriously

and invariably associated with equestrian proclivities. At first Mr.

Polly took to him as a character, became frequent in the God’s

Providence Inn under his guidance, stood and was stood drinks and

concealed a great ignorance of horses until Hinks became urgent for

him to play billiards or bet.


Then Mr. Polly took to evading him, and Hinks ceased to conceal his

opinion that Mr. Polly was in reality a softish sort of flat.


He did not, however, discontinue conversation with Mr. Polly; he would

come along to him whenever he appeared at his door, and converse about

sport and women and fisticuffs and the pride of life with an air of

extreme initiation, until Mr. Polly felt himself the faintest

underdeveloped intimation of a man that had ever hovered on the verge

of non-existence.


So he invented phrases for Hinks’ clothes and took Rusper, the

ironmonger, into his confidence upon the weaknesses of Hinks. He



He was standing at his door one day, feeling bored, when Hinks

appeared down the street, stood still and regarded him with a strange

malignant expression for a space.


Mr. Polly waved a hand in a rather belated salutation.


Mr. Hinks spat on the pavement and appeared to reflect. Then he came

towards Mr. Polly portentously and paused, and spoke between his teeth

in an earnest confidential tone.







Mr. Hinks regarded the effect of this coldly but firmly, and spat






And Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size

and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly’s

close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that

and shaken it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his

pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace,

and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in

outward seeming a friend….





Mr. Polly’s intercourse with all his fellow tradesmen was tarnished

sooner or later by some such adverse incident, until not a friend

remained to him, and loneliness made even the shop door terrible.

Shops bankrupted all about him and fresh people came and new

acquaintances sprang up, but sooner or later a discord was inevitable,

the tension under which these badly fed, poorly housed, bored and

bothered neighbours lived, made it inevitable. The mere fact that Mr.

Polly had to see them every day, that there was no getting away from

them, was in itself sufficient to make them almost unendurable to his

frettingly active mind.


Among other shopkeepers in the High Street there was Chuffles, the

grocer, a small, hairy, silently intent polygamist, who was given

rough music by the youth of the neighbourhood because of a scandal

about his wife’s sister, and who was nevertheless totally

uninteresting, and Tonks, the second grocer, an old man with an older,

very enfeebled wife, both submerged by piety. Tonks went bankrupt, and

was succeeded by a branch of the National Provision Company, with a

young manager exactly like a fox, except that he barked. The toy and

sweetstuff shop was kept by an old woman of repellent manners, and so

was the little fish shop at the end of the street. The Berlin-wool

shop having gone bankrupt, became a newspaper shop, then fell to a

haberdasher in consumption, and finally to a stationer; the three

shops at the end of the street wallowed in and out of insolvency in

the hands of a bicycle repairer and dealer, a gramaphone dealer, a

tobacconist, a sixpenny-halfpenny bazaar-keeper, a shoemaker, a

greengrocer, and the exploiter of a cinematograph peep-show—but none

of them supplied friendship to Mr. Polly.


These adventurers in commerce were all more or less distraught souls,

driving without intelligible comment before the gale of fate. The two

milkmen of Fishbourne were brothers who had quarrelled about their

father’s will, and started in opposition to each other; one was stone

deaf and no use to Mr. Polly, and the other was a sporting man with a

natural dread of epithet who sided with Hinks. So it was all about

him, on every hand it seemed were uncongenial people, uninteresting

people, or people who conceived the deepest distrust and hostility

towards him, a magic circle of suspicious, preoccupied and dehumanised

humanity. So the poison in his system poisoned the world without.


(But Boomer, the wine merchant, and Tashingford, the chemist, be it

noted, were fraught with pride, and held themselves to be a cut above

Mr. Polly. They never quarrelled with him, preferring to bear

themselves from the outset as though they had already done so.)


As his internal malady grew upon Mr. Polly and he became more and more

a battle-ground of fermenting foods and warring juices, he came to

hate the very sight, as people say, of every one of these neighbours.

There they were, every day and all the days, just the same, echoing

his own stagnation. They pained him all round the top and back of his

head; they made his legs and arms weary and spiritless. The air was

tasteless by reason of them. He lost his human kindliness.


In the afternoons he would hover in the shop bored to death with his

business and his home and Miriam, and yet afraid to go out because of

his inflamed and magnified dislike and dread of these neighbours. He

could not bring himself to go out and run the gauntlet of the

observant windows and the cold estranged eyes.


One of his last friendships was with Rusper, the ironmonger. Rusper

took over Worthington’s shop about three years after Mr. Polly opened.

He was a tall, lean, nervous, convulsive man with an upturned,

back-thrown, oval head, who read newspapers and the _Review of

Reviews_ assiduously, had belonged to a Literary Society somewhere

once, and had some defect of the palate that at first gave his

lightest word a charm and interest for Mr. Polly. It caused a peculiar

clicking sound, as though he had something between a giggle and a

gas-meter at work in his neck.


His literary admirations were not precisely Mr. Polly’s literary

admirations; he thought books were written to enshrine Great Thoughts,

and that art was pedagogy in fancy dress, he had no sense of phrase or

epithet or richness of texture, but still he knew there were books, he

did know there were books and he was full of large windy ideas of the


Mr. Polly would dream about that (kik) at nights.


It seemed to that undesirable mind of his that Rusper’s head was the

most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon

him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would

last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly’s general eccentricity. For a

long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse,

but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption.


Often during the days of this friendship Mr. Polly would leave his

shop and walk over to Mr. Rusper’s establishment, and stand in his

spend the rest of the morning.


Then Mr. Rusper married, and he married very inconsiderately a woman

who was totally uninteresting to Mr. Polly. A coolness grew between

them from the first intimation of her advent. Mr. Polly couldn’t help

thinking when he saw her that she drew her hair back from her forehead

a great deal too tightly, and that her elbows were angular. His desire

not to mention these things in the apt terms that welled up so richly

in his mind, made him awkward in her presence, and that gave her an

impression that he was hiding some guilty secret from her. She decided

he must have a bad influence upon her husband, and she made it a point

to appear whenever she heard him talking to Rusper.


One day they became a little heated about the German peril.












Then he looked up and saw Mrs. Rusper standing behind the counter half

hidden by a trophy of spades and garden shears and a knife-cleaning

machine, and by her expression he knew instantly that she understood.


The conversation paled and presently Mr. Polly withdrew.


After that, estrangement increased steadily.


Mr. Rusper ceased altogether to come over to the outfitter’s, and Mr.

Polly called upon the ironmonger only with the completest air of

casuality. And everything they said to each other led now to flat

contradiction and raised voices. Rusper had been warned in vague and

alarming terms that Mr. Polly insulted and made game of him; he

couldn’t discover exactly where; and so it appeared to him now that

every word of Mr. Polly’s might be an insult meriting his resentment,

meriting it none the less because it was masked and cloaked.


Soon Mr. Polly’s calls upon Mr. Rusper ceased also, and then Mr.

Rusper, pursuing incomprehensible lines of thought, became afflicted

with a specialised shortsightedness that applied only to Mr. Polly. He

would look in other directions when Mr. Polly appeared, and his large

oval face assumed an expression of conscious serenity and deliberate

happy unawareness that would have maddened a far less irritable person

than Mr. Polly. It evoked a strong desire to mock and ape, and

produced in his throat a cough of singular scornfulness, more

particularly when Mr. Rusper also assisted, with an assumed

unconsciousness that was all his own.


Then one day Mr. Polly had a bicycle accident.


His bicycle was now very old, and it is one of the concomitants of a

bicycle’s senility that its free wheel should one day obstinately

cease to be free. It corresponds to that epoch in human decay when an

old gentleman loses an incisor tooth. It happened just as Mr. Polly

was approaching Mr. Rusper’s shop, and the untoward chance of a motor

car trying to pass a waggon on the wrong side gave Mr. Polly no choice

but to get on to the pavement and dismount. He was always accustomed

to take his time and step off his left pedal at its lowest point, but

the jamming of the free wheel gear made that lowest moment a

transitory one, and the pedal was lifting his foot for another

revolution before he realised what had happened. Before he could

dismount according to his habit the pedal had to make a revolution,

and before it could make a revolution Mr. Polly found himself among

the various sonorous things with which Mr. Rusper adorned the front of

his shop, zinc dustbins, household pails, lawn mowers, rakes, spades

and all manner of clattering things. Before he got among them he had

one of those agonising moments of helpless wrath and suspense that

seem to last ages, in which one seems to perceive everything and think

of nothing but words that are better forgotten. He sent a column of

pails thundering across the doorway and dismounted with one foot in a

sanitary dustbin amidst an enormous uproar of falling ironmongery.


his shop with the large tranquillities of his countenance puckered to

anger, like the frowns in the brow of a reefing sail. He gesticulated

speechlessly for a moment.






And Mr. Polly in attempting a dignified movement realised his

entanglement with the dustbin for the first time. With a low

embittering expression he kicked his foot about in it for a moment

very noisily, and finally sent it thundering to the curb. On its way

it struck a pail or so. Then Mr. Polly picked up his bicycle and

proposed to resume his homeward way. But the hand of Mr. Rusper

arrested him.






Mr. Rusper laid one hand on the bicycle handle, and the other gripped

considerable force into the region of Mr. Rusper’s midriff. Whereupon

than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle,

seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders

downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and

nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper,

entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying

instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails.

There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age,

untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to

amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another—of which

the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn

and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr.

Rusper’s mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that

aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper’s ear before it occurred to

Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn’t bite very hard), while

Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub

Mr. Polly’s face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with

chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn’t from first to last draw



Then it seemed to each of them that the other had become endowed with

many hands and several voices and great accessions of strength. They

submitted to fate and ceased to struggle. They found themselves torn

apart and held up by outwardly scandalised and inwardly delighted

neighbours, and invited to explain what it was all about.



Mr. Polly was under restraint of little Clamp, of the toy shop, who

was holding his hands in a complex and uncomfortable manner that he

afterwards explained to Wintershed was a combination of something




They were both tremendously earnest and reasonable in their manner.

They wished everyone to regard them as responsible and intellectual

men acting for the love of right and the enduring good of the world.

They felt they must treat this business as a profound and publicly

significant affair. They wanted to explain and orate and show the

entire necessity of everything they had done. Mr. Polly was convinced

he had never been so absolutely correct in all his life as when he

planted his foot in the sanitary dustbin, and Mr. Rusper considered

his clutch at Mr. Polly’s hair as the one faultless impulse in an

otherwise undistinguished career. But it was clear in their minds they

might easily become ridiculous if they were not careful, if for a

second they stepped over the edge of the high spirit and pitiless

dignity they had hitherto maintained. At any cost they perceived they

must not become ridiculous.


Mr. Chuffles, the scandalous grocer, joined the throng about the

principal combatants, mutely as became an outcast, and with a sad,

distressed helpful expression picked up Mr. Polly’s bicycle. Gambell’s

summer errand boy, moved by example, restored the dustbin and pails to

their self-respect.









glad for once to find himself morally unassailable.



piercing the little group of men and boys with the sharp horror of an

tongue. I suppose I got a voice in seeing my own ‘usband injured. My

husband went out and spoke to Mr. Polly, who was jumping off his

bicycle all among our pails and things, and immediately ‘e butted him

in the stomach—immediately—most savagely—butted him. Just after his

dinner too and him far from strong. I could have screamed. But Rusper


Anglo-Japanese grip and holding out his hands for his bicycle.


of one who has given a lesson.


The testimony of Mrs. Rusper continued relentlessly in the background.


wheel his bicycle.





A small boy produced a grimy strip of spotted blue silk.




And they got small satisfaction out of the Bench, which refused

altogether to perceive the relentless correctitude of the behaviour of

either party, and reproved the eagerness of Mrs. Rusper—speaking to


Pity. Bad Example to the Young and all that. Don’t do any Good to the

town, don’t do any Good to yourselves, don’t do any manner of Good, to

have all the Tradesmen in the Place scrapping about the Pavement of an

Afternoon. Think we’re letting you off very easily this time, and hope

it will be a Warning to you. Don’t expect Men of your Position to come


He addressed the latter enquiry to his two colleagues.







But the disgust that overshadowed Mr. Polly’s being as he sat upon the

stile, had other and profounder justification than his quarrel with

Rusper and the indignity of appearing before the county bench. He was

for the first time in his business career short with his rent for the

approaching quarter day, and so far as he could trust his own bandling

of figures he was sixty or seventy pounds on the wrong side of

solvency. And that was the outcome of fifteen years of passive

endurance of dulness throughout the best years of his life! What would

Miriam say when she learnt this, and was invited to face the prospect

of exile—heaven knows what sort of exile!—from their present home?

She would grumble and scold and become limply unhelpful, he knew, and

none the less so because he could not help things. She would say he

ought to have worked harder, and a hundred such exasperating pointless

things. Such thoughts as these require no aid from undigested cold

pork and cold potatoes and pickles to darken the soul, and with these

aids his soul was black indeed.


nearly intolerable meditations, and sat round and put a leg over the



He remained still for some time before he brought over the other leg.



It was an idea that came back to his mind nowadays with a continually

increasing attractiveness—more particularly after meals. Life he felt

had no further happiness to offer him. He hated Miriam, and there was

no getting away from her whatever might betide. And for the rest there

was toil and struggle, toil and struggle with a failing heart and


began to elaborate a plan.


He found it quite interesting elaborating his plan. His countenance

became less miserable and his pace quickened.


There is nothing so good in all the world for melancholia as walking,

and the exercise of the imagination in planning something presently to

be done, and soon the wrathful wretchedness had vanished from Mr.

Polly’s face. He would have to do the thing secretly and elaborately,

because otherwise there might be difficulties about the life

insurance. He began to scheme how he could circumvent that



He took a long walk, for after all what is the good of hurrying back

to shop when you are not only insolvent but very soon to die? His

dinner and the east wind lost their sinister hold upon his soul, and

when at last he came back along the Fishbourne High Street, his face

was unusually bright and the craving hunger of the dyspeptic was

returning. So he went into the grocer’s and bought a ruddily decorated

This he was resolved to consume regardless of cost with vinegar and

salt and pepper as a relish to his supper.


He did, and since he and Miriam rarely talked and Miriam thought

honour and his recent behaviour demanded a hostile silence, he ate

fast, and copiously and soon gloomily. He ate alone, for she

refrained, to mark her sense of his extravagance. Then he prowled into

the High Street for a time, thought it an infernal place, tried his

pipe and found it foul and bitter, and retired wearily to bed.


He slept for an hour or so and then woke up to the contemplation of

Miriam’s hunched back and the riddle of life, and this bright

attractive idea of ending for ever and ever and ever all the things

that were locking him in, this bright idea that shone like a baleful

star above all the reek and darkness of his misery….




Chapter the Eighth


Making an End to Things





Mr. Polly designed his suicide with considerable care, and a quite

remarkable altruism. His passionate hatred for Miriam vanished

directly the idea of getting away from her for ever became clear in

his mind. He found himself full of solicitude then for her welfare. He

did not want to buy his release at her expense. He had not the

remotest intention of leaving her unprotected with a painfully dead

husband and a bankrupt shop on her hands. It seemed to him that he

could contrive to secure for her the full benefit of both his life

insurance and his fire insurance if he managed things in a tactful

manner. He felt happier than he had done for years scheming out this

undertaking, albeit it was perhaps a larger and somberer kind of

happiness than had fallen to his lot before. It amazed him to think he

had endured his monotony of misery and failure for so long.


But there were some queer doubts and questions in the dim, half-lit

clear and firm. His life was a failure, there was nothing more to

hope for but unhappiness. Why shouldn’t he?


His project was to begin the fire with the stairs that led from the

ground floor to the underground kitchen and scullery. This he would

soak with _paraffine_, and assist with firewood and paper, and a brisk

fire in the coal cellar underneath. He would smash a hole or so in the

stairs to ventilate the blaze, and have a good pile of boxes and

paper, and a convenient chair or so in the shop above. He would have

the _paraffine_ can upset and the shop lamp, as if awaiting refilling,

at a convenient distance in the scullery ready to catch. Then he would

smash the house lamp on the staircase, a fall with that in his hand

was to be the ostensible cause of the blaze, and then he would cut his

throat at the top of the kitchen stairs, which would then become his

funeral pyre. He would do all this on Sunday evening while Miriam was

at church, and it would appear that he had fallen downstairs with the

lamp, and been burnt to death. There was really no flaw whatever that

he could see in the scheme. He was quite sure he knew how to cut his

throat, deep at the side and not to saw at the windpipe, and he was

reasonably sure it wouldn’t hurt him very much. And then everything

would be at an end.


There was no particular hurry to get the thing done, of course, and

meanwhile he occupied his mind with possible variations of the



It needed a particularly dry and dusty east wind, a Sunday dinner of

exceptional virulence, a conclusive letter from Konk, Maybrick, Ghool

and Gabbitas, his principal and most urgent creditors, and a

conversation with Miriam arising out of arrears of rent and leading on

to mutual character sketching, before Mr. Polly could be brought to

the necessary pitch of despair to carry out his plans. He went for an

embittering walk, and came back to find Miriam in a bad temper over

the tea things, with the brewings of three-quarters of an hour in the

pot, and hot buttered muffin gone leathery. He sat eating in silence

with his resolution made.





window at a despondent horse in the hotel yard.


He was still standing there when Miriam came downstairs dressed for



She remained still for a moment. Her presence irritated him. He felt

that in another moment he should say something absurd to her, make

some last appeal for that understanding she had never been able to


said Mr. Polly.








For twenty minutes Mr. Polly busied himself about the house, making

his preparations very neatly and methodically.


He opened the attic windows in order to make sure of a good draught

through the house, and drew down the blinds at the back and shut the

kitchen door to conceal his arrangements from casual observation. At

the end he would open the door on the yard and so make a clean clear

draught right through the house. He hacked at, and wedged off, the

tread of a stair. He cleared out the coals from under the staircase,

and built a neat fire of firewood and paper there, he splashed about

_paraffine_ and arranged the lamps and can even as he had designed,

and made a fine inflammable pile of things in the little parlour


explain the whole affair, and went to the head of the staircase

between the scullery and the parlour. He sat down in the twilight with

the unlit lamp beside him and surveyed things. He must light the fire

in the coal cellar under the stairs, open the back door, then come up

them very quickly and light the _paraffine_ puddles on each step, then

sit down here again and cut his throat.


He drew his razor from his pocket and felt the edge. It wouldn’t hurt

much, and in ten minutes he would be indistinguishable ashes in the



And this was the end of life for him!


The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him,

never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged

from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he

submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted

on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never

sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather

than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not

matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live



He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for

no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had

ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what

was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.


The clock in the back parlour pinged the half hour.



For an instant he battled with an impulse to put it all back, hastily,

guiltily, and abandon this desperate plan of suicide for ever.


But Miriam would smell the _paraffine_!


downstairs, matchbox in hand.


He paused for five seconds, perhaps, to listen to noises in the yard

of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel before he struck his match. It trembled

a little in his hand. The paper blackened, and an edge of blue flame

ran outward and spread. The fire burnt up readily, and in an instant

the wood was crackling cheerfully.


Someone might hear. He must hurry.


He lit a pool of _paraffine_ on the scullery floor, and instantly a

nest of snaky, wavering blue flame became agog for prey. He went up

the stairs three steps at a time with one eager blue flicker in

flung it smashing. The chimney broke, but the glass receiver stood the

shock and rolled to the bottom, a potential bomb. Old Rumbold would

hear that and wonder what it was!… He’d know soon enough!


Then Mr. Polly stood hesitating, razor in hand, and then sat down. He

was trembling violently, but quite unafraid.




Then he perceived a little blue thread of flame running up his leg. It

arrested his attention, and for a moment he sat, razor in hand,

staring at it. It must be _paraffine_ on his trousers that had caught

fire on the stairs. Of course his legs were wet with _paraffine_! He

smacked the flicker with his hand to put it out, and felt his leg burn

as he did so. But his trousers still charred and glowed. It seemed to

him necessary that he must put this out before he cut his throat. He

put down the razor beside him to smack with both hands very eagerly.

And as he did so a thin tall red flame came up through the hole in the

stairs he had made and stood still, quite still as it seemed, and

looked at him. It was a strange-looking flame, a flattish salmon

colour, redly streaked. It was so queer and quiet mannered that the

sight of it held Mr. Polly agape.


stinking white fire. At the outbreak the salmon-coloured flames

shivered and ducked and then doubled and vanished, and instantly all

the staircase was noisily ablaze.


Mr. Polly sprang up and backwards, as though the uprushing tongues of

fire were a pack of eager wolves.



He swore sharply and slapped again at a recrudescent flame upon his




He had nerved himself for throat-cutting, but this was fire!


He wanted to delay things, to put them out for a moment while he did

his business. The idea of arresting all this hurry with water occurred

to him.


There was no water in the little parlour and none in the shop. He

hesitated for a moment whether he should not run upstairs to the

bedrooms and get a ewer of water to throw on the flames. At this rate

Rumbold’s would be ablaze in five minutes! Things were going all too

fast for Mr. Polly. He ran towards the staircase door, and its hot

breath pulled him up sharply. Then he dashed out through his shop. The

catch of the front door was sometimes obstinate; it was now, and

instantly he became frantic. He rattled and stormed and felt the

parlour already ablaze behind him. In another moment he was in the

High Street with the door wide open.


The staircase behind him was crackling now like horsewhips and pistol



He had a vague sense that he wasn’t doing as he had proposed, but the

chief thing was his sense of that uncontrolled fire within. What was

he going to do? There was the fire brigade station next door but one.


The Fishbourne High Street had never seemed so empty.


Far off at the corner by the God’s Providence Inn a group of three

stiff hobbledehoys in their black, best clothes, conversed

intermittently with Taplow, the policeman.


thought, the thought of Rumbold’s deaf mother-in-law upstairs, began

to bang and kick and rattle with the utmost fury at Rumbold’s shop







That was the beginning of the great Fishbourne fire, which burnt its

way sideways into Mr. Rusper’s piles of crates and straw, and

backwards to the petrol and stabling of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel,

and spread from that basis until it seemed half Fishbourne would be

ablaze. The east wind, which had been gathering in strength all that

day, fanned the flame; everything was dry and ready, and the little

shed beyond Rumbold’s in which the local Fire Brigade kept its manual,

was alight before the Fishbourne fire hose could be saved from

disaster. In marvellously little time a great column of black smoke,

shot with red streamers, rose out of the middle of the High Street,

and all Fishbourne was alive with excitement.


Much of the more respectable elements of Fishbourne society was in

church or chapel; many, however, had been tempted by the blue sky and

the hard freshness of spring to take walks inland, and there had been

the usual disappearance of loungers and conversationalists from the

beach and the back streets when at the hour of six the shooting of

bolts and the turning of keys had ended the British Ramadan, that

weekly interlude of drought our law imposes. The youth of the place

were scattered on the beach or playing in back yards, under threat if

their clothes were dirtied, and the adolescent were disposed in pairs

among the more secluded corners to be found upon the outskirts of the

place. Several godless youths, seasick but fishing steadily, were

tossing upon the sea in old Tarbold’s, the infidel’s, boat, and the

Clamps were entertaining cousins from Port Burdock. Such few visitors

as Fishbourne could boast in the spring were at church or on the

beach. To all these that column of smoke did in a manner address


The three hobbledehoys, had it been a weekday and they in working

clothes, might have felt free to act, but the stiffness of black was

upon them and they simply moved to the corner by Rusper’s to take a

better view of Mr. Polly beating at the door. The policeman was a

young, inexpert constable with far too lively a sense of the public

house. He put his head inside the Private Bar to the horror of

everyone there. But there was no breach of the law, thank Heaven!

in the top story over Boomer’s shop opened, and Boomer, captain of the

Fire Brigade, appeared, staring out with a blank expression. Still

staring, he began to fumble with his collar and tie; manifestly he had

to put on his uniform. Hinks’ dog, which had been lying on the

pavement outside Wintershed’s, woke up, and having regarded Mr. Polly

suspiciously for some time, growled nervously and went round the

corner into Granville Alley. Mr. Polly continued to beat and kick at

Rumbold’s door.


Then the public houses began to vomit forth the less desirable

elements of Fishbourne society, boys and men were moved to run and

shout, and more windows went up as the stir increased. Tashingford,

the chemist, appeared at his door, in shirt sleeves and an apron, with

his photographic plate holders in his hand. And then like a vision of

purpose came Mr. Gambell, the greengrocer, running out of Clayford’s

Alley and buttoning on his jacket as he ran. His great brass fireman’s

helmet was on his head, hiding it all but the sharp nose, the firm

mouth, the intrepid chin. He ran straight to the fire station and

tried the door, and turned about and met the eye of Boomer still at


Mr. Boomer made some inaudible explanation about his trousers and half

a minute.




_knew_ the old woman must be there alone. He went back to the shop

front and stood surveying it in infinite perplexity. The other

activities in the street did not interest him. A deaf old lady

somewhere upstairs there! Precious moments passing! Suddenly he was

struck by an idea and vanished from public vision into the open door

of the Royal Fishbourne Tap.


And now the street was getting crowded and people were laying their

hands to this and that.


Mr. Rusper had been at home reading a number of tracts upon Tariff

Reform, during the quiet of his wife’s absence in church, and trying

to work out the application of the whole question to ironmongery. He

heard a clattering in the street and for a time disregarded it, until

a cry of Fire! drew him to the window. He pencilled-marked the tract

of Chiozza Money’s that he was reading side by side with one by Mr.

went to look out. Instantly he opened the window and ceased to believe

the Fiscal Question the most urgent of human affairs.



For now the rapidly spreading blaze had forced the partition into Mr.

Rumbold’s premises, swept across his cellar, clambered his garden wall

by means of his well-tarred mushroom shed, and assailed the engine

house. It stayed not to consume, but ran as a thing that seeks a

quarry. Polly’s shop and upper parts were already a furnace, and black

smoke was coming out of Rumbold’s cellar gratings. The fire in the

engine house showed only as a sudden rush of smoke from the back, like

something suddenly blown up. The fire brigade, still much under

strength, were now hard at work in the front of the latter building;

they had got the door open all too late, they had rescued the fire

escape and some buckets, and were now lugging out their manual, with

the hose already a dripping mass of molten, flaring, stinking rubber.

Boomer was dancing about and swearing and shouting; this direct attack

upon his apparatus outraged his sense of chivalry. The rest of the

brigade hovered in a disheartened state about the rescued fire escape,

and tried to piece Boomer’s comments into some tangible instructions.





He had. He had a stock of several thousand feet of garden hose, of

various qualities and calibres, and now he felt was the time to use

it. In another moment his shop door was open and he was hurling pails,

garden syringes, and rolls of garden hose out upon the pavement.


They did. Presently a hundred ready hands were unrolling and spreading

and tangling up and twisting and hopelessly involving Mr. Rusper’s

stock of hose, sustained by an unquenchable assurance that presently

it would in some manner contain and convey water, and Mr. Rusper, on

his knees, (kiking) violently, became incredibly busy with wire and

brass junctions and all sorts of mysteries.



Next door to the fire station was Mantell and Throbson’s, the little

Fishbourne branch of that celebrated firm, and Mr. Boomer, seeking in

a teeming mind for a plan of action, had determined to save this

blaze with a whirling hatchet that effected wonders in no time in



But it was not, after all, such a bad idea of his. Mantell and

Throbsons was separated from the fire station in front by a covered

glass passage, and at the back the roof of a big outhouse sloped down

to the fire station leads. The sturdy ‘longshoremen, who made up the

bulk of the fire brigade, assailed the glass roof of the passage with

extraordinary gusto, and made a smashing of glass that drowned for a

time the rising uproar of the flames.


A number of willing volunteers started off to the new telephone office

in obedience to Mr. Boomer’s request, only to be told with cold

official politeness by the young lady at the exchange that all that

had been done on her own initiative ten minutes ago. She parleyed with

these heated enthusiasts for a space, and then returned to the window.


And indeed the spectacle was well worth looking at. The dusk was

falling, and the flames were showing brilliantly at half a dozen

points. The Royal Fishbourne Hotel Tap, which adjoined Mr. Polly to

the west, was being kept wet by the enthusiastic efforts of a string

of volunteers with buckets of water, and above at a bathroom window

the little German waiter was busy with the garden hose. But Mr.

Polly’s establishment looked more like a house afire than most houses

on fire contrive to look from start to finish. Every window showed

eager flickering flames, and flames like serpents’ tongues were

licking out of three large holes in the roof, which was already

beginning to fall in. Behind, larger and abundantly spark-shot gusts

of fire rose from the fodder that was now getting alight in the Royal

Fishbourne Hotel stables. Next door to Mr. Polly, Mr. Rumbold’s house

was disgorging black smoke from the gratings that protected its

underground windows, and smoke and occasional shivers of flame were

also coming out of its first-floor windows. The fire station was

better alight at the back than in front, and its woodwork burnt pretty

briskly with peculiar greenish flickerings, and a pungent flavour. In

the street an inaggressively disorderly crowd clambered over the

rescued fire escape and resisted the attempts of the three local

constables to get it away from the danger of Mr. Polly’s tottering

facade, a cluster of busy forms danced and shouted and advised on the

noisy and smashing attempt to cut off Mantell and Throbson’s from the

fire station that was still in ineffectual progress. Further a number

of people appeared to be destroying interminable red and grey snakes

under the heated direction of Mr. Rusper; it was as if the High Street

had a plague of worms, and beyond again the more timid and less active

crowded in front of an accumulation of arrested traffic. Most of the

men were in Sabbatical black, and this and the white and starched

quality of the women and children in their best clothes gave a note of

ceremony to the whole affair.


For a moment the attention of the telephone clerk was held by the

activities of Mr. Tashingford, the chemist, who, regardless of

everyone else, was rushing across the road hurling fire grenades into

the fire station and running back for more, and then her eyes lifted

to the slanting outhouse roof that went up to a ridge behind the

parapet of Mantell and Throbson’s. An expression of incredulity came

into the telephone operator’s eyes and gave place to hard activity.





Her eyes had not deceived her. Two figures which had emerged from the

upper staircase window of Mr. Rumbold’s and had got after a perilous

paddle in his cistern, on to the fire station, were now slowly but

resolutely clambering up the outhouse roof towards the back of the

main premises of Messrs. Mantell and Throbson’s. They clambered slowly

and one urged and helped the other, slipping and pausing ever and

again, amidst a constant trickle of fragments of broken tile.


One was Mr. Polly, with his hair wildly disordered, his face covered

with black smudges and streaked with perspiration, and his trouser

legs scorched and blackened; the other was an elderly lady, quietly

but becomingly dressed in black, with small white frills at her neck

and wrists and a Sunday cap of ecru lace enlivened with a black velvet

bow. Her hair was brushed back from her wrinkled brow and plastered

down tightly, meeting in a small knob behind; her wrinkled mouth bore

that expression of supreme resolution common with the toothless aged.

She was shaky, not with fear, but with the vibrations natural to her

years, and she spoke with the slow quavering firmness of the very






and grasped at her arm to pull her after him.







The old lady grasped the parapet above, and there was a moment of

intense struggle.



Then an ill-mended, wavering, yet very reassuring spring side boot

appeared for an instant.


scrambling up over the parapet beside her.


disconnected. It’s very bumpy. Especially that last bit. Can’t we sit


roast chestnut. Don’t understand me? _Roast chestnut!_ Roast chestnut!

POP! There ought to be a limit to deafness. Come on round to the


her face into an expression of great distaste.





She paused for a moment to relieve herself of a series of entirely

of the drapery establishment.


Below, the street was now fully alive to their presence, and

encouraged the appearance of their heads by shouts and cheers. A sort

of free fight was going on round the fire escape, order represented by

Mr. Boomer and the very young policeman, and disorder by some

partially intoxicated volunteers with views of their own about the

manipulation of the apparatus. Two or three lengths of Mr. Rusper’s

garden hose appeared to have twined themselves round the ladder. Mr.

Polly watched the struggle with a certain impatience, and glanced ever

and again over his shoulder at the increasing volume of smoke and

steam that was pouring up from the burning fire station. He decided to

break an attic window and get in, and so try and get down through the

shop. He found himself in a little bedroom, and returned to fetch his

charge. For some time he could not make her understand his purpose.






She yielded reluctantly to his grasp.




garments mysteriously and at last produced a wrinkled pocket

handkerchief and began to wave it.



He got her into the attic, but the staircase, he found, was full of

suffocating smoke, and he dared not venture below the next floor. He

took her into a long dormitory, shut the door on those pungent and

pervasive fumes, and opened the window to discover the fire escape was

now against the house, and all Fishbourne boiling with excitement as

an immensely helmeted and active and resolute little figure ascended.

In another moment the rescuer stared over the windowsill, heroic, but

just a trifle self-conscious and grotesque.







They urged her gently but firmly towards the window.






Mr. Gambell hovered protectingly below. Mr. Polly steered her aged

limbs from above. An anxious crowd below babbled advice and did its

best to upset the fire escape. Within, streamers of black smoke were

pouring up through the cracks in the floor. For some seconds the world

waited while the old lady gave herself up to reckless mirth again.


Slowly they descended, and Mr. Polly remained at the post of danger

steadying the long ladder until the old lady was in safety below and

sheltered by Mr. Rumbold (who was in tears) and the young policeman

from the urgent congratulations of the crowd. The crowd was full of an

impotent passion to participate. Those nearest wanted to shake her

hand, those remoter cheered.


said the old lady as she was borne rather than led towards the refuge

of the Temperance Hotel.



Then the crowd became aware of Mr. Polly awkwardly negotiating the top

Polly descended into the world again out of the conflagration he had

lit to be his funeral pyre, moist, excited, and tremendously alive,

amidst a tempest of applause. As he got lower and lower the crowd

howled like a pack of dogs at him. Impatient men unable to wait for

him seized and shook his descending boots, and so brought him to earth

with a run. He was rescued with difficulty from an enthusiast who

wished to slake at his own expense and to his own accompaniment a

thirst altogether heroic. He was hauled into the Temperance Hotel and

flung like a sack, breathless and helpless, into the tear-wet embrace

of Miriam.





With the dusk and the arrival of some county constabulary, and first

one and presently two other fire engines from Port Burdock and

Hampstead-on-Sea, the local talent of Fishbourne found itself forced

back into a secondary, less responsible and more observant role. I

will not pursue the story of the fire to its ashes, nor will I do more

than glance at the unfortunate Mr. Rusper, a modern Laocoon, vainly

trying to retrieve his scattered hose amidst the tramplings and

rushings of the Port Burdock experts.


In a small sitting-room of the Fishbourne Temperance Hotel a little

group of Fishbourne tradesmen sat and conversed in fragments and anon

went to the window and looked out upon the smoking desolation of their

homes across the way, and anon sat down again. They and their families

were the guests of old Lady Bargrave, who had displayed the utmost

sympathy and interest in their misfortunes. She had taken several

people into her own house at Everdean, had engaged the Temperance

Hotel as a temporary refuge, and personally superintended the housing

of Mantell and Throbson’s homeless assistants. The Temperance Hotel

became and remained extremely noisy and congested, with people sitting

about anywhere, conversing in fragments and totally unable to get

themselves to bed. The manager was an old soldier, and following the

best traditions of the service saw that everyone had hot cocoa. Hot

cocoa seemed to be about everywhere, and it was no doubt very

heartening and sustaining to everyone. When the manager detected

anyone disposed to be drooping or pensive he exhorted that person at

once to drink further hot cocoa and maintain a stout heart.


The hero of the occasion, the centre of interest, was Mr. Polly. For

he had not only caused the fire by upsetting a lighted lamp, scorching

his trousers and narrowly escaping death, as indeed he had now

explained in detail about twenty times, but he had further thought at

once of that amiable but helpless old lady next door, had shown the

utmost decision in making his way to her over the yard wall of the

Royal Fishbourne Hotel, and had rescued her with persistence and

vigour in spite of the levity natural to her years. Everyone thought

well of him and was anxious to show it, more especially by shaking his

hand painfully and repeatedly. Mr. Rumbold, breaking a silence of

nearly fifteen years, thanked him profusely, said he had never

understood him properly and declared he ought to have a medal. There

seemed to be a widely diffused idea that Mr. Polly ought to have a

medal. Hinks thought so. He declared, moreover, and with the utmost

emphasis, that Mr. Polly had a crowded and richly decorated

interior—or words to that effect. There was something apologetic in

this persistence; it was as if he regretted past intimations that Mr.

Polly was internally defective and hollow. He also said that Mr. Polly

deepest chromatic satisfactions.


Mr. Polly wandered centrally through it all, with his face washed and

his hair carefully brushed and parted, looking modest and more than a

little absent-minded, and wearing a pair of black dress trousers

belonging to the manager of the Temperance Hotel,—a larger man than

himself in every way.


He drifted upstairs to his fellow-tradesmen, and stood for a time

staring into the littered street, with its pools of water and

extinguished gas lamps. His companions in misfortune resumed a

fragmentary disconnected conversation. They touched now on one aspect

of the disaster and now on another, and there were intervals of

silence. More or less empty cocoa cups were distributed over the

table, mantelshelf and piano, and in the middle of the table was a tin

of biscuits, into which Mr. Rumbold, sitting round-shoulderedly,

dipped ever and again in an absent-minded way, and munched like a

distant shooting of coals. It added to the solemnity of the affair

that nearly all of them were in their black Sunday clothes; little

Clamp was particularly impressive and dignified in a wide open frock

coat, a Gladstone-shaped paper collar, and a large white and blue tie.

They felt that they were in the presence of a great disaster, the sort

of disaster that gets into the papers, and is even illustrated by

blurred photographs of the crumbling ruins. In the presence of that

sort of disaster all honourable men are lugubrious and sententious.


And yet it is impossible to deny a certain element of elation. Not one

of those excellent men but was already realising that a great door had

opened, as it were, in the opaque fabric of destiny, that they were to

get their money again that had seemed sunken for ever beyond any hope

in the deeps of retail trade. Life was already in their imagination

rising like a Phoenix from the flames.















The topic dropped for a time, though manifestly it continued to

exercise their minds.



The remark was felt to be in rather questionable taste, and still more

so was his next comment.



Everyone looked uncomfortable, and no one was willing to point the

reason why Rusper should be a bit sick.


thought he was up to! Sittin’ in the middle of the road with a pair of

tweezers he was, and about a yard of wire—mending somethin’. Wonder


Presently a little chat sprang up upon the causes of fires, and Mr.

Polly was moved to tell how it had happened for the one and twentieth

time. His story had now become as circumstantial and exact as the

lighted it, I was going upstairs, and my foot slipped against where

one of the treads was a bit rotten, and down I went. Thing was aflare


He yawned at the end of the discussion, and moved doorward.




He left an eloquent pause.


said Mr. Hinks.



He went slowly upstairs. The vague perplexity common to popular heroes

pervaded his mind. He entered the bedroom and turned up the electric

light. It was quite a pleasant room, one of the best in the Temperance

Hotel, with a nice clean flowered wallpaper, and a very large

looking-glass. Miriam appeared to be asleep, and her shoulders were

humped up under the clothes in a shapeless, forbidding lump that Mr.

Polly had found utterly loathsome for fifteen years. He went softly

over to the dressing-table and surveyed himself thoughtfully.


Miriam stirred and rolled over, and stared at him.






Pause, while Mr. Polly disrobed slowly.




She turned her face away from him and reflected.



Mr. Polly removed a boot.






It dawned upon Mr. Polly for the first time that he had forgotten



He ought to have cut his throat!


The fact struck him as remarkable, but as now no longer of any

particular urgency. It seemed a thing far off in the past, and he

wondered why he had not thought of it before. Odd thing life is! If he

had done it he would never have seen this clean and agreeable

apartment with the electric light…. His thoughts wandered into a

question of detail. Where could he have put the razor down? Somewhere

in the little room behind the shop, he supposed, but he could not

think where more precisely. Anyhow it didn’t matter now.


He undressed himself calmly, got into bed, and fell asleep almost





Chapter the Ninth


The Potwell Inn





But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday

circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us

securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a

discovery. If the world does not please you _you can change it_.

Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether.

You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something

appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter,

something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more

interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame

for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and

dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action

cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and

even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary

compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I

give these things as facts and information, and with no moral

intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed

indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general

air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood

there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.




Why had he never thought of clearing out before?


He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and

superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and

stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the

bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But

something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by

that flare. _Fishbourne wasn’t the world_. That was the new, the

essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance.

Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill

himself to get out of it, _wasn’t the world_.


The insurance money he was to receive made everything humane and

humanity. He would take exactly twenty-one pounds, and all the rest he

would leave to Miriam. That seemed to him absolutely fair. Without

him, she could do all sorts of things—all the sorts of things she was

constantly urging him to do.


And he would go off along the white road that led to Garchester, and

on to Crogate and so to Tunbridge Wells, where there was a Toad Rock

he had heard of, but never seen. (It seemed to him this must needs be

a marvel.) And so to other towns and cities. He would walk and loiter

by the way, and sleep in inns at night, and get an odd job here and

there and talk to strange people. Perhaps he would get quite a lot of

work and prosper, and if he did not do so he would lie down in front

of a train, or wait for a warm night, and then fall into some smooth,

broad river. Not so bad as sitting down to a dentist, not nearly so

bad. And he would never open a shop any more. Never!


So the possibilities of the future presented themselves to Mr. Polly

as he lay awake at nights.


It was springtime, and in the woods so soon as one got out of reach of

the sea wind, there would be anemones and primroses.





A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and

slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to

a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between

Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and

greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human

memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in

a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer

stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his

lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland

across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived

and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.

Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.


For the first time in many years he had been leading a healthy human

life, living constantly in the open air, walking every day for eight

or nine hours, eating sparingly, accepting every conversational

opportunity, not even disdaining the discussion of possible work. And

beyond mending a hole in his coat that he had made while negotiating

barbed wire, with a borrowed needle and thread in a lodging house, he

had done no work at all. Neither had he worried about business nor

about time and seasons. And for the first time in his life he had seen

the Aurora Borealis.


So far the holiday had cost him very little. He had arranged it on a

plan that was entirely his own. He had started with four five-pound

notes and a pound divided into silver, and he had gone by train from

Fishbourne to Ashington. At Ashington he had gone to the post-office,

obtained a registered letter, and sent his four five-pound notes with

a short brotherly note addressed to himself at Gilhampton Post-office.

He sent this letter to Gilhampton for no other reason in the world

than that he liked the name of Gilhampton and the rural suggestion of

its containing county, which was Sussex, and having so despatched it,

he set himself to discover, mark down and walk to Gilhampton, and so

recover his resources. And having got to Gilhampton at last, he

changed his five-pound note, bought four pound postal orders, and

repeated his manoeuvre with nineteen pounds.


After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world,

about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went

along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and

cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as

happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And

if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him he controlled his mind.

He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this

and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of

country inns, while the big sleek brass jingling horses wait patiently

outside with their waggons; he got a job with some van people who were

wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout and

remained with them for three days, until one of their dogs took a

violent dislike to him and made his duties unpleasant; he talked to

tramps and wayside labourers, he snoozed under hedges by day and in

outhouses and hayricks at night, and once, but only once, he slept in

a casual ward. He felt as the etiolated grass and daisies must do when

you move the garden roller away to a new place.


He gathered a quantity of strange and interesting memories.


He crossed some misty meadows by moonlight and the mist lay low on the

grass, so low that it scarcely reached above his waist, and houses and

clumps of trees stood out like islands in a milky sea, so sharply

denned was the upper surface of the mistbank. He came nearer and

nearer to a strange thing that floated like a boat upon this magic

lake, and behold! something moved at the stern and a rope was whisked

at the prow, and it had changed into a pensive cow, drowsy-eyed,

regarding him….


He saw a remarkable sunset in a new valley near Maidstone, a very red

and clear sunset, a wide redness under a pale cloudless heaven, and

with the hills all round the edge of the sky a deep purple blue and

clear and flat, looking exactly as he had seen mountains painted in

pictures. He seemed transported to some strange country, and would

have felt no surprise if the old labourer he came upon leaning

silently over a gate had addressed him in an unfamiliar tongue….


Then one night, just towards dawn, his sleep upon a pile of brushwood

was broken by the distant rattle of a racing motor car breaking all

the speed regulations, and as he could not sleep again, he got up and

walked into Maidstone as the day came. He had never been abroad in a

town at half-past two in his life before, and the stillness of

everything in the bright sunrise impressed him profoundly. At one

corner was a startling policeman, standing in a doorway quite

unanswered, and went down to the bridge over the Medway and sat on the

parapet very still and thoughtful, watching the town awaken, and

wondering what he should do if it didn’t, if the world of men never

woke again….


One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of

sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly


He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely

perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old

lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known

so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there

remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood.

The bracken perhaps was not so high, and most of its fronds still

uncoiled; that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she

had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had

become of her? He counted the years back and marvelled that beauty

should have called to him with so imperious a voice—and signified



He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall,

and saw off under the beech trees two schoolgirls—small,

insignificant, pig-tailed creatures, with heads of blond and black,

with their arms twined about each other’s necks, no doubt telling each

other the silliest secrets.


But that girl with the red hair—was she a countess? was she a queen?

Children perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her?


Had she forgotten altogether?…


A tramp sat by the roadside thinking, and it seemed to the man in the

passing motor car he must needs be plotting for another pot of beer.

But as a matter of fact what the tramp was saying to himself over and

over again was a variant upon a well-known Hebrew word.






It was about two o’clock in the afternoon one hot day in high May when

Mr. Polly, unhurrying and serene, came to that broad bend of the river

to which the little lawn and garden of the Potwell Inn run down. He

stopped at the sight of the place with its deep tiled roof, nestling

under big trees—you never get a decently big, decently shaped tree by

the seaside—its sign towards the roadway, its sun-blistered green

bench and tables, its shapely white windows and its row of upshooting

hollyhock plants in the garden. A hedge separated it from a

buttercup-yellow meadow, and beyond stood three poplars in a group

against the sky, three exceptionally tall, graceful and harmonious

poplars. It is hard to say what there was about them that made them so

beautiful to Mr. Polly; but they seemed to him to touch a pleasant

scene to a distinction almost divine. He remained admiring them for a

long time. At last the need for coarser aesthetic satisfactions arose

in him.



The nearer he came to the place the more he liked it. The windows on

the ground floor were long and low, and they had pleasing red blinds.

The green tables outside were agreeably ringed with memories of former

drinks, and an extensive grape vine spread level branches across the

whole front of the place. Against the wall was a broken oar, two

boat-hooks and the stained and faded red cushions of a pleasure boat.

One went up three steps to the glass-panelled door and peeped into a

broad, low room with a bar and beer engine, behind which were many

bright and helpful looking bottles against mirrors, and great and

little pewter measures, and bottles fastened in brass wire upside down

with their corks replaced by taps, and a white china cask labelled

jugs and a beautifully coloured hunting scene framed and glazed,

showing the most elegant and beautiful people taking Piper’s Cherry

Brandy, and cards such as the law requires about the dilution of

spirits and the illegality of bringing children into bars, and

satirical verses about swearing and asking for credit, and three very

bright red-cheeked wax apples and a round-shaped clock.


But these were the mere background to the really pleasant thing in the

spectacle, which was quite the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen,

seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses

and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the

slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her

a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the

outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight,

well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and

beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about

the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink

and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in

front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite

confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance,

good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready

acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one

side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her

of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.


between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive

indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.


She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror

flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.










The plump woman came and leant over the bar and regarded him





They understood each other perfectly.




They smiled like old friends.


Whatever the truth may be about love, there is certainly such a thing

as friendship at first sight. They liked each other’s voices, they

liked each other’s way of smiling and speaking.












He nodded.







Mr. Polly went out again into the sunshine.


At times one can tell so much so briefly. Here are the facts

then—bare. He found a punt and a pole, got across to the steps on the

opposite side, picked up an elderly gentleman in an alpaca jacket and

a pith helmet, cruised with him vaguely for twenty minutes, conveyed

him tortuously into the midst of a thicket of forget-me-not spangled

sedges, splashed some water-weed over him, hit him twice with the punt

pole, and finally landed him, alarmed but abusive, in treacherous soil

at the edge of a hay meadow about forty yards down stream, where he

immediately got into difficulties with a noisy, aggressive little

white dog, which was guardian of a jacket.


Mr. Polly returned in a complicated manner to his moorings.


He found the plump woman rather flushed and tearful, and seated at one

of the green tables outside.








The plump woman pressed her hands to her sides and laughed silently

better come and have your cold meat, before you do any more puntin’.



Bit of All Right, Ma’m. I could have done differently if I hadn’t been

punting on an empty stomach. There’s a lear feeling as the pole goes










it. I suppose you’re all right. You’ve got a sort of half-respectable





do things at times. It’s bringing it home to him, and spoiling his

self-respect does the mischief. You don’t _look_ a wrong ‘un. ‘Ave you









And the way she brought the cheese showed Mr. Polly that the business

was settled in her mind.


He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and

learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm

tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people

land, embarking, landing and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing

boats and one Canadian canoe, baling out the said vessels and

concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading

inexperienced hirers to start down stream rather than up, repairing

rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to

supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys,

house-painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the tap and

bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork,

whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and

clocks, waiting and tapster’s work generally, beating carpets and

mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar,

moving, tapping and connecting beer casks with their engines, blocking

and destroying wasps’ nests, doing forestry with several trees,

drowning superfluous kittens, and dog-fancying as required, assisting

in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry,

bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning

punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as

required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and

sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for

visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the

establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a

scullion, the ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages

out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage,

gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda water syphons in

the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and

offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle as occasion

required, keeping in with the local policemen, defending the premises

in general and the orchard in particular from depredators….






Mr. Polly was particularly charmed by the ducklings.


They were piping about among the vegetables in the company of their

foster mother, and as he and the plump woman came down the garden path

the little creatures mobbed them, and ran over their boots and in

between Mr. Polly’s legs, and did their best to be trodden upon and

killed after the manner of ducklings all the world over. Mr. Polly had

never been near young ducklings before, and their extreme blondness

and the delicate completeness of their feet and beaks filled him with

admiration. It is open to question whether there is anything more

friendly in the world than a very young duckling. It was with the

utmost difficulty that he tore himself away to practise punting, with

the plump woman coaching from the bank. Punting he found was

difficult, but not impossible, and towards four o’clock he succeeded

in conveying a second passenger across the sundering flood from the

inn to the unknown.


As he returned, slowly indeed, but now one might almost say surely, to

the peg to which the punt was moored, he became aware of a singularly

delightful human being awaiting him on the bank. She stood with her

legs very wide apart, her hands behind her back, and her head a little

on one side, watching his gestures with an expression of disdainful

interest. She had black hair and brown legs and a buff short frock and

very intelligent eyes. And when he had reached a sufficient proximity




















A mysterious shadow seemed to fall athwart the sunshine and

pleasantness of the Potwell Inn.




She whistled a little flatly for a moment, and threw small stones at a

clump of meadow-sweet that sprang from the bank. Then she remarked:



There was a pause.



Uncle Jim. He only came back just a little time ago, and he’s scooted

three men. He don’t like strangers about, don’t Uncle Jim. He _can_




For the first time in his life it seemed to Mr. Polly that he had come

across something sheerly dreadful. He stared at the pretty thing of

flesh and spirit in front of him, lightly balanced on its stout little

legs and looking at him with eyes that had still to learn the

expression of either disgust or fear.




She turned away and reflected. Truth compelled her to add one other







Mr. Polly found the plump woman in the big bricked kitchen lighting a

fire for tea. He went to the root of the matter at once.



The plump woman blanched and stood still for a moment. A stick fell

out of the bundle in her hand unheeded.





He’s the Drorback to this place, that’s what he is. The Drorback. I



plump woman.






day he’s haunting me. I try not to think of it. I’ve been for

easy-going all my life. But I’m that worried and afraid, with death

and ruin threatened and evil all about me! I don’t know what to do! My

own sister’s son, and me a widow woman and ‘elpless against his


She put down the sticks she held upon the fender, and felt for her

handkerchief. She began to sob and talk quickly.


alone. But he goes talking to her—if I leave her a moment he’s



He’s been here three times now, six days and a week and a part of a

week, and I pray to God night and day he may never come again.

Praying! Back he’s come sure as fate. He takes my money and he takes

my things. He won’t let no man stay here to protect me or do the boats

or work the ferry. The ferry’s getting a scandal. They stand and shout

and scream and use language…. If I complain they’ll say I’m helpless

to manage here, they’ll take away my license, out I shall go—and it’s

all the living I can get—and he knows it, and he plays on it, and he

don’t care. And here I am. I’d send the child away, but I got nowhere

to send the child. I buys him off when it comes to that, and back he

comes, worse than ever, prowling round and doing evil. And not a soul

to help me. Not a soul! I just hoped there might be a day or so.

Before he comes back again. I was just hoping—I’m the sort that


Mr. Polly was reflecting on the flaws and drawbacks that seem to be

inseparable from all the more agreeable things in life.


situation in all its bearings.


But the plump woman did not heed him. She was going on with her

fire-making, and retailing in disconnected fragments the fearfulness

of Uncle Jim.


nothing you mightn’t have hoped for, not till they took him and

carried him off and reformed him….


into another boy, but then I’ve seen him that nice to a cat, nobody

could have been kinder. I’m sure he didn’t do no ‘arm to that cat

whatever anyone tries to make out of it. I’d never listen to that….

It was that reformatory ruined him. They put him along of a lot of

London boys full of ideas of wickedness, and because he didn’t mind

pain—and he don’t, I will admit, try as I would—they made him think

himself a hero. Them boys laughed at the teachers they set over them,

laughed and mocked at them—and I don’t suppose they was the best

teachers in the world; I don’t suppose, and I don’t suppose anyone

sensible does suppose that everyone who goes to be a teacher or a

chapl’in or a warder in a Reformatory Home goes and changes right away



from an old woman, and what was I to do when it came to the trial but

say what I knew. And him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a

viper than a human boy. He leans on the bar and looks at me. ‘All

right, Aunt Flo,’ he says, just that and nothing more. Time after

time, I’ve dreamt of it, and now he’s come. ‘They’ve Reformed me,’ he

says, ‘and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you. So out with





She left the sentence unfinished.


one of your Herculaceous sort, if you mean that. Nothing very


for him to go away again when he comes. It ain’t reasonable to expect

you to do anything but scoot. But I suppose it’s the way of a woman in

trouble to try and get help from a man, and hope and hope. I’m the



back door—and I hadn’t set eyes on him for seven long years. He stood

in the door watchin’ me, and suddenly he let off a yelp—like a dog,

and there he was grinning at the fright he’d given me. ‘Good old Aunty

Flo,’ he says, ‘ain’t you dee-lighted to see me?’ he says, ‘now I’m


The plump lady went to the sink and filled the kettle.


him there, with his teeth all black and broken—. P’raps I didn’t give

him much of a welcome at first. Not what would have been kind to him.


shilling. Jim and trouble. You all of you wanted me Reformed and now

you got me Reformed. I’m a Reformatory Reformed Character, warranted

all right and turned out as such. Ain’t you going to ask me in, Aunty





to torment you!’ he says, ‘you Old Sumpthing!’ and begins at me…. No

human being could ever have been called such things before. It made me

cry out. ‘And now,’ he says, ‘just to show I ain’t afraid of ‘urting


Mr. Polly gasped.



Mr. Polly went to the kitchen window and surveyed his namesake, who

was away up the garden path with her hands behind her back, and whisps

of black hair in disorder about her little face, thinking, thinking

profoundly, about ducklings.



The plump woman stared at his back with hard hope in her eyes.



The plump woman resumed her business with the kettle.








Mr. Polly made no rash promises, and thought a great deal.



But he stayed on and did various things out of the list I have already

given, and worked the ferry, and it was four days before he saw anything

of Uncle Jim. And so _resistent_ is the human mind to things not yet

experienced that he could easily have believed in that time that there

was no such person in the world as Uncle Jim. The plump woman, after

her one outbreak of confidence, ignored the subject, and little Polly

seemed to have exhausted her impressions in her first communication,

and engaged her mind now with a simple directness in the study and

subjugation of the new human being Heaven had sent into her world. The

first unfavourable impression of his punting was soon effaced; he could

nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters,

and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing

earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being.

She conceded at last that he should be called Mr. Polly, in honour of

her, Miss Polly, even as he desired.


Uncle Jim turned up in the twilight.


Uncle Jim appeared with none of the disruptive violence Mr. Polly had

dreaded. He came quite softly. Mr. Polly was going down the lane

behind the church that led to the Potwell Inn after posting a letter

to the lime-juice people at the post-office. He was walking slowly,

after his habit, and thinking discursively. With a sudden tightening

of the muscles he became aware of a figure walking noiselessly beside

him. His first impression was of a face singularly broad above and

with a wide empty grin as its chief feature below, of a slouching body

and dragging feet.



quickened his pace.


(sanguinary) Marathon. It ain’t a (decorated) cinder track. I want a


and faced the terror.


two. Just to clear up any blooming errors. That’s all I want. No need

to be so (richly decorated) proud, if you _are_ the noo bloke at


Uncle Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter

than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry

neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that

had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty

brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless

mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with

one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye, and

wisps of straight hair strayed from under the blue cricket cap he wore

pulled down obliquely over the latter. He spat between his teeth and

wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist.






Uncle Jim thrust his face forward and shook his open hand, bent like a




The tone of Uncle Jim’s voice became urgent and confidential.


doing to warn you. See? I’m just one of those blokes who don’t stick


Mr. Polly’s manner became detached and confidential—as though the

matter and the speaker interested him greatly, but didn’t concern him





He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant

Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He

breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.



I’ll ‘urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ‘urt you in ‘orrible


He scrutinised Mr. Polly’s face.









He produced a blood-curdling oath.




His whispering voice sank until Mr. Polly could hear only the dim

Kick yer ugly…. Cut yer—liver out… spread it all about, I

will…. Outing doos. See? I don’t care a dead rat one way or the


And with a curious twisting gesture of the arm Uncle Jim receded until

his face was a still, dim thing that watched, and the black shadows of

the hedge seemed to have swallowed up his body altogether.





Next morning about half-past ten Mr. Polly found himself seated under

a clump of fir trees by the roadside and about three miles and a half

from the Potwell Inn. He was by no means sure whether he was taking a

walk to clear his mind or leaving that threat-marred Paradise for good

and all. His reason pointed a lean, unhesitating finger along the

latter course.


For after all, the thing was not _his_ quarrel.


That agreeable plump woman, agreeable, motherly, comfortable as she

might be, wasn’t his affair; that child with the mop of black hair who

combined so magically the charm of mouse and butterfly and flitting

bird, who was daintier than a flower and softer than a peach, was no

concern of his. Good heavens! what were they to him? Nothing!…


Uncle Jim, of course, _had_ a claim, a sort of claim.


If it came to duty and chucking up this attractive, indolent,

observant, humorous, tramping life, there were those who had a right

to him, a legitimate right, a prior claim on his protection and



Why not listen to the call of duty and go back to Miriam now?…


He had had a very agreeable holiday….


And while Mr. Polly sat thinking these things as well as he could, he

knew that if only he dared to look up the heavens had opened and the

clear judgment on his case was written across the sky.


He knew—he knew now as much as a man can know of life. He knew he had

to fight or perish.


Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a

confused, entertaining spectacle, he had responded to this impulse and

that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and

painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that

has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and

wrapped about and entangled like a creature born in the jungle who has

never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great

exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him and all the

earth was expectation.



And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice,


His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each

with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite

regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed

wrestling in which you use and guard against feet. Watch the man’s

eye, and as his foot comes up, grip and over he goes—at your mercy if

you use the advantage right. But how do you use the advantage rightly?


When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away

rapidly to a blank discomfort….


Ought to go to the police and ask for help! Dragging me into a quarrel



The reality of the case arched over him like the vault of the sky, as

plain as the sweet blue heavens above and the wide spread of hill and

valley about him. Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient

beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face

anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long

as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear, and dulness and

indolence and appetite, which indeed are no more than fear’s three

crippled brothers who make ambushes and creep by night, are against

him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him

in that quest. He had but to lift his eyes to see all that, as much a

part of his world as the driving clouds and the bending grass, but he

kept himself downcast, a grumbling, inglorious, dirty, fattish little

tramp, full of dreads and quivering excuses.




What do you do when a dirty man who smells, gets you down and under in

the dirt and dust with a knee below your diaphragm and a large hairy

hand squeezing your windpipe tighter and tighter in a quarrel that

isn’t, properly speaking, yours?




He stood up as though his decision was made, and was for an instant

struck still by doubt.


There lay the road before him going this way to the east and that to

the west.


Westward, one hour away now, was the Potwell Inn. Already things might

be happening there….


Eastward was the wise man’s course, a road dipping between hedges to a

hop garden and a wood and presently no doubt reaching an inn, a

picturesque church, perhaps, a village and fresh company. The wise

man’s course. Mr. Polly saw himself going along it, and tried to see

himself going along it with all the self-applause a wise man feels.

But somehow it wouldn’t come like that. The wise man fell short of

happiness for all his wisdom. The wise man had a paunch and round

shoulders and red ears and excuses. It was a pleasant road, and why

the wise man should not go along it merry and singing, full of summer

happiness, was a miracle to Mr. Polly’s mind, but confound it! the

fact remained, the figure went slinking—slinking was the only word

for it—and would not go otherwise than slinking. He turned his eyes

westward as if for an explanation, and if the figure was no longer

ignoble, the prospect was appalling.





And so saying he turned his face towards the Potwell Inn.


He went back neither halting nor hastening in his pace after this last

decision, but with a mind feverishly busy.


Don’t seem just somehow.






The private war between Mr. Polly and Uncle Jim for the possession of

the Potwell Inn fell naturally into three chief campaigns. There was

first of all the great campaign which ended in the triumphant eviction

of Uncle Jim from the inn premises, there came next after a brief

interval the futile invasions of the premises by Uncle Jim that

culminated in the Battle of the Dead Eel, and after some months of

involuntary truce there was the last supreme conflict of the Night

Surprise. Each of these campaigns merits a section to itself.


Mr. Polly re-entered the inn discreetly. He found the plump woman

seated in her bar, her eyes a-stare, her face white and wet with

was full of a spirituous reek, and on the sanded boards in front of

the bar were the fragments of a broken bottle and an overturned glass.


She turned her despair at the sound of his entry, and despair gave

place to astonishment.










She nodded.


He went to the crinkly paned window and peered out. Uncle Jim was

coming down the garden path towards the house, his hands in his

pockets and singing hoarsely. Mr. Polly remembered afterwards with

pride and amazement that he felt neither faint nor rigid. He glanced

round him, seized a bottle of beer by the neck as an improvised club,

and went out by the garden door. Uncle Jim stopped amazed. His brain



Uncle Jim stood swaying with wrathful astonishment and then darted

forward with clutching hands. Mr. Polly felt that if his antagonist

closed he was lost, and smote with all his force at the ugly head

before him. Smash went the bottle, and Uncle Jim staggered,

half-stunned by the blow and blinded with beer.


The lapses and leaps of the human mind are for ever mysterious. Mr.

Polly had never expected that bottle to break. In the instant he felt

disarmed and helpless. Before him was Uncle Jim, infuriated and

evidently still coming on, and for defence was nothing but the neck of

a bottle.


For a time our Mr. Polly has figured heroic. Now comes the fall again;

he sounded abject terror; he dropped that ineffectual scrap of glass

and turned and fled round the corner of the house.


accepts a challenge, and bleeding, but indomitable, Uncle Jim entered

the house.



Uncle Jim had learnt all about fighting with bottles in the

Reformatory Home. Regardless of his terror-stricken aunt he ranged

among the bottled beer and succeeded after one or two failures in

preparing two bottles to his satisfaction by knocking off the bottoms,

and gripping them dagger-wise by the necks. So prepared, he went forth

again to destroy Mr. Polly.


Mr. Polly, freed from the sense of urgent pursuit, had halted beyond

the raspberry canes and rallied his courage. The sense of Uncle Jim

victorious in the house restored his manhood. He went round by the

outhouses to the riverside, seeking a weapon, and found an old paddle

boat hook. With this he smote Uncle Jim as he emerged by the door of

the tap. Uncle Jim, blaspheming dreadfully and with dire stabbing

intimations in either hand, came through the splintering paddle like a

circus rider through a paper hoop, and once more Mr. Polly dropped his

weapon and fled.


A careless observer watching him sprint round and round the inn in

front of the lumbering and reproachful pursuit of Uncle Jim might have

formed an altogether erroneous estimate of the issue of the campaign.

Certain compensating qualities of the very greatest military value

were appearing in Mr. Polly even as he ran; if Uncle Jim had strength

and brute courage and the rich toughening experience a Reformatory

Home affords, Mr. Polly was nevertheless sober, more mobile and with a

mind now stimulated to an almost incredible nimbleness. So that he not

only gained on Uncle Jim, but thought what use he might make of this

mind. As he came round the house for the third time, he darted

suddenly into the yard, swung the door to behind himself and bolted

it, seized the zinc pig’s pail that stood by the entrance to the

kitchen and had it neatly and resonantly over Uncle Jim’s head as he

came belatedly in round the outhouse on the other side. One of the

splintered bottles jabbed Mr. Polly’s ear—at the time it seemed of no

importance—and then Uncle Jim was down and writhing dangerously and

noisily upon the yard tiles, with his head still in the pig pail and

his bottles gone to splinters, and Mr. Polly was fastening the kitchen

door against him.


and selecting a weapon from among the brooms that stood behind the

kitchen door.


Uncle Jim was losing his head. He was up and kicking the door and

bellowing unamiable proposals and invitations, so that a strategist

emerging silently by the tap door could locate him without difficulty,

steal upon him unawares and—!


But before that felling blow could be delivered Uncle Jim’s ear had

caught a footfall, and he turned. Mr. Polly quailed and lowered his

broom,—a fatal hesitation.




He rushed to close, and Mr. Polly stopped him neatly, as it were a

miracle, with the head of the broom across his chest. Uncle Jim seized

shook his head, tugged, and showed pale, compressed lips. Both tugged.

Then Uncle Jim tried to get round the end of the broom; Mr. Polly

circled away. They began to circle about one another, both tugging

hard, both intensely watchful of the slightest initiative on the part

of the other. Mr. Polly wished brooms were longer, twelve or thirteen

feet, for example; Uncle Jim was clearly for shortness in brooms. He

wasted breath in saying what was to happen shortly, sanguinary,

oriental soul-blenching things, when the broom no longer separated

them. Mr. Polly thought he had never seen an uglier person. Suddenly

Uncle Jim flashed into violent activity, but alcohol slows movement,

and Mr. Polly was equal to him. Then Uncle Jim tried jerks, and for a

terrible instant seemed to have the broom out of Mr. Polly’s hands.

But Mr. Polly recovered it with the clutch of a drowning man. Then

Uncle Jim drove suddenly at Mr. Polly’s midriff, but again Mr. Polly

was ready and swept him round in a circle. Then suddenly a wild hope

filled Mr. Polly. He saw the river was very near, the post to which

the punt was tied not three yards away. With a wild yell, he sent the

broom home into his antagonist’s ribs.



thrust hard and abandoned the broom to the enemy’s despairing clutch.


Splash! Uncle Jim was in the water and Mr. Polly had leapt like a cat

aboard the ferry punt and grasped the pole.


and printing it would lead to a censorship of novels)! You know I got


The pole took him in the throat and drove him backward and downwards.


awful eyes.


Splash! Down he fell backwards into a frothing mass of water with Mr.

Polly jabbing at him. Under water he turned round and came up again as

if in flight towards the middle of the river. Directly his head

reappeared Mr. Polly had him between the shoulders and under again,

bubbling thickly. A hand clutched and disappeared.


It was stupendous! Mr. Polly had discovered the heel of Achilles.

Uncle Jim had no stomach for cold water. The broom floated away,

pitching gently on the swell. Mr. Polly, infuriated with victory,

thrust Uncle Jim under again, and drove the punt round on its chain in

such a manner that when Uncle Jim came up for the fourth time—and now

he was nearly out of his depth, too buoyed up to walk and apparently

nearly helpless,—Mr. Polly, fortunately for them both, could not

reach him. Uncle Jim made the clumsy gestures of those who struggle

great effort got a footing, emerged until his arm-pits were out of

water, until his waistcoat buttons showed, one by one, till scarcely

two remained, and made for the camp sheeting.


movements of his victim along the shore.




his terrors had gone.



despairing wrathfulness, and began moving down-stream.



Slowly, argumentatively, and reluctantly, Uncle Jim waded down-stream.

He tried threats, he tried persuasion, he even tried a belated note of

pathos; Mr. Polly remained inexorable, if in secret a little perplexed



They came round the bend into sight of Nicholson’s ait, where the

backwater runs down to the Potwell Mill. And there, after much parley

and several feints, Uncle Jim made a desperate effort and struggled

into clutch of the overhanging _osiers_ on the island, and so got out

of the water with the millstream between them. He emerged dripping and



The spirit was out of Uncle Jim for the time, and he turned away to

struggle through the _osiers_ towards the mill, leaving a shining

trail of water among the green-grey stems.


Mr. Polly returned slowly and thoughtfully to the inn, and suddenly

his mind began to bubble with phrases. The plump woman stood at the

top of the steps that led up to the inn door to greet him.











moments! He must have done that when he jabbed about with those












He turned round and listened for the words that drifted across from

the little figure on the opposite bank. So far as he could judge,

Uncle Jim was making an appointment for the morrow. He replied with a

defiant movement of the punt pole. The little figure was convulsed for

a moment and then went on its way upstream—fiercely.


So it was the first campaign ended in an insecure victory.





The next day was Wednesday and a slack day for the Potwell Inn. It was

a hot, close day, full of the murmuring of bees. One or two people

crossed by the ferry, an elaborately equipped fisherman stopped for

cold meat and dry ginger ale in the bar parlour, some haymakers came

and drank beer for an hour, and afterwards sent jars and jugs by a boy

to be replenished; that was all. Mr. Polly had risen early and was

busy about the place meditating upon the probable tactics of Uncle

Jim. He was no longer strung up to the desperate pitch of the first

encounter. But he was grave and anxious. Uncle Jim had shrunken, as

all antagonists that are boldly faced shrink, after the first battle,

to the negotiable, the vulnerable. Formidable he was no doubt, but not

invincible. He had, under Providence, been defeated once, and he might

be defeated altogether.


Mr. Polly went about the place considering the militant possibilities

of pacific things, _pokers_, copper sticks, garden implements, kitchen

knives, garden nets, barbed wire, oars, clothes lines, blankets,

pewter pots, stockings and broken bottles. He prepared a club with a

stocking and a bottle inside upon the best East End model. He swung it

round his head once, broke an outhouse window with a flying fragment

of glass, and ruined the stocking beyond all darning. He developed a

subtle scheme with the cellar flap as a sort of pitfall, but he

rejected it finally because (A) it might entrap the plump woman, and

(B) he had no use whatever for Uncle Jim in the cellar. He determined

to wire the garden that evening, burglar fashion, against the

possibilities of a night attack.


Towards two o’clock in the afternoon three young men arrived in a

capacious boat from the direction of Lammam, and asked permission to

camp in the paddock. It was given all the more readily by Mr. Polly

because he perceived in their proximity a possible check upon the

self-expression of Uncle Jim. But he did not foresee and no one could

have foreseen that Uncle Jim, stealing unawares upon the Potwell Inn

in the late afternoon, armed with a large rough-hewn stake, should

have mistaken the bending form of one of those campers—who was

pulling a few onions by permission in the garden—for Mr. Polly’s, and

crept upon it swiftly and silently and smitten its wide invitation

unforgettably and unforgiveably. It was an error impossible to

explain; the resounding whack went up to heaven, the cry of amazement,

and Mr. Polly emerged from the inn armed with the frying-pan he was

cleaning, to take this reckless assailant in the rear. Uncle Jim,

realising his error, fled blaspheming into the arms of the other two

campers, who were returning from the village with butcher’s meat and

groceries. They caught him, they smacked his face with steak and

punched him with a bursting parcel of lump sugar, they held him though

he bit them, and their idea of punishment was to duck him. They were

hilarious, strong young stockbrokers’ clerks, _Territorials_ and

seasoned boating men; they ducked him as though it was romping, and all

that Mr. Polly had to do was to pick up lumps of sugar for them and wipe

them on his sleeve and put them on a plate, and explain that Uncle Jim

was a notorious bad character and not quite right in his head.



But he caught a glance of Uncle Jim’s eye as he receded before the

campers’ urgency that boded ill for him, and in the night he had a

disagreeable idea that perhaps his luck might not hold for the third



That came soon enough. So soon, indeed, as the campers had gone.


Thursday was the early closing day at Lammam, and next to Sunday the

busiest part of the week at the Potwell Inn. Sometimes as many as six

boats all at once would be moored against the ferry punt and hiring

rowboats. People could either have a complete tea, a complete tea with

jam, cake and eggs, a kettle of boiling water and find the rest, or

refreshments _a la carte_, as they chose. They sat about, but usually

the boiling water-_ers_ had a delicacy about using the tables and

grouped themselves humbly on the ground. The _complete_ tea-_ers_ with

jam and eggs got the best tablecloth on the table nearest the steps

that led up to the glass-panelled door. The groups about the lawn were

very satisfying to Mr. Polly’s sense of amenity. To the right were the

_complete_ tea-_ers_ with everything heart could desire, then a small

group of three young men in remarkable green and violet and pale-blue

shirts, and two girls in mauve and yellow blouses with common teas and

gooseberry jam at the green clothless table, then on the grass down by

the pollard willow a small family of hot water-_ers_ with a hamper, a

little troubled by wasps in their jam from the nest in the tree and

all in mourning, but happy otherwise, and on the lawn to the right a

ginger beer lot of ‘prentices without their collars and very jocular

and happy. The young people in the rainbow shirts and blouses formed

the centre of interest; they were under the leadership of a

gold-spectacled senior with a fluting voice and an air of mystery; he

ordered everything, and showed a peculiar knowledge of the qualities

of the Potwell jams, preferring gooseberry with much insistence. Mr.

at the ‘prentices and went inside and down into the cellar in order to

replenish the stock of stone ginger beer which the plump woman had

allowed to run low during the preoccupations of the campaign. It was

in the cellar that he first became aware of the return of Uncle Jim.

He became aware of him as a voice, a voice not only hoarse, but thick,

as voices thicken under the influence of alcohol.


to me! Where’s that blighted whisp with the punt pole—I got a word to

say to ‘im. Come out of it, you pot-bellied chunk of dirtiness, you!

Come out and ‘_ave_ your ugly face wiped. I got a Thing for you….

‘_Ear_ me?


dropping for a moment to sorrow, and then with a great increment of

cut your silly insides out! Come out of it—you pock-marked rat!

Stealing another man’s ‘ome away from ‘im! Come out and look me in the


Mr. Polly took the ginger beer and went thoughtfully upstairs to the





The door opened softly and Mr. Polly turned quickly. But it was only

the pointed nose and intelligent face of the young man with the gilt

spectacles and discreet manner. He coughed and the spectacles fixed

Mr. Polly.












Mr. Polly moved towards the door and stood with his hand on the

handle. The gold-spectacled face disappeared.



Uncle Jim in the voice of one astonished and pained beyond endurance,



Mr. Polly emerged, poker in hand, just in time to see what followed.

Uncle Jim in his shirtsleeves and a state of ferocious decolletage,

was holding something—yes!—a dead eel by means of a piece of

newspaper about its tail, holding it down and back and a little

sideways in such a way as to smite with it upward and hard. It struck

the spectacled gentleman under the jaw with a peculiar dead thud, and

a cry of horror came from the two seated parties at the sight. One of

sense of helping numbers came to Mr. Polly’s aid.


thrusting the spectacled gentleman before him as once heroes were wont

to wield the ox-hide shield.


Uncle Jim gave ground suddenly, and trod upon the foot of a young man

in a blue shirt, who immediately thrust at him violently with both



pressing the head of the spectacled gentleman aside, smote hard at Mr.



But at the sight of this indignity inflicted upon the spectacled

gentleman a woman’s heart was stirred, and a pink parasol drove hard

and true at Uncle Jim’s wiry neck, and at the same moment the young

man in the blue shirt sought to collar him and lost his grip again.




But now the jam and egg party was joining in the fray. A stout yet

still fairly able-bodied gentleman in white and black checks enquired:

evident that once more public opinion was rallying to the support of

Mr. Polly.


dexterously whirled the eel round in a destructive circle. The pink

sunshade was torn from the hand that gripped it and whirled athwart

the complete, but unadorned, tea things on the green table.


gold-spectacled gentleman, coming out of the scrimmage, retreating up

the steps to the inn door as if to rally his forces.


whirling eel.


Mr. Polly, undeterred by a sense of grave damage done to his nose,

pressed the attack in front, the two young men in violet and blue

skirmished on Uncle Jim’s flanks, the man in white and black checks

sought still further outflanking possibilities, and two of the

apprentice boys ran for oars. The gold-spectacled gentleman, as if

inspired, came down the wooden steps again, seized the tablecloth of

the jam and egg party, lugged it from under the crockery with

inadequate precautions against breakage, and advanced with compressed

lips, curious lateral crouching movements, swift flashings of his

glasses, and a general suggestion of bull-fighting in his pose and

gestures. Uncle Jim was kept busy, and unable to plan his retreat with

any strategic soundness. He was moreover manifestly a little nervous

about the river in his rear. He gave ground in a curve, and so came

right across the rapidly abandoned camp of the family in mourning,

crunching a teacup under his heel, oversetting the teapot, and finally

tripping backwards over the hamper. The eel flew out at a tangent from

his hand and became a mere looping relic on the sward.


moving forward with extraordinary promptitude wrapped the best

tablecloth about Uncle Jim’s arms and head. Mr. Polly grasped his

purpose instantly, the man in checks was scarcely slower, and in

another moment Uncle Jim was no more than a bundle of smothered

blasphemy and a pair of wildly active legs.



The bundle was convulsed by paroxysms of anger and protest. One boot

got the hamper and sent it ten yards.



One of the apprentices ran.



The apprentice was divided in his purpose. And then suddenly Uncle Jim

collapsed and became a limp, dead seeming thing under their hands. His

arms were drawn inward, his legs bent up under his person, and so he






For suddenly Uncle Jim’s arms and legs flew out like springs released.

Mr. Polly was tumbled backwards and fell over the broken teapot and

into the arms of the father in mourning. Something struck his

head—dazzingly. In another second Uncle Jim was on his feet and the

tablecloth enshrouded the head of the man in checks. Uncle Jim

manifestly considered he had done all that honour required of him, and

against overwhelming numbers and the possibility of reiterated

duckings, flight is no disgrace.


Uncle Jim fled.


Mr. Polly sat up after an interval of an indeterminate length among

the ruins of an idyllic afternoon. Quite a lot of things seemed

scattered and broken, but it was difficult to grasp it all at once. He

stared between the legs of people. He became aware of a voice,

speaking slowly and complainingly.






There followed an anxious peace for three days, and then a rough man

in a blue jersey, in the intervals of trying to choke himself with

bread and cheese and pickled onions, broke out abruptly into






He did not speak for some moments, and then he replied to Mr. Polly’s





and he took a mouthful that amounted to conversational suicide. There

was a prolonged pause in the little bar, and Mr. Polly did some rapid




He turned to the man with the blue jersey when he thought him clear


anxiously, as if alarmed at the momentary clearness of his voice.





Those three months passed all too quickly; months of sunshine and

warmth, of varied novel exertion in the open air, of congenial

experiences, of interest and wholesome food and successful digestion,

months that browned Mr. Polly and hardened him and saw the beginnings

of his beard, months marred only by one anxiety, an anxiety Mr. Polly

did his utmost to suppress. The day of reckoning was never mentioned,

it is true, by either the plump woman or himself, but the name of

Uncle Jim was written in letters of glaring silence across their

intercourse. As the term of that respite drew to an end his anxiety

increased, until at last it even trenched upon his well-earned sleep.

He had some idea of buying a revolver. At last he compromised upon a

small and very foul and dirty rook rifle which he purchased in Lammam

under a pretext of bird scaring, and loaded carefully and concealed

under his bed from the plump woman’s eye.


September passed away, October came.


And at last came that night in October whose happenings it is so

difficult for a sympathetic historian to drag out of their proper

nocturnal indistinctness into the clear, hard light of positive

statement. A novelist should present characters, not vivisect them



The best, the kindliest, if not the justest course is surely to leave

untold such things as Mr. Polly would manifestly have preferred



Mr. Polly had declared that when the cyclist discovered him he was

seeking a weapon that should make a conclusive end to Uncle Jim. That

declaration is placed before the reader without comment.


The gun was certainly in possession of Uncle Jim at that time and no

human being but Mr. Polly knows how he got hold of it.


The cyclist was a literary man named Warspite, who suffered from

insomnia; he had risen and come out of his house near Lammam just

before the dawn, and he discovered Mr. Polly partially concealed in

the ditch by the Potwell churchyard wall. It is an ordinary dry ditch,

full of nettles and overgrown with elder and dogrose, and in no way

suggestive of an arsenal. It is the last place in which you would look

for a gun. And he says that when he dismounted to see why Mr. Polly

was allowing only the latter part of his person to show (and that it

would seem by inadvertency), Mr. Polly merely raised his head and

caution. He was wearing a white cotton nightgown of the type that has

now been so extensively superseded by pyjama sleeping suits, and his

legs and feet were bare and much scratched and torn and very muddy.


Mr. Warspite takes that exceptionally lively interest in his

fellow-creatures which constitutes so much of the distinctive and

complex charm of your novelist all the world over, and he at once

involved himself generously in the case. The two men returned at Mr.

Polly’s initiative across the churchyard to the Potwell Inn, and came

upon the burst and damaged rook rifle near the new monument to Sir

Samuel _Harpon_ at the corner by the yew.



The sight inspirited him greatly, and he explained further that he had

fled to the churchyard on account of the cover afforded by tombstones

from the flight of small shot. He expressed anxiety for the fate of

the landlady of the Potwell Inn and her grandchild, and led the way

with enhanced alacrity along the lane to that establishment.


They found the doors of the house standing open, the bar in some

disorder—several bottles of whisky were afterwards found to be

missing—and Blake, the village policeman, rapping patiently at the

open door. He entered with them. The glass in the bar had suffered

severely, and one of the mirrors was starred from a blow from a pewter

pot. The till had been forced and ransacked, and so had the bureau in

the minute room behind the bar. An upper window was opened and the

voice of the landlady became audible making enquiries. They went out

and parleyed with her. She had locked herself upstairs with the little

girl, she said, and refused to descend until she was assured that

neither Uncle Jim nor Mr. Polly’s gun were anywhere on the premises.

Mr. Blake and Mr. Warspite proceeded to satisfy themselves with regard

to the former condition, and Mr. Polly went to his room in search of

garments more suited to the brightening dawn. He returned immediately

the bedclothes in a ball in the corner, the drawers all open and

ransacked, the chair broken, the lock of the door forced and broken,

one door panel slightly scorched and perforated by shot, and the

window wide open. None of Mr. Polly’s clothes were to be seen, but

some garments which had apparently once formed part of a stoker’s

workaday outfit, two brownish yellow halves of a shirt, and an unsound

pair of boots were scattered on the floor. A faint smell of gunpowder

still hung in the air, and two or three books Mr. Polly had recently

acquired had been shied with some violence under the bed. Mr. Warspite



answered, omitting much, they both felt, from his explanation….






But Uncle Jim had gone altogether….


He did not return for some days. That perhaps was not very wonderful.

But the days lengthened to weeks and the weeks to months and still

Uncle Jim did not recur. A year passed, and the anxiety of him became

less acute; a second healing year followed the first. One afternoon

about thirty months after the Night Surprise the plump woman spoke of







Chapter the Tenth


Miriam Revisited





One summer afternoon about five years after his first coming to the

Potwell Inn Mr. Polly found himself sitting under the pollard willow

fishing for dace. It was a plumper, browner and healthier Mr. Polly

altogether than the miserable bankrupt with whose dyspeptic portrait

our novel opened. He was fat, but with a fatness more generally

diffused, and the lower part of his face was touched to gravity by a

small square beard. Also he was balder.


It was the first time he had found leisure to fish, though from the

very outset of his Potwell career he had promised himself abundant

indulgence in the pleasures of fishing. Fishing, as the golden page of

English literature testifies, is a meditative and retrospective

pursuit, and the varied page of memory, disregarded so long for sake

of the teeming duties I have already enumerated, began to unfold

itself to Mr. Polly’s consideration. A speculation about Uncle Jim

died for want of material, and gave place to a reckoning of the years

and months that had passed since his coming to Potwell, and that to a

philosophical review of his life. He began to think about Miriam,

remotely and impersonally. He remembered many things that had been

neglected by his conscience during the busier times, as, for example,

that he had committed arson and deserted a wife. For the first time he

looked these long neglected facts in the face.


It is disagreeable to think one has committed Arson, because it is an

action that leads to jail. Otherwise I do not think there was a grain

of regret for that in Mr. Polly’s composition. But deserting Miriam

was in a different category. Deserting Miriam was mean.


This is a history and not a glorification of Mr. Polly, and I tell of

things as they were with him. Apart from the disagreeable twinge

arising from the thought of what might happen if he was found out, he

had not the slightest remorse about that fire. Arson, after all, is an

artificial crime. Some crimes are crimes in themselves, would be

crimes without any law, the cruelties, mockery, the breaches of faith

that astonish and wound, but the burning of things is in itself

neither good nor bad. A large number of houses deserve to be burnt,

most modern furniture, an overwhelming majority of pictures and

books—one might go on for some time with the list. If our community

was collectively anything more than a feeble idiot, it would burn most

of London and Chicago, for example, and build sane and beautiful

cities in the place of these pestilential heaps of rotten private

property. I have failed in presenting Mr. Polly altogether if I have

not made you see that he was in many respects an artless child of

Nature, far more untrained, undisciplined and spontaneous than an

ordinary savage. And he was really glad, for all that little drawback

of fear, that he had the courage to set fire to his house and fly and

come to the Potwell Inn.


But he was not glad he had left Miriam. He had seen Miriam cry once or

twice in his life, and it had always reduced him to abject

commiseration. He now imagined her crying. He perceived in a perplexed

way that he had made himself responsible for her life. He forgot how

she had spoilt his own. He had hitherto rested in the faith that she

had over a hundred pounds of insurance money, but now, with his eye

meditatively upon his float, he realised a hundred pounds does not

last for ever. His conviction of her incompetence was unflinching; she

was bound to have fooled it away somehow by this time. And then!


He saw her humping her shoulders and sniffing in a manner he had

always regarded as detestable at close quarters, but which now became

harrowingly pitiful.


victim to destruction and took it off the hook.


He compared his own comfort and health with Miriam’s imagined




He watched the float oscillating gently towards quiescence.



But once he had begun thinking about her he had to go on.


another fish had just snatched at it in the last instant. His handling

must have made the poor thing feel itself unwelcome.


He gathered his things together and turned towards the house.


All the Potwell Inn betrayed his influence now, for here indeed he had

found his place in the world. It looked brighter, so bright indeed as

to be almost skittish, with the white and green paint he had lavished

upon it. Even the garden palings were striped white and green, and so

were the boats, for Mr. Polly was one of those who find a positive

sensuous pleasure in the laying on of paint. Left and right were two

large boards which had done much to enhance the inn’s popularity with

the lighter-minded variety of pleasure-seekers. Both marked

latter word was Mr. Polly’s own, but when he had seen a whole boatload

of men, intent on Lammam for lunch, stop open-mouthed, and stare and

perceived that his inaccuracy had done more for the place than his

utmost cunning could have contrived. In a year or so the inn was known

after some secret irritation, smiled and was content. And the fat

woman’s _omelettes_ were things to remember.


(You will note I have changed her epithet. Time works upon us all.)


She stood upon the steps as he came towards the house, and smiled at

him richly.



went off for a day or two for a bit of a holiday? There won’t be much





Feeling recklessly secure behind his beard Mr. Polly surveyed the

Fishbourne High Street once again. The north side was much as he had

known it except that Rusper had vanished. A row of new shops replaced

the destruction of the great fire. Mantell and Throbson’s had risen

again upon a more flamboyant pattern, and the new fire station was in

the Swiss-Teutonic style and with much red paint. Next door in the

place of Rumbold’s was a branch of the Colonial Tea Company, and then

a Salmon and Gluckstein Tobacco Shop, and then a little shop that

this as a possible place in which to prosecute enquiries about his

lost wife, wavering a little between it and the God’s Providence Inn


A momentary faintness came upon him. He walked past and down the

street, returned and surveyed the shop again.


He saw a middle-aged, rather untidy woman standing behind the counter,

who for an instant he thought might be Miriam terribly changed, and

then recognised as his sister-in-law Annie, filled out and no longer

hilarious. She stared at him without a sign of recognition as he

entered the shop.







room whose conscientious disorder was intensely reminiscent of Miriam.


said Mr. Polly cheerfully.


bit of air, but I daresay she’ll be back soon to finish. It’s a nice


window and drummed on the table and meditated on his next step while

Annie vanished to get his tea. After all, things didn’t seem so bad

with Miriam. He tried over several gambits in imagination.











days. Wouldn’t have known him, my sister wouldn’t, if it hadn’t been








Why, if things were like this, had remorse and anxiety for Miriam been

implanted in his soul? No shadow of an answer appeared.




feeling—. As though I wanted keeping up…. Wasn’t particularly good




the word. Weak, ‘E was. Weak as water. ‘Ow long do you like your eggs





What perplexed him was his recent remorse and tenderness for Miriam.

Now he was back in her atmosphere all that had vanished, and the old

feeling of helpless antagonism returned. He surveyed the piled

furniture, the economically managed carpet, the unpleasing pictures on

the wall. Why had he felt remorse? Why had he entertained this

illusion of a helpless woman crying aloud in the pitiless darkness for

him? He peered into the unfathomable mysteries of the heart, and

ducked back to a smaller issue. _Was_ he feeble?


The eggs came up. Nothing in Annie’s manner invited a resumption of

the discussion.










Annie looked at him hard, and suddenly his soul was black with terror.



that he only realised its condition when he was half way through it

and Annie safely downstairs.


Miriam’s! Management! I haven’t tasted such an egg for five years….


He abandoned it for its fellow.


Except for a slight mustiness the second egg was very palatable

indeed. He was getting on to the bottom of it as Miriam came in. He

knew him at once by the gesture and the voice. She went white and shut

the door behind her. She looked as though she was going to faint. Mr.

whispered, and crumpled up rather than sat down.




tried to think perhaps the water had altered your wrists and feet and





weeping. She produced a handkerchief and covered her face.


coming back. I’m—I’m a Visitant from Another World. You shut up about

me and I’ll shut up about myself. I came back because I thought you

might be hard up or in trouble or some silly thing like that. Now I

see you again—I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied completely. See? I’m going


He turned to his tea for a moment, finished his cup noisily, stood up.



He moved to the door.



Annie was in the shop.



And he had gone.





Mr. Polly sat beside the fat woman at one of the little green tables

at the back of the Potwell Inn, and struggled with the mystery of

life. It was one of those evenings, serenely luminous, amply and

atmospherically still, when the river bend was at its best. A swan

floated against the dark green masses of the further bank, the stream

flowed broad and shining to its destiny, with scarce a ripple—except

where the reeds came out from the headland—the three poplars rose

clear and harmonious against a sky of green and yellow. And it was as

if it was all securely within a great warm friendly globe of crystal

sky. It was as safe and enclosed and fearless as a child that has

still to be born. It was an evening full of the quality of tranquil,

unqualified assurance. Mr. Polly’s mind was filled with the persuasion

that indeed all things whatsoever must needs be satisfying and

complete. It was incredible that life has ever done more than seemed

to jar, that there could be any shadow in life save such velvet

softnesses as made the setting for that silent swan, or any murmur but

the ripple of the water as it swirled round the chained and gently

swaying punt. And the mind of Mr. Polly, exalted and made tender by

this atmosphere, sought gently, but sought, to draw together the

varied memories that came drifting, half submerged, across the circle

of his mind.


He spoke in words that seemed like a bent and broken stick thrust

suddenly into water, destroying the mirror of the shapes they sought.












The fat woman regarded him silently for some time. Her expression of

scrutiny gave way to a quiet satisfaction. Then her brown eyes went to

the river.








something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts

with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much

relation to what _is_ good and what is bad. I’ve always been the

skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know

good from evil. It’s just what I’ve _never_ done. No Adam’s apple


He reflected.



The fat woman started.


do—any more than burning a toy like I did once when I was a baby. I

nearly killed myself with a razor. Who hasn’t?—anyhow gone as far as

thinking of it? Most of my time I’ve been half dreaming. I married

like a dream almost. I’ve never really planned my life or set out to

live. I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with everyone. Jim

couldn’t help himself. I shot at him and tried to kill him. I dropped

the gun and he got it. He very nearly had me. I wasn’t a second too

soon—ducking…. Awkward—that night was…. M’mm…. But I don’t

blame him—come to that. Only I don’t see what it’s all up to….




isn’t what we try to get that we get, it isn’t the good we think we do

is good. What makes us happy isn’t our trying, what makes others happy

isn’t our trying. There’s a sort of character people like and stand up

for and a sort they won’t. You got to work it out and take the



not to do whatever she wanted to do—if ever she did want to do


He lost himself.


to get up to his thoughts.








whistle sometimes, but bless you, it’s singing I’ve got in my mind.






she said.


nettles. Nasty weeds—if you count things by their uses. And no help




The fat woman looked at him with eyes in which contentment struggled

with some obscure reluctant protest, and at last turned them slowly to

the black nettle pagodas against the golden sky.




The fat woman’s voice sank nearly to the inaudible.




solicitudes for a more congenial point of view.



They said no more, but sat on in the warm twilight until at last they

could scarcely distinguish each other’s faces. They were not so much

thinking as lost in a smooth, still quiet of the mind. A bat flitted




The End




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