Beneath its veneer of cheerful irresponsibility, the character of Michael Mont had deepened during two years of anchorage and continuity. He had been obliged to think of others; and his time was occupied. Conscious, from the fall of the flag, that he was on sufferance with Fleur, admitting as whole the half-truth: ‘Il y a toujours un qui baise, et l’autre qui tend la joue,’ he had developed real powers of domestic consideration; and yet he did not seem to redress the balance in his public or publishing existence. He found the human side of his business too strong for the monetary. Danby and Winter, however, were bearing up against him, and showed, so far, no signs of the bankruptcy prophesied for them by Soames on being told of the principles which his son-inlaw intended to introduce. No more in publishing than in any other walk of life was Michael finding it possible to work too much on principle. The field of action was so strewn with facts — human, vegetable and mineral.
On this same Tuesday afternoon, having long tussled with the price of those vegetable facts, paper and linen, he was listening with his pointed ears to the plaint of a packer discovered with five copies of ‘Copper Coin’ in his overcoat pocket, and the too obvious intention of converting them to his own use.
Mr. Danby had ‘given him the sack’— he didn’t deny that he was going to sell them, but what would Mr. Mont have done? He owed rent — and his wife wanted nourishing after pneumonia — wanted it bad. ‘Dash it!’ thought Michael, ‘I’d snoop an edition to nourish Fleur after pneumonia!’
“And I can’t live on my wages with prices what they are. I can’t, Mr. Mont, so help me!”
Michael swivelled. “But look here, Bicket, if we let you snoop copies, all the packers will snoop copies; and if they do, where are Danby and Winter? In the cart. And, if they’re in the cart, where are all of you? In the street. It’s better that one of you should be in the street than that all of you should, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, I quite see your point — it’s reason; but I can’t live on reason, the least thing knocks you out, when you’re on the bread line. Ask Mr. Danby to give me another chance.”
“Mr. Danby always says that a packer’s work is particularly confidential, because it’s almost impossible to keep a check on it.”
“Yes, sir, I should feel that in future; but with all this unemployment and no reference, I’ll never get another job. What about my wife?”
To Michael it was as if he had said “What about Fleur?” He began to pace the room; and the young man Bicket looked at him with large dolorous eyes. Presently he came to a standstill, with his hands deep plunged into his pockets and his shoulders hunched.
“I’ll ask him,” he said; “but I don’t believe he will; he’ll say it isn’t fair on the others. You had five copies; it’s pretty stiff, you know — means you’ve had ’em before, doesn’t it? What?”
“Well, Mr. Mont, anything that’ll give me a chance, I don’t mind confessin’. I have ‘ad a few previous, and it’s just about kept my wife alive. You’ve no idea what that pneumonia’s like for poor people.”
Michael pushed his fingers through his hair.
“How old’s your wife?”
“Only a girl — twenty.”
Twenty! Just Fleur’s age!
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Bicket; I’ll put it up to Mr. Desert; if he speaks for you, perhaps it may move Mr. Danby.”
“Well, Mr. Mont, thank you — you’re a gentleman, we all sy that.”
“Oh! hang it! But look here, Bicket, you were reckoning on those five copies. Take this to make up, and get your wife what’s necessary. Only for goodness’ sake don’t tell Mr. Danby.”
“Mr. Mont, I wouldn’t deceive you for the world — I won’t sy a word, sir. And my wife — well!”
A sniff, a shuffle — Michael was alone, with his hands plunged deeper, his shoulders hunched higher. And suddenly he laughed. Pity! Pity was pop! It was all dam’ funny. Here he was rewarding Bicket for snooping ‘Copper Coin!’ A sudden longing possessed him to follow the little packer and see what he did with the two pounds — see whether ‘the pneumonia’ was real or a figment of the brain behind those dolorous eyes. Impossible, though! Instead he must ring up Wilfrid and ask him to put in a word with old Danby. His own word was no earthly. He had put it in too often! Bicket! Little one knew of anybody, life was deep and dark, and upside down! What was honesty? Pressure of life versus power of resistance — the result of that fight, when the latter won, was honesty! But why resist? Love thy neighbour as thyself — but not more! And wasn’t it a darned sight harder for Bicket on two pounds a week to love him, than for him on twenty-four pounds a week to love Bicket? . . .
“Hallo! . . . That you, Wilfrid? . . . Michael speaking. . . . One of our packers has been sneaking copies of ‘Copper Coin.’ He’s ‘got the sack’— poor devil! I wondered if you’d mind putting in a word for him — old Dan won’t listen to me . . . yes, got a wife — Fleur’s age; pneumonia, so he says. Won’t do it again with yours anyway, insurance by common gratitude — what! . . . Thanks, old man, awfully good of you — will you bob in, then? We can go round home together . . . Oh! Well! You’ll bob in anyway. Aurev!”
Good chap, old Wilfrid! Real good chap — underneath! Underneath — what?
Replacing the receiver, Michael saw a sudden great cloud of sights and scents and sounds, so foreign to the principles of his firm that he was in the habit of rejecting instantaneously every manuscript which dealt with them. The war might be ‘off ‘; but it was still ‘on’ within Wilfrid, and himself. Taking up a tube, he spoke:
“Mr. Danby in his room? Right! If he shows any signs of flitting, let me know at once.” . . .
Between Michael and his senior partner a gulf was fixed, not less deep than that between two epochs, though partially filled in by Winter’s middle-age and accommodating temperament. Michael had almost nothing against Mr. Danby except that he was always right — Philip Norman Danby, of Sky House, Campden Hill, a man of sixty and some family, with a tall forehead, a preponderance of body to leg, and an expression both steady and reflective. His eyes were perhaps rather close together, and his nose rather thin, but he looked a handsome piece in his well-proportioned room. He glanced up from the formation of a correct judgment on a matter of advertisement when Wilfrid Desert came in.
“Well, Mr. Desert, what can I do for you? Sit down!”
Desert did not sit down, but looked at the engravings, at his fingers, at Mr. Danby, and said:
“Fact is, I want you to let that packer chap off, Mr. Danby.”
“Packer chap. Oh! Ah! Bicket. Mont told you, I suppose?”
“Yes; he’s got a young wife down with pneumonia.”
“They all go to our friend Mont with some tale or other, Mr. Desert — he has a very soft heart. But I’m afraid I can’t keep this man. It’s a most insidious thing. We’ve been trying to trace a leak for some time.”
Desert leaned against the mantelpiece and stared into the fire.
“Well, Mr. Danby,” he said, “your generation may like the soft in literature, but you’re precious hard in life. Ours won’t look at softness in literature, but we’re a deuced sight less hard in life.”
“I don’t think it’s hard,” said Mr. Danby, “only just.”
“Are you a judge of justice?”
“I hope so.”
“Try four years’ hell, and have another go.”
“I really don’t see the connection. The experience you’ve been through, Mr. Desert, was bound to be warping.”
Wilfrid turned and stared at him.
“Forgive my saying so, but sitting here and being just is much more warping. Life is pretty good purgatory, to all except about thirty per cent. of grown-up people.”
Mr. Danby smiled.
“We simply couldn’t conduct our business, my dear young man, without scrupulous honesty in everybody. To make no distinction between honesty and dishonesty would be quite unfair. You know that perfectly well.”
“I don’t know anything perfectly well, Mr. Danby; and I mistrust those who say they do.”
“Well, let us put it that there are rules of the game which must be observed, if society is to function at all.”
Desert smiled, too: “Oh! hang rules! Do it as a favour to me. I wrote the rotten book.”
No trace of struggle showed in Mr. Danby’s face; but his deep-set, close-together eyes shone a little.
“I should be only too glad, but it’s a matter — well, of conscience, if you like. I’m not prosecuting the man. He must leave — that’s all.”
Desert shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, good-bye!” and he went out.
On the mat was Michael in two minds.
“No go. The old blighter’s too just.”
Michael stivered his hair.
“Wait in my room five minutes while I let the poor beggar know, then I’ll come along.”
“No,” said Desert, “I’m going the other way.”
Not the fact that Wilfrid was going the other way — he almost always was — but something in the tone of his voice and the look on his face obsessed Michael’s imagination while he went downstairs to seek Bicket. Wilfrid was a rum chap — he went “dark” so suddenly!
In the nether regions he asked:
“No, sir, there he is.”
There he was, in his shabby overcoat, with his pale narrow face, and his disproportionately large eyes, and his sloping shoulders.
“Sorry, Bicket, Mr. Desert has been in, but it’s no go.”
“Keep your pecker up, you’ll get something.”
“I’m afryde not, sir. Well, I thank you very ‘eartily; and I thank Mr. Desert. Good-night, sir; and good-bye!”
Michael watched him down the corridor, saw him waver into the dusky street.
“Jolly!” he said, and laughed . . . .
The natural suspicions of Michael and his senior partner that a tale was being pitched were not in fact justified. Neither the wife nor the pneumonia had been exaggerated; and wavering away in the direction of Blackfriars Bridge, Bicket thought not of his turpitude nor of how just Mr. Danby had been, but of what he should say to her. He should not, of course, tell her that he had been detected in stealing; he must say he had ‘got the sack for cheeking the foreman’; but what would she think of him for doing that, when everything as it were depended on his not cheeking the foreman? This was one of those melancholy cases of such affection that he had been coming to his work day after day feeling as if he had ‘left half his guts’ behind him in the room where she lay, and when at last the doctor said to him:
“She’ll get on now, but it’s left her very run down — you must feed her up,” his anxiety had hardened into a resolution to have no more. In the next three weeks he had ‘pinched’ eighteen ‘Copper Coins,’ including the five found in his overcoat. He had only ‘pitched on’ Mr. Desert’s book because it was ‘easy sold,’ and he was sorry now that he hadn’t pitched on some one else’s. Mr. Desert had been very decent. He stopped at the corner of the Strand, and went over his money. With the two pounds given him by Michael and his wages he had seventy-five shillings in the world, and going into the Stores he bought a meat jelly and a tin of Benger’s food that could be made with water. With pockets bulging he took a ‘bus, which dropped him at the corner of his little street on the Surrey side. His wife and he occupied the two ground floor rooms, at eight shillings a week, and he owed for three weeks. ‘Py that!’ he thought, ‘and have a roof until she’s well.’ It would help him over the news, too, to show her a receipt for the rent and some good food. How lucky they had been careful to have no baby! He sought the basement. His landlady was doing the week’s washing. She paused, in sheer surprise at such full and voluntary payment, and inquired after his wife.
“Doing nicely, thank you.”
“Well, I’m glad of that, it must be a relief to your mind.”
“It is,” said Bicket.
The landlady thought: ‘He’s a thread-paper — reminds me of a shrimp before you bile it, with those eyes.’
“Here’s your receipt, and thank you. Sorry to ‘ave seemed nervous about it, but times are ‘ard.”
“They are,” said Bicket. “So long!”
With the receipt and the meat jelly in his left hand, he opened the door of his front room.
His wife was sitting before a very little fire. Her bobbed black hair, crinkly towards the ends, had grown during her illness; it shook when she turned her head and smiled. To Bicket — not for the first time — that smile seemed queer, ‘pathetic-like,’ mysterious — as if she saw things that one didn’t see oneself. Her name was Victorine, and he said: “Well, Vic.? This jelly’s a bit of all right, and I’ve pyde the rent.” He sat on the arm of the chair and she put her hand on his knee — her thin arm emerging blue-white from the dark dressing-gown.
Her face — thin and pale with those large dark eyes and beautifully formed eyebrows — was one that “looked at you from somewhere; and when it looked at you — well! it got you right inside!”
It got him now and he said: “How’ve you been breathin’?”
“All right — much better. I’ll soon be out now.”
Bicket twisted himself round and joined his lips to hers. The kiss lasted some time, because all the feelings which he had not been able to express during the past three weeks to her or to anybody, got into it. He sat up again, “sort of exhausted,” staring at the fire, and said: “News isn’t bright — lost my job, Vic.”
“Oh! Tony! Why?”
“Fact is, things are slack, and they’re reducin’.”
There had surged into his mind the certainty that sooner than tell her the truth he would put his head under the gas!
“Oh! dear! What shall we do, then?”
Bicket’s voice hardened.
“Don’t you worry — I’ll get something”; and he whistled.
“But you liked that job.”
“Did I? I liked some o’ the fellers; but as for the job — why, what was it? Wrappin’ books up in a bysement all dy long. Let’s have something to eat and get to bed early — I feel as if I could sleep for a week, now I’m shut of it.”
Getting their supper ready with her help, he carefully did not look at her face for fear it might “get him agyne inside!” They had only been married a year, having made acquaintance on a tram, and Bicket often wondered what had made her take to him, eight years her senior and C3 during the war! And yet she must be fond of him, or she’d never look at him as she did.
“Sit down and try this jelly.”
He himself ate bread and margarine and drank cocoa, he seldom had any particular appetite.
“Shall I tell you what I’d like?” he said; “I’d like Central Austrylia. We had a book in there about it; they sy there’s quite a movement. I’d like some sun. I believe if we ‘ad sun we’d both be twice the size we are. I’d like to see colour in your cheeks, Vic.”
“How much does it cost to get out there?”
“A lot more than we can ly hands on, that’s the trouble. But I’ve been thinkin’. England’s about done. There’s too many like me.”
“No,” said Victorine; “there aren’t enough.”
Bicket looked at her face, then quickly at his plate.
“What myde you take a fancy to me?”
“Because you don’t think first of yourself, that’s why.”
“Used to before I knew you. But I’d do anything for you, Vic.”
“Have some of this jelly, then, it’s awful good.”
Bicket shook his head.
“If we could wyke up in Central Austrylia,” he said. “But there’s only one thing certain, we’ll wyke up in this blighted little room. Never mind, I’ll get a job and earn the money yet.”
“Could we win it on a race?”
“Well, I’ve only got forty-seven bob all told, and if we lose it, where’ll you be? You’ve got to feed up, you know. No, I must get a job.”
“They’ll give you a good recommend, won’t they?”
Bicket rose and stacked his plate and cup.
“They would, but that job’s off — overstocked.”
Tell her the truth? Never! So help him!
In their bed, one of those just too wide for one and just not wide enough for two, he lay, with her hair almost in his mouth, thinking what to say to his Union, and how to go to work to get a job. And in his thoughts as the hours drew on he burned his boats. To draw his unemployment money he would have to tell his Union what the trouble was. Blow the Union! He wasn’t going to be accountable to them! HE knew why he’d pinched the books; but it was nobody else’s business, nobody else could understand his feelings, watching her so breathless, pale and thin. Strike out for himself! And a million and a half out o’ work! Well, he had a fortnight’s keep, and something would turn up — and he might risk a bob or two and win some money, you never knew. She turned in her sleep. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘I’d do it agyne . . .’
Next day, after some hours on foot, he stood under the grey easterly sky in the grey street, before a plate-glass window protecting an assortment of fruits and sheaves of corn, lumps of metal, and brilliant blue butterflies, in the carefully golden light of advertised Australia. To Bicket, who had never been out of England, not often out of London, it was like standing outside Paradise. The atmosphere within the office itself was not so golden, and the money required considerable; but it brought Paradise nearer to take away pamphlets which almost burned his hands, they were so warm.
Later, he and she, sitting in the one armchair — advantage of being thin — pored over these alchemised pages and inhaled their glamour.
“D’you think it’s true, Tony?”
“If it’s thirty per cent. true it’s good enough for me. We just must get there somehow. Kiss me.”
From around the corner in the main road the rumbling of the trams and carts, and the rattling of their window-pane in the draughty dry easterly wind increased their feeling of escape into a gas-lit Paradise.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54